Disclaimer: I don't own CSI or its characters. This story is probably one of the reasons why. All joking aside, I own nothing but the prose itself, and therefore, should not be sued - - mostly because I wouldn't have much to offer as payment.

Notes: This is not a happy story. Just warning you, right up in front, that things are going to get bad, and then they're going to get worse. Bad people are going to do bad things to good people, and good people are going to do bad things thinking that they're doing good things. I just think you deserve to know that to start off with.

Other, Less Dramatic Notes: This story has most of the major characters with starring roles, so each chapter has a note in the title about who the main POV (even though it's third-person) character is going to be. There will also be some GSR. Not happy GSR (see more dramatic note), but GSR, nonetheless, and if that bothers you, you may not want to try this.

Part One: Ring Around the Rosy

Hold on

Hold on to yourself

for this is gonna hurt like hell.

- Sarah McLachlan, "Hold On"

Chapter One: Opening the Circle (GRISSOM)

The morning Gil Grissom was taken in for questioning, he watched the little girl who lived across his street jumping rope. It was mid-October, and the streets were mostly vacant with the other children at school, and she jumped alone, her little voice chanting, "Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posy - - ashes, ashes, all fall down." Her feet, encased in tiny Keds that might have been white three months ago on their first purchase, clapped their rubber soles against the sidewalk. Her thick brown pigtails bobbed rhythmically against her shoulders.

Smiling, he unlocked his townhouse and stepped into the cool cycle of the air-conditioning. He settled his keys down on the table. His mood was mildly pleasant - - it had been a good shift. He and Warrick had wrapped up their case. Nick was working solo and pleased about it, and had turned in a sterling report when he checked back in. Sara and Catherine were working a 419, and their progress was ticking along evenly. They had offered him breakfast after shift - - Catherine had to take Lindsey to school and she was considering donuts and coffee before going back to the house - - but he had declined, feeling soft-edged and happy, wanting sleep, a shower, and nothing else.

Contentment was a rare and fleeting thing. He had long since learned to enjoy it.

His answering machine's red light was blinking. He clicked the wide blue button and leaned his weight against the table. A piping electronic voice announced that he had four new messages, and the smile faded away into a frown.

He had just left most of the people he called friends. There shouldn't have been four new messages. Maybe one, perhaps a reminder of a dental appointment or someone calling to schedule a seminar appointment, but not four. He had never had a busy social schedule.

"Grissom?" Nick's voice, worried and sharp, immediately identifiable, came through the speaker. "Nick. Listen, call me. I don't want to say this over the machine - - but you need to come back, man. It's bad."

Trouble with his assignment after all?

Message two was Brass. "Gil, get back to the lab now. You're going to need some people around."

What the hell?

Message three was Sara, sounding breathless. "Listen, Grissom, you have to do something about this. No one believes it, but the press is going to be all over you." Her voice gained strength and anger. "That bitch. I remember her. Harvard, right?"

His eyes felt blurry. Harvard what? He didn't understand it and it was making his head ache. The cheer had fizzled out of him, and all that was left was a blinding confusion. It was a puzzle with no point, a crossword with no clues. The final message blared through his consciousness.

"Trouble in paradise?" He had trouble recognizing the voice. "Everyone's going to know about it, Grissom. It'll be everywhere and it won't go away. All your little pretensions - - everything you want them to see - - gone." The harsh, bitter joy gave him the last clue he needed: Ecklie.

Nick, Brass, Sara, and Ecklie. The connection was that something had happened - - not to him, but about him - - and he was going to apparently be the last one to find out.

He dialed Nick first. He didn't even hear a ring before Nick answered. Grissom could tell immediately that he was upset, because his Texas accent had risen to the fore. "Grissom?"

"It's me. What's all this about, Nick?"

"Elizabeth Charlotte Zimmer," Nick said.


"See, that's the whole point. I mean - - if you'd done it, you would've remembered. Not," he added hastily, "that I ever thought you did it."

"Did what?"

Nick hesitated, and all that came through for a moment was a flat static buzz. "A new scandal just came to town, and you know how this town loves scandals. Elizabeth Charlotte Zimmer took one of your seminars, like, a hundred yeas ago - -"

"Harvard," Grissom said, connecting Sara's message. "1998."

"Yeah," Nick said sheepishly. "That. Anyway, she came here and it took her about five minutes to find a lawyer and a tabloid. She's pressing charges against you, man. Rape."

"I never - -"

"Don't you think I know that?"

"Lizzie Zimmer. I think I remember her now. Medical student - - talented but very quiet. She attended with Sara - - they were vague acquaintances from school." Grissom's mind quite stubbornly refused to process what Nick had said. It settled on the surface; a specimen waiting to be an analyzed. Grissom had never touched Lizzie Zimmer - - had barely thought about her when she was there, and certainly not thought about her in the last few years since the seminar. It was only her connection with Sara that had saved her from being forgotten entirely.

And he had certainly never touched her, not even casually. In the week long program, their fingers had never brushed, he had never bumped into her, and, to the best of his recollection, they hadn't even exchanged smiles.

"Grissom? You there?"

"Yeah," he said. "I'm here. Listen, Nicky, I know you clocked out, but you can do me a favor?"

"Sure. I'm on my way back to the lab anyway - - everyone is. This is wild, man. Everyone's going crazy. I've had about sixteen calls in the last twenty minutes from the press."

"What did they want?"

Nick's sigh was a muffled breath into the phone. "Information about you."

"What did you tell them?"

"That you didn't do it."

He felt absurdly grateful for that, the gratitude sinking in deeper than the actual situation. He said, lightly, "That's a prejudgment, Nick. You hadn't even talked to me then. No evidence - - no way to be sure whether I did it or not."

"You didn't."

"What if I said I did?"

"You'd be lying." Nick sighed again. "Don't screw with me, Grissom. What's the favor?"

He heard his own voice gain an authoritative edge. "Stay away from Lizzie Zimmer - - I don't want any fuel to the fire. But I think I'm going to need you to take a flight."

"You want me out of town?" Nick said disbelievingly.

"I want you out of this town, out of this state, and out of the west. Book a flight to Boston. I'll reimburse you the second you're back. Check into a nice hotel, stay as low-profile as possible, but talk to all the hospitals in the city. See if any of them ran a rape kit on Elizabeth Zimmer in the fall of '98 - - if they can even tell you."

"Latent evidence," Nick said grimly. "You're sending me on a safari. It could stir up trouble."

"But I'm trusting that you won't."

Nick's voice was quiet. "Good. I won't."

Grissom had finally made all the connections, his mind having insisted on piecing it together, and the reality was surfacing. This wasn't some dream - - he was sending Nick across the country to dig up evidence that might not even exist because he was being accused of rape by a young woman whose face he couldn't even recall. Nick was going to Boston, and even though he had suggested it and wanted it, Grissom suddenly wasn't sure that he liked it. Nick was the one who had called first - - the anchor, the strong point - - the safety on a loaded gun.

"Get back as soon as you can," he said, and swallowed. "We're going to need all hands on deck."

"This is going to be bad, isn't it?"

"I don't know, Nick. I hope not." But I think so.

"I'll get the first flight. And I'll keep it quiet. Promise."

He nodded and said something that might have been goodbye or might have been thanks before he hung up the phone. His head was spinning. He went to his kitchen and grabbed a migraine pill. He considered washing it down with Scotch, but he had to go back to the lab, and if the others were right, the press would be swarming around him. He didn't want them to smell liquor on his breath. He swallowed them dry and tried to recall the happiness he'd had before, but it was too late.

Keys in hand again, he headed for the door. The little girl was still jumping, her rhythm tireless and infinite. Hop, skip, rubber smacking against cement.

Ashes, ashes - - all fall down.

It was morning, and not cold. He told himself that his shiver was irrational.