DISCLAIMER: Main characters belong to CSI people (CBS, Jerry Bruckheimer) and SVU people (NBC, Dick Wolf).
SPOILERS: I've only seen SVU up to part way through season two, so it's set somewhen around then. In CSI terms, it's a few months after 'Lady Heather's Box', and there's references to that.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I made up part of Catherine's family. I made up the airport. I know very little of legal procedures.
CROSSOVER: C.S.I./Law & Order: SVU - Catherine/Olivia.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Gift
By Stone Angel

Chapter One

Catherine Willows gazed up at the monitor, giving a tiny nod of confirmation as the clock counter in the corner of the display blinked from 11.45 to 11.46. Fourteen minutes until boarding. She sipped the last of her coffee, and gave a small self-satisfied grin as her eyes strayed once again to the business card sitting innocently by the small packets of sugar. Rob McLintock. CEO of an apparently successful software company. The smile lingered on her lips as she recalled his flirtation. An older man, late forties, in a smart grey suit. Smooth, polished lines. Conventionally handsome, with a boyish grin that seemed at odds with the serious grey eyes and salt-and pepper hair. Too much grey was the problem. Boring.

She liked her men to be a little more exciting and dangerous. Rob had flattered her, made all the right moves, and she'd felt a brief spark of attraction at his charm. She'd flirted back, enjoying the harmless game, and accepted his confidently offered business card with a smile, promising to call the next time she was in New York. She could tell by the look in his eyes that he knew she had no such intention, but also that he didn't mind, and it had been an interesting and entertaining way for both of them to spend half an hour when the alternative was wandering round the airport aimlessly or drinking endless cardboard cups of coffee.

At that thought she rose to her feet, picking up her carry on case and bags, and glanced at the tinsel-edged display again. Thirteen minutes. Plenty of time to visit the bathroom before boarding. She made her way out of the small coffee shop and through the midnight-quiet departures lounge, paying no attention to her fellow travellers, most of whom were clearly shoppers like herself, surrounded with bags of gifts, and engrossed in novels, stretched out across chairs sleeping, or gazing blankly at nothing in particular. She pushed through the first swing door, cursing under her breath as she shouldered the second one, hearing a crunch then a shatter behind her. The figurine, she quickly deduced, a mildly hysterical giggle escaping her lips before she could stop it. A glance behind her confirmed her suspicion. One of her many shopping bags had got trapped between the jamb and the door behind her. "Eighty nine bucks," she muttered under her breath. "And the fucking thing was a monstrosity anyway." With a forceful tug and a shove on the door in front of her, she stumbled into the bathroom with all the grace of a newborn calf, relieved to see there didn't appear to be witnesses to her indignity.

Placing her bags on the counter by the washbasins, she reached in and pulled out the dented box, gently giving it a hopeful shake. It felt, and sounded like, Lindsey's money tin. She regarded the picture on the box. A china Victorian lady, handpainted in all her period glory. Exquisitely detailed, but nonetheless hideous and totally unsuitable for its intended recipient. She had no clue what had possessed her to buy it. Actually, she did, and it was probably fate that was responsible for the fact that it was currently smashed into a thousand pieces. With an exasperated sigh, she aimed the box at the open trashcan in the corner, allowing herself a small satisfied nod as the missile hit its target with a solid thunk. An appropriate ending for a nightmare gift, she thought.

Turning towards the mirror, she checked herself. Not bad at all, considering she'd been on her feet since six that morning. A firearms and ammunitions update course, with a day of Christmas shopping thrown in as a bonus. She'd been reluctant to go, but had found herself enjoying the training nevertheless, feeling the stress drifting away from her as she'd blasted away at the targets, the tension dissipating as she fired round after round from the powerful firearms. She hadn't even realised how wired she'd been until afterwards; sitting down with Nick for dinner and feeling deliciously relaxed. It was the first time she'd been able to shrug off her cares since Eddie's death. For a couple of days, she'd been successful in pushing that whole incident right to the back of her mind.

Besides, it was more than just a need to escape from the aftermath of Eddie's death that had sent her to New York. She'd initially felt almost coerced into going when Grissom had gathered them all in the breakroom, announcing that he had places for two of them to attend the course given by the head of the New York firearms unit. Nick had volunteered immediately, with an energetic enthusiasm that had made everyone laugh. Sara had proclaimed, in half embarrassment and half barely-hidden pride, that she'd completed the course six months earlier during her vacation time, paying for it herself.

Catherine had bitten back a retort at that, reminding herself that she was making an extra effort to be friendly towards Sara after her appalling behaviour towards the brunette during the investigation into Eddie. It was still awkward between them – she'd not been able to bring herself to apologise, and often, she thought, her behaviour must have seemed patently false and obvious. Sara was just so damn strange towards her sometimes, but she felt like the younger woman could now, at least, tolerate her company in small doses. Grissom had clearly not wanted to go – he had a dislike for guns which was patent to anybody who had ever worked a shooting crimescene with him, and he was overly keen for Warrick or herself to attend, cloaking his personal reluctance in an ever so slightly over the top eagerness for one of the two of them to go.

She'd rapidly weighed up her options. A weekend away with Nick, whose company she found easy and relaxing, and an opportunity to get her long-overdue Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop, or two whole days working crimescenes with a spiky Sara. She'd heard Warrick half-heartedly muttering something about a baseball match, and had cut him off mid-flow, earning herself a grateful smile from him as she'd agreed to attend the course.

She'd found herself enjoying the retail therapy too, and was glad of the chance to get it done. She had been determined to make this Christmas special, as it was the first one Lindsey would spend without Eddie, and she'd had good intentions since mid-November, but work and Lindsey commitments had come first, and she was woefully unprepared for the season. She'd expected to find the crowds of festive shoppers stressful, but instead had discovered she relished the anonymity as she picked out gifts for her family and friends.

She'd been hesitant to leave Lindsey, but as she regarded herself in the mirror, she realised her sister had been right. Nancy had warned her she was getting obsessive about protecting Lindsey. It was natural to want to watch over her after what had happened, she'd told Catherine, but Lindsey was beginning to get stifled by her attentions. Nancy had almost forced her to go, promising to take 'extra-special care' of Lindsey for her. Catherine laughed softly to herself as she remembered how Nancy had used those exact words, stressing each syllable, to drive home the point that Lindsey would be safe with her and Ray, Jeremy and Baby Josh.

The first day away had been odd, like part of her was missing, but a call to Nancy's, and Lindsey's obvious excitement at spending the weekend with her cousins had put her mind completely at ease. And maybe she'd overcompensated by the amount of gifts she'd bought for Lindsey, but she was more than sure her daughter wouldn't mind. Yes, she thought, Nancy had most definitely been right. She made a mental note to listen to her sister more often; allowing herself a small smile as her eyes strayed to the jeweller's bag. The locket she had bought for Nancy was perfect. She knew her sister's taste, and was confident she would love it. In fact, all the gifts she'd bought were good choices, she thought to herself in satisfaction. Except for that damn figurine.

Catherine knew Grissom's idea had been well-intentioned, if a little selfish. The Christmas before, it had taken him months to decide on gifts for them all, and she'd lost count of the number of times he'd cornered her in the corridors or in her office, asking for her advice on what to buy Warrick, what bands Greg liked, what Sara's taste was. And the relief on Nick and Sara's faces had been evident when Gil had entered the breakroom with a chemical mixing jar full of scraps of paper, proclaiming that this year, they were each going to buy only one present, for one randomly selected mystery person.

Catherine and Warrick had been outvoted, and, if she was honest, before she had known she was going to have the opportunity to do a proper shop in New York, she'd been relieved that she would only have to find one gift. Until she'd drawn out the slip of paper, that was. As she'd been the first to pick, the odds had been six to one. The probability was she'd get one of the guys. When she drew out Sara's name she had a moment of panic. She had no idea what to get the other woman, especially considering their relationship had been so stilted recently. But that uncertainty was quelled, and replaced with relief as she'd realised all the gifts were going to be anonymous.

The actual buying of the gift had proved problematic, however. For some reason she couldn't fathom, she'd left Sara's gift until last. Maybe it was because she found all the other presents easy to select, whereas with Sara she had no idea. As she was trawling round the shops, looking at random objects, she'd found herself putting a lot of effort into buying something suitable for Sara.

Remembering her earlier reasoning that it was all anonymous, and that Sara wouldn't know the gift would have come from her, Catherine had started out by trying to work out what the others would have bought Sara. She'd hazarded a guess that Nick would probably pick out something to do with mechanics, as it was an enthusiasm both he and Sara shared. Tools, maybe, or a manual? Catherine hadn't even bothered looking for those types of things as she'd realised she had no clue what Sara might like or not like, or what she might already own.

Catherine knew Warrick pretty well, and was confident he'd have carefully selected something personal for Sara – jewellery, perhaps. She knew from the thoughtful gifts she'd received from him in the past that he was more than happy to buy things like bracelets or pendants for the women in his life, safe in the knowledge his obviously friendly intentions wouldn't be misconstrued as something more romantic. When Catherine had returned to the store where she'd bought Nancy's locket and looked at various items of jewellery she'd realised that fact in itself was a problem. There was no way she would be comfortable buying Sara anything that personal. She could just imagine Sara's awkwardness at receiving such a gift from someone at work, considering the fact that Greg had a barely contained mad crush on the brunette, and Grissom and Sara had some sort of odd, mysterious 'history', that Catherine had always been curious about but never been able to work out. And if Sara did manage to work out the gift had come from her, she couldn't begin to work out how that would make the intensely private woman feel. Embarrassed and awkward, probably.

Catherine had given up on this strategy of gift selection as she'd realised her projections about what Nick might get Sara were useless, and Warrick, Greg and Grissom's were too prone to misinterpretation.

Catherine had looked in every conceivable kind of store, becoming increasingly fixated on selecting the perfect gift for Sara. It had gradually become vitally important to her to find something to try to break down the barriers that she had created with her reaction over the Eddie case. And she'd become more and more frustrated as she hadn't been able to find what she wanted, although she had no idea as to what that was. It needed to be personal, but not too intimate for someone she wasn't even sure she could be proper friends with. It needed to be tasteful, but not too specialised – she most definitely didn't want to pick something Sara would hate.

She'd rapidly realised she knew next to nothing about Sara's taste, having to discard things like DVDs, items of clothing and music, wondering about Sara's preferences in all of these things, but ultimately coming up with blanks on all counts. As she'd begun to run out of time and shops, she'd grown increasingly desperate. Realising she had only an hour to complete her shopping and get to the airport, Catherine had been on the brink of buying last minute department store vouchers, chastising herself for almost purchasing a gift that smacked of thoughtlessness as she reached out towards the display to select a card. Anything was better than that. Anything. At that point she'd developed a headache from agonising over choosing Sara's gift for the best part of three hours. So she'd given up, and decided to buy the next vaguely suitable thing that caught her eye. Or not suitable, even.

And then she'd seen the display. 'China Victoriana.' As she'd neared the shelves filled with models of every conceivable aspect of Victorian life, she'd vacillated between finding the whole array completely garish and hideous, and being totally convinced Sara would love these things. Vaguely aware that she'd developed a kind of present selection fatigue, akin to snow-blindness, she wildly reasoned that Sara was interested in history, and these were, after all, historical. Holding tightly onto the notion that this was the ideal present for Sara, she'd cast about for a suitable model, once again tangling herself into knots as she surveyed the little china houses, animals, children engaged in various activities, and adult figures, all carefully hand-painted. Realising she was under pressure to select, but feeling totally at a loss, she did the only thing she could, and reached out for the model directly in front of her, striding quickly over to the cashier before she had time to change her mind. Thrusting out her already overloaded credit card, she declined the offer of gift wrapping, mindful of the fact she now had only forty-five minutes before check-in.

It was when she was in the taxi that reality hit her. She'd bought a gift fit for an old lady. Sara would hate it. Catherine knew she'd be offended if someone had bought that ugly little thing for her. She'd sat back in the darkness and sighed. She was going to have to find something else in Las Vegas for Sara. Too tired to think about it any more, she had tossed up a silent prayer for some last minute inspiration to whoever might be listening, and, not for the first time that night, wondered why this particular gift had become so important to her.

This thought crossed her mind again as she glanced up at the clock in the airport's restroom. Ten minutes. She idly wondered which club or hotel room Nick was in at the moment. He'd been thoroughly determined to have a good time this weekend, and stretch it out as long as he could, electing to fly back in the morning so he could have a night trawling the clubs of New York. She couldn't begrudge him that after he'd played the perfect gentleman all weekend, even taking her out to dinner at a very expensive restaurant on the first night. He'd told her she was good for his sobriety, as if he'd been on his own he would have been out on Friday and Saturday night as well, and that it probably wasn't the best idea to be handling high-powered weapons with a raging hangover. Nick had made an earnest offer to take her out clubbing, but she'd declined, knowing it would be the last thing she'd need after a day shopping, and anyway, her desire to get back to her daughter was stronger.

She turned away from the mirror, realising with a slight blush that she'd been blankly admiring herself for a good five minutes. She briefly scanned the stalls, confident that they were empty but playing the childhood game of gambling on the one out of ten that would be the cleanest and freshest. She wasn't lucky at this game. Nancy had invariably picked a better one than her. She was eternally hopeful, though. She noted idly that the cubicle at the end seemed to be more of a cleaning store. She could see the head of a mop poking through the four inch gap at the bottom, and a dark, bucketlike shadow. She shrugged slightly, and leaving her bags on the counter, made her way to the stall next door, reasoning it was just a random game of chance in the end. As she reached out with her hand to push open the hard plastic door, she froze in her tracks, bending down quickly to get a closer look.

"Shit," she swore quietly to herself.

The head of the mop was wet and red and as she'd leaned over, the familiar metallic smell of fresh blood had wafted up to meet her. She knocked on the door.

"Hello, anyone in there?"

No answer. She pushed against the door. She could feel it wasn't locked but something was preventing it from opening, and from the slight soft give, she could hazard a guess as to what it was. She swiftly entered the stall she'd originally selected, wasting no time in dropping the lid of the toilet to climb up and peer over. She could see a young Hispanic woman in a cleaner's uniform sitting propped up against the door, facing the toilet. Her brown skirt-overall was hitched up around her thighs and her hose were laddered and ripped. The front and side of the uniform was stained a deep, dark maroon. Despite her own awkward position, Catherine could see that the source of the blood seemed to be a deep cut across the front of the woman's throat. Catherine hoisted herself up on her hands and leaned over, grunting in discomfort as the top of the cubicle wall pressed painfully across and into her stomach. She stretched down, but couldn't reach the woman, although she didn't hold out much hope anyway. Carefully lowering herself back down, she knelt on the floor of her cubicle until she was almost prone, and reached under the partition, finding the woman's wrist and feeling no pulse.

Withdrawing her hand, she sat back on her heels and sighed. It looked like she wasn't going to get back to Las Vegas tonight, after all.

Chapter Two

Detective Benson was running late. She'd sent Elliot on to the crime scene ahead of her, with the promise she'd follow within ten minutes, as she had to finish her important meeting with Alex. A vital conference where they'd had to review the day's cases and discuss many pressing issues. Yes, very crucial. A two and a half hour session where they'd covered less than an hour's worth of work.

Olivia had been so definite about the necessity of this meeting that Elliot hadn't dared to question her. Nor had she questioned herself at the time, and, gratifyingly, neither had Alex, patiently going through the most minute of details with Olivia, apparently unaware that the detective was trying to draw out every last second of their conversation.

As she sat in the cab on the way to the scene, Olivia couldn't help cringing, as to her own mind, the irrelevance of the questions she had been asking Alex had been painfully obvious, a poorly veiled excuse to spend more time, any time, with the blonde ADA. But, in a way that Olivia had found totally adorable, Alex had freely given over her undivided attention, not showing any outward signs of boredom, irritation, or tiredness, as they'd gone through the cases with a fine toothcomb. Even when Elliot had interrupted them with his phone call, Alex had not pressed her to leave, and she hadn't wanted to, although after stretching it out for five minutes more, she'd done so, albeit reluctantly.

Olivia heard, and felt, her own stomach growl loudly, and realised with a pang of guilt that she'd been so caught up in her appreciation of Alex Cabot that she'd prevented the blonde from going home and getting dinner. She kicked herself mentally, as she did so often as she reviewed her conversations with Alex, thinking she should have done this or that differently.

Tonight, she realised she'd had the perfect opportunity to suggest they order in pizza, or Chinese, or, if she'd been feeling brave, she could have casually offered to take Alex out to dinner, but that, as usual, her interaction with the blonde woman had made her feel like a awkward teenager. She'd only just been able to manage to ask intelligent-sounding case-related questions, much less had the presence of mind to behave like a normal, social, functioning human being.

Causing the woman to skip dinner was unforgivable, though. She wondered if missing meals was something Alex did on a regular basis, and then thought about where the ADA might be going for Christmas dinner, whether she'd spend it with family, or alone in her apartment. She quickly pushed the notions out of her head, willing herself not to be tortured by thinking about things she could only imagine, forcing herself, in a detective-like way, to focus on the facts she knew for definite.

Olivia began replaying the meeting in her head, editing out all the case related bits, closing her eyes as she examined in detail her favourite images of Alex over the past few hours, to store away in her vast mental library of her interactions with the blonde ADA. It was a kind of sweet torture for her. She had such strong feelings for Alex Cabot, but she had been given no reason to think the woman was anything other than straight, although she didn't know for definite and couldn't think of a way to find out without causing offence. Their precarious professional friendship was too new and fragile to risk. And it was highly unlikely Alex had any idea about her preferences, she thought. In fact, if the grapevine worked as efficiently as she believed it did, she was pretty convinced Alex believed the exact opposite, as, despite her efforts to be discreet, her mistake with Brian Cassidy had circulated through the precinct with alarming speed.

Nevertheless, Olivia indulged herself in images of Alex as she sat in the cab, smiling contentedly to herself as she recalled the blonde's face, framed with soft blonde hair, her piercing blue eyes which could change from soft baby-blue in her chats with Olivia, holding her gaze, hypnotising her, to glinting ice when she was throwing daggers in court. The classical lines of her face, elegant cheekbones, perfectly straight nose, full mouth, strong chin. The way she pushed her glasses up to massage the bridge of her nose. Alex's soft, deep, rich voice, smooth like fine coffee, lulling and patient as she answered every one of Olivia's pointless questions. Her immaculate dress sense, the way her perfectly tailored suits hugged her trim body, accentuating the curve of her back, her shoulders, her hips. The perfectly muscled calves and delicate ankles. The way the graceful, elegant hands flowed in perfect harmony to accentuate the points she was making to Olivia, picking up a pen to point out something in the case files …

Her reverie was broken by the rough Brooklyn voice of the taxi driver announcing their arrival and asking for his money. Shaking her head, trying to focus on the job in hand, Olivia exited the cab and paid the fare. Hands jammed in her jacket pockets, she strode quickly through the airport check-in area, ignoring the cross mutterings of the delayed queuing travellers as she pushed past, shopping bags banging against her shins. She flashed her badge at the clerk at the desk, making for the departures lounge with purpose.

As she'd been trained to do, she scanned the large area, trying to get a sense of what was relevant, or out of the ordinary for this place. Quickly editing out the randomly-hung ratty tinsel, which was evidently the airport's half-hearted nod toward the festive season, her eyes were drawn immediately to the woman's bathroom doorway, which had been sealed off with yellow police tape. She saw a white-overalled Forensic Investigator ducking under the tape, making her way into the bathroom, kit in hand. There were a few other CSIs engaged in various tasks – one fingerprinting the handle of the door to the women's bathroom, and a couple of others processing what she assumed were significant witnesses, or possible suspects, taking fingerprints and samples. Armed officers were dotted about, guarding exits and entrances; containing possible witnesses and suspects and ensuring no one irrelevant got in.

To her embarrassment, she noticed Fin and Munch had also managed to arrive before her, despite the fact that she and Elliot had been assigned the case first. She saw her partner engaged in an earnest conversation with one of the uniforms. He looked up, apparently sensing her gaze, and made his way over to her.

"Took your time," he commented dryly, with a grin on his face, although she could tell from his carefully masked irritated tone that he was only half-joking.

Choosing not to get into a conversation about why she was so late, Olivia turned to business. "What have we got?" she asked. "And why are we here?" she added, referring to the fact the airport was hardly within their jurisdiction.

Elliot nodded once as he glanced down at his notes, apparently confirming something to himself.

"Seventeen year old Hispanic female, a contracted airport cleaner. Preliminary coroner exam. says she was raped then had her throat slit. We got called in because the MO's identical to some of our other active cases."

Olivia shook her head and frowned, warning bells going off in her head. "Seventeen. Do we have an identity?"

Exhaling, he muttered as he handed his notebook over to Olivia, "You're not going to like it."

She looked down. "Not another one."

All Elliot had managed to ascertain from the shifty cleaning manager was that the girl's name was Ana Mendez. No social security number or paperwork had been forthcoming, but the name was enough for Olivia. Over the past six weeks they'd attended three incidents with the same MO, and all the victims were from the Mendez family. Although it was a common surname, Olivia would bet her last cent that this girl had been from the same family. She sighed in frustration. The Mendez family was a huge clan of illegal immigrants, and she and Elliot had found themselves going down numerous dead ends during their investigations, met with a wall of silence whichever way they turned.

They had no idea about enemies, as the people-smuggling business was rife in the city, with various different gangs making big money, all keen to muscle in on the profitable market, and very reluctant to talk to the police. And they couldn't discount the possibility that it was something more personal, maybe even a member of the Mendez family, although the one Mendez they'd managed to track down, a teenage boy named Ricardo, had refused to talk and disappeared into the night as soon as he'd been released. At the current moment, they had no leads and no way of notifying the family that another of its members had been murdered.

Handing Elliot back his notebook, Olivia asked hopefully, "Can we go in?" looking meaningfully towards the bathroom door.

"Be a few minutes more," Elliot answered. "Apparently the body's wedged up behind a stall door, so it's taking longer to process than usual and the CSIs don't want any more bodies than strictly necessary in the confined space."

"Ok, then. Who found her?" she questioned, running through the standard set of questions.

Olivia wasn't sure she liked the lopsided smile that crept across Elliot's face as he turned sideways and pointed.

"What's with the grin?" she asked, as she followed his arm.

"And what the hell is she doing?" she continued, mostly to herself, but out loud nonetheless, as she observed a small blonde woman talking to a CSI guy while trying to remove one of her boots.

"Eliminating herself," Elliot answered, with obvious amusement in his voice.

"Chang looks like he's going to do that to her all by himself and save her some trouble," Olivia noted dryly, observing that the big CSI, although having a brave stab at looking patient, was clearly on the brink of exploding, as was evident from the way he was shifting from one foot from the other. "What's her story?"

"Says she went into the bathroom to freshen up, and noticed blood under the stall door. Once she checked the vic was dead, she backed out. She's very keen to emphasise she didn't touch anything, except the washbasin area, the door of the vic's stall, and the cubicle next to it."

"And she'd be apparently issuing orders to Chang why, exactly?" asked Olivia in amusement, watching as the blonde struggled with a tight fitting boot and kept up her incessant chatter.

"She's Catherine Willows, CSI Level 3, from Las Vegas," answered Elliot, as if that explained everything.

"Did you question her yet?"

"Not yet," admitted Elliot.

"Elliot…" Olivia's tone was warning.

Elliot held up his hands. "Hey, you were late. I had to handle it on my own til John and Fin turned up. And besides, she's been more interested in playing forensic investigator. According to the uniforms, she guarded the bathroom like a lioness protecting her cubs until the CSIs got here, insisted she didn't want anyone contaminating the scene and even tried to pull rank to prevent them going in. Then, when our forensic people got here, she proceeded to tell them what needed to be done. I haven't been able to get a word in edgeways."

Olivia gave an exasperated sigh. "So what you're really telling me is that it's my job to question her?"

Elliot shrugged, a little embarrassed. "I just thought she might be a bit more receptive to another woman."

"Elliot Stabler, that has got to be one of the most sexist things I've ever heard," Olivia retorted, although she found it hard to keep a note of humour out of her voice. She was well aware that Elliot, due to his solid upbringing, had a great respect for women, but got a little uncomfortable dealing with strong females on his own, preferring her to take the lead in these situations. She couldn't resist the gentle tease about it though.

Elliot looked at her like he was a five year old caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and she had to force herself not to laugh. She decided to be merciful instead, conscious that her unprofessional Alex-induced lateness was part of the reason why CSI Willows hadn't yet been questioned.

"Did you check out the surveillance tapes yet?" she asked, glancing pointedly at one of the many cameras positioned in the ceiling.

"Just getting onto it," Elliot answered thankfully, turning away towards the airport manager, who was waiting nervously at the main door which led to the planes.

Olivia watched Elliot's retreating figure, then turned her attention to Catherine Willows, Level 3 CSI, Las Vegas. She made her way over to the blonde, who had successfully managed to remove one boot, and was now balanced precariously on one leg, trying to pull off the other one. As she drew nearer, Olivia could hear the woman practically lecturing a bemused and irritated Len Chang on possible venues of investigation, punctuating her sentences with occasional swear words as she tried to keep her balance and yank off the boot.

"Hi Leonard," Olivia smiled, as the big CSI nodded at her in acknowledgement.

"Ms. Willows," she began, "I'm Detective …"

And, then, to Olivia's mind, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. On hearing her name, CSI Willows looked up sharply, which caused her to completely lose her balance, her boot half on and half off. She swayed backward, overcorrected, and lunged forward, headfirst towards Chang's midsection. Chang, rather ungallantly, Olivia thought, stepped briskly backwards, although she supposed it may have seemed to him he was likely to be headbutted right in the crotch. Acting purely on reflex, Olivia stepped forward and slung an arm out in front of the lurching woman, to prevent her from toppling headfirst onto the airport carpet, grabbing an upper arm with her other hand for added support.

Chapter Three

As Catherine nosedived, and braced herself for what she was sure was bound to be a painful landing, she was surprised to register a leather-clad arm shoot out in front of her, and feel a strong hand grasp her arm, halting her fall and securely hauling her to her feet. Taking a moment to compose herself, she struggled to stay upright, as although her sock-clad foot was firmly on the floor, the half-on, half-off boot was making standing straight difficult. Although the jacketed arm had been withdrawn, the hand stayed where it was, the gentle yet firm pressure helping her keep her balance.

"Okay there?"

Catherine was mildly shocked to hear a concerned, if slightly amused female voice, although if she'd been paying attention she would have realised it came from the same person who'd addressed her only moments before, causing her to fall in the first place.

"Uh, yeah … uhhhh, thanks," she mumbled in reply, painfully aware she was blushing bright red after her embarrassing tumble.

Managing to put her weight on her unbooted foot, semi-securely, she looked up, into dark brown eyes, which were mostly registering amusement. She couldn't help but return the warm smile which was flashed her way. Just for a second, she thought she recognised the woman, but the moment was gone before she could get a hold on it, and she realised she didn't know the stranger after all.

"You're not hurt, are you? Nothing broken or bruised?" This time, the amusement was tinged with a definite concern.

"Only my ego," Catherine admitted, with a shake of the head.

Toeing the heel of the boot with her free foot, she finally managed to kick it off, and handed it to Chang. Before Catherine had a chance to open her mouth, the dark-haired stranger interjected, "Thanks, Len," and, with barely disguised relief, the CSI stalked off towards his kit to process the footwear.

"Shall we take a seat?" came the question, with a nod towards the wall, where the nearest row of chairs was. Catherine nodded, allowing herself a small huff of indignation as the taller woman added cheekily, "You know, it's easier to take off boots if you sit down to do it."

"Who are you, anyway?" Catherine asked, assuming the woman was there in some kind of official capacity, but not quite sure if she was a CSI, a cop, or an airport employee.

"Detective Olivia Benson, Special Victims Unit. And you're very welcome."

Catherine took in the information, as they made their way over to the chairs, pausing before she answered. "Huh? Welcome?"

She heard Detective Benson make a small gruff sound of barely disguised amusement. "For stopping you from falling flat on your face. You did thank me. I was just saying you're welcome."

"Oh, right."

Catherine suddenly felt exhausted. The weekend had been tiring, and she was finding it hard to process everything that had happened in the last couple of hours. Something else was bothering her, but in the haze of unreality of the situation that had suddenly descended, she couldn't discern what it was. She tried to make sense of it all. Then she remembered where she was supposed to be.

"Ms. Willows, I need to ask you some questions about what happened in the bathroom."

"I need to make a call."

Detective Benson looked confused. "You won't need a lawyer. You're not under suspicion. You know it's standard procedure to question the person who finds the body, and since you're CSI, it should be pretty straightforward."

"A personal call," Catherine answered. "I'm supposed to be in Vegas in, uh…" she glanced up at the clock. "Half an hour."

She shot Detective Benson a glance, and, seeing the other woman was looking at her with a curious expression, one eyebrow raised, added flatly "I have my cell right here in my coat pocket. I'm not going to run off, Detective."

"Okay, but be quick." Olivia realised she wasn't going to get anywhere until the doggedly determined woman had made this call.

Catherine continued to look at her.


"I said it was a personal call."

"Ms. Willows…" Detective Benson began in a warning tone, then decided it wasn't worth the bother, shrugging and getting to her feet. "You have two minutes," she stated, exasperated, making her way towards the bathroom, as three Forensic Investigators trooped out.

When she returned a few minutes later after making a cursory inspection of the bathroom, Olivia was considerably relieved to see CSI Willows looking somewhat calmer and more composed. Taking the seat next to the CSI, and keen to finish up and go home for the night, Olivia folded her arms as she settled back, and simply said, "Tell me what happened, from when you entered the bathroom."

As the blonde recounted the story of how she'd found the body, Olivia took the time to study the woman in detail, masking her surreptitious monitoring with nods and vocal acknowledgements in all the right places. She occasionally interrupted the narrative, throwing in the odd question for clarification, although it was not strictly necessary, as CSI Willows' professional description provided all the information Olivia needed.

Watching people while they talked was a necessary skill Olivia had developed while interviewing suspects and witnesses, simultaneously listening to what they were saying while monitoring their faces and body language for tell tale signs of lying or concealment. She'd realised within the first few sentences of the CSI's straightforward, careful, clinical account that she was getting the truth, but she continued to study the blonde nevertheless, as she got lost in the telling of the tale.

As she held eye contact with the woman, she was suddenly struck by the similarity between this conversation and the one she'd had barely hours earlier with Alex. The patient, detailed explanation, despite her obvious tiredness, and the attention the blonde paid to her questions was the first thing that alerted her, but as she listened and watched more, she realised that, in fact, this woman made her think of Alex in a lot more ways. Those blue-grey eyes, lost in the retelling of the story, searching for the details, closing now and then to recall some, probably insignificant, but might turn out to be the casebreaker, fact. The blonde hair, a shade darker maybe but with that same softness. The way the woman elegantly and gracefully used her hands to illutrate her points. The petite frame. The voice, not as deep as Alex's and not as cultured, but definitely as soothing, in its own way.

CSI Catherine Willows was older than Alex, and shorter, and a little more world-weary, but the more Olivia regarded her, the more the similarities were undeniable. She thought back to her first impression of the woman. The determination to stamp her authority onto the investigation, the way she'd gone out of her way to help with the evidence and protect the scene and victim. Olivia saw that same determination and care every day in the blonde ADA. Although they were in different professions, Olivia could see each woman felt passionately about their job, as was evident from the way the woman in front of her was giving such a clear account.

She let her mind wander back to how slight and fragile Catherine Willows had felt as she'd held onto her to prevent her from falling. She wondered if Alex would be the same. Before she could let her thoughts go any further, Olivia realised the CSI had stopped talking, and was looking at her expectantly.

"Sorry?" Olivia asked quickly, as it was evident she'd just been asked a question.

"I said, why are you staring at me?"

Olivia wasn't prepared for that – she was expecting a case-related query. Flustered, she half-mumbled, "I was just listening to you."

Now it was the CSI's turn to look amused, so Olivia quickly added, "And wondering about something."

Olivia could feel herself beginning to redden as the other woman's grin grew wider, so she continued, grasping at an inconsistency she'd noticed on her exploration of the bathroom earlier.

"There was a box full of broken china in the trash can. We know the victim had just emptied the can and replaced the liner, so there's the possibility the murderer…"

She was cut off by a sharp shake of a blonde head. "No, sorry, that was me."

"Right," Olivia nodded. She'd suspected as much, as it seemed an odd thing for a perpetrator to leave behind at a crime scene, but she'd have had to check it out anyway, and was grateful it had distracted the CSI from her line of inquiry into the staring.

In fact, she noted, the blonde woman seemed to be a little uncomfortable in admitting this fact, mumbling, "Sorry, forgot."

Assuming the professional was embarrassed about leaving the detail out of her otherwise completely thorough run down, Olivia just shrugged, and deadpanned, "I'm assuming we've got your fingerprints, anyway."

Catherine was silent for a moment, remembering her encounter with CSI Chang. She nodded absentmindedly, then said wearily, with a sigh, "I should probably go apologise. I think I tried to take over his investigation."

She was gratified when Detective Benson waved her hand dismissively. "Don't worry. I spoke to Sarah. Apparently, thanks to your enthusiasm in protecting the crimescene, and the fact that the bathroom had just been cleaned, they've got only three significant sets of finger and footprints to deal with – yours, the victim's, and an abundant set of unknowns. We're working on the very strong possibility that the mystery ones belong to the perpetrator. Once Len gets over himself, he'll realise that you made everyone's job a lot easier. Don't lose any sleep over it."

Something clicked in Catherine's mind, but once again, due to her tiredness, it was gone before she could get a firm hold on it. "Sara?" she asked absentmindedly, her mind conjuring up an image of the woman who had caused her so many problems during her present buying expedition earlier in the day. Actually, the day before, she realised, stifling a yawn.

"Sarah Carzon. One of the CSIs who processed the bathroom."


There was a moment of silence, and Catherine was unable to stop the yawn this time. "You'll need a statement, I guess," she said wearily, when she'd finished, blinking at Detective Benson, seeing that concerned look in the deep brown eyes once again.

"It can wait til morning, if you want," came the gentle reply, "You look like you could use some rest."

Catherine glanced at her watch. It was almost 2am. She sighed as she realised there was no hope of getting home that night, and besides, she'd seen one of the CSIs coming out of the bathroom with her bags of Christmas shopping and carry-on case. It would take at least the night before those would be released back to her, and most probably the best part of the morning, depending on how efficient they were.

She considered the detective's offer, and came to the conclusion that while falling into bed and getting some sleep was tempting, she really didn't want to have this hanging over her until morning. Organising her thoughts, she planned out what she wanted to do. She'd give her statement, book into a hotel. No, get something to eat first, then the hotel, some sleep, then get on a plane and back home. Sitting up straight and stretching her spine, she said to the detective, who'd been patiently waiting, "I'd prefer to get this all boxed off. Let's do the statement. You won't need me after that, right?"

"I'd say it's unlikely, and we'll have your contact details anyway. But only if you're sure. You look pretty whacked."

Catherine shrugged. "It's no big deal. I've done double shifts when I've been way more tired."

Elliot chose this moment to reappear, carrying Catherine's boots over from the makeshift CSI station, where he'd been bringing himself up to date with the forensic side of the investigation. "Your boots, ma'am," he said, with an unmistakable note of respect in his voice. Catherine smiled her thanks and took the offered items.

Turning his attention to Olivia, Elliot asked, "Can I have a word?"

Aware of the implicit 'in private' in his request, and realising that the detectives wanted to discuss matters pertaining to the case, Catherine asked, while pulling on her boots briskly, "Do I have time to go book my flight back for tomorrow?"

"Sure," came the absentminded answer, Olivia's mind already organising the information she had gleaned from Catherine into a summary for Elliot.

As Elliot and Olivia watched the figure making off in the general direction of the main hall, Elliot asked, a little nervously, "Everything went ok, then?"

"She's not so bad once you get talking to her," Olivia answered with a smile, adding, "Find anything interesting?"

"We got a pretty clear shot on surveillance of what appears to be a male figure leaving the bathroom approximately four minutes before Ms. Willows entered it. Clothing's distinctive, but he's got a baseball cap pulled down obscuring his face. From the way he walks and the type of clothes, I'm figuring we're looking at someone in his late teens or early twenties."

Olivia looked at his smile, and matched it with one of her own. This was far more than they'd had to go on in any of the previous Mendez incidents. She saw Elliot was grinning even wider.

"There's more, isn't there?" she asked eagerly.

Elliot was quick to answer. "Yup. CSI sent a grunt back to the lab and they put a rush on the prints. Came back to one Ricardo Mendez."

"That would explain why he was playing dumb when we hauled him in, and why he was so fast to leave." She reasoned it all out loud. Then she frowned.

"But it doesn't make sense. He's an illegal. We don't have him in the system, nor do we have any means of tracking him down."

She shook her head at Elliot, wondering why his smiling expression hadn't changed.

"Spill," she demanded.

"We got him," Elliot stated.

Olivia was silent, not understanding.

"It must be our lucky night or something. When he was through here, he boosted a car from the airport car park. Unfortunately for him, the owner had just got off a long haul flight from Japan and decided to bed down for a couple of hours in the back seat to try and shake off the jet lag before trying to drive home. Ricardo got as far as the exit gate when he felt a cold press of steel in his earhole and the sound of the safety clicking off in glorious surround sound."

"I guess that's one of the only times I'm going to be glad a civilian was carrying a handgun," Olivia quipped. "So I'm assuming he's waiting at the station for us?"

Elliot pulled his mouth into a straight line. "Actually, he's unconscious at the hospital."

"He got shot?" she sighed, not wanting to imagine the complications this could cause in prosecution.

Elliot shook his head. "Nope. Ricardo tried to pull his knife on the guy. Another stupid move, considering he was trying to drive at the same time. He got pistol-whipped, smashed the car into the tollbooth and ended up with concussion and severe whiplash. From the uniforms' descriptions of him and what he's wearing, it matches the guy we've got on surveillance here."

"What about the car's owner?"

"He's fine. Royally pissed that his car's been totalled, but unhurt. Munch and Fin are talking to him at the station, then they're on babysitting detail at the hospital, although from what the doctor said, I doubt we'll be getting much sense out of Ricardo until at least tomorrow afternoon. They got him doped up pretty strong."

Olivia felt herself relax as she realised the case seemed to be pretty much tied up for the night. They had no motive as yet, but she felt good about this one, and was sure they'd find out when they questioned Mr. Mendez. She was amazed that it had all come to a head so quickly. Seeing CSI Willows approaching, she realised that it was, in no small part, due to her and her aggressive protection of the crime scene. Olivia was fairly sure it would have taken a whole lot more time to process the bathroom if the blonde hadn't been so careful to keep it all sterile. She smiled at the woman as she neared.

"I think you solved the case," Olivia stated.

"You got your suspect? Man, you New Yorkers are fast," Catherine teased, rolling her eyes.

Olivia was pleased to see she seemed to have shaken off a little of her tiredness. Maybe she just needed to move around a bit, or perhaps it had more to do with the half-empty cup of coffee in the woman's hand. She heard her stomach growl again. In fact, they all did. Olivia smiled self-consciously, and reached out gratefully to take the offered cardboard cup from the CSIs other hand, nodding her thanks as she did so.

Catherine looked at Elliot apologetically. "Sorry, Detective … ummm."

"Stabler," he finished for her. "And no need to apologise, I just spent the last half hour drinking coffee and eating donuts with the security guys in the surveillance booth. The last thing I need is more caffeine. And yes, we got our suspect, and it's partly because you did your job in the bathroom. So thanks."

Catherine smiled at him, and tried to keep the note of self-satisfaction out of her voice as she answered. "No problem, Detective Stabler. I don't suppose this means I can get out of giving my statement?"

She had a hopeful tone, but knew what the answer would be.

"Ma'am, we may be fast, but we don't cut corners to get there."

Chapter Four

Elliot drove them back to the station, and Olivia gave him with an account of the information Catherine had provided. Catherine let the detectives do their job, and leaned her back against the door, stretching her legs across the back seat. She allowed the thrum of the engine and the quiet murmurings of the two people in the front seats relax her as she closed her eyes, and willed herself not to replay the events of the night over in her mind.

She must have succeeded, as the next thing she was conscious of was a gentle pressure on her shoulder and a quiet, low, female voice.

"… Willows … Catherine?"

As Catherine woke up, a pair of brown eyes swam into focus. She was momentarily confused, unable to take in her surroundings. She tried to pull herself out of her dream. There had been a tall brunette with those same brown eyes. She'd been falling and the woman had caught her, safe and strong. It was that detective, she thought, or had it been Sara? She wasn't sure. The dark eyes were still looking at her.

"Sara?" she muttered.

"It's Olivia. Olivia Benson," came the reply.

Straightening up, she made a determined effort to shake off the inertia of sleep, finally realising where she was as the detective helpfully added, "We're at the station. To take your statement. Remember? You fell asleep in the car."

Catherine nodded, still aware of the warm hand on her shoulder, and the even warmer brown eyes smiling at her. The hand was withdrawn and she felt herself shiver at the loss of contact, suddenly aware of the freezing night air rushing in through the open car door. Feeling her consciousness return properly at the blast of cold she swung her legs out of the car as Detective Benson stood back to let her out. She followed the taller woman into the police building.

As they walked through the maze of hallways towards the interview rooms, Olivia wondered if Alex had managed to get home. She supposed so, although knowing Alex she'd probably taken a huge pile of case files along with her. She was grateful she didn't have to deal with Alex and CSI Willows at the same time, considering her earlier revelation about the similarities between the two women.

Seating the CSI in the interview room, Olivia exchanged a few quick words with the blonde, and then headed off in search of Elliot. As she expected, he was at his desk in the squad room, fiddling about with paperwork while he was obviously waiting for her. She walked over to the coffee machine while she talked.

"You should go home Elliot. I can handle things here. There's just the statement to take and that should be pretty straightforward. We've already been through it once. You'd basically just be sitting there."

"But we usually double up."

"Elliot, I'm offering you an early mark. It's not a suspect, just a statement. We don't need to tag team on this one. CSI Willows is more than happy to do this on a one to one basis, and I'll get it all on tape, just in case, okay?"

Elliot shrugged and stood, taking his jacket from the back of his chair.

"Well, if she's sure. Thanks, Olivia. I'll owe you one, okay?"

"I'll chalk it up," Olivia answered with a smile, as she took the coffees and followed him down the hallway.

After Elliot had double-checked with the CSI, he wearily headed off home.

The two women got straight into the statement, with Catherine once again going through all that had happened in detail, this time careful to include throwing the box in the trashcan. She saw with some curiosity that Detective Benson was scratching down notes in a small book, although strictly this was unnecessary as it would all be recorded. She watched the way the brunette's head was bent down over the notebook, and her total focus on every single word she was writing. The only time she remembered seeing such intense concentration before was when she'd surreptitiously spied on Sara examining fragments of glass that had been found in a coat pocket. Instead of following that train of thought, Catherine turned her attention fully onto giving an accurate description of what had happened in the airport.

For her part, Olivia was indeed concentrating very intently on her notebook, though not in the manner Catherine imagined. She was picking random words from the CSI's account, scrawling them down, and studying them hard in an attempt to prevent herself from staring at the woman opposite her, and falling once again into her comparison with Alex.

She was succeeding too, although she couldn't do much about listening to the soft, tired, low pitch of the woman's voice, which was now much more Alex-like than it had been in the airport. Nor could she do anything about the careful explanations and attention to detail which was so reminiscent of the conversation she'd had earlier in this very building.

Olivia added 'figurine' to the list of nonsense she'd already compiled. 'Doorway', 'crunch', 'mirror', 'empty stalls', 'shopping bags'. She made a mental note to rip out that particular page first thing in the morning. It looked like keywords from a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

They continued like that until Catherine reached the end of her speech. Olivia was slightly surprised when the CSI broke protocol and did the sign-off herself, reaching over to stop the tape recorder. But she guessed it'd be okay, as the identifications, time, and location had all been clearly stated, and anyway, if things panned out like they looked like they were going to, this statement would just be a formality, and would be presented to the court in transcribed form.

"Thanks," Olivia simply stated, although she was unsure whether she was thanking the other woman for the statement or the sign off.

She was met with silence and looked up from her long list of words to see the CSI looking at her intently, with an odd expression that she couldn't quite place.

"What?" she asked innocently, totally unprepared for what was coming next.

"Detective Benson. Today I got up at a shockingly early hour to spend the day tramping round New York searching for Christmas presents. I go to fly home and I discover a dead, raped girl in an airport bathroom. I've given statement after statement, answered all your questions, and committed myself to an extra night in a city when I have no hotel room even booked. I'm tired and I'm hungry and I'm sitting in a police station when I'd much rather be in my bed at home. I've taken many witness statements myself, so I know about appropriate behaviour during these situations. And let me tell you, I have never, ever taken a statement and totally ignored the witness."

Olivia was stunned, and at a loss for words. She'd been so busy trying to avoid looking at the CSI that she'd been outright rude. Of course this woman knew what these interviews were meant to be like – it was part of her job to conduct them. Olivia couldn't believe she'd been so stupid and impolite. And the way the blonde had just spoken to her, and the manner in which she was glaring, hit her like a ton of bricks, because the damn woman was looking and sounding more and more like Alex in the courtroom with every word she uttered.

Olivia opened her mouth, not sure of what to say, but settling on some sort of vague contrition. Catherine Willows beat her to it. Olivia noticed a softening of the blue eyes an instant before the sincere apology came. "I'm sorry, Detective. Like I said I'm tired and hungry, and I'm guessing you are too. I get unreasonably cross when I'm like this. I'm probably best off finding a hotel to sleep off the crankiness."

Olivia suddenly felt guilty. The blonde had been right in her assumption that Olivia had been rude, and had ended up apologising for something that was not at all her fault. But Olivia had no way of explaining that to someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger. She decided to try and make up for it by being polite for a change.

Picking up on the CSI's last words, she sat back and said, "Look, I'm guessing you don't know this city too well. Let me recommend a decent hotel, as I'm thinking you'd have no clue where to go at this time of night. I'll drop you off – I'm clocking out now, and it's on my way home." She paused for a moment, then added, "If you're not too tired, I'll even buy you dinner to say thanks for all your cooperation and help on the case. I'm pretty hungry myself, as I'm sure you've heard."

Olivia stopped and waited, unsure if she'd overcompensated for her earlier faux pas.

Catherine heard only the promise of a decent food followed by a warm bed, which were the two things she most desperately wanted at that precise point in time. She was unexpectedly grateful at the Detective's kind offer, and felt a rush of relief that the nightmare evening finally seemed to be over, quickly followed by a wave of enthusiasm to get out of the station and into a restaurant.

"A good meal and a hotel is just what I need. And you better start calling me Catherine, if we're going to dinner, Detective Olivia Benson," she proclaimed with a grin, getting to her feet and startling the detective.

As Olivia pocketed the tape and followed the smaller woman out of the room, she found herself colouring at the innuendo of the CSI's final words, although she was reasonably sure the blonde woman was oblivious to the underlying meaning of what she'd just said.

Chapter Five

The sole occupants of the hotel restaurant ate in silence for the first ten minutes of the meal. Olivia had flashed her badge at the concierge and handed him a fifty dollar note, promising to overlook the fact that the bellboy was clearly no older than fourteen so legally should have not been working at 3am in the morning, in return for two plates of turkey salad, and a basket of bread rolls.

Catherine had wondered if the salad was a leftover from Thanksgiving or a practice run for Christmas, but wisely decided to keep her mouth shut, instead opting to smile seductively and flirt, earning a welcome addition of ice cream and a decent bottle of wine to their menu.

The overt display of sexuality did not go unnoticed by Olivia, although the detective was certain no-one on the planet could have missed it, and she had to stop herself from laughing out loud at the way the concierge was so blatantly flattered and charmed by the attractive blonde's over the top compliments and gratitude.

Olivia also noticed the way Catherine chugged a glass and a half of the red wine before she even started on her salad, and her soft sigh of relief as she put the crystal down to pick up her knife and fork.

Realising that she was noticing way too much, Olivia picked up her own wine and drank quickly, feeling her head swim as the liquid hit her empty stomach. She closed her eyes briefly, realising her mistake, and followed Catherine's example.

Companionable silence, combined with the setting and the slightly heady feeling she'd got from the wine, meant Olivia was feeling relaxed, and her thoughts strayed, as usual, to Alex. She dearly wished Alex could be sitting with her, just like this - quiet, eating, drinking good wine, not needing to talk, not needing to force a conversation about work, or anything in particular, just enjoying each other's company.

Olivia usually felt an odd sort of longing when she got a little maudlin like this, but tonight, at this moment, it was suddenly intolerable, an actual physical ache, beginning in the centre of her chest and spreading out along her collarbones and shoulders then down her spine. She was uncomfortably hot, and she had to blink hard at the unbidden sheen of tears she felt forming in her eyes.

She felt Catherine's gaze on her and realised the blonde had stopped eating. She couldn't bear to look up, sensing the concern coming from across the table and so focused on her next forkful of food, trying to fortify herself, following it quickly with the remains of her second glass of red. Olivia was immeasurably grateful when, in her peripheral vision, she saw Catherine take another big gulp of wine and continue with her dinner.

Forcing herself to shrug on her security blanket of Detective, she avoided slipping back into thinking about Alex by trying to strike up a conversation.

"So is it business or pleasure, then?" she asked.

"What?" replied Catherine, suddenly wondering if this night could possibly get any stranger. She was totally bemused by Olivia, who had gone from looking like she was going to burst into tears to apparently hitting on her in about twenty seconds flat.

Olivia continued, apparently unaware, "I never did ask you why you were in New York. Job related or personal?"

Catherine smiled, realising that Olivia's intentions had been innocent, even if it was an obvious attempt to shift the mood onto something lighter after her mysterious emotional moment.

"A bit of both, actually. A firearms training course followed by some Christmas gift buying. Did you not notice the copious bags one of your CSI's confiscated? They weren't actually evidence, you know."

Olivia smiled back, relieved that Catherine was happy to engage in some light banter. She responded in kind. "And I have the nerve to call myself a detective when I have such pathetic observational skills."

The answer was out before Catherine could stop herself. Bolstered by the wine and the easy turn the conversation was suddenly taking, she automatically took the bait when the line was thrown.

"Actually, from the way you've been looking at me all night, I'd say you have extremely well honed observational skills, Detective."

Olivia, shocked at the sudden heavy change she felt in the atmosphere at the table, immediately blushed bright red. This was no open-to-interpretation innuendo. It was a blatant come on, and she had no idea how to respond, or if she even wanted to.

Catherine was a matching shade of scarlet, but for entirely different reasons. She was confused. In addition to that she was scared. Thoughts rushed through her head at an alarming rate, and she struggled to make sense of the jumbled mess.

As soon as she'd said those words, she'd regretted them, but in the same instant she'd realised they were true. Olivia had, in fact, been staring at her, intensely, at various points since they'd met at the airport. Hell, Catherine had even called her on it once, and the detective's reaction had been to ask a stupid question about the stupid figurine. Catherine hadn't recognised that for the desperate cover up that it was, as she'd been more concerned at hiding her own embarrassment at the gift and her feelings about it. And at the station house the woman had pointedly avoided any kind of eye contact.

Catherine tried to piece it all together. Yes, Olivia had been looking at her, and at the start she could have put that down to professional observation, but, the lazy, long glances had continued throughout the evening, and, although they were slightly different, the nearest thing she could compare them to were the stares she felt on her when she'd been dancing. Olivia hadn't been lecherous, but there was definite interest there.

Catherine didn't actually mind the attention, and gender was a non-issue here as far as she was concerned. Even before she'd become a CSI, Catherine had long held, and lived by, the belief that as long as both parties were consenting, and there was no exploitation or illegality involved, then it was all good. The kinds of behaviour she'd encountered in both her 'careers' on a day-to-day basis had only served to confirm that belief, and she'd take her happiness with whoever she felt drawn to.

No, what Catherine minded about all of this was that she'd been so slow to catch on, and now she had about ten seconds to decide if she wanted to act on it, as the woman sitting opposite her was showing definite signs of wanting to bolt.

Did she find Olivia attractive? Yes, she decided quickly, remembering their first contact, the strong arms supporting her, the deep brown eyes, the obvious passion and dedication to what she did, the evident kindness and compassion. Did she want to do something about it? Yes again, she confirmed. It had been over a year since she'd been with anyone, and a night with an undeniably attractive and sensual woman from another city with no ties was sounding very tempting indeed.

But she had to work out a way to turn her unintentionally revealing comment into a more subtle approach, as there was also Olivia's reaction to her quip to consider. Truthfully, she was half expecting a smart comeback from the cool, assured detective. She'd known the woman for only a few hours, but felt she had learned enough to assume Olivia wouldn't be thrown by her remark.

But the detective had blushed, and gone silent. This was the scary part. She swallowed hard and forced herself to think back to her immediate reaction on seeing Olivia redden. In that instant, Olivia's complete awkwardness and embarrassment, combined with the indisputable physical facts of her brown eyes, dark hair, and tall, slim, yet strong body, had sent a jolt of recognition through her.

For a split second, Detective Olivia Benson had reminded her so clearly of Sara Sidle that the other CSI might as well have been the other person at the table. The most unsettling thing of all was the realisation that the way Olivia had been with her all night was exactly how Sara acted around her.

Weird was the only word for it. Sort of friendly and at ease one minute, then cool and professional the next. With Sara, she'd put it down to the whole Eddie thing, but now she was suddenly wondering if there might be another explanation. It was all too much to think about. She needed time to reason it all out, to consider.

But it was time she didn't have, she realised. Olivia, obviously painfully unable to deal with the truth that Catherine had just revealed about her, and the embarrassing void that had occurred afterwards, was getting to her feet.

Olivia couldn't deal with it any more. Catherine had thrown that out, completely unexpectedly, and Olivia had panicked. She was busted, and she had no intention of trying to tell the blonde her unexplainable emotions and attractions. Catherine sat there, clearly waiting for a reply, and Olivia couldn't even bring herself to look the woman in the face, much less come up with an answer.

Until Catherine had embarrassed her, she had indeed been watching the blonde, but she thought it could only be interpreted in a professional manner. Catherine had seen through that. Up till that point, she hadn't seriously considered that Catherine might be attracted to her, as her mind had been full of Alex.

She realised that, as with Alex, she'd assumed this woman was straight, but this latest revelation threw her whole 'relationship' with, and assumptions about, Alex, into confusion, and she found herself wondering why Alex, so clearly busy, was so willing to devote so much time to her and her inane questioning. It was all too much to take on board, and she needed not to think about it, although she was acutely aware she needed to deal with the woman in front of her who was, she supposed, waiting expectantly for her reply.

Olivia suddenly felt sick, like she'd stuffed herself on hotdogs and cotton candy at the funfair and then got on the biggest, scariest rollercoaster in the place. All night, her head had been filled with images of Alex, all mixed up with Catherine who'd been right there in front of her, and now she had no clue what she felt except for overwhelming confusion, and a desire to run home, get into her bed, and try to sleep it all away, regardless about what the blonde might think about her abrupt departure. She felt ill, and even worse than that, for the second time that evening, she was pretty sure she was about to burst into tears. She stood up, turning her face away.

Olivia tried to calm herself, tried to be polite, tried to say 'I'm sorry, but I have to go.' None of this was Catherine's fault. But the words stuck in her throat, and all she could feel in their place was a strangled sob fighting its way out, so she swallowed hard, and remained silent.

Catherine forced herself to look at the woman, trying to gauge her mood before carefully deciding what to say to try and convince her to stay. Olivia's face was turned away from her, and she was unprepared to see a single tear sliding down the flat plane of the detective's cheek. She felt a rush of she didn't know what – empathy, compassion? She wanted to reach out, but didn't want to scare the woman off. She had no idea why Olivia had reacted in the way she did, as she was sure her remark couldn't have caused that extreme reaction.

Catherine settled for a simple, soft, "Olivia, sit down, please. I'm sorry. Don't go."

She was surprised when Olivia sat, still avoiding looking at her, but staying at the table nonetheless. Unsure whether she should ask about what was bothering the detective, she decided not to pry, and instead silently poured each of them another glass, noticing the bottle was now empty. Catherine thought she discerned a slight smile at this, as Olivia drank down her wine, seeming to draw some sort of courage from the dark liquid. Catherine pushed her own full glass across the table, earning a weak smile and soft laugh from Olivia, which reassured her a little, although she could still hear an edge of uneasiness in the low chuckle.

A moment of silence passed, during which Catherine realised Olivia was not going to speak, and that the onus was on her. She chose her words carefully.

"Olivia," she began. "We could sit here and talk this through, but it's obvious you're uncomfortable with what just happened, so I'm not going to ask any questions, okay?" Olivia gave a tiny nod of the head.

Encouraged, Catherine continued. "I don't want any more to eat, and what I'd really like right now is coffee. I don't think there's any chance of getting that down here tonight, so I'm going to go up to my room. If you want to come with me, I'd like that. We can talk, or just sit, or anything you want. But if you want to go home, then that's fine with me too."

Catherine stopped talking, fairly pleased with what she'd said. She'd put no pressure on the detective, and not made an overt pass at her, but the quiet invitation was there, nonetheless. She'd allowed Olivia some time to compose herself, decide what she wanted, and if that was just to have coffee and sort herself out before she headed home, then that was fine, Catherine decided.

Olivia looked at her, and she could see the detective was processing what she'd just said, trying to work out what Catherine's intentions were. Catherine held the eye contact, keeping her gaze as neutral as she could. She could see relief in the brown eyes, and then another slight nod, along with a quiet "Coffee would be good."

As they took the elevator up to the third floor, Olivia was surprised to feel herself relaxing. After her earlier emotional display, she had managed to compose herself, and decided she wasn't going to think about this any more. Looking at Catherine while thinking of Alex was more than she could handle at this time of the night, so she forced herself to let it go.

Thinking back over her meal, she realised she actually liked CSI Catherine Willows. Up to the point where she'd made a fool of herself, she'd found herself enjoying the woman's company, her quick wit, and then after, her obvious concern and sensitivity. With her no-pressure invitation, Catherine had managed to put Olivia at ease, and she realised she was looking forward to coffee with the CSI.

She didn't know if she wanted something more – the chance was there, hidden away in Catherine's final words, so she was pretty sure Catherine would be receptive. And she most definitely found Catherine attractive.

But there was the other thing. She willed herself not to compare. Olivia realised she was thinking too much again, and, mindful of where her thoughts had got her the last time, decided not to do it any more as she stepped out of the elevator, intent on just letting things play out as they would. She switched back into detective-observation mode easily, on alert for any possible signals of interest on the other woman's part. Catherine had made a pass at her, and she had reacted badly. But now she was prepared.

Chapter Six

As she swiped the keycard that opened the door, and glanced around the room, Catherine could see it was a standard hotel suite. Fairly small, but clean, with all the usual facilities – a bed against the left hand wall, and a small couch and coffee table in the centre of the room, with what she assumed was a bathroom off to the right. She could see a coffee machine on a stand in the far right hand corner, and headed straight over, waving Olivia in the direction of the couch.

Catherine, too, had used the short journey up to the room to think, grateful for the silence as she tried to organise her thoughts. As she made the coffee, she finally came to the conclusion that she was going to relax, and enjoy the rest of the night however it went. Her concern for the obviously distressed Olivia had made the fleeting image of Sara melt from her mind, and she was content to leave that thought wherever it had drifted off to, focusing instead on the woman who was actually physically there with her.

As she brought the coffees over and took a seat at the other end of the sofa, Catherine immediately pulled off her boots – being seated definitely made it easier, and she expected Olivia to comment on this, but there was only silence. She sat back and took a moment to study Olivia. She didn't know what kind of conclusion the detective had come to in the elevator, but something had clearly changed, as the brunette's demeanour was almost the total opposite of how it had been less than an half an hour before. Her body language was completely different, more like she'd been during the interview at the airport – the relaxation emanating from her now was palpable, and she sat still, quiet and easy, with an open smile on her face as she accepted the coffee.

Catherine smiled back, deciding the safest bet was probably small talk, and that any move would have to come from this newly at-ease Olivia, as she certainly didn't want to risk scaring the detective off again.

"So Olivia …" Catherine began, and stopped abruptly, mildly alarmed at the nervous tone her voice had taken in her attempt to introduce a neutral, safe topic. She swallowed, and tried to start again, but Olivia interjected for her, understanding Catherine's intention.

"So Catherine, what time is your flight back tomorrow, or rather, later this morning?"

Catherine smiled, partly in relief that Olivia had offered an uncontroversial, gentle topic, but mostly because of the detective's easy, conversational tone. Olivia had been silent since they'd left the restaurant, and she'd only said four words in the past quarter of an hour.

"I've got to be there for ten," she answered, automatically looking to her wrist to check what the time was, then remembering she'd 'lost' her watch in Vegas. She was almost completely sure Lindsey had taken it, squirreling it away to the jeweller's to get it engraved for Christmas. This thought reminded her of where she was supposed to be and she let out a small sigh.

"Did you want to go to bed, Catherine?"

Catherine was about to answer automatically again, but she caught herself just in time, and, suddenly unsure of whether the question was innocently asked or not, looked up at the detective.

Olivia was looking back at her. Catherine held the gaze for a moment, knowing that if Olivia looked away after a second, then it probably had been a genuine request as to whether she was tired, but if the brown eyes continued to stare then it was a whole different game.

Olivia kept her eyes on Catherine's, although Catherine could swear she saw a moment of hesitation. That was okay though, it wasn't like she'd never had that effect before, she thought to herself, a little smugly.

Olivia had, in fact, asked the question innocently. She'd been happy to engage in small talk, just to chat, unless she was absolutely sure she'd been invited up there for something more than that. It was nearly four o'clock in the morning and Catherine did look tired. But once she'd offered the unintended invitation, she only hesitated for a second as she realised she'd just created an opportunity all by herself, instead of waiting to pick up on something intangible from Catherine. So she decided to go with it.

Keeping her gaze fixed firmly on Catherine's blue eyes, she asked in a low soft voice, "I mean, you didn't really ask me up here just for coffee, did you?"

Catherine hadn't expected things to move along this quickly, and certainly not that Olivia would be so brash about it, especially after whatever it was that had transpired earlier. She was torn. On one hand, there was the total metamorphosis that Olivia had apparently gone through, from crying mess to predator in less than an hour. On the other, there was that tingle she had felt shoot down her spine and settle low in her belly at the words the detective had spoken in that seductive and sensual tone, unmistakable in its intent.

Knowing she should just roll with it, but unable to continue without ensuring she wasn't going to have a sobbing Olivia Benson on her hands in the next few minutes, Catherine's next words were slow and deliberate.

"No, I didn't. Not just coffee. I invited you up here for whatever you wanted. To chat, to sit, to drink, to do anything you like. I don't want to make things more complicated for you."

Olivia let her eyes drop to her coffee cup for a moment, lost in the brown liquid. She knew what Catherine's deliberate vagueness was referring to, and was grateful the other woman clearly wasn't asking her for more information, not making any demands of her.

She reached over and placed her cup carefully on the table, then shifted along the couch so her thigh was wedged tight against Catherine's. Regarding Catherine once again, this time only inches away from the other woman's face, she answered, equally carefully.

"Exactly what I want right now is a night of no complications, so I'm asking you again. Do you want to go to bed?"

This time, there was no other possible interpretation. Olivia had made it perfectly clear what was on offer, and it was exactly what Catherine had wanted and expected when she'd realised Olivia might be interested in her. Now she could feel the warm heat from the other woman's strong thigh pressing firmly against her own, and her body was responding instantly. She took in the darkening eyes, the strong features and the full lips, and realised she had about half a second if she wanted to back out, as the detective seemed to be moving closer. She felt a firm hand gently squeezing her knee, and a little tremor ran straight up the inside of her leg. She instinctively reached up to caress the soft cheek in front of her in response, dragging her thumb along Olivia's lower lip.

"I'll take that as a yes, then?" Olivia murmured against her, with a small note of amusement, moving closer even as she spoke.

Before Catherine had a chance to even consider her reply, Olivia, in one fluid motion, reached up and drew Catherine's hand away, fingers intertwining, while simultaneously closing the distance between them. Then an insistent mouth was on Catherine's, with no hesitation or tentativeness.

In response, Catherine opened her mouth, and moaned as Olivia's tongue slid over her own, proceeding to explore her mouth thoroughly. Tasting coffee and wine, Catherine lost herself in the sensation of being kissed so forcefully. She was surprised to feel the warm, direct pressure of a hand caressing her stomach. Suddenly overwhelmed, she moved her head back, whispering through a ragged breath, "Hold on."

Olivia immediately withdrew her hand, and slid a couple of inches away from her, rapidly creating distance between them. Catherine saw a brief expression of shame flit across the detective's features, and reached out quickly, grabbing a hand.

Struggling to get her breathing under control, she continued in a low uneven voice, "Just … slow down a little."

"I'm sorry, I thought you wanted … I'm not … I don't want to force you into anything …"

Not sure where all this was coming from, Catherine made a concerted effort to shift her attention away from the kiss, which had left her lips tingling, and onto the uncomfortable brunette in front to her, who sounded like she was just a few steps away from panicking.

"No, it's okay. Olivia, I can handle the pace but I'd just like to be a bit more active in all of this."

Catherine kept her eyes on Olivia's. The brunette was looking at her intently now, apparently searching for some further reassurance.

"I mean, I don't want this to be over before we've even begun." This time, Catherine managed to deliver her statement with a half-smile.

At this, Olivia seemed to soften slightly, giving Catherine's fingers a quick squeeze, but her expression was still serious as she said, "You'll tell me if you want to stop?"

Catherine nodded, feeling her heart melt a little at the almost childlike plaintive tone. "I'll tell you if I want to stop," she confirmed.

Olivia let her gaze drop to their joined hands, and she let her thumb trace along the lifeline on Catherine's palm. "Guess I did get a bit carried away," she admitted softly, with a slightly self-conscious smile.

Catherine smiled back, relaxing. "Hey, I'm not complaining. I am, however, wondering how you managed to do this." She indicated with her free hand to her own blouse, which was unbuttoned all the way down.

Olivia gave a soft chuckle. "Don't blame me for that. It just fell open all on its own."

Catherine returned the quiet laugh.

There was a quiet lull, and neither woman was sure what to do next. Olivia continued to gently stroke Catherine's palm. Again, she was the one to make the first move, bringing Catherine's hand up to kiss the place her thumb had been caressing.

"Your turn then."

Olivia had spoken so softly that Catherine couldn't work out whether it was a question or a statement, but it didn't matter, as she needed no further encouragement.

Recognising that Olivia wanted her to take control, Catherine decided to make her intentions clear. In one graceful, easy movement, she straddled Olivia's lap, and, placing one hand on the brunette's shoulder and the other on the back of her neck, pulled her close and kissed her. Gentle and with a closed mouth at first, Catherine waited patiently for Olivia to respond, and was rewarded with a quiet sigh and a pair of hands sliding up her back, urging her closer. Catherine ran her tongue along Olivia's bottom lip, then sucked on it gently, and Olivia, almost shyly this time, pushed into Catherine's mouth, and was met with a soft counter thrust. As they continued their slow exploration of each other, Catherine felt Olivia's hands on her sides, then briefly running up her stomach, over her breasts, never pausing, next, insistently pulling her blouse off, then, always moving, returning to her back to unfasten her bra, and finally, firmly, hugging her close so their bodies were flush up against each other.

Without breaking the kiss, which by now had become deep and urgent, Catherine reached down to pull off Olivia's tight black roll-neck top. Tugging it upwards, it quickly became obvious that it wasn't going to work, as she was simultaneously pressing Olivia into the back of the sofa, keeping her there with tiny, instinctive little grinds and thrusts. Olivia's hands were doing their part by caressing her lower back and ass, holding her in place, encouraging her movement. Exquisite as the sensation was, Catherine needed more contact, more access, and, tearing her mouth away from Olivia's, managed to growl out,


Then Catherine gave a small surprised laugh, feeling a pair of strong hands under her thighs as she was lifted up and carried towards the bed. Olivia paused at the foot of the bed, evidently unsure of what to do next. Catherine gave another low chuckle.

"You can put me down."

Olivia complied, and Catherine wasted no time in removing Olivia's holster and gun with an easy familiarity. Olivia peeled off her own top, then hooked her hand into Catherine's waistband and pulled her close, eliciting a gasp from the blonde as warm, soft skin met warm, soft skin. Placing her free hand on the small of Catherine's back, holding her where she wanted her, Olivia worked the button and zipper of Catherine's slacks open, while dropping her head down to place kisses in a line along the shorter woman's neck and shoulder, pausing once, breathlessly, as she felt a hand cup her breast, the palm firmly pressing, then rubbing against a hard nipple. Olivia slid her hand over Catherine's hip, caressing her butt briefly, before working the slacks downwards, then moving back around to the front to cup Catherine through her panties, moaning as she felt the wet warmth between Catherine's legs, and earning herself a deep, desperate kiss.

Catherine began to rock gently against Olivia's hand, at the same time trailing her index finger down the detective's toned stomach. As she unbuttoned the black jeans, she felt Olivia's breath hitch, and intensified her kiss, stroking Olivia's tongue firmly and rhythmically, matching the pace of the hand between her own legs. Easing her hand between denim and cotton, Catherine could sense Olivia's body stiffen slightly in anticipation, and felt the strangled sob against her lips as Olivia pulled backwards slightly. Still riding Olivia's hand, Catherine opened her eyes to try and gauge what Olivia needed next. She was surprised to glimpse the glaze of tears in the soft brown eyes, and immediately stilled her movements.

"I can't," came the quiet, breathy, teary admission, as Olivia dropped her head and moved away.

Catherine was caught in an overwhelming mix of emotions. Arousal, disappointment, concern, and even a slight tinge of irritation rushed through her head. But what she mostly felt was hurt. She didn't know why, just that she felt it.

"I don't understand." Catherine fought to keep her voice even.

"I'm sorry. It's just. You're not … Alex." Olivia had given up on trying to fight the tears now, and was instead furiously pushing them away with the palms of her hands.

Catherine had no idea how to respond. Part of her wanted to comfort the sobbing woman, but Olivia's last statement had thrown her. She felt used, and angry, but she knew from experience she needed to calm down and sort her head out before she could even begin to think of talking about it. She was also suddenly painfully aware that she was practically naked. Hurriedly pulling up her slacks as she went, Catherine ran into the bathroom and shut the door firmly behind her.

Chapter Seven

Fifteen minutes later, a freshly-showered and infinitely calmer Catherine Willows unlocked the door and stepped out of the bathroom. As she'd dried herself off and shrugged on the white towelling robe, she'd come to the conclusion that her sense of hurt had stemmed from an injured pride. She just wasn't used to being rejected like that, especially not at such an intense and intimate moment. Once she'd identified and rationalised the emotion, the anger she'd felt earlier just melted away.

Feeling relaxed and ready to sleep after her warm shower, she was surprised to see Detective Benson still there, now fully dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed, with her back to Catherine.

Catherine was sure Olivia would be gone by the time she'd finished in the bathroom. She was certain the detective would be too embarrassed about how she had acted to be able to stay and offer any explanation, and, quite truthfully, that would have been fine with Catherine. All she wanted to do was climb into her bed and get some rest.

Now, looking at the unmoving woman, who showed no sign she was even aware the blonde had entered the room, Catherine was unsure of what to do. She padded slowly around the bed, so she was directly in front of Olivia, and waited.

As Olivia raised her head to look at her, Catherine guessed she had been crying for a good ten minutes. Her cheeks were blotchy, her eyes were red-rimmed, and the whites were bloodshot. Apparently unable to stand the blonde's intense gaze, Olivia reached out and took her hand, pulling Catherine down to sit next to her on the bed.

"I thought you'd be gone, Olivia," Catherine said, trying to be gentle, but unable to prevent a slight note of accusation from creeping into her voice.

"Like this?" The words came out in a bitter, miserable laugh, as Olivia gestured towards her face.

Catherine was silent.

Quietly, Olivia continued. "I wanted to explain. I mean, I thought you deserved … after …"

"You don't owe me any explanation. It's fine, really." Once again, the tone was much harsher than Catherine intended, and she winced inwardly as she felt Olivia pull her hand away.

"I don't blame you for being angry, Catherine. You've every right. I led you on and then backed off when things got … intimate."

At this heartfelt admission, Catherine softened. She looked at Olivia, who was hunched over in a protective position and looked completely dejected. Catherine exhaled slowly as she worked out what she was going to say next.

"Listen, you remember you told me I could tell you if I wanted to stop? It works both ways, you know."

Olivia seemed to think about this for a moment, before replying softly. "Yes, I know, but it wasn't that I didn't want you to … I just couldn't … because…"

"Because of Alex," Catherine prompted gently.

"Yes, because of Alex," Olivia confirmed quietly, before continuing in an almost ashamed tone, "Because you're not her."

Catherine now knew this Alex was, firstly, a woman, and secondly, someone that Olivia clearly had deep feelings for. She wondered if she should probe further. Although Olivia was clearly having problems talking about all of this, Catherine couldn't help feeling it would be cathartic for her. She settled on asking a question that she herself wanted to know the answer to, but that Olivia could answer simply, if she chose to.

"So Alex is your partner?"

Olivia gave a soft, wry laugh. "No, that's the problem. Anyway, I wouldn't … "

Curious now, Catherine asked, "So she's with someone else, is that it? Married, maybe?"

Catherine knew she was straying into dangerous territory, but decided to risk it.

"She's not married, at least I'm almost certain she's not. I don't know if she has someone else."

Catherine was getting somewhere now, even if she felt like she was playing twenty questions. She ploughed on, taking heart from the fact that, although Olivia was evidently distressed about all of this, she was, at least for the moment, answering the questions freely. So, she continued to fish.

"Did you ask her out?"

Olivia looked at her with an odd expression on her face. It took Catherine a second to realise it was amazement, and she almost, totally inappropriately, laughed out loud.

"I'll take that as a no, then," she said, unable to prevent a half-smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She thought for a moment before continuing.

"Is she someone you work with? Is that what's stopping you?"

"Yes, we do work together, she's an assistant district attorney. But no, that's not the problem."

Catherine was growing tired of the questioning, which was becoming very reminiscent of grilling a suspect, and, encouraged by the fact that Olivia seemed to be lightening up a little and providing more details, decided to throw in an open question.

"So what is?"

Olivia shook her head, took a deep breath, and tried to explain in a way that would make sense.

"The problem is that I just don't know if she'd be interested. I think she may be straight. We've just got to the point where I think we could be good friends, but…"

"But what?"

"It's hard to explain. I've got these other feelings, you know?"

Olivia looked at Catherine who was nodding. Encouraged, she continued.

"But I thought they were one-sided."

"And now you don't?"

"Now I'm not sure. I've been thinking about it tonight, and, well, we do spend a lot of time together. More than is strictly necessary for business, you know? And I thought that was just me, but after tonight…"

Now Catherine was confused. "I don't understand. What has tonight got to do with it?"

Olivia had the good grace to blush. Catherine saw her hesitate.

"Olivia, you may as well tell me. I don't think it's possible for you to embarrass yourself any more than you have already." She said this with a smile on her face, so Olivia would know she wasn't likely to take offence.

"It's just, you remind me of her. A lot. How you are. You look a bit like her too."

Whatever reaction Olivia had been expecting, she wasn't prepared for Catherine's soft laugh.

"What's so funny?" she asked curiously, trying not to sound affronted.

"Oh, nothing. It's just you remind me of someone too."


"But we're talking about you…"

"Yeah, but I'll be coming back to that. I'm not a detective for nothing, you know."

Catherine was glad to see Olivia was relaxing, able to make a joke, and now seemed more at ease.

Olivia, choosing her words carefully, continued. "It wasn't fair on you, I know. I knew you reminded me of Alex almost as soon as we met, and I told myself I could push it aside, but when it came down to it, I couldn't. I'm sorry."

Catherine waved it off, and assured, "If it's any consolation, it helps to know the reason you reacted in the way you did. I thought it was something about me."

Olivia looked at her. "No. Under any other circumstances, I'd love to … I mean, you know?"

Catherine smiled. "Yes. I know what you're trying to say."

"You are very like her, you know."

"Apparently so." Catherine paused for a moment, while she rapidly assessed Olivia's mood.

Taking a deep breath, she asked the next question before she had time to have second thoughts about it.

"Seeing as we're being so honest, can I ask you a personal question?"

Olivia shrugged. She didn't see how it could get any more personal, although she wasn't sure she liked the wary look in Catherine's eyes. "Sure."

"Did this happen before? I mean, have you been with someone who reminded you so much of her?"

Olivia smiled. She knew what Catherine was getting at. In a good-humoured tone, she answered, "I'm not some kind of mad stalker, you know. Seeking out blondes because I'm looking for some sort of substitute. In fact, I'd say it's the opposite. Since I've been working with Alex, anyone I've been with has been very different from her. Until you."

Catherine gave a little grin of relief. Olivia had answered her question with what she was beginning to recognise as typical directness. She picked up on the brunette's last words.

"Maybe that's subconscious. You know, picking people because there's no chance you'll be reminded."

Olivia considered this. "Could be. Doesn't matter, though, I don't think. It's kind of lost its appeal lately, anyhow. I haven't been with anyone for months now."

Catherine nodded. There was silence for a moment, before Catherine asked, "So what are you going to do?"

Olivia's mood abruptly changed from analytical to downcast. "I really don't know. There's nothing." she admitted, running her hand through her hair in what Catherine supposed was a gesture of defeat.

"You can't go on like this," Catherine advised gently.

Olivia gave a tiny shrug, and stared miserably at the carpet.

"Olivia, you want my advice?"

Olivia nodded at the floor.

"You need to get some perspective, detective."

Olivia lifted her head to look at Catherine, hearing a distinct note of amusement in the other woman's voice.

"Are you making fun of me?" she asked, feeling vaguely hurt.

Catherine, still smiling, was quick to respond. "No, not at all. I just think you're making a problem for yourself when there doesn't need to be one. You've been thinking about this so much, you've lost sight of the fact that these things can be straightforward."

"I don't understand what you mean. I don't see how I can fix all this without making an even bigger mess."

"Olivia, there is no mess. Think about it. All these feelings you have. From what you've said, Alex may or may not have an idea about them, but you haven't actually done or said anything to scare her off, have you?"

Olivia thought about it. Catherine was right. Feeling a spark of hope, she was suddenly keen to hear what Catherine had to say. "No, I suppose I haven't. So what do I do?"

"God, for a detective, you really can't see the obvious solution, can you?"

Olivia simply shook her head, mystified.

"Olivia, you're friends. You've spent time together, even if it's been work-related so far. So do what friends do. Buy her dinner. Take her for a drink."

Olivia was confused again. "Like a date?"

Catherine sighed. Patiently, she continued. "No, not like a date. Like friends. Spend some time out of work with her. You've got the perfect opportunity with Christmas coming up. Just be social. I think you'll find once you get her out of the office and into a more relaxed atmosphere, well, I think you'll be able to tell."

Catherine almost clapped her hands in relief when Olivia finally got it. "I can't believe I didn't think of that. You're right."

Trying not to sound self-satisfied, Catherine grinned and simply said, "Yes."

Evidently pleased, Olivia reached out and took Catherine's hand, muttering a simple, "Thanks."

Feeling a little self-conscious at this genuine declaration, Catherine just squeezed the hand in response.

Olivia shook her head slightly, in wonder. "You make it seem so straightforward," she mumbled, mostly to herself.

Catherine smiled. "Well, having a curious eight-year old tends to do that to you. You get pretty good at stripping something down to the bare bones."

Olivia looked at her, with an expression of astonishment. "You have an eight year old?"

Catherine laughed out loud. "Yes, a daughter. You don't need to look so surprised."

Olivia, feeling a little embarrassed, just shrugged. Nothing was going to spoil her mood now. She was suddenly interested in Catherine's life.

"So what about Sara?"

Catherine gave a snort of surprise. "Where did that come from?"

"She's the one I remind you of, right?"

Catherine tried to process this bold statement, but she couldn't for the life of her work out where Olivia was coming from. Startled, she replied, "Yes, but how do you know about Sara?"

Olivia, suddenly feeling more like herself, and glad of the change in mood after their intense discussion about Alex, answered happily, "I'm a detective. Despite my efforts tonight to prove the contrary, I'm actually pretty good at my job. I'm trained to observe. You mentioned her in the airport. And then you thought I was her when we arrived at the station, remember? So what's the story?"

Catherine shook her head in amusement at Olivia's nosiness. "There is no story. You just reminded me of her, and I suppose you made me question our relationship."

Thinking she was onto something, Olivia repeated, "Your relationship?"

Catherine laughed. "Don't get carried away. It's not the same thing at all. It's just that the way Sara is around me is very similar to how you have been tonight. I thought that maybe I'd found out why. But now I don't think so."

Olivia was not to be deterred. Enthusiastically, she declared, "You should find out."

Catherine put on a mock-warning tone. "Back off, Detective. Most of the time she can't even stand me. And I know what you're going to say, but no. There's nothing there, I don't think. And even if there was, I'm not sure I'd want it."

Olivia shrugged happily. "Whatever you say."

Catherine chuckled again. "You don't need to say it like that. Actually, you remember that figurine? The one you found in the trash can. That was for her. That should tell you something about my feelings towards her."

Olivia rolled her eyes. Deadpanning, she stated flatly. "No wonder she doesn't like you."

Olivia wondered if she'd gone too far when Catherine went silent, then admitted quietly, "It was a bad present. And I'm glad it got smashed. But now, I just don't know. I'd like to get her something that shows her I want to be friends."

Olivia frowned. She had no clue what to say to this, as she didn't know this Sara. Squeezing the hand that she was still holding, she chose to say nothing.

Catherine sighed deeply. A wave of exhaustion came over her and she yawned widely.

Olivia, glad of the diversion, simply stated, "Time for you to get some sleep."

Catherine looked at her. "You'll be okay, you know. It might be awkward at first, but just try to take it easy, be relaxed, and you'll be fine."

Olivia smiled gently at her. "I know."

Catherine yawned again. Getting up and walking round to the other side of the bed, she said tiredly, "You can stay if you want, you know. It's late."

Olivia hesitated for a second, then checked herself. It was unbelievably late and she was unbelievably tired. And she was halfway into bed anyway. She looked at Catherine, who had already tucked herself in and was cuddling down, eyes shut.

Olivia thought about the horrible day the woman had just had. No wonder she was shattered. But she'd taken it in her stride and been kind and patient through it all. CSI Willows was a very special woman. Gently, Olivia leaned over and gave Catherine a soft, closed-mouth kiss. Catherine sighed, and mumbled,

"This Alex. You could always just kiss her. That'd work too."

Olivia gave a soft, low laugh, and whispered, "I think I'll start with dinner."

She thought she saw the ghost of a smile pass over Catherine's face, but she couldn't be sure. Olivia flicked off the light and settled down on top of the covers.

Catherine awoke to the sound of an unfamiliar ringing. Registering it was a phone, she sleepily reached across towards the source of the noise, groping around until she located the handset, opening her eyes and slowly working out where she was as she brought the receiver to her ear. The events of the past twelve hours swam through her mind as she listened to the efficient clipped tones of the woman on the other end of the line, announcing briskly that this was the requested eight thirty wake up call.

Catherine's brain was still too full of sleep and fuzziness in recalling the previous day's unbelievable events, and she simply mumbled her thanks and replaced the receiver, before realising that she hadn't booked any wake-up call. She allowed herself a lazy smile as she remembered that the only other person who had known she needed to be at the airport for ten o'clock was the clearly thoughtful Olivia Benson.

"ADA Alex is one lucky woman," she murmured, rolling over, not at all surprised to find the bed empty.

As random thoughts of the previous night played through her mind like a series of freeze-frame shots in a movie, Catherine forced herself up and out of bed and made her way towards the bathroom, stopping half way as she remembered the only clothes she had were the ones she had worn yesterday. She realised she had little choice in the matter, but decided to get a coffee on board to wake herself up properly before changing anyway. As she moved towards the coffee machine, her eye was caught by the huge pile of shopping bags and her carry-on case, all neatly stacked up by the side of the door which led out into the corridor.

"Damn, how the hell did she manage that?" she muttered in wonderment, a quick grin flashing across her face. As she reached out for the carry-on case, she noticed a plain envelope with her name written on it, sitting on top. Curious, she picked it up and opened it. Inside was a card. 'Merry Christmas' was the simple greeting on the front, in seasonal red print on a dark green background. Opening the card, there was no printed message of Christmassy sentiment, just a scratchy longhand scrawl on a blank background. A simple message that got straight to the point.

'Buy her dinner. Take her for a drink …

And thanks, Catherine.


Catherine let out a low, soft chuckle, recognising the advice she'd given to the detective being reflected right back at her. She might just have found the perfect Christmas gift for Sara in New York, after all.

The End

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