Summary, disclaimer, etc. in chapter 1.

I think this may be the last installment of this little fic. It has a tone of finality to it that I like and I feel that this is the appropriate place to end (right now anyway). Thanks very much to everyone who has reviewed this fic or discussed it with me. Your support has been invaluable.

This particular chapter goes out to Auditrix because it came directly from a conversation I had with her, and, I feel, would not otherwise have come.

R.E.M.'s song lyrics belong to them and the snippet of Eliot belongs to whoever holds that copyright. Cheers.


New Year's Eve 2006

This flower is scorched, this film is on
On a maddening loop, these clothes
These clothes don't fit us right
I'm to blame, it's all the same
It's all the same

You come to me with a bone in your hand
You come to me with your hair curled tight
You come to me with positions
You come to me with excuses
Ducked out in a row
You wear me out
You wear me out

We've been through fake-a-breakdown
Self hurt, plastics, collections
Self help, self pain, EST, psychics, fuck all
I was central, I had control, I lost my head
I need this, I need this

A paper weight, junk garage, winter rain, a honey pot
Crazy, all the lovers have been tagged
A hotline, a wanted ad
It's crazy what you could've had

It's crazy what you could've had
I need this, I need this

—R.E.M., "Country Feedback"

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

House sat quietly on the couch in his living room. Both feet planted on the floor, leaning forward and slightly to the left in what had become a natural position, his left elbow was pressed against his thigh as he cupped his chin and stroked his scraggly not-quite-beard with his left hand. A four-by-six photo, one of the few that had survived the purge, ran smooth and glossy against the rough contours of his right hand.

He loved this picture of her because she was looking away from the camera, obviously more interested in something unseen to her left than in the drunken idiot clinging to her and grinning stupidly at the camera. Her left hand lightly touched his left arm—was it really the same left arm that cradled his head now? It couldn't be—which was draped over her shoulder and threatening to pull her down if she allowed it to. He had that dumb, hollow-eyed sleepy-happy look he got when he'd had too much to drink after a long shift, and the beer sloshing out of the transparent plastic cup in his right hand plus the visible stain on his dark t-shirt told him that this was taken during some backyard bar-b-que affair in the summer.

The photograph was in black and white; he had to think about that time in his life to come up with the reason why the photo was in black and white. Some artsy-fartsy friend of Stacy's had taken it as a snapshot and given it to her—probably, he recalled thinking, because that friend thought it captured her soul or some other sort of nonsense while also containing a visible reminder of just how ape-like her current boyfriend was. He'd been jealous then. They'd probably had a fight over it: he insisting the photographer was coming on to her and she insisting the photographer was just being friendly. It had probably ended in great sex after a day or so of glum mutual silent treatment—just long enough for each of them to prove they were right. He remembered many of the fights—most of them petty and stupid—but he remembered all of the make-up sex, all of it great. They'd been so good together.

But that wasn't why he loved this picture. He loved it because it contained a part of her that he'd never had when they were together. Whatever she was looking at so solemnly and with such interest to her left, it was something he had never possessed. That meant it was still accessible to him: he could still get it, the part of her that he hadn't lost because he couldn't lose something he'd never had in the first place.

Fireworks boomed in the distance and streaked the sky beyond his window pink and blue for a moment before they faded.

Fourth of July. Of course. This photo was probably taken at a Fourth of July party. 1998 or 1999. It still felt like yesterday, as near and as far as yesterday always was.

It was New Year's Eve now. He'd blown his second chance with her already. So stupid of him to let her figure out that he'd nicked her counseling folder.

She was with Mark. Still. But barely. House knew the signs of her falling out of love—or slipping into contempt, or whatever. He could already see Mark becoming just a memory…if she let that happen.

He knew Mark didn't possess that part of her captured in the photograph. How could anyone possess that part of her?

He could, he thought, if he only knew how.

His thumb ran of its own volition over the curve of her face. She was still so beautiful. She would always beautiful in the fixed photograph, but she was still so breathtaking and tantalizing in the flesh. The way she moved in clothes that clung too closely for his comfort, the way they were constantly vying to be one step ahead of each other, the sparks. The sparks.

He couldn't take it, having her around. He wanted her to leave so he could forget her again. He had enough pills and booze to do the trick, but as long as she was still here, still moving and talking and beautiful, he was still in the icy-hot painful jumble of emotion. He wanted the cool stream of memory—something he could turn off at will, or at least quiet and soothe and blur.

The idea of drinking in a photograph had always struck him as clichéd—something that everyone spoke of doing but no one actually did—but he was dead sober, having declined Wilson's New Year's Eve invitation in favor of being alone for a while, and this felt more like drinking than pouring liquor down his throat ever had.

In fact, he didn't want a drink. He didn't want the gentle buzz of a pair of Vicodin. And he didn't want the grating hurt that thinking about her always caused, but he also didn't want to put the photo away.

He vaguely recalled finding it months after she had left—it had fallen into some drawer after their fight and had survived the purge, the move, and the rearrangement of his earthly possessions in a new dwelling—and he recalled the blow he felt when he found it and the things he did to ease the impact, but he hadn't torn it up, hadn't burned it, hadn't done anything to it: no framing, no memorializing. It had gone back into the drawer and he found it again and again, often when he least expected it.

Today he'd found it for the first time since she'd been back in his life, and instead of making him rage, it made him feel an overwhelming calm. Yes. That was how he felt now: calm. He hadn't felt that way without the aid of chemicals in a long time. It was pleasant, like death. He could rest here forever, if only he could keep his mind from running away with him.

But it wasn't carrying him off right now. He knew he could never have that part of her in the photograph, yet he would always have it—in four-by-six form—and it was indestructible. A kind of Zen-like peace filled him.

Slowly, carefully, lovingly he put the photo down. He studied it for a moment more against the backdrop of the coffee table before he unfolded himself and lay down on the couch, muscles sighing.

Still calm, still peaceful, he reached toward the lamp and turned it off, flooding the room with darkness…until red and green flashes burst against the sky as if they had always been there, and in less than a second, were gone.