Brass had always thought that office romance was stupid. It inevitably led to fights, taking sides, and - usually - someone quitting their job. He wasn't keen on seeing all that go on among his friends.

No one would ever have tried to label him a "romantic." Definitely not a "ladies' man." Probably not even "sensitive." He knew all that. Somehow, though, he always seemed to find himself closeted with someone or other who was having relationship problems. Not voluntarily, on his part, and often not consciously, on the other person's part, but it just kept happening.

He'd grown fond of all of them over the years they'd worked together, and to tell the truth, he still hadn't managed to shake that paternalistic instinct that had come with being their supervisor. Five years out of the job, and he was still trying to keep CSI running smoothly! But still, no matter how paternal he felt, he was probably the last person in the building who should be dispensing advice. He hadn't had a date in god knows how long and his own daughter only called him once a year. He wasn't exactly Ward Cleaver, so why did he keep trying?

He sighed. Maybe he'd been in the game too long. Maybe he was losing perspective. After all, all of CSI, including Brass in his secondary position of liaison, had been working frantically for the past few weeks. He'd only had one night off, completely page-free, in all that time. He knew for a fact that Grissom hadn't even managed that, and he suspected that Sara hadn't either. It was difficult to keep yourself balanced when the best you could do was catch an hour of sleep hunched over a layout table between cases.

It was also hard to pay attention to things like, say, other people when you had your head perpetually stuck over a microscope or under a surgical mask. That's what he'd figured, anyway, when he first noticed the new tension appear in the night shift. It couldn't be anything else, because he'd have known about it if something had happened to cause it.

Work was finally starting to slow down now, though, but the tension...well, it was still there. It made him nervous, and if it made him, who spent comparatively little time with the team, nervous, he didn't want to imagine what it was doing to everyone else. It also made him antsy, and when he got antsy, well, he did things like what he was doing now: sitting in his office with the door open, watching for Sara to pass so he could grab her. It wasn't so much her romantic life that he worried about when it came to Sara, though. She was on the bleeding edge of burnout, had been for over a year, and he'd had his eye on her for almost that long.

He knew what burnout felt like. He knew what feeling unappreciated and unloved felt like. He also knew what taking up alcohol as a solution could do to a person. It hadn't taken long for him to see those things in her and start trying to think of a way to fix them. He wanted to help her climb out of this hole she was in. There was just something vulnerable about her that made him want to give her all the fatherly advice he could impart, to protect her as much as he could.

He'd already tried to talk to her about the drinking. To put it kindly, she hadn't been interested. He was pretty sure he'd insulted her by initiating that discussion, which wasn't at all what he'd been aiming for. Ah, but now he'd refined his technique. He wouldn't jump on her about her emotional issues; instead he would draw her fire by starting with a mention of Grissom. It was a foolproof way to get her attention, and if he kept on his toes he might be able to segue from there neatly into a talk about her problems.

Doubtful. More likely she'd be storming out in less than ten minutes, furious with him for interfering.

But he'd keep trying. Once he was sure she wouldn't self-destruct, she could go do whatever she wanted, but until then he was going to keep pushing her.

Finally! He caught a glimpse of her quick-stepping past his office and called, "Sara!"

He watched her back up and look at him quizzically. "Yeah?"

"You got a minute?"

Her face instantly took on a look of suspicion - which he had expected - but she said, "What for?" Fanning out the file folders she was holding, she added, "I've got a lot of pressing stuff tonight."

"Ten minutes is all I need," he told her with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Come on in."

She looked both ways down the hallway before stepping into his office. "Is this really that important?"

"Your shift's over, Sara," he reminded her. "Anything that's 'pressing' right now can wait. Sit."

She sat, crossing her legs and swinging the top one nervously. "Ok, I'm sitting. What's up?"

"How've things been with the team lately?"

"You know we've been working like mad. Did you really need to hijack me to ask?"

He shook his head. "Not work-wise. I'm talking about people-wise."

Beetling her brows, she said, "Huh?"

"People. Your team, those hyperactive people who run around picking at carpets and demanding everyone wear booties. Remember them?"

Now she looked more impatient than suspicious. "I obviously know what people are. Why did you really call me in here?"

Mentally rubbing his hands together in delight at the opening she'd given him, Brass schooled his face into a look of vague worry. "I've just been...hearing things."

"About me?" she demanded immediately.

"You, among others."

Sara sighed. "Ok," she said, leaning back in her chair, "obviously you want to lecture me. Go for it."

"Who, me?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "Well, since you asked..."

"Brass."

"Ok, ok. I've been hearing things about you and Grissom." He was pleased to see Sara's eyed widen at the mention of her supervisor's name.

"What...sort of things?" she asked, having to consciously remind herself that nothing had happened between them that could be gossiped about, anyway.

"Tension. Arguments -"

"What else is new?" she interrupted. "I thought you said this was important."

Sara wasn't as easily distracted as he'd expected. He steepled his fingers under his chin and frowned slightly, trying to decide on his next move. It took him a few seconds, but he managed to come up with something: "The stories I've heard have been about more dangerous stuff than usual. Like how people don't think you and Grissom should be working together because your fights jeopardize cases."

"What?" She shot to her feet, looking ready to do battle. "You know that's not true!"

He raised his hands helplessly. "Hey, I'm just the messenger."

"Well, go 'messenge' whoever's spreading this shit and tell them that I'll be seeing them soon."

Uh-oh. "You don't even know who it is," he pointed out, adding in his head, Mainly because they don't exist.

Giving him a frighteningly cool smile, she said, "I'm an investigator, remember?"

"But, Sara -"

"Look, it's nice talking to you and all, but I've got more important things to do right now. Like hunt down the weasel who told you that. I'll see you later."

Before he could get another word out, she was gone. Brass stared at the empty hallway for a few seconds, trying to regroup. His "talk" with Sara could hardly have gone worse, and now she was on the warpath. This needed to be dealt with.

With a heartfelt sigh, he picked up the phone.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"You said what?" Grissom yelled into the phone a few minutes later. "Jim, she's having enough of a hard time without worrying about some . . . phantom rumor mill!"

"I know," Brass said placatingly. "I just didn't expect her to go on the hunt before I even finished my sentence."

Glancing at the windows of his office and making sure all the blinds were drawn, Grissom removed his glasses, threw them on the desk, and put his feet up next to where they landed. "You told her a complete lie - involving me - just so that . . . what? She'd stay and let you lecture her?"

"Oh, like you haven't been 'lecturing' her for five years," Brass retorted, starting to feel defensive.

"At least I haven't lied to her!" Grissom snapped.

There was a beat of silence before Brass responded, "You haven't?" He knew he didn't need to be more specific; Grissom had a guilty conscience.

"That's diff. . . I . . ." Grissom's voice trailed off as he tried to think of something to say that wouldn't make him look worse.

"Exactly, Pot," Brass said with a chuckle, back on even ground now. "Now, Kettle, here, has a lot of work to do. I'll talk to you tomorrow." He hung up the phone before Grissom could argue with him.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sara stormed into the break room five minutes early that night and immediately directed her glare at Grissom, who had, up to then, been sitting quietly, immersed an autopsy report.

"What?" he said carefully. She looked ready to chew nails; best to keep talk to a minimum and not fight back at times like this.

She snatched her coffee mug off the counter with a jerky movement. "We," she told him, picking up the coffee pot and trying to keep her hand from shaking, "have got a problem." With only half her mug full, she put the pot back before she could drop it.

Grissom was leaning back in his chair, watching her with interest. Was she trembling? "A problem," he repeated, suspecting that he already knew what she was talking about. "What sort of problem? And what do you mean by 'we'?"

"There are rumors about us."

"Aren't there always?" he said with more ease than he felt.

"They're criticizing our work now. Not just my personal life."

"Um, Sara," Grissom began, wondering how the hell he was going to clean up Brass's mess. "Actually -" He was interrupted by Catherine's entrance. Saved by the bell, he thought. Thank you, Cath!

Catherine needed only one look at Sara's face to know she'd walked into either something very interesting or something very dangerous. Opting for caution, she quickly backed out of the room, saying, "Uh, I think I forgot my . . . uh . . . I'll be right back!"

Sara's eyes returned immediately to Grissom. "What were you about to say?"

Now wasn't the time to tell her, he decided. And it's not just because I don't want to make her mad. Really. "Nothing important." His heart leapt as he saw Warrick approaching. Safe! "We'll talk about this later."

"But I -"

"Later, Sara."

"Fine."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

He dodged her for most of the night by holing up in his office, but by the time shift ended she had caught on. She appeared in his doorway, obviously on her way out, five minutes before he would have been home free. "We need to discuss this," she stated, not waiting for an invitation to enter. Sitting stiffly on one of the chairs in front of his desk, she added, "It does concern you too."

"What does?" Faking ignorance worked on her occasionally; it was worth a try.

"The rumors. Haven't you heard about them?"

"Uh . . ." He picked up his glasses and fiddled with them, buying time.

"Grissom, are you even listening to me?" she hissed.

"Uh-huh."

"Then what should we do about it?"

"I don't know what to do about -" He stopped himself just before the word "this" came out of his mouth. The last thing he needed was to remind her of that painful encounter.

Sara crossed her legs and stared at him curiously. "Why don't you care about this? You usually protect your privacy at all costs." She sighed and uncrossed her legs, beginning to fidget. "I don't understand you."

"Well, the rumors about tension," he said hesitantly. "They're pretty much . . . true, aren't they?"

"I don't care if we're mortal enemies outside these walls, it should still have no bearing on our jobs."

Mortal enemies? Was that what she considered them? "You're not in any danger of being fired." Why didn't he just tell her Brass had lied? He didn't know; maybe he just wanted to keep her in his office longer.

"How do you know?"

He let out a tired sigh. "Because I'd be the one who fired you, Sara. And I have no plans to do that in the foreseeable future."

"Oh, that's comforting," she said sarcastically. "Talk about job security."

"That's not what I meant."

"Oh? Then what did you mean?"

He started sorting the papers on his desk, buying more time. "There have been absolutely no rumbles about you or anyone else being terminated. If someone was going to be let go, I'd know."

That seemed to appease her slightly. "Gossip is destructive," she told him, "even if it doesn't lead to someone losing a job. I'm asking you again - why are you so unconcerned about this?"

Giving her a thoughtful look, he said, "Maybe I see it as an experiment. You have to admit, it would be interesting to see the results."

"I don't have to admit anything like that!" She stood up and walked to the door, then paused just before opening it. "I'm not one of your experiments, Grissom. You should remember that." With that, she was gone and Grissom was left staring open-mouthed at an empty doorway.