Nick paused in the doorway of Grissom's office. "Did, uh, the tox results come back on that Jane Doe? Was it an insect bite like you thought."
Grissom looked up from his examination of a bug just out of Nick's eyeline.
"Yes." The slightest shadow passed over his face. "Solenopsis invicta."
It took Nick a moment. "Fire ants?"
Grissom nodded. "Red imported fire ants. It seems that they overwhelmed her immune system."
Nick was conscious of his breath rasping in his ears. Of cold air from the air conditioning swirling around him. Of Grissom's office, of Grissom, becoming dull and remote; tone, texture and substance draining away like water down a plughole.
Grissom was suddenly standing beside him.
"I think you should sit down, Nick."
The world came back to Nick in a rush.
"Just take a moment. Please?"
Nick nodded. Took a breath. Let it out. Took another. He met Grissom's gaze defiantly.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah." He felt a familiar gust of shaky nausea.
"There's nothing easy about PTSD, Nicky."
"So they tell me." His words were shorter than he had intended them to be.
They sat for a moment in the semi-darkness of Grissom's office; the available light bouncing off surfaces that seemed to Nick to be too glossy, too sharp.
"I've wondered a thousand times how I could have prevented it."
"What?" Nick looked at Grissom.
"Walter Gordon." Grissom unconsciously balanced his magnifying glass in his hand, feeling its weight. "I've thought a thousand times about ways that shift could have gone that didn't end up with you in that box."
Nick flinched. He could picture Grissom sitting at his dining table, fingers steepled; brain sliding past scenarios like a supermarket shopper looking for a particular brand of detergent.
Grissom drew a hand over his face. "I'm sorry, Nick."
Nick's throat ached. "For what?"
"For not stopping it. For not saving you more quickly."
"It's not your apology to make, Griss." Nick's tone was even.
"Do you?" Nick shook his head. "Because if you did you wouldn't even try. You found me. You all did what we do and you found me. If it wasn't for this team-." Don't you dare take on burdens that aren't yours to carry."
"No. No. It's bad enough everyone still walking around me at crime scenes like I'm made of sugar. I can't know that he took something from all of you. I can't-"
Grissom stared at him. "You don't think that he took something from us when he showed us what he was doing to you?"
Nick stared back. "I made it. Whatever happened in that box, I made it back."
Inch by painful inch.
Grissom thought about the anxious days in the hospital, where he'd lived on bad coffee and his nerves. Of the slow grind of recovery, where he'd had moments - had weeks - where he thought that the Nicky Stokes he had known was gone forever. Of the day Nick had gone to see Kelly Gordon and, improbably, had come back from that meeting with a swing in his step that had nearly made Grissom sob with relief.
"Which doesn't take away from what happened, Nick. You can't seriously think that the work you've done to find some equilibrium means that what happened in that box wasn't important?"
Nick closed his eyes.
"I don't even have words to describe what happened in that box, Griss. However much I talk to my therapist, or to Greg, it's like I'm piling up misrepresentation on inaccuracy until all that's left is a distortion of the truth."
The silence eddied around them.
"In that box I became more purely myself than I've ever been. And I know that, deep down, all I am is a desire to live. Nothing bigger or more profound than that."
Grissom paused. "All you needed to be in that box was a desire to live, Nick. Don't imagine yourself to be less than you are because you did what you needed to do to survive."
Nick breathed out deliberately, a thin stream of warm air through pursed lips. He thought, irrationally, of his brother Bill explaining how to whistle. Just put your lips together and blow.
"There's no way of talking about this that doesn't seem dumb." Nick shook his head. "Like a third order analysis of a problem. An abstraction so completely divorced from the experience it almost bears no relationship to it."
"I understand, Nick."
"No, Grissom. I don't think that you do." Nick's head was tilted forwards, his eyes on the floor. "I've been afraid before. I've thought I would die before. But that box was different. Moment of fear on top of moment of fear on top of moment of fear until it was all I could feel and I never thought I would feel anything else."
He could almost taste the bitterness of adrenaline in his mouth. Could almost feel the sickening undertow of terror retreating before another wave swelled underneath him and the cold shock of it sparked up his spine and into his skull like an arc of electricity.
"I had faith in you. That's all that kept my finger still on that trigger. That's why I'm alive." He clenched his fists. "Don't you dare apologise for anything."
Grissom's brain, unbidden, imagined Nick lying cold and in agony underground. Lying alone and trying to decide whether he could hold on until his rescuers arrived. Trying to decide whether it was time yet to cock the hammer of his gun and blow off his own head to make this all stop.
He pushed the thought away and tried to concentrate on the warm, conscious, safe Nick right in front of him.
"Nicky, your faith in me is humbling. And I'm sorry if our apologies make you feel bad." Grissom weighed his words. "But for a while we lost you. And it hurt."
Nick splayed his fingers on his knees. "I don't know what to say, Griss. I don't know what you want me to say."
Grissom shook his head sharply, as if trying to wake himself up. "I don't know what I want you to say either." He hesitated. "I just miss the conversations we used to have. About entomology. About forensics. About everything."
Nick closed his eyes. "We still talk." He hated the defensive note in his voice.
"Nick, we've hardly spoken about anything other than cases since you told me about your relationship with Greg."
Nick struggled to keep his tone even. "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry, Nick. It's just that I miss talking to you."
"I'm -. I don't know what to say."
"Was my reaction a bad one?" Grissom's brow was furrowed. His head tilted slightly to one side as he waited for an answer.
"It's stupid." The words were sticking somewhere in Nick's chest. "I feel ashamed that you know, Griss."
Grissom blinked. "Ashamed?"
Nick swallowed the lump in his throat. "Dirty."
The word lay between them like a puddle of vomit.
Nick shook his head and Grissom realised with a start that his lashes were tipped with tears.
Something swirled unpleasantly in Grissom's stomach.
Pancho, what the hell you got yourself into?
The something coalesced into a grain of an idea and Grissom wanted to tell Nick that no matter what his stupid father said he was pure like an angel; like a spring lamb; like a virgin snowfall on a rolling plain.
He'd never thought too much about Greg, except to wish that his exceptional proficiency as a DNA tech didn't come in a package with such aesthetic deficiencies. Loud rock and louder shirts set his teeth on edge.
But he'd seen Nick and Greg together recently. Seen them in the breakroom with one of Greg's long arms stretched along the back of the sofa while Nick sprawled next to him just an inch closer than guys who weren't fucking would lie. Seen Nick's hand linger slightly longer on Greg's back than it would ever rest on Warrick's. Seen, one day when they didn't realise he was looking, Nick push Greg up against a wall and brush his lips against Greg's with exquisite gentleness nd then laugh when Greg unexpectedly licked a stripe up his neck. If Nick made Greg shine brighter, then Greg gave Nick an ease in his own skin, a comfort with himself, that Grissom envied.
"I'm not one of those people who is disgusted by difference, Nicky."
"I know that in my head." Nick shuddered. "I'm sorry."
Grissom licked his lips. "I think we've both apologised to each other enough. Don't you?"
"Yeah." Nick shrugged his shoulders. "But right now it's all I want to say."
Grissom watched with an ache in his chest as Nick pushed himself out of the chair he'd been sitting in.
Nick looked down at him with hooded eyes. "Thanks, Griss."
But, to Grissom, thanks didn't sound much better than sorry.