NOTES: Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope you've enjoyed this fic. I am writing a sequel, and will have the first chapter of that up within the next couple of weeks. I'm also planning to write a commentary post like I did for TRIS. Look for that soon also. Finally, there's a link to the playlist post for this fic on my LJ. You can find that on my FF.n profile. I hope you'll check it out! I really appreciate everyone's support. :)
December 24, 2012
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Someone has left a newspaper on the end table in the little outer office where Chase is waiting. 'December 21st Passes, World Does Not End,' the headline proclaims proudly. Beneath the bold block letters are photos of empty supermarket shelves, and a group of people with signs, gathered on a hilltop to await the coming apocalypse. Seeing these images, Chase thinks that these people have no idea just how close they have come to disaster. It has taken nearly three weeks to contain the outbreak in Oceanview, which has involved eradicating most of the local wild bat population. In the meantime, there have been a handful of additional deaths, some who were infected during Smith's protest, some who became ill even after the source of infection was identified. Cameron has handled the remainder of the case with extraordinary stoicism, the perfect armor Chase would never have expected from her.
Now he sits back in an overly-upholstered chair, and watches an hour tick down on the clock above the small desk where a bored-looking secretary sits entering some sort of data into the computer. He has already done his part testifying for Cameron in the peer review, and as an outsider is excluded from the rest of the proceedings. He had thought it might end quickly, being mostly a formality at this point, but that is proving false. Sitting in the silence now, he remembers his own time in front of a committee, the sting of baring his most private tragedy to a panel of cool, detached administrators. He wonders now what the outcome will be for Cameron, whether she will choose to stay with the EIS if given the chance, or move back into practice. Secretly, he finds himself hoping that she might decide the impossible, and choose to come back to Princeton, though he knows in his heart that things can never go back to the way they were before. Whatever happens now, there is a difficult discussion to be had with her over dinner, and he has not yet made up his own mind.
As the clock ticks on, anxiety swells in the pit of his stomach; it feels as though the future might need to be decided on a moment's notice. Cameron has a late evening flight back to Chicago, just in time to open presents under the tree with her family, and he knows that there will not be much time before she is due at the airport. He is fighting off the memory of Christmas past when the door opens at last, and Cameron exits the conference room alone.
"How'd it go?" asks Chase, getting to his feet in a rush. She looks tired and a little haggard; her packed suitcase is already in her car, awaiting the rest of this endless night.
Cameron shrugs. "Do you want to get dinner? I've got a little less than an hour before I have to be at the airport."
"Okay," Chase answers quickly, taking her cue to wait for discussion. "But it's Christmas Eve. Is anything going to be open?"
"There's a McDonald's down the street," she offers, grimacing. "I don't really have time for anything fancier anyway."
Chase smiles, following her toward the office door. "Well, I'm pretty sure the food won't be contaminated with any bat urine. So really, they've got an advantage there."
December 24, 2012
The inside of the restaurant seems entirely saturated in the smell of French fries and cheap disinfectant. Chase glances around as they sit at their table, a tray heaped with food between them. There is only one other patron present tonight: a lone elderly man, seated in the corner and staring out at the parking lot. Chase finds himself wondering whether this man might once have been his future. Whether such loneliness might yet be.
"I can't believe there's no snow here," he says at last, breaking the silence. They have driven separately; Cameron has not said another word about the case or peer review.
"It's the south," says Cameron, delicately dipping a fry into the little cup of ketchup they are sharing. She eats it in one bite, swallowing with effort. "I'm going to Africa right after the holidays."
Chase feels his appetite instantly vanish, his heart pounding in his temples. He had been hoping to be pleasantly surprised, he realizes, thinking that she might have been delaying this conversation because she'd decided to leave.
"You're staying with the EIS, then?" he asks, taking a sip of his drink. The soda's carbonation burns all the way down his throat, oddly reminiscent of the alcohol he'd so relied upon as a distraction before.
Cameron nods, looking down to meticulously unwrap her chicken sandwich. She unfolds the paper slowly, wrinkling her nose and blotting some of the grease off the meat before speaking again. "There's reports of what may be a novel hemorrhagic fever in Zaire. A preliminary team is already en route, but they've asked me and Barnes to join them in light of our success with this case."
"You're evading," says Chase, feeling the first swell of frustration rise. "A few weeks ago, you thought you'd made a mistake joining the EIS. You couldn't wait to get out. What's changed?" He cannot help remembering how defeated she has seemed for most of the case, how much bureaucracy and protocol have hurt her. It feels like a betrayal, in a way, for her to choose this over a clearer path to a future together. But then he is forced to remind himself of the thousand ways he has crushed her himself, how House's manipulation has threatened everything vital to both of their lives. The fears she has shared with him in the past month, spoken aloud between them for the first time.
Cameron fiddles with the paper some more, barely touching her food. Her hands are shaking again, Chase notices. "I decided—I'm tired of running away. House was right. Every time things get tough—I just let it all go. Start over. And I do like my job. Or at least—I did before I stopped caring about anything. Maybe I could have that back. We were right! We solved this case. They have to see that, whether they'll admit it or not. Maybe I could still do something bigger here. But the truth is, I'll never know if I give up again. I'll be stuck coasting forever."
"Then what about—us?" asks Chase, biting back a rush of hot grief. "Was this all just a nice vacation from reality? You were upset at the thought that we might not have a future together. Now you just want to throw that all away?"
Cameron flinches visibly, and Chase regrets the harshness of his words the instant they are out of his mouth. He is all too aware of his own choices which destroyed their marriage, of the many, many selfish fears he has put before her needs. Of the danger to make that mistake again now.
"I want to be with you," she answers quietly. "I want that more than anything in the world. But I can't have that be—everything, right now. I let that happen before, and when things fall apart, there was nothing left. So now—I need you to meet me halfway."
"You're asking me to move." Chase looks at his tray, poking a fry into the rapidly-congealing ketchup, then setting it down again. Nothing seems remotely appetizing anymore. If he's honest with himself, this is the same question that tore them apart three years before, the leap of faith he could not bring himself to make then. He owes this to her now, this and so much more in exchange for another chance. Forgiveness has seemed an impossibility for so long; making this commitment to be with her now ought to be simple. And yet he cannot shake the remnants of deep-rooted fear, cannot bring himself to look into the unknown of a future life beyond Princeton.
"I guess I am," says Cameron. Decisively, she wraps up the remains of her food, finished with her attempts at dinner. "You know I can't go back to Princeton. I'm sorry. But I think maybe now you're ready too."
"I don't know," Chase answers quickly, though the certainty has been mounting throughout the case. He feels as though House's hold on his life has been diminishing over the past month; he has now seen the manipulation for what it is. And yet, the thought of severing those ties still terrifies him, leaves the doubts resounding in his mind. There is no guarantee on their relationship either, he reminds himself. Even if he moves here, it remains uncertain whether or not they will be able to put the pieces back together. "I don't think I can decide right now, Allison. It's a big change."
Cameron bites her lip, then nods once, getting to her feet to throw the trash away. Only now does it occur to Chase that they are running out of time, that she needs to be leaving for the airport. Time has seemed suspended for the course of this conversation. He moves to follow her toward the door.
"When you make up your mind, you know where to find me," she says simply, turning to leave. "I should go now."
"Allison, wait!" Chase calls, catching her just outside the door. Darkness has fallen, and now the air is chilled to a biting cold.
Cameron pauses, turning. In this moment, Chase feels a promise on the tip of his tongue, knows without question that he cannot bear to lose this chance again. But he cannot quite find the words, knows beneath the desperate flutter of his heart that this must be more than a hasty decision if it is to have any chance at success.
Instead, he steps forward, wrapping his arms around her in a rush. Cameron hugs back tightly, hooking her chin over his shoulder and holding on. Her breath is warm against his neck, a shock in the frigid night.
"I love you," Chase whispers against her ear. "I need you to know that."
"Merry Christmas," Cameron answers, then steps back again. She keeps her gaze locked with his for a long last moment before retreating into her car.
December 25, 2012
The condo feels cold and empty as Chase comes through the door, suitcase dragging heavily behind him. The sun is already hanging low in the sky, long shadows stretching across the living room's hardwood floor. He becomes aware of the emptiness immediately; somehow this place now feels even less inhabited than his Oceanview hotel room. There is no Christmas tree, no sign of the season or time passing, nothing to suggest that anything here has ever changed.
Leaving his luggage abandoned in the front hallway, he switches on the television. A reporter is discussing the seasonal influenza outbreak, forecasting an expected death toll. Epidemics are all around, thinks Chase, though few ever make it into public awareness. He feels strangely invisible in that realization, as though the Oceanview outbreak might somehow have never existed.
He cannot say where he is going until he finds himself standing in front of the dresser in his bedroom, led by some subconscious yearning, the tug of an unforeseen future which seems to have taken hold on him now. The sock drawer is one of the few places in the condo which still resembles the days of their marriage. As he opens it, Chase inhales the scent of rosemary and lavender from a sachet Cameron had slipped into the corner on the day they'd first moved in. It smells of that sunlit afternoon at the church, of promises made and dreams imagined.
Taking a breath, he reaches into the back of the drawer, feeling around in the softness of cloth until he finds the familiar solidity of his abandoned wedding ring. It is the first time he has looked at it since the divorce, though before then he'd taken it out on a regular basis, a twisted sort of personal penance.
Holding the ring up to the light, Chase turns it in his fingers, watching the delicate band glint in the orange glow of the setting sun. Little sunbeams bounce off the surface, fractured in a dozen different directions, setting the walls all around aglow.
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