His sat on the coffee table in the living room. Frogger. Mindless distraction of his med school days. In those days, it helped him think during those mind-numbing all-nighters. Focus when he was dead tired, 100 pages left to read, coming off a late night gig in some Baltimore jazz club. Now it served a different purpose. Now the stupid game futilely tried keeping his mind off the gnawing pain in his leg. And the image of a shooter looming above him as he nearly drowns in his own blood. It was an image that hovered never far away when awake, and haunted his sleep nightly.
House looked down at his left hand, realizing that he hadn't let go of it. Holding fast to it like some ridiculous talisman, his hand now damp from the plastic. He had been standing there for a while. How long, he wasn't sure, as he watched the carpet layers at work. He had told himself that he wanted to make sure they didn't damage any of the equipment in the office. Like what, the coffee maker? He smiled at the ludicrousness. Of what it must look like. Him, standing there on the threshold of his outer office; leaning more and more heavily on the cane in his right hand; his left in a death-grip on a poor, defenseless playstation handheld.
It had been a terrible few weeks, since "it" returned. A reminder that nothing changes. Even when you want it more keenly than you've wanted anything else your life. Even when knowing that opening yourself up to that possibility will likely end in failure, disappointment and being put back into your own peculiar jail. No passing of 'go.' No collecting of "$200."
The morning Adam had been admitted had been a particularly cruel morning. House had woken earlier than usual, the face of the shooter twisted into a terrible smile hovering in his nightmare as he let go the second round. The sound of the gunshot as real as the day it happened, startling him awake.
House gasped as a jagged and searing pain ripped up his leg from knee to groin, leaving him bathed in sweat, his heart racing. A ironically bitter thought mocked him: that just three weeks previous, the same effect could be wrought from a five mile run across the Princeton campus.
Pushing the unwelcome insight from his head, he put his brain to the task of simply moving from bed to shower to bike to work. Without collapsing. Was it his imagination, or was the pain now worse than ever? No, not worse. Probably not, anyway. Just more intensely felt now. What was that about "absence" that they said? Not true.
House slipped into his office, having gratefully missed both Wilson and Cuddy as he retrieved the new referral. Autistic kid. Screaming. Great. He really didn't need the screaming. On the other hand, the team, not House, would have to endure it.
He noticed it immediately. Something was different about the office. The air was suffused with a chemical smell that reminded him of new cars; new carpet. His eyes confirmed what his other finely tuned senses expressed. It was gone. So… it was gone. No big deal. A "so what" moment. Why, then, did a deep sense of violation begin to rise within him? Then why the anger? The indignation? The panic, which arose unexpectedly and from nowhere?
He didn't quite understand it himself. But he did understand that he couldn't be there. In that room. The smell made him suddenly nauseous; his abdominal muscles clenched, doing the still-healing wound in his stomach no favors. He knew he couldn't go back there.
But what to tell Cuddy? Or Wilson? Or Huey, Dewey and Louie, who looked bewildered as he led them from the diagnostics office and towards the elevator? That was the question. It was a feeling, something unexplainable in rational terms. An emotion. But House had none of those. Everyone knew that. He'd almost convinced himself. Had. On most days, anyway.
He certainly didn't want Cuddy (or Wilson for that matter) to question whatever psychological attachment he may or may not have to a bloodstained carpet. So he put it in simple terms. Be what they would expect him to be: a complete ass. Better that than more psychoanalysis. Way better. Being a jerk about it gave him leave to stay away from his office, with the added bonus of vanquishing Cuddy's pity. She would see it as the temper tantrum it was meant to be; and diagnose it as a power play. So be it. As long as it got the job done and he got the carpet back.
He would win. He had to win. And wasn't it about control anyway, really? Not about power, as a general concept, but about control. Over him. But Cuddy was a more than worthy adversary in this. He'd made enough of a jerk of himself to completely eradicate any feelings of pity for his returning pain. Good. But she was therefore disinclined to put his office back the way it was. And for awhile, he wasn't sure that the manipulation was going to work at all. Then he'd have to tell her. Confide his feelings. Risk her compassionate gaze boring through him and long for her to simply hold him adamant that she not. No, he had to win. Without any sort of reveal that it mattered. Really mattered.
House laughed quietly, ruefully mockingly at the sight of himself standing, like a broken marionette, watching. The carpet layers had moved all the furniture to one side of the room. But he couldn't tear himself away. Was it Asperger's? He'd wished it would be that simple. He didn't fit enough of the symptoms. But even Wilson had asked the question, trying to find an explanation other than "you're a jerk, plain and simple." And Cuddy apparently had bought enough of the possibility to return his office to the way it should be.
And what of Ali? Another rueful laugh escaped. One of the carpet layers looked up and towards him at the sound. Ali. He had to admit, he'd been flattered. He'd allowed himself to believe; wanted to believe that someone, anyone, could want him for who and what he is. Not what he could be. Not for what he once was. But for himself. Again, he'd almost convinced himself in the possibility of it. Not of her. Rule number 1: Stay away from age-inappropriate females; rule number 1.5: stay away from patients. And she was both. Double-trouble. But he was flattered. And it felt good to feel desired. To not be pitied, to not be dissected, to not feel he was being reset to fit into someone's preconceived notion of "normal."
Was Cuddy right? Had he been playing with fire? Not on his part. No, he knew that line, and nothing in his make-up would allow him to cross it. It was flirtation. It was fun. It was a… He shook his head, remembering the disappointment. Knowing he had to send her away. But on terms that would make him smile on the worst of lonely nights, knowing that possibility existed. Somewhere other than in wildness of his imagination. But it wasn't real. Reality checked in and told him the truth in the harshest of terms. He should have known. The great diagnostician. Right. He had thought the Bogart routine was a pretty cool way to let her down. Then the milky tears flowed. And it hit. Perfect.
House lifted the game unit absently, turning it over in his hand, glancing at it. He felt exhausted. No, not exhausted. More weary. Everything hurt. His arms felt like lead. His head pounded as it had since the effects of the inhaled anesthetic began to wear off hours and hours ago. His right leg was fine as long as it remained completely still. No movement, no pressure. When was his last hit of Vicodin?
He had watched the family, the perpetual outsider looking in. It was a comfortable place for him, that stance. He worked at the right hospital for it. More windows than you could peer through in a lifetime. They weren't happy, Adam's parents. Weren't relieved. No. All they had from this experience was a trip back to their "normal." He wasn't sure that fixing Adam was good thing or a bad thing. But the choice wasn't his to make. Like it hadn't been with Ezra Powell.
"A kid back from the brink of death. Now that's a 10." Wilson's stupid happiness scale. Trying to teach him how to feel. What to feel. If Wilson only knew. He knew how to feel. He just didn't know how to NOT feel. But that gratitude thing; that being happy that you've simply put things back to a less-than-satisfactory normal. That was the thing he'd had trouble understanding. He wouldn't cure Adam. He couldn't cure Adam. Just like he didn't think he could cure the wheelchair guy. But they thanked him. For what? For doing his job? He hadn't healed either of them. So why was he deserving of their gratitude. Nothing had been changed either time; for either patient.
Wilson collected bits of gratitude. For him, that was a 10. Made some sense, given his specialty. As for House, he wasn't sure what to feel when sad-eyed parents thanked him for sending them home to the hell from which they emerged into his sphere. But Adam's eyes had looked into House's soul. "You took away the thing that made me afraid," they said. "Thank you," they said, "for taking away the monsters in my eyes." And he extended the beloved toy to House. Had anyone spoken to him in that moment, House would not have had the capacity to respond. He couldn't make eye contact with parents, so averted his own eyes as they tearfully hugged their son, weariness metamorphosing into brief joy. "That? That was a 10." Wilson walked away, gratefully leaving House alone to sit for many minutes before returning to his office.
The carpet layers were nearly done, and the old carpet was revealed anew. House was broken away from his thoughts as he felt Cameron step into the threshold beside him. He was a bit embarrassed at still holding onto the game—the gift after so many hours.
"Not all change is bad." She still didn't quite get it. Or get him. And that was probably a good thing.