DISCLAIMER: the characters don't belong to me, but to CBS, Jerry Bruckheimer,…I'm just borrowing them for a while. After I'm done toying with them, I'll give them back in one piece, I promise *evil laugh* Please don't sue, I'm a poor uni student, all I have left in my wallet after paying a very hefty entrance fee is a couple of Euro' s. Not worth the hassle.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: no real spoilers. I'll probably introduce a lot of new characters and change cannon along the way. I don't know anything about Nevada criminal law, so I've probably made huge procedural mistakes. Same goes for possible medical procedures: I'm not a doctor, so everything you'll read is most probably quite impossible in real life. I don't care, I live in la la land anyway. It's set about four weeks after the Hank thing.
WARNING: English still isn't my mother tongue, so you'll probably encounter a lot of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes along the way. It's my way of annoying the hell out of everyone lol
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
THANKS: to my betas for all their help.

With a Little Help
By Piranha

Chapter 6.

Catherine walked into the lounge and immediately headed for the coffee pot, completely lost in her thoughts about Sara. She was pondering whether or not she should call the younger woman to ask if she was feeling any better. She was so completely submerged in a world of her own that she hadn't really noticed Sara, who was half hidden by the back of the huge couch.

Taking her coffee with her, moaning softly at the first sip, she jumped and gave a huge yelp when she saw the subject of her thoughts laying on the couch, intently watching her every move. Thanking God for having good reflexes – she hadn't spilled a single drop of the burning hot coffee on her white sweater-, she squeaked out: "God Sara, you scared me half to death."

When Sara didn't reply, but just cocked one of her eyebrows, Catherine continued: "I wasn't expecting you to come in tonight. You know, with the way you were feeling last night and all." She went to sit next to Sara, forcing the younger woman to retract her long legs and adopt a sitting condition.

Looking Sara directly in the eye after giving her a brief once over, Catherine said: "you do look a lot better. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but you seem to have some sort of glow about you. So I guess your friend – I think Greg said that her name is Mel- I guess she gave you a clean bill of health then?"

"Erm basically yes. There isn't really anything wrong with me. Mel just said that I have to avoid unnecessary stress for a while and to stop eating all that junk food," Sara said, telling herself that it wasn't an outright lie. After all, Mel really had said all those things. "I guess I had a bit of an upset stomach or something," she muttered, turning a nice shade of pink for telling a fib.

If there was one thing Sara absolutely hated, it was dishonesty. But at the same time she knew she had to be economical with the truth if she didn't want the whole nightshift to find out she was pregnant just yet. Although Greg was the biggest gossip in the Western hemisphere, she knew he would keep his mouth shut about this, probably because she'd flay him alive otherwise.

She couldn't really say the same for Catherine though, she didn't know or trust her enough to make the same assumption. Desperately wanting to change the subject, but not really knowing how, she just looked at her colleague and was amused at the myriad of emotions that were crossing Catherine's expressive face: concern, doubt, anxiety, relief,…

Catherine closed her eyes for just a second before she smiled Sara's way and said: "I'm so glad you're feeling better….. You know, I've been meaning to talk to you for ages, but somehow I never got the chance. Guess there's no time like the present."

Obviously very nervous, fiddling with her coffee cup, Catherine took a moment to gather her courage. "I've been meaning to apologize to you for my awful behavior when you had to close Eddie's case. I know you did everything you could and I had no right to say all those things to you. I didn't mean any of it, I really didn't. I was just so angry at the time, I know that's not really an excuse, but… I never meant to question your capability as a CSI or to doubt your professional integrity.

You're one of the best CSI's I know and I also know there was no' one as angry or as sorry as you were at having to close the case. I can't tell you how sorry I am for hurting your feelings, God believe me, the last thing I want to do is to hurt your feelings. I was just spiralling out of control and wanted to lash out at someone. Unfortunately that was you and I'm so sorry. I just hope that one day you can find it in your heart to forgive me and that we can be friends again."

Hearing the absolute sincerity in Catherine's voice, Sara scooted a bit closer to the older woman and wiped the big tear that was slowly making it's way down Catherine's cheek away with the palm of her hand. Leaving her hand on Catherine's cheek, enjoying the warmth and softness of Catherine's skin, she looked her straight in the eye and for the first time in weeks she held that gaze.

She whispered: "it's okay Catherine, it's all water under the bridge now. There's nothing to forgive." Catherine searched Sara's face for the truth behind those softly whispered words and when she noticed Sara's small but encouraging smile, she just took the younger woman in a bone breaking hug.

Both woman were enjoying the feeling of their arms around each other. Sara because she realized then and there that she really meant those words. She was still cautious, but felt safer about opening up to Catherine now that she had apologized. She felt all of her residual anger, doubt and fear that had been haunting her for the past few weeks, slowly wash away.

She felt finally free again, free to enjoy Catherine's attention without having to feel guilty, without having to reprimand herself or hold herself back. Catherine on the other hand just couldn't get over the fact that Sara had forgiven her so easily. She really hoped that this could be a fresh start for the both of them, that they could become friends again and maybe over time, when she had gained Sara's trust again, they could become a bit more.

They broke out of their hug when Sara's cell phone rang. Wiping a last stray tear away, Catherine stood up and went to the coffee pot to get a refill, trying to give Sara at least a semblance of privacy. Mentally berating herself for her lack of respect, Catherine was ready to leave the lounge when she heard Sara answer the phone with a rather sultry "hey babe, I was just thinking about you", making her stop dead in her tracks. She busied herself with the milk and sugar jugs instead so she could inconspicuously eavesdrop on Sara's private conversation, too curious and outright jealous to even contemplate leaving the room.

"No, I'm fine honestly, I'm doing everything you said and it seems to be doing the trick…. "

"What do you mean there's a first time for everything? ….. Oh okay if you put it that way I guess you could call me a tad stubborn….." *Catherine snorted softly at the understatement of the century*

"Mel, that's the pot calling the kettle black…."

"Go out with you? When?"

*Catherine felt utterly devastated at that news, she realized she had left it too long, Sara was already dating someone new*

"No, I can't on Saturday, I'm going to Lake Mead with Greg. How about tomorrow?.... Oh, you have a hot date? So who's the poor unsuspecting victim?....."

*Relief ran through her, Sara and Mel were just friends, she still had a shot.*

"Well how about you swing by my place Saturday evening? I'm sure we'll be back by eight or so. I'll make us something to eat. Go on, it'll give you a chance to humiliate poor old Greg yet again, you know how he drools over you….. Yeah, okay, I'll see you then."

Sara turned back to Catherine and said: "sorry about that. I didn't really get the chance to talk to Mel last night, she was in between shifts and didn't have a lot of time to gossip. Besides I didn't really feel up to girl talk with the way I was feeling.

Anyway, about our case, I've made a couple of phone calls. First I tried to reach that Matthews guy, but got a colleague instead. He said that Matthews knew about my interest in the case and that he would come and pick me up around one o'clock. So I guess I'll have another trip to the warehouse planned for tonight. I've already told the front desk to let an Alex Matthews through.

Then I called the meteorological institute and they said that there were a lot of lightning hits in the industrial area, so unless Matthews finds evidence of arson, an accidental fire becomes more and more plausible. Did you find anything interesting last night?"

"No, not really. By the time I got back to the lab, shift had ended. I did have the crime scene photos developed though, so maybe you'd like to take a look before we head down to Robbins?"

No, that's okay, I'll do that later. Maybe we'd better go and see Robbins now. He'll be able to tell us something more."

Dressed up in their blue apron like coats, Catherine and Sara stood hunched over the severely charred body of Mr. Baconman. They were unsuccessfully trying to locate the bullet's exit wound when Doc Robbins walked in, happily munching on a hotdog. "Sorry to have kept you waiting for so long ladies", he said in between bites, "but performing the autopsy gave me quite an appetite. For some strange reason I had this craving for a hotdog with the works, can't think why though." Wiping the dot of mustard from his mouth with a tissue, Robbins went to stand next to Sara. "So John Doe X94Z, aptly nicknamed Mr. Baconman, any guesses on the cause of death?"

"Well the huge hole in the back of his skull would suggest to me a gunshot wound to the head, point blank range with a big caliber gun," Catherine said. "The killer probably thought the fire would destroy all the evidence."

"We still don't know if it's arson yet Catherine, you're speculating," Sara interjected. "An accidental fire caused by lightning seems more and more likely."

"Hmmm true. Well he may not have set fire to the warehouse to cover his tracks, he still shot Mr. Baconman, right doc?"

"I'm sorry to burst your bubble Catherine", Doc Robbins said, "but Baconman actually died of a heart attack."

"Why would anyone shoot a dead guy in the head?" Sara asked puzzled.

"Ah the sixty four million dollar question," Robbins stated, "the answer is they didn't. Baconman wasn't shot at all." Noticing the genuinely baffled and utterly stupefied looks on both their faces – if their jaws could drop any lower, they'd be scraping the ground - , Doc Robbins sighed and began to explain: "guess I'd better start at the beginning. The first thing I did when Baconman was wheeled in, was check whether or not he was alive at the time of the fire.

His blood wasn't cherry red in color and I found no carbon particles in his respiratory passages, indicating that he didn't die of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was quite dead before the fire started.

Like you I first thought the huge hole was an entrance wound, but when I found no gunpowder residue burnt in his skull nor an exit wound, I had to rethink that theory. I examined his heart, one of the few organs that's more or less intact, and found scars and marks on his heart muscle, indicative of a major heart attack.

Now, I know what your next questions is going to be, what caused the huge hole at the back of his skull? Well that puzzled me too at first, I couldn't really come up with a plausible answer, so I did a little research. I found out that there have been similar cases. It's quite simple really, his skull exploded.

A fire is extremely hot with temperatures above a thousand degrees Celsius. Baconman couldn't have been dead that long when the fire started, which means his brain and skull would still have a lot of blood in them. The way he toppled over after death increased that amount. The extreme heat made his blood boil in his skull, intensifying the pressure. In the end the pressure was too big and kaboooom, his head exploded, creating a huge hole."

Catherine visibly blanched at the thought and could only nod when Sara asked if she was okay. The younger woman showed no signs of unease and quite cheerily said: "so what you're saying is that there's nothing suspicious about his death? That he died of natural causes?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. But while you won't have to search for his killer, you'll still need to identify the poor guy. I took a bit of heart tissue and sent it down to DNA. I took the liberty of collecting the results before I came back down here.

No dice I'm afraid. The lab technician ran the profile through the computer but didn't come up with a match. I'm afraid our John Doe isn't a registered sex offender. You've got quite a bit of detective work ahead of you in figuring out who this is. Unfortunately no fingerprints, his hands were burnt to a crisp. I can provide you with some clues though.

I can tell you that Mr. Baconman is indeed a man. Although the DNA profile confirmed this, you have to be legally blind not to know. His pelvis is definitely male and he has rather big bones. As you well know, in general the bones of males are bigger because they need more room for the muscle attachments. As the eye cavity is oval shaped, I know we're dealing with a Caucasian. I extracted his femur to measure it's length. Using the calculating tables I estimate him to have been around six feet.

Determining his age was a bit trickier; as you know there are only a couple of age dependent features you can use when dealing with adult bodies. I looked at his molars, the wear and tear of his spinal colon and the bones in his wrist and hands. All of this makes me believe he's at least fifty years old. I'm sorry but I can't be more specific on that. I think his teeth are your best bet though. I made an X-ray for you to use when you're sifting through missing persons. That's it ladies, that's all I can tell you."

Chapter 7.

"Well that's a bit of a let down, him dying of natural causes," Sara sighed while they were walking back to the lab. When she saw the strange and slightly appalled look on Catherine's face, she quickly explained: "that came out a bit wrong. I didn't mean to say that I wanted him to be murdered, it's just that our case would have been a bit more exciting and interesting then. Now we actually don't have a case, but we'll still need to look at endless missing persons reports in hope of identifying him. Boring. I'd rather be out in the field. I just wished he was murdered. Erm, I'm just digging myself in deeper, aren't I?"

When Catherine's eyebrows creased and her lips turned into an amused smirk, Sara continued: "Oh, you know what I mean. Anyway, do you think we should call in Grissom's friend Teri Miller? If she reconstructed his face, we could distribute it to the media. Maybe somebody would recognize him. What do you think?"

"You really don't want to sift through all those boring reports, do you?" Catherine laughed. When Sara had the good grace to turn a bit pink, she continued: "well although I agree with you that it would save us a lot of time, I'm afraid that the sheriff would never go for it. Facial reconstruction takes a big chunk out of our already severely overstretched budget. Adding to the fact that Mr. Baconman died of natural causes, the sheriff would never authorize our request. No, we'll have to do it the old fashioned way."

When Catherine heard Sara groan loudly, she grumbled good naturedly: "I don't know what you're complaining about? You still have that little field trip with Matthews to look forward to, I'll be stuck behind that damn computer for the rest of the night."

They were just about to put all the information Doc Robbins had given them into the computer when there was a polite knock on the door. Both looking up, they found a young and very attractive woman standing in the doorway. "Hi, I'm Alex Matthews and I'm looking for a Sara Sidle. The receptionist told me to walk right through."

After wiping the stupefied look off her face, Sara walked over and shook the woman's hand, saying: "sorry about that, we were just expecting a man, you know with the name Alex. Hi, I'm Sara Sidle, very pleased to meet you."

Alex' eyes slowly made their way over Sara's form, clearly appreciating what they were seeing. Stepping into Sara's personal space to touch her lightly on the arm and smiling brightly, Alex purred: "a real pleasure to meet you too."

Sara turned bright red with embarrassment and stammered: "this is Catherine Willows, she's working on this case too."

Alex's eyes drifted towards Catherine for a brief second before settling down on Sara again. Acknowledging Catherine's presence with a tiny nod, she asked Sara: "you ready to go?"

Catherine guessed that Sara had responded in an affirmative way because thirty seconds later she was looking at their retreating backs, Alex's hand possessively placed on the small of Sara's back. Catherine couldn't believe the audacity of that Matthews woman and was fuming. Not only had she completely dismissed her presence, she had also the gall to hit on HER Sara right in front of her.

To openly flirt with Sara, to undress her with her eyes, to touch her arm in such a gentle and intimate way, that should have been her prerogative and hers alone. Inwardly seething with jealousy, Catherine pushed her chair back, threw her pen on the desk and decided to go for a brief walk. The fresh air would do her a world of good, it would calm her down and help her gather up her jumbled up thoughts.

When they arrived at the burnt out warehouse, Sara jumped out of Alex' SUV and was about to enter the site when the other woman called her back. "Hey Sara, think you can help me carry some of my equipment?"

"Erm sure," she grumbled, walking back towards the car. Alex opened up the trunk and lifted several heavy bags out, passing two of them to Sara. Together they headed for the warehouse, slightly panting from carrying the bags. "I'm sorry but I really don't know the first thing about fire investigations," Sara mumbled totally embarrassed, "you'll have to explain everything to me. You know, walk me through it."

"That's okay, I just love to hear myself talk," Alex laughed. "Okay, you can put them down here, we don't need them until later. Let me see, where to start? Okay. As you probably know, you need three elements to create and sustain a fire. These three elements, also known as the fire triangle, are oxygen, a fuel source and heat. In case of an arson, the fire triangle has been tampered with. In most cases an accelerant has been added to the fuel source.

In general it's pretty easy to see whether or not a fire is deliberate. There are tell tale signs: multiple points of origin, flashes, explosions, a strange development of the fire, … You have to rule out accidental fire first though. Looking for physical evidence of an arson is only the third and last step in my investigation.

First I talked to the firemen who were at the scene. I said an arson has obvious signs, but the problem is that most of the physical evidence of foul play is destroyed by the fire itself. It's very important to talk to the firemen to get their account: what they saw, thought and felt. The firemen usually give me my first clues. They can tell what color the smoke was, if the fire behaved strangely, if there were signs of forced entry, … In this case all the firemen I talked to didn't report anything out of the ordinary.

Then I have to run a complete background check on the insurance policy holder. You know, to see if the owner didn't have a motive to torch his own place down. My colleague usually takes care of that, I simply hate paperwork. Give me field work any day. Anyway Kurt, that's my colleague, didn't find anything out of the ordinary: no huge debts, no recently signed insurance policy,…

You might ask, why still come down to the warehouse if you haven't found a motive for arson. Well, like I said, I just love field work. I also found out that the land around here is actually worth a lot. The value has tripled in the last five years. But the biggest reason is that we have a serial arsonist on our hands in the greater Las Vegas area.

You didn't hear that from me though, the mayor wants to keep a tight lid on that. He's afraid every heavily indebted nut will torch down his own place and blame it on the arsonist. Anyway, although this place doesn't really fits his profile, I'm here to double check, you know just to be sure.

The first thing we're going to do, is check for multiple points of origin. You know what those look like, right? Okay, that's good then. Lieutenant Wolf told me he spotted one point of origin on the North wall, but that he didn't check the other walls. Why don't you take the East wall and I'll take the other ones?"

Sara meticulously searched the wall with the huge flashlight Alex had given her, but came up empty handed. She walked back over to where Alex was standing and patiently waited for her to finish examining the last wall. Looking up at Sara, who seemed temporarily lost in a world of her own, Alex found her to be completely adorable: brown hair that was slightly curled due to the humidity in the air, cheeks flushed pink by exertion and that cute little gap between her teeth, only just visible as Sara was biting her lip. Alex knew she had to touch her or she would spontaneously combust.

Completely startling Sara from her dream world by putting her warm hand on her cheek, rubbing it softly with her thumb, Alex whispered with a hoarse softness in her voice: "you had a bit of ash there." When she noticed that Sara was a bit uncomfortable with her poorly disguised come on, she reversed back to full business mode. "You found nothing either, huh? Well, guess it's time to bring out my baby."

Sara watched Alex pull out several pieces out of the bags and before she knew it she was looking at a huge and rather ugly machine. Laughing she said: "What the hell is that thing? It looks like it has just escaped from Dr. Frankenstein's evil clutches."

Happy that Sara was again comfortable enough to joke around, Alex kneeled beside the "Thing" and stroking it tenderly, she whispered in an overly exaggerated tender tone: "don't listen to a word she says baby. You know that Mama loves you."

"You're completely nuts, you do know that, don't you?" Sara laughed.

Alex stood back up and winked at Sara. "This is my baby, a hydrocarbon vapor detector. She sniffs out even the tiniest amounts of accelerant. If there was an accelerant used, she'll know about it. She may be ugly as hell, but she's quite useful." Fifteen minutes later Alex grumbled: "Damn. Nothing. Well all we can do now is check out the point of origin lieutenant Wolf found. Help me up, would you?" Alex used Sara's clasped hands as a piggy back and climbed the wall.

Holding on to a metal bar in the ceiling with one hand, she used her other to investigate the wall. Five minutes of 'hmmm-ing" and "aha-ing" later, she jumped back down to the floor with a thud. "There's no evidence of arson. Arson leaves a distinctive pattern behind on the wall which I didn't find here. I did find evidence that lightning struck in that power box though. The box began to fester and the flames spread through the electrical cables, setting the whole warehouse on fire. Guess it's official now, an accidental fire. I'm sure the mayor will be very pleased to hear that."

Dawn was about to break when they arrived back at CSI headquarters. When Alex heard her stomach grumble in loud protest, she looked at her watch and said: "hey Sara, do you want to grab a bite to eat? It would give us the chance of getting to know each other a little better."

Sara looked back at Alex and seemed to ponder that question for a minute. "It depends", she finally said.

"On?" Alex answered, a slightly amused tone in her voice. She wondered if Sara ever did anything spontaneous, she seemed to question every action she was about to take, mull over every decision she makes. Probably a closet control freak, Alex mused.

Hating being put in such an awkward position, Sara stammered: "if you'd consider this breakfast to be just between friends, then yes I'd love to. If you'd consider it as some sort of first date, then no. I mean, I don't want to sound presumptuous or anything, but I think you've been flirting with me all night long." Shyly looking up, she tried to find confirmation for this in Alex' eyes.

When the other woman remained totally pokerfaced, she grudgingly continued: "it's kind of hard to explain. It's not that I don't like you, because I do, it's just that … I'm in love with someone else. I know nothing will ever come of it, but it still wouldn't feel right to go out with you, you know? Besides it really wouldn't be fair to either of us, I just love her too much. I'd feel like I'm taking advantage of you and I guess you'd feel like second choice. That's not a very healthy place to start a relationship, believe me."

Knowing Sara well enough by now to realize that she would be beating herself up about her blow off, Alex tried to reassure her. "I can do friends. Don't worry about it, you haven't hurt my feelings. I'm just glad you were honest. I just thought, you know…. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I reckon that this woman, whoever she is, is a fool not to have you. We can still be friends though, can't we? Anyway, let's go eat, I'm famished."

Chapter 8.

"So tell me a bit more about yourself," Alex said, picking up the cup of coffee the waitress had brought over. When she saw the spooked look on Sara's face – she had just turned white as a sheet-, she began to laugh and said: "relax. There's no need to worry. I didn't mean that you have to tell me your biggest and darkest secrets. Although you could if you wanted to, especially if they're juicy. I just meant a simple story to get to know you better, you know? Maybe something about your childhood."

Sara visibly relaxed and said: "sorry about that. That was just me having a mild panic attack, it only happens when I become the topic of conversation. You see, I don't open up to people that easily, especially not after just meeting them. I don't really like talking about myself, probably because it's the most boring subject ever…." When she got a stern look from Alex, Sara reluctantly continued: "I'm kind of shy and reserved, I'm not good with people. Not at first anyway, it gets better when I get to know them, then I open up to them. But it's the getting to know them that's the problem. When someone starts talking to me about a non work related subject, I always clam up. I never know what to say to them, I'm always too afraid of saying the wrong thing and driving them away.

People seem to take my monosyllabic answers as a telltale sign of rudeness. They actually think I don't want to talk to them and soon give up trying to draw me into a conversation. Off course this only adds fuel to my already huge worries and fears of having a real conversation with someone," Sara laughed somewhat bitterly.

"You seem to be doing just fine now," Alex remarked.

"Yeah, it happens sometimes. It's probably because I instinctively know that you'll put up with the long stretched silences or my quirky and nonsensical interjections. You won't judge me. Besides you strike me as a pretty persistent woman. You'd probably drag me into a conversation kicking and screaming, you'd just keep badgering me until I give in. You wouldn't give up until I've told you everything.

But that's just it, don't you see? Most people do give up. They decide that I'm not worth it, based on the poor first impression I've made. That's why I've ended up with only a couple of really close friends. Friends, who like you, didn't give up and kept on trying. They're the only ones I really feel comfortable with."

"Well most people are fools anyway, you're probably better off not talking to them. You can't believe the kind of nonsense they spout off most of the time. But they're especially fools not to want to know you better. I've only known you for five minutes and I already know that there's more to you than meets the eye.

You're an enigma, you're the puzzle that I can't wait to solve. Besides, what is something worth if you don't have to put a little effort into it? So I can promise you this, I'll keep on prodding you because I really want to get to know the real you. …. Now that we've crossed this hurdle, why don't you tell me something about yourself? Maybe the first thing that pops into your head when you think about your youth?"

"Oh God, my youth," Sara laughed, "you're into prehistoric horror stories then, huh? Well let me see… As you can probably imagine, I was a bit of a loner in high school. Most people thought I was some kind of a sideshow freak, you know? I was always dressed in black, wore big combat boots and didn't really conform to the norm. My inability to hold a decent, although totally nonsensical conversation only increased my reputation of miss unpopular. I just couldn't care less about the things my classmates were interested in: cheerleading, shopping, guys, mainstream pop music,… The fact that I was a serious science nerd didn't help either.

I only had a couple of good friends, fellow geeks and weirdo's that shared my quirky interests and hobbies. We usually sat brooding in a little corner of the cafeteria, ridiculing the populars, discussing the latest scientific breakthroughs or dissecting the depressing songs of The Smiths. We were the guys nobody dared to talk to out of fear of losing their fragile social standing. The populars only acknowledged our existence when they were in grave danger of failing academically. But we got our own back, asking ridiculously high prices for a tutorial.

I didn't really feel that good about myself, you know? Not only because I was ostracized from the main crowd in school, but also because I felt kind of weird in my own body. I was struggling with my attraction towards both men and women and although I knew I could talk to my parents about that if I wanted to – erm let's just say they're very open minded - I still felt out of my element. Looking back I guess I went through the typical stages of teenage angst, trying to carve out my very own place in the world. I just felt totally alone, like nobody really understood me.

Everything changed when Mel Kendricks moved in next door to us. I was about sixteen then. We really clicked from day one, I had finally found the one person who really understood me. Although we were as different as night and day, we became best friends in a matter of hours. We did everything together, it was like we were joined at the hip or something. We even dated for about two years until we had to leave for university. She was my first in very many ways. I fell for her the day I met her, but was too frickin scared to tell her or to do anything about it. We only got together thanks to Robert, one of my fellow geeks.

One day, we were sitting in Robert's basement getting horribly drunk on cheap imported beer when he suggested we play a game of spin the bottle. Suddenly the bottle pointed at me and none other than Mel had to give me a kiss. Not in the least bit self conscious she crawled over to where I was sitting and she just pounced on me, attacking my lips with an animal ferocity. I was only stunned for a moment, pretty soon the old familiar rush of desire swept through me and I found myself battling her for dominance over the breathtakingly hot kiss.

Mel was always the more adventurous of us both, always daring me to do the most outrageous things. I guess you could say she had me wrapped around her little finger, you just wouldn't believe the crazy stunts she tricked me into: skinny dipping in the ocean in the middle of January, getting a tattoo during a wild weekend in San Francisco, dyeing the hair of the totally obnoxious head cheerleader blue, … To this day I think that bimbo still has no idea who pulled that prank on her. Anyway Mel was also the one to encourage me and my fellow geeks to start our own band. She was our number one roadie, always stealing her brother's van to drive us to our occasional gig.

We broke up after high school graduation. We were both going to college in different parts of the country: she wanted to become a doctor, I wanted to get my degree in physics. Anyway, you know how difficult long distant relationships are. Although it was very much a mutual decision, I was still heartbroken… Well, I guess we both were. We tried to keep in touch, but you know how that goes. I bumped into her again about a year ago when I had to go to Mountain View Hospital to interview a rape victim.

She was working there as a doctor and had no idea I was living in Las Vegas too. I was just so happy to see her. We talked about giving us a shot again, but we knew it would never work out, we had both changed too much. But the moment I saw her again… it was like we had never been apart. I had my best friend back, the one person who completely understands me. We see each other at least once a week and phone each other all the time. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, whenever I think about my teenage years, I always think about Mel and I wouldn't change it for the world.

"God", Alex sighed, "that's just so sweet. You have no idea what that tells me about you. But you're not off the hook yet, kiddo. I still want to know more about you. Erm, let me see… what question could I ask you next? …. So what made you decide to become a crime scene investigator? I mean it's a gigantic leap from physics, isn't it?"

"Well, yes and no. Crime scene investigators come from a very varied educational background: I have a B.S in Physics, Warrick has one in chemistry, Gil in biology, Nick in criminal justice,… We're really a very heterogeneous bunch, so it's really not that big of a leap. But you're quite right, I didn't set out to be a crime scene investigator. Ever since I was a tiny kid, my plan was to go to Harvard, get my degree in physics and go work in a lab somewhere, earning megabucks while performing breakthrough scientific experiments. It didn't turn out that way however, I'm a level three forensic investigator working my butt off for a tiny pay check.

My interest in forensic investigation started when I attended a guest seminar on the application of physics in forensic science. A very cute woman began talking about blood spatter analysis and got me hooked. I still didn't think about pursuing a career in it, but I did begin reading more about forensic science. I only made it my career when something horrible happened to my roommate Nic.

For the four years I was at Harvard, I shared a tiny room with Nikolai, a Russian student. There was some kind of fuck up in the administration and that's how he and I became roomies. We were both a bit angry about the mix up at first, but as the administration couldn't assign us a new room any time soon, we agreed to make the best of it. It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to us, after a cautious few weeks we found out we had a lot in common and we became close friends. Everybody actually thought we were a bit of an item, something we thought extremely funny as we were both gay. We didn't deny the rumor though, it kind of helped us. Although universities are supposed to be broad thinking and breeding ground for open minded people, we both experienced a lot of homophobia around us. So to the outside world we were an item, while we both secretly had our lovers.

I don't know what happened, how they found out about our mock romance, but they did. Rumor got around that Nicolai was gay, that he was going behind my back, that he was only using me as a smoke screen. It never even occurred to them that I might be using him too. Anyway, he began to receive threats. We didn't really think any of it and just got on with our lives. Then something happened. I was walking back home from the library one day when I found him in a dark little alley, almost beaten to a pulp. He was barely alive. I called 911 and the police and told them the whole story. The police never did anything about it. Oh sure they interrogated a lot of students and searched the whole campus for evidence, but they never made an arrest.

When I called them on it, they said that the forensic evidence was inconclusive. I talked to one of the detectives again and he told me off the record that he had a pretty good idea who was behind it, but that he had been ordered to let sleeping dogs lie. I know it wasn't the detective's fault, that he did the best he could and I didn't want him to risk his career, but…. I was just so angry you know? After I graduated I went back to San Francisco and began to follow forensic seminars. I was determined to become the best damn forensic investigator there is. I want to fight in the victim's name, I want to catch the bastards that did it and make sure they never get away with it. And the rest they say is history."

"What happened to Nikolai?"

"He was hospitalized for five months. He graduated the same year I did, but left for Europe shortly after. He said he couldn't stand the bigotry and homophobia that still lingers under the surface. He writes to me now and then. He's currently living in Amsterdam. So, now it's your turn. Tell me something about yourself. Like why you're still single or why you chose a career as a fire specialist?"

"Oh well, It's like this….."

With an exasperated look at the clock, Warrick sighed deeply and finished off his paperwork. Stamping closed on the file brought a tiny smile to his otherwise tired face. "That's the last time I get suckered into doing the damn paperwork," he cursed softly, "no matter how much I need the overtime." Yawning widely, he dropped the thick file on Grissom's desk before making his way over to the locker room.

Passing Catherine's office, he noticed that the light was still on and he knocked on her door. Opening the door cautiously when he heard no reply, he found his colleague frantically pacing the tiny room, muttering something incoherently. The only word Warrick could make out was Sara. Thinking the two women had one of their famous catfights again and that Catherine was just blowing off some steam, he said: "hey Catherine, what's up? What has Sara done now?"

Jumping at Warrick's voice – she was so worked up she hadn't even noticed him standing in the doorway – Catherine looked up to him and said: "sorry?"

"Sara…. I assume she somehow pissed you off again, otherwise you wouldn't be pacing around like a madwoman, cursing her name. I mean, shift ended about an hour and a half ago."

"I can't reach her Warrick. I don't mean figuratively, we kind of made up earlier, but literally. I've been calling her on and off for the past three hours and I always get her answer phone. I'm getting really worried. What if she got sick again?"

"Well, do you know where she went?"

"Yeah, she went back to the burned out warehouse with that fire specialist. They were going to investigate whether or not we're dealing with an arson. They left around one thirty and I haven't heard from them since."

"Well, you know as well as I do that an arson investigation takes a long time. They probably only finished processing the scene right before shift ended. My guess is that Sara went straight home after that."

"No, she hasn't. I've been calling her there to, but no answer."

"Did she look queasy before she left? I mean, was there any indication that she was going to be sick again?"

"Erm no, quite the opposite actually. I'm the one who got a bit light headed during the autopsy. Sara on the other hand was decidedly chirpy, the gory details of Baconman's strange demise didn't seem to bother her in the slightest."

"Well, if you're so worried about Sara, have you tried to reach that fire specialist?"

"God no, that frickin woman hardly gave me the time of day when she dropped by to pick Sara up. She was all over Sara though. She would probably think that I was checking up on them and I'm sure she wouldn't hesitate in letting Sara know that too. You know how sensitive Sara is about her work, she'd probably think I'm criticizing her or something."

"Catherine, I really think you're getting worked up about nothing. Sara's a big girl, she can take care of herself. Even if she got sick again, that other woman would be there to help her out. As for Sara being unreachable, I guess her battery died on her again. She was complaining about that a couple of days ago. I told her to buy a new one herself, but she probably hasn't gotten around to it yet. So stop worrying, okay? Go home, take a nice relaxing bath and get some sleep. That's what I'm going to do. I'll see you later tonight?"

"Yeah, you're probably right. Sara's a big girl, she'll be just fine. Guess I'll see her tonight."

With that both CSI's went their separate ways, Warrick towards the locker room, Catherine towards the reception. Catherine was just about to grab her car keys when she heard her stomach grumble loudly. Knowing she hadn't eaten anything since supper – the thought about Baconman's exploding head a bit too much for her already overactive imagination – she decided to have some breakfast first.

Entering her diner, she was surprised to see Sara and Alex in a booth at the back. Staring at them wide eyed, she was slowly losing her appetite again when she saw Sara laughing at something Alex had said. She had never seen Sara so relaxed or carefree before. Her jealousy flaring up again when she noticed Alex touching Sara's hand, she was set to leave the diner when Alex waved her over. Knowing the tentative truce she had reached with Sara earlier would be well and truly over if she disappeared on her now, Catherine mustered up all her courage and slowly made her way over to the booth.

Chapter 9.

"… and that's when I found out that she was actually a he in the process of becoming a she. I've got nothing against transsexuals, whatever rubs your Buddha is fine as far as I'm concerned, but…. It was just a bit too creepy for my taste, so I hightailed it out of there and fast. I wouldn't be surprised if my soles left some nice skid marks on his floor," Alex said. A slight shudder went through her at the mere memory of the event.

Sara just burst out laughing, she couldn't believe the crazy stunts and scrapes Alex managed to get herself into. Glimpsing Catherine in the corner of her eye, Alex touched Sara's hand to get her attention and said: "isn't that your colleague over there shooting daggers at me?"

Sara looked up, but when she saw the puzzled, shocked and slightly pissed off expression on Catherine's face, she could only nod. She couldn't really understand why Catherine was looking at them like that, what they had done to deserve it, but definitely knew it wasn't a good sign. She was so busy trying to figure out what she had done wrong this time, she only noticed that Alex was waving her over until it was too late. Sara just stared at Catherine, utter confusion but also dormant passion evident in her eye, a fact that the very observant Alex didn't miss.

Catherine made the deliberate choice to sit right next to Alex, thinking that at least this way she'd be able to observe Sara. Maybe she could find out how Sara felt about this Alex woman? Although Catherine knew that Sara was pretty good at hiding her emotions, her face being unreadable most of the time, she had recently discovered that Sara's eyes held a wealth of information. Her face might be a stoic mask, her eyes betrayed her every single time.

When Catherine ordered her breakfast, she was very surprised to hear Sara ask for another stack of pancakes. The empty dishes on the table suggested to her that the two women had already eaten plenty, an assumption that gained merit when she heard Alex say: "God Sara, I don't know where you put all that food. If it was me, I'd weigh 200 pounds." Sara just mumbled something incoherently and took another sip of her tea.

Clearing her throat, Catherine asked: "so did you guys find anything? Was it an accidental fire or….?

When Sara made no effort to answer the question, she seemed far more interested in a speck of dirt under her nail or ogling Catherine when she thought no 'one was looking, Alex quickly replied: "it was a textbook case of an accidental fire. Lightning hit the fuse box and the fire then spread to the whole building through the electrical wires. Off course carpet being stocked there didn't help matters. The place lit up like a torch,…. but no crime was involved."

"Oh well, that's one less criminal to chase I suppose. Now we only have to identify the dead guy and we'll have the whole case wrapped up. I've looked at every single missing persons' report filed in the last six months in Nevada,…. Zilch. None of them match the description of Mr. Baconman. I guess we'll need a lucky break on this one," Catherine sighed.

Just then the waitress appeared at their table again, carrying a tray of hot plates. The sight of Sara wolfing down her pancakes brought a smile to Catherine's face which turned into a curious frown when she noticed Sara wasn't drinking her usual cup of coffee. Having Sara pegged down as a strictly caffeine kind of girl, Catherine was mystified and asked Sara about it.

Only realizing that Catherine had asked her a question when Alex kicked her none too lightly in the shin, she looked up and mumbled: "huh?"

Finding the sight of Sara with maple syrup all over her chin totally adorable – and strangely arousing-, Catherine repeated rather hoarsely: "why are you drinking tea all of a sudden? I mean you normally have coffee. Hell, you'd drink the stuff intravenously if you could."

"Um yeah, Mel said I had to cut down on my coffee, that I should drink ginger tea instead. Something about tea being better for my stomach."

"And you're actually obeying her orders? That Mel must be something else if she can pull that one off," Catherine laughed.

Sara didn't say anything, but turned crimson red. When a beeper went off, all three women jumped up and started digging through their purses trying to locate the damn thing. "It's mine," Catherine sighed. "Sorry, got to make a quick phone call." Flipping open her cell phone, she went outside the diner to make her call.

Five minutes later she was back and throwing ten dollar on the table, she said: "sorry to eat and run, but that was my sister. It seems she tripped over a rubber toy and broke her wrist or something. I'd better get her to the E.R. Alex, nice to have met you, Sara I'll see you tonight." With that the blonde hurried out of the diner, leaving Alex and Sara on their own.

As soon as Catherine was out of sight, Alex whispered: "the woman you're so in love with. It's Catherine, isn't it?"

Sara didn't even bother to deny it, she just went wide eyed and pale faced. Gripping the edge of the table tightly, desperately trying to get some sort of control back, she stammered: "how did you know? I hardly said two words to Catherine the whole time she was here."

"No and that's actually what clued me in. I know that you're a bit shy and reserved, that you have problems talking with someone you've only just met. But… Catherine is a colleague, you know her very well, so I knew it had to be something else. I've caught you staring at her a couple of times, you were practically undressing her with your eyes when you thought no 'one was looking.

You follow her every move, but when you talk to her on a non work related subject you get easily embarrassed and you can't seem to look her in the eye, your eyes are always darting all over the place. What I don't understand is why you think you don't stand a chance with her?" Alex asked.

"Well, for one she's straight and yes, before you say anything I know I could be the one to teach her what she's been missing out on, but ….. I've had affairs with straight girls before and they've always ended in heartbreak and tears. They always decided that they needed a guy after all, so I'm a bit wary I guess. Besides she never gave me any indication that she's interested in girls, always having a man in the background.

She's also got a kid and although that's never been a hang up for me, I know she doesn't trust me with her daughter. I mean, she doesn't even know I sometimes hang out with Lindsey and that we're actually quite good friends. Whenever she needs a babysitter, she always asks one of the other guys, she never asks me and that hurts, you know? I know we don't get on that well, but it's not like I would ever do something to her kid. I have minded kids before, I have tons of nephews and nieces.

Catherine and I aren't the best of friends, never have been. It's not because of lack of trying on my part, but… When I first came to Las Vegas, she barely tolerated me and although our relationship has improved after our first disastrous meeting, things were still decidedly rocky. We would fight like cats and dogs from time to time. We've only become closer the past year, both trying to build a tentative friendship.

But then she blew up at me after her ex-husband's murder, it really ripped me apart. You see, I was the lead investigator on that case and I had to close it, I had no other choice. We knew who had done it, but we just couldn't prove it and that pissed her off. She accused me of all sorts of things, it was really ugly. The things she said, … You can't imagine how much she hurt me with that. I know she regrets it, that she didn't really mean what she said, but it still hurt, you know? I couldn't believe she could think so little of me.

She only apologized for her behavior today. Well I have to be honest, I didn't really give her the chance to apologize before that, I always fled the room as soon as possible. I couldn't be around her after that, I was just too afraid of what she might accuse me of next. Anyway, she asked if we could be friends again. That makes me hopeful for the future, but I really don't think we'll ever be more than friends. She just doesn't think about me that way, there's no way she'll ever be interested in me," Sara answered with a heavy sigh.

"I think you're wrong, I think she is interested in you, maybe even in love with you. I mean, didn't you notice her checking you out when she first sat down? She notices little changes in you, she immediately saw you weren't drinking your usual coffee. And then the way she was looking at me when she first came in, … If looks could kill, I would have been dead in a matter of seconds. Hell, that's one scary lady when she's pissed off or jealous. Take it from me, Catherine wants you."

"That doesn't really prove anything. Catherine is a crime scene investigator, she gets paid to notice little details like that. I'd be more worried if she hadn't commented on it. As for her checking me out, I guess she was just making sure I wasn't about to get sick again. I've been feeling a bit off the past couple of days. And I really don't think she's been glaring at you, you just have an overactive imagination. Besides Catherine is the most straightforward person I know, if she had feelings for me, she would have said something."

"Sara, you really have no idea, have you? She could be dropping hints as big as anvils and you still wouldn't notice. She may not have said something, but her body language speaks volumes. It tells you all you need to know. Believe me when I say she feels the same way. Hell if I hadn't been here, she probably would have jumped your bones. So, now you know she's interested in you, what are you going to do about it?"


"Nothing? I don't get you, you know? You blow me off because you're too in love with Catherine and when I make it clear that you have a chance with her, that she feels the same way, you're just going to sit back and do nothing? What's the matter with you? Are you some kind of masochist? Just ask her out on a date already, you know it's all you've been dreaming of."

"I can't. Even if what you're saying is true, that she feels the same way, there's no way I could ask her out on a date. Not now."

"Why not? What's holding you back? Are you too shy to make the first move, is that it? Because if that's the case, maybe I could help you…."

"No, that's not it at all. It's just the timing that's all wrong. If I would have known a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn't have hesitated, but now… " When Sara saw that Alex was totally confused, she knew she had to tell the truth. "I'm pregnant."

"Pregnant?" Alex screeched out so loud that the whole diner was looking at them. When she saw that Sara was so embarrassed she wanted to crawl under the table, she mumbled apologetically: "sorry about that. So you're pregnant? How's that possible? And don't start about the birds and the bees, I do know all that stuff. I mean, I thought you were in love with Catherine?"

"I am. It's kind of a long story. Like I said, I'm attracted to both men and women, but… I only seem to have meaningful relationships with women. I like men, but only as a pastime. Erm I guess the bottom line is that I was feeling lonely. I knew I couldn't go on like that, pining away after Catherine when I knew I didn't have a chance. So I told myself that I had to go out more, that I needed to get some semblance of a life.

Then I met Hank and he was just what I needed at the time. Some kind of diversion. I wasn't looking for love ever after, I didn't love him, I just wanted to have a little fun, you know? Someone to hold during the cold and lonely nights, someone to talk to when I had a particularly nasty case…

And for some time he was enough. I knew I was still in love with Catherine, I'll probably be in love with her for the rest of my life, but I didn't feel so lonely anymore. Then I found out he was cheating on me, well actually that he was cheating on his girlfriend with me. He had forgotten to mention that bit. Guess that's men for you, huh? I wasn't heartbroken when I found out, like I said I didn't love him. I just let him go. To my big surprise I found out I'm pregnant. So you can see how this complicates matters a bit, huh?" Sara laughed bitterly.

"Are you going to keep the baby?"

"Yes, I am," Sara said with a big smile lighting up her face. "I mean, I was shocked when I first found out, but I've thought about it and I've talked it over with Greg, a really close friend of mine and yes, I'm going to keep this baby."

"Well I can see how this might complicate things, but I think you should still go for it. Just tell her and let her decide for herself. If you don't, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. You'll keep thinking about the what ifs…. If she says no, well …. At least you'll know then, you'll be able to get on with your life. Now you're stuck in limbo. Think about it?"

"I guess you're right. I'll give it some thought. Thanks, Alex, I really appreciate all this."

"That's ok. That's what friends are for," Alex said, giving Sara a mischievous wink. "Anyway, I think we'd better go before they throw us out. We've been here for ages."

Nodding her consent, Sara paid the bill, swatting away Alex' hand when she wanted to pay for her own share. When they were outside, they walked back to the labs. Alex helped Sara get her Harley out of the garage and once Alex was finished drooling all over it, Sara got on her motorcycle and said: "You know what? I'm giving a little dinner party tomorrow night. Nothing special, just a little get together with Greg and Mel. Why don't you come too?"

"I don't know Sara, I won't know anybody there apart from you."

"Don't be so silly. I thought I was the one who's shy and reserved. You already know who Mel is and Greg… well Greg's just Greg. You'll see what I mean when you meet him. They're both hilarious in their own way. You'll love them, I know you will. So what do you say?"

"Okay, I'll be there. When should I be there?"

"Oh, around eight will be fine. You know where I live right?"

"Yup, you put it on the back of that business card you gave to lieutenant Wolf. Well, guess I'll see you tomorrow night then," Alex said. She only hesitated for a second, but then bent down and gave a totally surprised Sara a light kiss.

"Erm … yeah bye I guess," Sara said distractedly before putting on her helmet. She gave Alex a final wave before roaring off home.

On their way back from the hospital, Nancy and Catherine were chatting animatedly to pass the time. Traffic was a total nightmare because of a traffic accident downtown and they were standing still more than they were moving. "So why haven't you asked this Sara out yet?" Nancy asked curiously. "It's not like you to be this cautious. You normally throw all caution to the wind if you want someone, you just go after him or her and consequences be damned."

"Yes and look where it's gotten me in the past," Catherine laughed. "No, Sara's special. I want to make sure I'm doing this right, that I don't mess it up from the start. I've hurt her immensely by blowing up at her a couple of weeks ago, she didn't dare to be in the same room with me. I don't want to scare her off again by coming on too strong. I'm content to be her friend for now. I still have to regain her trust, so I guess I'll just have to be patient and take baby steps. But she's…"

Looking out of the window, Nancy nudged a mid sentence Catherine and said: "hey, isn't that Sara over there?"

Catherine looked over just in time to see Sara climb on her Harley. Totally mesmerized, she hoarsely replied: "yeah, that's Sara."

"Well, I can certainly understand what you see in her, she's a babe." When Nancy noticed the totally shocked expression on her sister's face, she just shrugged and said: "What? I may be on a man only diet, but that doesn't mean I can't browse the menu and Sara's definitely a four star meal. Who is she talking to anyway?"

"That's Alex something, the fire specialist she called in to investigate the warehouse. You wouldn't believe the gall of that woman, she was hitting on Sara right in front of me."

Just then Alex kissed Sara, who didn't really seem to pull away. Clearing her throat at the unexpected event, Nancy said: "well, it seems her more direct approach paid off. I'm so sorry Catherine. What are you going to do now?"

Swallowing the lump in her throat and desperately trying to fight back the tears that were threatening to spill out, she croaked: "what can I do? I can hardly go out and challenge that Alex woman to a duel, now can I? If Sara's happy with her, then I guess….. I'll just have to accept that."

"Who are you and what have you done with my sister? I can't believe you just said that. Aren't you going to fight for her? You say you're in love with Sara, but the moment you hit a tiny bump in the road, you just want to curl up and play possum. Fight for her. You're a Willows damn it, act like one."

"I can't, I just hurt her too much. I only apologized to her today, our friendship is still very shaky at the moment. If I come on too strong now, she would think I'm playing with her emotions again and she'd bolt. I can't risk that, I've only just found her again. She simply means too much to me. I want her in my life no matter what, even if it's as just a friend."

"I think you're an almighty coward, but it's your life I guess."

Chapter 10.

Although Sara overslept for the first time in her career, Alex's little revelation that Catherine loved her too kept her tossing and turning all day, she was still the first CSI to clock in that night. Without the threatening loom of Grissom present everybody relaxed just a little bit more, she walked into the lounge and headed straight for the refrigerator.

She had just plonked herself down on the couch with one of Grissom's magazines, happily sucking on a popsicle, when Nick and Warrick walked in. As they were discussing the latest baseball game, something that didn't interest Sara in the slightest, she just gave them a tiny wave before immersing herself fully into a totally fascinating article on the mating habits of the dung beetle.

Some fifteen minutes later, Sara had already moved on to an equally engrossing article on the forensic value of pupa casings, Catherine came barreling into the lounge, her cheeks flushed bright red from all the running. "Sorry for being so late," she panted, "my car wouldn't start so Nancy had to drive me. Anyway, assignments. It seems we have another slow night, only one new case has come in: a decomposed body in the desert. An amateur ornithologist stumbled upon it when a couple of vultures perked his interest. Nick, Warrick, since you two have wrapped up your double murder yesterday, you're up. Oh and take Greg with you again." Looking around the lounge for the first time since she came in, Catherine was surprised when she didn't find the lab tech on his usual spot, glued to Sara's side. "Where is he anyway?"

"He's on a date," Sara piped up. When she noticed the deep frown on Catherine's face, she continued: "he asked Grissom for the next two shifts off. I'm sure Grissom put it down in a note somewhere."

"Erm no, he didn't, it's the first I heard about it. Knowing Grissom he just plain forgot about it," Catherine laughed. "Well guys, guess it's just the two of you then. O'Riley is already waiting for you at the scene. He wanted to interrogate that bird watcher, he mumbled something about the desert being a strange spot for an ornithologist."

After being handed their case details, Nick and Warrick left the break room, leaving Sara and Catherine on their own. The two women looked at each other a bit awkwardly, both not really knowing how to react. A deep silence fell over the room, making them both uncomfortable. "Erm guess I'm stuck with missing persons after all, "Sara laughed, desperately trying to alleviate the tension.

"Yeah, you and me both," Catherine sighed, "at least until another case comes in."

They both made their way over to the computer and side by side they began scanning through the next batch of reports, widening their search to older files and even out of state ones. They couldn't really concentrate on the task at hand, their mind continually drifting off to the person sitting next to them.

Sara was pondering whether she should take up Alex's advice and just go for it. It seemed a bit too impulsive, careless and adventurous an action for the overly analytical and anything but impulsive Sara. She decided to wait a bit longer before springing into action. After all, she only had Alex's word for it that Catherine loved her too and being the skeptical scientist she is, Sara needed a bit more than that to be convinced.

Catherine was contemplating whether or not that kiss had meant anything. Sure, Sara hadn't pulled away from it, but she hadn't really leaned in either. Maybe that Alex woman had caught Sara by surprise, maybe it was just an one time thing. She had seen Sara take off like a bat out of hell right after the kiss. That had filled her with hope again after a rather restless sleep. Desperately wanting to know more, but careful not to appear too nosey, she asked: "so what did you think of Alex?"

Very glad for the interruption, Sara enthusiastically answered: "I really like her. She's obviously very good at her job and she didn't mind showing me the ropes. She's a lot of fun."

Feeling her heart sink at that admission and positively dreading an affirmative answer, Catherine asked: "do you think you'll see her again?"

"Erm yeah, I've asked her to come to my place tomorrow night for dinner," Sara replied absentmindedly, not really thinking about how that might sound to Catherine.

Catherine felt like Sara had plunged a dagger deep into her heart and twisted it around a couple of times for good measure. She was too late after all. Feeling the world crumble around her for the second time in less than twenty four hours, she turned deadly pale.

"Catherine, are you all right?" a decidedly worried Sara asked.

Catherine remembered what she had told her sister about being happy for Sara no matter what and put up a brave face, mumbling: " I'm fine."

"Are you sure? You looked like you were going to faint or something."

"It's nothing. I ….. was just thinking about Baconman's exploding head, I've always had an overactive imagination. I think I'll just go to my office to lay down for a bit. Call me if a new case comes in or you hit a match, okay?" Catherine said, leaving Sara no chance to reply as she hurried out of there. She just wanted to fall apart in private and practically ran to her office, only letting her tears fall when she had closed and locked the door.

About two hours later Catherine felt ready to face the world and Sara again. After carefully wiping away all evidence of her crying, her mascara had left big black streaks all over her face, Catherine stood up and walked over to her door. Unlocking it, she went to open it and was startled when she found Sara right in front of her.

"Oh," the younger woman said, "I was just about to knock. A new case has come in. Suspicious circumstances out in Henderson, apparently an elderly couple became ill not long after having supper. Paramedics seem to think there's something fishy about it and called us in. I thought that maybe we could both go check it out? Sure beats looking at missing persons' reports all night, my eyes have gone all googly from staring at that screen for so long…."

When Catherine still hadn't looked at her, Sara stopped her nervous babbling. Unsure what to do next, after all she really wasn't a people's person, she lightly touched Catherine on the arm, causing the older woman to look up. "Are you all right?" she asked. "You look kind of spaced out."

Pulling herself together, telling her to at least act professionally while at work, Catherine shrugged and said: "yeah, I'm fine. So suspicious circs, huh? Guess it's better than nothing. Let's go."

Catherine turned and started walking towards the exit, leaving a rather stunned Sara behind. The younger woman really couldn't make head nor tails about Catherine's odd behavior tonight, it was puzzling to say the least. Realizing that now was not the time to solve the enigma that is Catherine Willows, she ran after her, grabbing her kit and coat on the way.

The drive to Henderson was in complete silence, Catherine too preoccupied with her still jumbled up thoughts to even contemplate idle chit chat. Sara didn't really mind the silence and remembering the reason behind the older woman's hasty departure this morning, she chalked Catherine's rather odd behavior up to sisterly concern. Hoping to get at least some idea on what they were about to find, she started reading the case details, but they were sketchy to say the least. Sighing deeply, she stared into the ink black night for the remainder of the trip.

When they finally arrived at the Smiths' address, Sara hopped out of the SUV and was very surprised to find Brass pulling up next to her. When he climbed out of his car with a loud groan, she gave him an inquisitive smile and said: "hey Jim, what are you doing over here? Not that it's not a pleasure to see you, but this is a suspicious circs, isn't it? You normally show up when there's a dead body involved. What gives?"

"The hospital just rang, Mr. Smith died about fifteen minutes ago. Mrs. Smith is still in very critical condition, they're pumping her stomach and giving her a gastric lavage as we speak, but it's not looking too good. They ran a quick tox screen on their blood and found a high amount of Ethadoic, Ethenedioic,…"

"Ethanedioic acid, more commonly known as oxalic acid," Sara corrected with a tiny smirk.

"Erm yeah that. Anyway the doctor said that the amount they found could never have been synthesized by the body itself. They're running further tests to see how high the concentration of acid is, but she said that it's most probably a fatal dosage. Looks like we have a homicidal poisoning on our hands."

Having heard the last part of the conversation, Catherine stepped up behind Sara and asked Brass: "who called 911?"

"That would be Mrs. Smith. The call was logged at 10:32 pm. According to the dispatcher she was in a panic and hardly comprehensible. She told the operator that her husband had collapsed after dinner, that he was unconscious and struggling for breath. Then she must have lost consciousness herself. The operator immediately dispatched an ambulance and well, you know the rest."

"Hmmmm" was all Sara said. When she saw the curious and expectant look on her colleagues' faces, she elaborated: "oxalic acid poisoning is very tricky. Oxalic acid is an acid that's found in many things. The body synthesizes it from vitamin C, the pharmaceutical industry uses it in household chemical products like bleach and anti rust products. It's even found in some vegetables and plants.

Because it's a component of vegetables like cabbage, rhubarb and spinach, it's not unusual to have a slightly elevated concentration of oxalic acid in the blood. Moderated levels aren't really lethal. Well unless you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or kidney stones and even in those cases death wouldn't be so instantaneous. It would take at least two weeks before the victim dies and most likely a doctor would never pick up on it because you actually die of renal failure.

Mr. Smith died too quickly for it to be a natural poisoning. That E.R. doctor was right, this has to be a homicidal poisoning. That poses another problem though, oxalic acid has a very sour and vile taste. It tastes so awful and nasty you want to spit it out immediately, which makes it kind of difficult to ingest a lethal dosage. If I remember correctly the lethal dosage is between five and fifteen grams. How on earth could the Smiths have ingested that amount without noticing?

The foul taste must have been disguised somehow. As Mrs Smith said her husband collapsed right after dinner, my best guess is that the poison was in the food itself. I wonder why they were eating so late? I mean, elderly people like to be in bed by then, don't they?"

"I don't know Sara," Catherine said, "there could be a million reasons. Is it really that important?"

"Well it might be. You see, in a case of fulminant oxalic acid poisoning as we seem to be having, death occurs within the hour."

"It works that fast?" Catherine asked. When Sara merely nodded, she continued: "God Sara, you and me seem to pull the creepiest cases lately. So you're saying that it's someone the Smiths know? Maybe even one of the Smiths?"

"I think so, yeah. I don't think it's Mrs. Smith though. I know we can't rule her out completely, it's always possible she poisoned her husband and then took a swig of the poison herself to throw us off the scent, but it's hardly likely. The lethal dosage of oxalic acid differs from person to person, so she would be taking one hell of a risk.

Besides oxalic acid poisoning is very painful. It's a very corrosive acid, it just burns right through tissue. Even a tiny amount causes burns to mouth, tongue, throat, food pipe,… It induces respiratory failure, gastric failure, seizures, hypocalcaemia, cardiac irregularities,…. In one case the victim's tongue was so swollen he choked on it. Believe me when I say Mr. Smith met a ghastly and extremely painful end. I don't think anyone in their right mind would inflict that kind of torture on himself just to throw us off scent. "

"What kind of sick bastard would try to kill a couple of octogenarians in such a torturous way?" Catherine asked appalled.

"I don't know, but I intend to find out. Brass, do you mind chasing down that E.R. doctor? I'll need Mrs Smith's stomach content and a more accurate tox screen to pinpoint the poison. You know, to find out what they used exactly."

"Sure, no problem. I'm on it. I'll call as soon as I know anything." With that he jumped in his car and sped off to the hospital.

Sara turned to face Catherine again and with an apologetic expression on her face, she said: "I'm sorry to take over like that, it's just that I know a fair deal about oxalic acid. I took an extra curricular seminar on it back at Harvard."

"That's okay. I'm actually glad you did, I don't know the first thing about that type of poisoning. Erm, shall we?" Catherine said, pointing towards the house. When Sara nodded, she took her bag and made her way over to the house. Sara followed her and when she passed the Smiths' car on the driveway, she put a gloved hand on the hood of the car. It still felt lukewarm to the touch.

Reaching the front door, Catherine came to an abrupt halt, almost making Sara crash into her. Turning around to face Sara, she said: "since I don't have the first clue what we're looking for, why don't you concentrate on the poison while I conduct a typical house search?"

"Okay sure. Erm Catherine? Could you bag some of Mr.Smith's vomit? It should be coffee black in color as the acid corrodes the stomach walls. I'll need it to compare it with the possible poisonous materials I find."

Pulling a disgusted face and muttering something under her breath, Catherine nodded. Soon the both of them concentrated on the task at hand.

Chapter 11

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