Written for the 1000 Whispers challenge.

Pairing: None, but several kinds of UST are lurking in the corners for those who like such things.

Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. I simply like to take them out and torture them from time to time.

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If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

T.S. Eliot, "What the Thunder Said," from The Wasteland

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Some crime scenes bothered Grissom for the obvious reasons. All too often he had seen the deliberate desecration of a life, the scarring of innocence, the erosion of all that was good and civilized. It was easy to say that one was offended or appalled by murder, rape, or assault. As an officer of the law, he was expected to be outraged by disruptions in the civil order. As a scientist, he could not be content until the messy and tangled piles of evidence could be tidily explained and categorized.

Other crime scenes bothered him for reasons he did not care to analyze. It was much easier to pretend that he wasn't bothered, or that anxiety over an unrelated matter was making itself felt as, well, superstitious dread.

This was one of those scenes. He, Nick, and Sara had gone out to the desert to examine the skeletal remains of a young woman. Hikers had passed by many of the bones for weeks, since there was nothing to tell them that the assorted ribs, vertebrae, and fragments weren't just the remains of a luckless deer, coyote, sheep, or whatever. To the untrained eye, a bone was a bone.

There was, however, no mistaking the distinctive form of a human skull. And so the call had gone out.

Normally, the idea of going out into the wasteland in search of bones wouldn't have bothered Grissom in the slightest, but there was something about this scene that made him wonder why the hell he had decided to work among the dead.

The heat was like something alive, hovering over them like a flock of vultures waiting for one of them to fall. From time to time, a low rumble of thunder--felt more than heard--drew hopeful looks to the sky. Just a little rain. Just a little break in the heat. That's all anyone asked. Instead, the air was so dry that the rain vanished long before it could reach the ground.

As much as the rain would have felt good, it had too much potential to be lethal. The earth was so dry and cooked that any rain that did fall might as well have been falling on concrete. The conditions were perfect for flash floods.

Then there were the noises. Normally, Grissom would have been fascinated by the dry rattle and buzz of the native insects, but the sound combined with that of the wind rustling through dead grass to create the illusion of a whispered conversation that was just low enough to stymie comprehension.

It was an unpleasant reminder of what it was like when he was going deaf. It also reminded him that the desert was not a place friendly to most forms of life.

In the meantime, Grissom followed the confused trail of vertebrae, finding the bleached bones scattered here and there across the dry desert like a handful of seeds that would never take root and send up green shoots in spring.

At least the skull had been able to give forth an identification. Albert had noticed that the fillings in three of the teeth were not typical of American dental practice. After that, it took only two hours to determine that the skull was that of one Marie Larisch, a German exchange student at UNLV who had disappeared five years ago while camping in the desert.

Unless they found something telling--a bullet lodged in a rib, knife marks on a vertebra--there would be no way to know how Marie had died. It was highly likely that her death was due to natural causes. She had been an enthusiastic camper, but was used to the forests and mountains of her native Germany, not the unpredictable gullies and floodplains of the American Southwest.

Sara was in charge of unearthing and cataloging Marie's hips and legs. She had spent the past half-hour brushing dust away from a pelvic bone, carefully photographing, then tagging the bits of denim, leather, and so on that were in the dirt surrounding the bones. Her focus was drawn in tight on the cradle of bleached bone, so tight that Grissom wondered if she knew to look for signs that Marie had been buried rather than left out for the elements and animals. He contemplated saying something, but after the whole debacle of the promotion- that-wasn't, he was hesitant to say anything that would give Sara any more reason to doubt herself or him.

Grissom knew he was being a coward and a rotten supervisor, but that knowledge wasn't enough to motivate him to change the way things he'd been handling things.

The pelvis and femurs had been found under a thick stand of scrub. It could have been a dump site. It was also entirely possible that Marie's body had lodged there during a flash flood, or that she had crawled in there, dying of thirst, hoping for some degree of shelter from the desert sun.

After a while, Grissom looked up, and was mildly startled to see Nick walking the perimeter of the area, far above them on the ridge overlooking the gully. He'd been so quiet that Grissom had almost forgotten assigning him to photograph the area and map out the likely areas of water flow to see how a flash flood might have distributed Marie's bones and belongings.

Nick had stopped by a stand of cedar and pine to reload the camera. The wind had picked up, bringing a ghost of fragrance down into the gully. Nick changed the roll of film without looking, attention on the ghostly pines.

"Listen to that!" he called out.

Sara lifted her head, listening obediently for a moment before shrugging and returning to her work.

The sound passed quickly, but lingered in Grissom's memory long enough for him to parse out the birdsong that Nick had noticed.

It wasn't an elaborate song, and covered a limited range of notes, but the phrasing was so clear that Grissom could almost make out individual words.

oh, holy, holy, holy

Each repetition was higher and weaker in tone, producing the illusion of an echo.

ah, purity, purity, purity

"Hermit thrush," Nick called out. "You don't usually hear them this far out in the desert. It's not their sort of place, normally."

Nick's interest in avian life was turning into something that would rival his own obsession with insects. Even with his hearing restored, Grissom could only identify a handful of birds by sound alone.

eeh, sweetly, sweetly, sweetly

The bird and its song seemed out of place. It rose above and clashed with the sounds of rattling brush, whispering bugs, and distant thunder. Instead of dryness or drowning, its song brought to mind the burbling of a cool freshet of water.

For some reason, having his attention called to this scrap of joy and life in the desert waste irritated and unnerved him. He started to tell Nick to get back to his photography, but before he could say anything, Nick had the camera reloaded and was taking pictures as if the bird's interruption had never happened.

He watched Nick for a while, coveting the other man's lightness of step but not wanting to look too closely at what exactly it was he coveted.

Then he went back to searching for scattered bones, wondering how one could learn to see holiness, sweetness, or purity in such a place.

An hour later, he looked up again, and was once more surprised to see Nick silhouetted against the sky, trying to get a few last shots in the dying light. It didn't take Grissom long to figure out why he kept forgetting that Nick was there with them at the scene.

Although Grissom would prefer to deny it, Nick's presence was a physical reminder of the rift between him and Sara, of the dance that had them circling each other but going nowhere. Promoting Sara would have forced them to move in one direction or the other. Grissom told himself he did not want to face the consequences of that motion, but that was not why he had recommended Nick over her.

"He didn't care whether he got the job or not," he told Sara when she asked him why she had recommended Nick over her for the promotion.

He wanted to tell her to look up, to look around, to listen, but how could he tell her that if he didn't follow his own advice?

"That's a stupid reason," she'd responded, shutting the door on that conversation and reminding him once again of all the chances he'd refused to take.

He had a much better reason, but if the one he'd given her sounded stupid, this one would sound ludicrous. One day, maybe he'd find the words to explain himself in a way that would make sense not just to him but to Sara as well.

Both Nick and Sara knew how to find bones in the desert.

But Nick also knew how to listen to what the birds were singing.

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Author's notes: The description of the hermit thrush's song came from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Web site.