AN: Seven years later, a girl who used to call herself daydreamer poked her head back into this corner of the universe to post a silly little one-shot, and was shocked and awed to find that this story is still generating traffic. Not a lot of traffic, granted, but people are still coming to read it, which makes me feel amazed, and humbled, and yes… heartwarmed. And also guilty. So very, very guilty for letting this story hang where it did for so many years. And to think of all the crap I gave the showrunners back in the day for cliff-hangers and long hiatuses…. shame on me.

I binged-watched the entire series a couple of months ago with a friend who had never heard of it—or the names Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski or even Adam Baldwin (I know, right? What rock has she been living under her whole life? I've confiscated her nerd card and placed it in a secure facility fifteen stories below downtown Los Angeles. She'll earn it back when she can work her way through a series of pop culture challenges and retrieve it from its lock box.) And since then, this story has been percolating in the back of my mind. It's a different time now, and a different place in my life, so the story I want to tell is a lot different than the one I started. What's already here is going to have to be sliced and diced and edited and rearranged to the point where I'll probably just create a new entry for it. And that's going to take a lot of time—if it comes to fruition at all. I write at the pace of a geriatric sea slug, my time to write is still limited, and what I have planned is long. I don't want to repeat past mistakes and start posting before I'm ready to finish what I started, so it may be many moons before the next installment comes out, and that's provided that life doesn't get complicated again.

But for the five to fifteen people a week who still swing by here to visit after all these years, I feel like I owe you some closure and should at the very least let Chuck and Sarah finish their night. This chapter was already halfway written, and a few days ago I stumbled across a poem by Maria Rilke that finished it for me. I had to go back to chapter four and add a conversation between Sarah and Casey I had planned for later (and chapter breaks! Where did those run off to?) to make sure Sarah's mindset here is clear, so it's probably worth backtracking a bit before diving into this new chapter.

As always—especially now, after all this time—thank you for reading.


CHAPTER 6

Sarah vs. the Long Island Iced Tea


Sarah walked across the Maison23 lobby taking a series of calming breaths. Glancing out the window, she spotted Casey making his way to the surveillance van. He was trying to talk to his sister, prevent his umbrella from being snatched away by the wind, and keep his shoes dry all at the same time. Her heart went out to her partner and the long, cold vigil he was keeping. She thought briefly of returning to the lobby to book him his own room—to at least give him the comfort of a hot shower, a warm bed and a big room service breakfast in the morning. But, were anything to happen, they needed him in the van. As long as the country was to remain safe, they would always need men like Casey manning their posts alone.

Oleander, he had told her the first time they had talked about their families—the night that waste of human flesh Heather Chandler had cued Casey in to the situation with her father, and he had pressed her for details as they sat writing their reports, opening up a long and surprising conversation between them. If I'm ever captured or fall off the grid, call my sister and tell her 'oleander'. Could you do that for me?

Sarah had nodded numbly and taken Laura Beth's contact information; amazed that the man who once contemptuously referred to her as nothing more than a "CIA skirt" would now trust her to that extent. One word. One word and a phone number, and that was all it would take to turn his baby sister's world upside down, sending her on the run from unknown and unseen enemies. Of course, Laura Beth was prepared—she knew what to do. Like the generations of Caseys before her, she was a decorated soldier; Special Forces trained and one of the elite handpicked for select black ops missions. The Casey siblings had served side-by-side for five years in the Balkins and the accomplishments of their team were nothing short of legendary. But Laura Beth had eventually opted for—and achieved—a normal life. She fell in love with and married her team leader, had a child, and settled down to a cozy consultant's job in Italy. But now, her husband had been recalled to active duty and was out of contact somewhere in the Middle East, and her brother was speaking the one word that would drive every last shred of normalcy out the window. Sarah was just glad that Casey had the chance to break the news to her himself instead of having it come from a stranger.

Sarah sighed and leaned her head against the window, watching as Casey climbed into the back of the van, still trying valiantly to stay dry. There was no such thing as normalcy for people like them, only its illusion. Once in the game, always in the game—it was a lifetime commitment, no matter how much one might wish otherwise down the road. No changing your mind, no going back. Graham had done his best to make that clear to her before she signed her contracts, but she had been only eighteen at the time, feeling she had no other choice while being simultaneously wide-eyed and awed by the new world opening up before her. It was only now, a decade and more later, that the full meaning of his words was truly beginning to hit her.

Had she been so naïve as to think that Chuck, once sucked into this world, could get his normal life? Had she really thought that she could just walk away and be a part of it? That she could let herself fall in love completely without worrying about the consequences or having to hold herself back? One word was enough send everything swirling into chaos, but there certainly wasn't a word that could make it all stop.

All of this was getting to be too much for her, and she found her lower lip trembling and her eyes filling with tears again. Dammit, pull it together Sarah . . . Lisa . . . Jenny . . . Caroline . . . Shit. How was she supposed to pull it together when she didn't even know who to think of herself as? She had opened up to Chuck tonight, wanting to share herself with him, create something real between them; but bringing up all of those memories, picking at the scabs of old wounds never really healed, had opened up a floodgate of emotions she wasn't prepared to deal with. Adding to that Bryce's death, Chuck downloading the new Intersect, and the threat of The Ring, and she was feeling completely out of control. In the space of a few minutes she had rapid-cycled through at least dozen different emotions and she felt wobbly and dizzy in the wake of the maelstrom.

Casey was right. She was lost.

And, for the first time ever in their relationship, Chuck had handled her. For the first time she had been the vulnerable one, the emotional wreck letting her feelings interfere with her performance, and he had been the one to speak the words she needed to hear to get her to stand up, suck it up, and do what needed to be done. That was an unsettling role reversal for her to say the least.

And that just wouldn't do, now, would it?

Sarah pushed herself away from the window and strode off down the hallway with a new determination. Midway down, however, she pulled up short, her mouth going dry. A man was coming out of the stairwell door; about her height, dark jeans, black jacket, black ball cap with a fringe of brown hair curling around the edge. He was walking with his head down, moving with a familiar gait. Sarah felt her throat close off and she let out an involuntary gasp.

"Bryce?" she stammered.

He looked up. Green eyes met hers with a questioning glance.

It wasn't him.

Great, she thought. Now I'm at that stage of the grieving process where I start seeing dead people around every corner. I thought I was past this already.

She mumbled an apology as the man passed her. She listened to his footfalls retreat behind her and took another step towards the stairwell, a little more hesitantly this time. As she reached the door, her hand hovered over the knob.

I need a drink, she decided and spun on her heel, heading for the bar.

XXX

Chanté slumped over the Maison bar and sighed over his stacks of handwritten checks, knuckle-buster carbons, and adding machine tape. The receipts and the drawer still weren't balancing. "Is that a nine or a four?" he muttered to himself, squinting at a check in the dim emergency lighting. Damn manual checkouts. He was convinced half the bar had bounced on their tabs the second the computers went down. Fuck it, he decided. Ima just come back in the morning and charge 3 drinks to every damn room in this place. He pulled out the tips he knew he would have earned if everything hadn't gone to hell right at last call, shoved everything else into a bank bag with a flourish, and closed his eyes and bent backwards over the barstool, stretching out his back.

When he opened his eyes again, he was staring at an upside-down Stanford logo.

He straightened up and turned, his long multi-colored dreadlocks whipping behind him.

"Well if it isn't Sarah Walker herself?"

"In the flesh," she shrugged.

"Mmmmm hmmmm. And plenty of it too," he teased, giving her a long head-to-toe look. "Girl, what do you think you're doin' walkin' around here with all those legs hanging out? You're gonna give poor Chip a coronary."

She tried to smile and halfway succeeded. He didn't know why, but Sarah had been coming into his bar for long enough that he knew she carried a special kind of sadness with her. And tonight, it was running very close to the surface.

"Honey, what's wrong? Did you blow another audition? I keep telling you to forget about those cop dramas and action shows and focus on the romantic comedies. Nobody is gonna buy that angel face of yours running around with a gun."

A flicker of amusement crossed over her face, and she shook her head. "No, it's not that."

"Then what is it?"

"Care to pour a girl a drink?"

"Last call has come and gone, baby."

She looked up at the clock over the bar, which had stopped when the power failed.

"Looks like I've still got four minutes."

"Touché." He shrugged. "Take a seat. It's not like I'm not already gonna get yelled at tomorrow."

Chanté glided around the bar, tossing the bank bag into the drawer, and scooped ice into a pint glass.

"Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"

"No ma'am. There's only one drink that goes with that face." He grabbed the five whites off the call rack and poured with both hands, filling the glass to the top of the Maison logo. A splash of sour, a splash of coke, a quick stir with a straw, and he pushed the drink across the bar.

"What are you doing down here, anyway?" He asked as he mixed himself a vanilla vodka and ginger ale. "I thought you'd be upstairs gathering ye rosebuds while ye may."

"Gathering ye rosebuds?" She asked with another almost smile, stirring her drink idly with her straw. "Aren't you feeling poetic tonight?"

He reached under the POSi and pulled out a thick poetry anthology, plunking it down on the bar. "I met a super-hottie at Zumba. He's a liberal arts major, and now, so am I. I sit next to him in poetry class." He batted his eyelashes, and tossed his dreds behind his shoulder.

Her almost smile became a half smile. "You take Zumba? I thought you were a real dancer. Even if you haven't had a gig in six months."

"Oh, I don't do it for the dancing. I do it for the dating."

"With who? The middle-aged housewives?"

"No, sweetie. The closet cases." He held a swizzle straw delicately between his thumb and forefinger and sipped his drink.

There it was. A real smile.

"You're too much."

"And yet, y'all love me anyway."

She answered by sucking down half of her drink in one long swallow.

"But tell me for real, what on God's good green earth are you doing down here, when you have that tall, lanky, bundle of adorableness waiting for you up in your room? He didn't hurt you did he? 'Cuz I'll go up there and beat his ass."

She mumbled something he couldn't quite make out, but it sounded like "he hurts me every day." Chanté leaned across the bar to meet her eyes, raising his own eyebrows in a question.

"No, no. It's nothing like that," she said and took another sip. "How'd you know he was here?"

"Honey, there isn't a thing that goes on in this here establishment that Chanté doesn't know about. I saw you two running through the lobby hanging on to each other like the rest of the world didn't exist. I've been wondering when you were finally going to let him stay the night."

With another long pull, she finished her drink.

He grabbed a fresh pint glass to make her another. "So why aren't you with him? Looked like a romantic rendezvous to me."

"Because," she looked up towards the emergency light, "'romance has no part in it,'" she quoted from memory. "'The business of love is cruelty… Love is cruel, and selfish—and totally obtuse.'"

"Ouch." He shook his head, "Who said that? Langston Hughes?"

"William Carlos Williams." She opened the anthology, flipping through to find the page for him.

"Ah, yes," he said, turning down the corner. "But you know what the great bard said; 'the course of true love never did run smooth.' But 'lovers ever run before the clock,' and you're not getting any younger, sweetie. You strike me as a woman who needs to be upstairs seizing the moment with a gorgeous man you clearly love right now, not down here sucking down Long Islands with me." He set her drink in front of her.

"'Had we but World enough, and Time, This coyness Lady were no crime. But—'"

"'But at my back, I always hear, Time's winged chariot hurrying near,'" she interrupted. "'The Grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace,'" she sighed morosely, fiddling absently with her straw.

"You're awfully morbid tonight. Have you forgotten about 'the awful daring of a moment's surrender which an age of prudence can never retract? By this, and this only have we existed.'"

"But, I wonder," she returned, "'Do I dare? And, do I dare… do I dare disturb the universe? For in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

Chanté didn't have a poetic retort to that, but, as ever, he had a song. "'Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes,'" he sang softly as he walked around the bar to perch on the stool next to her. "'Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand moments so dear…'"

"Who's that?"

He shook his head. For a girl who claimed to be a struggling actress, she certainly was lacking in her knowledge of the classics. Maybe that's why she was still struggling. She had a face—and a body—made for the camera, but, as far as he knew, she hadn't landed a single gig the entire time she'd been at the hotel. Nobody could figure out how she was managing to pay her bills on a yogurt girl salary. He suspected she was secretly an heiress, but as of yet, hadn't been able to prove it.

But then again, why would an heiress work at a yogurt shop?

"Never mind," he finally said. "The point is, Sarah Walker, 'there's only now. There's only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.'"

"But… 'Love is so short, forgetting so long…'"

"Ah, Neruda. Remember he also said…" he flipped to a dog-eared page, scanning for the line. "'I learned about life from life itself. Love, I learned in a single kiss. And I can teach no one anything, except that I have lived.'"

"'I have lived…'" she repeated thoughtfully, then muttered, mostly to herself. "'I do not hope to turn again…'" She looked like she was struggling of with a decision of some sort. He sat quietly and watched her fidget with her drink, knowing she'd speak when she was ready.

"Can I ask you a question?" She finally asked.

"Of course."

"Have you ever lost somebody that you… cared for?"

"You mean somebody that I loved?" She nodded reluctantly.

"Yes." He said, simply.

She obviously wanted to ask more, but couldn't bring herself to do it.

"I was in high school," he eventually volunteered. "I grew up in a little town in Tennessee and was one of only a handful of black kids in the school. And I thought I was the only gay one too. It wasn't exactly an easy time for me."

"I can imagine."

"A bunch of rednecks had me surrounded after glee club rehearsal one day, pushing me around and calling me all sorts of hateful names, and I thought I was going to get my ass beat for the fourth time that year. Then all of a sudden, he showed up and rescued me—my knight in shining baseball cleats.

"It took him a long time to kiss me, a long time to admit to the part of himself that he was hiding, but once he did, we had one magical semester where it didn't matter what people said or what awful things they did, because I had him. When we were together, the haters and the bullshit just didn't matter anymore.

"But then some asshole caught us making out under the bleachers. Word got out and his teammates beat him within an inch of his life and put him in the hospital. When he recovered, his parents made him cut off all contact and sent him to some 'pray away the gay' camp. I never saw him again."

"What happened?"

"There was a fire. They kept the dorms locked at night to keep the evil little fags from running away. His mother wouldn't even let me through the door of the church for his funeral—told me it was my fault he burned. I got my GED and a fake ID, got the hell out of Tennessee and have never looked back. I've been with a lot of men since then, but I've never met anybody I loved as much as I loved him."

"I'm so sorry." She reached out to lay a hand over his.

"If you are, then you're missing my point."

"What do you mean?"

"That one semester—those few months my junior year—were the happiest of my life. He stormed into my life waving a baseball bat to rescue a nerdy little victim and he turned me into the fierce bitch you see before you today. He made me a better person, and I wouldn't trade that time for anything. I can't imagine what my life would have been without him.

"In short, sweetheart, what I'm saying is: 'tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.'

"Now I don't know why, and I don't know who you've lost before, but I can tell you're sitting here thinking that your love is poison. That maybe whatever you have going on with that beautiful manchild upstairs is doomed to fail, doomed to hurt you both—and maybe it is. But at the end of your life, when you look back, I know you'll always regret not giving love a chance. People always do. Love hurts no matter what you do about it, but what's stopping you from trying to find a little happiness to go along with the pain?"

She had no answer.

"Oh," he sighed dramatically. "Never was never was a story of more woe. Than this of Juliet and her Romeo"

"Romeo and Juliet were idiots," she spat out contemptuously.

"But..."

"And they both died."

"But they died for love! What better cause is there to die for?"

"Morons. Both of them. Absolute morons."

"Well," he drawled. "Are you smarter than Juliet?"

She snorted. "I'd hope so."

"And that guy upstairs? What's his name?"

"Chuck."

"Is Chuck a moron?"

At this she scoffed, amused. "That's debatable sometimes."

He gave her an even look. "No," she eventually said, looking down. "He's not a moron."

"Well then I think you two can safely avoid Romeo and Juliet's fate. So what do you have to lose?"

"More than you know."

Chanté picked up her hands and sang again:

"'There's only now, there's only here.
Give in to love, or live in fear.
No other course, no other way,
No day but todaaaayyyyy.'"

By the end he was really selling it.

She smiled softly and gave him a golf clap for his performance. "Does this whole poetry and song thing ever actually work for you?"

Chante's phone buzzed. He turned it over and grinned.

"That would be my literary McHotty now. He speaks sweet poetry to me too." He held up the phone for her to see. The text read: U up?

"Good for you."

"Please, girl, it was inevitable. I mean, have you seen me?" He spun around, giving her the best possible view of his tight pants, toned ass, and open uniform shirt and struck a dramatic pose, leaning on a barstool with one hand. She smiled and huffed out a laugh.

"And now that I've made my favorite customer laugh, my job here is done." He reached over the bar and grabbed a decorative bud vase holding a single white rose, surreptitiously dropping a mini microphone down into the bottle while his back was still turned, shielding her view. He had stashed it there weeks ago, hoping the opportunity would come to use it.

"Here, I've even gathered some rosebuds for you," he said, pressing the vase into her palm, taking a moment to squeeze his hands around hers. "And, just remember, honey, 'the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.'

"Now get that cute little tush upstairs. This bar is closed."

Sarah stood up, leaving her second drink untouched. She reached into her sweatshirt and pulled out a twenty, sliding it across the bar. "Thanks Chanté. I'll see you around."

"Not if I see you first, girl." He slid the money back to her.

As she walked out of the lounge, contemplating the rose, he eyed her drink. Well, if she's not going to drink it…

He finished the Long Island as he turned up chairs and wiped down the bar, humming happily to himself. If that microphone did the trick, he'd be getting lucky in more ways than one tonight.

XXX

Sarah slipped through the green door as silently as possible, easing it shut behind her. The room was still dark, the moon hidden by storm clouds. City light and candlelight reflected off the metallic walls creating a soft, shimmering glow.

Don't think. Feel.

Breathe.

"Chuck?"

A soft breath hovered in the air, drifting in the flickering darkness. She crossed to him, moving noiselessly on the balls of her feet. He was sprawled diagonally across the bed, spread-eagled, robe askew, his body limp and face slack, having abandoned himself to sleep with the thoroughness of a toddler after a day at an amusement park. She stood at the foot of the bed and gazed down on him, feeling a nearly intolerable warmth building in her chest. It welled up through her throat, brought a pulse to her cheeks and liquid heat to her eyes, and as it flowed through and around her, she took one deep, trembling breath, and, exhaling, let it all go.

This is love, Lisa. Feel it. Feel every last cruel ecstasy it brings. And in the morning… let him go.

She walked slowly around the bed, studying him as he slumbered. The water in her eyes made his form shimmer and dance in the wavering half-light, his features a serene blur.

She set down the rose in its little vase on the nightstand and took the .32 out of her waistband, laying it alongside. In my beginning, is my end…

Easing herself onto the edge of the bed, she reached out to lay one hand against his cheek. He didn't so much as stir. Even if she were inclined to wake him, she doubted she'd be able to. She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothed a wrinkle from his brow and whispered:

"'I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times...
In life after life, in age after age, forever.'

"'How shall I hold on to my soul, so that
it does not touch yours? How shall I lift
it gently up over you on to other things?
I would so very much like to tuck it away
among long lost objects in the dark
in some quiet unknown place, somewhere
which remains motionless when your depths resound.
And yet everything which touches us, you and me,
takes us together like a single bow,
drawing out from two strings but one voice.
On which instrument are we strung?
And which violinist holds us in the hand?'"

She sat drinking in his visage for several long minutes, preserving the time she had to do so unobserved and uninterrupted, and then turned her gaze back to the watery skyline, to the view she had come to know so well over the many sleepless nights of the past two years. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the gun and the rose on the nightstand. Life and death side-by-side on a single reflective surface, both right within reach.

Let it live a little while longer, she thought and eased off the bed, carrying the vase to the bathroom and adding water.

As much as she wanted to climb into bed with him, to curl up in the corner he wasn't occupying and lay her head on his chest and listen to his heartbeat for the rest of the night, she knew sleep wouldn't be easy coming and she didn't want to disturb the rest he so clearly needed. Maybe it's better this way, anyway. She blew out the candles and sank softly to the floor, crossing her legs and leaning back against the bed, staring out at the City of Angels and waiting for the sun to rise on an uncertain new day.

Sometime later, as the first clear calls marked the beginning of the dawn chorus, she was pulled out of a light doze by the feel of his hand on her shoulder. She reached up and drew his arm around her chest, leaning her head into his bicep.

"Sarah?" he breathed out, a question full of hope.

She turned within the circle of his arms and rose to her knees, sank her hands into his thick mass of still-damp curls, and gathered his lips to hers.

The first time was rushed, almost frantic, both of them bracing for the inevitability of the knock at the door, the urgent phone call, the assassin hiding under the bed or any of the myriad of interruptions that always seemed to keep them apart. They came together in a breathless crash, as if they had something to prove, claiming possession of each other, struggling for dominance, racing towards the conclusion they both desperately sought.

As she lay panting afterwards, she knew her decision had been made.

The second time was languid, searching. They stared into each other's eyes in the pink haze of dawn and met each other gradually, completely, losing themselves in their entirety. They forged a connection so consuming that she wasn't sure anymore where she ended and he began. The poets were right. It really was as if they were two souls, sharing the same body.

This was what Casey had been talking about.

She had never felt more secure.

She had never been more exposed.

The third time, as the sun cleared the skyline and streamed golden light onto the silver walls, as the beginning of a new day made its presence undeniable, she made love to him as if it were the last time.

XXX

As Sarah was brushing her teeth after her morning shower, she heard a knock at the hallway door followed by the sound of male voices. She quickly relaxed as she realized they belonged to Chuck and Mike, the room service guy.

She donned a robe and walked back into the bedroom after she heard Mike leave, toweling off her hair. "That was sweet of you to order breakfast, Chuck."

"I thought you ordered it."

She dropped her towel and stared at Chuck, both of their eyes going wide.

Chuck picked up the bug scanner he had swept the room with the previous night and waved it over the covered dishes on the tray. A loud beeping filled the room.

Chuck made a lunge for the door and Sarah dove for the nightstand, reaching for her gun and Casey's watch.

"Casey! Wake up! We have a problem!"

She grabbed a pair of earwigs out of the drawer, and as she whirled to follow Chuck out into the hall, the edge of her robe brushed against the bud vase and it overturned, spilling water across the mirrored surface of the nightstand. The water flowed across the glass and slipped off the edge, dripping, to pool on the carpet in the now empty room.


AN2: I started to create a works cited page for all of the poetry and song references in this chapter, and then remembered that this is fanfic and I don't have to. So, pffffttt. Y'all have the internet anyway, or else you wouldn't be here reading this. I will say that if I could only have one book on a desert island, it would be my old marked-up, dog-eared copy of T.S. Eliot's complete works. If I got a second, it would be Pablo Neruda, and if they gave me a third, I figure I'd get some sort of survival manual or photo guide to edible plants or something.

I also lifted an image here from the incomparable Course Jester. I had the gun and the flower already, but when I read back through his amazingly poignant and touching Eleven Roses fic, I realized that "hey, this is like…. symbolic… and stuff," so I punched it up a bit. I kind of feel bad about stealing from him, but this is, after all, fanfic and he didn't own it in the first place, now did he? Thanks, CJ.

And on another note, I just read that RENT is out on its twentieth-anniversary national tour. Twenty years…. (Sigh)

I grow old, I grow old...