Working on his birthday wasn't the problem. Sure, he'd rather be out at a club with his friends taking advantage of the one night a year he didn't have to pay for any of his own drinks, but things could be worse. He could still be in the hospital, for instance, or he could have not survived the explosion at all.
That thought always sent a shudder up his spine, so he pushed it as far back in his mind as he could get it and turned his attention back to dusting for fingerprints. He knew this was all part of the drill, that he had to learn the ropes just like everybody else. He'd heard that lecture more times than he wanted to remember from pretty much every CSI on the night shift, and he really didn't mind the monotony. He'd survived more boring nights than this when he was still a lab rat, after all, so he could stand a couple hours of dusting for prints while Nick and Sara did all the real work.
It didn't really matter that he was doing grunt work on his birthday, because it was all part of learning the ropes, and that was what he wanted. He'd been badgering Grissom to let him out in the field for long enough, he definitely wasn't going to start complaining about it now. Even if nobody on the night shift seemed to know it was his birthday.
Even if none of them would care if they did know.
That was the weird thing about being out in the field – in some ways he felt like he'd been more a part of the team when he was still working in the lab. He couldn't put his finger on why exactly, but it was almost like they were treating him differently now that he was training to be a CSI. The rookie treatment he'd expected, maybe even a little hazing. But he hadn't really expected the standoffishness from Warrick and Nick, or the weird looks from Sara. Most of the time he got the feeling that none of them thought he belonged out there, and no matter how much he tried to tell himself it didn't bother him, sometimes it got under his skin.
Grissom wouldn't have put him out there if he didn't think Greg could handle it; he'd told himself that a thousand times in the past few weeks, when he was given a task by one of the CSIs and then promptly ignored until it was time to clear out the scene. Catherine had assured him that all rookies got pretty much the same treatment until they could be trusted not to screw up the evidence, but he had a feeling that the fact that they all knew him made them take him for granted a lot more than they would a stranger.
He let his mind wander as he lifted another print from the bathroom faucet, trying to remember if they'd ever celebrated any birthdays on the night shift. He vaguely remembered a cake, but he was pretty sure that was when Nick made CSI level 3. Then Holli Gribbs had gotten shot and the celebration was pretty much forgotten. Then again, the cake could have been part of the bridal shower somebody had organized for that girl from the print lab…whatever the reason, it had been awhile ago.
That made him feel a little better about the fact that no one at work had acknowledged his birthday, but it still didn't help him feel any better about the fact that the rest of the team seemed to have forgotten he was even at the scene. He sighed as he lifted the last print and tucked it into its envelope, carefully labeling and then double-checking everything before he closed his kit and headed back to the front of the house.
The last time he'd been in the living room the place had been crawling with people; cops, the guy from the coroner's office, the victim's roommate, Sara and Nick. He expected to find the place still buzzing with the low sound of a dozen different whispered conversations, but when he reached the front of the house it was as silent as the bathroom had been. There was no sign of anybody, not a cop or either of his teammates.
"That's just perfect," he muttered under his breath as he turned in a slow circle, making sure he hadn't missed anybody. It would just figure they'd finally forget him; he'd ridden to the scene with Nick, and now he was going to have to call somebody to come get him.
The sound of a familiar voice in the heavy silence startled him, and he jumped and nearly lost his grip on his kit as he swung around to find Nick walking toward him. He swallowed hard and hoped that Nick wouldn't notice how startled he really was, but judging by the way the other man was tilting his head and sort of squinting at him he could tell. "What, did you think we ditched you?"
Great, now Nick was laughing at him. Usually when he saw that smile Greg's knees wobbled a little, but right now he just wanted to smack the expression off Nick's face. "No," he lied, but he couldn't come up with a plausible reason for why he'd been muttering to himself.
Nick's grin shifted to something a little less mocking, but it didn't make Greg feel any better when the other man shook his head and slid an arm around his shoulders. "Relax, Sanders. Even if I wanted to ditch you, there are rules about leaving a rookie alone in the field."
Greg knew exactly why those rules were enforced so strictly now, but he didn't bring up Holli or the fact that Warrick had almost lost his job for not following procedure. Instead he let Nick steer him out of the house, shrugging out of the other man's grip as soon as they got outside. He glanced around while he waited for Nick to tape off the door, but there was no sign of another human being, not even a police cruiser. He glanced down at his watch to see how long he'd been sequestered in the bathroom: over an hour. It felt like even longer, especially when the place had been crawling with people the last time he'd seen it.
"Hey, you okay?"
Greg glanced up to find Nick watching him again, but this time his forehead was creased with concern instead of amusement.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Greg answered as they started toward Nick's Tahoe. "It's just kind of creepy. It was so quiet in there."
"You get used to it," Nick said. He stopped next to the truck and unlocked it, reaching for Greg's kit as he opened the door. His fingers brushed against Greg's as he pulled the kit out of his hand, lingering for less than a second before he set the kit in the back seat and closed the door again. For a second Greg forgot how to breathe, but when Nick turned away and headed for the other side of the truck Greg shook himself out of it and climbed into the passenger seat.
He waited until Nick climbed into the truck and started the engine before he spoke again, and he had to swallow hard and try twice before he got his voice to work. "So how come you always get stuck babysitting me?"
Nick glanced over at him as he pulled away from the sidewalk, his expression unreadable in the darkness of the truck. "I volunteered. Gris likes you to work with everybody so you get a feel for each CSI's style, but you spend most of your shifts with me because I'm responsible for you."
"What, you're that desperate for my company?" It was supposed to be a joke, but he couldn't help hoping that it was at least a little true. He liked Nick, probably more than he should, and the thought of Nick actually volunteering to spend time with him was too good to be true. He'd always assumed that training a rookie – even one they already knew – would be the last thing any of them would want to get stuck doing. "You could have just asked if you wanted to hang out with me."
He could just make out Nick's smile in the darkness, but he couldn't tell whether or not Nick was laughing at him again. "I like training," he said. "Warrick's not crazy about it, and Sara's just flat-out bad at it, but I kind of like seeing the job through the new guy's eyes. It reminds me why I quit being a cop. Besides," he added, glancing over at Greg for a second before he returned his attention to the road, "I could think of worse people to spend my time with."
Greg was still trying to decide if he was hallucinating when they pulled into the parking lot outside the lab. The way Nick had said it almost made it sound like he was interested in more than just training, but that couldn't be true. If it was he would have just told Greg he was interested, wouldn't he? He'd always struck Greg as a pretty straightforward guy, but maybe he'd been misreading Nick's signals. He reached for the door handle on automatic pilot as he wracked his brain, trying to come up with another time when Nick might have come onto him and he'd missed it.
It took him a second to realize that the reason he couldn't move was because Nick was holding onto his shoulder, and when he turned to look at the other man he caught his breath all over again.
"I...uh…I didn't want to do this in front of an audience," Nick said, reaching into his pocket and handing Greg an envelope.
Greg took it and turned it over carefully, staring at it as though it might explode at any moment. "What's this?"
"Just open it."
He stole another quick glance at Nick, but the other man's expression didn't betray anything. Finally Greg took a deep breath and opened the envelope, reaching inside and pulling out two slips of cardstock. He held them up and squinted at them in the dim light of the parking lot, but when he finally made out what they said he turned to look at Nick again. "These are Lakers tickets."
"I sure as hell hope so," Nick said, but this time Greg could hear the nervousness in his voice.
"The Lakers play in L.A."
"Yeah." Nick shifted a little closer on the seat and reached over, pulling the tickets out of Greg's hand to look down at them. "I got them for next month so you'd have time to get off work. If you want, I mean."
"Wait a second," Greg said, his mind working overtime to try to figure out what exactly was going on. "Are you asking me to go see the Lakers play? With you?" It didn't seem possible, but as soon as he saw the expression on Nick's face he knew it was true. "Did I fall and hit my head or something?"
"No." Nick laughed again, but this time it wasn't so much mocking as it was breathless and a little nervous around the edges. "The game's on a Friday, I figured we could make a long weekend of it. Am I way off base here?"
Greg was sure he'd suffered some kind of head injury, or maybe he hadn't come through the explosion okay after all. Maybe he was in a coma, and he'd hallucinated the past four months. Maybe he was dead and this was heaven. He could have gotten shot just like that last rookie, and in reality Nick and Sara really had ditched him at the scene. Only Nick was staring at him like he was really worried that Greg was going to say no, and if it was some kind of hallucination there was no way in hell Greg was waking up until he got to the good part.
He reached over and closed his hand around the tickets again, letting his fingers brush against Nick's knuckles as he eased the tickets out of the other man's hand. "You think Grissom will really give us both the same day off?"
"I think I can work it out," Nick answered, and this time when he grinned Greg was glad he was sitting down. He didn't have much time to dwell on the way his knees wobbled, though, because a moment later Nick's hand was in his hair and his lips were brushing against Greg's mouth. The contact only lasted a second before Nick pulled back to look at him again, but as soon as their eyes met Greg surged forward and kissed him again. He was positive he was going to wake up any second now, and if he did he at least wanted one real kiss first.
Only he didn't wake up even after Nick pulled away to let them both catch their breath, and he didn't even wake up after Nick kissed him a second time. When they broke apart again he was flushed and breathless and he could taste mint and Nick on his tongue, and he knew if he walked into the lab right now everybody would know what they'd been doing. He didn't care, though, not when Nick was grinning at him and idly stroking the back of his neck with one hand.
"Happy birthday," Nick whispered right before he leaned forward for another kiss, and Greg had to smile against his lips, because it really was after all.