30 – Critical Care

After Sara is taken, Grissom discovers there are few things worse than either not knowing or having to wait to know, except having to both in one of the last places he likes to frequent — the hospital.

Post episode 801, “Dead Doll,” circa May 2007

*******

Grissom

Dealing with the dead is for the most part a quiet enterprise.

Dealing with the sick and the dying is deafening.

Over the ever-present electric hum that hangs heavy in the hospital air, plays the cacophony of hurried and often frantic voices, and these, too, are harshly punctuated by the rapid click, click, click of heels and the rattling clack of wheels on linoleum.

There are times I almost wish I had lost my hearing.

For there are some things you never want to hear —

The infinite delay between rings when you don’t pick up your cell even though I am begging — pleading — hoping — even praying — for you to answer.

The almost cold and unconcerned forecasts of people paid to tell us what to know, but know not what it means.

Up to three inches of rain.

Flash flood warnings.

The crash of lightening and the roar of thunder and the unending spatter of rain when dire prophecy becomes dread reality.

The urgent wail of sirens, that this time sounds so much more desperate and haunting than they ever have before.

Later with the day, the howl of wind, the rustle of sand.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Then even worse than the silence —

She’s not responding.

Still no radial pulse.

The clinical way they talk about you in the same detached, impersonal tone I often use to speak of the dead.

Thirty-five-year-old female, obvious heat exposure, obvious fracture of left radius ulna.

But you’re not dead.

Honey, you’re not dead.

You can’t be dead.

Although when I first saw you lying there so still and silent — I thought — I feared —

I stopped breathing.

I stopped feeling.

I stopped being, until your eyes finally opened and your cold fingers tightened ever so slightly around mine.

I didn’t know whether to smile or to cry.

You know you have always been beautiful to me, but then, at that moment, I have never seen a more arresting sight.

And all the words I ever knew and all the things I wanted to say disappeared with the rest of the world, and it was just you and I.

For the rest of the flight, it felt as if I was the one who died and gone to heaven.

Until we landed and they spirited you away, leaving me to pace the sterile halls in the company of tense and worried strangers.

I have never liked hospitals.

Dealing with the dead is one thing. Dealing with the sick or dying is something else entirely.

It might seem rather cold and callous, but its a whole lot easier to pretend that the bodies lying so still on the slab or sprawled at crime scene aren’t real people who not that long ago had very real hopes and dreams and loves and lives.

When the victims are still breathing, that’s another story altogether.

Thankfully, one of the perks of being a supervisor is you can easily delegate away trips to the Emergency Room or ICU. You just have to causally hand the assignment slip to someone else and no one is ever the wiser.

I don’t even think you know.

That doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to these walls. Between Nick’s abduction, Jim’s shooting and Greg’s assault, I’m beginning to know Desert Palms far too well.

All those times I felt like a phantom haunting the halls. This time, I feel like a beast in a cage.

Because this time is different.

This time it’s for you.

Oh, God, Sara.

I just want to see you.

The minute hand on the large clock on the wall moves so sluggishly I am sure that time has literally slowed, if not completely stopped, or that for some sick and twisted reason, the hospital has set their clocks to run at half-speed, because every minute feels like an hour. Though when I check my watch, the two timepieces seem to both be conspiring against me.

At some point, I surrender to the weariness and slump into one of those impossible to get comfortable in chairs.

As time goes by with nothing, with no word, no consolation, I have to consciously remind myself to breathe again.

In and out — repeat as necessary.

You told me that once.

That day I told you there were times when I still had a hard time simply breathing around you.

You smiled, in that cheeky sort of way you do when you are about to tease me, and told me

Grissom, breathing’s easy. It’s just in and out and repeat as necessary. It’s not that difficult.

It’s certainly difficult now.

I can hear you asking, What’s your pulse at now?

And I recall the numbers the medevac team spouted to the nurses as they raced you down the hall —

Pulse: one hundred and seventy-five.

Forty-five respirations per minute.

BP: eight over forty.

Core temperature: forty-one degrees.

I may not be a medical doctor, but I do know how worrisome those numbers are.

Perhaps, it is true what they say about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

For I know you are so severely dehydrated that your body’s stopped sweating, and in doing so, has lost its one last defense against the 110 degree Nevada heat. I know, too, that any higher and your temperature could lead to both cellular and brain death. And that because there is less volume of blood to pump, your blood pressure has dropped dangerously and that your heart and lungs are having to work overtime to compensate which has put you into states of tachycardia and tachypnea.

Somehow the science doesn’t make it sound any less horrifying.

I am almost thankful for the screaming toddler three seats down, as her wails of discomfort bring me back from the brink of panic. Part of me wishes I, too, were two years old and could just howl and rage in pain.

But men over fifty are far too old to cry. Or so I’m told.

So, I merely rub my still gritty hands over my face, wishing I could wipe the exhaustion away, wishing I could find some small measure of peace or comfort in the midst of all this chaos.

The sliding doors open to admit the newest initiates into whatever sort of private hell this life has in store for them. A blast of hot air invades the crowded room which causes me to shiver slightly.

Even with the extreme May heat, I haven’t been able to shake the bone-numbing chill that began the minute I realized why Natalie placed you in her final miniature.

I knew it the moment I saw her in those crime scene photos.

She held me responsible for Ernie Dell’s death.

I took away the only person she ever loved.

She damn near did the same to me.

A million if onlys chase each other inside my head.

If only I had caught her sooner. If only I had figured it out sooner. If only I hadn’t made assumptions.

If only I had realized that after Ernie’s death, the game had turned personal.

Why else had she addressed the package containing the miniature of Dr. Tallman’s apartment to me directly?

Why else had Natalie left the message You were wrong where I could easily find it?

And loudest of all the if onlys —

If only Natalie hadn’t seen what I honestly believed no one else could see, what you and I had become so adept at keeping from the people who knew us best.

But she had. And she knew.

She knew you were the one sure way to get to me.

So she took you.

And you might as well be as far away as the moon, as I cannot see you, or hear you or touch you.

I’m sorry.

Sara, I’m so sorry.

Sara…

Someone calls my name, at first I think its you and my bowed head darts up.

I have trouble hiding my disappointment when I see it is Catherine, quickly followed by Nick and Greg. Warrick, she informs me is parking the car.

She asks what is obviously the forefront on all their minds: have I heard anything about you?

I shake my head sadly, thinking that whoever first came up with the phrase no news is good news obviously never had to keep vigil in a crowded hospital waiting room.

As news of you is not forthcoming, they begin to inquire after me, something I know is well meant, but not something I can handle right now.

They seem to understand this because after my half-hearted mumbled reply of Fine, they don’t press. Instead, they take the seats beside and right across from me.

After another tense fifteen minutes, Jim appears and having the stereotypical East Coast impatience decides to flash his badge and demand answers from the suddenly now cowed volunteers that staff the information desk.

Unfortunately, the young women there can tell neither him nor the rest of us anything at all.

So we all wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

To pass the time, which so adamantly refuses to tick by, I have taken to trying to work out patterns in the dots and swirls in the tiles at my feet. It’s almost like drawing in the lines between the stars to make up constellations.

Or perhaps it is more like some warped Rorschach test where what you see reveals more about your state of mind that what is actually there.

You know, you were wrong. I never did ace my Rorschach tests. I just cheated. All you needed to know was how the test worked, how responses were scored and what answers the examiners were looking for. Simple really.

I just wish I had the answers now.

Almost as if someone, somewhere, has heard my thoughts, a man who looks far too young to be a doctor, let alone a resident, pauses at the information desk for a second to ask one of the volunteers to point out whom he is looking for. When she indicates our ragtag group, my eyes widened and suddenly the only thing that exists in this world is that one white-jacketed figure striding towards us.

I search his face, his posture, his strides, the way he clutches his clipboard, in an attempt to find some clue to what he might have to say. I rise a little unsteadily and my peripheral vision registers that the others have done the same.

He asks for me by name. I wonder how he knows to ask for me when I remember that you and I had our emergency contact information changed after Jim was shot last year.

I step forward. He motions for me to follow him, but I shake my head and tell him that anything he needs to say to me, he can say to the others.

He flips open your chart and goes into excruciating detail over everything they have done to try to help you: wet towels and then cooling blankets and ice packets to lower your overall body temperature; intravenous isotonic saline solution to rehydrate you; benzodiazepine to help prevent shivering; lab tests: blood CBC, electrolytes, creatine, urinalysis; radiographs of the chest and CAT scans of the brain to check for tissue damage. And all of that just to counter the effects of heat stroke. He then begins to discuss your other injuries, your fractured arm, a slight concussion from a blow to the head, some contusions, bruising, but at this point, I don’t care about the science or the medicine, I only want to know one thing — if you are going to be all right.

I must not be the only one feeling this way, because Jim interrupts the good doctor and tell him to cut to the chase, a request I am infinitely grateful for, as I have been holding my breath ever since the resident first opened his mouth.

He tells us that once they succeed in lowering your temperature to something significantly closer to 98 degrees, they will be moving you to the ICU upstairs for monitoring for a few days just to make sure there are no unforeseen complications as there is still the slight risk of renal and neurological injury.

For right now, however, your prognosis appears to be promising.

I begin to breathe again.

When Catherine asks when you can have visitors, he answers that once you are settled they will start allowing two visitors for fifteen minutes every hour and that for now we should all just relax,  and perhaps get a cup of coffee or something to eat in the hospital cafeteria. He thumbs through his notes and confirms my cell number in case he needs to get a hold of me before he disappears back through the double doors that separate the emergency department from the waiting area.

Catherine mutters something about letting the rest of the lab know. Brass says he needs to call the Sheriff. Greg, who had been so pale and unusually quiet since he got here, offers to go fetch coffee. Warrick and Nick hurriedly agree to help him, soon leaving me alone again.

I sink back into my seat and close my eyes.

*******

I must have dozed off for a while, because the next thing I know, Catherine’s hand is on my shoulder and she is pressing a cup into my hand. I drink it automatically. Although the first sip of the hot liquid is so bitter in my mouth, I almost want to spew it all over the floor.

Now that would make an interesting inkblot test — coffee on linoleum, I muse slightly dimwitted from a lack of sleep, too much adrenaline and too much worry.

I am surprised to see it is just her and Jim and I in our little corner. The guys, apparently having satisfactorily completed their coffee quest, are nowhere to be found, and as much as I am glad they are here for you, I am grateful for the quiet.

The coffee still doesn’t go down easy, which might be why neither of my companions are drinking any. But I drink and drink and drink as if I were the one lost in the desert.

I try not to think about how upset you would be if you saw just how many cups I’ve consumed.

Besides, sometimes you worry too much about my blood pressure. Which is why I keep a spare saltshaker hidden in my desk drawer.  And although right now I really don’t give a damn about my blood pressure, I would give anything to have you shout to high heaven about how I need to be more careful. Your eyes get so wide and your cheeks flush in such a way that I am almost ashamed to admit that often when you really get going, I am more turned on than cautioned.

I know better than to ever tell you that though, because you just might stop doing it then.

And I don’t want you to stop.

I just want you.

A thing I probably haven’t told you enough.

*******

Later, a different doctor comes to speak with us, one whom I have to confess seems to at least look old enough to be one. While there is still more pepper than salt in his hair, I would estimate him to be closer to my age than yours.

Years ago, I used to worry what people would think when they saw you and I together. For some reason the almost sixteen years that separate our ages seemed to matter a whole lot more when I was forty-four and you were twenty-eight. Now that I am almost fifty-one and you are thirty-five, our ages don’t seem as disparate, or maybe I have just gotten to the point where I just don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore.

I wish it wouldn’t have taken me so long to come to that particular realization.

The one where it didn’t really matter what everyone else thought or said or did. That you were the one that really mattered, that we were what really mattered.

All that time I can never get back, and give you what I should have long ago if I had not been so stupid or so scared.

I was scared of chancing what I really wanted or perhaps more frightened of what to do if I ever did decide to have what I really wanted, that I almost lost it, and most importantly you, probably more times than even I know about.

Now I am just scared to lose.

Oh, I know the past two years haven’t been that easy. We’ve had our moments, our fights and disagreements. Yet, we have also had laughter and joy and times for which there exist no words in prose or poetry to describe.

This doctor, who introduces himself as Dr. Markinsen, tells us that they have moved you up to the ICU for monitoring and that you seem to be resting comfortably.

He barely gets out the phrase you can go up and see her before I am hurriedly thanking him and making my way through the still crowded room towards the elevators. Catherine and Jim seem to be hurrying in my wake, both of them back on their phones yet again.

Although I know that pressing the call button more than once in no way makes the elevator come any faster, I repeatedly jab the button in impatience. I am almost considering taking the stairs, as it is only three flights up, when the doors finally open.

Once inside, I am far more concerned by the fact that the elevator doesn’t seem to be moving as much as crawling towards the forth floor than by either of Jim’s or Catherine’s chatter.

The fact that we have to stop on each and every floor does nothing to ease my anxiety.

I am really starting to wish I had taken the stairs by the time the door opens onto the ICU.

It is now late enough that the floor is almost blissfully quiet. So apart from the electronic symphony of the diverse monitors and the subdued gossip of the three nurses at their station, there is at least enough silence for one to be able to start thinking rationally again, or at least attempt to.

Two of the gossiping young women are so enthralled by whatever story the third is telling, from the bits I can catch it sounds like they are talking about her latest dating misadventures, that none of them register our approach.

I am saved from reluctantly having to find out how the story ends, by Jim rapping the counter and demanding, still somewhat politely, to know which room is yours. I have to admire that his persistence does not falter under the trio’s withering gaze.

One of them begrudgingly looks up the number and gestures for us to follow the corridor while another frostily reminds us that visits are limited to two people at a time for no more than fifteen minutes every hour.

I barely catch Jim’s sardonic Thank you, Ladies, for I am already halfway down the hall, scanning the room numbers as I go.

402 – 404 – 406

At 408, your suite, I reach for the handle, but Catherine puts a hand on my arm and tells me to wait.

My first reflex is to ask her, What the hell for? but as she is still on the phone, murmuring to whomever she is speaking to that she understands, I wait for her to click it shut.

When she does, her face is suddenly somber and there are more lines around her mouth and eyes than usual, something that usually indicates she’s about to say something I know I am not going to like to hear.

Her tone is both sympathetic and apologetic when she breaks the news that I can see you, but cannot touch you.

To which I do say something you would probably not be happy with me for saying.

Catherine doesn’t seem the least bit fazed and Jim just chuckles, which earns him a scathing glare from me. Catherine proceeds to explain that Ecklie is sending one of his dayshift cronies to collect trace evidence.

While the part of me that has served as a CSI for more than twenty years vaguely understands why Conrad wants to do such a thing, the part of me that has loved you these past nine does not.

I begin to protest that lifesaving efforts have more than likely compromised whatever evidence there was.

That I can even begin to articulate this cogent and logical of an argument at this present moment impresses even me. It is certainly a lot more professional sounding than I’m going to let one of them touch you over my dead body.

Besides your prints and blood were all over Natalie’s car.

It seems that Ecklie doesn’t think this is enough, that it only proves that you were in her car. Which is such an absurdly limited conclusion that I am about to say so, but Catherine shakes her head and says that he is hoping to find hair, skin, fluid or fiber transfer from Natalie that would directly tie her to the crime.

Incontrovertible evidence.

Normally, I would agree, but I know and Catherine knows and Jim knows, even Conrad knows that the DA’s is probably to never take your case or any of the miniature killer cases to trial. Natalie Davis will more likely be ruled mentally incompetent the minute she steps into a courtroom.

Not that the truth of this fact really pleases me. The me that I am not so proud of, the one that shook Natalie Davis in the interrogation room when she would not tell me where she had taken you, wants her to pay for what she has done.

Jim mutters something about Ecklie just wanting to cover his own ass, which is, after all, what Conrad does best.

Although I want to continue to protest, I know the clock is ticking and it is a better use of what limited time that remains to agree. So I turn to Catherine and tell her to have one of the guys bring up my kit and camera from the Denali.

Gently, she tells me, No.

Which comes as a complete surprise, as I honestly can’t remember the last time anyone has ever told me that I can’t work a case.

When she uses the phrase conflict of interest, I know she is trying to delicately remind me that as you and I are involved, a word that seems such a poor descriptor for what you and I have shared over the years, I cannot handle the evidence.

My head knows this, my heart, however, seems to be the one in charge as I tell her the hell with conflict of interest.

To which she nods and then somberly asks me to allow her do it then.

It seems that this way, I can be still be in the room with you the entire time.

But she insists no hands, only eyes. Words I know I’ve used to her probably too many times, never fully understanding what exactly I was asking of her when I did.

Now that I do —

Just give me one minute, I say softly.

I just want one moment with you, with my Sara before you become the other Sara, the victim Sara.

She nods again and begins punching numbers into her cell.

As I begin to slide the door open, I can vaguely hear her giving Warrick instructions on what to bring up from the car. I am myself far more preoccupied with trying to keep my fear of what I might find on the other side of the partition at bay.

Breathe.

I have to remind myself to breathe as I finally step inside.

It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the relative dimness of your room. The curtains have been pulled shut, which is all for the best really, for Vegas is at its most garish at night, all aglow as it is in harsh neon shades. One of the nurses, or more likely an orderly, has left the light on over your bed. It casts a pale florescent pall over everything, including you.

From where I’m standing, you look so slight beneath the sheets.

The cooling blankets and ice packs are gone now; so are the clothes we found you in.

For an instant, I think to remind Catherine to collect them, but I know that she won’t forget and also that right now I don’t care.

They have you lying on your right side because of your arm.  Fractured in two places, the young doctor said.

If you weren’t so exhausted, I doubt you would be comfortable, aches and pains, breaks and bruises, cuts, contusions and concussions aside, for you hate sleeping on your right side.

It’s either on your left or your back.

Personally, I like it better when you sleep on your left. You are less prone to snoring, something I decide I really should tease you about a whole lot more often after all the times you’ve done it to me.

You still have yet to prove that I do in fact actually snore and until you do, I will continue to protest playfully that I most certainly do not, or demurely defer to your experience, depending on what sort of mood either of us are in at the time.

As I cross over to the other side of the bed, I almost smile at the thought of some of the silly games you and I still play even after all this time.

Which is when I realize that I should be grateful that I will have the chance to play them again with you, that I am fortunate to be able to plot and plan private taunts and torments for you now.

Sara –

Your name is like breath.

And almost equally without thinking, I move to brush the hair from your face.

But I catch myself, and for a moment, my hand hovers between us, and it is almost as if the past two years have never happened and we are back to being almost strangers again.

So I decide Ecklie be damned, and do what I have been longing to do for more than the last twenty-four hours, and kiss you gently on the top of the head.

While I know its you, the sterile, antiseptic odor that permeates every inch of this hospital and drowns out the slightly sweet scent I know is yours, is more than a little disquieting.

I sit and am about to take your hand in mine when there is a discrete tap before the door slides open again and Catherine enters, kit and camera in hand.

I know I have been caught. She knows it, too, but the small, slight, conspiratorial grin she flashes at me as she places her equipment on the table, tells me that she is as good as I am at keeping some things off the record.

The moment is as brief as it is meaningful, for she quickly clicks open her case and begins to don the ubiquitous latex gloves we all wear just as much to protect and distance ourselves from the horrors of the evidence we collect, as to keep us from contaminating the evidence itself.

Neither of us are surprised when you don’t stir when she calls your name and begins to patiently explain in a voice that is both professional and maternal at the same time exactly what she is going to do.

Sometimes, I think that method is the only thing keeping us from madness.

Catherine is, as always, consummately methodical and yet still tactful and sensitive. She knows how to handle people, living, breathing people, in a way I do not.

In a way I have often seen you do.

I can remember coming down hard on you a few times when you crossed the line between objectivity and caring and now I realize how wrong I was to have done so.

As I watch Catherine slowly push the sheets aside and ease up the edges of your hospital gown to snaps pics, I find I have to look away for the first time in my career, because I simply cannot separate my head from my heart when it comes to you.

And I know if I don’t look away, the sob lodged in my throat will break free and I won’t be able to keep the tears away any longer.

The shutter clacks as the flash pops and even with my eyes closed, I wonder why I’ve never noticed how bright the light is or how piercing the sounds of picture taking can be.

I’m almost afraid the noise will wake you, and as much as I wish I could find myself again in your eyes, I know you need your rest more than I need the reassurance.

Even after countless cases, I don’t think I’ve ever really given much thought to how long the photo-documenting process takes. I’ve never clocked it, so I’m not sure whether this time it really is taking forever, or it is just my impatience that makes it seem to.

The only thing I am sure of is that all I want is two minutes to hold your hand before one of those nurses comes in to remind us in the same curt, dismissive tone they use to tell you whether someone is going to live or to die, that our fifteen minutes is up.

I try to keep my restlessness from showing as Catherine lays out swabs and picks and envelopes on the bed, but she seems to notice and sighs and shakes her head before handing me a fresh pair of gloves.

I take them, but find I cannot bring myself to pull them on.

I can’t touch you though a layer of latex. I cannot calmly and collectedly scrape the trace from under your fingernails or comb through your hair.

She seems to understand this, too, because she simply sets to work.

She is capping the final swab when what I imagined would happen does. One of the gossiping nurses briskly reminds us that our time is up.

Catherine snaps her case shut and pulls the woman aside. I have no idea what they are talking about, nor do I care, for I am beside you now, smoothing your hair, and tugging the sheets a little higher around you as I know how much you hate to wake up feeling cold.

Then I press a kiss into your palm. I am so lost in trying to drink in enough of you to make the next forty-five minutes until I can see you again pass just a little faster, that I don’t realize that I’ve begun to cry, until I see a wetness on your cheeks that I know isn’t yours.

I’ll be back soon, honey, I whisper, wiping my tears from both our faces.

When I press your hand gently in farewell, for a moment, I swear I feel you return the pressure.

I barely make it to the relative privacy of the men’s room before the tears really come, tears of grief and sorrow and joy and gratitude and pain and regret and hope and most of all, love. They stream down my face and I don’t care. I let them come because real men do cry, because tears do not mark us a weak, but as strong. They tell us we are alive and human, in both all the good and bad ways that being human really means.

It took me a long time to allow myself be that, to just be human.

I know I have you to thank for it. For without you, I would have just continued to live my closeted and hermetically sealed existence until the day I just vanished.

But you would not let me stay a ghost.

And even though right now it hurts like hell to feel and love and care and be connected to other living, breathing human beings, I would not trade the life I have now for anything, except perhaps the promise of more years to come with you.

*******

The cold water feels like heaven on my face. I have no idea how long I have lingered here.

Obviously, it was long enough for someone to get dispatched to check up on me, as there is a tentative knock on the door. It appears that Nick has somehow managed to have earned that dubious honor, for it is his face I see in the mirror when I look up.

You okay, boss? he asks in that slow, drawling way he always does when he is unsure about something. It’s a sound I haven’t heard for a while. I give him a slight smile that is more for his benefit than mine as I nod.

He hands me a large paper bag, telling me that when they went back to the lab they raided my locker thinking I could probably use some clean clothes.

I take them gratefully.

For a moment, I can almost believe that if I can just get out of these clothes and get the grit of the desert off of me, I can shed the horror just as easily.

Nick moves to go, explaining that he and Warrick have a 419 in Seven Hills.

You know Vegas, he sighs.

It never sleeps, I intone, and he agrees with a smile.

Before he makes it to the door, I call him back. He turns and looks rather dumbfounded to see my hand outstretched towards him. It is probably the closest thing to an embrace I have ever offered him. He takes it, and in the way only he can, pulls me in for a hug anyway.

Just keep an eye out for her for us, okay? he says as he sheepishly draws away. And call if you need anything.

When I tell him I will, it is perhaps the first time I’ve really meant it.

When I finally wander into the ICU visitor’s lounge several long minutes later, it is mercifully quiet, and empty, with the exception of Jim, who sits facing the door looking as if he’s been waiting for me to return, which he probably has.

I don’t know why I expect him to look reproachful, but I do, and he doesn’t.

Instead, he gestures for me to sit in seat nearest to him and when I do, he hands me a cup. I shake my head. I don’t think my stomach can handle anymore hospital-grade coffee.

That’s why I had Greg brew up a pot of the good stuff, he says with a grin as he places a large thermos between us.

He should be sainted for this, or at the very least knighted, and I tell him so, an assertion that garners me a soft chuckle.

However, his face falters slightly as he draws a piece of paper from his suit pocket.

I think you should sign this, he says seriously.

I can feel my eyebrows rise a little in surprise. When I hesitate to take it, he merely smiles again and tells me he’s taken the liberty of filling it out as I haven’t had that much of practice at doing so over the years.

Got the sheriff to sign off on it, himself. It’s a request for time off, he casually explains.

I can see that as I hurriedly peruse the form.

Do yourself — and Sara — a favor and just sign it.

It’s that bad, I reply with a sigh.

I have never been good at playing politics, and know it, and it has cost me more than I can count.

Not yet, but you know Ecklie —

Yeah, I know Conrad all too well. So I don’t protest when Jim tells me that Catherine is going to cover my shifts and that you will be on paid medical leave until your doctors release you to return to work.

It seems that Jim and Catherine have been busy.

As I sign it, I struggle to find the right words to express how grateful I feel right now, but Jim has never been one for flowery sentiment, or sentiment of any kind, so we both know that when I tell him Thanks that one words stands in the place of all the ones I cannot say.

It seems that I am not to be left to keep a solitary vigil tonight. Jim has called in a few favors to get Marks from Days to cover the first half of his shift and depending on how that 419 turns out, one of the guys will be around later. Catherine has to get Lindsay off to school, but she’s will apparently be stopping by afterwards.

It seems they have thought of everything, which I am thankful for as all I can think about it you.

Even dinner, Jim replies with a flourish, pulling a bag from under his seat.

I’m not quite sure I even want to eat right now and am even more unsure if I am up to eating what he’s brought.

Over the past couple of years that you and I have been together, I’ve gotten used to eating a primarily vegetarian diet, something I never thought would happen, just as I never thought I would get used to consuming alarmingly high levels soy or regarding tofu as actual food.

You still let me keep my ants in the fridge and every once in a while, I find a box of chocolate-covered grasshoppers amidst the plethora of vegetables that not that long ago I had never seen before, let alone eaten. And while you never asked me to give up eating meat, I for the most part have, but I am fairly sure Jim does not know this.

So when he opens the take out box and produces a veggie burger and fries I am amazed but not surprised.

You knew? I hazard to ask.

He nods with a sly, knowing sort of grin that only grows when he tells me that he’s known for while.

Curious as to know when he made this monumental discovery, I ask him to be more specific.

Two months ago, he answers. And I smile, knowing it has been nearly two years.

The case where the two high school sweethearts went missing, he continues to explain. You complained about me getting you out of bed on a Saturday morning. Not once in all the years we’ve worked together have you ever objected to being called into work.

I nod, remembering.

You and I were enjoying one of those rare morning after an actual night off together when I got the call. I think I seriously considered tossing the phone out the window instead of answering it that morning. But you laughed and insisted I take it. We both knew if I didn’t, there would have been a lot of questions later.

Right now, I wish I had chucked the phone and faced the questions. Having that morning with you would have been worth it.

Jim is saying something about how all he had to do was check the schedule to confirm his suspicions, but I am still thinking about how beautiful you looked that day in the early morning light, all tousled-haired and still sleepy.

But I am swiftly brought back to reality when he tells me that I should be happy that he didn’t kick my ass.

For what precisely, I am not sure.

For seeing you or for not telling him I was seeing you?

Neither, as it turns out.

For Heather.

Or as he more colorfully put it, the shitty stunt I pulled with Lady Heather last week.

Turns out you, my dear, are infinitely more forgiving than Jim is. And as he rightly says, you are far more understanding than I know I probably deserve.

Besides, it was a completely innocent evening.

To which Jim laughs and says that he figured as much, as I even I wasn’t that monumentally stupid.

Of course your knowing about Heather and even reluctantly telling me I had done the right thing, didn’t change the fact that you were still calling me Gilbert in private over a week later, which I am smart enough to know means I am forgiven, but am still in the doghouse.

Perhaps Hank will share space in…

Hank! Damn.

I fumble for my cell, thankful that it is not quite as late as I fear.

Robin stops me halfway through my hurried apologies and explanations. She tells me that the story was all over the news and that she had already left me messages on both my cell and home phone to tell me that she would happily continue to watch him until the two of us were back home where we belonged.

I click my phone shut and notice for the first time since he and I have started talking that Jim looks troubled.

Hank? he asks confused. Who the hell is Hank?

Simple enough answer, Hank’s the dog. Although technically Hank is my dog, you take care of him and are around him just as much as I am, so really he is our dog.

Why the name ‘Hank’? is Jim’s next question, as he knows just as well as anyone else who shares that name.

I begin to patiently explain that it was the name the dog had at the shelter, the one he was accustomed to, and that it seemed so silly to change it.

Plus, honestly at the time, Hank Pettigrew was the last person on my mind.

I didn’t even put the two together until I saw the look on your face when I called for our Hank to come out of the car.

I think you called me Gilbert for a while then, too, before we both just laughed about it and you said that Hank was actually a good name for a dog as the only Hank you had ever known was a dog.

I admit, I really didn’t know much about what happened between you and Hank. At the time, I was operating under an ignorance is bliss philosophy, or at least trying to.

I didn’t even know that you had stopped seeing him until one morning I overheard you tell Nick that there was no way in hell you were going to let him set you up on a date, it didn’t matter how nice the guy was.

While I didn’t give it much thought then, when I think back on it now, it was rather strange how I never did see Pettigrew again after that.

There were rumors, ones I suppose I wasn’t supposed to hear, that the guys gave him a talking to.

Knowing Nick and Warrick, I don’t think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of that particular conversation.

Of course, Jim reminds me, if I ever hurt you, the guys are going to have to wait until he’s through with me first, and that I should always keep in mind that anyone one of them knows how to dispose of a dead body so I’d better watch my back.

He and I both laugh at this, and I thank him for the fair warning before asking him if he has any other sage advice for me.

Nope – he tells me. I seem to be doing all right on my own.

*******

The night passes eventually.

The fifteen minutes of every hour that I get to spend with you fly by, but the forty-five I have to wait through until my next visit, seem to crawl, even after Greg hands me a crossword puzzle book that he has picked up on the way here from the lab.

Greg has obviously never done anything other than make origami out of crosswords as the slender volume he hands me is geared more for beginners than those actively seeking a challenge. But the thought and gesture are what count and I tell him so.

As he is merely off on break, he doesn’t stay long.

Both Nick and Warrick encourage me to get some rest when they pop in and then they sick Catherine on me when I don’t.

She threatens to have the guys drag me home if I don’t get at least some sleep. I agree to try as long as I still get to have those fifteen minutes with you. She says she will wake me, and she does at the top of every hour.

The sleep I manage to squeeze in between visits is not particularly restful, as the chairs in the waiting room are hardly fit to sit in let alone sleep in.

But I don’t care. I am waiting for you to wake.

Until then I am content with the catnaps.

*******

It is close to ten in the morning when you do.

I am sitting in the chair beside your bed watching you sleep, when you faintly whisper my name. Gil this time, and not Gilbert.  Then say you don’t even have to open your eyes to know its me.

I cannot help but smile at this and press that smile into you palm before turning it into a kiss. The familiar gestures make your slight grin widen and you chuckle softly.

It seems silly to ask you how you’re feeling, but I do anyway.

Turns out that I’m going to get a lot more sympathy from you the next time I have a migraine.

I nod when you tell me the pain is like having an army marching in your head. I swiftly click off the light and softly intone –

I felt a funeral in my brain.

And mourners to and fro

keep treading, treading till it seemed

that sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,

A service like a drum

kept beating, beating till I thought

my mind was going numb.

Emily Dickenson, you whisper and even in the dimness, even with the pain, your eyes still sparkle.

Your memory is as good as ever I see.

It has to be to keep up with yours, you reply and grin slightly. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk, you add.

I can feel my own smile broaden as I ask, knowing well the rules to this game, a game we’ve had years to refine, What is so unpleasant about being drunk?

You ask a glass of water, you deadpan. And for a moment I know we are both trying hard not to laugh.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I supply evenly.

You nod and then shake your head slightly and tell me that the breadth of my knowledge never ceases to amaze you.

When your appreciative snicker turns into a cough I say softly, Speaking of water, and pour you some before helping you drink it.

All amusement seems to leave the room when you muse that one would think you had enough water out in the desert.

I don’t know what to say to this. I’m not sure if I am ready to talk about what has happened, what could have happened, what almost did happen with to you, with to anyone.

Where did you go just then? you ask as the silence stretches on between us.

Although I do not reply, we both know the answer.

I am out there in the desert, desperately seeking the next set of foot prints that I still hope will lead me to you, only to be left standing there watching the whispering wind callously erase them away.

Do you realize, Sara, how close you came to…

The warmth of your hand on my cheek thankfully interrupts this train of thought and then I hear it.

Gil, you whisper.

And in that single syllable lie all the past years of things yet left unspoken between us.

Gil.

Echoes with words I now long to say, but love and fear and so many things get in the way.

But with the third Gil, and a brush of your lips against mine, I find the promise of all those still yet to be.

And with you again, I am at peace.

*******

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