Through A Stranger's Eyes

A/N: This is a strange little piece of work, set immediately after Speed's funeral. I got the idea because I've somehow always been an E/C 'shipper, and once I'd finished watching the episode in question, I just couldn't get this plot bunny out of my head. Hope you like it - as usual, please send reviews, and please point out any possible mistakes to me, if you find any.

Classification: One-shot, set directly after Speed's funeral (I don't know the episode title). Sort of distant 'shipping: E/C and a little H/Y.

Summary: A waitress watches the CSI team when they gather together for a coffee after Speed's funeral.

Disclaimer: I didn't invent CSI: Miami; the show belongs solely to the makers, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten - Anthony Zuiker, and someone Donahue. This story was not written for profit. No copyright infringement was intended.

xxx and now the story xxx

Cheryl Stuart is tired. Not because she has been working so hard but because the diner where she works the afternoon shift has been barely frequented today. She is tired of leaning against the bar, chatting with Bernie, the bartender, about everything and nothing. Tired of standing and waiting, which is so much more exhausting than running around and serving on the guests.

She has almost given up hope when the door suddenly opens and a group of five people enters the small restaurant.

Work! Cheryl heaves an audible sigh of relief, which causes Bernie to look at her for a moment, shake his head and grin.

The group of people settles at a round corner table, and they have barely taken their seats when Cheryl is already at their side, eager to take their orders.

But something is wrong, she realizes, as she smiles the professional smile that every waitress in the world excells at. No one responds to her cheery teeth-baring, and Cheryl looks closer.

Crap. Their drawn, sorrowful faces and the fact that they are all wearing black tells her that this group of people has probably attended a funeral service or something of that sort. Little wonder they do not break into cheerful smiles.

Neither will they order the tonloads of food Cheryl has secretly hoped they would. Even before the eldest of the group speaks, Cheryl knows what they will ask her for.

"Coffee," the man says and offers her a weary but kind smile. "We'd like to have some coffee. If you could just bring a large pot and five cups... we'll help ourselves from there on."

Chery's broad smile fades into a polite curling of the lips.

"Sure, sir," she says. "Anything else?"

The man shakes his head. "We had a hard day," he says. "A lot of strong coffee is all we need right now."

Cheryl nods and returns to the bar.

"Been given the brush-off, haven't you?" Bernie comments when Cheryl goes behind the bar to prepare the coffee.

Cheryl sighs. "Well, they weren't rude if that's what you're talking about," she says. "I think they're coming from a funeral or something," she adds in a low voice. "They look sad, don't you think?"

Bernie peers over at the table.

"Slumped shoulders, low voices, red eyes," he observes. "One thing's for sure - they're not celebrating... hey!" He rushes at Cheryl's side and stares in disbelief at the package of coffee she is opening. "What are you doing with my coffee?"

"Please, Bernie." Cheryl looks at her colleague. "I'll get you a new package. But these people really look as if they could use it, and I don't want to increase their torment by serving them our instant machine coffee."

With this, she continues. She feels sorry for the group of people at the table, and the only thing she can do for them is serving them a pot of Bernie's El Salvador coffee - the best you could get around here. It is actually reserved for important guests - as if anyone of importance would ever find their way into this second-class diner, Cheryl thinks ironically - and Bernie normally defends it with his life. But not this time. He understands and generously allows Cheryl to continue.

She fills the drink into a large porcelain pot - another item reserved for the VIPs that never come - and takes it to the table, along with five matching cups and a small can of milk.

She earns a surprised and thankful glance from one of the women at the table. "Real milk?" she asks incredulously.

Cheryl smiles, a little shyly. "I can see you've got something to cope with," she says. "So I figured I might as well do you some good. You may not feel better afterwards, but it'll definitely not make you feel worse." She lifts the lid from the coffee can. "Our best coffee," she announces. "Our bartender gets it from El Salvador." She pours everyone a cup and places the pot in the middle of the table. Then she backs off. "I'll be over at the bar if you need anything else," she says. "I won't disturb you. And I'm sorry - for whatever happened to you."

"Thank you," says the man who ordered the coffee. "We really appreciate."

Cheryl nods and quickly goes back to the bar. Bernie has disappeared; Cheryl supposes he is in the back room to get some more bottles. So she goes behind the bar, does some of the washing-up and secretly watches the five people at the table:

Two men, three women. Two white, two Hispanic, one black... no, she corrects herself, that is no longer politically correct. African-American. That's what you are supposed to say these days.

She looks at everyone in particular.

The man who ordered is the eldest of them, at least she supposes so. His age is hard to determine due to his shock of flaming red hair and his youthful face: a man with the features of a boy. He has a certain air of authority about him. Not that he is bossing everyone about, it is just the way the others react to him - respectful and yet affectionate.

He is sitting beside a beautiful Hispanic woman with long hair. Something in the way they look at and talk to each other implies a certain degree of intimacy between them, although Cheryl does not believe they are a couple. But they do not look like ordinary friends or colleagues, either. Distant relatives, maybe, or inlaws, something of that sort.

Then comes a tall African-American woman. She has a calm, friendly face, but some drawn lines tell Cheryl that she is working hard and that she can be very strong if she has to. She does not talk much; she listens, and apart from a shimmer in her beautiful eyes, nothing gives away her sadness.

The young man sitting beside her is another Hispanic. He is tall and has broad shoulders. Handsome, in a boyish sort of way, but his round face is sorrowful and his dark eyes are gleaming with tears he does not allow to flow. One of his hands is lying on the table, but the other is fumbling with his coffee cup. He does not seem to notice; his head is bent towards the young woman sitting at his other side.

She is the fifth in the round, closing the circle, a slim blonde with blue eyes that are red from crying. Cheryl takes a few moments to decide whether she thinks she is just pretty or even beautiful, but then she notices the pleasant sense of calm the blonde exudes and her finely drawn features, and she decides that she is the latter: an inconspicuous beauty whose attractiveness lies not in sumptuous curves and tonloads of make-up but in a fresh, natural prettiness that makes her seem nice and trustworthy without being average or boring.

A motley crew, Cheryl concludes, but a good team. Different as they look, they are united in their grief. They probably lost another team member.

Cheryl begins to wonder what kind of team they are. Lawyers, maybe? Brokers? No, she decides; they don't have that natural arrogance that seems to come automatically with those Wall Street giants. But they are not ordinary workers. Cheryl also rules out teachers, they just don't look it.

Then the young Hispanic man shifts in his chair and Cheryl gets a glimpse at a gun on his hip and the blink of metal.

A police badge.

Everything makes sense now. They are police officers who most likely lost a team member on duty. Little wonder they are so depressed. Police teams must work closely together, must trust each other completely, and therefore it is especially hard to lose someone. Inevitably, Cheryl begins to wonder whether they were all with him or not, whether one of them could have saved him and had not, whether the one who died was a good cop or a bad cop.

Idle thinking, she tells herself.

The coffee pot is half empty by now, and the five people just sit there and talk. They have moved their chairs closer to the table, subconsciously huddling together as if they all want to draw peace and consolation from the presence of the others. Cheryl notices that the redhead tries to address everyone whenever he speaks; he looks around the table and every now and then, his hand moves across to someone else's to give it an encouraging squeeze. But his eyes always return to the beautiful Latina at his side, and Cheryl corrects her earlier impression that they are related. He loves her, this is perfectly clear to Cheryl, although he conceals it very well. But Cheryl has gone through years of training of watching and analyzing people.

She concentrates on the Latina, curious whether she can detect a similar emotion in her. And what she finds is astounding: there is a diverse assortment of emotions flickering across her face when she looks at the Redhead (she has secretly named him so, with a capital R): respect and kindness, a hint of affection and care, but, oddly enough, reluctance and even guilt. Cheryl wonders what happened between them. She definitely likes him, but Cheryl cannot say if she loves him. She would not rule it out, either, though. But it seems to be a complicated matter.

She looks away from the strange couple and to the other three. The African-American is quiet; she is listening to something the blonde is saying. The Hispanic guy listens, too, and something in the way he reacts to the blonde when she looks at him makes Cheryl curious. She looks closer and notices that the blonde has shifted closer to him over the past ten or fifteen minutes. Whether this was subconscious or deliberate, Cheryl does not know. A little bit of both, maybe. She is a whole lot shorter than him and his shoulders are broad; perhaps it is the instinctive yearning to be protected that draws her towards him. Cheryl must admit that he has the air of a protector. And the blonde is vulnerable at the moment.

They all are.

Some fifteen minutes later, the coffee pot is empty and the Redhead signals Cheryl to bring the check. She almost regrets that they are leaving; watching them was interesting.

The Redhead pays the whole round and earns weary but honest smiles from the others. Then he pushes back his chair and gets up. The African-American and the Latina stand up as well, but the blonde and the Hispanic guy remain seated. Cheryl hears the blonde say, "We'll stay for another drink."

Maybe her evening will not be boring, after all.

The blonde hugs the Redhead goodbye. They are close, too, Cheryl realizes, but this is merely platonic. There is no hint of awkwardness in the way they treat each other, no secretive glances, no shyness, no coquetterie.

Cheryl watches the three of them leave the restaurant and notices that the Redhead has put his arm around the Latina. She does not object; she leans on him and, for a moment, rests her head on his shoulder. She seems to feel comfortable around him, and while they are walking away, Cheryl wishes the Redhead that she will grow to love him, too.

Cheryl is woken from her reverie when the blonde signals for her again.

"Would you bring us two glasses of red wine?" she asks. "Medium dry, if that's possible."

Cheryl rushes to oblige and presents them with Bernie's best Chianti. The blonde smiles.

"Thank you so much," she says. "First the coffee and the milk, and now the wine... am I right in thinking that these are not the types of wine and coffee that you usually serve?"

Cheryl blushes. "I figured I might as well do you some good," she says quietly. "You've lost a friend, haven't you?"

They both nod.

"I figured," Cheryl repeats, even quieter than before. "Just call me if you need anything. I'll leave you alone."

From her safe place behind the bar, Cheryl watches the blonde and the Hispanic raise their glasses in a sad toast on their deceased friend. They talk and talk, every now and then taking a sip from their glasses, and as the minutes go by, they huddle closer together.

She sees fresh tears in the blonde's eyes, and she sees the slightly awkward move of the Hispanic's hand as he strokes her shoulder in an attempt to give consolation. She looks at him, and Cheryl can almost see the electric jolt that goes through him when he holds her gaze.

Her next move is so fast Cheryl can hardly follow it. Suddenly she's lying in his arms, sobbing against his broad chest. He holds her, and Cheryl sees his lips move. He rests his chin on her head and murmurs into her hair, and Cheryl thinks he's crying, too. She tries not to stare, feeling like an intruder when she watches this privacy. But she is so moved by the picture, she cannot help looking.

The blonde huddles closer against him, almost as if she wants to disappear into his welcoming embrace, and he wraps her up in his arms and softly cradles her. He breathes a kiss on top of her head, and she suddenly raises her tear-streaked face to him and says something.

From the look on his face, Cheryl can tell he didn't expect whatever she said, but she holds his gaze and repeats the words, more urgently, as it seems. He hesitates for a moment, but then he lowers his face to hers and kisses her.

Cheryl notices she has been holding her breath.

The kiss looks tender, but chaste. No passion as such, but Cheryl can virtually see the deep and true affection in it. It's a consoling kiss, not a demanding one. How she wishes she knew what it was the blonde said to him!

They're still kissing; repeated, small kisses, more a brushing of lips. They both have their eyes closed, and Cheryl thinks that she has rarely seen a couple that looked so comfortable, so close to each other. No awkwardness, no fumbling. This is probably the most mature way for any relationship to begin.

Cheryl turns to Bernie, feeling the sudden need to be held. But Bernie has, again, disappeared, and Cheryl scolds herself for her sentimentality. Bernie would not be the right person, anyway. Sure enough, he's the kind of guy who likes to give bear hugs to everyone who looks like they could need them, but it would be almost anticlimactic to be squeezed half to death by Bernie after seeing such a scene.

When Cheryl turns around again, the two have moved apart and the Hispanic is looking at her. "Check," he mouthes, and Cheryl hastens to oblige.

He pays for the wine. The blonde has already collected her things, and now she's wiping her eyes with a hankie. She doesn't wear any make-up, and now that Cheryl gets a close look on her, she is stunned by the beauty that radiates from this face, although the eyes are red and swollen and the tears have left traces on the cheeks.

This woman is something special, and it is all she can do not to tell the Hispanic to hold her and never let her go again.

"Thank you," she says, referring to the generous tip the Hispanic has included for her.

He nods. "Have a nice day," he says.

Cheryl almost answers, "You, too," but she bites her lip just in time. It would be inappropriate, and so she smiles and says instead, "All the best to you."

The blonde smiles, a sad and heartbreaking gesture, and when they leave together, she is leaning on the Hispanic. He has one arm firmly around her, and just as they are going through the door, he places a gentle kiss on her temple.

Cheryl looks after them for quite some time, even after they have disappeared around the next corner, and knows that neither of them has to be alone tonight.

xxxTHE ENDxxx