The characters and situations in this story belong to Alliance Atlantis, CBS, Anthony Zuicker and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

Feedback is most appreciated, feel free to post; if you want a personal response you can e-mail me. A thousand, thousand thanks to Ina and Nire the Evil, who rescued me and generously edited this; also, thanks to all those who volunteered. And many thanks to all of you who sent me feedback. *blush* I'm glad you like it!

Spoilers: through "Eleven Angry Jurors". Bear in mind, this does not take the events of "Butterflied" into account! And if you're an LMB fan, yes, I know; but I wrote it before I recognized it. What can I say? It fit!

******

"Well," the Goddess said,"your heart didn't heal straight the last time it broke. So we'll break it again and reset it so it heals straight this time." --Diane Duane, Children's Tales of North Arlen/The Door Into Shadow

******

Her system was still on night shift. Sara surprised herself by getting in five hours of sleep, despite Grissom's phone call, and when she woke she dove into packing up her apartment. She was elbow-deep in boxes by the time the sun set, and had fallen into a smooth rhythm--pack, tape, label--when she came across the three books she'd borrowed from Greg. He'd asked her to return them just the shift before, but in all the turmoil she'd forgotten, and she swore under her breath. He said he needed them by tomorrow night. That doesn't leave me enough time to mail them.

She briefly considered calling him and asking him to come pick them up on his way home from work, but discarded the idea. She knew Greg too well. Once he's in the door he'll never leave, and I have too much to do. Not to mention she didn't want to try to explain her choices to his stricken face.

"Okay," she muttered, and picked up the phone, plugging it back in and dialing the DNA lab.

As she expected, the lab tech was puppy-eager to meet her at the diner near the lab, if only for a few minutes. His young male swagger lightened her mood just a little, but then the lift faded at the thought that she would miss even his heavy-handed flirting and his tendency to draw out his dénouements. For an instant she was angry at Grissom again, but as she hung up the phone she grimaced at herself. You got yourself into this. Yeah, he's a jerk. But you're the one who's chosen to leave.

The truth that she didn't like to think about was still there. If she really wanted to, she could kill the deep-seated affection she felt for her boss and mentor and former friend. She could retreat into professionalism until that was all that was left. But in doing so she would damage herself too much, and would destroy even the faint sweetness of her memories of their friendship. And it would undermine the team dynamic, and hurt her friends. It wasn't really an option.

Letting out a long breath, Sara stacked Greg's books on her breakfast bar and went back to her packing. She had two hours to kill before she met him to deliver them, and the packing, at least, gave her a little peace.

******

Sara shifted on the stool, glancing at her watch for the third time in ten minutes. It was uncharacteristic for Greg to be late, especially when he was meeting her. Impatient, she finished the coffee she'd ordered and flipped open her cellphone. Ignoring the listed messages--two of which were from Grissom--she punched in the shortcut for Greg's number. "Yo, what's with you?" she asked when he answered. "I'm here, you're not."

"Sara...oh man, I'm sorry," Greg answered, sounding harried. "I was just going to call you. I am so swamped. Everyone and his boss has dumped evidence on me, and they're all priority." She heard the clink of glassware and the hum of machinery underlying his voice. "There's no way I'm getting out of here for break, I'll be lucky if I get to my sandwich."

Sara bit her lip. She really, really didn't want to go to the lab. But it was only fair that she return the books. "All right," she said reluctantly. "I'll bring them by in a few minutes." She hesitated. "Is Grissom around?"

"Haven't seen him. I think he's out on a case," Greg replied distractedly. "Yeah, I heard Warrick saying he was gonna meet him somewhere."

Sara had no trouble dissecting Greg's last sentence. "Okay. See you in a few."

She snapped the phone shut and put a couple of bills on the counter for her coffee. It would be simple enough to check the parking lot for Grissom's SUV. If she saw it, she could just call Greg again. Surely he could tear himself away long enough to come out to the parking lot.

Grissom's vehicle, however, was nowhere to be seen when she drove into the lot. Her eyes automatically picked out familiarities among the row of cars, a license plate here, a dinged bumper there. Cat's in tonight; I wonder what Nick's doing?

She parked, took a deep breath, and climbed out, books in hand. It was just the lab; people expected her to be there on her days off more often than not. All she would encounter would be a couple of teasing comments, perhaps--she would bet serious money that Grissom hadn't told anyone yet that she was leaving. It shouldn't be this hard.

Striding inside, head up, she made her way to DNA, setting her face in a scowl to discourage interruptions. Greg gave her a grin as she entered, but immediately went back to his row of test tubes, and she wondered who had said what to put him in such a frantic mood.

"Just put them on the table, would you, Sara?" He pointed with his elbow, hands occupied with a pipette and a vial. She set the books down and felt a little sympathy for the harried tech.

"What's got you so..." She trailed off and raised a brow, smiling. Greg blew out an exaggerated breath.

"Two murders, one rape case, and something really weird that Warrick has refused to explain. 'You tell me what it is, you're the lab tech,' my ass."

Sara chuckled, relaxing a little. "Well, you know, Greg--you are, in fact, the lab tech. I don't see what your ass has to do with it."

He shot her a glance, half-irritated, half-amused. "You sound just like Grissom."

All her humor fled at the mention of their supervisor's name. "So people keep telling me. Look, Greg, I have to go."

"Raincheck on the diner?" Greg asked hopefully, and she suddenly couldn't bear to lie to him.

"Maybe some other time," she answered. Maybe in ten years, if I come back for a visit. He nodded, face falling, and returned to his tasks. Maybe in twenty.

She swung back out into the corridor and headed for the parking lot, but almost at once found her path blocked by a custodian, a mop, and a splatter of...something...that stretched from wall to wall. Shards of broken glass sparkled amidst the liquid, and it reeked. Sara eyed the spill, but it was too wide to jump. Someone's going to get in trouble for dropping evidence. Guess I'll have to go the other way.

Her steps slowed as she turned around. Her path in to the lab, and her planned path out, had carefully avoided Grissom's office. However, short of going out a fire door and setting off an alarm, there was no avoiding it now.

She expected it to be dark, and it was. But her eyes caught movement beyond the open blinds, and Sara froze at the edge of visual range for the office, an oath resonating in her head. He must have got back while I was talking to Greg.

Common sense urged her to hurry past, trusting in Grissom's usual distraction to keep her unseen. But that rebellious part of her pulled her forward a step instead, to peer inside.

They were half-hidden in the dimness, and the lack of light made Sara wonder if Grissom were getting one of his migraines again, though she knew they were rare. He sat hunched in front of his desk, elbows on his knees, head pressing into his palms; Catherine sat opposite him, leaning forward and saying something in her usual forthright, no-nonsense fashion. Then Sara's breath caught as Catherine held out her hands, and Grissom raised his head enough to put his own hands into them.

Sara's throat knotted with sudden pain. All her hard-won peace of mind seemed to dissolve like a handful of sand in water, washing away through her fingers. It hurt, it hurt, but it made sense; they were old friends, close friends, and it was only logical that they go one step further. Sara just wished that she'd kept going instead of stopping for one last look.

"Hey, Sara!"

Bobby's voice booming behind her made her jump and turn. The ballistics expert was halfway down the hall, smiling in his easy fashion. "If you're looking for Grissom, I don't think he's back yet."

Sara forced a smile to her lips. "Thanks, Bobby," she said, as cheerfully as she could manage. "Gotta go." She threw him a wave, breaking into a fast stride and hoping desperately that the two in the dark office hadn't heard him. Just in case, she headed for the back parking lot instead of the front one. They wouldn't think to look for her there, and she didn't want to deal with either of them right now--not now or ever...

The pain in her throat was swelling, and she swallowed hard to try to break it, forcing back the grief. Somewhere behind her someone else spoke her name, but she barely heard it. She had to go, she had to go now. The door flew open under her push, and she erupted into the cool night air, half-running across the empty lot. Thoughts flashed through her mind so fast she couldn't fix on one, except the need to get away, the need to find a safe dark place to curl up in.

Then two hard hands gripped her arms from behind and jerked her to a stop. She staggered, unable to think clearly enough to try to break free, and the hands spun her around. And then her cheek was against something warm and slightly prickly, and two arms were holding her so tightly that she gasped, and one of those hands was on the back of her neck while the other pressed into her waist just above her hip. Her lungs were full of the smell of him, and her ears with his voice saying her name over and over as though he didn't quite believe she was there.

She couldn't move. Her arms were held down by the force of his embrace, and she blinked dazedly over his shoulder, focusing on Catherine several yards behind. The older woman grinned a triumphant, congratulatory grin, nodded approvingly, and walked back inside the building. And before Sara could process that, Grissom's hold loosened and he pulled back enough to look at her.

"Sara," he said again. She met his eyes, beginning to pull her wits together, and was stunned all over again by the force of his gaze. He'd been adamant before, but never outside the confines of work, of the CSI relationship. Now he was turning all that intensity on her, on her, not on his subordinate. "You came back."

He thinks I changed my mind? "Griss," she managed, "I--"

He cut her off by pulling her close again and covering her mouth with his.

One part of her reeled in shock at his assertiveness; there was no hesitancy in his kiss. It was definitely a claim, and deep inside, her anguish ground to a halt and began to spin the other way, becoming a small, incredulous joy.

When their lips finally parted, he still had one hand on the nape of her neck, and his fingers tightened gently until she opened her eyes to look at him. His gaze was hot and stern. "Don't you ever leave me again."

If anyone else had spoken to her in that tone, she would have been furious. But here and now, she sensed the desperation behind his words and in the strength of his grip, and her mouth curled up in a small smile. If that isn't "caring", I don't know what is. He does care. He does...

Slowly, deliberately, she leaned back a little, just enough to free her arms. Their eyes were still locked, and she could see the taut waiting in his, the depth of the emotion driving him. Some of that tautness eased as she put her arms around his torso and pressed close to him, and then she tilted her head a fraction and kissed him right back. Claiming went two ways, after all.

Her smile returned when they broke for air. "Don't you ever make it necessary again." The joy was growing, spreading warmth through her ribcage.

"Deal." He dipped his head for a short, hard kiss, and then leaned his forehead against hers. His eyes were softer now, and she could feel him shaking just a little, could see the despair that had consumed him until just moments ago. "I thought I'd lost you," he confessed quietly.

"You did," she answered frankly, and his grip spasmed tighter. Sara rested her head on his shoulder. "Harder," she whispered, swallowing against a new lump in her throat. "Hold me harder."

His embrace almost hurt, but she welcomed it. The pressure of his arms and his body against hers were healing the deep ache she'd carried so long, were filling the hungry space inside her. His back was warm under her palms, and her skin tingled as she felt him turn his face into her hair. He muttered something she couldn't quite make out, something about not having a wall handy, but it didn't matter.

They held each other for a long time; Sara felt her heart calming from its racing beat of pain and wonder, and listened to Grissom's breathing slow as he rubbed his cheek against her hair. Faint tremors ran through him from time to time, transmitting through her fingers; once she shuddered, and closed her eyes in bliss as he pulled her closer still.

"What happened?" she asked at last, not moving.

He swallowed, and she felt the movement of his throat against her scalp. "I woke up," he said, after a moment. "Sara...I want to talk about this, but not here."

She laughed a little, a rusty sound that surprised her, and lifted her head. "Good idea. Both of them."

One side of his mouth quirked up, but his eyes were wide and filled with a serious wonder as they met hers. Delicately, as though he still weren't sure she was real, he ran one finger along the line of her cheek and the angle of her nose before tracing the shape of her lips with a feathery touch. "I would like it very much if you would come home with me," he said.

She grinned at his formal phrasing, and he smiled back, caressing her jaw with the back of his hand. "I'll meet you there," she said.

******

His townhouse was pretty much as she remembered it; cool and dim, and smelling of him. Sara sat on his couch and listened to his voice behind her in the kitchen, her thoughts slowing down from the emotional crescendo of the parking lot. What do I do now? What do we do now? She pressed her fingers to her mouth, which still vibrated faintly with the memory of Grissom's lips against hers. I guess I got what I wanted. But what does he expect?

A click reached her ears as Grissom hung up the phone. "Catherine will cover for me," he said dryly, coming around to sit down next to her. "If she gets any smugger, though, I'm going to make her do my paperwork for a week."

Sara snickered at the thought, and Grissom's familiar half-smile appeared as he reached out and picked up her hand. Their fingers interlinked smoothly, as though with long practice, and Sara stared down at the rhythmic knot they formed.

"Are you really going to stay?"

His quiet question startled her, and she looked up. "I guess so," she replied slowly. "I'm still trying to process...this." She gestured with her free hand, and Grissom snorted in amused recognition. The amusement faded fast, however.

"Sara, I do want to apologize for...for that. I honestly thought it was just a passing thing to you."

Her mouth twitched at remembered hurt. "Even though I asked you out?"

Grissom winced. "Yeah. Good example." He looked down at their hands. "It had never occurred to me to go there. I didn't give your request the respect it deserved, and I'm sorry."

Sara stared at the crown of his head. Their discussion was just beginning, but she gave into impulse and lifted her free hand to his jaw, fingers caressing his face as she had once before. This time her touch met soft hair instead of skin, and his eyes as he lifted them were surprised and relieved instead of puzzled. She leaned forward and brushed her lips over his, slowly, and felt the sudden pressure of his grip. His response was gentle, a careful, answering touch.

"Apology accepted," Sara whispered against his mouth, and sat back.

Grissom just stared at her for a moment, eyes never leaving her face, before licking his lips. "Thank you," he said.

When he didn't continue, Sara wriggled her fingers in his. "So...what changed?" she asked again.

"A better question might be 'when'," Grissom said.

"Okay, when then."

"You remember when you asked me if...anything between us would affect my decision about the promotion?"

Sara's mouth twitched again. "Gris, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said--"

"No," he interrupted her, voice authoritative, "it was a legitimate question. I haven't given you a lot of reason to trust me lately." He shrugged. "It surprised me, and I went home that morning and thought about it." His expression was rueful. "I woke up."

"That's what you said before," Sara noted. "Care to explain that?"

His gaze returned to her hand, and she watched his lips purse thoughtfully. He unlinked their fingers and spread her hand palm-up over his. Almost idly, he began tracing the lines of her palm with one fingertip, sending a tingle up her arm. "Did you know about my hearing loss?" he asked at last.

"It was kind of obvious. To a CSI, anyway," Sara added as he lifted his eyes again, looking a little hurt. "But then it went away, so I assumed you got it fixed."

"Surgery." He nodded. "It's hereditary."

"Well, yeah."

He raised a brow at her in inquiry.

"Come on, Gil. Hearing problems and sign language? A cadet could follow that evidence." When he didn't respond, only staring at her, she frowned a little. "What's the matter?"

"I think that's the first time you've called me Gil."

Sara smiled, half-pleased, half-embarrassed. "At least where you could hear me."

This time he kissed her.

"Where was I?" he murmured a long moment later, and Sara shivered at the feel of his breath against her cheek.

"Um...waking up."

"Right." He sat back, still keeping her hand in his. She didn't mind; the contact was deeply pleasing, a reassurance in the midst of the newness. The fact that Grissom had actually admitted to returning her feelings was still ringing through her like the peal of a strange bell, and it would take a while before she could settle into the knowledge.

"When my hearing started to go, I kind of went into denial." He shrugged, obviously still uncomfortable with the subject. "It took me way too long to deal with it, and I kept distracting myself with work. You know I'm not a people person."

Sara smiled at him. "You're not that bad. At least when you work at it."

His mouth twisted ruefully. "Thank you. I think."

She rubbed her thumb over his knuckles. "Go on."

Grissom sighed. "I got the surgery, I got my hearing back, and it made me take another look at my life. I saw how closed off I'd become. So I decided to try to do something about it." He bit his lip, thinking. "It wasn't easy."

"We did notice you'd changed," Sara said encouragingly. "But, y'know, we didn't really know what to make of it."

"I figured," he said wryly. Again, he caressed her cheekbone with one finger, following its line back towards her ear and then down to her chin. "Sara, I think I've spent most of the last three years falling in love with you, and I never saw it." His smile was sad. "Some CSI, huh?"

She couldn't think of anything to say that would ease him, so she only smiled again and held his hand tighter.

"You asked me that question, and that morning I realized that my...feelings for you...were a whole lot more than friendship," he went on quietly. "All of a sudden I could see clearly, but I thought it was too late, that you'd moved on." He shook his head. "I've said before that I don't mind being wrong, it's how I get to right. But this time I was wrong for too long."

Grissom laughed, a soft, humorless sound. "Someone told me once that we never know what we need until we find it. In my case I didn't know what I needed until after I lost it." He shrugged. "You resigned, and I thought, that's it, I won't even be able to see her any more, and I was kicking myself for being so stupid. And then you said you still cared, and--" He swallowed. "I called and you didn't answer; I went to your place, but you weren't there. I thought you'd left."

That voice, that warm voice she loved so well, had gone hoarse. "Sara...I thought I'd go crazy."

His eyes were dark with pain, and Sara couldn't stand it. This time, however, there was nothing to bar her. She pulled her fingers from his grasp and slid closer to wrap her arms around him. He returned the embrace, and she felt his head come to rest on her shoulder as a sigh, mingled pain and relief, escaped him. Tears stung her eyes, but she kept them back. This was what she'd wanted, for the two of them to stop hurting each other. Now healing could begin.

"I deserved it, for what I must have put you through," he muttered at last, not moving.

Sara rubbed his back in soothing circles. "It's over now," she said reassuringly, savoring the warmth of him pressed against her.

"Sara--" He pulled back a little, his hands rising to her shoulders, and regarded her, gaze roving over her face as though he were committing it to memory. "I don't even know...I mean...why me? I'm nobody's ideal."

"You're my ideal." Sara shrugged, her lips curling up. "You have so much to offer, Gil. You're fascinating and brilliant and--" Her smile widened into a grin. "Very sexy."

He laughed outright, and put an arm around her, easing her to him until she was leaning against his chest. Sara's own arm went around his waist, and her smile widened as she felt him kiss the top of her head. "I don't deserve you," he said.

"Probably not," she said, her voice teasing. "But we can work on that."

"Later." His arm tightened as Sara rubbed her cheek against him, enjoying his scent. "What made you change your mind?"

"Hmm?" she asked, not following his thinking.

"I thought you weren't coming back. But then you did."

"Oh." She watched as his free hand reached down to capture hers. "Um...I didn't. I found some books I borrowed from Greg, and I came by to return them." She shrugged a little. "I was going to meet him at the diner, but he couldn't get away."

"Remind me to give him a raise," Grissom said, and she could hear the amusement in his voice, but his grip on her hand tightened, and she knew he was recalling how close they had come to missing each other entirely. The thought chilled her, and she pulled away and sat up straight so she could see his face.

He was smiling, but it faltered as he took in the worry in her eyes. "Is this real?" she asked, needing reassurance.

His smile returned, warm and tender, and he cupped her face in his palms. "As real as it gets," he promised, and kissed her. A soft, pleasured sound escaped her, and his hands slid down to her shoulders again. Sara shivered at the contrast, the prickle of his mustache versus the smoothness of his lips, and reached up to touch his face in turn. She'd been wondering what his beard felt like ever since he'd grown it.

But it took the coolness of evaporation against her fingertips for her to realize that his eyes were leaking tears, and the chill in her heart dissolved under a wave of love and confidence.

Grissom pulled back just a little without opening his eyes. "Sara," he whispered. "You're the realest thing I know."

"Bonus," she answered, and brought her mouth back to his.

His hands found their way around her again, one returning to the nape of her neck, and he leaned back slowly until he was half-lying against the arm of the couch, Sara on top of him. She broke the kiss and chuckled, and this time he looked at her, smiling that charming half-smile. "What?"

"Do you know how often I've dreamed of being in this position?"

He arched a brow at her. "Probably as often as I've dreamed of having your hands on me." He lifted one away from his cheek and pressed the palm to his lips. "You have beautiful hands."

"I do?" She was taken aback by the statement. Her hands were big and square and strong-boned, and she'd always thought that they didn't fit the rest of her; someone with her build should have slender hands and tapering fingers, she felt.

"You do." Grissom ran his thumb over her palm. "They're strong, and competent. These are hands for doing essential things, for holding on tightly."

The lump was back in her throat. His words felt dearer than any light compliment about appearance. "Thank you," she managed, and his gaze shifted from her hand to her eyes, and he pulled her back down to kiss away the moisture that had appeared.

For a long time, they said nothing, simply holding each other in silence, letting the empty places fill with the other's caring. Every so often Grissom would stroke Sara's hair, or she would reach out and link her fingers with his, enjoying the warmth of his skin.

"Where do we go from here?" she asked finally.

"Well, you have two weeks of vacation coming," he reminded her, his voice vibrating where her ear was pressed to his chest. "May I assume that your parents aren't actually expecting you to visit?"

"Um...yeah." She shrugged. "I guess I'll need to unpack my apartment."

He chuckled. "Take the vacation," he said. "Get some rest. Do the things you never have time to do because you're always working. Have dinner with me."

Sara lifted her head to look at him. "Right now?"

He glanced at the windows, where the light had strengthened. "Shift's over. We're on our own time."

"Our time," she repeated, smiling. "I like that."

"Good." He kissed her again. "Let's make the most of it."

END