NOTES: Set during the FWB arc, after Airborne, obviously AU. This is for calendaes, because she is the most awesome friend and co-conspirator ever, and she wanted hurt/comfort fic for her birthday. It's not quite like anything I've ever written before (…outside of RP, anyway), and I hope it pleases.
It's the first thing they teach you, right after do no harm. Keep your patients at a distance, your relationships and interactions totally professional. Focus on the science, on the solution to the puzzle. Don't let yourself see the humanity. Don't get too close. Don't care too much. Because if you do, it could cost you everything.
The night that it happens, Cameron is in a terrible mood. The last thing the department needs on top of the recent web of tensions is a forced trip to an understaffed, overbooked, boring-as-hell conference on infectious disease.
The night it happens, House has already gone to at least three lectures drunk, achieving his goal of getting hauled off by security and thereby escaping further conference activities. Foreman has taken at least half a loose-leaf pad of notes which he claims—repeatedly—could someday advance his career. And Chase has told her at least five times that she'll be safer in the hotel if he leaves the door between their adjoining rooms unlocked.
It's well after midnight when he appears at her door in pajamas, his hair pillow-tousled and standing on end, and Cameron feels a fresh swell of anger over the loss of everything he's ruined.
"What?" she snaps, refusing to step back so that he has to fidget, barefoot, outside her door. At least he knows well enough to come around, instead of trying to knock on the adjoining one. She can see a thin sheen of sweat on his face in the light coming in from the hall, and there's something off about the way he's standing. "Are you drunk?" It's not that unexpected, she supposes, but it still sends a wave of disgust through her.
"I—need you to—examine me," Chase stammers, slurring just a little. He brings one hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. There's something not quite right about his voice, but she's too tired and too exasperated to even consider turning it into one of the puzzles House has taught them to see everywhere, in everything. Besides, she tells herself, Chase only has one tune right now, and she's been hearing it all week.
"What part of 'it's over' did you not understand?" she snaps, resisting the urge to also tell him he's just used the worst attempt at a pickup line she's ever heard. There is a limit to her
immaturity, after all. "You don't get to play this game anymore. And the door is locked. And it's going to stay locked." It's barely short of an actual temper tantrum, she's fully ready to admit, but the day has been entirely too long and taxing, and right now a fight is satisfying.
It happens lightning-quick. One second, Chase is pushing past her, opening his mouth for what she's sure is about to be a really frustrating retort, and the next he's crumpling to his knees in the middle of her room, the force of dead weight from his fall rattling the thin hotel walls. At first she thinks he's simply tripped, from alcohol, or the late hour, or an invisible wrinkle in the too-neat carpet. But before she can get her bearings, or come up with anything at all to say, he's doubled over again, vomiting forcefully. Cameron freezes, taken aback. She thinks she ought to make another comment about showing up at her door drunk, but he doesn't seem to be stopping, and the little prickle of adrenaline that appears in the pit of her stomach during any medical emergency is beginning to make itself known.
"Fuck," Chase manages at last, sitting back on his heels and breathing hard. His face is glistening with sweat and tears in the low lamplight, and there's something not right about his eyes, Cameron notices as she kneels beside him. One touch of her hand to his forehead, and her blood turns to ice, like the fire on his skin has somehow shot venomously through her body.
"Chase," she says firmly, when he doesn't say anything, or even turn to look at her. No response, and she can feel her heart pounding in her chest. She's had it wrong this whole time; he's come to her for help. She's let her personal feelings get in the way, and if the glazed look in his eyes is indicative of anything, it's the fact that her few minutes of cattiness may already have cost him his chance at life.
"Can you hear me?" she tries one last time.
"Black market's a longshot," Chase mumbles, not looking at her at all. "But this once, it just might be able to save your life."
Knowing there isn't another second to waste, Cameron launches herself to her feet, fumbling for the phone in the dark. The dial-tone brings the pieces crashing into place. She can see him in the clinic, see him trying to comfort a crying little girl who's been dead over two weeks.
"My—friend," she says, when the operator finally answers. She isn't sure why the lie comes so readily to her lips, because that's unquestionably what it is. "He's a doctor. He treated a patient with acute bacterial meningitis two weeks ago, and now—" She breaks off, forces herself to swallow. She's been in medical emergencies hundreds of times in her life. But this is Chase, the one who never needs anything, and as she glances over, the sight of him passed out in a pool of his own vomit nearly steals the words from her throat. "Just send an ambulance fast."
Her bags are already packed—they were supposed to be leaving in the morning. Cameron wheels her suitcase to the side of the door and then goes to kneel beside him. He isn't breathing when she checks his vitals again, and for once, for all her medical training and expertise, there's absolutely nothing she can do but sit there and wait for help to come.
He's had patients tell him that they were dying before. In the past, he's chalked it up to stress, to fear, to the influence of illness and injury and drugs on their sense of rationality. Now, suddenly, Chase understands, because he knows unequivocally that he is dying.
At first it's a steady drift, in and out of awareness and from one extreme to the next. Everything is cold, and everything is burning, and the lights and sounds and sirens of the ambulance are threatening to make his head explode. Cameron's hand—he assumes it's hers, because who else would even consider it—feels like a lead weight on his arm.
"He's comatose," someone says, minutes or hours later, he doesn't know.
The voice is deep and commands authority, and Chase tries to open his mouth, to say that no, that's wrong, because if he's heard it, it can't be true. Only then does he realize that he can't move, can't breathe, can't even turn his head to relieve the terrible pain in his neck. It would be an out of body experience, only now he's trapped inside this dead weight of flesh, and all he can do is listen.
Sometimes, Cameron thinks she's grown up in hospitals. She wasn't always going to be a doctor, but then she fell in love and learned that fairytale romance can't actually save a life. She's spent all her time since then running—away from love and toward a disease she has absolutely no means of fighting, should it choose to suddenly turn and attack her.
She knows how to sit at bedsides, how to hold hands and wipe sweat from brows, and listen to the rhythmic beep of monitors. She knows, too, now, what to do when the monitors stop, when the beeps become too fast or too slow, or absent altogether.
The hospital is her domain, the place where her power has been cut to the quick, molded and shattered and shaped into what it is now. Only this isn't her hospital, and it isn't her state, and no matter how many times she insists that she's a doctor too, the emergency team brushes her off at the ICU waiting room, telling her that quarantine protocols must be followed. She has no rights here, no influence, no currency with which to break down the walls of this strange place.
Sitting in waiting rooms is something she's never been good at, and though she knows exactly what Chase is up against, the endless wait for news is a dark tunnel, and she's suffocating without a light.
The hospital is worse. Later, Chase knows he must have lost awareness for a while, because when he comes back to the strange half-consciousness again, the sounds of the ambulance are gone and he isn't being moved anymore. There's a strangely muffled quality to the room, and he wonders frantically whether the fever he knows has set his world on fire has damaged his hearing as well.
In his mind, he maps the room by its sounds, knowing that he shouldn't be able to think this clearly. And maybe he isn't, he tells himself. Maybe this is all a hallucination, and maybe
he's already dead, and maybe that's why he can't move or breathe and the voices around him are getting more frantic again.
It's like there's an invisible anvil sitting on his chest, and he pictures ancient punishment, men being crushed slowly beneath the weight of boulders. The monitors start to scream, too loud, vibrating through the liquid pain his head has become. He knows that the commotion is because he's stopped breathing, because he can't seem to get the weight to move enough to force air into his lungs. He senses people around him, the too-bright light burning through his closed eyelids to send daggers of pain through the haze. Then the rough swab of iodine over his throat, freezing cold and stinging against his fevered skin. The searing burn of the scalpel comes as a shock; he's done this hundreds of times before, never even considering that any of his patients might be aware.
And then there is nothing again.
"You said your friend is a doctor?" the nurse asks, when she finally deigns to speak to Cameron in the waiting room.
"Yes." It's a chore keeping her voice from sounding condescending. "I'm a doctor too. I understand there are quarantine protocols to be followed, but can I just—"
"You told the EMT's that he treated a patient with acute bacterial meningitis two weeks ago, is that correct?" the nurse interrupts, clearly not about to acquiesce to any further demands.
Cameron nods sullenly, biting her lip to keep from snapping. It isn't like her to be this aggressive, but she isn't used to feeling helpless, either.
"And where is that patient now?"
Cameron swallows hard before answering, the memory of losing a little girl suddenly twice as macabre. "Dead."
The nurse marks some things down on a clipboard, but Cameron can't read it upside down. "And has Dr. Chase been vaccinated for meningitis?"
Cameron feels the panic start to rise in her chest again as she realizes just how little she knows. "I'm not sure. I can give you a number to call."
"And you, Ms. Cameron? Have you been vaccinated?"
"Yes," says Cameron coolly, resisting the urge to correct the nurse again. It's late, she tells herself, and this woman is only trying to do her job.
"Excellent." The nurse clicks her pen shut, then hesitates, as if she's remembering something. "Does Dr. Chase have relatives who should be notified? I understand that you aren't family."
"I—" Cameron bites her lip again, trying not to let the cold chill of panic those words have sent through her show in her face. "No. He doesn't. Is—is he—" It's been a long time since she's had trouble with the word 'dying,' but suddenly the old fear has resurfaced.
"Dr. Chase is very sick," the nurse says simply. "I'm sorry, but I can't give you any further information at this time."
It's the perfect hell. All his life, his mind has been his escape; intelligence his ticket out of a shattered home, imagination his defense against the crippling loneliness. But now he can't seem to shake the awareness from himself, can't stop noticing the sweat beading on his skin, the searing burn of the IV under the too-tight skin of his hand, the surgical airway a constant throbbing ache above all the other pains in his head and back and neck. He feels exhausted, wishes he could sleep in earnest, but knows that he's still in the coma, or he would be able to move. No one comes in to check on him now, and the beeping of the monitors becomes his only companion.
Cameron doesn't realize she's fallen asleep until her cell phone trills from her breast pocket into her ear, nearly sending her jolting straight out of her chair. She almost knocks over the now-cooled coffee she doesn't remember buying before falling asleep, scrabbling to grab the phone and sending it skidding to the floor. Getting out of the chair to crawl under it and retrieve the cell, Cameron realizes her neck has gotten terribly sore, and momentarily panics. But then she reminds herself that she's fallen asleep sitting up, undoubtedly in some awkward position, and she hasn't had the right exposure to be infected anyway.
"How long does it take you to answer a cell phone?" asks House's voice, when she finally manages to flip the cover up and press it to her ear.
"I was asleep," says Cameron, clearing her throat against the tightness which seems to have settled permanently there.
"In the waiting room, or in a certain blond patient's bed?" It's typical House, and it feels so normal that suddenly Cameron wants to scream. Because none of this feels real, she's stuck in this void of powerlessness, and can't quite imagine the world continuing to turn normally outside these walls.
"In the waiting room," she snaps, feeling like she might actually cry. "They won't let me see him. They won't even tell me anything, beyond what I already know!"
"Well don't yell at me," says House, sounding irked. "I was just calling to ask if I needed to start interviewing yet."
"Don't even say that!" It comes out louder and harsher than she's intended, and she hardly realizes it until she sees the looks the others in the waiting room are giving her. It's getting dark outside, she notices now; an entire day's passed without word. When she speaks
again, her voice sounds soft and broken in her own ears. "They told me his family should be contacted."
"Well, that's going to be tough, considering they're all dead." Cameron can't help the little shocked puff of air those words draw from her, and when House's voice softens, she knows he's heard it. "I'll talk to Cuddy. See if she can talk to the administration there. I need a man on the inside. Too bad you'll have to do."
Cameron sighs and swallows as House hangs up. She curls back into the chair, and tries to focus on anything but the image of Chase, sick and alone.
When he awakens next, the surgical airway is gone, and the world is no longer on fire. The room is suddenly radically different, and it takes Chase nearly an entire minute to realize that it's because he's seeing it as it actually exists for the first time. His eyes tear a little in the light, and the room blurs, but it's only further confirmation that this is finally real.
He tries to lift his hand, to brush the tears from his eyes and the sweaty hair from his forehead, but everything feels unbearably heavy. There's no one in the room, though someone has obviously checked in recently to remove the breathing tube. Giving in to the exhaustion that's finally reached his mind, Chase lets his eyes slip closed again.
When he finally wakes up, and stays awake, it's almost worse than the coma. The room is tiny and windowless, and there's a biohazard sign on the door warning away potential visitors. It isn't like the cleanrooms at Princeton-Plainsboro, and for a very long moment it's all he can do to lie still and breathe through the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity of staring at the wall, a nurse appears, dressed in a sterile gown and mask. She takes her time checking his vitals, and pressing buttons on monitors, and for a long moment Chase isn't sure whether she's going to talk to him at all.
"Can you hear my voice?" she asks at last.
Chase nods, wanting to tell her that he's been able to hear everything all along, but he knows she'll want to get a doctor and test for brain damage if he mentions the strange waking coma.
"And do you know your name?"
"Robert Chase," he manages after a moment, his voice feeling raspy and painful.
"You've been in a coma for two days," says the nurse, and Chase resists the urge to nod. It's the first time he's gotten a real sense of the amount of time that's passed, but he's known all along that it was more than that first night. "You contracted acute bacterial meningitis from your patient. You're lucky to be alive. It was very careless of you to be behind on your vaccinations."
"I know," says Chase, feeling blindsided. Like almost dying isn't enough to drive that point home? he wants to ask. "Did—has anyone—called?"
"No," says the nurse, and her tone of voice says maybe he shouldn't be asking. "We were under the impression that you didn't have any relatives who should be contacted."
"Oh. I don't." Of course the others have left, he thinks. The conference was over days ago, and it's not like they could have done anything for him as long as he was stuck lying here in a coma. The nurse turns and leaves a moment later and without another word, and Chase finds himself staring at the wall again, feeling desolate.
When Cameron finally is allowed into the room, she has the feeling it's as a result of a promised call from Cuddy. The nurse watches her like a hawk as she ties on the gown over her rumpled dress shirt. The mask is soft against her lips, the gloves concealing her sweating hands. She feels delicate, helpless and lost, like a leaf buffeted about in the currents of this alien hospital.
She's grown accustomed to Princeton-Plainsboro's sliding glass doors, and the wood feels heavy, the knob clumsy in her hand. There are no windows in the room, and she feels claustrophobic almost instantly.
"Hey," Chase breathes hoarsely, and the look of utter shock on his face says nobody's told him what's happening on the other side of the wall.
"Hey yourself," Cameron returns, ignoring the chair and sitting on the edge of his bed. She tells herself that she ought to be able to keep the mood light and professional, that this is what she prides herself upon, but suddenly the wall has crumbled and the slight tremor gives her away.
"You're still here?" he asks, looking away like this is something to be ashamed of. "I thought—They told me two days, and the conference ended on Sunday."
"Luckily, the waiting room here is very comfortable," says Cameron. This she knows how to do. Remembers. "Actually, not really. But I've had a lot of practice sleeping in chairs."
Chase jerks his head around sharply to look at her, three days' dying having stripped away all of his defenses and leaving his eyes beautifully open and vulnerable. "You've been here the whole time?"
Cameron nods once, then half-smiles. "Turns out my authority is pretty much null in this hospital, or I would've been in here driving the nurses crazy a lot sooner." She watches his face for a moment, assessing damage she thinks she must be partially responsible for. "You really thought I'd leave you here?"
"Well—yeah," says Chase at last, hesitantly. "I mean…everyone does." There's just a hint of bitterness behind those words, and Cameron feels a fresh surge of the guilt that's been
hanging over her the entire time as she thinks about the rest of the department going home. There aren't words for this, she realizes, and the silence begins to stretch into awkwardness, everything that's been left unsaid hanging like cobwebs in the air between them.
"Thanks," Chase breathes after a moment, and reaches tentatively for her hand, like he's expecting her to pull away.
Ignoring the gesture, Cameron leans forward and hugs him instead. For a second Chase goes rigid against her, out of surprise or uncertainty, and suddenly she can't remember ever having touched him like this before. And then another moment passes, and his arms come up to wrap around her waist, his body seeming to melt into hers. Chase exhales a long, shaky breath, and Cameron thinks that she can feel the heat of tears as he buries his face against her neck.
"It's okay." The words come softly, automatically, and the depth of emotion behind them surprises her.
"Will you stay?" Chase asks, his voice muffled against her shoulder.
"Of course." Her hands find a rhythm without a thought, playing through his hair and over his back. And she knows.
It's the first thing they teach you, right after do no harm