Her eyes took in the familiar surroundings: the wooden canvas of what had once been the main setting to her life, the splashes of color blending in the very same way, in precisely the same tones. She had called upon her memories of the place countless times in the last - was it seven or eight months now - but, she realized, as she stood pushing the door wide open, her palm covering half the comforting sign on the small window, that her mind had hidden away details she would only be able to recount by doing exactly this: coming back.
Diane stepped inside with small, tentative steps, the heels of her knee-high boots echoing in the empty bar. It was a quarter to two in the morning. She had made sure to arrive at closing time, but with enough room to find the door unlocked. As she searched the area for signs of life, a waft of his cologne - the same one she had always given him a hard time about - blew past her nose and her lips drew an involuntary smile as her eyelids drew slowly shut. Her memories had not been able to evoke that either, no matter how hard she had tried.
She hadn't heard from Sam since the last week of June. They had kept in touch for the first few weeks after Diane had left Boston. She had considered Sumner's offer to use his cabin in Maine, finally deciding against it and taking up the publishing house's suggestion she do it closer to their headquarters in Los Angeles. In her mind, her return had always been a definite plan, but although Sam would acquiesce and indulge her whenever she would talk of plans for their future, she could tell his heart wasn't in it. That he didn't believe her. That he didn't think he would see her again. She had often hung up the phone with an aching heart, and, because of both his distance and her increasingly busy days, the calls had become shorter in duration. Less detailed. Less frequent. Less loving. Until that day, at the beginning of July, when he had called her to announce his plan for a trip around the world on a boat he had bought on a whim. But how will I reach you?, she had asked, fearing a long time of void between them would keep him away from her for good. I'll send you a message in a bottle, isn't that what they do in those great romance movies you love so much?, he had joked. Or had it been a joke. In any case, it had been a goodbye. One not unlike the great romance films she liked so much. Without the actual word ever being spoken, but with the music swelling up in the background at the figurative wave.
She hadn't given up, though, hadn't lost hope. She had kept up with his whereabouts through Woody, sneaking in calls just before the bar would open, and occasionally after it had closed to hear Sam's voice on the answering machine as she would crawl into bed on the West coast, consistently hanging up right before the beep. It was Woody who had told her about Sam's boat sinking at the end of summer, and how he had come back to Cheers and resumed his bartending then. She would ask how he was doing, but Woody, good kid that he was, could never delve into the kind of preciseness she was after, and so Diane could honestly say she didn't know how Sam was doing. She could ask him the question now and genuinely look forward to the answer.
Woody had also been the one to inform her that Sam would be the one closing the bar tonight. He was nowhere in sight, but unless Woody had mistaken one day for another - it wouldn't have been a first - he was somewhere around there. Close. Her heart was having a hard time keeping a steady rhythm.
Cheers had been empty for a good half hour by the time Sam had sent everyone home. It was a particularly cold night in December, and Boston was proving unusually cruel that winter. The later it would get, the bigger the chances for heavy snow those days. Or so had said the hot weather girl on TV earlier that evening. It seemed to be a given. The snow wasn't letting up that year. Naturally, that meant less customers, and so Sam had been letting Carla, Woody and Ellie, the new on-a-trial-basis waitress, go home earlier that week.
Since Diane had left, Sam couldn't seem to find an acceptable replacement. It drove him insane trying to figure out why it was he ended up firing all of them. Diane had never been a good waitress by anyone's standards. She had not been born for the job and had never warmed up to it. Finding someone better couldn't be this difficult. And yet. And yet. The guys would laugh, and tell him it was because he was still waiting. Waiting for her to come back. But he wasn't. He really wasn't. Never mind that he would always look twice whenever a blonde woman would step into the bar. Never mind that whenever the phone rang - even though she hadn't called in months - his heart would come all the way up to his throat. Never mind that on the exact day of the sixth month anniversary of her departure Sam had spent the entire night in the bar, watching the door until he had passed out. Never mind that every single night, like tonight, he would do just what he was doing right then: sitting in his office, at his desk, one hand heavily on the telephone. A silent prayer that it would ring, because he couldn't bring himself to dial her number.
His boat had sunk at the end of August, and he had returned to Boston then. To Cheers. He should have called her then, shouldn't he? She had asked him to. Said she would be waiting to hear about his trip. But his trip had been meant to push her further away. To forget her. To kill whatever hope he had of her making good on that promise to come back. Because he didn't believe her. Nobody comes back. Not from success. And why should she.
Unsuccessful as his venture had been, both at the actual sailing sport and at getting her out of his system, he had been too afraid to call her. Afraid to ask how she had been, afraid of what he might learn. Afraid she would no longer be there. No longer his Diane.
He checked the time. Five minutes til two. Sam dropped his head into his hand and rubbed his eyebrows with his index finger and thumb. Time to close up and drag himself to bed. He stood with a heavy sigh and turned off the light in his office as he exited into the bar.
He noticed a presence immediately, unable to tell who it was right away, and mistaking her for a customer. She was dressed in a long greyish cape-like coat, a hood over her head. Fancy winter wear, Sam thought. He went into the bar and was about to start putting away some clean glasses.
"I'm sorry, we're closing in three minutes. You'll have to come back tommo…"
Diane slipped the hood off of her head and looked straight at Sam. His mouth hung open for a moment, unable to utter another word. Was he seeing things? Had the fact that she had been on his mind - again - a minute ago caused him to hallucinate? Her blonde hair shone under the bar lights. She had changed it slightly. It was longer than when he'd last seen her, and combed to the side, cascading in waves onto her left shoulder. Sam took her in from head to toe. Her white wool turtleneck and long black pencil skirt that covered half of her leather boots. The unbuttoned coat hanging off her shoulders. She looked like something his mind could have conjured up, all right. Though arguably more clothed.
"Excuse me. Are you the owner of this bar?" she looked at him intently, a half smile dancing on her lips. Sam was confused at first. He stared at her, unwilling to blink should the vision disintegrate. The sound of her voice ringing in his ears like a song only he was able to hear. Her words... Did she have amnesia? Had his mind produced a Diane that wasn't really Diane? The smile on her face, though, the look in her eyes, it was all telling him otherwise. She was inviting him to play along. To what, he wasn't sure yet. Maybe something meant to make this easier on the two of them. He would have to remember to thank her later, if she'd prove to be of flesh and bone. Sam still had doubts.
He nodded. He would play along if that's what she wanted. "What can I do for you, miss…" He looked at her with mock expectation.
He nodded. "Miss Chambers." Her name on his lips, spoken aloud after all these months, feeling like a much needed release.
"Let me begin by apologizing for my arrival at this hour. I know it's closing time. And I know it's… late." She pressed on that word, watching his face for a reaction to its double meaning. A hidden apology for her having stayed away a little longer than the six months she had originally promised. "But you see I've just returned to Boston and I've been looking for a place to celebrate."
"Celebrate your return to Boston?" it was Sam's turn to put the focus on a single word.
"Well, yes, in a way. Mainly that I have finished a novel that just got published, and have signed on to write a second one." Her hand went to the thick folder she had set on the counter. "One that they've agreed to let me write at home."
Sam nearly beamed with pride. His attempt at a display of minimal interest demanded so much focus, he nearly missed the last part of what she had said.
"Well congratulations are in order, then." He said. "I believe a celebration like that calls for a bottle of our best champagne." Sam grabbed a bottle from the fridge and proceeded to uncork it. "So you're from Boston then? Boston is... home, I assume." The popping sound cut off his words and he swiftly grabbed a champagne glass from above his head.
Diane approached the bar at his suggestion and slid her cape off her shoulders, setting it on one of the barstools. Her folder forgotten on the counter, she took a seat.
"Thank you." Diane nodded proudly, as he poured champagne into the glass he had set in front of her. "Indeed. Boston is home. I've been in Los Angeles for a few months. But Boston is where I'll be writing my next novel from." A sudden feeling of déjà vu, as her eyes roamed the scene being set, sent a chill down Diane's spine, though she couldn't put her finger on it.
"Looks heavy." Sam nodded toward the folder to her right as he set the bottle on the counter. "You sure that's not a weapon?"
"Could be. They tried to stop me from boarding the plane with it. Excess luggage, they called it." Diane drew invisible inverted commas with her fingers. "But they let me through once I promised them I wouldn't try to fly back with it. That this would be a one way trip." Their eyes locked for a moment and Sam swallowed. He felt a sudden urge to break character.
"You've picked an odd time of the year to come back. The weather is turning us all into popsicles over here. I'm sure the Los Angeles sunshine felt a lot more welcoming." Sam grabbed a lemon and picked up a small knife, beginning to absentmindedly slice the citrus fruit. A task he knew so well he could do it with his eyes closed.
"It was more welcoming, for a time. But waking up to the sound of the waves crashing to shore, the warm sunlight on your face, and the sweet sound of seagulls gets old fast." She flipped her hair off her shoulder as she spoke, and Sam thought he might have a heart attack. Just like on that day, years ago, when she had first walked into his bar, Sam couldn't remember ever having laid his eyes on someone more alluring. "Eventually you start to miss the snow, the noise of the traffic keeping you up at night. And really, those birds flying around at all hours of the day really make it hard for you to concentrate after a while." Diane actually meant that one.
Sam nodded with a chuckle, his eyes steadily on what his hands were doing. Diane ran her tongue over her lips as she watched him. Her mouth felt dry despite the champagne.
"What was the winning argument?" Diane looked confused for a second, so Sam added: "For them to agree on you writing your second novel in Boston. How'd you convince them?"
"Oh it wasn't easy." she shook her head and sighed as if recalling a tiresome argument. "But I looked them straight in the eye and said, without flinching: they have desks in Boston, too, you know? You could tell straight away that they had not seen that one coming."
"They never stood a chance." Sam scoffed in jest, and they both smiled.
"But the real reason for my return has to do with someone. Someone I left here."
Sam stopped slicing for a second. His jaw clenched as he kept his breathing steady. He couldn't look at her. "I'm going to assume that someone is a man? A sweetheart, perhaps?"
"You assume correctly. A man I loved. Love. Very much."
Sam resumed his work. "You love him, you say. But you left him?"
It was Diane's turn to swallow. The game she had started was now clutching at her chest. She wanted them to take off the masks she herself had placed on both their faces, but there was no telling when the timing would be right.
"He encouraged me to leave. To… pursue my dream... of being a writer. A novelist."
"Sounds like he knew what you wanted. Seeing as you took him up on it."
"He did. But he didn't know all of what I wanted."
"What else did you want?"
"I wanted to marry him. To be his wife. To make him proud."
"Your book has most likely accomplished that last part." he nudged the small knife toward the folder. "Or should I say books?"
"I hope they have. That they will. But I also believe he was silly not to marry me then. And he was silly to convince me that we shouldn't have."
"Seems to me like you didn't fight him much on it."
Diane was stung by the accusation. "I didn't think he wanted me to."
"Maybe not." Sam hesitated. "Or maybe he did."
"He changed his answer, though."
"I'm sorry?" Sam looked at her, and Diane noticed his features had changed. Sam Malone was starting to transpire over the role he had taken on.
"At our wedding." she said, her demeanour losing some of its strength as well. "He said "I do", and then he changed his answer."
"I see. And you blame him for it."
"I wouldn't say I blame him." Diane could hear the defensiveness take hold of her own voice.
"You certainly don't seem to blame yourself."
"If he hadn't changed his answer, I never would have left!" Diane's tone rose to exasperation at his jab, and she slammed her palm on the wooden counter.
"If he hadn't changed his answer, you would still be wondering what if!" Sam matched her in intensity. They were at it again. In their best form. Playing the real game. The one they were masters at. Their invisible costumes slowly falling to the ground.
"If he had simply understood that he meant more to me than any damn book I could ever write, he would have known that that would never have been a possibility!"
"The fact that you wrote the damn book, the fact that it's brilliant and published, and that you are carrying around a second one that looks like it will weigh twice as much, says I did…" Sam caught himself mid sentence. He exhaled. " Says him letting you go was the right thing to do then. And damn it, he won't go back on that!"
Diane took a deep breath. Lips tight at his words, she straightened up on the barstool and lifted her chin slightly, in that manner that indicated her shield was coming up. An attempt at keeping her emotions under control, like she used to do whenever Sam's words would cut through to her core. Never letting him know how badly he had gotten to her. She knew Sam was right, too. She should have fought him harder. She should have put her foot down and proven him wrong. She should have known then that her two dreams would have always been able to co-exist. She should have told him that no dream she had ever had, had been as important as the one she had dreamed for the two of them. She realized now that she had broken his heart by leaving, even if she had always meant to come back. Perhaps this had been a mistake. Maybe he did still feel that being away from her was the right thing. That they didn't belong in the same world. In the same city. In that bar. The bar that had been their home, and had seen them go through so much, both together and apart.
"Well. The bartender knows best. Isn't that what they say?" Diane stood up and grabbed her coat off the stool next to her, scooping her novel off the counter into the crook of her elbow.
Sam had turned back to the cutting board and was diligently, if distractedly, working on a lime this time. He felt his heart skip a beat when she stood up. His breath caught in his chest at the thought she might walk out. Again. Had his words been misunderstood? Did she think he wasn't happy to see her? Had she mistaken his refusal at conceding he should have let her marry him then for a refusal to take her back now? Should he stop her? Could he stop her? The fight with his pride raging within him was both familiar and infuriating. Would he ever win that fight? Or get a chance at even a single round? Today would be a good day for a knockout, even if a temporary one.
"Yeah, rumor has it we're a pretty sharp bunch." Pride: 1. Sam: 0.
An instant of ache flushed across Diane's face, and Sam would have caught it had he had the courage to look at her. "Right". She said, resignation taking hold of her as she turned to leave. She had just climbed that first step towards the exit when something got hold of her and made her stop in her tracks. That feeling of déjà vu that had been gnawing at her ever since Sam had popped open that bottle of champagne, was finally untangling in her mind. It was somewhat a repeat of that very first time at Cheers. Of the day they had met. An empty bar room. Sam behind the counter. Her glass of champagne, unfinished. It had been opening time then, it was closing time now. But that was merely a detail. She suspected… no. She knew that the moment she would turn around now, she would find him as young as he had been all those years ago. Just as charming. Just as maddening. Just as attractive. The remembrance brought with it a second wind. She still had a fighting chance. She had come back to him, like she had promised she would. If he hadn't believed it then… well, tough. She would give him no choice but to believe it now. She turned around. The sight of him, still focused on his task, unmoved and like he wasn't aware of her presence, nearly disarming her.
"Since you're so knowledgeable, Mr. Bartender, can you summon your magic powers and enlighten me as to what my future holds?" She tried hard to remember her exact words from nearly six years ago. When she had asked him that same question. The question that, unbeknownst to the two of them, would tie them together forever. The question that had locked them behind a same metaphoric door so strong, no crowbar had ever managed to pry them apart. And God knows, too many a crowbar had tried.
Sam's eyes lifted to her abruptly, taken aback by the question. Startled, somewhat, by her voice breaking a silence that had seemed so desperately final to him just a moment ago.
"I'm probably going to regret this but you could…" Sam paused, a nonchalant shrug as he stared back at the lime on the chopping board. "... marry the guy."
Diane recognised the beginning to his interjection, the first prophecy-like words of his suggestion then, years ago. He, too, remembered it. Remembered her. Remembered them. And he was still playing along. Still indulging her. The end of that sentence this time around, though. Her heart was furious against her rib cage. She had to force every muscle in her face to remain steady, unshakeable, while tossing him a proverbial vial of the very same medicine.
"What makes you think I would consider marrying him now?"
Silence filled the bar once more, and for a second Diane wondered if that question, which had meant to mirror the same one she had asked him about working in his bar back then, had gone too far. Sam had seemed to recall their banter until now, but could he have forgotten the rest? Could this still be a losing game?
"Well… you came in here today, alone. At this hour. If you were engaged or otherwise spoken for, you wouldn't be alone. Drinking champagne off the counter of an empty bar. Wasting your time talking to the bartender. Unless you are spoken for. By a stupid man. One who would let you out of his sight. One who would let you go, say… twice in the same year." He lifted his head and looked at her meaningfully, his lips briefly parting as if he were going to mouth something. His eyes reflected both his regret at letting her walk away months ago, and his relief at witnessing her make his way back to him now. His next words were spoken softly. "I know I wouldn't be that stupid."
Diane felt a knot form in her throat and her eyes suddenly dampened. She smiled as she tried to fight back the tears that threatened to leave her eyes, casting her gaze to the floor, aware that looking at him might make her lose her composure. Sam spoke again, as if guessing her predicament.
"You're also finally ready to admit you agree with Vicky."
Diane looked up, a confused frown on her face as she took a deep breath. Vicky? She vaguely recalled the name, maybe heard it once or twice. Probably read it off of his infamous black book, or heard him speak of the woman in the past, as he had spoken of his many conquests multiple times before.
"And what do Vicky and I agree on?"
Eyes still cast low as he cut up yet another slice of lime, Sam grinned. "That this guy of yours is still a magnificent pagan beast".
Diane's smile reflected Sam's grin. Her fears that he might not remember much from that day vanishing swiftly. He remembered more than even she did. And nothing had changed. Thank God. Diane laughed, that same laughter that had filled the bar the day he had first met her, the one she had given him as a response to his suggestion that she work at Cheers. It was an older sound now, more mature, but that still held the same magic to Sam. That same childlike melody. How he had missed that sound.
"And there's… one other thing." Sam, now unable to contain what he was sure was a smug as all hell look on his face, dropped the small knife on the cutting board and wiped his hands on a cloth. He approached the side of the counter closest to where she stood and motioned for her to step closer.
Diane looked at him with an air of suspicion before slowly retracing her steps to stand in front of him, setting her things back on a barstool, and splaying both hands atop the wooden counter. In an instant, Sam had his hand on the back of her neck, pulling her to him and crashing his mouth against hers, basking in the familiar softness of her lips, his fingers firmly planted on her skin, claiming back what he had foolishly relinquished. He kept his eyes half open as he kissed her, sneaking a guilty glance at her as to make sure she wasn't a figment of his imagination.
"Oh, yeah." Diane said as they came back for air, and right as she climbed onto the brass bar on the bottom of the counter, like she had done so many times before, and took his face in both of her hands. She grinned against his warm breath. "There's that."