Sara looked over at the children running around, playing tag across the lawn of the church and grinned when a determined shepherd managed to trip a long-robed member of the choir. The busy noisy sounds of the post-service gathering across the hedge echoed into the robbery crime scene that she and Grissom were processing.
The cheery call of voices over the holiday music and the squeal of the children carried on the still Las Vegas night, pushing at the silence surrounding her here in the dark, cold home. She rose up and Grissom stepped out onto the patio, his glance sweeping over her. “Are you all right?”
“Um yeah. Just watching the little maniacs over at Blessed Sacrament. I guess it was pageant night over there.”
Grissom looked over the hedge and Sara watched his profile soften for a moment, his lips flicking in a quick, wry smirk. “I think two angels are about to get grounded,” he observed; this was followed by the exasperated shriek that confirmed it.
“ROBBIE! JOSHUA! Get off of each other RIGHT NOW! Is THIS any way for God’s Messengers to BEHAVE?” came the motherly bellow. “You two are ON RESTRICTION until CHRISTMAS EVE!”
“Busted,” Sara shook her head with a chuckle and finished packing up the fingerprint kit. Grissom laughed softly himself, peeling off his latex gloves.
“That’s not so long—only two days. Back when I was Joseph—“ he stopped suddenly, and Sara turned quickly, her bright gaze locking onto his.
“Wait a minute--you were in a Christmas pageant?” she demanded, the slow curve of her grin rising in sweet delight. Unable to resist it, Grissom ducked his head and reluctantly nodded, looking a little discomfited at the confession.
“I was raised a Catholic, Sara—some traditions are universal . . . and inescapable,” he muttered. She picked up her kit and stepped closer, letting her shoulder brush his gently.
“Yeah, well I follow the evidence, Grissom—and until I get some, I’m not going to believe it.”
He raised his head and in the faint light of the porch, Sara could see his expression was both chagrined and rueful. She understood, and sucked in a breath, feeling a new wave of giddiness rise up inside her. “Oh. Wow. You’ve got proof, don’t you?” came her delighted accusation.
Slowly, reluctantly Grissom nodded.
It took every bit of patience she had, but Sara said nothing more for the rest of the night. She didn’t have to; every time she caught Grissom’s eye he silently met her gaze with amusement and an unspoken promise to follow through. By the time the shift was over and they met up at his townhouse, she was dogging his every step.
Grissom loftily ignored her eagerness, and carefully hung up his jacket and scarf. He dropped his keys in the cigar box on the table by the door, toed off his shoes, and then wandered in his socks to the kitchen as Sara followed suit.
“Wai-ting,” she reminded him, a laugh in her voice.
“I’m going to need fortification for this,” he told her, pulling a bottle of Pinot Noir out of the rack under the granite counter. Grissom uncorked the wine and poured two glasses, then carried them over to where Sara sat on the love seat, biting her lips with impatience. He moved to his bookcase and fished out something; a photo album, ancient and cracked. The inside of the leather cover was yellowing, and a faint scent of old book mildew rose from it.
When Grissom sat, Sara turned and molded easily to his side, letting him settle in, the album on his lap. He laid a hand on the cover and gave her a warning glance. “The contents of this album are the true test of our relationship,” he warned Sara, “Consider them classified documents, the contents of which are not to be discussed with . . . “
“—Catherine?” Sara prompted, smirking again. Grissom blanched and blinked, then nodded, rapidly.
“Definitely not. Nor Jim, nor Ecklie, Warrick, Nick, Greg or anyone else from the night shift. It takes years to build a reputation and seconds to lose one.”
“--Or gain a new one,” Sara pointed out saucily, before reaching for her glass and having a sip. Grissom shot a sidelong glance at her, then sighed a little.
“Everyone has incriminating photos. Mine happen to all be from before 1970. I’m willing to bet yours are from colle—“ He never got to finish the sentence; Sara’s kiss, tinted sweetly with wine insured that. She pulled away and winked solemnly at him.
“Classified, Grissom. Got it. Make with the evidence if you please.”
“Hmmph,” he harrumphed, but smiled afterwards. Carefully Grissom opened the album and held it at an angle so that Sara couldn’t peek over the side. He flipped through two pages, and sighing, laid the tome flat on his lap, finally letting her see the pictures.
“Ooooooohhhhhh God,” came her long slow comment. Grissom closed his eyes and let the heat rise to his face.
“My tenure at St. Xavier’s,” he intoned with a bemused smile. “I must truly love you if I’m letting you see these, you know.”
Sara barely heard him, so focused was she on the ragged-edged prints neatly mounted in the album. The photos were small; black and white of course, but it was the subject within them that drew her full attention. Gil Grissom the lanky boy, solemn and self-conscious in his white alb, the cincture loose on his nonexistent hips. He stared out of the first photo, hands at his sides and the amount of skinny wrist showing beyond his sleeves spoke of a growth spurt.
“Wow, look at those curls,” Sara murmured, entranced. Grissom gave a grunt and reached for his glass of wine.
“A deception of genetics. I was neither angelic nor adorable. I served under Father Donovan and Father Nuñez for a few years until we moved. Mom found another church in Marina Del Rey but by then . . . “ He shrugged. Sara nodded absently, and moved her gaze to another picture. This was of a line of altar boys, a few shyly smiling this time in the sunshine of a clear day. They were flanked on each end by priests, and Sara easily picked out Grissom near the middle; he was the one with the book in his hand.
“So, not interested in the priesthood?” she teased. Grissom arched an eyebrow and shook his head.
“The academics had appeal, certainly, but in the end I was troubled by personal issues with the dogma and my own hormones.”
“Raging?” Sara mock-sympathized.
Grissom shot her a dry look. “Uncomfortably persistent.”
“A condition that continues to this day—“ she agreed, snorting.
Grissom’s gaze went from dry to completely desiccated, and he moved to close the book, but Sara kissed his cheek in a peace offering. Slightly mollified, he sighed. “Moving on—“
Carefully he turned the page, and there was a larger picture of a group of biblically costumed children ranging in size and expression, all caught in the bright flash of a photo. Sara leaned forward, and Grissom spoke again.
“The pageant. Tell me about your stint as Joseph,” Sara grinned, sipping her wine.
Grissom sighed. “It all started in nineteen-sixty-nine, when Janey Ivers started growing . . .”
Gil Grissom looked up from the latest issue of MAD to see Mrs. Bartholomew fussing with part of the manger. She didn’t like how rickety it was, but he’d already told her it was old, and one of the legs was shorter than the others. Everything at St. Xavier’s was old: the cassocks and pews and bibles and people. Everything had a hint of dust, beeswax and incense to it, even the baptismal font.
He didn’t mind. It was quiet most of the time, and when it wasn’t quiet, the music left him soothed. Gil already knew all the best hiding places in and around St. Xavier’s; the old choir robe storeroom, and behind the hedges around the parish hall; the organ loft and the basement storeroom. He’d explored it all and knew where he could curl up with a book before he was needed for Service; that was good enough for him.
At the moment the rehearsal for the Nativity pageant wasn’t going terribly well, and he suspected that Mrs. Bartholomew was about to blow because her lips were all pinched up and the one little curl over her forehead was dangling loose. That only happened when she was really distracted, so he reluctantly set down his MAD and waited.
“David Anthony Bartholomew SIT. DOWN! Janey, Brent; I need you to be in place. Roman, speak up please, otherwise the audience won’t hear a word you’re saying—GIL!”
He was already at her left elbow. “Ma’am?”
“Can you please find something to prop the leg of the manger? I don’t want baby Jesus to tumble out.”
“Yes Ma’am. That would be . . . bad,” Gil agreed. Mrs. Bartholomew looked at him and her expression twinkled for a second.
“A fall from grace . . . honestly, all I want is for this thing to go off without TOO much trouble,” she sighed, finally brushing her stray curl back.
Gil found an empty votive and put it under the short leg; as he worked on it, Roman Vela recited his narration in a little whispery voice as he squirmed, twisting his robe in his hands.
“An’ the sheper said fear not!”
“--The Angel said it, Roman, not the shepherds, honey,” Mrs. Bartholomew reminded him patiently.
“Ohyeah. Annnnd we bring you great Tide for all people.”
Gil bit his lips to keep from laughing, and he looked up to see the director doing the same. She glanced at Mary and Joseph and sighed.
“Thank you, Roman, that was . . . good. Brent, Janey, come here for a moment please—“
That sounded suspicious, and Gil tried to slip away, but Mrs. Bartholomew shook her head. “No, you too, Gil. All right, stand up straight, please--“
Janey Ivers reluctantly lifted her shoulders, shooting a pained look at the ceiling while Brent Honeycutt bounced on the balls of his feet, blinking a little.
Mrs. Bartholomew shook her head. “I’m sorry Brent, but . . . Janey’s too tall.”
“She’s not that tall,” the boy protested. Mrs. Bartholomew stepped closer and dropped her hand on Brent’s head, then moved it horizontally to the girl standing next to him. She ended up lightly touching Janie’s ear.
“Oh dear. Looks like we might have to do some recasting. Stay here a moment while I talk to Father Donovan,” Mrs. Bartholomew murmured. She moved off towards the vestibule.
“Shrimp.” The girl hissed out of the corner of her mouth.
Brent scowled. “Yeah, well it takes one to KNOW one.”
“What?” Janey turned to glare at him. ”That doesn’t even make any SENSE, you turd!”
Gil tried not to laugh, but it was hard not to—Brent could be a mean little troll when he wanted to be. Janey rolled her eyes as she took her veil off and shook out her long black hair. Brent shifted away from her and glared at Gil.
“If I HAVE to be in this stupid play, then I get to talk. I’m not gonna be a stupid shepherd! My Dad will tell that to Mrs. B.,” Brent announced. Janey snorted.
“You could be dead meat, too, runt. Let’s go--Mrs. B. won’t be back for a while.” So saying, Janey stomped off stage and out the side door of the parish hall. Grissom followed her, feeling vaguely guilty about what was going to happen. Janey waited until he was outside with her, then flashed him a careless grin as they rounded the corner out of sight.
“Come on altar boy . . . match?” She already had a cigarette in her fingers; a Lucky Strike by the look of it. Gil looked over his shoulder uneasily and fished in his pocket, pulling out the little box.
“Janey—“ he warned. She smirked, brushing her straight hair back over her shoulders as she held the cigarette out.
“Come on. Gimmee a light and I’ll tell you about my big sister’s boobs,” she wheedled. Gil hesitated, then struck one of the matches. Janey lit up and puffed, coughing a bit.
Gil shifted miserably, wanting to walk away and unable to actually do it. Janey whispered. “They’re bigger than cantaloupes and she’s always checking them out in the mirror. Sometimes she grabs them and squeezes them too.”
He looked up, startled. “That would hurt.”
“Not the way she does it.”
Gulping, Gil fought not to think about what a good squeeze would feel like . . . and failed.
Fortunately, Janey didn’t see his guilty expression; she’d hurriedly dropped the cigarette and was stepping on it firmly as the sound of voices carried around the corner of the church.
“ . . . Were just here. Ah there they are! Our pure and pristine Mary and Joseph!” Mrs. Bartholomew beamed. Father Donovan smiled, but his nose twitched, and his glance went down to the sidewalk, focusing on Janey’s feet.
“What a . . . lucky . . . turn of events, eh?” he replied, looking sharply at the girl, who blushed. Gil swallowed hard, and Mrs. Bartholomew patted his shoulder.
“Father Donovan agrees with me that Brent Honeycutt is just a little too
. . . unimposing to play Joseph.”
“And he’s too short, yeah,” Janey agreed bluntly.
Mrs. Bartholomew gave a reluctant nod. “Unfortunately, yes. But Gil’s taller than you are now, Janey, so we’ll just recast and have him play Joseph.”
Janey eyed Gil and shrugged. “Cool.” She shifted her gaze to the adults and asked, “What about Brent?”
“Mr. Honeycutt will simply have to be satisfied with being the Innkeeper,” Father Donovan supplied. “That way he’ll still have a speaking part, and everyone will be happy.”
Janey and Gil looked at each other doubtfully.
Backstage was quiet pandemonium. In their sheep costumes, the Beebe twins were playing tag around the wagon with the donkey posters on it, and the choir was shuffling on the bleachers behind the scrim. Father Donovan and Mrs. Bartholomew were giving last minute encouragement to Roman Vela, and Gil chewed his lip as he gripped the handle of the wagon, wondering if he was going to be able to do this.
He had to; his mother was out front in one of the first row folding chairs, sitting next to Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Owen. It wasn’t that big a deal, really—Roll the wagon with Mary in it across the stage, say a few lines to the Innkeeper, and then a few to reassure Mary, and then roll her over to the manger and help her out. After that, stand behind her and look lovingly at the plastic baby Jesus in the manger.
Piece of cake.
Brent had been a jerk during rehearsal, practically yelling his lines about no room at the Inn right in their faces, but Janey had flipped him off when Mrs. Bartholomew wasn’t looking, and Brent was so annoyed he’d stopped, for a while.
But Gil had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that the former Joseph wasn’t done with showing off.
The piano music rose as old Mrs. Alvarez pounded out “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” with enough force to wake the dead. Obediently the choir started singing, sounding like a closet full of mice. The musty velvet curtain parted, and Gil glanced back into the wagon at Janey. She was adjusting her veil.
Roman stood off on stage left, squirming again as his shepherd costume drooped around his thin little shoulders. After the choir ended the carol, his voice rang out. “And it came to pass that all the land should be taxied under Caesar ‘Gustus . . .”
Gil relaxed a bit; for once, Roman was doing good, and everyone else was settling down now, getting the show going. The choir hummed a little and that was his cue. Tugging the handle of the painted Radio Flyer, Gil stepped out on the stage, hauling Janey behind him. There was a ripple of applause, which made him blush a little. Gil glanced out and saw his mother, beaming from the front row, her eyes locked on him, and the temptation to wave rose up, but he manfully gripped the handle of the wagon and kept pulling.
Roman spoke again. “An’ Mary was great big with child so, they sought shelter in Bethlehem at a Inn.”
Gil slowly made his way to the other side of the stage, being careful not to let the wagon bump the back of his legs. He looked down in to the face of Brent, who was decked in a long cotton bathrobe, a makeshift dishtowel keffiyeh on his head. Gil cleared his throat, praying his voice didn’t crack.
“Have you room at this inn for us, Innkeeper?” he squeaked for the first two words before his tone dropped a few registers. There was a little titter from the audience, and Gil fought the heat rising on his face. It wasn’t his fault—he knew he sounded funny, but he couldn’t help it.
Brent smirked, and drew in a deep breath, then loudly bellowed, ”Why YES I DO! Come right on in, you POOR, WEARY TRAVELLERS!!”
Gil stared stupidly at Brent, blinking. Off-stage a few first-grade angels began to whimper, and Mrs. Alvarez accidentally hit a key on the piano, making a little ‘plink’ echo in the embarrassed quiet.
“Uhh . . . “ Gil stammered. “Okay.”
The gloating expression on Brent’s face said it all. A rustling from the audience began; the slow restless sound of people leaning forward; fascinated and just a little bit fearful. Gil looked off to the wings, where Father Donovan was glaring; not at him but at the back of Brent’s head. Gil had the impression that the priest was debating about whether or not to reach out from behind the curtain and smartly rap the smart aleck Innkeeper on the top of his head.
Gil cleared his throat. “Thank you, kind Innkeeper.” Tugging on the wagon again, he pulled Janey past the smug-looking Brent and into the wings while out beyond the curtain, the rustling rose into surprised buzz. In the darkness, Gil turned the wagon so quickly that Janey nearly tipped out.
“God, what are you DOING, Gil?” came her hissed and angry question. Father Donovan dropped a hand on his shoulder; Gil looked at the priest.
For a moment, a little flash of perfect understanding; a synchronicity sparked between them.
Father Donovan nodded.
Quickly, Gil tugged the wagon out on stage once more, this time his stride more purposeful; the startled audience dropped silent again. Gil spoke up firmly. “No. No WAY. This place is a pigsty, Innkeeper! In fact--” Gil paused dramatically, “--My wife and I would rather sleep out in your STABLE than in THIS crummy room!” he finished.
Spontaneously, the audience clapped—several giggled in appreciation-- and the warming rush of relief and support from them washed up towards the stage. Gil ducked his head, not daring to look back at Brent and carefully towed his precious cargo to the scrim of the manger. Once there, he held out a hand to Janey. She grinned at him, and after climbing out, carefully settled herself on the hay bale, doing her best to look virginal and serene.
Gil carefully gave the handle of the wagon to one of the little shepherds and the child towed it off-stage as Roman spoke up again. “An’ she brought out her first borne son and laid him in a manger in swaddle clothes because there was—“ Here little Roman paused and glared off in the direction of Brent, his thin chest rising with righteous indignation,“--NO ROOM in the Inn!”
After that, it was all a bit of a blur to Gil. He vaguely remembered the angels dancing around, the arrival of the three Kings (one of whom was a chubby little girl who looked adorable in her fuzzy wool mustache) and the choir singing “Angels we Have Heard on High” in a register so high it made him grit his teeth.
Afterwards, when the big velvet curtains closed amid thunderous applause, the low but commanding voice of Father Donovan froze every child in place. “No. Body. Move.”
No one did, not even old Mrs. Alvarez. Mrs. Bartholomew looked as if she wanted to faint as she gripped one of the music stands for support. Father Donovan strode to the inside of the curtain and stared at the assembled cast and choir, his expression serious, his eyes bright and merciless.
“NO one takes liberties with the Nativity, my lambs. NO one at Saint Xavier, and NO one true in this faith. We DON’T rewrite the birth of Christ to pander to our egos, Mr. Honeycutt, and YOU would do well to remember that as you spend your next twelve Saturdays pulling weeds out at the cemetery. Now, I want everyone to smile nicely for your parents and neighbors--“
So saying, Father Donovan strode away, motioning for the curtains to open again. The curtains creaked, and Gil looked up into several flashes that blinded him--
Sara was laughing, her low bubbly chuckles half-smothered against Grissom’s shoulder as she clung to him. He was grinning himself, his fingers stroking the bottom edge of the old photo, delighted not only in the old story itself, but also in the pleasure it gave Sara.
“Oh . . . oh man, that’s . . . “ she couldn’t finish as another welling of giggles rose up.
Grissom laughed softly too. “All’s well that ended well. Brent was on his hands and knees around gravestones for three months for that. Father Donovan commended me for quick thinking, but honestly, it was all pure luck.”
“Not divine improvisation?” Sara chortled. Grissom rolled his eyes. She gazed once more on the photo, her finger gently tracing the startled expression on young Gil Grissom’s face. “Sooo cute. Tell me, were you really THAT curious about . . . ?” she let the sentence trail off, her smirk shifting into something more suggestive and inviting.
Grissom set the album on the coffee table and leaned back on the loveseat, the arm around her shoulders tightening, his expression as innocent as he could make it. “Yes. In fact, I still am. Are you offering to contribute to the ongoing education of a former Altar Boy?”
“I don’t know . . . “ Sara murmured, pretending to think it over even as his hand slipped up under her shirt. “I’d hate to get you . . . INN trouble.”
That earned her several gropes, and smothered kisses for good measure.