Chapter One





Some forces don’t begin to reveal themselves until others shift, and the paradigm is upset. The status quo is actually an ongoing series of tiny changes, an active situation that those on the surface take for granted because they don’t note the process. Under it all though, the inevitable motion of greater events build and break until it’s too late to do more than meet them head-on, or run.

***


Greg wasn’t sure when he first began to notice Nick. It was before the kidnapping; he was definite of that. Even in a workplace crowded with people easy on the eyes, Nick stood out, that was for sure. Not that he seemed to be aware of it, himself. For all his fine lines and balance, Nicholas Andrew Stokes was remarkably unegotistical about his own good looks. He had his moments of ego and humor, the same as anyone else who spent days diving into dumpsters or climbing into attics, facing down guns and processing broken bodies.

Still, Greg could see that for all Nick’s openness, there was always a guarded little edge to him. And that was even before his horrific days at the hands of Walter and Kelly Gordon. It hurt to see Nick forcing himself to make an effort at healing, and Greg wished he could do more to help.

Then his own nightmare with Demetrius James and his family happened, and Greg found himself feeling much more than just empathetic with Nick. Greg had always thought he’d be able to handle the rougher side of life, but the slow recovery from his beating, and the further abuse in the courts hadn’t helped much.

Sara had been taken and returned, and left them, but that was okay. She called regularly, and Greg was glad she did. He’d wanted to blame Grissom, but one look at the older man’s quiet anguish stopped that urge dead cold. The old mantra returned: Shit happens, and Greg was man enough to see that Grissom had gotten his own fair share lately. No point in adding to the pain, for either of them.

Still, life went on. Warrick was the latest victim of rough times, and Greg wished the cycle would stop for a while. Yes, nobody was immune from the edge, but it would be nice for some upswing—people deserved it, damn it. Easy cases, with quick convictions. Peace. Quiet.

Maybe even something more . . .

*** *** ***


His therapist had warned him that there would be flashbacks. Rough days. Lows. He understood it in theory, but that didn’t help a damn when the smell of dirt had him quivering in his boots, literally. Nick was sure nobody noticed it, but damn it, he felt the panic racing around under his skin like heat prickles.

He should be OVER this. God, shivering like a little kid when there was nothing to be afraid of. It was just dirt, and nothing more. Soil, ground, 
earth . . . dirt. The stuff plants grew in and mud was made of. Nothing . . . scary.

Easier said than believed. Smell did it. Not the sight, or the feel of the damned stuff, but the stink of it, heavy with a mingle of rot, clay, dust and shit. The odor might have a hundred different layers to it, but something about that foulness slipped past his bravado and left him freezing from the inside out. If he focused too much on it—

--Nick knew he’d lose whatever control he had. Gritting his teeth, he turned away from the sound of shovels, and walked back to the car, mumbling to Greg about needing gloves. When he got there, Nick took a deep breath, and tried to think of something distracting. Sports . . . beer . . . Starr.

Oh, that last one would work just fine. Fumbling with the supplies in the back of the Denali, Nick took his time cataloging Starr’s more outstanding features in his mind, lingering on the ones he liked best. A part of him felt a slight pang of self-loathing; yeah he was a sexist pig for concentrating on tits and ass, but he gave a mental shrug after acknowledging his baser nature and continued.

Survival skill.

Great tits, oh yeah. Nick liked a good-sized chest on a woman, and Starr’s fit the bill; round, bouncy, eye-catching. A set of jahoobies like hers were probably more common in Vegas, but it never stopped him from admiring Starr’s anytime he could. Briefly, he wondered what her nipples were like, and that added curiosity made him grin. As he made his way back to the crime scene, he let himself keep focused on that question, and it helped.

Damned dirt.

“You okay?” Greg asked softly. Nick started, then nodded, flashing a grin he didn’t really feel.

“Yeah I’m good. What have we got?”

“Bones. Meaty ones from the look and . . . smell of it,” Greg offered up in a monotone. “Don’t think I’ll be getting ribs at dinner break today.”

“Nah, me either,” Nick agreed, trying not to grimace too much. “We might want to go for salads tonight.”

Greg nodded, and waved a hand. “Look, I’ve got it here; why don’t you get started on the sketch while the light’s still good.”

“You’re sure?” Nick tried not to let his relief show through and was glad when Greg didn’t look his way.

“Yeah. I’m already on it,” came the distracted voice.

They worked in quiet tandem for a while as the sun slipped down past the horizon, and the cool of twilight grew in mauve and grey-violet. The tape and uniforms kept onlookers far back, and since the scene was on the edge of the highway, the rest of the setting seemed peaceful enough.

Nick kept his eyes on the sketch, and moved upwind, all the better to miss the scent of dirt.

*** *** ***


Lunch break. Greg had his regular places all picked out according to taste and proximity; never one to leave things to chance he knew the food of Vegas the way another person might know the bookstores, or the massage parlors. He mentioned the Hanging Gardens and Nick agreed quickly.

The Hanging Gardens was a salad and soup place, famed in Las Vegas for the freshest ingredients and a reasonable price. In the daytime, it was busy from ten minutes after they opened, but now, in the middle of the night, it was easier to get service. Nick and Greg ambled in, scanning the various salad bars and looking for a booth.

Greg grinned, pointing to a tall and curvy figure about three people ahead of them in line. “Hey! Guess who?”

Looking up, Nick was in time to catch Starr’s glance and grin; she slipped out of line to come join them, her smile infectious.

“Hey! My favorite dynamic duo! What brings you to the Gardens?”

“You,” they both blurted at the same time, and at the sound of their duet, Starr laughed, her face alight with pleasure. Nick and Greg glanced at each other, grinning, sharing a thought without saying it. Great minds—

“Total flirts, the pair of you—don’t stop now,” she drawled, going a little pink. “How’s your night been?”

“Gory. Let’s talk about something else,” Nick replied, still smiling. “Hey, did you ever get that twenty from Hodges?”

She laughed and went into an amusing story about the dour lab tech forfeiting on his bet, and Nick watched her the entire time.

Starr was eminently watchable. She had the long coltish form of a showgirl, with a perfect bouncy chest and tight little ass to boot, and on top of it all she was nice, an endearing trait that left Nick standing just outside her personal space, feeling like a kid at a toy store window.

Yeah, still in orbit around this heavenly body, he thought dimly to himself. His primal urge to jump Starr’s oh so gorgeous bones was constantly countered by his terror of screwing up one of the best friendships he had going.

Same damned fear as always. Do her and lose her—

“ . . . it’s irritating, but I’ll manage. So that’s why I’m looking for a renter,” she finished, reaching the cashier and fishing for her wallet. Nick blinked, but Greg already had money out and shot him an exasperated glance.

“I know, my turn, Stokes. Just be grateful that payday’s tomorrow.” He turned back to Starr, adding, “So what are you asking a month, anyway? Because they’re talking about raising the rent over where I am, and the dryer in the laundry room never works anyway.”

Starr led the way to a back booth; Nick took the seat opposite her while Greg squeezed in next to her. She quoted a reasonable price.

“Oh hey! I could do that! What do you think, Nick—should I make Starr my landlord?” Greg chortled, looking happier than he had all day. Nick blinked, a forkful of salad halfway to his mouth.

Greg moving in with STARR?

“Sounds good to me!” she bubbled happily. “I know you and who you work for, and believe me, the rent will REALLY help with the renovations out there---if you’re serious.”

“He’s not serious,” Nick blurted, then tried to smile when Greg shot him an annoyed glance.

“The hell I’m not! Hey, I’ve got first and last months ready to go; I could write a check for it right now---” came the quiet but firm reply. “Just because I called dibs on it first---”

“—Greg, get real—“ Nick tried to interject, but Starr broke in, her smile patient.

“Hold it, Sanders, there is no ‘dibs’ here, all right? I have four bedrooms in this place, so that’s more than enough room for at LEAST one more renter--”

“—See?” Greg nodded, “It’s not like I’m crowding in or anything---”

“Oh come ON, Greg! Moving in with Starr means…” and he stopped, not sure quite what he wanted to say, but all sorts of the wrong things came to mind. Starr stared at Nick, but her expression was slightly worried.

Greg merely looked confused. “Means what? That you’re jealous?”

“No,” Nick muttered in a tone that made both Starr and Greg’s eyes widen. Starr laughed, reaching over to touch Nick’s hand.

“You can move in too, Nick—I told you, the place has tons of room. I’d love to have you--“ She stopped, stricken by how that last phrase sounded, and the answering blush on Nick’s face made Greg laugh.

“With an offer like that . . . I’d say get a room, but that’s sort of the point, right?”

*** *** ***


Getting through dinner had been interesting. The thrill of finding a new place; hell, a new place complete with STARR no less, offset the dour and glum face Nick was making all through the meal. Greg almost didn’t care, to be honest.

Change. This change would be good. Better than good, actually—even if the place was a dump, the challenge of fixing it up, and having Starr around on a regular basis was incentive enough. Those were two damned big positives right there.

And if anybody was sympathetic to change it was Starr; that was for certain. He and Nick had conversations about her.

Once or twice, they’d even had Conversations.

After all, neither of them was quite able to wrap their minds around the transgender thing completely. Maybe Grissom had the all-accepting ability to see people for who they wanted to be, but Greg knew it was still all a very interesting area for him.

Very interesting. After all, while Greg himself liked having a penis, he wasn’t sure if a girl having one—or having HAD one—should intrigue him as much as it did. But . . . yeah, it did.

Nick was curious too—Greg knew that. The two of them had both admitted to each other that making love to a woman who used to be a man would have some serious advantages, and considering it was Starr, she of the sweet husky laugh and incredible tits—well that put things into a whole new light.

Not that Greg wanted to jeopardize the easy give and take he had with Starr by putting the moves on her while moving in. No. Certainly not. But in 
time . . . anything could happen, and he was cool with that.

Change. Change was going to be a good thing, he decided with a smile.

*** *** ***


Starr felt a tingle all across her chest, and tried not to smile to herself as she sat in the courtroom and sketched. The trial was boring; some sort of preliminary jury deliberation on a fraud case, but she needed the practice, and sometimes cases like this got more interesting when facts came to the public’s attention.

Right now her attention was on her new living situation, and how things were working out. This morning when she’d gotten up there was coffee made, and a note on the fridge door that read:

Hey Beautiful—if you need anything washed, leave it on top of the machine and I’ll get to it today after I wake up. In return, we could use more fabric softener, so if you get a chance to pick some up on the way home, Mucho Appreciado!

Have a good one!

G—

She hated to admit it, but the damned note nearly made her cry. Starr might have blamed it on hormones, but she knew herself better than that. The truth was that it had been a long time since she’d had a roommate, and one that left notes at that.

It was good to have someone around again.

She and Greg had moved his stuff in nearly three weeks earlier, and had signed the rental agreement, taking it seriously—or as seriously as they could. They’d hammered out some rules, and divided the chores, alternating them by weeks so that neither of them got stuck with anything TOO long, and in the process Starr realized that Greg actually cared about being a part of the household.

He was fun. Greg was the one who’d bought the beautiful bamboo wind chimes and hung them in the patio. Greg was the one who helped get the curtains up, and added a few of his own furniture pieces to the mix in the living room. Starr remembered coming home and finding a group of people giving estimates for steaming off the old wallpaper while Greg winked at her.

So things were going really well . . . all except the Nick angle, unfortunately.

Starr sighed. Ever since dinner at the Hanging Gardens, Nick had been avoiding her and Greg. He wasn’t rude or mean just . . . busy, ducking out of dinner breaks and not answering her phone calls. She understood that the dynamics of their friendship had changed a little, but Starr felt the loss more than she wanted to admit. Greg was wonderful, but Nick was too, and she didn’t want him feeling like a third wheel.

Greg felt it as well; they’d had a morning of Captain Crunch and conversation a few days back, and he’d laid things out for her in a way she hadn’t seen before.

“He’s jealous of me and worried that you’ll forget about him, babe,” Greg had murmured, adorably cute in his flannel Star Trek pajama bottoms and tousled hair.

She’d nearly overpoured her milk at his revelation. “Why? He’s got to know we aren’t sleeping together—it’s not like you and I are a couple or anything. Not that that would be a bad thing,” she’d flirted and Greg had smiled at that.

“Oh, it wouldn’t be, yeah—but this is Nick. He’s got old-fashioned values built into his system, and from what I can tell, he’s convinced that he’s out of the equation.”

“Greg,” she remembered asking. “Do you like him . . . more than as a friend?” It was a tricky question; she’d secretly suspected that in his time, Greg had played both sides of the fence, but was very discreet about the boy side.

He’d shrugged, and given her that devastating, big-eyed Greg Sanders grin. “Nick’s handsome. And funny. And completely and utterly off-limits, even if I was still experimenting, which--is still a work in progress, sometimes.”

“Hmmm,” she’d replied, feeling both delighted and slightly saddened at Greg’s honesty. “I don’t know what to do then, babe. I want all of us to be happy, and—

“—Nick’s not,” Greg had agreed glumly.

Still, back in the here and now, Starr couldn’t help but be delighted that at least Greg was with her. As she reached for her eraser, Starr hummed under her breath, wondering what he would think of her itty bitty Wonder Woman tee-shirt she’d so thoughtfully left for him on top of the washer.

*** *** ***


The knowledge lodged itself in the back of his mind, and Nick worried on it the way another person might pick at a scab or a hangnail, perversely delighting in the tiny pain it caused afresh every time he considered it.

Starr and Greg, shacked up. Christ, there is no justice.

He wished it was that simple. That it was just anger that Greg had taken the step and he hadn’t. Nick wished he could be happy about it, even if both of them claimed they weren’t involved beyond being roommates.

As if. He’d seen the way Greg looked at Starr. Hell, he’d looked at her the same way himself and considering some of the conversations the two of them had HAD about her--

I’m sure her tits are real. They move, you know? The fake ones don’t, because they’re surgically anchored to the chest wall---

Oh they’re real, all right. She does the hormones and stuff, but even before that, she told me she had plenty of estrogen to begin with, Nick.

So if she had enough to grow a rack like that—she couldn’t have had much of a dick . . . could she?

You tell ME—you’re the one who did all the follow-up interviewing on the Mona Lavelle case. I’m sure all those girls at the Cock Pit offered to show you a thing or two.

And they had, Nick remembered, still feeling both slightly ashamed and aroused even now. Rounded hips and amazing asses, deep laughs and scars and stories of pain and pride. Even now Nick felt caught between wanting to be a gentleman and wanting to toss back a beer with them.

Not something he really understood about himself, but hell, this job had a way of opening your eyes and making you take a stand on issues you never even considered before.

And all that was before getting kidnapped and buried alive.

Still—for some reason Starr was all that and more. From the first time she’d sat out on the hall bench sketching him and Greg before they gave evidence at the Donagan case, all the way through their subsequent lunch and dinner breaks together, he’d gotten damned fond of the woman. She was smart and funny. Liked sports. Was always willing to pay her share for the food.

Damn it, she smelled good, too. Not just perfume, but that subtle scent of warm skin—the sort of smell that made a guy think horny thoughts of naked lazy Sundays, making love all afternoon.

It was with that very image that Nick unlocked his apartment door, wandered into his kitchen—

And froze.

Ants.

Not one or two, but hundreds in long thick streams, moving in long, organized lines across his counter and along the edge of the sink. Others milling and moving in that odd pattern without pattern, and the sight of them dark and shiny--shifting in their lines--across the porcelain—
ohJesusnonononononononono
--hit Nick in the stomach and throat like a one-two punch as old terror had at him.

Remember Nick? That creepy crawly over your skin under your clothes--
ohJesus the stinganditch, stinganditch, nevergettoSCRATCHthedamnmotherFUCKINGitches—


He dropped his keys. A thin trickle of urine darkened the crotch of his jeans, and after wobbling a moment, Nick jerked backwards, hitting the wall next to the kitchen door with a heavy thud.

Can’tbreathe, antFuckohGod—Nick felt himself slide down the wall, terror constricting his throat.

Ants. They kept . . . moving along the sink, lines on the counter, trailing doooooowwwn the cabinet, and Fuckfuckonthefloor, goingtogethim---

Scrabbling, he dug in his pocket, fumbled with it, hit a button, ANY button, fumbled more.

Rings. ComeonecomeONantsJesusnonot—

“Nick?”

Greg. Not a clue. No. Not worried, no care. NoANTSfor him—

Nick tried to talk, but something else came out of his throat.

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