Disclaimer: I don't own anything relating to CSI, other than the DVDs.
A/N: Thanks to my beta, Mossley, who always works hard to help me become a better writer and a better person.
Even in the night's darkness that pressed down on the bright Las Vegas lights, the smoke was visible for miles, backlit as it was by the rising flames of the old warehouse.
It took three alarms to finally bring enough firefighters to battle the blaze into submission, their plumes of water converting the black smoke to a hazy gray steam billowing into the air before the desert breeze dispersed it, along with the ashes.
The firefighters attacked the hissing burnt-out hulk of the building, poking and prodding through the embers, dousing hot spots. In what had been the office back in the days when the warehouse was teeming with activity, they found it – a blackened body, its arms and hands curled up as if readying for a fight. Coroners called it the Pugilistic Pose, and it's typical of deaths by fire, where the heat makes the muscles contract after death.
As far as they knew, he was an innocent victim of an accidental fire, but it wasn't their decision to make, and the captain placed a series of calls to the arson investigator, the police, and the coroner's office.
They had hoped to put out this fire and get back to their stations to let sleep steal away their fatigue, but instead they waited, knowing it would be a long night of questions for which they had few answers.
* * * * *
"You ready for me?" David asked, coughing as the soot tickled the back of his throat.
"Yeah. If there was anything on or around this guy, it's burned away or washed away. It's up to Robbins now," Grissom said, standing while Sara and Nick scoured the room from top to bottom for any remaining evidence of the cause and manner of death. They had learned long ago not to assume that a body found in a fire died from the fire.
It was a rare CSI who actually liked to work a fire or an explosion. Typically, the evidence was destroyed, if it existed at all. It was virtually impossible to examine the crime scene without becoming covered in smears of wet soot. The inside of the building was normally still warm, even hot at times, depending on how quickly they arrived after the blaze was subdued.
But to Grissom, the aftermath of a fire was almost melancholy compared to the excitement and grandeur of the fire itself. The burnt-out buildings, collapsing and hissing as more water was poured on the hot spots, seemed oddly cold, but in an emotional way. After the warmth and passion of a fire, the leavings seemed as empty as the morning after a sexual encounter with a stranger.
"Could we get some of these people out of here?" a disembodied voice boomed through the warehouse, ricocheting off the walls and into the office.
His voice was larger than his body, with Grissom estimating that the man wearing a windbreaker with Arson Investigation across the back was only an inch or two taller than he was. He probably weighed about the same, though his thickness came a little more from muscle.
The firefighters exited quickly at his command, but Grissom's group stayed, unmoved. The arson investigator turned slowly, scanning the cavernous warehouse 360 degrees, then snapping back towards the office. His stride to them was resolute.
"I guess you're from the Crime Lab," he said, sounding a little put out.
Grissom nodded, but remained expressionless.
"Could you at least not touch anything until I can have a look at it?" he asked, more than a little frustrated.
"We've done a fire or two," Grissom answered, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, and I've had a problem or two with your people compromising my fire scenes."
"Not my people," Grissom said, miffed.
"We're done in here," Nick said, looking expectantly at Grissom, purposefully not meeting the eyes of the arson investigator.
"Would you prefer to work together, or to keep butting heads?" Grissom asked.
The investigator stared hard at Grissom, his eyes narrowing in thought. After a moment, he held out a hand.
"Robert Burns ... no relation to the Scottish poet," he said, as though that would be the first association anyone would make to his name.
"Gil Grissom." He took the investigator's hand firmly.
"Shall we find out from whence The Beast arose?"
"After you," Grissom said, holding a hand out towards the door. They followed him through the warehouse, four sets of eyes slowly scanning the charred walls until they had come full circle.
"Not in here," Burns said, heading towards the now-opened bay door.
Burns perambulated the exterior of the warehouse, occasionally stopping to dig out two chunks of the charred exterior surface with a pocketknife, smelling them, then placing them in plastic bags – one for him and one for the Crime Lab.
Once he'd circled the building, he headed directly for the two senior personnel who were talking and laughing with each other out on the street – one a Captain in the Fire Department, the other a Captain of Detectives.
"Captain, Captain," Burns said, nodding to each.
"Captain," they each said back to him.
"Arson," he said simply.
Grissom was only a few steps behind, and arrived just in time to overhear Burns's report.
"The fire was started along the back of the building, almost the whole length."
"Accelerant?" the Fire Captain asked.
"Yes. Petrochemical. Probably gasoline, but it's theoretically possible that I'm wrong," Burns said confidently.
"But not likely," Brass said.
"No, not likely, but possible," Burns admitted.
"Captain Burns, I'm going to go pay a little visit to the owner. Would you like to tag along?" Brass asked.
"I thought you'd never ask," he smiled, following Brass to his car.
"I don't think I like him very much," Grissom said lowly, leaning sideways towards Sara, though he looked straight ahead.
"You wouldn't. He seems a lot like you in ways," she quipped, picking up the large bag of evidence containers in one hand and her field kit in the other, then heading for the back of the Denali. Nick opened the rear door for her, helping her load the SUV.
"Did anybody get crowd shots?" Grissom asked as he joined them. He sat in the driver's seat, but didn't start the vehicle, instead turning partway so that he could see both Nick in the front seat and Sara in the back.
"I did," Sara answered. "A few shots when we first got here, a few while we were walking the perimeter, and a few just before we left."
"Good, good," Grissom nodded. "Nick, take the samples back to the lab and have Hodges start on them right away. I want to know what the accelerant was. Pick up Greg and come right back."
"Greg?" Nick asked, confusion written all over his face.
"Yes, Greg. Greg Sanders. Young guy. Funny hair. Works in the DNA Lab," Grissom said sarcastically.
"Yeah, I think I know the guy," Nick volleyed back, turning to look at Sara questioningly, receiving only a shrug in reply.
"Sara, you stay here with me. I'll call Catherine – she and Warrick can help. We've got a lot of ground to cover, but fortunately the sun's almost up, so at least we'll be able to see."
Grissom and Sara exited the SUV, retrieving their kits from the back. After summoning Catherine and Warrick by cell phone, Grissom took a seat on the top of his kit and patted the top of Sara's, inviting her to sit.
"We're just going to sit here?" she asked, incredulously.
"No. We're going to look at the pictures you shot of the crowd," Grissom answered, holding out his hand for the digital camera she'd been using.
There had been a relatively small group gathered in front of the warehouse. No doubt there had been other onlookers, but they left by the time the fire was doused. Only the hardcore fans or the completely bored would stay to watch the Fire Department digging through cinders for hot spots, pulling down unstable walls or roof sections, then repacking their equipment.
"Look at these people. They're laughing, talking, having a great time. You'd think it was a tailgate party or something," she said, shaking her head.
"Fires are exciting," Grissom ventured.
"Fires are dangerous," Sara countered.
"Perhaps that's what makes them exciting," Grissom replied, smiling at her in a way she hadn't seen in a long time. It was less strained, more comfortable. If she didn't know better, Sara might have thought that he was flirting with her.
"Must be a guy thing. I mean, I like a nice fire in the fireplace, or a campfire, or a candle. Small fires." Sara imagined how nice it would be to be sitting in front of a nice warm fireplace right now, instead of on a cold, metal field kit in the wee hours of a cold Las Vegas night. She fought to ignore any romantic undertones to her fantasy.
"Something you can control," Grissom nodded, though his tone implied that he was teasing her.
"I sense that I'm being led into a trap," she chuckled.
"That's the thing about fire," Grissom said in the faraway voice of a man almost lost in his thoughts. "You need it. You enjoy it. You think you have it under control. Then, next thing you know, it's bigger than you are. You realize it's out of your control, that it could destroy you and everything that's meaningful to you, and you panic."
"Panic never solves any problem," Sara said distantly, looking at the digital images on the back screen of the camera.
"No, but fear is a motivation that's hard to combat. It makes you do things you wouldn't normally do. Even things you don't want to do."
Sara looked up at Grissom, lowering the camera, and examining him instead. He returned her serious gaze with a warm, almost apologetic smile, accompanied by a slight shrug.
"You can't let fear run your life, making decisions for you," she said quietly.
"But fear is a natural instinct towards preservation. It's there for a reason – to protect us. It shouldn't be ignored."
"I believe in caution. But I don't believe in the usefulness of fear. It's paralyzing. How does that help protect us? We can't even function."
"It may not be necessary anymore, but it's still genetically ingrained in us: fight or flight," Grissom countered.
"Some people do both," Sara said, looking back down at the image on the camera, her voice cooling.
Fire and ice – that's how Grissom often thought of Sara. Cool under pressure, but volatile. Passionate, yet rational. Sensuous, but grounded. She was enough like him in ways that he felt that he could easily connect with her, but she was different enough to unbalance him.
"Tell me everything you know about arson," Grissom said, suddenly steering them back to the subject at hand.
"You're kidding. Like I haven't been doing this eight years?" Sara asked, feeling as if he was treating her like a trainee.
"Indulge me," Grissom said. He was well aware that Sara had worked as many fires as any of the other CSIs, and was just as adept at them as she was any other crime scene. His motive had nothing to do with evaluation or teaching – he merely wanted her to sit with him and have a conversation on a topic they could discuss without delving into their feelings.
At this point in their interactions, work was the only subject they could likely talk about without the conversation becoming uncomfortable for one or both of them, and even then he knew he needed to keep the tone light. He wasn't sure exactly how to repair their damaged relationship, both personal and professional, but it felt safest to start back at the beginning in both areas.
If he were honest with himself, he'd admit that he wasn't sure that the damage he'd caused even could be repaired, but he knew he wanted to try. Sitting alone with her at a crime scene was for him one of life's simple pleasures – one he'd been missing. Her nearness sparked a warmth in him that had been missing too long.
"Okay. Arson normally is normally motivated by revenge, anger, profit, thrill or cover-up," Sara began.
"What kind of thrill?" Grissom asked pedantically.
"Probably sexual. Arson of that type is often a sexually motivated crime. As a matter of fact, many rapists have committed acts of arson in their younger years."
"Why wouldn't this likely be revenge or anger?" he asked.
"Revenge and anger arson tend to be committed against structures that represent what they are angry at, such as schools or someone's home."
"So we're left with profit, thrill or cover-up. There's a dead body in there; if he was already dead, it could be a cover-up for the murder."
"Or it could be an accident. Some homeless guy sleeping it off in an abandoned warehouse when it's torched for some unrelated reason," Sara postulated.
"True. We need to know more about the victim. And profit?"
"We need to know if it was insured."
"What sort of person are we looking for – in general?" Grissom asked.
"A young male, typically from teenaged years up to maybe as late as 30, but not likely that old. Same typical make-up as a rapist: a loner, usually, though he may date occasionally. No long-term friendships or stable romantic relationships. Troubled family life. Impulse-control issues. Anger issues."
"Intelligence?" Grissom asked.
"Below average – sometimes considerably so," she answered.
"And what was our young Nero doing while the warehouse burned?" Grissom asked her.
"Some pyromaniacs masturbate while watching, if his motive was thrill."
"Too bad we don't have any pictures taken during the fire," Grissom said, shaking his head.
"Because right now, all we can say is that our arsonist may be any one of the young men in these pictures. If we had been here at the height of the fire, it might would have been much easier to pick him out."
"I think I follow you," Sara snorted. "His, uh, 'interest' in the fire might make him stand out, so to speak," she chuckled.
"So to speak," Grissom agreed, with a half-grin directed ahead, not looking over towards her.
* * * * *
"Harry Sanders?" Brass asked when the door opened to reveal a man who normally looked to be in his early forties, but seemed older at the moment.
"Yeah, I'm Harry Sanders," he said, not smiling, but not combatively. "I'm sorry. I forgot my manners. Please come in," he said, turning to lead them down the entryway into the living room.
"Mr. Sanders, I'm Detective Brass and this is Robert Burns. He's an arson investigator."
"Arson? Someone purposefully burned down my warehouse?" Sanders asked incredulously, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Yes, I believe so," Burns said, nodding.
"Great. Freaking great. That's all I need. I inherited that pile of kindling four years ago. It's too old for anyone to want to buy. Hell, I probably couldn't even get anyone to hold a rave in there."
"What did you plan to do with it?" Brass asked, smiling.
"Nothing. I thought I could sell it, but no one wants it because of the expense of clearing it. It's not exactly in a prime location."
"Was it insured?" Burns asked, trying not to sound accusatory.
Sanders looked at him, gaping, a flash of fury in his eyes.
"You think I burned it down?"
"You wouldn't be the first person who found themselves in a tight spot, and thought the only way out was the insurance money," Burns said evenly.
"Well, for your information, no, it's not insured. Not for fire anyway. I have the required amount of liability insurance. That's all. I can't afford to carry a bunch of insurance on a worthless piece of property."
"Could you provide me a copy of your policy?" Burns said.
"You don't believe me?" Sanders said, his voice rising.
"I believe you. I need to file a report. It would look better for you if I attach a copy of the policy showing that you have no financial motive for the fire. Also, I'll send a copy of my report to your insurance agent."
"Oh, okay," he grumbled.
"Mr. Sanders, we found a body in the warehouse. Do you know who it might be? Maybe a night watchman?"
"Oh my God! A body? No. No, I don't have any security. And there wouldn't be any reason for anyone to be in there. It was just an empty warehouse," Sanders said, looking thunderstruck.
"Is there anyone that you're having problems with who might want to get back at you this way? Personal? Business?" Burns asked.
"No, not that I can think of," Sanders said vacantly.
"Well, if you think of anything, give me a call," Burns said, handing him a business card. "The most common motivation for structural arson is revenge or anger, usually by a young person, but not always."
"Sure. If I think of anything I'll call," Sanders told him, leading them back to the door that still stood wide open.
"Now what am I supposed to do?" Sanders asked, his eyes bright from emotion.
* * * * *
"Now tell me about the fire," Grissom said, looking towards the building, his mind instantly refocusing on the visual he'd had before, of a roaring inferno against the black night.
"Started in the back. Used an accelerant. Isn't that what Burns said?" Sara repeated.
"Yes. But what does that tell us?"
"What do you mean?"
"What can we deduce from those facts?"
"Well, Burns said the accelerant was used along much of the back wall."
"Yes," Grissom nodded.
"That would take a fair amount of gasoline," Sara posited.
"What makes you sure it's gasoline?" Grissom asked.
"I'm not. But Burns thought it was, and he's the expert. Besides, that much kerosene could get expensive. Same for liquid propane. Gasoline is cheaper, and easier to buy in bulk without looking too suspicious."
"You're right about that."
"Just for grins, let's say he poured it along 100 feet. Even if he just used only an ounce per inch, that's 1,200 ounces, which is roughly 10 gallons."
"Uh huh," Grissom nodded.
"Gasoline is lighter than water, but it still weighs up to six-and-a-half pounds per gallon," Sara recalled.
"So he had to be either big enough and strong enough to carry two five-gallon jerry cans of gas, at about 32 pounds each, or he had to make a lot of trips. Not likely that he had 10 one-gallon containers with him."
"No, not likely," Grissom agreed. Sara was the only one of his CSIs who was able to make instant conversions and calculations in her mind, just as he did. It was a small thing, but just another way that she reminded him of himself.
"Of course, the typical teenaged boy could do that," she said.
"Yes. That's true," Grissom nodded.
"I doubt it's a girl. She might be able to carry that much weight, but she'd have a hard time handling it – tipping it, pouring steadily – that sort of thing."
"He had to buy it somewhere. Wouldn't it look strange for a kid to be filling a couple of huge gas cans?"
"It would to me."
"Unless he had a Jeep, a boat, or a recreational vehicle that often has those types of containers attached," she mused.
"Um hum," he agreed.
"Know many teenagers who have a big boat or drive around in an RV?"
"Not too terribly many," he allowed.
"Maybe he drives a Jeep, or something similar."
"I feel like I'm at a seminar," Sara laughed.
"You were always the star of my seminars," Grissom allowed proudly, immediately seizing the opportunity to compliment her. So many times he'd wanted to say something nice, only to feel like the words sounded contrived before he ever said them.
"Your seminars were the reason I went into criminalistics," Sara replied, returning the compliment.
The two sat in silence, some of the comfort from days long past settling between them. It almost seemed to them as if they had come full circle. Whether it was a new beginning that would have a different outcome, or whether it was just another trip around the same circle, they didn't know. And that lack of knowledge held them back somewhat – each afraid that the other might not be willing – or able – to take a different route this time.
They were rescued from having to chance more conversation by the almost simultaneous arrival of Catherine and Warrick in one vehicle, and Nick and Greg in another. The four trudged tiredly towards the pair, the rising sun telling their bodies that the time for work was over and sleep should come soon.
While Grissom had been momentarily uneasy about where the conversation might lead, he was nonetheless somewhat annoyed and disappointed that the rest of his team had shown up so quickly. He had hoped to have a little more time to rekindle some small part of their relationship before the others arrived.
"I know that we've already worked an entire shift, but I need everybody for this so that we can cover a lot of ground quickly. We're going to start at the perimeter of the building and work out, looking for any evidence relating to our arsonist: footprints, tire tracks, gum wrappers, semen, anything," he said authoritatively as he stood to face the group.
"Why don't we bring in cadets?" Nick asked.
"You can tell cadets to look for a specific thing, and they can help. But this takes a more experienced approach. I need people who can discern what's important and what's not."
Nick's eyes briefly shot towards Greg.
"I think it's time for Greg to see how we evaluate evidence in the field, so I'd like you to talk him through it, Nick, as you're looking. Tell him why you're including some things and excluding others. It's an important job," Grissom said, combating Nick's doubts.
Normally it would fall to Catherine or Grissom to train; Nick was being given an opportunity, not a slight, by being paired with Greg.
"Okay," Nick nodded, his enthusiasm growing.
As Grissom led the pack towards the building, Sara at his side, she whispered just loud enough for him to hear, "That was a nice thing to do – for both of them."
"I'm working on my people skills," Grissom said, turning to grin at her for a moment. He knew that his efforts to warm their relationship had been small so far, but he wanted her to know that they were purposeful and not some random fluke.
"I hope you didn't just use it all up on Nick and Greg," she teased.
"Why is that?"
"I was hoping maybe I could take advantage of it while it lasts."
Grissom gave her a look that bordered somewhere between bemusement and a scowl, as though he wanted her to think he was insulted by her words, though he was actually amused.
"What sort of advantage did you have in mind?"
"Depends on just how much you're working on your people skills. How much can I get away with?"
"You'll have to find that out for yourself," Grissom said, bending down to look at a candy wrapper that seemed partially stuck to the pavement, its torn plasticized paper flapping in the breeze coming down the alley.
"Tried that once. Got burned," Sara said evenly, hoping to keep the statement as unemotional as she could.
"Can't let fear run your life," Grissom quipped back at her.
He'd been giving her clues all through the night that he wanted to thaw their relationship, and the desire to succumb to the temptation to trust him again was great. She wanted to believe that things were changing, but she didn't dare.
Sara handed him a ruler to set next to the wrapper, and snapped a few pictures. She handed him a bindle before he asked, eliciting a small private grin, though he never turned to face her.
"You think there's anything left on it? It's wet from the firefighting."
Grissom turned it over, revealing a few small, crushed blobs of chocolate still clinging to the interior of the wrapper.
"These little bits of chocolate are still here, so hopefully it belongs to the arsonist, and he ate it from the wrapper, instead of pulling the candy bar out. If there's still chocolate, there might still be DNA from saliva."
"Dumb kid," Sara said, rocking her head side to side.
"Let's hope," Grissom said, rising woodenly, wincing as he flexed his knees. The coolness of the night, combined with the dampness from the water used to douse the fire, had crept into his joints it seemed.
"You okay?" she asked, concerned.
"Just stiff. I'm not as young as I used to be," Grissom said, his demeanor shifting, becoming increasingly quiet as they stopped to look at every shred of paper, every lump of discarded gum, any pebble that seemed out of place.
Without a word, Sara would watch him out of the corner of her eye as she scanned the pavement. Whenever she sensed that he saw something, she'd triangulate and find it, bending down to examine it before he got a chance to. His sore knees seemed to hurt his ego as much as they did his body, and she didn't want him to feel self-conscious.
She had to admit that, though it was a bit frightening, she had been enjoying the warmth that was building again between them. It disappointed her that his behavior towards her was already cooling, evidently because of his discomfort. Because she was trying to shield him from embarrassment, she was a little stunned to find out that she was having the opposite effect.
"I'm not so old that I can't do my own work," he said a bit curtly.
"Oh. Um. I'm sorry if you thought ... That wasn't what I ... I mean, I was just trying to do my job ... to help," Sara stammered.
"If I need help, I'll ask for it," he said, trying to lower the tension in his voice by adding a brief smile at the end, though it carried no warmth.
"Do you want to trade partners with someone? We are working in pairs, aren't we?" Sara said after she recovered from her momentary shock.
"No. That's not what I meant," Grissom said, frustrated with himself, turning to her.
"What do you mean? Really. Tell me what you want. Do you want to do it all yourself, to prove something to yourself? To me? Or can we just work together? See, over there? Cath and Warrick are taking turns. Nick and Greg are both squatting to look at whatever it is they're looking at. Am I supposed to just stand here every time we see something, so that you won't think that I think that you're too old? I'm not the one who thinks that," Sara said, hinting at something she'd heard not too long ago.
"Sara," Grissom began heavily, holding up a hand – then he gave up trying to put his thoughts and fears into words, especially words he was ready to say. Instead, he gave her a sad smile, where his lips pressed together and curled at the corners, but his eyes held the grief for time passed and opportunities missed.
"This doesn't have to be an existential crisis," she said quietly, since Nick and Greg were starting to catch up, though they still were several yards out from them. "Let's take turns," Sara suggested.
As she continued her search, she suddenly announced: "It's your turn." She pointed at a store receipt that was stuck to the wet pavement.
"You did that on purpose," Grissom said, eyeing the fragile, waterlogged paper.
"Maybe we should call Greg over, so he can watch you get that off the pavement in one piece," she said, a slight challenge in her voice.
"Or watch me pull up little useless wads of wet cellulose," he said, opening his kit to look for something to help him with the project.
"Do you expect to fail? Or are you just afraid that you might, and that we'll see it?" she asked lowly as she knelt next to him. "Would it be so awful?"
Grissom pivoted slightly toward her, his face showing her that those were questions he'd been asking himself about many things in his life, but couldn't yet answer.
"There's no disgrace in failure – only in not trying," she said philosophically.
"Theodore Roosevelt," Grissom said.
"Theodore Roosevelt. That's who said 'There's no disgrace in failure, only in a failure to try'," Grissom explained.
"Oh. I didn't know that. I just said it because that's what I believe," Sara shrugged.
"Worst-case scenario, we can lift it with fingerprint tape," Grissom said, slowly lifting an edge with the flat blade of a scalpel.
"Ronnie will have a cow," Sara chided him.
"Ronnie may not have anything, if this falls apart," Grissom countered.
"Is there any ink left on it anyway?" Sara asked leaning further down to study the wet receipt.
"Not much. And it's been soaking in water on top of pavement with god-knows-what on it. It could be quite a challenge for him."
Sara reached into her kit and pulled out a small rectangle of pre-cut fingerprint tape with a plastic back that self-sealed the print.
"You think we should go ahead and lift it with the tape?" Grissom asked, curious, but also less-than-confident.
"No. I have another idea," she said, handing him the stiff cellophane. "Actually, two ideas."
"Share," Grissom beseeched her.
"Either try to shimmy the cellophane under the receipt, to give it a firm backing before you peel it up, or, if the receipt is wet enough, put the cellophane side down on top, hope that the surface tension of the water will form a weak bond, and use the scalpel to work them off the pavement together."
"Aren't you the clever little scientist?" he teased, holding the edge of the receipt up slightly with the scalpel as he gently tried to work the plastic under it. But the paper was too wet and kept wadding up rather than sliding smoothly.
"I'm not one to give up easily, without trying everything first," she said. "Maybe we should switch to Plan B."
"Okay," Grissom said, gingerly pulling the cellophane out from what little progress he'd made, hoping not to tear the receipt, though he'd started at the bottom, just in case.
While he worked, Grissom thought of all the double-entendres he'd delivered to her over the years. He'd hoped that they would be a way for her to see what he was thinking, without him having to risk an unguarded statement. But now he understood the confusion he'd so often seen on her face. Was she talking only about lifting the receipt? Was she talking about not giving up on their relationship? Both?
He laid the fingerprint tape face down on the receipt, pressed down lightly for a few seconds, then once again started at the bottom edge with the scalpel, leaving the cellophane resting on top. He slowly peeled the paper up, grinning as it adhered to the plastic, much like damp tissue to the bottom of a shoe. He carefully wrapped paper around the ensemble before putting it into a small manila envelope.
"That was a good idea," Grissom allowed.
"And good execution. You'd almost think we were a team," she chuckled.
Grissom had been kneeling for longer than it seemed while he had slowly eased the paper from the concrete. He just as slowly, it seemed, eased himself up, hoping to avoid the complaints of his knees and renewed embarrassment.
Sara turned and continued her search, not watching as Grissom stood stiffly, flexing his knees before starting off after her, not knowing whether to appreciate her discretion or take it as yet another sign that he was humiliating himself.
This is one of the reasons I try to avoid her. No matter which way I go, it seems to lead back to the same thing: I'm too old to even consider being interested in her.
If she acknowledges my age, it bothers me. If she pretends not to, it bothers me. No matter how she reacts, it seems to draw attention to the fact that she's young and I'm not.
Being around her is like holding roses: they're sweet and beautiful – and painful.
* * * * *
"How'd you find it, Greg?" Catherine asked, as all six of them stood facing the side of a building that was behind and to the east of the rubble of the warehouse.
Nick grinned from ear to ear. "Go on, buddy! Tell 'em!"
"Well, I didn't know I was going to be coming out here, you know? I had just made a whole pot of this nice little Costa Rican coffee – it was relatively cheap, but surprisingly good. I like my coffee like I like my women – very mellow, full-bodied, and not expensive."
"Greg!" Grissom barked.
"OK, anyway, I probably drank most of the pot in about an hour or so."
"And?" Catherine prodded.
"Then Nick grabbed me and dragged me out here. I didn't think about how there wouldn't be a bathroom."
The other five began to snicker, even Grissom, as the mental picture began to form.
"So I was looking for a place to, uh, a place to, um ..."
"Take a leak?" Warrick asked.
"Yeah. And that's how I found it."
"Never underestimate the importance of serendipity in forensics, Greg," Grissom told him, chuckling.
"This is great, I guess, but I still gotta pee," he whined, wiggling like a five-year-old.
"Rookie," Nick murmured deprecatingly, tossing the keys towards Greg, who snagged them with one hand in mid-air.
"What are the keys for?" Greg asked.
"Go find a place to pee," Nick said. "You can't do it around here, hoss. It's a crime scene. Go find a gas station or a McDonald's or something. Hey, pick me up a couple of Egg McMuffins while you're at it."
"Yeah, me, too," Warrick chimed in.
"I'll have a sausage biscuit," Catherine said, smirking.
Greg looked around incredulously. "What is this, haze the new boy?"
"If this is your idea of hazing, you were obviously never a greek," Nick laughed.
"Fine. Okay, Lady Sara, what do you want your humble servant to bring you?" he asked, taking a pen from his pocket and scribbling the orders on the inside of his forearm.
"Just a large coffee. Make sure you pick up lots of sugar."
"Will do. And you, my lord?" Greg said, turning to Grissom.
"Yogurt and fruit cup. And coffee," Grissom answered.
"And who's going to foot the bill for all of this?" Greg asked, holding out his hand.
"You are!" they all chimed in, laughing together for the first time in ages, it seemed.
"That would be fine in theory, but I don't have any money on me," Greg said, pulling out his pockets to show that they were empty.
"I've got it," Grissom said, handing him a twenty-dollar bill.
"I'll bring you the receipt so that you can expense it," Greg said.
"That's just another form to fill out, and it's not worth it for breakfast from McDonald's," Grissom said with a pained look on his face.
"Okay, be back in a flash," Greg said, bounding towards the SUV that seemed to dwarf him.
"We were this close to Greg literally pissing away what might be our best evidence," Nick said, shaking his head.
"Those are the kinds of things you don't learn from books, Nick. That's why it's important to talk to him all the time you're with him in the field. He had no way to know what to do when nature called. There aren't seminars about what to do when you're hungry, or thirsty, or have to go to the bathroom."
"Yeah, those aren't the kinds of things you think about teaching someone, either," Nick said.
"That's true," Grissom replied. "This is intended to be a learning experience for you both."
"Someone going to swab that ejaculate sometime today? Or are we all just going to stand here and watch it dry?" Catherine asked.
"I've got it," Sara said, moistening the end of a swab with a drop of distilled water, then rubbing across the crusted milky stain on the side of the building.
Turning toward the warehouse and backing up to just behind Sara, Grissom seemed transported to the time of the crime. In his mind's eye, it was dark outside, but the entire length of the warehouse was beginning to be covered in flame, growing, flowing effortlessly against gravity.
He could imagine the arsonist, probably little more than a boy, watching the growing conflagration with growing excitement, both emotional and physical. The temptation to relieve the mounting pressure finally overwhelmed the boy as he hid at the edge of an adjoining warehouse, able to see the fire, but out of sight of those approaching from the front.
"Yes, he could stand back here in the shadows last night, watching the fire, safely away from everyone. After he ejaculated and relaxed, he might have joined the others in the front, seemingly arriving well after the fire was well underway, not looking or acting any differently from all the other people ogling the fire." Grissom's voice was distant, as though it was having to travel through time.
After a moment of silence, Grissom seemed to snap back to the present, finally taking his eyes off of the warehouse, now that it was a blackened pile of debris instead of the raging inferno he'd visualized. Again he felt the letdown, seeing the charred remains after watching the inferno in action.
"Let's pack all this up, and head back to the lab as soon as Greg gets back. We can go over what we've got while we eat," Grissom said, to the relief of the crew. After a full shift, no one wanted to continue circling the building, bending and standing. Even the younger CSIs were starting to feel the fatigue in their legs.
"I'm down with that. My knees were starting to get stiff," Warrick complained.
Sara raised an eyebrow towards Grissom, but said nothing. He shrugged slightly, his eyes smiling, though his face was otherwise impassive.
"Yoga," Catherine said, seemingly randomly.
"Huh?" Warrick intoned.
"Yoga. Men are already less flexible than women, and you carry more weight than we do on knees that aren't that much bigger. You should do yoga to enhance your flexibility, and it'll also help you find your center of gravity. Keeping your center of gravity in line when you squat and then stand will put less stress on your knees," she explained.
"Yeah, picture us in a yoga class," Warrick said to Nick and Grissom, chuckling.
"It wouldn't be a bad idea," Grissom countered, surprising them. "It's good exercise, increases mobility, and is meditative."
When Warrick didn't look convinced, Grissom added, "And the classes are primarily women, typically already fit."
"I'm starting to see the benefits of yoga," Warrick nodded.
Catherine and Sara rolled their eyes in unison.
"Better than going to some aerobics class with a bunch of people tipping the scales well over 200 pounds. The floor shakes like an earthquake," Nick joked.
"I prefer to stick with the weights, man," Warrick said.
"Yeah, well, that's great for strength, but doesn't do shit for flexibility," Catherine countered.
"Some women like their men like they like their coffee – strong and black," Nick said, grinning at Warrick.
"That's all good, but I like mine flexible, too," Catherine countered.
"No details, please, or this could soon qualify as too much information," Sara said, raising her hands defensively.
"Well, what do you want from a lover?" Catherine asked, having a little fun trying to embarrass Sara, who rarely, if ever, spoke of her personal life, even with her friends.
She stood stunned, blank-faced for a moment, with Catherine grinning at her and the boys holding back laughter at her reaction.
Then she cocked her head slowly to the side, pursing her lips in thought. She seemed to be looking well past the horizon, whether at the past or the future, no one knew.
"Tenderness," she finally said, nodding.
Catherine's grin morphed into a mellower, wistful smile, and she nodded in return, turning to walk back to the SUV that had just pulled up, Nick and Warrick following after her. The three piled into the Denali, with Greg still at the wheel, to chauffeur them back to the lab.
Sara knelt to close her kit, safely tucking away the semen sample. Grissom watched her, still pondering her answer to Catherine's challenge.
Tenderness. You would think that someone with her boundless energy would be looking for someone who would match that. But, tenderness?
She stood to find him still staring at her, and she wondered what he was thinking about. She knew enough to know that just because Grissom was looking at something or someone, it didn't necessarily mean that's what he's thinking about. Sometimes he seemed to slip into another zone, without realizing it.
"What are you thinking?" she asked softly, not wanting to startle him.
"Oh, nothing," he said, shrugging innocently. He had been transfixed by the mental image of the pale skin of Sara's face bathed in flickering golden light. He imagined them sitting in front of a campfire, or a fireplace, the soft-hued illumination playing across her face, reflecting on her dark eyes.
"Can you believe Catherine tried to embarrass me like that?" Sara said, shaking her head as they began their trek to their own SUV, parked at the front of the warehouse.
"Were you embarrassed?" Grissom asked, willing to join into any conversation that would help keep the fantasy out of his mind.
"No. I was surprised, but not embarrassed. Now, if what I really wanted from a man was anatomical distinction, that would have been embarrassing to say!" Sara laughed, using completely different terminology in her own mind.
"I assume you are referring to endowment," Grissom said.
"Yes," she answered simply. "I'm less interested in the physical aspects than in the emotional aspects, I suppose. I guess that's hard for a guy to relate to, huh?"
"You might be surprised," Grissom said as they rounded the corner, the Denali now in view. "Not all men feel the same."
"What do you look for in a lover, Grissom?" Sara hazarded, not daring to look at him.
He was quiet for a moment, and she could practically feel him thinking, trying to distill his thoughts into an economy of words.
"Acceptance. Understanding. Commonality."
"I didn't think you'd really answer," Sara said in amazement.
"Why wouldn't I?" Grissom asked, walking around to the passenger side as he handed the keys off to Sara.
"You don't usually share things like that. Personal things."
"I doubt I would have announced it in front of the whole team," he agreed, as their doors thudded closed, seeming to cocoon them in the leather-scented cab of the new SUV.
"But you didn't mind telling me?" she asked.
"You're different from them. I knew you wouldn't make a joke out of it."
"You knew I would accept it."
"Yes," he agreed.
"You thought I'd probably understand."
"You thought that maybe I felt the same way."
"Yes," he answered quietly, realizing that she had essentially ensnared him with his own words.
Acceptance. Understanding. Commonality. She accepts me. She understands me. She's like me.
Sara knew that she didn't have to close the loop for him; she could see him withdraw into thought as she pulled out onto the street.
She's perfect for me in so many ways, and that makes her dangerous. She's a temptation that I can't resist forever. When it's all over, there won't be anything left of me, just like that burnt-out warehouse. She'll be gone, my job will be gone, my reasons for living will be gone. Is it worth it? Sometimes it seems like it, no matter what happens.
* * * * *
"Okay, let's go over what we've got so far," Grissom said, stirring the yogurt and fruit cup absently with a plastic spoon. Entering the lab seemed to help put some distance between him and his fantasy, but he felt a strange sense of loss, though she was sitting at the same table as he was. But it was CSI Sara Sidle, his employee, who sat at the table, not the woman in his dreams, the woman who could set his mind and his body on fire with a single touch.
Sara was the only one whose mouth wasn't full at the moment, so she offered her information first.
"I gave Ronnie the receipt you found. He was underwhelmed," she said, grinning when she visualized the look of stunned disbelief in his eyes as she handed him the soggy, ink-smeared strip of paper.
"All I need to know is what it says on it," Sara teased the portly young man.
Swallowing quickly, Greg jumped in. "I've got the candy wrapper and the ejaculate swab soaking right now. I'll start the extraction as soon as I can. Do you want to wait for a full batch, or run them right away? It's your budget."
"I really can't justify the cost of running them alone," Grissom exhaled, reminded yet again that he was forced to be a bureaucrat as well as a scientist. "But if you don't have a batch by the end of tomorrow, go ahead and run them. We can't wait forever."
"Your wish is my command," Greg said, bowing deeply, garnering several eye-rolls around the room.
"I took the wood samples that the arson investigator gave you to Hodges," Catherine added. "He was just leaving for the day. He said he'd start on it first thing tonight, and you should know the accelerant before next shift is over. He's such a little suck-up," she added in a mumble.
"Good," Grissom nodded, ignoring her comment, not because he disagreed, but because it wasn't necessary to comment on it. They all felt the same.
"Archie was already gone when we got back. I'll give him the digital camera as soon as he gets in tonight. He can download and clean up the crowd shots. Print us out some hard copies to look at."
"Brass talked to the warehouse owner. Looks like the profit motive is out. He said he didn't carry fire insurance. Burns checked it out and he's telling the truth," Grissom shared.
"Did Robbins autopsy the vic yet?" Sara asked.
"No. He was working on another case when it came in. He said it would take too long to do it for him to start so close to end of shift."
"Is there anything else we should be doing?" Greg asked.
"Tonight Sara can show you how to look through the offender databases," Grissom said.
Greg grinned and looked over at Sara, raising his eyebrows expectantly. She smiled back and shook her head. Greg's constant flirtations never seemed unusual to anyone, though they did seem to annoy Grissom, just as all of Greg's silliness did.
* * * * *
"What's your name, son?"
"Tommy," the young man answered. He was nervously biting and picking at his ragged fingernails, while both his legs bounced with endless repetition, though apparently in independent rhythms.
Brass cocked his head slightly, and purposefully put on his fatherly face, smiling almost beatifically at the teen.
"Do you have a last name, Tommy?"
"Strawbridge. My name's Tommy Strawbridge," he said eagerly.
"They call me Detective Brass or Captain Brass. But you can call me Jim, if you want to."
"Okay," the boy nodded, picking at the nail tip that was hanging halfway off on his thumb.
"You don't have to be nervous, Tommy. We're just here to find out the truth about things. I'm not going to try to trick you or trap you. This woman is a child advocate. She's here to make sure you're treated properly. So you have nothing to worry about, okay?"
"Okay. Did you call my dad?"
"Yes, and he said for us to let the child advocate sit with you instead of him doing it. She understands the law and will make sure that you are treated right."
Brass read Tommy Strawbridge his Miranda rights, asking him if he understood and waived his rights.
"Um, not really. Can you tell me again? Maybe use different words?"
"Sure. What all that means is that you don't have to tell us anything that you don't want to. You can have a lawyer with you. The child advocate can help you, too. But it's important that you understand that everything you say counts. Everything can be repeated to a judge or a jury in a trial. So you need to be careful to tell the truth if you decide you want to answer at all. Got it?"
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure I understand now. What happens if I don't talk to you?"
"You'll go back to the holding cell and wait for arraignment, where a judge will decide if you should go on trial for arson and homicide."
"If I talk to you, do I still have to go to jail?"
"That depends on what you say, Tommy. If you broke the law, you might be put in jail, whether you talk to us or not. It would help us decide if we understood what happened."
"Oh. Okay. Then I guess I'll talk to you."
"Tommy, the policeman who brought you here said that you were in the warehouse district, with ten gallons of gas in your Jeep."
"What were you doing there?"
"Just looking around," he shrugged.
Grissom and Sara were standing mutely on the other side of the mirror, in an observation room, watching the questioning of the boy. He had been arrested on trespassing charges a few hours earlier.
The cop who drove the beat in the warehouse district had been especially vigilant after the recent fire, not wanting the embarrassment of having another of "his" buildings go up in flames.
He spotted the young man driving slowly down an alley between some abandoned structures. The policeman couldn't do anything but observe until Tommy left his vehicle and went onto the grounds of one of the buildings.
"What were you looking for?"
"Nothing. Just looking."
"Looking at what?"
"Just looking at all the old buildings. They're real old. You can tell. They're all rusty. The windows are knocked out. They look kinda like broken teeth. Stuff is falling down from them. Do you think that buildings get lonely when they're empty?"
"I've never thought about it," Brass answered honestly.
"I think they do. Then after a while, maybe they die, like people. They get old, they get lonely, and they die. Just like people. Except some people are lonely first, then get old and die. Maybe buildings do, too. I'm not sure."
"So do you go there to keep them company? To keep them from being lonely?" Brass asked, grasping at straws.
"No. I think it's too late for most of them. They been lonely too long. Sometimes you can be lonely too long to ever get unlonely. Then it's just too late. You know what I mean?"
Grissom was stunned at the simple elegance of the boy's statement. It wasn't verbose – it wasn't even grammatical. But it was true. The futility of the temptation that was Sara Sidle hit him full force.
Sara saw Grissom's reaction from the corner of her eye, and turned to him, lightly setting a hand against his arm.
"It's not too late," she said quietly.
Grissom smiled wanly at her, warmed that she made the effort, but still feeling the chill of the boy's words. They were like water dousing the flames he felt just standing next to her.
"Maybe I'm too old and have been lonely too long to ever get unlonely," he breathed out as he turned to leave the room.
Sara followed him sullenly into the interrogation room, each taking a seat at opposite ends of the table, neither on the boy's side nor on Brass's, giving the appearance of neutrality.
The boy turned to look at Grissom, who introduced himself, inviting the teen to call him whatever he wished. Tommy reciprocated before turning to Sara, who smiled at him as she told him her name.
"Tommy, it's really important for me to understand what you planned to do with all of that gasoline," Brass said, trying to ensure that no inflection of accusation entered his voice.
"I didn't have no real plan," he shrugged. "I just use it however I need to. I always carry extra gas."
"Do you sometimes use it to get a fire going?" Brass asked.
"Yeah, sometimes. If I need a fire for something."
"Like when you're cold?" Brass asked, getting no reaction from the boy.
"Or when you're hot," Grissom said, leaning over onto his arms on the table.
Brass, Sara and Tommy all looked curiously at Grissom, but for different reasons.
"Like what do you mean?" the teen asked, nervously, the syncopated rhythm of his legs increasing.
"I think you know what I mean. It starts to build up, and you feel all hot inside, and you know that only one thing can make it better. Isn't that right?"
"What do you know about it?" Tommy asked softly – not condescendingly, not accusingly, but with curiosity.
"I know what it's like to have something fill you up like that. Pretty soon, it's all you can think about, isn't it? No matter how hard you try to put it out of your mind, you can't. It just gets bigger all the time. The more you fight it, the stronger it gets."
"She's beautiful," Tommy said, his voice filled with awe. The boy's eyes defocused and glazed, his mind slipping into a vision of the warehouse afire, as he had seen it from the alleyway.
"Yes, she's beautiful, and you want her to be all yours. You can kindle the passion, and you can love her, but you can't control her. That's one of the things you admire about her, isn't it?" Grissom asked, his voice low and husky, his own vision of being enflamed in passion with Sara playing in his mind.
It was as though only the two were in the room now, with some bond of understanding, real or imagined, beginning to connect them. Brass knew enough to fade back, sensing Grissom had a strategy, and not wanting to be a distraction.
Sara couldn't take her eyes off Grissom, wondering where he was going with his analogy, and wondering if indeed he knew how the boy felt. She'd seen Grissom do this before; despite his problems relating to people that he saw all the time. He often seemed able to read suspects, and find a way to draw them out.
"Yes," the boy almost hissed. "She's wild and beautiful. Powerful. Out of control. She dances for me. She wants me to dance with her."
"At first, it makes it worse, doesn't it? Seeing her getting stronger, seeing her move in front of you. She calls to you, beckons you to be with her. She tempts you. It's so hard not to give in. You want so badly to give up and be with her. Sometimes you can't even remember why you can't."
Sara swallowed a lump back down her throat, thinking of the morning she asked Grissom to dinner, realizing that he thought she had been tempting him to play with fire. It never entered her mind that he had any reason to fear her.
"I can't. She's too dangerous," the boy said sadly, shaking her head. "She wants to love me, and I want to love her, but she'll hurt me."
"I know about that, too," Grissom nodded.
Sara felt her face and neck grow hot, hoping that she wasn't blushing as Grissom drew the truth from the boy, revealing all too much truth to her as well. If she heard all of this from his lips in private, she might have appreciated the honesty. But hearing it in a context where she couldn't respond made her angry and frustrated.
"She'll burn me. Hurt me bad."
"Yes, she probably will," Grissom nodded sympathetically. "There's no way to avoid it, is there?"
"So I have to love her from far away," the boy said sadly.
"I understand. I really do," Grissom said, reaching out to put a hand on the boy's forearm.
"I can't hardly stand being far away, watching her, wanting to be with her." Tommy's voice lowered, as though he were telling Grissom a secret. "Sometimes I forget, you know? She's so pretty. I can't help it and I get close to her. The closer I get, the hotter it gets. It makes my skin tingle and I feel red and hot. I can't hardly breathe. She takes my breath right out of me."
"Then you remember and you have to pull back, don't you? You have to walk away or you'll get hurt," Grissom whispered in the same tone, leaning closer to Tommy. Grissom, too, seemed in a trance state, as though he could see the woman who tormented him dancing sensuously in the fire that seemed to set his blood boiling.
"Now she's gotten me in trouble," Tommy said in a childlike voice.
"That was always a strong possibility. Did you know that? Did you think about how she was probably going to get you in trouble?"
Sara was glad that Grissom never broke eye contact with Tommy Strawbridge. She felt that if he looked at her even once, her control might slip. She wanted to shout that she would never hurt him, never get him into any trouble. That all she ever wanted was to love him and be loved by him.
His every word cut at her, accusations she had no opportunity to answer. She felt the terrible compulsion to defend herself, to tell the truth about herself. She wasn't some out-of-control conflagration that threatened to annihilate everything or everyone who came near her.
"I didn't know at first. Nobody told me. That's the problem with rules. You don't find out what they are until you're already in trouble for breaking them."
"Did you ever talk to anyone about it before?"
"I tried to talk to my dad about it once, a few months ago. That's how I found out she would be trouble. He gave me a whipping but good, just for talking about it. I still got a scar on the back of one of my legs from that one."
"How involved with her were you up until then?" Grissom asked, still upholding the boy's delusion that the fire was his lover.
"Just a little, really. I was scared, so I'd see her just a little. Then my dad gave me the whipping, and I tried to stay away from her, so's I wouldn't get in trouble again. Maybe worse, next time. But now look what I done. I couldn't stay away from her and now I'm gonna get in trouble. I tried so hard to stay away from her."
"Yeah, but you couldn't do it for long, could you? She was too beautiful, too perfect. And you were probably lonely without her."
Grissom's eyes unconsciously slid over towards Sara's just in time to see the hurt and anger being replaced by confusion. He quickly looked back at Tommy, afraid of what she might see in his eyes.
"Yeah, I missed her. I couldn't stay away."
"No matter how much trouble she would be?" Grissom asked.
"No matter what. I loved her too much," the boy breathed out with resignation.
"Yeah, I hear you," Grissom nodded. "Sometimes it's hard to decide what to do. But once you decide, there's no going back."
"Now I'm in trouble, and I probably won't get to see her again for a long time, if I ever do. All I can do is think about her."
"I'm sure she didn't mean to get you in trouble."
"No, she loves me, too. I can feel it. I can see it. She can't help that she's trouble."
"Yes, I'm sure she does love you, and you're right that it's not her fault that she's trouble. She's full of passion, and she brings that out in you as well. Passion is hard to control, Tommy, even for grown-ups. Now, I have to ask you some things that might upset you. But you know that I understand how you feel about things, don't you?"
"Yeah, I can tell that you aren't lying to me. I'm not smart. I know that. But I can tell about people. I can tell good people from bad people. I can tell when people lie to me. You aren't lying to me. I can tell. You love someone like that, don't you? I can tell."
Brass wished he could be anywhere else at the time, the air in the room had become so charged. He felt like an intruder, and looking across at the advocate, he could tell that she felt the same way as she shifted uncomfortably in her chair, her eyes downcast.
Grissom didn't answer the question, but posed his own. "Tommy, did you know that there was someone in the warehouse?"
"No, I didn't," the boy said, horror-stricken. "Who was it? Did he see us? Is that how I got in trouble?"
"We don't know his name. We were hoping maybe you knew who it was. It was a man. He's dead now. He burned in the fire."
"I didn't see nobody there, honest."
"Did you go inside before you started?"
"No. I didn't. I never did go inside. It was just an old, empty building. I seen it lots of times, coming home from work. There wasn't never nobody there. I work at a warehouse near there that's still alive. They let me sweep the floors and empty the trash every night. Most of the people are gone at night, but not all of them. Sometimes they say 'hi' to me."
"So you didn't know that a man was in the building," Grissom restated.
"No, she and me always meet alone. 'Cause I know we'd get in trouble if anyone saw us together. We got to be careful all the time. We got to be, uh ..."
"Discreet?" Grissom supplied.
"I don't know that word," Tommy shrugged. "But if it means 'secret', then, yeah, what you said."
Brass looked up at the advocate, heaving a deep sigh that seemed to break the mystical spell that had made all but Grissom and Tommy invisible in the room. "I'm thinking arson and maybe negligent homicide, diminished capacity. A juvenile psychiatric treatment facility instead of juvenile detention. I think the DA will go for it. He's just a kid, but he needs help."
The advocate nodded silently, turning to smile at Tommy Strawbridge. "Tommy, we're going to take to you another place, to wait until the judge can talk to you. It won't be too long – no more than three days. Probably just one. After that, the judge may send you to stay at a place where they will watch over you and help you with your feelings for a while, until you're a little older. Do you understand?"
"I think so. Does that mean I don't have to go home? 'Cause if I go home, my dad is going to whip me good for this, I just know it. He gets real mad at me sometimes. I don't think he likes me very much. Probably because I'm dumb. He's not dumb. My dad's real smart. I think he wishes that I wasn't born, 'cause I'm not smart like him."
"No, you won't be going home," the advocate assured him. "But I need you to understand, Tommy, that you can't leave this place until they say you can. They have to be sure that no more accidents like this will happen again. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, ma'am. I think so. Is it like jail? My dad told me that if I am bad they will put me in a place called jail, and bad men will do bad things to me. They'll beat me up and stick things in me and hurt me if I don't let them. I don't want to go to a place like that."
"No, this place you'll be going isn't jail. But you can't leave the place, like you can't leave jail. It's nice where you're going, and there will be people there that will talk to you, who understand you."
"So I won't be lonely."
"No, not if you don't want to be," Grissom told him.
"I'll miss her," Tommy said haltingly, his voice catching.
"I know, Tommy," Grissom said quietly, drawing on the pain of his own self-imposed separation from Sara.
"But it was worth it. I'll always remember her," Tommy said, smiling wistfully. "I should have danced with her, whether it hurt or not."
Grissom patted the boy's shoulder knowingly as he rose, leaving the room silently. Suddenly, Sara became aware of the presence of the others in the room, and for a moment felt exposed, until her rational mind could assure her that no one knew that she thought that she was who Grissom had been talking about.
The deputy escorted Tommy to a holding cell, with Brass and the advocate not far behind. Sara turned the other direction, taking the hallway leading out of the building, desperately wanting to be in the open again, to get some distance and perspective on what she had just witnessed.
* * * * *
"I'm glad they caught him, sure. But it sucks that we do all of this work, and then they just stumble on the guy," Greg said, slouching in the chair in the break room, staring morosely at a cup of coffee.
"Greg, you'd be surprised how many crimes are solved completely accidentally or due to the stupidity of the criminal. A large percentage of murder and rapes are solved because the idiot tells people about it, usually over a drink or two or ten," Sara said, feeling his frustration.
"She's right, Greg, and it's a good thing. Even with the evidence we got, we might not have identified and caught Tommy Strawbridge for a long time. This was his first full-fledged structure arson, so he wasn't in any of the databases."
"You have to have a suspect to compare the evidence to," Greg said, smiling wanly.
"That's right. And I'll take them any way we can get them. Our evidence isn't wasted. Considering Tommy's diminished capacity, the DA and the judge would want to know that we're sure he's responsible. So your work isn't wasted."
"Speaking of work," Greg said, rising from the chair and pouring out his coffee. "I've got a lab full of overflow from the swing shift. See ya."
Grissom got up to refresh his coffee, and turned, pot in hand, towards Sara. "More?"
"Sure, thanks," she said pushing her cup towards him.
"You're being very quiet," Grissom said as he sat next to her at the table.
"Just thinking," she shrugged, taking a quick sip of coffee as a diversion.
"Thinking about what?" he asked softly, leading her.
"Nothing really," she said quickly, tipping the cup against her lips again, not meeting his eyes.
"Why aren't you happy? Your case is solved. The perpetrator is off the streets and will be getting the help he needs. Robbins said the victim was dead before the fire, so the boy's not responsible for that. What else could you want?" Grissom asked playfully, hoping to raise her mood.
"You make it sound like I'm so hard to please," Sara said dryly, turning to fix him with unblinking eyes.
"I, uh, I wouldn't know about that," Grissom stammered.
"No, you wouldn't. You could, but you don't. And you won't, will you?"
"You lost me there," Grissom said, though he was perfectly aware of what she was trying to say.
"I think I lost you a long time ago," she said, rising tiredly from her chair, leaving Grissom stunned into silence.
* * * * *
He could have had a gas fireplace, but Grissom had always enjoyed the look and smell of real wood burning, despite the trouble and the mess. He carefully constructed his pyre, stacking logs onto the kindling, leaving precisely spaced gaps to allow what he calculated to be optimal air flow.
Fuel, air, and heat – the basic components of fire. It couldn't exist without having all of them present. As he was preparing the fireplace, he was a scientist. But once he lit the kindling, and the fire slowly began to catch, all thoughts of thermodynamics faded. Like most other people, he became fascinated with the warm beauty of the fire.
He sat immobile in front of the fireplace, his mind seemingly a million miles away. He wondered how different Tommy Strawbridge's life would have been if he'd been raised by someone who cared for him, someone who would have accepted his limitations. He wondered how he would feel if he had a son so unlike himself.
Given the proper assistance and specialized education, there was no reason why Tommy couldn't have been a productive member of society, instead of an inmate at a juvenile psychiatric facility.
Grissom shook his head sadly, allowing his mind to drift aimlessly, staring at the fire that was starting to catch on the main logs now, licking around the bark. He remembered standing next to the Zamboni at a hockey rink, Sara next to him, mentioning that people love to watch a babbling brook, a fire in a fireplace, and a Zamboni going 'round and 'round. He smiled at the memory as his focus faded into the flames.
He had almost lost her shortly before that, and he had briefly exposed his feelings about her, goaded by her anger with him that had flared up as he tried to act as though nothing had happened. He let the warmth of his fireplace work on the chill that set in from that memory.
A quiet, though insistent, knock on the door roused him, and he padded in bare feet towards his door, surprised to find Sara standing on the other side.
"Hey," he said, opening the door to her.
She passed wordlessly inside, her attention instantly drawn to the crackling fire. Though the sun had come up outside an hour earlier, the cold winter night of the desert was still in her bones. She had been standing on the porch for quite some time, deciding whether to confront Grissom.
"I was just sitting by the fire," Grissom said, leading her into the living room. He took his place in front of the fireplace and looked up at her expectantly, silently inviting her to join him.
Sara lowered herself to the floor, sitting a little closer to the fire than Grissom had, rubbing her arms, trying to get the chill out.
"You cold?" he asked, reaching back to get an afghan off the couch.
Sara stared at the fire, mesmerized, as Grissom slowly wrapped the blanket around her, just as she had once wrapped a blanket around him a few years ago as they sat out on a cold night, documenting an experiment.
And just as Sara had left her hand on his shoulder back then, though only for a moment, he left his arm lying across her shoulders after he'd lowered the blanket.
Without words, he leaned a little towards her as he pulled lightly at her shoulder, drawing her to his side.
"What are you doing here?" he asked quietly, his voice rasping in his throat.
Sara slowly shook her head, unsure how to put the thoughts and feelings that were swirling around in her mind into words, especially words that he would be willing to hear and appreciate.
Instead, she turned to look at the light from the fire playing on his face. Though she wasn't looking specifically at his eyes as she studied and memorized every nuance of his face, she could tell that he was looking at her, too.
Without thinking, Grissom moved a hand to her face, his fingers hovering over her skin for a moment, then making contact.
He had built a small fire with his touch, just to thaw them, to take the chill of the night from their bones. It permeated him with warmth, reaching deep inside of him, driving out the tension and inhibitions that had filled him for so long.
Her eyes closed for a moment, taking in the warmth of his tender touch.
He unthinkingly threw on more fuel, casting all the dead, dried detritus of his life onto this altar to Eros, longing to feel more of the life-giving heat. The blood-red and sun-gold of the flames mesmerized him, beckoning him to come closer to her fire, to dance around its liquid flames.
He gradually leaned in towards her, and her eyes slowly opened to watch him approach. She wondered if he was still battling himself, still battling her. She waited, half-expecting him to pull back self-consciously.
At first, he did feel self-conscious, hesitant to give himself over to the instinctual urge to worship the beautiful danger of the fire, and he realized too late that he'd fed the flames too much. It threatened to consume him as it crackled, then roared, into an inferno that could easily escape its confines, raging out of control.
Her surprise that he kissed her was only exceeded by her surprise that he didn't stop kissing her. His pace gradually increased as his lips began to explore more of her face, dipping down to her neck. The emotional kindling beneath them was lit, and the flames began to reach around them.
The light and the heat called to him by name, pulling him inexorably closer as the tongues of fire licked out to sear the skin it kissed. He could no longer ignore the desire to dance before the fire, slowly at first, his remembrance of the ritual as hazy as the smoke-filled air, his fear of being burned holding him back.
But she was there, uncharred in the blaze, smiling and bidding him to join her, her hands cavorting over his body, leaving glowing red burns wherever she touched, the pain miraculously converted to pleasure.
Sara's own pain, emotional pain, converted into passion, and she gave herself over to it, joining him in abandon in front of the fireplace. She was momentarily stricken when he pulled back, looking at her with furrowed brows, expecting him to push her away again, but instead he seemed to reach a decision, and plunged headlong into the temptation before him.
They were more gentle with each other than they were with their clothes, which were virtually ripped from their bodies as the final impediments that stood between them.
Circling closer, closer still, to the billowing fire with each pass, he could feel the enticing lick of the flames as her heat pressed at his now-naked flesh. It was both frightening and exhilarating, the danger mounting as he moved towards the pyre, completely entranced by the surging, building rhythm of their music.
The conflagration swelled, enveloping him, and he willingly allowed it, pushing himself to its center, finding her there. She reached for him, guiding him to herself, urging him to stoke the fire yet more, knowing that the only way to extinguish it was to force it to burn itself out.
Making love with her was a primal dance, done to the throbbing beat of the drum of his heart. At first, the rhythm was slow, but insistent, as she gradually coaxed him out of himself and into her.
The light from the fire softly illuminated her face and body, the flickering light casting differing hues that seemed to move over her like hands, his own hands following them in their exploration of her.
He became fascinated as the heat drew sweat from her body, and he watched a single drop begin its journey at the top of her chest, slowing as she rose, and jerking downward suddenly as she fell onto him time and again. It joined with others coursing through the valley between her breasts, its size swelling, just as he was, its descent quickening, just as she was.
The drop made its way down towards him, the anticipation of its arrival driving him mad, convinced that its salty wetness would turn to steam when it finally dropped to where they were conjoined. He could almost hear it sizzle as it fell from her to him.
She danced among the tendrils of flame, her hands on herself and on him at once, moving in time with the thumping of their heartbeats, the drum-song they played together building towards a deafening crescendo.
He felt her ignite, bursting into incandescent flame, beseeching him to quench her. He pulled her down, rolling them in the glowing embers, throwing himself into a frenzied dervish that forced howls of pleasure and pain from the depths of their bodies.
They had been cavorting wildly in the epicenter of the flame, the world around them fading to a blur as they clung to each other, only able to see the one that was connected to them.
She slowed, and he met her pace, though the fire still lapped at him, urging him to move faster, faster, to put his heart and soul into it. He gently stoked her embers, commoved when they combusted into flame yet again, building, reaching for the sky.
Crackling, popping, sizzling, the flame called to him, whimpering, whispering at first, then her voice strengthening as the conflagration that surrounded them grew.
Her cajoling turned to pleading; her pleading turned to demanding: Douse this flame before it consumes us both!
The explosion took them both, vaporizing them, sending their commingled cinders up to a place beyond the restraints of gravity. Exhausted from the frenetic dance, the glowing ashes tumbled and drifted to Earth. What had been one, slowly cleaved back into two.
Though the fire has been extinguished for now, they both knew in their hearts that the embers glowed on, needing little more than a gentle stirring to rekindle them.
They snuggled together next to the now-gentle glow of the relics of the bonfire, trapping the warmth between them and in them. As he held her, what had seemed so complex to him before today was revealed to him in stark clarity: she was the simple answer to everything he'd been missing in his life. Whatever the cost, it was worth it.