Swim by Aenisses Thai
Disclaimer: All rights to House MD belong to David Shore, Heel and Toe Films and Bad Hat Harry Productions in association with NBC Universal Television Studio. I do not make any monetary profit from this fanfiction.
This story is rated T for language.
Warning: Spoilers through Season Three, especially the finale, Human Error. I also do not ship any particular pairing (I love them all), so the interactions in this story are canonical.
At first, you think it's one of his snarks, like the time he'd said those words after your hospital board hearing on Kayla's death. But he's not smirking or cartoon-glaring this time; he's looking straight at you, and his eyes are quiet-dead-serious.
"Because I yelled at you?" you blurt out in shock, halfway hoping that he'll start yelling back.
But he doesn't. He doesn't yell or snark or snipe, he doesn't even raise his voice, just speaking briefly and to the point. All the same, the words are coming too thick and fast for you to process, "…time for a change" is all you take in, because—
—it's back. The wave is here, roaring in your ears, pulling you under, filling your eyes and nose and mouth with stinging salt (failure), and it's all you can do to keep from sinking; you can't sink, you have to swim, you have to breathe—
"Fired?" you repeat, the word ashes in your mouth, and he says nothing, just looks away. And the wave roars again, and you realize this is it, this is all you're going to get, there's nothing more he'll explain (four years gone in a heartbeat), and this conversation is over.
Somehow you move your legs, turn away, walk through the hallways while wrapped in the cottonwool of shock (or maybe it's the wave still rumbling in your ears). You're at your locker now with no memory of the moments between, and you begin to methodically gather your things. You handle them carefully, gently, as if they were made of glass, as if the slightest jostle will shatter them into thousands of tiny, knifelike shards.
The salt is rising now; you can feel its bitter tang in your throat, its sting behind your eyes, but suddenly the words echo in your mind, You're not a baby, Robert, don't sit there and cry; you have to get back in the water and swim, the Czech-accented voice caught between amusement and contempt.
So you do as he says and put on your jacket, tucking your hospital ID into your pocket, your eyes dry (your throat dry), and leave your lab coat hanging in the locker. You want to walk (run, hide) out, but you have to see her and tell her, because maybe he won't, and she'll never know why you just disappeared one day.
It's important that she knows. You can't explain why.
They're there at the PET scan, conversing easily as they view the images, stopping when you enter the room. "Is it raining?" Cameron asks, confused by the umbrella hooked over your arm.
"House fired me," you explain, and the odd thing is that your voice isn't upset or strained or angry; just surprised, tinged with wonder that such a thing could happen.
"Why?" she cries, and you try to answer (but you don't know the answer, so all you can do is repeat House's words…time for a change.) Then Foreman asks a question, and suddenly the two of them are quarreling about you, and the realization stabs into you: they're bickering about you but not with you, never again with you, because you're already gone. You have to get out of there, and the PET scan comes to your rescue. You point out the hot spot, and when they turn to look at it, you quietly slip away.
Your last stop is the security station in the hospital lobby, where Carl greets you by name, his large, placid face contrasting with the gun holstered at his hip. You hand over your ID badge, answering his curious look with a terse "Terminated," and head towards the door, looking back when you hear his whistle of surprise.
Damn it, Cuddy is there at his desk, and she's asking Carl something as he clutches your ID, and suddenly you're moving rapidly, pushing past people on their way into the clinic, because you can't do this, you can't risk having to answer her questions, you have to get away!
You don't stop until you're at least three blocks away, finally remembering that you left your car in the parking garage. Fuck all saints and their bloody mothers, you're not going back there now; you'll wait to retrieve it tomorrow (or maybe tonight, in the middle of the night.) You begin walking, at first looking for a cab, but eventually settling into an easy pace that gets you home in less than an hour.
It's not until you drop your possessions on the table that you realize your arms are cramped from carrying them for so long. You pull off your jacket, roll your shoulders and rub your arms, then unwittingly, unwillingly, turn your eyes to the phone.
The answering machine blinks a steady zero. As it has for the past several weeks.
You sink down onto the couch and close your eyes, pulling the numbness around you like a soft blanket, not realizing that you're holding your breath.
The peace is shattered by the shrilling of your phone, and you leap up. The caller ID is flashing, and while part of you can't believe it, another part rides a wave of relief.
You knew he'd call.
You must've been standing there longer than you realized, because his voice comes over the answering machine, clipped and matter-of-fact. "Chase, if you know what's on the PET scan, call me back." Click.
Not twenty seconds later, you're hitting the speed dial, your heart in your throat (and is it a sign of how pathetic your life is that his office is number one on your speed dial?)
Before you can even think of what to say, his voice comes on the line. "House."
"It's me." Good, keep it simple. Play his game.
"Doctor Chase. How are ya?" He sounds uncharacteristically expansive, and although you can hear the edge of sarcasm in his voice, something inside you aches at that friendly tone.
But you'll be damned if you're the first to fold, so you keep your own voice steady and professional. "You asked about the PET scan. I didn't see the entire thing, but I did notice a hot spot near the humerus in her right arm." Only now do you wonder why he couldn't get this info from Foreman and Cameron.
"Thank you. You are indispensable." Now the warmth is so over-the-top, you'd have to be delusional to think that he's at all sincere. "Uhhh…you're still fired. Sorry." Click.
For some reason, the first thing that pops into your head is an image of Wilson, hands on hips, standing behind House with a disapproving frown on his face.
Of course he was there. You're not psychic; you've seen this scene a hundred times between the two—House doing something outrageous in response to one of Wilson's criticisms. The difference this time is that you were roped into becoming part of House's performance art, and the only reason for that is House was trying to make a point.
The point being: "…you're still fired."
It's an oddly silent thing, the death of hope. You've experienced it enough times that the silence no longer surprises you, but your subconscious makes note of it anyway. The sensation is sharp and intense, like a building collapsing in on itself to explode in a cloud of dust, like a circus assistant being pinned to the target after the knife artist stumbles. There should be screams and blood, but instead, it's as if the sound's been turned off—
—and the wave catches you at last and pulls you beneath the surface, away from the roar of water lunging through air. There's no air here in the pit, no sound; just the relentless rush of water and the pull of the current as it sucks you under.
Your legs go numb, and you drop down on the couch, gasping and choking, salt water bitter on your tongue. If there were a word in your wordless howl, it would be Why?
God, you'd take anything for a reason right now, any insult, any accusation:
"Waited two years to get back at you for the Vogler thing, you sneaky bastard—surprised? Now get out."
"Get out, I'm sick of your ass-kissing ways."
"Get out, I'm sick of you defying me."
"Get out, I'm sick of your incompetence."
"Get out, I'm sick of you being right."
But none of these ring true (and why has House's voice taken on a slightly Czech accent in your mind?) In the end, all you have is, "…time for a change."
That's the worst of it; that after four years (one betrayal, one punch, one faked case of cancer, and one hug), you'd finally reached a place where you both appreciated each other—well, that was what you thought, but now it's over, and you'll never know why it ended or if it was real anywhere other than in your own mind.
The light moves across your wooden floor, turning gold and casting new shadows, and still your mind keeps spinning, seeking answers instead of making plans. Sometimes the salt water covers your head and sometimes it recedes, and you're getting too weary to notice as you sift through your memories, searching for closure.
It strikes you then, your mind illuminating just as the room slips into twilit darkness: you've been in this country so long you've adopted the American sense of entitlement to closure on all emotional issues, the same way they feel entitled to cheap petrol and world domination. Because really, when have you ever been given an explanation for anything (anyone leaving you) in your life before?
For you, closure has been the sound of your father's car driving away, or the faint scent of dead meat overlaid with gin and vomit, or the shuttering of green eyes as she turns away from you (…and now it's over.)
You make yourself get up and move, replacing the phone in its cradle, hanging up your jacket, turning on lamps here and there (because you're not a baby to sit crying in the dark, Robert.) Standing in the shower with water coursing over you, you ponder the difference between what you've asked for (Miserere nobis) and what you've received.
Would finding out that your mum had truly loved you make her any less dead? Would your dad be alive if you knew what he was thinking that last night you saw him? Would knowing what Cameron feared in a relationship with you force her back into your life?
All of these things have caused you pain, but your mind is clear now, as if the past few months have brought your life into sharp focus—and at that focal point he stands, leaning on his cane. He'll always be a mystery to you, even though you've spent years studying him (and you suspect that Wilson and Cuddy, for all their history with him, are just as in the dark as you are.)
What difference would it make if you could see past that obstinate blue gaze, deep into the mirrored halls of his mind? If you knew his reason for letting you go, would you be able to reverse it? Do you really want to be his fellow in perpetuity, ad infinitum, ad nauseum? You've learned enough to trust yourself in any diagnostics department in the country; did you perhaps want to continue your fellowship in the specialty of House?
Suddenly you inhale sharply, accidentally inhaling water along with insight. Coughing violently, you finally expel the water, your lungs burning just as they had after a particularly rough thrashing by a rogue breaker. Turning off the shower, you dry yourself quickly, pulling on your sleep gear so you can pursue this train of thought in the quiet of your bed.
Once there, you stare upwards, absently watching the backlot lights seep through your window blinds, painting the ceiling in thin, shining stripes. You pick up the thread of your thoughts, but for some reason, they're diverted to a patient from two years ago: a young nun in a cleanroom, her arms and face blotched with welts, tears in her eyes. You recall the words you spoke to comfort her in her solitude and anguish: These trials only test your faith to see whether or not it is strong and pure. Your faith is being tested, as fire tests gold and purifies it… You have a choice: faith or fear. It will affect how you experience your death—and therefore, your life.
You've failed the test before, not only at seminary school, but also during the Vogler crisis. At that time, your fear of losing the one thing that mattered to you made you react in panic, dragging down House like a drowning man drags down the lifeguard, too frightened to realize that the end result is death for both.
House didn't fire you for that although he had every right to, and you took your punishment silently, never questioning the motive for his strange tolerance of your disloyalty. You messed up again when you let the shock of your father's death lead you into a fatal mistake in Kayla's case, followed by your worsening of the error with your act of mindless self-sacrifice. Once again, House rescued you instead of letting you hang. So if he's decided to cut you loose now, he has to have a reason. He always makes sense! Cameron's voice echoes in your mind.
Finally, a few phrases float to the surface of your memories, freed at last from your drowning panic. "…you've been here the longest. You've learned all you can, or you haven't learned anything at all."
It's a sign of how far you've come that the second option doesn't even cross your mind. Not so long ago, your shaky self-confidence would've panicked at that possible assessment, but now you know better. You're a damn good intensivist and a diagnostician bordering on greatness, and you don't believe these things out of ego but out of recognition of what House has taught you. He's done more than show you how to think (those nights when you'd spy on his solo brainstorming sessions, watching through the glass walls as his computer screen would flick from page to page to page, almost too quickly for you to read); he's taught you to trust your own instincts, to make the intuitive leaps that take you out of the box and into the obscure but true diagnosis. The sting of his sharp words have forced you to throw aside any personal baggage you might be carrying and focus on the all-important case to the exclusion of all else. You've matured under his harsh tutelage, not only as a diagnostician, but also as a human being.
Is it any wonder House saw before you did that you were fully trained and ready to graduate? You were so consumed by jealousy over his efforts to keep Foreman that you failed to see it was more of an insult to Foreman than a compliment. He felt Foreman wasn't ready to leave. He felt you were.
And if your heart is wounded, wishing that he would've sat down with you, slapped you on the back and congratulated you, urging you to look for an attending position in diagnostics as he offered you his highest recommendations—your mind at least flinches away from this gross warping of his essential personality. 'Warm and encouraging' isn't House. "You're fired"—now that's House.
Maybe all of this is just excess rationalization for the sake of your ego. Maybe House really cares nothing for you and is glad to see you go. You have a choice—faith or fear—and this time you'll choose faith. Faith in him. Faith in yourself.
As your eyes drift shut, your mind wanders down old pathways. Miserere nobis, you had begged, but in the end, Dona nobis pacem was the worthier plea.
He was right to fire you, you think drowsily. He's done more for you than anyone in your life, and you would've never left him on your own. Because you loved…
You sit at the diner counter because you're not sure if you'll be eating alone, and somehow this is less pathetic than sitting at a table by yourself, looking hopefully towards the door each time it opens. You're hungry, so you pick at your fries, trying to keep from eating your whole meal before she shows up. If she shows up.
It's been a strange day and a long one, considering that your alarm went off at the usual time. You could've slept in, but the drowsy reasoning that led to that decision (what day is it; it's Sunday, thank god; oh fuck, we've got a patient; wait, I'm fired) had jolted you wide awake. So you cleaned up again, skipping the hair gel that held your unruly locks in place, incidentally making your hair look darker and more professional at work (and giving House one less thing to mock you for.)
You walked to the hospital to retrieve your car, enjoying the quiet solitude of Princeton in early morning, passed only occasionally by the ambitious college jogger. PPTH looked somehow pristine in the morning light, its doors closed (you had arrived before the shift change) and peaceful on this non-clinic day. This is good, you thought to yourself, I can really appreciate this place now that I'm not running through its doors.
It wasn't until you reached your car in the gloom of the parking garage that the wave hit—a wave of nostalgia, as you saw Cameron's and Foreman's vehicles parked in the exact same positions they were yesterday. Another all-nighter, then, which was both bad and good: bad, because something must've happened to the patient (Esteban's wife; her name escapes you for the moment…Maria?) to make them work through the night; good, because if she had died, they would've gone home by now.
In the end, you got in your car, because it was stupid to stand in the parking lot, dreaming of breakfast from vending machines, showers in the call room, and an unwashed, irritable boss throwing markers at you as he calls you idiots.
Yeah, it's stupid to miss all that, right?
So you went on to fill your day with whatever it is normal people do on a Sunday: you walked around campus and town, even taking in a movie, that pirate blockbuster that's all over the TV and newspapers. Not that you'd intended to become one of the contributors to the biggest box office of all time (this year), but the film was playing on all the screens at the local cinema, so it wasn't as if you had a choice.
You vaguely remembered renting the first movie a couple of years ago, but you never had the time or inclination to see the second one, so you ended up completely lost on the plot and characters. It didn't matter; it just felt good to be in the midst of a crowd of people cheering and having fun. The lead actress looked a bit like Cameron, at least in build, so you amused yourself by pretending it was Cameron doing the swordfighting and, this part really requiring a suspension of disbelief, passing as a boy.
After you emerged blinking into the sunlight, you decided to take a chance and texted Cameron, just to see what was up. I'll be at O'Reilly's around seven, CU? The answer came back quicker than you expected. I'll try; pt crashing. Okay, that wasn't good for Esteban's Maria. Since masses were over for the day, you ducked into St. Paul's and lit a candle for her. Not that you were back to being a true believer, but it couldn't hurt, plus there was nothing else you could do for her.
So that's how you've ended up here at nearly eight o'clock, windblown and walked-out, waiting for someone who probably won't show. You might as well eat, so you're just swallowing your first big bite of sandwich when someone slides into the seat next to you. Figures.
You look up and it's Cameron, looking really stunning, her hair and makeup and clothes just right. "You look great," you blurt out, surprised because you'd expected her to look, well, as if she'd pulled an all-nighter on a case. To tell the truth, you're a little flattered that she'd dress up just to see you.
She starts to reassure you about the firing, that it wasn't about you, and you cut her off. "The why doesn't matter," you say, cheerful and expansive, trying to show her that you've come to terms with it. "Look, it's all right. It's…he's right, it's time for a change."
You take in the soft look in her eyes, and suddenly you feel bad for everything that's gone wrong between you, regretting that you'd ever made her unhappy or uncomfortable. Truth be told, she's your only friend here in Princeton. "You were right, too: the whole 'It's Tuesday, I like you'—it was…" you search for the right word, "it was silly."
To your surprise, Cameron looks a bit stricken by your apology, but her eyes begin welling with emotion and you recognize that look, although you've only seen it directed at patients before. You didn't expect it to make you squirm. "Don't give me that look, don't feel sorry for me. Getting this job was the best thing that's ever happened to me, everything about it. And losing it? Well, I…" your certainty deserts you, because you don't want to lie, and yet you can't… "I guess this is…gonna be good too."
To your relief, the pity disappears from her expression, although her eyes are still shining with emotion. "I'll miss you."
Oh, what the hell, it's worth a shot. "Have you got time for a drink or something?"
She stands up, her expression changing, her lashes shuttering down again. "I…think I should go."
"Yeah," you say softly, watching her walk away the same way your father did, regretful but still determined to leave you. You wonder whatever possessed you to make that offer, because the wave is back and it's roaring in your ears, and this time you really might drown…
'Don't be a fool, Chase,' says the harsh voice in your head, 'you already know how to swim.'
And he's right, so you do, taking a deep breath, clearing your lungs and your mind. Life goes on, and you're starving, with a perfectly good sandwich sitting in front of you. Time to take a big bite.
Epilogue. The next evening.
Of all the things you might've expected when you opened your door, Cameron is the last thing you thought you'd see.
"Hi!" you say, surprise and pleasure sending your voice up half a register.
For some reason, she looks really nervous, almost as if she's about to turn and run. But she visibly steels herself and says, "It's Tuesday."
"Uhhh…" (you begin to see the brightness beyond the murk) "…no, it's Monday."
"I know." She steps up so that she's even with you, so close that you can feel the warm puffs of her breath (and see the surface, the light glittering across the waves). "It's just…I didn't feel like waiting."
Suddenly you're smiling and cupping her cheek in your hand, and she's leaning towards you, her eyes soft and real and open, and your lips meet (and you break the surface, the water streaming off you, the air singing clear and sweet in your lungs), and you think,
So this is how it feels to swim.
Miserere nobis – Have mercy on us (the Agnus Dei part of Catholic Mass)
Dona nobis pacem – Grant us peace (the final stanza of the Agnus Dei)
Ad infinitum – to infinity (and beyond!)
Ad nauseum – to the point of nausea
Thank you for reading.