Chapter 11 - Nostalgia

Needless to say, this time, Eric's Puerto Rican holiday hadn't yielded the same desired results as all his previous trips to the picturesque island. Try as he might, he hadn't been able to rid himself of the persistent restlessness that had led to his abrupt departure from CSI, and continued thereafter. And if that hadn't been bad enough, since he'd left for his solo vacation, an unshakable sense of emptiness had settled over his already troubled state of mind. Nevertheless, he'd persevered, extending his visit from one week to two, and then four, hoping that the passage of time would give him the answers that had eluded him. After all, there had been no rush, since he'd no longer had a job to go back to. And an old college buddy had offered him the use of his unoccupied beachfront condo just outside of San Juan for next-to-nothing rates, so Eric had been able to stay as long as he'd wanted without putting a dent in his savings. Unfortunately, though, time hadn't proven to be the cure for what had ailed him.

Of course, from practically his first day there, he'd known deep down the reason for the incessant hollow feeling that had gnawed at his insides like a dull ache: Calleigh hadn't been with him. He'd found reminders of her in just about every aspect of the beautiful paradise that had surrounded him ... little wonder, since she was the most gorgeous woman he'd ever seen. While enjoying his daily morning cup of coffee on the balcony, he would gaze out at the ocean before him, losing himself in his solitary thoughts of her. Often, he'd find himself mesmerized by the glinting of the sun's rays off the crystalline aquamarine water, the turquoise green reflections reminding him so much of the sparkle in her eyes when she was excited about something, or giving him a treasured glimpse of her mischievous side.

The contact he'd had with Calleigh while he'd been away had only served to emphasize that his chances of achieving any kind of peace would be virtually nil unless she was a part of his life. He'd actually called her just before he'd left for Puerto Rico, but the call had gone straight to voicemail. (He'd subsequently learned that she'd spent her day off volunteering with Natalia at the local Organic Community Garden; an understandable reaction to the previous day's deaths caused by genetically engineered crops). He'd tried again shortly after settling into his holiday digs, and this time, Lady Luck had been on his side and Calleigh had answered. He'd let her know where he was, and had gently hinted at the reasons for his trip, telling her that he'd needed some time away to "clear his head." (If only she'd known the half of it!) He'd been tempted to reveal his now-abandoned plan to invite her to go with him, but something in her voice had halted him. She'd sounded so chipper and seemingly pleased that he'd gone off by himself, that he hadn't been sure that she'd welcome any discussions of the romantic sort. So he'd settled for merely making her promise to stay in touch while he was overseas.

As always, Calleigh had remained true to her word, and she and Eric had exchanged phone calls or text messages every couple of days. With subtle determination, she'd always steered their conversations into safe waters: She'd catch him up on the (non-confidential) happenings at work, and he'd fill her in on his lazy vacation days, and what he'd observed on those few occasions when he'd roused himself from the lounge chair to go into town or tour the island. Her tone had always been decidedly - almost doggedly - bubbly during their chats, as though indicating that she'd placed him squarely back in the dreaded "Friend Zone." Of course, he hadn't minded her thinking of him as a friend. But her reluctance to discuss the proverbial "Elephant in the Living Room" - the in limbo status of their intimate relationship - had frustrated him to no end. He hadn't pushed too hard on the subject, though, since he'd figured that it was better suited to an in-person conversation following his return to South Florida soil. Nonetheless, the unresolved state of his relationship with Calleigh hadn't helped his unsettled psyche any. In fact, after a month in Puerto Rico, he'd finally thrown in the towel and returned to the Magic City. And at that point, the only "resolution" he'd reached was that he'd have to do whatever it took to make things right with her again, since continuing to feel like there was a gaping hole in his heart was not an option.

As it'd turned out, Eric's much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Calleigh had had to wait until almost two weeks after his Miami homecoming. They'd continued to keep in contact via phone, but one thing or another - usually some excuse on her end - had stood in the way of them actually seeing each other. In the interim, he'd been contacted by Adrianna Villani, one of the city's most prominent and successful criminal defense attorneys, offering him a job as her forensics expert witness. At the time, he'd still been at loose ends on the employment front, and while he'd been trying to figure out his next career move, his bank account hadn't been getting any bigger. He'd dismissed the misgivings he'd had about working for the defense rather than the prosecution by telling himself that he needed to make a living. Besides, though he'd be on the "other side" of the scales of justice, his new job would likely involve shadowing the MDPD's criminalists as they analyzed the evidence on his clients' cases. And he'd hoped that would mean that he'd get to spend time with Calleigh again, even if it would just be for professional reasons. It would have to do for the time being, at least until he figured out a way to redeem himself in her eyes.

By happy coincidence, the first case on which Eric served as Villani's consultant - the Summer Davenport homicide - was one assigned to Calleigh's CSI team. When he'd first gotten this bit of news, he'd briefly entertained the idea of surprising his erstwhile girlfriend by just showing up unannounced at the crime scene in question. But of course, he hadn't been able to contain himself, and he'd called her to give her a heads-up that he would be joining her and the rest of the investigative team on-site later that day. Predictably, her tone during their brief call had been businesslike, but he couldn't help but notice the subtly cheerful inflection in her voice, as though she was excited to see him, but doing her best to hide it. That realization had made him grin like a kid on Christmas morning, immensely pleased that she wasn't as unaffected by the prospect of seeing him as she'd apparently wanted him to believe.

Fortunately for Eric, he spotted Calleigh at the Davenport mansion before she caught a glimpse of him; otherwise, he would've made a complete fool of himself. He'd admittedly been dying to see her for the longest while, but nothing could have prepared him for his intense, instinctual reaction to laying eyes on her after what had seemed like centuries. The electrified goosebumps that he could never quite keep at bay in her presence, flared up all over his body in a wave of giddy euphoria, and his heart did a little flip-flop in his chest, somersaulting at the sight of her. She looked good ... really good. And not just because absence tended to make the heart grow fonder and all that. To say that she was a sight for sore eyes would've been a severe understatement, and for a split-second, he had to check himself to make sure that he wasn't actually drooling over her like some over-eager teenager.

Although Calleigh was standing over a pool of blood - or perhaps even more so because of her morbid surroundings - she seemed like a ray of blond, golden sunshine, cutting through the dour cloud that had been hanging over Eric for weeks on end. And naturally, everything male in him celebrated the fact that she was wearing a snug-fitting get-up that hugged her curves in all the right places, along with a pair of knee-high, "bombshell" leather boots that never failed to make him forget his own name. Her back was to him, but he could see that she was speaking into a mini voice recorder, and he smiled inwardly as he pictured the earnest look of concentration that was probably etched across her lovely face, as it often was when she worked. It was an expression that he'd always found equal parts captivating and adorable; but he'd wisely kept this nugget to himself, figuring that it would've earned him nothing but a terse tongue-lashing from the object of his affection. The Calleigh Duquesne he knew would undoubtedly have chafed at the notion of being seen as even the slightest bit "cute" while doing anything job-related.

After taking a few seconds to compose himself, Eric surrendered to his urge to get closer to her, letting his audible footsteps alert her to his approach. She turned towards him, her eyes taking on a vivid, emerald glimmer when she recognized the person sidling up beside her.

"There's our expert witness," she greeted perkily. Her tone was warm and sincere, if a little guarded. And, as usual, her pretty smile made him a little breathless. He'd been privy to her infectious grin for well over a decade, but it still made him feel like the luckiest guy in the world whenever he was on the receiving end of it.

Barely a good thirty seconds into their discussion about the Davenport murder case, Calleigh - with her trademark perceptiveness - managed to home in on the moral dilemma that had been bothering Eric: The fact that working with Villani would mean representing defendants like Zach Finley, who were so obviously guilty of, or at least involved in, the crimes that they were suspected of committing. Eric was hardly surprised that it had taken his astute former partner less than a minute to get right to the heart of the issue. And he was equally unsurprised that she didn't buy his feeble pretext about signing on as Villani's consultant so he could "help people." Clearly, there were other ways to help people in the criminology field without going to work for one of Miami's most infamous defense attorneys. But, since disclosing one of the main reasons he'd taken the job in the first place - the possibility of getting close to Calleigh - was out of the question, he tried to deflect her with platitudes. And as he expected, she called him on it.

"But in this case, the suspect ran from the house covered in blood. He spent the night in the victim's bed, and claims he never heard a thing. Do you honestly think he's innocent?" she deadpanned, sardonically lifting her eyebrows. The hint of sass in her voice set him straight even as it lit his fire. One of the things he loved about her was that she never shied away from challenging him when she thought he needed it. Not to mention that there was something about Calleigh copping a bit of an attitude that always turned him on, even when he was the target of her renowned interrogation skills.

Her insightfulness and razor-sharp tongue left Eric no choice but to throw up a white flag of sorts. "I think that we're both after the same thing ... the truth." Her piercing gaze softened a bit, indicating her decision to let him slide, for now.

"I'm only here to observe ... that's it," he added. And observe he did, allowing his eyes to rake unabashedly over her tantalizing silhouette when she turned around to grab something from her kit.

Despite the fact that Calleigh was "Distraction Personified," Eric actually did manage to get some work done on the case at hand. He did an admirable job of keeping things professional as he studied her and the rest of Horatio's team conducting their investigation and evidence analysis. Indeed, thanks to their top-notch DNA tests, Zach was found to have AIS, a condition that rendered him incapable of sexually assaulting the victim, leading the State Attorney to drop both the murder and rape charges against the young homeless man.

Eric had transitioned so seamlessly back into being at CSI and working with his old team - and particularly with Calleigh - that he was almost sorry to see his client exonerated. Frankly, it felt as though Delko had never left his old MDPD stomping-grounds. So much so that Calleigh had to "gently" remind him that, without an accused client to defend, he no longer had a reason to need access to the lab.

"Alright. That's it. No more observing now that your client is in the clear," she informed him with a good-natured smirk. Plainly, they were both well aware of how much they'd enjoyed being in each others' company, though neither would admit it: Eric, because he was 99.9% certain that voicing such an admission would cause her to kick him out on his rear-end so fast that he'd have concrete burns from the sidewalk; and Calleigh, because, she was ... well, Calleigh. He could pretty much guarantee that she was going to keep playing it close to the vest; perhaps even more so now, given how complicated things were between them at the moment.

"Right," he acknowledged, feeling slightly defeated. "Okay, take care."

"What are you gonna do ... go back to Puerto Rico?" she asked, her voice stopping him in his tracks. He allowed himself to feel just a little bit hopeful at her question. Perhaps she wasn't ready for their day of effortless camaraderie and easy conversation to be over. Or, better still, maybe her query indicated a desire for him to stick around in Miami, near to her, and, with any luck, to see if they could salvage their intimate relationship.

"You know I love it there, but ... I missed Miami," he replied, letting his meaningful pause express the feelings that he wasn't sure she was ready to hear out loud.

"Miami missed you," she countered, without missing a beat. He felt himself drowning in the fathomless jade pools of her eyes, which reflected the emotions in his and conveyed the thinly-veiled metaphor in her words. Though Calleigh would probably rather submit to torture than concede this point aloud, her expression left no doubt that she'd missed him. And he was incredibly gratified (and relieved) to see that his romantic nostalgia wasn't as unrequited as he'd feared.

Eric almost spoke the feelings that had consumed him during his seemingly interminable time apart from her: "I missed you." Her absence had pained him more than the worst migraine he'd ever had, while being just as constant throughout each day that she hadn't been with him. Seeing her again, even in a professional capacity, had only made it hit home all the harder how much he needed her in his life, and not just as a friend. He had to let her know how much she meant to him ...

But this was neither the time nor the place to do so. He reminded himself that they were standing in front of the lab, in plain view of any CSI staff-member who might happen to wander by. Any passionate declarations that Eric made right now would doubtless be overheard by prying ears, an outcome that would surely displease ultra-private Calleigh. He was already treading on thin ice with her where the issue of trust was concerned, and making their personal conversation public would probably only make matters worse in that regard. Besides, if her friendly-but-reserved demeanor was anything to go by, he'd have to ease her back into the idea of them as a couple. And that was going to take time and finesse. Abruptly blurting out his affections - even if they were heartfelt - would most likely cause her to clam-up, and set him back to square one.

So instead, Eric confined himself to a topic that she felt safe with - work. He mentioned that Villani had offered him a contract, but that he was going to decline it because of the same moral dilemma that Calleigh had intuitively exposed earlier.

"You know, I heard the State Attorney's Office is looking for a forensic expert," she revealed. Eric was further encouraged by her suggestion, viewing it as confirmation that she wanted him in her neck of the woods. Evidently, it couldn't have escaped her that they would come into contact often if he worked for the S.A. Whether she wanted him close to her as a friend or more-than-a-friend remained to be seen, but, for now, he'd take it.

"Talbot? Alright, good to know. I'll think about it." Truth be told, he'd do more than think about it. In fact, he planned on dusting off his resume and applying for the position as soon as he walked out of CSI Headquarters.

During the course of his little chat with Calleigh, Eric also made another significant resolution: That he'd move heaven and earth to get their derailed romantic relationship back on track. When he'd confessed to her almost a year earlier that he couldn't imagine living his life without her, he'd truly meant it; in some ways, now more than ever. And he swore to do everything in his power to make sure that he'd never know what it felt like to live without her ... as his best friend, his lover, his everything.

This newfound sense of purpose comforted him as they parted ways for what would, thankfully, be only a short time.