A Normal Life
By Barbara Barnett
He had been sitting at his desk far too long. Staring, by now, into the darkness of his office—everyone long gone. House rubbed his eyes, adjusting them, noting the time on the radium dial of his wristwatch. Two a.m. Five hours he had been sitting there, which became obvious as he tried to move—his right leg protesting, sending shock waves through his thigh.
They had been too late. Wrong one too many times. Being almost always eventually right sometimes is not enough. Not by a mile. They'd had it, of course. Eventually. Two plus two always equals four when you have all the facts. Even though this seemed more like an advanced calculus problem than simple arithmetic. Confirmed on autopsy; as it will be reconfirmed when the right reagent arrives in the morning and he would be able to do a blood test. A simple blood test. Twelve hours too late.
"You're going to autopsy a four year old girl?" Foreman had curled his lip in disdain, disgust, chalking it up to House's insatiable curiosity. Not the fact that knowing might prevent someone else, some other time to… But if he wasn't going to understand now, it would never likely happen.
He had sent them all home. "There's nothing more you can do here," his voice hollow, a whispered growl-barely audible. But they had continued to stand, shocked at the silence that had now overtaken the little girl's room, consuming the chaos of the moments before her death. Shocked into silence as time ran out. Time was always the enemy in this game. And the sooner they'd realize it…
"It's not my fault. I had no way of knowing…" As if that would make it alright. House had wanted to treat, not waste time with more pointless testing. Had they followed…had he insisted…if only Foreman hadn't played the Cuddy card…but like the testing, speculation in the past tense was useless.
"It's always someone's fault. Go home Foreman." As if to put a point on it, House grabbed his backpack. Shrugging, exasperated, Foreman gave up on getting absolution from House. On that, at least, he should have known better. A last glare and Foreman was out the door. Replacing the backpack onto the floor next to his desk, House sat, his eyes riveted to a smudge in the middle of the second paragraph on page he was not reading. Out of the corner of right eye, he noticed the light go off in fellows' office as Kutner and Taub left in grim silence, followed a moment later by 13 as she cast a glance into House's private office, noting him before she also disappeared into the corridor. An autopsy and five hours found him sitting in the dark, proven right. And not changing a thing.
House wondered briefly if his mistake was already made back in the spring when he let Chase go, and then Cameron. Would they have done better? Would he have done better? He retraced their steps from "go." How many times had they transfused her? Wilson had ruled out Leukemia. Fanconi's Anemia. She died, in the end, of an infection. The infection was the key, House had thought. Triggered something in his memory. Something he'd read.
The phone rang, jarring him in the silent darkness as the little girl's eyes haunted—an apparition. Reaching for it, he realized how much his leg hurt. Just the simple movement of leaning sent more waves of pain from his knee to his groin.
"House," he answered quietly.
"I..I'm…I didn't expect to…"
"What can I do for you Mrs. Kane?" The girl's mother. House's voice was flat, expressionless. He didn't need this now. To be yelled at by the dead patient's family. "Can this wait…?" He could picture the paper upon which the lawsuit would be printed. Hand delivered in the morning.
"I didn't…I thought I would get your voi…I'm sorry to bother… " She cleared her throat. "Would it have made a difference if I'd told you earlier? About my first marriage? About my son? Would that have helped?" House closed his eyes. His first instinct was to reply with sarcasm dripping about lies and the lives they cost in his game. It wouldn't have made a difference, knowing, in the end. Not with Fanconi.
"No. She had a rare genetic disorder. It mimicked several other… No," he repeated. "It wouldn't have made a difference."
"Thank you, Doctor House." Her voice was tear-stained and he imagined her, eyes hollow, overcome with guilt; with failing to do "enough." Nothing would have been "enough." House sighed, thinking that he would try to move; make it across the office to his jacket and pill bottle, and then head home. Calling a cab seemed wiser than taking the bike.
House stood, his right leg threatening to buckle beneath him as he tried to gain his balance. He's sat too long in one position. No pills. He was two hours overdue on his meds. Grabbing for the edge of the desk in the dark, his hand slipped on a haphazard stack of medical journals, sending House to the floor. Resting his head against the desk, House eyed his jacket, which had been flung onto the easy chair. Considering his options, he thought he might be able to hoist himself on his good leg and manage the three steps to the chair. Glancing around, he sought his cane in the dark, not noticing the door to his office opening.
"House?" Cuddy's voice was soft. She'd suspected that House wasn't dealing well with the patient's death earlier. He had been too quiet when he had told her that the parents had consented to the autopsy. That he was going to do it. But not to mention it to his team. Or to anyone else. She'd noticed the lack of anything but sadness in his voice. And she understood. Wilson would needle him about the autopsy, questioning his motives at cutting up a little girl whose insides were already devastated. And Foreman would express disdain and disapproval at his cold-hearted curiosity. Never mind that this disease, rare as it was, needed to be documented so that – this family—and others might be spared the tragedy of Fanconi's.
Cuddy knew that it was never easy for House. This part of the diagnostic process—when it was necessary. He talked a good game; refused to give in to sentiment or grief; would not allow his staff to even suspect that he gave a damn about anything other than satisfying his curiosity. Nothing that would make them hesitate at sometime in the future when it was for them to ask a parent's permission to cut into; to vandalize an already dead child.
And now with a new team in place: novices at this part of what can become a ghoulish enterprise. Cuddy, knew that House could not afford to let his guard down. Not in front of them. Ice in his veins, expressionless he had sent them home, glaring defiantly into Foreman's eyes. And Taub's disgusted smirk. Cuddy had felt a brief flutter of regret that she had pushed for Taub. Taub would be good for the Dr. Gregory House that everyone saw; that everyone believed him to be. But perhaps redundant…a little too redundant…with Foreman also on board. Keeping pressure on House was a good thing, in moderation. But House needed someone he could respect, but without Foreman's disdain. And she was certain that Taub respected House. In a way that Foreman did not.
"A little help? I mean. As long as you're here and all. Which, by the way, begs the question…what is the dean of medicine doing here in the middle of the night?" He had managed to veil his exhaustion with sarcasm, thinking he had done a pretty good job of it. Instead of helping him stand, Cuddy surprised him by sitting beside him on the floor, leaning back against his desk, hip to hip. "OK," he began, skeptically. "Not exactly what I meant, but if you want to make out, you'll have to get me that little amber bottle in my…"
Cuddy rose in a graceful motion that sent vague envy fleeting along House's nerve endings. Grabbing his jacket, she resumed her position next to him. "Need some water?" House responded by removing two tablets and swallowing them, eyes closed. The anticipation of relief relaxing him, tension dissipating from his shoulders, even from his right leg.
"Thank you. What areyou doing here, anyway? Date not work out?"
"Wilson called me. You weren't answering your phone."
"Wilson's an old woman. Still doesn't answer why you're here."
"I guessed that you would be here. Wilson…"
"…thought I was trying to off myself. So he went to my apartment to check on me. What is this, some weird form of suicide watch? Because I'm not…"
"…has seen you sticking a knife in a live electrical outlet and allow yourself to be used as a human Petri dish. It was only a year ago that…"
"Think that had something to do with…?"
"I think I've seen this movie…" House moved to get up. Too soon. "Are you going to help me or not?"
"For what it's worth, I don't think you're suicidal. Insane, perhaps… But not suicidal. I like your new team. You did good." House regarded her, a bit amazed at the disclosure. "I was sure you'd pick Amber. She's…"
"A bitch." House scrubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to rid himself of an overwhelming fatigue. "She…she wouldn't have fit in."
"Oh, I don't know. 'Do whatever it takes,' 'all that's important is the result…' sounds just like you." He noted the gleam of a weary smile in the darkness. "Emphasis on the 'sounds' part."
"I needed a…"
"…team. Working together. That's what this crazy game was about. Team building. Did you really want my advice? Last week, I mean. When you picked them?"
"Yes." A quiet admission. She saw that it had cost him.
"House." Cuddy sighed, needing to say what he wouldn't want to hear. "It wasn't your fault. The little girl. Fanconi's Anemia. It's nearly impossible to diagnose and…"
"But I did diagnosis it. I was just too late to… Cuddy…" He turned to face her. "I need to do what I need to do. I can't work with Foreman sitting on my shoulder. I can't…" Cuddy nodded in assent. Understanding.
"I'm sorry." He turned back, staring into the darkness. "His place isn't to overrule you. You're his boss. If he can't understand that…"
"Then what? You gonna fire him? He's a terrible diagnostician. There's no way…"
"He still has a lot to learn from you."
"Right. That's what he's doing as your… How did you put it? 'Eyes and ears.' He'll learn a lot, alright. About running to mommy when…"
"…about creative thinking. Humility. Being wrong and learning from it. Those are things he can't learn anywhere better. He's a good doctor. And smart."
"Yeah. And he'll learn a lot about that by being your spy."
"You'll figure it out. But I'm not firing him. So just live with it." House sighed, feeling finally as if he could stand; his right leg bearing at least enough weight to hold him upright.
"You gonna help me here, or what?" Cuddy wanted to repair the damage done between them. Needed to regain his trust and the closeness they'd had over the past spring and summer.
"Buy me a coffee."
"It's the middle of the night."
"OK. So buy me a drink. It'll help me sleep. It's the least you can do."
"For what? What did you do?"
"I could have been Wilson walking through that door, finding you here, on the floor in the middle of the night."
"I fell. It happens." She peered into his eyes, stooping in front of him, extending her hand. He took it, embarrassed. "Fine." House stood, unable to suppress a groan as his leg protested.
"I'll drive." Cuddy walked ahead of him, House unable to resist admiring the way her jeans hugged tightly to her bottom.
to be continued