by Burked and Mossley
Spoilers: Potential spoilers through the current episode.
Archive: Please ask first I might say yes.
Disclaimer: We pooled our resources, and we still don't have enough to buy CSI, so we're just going to borrow some of their characters for a bit.
Author's Note: Thanks to Marlou for her beta services and support.
Summary: It's a Thanksgiving to remember when an investigation into a brutal serial rapist becomes personal for Sara and Grissom.
Chapter 1 - Darkness Which May Be Felt
Gil Grissom visually swept the area as he approached the yellow crime scene tape. Milling crowds of morbid onlookers and eerie shadows cast by the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles shattered the normally tranquil atmosphere of the children's park. The battered body resting against the gaily-painted merry-go-round completed the effect.
His examination also had a personal aspect. Subtly, he focused on his partner. To an outside observer, Sara Sidle looked the model of detached professionalism, but Grissom recognized the tension caused by her tightly bridled indignation.
This case was going to bother her.
Grissom inched closer, a physical offering of the support that he could never find a way to effectively vocalize. His shortcomings had let Sara down before; he wanted to avoid a repeat of the consequences.
When she first came to Vegas, he tried to warn Sara about the dangers of burnout. It was extremely common in their line of work, and with her lack of outside interests, she was a prime candidate. While he'd been unable to convince her of the need for an outlet, his concerns continued to exist.
So Grissom felt more than a modicum of embarrassment that he hadn't caught the signs when it began to manifest.
He'd mistakenly believed her growing distance at work had been a temporary disappointment over not getting the promotion. Feeling a bit guilty over his handling of that situation, he'd chosen to keep some distance between them.
Stealing a sideways glance, Grissom noted the silent determination in Sara's profile. The truth was she evoked feelings in him that were as confusing as they were powerful. And that scared him. Not knowing how to deal with the issues between them, he opted for trying to distance himself from Sara.
But even Grissom had realized something was wrong when she declined to interview Linley Parker. As much as rape bothered her, she had never backed off an investigation before. By then, he'd pushed Sara too far away. After his attempts to help were rejected, he hadn't pressed, unsure how to reach out to her, unable to give her a reason to believe she could trust him again.
It wasn't until he had to face Sara, totally humiliated and isolated in the police station later that Grissom realized just how wrong he'd been. The signs had been there for weeks, months really. She'd been increasingly withdrawn, lacking the vibrancy and enthusiasm he once associated with Sara Sidle.
Driving her home, his heart ached to see her in such pain. Images of the happy-go-lucky, beautiful young woman who first came to Vegas were in stark contrast to the defeated woman who sat next to him. How had this happened?
Two questions haunted him for weeks afterwards: What could he have done differently to help her, and how much did his callousness contribute to the problem?
Grissom hoped the forced vacation and the PEAP counseling would help her overcome the burnout. Sara was an incredibly talented CSI; if she could find a way of dealing with the horrors of the job, she had a brilliant career ahead of her.
He tried not to think what would happen if the counseling didn't help. It would be a shame for her to lose a job that she loved, but what bothered him more was the realization that Sara would have no reason to stay in Vegas. She'd leave him, not that he had given her a reason to stay. The depth of his selfishness surprised him, adding to his confusion over their non-relationship.
Grissom still didn't know what he could have done differently to prevent Sara's decline, but he tried to help in his own way when she returned. All CSIs had crimes that affected them worse than others, and for Sara it was cases involving rape and domestic violence. He'd made a conscious effort to shield her from those while she was in counseling.
It coincided nicely with Greg's need for a mentor. Not only did Sara shine in that role, she had far more patience with the young tech than he did. And Greg seemed more at ease learning from Sara. For some reason that Grissom didn't understand, the DNA tech was afraid of him.
But as well as it worked out, Grissom knew things had to change. Eventually, he'd have to be able to let Greg loose on the unsuspecting citizens of Las Vegas on his own, or the younger man would have to return to the DNA lab permanently.
And he couldn't protect Sara forever. It was neither fair to her nor to the lab to limit her work. If nothing else, there would be nights when he wasn't there, and someone else would give out assignments.
When this call came in, it seemed the perfect experiment. He'd assigned both of them to the case. The young woman had fought with her attacker long enough to attract the attention of a passerby. While it was still a traumatic event for the victim, he hoped it wouldn't prove too intense for Sara.
As a precaution, he was keeping a discreet eye on her, ready to provide assistance if needed.
Holding up the tape for her, Grissom lightly brushed his other hand across Sara's back, a fleeting tactile reassurance.
"You don't have to hover," she said, giving him an amused smirk. "I'm okay."
After overcoming his surprise, Grissom raised an eyebrow in contrition. At least Sara's powers of observation were still as sharp as ever.
Stepping slightly to the side, he led her by an officer talking to an agitated teenage boy who was trying to calm a prancing retriever.
"No, sir. I'm from Laughlin. We're in town visiting my Grams for Thanksgiving. We all got talking, and no one remembered about Pixy. I didn't want Grams going out this late, so I offered," he explained, looking nervously at the new arrivals.
"That was very kind of you," Grissom said soothingly.
"Uh, yeah. So, we were coming by the park, and Pixy started trying to pull away and barking and stuff. I figured it was a cat or something. She hates cats. Then I heard the screaming."
"Is that when you went to help the victim?"
Sara could see the blush creeping up the boy's face even in the dim light. "Uh, not exactly. I guess I panicked. I dropped the leash. Pixy went running into those bushes. Please don't tell my Grams that part. She'll be angry if she finds out I let Pixy get away."
"It's okay," Sara said calmly. "What happened next?"
"I ran after Pixy, and I saw this guy on top of that lady. She was fighting him, and he was beating her and... you know. Pixy ran up and bit him right on the ass... uh, the backside," he said with a touch of pride, ruffling the dog's fur affectionately. "Well, the guy ran off and Pixy went after him. They were too far ahead of me, so I stayed behind to help the lady. Pixy would have caught him, but her leash got caught in the bushes."
"Did you get a good look at him?"
"Uh, uh. This flashlight's not good. I guess he was average size and stuff. I think he was wearing dark clothes. That's all I saw. Sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry," Grissom told him kindly. "Some people from Animal Control are coming over..."
"You can't take Pixy!"
"We're not," he insisted. "But we need to get an impression of her bite mark so we can match it up to the attacker."
"It won't hurt her at all," Sara added. "We can have an officer explain what's going on to your grandmother."
Grissom nodded minutely as he stepped to Sara's side. So far, she was handling everything well. The tension was pronounced, but she was focused, brimming with an intensity that he hadn't seen in a while.
They crossed the playground to where the ambulance crew was attending the victim. On the way, he darted his eyes towards her, but this time she turned to give him a pointed stare.
"Why don't you trust me?" she asked softly.
Her question startled him, as did the emotional undertones in her voice. She thought he didn't trust her? If that were true, the gulf between them was worse than he realized. "It's not a matter of trust," he answered gently, recalling an earlier conversation. "I'm... concerned."
"Grissom," she huffed out, her breath making dragon patterns in the cold night air. "I'm fine. Really. If I come across a situation that I find too uncomfortable, as my supervisor, I'll inform you immediately."
He watched her keenly. Sara's response had been delivered in an even tone, but he had the feeling she was merely reciting a phrase she'd learned from her PEAP counselor.
"I am okay," she insisted, shaking her head with after giving him a bemused look. "Trust me."
As they approached the victim, Grissom considered assigning Sara to collecting the physical evidence. It would be easier on her, regardless of whether she was willing to concede the point. But it may not be easier on the victim, who was already showing signs of not wanting to cooperate.
"Could you please leave me alone?" she asked levelly, leaning away from the man holding a roll of gauze tape.
"Miss, we're only trying to help. Your injuries need to be treated," one of the EMTs stated softly.
"I'm refusing treatment. It's not that bad. Please leave. Now," she replied, crossing her arms painfully over her chest. Seeing Grissom and Sara approach, she turned to them directly. "Is my mother here yet? I called her to come get me."
"I don't know," Grissom replied.
The young woman let out a short snort. "Trust me - you'd know if she was here."
Grissom didn't reply, but cocked his head as Sara set her kit down in front of the victim, effectively settling who would process her. He swung his flashlight around the area, looking for physical evidence, but keeping her within sight as he evaluated how she was handling the case.
"Hey, guys, why don't you give us a minute here," she suggested forcefully to the still-lingering EMTs, nodding as they walked away.
Sara knew her performance was being judged. It bothered her that after years of proving herself as a capable CSI that one mistake was enough to have Grissom doubting her competence.
Taking a calming breath, she stopped that line of thought. He'd never directly questioned her abilities, but it was obvious that Grissom had sidelined her, keeping her in the lab more often or helping Greg.
And he was being nice to her.
More than anything, that irked Sara.
There was the possibility that Grissom regretted the loss of their friendship, but she suspected it went deeper than that. Was he feeling guilty, somehow thinking he was to blame for her... unfortunate choice of stress release? Or was it a chauvinistic predisposition to protect the female? He always showed concern when she was hurt.
Deciding that Grissom's tendency to over-think everything was rubbing off on her, Sara gave herself a mental shake and turned her attention to the victim. Her well-being was the priority here.
She appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties, medium height and slender, with auburn hair and piercing green eyes. Her clothing was torn, and she was bleeding from multiple cuts to her face. Tears streaked her cheeks, but she was managing to hold herself together emotionally.
Sara gave her a kindly smile, slowly approaching so as not to alarm her. "Hey. I'm Sara Sidle. This is Gil Grissom. We're with the Crime Lab."
"I guess that's why you're wearing the vests with 'Crime Lab' written on them."
Sara raised an eyebrow silently. The girl was observant. That could help in describing the attacker. "Yeah, it is. What's your name?"
"Zoe, can you tell us what happened?"
The younger woman seemed to resist an eye roll. "Why don't you start with the obvious?"
Taking a bindle from her kit, Sara gave her a sad look. "I know this is difficult for you, but anything you tell us could be helpful."
"Damn freaks. This is Vegas. Can't they find a show somewhere on the Strip?" Zoe muttered with annoyance as she took in the onlookers pointing at her.
Sara frowned. While the reaction to rape varied greatly among women, she was too calm. She wondered if Zoe was in shock. Trying another tactic, Sara nodded at the torn sweatshirt. "Harvard. I went there."
Grissom continued his sweep of the grass, peering over his glasses approvingly. Sara was finding a way to connect to the victim, to help her be able to help herself. Zoe needed to work with them to catch her attacker.
"Yeah. So, are you a student or a friend of one?" Sara asked, taking care to keep her voice smooth.
Zoe let out a patient sigh. "I'm in my senior year. I came home to spend the holidays with my mom. And what do you think you're doing?"
Sara paused in reaching for the girl's hand. "The boy that found you? He said you were fighting your attacker."
"I sure as hell wasn't going to let him rape me without a struggle," Zoe exclaimed, looking away when her voice cracked. After taking a minute to compose herself, she turned back with a quizzical expression.
Sara gave her an understanding shrug. "Your nails are torn. You may have gotten some skin cells under them. We can use that to get something called DNA. That can uniquely identify your attacker."
Zoe flashed her a mock-annoyed glare. "Harvard, remember? I do know what DNA is."
"Sorry," Sara said with a repentant smile. "You'd be surprised how many people don't understand it. May I?"
"Look, I want to go home," Zoe said but holding out her hand reluctantly.
Grissom moved closer to the two women, sitting back on his haunches after bagging some stray fibers. A feeling of unease came over him as he studied the young woman. The way she carried herself and her looks were vaguely familiar, but he couldn't recall seeing her at a crime scene before, and her name didn't ring any bells.
"I understand," Sara told her softly. "But your mother doesn't seem to be here yet. Were you walking in the park?"
"No," she said distractedly, lifting her head to look around. "Traffic must be bad. Which makes sense since it's a holiday. This is not a good city for driving. Not as bad as Boston, but..."
"Zoe, please. I know this is hard..."
For the first time, the younger woman totally lost her composure. "Do you? Do you know what this is like?"
Grissom's attention turned to Sara. He could tell she was frustrated that the woman wasn't cooperating, but she wasn't backing down. Sara was direct, but gentle, when she replied.
"You're pissed, and you don't know how to direct your anger. You're hurt and having a bunch of strangers around isn't exactly helping. You're embarrassed," Sara said sympathetically. "We're here to help you, Zoe. As much as you want this to be over, what we're doing will help catch the man that did this to you."
Zoe shook her head, letting out a long sigh. "Sorry. Didn't mean to snap at you."
"It's okay to be angry," Sara said.
The younger woman made a disparaging sound. "And no, I wasn't walking in a dark park in a bad part of town by myself. I went to see a movie with some friends. When I went to get in my car, the guy jumped me from behind, putting a knife to my throat."
"Did you get a good look at him?" Sara asked, briefly turning towards Grissom. She was unable to totally mask the anxiety in her voice.
"No. He had a handkerchief over the lower part of his face. I told him to take the car, but he threw me in the trunk. When we got here, he dragged me to those bushes. You can figure out the rest."
Grissom stood up slowly, exchanging a wary look with Sara. "Zoe, did he say anything to you?" she asked cautiously.
"You mean besides that I was worthless, the long string of obscenities, and that he was going to cut me up so no one would ever want to look at me again? No, I think that covers it," she sniffed, twisting her body away as she wiped embarrassedly at the fresh tears.
Grissom rubbed his beard, mentally cursing his decision to assign Sara to this case when she dropped her head.
The modus operandi Grey described matched that of a serial rapist who had been striking along the I-15 corridor. It had been months since his last attack, and law enforcement was starting to hope his reign of terror had ended. If he stayed true to his pattern, he'd attack two or three more women in Las Vegas before moving to another town.
All his other victims had been savagely beaten and disfigured after the initial rape. Now he had Sara working what promised to be an excessively violent string of attacks as her first assault case since returning to work. This wasn't what he had in mind, and he feared that it would be too much for her this soon after recovering from her burnout.
Watching her, Grissom could see the flood of emotions in her eyes. But Sara composed herself, suppressing her own misgivings as she tended to their victim.
"Thanks, Zoe," she said, putting the bindle away after taking the nail scrapings. After taking a deep breath, Sara moved back to the young woman. "I need to take some photographs. We can do that in the back of the ambulance."
"No. Look, you have your DNA samples. I'm okay. I want to go home."
Sara looked up when Grissom approached. The kindness in his eyes brought a bit of warmth to her. She was considering the best way to convince Zoe to let them process her when a commotion broke out.
The sound of tires screeching to a halt and the slamming of two car doors caught Zoe's attention, and for a moment Sara could see a glimmer of something pass through the girl's eyes.
"Who the hell?" she stammered, as the newly-arrived young man and woman began arguing vehemently with a deputy who was preventing them from cross the crime scene tape.
"Mom!" Zoe cried out, rushing over to the pair.
The victim fell into her mother's breast, and she was immediately wrapped with consoling arms.
"Shhh. It's all right. It's all right," the woman cooed soothingly.
"I'm so glad you're here," the girl breathed out gratefully.
The CSIs followed, but partway there, Grissom suddenly stopped short. Sara turned back, noticing his discomfort immediately.
"Grissom?" she asked, frowning when she realized he seemed to have paled. She swung her head between him and the victim's mother, at whom he was staring intently.
Sara scowled in bewilderment. The young man - still arguing with the deputy - was dressed in a pair of skin-tight leather pants and little else, despite the cold weather. The mother seemed to be similarly attired. With a nod, she coaxed Grissom back in the direction of the group.
"I'll take care of everything," the mother said with a steely edge to her voice, her eyes lifting from her daughter to meet Grissom's.
"Do you know her?" Sara asked softly, wondering why he stopped again.
"Yes," he whispered, clearing his throat before addressing the mother. "Lady Heather."
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