NOTES: Don't murder me, guys. Just read it. I promise I haven't lost my mind. This is set along the same timeline as The Shortest Distance and Terminal Velocity, but you don't have to have read them to understand it. I am also planning an upcoming novella set in this verse. Keep an eye out.
Cameron makes it a challenge to herself. It's a game she's played all her life: find the things she wants most and deprive herself of them. Need them. Earn them. She tells herself it's made her stronger, smarter, the best at what she does. But that's a lie. If she's straight with herself, it's only made her miserable.
Still, she makes the decision to walk right past the hospital without checking in to see what's going on, without trying to overhear if the doors should happen to open, without so much as glancing over her shoulder through the atrium glass. She thinks about it the night before, between turning flashcard after flashcard, and then from one side of the bed to the other. She makes a pact with herself: no contact until she has her new degree. New life, new career. Then it will be safe, she thinks. She will be safe—spun out, fully escaped from the pull of the past.
It's hard at first, but then hard is what she's used to. Ease and she finds herself floundering, unbalanced and dizzying in thin air.
Walk by the hospital; don't look back. It's a tiny victory every time she makes it to class forgetting the maple-leaf logo a little more completely.
At first it's disorienting, learning to be a student again. She's gotten used to arguing, to having team members to keep her steady in her place, and for the first time in her life she feels old and obsolete. She's forgotten how much work this takes. But psychology makes sense—for the first time it's putting names and skills to the things she's known all her life.
One step at a time, she tells herself. One step, one class, one day.
Walk by the hospital; don't look back.
One and one and one until time's eroded away and she's back where she's started, only she's older now, cracked in different places. It's a whole new world she thinks, or maybe it's just the old, spun back on itself until it's been made unrecognizable. One and one and one become infinite until she's standing in a gown in a room full of people, a fake roll of paper in her hand. And this time she is the top of her class, not that it matters anymore. She glances down as she's exiting the auditorium, and for a second she thinks she's caught a glimpse of a cane.
Cuddy calls, later. The man behind the curtain, Cameron thinks wryly. House may have been the catalyst to her change, but it was Cuddy who placed and held her in his path.
"Doctor Cameron, I'm sorry we've lost touch," says Cuddy. The words sound forced and hollow. Cameron wonders whether the intention is equally blank, or if work has finally stolen even this little bit of warmth from her former boss.
"Me too," says Cameron warily. She has no reason to be hostile now.
"I heard you're in the market for a job," says Cuddy, cutting to the chase. "We have need of a psychologist in the clinic. Fulltime. I know it's probably not your first choice, but I'd love to have you back."
Cameron wonders, not for the first time, why it should matter. Why her former boss seems still so determined to get things back to status quo, or something like it. And after two years.
Her decision betrays her, she thinks later. But it only takes her a moment to answer.
"I can start Monday."
There's this incredible draw, this magnetism, this force that's picked her up and spun her until she's rough around the edges and maybe a bit on the inside too. She isn't sure whether to be relieved or frustrated that it's still alive and well, but it's there as soon as she sets foot back inside the hospital's glass doors.
And it's back to the game again: wait for House to come to her, because she wants to know how he hasn't changed.
It happens at lunch, as she's picking through her wilted salad.
"What are you doing here?"
She thinks she ought to have heard him coming, like every time before. It's part of the draw, his ability to constantly slip through her grasp.
"Cuddy hired me," Cameron says simply. She's certain he already knows. What matters here is how she paints it. "Maybe you ought to refer all your patients to me for post-treatment therapy."
House gives her a look of mock offense, then turns serious again, his eyes sweeping over her. She has the uncanny feeling that he can see straight through her, like an x-ray machine.
"I know what you're doing here," he says at last. "I meant what are you doing here."
Cameron looks at her hands, the uneasy breathless feeling of inadequacy back this quickly. She wonders again why she's said yes. Psychology is simple; the job makes sense. She's always wanted to fix people; now she gets paid to do it too. But the question remains: why here?
"You can't leave," says House thoughtfully. "You don't want your old job back. Chase and Foreman are long gone." He pauses for a moment. "If I were an egomaniacal ass, I'd say it was because of me." Another pause. "No. Couldn't be." And just like that, he turns and leaves.
She stops by Diagnostics the next day, because now the ice has been broken. The rules have changed. She expects to see a new team, and she isn't sure how she feels about that. Same game, new version: She promises herself that if there is a differential in progress, she will turn and walk away, mercifully unnoticed.
But the moment doesn't come. The office is empty, House nowhere to be found. There's a stack of mail on the conference table high enough to be several months' worth. The trash can is overflowing, a paper plate covered in what looks like congealed tomato sauce set on top of a book shelf. Cameron wanders in the door, not sure what it is she's hoping to find. The whiteboard glares neglected at her from a corner, long ink-blackened scratches marring its surface.
She moves into House's office and there's a sudden flurry of movement. Cameron jumps, her gaze quickly focusing on an equally startled Wilson. He's been sitting at House's desk, she realizes, writing something on a piece of paper filched from his printer. His tie is askew, and his hair is graying, and he's looking at her like she just might be a ghost.
"What are you doing here?" he asks at last, and Cameron realizes that he really didn't know.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," she says carefully.
Wilson's hands play skittishly with the pen and paper, and he can't seem to make eye contact with her. "I'm leaving House a—" He breaks off. "I'm writing—I'm leaving. Tomorrow."
Cameron stares at him for a moment, shocked into silence. "House doesn't know?" she manages at last.
Wilson shakes his head. This, then, is the thing that bothers her most.
"Why?" she demands.
"You don't want to know," says Wilson. And then he is brushing past her out the door, gone like so many opportunities.
She wonders whether she will be the one for House to come and find now, the vocal conscience he will ignore. But he doesn't. In fact, she hardly sees him anymore. Her life becomes enveloped in the world of the clinic, in the stories of rape and suicide, of abandoned and abused children. At first the finds herself despairing of ever being able to turn textbook chapters into treatment, but it comes instinctively, each day knowledge growing, heart shrinking.
Every now and then, she forces herself to find House. He isn't her patient, but in a way she's always wished he could be. She has the sense that time is running out and that's not something she wants to think about.
There are papers strewn all over the desk, some of them blowing onto the floor as she opens the office door. House isn't there, but she looks anyway, imagining Wilson's ghost and wondering if his note is here. She's upset an open file folder with the breeze from her entrance, she realizes, stooping to pick up one of the papers. Glancing at it, she sees her own name and realizes with a small swell of satisfaction that it is her latest graduation notice. Nearly a year old now.
Cameron looks further and finds an article about Foreman's new job, the growing success of the Diagnostics department at New York Mercy attributed to him. A blurb about Wilson receiving an award for a new study he's taken part in. Turning to put away the stack she's gathered from the floor, she catches sight of Chase's name in a caption. It's from an Arizona newspaper, and there's a headline about an accident. She reads on, unable to tear her eyes away.
"Spying on me?"
Cameron jumps as House is suddenly standing in the doorway behind her.
"When did this happen?" she asks, ignoring the question. It's suddenly gotten very hard to breathe.
"Last week," says House. His eyes are lost in that look that means she's done something to pique his curiosity.
She looks down at the article in her hands, at the crumpled cars and the unflattering headshot of Chase. She has the feeling that she's losing herself, giving something away to each patient she sees. But she's happy, she tells herself, or at least she's thought so. Still, something.
"I'm going to see him," she decides. For the first time, she has to prove that she's made the right decision. Face the other side.
"You'll regret it," says House. He gives her a strange look. "Better not to know when you've screwed up something you can't fix."
Her fingers tighten on the edge of the article, the force of her grasp crinkling the thin paper. The newsprint's stained her fingers gray. She glances at it one more time, then makes her decision and walks away without returning it to the folder.
"Did you sleep with him?" House asks. He's waiting for her in the atrium when she gets back, pretending to read one of the waiting room magazines.
Cameron gives him a look. "No."
"Then you're an idiot," says House.
"Why, because I tried to help a friend?"
"Because you're lonely," says House. "You're lonely and you hate your job, and you don't even know it."
"I love my job," Cameron insists.
House gives her an appraising look. "Maybe. But you hate what it does to your life. You spend enough time fixing other people and you start to lose track of what's wrong with you. Then you end up doing things like flying halfway across the country to see a man you barely remember and didn't help when you did."
For a moment, Cameron just gapes at him. She hates that even now he's always, always right. When she remembers how to look, the world seems very empty.
The little things add up.
Three years. Thirty-six months. One hundred and fifty-six weeks. One and one and one again, until something's lost and the man she met nearly ten years ago hardly exists anymore.
It starts with the fight over hiring a new team. For a while, House flat-out refuses. Then he starts going through the pile of resumes kept ever plentiful by Cuddy, hiring three people at a time only to fire one or all a few weeks later. After that, he tries hiring in earnest, but now it's the opposite problem and nobody will stay.
Then his percentages start to slip. One patient a week becomes three a month, then two, then it becomes rare for House to solve a case at all. His fellows seem to get younger and younger, more and more lost in the glass-lined halls of the hospital. There are rumblings that Cuddy simply keeps him on the payroll out of pity.
Finally come the impaired liver function tests, and House's continued insistence that his prolonged Vicodin use has nothing to do with it. Even if it does, he says, he'd rather die than give it up.
It's snowing that night, but Cameron's most difficult patient has finally started to improve, and she's warm inside. For the first time in her life, she's starting to feel like a good doctor. She stops in at the diner across the street because it feels like time for something special, and cooking for one is tiring anyway. She wonders how that's never bothered her before.
She's halfway through her meal when the door opens, the bell tinkling and hollow, the cold air from outside like fingers of ice down her neck.
"You're eating," says House.
Cameron jumps, waiting for the glib remark, but it doesn't come. His voice is hoarse and it takes him an inordinate amount of effort to struggle his way into the chair across from her.
"Did you follow me here?" It isn't an inappropriate question, at least not lately. There's frost caught in the fibers of his coat, in the stubble that's gotten unusually long. He looks like the proverbial wandering madman, the thing that's stumbled in from the blizzard, and she can't tear her eyes away.
There's something between them still, something grasping and clawing at her heart, her breath, from the air. She thought it was love once, but it isn't. It isn't. And she's starting to think that maybe she doesn't understand love very well at all.
He's still staring and they're not talking, and for all her training, all her experience, she doesn't know what to say. She pushes her cup of tea toward him across the table, watching the little pieces of ice melt down his cheeks like tears.
Something, but she can't reach it. She realizes, suddenly, that it's been years since she's tried.
She thinks, later, that this should have been Wilson's scene to find. She wonders, not for the first time, why he's left and where he's gone. What he knew, even that early on, that she has yet to see.
It's not even dawn when she gets in. She's early for her shift, and the sky outside is just showing the barest hint of navy blue. The game is off today, she can hear it in the echo of her feet hitting the empty-hall floors.
She starts toward the clinic, then veers off at the elevator. Diagnostics is dark, but she walks in anyway.
She finds him at the long table, facedown with his head resting on his arm. She presses her fingers to his neck and his skin is cold. It occurs to her that this is the closest she's ever going to get.
Cameron sits at the table across from him and watches the sun rise over his head. Her path is inextricably tangled up with his, but she still can't quite say how.
The pain doesn't come until later, like some catastrophic injury masked by adrenaline. When Cuddy's been notified, and this week's team found, and the body moved to the morgue, Cameron goes home. She doesn't have any photos of him, but it feels oddly appropriate as she finds the album from her wedding, and the framed shot of her parents, and then the newspaper-clipping photo of Chase she stole from the file.
When her lungs hurt and tears taste stale, she wonders what she's missed. She's learned to see the world through red-flag-tinted glass. Nervous breakdown, suicide watch—these things she can handle. But show her a friend who's hurting, a brother or a would-be lover, and she's right back where she started. Young, afraid, and inadequate. Funny how things come round.
The phone rings. She sees the Arizona area code, and knows immediately what it's going to be about. It's fitting, she thinks, that after everything past she's still the one getting this call.
She almost doesn't pick it up.