When Natalia answered the door to Cassandra she knew something wasn't quite right but as she stared at the younger woman she couldn't quite work out what was amiss. The CSI took the blonde in top to bottom- she was wearing sandals, light denim shorts, a white t-shirt with a pastel coloured picture of the Miami landscape and a pale orange trim, a white, netted, long, open shrug, and her usually variety of colourful jewellery. Natalia almost wanted to snap her fingers as she spied the oddity before mentally cursing herself for not spotting it immediately. Just a few days in hospital and already she was getting rusty on her investigative skills.
"Where are your glasses Cassie?" Natalia quipped as she stepped back to let the woman into her home.
Cassandra entered with a muttered curse that was just a little too low for Natalia to pick up with her temperamental hearing. The blonde whirled round dramatically to face the CSI.
"Gone," Cassandra answered simply, making her voice louder than normal as she was aware of Natalia's hearing woes. She slapped her hands against her thighs for theatrical effect causing her tasselled, tan satchel to bounce slightly with the movement.
"I remember putting them in my locker because I had to work the splash zone where the sea lions are but they weren't there when I went back. I don't know how or why, everything else was there." She frowned and fidgeted with her hair with one hand. "I just...I can't figure it out and they're expensive and I'm half blind without them."
Natalia gave her a sympathetic look. "They'll turn up," she assured.
Cassandra sighed as she lowered her hand. "I'm not sure, I keep misplacing things lately and messing up my shifts at work, I don't know what the hell's going on lately." She frowned before shrugging.
"Wedding stress maybe?" Natalia suggested lightly.
Cassandra rubbed at her nose slightly, reaching to push up glasses that weren't there. "Maybe," she grumbled. "I mean Horatio has managed to lose Eric and Kyle over it. I offered to talk to them, I want to talk them," she said sternly. "If they don't like me I can deal with it but they shouldn't fall out with him over it. I feel I could make amends somehow but I'd probably just make it all worse," she concluded moodily.
Natalia reached out a hand and squeezed Cassandra's right shoulder gently. She gave a small smile, thinking how alike Cassandra could be to her brother, moody and angry even when meaning well, and always predicting the worst outcome instead of hoping for the best.
"Cassie, Eric is a stubborn guy but he's sensitive too, this is more to do with the guilt he feels over Marisol's death, please don't take it personally. He will come around," she assured. She left it unspoken that Eric still hadn't come around to her dating Rick. She determined that maybe she would talk to him in Cassandra's stead or perhaps speak to Calleigh to get her to intervene.
"Anyway," Natalia lowered her hand, "the girls are in the kitchen finishing up homework and you and I need to talk wedding plans." She gestured for Cassandra to walk through.
Cassandra headed to the kitchen, pausing to wince and squint at the bright afternoon sunlight streaming into it. She raised a hand to her brow to shield her eyes before scanning the room for the girls. They were over to the left on a couch by a small table, quietly writing on their jotters. Becky and a stuffed cat were sandwiched between them.
Marissa glanced up and gave a wide smile. "Aunt Cassie!" she greeted happily.
Cassandra smiled back but her dark eyes were mired with confusion as she tried to get the slightly blurred image before her to focus.
"You finish your homework Mari," Natalia instructed, "your aunt and I will be right over here having a coffee."
Cassandra lowered her hand and glanced at Natalia. "Do you need a hand?" she queried.
Natalia shook her head. "No, you sit."
Cassandra was relieved to head to the kitchen table. When she reached for the seat her fingertips only grasped the edge as she misjudged the distance of it. She frowned and took a firm hold of it. She occupied the seat and her frown deepened as she saw magazines resting in the centre of the table and found their font and covers a mysterious blur to her. She blinked and rubbed at her eyes in frustration.
Natalia saw the blonde's frustration as she carried over the coffee cups to the table. She figured the wedding magazines could wait another day as she set down the cups with a barely concealed wince.
"So Cassie, we really have to celebrate your engagement," she said cheerfully as she took a seat. "In fact we are, you, me, Yelina, Calleigh and anyone else you might like, a girls night of cocktails."
Cassandra looked over at Natalia with surprise at the offer and the list of guests. She tried to hide her bitterness as she considered the named guests were because she didn't have anyone to invite. After a time when co-workers had extended friendship to her only because they wanted to grill her about the Garrett House Murders, Cassandra had refrained from socialising with anyone else from work, too untrusting to believe anyone actually wanted friendship. Prior to that she hadn't had any friends because she had spent a few months away from Miami in Cuba and had lost contact with the few acquaintances she had had.
Hell, if Cassandra was honest with herself she knew she had always struggled with friends because she could never invite any of them home as she wasn't allowed and her stepfather scared them off when she risked bringing a friend home. Even when Cassandra had moved out of Garrett House her stepfather had still been a shadow in her life. Additionally, she hadn't gone to college and had married young and worked unsociable hours as a night club dancer, all of which had hampered her chances at finding a social life. Friends had just seemed to skip her by.
"Really, you'd be comfortable with Yelina going?" Cassandra pried as she fiddled with her hair. "I mean I like her and I think it'd be fun to see what she's like on cocktails but she is Rick's ex."
Natalia nodded and glanced down at her cup briefly, breathing in the welcome odour of warm coffee before shifting her stare onto the girls. It was true, Yelina was Rick's ex but she had been there for him when his family had been massacred and had been very supportive with Marissa, things which Natalia couldn't ignore. The woman still continued to offer her support to them and she was the widow of Horatio's brother and mother to his niece, so she was always going to be a prominent figure in their lives.
"She's practically family to you," Natalia reminded Cassandra as she returned her stare to her, "and I like her too."
"True and Calleigh, would she want to go? Isn't she close with Eric?" Cassandra queried.
Natalia nodded again. "She is but I asked and she said it's been a long time since she's had a girls night and she'd love to." Natalia gave the blonde a reassuring smile. "She also said she'd really like to get to know you better. She is close with Eric but she isn't going to let him influence her. She's very fond of Horatio and eager to know his future wife."
Cassandra smiled and nodded. "Well I could do with a night out," she agreed, "it's been a long time for me too."
Natalia's smile widened. "Good, so how about this Saturday?"
Cassandra was surprised at the suggestion but she smiled and said, "you've been planning this then?"
"Yes, of course, I've got the venue picked, just need to ring and book a VIP section."
Cassandra laughed. "Well I'd love to."
"Great, well we'll all meet here first and we'll do dinner as well," Natalia said eagerly.
"Wow um an expensive night then," Cassandra retorted awkwardly as her smile creased slightly with worry.
"Cassie you're the bride, if you pay for anything that night it's an insult," Natalia retorted sternly.
Cassandra pushed back her hair with both hands and sighed. "Sorry, it's just...I think Kyle and Eric both implied I was a gold digger." She gave a forced laugh. "Tanned, blonde female with barely anything to her name marrying an older man, I guess I can see why they'd think that," she mocked herself bitterly. "Suppose I should be grateful I don't check blue eyes as well."
Natalia stretched out a hand across the table to squeeze one of Cassandra's. "Honey don't say that," she implored, "that's not who you are. You've been a hard worker the whole time I've known you and you're brave and tough as well. You and Horatio are an odd match but you're perfect in your way. You've made him happy in a way I don't think anyone thought he could be again and I know he makes you happy, you're smiling right now because I mentioned him," she added as she smiled.
Cassandra blushed faintly as she realised she was smiling at the mention of Horatio. "He lets me be me, warts and all, and nothing phases him. I love the small smile he gives me when he knows it's all I need sometimes to keep going." She giggled. "I love the competitive side that slips out when Rick's around because it shows he's human. I love how he always pushes to see the right thing done no matter what he's against, how he never lets a problem go, maybe it's dormant for a while but never extinct until justice is done. When he's around I feel safer and I feel like maybe even with everything that's happened to me it's okay because we can still be happy."
Natalia nodded along as she thought similar things about Rick. "Well there you go, you know why you're marrying him Cassie, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."
Cassandra gave the woman a sincere smile. "You're right," she agreed. "So, what venue do you have planned for Saturday?"
"Ah," Natalia raised her hand and shook a finger at the blonde, "that's going to be a surprise."
Cassandra laughed. "Alright, well at least let me put a reminder on my phone."
She swung her bag up onto the table, opened it and hunted for her phone.
"Hmm what's this?" Cassandra pondered curiously as she tugged out a piece of folded up card. She turned it over, perplexed as it was blank, just an off-white, rectangular piece of card folded together. Curious, she unwrapped it on the table.
Natalia was shocked as she watched Cassandra's face turn an odd shade of pallid grey and her dark eyes filled with confusion and horror.
Cassandra blinked at the word on display, smeared onto the card in something red, ink or some other substance, what it was she had no idea.
"Oh my God," the blonde said in a quiet horror as her eyes were able to take in enough to let her realise what the word read.
"Cassie?" Natalia queried worriedly.
Concerned, Natalia stood up from her seat and moved beside Cassandra to take in what was on the card.
Cassandra just sat staring at it in a horrified silence.
Murderer, the word was there in bold, block, red letters. Natalia was horrified as she stared at it, wondering if it was some cruel prank or a threat or if the card was even meant for Cassandra.
Cassandra's hand quivered slightly as she continued to stare down at the accusing word as she replayed one of the most horrific moments of her life over and over in her mind. It came so clearly she could smell the blood again.
The CSI side kicked in for Natalia first and she hastened to grab a ziplock bag from a drawer and a rubber glove. Holding the glove rather than donning it, she used its rubber edges to block her fingertips as she plucked up the card and pushed into the bag before sealing it up. Now that the item was protected, she switched back into friend mode and hurried to Cassandra's side.
The blonde had tears streaking down her cheeks as her trembling worsened. "I didn't mean to," she babbled, "God I really, really didn't!"
Marissa and Annabelle looked over in wide eyed surprise, worried and scared over Cassandra's sudden crying.
Natalia stretched up a hand to her friend's back before turning sharply as she heard footsteps.
Rick entered the kitchen in a charge, his pace picking up as he heard the crying.
"What the hell's going on?" he queried bluntly as he looked at the pair in confusion.
Cassandra was shaking her wildly and murmuring 'no', stretching the word into a long wail as she raised one hand to her mouth in an attempt to stifle her own voice.
Natalia looked back at her partner silently, unsure what to say. "It just happened," she confessed. "Cassie found a note in her bag," she gestured to the offending piece of card still resting on the table.
Rick paced over to it and took it in with a frown.
"I didn't...I didn't mean to," Cassie repeated as she shook her head frantically, "the blood was everywhere, I was just so scared, I just didn't want him to hurt anyone!" She started to cry.
Natalia stepped back to let Rick take a hold of his sister.
Rick spied the girls' worried glances as they sat frozen on the couch, transfixed in fear as Cassandra's groans grew louder. His dark stare darted back to his sister and he knew a cluster headache was imminent for her.
"Cassie come on," he said in a mixture of sternness and pleading, "stop crying." He reached out a hand to her but she tensed up and shook her head as she raised her hands up to push into her hair.
"Cassie you'll give yourself a headache," Rick warned.
"I didn't want to kill him," she sobbed out, "I have nightmares all the time, God I didn't mean to do it!"
"Shhh," Rick attempted to hush her as he shot another wary gaze over to the girls, conscious of what they might hear. Marissa had no idea that her aunt had been forced to kill a madman who was also Marissa's father.
Natalia followed Rick's stare and hurried over to the girls with a forced smile.
"Cassie come on," Rick said quietly, "not here."
Cassandra let out a weak snivel. "I'm sorry Rick," she said hoarsely.
"You don't have to be sorry." Rick pushed her back slightly from the table and took in her red blotched face complete with bloodshot, teary eyes and a glint of snot at her nostrils. He gave her a slight grimace. "Let's get you cleaned up. Where are your glasses?"
"I lost them," she grumbled, "God this day."
"Girls, let's go watch some cartoons for a moment," Natalia suggested.
"What's wrong with Aunt Cassie?" Marissa pried worriedly.
"She's just feeling a little sick," Natalia retorted, "but it's nothing to worry about. Uncle Rick is going to help her. Now come on, you've both been good and done your homework so it's time for cartoons."
Natalia waved the girls up from the couch and herded them out of the room and to the living room.
Rick waited a couple of minutes before he urged Cassandra up from her seat and directed her after them, taking her through to the downstairs bathroom.
The blonde walked with her cocked to the right side, wincing as she pressed her palm up against her right temple. There were sweat beads forming on her brow as she felt a rush of heat rush to her head coupled with the first pangs of pain.
Cassandra sat on the closed toilet seat with a groan and another sniffle.
Rick ran a cloth under the sink before handing it down to her. "You get cleaned up," he said quietly, "I'll see you back in the kitchen."
He hesitated before leaving and stared down at her seriously. "Cassie you did nothing wrong," he said firmly. "You protected Marissa and I, and if I could have I would have done the same. There isn't a day goes by that I don't regret not being the one to do it."
Cassandra let out another soft sob. "I know," she said hoarsely, "but it never feels right." She hugged her torso, inadvertently pressing the damp cloth against it and sobbed again.
"I do understand," Rick said quietly, "I've killed in self-defence too."
He thought briefly of a corrupt police officer and detective that he had been forced to gun down before shaking off the unwanted memory.
"You did what you had to," he assured.
Rick stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. He winced when he heard his sister start to cry in earnest but figured he was better giving her a moment of privacy to let out her troubled grief. He frowned as he considered what had provoked it all, the single sinister word on a mysterious card in the kitchen. He paced back to it, tugging out his phone as he prepared to call Horatio.
Jack glanced from the corpse to Tobias and then over to the CSIs. The body's eye sockets were still smouldering slightly and the detective found the smell nauseating. His sympathies went out to the young woman who had found the body. She was still crying against Tobias who cradled her awkwardly against his shirt having giving up questioning her for the moment.
They were on a beach, in a secluded spot shaded slightly by palm trees with a rough terrain as wild grass, stone and soil mingled with sand. The salty smell of the ocean wasn't enough to overpower the stench of charred flesh and the soft lull of the early evening waves crashing against the sand couldn't quieten the wails of a traumatised woman.
"Do you think it's another victim?" Jack quipped at last as his stare focused on Horatio.
"What makes you think that?" CSI Wolfe pried. He was on the ground, closer to the victim than Jack wished to be, taking photographs of the coals on the victim's ruined eyes. The coals had been jammed in there tightly.
"Well," Jack began awkwardly as he rubbed at his scruffy hair and stared at the body once more, "we had an angel, now we've a demon. Both victims left naked with traces of blood on them and damaged eyes." He alluded to the red horns and pointed tail that had been attached to the figure, a male left nude just as Kara Watkins had been with a splash of blood on his chest depicting an inverted cross. "And he's bruising about the neck, just like Miss Watkins," Jack added.
Horatio gave a small, thin smile. He was pleased with Jack's summary and knew Rick would be proud at how far the former narcotics detective had come.
"Should we ring Lieutenant Stetler?" Jack queried as he glanced over at the redhead.
Horatio was about to respond when he felt the buzz of his mobile against his leg before it sounded. He tugged it out of his trouser pocket. "No need," he said calmly before he answered. "Hello Rick."
"Horatio you need to come round to mine," Rick retorted bluntly.
Horatio frowned as he heard the anxiety in Rick's voice. "What's wrong?" he queried quietly.
Ryan and Jack both looked worried at Horatio's question.
"It's Cassie," Rick confessed, "she found a note in her bag saying murderer, it gave her a panic attack and then one of her cluster headaches. I've given her an injection, she'd none in her bag," he added in a grumble, "but you should come, she's very upset."
Horatio was shocked as he tried to take in what Rick was saying and wondered at the note. Murderer? He was confused at first but then he thought of Josh Silverstone, the psychotic man who had done so much damage to Rick and Cassandra both physically and mentally that it was a wonder they had survived him. That was in part down to Cassandra killing him in self-defence after he had shown up at Natalia's house, crazed and determined to murder Rick.
"Rick," Horatio sounded out the man's name softly, "we've got another victim here."
Rick let out a curse as Horatio had expected he would. "Damn it, I can't leave her," Rick muttered. "Natalia has the girls and Cassie really isn't good Horatio."
Horatio lowered his phone and glanced to Ryan, knowing he was about to ask something unorthodox. Hell, it was downright reckless really given Tobias and Jack were still wet behind the ears for homicide.
"Ryan, something's happened with Cassie," Horatio informed his subordinate, "I need to go see her. I'll give Calleigh and Frank a ring, can you handle things until they get here?"
Ryan nodded reassuringly even as his brown eyes filled with worry. "Is she hurt?" he pried. Ryan had always had a soft spot for Cassandra Silverstone, before Horatio had dated her he had considered asking her out and even now he sometimes still regretted not doing it while he had the chance.
"No," Horatio retorted, "but she needs me." The redhead was startled by his own honesty as he raised the phone back up to his face. "Rick I'm coming now," he said seriously. "Ryan is going to take charge here."
"Alright," Rick responded bluntly.
Horatio hung up the phone and glanced over to the detectives. "I'll give Frank and Calleigh a call, treat this as any other case, at the moment we're just speculating it's linked to the Kara Watkins case," he said sternly.
Tobias, now holding the woman loosely with one tired arm as she continued to burrow against his shirt although her sobs had fallen silent, gave Horatio a sombre look as he nodded.
"Let us know how Cassie is," the blonde detective said seriously.
Horatio knew Tobias' concern came from a good place but there was a small prickle of irritation in him anyway. The redhead had always thought himself above petty jealously but sometimes when Tobias and Cassandra were together or one asked about the other he had a small twang of envy. He had no fear of Cassandra leaving him for Tobias and knew her feelings for her ex were strictly platonic but he couldn't help his irrational emotions towards the homicide detective.
"I will," Horatio assured. He walked off, dialling Frank as he headed back to his waiting car.
Rick jumped up from the dinner table wordlessly and moved at a sprint for the living room. Annabelle tensed and gave a startled gasp when he bolted from the table whilst Marissa simply looked confused. For a moment Annabelle was wary of danger and terrified that Rick had left them to it. Her bulbous eyes scanned the room anxiously prompting Natalia to reach over with one hand and squeeze the girl's hand gently.
"It's okay," Natalia assured as she gave the girl a warm smile, "he's just checking Aunt Cassie."
It was a guess on Natalia's part, she had been just as surprised by Rick's sudden departure from dinner and was wondering if he'd heard something she couldn't. Her right ear was humming so loudly she could hardly hear a thing.
"Eat your dinner girls," she ordered softly as she pulled her hand back.
Natalia knew it was going to be a long night and dreaded how difficult it would be trying to get the girls to sleep. Cassandra, through no fault of her own, had the household disrupted and in a state of panicked unease. The children were terrified both for the young woman and of whatever had upset her in the first place.
The blonde had initially occupied the couch beside the dining table but then her cluster headache had come so Rick had persuaded the girls to their rooms to play while he treated Cassandra in the living room with an injection before leaving her to rest on the sofa. After that, Rick, Natalia and the girls had returned to the kitchen for dinner.
Rick hesitated at the living room door as he arrived outside it. He listened for the banging that had disturbed him, trying to determine if it was against the wooden door or a wall. There was a soft thump and he determined the vibration came through the wall. A loud wail followed.
Rick opened the door and hastened into the darkened room. The blinds of the high window had been drawn and the light was off. He reached for the wall switch instinctively, illuminating the room instantly.
"Damn it Cassie," he muttered with a pained look.
Cassandra was in the throes of a walking nightmare, pacing about wailing and moaning about blood as she wrung her hands before smacking her head against the wall. There was already a bump forming on her brow and her nose had blood trickling from it.
Rick winced and cursed again when she began to knock her head against the wall repeatedly while yelling 'no' over and over.
He hurried to her, grabbing her despite her protesting groans and attempting to restrain her as she fought against him.
"Cassie wake up!" he snapped.
The doorbell rang and another curse escaped Rick.
A few minutes passed before it rang again and Rick realised Natalia wasn't going to answer it.
"Cassandra wake up!" he yelled as he gave her a shake by her shoulders.
The blonde jerked free violently. "Blood, too much," she moaned, "in the trees, no stay away!" She raised her hands defensively and screamed without warning.
Natalia heard the scream and appeared at a run, looking into the scene with wide eyes. "Rick what's going on?" she demanded.
Rick glanced over his shoulder in irritation as the doorbell sounded again and again. "Damn it get the door Nat!" he ordered with a wave of his hand.
Natalia looked confused, she couldn't hear the bell. She stared at Cassandra who was still stumbling back. "Watch out!"
Natalia's warning was in vain. Cassandra staggered back against the coffee table and fell over it with another scream.
Rick dashed forward to her, reaching as she writhed on the floor in confusion and pain, still babbling about blood.
Natalia took a step to help as the doorbell continued to sound.
"Get the door damn it!" Rick roared out angrily as he tried to get Cassandra upright again, certain she'd have a bump on the back of her head to match the one on the front.
Startled by Rick's show of temper, Natalia stepped back out and headed for the door. She had a look at the camera panel to see Horatio standing there and deactivated the alarm quickly before unlocking the door to let him in.
"Where is she?" Horatio queried worriedly as he stepped into the house. He tensed at the groans of pain and hurried down the hall without waiting for Natalia's response.
Natalia closed and locked the door again, setting the alarm as a precaution before she retreated to the girls. She knew they would be terrified and sighed as she pushed a hand through her hair and hoped she could convince them that Cassandra was just having a nightmare.
Cassandra's eyes opened, at first confused and then alarmed before they pooled with tears. She saw her brother staring down at her with concern.
"Rick? Oh God Rick I couldn't find the way out," she babbled. "I kept trying to open the door but my hands were wet with blood and I couldn't...I couldn't get a grip."
"Jesus," Rick muttered wearily as he flopped back against the bottom of the couch for support and stretched his legs out on the floor before him.
Rick's wary dark gaze darted up to Horatio as he appeared in the doorway.
Horatio hurried in, quick to move to Cassandra's other side. She was panting hard and her eyes were wide, full of terror and confusion. His cerulean gaze filled with worry as he spied her bumps and the blood smeared about her nostrils.
The redhead tugged out a handkerchief and offered it to her as he crouched beside her. "Cassie what's happened?" he queried gently.
Cassandra looked to Horatio with surprise before the tears started to pour down her cheeks. She shook her head. "I don't...I don't know, my head hurts, I..."
Horatio stretched his free hand out to press his palm against her brow, he found it blazing with heat. "I think we need to get you a damp cloth and some water," he advised.
"I'll do that," Rick offered as he scraped to his feet. "You get her back on the sofa," he ordered.
Horatio pushed back a stray strand of Cassandra's blonde hair and gave her a concerned stare.
The blonde flinched as Horatio reached out to dab at her bloodstains with the handkerchief and she turned her head away with a tremble.
"Cassie what's wrong?" he queried.
"I...I don't know why this is happening," she said sorrowfully. "Everything is supposed to be good, I'm supposed to be happy but things keep going wrong."
"Sweetheart you need to tell me what's gone wrong," Horatio compelled her. He stretched forward and started dabbing at her nostrils again despite her head being turned away from him.
"I...I lost my glasses," she admitted, "they should've been in my locker at work but they weren't and then there was this note in my bag." She reached a hand up to press against her temple as she shuddered.
"I smell blood," she said with a shudder of disgust.
Rick re-appeared and was quick to kneel down and offer her out a glass of water. "Here."
Cassandra accepted the glass and took a few sips before abandoning it on the floor. She squeezed her eyes closed with a wince and brought her palm up to her brow briefly. "Fuck," she cursed out softly before dropping the hand by her side again.
The blonde was soaked in sweat and her right eye was running badly, enough for it to sting as Cassandra rubbed at it.
Horatio held out a hand for the damp cloth in Rick's other hand. Rick surrendered it to him and leaned back as the redhead pressed the cloth against the blonde's forehead.
"Let's just take a moment," Horatio suggested calmly.
Cassandra closed her eyes as she welcomed the damp coolness against her brow. Her hand reached trembling for Horatio's and he abandoned the handkerchief to take it in his own and hold it reassuringly.
"It's alright Cassie," he reassured, "I'm here, whatever is going on we'll figure it out and get through it together."