(As always, my thanks go to maineac!)
Artwork for cover image by anamq/(at ana_m_q on Twitter) - thank you so, so much, Ana!
Onward Through The Night
"It was saline, I gave you a placebo."
A placebo. Cuddy had given him saline instead of a shot of epidural morphine. He still couldn't believe it had worked.
He was glad he hadn't taken the motorbike to work this morning. It was just after 6pm and he was sitting in his car, parked in front of his apartment building. It was less than a hundred feet to his front door. Yet, he had no idea how he was going to get there.
A placebo had worked. That meant his pain wasn't physical. It wasn't real. It was in his head, just as Wilson had suggested. And now Cuddy, too. For a second he wondered whether Wilson had been in on Cuddy's scam but rejected that quickly – he had seemed genuinely hopeful House's increased pain meant nerve regeneration. Not so. He felt humiliated – had literally dropped his pants before Cuddy to get pain relief – and betrayed, yes. But less hurt than he expected, funnily enough. He was curious. Confused maybe. Stunned, definitely.
His pain wasn't real.
Then why, why for fuck's sake was he sitting here, with no idea how to get into his house! The pain in his leg was real. He was not all sweaty and nauseous from nothing.
His pain was real.
And yet, it seemed that it wasn't.
His hands had taken up their well-known routine, they were on autopilot. To no avail. The pain was unrelenting. His only goal was to get inside his apartment and collapse on the couch. A hot bath would be better but he knew that even if he were able to make it as far as the bathroom, it would still leave the problem of how to get out of the tub afterwards. Experience told him it was probably already too late for a bath.
So he planned his exit from the car. Open the door. Use both hands to shift the obstinate leg out of the car. Grab the cane from the passenger seat. Use the cane and the open door as leverage to get up and out of the car.
This just left the ninety-odd feet between his car and the door.
Just over ninety feet - a distance that wasn't going to shrink while he was sitting there. His pain would get worse, though, so he had to get a move on if he didn't want to spend the night in the car.
His backpack over his shoulder, eyes to the ground, he concentrated on each step by careful step. Left foot, cane, right foot. Repeat. In his experience the outside world was treacherous in moments like this. Somehow he always managed in the hospital; the floors were smooth, no cracks, no barriers. It was safe ground even when he was in greater pain than normal. Anything past the hospital doors was enemy territory.
Heavy rain had left the stoop wet and slippery and the seconds he took to fumble for his keys spelled disaster. Distracted for just a moment, he mis-stepped and the next thing he remembered was the stoop rushing up to meet him. He somehow managed to turn to protect his right leg and felt a sharp pain in his left hip instead when he hit the step.
It took him a moment to clear his vision. Nobody on the streets seemed to have noticed his stunt. He probably wouldn't have minded much anyway because he couldn't concentrate on anything other than how the pain in his leg had suddenly been eclipsed by the fresh pain in his hip. He needed to get inside, though; before the whole neighborhood came out for a gawk at the spectacle he had created.
He struggled off the step, using the door handle to pull himself up.
His apartment door finally closed behind him, he managed a few shaky steps into the living room, shedding his backpack and overcoat on the floor.
Just past the couch he stopped, still slightly dazed and catching his breath. No hasty decisions now, he needed to plan his next steps because he knew he didn't have many left in him. His hip wasn't seriously damaged, he could feel that. But the pain was enough to overshadow the other pain that had been accompanying him all day. Not for long, though, he knew he could rely on his leg to catch up again soon. Where to? He didn't really have much choice. Bedroom, it had to be the bedroom. It seemed a lot further away than usual, though, so much so that he needed the desk as support to get there. And the radiator and the walls in the hallway.
He finally collapsed on his bed and shifted onto his right side awkwardly, pulling up his shirt and loosening his belt. There, the beast in this thigh was taking over again. He felt his heart rate go up and tried to take a slow, deep breath before opening his jeans to take a look at his hip.
A bruise the size of his fist was already starting to form just below his left hipbone. Great.
Time for the inevitable.
He took his cane at the wrong end and angled its handle under the bed. The one-handed House party trick, ladies and gentlemen. He pulled out the crutches, dusty now. He didn't have to get them out too often, only on the days that he couldn't make it out of bed with the cane alone. Those days had been very rare lately. All the more did it irk him now that he had to resort to this. But he had learned the hard way; he had kept the crutches for a reason. Black and blue was not a good look on him and it also raised questions he didn't want to answer. It was easier to hide them under the bed, out of everyone's sight, knowing they were there when he needed them.
He would do nearly anything to lessen the pain, especially if he was on his own.
Pain, pain, pain, that's all there ever was. That's all his brain could deal with; nothing else existed outside the pain. As exhausted as he was, the beast raging through his body kept him awake. He was leaning back against the headboard, a tumbler with bourbon on his chest. Unable to sleep, he had made it back to the kitchen, desperate for something - anything - other than Vicodin, which didn't seem to work at all tonight. In passing he had cast a longing look at the piano but he knew damn well he wouldn't even be able to sit on the bench for five minutes. Distractions weren't going to work tonight. Alcohol might. So he juggled a half empty bottle back, slowly but grateful he had kept the crutches.
He wiped his forehead, still sweaty. The pain in his leg kept pounding away. No surprise there. Nights like this he wished he could just chop the damn thing off and be done with it. That thought usually came seemingly out of nowhere, unbidden, to flash quickly through his mind, too quick to grasp. The odd time he tried to examine it, fear appeared - his old companion. Naked fear, great and black and cold it settled in the pit of his stomach. It overshadowed any rational thought he might be able to develop on the subject and, by god, he'd tried.
"It's just a damn leg", Stacy had said. She was right. His rational self, the physician in him, knew she was right. He knew there was nothing to be afraid of; he understood every minute detail of a possible amputation, the surgery, the healing process, every single thing. And yet, that great black impossible coldness settled inside him the instant that thought flashed through his mind, every single time.
"You know what they do to people who steal around here, son?"
John House said it casually, like it had just popped into his head. Greg knew full well that wasn't the case, though. He knew this wasn't about some random pickpocket in the Cairo bazaar. No. This was about a nine-year-old boy taking halva from the mess kitchen. Somewhere in the periphery of his vision he was aware of his mother but he knew there was no help coming from her now. He was on his own. He felt his throat close up. But his father was still waiting for an answer.
"Y…yes, Dad." He kept his eyes to the table, glued to his untouched plate. His food was going cold. He didn't care; he had lost his appetite. His stomach was one big heavy chunk of lead.
"And what do they do to thieves here, Greg?"
He knew. He had spent so much time in the library, even before they came to Egypt. And more since. He knew that by Islamic law a man convicted of stealing would have his hand cut off. But his father wouldn't dare go that far. Would he?
"He… he gets his h-hand cut off."
"That's right, boy. Just like Awi."
Awi? Awi helped out with general work around the base, none of the heavy-duty stuff, though, because Awi only had one arm. He had told Greg it had to be amputated a couple of inches below the elbow after a bad car accident. He didn't dare contradict his father. As far as he knew his father had never lied to him. So had Awi lied because he was ashamed of the real reason? Was he a thief? More importantly, did they really cut off people's hands if they were caught stealing? He had only taken a handful of halva, not much; there were dozens of tins left. They wouldn't really chop off his hand for that?
Or would they?
Nobody ever chopped off his hand for taking the sweets. His father passed his own sentence, no Islamic court required. There was house arrest and no dinner for him for a fortnight.
He never found out the truth about Awi. From that day on he avoided Awi during the day. But he still saw him at night. Nearly every night in his dreams he saw Awi and his missing hand. Awi never said a word in those dreams but he kept trying to grab Greg with his hand that didn't exist. Sometimes the stump was still bloody. Sometimes he could even see the bones sticking out. The radius and the ulna, Greg knew. He always woke up screaming and drenched in sweat in the middle of the night. The nightmares went on a lot longer than his punishment and he never forgot Awi, even after they went back home when his father's deployment in Egypt was over.
He now looked down at his leg, the pain still pounding away at him. The idea of looking down and seeing nothing there, nothing below his hip, made his stomach drop and his mouth go dry. For a while, the nightmares about Awi had returned after the infarction, in a different version. He had looked down at his leg - and seen nothing. The pain had still been there in his dream; he could feel it, as clear and sharp as a knife. Seeing nothing there and still feeling the pain was infinitely worse than anything he went through during the day. At night his hands grabbed thin air; trying to soothe the spasm he could so clearly feel.
It was this nightmare that usually got Wilson off the couch to come and check on him. House never found out if he cried out during those dreams or if somehow Wilson had developed a radar for when he was needed after Stacy had left.
The pillow next to him still carried her scent, very faint now, but it was still there. It had only been a few days since she had stayed the night.
His hand had gripped on to his thigh again as if there was any hope in the pain easing off. He wasn't going to get any sleep tonight, that much was clear. He hadn't had a lot of sleep over the last few months, come to think of it. And for once it wasn't due to being occupied with a case, well, not entirely anyway.
Meeting Stacy again, having her show up at the hospital with her husband's medical file in hand, had stirred up so much old emotion, it was all such a mess that he had struggled to hold it together and had actually lost sleep over it. Nobody would call him an ethical guy but that didn't mean that wrecking a marriage was all in a day's work for him.
Two words came to mind - love and betrayal. The latter was only so stark because of the first. Stacy had betrayed him because she loved him. She did what she did because she couldn't bear to see him in so much pain. From everyone else he had come to expect dishonesty. Not from her, though. For some reason, he had not seen this one coming.
Not for any old reason, don't kid yourself. It was right there, plain as day in the middle of the night. He had loved her.
He still did.
Until a few months ago he would have sworn he was over all that, it was dead and buried. He would have laughed in anyone's face who dared suggest otherwise. And yet, when they finally, after so much agonizing, ended up together that night – oh, hadn't it felt so right, like nothing had changed, like no time had passed at all.
He curled up on top of that pillow, the pillow standing in for what he really wanted.
They were undressing and, out of habit, he had turned away when he got to his pants. That same moment he felt her arms around his waist.
"Greg, don't," she said, turning him back gently. "I want to see. I haven't-"
"You haven't seen the finished product," he spat. Couldn't help it. It was still there, the hurt. But he knew she wouldn't let him get away with it, she wouldn't let him hide. She had done that once, she wouldn't let him do it again.
"You know that's not what I mean. I've seen it red and raw, the few times I managed to sneak a look. I want to see what it's done to you." She paused for a breath. "I need to see what I've done to you."
For someone he had just insulted, she was very calm. They were about to have sex. She wasn't spoiling for a fight, she didn't want to hurt. It was okay to have her see. So he took a deep breath, turned around and closed his eyes. Let her look if that's what she wanted.
Next thing he knew he felt her hands on his thigh. He still couldn't open his eyes. The silence seemed to last forever.
"I'm sorry", she finally said. "So sorry."
With those words she closed a chapter that had remained unfinished for years and years. As many times as he had told himself that he didn't hold a grudge against her, when Stacy spoke those words he knew that he had because he could almost physically feel the relief at being able to let go then.
Still no sleep.
He'd had no sleep the night Stacy was here either, but for entirely different reasons. That night it had been Stacy keeping him awake, Stacy and her body, which had been so familiar and yet new. The years had been kind to her, he thought. And even though time hadn't shown him the same kindness, Stacy didn't seem to notice. They were gentler with each other than they had ever been, more considerate, as if they knew there would be no repeat of this. At the time he didn't know. At the time he was just insanely happy to be able to hold her. Happy. It was almost as if they could manage to erase all those years, all the pain they had caused each other.
Almost but not quite.
His pain had come back, just as he had known it would. He had taken that night as a gift, a once off he would not ever experience again.
Because deep down he knew this wouldn't last, couldn't last.
There was no space for Stacy in his life, no space for anyone. She could not hold the pain at bay, she was not his drug. His pain took up way too much space in his life, in his head, in his everything. There was no room left for anyone. How could he toss about at night like he did now, trying to get comfortable with Stacy next to him, herself trying to sleep? How could he live with her if he was too queasy with pain to hold down the food she had cooked for dinner? 'Sorry, I'm just not hungry' wouldn't cut it. She would take it personally, eventually. How would she take the nights he needed to be on his own? She would see it as rejection, just as she had all those years ago, when all he was doing was protecting himself from lashing out at anything and anyone. And he really couldn't blame her. Half the time he didn't want to live with himself either.
He couldn't share his life with her. He was better off alone.
Except – he never was alone, was he? There was always the pain. Pain never left him alone, she was a constant in his life, a companion he hated but couldn't get to leave. Like now. He desperately wanted to scream at her to get out of his life but the only thing it would achieve was wake the neighbors.
Another look at his watch told him he had slept exactly twelve minutes. Rain was lashing against the window. There was no comfortable position to be found in this bed. He wished that weather front would finally move on and annoy some other poor cripple a few hundred miles north. Or south. Wherever, whoever, just not this one, please.
They'd tried lots of positions that night, too. He grimaced at the memory. Stacy had always been somewhat adventurous – not that he minded, far from it – so she took the fact he was now less agile in bed in her stride.
He had been high on endorphins that night, no Vicodin required, thank you very much. If only he could get a repeat prescription for that kind of feeling. If only he could get that pain relief back for one night, for tonight.
His look fell on the Vicodin next to his bed. Half full. Several thoughts suddenly merged and things finally made sense.
He had been feeling better for some time; the night with Stacy had only been the peak. In fact, he had taken a lot less Vicodin since she had shown up that day outside the clinic.
Apparently even just seeing her regularly had released enough endorphins for him to feel slightly better but not so much so he would notice. The culmination had obviously been that night a few days ago. Looking back, he couldn't remember taking even a single Vicodin until he had to head back to the hospital.
When he decided to break things off with Stacy, his endorphin levels had gone down and pain levels had returned to normal. This stupid weather front added at least two points on the hated pain scale. He had gone from 'all is well' via 'just about bearable' to 'utter misery' within a single day. Talk about bad timing.
This was not all in his head. It was a natural chemical reaction exacerbated by meteorosensitivity.
He couldn't help but laugh. Actually, it was sad it had taken him this long to figure it out. Which just proved the point that he was better off alone – a love-addled brain just wasn't any good at solving problems.
But he couldn't ignore the beast in his thigh – it was running wild now. He kept up the massage with his right hand but he might as well be kneading the pillow for all the good it did. He now had the answer to why his pain levels had increased but what was he going to do about it?
There were no words to express how tired he was of this, the constant preoccupation with the pain, always trying to figure out how to work with it, how to work around it. Live with it. Not that he actually considered expressing this at all. This was not something he could discuss with anyone. Not even with Wilson. He felt utterly alone at times.
He was slowly going out of his mind. No amount of Vicodin, short of a nearly lethal dose, would help tonight. And he didn't want to drink himself into a stupor either. He would have to show up at work at some point tomorrow and he didn't want Cuddy thinking the state he was in had anything to do with their exchange yesterday.
Of course there was a solution. Every problem had a solution. This one he was trying to avoid. But as with all things you try and avoid thinking about – you can't forget them.
There was a small metal box on top of his bookshelf. The box was locked and had sat there for a long time. And he hadn't needed it in a long time either. But he knew the contents were still good; he was meticulous about checking them.
He turned over onto his left side once more, hoping that the hundredth time would finally bring the relief the other ninety-nine hadn't given him. No such luck.
That box was his last resort. If he used its contents, he had nowhere left to go. There were no bigger guns available after that.
At the same time he called himself an idiot, for this was magical thinking – if he had the box but never used it, what was the point of having it? It wasn't like the knowledge of it being there did anything for him. It certainly did nothing against the pain.
So eventually he dragged himself out of bed, down the hallway, just to stop in the nearly dark living room and stare at the top shelf. The box was up there for a reason, out of sight of prying Wilson-eyes. It was just far enough out of reach that he wouldn't use its contents lightly. It took some work to get to it. Which was the point but also presented a problem – he couldn't leave it too late or he wouldn't be able to get to it at all. Timing was important.
He looked up at the pharmacology book hiding the box. Could he leave it another hour maybe?
The answer was simple. He couldn't. He wouldn't be able to make the trip back to bed and come back again in an hour to get the box.
So he used one crutch to drag out the little step stool from under his desk and shoved it in front of the shelf. He leaned the crutches against the couch and held on to the shelf while he got up on the stool. It was still a bit of a stretch and he was swaying dangerously but eventually his fingers touched the cool metal box.