Author's Note: This is a novella to fill the summer hiatus. It picks up at the end of Human Error, and will hopefully mesh with the beginning of season four. It's more about plot than relationships, though relationships will certainly play a role. I encourage people not to be turned off by a specific couple, because there will be explorations of several throughout the course of the fic. I'm going to try my hardest to finish this before the beginning of next season, but the plot is long and detailed, so if it doesn't happen, I hope my readers will forgive me. So far, all of my House fics do exist in the same verse. It's not necessary to have read the other two, but there is the occasional reference. Feedback will earn you my eternal love.
Disclaimer: House, its characters, and all related accessories are not mine. There's probably something wrong if you didn't already know that. A list of the references I used for medical research will be posted with the next couple of chapters. It's a little on the spoilery side right now.
There are too damn many types of pain medication.
It's 1:11 AM on Tuesday morning, and the twenty-four hour Walgreen's is all but deserted, except for the strange looking man on aisle eight.
He's tall and skinny, with graying hair badly gelled, so that it looks like peeling wallpaper coming unstuck from the surface of his scalp. He's dressed in a t-shirt and boxers, like he somehow rolled out of bed and ended up in one of those nightmares about being in a public place without clothes on. His hands move clumsily in front of him, jerking unpredictably every now and then. His eyes are flat and bloodshot, and his skin seems to hang from his chin and cheeks, giving him the jowls of a much older man.
Two pharmacists watch from behind their counter, noting how the man is rifling through the boxes of medication on the shelves, pausing every now and again to clutch at his head or massage the heel of a hand against his temples. They look at each other, then back at the man in silence. Ordinarily, one of them would go over to him and ask him what he needs. At the very least, they'd throw him the hell out of the store before every brightly colored box had gone tumbling from the shelves to the floor.
But his face. There's something that isn't right about his face, and though he's cursing just loud enough to be understood about Tylenol versus Aleve or Advil, his face stays flat in a way that makes the two young pharmacists think about zombie movies.
It's 1:13 AM on Tuesday morning when the pharmacists contemplate fleeing, and leaving this strange man to ransack their store.
It's started to sprinkle as the now-unemployed Allison Cameron walks out of the hospital, the little drops of rain cold against her tingling skin, a counterpoint to the warmth of fading adrenaline that fills her chest and stomach. She wonders how long it will be before she stops thinking of herself by her last name, and whether she'll even get a chance before finding her next job, and whether being Allison instead of Dr. Cameron is really something she's missed in the past three and a half years of her life.
Her thoughts won't stop spinning in circles as she climbs into her car, and she almost wishes it weren't too late for traffic to slow her down. It's the kind of weather where she can't decide if she needs windshield wipers for the spray, and she turns them on and back off again three times during the fifteen minutes it takes to drive to Chase's house.
"You again?" he says when he opens the door, dressed this time in a gray t-shirt and a pair of blue and green plaid pajama pants, but his smile is radiant and there's the hint of a laugh in his voice.
"I told you I'd come back," she says, and kisses him before he has a chance to reply. His arms wind around her waist, and she steps backward until her shoulder-blades hit the doorframe. He smells like soap, and his cheek is rough with a hint of stubble against her skin. She hooks a foot behind his ankle, urging him closer.
"Where'd you go?" Chase mumbles against her lips, one hand coming up to tangle in the hair at the nape of her neck.
"I resigned," she says simply.
Chase freezes. "Seriously?"
Cameron nods. She thinks about House, and the empty look in his eyes upon finding her in his chair. About his lack of surprise at her resignation. Had he known, before she did, how vitally connected she and Chase and Foreman have become? She'd assumed she would stay no matter what, as long as House was still there. Three years ago, she would have wished Chase and Foreman well, and gone on with her life. She's sad, she thinks, though she isn't really sure. She has the strange sense that she's mourning the lack of a perceived loss.
"Come inside," says Chase.
Now the man is sitting in the middle of aisle eight and ripping boxes open without even a single glance at the employees or the security camera above his head. He seems to be having a problem with his hands, because he can get through the cardboard and tape, but when it comes to the bottle, he fumbles. Red-tinged fingernails spin the cap futilely for a few seconds, the clear directions "push and turn to open" seemingly unnoticed though they're right in his line of vision.
The pharmacists jump, startled out of their sickly-fascinated reverie as the man smashes the lid of a bottle of Tylenol against the ground. The plastic doesn't give way the first time, or the second, but the man keeps trying. Finally, after nearly a full minute, he makes a noise that isn't quite human, and throws the bottle full-force against a wall. The lid cracks, leaving a dent in the white paint it's collided with, and little red and yellow pills scatter all over the floor.
The man scuttles on all fours, stopping every few inches to grab at his head. Then he's guzzling pills from the filthy drugstore tile, swallowing them dry like a starving man getting his first taste of food.
Shaking himself off, one of the pharmacists grabs the phone next to the checkout and dials three sharp jabs.
"What are you doing?" asks the other, eyes still on the man, as if he might suddenly morph into a monster.
"I'm calling the cops."
Cameron sits on Chase's leather couch, and tries not to think about the one other time she's been inside his house. She keeps her eyes on him as he takes two glasses from a cupboard and fills them with ice and water from the refrigerator door. There's already condensation on the outside when he hands her the glass, and Cameron shivers just a bit. She takes a sip, feeling like they ought to be drinking something alcoholic, then amends that thought as more memories come flooding in.
"Thanks," she says, setting her glass on the end table. "Sorry for running out on you before."
Chase raises his eyebrows and shrugs. "It's okay. Though I am still a bit confused."
Cameron nods, and tries not to smile at the memory of his shock when she'd told him she had to leave after standing on his stoop for five minutes. The truth is, she isn't sure why kissing Chase made her think of House. It didn't have anything to do with making her boss jealous, or even wanting to be with him instead. But House has taught her all he can, and now he needs a change too. Somehow that hadn't occurred to her before.
"I just didn't want to have any unfinished business," she says at last.
Chase doesn't look entirely convinced, but he comes over and sits next to her anyway. He leans over Cameron to set his glass beside hers before wrapping an arm around her.
"I promised I'd come back," she repeats, laying her head on his shoulder.
The clinic has turned into a circus during the forty-eight hours it's taken to deal with House, his miracle patient, and his now-ex fellows. Lisa Cuddy sighs as she wades through the mayhem towards her office.
She doesn't need to talk to a nurse or look at a status report to know what's going on. It's all over the news on the waiting room televisions, scrolling in bold letters across the bottoms of screens, spewing from the mouths of over-excited reporters, and sitting in the chairs up and down the halls of her clinic.
Summer cold epidemic reported in New Jersey. Frighteningly quick occurrence. Potentially devastating circumstances if this does, in fact, turn out to be the dreaded pandemic bird flu.
And yet, no one in sight appears to have an ailment worse than a runny nose or a slight cough.
Giving up on reaching her office, Cuddy grabs a lab coat and a chart, and joins the fray.
She's straddling Chase on the couch, her shoes on the floor and his shirt off before he stops her. He catches her wrists and sits up just a little, swallowing hard enough that he can feel every muscle in his throat straining.
"Allison. I don't want you to get the wrong idea, but if this is just sympathy sex, then I don't…" He can't quite bring himself to say he doesn't want it.
"It's not sympathy sex," says Cameron, the nervous look from before coming back into her eyes.
Chase blinks and swallows again, not quite able to believe her yet. It isn't that he doesn't trust her—though he isn't entirely sure he does—but that she'd finally managed to convince him she wasn't at all interested. "Then what? You're not saying you honestly want a relationship with me."
"I'm thinking of it more like an experiment," she says.
He knows he ought to be offended by that, ought to shove her off him and get dressed. But the scared look hasn't left her eyes, and there's something in her voice that's changed. For all her widely given empathy, he isn't sure Cameron actually knows how to talk about emotions any better than he does. "And what exactly would your experiment be testing?"
"Researcher wishes to determine whether subject has recovered sufficiently to maintain a healthy relationship." She gives him a sad little half-smile.
"And you are…?"
"I think I can handle that," says Chase. He lets go of her wrists, and brings one hand up to cup her cheek.
The sirens out front make the crazy animal man jump, scream, and roll on the floor, clutching his head in apparent pain. One of the pharmacists rushes to the door, running right past the man. He doesn't seem to notice. The other pharmacist, now alone, ducks behind the counter and stays on his knees.
There are two police officers, and they come in wielding batons. One of them has a gun drawn. They approach the man cautiously, nearly running down the pharmacist on his way toward them.
"Officers!" he stammers, suddenly wondering whether he's done the right thing. The man is clearly sick, and shipping him off to jail could be devastating. "My name is Dan. I work here. I'm the one who made the call."
The officer with the gun turns, a little too quickly. "I'm Officer Jackson. What's the situation here, Dan? Dispatch said there's a crazy guy trashing the place."
Dan points toward the man, who's trying to get a final pill from under a shelf. His hand won't fit into the inch gap between the metal lip and the floor, but the man keeps pressing his fingers in harder and harder. As Dan and the two officers watch, the man's skin tears like a layer of cellophane. Blood gushes out, far too much blood. It looks watery and thin, like the fake stuff used in very old movies.
"He's sick," says Dan, feeling nauseated. "I don't think he knows where he is."
"He been violent?" asks Jackson.
"Not towards us. He just really wanted those pain meds." Dan pauses, getting up the courage to give an order to a police officer. "I think he needs a doctor."
The two officers nod at each other. Jackson goes over to the man and gently places a hand on his shoulder. The man jumps, his head snapping up like he's just woken from a fitful sleep. He blinks at the lights, and Dan notices that his eyes are so bloodshot they look as if the corneas have turned bright red.
Jackson pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and gives it to the man. He looks at it for a moment before reacting, then wraps it awkwardly around his hand. Almost immediately the blood is seeping through the thin white fabric, showing no sign of stopping.
"Sir," says Jackson, "We're going to get you help, but you're going to have to come with us."
"There's a hospital with a walk-in clinic just a few blocks down," Dan chimes in hastily. "Princeton Plainsboro."
"Come on," Jackson coaxes. "Let's get you in the car."
The roar of heavy rain rolling down the roof jolts Cameron awake. It takes her a second to remember where she is, and why the sheets don't smell like hers. Chase is asleep on the other side of the bed, the sound of his breathing masked by the uproar outside. She watches for a moment, then swings her legs over the side of the bed and stands up, wincing as she realizes one of her feet has fallen asleep.
She finds her underwear on the floor and pulls them on. One of Chase's undershirts is hung over the back of a chair, and she inhales deeply as she slips it over her head, breathing in the scent of his aftershave. Cameron pauses as she catches sight of herself in the mirror on the back of the door. Her reflection is ghostly pale in the streetlight from the windows, and she runs a hand through tangled hair just to assure herself that this is real.
There's a distant growl of thunder as she creeps down the stairs, and Cameron wraps her arms across her chest. She checks to make sure that the alarm is off before opening the door, then runs down the steps.
She pauses at the bottom and sits on the second one up from the ground, spreading her arms and tilting her chin to the sky. The rain is still coming down in torrents, stinging alternately hot and cold against her skin. Her hair is plastered to her back, thin fabric of the shirt turning nearly transparent. But the street is deserted at this hour, and for just a moment, she feels like she's truly alone in the world. Cameron closes her eyes and smiles.
It takes forty five minutes to convince the crying mother of three that her children aren't about to die, and Cuddy is starting to think that she'd rather be dealing with House by the time the task has been accomplished. When she finally scribbles out a prescription and exits the exam room, she finds the scene in the clinic even worse than the one she'd left.
People are lined up practically from wall to wall, most of them with no visible symptoms. Four o'clock on a Tuesday morning, and it seems like the entire population of Princeton is standing in the waiting room.
As Cuddy watches, two police officers push their way through the fray, ignoring questions about a possible plague and a government cover-up shouted by the anxious parents and angry business people. As the men get closer, she realizes they're dragging a third person between them. And while he's conscious, he doesn't exactly appear to be lucid. There's a cloth wrapped around one of his hands, saturated completely by bright red blood.
Cuddy grabs a nurse and points. "Find him an exam room." She slams the chart she's just finished filling out onto the counter, and takes off as fast as she can for her office. This is going to require more help than she has at the moment.
He isn't expecting to find her car still parked on the street, but Chase can't help running outside anyway. His fingers work the door handle clumsily, and it takes several ineffective tugs before he realizes that it was already open, and he's just locked himself back in. Hurt and anger surge through him as he goes outside, bare feet assaulted by the coldness of the wet steps. He take the first two steps in one long stride, then freezes as he catches sight of Cameron, who looks small and fragile in the wet pre-dawn darkness.
Fear makes the rain feel icy, and he wonders if he's pushed her too far for one night. But then he steps closer, and catches sight of the look on her face. Her eyes are half-open, raindrops catching on her lashes and trickling down her cheeks like tears. But she's smiling, and the ever-present worry lines are gone. She looks more at peace than he'd thought possible, and he gets the feeling that this is a moment he isn't supposed to be witnessing.
"Allison," he says softly, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey," she says sleepily, turning to face him.
"Cuddy called," says Chase, swallowing. He wishes now, ironically, that they had the luxury of falling into the limbo of this moment. "There's something really wrong at the clinic. She says we're needed."
Cameron grabs his hands and pulls herself to her feet, the sparkle of purpose coming back into her eyes.