THROUGH A BOTTLE DARKLY

A one-shot, set during the season one episode 'From the Earth to the Starbucks'.

-x0x-

"Hey ho! To the bottle I go
To heal my heart and drown my woe."
(From: 'The Fellowship of the Ring'.)

-x0x-

'You astound me.'

'I believe in you. I really do.'

Shawn Spencer dropped to his knees on the ugly, beer-stained carpet. Beside him lay the peaceful form of Head Detective Carlton Lassiter – an unforeseen turn of events, if ever there was one. Luckily, Shawn was a born opportunist. Lassiter, in this helpless state, was just like a sideshow prize falling into his eager hands before he had even played the game.

He already had the man's cuffs in his pocket; an impulsive, drunken gift that Lassie would surely regret in the morning. Should he 'borrow' the badge as well, for a matching set? Or take a few pictures, and save them for leverage... no, wait! Send them on to every one of Lassie's contacts? Better still, print them out and post them all around the station?

So many possibilities, he mused. And yet, here he was, doing none of those things because, apparently, the pie-eyed detective wasn't the only one acting strangely tonight.

In truth, the whole thing was starting to feel like some kind of out-of-body experience. Around him, in the quirky dive bar that had been Amanda's choice of venue for the world's shortest date, people drank and laughed and chatted while a generic country song provided instantly forgettable entertainment. No one took any notice of Lassiter's plight, or offered to help. Perhaps this kind of thing was a regular occurrence – in which case, Tom Blair's staff really ought to consider watering down their whisky.

"Guess it's up to me, then," Shawn said pleasantly to Lassiter. "I'm not going to ask how you feel about it. I'm not really sure myself. That's a pretty spectacular bruise you have there, by the way." He reached out with a tentative finger and poked the man's forehead, feeling remorseful when Lassiter winced. "And the scores are in. Wooden table: one. Santa Barbara's finest: a resounding zero."

"Wha…?" said Lassiter groggily. "Spencer? You still here?"

"Why, yes I am, C… Carlton." How could such a simple name be so difficult to say? He worked his jaw around it with an effort.

"Thought so. Am I… on the floor?"

"Sharp as a Sour Patch Kid," Shawn said with deep approval. "What was your first clue?"

Lassiter wagged his finger. One blue eye was open. "Not gonna give you the satisfaction. I know you're trying to trip me up…"

"No, I think you'll find the whisky did a pretty good job of that."

Now there were two blue eyes glaring at him. "I don't get drunk."

"So I've noticed." Shawn took hold of Lassiter's hand and heaved until the man was sitting upright. "Must be me, then." He gestured to the empty glass lying nearby on the nasty carpet, surrounded by several tiny plastic cutlasses - proof of the pub's commitment to its tacky ocean theme.

"That's a bad habit," Lassiter told him solemnly, patting him on the arm. "You should look after yourself."

Shawn's lips twitched. "I'll take that under advisement. Are you ready for the first step in my very special recovery programme? I call it 'Standing On My Own Two Feet'."

"Don't be ridiculous, Spencer. Why would I stand on your feet when I have two perfic… hic… perfectly good ones of my own?"

Wrong, thought Shawn. You're legless. Against his better judgement, he was starting to feel the faintest hint of pity for the man who sat in front of him like a broken scarecrow, too forlorn to make his way to Oz and ask the wizard for some dignity.

Reaching out, he righted the fallen bar stool and pulled it closer. "Hold onto this," he suggested. "We'll do it together, on three. One… Two…"

Lassiter surged to his feet; the very image of drunken determination. Shawn stared up at him, taken aback and visibly impressed.

"Lassie!" he said. "That was poetry in motion. Just… erm, keep hold of the table for a moment, would you? Or we'll be right back where we started." Hastily, he jumped up. Now the two men were standing face to face. Lassiter's fiery breath nearly knocked Shawn sideways. He blinked several times to clear his watering eyes, and gripped the detective's arm. "Okay. We're conscious and we're upright. Time to get you home, Ca… Carlton." Oh, for goodness' sake…

"I'm not goin' home with you, Shawn Spencer. I would rather wear a ribbon in my hair." Lassiter's tipsy pride was oddly endearing.

Shawn raised his eyebrows. "First of all, thanks for that glorious image. And b: I meant your home, Lassie Face. Yours. Not mine. Never mine; I can promise you that."

"You don' know where I live. Do you?" Lassiter's tone was suspicious.

Lifting a finger halfway to his head, Shawn paused and smirked at the man. "Oh, wait," he said lightly. "It's just a 'crock of crap', right? So why am I seeing a red door? Blinds in the window, and grass… lots of grass. You keep a neat garden, Lassie. I'm impressed."

"That could be anywhere."

"True." Shawn nodded wisely. "True. Or could it be - what did you call it – 'psychicness' after all?" He held the beat as he gazed at the startled detective. No need for Lassie to know that Shawn had been practising his tailing skills on several of his friends and acquaintances lately. Gus on a Thursday. Jules on a Friday. Lassiter every second Tuesday and even Chief Vick one notable Saturday night, when she almost caught him following her to the movies. Casino Royale – great film. Such a shame he had to duck out just before the ending. "Wait for it." He closed his eyes and pretended to focus. "Wait for iiiit… Ding dong bell. With a beautiful view. Bellevue Gardens! A one and an eight – but there's more. A four? Looks like… one eighty four. Tell me, Lassie; am I close to home?"

"Dammit," said Lassiter bleakly. "Now I have to move."

"Don't be silly!" Shawn's bright smile was a masterpiece of innocence. "You can trust me. I'll only swing by two or three times a week, when we're out of… I'm kidding!" he added quickly, as Lassiter pushed away from him and stumbled. "Lassie, please. Look, put your arm around my shoulders." He slipped into position. The tall detective leaned on him at once, which was surprising. Shawn had expected far more resistance.

"Step two. Let's call you a cab," he decided, grabbing Lassiter's jacket with his free hand.

"You're a cab," Lassie retorted. Glancing round at Shawn, he giggled. "'S a joke, Spencer. Don't look so surprised. You're not the only one who thinks he has a sense of humour."

"I don't 'think'. I know it. Not really sure that joke counts as humour, though. Try harder," he challenged the man, hoping to keep him alert enough to navigate the perilous path from the table to the door. Their first stop was the bar, where Shawn tossed a note on the counter and mouthed: "Keep the change."

Lassiter jabbed him in the ribs with one long finger. "I'll have you know that I made Dobson laugh only yesterday."

"At you or with you?"

"Hnn?"

"Never mind," Shawn said hastily. "I'm sure you felt very proud."

Lassiter shook his head, and now the maudlin tone was back. "Not really. Not at all. Nothing to be proud of. Even Buzz McNab can make that dunderhead chuckle."

"Oof. I think you're being far too hard on yourself, Lassie. You make me laugh all the time, with no effort at all."

"Good of you to say so, Spencer." Lassiter patted Shawn's chest. "You're a good man."

"Oh, not really," Shawn replied, feeling the weight of the cuffs in his pocket. Good men didn't take advantage of their… No. Don't finish that sentence. Whatever he and Lassiter were, 'friends' didn't really cover it. And yet…

And yet, he couldn't help liking the man, for some unfathomable reason.

"Door," he said firmly. "Watch out!"

After the stuffy atmosphere of Tom Blair's Pub, the night air felt surprisingly crisp and cold. Several cabs were lurking nearby, waiting for the next sure thing; an inebriated customer in need of a safe ride home. Shawn deposited Lassiter in the closest one. Then he hesitated.

"In or out, dearie?" said the driver, an elderly lady who looked as though she ought to be drinking tea with her knitting circle, not ferrying drunks around Santa Barbara.

Shawn held up his hand. "Just a minute. I'm thinking..."

Lassie was starting to fall asleep again, sprawled all over the seat, with his head tipped back and his mouth wide open. "In," said Shawn to the driver, much to his own surprise. "Unless you're stronger than you look." He tucked himself into the car, pushing arms and legs out of the way, like some kind of Japanese game show challenge. Then he buckled them both in. Lassiter giggled and Shawn gave a sigh of embarrassment. "Hit it, Blanche. Let's get this over with."

The cab peeled away from the rank and puttered down the street. Shawn laid his forehead on the cool window, listening to Lassiter snore. "Not the date I was hoping for," he told his pale reflection. "Though you could say that Lassie got lucky. I've been told I'm quite a catch."

A snort from the front seat warned him that the little-old-lady driver had exceptional hearing for her advanced years.

"W'nt to snuggle," Lassiter mumbled. "'Toria, please. Don' push me away."

Shawn tried to extricate himself without 'accidentally' punching the detective or poking him in the eye. "How far now?" he begged the driver.

"Nearly there. You're a good friend, dear," she added, turning briefly to smile at him.

There it was again; that word he was trying to avoid. "Oh, I'm not…" Never mind.

"If you say so." 'Blanche' nodded shrewdly as she drew up outside Lassiter's house. Delirious with relief, Shawn opened the door while the car was still moving and popped out onto the sidewalk like a cork from a champagne bottle, rolling a few times before he came to rest. Lassiter's exit was slower and far more elaborate but, ultimately, just as painful.

"Ow," he grumbled, as his knees hit the concrete.

Digging into his pocket once more, Shawn pulled out the last of the petty cash (borrowed for his date with Amanda) and gave it to the driver. "For your silence," he quipped.

She tapped the side of her nose with a crooked finger. "Need any help with the poor lamb?"

"Oh, no. The poor lamb and I will be fine and dandy, thank you very much." He waved her away with considerable relief and turned back to Lassiter – who was already staggering up the garden path. Shawn couldn't help laughing at the look of intense concentration on his face. "Lassie, hold up! I've got you."

Together, they made it to the front door without serious injury. "Step three," Shawn said cheerfully. "Find the key. Oh, look! Here it is in my hand." Never had he been more thankful for the pickpocketing skills gleaned from 'Oliver' one Christmas (and then practised on Gus, to perfection).

"Fin' the key," Lassie mumbled. "Jus' like magic."

Several lamps were already lit inside the house – giving the illusion of occupancy, Shawn guessed, as he led the man to his own sofa and eased him down with care.

"Let me put the kettle on," he offered, looking around for the kitchen. "Three creams, four sugars, right?"

"No," said Lassiter. "Sleep." He curled up like an over-sized baby with his cheek resting on his palm.

"Step four," Shawn whispered. "Sleep and forget." Once again, he itched to pull out his cell phone and capture the moment for posterity – yet still he couldn't bring himself to do it. The urge to snoop around the house was even stronger but Shawn fought back for the first time in his life. The whole scene was safe in his memory and that would have to do. Some things were not for sharing. Lassiter's pain had given them both one night of immunity.

Shawn was turning to leave when a quiet voice made him falter.

"Spencer."

"Yes, Lassie?" he said, without looking.

"I'll be wanting those cuffs back."

"Oh, sure. I'll get right on it," Shawn lied, covering the offending pocket with his hand.

"Good. You're a strange man..."

"Thanks for that."

"…but I don't dislike you half as much as I thought I did."

Shawn cleared his throat and took another step towards his freedom. "Goodnight, Carlton."

Silence. Had the detective fallen asleep at last?

No such luck. "See you in the morning, buddy," Lassiter murmured.

You can count on that, Shawn thought, with a tiny smile, as he closed the door behind him. He was already plotting his next move. Tomorrow was going to be so much fun.