Title: Sting like a Bee
Disclaimer: CSI and its characters aren't mine; the story is.
Spoiler info: Set before Sara left; spoiler free.
Author's note: This is the promised companion piece to Float like a Butterfly. The Aristotle/buzzard bit was 'inspired' by comments amisha.pineapple made after reading my fic Swing Time. Hee.
Much appreciation to smacky30 for beta-reading.
Summary: This time Sara has an insect problem. Companion piece to a Float like a Butterfly so it's set in the same universe as Bugsville, OH and Swing Time. GSR
The wide asphalt path stretched straight ahead as far as the eye could see. The Kokosing Gap Trail had been built on the footprint of an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad line and reminders of the railway's past punctuated its grassy shoulders. At Gambier, where Sara, Grissom and Bruno usually joined the trail, a restored steam locomotive and a bright red caboose were proudly displayed.
A pre-breakfast walk had quickly become part of their morning routine during Grissom's short teaching stint at Kenyon College. At that early hour, the heat and humidity had yet to reach the afternoon's oppressive heights and the rising sun's rays percolated patchily through the tall trees that bordered the trail. In the confusing play of light and shadow it was always sharp-eyed Sara who spotted the local wildlife first. Groundhogs foraged in the lush weeds beside the trail and sometimes deer crossed the path, crashing through the undergrowth to escape the human intruders; once they had spotted a fox and her two pups. Bruno had quickly earned himself extra leash time, having discovered a new game: chasing squirrels and chipmunks.
"Hey, I forgot to tell you; when Bruno and I came down here that first time—"
"Huh?" Grissom interrupted. "Oh, when I was meeting science faculty members. You know, the associate provost is an astronomer, and she was telling—"
Sara looked at him.
"Sorry, I butted in." Grissom smiled meekly and gestured with an open palm toward Sara, "You were saying?"
"There was an old guy, who seemed to live in that little cabin up by the bridge."
She pointed up a high embankment toward what looked to Grissom more like a well-worn mobile home.
"Anyway, he came down from there and said 'Hi' to us, then asked me if I knew that a pair of bald eagles has a nest alongside the trail. Apparently the nest is hard to spot, but you can often see them flying over the cornfields."
"Great. We should keep an eye out then, shou—"
It was Sara's turn to cut in, speaking rapidly. "He also gave me a lesson on how to identify them, which I didn't need. I mean, they're pretty distinctive." Grissom nodded in agreement. "Then he … okay, this is a touch bizarre." She rolled her eyes in an odd, panicky way and Grissom raised a questioning eyebrow. "Well, uh, he pointed to some buzzards roosting in that big old tree over there." She indicated with an outstretched arm, but the tree was presently bird-free.
"You know," Grissom spoke easily, "There's actually no such thing as a buzzard in the Continental United States. There are birds known as buzzards in Europe, but what you saw were probably turkey vultures." He spread his hands, indicating considerable size. "About yay big?"
Sara stared at him blankly for a moment. Then she shook herself. "I'm not even going to ask how you know this stuff. I need to tell you my story. The guy then said 'As you know, buzzards have three testicles.' "
Sara blurted at him, "Gil, I was freaked! What normal person goes around talking to perfect strangers about birds' balls?! I mean, he looked a bit scruffy, but … I had no idea what to say to that. Luckily Bruno decided that moment to take off after a ground hog, and I escaped."
"I'll grant you, it was odd." Grissom's voice sounded slightly strangled. His blue eyes sparkled and he put a hand over his mouth as he tried to subdue his laughter.
"What? What?!" She was glaring at him now, but there was a hint of humor in her eyes.
He gazed skywards, searching for control.
"Uh … Uhm … " Clearing his throat, Grissom calmed his hilarity and managed to speak. "He was in fact giving you great credit." He paused, wondering how best to say this. "It has been written, uh … Aristotle believed that buzzards have three testicles. So … that older man looked at bright, beautiful you and thought that you would get the reference." He cocked his head and smiled fondly at her. "Y'know, you could feel … honored."
A long, long silence ensued. By Grissom's estimation, they covered at least 250 yards until eventually, after an audible huff, Sara spoke. "So … a complete stranger accosts me and talks about buzzards' testicles and I'm supposed to feel honored. In what kind of world does that make sense, Gilbert?"
"Uhhh … Bugsville, Ohio?" Grissom playfully darted out of Sara's reach as he spoke, avoiding her attempted swat.
They had both stopped walking and were one on either side of the trail, separated by six feet of paved surface and a curious Bruno. Grissom waited, mouth firmly closed. He'd said enough. Too much, probably.
"Sometimes you …" Her voice trailed off as she looked intently at something up off to her left. "What … on earth … is that? I know it's not the bald eagles' nest."
"Hmm?" Grissom had been momentarily distracted by Bruno as the dog's attention moved to something rustling in the nearby ditch.
"See, the thing over there, hanging from the branch of that tree, about 25 feet off the ground. Looks like an over-sized football."
A jogger passed, going in the opposite direction, as Grissom followed Sara's pointing arm with his eyes.
" 'That tree', my dear, is a buckeye, Ohio's state tree."
Sara shot a look at Grissom and silently resolved never to play Trivial Pursuit against him ever again.
Her description was a good one, thought Grissom, except the 'football' had a hole toward the lower end. "Ah, that's a wasp's nest. The nest of the bald-faced hornet to be precise. Which is in fact not a hornet, but belongs to the yellow-jacket genus."
"Oh." Sara's response was neutral but, unseen by Grissom, her shoulders stiffened. "How can something so tiny build a thing that size?"
As they continued along the trail Grissom enthusiastically explained how the black and white wasps built their gourd-like nests. Sara nodded sporadically, murmuring 'Uh-huh' or 'really?' from time to time, though in truth he needed little encouragement.
Soon they reached the three mile marker, where they turned to retrace their steps. Grissom's class started at 9:30 and it was time to head back for showers and breakfast.
They were approaching the nest again. Grissom saw Sara look toward it and as he watched a light shudder ran through her body. She also sidled over to his left, getting as far away as possible from the nest and feigning extreme interest in the miniature horse which was grazing on the other side of the fence.
"So … not a fan?" he asked. "They're not true hornets, you know. Unless you threaten their nest or kill one of their own near it, they're unlikely to attack you. And with the nest so high up, it's out of harm's way for us.
"Ah, thank you, my entomologist friend, I knew there was a reason I took up with you. You know so much useful stuff." She was striving for levity, but to Grissom's ears it sounded strained. They walked on, stopping for a car when the trail crossed a road. Bruno lifted his leg against the broken-off limb of an oak tree which lay on the shoulder, then he bounded off once more, as far as his long line allowed. Grissom half-turned his head to covertly study Sara as they went. Her face was wooden, as was her whole demeanor; the relaxation wrought by the few days away from Las Vegas had vanished in an instant.
As they passed over one of the trail's bridges their steps echoed hollowly on the wooden planks. The sturdy framework of rust brown metal struts had been built to bear the weight of trains; these days its traffic was much lighter. But Sara, plodding quietly along, was carrying a heavy burden, her shoulders stooped under an invisible load.
Suddenly he realized. "You've been attacked by wasps guarding a nest, haven't you?" He clasped Sara's hand as he spoke, drawing her to his side.
Sara looked at their joined hands, wouldn't meet his concerned eyes. "Mmm … long time ago."
But it haunts you still, Grissom thought. What he said was, "Tell me about it."
Bruno came close too, somehow sensing Sara's distress. She bent to give him a few solid thumps on his flanks and chest, before urging him away. Satisfied, he moved off to continue his snuffling searches as Grissom and Sara started walking again.
The four mile marker loomed, then receded as they left it behind; they were on the home stretch before Sara started to speak.
"I was … fifteen? No, fourteen." She nodded, remembering. "Fourth of July, 1985, there was a foster families' picnic in a local park. I was sent to buy more sodas because they were running low. Two boys, a bit older than me, had been told to go with me, to help carry the drinks. They were pissed, because I had been entrusted with the money and they didn't want to be helpful or to be seen with a skinny geek—"
"On your left," came a call from behind them. Grissom got Bruno to heel and Sara moved closer to Grissom, ensuring the cyclists behind had room to pass. With a whirr of wheels and a shouted chorus of "Thanks" they flashed past in a kaleidoscope blink of bright color.
"You were going to buy sodas …" Grissom prompted.
"Uh, yeah … so, they were complaining and chucking rocks at seagulls, generally being asshole teenage boys." Sara shrugged. "I tried to ignore them. Then they came across a yellow-jacket nest." She shook her head, as if trying to shake the memory. She sighed, and after a moment continued. "It was in the ground, y'know?" She looked at Grissom, seeking confirmation that her memory was correct.
He nodded in agreement. The vespula species of yellow jacket did indeed build its nests in holes in the ground, but he didn't want to interrupt her flow.
They had now arrived back by the locomotive at Gambier. Grissom gently tugged Sara over to sit in one of the benches by the water fountain. She protested briefly, trying to read Grissom's wristwatch, but sat down when he insisted, "I've got plenty of time." Bruno had a drink from a convenient puddle then settled down at their feet to wait.
Grissom squeezed her hand. Sara took the hint and picked up the story. "I'd been stung before. I'm not allergic or anything, but even so I didn't want a repeat. The guys started throwing rocks at the entry hole to the nest, trying to get one right inside." She picked on a loose thread hanging from the hem of her tee-shirt. "I yelled at them to stop but they didn't listen, just laughed at me." So I started running away, fast as I could when a bunch of very angry yellow jackets came our way. I was farthest from the nest, but of course my bad luck decreed that I was the only one who got stung. More than once but the worst was," she raised a finger to a point just below her left eyebrow, "Here."
"Ah, that's a tender spot." Grissom brushed his own finger over the area. "Did it swell much?"
"Did it swell much?" Sara's bitter chuckle told the tale. "It puffed up like a baseball and I couldn't see out of my left eye for two days."
"And then, when the swelling started to go down, it began itching." Although Grissom was speaking from experience, he added, "Am I right?"
"Yup, itched like crazy. I tried not to, but I scratched it raw. So that itched more as it healed."
As she was speaking, Grissom let his eyes roam. He noticed some sneakers neatly paired under the bench opposite and wondered why someone would have left them there. Had they been forgotten? He looked over at Sara, who was staring blankly in the direction of the College tennis courts.
Grissom rubbed his lips, considering. "Yellow jackets have never been my favorite wasp, and now I've demoted them further."
Sara squinted at him and decided he was serious. But still, this was beyond weird. "You have a favorite wasp? Y-you rank them?"
Grissom pretended to pout while blushing. Amused, Sara looked at the quirky man she loved—then movement to the right caught their attention. They both watched as a wiry man swooped past on in-line skates and stopped with a flourish across from them. After exchanging greetings with Sara and Grissom, he sat down on the opposite bench to take off his skates and change back into his sneakers.
The man walked off, skates slung over his shoulder, and Sara spoke again. "It wasn't so much the stings, more the total helplessness I felt. I hadn't been provoking them, I'd tried to run away, and still I got hurt. It … reminded me of bad times. I had—still have in some ways, I guess—issues about being in control."
Grissom shifted around so he could see her face.
"As a foster child you get shunted around a lot, and you have no choice about it. I was having enough problems dealing with people, and now tiny insects were ganging up on me. It really got to me, and I've kinda held it against them and all of their type since then." She shrugged, and looked sheepish. "Silly, I know, but it stuck."
"It's not silly. It's natural." Grissom cupped her chin gently and moved her head so she was looking at him. Speaking softly, intent on persuading her, he added, "You got hurt, and you wanted to avoid it happening again. Self preservation is a powerful instinct." He cocked his head and said, "Once bitten …"
"Twice shy." She lifted his hand off her jaw and turned his wrist so she could check the time. "Come on, Gil, you really need to get ready for your visiting professor gig."
The aged dishwasher didn't want to start, so after dinner that evening they were doing dishes at the big porcelain sink in the kitchen. It was a slow process, since Grissom would wash one item, then pause to peer over the top of his reading glasses at the antics of territorial humming birds just outside the kitchen window. They were fighting over the sugar water feeder that he had filled earlier. Despite the distraction, the glasses and flatware had been done and now Grissom, hands deep in sudsy water, was carefully handling the big Italian hand-painted plates they had used for pasta.
Sara was remembering. "Y'know, the foster home I was in at the time of the stinging thing was one of the better ones. It was crowded, a bit busy for my liking, but it was okay. There were six kids—two of theirs, four fosters. Eight people and no dishwasher, so we all pulled a lot of dishwashing duty." She dried two forks and the last spoon and put them into the appropriate sections in the drawer.
Grissom was busy studying the miniature scale warfare being waged a few feet away. "That male is dive-bombing the other one, look!" The child-like enthusiasm in his voice was captivating, but Sara was quietly recalling something else.
The dish towel had already done good duty and was on the damp side. Behind Grissom's back, she did a couple of slow motion test flicks, calculating distance with her eye. Soon he washed the other big plate and set it on the drainer, and rewarded that achievement with more nature study.
"Hey, bug boy, since when did you become birdman too?"
He gave her a sideways glance for the 'bug boy' epithet, but even so there was a question in his eyes.
She gestured outside. "The hummingbirds, the turkey vultures …"
"I've always been interested in the larger fauna, I just chose to specialize in insects. Easier to collect, for one thing. And to put under a microscope." He smirked. "And yesterday I was looking at the Birds of the World collection over there." He pointed with his elbow to a bookcase by the dining table, the top shelf of which held several red volumes with white silhouettes of flying birds on their spines.
"Ah, books. I should've known."
Next the large colorful bowl which had held their salad got Grissom's careful attention.
"So, have you ever been stung by a bee, or a wasp?" Sara floated the question as he passed the bowl over for drying.
"Once, when I was a kid. About ten, I guess. I used to go barefoot a lot; this bumblebee was feeding on clover nectar in the lawn, and I stepped on it. Poor thing …" He gazed out the window, no longer focusing on the humming birds.
"Yeah." He turned to look at Sara. "I felt bad, because I squashed it."
Sara quelled her giggle, but couldn't stop the smile. "I swear you're the only person I know who would feel bad for the insect that stung you." Her eyes were warm as she grinned at him, and Grissom smiled back, feeling the absolute comfort of knowing that she accepted him, and all his foibles, without reserve.
"Uh … They're not yellow jackets, but I could show you how to handle honey bees, that might help you ..."
"Face the fear, y'mean?" Sara considered that. "It's worth a try."
"Good." He nodded, pleased. "I've been thinking of establishing a few hives. To study colony collapse disorder. I may be able to get some space in the Ecophysiological Research Facility at UNLV … what?" Sara's snort stopped him.
Sara could barely speak, but after a couple of deep breaths she came up with, "E--eco--physiological … is that really a word?"
"Yes, it's a word." His tone was teasing. "Get over it, Sidle." He grinned as he looked over his shoulder at her, then he turned back to the counter and picked up the high-sided pot he'd cooked the spaghetti in. "So—"
The crack of a whipping dish towel reverberated in the quiet kitchen.
"OW!" Grissom rubbed his rear with a dripping hand, leaving a wet mark on his long cotton shorts. "Ow," he repeated, glaring mildly at Sara, "That stings!"
Sara just couldn't resist. "Like a bumblebee? Or more like a bald-faced hornet?"