NOTES: SEASON FOUR SPOILERS.
THE SHORTEST DISTANCE
If House is good at reading symptoms, Chase is equally adept at reading people.
He keeps quiet about it at first, content to let the others assume he's simply introverted or lazy. He sees the way they look at him when he sits silently through the better part of most discussions, lets them think that all he knows is how to kiss up to House.
He watches House's addiction grow and change, from dependency upon little white pills to a subconscious need for the people around him. He sees that Wilson is starting to look old and tired around the edges in the moments when he thinks nobody is looking. He catches a glimpse of Cuddy's loneliness in her desperation to save Emma Sloane's baby, and he knows when Foreman's pride swells and breaks.
Only Cameron remains a mystery, and so he studies her.
At first he thinks that she's the key to the healthy, connected life he's always dreamed about. But the more he watches, the less he understands. To the outward observer she seems the epitome of compassion, or moral right. But the longer he knows her, the more he wonders whether her morals are truly her own.
After three years, he finds himself with the suspicion that she's trying to atone for something.
Sometimes, when he feels particular despair at ever actually having what he's seen in others, Chase reads self help books. He'd found a beautiful leather-bound notebook, unused, while going through old things in preparation to move. Now he uses it to keep lines from the books which he tells himself he'll re-read someday and remember. He keeps it on his bedside table like the words might creep out from the binding and implant themselves in his brain while he sleeps.
It never changes anything.
"How come you hug Foreman?" he asks Cameron one day after witnessing what appears to be an overenthusiastic display of affection toward a man who has only ever treated her with disrespect.
"What?" She's distracted, gathering up her notes and erasing the whiteboard from the day's case. They've been up all night, he realizes, and thinks belatedly that maybe this isn't the best time to ask. It's been so long since he's had a decent amount of sleep that he's forgotten to take into account how exhaustion affects other people.
"You hug Foreman," Chase repeats. "I'm pretty sure you hug House, too. You've never even tried to hug me. Why is that?"
"Foreman is a friend," says Cameron evasively. Chase wonders if she knows how cold that sounds.
"Do you want a hug?" Cameron snaps. She slings her bag over one shoulder, letting it hang across her chest for a moment. It looks like a subconscious effort to fend off any forthcoming attempts at touching her.
"No," says Chase, because that's the right answer even if it isn't the truth.
A romantic relationship isn't healthy unless you can be friends first, Chase reads after Cameron leaves him standing windblown and thunderstruck in front of the hospital's glass doors. He copies the line into his notebook and stares at it for a long time. He's fairly certain Cameron doesn't have friends.
When at last Chase starts to voice his observations, he's shocked to find that people listen. Wilson tells him one day in the break room that he seems more confident, commanding. What Wilson doesn't know is that he simply has nothing left to lose.
"It's Tuesday," Cameron says at last, looking small and lost in the familiar territory of his front porch. "I didn't feel like waiting."
He smiles sadly and grants her the kiss he knows she's expecting. He knows better than to think she'll stay this time, though he's sure she's even half convinced herself. He takes her inside and lays her out on his bed like an object of worship.
"This isn't what you want," he tells her in the morning, and she stares at him with a mixture of shock and relief on her face. She doesn't try to convince him otherwise.
It's pouring down rain when they get to the front hall and Cameron pauses, wrapping her arms around herself and shivering despite the warm temperature. Chase plucks his leather jacket from the back of a chair and wraps it over her shoulders. He brushes his lips lightly over her cheek, then opens the door for her.
He doesn't have a famous father to advocate for him this time, and he decides he's going to take the time and do this right. Chase interviews for nearly a month before accepting a position as ICU supervisor. The work is hard, fast, and somehow (though he tells himself it makes him a terrible human being) boring in a way that he hasn't felt since before taking the fellowship at Princeton Plainsboro.
After a year, he stops feeling anything at all when a patient dies. It's not like he's ever been particularly sensitive to it, at least not like Cameron, or even Foreman. But before there was a quiet respect for a human passing, a sort of silence descending over his heart and soul. Now there is only exhaustion, and the grit of too little sleep in his eyes.
He has his own staff now, but he can't bring himself to know them. Gradually he comes to the realization that he isn't watching anymore, either.
Cameron sends him a card at Christmas and on his birthday. Occasionally he gets emails from Foreman. Once, a piece of chain mail from House threatening that he will never find his true love if he doesn't forward it to twenty seven people within the next twelve minutes. He deletes the emails and shoves the cards into a drawer, because he doesn't know twenty seven people, and doesn't think he's ever believed in true love anyway.
It takes three years for Chase to reach the breaking point.
He's felt it coming for a long time, between the nightmares and the constant tightness in his chest. Sometimes at work he watches his hands shake, feeling strangely disconnected from them. He thinks ironically that he would like an addiction of some kind, because it might give him something to focus on aside from the strange knots in his stomach that never seem to untie. He goes so far as to walk up to a drugstore counter and buy a pack of cigarettes, but can't bring himself to smoke them. He ends up throwing the unopened box into the trash, tears of shame hot and stinging in his eyes. For what, he doesn't know.
This day should be no different from any other day, and yet something in him knows. He drags himself from the bed after a night spent chasing shadows on the ceiling. There's a new sense of dread eclipsing the anxiety which has become the constant background of his being. He searches for a reason and doesn't find one.
Halfway to work, he sees the car. It's little and blue, and it cuts out in front of him from the middle lane. Something clicks into place as he realizes that this is the moment he's been fearing. But suddenly his thoughts are impossibly fast, his reflexes dulled by lack of sleep, and he feels like he's moving through mud as his foot reaches for the brake.
The sound of the collision is oddly muffled, dull, the way it cruelly always is from inside the car. Breaking glass tinkles like bells, and for a moment everything is folding impossibly inward, the road running backwards like time has reversed.
And then everything is still, and there's blood running into his eyes. Thinking immediately of the other two cars (he's been hit from behind as well, he realizes), Chase tries to fight his way from the car and finds that his right arm is hanging at an odd angle, numb with adrenaline. His chest feels like there's been a hole punched in it, and by the time he does get free of the car, his field of vision is shrinking from the pain.
Outside a little girl is crying, and a woman is talking very fast on a cell phone. The accident extends five cars down the road.
Chase falls to his knees and vomits onto the asphalt.
A week after his release from the hospital (mercifully, not his own), Chase is awakened in the middle of the afternoon by the sound of his doorbell. The newspapers say he's lucky to have gotten away with cuts, two broken ribs and a fractured humerus, but he's sure something more nameless was shattered as well. No serious injuries isn't even close to the same thing as no injuries, and he gets very tired every time he remembers the sound of the little girl's crying. He can't remember doing anything but staring at the ceiling or sleeping since getting home.
"What are you doing here?" His voice sounds hoarse and alien from too little use. For a moment he thinks he's still asleep, falling into a drugged dream. But there isn't pain in his dreams, and everything hurts now.
"I watch the news."
He isn't sure what to do with Cameron standing on his doorstep again, though he's certainly imagined the scenario often enough. None of those thoughts seems appropriate now, though, and for one horrible moment he considers telling her to just leave. The problem with guilt is that it's finally helped him find a fitting addiction. Self pity might not kill him like cigarettes or alcohol, but the craving is just as great.
"That's a lie," says Chase simply. Then with a shock he realizes he's already run through her motives in his mind, the process slowed by time and lack of use.
"I don't work for House anymore," says Cameron. "I have time to do normal human things now."
"Maybe," says Chase. "But it's still a lie. You're out of state, and there's no way the accident made the national news. You'd have to be looking to see…" He breaks off, realizing what he's just said.
"Can I come in?" asks Cameron. She takes a step closer, and suddenly he can't stop thinking about how it felt to be pressed against the wall of her apartment, her hair tickling his neck.
"I don't want sex," says Chase. He keeps his good hand on the door frame, blocking her path. He feels a pang of bitterness over the simple fact that dreams and reality are never the same. He can't count the number of times he's thought about just kissing her, but he tried that once and ended up here.
Cameron looks taken aback, but she doesn't protest her intentions, he notices. She nods once, and shifts her bag to the other shoulder.
"Can I come in?" she repeats.
"You should really be eating better than this," says Cameron, wiping grease from her slice of pizza with a napkin. The whole thing is oddly domestic, much more comfortable than anything they've ever shared before, and Chase finds himself staring.
"My current menu is limited to things that can be ordered by phone and eaten with one hand." The TV news is on in the background, comforting white noise.
"How are you?" she asks abruptly, and suddenly the ease of the moment is gone.
Awful, thinks Chase, but he doesn't say it. "Fine. I got lucky. It could have been much worse."
Cameron narrows her eyes. "I know you, Robert. I know you're blaming yourself for what happened."
Chase flinches at the sound of his first name. He's never seriously considered the possibility that she would start using it now that they are no longer colleagues.
"Then why are you asking?" He tosses the left over pizza crust back onto his plate. "I don't want to talk about it."
"I'm still in Princeton," she says, changing the subject. "I work fulltime at the clinic now."
He laughs; the sound is strange and hurts his chest. "God, I'm sorry."
Cameron smiles sadly. "Don't be. It isn't that bad."
She falls asleep in front of the television with her head on his good shoulder. Chase wonders whether she's done it intentionally. He spends the night watching the streetlight patterns change against her hair.
They don't talk about it in the morning.
Three more years and he isn't watching, but this story does make the national news. For a moment he just sits, feeling cold inside. The woman on the television is still talking, but her words don't sound real.
When he does get up, his legs feel rubbery, his fingers large and clumsy as he dials the phone.
"So you heard," says Cameron when she answers. She sounds like she's been crying.
"What do you think happened?" she snaps. Then, "sorry. He overdosed. They don't know if it was intentional. I'm not sure we'll ever know if it was intentional. It was…it's been a long time coming."
"I'm coming up there," Chase says, though he hasn't actually decided before now.
The day of the funeral is inappropriately bright, sunny, and beautiful. It's held in a large church, and people spill out the doors. There's even a media crew outside. The service is long and oddly satisfying, and Chase wants to cry for the irony of it all. He thinks for a moment that if only he'd stayed, none of this would have happened. Then he thinks, surprisingly, maybe it's right that it did.
Six years apart and now he's standing in the middle of a crowd of strangers here to mourn the death of the man who once gave him the only real chance at connection he's had in his life. Listening to the piano music, he feels a strange sense of peace.
Afterwards he gets lost in a sea of people, and he doesn't recognize Cameron until she's standing right in front of him. Her hair is dyed a deep red, and he wonders what that's supposed to mean. If she even knows. He wonders whether House's death means that his connection with her is severed now as well.
They stare at each other for a long moment, because really there is nothing to say. But then Cameron is moving, and he is moving, and they end up tangled into each other, his face pressed against her shoulder, her fingers laced at the small of his back. Somehow they stay stuck in this moment until the church is nearly empty.
"Where have you been?" Cameron asks when she pulls away at last. "Are you working again?"
Chase's hand goes instinctively to the scar on his temple, the only physical reminder of the accident he has left. He forces it away. "Sort of. I've been writing." He hasn't thought it before, but the words jump to his lips and he knows they are true. "I'm actually thinking about moving back."
Cameron brightens in a way he hasn't seen for a long time. She reaches out and takes his hand. "Do you want to go somewhere and talk?"
Chase mirrors her smile, and thinks about the notebook he hasn't written in for a very long time. "I'd like that."