Out of the Depths
Moving day was full of surprises.
The biggest surprise was that Nick was moving at all. No one had wondered why Nick moved after the mess with Nigel Crane, but this was completely unexpected.
After they freed Nick from his would-be grave, he spent his first twenty-four hours in the hospital shaking from head to toe with tears leaking from his eyes in a constant stream. The doctors made several allowances for such an extreme case, foregoing any restraints they might have used and even leaving the side bars on the bed down. Instead, there was always someone on either side of Nick's bed to grasp the trembling hands and quietly reassure him that he was safe.
There was never a lack of volunteers for the duty, as people from the lab and police department jostled quietly outside the ICU for the honor. There was usually only one hand to jostle for, however, because Jillian Stokes was holding onto Nick's left hand and not even a Superior Court Judge was going to budge her--husband or not. Judge Stokes gave up trying after the first few hours, obviously knowing from years of experience when he wasn't going to win a contest of wills.
Unlike his mother, Nick's father was not a man that could sit and murmur quiet comfort to his suffering son. Even though he was focused on Nick, Warrick could tell it was killing the stoic man not to be able to simply fix it. Consequently, Judge Stokes was often driven out of the room by his own helplessness but was unable to stay away for long.
Because he'd been in the ambulance, Warrick had the first shift at Nick's side, and only gave up his post to Gil after several hours and much prompting. It might have been torture to listen to Nick whimper and choke incoherently, but it was infinitely better than being anywhere else. Warrick went back in every chance he got, no matter how briefly.
On the second day, Judge Stokes--obviously relieved to have something to do--arranged for a large private room for Nick. Warrick, some part of him wondering at his nerve, promptly planted himself in a chair in the corner of that room and didn't budge, despite some pointed hints from the Judge. Mrs. Stokes oh-so-politely told her husband to leave him alone and much to Warrick's surprise, the man did. So two days later when she oh-so-politely suggested that he get something to eat and a change of clothes, Warrick did so without argument. He knew an iron fist when he saw one, no matter how soft the velvet glove.
Once outside Nick's room, Warrick suddenly recalled he actually had a job he'd abandoned for several days and hustled himself over to the lab after a much-needed shower. Catherine hustled him right back out, telling him she already had him down for another week of vacation and someone would call him when he needed to come back. Warrick stayed only long enough to see that the entire department was in some sort of upheaval before returning to the hospital, not even bothering to wonder what was going on. His job was the least of his concerns--his only concern was about to be discharged in another few days.
Physically, Nick was recovering very nicely. He'd escaped with only the mildest infection from the ant bites and his shock and dehydration had also been solved with little difficulty. That he rarely went an hour without a fit of trembling or that his eyes could still fill with tears at any given moment was apparently not reason enough to keep him in.
Nick's parents didn't agree and had Nick moved to a private care facility instead. This had the added advantage of stricter control over Nick's visitors. At the hospital Nick had a steady stream of visitors--nearly all of them in law enforcement. Most were genuinely concerned for Nick, but some were morbidly curious and a few more were looking for saleable information. In the private Avalon Springs, Nick's visits were cut drastically to swing and graveyard shift CSIs, a handful of colleagues from the lab and a few detectives.
Nearly all of Nick's colleagues visited daily--with varying results. Catherine and Brass were the best at keeping Nick on an even keel, while Greg was sometimes too jovial and Sara sometimes too forceful. Grissom visited every day, but Nick seemed acutely embarrassed in his presence, they were usually well into the visit before Nick was able to meet Grissom's eyes. Bobby Dawson had been away during the disaster, but now he returned, and his solid, cheerful presence was inexplicably comforting to Warrick as well as Nick. Warrick had been leery of Hodges' first visit, but after that looked forward to them for Nick's sake. Hodges didn't require any conversation from Nick--which Nick was usually in no shape to give--and would just come in and complain about life in that sarcastic, snarky way of his for twenty minutes. This apparently amused Nick no end, because there were rarely shakes or tears following Hodges' visits.
Doctor Robbins and David Phillips did not have the same luck. Nick was a wreck upon waking to see Al Robbins by his bedside and the same thing happened on David's first visit. Both men took it in stride, Robbins going so far as to say that no one wants to see a coroner in their hospital room and David, although obviously hurt, was calm and understanding. Their second visits were better.
Nick didn't comment on Warrick's near-constant presence, he merely accepted it. Whenever Nick did get upset--and it still happened more times a day than Warrick could track--he would hold onto his parents, or to his mother with both hands, but his eyes always searched the room for Warrick. Warrick would get up and move toward him if one hand was free, and if not, he would just hold that gaze and nod slowly until Nick began to nod as well. There were surprisingly few nightmares, but no one was kidding themselves about why--Nick was still on sedatives to help him sleep, although the dosage was slowly being reduced. The nightmares he did have were calmed by his mother's arm around him, his father's hand on his forehead or Warrick's voice repeating quietly-- "We gotcha, buddy, we gotcha."
"It's very good of you to stay here with him, Mr. Brown," Jillian said after Nick had fallen into a fitful sleep after one such episode.
"Call me Warrick," Warrick replied, because he wasn't sure what else to say.
"He's mentioned you often," Jillian continued. "It sounds like you're one of his best friends here in Las Vegas."
Warrick smiled as though they weren't headed into dangerous territory that he was still too scared to examine. He managed to maintain his "concerned best friend" facade, but feared the true depth of his feelings would begin to bleed through before long. "Yeah, we're pretty tight," he said, and left it at that.
Much to Warrick's relief, Jillian accepted his "man of few words" stance without question.
Once Nick had been settled at Avalon Springs, Judge Stokes grew restless again until an offhand comment from Nick gave him something else to do.
It was only a brief comment--all of Nick's comments were brief. As if he was ashamed of a voice that still quivered and broke randomly, Nick spoke as little as possible. At this point, "I'm not sure I'll be able to handle living there," was practically a speech from him. Warrick knew what he was talking about, because he recalled when Nick moved after Nigel Crane was put away. Even then Nick had commented on how so many small rooms were odd for a house in the desert, but had called the place "cozy" and been there ever since. Warrick could easily see how cozy would now become stifling.
Nick's parents overheard and immediately wanted to know what the problem was--Warrick could practically see them planning to fix it was in record time. Nick was unable to give any specific reason, so Warrick tentatively mentioned the layout.
Judge Stokes had studied his son's face for several minutes, then said, "I'll make some calls," and left the room.
Nick blinked, looking somewhat bewildered, but Jillian patted his hand. "Let him go, honey. You know your daddy lives to make calls. Better than having him hover, isn't it?"
That got a smile out of Nick and Warrick felt his own lips twitch.
Although Warrick now went home to shower and change daily, the majority of his time was still spent at Avalon Springs. The Stokes were so used to his continued presence by now that the Judge didn't even bat an eye to find him there when he walked in two days later with a sheaf of papers in his hand and a satisfied expression on his face. "Well, I've got it narrowed down to six places for you, Pancho. Jill, honey, I'll need you to take a look at them."
"Bill," Jillian frowned. "Do you at least have floor plans for Nick to look at?"
Warrick, who had missed the conversation about the Judge finding Nick a new place, turned to Nick. Nick's stunned expression indicated he had missed that conversation as well. After a few moments, shock transformed into a resigned but fond look.
"I've got them here," Judge Stokes said and to Warrick's amazement, handed the plans not to his son, but his wife. "And I spoke to James Delmett--they weren't able to push the Lowrey trial back any further."
Jillian sighed sadly, "We're lucky we managed to get this much time." She turned to Nick, "Honey, I'm so sorry, but the Lowrey trial is--well, we'll have to be back by the fourth so I can prepare."
"I didn't expect you to move here. It's okay."
Jillian looked doubtful.
"You mentioned the Lowrey trial. It's important."
Warrick could tell Nick was working hard to make sure no random tremor crept into his voice--he wanted to reassure his parents.
The Judge, predictably, was all business about the situation. "We'd better hustle if we're going to get the boy moved before we go back, Jillian." He turned to Nick, who had been about to speak, and continued-- "The layouts for these places were recommended by Dr. Mertens. She's one of the best shrinks in the state and she specializes in post-traumatic stress. You'll be starting with her when you leave here, and she'll be able to recommend a home care worker for you."
Warrick bit his tongue and looked to see how Nick was taking this.
"I...I've been seeing Dr. Kane--he's with the department," Nick protested weakly, as though he didn't quite believe everything he'd heard. "And I don't need a nurse."
"Dr. Kane seems like a good man," Judge Stokes agreed. "But Dr. Mertens is the best there is, and this isn't a nurse we're talking about, Pancho, more like a housekeeper."
"I don't need a housekeeper," Nick clarified.
"It would be a relief knowing you're all taken care of before we have to go back home, honey," Jillian added quietly.
Nick sighed helplessly and Warrick was close enough to note that his breathing had quickened. "I know...I know that's what you want, but--"
"Dr. Mertens can be here tomorrow for your first session."
"No," Nick returned, stopping his father in his tracks. "Cisco, I don't want to see anyone new. I've known Dr. Kane for years, and he's already helped." Warrick heard the first tiny quiver and knew this wasn't going to end well. "And I don't want...I can't have...a--a stranger in my house...watching me and..." Nick's throat closed and tears spilled over his cheeks, "Dammit..." he choked.
Jillian immediately abandoned the floor plans to grasp Nick's fingers, while the Judge made a quick movement toward the bed, then changed his mind and stayed where he was. For several long minutes, the only sounds in the room were Nick's harsh breathing, Jillian's murmurs and Judge Stokes' uncomfortable clearing of his throat.
Desperate to break the tension, Warrick ventured, "Nick has plenty of people here to do for him--anything he needs." The grateful look Nick shot him through his tears was almost enough for him to choke up as well.
"All right, Pancho," Judge Stokes said quietly, reluctantly. "No home care worker and no Dr. Mertens, if you're sure that's what you want."
It was about five minutes before Nick regained some semblance of control, but it seemed like much longer for everyone concerned. "S-sorry," he finally said. "I can't h-help it...sorry, Cisco."
"Don't apologize, honey," Jillian soothed.
"It's not because of what he said," Nick swiped at his eyes. "It's not that. You know I j-just..."
"It's fine, Pancho," Judge Stokes said gruffly. Warrick knew the man wouldn't be able to do soothing if his life depended on it.
Nick was still trying hard to maintain. Both his hands were clenched into fists and on impulse, Warrick reached over and bumped knuckles with him. Nick blinked then managed the tiniest smile. Eventually, he was calm enough to meet his father's eyes briefly. "Can I have a look at some of those floor plans?"
When Warrick arrived in Nick's room the next day, both of Nick's parents rose at once.
"There you are," Judge Stokes pulled on his jacket. "Now we can get a move on."
Warrick blinked, not sure how to reply or if one was even required.
"We're going to look at a few places for Nick," Jillian explained. "We wanted to wait until there was someone here to stay with him."
Still not sure what to say, Warrick merely nodded and watched the couple leave. He waited a few minutes, then went and sat in the chair next to Nick's bed. "How'd you ever get to Vegas, pal?"
Nick looked as though he wasn't certain how to take that. "That's...they...it's their way of showing...that they--they love..."
Warrick quickly reassured him. "Hey, anyone can see how much they love you. I'm just sayin'--they'd wrap you in cotton wool to keep you safe if they could."
Nick let out a startled laugh, and as usual, tears were quick to follow. With a choked sound of pure frustration, Nick pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.
"Don't fight it, Nicky," Warrick took Nick's wrists and gently pulled his hands away. "It'll pass faster if you just let go."
With a relieved sigh, Nick leaned back against his pillow--Jillian had already raised his bed for the day before she left. "It freaks them out to see me like this," he said with a half-hearted swipe at the tears on his cheeks. "Especially when I can't explain why it's happening--most of the time I don't even know why its happening..." Nick paused briefly when he choked up again. "I hate what it does to them..."
"We know why its happening," Warrick said quietly.
Nick's pupils dilated until his eyes were impossibly dark, and his breathing began to hitch.
Warrick realized he had stumbled into the worst possible subject and frantically backtracked. "They just started reducing the dosage of your meds a couple of days ago, didn't they? That's gonna mess anyone up."
Once he realized Warrick wasn't going to force him into the verböten, Nick was able to regain his composure. "I guess...I don't want to be on medication any longer than I have to, so if this is part of it..."
Casting about for a safer subject, Warrick began talking about who had mentioned stopping in that day and the chances of sneaking in a pizza. He didn't know whether it was good or bad for Nick to avoid the subject this way, but it had only been a week and a day since it happened. Personally, Warrick thought that Nick deserved a lot of leeway to deal with it however he wanted to. Warrick knew that his mind instinctively shied away from the memories, and he didn't want to know what it was like for Nick. If bringing up those twenty-two hours still caused Nick blind terror a month from now, then it would be time to worry.
Besides, this was the first time he'd been alone with Nick for any length of time since the rescue, and he wasn't going to ruin it by sending the man back into a nightmare. So if that plexiglass coffin was something that couldn't be mentioned, Warrick would just add it too all the other things he wasn't going to say to Nick, no matter how much he wanted to.
It also meant that Warrick couldn't say that although he'd always considered Nick a good CSI, a good friend and a good person, he now felt somewhat awed by him. Despite Catherine's reassurances to the contrary, Warrick still doubted that he wouldn't have given in to the temptation of cold steel under his chin. That Nick managed to lie still as much as he did, that he hadn't broken several bones in an insane, berserker fit, that he could actually speak a few words the day after, these were all things that shook Warrick to his core.
They were also things that had forced Warrick to take a good hard look at his feelings towards Nick Stokes, especially during those rare times when Nick was sleeping peacefully and his room was dim and quiet. If Warrick was attracted to both men and women, that had never been a problem--Warrick knew when to keep his encounters with men on the DL around people who didn't need to know. If Warrick had been attracted to Nick from the moment they'd met, that had never been a problem--Warrick knew how to keep his libido under control with his co-workers. If Warrick's feelings towards Nick had deepened over the years, that had never been a problem--Warrick knew how to weigh a solid friendship against the risk of a relationship and live with the balance. If Warrick had to face the possibility of life without Nick Stokes.
That was a problem.
But it was his problem, certainly not Nick's. The last thing Nick needed now was to discover that his bisexual friend--who'd rarely mentioned being bisexual--was painfully in love with him. Considering that Nick had never given the slightest hint at being interested in men and often seemed uncomfortable with the subject, Warrick didn't think pouring out his soul would do their friendship any good.
If Nick could deal with certain death for twenty two hours, Warrick decided, he should be able to deal with this.
Sam Vega was Nick's first visitor for the day, stopping in on his way to court. It was a hearing for Juanito Concha and Nick was eager to hear about it. Warrick allowed himself to relax whenever Sam visited, unlike the other detectives. None ever meant to upset Nick, but Vartann could be too abrupt and O'Riley was sometimes thoughtless. Sam's laid-back manner when he wasn't working made his visits easy on Nick.
No matter how easy the visits, though, Nick still found them tiring and as usual he fell into a light doze after his mid-morning medication. He was still asleep when Catherine arrived just before lunch. She stopped to smooth Nick's hair back gently before taking a chair next to Warrick. "Where are his folks?"
"House hunting," Warrick replied.
Catherine's eyes widened, "They're moving here?"
Warrick had to stifle his laughter. "It wouldn't be that surprising, would it? No, they're looking for a new place for Nick."
"Someplace bigger. More open."
Catherine nodded her understanding. "Sounds like a trend. I'm moving, too. So are you, for that matter."
"Yeah, I know," Warrick assured. "I'm back at work the day after tomorrow."
"No, you're not. You're off for another two weeks leave. Paid."
"Paid?" Warrick wasn't sure he'd heard right. "How the hell did you get Ecklie to agree to that?"
"He's on rampage," Catherine replied, then grinned at Warrick's confused look. "He went to all this trouble to cut expenses to raise Nick's ransom, and the Sheriff just shot him down without even considering. He's pissed, so he's spending it. You know how he always wants to come in well under budget?"
Warrick sour expression was answer enough.
"Well, not this year. Day and graveyard shift are going up to four CSIs plus supervisor, and swing gets three."
"So there'll be someone new when we get back," Warrick nodded.
"There'll be a whole new swing shift," Catherine corrected, sobering a bit. "Sofia has swing now. Conrad offered me day shift. I'll have two vets and two trainees working for me."
Warrick studied Catherine's expression for some clue how to take the news. Finally, he went with a tentative--"Congratulations."
"It was a really hard decision," Catherine's smile was tinged with sadness. "But how could I turn it down? I'll be working while Linz is at school and home when she's home. I can't pass that up."
"You'd be crazy to," Warrick agreed quietly.
"Yeah. I'm gonna miss my two favorite guys though."
Not certain he heard correctly, Warrick said, "I thought you had two vets."
"I do. Hal Westbrook and Valerie Hammond. You and Nicky are going back to graveyard, unless of course, either of you have a problem with that."
"Jeez, Cath, just clock me with a two-by-four and be done with it."
"You think this is tough for you?" Catherine's smile got mistier. "I was spoiled with you and Nicky, now I'll actually have to work. But, hey, at least now graveyard and day shift should get along a little better. When you need some things checked out during business hours, we'll be able to lend a hand once in a while."
Warrick nodded slowly, trying to remember a time when day and graveyard shifts co-operated as they were supposed to, but coming up blank.
"There is one stipulation before you come back to work," Catherine finished. "A last one from me, although Gil agrees."
Not liking the sound of that, Warrick merely waited.
"You're to have at least four sessions with Dr. Kane."
Warrick snorted, "Picture that."
"We're serious Warrick. A lot of people from the lab have had at least one session after what's happened. Myself included. You've still got this guilt pressing down on you, and I think you were more shook up than anyone expected--even you."
Warrick was trying to find some way to escape this very uncomfortable turn of events when Nick began to show signs of awakening. He turned Catherine's attention to the figure on the bed by saying, "Hey, just in time, man. You've got another visitor."
Catherine shot Warrick a this-isn't-over look before turning to Nick. "Hey, Nicky. What's this I hear about you getting a new place?"
"My folks are looking into it," Nick admitted with a drowsy smile.
Warrick breathed an inward sigh of relief when Catherine began teasing Nick about decorating and a house-warming party. He wasn't sure how he was going to get out of visiting Dr. Kane, but he wasn't about to start discussing things that he was also trying to shove back into the far corners of his mind.
Judge and Mrs. Stokes were not people to waste time once they had set a course for themselves. By the end of a single day of house-hunting, Jillian had narrowed Nick's choices down to three and brought him dozens of photographs of each place. Nick chose a moderately-sized townhouse and the next day, his father laid out the deposit and several months rent. Nick's had objected soundly to that part, but this time his protests fell on deaf ears.
The Stokes' were due to return to Dallas in three days, and Jillian was obviously determined that Nick's new home be ready and waiting for him when he finally left Avalon Springs. Although arrangements had been made for Nick to spend another two weeks at the facility, Warrick suspected that Nick would be checking himself out after his parents were safely back in Texas.
Right now, his parents were out looking for a moving company that would meet their standards--an all day job if Warrick ever heard one. Nick was lost in thought, as he had been all day. Warrick watched him carefully, trying to find some clue to what was on his mind.
Lord knows he's got enough shit to think about.
Nick didn't look terribly haunted by whatever was occupying his thoughts, but something was definitely making him uncomfortable. Warrick didn't want to push, but after an hour of stilted conversation, he couldn't stand it anymore.
"What's up, Nick?"
Nick's gaze flicked over his room before coming to rest on Warrick. "I...uh...I need to ask you a favor."
"Nah, man, you just gotta name it," Warrick returned, then blinked in surprise when Nick flushed slightly.
"I appreciate that," Nick said, then took a deep breath. "Do you still have the keys to my place? From when I went to that New Orleans seminar last month?"
"Yeah," Warrick shook his head, surprised to hear that was the subject. "Yeah, I do. I'll bring them by tomorrow."
"I was..." The color in Nick's cheeks was becoming more pronounced. "I was kind of hoping you...er, you could stop by my place tonight."
Warrick shrugged, nonplused. "Sure. If you want me to, but your mom is going to start packing tomorrow--"
"I know," Nick said quickly, his face getting redder all the time. "That's why I want you to go tonight." He stared at Warrick pointedly, then let out a frustrated sigh when he didn't get the response he wanted. "There's some things a guy doesn't exactly want his mom packing up, y'know?"
That was so unexpected Warrick let out a startled bark of laughter.
"Warrick..." Nick frowned.
The sound of Nick drawing out his name in annoyance only made Warrick laugh again, this time out of the pure pleasure of hearing it. It seemed like years since he'd heard that familiar tone. He didn't want to offend Nick, though, so after a struggle, he managed to stifle his laughter. "Sorry, man. Sorry." A wayward chuckle escaped. "That's just not what I expected to hear."
Even Nick's ears were red now, but he was keeping his composure. "I'm not crazy about anyone going through any of my stuff."
The reminder of Nick's need for privacy sobered Warrick further. "I know, Nick. I'm sorry."
He must have still looked somewhat amused, though, because Nick scowled at him. "How would you like your Gramma going through everything in your bedroom?"
That worked. Warrick felt a little queasy.
It obviously showed. "Exactly."
"Point taken," Warrick acknowledged.
Then they made the mistake of meeting each other's eyes and they both started laughing. It wasn't long before tears appeared in Nick's eyes, and Warrick felt choked up himself. It was just a brief glimpse of their normal craziness that now seemed impossibly out of reach, and Warrick couldn't stand the ache of not knowing when things would be like that again.
"This is stupid," Nick wiped at his eyes, alternating between chuckles and sobs. He wasn't shaking, though, which Warrick took as a very good sign.
"S'okay, Nick." It hadn't taken Warrick long to realize that Nick could recover from the smaller jags sooner if things kept moving along as though nothing unusual was happening. If everything else stopped, Nick felt the pressure to control himself, which only led to more stress. So Warrick did his best to act as though things were normal. "So where do I find the Nicky Stokes porn collection?"
Nick shot him a deadly look, although the effect was somewhat diminished by damp eyes and spiky lashes.
"Sorry," Warrick said yet again. He clamped down on the hysterical laughter still thrumming through him. "Just tell me where it is and I'll clear it out for you."
After another suspicious look, Nick said, "There's some things in the bottom of my entertainment unit and...oh god...this is..."
"And..?" Warrick prompted. When he saw Nick was moving from embarrassment to distress, all traces of humor vanished, although he couldn't help a twinge of curiosity. "C'mon, Nick. You know I'm not gonna judge." When that didn't get any response, he added, "Nick, it's either me or your folks."
Nick took a deep breath, "In my bedroom...the nightstand and...the taller dresser--at the bottom of the top drawer..."
"That it?" Warrick asked, and was even more curious that Nick had to think about that briefly.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure," Nick finally said.
"Consider it done," Warrick said.
"Then...there's no need to mention it again," Nick warned.
Despite a herioc effort, Warrick's grin got away from him again.
Damn, Nicky, haven't you learned anything living in Vegas?
Warrick shook his head in resignation. The "porn collection" in the entertainment center barely qualified as far as he was concerned. Three video cassettes, at least five years old, and about as vanilla as porn could get and still be considered porn. Dutifully, Warrick dropped them in the bag he'd brought along.
Moving on to Nick's bedroom and its Shaker furniture, Warrick opened the drawer to the nightstand and took out the expected condoms and lube. Nothing odd there except that the box was almost full. He certainly wasn't going fault Nick for dry patch with the ladies.
Vaguely disappointed, Warrick walked to the dresser and opened the top drawer, lifting Nick's clothes with the expectations of finding some equally vanilla magazines.
The realistic-looking dildo came as a bit of a surprise.
However, it wasn't nearly as big a surprise as the book Warrick pulled out next.
Men Loving Men.
"Well, I'll be a son of a bitch," Warrick boggled out loud.
Walking into Avalon Springs the next morning, Warrick met up with the Stokes' at the entrance to Nick's wing. Jillian gave him a relieved smile, but Judge Stokes frowned. "We waited as long as we could. Didn't want to leave the boy alone, but we have to meet the movers."
Warrick nearly apologized on pure reflex, but Jillian didn't give him the chance. "Bill, for heaven's sake, don't you think he has a life of his own? He doesn't have to follow your schedule--or any schedule." She turned to Warrick with a placating smile, "Don't mind him. Nick's been out of sorts this morning--and last night, come to think of it--we had some worries about leaving him by himself."
Although he felt the slightest twinge of guilt at the news, Warrick had been living with the feeling for so long now that it barely registered. "Well, some days are bound to be worse than others," he replied, glad that his voice sounded so neutral.
"Exactly," Jillian smiled. "We have to fly, though, so we'll see you later tonight."
Warrick watched the couple walk purposefully toward the exit before continuing down the hall to Nick's room. He'd had his doubts the night before about going straight home instead of returning to the hospital, but he wanted the time to let his discovery sink in. He didn't want to be considering the ramifications of it while Nick was in the same room, and definitely not when Nick's parents were in the same room. Instead he went home and saw to everything he'd been neglecting, returned some overdue movies, paid a few bills, threw out some spoiled food and got some of his clothes ready for the cleaners.
He'd listened to and dismissed most of the messages on his answering machine, even the increasingly angry ones from Tina. The last one was her breaking it off with him, which didn't particularly surprise or pain him. Warrick had quite simply forgotten she existed, and only felt somewhat relieved that he wouldn't have to go to the trouble of breaking it off with her. Dr. Kane left some messages about calling to make an appointment, but Warrick ignored those as well.
Then Warrick laid awake in his bed for most of the night, running through every possible angle and implication of his errand. That Nick maybe hadn't caught on that he was bisexual. Otherwise wouldn't he have brought up the subject? Maybe not, if Nick had problems admitting his own preferences. But wouldn't the book indicate he was leaning toward acceptance? Maybe Nick had no problem admitting it and merely wanted to keep that side of his sex life anonymous and separate. Warrick dismissed that notion almost immediately--it just didn't fit in with what else he knew about Nick Stokes. So what was he left with? Someone either very new to this preference or someone who didn't actually want to deal with it. Neither scenario was encouraging for Warrick to bring the subject up.
So he wouldn't.
That do-not-discuss corner of his mind was getting awfully crowded, but Warrick had no trouble tucking this inside. In some ways, it was easier to deal with his feelings toward Nick now. He had gone from never being able to tell Nick how he felt to knowing that he could eventually broach the subject one day. Eventually. That was something Warrick could handle--it was the never that was so painful.
That left today, but Warrick decided to just follow Nick's lead. When he walked into the room, however, he found that Nick wasn't in shape to lead anything. Although he was dressed and sitting in the room's recliner, Nick looked like he really shouldn't have been out of bed at all. That he was out of bed was enough to give Warrick pause--although he was nearly healed physically, Nick still seemed to tire easily and rarely got dressed before noon. He didn't get out of bed often, leaving the recliner for his parents' use and ignoring the fact that it had been provided for him.
Right now, Nick looked as though he wanted to disappear into the depths of the recliner, and his eyes were bright with trepidation when he looked at Warrick.
This time the twinge of guilt was deeper and much more noticeable. What had he been thinking by not coming back last night to reassure Nick? "Ah, hell, Nicky. I'm sorry."
It came out before Warrick thought, and it was exactly the wrong thing to say, judging by the way the dark eyes widened in alarm.
Barely resisting the urge to smack himself in the mouth, Warrick merely shook his head. "That I didn't stop in last night. I went home after to--" Think about what sort of men you might like. Wonder what my chances were now. Hope I didn't come across like a lovesick moron the next time I saw you. "--crash."
"Oh." Nick didn't look reassured.
Change the subject, change the subject. Big change--completely distract him. "So what are you doing today? You going outside?"
"Outside?" Nick asked as though this were a completely new concept. Nick often seemed reluctant to leave the safety of his room, even though he was physically able to take a stroll around the grounds. Warrick would have thought Nick had enough of staying in one spot, but just the opposite seemed to be true.
"Yeah. Outside. Clear the hospital smell out of your nose."
"Outside," Nick said again.
"I can go grab a wheelchair and--"
"I don't need a wheelchair," Nick said immediately, just as Warrick knew he would.
"Well, I'm just sayin'. You been lazing around that bed for over a week. I wouldn't want you keeling over," Warrick said, and waited.
It took a few minutes--it had been awhile--but eventually Nick realized he was being baited, much in the way Warrick usually did on cases they worked together. Most of the tension left his body, but the relief brought fresh tears to his eyes. "Oh damn..." he sighed in disgust and tried to wipe them with fingers that shook. "Damn."
"Wait it out, Nicky," Warrick said, moving his chair closer to the recliner. "It's no rush. There's all day to go out."
"I d-didn't say...I was g-going out..." Nick reminded him.
"You gonna stay in and watch Animal Planet all day?" Warrick continued to tease as though Nick wasn't trembling and didn't have tears running down his cheeks. "How many bird shows can they run?" He continued with his gentle ribbing until Nick regained control.
"Okay, but don't tell Mom. She nearly had a fit because I wanted to move to the recliner this early in the morning."
Warrick snorted, "That crazy I am not."
Warrick visited Nick's new townhouse when Jillian announced that it was all ready. All he could think was that the place was--not Nick. Of course, he said nothing of the sort when Nick asked his opinion, though. He tried to formulate a decent reply while inwardly thanking God Nick had the good sense to ask while his parents were out of the room.
Finally, not wanting to say--I know it's meant to be light and airy, but it's cold and sterile, he settled for something about Nick personalizing it once he moved in.
Nick nodded his understanding, then asked, "She try to make it southwestern?"
Warrick blinked in surprise, "Kinda, yeah. But not much of your stuff works that way."
With a rueful smile Nick shook his head. "Yeah, that's Mom. Southwestern is all she really knows. She's a great public defender, but my sisters used to give her hell about her decorating. Everything in our house was southwestern until Meredith finally snapped and redid the place when she was eighteen." He shrugged, "I'll just give away the cactus once I get there."
"Cacti," Warrick corrected with a laugh.
"Hey," Catherine looked surprised find Warrick in the hall outside of Nick's room. "What's going on?"
Warrick stepped away from the wall where he'd been leaning. "I figured I'd give them some time alone with Nick before they left."
Catherine nodded, "We can't wait too much longer, though." She pushed open the door and walked in.
"Ms. Willows," Jillian said in the same dread-filled tone most people used to say "root canal."
Catherine didn't take offense, she just smiled her understanding. "We've got just under an hour before your plane leaves. I don't mean to rush you, but--"
Judge Stokes nodded and looked at his wife. "Jill--"
Jillian nodded, causing some of the tears in her eyes to spill over.
"Mom--" Nick said helplessly. He wasn't crying, but Warrick suspected the effort would cost him later.
"You phone every day," Jillian insisted, smoothing the short, dark hair. "Even if no one answers--you leave a message so we know how you are."
"I will," Nick promised, closing his eyes when his mother hugged him.
Jillian stepped away from the bed and her husband moved in. "Pancho, anything you need, you just let me know."
"I will, Cisco," Nick nodded.
"All right, then." The businesslike tone with which he spoke made him seem distant, but Warrick was close enough to see how tightly he embraced Nick. Then he turned and held his hand out to Warrick, "Mr. Brown."
Warrick immediately shook it, "Your Honor."
"I'll be by to see you later," Catherine told Nick.
Putting an arm around his wife, Judge Stokes ushered her toward the door. Jillian patted Warrick's arm as she went by, then stopped to blow Nick a kiss from the door. Nick managed a fairly convincing smile for them.
Then they were gone.
Warrick glanced at Nick who was staring blankly at the empty doorway, taking slow, deep breaths. Within minutes, though, his breathing had shortened and shallowed.
Nick let out a long, shuddering sigh.
Unsure how exactly to interpret the sound, Warrick asked carefully, "Nick, are you upset that they're leaving or...relieved?"
"Yes," Nick choked and dropped his face into his hands.
Moving close to the bed, Warrick dropped a comforting hand onto Nick's shoulder. He could feel serious tremors wracking Nick's body and squeezed gently.
"I just...I just..." Nick's breath was coming in short gasping sobs.
"Don't, Nicky," Warrick said. The sounds made his own chest hurt. "You don't have to talk right now, okay? Stop trying to fight it and it will pass sooner." He thought Nick would have realized that by now, but if he had to talk him through it every time, so be it. He moved his hand to Nick's back, rubbing in gentle circles and keeping up a constant flow of soothing words.
"This is horrible..." Nick finally croaked, falling back against his pillow in obvious exhaustion.
"What is? You're going to have to give me a little more than that to go on." Warrick had moved his hand just in time to avoid it being trapped behind Nick's back and now rested it on his shoulder again.
"That I'm..." Nick took in several gulps of air. "...that I feel...not..." He began to calm down enough to speak. "That I somehow feel less pressure now."
Warrick nodded and gave Nick's shoulder another squeeze, "I can see that." He grabbed the pitcher of ice water and poured Nick a glass, making a mental note to keep it full now that Jillian wasn't around to do it.
Nick had to hold the glass with both hands and he drank about a third of it before continuing. "I know...I know they love me. And I know they want me to be well and sane and happy...but..." His hands started to shake again and Warrick quickly took the water away. "I c-can't be that right now...I want to...I want to at least be able to--to act like I am, but I can't do th-that either..."
"You don't have to do that, Nick," Warrick assured him.
"Right up until you and Cath came in, they were making suggestions about me going back to Texas," Nick shook his head and swiped uselessly at his cheeks. "I can't--it would be like going backwards and then I'd never..." He closed his eyes and fell silent. Just when Warrick was beginning to think he may have dozed off, he spoke again. "I was on the Dallas PD for three years without drawing my gun, without a single arrest, with barely any patrol under my belt. Do you know why, Rick?"
Warrick nodded slowly, "Because Judge Stokes has a long reach?"
"DA Stokes at the time, but yeah," Nick still hadn't opened his eyes. "I'm the youngest by almost eight years, and I know that's part of it, but...I don't like it, but how do you tell them?"
Warrick knew a rhetorical question when he heard one.
"And part--part of me wants to go back," Nick whispered this admission as if ashamed.
"Who can blame you?" Warrick agreed. It was easy for him to say so now, because Nick obviously wasn't going anywhere. He was glad he hadn't known that Nick's parents tried to convince him to go back to Texas, or he would have had a much harder time being friendly with them. "Nick, you don't have to feel guilty over anything you're thinking, okay?"
"Rick, I'm so messed up."
Those words, that helpless tone, the small voice robbed Warrick of speech. He pulled Nick into a hard hug and finally managed a few words. "I know, Nicky. I know." But you're alive. You're here. Thank god you're here. Warrick didn't dare say that aloud, and instead settled for the less-satisfying, "We're gonna help you get through this, buddy. No matter how long it takes."
Nick leaned into the embrace, but was too exhausted to really return it.
Warrick knew now he'd made the right decision in keeping quiet about his discovery at Nick's old place and what that might mean for them both. The last thing Nick needed was a prospective lover or someone carrying a torch for him. Nick needed the solid friendship that had always existed between them behind the competition and one-upmanship. But Warrick would have given anything to have the right to press kisses in the dark hair, wipe the tears away with his own fingers or crawl into the bed and cradle Nick against him.
He had to content himself with--"Don't you worry about a thing, bro. Your mom said that recliner is pretty comfortable and I'm gonna be here for you 24/7."
It was actually more like 21/7, but no one seemed to pay much attention to those few hours Warrick was at home to shower, change and occasionally eat--least of all Warrick.
Although in many ways Nick seemed more relaxed once his parents were back in Texas, some of the changes were not so reassuring. His bouts of tears or tremors were becoming more frequent and less predictable. Now Nick could be sitting silently and Warrick would glance over to find tears rolling down his cheeks or his shoulders shaking. Since Nick still fared best when the situation remained the same, Warrick tried not to throw him off too much. If it happened during a conversation, Warrick just kept talking. If the jag started when Nick was quiet, Warrick didn't speak either. He'd lay a hand on Nick's arm or shoulder and keep on watching television.
It was usually the latter scenario, because unless there were visitors, Nick didn't seem to have much to say. He didn't have much to say when there were visitors either, but he did make more of an effort.
Warrick didn't mind the long stretches of silence, but he did mind that Nick seemed to be making up for it by becoming much more vocal in his sleep. Warrick was beginning to dread Nick falling asleep, but stubbornly refused to leave the room despite suggestions from the nurses.
The first time he witnessed one of these "new" nightmares, the anguish pierced his heart and each subsequent dream made it bleed a little more. Unlike before, there was now no question what the nightmares were about. Sometimes Nick sang about a waitress, sometimes he just kept repeating "I'm here" or "I promise" and sometimes he cursed at the ants swarming over him--Warrick could handle all of those. It wasn't easy, but it was possible.
Then he had awakened one night to Nick choking and whimpering. "Nooo...don't go...I promise, I promise...don't--don't leave me here...War--rick...please, I p-promise..."
Warrick knew exactly what Nick was reliving, and the pain of it actually kept him from moving. For so many endless minutes, all Warrick could do was listen to that broken, pleading voice, his mind having stuttered to a halt. When he could finally move again, he pulled Nick up and into his arms, whispering, "I'm not going anywhere," in a voice almost as choked as Nick's.
Nick had awakened to find Warrick near tears and had been horrified. "What happened?" he whispered, his voice hoarse. "What did I do?"
"Nothing, Nicky," Warrick assured him, although he voice wasn't exactly steady either. "You had a bad dream."
"But you're--you're--" Nick looked disbelieving. "I'm sorry..."
It came out the exact same way as "I promise" had and Warrick had to bow his head as fresh tears filled his eyes. Not wanting Nick to see them, he drew the slighter man close again.
Trembling and bewildered but ultimately trusting, Nick rested silently in the circle of his friend's arms.
Warrick held him until Nick fell asleep again. From then on he was determined that no matter how bad Nick's nightmares got, Nick would never have to deal with anything but reassurance from him.
Warrick could usually tell how bad Nick's nightmares were going to be based on the visitors he had that day. One of his thrice-weekly sessions with Dr. Kane was sure to give Nick a restless sleep, whereas if Catherine or--this still baffled Warrick--Hodges were his last visitors of the day, Nick had an easier night. Everyone else could vary depending on how the visit went--except one.
A visit from Grissom late in the day was a guarantee of numerous and horrendous nightmares. Warrick was often tempted to ask Grissom to limit his visits to the mornings, but then his supervisor would want to know why and Warrick knew he couldn't bring himself to explain.
To most people, it appeared that Gil Grissom had slipped easily back into his routine, but those closest to him--his graveyard shift--knew differently. Grissom had been badly shaken by Nick's ordeal, and his intense effort in hiding that was just another sign of how deeply he was affected. If Nick had been himself, he would have seen it as well, but Nick was so far from himself right now that he may as well have been a different person where Grissom was concerned.
Grissom just didn't possess the social skills to tread the fine line Nick required right now. As much as Warrick knew he wanted to, Grissom was rarely able to achieve more than a stilted conversation about work, and simply could not interpret the fleeting changes of expression or breathing that were alarms for Warrick.
For reasons Warrick still couldn't fathom, Nick remained practically mute and intensely uncomfortable during these visits, which only made Grissom more wooden and reserved. Warrick had no idea what to say to either man, so he remained silent on the subject. Instead, he began prodding Nick to be more active during the day in the hopes that Nick's sleep would be deeper.
To that end, Warrick tried to coax Nick outside for a walk around the well-tended grounds at least once a day. Nick was reluctant at first, but soon was going out several times a day, with dusk actually being his favorite time. This didn't surprise Warrick, because Nick had suddenly developed an aversion to extremes in lights. The moment he was coherent enough to ask, Nick requested that the overhead fluorescent lights be kept off. It was an odd request, but not troublesome, so the low nightlight was used once the sun went down and the window was no longer a source of light. Warrick realized the implications of this at once, and wondered if complete darkness would be equally unsettling, although they hadn't had to deal with that at either Desert Palms or Avalon Springs.
Nick's favorite spot was a patch of grass at the edge of the grounds that most people avoided because in was unshaded and devoid of benches, fountains or any other sort of landscaping. Warrick suspected those were the exact reasons Nick liked it so much.
About five days after Judge and Mrs. Stokes had returned to Texas, Nick and Warrick were enjoying the early evening air from this spot when Nick suddenly broke the companionable silence.
"I saw them open me up."
Warrick started at the flat statement. "What?"
"Doc Robbins and Super Dave." Both Nick's voice and his gaze were alarmingly distant. "They used a chainsaw...so of course there was blood everywhere..."
Unable to speak, Warrick nodded blankly, but Nick wasn't looking at him.
"My dad was there...and he was talking to Doc Robbins about...then--then I woke up and I couldn't breathe..." Nick's voice was so calm, so cool, so not Nick that it scared Warrick. "I couldn't breathe and I knew it would take...longer to die that way than if I just..."
"Nicky..." Warrick breathed, then caught himself. He knew it was a good sign that Nick finally brought up his hellish experience, but Warrick dreaded having to hear what it was like for him.
"I lined up my gun and gave myself a count..." Nick frowned, "But I didn't do it on three...I--I couldn't somehow...and then there were lights and I thought it was the light, y'know?"
Warrick nodded again, even though Nick's eyes were still fixed on the far-off horizon.
"I thought it was strange that the light would be...flashing, and really weird that I didn't even remember pulling the trigger...but then..." A tremor finally wavered through the controlled voice. "Then I heard...I heard you, and you kept saying..."
"Put that down," Warrick's voice was barely a whisper.
Nick nodded, "Put that down. So I did. And then..." Nick swallowed hard and turned to Warrick, "Do you--you suppose that even counts as a near-death experience? I've heard a lot of people call it that when they thought I couldn't hear. But the lights were just flashlights."
Warrick didn't trust his voice, so he merely shrugged and shook his head.
"I don't think it counts," Nick sounded as though he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else. "Technically, it wasn't a near-death anything."
Warrick gritted his teeth, "It was close enough."
Nick jumped, startled by the vehement tone.
Warrick felt it, but couldn't bring himself to look at Nick. "Sorry."
After another deep breath, Nick spoke again. "Dr. Kane says I'm in denial about it, but I don't buy that. I mean, hell, I was there..." his voice broke momentarily, but he regained control. "How am I going to deny that?" He frowned when Warrick didn't reply. "It was just a day...it wasn't--the marks from the ant bites are almost gone and...really, do I need to be in a hospital? Jesus, haven't my folks spent enough of their money on this fiasco? I don't know what a week in this place runs, but it can't be cheap. I'd do just as well at home as I do here."
Torn between wanting to be supportive and truthful, Warrick chose his words carefully. "If you're starting to get really restless here, then yeah, you'd be better off in your own place. But I don't think your folks care about the money." He didn't comment on Nick referring to his ordeal as "just a day" and a "fiasco" because he still couldn't believe he'd heard it. "It's up to you, though," he finished lamely.
Nick shot him a quick look that indicated he knew Warrick was copping out, although his eyes were suspiciously bright.
"What did Kane say?"
"That being in the hospital might be beginning to have 'an adverse effect on my recovery.'"
Warrick's eyes widened, "Hell, Nick. Then check out."
Nick nodded, plucking at a few blades of dry grass. "I've been wanting out for a while now, but...well, I made myself a bargain..." Another deep, shaky breath, "Once I could make myself talk about it, I could go--go home."
Warrick closed his eyes and revised his opinion that discussing this was good for Nick. It was no wonder he sounded like someone else when he talked about it. Make yourself..? It was so like Nick to punish or reward himself for recovering or not recovering as quickly as he thought he should, but Warrick didn't know how to convince him it would do more harm than good. Warrick was tempted to make an appointment with Phillip Kane to talk about what would be the best way to handle these things with Nick, but he was too worried that it would shift into a discussion about him. Since the bottom line was that he wanted Nick home as much as Nick wanted to be there, Warrick concentrated on that. "Well, you'd better get all the forms you need. This place is going to want an okay from both your doctors, and it's going to take at least another day to get that."
"Ah hell," Nick choked up a little.
"Come on," Warrick stood and held out his hand for Nick. "The sooner we get the ball rolling, the sooner you're home."
Nick took his hand and allowed Warrick to help him up. As they walked back to the hospital, Warrick wondered what his chances were of catching a quick nap while Nick went over his forms. He had a feeling he'd need it.
He was right. Nick's nightmares were the most severe Warrick had ever seen, and when he did wake up, he just kept pleading, "Don't tell anyone...I'm trying to be quiet. Don't tell anyone, Rick."
"Don't worry, Nicky," Warrick assured him quietly. "Even if your doctors want you to stay, they can't make you. If you want out, you can get out."
"I can get out," Nick murmured the words like a mantra.
It may have soothed Nick, but the implication made Warrick's blood run cold.
With the paperwork and notice required, Nick did have to spend one more day at Avalon Springs, but once he was assured he would definitely be leaving, he was able to spend it calmly. The morning of his release, Nick alternated between eagerness and apprehension as he and Warrick packed up all the gifts Nick had received during his stay. There were three fair-sized boxes full--mostly books and DVDs along with a few more plants. Nick seemed embarrassed by the amount, which amused Warrick no end.
Warrick wasn't quite as amused on the ride to Nick's new townhouse. Although there was nothing resembling one of Nick's panicked jags, Warrick found his fascination with the window disturbing--especially the way he kept one had splayed against the glass for the entire ride.
It was a relief to pull up to the townhouse, but as Warrick got out and walked around to grab one of the boxes, he noticed Nick hadn't moved. The dark eyes were fastened on the building as though it held the secrets of the ages.
"You have the keys?" Warrick asked quietly.
Nick blinked several times, "Yeah." Moments later, he was unlocking the door. He only took a few steps inside before stopping and staring again.
Warrick entered behind him and looked also, trying to see it from a first-time point of view. The living, kitchen and dining areas were all in one great room with dark wooden beams crossing the high ceiling. Stark white walls seemed to ruin the effect of the warm hardwood floor which would have gone with Nick's leather furniture if the back drop was a warmer color. The windows were higher up than average, and Nick gave a tiny nod when he noted them.
"Go check the rest of it out," Warrick urged him. "I'll get the other boxes."
"Thanks," Nick said absently, and wandered toward the door at the far end of the room.
When Warrick came back in with the last load, he found Nick in the great room again, looking utterly lost. "Nicky?" he said tentatively, setting the box on the dining table.
"I like it," Nick said blankly. "I just--" He turned slowly to take the room in again, "It's, um, it doesn't feel quite real. Like I'm not here."
Warrick felt the blood drain from his face a pool somewhere in the pit of his stomach.
Nick noticed his expression. "Not like that, Rick," he assured his friend quickly. "Just...well, you know what it feels like when you walk into your own place, yeah?"
"I was expecting that, which is stupid, considering...so it's like--if not here, then where? And then I realized that until I get used to this place...well, right now there's nowhere in Vegas that's mine, y'know?" Nick's shoulders twitched uncomfortably. "I thought when I left the hospital, I'd have...oh no..." he sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Shit."
"Sit down, Nick." Warrick never thought he'd be glad to see the signs one of Nick's jags, but the detached, hollow manner Nick had been displaying more and more scared the hell out of him.
Nick dropped into his favorite spot on his sofa, and the familiarity it made him close his eyes with a deep sigh that ended in a choked sob.
"S'okay, Nicky," Warrick sat down beside him. He was glad Nick's couch was a comfortable one, because he suspected it would be doubling as his bed for quite some time.
"Hey, how's Nick?"
Warrick shook his head with a rueful grin. He was only twenty minutes into his shift and he'd already been asked that question a dozen times. He gave Jacqui the standard answer--"He's settling into the new place all right."
Jacqui was about to ask something else, but Grissom beckoned from his office doorway, "Warrick."
Giving Jacqui a quick smile, Warrick walked into Grissom's office, automatically closing the door behind him. "Hey, Gris," he said, taking a seat opposite his supervisor.
"Welcome back," Grissom said. "I've got a case for you, but first I have a question."
"How's Nick?" Warrick chuckled.
"When are you scheduled to see Dr. Kane?"
Taken aback, Warrick quickly scrambled his thoughts together. "Well, Nick's got Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. We don't want to over book the doc. What day do you go?"
Grissom blinked, then his lips twitched into a tiny smile. "Touché. But I'm not spending every hour of the day with Nick."
"Neither am I--anymore."
"As of today," Grissom clarified.
Warrick really didn't want to get into this with Grissom--or anyone, for that matter. "Are you going to keep me off the job 'til I do?"
"No," Grissom admitted. "But I'll be keeping an eye on you."
Warrick gave him a half-smile. "Big surprise."
"Let's get you back to work, then," Grissom handed him an assignment slip. "There's a 419 out at the Lucky Seven. Vega's already there."
"I'm on it," Warrick took the slip and got up.
Grissom's voice stopped him before he opened the door. "You want to help Nick, don't you?"
Warrick spun back, "What the hell kind of question is that?"
"You won't be able to if your own stress begins clouding your judgement," Grissom pointed out, letting the statement hang in the silence.
"I hate it when you do that," Warrick scowled.
"I know," Grissom replied amiably. He looked at Warrick over the top of his glasses, "Just think about it, okay?"
Warrick nodded and made his escape. He had to answer the "how's Nick?" question a few more times on his way out, but eventually reached his Tahoe. As he buckled in and started the engine, he took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, feeling himself begin to relax for the first time since--well, since.
As much as he hated to admit it, it was a relief to know exactly what he was going to deal with for the next several hours. The who, the what, the how and the why might all be mysteries, but he already knew exactly how he had to proceed without even knowing any details. It was a huge change from the Nick Stokes minefield he'd been trying to navigate for nearly a month. What Warrick found odd was that things had somehow become more difficult in the week since Nick had left Avalon Springs rather than easier.
Difficult enough that Warrick had spent the week on Nick's couch rather than in his own home and had no idea when he would feel comfortable enough to leave Nick alone for any length of time. He'd even considered using up another week's vacation but worried that would send up a red flag about him among management.
On the surface, Nick seemed to be improving. The jags had all but disappeared, and sleeping in his own bed also seemed to have cut down on Nick's nightmares. There were some days, though, when Nick would appear with red eyes and drawn features as evidence that they hadn't disappeared completely. That worried Warrick a great deal, because it indicated that all that had really changed was that Warrick could no longer hear the nightmares from the living room. It also left him wondering if that was also the case with the jags--it would be just like Nick to go into the bathroom or bedroom rather than "subject" Warrick to them any longer.
One bright spot was that Nick had indeed settled contentedly into his new home. Once Nick unpacked the rest of his things and rearranged the place to his satisfaction, a lot of townhouse's coldness seemed to disappear. Other than that, though, there really wasn't a great deal to be happy about.
Nick was much harder to talk to now--the subject of his burial had been sent back to things verböten almost the moment he'd stepped inside the townhouse. In fact, Nick seemed to be growing more distant every day. Part of Warrick thought it could simply be that Nick was out of things to say to him at the moment, which was understandable considering the time they spent together. That part of Warrick insisted going back to work could be helpful in giving them a break from one another's company. After all, they had been spending an extraordinary amount of time together, even for such good friends--Warrick stoically refused to consider any other sort of relationship at this point. There was another part of him, though, that worried spending time alone might only make Nick draw further into himself. That was also the part that poked at Warrick and said he was staying because of what he wanted, not because it was best for Nick.
As he pulled up next to Vega's Taurus outside the Lucky Seven, Warrick resigned himself to the idea that he would have to see Dr. Phillip Kane at some point, if only to stop the warring voices of his conscience.
Climbing out of the Tahoe, Warrick grabbed his kit from the back and forcibly cleared his mind of everything except the case in front of him.
"Hey, welcome back," Vega greeted him. "How's Nick?"
Warrick made enough progress on his first case that Grissom handed him a second one. As he moved from to prints to trace to DNA, he felt his mood improving. He was so involved in his cases that he kept at them until well past the end of shift. When he finally did notice the time, he decided to go straight to Nick's rather than home first.
Several blocks away from his destination, Warrick found himself two cars behind a familiar truck that--as far as he knew--should be in Nick's driveway. As he got closer to Nick's, Warrick realized something must be going on, because it definitely was Nick's truck and Nick hadn't gone anywhere except Dr. Kane's office since leaving Avalon Springs. He had told Nick to call him if anything came up, so why hadn't he?
As he pulled up behind Nick, Warrick didn't know whether to be worried or pissed off, although he was leaning toward the latter. Then Nick got out of the driver's side and threw a smile back at Warrick. It wasn't one of those 500-watt dazzlers Nick used to toss around so easily, but it was better than anything Warrick had seen from him in a while.
Warrick quickly got out and joined him. "What the hell, Nick?"
"Kind of a dumb thing to be happy about, huh?" Nick grabbed a bag of groceries from the truck.
Now that he was closer, Warrick could see the fine sheen of sweat on Nick's face that had nothing to do with the weather. That, and a smile that looked painful rather than happy set off a myriad of alarm bells. "You went to the store?"
"Big deal, right?" Nick continued as they walked into the house. "But Dr. Kane seems to think it is. He keeps asking where I went and how often and why wasn't I going anywhere..."
"I don't know why," Nick said with another smile. This one didn't get any closer to his eyes than the last one had. "But I have another session tomorrow, so I figured I wanted to have something positive to talk about--progress, yeah?"
Warrick decided not to comment on Nick's definition of progress. "Was it tough?"
A shrug. "I did it, that's the main thing."
"I'm not following."
"In two weeks I have an evaluation to go back to work."
Warrick needed extra time to process that sentence. Finally he asked, "You're not taking more time?"
"Not if I can help it," Nick laughed.
Today the part of Nick Stokes will be played by Nick Stokes.
"So what was it like to be back?" Nick asked.
Although he desperately wanted to, Warrick knew that both of them lying through their teeth wasn't going to help anything. "Good. Everyone asked about you."
Nick nodded and started putting groceries away, flashing Warrick another smile first.
The more he saw that smile, the more it reminded Warrick of rictus. Don't you dare run, you asshole. Just because things are starting to get freaky is no reason to turn tail. "So...if I go home for a few hours to crash, you'll be okay?"
"Of course," Nick said. "Jeez, Rick, you must be so sick of babysitting me." Then he gave a chuckle that knotted Warrick's insides more.
"I'll be by around four or so--before I go to work," Warrick promised, then fled.
When Catherine cornered him in the break room several days later, it was actually something of a relief. "Who does he think he's fooling?" were the first words out of her mouth.
Warrick didn't even pause in pouring his coffee. "Himself?"
Catherine held out her cup. "Then he's the only one." She grabbed a pack of sweetener and shook it as he filled her cup as well, "Do you know he's planned to come back to work in a couple of weeks?"
"I know," Warrick slumped into a chair at the table.
"You don't think Kane is going to clear him for work, do you?"
Warrick shook his head, "I don't know."
"Stop with the tiny little answers, Warrick," Catherine scowled as she sat down opposite him.
"Just let me get my shit together, Cath," Warrick returned. "I'm just glad to find out I'm not the only one seeing it."
"Oh, don't worry, you're not. Sara came to talk to me about it, she's really worried. And apparently Greg's spooked."
Warrick nodded to say he wasn't really surprised to hear it. With each passing day, the shell of Nick Stokes seemed to harden around the real man more and more. There was nothing mean or threatening about this new persona, and it held many of the qualities of the man they'd fought so hard to save, but it was almost as if--"We never actually got him out."
"Don't say that!"
Snapped back to the break room, Warrick met fierce blue eyes. "Sorry."
"What does Grissom have to say about it?"
"I haven't actually discussed it with him," Warrick admitted. "Grissom still visits nearly every day, but Nick's not like that with him."
"What's he like with Grissom?"
"Same as always. Seems embarrassed. Doesn't say much. I still don't know what that's about."
Catherine stared into her coffee cup for answers. "Kane's not actually going to clear him for work. I just can't see it."
"I--" Warrick sighed. "To a lot of people, he seems to be doing okay. When you look at it technically, there's nothing wrong with his behavior."
Catherine stared at him in disbelief.
"I think he probably could pass an evaluation," Warrick said reluctantly.
"Maybe this is...who he is now."
"Then you're right," Catherine whispered. "We didn't get him out."
Warrick continued to go to Nick's every day after his shift ended, and a few hours before each shift began. As E-day--Nick's term for his evaluation--approached, though, Warrick found himself less and less able to endure the sham pretending to be the man he'd fallen in love with and his visits grew shorter. If Nick noticed, he certainly didn't show it, and continued to shower Warrick with that ghastly sunniness of his.
For his part, Warrick did his best to just maintain and keep from grabbing Nick and shaking him. "So what are you up to today?" he asked, just as he did after every post-shift visit.
"Doctor's appointment in a few hours--medical, that is. Got to pass the physical before I can get anywhere else." Nick offered Warrick the coffee pot, but Warrick shook his head. "Right, you're going home to sleep. Man, I'm gonna have to start switching up my sleeping patterns soon."
Warrick attempted what he hoped was a smile. He knew it was a miserable attempt. Stifles the gag reflex be damned. His stomach didn't think much of this new Nick, either.
"Then...uh...oh hell." Nick snapped his fingers, "Stanley. Y'know, Stanley from Personnel? He's coming by with a bunch of forms for me to fill out. Get my paperwork all in order."
"He's coming here?"
Oh god help us, that's even worse than when he tries to smile...
--and nodded. "I told him I could go in, but he said he'd like the excuse to get out of the office."
Warrick quickly went over that information in his head. Stanley Powers was a middle-aged paper pusher who loved to hear CSI and cop stories. He never displayed the slightest desire to go anywhere near the field himself, but liked to feel he was part of things nonetheless. Annoying at times, but easily set back in his place, Warrick knew Stanley would accept this new Nick hook, line and sinker--if he noticed a "new" Nick at all.
"After that, I've got to make another grocery run. Or if I get the okay from my doctor, maybe the gym."
Please don't let him get an okay--from any doc. "I'll see you tonight before work then," Warrick said and made his escape.
He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately.
Warrick was tempted to blow off his usual visit to Nick's before work. He didn't care to hear how good old Stanley had everything lined up for Nick's return. He decided instead to visit just before six. Then he wasn't shirking any responsibility, but he would have time to shake the visit off before going in to work. He knocked on the door and walked in, as had become his habit. Today, though, he found himself in the dark--literally. Every shade was drawn and once Warrick closed the door behind him, only the barest light peeked in the windows.
"Nick?" he called.
"How did you find me?"
Warrick jumped and turned toward the source of the voice. It was the black wing chair angled near the sofa, but he had never seen Nick sit in it before. "You live here, man. What are you talking about?"
A few moments of silence, then that flat voice again. "In the box. How did you find me?"
Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Warrick didn't know exactly what was off, but something was--terribly. He decided to stall until he found out what was going on. "I thought--you mean you don't know?"
"I always told myself it wasn't important. That all that mattered was that you had got me out."
Hearing that Nick-but-not-Nick voice coming out of the darkness was thoroughly unnerving, but Warrick managed to maintain his composure. "I figured Kane would have told you."
"I guess. You wouldn't really let anyone talk about anything to do with it."
"I've changed my mind. So talk."
Warrick was suddenly acutely aware that his gun had been left in the Tahoe. He'd been afraid for Nick many times, but had never had reason to be afraid of Nick.
"How did you find me?"
"How 'bout some light in here, huh?"
Relieved, Warrick felt around for the switch and turned the light on.
Nick was sitting stiffly in the chair, his hands gripping the armrests so hard that his knuckles had turned white. At the moment, he was looking up. "Hunh. I never noticed before." His voice was wondering, "The fan is connected to the light here, too."
Warrick glanced up at the ceiling fan. "Fuck, Nicky."
Nick focused on Warrick, his features like marble. "So why is it I'm so lucky to work with a famous entomologist, Rick?"
"Famous..?" Warrick put a hand against the wall so he had some feeling of balance.
"Stanley mentioned how lucky I was that Grissom could identify fire ants so easily."
Warrick made a mental note to kick Stanley's ass.
"I thought--that is, when I heard about the daughter...Kelly Gordon, yeah?"
Mute, Warrick could only nod.
"I thought you got the location from her, but you couldn't have. Not if it had to do with fire ants."
"No," Warrick kept his voice low. "It looks like she didn't know anything about it."
"Grissom said the ants could only be found in...like a plant nursery. We narrowed it down to a single one and followed the transmitter signal."
Nick twitched, then shook his head slowly. "Trans-transmitter signal?"
Warrick took a cautious step closer. He knew the pieces had to be coming together for Nick and was stunned this had never come up before. "Transmitter signal," he repeated carefully. "From the feed."
Impossibly, Nick grew even whiter. "Feed?" his voice was hollow. "Feed?"
A hideous, gurgled cry tore from Nick's throat and he bolted for the bathroom.
The sound of retching finally pulled Warrick from his stunned, frozen state and he followed Nick into the bathroom. Nick was hunched over the toilet, his muscles taut as his body tried to expel stomach contents that were no longer there. Without a second thought, Warrick grabbed two hand towels and soaked them under the tap under they were icy. He pressed one to the back of Nick's neck as he crouched beside his shaking friend.
"How long?" Nick demanded, not lifting his head.
"The feed?" Warrick wanted to lie, but knew that turning back now wouldn't help anything. "Do you remember the first time the light went on?"
"Oh...oh god..." the pained groan escaped him before another round of heaves made his entire body tighten and shake.
Warrick waited until the shudders had stopped, then took Nick by the shoulders and drew him away. Nick pulled back and huddled against the wall. "Okay," Warrick tried to sound soothing rather than frightened. "Here," he held out the other wet towel. "Let me just..."
Nick snatched it away from him, and shoved almost half of it into his mouth. It wasn't enough to stop the gut-wrenching sobs that began to erupt from his throat.
"Nick..." Warrick risked reaching out to grab the hand holding the towel in place. "Nick, don't. You're gonna choke yourself." He couldn't have said whether the raspy, broken sounds spilling from Nick were screams or sobs--he only knew they were painful. "Nick...come on, Nicky..."
Nick finally mustered enough control to speak. "I started to suspect a while ago...things I heard, but I thought--I hoped you would tell me something different." He started banging his head against the tiled wall behind him. "It...it was going away!" A hard bang to emphasize each word. "I had it...I was making it go away! But now...if there's...if people saw..."
"Nicky," Warrick whispered. "Did you really think...you can't make it go away, Nicky."
A high, strangled sound escaped from between Nick's clenched teeth. He ground his knuckles into his eyes as though trying to blind himself, and the banging became more insistent with every blow.
"Nick...Nick, stop hurting yourself."
This time when Warrick touched him, Nick tried to launch himself to his feet but only got about halfway up before coming down hard on his knees and elbows. "I...want it...gone!" he wailed into the cold tile beneath him. "I can't do...I can't...people saw me...oh please--I can't do it!"
Nick banged his forehead once against the floor and then Warrick had him in a tight embrace, his arms wrapped around the quivering body to prevent Nick from doing any more damage to himself. After struggling for several minutes, Nick gave up and sagged against the strong arms around him.
"Warrick..." a broken, defeated whimper.
"I'm here, Nicky. I've got you," Warrick soothed.
"No more..." Nick pleaded tearfully. "No more...I want out, Warrick...I want out, but I can't--I can't--" His muscles tightened again, and another ragged scream ripped free. And another. And another.
Doggedly, Warrick held on, not willing to risk Nick hurting himself further. Tears kept clouding his vision, but he managed to keep his voice steady when he spoke to Nick. "We got you out once, Nick. This will just take a bit longer, but we'll get you out. I promise, Nicky. I promise."
The screams only stopped when Nick's breath gave out, leaving equally violent tremors in their wake.
Warrick shifted off his knees so he was sitting on the bathroom floor. Nick leaned weakly against the sturdy form behind him, gasping for air and still choking on his sobs. "It's real..." he moaned helplessly. "You saw, people saw...oh god, it's real."
"Christ, Nicky," Warrick rested his forehead on top of Nick's head. "Did you really think you could make it notreal?"
"I was!" Nick insisted desperately. "It was--it was one day! One day..." his breathing grew erratic. "One day is not a reason to--to...I can barely stay in my shower longer enough to get clean...I can't get anything out of the cooler at the store...I have to make coffee with my eyes closed because the grounds can look like...every time the wind blows and I taste dirt, I..."
"There's nothing wrong with any of that, Nick. It makes perfect sense to--"
"You aren't listening!" The pitch and volume of Nick's voice rose until it cracked. "One day! It sh-shouldn't being doing this! I shouldn't be doing this!"
"You're being too hard on yourself," Warrick kept his voice soft and steady. "You have every right to--"
"I. Don't. WANT. IT!" Nick strained against Warrick's arms briefly, then went limp. "Please...I don't want to be this person."
"I know, Nicky. You don't want to be a victim." Warrick settled Nick against him once again. "If there was any way to make it not real, any one of us--any one of us--would do it." His voice finally broke, but after swallowing a few times, he was able to keep going. "We can't make it go away any more than you can. You just have to ride it out, Nicky."
His body still shaking with silent sobs, Nick reached up to clutch at the arms around his chest. "Warrick..."
"I gotcha, Nicky," Warrick soothed. "I gotcha."
"I'm not going anywhere, Nick. I'm not leaving you."
"Not this time..."
There was nothing accusatory about the words--it was almost as though Nick was reassuring them both, but it made Warrick squeeze his eyes shut to keep back the tears. "I promise, Nicky. I didn't want to leave then, either. I would have gotten us both killed if it hadn't been for Grissom."
"Grissom." Nick's voice was barely audible. "How...how did he...why did he call me Pancho?"
Warrick had to think about that for a few minutes. "I think...your dad called you that...and you called your dad Cisco at some point, didn't you?"
"You could hear me?" Nick sounded freshly horrified.
"No, no. But someone mentioned--I think it was Cath--that Grissom reads lips and she thinks he must have--" Warrick broke off when a low keening came from Nick's throat. "Nick?"
Nick tightened his grip on Warrick's arms. "It--oh god...it was...bad en-enough wh-when...only I knew...but this...now--n-now..." His words dissolved into incoherence again.
"Nicky, what are you talking about?" Warrick asked, but realized at once that he wouldn't get anymore words out of the shattered man in his arms.
All his strength seemed to have left Nick, and like that first night in the hospital, he only wept and shook uncontrollably.
Warrick risked unwinding one arm so he could retrieve the towel that had slid from Nick's neck--the one Nick had bitten down on had been thrown in a far corner. Gently, he wiped Nick's sweaty, tear-stained face and felt Nick relax slightly under his ministrations.
Leaning back against the door, Warrick tried to bring his own fractured nerves back to some semblance of normalcy. After several minutes and many long, deep breaths, he'd finally decided on his next move. "Nicky?"
A hitch in Nick's breath was the only indication that he'd heard.
"Do you really want to stay here on the floor? We could go sit on the sofa, or you could lie down."
"Sl-sleep..." Nick whispered longingly.
"Okay." With some maneuvering, Warrick managed to get them both up. "Probably the best thing for you." He half-led, half-carried Nick to his bed. "I'm gonna get you some water, okay? You're gonna be dehydrated after that." He saw the dark eyes widen in alarm, "I'm not leaving you, Nicky, okay? I'll be in your kitchen. Y'know what? I'll just talk the whole way." He then proceeded to do just that, rambling on about bottled water as he got a bottle from Nick's fridge and returned.
Nick had turned onto his side, his knees drawn up and his entire frame still shaking.
Warrick brought a chair to the side of the bed and sat down. "Come on, Nick. Drink some."
With Warrick helping, Nick managed to prop himself up and take several long sips. With another shuddering sigh, he fell back against his pillow.
"Try to sleep, Nick," Warrick urged, tugging several blankets out from under Nick and covering him. "I know it was awful, but it needed to happen," he added, just realizing it himself as he spoke. It had been--still was--painful and heartbreaking to endure, but it was no longer unnatural. He was dealing with Nick, and as long as that was the case, Warrick felt he could handle nearly anything.
Once Nick fell into an exhausted sleep, clutching Warrick's hand with both of his. With his free hand, Warrick dug into his jacket pocket--he'd never even had the chance to take it off--and took out his cell phone. He punched in a speed dial and waited.
"Gris? It's Warrick." Much to Warrick's surprise, his voice suddenly thickened. "Uh..."
"What is it?"
"I won't be in tonight."
"Are you sick?"
"No. No, not me," Warrick said pointedly, hoping Grissom would get the gist.
He did. "Nicky?"
"Crash and burn," Warrick sighed. "I think he's back to square one."
Grissom didn't speak, but Warrick heard an equally unhappy sigh on his end.
"I need more time off. I'm going to be staying with him again."
"You've got another week of vacation coming. I can try to get you some more leave after that, but I don't think--"
"I don't care what you write down," Warrick stated flatly. "This time I'm not leaving Nick until I'm positive he'll be okay alone. With pay, without pay, with a job or not. I'm not leaving 'til he's ready."
"You won't lose your job," Grissom assured him. "I'll make sure of that. And I'll see what I can do about the rest. You just take care of Nicky. And yourself, Warrick."
"Yeah, yeah," Warrick replied automatically, having barely heard what Grissom said because Nick had already begun murmuring plaintively in his sleep. "Look, I gotta go."
"All right. I'll be by after the shift--well, tomorrow."
"Sure. See ya, Gris." Warrick turned off his phone and dropped in on Nick's night stand. He couldn't make out Nick's words, but it didn't matter. Warrick petted the dark hair and crooned reassurance to the troubled dreamer, and when Nick quieted, settled himself comfortably for a long night.
On to Part 2 (chapters 7-12)
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