Note: This is set mid season two, after The Mistake. Inspired by surgery and a hospital stay earlier this week. I should have another chapter of Exposure up in the next few days.
Shadows on the Wall
He catches the cold during the week-long suspension following his hearing. He's developed insomnia, and it eats away at his soul. Hearing about Kayla again, having to say her name—it's brought her ghost back to haunt him a second time. So, like the incompetent fool he's convinced himself he is, Chase sits up long nights watching infomercials, or anything else that will take his mind off the dreams.
Sometimes it's Kayla, and sometimes it's her daughters, whom he's never actually met. Always they sit, accusing him from across the table at his hearing. They come up with every manner of torture for him, from unemployment to starvation, to chains in the hall closet near his bedroom. They come without fail whenever he actually manages to fall asleep long enough to dream. He wakes sweating, shaking, and just relieved enough to make him ache with frustration.
He's hardly eaten, hasn't slept, and can barely drag himself through the shower when the alarm clock finally rings to let him know he's allowed back at work. For the first time in his life, he isn't sure he wants to go. There are some degrees of shame too much even for him.
"Welcome back," says Cameron. She moves to hug him, but Chase steps out of the way, feeling strangely disappointed. The look on her face says he now satisfies her criteria for damaged men, and that's not how he wants her to notice him.
The cough starts during the differential they're running on Cameron's Munchausen's patient, and the sore throat follows immediately after. House is still giving him the cold shoulder, and the others are too consumed in the case to notice. Chase pours himself another cup of tea, and resolves not to let any of them know. The last thing he deserves is their sympathy.
He takes just enough cold medication to keep his symptoms relatively well hidden, but not enough to actually make him feel better. It's snowing out now, and he feels as if the chill has penetrated his bones.
When he's been sick for a week and no one's said anything, Chase finds himself plagued by a peculiar bitterness. He hasn't done anything to draw attention to himself, true, but he works with a world-renowned diagnostician. He refuses to believe that House has no idea what's going on. He doesn't want their sympathy, he tells himself over and over again, but maybe their concern would be nice. Then at least he'd know there's something to come back to when he's determined that he's paid the price for his failure.
The night he finds out about the hospital's settlement with Kayla's family, the dreams take a different turn. He hears the clunking of an MRI machine, and sees a shadow on an x-ray, leering at him like the proverbial monster under his bed. Little bald children claw at his feet and legs, and he falls to his knees in the middle of a dark hospital corridor. At the end of the hallway, his father drowns, sucked down into a pit of black tar before Chase's eyes. He wants to help, but his limbs are too heavy to move.
When he wakes, there's blood on the white of his pillowcase.
Chase barely makes it to the bathroom before retching violently.
The next morning is Christmas Eve, and House has insisted that his entire department have the day off. Chase struggles out of bed, telling himself that the clinic will be short staffed, and he has nowhere else to go anyway. Better to be at work where he can do some good than home feeling sorry for himself.
But he feels like he's suffocating the second he gets into the shower, the weight of the world pressing down on his chest. He coughs experimentally, but there isn't any more blood. Doesn't mean you're in the clear, he reminds himself. Dad didn't have any visible symptoms at all.
He stops, naked in front of the mirror, mesmerized by his own reflection. He tries to see the bones beneath the skin of his face, the skeleton that he'll someday revert to. He presses his fingers into the hollows of his cheeks, wincing when the motion sends a sharp pain through his head. Taking a labored deep breath, he watches his chest expand and contract, wondering if he's seeing his own mortality reflected back in the steam-smeared glass. He wonders what it is about his reflection that causes people to dismiss him, to miss his head and his heart beneath the exterior they assume they can read on sight.
Chase isn't sure how long he's spent standing in the bathroom, but it's afternoon by the time he's dressed, and there's a tiredness in his bones deeper than any he's felt before. He staggers to the couch and flops down on it, telling himself it's only until he can catch his breath. He looks for the television remote, but it's on the table at the far side of the room, and he can't find the energy to get it.
A hand brushes over his forehead, and his mother is there, the sickening mix of stale alcohol and cheap perfume making his head swim. He sits up too quickly, and the breath leaves his body, his chest collapsing in on itself. She's struggling to speak, he sees, but there's a broken bottle where her heart should be, and the blood is flowing fast.
I'm sorry, he tries to say. I'm sorry I couldn't save you.
Then the whole house is dark, and his shoulder hurts from where he's fallen off the couch and landed on the hardwood floor. The tang of blood in his mouth sends him scrambling to his feet. He grabs his keys from the counter and runs.
He can't remember how he gets there, later, but Chase doesn't stop moving until he finds Cameron in the break room, getting ready to close the clinic. He isn't sure how he knew where she'd be, though he realizes, subconsciously, that he's been heading here for days. She's washing her hands at a sink, and the soap smells like grape jelly. When she turns the water off, she looks up and frowns, obviously surprised to see him.
"Chase? What are you doing here? You look awful."
He nearly wants to cry with relief that someone's finally noticed, that he isn't going crazy all alone. For once he doesn't care why she's looking at him, but just that she is.
"I need you to examine me," he says before he can change his mind.
"Okay." Cameron dries her hands and takes a step closer, brow furrowed with concern. Off in the distance, an ambulance wails, sounding like the yowling of an angry cat. "I've heard you coughing all week. You haven't seen a doctor yet?"
Chase shakes his head, and sits on the couch as she comes to stand in front of him. She undoes the top two buttons of his shirt and he tries not to think about that night in her apartment, and how her fingers felt against his skin.
"How long have you had these symptoms?"
He jumps as she presses the cold metal stethoscope against his bare skin. "About two weeks now, on and off."
Cameron's eyes widen in incredulity. "Why haven't you had anyone treat you?"
Chase shrugs, trying not to think about the dreams. "I already know what I've got. I just…need to hear it for sure."
"What?" She works her fingers around his neck and chin, feeling for swollen lymph nodes. When he doesn't say anything, she motions for him to open his mouth, checking his throat and then both ears.
"My dad just died of lung cancer. The symptoms fit." Chase shrugs and looks at the floor, ashamed to find himself blinking back tears.
"What?" Cameron frowns and kneels in front of him, putting herself back in his line of sight.
"Don't tell House, okay?" Nothing is sacred where his boss is concerned, and Chase knows he can't stand having his imminent death paraded daily in front of his face as House praises its delicious irony.
He holds up a hand for silence before Cameron has a chance to plead with him. "I know you think he could help me. Believe me, I don't want that kind of help." The bitterness in his voice surprises him.
"Chase, it's not—"
"I don't want treatment." That's a lie, he thinks. He wants to be saved, wants to be told that he didn't screw up and isn't being punished, and still deserves to be happy. But that isn't true, and if he says it, it'll be all the more obvious.
"Chase!" Cameron grabs him by the shoulders, and he jumps, unprepared for physical contact. "You have a sinus infection. You need antibiotics, not radiation."
"I…what?" His head is spinning, and the world doesn't feel quite right. Another ambulance passes by, and he has the bizarre image of it chasing the other one, a cat fight over territory. His chest feels heavy, and everything hurts too much to think.
"You don't have cancer. You just need some good rest." Cameron gives him one of her looks, and for a moment he thinks he might break under the intensity of her gaze.
Chase sits mutely, unable to speak. He wants to grab her and hug her and beg her to just hold him the way she did when the meth finally wore off, and all that was left was the fear.
Sighing, Cameron puts the stethoscope down on the table and makes her way over to the counter. She pours hot water into a mug and drops in a tea bag before making her way back to the couch. Handing the mug to Chase, she slips off her white lab coat and sits down beside him.
"You've got to move on," she says quietly, and his heart skips a beat. Cameron has the unnerving ability to read people when she wants to, and shut out even the most blatant of emotions when she doesn't. Turning, she puts a hand lightly on his shoulder. "You're never going to be finished doing penance. In the meantime, someone else is going to get hurt."
She gets to her feet and walks to the doorway before turning back around. "Drink that. I'll go get your prescription filled."
Chase sips the tea, and then takes an experimental breath. The doctor in him knows it's an illusion, but he thinks that maybe breathing's gotten a bit easier. A third ambulance goes screaming by, and he smiles at the image of it going to reign in the other two. A strange feeling creeps over him, like somehow he's stepped out into the light without ever having seen the tunnel. He takes another sip before setting the mug on the table and stretching out on his side, exhausted again. The hospital is unnaturally quiet, and he can sense the feeling of belonging that's been missing for the past few months. It isn't back yet, but he can see it now, waiting for him somewhere in the shadows. Someone has decorated a miniature Christmas tree on the break room table, and as he lets his eyes fall closed, Chase thinks the lights on it seem unbearably bright.
He barely moves when Cameron gets back, leaning heavily against her as she presses a pill into his hand and a glass of water to his lips. She spreads a blanket over him as he lies back down, and brushes the hair from his forehead in an uncharacteristic gesture of tenderness before turning to leave.
He's nearly asleep when he hears her footsteps again, and he doesn't move when the cushions sink as she sits down beside him. She rests her hand on his back, and he lets the shadows creep over him, unafraid.