Author's Notes: Takes place sometime after the whole silk, silk, silk debacle.
"Silk, silk, silk…what do cows drink?"
-- Grissom, Evaluation Day.
Nick froze, wincing as the voice grated on his nerves. He turned around slowly, a coffee cup in his hands, to see Ecklie standing in the doorway of the break room. "Ecklie," he said stiffly. He'd always disliked the man, but after he'd tried to arrest him for something he hadn't done, he could barely stand to be around him.
Ecklie sighed, as though Nick was being unnecessarily rude, and stepped inside the room. "I've been meaning to talk to you."
"I'm busy," Nick said, shooting him a dazzling smile before lifting the coffee cup to his lips, and leisurely taking a sip. Ecklie could see, quite obviously, that Nick wasn't busy with anything at all, but something kept him from pointing it out. Nick thought that was odd as usually the man had no qualms about being rude himself, and even as Nick hated himself for it, curiosity got the best of him. He narrowed his eyes. "Okay, what do you want?"
"I know we've had our problems--"
"You tried to arrest me," Nick said succinctly, cutting him off mid-sentence. "For something I didn't do."
"I am sorry about that," Ecklie said, and it looked as though he really was. "You would think I would have learned by now that unless you explore all of the angles even evidence can be misleading."
Nick sighed and leaned back against the counter, too tired to stay angry anymore. He'd been sure innocent people were guilty enough times himself; he had no right to hold it against someone else. "It's fine," he said after a moment, and noting Ecklie's disbelieving expression, he added, "really."
Ecklie gave him a smile, and Nick knew for sure now that he was exhausted, because he thought it seemed genuine. "That's what I like about you, Stokes, you don't hold grudges. Honestly, you're the most dependable of the night shift--Grissom doesn't appreciate you enough."
Nick tensed, looking over at Ecklie, trying to read him like he was a suspect. "What are you after, Ecklie?"
Ecklie held up his hands with another smile. "Hey, calm down, I was just going to offer you a spot on my shift."
His fingers almost let the coffee mug slip to the ground as the words registered, but he managed to hold on. "What?"
Ecklie laughed, moving over to pour himself a cup of coffee. "Don't look so surprised, Stokes. You've got a great record, and Carter's retiring. I need another CSI, and I didn't feel like hiring some green level one."
Nick watched him, still suspicious. "Thanks, Ecklie, but--"
"Before you turn me down," Ecklie said easily. "Think about this--I don't know why the hell Grissom won't let you work solo, but it wouldn't be a problem for me."
Nick winced. He wondered if everyone knew how incompetent Grissom thought he was. Ecklie seemed to realize he'd hit a sore spot, and he looked at Nick with something akin to actual compassion. "Look, Stokes, I actually kind of like you, alright? Before that whole hooker thing--"
"Her name was Kristi," Nick snapped.
"Right. Well, before that, you were the only one that would give me the time of day--and you're the only one on Grissom's team that hasn't screwed up majorly." Nick looked like he was going to protest at this, so Ecklie didn't give him the chance to speak. "Grissom underestimates you. Come work for me, and I promise not to make the same mistake."
At this, Nick was mildly speechless. He wasn't used to getting complimented on his abilities these days, and Ecklie was the last person he would have ever expected to do it. After Grissom, that was.
Ecklie smiled again, and it was starting to put Nick on edge. He'd never seen the man smile this much. "Look, don't give me an answer right now. You have a few days to decide."
Ecklie left, and Nick set the coffee cup on the counter, before he really did lose his grip.
The offer was ridiculous, not even worth considering. Only problem was, Nick couldn't stop thinking about it. The conversation kept replaying in his head, and every time it did, he was surprised--because he hadn't told Ecklie no. He'd meant to, but he hadn't.
He had been about to, he really had. Ecklie was Grissom's rival, and hell, he was his too, but it didn't mean the guy wasn't smooth--he'd known exactly what to say to get his attention. I don't know why the hell Grissom won't let you work solo, but it wouldn't be a problem for me.
Even as the thought of working solo entered his mind he felt Catherine's presence behind him and winced. It wasn't that he didn't like working with her, he did. He enjoyed working with all of them, he just wished that sometimes, he would be allowed to work without them, too. If he took Ecklie up on his offer he could, but there would be no going back, and he wouldn't be working with any of them at all.
On such different schedules, he probably wouldn't even see them.
He winced again at the thought, and felt Catherine shift beside him. "What's wrong?" she asked in concern.
"Nothing," he said quickly. He ran his flashlight over the dresser for a second time, making sure he hadn't missed anything. He hadn't, and after he nodded Catherine started dusting for prints.
"You sure you're alright?" Catherine asked, spreading the dust lightly over the wood. "You look distracted."
Nick didn't answer at first. His eyes moved around the room, stopping when they landed on the body that still lie in bed. She looked more asleep than dead.
"Nicky?" Catherine prompted.
He didn't take his eyes off their latest d.b. She looked about his age. He wondered if when she had died she had regrets. If he died tomorrow, he would.
"Nick?" Catherine was beside him now, holding a tape lift in her hands with a perfect fingerprint in its center. He could have done that, on his own. He knew he could have.
"Ecklie offered me a place on his team," Nick said. He was trying to stay casual, and he turned away before he could see her reaction.
Catherine didn't say anything at first. He ran his flashlight along the headboard. There were sections of the white paint on it missing, small thin strips, like someone had clawed at it with their nails. He moved the flashlight to the victim's fingernails, and saw small flecks of white wedged under each one. She had fought; it was always so much harder when he knew they had fought. He didn't know why because it was tragic either way.
"You're not actually…" Catherine finally spoke, but she couldn't seem to finish the question. He knew the rest of it, but he wasn't sure he had an answer anyway, so he kept his flashlight trained on those small flecks of white and pretended he hadn't heard her.
"He said he would let me work solo," Nick said. All inflection seemed to have fled his voice. He sounded almost like Grissom.
"Oh, Nicky," Catherine whispered.
"Do you think I'm ready?" he asked. He'd never asked her before. He'd told her the riddle, and she hadn't been fooled. He hadn't wanted to ask after that.
"It doesn't matter what I think," Catherine said softly. He noticed she was looking at the woman's fingernails now, too, and knew she must have seen the paint.
"It does to me," he said. He kneeled down beside the bed and prepared to scrape the victim's fingernails for analysis. "You can be honest, Cath, I won't hold it against you." He meant it. He was past allowing things like that to hurt him.
"I think you're ready," she whispered. "But Grissom doesn't, and I trust his judgment too."
Nick was careful not to wince this time. "I do too," he said. "But maybe I need to start trusting my own." The body was still warm; he could feel the heat through the latex of his gloves. He did his best not to look at her eyes.
"You do," Catherine said. "Honestly, I think the fact that you don't is the only reason Grissom is holding you back. I know you'd overcome it, but Grissom doesn't leave things to chance."
He was glad she was blunt, and he smiled wryly. He could always count on Catherine to give it to him straight. "You're right. Only thing is, I don't want to wait forever for him to decide I'm ready. It's time to take the plunge, Cath. Sink or swim."
"You'll swim," Catherine said softly, but with conviction. "But god, Nick, Ecklie?"
Nick bit his lip, and the last of the white paint chips fell without a sound into the evidence bag. "He was actually kind of nice to me."
"He's playing you," Catherine said instantly. "He's playing on your emotions, you know that."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean he won't follow through." Nick closed the bag, got to his feet, and moved around the bed to do the other hand.
"You're actually considering this," Catherine whispered. Her voice suggested she could barely believe it, which Nick expected, because he almost didn't believe it himself.
He'd taken this job to work with Grissom. He'd never thought he'd be relieved to receive an offer to work for someone else instead--but he was. He looked up at Catherine. "Yeah." He looked away again, quickly, his gaze settling on the dead woman's pale eyes. "I am."
Catherine stepped into Grissom's office. He didn't look up. "Nick and I closed the case," she said. "It was the boyfriend. We found his blood beneath her nails, as well as chips of paint both under her nails and in a scratch on his face. Apparently he hadn't bothered to wash up. After we called him on it he confessed." Grissom nodded, but his eyes remained on what he was reading. Catherine watched him for a moment, and then said, "Nicky did a good job, Gris." He gave another absentminded nod. She paused. "I'm going to miss him."
That got the reaction she was looking for. Grissom froze, then raised his eyes to meet hers. "What?"
"Oh, you haven't heard?" Catherine asked tightly.
Catherine's eyes were blazing, and Grissom set the book on his desk in surprise. He hadn't recognized it in her voice at first, but he could see now she was furious. At him, apparently. "What are you talking about?"
"Ecklie offered Nick a job on dayshift," she snapped. "And thanks to you, he's thinking about taking it."
Grissom was rarely at a loss for words, but that was so far down on the list of things he had expected to hear, he almost didn't believe her. But she wouldn't have been that angry if it wasn't true. "Ecklie?" he echoed, forcing out the word.
Catherine crossed her arms. "That's right. He wants Nick to take Carter's place on his team. Told him he could work solo."
Grissom stilled at this, growing angry now himself. "Ecklie is out of line."
"Is he?" Catherine demanded. "I can see why he might think Nick would be better off with him."
"You're not serious," Grissom said. "You can't actually think--"
"Why don't you let Nick work solo?" Catherine demanded. "He could handle it, Gil, you have to know he could."
"He's not ready, Catherine," he said, trying to stay calm. "And if Ecklie pushes him out there he's probably going to get himself killed."
"Killed? Gil, what the hell are you talking about?" Enlightenment struck. "This is about that Henler case," she said, "when Nick was almost shot. That wasn't his fault."
"He takes chances," Grissom interrupted. "He doesn't think things through. He's so determined to impress me that he ends up missing things. When I think he's ready, I'll tell him."
Catherine glared at him. "He'll be gone, Gil, haven't you been listening?"
The seriousness seemed to sink in then, and Grissom fell to lean back against his chair. "He wouldn't actually switch to the dayshift."
"If I hadn't heard he was considering it straight from him," Catherine snapped. "I would agree with you. But he is. You have to fix this." Grissom let his eyes lift back up to hers. "You fix this, Gil," Catherine said, her voice shaking with emotion. "Fix it."
He nodded, even as he realized he didn't know how.
When Nick answered the doorbell, he hadn't expected to see Grissom standing on his porch. Catherine, sure, or Warrick and Sara. Not Grissom. He stood there without speaking for long enough to make Grissom uncomfortable, but it wasn't his intention, he simply didn't know what to say.
"May I come in?" Grissom finally asked.
Nick nodded belatedly, and stepped aside so Grissom could enter. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to talk to you about this transfer," Grissom said. His voice was calm to the point that it gave Nick chills. He wouldn't meet Grissom's eyes when he moved past him to his living room.
"There's nothing to say, Gris," Nick said, forcing his voice to be light. He grinned over at him. "Dayshift is just more convenient, and I was going to come see you about it but--"
"Don't lie to me, Nick," Grissom interrupted. "I know you're leaving because of me."
"You've got a healthy ego, Gil, anyone ever tell you that?" Nick dropped down on his couch. Looked down at his hands.
"If you wanted my attention," Grissom said softly. "You have it."
Nick laughed quietly. "This is about me, Gris, not you. You said I need to want to do this job for me, and I do, but you won't let me." Nick glanced up. "Ecklie will."
"Ecklie doesn't care about you, Nick," Grissom said, trying to be reasonable. "This is just a ploy--"
"Of course it is," Nick snapped. "It must be, because he couldn't actually want me on his team, right?"
Grissom paused, looking stricken. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Ecklie said I was more than experienced enough to work solo," Nick said, his eyes straying back down towards the floor. "What do you expect me to do, Gris? Stick around and go nowhere? I'm sick of being the joke of the nightshift, alright? Look, do we have to do this?" He shifted uncomfortably.
Grissom stood in the center of the floor. "You're not ready. I'm trying to help you, help you become the best CSI you can be. Ecklie, he…all he wants is numbers, Nick, he wants solved cases. He doesn't care how he gets them."
"All the better for me to be on his team," Nick said quietly. "Because I do care. Maybe he'll let me make a difference."
"Don't be naïve," Grissom said.
"Don't be so damn cold," Nick snapped back. His eyes were flashing with anger, but he kept them lowered. "I thought you'd be happy to be rid of me. I've been nothing but trouble, right? The screw up, that's what they say, you know. We've all made mistakes, but everyone seems to only remember mine."
"That isn't true," Grissom said. "Nicky, it isn't. We don't want to lose you."
Nick almost smiled. He knew when Grissom said we he meant Catherine, he wouldn't have come here on his own, he wouldn't have known the way. "I've made my decision," he said. "And it wasn't easy, believe me, but I'm going to take him up on his offer."
"You said you wanted my approval. This isn't the way to get it." Grissom's voice sounded tense, but Nick knew he must be imagining it when he thought it sounded scared.
"Your approval isn't what matters here," Nick said softly. "You're the one that taught me that."
"Ecklie doesn't give a damn about this job, Nick!" Grissom snapped, as close to yelling as Nick could remember him ever being.
"And you don't care about anything else." Nick got up from the couch, looking anywhere but at him. He caught sight of his reflection in his TV screen, and bit his lip before turning away.
Grissom felt all the anger fade away at the words, because he knew Nick well enough to know he actually thought they were true. "Do you trust me?" he asked quietly.
Nick ran a hand through his hair, leaving the strands standing up straight in his wake. He still wouldn't meet his eyes, but he nodded.
"Then don't do this. I know it isn't what you want to hear, but you still have a lot to learn, Nick. And Ecklie isn't going to teach it to you."
Nick almost felt like laughing, but he knew if he gave into his emotions he'd end up crying instead. It was the same old thing. You're not ready, Nick. You're not smart enough. You'll never be good enough. The worst part was that Grissom actually thought he was doing him a favor. "You should probably go."
"We need you," Grissom said. He told himself he was only saying that because it was what Nick needed to hear, but he knew it was true. The shift only worked so well because each of them fit together and if you took one of them out he didn't know what would be left. He didn't want to find out.
However true Grissom decided the sentiment was, it was obvious Nick didn't believe it. He shook his head. "You should go," he said again.
Grissom did nothing for a moment, then he nodded sadly and headed for the door. His fingers were brushing the cool metal of the doorknob when he paused again. "Whatever you decide…you are a great CSI, Nick," he said. "I hope you know I think that much at least."
Grissom stepped out and the door clicked closed behind him. Nick stumbled back towards the couch. He sat down, the fall lasting for hours, then placed his head in his hands. He couldn't be this pathetic, he thought. There was no way a couple of kind words from Gil Grissom was enough to make him stay.
But he knew it would be, and he wondered if Gil had known it too, if that was the only reason he had come here at all. He turned on the television, replacing his reflection with pictures of strangers instead. Grissom didn't care much for TV. He was always saying 'Books, Nick, books.' He turned up the volume--let it drown out the voice.
The next day Nick told Ecklie his answer was no. And that night, while investigating a shooting, he noticed a shell casing on the ground and got to his knees. As he picked it up, he tried not to notice how Grissom's shadow moved along the ground beside him.