Nobody had seen this coming. Greg was positive none of them had seen it coming, because if they had he would have heard about it. Maybe back when he was still a lab tech he would have been out of the loop – back then he might not even have gotten an invitation – but now he was one of them. For over a year he'd been one of them, and just before the wedding he'd been promoted to level two.
His own triumph had been a little overshadowed by Warrick and Catherine, but he didn't really mind. It was enough that he was really part of the team now, that they'd all accepted him. And somewhere along the way he'd learned what it really meant to be part of a team, so he was happy for Catherine and Warrick.
He grinned along with the rest of the guests when someone tapped their glass, forcing Catherine and Warrick to kiss for what must have been the hundredth time that night. And it felt like the entire lab had turned out for the wedding, but Greg knew they hadn't shut it down so somebody had to be minding the shop.
Across the room he spotted Nick leaning against a wall, head bent in a private conversation with Bobby from Ballistics. He never would have seen that coming, but Nick seemed happy and that was good enough for him. It seemed to be good enough for everybody else, too; at least Greg hadn't heard anybody around the lab talking about it.
He scanned the rest of the room, his expression softening when he spotted a familiar face near the head table. Unconsciously straightening his jacket as he stood up, he threaded his way through the other guests until he caught up to Sara. "Here's to the most beautiful bridesmaid in the room," he said, handing her a glass of champagne as he raised his own to toast her. Her wary expression softened just slightly as she reached for the glass, but he'd gotten to know her well enough over the past year to read her expressions, and he knew that was as close as she ever got to actually looking flattered.
She held his gaze for another long moment before abruptly turning to watch Warrick and Catherine. "What do you think their chances are?"
"Well," he answered, drawing out his words as though he'd been giving this very matter a lot of thought, "working together, that makes it tough. But Warrick's a tough guy, so if anybody can handle Cath it's him. Besides, they've got the home field advantage."
"Home field advantage?" She turned toward him again, raising one eyebrow in a silent challenge.
"Yeah, you know. They both grew up here, and in Vegas knowing your roots goes a long way. Take you and me, for example. We're both from California, right away we've got that in common. Marriages in Vegas have been built on a lot less."
She was giving him that look that clearly said she thought he was crazy, but he'd learned to recognize the amusement in her eyes. "So you're saying…what? We have home field advantage?"
He shrugged and smiled a little sheepishly. "Well, I was talking about Mr. and Mrs. Brown there, but now that you mention it…"
They'd been doing this for as long as he could remember, going back and forth, skirting the edges of a full-blown flirtation. For a long time he figured he didn't stand a chance, but after a few months as a CSI he'd figured out that the key with Sara was taking it slow. It was hard for him not to reach out and take something he wanted, to joke and flirt and tease her into giving in, but after the explosion he'd had to learn how to be patient. He'd nearly driven himself crazy trying to rush his recovery, but in the end he'd figured out that the only way to heal was to give himself time. The same logic applied to Sara, and she was definitely worth the wait.
For a few moments they stood in silence and watched Warrick spin Lindsey around the dance floor, but when he let her go and swept Catherine back into his arms Sara turned to Greg again. "You know, growing up in the same area code doesn't mean we have anything in common."
He shrugged again and inclined his head in the direction of the dance floor. "Never know until we try. Besides, it worked for Catherine and Warrick."
For a second she just looked at him, but just as he was beginning to think he'd taken the joke too far her features shifted into a small smile. "I guess a dance couldn't hurt. For starters."
"For starters," he repeated, grinning as he took her hand and led her onto the dance floor.
He'd been hoping to be done by the time the night shift started, but he'd been in Vegas for a long time and as it turned out he'd managed to collect a lot of stuff in the lab over the years. Part of him was tempted to leave it all behind, to let the next flunkie deal with the mess. He couldn't bring himself to walk away, though, mostly because leaving meant it was finally over.
It was hard to believe any of this stuff had survived the explosion; some of it hadn't, like the CDs that were permanently melted to a drawer inside the wreck of what used to be the DNA lab. Other things had survived; things that really shouldn't have, like his textbooks from Berkeley and a plastic key chain in the shape of a surfboard that one of his friends had sent to remind him of what he was missing in California.
Well, he wouldn't have to miss it for much longer, because soon he'd be staring at the ocean again and the desert would be a distant memory.
The door opened but he didn't look up; he was determined not to let anyone see how much this was getting to him, especially not Grissom. He knew Gris felt bad about having to let him go, but that didn't make it any easier to leave. It didn't make the situation any less unfair, and it didn't make him any less angry that a stupid accident had cost him his dreams.
"Hey, man. What are you doing?"
Nick, and from the sounds of it Grissom hadn't bothered to spread the word yet. Not that he had any reason to, Greg reminded himself bitterly. It wasn't like anyone would really notice once he was gone.
"Just cleaning out my desk," Greg answered, the bitterness evident in his voice.
He looked up at Nick, smiling grimly at the other man's confused expression. "I'm outta here. Night shift's gonna have to find another whipping boy, because I'm not the right man for the job."
Greg held up his hand, watching it shake for a few seconds before he lowered it again and gripped the edge of the table in front of him. "Can't do my job if I can't even hold onto a sample, can I?"
"Jesus," Nick murmured, his voice low and shocked and if Greg didn't know better, he might have thought Nick sounded a little sad. "I'm sorry, man, I guess I didn't notice."
"Yeah, that was the idea," Greg answered, turning back to the last few books he hadn't packed up yet.
"But they can't just fire you, can they? I mean can't you go for physical therapy or something?"
"The doctor says it's nerve damage. It might stop someday, but Grissom doesn't want to keep me on the payroll while I wait. They need somebody who can process evidence, and I'm damaged goods now."
"They can't just fire you," Nick said again, more forcefully this time. Greg could hear the rest of his sentence even though Nick didn't say it out loud: They can't just fire you after you got hurt on the job. They can't just throw you away like you don't even matter. Only they could, and that was exactly what they were going to do.
He didn't have an answer for Nick; he'd been wondering the same thing since Grissom gave him the news, trying to figure out how they could just cut him loose after Catherine had caused the explosion that left him so damaged. He hadn't been able to come up with an answer he could live with, so he'd stopped thinking about it at all.
"Doesn't matter," he finally said, still carefully not looking at Nick as he loaded the last of his books into the box with shaking hands. "Vegas is getting a little old anyway. Plus, the surfing's lousy."
Something else he'd probably never do again.
"So you're just leaving? Does Grissom know?"
Greg looked up at that, his features twisting into a scowl for a moment before all the fight rushed out of him again. "It doesn't matter, Nick. There's nothing for me here. I came to Vegas because of this job, now that it's over there's no reason to stay."
"Come on, man, of course there is."
He knew Nick was trying to help, that he was doing that Nick thing where he tried to make everything better. Greg wanted to tell him that there was no way it could ever be better, because all he'd ever wanted was to be part of the team and now that was never going to happen. He had a feeling that if anyone would understand that it would be Nick, but there was no way he was going to ask Nick for pity. He didn't even want it, not really. What he wanted was to go back in time and figure out a way to be anywhere but inside that lab when it blew.
"Forget it," he said, sparing Nick a quick glance as he spoke. "It's done, I leave this afternoon."
"So that's it," Nick said, his voice flat and for a second Greg could almost believe he really cared. "You're just leaving, just like that?"
"Just like that," Greg echoed, his voice falsely cheerful as he lifted the box and struggled not to drop it. "Look, man, I appreciate the concern, but I gotta go."
"Wait," Nick called after him as Greg headed for the hallway. He could hear Nick behind him but he didn't slow down; the last thing he wanted to do was drag this out, not even with Nick. The other man seemed determined to have his say, though, and Greg knew there was no way he could outrun him. "Can I…give you a lift or something?"
And God, what he wouldn't have given to hear that pleading tone in Nick's voice just a few weeks ago, back before his entire life turned upside down. But now he knew what it was, and he wasn't about to play victim to Nick's latest crusade to do the right thing. 'Thanks, but I've got it covered."
Nick nodded and Greg took that as a sign that he was finally going to let it go. He swallowed a surge of disappointment and shifted the box in his arms, pausing long enough to glance back at Nick. "So I guess I'll see you around."
"Listen, Greg…" Nick paused and looked down at the ground, letting out a frustrated sigh before he looked up again. "Take care of yourself, okay?"
Greg nodded and shouldered the door open, not glancing back to see if Nick stayed to watch him walk away.
His name was Tim, but everybody called him Speed. At first Greg had thought that was kind of funny, but then he'd actually showed up and Greg stopped laughing. He couldn't even remember what he'd found so amusing in the first place, because Tim Speedle was quiet and gentle but so smart that he just sort of radiated intelligence.
It made Greg a little nervous at first, but once he got past feeling threatened all he really wanted to do was find out as much as he could about Speedle before he was gone again.
They only had three days – three days in which Tim was actually leading a panel on fiber analysis at the forensics convention – and then it was back to Miami for Tim and back to his same monotonous routine for Greg. Three days, and Greg wasted the first trying to put together an opening line that wouldn't totally humiliate him.
He never did come up with one, but in the end it didn't matter, because Tim himself marched right over after a panel on DNA analysis, stuck out his hand, and said, "Vegas, right? Tim Speedle, Miami."
Tim's hands were warm and a little rough, strong but not too strong, and Greg had to work hard not to imagine them on other parts of his body. "Greg Sanders."
"I saw you at my fiber symposium," Tim said, holding on to Greg's hand just a second or two longer than necessary. "You a CSI?"
"DNA tech," Greg answered, hoping Tim wouldn't hold that against him. "But I've been out in the field a few times."
Tim nodded as though that was perfectly reasonable, and Greg reminded himself to breathe again. "I do a little of both myself. To tell you the truth, sometimes I prefer the lab. At least the evidence doesn't talk back."
Greg knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he couldn't seem to stop and anyway, Tim didn't seem to mind. In fact, he was already caught up in a monologue about advances in DNA technology, and Greg found himself working hard to keep up enough not to embarrass himself. It was nice to talk to someone who actually understood what he did every night in the lab, and he found himself wishing that Tim worked in the Vegas lab just so he'd have someone to talk to.
He wasn't sure who suggested dinner, but it seemed like a natural progression and before he knew it he was leading Tim out of the hotel and across the Strip to a restaurant with the 'decent seafood' Tim had been missing since he left Miami. Their dinner conversation consisted mostly of shop talk, but Greg discovered that behind that gentle smile Tim had a sense of humor. One hour stretched into two stretched into three, until finally it was after ten and Vegas was starting to come alive.
"Guess I should head back," Tim said as he paid the check that Greg hadn't been fast enough to get. "Early day tomorrow."
Greg nodded, swallowing an unreasonable surge of disappointment. He didn't want the night to end, but Tim didn't really strike him as the nightlife type. Greg still hadn't figured out if the other man was interested or if he was just looking for somebody to talk DNA and fiber samples with, and he wasn't sure he was going to find out.
As they headed back to the hotel he started to mumble something about going home and getting a good night's sleep for once, but when they reached the lobby Tim nodded toward the elevator and asked if he wanted to come up. So maybe it had been a date after all, but Tim made everything feel so natural that Greg didn't really stop to wonder if he was misreading signals. Instead he followed Tim into the elevator and up to the seventeenth floor, then down a hallway and into a nice – if a little modest by Vegas standards – hotel room.
Their first kiss was as gentle as Tim's voice, and when Tim began undressing him Greg got the distinct feeling he was being worshipped. Tim's hands were as strong and warm on Greg's skin as he'd expected, and when he saw the scars on Greg's back for the first time Greg forgot to be self-conscious. He told Tim about the explosion in breathy whispers as the other man traced the marks on his back with fingers and mouth, and when Greg came he couldn't help whispering Tim's name as though they'd been lovers for ages.
It wasn't Greg's first one night stand, but it was the first time he'd slept with someone he sort of worked with. Only there were more slow kisses while he pulled his clothes back on, then promises to meet again tomorrow night, and suddenly it wasn't a one night stand anymore. Greg wasn't sure what the precedent was for two-night stands with lab rats from southern Florida, but he'd never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Tim seemed to like his company, anyway, and that was a lot more than he could say for the Vegas CSIs lately. And he wasn't going to get his hopes up, but he'd never been to Florida before.
He'd gone through every single 'what if' a thousand times. He'd played the explosion over and over in his mind, trying to find a way to blame himself. But in the end he couldn't even do that, so he was left blaming Greg for being dedicated to his job when he could have been goofing off in the break room or even down the hall flirting with that shy girl in Trace. Nick would have forgiven Greg that – would have forgiven him anything – just as long as he wasn't standing right at the center of the blast.
He didn't know if it would have made him feel better to know Greg hadn't suffered. Not that he wanted Greg to suffer; nightmares of those last few painful hours of Greg's life woke him up practically every night, drenched in sweat and sobbing and on the verge of begging a God he hadn't prayed to in years just to let him take Greg's place. He knew Greg wouldn't want that, but nothing would have stopped him from trading places with Greg if he could.
Things like that didn't happen in the real world, though, so all he had to hold on to was the memory of a few, blissful months of Greg in his bed. They didn't have even close to enough time, and that Nick could blame himself for because he was the one who'd been blind and stupid and had taken too long to open his eyes.
Nobody at work had known about them until After, and Nick wasn't sure if it was harder or easier that way. He was glad Greg didn't have to see the awkward looks from Sara or the cold suspicion from Warrick; he could handle it, but Greg was a lot more sensitive than he liked to let on and Nick knew it would bother him. Nobody knew how to act around him now that they'd heard about him and Greg, but sometimes he thought it was better that they just avoided him. He didn't really know what to say to make them more comfortable, and he was too busy being mad at Greg to worry about how they felt.
He took leave to go to California for the funeral and spent three uncomfortable nights sleeping in Greg's old bed after Greg's mother insisted he stay with them. He spent most of the trip feeling guilty because Greg's parents seemed to know all about him, and his own family didn't even know where he was. His family wouldn't understand, but Greg's family did, and sometimes when he thought about Mrs. Sanders' pleas for him to keep in touch he almost believed he would. He was the only tie she had to her son now, so maybe he owed her that much. He knew he owed Greg that and more.
Going back to work was hard, but staying home surrounded by memories of their life together was even harder, so he forced himself to get out of bed and threw himself into whatever case he happened to be working. Grissom had tried to talk him into taking a few days off when he got back from San Francisco, but more time off meant too much time to think and he didn't want to think.
He knew Grissom meant well, but Gris was…well, Gris. And it wasn't fair, because the one person he could talk to about it he couldn't even stand to look at. He felt guilty for feeling sick every time he heard Catherine's name, but that didn't erase the fact that she was the one who caused the explosion. She was the one who took Greg from him – from his parents and his friends and everything he wanted to do with his life – and even though he knew it was just an accident Nick couldn't let it go.
He wasn't angry. Not at Catherine, at least not any angrier than he was with himself. The problem was that he just couldn't look at her without remembering, and remembering hurt way too much.
He couldn't think about the explosion without remembering countless hours spent sitting in the waiting room at the hospital, making bargains with God just to spare Greg's life, just to give them a little more time. But in the end all the doctors could do was make him as comfortable as possible, and Nick wasn't even sure Greg knew he'd been there, holding his hand when he died.
And he'd held on so tight, but in the end he couldn't hold on tight enough to keep Greg from slipping away. So he could blame himself for that, and even though he knew there was nothing he could have done, it made him feel a little better to blame himself for something. He wished he could take the blame for the accident, because he saw the guilt in Catherine's eyes and he knew how hard it was for her to carry.
He'd seen it the night he got back from California, when she'd showed up on his doorstep looking for absolution. Or maybe she'd been looking for Nick to blame her, to yell at her and tell her how much he hated her for taking Greg from him. But in the end all he could do was look down at the ground as he told her to go home, and when he closed the door she'd still been standing there, looking just as lost as he felt.
The music was too loud for Greg to hear the door open, but when he felt a hand land on his shoulder he flinched and looked up. Nick was grinning as he reached around Greg to turn the stereo down to a respectable level, and Greg swallowed a gasp at the brush of Nick's arm against his still-sensitive back.
"Hey," Nick said as he straightened up again, "how's it going?"
Greg couldn't count the number of times he'd heard that same question over the past few hours, but coming from Nick it didn't sound as hollow or awkward as it had from everyone else. "I'm okay," he answered, shrugging his shoulders experimentally just to see if it was true. "Not exactly a hundred percent yet, but it's my first day back. They say once all the burns finish healing I should be back to normal."
Nick nodded as though he'd actually been worried about it, and for some reason that made Greg feel instantly better. "Good to hear. You had everybody pretty scared for awhile there."
"Well, you know how I like to liven up the party. Things were starting to get a little stale around here."
Nick grinned at that, but a second later his smile faded and he took a half-step forward. "Seriously, G. I'm glad you're okay. When I saw you lying there…"
He trailed off and for a second Greg thought he was actually going to cry or something, but then Nick cleared his throat and forced another smile. "It's good to have you back."
"It would take a lot more than that to get rid of me," Greg said, keeping his voice light in an attempt to set Nick at ease. It was bad enough that everyone else on the night shift was tiptoeing around him, he didn't think he could take that from Nick. He wasn't sure why Nick was suddenly acting so nervous; he'd never really been the type to find himself at a loss for words, and even though they were friends Greg had never let himself believe it could be anything more than that.
But when Nick looked up Greg suddenly wasn't so sure, and when the other man started to back away Greg reached out without thinking to stop him. "Wait a second."
"I gotta get back," Nick said, but he didn't try to pull out of Greg's grip. "Gris is about to hand out assignments."
"If there's one thing I learned while I was lying in that hospital bed, it's that life's way too short to let the moment pass you by." Greg only half heard what he was saying; he knew he was feeding Nick a line, and a pretty corny one at that, but the thing was that he meant it. He wasn't just going to let Nick walk out without something, but until he leaned forward and pressed their lips together even Greg didn't know what he was going to do.
He expected the kiss to be chaste; he expected Nick to put up with it for a second or two out of either shock or politeness before he pushed Greg away and started stumbling over some excuse. He'd even expected the startled yelp when their lips met, but what he hadn't seen coming was the hand sliding into his hair or the tongue teasing his mouth open. He didn't expect to find himself dazed and breathless a few endless moments later, barely remembering to catch himself before his sore back collided with the edge of the lab station.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there staring at each other, but sometime after time ground completely to a halt Nick cleared his throat and glanced over his shoulder as though he was expecting to find the entire night shift watching them. "I…uh…I really should get back."
Greg nodded, his mind racing for something to say that would make things right between them again. When he'd kissed Nick it had seemed like exactly the thing to do, and when Nick had kissed him back he'd assumed he'd been right. But now…now Nick had that deer in headlights look, like he wasn't sure whether to mumble an apology or just bolt without another word. Greg's heart sank as Nick glanced over his shoulder again, and he almost wished the other man would skip the apology and just go.
But before he had time to start feeling sorry for himself Nick was moving forward again, grabbing Greg's arm gently to pull him forward. He planted a quick, firm kiss on the corner of Greg's mouth before he let go. "Later," Nick hissed, and Greg knew that was more a promise than a suggestion.
He grinned as Nick let go of him and began backing toward the door. "I'll be here all night," he called after the other man, laughing at the groan that echoed back to him from the hallway.