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balance

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 5 months ago

Balance of Power

 

Author: NA56

Fandom: CSI: LV

Pairing(s): Grissom/Nick, Nick/Other

Warnings: dark content, violence, non-con and other consent issues.

Spoilers: none

Summary: When Nick comes to Vegas, it isn't to join Grissom's team, it's as property. Pre-series AU.

 

Nominated Category:

Best Slave!Fic: Acted - TV and Movies - Slash

&

Best Romance – Slash


 


 

This is a pre-series fanfic.

 

Chapter 1

 

The morgue was supposed to be a quiet place, not a place where doors were slammed open and people yelled at each other. But apparently, Gil Grissom had missed that memo. Or he was just too pissed off to care.

 

“I understand I have you to thank for this,” Grissom said to Al Robbins, holding up a thick manila envelope.

 

Most people had never seen Gil Grissom get upset, really all-stops-pulled angry. And without knowing what that looked like, it was impossible to recognize the little quirks and tells that heralded an imminent, and probably impressive, eruption. Al had, which was the only reason he knew what he was in for.

 

It was the calm in his voice that caught Al’s attention. That couldn't be genuine, not when his jaw was tensing like that. Al wondered, briefly, if Gil had ever had problems with TMJ, given that he dealt with stress by clenching his teeth and shouldering through it.

 

He set down the sandwich he’d been eating, wiped his mouth and wadded up the napkin before turning in his chair to face Gil. There was no question what this was all about. Even if Gil hadn’t charged in while still wearing his tux, his timing and mood would have told Al all he needed to know.

 

“You’re early,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d get out of there for another hour.” Grissom made an impatient, grunting noise and leaned against the counter.

 

“I didn't feel like dancing,” he said, his tone dry and biting.

 

And everyone at the banquet had probably known it, too. Everyone had known that he hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place, and Al doubted he’d done much to mask his disdain throughout the evening. But at least he’d accepted their gift, if his sudden fury towards Al was the indication Al thought it was. He'd wondered if he would.

 

“All right,” Robbins said with a sigh, and turned in his chair so he was facing Grissom. “For the record, it wasn’t my suggestion.”

 

“Well that helps,” Grissom said, his tone indicating that it didn’t. Most people in the lab would back down or roll over when Gil got like this, but Al simply got more deliberate.

 

In a lot of ways, Gil often reminded Al of his eleven year old son. It wasn’t fair to say that Gil ever seemed spoiled, but he certainly was accustomed to having things his own way. Usually that was all well and good. But it meant that extra patience, and a good strong will, was required when he was digging his heels in. When Gil was this keyed up about something, he couldn’t just turn it off; he needed to let it work itself out naturally and organically, and if he needed to feel good and righteously pissed off for a little while, Al could deal with that.

 

“Did you know that my daughter plays trumpet?” he asked. The only way to get the upper hand with Grissom was to keep him off balance. His words had the desired effect; Gil’s eyes went wide.

 

“Why is this important?” Gil asked, his voice clipped and matching the short nod of his head.

 

“She’s first chair, actually. Pretty darn good for a junior,” Al continued.

 

“Al-” he started, starting to seethe a little, probably because he knew he was being played.

 

“Mark Etheridge’s daughter plays saxophone in the same band,” Al finished and Gil shut up and backed off.

 

“Mark cornered me at the last band concert,” Al said. “He said the Council wanted input from someone who knew you.”

 

“So why didn't you tell them to leave me alone?” Gil said, mostly under his breath.

 

“Believe me, I did,” Al said, just sharply enough to express how much he meant that statement. Gil winced at that and held up his hands.

 

“Of course,” he said. Al shook his head.

 

“I know it feels like a payoff, Gil,” he said, and Gil grunted at the understatement. The Council had been trying to find surreptitious ways to get the Crime Lab under it’s thumb for years now. But at least as long as Catherine was here, Sam Braun would be watching, and they had to resort to ingratiating gestures in lieu of forceful ones.

 

“Their minds were made up, Gil,” Al continued, “and the Council only deals in two things, slaves and titles.”

 

“And you thought I’d like this better than having people call me 'Sir Grissom,'” Gil said, crossing his arms.

 

“They were offering ‘Lord,’ actually,” Al corrected, giving him a stern look, “and I didn’t think you’d care for either. But I didn’t really care what you wanted. I was thinking about the slave.”

 

Now Grissom looked puzzled for the first time since he’d arrived, and his stance and expression softened. He was ready to listen now. Al relaxed.

 

“Gil, I just finished a prelim on a dead slave two days ago,” he said. “I can't prove it, but I'm guessing homicide. She was my fourth this month. And you and I both know how high a priority her case will be as far as the DA’s concerned.”

 

Gil let out a long sigh. He certainly did know; Gil and the DA had gone head to head more than once over slave cases.

 

“Right,” Gil said. “Criminals only deserve one kind of justice.”

 

As far as the DA was concerned, once a body had been identified as a class two or three slave, the case was closed. Even class one, mostly non-criminal slaves, didn’t receive much better treatment. Most people didn’t make a distinction; to them, a slave was a slave, never mind how they’d come to hold that position.

 

“Precisely,” Al said. “And it seems to me that this way, we can be sure that there’s at least one slave in Las Vegas who isn’t going to end up the same way. At least not while he’s in your service.”

 

Gil made a sad, disgusted noise, but shrugged resignedly. “You’re right,” he said. He looked over at the autopsy table. The woman, the slave, that Al was talking about was lying under a sheet. She'd been struck in the head repeatedly. If her Master wasn't involved in some way, Al would hand in his pathology liscence. The odds just didn't fall any other way.

 

"Do you have a report on her?" Gil asked, nodded to the body.

 

"You know, I kind of thought you'd ask that," Al said, reaching behind him to grab a file. He handed it over and Gil tucked it under his arm with a murmered "thanks."

 

“I wish more of them would just accept the prison time instead,” Gil said.

 

“Maybe it wasn’t an option,” Al said. “Not many prisons out there.”

 

“Then they should build more.”

 

Al almost laughed. “Now where’s the profit in that?” he asked, and Gil shot him a sharp look. They both knew he was being facetious, but the joke hit too close to the truth. No government was going to try and change the existing penal system, not while the option of servitude was keeping the non-violent criminals from overcrowding the prisons, or while the same option was enforced as a way to relieve debt, or while the sale of slaves earned as much money for state governments as local taxes did.

 

"So you're gonna run with that one?" Al asked, nodding towards the file he'd just handed over. "I happen to know you've got three open cases at the moment. And those are just the ones with bodies."

 

Gil frowned at him, indicating how little he cared for Al's opinion on his workload.

 

“So when do you pick him up?” Al said, changing the topic.

 

“Tomorrow,” Gil said. “I have to go to PD when I finish my shift. They’re holding him there until I can take possession.” He spoke like the words hurt his mouth. Al nodded and then looked up.

 

“Do you know anything about him?”

 

“I know his name,” Gil said. “His name is Nick.”

 

***

 

Nick Stokes was on his fourth master in a year and a half.

 

He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. If he looked straight ahead, straight up, just at that one spot directly above him, he didn't have to see anything that would remind him of where he was. It was a mostly futile attempt, but he was resigned to that. After all, this was hardly his first night in lock-up.

 

He closed his eyes even though he wasn't tired. Blocking out the sight of the cell was no escape; he could still hear perfectly well. The officers, he'd learned shortly after being brought in here, were fond of congregating and chatting just outside this room. Nick wasn't much for eavesdropping, but it wasn't like he had a choice.

 

The words, "sex slave" caught his attention, flying out of context from the conversation in the next room. That particular bit of slang had grated on him even before he’d wound up in his current situation. It bothered him more now, because he realized how entirely accurate it was. Nick sighed and flung an arm over his eyes. He didn't want to hear what was being said, but now that he knew they were talking about him, he couldn't ignore it.

 

"What's Grissom want one of those for, anyway?" one of the officers said, and Nick winced at being referred to like that. "Besides the obvious." The sound of mean-spirited laughter followed. There were at least three men out there.

 

"Hell if I know," another voice said.

 

"So what're the chances he'll be less of a pain in the ass now that he's got someone to blow him?" a new voice said.

 

"No way," the first voice said. "I think that's what gets Grissom off."

 

"What, being a pain in the ass?"

 

"Exactly."

 

More laughter.

 

So, his new Master’s name was Grissom. And apparently, he was a man of some reputation, if those knuckle-heads in the next room knew about him. That gave Nick a queasy feeling. Reputation always went hand-in-hand with power, and men who were powerful were seldom scrupulous. That kind of morality was too heavy to wear when climbing social ladders.

 

Nick rolled over and faced the wall. He was sorely tempted to start feeling sorry for himself. He just couldn’t catch a break, could he? One master to the next, it was bad to worse. Or, if he was lucky, it was more of the same.

 

He heard footsteps a few minutes later. Someone entered the room and stood by the door to his cell.

 

"You're awful quiet," the someone said. This wasn't one of the voices from the other room, and Nick recognized him.

 

"Officer Michaels," Nick said, rolling onto his back but not looking at the man. "Would you prefer it if I were pitching a fit in here?" he asked. Michaels made a dopey, laughing sound and Nick heard him scrape a chair across the floor to sit down.

 

"I'm just sayin'," he said. And then he didn't say anything for a long time.

 

Finally, the feeling of being stared at got to Nick and he sat up. Michaels, a rather silly looking kid, couldn't possibly have been more than a rookie, was watching him with a smile on his face. Nick sighed and managed to keep from rolling his eyes.

 

"You know," he said, "you might want to tell your buddies that sound carries really well in here." He nodded in the direction of the other room. The officers had moved on to new conversation. "I probably know as much about that hit and run from last night as the arresting officer does. Probably not a practice the department would approve of."

 

At least if he had to have someone in here staring at him, he could have the satisfaction of turning their world on its ear when he ended up not being what they expected. Michaels gaped, eyes wide as an ugly fish's.

 

"Uh, yeah," he said, after a few seconds. "Sure I'll tell 'em." He paused and regarded Nick with new eyes. "Why do you care, anyway?" Nick shrugged.

 

"Got a respect for the law," he said.

 

"So how in hell did you end up..."

 

Property? In a cell in Vegas? With a price on your ass?

 

"Like this?" Nick said, finishing the sentence and sparing both of them. Michaels nodded.

 

"Long, sad story, my friend," he said, and waved it off. “And believe me, the alternative would have been worse.”

 

It really was better this way. He just had to keep telling himself that and trying his hardest to believe it. It was the only thing keeping him balanced, these days.

 

But sometimes it was so, so hard to keep from spilling the whole damn story. But it wasn’t worth it. There were too many eyes on him, even if he couldn’t see them. For all he knew, Michaels himself was recording his every word to take back to the Council in Dallas. It would only take one slip from him, and everything would come crashing down at home.

 

"Huh," Michaels said, and looked away. After several long moments, he said, "That's too bad. You seem like a decent guy."

 

Nick laughed, shallowly and dryly. He shrugged. "Maybe," he said, and then he had an idea. "Say, you know a Grissom?" he asked. Michaels sat up straight.

 

“Why? That where you headed?” he asked. Nick nodded.

 

“If the rumor mill in there is right,” he said, nodding towards the door.

 

"Yeah, I know him," Michaels said. "Whole force knows him. Forensics guy.”

 

Nick considered this. Forensics. Well, that didn't give him much hope.

 

If Vegas were anything like Dallas, and he suspected it was worse, the forensics lab, and anyone who worked in it, was as useless and corrupt as the day was long. Anyone who was anyone had their fingers in that pot; control the people who collect the evidence, and you might as well be made of gold. "Illegal" suddenly didn't mean a whole hell of a lot to you.

 

That probably explained how someone on the county's payroll managed to afford a slave, too. Nick had no idea how much he’d actually been sold for, but he could hazard a guess. And a person who put down that kind of money sure as hell had expectations about what they would be getting in return.

 

“Huh,” Nick said, trying to ignore the cold knot in his stomach. “Guess he needs someone to help him dust for prints, right?” The false, forced humor made a poor shield against fear, but at least it kept his mind from focusing in on how bad things really were.

Michaels, however, didn’t get the joke.

 

“No, we’ve got plenty of CSIs who do that,” he said, eyes narrowing in confusion. “I thought you were the kind of slave that-”

 

“Michaels!”

 

Nick and Officer Michaels snapped their heads around to look at the door and the other officer standing there. Nick almost sighed in relief at the interruption. There weren’t many things he found more unsavory than the prospect of discussing the details of his contractual obligations with a tactless uniform.

 

“Grab the slave and bring him to the Property office,” the officer at the door said. “Grissom’s here to sign for him.”

 

Michaels looked up. "Speak of the Devil," he muttered, and got up. Nick stood as well, feeling like a cold, clammy hand was wrapping around his throat. But that was probably just the collar, and he tried to ignore it.

 

This was it. Suddenly, another night in lock-up sounded awfully inviting right about now.

Michaels unlocked the cell door, and Nick endured the cuffs that he snapped around his wrists. Hardly the worst humiliation he’d weathered recently.

 

They went down the hall towards an office at the end. The name plate on the door read, “Lord Arthur Fielding, Property Master to the Council of Nobles.” Michaels knocked once on the door and pushed it open. Nick glanced around.

 

There were two men in the room. One man, in a suit, was behind the desk. That would be Lord Fielding, and Nick hated him already. It wasn't irrational, not for a man in his situation. Anyone who made their living selling other people -- slave contracts, they insisted on saying, as if that made it any better -- was about as reprehensible as Nick could imagine.

 

The other man had his back to Nick. Nick swallowed. That would be Grissom.

 

He didn’t look like anything like any of Nick’s previous owners. They’d been absolute peacocks, wealthy and titled and eager to make sure everyone in the room knew it. Their suits probably cost as much as Officer Michaels made in six months. But Grissom was dressed in casual clothes, and leaning back in his chair in a manner that suggested he didn’t much care what the people around him thought of him.

 

“Ah,” Fielding said. “Mr. Grissom, allow me to present you with your new slave.”

 

Nick perked up at the address of ‘mister.’ A master without a title. That was unusual.

 

“If you care to take a look at his portfolio, Mr. Grissom,” Mr. Fielding went on, “you’ll find a complete listing of his experience and training.”

 

Grissom looked at the file in his hands, but didn’t open it. “I’m sure I will,” he said evenly, unaffected either by Mr. Fielding’s tone or his slimy, ingratiating grin.

 

"He's quite the specimen," Fielding continued, impressed. "Don't you think so?"

 

Finally, Grissom turned to look at Nick. For a moment, his expression was blank and uninterested, but then it changed in a heartbeat.

 

Something dark and possessive flickered over Grissom's face, something hungry, and Nick couldn't tell if the rush he felt was anticipation or fear. Grissom's gaze slid down, and Nick could almost feel it touching his body. He knew how he looked right now, knew that the clothes he was wearing, tight jeans and a shirt that clung to his skin, was meant to be enticing. It was supposed to make his Master look at him the way Grissom was right now. Nick felt suddenly naked, completely exposed to this man.

 

"Clearly, you do," Fielding purred, so softly that Nick barely heard him. Grissom didn't seem to notice.

 

It was the most intense expression Nick had ever experienced. It made him want to turn away and hide, and yet it pulled him in at the same time. Years ago, if he'd been looked at like this, it would have incited a rush of heated, embarrassed excitement. He would have taken it as an invitation to flirt, and leapt on it.

 

“Thank you, officer. You may leave his keys with Mr. Grissom,” Fielding said, breaking the moment, and when Grissom turned away from him, Nick was a little sorry. Michaels came forward to offer a small ring of keys to Grissom, who held up a hand.

 

“Officer,” Grissom said. “Could you uncuff him, please?” The request surprised both Nick and Michaels, who balked, but then turned to Nick and did as he was told. It was against standard practice for a Master to uncuff a slave so soon, and in public like this. Grissom watched, but now it was like a switch had turned off and Nick was of no more importance than the person ahead of him in the line at the grocery store.

 

Fielding raised an eyebrow and his mouth pressed into a smirk. “Always the humanitarian, Grissom?” he asked. Grissom shot him an annoyed glance.

 

“I’m sure I’ve made my feelings quite clear to you, Arthur,” he said, smiling pleasantly. “Haven’t I?” Nick almost jumped at the breach of etiquette. Just who was this guy that he felt he could address a Lord of the Council by his first name?

 

Michaels handed both cuffs and keys to Grissom who took them, but made a face. Then he glanced at Fielding, who gestured for him to leave. He did.

 

“I’m sure they’re nowhere near as elegant as the set you must own,” Fielding said, in a knowing voice. “I can only imagine, of course, given the nature of your relationship with the Lady Heather-”

 

“The nature of my relationship with the Lady,” Grissom interrupted, and even though he was smiling, Nick could hear steel in that voice, “is no one’s business but our own.”

 

Fielding sat back and raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Of course, of course!” he said, smiling falsely. “But word does travel, and people do speculate.” He flicked his eyes up at Nick and then back to Grissom. “And will even more, now, I imagine.”

 

Grissom didn’t look at Nick, but he hardly needed to. He may have cooled off from his initial response, but the memory was still there, and still strong. Nick had seen that expression so many times before, and he knew what it meant. Grissom wanted him, and was probably already planning the ways he was going to have him.

 

“Well, speculation is just that, isn’t it?” Grissom said, and stood up. “Is there anything else?”

 

“Just for me to wish you good use of your new prize,” Fielding said, standing as well and reaching across to shake Grissom’s hand.

 

“Well, thank you,” Grissom said. He made no attempt to shuffle the cuffs and folder he was carrying in order to free up a hand to shake Lord Fielding’s. He nodded at him instead. Fielding’s eyes narrowed at the slight, but he dropped his hand.

 

Grissom was either incredibly powerful or incredibly foolish to behave this way. Either option made Nick nervous.

 

“Wonderful,” Grissom said. “We’ll be on our way, then.” He turned to Nick, then, and Nick held his breath. But Grissom didn’t say anything, just turned and left. Nick followed him down the hall.

 

“Talking to that man is about as much fun as having a tooth yanked,” Grissom muttered, coming to a stop in the lobby of the police department. He sighed then, shrugged and rolled his shoulders like he was trying to exercise tension. More relaxed, he turned to look at Nick.

 

For a second he looked at a loss for words and just blinked at him, then licked his lips, and Nick saw a small, faded glimmer of that earlier, hungry expression, and then it was gone. Finally, he extended his hand.

 

"I'm Gil Grissom," he said. Hesitantly, wary of a trap, Nick accepted the handshake, and had a vague thought that once, he would have accepted the gesture without hesitation.

 

“Nick,” Nick said, after a moment to find his voice. Grissom nodded, then seemed, for the briefest instant, almost sad.

 

“Well, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances, Nick,” he said. “But I guess we’ll have to make the best of it.”

 

Nick pulled back, stunned by such a sentiment. But before he could read any further into it, Grissom ushered him out of the office. “My car’s this way,” he said, leading the way out to the parking lot. Nick took a second or two to react, but then followed.

 

Grissom led him to an older, but nicely restored and well-maintained, Mercedes Benz. They got in and drove for nearly five minutes in thick, heavy silence. Nick stared out the window, a thousand thoughts and concerns floating around in his head, some more worrying than others.

 

What had he gotten himself into now? A Master with some potentially questionable tastes and a disregard for social niceties didn’t bode well for a slave with his sort of contract. He glanced at Grissom out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t hard to imagine him wielding a bullwhip. Nick shivered.

 

“Are you cold?” Grissom asked, and Nick looked over, startled that his reaction had been noticed. Grissom reached for the temperature controls. “You can turn down the A/C if it’s too high for you.”

 

Nick shook his head. “N-no. It’s fine,” he stammered. “Sir,” he added, hastily. Grissom didn’t seem to notice the slip, and Nick sighed in relief.

 

“It takes a while to get used to desert heat,” Grissom said.

 

He’s trying to be friendly, Nick realized, and felt his guard go up. If this had been a year and a half ago, such a gesture would have reassured him. But now, it just fueled suspicion, especially on the heels of that eye-fucking he’d gotten as a greeting.

 

“Hmm,” Nick said, and stared out the window again. Fool me once…he thought.

 

“Have you ever been to Las Vegas before?”

 

“No, sir,” Nick said. Grissom smiled the tiniest bit, one corner of his mouth pulling up.

“Well, it takes a while to get used to that, too,” he said. He nodded ahead and to the right of them, where they could see the skyline of the Strip. Nick looked, and he could tell that Grissom was watching him, waiting for a reaction. This kind of scrutiny was horribly uncomfortable. It felt like he was being taken apart, piece by piece.

 

“Hmm,” he said again, and didn’t look at Grissom.

 

There was a pause and then Grissom sighed. “Nick,” he said. “I don’t have any idea what you’ve been through before now, but I want you to know that I’m not your enemy.”

 

Nick almost laughed. He’d heard that before. It had always been followed by behavior that was rather inconsistent for someone who wasn’t his enemy.

 

“Yes, sir,” Nick said, looking straight ahead. Grissom sighed again and didn’t speak until they pulled up in front of a townhouse.

 

“This is it,” Grissom said, turning off the ignition and getting out of the car. Nick did likewise, and his stomach felt like it had turned to stone.

 

Yeah, he thought. This is it..

 


Chapter 2

Catherine growled in irritation as she pulled up in Gil’s driveway, right behind his Mercedes. So he was home. He was just ignoring her calls, apparently. She’d suspected as much.

 

She got out of the car, slamming the door, and stormed up to the townhouse. Gil had better not have plans for the afternoon, because she needed a sympathetic ear and a lot of Vodka right now. With what she put up with between Eddie and Sam, it was just a matter of time before one of them turned up missing. Now, she just had to decide if she wanted Gil to talk her down or conspire with her.

 

She got to the door and, with only courtesy knock to let him know she was there, opened it and went in. For someone so private, you’d think he’d lock his door at least some of the time when he was at home. But that was Gil, and she knew his habits by now.

 

“Is that an order, sir?” said an unfamiliar male voice.

 

Catherine halted in mid-step. She hadn’t seen another car, but it sounded like Gil wasn't alone. Her hand went to her waist out of habit before she remembered that she was an administrator now, and didn't wear a weapon anymore. She had one in the car, of course, and considered going back for it.

 

Then she heard Gil sigh, and she relaxed a little. It didn't sound like he was in pain, just completely out of patience.

 

“Consider it,” Gil said, sounding like he just wanted this conversation to be over, “a strong suggestion.” Definitely out of patience, if that tone of voice was anything to go by. She couldn’t see him, but she knew that if she could, his jaw would be clenched and his eyes narrowed. She knew that look, and felt a wince of sympathy for whomever was on the receiving end of it.

 

Cautiously, she came around the corner, only to be floored by what she saw.

 

Suggestion, my ass, Catherine thought, staring at Gil and the man he was talking to. You didn’t give ‘suggestions’ to slaves, and if that man wasn’t a slave, she’d wear a collar herself. And not just a run-of the-mill slave either, from the looks of things. His jeans were tight enough that Catherine could tell what religion he was, and it sure looked like he had pierced nipples under that tank top. And speaking of collars, the kind he was wearing really had no use anymore except as stylish accessories.

 

And if he was in Gil’s house…calling Gil ‘sir,’ that meant…. Gil couldn’t possibly own a slave!

 

Could he?

 

The horrible thought that maybe she didn’t know Gil as well as she’d thought twisted her stomach.

 

“Knock, knock,” she said in a loud, and flat, voice. Both men turned to look at her, and Gil’s eyes went wide in panic. At least he had that much decency. He probably knew how much trouble he was in.

 

“Catherine,” he said, sounding just as startled as he looked. “Ah…what are you doing here?”

 

Catherine came into the living room. “I needed to talk to you, Gil,” she said, casually. She didn’t look at him, though. Instead, she was deliberately assessing the young man in front of her. When she did look at Gil, her eyes sent a strong message; You’d better have a damn good explanation. Gil sighed.

 

“Nick,” he said, turning to the man. “This is Catherine. Catherine,” he turned to her. “I’d like you to meet Nick.” Catherine extended her hand, surprising Nick. She knew why, of course. It wasn’t that most people considered it beneath them to shake hands with a slave, although some did, but rather that it simply didn’t occur to them.

 

“Pleasure,” Catherine said, when Nick finally took her hand. “Now, Nick,” she said, as kindly as she could. “Would you mind excusing us for a few minutes?” She turned to Gil, flashing the false smile at him that she usually reserved for the Sheriff or the DA. “Gil and I need to talk.”

 

Nick looked at Gil, who closed his eyes and took a deep, defeated breath. “Your room is down the hall,” he said, nodding. “Second door on the right.” Nick nodded and left. Catherine waited for the sound of a door closing before launching in on Gil.

 

“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.

 

“Catherine--” Gil began, but sounded hesitant, like he didn’t know what he was going to say next, so she barreled right over him.

 

“A slave, Gil?” she asked, holding her arms out in complete incredulity. “You bought a slave?” She stared at him with her mouth open for a second, then shook her head and went on, hands on her hips. “Well, that’s certainly one way to clear up a dry spell in your sex life,” she spat. “Just what the hell is wrong with you? Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Or just that I wouldn’t mind because it's you?"

 

She crossed his living room in short, quick steps and slouched against his breakfast bar, arms crossed over her chest. She didn’t say anything more for a while, and finally Gil came over to her.

 

“Are you finished?” he asked.

 

“No!” Catherine yelled, glaring at him. “No, I’m not finished. Jesus Gil, you’ve got a slave! What am I supposed to do? Ask you what tricks he knows?”

 

Gil sighed again. If anything, it sounded more tired and put-upon than before. “Catherine,” he said. “Before you pass judgment on me, would it be at all possible for me to explain my side of things?”

 

Catherine scoffed. “If you think you can explain your way out of this one, Gil,” she said, giving him a glinting stare, “be my guest.”

 

“The Council of Nobles is trying to get me under their thumb,” he said. “They gave me Nick at the banquet last night. If you don’t believe me, ask Al. Or Sam. He was there.”

 

For a second, Catherine didn’t react. When his words finally registered, she slumped against the counter, deflating. She shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. She knew better; she really did.

 

“The Council,” she said, choking a little on the word, and her assumptions. Gil nodded.

 

“It was all they could do to keep from gift-wrapping him,” he said.

 

It didn’t matter that it had been years since she’d been his subordinate, he could still put her in her place from time to time. And she always felt more guilty than chagrined when he did.

 

“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I flew off the handle.” Gil shrugged and shook his head a little, his way of telling her that he hadn’t taken any offense at it. Somehow, he never did.

 

“It’s understandable,” Gil said. “Objectivity on slave cases never was your strong suit.” From anyone else, it would have sounded like a reprimand. When Gil said it, it was just something that was.

 

“Gee, I wonder why,” she said, darkly. Gil turned, and for the first time, she saw how tired he was, how worn down. But even with that, he still found the energy to be worried.

 

“That’s why I agreed to take him,” he said. “I don’t want to see him end up like your mother.”

 

God. Only Gil could manage to turn her from hating him to loving him so much she was about to cry in a matter of seconds.

 

Then, he shrugged it off, or at least tried, and went into his kitchen. She followed. He started opening cupboards, pulling down pans, then opened his fridge and stared at the contents, chewing on his lip. He found some chicken and set it aside.

 

“So what was all that about?” she asked. “When I came in?”

 

Gil closed his eyes and braced his arms against the counter. “I suggested that he call home,” Gil said. “Evidently, that was a poor suggestion to make.”

 

Catherine frowned. “He got angry about that?” Gil nodded.

 

“I asked if they knew where he was, yet. He didn’t think so, and I told him it might be a good idea to give them an update.” Gil sighed and shook his head. “It’s been a long day.”

 

Something occurred to Catherine, then. “Ah,” she said. “You were at the Property office today, weren’t you?” Gil looked at her, sidelong.

 

“Yes.” She grinned.

 

“Well, that explains why you’re in such a charming mood. And maybe why Nick got so huffy back,” she said. He looked at her, one eyebrow raised in question. “Gil,” she said, looking at him seriously. “You do have a tendency to get…difficult when you’re stressed. And dealing with Fielding or Etheridge or anyone else from over there definitely makes you stressed.”

 

Gil made a face, but eventually relented. “I guess,” he said.

 

“So, what’re you gonna do?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know.” He shook his head and leaned his hip against the counter. He crossed his arms, thinking. “All I know, is that as long as he’s with me, he’s safer than he would be anywhere else.”

 

Catherine nodded.

 

“And how long will that be?”

 

“The rest of his life,” Gil said. Catherine gaped..

 

“You’re shitting me,” she said. Gil shook his head.

 

“What did he do?”

 

“I don’t know,” Gil said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. He’s a class one.”

 

Catherine frowned. “But class one slaves are minimum threat! Half of them aren’t even criminals! They never get life sentences.”

 

Gil nodded. “That’s what I thought, too,” he said. He found a cutting board and a knife and started cutting the chicken into cubes.

 

“This smells rotten,” Catherine said. “Not the chicken,” she clarified, and Gil snorted.

 

“And what’s even more odiferous,” Gil said, “is that he has an unrestricted contract.” That made Catherine’s jaw drop. Gil noted her reaction, nodded, and continued.

 

“Generally people only agree to that to cut their sentence,” he said. “I don’t know many people who want to be at the beck and call of another person’s libido for the rest of their lives.”

 

“So, you gonna get into it?”

 

“I think I have to,” Gil said. Catherine nodded.

 

“Well, if you need any help….” she offered. Gil nodded.

 

“I’ll probably take you up on that,” he said, and kept cutting. Catherine watched him for a while.

 

She should probably head out, look elsewhere for her Vodka and sympathetic ear combo. Just then, Gil put the knife down, washed off his hands, and stopped her.

 

“Catherine,” he said. “I’m sorry. You came here for something?”

 

She shrugged it off. “Same old shit,” she said, with a half-hearted smile. “I’ll be fine. But if you couldn’t tell me why it would be a bad idea to murder Eddie in his sleep--”

 

“It would be a very bad idea to murder Eddie,” Gil said, but he smiled a little. “Because I have no interest in building a case against my boss.” Catherine laughed.

 

“I can think of better career moves,” she said, and winked. Then she looked down the hall, and sighed.

 

“In the meantime,” she said. “We’ve gotta figure out something to do. I know how uncomfortable it’s going to make you, having someone else in your house.” Gil rolled his eyes and let his breath out noisily.

 

“Thanks,” he said, with the strained good-humor he always took on when she brought up his privacy issues.

 

“Would you like me to talk to him?” she asked. Gil chewed on the inside of his lip again, thinking.

 

“Do you think that would do any good?” he asked. She shrugged.

 

“I sure can’t do any more damage than you would.” He rolled his eyes.

 

“Look, Gil,” Catherine said. “He’s gotta be scared out of his wits.”

 

Gil turned to look down the hall at Nick’s closed door. “Maybe I’d better handle it,” he said. “At least at first.”

 

Catherine shrugged. “Your call,” she said. “Just promise you call me, or Heather, when it goes downhill?”

 

“Truly, your confidence in me knows no bounds,” Gil said, dryly.

 

“Hey,” Catherine said, patting him on the shoulder. “I have confidence in you. Just more in other areas. A lot more.”

 

“Still,” Gil said, “this is my responsibility, and I’ll figure out a way to handle it.”

 

***

 

Nick heard the front door open and close, and a few seconds later an engine started and a car drove away. He wondered how much longer it would be before Grissom came to fetch him. And what he'd want when he did.

 

He'd heard them talking, and had been curious enough to try and make out what was being said. Catherine had shouted enough, and the house was small enough, that he’d been able to catch a few of her more pointed assaults. Grissom was clearly catching hell because of Nick. Strange, that a woman like her would associate at all with Grissom. Abolitionists and slave-owners rarely mixed well in social settings.

 

It had helped, though, having that brief contact with her. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been asked to do something rather than ordered, and it had alarmed him to realize that he'd grown used to being ignored by free citizens. At least, when he was lucky, he was ignored. He'd still take that over anyone taking an interest in him.

 

He couldn't tell, yet, if Grissom was going to be the possessive type, or if he'd grant other people "fair use" of him. He’d already been through both. His last master had lent him out to anyone who'd taken an interest. And even though it had made Nick sick to his heart to abide by that, it had been better than his first master.

 

Nick shivered. That was something that didn't bear thinking about right now. Or ever. He rubbed his shoulder, absently, and tried to shake the thoughts off.

 

He caught the scent of frying onions in the air, then. Well, it seemed as though Grissom would be occupied for a while. So much for any hopes that he'd been bought to fulfill domestic duties. For a bachelor, Grissom kept this place pretty neat. And if he could cook, too…

 

Well, that only left one thing. Not that Nick really thought there'd been much chance of anything else. He sighed and sat down on the bed.

 

Grissom was proving to be one puzzle after another. Even though he'd first looked at Nick like something to be pinned down and ravished, that hadn't come back again. But there was something else. Grissom carried himself and behaved like a man used to being obeyed. True, he didn't give actual orders, but he left little room for argument.

 

"Consider it a strong suggestion."

 

Nick stared around the room, feeling the tightness return in his throat. It had come on suddenly, as soon as he'd walked in and seen what would be his living space for...well, for as long as Grissom decided to keep him. Such a strange response, really, some part of him observed. He flicked his eyes back and forth between the two things that had caught him off guard.

 

On his door was a lock. A lock on the inside. After what he'd been through already, he wouldn't have taken the door itself for granted. But to be able to lock himself in... Grissom no doubt had a key, but still, Nick had had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from crying at the simple, unexpected humanitarian gesture.

 

There had been a time, most of his life, in fact, when Nick had believed in Good Samaritans and the kindness of strangers. He'd held on to that for over twenty years, and all it had taken was six months in one man's hands to destroy it.

 

"Does your family know where you are?”

 

"No, sir."

 

"You should give them an update. There’s a phone in your room.”

 

"Is that an order, sir?"

 

Nick stared at the phone on the bedside table, and after a moment screwed up the courage to pick up the receiver. The dial tone was the most beautiful sound he'd heard in over a year, and the prospect of familial contact beckoned, sweetly alluring. It broke his heart, and he put the phone back down in its cradle, tears burning his eyes.

 

Cruelty could be so easily disguised, and what seemed nice or kind wasn't always so, but rather a means to an end. He wondered what Grissom's end was.

 


Chapter 3

"I have a bid of two thousand. Thank you, Lord Mercer!" The auctioneer smiled at the man in the second row.

 

"Two thousand, fifty!" a woman standing behind him. The auctioneer nodded.

 

"And another fifty from the Duchess," he said. "Lord Mercer?"

 

Lord Mercer frowned, as if not convinced that further involvement was worth his time or resources. The auctioneer made a matching face of disappointment.

 

"Come now, Lords and Ladies," he said. "A slave of this quality is worth at least twice as much." He turned around and pressed a button on a remote control, causing a ten-foot image of a young, strong man to flash onto the screen behind him.

 

"A four-year contract, Lords and Ladies!" the auctioneer shouted. "Some restrictions, of course. But I'm sure you'll find him...amenable to most requests." He winked at a pretty young woman who had bid early on. "If he has the proper incentive." She smiled coyly and eyed the picture on the screen.

 

"Three thousand," she said, and giggled. The auctioneer nodded and smiled at her.

 

"That's the spirit!" he said, then raised his voice again to address the crowd. "I remind you, Lords and Ladies, that this young man holds a level-one conviction. All the details are in your programs, but I promise you that he's gentle as a kitten. He would make a fine addition to any household."

 

"Five thousand," Lord Mercer said, quietly. The auctioneer's eyes sparkled.

 

"Five! Thank you, sir!"

 

"Seven!" The sparkle became a gleam.

 

"Seven from the Duchess!"

 

The crowd turned to watch, with interest now. People started opening their programs and flipping through the pages, turning to the contract information for the young slave in question, making appreciative faces and sounds at his education level, his training and skills in domestic servitude, and the relatively few negotiated restrictions to his contract. This man was a prize, and everyone in the square was anxious to see where he'd end up.

 

At least, almost everyone. One man stood in the back, pausing only briefly on his way into the Council chambers, to watch the auction with silent loathing. He turned to leave, but the auctioneer happened to glance in his direction, and smiled a slow, wickedly gleeful smile.

 

"And what about you, Your Honor?" he called. The man turned and his face, already lined with age, become suddenly more harsh. "Surely a man with such... newfound appreciation for the slave industry would like to be included?" The man turned away, dismissing the auctioneer and his question. The auctioneer chuckled, silently.

 

"Another day, then," he said, and turned his attention back to the bidders in front of him.

 

Meanwhile, the man made his way up the steps of the Council building, pausing only long enough to hold the door open for a young, smartly dressed woman. His eyes narrowed when he saw her face, however, and he entered the building without further acknowledging her.

 

She watched him go in, then reached into her purse for her cell phone. She hit a number on speed dial, and waited, tapping her foot impatiently.

 

"Yes, I'd like to speak with Lord Drake," she said. Then she chuffed in irritation. "Tell him it's his daughter. Thank you." She waited for another few seconds, and then spoke again, this time in a more cordial tone.

 

"Dad. Yeah. Judge Stokes is on his way up to see you."

 

***

 

Lord Martin Drake was good at his job. Better than good, he was the best. But that's what it took to be the Property Master for the Council, at least in a city as big as Dallas. Courts were in session every day, passing verdicts every day.

 

Which meant new slaves every day. And writing and selling slave contracts wasn't like setting a home loan. Drake thought of it like matchmaking.

 

"I've got just the one for you, Sir Coleman," Drake said, opening a drawer and pulling out a file. "She was just sentenced yesterday. We haven't written up her contract yet, but you know I like to have a buyer in mind before I do that." He winked at Coleman, who smiled.

 

"I appreciate that," Coleman said. "Tell me about her." Drake opened the file and set it out on the desk.

 

"Shelly Taylor, twenty-eight. Convicted on 'possession with intent to distribute,'" Drake read. It had probably been her boyfriend's Meth, but all that meant was that she was definitely the right kind of personality for Coleman. He pulled the photo out and handed it over. Coleman's eyebrows went up.

 

"She even looks like my last one," he observed. Drake preened. "Too bad you couldn't do anything to extend her contract," he continued.

 

"Well, even I run up against the limits of the law from time to time," Drake said, shrugging.

 

Just then the phone rang. Drake frowned in irritation at the interruption and raised a finger. "Just a moment, please," he said, and answered. "Hello, Vanessa," he said. "You know I'm --" Then he listened.

 

"Ah," he said. "Thank you." He hung up and looked across at Coleman.

 

"Tim, I'm afraid we'll have to conclude this later. It seems I have an unexpected appointment." Coleman raised an eyebrow.

 

"Problems, Martin?" Drake shook his head.

 

"No, no. Quite the opposite, actually." He hadn't intended to say more, but Coleman's expression of curiosity prompted him further. "Let's just say that those 'limits of the law' I mentioned are not going to be such an obstacle for much longer."

 

"Ah," Coleman said, leaning back in his chair. Drake grinned. "Is this about --"

 

Coleman never got to finish his question, as the oak doors to Drake's office opened, without so much as an announcing knock, and Judge Stokes strode in. Coleman shot a knowing glance at Drake.

 

"I see," he said, and stood up. "Well then, I'll make an appointment with Cindy on my way out to see you again. Thank you very much, Martin."

 

"My pleasure," Drake said, standing to shake his hand.

 

Coleman turned to leave. "Your Honor," he said, nodding to Stokes on his way out. The Judge didn't respond, but instead made straight for Drake's desk. He waited only long enough to hear the doors close behind Coleman before he stared Drake down and launched into it.

 

"I don't have the time or the patience to let you be cute today, Martin," Stokes said. "So let me get right down to it. What the hell is my son still doing in Las Vegas?"

 

Drake's stomach tightened a little. Shit. He hadn't had the time to deal with this properly. He'd been counting on the other Lords keeping Stokes distracted and from finding out about this rather fantastic snafu for a couple more days while he got it sorted out.

 

"Bill," Drake said, notching his smile up a little. "Why don't you have a seat? Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Scotch maybe?" Stokes didn't move, but Drake wasn't going to be thwarted so easily. He came around to the other side of the desk and put a hand on the Judge's shoulder. Stokes didn't flinch or even bat an eye, even though Drake was sure he wanted he probably wanted to punch him.

 

"Come on, Bill. Relax! Have a seat," Drake guided Stokes to one of the chairs in front of his desk and Stokes allowed it. Drake sat down opposite him. "You're sure I can't get you anything?" he asked again.

 

"No," Bill said, with the kind of emphasis that even Martin Drake had to acknowledge. Suppressing a sigh and smiling broadly, he sat down a second chair, opposite Stokes.

 

"Okay, Bill. Here's the deal," he said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. "We've hit a little snag. No big deal, just unforeseen circumstances." Bill's jaw tightened.

 

"'A snag?'" he said. "Gerry Redding looses my son in a poker game and you're calling it 'a snag?'"

 

Double shit. The man had clearly done some digging of his own. It would have made it so much easier if Drake could have fed Bill the bits of the story that he wanted him to know. Drake leaned back, projecting his best air of nonchalance and shrugging.

 

"Nothing's final," he said. "Not until I say it is. Turns out that's just how they run things in Vegas; you crap out and the casino takes everything, money, property and slaves if they have to, to clear the debt. Gerry exercised bad judgment, and I won't say he didn't."

 

"Seems like you lot have that problem all the time," Bill observed. "And you're not going to get much more cooperation from me if this pattern keeps up."

 

Oh, but that was a dangerous thing for Bill Stokes to suggest, and it made Drake smile even bigger and brighter. "Really?" he asked. "You planning on re-negging on our agreement?" Drake watched Bill's jaw get even tighter.

 

"Because I'll say again what I told you before," Drake continued, his voice and his eyes darkening. "You don't stand a chance of getting anyone's attention with what you've got. Everything here's been perfectly legal. And voluntary, I might add." He gave Bill a hard look, and even though Bill didn't back down, his gaze flickered for a second.

 

"So we understand each other?" Drake asked. "Nothing's changing, understand? Just because Nick's in Vegas doesn't mean he's out of our hands. The head of the Council over there and I go way back." He paused to let Stokes consider that, then went on in a lighter tone.

 

"We'll get Nick back, so just sit tight," he smiled at Bill and clapped him on the back. "In the meantime, why don't you worry about things that are a little more important. I hear there's a big case up on appeal in a few months, an important precedent is on the line." Bill's head shot up at the mention of that, his eyes icy daggers.

 

"A lot of people will be watching the way the ruling falls on that one, Bill," Drake said, and stood up. Bill did likewise and Drake walked him to the door.

 

Bill turned to him, just before leaving. "You just worry about getting my son back here. And you better hope nothing's happened to him." He opened the door. "After all, a deal's a deal." He left.

 

Drake ground his teeth, then turned to his secretary. "Get me Mark Etheridge on the phone," he said. "Now."

 

***

 

Nick waited, listening for the door to click shut and then the car engine to start a moment later. Even after that, he counted to ten and then to twenty for good measure. Since he didn't hear a thing in that time, he decided he was probably alone in the house and it was safe to venture out.

 

Still, he turned the doorknob slowly, carefully, and felt the tiniest thrill of joy when it opened. He hadn't seriously considered the idea that it might be locked, but even the smallest things felt like victories these days. Opening the door, he stepped into the hall.

 

The lights were off, and the door to Grissom's bedroom had been left open. Nick peeked in, even though he'd heard Grissom get up, shower, mess around in the kitchen and then leave. He wasn't taking any chances. After a few more minutes of skulking around the house, he was convinced. No one here but us chickens. Or at least us life-slaves.

 

In the front hall, a mirror hung on the wall with several hooks underneath for keys. Two sets were there now. One was for the Tahoe, and the other for the Mercedes. Grissom had pointed them out almost as soon as Nick had entered the house, and Nick had known exactly what that had been about.

 

A test, to see if he'd try to run.

 

 

Like hell he would. The microchip under his skin, the same one that most department stores, schools, and other public buildings would scan for when anyone entered in order to identify slaves on their property, would get him located and caught within a few hours. Who knew what kind of punishment he would suffer for trying. He wasn't sure what kind of imagination Grissom had, just yet.

 

Even though he'd been here for almost two weeks, he'd only been face-to-face with Grissom a handful of times. The man worked nights, after all, so it wasn't as though it was particularly odd that their paths didn't cross often. Nick still wasn't sure what to expect from Grissom.

 

He moved cautiously through the house. Not out of fear that Grissom would appear out of thin air, but out of unease at being in someone else's house. He'd been a nervous wreck all day, knowing Grissom was there, even if he was asleep. He'd stayed sequestered in his room, but he hadn't been tired and the day had dragged by.

 

More than once he'd looked at the phone. Even picked it up and started to dial. But he'd always stopped before hitting the final digit. Too many things kept him from actually making the call. Since this nightmare had begun, he'd only spoken to his parents once, and that had been enough torture. He didn't like reminding his father of how powerless he was, and he didn't have the strength he needed to reassure his mother.

 

Most of all, he didn't like how weak it made him feel, just thinking about it. It was just one thing Grissom could use to control him, and Nick wasn't going to hand him that kind of ammunition.

 

Never let `em see you sweat. The mantra of self-preservation for a slave. Nick had added to that, of course. Never let `em get inside your head. The body could heal in enough time, and would, too.

 

He rubbed his shoulder again, even though it wasn't hurting today. He'd rather have a hundred broken bones than suffer the particular violation that was having trust and vulnerabilities exploited again.

 

And the first step to keeping Grissom out of his head was to get in his.

 

So far, all Nick could tell for certain was that the man liked bugs. But that hadn't required any actual detective work; all you had to do was glance around his living room. Creepy décor, as far as Nick was concerned. But now it was time for a little snooping.

 

Grissom's entertainment center caught his attention first, as it was clearly the most expensive thing in the room. But he didn't stay interested it for long. About half of Grissom's collection were albums with titles in Italian and names of singers that Nick had never heard of, and the more contemporary side of his library ran a little contrary to Nick's own tastes. Of course, he hadn't really been expecting to discover any shared interests between the two of them.

 

Wandering over to the window, he parted the blinds and looked out. With the sun just barely down, he could see the lights from The Strip starting to come on. On one of the few occasions that he and Grissom had actually spoken, Grissom had asked if he had any interest in being shown around Vegas. Nick had declined.

 

Of all the places he could have ended up, he wouldn't have chosen this city. Ever. Everything about it repulsed him. And still, people flocked to the casinos, even knowing what losing badly could mean. You could bet your freedom in Vegas, and people did. No wonder it had the highest slave count, per capita, of any city in the United States. Slaves that ended up, more often than not, sold to pimps or fetish clubs. The lucky ones ended up as showgirls.

 

And yet, most of the strippers were free citizens. Vegas was a strange town.

 

Shaking his head at these thoughts, Nick wandered over to the bookshelf. And he stared at it.

 

Anyone else would have glanced at the titles, noticed that they were sloppily separated according to genre, and taken a look at the fiction collection. But Nick reached out and ran his had along the spines of the forensic textbooks, stacks of journals and entomological guides. Maybe Grissom wasn't just a county lackey. Apparently he actually knew his stuff. Distantly, Nick wondered if that made him more or less dangerous; knowledge was just a tool, after all, and there was no way for him to guess what Grissom did with it.

 

But the thought flitted away on the breeze of his excitement. Since his enslavement, he'd tried not to dwell on the dreams he'd had snatched away from him, but, right now, there was no fending this one off. He'd been so close to making the jump from cop to criminalist in Dallas, had wanted it so badly that as the memory hit him now, it lodged in his chest and expanded until he could barely breathe.

 

It was as if, upon being handed a glass of water, he suddenly realized how long he'd been languishing in the desert.

 

He'd wondered how long he could last before his brain began to atrophy. His new lifestyle didn't offer much opportunity for mental exercise, and his brain power certainly wasn't one of his selling points. At least not to the masters who had the kind of money to afford his contract.

 

Nick pulled one of the texts off the shelves, and wondered when the last time he had read something for his own pleasure. It hurt that he couldn't remember, but there was nothing like the absolute contentment he felt now to wipe that away. He sat down on the couch, flipped a lamp on, and opened the book.

 

 


Chapter 4

“Grissom!”

 

Gil stopped in the hallway and turned around. Catherine was coming towards him, carrying a folder and wearing her best administrative face.

 

“You know,” she said, stopping just in front of him. “You are damn lucky to have me for a boss.” Gil didn’t react. A lot of the things she said to him started out that way. “You’re already putting in way too much overtime to handle the cases you’ve got, and now you decide it’s time to play hero again?”

 

Mentally, Gil winced. He’d be tempted to say Al had a big mouth, but the truth was that Catherine just always knew what he had on his plate at any given time. And especially when he was taking more than his fair share.

 

Gil tilted his head. “Do you have something for me?” he asked, pleasantly, looking at the folder.

 

Catherine sighed, with false, dramatic exhausperation. “You just think you know all my buttons, don’t you?” she said, under her breath.

 

“Just the ones I need to know,” he said, a smile pulling on one corner of his mouth. She mock-glared, and his half-smile turned into the whole thing. Catherine hated seeing slave cases fall by the wayside more than Gil did. There was a good chance that if he hadn’t been in there, talking to Al two weeks ago, she would have found out about the murdered slave and asked him to look into it. As a personal favor.

 

“Here,” she said, taking manila envelope out of the folder and handing it to him. “And don’t think that just because I got these quickly that they were easy to come by. Sam wanted to know why you didn’t just get a warrant and keep him out of it.”

 

Gil shrugged and took the folder. “If I’d had enough for a warrant, I would have,” he said. “But, on behalf of the family of Ms. Emily Stahl, I thank you. Both of you.” Catherine shrugged.

 

“Well, you know how Sam feels about slave abuse cases,” Catherine said.

 

Mm-hm. Guilty. Gil knew better than to say that out loud, though.

 

“I still can’t figure out if I should hate that man out of principle, or forgive him out of…something else.” She shook her head. Gil was only half listening. He’d opened the envelope and was leafing through the pictures inside.

 

“Oh, and by the way, Gil,” she continued. “You’ll probably want to know that-”

 

“Grissom!”

 

Both of them turned to look at the man coming down the hall towards them. Catherine winced.

 

“…that the DA’s looking for you.” She patted his shoulder. “Have fun.” She started to make herself scarce, then turned around.

 

“Oh, and one more thing,” she said. “Since you’ve got so much time on your hands these days,” Gil rolled his eyes, “remember that I’m still expecting you to take a look through those applications on your desk. If you don’t fill the spot on graveyard in the next month, I’m doing it for you. Let’s get a full team again, please?”

 

Then she did disappear. Gil shot her a bitter look, then instantly turned around, a pleasant smile on his face.

 

“Why Conrad,” Gil said. “So good to see you.”

 

Conrad Ecklie stopped in front of Gil and glared at him, hands on his hips. “I’d ask you what the hell you thought you were doing, but I know it would be a waste of my time.”

 

“I’m doing my job, Conrad,” Gil said, feigning innocent confusion in a way that never failed to make Ecklie roll his eyes. It didn't fail this time, either. “Isn’t that what you and I do?”

 

Ecklie sighed. “Gil, we’ve had this discussion before. I can’t bring charges against a slave owner without irrefutable evidence. You didn’t even have enough to get a warrant.”

 

“Really?” Gil grinned. “Good thing I didn’t need one,” he said, and handed the stack of photos to Ecklie.

 

He flipped through them. His jaw dropped. “These look like they were taken in the ballroom of the Rampart.” He looked up. “I thought Sam Braun turned off the cameras for parties like these.”

 

“He does,” Gil said. “But only the ones his guests know about.”

 

Conrad looked impressed. “Well. I guess what you don’t know about Sam Braun just might kill you.”

 

“Hmm,” Gil said, peering over at the photos. “And I might be mistaken, but that certainly looks to me like a very clear shot of our victim, her master, and an irrefutably compromising situation. Don’t you think?”

 

“With these, we’ve got him,” Ecklie said, handing the stack back to Gil. “I’ll start the paperwork.”

 

“Glad to hear it,” Gil said. He turned to leave.

 

“Say Gil?” Gil froze. Something about Conrad’s tone made him uneasy. He sounded deliberately nice, and that was almost never a good thing. Gil turned around and waited.

 

“Are there any other CSIs who can testify on this case besides you?” Conrad asked. Gil quirked an eyebrow.

 

“Why?”

 

Conrad made a face, avoiding eye contact. “Because I’m not sure you’re the best person to be advocating slave rights these days,” he said.

 

Gil stared at him. Conrad shrugged. “Gil,” he said, with a kind of sympathy that made Grissom twitch. “The only way to keep people from finding out your secrets is not to have any.”

 

Somehow, Gil doubted that it was the common grapevine that had delivered this tidbit to Ecklie. Still, it didn’t bother him that much that Conrad knew. Now, the question of who might have told Conrad was perhaps more worrisome, depending on who that someone was and why they were talking, but that was a worry for another time. Gil straightened up a little and looked Conrad square in the eye.

 

“I don’t ‘advocate’ anything, Conrad,” he said, letting his disdain seep through and enjoying it. “Certainly not while I’m on the stand.”

 

Conrad frowned. “Well, if you’re sure it won’t have a negative impact on your credibility with the jury…”

 

“I just deal with the facts,” Gil said. “Perceptions are your department.”

 

Then he did leave.

 

***

 

"You know, you don't have to wear that all the time."

 

Nick froze and blinked at Grissom, one finger trapped between his collar and his neck. The thing had been chaffing horribly. This morning, Nick had noticed that the skin seemed a little red and raw, and the discomfort seemed to be worse now that he was aware of how bad it looked.

 

"Well," Nick said, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully. "I don't have the key, sir."

 

For a second it looked like Grissom hadn't understood him, then his eyes widenedand he gave a little start of comprehension. "Oh," he said, and frowned. "Wait just a minute," he said, still frowning and holding up a finger. He turned in his desk chair and began hunting through the drawers.

 

At first, when Grissom had shown no sign of removing the collar, Nick had assumed that it was deliberate. Combined with Grissom's general aloofness, it was a classical display of dominance. He'd been waiting, with growing anxiety, for Grissom's next move.

 

He hadn't expected this.

 

"Ah!" Grissom said, and pulled out the small ring of keys that Officer Michaels had handed over to him. He turned in the chair to face Nick. "Come here," he said, casually, and beckoned.

 

Nick got up from the kitchen table and came over to Grissom. Then he didn't hesitate for a second before dropping to his knees in front of him. He thought he heard Grissom's breath catch, but he didn't look up to see, and instead kept his eyes on the ground in front of him.

 

"I...ah..." Grissom spoke so softly that Nick didn't think it had been meant for him. A moment of indecision on his Master's part?

 

Then Grissom's hands were on his neck, touching gently, lifting his chin so he could get at the tiny, delicate lock on the front of the collar. Nick's throat tightened, and when Grissom pulled his hands and the collar away, he felt something that might have been a whimper bubble in his chest. Somehow, it felt like something was being taken away from him.

 

But that wasn't the case at all.

 

Was it?

 

Grissom leaned back and hissed. "Oh, Nick," he said. "That looks bad." Nick could see Grissom's hand out of the corner of his eye, hovering over the red marks on his neck, almost touching.

 

"It's not bad," Nick said, almost before he'd realized that he meant to speak at all.

 

"Still," Grissom said,"I'll get you something to put on that." And then he did touch Nick, tilting his head to get a better look. Nick almost gasped. Grissom's fingers were cold, possibly just in comparison to his irritated skin, but they burned where they touched. Nick swallowed, horribly afraid of what was happening to him, and yet perfectly content at the same time.

 

"Thank you, sir," he whispered. He heard Grissom make a soft, abrupt humming noise.

 

"You're welcome, Nick," he said, and started to pull back. Something in his tone, then, struck Nick, something he was sure he understood.

 

Expectations. You do for me, and I'll do for you.

 

Again, Nick swallowed. This, at least, was familiar territory. Slowly, he rose up a little. He was already close, Grissom's knees were nearly touching his chest, but he inched closer. Carefully, he raised a hand and set it on Grissom's thigh, close to his crotch. Grissom was staying perfectly still. Nick moved again, reaching for his zipper.

 

Then Grissom snapped out of it. He grabbed Nick's hand, stopping him. Nick snapped his head up, stunned and then instantly terrified. But Grissom didn't look angry. If anything he looked amazed. But then his mouth set in a firm line.

 

"No," he said and released Nick's hand.

 

Then he stood up and walked down the hall to his bedroom, leaving Nick kneeling on the floor.

 

***

 

Gil shut the door of his bedroom behind him and leaned against it. After a moment, he decided to lock it. He didn't think that Nick would follow him in here, but there was no such thing as being too careful. Certainly not right now. He'd exercised restraint once. He didn't think he could do it a second time.

 

God, it was bad enough that Nick walked around every day looking like he'd stepped out of a porno; Gil had found it hard to be in the same room with him, let alone look at him or talk to him. That collar-- dark leather that did so much to enhance and show off Nick's long, strong neck, with a ring in the front that made Gil just itch to loop a finger through and pull -- had just been too much.

 

But to have Nick kneeling in front of him, clearly willing to submit to whatever Gil wished, moments away from actually...

 

Gil shuddered, knocking his head back against the door as a hot wave of desire washed over him, settling in his groin and burning in slow misery there. He'd wanted it so badly. The instant he'd seen Nick, a part of him had been overjoyed and overwhelmed. After listening to that damn pompous ass in the Property office rattle off everything that Gil had a right to ask of Nick, everything Gil had been adamant he'd never ask for, Nick had walked in. Gil had taken one look at those eyes, that face and that body, and, for a moment, had actually thought, Maybe I will.

 

He had the right. He had the piece of paper sitting in his desk drawer, with Nick's signature on it, granting him freedom to ask for whatever he wished. Demand it, even.

 

Desire turned to ache between his legs and he finally gave up, flipping open the button on his pants and unzipping. As he slid his hand in, he glanced at the bed, imagining what it would look like with Nick spread out on it, waiting for him. He imagined him wearing nothing but the collar, but without the red chafe marks. But a blindfold, yes. Restraints, yes. Hands tied above his bed, holding him to the headboard.

 

Gil groaned and his hips hitched a little, the hot flesh of his cock so unbearably sensitive. Already, he was close.

 

He imagined flipping his thumbs over those nipples, imagined the way Nick would moan and writhe as Gil played with the piercings, the way he'd loose his breath when Gil caught them with teeth and tongue. He'd make Nick completely lose his mind, desperate for more of whatever Gil wanted to give.

 

Gil's own breath was nearly gone, and what little was left was ragged. He stroked harder, faster, curling his fingers around the tip and sliding down to his balls.

 

He wondered what other surprises he'd discover about Nick's body. It was traditional for slaves to be meticulous about removing body hair. He imagined touching, tasting every inch of Nick's smooth skin: chest, thighs, genitals.

 

Oh, and that thought pushed him right up to the edge. So, so close! Nick's tight jeans had left nearly nothing to the imagination, so it wasn't hard for Gil to fill in the blanks and imagine the long, thick cock, smooth, tantalizing balls and round, perfect ass.

 

An ass that he would lay stripes on, while Nick wailed for more with every strike of the crop.

 

With a choked sound, Gil came, surprised by how hard it hit him, stealing his breath and strength and a few beats of his heart. He sank against the door, eyes closed in satisfied bliss.

 

But it didn’t last long. He pushed himself up, disgust and irritation taking the place of heat and lust. It was a pretty picture, of course. One that didn’t have to be a fantasy. He could have it. Tonight. Now, if he called for Nick.

 

But it wasn't what he wanted. There was no way it could be what he wanted. He could have a warm, beautiful body in his bed. He could touch it, taste it, fuck it, or do whatever the hell he wanted to do to it. But there was no way he would enjoy it. In fact, the idea sickened him.

 

The thing he wanted, was for Nick to give that to him, to come to him and offer up that kind of unconditional trust because Gil had earned it. He wanted the chance to earn it. But that just didn’t seem possible in their current state. If he could have met Nick another way, as a free man, then maybe, maybe he would have had a chance. They could have gotten to know each other as equals, and then maybe Gil would have felt brave enough to act on his attraction.

 

Maybe.

 

But that’s not how things were. Anything he did to Nick would be an abuse of the power he had over him. Even trying, gently, to incite any kind of relationship was out of the question. Nick feared him too much.

 

Gil grabbed a tissue off his dresser and wiped himself off. Fantasies were fun, but in the end that's all they were. Fantasies.

 


Chapter 5

Texas: Two Years Ago

 

He’s not wearing his robe, Nick thought. That’s not right. He can’t be a judge without his robe.

 

Still, everyone present rose to their feet as he entered, as if they didn’t notice.

 

“Not you,” a voice said. Nick tried to argue, tried to say that he was the defendant, and he was supposed to stand. But his mouth wouldn’t open.

 

Someone shoved him down on his knees.

 

“That’s better,” the judge said. Nick couldn’t see his face, but he knew who it was. He banged his gavel once, and leaned forward.

 

“I suppose this is what I get for having a fag for a son,” he said.

 

“Dad,” Nick whimpered. “Don’t.”

 

But the Judge picked up the gavel again, and it turned into a giant bullwhip. He cracked it.

 

“Don’t worry, Pancho,” he said. “You’ll like being a sex slave.”

 

The images of the dream faded slowly, but the shame and betrayal hung on even longer. Nick curled up on his side, tears sneaking out of his eyes as the movement pulled his stitches, and tugged blanket up over his head. Outside the door, the clatter of footsteps and chattering voices was almost too loud to bear. His head hurt, and his eye was still swollen shut.

 

He didn’t know how many days he’d been in the Gallery, but he couldn’t believe that no one had been in to poke and prod at him and make an offer. Maybe he would end up being auctioned off.

 

Fine specimen he was at the moment.

 

Then the door opened, and Nick panicked. What was he supposed to do? Stand up and look his best? When he could barely move? He was probably supposed to try and encourage whomever this was to buy him, but he’d much rather stay right where he was. Just a little while longer.

 

“Dear god. You didn’t tell me about this!”

 

He knew that voice, but he couldn’t place it right now. The pain medication he was on made everything fuzzy around the edges. Someone sat down on the bed next to him and touched his forehead gently. Nick opened his good eye.

 

“John?” he croaked.

 

“Shhh,” John Harper said. “It’s all right now, Nick. You’re safe.”

 

“What…” Nick tried to say, but started coughing. Quickly, John produced a glass of water and handed it to him. Nick drank, draining the glass in quick gulps.

 

“What are you doing here?” Nick asked, handing the glass back.

 

John smiled. “I bought your contract, Nicky,” he said. “Can you sit up?”

 

Nick nodded, and even though it still hurt, he managed to push himself up. John hissed in sympathy.

 

“What the hell happened?” he asked. Nick smiled, ruefully.

 

“They stuck me in a holding cell overnight,” he said. “With a coupla guys I’d busted a few times. Kinda ganged up on me.”

 

“What idiot did that?” John demanded. “I’ll have his balls roasted on a spit.” Nick waved a hand.

 

“No. No,” he said. “Just let it go.”

 

John was still for a while, looking carefully at Nick. “If you’re sure,” he said. Nick nodded. “All right then. Let’s just get you out of here.” He slid an arm around Nick and lifted.

 

“My contract,” Nick said. “Don’t I…”

 

John waved his hand, silencing him. “It’s all taken care of,” he said. Then he leaned in, captured Nick’s face, pulled him close and kissed his cheek. Nick flinched a little. He hadn’t been expecting anything like that.

 

“I’ve got you, now,” John whispered.

 

***

 

Nick didn’t do much of anything for the next few weeks. He stayed in bed, John’s bed, actually, while John slept on an air mattress on the floor. John wouldn’t allow any arguments, and claimed he wanted to be nearby in case Nick needed anything in the night.

 

That would have comforted Nick, but his anxiety level simply wouldn’t be talked down. He assumed it was the stress of adjusting to such a major change in his life, and the physical stress he was under at the moment wasn’t helping. He wasn’t sleeping much, and when he did, he dreamt.

 

“Faggot,” his father said, scowling and shaking his head.

 

Nick tried to get up, but he couldn’t move. His arms and legs were deadweight, and looking down he saw them tangled in bed sheets.

 

“No,” he said, trying to free himself.

 

“Don’t do that. You’ll make it worse.”

 

Nick looked up, and now it was John standing over him, speaking with his father’s voice. “Don’t fight it Nicky,” he said, and sat down next to him. He pushed some of the sheets aside and slid his hand under them. His hand was cold, painfully so, when it touched Nick’s stomach. Nick tried to shy away, but still couldn’t move.

 

“You have to trust me, Nicky,” John said, and his hand moved lower.

 

Nick tried to scream, to make him stop, but his throat was frozen.

 

“Don’t fight it, Nicky.”

 

He still couldn’t move. He tried to speak, and this time managed to make a faint noise.

 

“Nick? Are you all right? Wake up!”

 

Someone touched his shoulder, shaking him. Finally, he managed to open his eyes. John was sitting on the bed, exactly where he’d been in Nick’s dream. Instinctively, Nick pulled back, remembering the cold, sinister touch from the dream.

 

It had felt so real.

 

Nick’s stomach started turning, twisting with vague dread.

 

“Wha-?” he asked.

 

“Nightmare?” John said.

 

“Uh…yeah,” Nick said. His heart was still pounding, but he felt calmer now. There was still something he couldn’t shake, though, something worrisome and unsettling. John reached out a hand to caress Nick’s face, and Nick wanted, instantly, to throw it off. But he allowed the touch, and suppressed a shudder.

 

Why did this feel so wrong?

 

It wasn't as though John were a stranger to him. He'd known him for years. Trusted him, confided in him, and always, always felt comfortable around him. But John had never been so forward with him before, of course, but that was because… Because why? Because he hadn’t ever wanted to, or because that wasn’t something a mentor did?

 

Except Nick wasn’t here right now because he needed a mentor, was he? This wasn’t a visit to talk about school or his life or his family. He wasn’t here to ask John’s advice, or even enjoy his company. It hit him then, violently sudden, that he was lying naked in the bed of the man who owned him now.

 

John hadn’t taken his hand away yet, and there was something about the way he was looking at Nick, something that turned his stomach into a hard, nervous lump.

 

“Nick?” John said, tilting his head and bringing his other hand up to cup Nick’s face. “Are you still worried about your father knowing?"

 

If John hadn’t asked him that question, or a variant on that question, at least twenty times before, Nick would have been unsettled by the timing. As it was, this was familiar territory between them. John was the only person Nick had managed to come out to so far, although he suspected that Maddy knew and had known for a while.

 

He didn’t answer, but sighed and looked away. John didn’t let go of his face. Instead, he started stroking his hair and pulled him closer until Nick’s head was resting against his shoulder.

 

“Don’t think about it,” he said. “I’m here now. Even if everyone else rejects you, I’ll still be here.” Now his hands skated across Nick’s shoulders and down his bare arms.

 

Nick shivered, but didn’t pull away.

 

***

 

“Take off your shirt.”

 

Nick looked up, puzzled. He touched his side. The stitches had come out two days ago. “I really think it’s fine,” he said, hesitantly. He did feel fine. He was healed now, and sleeping better. He still dreamt, though, of his father, scowling and calling him ‘faggot,’ and Nick woke with half-remembered, drug-laced images of John standing over him, touching him, and whispering of things to come when Nick was healthy again.

 

Sometimes, he wasn't sure he had been dreaming.

 

John didn’t even set down his paper to look at Nick. “I said, ‘take off your shirt,’” he said. His voice was a little harder this time, and Nick, feeling a pang of dread, did as he was told.

 

He really had no reason to distrust John. And yet…

 

John set the paper down and turned. For the longest moments of Nick’s life, John didn’t say anything, he just looked at him. Inside, he was screaming at the wrongness of this. And yet he realized that he felt no surprise.

 

“Come here.” John reached out a hand.

 

Nick swallowed and got up to come around the table. Then John smiled at him, and some of his nerves relaxed. He reached up, grasped Nick’s arms and pulled him down until he was in a crouch. He cradled Nick’s face in his hands, tracing cheekbones and lips with one finger.

 

“I think,” he said slowly, “that I’ll start choosing your clothes in the morning.” Nick frowned.

 

“Uh-”

 

“You wear such shapeless things, Nicky,” John said, smiling. He sounded jovial, and Nick recognized the teasing words and tone. John had commented on Nick’s ’awful’ clothes before, after all.

 

“You’re much too pretty for that. I’m going to show you off a little bit,” John finished, and now his smile was cold as ice.

 

But that was new. A harsh, sick feeling took hold of him as John spoke. It was something about the tone. It had none of the fondness and respect that Nick had come to expect from him over the years, and instead was laced with a condescension he’d never heard before, not even when he’d been a child. John had never talked down to him before. Never addressed him this way. This was the way he would talk to…

 

…the way he would talk to a pet.

 

Nick swallowed, and for the first time, looked at John not as his friend, but as his Master.

 

“Do you like that idea, Nicky?” John asked.

 

Nick shuddered. And yet he understood all too well that there was only one way for him to respond.

 

“Yes, sir,” he said.

 

John smiled even wider then. “Good boy,” he whispered, and stroked Nick’s lower lip. Then he did it again, this time prying Nick’s mouth open a little. “You’ve a lovely mouth, Nicky. Don’t you think it’s time we found out what you can do with it?”

 

Nick looked up sharply, and John must have seen the shock in his eyes, because he laughed.

 

“Oh Nicky,” he said, with twisted fondness. “You don’t think I bought you for your conversation, do you?”

 


Chapter 6

The sun was wickedly bright when Gil finally left the courthouse, making his eyes water as he searched for his sunglasses. Behind him, he heard the sounds of the door closing as Al Robbins followed him out.

 

“Well, by the time we get an actual meal and a nap, it’ll be just about time to start the whole mess over again,” he said, stopping next to Gil.

 

“’It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place,’” Gil said, and quirked his head, waiting to see if Al would catch the reference.

 

“Red Queen to Alice,” he said with a wry grin. “Check mate.”

 

Check mate seemed rather appropriate, given how he felt at the moment. Days like these kept him from feeling any shred of guilt when he needed extra help and was forced to drag someone from dayshift out of bed at four in the morning.

 

“But maybe I’ll be lucky enough to actually see my wife for a minute or two,” Al added, and Gil ‘humphed’ in acknowledgement. Al turned to look at him.

 

“Was that an attempt at commiseration?” he asked.

 

Without turning, Gil answered, “I don’t think I’m in a place to commiserate.” Now would be a good time to leave, before Al got it into his head to push further.

 

“Really?”

 

Too late.

 

Al shifted a little so he was standing in front of Gil, looking at him straight on instead of from the side. Escape was more or less out of the question, now. Unless he wanted to exact a sudden, and rude, departure.

 

“Really,” said Gil.

 

“I thought you’d say that,” Al said, and much to Gil’s puzzlement, began to turn away as though he had nothing more to add. He was halfway down the stairs before the dismissal registered in Gil’s brain as something he should take exception to, and he started down after him.

 

“Hey!” Gil said, catching up. He couldn’t quite stop the snappishness in his voice, and Al turned. Gil caught up with him and lowered his voice before he spoke again.

 

“Just because I have someone living in my house,” Gil said, slowly and with exaggerated patience, “doesn’t mean that there’s any expectation of a relationship.”

 

“Actually Gil, it does,” Al returned, matching Gil’s tone and demeanor. It was a tad patronizing, but the desire to call Al on it made Gil feel even more like a child.

 

“Look,” Al’s voice softened, possibly in response to Gil’s subtle retreat. “I’m sure you’re offering him all the respect and dignity he deserves, but have you taken a minute to consider how alone he must feel?”

 

Al could just as well have struck him in the face as ask that.

 

No. He hadn’t.

 

Gil had never felt as much of a fraud as he did at that moment. Al was assuming that Gil was an honorable man who would do the honorable thing. Even though he was in the middle of issuing a sort of tongue-lashing, he was only aware of a minor infraction on Gil's part. As far as he knew, the worst Gil was guilty of was a little tactlessness.

 

If Al had the slightest idea what Gil really wanted, or how badly he wanted it, would he still presume Gil capable of offering respect and dignity? If he’d known these things when Mark Etheridge had approached him, would he have made a different recommendation?

 

“He’s thousands of miles away from anyone he knows," Al continued, not noticing that Gil's thoughts had carried him away from the conversation, "and he’s got exactly one companion right now. You.”

 

What a dangerous situation for Nick. Suddenly, Gil saw how it could progress, and how easily. Nick was keeping his distance now, was wary and distrustful, and that was a good thing. It had probably kept him safe in the past and was keeping him safe now. But eventually Nick would come to believe that he didn’t have anything to fear from Gil. And then the walls would come down.

 

It would be trust born out of dependence, but it would look enough like the real thing. And if that happened, Gil didn’t think he would be strong enough to keep himself from taking what he wanted. He thought of Nick kneeling in front of him, eyes down as Gil had removed the collar, thought of what Nick had almost done then, thought of how close he’d come to letting him.

 

As it was, he almost wasn’t strong enough.

 

He looked at Al. “The last person a slave is going to confide in is the man who owns him,” he said.

 

Gil never found out what advice Al might have had to offer, because at that moment a new voice, from the top of the stairs, distracted both of them.

 

“Mr. Grissom! I was so hoping I’d catch you before you left!”

 

Mark Etheridge was walking down the stairs, wearing the grin of a shark. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his slacks, and he moved lazily, meandering his way towards them. Everything about him looked cool, casual, and completely wrong.

 

It bothered Gil that he couldn’t put his finger on what, exactly was out of place. He’d had enough dealings with Etheridge in his official status as High Lord of the Council of Nobles to have some context to measure this encounter against, but he’d never had reason to see him behave so informally.

 

“Mark. How nice to see you,” Gil said, with exactly enough false warmth to make sure Etheridge knew just how genuine his words were. Mark was a shrewd man, sharp and perceptive, and the smile and nod he gave Gil made it clear that the message had been received.

 

Mark looked around him, found the railing of the stairs and shifted a few inches to lean against it. And that’s when it clicked for Gil. Everything about Mark’s movements were contrived actions, such as in a poorly blocked play. Everything highly choreographed and unnatural. Mark was used to superiority in all his dealings with people, as he outranked nearly everyone in the city, and yet here he was, without any entourage, as dressed down as he ever was, holding a conversation with untitled citizens on a staircase.

 

Complete nonchalance without any of the ease, Gil observed. He’s trying to get me to relax.

 

Guard raised, Gil asked, “What can I do for you?”

 

Mark raised his hands, palms out. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said with a cold chuckle. “I’m just wondering how you’re liking your new gift. The Council was a little surprised when we didn’t hear anything from you. Usually, a token like that prompts some sort of….response from the recipient.” He crossed his arms in front of him, one hand raised to cradle his chin thoughtfully.

 

“Well it was certainly unexpected,” Gil said. “I didn’t realize I had so many friends at the Council.” Even if Mark didn’t catch the laced sarcasm in Gil’s words, Al certainly did. He kept his reaction muffled, though, and only the briefest glance was exchanged between the two of them. Mark noticed that, however, and frowned.

 

“The Council would always rather have a friend than an enemy,” Mark said. “Especially one like you.”

 

Gil smiled tightly. It felt the same as a grimace, but probably looked a little better. “Of course you would.”

 

“That’s why we’re concerned that we haven’t heard anything from you,” Mark said, pushing himself off the railing. “Perhaps we did not accurately anticipate your needs,” he said. “All right Gil, you tell me. What is it you want?”

 

The nice thing about sunglasses was that no one was every really sure just how closely Gil was watching them. If Mark had known that Gil was focused on reading every movement in his eyes and face, he wouldn’t have made the mistake of looking right at Gil when he spoke, and Gil wouldn’t have seen the spark of panic behind his eyes.

 

“You have nothing to offer that would interest me,” Gil said. “So I guess we don’t have anything else to talk about.” He nodded once to Mark, then to the slaves. “Gentlemen,” he said, addressing all three at once before turning away. Al fell into step next to him.

 

“There’s nothing the Council can’t do,” Mark called, and the cordial tone had cooled a few degrees. “Remember that when you change your mind, Grissom.”

 

Gil didn’t turn. When they were in the parking lot, Al stopped him. “You never cease to amaze me,” he said, in a tone that was an interesting mix of incredulity and guarded concern. “Most people I know would at least pretend they were impressed by him.”

 

“But I found out something very important just now.”

 

“And that is?”

 

“The Council doesn’t want me to keep Nick,” Gil said. “Now the question is whether it’s because they made a mistake, or if they’re trying to manipulate me.”

 

“The Council manipulates everyone,” Al said. “And they usually get away with it.”

 

“Not this time.”

 

“If you don’t watch yourself, they will. They’re just vindictive enough to go after you for refusing to use their titles when you talk to them, you know.”

 

Gil scoffed. “If any of them actually earned their titles instead of just buying favor, I’d be happy to.”

 

“No you wouldn’t.”

 

“I’ve always addressed Lady Kessler by her title when it was appropriate.”

 

That made Al laugh out loud. Gil shot him a look and he stopped.

 

“You have to admit,” Al said, still smirking, “that's not the best example.” Gil didn’t look convinced. “Come on, Gil, you were practically married--”

 

“We were never even engaged,” Gil interrupted.

 

“Practically married,” Al said again. “How long was it? Three years?”

 

“Four.”

 

Al just stared at him, then shook his head. “I don’t even know why I’m arguing with you.”

 

“Because it’s fun?” Gil said, mouth suddenly quirking into an impish smile.

 

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Al said, even though he did allow a tiny grin.

 

By now they’d reached Gil’s car. Gil unlocked it and was about to get in when Al stopped him.

 

“I’m not done with you yet,” he said. “We were having a serious conversation before we were so rudely interrupted.”

 

Gil sighed. “Right. ‘Be a pal.’ I got it.”

 

“I mean this Gil,” Al said, putting a hand on the car door to keep Gil from opening it. “The kid’s vulnerable right now. Keeping him isolated is only going to make it worse. If you can’t, or won’t, be someone he can trust, find someone else.”

 

The words made something click into place, and instantly Gil was embarrassed that he hadn’t thought of it sooner.

 

“You’re right,” he said. “I need someone else.” He pulled on the door handle and Al reluctantly stepped away to let him get it open. Gil turned once more before getting in.

 

“Thanks, Al,” he said. Al shook his head, light exasperation playing over his face.

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

Gil pulled out of the courthouse parking lot, but didn't head home. Instead, he drove back to the lab. Dayshift didn't so much as blink when he walked in, they were used to it. Catherine gave him a slightly evil look, one that Gil knew meant she thought he ought to be at home in bed instead of here, but he brushed her off. He didn't intend to stay very long. If he'd thought he could have done this in person, he would have. But Jim Brass was likely to answer his door with a gun if Gil went knocking now. Better to let the man sleep and get the message when he came in that night.

 

Gil shut the door to his office behind him and picked up his phone. He dialed Jim's office, and got the Detective's voicemail.

 

"...leave a message after the tone."

 

Beep.

 

"Jim, it's Gil. I have a few favors to ask you..."

 

***

 

Gil entered his townhouse, closing the door quietly behind him and feeling a little like he was breaking into his own home. He stood in the entryway for a few seconds, listening. Then, when he didn’t hear anything, he poked his head down the hall. The door to Nick’s room was closed, just like it almost always was when Gil came home.

 

In all the time Nick had been here, and Gil hadn’t seen him more than a handful of times. He wondered how he was keeping himself occupied in there.

 

It didn’t really matter at the moment. He had a call to make now, and it was of a kind that he couldn’t have done from his office at the lab. He picked up the phone and dialed.

 

“Hello?”

 

Gil bit the inside of his cheek, holding in his own, private smile at the tone of voice. So few people ever heard her speak this casually. But then, not many people had this phone number, either.

 

“Heather,” he said, “it’s Gil.”

 

“Ah,” she said, genuine fondness warming her voice. “How nice to hear from you. It’s been a while.”

 

“It has. I’m sorry.”

 

“No need to apologize,” she said. “I understand perfectly. Your work leaves little time for social engagements.”

 

“Unfortunately.”

 

“As is the case now, I expect,” Heather continued. “What can I do for you?”

 

Gil grinned wryly. If Heather’s ability to cut to the quick of any given situation had once disarmed him, it was now something he valued. He liked talking to her. It was, in one way, effortless, and in another the most delightfully strenuous mental task he’d ever attempted. If ever there had been a woman he could have spent the rest of his life with, it would have been her.

 

“Actually, I was hoping I could do something for you, this time,” Gil said.

 

“You’re welcome to do something for me any time you'd like,” she responded instantly. The casual words and innocent tone did little to camouflage what she really meant. She may have let him go willingly and amiably, but she hadn’t wanted to.

 

“That will have to wait for another time, I’m afraid,” Gil answered.

 

“Pity. You have such a gift for dominance. It’s a shame to waste it.”

 

The words brought a sudden flash of memories, all visceral and intense, that heated his body to the core. It had been too long since he’d explored those sensations, and he missed it. He could admit that easily enough.

 

His lapse lasted only a moment or two, but it was long enough to betray himself to Heather.

 

“You think so too, don’t you?” she asked. She didn’t sound smug, only curious.

 

“That’s not who I am,” he said. And it wasn’t, not in the way she was implying. He needed intimacy beyond what could be established during casual play. There was nothing in that world for him.

 

“You haven’t found your way, yet,” she argued. “But you will. I have every confidence in you.”

 

“Well, thank you, Heather.”

 

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Now, if I’m not assisting you, who am I assisting?”

 

“I’ve recently happened upon a slave in an…unsatisfactory situation,” Gil said. “And I was hoping I could appeal to your philanthropic nature.” That had made her smile, he knew. Gil went on, “He would do much better under your care. It would be…healthier for him.”

 

“Who owns him now?”

 

Gil paused. Then, taking a deep breath, he said, “I do.”

 

It may well have been the first time he had ever rendered Heather speechless. He had no doubt that her mind was racing now, trying to make sense of what he’d just told her.

 

“Someone is trying to manipulate you,” she said, finally breaking the long silence. He could hear the harsh undertone in her voice. “He was a gift, of course.”

 

“From the Council,” Gil confirmed. “And Mark came to see me yesterday. They want something."

 

“Your position on slave treatment is considerably weakened if you, yourself, are a slave owner,” Heather pointed out.

 

“That’s one reason I would prefer he was in your hands,” he said.

 

“And the other is that you want your privacy back,” she returned immediately. He could hear the smile in her voice.

 

“What’s his name?”

 

Gil relaxed. “His name is Nick.”

 

“And what does he look like?”

 

Gil frowned, unsure of where she was going with this. “He’s about five-ten, or so, brown hair, brown eyes-”

 

“Gil,” Heather interrupted. “I’m not a forensic artist.” Now the smile was nearly a laugh. “So he’s tall and dark. Is he handsome?”

 

“Handsome?” Gil felt suddenly put on the spot. “I—“

 

“Do you think he’s pretty?”

 

“Heather…”

 

“I’m well aware of your tastes in men, probably more so than you are.”

 

As well she would, given that she had figured it out before he had been able to admit it to himself. He still wondered if that might not have hurt her more deeply than he realized. But she had never given any indication of that. She had extended to him nothing but grace. Which meant he owed her honesty.

 

“Yes,” he said. “He’s very pretty.” He’d certainly thought so before now, but he’d never actually thought it in those terms. Hadn’t let himself think in those terms, barring his lapse a few nights ago. Those were boundaries he just didn’t dare cross. If he started thinking about Nick as pretty or desirable, eventually he would start wondering how he might act on those thoughts. And that was simply unacceptable.

 

“And what skills does he have?”

 

Gil balked. Those were also thoughts he hadn’t let himself entertain. “I’m sure there’s nothing you can’t teach him.”

 

“Not everything can be taught,” she said. “Are his skills in dominance or submission?”

 

It wouldn’t do him any good to claim that he didn’t know. She knew he could read that much in a person, or she wouldn’t have asked him. But still, he didn’t want to reveal that much.

 

Gil frowned. “Heather,” he said, “I’m not sure that would be a wise idea.”

 

Heather scoffed. “I’m not planning on throwing him to the wolves on his first day,” she said. “But if I take him, it will be as a employee. You know that.”

 

He did. She had no interest in a personal slave, and never had. The Dominion owned multiple slave contracts, like many business did, but the difference with Heather was that she treated them as employees. And many of the men and women who worked for her as slaves decided to stay with her once their contracts ran out and they were free again.

 

And since Gil couldn’t trust himself for much longer, it was the best option for Nick. Heather would take care of him. Gil sighed.

 

“He fights it,” Gil said. “But he is a natural submissive, yes.”

 

“Probably the result of miss-handling,” Heather mused. “It sounds to me that you have every resource available in yourself to care for him.”

 

“I think he would do well with you.”

 

He heard a huff of air that was probably a fond, snorted laugh. “If you insist. Have you asked Nick for his opinion on the matter?”

 

“I don’t have the slightest clue what he wants.” He sighed. “And I’m not going to ask.” He was looking out for Nick’s best interests. That was all that mattered.

 

“If you’re prepared to accept responsibility for that folly, I will not stop you,” Heather said. “What is the scope of his contract?”

 

“A life term,” Gil said. “Non-restrictive.”

 

For the second time in the conversation, and the second time ever, Gil was met by silence. “That can’t be,” she said, finally. “I’ve never seen such a contract.”

 

“Neither have I.”

 

“It would seem that you’re not the only one being manipulated,” she said, speaking almost to herself. Gil barely heard her. Then she spoke up again. “And I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I cannot afford to purchase him from you.”

 

“I wouldn’t ask for payment-”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” she interrupted. “The only way to transfer his contract into my name is through a legal transaction.”

 

“He was a gift to me. Why couldn’t I give him to you?”

 

“Because such gifts are non-transferable. Not when they come from the Council itself. ‘Gift’ is a misnomer when it comes to slaves, Gil,” she cautioned. Suspicion began to color her voice. “It’s all about power. And I have no doubt that if I were to take Nick into my service at the Dominion, we would not have to wait long for his death. Or worse.”

 

Gil took a deep breath. “Ah,” he said. “I’m beginning to understand.” Negligent Homicide. If there was one law the Council would have liked to see overturned, that was it. It held slave owners liable for the safety of their slave, and accounted for most of the convictions of Masters in slave deaths.

 

“As much protection as I offer,” Heather continued. “He would be at risk here. As legal owner, you would be held at least partly responsible if anything were to happen to him.”

 

“Because I’m fully knowledgeable of the situation I’m placing him in, and the risks involved,” Gil finished for her. Hadn't he just been in court, two days ago, supporting the same case against Emily Stahl's Master?

 

“Indeed,” she said. “I have no doubt that the parties which are trying to control you would be only too pleased to be handed such an opportunity, and I will not have any part in facilitating such a plot.”

 

“I appreciate that.”

 

“And I want to see his contract. Can you bring it tomorrow?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Good. Then we will conclude this tomorrow. Goodnight, Gil.”

 

“Goodnight, Heather.”

 

Gil hung up, feeling worse now. He’d hoped that all his problems would be solved by the time he finished the conversation. Now he just had more demons to contend with.

He glanced down the hallway towards Nick’s room. There was no way he would have been able to sustain this lie, this fraudulent hope that he could have this man in his home and not fall prey to his own desires. But if Heather couldn’t help him, then his options were severely limited.

 

He needed a way out, and soon, or there was no telling what might happen.

 

***

 

Nick fiddled with the faucet, twisting it the slightest bit before checking the water temperature again. He hadn’t quite figured this one out yet; turning it nearly all the way in one direction didn’t seem to make the slightest difference, but the tiniest adjustment the other way turned his shower from pleasantly steamy into liquid magma.

 

“Goddamn piece of shit,” he muttered, and snatched the shampoo off the shelf. He squeezed out more than was necessary, cursed again, and pitched the bottle to the floor of the shower.

 

He’d had enough of this. And he didn’t just mean the shower.

 

This little game Grissom thought he was playing here needed to end, and needed to end now. Nick knew what he was doing, giving him his space and time to adjust, making him think that he could be trusted. Nick had to admit that it was a clever strategy. After all, it had worked wonders on him the first time he’d encountered it.

 

But the minute his guard was down, the tune would change, and it would be too late for Nick to do anything about it. As soon as he betrayed any hint of weakness, Grissom would pounce. Once what little power Nick had was gone, there was no way of getting it back.

 

He rinsed his hair and picked up the soap, taking a little more time than he really needed, since the water had finally reached a temperature that was pleasant and he felt as though he’d earned the right to enjoy it for a little while. God knew he wasn’t enjoying much, these days.

 

He almost wished Grissom would start making demands of him. After all, Nick doubted there was anything left under the sun that he hadn’t already been made to do, any humiliation he hadn’t already suffered. He’d encountered some pretty fucking twisted and creative people already. Grissom didn’t scare him. Couldn’t hurt him, either. No one could do that, anymore.

 

And at least it might result in a little human contact. Jesus, he hadn’t even been out of the house since he’d arrived. At least Grissom’s bookshelves were overflowing, or Nick would have gone off the deep end by now from boredom.

 

Nick turned off the shower, got out and dried off. He didn’t have a robe, and never liked getting dressed in a damp, steamy bathroom, so he wrapped the towel around his waist and headed back for his bedroom. Two steps into the hall, though, he heard something that made him stop.

 

“His name is Nick.”

 

Nothing called to a person’s attention like hearing their own name. Curiosity peeked, Nick slipped down the hall.

 

Grissom was sitting at his desk, back to Nick. He was on the phone. Nick could only make out bits and pieces of what he was saying, and didn’t dare get any closer.

 

“Heather….” There was a pause.

 

Heather? That rang a bell. Nick thought, and quickly remembered, “…given the nature of your relationship with the Lady Heather…” He had a bad feeling about this.

 

“Yes,” Grissom said. “He’s very pretty.”

 

Something about hearing Grissom say that made his stomach flip and bile rise in his throat at the same time. There was nothing complimentary in the way Grissom spoke, no hint of admiration or even pride. And yet…

 

“I’m sure there’s nothing you can’t teach him,” Grissom continued, and derailed Nick’s thoughts.

 

Teach him? Feeling even more nervous, Nick held his breath and wished he could stop his heart beating so loudly in case it obscured anything else Grissom said. The next thing he heard very nearly did stop his heart.

 

“He fights it, but he is a natural submissive.” Another pause. “I think he would do well with you.”

 

So there it was.

 

“I don’t have the slightest clue what he wants,” Grissom said. “And I’m not going to ask.”

 

Nick slumped against the wall, no longer listening to anything Grissom said. He didn’t care anymore. He’d been right. He’d been right from the very start, and he hated it.

 

It wasn’t as though he’d harbored any real hope that this time, with this master, things might be better. But there had always been that voice in the back of his head, that same voice that had convinced him to accept this contract in the first place, that had whispered, “it might not be so bad,” because there were good people in the world.

 

He closed his eyes, feeling them start to sting with tears. It didn’t matter how little hope you let yourself feel, it always hurt the same when it was destroyed.

 

His throat started to swell, then, a harsh sob trying its best to get out. He swallowed, trying to force it back, but it wouldn’t go. He could barely breathe from the effort of keeping himself from crying.

 

No, he thought. Goddamnit. No, no, no, no, NO! He pressed his fist against his mouth, clenching his hand so hard it hurt and grinding his teeth. But it kept building inside him, this horrible mess of betrayal and pain and anger.

 

“Fuck him,” Nick whispered. “Just fuck him.” Fuck all of them. Grissom, Drake, his father for his stupid, goddamned stupid, short-sightedness that had landed him here, and Harper. Especially Harper. If he lived to see Judgment day himself, he would never, ever forgive Harper.

 

And slowly, his throat relaxed, his eyes stopped stinging, and the rage in his chest died away. He took a long, deep, shaky breath and opened his eyes. He felt better.

 

And then he jumped, because Grissom had just turned the corner and was now standing face to face with him.

 

Grissom’s eyes were wide; he was clearly as surprised as Nick felt, and he remembered that he was only wearing a towel. For a second he wanted to apologize for himself and make a run for his room, but then Grissom blinked and his gaze fell down, staring at Nick’s body with slack-jawed hunger.

 

Something strong and hot flared inside Nick, and before he even realized what he was doing, he pulled the towel away and dropped it. Grissom inhaled sharply through his nose and his eyes widened, but he didn’t look away. He did back up a half-step, and Nick reacted by stepping closer. Grissom pulled away again, and Nick followed until Grissom had his back pressed against the wall.

 

Grissom did look up then, meeting Nick’s eyes. The power of that gaze nearly made Nick turn away, nearly made him give up this poorly-developed plan of attack. Grissom looked surprised, and a little afraid, even through the haze of lust that darkened his eyes. Something in Nick shouted for him to stop, but something louder recognized that he had the man off-balance.

 

And that was right where he wanted him.

 

“He’s very pretty………a natural submissive………I’m not going to ask him.”

 

Fuck it all. Nick knew he was a plaything, and if Grissom wanted to pretend otherwise, Nick had no interest in going along with that. This was how things were, and he was going to prove that he knew it. Staring hard into Grissom’s eyes, he dropped to his knees.

 

Grissom wasn’t wearing a belt, so it took mere seconds for Nick to pop the button and his fly and pull the zipper down. Grissom made a harsh noise at that, but Nick ignored it. He reached in and was not at all surprised to find out exactly how aroused Grissom already was.

 

“Nick,” Grissom mumbled, and he dropped his hands to Nick’s shoulders, weakly pushing.

 

But Nick would be damned if he conceded any power at this point. A few firm, slow strokes had Grissom fully hard and nearly helpless with lust. Leaning forward, he took the head of his cock into his mouth and sucked.

 

Grissom actually trembled, then, and the motions of his hands on Nick’s head and shoulders slowed, became more confused and weak. Nick felt deep, rich satisfaction swell inside his chest, and he sucked Grissom’s cock in deeper.

 

He was good at this. Of all the things he’d been made to do in the last year and a half, some merely distasteful and some actually loathsome, sucking cock was actually tolerable. And he knew what he was doing, knew exactly what to do to make Grissom forget his own name before they were through.

 

He was well on his way. Grissom was breathing hard, and when Nick looked up, his eyes were closed and his mouth was hanging open. He was probably close, so Nick pulled back, easing off pressure and suction and Grissom whimpered.

 

Nick smiled. Who's in control now, bitch?

 

He got back to it, then, teasing with his tongue and hands, taking him fully into his mouth only at irregular intervals and not for very long at a time. The noises Grissom was making sounded like he was about to die at any moment, and Nick could have listened to them forever.

 

His jaw, however, didn’t have that kind of time. He considered just standing up and leaving him like this, but that would almost certainly bring about some painful retribution. So finally, he finished him. Grissom gasped, froze, and came, holding tight to Nick’s head.

 

Nick pulled Grissom’s hands away, and stood up, wiping his mouth. He waited for Grissom to calm down and open his eyes. When he did, he had the most incredulous, awe-struck glow lighting his face.

 

“Nick,” he whispered, and reached out to touch his arm. Nick set his jaw and lifted his chin.

 

“Anything else, sir?” he asked in his most clipped, formal tone. He saw Grissom’s eyes widen in surprise and something else, but didn’t bother to try and interpret it. When Grissom didn’t say anything, Nick nodded once, grabbed his towel off the floor and headed for his bedroom.

 

He shut the door behind him, knowing full well that he had just scored a major victory. But for the first time in several months, he felt horribly dirty.

 


Chapter 7

 

“You know, if I had a sweet, young thing waiting for me at home, I sure as hell wouldn’t be pulling any double shifts I didn’t have to pull.”

 

Gil looked up from his desk and frowned at Jim Brass, who was leaning against the doorframe.

 

“Of course, I prefer my young things to come with melons instead of meat and veggies, but hey, we’ve never liked the same restaurants.” Jim had an insufferable grin on his face.

 

There was no way Jim could know that his joke had been in incredibly poor taste. And there was no way he was going to know, because Gil sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him. Bad enough that he’d hardly been able to make it more than a few minutes at a time without his mind wandering back to what had happened between him and Nick last night. He didn’t need to deal with Jim’s thoughts on the subject.

 

“Is there a reason you’re here?” Gil asked, looking back down at the file in front of him. It was Nick’s file, the one he’d been given by Arthur Fielding when he’d first picked Nick up. It was next to useless, unfortunately. Nick had changed hands so quickly upon arriving in Vegas, that his paperwork hadn’t caught up with him yet. All Gil had, at the moment, was Nick’s contract. But at least that had yielded the names of his previous owners.

 

“What, tying you up in knots isn’t reason enough?” Jim said, crossing the room. He held his arms out in a poor attempt to look innocent, and Gil noticed the file in one hand. Ah, that might be just the thing he needed. Gil reached out for it.

 

“Whaddya got?” he asked. Jim pulled it out of reach.

 

“Whoa, slow down there, let me get my preface in first.” Gil glared at him. “Okay, fine. Just let me say that there isn’t a lot of information on Nick Stokes, and what there is, is locked up tighter than the crown jewels.” He handed the file over. Gil glanced through it, and his eyes widened.

 

“He’s Dallas PD?” Gil looked up at Jim, incredulous. “How did that go wrong?”

 

“Hell if I know,” Jim said, dropping into a chair. “This was all I could get.” He shrugged. “At least for now. But I got the runaround like you wouldn’t believe. I heard everything from, ‘File’s confidential’ – they wouldn’t even release anything to you, by the way, I asked – to flat out denial that any sort of criminal record even exists for this kid.”

 

Gil frowned. “The office of circumlocution.” Jim gave him a half-hearted glance of interest, but went on.

 

“I did find some pretty interesting stuff on the kid’s father, though.” Gil raised an eyebrow and Jim leaned forward, folding his hands and resting on Gil’s desk.

 

“Texas Supreme Court judge, got a record as a moderate, nothing that sends off any major buzzers in my head, but get this; about a year ago, his records start changing. Especially in slave cases. And he’s not ruling in favor of the slaves.” Jim sat back.

 

“Nick’s been a slave for a year and a half,” said Gil. “Coincidence?”

 

“What’s a coincidence?”

 

Gil and Jim both looked up as Catherine walked in. Gil waved her over.

 

“Catherine,” he said, handing her the file Jim had brought him. Then, he handed over Nick’s contract as well. “Take a look at this. Tell me if anything doesn’t seem right to you.”

 

Catherine flipped through both of them. When she started looking over the contract, her eyes widened a few times, and finally she handed it back, making a noise of disbelief. “More like ‘tell me if anything does seem right,’” she said.

 

“Exactly,” Gil said. It was starting to feel more and more likely that there was something more sinister going on than just what the Vegas Council was up to. Something that managed to make Etheridge’s machinations look petty and poorly-conceived. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get Nick into the position he was in now. And moreover, that person wanted Nick to suffer.

 

Gil sighed. No wonder Nick behaved the way he did. He saw enemies everywhere, and nothing Gil said or tried was likely to change that.

 

“Here,” he said, ripping a sheet of paper out of his notebook and handing it to Jim. “Do me a favor and run down these names, please?”

 

Jim took the sheet and raised an eyebrow. “You know, you’re gonna owe me a lot of favors when this is all done, and don’t think I won’t collect,” he said.

 

Gil waved him off. “I’m sure you will,” he said. “Just let me know if you find anything intesting, okay?”

 

Jim nodded. “Sure. If,” he looked at the paper and started reading, “Doctor John Harper, Lady Vanessa Drake or Sir Gerry Redding have any good stories, I’ll pass ‘em along.”

 

“So what are you going to do?” Catherine asked.

 

Gil looked down at the file again. “I think I need to call a judge,” he said.

 

***

 

Ring.

 

Ring.

 

Ring.

 

"This is Lord Drake."

 

"Marty? It's Mark. We have a problem."

 

"That's not what you're supposed to tell me. You’re supposed to tell me that Nick Stokes is on a plane to Dallas. Yesterday."

 

"You don't understand Grissom."

 

"No, you don't understand. Do I need to explain what's at stake here?"

 

"I can imagine. And I'd like to help, really. But there's not a lot I can do."

 

"Not a lot you can do, or not a lot you will do?"

 

"Marty, you're a friend. You know I'd like to help, but my hands are tied. He won't give Stokes up."

 

"Then stop asking."

 

"Marty-"

 

 

"I can force your hand, Mark. You wouldn't like that."

 

"Fine. I’ve got something else I can try. But I’m not making any promises.”

 

 

"But I am. I need Stokes back in Dallas, and come Hell or high water, I will get him. I don’t care what you have to do, just take care of it.”

 

Click.

 

***

 

Gil hung up the phone, feeling simultaneously better and worse about things. Judge Stokes hadn't had the slightest idea who Gil was, but he'd been palpably relieved and overjoyed to receive news that his son was healthy and safe.

 

Gil had deemed it unwise, and unnecessary, to tell Bill Stokes exactly how he’d come in contact with Nick in the first place. It was dishonest, yes, but it had enabled him to gather the information he needed. There was no way Stokes would have kept talking to the man who owned his son, not even long enough for Gil to explain himself.

 

Assuming, of course, that Gil would have been able to explain himself. After the incident last night, he had very little confidence in himself to do so. He shouldn’t have let it happen, but ‘shoulds’ weren’t worth anything. He had, and he felt horribly weak now, because of it.

 

But Nick acted on his own, free will, he reminded himself. I didn’t make him do anything. The thought didn’t bring any comfort, though, only a greater realization of how great his responsibility was, and how much he’d failed.

 

He’d also failed, despite his best efforts, to get Nick to contact his family, and he felt sharp sorrow at that. He had no idea why Nick was cutting himself off from home, but it certainly wasn't healthy. He'd given Stokes his home phone number and an assurance that he would be allowed to speak to Nick. It had earned him the Judge's gratitude, but even that didn't get him very far.

 

Talking to him hadn't been easy; Gil had gotten the impression early on that the Judge's phone was tapped, or at least that he believed it was. Which meant that Gil only had a few more pieces now than he'd had when he started. But they were vital pieces.

 

Nick had been convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. And the evidence against him had been "unquestioned." That still didn't explain how he'd come to be serving such a disproportionate sentence, but reading between the lines, Gil was certain that Nick's crime had very little to do with anything. Judge Stokes was as much a captive in this web as Nick was, and that actually gave Gil hope. If this was a set-up, it could be dismantled. Just because no one had discredited the evidence in Nick's case didn't mean it was solid. And now Gil had a chance to find out.

 

Because the most valuable piece the Judge had given him was this; Nick hadn't attempted to appeal his case even once. And now that Gil had the rights of a legal custodian over him, that was about to change.

 

It was time to call his lawyer. And another judge. Because if they wanted a good defense, Nick was going to get a team of his own forensic analysts to evaluate that "unquestionable" evidence.

 

Suddenly, he could see a way out of this; a way that would truly be as beneficial to Nick as it was to him. If he could do this, he could protect them both.

 

Gil actually grinned as he dialed.

 

***

 

Nick was living with a seriously creepy man. And it wasn’t the way he was being treated or talked about that brought him to this conclusion, it was the bugs.

 

Bugs on the wall were okay. Odd, but okay. Some of them were kinda pretty, actually. Not the kind of thing he’d ever want to decorate with, but they certainly caught the eye. And they were hung well, too, not just slapped up on whichever piece of wall had been the most convenient.

 

The problem was the bugs in other places. In cages and terrariums around the house. And in the fridge.

 

That was beyond weird. Nick hoped like hell that Grissom was preserving them for future experiments and not as condiments. But he had a sinking feeling that he was wrong on that one.

 

After getting the shit scared out of him by cockroaches -- motherfucking huge fuckers that hissed! -- on his first day in the house, Nick had learned to be on the lookout, and now he was pretty sure he’d located all the hidden coves that concealed bug homes. And since nothing had gotten loose yet, that he knew of, he found himself actually getting a little curious and watching them from time to time.

 

Except the roaches. Those were still nasty.

 

But the ants were neat, and almost normal. He’d at least heard of people having ant farms, even if he’d never actually met such a person before. It was almost soothing to watch them marching on their little trails to and from their hill. The tarantulas were fine, too, as long as they stayed on the other side of the glass. They didn’t move quickly, and were therefore a lot less freaky than normal, everyday spiders.

 

But the butterfly terrarium was downright fantastic. Or rather, the chrysalis terrarium. Only a few had actually turned into butterflies, the rest were still hanging in cocoons. And Nick found himself checking the case several times a day in the hopes that he’d catch one of the insects breaking free.

 

At some point, he realized that he’d probably spent hours staring at things that looked like little more than dried up leaves, and he laughed at himself for it. Then, he decided that, as long as he was sitting here with nothing to do, staring at things that weren’t moving, he could at least try to figure out what he was looking at.

 

Good thing he had an entomologist’s library on hand. He grabbed a book on butterflies and moths and set about trying to identify the cocoons based on the illustrations and photographs in the book. He wondered where the hell Grissom had gotten all of these, and if there was some sort of entomologist’s catalogue that he didn’t know about, something that got Grissom all excited when it arrived in the mail, full of new creepy-crawlies to order.

 

Nick caught himself grinning at the image. Despite himself, he was starting to feel a little respect for this guy. He was sure as hell smart; Nick had run across several articles, and even more references to articles, that Grissom had written himself. Doctor Grissom, it turned out. Strange, that he didn’t even flaunt that title.

 

John sure as hell had.

 

Nick shivered and grimaced. No reason to ruin a perfectly good day thinking about him. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the butterfly case, just in time to see one of the insects begin to emerge.

 

 


Chapter 8

Texas: Two years ago

“You know Martin, I don’t really give a damn how you do it. All I really care about is what you can get him to sign.”

 

John Harper leaned against the window frame, not looking at Lord Drake as he spoke. True, Drake’s plan was cunningly crafted and worth admiring, but Harper could care less about stroking the man’s ego right now. He was preoccupied, and much more interested in what he would be getting out of this deal.

 

Lord Drake leaned back in his chair.

 

“Now John, if I were a lesser man, I’d be hurt by that,” he said. Harper rolled his eyes at Drake’s smug tone. Drake continued, “He’ll sign whatever I put in front of him. And what’s more, he knows it. We’ve got him right were we want him.”

 

“And you’re sure Bill won’t fight it?”

 

Martin Drake laughed out loud. “Oh, I’m sure he’d like to. I’m sure he’ll try, but if he’s half as smart as he thinks he is, he’ll come around quickly.”

 

Harper just stared out the window, uncertain. Ten stories below, in the park, about two dozen state-owned labor slaves were setting up a band shell. The city band would be performing tomorrow night, part of the “Arts in the Parks” series. He watched the men unloading the equipment from the truck. One had short, dark hair and a slighter build than the others. From this distance, it was easy to pretend he was someone else. Someone Harper had spent a lot of time thinking about, especially in the past few days.

 

“And what am I going to owe you for this little favor?” he asked. He didn’t turn to see Drake’s smile. He knew perfectly well what it would look like, sweet as honey and deadly as a snakebite.

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. You’re a friend, John. And I’m always happy to help out a friend.”

 

Harper laughed dryly and without humor. “Of course,” he said. Finally, he turned and looked at Drake. “All right, so what are we talking about, here? What are my limits?”

 

Drake’s smile increased by several notches. “You’ve let too many lawyers write up your slave contracts,” he said. “You may as well have been throwing your money away at a Madam’s slave house. Just as overpriced for just as few services offered.” He leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk.

 

“Let me guess,” Drake continued. “Your last boy had private quarters, two days a week off, and…oh, capped the services at fellatio and sex in the bedroom only.”

 

Harper bristled. That was closer to accurate than he wanted to admit, but defending himself would only weaken his standing in Drake’s opinion. “And you tell me you can do better?” he asked, skeptical. What he’d had to do to gain that many rights had been exhaustive enough.

 

“John,” Drake said in his sweetest voice. “I can have him sucking your dick morning, noon and night. At board meetings. I can get him to wear nothing but a collar and crawl on all fours for the rest of his life, if you want.” He stood up then, and came across the room.

 

“Pick your poison,” he continued. “He can be trussed up and delivered anyway you like. Literally, if you want. And,” he caught Harper’s eye. “I’ll have him thanking you for it.”

 

Harper fixed him with a cold, unconvinced stare, and tried hard to suppress the excited shudder and flush that ran through his body at those promises. He wanted that. Oh, how he wanted that. And more.

 

“How?” he asked.

 

“Simple,” Drake said and reached into his coat pocket. He pulled out a picture of a young woman and handed it to Harper. Harper frowned.

 

“What does she have to do with anything?”

 

Drake chuckled. “Well, what would you think if I told you all those things I mentioned were going to happen to your sister?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you do anything in the world to stop that?”

 

Harper stared at the picture. He knew Madeleine, of course, although not very well. She was a sweet girl, and very young. Just recently married. Harper felt a cold smile stretching his face. He ran a finger over the picture, outlining a few of her stronger features, the eyes, the cheeks, the mouth and jaw.

 

“Such a compassionate boy, our Nick,” Harper murmured. “I wouldn’t expect any less of him.”

 

“And you see how it benefits you,” Drake said. Harper nodded, but stayed silent for a long time, staring at the picture. Remarkable how much of Nick he could see in her. Such a beautiful boy. And soon to be his. To do with as he pleased. Another shudder ran through him, and this time he let it. Enjoyed it and the taste of anticipation it brought with it.

 

Soon.

 

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited for this?” he asked Drake. Drake just raised an eyebrow.

 

Harper went on, “His parents left him with me one night, when he was nine. They couldn’t find anyone else. I’m not sure what they would have done if I hadn’t been home.”

 

“Lucky for you?”

 

Harper laughed lightly. “I’d never seen anything like him.” So polite, so appealingly shy and almost delicate. Everything that was still true about him.

 

“Got your first taste, did you?” Drake needled. Harper glared at him.

 

“Don’t be vulgar,” he said. “You’re not that thickheaded. If that’s what I wanted, do you think I’d have any interest in him now?”

 

Drake gave Harper a knowing look. “Does he call you ‘Uncle John?’ I understand that innocence can be quite appealing.”

 

“This game is beneath you, Martin,” Harper warned. Drake just chuckled.

 

“I’m just here to see you get what you want,” Drake said. “Whatever that may be.”

 

Harper relaxed a little. “Fine,” he said. “Then you can start by getting over yourself and listening. It doesn’t really matter what you can make him do. He already knows me, already trusts me. After what you’re putting him through, all it would take is some well-timed kindness and I could have him doing whatever I wanted all on my own. And he would do it to thank me.”

 

Harper stepped back, hands behind his back in an at-ease posture. His voice softened a bit as he continued. “I can get his gratitude, if I wanted it. You can offer me his body, but that’s not enough.”

 

Drake frowned. “I can’t make him fall in love with you,” he said, annoyed.

 

 

But Harper just smiled, slowly and with great satisfaction. “Who’s talking about love?” he asked. He looked hard into Drake’s eyes.

 

“I want his soul,” John Harper said.

 

For a few seconds, Drake blinked in stunned amazement. Then he slowly broke into a smile. “Then I suppose I’ll have to make you into God,” he said.

 

***

 

John Harper was a surgeon, so he knew all about delicate operations and patience. He’d never operated on a person’s soul before, but he still had full confidence in his abilities. If he treated it the right way, he could make it perform however he wanted. All it took was the right stimulus and the right environment.

 

As far as the environment, Drake had been better than his word. He’d produced a contract, Nick had signed it, and there was no stopping it now.

 

God, indeed.

 

It took every ounce of willpower to keep from collecting his new prize the instant everything had been legalized. But John wasn’t going to rush this. So he left him in state custody for a week, let the despair and fear and pain build until finally when he appeared, it was as the white knight, Nick’s hero come to save him.

 

“Dear God, you didn’t tell me about this!” he shouted, coming into Nick’s cell at the Gallery, making sure Nick heard the concern, the compassion.

 

When Nick looked at him, bloodied and frightened and so nearly broken, clung to him and nearly sobbed in relief, John knew it had all been worth it.

 


Chapter 9

"You're being rash about this. And since that is such a rare condition for you, I'm forced to wonder what's causing it."

 

It infuriated Gil that Heather could say such provocative things in such a placid manner. Or maybe it just infuriated him that she was often hitting close to the mark when she did so. And when Heather's first shot was as sure as that, the next one would bring him down for good.

 

“It’s not rash,” Gil said. “It’s…deliberate.”

 

“It’s ill-advised,” Heather insisted. “Ignoring an invitation from the Council is a poor choice in any situation. In this case, it’s especially dangerous.”

 

Gil frowned. The last thing he had any interest in doing was meeting with Mark Etheridge again, least of all on his own turf. He shouldn’t even have mentioned it. In fact, he hadn’t planned on it, but he’d received the message as he’d left the lab that morning, just before he’d come to Heather’s. Just thinking about the prospect had rubbed him the wrong way, and Heather had picked up on that the instant he’d walked in the door.

 

If it had been anyone else, assuming, of course, that anyone else would ever manage to get such an accurate reading on him, he would simply have ignored the inquiries until they stopped coming. But that trick had stopped working on Heather a long time ago, and would, now, only hand her the means to execute an even speedier victory. The only way to go up against Heather was to play aggressively, and that meant raising or folding.

 

“He wants another chance to try and talk me out of keeping Nick,” Gil said. “I’m not going to give him that chance.”

 

Heather pursed her lips in a secret smile. “And only yesterday you couldn’t wait to get him off your hands,” she mused, raising her teacup. Gil glared at her.

 

“That’s different.”

 

She nodded. “Yes, it is. Still, you must want to know what their intentions are.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“And you’re being handed a perfect opportunity. But you would rather be stubborn and prove that you can’t be summoned at the mere whim of the Council than take advantage of that opportunity.”

 

Ouch. Gil frowned again. He seemed to be doing a lot of that in her presence, lately.

 

It wasn’t as though that particular thought hadn’t already occurred to him. But his gut reaction, in matters like this, was to screw what the Council wanted, mostly because the Council wanted it. Too many people allowed them too much sway because they were impressed by reputation and social power. Gil would be damned to seven separate hells before he’d let himself be someone who did that.

 

“I prefer to keep things on my terms,” he said.

 

Heather nodded. “Understandable,” she said. “But what makes you think that it will be any less on your terms simply because of the location?”

 

Gil sighed. She was right. Best to admit it now, so they could be done with this particular, bothersome conversation.

 

“All right,” he said. “I’ll go.”

 

“Good,” Heather said. “I’ll want to know what he tells you.”

 

 

 

“Of course.”

 

“Now. The contract.”

 

Gil picked up his messenger bag and pulled out the file with Nick’s contract and handed it over. Heather took it, leaned back in her chair, and started reading. For a long time it was silent in the room. Gil, meanwhile, made himself comfortable and sipped his tea. After a while, she flipped back to the back page.

 

“What do you know about Lord Martin Drake?” she asked, reading the name. Gil shrugged.

 

“Nothing.” He recognized the name from the signatures. He was the Property Master in Dallas, but there’d been no reason for him to look any further than that. Or so he thought. “What did I miss?”

 

“Nothing I blame you for missing,” she said. “You only deal with slaves as suspects or victims. I deal with them as people. And I deal with their contracts.” She set the file down and looked at Gil. “A slave’s contract says a great deal about them. No one can require a service that a slave is not prepared to offer.”

 

Gil nodded. “Which is why contracts take such a long time to draft and approve.”

 

“Yes. Each one is as individual as the man or woman it’s written for.” She looked down at the contract. “By reading this, I would conclude that Nick enjoys, and even yearns for, constant subjugation and perhaps humiliation as well.” She raised an eyebrow at him, and he scoffed, dismissing the idea immediately.

 

“No, I didn’t think so either,” she said. “The alternative is that Nick was not present for the drafting of his contract, or entered into it under duress.”

 

Gil raised an eyebrow. “Why? To avoid something worse, maybe?”

 

“Perhaps,” Heather said. “There is a simple solution, of course.” She leveled her stare straight into his eyes. “You could ask him.”

 

Gil froze, and almost forgot to breathe. “I doubt he would be willing to discuss it with me,” he said, and the instant he said it, her lip twitched. Almost imperceptibly, but it was enough to tell him that he'd just stepped into a carefully laid trap.

 

“You just don’t want to let yourself get close to him.”

 

And now there was nowhere to run. She'd caught him. He could argue in circles with her, and as long as neither one managed to push through to the heart of the matter, they would stay in a state of suspended sparring indefinitely. Gil shook his head and slumped a little, the only signs he gave that he had been defeated. He looked at her, one eyebrow raised.

 

"All those years, you only let me think I was the Dominant, didn't you?" He said it lightly, but she didn't smile.

 

"You earned that role, and you have every bit as much skill for it now as you did then," she said. "And the fact that you're choosing not to exercise it means either that the prospect abhors you, or thrills you." She tilted her head to look at him, her face creased with concern. "I know you well enough to be certain that the former is not the case."

 

After a moment, he said, "And how do you know it's not simply a matter of disinterest?" Sometimes, he just wanted to know what she saw when she looked at him.

 

"You care too much," she said. "Part of you has already accepted responsibility for him. You're protecting him."

 

As soon as she said it, he knew it was true. In his heart, he supposed he'd known it for a while. Probably from the instant he'd set eyes on Nick and noticed the strain it took for him to hold up his head. In that moment, he’d wished to take some of that burden from him, to be everything Nick so desperately needed.

 

"It can't be me," Gil said. "I can take care of him and I can protect him, but I can't cross any more boundaries with him."

 

"'More'?"

 

Damn.

 

"Something significant happened after we spoke yesterday, didn't it?" Heather said. She looked concerned now, and was studying him as intently as she could. The more he tried to hide, the more she'd pursue and wrestle the truth from him, without him ever saying a word. She knew him too well.

 

But if he couldn't confide in her, what could he do? He took a deep breath.

 

 

"Nick...asserted himself."

 

"Sexually?"

 

Gil winced. "Yes."

 

"But still a display of submission?" Heather asked. Gil nodded.

 

She frowned. "And did you enjoy it?"

 

She spoke softly, with little inflection. If she'd said it in an accusing manner, the blunt words would have cut deep. But to Heather, it was just a question, with no more moral weight than an inquiry about his favorite wine. Either he'd liked it or he hadn't. It was information she needed, but nothing, in her mind, that should carry any shame either way.

 

“It resembled something I wanted,” he said. “I enjoyed the illusion.” God help him, but he had. The reality sickened him, but for a moment, he’d been sure that his fantasies had been realized.

 

He was profoundly grateful to Heather for saying nothing, even though he’d just proved her right. About everything.

 

"He had...offered himself before,” Gil continud. “I refused. This time, he didn't give me that option." Gil paused. "I could have stopped him," he added, much more softly.

 

"It may be better that you didn't," Heather said. Gil looked at her, a puzzled frown quirking his face. She smiled, although it was a sad smile. "For someone in Nick's position, sex may well be the only power he has left."

 

***

 

When something was the right thing to do, it didn’t matter how difficult it was; Gil would do it. When something was a thing he should do, that’s when matters got a little cloudy.

 

Making nice with the head of the Council of Nobles fell into the latter category. There was a reason he preferred dealing with evidence instead of people. But even with Heather's advice -- or perhaps bullying was a better word for it -- it was all he could do not to turn on his heal and march straight out of the Council chamber. But both women had been firm. And this latest development wasn’t helping at all.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grissom,” the secretary said again, sounding more like she was tired of the sight of Gil than actually sorry about anything, “I don’t see your name on Lord Etheridge’s schedule for today. And I’m afraid he doesn’t have any more openings this week. Would you like me to put you down for next Wednesday?”

 

Gil was just about to say ‘no,’ had opened his mouth and could taste the word on his lips, when the door to the office opened and Mark Etheridge stepped out.

 

“Gil,” he said. “I was starting to wonder if you’d forgotten.” He turned to his secretary. “Kelly, why didn’t you let me know he was here?”

 

Kelly, suddenly nervous, looked down at the schedule in front of her. And even though, moments before while talking to Gil, she’d been entirely confident in herself, she took several seconds reading it over. Then she looked up.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. It looks like you’re scheduled to meet with Mr. Harris in the Gallery this morning.” She turned the schedule around so he could confirm himself, but he didn’t look.

 

In the second it took for Mark’s expression to flash from confusion to comprehension, Gil’s suspicion tripled. Whatever else Mark might be feeling this moment, he was certain that actual surprise was not on the list. Then Mark turned to Gil, offering a shrug and a smile.

 

“It happens, I guess,” he said. Gil was pretty sure that one of the perks of being in Mark’s position, and having someone like Kelly and who knew who else around, was to keep things like this from happening, but he shrugged back.

 

“I suppose it does,” Gil said.

 

“Tell ya what, Gil,” Mark came closer, and for a second, Gil thought he was going to clap him on the shoulder while he talked. The informality of the situation clanged, harsh and horribly out of tune, with both the situation and Gil’s prior experience with Mark.

 

“This thing with Bob should only take me a few minutes,” Mark continued. “You will walk with me while I take care of it, won’t you?” He smiled, and then, through the uneasy nonchalance, Gil could see a hint of the predator peaking through.

 

Reminding himself of how many of he deadliest insects looked benign, and therefore demanded caution, Gil acquiesced gracefully, and nodded.

 

“Wonderful!” Mark said, and this time, did give Gil a little pat on the shoulder. A disgusting feeling, but not hard to ignore. Not for a man who'd been up to his elbows in liquefied human remains more than once. But even as desensitized as he was to things that would make skin crawl, he still didn’t want Mark to do that again. As they started walking, Gil was careful to stay more than an arm's length away from him.

 

"So, Gil, remind me. How long have you been in Vegas?" Mark asked. Gil glanced sidelong at him.

 

"I was under the impression," Gil said, slowly, "that you already knew everything there was to know about me." He allowed himself a tiny, smug grin. Mark chuckled.

 

"All right, have it your way," he said. He was still smiling when he turned and looked at Gil, but the look in his eyes was sharp and fierce. "Your work has been absolutely unprecedented these last seven years, do you know that?"

 

"It's not something I think about."

 

"Hmm. You should, you know." They turned a corner and came to a locked door. Mark produced a key card, swiped it, and pushed the door open when the indicator light turned green. They entered the Gallery.

 

Gil had never seen it before, although he knew plenty about it. Slaves were housed here as they waited for their contracts to be purchased.

 

"Did you know," Mark said, looking around the expansive room, "that after your first year here, the Council realized that our facilities were about to become grossly inadequate? We had this built five years ago. It's four times the size of the original." He turned to Gil. "What do you think?"

 

Gil looked.

 

The Gallery was meant to look expensive, elegant and attractive. Gil noted the marble floors, the glass-domed ceiling four storeys up, the elegant wrought-iron railings that ran along the four levels, the winding staircases in the corners. He could smell the flowers that bloomed around the fountain in the center, hear the water echo off the square walls. Light music was being piped in, something baroque with lively woodwinds. There were even sculptures and statues placed along the main floor. He couldn't deny that it was beautiful.

 

Except those weren't proctors at every corner, they were guards. And the brochures being handed out at the massive desk next to the fountain were not full of information on artists and touring exhibits, but lists of the men and women housed in hundreds of cells lining the walls, their service class, and the price of their contract.

 

"I think art is in the eye of the beholder," he said, blandly. He heard Mark take a sharp breath in response.

 

"Quite," Mark said, sounding as though he had barely parted his teeth.

 

Up on the second level, Gil caught sight of a man, a woman, and their teenage son on the second level. Their guide, no doubt a representative from the property office with a briefcase full of suitable contracts, unlocked the cell in front of them. The family was introduced to their prospective slave, much as if they were picking out a puppy. A regular Human Humane Society, Gil thought, acidly. And the perfect choice for a family's day out.

 

"The Council owes you a great deal, Gil," Mark said. Gil realized that there was a good chance he'd been speaking for some time now. But it was doubtful he'd said anything worth a response. He turned, and pretended he'd been listening all along.

 

"Oh?" Gil said, as they started walking towards the desk. A tall, black man had arrived, seen Mark and was waiting for him there.

 

"Oh yes," Mark answered. "Which is why we're so eager to see you...properly compensated for your work." They reached the desk and Mark held up a hand. "But we'll get back to that in a moment."

 

He turned to the man waiting for him. "Mr. Harris," he said, shaking his hand firmly. "Always a pleasure. You've found everything to be in order, I take it?"

 

Harris nodded the slow, lazy nod of a man who took his time deciding things. "Yeah. All ready to sign and get 'em out of here," he said. Behind him, a door opened and a group of inmates was escorted out by several armed guards. The stopped a few feet from Harris, who turned to glance at them, then looked back at Mark with approval on his face.

 

"Excellent," Mark said, laying his briefcase on the desk and flipping it open. He pulled out a large, thick folder. "And what is the project this time?" he asked, handing Harris the sheets. "Sign on page three and seven of each contract." He smiled. "You know the drill."

 

Harris smiled back and picked up a pen. "I should by now," he said. "Road construction, this time. The county'll need them for at least six months." He started flipping through papers and signing. As he finished with each contract, he passed it to Mark, who signed on the line next to him, certifying that he was witnessing the transaction.

 

"Good to hear," Mark said. "We could actually do with the space." He turned to look pointedly at Gil.

 

"We're at ninety-eight percent of capacity, you know," Mark said.

 

"You must be so proud," Gil said, unimpressed.

 

"Actually, I would think you would be proud," Mark said, and his smile took on an edge that Gil distrusted entirely. "We have you to thank."

 

That caused Gil to look at him sharply, and with momentary respect. Generally, Mark Etheridge had all the shrewdness of a troll. Psychological manipulations required a subtlety that seemed beyond his patience, though not his intelligence, to attempt. It made Gil wonder who had been coaching him.

 

It was a clever tactic, a way of going for the emotional jugular. But life and experience were stealing Mark's thunder. He’d seen men and women convicted on evidence he’d gathered, sold into slavery and eventually wind up on a slab. Vegas wasn't really all that big, so such things weren't all that uncommon. It bothered some people, ended the careers of a few criminalists that Gil had known. It was like the death penalty, that way. The tighter the evidence, the tighter the rope around the perpetrator’s neck.

 

But there was no point in letting your work be affected by something you couldn't even predict, let alone affect. No one asked for Gil's opinion on sentencing, and only sometimes asked for his opinion on guilt. He didn't give his opinions, anyway. That was someone else's burden. He had his own to bear. Even if he wasn't influenced by sentencing options, he was only too aware of them, of the severity of his role.

 

His evidence might help some down the road to slavery, but it could also keep the innocent off of it. All it took was one.

 

"Free will," Gil said. Mark looked like he was about to laugh.

 

"So very true," he said. "Such a wonder that they don't all accept the prison time, isn't it?"

 

"That's cuz we ain't stupid," came a voice. Gil, Mark and Harris turned to see who had spoken. It was one of the men in the group Harris was purchasing. A young man, probably mid-twenties if that. "Should just ask for the needle. Least this way I'm still breathing."

 

Harris came over to him, the last of the contracts signed. "Okay, that's enough out of you," he said. He looked at the guards. "Let's get moving." Then he turned back to Mark. "Thank you, again, Lord Etheridge." Gil thought he detected just a touch more emphasis on the title than was truly necessary, as though he were trying to prove that he understood about holding to one's proper place. Gil held back a tired sigh.

 

"You're quite welcome, Bob," Mark said. "I'm only too happy to help the county out in any way I can." He watched them go, waiting until he and Gil were alone again before speaking.

 

"You can rationalize it to yourself all you like, Gil," he said, with poison in his voice. "We all do. But in the end we all know it's better to have, let's see, what was that charming young man convicted of?" He picked up the stack of contracts and leafed through them, reading the convictions. "Which one do you think he was, Gil? The three time rapist? Maybe the drug runner? Or did he seem more like the child molester type?" He dropped them back on the counter. "Better to have them off the streets and doing some good, don't you think?"

 

Now this was the Mark Etheridge Gil was used to. Gil regarded him critically. "And who are you trying to convince, Mark?" he asked.

 

"You're not above all this Gil," Mark said. "And you're not fooling nearly as many people as you think you are. Why don‘t you do yourself a favor."

 

Gil let silence fill the space between them for a few seconds. Then he said, in a short, clipped tone, "This was fun, Mark. We should do it again some time." Maybe over wine in the fifth circle of Hell.

 

He turned then, convinced that this entire episode had been nothing but an exercise in heart rate aggravation, but didn't even manage to take two steps.

 

"Nicky's almost perfect for you, isn't he?"

 

Gil turned, eyebrow raised. Mark looked completely relaxed and assured of his advantage now, grinning broadly with his hands tucked into his pockets. He was trying to get something out of him, some non-verbal cue.

 

Well, too bad for Mark.

 

Now, if only Gil knew what it was that he wanted. Fortunately, in Gil’s experience, people with agendas or guilty consciences were inclined to keep talking well past the point that shrewd tactics advised shutting up. All Gil had to do was keep his mouth shut.

 

‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast,’ he thought. The fasting part was superfluous, of course, but the quote lost the flow without it.

 

"You find him attractive enough, don't you? Desirable?" He watched Gil intently, waiting for any kind of reaction. "Of course you do," he said. "But his temperament really is a problem, isn't it?" He turned and headed for one of the sets of spiral stairs. He gestured for Gil to follow.

 

Gil almost turned and went in the opposite direction, but the discomfort he felt at not knowing what Mark was driving at, or how he made such uncannily accurate observations, outweighed the revulsion he felt at following him. He needed answers, and he climbed the staircase after them.

 

"You do know that, if we had realized what poor condition he was in, we never would have offered him to you. No offense was meant, of course," Mark said, once Gil reached the second level.

 

Gil smiled, coldly. "Of course not," he said.

 

"Then you realize that we are honor-bound to correct the problem," Mark continued, leading Gil to one of the doors. He stopped in front of it and lowered his voice.

 

"I understand that a man...like you," and on those words his eyes glinted with secret triumph, "is not easily satisfied. And no doubt uninterested in undoing the work of previous masters." He produced another key, opened the door and gestured for Gil to precede him in.

 

Inside the cell was a young man, who stood at attention as they entered. A very young man. If he was here, he had to be over eighteen, but Gil doubted he was even old enough to drink. He looked much like Nick had, the first time Gil had seen him; provocatively dressed in tight clothing and a collar. But he lacked the wariness and hate that Gil had seen in Nick’s eyes. He looked at Gil with bright, naive hopefulness.

 

"Well, Gil?" Mark said. "Consider this our apology. A replacement. Younger, more eager, a clean slate for you."

 

Gil's heart went out to the boy. Everything about him screamed of vulnerabilities he could neither afford to have nor display so openly. It would take so little to destroy him.

 

"What's your name?" Gil asked, quietly.

 

 

"Chris, Sir," the boy answered, timidly. "Chris Deegan."

 

"What do you think, Gil?" Mark whispered.

 

Was this how Nick had been, once?

 

Nick, who was now so broken and so vulnerable in his own ways, but who still had so much strength left. Strength that was worth protecting. Nick who needed him. Nick, who Gil wanted with him.

 

Gil turned to leave. Just as he reached the door, he turned to Mark.

 

"I think you don't know me at all," he said, and left.

 


Chapter 10

The mailbox was empty.

 

Gil puzzled over this, blinking in tired confusion, as though either the situation would reverse itself or an answer would be made clear if he just stuck it out long enough. He confirmed the time by glancing at his watch, and tried very hard to remember if today was actually Sunday or some other holiday that he’d failed to notice. But no, it was Wednesday afternoon, and the mail should have been delivered at least two hours ago.

 

Then, Oh. Right. Nick.

 

It gave him a creepy feeling, knowing that a complete stranger had been pawing through his life. He sighed. Time to get used to it.

 

He closed the box and went up to the house. The front door was still locked, and something -- the stillness in the air, maybe -- made him turn the key slowly and enter without making a sound.

 

Coming home didn’t feel the same these days, he couldn’t drop his defenses at the door and relax the way he used to. He was growing tired of this constant wariness. But he didn’t want to think about why he was so apprehensive when Nick might be around.

 

He rolled his eyes, then, when he realized that he was hugging the walls as he came in. With a disgusted noise, he made himself stop. Even if he didn’t want to make a great deal of noise, soft-soled shoes on stone floors wouldn’t be that loud. He turned the corner into the main living area of his townhouse, and caught his breath.

 

Nick was asleep in Gil’s recliner.

 

Carefully, slowly, trying not to even breathe, Gil came the rest of the way into the room, then slipped around the side of the chair to stand in front of it. He watched Nick sleep.

 

Gil could scarcely believe how fragile Nick looked, how human and totally breakable. What a remarkable contrast to the last time he and Nick had been this close to each other.

 

Gil wanted, suddenly, in that moment, to touch him, hold him, stroke his fingers through that soft hair, and watch those eyes flutter open. He wanted this delicate intimacy to last forever, even as he coaxed Nick into wakefulness. He wanted to take care of Nick. In every way one person could take care of another, in every sense that a Master could care for a slave.

 

And it hurt that he couldn’t.

 

Sex may be the only power he has left.

 

What did it do to a person to live like that?

 

Gil sucked in his breath as he suddenly realized something. He’d had it all wrong. Until now, he’d seen Nick as broken and vulnerable, and perhaps, in some ways, he was. But he was also still very strong. So strong that it took Gil’s breath away to imagine.

 

Instead of letting himself be slowly and irrevocably eaten away, he was fighting back in the only way he could. And a clever rebellion, too; masquerading his behavior as the very thing he thought his Master wanted.

 

Gil smiled. Good for you, Nicky, he thought. Hold on. Just a little longer.

 

He was halfway through the thought before he realized he was making a promise. Surprised, he stopped, a little afraid of what he was doing.

 

But the apprehension lasted only a moment, and he pushed it aside.

 

“Whatever it takes, Nicky,” he whispered, setting his mouth into a line of solid determination. Whatever he had to do to make Nick a whole person again, so help him God, he would see it done. Whatever it took.

 

And maybe, if he was lucky…

 

He shook his head, chasing the thought away. That particular false hope didn’t need encouragement. The important thing here, the only thing that mattered, was giving Nick his life back.

 

He sighed and was about to turn away, when something caught his eye. He looked back, and noticed the magazine lying on the floor, presumably where Nick had dropped it before falling asleep. Gil picked it up, slipping his finger between the pages to hold the open page, and read the cover.

 

The Journal of Forensic Science.

 

Well. The latest issue. Presumably it had arrived today. And Nick had checked the mail. Gil opened it, curious. Assuming the journal had fallen open where Nick had been reading, he had been halfway through a rather technical article on the newest advances in gel electrophoresis.

 

Gil puzzled over this. Either Nick had been trying to cure insomnia, or he was simply made up of more layers than Gil had given him credit for. He set the journal back down, not wanting to reveal that he’d been snooping, when he noticed “A field Guide to Western Butterflies” lying on the desk. Gil knew that he hadn’t had reason to take that particular text out recently. He glanced at Nick again, and some rebellious voice inside his soul cried out in hope. The instant it did, he tried his best to quiet it.

 

It was bad enough that he found Nick attractive, worse that he seemed to inspire every long-buried dominance trait and desire he’d ever honed. The last thing Nick wanted, or needed, at this point, was an owner with inclinations towards being a Master. At least those were base desires, and he could talk himself out of those.

 

But if he learned that they actually had anything in common? Anything that could lead to an attraction of minds as well? Then he would fall, hard and fast, and that would be the end of it for Gil.

 

He had to stop this, now. Remind himself of how things really were between himself and this man who, quite justly, hated him. He reached out and gave Nick’s shoulder a shake.

 

“Nick?” he said.

 

Nick made a harsh, waking sound and blinked his eyes open. He looked at Gil, instant panic and fear mixing in his eyes, and Gil felt as though he’d been stabbed.

 

Oh please, he thought. Just let me… Hold you. Fix you. Make you safe again. Anything.

 

But he couldn’t think of a thing to say. Finally, as Nick’s expression changed from confusion to suspicion, Gil snapped himself out of it.

 

“You hungry?” he asked. It felt like someone else had started making the decisions about what he was going to say, and all he could do was sit back and listen.

 

Nick blinked, rapidly, in surprise. He clearly hadn’t been expecting Gil to say that. Well, neither had Gil. It made sense, of course. Did people regularly have this kind of casual conversation the day after one accosted the other in a hallway to perform a pretty fantastic, but unexpected and generally ill-advised, blowjob?

 

Gil just wouldn’t know about that kind of thing.

 

“I…guess…” Nick answered, inflecting his voice upwards. “What did you have in mind?”

 

Gil ran a quick mental inventory of his kitchen. “I think I have bagels,” he said. “And eggs. Sound good?”

 

The whisper of a smile tugged at Nick’s mouth, even though his eyes stayed wary. “Sure,” he said.

 

It occurred to Gil, somewhere in the midst of scrambling the eggs, that they were about to share their first meal after weeks of living together. He had the feeling that he was doing this entirely wrong -- whatever this was -- and that furthermore, scrambled eggs and bagels -- lacking cream cheese, he discovered -- were hardly the ingredients for an auspicious start. But at least it was a start.

 

As long as he didn’t think too long or hard about where it was they were going.

 

“So, is there anything in there worth reading?” Gil asked as they ate. Nick glanced up, a blank look on his face. Gil pointed to the discarded journal with his fork.

 

The blank look changed to guilt. Gil kept his own face carefully neutral and just slightly wide-eyed and curious. Eventually, Nick put down his own fork and relaxed.

 

“Uh, yeah. I guess,” he said, scratching the back of his neck and looking away. “I mean, I don’t really know a lot about that stuff.” He shrugged, now uncomfortable and self-conscious. “It’s been awhile since my college bio courses.”

 

He said it sheepishly, like college wasn’t something he talked about -- or felt he should talk about -- very often. Gil almost followed that lead, but it seemed like a sore point. Instead, he shrugged back and made a humming, contemplative noise.

 

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “That’s technical reading. Even for an aspiring scientist.”

 

Something twinkled in Nick’s eyes at the aspiring scientist comment, which provoked an answering twinge inside Gil.

 

“I wish I’d done more with science,” Nick said. “I did in high school, but it kinda fell off the radar in college.”

 

“What would you have done if it hadn’t?”

 

Nick ducked his head, a strange expression screwing up his face. It took Gil a minute to realize that he was trying not to smile. It made Gil’s breath catch a little; there was something unexpectedly sweet and charming about that embarrassed grin, and something more, telling him that this was part of the real Nick Stokes.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Nick said. Gil thought he caught the tiniest self-effacing eye roll. Again, Gil set himself up behind the most placid, accepting expression he knew how to wear. After a second, Nick let out a tiny laugh, shook his head and looked down at the table. His cheeks were starting to color.

 

“I always was kinda interested in forensics,” he said finally, barely able to keep from mumbling. Gil understood him anyway.

 

“Well, I did assume that was why you were reading a forensics journal,” Gil said, dryly. Nick looked up, as though he were unable to comprehend why Gil hadn’t laughed out loud. Then his face broke into the tiniest smile. But it was a real smile, born of actual joy. Gil couldn’t believe how beautiful it made him look, and swallowed against a suddenly tight and dry throat.

 

“Yeah,” he said, laughing at himself a little. “I suppose that would make sense.” Then he shrugged, breaking himself out of whatever reverie he’d created. “It’s still something I think about,” he said, tentatively.

 

Gil felt like his heart and throat were being squeezed until he was sure he would pass out. “You know, there’s an opening on my shift at the lab,” he heard himself say. His voice sounded distant, like he was listening to himself speak from another room. “With your background, I’m sure you could make the transition.” After all, Jim had run the lab for a while, only a couple years, of course, but he’d done okay. For a cop.

 

Nick’s head shot up. “My background?” he said, suspicion creeping into his voice.

 

Gil frowned, puzzled by the turn in Nick’s mood. “Yes. You were an officer in Dallas, weren’t you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nick said, straightening. “I was.”

 

Gil winced, and kicked himself for being so clueless. Obviously, Nick didn’t like being reminded of the life he’d left behind. Well, here was one area that Heather had been dead wrong and he’d been right. Talking to Nick about his past was clearly going to do more harm than good. And now that he’d stumbled on it, inadvertently opening a wound, it seemed, he had no idea how to get himself out again.

 

“Nick,” he said, “I didn’t mean-”

 

“It’s nothing,” Nick said. His eyes had narrowed and there was a harsh quality to his voice, now. “It’s all in my file, I suppose.”

 

Gil nodded, feeling utterly defeated. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”

 

Nick shrugged. “Then it doesn’t matter.” Then he got up and took his dishes into the kitchen. He dropped them in the sink, then came back out, pausing just on the edge of the room.

 

“I’m gonna go back to sleep,” he said. “I was up pretty late. Thanks for breakfast.”

 

Gil stared after him as he turned and left, stunned at how quickly that had gone downhill and cursing himself for it. There was no possible way for him to predict Nick’s behavior. Something about this morning had drawn him out for a time, convinced him to treat Gil in a way that flirted with friendship. Not an actual connection yet, but something. A place to start.

 

And now he’d ruined it. He’d thought he was helping. Pointing Nick in the right direction.

 

Damnit.

 

***

 

Nick shut the door and slumped against it, sighing. He couldn’t believe what he’d almost fallen for in there.

 

All Grissom had needed was a tip-off about Nick and science and a half-assed breakfast, and he’d had enough to lead Nick around by the nose. And he’d walked right into it, let Grissom get all buddy-buddy with him, when it had just been another game. Another way to find out what he needed.

 

And he almost hadn’t realized in time. It had been so comfortable, and he’d felt normal for the first time in a long time. Mentioning Dallas PD had been like being drenched in icy water. It had woken him up, reminded him of where he was and how he’d gotten there. And most importantly, who Grissom was. He took a shaky breath. Damn, but Grissom was good. Sneaky, and subtle and good.

 

Do you really think I bought you for your conversation?

 

Fucking bastard. It had taken him years to do that, to get in that deep. Too bad he’d only died once.

 

***

 

The encounter over breakfast left Nick in a funk for the next two days. And the worst part, was that it didn’t seem to have affected Grissom at all. He stayed as aloof as ever, and when he did speak to Nick, it was with that same veneer of kindness he’d worn since the first time they’d met.

 

And now, Nick was starting to feel downright insulted by that. What was Grissom thinking? That he didn’t know? Did he think that Nick would believe this, ‘let’s just try to be friends’ routine he was pulling?

 

Bullshit. Nick was smarter than that. And he still remembered the way Grissom had looked at him that first day. No, this was a man who knew what he wanted, and Nick was damn tired of all this pretending.

 

"You know, you really need to cut the crap.”

 

Nick, standing over Gil on the loveseat, crossed his arms and waited. Grissom, seemingly nonplussed by Nick's declaration, closed the folder in his lap and pulled his glasses off his face. For a second, fear washed over Nick. He really was taking a tremendous risk by doing this. But at this point he'd rather find out what it took to get Grissom to raise a hand against him. He was tired of playing by someone else's rules, especially when he didn't know what they were.

 

"Well?" Nick asked.

 

Grissom shrugged. "'Well' what?"

 

Nick exhaled loudly and rolled his eyes. "You're not fooling me, Grissom," he said, his voice low and strong. "I know what you want. And if you're trying to make me think that we have any kind of friendly relationship going on here..." He waved his hands and scoffed.

 

"I'm not trying to make you think anything, Nick." It seemed as though Grissom's voice had picked up a harder edge. And that was definitely a frown at the corners of his mouth.

 

Good. Let him get angry. Nick could deal with angry.

 

"You're trying to make me think you don't want me." Nick huffed, a dark sound. Trying to show how noble he was, how kind and generous. Reaching out to him, striking up conversations, cooking for him. All because he could see how well Nick was defending himself, knew that the only way he'd get what he really wanted was to lull him into dropping those defenses on his own.

 

I'll show you a 'natural submissive,' Nick thought, frowning.

 

"I knew what you wanted the first time I saw you," Nick said. And then yanked his shirt out of his pants, pulled it over his head and dropped it on the floor. Then he started on his fly.

 

"Stop it."

 

Nick looked up, hands frozen and ready to shove his jeans away. Grissom looked stern, but he was breathing a little quicker than he had before. Nick smiled slowly.

 

"Stop what?" he asked.

 

"Baiting me."

 

"Or what?" He hooked his thumbs into his boxers and quickly stripped the rest of his clothes off. He didn't have to bother with shoes and socks since he didn't leave the house anyway. He straightened up and stared Grissom down. "You giving me an order?"

 

Grissom pursed his lips for just a moment. "I could."

 

"So why don't you?" Nick turned and went over to the desk. His collar was still sitting there, and he picked it up. He looked back at Grissom, waiting for an answer. Grissom kept his mouth firmly shut, but he still watched Nick's movements with intense, dark eyes. Nick smirked. However much Grissom wanted to deny it, he was enjoying this.

 

So am I, Nick thought, and the realization nearly knocked him off his stride. This actually felt good, having things on his terms, having the certainty that Grissom wasn't going to retaliate; it was turning him on. How about that. He buckled the collar around his neck, and a flutter went through his insides. Then he went back to Grissom and crouched in front of him.

 

"You gonna tell me I was imagining things?"

 

"No," Grissom said evenly. "But I don't think you'd find a man out there who doesn't appreciate a good blowjob." He raised both eyebrows, fixing Nick with an unconvinced, and unimpressed, look.

 

"I think you like more than that," Nick said, and reached for Grissom's zipper. Grissom caught his wrist, stopping him, and for long seconds they held each other's eyes. For the life of him, Nick couldn't figure out what he was seeing there. Grissom was positively simmering, but without any trace of tension or conflict. This may have started on Nick's terms, but he realized in that moment, that if it continued, it would be on Grissom's.

 

And that was power. He remembered John looking at him the same way, trying to impose his will over Nick, but it had never felt like this. John had never pinned Nick in place simply by staring at him. John may have had control through manipulations and legality, but Grissom had it simply by being Grissom. It both thrilled and terrified Nick.

 

"Should I stop, sir?" Nick asked. Up until now, he'd been retaining the formal address in mockery, but as he spoke it now, he heard himself infuse a touch of reverence. His heart started to beat a little faster.

 

Grissom squeezed his wrist, not hard, then let it go. "Get up here," he said.

 

Nick was moving before he'd even registered the command, and when he realized what he was doing, something like glee bubbled in his chest. This wasn’t what he’d meant to happen, but it felt so good. He couldn’t stop now.

 

Grissom grabbed him by the shoulders, hauling him up more quickly, then by the hips as Nick settled into place, straddling him. Nick tried to get Grissom's pants open again, but again, Grissom stopped him. This time, he held both Nick's wrists in one hand, while his other drifted across Nick's skin and took hold of his cock. Nick made a surprised sound, half gasp, half strangled yelp. Grissom's mouth stretched slowly into a pleased smile. He squeezed, gave a short, truncated stroke, then pressed Nick's hands against his own crotch.

 

"It's all up to you, Nicky," he said with a wicked smile. "Think you can bring me off before I make you come?" He did something quick with his hand that made Nick's mouth fall open.

 

"Of course I can," Nick said, trying to hang onto what dignity he had left. Gil just chuckled.

 

"Good." He released Nick's hands, and let him unzip his pants. "You'd better," he added. Then his mouth twitched up just a touch. Before Nick had any idea what the smile was about, Grissom leaned forward and captured a nipple between his teeth and Nick's cock in both hands.

 

Nick arched, struggling to breath in the face of attention from a man who clearly knew what he was doing. His mind went completely blank, then, and he forgot all about what he'd been trying to prove, what advantage he'd been trying to win. All he wanted was for Grissom to keep doing that for a very long time.

 

But then Grissom backed it off, and Nick could feel him chuckling against his skin. It occurred to him, suddenly, how incredibly close to the brink he was, and how quickly, and that he hadn't even laid a finger on Grissom's dick yet. With a determined noise, he reached into Grissom's slacks with both hands, and earned barely a grunt in return. That burned him a little, that Grissom could have his every nerve alive with anticipation, could shut down every higher brain function he had, and yet stay so collected himself.

 

But he'd started this game, and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to finish it. And finish well. Even if Grissom was doing his best to distract him along the way.

 

Distract, tease and torture him, but not actually get him off. No matter what Nick did -- and he knew he was doing well; Grissom's eyes were closed and he'd leaned back contentedly -- Grissom didn't relax enough to let Nick off the razor's edge he was balanced on.

 

When Grissom finally came, Nick felt a burst of such intense pride that it almost outshone his own pleasure when Grissom brought him off a second later. He collapsed, gasping, and didn't realize at first that Grissom was holding him.

 

When he did pull back to meet his eyes, a peculiar sensation curled up from his stomach and gripped his throat. Grissom looked like...like nothing Nick had ever seen before. Flushed with pleasure, eyes closed and so sexy it was heartbreaking.

 

Nick wanted, more than anything, to kiss him.

 

He leaned forward, barely aware of what he was doing, when Grissom opened his eyes. For a second, something bright and frightened flashed in them, and Nick nearly pulled back. But then Grissom blinked, and heated invitation appeared instead. He reached up, fingers ghosting over the hair at Nick's temple, other hand ready to cup his cheek and pull his face down. Nick closed his eyes.

 

Then the phone rang, and whatever had come into being between them dissolved.

 

"Nicky, I have to," Grissom said, trying to stand and hoist Nick off him. Nick moved and ended up toppling gracelessly onto the love seat. Grissom crossed the room to the ringing phone, zipping up as he went, and Nick couldn’t help but feel like the worst kind of fool. A naked, humiliated fool.

 

He snatched his clothes up from off the floor and dressed quickly. He half heard Grissom answer the phone, but couldn’t bring himself to look at him. All he wanted to do was scurry back to his room, hide, and not think about how spectacularly his plan had backfired.

 

“Nick!”

 

Nick jumped at the way Grissom said his name, sudden panic flooding his body. When he turned, though, Grissom didn’t appear upset. His face had a strange, unreadable expression. Nick guessed that this hadn’t been the first time Grissom had tried to get his attention.

 

Grissom held the phone out. “It’s your father,” he said.

 

Nick felt as though someone else were crossing the room, reaching out and taking the phone. His mind was too numb and shocked to be handling those kinds of instructions. His father? He held the phone up to his ear, but his throat froze and he couldn’t speak.

 

Grissom looked at him with something like concern. Then mouthed, ‘I’ll be…’ and pointed to down the hall to his room. Nick nodded and swallowed.

 

“Pancho?” his father’s voice said in his ear.

 

The combination of that word, that voice and Grissom’s absence broke Nick down completely. He had to grit his teeth and grimace against the sob that nearly came out.

 

“Yeah,” he said, in a strangled voice. “Yeah, it’s me.”

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Am I? Nick thought. He wasn’t sure.

 

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.”

 

 

“I don’t want to get you into any trouble,” his father said, and now Nick could hear a bit of a halting thickness in his voice as well. “When Mr. Grissom gave me this number, he promised me that it would be okay to talk to you.”

 

 

 

“Grissom?”

 

“Mmm-hmm. Some guy in Forensics out there. He called me. He’s a good man, Nick from what I could tell. You’ve got at least one friend out there.”

 

What? Grissom called his father?

 

“Everyone’s worried about you,” his father said. An awkward pause followed.

 

And why shouldn’t it? What was Nick going to say? That he was having a great time in Vegas? That the slave life had never been better? That he was pretty sure he was being held by the kind of manipulative sadist that made John Harper look like an amateur?

 

His thoughts flashed back to his first day in this house, Grissom’s adamancy that Nick make contact with home. It hadn’t been a kind gesture then, and Nick was damn sure it wasn’t now. It was a way to make him vulnerable.

 

And it was working, too. Nick wiped at his eyes, swearing fiercely inside his head, trying to force them to dry up.

 

Don’t let this get to you, he thought.

 

“Tell ‘em I’m making it,” Nick said and made himself smile. His father would hear it. He’d be damned if he let his family suffer. He could do that much, at least.

 

“I will,” his father said. “Maddy…had her baby. She named him after you.”

 

That hurt. Hurt in a specific, unbearable and almost beautiful way. Some good had come of this, at least.

 

“We can send you pictures, if you’d like.”

 

Nick almost choked. Double edged sword, there. “Yeah,” he said. “Go ahead and send ‘em.” He gave the address. He wondered if Grissom would let him have them. He wondered if he wanted to open them. Missing his family was killing him a little more every day; maybe it would be better if he just let himself forget.

 

Pictures made you remember.

 

 

 


Chapter 11

 

She looked so beautiful in the pictures. Young and happy and like everything that was worth dying to protect. He knew that he just kept handing them ways to exploit him by thinking this way, but what else was he going to do? His sister needed to be free to have her baby, and she was no more guilty of anything than he was. It was just too easy for them.

 

John had put pictures of her in the bedroom. One on Nick’s bedside table, another by the door. “To help you remember,” he’d said, with an twisted smile. Nick knew exactly what it was he was supposed to remember.

 

That it wasn’t his choice anymore.

 

“Mr. Stokes, please take a look at the pictures and tell us if you recognize any of these men.”

 

It was funny, really, how well the system worked when one of their own was the victim. ‘One of their own.’ That was funny, too. ‘One of their own’ didn’t mean a cop. Or a judge’s children. No. It meant one of them.

 

Then they cared. Then the detectives got called in. CSI was on the job. Fingerprints, DNA, trace, the whole nine yards. They’d find out what really happened now. They could, of course. Just because Nick had been screwed didn’t mean the players in the system were inept. You had to know what you were doing if you were going to fudge in the right places at the right times for politics sake.

 

“Mr. Stokes?”

 

The detective sounded beyond impatient. He was pissed. Nick took a deep breath and looked down at the mug shots in front of him. Still, all he could see was Maddy. He shook his head and her face disappeared. Six men stared back at them, candid shots from the fundraiser last night. Nick had caught them staring at him and John, had known that they hadn’t been fooled by the tux he’d been wearing, that they’d seen the leather collar where his bowtie should have been even though John had refrained from attaching a leash.

 

(It hurt, being yanked around by the neck. John let go of the D-ring and whispered in Nick’s ear, “They all know, now. Know what kind of a boy you are. Aren’t you glad you’ve got me here?”)

 

(Something inside him died every time he said it, but still Nick nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”)

 

“No,” Nick said, pushing the pictures back at the detective with his left hand. His right stayed in his lap. He didn’t dare lift his arm, knowing what kind of agony it would cause in his shoulder. “Never seen ‘em before.”

 

The detective stared at him. “You sure?” he asked. “Take another look.” He shoved the pictures back. Nick looked again but shook his head. “You didn’t see them at the fundraiser?”

 

Nick shrugged. “I saw lots of people. I don’t remember any of them.”

 

“You didn’t talk to anyone all night?”

 

“Wasn’t allowed.”

 

(“Eyes down, Nick,” John hissed under his breath. “Remember who you belong to.”)

 

“Sorry,” Nick said.

 

“Your master was beaten to death in his own home and all you say is ‘sorry?’” the detective spat. “How ‘bout you say something about the guys that did it.”

 

“I couldn’t really see.”

 

(John was screaming. Someone else was yelling, breaking things. Nick struggled, but the ropes were tight and the blindfold held.)

 

The detective huffed. “Fine. So why don’t you tell us what you remember, then?”

 

(“What would Maddy say?” John whispered in Nick’s ear. “Would she thank you, Nicky, for keeping her from this?”)

 

(Nick bucked, biting the inside of his mouth until he bled, to keep from screaming. John twisted his fingers, shoving them deeper inside. He wanted to ask John why he was doing this, what he’d done wrong, but knew he wouldn’t get an answer.)

 

(Sometimes it was slow and gentle and good. Sometimes he almost believed that John loved him.)

 

(And sometimes it was like this.)

 

(And he never knew why.)

 

“We left the banquet late. It was almost over.”

 

“What time?”

 

“Around one in the morning, I think.”

 

“And you went straight home?”

 

“Yeah. And we went to bed.”

 

(“Do you think about it much, Nicky? I do.” Three fingers now, and not nearly enough lube. Nick let a tiny sob out, but kept the rest buried. He’d keep whatever dignity he could and make out out on the other side in one piece.)

 

(He tried to fade away, let it happen and not think about it, but John’s questions kept bringing him back.)

 

(“I wonder if she would have been allowed to have the baby. What do you think? No?”)

 

(The fingers stopped moving, and Nick knew what was coming next. As the pain faded, new sensations replaced it. Heat and waves of pleasure as John stroked his dick, getting him hard.)

 

(If it had just been rape, Nick thought. He could have coped with that.)

 

The detective looked at him, as though he suspected Nick was leaving something out.

 

Don’t even ask, Nick thought. You can probably guess.

 

He wanted a shower and clean clothes and someone to look at his shoulder, but he was a slave, and slaves got to give testimony first and be admitted into a hospital later if they weren’t bleeding or dying when they were found. So he got to sit in this tiny room, stinking of sex and leaking come and lube and feces into his shorts. He didn’t think he would have felt less human if he’d been stripped naked and hosed off in public.

 

But that part of him didn’t hurt anymore. Hard to hurt something that was already dead.

 

(“I bet you made her cry when she was a little girl,” John said, and Nick could hear his smile. “She’d cry all the time now. But she’s so lucky.”)

 

(When he couldn’t stand it anymore, when he was so close to coming he could barely breathe, when he was sure he couldn’t take another thing John might say to him without breaking into a thousand pieces, the light gleamed at the end of the tunnel. John pulled his fingers out and a second later his dick replaced it.)

 

(“You’re both lucky,” John said. “Lucky I was here to take you instead.”)

 

“What happened next?”

 

John finished with me and left me tied up, Nick didn’t say. Blew his load, got bored then got boozed up. It felt good to think. If only he’d gotten a chance to spit on the body on his way out.

 

“A noise woke me up. Something breaking,” Nick said. He found out later that the door had been kicked in. “I heard Master Harper scream.”

 

“And did you try to help?”

 

You know I did, Nick thought. He’d pulled on the ropes until he’d dislocated his shoulder.

 

“Yes sir, I did.” He would have helped. Would have held John down until they’d finished with him. But the officers found him still tied to the bed when they arrived. It was probably the only reason he wasn’t being charged with John’s murder. And there were almost certainly some people trying to find ways around that.

 

(There was no way to ignore any of this. John’s words hurt more than the dick up his ass, but it was more a question of kinds of pain than degrees. Nick gritted his teeth and swore he wasn’t going to cry. Not now, at least. Once it was over, when John let him get himself cleaned up. Then he could cry. Silently, so John would never know, but he would. Just not now.)

 

(“I bet she would thank you.” John leaned close again, hot, sour breath on Nick’s face. “And I think you should thank me.”)

 

“Stokes, let me clear something up for you,” the detective leaned across the table, folding his hands. “If you called these guys in, we’ll find out. If you tipped them off, we’ll find out. If you’re trying to protect them, it won’t work. So you may as well cooperate and give them up.”

 

Nick didn’t react. These men were as good as dead, and he knew it. They had prints and trace enough to convict them several times over. But he’d be damned if he was going to testify against the slaves right’s activists who’d done this for him.

 

“Detective,” Nick said, and leaned forward himself. His shoulder screamed when he moved it, but he didn’t wince. “I’ve told you everything I can. And you know that’s the truth.”

 

A year ago, Nick would have been the one out there, making the arrest and convinced that it was the right thing to do. A person’s rights were worth fighting for, of course. And a slave’s rights were, too. But worth murder? Never.

 

That was then.

 

Now, he’d listened to the wet, gurgling sound as John had laid on the floor of the living room, choking on his own blood, and justice had meant something very, very different.

 

(“Well, Nick?”)

 

(“Thank you, sir.”)

 

 


Chapter 12

For the next several days, Gil found no escape. And the ironic thing was that Nick was actually keeping his distance. Gil hadn’t seen him much since that afternoon on the couch, and they’d spoken even less. But that didn’t mean relief. If anything, it made it worse.

 

Memories, manifesting as phantom sensations, assaulted him in every spare waking moment. He drove himself harder at work, multi-tasking and putting in extra hours to keep his mind occupied lest it drift and summon thoughts of hard flesh in his hands and desperate moans of pleasure. Eventually, Catherine took to showing up and kicking him out, threatening restraining orders to keep him from coming back before he was supposed to.

 

He didn’t think it had been a mistake. At least, he’d been pretty sure it was a good idea at the time, otherwise he would have stopped it.

 

At least, he was pretty sure he would have stopped it. Once Nick had stripped down and put the collar on, he’d found it difficult to think rationally about anything.

 

Still, he’d promised himself that he’d do whatever it took, and if that meant granting Nick a certain amount of leeway, then he could do that. Nick wanted to feel safe, and in control, and Gil understood that. He just wish he knew how he could offer it to Nick in a way he’d understand.

 

He got home and, seeing the door to Nick’s bedroom closed, went to bed, where his mind wandered, calling forth images into heated dreams. Not long after the start of a REM cycle, he twisted out from under the blankets, hot, sweating and making gasping noises that almost resolved into words. Things that almost sounded like,

 

“Nick!”

 

And the door to his bedroom creaked open.

 

In his dream, Nick waited for him, bound and nearly in agony from want. Gil took his time, made it last, held back from taking everything the tempting man in front of him had to offer until he couldn’t stand it for another minute.

 

It was perfect. Almost too much. Certainly too vivid to be a dream.

 

Nick’s legs wrapped around him, cinching him in and drawing him even closer, and now it wasn’t about holding back any more. Now it was reckless abandon, giving in. It was about fucking until those gasps and sighs in Nick’s throat turned into full screams, it was about breaking him with ecstasy.

 

So hard. And so close. Nick felt incredible, so hot and tight that Gil knew there was no way he could stand it much longer. And yet it lasted forever, torture that drove every thought from his mind except, More!More!More!

 

The world crashed apart around him, tearing the dream away as he came. For a few seconds, he floated, the rush and ensuing bliss of orgasm holding him gently in a state of relaxed wakefulness.

 

Then he opened his eyes.

 

Nick looked down at him, and for a moment Gil felt a surge of hope. But then reality asserted itself. Nick was on top of him, straddling his hips and impaled on Gil’s just now softening cock, but he could not have been more divorced from the Nick that Gil had been dreaming of moments before.

 

There was no way this could be real. This could not have happened. Except that it was. It had. He was staring up at Nick, who was naked and a little flushed himself, though it was clear that he’d hadn’t been so much as aroused by their coupling. Somehow that made the stab go deeper, that this had been about anything but mutual pleasure for Nick.

 

Then Nick got up, pulling himself off Gil then off the bed. Suddenly, Gil felt more vulnerable than he had at any other time in his life. He grabbed for the blanket, covering himself as he sat up.

 

“There,” Nick said, his face a cold, expressionless mask. “Was that what you wanted?”

 

Something inside Gil roared, devouring all the shock and hurt he’d been feeling a moment ago. How dare Nick behave like the victim right now? Didn’t he realize what he’d just done?

 

“I mean really,” Nick continued, and his gaze traveled deliberately down to Gil’s crotch. He crossed his arms in front of him. Strange, that he could seem that imposing while standing there naked.

 

“Was it better than the dream? You sure seemed to be enjoying yourself before I --”

 

“Hey!” Gil snapped, cutting him off. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

 

 

 

“Oh, don’t I? I’m pretty sure I know what I’m looking at,” Nick snapped back.

 

Gil scoffed. “You don’t know shit, Nicky,” he said.

 

“I sure as hell know a mindfucking from getting fucked up the ass, and I know when I’m getting both,” Nick spat. The pain and betrayal in Nick’s voice was almost enough to derail Gil’s own anger.

 

Almost.

 

“Get out of here, Nick,” Gil said, pointing at the door. “Don’t ever come in here again.”

 

A familiar, defiant expression crossed Nick’s face. “Is that an order, sir?”

 

It was all Gil could do to keep a cap on the rage he felt at that moment. “Yes,” he said, barely unclenching his teeth.

 

Something flickered on Nick’s face for a second, something that looked almost like surprise, but it was gone before Gil was able to identify it. Then Nick was gone, too. He shut the door behind him, and Gil sighed as all the strength he had, everything that had been holding him together, failed him in an instant. He fell backwards and closed his eyes. Then he turned on his side and curled up, pulling the blankets up over his shoulder.

 

He couldn’t wrap his head around what had just happened, wasn’t even sure what to call it. It had been a violation, certainly, but could he actually call it rape? And was that really a live issue, since there was no chance he’d let another living soul know what had happened in this room tonight?

 

And yet, he found that, with Nick out of the room, he wasn’t angry anymore. All he felt right now was this horrible sense that something had just been broken beyond all hope of repair and he didn’t know why.

 

***

 

Ring.

 

Ring.

 

Ri-

 

“This is Drake.”

 

“Marty, it’s Mark.”

 

“Mark. You better be bringing me good news.”

 

“Well, that depends on you. I’ve got the means to do this, Marty; I’ve got two guys standing by right now. They’re watching the house, and all they need is my call. But they don’t get that until I’m sure it’s worth my time.”

 

“So what is it you want?”

 

“You’re not the only one with people on your back. If I get you Stokes, there’s someone here I want taken care of.”

 

“It would be a pleasure, Mark.”

 

“And I’m supposed to trust your word on that?”

 

 

“I keep my promises. All of them.”

 

“Well, you better get working on this one right away, because you don’t get to lay a hand on this slave until I get something from you.”

 

“If that’s what it takes.”

 

“That’s exactly what it takes.”

 

“Then I suggest you get your men out there to do what they’re so good at.”

 

“Certainly. Goodbye, Marty.”

 

“Goodbye, Mark.”

 

 

 

Click.

 

***

 

It wasn’t long before Grissom’s bedroom door opened again and he came out. Nick stood in the living room, having dressed and showered -- all the time firmly thinking about anything but what he’d just done and why, even though the questions had slunk around him and nibbled like leeches -- and held his ground.

 

There was a good chance that he’d finally pushed too far and, instead of just gaining the upper hand in this twisted relationship, would be shipped off. Maybe it would be back to Texas now. Or maybe just on to the next Hell.

 

But Grissom didn’t come anywhere near him. Hardly acknowledged him at all. Nick glanced at the clock. It was hours before Grissom usually left for work, and although it was possible that he’d gotten called in early, Nick doubted it.

 

“Where’re you going?” Nick asked. He tried to make it sound caustic and not really interested, but it came off as fake. He hoped Grissom wouldn’t notice.

 

Grissom glanced up at him, hand on the doorknob. “Away from here,” he said, almost without emotion. Then he left.

 

Nick stared after him, jaw dropping the slightest bit. He had not been expecting that. He’d just been hamstringed, and he almost couldn’t fight the urge to collapse to the ground. Instead, he sat down, hard, on the sofa.

 

Grissom looked…hurt. And that…just really pissed Nick off.

 

Hurt? Him? What made him think he had any right to act like a victim, here? Wasn’t Nick the piece of ass with a price tag? Wasn’t he the one who’d lost anything resembling rights or liberties? Wasn’t he the one treated like something less than human? And Grissom was upset by it?

 

Why? Because the game had taken a turn he didn’t like?

 

Well too fucking bad. And too fucking bad for him if he thought Nick was just going to stick around, waiting for whatever came next.

 

He went for the extra set of keys, the ones Grissom had pointed out that first day. Trap or not, he didn’t give the tiniest fuck. He grabbed the keys, opened the door to the garage and saw the Tahoe sitting there.

 

Well, that’s too bad. If he was getting himself into all kinds of trouble, it would have been more fun, and more worth it, in the Mercedes.

 

Once on the road, he had no idea where he was going, and found himself drawn toward The Strip. Hardly surprising really. Biggest, brightest thing in Vegas, hard not to head for it. Especially since he hadn’t been there, yet.

 

It took him approximately thirty seconds to realize that it held very little appeal for him, but he drove around anyway until the crowds and traffic and that damn Ford that kept riding his ass finally got to him and he found a place to park. Maybe it would be better to walk off all this energy anyway.

 

He didn’t have any interest in window shopping under normal circumstances -- and when was the last time his circumstances had been normal, anyway? -- but unless he wanted booze, sex or the chance to loose his shirt in a casino, there wasn’t much else to occupy him. And at least it was something to look at, something to pretend to do while he avoided thinking.

 

He lost track of where he was and what he was doing after a while, and just wandered from one display to the next. After a while, he stopped and wondered how many blocks he had walked, and if he could remember where he’d left the car. He turned around, trying to get his bearings.

 

There was the Tahoe, just a few blocks down.

 

And right behind it, that same blue Ford.

 

The hair on the back of Nick’s neck prickled, and he turned, scanning the crowd. Someone was watching him, he was sure of it, and probably had more than just watching on his brain.

 

What the hell was going on? And more importantly, what the hell did this person want?

 

But he was dealing with an amateur, at least. If this were a professional, the first inkling he’d have of trouble would be the moment it was too late. He scanned the crowd. Everything looked perfectly normal and as it should be, so he had to give the guy some credit. It meant he probably wasn’t so inept as to think he could just walk up and stick a knife between Nick’s ribs. Or whatever it was he planned on doing, not here and now, not with so many eyes around.

 

So now what? For a second, he considered getting back in the Tahoe and gunning it for home. But, presumably, if he’d been followed here, he’d just be followed home again. This guy had him in his sights now, and the only thing to do was shake him or draw him out.

 

Nick didn’t think he had much chance of shaking him. The only way out was through, as they liked to say.

 

He started walking again, keeping up his casual gait, but moving steadily away from the crowds and the lights. But now, instead of paying even marginal attention to the window displays, he was checking out the area.

 

If I was gonna jump someone, Nick thought, looking around. I’d want someplace like…

 

There, up ahead. If he turned the corner to his right, like he was heading for the service door to the Tangiers, he would be out of plain sight. Perfect.

 

A knot of terror started to form in his stomach. Some part of him knew that this was a fantastically stupid thing to do, but what choice did he have? He couldn’t go home and the idea of going to the police was just ludicrous. For all he knew, this guy was a cop. Be about right, given his luck.

 

He picked up his pace, moving like he had a reason to be heading that direction, and hoped his shadow was taking the bait.

 

He turned the corner, back pressed against the brick wall, and waited. As soon as the guy came around the corner, he could jump him. Or make his escape if he didn’t like his chances.

 

He waited. And waited. And waited…

 

Nothing.

 

By now, Nick’s heart was pounding so loud, he was sure everyone on the Strip was wondering what that noise was. He swallowed, tried to take a deep breath, and snuck back to peer around the corner. He leaned forward…

 

…and was yanked back.

 

What the hell? For a second, Nick was too startled and confused to do anything. How had the guy gotten in behind him?

 

Someone had an arm around his neck. He grabbed it, trying to twist away, and at the same time opening his mouth to shout, when something hard and sharp pressed against his throat. A knife.

 

“I don’t have to kill you to shut you up,” a man whispered into his ear, squeezing a little tighter. Nick gasped and pulled on the arm around his neck, but the man pressed the point of the knife harder into his throat, against his vocal chords. Nick stopped struggling, cold terror paralyzing him.

 

This is it. After all this, I’m gonna get knifed by a stranger.

 

He swallowed, feeling the knife dig into his skin as he did so. The man started backing up, and Nick had no choice but to go with, even though everything in him was screaming to fight. If he went with him, he was dead. That was a given. But wasn’t he dead if he fought?

 

At least he could say he hadn’t given up.

 

The moment he made the decision, time seemed to freeze. It was like someone else was calling the shots.

 

On the next step backwards, he tripped deliberately, knocking his own leg behind his captor’s. They both went down, and Nick pulled himself away as the man instinctively threw an arm out to brace his fall.

 

The moment they hit the ground, he rolled away and back to his feet, making to escape. But his assailant was just as quick to recover. Nick made a dash for the end of the alley, sure that at any second, he would be tackled, or grabbed, or maybe even shot. But he made it.

 

Someone stepped into his path just as came out onto the street. He skidded, trying to avoid her, and…

 

“Nick?”

 

He stared at Catherine Willows, panting and terrified, but so, so relieved. It amazed him that he could be so grateful to see another human being.

 

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Where’s Gil?”

 

“I --”

 

“Catherine,” an older gentleman, whose arm Catherine was still holding, interrupted. “Let me handle this.”

 

“Sam, what…?” Catherine turned to look at him, as did Nick.

 

But Sam wasn’t looking at either of them. He was looking over Nick’s shoulder at the man with the knife. He’d followed Nick out onto the street, and was now frozen by a glare fierce enough to stop a steam engine. Nick could have sworn he saw the tiniest tremor shake the guy’s body. Of course, the two grim looking men in suits that had come up on either side of him at the nod from Sam might have had something to do with it as well.

 

“Jimmy,” Sam said. “Been a while since I’ve seen you around.”

 

Jimmy shifted uncomfortably, shrugged, but didn’t answer. In the new light, Nick noticed he was wearing some kind of earpiece. That would explain how he’d managed to get the drop on him; Ford Guy must have been a decoy. Nick started to fume a bit that he’d fallen for it, then felt Catherine take a hold of his arm.

 

“Nick, come on,” she said, not taking her eyes off Jimmy. They turned around, moving past Sam and back into the Tangiers.

 

“Sam?” she said. Sam stayed where he was for a second, then turned and followed them.

 

“Let Tony handle this,” he said to one of the suited men as they passed. The man nodded, taking Jimmy by the arm.

 

As soon as they were inside, Catherine guided them through a series of doors into a private lounge.

 

“What the hell was that all about?” she asked, once the door closed behind them.

 

“Bounty hunters,” Sam said. “Jimmy and Alan Paige. Two of the best in the business.” He gave Nick a discerning look as he spoke, that made him feel highly uncomfortable.

 

Catherine and Nick stared at him. Then Catherine shook her head and sighed. “I’m not even going to ask you how you know that,” she said.

 

Sam didn’t respond, except with a knowing look.

 

“Nick,” Catherine said, putting her hand on Nick’s arm so he turned to look at her. “Where’s Gil?”

 

Nick shrugged. “He left,” he said. “And he didn’t tell me where he was going.”

 

Catherine sighed. “Then he’s one of two places,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.” She headed across the room and opened a door to an office.

 

Then Sam looked at Nick. He looked at him for a long time, and eventually the silence and that stare started to feel like actual physical forces holding him down. Nick swallowed and shifted uncomfortably, and finally Sam relaxed and pulled back the stare.

 

“It’s Mr. Stokes, isn’t it?” he asked. Nick started, and blinked at him.

 

“How did you know that?” Nick asked, too surprised to remember to be properly respectful in his speech.

 

“It’s my business to know things that are important,” Sam answered, almost sounding bored. He didn’t seem to notice Nick’s faux pas. He sat down in on one of the couches and invited Nick to do the same. “You were lucky,” he added.

 

The incongruity of the situation was enough to make Nick’s head swim. Here was a man who, by everything Nick could see, was clearly a noble -- possibly of actual noble blood, if his bearing and obvious influence were anything to go by -- and yet treated Nick with the same dignity that Catherine did.

 

He had no idea how he was meant to respond.

 

“Yeah,” Nick said, staring at the carpet and feeling oddly…humbled. “Thanks--Thank you…Sir.” He was nearly stuttering and his mouth was drying out. It felt like so long ago and far away that he’d sat in the same room with important people and hadn’t felt horribly inadequate about it. He’d never felt as much a slave as he did right now.

 

“You’re a friend of Catherine’s,” Sam said. “That makes you a friend of mine.”

 

Nick looked up sharply and stared at this man. His expression -- a kind of neutral, thoughtful frown -- hadn’t changed since the time they’d entered this room, but now it seemed suddenly safer. Almost friendly.

 

“Well, I appreciate that,” Nick said, and meant it.

 

Catherine came back in, then. “I found him,” she said. “I also talked to Brass. He’s sent uniforms to watch the house, but neither of us think you should go back there alone.”

 

Nick looked up at her. “So what do I do?”

 

She sighed. “I guess I take you to Gil,” she said. She didn’t sound happy about the idea. She turned. “Sam, thanks for dinner. I’m sorry to run out on you like this, but…” she shrugged.

 

Sam brushed it off, holding up a hand. “You have things to do. I know how it goes.”

 

Catherine flashed a quick smile at him, then gestured to Nick to follow her out the door. Going outside made Nick a little nervous, and he hesitated, but Catherine picked up on it and was quick to reassure him.

 

“Trust me,” she said. “Nothing’s going to happen between here and my car that Sam doesn’t want to happen.” A pause, then she said, almost to herself, “Those are the rules in this town, and everyone knows it.”

 

Nick watched her, wondering about that slightly bitter aside, but waited until they were in her truck to ask about it.

 

“It’s just Sam,” she said, on a loud exhale. “For as long as I’ve known him, you’d think I’d have some idea if he’s one of the good guys or a really smart bad guy.” She turned around in her seat to back the truck out of its parking space.

 

“How long have you known him?”

 

Catherine laughed and pulled the car out onto the road. “All my life,” she said wryly. She looked sidelong at him and grinned, clearly amused by his puzzlement. “How much do you know about the Braun family?” she asked.

 

Nick shook his head, indicating that he didn’t know anything at all.

 

“Well,” Catherine said, dragging the word out as she checked over her shoulder and switched lanes. “You couldn’t have Vegas if you didn’t have Sam. And I’m not just talking about his casinos.”

 

Well, that could mean lots of things. Most of them on the shadier end of the spectrum. But that was probably what Catherine meant when she said she couldn’t tell if he was a good guy or a bad guy. Nick couldn’t help but think of John. Sometimes it was damn hard to tell, and uncertainty would bite you in the ass the minute you weren’t expecting it.

 

Catherine watched him while he turned these thoughts over. Finally, she spoke again, “Let me guess. You’re wondering why I have anything to do with him.”

 

Nick shrugged. “I’m sure you have a good reason.”

 

“He’s my father,” she said. “He looked out for me after my mother died. Put me through school. It’s not like that’s a secret.”

 

She said it like that explained everything. So he’d been an estranged father while she’d been growing up? Maybe she hadn’t known who her father was until her mother had died. Well, he certainly hadn’t detected any familial bond between them. It would have made more sense for her to tell him that Sam was her uncle.

 

“A lot of men would’ve looked the other way,” she continued. “Especially someone with a reputation like Sam’s.”

 

“Why?” Nick couldn’t help himself. She’d shared this much; he couldn’t believe it would be presumptuous of him to ask for more now. Catherine didn’t turn, but took a deep breath and stared ahead at the road.

 

“Because my mother was a showgirl,” she said. “His showgirl.” The way she said it, and the hard, knowing look she shot him made it clear what she was talking about. And Nick remembered what everyone had always said about Vegas: all the girls are for sale, but you can’t afford the prettiest ones. It was strange to think of all the shows in Vegas, all those smiling, beautiful women, and to know that almost every one of them was owned by the casino they worked for.

 

“That’s not something I tell a lot of people,” she said. It sounded like a warning.

 

“I understand why,” Nick said. His voice caught as he spoke, and he coughed to clear it. He understood a lot of things now; why she treated him like a normal person, why Sam had done the same, why she’d been so furious when she’d walked into Grissom’s house the night he’d been brought home.

 

The word ‘home’ echoed in his head, bringing a sweet, unexpected ache to his chest. Then he realized that he hadn’t been thinking of his home in Texas, and he froze. He shoved the thought away and looked out the window.

 

They were out of the city now, and turning into the driveway of a large, imposing mansion. Catherine drove past the main entrance and parked in the back.

 

“Here we are,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt. She flashed a smile at Nick, one that plainly said, “Everything we just talked about stays between us. Right?” He smiled back, less sincerely, and followed her up to the door.

 


Chapter 13

That evening, when Gil had shown up at her door, looking as though he didn’t know who he was anymore, even though Heather hadn’t been expecting it, she hadn’t been surprised. It took a lot to surprise her. Usually, she read the writing on the wall more easily than the Sunday paper, an ability that often unnerved people.

 

And getting the call from Catherine a little over two hours later? The same situation there. She hadn’t predicted bounty hunters, but she knew the Council, and this had their fingerprints all over it.

 

“Did he say what happened?” Heather asked, handing Catherine a mug of coffee. She took it and shook her head.

 

“Of course, I didn’t ask. Gil say anything?”

 

“No.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

They stood in Heather’s kitchen, having excused themselves and retreated there to talk as soon as Catherine arrived, and watched Nick through the open door. She’d invited him to make himself at home, but as he stood in Heather’s drawing room, he looked as though he were afraid to breathe. He moved cautiously, not touching anything, not even brushing the furniture as he passed.

 

Catherine took a sip of her coffee and made a dissatisfied noise.

 

“You got anything to put in this?” she asked.

 

“Cream and sugar?”

 

“I was thinking booze.”

 

Heather chuckled, softly, then retrieved a bottle of whiskey, and held it up for Catherine’s approval. Her eyes widened.

 

“That’s way too good for coffee,” she said, but held out her mug anyway. Heather poured.

 

“Better?”

 

Catherine tasted it and smiled.

 

“Much.”

 

They lapsed into silence again, and Heather retreated back into her own thoughts. She realized, as she watched Nick, that if anyone other than Gil had gotten it into their heads to fall for this young man, she would have thought it a poor idea. Her own diagnosis of ‘miss-handling’ had fallen woefully short of the truth. Nick looked as though he expected traps everywhere. There was still a chance that he could recover from whatever abuse he’d suffered, but expecting him to be able to trust again was nearly a fool’s hope.

 

But then, Gil could be a fool, sometimes. And erhaps he was right; perhaps he knew something that she didn’t.

 

“So what do we do now?” Catherine asked. Heather shrugged.

 

“Everything we can do,” she said. “Which, I’m afraid, isn’t much.”

 

“I was afraid you would say something like that,” Catherine said, sighing as she spoke. She took another sip of coffee. “So what can you tell about Nick?”

 

Heather frowned. Based on what Gil had said, and too, what he hadn’t said, Heather had spent the past few weeks coming to a conclusion about what Nick Stokes might be like. She’d constructed a best-case scenario and a worst-case, and right now it looked like the truth was closer to the worst-case end of the spectrum than she liked.

 

Much of it hadn’t been hard to imagine; the vulnerability, the pain, even the strength that abounded in spite of everything else. All this she had deduced, not from anything Gil had actually said about Nick, though that had helped, of course, but because of how he so obviously felt. Nick was dear to him, and it wasn’t hard for her to imagine the kind of man who could have captured him so completely.

 

Now, finally meeting him, she felt gratified to see how right she had been.

 

Almost.

 

She watched him walk around the room and noticed the tiniest things in his body language. His back was stiff, and he carried visible tension in his neck and jaw. His hands kept clenching into fists, relaxing and clenching again.

 

“I didn’t expect so much anger,” Heather said.

 

Catherine snorted. “Well, yeah,” she said, and Heather felt herself wince, even though she gave no outward sign of such a reaction.

 

It embarrassed her that she hadn’t anticipated that trait. But no matter. She could adapt her picture of Nick easily enough, and could unravel him as quickly as anyone else who ever came through her doors.

 

Catherine finished her coffee and set the mug down. “Do you think I should stay?” she asked.

 

Heather shook her head. “Only if you want,” she said. “But I’m sure you’d be better off at home with Lindsay, don’t you think?”

 

Catherine nodded. “I just hate to drop this in your lap and run,” she said.

 

“You’re not.”

 

“Well,” Catherine said, pushing herself away from the counter and towards the door. “If you need help, just give me a call. I’ll be here as soon as I can haul my sorry ass out of bed.” She grinned, trying for a kind of humor to lighten the mood. It didn’t really work, but it was so welcome that Heather laughed anyway.

 

“I doubt anything that drastic will happen tonight,” she said. “But thank you.”

 

“Thank you,” Catherine said. “And good luck.”

 

On her way out, she stopped to give Nick a friendly pat on the arm. Nick didn’t pull away from the touch, and looked greatly reassured by the contact. Heather relaxed a little, noticing that. It meant that Nick wasn’t quite as guarded as he seemed to be.

 

Once Catherine shut the door behind her, Heather set her own mug down and was about to come into the drawing room to talk to Nick, when she stopped.

 

Nick had come around to a glass display case in one corner of the room. Inside was her collection of retired accessories. Masks, whips and floggers, many made of aging leather or decorated with hand-crafted accents. Equipment that was now too delicate or in other ways no longer fit for use, but still intriguing, beautiful or otherwise irreplaceable.

 

He stiffened the moment he realized what they were. His head went up, and he pulled back. But he didn't walked away. Despite his apprehension, he was still curious.

 

He stood that way, stock still and perfectly straight, for several seconds, and Heather decided not to approach him just yet.

 

Instead, she decided to find something to bring out to him. That was a challenge she felt equipped to handle at the moment.

 

Most hostesses would offer guests their choice of refreshment. Heather liked to be more personal than that. And she always, always made the right choice for her guests. It was just a matter of determining what kind of person they were, and what would be the most refreshing and comforting for them.

 

Now Nick.

 

Despite the bravado he was trying so desperately to pass off as his true nature, he had all the hallmarks of a shy, polite southern boy.

 

That meant that tea and china were right out, then. So was coffee. Something cold would be better. Lemonade, she thought, would be too provincial. Then she smiled, opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of iced tea. She set it on a tray with two glasses, sugar and lemon, and brought it back out.

 

Nick had moved away from the display case, and was now examining pictures on the opposite wall.

 

“That’s my daughter,” Heather said. Her voice startled Nick, but he only twitched the slightest bit. Then he turned around. Heather set the tray on a glass-topped coffee table, poured a glass of the tea and brought it over to him.

 

“She’s sixteen, now,” Heather said, indicating the picture. It was one of her favorites: a four-year-old girl slid, screaming with glee, down a tornado slide. Done in black and white, and displayed in an antique silver frame, it was a sophisticated, but personal touch to the room.

 

“What’s her name?” Nick asked, taking the glass. The way he said it, almost carelessly, caught her attention. She doubted that he'd even thought about it before asking the casual question, but a piece of the man he’d once been had just shown through. She made note of it and filed it away for future consideration.

 

Until now, given the suspicious circumstances surrounding Nick's contract, she'd entertained the idea that he was a victim rather than a criminal. Now, she was starting to be sure of it.

 

"Zoe," Heather said. "Would you like to have a seat?" Nick shrugged, but followed her over to the sofa. He still looked like a man facing his own execution, but at least he was sitting now.

 

“You’re safe here,” she said. “Even without the officers that Captain Brass has no doubt sent to watch the house. My own security system is more than adequate. I don’t take chances with the safety of my staff.”

 

“Your staff?”

 

Heather smiled to herself. “Yes,” she said. “This is more than just my home, although this wing is reserved for my private use, it’s my place of business.” Nick tensed then, gripping his glass a little tighter, and looked at the floor.

 

“You’re familiar with my work, then,” Heather said. There was no need to phrase it as a question. He’d heard her name, at least, and had probably come to some conclusions about what she did. And what kind of a person that made her.

 

No matter. She’d dealt with this kind of misconception before. It almost made her smile.

 

“I’ve heard of you,” Nick said. She had to admire how steady he was keeping his voice. This young man had control beyond anything she would have expected. It was endlessly unfortunate that he’d learned it under such harsh circumstances.

 

“And what have you heard?” she asked. Now she did pour herself a glass of tea. She leaned back in the sofa and sipped it.

 

Nick shook his head. “That you’re a friend of Grissom’s,” he said.

 

“More than a friend,” Heather answered, and was quietly delighted to see his attention snap into focus for a second. Something flashed in his eyes, and he held his breath for an instant. Interesting.

 

“That bothers you,” she said. “Would you be disappointed if your master had a lover other than you?”

 

Nick grimaced. “I’m not his lover,” he said. But he said it too quickly, too emphatically. Too much like…

 

…like something he regretted.

 

"Nor am I,” Heather said. “The question still stands.”

 

“And what if I don’t want to answer it?”

 

“Then don’t,” she said with a light shrug. She had her answer, anyway. He was guarding himself, and more accurately, guarding his heart. But in a specific way, the way an animal protects an injured limb. She'd seen that particular behavior often enough in others to know that it meant he'd already given some part of it away.

 

Heather wondered if was even aware of his own attachment to Gil.

 

Nick stared at her. "You really don't care?"

 

"If I didn't care, I wouldn't have asked," Heather said. "But you're under no obligation to me."

 

Nick scoffed and muttered something fierce and punctuated under his breath before he turned away. Heather closed her eyes in exasperation. This was getting her nowhere, and was both tiring and infuriating. Perhaps it would be best to cut to the quick as soon as possible.

 

"Let me guess," she said, crossing her arms and squaring herself in front of him. Her tone was more clipped, and she spoke faster. Instantly, Nick jerked to attention. "You're wondering, not if I'm your enemy, but what kind of threat I pose to you."

 

He didn't answer, but his jaw tensed and, for a second, his eyes flashed. That was promising, in it's own way. His spirit hadn't been destroyed completely.

 

"You're disinclined to trust any kindness I offer you," she continued, not flinching from his stare and meeting it with one of her own. "No doubt because of whatever information you have received about who I am and what I do."

 

His eyes flickered, for the briefest instant, to the display case in the corner. But he recovered quickly.

 

"But at least you're inclined to respect candor, even if you don't trust it." The words were a test as much as a statement. If he didn't bristle, she'd know she was right.

 

He didn't bristle.

 

"A hard-won lesson, I'm sure," she said. It took a great deal of effort to keep sympathy from touching her voice, but she managed to keep her remark a mere observation of fact. "One that has cost you so much, you can't even bring yourself to ask the question you most want answered."

 

“Really,” Nick said. “And what do I want to know?”

 

“You want me to tell you what kind of man Gil is,” she said.

 

“Ah…I know what kind of man he is,” Nick said, making a face.

 

“Do you? Or do you resent him because it makes you feel safe to do so?” she returned, just as quickly. Her words hung in the air for long moments after that. Nick tried to meet her eyes with a haughty stare, but his focus kept slipping. Finally, he looked away and down.

 

"I hate him," Nick said, his voice low and deliberate, "because he's just like all the rest."

 

"Why?"

 

Nick stared at her, as though he couldn't believe that she'd had to ask. Then his expression shifted, twisting into pained anger. "What did he want you to teach me?" he asked. "How to be a better pet?" He nodded pointedly to the display case in the far corner.

 

"No," Heather said, but Nick clearly didn't believe her.

 

"That's not what he said."

 

That made Heather frown. This wasn't speculation on Nick's part, he thought he actually knew something.

 

"Then you're mistaken about something," Heather said.

 

"No, I'm not." Nick spoke through a clenched jaw, and didn't blink as he stared her down, daring her to argue with him. "I heard him just fine."

 

Then it clicked. If Nick knew who she was, and what she did, then it stood to reason that he must have somehow stumbled on Gil's early intentions to give him to her. That, at least, would explain why he remained persistently suspicious of her.

 

"I can assure you," Heather said, meeting Nick's stare with as much integrity as she could muster, "that he has never perceived you in such a fashion."

 

All she got in return was a blank stare. Not that she could blame him; Gil's motivations were difficult enough to understand, even if he considered you a confidant. And his actions didn't always speak for themselves. Even in this case, Heather was convinced that most of the reason Gil had come to her as a way to relieve him of Nick was because part of him had hoped, or at least suspected, that she wouldn't be able to help him. The result had been to satisfy his honor without giving up what he didn't truly want to loose.

 

"Then why did he buy me?" Nick asked. His voice was suddenly small, tired and perhaps a little frightened.

 

Heather, on the other hand, was stunned. He didn't know?

 

But that, too, made perfect, awful sense. It wouldn't have occurred to Gil to explain the truth of the situation. It would have been akin to defending himself, justifying his ownership. But to Nick, it made the difference between malevolence and benevolence.

 

Heather got up, then, and crossed the room to her desk. She could argue Gil's character with Nick all night, and he most likely would not be convinced. What she needed, was proof. And this time, she had it.

 

She opened a drawer and pulled out the copy of Nick's contract that Gil had left with her. On the top was the certificate of ownership, declaring Nick a "gift of goodwill" to Gil Grissom from the Las Vegas Council of Nobles. She brought it over to Nick.

 

"He didn't," she said, and handed it to him.

 

He looked back and forth between her and the paper she offered, and his eyes and face clouded in confusion. When he finally reached out to take the certificate, his hands trembled the tiniest bit. She noticed, but pretended she hadn't. It brought forth a desire in her to sit down next to him, and cradle him as she used to do to Zoe.

 

She gave him a few moments to look the certificate over, watched him run his fingers over the embossed print of his own name and Gil's, and then over the official, golden seal of the Council. His every move, and the new, helpless expression on his face, telegraphed the thought in his head, 'This is real.'

 

"He has never purchased a slave for personal use," Heather said. "Nor do I believe he ever would.”

 

“Why?” Nick asked, but didn't look as though he understood, much less agreed, with anything she was saying. Now Heather did sit down next to him. He didn't pull away, but she didn't push her luck by trying to touch him.

 

“I would think that you, of all people, would understand the kind of manipulation a Lord of the Council is capable of,” Heather said, raising one eyebrow in speculation.

 

Nick’s mouth dropped open, and he stared at her as though she’d struck him. “How do you know?” he asked.

 

“I didn’t,” she said. “Until a moment ago. But I had my suspicions.”

 

Nick shook his head and looked down at the certificate again. He bit his lip, and Heather sensed that he was trying to make up his mind about whether he could trust her or not. He clearly wasn’t ready to volunteer any more information about himself or his past. Heather decided to change directions.

 

“You’ll notice that it’s signed by the head of the Council,” she said, nodding to the certificate. “That’s not merely a formality. It’s a personal gesture. Now,” she shifted so that she was looking Nick squarely in the eye. It required tilting her head down and forward a bit, as he was still hunched over. “What do you think it takes for a public servant to attract the attention of a man like that?”

 

Nick blinked a few times, then made a sound of stunned disbelief. “Something he really likes,” Nick said, considering the words as he spoke. “Or something he really hates.”

 

“More nobles have been convicted in slave homicide cases in the last six months than used to be convicted in six years before Gil joined the department,” Heather said. “Mark has been under considerable pressure to do something about him. But ever since Catherine arrived at the lab, he hasn’t been able to be the bully he’d like to be.” She fixed Nick with a knowing look. “You know why, of course.”

 

Nick seemed confused for a second, then comprehension dawned. “Sam Braun,” he said.

 

“A small bully is just as easily picked on by a bigger one,” she said. “Which means that Mark has had to resort to subtler methods to get what he wants, something he has never excelled at.”

 

“Me.” Nick said, without inflection.

 

Heather frowned as she nodded. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if he hoped to win Gil’s good favor, or if he’d planned something more malicious. Tonight’s attack seems to indicate the latter.”

 

“Or it has nothing to do with Grissom,” Nick said. Heather perked up, sudden relief taking her at the realization that Nick was no longer holding back.

 

“I’d considered that as well,” Heather said. That got her a sharp, quizzical look from Nick.

 

“How did you know?” he asked. “About me?” Then he shook his head. “Or…why did you suspect anything?”

 

“Why did you agree to such extreme terms in your contract?” she countered. Nick pulled back, instantly, as she knew he would. It didn’t matter, she didn’t intend to pursue. The particular ‘why’ wasn’t important, not to her, anyway.

 

“No man accepts such a fate for his own sake,” she said. “But the best prisons are the ones that good men fashion for themselves, out of their own sense of honor. And a clever man will use that to his advantage. I assume that is what was done to you.”

 

Silence fell between them, and she let it. Nick took several long, deep breaths, and turned away from her. After a while, he nodded abruptly, but didn’t turn.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “For everything you’ve suffered.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” Nick said, shrugging.

 

“Nor is it Gil’s,” she said.

 

That made Nick look at her, horror dawning on his face. “Oh my god,” he said, “I-”

 

“Haven’t done irreparable damage, yet,” Heather said. “If you wish to repair it, you still can.”

 

Nick shook his head. “What would I say?”

 

“That depends on what you want,” Heather said. Nick closed his eyes, a hopeless expression falling over his face and weighing down his shoulders. Then, something occurred to Heather. She got up from the couch and walked across the room to a bookcase. Standing on her tiptoes and reaching over her head, she took down an aged, oak box from the top shelf. Inside was something that she’d kept for a long time, finding pleasure from the sense of nostalgia it brought her.

 

“This has been in my possession for a long time,” she said. “But it belongs to Gil. And I would like you to return it to him.” She opened the box. Inside was a hand-worked leather collar, one she‘d worn more times than she could count, one that Gil had choosen for its elegance as much as anything else. She took it out.

 

“He never owned me,” she said. “Except when I allowed it. And he never asked for more than that.” She held it out to Nick, who stared at it with frightened eyes.

 

"You can't protect yourself with anger anymore," Heather explained. "And that frightens you. He frightens you. But not for what you think he might do to you.”

 

Nick shook his head. “I don’t-”

 

“When you thought I was his lover, it distressed you. As though you’d been betrayed. And that is what frightens you.”

 

Nick shook his head, but didn’t look at her. No one ever looked at her when she started hitting close to her mark.

 

“You fear him because trusting him would make you vulnerable. And yet that’s what you most want to do.”

 

Nick stared, open mouthed, with a desolate, terrified expression on his face. He shook his head again. “You can’t really think-”

 

“That you want to believe his kindness is real?” she challenged. When he didn’t answer, she continued, “You want it more than anything. To feel safe with him. To feel loved by him.”

 

She took a long, slow breath, watching his reaction. His face still held a look of stunned disbelief, but he was listening, not arguing. And somewhere, in the deepest parts of his eyes, he looked terrified. Finally, he reached out an unsteady hand and took the collar from her.

 

“When you’re ready, his room is up the stairs, at the end of the hallway.”

 

 

 


Chapter 14

 

Nick sat on the sofa long after Heather had left the room.

 

"When you're ready, his room is upstairs on the left."

 

When he was ready. Ready for what?

 

He stared at the furniture, the walls, the rugs, but didn’t really see any of them. How the hell had he gotten here? And what the hell was he supposed to do about it?

 

He looked down at the collar in his hands, and felt more alone than he ever had in his life.

 

That was no good at all. It cost too much to indulge these kinds of feelings, and he couldn’t afford that kind of vulnerability. He didn’t want it, either. Instead, he wanted to be angry. He had a right to be angry.

 

And the more he thought about it, the more he was. Thick, hot coils of anger wound around in his belly. He held on to it for a little while, enjoying how it felt. It felt good, made him feel justified and strong. After all, anger had kept him alive this far, kept him getting out of bed day after fucking day.

 

And then he took a deep breath, and made himself let it all go. It was a mistake, at least for now. Right now, there wasn’t anyone for him to be angry at.

 

Except himself. After all, he was the one who’d fucked this situation up, hadn’t he?

 

He still had the certificate in his left hand, and he looked at it again. He’d already re-read it enough times to be able to recite it from memory. But even so, he could hardly wrap his head around what it told him. Amazing, really, how little it took to turn his world upside down. Again. And again, it was the damn Council fucking with things they had no right to touch.

 

He started crumpling the paper in his fingers. For a second, he entertained the idea of ripping it to tiny pieces, and felt a scream forming in his chest. He twisted one corner and watched a tiny rip appear and grow. It felt fantastic, as if everything that had happened to him was this certificate’s fault, and he could make it all right again by expending all his anger on it.

 

He threw the certificate onto the coffee table.

 

There wouldn’t be any satisfaction in that, not really. And it wasn’t his to destroy. In fact, this particular piece of paper could have spelled the beginning of a new and better life for him.

 

If only he hadn’t been so goddamned stupid!

 

He hurled the collar at the certificate. One of the buckles hit it, puncturing the paper and tearing it further. Then it bounced off the table and landed on the floor, out of sight.

 

There. Now he felt a little better.

 

He just felt like throwing up.

 

He slumped into the sofa, and after a minute of blank staring, curled around to press his face into the armrest.

 

What had he done?

 

That was easy; he’d become exactly what he hated the most. He’d made himself into a predator, watched Grissom until he’d discovered exactly what his weaknesses were, and taken advantage. And he’d felt good about it, too.

 

That thought made him want to curl into himself and never move again, but he made himself stare it down. Time to be a man and admit what he’d done.

 

Hadn’t he felt positively gleeful when he’d finally found Grissom's weakness? Hadn’t he felt just so satisfied, when he’d realized it was him? Coming across Grissom tonight, in that state, had been an accident. What he’d done afterwards, though, that hadn’t.

 

And now he thought it might have been incited, at least a little, with the brief disappointment he’d felt, when he’d realized Grissom had spoken his name in sleep, not because he was actually calling for him.

 

There was no excuse for what he’d done next. That hadn’t even been about protecting himself. He’d wanted to hurt Grissom, and that’s all there was too it. Well, he’d gotten his wish. Nick thought of Grissom’s eyes as he’d left the house.

 

There was a word for what he’d done, but he couldn’t bring himself to think it.

 

And now Heather seemed to think that he could just go upstairs and make nice with Grissom? That they could fix this and put it behind them?

 

He’d give anything for that to be true. Sudden, horribly painful hope burst in his chest that maybe, just maybe, it could be true. Because Heather thought so, and she’d been so right about everything else, hadn’t she? Much as he hated admitting it, he wanted to believe that he hid himself better than that. Still, she’d seen in a few minutes what it had taken him months and the worst possible circumstances to figure out.

 

Grissom had him utterly captivated.

 

And now, he might very well have lost him, or destroyed any chance he might have had.

 

Maybe he should just end this now and turn himself in to whoever it was that wanted him so badly. The Vegas Council, most likely.

 

Nick’s eyes snapped open as, suddenly, all of that made perfect sense.

 

The Dallas Council was probably desperate to get him back, since, without him in their hands, their sway over his father vanished completely. And no doubt the Vegas Council would do everything in their power to help out. Grissom was almost certainly innocent of absolutely everything Nick had suspected.

 

And shouldn’t he have seen that all along? Hadn’t Grissom given him all the space he’d needed and more? Hadn’t he treated him with respect?

 

He’d been so sure, so determined that he wouldn’t fall for the same tricks again, that he’d turned sweet water into poison, just because that’s what he’d been expecting. And it was all his fault. Grissom had never so much as laid a finger on him, after all.

 

He closed his eyes, and would have wept if he hadn’t felt so completely numb.

 

***

 

“And you’re sure he’ll be safe here?” Grissom heard the panic in his own voice, knew that meant Heather probably had as well, but didn’t care. Discovering that Nick had been attacked, nearly killed or worse, because he’d been feeling too wounded and self-indulgent to be there to protect him had –

 

“Yes, he is, and you should stop doing that,” Heather said, and did stop Gil in his mental tracks. He sighed.

 

“Am I that obvious?” he said, closing his eyes in exhaustion.

 

“Only to me,” Heather said. He could hear the smile in her voice. “It’s not your fault.”

 

“Not entirely,” Gil corrected. He wasn’t going to try to take responsibility for the attack itself; if they hadn’t tried today, they would have tried another time. But he was pretty sure he had something to do with why Nick had been out of the house. That was his fault.

 

Heather wasn’t going to argue further. He couldn’t tell, though, if it was because she agreed with him or because it wasn’t important enough.

 

“When he comes up here, he’s going to have some questions for you.”

 

Gil shot Heather a scalding look. “That wasn’t a good idea,” he said.

 

Heather shrugged, utterly unrepentant. “Under the circumstances, it was the best option available,” she said. “Perhaps if you had told me what went on between you two tonight, I would have made a different decision. As it stands, nothing I’ve done has contributed any greater damage to the situation. In fact, you have an opportunity, now, to correct some things.”

 

Gil stared, mouth hanging open. Heather didn’t take that tone of voice often, as a general rule, and did so even less often with him. Being lectured by her always managed to make him feel utterly insignificant and foolish. Usually because she only did so when he had been acting foolish and they both knew it. He'd used to argue with her, and try to defend himself. But not anymore, and not this time. He couldn’t imagine a way to defend his behavior this time.

 

“You’re right,” he said. “So what should I do?”

 

Heather smiled, that coy, playful smile she got when things were going exactly how she wanted them to go. “Find out what he wants,” she said. “You’re good at that.”

 

Gil snorted, a retort on the tip of his tongue. But he swallowed it. It was hard to allow Heather to jab at him in exactly the places that stung the most, but he knew himself well enough to know that nothing else was likely to incite him into the right kind of action. Still, it was irritating that she knew it, too. And used that knowledge against him.

 

Heather turned, then, heading towards the door. With a hand on the doorknob, she paused. “I have clients who will be arriving shortly,” she said. “Will you be all right?” Now he saw genuine concern in her eyes, and that made him feel better. He’d seen the same thing when she’d opened the door to him that night. It reminded him of what had once been there between them, and even though it had been the right choice to end it, he still missed that kind of emotional intimacy.

 

“We’ll be fine,” Gil said. Heather nodded, and then left the room. He listened to her boots click on the hard wood floors as she walked down the hall, until finally everything was silent.

 

Now he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. He’d been about to try and get some sleep when Heather had come in to tell him about Nick.

 

That had been enough to shake the legs right off him. He realized he was still squeezing the back of the chair he’d grabbed to keep himself from falling over. He let go, and his hands jolted with frozen tension. He flexed his fingers a few times, then rubbed his hands together until they felt normal again.

 

And now he had to figure out what to do next. Nick was downstairs, apparently mulling over some new understanding of his situation. Heather had been vague about that, and, when Gil had pushed, insisted that it was something he should speak to Nick about. So should he go down to him? Or wait for him to come up here? Would he want to come up here?

 

Then he heard the staircase closest to his room creak, and the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. They were coming from the opposite direction that Heather had gone, and were much heavier.

 

Nick.

 

They stopped outside his door, and Gil took a deep breath.

 

***

 

The last thing Nick wanted to do was talk to Grissom. In fact, if he never had to look Grissom in the eye again, that might be the best possible solution. Yes, it was cowardly, but he wasn’t feeling particularly brave anymore.

 

But he could practically hear both his parents saying that they’d raised him better than that. And damnit, they had. And, on top of that, Heather had left without arranging a place for him to sleep tonight, and since the sofas in this room were more like loveseats than couches, it wasn’t like he could crash down here comfortably.

 

Besides, this wasn’t going to go away just because he didn’t want it to be here.

 

Slowly, just in case a better solution might present itself at the last second, he got up and went up the stairs. The light was on in the first room on the left, spilling under the door frame. He swallowed, and raised his hand to knock.

 

“Come in, Nick.” Grissom’s voice came from the other side before Nick touched the door. He jumped, just a bit, and realized with a cold, final feeling, that he'd passed the moment when he could turn around and give up on this. Only way out is through, he thought, grimacing, but opened the door anyway and went in.

 

Grissom was standing behind an armchair on the opposite end of the room. He wore the same clothes he’d had on when he’d left the house, although they were rumpled now, as though he’d slept in them, and he was barefoot. He wasn’t looking at Nick, and the expression on his face was so weary that, combined with everything else about his appearance, he looked astonishingly vulnerable.

 

Or maybe the vulnerability came from something else entirely.

 

“Heather told me you were here,” Grissom said. He still didn’t look up. “Is there something you want?”

 

Nick's mouth had gone completely dry. He swallowed, tried to wet his lips, and on the third try actually managed it. His breath hitched and rasped in his chest when he inhaled, and then, before he could change his mind, he blurted,

 

"Why didn't you tell me?"

 

He surprised himself, a little. And he surprised Grissom, too, by the looks of things. His head snapped up, eyes wide and mouth open. For a few seconds, he stared at Nick like he hadn’t understood the question.

 

"Tell you what?"

 

So much for this being easy. Nick looked down at the floor, and realized that it was easier to talk this way. "That you didn't buy me," he said.

 

But not looking at Grissom meant he didn't have the slightest idea how to interpret the silence he now met. Cautiously, he raised his eyes, trying to do so without being noticed. Grissom's face still held a puzzled, forlorn expression.

 

Grissom pulled back. “I thought you knew,” he said.

 

“No!” Nick said. He almost shouted it, but it came out as more of a sob. “No, I didn’t.”

 

He heard Grissom exhale loudly, and saw him sag, shoulders slumping. Nick closed his eyes. He could practically taste the guilt rolling off Grissom now, and it was more than he could deal with at the moment.

 

“Nick,” Grissom said. “I’m so sorry. I didn't think it mattered.”

 

“Didn't matter?" Nick snapped.

 

As soon as the words were out, he regretted them. But at the same time, it left a taste in his mouth so much sweeter than the guilt that was overwhelming him. He knew he needed to admit his mistake, maybe explain himself, at least do something to try to counter the damage he’d done. But the prospect of that kind of humility sent waves of repulsion through his system, making all his pain rise up again. And maybe he wasn't helpless to subdue it, but right now he didn't want to.

 

“I should have explained everything from the start,” Grissom said. “Maybe if you’d known that-”

 

"Yeah, maybe you should have." It was the wrong thing to say, but if even part of this could be Grissom's fault, then maybe he could bear it.

 

“Wanna try now? Explain it, Grissom. Explain why you didn’t want me in the first place. Or why you tried to give me away. To Heather,” Nick couldn’t stop himself. That hurt, damnit! Up until now, the idea of Grissom passing him off to another master had merely bothered him. Now it felt like a rejection.

 

He was so, so angry, and he hardly knew why anymore. He just wanted to yell. Maybe he wanted to hit something.

 

Grissom’s jaw tightened. “Did she tell you why I tried to give you to her?” he asked.

 

Nick stopped his tirade cold. If Grissom had yelled back, he would have kept going. But the question knocked him right off his stride.

 

“No…”

 

Grissom turned, shaking his head. “It’s probably better that way,” he said.

 

The dismissal made Nick start to simmer again. “Wait a minute-”

 

“No, Nick,” Grissom said, turning back. And now an edge of finality crept into his voice. Nick remembered, then, why one of his first impressions of Grissom was that he was a man used to having people do as he said. “Not right now. You’re angry, and you have every right to be angry. But,” he held up a finger, “I haven’t harmed you in any way, and I’ve never intended to.”

 

Nick could hardly breathe, Grissom’s stare was so intense. For what seemed like a very long time, neither one of them moved.

 

Nick bit his lip, then dropped his gaze. Goddamnit, but he was right. Wasn’t that the whole reason he’d come up here? Because he knew that? He could swallow his pride and admit that much, but he couldn’t look Grissom in the eye while he was doing it. His anger melted, then, replaced by hot shame.

 

“I know,” he said. What the hell’s wrong with you? he thought. It isn’t his fault.

 

Grissom inhaled sharply, through his nose, making a surprised noise. Nick looked up at that, and was amazed to find Grissom staring at him, eyes wide and mouth hanging open the tiniest bit.

 

Nick shrugged, a sheepish gesture. “And thank you,” he added. He couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize. Those words still stuck in his throat, not ready to come out yet, not ready to face the possibility that Grissom might not forgive him.

 

Grissom was still staring at him with that codfish expression. He wasn’t at all used to hearing Nick speak civilly to him. At least, that’s what Nick guessed.

 

Then he shut his mouth, and everything about him relaxed a little bit. “You’re welcome, Nicky,” he said, so softly that it was barely audible. Something changed in his eyes, then, too, something that made him look sad and almost wistful.

 

Nicky.

 

Something about hearing Grissom call him that made Nick just ache. Made him want to hear it again and again. It sounded so comfortable and tender, and it gave him the courage to go on.

 

“Heather said,” he began, and faltered. But a glance at Grissom showed him watching with kind, patient eyes, so he continued. “She said you called her because you needed help. Why did you want to give me away?”

 

Grissom closed his eyes, then, and took a long, slow breath. His shifted his stance, like he was looking for more secure footing, and squared his shoulders. When he opened his eyes again, he didn’t look at Nick, but a little over his shoulder, at a point behind him.

 

“I thought it would be better for you,” he said. “If you worked for Heather, anything you did would only have been a job. It wouldn’t have gotten personal.” He smirked. “She prides herself on that, actually.” Then he bit his lip. “I couldn’t make that promise.”

 

Nick frowned. “I don’t understand.”

 

Now Grissom looked at him. “That’s because you were wrong,” he said. “I did want you. From the minute I saw you.” His eyes and voice darkened, then, and became more intense. Nick had a flash of memory from the first time Grissom had ever looked at him; like he wanted to devour him on the spot.

 

Oh yeah, he thought, shivering. Just like that.

 

“But you’re your own man, Nick,” Grissom continued, holding his hands up. “And I’ve never tried to take that away from you.”

 

Nick could scarcely believe what he’d just heard. For a second, everything seemed like it might end perfectly, that maybe he could be that lucky.

 

But then Grissom turned away and Nick’s heart leapt into his throat. He realized that this was his only chance. He had all the cards now, and if he was going to get this to play out the way he wanted, the way it should have gone from the minute they met, he needed to act now.

 

“Wait,” he said. Grissom froze but didn’t turn back. Nick licked his lips and took a deep breath. With every ounce of self-control he had, he willed himself to calm down. In a very small voice he asked, “You wanted me?”

 

Grissom took a deep breath and nodded. Nick swallowed.

 

“Do you still?” he asked, even quieter. He was afraid of the answer.

 

Grissom turned around then. His face was still deliberately blank, but his eyes were so bright, Nick’s breath caught.

 

“I’m my own man, right?” Nick said, a powerful elation charging through him at being able to say those words. Grissom nodded again, and the charge got stronger. “Then I want to know,” he said.

 

“Really?” Grissom sounded skeptical.

 

Nick drew himself up, standing tall, shoulders back, trying to look as confident as possible. “Really,” he said.

 

An endless moment passed before Grissom said,

 

“Yes.”

 

And Nick could breathe again. Relief like he’d never felt, like he’d never expected, poured into him. He could barely believe what he’d just heard, but right then, in a sudden, beautiful flash, he remembered what it felt like to be free.

 

“Then why didn’t you say so?” Nick asked, choking on the words. To hell with his composure, right now, he was about to get everything he wanted.

 

“Because you were my slave,” Grissom said. “I didn’t want you to think you didn’t have a choice.”

 

“Can I make a choice now?”

 

Grissom pulled back, biting his lip. “Of course,” he said. He sounded apprehensive.

 

But Nick just smiled. This was surreal, for things to suddenly feel this right. “Okay, then,” he said. “I want you, too.”

 

At first he thought Grissom wasn’t going to react at all. And then he was afraid that he would reject him out of honor or ethics or something, because he didn’t so much as blink when Nick spoke. Then he snapped out of it, and all he said was,

 

“Oh.”

 

And then, quick as lightning, everything changed. The confused, frightened man who’d been standing in front of Nick, protecting himself from whatever might come next, disappeared, and Grissom stared at him with hungry eyes.

 

“Are you sure, Nicky?” Grissom’s voice was low, nearly a purr. Nick licked his lips.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good.”

 

Grissom came closer to him, and Nick had to fight the instinctive impulse to back away as his personal space was invaded. When he was close enough so that their bodies were nearly touching, Grissom reached up and touched Nick’s face. Anticipation exploded in Nick’s stomach and it occurred to him, just then, that with all they’d done so far, all the physical intimacies they’d shared, they hadn’t yet kissed once.

 

It must have occurred to Grissom, too. Or else it was a subject that had been on his mind before now, because he cradled Nick’s face with both hands and said,

 

“Nicky, may I kiss you?”

 

Nick was going to cry, he just knew it. He could feel the pinpricks behind his eyes, but he ordered himself to keep his composure. It was too much that Grissom had even asked at all, but to have him say it so gently, so reverently, and for Nick to hear the sincerity in his voice was more than he could bear. He’d needed this, ached for this kind contact with another person since that first horrible night when this hell had begun.

 

Having it now was going to break him. So he did the only thing he could do.

 

“Yes,” he whispered, then closed his eyes and shattered into a thousand pieces as Grissom’s mouth covered his.

 

Oh.

 

It was meant to be like this.

 

Grissom tilted Nick’s head back, directing the kiss, and Nick let him. Somehow, he managed to get his arms up around Grissom’s neck, pulling him closer, and then he lost track of everything except the feel of lips and tongue and teeth.

 

Grissom wasn’t gentle, but neither was he forceful. Instead, he was absolute seduction. He moved slowly, seemingly content to let this kiss linger forever. It did have to end, of course, because they needed to breathe, but even that wasn’t an interruption. It merely defined the end of the first kiss and the start of the second. And the third. And all the ones after that.

 

When they finally pulled away, Grissom held Nick close, their foreheads touching, and cradled his face in his hands. They didn’t move; Grissom just looked at him.

 

Nick had never been looked at like this in his entire life. He’d attracted appreciative glances and hungry possessive stares, but Grissom stared at him with adoration. It made him feel beautiful, perfect, and human.

 

“Can I stay here?” Nick asked, in a tiny voice. He almost couldn’t bear to speak and break this moment. Grissom smiled and kissed him again, quickly.

 

“Of course,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to ask.”

 

That made Nick smile, and it infused him with a rush of bravery. He reached out, almost before he thought about it, untucked Grissom’s shirt, and slid a hand underneath, brushing over hot skin.

 

He had a momentary rush of panic, when he thought that this might be too much, too soon, after what he’d done tonight. The sick feeling rose up in him again, and he started to withdraw, but Grissom caught his hand.

 

“It’s all right,” he said.

 

“Grissom--”

 

“Gil,” Grissom interrupted. Nick bit his lip and swallowed.

 

“Gil,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Grissom leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “I know,” he said, gently. “So am I.”

 

This still didn’t feel resolved, and Nick resisted as Grissom started moving them towards the bed.

 

“Shh,” Grissom said. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow, okay?”

 

Nick let out a long breath and nodded. Tomorrow. He could handle that. For now, he could enjoy himself.

 

Eventually they made it to the bed, Grissom undressing them both, pushing Nick’s hands away when he tried to help. He took his time, kissing and caressing Nick’s skin as he went. They slid under the blankets, and Grissom wrapped his arms around Nick, holding him to his chest.

 

His arms were warm and strong around him as they curled together, murmuring contented nonsense to each other. Nick found that he liked the feel of Grissom’s breath and lips on the back of his neck, and loved turning his head just enough to kiss his cheek, or capture his mouth again. He stayed awake long after Grissom fell asleep, quietly in awe of what it felt like to be held, but not held captive.

 

 

 


Chapter 15

Gil woke up several times during the night, and each one held a moment of pleasing and humbling surprise.

 

Nick was still there.

 

Gil hardly knew what to call everything he was feeling, let alone what to do with any of it. So, he had spent a good portion of the night awake, and in silent wonder. He discovered that he liked watching Nick sleep, although that wasn’t much of a surprise. He fondly remembered coming home to find Nick sleeping in his chair, and his feelings hadn’t changed much since then.

 

Other things had, though.

 

Now, he could reach out to caress that sweet face and pet soft hair all he wanted. Could, and did.

 

He held Nick as tightly as he comfortably could, and dozed in between these quiet, stolen moments. He wasn’t sure what to expect when Nick finally woke up, but he held on to the hope that whatever he found, they would be okay.

 

When he finally opened his eyes to find Nick staring back, he looked nervous. Not what Gil would have liked, but better than angry or remorseful, he supposed. He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way.

 

“Good morning,” he said.

 

“Morning,” Nick answered, and bit his lip.

 

Gil reached out to cup the side of Nick’s face. After a second of startled hesitation, Nick turned and kissed Gil’s palm. Gil stroked his cheek with his thumb, and tried to keep breathing against the sudden tightness in his chest and throat.

 

It felt like what they had could break at any moment, and he didn’t know what to do to prevent that. It actually hurt that he couldn’t make all of Nick’s problems vanish, couldn’t erase those worry lines just by running his thumb over them. He kept doing it anyway, though. The motion was soothing.

 

“Something on your mind?” Still, given what they’d been through already, weeks of weathering Nick’s fierce hostility towards him, a little morning-after awkwardness seemed like no big thing. If that’s all it was. Gil prayed that was the case, but he suspected otherwise.

 

Nick made a noise of frustration and disgust.

 

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” he said. He sounded unhappy, but not with Gil. Then he made a face and tried to pull away from Gil‘s touch, burring his face in the pillow. Gil didn’t let go, and gently turned him back.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

 

Nick stared at him, an expression of wide-eyed disbelief covering his face. Something sour started to churn in Gil’s stomach as that expression hit home. So much for his hopes. This was the same guilt he’d seen on Nick’s face last night, guilt he hadn’t truly earned for himself. Not that Gil was ready to downplay the severity of what had happened, but, well, it would be absolutely useless to them both if Nick tied himself in knots for the wrong reasons. Gil didn’t want to ruin what could have been a sweet, beautiful morning by talking about that, but he hated the kind of agony Nick had placed himself in because of it. And he had said they would talk about it today.

 

“Is this about what happened last night?” he asked. Best to make sure, first.

 

Nick scoffed. “How can you say that like it’s nothing?”

 

Gil pursed his lips, trying to look as nonplussed as possible. This was going to be difficult to explain. “Because I know why you did it,” he said. As soon as he spoke, Nick’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Then you really shouldn’t be okay with it,” he mumbled, and started to roll over. He might even have gotten out of bed if Gil hadn’t reached out and stopped him. It reassured him that Nick let himself be stopped.

 

“You were using the only weapon you had,” Gil said, once he had turned Nick back around. “And I don’t blame you for that.”

 

Nick gave him a hopeless, helpless look. “Gil, I ra-”

 

“No!” Gil cut him off sternly, knowing what he was about to say, and absolutely not wanting to hear that word come out of his mouth right now. Nick’s mouth fell open, and he stared in disbelief.

 

“It wasn’t that,” Gil insisted. “I’m not saying it was fully consensual,” he admitted, earning another incredulous look from Nick, “but then, that wasn’t the real issue, was it?” He gave Nick a hard look with that, infusing it with all the weight of everything he was leaving unspoken. They could have a “who did what to whom” conversation if they needed to, but the more he could imply, the more comfortable he would be. And Nick too, he suspected.

 

After a few tense moments, Nick conceded the point. He looked perfectly miserable, and collapsed into himself. Gil moved closer then, putting his arm around him.

 

“I could have done the same thing, in your place,” Gil said. He wasn’t sure he would have, but he could easily understand what had pushed Nick there.

 

He’d spent just about every second from the time he’d left the house last night until Nick had shown up at Heather’s dissecting that encounter, trying to understand it. And trying to figure out how he felt about it. Hurt, yes. Sad, most certainly. But not angry, and while it had certainly been a violation, it occupied a strange category all its own.

 

It hadn’t made sense to him until he’d realized that his reaction would have been very different if one of two things had happened differently.

 

If he’d woken up to find Nick enjoying himself, he wouldn’t have given the slightest thought to consent. After all, it hadn’t been their first sexual encounter, and he’d long since stopped denying his desire for Nick. If only Nick had wanted it, he’d thought. Then it would have been exciting and hot, and thoroughly pleasurable.

 

That was one extreme of possible reactions. The other came when he considered how he would have felt if he had been the one penetrated instead of Nick.

 

That would unquestionably have felt like rape.

 

But the reality had been somewhere in-between, neither malicious nor loving. Which meant that, as far as he was concerned, Nick’s motive had been neither. Or at least, had occupied some sort of middle ground. It also meant that Gil was hopelessly muddled about the whole thing, and how he felt about it.

 

“What you did isn‘t the thing that hurt,” Gil said, giving Nick’s shoulder an extra squeeze. “It’s the why.”

 

“I wanted to hurt you,” Nick mumbled, sounding miserable.

 

“I know. And that’s partly my fault.” He waited, then, for Nick to argue with him. Instead, Nick looked at him, disbelief on his face.

 

“How is it your fault?”

 

Gil swallowed. “If I’d been honest with you from the beginning, do you think you would have done what you did?”

 

“I don’t think I would have trusted you no matter what you said.”

 

“Maybe not. But I didn’t make it any easier for you. I think we both wish we’d done things differently,” Gil said. “But since we can’t, I think it’s time to move forward, and do the best we can from now on.”

 

Nick went quiet, then, and didn’t look at him. It seemed to last an eternity to Gil. It would kill him, absolutely destroy him, if this fell apart now. For him to finally see what he could have had -- what they both could have had -- from the very beginning, just in time for it to disappear forever would be too much to bear. He might never recover if Nick couldn’t find the courage to go forward.

 

But then Nick looked up. His eyes were wet, but he wasn’t crying, not yet. He was close, though, and he blinked rapidly to keep himself from falling apart.

 

Then he reached for Gil, and in the same instant, Gil reached back. The clung to each other, and Nick buried his face in Gil’s shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, and Gil petted his hair and stroked his shoulders.

 

“So am I. And I forgive you.”

 

“Me too.”

 

***

 

They finally got up a few hours later, when Gil looked at the clock and realized that Heather wouldn’t be awake much longer. He put on yesterday’s clothes, and waited for Nick to do likewise and come with him.

 

They found Heather sitting on one of her sofas, curled up with her legs tucked under her and her boots lying in a pile on the floor. English muffins sat on a tray in front of her.

 

“Forgive me for not preparing a proper breakfast,” she said, gesturing for them to sit and help themselves. Gil sat down on the sofa opposite her, glancing at Nick as he did so. Nick hesitated for a second, then sat down next to him. Gil wondered how long it would be before Nick could do anything with his own sense of assurance again. He dismissed the thought, though. This wasn’t the time for that.

 

“Under the circumstances, any breakfast at all is gracious of you,” Gil said, selecting a muffin and spreading jelly on it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nick do likewise. Heather smiled.

 

“I don’t usually like to reward guests who interrupt my night so,” she said, smiling. “But this is an exceptional case.”

 

“He certainly is,” Gil said, turning to look at Nick as he spoke. Nick, who had just taken a bite of his English muffin, tried to chew and swallow as quickly as possible, and turned bright red in the process.

 

Gil found himself suddenly delighted. He never would have guessed that Nick could be so endearing when embarrassed like that. At least when embarrassed by flattery. That was something he would have to remember and try again in the future. At least until Nick recognized how truly remarkable he was. Gil looked forward to convincing him of that, and smiled.

 

When he finally looked back at Heather, he realized how much of that moment she had caught, and felt his own skin heating up. But Heather said nothing, not that he’d been expecting her to do otherwise, and smiled knowingly at him.

 

“Nick,” she said, then, as if she’d seen nothing at all. “I have something for you that you shouldn’t forget.” Nick stared at her, clearly not following what she was saying. She reached down and picked up a small gift box, tied closed with a red cord. She handed it to Nick, who took it and still looked puzzled.

 

“I would suggest you wait until later to open it,” she said. “And find the right moment to use it.” She winked at him, and then Nick’s eyes widened in comprehension.

 

“Oh!” he said, and a smile started to spread over his face. “Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” she said. Then she stood up. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I’m afraid it is well past time for me to excuse myself.”

 

“Of course,” Gil said, standing as well. “We won’t keep you.” Heather extended her hand, and Gil took it and raised it to his lips. I brief kiss, then he said,

 

“Thank you, Heather. For everything.”

 

She smiled as she pulled her hand away. “You have but to ask me Gil,” she said. “Always.”

 

***

 

Nick made a face. Then, with difficulty, swallowed. No, this wasn’t getting any better, and from the look on Grissom’s face, he wasn’t enjoying things either, although he was trying his best not to let on.

 

“That’s it,” Nick said, and stood up. He picked up his plate and grabbed Grissom’s too, then walked to the kitchen and dumped the contents of both into the trash. “I’m a really shitty cook,” he said, mouth twisting into a wry smile.

 

“It wasn’t that bad,” Grissom protested. Nick gave him a look over his shoulder, and Grissom shrugged. “Okay, so it wasn’t great.”

 

“Exactly,” Nick said. “Pizza?” He picked up the phone.

 

“You made an attempt,” Grissom said, nodding and trying not to snicker. “That’s worth something.”

 

“Sure,” Nick muttered, glancing away and dialing. He wasn’t sure what to make of Grissom’s light teasing. It certainly wasn’t a bad thing, but he hadn’t decided if he liked it yet. “Yeah, hi. I’d like a pizza for delivery,” he said as someone at Pizza Luce picked up. He gave the phone number and grinned when the woman asked “Mr. Grissom” what he would like tonight. Nick ordered and hung up.

 

“Well, they seem to know you pretty well,” Nick.

 

“I was a confirmed bachelor,” Grissom said. “For many years.” He’d moved over to the couch while Nick had been on the phone, and he stretched his arms over the back of it. Nick looked at him. He suddenly had the impulse to tuck himself into that space against his chest. In a way, it felt like the right thing to do. And he wanted to do it, besides. Wanted to have the right to do it. And maybe he did. Maybe he could just sit down and see if Grissom would drop that arm around his shoulders.

 

But it felt too bold, somehow. After all the ways he’d asserted himself over Grissom already, he didn’t think he deserved the liberties he’d been allowed lately. And yet Grissom hadn’t exactly been pushing him away. In his more hopeful moments, Nick thought he was being offered invitations. And yet, neither of them had made any overt advances in the last two days.

 

Their sleep schedules hadn’t lined up since the night at Heather’s, what with Grissom’s job suddenly demanding every moment of his time. Nick wondered what the hell could be so important that Grissom needed to be there so much, but he hadn’t asked. It killed him not to, though, not to be able to have Grissom with as much as he wanted, as much as he’d had before.

 

Good lord, they’d gotten this all backwards. And he’d never, ever in his life found himself wanting someone so badly when he knew so little about him.

 

“I’ve committed my fair share of disasters in the kitchen,” Grissom said, and Nick found himself snapping back to attention. Grissom didn’t appear to have noticed Nick’s momentary lapse, and was smiling easily and looking relaxed on the sofa.

 

Ah, hell, Nick thought, and went for it. He crossed into the living room and sat down next to Grissom. Not too close. Not as close as he wanted to be, but closer than two casual friends would be. After a second, he leaned back and the back of his head touched Grissom’s arm. A second after that, Grissom’s fingers started stroking through his hair.

 

Well. That was a start, now wasn’t it? Nick relaxed, closing his eyes in contentment. “So, who taught you to cook?” he asked.

 

“Necessity, mostly,” Grissom said. “But my mother taught me, too.”

 

“I was spoiled,” Nick said. “Youngest of seven. There wasn’t anything I had to learn to do on my own.”

 

“You’ve got time to learn, now,” Grissom said.

 

Nick grinned. “You gonna teach me?”

 

He felt Grissom shrug. “If you want.”

 

“I wouldn’t want to bother you.”

 

“You wouldn’t. I like teaching.”

 

“So how come you don’t?”

 

“Who says I don’t?” Grissom shifted, turning to look at him. Nick opened his eyes and turned his own head. It startled him, just a little, to realize how close their faces were all of a sudden.

 

“I give seminars, lecture at conventions,” Grissom said. “I wouldn’t want to do it full-time, though. And then there’s my team, of course.” His eyes sparkled, just the tiniest bit, at the mention of his team.

 

“Yeah?”

 

Grissom nodded. “Some of them, anyway. The rookies. You don’t learn how to be a CSI in the classroom. You learn it in the field. And I’m the one who gets to teach them.”

 

“So you’d rather have rookies than people who are set in their ways.”

 

“I’d rather have people who are committed to the job,” Grissom said, raising an eyebrow.

 

Nick grinned. “Good answer.”

 

“I try,” Grissom said.

 

“So any star pupils so far?” Grissom nodded.

 

“Catherine joined my shift right after she graduated.” He glanced sidelong at Nick. “Special request of the Sheriff,” he said. “He was an old friend of Sam’s.”

 

“Oh,” Nick said, nodding.

 

“I was prepared for the worst, but I was surprised.” Grissom smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. “She hit the ground running, and now she’s my boss.”

 

“And you don’t mind that?” Nick asked, surprised that he clearly didn’t. “I don’t know many people that wouldn’t take the promotions themselves.”

 

“’Ambition is the last refuge of failure,’” Grissom said, shaking his head. Then he grinned. “Oscar Wilde. I’m happy where I am, thanks.”

 

Nick grinned back. Then, because it suddenly struck him to do so, he leaned forward and kissed him. He hadn’t meant to initiate anything more involved; it had just been an impulse. One that Grissom seemed to share, because it turned quickly from one kiss into steady making out, with Grissom pulling him tighter and sliding one hand under Nick’s shirt.

 

“Wow,” Nick said, gasping for breath. “And here I thought you were starting to get bored with me.”

 

“Never,” Grissom murmured against Nick’s skin, kissing the side of his neck. Then he pulled back to look at him, concern in his eyes. “You know that, right?”

 

“I don’t see why,” Nick said. He tried to keep his voice light so he could pretend he was joking. But Grissom wasn’t laughing.

 

“What don’t you see?” Grissom asked, then, oh, he started stroking Nick’s hair again, like he wanted to comfort and reassure him.

 

Nick ducked his head, both embarrassed by the turn in conversation and now feeling, again, wholly unworthy of this kind of attention. “Well, it’s a little like trying to marry a hooker, isn’t it? I mean, I’m not really the kind of guy you bring home to mom.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Nick stared, and Grissom grinned. “I think she’d like you,” he said.

 

“How do you know?” Nick asked. Part of him demanded to know what the hell he thought he was doing, messing up a good thing like this. Another part, the stronger part that was in control, answered back, I have to know.

 

“You barely know me yet,” Nick continued. “How do you know I’m what you want? What happens if we find out we hate each other?”

 

“I thought we already found out that we didn’t,” Grissom said, simply.

 

And maybe it was that simple. Maybe he was borrowing trouble. The thought made Nick smile, and that, in turn, made Gil smile. Nick liked that, liked seeing the effect he had on Grissom.

 

Suddenly, he didn’t want to be sitting on the couch having a conversation anymore. But he wasn’t sure how to broach that topic, and the realization made him feel foolish. After all they’d done together, after all he’d been through, now was the time he started acting like a nervous virgin?

 

Puh-lease!

 

He knew what he wanted; to go to bed with Gil. Tonight and as many nights afterwards as possible.

 

Hell with it. He was just going to blurt it out and deal with the fallout later.

 

“Will you come to bed with me?”

 

It took Nick completely by surprise to hear Gil say that. But he grinned. “You took the words right out of my mouth,” he said.

 

With everything Nick had come to associate with sex throughout his life – furtive excitement during his youth that had twisted into dread and disgust in the past two years – it amazed him that now he felt nothing but anticipation and a rush of pleasure. Pleasure that rose and spiked and somehow managed to keep climbing even when he thought nothing could get any better.

 

By the time Grissom got them into his bedroom and naked, Nick was nearly delirious. This was so much better than anything he could have imagined, anything he could ever have hoped for. They were still only starting to learn each other, and already it felt perfect. Grissom responded so quickly, so willingly to every one of Nick’s wordless pleas, that Nick almost thought he must be reading his mind.

 

Then Grissom took his cock in his mouth and started to suck.

 

Nick came almost right away, so unprepared for that. He almost felt bad about it, but Grissom smiled at him, letting him know that was exactly what he’d intended to happen.

 

That amazed Nick almost more than the actual act had. It had been so long since he’d been the recipient of such a favor, so long that he’d been the servicer, the receptical, that he’d forgotten what it was like. He’d forgotten how good it felt to have someone else focus their attention on his pleasure, to take care of him so completely because they wanted to, without the strings of manipulation and control attatched.

 

Then again, maybe he hadn’t forgotten, maybe it just had never been like this before.

 

A sudden rush of gratitude and awe passed through him, threatening to choke him or at least make him cry. He fought it down and reached for Grissom, giving him a light kiss on the lips.

 

“Thank you,” he said. Grissom smiled.

 

“Nicky,” he said. “That’s just the beginning.”

 


Chapter 16

 

Nick was going to scream.

 

If, during the last eighteen months, he’d ever he felt like a captive, he was ready to take that all back, now. Nothing like a few days of actual, legitimate confinement to give a guy some perspective.

 

Before, he’d been held to his master’s side by legalities and fear, and he’d entertained fantasies of running away, escaping when his master’s back was turned. Of course, he would have been hunted down and subjected to a fierce punishment if he’d tried that, but he’d held on to the idea that he could. Not much of a fantasy, to be sure, but just enough to let him believe that he still had free will.

 

Now his free will wasn’t a matter for question; it was by his own free will that he was allowing himself to remain under this form of house arrest. After the scare with the bounty hunters, the police department had sent over under cover agents to watch the house. No one had said that he wasn’t allowed to go out, but he had understood that no one recommended it, either. The less he moved, the easier he was to protect.

 

It felt like a coward’s choice, but he told himself that it was only temporary, and that going out and finding the people who were hunting him was nothing more than a quick way back to hell. Or death.

 

Besides, it gave him time to work on his cooking skills.

 

And they were still pathetic.

 

He dumped his latest disaster down the disposal, and had just finished clearing away any residual evidence when he heard the front door open.

 

About damn time, Nick thought. He dried his hands and went out to the front hall. It was nearly two in the afternoon, and Grissom was just getting home. Of course, he’d called to say he’d be late, but Nick had assumed that “late” meant an hour or two. Not half a day.

 

He turned the corner, about to let Grissom know exactly what he thought of that kind of thoughtlessness, when he saw him, and stopped short.

 

He’d never seen Grissom in a suit before. What an…unexpected surprise.

 

He could actually feel the blood draining from his head to travel south. His mouth hung open, drying out, and he swallowed thickly. Grissom looked up at him.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

He must really be tired, Nick thought. If he can’t figure out what I’m thinking. Nick took a couple steps forward, getting close enough to touch Grissom.

 

“You look…” he paused, giving Grissom a deliberate once-over from head to toe. “Great,” he finished. He licked his lips then, involuntarily, and, for a second, felt a little foolish to be displaying his libido so conspicuously.

 

But Grissom, who seemed to have caught on -- finally -- didn’t mind. His eyes widened, losing their tired, haggard expression for a moment.

 

“I do?” he said, and looked down at himself. “I was in court today,” he went on, and made a face.

 

“Hmm,” Nick said, reaching out to unbutton the jacket. He slid a hand inside, and Grissom gasped. “I like it.”

 

Grissom raised an eyebrow. “I can tell,” he said, and kissed him.

 

Somehow, even though Nick was sure that this had been his idea, and he had been the one calling the shots so far, he found himself with his back up against the wall and Grissom’s hands all over him before he knew what had happened.

 

Oh well. There were worse things.

 

He put his hands on Grissom’s shoulders and pushed. Not to push him away, but to propel them both down the hall to the bedroom. Now that he’d seen what Grissom looked like in a suit, he wanted, very badly, to take it off him.

 

As they entered the bedroom, Nick dropped Grissom’s coat on the floor, and had his shirt halfway off by the time they got to the bed. Grissom, by this time, had drawn back and submitted himself to Nick’s agenda, going where he was directed and doing no more than making appreciative noises as he did so. He settled himself on the bed, and relaxed as Nick crawled all over him.

 

This felt good. And not just in the immediate, sexual way. Something about doing just the right things to make Grissom feel good, and knowing he was doing it because of all those fantastic little moans and gasps Grissom was making, satisfied Nick in a way he hadn’t been expecting. Sure, he knew what he was doing in the sack; he’d known that for a long time. But he hadn’t had reason to be really proud of himself until now.

 

Grissom was practically purring, and nearly boneless with content. His eyes were closed, and every few seconds he’d open them, just enough to peak at Nick, then fall back into his trance again. Nice, but Nick was eager to turn things up. He unbuttoned Grissom’s pants and started sliding the zipper down, following his progress with his mouth, and expected some kind of outburst from Grissom, but he got nothing.

 

Huh.

 

Well, that was surprising. He glanced up, wondering if he’d find out that Griss was just exercising some of that fantastic control, but found something very different.

 

Grissom had fallen asleep.

 

For just a second, Nick felt insulted. He’d been in the middle of some well-crafted foreplay, after all. But that passed almost as soon as it came, and instead he smiled.

 

It was kind of endearing, actually. Cute, even.

 

The poor guy had been just about to pass out when he’d walked through the door. And now that Nick thought about it, he was impressed that he’d made it this far. Still, he didn’t know too many guys that, when greeted by a lover with sex on the brain, wouldn’t give it the old college try no matter how tired they were.

 

Nick pushed himself up off the bed, his own arousal now faded. He stripped the rest of Grissom’s clothes off and pulled a blanket over him. They could pick this up later.

 

He wandered back into the living room, not really tired enough to sleep, and flipped on the TV instead. He surfed for a little while, then settled on the news. If he couldn’t actually set foot out in the world, he may as well know what was going on in it, right?

 

He zoned in and out through the top stories, until a phrase caught his attention.

 

“…accused of murdering Emily Stahl, a nineteen-year-old slave.”

 

He winced. Slave cases were the most relevant to his life, but most of the time they were more depressing than he could stand. He wondered how many of these poor men, and women especially, had realized what kind of a chance taking with their lives by accepting this sentence. He wondered if it would have changed their decisions if they had known. After all, he’d known full well, and he’d walked right into it.

 

Of course, he hadn’t had much of a choice….

 

He tuned most of it out, and insisted to himself that doing so didn’t mean he was heartless. It just meant that he’d seen enough. No point in borrowing someone else’s misery. Besides, the notes were different, but the tune was the same. Pretty girl gets passed around a party and ends up dead, and the DA starts looking for someone to blame.

 

Finally, he decided he’d had enough, and grabbed the remote to change the channel. His thumb found the button and had just pressed down, when something caught his attention, an image in the background of a man leaving the courthouse.

 

A man in a black suit.

 

Grissom.

 

He flipped back, just in time to see the reporter make his final remark and turn things back to the newsroom. He cursed, pissed that he’d missed the chance to confirm what he thought he’d seen.

 

Still, he was almost certain. That had been Grissom’s court appointment. Probably had been the case that had been keeping him so damn busy for so long. And he hadn’t said a blasted word about it to Nick.

 

It figured.

 

Nick snorted and turned off the TV. At least he’d worked this much out about Grissom; when it came to knowing what people wanted or needed from him, he absolutely missed the boat unless he was making a special effort. Then he could be uncannily good, but that was only under very….particular circumstances.

 

Circumstances that Nick had been trying to incite this evening until Grissom had fallen asleep on him.

 

Oh well. Griss had the night off, and Nick had an idea or two about how they could spend the time. Which meant that he really ought to get some sleep himself.

 

He headed back down the hall and hesitated for only the slightest moment before going into Grissom’s room. Part of him still felt a little awkward about this, but he was able to ignore it now. Grissom had made it quite clear that Nick was always welcome in his bed, even if sex wasn’t part of the immediate agenda.

 

So he stripped down, pulled back the blankets, and tucked himself against Grissom’s body. After a moment, Grissom turned into him as well, and they both slept.

 

***

 

“You want to do what?” Nick asked. He hadn’t heard that right. There was no way…

 

“A roller coaster, “ Grissom repeated.

 

Nick searched his face for any indication that this might be a joke, but found none. Grissom was watching him with a wide-eyed, hopeful and almost delighted expression. His eyes sparkled in a way that Nick liked, but wasn’t sure he entirely trusted.

 

“That’s what I thought you said,” Nick said. “Why?”

 

“Why not?” Grissom shrugged. “You said you were tired of being in the house. I thought we could go out for a while.”

 

Nick just shook his head, but found himself beginning to smile. It wasn’t a perfect gesture, Nick could care less about roller coasters, but at least it was a gesture. That counted for something, and he appreciated it.

 

“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”

 

“Great,” Gil said, and picked up the phone. “Give me just a second.”

 

The second was for him to call Jim. That rankled, of course, that they couldn’t do anything without letting their undercover shadows know about it first. Going out with armed guards was not Nick’s idea of a good time. A date with a chaperone didn’t leave much room for anything that was really fun.

 

“Fine,” Gil said, tersely, into the phone. “If you insist, we will. Yes. Thank you, Jim.” He hung up, making an annoyed sound. Nick looked at him, curious.

 

“Jim is insisting that we carry a sidearm with us when we go out,” Gil said. He crossed the room to retrieve his, making a face. Nick and Gil hadn’t had any conversations about guns, but Nick could tell just by looking at him that Grissom didn’t care for wearing one at all.

 

So Nick decided to try something.

 

“Give it to me,” he said. Grissom stared at him. “I’ll carry it.” He held out his hand and flicked his fingers in a grasping gesture. Still, Grissom didn’t move.

 

“Nick,” he said, cautiously, “you know I trust you, but if anyone sees you with a weapon, you could-”

 

Nick rolled his eyes. “Jeez, you really didn’t read my contract, did you?” he said. Grissom frowned at him, and Nick continued, shaking his head. He tilted his head to one side and recited, “At the request of Veronica Drake, Nicholas Stokes hereby is certified to carry weapons at his master’s request.” He rolled his eyes. “Better than defending her with my bare hands,” he said. “So say hello to your new bodyguard.”

 

Grissom froze for another half a second, then a peculiar expression crept over his face. It wasn’t quite a smile, but neither was it quite concern or worry. “Ah,” he said. “I see.” And he handed over the weapon.

 

Nick strapped it on, surprised by how both strange and familiar it felt at the same time. Like something he had no business doing, and something he should have been doing every day for the last two years, something he’d been missing.

 

He stopped thinking about it when Grissom opened the door. “Shall we?” he said, and they left.

 

They didn’t speak much in the car, which Nick wouldn’t have thought was unusual, given Grissom’s usually stoic, silent persona. But the silence felt different this time, heavier, somehow. He watched Grissom out of the corner of his eye. A muscle in his jaw was twitching, and it looked like he was biting the inside of his cheek.

 

“Something up?” Nick asked, when he finally couldn’t stand it any longer. Grissom jerked his head around, startled either by Nick’s question or the fact that he’d spoken at all. His face went suddenly blank, his eyes wide and a little frightened.

 

“Ah--” Grissom said, and Nick rolled his eyes. If he hadn’t looked so damn guilty, he could have claimed he was preoccupied with work. Nick sighed, grimaced and leaned back in his seat.

 

“Do you have a problem with me carrying the gun?” he asked.

 

“No, I don’t.”

 

That didn’t sound like a lie, which made Nick feel a little better. He moved his hand -- slowly, so as not to call Grissom’s attention to what he was doing -- over to rest on the handle of the gun. Even if it wasn’t the root of the problem, it was certainly what had sparked it. He’d observed Grissom enough to know that mood swings were common enough, but almost never without reason. And Nick suddenly being armed constituted a reason.

 

But not one that was likely to get him all worked up. Even if he hadn’t said so, Nick wouldn’t have entertained that possibility much further.

 

“Then what is the problem?” Nick asked. He heard the edge in his voice, and knew that he was a hair’s breadth away from getting snappish. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down.

 

“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” Grissom said.

 

That did it. He could take a lot, but patronization wasn’t on the list.

 

“You want to let me worry about what to worry about?” he snapped. Grissom didn’t look at him, but his mouth pressed into a frown as he stared at the road. “Just because I’m a slave doesn’t mean I’m helpless,” he finished.

 

He would have ended it there, crossed his arms and stared out the opposite window, sulking, until Grissom said something else, but then he saw something. Some little flicker of movement from Grissom, something that looked to be somewhere between a flinch and a double-take.

 

“What?” Nick asked, his tone still peevish.

 

That got a sharp, angry look from Grissom. “Leave it alone, Nick,” he said.

 

“No,” Nick returned. “You’re pissed off, and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with me. And I want to know why.”

 

Grissom rolled his eyes and sighed, exasperated. “I don’t have a problem with you,” he said.

 

Nick scoffed. “Sure coulda fooled me,” he said. Now he couldn’t leave it alone. All right, so Grissom’s problem wasn’t with him? Then what was the problem? He’d spun into a funk the minute Nick had taken the gun and…

 

No.

 

It hadn’t been the gun that had bothered Grissom. He hadn’t gotten that pissy look on his face until after Nick had mentioned his contract. That was the problem. It had been the first time the subject of Nick’s status, and Grissom’s, by implication, had come up since Heather’s. And Grissom hadn’t liked it one bit.

 

Well too bad. Nick didn’t much like it, either. Still staring out his own window, Nick muttered, “Ya know, sooner or later, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that I’m still a slave.”

 

Grissom didn’t answer, and Nick clenched his jaw, fuming away as his mind conjured Grissom’s voice in the silence, imagining what he must be thinking and feeling in this moment, the pathetic laments about the stigma of being a slave owner. Sorry I’m such an inconvenience, he thought at the imaginary Grissom. Hate to ruin your day by being a slave. Hope that doesn’t spoil your mood too much. I suppose, if it’s really that important, I could just --

 

“Not to me.”

 

Nick almost missed what Grissom had said. He spoke softly, almost to himself, and Nick was so invested in his inner tirade, that several seconds passed before Grissom’s words caught up to him.

 

Not to me.

 

And then it was another several seconds before he realized what that meant.

 

I‘m a person to him, Nick thought. And then again, He sees me as a person!

 

And then Nick wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. He sure as hell didn’t know what to say. He might have felt like crying, but he couldn’t even manage that. He’d had the wind so completely knocked out of him by three soft, powerful words.

 

Not to me.

 

“Oh,” he finally said. Then he looked at Grissom. “Really?”

 

Grissom turned just enough to look back at him and still see the road. “Really,” he said. He didn’t smile, but his eyes were filled with warmth, a kind of warmth that Nick could actually feel reach out to touch him and start to spread in his chest.

 

“Oh,” he said again. “Okay.”

 

They pulled into a parking lot, and Grissom looked at him with a defeated expression. “We’re here,” he said. He didn’t move. “But I get the feeling that this isn’t such a good idea anymore.”

 

Nick shook his head. “No,” he said. “I mean, no, it is a good idea. Really.”

 

Grissom didn’t look convinced, but after a second, and a moment when Nick could see him make the decision to go along with things, he unbuckled his seat belt and opened the door. Nick sighed with relief. He wasn’t sure if the fight was actually over, although maybe he could get Grissom to understand that he wasn’t angry with him, anymore. He got out of the car went around it.

 

“Thank you,” he said, and then felt very awkward for saying it. “For getting me out of the house,” he added, and threw in a casual shrug for extra measure.

 

He looked at Grissom, trying to get any indication of how this was going over. One of his eyebrows arched, and he looked like he was a second away from saying, ‘bullshit,’ but then he smiled.

 

“You’re welcome, Nicky,” he said, and Nick’s heart flipped in the peculiar little way that it still, for some reason, insisted on doing whenever Grissom called him that.

 

As they walked towards the roller coaster Grissom had chosen for them, Nick couldn’t help but feel vaguely silly. Of all the things they could be doing together, Grissom had chosen this. A smile felt suddenly irresistible, and he fought it for a little while. He gave up when Grissom opened his wallet and pulled out, not money to purchase a ticket, but a season pass. Nick stared at it.

 

“It’s good for me and a guest,” Grissom said, apparently oblivious to what Nick found so funny.

 

 

Finally. This was the real man, in all his absurd glory.

 

And the ride turned out to be fun, although Grissom clearly enjoyed it more than Nick ever could have. Especially by the third time. Still, riding another six times would have been worth it to Nick, for no other reason than to see Grissom in such a goofy-happy mood for a little while longer.

 

He’d seen Grissom enjoy himself before, of course. But the kind of enjoyment that came of a sexual encounter was nothing like this kind of childlike exuberance. He hoped he’d get to see more of it in the future.

 

“God, I needed that,” Grissom said as they got back into the car. He leaned back against the seat and took a deep breath.

 

“Why?” Nick asked, buckling himself in.

 

Grissom closed his eyes and shrugged. “Lawyers,” he said. He couldn’t have expressed any more disdain if he’d actually started dry heaving. Nick started to laugh, and as he did so, he remembered something.

 

The news clip. The shot of Grissom leaving the courthouse. The dead slave.

 

“Yeah,” he said, putting an artificial lightness into his tone to avoid giving away that he was about to broach a very serious topic. “I know what you mean.” He wanted to know more about the trial today. How it had gone, what Grissom’s part in it had been, and most importantly, how Grissom felt about it.

 

“Can you tell me anything about it?” Nick asked.

 

Grissom sat up and started the car. “Homicide case,” he said, distantly. “A young woman.”

 

Nick made a face. “Rough, huh?”

 

“It’s the job,” Grissom said.

 

And that was a dodge if ever Nick heard one, but he didn’t care. He’d already gotten something much more valuable.

 

Grissom had said, “Homicide case” and “young woman.” Not “slave case,” like the reporters had said, like so many people in law enforcement did say, putting greater emphasis on the victim’s social status than the crime.

 

Not to me.

 

Maybe Grissom really did see everything that differently. It made Nick feel brave enough to push further.

 

“I think I saw some coverage of it, actually,” he said. “On the news.”

 

Grissom nodded and watched the road. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “It was high profile. The defendant is a former member of the Council of Nobles.”

 

Nick’s eyes widened. Prosecuting a noble?

 

“Nick?”

 

Nick snapped his head around, and realized that he was gaping at the same moment. He closed his mouth. Grissom just looked at him with a puzzled expression. Then he frowned.

 

“What is it?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

 

Nick shook his head. “No,” he said, but his voice shook a little. Grissom frowned harder.

 

“I’m afraid you’re presenting substantial evidence to the contrary,” he said, tilting his head to look at Nick over the tops of his glasses with an expression of such genuine concern that Nick thought he might break.

 

He tried to shake it off. “It’s nothing,” he said.

 

“It doesn’t look like nothing,” Grissom said. By this time, they’d made it home again. Grissom pulled into the driveway and put the car in park, but didn’t turn it off. “Nick, if you don’t talk to me, I won’t know what to do, and we don’t have a chance.”

 

Nick took a deep breath. He was right, and all Nick wanted to do was pretend he wasn’t. He wished he hadn’t said anything, but he’d had to let his damn scars show. The impulse to get up and walk away from all this was so strong. Grissom would let him, and he could go to his room, feeling miserable and alone. But at least he wouldn’t have made himself any more vulnerable. That would be the safe thing to do.

 

But it wasn’t the smart thing to do. Or the right thing.

 

“I just…” he said, and suddenly this seemed a lot harder. “I just realized that you aren’t even close to being who I thought you were. Before.”

 

Grissom thought about that. “Who did you think I was?” he asked. Nick groaned, silently. He would ask that.

 

“I thought,” he said, feeling as though someone else were speaking, “that you were trying to break me.”

 

When Grissom didn’t respond, just listened, Nick realized that he wanted him to continue.

 

“Other people… want a slave like me so they can do whatever they want,” Nick said. His speech was unsteady, but at least he was talking. “They want someone who’s vulnerable, that they can control through pain. Any kind of pain. They’ll get you to trust them, and by the time you realize how deep you are, they’ve got you, and there’s no where to go. No way out.”

 

When he fell silent, Grissom finally spoke.

 

“How did you get out, Nicky?” he asked, so quietly and gently that Nick barely heard him.

 

“He died,” Nick said, without expression.

 

For a heartbeat, Nick wasn’t sure how Grissom would respond to that. Then, he reached across the cab and wrapped both arms around Nick, pulling his head down and holding him there.

 

 

 

“…will give you a call when I know more. In the meantime, just sit tight, okay?”

 

“Yeah, we will. Thanks Jim.” Gil reached out to hang up the phone, and it took him a couple tries to get it back in the cradle. The shell-shocked feeling that had started taking hold of him about halfway through his conversation with Jim made it hard for him to pay any attention to his world around him, or what he was doing.

 

It wasn’t that Jim’s news had been bad, it was just that it complicated Gil’s life more than he’d been anticipating.

 

It was time for him to go to Dallas.

 

He should have expected this, of course. And he had, actually. He’d started this whole thing, hadn’t he? Re-opened Nick’s case, asserted his right to have it appealed, done his level best to see that this time he’d be assured a fair trial. A fair trial that would, almost certainly, make Nick a free man again.

 

Of course Gil had been expecting this. He’d been waiting for it, searching for just this kind of loophole since the minute Nick had walked into his life.

 

But that was before. And he’d been… kind of sidetracked these past few days, besides.

 

Nick walked in, munching on an apple, and reminded Gil of exactly why he’d been so sidetracked. “Who was that?” he asked with his mouth full.

 

“Jim,” Gil said. Nick came closer, standing next to Gil’s chair and looking over his shoulder. On his desk was Nick’s file, his police file, not his slave one. Gil closed it before Nick could see it, and he felt a little shameful about doing so. It looked suspicious, and he’d done it more than once. Nick hadn’t asked about it, yet, but Gil could tell he was curious. Curious and probably nervous, too. He didn’t like hiding things from Nick, but Gil wasn’t sure it would be a good idea to bring up what he’d been doing, either.

 

Instead, he spun around in his chair and grabbed a handful of Nick’s shirt, just at the collar. He pulled, eliciting a surprised noise from Nick, and dragged him down enough to kiss him. He tasted like apples and smiled against Gil’s mouth. Gil closed his eyes and just let himself taste and enjoy for as long as possible.

 

 

 

This was too good. Too good to last, really.

 

And it wasn’t going to.

 

 

 

And even though it broke his heart to do it, it was better that he faced the music now rather than later. He pulled away and released Nick’s shirt. Nick was still grinning at him, looking like he couldn’t imagine being more content.

 

That hurt, too.

 

Gil reached over and grabbed a chair from the dinning table. He pulled it over and nodded for Nick to sit down. “There’s something we need to talk about,” he said. Good idea or not, he couldn’t put this off any longer, not with Jim ready to move forward. He was probably on the phone with Judge Stokes at this very minute.

 

Nick glanced at him curiously, then dropped into the chair. “Problem?” he asked. Gil shook his head.

 

“No,” he said, even though there was. It just wasn’t a problem for Nick. It was one hell of a huge problem for Gil. And he hadn’t been preparing himself for it like he should have been.

 

Instead, he’d been indulging a fantasy ever since that night at Heather’s. The fantasy that there might be a happily-ever-after in store for him. After all, Nick seemed happy, right? Maybe there was no need to upset things. Maybe they could work it out between them. The thought of just calling Jim and telling him that he’d changed his mind about this whole thing and to close the door quietly on what he’d started and go on with their lives, never telling Nick what he could have done, tempted him relentlessly.

 

But at the same time, it wasn’t a temptation at all. Even as he thought these things, he knew better. He still didn’t know how Nick had gotten himself into this mess, and he’d have to change that before they could go any further, but he knew that it had been a cruel perversion of justice. Jim had just confirmed that. And it had to be mended. Nick deserved better than a life as someone else’s property, never mind how comfortable and content that life had the potential to be.

 

After all, what if things didn’t work out between them? What if Nick decided, a few months down the line, that he couldn’t stand Gil? Gil would never force him to stay, but he wouldn’t be able to leave, either. He couldn’t move out and get his own apartment, let along a job. He’d be dependant on Gil forever, and that was unacceptable, even if the romance never died.

 

“So what’s up?” Nick asked, frowning. Gil shook himself out of it. He’d lost control there, for a second, let his concentration lapse, and he couldn’t do that. He’d never get through this if he weren’t focused.

 

“Nick,” Gil said, trying to sound as gentle as he could. This was going to be a delicate conversation, at least at the start. And there was a good chance he’d learn some things that he’d just as soon not know. “I’ve re-opened your case.”

 

Nick sucked his breath in sharply, and his eyes widened, making him look as if he‘d been hit, but he kept listening. Gil continued, “When I spoke to your father, he told me that you never appealed your case. And since you’re in my custody,” a nicer way of saying ‘I own you,’ but it still made him wince, “it’s within my rights to act on your behalf in this matter.”

 

“Why?” Nick asked.

 

“Because I have reason to believe that your trial and sentencing were manipulated.”

 

Nick shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t need to do that,” he said.

 

“Yes, I do, Nick.”

 

“No, you don’t.”

 

Gil looked at him, and realized something with surprise. Nick wasn’t angry; he was afraid.

 

That didn’t bode well. Gil knew full well that they were walking into a messy situation. He hadn’t actually seen any of the evidence from Nick’s case, having decided it was better for him to remain hands off in order to avoid a conflict of interest. Catherine had put dayshift on it. And from what Jim had just told him, nothing was turning out to be what the Dallas prosecution had claimed it was.

 

Which was good news and bad at the same time. It meant this set-up ran deep, and that whoever had orchestrated this probably had the entire justice system in their pocket.

 

But that didn’t mean there was nothing Gil could do about it.

 

“Nick,” he said, and reached out, on a sudden impulse, to take Nick’s hand. “Trust me, okay? There’s no way I’m going to let anything happen to you.”

 

Nick squeezed his hand back. “I’m not worried about me,” he said.

 

Gil nodded. “You’re worried about your father,” he said. Nick looked up sharply, eyes wide in shock.

 

“How did you-”

 

“I’m putting the pieces together,” Gil said. “But I need your help. You need to tell me everything you know, Nick. I can get you out of this, I’m sure of it, but if I’m out of the loop on anything, we’ll have tipped our hand for nothing.”

 

Nick bit his lip, frowning. For a long time he just looked down at their joined hands. Finally, he said, in a small, timid voice, “What if I asked you not to do this?”

 

Gil’s throat closed, and tried to convince himself that it was sympathy that he felt right now. He didn’t really believe it, though. With difficulty, he asked, “You’d rather stay a slave?”

 

Nick glanced up, a self-conscious smile on his face. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “With you, anyway.”

 

That nearly undid him. This was just too much for him to bear. Now that he finally had the means to let Nick go, for real and good, he didn’t want to. His chest constricted and his throat was so tight it hurt. There was no way he’d be able to speak, not without some sort of emotional explosion, so instead he held Nick’s hand tighter, and raised his other hand to cradle his head. Finally, the tightness passed, and he found his voice again.

 

“And what happens when it’s not me anymore?” he asked.

 

“When…?”

 

 

“I’m not going anywhere, Nick,” Gil reassured him, stroking his face. “But what if Sam hadn’t been there? What if the next bounty hunter succeeds? They want you back, and they’re not going to stop until they get you.”

 

Nick dropped his head. “You don’t know what they’ll do…”

 

 

 

“Then tell me.” It was the closest to pleading that Gil could remember being in a long time. “Even if we can’t fix it, there’s still a chance.”

 

Nick pursed his lips, looking almost as though he were in pain, but didn’t answer.

 

“Nick,” Gil said softly. “Let’s just start at the beginning. Then we’ll decide what to do about it. Okay?”

 

Nick was still and silent, and for a few heartbeats, Gil feared that he would be refused. Then, just when he began to give up his hope, Nick nodded.

 

“Good,” Gil said, stroking his hair. “Tell me what happened. If there’s a way out, we’ll find it.”

 

Nick seemed to calm down, then. He took several long, deep breaths, and his face became blank, with a faraway look in his eyes.

 

“They arrested my sister. Maddy,” he said. “Accused her of conspiring to murder the Speaker of the Council of Nobles. She didn’t, of course.”

 

“Of course,” Gil said, but his mind wasn’t on that. He frowned. His sister? How did that fit? He wanted to interrupt and ask, but stayed silent. Nick would explain it.

 

“She didn’t have much of a trial. They rushed it so it wouldn’t look like special treatment for a judge’s daughter.” Nick’s voice was thick with disgust. “When she was convicted, there was no way I was going to let them sentence her.” He looked up at Gil, meaningfully. “She was seven months pregnant.”

 

It took a second, but then the obvious answer dawned on Gil. “Transference,” he said. Nick nodded. He’d sold himself into slavery in place of his sister. A common enough practice, although Gil had mostly seen it exercised by bangers and drug pushers as a way to get their girlfriends to do the time for them. Gil’s chest tightened again, partly in sheer horror at the injustice, and partly in awe of Nick’s actions.

 

“So you can’t clear me,” Nick said, then grinned sadly. “No charges were ever filed against me.”

 

And here Gil had thought someone had tampered with Nick’s police record, wiped it or something. But no, it really was that clean.

 

No wonder Brass had had such a devil of a time tracking down Nick’s records. Transference made for messy paperwork and miles of red tape. Unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, no ordinary background check would yield any results. Nick’s sister was the one with charges filed against her, and Nick was doing time without a conviction. And it meant that an appeal was useless. He couldn’t dispute the evidence against Nick if there was no evidence against Nick. And he didn’t have the right to act on behalf of Nick’s sister.

 

Maybe there was nothing he could do.

 

Unless….

 

Part of him whispered that he shouldn’t even try, that the half-formed idea in the back of his mind was something he should just leave alone. Don’t get his hopes up, it whispered. He’s happy. You’re happy. You can keep him, and you’ll both have what you want!

 

No. That wasn’t the answer.

 

“Nick,” he asked. “Why would anyone want to frame your sister?”

 

Nick huffed. “So my dad would do whatever the Council wanted.”

 

Ah. The final piece snapped in place. He’d thought Judge Stokes seemed just as much a prisoner in this entire situation as Nick. Now he knew why. That would explain why Nick’s offer had been accepted; it didn’t matter which Stokes they had, just so long as they had one of them.

 

“And what do you know about the evidence they collected against her?”

 

 

 

Another huff. “Not much,” Nick said. “Testimony from a hit man who claimed she’d hired him. And they had phone records to prove she’d called him. And bank records. Money transfers.”

 

“Any recordings?”

 

“No.”

 

“Anything with your sister’s signature? Any photos? Anything that definitively linked your sister to the hit man?”

 

Nick thought about it. “Just the stuff I mentioned,” he said. “And I know it’s fake, but I can’t prove it.”

 

Gil grinned. “I can.”

 

***

 

“Left here,” Nick said. “It’ll be the third driveway on your right. White house.”

 

Gil followed the instructions, turning the rental car onto a dirt road, and did his best not to be alarmed by the deadness in Nick’s voice. But it took tremendous effort to do so. It was so clear that Nick was not feeling relief or joy at his homecoming, but steadily rising dread and depression. Part of him felt like he owed it to Nick to say something, demanded that it was his responsibility to care for his emotional needs as much, if not more so, than his physical needs. But the other part of him, the part that was in control, even if it was the smaller part, said that he didn’t have that right.

 

“Here it is,” Nick said. “Go ahead and park anywhere.” He was steeling himself; Gil could hear it in his voice and see it in his posture as well. He looked stretched to his breaking point.

 

Gil parked next to a pick-up truck that made the Chevy he was driving look like an insect in comparison. Then he reached over and put a hand on Nick’s shoulder before he could get out. Nick’s head whipped around, startled by the sudden contact.

 

“Nick,” Gil said, then licked his lips nervously. “I…” He couldn’t think what to say. ‘I know this is hard for you,’ was too trite, and ‘I’ll take care of you,’ was too forward. And he didn’t want Nick thinking that he thought he was fragile. He wasn’t. Most people would have broken ages ago, given what Nick had already endured.

 

“It’ll be all right,” Gil said. It wasn’t what he wanted to say, and it sounded insufficient in his own ears, but Nick smiled the tiniest bit.

 

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

Gil wasn’t so sure he agreed, but kept his mouth shut about that. Just what was Nick’s family going to think of him being here?

 

They got out of the car and Gil found himself facing an already assembled crowd of people, all of whom were focused on Nick. A woman with dark hair came forward first, blinking tears out of her eyes and wrapped him tightly in her arms. Gil guessed, rightly, that it was his mother. He watched, with the rest of the family, and Gil wondered if the rest of them saw that Nick was doing as much of the comforting as his mother was. If not most of it.

 

One by one, the rest came forward. Nick’s sisters - Gil counted three - as well as husbands and a few small children that Nick picked up as soon as he saw them. No one seemed to notice Gil at all.

 

Except for the tall man with graying hair and severe lines cut into his face.

 

Judge Stokes.

 

He watched Gil with a solemn, unreadable expression, only turning away to clasp his son’s hand and put an arm around his shoulder.

 

“It’s good to have you back, Pancho,” Gil heard him say.

 

Then, finally, they turned their attention on Gil. Nick glanced back at him, looking horribly flustered. Gil wondered just how the hell Nick thought he was going to introduce him to his family. Was there anything he could say that wasn’t likely to get Gil run off the property, fearing for his life?

 

But his mother saved them both. “You must be Mr. Grissom,” she said, stepping forward and extending her hand. “I’m Jillian, and this is Bill, and our daughters Dana, Kristin and Madeline.” Gil shook hands with all of them, even Bill, though his stoic reserve didn’t waver for a second even in this gesture of friendship.

 

So that’s Maddy, Gil thought, looking at her. That’s the sister Nick sold his life to protect. It weighed on her, he could tell. She hadn’t let go of Nick’s arm since he’d first embraced her, and her eyes were wet even though she wasn’t crying anymore.

 

“Well, let’s go inside,” Jillian said, trying to keep her voice bright. From the way she glanced at Nick and Maddy, then back and forth between Gil and Bill, it was clear that she sensed the unease and tension, but was damned if she was going to let it get to them. That’s how this family worked, Gil guessed. Out of sheer determination. Jillian’s determination.

 

They started moving towards the door. “Bill’s had the smoker going all morning,” she said, nodding towards the back of the house. “Supper should be ready soon, shouldn’t it Bill?”

 

“Not too long,” Bill said. He smiled warmly at his wife. “I could use an extra set of hands out back, though.”

 

“No problem,” Nick said. Bill shook his head.

 

“You get your ass into that house,” he said, but he said it with a smile. “You got too many folks who want to see you.” Then he turned. “I’m sure Mr. Grissom would like the chance to see what real cooking looks like.” He raised an eyebrow at Gil. A quiet challenge.

 

“I’d be happy too,” Gil said, realizing in that instant that it was the only answer he would be allowed to give.

 

“Perfect,” Bill said. “You folks get inside. We’ll have dinner on the table in two shakes.”

 

The family proceeded indoors and Gil followed Bill around to the back of the house. A large, brick smoker stood on the end of a wooden patio and the smell of roasting meat and woodchips wafted through the air, suddenly making Gil realize just how hungry he was. A gurgle from his stomach let Bill know, too.

 

“Hold your horses,” Bill said, picking up a fork and heading towards the smoker. “We’re not gonna let you starve.” He opened the doors and spent several minutes inspecting and turning the cuts of meat. He didn’t speak at all, and after a while it was as though he’d forgotten Gil was even there. Finally though, he closed the doors, set the fork back down and looked up.

 

His expression had changed. None of the suspicion had melted away, but now it was tempered by something softer. Something almost hopeful.

 

“I’d like to thank you for bringing my boy back,” he said in a soft voice. Gil opened his mouth to say ‘you’re welcome,’ but before he could even draw breath, Bill kept going. “But before I do that, I’d like to make sure you’re the kind of man that’s worth thanking.”

 

His voice held no hostility, just a promise. He hadn’t made any judgments yet, but Gil could tell that he was looking for some serious answers now, and would be none too hospitable if he got ones that he didn’t like.

 

Bill pulled out a wooden chair, something that looked handmade, from the table and sat down. “Have a seat,” he said, and Gil did. It seemed clear to Gil that he wasn’t expected to speak, just yet. The Judge had something to say first, and he was obviously used to people keeping quiet until he’d finished.

 

“So what kind of man are you?” he asked. “When you called, you didn’t say anything about owning Nick, and that was probably smart. I don’t think I would’ve talked to you if you had, and I’m bettin’ you knew that. And you brought him back to us now, which sure seems like an upstanding thing to do. But my question is ‘why.’ Why are you here, and what do you want?”

 

“Didn’t Nick tell you?”

 

“He told me this was your idea. Some kind of social thing.” Bill looked at him intently. “I think that’s bullshit.”

 

“Not entirely,” Gil said, choosing his words carefully. “You know that I subpoenaed all the case evidence from Nick’s original trial.”

 

“I do. I just don’t know what the hell kind of good you think it’ll do you.”

 

“The evidence is faulty. It’s been tampered with,” Gil said. “I can prove that. And once I do, it’s not enough to convict Nick. Or Maddy.”

 

The mention of his daughter caused something to stir in Bill Stokes. It surprised him that Gil knew about it. “Nick told me,” Gil said.

 

For a long time, Bill was quiet. Then, he asked, “And what will you do if your plan doesn‘t work?” Gil recognized the tone of voice; it was the same bleak sound that had colored Nick’s when Gil had first broached this same subject.

 

“I don’t expect that to happen,” Gil said. “But if it does, then what happens next is up to Nick.”

 

“And what if he wants to stay here?”

 

“He’ll stay here,” Gil said, fighting to speak around the lump that formed in his throat at the mere thought. Even as he said it, he wondered if he could really do it. Walk away from Nick? Now? Just when he’d finally found him?

 

Yes. If that’s what Nick wanted. He just hoped with all his might that it wouldn’t be.

 

Bill leaned forward and put his head in his hands. He took several deep breaths, and for a while just stayed like that. When he finally lifted his head, he looked older than he had before.

 

“He needs to be home again,” Bill said. “His mother…we all need for this to be over.”

 

“I…can imagine that it’s been difficult,” Gil said. He felt he should say something. It didn’t really matter what; Bill wasn’t really listening. But it filled the space, helped put him at ease, something Gil had learned after years of meeting with distraught and grieving families.

 

Bill nodded. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy…I wanted them to go after me, but it wouldn’t have done any good.”

 

“They wanted control. Not revenge.”

 

Again, Bill nodded. “When John Harper bought him, I thought we could get through it. We had no idea.”

 

That name caught Gil’s attention. Even though Nick had never named the man who had caused him so much suffering, Gil knew without a doubt in his heart that it had been John Harper. They way Bill Stokes spoke, the disbelief and betrayal in his voice, told him everything.

 

“Nick hasn’t spoken much about…that,” Gil said.

 

“I’m not surprised,” Bill said. “He wouldn’t tell anyone what happened. And I can’t blame him. If I’d been through that kind of hell, the Devil himself wouldn’t be able to pry the truth out of me. He’ll take it to his grave.”

 

Maybe, Gil thought. But maybe not. He’s not so much like you, Bill. Whether it was his mother’s genes or being raised with so many sisters, Nick had a softer side than his father, one that wanted to be protected and nurtured and loved. It would break Gil’s heart if that side disappeared, and already it was little more than a trace. But it still cried out to Gil, so loudly that it was almost all he could hear.

 

“If that sonofabitch weren’t already dead, I swear I’d kill him myself,” Bill said. He spoke in a low voice, barely audible and little more than a growl. “He was the goddamned best man at my oldest boy’s wedding. Nick trusted him. We all trusted him.”

 

And that’s why he wouldn’t trust me, Gil thought, sudden icy-cold clarity striking him between the eyes. Nick was a smart boy, after all, and he learned from his mistakes. Gil knew, too well, the kind of damage a person could inflict, given that much trust and that much power. And not just to slaves, either.

 

Gil felt sick to his stomach. The prospect of eating suddenly seemed utterly repellent. All he wanted to do now was go to Nick and hold him for a very, very long time.

 

But then Nick came outside, a drooling infant in his arms and the brightest, most vibrant smile that Gil had ever seen on his face.

 

“Hey Cisco,” he called, his voice jerking his father out of the dark mood he’d sunk into. “Supper ready yet? The natives are getting restless in there.”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s ready. Be in in a second,” Bill murmured, getting up. “Mr. Grissom, hand me that tray, will you?”

 

For a second, Gil couldn’t move. He was staring at Nick. It was almost like looking at another person entirely, a person who hadn't been touched by the kind of grief and soul-deep pain Nick had. And in that second Gil got the tiniest glimpse of who Nick Stokes really was. Who he had been, and who he might become again.

 

"Grissom?" Bill asked again. Gil started, and handed the tray over to Bill, the moment broken now.

 

But at least Nick was still smiling.

 


Chapter 18

Gil pushed open the door to his hotel room, struggling to juggle his bags and keys while keeping the door from slamming shut again. The Stokeses had offered to let him stay with them, but he'd already booked this room before they’d even gotten to Dallas. And he couldn't say that the idea of staying with Nick’s family felt comfortable right now.

 

He looked at the lone bed and sighed. He'd been preparing himself for this moment, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Leaving Nick at his parents had nearly killed him, but it had been the right thing to do. He could take some comfort in that, at least.

 

He kicked off his shoes, grabbed the remote and started flipping listlessly through the channels, since there didn't seem to be anything else to do. The big bed made him feel small and alone.

 

Then, the phone rang. Frowning, Gil rolled over and picked it up.

 

"Hey," Nick's voice came from the other end. "It's me."

 

"Hey," Gil said back, automatically. Why was Nick calling him?

 

"I...uh, I'm down in the lobby," Nick said. "They wouldn't give me your room number. Can I come up?"

 

"What?" It took Gil a second to catch up. "Of course. Two twenty eight. Nick? Is something wrong? I thought you were staying with your parents."

 

"Yeah, uhm," Nick made a nervous noise. "Kinda needed to get away. Too much attention. I'll be up in a sec."

 

He hung up.

 

Gil held the phone for a second, then hung up as well. He got up, but then just stood there, in the middle of the room, not sure why he’d gotten up in the first place. So he went over to the mirror and looked at himself, just because it was something to do. He wondered if he should run a comb through his hair or something, but then reminded himself that it wasn't like it mattered. Nick had seen him in all states, and this wasn't a date.

 

So what was it?

 

Nick knocked on the door, startling the hell out of Gil.

 

Damn, he must have run up those stairs. Gil opened the door.

 

"Hi," Nick said.

 

"Hi," Gil said.

 

It seemed as though they were both waiting for the other to do something. Finally, Gil stepped back and let Nick come in.

 

"Are you okay?" he asked. Nick didn't look like anything was wrong, but then, he didn't look like things were particularly right either. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his windbreaker, and he seemed to be toying with something. Every now and then he’d pull them out, but before long they went back in again.

 

"It's just..." Nick lost his words and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. Hoping to calm him down, Gil put a hand on his shoulder, guiding him over to the bed and sitting down next to him. Nick slumped and leaned against his shoulder.

 

"I haven't lived at home since I was eighteen," Nick said. "And I know they want me there now, want to make sure I'm okay, but..." He made a tired noise and closed his eyes.

 

"I know, Nicky," Gil said, raising a hand to rub his shoulders. It seemed so easy, somehow, offering comfort like this. Considering he hardly knew what to do when Catherine tried to hug him, which she did infrequently, or what to say when one of his rookies had a particularly gruesome day in the field and was obviously feeling the after-effects, it surprised him that this seemed to take no effort at all. Even with Heather, he'd had to work a little bit at knowing exactly what she’d needed. But with Nick, he just knew. And he knew that he was right.

 

Nick relaxed instantly, warming Gil's heart with the little sigh he let out.

 

"Do you want to stay here?" Gil asked. Nick turned up to look at him.

 

"If you don't mind," he said. Gil shook his head.

 

"Of course I don't mind."

 

"Good, cuz I already told my family that's what I would do." He grinned at Gil, and then, before Gil even had time to see it coming, he leaned forward and kissed him.

 

It took Gil no time at all to respond. After all, if he was looking at a finite number of times that he'd ever get to do this again, he was damn well going to make the most out of each and every second. He slid his hands down from Nick's shoulders, moving them under his shirt, ready to slide into the waistband of his jeans if things seemed like they were going to progress that way.

 

And then he realized that something wasn't quite right.

 

Nick was into it, yes, making all those soft, devastating noises that he always made when Gil kissed him, but it was...different. It felt...more restrained somehow. Like Nick was holding back. To be honest, it felt a hell of a lot like a first kiss. And as nice as those were, it wasn't what he was expecting. They knew each other better than this, didn't they?

 

But then again, maybe they didn't. Some pieces started to come together in Gil's head, things Nick had said and done, and his intuition filled in the rest. Reluctantly, he pulled away.

 

"Nick," he said. "Let's get on the same page, here, shall we?"

 

Nick blinked in surprise. "I thought we were..."

 

"I think there's something you want," Gil said. He drew the words out more slowly than he normally would have, finding a different cadence and timbre. It had an instant effect on Nick. His eyes widened, growing darker, and his mouth parted in a soft, awestruck manner. Gil smiled, not a wide smile, but one of predatory contentment. He raised his hands to cup Nick's face, thumbs stroking his cheekbones.

 

"So what is it?" he asked in the softest voice he could manage. Soft, but still firm enough to demand an answer. And Nick would answer, he had no doubt.

 

"I don't know," Nick said. He wasn't being coy, Gil could tell that much by looking at him.

 

"You don't know, or you do know and you don't know how to ask for it?" Either could be possible. He stroked the back of his hand over Nick's face. Make him feel safe, he thought, remembering what this was all about. Make sure he knows he can trust you.

 

"Both," Nick said.

 

"It's okay," Gil said. "There aren't any wrong answers here, Nicky.” This, too, was easy. He remembered now why Heather had told him he had a particular gift. And if Nick could just let go, he'd find it easy, too. Easy, and they'd both end up getting what they wanted.

 

“Can I ask you something?” Nick asked.

 

“Of course.”

 

“What happened with you and Heather?”

 

From the way he blurted it out, Gil could tell that it had been weighing on his mind for a long time. Gil considered this, and what to tell him. He could give him a true answer, easily enough, without revealing very much about himself at all, but then there was the whole story, and didn’t he owe Nick that?

 

“Usually, I tell people that we were involved,” Gil said. “We lived together for four years.”

 

“Why didn’t you marry her?”

 

Gil gave him a look, rolling his eyes a little. “I think that would be obvious,” he said, and leaned forward to give Nick another short, sweet kiss. “I prefer men.”

 

“Ah,” Nick said. He was starting to blush now, which made him even more appealing to Gil’s eyes, so much more like the man he’d caught a glimpse of at his parents’ home. The bitter, angry man that had lived in Gil’s house for the past few months would never have blushed like this. He never would have laughed like that, either.

 

What a man Nick could become, if only Gil was careful.

 

“But that’s only part of it,” Gil said. “I don’t talk about anything more than that, because it’s not anyone’s business. But you have a right to know.”

 

He shifted their position on the bed, scooting himself up so that he was resting against the headboard. Nick came along with him, and leaned back against Gil’s chest. Wrapping his arms around Nick, he pulled him close, cradling Nick’s head in the crook of his neck. Nick sighed and melted against him.

 

“Heather is a Dominatrix,” Gil said. “That’s her profession. But in her personal relationships, she prefers to…relinquish that control.”

 

He could end it right there. Nick was smart, he’d fill in the blanks, understand the parts that he wasn’t saying. But the easy, quick way never got him where he wanted to go. This was his chance, and if he hid the truth now, he’d be denying a part of himself that he’d kept hidden for far, far too long as it was.

 

“And I…enjoy being offered that kind of control,” Gil said. Nick went quiet after Gil spoke, but at least he didn’t pull away. He seemed thoughtful, which was at least a little reassuring.

 

Gil had never felt any sense of shame about his predilections, it would have been foolish. What he liked was between him and his partners, and no one else’s opinion had any impact on the subject.

 

But right now, it felt as though, by admitting this to Nick, he was nothing more than a hypocrite.

 

“But it has to be offered,” Gil said, feeling like he should clarify. Surely Nick understood that he wouldn’t ever dream of taking advantage of him, but Gil didn’t want to take any chances. “I want you to understand that. It’s not about pain, it’s not about violence, and it’s not even really about being in control.”

 

He’d dropped his carefully measured, seductive voice. This was just Gil Grissom talking, now. His dominant instincts had stayed dormant this long, they could wait just a little longer.

 

“It’s about trust,” Gil finished. Then he waited. Waited for Nick to understand, to speak and accept or reject what Gil was offering. At least, whatever happened, he’d know for sure.

 

Finally, Nick spoke. In a voice that was hesitant, but not actually frightened, he said,

 

“I think…” he closed his eyes, “I think I was hoping you’d say that.”

 

Gil very nearly cried with relief. This was almost surreal, it was so exactly what he wanted. And then it really hit him, what it meant that Nick had said that. Not only could he stop hiding his actual desires from Nick, Nick had just condoned them. He’d just started the game, and now it was Gil’s turn. And oh, he’d been anticipating this move for a long, long time.

 

“So how do you want this to go, Nicky?” Gil asked, purring approval into Nick‘s ear. “We can do whatever you want.”

 

“I want…” Nick sounded unsure, and trailed off, losing himself in the moment. But then, suddenly, he pulled out of it, like he’d just gone into reverse. Something in the set of his jaw and the way his eyes snapped open and met Gil’s. He sat up and away from Gil.

 

“I want to give you this,” he said. “Heather said it used to belong to you, and I…well…” He made a disgusted noise and evidently decided to let the ‘this’ in question do the talking for him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the thing he’d been toying with since he first walked into the room.

 

He handed it to Gil, and Gil‘s jaw dropped.

 

He took it, and as he did, he remembered it. He remembered this, remembered the softness of it, the intricate details and patterns worked into the surface of the leather. He remembered the way it had looked against soft, pale skin. He remembered how proud he’d felt, every time he’d seen it.

 

“I…I gave this collar to Heather,” he said, awestruck.

 

Nick chuckled. “Well, I guess she thought I should have it.” He sobered, suddenly and looked at Gil, craning his head back so he could make eye contact. “Will you put it on me?” he asked.

 

Gil’s head shot up. “Nick, do you know --”

 

Nick cut him off with an indignant and exasperated look. “I know exactly what that means,” he said. “And that’s what I want.”

 

Gil pulled him in and kissed him, almost before he finished speaking. Without breaking the kiss, he unbuckled the collar, fingers knowing exactly how the buckle fit, and he brought it up to Nick’s throat. He did stop kissing him, then, and as he settled the leather around Nick’s neck, he said,

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Nick said, and kissed him again.

 

This time, Gil directed the kiss, took control a little more. Nick sighed and acquiesced, and when they pulled apart, Gil looked at him, eyes dark and lips swollen, for a little while before speaking.

 

“So what shall we do now?” he asked.

 

“I want you to decide,” Nick said, closing his eyes and leaning his head further back against Gil’s shoulder. He looked so vulnerable like this, but at peace as well. It sent a jolt through Gil, snapping in his brain and coursing straight to his groin.

 

“I’d love to,” Gil said. “But I need to know a few things, first.” He raised one hand to touch Nick’s throat. The skin was hot and soft and fluttered under his fingers, under the collar. He kissed him, just below Nick’s jaw.

 

“What turns you on, Nicky?” Gil asked. “I want to know everything. Everything you know about and everything you don’t know about.”

 

“O-okay,” Nick answered, his voice shaky, but not from fear. He swallowed, and Gil, his hand still over Nick’s throat, felt it.

 

Gil considered things. They’d start slow, of course. He slid his other hand down Nick’s body, tracing circles on his stomach, listening to the way Nick’s breath hitched when he slipped his hand under the shirt. Then he dipped it down further, under the waistband of Nick’s pants to finally ghost his fingertips over Nick’s cock.

 

Nick reacted instantly, arching into the anticipated touch and letting out a low sound in the back of his throat.

 

In a way, this was Gil’s favorite part. This time when he got to explore, to learn about a new lover. This time would be mostly about finding Nick’s limits rather than pushing them. He’d push a few things, of course. He was eager to see what Nick looked like when he was desperate to come, wanted to know just how long he could stand being kept in such a state. And he looked forward to pushing that limit. He could spend hours teasing, and if the whimpers Nick was just starting to make were any indication of what was to come, Gil just might do exactly that.

 

“I’m going to suggest some things, Nicky,” Gil said, “Tell me what you think.” He started slowly shifting them on the bed again. It meant taking his hand out of Nick’s pants, which he regretted, but there were a few things Nick might not know he liked until he tried them.

 

“But first, let’s establish some guidelines.” He’d arranged them so that Nick was on his back now, eyes still closed. “Look at me, Nick,” he said. It was an order, but one given gently, and Nick’s eyes fluttered open instantly.

 

“You can stop this at any time, do you understand?”

 

A pause, then Nick nodded. Gil nodded back.

 

“Any time,” he said. “If you don’t like what I’m doing, stop me. If it gets to be too much for you, stop me. If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, stop me. Just don’t ever think you have to endure something to make me happy.” He stopped long enough to catch Nick’s eyes with his.

 

“I want you to enjoy this, Nicky. Okay?”

 

Something passed over Nick’s face, something that made him clench his teeth and swallow, hard. But his gaze didn’t waver, and he nodded again.

 

“Okay,” he said. His voice sounded a little strained.

 

“If you want me to stop, just say, ‘Gil. Stop.’ Okay?”

 

“I can do that,” Nick said. Gil smiled.

 

“Good. Normally, I would use a word other than ‘stop,’ but this time it will be just fine.” His eyes flashed before he continued. “Because unless you want to stop me, or are answering a question I ask you, I don’t want you to say anything at all. Understand?” He was grinning now, ready and eager to play. After a second, Nick smiled back.

 

“Yes, sir,” he said, with mock severity.

 

“Good boy,” Gil said. “Now. Let’s find out what you like.” He swung a leg over Nick’s hips and leaned forward, bracing himself on one arm.

 

“I want to blindfold you,” he said. Gil gently touched Nick’s eyelids, urging them to close. “I want you wondering what’s going to happen to you next, never sure when, or even if, I’m going to touch you. I want everything to be a surprise.” He leaned down, putting his mouth right next to Nick’s ear.

 

“Do you like that?”

 

The unexpected closeness and the suddenness of breath on skin made Nick shiver. “Yes,” he whispered. Gil smiled. That one was easy enough.

 

He sat up, looking around the room, wondering what he could use. He was ill-prepared for this kind of encounter, but he could certainly think on his feet. His suitcase was sitting on the chair next to the bed, and he flipped it open, going through a quick list of what he was likely to need in the next few days and what he could afford to do without.

 

He’d packed two ties, so he grabbed one and returned to Nick. Moving slowly, so as not to give away what he was about to do, he draped the tie over Nick’s eyes and tied it. Nick gasped in surprise, but quickly relaxed. In fact, he seemed more relaxed now than he had been before Gil had blindfolded him.

 

Natural submissive, indeed.

 

That trait had probably made it much worse for Nick, through this whole ordeal. He’d had to fight his nature in order to keep himself safe. But now Gil promised himself that, as bad as it had been for Nick before now, for every time he’d been hurt, he would make it up to him with a thousand times the gentleness, a thousand times the pleasure. He’d make this right again.

 

“Is that all right?” Gil asked. Nick nodded. “Good.”

 

Now that shirt needed to come off. Gil grasped the hem started pulling it up. Nick shifted, trying to help, but Gil said, “Stay still,” and did it himself. Once he’d pulled the shirt off and dropped it next to the bed, he turned back to look.

 

Oh. That would never, ever get old. It didn’t matter that he’d seen Nick without his clothes on plenty of times before now, this was the time that counted, the time that would stick in his memory. Such a beautiful boy, Nicky, even without any adornments. But spread out like this, blindfolded, arms up over his head, with the gold rings in his nipples and the silver D-ring on the collar catching the light, and Gil’s eye, he was breathtaking.

 

It was just missing one thing.

 

Shifting again, Gil swung one leg over Nick’s hips, then reached down to capture his hands, pinning them to the bed.

 

“Nicky, I want to tie you up. Just your hands. May I do that?”

 

That made Nick freeze for a moment. Something about that idea made him uncomfortable.

 

But he’s not rejecting it right away, Gil thought.

 

“Don’t say yes unless you’re comfortable with it,” Gil cautioned. “I don’t want to push you too far.”

 

But Nick didn’t say anything. He was thinking about it, fighting with himself, and now Gil wasn’t so sure that this struggle was about doing what would please Gil. Maybe it was about getting over something else.

 

Gil picked up Nick’s hands and kissed the inside of each wrist. “Let me show you something,” he said.

 

He leaned down, still holding Nick’s wrists, pinned them again, and started kissing him. He started on the mouth, but didn’t stay there, trailing across Nick’s jaw and down his neck, sometimes not touching the skin at all, just breathing over it, other times laying wet, open mouthed kisses. Nick started struggling to free his arms, but Gil held him down.

 

“I know you want to touch me,” he said. “But I don’t want you to. I want you to let me do this for you. I don’t want you to think about a thing except how this feels, how I can do anything I want to you, and what I want is to make you feel good.”

 

Nick was gasping now, and starting to squirm. Gil could feel how hard he was already and smiled. He’d barely begun. Finally, Nick nodded.

 

“Okay,” he said.

 

Perfect.

 

Gil looked around the room again, wondering what the hell he was going to use for this. He didn’t want to sacrifice his other tie, but he might not have any other choice. He could always tell Nick to hang onto the headboard and not let go, but he was pretty sure it would be more intense and enjoyable for Nick if he didn’t have to think about keeping himself restrained.

 

Gil looked around again, and this time he saw it. The window had a decorative sash draped over the top. He leaned down to whisper, “Stay right there,” in Nick’s ear, then got up to retrieve it.

 

Nick hadn’t budged an inch when he got back. His arms were still above his head where Gil had left him, and he looked as though something were already pulling his body taught. Gil looped the sash through one of the slats in the headboard, then tied the ends around Nick’s wrists. Not too tight, just enough to keep him from moving more than a few inches.

 

Gil looked down at him then, and, oh, Nick looked like the most tempting, alluring, and delicious thing he could ever imagine. He reached out a hand, but instead of touching skin, he ran a finger along the collar instead.

 

A gift. What a precious gift.

 

“How’s that?” Gil asked, pulling his hand away before he had a chance to get too sentimental.

 

“It’s…okay,” Nick answered, sounding a little breathless, a little nervous, but a whole lot eager. He tested the sash; it held.

 

Gil leaned forward. “Just okay?” he asked, smiling wickedly.

 

“Uh…” Nick started to answer, but before he could manage any more sound, Gil bent his head. He caught one of the nipple rings it in his teeth.

 

Nick shouted in surprise, and arched instantly against Gil’s mouth, but Gil pushed him back down again. He’d spent plenty of time, before now, playing with and enjoying these delightful accessories, a pastime that Nick evidently enjoyed as much as he did. The rings were the perfect size for him to catch with his tongue, to flip and tug on, one then the other, while he did things with his teeth to the nipple itself that made Nick squirm. The noises he drew him were more than moans or whimpers, but just as desperate.

 

He pulled back while Nick was still gasping and struggling for more.

 

“Now how’s that?” Gil asked, knowing full well what kind of answer he was about to get.

 

“Oh,” Nick said, barely able to suck in the air he needed to breathe, “Please…”

 

“My pleasure,” Gil said, before making good on his words.

 

And it did please him.

 

It pleased him to do with fingers what he’d already down with teeth and tongue, to twist and tease, and feel Nick’s skin and body come alive and start to burn. It pleased him to touch anywhere and everywhere he wanted, to take advantage of everything he’d learned about Nick during their previous lovemaking and use it to torture him slowly into insanity. It pleased him to feel Nick move under him, helpless to do anything but respond to Gil’s every touch.

 

But mostly it pleased him to see, hear and feel Nick grow steadily more desperate, to loose himself and his fears entirely to what Gil was doing.

 

“I have one more question for you, Nicky,” he said, his voice making Nick shiver. “It’s about how we do this.”

 

“Whatever,” Nick panted, completely breathless by now. “Whatever you want.”

 

The tone of his voice made Gil sit up and close his eyes, trying to maintain control of himself. Such complete surrender…

 

No, that wasn’t it. Surrender, yes, but there was more to it than that.

 

Joy. Uninhibited joy and…contentment, even in the face the incredible frustration he must be feeling by now. This was too perfect.

 

He’d thought that Nick must have agreed to tonight’s little games simply to indulge Gil’s preferences. A gift, to be sure, and one that certainly made Gil realize how lucky he was with Nick. That Nick seemed to be enjoying himself thus far made it even better, but Gil hadn’t even dared to hope that Nick might achieve this level.

 

Nick was more than just turned on; he had become Gil’s willing and eager submissive.

 

Gil shivered, feeling something that could almost have been a growl start to muster itself in his throat. And then he stopped fighting it. Any of it. The growl might have escaped, but he didn’t notice. His hand shot out and he hooked a finger in the D-ring, pulling Nick up as far as the ties around his wrists would allow. Then he bent the rest of the way to meet him and kissed him, hard, on the mouth. Nick responded instantly, but Gil pulled away before he could really start kissing back, causing a sad, bereft noise from Nick.

 

Dear God, how was it possible to want someone so much?

 

“Nick,” Gil said, once he had regained composure and control to speak again, “I know you trust me.” Just saying it, now that he knew how deep that trust went, gave him a little, beautifully sweet twinge. When Nick sighed in agreement, Gil had to kiss him again. This time, he let him kiss back.

 

 

“But I’m not going to do anything that I don’t know you’ll like,” Gil added, once he’d pulled away and released his hold on the collar. Nick made a few affirmative noises, and Gil realized that was likely all he was going to get. “Remember, just say my name, and we stop. No questions.” He kissed Nick’s shoulder. “But I’d rather get it right the first time through.”

 

He sat up, then, and Nick made an unhappy noise at the loss of body contact. Gil smiled, and let his fingertips wander over Nick’s stomach as he began talking.

 

“We can make this last as long as we want,” he said. “I love making you come, Nicky. But I love making you wait for it, too. Making you desperate. Making you beg.” He leaned forward.

 

“You don’t know how much that turns me on,” he whispered. Then sat up again, quickly, enjoying how that admission caused Nick to flush.

 

“I could do this all night,” Gil said, toying with the nipple rings once again. Nick whimpered. “Have you ever worn a cockring, Nicky? I didn’t bring one, but I’m sure I could improvise. Between that and my hands, there’s no way you would come until I said so.”

 

Gil shifted, then, climbing off of Nick. It was time for those pants to come off, and he couldn’t really do that if he was still straddling him. He popped the top button and slid the zipper down, then reached inside.

 

He loved the feel of Nick’s cock, hard and nearly feverishly hot, in his hand. He gave it a long, slow stroke. “Or I could make you come right now,” he said. “Then get you hard and needy, and do it again. And again. And again.” He grinned. “You remember the last time, don’t you?” Nick shuddered and moaned. Clearly, he did. Gil had taken all night, learning Nick and his body, and all the different ways he could bring him off.

 

He would relish either, actually. Either was a chance for unrestricted reign over Nick’s body, the opportunity to touch and taste to his heart’s content, all the while knowing that it was bringing Nick as much pleasure as it brought him.

 

He’d enjoy whatever Nick chose, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his own preference. Nick had given him so much already, and even though it made him feel greedy, he wanted more; he wanted that last piece he had to offer. He wanted the power to deny Nick for as long as he pleased, to know that Nick trusted him that much.

 

“So here’s my question, Nick,” he said. This was it, the moment he found out just how in sync the two of them were. How far did Nick want this to go? Strangely, he found himself feeling more curious than anxious. After all, he was in for a night of great sex no matter what Nick said.

 

“Do you want the cockring?” he asked.

 

Nick tipped his head back, moaning loudly.

 

“Yes,” he said.

 

Heat flashed through Gil’s body, threatening to boil him in his own skin. Suddenly, he couldn’t bear having his clothes on for another second. It was too hot, all of this was too hot, and he was going to burn up before it was over. He stripped his shirt off, then pounced on Nick, kissing him hard and long while fumbling with his own pants.

 

All his patience evaporated. He wanted Nick, and he wanted him now. And if he wanted a chance in hell at doing everything he’d told Nick about, he needed Nick. Now. Just because Nick wasn’t going to be getting off any time soon didn’t mean Gil couldn’t. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do tonight -- he never really did, since he had always preferred to play things like this by ear…more fun that way -- but he knew he was going to go absolutely out of his mind if he didn’t fuck Nick soon. So that’s what he was going to do as soon as possible.

 

But first things first. He peeled Nick’s jeans off, kissing and licking greedily at any skin he could get at, then got the rest of his own clothes off. Now. Cockring.

 

Goddamnit, if he’d just had a little foresight when packing, he wouldn’t be scrambling now. What the hell was he going to use?

 

Just when he thought he might have to amend his plans for the evening, inspiration struck. One of Nick’s work boots was lying by the bed where he’d taken them off earlier. Gil grabbed it and unstrung the shoelace as quickly as he could.

 

“I think this will do nicely,” he said, returning to Nick. He wrapped the lace around the base of Nick’s cock and tied it.

 

“There,” Gil said. “That’s not too tight, is it?” Nick shook his head, gasping like a fish and squirming madly.

 

“Perfect,” Gil said, giving him a quick peck on the lips. He smiled, then, feeling perfectly wicked. He pulled himself away from Nick just long enough to reach for his suitcase to find the lube. He’d thought it a touch optimistic, packing that. Too bad he hadn’t been more optimistic.

 

He returned to the bed and settled himself, this time between Nick’s legs instead of straddling him. Nick whimpered, his body, and especially his cock, begging to be touched. Worshipped. He arched when Gil sat down, and Gil groaned in appreciation and flipped the cap off the lube and covering his fingers.

 

When Gil finally touched him, Nick bucked, gasping and straining with the effort to keep from shouting. Gil watched him bite his lip, chest heaving. He kissed the side of Nick’s face and trailed his hand lower and lower, and finally slide one finger inside him.

 

“Easy, now,” he said, and added another finger. Much though he’d like to draw this out, Nick was close to breaking, and he wasn’t much better off in the stamina department at the moment either. So the minute he thought Nick was ready, he pulled his fingers out, positioned his cock, and pushed in.

 

He took his time at first, a long, slow screw seeming like the best possible way to get things started. He let himself enjoy this, the way Nick arched to meet his every thrust, the way he pulled at his restraints, trying to touch Gil, to get more, the way his breath hitched and caught on words he wouldn’t let past his throat, the way the leather of the collar flavored the skin of his throat.

 

“Good boy,” Gil said, kissing his throat appreciatively. “Such a good boy.”

 

But he couldn’t hold that pace for long, and eventually, need drove him faster and faster until time suddenly stopped, holding him in a perfect, suspended instant of intense pleasure. And when it was over, he looked down at Nick, still taught and straining and so, so beautiful.

 

“So good,” he said, a little out of breath himself. He relaxed then, lowering himself on top of Nick. He pressed his head to Nick’s chest and closed his eyes. For the next few seconds, his world consisted of nothing but the feel of Nick, hot and hard, under him, and the sound of his heart beating. Then he pushed himself back up, pulling out and shifting so that he was next to Nick instead of on top of him. He ran a hand through Nick’s sweat-damp hair.

 

“Are you ready for more?” he asked.

 

Nick moaned, loudly, at that. Loud enough that the guests in the next room, if there were any, certainly heard it. And now knew exactly what was going on over here. Oh well. Some small part of Gil found he kind of liked the idea.

 

“Do you know what I’m going to do to you now?” he asked. Nick shook his head.

 

“…no,” he said in a breathless, eager whisper.

 

“Everything,” Gil whispered.

 

***

 

Nick stayed awake well after Grissom had fallen asleep, half by choice and half because hormones and emotions were still high. Besides, afterglow wasn’t something that he’d gotten to enjoy much before now, and even though he and Grissom had had sex plenty of times before tonight, this had been something hella special.

 

He still couldn’t quite believe he’d let Grissom tie him up. He’d almost said no to that. But Grissom wasn’t John Harper, and he’d finally started believing that. And after tonight, there was no question. Where John had taken, Gil had given.

 

(“I’m going to change the rules,” Gil said. “You don’t have to be silent anymore. But,” he paused for emphasis, “the only thing I want to hear is you begging me for more. Okay?”)

 

And he had begged for it. Oh how he’d begged for it. And sometimes Grissom had listened, but most of the time he’d gone at his own infuriating pace; driving him so hard that, once or twice, the words to stop the whole thing had been on his lips. But just when he’d been sure he couldn’t take another second, that he’d go completely insane, Gil had backed it off again, calming him until he nearly lost his erection a time or two.

 

(Gil pulled out and moved to lie down next to him. He reached out with one hand and cupped the back of Nick’s head, gently pulling him close for a long, deep kiss. A long deep kiss that melted into another, and another as he slowed them both down again.)

 

(By the time he pulled away, Nick was no longer mewling with need, but sighing instead, his need no longer quite as urgent. Gil kissed his cheek.)

 

He’d trusted him, enough to give up any power at all.

 

Well, except for the power to stop everything, which was really all the power in the world, wasn’t it?

 

And anyway, it hadn’t just been about giving up power, he’d realized. It had been about giving up responsibility, too. He’d never, ever felt so released.

 

Of course, he’d also never felt quite so sore, either. And if he felt like this now, he didn’t want to know what he’d be like in the morning. But hey, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do it all over again if he got the chance. Maybe not right now, of course….

 

(He started trailing his hand down Nick’s body. Lower and lower, until he was teasing at Nick’s entrance again, feeling how hot and slick and stretched he still was.)

 

(“Well, Nick?” he asked, smirking. “Let’s hear it?” He pressed a finger inside.

 

(“Oh my god…please…more….”)

 

And then he’d finally, finally come, an orgasm that seemed to take years -- if not years off his life -- with Grissom coaxing him through it, drawing it out, holding him and kissing him, and making him feel so…precious.

 

Unreal. Absolutely unreal. How did you go from being worse than a prostitute to this?

 

Nick grinned and snuggled closer to the warm body behind him. Hell if he knew. And right now? He didn’t really care either.

 

(“Nick?”)

 

(“Thank you, Gil.”)

 


Chapter 19

Gil didn’t invite himself along to arrests, not anymore, unless there were some forensic loose ends to tie up. That had held an appeal once, when he’d been a young CSI who’d wanted to see how his work in a lab or in the field ended up spelling out justice. But now he didn’t need to see it; now he knew how it worked, and that was plenty.

 

But every now and again there were exceptions. And this was one of them.

 

Sometimes, he knew it just wouldn’t be enough to speak for the victims in the court room, he needed to do it to the perpetrator’s face. Sometimes a case or a victim got to him, more than others, and abstract justice by itself wasn’t quite enough to send him home feeling satisfied. He needed vindication, too.

 

And this time was even better, because he wasn’t just speaking for someone, stepping into the story now, when it was too late to change anything, he was undoing a wrong. He was watching the victim take back his life.

 

This was worth savoring.

 

Lord Martin Drake shot to his feet, a little startled and clearly angry, when they entered his office. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, his irritation on full display at the interruption.

 

“Marty? What’s going on?” came a voice from the speaker phone on Drake’s desk. It sounded familiar to Gil, but the distortion from the speaker made it difficult to place. Drake’s glanced back down, mouth open to answer the person on the other end of the phone. But he stopped, and looked back up. When he recognized Nick, his eyes sparkled. He smiled, and quickly pressed a button on the phone, disconnecting the call.

 

“Well, well,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. Now he looked positively tickled. “It certainly is a delight to see you again, Nick. We didn’t expect you back in Texas quite so soon.” He came out from behind his desk, clicking his tongue as he took a good look at Nick. Then, taking his own, deliberate pace, he turned his attention to Gil.

 

“And you must be Dr. Grissom,” he said, unimpressed. “A pleasure, sir.” He didn’t offer his hand.

 

Gil narrowed his eyes and did his best to suppress a groan. “I’m sure,” he said. He didn’t offer his hand, either. Drake then looked back at Nick.

 

“Enjoying your visit home?” Drake asked. “I’m sure you missed it here.” He smiled and spoke pleasantly, giving the illusion congeniality, but Gil didn’t believe it for a second. Drake’s eyes were focused on Nick, watching for any sign of discomfort. Nick managed to keep a stoic face, but Gil could tell how much it was costing him. And judging from the smirk on Drake’s face, he could, too. Gil gritted his teeth, the only way he could keep from putting an end to this right now, and reminded himself that this was Nick’s moment, his battle. He would follow Nick’s lead.

 

“And how is your father?” he asked, inflecting the words into something that couldn’t quite be called a threat. “I haven’t spoken to him myself, lately, but his name does come up in conversation quite a bit these days. You tell him I’ve been thinking about him, won’t you?”

 

That did it. Gil wasn’t going to stand for another second of this emotional molestation. If he ended up getting arrested for assault in the process, it would be worth it.

 

“That’s enough,” Nick said, and Gil whipped his head around to look at him, wide-eyed, and held his breath. He’d seen that look on Nick before, that mix of anger and defiance.

 

Gil smiled, and got out of the way. He moved over a few feet and leaned ageist Drake’s desk to watch. This was Nick’s show now, and rightly so.

 

Nick glanced once at Gil, the fire in his eyes ebbing for a moment. “I’m really tired of his bullshit,” he said. “Let’s just get this over with, huh?” Gil shrugged, saying ’it’s all up to you,’ and waited. Nick turned back to Drake, who hadn’t lost his smug smile yet. If anything, it had gotten wider.

 

“And why are you here, Nicky?” he asked.

 

Nick matched his sweet smile with a cold one of his own. “Tell you what,” he said, and unhooked a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “You’re a smart guy. I’ll bet you can guess.”

 

Drake cast a sideways, irritated glare at him. “Please,” he said. “Enlighten me.”

 

“Glad to,” Nick said. “Conspiracy. And fraud. And obstruction of justice. Any of these hitting home?”

 

“No,” Drake sneered.

 

“Funny,” Nick said, opened his jacket and pulled two items out of his breast pocket. One was a piece of paper, which he unfolded. “’Cuz the issuing judge -- not my father, by the way -- seemed to think all those were good enough reasons for this.” He handed the warrant to Drake, and flipped open the other object he’d retrieved, his newly returned badge.

 

“And if you don’t start cooperating soon, we’ll just have to add ‘resisting arrest’ to your list of charges,” Nick continued.

 

Drake scoffed, but the warrant still held his full attention, and the scoff lacked the certainty he’d displayed a few moments ago. “You don’t have the authority to carry this out.”

 

“Please,” Nick said, crossing his arms and speaking with quiet, calm authority. “Try me. I’d love it.”

 

Gil smirked, and then turned away, his attention drawn by a soft trilling noise. After a moment, he realized that Drake’s phone was ringing. He walked around to the other side of the desk to read the caller id.

 

That was a Vegas area code. Gil raised an eyebrow. Curious.

 

The phone rang again, and this time, Drake glanced involuntarily in the direction of the sound.

 

“Don’t you want to answer it?” Gil asked.

 

“No,” Drake answered, but he didn’t answer quite quickly enough for Gil to miss the look of panic that had crossed his face briefly.

 

“Okay,” Gil said, brightly. “Then I will.” He pushed a button, putting the caller on speaker phone. At the same time, he looked directly at Drake, both eyebrows raised expectantly.

 

“Marty, what the hell is going on?” came the voice from the phone, and Gil saw the tiniest flinch from Drake. “Whatever it is, this is more important. You don’t know Grissom, but I do. If he has the evidence from Stokes’s case, he’ll make mincemeat of it.”

 

Drake opened his mouth and started to come forward, probably to stop the speaker, and by now Gil was certain that it was Etheridge, but Nick grabbed his arm. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said, softly, into Drake’s ear. Drake froze, and this time didn’t offer any resistance when Nick took his other arm and cuffed him.

 

Meanwhile, the speaker continued, and Grissom listened.

 

“Trust me, Marty, you don’t know how hard it is to fake a crime when he’s around. If he takes this to trial, there’s no way Stokes won’t be emancipated, and it’s gonna be your ass on the line.” Etheridge stopped for a while. “Marty?” he continued. “You there?”

 

“Yes, he is,” Grissom said. “But I think he’ll be exercising his right to remain silent at the moment.”

 

A long pause followed, then, Etheridge spoke again, his voice harsh and tentative. “Grissom?”

 

Grissom grinned. “Well done, Mark,” he said. “Too bad your timing couldn’t have been as good as your perception.”

 

The line clicked and the dial tone started droning a second later as Etheridge hurriedly hung up. Grissom shrugged. “Guess he didn’t feel like talking,” he said.

 

Then he looked up at Drake, who somehow managed to find a way to look smug, even with his hands cuffed behind his back.

 

“You’re wasting your time,” he said.

 

Gil quirked his head to one side. “Oh?” he asked. “How so?”

 

“Even if you manage to find a court in Texas where your appeal stands a chance, it doesn’t matter what you prove,” Drake pointed out. "Mr. Stokes entered into his contract voluntarily. And as such, it’s a binding legal document. Nothing you can do about it.”

 

“You’re right,” Grissom said, still smiling. “But the problem is that, a contract is entered into under duress, or coercion, or extortion due to illegitimate legal proceedings is the kind of contract that can get overturned fairly easily. Especially when the Federal Council of Slave Rights gets their hands on it.”

 

Suddenly, Drake looked very pale. “You’re bluffing,” he said. “And I don’t believe you.”

 

Grissom took a step closer. “Oh, I think you do,” he said.

 

Nick cocked his head, and leaned forward. “You know, maybe I was wrong,” he said. “For a smart guy, you seem to be taking a long time to figure this out.”

 

“I had my lab in Vegas examine the evidence you used against Nick’s sister,” Gil said. “And right now, there are a lot of people, much more powerful than you and me, who want to know why a crime lab like Dallas failed to discover during months of processing, what my guy in QD figured out right away.”

 

“You see,” he continued, “just because something looks real, doesn’t mean it is. And using the same color ink to forge bank and phone records doesn’t fool ultraviolet light. I’m surprised your experts at the Dallas lab didn’t think to try that. That really doesn’t look good for you guys. I’m sure the feds will be looking into that, too.”

 

“Game’s over,” Nick said, tugging on Drake’s arm as he started moving towards the door. “You loose.”

 

Grissom watched Nick lead Drake out of his office, watched the weight of everything he and Nick had said settle first on his face, then his shoulders, then finally in every muscle of his body. By the time Nick handed him over to the uniformed officers that had been waiting outside this entire time, the once arrogant Lord Martin Drake was nothing more than a frightened, angry little man.

 

But that wasn’t what Grissom had come hoping to see.

 

He’d come to see the look on Nick’s face when he turned back around, the final axe no longer hanging over his head.

 

Nick looked grim, his shoulders pulled back and his jaw set tightly. But Gil could see what was behind that tough look. His eyes were red and the tiniest bit wet, and his breathing was uneven, and even though his steps were slower, careful, he carried himself with both a strength and a lightness that hadn’t been there before. He was his own man again, and he knew it now.

 

And Gil suddenly realized how very much he loved him because of it.

 

The thought both frightened and pained him, and he swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded down the hall at the disappearing figures of Drake and the Dallas police officers. “You don’t want to take him in yourself?” he asked.

 

Nick frowned. “I’m not that comfortable around the folks at the station just yet,” he said, coming to stand next to Grissom. He turned so that he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Gil. “That’s all I needed to do.”

 

“Hmm,” Gil said. “So what now?”

 

Nick shrugged and kept looking down the now empty hall. “I dunno,” he said. “Lunch?”

 

Gil made himself chuckle. That wasn’t what he’d meant, of course, but he suspected that Nick knew that. If Nick didn’t want to talk about his future right now, then Gil wasn’t going to push the issue.

 

Instead, he opened his briefcase and reached in. That did catch Nick’s attention, and he watched.

 

“I thought about giving you this when you were emancipated,” Gil said. “But I thought it might have been too soon. This seemed like a better idea.” He handed over another stack of papers; his own copy of Nick’s contract. The one he had signed in Fielding’s office in Vegas. Nick took it from him, staring at the papers as though he were afraid that at any moment he would wake up.

 

Gil glanced around. The secretary's desk was against the far wall, but the secretary was no where to be found. He went around behind the desk and found a large metal wastebasket. He brought it over and set it down next to Nick. Then he reached in his pocket and pulled out a lighter.

 

"And I thought you might want to do this," he said.

 

After a second of still stunned silence, Nick took the lighter. Then he dropped down to his knees next to the wastebasket. Holding the contract up, he flipped the lighter on and lit a corner. He held it up until the flames were licking the entire length of the page, then dropped it into the basket, watching it burn until there was nothing left.

 

"Congratulations, Nicky," Gil said, staring down at the ash. "You're free."

 

***

 

Free.

 

Even now, weeks after the fact, it hardly seemed real. There was still that moment of waking, every day, where that familiar dread settled in his stomach until he remembered what had happened, what Grissom had done for him. And then the sweetest relief flooded through him until he thought he might cry just to release the pressure of joy building up inside him.

 

At least, until he started thinking about Grissom.

 

He hadn’t stayed long after Nick had been released. He couldn’t. Nick understood that. He’d been in the middle of at least three cases when he’d left, with court dates fast approaching. He’d had a life. A life that just didn’t include babysitting a recovering slave.

 

Nick wished it could have, though.

 

He wasn’t quite ready to say that everything happened for a reason; so much of what he’d been through in the last two years just seemed so far divorced of reason that he could barely wrap his head around it. But he did recognize that he probably wouldn’t have met Gil Grissom any other way.

 

And now there was a Gil-shaped hole in his life. And no one understood.

 

His family thought they did. They spoke of Gil with gratitude and fondness, and Nick understood the things they weren’t saying out loud, the way they saw his attachment as a kind of hero-worship for the man who’d saved him.

 

There was no way for them to understand what Gil had really meant to him. What he’d given him, not just in freeing him, but in being with him. And he wanted that back, that feeling that he could just let go, without fear, knowing that Gil would always, always be there to catch him.

 

“Pancho?”

 

Nick looked up. He’d lost track of time, sitting down in their living room. His father came in.

 

“Light was on,” he said, and came over to stand next to him. “Something on your mind?”

 

Nick shrugged. “Just trying to figure out what to do next, I guess,” he said.

 

Bill pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down across from Nick at the table. “Guess I figured you’d get back on the force,” he said.

 

Nick made a face. “I’d been thinking of leaving before all this happened. I think it’s time for something different.”

 

“How different?”

 

Nick paused, pursing his lips. He’d been wondering how to bring this subject up for a while now. He was glad that he’d get to run it by his dad first. His mother was going to be the tough sell. He was the baby, after all, and his mother seemed stuck in that mindset. But it seemed as though Gil’s voice was speaking in his head, telling him that he was his own man, and that it was important to think about what he wanted.

 

“I think I need to get out of Texas for a while,” he said.

 

He waited, then. He wasn’t sure what objections his father might have, although he suspected that there might be a few.

 

“I wondered when you were gonna say something,” Bill said.

 

Nick stared, completely dumbfounded. “You…what?” he said.

 

Bill just tilted his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine it’s easy, working around so many people who know what happened. Even if they know the whole story. Reckon I’d want to get away from that, myself.”

 

Nick was quiet for a while. He hadn’t expected it to go this way.

 

“So what you been thinking about?” his father asked. “Still forensics?”

 

Nick nodded. “Yeah. That still sounds good.”

 

“It’s good work. If you can find a lab that’s honest.” Bill stared into empty space for a while, and Nick didn’t feel any particular need to end the silence. His own mind was far from silent. Thoughts of Vegas and Gil Grissom, and the plethora of worries and hopes those two prospects inspired.

 

“So, you’re thinking of Vegas, then?” Bill asked, breaking the serene mood so thoroughly that Nick actually started.

 

“I..uh, what?”

 

Bill gave his son a look that said he clearly did not expect to be taken for an idiot. “Best lab in the country,” he said. “From what I’ve heard. And that Grissom…” He stood up from the table and shrugged, noncommittally.

 

“Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing him ‘round here again someday,” Bill said. “But I’d expect him to stay the night.”

 

Nick’s mouth hung open, as he tried to figure out if his father actually had just offered him and Gil his blessing, or if that was merely wishful, and possibly delusional, thinking. He considered letting the moment pass, but then it occurred to him that, right now, he probably had as much leeway with his father as he was ever going to have again.

 

“Say, Cisco, about Grissom,” he began, rubbing his chin nervously. “I…”

 

“Nick,” Bill said, with enough gentleness and firmness in his voice that Nick stopped cold and looked up at him. “Don’t fret on it. You just figure out how you’re gonna tell your mother that you’re leaving her, cuz I ain’t gonna help you on that one.”

 

As he patted Nick on the shoulder and left the room, Nick felt an unexpected tightness grip his chest. Any time he’d ever contemplated coming out to his father, he’d feared derision and rejection, but he’d hoped for acceptance. But he’d always known, that his father would take this, like he took everything: in his own way that wouldn’t be quite like anything Nick was expecting.

 

Don’t fret on it.

 

He wouldn’t.

 

 

 


Chapter 20

Gil got home late, by his standards anyway, which seemed to be something he was doing more and more often these days. He dropped his briefcase on a chair and practically fell onto his couch. Since that seemed to take every ounce of the energy he had left to spare, he didn’t do anything more, didn’t even bother to take off his coat or his shoes.

 

Eventually, he draped one arm over his eyes, and just listened to the silence. Funny how that much silence made the townhouse seem both enormous and stifling at the same time.

 

What wasn’t funny was thinking about how, not that long ago, he’d wanted nothing more than to have this back, his autonomy and privacy. It seemed so worthless now. Having done the right thing by Nick was cold comfort, if it was any comfort at all. His conscience was clear, but his house and bed were cold and empty, and he was utterly alone again.

 

He tried not to think about that. Just like he tried not to look at Nick’s room, the door to which had been closed since Nick had shut it behind him. With all the things he was trying not to do, it was no wonder he spent so much of his time at work these days.

 

At work, tying up one final loose end named Mark Etheridge.

 

That thought really made Gil grin. Orange really was a dreadful color on Mark. Too bad that he’d ended up pleading his way out an actual trial.

 

But Ecklie had been firm on that point, and right. In the end, the only thing they’d been able to prove was that Etheridge had contacted and hired the bounty hunters. A rather petty charge, considering that Gil was certain he’d been in deeper than that with Drake. But they couldn’t prove it, and if he took the stand in his own defense, he could easily have claimed blackmail, and a jury would have let him walk. Besides, they’d convinced him to testify against Drake in order to save his own skin.

 

His reputation, however, was beyond repair. That little slip had been enough to cost him his seat on the Council, as well as his title. And Gil had a suspicion that the vacancy would end up being filled by one of the Braun boys sooner rather than later.

 

So he had plenty of reason to feel satisfied. The greater good was being served, after all.

 

Gil turned onto his side and curled his body into a tight ball.

 

God, he missed Nick so much it hurt. His jaw and throat ached with the strain of holding back whatever was raging around in his heart. At any moment, he was afraid he’d lose control entirely, start sobbing and be unable to stop. He almost wished he could. But he hadn’t wept over the loss of Nick, hadn’t been able to make himself mourn, yet.

 

Because he couldn’t quite believe that he was really gone.

 

Gil squeezed his eyes shut and listened to the silence. And after a long, long time, tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes.

 

***

 

Nick raised his fist to knock on the door, then lowered it. Again. He’d already tried twice, but just couldn’t work up the nerve.

 

He rolled his eyes. Really, all the things he’d faced down already, and he was shaking in his boots over this? This was Grissom! Gil! The man who’d protected him, cared about him, and respected him enough to set him free!

 

But did he love him?

 

Nick swallowed, hard, as his nerves fluttered. He just didn’t know. That just hadn’t been on the table until now. It had taken Gil getting on a plane and leaving Nick’s life for Nick to realize that love was the name for what he’d been feeling. And it was love that brought him back to Vegas, now.

 

What if Gil wasn’t happy to see him?

 

The worry nagged at him, but somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to validate it. That just wasn’t the Grissom he’d gotten to know, certainly not at the end. Whatever else he might wonder about, he knew he was important to Gil. And as for the rest? Well, he’d find out now.

 

He knocked on the door, and waited, listening to the sounds of shuffling footsteps. He glanced down at his watch and realized, feeling suddenly stupid, that he was essentially knocking on the door in the middle of the night, as far as Gil was concerned. But before he could run off and pretend he hadn’t done something so foolish, the door opened, and a rumpled, red-eyed Gil Grissom looked at him.

 

And then stared at him.

 

“Hi,” Nick said, feeling himself start to blush.

 

For long, tense seconds, nothing happened. Gil continued to stare, and Nick felt more and more uncomfortable. Just when he was convinced that this had been the worst possible thing he could have done, Grissom moved.

 

He reached out and flung an arm around Nick, catching his shoulder and pulling him close. In a heartbeat, he had pulled him into a fierce embrace and had tucked his head into the crook of Nick’s neck. He started shaking, then, and it wasn’t until Nick felt the warm, wet drops on his skin that he realized Gil was crying.

 

Crying? Oh fuck…

 

He wrapped his arms around Gil, clinging as hard as Gil was to him, and immediately started whispering comforting nonsense.

 

“Hey,” he soothed. “It’s okay.”

 

Gil lifted his head then, and Nick saw, to his relief, that he was smiling. “I think it is,” he said.

 

***

 

Gil knew that sometimes you only found out how much you loved something after it had been taken away. Life seemed found of teaching that particular, difficult, lesson. What he hadn’t realized, was that the way to find out how much you missed something, was to get it back again.

 

“That was one hell of a surprise, Nicky,” he said. They were settled on Gil’s couch, now, snuggled together with Nick’s back against Gil’s chest and a blanket over both of them. Gil had his arms wrapped around Nick, and couldn’t, at the moment, imagine how he’d ever convince himself to do anything else again.

 

Nick shrugged, a delightful sensation is such close quarters. “I tried calling ahead, but you didn’t answer.”

 

Gil nodded. “I’ve been at the lab a lot,” he said, his voice heavy enough to convey that it wasn’t exactly for the best reasons.

 

“Ah,” Nick said, with enough gravity to express that he understood exactly what Gil meant.

 

“So why did you come back?” Gil asked.

 

Nick turned as much as he could, tucking his head under Gil’s chin. “I missed this,” he said, speaking into Gil’s shoulder. Gil brought his arms up, instinctively holding him close.

 

“I know,” he said. “I’ve missed you, too.”

 

Nick closed his eyes and smiled. It put a joyful pang in Gil’s heart to know that he was responsible for that smile. He kissed Nick’s forehead.

 

“So how long are you staying?” he asked.

 

Nick opened his eyes and pulled away, just enough to look Gil in the face. “A long time,” he said. “If that’s okay with you.”

 

Gil’s stomach fluttered. “It’s more than okay,” he said, and noticed that his voice had gotten a lot lower, and not out of lust, like he was used to. This was a different emotion taking hold of him now.

 

“I never thought I’d have this again,” Gil said. Nick smiled, but didn’t meet his eyes.

 

“You know,” he said, “part of me is almost glad it happened this way.”

 

Gil winced. “Don’t say that,” he said, and gritted his teeth. “I hate thinking about what happened to you.”

 

“I know,” Nick said. “But getting you made everything worth it.”

 

Gil stared at him, and momentarily forgot how to breathe. He felt tears pricking behind his eyes, and realized there was nothing he could say in response to that. Thank you? For being told that he was more valuable to Nick than his freedom? Nick had suffered, suffered immeasurably, for two years, in ways that Gil couldn’t bear to even contemplate. And yet he said, and Gil had no doubt that he meant it, that Gil was worth more than that.

 

He reached up and took Nick’s face in both hands. He bit his lip, and realized that it was time to lay his hand on the table.

 

“I love you, Nicky.”

 

Something beautiful happened to Nick’s face the instant he said that. A kind of awe and wonder passed over it, and a softness, too. When he finally smiled, it nearly broke Gil’s heart with joy.

 

“I love you, too.”

 

They kissed then, gently. Gil thought it might well have been the best kiss of his life.

 

“So what do we do now?” Nick asked, looking suddenly self-conscious. “I mean, we didn’t exactly have a normal relationship.”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “This is just between us. We can make it whatever we want.” He kissed him just below his eye. It pleased him to see the response that got out of Nick. If he’d realized how much it meant to him to hear Gil say things like that, he would have started the moment he’d met him.

 

“And what about…the rest?”

 

Gil raised an eyebrow. “You mean the games?” he said.

 

That actually made Nick blush. “Yeah,” he said. “Those.”

 

Gil shrugged. “Well,” he said, “we already know what works.” He let his own hand wander across Nick’s back, skating lower towards his pant waist. Nick’s breath hitched for just a second, and then quickened into shallow gasps.

 

“Let’s start there,” Gil purred into his ear.

 

***

 

Gil was tired and cranky as he walked into the lab the next day. He’d hardly slept the night before, albeit for delightful reasons, and he hadn’t been at all pleased to get Catherine’s call two hours before he normally would have woken up. Whatever she needed had better be damned important. But he’d left Nick, who’d woken up just long enough to kiss him goodbye, and come in anyway.

 

“Good, you’re here,” Catherine said as he opened the door to her office. She didn’t sound the slightest bit remorseful.

 

“And I’m tired,” he said. “What’s up?”

 

“Well,” she said, pushing herself back from her desk, “I got tired of waiting for you to choose someone to hire. And while I know how much you appreciate it when people make staffing decisions for you, I’ve picked someone that I think you’ll like.”

 

Gil’s eyes widened. Now he felt completely awake. “What?”

 

“If you don’t like my choice, you’ve got exactly a week to tell me so and hire someone else.”

 

Gil sighed. He had been meaning to get to that, he really had. But every time he’d picked up an application, he’d found himself so overwhelmed by apathy that he’d put it down again. He almost didn’t care who got hired, except that he’d be working with this person for years.

 

“So that’s what you called me in early for?” he asked, irritated.

 

“Well, you haven’t exactly been my favorite person for the last few days,” she said. “But I know you’ve had a lot on your plate, so I’ve cut you as much slack as I can. So now you’re here, I’ve taken care of that stack of resumes on your desk, and you can get to work on the other stacks on your desk.” She smiled. “Consider this your way of thanking me.”

 

Gil gritted his teeth. It wasn’t often that Catherine pulled rank on him, and even he had to admit that he deserved it when she did. “Fine,” he said. “So what’ve I got?”

 

Catherine smiled, then. A coy little smile, like she was sitting on the biggest, best secret ever. “He’s new to forensics, but he’s got years of experience in law enforcement.” Gil made a tired noise and she glared at him.

 

“Don’t give me that,” she said. “Deep down, you’re looking forward to every second you’ll get to spend teaching him. And every time you’ll get to embarrass him, too.” She winked. “I don’t miss that about being your protégé.”

 

She turned her attention back to what she had been working on. “I told him to show up to assignments tonight. Keep an eye out. He’ll be the one that’s wet behind the ears and eager as a puppy.”

 

Gil rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Catherine.”

 

“Don’t mention it, Gil.”

 

He turned and headed back to his office. It would probably be all right. Catherine knew him well enough not to pick someone he couldn’t work with. But that didn’t mean she had the eye for the kind of person he wanted on his team. There were people that were good at the job, and then there were people that had something more to offer. People like her. But sometimes, those people were difficult to recognize at first meeting.

 

Still, in a few years, he’d have a team made up entirely of people he’d hand-picked or taught. That was something to look forward to.

 

It ended up taking him just under two hours to finish the staff evaluations that he’d been sitting on for the past few months. Not as bad as he’d been afraid of, but still, not something he would ever say he enjoyed doing. When he finally looked at his watch and saw that it was time for his shift to start, he almost cheered.

 

He dropped the stack of completed papers in Catherine’s in-box on his way to the break room. He could see his team in there already, pouring themselves coffee, chatting, laughing. He pushed the door opened.

 

“Okay, gang,” he said, looking at the stack of slips in his hand. “Before we get started, we’ve--” He looked up, then, and his mouth and feet stopped at the same instant.

 

Nick sat at one of the tables, a cup of coffee in his hand and a freshly made ID badge hanging around his neck. Gil blinked at him for a few seconds and waited for his brain to catch up.

 

Well. He suddenly couldn’t decide if he wanted to find Catherine and slug her for setting him up like this, or kiss her for being the most perfect boss ever.

 

Ah hell. Who was he kidding? He couldn’t slug anyone right now, not with the sudden upswing his mood had just taken.

 

“We’ve got a newbie, tonight,” Gil finished, mouth curving into a smile. “But you already knew that.” He looked around the room. Nick already looked right at home, so he reached out a hand.

 

“Welcome to Las Vegas, Nick.”

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