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.

This is in response to a challenge on the Unbound forums. The first and last lines were given.

Spoilers: all four seasons, and hints of Season 5

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"Do you want fries with that?"

For an instant Warrick thought Catherine was going to smack him. Her eyes sparked fiercely, and he braced himself, but she only glared at him. "Just get me the results when you're done."

She turned away, but he glanced quickly out the Trace lab window, and seeing the corridor was empty, he snagged her gently by the arm. "Hey. What's the matter, Cath? It was just a joke."

She'd been in a filthy temper for almost a week, and while they were used to it from Sara, it was a little unusual from Catherine's corner. Warrick had held back his concern, knowing that she knew she could talk to him any time, but she hadn't--she'd just stewed.

Her arm was stiff in his grip. Her brows drew together, and he waited for the acid, but instead the fire in her eyes died. "I...I'm sorry, 'Rick. It's been a rough week."

Warrick let her go. "So...you want to talk about it?"

Catherine grimaced. "Am I going to get out of it?"

He smirked. "Nope."

Her sigh was amusement, exasperation, relief. "All right. All right--whatever."

Warrick glanced at his watch, and was about to suggest that they duck out for coffee when Grissom stuck his head into the lab. "Explosion in a warehouse outside of town. Anything else you're doing can wait." He handed Catherine an assignment slip, and since they both agreed that what they were doing could wait, neither argued as Grissom vanished again.

"You can talk on the way," Warrick said, shrugging out of his lab coat.

xxxxxxx

The first ten minutes of their drive were silent. Warrick waited until they were on the highway before glancing over to the passenger seat; the lights they passed striped Catherine's face with sliding bars of light and shadow, and hid the lines at the corners of her eyes, but he could still see the weariness that dogged her. "So what's up?" he finally asked quietly.

Catherine sighed. "I caught Chris with another woman."

Something in Warrick all but crowed with glee, and he squashed it immediately. "Oh, man, Cath, I'm sorry," he offered, and the words were sincere.

Her laugh was hard and tired. "I guess I should have expected it," she said. Warrick reached over to give her hand a quick squeeze.

"Why's that?" He let her go to put his hand back on the wheel; the wind was stiff, and the SUV tended to sway with each gust.

"Isn't that what always happens? Sooner or later I get passed up for a newer, younger model."

Warrick winced. The resignation in her tone disturbed him far more than the bitterness. "Any man who gives you up is a fool, Cath."

She patted his leg, an absentminded gesture. "That's sweet of you, Warrick."

He wanted to point out that he wasn't sweet, but this wasn't the time. "It's the truth."

Catherine was quiet for a while, and Warrick let the silence continue, knowing that she would go on eventually.

"I have to wonder what it is about me," she said at last, sounding thoughtful rather than angry. "I mean, Eddie was a jerk, that was obvious. But Chris...he seemed like a really nice guy." She laughed again. "Between my mom and me...well, we sure can pick 'em."

Warrick didn't bother with the platitudes about the right one being out there somewhere. That sort of thing never helped, and anyway, it stung a little too much.

Catherine ran a hand through her hair. "I have to explain it to Lindsey, too," she said ruefully. "Tell her something, anyway. Since he won't be coming around anymore."

"I hope you kicked his ass," Warrick said, and glanced over in time to see her feral grin.

"He won't be forgetting me any time soon, that's for sure."

He winced and chuckled, and decided not to ask just what she'd done. "You want me to remind him?"

She shook her head, taking the offer in the spirit in which it was presented. "Thanks, but that's okay. Don't want to ruin my rep."

"I hear you." He ignored the persistent urge to go and find Chris, and teach him the respect for women that his mother had apparently failed to instill.

Silence filled the vehicle again for a few miles, but Warrick could tell that some of the hard tension had left Catherine. Sadness filled its space, though, until a discreet ping made Warrick realize that the gas tank was almost empty. He grumbled under his breath and pulled over at the next station, reminding himself to write up the charge for reimbursement. He tended to forget.

Catherine climbed out of the SUV at the same time he did, heading for the restroom. The vehicle's tank was large, and it was still sucking gas when she returned. Warrick met her at the back of the SUV and pulled her into a hug. "Cath, you're worth it," he murmured into her hair, realizing for the hundredth time how small she was; her personality tended to make him forget. "Don't let anybody tell you different."

For a moment she clung to him, and he wanted so much for that impulse to be something she would indulge on a regular basis. "Thanks, 'Rick," she said, the words a little muffled against his collarbone. She tilted her head back, eyes crinkling. "You're going to make some lucky woman very happy someday."

He let her go. "That's what they tell me," he said, and turned away. Again.

And then turned back. The timing was wrong, the situation was wrong, everything was wrong, but he couldn't help it. He backed her into the side of the SUV, arms braced against the windows to cage her, and looked down into her startled eyes. "Cath--how long are we going to avoid this?"

Her mouth dropped open a little, and he went on, pushing it because he just couldn't stand it any longer. "Don't give me any crap about the age difference, or working together, or anything like that--you know what's between us, and I don't want to watch you going off with fools who are gonna hurt you." He lowered his head a little, softening. "I wouldn't do that to you, Catherine, you know that."

Her lashes were sparkling now in the parking lot's sodium lights, and she raised a hand to cup his face. "I do know it, Warrick. I do." Her thumb stroked along the line of his jaw, and he let out a heavy breath. "It's just--I don't know. You matter." She shook her head. "Your friendship--it's precious to me. How can we risk that?"

One corner of her mouth turned up, wistful. "I keep losing the things I believe in. You're still here."

His hands moved slowly, gathering her in to him without his conscious permission. "I'll always be here, Cath." So small, so strong. He wanted that strength, wanted to give her his own to lean on--not just occasionally, but always.

She gave in gradually, relaxing against him, letting her hands link behind his neck. "It's too soon," she said finally, and the feel of her breath against his throat made his skin prickle delightfully. "Give me some time, 'Rick. I need to be sure."

"Whatever you need," he sighed, rubbing his cheek against her hair. "But no running off with younger guys, you hear?"

Catherine snickered. "Sure," she said, and touched his face again. They stared at each other for a moment, settling into the newness, and then Warrick bent and brushed his lips against hers. He meant it only for a promise, but Catherine tilted her head, and the kiss became more solid, both an experiment and an exchange of promises.

The clunk of the gas pump shutting off made them separate. Catherine climbed back into the SUV as Warrick hung up the pump and collected the receipt, and they were back on the road before she spoke again. "So...you going to tell me how much better you'll treat me?"

Her voice was teasing, and he grinned into the dark. "How many miles do we have left?"

End.