Disclaimer: Surely SOMEBODY new must have swooped in to control the characters after episode 13 this season, but it wasn't me. CSI Miami is still officially under the control of Ann Donahue et al; characters and profits belong to her.

Summary: When you're a lab rat, you don't need the field to have fun.

Prompt: Cooper/Valera/wistful.


"Why do they always pick you to go out in the field?"

The voice appearing from nowhere caught Cooper off guard. He was busy feeding data into the computer, a task which didn't really require his full attention, but he was pretending it did because it was late in the day and he'd already decided he was clocking out on time for once. The uploading would be done when his shift was. And he may have been leaning back in his chair, resting eyes a little, when Valera had opened the door to the AV lab. He would not admit to having almost toppled backwards at the sound of her voice.

Expression somewhere between unenthused and disdainful, she looked him up and down. "Boy, I wish I was Horatio."

"Well, that wins for the most distasteful image put into my head all day."

"I meant at this precise moment. I'm sure he'd get a kick out of seeing you fall backwards out of a chair whose entire structure is designed to slide, not tip."

"Do you have a question that is relevant to audio and/or visual evidence?" he asked calmly. She baited him every so often; games of cat and mouse weren't unusual between the two when sharing results. Lately the games had felt more like cat and puppy, in which he was the puppy tripping over its feet and crashing into the wall while the cat smirked from the countertop. He was hoping to avoid another round of that.

She stopped smiling then. "No. I asked why they always pick you to go out in the field."

He didn't answer, trying to ascertain what had prompted her to come up with this topic now. She left the doorway, came all the way inside and perched on the edge of the table with a sigh. He swiveled to keep eye contact. She went on.

"I mean, there are a dozen lab rats on our shift alone, and none of us ever set foot outside the doors until it's time to go home. But you, Ryan and Eric are always pulling you."

"You know, I have noticed that. I think they fight over who gets to take me out, actually. I don't know if I should be flattered or disturbed."

"That," she replied with a shake of her head, "is not nearly as objectively funny as you think it is."

"But it is funny."

"Not so much. Are you planning on ditching the lab in the near future, Cooper?"

He clasped his hand over his heart in mock horror. "Now why would I leave the place where you never know when you'll reach in a drawer for a pen and come out holding a furry spider?"

Over the past few weeks, someone (apparently denied a childhood) had gotten their hands on a container of small rubber and/or flocked critters and taken to sticking them in random places around the lab. It had elicited a few amusing yelps in the beginning, though by this point most who encountered the things were just pitching them in garbage in disgust.

She snickered a little at that. "I knew you were the one shrieking about tarantulas."

"You weren't even here that day."

"Your first response really should have been adamant denial that you had any reaction at all."

Score one for the cat. And his newest mission was to find both the spider-leaver and the gossip queen/king and knock their heads together.

He got it – there were only so many samples one could run before needing a serious diversion – but generally people found slightly less harassing ways to cope with it. For example, on one woman's birthday she had come armed with children's birthday hats and instigated a competition as to who could wear theirs the longest before anyone outside said competition asked about it. The $50 prize awaiting the winner had convinced most people to take part, despite initial skepticism. ("Exactly how much does your paycheck differ from mine?" "Not a cent. You splurged on a new car; I like to make my birthdays more interesting.")

Actually, considering the scolding they'd received for looking unprofessional, that hadn't been so innocent either.

Valera's voice interrupted him. "I'm still waiting for an answer to my question."

"I have no immediate plans to go out in the field. Or future plans. I have no plans at all, actually. Why, do you want me to ask if they could use you?"

"No!" Her response was vehement, almost alarmed. "God, no. I just think the occasional change of scenery would be nice."

"Do you really want to go, or are you just cranky that the air conditioning broke yesterday and still isn't fixed?"

He maybe had a point there. She swung her legs, crossed at the ankles, and shrugged. "I don't know." She wasn't dying to hold a gun, and if she were at a crime scene, she'd probably overlook some crucial piece of evidence while focusing only on whatever might hold DNA.

The lab was a nice place to work. The people here watched out for each other, like when Cynthia's prank email to a couple of colleagues had accidentally been mailed to everyone connected to the crime lab. One bout of near-hysteria later, Tyler had recalled the message and erased all trace of it from the database, ostensibly before anyone saw it – though she could have sworn Alexx had raised an eyebrow.

But just once, she wanted to know what it felt like to put the whole puzzle together herself, instead of fitting together three little pieces and handing them off the person in charge, never seeing the final picture. A day in the real world seemed like a start. Meanwhile, her attempts to explain this to him weren't going very well. He considered her words, thought for a moment, and then grinned.

"They can talk all they want about solving the puzzles," he said, wagging his finger at her. "But we know the truth."

"Which is?"

"Unless you can check every Monday to see if you've been featured in the weekly web comic 'Misadventures in Media and Mitochondria,' it's just not an exciting job."