When Steele Worlds Collide

(Set during the episode "Woman of Steele"

He was not, under ordinary circumstances, a drinking man. Oh, he was known to indulge in the occasional glass of champagne – more for the spectacle than the taste … the pop of the cork, the fizz of the golden liquid filling a delicate flute, the sight of warm brown eyes looking back at him over the rim of a coupe.

Similarly, he enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner or relaxing by the fire – always the finest vintage, meant to be savored, not gulped. And he might have a martini or brandy, even a lager as the occasion demanded. But whatever it was that filled his glass, his limit was usually one. For much of his life, staying mentally sharp could make the difference between a successful score and a long stretch in a federal penitentiary … or worse. Even in his darkest moments – and there had been more than a few – he had resisted the temptation to find comfort in a bottle. He'd seen where that led, had watched plenty of good and bad friends spiral down into a deep well of despair from which there was seldom an escape.

Not having slept in more than 36 hours, he knew he was particularly susceptible now to the effects of a potent potable. He also understood that at this moment, perhaps more than ever before, he needed his wits about him.

But today the man needed a drink.

He picked up the double Scotch the barman handed him, fished in his pocket for a fiver and retreated to the farthest, dimly lit end of the bar. The place was largely empty at this time of day, but in this part of town there were always a few souls, as sad or desperate or confused as he was, nursing their pain with the only kind of solace they knew. He'd chosen this seedy dive in West Hollywood precisely because no one would think of looking for a polished and sophisticated detective here … and he needed to be alone.

A once-upon-a-time-pretty barfly sat on a stool across from the bartender, glancing his way with what passed for a come hither look in such environments. He turned his back to her, pulling his flat cap further over his eyes as he hunched over his glass. It was almost laughable how quickly fate could turn on you. Two days ago at this time he was striding into the County Fine Arts Museum, supremely confident in his reputation as the city's most respected private investigator and security expert. Now he was hiding out in a rundown bar, afraid to face the hard truths and impossible decisions that awaited him outside.

He'd become complacent, a weakness almost as dangerous as drink. Gotten too comfortable, immersed himself overmuch in this fantasy. Gradually, not even realizing it was happening, his guard had started to slip. Worse, he'd begun to create ties here, set down roots. Foolish. Deep down he knew – for how could he have forgotten? – that the past was always waiting to catch up with the man who stopped running from it. And now it had.

Anna.

From the moment he'd glimpsed her in the museum he'd been in a free fall, the solid ground beneath him dropping away like a landslide in a California earthquake. In an instant he was 25 again, crouching in the shadows on a Mediterranean waterfront, heart pounding in anticipation. Waiting for a woman – a future – that never materialized. He had very nearly not survived the darkness that followed, months and years of running blindly, stumbling, searching … And then, finally, a flicker of light in that abyss. Faint at first, but growing and glowing with unexpected warmth.

Laura.

Was it too much to say she had saved him? Or had she in fact created him? Certainly there were moments, while dealing with clients, accepting accolades and – most of all – being with Laura for business or pleasure, when he could almost believe he really was Remington Steele. It was the modus operandi that had guided his whole life. As he'd recently told Laura, he believed in himself as whoever he was at the moment, until it was time to believe in himself as someone else. And the past? Well, he had many reasons to close the door behind him when it was time to move on.

But now a particularly traumatic piece of his history had come back, as he'd confessed to Laura, to haunt him. No, not haunt. A ghost was ephemeral, insubstantial, easily banished in the light of day. Anna's reappearance was only too concrete – a sledgehammer crashing through the new life he'd been building. Now he was left to pick through the rubble to see if anything could be salvaged or if it were better to cut his losses and begin anew again somewhere else. With Anna?

Seeing her had reawakened something inside him, he had to admit. In their brief time together in Monte Carlo, Anna had introduced him to sophisticated passions and pleasures that his hardscrabble childhood had not prepared him for. He was no innocent, even then. But Anna Simpson possessed certain skills and allurements that could make a young man feel wise beyond his years.

Laura, on the other hand, had a disconcerting habit of treating him like an errant schoolboy. Just yesterday she'd follow him to Walter Patton's estate - knowing full well he didn't want her involved in this - and all but rapped him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper to show how disappointed she was in him. Disappointed: Yes, that was the right word. Not furious. Not hurt. Just annoyed and mildly resigned, as if she'd been expecting this all along. She'd coolly dissected their relationship like one of the mathematical formulas she studied in college, the only hint that she felt more than casual interest in his connection to Anna being her uncharacteristic use of a mild expletive when she spoke of his "damned past." Worse, she accused him of playing games, of expecting her to feel grateful for any small nugget of his past that he deigned to share with her.

Steele took another sip from his drink. It tasted bitter. Or perhaps that was just his mood. Did Laura really not understand that each piece of his life he offered represented a greater risk than the most dangerous jewel heist or art theft he'd ever done? He never knew which slip of the tongue or seemingly innocuous revelation would be the one that finally revealed to her who he really was, the moment of truth that would cause her to turn from him in contempt.

Judgment. That was something he'd never had to worry about with Anna. She didn't give a damn about where he'd come from or what he'd done before he met her. And as high class as she was, she didn't mind getting a little dirty. He recalled one particular evening when he'd come to her after a narrow escape, covered with mire and stinking from hiding beneath the pier at the marina. She'd wasted no time stripping off his wet clothes, he recalled with a little rush of heat, and devoured him as if he'd been dipped in chocolate. In contrast to Laura's icy calm, Anna was a creature of fiery, molten passion. Their moments together had left him ravaged, weak. ... begging for more.

Yet she'd treated him badly, often. Stayed away for days. Responded coldly to his desperate need for her. Let him see her with other men, required him to degrade himself to get back into her good graces. But he'd done so, eagerly. This woman had been an addiction more powerful than any of the pharmaceuticals that he'd seen others fall prey to. He had craved Anna – her sleek body, her ravenous mouth, the wild abandon with which she mastered him completely.

He craved her still.

It was a hard admission, even to himself. Perhaps that was why he avoided overindulgence in mind-altering substances. Maybe he had good reason to fear losing control, of surrendering himself to the heady rush of decadent pleasures as he had done with Anna. That way lay madness … and, in its aftermath, almost unendurable pain.

Pleasure. Anna had taught him to associate that word with the most basic sort of animal instinct. There had been a naked carnality in everything they did together — in bed, on the dance floor or while liberating a fine piece of jewelry or priceless painting from its unsuspecting owner.

How could anything he might hope to have with Laura compare to that? He'd caught only the most fleeting glimpses of the "absurdly passionate" side that her former lover, Wilson Jeffries, had hinted at. But compared to the raw sensuality of Anna's appetites, a tequila-fueled fan dance was tame indeed. And he didn't figure he'd see even that much any time soon. These days, Laura Holt was as tightly controlled as Anna was uninhibited.

Swirling the remaining brown liquid around in his glass, he thought back to two nights ago. After she left him at the restaurant he'd followed her back to her apartment, sheepish and anxious. He'd expected to feel her wrath – in truth, he deserved it – and had been relieved when she instead listened calmly to his explanation, accepted it, even offered sympathetic support. At the time, he'd felt deeply grateful for her understanding. Looking back now, however, he wondered: Shouldn't she have been angry? Wouldn't someone who cared have been visibly upset? In her place, Anna would have thrown every sharp object she could find at him. Laura had just stood there, watching him wrestle with his memories and his confusion. And then told him it was all right for him to feel that way.

Was her response comforting … or just cold?

Replaying the scene in his mind, he did recall that Laura was unusually flushed, her tone more than a little sharp when she noted his interest in "that blond." And when he'd kissed her, she'd responded passionately. He could still feel her arms slip around his neck, pulling him hard against her. The little sigh in the back of her throat as her mouth moved against his. Her fingers drifting restlessly through his hair, down his back as the kiss deepened even further. It occurred to him, suddenly, that it could well have been the night, if only he hadn't been so distracted and unsettled. Instead, he'd left her as usual – and found Anna waiting for him in his own penthouse.

His mind wandered to other times, other places. The way she'd kissed him in the wine cellar at the monastery of St. Costello … her tears as he'd held her after her house burned, and when she'd held him after she found him running Descoine's murderous race … her gentle hand on his arm, on his cheek, on his brow so many times when she sensed he needed to feel her touch … the hurt in her eyes when he'd threatened to leave her over the Descoine matter and this morning when he'd snapped at her for suggesting Anna's motives might not be entirely pure. She did care.

So here he sat, on a torn leather barstool at the intersection of two potential futures, two very different lives. He'd sent Marleau packing. Anna would be … grateful. She'd as much as told him she would forget about the marriage to Walter Patton to be with him. She wanted him. Anna held out a world of possibilities like a glittering jewel in her palm. There would be dizzying excitement. The highest peaks of ecstasy. The deepest pits of pain. The intoxicating exhilaration of living every moment on the edge. How well he remembered that life. Offered the chance to have it again, could he resist?

And then there was this life. Some excitement, yes, in his work. And in that, too, the very new feeling of making a positive difference in the world. He'd come to value the easy rhythm his life had fallen into: a good day's work, a pleasant dinner with Laura followed by a movie or dancing or a quiet evening in front of the fire. Or simply saying goodbye at the end of the workday, knowing they'd see each other (and Mildred) the next morning. It pleased him to be sure, as he sat at his desk reading the paper or dealing with the paperwork that he didn't really mind as much as he said he did, that Laura was just behind that red door. At any moment he could open it, see her smile at him (or scowl, if he was dawdling over the paperwork, but that was delightful, too), ask her to lunch or maybe just sit and chat for a few minutes until her powerful work ethic reasserted itself and she shooed him back to his office to resume the nine-to-five grind.

He cared for Laura. Wanted her, of course, very badly. But liked her, too. She made him laugh, challenged him, drove him crazy sometimes. He'd always considered kissing simply a preliminary or accompaniment to more … intensive … pursuits. With Laura it had become the main event. And to his astonishment, he'd discovered what a very great pleasure that could be. He loved feeling her body soft and warm against him. Her lips on his, light and teasing or slow and sensuous. All the different notes that made up her particular scent: strawberry shampoo, a slight, musky hint of perfume behind her earlobes and what he called "Essence of Laura" on her skin and lips … he loved that he could still smell her, faintly, on his clothes when he got home. Most of all he loved looking into her eyes, warm and bright with affection or soft and dusky in arousal. A simple glance from her could make his heart race and an unfamiliar glow spread through his body.

Was this … happiness?

It was a word he'd never connected with his own experience. Happiness implied depths of feeling and stronger ties than his lifestyle had afforded before. Excitement, passion, terror, lust: these were transitory emotions. Happiness held the promise of something profound and even lasting. But it also carried a terrible risk for pain even more exquisite than he'd felt when he'd lost Anna. If he allowed himself to be happy with Laura – dared to love her – how could he bear it if all went wrong?

He took a final swig from his glass and set it down on the bar. There could be no more equivocation, no more dodging the truth. He knew he couldn't live in both worlds, Anna's and Laura's. It was time to decide where he truly belonged.

Seeing his empty glass, the bartender strolled to the end of the bar. "Have another?" the man inquired.

The man who called himself Steele took a last look into the bottom of his glass. "No thanks, mate," he said. "There's someone I need to see." He slid off the barstool and stepped out of the dark bar into the bright sunshine of an L.A. afternoon.

-END-