This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
--T. S. Eliot "The Hollow Men"
He's always thought of his words as sliding off Nick, like water off a duck's back. They never seem to stick, never seem to ruffle Nick's feathers, at least not for long. Sometimes - rarely - Nick would twitch at some particularly acerbic remark, hunching his shoulders, but the moment would pass and Nick would go back to being his normal sunny self.
At least until the next time Gil rained on his parade.
He's come to think of it as being as inevitable as the weather; Nick is always sunny, always bright and cheerful like the days that never change. And him? He's something else, like the weather in the mountains maybe. All flash floods and moods, washing away everything before him. Except Nick. Nick's immutable, unchanging. On his darkest, most hateful days he thinks of Nick as the desert.
Nothing but emptiness for miles.
It's unfair, he knows that. Has always known that. Even in the desert there are things below the surface. There's stuff below the surface in Nick too, but he's never bothered to dig for it. It's enough to know that even when he rages, even when his tongue lashes out and he spills forth venom at the easiest target, Nick's there to take it. It sinks into him like water into the desert and disappears beneath the surface without a trace.
He's forgotten, however, just how destructive flash floods can be. Nick had to deal with the victim of one once, and the rainwater washed her down from the peak to the valley below. Carried her for miles and left her broken like a doll in the desert.
Nick figured that one out. Gil doesn't think he's ever commented on how well Nick had done to question his assumptions and to go back to first evidence. He's never brought up what a thorough job Nick did, what initiative and intuition he showed and, more, how neatly he pulled everything together.
He's forgotten the power of water. Given enough time even the smallest trickle can carve through rock, leaving gullies and crevasses that can run miles deep.
The same flash floods that washed Stacey Warner away can wash away topsoil, scouring the surface clear to expose what's underneath.
The words that have slid off Nick's back a hundred times before can do the same.
He lets the words slip from his tongue, sharp with an anger that isn't even aimed at Nick, and for a brief second Nick freezes. There's no sign now of the smile that can rival the sun, even on the hottest of Vegas days. Nick's face is expressionless, as though he literally is frozen to the spot. Only his eyes move. They widen fractionally, and Gil's heart thumps in his chest as he's filled with some nameless dread. He's never been one for superstition, never been one for believing in fate. Man determines his own fate, but in spite of that belief, for want of a better word, he thinks, in that split second, that the roaring in his ears is floodwater, racing towards them.
Then Nick moves, but his movements lack the normal fluidity that he's come to expect from Nick, while having no expectations of Nick at all. Instead, Nick moves like an automaton; jerky, his face frozen into immobility. His hands, as he packs away his equipment, shake a little, and Gil stares at them because it's easier to watch that tremor than it is to see nothing in Nick's face.
He's as frozen as Nick, in his own way. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, as though all the moisture has been sucked away. His mind - his tool - is as blank as a slate, washed clean of thought by the tremble in Nick's fingers.
He says nothing until Nick walks away from him, his gait as unsteady as his fingers, and then there's nothing left to say.
He should be angry. He should be absolutely furious that Nick walked away from a crime scene, but even though he looks for it with a desperation that scares him even more than the look on Nick's face, he cannot find it. It slithers from his touch like sand through his fingers and instead all he's left is with that same nameless dread.
He focuses. There's nothing else to do. There's still a crime scene to process, still evidence to collect and to place in neatly labelled bindles. They're as neatly labelled as they normally are, because in spite of that nameless dread, in spite of his sought for rage, his capacity to focus has not suffered. His fingers don't tremble, but the sheer steadiness of them reminds him all too clearly of the non-expression on Nick's face.
There's no expression either on the face of the police officer he passes at the perimeter of their crime scene. At least, there's no expression beyond the boredom he's seen all too often; no prurient curiosity at Nick's abrupt departure, no inquisitive light in his eyes.
Gil's always prided himself at being able to read people, at least in the sense of determining their motivations. He believes he reads this man well enough to know he sensed nothing amiss at Nick leaving; just another geek heading back to the lab.
He believes that Nick must be a better actor than he thought.
When he gets back the lab, the shift is over and Nick's resignation letter is sitting in the middle of his desk. It lies next to the evidence that Nick removed and processed, and his name is written clearly in Nick's firm hand. There's no evidence of a shake in the looping curl of the G in Grissom, and the evidence has been thoroughly dealt with; each i dotted, each t crossed. Again, the results are laid out in Nick's firm print and he stares at the words for a long time, seeking... something. Some hint of emotion, of distress or anger or regret.
There's nothing but an inkblot over a j, where Nick's pen slipped.
The letter he slides into his desk drawer, unread. When Nick returns to work the next night, they don't talk about it. They talk about the case, about the evidence Nick removed and processed instead, but Grissom still hears the slow drip, drip of time running out.
Nick goes back to being pleasant, but things have changed. He can no longer take things for granted, like Nick's smile and the constant good humour, or the ability to take all of Gil's crap with good grace instead of ripping him a new one. Instead, there's this stranger wearing Nick's face and he's not sure whether it's because Nick has changed or because he's finally washed everything away and is seeing Nick clearly.
There's a wariness in Nick's eyes that wasn't there before, a distance that sits at odds with Nick's expression. Nick has always been sunny, but now. Now he's like the rain; opaque and cold.
He doesn't work much with Nick any more. Instead, he pairs him with Catherine or Warrick. Mostly Catherine, and if she's noticed anything awry she doesn't say much. That's not like her, so maybe the undercurrents between he and Nick have passed her by.
That's not like Catherine either, but he's relieved for the respite and so doesn't question it. Instead, he lets them get on with it, as far away from him as is possible.
After two months, Nick asks him for a reference. His expression is almost affable but there's no hesitation in his polite request as he provides the minimal explanation that he's taken up one of the offers that come his way semi-regularly.
It's a revelation of sorts, that Nick gets offers. That any of his staff gets offers, but mostly that Nick does. Logically, he understands - they're rated number two in the country, second only to the Federal Lab with its much larger budget and ability to select the youngest and the brightest straight out of college. Of course other labs are head hunting, and of course it's his shift they would want to cull from.
Knowing something logically and being confronted with it in actuality are two different things.
They still don't talk about it. Nick's informing him is only courtesy, anyway. The official request will come from Nick's new employers.
When it does, he shoves it in the drawer with Nick's letter.
After two weeks, Catherine reminds him about the reference. After three, she threatens to write one out herself. Her eyes are flashing impatiently and there's a determined twist to her mouth that tells him he's not going to win this time.
He lets her words wash over him until she snaps and tells him bluntly that not doing the reference "won't do a goddamned thing, Gil. Nick's still gone."
It hits him harder than he expected, to hear it spelled out like that, and he fobs her off in a way that doesn't fool her and stages a tactical retreat to his office. Once there, he finally extracts the resignation letter from his drawer.
It's bland and says nothing; no anger, no accusations, just words that blur on the page beneath his tired gaze. He wonders how many versions Nick had to draft before the bitterness leached away.
He picks up his pen and uncaps it, then stares at the wall until that too blurs.
Ten days before Nick's leaving date, and the collection has gone around the office twice. Catherine's co-ordinating it and she hasn't yet passed by his office with it in her hand. He wonders if that is deliberate, but it's not like Catherine not to sting him for a buck or fifty.
He's working with Nick alone tonight for the first time since. That's how he thinks about it. Since. It gives the whole situation a mysticism it probably doesn't deserve, but he avoids thinking of it in terms that give it form. Since will do and since it is.
They still haven't talked about it. If he had a choice... he's not sure what he'd choose. Not to work with Nick? Not to feel time encroaching on him in a way that panics him in spite of himself?
Not to say whatever it was he said?
That's the worst, most frustrating thing about this whole mess. He can't remember what he said. They were just words, things he said without thinking, letting them spill forth like he had a hundred times before. Even now he cannot remember what words it was that actually did the damage. Perhaps none of them did. Perhaps it was cumulative, each word another drop until the foundations were washed away.
All he can remember is Nick's face and the way that his subordinate's fingers shook.
He has no choice. They're short staffed, as Warrick is in court first thing in the morning and Sara has once again used up all her overtime part way through the month. He has no choice and Nick? Nick has made his.
It's better than he expected and yet worse than he hoped. Nick is still polite, still distant but Gil's left feeling that if he makes the wrong move, says the wrong thing the floodgates will open and everything will spill forth. He's never been comfortable with emotion, and Nick is all emotion, beneath the surface. Or so he thinks.
They have stilted non-conversations all night, consisting of 'What do you think of this?' and 'Can you please pass that?' And yet still Grissom can feel the treacherous undertow beneath it all, just waiting to catch at his feet.
When he falls, it's not due to Nick. Dawn is touching the sky, and Nick is packing things away neatly, in clear plastic crates. It's somehow restful, to hear nothing but the sound of his breathing, of Nick's breathing and the tearing of tape.
The sense of peace snags at him, catching him off guard, and he stumbles.
He hopes, for one split second, that Nick will be gracious about it, will pretend not to understand. Will throw in some trite comment about their case, and the motivations of the suspect. He knows different though. Knows it even before the momentary tension eases from Nick's shoulders and Nick finally looks up at him.
His eyes are shadowed in the early morning light, but it's not that sight that sends chills through Grissom. It's the bitter twist of Nick's mouth, which may have lurked beneath the surface before but has never been seen. It's the deep groves by the side of Nick's mouth that he knows now aren't just due to Nick's ever present grin.
He's always known that Nick was stubborn, but this is how Gil sees him now; scoured clean, down to the bedrock. His eyes are flint, his face granite. The parallels strike Gil, even now, as trite but the triteness of the descriptors doesn't make them any less apt.
He's still as immutable as the desert, but just as Gil's overlooked the destructiveness of water, he's forgotten just how unforgiving the desert can be. Because Nick has always, always forgiven him.
Nick's not going to forgive him now. There's no going back, no last minute reprieve and until that last hope dies, he doesn't realise how hard he'd been clinging to it. He wants to take that word back, take the other half remembered words that preceded it back too, but it's too late.
When Nick finally speaks, his tone is measured. There's no anger, not any more. There's nothing but resolution.
"Because I can live with you believing I'm no good, Grissom. But I can't live with me believing it too."
He clears his throat self-consciously, and stares over Nick's shoulder. "You are good, Nick, and getting better."
It's a simple word, but the power in it has him meeting Nick's eyes. They burn, but there's not the sullen anger in them that he expected. They burn with determination and something he suspects is contempt.
"I did what you always tell me to do, Grissom. I looked at the evidence." And Nick's mouth curls in a smile that holds no warmth. "My solve rate is as good as any on the shift. I hit my hundredth before Warrick. I've never got anyone killed. I've never even gotten anyone hurt. I've not gone for a suspect."
He listens with a wince as Nick damns his colleagues one after another, but still can't tear his eyes away.
"I'm good at what I do."
He drawls the 'good', his accent coming to the fore as it does when he's excited or upset, but looking at his face Grissom can't tell if either is true. He can't read Nick anymore.
"Yes, you are."
The admission is drawn from him quietly, and Nick's smile deepens, but it's not a smile Gil's earned. It's not a smile of vindication, and maybe he's better at reading Nick than he thought because he realises that it's the same smile Nick gives when the evidence comes together, and he sees things clearly. The only triumph in it is that of solving the puzzle. There's no sense of victory over Gil.
There's nothing in that look for him - he's left with nothing.
As Nick turns and walks away, he realises that he's no longer the boy with his finger in the dyke, trying to hold back the flood. The dams have burst and everything has been washed away, but it's not Nick who's drowning.
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Fandom: Other (CSI)
Author: Alyse [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | PG | gen | 14k | 08/17/04
Characters: Nick Stokes, Gil Grissom
Summary: On his darkest, most hateful days he thinks of Nick as the desert.
Nothing but emptiness for miles.
Notes: Thanks to Ash for the beta.
Disclaimer/Other: The characters of CSI are the property of CBS Broadcasting Inc and Alliance-Atlantis Communications. No copyright infringement is intended.
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