Title: The End of the Tunnel

Pairing: Calleigh/Natalia

Rating: G

Disclaimer: CSI: Miami belongs to CBS, Jerry Bruckheimer and Alliance Atlantis. No infringement intended, no profit is being made. (Seriously, grad student, NO money)

SPOILERS: 6x17 "Tunnel Vision"

Summary: Nat is shaken after the shooting, Calleigh comes to find her.

A/N: Unbeta'd and bashed out during and right after the ep so I apologize for any mistakes.

"Miami Dade PD. I said stop right there!"

She says the words that have been rehearsed over and over, but somehow, where before that particular combination of syllables had seemed so powerful in front of a mirror, or on the range, or in the silence of her own mind, they now sounded weak, flimsy. Her heart beat is loud: too loud, and she can feel her lungs struggle to draw enough breath. She gasps, but its not enough and her body feels light and oxygen starved.

Is this what Calleigh feels? How does she survive this?

The thought is incongruous, echoing in the deafening silence of her mind for just an instant, and then his hand moves.

She doesn't think. There isn't time for the nerve impulses to travel from her eyes, through her brain and down her arm. She simply reacts.

The trigger is smooth, warm where the metal has leached heat from her skin. She doesn't hear the click, but the explosion is loud, deafeningly so. It doesn't matter that she's heard that sound thousands of times on the range. This time it's different.

Natalia couldn't seem to calm her heart. Not even Horatio's query about the case made any difference. For a moment, as she recited the facts, the brunette felt her focus sharpen slightly, and then her mind was off again, thoughts dancing and racing and skittering out of control.

"Listen to me. I don't want you to worry ok?" Horatio's voice was smooth and his tone was so certain. Natalia wanted to believe him, but she kept seeing the events of only moments ago playing over and over again in the space behind her eyes. Her gut roiled and the DNA tech clamped her jaw, desperate not to be sick.

It suddenly felt like a lifetime ago that she had strode onto the crime scene, feeling her heart swell with pride when she saw Calleigh's admiring look at her new gun and the proof she'd passed her qualifications. All those damn hours on the range had suddenly been validated with a single smile and a sparkle in jade eyes.

As her mind turned to thoughts of her colleague, for once Natalia didn't fight it. Anything was better than re-living the last hour, even the torment that was her growing feelings for intense, competent ballistics expert Calleigh Duquesne.

Horatio sent her back to the lab and it was only by concentrating fiercely on the road that Natalia was able to still the tremors in her hands. The paperwork was another nightmare, and by the time the brunette was finished, she felt ill and achy. A headache was pounding behind her eyes and she felt lightheaded as she signed the last form. The weight at her hip had become a hard, unforgettable reminder that she had nearly taken someone's life today and the urge to tear it off her belt and throw it away was becoming nearly overwhelming.

Natalia wasn't aware of anything as she made her way to the locker room. The sun melting through the glass, the bustle and energy of her colleagues – none of it penetrated the fog in her mind. The adrenaline high was over and the DNA tech was crashing badly. She was moving on strength of will alone, and even that was quickly eroding.

Beyond grateful to find the locker room deserted, Natalia let go that last bit of control and her shaky knees did the rest, dropping her without grace onto the hard wooden bench. With hands that fumbled, she yanked the holster from her hip, removed the gun, emptied the clip and the chambered round and only just barely avoided dropping it onto the bench in her haste to be rid of it. The brunette couldn't bare to touch the gun, but as a single beam of sunshine cut through the muted light of the locker room to rest directly on its gleaming black surface, she couldn't seem to look away from it either. Dark eyes traced the hard ridges and unyielding contours as if they might provide an answer to how to deal with the deadly object.

She was so lost in her own internal struggle that the sound of heels approaching on the hard tile didn't register. It was only a gentle touch on her sleeve that shocked Natalia out of her reverie.

"Calleigh," she nearly gasped, blinking in surprise. "You startled me. I uh, I was just," Natalia trailed off, her eyes falling away as shame stole through her. Of all people, she hadn't wanted the ballistics expert to see her like this. Biting her lip, the brunette took a deep breath and reached for the gun where it lay; a deadly shadow between her and her friend.

She was stopped by a soft touch and Calleigh's hand covering her own.

"Its alright Nat. The first time I was involved in a shooting, I barely made it back to the station house before I threw up everything I swear I'd ever eaten."

The candid admission brought Natalia's eyes up to search Calleigh's face.

Seeing her shock, the blonde gave a gentle, rueful grin. "I've always liked guns, but that doesn't mean that I've ever enjoyed using them against people. Even when those people deserved it," she muttered the last, trying to lighten the mood.

It worked, at least a little. Natalia felt her lips quirking in response and her heart was slowing. Calleigh's hand was warm and soft on her own and the dichotomy between that gentleness against the back of her hand, and the hard edges of her gun against her palm made her swallow.

Seeing she was beginning to get through to the shaken woman, Calleigh continued.

"Listen to me Nat. He had a gun. You're first duty is to protect yourself and any other officers around you. Your first duty is to survive. I am proud of you." The southerner emphasized the last statement, biting off each word. Natalia could only hold onto her gaze, clinging to the words as she slowly pulled herself out of the depth of her reaction.

Straightening slightly and taking a slow breath, she was about to thank Calleigh and attempt to put her gun away and go home when the blonde again took her by surprise.

Gently, and very slowly Calleigh moved her hand so that her fingers entwined with Natalia's.

"And," the Detective paused and swallowed, her eyes flickering down and away even as her grip on Natalia's hand tightened. "And I would have been really, truly pissed if you had hesitated and been hurt. I don't think…I couldn't stand that."

And for the second time that day, adrenaline flooded Natalia's system. This had nothing to do with fear however, and everything to do with the feelings that Calleigh's thumb was creating as it stroked back and forth across her skin.

"Cal," Natalia trailed off, uncertain of her words. She felt overwhelmed and torn between the long acknowledged but denied desire for the woman in front of her, and fear at driving her best friend away.

The blonde's eyes widened and Natalia saw a hint of fear flash through them. With a nervous gesture Calleigh drew her hand away, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a wholly unusual and nervous gesture.

"Well, I uh. I just wanted to see if you were ok, I didn't mean to," her words tumbled together, the soft accent gone brittle and for the second time that day, Natalia acted completely on instinct.

Reaching out, she took Calleigh's hand in her own, effectively stopping the Detective.

"Thank you Calleigh. It helps. It helps a lot. I just didn't want anyone see me fall apart. They all think I'm useless enough as it is," the brunette blew out a breath, some of the old frustration leaking past her control in the wake of her turmoil.

The effect it had was startling.

Calleigh's expression went fierce. "You are not useless Natalia. Don't ever think that. It was a good shoot, and a damn good shot. You did what you needed to protect yourself, and if anyone says differently, then they can say it to me."

Natalia's smile of thanks was stalled however, as the blonde reached up with her other hand, laying it against the brunette's cheek.

Natalia couldn't help her response. Her eyes fluttered closed and she leaned into the caress, hear heart fluttering. Daring to open her eyes, she felt her breath catch at the tender look on Calleigh's face. For a moment they stayed frozen, the dust motes dancing in the sunbeam that now rested on their clasped hands the only movement, and then Natalia reached up and covered the hand Calleigh had put to her cheek with her own, completing the connection.

Her blood singing, Natalia turned slightly and ghosted her lips across Calleigh's palm, almost smiling when she heard the other woman's breath hitch.

As much as she might want more however, Natalia still didn't know where this was going, and so, reluctantly, she cradled Calleigh's hand in her own and brought it down, until their hands rested entangled between them.

"Thank you," the brunette said softly.

Calleigh shook her head slightly. "I mean it Natalia. You are…important to me. And I haven't done a very good job of making you understand that. I'm sorry. I promise to do better in the future."

Natalia could only nod. Is she saying what I think she's saying? Can this really be happening?

The storm of emotion had blown itself out however, so instead of doubt or uncertainty, Natalia was filled with the knowledge that whatever it was the two woman had just taken a step toward did not have to be defined now. iWe have time/i, the brunette realized. No matter how much a part of her might want to just reach over, pull Calleigh down and kiss the Detective senseless, the rest of her knew that anything that might develop between them was worth building slowly. So rather than indulge in her tightly held fantasy, Natalia settled for something a little safer.

Letting a smile edge her lips, she pretended to consider. "Ok. I think I'd like that. How bout we start with you buying me dinner. I've had a lousy day, and I think I could use a nice meal, and some quality time with a remarkable woman."

The delight on Calleigh's face was all the answer she needed that she'd made the right decision.

The blonde grinned slyly. "You're going to take advantage of this arrangement aren't you?"

"Hmm, yeah, pretty much."

"Good." Calleigh breathed, and Natalia felt her heart skip a beat.

For a moment the air between them was charged again and it was only with effort on both their parts that the two friends pulled back, Natalia looking away to compose herself and Calleigh shaking her head.

Standing, the blonde waited and watched while Natalia re-assembled her gun, and when the brunette hesitated to clip it back into place at her side, the weapon was gently removed from her grasp.

With a soft look and a deft touch, Calleigh put the Glock back in its rightful position at Natalia's hip, and if her fingers lingered a second longer on the brunette's belt than they needed to, well, neither was going to comment.

Pulling her jacket back over the weapon, Natalia realized with a small start that the weight was no longer alien. It felt…right, this time, as if Calleigh's touch had corrected some small imbalance.

"Ok?" the Detective asked gently.

"Yeah," Natalia replied, only a little surprised to realize she meant it.

"Well, then I guess we better get you dinner hmm?" Calleigh teased gently, and Natalia felt her lips twitch.

"Damn right missy. Do you have any idea how much paperwork I had to fill out today?"

"Ugh, don't get me started," the ballistics expert rolled her eyes dramatically, and with a shared chuckle the two friends strode out the door.

As the thick, heavy Miami air enveloped them and they made their way to the Detective's car, Natalia let her hand slip into Calleigh's, feeling a sense of warmth and joy when the smaller woman squeezed back. Her headache was gone, and the turmoil of earlier had been replaced with a sense of contentment and possibility.

The sun sank toward the horizon as the two women drove away, headed toward dinner…and perhaps, something more.