Gil can feel it building all night, from the first assignment he slides across the table at Sara, to the look he gets when he passes through the break room hours later.
You can't be this way, he wants to tell him. It's not fair to me, it's not fair to you, and sure as hell isn't fair to Sara. He wants to explain that they're all adults, even though they're mostly acting like children - he wants to lay down the law, once and for all.
Only he can't. Because it only makes it worse.
"You're always taking her side!"
Familiar argument, well-known opening gambit. It's like a bad game of chess he can't get out of, that just keeps going around and around and around. Bobby Fischer's personal hell.
"I'm not taking anyone's side, Nick," he says as patiently as he can. They're in his office, the door is open to maintain the illusion of professionalism. He's used to keeping his voice down but he's not sure about Nick. More than once he's blown up and almost blown their cover.
"Yes you are," Nick seethes, his control on his temper as tight as the lines of his jaw right now. "Whatever she says, you'll back her up, no questions asked. But when I have something to say-"
He really wants to pinch the bridge of his nose and close his eyes for a few heartbeats, but that never works. Earns him an accusation of being condescending, of not taking him seriously. "Nick," he says, "I think you're taking things out of context."
"Context?" Nick squeaks. "Context? There is no CONTEXT here, Gil."
"There's always context," Gil counters as evenly as he can. "Sara has a lot more experience with this kind of case, so in the interest of expediency-"
"Don't try to justify this," Nick snaps. "The fact is, you like her better than you like me."
God help me, Gil mutters inside his head, sometimes I do. "Professionally, Nick, I have to play the strongest card I have."
"Which is Sara."
"This time, yes."
"Every time, dammit."
"I'm sorry you think that, Nick, but-"
"No BUTS, Gil. That's the way it always is!"
They stare each other down for a handful of seconds. Gil won't back down on this, he can't afford to. Things are complicated and messy enough as it is, he can't start losing ground as a suupervisor on top of the rest of it.
Nick throws up his hands, opens his mouth and can't think of a thing to say. He shakes his head and storms out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
Now. Now, Gil can close his eyes and soothe the headache he's been nursing all night.
What Brass likes to say (when he screws up enough courage to say it) is that he should have known better.
"I know that," Gil always protests. "I really do. I screwed up but... I can't just walk away now."
"I love him."
Brass shakes his head, makes a noise in the back of his throat and lets his resigned humour shine through his usual scowl. "I know," he says, "and that sucks."
"Hey, that's what friends are for."
It happened (as these things do) when the usual concoction of frustration, alcohol and stupidity reached lethal limits. They were at Catherine's place, one of the times she'd thrown a work party: her current soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend wheeled a massive barbecue from somewhere into her back yard, someone else brought beer (lots of it) and Lindsay was passed off to a friend's house for a sleepover.
"I don't know why I do this," Catherine told Gil before everyone else arrived. She didn't usually fret but she was that night, couldn't sit still between watching Eric in the backyard trying to connect the propane cylinder to his baby behemoth, and watching for traffic arriving in the front.
"You enjoy it," Gil said. He had come early to share her company before it got too crowded.
"I do not," she countered.
"Of course you do. You don't remember it now," he added, "because you're too worried to remember the good stuff. But it'll come back to you."
She gave him one of her less credulous looks, but let it drop. "I mean, now of all times. Who am I kidding?"
((Now of all times)) meant the openly declared war between Warrick and Sara. Gil wasn't entirely sure what had happened but all of a sudden they hated each other. Sure, they would work together when they had to, and they would do a decent job on the case; but sometimes he expected to find blood on the walls of the trace lab when they clocked out at the end of the day.
"Well," Gil said, trying to sound halfway confident, "maybe they can put it aside for a couple of hours and have some fun."
"Ha." It was remarkable how erudite she could be with one syllable. She was standing with her face inches from the glass door into the back yard. "Oh hell - he's going to blow himself up."
He watched her go, laughing inside. She enjoyed getting worked up into a panic, once in a while. They'd worked together, and been friends, long enough for him to recognize the pattern. She would be the most relaxed, laid-back person in the lab come Monday. Absolute, rock-solid guarantee. These Saturday fiascos (as she called them) were a catharsis for her. He admired that in her, that she knew exactly what to do when the tension got too much; he wished he had the same ability to unwind on command.
People started coming soon after that: Sara on her own, Warrick with his latest girlfriend (he was always sure that this one was The One - that kind of youthful optimism warmed Gil, gave him hope for humanity amid the corpses that made up his career), Greg with a pierced waif that might have been a woman, and Nick with a black eye.
"You all right?" Gil asked, trying not to stare.
Nick grit his teeth. "Sure," he said, "just peachy."
He tried not to smile. "Want to talk about it?"
"Then have a beer."
The other techs started to arrive, in twos and threes, all of them a little wary of being at CSI Willows' house, afraid of breaking something, afraid of making an ass of themselves, afraid of relaxing enough to actually enjoy themselves. It was interesting to see them outside of their lab coats, but still trying to maintain their at-work veneer. He wondered how much alcohol it would take to loosten them up.
Then the cops trickled in, and Gil enjoyed himself watching them arrive. They always surveyed a room professionally when they entered it, made a little note of entrances and exits, potential weapons, anything else they found of interest... well, the good cops did, anyway. The ones that would make it.
Jim Brass arrived right about the time that Eric the ex-to-be declared the grill ready, and started taking orders. Brass grabbed a beer, called out that he liked his well-done, and joined Gil on the couch.
"You need to get a life," he said by way of greeting.
"I bet you've been sitting on this couch since you arrived."
"I like sitting on this couch."
Brass laughed at him, took a sip from his bottle, rested it on his knee. "Like I said, you need to get a life."
"Duly noted, Detective."
Sara snagged him, insinuated herself between him and Brass, eventally drove Brass away. He glanced back with a smirk and a shake of his head, sauntered off to harass someone else.
"You look distracted," she told him.
"Not really," he said carefully. He had been dodging her for a few months now. Maybe it was his fault, maybe he had once let her believe things that weren't true, but now she was impossible to shake. The polite brush-off didn't seem to register with her, and anything more direct earned him a sarcastically wide berth and a reprieve of a couple of days. Then she'd be back again, wheedling at him, looking for a way in.
"It looks good," she hurried to tell him. "You need to look distracted more often."
"Okay," he said as neutrally as he could. "I'm sure Ecklie would love that."
"I didn't mean at work," Sara said, rolling her eyes. "I meant the rest of the time."
"The rest of what time?"
She smiled triumphantly. "Exactly!"
He allowed himself a small smile. "That's what Brass just told me," he admitted.
She swatted at his shoulder. Wow - how much had she had to drink in the half-hour that she there? "See, then?" she said. "We can't both be wrong."
"I'll work on it."
He spent the next fifteen minutes trying to extricate himself from her attention, and wound up in the backyard with another bottle of beer (third, he thought, then corrected: no, this makes four). Brass appeared magically at his side, trying not to laugh.
"She's persistent, isn't she?" he asked.
He groaned. "I know," he said. He was sitting in the lee of a tree, out of sight of the house where (no doubt) she was looking for him. It would only be a temporary refuge, she would track him down eventually. But he would enjoy the sanctuary while it lasted. The quiet, the beer, and the company of anyone other than her.
"You really should do something about it."
"I know, I know," he heard himself say. "I just don't know WHAT."
Brass shook his head. "You're too nice a person," he said. "That's your problem."
He laughed. "I don't think that's the consensus opinion."
"Fuck the consensus," Brass said cheerfully. "What do they know, anyway?"
They touched the necks of their bottles together. "Hear hear," Gil said, and laughed again.
From there he drifted as best as he could, avoiding Sara where possible and escaping quickly where not. A usual Saturday fiasco, as these things went. He caught Catherine's eye across the room and saw that she was ready to strangle Eric for some unknown trespass. He grinned at her, winked, and ducked back outside before she threw something at him.
The barbecue was cooling and the yard was smoky and empty. He stood in the cool evening air, breathing deeply and enjoying the buzz he had that he almost never permitted himself. There was too much alcohol in his family to let it become a habit, but once in a while - what the hell.
Movement out by the tree caught his attention, and he strolled over to see what was up.
"Hey," Nick said, looking up from his shoes and grinning sheepishly.
"Hey yourself," Gil said. "Anything interesting?"
"Naw," Nick said with a shake of his head. His eyes were a little glassy, his shoulders a little too droopy. Gil tried to gauge his buzz in reference to his own; by his calculations, Nick was winning.
Nick glanced around the tree, back at the house. Sara was silhouetted in the window, talking to someone from homicide. "Why do you let her do that?" he asked in a small voice.
"Hang off you like that."
He shrugged. "I don't know how to tell her not to," he said simply.
Nick blinked, gazed up at him again. "You're not interested?"
"No." He could have listed all the reasons he wasn't: it would be unprofessional, she drove him nuts, he would drive her nuts, she wasn't his type, office romances never ended well... he could have listed them, but he didn't.
Which was probably a mistake. "Good," Nick said, standing up decisively.
"Because," Nick said, and kissed him.
For a moment he didn't react, didn't have a clue what to do. His first thought was ((Nick)), his second thought was ((Sara)), his third thought was ((Catherine)) and then he was back at his first: ((Nick)). Like a scratched record he kept coming back to Nick, and it repeated in his head like a mantra until he realized he was kissing back as good as he got.
Nick pulled back, breathing hard, looked him in the eye as steadily as he could (his hands were shaking, Gil noted with a strange detachment) and said, "Is this okay?"
It was an out, placed oh-so-delicately before him. He thought for less than a second, then brushed it away. "It's better than okay," he said, and caught Nick with his lips again.
They made out for a few minutes, in the back yard amid the remains of the barbecue and out of sight of the house. It was an electric slice of time, all hands and mouths and tiny, inarticulate noises. They were both breathless and shaky, flushed and drunk beyond alcohol, when they took a careful step apart, eyeing each other hungrily.
"Wanna split?" Nick asked.
"We'll-" Gil hesitated. He didn't know what they would do. "We'll - think of something."
As simple as that. And even simpler, actually, when they got back into the house. The mood had changed. People were avoiding each others' eyes, looking for their jackets and their house keys, mumbling their gratitudes at Catherine.
"What happened?" Gil asked, sidling up to her.
She rolled her eyes. "What didn't happen?" she asked. "Warrick and Sara started going at it, Eric fucked up in the kitchen-" She shrugged viciously. "They bailed."
"I'm sorry," Gil said.
She smirked at him. "No you're not," she said. "You might as well take off, too."
He had been planning on it, but now felt obligated (as her friend) to stay and - and do something. He saw Nick fidgeting near the door, trying not to be too obvious. "I can stay," he heard himself say, although he wanted to do anything but.
"No," she said, sounding more like herself than she had all evening, "go home. Before this really gets ugly."
She smiled, her single-mom-coping smile, the one that always broke his heart. "Get out of my house, Gil," she said.
"See you Monday?"
"Yes, you will."
He nodded his head a fraction of an inch at Nick, who slipped out the door before he got there. They caught a taxi a few blocks away and Nick gave his address to the driver. Still breathless, still moving like a live wire.
They didn't last long once they got there. They made it in through Nick's front door, got it closed, and latched onto each other again. A few minutes later, without any conscious memory of the transition, they were in the bedroom, mostly naked and moving with a desperation that was both embarassing and gratifying: ((it's not just me)).
Afterwards (both glowing, tangled legs, sated and in shock), Nick said, "I need to know - is this thing real, or a one-shot deal?"
Gil corralled his remaining brain cells, lined them up so they couldn't hear the little voice of reason at the back of his mind, and said, "Everything I do is for real. I don't do things I know I'll regret."
Nick smiled into his shoulder, rolled on top of him and kissed him. "Me either."
"How's your foot?"
Nick looks up from what he's doing, becomes suddenly aware of how tense his shoulders and back are. Warrick is leaning against the door frame, watching him with his knowing eye.
"Thought I detected a little self-inflicted GSR on your shoe."
Warrick rolls his eyes. "You shot yourself in the foot," he says. "Again."
"Whoa whoa whoa." Nick steps away from the evidence he's working. "First of all, it's none of your damn business. Secondly-"
Warrick holds out his hand. "Look," he says, "I want to stay out of it, believe me. I don't want to get sucked into your little mindfuck with Grissom. But that's getting pretty hard to do."
Who knows what about when, and where and when and how they know - it's a nebulous question he can't nail down. Sometimes Warrick seems as blind as Sara, and other times he's got the all-seeing, all-knowing thing down pat. Maybe they all know and they're choosing to ignore it, he can't figure it out. Or maybe no one knows anything and he's being paranoid.
"If he won't stand up for me the way he stands up for Sara-"
"Then what?" Warrick asks. "You'll resign? You'll go cry on Ecklie's desk? What?"
He clenches his jaw. "Then I'm done," he says.
Warrick gives him a funny look. "Your funeral, man."
One thing he does know is that, regardless of whether she knows anything or not, Sara hasn't let up. Not one bit. "Just TELL her," Nick pleads on a regular basis.
"That's not a good idea," Gil says. "You know that what we're doing - what we have - is against the rules. I'm your supervisor. You can imagine what Ecklie would do if got his hands on this."
"You think she'd be that petty?"
He pauses. "I don't know," he admits. "If he caught her on a bad day... she wouldn't even have to say anything explicitly. She wears her heart on her sleeve and Ecklie's a shark. That's a bad combination."
"So I'm supposed to put up with this?"
"It's not the same."
"You'd be surprised."
The worst part of the night is when Nick comes looking for him, with a somewhat mollified look on his face, to find Sara pinning him to the wall. Gil can see him over her shoulder, wants to say something but doesn't get the chance because Sara is mumbling something about relative strength and height differences and whether their suspect could have possibly been defending herself, and what she's saying is too important to the case to tune it out, even for a moment.
Nick gives him the coldest look he can muster and leaves.
Gil watches him go, feels his heart freeze up. Thinks maybe he's going to throw up.
"I have to leave," he says firmly the moment Sara lets up for breath. She has his arms pinned above his head put with one shove he moves her away.
"I'm not finished," she says. Powerfully close to whining.
"Take a break." He stops in the hallway, looks the way Nick went. No sign of him, but this place is a labyrinth, and if he wants to hide and sulk there's no way he's going to be found.
Sara appears at his elbow. "You okay?"
"No." Well, pick a direction (any direction) and start looking. Because even if he knows he isn't going to find him, he has to look. Has to make the effort.
He knows that Sara is watching him. Frowning.
Brass and Catherine are hashing out a motive in the DNA lab when Gil sticks his head through the door. It's the seventh room he's tried, and he can't shake the feeling he's moving in entirely the wrong direction.
"Seen him?" he demands.
"Who?" Catherine asks, narrowing her eyes.
"He went thataway," Brass says humourlessly, "looking like he was going to be sick."
Catherine watches her boss and friend storm out of sight. "Oo-kay," she says, turning to Brass. "And that was....?"
"That was Gil realizing what a mess he's in." Brass scrubs at his face. "He's so smart," he mumbles into his fingers, "and so, so stupid."
"Aren't we all?"
"Some of us more than others. And oh, look - right on cue."
She turns back to the hallway, sees Sara following Gil and trying to be casual about it. Nonchalence is not a look that comes naturally to her. She smiles too easily at them and keeps moving, inexorably after Gil.
Catherine lets her jaw hang open for a few seconds. "Oh you're kidding me," she says, barely more than a breath.
"God, I wish I was..."
"But that's - that's-"
"Stupid?" Brass suggests. "Incomprehensible? Unbelievably dumb?"
"That too, yeah."
The showdown is in the locker room, where Gil finally finds Nick (on the other side of the building - he should have listened to his instincts), stuffing the contents of his locker into a bag and talking to himself.
He whirls around, nearly in tears and mottled with rage. "Don't," he spits. "Just don't. You have no right-"
"No right?" Gil snaps back. "We're at WORK, Nick. That was WORK."
"She was plastered all over you because of WORK? How STUPID do you think I am?"
He doesn't want to answer that because honesty would get him killed right now. "Yes, that was work, Nick." He takes a deep breath and forces himself to calm down. "You've seen that a dozen times before."
"I've seen Warrick trying to force you into a meat locker," Gil points out. "I didn't read anything into it."
Nick laughs harshly. It's a brutal sound. "Jesus, Gil - if you can't work that out, what the fuck are you doing calling yourself a criminologist?"
"That's not what I mean."
"Well maybe you need to start picking your words more carefully," Nick tells him. "Maybe you need to draw some lines in the goddamn sand and stick to them."
"Maybe you need to start trusting me a bit more," Gil counters.
"It's not YOU I don't TRUST!"
"It's starting to feel that way."
The door opens and Sara pokes her head in. Tries to smile innocently. "Hey, guys," she says.
"Get OUT!" Nick almost screams at her.
She forces her smile to grow. "What'd I-"
"Sara, please. This is between Nick and I."
That looks like it stung. "Fine," she says. "Just trying to help."
"Well, you can't."
There's a staring contest then, between Sara and Gil, and Nick is so close to hyperventilating from sheer rage that he actually has to sit down. He knows he should drop his head between his knees and count the strands in his shoelaces, but he doesn't want to miss what's happening around him. It's too fucking important to blink.
"Sara. Please leave. You're in the way."
"Oh," she says, finally, and looks like she just got run over by a truck. "Okay then. I'll see - later." She leaves, and the door snicks shut behind her.
Gil sinks onto the bench next to Nick, close enough to touch but not touching.
"Something has to give," Gil hears himself say.
"I don't know what, though."
"I think-" He feels his voice about to catch, stops until he knows he can go on. "I think the ball is in your court now. I don't know what else I can do."
Nick nods stiffly, so close to tears now.
Gil wants to hold him, to let him cry onto his shoulder and talk him out of whatever dark place he's in tonight. He's always enjoyed being able to do that, to make a tangible difference in someone's life, even it's in a small way. But he can't do that now, not this time, because this is a watershed moment and he has to stay far back from it.
"Nick," he whispers, willing himself not to touch his face, "you know what I want. Who I want. But you have to decide what happens next."
He walks back to his office trying not to think of who (what?) he is walking away from. Brass looks like he's going to say something when they pass, but decides against it. Gil is silently grateful for that - Brass has always been mostly telepathic, at least when it comes to Gil Grissom.
Catherine, on the other hand, is waiting for him in his office.
He sighs. "Not now, Catherine," he says.
"When did it start?"
"When did what start?"
"The Nick-Sara-Gil disaster."
"Oh," he says with a miserable smile, "that. Just leave it."
She rolls her eyes, and levels a finger at him. "This is not over," she tells him.
Except he thinks, maybe it is.
Warrick comes looking for Nick a while later, says he's not in the building and not answering his cell.
"He wasn't feeling well," Gil says, "maybe he went home."
"Oh." Warrick looks like he wants to say something. "Uh - any idea why Sara's acting radioactive?"
Sara stays in her lab all night. Gil steers clear of her and tries not to get cornered alone with Catherine. Warrick keeps his back to the walls and keeps a healthy distance from his colleages. Brass seems equally likely to laugh or hit someone.
They have never been so glad to see the sun come up.
He gets home to find Nick is sitting on his doorstep, staring at the cactus next to mailbox, unseeing.
His heart thumps once out of rhythm and then calms down. He gets out of his truck, takes his crap with him, locks the door, pulls his house keys out of his pocket and moves up the walk as though his feet don't weigh twice what they should.
Nick finally looks up, red-rimmed eyes meeting his own. "Hey," he says.
He shrugs, wipes at his face, takes a shaky breath. "Been better," he says. "Can I come in?"
"Of course you can."
It's strange, Gil thinks when he sheds his belongings on the table just inside the door. He watches Nick move around as though he has never seen his living room before. As if he feels unwelcome there.
"It's hard," Nick finally says.
"I mean, I-" His voice catches, and he turns away. Stares at a print on the wall that he has always liked. A lone jack pine in the snow, the white so brilliant it's almost purple. "I want to believe that, that... that we're stronger than this shit, but."
To hell with being strong and unmoving, Gil thinks, and comes up behind Nick, puts an arm around his chest and holds him. "But," he prompts.
"But-" He takes another shaky, horrible breath. "I don't know how."
"Oh, Nick." Gil can feel his own eyes well up, hugs him in tighter and kisses the back of his neck. "I'm so sorry."
"Tell me what to do."
"It's a leap of faith, Nick. You just have to trust that I love you, you and no one else; and Sara is a pain in the neck and she always will be, but if she ever demands that I choose, it's no choice. It's you, Nick. You, you, you."
"Promise me-" He stops.
"Anything, Nick. Anything and everything. Tell me what you need."
He's holding his breath and doesn't realize it until Nick shudders in his arms and turns around to bury his face in the crook of his neck.
"Just promise me."
Gil smiles through his tears, kisses the shell of his ear. "I promise."