WARNINGS: Season Six spoilers
NOTES: A (very belated) birthday gift for numbartist, who wanted an AU version of Cameron coming home. Since I'm already writing one AU version of that, I decided to make this as different as possible. I don't really think it would ever happen this way in canon, but it was certainly fun to play with. Happy holidays again, and I hope you all enjoy this!
A Ghost Story of Christmas
He's grown remarkably adept at going through the motions, at convincing everyone that things are all right. If they don't entirely buy the act, at least they've stopped asking, and that is good enough for Chase. Already it seems like a practiced routine, the transition into jaded solitude perversely easier than adjusting to married life.
It's been barely a month since Cameron left, her things still filling the condo so that he feels like he's living with a ghost: her coat crumpled where it's fallen from the hook in the hallway, her toothbrush collecting dust from its place on the rack next to his. She's left in enough of a rush to forget these things, buoyed by emotions Chase no longer understands, but he doesn't have the heart to move anything.
The week of Christmas there isn't a case, though he finds himself wishing there were. In earlier years when he was alone, he worked the graveyard shift in the ER to make Christmas Eve pass, but now even that is much too full of memories. The hospital was his escape once, but now it serves only as a painful reminder of just how many good things he's had and lost.
On Christmas Eve this year, he finds himself with nothing at all to do, and empty time is the most dangerous thing of all, threatening to break the walls between his carefully-compartmentalized emotions. He tells himself that it is out of an attempt to move on with his life and be healthy, but really he's always been a bit of a masochist at heart, and that's why he buys the last scraggly tree from the lot on the corner near the hospital. On his way home he picks up soggy Chinese takeout and a twelve-pack of beer.
They had begun to accumulate a small collection of ornaments the previous year, though almost all of them are Cameron's. It isn't until the tree is set up in the living room—leaning badly to the left, like it's trying to reach the wall for support—that he realizes he has no idea where the box of ornaments is, and doesn't think he could stand to look at them besides. In the end, the tree remains bare, the food stone cold, and Chase passes out on the couch after drinking all of the beer.
"You forgot the angel," says Cameron in his dreams. It is another time, another Christmas, and she is radiant in the multicolored flashes of light from the tree, laughing as she holds the ornament out to him.
"I couldn't find her," Chase answers, frowning. The angel is all porcelain and white lace, a gift from Cameron's mother.
"She was right there the whole time," says Cameron, and pokes him in the ribs.
The angel's wings catch fire as Chase's fingertips brush the lace, gold-spun hair turning to ash in his palm. He wakes with a cry to the sun shining in through the window illuminating the tree's stooped silhouette.
The condo is deadly silent.
It's raining on Christmas Eve, a storm that feels like Armageddon. Wind drives the freezing drops into Chase's face like needles as he leaves the hospital in the dark, thunder crackling dangerously above. He's just finished observing the autopsy following their latest failed case, and it's the middle of the night. Secretly, he's grateful for the work making the holiday pass quickly, like any other day.
Walking into the condo, Chase is too exhausted to even turn on the lights, feeling as though the damp cold has sucked all remaining energy from his bones, leaving him weighed down and empty. He's tired enough to sleep in the bedroom tonight, to pass out without the aid of alcohol, and let Christmas Day go by unnoticed. Dropping his bag next to the door with a weighty thunk, he turns around and freezes.
Cameron is perched on the edge of the couch, so completely still that for a moment he thinks he must be dreaming again, or maybe actually looking at a ghost. She's dressed in all black, dark wet hair plastered to her face, shadows from the rain on the windowpanes making spectral tears on her cheeks. She doesn't say anything, as silent now as when she left.
"What are you doing here?" Chase asks finally, taking a few steps into the center of the room. He still hasn't made any move toward the lamp, and a flash of lightning gives him a better glimpse of her face, the rainwater puddling at her feet. She's been crying, he realizes, and doesn't know what to make of that.
"I got the couch wet," says Cameron too quickly, getting to her feet. She has a tendency to ramble when she's nervous, Chase knows; he's always found it oddly endearing. "I'm sorry. My father died."
"You—what?" Chase asks, shocked. This is the last thing he's expected tonight, both her sudden reappearance in his life, and the reason for it. He swallows, feeling suddenly unbearably sad, though he can't be sure whether it's out of sympathy for her or pity for himself. "When?"
"This morning." She clears her throat, sounding painfully hoarse, and he wonders how much of this day she's spent crying. "Colon cancer. It's been—months."
"I'm sorry," says Chase, stunned almost beyond words. He's spent the year in her absence picturing her moving on with her life, angry at the image of Cameron being happy when he cannot seem to find any semblance of peace. Now he is certain—because he knows her—that she must have spent the time caring for her dying father. Another thing by which they are paradoxically both separated and united.
"I know—that I should be there," Cameron continues, as if she's expecting him to criticize her motives. "But I couldn't. I just—got in the car and drove."
"Why here?" asks Chase, having already written himself off.
Cameron shrugs, looking very small in the midst of this place which was once her home. "You're my best friend. I thought—you'd understand." She isn't speaking in the past tense, Chase realizes.
Her skin is like ice as he closes his arms around her, rainwater mingling with hot tears against his shirt, her face turned into his shoulder. Chase threads his hand into her wet hair, feeling off-balance, like he might as well be embracing an ethereal spirit. Like she might slip through his fingers and be gone again. In this moment, history does not matter; guilt and resentment are irrelevant, the crumbling ruins of their past relationship nothing more than monuments. There is nothing now but a bond formed in shared pain.
"I thought—Somehow if I got away from this place, so many terrible things might stop being real," Cameron whispers, close to his ear. "I was wrong. I should have known—That's just life."
The rain turns to snow, Christmas-Day sun peeking above the horizon into a rose-colored sky. Neither of them notices.
When terrible things happen, life goes on. The sun rises and sets exactly the same, responsibilities don't go away. Most of the time, no one even takes notice. Chase learned this years ago, has made it his subconscious understanding with the world. Sometimes he thinks it was inevitable, growing up his mother's son.
He's alone on Christmas Eve again, puttering around the condo in search of things to put on his latest bare tree. This one was bought out of an honest attempt to get into the holiday spirit, to find joy in the things that once made him happy. But those feelings seem very far off still, something he's been reaching toward for months, but still unable to capture.
Cameron appears on his doorstep a little past nine, holding her box of ornaments as though she's read his mind.
"Hi," says Chase, watching the white tendrils his breath makes in the frigid dry air. He's perpetually surprised to see her; she's developed a habit of showing up at the condo unannounced.
"I thought you—We—could use these," she answers, handing over the box.
"Don't you have somewhere to be? A party, or something?" asks Chase, then regrets the question. She has a new job, a new set of friends, and an apartment an hour away in New York. It's a compromise, nothing like the closeness of before, and yet she seems always still to find the time to come and visit him.
Cameron shrugs casually. "Yes. I'm here."
"Oh," says Chase, feeling unable to accept the simplicity of this statement, but he smiles when she hugs him awkwardly around the box in his arms.
"You can't have a naked tree," says Cameron, eying it in the living room as she steps past him, and shrugging out of her coat. "That's just sad."
"I know," says Chase, remembering the first Christmas after she was gone. He's never told her about that, and doesn't intend to now, though he thinks he wouldn't be entirely surprised if she knows anyway. It seems impossibly as though they've grown closer by being apart, and though sometimes it feels to Chase like he might never be able to move entirely past anger and regret, he understands things about her now that he never could have before.
They make short work of the tree, falling into the comfortable silence that seems to define their relationship lately. They have never been particularly good at communication, he's realized in the past year, and so much still remains unsaid. Yet Cameron keeps coming back, keeps showing up when he needs her most. It was her decision to move from Chicago to New York after the funeral, one which they have never discussed. Chase is guiltily grateful for her father's death bringing her back into his life, though he will never admit this aloud. They are friends now, unquestionably, and perhaps heading toward something more. He's thought of asking her where they stand, but the words always die on his tongue, the fear still too great. Two years since his crime, and still Chase has trouble imagining that he is deserving of anything good at all.
Later, they find a marathon of Christmas movies on television, and Cameron falls asleep with her head on his shoulder as the last lines of It's a Wonderful Life play. Holding his breath, Chase slips an arm around her, sitting perfectly still for a very long time, watching her chest rise and fall. For the first time since everything fell apart, he thinks he's starting to feel the stirrings of a cautious kind of contentment again.
"Hey," she breathes at last, stirring when he sits up a little to turn off the television. She blinks at him a few times, but doesn't pull away immediately.
"Sorry," Chase whispers, swallowing a moment of disappointment. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Cameron shakes her head, glancing at the clock on the wall. "It's after midnight. Merry Christmas."
"Stay here tonight," Chase answers, surprising himself. "I mean, if you don't have anywhere you need to be. It's late."
She just nods, smiling. "It's Christmas morning, technically. Do you want your gift now?" Her breath tickles his neck, and Chase shudders, suddenly intensely aware of how familiar this feels.
"Should I say yes?" he asks, inexplicably nervous.
"Definitely," says Cameron, and gets up to retrieve the bag she's left under the tree.
Chase takes advantage of the movement to get her gift as well, unable to resist the infectiousness of her smile when they both get back to the couch. It's been an impossible two years, yet in this moment, she still looks filled with hope.
"Open yours first," Chase tells her, handing over the small, flat box he's wrapped clumsily in a piece of red tissue paper. His breath catches in his throat as he watches her, shadows of doubt fluttering in his stomach. He's wanted this gift to be meaningful, but can only hope now that she appreciates it in the way he's intended.
Cameron inhales audibly as the delicate silver locket falls into her palm, and she glances up at Chase in question before turning her attention back to its clasp. Inside is a photograph of her as a toddler, laughing in her father's arms. She looks at it in silence for a very long time, eyes glassy with tears when she meets his gaze again.
"Thank you," she manages at last, swallowing visibly. Shaking a little, she slips the chain over her head. "It's perfect. Now open yours."
The bag that Cameron hands him is very light, and Chase is intensely aware of her eyes on him as he reaches inside and lifts out a small glass display box. Inside are three fragile flower petals, paper-dry and faded with age, and the tiny gift card with the words not stolen. Chase glances up quickly, afraid to assume.
"You never gave up on me," Cameron says softly. "And I want you to know that I'm not giving up on you."
"What about—us?" Chase asks, unable to resist the question any longer.
Wordlessly, Cameron lays her palm against his cheek, then leans in and kisses him very slowly. Shifting closer, Chase closes his eyes, reaching up to cradle the nape of her neck. In his mind, he sees only the future, everything that came before melding into this single night. In this moment, it seems limitless.