Casa Caliente 4: Significant Solitude

Chapter One


Grissom climbed out of the Tahoe and stood looking at the bungalow with a frown creasing his brow. The early light of a hot dawn lit the roof of the house, turning the terra cotta tiles there a burnt orange. He squared his shoulders and walked forward, his reluctant steps indicating he was in no hurry to mount the porch steps.


Keys jingled in his hand; he carried a bakery bag in the other.


Slowly, he unlocked the door, taking a moment to stroke the cool wood surface before slipping inside the quiet room beyond it. Ridiculously, the urge to shout ‘Honey, I’m home!’ rose in his throat and he shook his head at his own bizarre sense of whimsy. Home it might be, but no one here would hear him playact.


He dropped the keys and bag on the coffee table and wearily plonked down on the sofa facing the fireplace, feeling every one of his years this morning. Slowly Grissom rubbed his face, giving in to the fatigue washing over him. It felt good to sit. It felt good to sit HERE, in the precious privacy of this house and let go of the stiffness holding him together. Bit by bit he relaxed, slumping back, letting the thoughts he’d been holding back come forth, along with the feelings around them.


The phone call had come right in the middle of the briefing, interrupting them all. Sara had smiled apologetically before answering it.


Fear.


Concern.


Frustration.


Not for himself, but for Sara. God he hated seeing her upset, trying to remain calm in front of everyone. The hardest thing in the world was to let everyone else comfort her with shoulder pats and arm strokes, knowing all he really wanted to do himself was reel her in and hold her close. But he was Grissom, the boss, and by reputation NOT touchy feely.


Screw that. The entire drive to the airport he hadn’t let go of her cold hand except to get in and out of the car. She gripped him back when she reflected about it, but Grissom knew her thoughts were already miles away, in a hospital in California. Before he put her on the plane he’d huddled her into an alcove and wrapped himself around her.


Even now he wasn’t sure if that had been for her benefit, or his.


She’d nearly lost it then, molding tightly to him, her cat bones and light frame shaking as denied fear shivered through her. He hushed and soothed and held and fought arousal in that urgent need to simply comfort. Sara’s words were jumbled and choked in tears, but her body softened to his, drinking in the offered warmth gratefully; by the time the boarding call came she was quiet and ready.


Like bamboo, that was Sara. Exotic, tall, graceful, but tougher than the buffeting winds of fate. Amused at his own turn of phrase, Grissom gave a self-deprecating smile and stretched out on the sofa. Before giving in to sleep he looked up at the Yin Yang.


It was vertical again, and he chuckled.


*** *** ***


He was lost, which never happened, not in these halls. He KNEW these halls, had walked them for well over a decade now. Looking around Grissom tried to peer through the glass layers and spot someone or something familiar, but nothing made sense. Vague instruments of analysis; his technology of deduction sat all around in a fuzzy edged reality.


Looking up he tried to orient himself, keeping to the left, wandering with a growing sense of unease. Not scared, no, but definitely off-balance. He stumbled.


On the floor at his feet lay a green smashed coffee mug. Grissom noted the splatter pattern of the contents seemed odd, almost like words. As he stared, the coffee trickles thickened and shifted from brown to crimson, the splashes and streams forming a strange calligraphy. It wasn’t coffee any more. The harder he stared, the more frustrating the swirling blood stains became.


They’re going to figure it out, Gilbert dear. Be ready.”


He looked up into the face of Portia Richmond. She stood serenely in the hall in full red and gold showgirl regalia, elegant, tall, looking as if she’d just stepped out of her portrait. Blinking, he nodded.


I know. I thought you were dead.”


She shrugged, winking. He looked again; she was gone. Grissom stared down and the coffeeblood was running down the hall. Panic gripped his chest and he began to run, moving in the direction of the flow.


He woke up, shuddering a little, disoriented as he stared at the living room ceiling. For a moment, Grissom held very still, trying to recapture the dream. He’d read enough about dreams to know there was some symbolism to them of course, so he concentrated.


Portia Richardson, he guessed, was his mental representative of Las Vegas herself—slightly dated but still majestic and seductive. He smiled briefly, amused at his choice and turned back to the other features in the dream. He knew the lab symbolized more than just the workplace, and the coffee mug and its contents stood for more than just nourishment, but putting them into some recognizable gist seemed difficult.


Being lost in the lab probably meant confusion, disruption. Sara’s phone call came to mind and he nodded to himself grimly, acknowledging the connection. The coffee mug and blood though—


Inconclusive. Not enough evidence, his mind told him.



He got up, stretching slightly, and his gaze fell on the bakery bag. Slowly he pulled out the muffin, peeling the paper cup off of it before breaking it into pieces and eating them. He wasn’t fond of bran, but someone had been gently hinting it would be good for him to get some nutrition in once in a while—


God he missed her.


*** *** ***


Succulents are your best bet, sir. They can take a lot of direct sun, and don’t need much watering. I’d suggest Burro Tail or Boston Beans if you’re needed to fill in a large area—“ the young nursery clerk commented. Grissom looked over the flats and considered his options. Gardening wasn’t his forte by any means, but he could handle filling in a few flowerbeds. Physical labor would keep him busy enough not to brood.


Much.


He chose seven flats of assorted succulents and wandered around the nursery as they were being loaded to the register, his glance taking everything in carefully. Gris noted the stone statuary and vaguely wondered if Sara would object to something for the back yard. Nothing cutesy of course; he couldn’t imagine staring out of the kitchen window onto a stone fairy or gnome family. But some of the tortoises looked like reasonably accurate replications. He drifted closer to a cluster of them and studied the stone carapaces.


Grissom—“


Looking up at the sound of his name, he caught sight of Greg, clutching a two-pound bag of peat moss in one hand and a flowerpot in the other. Over his shoulder peeked a round baby face.


Greg,” he nodded, “Wyatt.”


At the sound of his name, the baby in the backpack blinked, trying to focus on the source of the voice. Greg winced as a small hand tugged his hair.


Dude, release already!” he complained. Greg turned his attention to the man in front of him. “ So what brings you to the exotic world of flora today?”


Ground cover. And you?” he neatly deflected the question, cocking his head at Greg. Wyatt was busily chewing his own little pink fist as his father held up the flowerpot.


Repotting my grandmother’s African Violets. Someone who shall remain nameless managed to pull them over in his tablecloth clutching excitement today.”


Grissom smiled, picturing the moment of domestic chaos. Greg managed a grin himself and looked over his shoulder at the child.


Luckily none of the plants were damaged, just stunned, therefore the Wyatt man and I are here to make amends.”


When’s the hearing?” Grissom asked softly, still watching the baby closely. Greg dropped his gaze, his shoulders suddenly tense.


In two weeks,” Greg muttered softly, “If Sondra can actually make it to the courthouse this time.”


Gris nodded gently, shifting, not sure how to be supportive, but Wyatt burbled and kicked, making his father grin again.


Oooh no rest for the weary! Gotta go boss man, the Capo di tutti Capi here drives me on.”


All right,” Grissom nodded. He watched Greg lope off with the baby on his back with a new keenness and it was only when the nursery clerk tapped his shoulder that he remembered his errand.


*** *** ***


It shouldn’t have been a moral dilemma, but it was. Grissom stared at the package of frozen enchiladas in his hands and hesitated, noting the garish photo on the front, the enchiladas steaming and fragrant, carefully bisected to show the rich meat filling.


Meat. That was the question. So far it hadn’t been an issue, not with eggs and pasta and cheese and rice and vegetables and a little cooperative cooking. He’d been more than willing to experiment, and Sara had no compunction about showing off her recently revived cooking skills either. They ate well on the weekends, even when they didn’t go out.


But did this weekend count, Grissom wondered. He was alone, and perfectly capable of driving himself to El Rosale if he really wanted enchiladas. Dulce and Nestor would be glad to see him he knew, yet he didn’t feel like leaving the house. And in the house, there was no meat.


He stared at the package; the enchiladas had beef, although there were cheese ones still in the freezer case. Absently he turned the box over and looked at the ingredients, still debating the issue with himself. Coming from a midwestern family made it hard to wean away from carnivorous tradition. His mouth twitched.


The surest defense against temptation is cowardice,“ he told himself, and tossed the box back into the freezer case with a laugh. In the next aisle he doubled up on macaroni and cheese.


*** *** ***


The phone rang. Grissom waited patiently, amused at the old fashioned tone that indicated a regular phone instead of a cell. One the third ring a voice answered, low and masculine.


Ocean Inn, this is Tom Sidle, may I help you?”


Yes, I’m Gil Grissom from Las Vegas, and I’d like to speak to Virgo DawnPrincess if she’s there.”


A faint snort of amusement echoed down the line, and Tom’s voice sounded much warmer this time.


Dear God, nobody’s used Sara’s real name since Iran took the US Embassy hostage, dude. Let me go get her, all right? Jeez!” with more chuckling, the voice faded away. Grissom heard the sound of hurried footsteps and a clunk as the receiver fell.


You are NEVER to call me that, Gilbert Gordon Grissom! I told you in strictest confidence, and I do NOT appreciate your abuse of that trust!” came her laughing snarl over the tinny line. He grinned so hard it hurt, hearing her attempt to be mad.


At least your mother had some aesthetic appreciation of symbolic nomenclature instead of being addicted to alliteration.”


Who knows what YOU might have been named if YOUR mother gave birth to you on an Indian blanket on the beach while praising the rising sun. Let’s just call it a draw here, okay?”


A quiet loving pause filled the line, and Sara sighed.


He’s improving. They got to the clot in the first hour and managed to dissolve it, so the doctors are telling us he’s through the worst of it right now.”


That’s good news,” Grissom comforted her. She sighed again.


So far. Mom’s holding up, and Tom’s here along with the kids, so it’s a full house at the moment. Tomorrow they’re going to do a cerebral assessment on dad and we’ll take it from there.”


Good.”


Grissom?” came her voice, softer now, wistful. He pressed the receiver closer to his ear.


Yes?”


What are you wearing?” came her slow tease. He laughed; he couldn’t help it, and stretched out on the bed, crossing his ankles.


At the moment, a towel and a grin,” he replied honestly, provoking a little gasp and giggle from the other end of the line.


You are NOT.”


I am,” he assured her gravely and Sara made a greedy sound.


You just bathed—“ came her deduction. Grissom made a little encouraging noise.


Where are you?”


The house. It IS the weekend you know.”


You’re there? Really?” she sounded pleased, and embarrassed to be pleased. Gris shifted a hand behind his head as he cradled the phone to his ear.


Of course I am. I promised to get to the flowerbeds and I try to keep my word about such things. “


You didn’t go overboard did you?”


Patiently he sighed. “Sara, I’ve been maintaining this yard off and on for fifteen years or so. I know what I’m doing.”


A faint silence greeted this, and he wondered if she was annoyed at him. It was hard to tell without seeing her face. Finally her voice came over the line.


Sorry . . . I just—I just miss being there. I’ve gotten used to you being my weekend project.”


Me?” he blinked, warmed and startled at the same time. Her soft laugh echoed in his ear.


Oh yeah babe. Care and feeding of one slightly cranky, terminally horny entomologist. It’s a high maintenance job, but I love putting in the hours.”


Another pause lingered in the conversation.


Care to make the position permanent?” Grissom blurted, his pulse racing even as the words left his mouth. He bit his tongue, not daring to breathe, wondering where the hell that sudden insane impulse had sprung from.


He heard her make a choked sound, and then came the clatter of dishes from somewhere.


I don’t know—I’ll have to talk to my boss,” Sara countered, and even though her tone was light, the flirtatious element was tempered by something else, something he couldn’t quite recognize. Grissom fought a deep stab of disappointment. Maybe she misunderstood. God knew HE wasn’t too clear on what he’d just suggested. Maybe he hadn’t actually, sort of—


Listen, I have to go, Gris. I’ll try to call you after dad’s assessment tomorrow to see if I need a longer leave. I miss you.”


I miss you too. Sara . . .” he gripped the phone a little tighter, “About what I said—“


Love you,” she broke in, a little desperately. “Think of me tonight because I sure as hell will be thinking of you. Night, Gil—“


And the line clicked. Grissom slowly folded up the cell phone and set it on the nightstand, then dropped a hand over his eyes.


Love you—“ he whispered to no one.


*** *** ***


The phone rang. Muzzily Grissom picked it up after the second grab at it.


Grissom.”


Hey Grissom, I hate like hell to bother you. This is Adele, and I’ve got a request from the Silver Springs sheriff’s office for a time of death timeline on a body from a mineshaft?”


Grissom fished for his glasses, noting it was nearly ten in the morning. Slowly he began to get up.


That’s fine. I’ll be in within an hour, Adele.”


Sorry about taking up your Saturday, but—“


No problem,” he dutifully countered through a yawn.



The lab was nearly empty as Grissom made his way down the halls. He fought the tiny sense of déjà vu lingering from his Friday dream and made his way to the autopsy bay where Al Robbins waited.


Vegas does NOT deserve two contentious warriors like us.” He told Grissom with a smile. Gris grunted and wandered over to the body on the gurney. It was stained brown and nearly skeletal, with tufts of grass and clods of dirt clinging everywhere. Various beetles, flies and millipedes were already moving along the stainless steel surface. Robbins handed over a green coffee mug and pointed with his chin.


A Jane Doe, roughly sixteen to eighteen years old. No clothing or personal effects found with the body. I’ve done the dental x-ray and preliminary cause of death—“


Grissom sipped the coffee and looked over the rim at Robbins, who sighed.


Blunt trauma to the back of the head. Her skull was bashed in, but the object left an unusual impression—not the usual bat or club or rock.”


For a while they discussed the case as Grissom deftly captured specimens and dropped them in separate Petrie dishes. After a while, Robbins managed a casual tone as he asked,


So how’s Sara?”


Gil hesitated a second, then went back to chasing a particularly elusive beetle.


You heard about her father I take it.”


Yes. Catherine mentioned a stroke,” Robbins agreed, watching the other man closely. Grissom frowned, finally pinning the bug with tweezers.


The doctors managed to get to the clot within the golden hour, so she tells me his recovery ought to be good. She sounded upbeat.”


Ah.” Robbins replied, scraping a cell sample from a femur.


For a while longer they worked on in companionable silence. Grissom rounded up his Petrie dishes and added a soil sample to the lot. Not looking at Robbins, he suddenly asked,


Al? How long have you been married?”


Careful to avert his gaze from Grissom, Robbins kept his focus on the slide he was preparing.


Thirty two years so far. How Simone still manages to put up with me is one of the unexplained wonders of the world.”


Do you—work at it?”


At his wondering tone, Robbins DID smile to himself.


I don’t know if it’s work, Gil—it’s more like a state of being. An elevated plane where your consciousness crosses with hers, like a Venn diagram.”


Grissom brightened. “Spiritual mathematics.”


Close enough,” Robbins smiled, finally looking over his shoulder at the other man. “Joys multiplied, sorrows divided, and ultimately, a greater sum between you than either of you apart. Souls balanced in a timeless equation, so to speak.”


Grissom’s gaze flickered to the ring on Robbins’s left hand; the coroner pretended not to notice, but inwardly he grinned.


The fact she’s even letting me come in on a Saturday is testimony to the woman’s patience. We were SUPPOSED to look at drapes—“ he grumbled.


Grissom managed a dutiful chuckle and slipped out of the double doors carrying the insect samples. Robbins shook his grizzled head watching him go.


Got a sleeve big enough for that heart you’re wearing, Grissom?” he murmured gently to himself.


*** *** ***


By the time the Jane Doe had been identified as Latonia Jameson, Grissom had proven conclusively that she’d been down the mineshaft for just over four months, a timeline that coincided with the parole of her hot-tempered ex-con boyfriend. Brass picked him up at his bowling alley job, and Grissom remembered the moment of satisfaction at matching Latonia’s head trauma to the edge of a bowling pin.


He drove away from the lab, turning onto the fifteen without thinking about it, and it was only as he pulled up on the gravel drive of 10867 Caliente that he realized where he was. Grissom gripped the steering wheel a little more tightly in his hands, realizing how ingrained the routine had become now. He rubbed his forehead agitatedly.

He managed a quick peanut butter sandwich, and was settling down to read when a strange noise made him jump. It came again, a quick ‘taptaptap’ at the front door. For a moment he froze, then drew in a breath and rose to answer it slowly.


The delivery woman was wide and black, and chewed a cheek full of gum ferociously as she held out the basket.


Doctor Grisson?”


Grissom,” he corrected politely, looking at the wicker basket warily. The delivery woman grinned.


I have special instructions that go with this package, sir—“ she held out a clipboard and cleared her throat.


Quote, this is so he doesn’t starve to death on tofu, unquote. I have no idea what that means, do you?”


He was smiling already, looking at the blocks of cheese and sausage that filled the basket, along with fresh bread, crackers and cans of salted nuts. Taking it from the delivery woman, Grissom nodded.


She worries about my ability to feed myself,” he admitted. The delivery woman laughed, her big white teeth flashing.


Well I wouldn’t fret about the next few days, sir. Enjoy the feast!”


Grissom watched her truck drive off and then took the wicker basket into the living room as emotions swirled in him. His loneliness was pierced by a shy sense of delight in the unexpected gift, and through all of it sweet warm memories of Sara permeated his every thought. He couldn’t be sure if this meat supportive stance would last through her return, but for the duration, at least, the snacking would be good, he mused as he sipped his coffee.


On impulse he picked up his cell phone and hit the first speed dial button. The phone rang several times then connected to a voice mailbox promising a return call at a later time. Frowning, Grissom dialed the Ocean Inn number, waiting through several rings before a familiar voice finally answered.


Ocean Inn, I’m Sara, how may I help you?” came her distant low voice. Distracted by her tone, Grissom fumbled with his mug; it fell, smashing on the kitchen floor, the coffee splattering over his socks.


Sara what’s wrong?”


Grissom!” her tone perked up slightly, but he could practically feel the fatigue in it. Ignoring the mess at his feet he waited.


God, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner. Dad’s had another stroke,” she blurted in a rush of words that sent a cold shock through Gil’s entire frame.


Is he--?”


He’s in ICU right now, but the doctors have been talking to mom about the prognosis and . . . it’s not that great. According to them he’s got severely blocked arteries, so that’s complicating things. Right now we’re in a holding pattern waiting to see if the clot busting drugs are going to help, and Mom refuses to close the B&B, so we’re putting in the time here too—“


I’m coming out there,” Grissom told her firmly. Sara gave a placating chuckle.


That’s really sweet, but there’s nothing you can do, babe. The three of us are taking turns sitting with dad and running the Inn, so we’ve got it covered here.” Despite her calm, brave words, Grissom could hear the pain deeply imbedded in her voice. He found himself gripping the cell phone so tightly the edge was cutting into his hand. So forcing himself to relax, he glanced down at the floor.


The mess there resembled the one in his dream exactly; a second chill brushed though his entire body.


Sara, honey . . .” words of comfort eluded him and he chewed his lip helplessly. On the other end came a soft hum.


It’s okay, really. Mom and dad have a lot of friends and neighbors, Grissom. We’ve got more casseroles than we know what to do with.”


You’re sure you don’t want me there?” momentarily piqued at her self-sufficiency, Grissom stopped prodding the coffee cup shards with his wet sock.


Gil, someone’s famous last words to me once were and I quote, ‘the lab needs you’ unquote. Yes I want you here, but it’s probably not a good idea right now. Of course, if dad . . .” her voice trailed away and Grissom’s stomach clenched at the sound of her muffled sniffling. She cleared her throat hastily.


Sorry, getting a little negative there.”


Sara, you’re entitled to cry. You’ve been through a lot, honey, and the human spirit can only take so much.”


I won’t cry HERE,” she insisted fiercely in a low, urgent whisper. “Only with you. Then it’s safe.”


The intensity of her words made Grissom shake slightly; he braced himself against the counter before speaking, hoping his voice didn’t break.


Whatever you need, Sara acushla.”


The warm pause that flowed between them after that was charged with joy and longing; Grissom forced the lump out of his throat, wondering when he’d developed it. Finally Sara laughed.


So—did you get the basket?” her tone was milder, and carried a hint of pleading. Grissom responded to her unspoken request for lightness.


Yes I did, thank you. Is this for the duration, or are you coming back to the dark side?” as he spoke he fished for the paper towels and began to clean up the kitchen floor.


Consider it a reprieve,” she assured him. “I don’t object to YOU eating meat, babe.”


But you’re still holding out?” he teased, ever so gently. Sara made a soft rumble in his ear.


The only heated flesh I take down my throat is YOURS, Grissom.”


He tried to stifle his moan, but Sara laughed at the tiny noise he made.


That sounds like some one misses me—“ came her gloat. Unable to deny it outright, Grissom cleared his throat.


Yeah well while I’m trying to do the noble supportive partner thing, if you say things like THAT, then certain parts of me are not with the program,” he confessed huskily, dumping the soggy paper towels and broken ceramic in the trash.


Mmmmm, now THAT does me good to hear.”


Sara . . .” Grissom hesitated, then plunged on, “When did you start . . . feeling a certain way about me?”


In the long pause that followed, Grissom held his breath. He heard the faint sounds of a microwave in the background.


Well, the physical attraction started the minute I felt your hand brushing maggots out of my lap. You have really nice hands, you know. Big and gentle.”


Grissom let out a sigh and she added,


Are you okay? It’s not like you to—“


Look for reassurance? I suppose not, but you’re not here, and I’m . . . lonely.”


The confession made him grimace a little, as did the sharp longing for her that suddenly flooded through him. Grissom hated himself for sounding so needy, but the soft purr on the end of the line interrupted his pity party.


God, Gil—“ came Sara’s voice, strong and sweet. He coughed.


You know it’s strange, but I never realized all this time that that was the case. I function, Sara—I can work and read and sleep and eat just as I always have—but without you in my orbit, it’s pretty bleak.”


Okay, I’m officially ODing on your Love Jones here babe. Gotta stop or I really WILL cry,” Sara sniffled, her contralto lilting happily in his ear. He grinned.


It works? The truth works?”


Always did, Grissom. So go chew on your nitrite-loaded goodies and ponder that for a while. I’ll let you know about dad when I know, all right?”


Good. Go sleep Sara, I know you need it.”


Will do in a few hours. I have muffins to make for the breakfast buffet first. Have to go. Be good.”


Grissom smiled into the phone.


Sara?”


Yeah?”


My heart is with yours—“ he told her softly. She made another sniffling sound.


Okay, that REALLY is it or I’m going to lose it—good night, Grissom—“ and the dial tone buzzed in his ear.



                                       
Significant Solitude 2                                               
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