INTROSPECTION

Brass followed the women to Nick's place. Letting his thoughts drift, he wondered - briefly - if he should have asked Sara to come with him on some vague pretense of giving him directions in case he got lost.

From where he was sitting, one car behind and in the dark, he could see the tense set of both women's shoulders, and thanked his lucky stars he had his own car. He wouldn't want to be an occupant of that vehicle. If their earlier behavior at the crime scene was any indication, the tension in that Tahoe would be thicker then pea soup, and probably leave the same bad taste in his mouth.

Quirking his lips slightly, he wondered which woman was going to snap first and whether he actually wanted to be around to see it happen. Because it was going to happen - as sure as shit smelled.

Catherine had changed over the last year - become more brittle. He suspected a lot of it had to do with the late unlamented Eddie and the little mind games he had enjoyed playing with his ex. Frankly, the only bad part about the bastard dying was the fact that all the cold rage Catherine had been nurturing against him suddenly had no one to be directed at. Or at least, not the person it should be directed at. It was hard to yell at the dead.

He also suspected that at least some of it had to do with Grissom. Brass shook his head. The man was a walking conundrum, and where Cath had once been one of the rare people who had a glimpse at the man behind the enigma, she no longer did. Grissom was slowly shutting everyone out of his life, and frankly, Brass couldn't figure out why. It's not like the man had a plethora of friends.

Sara, on the other hand, was still a relative unknown. Having only been in Vegas for 2 ½ years now, Brass felt nowhere near as confident judging her. He believed that where Catherine's anger ran cold, Sara's would run hot. He had seen her temper before, on several occasions; had seen the heated anger in her eyes when she processed victims of abuse. She was a passionate woman; and Brass didn't think she'd be able to keep her cool much longer in the face of Catherine's icy disdain. The question was, would fire or ice prevail?

He sighed as the Tahoe in front of him rolled to a stop in front of a nice looking townhouse. Obviously, Nick's new place. Hopping out of his car, he approached the drivers' side window.

"This is it," Cath muttered, as she rolled down the window.

"And he's not here," Brass replied as he lolled in the window.

"No shit, Sherlock," Catherine retorted. Next to her, Sara rolled her eyes.

"So - what now?"

Brass looked at his watch. "It's after midnight. Why don't you two go back to the lab, and I'll park myself here and wait for Lothario to come home. I've got a roast beef sub and half a thermos of luke-warm coffee in my car, calling my name."

Sara frowned, "I can stay, Brass."

"What? Out on the front step?" Brass smiled, "It's fine. You guys go, process the evidence from earlier, and don't forget to call me if he shows up at work before he shows up here."

Catherine nodded, "You gonna call Grissom?"

"Yep."

"He might not come home, you know," Sara muttered, "maybe he's got a girlfriend he hasn't told us about."

Catherine shook her head, "Nope. He'd never be able to hide something like that. He'll be home."

Brass reached into his pocket and grabbed a stick of Big Red, popping the gum into his mouth as he smiled, "Let's hope so. If he's not back in the next hour or so, I'll head back to the lab."

* * * * * * * * *

Grissom was staring at the phone in his office, willing it to ring, when a knock at the door made him jump.

"Griss - got a minute?"

Grissom sighed, steepling his fingers together and rubbing between his eyebrows, trying to smooth out the frown line he knew was there. "What do you want, Warrick?"

"I was thinking we could just walk through the LaFaye case - I'm supposed to present for the DA tomorrow," the younger man walked into his office. "You manage to find Nick yet?"

Grissom shook his head abruptly, "Not yet. I've called him, I've paged him, and he hasn't gotten back to me yet. That's not like Nick."

"Maybe he's at the gym or something," Warrick offered.

Grissom fiddled with his glasses, shaking his head, "He'd still take his pager."

"Why do you need to find him? Something wrong?"

"Yeah. Yeah, something's wrong alright," Grissom was staring at the phone again. A tense silence filled the room, before Warrick spoke again.

"You going to tell me what's going on, or do I have to guess? Grissom?"

"Sorry, Warrick. It's - I got a call today. From Dr. Novacks at the Pendleton Institute for the Criminally Insane in Reno."

Warrick looked up sharply, "Where Nigel Crane is."

"Where he was," Grissom corrected. "He's dead. Slit his wrists somehow."

Warrick absorbed this news calmly, "And Nick needs to find out about this on his night off because?"

"Crane listed Nick as his next of kin. The Institute wants to find out when Nick can claim the body and Nigel's personal affects. I want Nick to hear it from me first."

"Fuck." Warrick was succinct. "That bastard. How could he do that? Don't they check the forms on those sheets?"

Grissom shrugged, "You'd think. I asked Novacks the same thing, and he didn't realize that Nick was one of the - victims. God, I hate to even say that word in conjunction with Nick."

"He'd hate hearing it, but a spade's a spade," Warrick replied. "Want me to go by his place - see if he's there?"

Grissom shook his head, "Catherine and Sara were swinging by there before heading back to the lab and -"

The ringing phone made both men jump. Grissom quickly grabbed it, "Nick?" Warrick sighed when Grissom looked at him and shook his head, "Yeah. So, he's not there? Okay - haven't heard from him yet. No - listen, Jim.Yeah, okay. You sure you don't mind? I'll call you if he calls in or shows up. Yeah. Okay - thanks, Jim."

Sighing as he hung up the phone, Grissom looked at Warrick, "You sure he didn't mention anything to you about a date or something?"

Warrick shook his head, "If Nick had a date tonight, I would have heard about it. He hasn't been out with anyone since Kristy. Listen, I'll go talk to Greg - see if maybe he can think of anything. They sometimes hang after work."

Grissom was looking at the phone again, nodding his head absently, "Let me know."

* * * * * *

Nick was surprised - and concerned - when he saw Brass' familiar car sitting in his driveway as he drove down his street toward his place. Immediately assuming the worst - that something had happened to someone on the team - he jumped out of his truck as he parked it.

Brass was dozing in the front seat, and the sudden rapping on the window made him jump. Nick. Feeling a little foolish, he removed his hand from his gun and instead placed it on his chest, in an effort to calm his pounding heart, and as he opened the door.

"Nick."

The younger man stepped back, hands in pocket and shoulders hunched. "Brass. What's wrong? Someone hurt?"

Brass frowned, and noted the tightly banked concern on Nick's face, "No. No one's hurt. Listen, Nick - something's - something's come up, and Grissom needs to talk to you right away."

Nick frowned, "That's why you're here? To get me for Grissom? Why didn't he just page me?"

"He's been trying to all night," Brass responded dryly.

Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out his pager, frowning when he realized the battery was dead. "Shit. Okay. Let me go in and listen to my messages quickly, and I'll follow you back to the office."

Brass shook his head, "Most of the messages will be from Griss. Nicky - please - let's go now. Leave your truck and come with me."

"What the fuck is going on, Brass?"

Nick had crossed his arms, and studied the older man intently, noting the gruff concern on Brass' face, and the way he tried to hide it behind his normal wry demeanor.

"I'm not trying to kidnap you, if that's what you're worried about."

Nick grinned tightly as this, "No kidding. Is it my family? Did something happen to my family?"

"No one died, Nick," Brass replied, before realizing he was lying. Nick caught the brief flicker of remorse that crossed the older man's face, and knew he was lying too.

"Nick, please. Just come with me and talk to Grissom."

"Fuck that, Brass. What happened? And don't lie to me. I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what the fuck is going on."

Nick was so tense, it was unbelievable. Brass could see the veins in his forearms and wrists, standing out in stark relief against the clenched muscles. His jaw was impossibly tight, the slight tick on the left side of his face betraying his nervousness. Nick wasn't budging.

Running his hand through his hair, Brass closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Christ, Nicky. I don't want to be the one to tell you this."

"Just spit it out, Brass," Nick replied tightly, "What's happened?"

"Nigel Crane is dead." The words hit Nick like bricks, making him blanch before he looked at Brass, eyes wide and bruised.

"Why does that concern me?"

Brass reached forward, placing a hand gently on the younger man's shoulder, "The.institute.where he's staying at, they've been trying to reach you. Crane - he listed you as his next of kin."

* * * * *

~~~~~~

It was amazing how everything could be perfectly normal, and then - suddenly - not. Life had a funny way of reaching out and grabbing you by the balls when you least expected it.

The day had started out well enough. He had slept in, luxuriating in the warmth of his bed and the wonderful feeling of not having anything to do. His paperwork was caught up, he had no active cases, and he had the night off - his first night off in weeks.

He had debated staying home and just relaxing, but there was nothing interesting on TV. He thought about going to see a movie - there were several he wanted to see - but the thought of sitting in a movie theatre eating popcorn all by himself was unappealing.

Eating lunch while he watched ESPN, he wondered when his life had become so - staid.

Used to be that he never lacked for things to do on his days off. Lately though, his social life was - stagnating. That was the only word for it. He had let his mind drift, trying to remember the last time he had gone out with anyone, not counting the occasional breakfasts with the team, and drew a blank.

The last few months, it seemed that if he wasn't working, he wasn't doing anything. Paragliding, occasionally, which wasn't exactly a social activity. Just him floating in the wide open sky, riding the wind in an endless expanse of blue, touching the face of God. Peaceful. At peace.

Sighing, he had wandered into his bedroom and reached into his night table, grabbing his address book and flopping down on his bed. Flipping through the names, he realized that he no longer remembered who most of the women he had numbers for were. Couldn't place a face with a name. Except Secula - and she was married now; to Hopkins, a big burly homicide detective Nick had worked with a couple of times. Nice enough guy.

He was turning into a hermit. Of course, working nights didn't really leave a guy a lot of time to have a social life - especially not guys that did what he did. Bodies, blood, science. Not exactly scintillating conversation when you were trying to meet the girl of your dreams, or at the very least, the girl of your dreams for the night.

Smiling ruefully, he flopped over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. All work and no play made Nick - Grissom. The thought would have made him laugh, if it wasn't so close to the goddamn truth. He was going to have to do something about that - starting now.

Robbie from ballistics had the night off as well, and had casually mentioned to Nick the day before that he was thinking of going to Mazilla's tonight, if Nick wanted to join him. While Nick hadn't said yes, he hadn't said no either. Wondering if the offer was still open, he grabbed the phone and searched for Robbie's number.

After he hung up, he felt much better. Things were looking up. Robbie had assured him Mazilla's was hopping - he had been last week, and the women were fine. Nick grinned at that. He was pretty sure Robbie's definition of fine was pretty similar to his own.

Sliding to his feet, he wandered down the hallway towards the bathroom, scratching his chest. Come hell or high water, Nick was determined to get out of the rut he seemed to have fallen into, starting tonight.

~~~~~~~

Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men.Nick looked around the bar, sipping his beer slowly as he tried to ignore the throbbing rhythm of electronic bass trying to pound through his head. Mazilla's was hopping - Robbie hadn't lied about that. The place was wall to wall T&A. Nick nursed his drink, wondering to himself just when the bar scene had stopped being fun. It was vaguely unsettling.

He flirted, of course. He danced with a couple of really beautiful girls; and from the way they draped themselves all over him, he knew it wouldn't be that difficult to work out some of his tension the good, old-fashioned way, but that's not what he wanted. He wasn't looking for a one-night stand; he was looking for companionship.

The realization scared him. In the middle of a throng of people, Nick realized he was lonely. Fuck.

Robbie was on the dance floor, flirting with a perky brunette he had pointed out to Nick a little while ago.

"You think those are real, Nick?" he had hollered over the loud music.

Nick had looked quickly, before turning back to his friend, grinning, "I think they're real expensive," he had replied.

The two men had grabbed a beer, before Robbie had said, "Only one way to find out," before he headed over to the woman in question. That had been over an hour ago, and Robbie was still with her, dancing like MC Hammer on acid.

"Robbie - I'm taking off man," he hollered, tapping his friend on the shoulder.

Robbie turned to him, "Nick - it's early yet!"

Nick nodded, "I'm just not into this tonight - I'll catch you at the lab tomorrow. Have fun."

~~~~~

"So much for proving I have a life outside work," Nick muttered to himself. It was only 10:30 pm - to early to go home on his night off, even though that's what he really wanted to do. Instead, he turned on his radio and drove for a while.

He ended up at Lake Mead, on the side that wasn't too developed yet, drinking a coffee he had picked up at Starbuck's and watching the moon reflecting off the water as laughter and music echoed across the lake.

He felt like an intruder, listening to the ghosts of other people's happiness, and was once again struck by how incredibly alone - and lonely - he was. He was 33 years old, for Christ's sake. He had a great job, worked with people that he honestly liked and respected - hell, considered friends - but outside of work, what did he have?

Not a whole helluva lot. A nice house, but no one to share it with. No one to talk to after a hard shift; no one to watch TV with - no one to sit silently with, just for the sake of sitting silently. An empty house, an empty life - an empty heart.

Shaking his head he wondered humorlessly if someone had slid a depressant into his coffee, before he dumped what was left and tossed the cup into the garbage. If he was so desperate, he could have stayed at Mazilla's and picked someone up - some women, equally as lonely and disenchanted with her life, looking to belong to someone, if only for the night.

In the past, that's what he would have done. But no longer - he was sick of band-aid remedies - a quick fuck with some women he would never see again might lessen the ache for a little while, but it wouldn't fix what was actually wrong with his life. Nothing would.

Starting his truck, he headed towards home. The Dixie Chicks were playing on his CD player.

~Not a night goes by, I don't dream of wandering

Through the home that might have been

And I listened to my pride, when my heart cried out for you

Now every day I wake again, in a house that might have been

A home, a home.

Four walls, a roof, a door, some windows

Just a place to run when my working day is through

They say home is where the heart is

If the exception proves the rule I guess that's true.~

Growling, he popped the CD out and threw it out his window, knowing even as he did so he would stop at the CD Warehouse on his way to work tomorrow to buy a new one.

The thought made him smile - his first honest-to-God smile of the whole damn day - and he thought to himself that maybe things weren't really that bad. He was just a little depressed, a little lonely - but nothing he couldn't fix, if he didn't set his mind to it.

And that - of course - is when he saw Brass, parked in his driveway, and knew something was wrong.

~~~~~~~

* * * * *

Brass had almost forgotten what Nick had looked like the night he and a couple of officers had busted down the younger man's door and found him struggling with Crane for his gun and his life over the body of the dead psychic.

His broken assurances that he was fine had been belied by the bleak desolation in the younger man's eyes as his officers cuffed Crane. Brass had never seen such emptiness before, and the look had haunted him for weeks.

He had hoped never to see anyone look so broken again, especially not someone he worked with - especially not Nick. Brass had always admired the younger man's seemingly endless optimism; his belief that people were inherently good.

Brass was a career-cynic, but Nick's - naiveté, if that was the right word - was refreshing, even if it was unfounded. The other CSIs and detectives he worked with were all a bit more hard-boiled, even Sidle. Brass suspected she had seen the seamier side of life, and it had affected her.

Yet Nick had never seemed to let the crimes they investigated erode his sunny optimism. Brass had admired him for it, even as he had known that one day something would happen that would shake Nick to the core, would strip him of his optimism, and make him just like the rest of them.

He had never realized how painful it would be to witness the death of that innocence.

Seeing the younger man's eyes empty of everything except pain, Brass felt like cursing.

Nigel Crane was a sick, twisted fuck.

_________________________

Author's Notes:

Okay - Dixie Chicks song is called "A Home" - great song.

For those of you familiar with the Incredible Hulk, you'll recognize the Pendleton Institute for the Criminally Insane as the place were Psychobabble was locked up - excuse me for shamelessly ripping off Marvel Comics.

Please R&R - as I mentioned in the first chapter, this is a free-form story, with nothing plotted out before hand. I'm going with the flow here, and if it ain't flowing right, I really would like to know.