Chapter 25

4 Weeks Later

Thursday,

2:45 pm

Horatio stood in his office and looked down at the lab. Yesterday, Calleigh had passed the department physical and finally been allowed out in the field. She, Eric and Ryan were just returning from a multiple shooting in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Miami. Frank Tripp was still with them. The three men, whether subconsciously or by design, were in a defensive bracket around the petite blonde. Horatio would bet a month's pay that they'd managed to do the same thing at the crime scene, too. Calleigh was smiling at something Ryan just said, so she either wasn't paying attention or, more likely, was letting the men indulge in their protective streak for a time. Eventually she'd put her foot down and shoo them off. He smiled when she glanced up at his office. She responded with a wave and a wide grin of her own before continuing down the corridor to log in their evidence.

Eric trailed a little behind Calleigh and Ryan, bringing up the rear of their little quartet. He couldn't help feeling a bit jealous of Wolfe's ability to converse normally as if nothing was wrong. More and more, he was regretting that first night at her condo. Frustrated or not, he should have never lost his temper. They'd apologized to each other and he'd spent the night as planned but it was on the couch while she went to her bedroom. With the door shut, he had no idea if she slept on the bed, the floor or the bathtub, or for that matter, if she even slept at all. Calleigh hadn't looked any more rested than he did the next morning. They'd both been subdued and he'd left not long after helping clean up the breakfast dishes.

They'd gone on a few dates after that, or gone to each other's places for dinner and movies but the 800 lb. gorilla in the room kept getting in the way. He didn't know what to do about it. Calleigh didn't seem mad at him - that he could have handled. It was the guilt that lurked in the back of her eyes whenever she looked at him. That was making him crazy. It was his fault and she was blaming herself. He'd backed her into a proverbial corner but she'd slipped past and fled for the hills. Dammit, he knew her well enough to know that however courageous she was in her professional life, when it came to personal stuff, she had a tough time holding her ground. Calleigh never did tell him the details of what Owens had tried to do and now he wasn't sure if he'd ever find out.

Attempted casual questioning on his part had revealed that Alexx hadn't been confided in either. It didn't seem to faze the ME in the least. Instead, she'd given him a look that said she knew exactly what he'd been fishing for. In a tone that sounded amazingly like his mother's when she thought he was on the verge of something stupid, Alexx emphasized that Calleigh knew she was always available if needed. She was content to wait. So it seemed that Dr. Lindsay and Kenwall Duquesne were the only ones to hear the whole story and he was pretty much out of luck. Delko couldn't breach doctor-patient or father-daughter confidentiality and that was that. It was frustrating the hell out of him.

He was at a dead end, officially, as well. ADA Spinner had decided he didn't need Calleigh's testimony to convict Owens. The journal Eric and Ryan had found had solved at least three cold cases while investigations continued into the other victims listed in its pages. Victor Kluge had been exhumed and a more thorough autopsy had proven that he died by electrocution, not a drug overdose. With four more murder charges in addition to the Hennessey killings against Owens, as well as murder of Officer Sanderson, the two attempts on Calleigh and the one on Alexx, Spinner figured he could make his capital case several times over without putting the CSI on the stand.

Lest anyone accuse the ADA of having any sort of compassion, Spinner had mentioned in passing to Horatio and Eric that he was actually relieved not to be calling Calleigh as a witness. He didn't need feminine hysterics during the cross and he'd heard through the grapevine that Duquesne had been a basket case right after her rescue. It was all Delko could do not to hit the smugly arrogant attorney. He was pretty sure the worst trauma the ADA had ever been through had been a longer than usual line at Starbucks. Horatio had been nearly as angry. His voice, when he 'suggested' Spinner go back to shuffling papers, had dropped the temperature in the room a good ten degrees. Frank, true to his Texas upbringing when he heard, had been a good deal more colorful in describing both Spinner's personality faults and physical attributes.

Fortunately, Horatio and Eric were the only two Spinner talked to, so it was easy to keep it from Calleigh. Tripp had only been half-joking when he suggested they put in for a commendation for saving the ADA's life. Pissing off a Southern woman who was more than a little handy with guns was a surefire way to get killed.

"Eric, everything okay?"

Eric tensed and then turned to find Horatio behind him. Dammit, the man must have his own personal transporter. Eric could have sworn Caine had been in his office a moment ago. He tried to appear unconcerned, "Sure, H. No problems."

Horatio glanced away as his hands came to rest on his hips, "Nothing you'd care to mention, you mean."

Eric stiffened a little as he shook his head, "Really, everything's fine."

Horatio gave him a sideways look and then turned towards the conference rooms, "Let's step in here for a minute."

Eric followed slowly, feeling like a kid again, being called to the principal's office. Horatio was already by a window, looking out, when Eric finally made it through the doorway. The Lieutenant kept his head turned away, his tone casual, "Calleigh's a remarkable woman."

Delko stopped mid-stride and then nodded warily, "I've always thought so."

"Remarkably difficult at times," Horatio continued in the same vein. He finally turned enough to look at Eric, "How did she do at the crime scene today?"

"Good, H," Eric shrugged a little. This was one of the odder conversations he'd ever had with Horatio, "Professional as always. You'd never know she'd been out for nearly two months."

"Makes it that much harder, doesn't it?" Horatio remarked dryly. At the look on Delko's face, he smiled, "It's not easy to act supportive when she's already standing there on her own two feet."

"H, I - ", Eric stopped, not willing to admit to anything.

Horatio raised a hand and let it fall, gazing out the window again, "It's a front and we both know it. She still needs our help."

Eric snorted softly at that and then froze when Horatio turned to face him. The Lieutenant cocked his head to the side, "Eric?"

Delko shook his head. He wasn't about to discuss he and Calleigh's relationship - or lack thereof - with their boss.

"Eric," Horatio repeated and then paused, letting his gaze drop towards the floor, "I'm sure you remember our discussion in Dale's office. She's not trying to hurt you."

Eric fought the urge to snap that this was none of H's business. Instead, he took a deep breath, "I don't think we should go there." What the hell was Horatio trying to do? Play Dr. Phil? He would have expected this sort of thing from Alexx. The ME was infinitely better at it.

Horatio finally looked him in the eye, "Yes, we should. You're not happy and she's not happy. As much as I'd like to stay out of it, I will not let this affect the performance of the lab." He glanced away again, "Besides, I made a promise."

Confused, Eric stared back, "What?" What was Horatio talking about now?

Horatio smiled softly in memory, "Years ago, when I went to New Orleans to interview their ballistics expert, I'd pretty much decided that she was the one I wanted. Her credentials were impeccable and even back then, word was starting to get around that this woman was the real deal. I was determined to get her to Miami before any of the other labs across the country recognized how good she was going to be. Then I ran into Lt. Markus Cabell. I'd arrived late in the afternoon at the NOPD and he wouldn't let me see her. Instead, he dragged me to this little hole-in-the-wall bar. I realized after the first beer that I was the one being interviewed."

"You're kidding," Eric couldn't imagine anyone diverting Horatio from his intended course. The man was like a force of nature when he was focused on a goal. There were a lot of unhappy criminals behind bars right now because of that trait.

Caine shook his head, "It was an... interesting experience. Lt. Cabell had been keeping an eye on her since she graduated the Academy. He tended to follow the top graduate of each class, mentoring those that were exemplary."

"But H," Delko frowned, "Calleigh was second in her class."

Horatio shrugged, "According to Markus, she should have been first but she got involved with another cadet. He graduated at the top, was offered a spot as an undercover narc, took it and left her."

"He used her," Eric said in disgust. He'd known a few of those types in college.

"Seemed that way to Markus. He kept an eye out while she worked patrol and took forensic courses during her off-hours. After a year or so, it was apparent her field was ballistics. Even the detectives were using her expertise as an unofficial CSI. Cabell stepped in and made it official, hiring her for his lab. She exceeded his expectations and everything seemed fine until he noticed she was working more and more." Horatio paused for a moment, "To make a long story short, it turned out that Darnell was way too close to New Orleans. Calleigh wouldn't say anything but her family was turning her life into a train wreck. The lab was the one place she could avoid them. Markus decided to find her a new home and he was very serious about it being the right one."

Eric folded his arms, raising an eyebrow. It was stupid but he was feeling a twinge of jealousy towards this Markus, "I'm surprised Calleigh let him have that much say in her life."

"He told her he was screening job offers so she wouldn't have to waste time on the ones that weren't going to work out." Horatio's expression turned wry, "I seriously doubt she knew how thorough his screening procedure was."

That prompted a soft snort from Eric. He looked at the Lieutenant, "Obviously you passed inspection."

"Just barely," Horatio shook his head, "And after all that, I still had to convince Calleigh that Miami was a great opportunity."

"It was," Eric sounded a little offended. Miami was his hometown and he loved the place, warts and all.

"I thought so," Horatio agreed mildly, "But you have to remember she was getting offers from across the country. Still is, for that matter. I field one or so a month." Eric's eyebrows rose in surprise. Horatio smiled at his reaction and continued with his story, "Once Calleigh agreed to come, I thought I was home free until Lt. Cabell showed up at my hotel door with a bottle of very good bourbon and a couple of very real threats."

Eric stared at Caine, "He threatened you? Seriously? About what?"

Horatio finally turned to face his CSI, "After we killed half the bottle, he told me he thought of Calleigh as a daughter. He made me promise to watch out for her like she was my own family. In turn, he promised to emasculate any man who hurt her and then do the same to me for failing my promise."

"Ouch," Eric winced at the thought and then stared at Horatio, "Does he know about Owens?" He couldn't help the faint grimace as he mentioned that bastard's name.

"He does," Horatio replied, eyeing Delko appraisingly. "Is this about Owens?"

Damn, the man was like a dog with a bone. He just wouldn't let go. Eric shrugged and glanced away, "She won't talk to me."

Horatio cocked an eyebrow, "Won't talk to you about what specifically?"

Eric looked away again as he rubbed at his neck, "About Owens; about what he did, what he was trying to do. She doesn't trust me."

"Like hell," Horatio decided not to mince words, "Of course she trusts you. If she didn't, you'd be facing a wall of southern politeness and not much else." He turned back to the window, "If you're serious about her, you're going to have to be patient."

"If I'm serious about her?" Eric snapped in exasperation. All the anger and frustration was starting to bubble close to the surface. "On come on, H. What's it gonna take? I've tried to be there for her. She's the one who's pulling away. She doesn't want my help."

"Is that what you think?"

Caine's tone was once again mild and Eric flinched slightly. He'd heard that line before. Usually just before Horatio lowered the boom on someone. Surprisingly, it did nothing to dampen his aggravation, "What else am I supposed to think?"

"Eric," Horatio sounded a bit exasperated himself. "This is Calleigh we're talking about. She's one of the toughest, most strong-minded women I know and she's dealing with this in her own way, in her own time. I don't know if it's the healthiest solution or not, but it's her choice. I know it's just killing you. You want to help and she's keeping you from that part of her life." He held up a hand, "Don't get me wrong, Eric. I don't doubt for a moment that Calleigh loves you but, as much as you need to help her, that's how much she needs to do this by herself."

"But she's not. She's talked to Dr. Lindsay and her father about it," Eric argued.

"Eric," Horatio had the temerity to chuckle, "Listen to yourself. She's talked to a psychiatrist and her father - what did you expect?"

Delko looked away, "Okay, Lindsay, maybe, even though she hates shrinks, but her father? That man has caused her more grief over the years than any person has a right to and he's the one she turns to for help?"

"He's her father," Horatio said gently, "It's a powerful bond. You know your parents would move heaven and earth for you if they had to. Don't be jealous because she turned to the only relation she has in Miami."

"I'm not jealous."

Horatio didn't even bother answering that statement, he just arched an eyebrow, "Let it go, Eric. Give her space and time and she'll find her way back."

- - - - - -

Alexx glanced over her shoulder as she heard the morgue doors open and smiled in greeting, "Hey sweetie, how was your first day out in the field?"

"Oh you know, same old, same old," Calleigh replied with a breezy nonchalance that lasted until Alexx turned and gave her a look. A wide grin spread across Calleigh's face, "It was such a relief to get out of the lab." She arched an eyebrow, assuming a haughty expression, "I just might do it again tomorrow."

"You go, girl," Alexx chuckled as she turned back to the body she was working on.

Calleigh walked up on the other side, sliding on a pair of gloves, "Got any bullets for me?"

"Looks like two," the ME replied. She gave her friend another look, the one Ryan referred to as the 'ninja-mom, laser look'. The one that made you confess to things you only thought about doing, "How was it really?"

Calleigh shrugged slightly. She had a deal with Alexx. The ME wouldn't pry into the other stuff if Calleigh gave her an honest appraisal of how she was handling things on a day to day basis. "A little nerve-wracking once I was processing the scene." She shook her head with a self-depreciating chuckle, "I kept looking over my shoulder. The boys were sweet, though. They had me surrounded. I don't think I was out of anyone's sight the entire time."

"Can't say I blame them for that," Alexx said as she dropped the first slug into a bowl. "One more to go."

".38 with a right-hand twist," Calleigh commented, looking at the slug before dropping it into an evidence envelope. "That's consistent with one of the weapons we found."

"Got a suspect to go with the weapon?" Alexx continued to dig for the second bullet.

"Frank's looking at a low-life drug dealer." Calleigh watched as Alexx pulled out the small, misshapen slug. She held out another evidence envelope and the ME obligingly dropped the bullet in.

"What did Eric say about you being out there?" When she didn't get an immediate response, Alexx looked up at her friend, "Calleigh?"

Calleigh lifted one shoulder a little and let it fall, "He seemed okay about it. I mean, he knows how much I've needed to get back in the field."

"But...," Alexx focused on the blonde with a slight frown.

"I don't know," Calleigh took a deep breath and looked away in frustration. Alexx wasn't someone to whom she could lie and get away with it, even if she'd been inclined to try. She hadn't really meant to get caught in this particular conversation. Bad enough things were not going that smoothly with Eric, having to share her failures with Alexx wasn't something she really wanted to do.

"Baby, what's wrong?"

Great, now she had Alexx's full attention, "What's not?" It was said without rancor while Calleigh fiddled absently with the evidence envelope. She steadfastly refused to look Alexx in the eye, knowing the ME would be able to read more than she wanted known. "I'm pretty sure I've hurt his feelings and I don't know what to do about it."

"Well, talk to him," Alexx made it sound obvious.

Calleigh determinedly kept her head down, "I can't. He wants to talk about Owens and I... I just can't. He doesn't understand. Hell, I'm not always sure I understand."

"Oh, sweetie," There was a wealth of sympathy in Alexx's voice. Eric was one of her favorites. He was an incredibly compassionate man and if Calleigh wasn't letting him share the burden, he would be deeply hurt. On the other hand, she could see Calleigh's point as well. The ballistics expert was a fiercely independent, strong-willed woman and while Alexx didn't know exactly what Owens had done, it was clear to the ME that it had nearly broken her friend. Her redemption had to come from within. Calleigh needed to rebuild that inner core and it wasn't something that Eric could help fix.

"It's just so - so frustrating," Calleigh gaze slid sideways, still away from Alexx. "I don't want to push him away but that's what it feels like I'm doing."

"Calleigh, honey," Alexx hesitated, not wanting to upset her friend more, "Isn't there something you can share with him? He just wants to know that you need him."

Calleigh finally looked at Alexx, "I know that and I've tried." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, "God, I hate irony. I need him more than I can say and I can't seem to convince him of it. Its Owens or nothing." Calleigh glanced away again, "It's not helping that he knows I've talked to Dad about it."

Alexx frowned, "You told your father about what Owens did? All of it?" She couldn't help feeling slightly shocked. It wasn't her place to judge but Kenwall Duquesne didn't seem like the most reliable support to turn to. It was no wonder Eric was having issues.

"All that I could remember at the time," Calleigh reacted defensively. Why couldn't anyone understand how necessary it had been to talk to her father? He already knew of her failings and loved her anyway. She hadn't needed to elaborate on everything when she talked to him. He was adept with the nuances. Who knew where she'd be right now if her Dad hadn't been there for her? Probably in another state or stuck in some psycho ward, counting her toes.

Alexx raised a hand, "Easy, girl. I wasn't criticizing. I was a little surprised. That's not something I think I could tell my father... or take hearing from my kids."

Calleigh relaxed a little, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump down your throat either." She dropped her gaze to evidence envelope again, her voice soft, "It's just not working and it's all my fault."

"I don't think it's all on you but I do know you need to talk to him," Alexx tilted her head, trying to catch her friend's eye, "Go find Eric, and if you need a shoulder later, I'm here."

"Thanks, I might take you up on that," Calleigh offered her friend a bit of a smile before squaring her shoulders and walking out of the room.

- - - - - - -

Thursday,

4:40 pm

"Hey Cal," Eric did his best to hide his nervousness. A subdued Calleigh had caught up with him in the breakroom nearly an hour ago and asked to talk. She'd been about to start when Ryan and Valera walked in. Immediately shutting down, she'd given him a quick smile and retreated. Now he was standing on the threshold of her domain, trying to quell the feeling that this was a conversation he wasn't going to enjoy.

Calleigh looked up from her microscope and gave him a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, "Hey, come on in."

He walked up to the table, "Bullets from the shooting this morning?"

She nodded, relieved at the small talk, "No surprises so far, everything looks pretty straightforward. Both dealers fired multiple times. Our suspect was the better shot - eventually."

He smiled a little at that, "Something to be said for persistence, I guess. So you were okay for the first time out." It was a half-statement, half-question.

"Uh-huh. I have to admit I was a bit nervous," Calleigh shrugged a little, not wanting to worry him but not wishing to conceal anything either. All things considered, it was the least she could do. "It helped that you guys never let me out of your sight."

Eric looked down, "You weren't the only one who was nervous." His gaze wandered to the far wall, "You wanted to talk?"

Calleigh couldn't quite look at him either, "I think we need to."

"Yeah, okay, but not here. It's almost the end of shift. Let's go," He held out a hand, surprisingly relieved when she didn't hesitate to take it. He led her out of Ballistics, heading for the nearest exit.

"Where are we going?" Calleigh finally asked as they approached his Hummer. She wasn't sure if either of their places was a good idea.

Eric was obviously thinking along the same lines, "Neutral ground." Neither said anything else as he pulled out and started to drive. Fifteen minutes later, he parked in a small lot near a semi-private beach. Finally looking over at her, he asked, "You want to sit and talk or walk and talk?"

"Walk," was her immediate response. She slid out of her heels as he got out and walked around to open her door. When it wasn't official business, he could indulge in being a gentleman and she could let him. Taking her hand, he helped her out and escorted her to the small boardwalk that led to the shore. They walked in silence for a few minutes before Calleigh cleared her throat, "Eric, I don't think this is working between us." She hurried on before he could reply, "It's not your fault. It's me and I don't think it's fair to keep doing this to you. Neither of us are happy with the way things are right now."

Eric quit walking, making her stop and turn towards him, "But it will get better. I can wait."

She searched his face, "Can you? Because I don't know how long this will take. We've been seeing each other for a month and haven't been intimate because I keep panicking. It's stupid but I can't seem to stop it." Calleigh dropped her gaze to the sand, "I do love you but I'm damaged and you're not the one who can fix me."

"You don't know that. You won't let me try." Eric fought to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"I can't," Her voice was a ragged whisper. She finally looked up at him again, "I'll give Horatio my letter of resignation tomorrow."

"NO! No," he repeated a little more quietly. Eric took a deep breath to try and calm himself, "Look, you don't have to leave. We can be adults about this. I told you before that whatever happened between us, we'd still be friends. I meant that."

Calleigh turned her head to stare out at the ocean, "But can we work together? I don't know if I could handle seeing you each day, knowing how I've hurt you. It would be better if I left."

Eric gripped her arms lightly, waiting for her to face him again, "Listen to me, it would hurt a lot more if you left. Don't put me through that. We're both professionals, we can make it work." He tried a tentative smile to offset the guilt he was laying on her, "Besides, you're one of the best ballistic experts out there. Horatio would shoot me for chasing you away and Alexx would hide the body."

She exhaled slowly as she stared at him, trying to resolve the conflicting emotions. It was a relief to know that she might not have to cut herself off from what was essentially her second family. That was being balanced by the pain of seeing Eric day in and day out, knowing she'd blown what was her heart's desire. She straightened her spine, it would be a fitting penance in a way. Calleigh finally gave him a smile, a bit shaky but a smile nevertheless, "Well, we can't have that, can we?"

Eric smiled back, "No, we can't." He felt relieved beyond belief that she was going to stay. Horatio had been right. If he wanted her back, he needed to let her go. The important thing was that she stayed in Miami - stayed at the lab. Who knew what the future would bring? He would hold on to hope.

The End

- - - - - -

Well, that's it. I hope that those of you who've been following this, enjoyed it. My heartfelt thanks to all who reviewed - Elislin and Shel2005, I don't think you missed a chapter and I appreciate that more than I can say. This has been an experience and I suppose I'll be wandering back to the JAG fanfic site now.