The Cripple Code
The patient in Exam Room 2 was a young man perched on the exam table, legs dangling just above his parked wheelchair. This was the last patient he would see today, Dr. House had decided; he was going home, ordering some take-out and camping out on the couch for the season finale of The Bachelor (which was just trashy enough to keep his interest.) The wheelchair threw him a little when he first opened the door.
You'd think someone confined to a chair might be assed to actually spring for medical insurance instead of soliciting free clinics.
But why the chair? House silently bet himself ten dollars he could figure it out in the next three minutes. It couldn't be an SCI and there were no signs of any sort of temporary injury. Not MS; he was probably too young—maybe 19? 20?—for it to be that advanced. But that was close
"I'm Dr. House," he said, when he realized he'd been staring. "And you are…" House flipped open the file.
"You can call me Chase," the kid said hurriedly, before House could read off his name. House looked up for a second, but didn't otherwise acknowledge that Chase had spoken. He could diagnose, treat, and be out by lunch if he skipped the small talk.
"You burned yourself," House read. Chase held up his left hand, which was wrapped in what looked like a dishtowel.
"Yeah. I think it only blistered a little, but it really hurts." Chase's words were spoken carefully and clearly, but House recognized his accent as Australian and…maybe something else there?
"What happened?" House asked absently, rolling his chair over to the cabinets to dig through various medical samples. He picked up a numbing cream and some antibacterial gel then wheeled his way back to the exam table. Chase held out the hand obediently.
"Spilled some hot water." He winced as House unwound the dishtowel, and discarded a plastic bag of water which had probably been ice sometime in the past. "Making coffee."
"Well, that was dumb. Making coffee, I mean. When there's a Starbucks on every corner."
Chase smiled. Muscle control seemed fine in the arms and upper torso, House noted, uncurling Chase's fingers to inspect the burn. He almost had it…time to stall.
"So are you a long way from home? Came all the way to America for our amazing health care?" Chase looked a bit perplexed, so House added, "Your accent."
"I don't have an accent," Chase protested.
"I don't have an accent," House mocked back, pushing the "a" from the back of his throat—channeling less Chase and more The Crocodile Hunter. Chase rolled his eyes.
"I know. Damn Yankees, aren't we?"
"I'm not—" Chase started, but interrupted his own sentence with a sound of discomfort as House squeezed some disinfectant onto his palm.
"This will sting," House said.
"Thanks for the warning."
"Wait!" House barked, sharply enough to freeze Chase in place as House lifted an accusing finger. "You came in a wheel chair but could still get up on the table. Your spine is ever so slightly curved—either very minor scoliosis, or you had surgery to correct it—I'm betting the latter. And lastly, your speech is slightly halted because you're trying too hard."
Chase looked initially taken aback, but he recovered quickly. "Damn, and I thought I was trying just hard enough."
"You're good, but you're not that good. You have Friedreich's Ataxia."
"And I've also got a nasty burn. Wait, which one of those is treatable again?"
"Oh don't be a smartass; you're ruining my moment."
"You could have read my file."
"Again, you're a buzz kill."
"Um," Chase was biting his lip and House couldn't tell if he was annoyed or not—not that he particularly cared. "I wasn't aware this was a game for you."
"It's all a game for me. Now hold still so I can put this stuff on and wrap your hand up in something more sanitary."
"You don't have any friends, do you?" Chase muttered.
"A great guy like me?" House asked. Then added, "I have one."
"What's wrong with your leg anyway?"
House stopped wrapping the gauze and narrowed his eyes at the patient.
"What about the cripple code, man? We're not supposed to stare at each other."
"You started it—"
Chase was cut off by the door swinging open.
"You paged me?" Dr. Wilson stuck his head in the room.
"I paged you like an hour ago. If you'd actually showed up then I wouldn't even have to be here. What took you so long?" House whined.
"Unlike some doctors working here, I actually feel I should do my job instead of playing phone tag with my friends."
"What if it had been urgent?"
"WILSON BUY LUNCH?' Somehow I thought it could wait."
House opted to change the subject. "Dr. Wilson, this is Chase. He has Friedreich's Ataxia which means he's probably going to die before he makes it to age twenty-five. Cool, huh?"
"Oh don't get your panties in a bunch; he knows the prognosis. In the meantime he can still zip around in a wheelchair, so you could take him clubbing if you really wanted to."
"Sometimes I can even get around with a cane," Chase added—playing it cool all right, but House noticed he was slightly flustered.
"I'm sorry," Wilson said, turning to Chase, "If you need a follow-up appointment, there are plenty of other doctors you can see—"
"But he likes me," House interrupted, "Don't you, Chase?"
"Well he knows your name at least." Wilson nodded to Chase. "That's a huge step for House."
"Solidarity!" House announced, grabbing his cane and beating it against the cheap linoleum. "Two legs bad, no legs good!" He half expected Wilson to point out the five things wrong with that statement, but Wilson just scratched the back of his neck and looked intently past him to a poster about the dangers of HPV.
House seized the moment of silence to tape up Chase's bandage and rattle off some routine spiel about preventing infection and coming back in a few days.
"Make an appointment with Brenda at the desk," said Wilson, standing with a hand on the doorknob. "The chances that you'll get Dr. House again are fairly slim. He wouldn't even be here if his boss didn't threaten to fire him this morning… "
"It's okay," Chase called after Wilson, "I do like him."
Before the door swung shut again, House pulled the smuggest face he could muster and shouted, "See?"
The strange part, House realized, looking back at Chase—his mismatched shirt and pants, the earnest look on his face as he tucked his bandaged hand against his body—was that House hadn't expected that himself.
- - -
"The new nurse in peds," House said. Wilson squinted and twisted his mouth to the side, settling back against the couch to take a swig of his drink.
"She's okay," he said finally.
"Okay! I sure wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers."
Wilson's laugh sounded strained. "All right, uh…what about Diane from the cafeteria?"
"The lunch lady?!"
"You know there's this whole 'lunch lady' stereotype that just isn't fair—it's not like Diane is some two-hundred pound spinster with a gland problem…" Wilson shook his head. "She's nice, and she's not bad looking."
"Huge knockers," House conceded. "I'm surprised she hasn't dipped them in the egg salad yet."
Wilson sighed dramatically. "Fine. You go."
House squeezed his eyes shut in imitation of deep thought. "The kid from the clinic today."
"What kid? And 'kid' better be a relative term, or I'm calling a foul…"
"You know," House said, clinking the ice cubes around in his glass. "Wheelchair boy. From the land down under."
Wilson's mouth opened and closed. "You're serious? Is this some kind of twisted psychological test, looking for…oh, I don't know, some latent homosexuality that will explain my divorces?"
"Are you calling a foul?" asked House, batting his eyelashes.
"I'm calling bullshit. If you were interested in…him at all, it was only in the ataxia."
"If there was a god, and he really was opposed to sodomy, he would never make a boy look like that."
"Unbelievable. So you've moved on from hookers and now you're picking up crippled kids in the clinic?"
House feigned indignation. "He's not 'crippled,' you fascist—he's differently-abled."
"He's half your age!"
"So?" House paused to wiggle his eyebrows. "I offered him a prostate exam and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas."
"I can't believe we're even talking about this!" Wilson looked ready to grab the couch cushions and hold them against his ears, which House silently filed away as a personal victory. Wilson cracked him up sometimes.
"Anyway," House said, "He likes me. He said so."
"Do you think he meant…oh, I don't know—as a doctor?"
"Does anyone like me as a doctor?"
Wilson tilted his head to the side. "Point taken. But still. Seriously?"
"Hm…do you think he can still fuck?"
"Jesus, House!"—Wilson was on his feet—"Was he even eighteen?"
"Twenty. Born in Australia, green card, lives with his aunt and mother in the city. Mom's a drinker, dad was too, before he left."
"He told you this?"
"It's in his file."
Wilson held up his hands. "Let me get this straight…you actually read the file of a clinic patient?"
"And brought it home. You wanna see?"
"You're still messing with me. You only pulled that file because you think Friedreich's ataxia is interesting and you're not really interested in…uh…"
"Chase." That deflated Wilson, just enough for House to notice. He bit back a smirk, opting for the more condescending: "But you're probably right."
Wilson looked weary as he sank back in his place on the sofa. "It's doubtful you'll see him again anyway, you know. Even if he does come back."
"He'll come back," House said. He glanced at the mantel clock and yawned, propping his feet on the coffee table beside his empty glass. "He likes me, remember?"
- - -
Thursday afternoon at exactly two o'clock, Wilson—still reeling a bit from the (expected, but still) death of one of his younger patients—stumbled into Exam Room One to find that House was right.
There was House, sitting backwards in a chair, which put him eye-level with the young man he'd so bluntly introduced into the game of Who Would You Screw two nights prior. Chase, was it? Wilson wished he hadn't remembered.
"Jimmy!" House called amiably, "We were wondering when you'd decide to show up." Chase half-waved.
"I'm on time, and—" Wilson fixed House with an accusing finger—"You're not even scheduled for the clinic today."
House shrugged. "I slipped Brenda a 50 if she'd page me when Chase showed up. Hmm…do you think Cuddy is stiffing the nurses again?" Wilson ignored the question. "Do we need to talk?"
"It's okay," said Chase, "my mom had to drop me off early and"—his gaze shifted to House, who was of course, grinning like the Cheshire Cat— "Dr. House was just keeping me company."
"What—" Wilson sputtered, "Have I stumbled into some sort of parallel universe where people enjoy spending time with House?"
"You know, there are masochists out there other than you," House said.
"He isn't being a jerk to you?" Wilson asked Chase, who shrugged.
"I'm fairly used to it. If you knew my family, you'd understand."
"I'm trying to deduce who wronged him," House mock whispered behind his hand. "Mommy or daddy?"
Wilson couldn't help but shake his head and silently pray that House had not been serious regarding what he said about Chase before. House wasn't exactly an open book, but Wilson thought he'd be able to gauge House's bullshit after being his friend for nearly ten freaking years. This he knew though: House was either serious, or attempting to drive him crazy.
If it was the latter, it was almost working. Wilson, with House's descriptions of Chase's uh…physical appearance still ringing in his ears, was trying his hardest to not look at Chase while…looking at Chase. The curve in his spine, which House had briefly mentioned, was barely noticeable beneath his sweater and he sat up straight in the chair with his fingers resting on the wheels. Wilson turned to Chase's chart and away from his face, determined not to notice anything else House had mentioned.
"So after you rewrap his hand and give him a lollipop, can I have him next?" House asked.
"I have agency, you know," Chase said.
"Shhp, quiet. The doctors are talking. Wilson?"
"Do you really need my permission?" Wilson asked. He wiped at his brow. "In fact, why don't you deal with the bandage yourself so you two can continue um…whatever you're doing?"
"Because I'm not on duty right now. Duh."
"This is unbelievable," Wilson said to no one in particular, and stepped back out the door.
House, of course, followed him.
"Are you still thinking of what I said two nights ago?" House called after him. Wilson had no choice but to turn around again, lest House decided to yell something more incriminating.
"No," Wilson lied, "I just don't know what to think of you actually connecting with a patient."
"Look," said House, "I just want to…see what he can do. Mobility wise, I mean. I'm curious."
"You're curious," Wilson said flatly.
"House, he's a human being, not a guinea pig."
Then, in a tone that was definitely teasing and almost dirty, House asked, "Don't you think I know that?"
- - -
House was messing with Wilson. A little. He'd have liked to believe that messing with Wilson was his only objective here. Wilson, as he'd long suspected, became flustered the minute House brought the notion of a new, gay attraction to the table, no matter how serious any of it was, and this was unspeakably satisfying.
But Chase (other name forgotten by now) had actually peaked House's interest; otherwise, why bring him up in the first place? A lot of it was about the ataxia—really, a young man with a shrinking future who seems completely unaffected by that? Completely resigned to using a wheel chair, proud enough to never mention it, but not too proud to forsake the chair for a less obvious but more trying means of getting around?
(House almost laughed at that thought; what, was a cane less obvious now?)
In some way or another, Chase had to be affected—it was a degenerative disease for Christ's sake!—and House felt a gravitational need to find out how. He really was curious.
But it didn't really end there, House thought, annoyed. Maybe he'd damned himself by spouting all that crap to Wilson—if there was a God, and he made boys look like that etc. etc…
Maybe House had become so good at convincing others, that he actually convinced himself. So he was thinking that, yes, maybe Chase was especially pretty for his gender. And thinking that maybe if Chase were a girl, he would be some disposable floozy—cute, but ultimately not worth it—and maybe he was anyway if you discount the damn wheel chair and the grim future prognosis. But even House couldn't do that.
Goddamn if he was feeling anything like pity; what a stupid, useless emotion.
But their last encounter had ended so…dramatically.
House's introduction to Chase's mother was this: A tiny blonde woman, screaming at the nurses in the clinic, shaking her finger at Brenda and demanding to know what the hell was taking so long, she was supposed to pick her son up thirty minutes ago—she had things to do, people to see!
All this, they heard through the door, left slightly ajar after House's confrontation with Wilson in the hallway. Chase looked embarrassed. Wilson got up, no doubt to try and fix things.
"No, it's okay," Chase said quickly. His hands moved to his wheels. "She's right, we need to leave."
"You okay with that bandage?" Wilson asked, eyeing the wad of gauze that had to make mobility at least a little more difficult.
Chase shook his head. "Fine. Thanks."
"There you are," his mother had said, in much the same tone she had used on Brenda. She grabbed the back of her son's wheelchair and turned him roughly towards the door.
House looked at Wilson.
"Uh, wait!" Wilson called. He lifted a clipboard in the air and started after the pair. "You have to sign this!"
House shook his head, watching Wilson attempting to finish up with Chase while keeping one eye on Chase's mother, who had crossed her arms and was tapping a foot in annoyance. Pity, again: stupid, useless emotion.
At least this story was over, he thought, though he probably knew even then—somewhere, in the back of his mind—that that wasn't true.
- - -
"I'm in some trouble and I didn't know who else to call," Chase's voice said, across a wave of cell phone static. "Your friend gave me your number."
"You've fallen and you can't get up?" House guessed, wondering why the hell he'd bothered to pick up the phone. It was almost nine o'clock and his ass was firmly planted to the sofa, where he was determined to keep it.
"No, no, I…my mum kicked me out."
"I'm, I'm sitting on the curb outside the apartment. I don't have anywhere to go and…I could really use a favor." When House said nothing, he'd added, "I'd owe you."
House didn't bother holding back a sigh. "Where are you?"
"Up on North Holt, by the big apartment building."
"At least it's close," House muttered. "Don't move."
He hung up before Chase could respond.
Chase was waiting where he'd said he'd be, under a street light in front of the apartments and sitting—more literally than House had expected—on the curb.
"Where's your chair?" House asked through a rolled down window.
Chase sat up straight with his fists behind him, eyes wide and flashing in the headlights. He seemed to quickly compose himself. "Didn't think Mum was going to let me go back and get it."
"Let me get this straight"—House swung open the door—"She kicked you out without your wheelchair?"
Chase broke eye contact. "She's pretty drunk. She probably won't even remember in the morning. But I can't go back tonight."
"Well come on then, get in the car."
Chase smirked. "Can I get a hand up?"
Wordlessly House stuck his cane out the car door. Chase grabbed the end and pulled himself up, stumbling up against the back door. "Do you mind if I…?" he asked, hand on the door handle.
"Sure, I'll play chauffeur," said House. Chase tumbled into the back seat. "What were you planning on doing anyway, if I'd said no? Sit there all night?"
Chase shrugged. House moved the rearview mirror to get a better look at him.
"Well, you can crash on my couch, I suppose," House said hesitantly. He cursed himself for not thinking this out in advance—of course, if he picked Chase up, the kid would need a place to stay. He quickly contemplated calling Wilson, but his wife probably wouldn't agree with Wilson dragging a strange boy home. "As long as you don't steal anything," he added for good measure.
"Thank you. I really owe you. I'll…" Chase trailed off, and House recognized that awkward realization that they didn't know each other well enough for Chase to come up with a counter-favor. "Thanks."
House rolled his eyes and adjusted the rear view mirror to see the traffic again. If he did call Wilson, Wilson would say, "Unless you're a total bastard, you'll take him in."
And House would say, "What makes you think I'm not a total bastard?" just as he proved he wasn't by pulling the car away from the curb and taking Chase—wheel-chair boy, with the accent, and the terrible home life—home with him.
Pity. How ridiculous.
Chase was explaining how he and his mother had to move to the states, where her sister was living, because after his father left, they didn't have enough money to keep the house. House was only half listening.
"You know, some people have nice stories, with family picnics and potato salad," House said, over him. "Just no one in this car."
He could feel Chase looking at him blankly. He didn't feel the need to explain himself, or his references.
- - -
It took maybe ten minutes between Chase walking through the door and House persuading him to take his shirt off so he could poke at the surgical scars on Chase's back.
Sure, scars were always interesting, but he was way more interested in how long it would take for Chase to get annoyed enough with the guinea pig treatment to tell him to sod off. House had almost exhausted all the questions he could ask that seemed medically relevant, and was considering making some up. When was this kid going to snap?
Maybe this was the counter-favor: a long suffering patience. But House's own patience was running thin. It was amusing for the first few minutes to give Chase inane commands—stand up, sit down, let me see your back—but he seemed so eager to please that the novelty was actually wearing off.
Who made you like this? House wanted to ask, because it just didn't seem natural. Jesus.
Instead he asked, "Is your mother completely insane? Just curious."
"She's not. She just doesn't handle…stress very well. So she drinks."
"Why are you defending her? She gave you the boot!"
"She's my mother." Chase shrugged. "And she's nice, sometimes."
"When no one's looking?"
"Something like that," Chase said, but he smiled just a little.
House touched a finger to the top of the long scar, snaking down Chase's spine like a giant pink parenthese. He was trying to remember how a spinal chord looked, laid open and bare, when Chase shivered and goose bumps rose under House's fingers. And House remembered he was touching skin.
Chase met his eyes, briefly. "Sorry."
For? House pulled his hand away.
"Put your shirt on," he said, because he could.
He could probably demand anything in the world, and he chose this. "You have a problem," Wilson would say, if Chase was a woman, maybe older, if the situation was something he could better condone. House shook his head, barely enough to be noticed. Chase had grabbed his tee-shirt and was pulling it over his head.
"Wait," House said.
"What?" said Chase, through the tee-shirt.
House reached out again, to touch a smaller scar along Chase's side, below his ribs. An angry little slice, thick and short. Chase freed his head from the shirt and turned back to House.
"What's this one?" House asked. His palm was almost pressed to Chase's side; he could almost feel him breathing.
"I fell off my bike. When I was younger."
House wondered if he was disappointed, if he was hoping for something more grimmer.
"What about yours?" Chase asked.
"Your leg. You have a scar?"
"Is this a clever ploy to get my pants off?" House asked, but the words felt strangely flat in his mouth. He cleared his throat. "Don't count on it. This isn't a 'show me yours I'll show you mine.'"
"Right. It's all purely medical." Chase yanked his shirt down over his shoulders, scars and pale skin disappearing. House tried to look uninterested. Chase smiled like a goddamn imp.
"You're leaving, first thing in the morning," House said, reaching for his cane and rising to his feet. "And I'm going to bed."
"Sweet dreams," said Chase.
House barely looked at him. He walked out of the room. Then he walked back.
This is for you, Jimmy, he thought in some foolish juvenile way
as he pinned Chase down to the couch
hoping that no one with two functional legs would ever have to see what happened next.
It will make for a good story tomorrow.
With Chase sprawled across his legs, House asked, "Are you afraid of death?"
"No, of life," Chase answered, and yanked loose the buttons on his pants so the denim gaped open like a wound.
- - -