A Mirror For Your Disguise
You watch her through the entire differential diagnosis, and when you tell your team to get their asses moving to start treatment on the latest patient, you announce, "Except for you."
Everyone stops in the doorway; Foreman looking at you impatiently, Kutner looking at you eagerly, Taub looking at you expectantly, and Thirteen looking at you darkly. She knows you've been watching her, you realise. Not for the first time, you find yourself admiring the fact that she's one of the sharpest knives in the drawer.
You smile - a wry, carefully insincere smile - and point at her with your cane. "You," you say. "The rest of you: out."
Foreman rolls his eyes, Kutner turns without even a questioning look and Taub just shrugs as he trails out after the other two. And Thirteen just glares at you. You're becoming very accustomed to that look. It's the only look she ever seems to give you lately, not that you care. So much hatred, you think to yourself as you study her face. Haggard, weary, dark circles under her eyes, pallid skin. Hallmark of a night of sex and drugs. So much anger. So much determination and defiance. Funny how you always find yourself identifying with that very expression of hers.
You approach her, lumbering heavily against your cane, and she crosses her arms over her chest with her jaw jutted out. "This better be good," she says.
"Spoken like a true thirteen year old," you retort.
"I think I'm a little older than that."
"Oh, but pity you don't get to grow up, right?" You stop in front of her. "You were late to work this morning. Again."
She draws herself taller, straighter, as though trying to match your height, as though trying not to be intimidated by the way you're staring down at her. "I know," she replies, and you can tell by the tone of her voice that she doesn't want to admit that she's in the wrong.
"You came waltzing in here without a late pass."
"I'm not in high school, House."
"You sure about that?" You roam your eyes across her face, down her thin body, back up to her face again. "Your reckless behaviour begs to differ."
"My 'reckless behaviour' is none of your business," she shoots back.
"It is when you continually turn up late. When you show up to work sleep deprived and stoned."
"I am not stoned."
"Right," you snort. "Totally explains why your pupils are dilated in a brightly lit room."
She sets her jaw.
"Go home," you tell her after a small, icy pause. "Can't let you work while you're under the influence."
She widens her eyes and drops her arms to her side with an outraged scoff. "You're always stoned."
"That's where the difference between you and me lies," you reply. "I take drugs to control pain. You take drugs to numb it."
"There's absolutely no difference."
"Trust me," you say in a carefully impassive voice. You reach for the door and pull it open to usher her out. "There's a huge difference."
"You're not me, House. How would you even know?"
"Because you're a lot more like me than you want to admit. And you know it."
She stares up at you, an expression on her face that you can't quite decipher. But then she turns away sharply, angrily, and you step out into the hallway after her to watch her stalk down the hall. She is a lot more like you than she wants to admit. And you know she knows it.
You don't want her to turn out the way you have. But you're beginning to realise it's probably too late.
"I'm not late this morning," Thirteen announces sharply as you venture into the conference room from your office.
"I know," you reply in a cheerful tone, noting how worn down she looks, tired, frail. Another night of drugs and probably sex, you think to yourself. "You look bright as a button."
She fixes you with a cold look as she heads across to the coffee pot.
"You know," you continue, "if your eyes were somehow connected to the hospital's thermostat, I'd probably have frostbite by now."
"Pity they're not." She turns to look at you. "Maybe you having frostbite would take your mind off staring at me for once."
"What can I say? I'm bi-curious." She gives a disgusted snort and faces away again, and you watch her back while she pours herself a cup of coffee. "So, what'd you experiment with last night? E? Meth? Beth?"
"None of your business."
You ignore her. "I'm willing to bet you did some meth with Beth. Or maybe did Beth and then some meth."
"None of your business, House."
"So, was Beth a looker? Or were you too meth'ed out to even notice?"
Thirteen spins around again and glares at you. "Her name was Grace--"
"You actually took the time to learn her name this time?"
"--and yes, it was meth," she snaps. "You got a problem with that?"
"Thought it was none of my business."
"Nothing is ever your business, but since when has that ever stopped you?"
"Doesn't mean you have to confide in me."
"I'm not confiding in you, House. I'd never confide in you. But while you're in my face, and while I have nothing to feel ashamed of, I have nothing to hide. If you knowing the details of my life gets you off, then by all means - get off on knowing my life as much as you like. Just stay away from me."
You just watch her without a word as she turns back to making her coffee. Once upon a time, you were fascinated with Thirteen because she did have something to hide - a lot to hide, as it turned out. But now you're not fascinated by her because of what she's struggling to hide, but because of what she's refusing to face. Watching her is like watching yourself in the mirror, you realise. Watching her self-destruct, watching her slowly fall to pieces, watching her barely keep those pieces aligned, together, by a bare, frayed thread.
"You have plenty to hide," you finally say.
"Not from you, I don't," she counters, "seeing you've made it your ambition to know everything there is to know about me."
"Doesn't mean you're not hiding." You start towards her and you're about to say you know she's ashamed, that she's full of so much shame that she doesn't know how to deal with it, when Kutner rushes into the room.
"Got a new symptom: rectal bleeding," he announces breathlessly.
"Seen a doctor about that?" you reply, pretending to misunderstand. But then you nod and start for the door. "You," you say over your shoulder to Thirteen. "Get to work."
"So, what's on the agenda tonight?" you ask Thirteen, stepping into her personal space as she packs her bag at the conference table. "More meth? More Beth? Bit of both?"
"I'm going home," she replies in a neutral tone, as though she's pretending you're not there.
You pull a face. "That's pretty boring."
"No different to what you're doing." She swings her bag onto her shoulder. "Get out of my face, House." You dash a hand out and grab her arm as she starts around you. She turns to you sharply, looking equal parts surprised and furious. "What?"
You stare down at her. She looks so exhausted. Her eyes appear sunken in from the dark the circles underneath them, her lips are pale, her skin is pasty. "You need to stop doing this to yourself," you say in a quiet but firm tone.
"Doing what?" She tries to jerk her arm from your grasp. "Living my life how I want to live it?"
"This isn't how you want to live your life."
"Oh, yeah? Could've fooled me." She tries wrestling her arm free again but you keep a tight hold on her. "Let me go."
"Do you really think doing this to yourself is going to solve anything?"
Thirteen stops struggling long enough to meet your gaze squarely. "Nothing I do is going to solve anything." She pauses. "And why do you even care?"
"I don't," you reply, even though that's far from the truth.
She studies your eyes and you're struck by how penetrative her stare is. So intense, so fierce, so vulnerable. Just like you. "Then let me go," she says.
You hold onto her arm for a few more moments before releasing it. She shrugs away and gives you a final uncertain look before brushing past you. You can't help but wonder, as you hear the door open and then close with a soft whoomp, if there'll come a day where seeing her leave for the night will be her last. You can't help but wonder - you can't help but be afraid for her - that one day she'll wake up in a pool of vomit, on the floor, twitching and sweating and crying out for help, and no one will be there to help her. You can't help being afraid for her because you've been there yourself.
You know the day will come where she'll breathe her last. You know that. But you don't want her last breath to be because of something she does to herself.
Rubbing a hand over your face, you turn back to your office. You decide to focus on your patient instead, someone you can save.
On the day your patient is discharged, Thirteen doesn't show up for work. By 11am, you're checking your watch every ten minutes. By 2pm, you're phoning her apartment and hoping she'll answer. By 5pm, when Kutner asks for the millionth time that day, Where's Thirteen?, you think the same thing and your stomach is in knots as you shrug on your bike jacket. Angry knots. Anxious knots. Scared knots. Scared for her.
You ride your bike straight to her apartment. You knock on her front door and wait, a million thoughts and indecipherable feelings going through you, everything ranging from fear to anger. You knock on the door again, and again, and you're just about to find a way to break into her apartment when the door handle rattles. You hold your breath and an almost dizzying feeling of relief sweeps over you the moment you see Thirteen appear from behind the door.
But that relief quickly turns to cold dread as you realise how she looks. She's so pale she almost looks dead. Her eyes are blood shot, her lips are cracked, her pupils are dilated. "What're you doing here?" she asks. You're taken aback by how rough and broken her voice sounds.
You don't answer her. Before she can shut the door on you, you push past her and end up making a grab for her as she stumbles back. Your cane slaps to the floor as you grab her into your arms to stop her from falling, staggering with her weight, only just managing not to fall to the floor with her. She clutches onto your bike jacket with a crunch of leather, her head lolled back, mouth slack, eyes almost rolled to the back of her head, her breathing shallow and wasted. She smells of stale sweat, alcohol and vomit. You can smell it in her hair and on her breath. You immediately start dragging her across the room to the couch, your fingers straight on her pulse the moment you dump her onto the seat. You pry her eyelids open and try to detect pupil response, jerking back in surprise when she suddenly flings her arm out at you.
"Get away from me," she slurs. "Fuck off."
"You idiot," you snap back at her, shaky with the flood of relief that rushes through you again. You feel like slapping her. You feel like shaking her senseless. You do neither of those things: you check her pupil response again, take her pulse, and then relax when you're satisfied she's okay. You're just so glad she's responsive that you simply lean over her with an elbow resting on the arm of the couch and your other hand covering your face. But you jerk back again when she suddenly slams her hands on your chest, shoving you back.
"Get out!" she shouts.
You stagger back, a little stunned, but then grab for her, snatching her wrists in your hands, forcing her back to the couch with a knee pressed between her thighs on the couch because you know she's not in her right mind. You want her to calm down so you can properly assess her, to make sure she's okay, that she's not going to fucking die on you like you thought she had a moment ago. "Stop it," you bark at her, wrestling her with your teeth gritted. "Stop it."
"Get away from me."
You manage to get her wrists pinned to her sides. "Not until you calm down."
Thirteen fights with you for a moment longer, but then relents with a frustrated noise that sounds like a sob. You keep a hold of her to make sure she's calm, and then you slowly, very slowly release her. She covers her face with her hands while you stand up with a slightly breathless huff. "You're an idiot," you say to her again.
She doesn't respond. She just keeps her face covered, her legs splayed, her body propped up on the couch at an awkward angle. She's dressed in nothing but a black tank top and white floral-printed panties, and you notice how gaunt she looks. She's all spindly legs and arms, her veins visible under her pale skin, frail, so fragile, a complete and utter mess. She's almost a picture of death.
"You need to stop doing this to yourself," you say.
You hear her let out a hitched sob from under her hands.
"You can't keep doing this. This isn't..."
You trail off and just watch expressionlessly as Thirteen crumples, drawing her legs up to herself and curling into a ball, her face still buried in her hands. She looks so small, lost, helpless. She reminds you of you during the darkest times in your life, the times you wanted to curl up into a ball and die because the pain in your leg was so bad, because you hated what you'd become, because you couldn't handle the thought of being alive anymore.
"I hate this," she says. "I hate this. I hate myself. I hate my life."
You swallow. "I know."
"I hate this," she keeps repeating. "I hate this. I want this to all be over."
You know that feeling so fucking well. You feel useless just staring down at her while she cries. And you feel even more useless, even more confronted, when she finally turns her head and looks up at you with her red, sad eyes.
"I'm so scared," she says, her raspy voice almost a whisper.
"I know," you say again, because there's nothing else you can say.
For the longest moment, Thirteen just stares at you and you stare right back at her. In that instant, she's no longer Thirteen, no longer that mystery you've been trying to dig to the bottom of, no longer a colleague or even an employee. And you know in that instant you're no longer House to her. In that instant, she's Remy and you're Greg, both of you just people who are scared and angry with life; so scared that you want a way out, yet so angry that you want to take life by throat and strangle it until it can no longer defeat you. You see so much of yourself in her that it's terrifying.
She turns her head away and stares at the wall, tears now sliding silently down her cheeks. You run a hand across your chin and throw a glance over your shoulder at the door. You consider leaving. She's okay, she's stable, she's high but she'll live. You can go home now and at least be rest assured that she's alive. For how much longer, you don't know. But at least for tonight.
You turn back to her and she's still staring at the wall and after a moment of debating with yourself, you slowly move to the couch and take a seat. You sit just by her feet and you don't meet her eyes or even look at her face, but you see her looking at you out of the corner of your eyes. You see her hand then approach you and you drop your gaze to watch her slide it over yours. Her hand looks so small compared to yours. Thin, bony, delicate. Cold and clammy. You don't want her to touch you, but you let her. You know this is about all she's got to hold onto right now.
She doesn't say anything else, and neither do you. She just holds your hand and after a while, you upturn your hand in hers and let her hold it properly. And when her hand eventually goes limp, you look at her and realise she's fallen asleep. Even in her sleep, she looks pained and troubled and scared. But also determined. You admire her so much more than you'll ever let her know. You admire her because she's strong, she's brave, even though you know she feels anything but. She's stupid, too, for being so reckless. But who are you to point the finger of blame? You're no better than her. The only difference is, you don't want her to end up like you. Because combating pain with pain does nothing but hurt more in the end. She deserves better than that, you think to yourself. She deserves it, but she's never going to get it. Because she's just like you.
You extract your hand from hers, stand up, and drape the thin blanket that's folded at the other end of the couch over her. She doesn't stir. You doubt she will for the next several hours. You don't trust her to stay safe, though, and there's only one way you can be guaranteed her safety. You find a scrap piece of paper - a utility bill left lying on the kitchen counter - and you scrawl a note on it:
Be at work tomorrow. Don't make me fire you again. House.
You retrieve your cane from the floor and stand by the front door, watching her again. You can't do anything to save her. Nobody can. And there's only so many times you can be there to catch her when she falls. One of these days, you're going to be too late. But you can try while you still have time. While she still has time. Because time is all she has left. And that time is running out fast.
You quietly leave. You'll see her tomorrow.