"Lab coat, G? You better be careful, somebody's gonna mistake you for a DNA tech."
The unexpected voice, coming from just behind him, swung Greg around on his stool so hard he almost tipped over. "Nick!"
"In the flesh."
For a second all Greg could do was stare. Because there was Nick, right there in front of him, pale and washed out in the flood of light from the overheads. He looked totally normal, from his sneakers on up. He had on jeans and a blue t-shirt that stretched across his shoulders and Greg was horrified, actually felt sick for a minute, when the sight of Nick's arms did the same thing to him it always did.
He had his vest with him, dangling from one hand. The other came up and grabbed Greg's shoulder to steady it. "Hey, Greg, you all right?"
"Me?" Greg blinked at that. "You're asking if I'm all right? Uh, gee, Nick, I haven't been kidnapped and buried alive this week so I guess I'm just -- Oh, shit, hey." Nick already had hold of him so there wasn't really anything Greg could do to offer comfort but sit there and look guilty. "I'm sorry, I just. Wow. I should be the one asking you. I just didn't expect to even see you here today." This week, this month. Hell, maybe ever.
What color there'd been in Nick's cheeks had vanished completely, but he gave Greg's shoulder another squeeze before letting his hand drop back to his side. "Yeah," he said, and cleared his throat a little. "Well, turns out there's only so much On Demand a guy can watch before he starts to go stir crazy."
"Right," Greg said, "Right, I totally get that. When I was in the hospital after the lab blew up, I thought I'd lose it completely. The nurses kept trying to make me sleep at night and my body didn't want any part of that at all, but they wouldn't let me even turn the TV on. I ended up playing Tetris on my gameboy all night, three nights straight."
"On the bright side, I'm all caught up on The Sopranos."
Greg blinked again at that, and opened his mouth (probably to put his foot into it), but at the last minute he caught Nick starting to grin. Greg grinned back, and it was like a switch got flipped and all the tension just oozed right out of him. "Right," Greg said dryly, instead of the stupid thing that had been battering at the back of his teeth. "Well, hey. As long as there's a bright side..."
Nick laughed, and it was seriously the coolest and bravest thing Greg had ever seen. He wanted to just grab him, hug him, tell him what a fucking superhero he was to still be standing on his own two feet after everything that had happened to him, let alone standing in the DNA lab laughing at Greg's feeble stab at humor. Hodges had taken more vacation time than Nick; he wasn't back yet, but here Nick stood.
Nick had to see some of it; he was a pretty observant guy, after all, two full official levels more observant than Greg. When he stopped laughing, he was still smiling, and his dark eyes were steady and warm on Greg's. "It's good to be back," he said in a low, firm voice. "It really is, Greg."
"It's really good to have you back." Greg tried to swallow, and couldn't. "It was. I can't even imagine what it was like, Nick. Just, you know. It was pretty bad up here, too."
Nick nodded. "I know."
"Thank God." Greg smiled, and relaxed a little more. "It sounded so much less self-absorbed in my head."
"So, uh. What's with the lab coat?"
"The -- oh." Greg held out an arm, and smoothed a hand down the sleeve. "Why, does it make me look fat?"
"Just seems a little regressive, man. You passed your proficiency quite a while ago. You getting bored with the field?"
"Oh, yeah, you know how it is. Always the same old thing, death, murder, mortal danger. Nothing like the thrill-a-minute life of your average DNA technician."
Nick's eyes flashed up, a dark, dry look. "Nothing about you has ever been average, Greg."
Greg's shoulders had gone tense; he shrugged, mostly to relax. "It's nothing major. I mean, I went to the mandatory counseling, got my head shrunk, I know what it's all about. This place is safe, out there is scary. Hence the retro lab rat grunge look. We're all just lucky my mom's not here, I'd probably try to crawl back into the womb."
Nick's eyebrows went up. "There's an image that'll haunt me."
"I'm sorry. I'm talking way too much. I talk a lot when I'm nervous. You may have noticed I'm nervous a lot of the time." Greg could have gone on, he had paragraphs, pages on the topic of why Nick made him nervous, but even he could tell when it wasn't the time. "So."
"It's okay, I get it. My dad's been back in Texas for three days now, and my mom just left yesterday afternoon. Three grown adults can really crowd up a two-bedroom, and now that they're gone the place just kind of echoes."
"That sucks," Greg said feelingly. "You shouldn't have to be by yourself right now."
"I'm thinking about getting a dog."
"You could do that," Greg said. "Man's best friend and everything."
"'Course then I'd have to get somebody to take care of it the three days out of every five that we all end up pulling doubles."
"You could do that, too." Greg dropped his eyes from Nick's and took a deep breath. "Or, if you wanted, you could ask a friend over after shift to hang out. I eat a mean slice of pizza, and I have on DVD every science fiction movie ever made since movies began. So there wouldn't even have to be any talking or anything, just beer, manly grunting, and unhealthy take-out consumables--"
Going for casual, Greg flicked his eyes up to see how Nick was taking it. There was a question in his voice and a skeptical squint thing going on with his eyes and a tilt to his head that could only be described as dubious.
"Or, you know, you could get a dog," Greg finished lamely, looking away. "Dogs are nice, too."
"Did you just ask me out? Man, my life is just one traumatic experience after another."
Greg's eyes flew back to Nick's. "What? No! No, I mean, of course not! I wouldn't, not like, not right now or anything, and anyway, technically, I was asking myself in. That's totally different!"
Nick shook his head, but he was smiling at least. Just a little, halfway. "Totally different, huh?"
"The whole 'manly grunting' thing should in no way be taken as a come-on. I have some small sense of decorum. Trust me, I'm not that insensitive, all reports from random exes aside."
Nick rolled his eyes, and Greg grinned. He was okay; Greg could sense it. Not all the way okay, that'd be a miracle, but he'd get there, because if he could still do normal stuff like thinking Greg was a dork then he could find okay eventually. Greg thought about that, and grinned until Nick grinned back at him, and that was cool and good and... yeah, just good.
"I'm just trying to be a friend here, Nick," he said. His fingers twitched, wanting to reach out; he picked up a pen, instead, and fiddled aimlessly with the cap to keep himself in line. "I mean, it seems to me like you could use one, and I don't have any other plans. And it's not just me, either. Any one of us would be happy to kick around with you when you feel like it. Whatever you need."
Nick shook his head and laughed. It was a little shaky, a little wobbly around the edges. "I don't know, Greg. Right now, I'm not sure I know what that is."
Greg nodded. "That's okay. I don't think you have to know right away. Maybe it's like school. You show up on the first day, and you feel like a moron because you don't have a clue. Eventually, you figure stuff out."
"Yeah, I think so. Don't you? The trick is just to keep showing up."
Nick took a step closer to Greg. There wasn't a whole lot of distance to close, so that put him right there in Greg's space. He put his hands on Greg's shoulders, and he didn't say anything. He was looking a little misty, so Greg didn't stare. He just glanced up the one time and then looked at Nick's cheekbones instead, but Nick was too close and the angle was wrong so Nick could tell. He gave Greg's shoulders a shake, so Greg looked up and ended up staring anyway. Nick was smiling, his eyes warm and crinkled around the edges.
"You even know where I live, G?"
I helped process your house, Greg didn't say. I thought you were dead, I knew you were dead, and I was so tired I just wanted to stop because I couldn't see the point. I read your mail and snooped through your computer and looked under your mattress and fingerprinted every flat surface you own. I wanted to curl up on your couch and sleep for a week and wake up and have it all be over. Greg didn't say any of it, but he could see when the light clicked on in Nick's head, see when he heard it anyway.
"Right," Nick said. He squeezed Greg's shoulders, then let go and ducked his head a bit to rub at the back of his own neck. He looked up at Greg from the corner of his eyes -- resigned, but still smiling, so that was okay, that worked fine for Greg. "So. I guess you won't need a map or anything."
Slowly, unstoppably, Greg's mouth started to curl. "Nope," he said, and spun himself around once on his stool, beaming. "Not if you drive."