A/N: Did anyone else feel as if there was a crucial scene missing from 97 Seconds? We never got to see Cameron and House talk about House's stunt with the switchblade. That episode had so much potential to be another No Reason or Three Stories but it fell short by far. In this story, I'm not trying to answer all the unanswered questions posed in the episode, or explain its mixed messages. But I did want to unearth what I felt was a missing H/C scene.
Betas: Enots and AThousandSmiles
Dedication: This one is for Limaccia, a thoughtful reader with high standards who often provides valuable concrit.
You have to learn how to die, if you want to be alive.
Under the hospital's fluorescent lights, the switchblade flashed when, with a flick of his wrist, House cast it from its sinister sheath and, with another deft maneuver, brought it back until it was tucked into its metallic home.
Swish. Swish. The motion was nearly soundless – like a fisherman casting flies – and the repetition stilled his emotions, schooled his mind. It helped him think in the same way that spinning his cane sharpened his focus. A yo-yo had also been known to do the trick, but now the faddish device struck him as benign. Like candy canes at Christmas, yo-yos seemed hopeful; they represented a scrap of innocence that felt far from the man he'd become.
His eyes passed from the clinic patient, Mr. Best-97-Seconds-of-My-Life, to the electrical outlet where, with the blade House wielded, the guy had tried to score.
A hit, a snort, a shot? Nope. Once he had freebased on death, all other drugs paled in comparison.
Life, after all, was just a temporary fix.
And death was the ultimate freedom from pain – unless you believed in hell. Then again, to House, heaven was boredom personified. Boring was his defacto definition of hell. Choirs singing praise 24/7, not to him, but to the Great I Am.
In the darkness of his office, House sat hunched with elbows on knees and head in hands like the cerebral sculpture by Rodin.
With the swarm of prospective fellows populating the diagnostics department, it was harder to hide when he needed to think.
At the moment, his needs were simple: to quiet his mind. It buzzed and crackled like TV static. White noise. That was the state he was in. It battered the forefront of his consciousness. He had to be sure. All it would take was the knife and a little electricity. Had near death really been better than every hallucinogen known to man? Comparatively, his leg was a mere inconvenience when he got like this. It still hurt, but the Vicodin helped dull the pain. It didn't ease his mind like a bridge over troubled waters. God, he hated that metaphor.
First he had tried his old hiding place, turning on his soap in the quiet ward, but he found that, despite his best efforts to remain unaffected, he missed the still, sheet-covered shape of coma guy. He'd nearly regretted resurrecting the fellow when he turned out to be a pain in the ass, a negotiator by nature who had the nerve to ask personal questions.
Ever been in love?
Ever love anyone else?
Instead of words, the slender figure of Allison Cameron materialized like something supernatural, a benevolent image conjured by brain waves. Benevolent, but much more than that. Intelligence sparked from her eyes. Her stance, legs slightly parted, was confident and her strong, small hands were capable. Her life force jolted him like electricity unleashed. Neat, high breasts pushed against her tee, and his eyes moved down to the apex of her jeans.
Like a wet dog, House shook his head, scattering the mental picture like drops of water. Next thing, his vision of her would speak, her tone low and soothing.
She was an island to discover, but he had passed her by. He grunted. Coldplay was pathetic.
Besides, life goes on.
His mind moved; his thoughts were ubiquitous.
Life had never been the shiny new bicycle or the candy apple red fire truck that it appeared to be for normal people. Any sheen that once had lacquered his life had worn off the day his infarction was misdiagnosed.
What if you could get high on life, the way ads for sports drinks wanted you to believe? Or John Denver, although, come to think of it, he was dead. The ads were aimed at those with all limbs intact, so that excised him from the equation. And, not to quibble over details, but the Denver song seemed stuck on Colorado as the natural high capital, not New Jersey, a state synonymous with minor mobsters and pollution.
If love could be bottled like bourbon, good times captured in capsules, memories shot into syringes – a kiss, a touch between the sheets, all-access passes to a Monster Trucks rally with a beautiful brunette, nailing a diagnoses on the first try, the high of knowing you were right? If, by rolling relative peace into a joint and inhaling, you could turn down the volume on your intellect, fine-tune it just enough to cop a release?
Could he then shelve the alcohol? Leave his Vicodin prescription unfilled? Put away the razor blades? Throw out the morphine?
If you want to be alive, you have to learn how to die.
In one hand he held the knife. Tossing his cane aside, he reached for his pager. He studied it for a long moment – for at least 97 seconds, trying to decide.
There was a time he would have paged Cameron, a time he would have allowed her to see him vulnerable. If he paged her and if she responded – and if she succeeded in reviving him, what would he find in those eyes when he returned to his miserable life? Would he see again the unbearable acceptance in her eyes, the pain she felt on his behalf?
But the indignity of death was more than he was willing to put her through, the one person for whom he continued to feel a queer kinship. He knew this much was true: Cameron would never shy away from his gaping wounds – literal or metaphorical – the corroded, necrotic tissue of his right leg, his bullet-ravaged flesh, the dark side of his psyche. She had seen him detox, she had, without judgment, cleaned and bandaged the deep self-inflicted cuts on his arm. And in his dark townhouse late at night when he couldn't sleep, he'd nurse a scotch and his hands would descend upon the black and whites. Blues rose from the baby grand and the memory of her face at his door returned.
It was absurd: after five years of closeness, passion, and love with Stacy, the closest he had ever felt to being married was the night of the Monster Jam. It was on a non-date with Cameron. She was so easy with him. At first he had felt like the Phantom of the fucking opera but soon he forgot himself, laughing at their elongated image in the funhouse mirror, just one of the attractions outside the arena. Before he knew it, they were munching companionably on pom pom-colored confection and bumping elbows as they strolled the grounds. Him leaning down to tell her a dirty joke, and her laughing so hard he saw blue cotton candy. He couldn't wipe the smile off his face.
He could have held her hand.
He could have.
Maybe this should be left to fate, he thought, once again considering the electrical socket and the mean-ass bad-boy blade. He moved the pager toward his pocket. At the last minute, his thinking came full circle and he punched in Amber's number before slipping it back into his pants. With knife extended, he thrust it into the outlet.
You crash into color and sound. There is no white light and there is no peace, not that you want it.
If you make it, this is what you'll tell Cameron.
Think of an angry sea hurling itself on a rocky coast or a hurricane tearing through Oklahoma. Think of existing within the eye of a tornado with a Keith Moon drum solo as soundtrack. If you could crawl inside a kaleidoscope and become the colors, or if your skin was covered in taste buds so everything that touched you had a flavor, you might begin to grasp this wave you ride.
You are shrapnel from a star, loosely, lovingly wrapped in surround sound. There are no choirs of angels but you find that you're inside of a rush of blood to the head. You don't just see the music. You are the music. It is beyond beauty. You've always intoned to Wilson that Coldplay is chick pop. But Wilson was right. This is transcendence.
"Feel better now?"
House started at the sound of her voice. She stood in the doorway of his office like a determined Salvation Army volunteer. All that was missing was the donation can and the little silver bell.
"My leg hurts. My chest hurts. My undies are stained. Just another day in paradise."
"Obviously. But that's not what I meant."
"Then say what you mean," he said, reclining in his chair and propping his feet upon the desktop with a wince.
"You ... died. And now you're alive. What happened in between?"
He looked down at his hands, gripping the oversized ball as if it was a lifeboat. When he didn't immediately answer, she spoke again, emerging from the shadows as she approached the desk.
"I have to know," she told him, a slim form in her post-shift attire: faded jeans, a scrubs top, and flip-flops.
Releasing his death grip on the ball, he set it aside and pulled open a drawer, feeling once again the cold metal in his hand.
"Here," he said, and she walked around the desk to stand next to him. She reached out and took the knife and, to his surprise, pressed the button. Her eyes widened slightly at the length and curve of the extended blade, and then coolly she looked at him.
"This is it? Your ticket to ride?"
Her metaphor pleased him, but he didn't smile. He gestured to the electrical outlet. "You say you have to know. But nothing I say will give you the answers you're looking for. You want to know what happened to your ..."
Cameron held out her hand, a traffic cop who meant business. "Don't."
For once, he stopped, reeled himself in.
She retracted the blade and stuck it in her jeans pocket.
"I want my knife back," he protested.
"From what I heard, the knife belongs to a dead man. Besides, you wanted your blood stained carpet back, too, but I'm not Cuddy." In a feminine gesture that belied the steel in her voice, she tucked her hair behind her ears.
"Hard ass." He smiled at her, the Cameron who had euthanized Ezra Powell.
This time her eyes showed no trace of tears.
He waited to see how long it would take her to crumble into a quivering mass of emotion at nearly losing him. Any minute and she'd try to hug him.
A moment passed and, nothing. And then, out of nowhere, this:
"Want to bet?" she asked, her face softening.
"Always. But on what?"
"I bet you don't know that Chase and I ended our relationship," she announced.
"The fact that you just clued me in kind of defeats the point of a bet," he said, amusement lacing his voice.
"I bet you can't guess when it happened." She pulled up the corner of her teal scrubs top so he could see the curve of her hip and a couple of bills tucked between the denim and her skin. The patch of silky skin and the edge of her hip appealed to him more than the cold cash.
"Oh, it had to be last night. You found out about my dance with death and Chase figured out that you never stopped loving me. Do I win?"
She grinned. "We're just friends. We tried dating for a few months, and decided we worked. Just not as lovers. Thought it would be fun if we were ambiguous about our relationship around the hospital. He really is a great guy. Anyway, you lose." She straightened her top.
She shrugged. "Believe what you want. Whatever makes you happy, House."
"The truth is not in you, thus sayeth the Lord."
"And by that you mean you," she stated. "When did you begin to believe that everybody lies?"
He made temples of his hands. "Can't remember a time I didn't believe it."
"But if you're right, what's the point of … human relations? If everybody lies, why bother dating? Our relationships with the people in our lives – those of us who have people in our lives – what are they based on?"
Long blonde hair swung as she hoisted herself up on top of his desk, pushing his Nikes aside to make room.
"Never thought a day would come when I'd be calling you Goldilocks instead of Chase," he mused.
Instead of folding her arms across her chest in a clench, or, placing hands on her hips, her head tilted in annoyance, Cameron simply smiled.
"I remember a time," she said softly, "when you would have used this conversation to try and teach me a lesson. How to be less naïve, less pedantic. You might have rolled your eyes, but you would have secretly loved the power play. I miss those days."
"All things must pass," he said, pithy, and then regretted it. To make up for it, he answered her question, although he couldn't keep sarcasm from creeping into the monologue. "Relationships are based on need. It starts when we're babes wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, and from there it grows. We need food and water, oxygen, shelter from the storm." Here he paused and rubbed his temples, suddenly as tired as he'd ever been. "And love."
"You believe in love?" She didn't sound incredulous, the way Wilson would have done, but merely curious.
"Of course I do. I'm not Spock," he protested self-righteously, "I feel things."
"You feel pain," she stated. "High voltage electricity will do that. They say you can't buy a thrill. Who needs Monster Trucks or crotch rockets when flat lining is an option?"
"I remember a time when you remembered my birthday," House made a statement of his own, deftly changing the subject at the same time.
"June 11," she recited, "1959. You were born in the year of the boar, according to the Chinese zodiac. I looked it up. The only thing they got right about you is that you're complicated."
He shot her a look.
"I have no life," she explained, smiling ruefully.
"You used to wish me a happy one. And then you'd stand there waiting for me to say something back, like, 'Oh, goody. Let's blow up some balloons and put on party hats!'" He grabbed two pens from a holder and did a drum roll on the edge of the desk.
Cameron ignored his theatrics. "I wish a lot of things, among them your general well-being. You know what they say about leopards and their spots? They don't change. You died yesterday. I just don't see happiness in the cards."
He lowered his chin and raised his eyes to her. She read between the lines.
"Okay then. Happy Birthday, if that's what you want," she said with an almost imperceptible shrug. "I thought you found social niceties meaningless."
"I do. But you still find them meaningful. Yet you've stopped saying those things. 'Happy Birthday.' 'Merry Christmas.' At least you've stopped saying them to me. You used to act on your convictions. You may not believe in a God, but you always believed in what was right. What happened to you?"
"I guess I grew up." Cameron stretched and rotated her neck, offering him a view of her throat and the hollow below it.
He could see her pulse under her ear and wondered what it would feel like if he pressed his tongue to that spot. "Take it from someone who knows. Acting like an adult is highly overrated."
"After three years with you, the world looks a little," she searched for the right words, "less likely to be 'the little planet that could'."
Three years and change. With her quick mind and uncanny diagnostic skills, he marveled that she was still stuck in the ER. Why work triage when you could find a job as a diagnostician at Johns Hopkins? The answer eluded him, but he looked at her for clues. She was still beautiful – more so with the experience that now colored her eyes. An aura of pain still circled her and, in her street clothes, with hair loosed around her fine-boned features, he wanted to pull her close. Despite her small stature, her body was strong. There was that time she had hugged him. He had kept his hands at his sides, frozen with the feel of her slight warm body pressed against his, arms linked around his neck. And the kiss. He remembered her fingers, tracing the planes of his face. The way her shape fit into his. There was a thaw within and his arms went round her, hands traversing her back and drawing her near enough to feel her pelvic bones against his thighs.
"Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can't go home again. He was onto something," he remarked.
"If by that you mean that we've both moved on, then you're right." Cameron held his eyes, watched as darkness passed over the blue like storm clouds over the sea. Finally, she smiled. "I thought that being right was what mattered to you the most."
"It's better than winning the highest level of Nintendo, but I'd prefer a healthy leg and a supermodel on my arm," he corrected, admiring the curve of her cheekbones and the life that shone from her eyes.
In the green scrubs top and faded jeans, she nearly passed for ordinary, except that on her the casual clothes were better than sexy lingerie. In fact, he could only think of one thing that would be more of a turn on: Cameron, fresh from the shower and clad in one of his own crisp white dress shirts.
"I know I'm going to win the 'stating the obvious' contest by saying this, but for you a healthy right leg might as well be a phantom limb. As for the supermodel girlfriend? What's stopping you?" She shifted on the desk, crossing her legs.
He blinked. Unless she put lowlights in that radiant blonde hair soon, he'd have to start wearing his sunglasses to work. "We've established you're beautiful, but Tyra Banks is still American's Top Model in my book," he said, standing his ground.
"We've moved on, House. I'm no longer asking you if you like me, or demanding that you tell me how you feel about me. You no longer need me to hang on your every word. We've moved on. That's why, if you asked me to join you for a drink or dinner, despite the fact that you make Freddy Krueger look like the boy next door, I'd say yes."
House started to speak, but Cameron was on one of her talking jags.
"And before you ask why, think about this. Everybody needs a high. I don't do drugs. That leaves sky diving or you, and I have a fear of flying."
"What about …"
Cameron interrupted him. "If you're planning a lecture on love versus need, you can stick it where I've stuck my half-baked Freudian psychology lesson."
"And if you're planning on …"
"All I ask is that you stop dying," she finished. "I don't expect that you're immortal, but at least stop doing it recreationally. There are other ways to get off."
She met his eyes with a meaningful look as she slipped from the desktop and touched his arm.
Carnal imagery crowded his mind and more than three years of unresolved sexual tension shot through his battered body. He felt her light touch all the way down to his cock.
He leaned back in the chair to regard her, schooling his face like a guard at Buckingham Palace. All at once she looked younger. She was the same Cameron who had thanked him for saving her job, who had stood in his living room with outstretched arm and said goodbye.
She was an island to discover and he had passed her by.
"House?" She tilted her head at him and said his name.
In her eyes he found what he'd been looking for.
"Okay. So, what if we suck?"
She looked at him quizzically.
"You and me. After all this time, thinking about what it might be like, what if there's nothing?"
"Nothing between us, sexually?" Her voice was incredulous. "In your office that day, if I hadn't reached for the syringe, you wouldn't have ended that kiss. I could feel you try to hold back, but it wasn't working."
The kiss had deepened. His clasp had tightened. She was right. If she hadn't reached for the syringe, he would have drowned. In a clinch, that kind of drowning was transcendent. He would have brought her down with him.
A wave of dizziness hit him. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Cameron was next to him, a cool hand on his brow.
"I just need to lie down for a while. Don't make a big deal of this." He felt her hand move up and into his hair, smoothing it in a gesture of care.
"Want me to drive you home?"
He stood, the chair scooting back and away from him. "I need to lie down now."
She took his arm and slung it around her shoulders, and helped lower him to the blood stained carpeting. Kneeling down next to him, she placed her ear to his chest. The heartbeat was strong, although he couldn't seem to get enough air.
"Breathe slowly, deep," she instructed.
Duh, he thought. But he did as she said.
"Xanax would be better, but take this." She shook out one of his Vicodin and he swallowed it. "This will cut the anxiety."
They passed a moment in silence. She remained by his side, sitting by his prone body.
"You're not going to die on me, are you?" she finally asked.
He replied without opening his eyes. "You know that I will. It's just a matter of when."
"Stop helping nature take its course," he heard her say.
Cameron eased herself down on the floor beside him until she, too, was stretched out on the carpet staring up at the darkness.
Taking a breath, he said, "You asked me what's the point of relationships if everybody lies. Everybody dies, and yet people continue to fall in love, to have children, raise families. Doctors continue to save lives. We diagnose and we treat and people get better some of the time. We discharge them. We say, 'You're going to be fine.' But it's just a temporary fix. It makes no difference in the long run."
"So you keep saying. But I remember a time when all you wanted from a patient was for her to convince you that her life mattered. That it was worth fighting for." Cameron stopped and shut her eyes as if doing so would make everything make sense. "That's it, isn't it? What it always comes down to. She was worth fighting for. You're the one who doesn't matter. You'd give your life for someone you loved. But your life is expendable."
"It's my life."
"I don't know how you live with it," she said slowly.
"Wow. And Wilson thinks I'm merely miserable and pathetic."
She stared at him, considering. His face was waxy and worn. She wanted to kiss color back, to chase away the pallor.
"I don't know how you live with it," she repeated thoughtfully. "You made a choice about your body. She defied your right to choose. Shot down your chance for a healthy leg. And then she left. The love of your life," she added bitterly.
"Stacy." Her name stuck in his throat and came out like a croak.
"It was your life."
He was mildly surprised at the vehemence in her voice. Somehow it warmed him.
"That stunt with the knife? I considered tying myself to a tree in an electrical storm, but then I'd be leaving it to God, and obviously he'd screw it up."
"And this way you beat 'God' to the punch."
"Yup." Beneath his body, the carpet felt like an old friend. The body itself felt like a scorched piece of toast, but finally, his mind was at ease.
Electroshock therapy in the extreme? Or the woman by his side? It was win-win.
"There was a time when you would have paged me," she pointed out, a little bit wistfully.
"Figured you'd seen enough death for one life. Lost enough people you loved. If you couldn't revive me, you'd take it personally." He reached for the edge of her top and pushed it aside. For the first time, he felt the soft skin of her firm belly and, in the darkness, heard her sigh.
"You still want to know what it was like?" His fingertips idly explored the edge of her waistband.
"First answer this. When I was in post-op after getting shot, where were you?"
He felt her hand reach for his free one. Rather than hold it, she traced his knuckles for a moment and then nestled up to him, turning on her side and throwing an arm across him.
"You don't remember? You used your powers of deduction to find out how long I'd been at your bedside, checking out the oily build up in my hair."
"And how long was it?"
"I never left."
Curled up next to him on the floor, Cameron's warmth seeped into his hard body. In the dim room, her hand rested on his chest and, before sleep came, he told her what it was like, those endless seconds. He told her why you can never count on 'nothing' when you exist in a universe without boundaries and filled with limitlessness.
A world filled with more than you'll ever know.
A/N: For those of you who have emailed me or sent me messages asking when I plan to finish I am a Rock and Where You'll Find Me, my answer is that I honestly don't know. When I began writing FF, I jumped into it unaware of the fact that people would actually care about anything I wrote, and clueless about the "rules" of the genre, such as planning out and finishing stories before posting. I started spending hours writing FF at the expense of my relationship with my husband and responsibilities. My time online is now vastly limited. That said, I apologize to those whom I have left hanging and I hope to find the time to finish those stories. To those who have recently reviewed The Vast Indifference of the Sky, thank you. Wow. I started writing that one because Timbereads wanted a story where House and Cameron end up locked in a police car with a cop who becomes ill and whom they must diagnose and treat. Not sure if I can write a story with actual medicine in it, but maybe someday?