Title: Life Vs. Charlie Part III: Happily Ever After

Author: FraidyCat

Genre: Drama, Angst (Don't Let the Title Fool You; I still whump for a living)

Time line: Any Time is Good For Me

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Drat the luck.

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Chapter 1

Seated at the last stool at the bar, he had a good view of the dark hallway that led to the public phone and the restrooms. It wasn't difficult to imagine what went on down there, and he didn't think much of it was related to the relieving of bladders. No, apparently there was a potent virus loose - at least half of the people who emerged from that black hole seemed to have developed an immediate head cold, if he was to judge by the red noses and watery eyes.

This place was a little more obvious about extra-curricular activities than the other clubs he had begun to visit. He nursed his vodka & tonic, and told himself it didn't matter. He wouldn't come here again. One thing about L.A. - he wasn't likely to run out of bars anytime soon. He only visited once a week, after all. Well, sometimes twice. There had only been one week when he had pulled a triple-header.

Even that week, he had never gotten drunk on one of these middle-of-the-night excursions. He could nurse one drink all night. Sometimes he didn't even bother, and stayed with soda. He didn't come for the alcohol. He came to feel.

He watched the mating ritual, as old as time itself.

He absorbed the music, the solid pulse of the angry, pointless genre he suddenly preferred — eventually so loud in his head he was unsure whether it came from the sound system, or his heart.

Even with the cane visibly hanging off the bar next to him, someone would invariably ask him to dance, but he would just smile sadly and indicate the can with his eyes, and eventually she would leave him alone. Or she wouldn't, and he would end up going back to a dingy room somewhere for pity sex...but that had only happened twice. Last night, when it almost happened a third time, he had caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hung on the back of the bedroom door, and once he recognized who he was, he found that he couldn't pretend, anymore. The weight of the last year had crashed on top of him almost as solidly as the sledge hammer had hit his knee, and he hadn't even said good-bye. While she was in the bathroom, he just put his clothes back on and left. He was home, as he always was, in time to clean up for the new day. He had pasted a smile on his face, exchanged small talk at breakfast, and limped out the door as if any of it mattered, anyway.

He was jostled away from his thoughts when people began running out of the corridor to temporary happiness, in droves, pushing at the bodies in front of them and yelling. In the mirror behind the bar, he could see the same thing happening all over, and finally, over the loud music, the word "fire" found its way to his ears, and he knew he had to join the melee. He slipped from the stool and tried to unhook the cane from the bar, but he was immediately swept into the tide.

He would have fallen long before he did, but the bodies pressing him so closely from all directions refused to let him, and he was caught in the undertow of panic. The screaming was louder than the music, now, and he could see the flames.

Suddenly, the woman in front of him went down, and without her back to brace him, he was next, feeling a sharp sting as he hit his check on her stiletto. He tried to curl himself into a protective ball as feet continued to stampede over him, and wondered why he wasn't afraid.

He wondered why all he felt was relief.