NOTES: If you haven't read The Shortest Distance, Circling, and Terminal Velocity first, you will be very lost. Please consider looking at them before you read this?
Chapter One: This Game Again
Sometime over the past six weeks, his life has become defined by telephone calls. It's early evening and Chase has fallen asleep on the couch, lulled by the suspense-laden drawl of the evening news. Invariably he has strange dreams when this happens, and yet it's become a habit over the past three years. In truth, he thinks he's a little bit addicted to the images of shadow-darkened features, flaming cars and women with wings. He thinks, without fail, that this can't be healthy, but he isn't sure he could stop if he tried.
The phone is on at least the sixth ring by the time he's fully aware of what's actually happening. Chase sits up and lunges for the receiver on his coffee table, assuming it's Cameron but still surprised that anyone would be calling at all. It's been a long time since he's allowed anyone to be that aware of his existence.
"Dr. Chase, I hope I haven't interrupted your dinner."
It takes him a long moment to place Cuddy's voice, and then another second of realizing that he actually is hungry before it sinks in why she's calling. It is Monday, but he's somehow impossibly forgotten, the minutes vanishing impossibly fast into an empty page and bad daytime television, and the ever-increasing period since he last saw Cameron. She's working, he knows, but that doesn't negate the heavy feeling of uncertainty that's settled like a boulder on his chest. It seems, in retrospect, suddenly inconceivable that he's gone nearly five years completely alone.
"No," says Chase, wondering what she must think of his inability to follow the conversation, and whether he should have said yes in justification. "No, you didn't."
"Good," says Cuddy awkwardly. "That's good."
There's another pause during which Chase's heart seems to have fallen into rhythm with the sudden impossibly loud ticking of the clock on the wall over his head. She's calling about the job, and now the realization has sunk in fully. He's thought until now that he'd lost the ability to want anything this badly.
"I assume you know why I'm calling," Cuddy continues, and for a second he's certain she's going to reject him, otherwise why would it be taking so long?
"Yeah," says Chase, willing her to do it quickly. He wonders whether Cameron knows something and whether that's why she hasn't called.
"I have thought long and hard about this, and I've decided that I would like for you to take over Doctor House's position as head of Diagnostics." And just like that the ice is broken, and everything is warm like there's a blanket of sunshine over the couch, and he almost wants to laugh at the odd formality of it all. There's a story on the news about a late spring cold front coming, and suddenly everything feels very clear.
"Thank you." It's trite and inappropriate but it's been a long time since he's had a real reason to say it. Weight lifted, he takes a deep breath, the lingering tinge of paint fumes tingling his nose like ghosts.
"I'd like to see you in my office tomorrow at nine a.m.," says Cuddy. There's something in her voice, and doubts rise like moths to a flame.
The girl has green hair. There's a bright purple streak running unevenly back from her temples, and her earrings look like screws stuck through her lobes. Cameron glances at her chart and suppresses a sigh. It's patients like this who force her to remind herself that she cannot define people by stereotypes, no matter how perfectly they seem to fit. This girl deserves just as much compassion as anyone else. The job has made Cameron a terrible person, but if she does enough good then maybe no one will notice.
"Mollie," says Cameron, glancing back at the chart. It's already been a long day after a work-filled weekend and she has to force herself to be patient. "Do you know why Dr. Jones asked me to talk to you?"
The girl shrugs apathetically. "I don't really give a shit. Get him back here, he was hot."
"Mollie, you're pregnant." Cameron sits on the exam room stool, putting herself at eye-level with the girl. This situation is all about diffusing the tension if her counseling is going to have any effect at all. "Dr. Jones asked me to talk to you about your options. I know you're probably scared."
Mollie stares at her shoes, which are graffitied with a large variety of semi-legible obscenities. A bevy of emotions flits across her face, only partially hidden behind grass colored bangs, but she doesn't say anything. Cameron glances at the file again, her mind in too many places at once. She's started to think, lately, that being a "good doctor" inevitably makes one less competent and spread too thin. Odd, then, to rue the passing of a less successful time in her life.
"Because of your age and your continuing drug use, you're going to have to make some difficult decisions."
Mollie shifts uncomfortably and swipes at her eyes. So there is a human being in there after all, thinks Cameron. These, then, are the moments she lives for now. Not the saving of a life, or the solving of a case, or the finding of a cure for a rare disease. But the moments in which there's something there, something palpable, something real and lovable in people she's never anticipated herself able to stomach before. Cameron swallows a tinge of bitterness as her thoughts stray to what House would have had to say about the current state of her life. Sour grapes, she thinks, but she honestly isn't sure.
"Mollie, you're fifteen," says Cameron. "It says in the file you've been using drugs for at least two years. You're also being screened for sexually transmitted diseases, the results of which aren't back yet. All of these things make your pregnancy extremely high risk, not to mention the changes a baby will require you to make in your lifestyle."
"And if I don't want to change anything?" Mollie leans forward, obviously posturing tough.
"You're going to have to make some sacrifices," says Cameron. "You made decisions that got you where you are, and those decisions aren't without consequences."
Mollie opens her mouth, obviously about to say something combative, when they're both startled by a sharp rap on the door. The bare minimum of a respectful moment later, Cuddy sticks her head in.
"I need you, Dr. Cameron." It's always a shock to see Cuddy lately, the most salient reminder of the years passed and things changed in the hospital. Her hair is graying, once well-tailored suits now hanging on a frame which is suddenly and oddly angular. Cameron can't remember the last time she saw the combative sparkle reserved previously for House.
"I'm with a patient," says Cameron, wondering what could possibly be so important that Cuddy would interrupt.
"Five minutes," says Cuddy.
Obediently, Cameron follows her into the hall, wondering whether this is how Wilson felt once. Interrupted every day to intervene in the lives of others regardless of whether she actually wants to be the one asking the favor. It seems a cruel joke to have her advice in demand now, after she's already missed every opportunity she's wanted to take to help.
"Is there another patient?" asks Cameron. It's spring, and somehow that always means trouble at the clinic and overwork for her. Pheromones, or something.
"No," says Cuddy. She has that look on her face, that tight-browed, warm-eyed look that's designed to make patients and especially potential donors think she exudes empathy in excess. This is going to be delicate, a question that turns sense into brittle porcelain, Cameron is sure.
"What is it?" asks Cameron. It's Cuddy's own version of the intangible consent form, making people repeat or ask or otherwise lead her into the bad news.
"I wanted to know your professional opinion of Chase." And now it's delivered straight, like Cuddy's asking whether the mail has arrived or if it might rain today.
Cameron falters, lost among her allegiances and unsure of what best to say. She settles for, "I'm not really sure that's appropriate. He's not my colleague anymore."
"But he is your friend," says Cuddy, and Cameron gets the feeling that she's refrained from adding at least to the end of that sentence.
"I've been in contact with him, yes," says Cameron noncommittally. It's a slippery slope she's walking now and she still can't decide where the least damage lies.
"Then in your opinion, is he fit to work again?" asks Cuddy sharply. Cameron has to force herself to meet Cuddy's gaze, something repulsive and sticking in the air between them like trying to make two like magnets meet. Cuddy smiles, attempting to diffuse the situation. "It's not like he has references I can call."
Cameron narrows her eyes. "Are we talking about House's job?"
Cuddy's face tightens oddly at the mention of his name. She nods curtly.
Cameron crosses her arms over her chest, feeling suddenly and oddly exposed. "In my professional opinion, I'm not sure anyone's fit for that."
Cuddy looks surprised. "So you're saying you didn't encourage Chase to interview for it?"
Cameron sighs. The entire situation makes her nervous; there's no right answer here unless Cuddy takes the job out of the equation of her own accord. It's like a suicide mission, and yet rejection has the potential to be equally damaging.
"He made the decision on his own," Cameron admits. "I encouraged him to stand behind it. He needs to believe that his judgment can still be good."
Cuddy nods slowly. "I just hired him."
It's a betrayal, like a punch to the stomach, and for a moment Cameron just gapes. She's started to pride herself on newly developed unflappability, but this takes the cake over any patient she's had in the past month. It's a level of manipulation previously reserved only for House.
"So what were you going to do?" asks Cameron. "Call him back and fire him if my opinion wasn't good enough for you?"
"No," says Cuddy calmly. "Of the applicants I have interviewed, I feel that Dr. Chase is the most qualified professionally." And this is the operative word, though she doesn't say as much. The look in her eyes as she says it makes it perfectly clear.
"Then why did you need to ask?" Cameron takes a step forward, making the space between them uncomfortably small.
"Like you said, it's a tough job. I wanted to know whether I should be keeping any resumes on file." Cuddy smiles again, but it doesn't reach her eyes. "I'm sure you'll look out for him."
Cameron shows up unannounced around eight with rented DVDs and a whole baked chicken. Chase smiles and watches her stand outside his door for a moment, trying to balance the awkwardly shaped takeout container. She's wearing black slacks and a powder blue jacket, and he thinks somehow that she grows impossibly more beautiful every time she keeps coming back.
"Food?" she offers, stepping forward into a clumsy one-armed hug, the chicken not quite between them. She looks up into his face and for one precarious, breathless moment he thinks she is going to kiss him again. But then the second passes and she pulls back, stepping past him into the apartment. And it's this game again, of waiting and convergence, of a little way forward and a long way back.
"Long weekend?" Chase prompts, hoping she'll give him some reason she hasn't called since Friday.
Cameron sits on the couch and slits the tape holding the container closed with a fingernail. "I heard you got a phone call from Cuddy," she says, trying to pull chicken skin from meat without getting oil all over her fingers. Deflection, then, thinks Chase. He knows better than to push her too far too fast.
And just like that the nervous flutter is back, like someone's released a bunch of little helium-filled balloons in his stomach. Chase puts the chicken back on his plate, appetite momentarily forgotten. "Word travels fast."
Cameron shrugs. "I'm sort of in a position to hear things."
"You put yourself in a position to hear things," Chase counters. This will never change about her, he knows.
Cameron makes a noncommittal noise and moves on to pulling meat from bone with a fork. "Congratulations?" she offers.
"I'm not sure," Chase admits. He wonders for what seems like the millionth time why this job is suddenly so important. It's been years now since he's considered himself functional, and how can he assume that he's healed enough now? And yet it's House who's ruined him, and it feels oddly appropriate that it ought to end here, where things began.
"I'm not sure Cuddy trusts me." He thinks about her voice just before she hung up the phone.
Cameron narrows her eyes. "Do you trust you?"
And she's hit the nail on the head and there's nothing more to say.
Let me know what you think?