A/N: I wrote this fic purely because I wanted to play with the emotional and physical fallout of the lab explosion. Though getting blown up isn't a traditional rite of passage, it was an important part of Greg's evolution and maturation from lab rat to field mouse, so I'm counting this as a fill for my coming of age/rites of passage square for trope-bingo, though I didn't write it with that aim in mind and only checked my card for complementary themes after the story was complete.|
You know, academically, that traumatic events and major injuries can change a person. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, or sometimes, those things just change them so that once the dust settles, they're different.
The Greg who held court in his DNA lab was vibrant, cocky, self-mockingly vain and startlingly free of malice. He got bored and nervous and was trying to get his toehold in the door to investigating crime in the real world, rather than just running swabs and samples. You mocked him a little to his face, but the moment the teasing behind his back turned nasty, you quashed it or walked away. Greg had spirit, fierce intelligence, and an omnivorous desire to learn about everything, and how all those things connect. Nobody had any business crushing that.
The Greg who comes back to the lab post-explosion is quieter, subdued and shocky. His hands shake, and sometimes, when he thinks nobody's watching, he grips the edge of his desk tightly and breathes deeply, controlled on the inhale and ragged on the exhale. His lurid, polyester shirts with the seventies collars disappear. They're replaced by muted t-shirts with long sleeves and high collars, soft cotton cocooning the body underneath that you know is still healing. It's evident in the way that he moves stiffly, the pinched look he gets around his eyes when he's pulled a double.
From the way Greg scrapes his composure together whenever anyone walks in his lab, he seems to think or hope that no one else has noticed how fragile he is.
You have, but every time you decide to say something, it feels like someone's hand is on your shoulder, holding you back, keeping you from shattering the illusion. It's your instinct to show kindness, but in this case it feels a little too close to cruelty to mention that you've seen the cracks in his armour.
You talk inanely to him about video games instead. You even go round his place once or twice. It's immediately obvious when you walk into the living room that a) he earns more than you and b) he's less serious than you are, or was, before the accident, at least. His walls are papered from floor to ceiling with posters where yours feature only a few framed mementoes and a dart board. His stereo is state-of-the-art and the shelves surrounding it are cluttered with dozens of CDs by bands you've never heard of. Though there's no discernible system, Greg immediately hones in on the album he wants and slides it into the player. The music that pours out just sounds like noise to your ear, but Greg twiddles the dial and it's at a level you don't have to shout over, so you drink up your beer and you gossip unashamedly about the people at work, about cases, old and new, closed and open.
Both of you are off tomorrow, so you get slowly and pleasantly lit together, and when the album ends Greg opens a cabinet below the tv to reveal an N64 and boots up MarioKart. The corded controllers don't reach to the couch, so you both sit cross legged a foot or so from the tv, elbowing each other good-naturedly and in the end, leaning against each other for balance and laughing breathlessly.
You sleep on the couch, and wake with a woolly mouth, a crick in your neck, and the scent of crisping bacon in your nostrils. Greg is moving around the kitchen with a hint of a bounce in his step. He's nodding along to the beat of music you can't hear, coming through his headphones.
When he hands you a plate laden with bacon, scrambled eggs, tomato and perfectly browned toast slathered with butter, it feels almost intimate, like this is some kind of morning after, even though you never strayed beyond fraternal.
“Don't ever say I don't treat you right,” Greg says with a smug smile, before devouring a forkful of eggs himself.
“You're the best, baby,” you say, but you say it with a giant, amused grin, so it's okay.
You only mention the change in shirts once in passing.
“You're not getting conventional on us, are you?” you say.
You regret it immediately. Greg freezes a little, like a glitch, then he smiles and makes some stupid joke, and keeps going, but you see the tremble start again. Greg stuffs his hands in his lab coat pockets, still talking a mile a minute about absolutely nothing.
The next day, Greg wears what you suspect is the most garish band t-shirt he owns. A few days later, he bleaches his hair. The whole next week, he cranks the volume on his stereo as high as he can get away with without getting complaints.
You'd find it reassuring if you bought the performance, but you don't. Greg is trying so damn hard to project the image that was once as effortless as breathing.
“You don't dance in the lab any more.”
You're down to the foamy dregs of the last of the six pack of beer you brought home with you. The pizzas you demolished between you have been reduced to a handful of crusts and greasy boxes. You're at your place this time, not Greg's, and you don't quite know how that happened; it just did. The Discovery Channel is on the tv, turned down low. Greg tuned to it immediately to poke fun at you, and then you both got sucked into some documentary about herd animals on the African plains. The film-makers seem to have focussed heavily on them getting eaten, so you've both taken to cheering when a big cat fumbles the kill, and the prey lives to graze another day.
Greg's slumped sightly sideways, his eyelids lazy with alcohol and food. His t-shirt's skewed on his torso, and he's picking ceaselessly at the label on his bottle with a thumbnail. There's a flush on his cheeks, his lips are bitten and glossy, and where his collar's pulled down at the back of his neck, you can see a curl of reddened skin, oddly rippled and shiny.
It's been so long by the time Greg responds that you've half forgotten you spoke out loud in the first place.
“Maybe I don't feel like dancing,” he says.
At some point between Greg's words and the closing credits, your hand slips from the back of the couch to the ball of Greg's shoulder. It's less than you want to touch him, really, but you know that it's safe, there, and that you're not hurting him. Greg gives a long, slow sigh when you do it, but he doesn't move away.
You're having a bad day. It's always a bad day where kids are concerned, but something about the grade school picture of the kid who's lying in a drawer in autopsy makes you feel like you're looking in a mirror, like your chest is just as open and empty as his is, now. Everything is taking too long to process. The fibres from the sheet he was wrapped in are frustratingly common, the residue from his wrists is glue from basic duct tape, and the dirt in his hair is just dirt, no convenient specific spores or plant material.
Even though you know that DNA takes time to extract and sequence, you're hovering around Greg's lab like a thundercloud, snapping at him like sparks every time he tries to start a casual conversation. After the fourth time you bite out a sharp reply, he kind of flinches, and guilt sinks into your stomach along with the anger already simmering there. It's a hard ball of emotion with prickles that stab up into your throat, and you're horrified to realise your vision's slightly swimmy with unshed tears. You clear your throat; once, twice.
Greg's hand takes you by surprise, even though you're pretty sure he telegraphs the move carefully. There's a barrier of latex between his palm and the back of your neck, but it's warm, so warm. The contact grounds you, helps you to swallow down the wildness, to regain control.
“Sorry,” you say. “I'm okay.”
“I know you are,” Greg murmurs. He squeezes gently, once, then his hand slides away to snatch the paper the printer spits out. He reads it, then holds it out to you.
“Thank you,” you say, with a quick smile that feels more like a grimace. Then you're off, report in hand.
“You ever think things would be easier if you didn't know all the stuff we know? Didn't... see all the shit we do, on a daily basis?”
You're slurring your words a little. You blame the scotch Greg produced wordlessly after you turned up on his doorstep without any prior warning.
“No,” he says.
You throw him a sceptical look that you're sure is broad enough to be bordering on parody.
He nods; conceding the point. “Yes,” he admits. “But also, no.”
“You like knowing things,” you say, and it comes out a little rough, a little dark, affectionate.
Greg's smile is small, but it feels like a secret, shared.
“I do,” he says, and maybe it's the scotch, but you just look at each other for a moment that stretches into minutes.
You've both been working for the best part of two days. You feel weak and strained and everything's a little too shiny and bright and piercing. Greg's almost manic with borrowed energy. Last pot of coffee he brewed, he didn't even pour it out, just drank it straight from the jug. He's talking fast and loud, and underneath it you can see the way he's close to vibrating out of his own skin with the tension and the caffeine.
“Come with me,” you say, and Greg trails after you, footsteps bouncing, obviously thinking that you're going out into the field, something to do with the case.
Once you get into the locker room, you wrap your hands around his upper arms and tug him close.
“What-” he begins, his body rigid.
“You need to stop, or slow down, for one minute, five minutes, before you fall over. I just watched you nearly knock a whole tray of samples onto the floor, and that's not like you. We're all wound tight, we're over-tired, and we're racing the clock. You need to breathe. Can you do that for me? Breathe.”
Greg looks wary and reluctant, and you think he's going to pull away from you, maybe even shove you back. But he doesn't. His eyes sink shut and he drops his forehead to your shoulder; his breath shuddering out from his lungs as the tension bleeds from his limbs. Your hands slip around his arms, and you carefully let them settle on his lower back, where you know Greg's skin is still smooth and undamaged.
A few deep breaths later, Greg's own hands tentatively cup your hips, his thumbs hooked over the edge of your belt. His fingers twitch and tremble; he's not even trying to hide it. Warm, moist puffs of air seep through your shirt, settle on your skin.
“That's it,” you whisper. “That's right. Easy, Greggo. Easy.”
You go to his place, he goes to yours. You go to the movies. One time, you plan to go bowling, but everyone gets called in after a multiple at a strip joint, so you end up working instead. You share so much take-out that you're certain that you're both on the road to some kind of health crisis, so the next time you invite him over, you cook. Beef stir-fry with snow peas, carrots, Asian greens, and a sauce with plenty of spice on fluffy brown rice. You're not that educated in wine, but the guy at the liquor store recommended something, so it's breathing on the counter top when Greg turns up.
“Wow,” Greg says, blinking in surprise.
“What, you didn't think I could cook? I've lived on my own for years,” you say.
“That's not it,” Greg says, but he doesn't elaborate.
You eat dinner sitting side by side at the breakfast bar. Greg keeps making appreciative noises, and you can feel your cheeks are pink, from more than just the wine.
You're chasing the last few grains of rice around your plate when Greg's hand lands on your cheek. You turn your head smoothly with the motion of the light pressure he's exerting, and then you're being kissed.
Oh, you think. Of course.
You catch up quickly enough to start kissing back before he stops, and you feel him smile, a little smugly, against your lips. It's okay. You're smiling, too.
“It's not pretty,” Greg warns. His lips are wet and red; distracting. You try to focus. You know it's important.
“I'm not going anywhere,” you say, and you mean it. It's not just the hormones talking.
Greg nods, his jaw hard like he's steeling himself, and tugs the t-shirt up and over his head. Then he turns, and the soft light from the lamp catches the topography of his back.
It's both better and worse than you'd feared. There's almost no damage below his shoulder blades, and none licking around the curve of his ribs, like you'd expected. What there is is still an angry red, almost fluorescent in colour. You know that with time, that will fade to a dull crimson, and then eventually, a glossy white.
“Does it still hurt?” you ask.
Greg shakes his head, shrugs. “Sometimes it aches, or itches. Mostly, it's kind of numb. Like my back's fallen asleep, without the pins and needles. You can touch,” he says, without you asking. “You won't hurt me.”
The skin is slick beneath your fingers, unnaturally smooth, hairless. It has whorls and ridges like a chaotic weather map, strange textures and tensions, and it feels delicate, tissue-thin.
“You asked me once about my shirts. Well, you didn't ask, but I knew you wanted to.” Greg's voice rumbles under your fingertips, vibrating through his ribs, his skin, to you. You take an unsteady breath, while he continues. “The skin's... fragile. Tears easily. Rough fabrics abrade it. When I finally got the bandages off, I worked that out pretty quickly. I had to weed my wardrobe.”
“Soft cotton,” you say.
“Mmm,” he agrees. You're both whispering.
You lean closer, bend forward and place a gentle, open-mouthed kiss between his shoulder-blades.
Greg gasps sharply, shakes under your lips.
“Nick,” he says. “Nick.”
His hand reaches back and latches onto your hip, tugs you closer. You move until you're connected, Greg's back to your front. Your hands slide up his chest, across his stomach. Your lips move from the back of his neck to behind Greg's ear. He tips his head back against your shoulder, giving you better access, and you give in to the urge to bite him gently; not enough to hurt, just enough for him to feel your teeth there.
Greg laughs breathlessly, and says, “Yes, yes, please.”
Greg's arms cradle yours, squeeze you to him tightly. His breath is coming fast, but his hands aren't shaking, not a bit.
“Okay,” you breathe on the exhale, and you don't let go.
I don't have major scarring of any kind, but one of my best friends in high school had extensive burns to his back and shoulder from pulling a kettle down on himself when he was three years old. He was lucky to survive, and spent nine months in hospital recovering. His scars were mostly insensitive to touch, but the skin was very delicate, and our synthetic school uniform polo shirts abraded and irritated the skin, sometimes enough to make the skin weep and tear where his schoolbag strap sat. As a result, he'd often wear a t-shirt underneath to protect his skin, or wear a plain cotton buttoned shirt instead in the uniform colour.