Disclaimer: Of course I don't own it, you silly lawyer people.
A/N: This chapter went through nine drafts before I decided to go with number five. I clearly have issues. I'd also like to admit that I have completely ignored all spoilers for season four (even though I am very intrigued by them) and most of season three. This is out of sheer necessity, given that I started this at the beginning of season two. (I also have procrastination issues.) Finally, I may have taken slight liberties with Cameron and her desk, but, again, in the world of fanfiction, I guess I'm allowed.
Thanks again to those who have left comments and to everyone who's been sticking with me. There is only one chapter left – so hang in there!
"You should have your license revoked!"
House stood in the doorway of the exam room watching as a large woman hobbled toward the reception desk in the clinic. Her left hand was plastered against her rear end and her face was red and furious when she turned and pointed at him. "I want him fired!" she shouted at the nurse on duty.
"Don't we all," deadpanned the nurse.
House stuck his tongue out at her and walked to the other end of the counter, out of striking distance from the woman whose boil he had just lanced. He dropped her folder there and told the other nurse, "There's battle debris in there that needs to be cleaned up."
"I don't supposed you'd like to take care of that?" she asked, clearly already knowing the answer.
He looked at his watch as he started down the hallway toward the elevators. It was after six. He had spent the past four hours in the clinic, even though he was only scheduled for two. At five o'clock, Cuddy had come to check on him.
"You could've left an hour ago," she said.
"Thought I'd do my duty as a doctor and help these poor, unfortunate souls." He signed off on a chart and then headed for the next exam room.
"Wilson says you're avoiding Cameron."
"Are you questioning my motives as a medical professional?" he asked indignantly.
"No, I'm questioning your intelligence." She positioned herself in front of the doorway he was heading for. "Today is her last day here."
"I'm aware of that."
"She's going to be gone for six months."
"Got that part too."
"She's not coming back to work at this hospital." Her tone held a little desperation.
He tried to move her out of the way with his cane. "I'm aware of what she's doing. I'm her boss, remember?"
"Not as of …," she looked at her own watch, "…three minutes ago."
The patient who was waiting in the room interrupted. "Is one of you going to help me?"
House looked in at the kid with the Greek letters plastered across his sweatshirt. "I am – just as soon as Dr. Cuddy here moves her interfering ass out of my way."
She raised her hands in defeat and moved away. "Fine. Be a moron. Be miserable. Why should that change?"
Her comments made the last hour of House's self-imposed duty less than pleasant. He had been humming along just fine as he dealt with the inevitable rashes, fevers, and sprained ankles until Cuddy had intruded. He hadn't been able to concentrate on Frat Boy's keg stand injuries, nor had he been at his best for boil lancing. Given that he hadn't done that particular procedure since his internship, it wasn't too surprising that it had been more painful for the woman than it might have otherwise been. His comments about her weight hadn't gone over well either, which was why he could still hear her yelling as the elevator doors shut in front of him.
He knew Cameron was leaving. He had spent the past several weeks actively ignoring that fact. He saw no purpose in making a big deal of it. People left. People moved on.
Given the fact that she had not come searching for him (which he kind of thought she might do) before she left, showed him that she didn't want to make a big deal of it either.
Which was good, he rationalized, as the elevator opened for him. Sentimentality was useless.
Cameron sat at the desk in the conference room well after the time had passed when she could have left. She looked at the sticky note on the edge of the computer monitor that had the number for a pizza place written on it in her handwriting. It pretty much marked the desk as hers even though they had all worked at it at one time or another. That desk had been one of the reasons that she had been willing to play executive assistant for House. There was something in her mind about having a desk that had made her feel official, like a real professional. When she had first started working for House, that feeling had been elusive. His ways of belittling them and his supreme confidence had made her feel supremely incompetent. The desk had helped.
Handling House's appointments and correspondence and basically being in charge of the paperwork had not only given Cameron near exclusive rights to the desk, though; she had also learned an awful lot about the politics of medicine in a hospital. Cuddy and the lawyers dealt with the worst of the big ethical and legal issues; Cameron, however, handled the things that came straight to the office. The insurance companies, other specialists, techs – most of them had to go through her to get to House. Her involvement in these areas was not acknowledged very often, but she knew that Foreman and Chase didn't want to do it. House certainly didn't either. What she did was unheralded, maybe, but necessary and probably appreciated by someone.
Of course, she was also the one who made the coffee and cleaned up the bagel crumbs before ants infested the place. She discarded the old newspapers with their unfinished crossword puzzles, and she was generally the one who had the medical journals and texts returned to the hospital library when they were done with them.
Handling the bureaucratic and the mundane had kept her grounded. She had known too many doctors who lived in some sort of bubble, unaware of the nuts and bolts of their profession. They didn't acknowledge that every procedure had a cost – physical and financial – and that dozens of other people made all of it happen.
House was the worst offender in that regard. He blustered through, pushing and yelling until he got what he wanted, frequently at the expense of some patient's emotional trauma and usually with a flurry of angry insurance reps following behind, and Cameron had been the one to intercept them most of the time.
She shook her head and looked around the room that was growing darker as twilight moved in. It wasn't right to say that she had only fought on House's behalf. She had fought with him, too. At first, she had been more concerned with impressing him as a doctor, which had not been effective. Neither had her obvious pursuit of him been a good idea.
Early on, she had not seen how she could benefit from her job with House. She had only seen the prestige of the position and the bitter, injured man who was her boss. As much as she hated to admit it, Stacy's appearance had set her mind to a better focus career-wise. Learning what made House tick – or at least part of it – had been a turning point for her. She made a concerted effort to change and make the most of her position. She figured out that working for a man like House was an opportunity to try her hand at being a more forceful person. After all, who could get angry at her for mouthing off when House was in the room? His behavior had been an excuse in her mind to step outside of her normal boundaries and make mistakes. She was not always proud of what she had done, and she knew that many of those things (methamphetamines, for instance) were not mistakes she would be revisiting.
Not that she had ever gotten over her infatuation with him. It had mellowed sometimes and flared back up at other times, but she had allowed herself to explore other avenues. The problem that she faced now, on her last day as an employee of PPTH, was that her infatuation with her boss had turned into something else. It was something more important. Something that would be likely to stay with her for a very long time, even if she weren't working with him directly. And even if he never acknowledged it.
A while back, House – with relatively few snide comments – had told her that St. Michael's would probably be a good place for her. He had even surprised her with a "good luck" when she had handed him her letter of resignation. Of course, he had followed that with "now go sort out that pile of crap that Cuddy had sent up here" as he pointed toward a dozen or so patient files that were laying on her desk.
So she had. And she had worked with patients and argued with House and basically did all the things that she had been doing for the past few years.
What she hadn't done was what kept her here at six o'clock in this room behind this desk with a churning stomach and a tight feeling in her throat. In the time since she had resigned, she had not approached House again. She had not mentioned her feelings or his feelings. She had stayed as remote as she possibly could, which is to say that she allowed herself an occasional glance his way for no particular reason, and sometimes she stood a little closer than was strictly necessary. She kept tabs on his vicodin intake and noticed when his limp was more pronounced, but nothing more… daring. Basically, she had chickened out.
He, of course, hadn't said or done anything either. He had caught her looking at him a couple of times and just looked back, and he hadn't jumped out of the way when she let her arm lay against his as they stood at the reception desk at the clinic. But neither one of them had acknowledged anything out loud.
Now she was waiting. A bag full of stuff from her locker and her purse were sitting on the table in front of her along with some flowers in a vase from the nursing staff with a balloon floating above them that read "Good Luck!" Her car keys were laying there. It looked like she was ready to go.
But she wasn't. He was still there. His helmet and jacket were still in his office and the light was on at his desk. And she was waiting.
From the elevator, House limped into his office and immediately began to root through his desk looking for pills to replace the empty bottle in his pocket. He found them in his backpack, popped one, and reached under his desk for his helmet and jacket. When he lifted back up, he turned and glanced over towards the conference room. He was freaked out for a second when he saw a floating circle in the shadows that looked like something from a sci-fi movie, but when he looked closer, he saw it was a balloon hovering over the table. He put his stuff down and headed toward the door.
The room was pretty gray but there was enough light that he could make out a duffle bag on the table next to the vase that the balloon was attached to. He pushed open the door and moved in, not noticing Cameron sitting behind her desk until she spoke.
"Hi." Her voice squeaked a little on the syllable.
House started, then sighed as he turned his head toward her. She was sitting primly behind the desk that she had all but planted a flag on from the first week or so that she had been there. "Do you enjoy looming in the dark, waiting to give old men heart attacks when they come through?"
"You're not old."
He let that statement hang in the air. He stared at her, wondering if he had been ambushed. He should have known she wouldn't just leave. Part of him wanted to walk out, but the other part – the part that was relieved to find her still here – moved him on into the room. He shoved her stuff farther down the table and leaned against the edge of it, facing her. He stared at her for a second longer, before he responded to her.
"I'm too old for you."
"Right." She drew the word out. "And you use a cane. But, hey, you're not my boss anymore, so that one's taken care of."
He didn't say anything.
She sat back in the chair and sighed. "Sorry about that. That was a little too off-hand for this conversation. Not the way I wanted this to go."
He wanted to ask her which way she did want this to go, but he couldn't bring himself to do that, so he took the safe route and changed the subject. "Why are you still here?"
"I was waiting for you," she quietly and with a certain determination that added meaning to the sentence.
Okay, so maybe not so safe. "Don't you need to pack?" he asked.
"Done. Got my plane ticket, sublet my apartment, and I put some stuff in storage."
He nodded slowly. "So, why are you still here?"
"I want to talk to you."
She laughed softly. "You can't make this easy, can you?"
"You know better than that. I don't make things easy, which is why this conversation shouldn't even be happening."
She folded her hands on the desk top. "I think it should. In fact, I'm not leaving here until it does."
"I could leave."
"You could." She kept her eyes on his. "But you won't."
When he didn't deny it, she continued. "I just didn't want to leave without talking to you, and," she hesitated a second, "I don't want it to be an argument."
"Ah." Allison Cameron – gorgeous, intelligent, decent, kind, and completely inappropriate Allison Cameron – had indeed waylaid him. "So this isn't exactly an exit interview is it?"
"No." Her posture straightened more as if she were bracing herself. "No, I decided that it's time that we deal with …" Her hand waved back and forth between them. "… this."
"There is no this." He imitated her gesture.
"Of course there is." There was no hurt in her voice, which would not have been the case four years ago. There was only a matter-of-fact tone that didn't allow for any dispute.
"Let me rephrase that," he stated. "There shouldn't be any this. I am too old and mean for you. You are too interested in fixing the walking wounded."
She made an impatient sound. "Let's deal with that last part. I care about you and I care what happens to you. Why is that such a bad thing?"
"You care because I have a cane." He waved the object in question in the air. "If it weren't for the cane, you wouldn't give a damn."
"You're sure about that?"
He glared at her. "I think we've covered this."
"Because there are an awful lot of men walking around with canes, House, and I have no desire to have this conversation with any of them."
"I'm easy access."
"Not any more. In fact, as of about two hours ago, my access was cut off, yet here I am."
"This is ridiculous," he said derisively.
"Why?" she asked. "Why is it so ridiculous to think that I would want to be with you?"
Her words hung between them. She had actually said it. Yelled it, really, but it was out there. She dropped her head and noticed that at some point she had jumped up and that her hands were braced on the desk in front of her. So much for calm.
She stayed still for a second, composing herself. Then, "You know, House, I'm not exactly undamaged goods myself. You could just as easily ask yourself whether I'm worth it."
"Maybe I already have."
She slowly straightened and nodded. "Fair enough." Trying not to feel deflated, she asked, "Have you come up with an answer?"
"What do you think?"
"It doesn't matter what I think right now. I've made myself pretty clear. It's your turn, House." She twisted her hands together to keep them from shaking. Nearly four years ago she had handed the reigns to him and he had ground her into the carpet at the restaurant; she had no idea what his reaction would be now.
"I think you need to go."
She nodded again, staring at him in the semi-darkness of the conference room. She moved from around the desk toward the table where her things were waiting.
House watched her as she pulled her purse over her shoulder and shoved her keys in her pocket. Even in this light, she looked devastated. And he felt like someone was stabbing him in the gut. When he saw her hand go toward the handles of the duffle bag, he reached out and stopped her. They stood there for a long moment, both of them staring at his hand on her arm. Then he pulled her over in front of him and placed his hands on her shoulders. Up close, he could see tears in her eyes and he sighed.
"I'm a mean and selfish bastard, Allison." His tone was tired. "I run people off. I hurt them. I'll do the same thing to you."
She was able to see his eyes clearly for the first time since he had come in. She was surprised by the gentleness she saw there. And the sadness. She knew that she should keep her response light; sensed that things might not be completely lost. She swiped at the tear on her cheek and took a breath. "Maybe not. My innate goodness might send you over the edge first."
He closed his eyes briefly and then tried one more time. "I was in high school when you were born."
"I don't care." She said with a hint of a smile. "If it doesn't bother me, why should it bother you?"
"That is an incredibly stupid argument."
As she started to protest, he pulled her to him, his face coming closer to hers. Her words died when he kissed her lightly. He raised his lips from hers and asked, "What were you going to say?" She shook her head as she reached up to wrap her hands around the back of his head and brought him back to her.
They managed to make it to House's apartment before doing anything unbecoming two doctors in a room that had windows for walls. After the couch, but before the bed, they fought about the age thing again. After the bed, House brought up the saving him thing again. More fighting ensued, ending when Cameron slammed out of the apartment.
The next morning, an emotionally and physically exhausted Allison was not terribly surprised to find House standing at her door, looking like hell but ready to drive her to the airport. She almost protested when he picked up her suitcase in his cane-less hand, but thought better of it. She hoisted her carry-on to her shoulder and answered the question on his face. "I had everything else shipped."
They moved to the car in silence and made it to the freeway before he spoke again.
"I like you, Allison Cameron."
She raised an eyebrow. "You like me." Her voice was incredulous.
"Let me finish, will you? I like you because I can figure you out. I can read you. No major surprises."
"Wow. I'm flattered."
He scowled at her. "I am trying to compliment you."
"Sorry. Go on."
"Surprises aren't all they're cracked up to be. It's nice," he scowled at the word, "to not have to worry about what's coming next." He took a breath, trying to say the right thing for once in his life. "You also know me. You know what to expect from me, and you seem to be okay with that."
"That's not a lot to build on."
"It's a hell of a lot for me." He gripped the steering wheel tighter and made a grimace. "God, I hate this."
And his words didn't upset her because she knew he didn't mean her, he meant talking about emotional things. Exposing himself to her. To anyone. He was right, she did know him and she was okay with it.
It wasn't until they were at the drop-off for check-in that she spoke herself. She looked over at him, scruffy, baggy-eyed, un-ironed, staring straight ahead, and said, "I know that any relationship with you is going to be…challenging." She saw a tiny grin at the corner of his mouth. "But I'm willing to deal with that if you are."
She reached up to his chin and turned his face toward her. "I like you, too, Greg House." She smiled and then was interrupted by a security person who knocked on the window and told them that they had to move out of the drop-off zone. She nodded at the man and then turned back to House. "We've got six months to figure it out. I'll be back in Princeton for good, I imagine, and we can take it from there." She looked seriously into his eyes. "If you want to."
"Right. Six months." He nodded and bent to kiss her, lingering for a moment, until the security guard knocked on the window again. "Oh, for God's sake. Fine." He snarled at the man but thought better of making a loud crack about terrorists. "Go," he said to Cameron. "I'll see you in six months."
He watched her disappear into the airport and then headed out. When he was stuck behind a minivan, he replayed the night before and the drive to the airport. He looked at himself in the rearview mirror, rubbed his hand over his very unshaven jaw, yawned, and said, "Six months. Right." Three at the most, he thought.