Title: No Mere Mortal
Summary: On your first day of your internship at Princeton-Plainsboro you have five different conversations about Dr. House.
Genre: Gen, hints at House/Wilson
Notes: This story has been kicking around my hard-drive for a while now. My brain is weird. Could be construed as a possible alternate outcome of "No Reason." Much thanks to my beta Shenth for the coherency check and for pointing out my multiple abuses of synonyms.
"Have you heard about Dr. House?"
It's your first day as a resident at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, and it seems that this is the only question anyone seems eager to ask you. You smile at the receptionist, finishing the handshake you were in the midst of when the inevitable question came up. "Kind of hard not to, right?"
She laughs. "He's a legend, after all." She hands you a folder with your schedule for the day and a map of the hospital. You have a lot of people to brownnose and procedure to follow today before they'll even let you hand out suckers down at the free clinic. "You're bound to run into him sooner or later. Just try to make it later. He hates med students."
Intellectually you know that it's ridiculous to be afraid. You're a doctor, after all, well versed in the ways of rationality, and the stories they tell are just that: stories, camp-fire tales of a limping bogeyman to scare the uninitiated. Still, your gut twists at her words.
"I'll try to keep that in mind," you say, forcing out a smile. Mustn't let on about how nervous you are on your first day. Initial impressions are important.
"Watch out for the elevators!" she calls out as you walk away. "He's got 'em rigged to stop between floors 3 and 4!"
Again you laugh courteously, but as soon as her back is turned you make a quiet beeline for the stairs.
The man taking your picture for your ID card is entirely too enthusiastic about the procedure. He seems the type to be entirely too enthusiastic about everything, actually. His wide face is split by a grin as he fidgets with the adjustments on the camera, indicating with his fingers that you should shift minutely to the right if you want your photo to be centered. "So you've heard about House, yeah?"
He laughs when you hesitate to reply, torn between the truth and a polite lie that would allow him to tell whatever story it is that's obviously bursting off the tip of his tongue.
"You med students. Scared shitless of the bastard, but he's the reason half of you are here in the first place."
He chooses that moment to snap the picture, and you're blinded for an instant by the flash.
"The stories are pretty incredible," you say, still blinking back the colorful after-images that ghost across your vision.
"Hell, isn't that why they get told?" The photographer is fiddling with his computer now, squinting occasionally at the printout with your name, specialty, and identification number. Behind him the industrial printer whirrs to noisy life, eventually spitting out a small rectangle of plastic after much bravado.
He threads the clip through the hole and hands it to you, leaning close conspiratorially as you reach to take it.
"You want some advice on avoiding him? He likes to pace, because of his leg. You'll hear him coming from a long way off. There's no mistaking him." He brandishes an imaginary cane threateningly, and you can't help it, you shrink back. He sees this and smiles.
"Thank you," you say in what you hope is a stiff, professional manner. You busy yourself with clipping your ID to the pocket of your lab coat. In the photo you're flustered and slightly cross-eyed, nowhere near the picture of composed doctorial calm you were hoping for. You suspect that this was the photographer's intention all along.
"You hear him coming, you'd better run!" he calls cheerfully as you leave, his over-loud laughter cut short by the door as it closes behind you.
They're just stories, you remind yourself, but by lunchtime you're still a paranoid, jittery wreck, half-afraid that House will jump out from behind the next potted plant and whack you with his cane. One of your classmates in advanced internal medicine claimed to have been the victim of such an attack, but you'd always dismissed the story as a clamor for attention, a way to gain fame from House's infamy. Now you aren't so sure. It feels as if House's specter is lurking in every shadowed corner.
The cafeteria is crowded, and you're tempted to find some quiet, empty waiting room and have your lunch there. But as much as you would like to take a break from the wearying meet-and-greet game, you know that it's important to mingle with as many people as possible on your first day, so you seek out the closest table with an empty seat.
"May I join you?" you ask the woman in glasses and a casual yet trendy updo taking up one half of a two-person table. Too late you spot the pile of notes and lab print-outs to her left, but instead of the expected brush-off you get a warm smile.
"Please do." She shuffles aside her things, making way for your tray. Taking a seat you introduce yourself, and she does likewise. Dr. Cameron's grip is firm and sure in your own.
Unlike some of the other doctors and staff you've met today, she seems genuinely interested in your studies, asking questions about your undergraduate work and your proposed field of study. Her own specialty is in immunology—you chat briefly about her research—but as this is a teaching hospital she also works with students and interns such as yourself. It is clear that she sees patient care as a highly personal process, and she tells you a mix of poignant and funny stories from the free clinic on the main floor.
With your relatively limited medical experience you feel a little intimidated and out of place within the conversation, but Dr. Cameron's overt friendliness puts you at ease. "It's good to talk about the more day-to-day aspects of the hospital," you say between bites of your sandwich. "All anyone I've met so far today seems eager to talk about is the Legend of Dr. House!" You laugh and take a drink of your soda. "A security guard even told me that you can still see the stain from where he was shot, but one of my roommates said he'd looked for it but it wasn't true. I'm not sure who I should believe, anymore."
When you look up, you're surprised to see Dr. Cameron frozen in place, her posture stiff. Her eyes, so engaging before, have hardened noticeably.
"People talk when they shouldn't," she says sternly. You pause awkwardly, unsure as to how to respond, but the moment is broken by the beep of her pager. Before you have a chance to apologize she's gathered her things and swept off, leaving you to deal with her tray.
Feeling sullen about your unintentional faux pas, you head down to the lab for your state-required HIV test. The nurse tying off your tourniquet and prepping the syringe must have just gotten off of a long shift in pediatrics, judging by her Minnie Mouse scrubs and tired, hollowed-out eyes, but she's smiling and friendly as she draws your blood. Her years of practice are evident: you barely feel a thing, unlike when you and your lab partner first started practicing by giving saline injections to each other. Her conversation is comfortingly light and bubbly, and you allow yourself to relax into the simple talk, watching as she secures gauze to the small wound with a blue band-aid.
"I'm surprised," she says, labeling the vial with your blood to be sent down for testing. "You haven't asked me about Dr. House yet. Most of the residents I get in here are begging to know where all of the bodies are hidden."
"Just being cautious," you say, shrugging meekly. "I really stuck my foot in my mouth earlier with another doctor, and I'm trying to avoid a repeat."
You expect her to burst forth with her own horror story, but instead she frowns, looking serious. "It's just talk. Most of it isn't true. Most of the people who tell those stories have never even seen him."
"Have you?" you ask, intrigued by her tone and manner.
"Only once," she admits reluctantly. "But that was before. He was always very private. He'd be even more so now, I guess."
"What was he like, the Terror of Princeton Plainsboro?" You laugh, because this whole situation is ridiculous, but she just looks back at you with eyes that are distant and troubled before glancing away.
"He seemed very sad," she says quietly, biting her lip. "He wasn't scary at all."
Despite your best efforts, by the end of the day you're burning with curiosity about Dr. House, the type that can't be satisfied with secondhand stories and half-true rumors. You need to see the legend for yourself, and you know exactly where to go.
Outside of the cafeteria there is an open brick patio half-shaded by trees and scattered with wrought-iron tables and chairs. During lunch it's busy with doctors and visiting family members sucking down desperate cups of coffee, but this late into the day it's completely empty, inhabited only by the long shadows cast by the low autumn sun. Still you tread softly, fearful of being caught, and try to look as casual as possible.
There. Through the shadows and the trees framing a small alcove set into the building's wall you see him. You look around, but your presence seems to have gone unnoticed, so you move closer and take your time to study his face intently.
You can see why everybody save the pediatrics nurse seems so afraid of him. He looks scary. His face is rugged and drawn, half-hidden by a shadow of scruff, and his hair, though cropped close, seems to be that of a wild man. Yet it is the eyes that get to you. Deep set in the hollows of his sockets, they burn and blaze across the brick patio, piercing you where you stand. You're lost in those eyes, intrigued by them, and more than a little frightened of what lies beneath.
"Let me guess. You're looking for Dr. House."
You nearly jump out of your skin, spinning in place with some fumbled explanation at hand. Dr. Wilson from oncology is seated at one of the tables, though how you missed his now-obvious presence is a curiosity to be solved later. You've had him in lecture before, but haven't really spoken one-on-one with the man. His silvery hair and crisp white lab coat are haloed against Princeton's famous crimson and gold foliage, and the fading afternoon light casts the deep lines of his face with the same glow, giving you a brief glimpse at what he must have looked like as a younger man. But even the kind light cannot hide all of his crow's feet, and he squints up at you with watery eyes from beneath his characteristic bristle of eyebrows. The nervous part of you quiets some at the amused look you find there.
Rising from his seat, he gestures for you to follow him. "Come," he says. "I'll introduce you."
There's really no polite way to refuse him. The two of you shuffle along, you feeling embarrassed at being caught and awkwardly trying to adjust yourself to Dr. Wilson's gait, the cane in his right hand forcing you both to sway heavily to that side. Still, it's only a few steps until you reach your destination, and you finally meet the legendary Dr. Gregory House.
Up close the bronze portrait seems flat, less life-like than it did at a distance. Yet House remains an imposing man, glaring out across time and metal from his place on the ivy-covered brickwork. Other than the carved relief of the portrait the plaque is relatively plain, listing the years of his tenure as head of diagnostics and declaring the secluded patio House Memorial Court. None of the adjectives you'd use to describe a man like House are the kind people cast in bronze.
"They really should have hung that thing in one of the TV lounges," Dr. Wilson says fondly. "Now there was a man who loved his cable."
You nod, as if you had known the man, as if his legend hadn't insinuated itself into the very foundations of this hospital long before you even considered becoming a doctor. It is late, long past time now for you to go home, and after inviting you to lunch on some future date Dr. Wilson signals that you should leave him there. You wish him well and turn to leave, the heels of your smart dress shoes clicking loudly against the brick.
At the edge of the patio you turn, however, for one last look back. The battered cane Dr. Wilson always carries is too tall for him, you decide, but standing there he doesn't seem to rest too much weight on it, just folds his spotted hands quietly on the handle, patting it like an old friend. Still, you get the distinct feeling that it is the only thing in this world holding him up.
As you watch, he reaches out to caress the bronze face in front of him, ghosting his fingers along the carved jaw line. It is an oddly intimate gesture. Out of politeness, you pretend that you don't see it.
If in the dead of night something paces the halls of Princeton-Plainsboro with uneven footsteps, you don't pay it any attention.
If sometimes you find stray textbooks open to information relevant to your cases, you don't see cause to make exception of it.
If during your rounds you find that patients' pain medications have been tampered with, you simply adjust the IV and move on, not even bothering to note the abnormality on their charts.
If you once spy a gaunt figure made of absence and shadow looking longingly through the window of Dr. Wilson's office, you don't dare mention it to him.
You're a doctor, after all. You aren't the type to believe in ghost stories.