Nick pushed the door to the apartment complex open, and held it as Greg slipped underneath his raised arm and into the building. The apartments were run down, had obviously been neglected for a while, which was to be expected in the less desirable parts of the city. Their victim had been found in his home on the ninth floor, Brass and David were already up there waiting for the CSI‘s to arrive. Nick was looking forward to working with Greg, it was the first time they’d worked a case as a duo since Greg passed his proficiency and he was interested in seeing how the young man’s skills had developed.|
Greg made his way to the elevator and Nick swerved away from the stairwell, his intended route, and followed his friend into the confined space. He didn‘t much feel like admitting that he was still afraid of enclosed places, so he swallowed down the nerves that were beginning to bubble in his stomach as the dull metal doors slid shut, trapping them in place.
He felt his insides lurch as the elevator made it‘s slow ascent, creaking and groaning with the strain. He let out the breath he wasn‘t even aware he‘d been holding, and watched the dial above the door as it moved, his eyes burning into it. It’s OK, you’ll be fine. he told himself as he mentally counted the floors, 1...2...3, almost there, 4...5, not far now, 6...7.… and then a sickening crunch as the machinery halted abruptly and the lights flickered and died. They both jolted forward, Greg snapping out of whatever daydream he was lost in and steadying himself against the wall.
“Shit, the power must be out.” he muttered, flicking on his flashlight and casting it over the control panel, pressing the buttons repeatedly. “Why do people always do this?” he laughed as he realised what he was doing. “It never works. I think I‘m just confusing it more.”
Nick took a step backwards, trying to catch his breath. His chest was tightening, and he could feel beads of sweat beginning to form on his top lip. It’s OK. You’re OK. he told himself, trying not to lose control of his emotions. It was the last thing he wanted, especially in front of a co-worker. Especially when that co-worker was Greg. He backed up away from the closed door until his ass bumped the cold metal behind him. The doors still seemed much to near to him and he pressed his back into the wall, trying to create more space.
Greg fished in his pocket for his cell phone. “I’d better call Brass, let him know we’re stuck. I bet this happens all the time in these older buildings. This one doesn’t look like it’s been too well maintained.” He shined the light onto the phone and let out a long sigh. “Damn, no signal.” He held the phone aloft and moved around the small space, trying to find some reception. “Nothing.” He flipped the phone closed again and put it back in his pocket.
“I’m sure Brass will come looking for us, he’ll see your truck parked outside and figure that we’re in here.” He turned and shone the flashlight at Nick, careful to avoid his eyes with the beam. “You OK?”
Nick nodded, swallowing hard. All he could see was the harsh, circular white light in front of him, reminding him of the light in the bottom of his coffin, the light that was stealing his precious oxygen. His hand twitched towards his firearm for a second before he mentally shook himself. “I’m fine.” he attempted, but it came out as more of a squeak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m fine.” This was much more like his own voice, albeit a thicker, more anxious version. “It’s just… it’s kinda hot in here.”
Greg moved the flashlight around the enclosed space, checking for any emergency button, but found nothing. “Looks like we’ll be here for a while. May as well get comfortable.” He slid down the wall opposite Nick and sat down on the floor, glad that it was too dark to see what he might actually be sitting on.
Nick remained standing, frozen in place. Mental flashes of dirt on top of him, the taste of stale air in his mouth, the sensation of perspex encasing him with no escape. His skin itched with the ghosts of fire ants biting at his flesh and he fought the urge to scratch them away. He could no longer stay in control of his own body, fizzing lights dancing across his vision. The sharp sting of bile coated the back of his throat as his breathing became laboured, his chest heavy and tight as if a weight was pressing down on him. His heart was beating so hard that he was sure it would burst right through his chest and the sweat that had sat in pin pricks on his skin was now trickling down his face. He brought a hand to his forehead to wipe the drips away, trying to control the trembling that was beginning to take over his body. His legs turned to jelly, his breaths raspy and strained, desperately trying to grasp onto anything, but only finding smooth metal sliding over his slippery palms as he collapsed onto the floor.
Greg was beside him in a second, the hastily discarded flashlight rolling across the floor casting twisting shadows across their bodies. He reached out and pressed two fingers into Nick’s neck, checking his pulse. It was racing wildly and the skin was hot and clammy to the touch.
“Nick, what’s wrong?” Greg’s voice was full of concern.
“I can’t….” Nick gasped, reaching out blindly in the dim light. “They’re closing in. The walls.”
Greg looked around, suddenly realising why Nick was so disturbed. “Oh, fuck, Nick, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.” The air was hot and oppressive inside the small metal enclosure and Greg could see how Nick would relate this to his time spent in the hell of that box underground. He knew he’d have to calm Nick down somehow before he hyperventilated.
He cupped Nick’s face in his hands, his thumbs resting on the damp, sticky skin of his cheeks. “Nick, focus on me.” He moved his face close to Nick’s so he could be seen in the dim light. Their noses were practically touching, and Nick could feel the gusts of breath on his face, smell the slight hint of coffee and mint gum, feel the heat of a human body against him.
Greg could tell that Nick was still distant, lost somewhere in his own fear by the way his eyes darted wildly around the small room as if searching for something. He gave Nick a sharp shake and raised his voice to snap him back to reality. “Nick! Focus on me!” Nick eyes finally landed on Greg’s face, wide and sparkling black in the dim light, like dark crystals. “OK, that’s good Nick. That’s good.” He shifted his body until he was kneeling beside Nick, never breaking the eye contact between them.
“Now, I want you to match my breathing, OK? Easy now. Deep breath in……deep breath out.” Nick watched Greg intently, trying to get a firmer grasp on the slip of reality he was desperately clinging to. Greg’s voice was commanding and yet soothing, and he concentrated on the honey-rich tones as he continued to speak. “That’s it Nick, you’re OK. In…….. and out, in and out.”
“The box…” Nick half sobbed between choking breaths.
Greg pressed his forehead to Nick‘s, creating as much contact as possible. “Sssshhh, I’m here. I’m with you, you can feel me, I‘m here. You can’t be in the box if I’m here, can you?”
Nick nodded, swiping a hand across his face to wipe away the lone tear that had slipped from the corner of his eye. ”I kept waiting for you to come.” he said in a small, tight voice. “You didn’t come. I waited so long.”
Greg pulled him into a hug, feeling his shirt dampen with the tears which were flowing freely now. “We came as soon as we could Nick. I’m so sorry that you had to spend so long in there. We tried so hard to find you.” He blinked back the burning in his own eyes, knowing he had to stay strong for his friend. “And we found you in time. You’re here, you’re safe.” He stroked Nick’s hair gently with one hand, the other still cupped around his jaw, tracing soft circles across his cheekbone, trying to calm him down. They stayed that way until Nick’s sobs began to lessen, the trembling subsiding finally.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let myself get so upset like that. God, I‘m so embarrassed.” Nick blushed, pulling away. He was suddenly aware of how close their bodies were, and it made him feel uncomfortable. Not because he didn’t like it, but because was conscious of the fact that he could easily get used to the intimacy.
“Nick, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.” Greg adjusted his position until he was sitting side by side with Nick. “You’ve been through a huge trauma. Everyone understands that. But we’re all so proud of you for coming back to work. No one would have blamed you if you’d decided to quit.”
Nick looked across at him, strengthened by the concern and tenderness in his eyes. “There’s been a few times that I didn’t think I could come back. But I had to. It’s my job, and I’m damn good at it. Plus, I’d miss you guys too much. You’re like family.”
“And I’m the annoying little brother, hey?” Greg smiled, trying to make Nick feel better. Nick returned the smile.
“I’m glad you’re here, G‘. If I’d have been stuck in here alone I don’t know what I would have done.” He reached out tentatively and gave Greg’s arm a squeeze.
Greg just looked guilty. “If I hadn’t been here you would have taken the stairs, wouldn’t you.” It wasn’t a question, merely a statement of fact. “I’m really sorry.” He traced his finger along Nick’s forearm. “People forget, don’t they? Once the scars have healed. They don’t see the scars here…” he moved his hand over Nick’s heart, “and here.” He moved the same hand to Nick’s head. “The scars that don’t fade as easily. I should know.”
Nick cleared his throat. “The explosion…. Does it ever still get to you?”
Greg shrugged. “I try not to let it, but it‘s always there, in the back of my mind. It’s one of the reasons I was so desperate to be a CSI, get out of the lab. But there was one case that made me question if I could do this job. Tara Matthews.” He let out a short, humourless laugh. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget her name.“
He moved a little closer in to Nick’s body, leaning against him. “I couldn’t believe it when Grissom sent me to collect trace from the body of a burns victim, of all things. One of my first solo collections and that’s what he assigns me. I was determined to be professional, but when I got there and she was still alive…. I thought I was going to pass out. All I could smell was that sickening antiseptic smell mixed with her burnt flesh and for a second I was back there again, back in the hospital I could feel the ache in my back as if it was happening again. It took all the strength I had not to turn and run.”
“I remember that case.” Nick nodded. “I noticed that you didn’t seem yourself afterwards. I just never realised why, I’m sorry.”
Greg ran a hand through his hair, exhaling loudly. “I was lucky, my burns weren’t as bad as the paramedics had first thought, but in that moment of seeing her lying there, I was faced with what could have so easily happened to me. If I hadn’t turned away in that split second before……” he stopped, drawing a shaky breath, deciding to leave the rest unsaid. “But mostly I’m OK. I still don’t like people seeing the scars I do have though. I haven’t been to the beach or gone swimming since, because I can’t hide the skin graft on my lower back, or the donor patch on my thigh.” He hung his head low in embarrassment. “It’s also why I haven’t dated anyone in almost two and a half years. I can’t bear them being disgusted by me when they first see them, having to try and explain how I got them, having to drag it all up again. No, it’s easier just to be alone.”
“Why don’t you try dating someone who already knows, who‘s already seen them?” Nick asked.
Greg laughed again, but with humour and warmth this time. “Is that an offer?”
Nick was suddenly glad that they were only bathed in dim torchlight, because it meant Greg couldn’t see the deep flush on his cheeks. “Well….. would it be so bad if it was?” He couldn’t believe he’d just said that, and he closed his eyes waiting for Greg’s response.
Instead, they heard a loud clanging coming from above them, and the faint sound of Brass’ voice shouting to them. Greg stood up and shouted back “We’re in here!” More banging, and then the doors began to open slowly, the beam of a flashlight sweeping through the elevator from above them. Brass’ face appeared behind it in the small gap a the top of the door.
“Power went out.” he said in his usual gruff voice. “You guys been OK in there?” Greg turned to look at Nick, understanding the pleading look that flashed across his face. “Absolutely fine, Brass, no problems.” He could see Nick visibly relax at knowing that his panic attack would remain their secret.
“Do you think you can fit through this gap?” Brass called down to them. Nick stood up and took a look at it.
“I think we can, otherwise who knows how long we’ll be stuck in here. Greg, if you’ll give me a leg up first, then once I’m through I can pull you up.” Greg nodded and cupped his hands together, balancing them on his bended knee to give Nick the support he needed to haul himself up through the gap. Once he was through, Nick turned and grabbed Greg’s forearms, pulling him easily through the doors and onto the floor.
“Wow, glad to be out of there!” Greg exclaimed, wiping the sweat from his brow. He looked across at Nick, who looked so relieved to be in an open space again, taking huge gulps of fresher air until he hiccupped.
“We’ve preserved the crime scene as best we can until the power comes back on.” Brass stated. “There was no signs of injury or struggle, so my best guess would be natural causes anyway. Until then, why don’t you guys find a diner, get something to drink and clean up. I’ll call you when we’re readyto go.”
Greg nodded, and indicated towards the stairwell. Nick flicked on his flashlight, as Greg’s was still rolling about in the bottom of the elevator, and they made their way out of the building.
“How do you feel?” Greg asked. Nick stopped walking and took a deep breath of the Vegas night air before answering.
“Better. Thanks to you. And thank you for keeping this to yourself, I appreciate that. I don‘t think I could cope with Brass and David knowing I freaked out.”
Greg turned to face him. “What happened in there stays in there, OK? It stays between us.”
Nick nodded, and they resumed their walk to the truck in silence. He could feel Greg’s eyes on him, and for a moment he thought it was pity that he could sense coming from the other man, but when he returned the gaze he could see that it was nerves, apprehension. Greg finally broke the silence with a question. “What you said… about the dating thing… you were joking, right?”
Nick smiled shyly, the blush creeping onto his cheeks again. “No.” he said simply.
“Oh…” Greg seemed slightly taken aback, but grinned, almost as blinding as the flashlight. “OK. Cool. Are you free later? We could grab something to eat. See what happens.”
Nick reasoned that this moment should have felt awkward, but he was surprised to find that it wasn’t at all. “I’m free whenever you are,
Greggo. Anytime.” With a smile, they both climbed into the SUV.