A/N: Yup, it's been about a thousand years since I updated this little tale, but here's a new chapter. I wish I could promise the next one soon, but I don't like to make promises I'm not sure I can keep.
So ... if you're too disgusted with the time lag to keep reading, I'll be the first to say I don't blame you!
The sound of footsteps from the conference room pulled his attention away from the patient file he was reading for the third time.
House reached for the phone intercom. "Who's in there?"
After a few seconds Devi Rajghatta's voice responded, "It's me, Dr. House."
"Come in here." When she came into his office, he met her expectant look. "Carrig. How long has he got?"
Her expression sobered. "Not long. Three days. Four at most, without a transplant."
Don't do it, House's inner voice warned him. "What's his condition right now? Is he conscious?"
"Sometimes he comes to for a few minutes. He drifts in and out. Mostly out."
It's a stupid idea. I'm telling you, don't do it, the warning voice growled at him. House nodded to himself. "Get a wheelchair and bring it back here."
She stared at him. "You want to -"
"Yeah. I have to see him." Fucking moron, the inner voice moaned.
He'd battled with the idea all day, and even the interruption by Cate Milton hadn't derailed his train of thought.
Carrig was dying, and nothing in the patient's scans, test results or history gave any clue why. He'd had a massive heart attack, but there was no coronary artery disease, no clots, no anomalies at all. Coronary artery vasospasm had been ruled out by a heart catheterization. Drug use was a logical conclusion, but aside from Viagra, tests showed the patient was clean.
There had to be some wild card here, some vital piece of information they didn't have. House had to find out what was killing him. Getting the answers via autopsy had always left him with the bitter taste of defeat in his mouth.
Waiting for Devi to return with the wheelchair, House already felt himself tensing. That voice in his head was right, it was a stupid idea. The odds that a visual exam of the patient would reveal anything new was a one-in-a-million shot. Might as well order a full body scan.
But if he didn't try, then he couldn't tell himself he'd done everything he could.
He considered calling Wilson, then rejected the idea with a harsh sigh. "Man up and deal with it," he muttered to himself, and tried to ignore the tightness in his throat and the way his heartbeat was picking up speed. The stress ramped up a notch when Devi brought in the chair. Concentrating on keeping his balance, he got himself into the wheelchair without incident and noted that Rajghatta didn't offer to help. Fast learner. "Listen. We'll take the staff elevators. Don't stop for anyone on the way."
Devi moved quickly, pushing her boss' wheelchair down the hall to the bank of elevators, thankful that one of them was empty, ready and waiting. Once in, she pressed the button for the fourth floor, and then the door-close button when she spied an orderly approaching them. The elevator began its ascent. With a silent sigh she glanced at House. He was staring at the floor, tense and preoccupied.
Why was he going to the trouble of going to the patient's room? Foreman and Chase had told her House had rarely ever met his patients - that, in fact, he intensely disliked getting mired in the human elements of his job. He much preferred the logic and elegance of test results and their orderly numbers.
And that had been before Thompson. Now he was even more adamant about avoiding patient contact - or contact with just about anyone.
Clearly he was just as baffled by this case as his subordinates were if he was willing to go to this extreme.
As the elevator passed the third floor she saw him try to straighten a bit and set his expression into a calm mask. His eyes met hers for half a second as if checking to see if she was ready to run the gauntlet with him.
People looked, then stared. In reality it was only a few people who actually stopped and gaped, but it seemed to Devi like they were under Hollywood spotlights. Again she walked quickly, moving fast to reach Carrig's room. She got no objection from her silent boss.
Near the door to the patient's room, House broke his silence. "Stop here." His gaze swept over the room. "Make sure he's out of it. Turn off the lights and pull the blinds."
Devi didn't dare question his orders. She just nodded and did what she was told.
Once the room was darkened, House wheeled himself over to the bed.
To Devi's eyes, Carrig appeared thin and frail and clearly not long for this world. She hoped against hope that House, who looked barely healthier than his patient, would be struck by that out-of-the-blue inspiration he was known for.
"Rail," he said softly.
Moving quietly, Devi lowered the bed rail.
For several seconds, House merely looked at the monitors, then at Carrig's face and the rise and fall of the ailing man's chest.
"Open the gown."
She drew the covers down. PPTH patient gowns overlapped and fastened in the front, so it was easy for her to do as House asked without disturbing the patient. Carrig remained still and the monitors showed no sign of him rousing.
House stood up, using his good leg. "Got your penlight?" He nodded when she produced it from the pocket of her lab coat. "Shine it on his hand." He carefully manipulated the limp fingers of Carrig's near hand, checking palm, back and wrist. Devi moved the small spot of light as House's exam continued up the arm to the shoulder and armpit. "Toes," House murmured.
Devi walked around him to the foot of the bed and shined the light as House studied the man's foot, ankle, and on up to the groin. Then House returned to his wheelchair and moved to Carrig's other side, where they repeated the process as Carrig lay unconscious. House started to move his hand to the patient's abdomen, but stopped himself. His gnarled hands no longer had the sensitivity or delicacy to palpate.
House sat down again and thought. Devi waited patiently, penlight off, checking Carrig's vital signs on the monitors. Finally House gave a very soft sigh. "Get rid of the boxers."
She fetched scissors from the cart and carefully cut the garment away.
"No rash. No lesions," her boss complained under his breath. "Damn it."
At his nod, Devi put on gloves and lifted Carrig's penis, then his scrotum, shining her light on the exposed skin. Apparently House saw no clues there, either, and jerked his head slightly. Devi fastened Carrig's gown around him and pulled up the blanket.
She was surprised at her own disappointment. Somehow she'd been sure House would see some obscure sign and shout "Eureka!"
Instead, he was glowering at Carrig's slack face.
"What if I call in a nurse? We could turn him over and check again," she suggested.
He shook his head once, curtly, still deep in thought. The visual exam had been a last-ditch idea anyway. He really hadn't expected a crude look-over to find anything that three other doctors and a handful of nurses hadn't found first. "Personal effects?" It was just a formality, something to do before admitting to himself that he was thoroughly stumped.
"In the safe at the nurses station."
House wheeled his chair away from Carrig's bed. He could practically hear the clock ticking off the last hours of his patient's life. "No pressure," he muttered to himself with a sour smile.
Devi returned shortly with a manila envelope. Pulling up a visitor's chair near House, she sat and opened the string tie on the envelope and took out its contents: A keyring with several keys, wallet, a pack of gum, loose change and a baseball game stub.
House reached for the wallet, fumbling it open. Cash, credit cards, bank cards, driver's license, business cards, photos. Chase and Foreman had already gone over the stuff for clues. Shifting his weight off the healing bruise on his hip, House studied the photos, looking for impressions, hints of who Carrig was, what his life had been like before illness struck.
All he could readily see was that Carrig seemed to be a run-of-the-mill family man and small-business owner. Pretty wife, shiny kids. He handed the wallet back to Devi. "Take out the cards."
A few moments later she handed him a small stack of cards. Concentrating hard to get his clumsy fingers to grip, he shuffled through them. Two bank cards. Three credit cards. None of the business cards rang any alarms. As he flipped past them to the driver's license, a mild spasm in his arm caused the cards to slip through his fingers.
"I'll get them," Devi said, reaching down to gather them up.
"Wait." As she paused, he gripped the arms of the wheelchair and leaned over slightly. "There's something stuck on the back of the license."
Frowning, Devi picked it up and flipped it over. A piece of paper was stuck there. She carefully peeled it off and handed the license and the paper to House.
It was a dull green tag with the number 36 stamped on it. The paper itself felt slightly tacky. On impulse, House held it to his nose. The faintest whiff ... something medicinal?
He closed his eyes and let his thoughts run with the impressions he got from the scent. It was vaguely familiar. He knew it ... then he heard an echo of Wilson's voice: "Smells like the Broncos' locker room to me."
How would Wilson know what the Broncos' locker room smelled like, anyway? Definitely something to ask him.
He nodded toward the keyring. "Go through that. Is there a small key? Like for a locker? Or do any of them have the number 36 on it?"
Back in the Diagnostics department conference room, House addressed Chase and Devi. "Call the wife. Friends and coworkers. See if they know where he worked out."
Ten minutes later, as he rested in his office, the intercom beeped.
"We've called everybody. No one knew he went to a gym," Chase's disembodied voice informed him. "No formal or informal sports. Not even jogging or yoga or hiking."
Huh, House thought. No info, even from Carrig's wife? Curiouser and curiouser.
"Get in here. Raja too." He watched them file in and wait for his orders. "Take the key, the tag and a photo. Check out every gym and fitness center around his office and home. I want to see whatever's in that locker. When you find the right place, ask questions. What does he do when he's there, what days and times does he go, how often. Who does he know there. Any comments he's made that might be about symptoms. Get all the information you can."
Lisa Cuddy stared at the telephone on her desk, mentally rehearsing what she planned to say. There was an art to these kinds of conversations, and usually she excelled at it.
Deliberately, reluctantly, she dialed the number.
After the third ring, the line was picked up and a woman's voice said, "Hello?"
Cuddy smiled, so that it could be heard in her voice. "Hello, is this Mrs. Barbara Cameron? It's Dr. Lisa Cuddy, from Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital."
"Oh ... Dr. Cuddy, how are you? It's been a long time."
In her mind's eye Cuddy saw again the image of Allison Cameron's mother, a slender woman with dark hair peppered with silver and a warm smile. She'd met the Camerons at Allison's funeral.
"Yes, it has. I'm doing well. How are you and your husband?" Dr. Terry Cameron was a professor of botany at a state college in Connecticut.
"We're doing okay," Barb Cameron replied, "all things considered." Her friendly tone kept the remark from being off-putting.
"I'm glad. I'm calling because I have some wonderful news for you." Keep it simple, Cuddy reminded herself. "Yesterday an anonymous donor gave the hospital an enormous monetary gift to build a new pediatric oncology wing. The wing will be named after your daughter."
"What?" Mrs. Cameron sounded stunned. Who wouldn't be amazed at such news, Cuddy thought. "A wing? For Allison?"
"That's right. What better way to remember her? It will be a state-of-the-art research and treatment facility for children with cancer."
"Oh..." Mrs. Cameron still seemed tongue-tied. "It's ... it's incredible. But who? Why?"
Here Cuddy felt she should fudge a bit. "The donor insists on remaining anonymous. It doesn't matter who, or why. We'll soon have architects drawing up plans, and when the time comes to break ground, perhaps you and your family would like to attend the ceremony? Although it's months away yet."
For a moment there was silence on the line, then Barbara Cameron spoke softly. "Is it ... him? Dr. House? I know he's come into a lot of money, and I heard he's working there again."
Lisa kept her reply calm and unhurried. "No, the donor is not Dr. House. The same donor has given an identical large sum to the hospital for another wing, dedicated to Dr. House." She waited for that news to be digested, reminding herself that the mother of the murdered young woman was entitled to her complicated emotions in this regard. The Cameron family had no doubt felt a great hatred toward Gregory House for the murder of their daughter. Years later, when House's innocence was revealed, the family's anguish was compounded further. House had not killed Allison Cameron. But how could her family not still find blame in him?
"Him, too? So the person giving the money knows them both?"
"It's impossible to say, Mrs. Cameron. We don't know -"
"Oh my God," the other woman interrupted, a hint of fear becoming evident in her voice, "is it that madman? Someone connected to him? Could -"
"No, Mrs. Cameron," Cuddy spoke firmly, before the woman's anxiety could spiral higher. "Absolutely not. If we even suspected it was possible, we wouldn't take a penny of the money."
"But ... how can you be sure?"
Cuddy sighed to herself. Robert Thompson had been an evil spider, crouched at the center of a vast web. House's publicized history of being snared in that web could make anyone paranoid. "The donation is coming from a group that has no connection whatsoever to ... that man." Of course there was a connection, but Cuddy wasn't going near that can of worms.
Barbara Cameron sounded reassured. "This is incredible. Alli would be so proud."
Then came the tears, and Cuddy was back on solid ground. Comforting the bereaved was part of her job.
Wilson tapped on the door. "House? It's me." He heard a rasped reply he took as an acknowledgement and went in.
House was behind his desk, legs propped up on the corner, staring out the door to the courtyard.
With a pang, Wilson recognized the pose and the preoccupied expression - this was House fully engaged in a case, his brain going 120 mph, sorting and sifting information, comparing symptoms to diseases, seeking the one piece of data that would tie everything together.
The only thing missing was the spinning cane or bouncing ball or any of the myriad ways House used to occupy his hands while his thoughts flew.
Taking a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk, Wilson sat back and studied House's semi-scowl of concentration. "Why the long face?"
House's thoughts were a million miles away. "Genetics. Mom's side."
"I meant, what's on your mind?"
Exhaling softly, House leaned his head back and shifted his shoulders. "Why would a successful, married, middle-aged man join a health club and not tell anybody?"
"Uhhh ..." Wilson considered it. "He's looking for something on the side. Goes to a place like that to find the Spandex bunnies."
That got House to look at him. "It's been what, five years? And still the first thing your mind goes to is cheating."
"Yes, but you know I'd never cheat on you, darling," Wilson sighed, getting a tiny smile in response. "Okay, maybe ... midlife crisis. His doctor tells him his cholesterol or blood pressure is too high, so he gets scared and goes on a secret health kick. Doesn't want to worry the wife."
House mulled it over. "Maybe. Chase and Ghandi are out scouring the guy's neighborhood. They better turn up something, fast."
"Until they get back you're just spinning your wheels here, Let's go."
The thought of going home to sprawl on the couch while Wilson fixed dinner was undeniably tempting. It had been a long, tense day, between Foreman's unease, Pevey's encounter with Rajghatta, Cate Milton dropping in and his trip upstairs to get a look at Carrig. Along with the usual symphony of aches and pains to deal with, his back and legs were tired from the day's activity and his shoulder muscles burned from tension.
"I have to be here."
Wilson tipped his head to the side. "House, if your team finds something, they'll call you. Your cell phone works at home, too," he deadpanned.
"I need to see what they bring back. If they find anything, it may be all we have to go on."
"Then have them bring it directly to your place. They already know where you live. There's no reason you need to stay here." Wilson held up his hand for emphasis. "In the old days you used to pull all-nighters, but you can't do that now."
As usual, Wilson was being quite reasonable. And unfortunately, he was right. Exhaustion was pulling at House from all sides, aggravating all his other issues. But instinct told him the game was afoot. This was his mojo speaking to him, his gift, the thing that made him the best. It was the only thing he could still trust.
"Wilson ... I know. But it's only 4:30. I can give them another couple of hours."
He watched his friend absorb this. Wilson slowly stood up and picked up House's backpack, pulling out the pill organizer. Setting it on the desk, Wilson began taking out medications. "Muscle relaxant. These two for pain. Antacids. And I want to check your blood pressure."
House reclined in his lounge chair and submitted to the pressure check. Wilson wasn't giving him too hard a time about staying late, although apparently there were going to be a few guidelines.
"Pressure's a little high, but not in the red zone. Why don't you rest until you hear from Chase." Wilson detached the cuff and set the sphygmometer by the door. Ensconcing himself in House's desk chair, he frowned slightly. "You said Chase and Devi are out looking for this guy's gym. Where's Foreman?"
"At home wrestling with his demons or something. It doesn't matter."
Wilson opened his mouth to comment, but thought better of it. "Are you hungry? Want me to order something?"
"If you're hungry, go ahead. I'll wait a while." He felt a little too anxious to eat. He was betting everything on this snipe hunt. If Chase came back empty handed, the patient was very probably going to die. Even if Chase did find something, what if it didn't help? What if they couldn't connect the dots?
Wilson's soft voice broke into his thoughts. "You always specialized in finding the answers. Pulling patients back from the brink. You saved that woman with spotted fever yesterday. But even before – well, before ... sometimes there just weren't enough clues, or enough time."
"You think my patient's a goner? Trying to let me down easy?" His tone wasn't belligerent, only matter of fact.
"I don't know, House. It's just ... you were put into a position where you were given this ... this ... obscene responsibility for other people's lives. I don't want to see you carry that over to your patients. You do tend to obsess, you know."
House considered. "I have enough issues without adding a savior complex. Still, I'm a doctor. I'm supposed to save people's lives."
"You're supposed to try." Wilson shrugged. "And you are trying. That's all you can do." Hoping he'd made his point, Wilson leaned back in the comfortable leather chair. "By the way, you remember tomorrow night Dr. Levin's coming by."
"He'll be wasting his time."
"It's his time to waste. You know, you might need to tell him some ... personal things."
"Doubt it," House muttered.
"I can hang out in another room, give you two some privacy."
"No." It escaped him before he was even aware of saying anything. House winced and looked away, ashamed that he'd become such a fearful creature. Damn it. "We won't be getting all that personal, trust me."
A sly smile tilted Wilson's lips. "Don't worry, I have a great idea."