DISCLAIMER: CSI and its characters are the property of Jerry Bruckheimer and CBS. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Las Vegas airport was the most repulsive airport on the planet. Nowhere else did the air stink so much of smoke, and every corner resonate with chiming slot machines. Everyone looked stoned, as at most airports, but here it wasn't just with exhaustion and futile struggles with bureaucracy. Half the people were rushing around waving dollar bills, and the other half were glumly staring at the bright lights, wishing they had one more quarter, but knowing that would be a mistake.
Sara wished she could remember why she was in Vegas in the first place, especially trailing after a group of boys in button-down shirts and horn-rimmed glasses.
Gary dropped back and walked beside her, his paces awkward, too long and then too short, trying to pretend he wasn't marking her, but failing utterly.
"Feeling lucky?" he finally asked, and then looked embarrassed, as if that wasn't what he had meant to say. Sara held back a sigh. She remembered why she was here now.
Game Theory was an amazing class, but she wished she had had enough strength of character to say, "No, I don't want to go to Vegas for spring break to test out what we learned this semester." But everyone had been arguing over strategies, and calculating probabilities and she had gotten caught up in it and put her name down for the guy who was arranging cheap tickets. And here she was, in Vegas, with six nerdy boys, most of whom had a crush on her since she was the only female they could speak with without stuttering or going red in the face. Gary was the worst among them.
"The adage 'the house always wins' is beginning to resonate in my head."
"Yeah," Gary chuckled. "I was going to make a chart, games, amounts, probability of returns, when to give up. I have $200 budgeted for tonight, for testing out the games."
Sara winced. She had $200 budgeted for the entire trip, and she was glad they were only staying three nights. She needed to pick up some extra shifts for the rest of break to make up for this economic black hole.
The restaurant was hideously expensive, and she mentally rearranged her budget to account for this. At least the school had pitched in for the overpriced hotel rooms because it was theoretically educational. Sara had thought that going to a UC would make it less likely for her to be surrounded by upper-class yuppies, but even so there weren't very many students who were working to pay their own way through.
Still, she was here now, and Sara was determined to enjoy herself. She started for the Blackjack tables. But Gary followed. Sara knew she was gay, but hadn't bothered telling anyone because it seemed practically irrelevant. Sara considered herself to be about equal to the nerdy boys she surrounded herself with in her lack of attractiveness and social ineptitude. Nerdy boys were really only likely to get together with nerdy girls, and assuming the proportionality stayed even over all facets of the population, the percentage of nerdy gay girls was so minimal as to be nonexistent. If she couldn't calculate the odds before half a semester of Game Theory, she certainly could after, and it wasn't promising.
But right now, she wondered if it would be worth outing herself to just get Gary to stop following her around. If she did, he'd definitely tell everyone, and then they'd probably start asking her way too personal questions. She should probably save outing herself until she had some credibility, like, having ever kissed a girl. That would be a definite improvement. Unfortunately, she doubted that was going to happen any time soon.
She sighed. Gary was a nice guy, and once his acne cleared up he might be okay looking. And he was a smart nerdy guy, not like the stalker she had had in high school, who had wanted to be a weatherman, or the guy at her summer job who wanted to be a librarian because he enjoyed shelving books. Reading books was one thing. Wanting to be a librarian because you enjoyed reading and being around books was fine, but wanting to be a librarian because you like to put books into orderly rows was just terrible.
The worst part was that in her social psych class she was taught that people tended to pursue people whom they considered in their range. Even if she never looked at a boy twice, it was depressing to know that her range was on par with pale flabby boys who needed a shower and wanted to be weathermen. If Sara ever found herself with someone whose grand dream was to point to a blank screen, smiling, and wearing yellow vinyl, she would seriously consider suicide.
So Gary was a step up. And she wasn't repulsed by his company. They actually did have things in common. But boys didn't have boundaries. They just treated everything as if it were a date, always trying to pay for things and hold doors open. Sara never let anyone give her money or pay for her. It was an obligation, and one she usually couldn't afford.
"Uh, yeah." She'd probably stay in longer there than anywhere else.
At the table Gary kept on smiling at her and making her tense and second-guess herself. After she had lost five straight hands he started looking worried and giving her advice. She lost fifty dollars in half an hour. She could eat for a week on fifty dollars. She stood up, shoving her chair out. Gary followed.
"No? Taking a break?"
She glared at him. "No. That's my limit. I'm going for a walk."
"Do you need more chips? You can have half of mine." He looked embarrassed at making the offer.
Sara didn't have it in her to pity him. She was too angry with herself for wasting her time and money here. "No."
"I know you don't have "
Sara stared at him. He looked guilty, but she could hear the condescension and pity in his tone. Her face flushed. This was too much. Offering because he liked her was one thing, but she wouldn't be a charity case. She knew how much charity was worth. "That poor little girl." She had heard it too many times from people who didn't really care. They threw money at her, because it wasn't worth anything to them, but they never took her home.
He saw her anger. "I just wanted to help."
"I don't need help."
And Sara ran, through the plush, chandeliered lobby, past the uniformed guard, and out the tinted glass doors, into a baking Vegas afternoon. She was too angry to stop, angry with herself for not realizing that even the nerdiest losers thought her beneath them.
The sun baked through her Cal t-shirt, and her neck quickly started streaming with sweat. Absently, she bound her hair back into a ponytail, and kept jogging, turning off the busy strip into empty side streets. She didn't know where she was, but she had seen the shape of Vegas from the plane and figured she'd turn around once she hit the desert.
Berkeley was hillier, but she wasn't prepared for the endless heat. She wasn't dressed for running either, and soon she was gasping for water, her chest aching, her jeans sticking to her legs and her shirt drenched. There weren't even any trees in Vegas, she thought, as she hated the city even more.
She glanced up at the road signs, Tropicana, Flamingo. Sara felt like she was in a creepy Phillip K. Dick novel about advertising taking over the world. Everyone likes heat, she heard in her head, as she panted, still jogging gamely, but feeling the strain in her lungs to try and use the dry air. Everyone likes pink and orange, plastic and falsity, asphalt and cement.
Cars sped past her, radios blaring, or drivers yelling at her for daring to be on foot. She threaded her way through the underpasses of superhighways that had nothing to do with humanity.
And then she saw it, not green, exactly, more brown, dry leaves, dry grass and dirt. She picked up her pace, flicking the sweat off her face, and barely glancing for cars before she darted across the street, and smacked into a cyclone fence.
She clung to the fence, wires digging into her fingers, as she stared into the park. A plastic slide and small jungle gym sat in one corner, and across the dirt and dry grass, she spotted the parking lot. Of course a park would need a parking lot, because this city was a lie.
It was only then that Sara noticed she was being watched. There was a girl in the park, a woman, lying on a folded sheet under a tree, with a textbook between her elbows, clad only in a bikini top and shorts, enjoying the April sun.
Sara hung on the fence, still panting, unable to tear her eyes away from her, unable to turn off the juvenile part of her brain like she usually did. She was caught up. The woman's hair was thick and loose, falling over her shoulders in red-gold waves. It tempted Sara's eyes to follow the curve of her back, her ass, her legs, and then scorch a trail back up again, to piercing blue eyes. The woman was looking at her with such an incredulous expression, that Sara was suddenly, horrifically aware of what she must look like. Red faced, dripping with sweat, and leering at this poor woman who was just trying to read and enjoy the day.
But she was too spent to unclench her fingers, and if she could, she knew she would just drop into a heap on this side of the cyclone fence. So she hung, gaping, as the woman stood up, grabbed something out of her bag, and walked toward her. She saw her mouth moving, but the world around her sounded like the TARDIS landing, and she couldn't make it out.
There was a water bottle in her hand, and Sara, comprehending, nodded emphatically. The woman tossed the bottle over the fence.
The first taste from the sun-baked bottle was like nectar. She glanced at the petite woman with desperation; one sip was not going to be enough. The woman gave her a look and waved her hand.
"Drink it. You look like you're going to pass out."
Sara heard her that time, and gulped down the water, shocked when the last few drops dribbled onto her chin. She gaped for a few moments as moisture reentered her body.
"Thank you," she finally managed to get out.
"You looked like you needed it."
"Where'd you run from?"
The woman blinked. "That's six miles. In mid-afternoon? Are you insane?"
Sara looked down at herself. "I wasn't planning on going for a run."
The woman looked at her as well. Sara wished her clothes weren't draped over her like wet laundry.
"It's April," she whined. "Why is it so hot?" Sara tugged the collar of her shirt where it was becoming glued to her back.
"They said it could get up to 93 today. Didn't you listen to the forecast?"
"I try not to," Sara grumbled.
"Bad experience with a wannabe weatherman."
The woman blinked for a moment, and then laughed, tossing her head back, and leaving her throat, barely covered breasts, and the curve of her stomach open to Sara's gaze. Her throat suddenly went dry again.
"I may need to hear about that," she smiled at Sara. "I'm Catherine."
Sara pushed her fingers through the cyclone fence, before she could consider how idiotic it looked. "Sara, no H," she got out, her voice hoarse.
Catherine hooked her fingers through Sara's and they shook hands awkwardly thorough the fence. "Nice to meet you, Sara, no H." She leaned a little closer, peering at Sara's face.
"You're not wearing sunscreen, are you?"
Catherine shook her head. "You're not from around here. Come on."
She headed back towards her sheet, and Sara stood at the fence, staring after her as she gathered up her stuff, tugging a light blue shirt on over her head, slinging the bag over her shoulder and tucking the textbook under her arm. She looked back and gestured towards the parking lot with her head.
"I live near here. Let's get you some more water."
The fence ended at the parking lot, and Catherine joined her on the sidewalk. Sara stared at the book, but couldn't make out the title. Finally she bit the bullet.
"What are you reading?"
Catherine glanced up at her and then back at the book. Then she ducked her head. "Oh, nothing interesting." She flipped it flat so Sara could see the title. "For my forensic science class."
Sara blinked. "Nothing interesting? I wish my school offered forensics."
Catherine looked up at her, a smile spreading across her face. "It's really great actually. And after Bio Chem and Orgo you feel like you've finally gotten somewhere."
Sara's jaw opened and shut. Things like this did not just happen to her. And women this beautiful were not science nerds unless "Pre-med?"
Catherine stopped short and gave her an uncomfortable look. It was familiar, the same one Sara had seen in her reflection when someone asked her if she were going home for break. Then it was covered up by a forced laugh. "No way. I don't have that kind of time."
Sara frowned. "What do you mean?"
Catherine looked at her, distrust in her eyes, and Sara wished she hadn't asked. "I know some people work their way through med school. But they're stingy with scholarships, and I have a hard enough time keeping up with the work as it is, and I only go part time."
Sara tried to form words. She would have never had the guts to admit all that to a stranger. "I-"
Catherine's eyes were hard, and she looked ready to strike in self-defense.
Sara shoved her thumb into the Cal logo on her chest. "UC school, full ride. But room, board and books nearly kill me. If I'm going on after this I need full ride and a stipend."
The tension faded from the smaller woman's frame. "A stipend would be nice. And textbooks are disgustingly expensive."
Sara nodded, relieved. She glanced around. The area they were walking through reminded her a bit of where she had grown up. It was flat and dry, with small low houses, some trailers, others ranch-style apartment complexes. People's junk was pushed up against their fences, and no one wasted money on landscaping. There were fewer pickup trucks than in Jackson or Freedom though.
"You're from California?"
Sara nodded. "Northern, not Hollywood and Mickey Mouse."
"What are you doing in Vegas? Spring Break?"
Sara winced. "If you can call tagging along with half my Game Theory class, and then kicking my own ass for wasting money I don't have a 'break.'"
"Game Theory? Seriously?" Catherine's blue eyes sparkled, and Sara blushed under her sunburn.
"It sounded like fun. And I wanted something light because I knew second semester Orgo was going to destroy my brain."
"And you picked game theory, not modern American novelists? Or photography?"
"Don't talk to me about modern American novelists. I took Portrayals of Communism in Science Fiction thinking it would be an easy A because I had read most of the books already. I have never worked so hard in my life."
"Have you read Eye in the Sky?"
Catherine shook her head.
"It's " Sara tried to find a way to sum up the book. "It's good. Read it. But it's kind of about people not living in reality. And it seems to hold science up as the one thing that has a real claim to truth. If you believe in science you are in touch with the real world. But after being lost in these other worlds that don't rely on science, you start to wonder if science is just another psychosis, just another ideology, like Communism."
Catherine frowned. "Well, what do mean? You're a scientist, right? So you believe in what your textbook tells you, but you also believe in testing things out for yourself. If it can't be tested it's bullshit."
"Yes. And that's what's important, I think. But it's why I had a hard time with Communism as a psychosis, like it was in the book. Have you read any Marx?"
"I hadn't until this class either. But when you read him, you start to believe him. I mean, the whole idea that money has no intrinsic value is so obvious it's revolutionary. And all his ideas are like that. They take apart all the lies we tell ourselves, and explain how these lies make the world work."
"I get that." Catherine's gaze was intense, and Sara felt a thrill from the engagement. "It's like Vegas, it's a story, a fairy tale on the outside. You believe in the fantasy of it, the sets, the glory, even the vice, but when you're here, when it becomes your everyday reality, you forget those lies and you tell yourself the other ones, that you're safe, that bad things won't happen to you, that it's worth it."
Catherine's voice faded away on the last few words and she turned away. Sara wanted to ask what she had to tell herself was worth it, but she didn't.
Catherine led her through a plot of dirt and up a few steps to one of many similar doors.
"Sorry if it's a mess."
In degrees of size and of mess, it was pretty much the same as Sara's apartment: two rooms, unmade bed, clothes and books making up most of the clutter. But other parts were different. They had the same sort of threadbare couch that was probably taken out of the goodwill but there was a pile of electronic equipment in front of Catherine's. Some of it was hooked up, but there was a pile of black boxes with wires coming out the back that looked suspiciously like car radios.
"Here," Catherine handed Sara a tall glass of water. It was icy and Sara sighed with pleasure, having forgotten her nagging thirst in the excitement of the conversation. "You never did tell me why you were running."
Sara stared into the depths of her glass, and wondered that herself. "I was angry, mostly."
Catherine nodded and settled into the depths of the broken-in couch. Sara followed her more tentatively.
"Wasting money, being seeing as a charity case, feeling " she looked up, and Catherine's eyes were steady on her, scalding her, the blue like the flame that is hotter than red, "feeling worthless."
Catherine set her hand on her knee, and Sara tensed. "I don't see why you are. Great school, working enough to afford to waste a little money. I've wasted money when I really couldn't afford it, when I didn't eat the next day because I was stupid the night before."
Sara nodded shyly. "I've done that with books."
Catherine burst out laughing. "I wish I did it with books! You are a crazy nerd." Sara flushed, and Catherine slid her hand farther up her leg. "Don't worry. I like crazy nerds. What's your major?"
"I'm still trying to decide between physics and chem. It's irritating because all the pre-meds do chem, and the engineers do physics, and then they whine at me for screwing up the curve."
Catherine laughed. "I'm not really surprised."
"What are you aiming at?"
"I'm doing forensic science. It's a massive amount of credits but I hope I can stick with it." She frowned and looked away, taking her hand back, and leaving Sara bereft. "I wish I had a job where I could go full time."
"Have you tried to find a job in that area? I work in the lab at the hospital, I mean, I clean glassware there, washing dishes basically, but it pays better than restaurant work. And it reminds you of what you're going for, even if you're not there yet."
"I might have to look into that. I don't I don't know how much longer I can keep working where I am. Getting too old."
Sara blinked. "What? You're like 22, 23, right?"
"Try 26." Catherine snorted.
"And what kind of job is that too old for?" Sara chuckled at the absurdity of it, and didn't notice the quiet sadness on Catherine's face.
"I'm just tired," she said softly.
Sara looked down at her and suddenly ached to kiss her. Her slightly parted lips, the softness in her face as she stared into the distance, all she could think of was sliding her fingers down the curve of her face, pressing her mouth against hers. But it was too easy to imagine the sharp flustered confusion, rejection, the inevitable disgust or disdain. There was no way this woman was in her range, no way she would respond or accept her.
And then she saw her eyes, wide and intense, reading her as if her thoughts were written on her face. Maybe they were. Catherine's fingers slid along the back of her neck. She was going to kiss her
The jingle of keys sounded from outside the apartment. The lock clicked and the door opened. Catherine nearly skidded onto the floor en route to the other end of the couch.
The young man who came through the door was moderately handsome, with a broad chest. His face was rough with stubble, and he wore flashy cowboy boots. He looked somewhat surprised to see Sara, and glanced over at Catherine, whose slight flush told him all he needed to know. His eyes narrowed slightly and he smiled, sauntering over to Catherine and kissing her possessively. "Hey Kitty, I didn't know you'd be home. Who's your friend?"
"Oh, um Sara." Her eyes slid over Sara's face, never making contact. "This is Eddie."
Sara tried not to flinch, as Eddie looked her over. She was hyper aware again of her sweat-soaked clothes, the stinging skin of her sunburn, her awkwardness, all the things Catherine had made her forget while they were talking. His lazy grin showed that he saw all these things front and center, and he shook his head, derisively.
"Kitty," he whined. "If you had told me you were feeling that, I could have brought Tracy. She's been bugging me about it ever since last time."
"We were just talking." Catherine's voice fell into a low hiss.
Eddie smiled. "She one of your new school friends?" He settled onto the couch, slinging his arm over Catherine's shoulders. "I still feel like laughing every time I remember that. I come home one day, and she's like 'Eddie, I'm going back to school,' and I was like, shit, what brought this on? Is it that time of the month already? Women are just psycho. But she's still doing it, and now there are all these books and shit around. I'm just waiting for the next fad to hit." He looked at Catherine with narrowed eyes. "What's it gonna be? Crochet?"
Sara breathed roughly through her nose. She hated him, hated the look of shame that Catherine wore when he spoke. But she couldn't be here anymore, with his arm bearing Catherine down and crushing her into helpless nothingness.
"I should go."
Catherine didn't disagree. "Do you need directions to get back?"
"I can find my way."
"There's a bus stop one block down. It will get you back to the strip."
Sara nodded. "Thanks. Thanks for the water."
"Oh, one second. Let me " Catherine slid out from under Eddie's arm and disappeared into the bathroom.
Sara and Eddie stared at each other. Eddie reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. "Here." Sara took it. It was a business notice for a Gentleman's Club, a sleazy silhouette of a dancer imprinted on the side. "Cat's crap at most things, school included, but she looks good naked. You should check it out. If you're into that." He smiled, saying he knew that she was.
She didn't respond, but shoved the card in her pocket. Then she looked up and saw Catherine standing outside the bathroom door, staring at them, her expression stricken. Eddie just smiled as she stalked coldly over to Sara and pressed a small tube of aloe into her hand.
"For your sunburn," she said shortly, and turned away.
Unable to find words to respond, Sara just nodded unacknowledged thanks and slipped out the door.
Sara made it back to the hotel by seven and showered and changed before slipping into the empty seat at the table with the rest of her classmates. Gary gave her an apologetic look, but she avoided his eyes, and didn't respond to any attempt at conversation made by the rest. How could she, when she was burning inside?
Every breath she took sucked in the scent of the aloe she had rubbed into her skin, and every breath reminded her of Eddie's sneer. It was so familiar, the way he smiled, the way he laughed, cutting down Catherine in front of strangers, making her worthless for anything but sex. And he owned that. You can look, he said, but in the end, all you can do is envy me.
Eddie reminded her of her father.
She hadn't seen him drunk. She couldn't assume that he actually was like her father, but she had seen that look of harsh, defensive pride on her mother's face. It was an ugly expression. And it said everything she needed to know. Don't try to help me; I won't accept it. When I've had enough, I'll get out on my terms, whether that's with a knife or a gun, or just walking away.
Sara breathed hard to try to control her anger, at her father, at her mother, at Eddie and Catherine for perpetuating this cycle, for not realizing that it only led to violence. In a way she was angrier with Catherine, for wasting her obvious potential on him, and not seeing that she was walking into a trap. At least they didn't have children, yet.
Sara pulled out her wallet to pay and a small piece of cardboard floated to the ground. Gary leaned down and picked it up.
"Sara, you dropped-" Then he looked at what it said. "A strip club?" He looked at her with a sort of horrified incredulity on his face. "Is that where you went this afternoon?"
She lunged for the card, clearly reading his thoughts on his face, the realignment of his universe, her status in it falling even farther than it had already.
But she was too late. Tim, a goofy chubby guy, snagged it out of Gary's hand an instant before she reached it. "Kick ass! This is what we have got to do tonight!"
But none of the other guys shared Sara's confusion. The motion was carried with enthusiasm.
"Are you coming?" Gary asked, a threatening challenge in his voice that she had never heard before.
She didn't want to go. She had never wanted to go. Not after the way Catherine had reacted. She didn't want to see that. Looking was participating in her degradation. And showing up with an entourage of nerdy boys? At least her shameful reality would be as much on display as Catherine's own.
It had been so nice to speak with her as a stranger, to recreate herself, perhaps as a bit of an idiot for running through Vegas in black jeans, but better an idiot than her reputation at school: a reserved, arrogant recluse. For a moment she had believed that there was a real chance for someone to see something else in her, something she didn't even know was there. But that hope had been destroyed with the jingling of keys in the lock.
"Yeah, I'm coming," she said. She couldn't let them go alone, and listen to them talk about the women, and stay silent, wondering which one was her, hating that they had seen more than she had, that they thought they knew more, and could own her, if only with words.
The club was as seedy and repulsive as expected. The woman on stage wore her sparkly tassels and breast implants like armor. The girls on the floor flashed bright smiles or seductive looks toward the thickest wad of cash, the men holding them barely furniture.
Sara found a merely mildly sticky chair at the back of her group, and curled into herself, watching in silence. A skinny girl with a charming smile slipped off her shoe and traded it with a man for a small roll of bills. A man slipped behind a curtain on the side of the stage and came out pressing a tissue to his nose.
The music changed and the tasseled woman strutted down the stairs onto the floor, heading towards a table of men with black suit jackets and white shirts. Tim sighed, but the next girl stepping out on stage in impossibly high heels quickly distracted his attention.
Sara looked up, and her fingernails dug into her palms.
She didn't want to watch. There was nothing subtle, nothing classy about this. The other woman had resembled nothing more than a flailing failed robotics experiment, but Catherine was sex, in all its awkward, sweaty, fleshy excess. It was worse, because Sara could only picture the half glimpse of an unmade bed she had seen in their apartment, and Eddie, taking what he wanted, what was his. Catherine slipped down to her knees, head back, pole pressed between her breasts.
"Aww, fuck!" she heard Tim whisper heatedly.
It was hot, Sara agreed, even more so if she let herself hate Catherine. She ground slightly into the edge of the chair. She wanted to slap her, hurt her, punish her for being such a whore, thinking so little of herself to do this, for showing her body to all of these strangers, when it should just be to her.
But not really. In the end, all she really wanted to do was put her arms around her and cover her, protect her from this. But that was more of a fantasy than any suck and fuck that was going through Tim's head at the same time.
Catherine's song ended and she also came down for her time in the crowd. Sara quickly turned her gaze away, not wanting to meet her eyes as she scanned the audience for takers. As her sight swung she noticed Gary swiveling back around in his seat. Had he been watching her?
And then he was leaning out, waving two twenties. "Kitty!"
"Can I have some sugar, baby?'
Catherine laughed at him. "For that? A little bit. Find a place to tuck it, stud."
She glanced away as Gary hurriedly slipped the cash into what little there was of her outfit, and her eyes met Sara's horrified gaze. She looked solemn for a moment, almost hurt, until her eyes narrowed slightly, and she swung her leg over Gary's lap, nothing but hardness in her face.
Somehow, even as Catherine laughed and teased Gary as she moved over his hips, Sara felt those hard eyes on her the entire time.
Outside, in cooler night air, Sara still felt frozen. It was clear in every move Catherine had made that she was saying, "I am good at this. I am not ashamed of this. I will not be shamed by your eyes." Sara felt enough shame at watching for both of them.
"Now that's a real woman," Gary said, laughing with Tim who was incredibly impressed by his daring to buy a lap dance. Sara felt the scrape of his mocking glance across her back. "But look at this." He pulled two twenties from his pocket. "I didn't even have to pay for it."
Before she knew she was moving, Sara had thrown him up against the brick wall, his head smacking into it with a hard thunk. "That woman works for her money. She works harder than you could ever understand. You've never worked for anything in your life!" She grabbed the money from his limp hand. "You can't understand."
She dropped his collar and he sank down the wall, gaping. She stared at him, at the blood streaming down his neck. Stepping back, terrified at her own actions, she glanced at the other boys who were all gawping at her as if she were some sort of monster in their midst. She turned and ran.
The click of stilettos on pavement made Sara look up from where she was huddled amongst the trash of the alley behind the club. The money was still clenched in her hand and she kept on flipping her palm over to look at the bloodstains that marked the pads of her fingers. She swiped her arm across her face, trying to wipe away the streaks left by her tears.
Whoever had come out of the back of the club gave a sigh, clicked a lighter, and then Sara could smell the scent of heavy Turkish cigarettes.
"I didn't know you smoked," she said, not looking at Catherine.
There was a scramble and a hard cough. "Shit! Don't just sneak up on me like that!"
Sara finally turned to look at her. A light jacket and jeans had replaced the sparkles and hope that had made up her previous outfit. Catherine glared at her, until the streetlight caught her face, and Catherine's expression changed to something resembling shock, maybe it was disgust.
"I was here first."
Catherine took a deep breath, keeping the cigarette well away. "I needed something after a night like this one. And since I've quit the coke, I had to bum a fag from Charlie."
Sara glanced away and stayed still as Catherine crouched down next to her, balancing astonishingly well on her impossible heels, and offered her the cigarette.
"You look like you could use this more than me."
Sara thrust the fist with the money in it at her. "This is yours. Gary stole it."
Catherine grinned and took it, sticking it in her back pocket. "How chivalrous of you. But it's not the first time."
Sara stared at her hand. "It isn't fair."
"Part of the job. I once had this guy who would sit at the stage and stick the same bill in my undies about twenty times. We both pretended not to notice, but when he came back, I had to tell the bouncer to move him to a table."
"Oh," Sara moved her fingers to see if the bloodstains would change as the light did. Catherine stared at her.
"What's wrong with your hand?"
"Sometimes I think I'm turning into my father."
"Yeah? Did he make a habit of sitting in the trash behind strip clubs?"
"I don't know. He died when I was eight."
Catherine sighed again. "Sara "
At the sound of her name, Sara turned, desperation clear on her face. "Why are you here? Why are you doing this? You're so, so much more than I could ever be, but you're here!"
Catherine stiffened, standing up. "You have no right to ask me that."
Sara scrambled to her feet. "What gives me the right? If I am going to be my father, I might as well get what I can from it!" She caught Catherine's shoulders and shook her. "What gives Eddie the right to have you? I could be as much of an asshole as he is!"
"You're freaking out, Sara." Catherine gripped her wrists. "Relax."
Sara stared at her hands, making indentations in Catherine's jacket, as if they were unrecognizable. She released them and dropped her arms, but Catherine kept hold of her wrists.
"I'm sorry." Sara choked on the words. "I didn't-" She was crying again, uncontrollably.
"Yeah, you did," Catherine said softly, and then tugged Sara in, letting her drape herself over her shoulders. "It's okay." She shook her head. "Why do I keep on picking you up?"
Sara felt more than heard a chuckle in Catherine's chest.
"Come on, let's walk. Which way's your hotel?"
"Nice." Catherine glanced around the hotel room, and Sara watched her, wondering how on earth she had gotten up here.
"The school picked up the tab."
"Even better." Catherine looked over at her, obviously comparing her to the pristine hotel room. "Get in the shower. You smell like a trash heap."
Sara stared at her, blinking. "But, you "
"I'll be here. I think I need to set you straight on a few things."
Sara's eyes slid away at the flat pronouncement, and she obeyed her instruction.
She stayed in the shower, staring at the wall, and wishing that none of this had ever happened. She should never have come to Vegas.
When she stepped out of the shower, Catherine was lying on her bed, her jacket tossed over a chair. Sara couldn't move. Somehow, the skin of her arms revealed by the modest tank-top Catherine was wearing, was infinitely more illicit and fascinating than seeing everything, as she had barely an hour before.
"You know, you're a lot more messed up than I thought when I first met you."
"You met me after I had run six miles through Vegas in the mid-afternoon. How much more messed up do I seem now?"
Catherine laughed. "Apparently I didn't correlate insane and messed up quickly enough. If you put it like that, I really wonder why I'm surprised."
"Yeah," Sara dropped her towel on the back of a chair. That's what she was: utterly messed up.
"Oh come on." Catherine rolled onto her stomach and Sara vaguely wondered if the blankets would smell like her once she left. "You were so together. Maybe you had a freak out, but you were smart and funny, and doing it all on your own. The right way. Without " she gestured vaguely. "Putting your body on display."
"And that makes my way better? I couldn't do what you do if I tried."
Catherine raised her eyebrows. "I doubt that."
"A line of coke, and that self-consciousness goes out the window. The boys would be lining up for you."
"You don't like that idea?"
"I don't Sometimes I don't even know if I can control myself when I'm totally sober. I don't want to think about what I could do to someone, if I'm not."
Catherine sat up. "Do to someone? Like violently? Or sexually?"
Sara glanced away. "I I sometimes think that they're the same thing."
"Is that so?" Catherine spoke as if she were taking a long drag from a cigarette in a ten-inch holder. "Have you ever had sex?"
Sara felt a sickening twist in her stomach. She felt eleven, being admonished by her first foster sister, for being so young and stupid. She couldn't find words to respond that would do anything but make Catherine lose even more respect for her, if there was any left to lose.
"I don't understand! What are you doing here? What do you want with me? Everything you said was right. I'm a useless fucked-up mess! You're not a whore, and even if you were, you wouldn't come with me, because you know I have nothing to give you. Nothing "
Suddenly Catherine's fist was buried in her shirt and she was jerked forward and dropped on the bed. Catherine was straddling her, pinning her arms to her sides.
"That's what I want," she said, her voice harsh. She bent down and just breathed on Sara's cheek. Sara stiffened. "You don't see me as a whore. You're wrong, but I just want to be allowed to believe that for a little while. Let me?"
Sara smiled weakly. How could she say no to that? "All right." She closed her eyes and let her hands drift up Catherine's bare arms, just feeling, just trying to make this into a memory. "You let me feel attractive for a little while. It seems more difficult for you."
"Your head is full of shit."
Sara laced her fingers through Catherine's hair and grinned lazily. "That's my line."
Catherine kissed her to shut her up.
The only thing Sara wanted was to not betray that this was her first time. But the panic and thrill of it made it hard for her to think of what to do. She hadn't actually expected it to go past talking and playing around. But Catherine was kissing her and she couldn't think. She had always been half terrified of the idea; mouths were spit and teeth, not made for this. But she hadn't expected the wave of what felt like panic. But the panic was at it both happening and at the possibility it might stop. She pushed off her elbows, leaning into the kiss, wanting more than just the brush of lips on lips.
Catherine opened her mouth, and then it was spit and teeth like she had expected, but she had forgotten that inside another person's body it was nearly a hundred degrees. And she hadn't thought of tongues. She hadn't expected the heat, or the way the slickness made it feel real and alive, and right like the way greased pipes slid together, and fit.
She couldn't stop her hands from sliding down Catherine's back, feeling the strength under her fingers, then tracing down to the gentle curve of her stomach.
Catherine stiffened, and pulled away. "Don't touch there!"
Sara gazed up at her, half stunned at what she had been allowed to do. "I want to touch everywhere," she mumbled, unaware of what she was saying.
Catherine looked at her for a long moment, considering, almost questioning, and she opened her mouth.
Suddenly Sara knew she was going to ask, "you haven't done this before, have you?" She lurched forward awkwardly, nearly bashing their faces together, but managing to kiss her face and then her lips as if it had been the original intent. Catherine dropped onto her side, and curled an arm around Sara's back, pulling her closer. Their legs tangled together, and Sara let her eyes drift shut, kissing her repeatedly, just little kisses, the occasional brush of tongue, nipping at her lower lip, and wanting this to last forever.
She didn't think it would be like this with anyone else. No one else would look at her with that indulgently playful smirk, no one else would breathe on her, and drive her insane, before sinking into it, deep hot slick kisses, that made her slide her knees up and lift her hips and want to just flip Catherine onto her back and grind against her.
Catherine made a move towards getting off her t-shirt, but Sara caught her hands and slowly drew them back, pressing them to the bed above her head. "Stay there," she said roughly. Catherine gave her a surprised look, and then a dirty smile, and arched her back as Sara pulled off her tank top. She bent her head to kiss her collarbone, and nip it, and then she loosed the closure of Catherine's bra and watched her breasts slide free, their heaviness pulling them to the side.
Her eyes just barely flickered up, but were caught on Catherine's lost, almost pained gaze.
"What do you see, when you look at me like that?"
Sara glanced back down, and let herself really look.
"I see a woman no, not a woman, this woman." She reached out and lifted Catherine's hand running her thumb along the side of her forefinger, then brought it to her mouth and ran the tip of her tongue over it. "With calluses from studying too much." Her hands slid down Catherine's legs and she pulled them up, curling her fingers around her calves. "And strong muscles from standing on her own two feet." She unhooked the straps of the stiletto sandals and let them drop onto the carpet. "Even if she does it in shoes that would kill me in a second." Sara leaned down and pressed her lips lightly against the curve of Catherine's jaw, and then against her neck. "And who has no idea how much she's really worth." She mumbled the words against her chest, and stiffened slightly as Catherine's hands ran up under her shirt, over the scars she wished she could make disappear.
"You're a sweet talker," Catherine said, as her fingers traced the lines of one of the deeper scars Sara's father had left on her back. She didn't mention them though, just curled her fingers around Sara's shoulder blades and tugged her down for another kiss. "But I'm not the one who can't see how much she's worth, how much more she deserves."
"This is already more." Sara smiled awkwardly. "But if you're offering "
Catherine found herself smiling in return and not knowing the reason why. She dropped her arms back over her head, and offered her body, as worthless and well used as it was.
No one had ever touched her like this before, firmly but wonderingly. She was used to a confident roughness, a bravado that Sara entirely lacked. Perhaps it was the scientist in her, the wanting to know, wanting to find out. She didn't seem afraid, just curious, and absorbed. Catherine wondered absently if Sara would be able to discover all her secrets with wandering fingers and questing tongue. She wondered if she would run away if she knew.
Sara's body was slick with sweat, and she panted, with the occasional little sigh that Catherine found unutterably endearing. She let Sara wriggle into her arms and rest her head against her chest. It was probably a bad idea. She had to find a way to extricate herself without completely eviscerating the precarious self-esteem of the girl she had just deflowered. It had been what she wanted, to be worshiped like this, and the way Sara had looked while being fucked, the sounds she made, her incredible responsiveness had been just icing on the cake. She needed to feel powerful again, and having someone squirming and mewling under your hands was the perfect way to do it.
Sara sighed again, cuddling up to her, and Catherine absently let her fingers twine through the girl's hair.
"I love you."
Catherine froze. Oh shit. That was the trouble with virgins.
She extricated herself from Sara's grip and sat up, tucking her knees to her chest, and forced a harsh laugh. "Oh, please, honey. You're a Spring Breaker. Take it for what it was and go home."
Sara pushed herself up and glared at her. "What was it? I'm not a kid, I wouldn't have said it if I didn't didn't feel it."
"It was sex. And I know, first time, change your life, endorphin rush. It will pass."
Sara looked stung at the mention of first times. She crossed her arms over her small sexy breasts, and Catherine quickly swallowed and tried to ignore them.
"It's not about that. I know I'm " she shook her head. "I can't leave you here, with him. I know what happens." Her voice cracked a little and it cracked Catherine's chest at the same time. "I've lived what happens. And yeah, you gave me my first time. I owe you."
"I thought you said I wasn't a whore."
"I owe you a favor."
"Well, what's your offer?" Catherine asked with intended sharpness. "Your heart? Because it's worth about as much to me as its weight in protein."
Sara hardened, and Catherine wondered how someone naked could look clothed in armor. "I want to offer you a chance."
"A chance? This is Vegas, there's always a chance."
"Come back to Berkeley with me. I won't mock you for wanting to learn there. I won't make it harder than it already is."
For a moment Catherine lost control of herself, her rationality, and let herself imagine what if could be like. She let her eyes drift around the room, the backpack with books spilling from it, their clothes scattered across the rug. It was absurd. Sara didn't know her, and she didn't know Sara, but it wasn't any more absurd than the way she had moved into her boyfriends' apartments, or the way Eddie had insinuated himself into hers. You hated things about them, you wanted to hit them for leaving dirty dishes in the sink, you fucked them because they were there, whether or not you really wanted to. That at least wouldn't be a problem with Sara. She wouldn't need to lock her out of the apartment when she needed to study.
Sara shrugged, her humiliation at daring to make the offer turning her face bright red.
Catherine shook her head, smiling wryly. "That's sweet."
"You're too good for him," Sara said roughly. "You shouldn't have to be with someone who makes you feel worthless when you're doing everything you can to change your life."
Catherine reached out and lifted Sara's chin, brushing her thumb across her lips. "Thank you," she said softly. "But I cannot accept your offer."
Sara's eyes were wide and she started to open her mouth, to ask why, no doubt, or to reassure her about her pride or something else irrelevant.
"I'm pregnant," Catherine said, the words coming out more roughly than she had intended. But she hadn't had much practice saying them. She hadn't told anyone yet, not until she had a new job lined up. She wrapped her arms around her knees, hiding the changes in her body, although it was too little too late with the way Sara had touched everything.
The shock was vivid on Sara's face. It was what she had expected, but it still stung.
"You're amazing, Sara, and I have no doubt you'll continue to be amazing. But I don't think you're prepared for that, no matter how much you think you want me, or how much you think I deserve."
Sara sat stunned, and Catherine waited for the final word, waited for her to turn away, and close the door on the sweet future she had so naively offered.
There's a moment in a game where you either risk it all or fold. The moment where the odds are even, where you read the tells and you look at your hand, and you have to choose, trust to luck, or play it safe. When you trust to luck, maybe you'll win, maybe you'll lose. But when you play it safe, all you can do is hope you get another chance to play the game.
Flip a coin.
Heads or Tails
The weekend after her semester ended, Sara drove back up to Las Vegas in a borrowed pickup.
Eddie flipped when Catherine told him she was leaving. He wouldn't believe it at first.
"You're not a dyke Kitty! Believe me. I would know. You're just taking her for all you can get, you cunt. But she won't take your shit for long. When the little dyke gets bored and chucks you out, you'll come crawling back to me, Cat. You know you will."
Catherine ignored him, stiff and silent, as she threw her bags into the back of the truck. She slid into the bench seat and glanced over. Sara could read the desperation in her eyes, the 'don't abandon me now, not when I've taken this risk,' written there.
Sara gave her a half smile and shifted into gear, ignoring Eddie kicking the tires in a fit of pique.
When Las Vegas was in the mirror behind them, Catherine leaned back in the seat with a groan of relief.
"Thank you," she said. "I didn't really think you were going to come."
Sara looked at her hands on the steering wheel. "Sometimes I didn't either. In the end I convinced myself to come even though I was sure you wouldn't actually leave with me. I had to keep my promise."
Catherine snorted. "What a knight you are. Dusty pickup and all."
Sara looked ashamed.
Catherine closed her eyes, wincing, then reached out and covered Sara's hand on the gearshift as she was moving from fourth into fifth. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong. You are the most incredibly chivalrous person I've met. No one has ever made me an offer like this before." She smiled grimly. "Especially after only fucking me once."
"I want I want you to know that there really are no strings attached. If you don't want to " Sara looked hopelessly muddled and embarrassed. "I have two rooms."
Catherine laughed to herself and leaned over to kiss Sara on the cheek. "Not going to be an issue, I'm sure. Not in the least."
Sara flushed and nearly drove off the road.
Every once in a while Sara wonders what would have happened if she said, "that doesn't change anything." If there were any words she could have said to convince Cat that she was serious, that she wanted her. She didn't care if it was an instant family. She would have been happy to have Lindsay be her baby, to have a real family and prove that she was different from her parents, that she could love a child. Maybe she would have finished her doctorate, be a nerdy physics professor, with a beautiful wife and daughter. Maybe she would have been happy.
But Sara chose what she knew, and Catherine did the same.
When Sara's life fell apart, she remembered Catherine's smile, remembered the eagerness with which she had spoken about forensics, and put her life back together based on that smile.
When Catherine's life fell apart, she remembered Sara's ferocity as she said, "You're too good for him," and put her life together again with that ferocity.
And ten years later they had a second chance to play.
Sara brought a wayward Lindsay home after finding her hitchhiking and Cat met her at the door, looking at them together, heartbreak in her eyes, and finding matching heartbreak in Sara's.
"She should have been my kid," said Sara. Catherine leaned into her and let herself rest there.
"I wish she had been."
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