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Scene of the Crime

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There's blood everywhere. All over the Honda's broken windshield and dented panels, inside the car where it dripped down through the windshield, on the ground, and spattered eight feet high on the back wall of the Ramrod bar. Looks like the vic lost most of his body's gallon-and-a-half right here.

There's blood on the three pieces of steel pipe the perps left behind, too. Blood, hair, gray matter. Warrick bags the pipes, takes samples and photographs of everything, goes through the routine. He's been at a lot of crime scenes. He's seen worse. This is nothing special.

That's what he's telling himself when he hears Nick's voice from over by the dumpsters. Loud and pissed-off: "Shut the fuck up!" He's yelling at the rookie cop who discovered the body. Swearing at him, which is weird, almost scary. It's hard to make Nick that mad. The cop says something back that Warrick doesn't hear, and then Nick shoves him, and the cop shoves back, and Nick's fists are up, and Warrick runs and he catches Nick's arms just in time.

"Hey," Warrick says. "Hey, cool down, man." Under his fingers, Nick's wrists feel like weapons, as unyielding as the metal band of his watch.

"Did you hear what this asshole said?" Nick doesn't struggle, but he doesn't loosen up, either. Warrick holds on like he would if Nick was hanging off a cliff.

"No. But I can guess."

"It was just a joke," the cop says. He can't be much older than twenty, and he looks freaked out. He already threw up, although he had the brains to do it on the other side of the squad car and not in the evidence. Warrick had been feeling sorry for him.

"Right. Just a fag joke," Warrick says. The LVPD's been cracking down, these last few years, and most cops do less of that shit than they used to. But this kid's still new, still trying to prove something by flapping his mouth and swinging his dick. Warrick gives him a long look, what he thinks of as a Grissom look, where you don't say anything and just let the other guy squirm. "Somebody died here tonight, and you are not funny."

The cop actually rolls his eyes, and Warrick has to yank Nick's arms down again. In a don't-you-have-a-sense-of-humor whine, the cop says, "I didn't - ." But before he gets any further, his partner, who's been watching the whole drama from the end of the alley, finally strolls over and puts a hand on the guy's shoulder.

"C'mon, Ryan. We've got a job to do."

Once the cops are a few feet away, Warrick lets Nick go and says quietly, "Us too, Nicky." Taking a deep breath, Nick flexes his fingers out and back, out and back, like he's got to force them to stop being fists. Warrick wants to take him around the corner, away from the blood, and ask him what's wrong. He wants to put his arms around Nick and rub between his shoulder blades where he gets all tight and tense. It's these moments that are the hardest part of working together, now that things have changed between him and Nick. Now that they're . . . whatever it is they are, exactly.

While the cops are still walking away, Warrick puts a hand on Nick's back for a second, letting his thumb brush the skin above his collar. Nick's wearing a kevlar vest--they both are --but this spot's unarmored and naked.

On his way back to the victim's car, Warrick thinks maybe he wasn't so much comforting Nick as reminding him to cover up.

***

By the end of the shift, there's still nothing good about the case. Every drop of blood belonged to Paul Coyne, 23, former hotel clerk, now a carcass on a morgue slab with massive cranio-facial damage and exsanguination. There were no prints on the weapons, and Warrick has heard the cops couldn't find eyewitnesses.

There's a kind of pleasure, even with the most awful cases, in finding the evidence that'll make the bad guys pay. But nobody's ever going to pay for this one. Somewhere in Vegas, three murderers are laughing.

Slumped on the locker room bench, Nick says, "Fucking shitty night." His hair's wet--he must have stuck his head under the faucet--and he's changing into a clean shirt. As far as Warrick can remember, he didn't get the old one dirty. Warrick looks away while Nick changes. That's not something he would've done, before. Not something he would've thought about. "Fucking shitty world."

"You can't let it get to you." It's weird--someone who didn't know Nick would think he was, well, big and dumb, and Warrick knows that he looks like Mr. Sensitive. But Nick's the one with the thin skin, the one who leaves every crime scene with invisible bruises.

Nick buttons his shirt, balls up the old one and shoves it into a plastic Costco bag. "I know that."

"And there's Hawaii."

"Hawaii what?"

"A part of the world that isn't shitty." He says it to make Nick smile, but not just that. Now and again he thinks about beaches, about places that are clean and quiet and a long, long way from Vegas.

"That's just scenery. You find somewhere people don't kill each other, let me know." Nick shuts his locker door and stares down at the bag in his hand, then glances back over his shoulder at the empty room. Quietly, he says, "Come to my place?"

They don't, usually, during the work week. There's no good reason for that, except that they're trying to put up a wall up between working together and being together. It'll be a hell of a wall if they ever manage it, paper thin but stronger than steel. Something for the Guinness record book. Heading: the world's greatest feat of emotional engineering.

"Yeah, sure." A wall's a bad idea if you can't get through it when you need to.

Nick smiles, sort of. It looks more like his face muscles are spasming. "I'll pick up some Chinese. Beef with broccoli, right?"

"Right. See you in a few."

Warrick drives home first for his overnight bag. They're not at the stage where they leave a toothbrush at each other's houses, much less a change of clothes. But Warrick has started leaving the bag half-packed. Clean socks, clean underwear, deodorant, hair stuff, condoms.

He keeps the bag on the floor of his closet. Which is not symbolic of anything.

***

Nick eats half an egg roll and a few bites of General Tso's Chicken, then builds rice mounds on his plate and drinks beer. He finishes three bottles before Warrick's done eating, which doesn't take that long. Since Nick lets every attempt at conversation silently die, there's nothing to do but shovel down the food.

Warrick waits until the leftovers are put away and Nick's opened up a fourth bottle of Corona. Then he hugs him, a long tight hug, up against the refrigerator door with Nick's collection of funny magnets digging into his back.

For a minute it seems like that's going to work. Nick leans into him and sighs like an old man sitting down in an easy chair, and it's the first time since they walked into the alley that Nick hasn't seemed right on the edge of something. But then he pulls away, flashes that fake smile again, and doesn't look Warrick in the eye. "Wanna see what's on TV?"

"Nicky." Warrick grabs one of his wrists. "It was bad. But you have to leave the corpses in the morgue. Don't bring 'em home."

"I know. It's not - I'm okay. Come and sit down."

So they watch TV for a while, or at least Nick watches, intently, eyes focused on the screen like it's the season finale of 24 instead of the morning news. Warrick mostly watches Nick.

There's an item about the "brutal gay bashing" which says all the right-sounding stuff about hate crimes while still mentioning that the Ramrod's been raided by Vice because guys have sex in the back room.

When the commercial comes on after that, Nick switches the TV off and sighs again. Not the comfy-chair sigh from before, but something deep and rattly, something that sounds like it hurts. "It brought back memories," he says. And then, before Warrick can answer, "No. Not like you're thinking. When I was in high school, me and this friend of mine . . . we beat a guy up. A gay guy."

Fuck. That's the first thing Warrick thinks. Fuck, like he slipped and fell or somebody ran a red light and almost hit him. Fuck, he didn't want to know this. And if he hadn't broken their sort-of rule and come here tonight, Nick probably would have changed his mind by tomorrow and never told him.

Nick keeps talking, on a roll now that he's started. "It was my buddy's idea. 'Let's go beat up a fag,' he said. Just like that, like something to do on a Saturday night. I didn't want to. I knew, I already knew that I . . . but I didn't say no. So we drove over to the next town and we jumped this guy coming out of a bar. Kicked the fucking shit out of him in the alley."

"Jesus, Nicky." Warrick closes his eyes for a second, but that brings up pictures, red and vivid. "What happened to the guy?"

"I think he lived." Nick is staring down at his own hands, and Warrick tries not to imagine what he's remembering. "It would've been on the news if he died, probably."

"Jesus." Sitting there with no words but curses, Warrick remembers how his grandmother used to say, "Sweet Jesus, bless us," all the time. She never swore, she turned it all into prayer, she made it mean something.

"A couple years later," Nick says, and Warrick's heart twists up and hurts, because he thought the story was done, "I went back to that same bar. It was summer, I was home from college. I was gonna go in, and . . . I dunno, drink, talk to guys, maybe even. . . . Like that would be some kind of apology or something. But I couldn't. I sat outside in my pickup for two hours, 'cause I was shaking so bad I didn't dare drive home."

"Oh, Jesus, Nicky."

Nick makes a sound, high-pitched and strange, like a mangled laugh. Like a laugh if you kicked it until it bled. "Messed up, huh?"

"Yeah." More than messed up. Unrecognizable, almost. The kid in the story doesn't sound like Nick. Not Nick, not his evil twin, not even some half-crazy, dumb-as-a-post cousin. A distant ancestor, maybe, way back down the evolutionary tree; something that grunts and pounds on rocks.

"Everybody does messed-up stuff at that age," Warrick says eventually. And that's pretty much true. Every teenager's a caveman; eighteen and thirty-five are different species.

"Not like this. This isn't . . . I don't know, smoking dope or cheating on a test."

Nick hasn't looked up this whole time, but his hands are restless, pulling at threads from his pants and the arm of the couch. Warrick wonders if his knuckles hurt after punching the guy, if they bled. Or did Nick and his pal really kick him? Did they use baseball bats? Steel pipes? How much of his blood got on their hands?

No, it's not the same as smoking dope.

"I had to tell you," Nick says. "If you're - if you want to go, I would understand." His voice has gone low, raw, sandpapered by shame.

Blood on walls and floors is almost impossible to wash away. Good forensics can find it years later. Blood sticks, blood stinks. In the memory, too. Warrick looks at Nick's hands and remembers he's had those hands all over him, even inside him. He's sucked on Nick's fingers and licked his palms and never thought they weren't clean.

Warrick looks up little by little, from Nick's hands to his arms, his shoulders, his anxious and miserable face. And behind that face is the real Nick, the thoughts and memories, the whole electrochemical web in the brain. Nick is more than a pair of hands.

They haven't touched since that hug in the kitchen. Warrick reaches out and lays his hand on top of Nick's. It's warm, dry, ordinary. Nick shifts his hand to interlace their fingers and says, "Don't go, Rick."

"I'm not." He squeezes Nick's hand. "I brought my overnight bag, I guess I might as well stay." It's on a chair in Nick's bedroom, where he always sets it. Soon maybe he'll keep a toothbrush here, have a drawer for a change of clothes. They'll stop having to say So, you busy this weekend? and I thought maybe we could . . . . Maybe they'll take a vacation together. In Hawaii.

None of that will happen if he goes. And he's been looking forward to it.

He sits quietly for a while, holding Nick's hand, and then says, "Let's go to bed." It's been a hell of a long night, and tomorrow's bound to be long too. There are still a lot of hours to put in on a case that won't ever be solved. They need to sleep.

He needs to sleep on what Nick said. Gain a little distance on it, let it turn into the past. The past is another country, somebody said. In a while, he'll be able to step across its border and come home.