"Looks like I missed the party."
Catherine was putting the last of her things into a box when the familiar voice came from the doorway. Putting down a photograph of her and Lindsey, she turned to face her guest, a wide smile on her lips.
Gil stood there, smiling back at her, looking no different than the last time she had seen him. He nodded towards the balloons, tied to the chair behind her desk. "Nice balloons."
Catherine laughed as she crossed the room to meet him halfway. She enveloped him in a hug, careful not to put too much pressure on her still tender wounds.
"It's good to see you," she whispered.
Gil seemed surprised by the contact at first, but then his muscles relaxed under her hands and his fingers came to rest on her hips.
Catherine fought the sting of tears in her eyes. Tonight had been emotional enough, Gil turning up brought back even more memories of the decades she had been at the lab; of the people who had made that time happy; and of the people she had lost.
She took a deep breath and tried to surreptitiously shake her head to clear it as she dropped back from their embrace.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him, meeting his eyes, and ensuring that she was smiling.
"I heard you were leaving," he replied and something Catherine couldn't quite identify clouded his expression. He quickly hid it behind a mischievous sparkle, though, as he added, "I thought there might be cake. Seems I'm too late though."
Laughing again, Catherine informed him, "There is some cake left. It's in the break room. We had to cut the party short. Swing's short staffed, and a big case came in… It's weird not being there with them but… Well, I don't work here anymore." By the end of her explanation, the laugh she gave was merely a sound to conceal her sadness.
"You'll get used to it," he offered in comfort.
She nodded slowly. "Well, I've had a six week head start…" Glancing around the near-empty office, barren now of personal touches, her gaze landed on the mini slot-machine the team had bought her as a leaving present – a reminder of Sin City, they said. "… It's gonna be really strange though."
Gil watched her for a second and then told her, "I must admit, I never expected that you would leave here."
Catherine raised an eyebrow. "I thought the same about you. Until the day I realised it wasn't working for you anymore. Then I knew it was only a matter of time."
Gil was silent for another few seconds. "Do you want to leave?"
She hadn't expected that question. Since she had decided to resign, people had just accepted her given reasons and not probed any further.
"Of course I don't. Not really," she answered him. "So much of my life has happened here, it's part of who I am… But Lindsey is a more important part, and I need to do this for her."
Gil nodded understandingly. "Well, the New York Crime Lab will be lucky to have you."
Catherine hesitated before responding. She had only told three other people the whole truth about what she was going to do in New York – and none of them worked at the lab. She didn't want everyone to be unnecessarily worrying. Yet something – probably their history – was compelling her to tell Gil.
"Gil, I need you to promise that if I tell you something you won't tell Sara… I don't advocate keeping secrets from your wife but I'm not ready for -"
Gil was frowning at her when he interrupted with, "Cath, Sara and I separated over three months ago -"
"I thought she would have told you."
"No, she didn't," Catherine said, feeling a strange mixture of concern, confusion and knowledge that she had been right. She wasn't proud of the last part. "And neither did you," she pointed out.
"I thought you knew."
Gil looked contrite as he told her, "It wasn't working."
"The distance?" she asked, still trying to process what she was hearing.
"That was one problem."
"I'd have fired her if I'd known it was causing problems," Catherine joked, as she studied Gil closely for signs of how he felt about the separation.
"Actually, we probably lasted longer because we spent most of our time apart. Maybe the distance was an attempted solution to a deeper problem… Couples don't live miles apart by choice, usually, do they?"
His words caused a churning in Catherine's stomach, but she ignored it to focus on Gil. He looked disheartened as he spoke but Catherine got the sense that he was at peace with the decision. She couldn't think of anything useful or profound to say, so she decided on, "I'm sorry," leaving him the opportunity to say more if he wanted to. She knew he had never been comfortable talking about personal stuff.
He respectfully dismissed her sympathy with a shrug, reminiscent of other times in their friendship when he tried to make light of what was going on in his life. He smiled, but she knew it was forced. "I'm okay… Anyway, what were you going to tell me?"
The change of subject Catherine had expected brought her back to the reality of her situation, and the anxiety, anticipation and sadness she had been feeling for weeks came flooding back once her momentary distraction was over with.
"Oh… Er -" For some reason, knowing that Gil and Sara had split up had thrown her. Okay, she knew exactly what the reason was: Gil was single, he was here and she had missed him so much. She was still having difficulty taking it in though. It seemed too much like something she had endeavoured to stop herself from imagining; from hoping for.
"Cath, I know we haven't spoken very often since I left, but… You can talk to me. Are you okay? Is there something more to you leaving than Lindsey going to college?"
He looked so concerned and Catherine answered quickly to abate his fears. "No. No, I'm fine. It's nothing to worry about. Lindsey has always wanted to go to NYU, I wasn't gonna let what happened to me ruin that for her."
"That's understandable. But it was her decision, Cath. If she wanted to stay where she could keep an eye on you…" He smirked and Catherine appreciated his attempt at lightening the mood.
"I couldn't let her miss out though. Anyway, she'll be sick of me after a year and she'll send me back."
"So what are you hiding from the others?" he asked next.
She felt her stomach roll, just thinking about what the answer to that question was. She considered making something up, but it was clear Gil still knew her better than anyone else. He would see right through it. "I… I haven't approached the New York Crime Lab about a job," she admitted, "I'm gonna do some lecturing at the university - nothing Lindsey's taking, she wouldn't have that," she laughed to cover her uneasiness.
"I'm sure Mac Taylor would -"
"I know," Catherine stopped him. She blinked back the tears that were starting to gather in her eyes and saw Gil's concern deepen. "I'm just not sure if I -" She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. This was the heart of the problem now, and it wasn't easy for her to think about, let alone talk about. She took a deep breath. "I don't know if I'm ready to go back to…" She let her sentence trail off. He knew what she meant.
"Or if you want to?" he asked her softly.
A tear trickled down her cheek as she desperately fought to keep her carefully constructed dam in place. She hated that she felt so vulnerable and that 'Dr Jekyll' still had such a hold on her even from beyond the grave. She had told everyone - including herself - that she was leaving for Lindsey's sake. But, in truth, when Lindsey had said that she wasn't going to go to New York, after Catherine nearly died, it had given Catherine an escape route that no one would question. And recovering from her injuries had covered her notice period.
"Everything just -" Her voice caught as more tears followed the first. "It all reminds me of what happened and -"
Gil moved to her quickly and wrapped her in his embrace. Her hands gripped his shirt and she let herself cry. He whispered soothing comfort as he stroked her back, and just the scent of him was enough to make her feel safe. The feeling of his strong, protective arms just added to the sensation.
She let it all out: the fear; the pain; the images that haunted her every time she closed her eyes. And then she cried for what she was leaving behind; for everything - and everyone - she had lost in her time in Vegas.
And Gil just waited. He held her patiently until she calmed down, his fingers continuously tracing gentle patterns on her back.
Finally drained of tears, Catherine took some deep breaths, breathing him in for strength. Then she pulled back and looked up at him.
She offered him a small smile of gratitude. "I've missed you."
He brought his right hand up and brushed his thumb over her tear tracks. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
She shook her head, even as his hand tenderly cupped her cheek. "You've nothing to apologise for."
"I should have come back sooner -"
"Gil," she stopped him, lifting her left hand to place it over his on her cheek. "I told you I was fine."
"I should have known you were lying."
"'Should haves' are as helpful as 'what ifs'," she told him. She took hold of his hand and lowered it, clasping it in both of hers in the small space between them. "Life's too short for over thinking and regrets."
"I thought you didn't look back, didn't regret."
She laughed once. "Yeah… Well I'm going back to that. I let it slip in recent years."
Gil's left hand closed around hers. "Cath I actually came here to -"
A quick knock on the open door made them both jump and turn in that direction, Catherine's hands falling out of Gil's.
Lou Vartann had stopped merely two steps into the room. "Sorry," he said sheepishly.
Catherine felt her lips curve into a smile at seeing Lou. She thought it was ridiculous that she reacted like that every time she saw him but, still, she liked it. "Hey," she greeted him.
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I heard everyone was called out and I - …" He trailed off and turned to Gil. Catherine could see the apprehension in his eyes. He smiled pleasantly enough, but she could tell it was tainted. The churning in her stomach returned. "Grissom, I didn't realise you were in town."
"I came for the party. But I missed it," Gil shrugged. "If you need Catherine I can go." Gil indicated towards the door as he spoke.
"No. No," Lou responded quickly. "Stay. I'll come back later." He turned to Catherine and smiled.
She nodded and hoped her expression was conveying that he had nothing to worry about. "I'll see you later."
Lou offered a barely perceptible nod and then addressed Gil with, "Grissom, it was good to see you again," before he left the office, his eyes meeting Catherine's as he pulled the door closed behind him. And there was the churning again.
"Well," Gil's words broke her out of her thoughts, "I would never have expected that either."
She turned to face him to find that, though he was smiling, there was disappointment in his eyes.
She shrugged, shyly. "It… just happened."
Gil nodded, understandingly, and held her gaze. "I should get going. You've got things to do."
Catherine frowned at this sudden withdrawal. "You were about to tell me something."
He shook his head, dismissively. "It doesn't matter."
She knew it did. "Gil?"
He met her eyes again and in that moment it became clear that Gil had come hoping for a reconciliation, and perhaps more. The timing in their relationship never had been right.
"I just came to see that you're all right. And to say that I'm here - or wherever you need me to be - if you ever need me."
Catherine's eyes watered again. "Then why are you leaving without saying that?"
He smiled, but it was tinged with sad acceptance. "Because you won't need me."
A silence descended that lasted countless seconds as they stared at each other. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that this had been their very last chance. The 'will-they-won't-they' that they had both apparently held onto was being put to rest forever.
Catherine swallowed. "You don't know that."
Gil's smile now did bring a little light to his eyes. He was happy for her. "I saw the way you looked at him. And the way he looked at you… And the way he looked at me." He added an exaggerated cringe with that, followed by a small chuckle.
"It's still new," Catherine said, quietly, expressing another fear that she hadn't shared with anyone else.
"Everything's new at first," Gil shrugged.
The redundancy of that statement dispersed the tension from the air, and Catherine laughed. "That's very enlightening, Gil."
"You know what I mean. Just because it's new, it doesn't mean it won't last."
"We'll be miles apart. By choice," she anxiously brought up his words from earlier.
Gil stepped closer to her and shook his head. "Not by choice… You'll be okay, Cath. You know you will."
Deep down, she did know that. Her relationship with Lou was new and, as such, they could have ended it when she made the decision to move to New York. But they didn't, and neither of them wanted to.
"That still doesn't mean I won't need you…" she said, placing her hand on Gil's chest. "I miss my friend. Keep in touch better this time? Don't make me get attacked for you to call me."
"I am sorry -"
She shook her head now. "It's in the past. You'll know better this time," she smirked, though she did know that he wasn't entirely to blame. "And so will I," she added.
Gil encouraged her towards him and they shared one last hug.
"Do you want some cake for the road?" Catherine asked, loosening her hold on him, but staying in his arms.
"That is what I came for," Gil quipped.
He kept his arm round her shoulders and she kept hers across his back as they left the office and made their way to the break room, reminiscing about the time Greg blew up Nick's birthday cake with a defective musical candle.
They were laughing as they entered the room and didn't notice Lou until he stood up from his seat on one of the sofas.
"Oh, hey," Catherine greeted him with a warm smile, stepping away from Gil and towards him. "Gil's just getting some cake before he goes."
Lou nodded. "It's good cake."
Gil smiled uneasily and moved to the counter where the cake was and Catherine focused her attention on Lou, fearfully noting the tension in his jaw and eyes.
"I just have a couple more things to pack and then I'll be ready," she told him, hoping her light tone would assure him everything was fine.
Lou looked surprised and Catherine realised he hadn't expected her to have told Gil about them.
"I'm all set," Gil said, drawing Catherine's attention back to him before Lou had spoken.
He walked over to Catherine, stopping a couple of feet in front of her. "Good luck in New York. Wish Lindsey good luck with college."
"Thanks, I will," she smiled, appreciatively. "Thank you for coming."
Their eyes caught in another meaningful silent moment, before Gil broke it by turning to Lou. "Detective, it was good to see you…" He paused and then angled his head in Catherine's direction as he said, "Take care of her."
Lou nodded, stating solemnly, "I intend to."
Catherine watched the two men as they shook hands and though she could see the envy in Gil's eyes, she felt no pull of indecision, no regret that she had chosen the wrong man.
"I'll speak to you soon," Gil said to her, then he kissed her on the cheek and he left.
Catherine watched him go, reminded of the day that he had left, and then in turn reminded of the fact that she was leaving. It still hadn't fully sunk in.
Lou's hand came to rest on her shoulder, massaging it supportively. "Are you okay?" he asked her.
She tilted her head to the side, touching her cheek to his warm skin. She was okay.
She turned around, and he dropped his hand but she caught it in hers. "I am."
"Tough night?" he queried, sympathetically, his fingers stroking the palm of her hand.
She felt the familiar sting of tears as all her goodbyes came back to her. "Yeah. It's probably good that they got called away. Longer would have just made it harder."
"You'll keep in touch," he reminded her.
She nodded, and let go of his hand to use both of hers to wipe away the tears from her cheeks.
She saw Lou start to move towards her, but he stopped himself. They hadn't told anyone at the lab, or the station, about their relationship - Catherine thought most of her team had a pretty good idea, but no one had been told officially.
She looked up at him and was overwhelmed with affection. He wanted to comfort her, but wouldn't in case she wasn't ready for people to know about them; he had been worried about Gil, but hadn't mentioned it, instead he had just offered the support that she needed. Gil was right: she wouldn't need anyone else.
She stepped forward and kissed him. She could feel his shock as he stood frozen, but when she put her hands on his waist and pulled herself closer, his lips parted beneath hers and he kissed her back.
When they parted for air, he looked at her questioningly. "We're in the lab break room," he pointed out.
Catherine grinned. "They can't fire me."
Lou laughed and shook his head.
"Oh… But they could fire you," she realised, eyes wide. "I'm sorry, I just -"
His hand wound into her hair and drew her towards him, his lips landing on hers with bruising force. He kissed her thoroughly, holding her close to him, leaving no question as to him being worried about getting fired.
The kiss came to its natural conclusion and he smirked as he looked down at her. "You just…?"
Catherine knew she must look giddily happy. "I just wanted to kiss you," she shrugged.
"Good," he whispered and Catherine felt so secure in the warmth she could see in his eyes.
That feeling was short lived though as the fact that she was moving to a different state hit her once again.
"I'm gonna miss you," she told him, her smile falling.
He tightened his hold on her with one hand, and the other moved to stroke her hair back from her face. His eyes slipped away from her gaze and instead watched the action of his fingers, and Catherine felt her throat constrict. She recognised the look on his face: He was trying to decide how to say something important.
"I've been thinking about that," he began, and Catherine could have sworn she literally experienced her heart falling. Her entire body tensed and she tried to step away, but Lou prevented it. He had obviously felt the shift in her mood and it brought his eyes back to hers.
She tried again to pull away. "Just let me -"
His brow was furrowed with deep creases, and then suddenly his confusion morphed into realisation. "Oh," he said softly. "No… No, I'm sorry I didn't think about how that might sound… Catherine, I'm not trying to end this…I want to go with you."
Her breath caught and she stopped trying to get away. She stared at him, eyes wide in disbelief. "You what?"
"I want to go to New York with you… I'm not saying we have to live together or spend all our free time together, but I don't want to be hours apart. I've already nearly lost you twice. I want to be with you Catherine." He slipped his hands down her arms and took her hands in his. "So wherever you need to be, that's where I want to go."
Catherine blinked the moisture out of her eyes again - she thought she would be out of tears by now. "You want to go with me?" she whispered, her voice hoarse with emotion.
Lou smiled widely. "If you don't mind having me in the same city."
Catherine's heart was racing, and her mind was trying to compete with it. She hadn't seen this coming. They had been together a matter of weeks. And yet that smile was tugging at her lips again, and she knew she didn't mind at all.
"Do you think you might be insane?" she asked him, a breath of laughter at the end of her question.
He chuckled. "Maybe. But sanity's overrated."
She studied him for any sign that he had doubts about this. She saw none. "You really want to do this?" she checked.
He tugged on her hands and brought her closer to him. "I really want to do this. Life's too short to waste time."
Her lips were curving wider and wider with every second. "Okay then."
Even though he had been encouraging it, he still seemed surprised when she accepted. "Okay then?" he echoed.
She nodded enthusiastically. "Okay then."
They grinned brightly at each other and Lou pulled her in for another kiss.
Ten minutes later, Catherine and Lou stepped out into the light of the Las Vegas morning. They had collected Catherine's things from her office and she had said her last goodbyes to those staff who were on duty. They had all wished her luck, and some had glanced between her and Lou as if wondering what exactly was going on there. They left them to wonder.
They walked across the parking lot, to Catherine's car, and she opened the back door for Lou to place her box on the back seat. As he did so, Catherine looked back towards the building where she had spent most of the last twenty years of her life. It still didn't seem real: leaving; her conversation with Gil; the development in her relationship with Lou. Even a year ago she never would have imagined any of it. Yet now… It all felt right.
She sensed Lou watching her and shifted her gaze to him.
"Okay?" he asked her.
"Good," he said, and he kissed her softly. "I'll speak to Jim and then I'll come round and we can talk to Lindsey."
She grabbed him as he stepped away, pulled him back and kissed him soundly. "Thank you," she whispered. "See you later."
She let him go and watched him walk away, grinning widely when he turned back to smile at her.
The circumstances that had brought her to this point were something that she wanted to put behind her as quickly as she could. But she wouldn't change the outcome.
Her eyes wandered back to the lab and she smiled wistfully. "Time to move on," she muttered.
And with that Catherine Willows climbed into her car, reversed out of her parking space and drove away.