GALATEA
By R.J. Anderson 2006

Part Four

"Let me guess," said Cuddy, not even bothering to look up as House walked in. "Eliza Doolittle's gone missing and now you don't know where your slippers are."

"I knew there had to be some reason I suddenly felt like singing," said House. Cuddy did not respond, however, and he added with a touch of impatience, "So where is she?"

"She's working," Cuddy told him. "And, oh, would you look at this -- so am I. What are the odds?"

"Cameron works for me."

"And you work for me. Which means that she also works for me. Neat, huh?" Cuddy signed her name briskly, turned the document over and started on the next one. "But don't worry, I learned how to share in kindergarten. You can have her back when I'm done with her."

"I don't like it when you play with my Barbies," said House. "They always come back with their feet chewed off at the ankle." He dropped into the chair in front of Cuddy's desk and tapped his cane on the floor. "So what have you got Cameron doing that's so important?"

"I'm sure she'll tell you all about it, eventually. Though if you're really so anxious to find out, why don't you try stalking her again?" Cuddy's tone was acid. "I hear you're good at that."

"Oh, I get it, I'm being punished!" He clasped his hands together and leaned forward eagerly. "Does that mean there'll be spanking?"

Cuddy gave him a level look, her free hand toying with her necklace. From most women, that gesture would have indicated nervousness. From Cuddy, it meant that she was either bored with you or resisting the urge to rip your head off. "Cute little boys get spankings," she said at last, shoving her paperwork into a folder and rolling her chair back from the desk. "Big obnoxious boys get restraining orders. You're just lucky that Cameron is more forgiving than I am."

"Where are you going?" He craned his neck backward as she strode past him, the folder tucked beneath her arm.

"Somewhere you're not," said Cuddy flatly, and slammed the door behind her.

House waited a minute to be sure that she wasn't just calling his bluff, then heaved himself back up to his feet and headed out after her. By the time he reached the corridor, however, she was already out of sight, and he paused, considering.

Talking to Cuddy hadn't been nearly as informative as he'd hoped, but he wasn't likely to find out any more by hounding her. Besides, she'd already told him what he really needed to know. Wherever Cameron was, whatever she might be doing, she hadn't quit.

He turned and loped back toward the elevators.

- - -

"Admit it," said Wilson, not even reacting as House reached past him and lifted the just-filled cup off his tray, "you're relieved."

House blew the steam off the coffee and took a sip, grimacing at the sweetness. "Next time, no sugar," he said shortly. "And get me one of those cinnamon buns while you're at it."

Wilson's eyes rolled skyward, but his right hand was already digging into his pocket for more change, and when he joined House at the cafeteria table, there were two pastries sitting on the tray. Without comment he exchanged the coffee House had stolen for a fresh one, and began drinking from the cup House had already sampled.

"Ew," said House. "I hear you can get some nasty bug-type things that way. What do they call them? Germans?"

"If I did, it'd be the first thing you've ever given me," said Wilson mildly, and took another sip.

House snorted. Then all at once Wilson's eyes went wide, and he said in a low voice: "She just walked in."

"Who," said House without much interest, "Cuddy?"

"No. Cameron."

Slowly, House turned in his chair to see Cameron standing by the cafeteria entrance, hands in the pockets of her lab coat and her auburn hair hanging loose down her back. She was talking to a short, balding doctor in glasses who looked vaguely familiar, but it took House a few moments to place him.

"Riley," he murmured. "Otherwise known as the diagnostics professor so stupid he couldn't diagnose himself with lead poisoning. What's that about?"

He had little time to speculate, however, because a moment later Dr. Riley shook Cameron's hand, clapped her awkwardly on the shoulder, and walked away. Cameron watched him go, then turned and picked up a tray from the cafeteria counter. Her face looked drawn and a little pale, her eyes downcast, as though she were worried about something. She didn't seem to have noticed House and Wilson watching her.

Eyes fixed on his quarry, House slid his chair sideways and got noiselessly to his feet. "What are you--" began Wilson, but House silenced him with a gesture and began to limp toward the place where Cameron stood in line, her eyes fixed distractedly on the chalked menu above her head.

Skirting the edge of the room, making sure to keep out of her peripheral vision, he made his way to the end of the lunch counter, then sidled up behind Cameron with as much stealth as his uneven gait and the intrusion of two more people in line would allow. At last he stepped up close to her, so close he could feel the warmth of her body against his chest, put his mouth near her ear and intoned:

"Where's. My. Coffee?"

Cameron jumped, and her tray clattered onto the steel rails beside her. She spun around, blood rushing into her cheeks, lips parted in shock. Perversely, House thought he had never seen her look more attractive.

"You're lucky," she managed to gasp out at last, "because if I had one when you pulled that stunt, I swear it'd be all over your pants right now."

"Mm, toasty. So what have you been up to this morning?"

The hectic color eased out of her face, to be replaced by a look of exasperation. "House, I've only been gone a couple of hours. I'll be back when I'm done this -- thing I'm working on for Cuddy."

But her eyes slid away from his as she spoke.

"Look," said an irritated male voice from behind them, "are you in line or aren't you?"

"Be my guest," said House, nudging Cameron aside with his cane and letting the young resident pass. The girl behind him hung back a moment, then gave a nervous flash of a smile and followed.

"House." Cameron's voice was level, though he could see the tension in her folded arms and slightly hunched shoulders. "We both know you're not going to let this go until you have an answer. But I can't give you one right now. All I can tell you is that -- last night notwithstanding -- this has nothing to do with you. Really."

House regarded her for a long moment, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip. Then he said, "Okay."

"Really?" She let her arms drop, looking surprised.

"Yeah, sure. Go get your tuna-prune casserole, or whatever they're trying to pass off as food today. I'll see you around." As she gazed after him with apparently equal parts gratification and perplexity, he limped off and rejoined Wilson at the table.

"I know that look," said Wilson. "That look, on you, means nothing good."

"Are you going to eat that danish?"

"Yes." Wilson put his hand over the pastry. "Come on, House. What are you thinking?"

"I could tell you," said House, "but then I'd have to kill you." He took a bite out of his cinnamon roll, chewed it. "I will say, though, that I didn't realize our sweet little Cameron was so ambitious."

Wilson took a moment to digest this, then looked up incredulously. "You think she wants your job?"

"Nope," said House. "I think she wants Dr. Riley's job."

"You mean he's leaving?"

"Well, I doubt he'd be shaking Cameron's hand if it were a hostile takeover."

"But she can't teach diagnostics without her board certification..." Wilson's voice trailed off. "Oh."

"Her board certification in diagnostics, yes. For which she needs letters of recommendation from two peers -- the kind that can be bribed with food, apparently -- and one administrator. I'm thinking Cuddy probably counts."

Wilson looked dubious. "She also has to pass the exam."

"Which is offered twice a year, once in the spring and once... right around this time. Gosh, do you think it's today?" House glanced back over his shoulder. "That would certainly explain that constipated face she's making."

"Hm. But is it pre- or post-exam constipation?"

"Fifty bucks says post."

"I'm not taking that bet," said Wilson. "Besides, you already owe me fifty. A few times over, actually."

"Oh, well, if you're going to be petty about it," said House, and pushed his chair back from the table.

"Where are you going?"

"Right over there," said House, pointing with his cane. Wilson's eyes automatically followed the gesture, and House looped an arm around and filched his danish neatly off his plate.

"Got to keep my strength up," he said around a mouthful of pastry. "This thinking stuff burns a lot of calories."

Wilson sighed.

- - -

"You want to know what I found out?" said Chase as he followed House into the conference room. "I found out the names of her ex-husband, her landlady, and all six of her nieces and nephews. I found out about every scrape, bruise, and hiccup she's had in the last six months. I also found out her opinions on abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of the press. Oh, and she's looking for a new hairstylist, any recommendations?"

"Sounds like you had quite the chat," said House.

"No wonder her husband left," Chase muttered, and threw himself down in a chair. "Five years of that would drive any man insane."

"But she did give you half a year's worth of medical history," said Foreman. "Nothing that sounds like it could have happened outside the country?"

Chase shook his head. "Far as I could make out, she spent the whole time right here in New Jersey."

"Well, she's not getting any better while we play guessing games." House hooked his cane over the top of the whiteboard and began scribbling. "Let's say, just for kicks, that she's never left the States. Any homegrown conditions that could cause swelling, fever, dry cough, eosinophilia...?"

An uncomfortable silence followed. He looked back over his shoulder and added dryly, "Don't everybody talk at once."

Foreman and Chase glanced at each other. Then Foreman said, "I say we search her apartment. Look for allergens, check out the meds she's been taking."

"I'd like to take another chest x-ray," said Chase. "And do some more blood work."

"Otherwise known as playing it safe," said House. "Sure, go ahead -- wusses."

"You've got a better idea?" asked Foreman.

"Not really. I just like calling you wusses." House snapped the marker closed. "All right, let's--"

"She's been to Haiti," came a familiar voice from the doorway. "Five years ago. She spent two years working in an orphanage."

House looked around sharply, to see Cameron walking into the room. He could still see the worried lines across her forehead and around her mouth, but there was color in her face now and the tightness in her shoulders had eased.

"How did you find that out?" demanded Chase.

"Her pastor," she replied, pulling out a chair and sitting down at the table. "He dropped by to see her this afternoon, and I figured, if she worked for him and she's that much of a talker, he'd probably heard her life story ten times over."

"Sweet," said House. "Better him than us. Chase, get another serum sample and do an ICT for lymphatic filariasis."

"It can't be," Chase protested. "We were looking for parasites the first time around."

"If she contracted the disease three to five years ago," said Cameron, "the microfilariae might not be visible under a microscope."

"And even if they were," said House, "the little guys have this neat trick called nocturnal periodicity. You'd have to be pulling an all-nighter in the lab to see them."

"I'll go do another chest x-ray," said Foreman, rising from his seat. "If it's filariasis, she's probably got TPE, which would explain the coughing."

"Good. As soon as the tests come back positive, give her Stromectol and start her on a three-week course of Hetrazan." House lifted his cane off the whiteboard and leaned on it, watching as Foreman and Chase left the room. Then he rounded on Cameron and said brusquely, "Pass or fail?"

She blinked at him. "What?"

"Oh, don't play stupid, just give me the answer."

"I -- the marks won't be in for a couple of weeks --"

"Cuddy doesn't care about marks, she cares about solving her staffing problem. And I know she's got at least one ex-boyfriend on the examination committee, so -- did you or did you not pass?"

"I passed, yes. Probably." Cameron sighed. "I should have known you'd figure out what was going on."

"Yeah, you should. Was there any particular reason you decided to leave me out of the loop?" He spoke levelly, but the words had an accusatory edge.

Her mouth tightened. "Actually, yes. I thought you might decide you didn't like the idea, and shut me down. And for some reason, Cuddy thought the same thing, which is why she offered to be my administrative reference."

"Wow, you two sure have me pegged. Did you know that I also drop-kick puppies? It isn't easy with only one good leg, but I've worked out a really cool technique."

"It's not like that," Cameron protested. "It's just... it's like I said last night. You hate change. If it's forced on you, you adapt, but given the choice --"

He waved his hand irritably, dismissing the argument. "Who cares about motive? The point is, you thought I'd give you a bad reference. Or none."

"No." Her chin dropped, as did her voice. "I thought you might try to talk me out of it. And I thought -- I was afraid I might let you."

House said nothing for a moment, and when he did speak, his tone was quieter, if not more gentle. "Why would I do that? Sure, change sucks more often than not, but it's also inevitable. Your contract would have been up soon anyway."

"Chase's has been up for six months. I don't see you rushing him out the door."

"Well, I figured I ought to at least let him finish that crossword he's been working on. I mean, it's been four years, he's bound to get 38 Down eventually."

That coaxed a smile out of her, albeit a brief one. "The point is, you can be persuasive when you want to be. How many times has Cuddy been tempted to fire you? And yet you've always managed to get around her at the last minute." She shook her head. "I couldn't take that chance. I needed to do this on my own, to prove -- to myself, to Cuddy, to everyone else, even if I couldn't prove it to you - - that I was ready."

House snorted. "When I saw you at lunchtime, the only thing you looked ready to do was vomit." Cameron said nothing, and he added after a moment, "Dr. Riley seems to like you just fine, though. And presumably Cuddy thinks you're the right candidate to replace him, or she wouldn't be calling in favors to make sure you qualify."

"I know. But --" and now he could hear a note of anxiety in her voice, an echo of the old Cameron, so pathetically eager to please -- "what do you think?"

"Why should you care? If this comes through, I won't even be your boss any more. But since you asked --" He shrugged. "I think it's a stupid idea. Teaching diagnostics, when you could be doing it? You'll be bored stiff in a week."

Oddly, this seemed to reassure her. She relaxed and smiled again, more genuinely this time. "Foreman wants your job. I don't. Besides, I'll still be available to you on a consultancy basis, when I'm not teaching or making rounds. Like Wilson."

"Right. And between the two of you I'll be set for coffee and lunch until I retire."

Now the amusement reached her eyes, and her smile took on the secret quality that meant she was laughing at him. "Something like that."

Slowly House limped toward her, his eyes fixed on hers. He looked down into her upturned face a moment, then deliberately lowered himself into the chair opposite her. "Okay," he said. "But first, you owe me dinner."

"What?" Her look turned to outrage. "What for?"

"Well, you were buying for Chase and Foreman..."

"I was doing it to thank them for writing my peer references!"

"And after nearly four years, you can't think of any reason to thank me?" He put a theatrical hand to his heart. "I'm wounded."

"Oh, sorry, I forgot you were sensitive that way." She rolled her eyes. "But I think you're forgetting something, too."

"And what's that?"

"You, me, dinner -- even if I'm paying, isn't that a little too much like a date?"

"For you, or for me?" He spoke lightly, but his gaze still held hers.

She drew a sharp breath, as though he had pained her. "House -- that isn't funny."

"You think I'm making a joke at your expense? Now who's the cynic? Trust me, if I wanted to mock you, I'd make sure I had a bigger audience."

"You'd actually go on a date with me."

"Sure. Even if the conversation sucks, you can't go wrong with free food."

"But why? Why now?"

"Why not?"

She made an impatient gesture. "You know what I mean. Practically ever since you met me you've been telling me how screwed up I am, how I'm only interested in you because you're damaged. Now all of a sudden, I'm okay?"

"I'm not interested in anyone who thinks they need my approval to justify their existence. And I particularly don't like being anyone's personal crusade." He stretched himself out in the chair, lifting his bad leg over his good one. "But now that you've started looking out for yourself and stopped being a tedious little moralizing millstone around my neck..." He shrugged. "Like I said, why not?"

Cameron was staring at him as though he'd just grown a third nostril. He bugged out his eyes and dropped his jaw in exaggerated mimicry, then went on in the same casual tone as before, "Sure, you're screwed up. So am I. So is Wilson, and Cuddy, and everybody else in this place. What about it? Maybe I don't believe there's any such thing as a healthy relationship, but that doesn't mean I think all relationships are useless."

"So..." she said slowly. "You're saying it's okay for both of us to be screwed up, as long as we have compatible psychoses?"

"By George," drawled House, "I think she's got it."

She gave him a withering look, though she couldn't quite hide the flash of hope in her eyes. "I'm still buying, though," she said. "Aren't I."

"Yeah, and I think you should know, I don't put out on the first date."

"Technically," said Cameron, "it would be our second date."

"Oh, you're counting the monster truck rally. Sneaky! And maybe a little desperate, but still, clever. I approve."

She looked nonplussed. "Actually, I meant the restaurant..."

House made an open-palmed, finger-wiggling pass in front of her face. "There was no restaurant," he intoned. "Repeat after me."

"There was... no restaurant?" she said.

"Lacks conviction, but it'll do. For you there is only one restaurant right now, and that's the place where I'm going to eat my weight in tiger shrimp."

"And spit the tails into my cleavage, no doubt," said Cameron dryly. "Remind me why I'm doing this again?"

"Because, like Wilson, you are a terminally nice person, and watching me be obnoxious gives you a vicarious thrill. Look, if you're going to analyze this thing to death and take all the fun out of it, we might as well give up now."

"Good point," said Cameron, pulling her datebook out of one lab coat pocket and fishing in the other for a pen. Not finding one, she got up from her seat and began to move toward the cupboards.

"You cleaned out your drawer," said House. "Remember? No spare pens for you."

Cameron gave him a quizzical look. "I did that weeks ago," she said, reaching into a canister behind the coffee machine and pulling out the stub of a pencil. "I got tired of people helping themselves to my stuff, so I moved it to the bottom of your filing cabinet." She walked back to her chair and sat down, flipping pages. "So when are we both free? Friday?"

"None of us are free," said House. He uncrossed his legs with an effort and heaved himself up out of the chair. "And I don't even come cheap. But Friday..." He let the sentence trail off, looking down at her lowered eyelashes, the smooth curve of her averted cheek. It was surprisingly hard to resist the temptation to lean down and kiss her.

She looked up, brows raised in mild inquiry, but the question in her look faded as her eyes met his. They gazed at each other a long time.

"Friday," said House at last, "would be fine."

THE END