Author's Note: Been traveling quite a bit recently, but I realized I just kind of left poor Kutner out there floating like a lost buouy (hugs Kutner!). So now that I am back to stay for a bit, I am returning to the story with new zeal. Hope there's still some readers left who haven't given up hope on me. :)
Burning pain shot through his body as saltwater forced its way from his lungs and into his throat. Suddenly he was brought back to excruciating awareness as he retched and coughed, and he felt himself being turned to the side in order to allow him to expel the unwelcome liquid without aspirating. He would have never thought anything could hurt as badly as being shot, but this came pretty close. Even after he had stopped vomiting water, he still continued to cough uncontrollably. The last thing he was able to remember was sinking in the ocean, too cold to swim for his life, desperate for a breath. Now he was lying on the damp sand, just beyond the reach of the tide, and despite his fervent desire to do so, he could not seem to take in a deep breath from the sweet clean atmosphere. His body felt utterly numb, heavy, frozen, and he was unable to turn himself back over without the assistance of those unseen hands. As he let his body be moved, he was momentarily blinded by the brightness of the sun in his salt-irritated eyes. He squeezed them shut against that white hot light as he gasped. A shadow seemed to darken the back of his stinging eyelids, and he blearily opened his eyes again. Peering down at him with those familiar electric blue irises was House, appearing for all the world like an archangel with the sun haloing behind him. As he continued to convulse with hacking, he felt his boss's long hands on either side of his head, preventing much movement while House stared hard into his eyes, an unreadable expression on his face. Did he think there was a head or neck injury to be evaluated? Kutner wanted to say that his neck was fine, he just couldn't breathe. But he was coughing too much to speak. House shook his head and Kutner thought he heard him say, "Idiot," but with House's hands covering his freezing water-logged ears, he wasn't totally sure. Then House addressed Kutner's soaking-wet guardian angel who turned out to be Officer McNugget. "We have to get him inside – his lips are already blue."
The two men pulled him up. This wasn't as easy as it should have been; Kutner's legs almost immediately buckled underneath him and he had to rely on his saviors to support him. Kutner couldn't stop shaking violently as they slowly made their way over the sand. Their progress was hindered partly to the difficulty the terrain posed to House's bad leg, and partly due to the fact that Kutner's own legs weren't under his command, not to mention that breathing still posed something of a difficulty for him. The knot of men finally staggered into the cottage, and at House's orders Kutner was taken up to the bathroom. There was no bathtub in the house, so Mac stuck him into the shower, and House turned on the water. He was careful to make sure the water wasn't scalding, but Kutner was far too cold to be aware of the difference. The hot drops still stung his icy skin regardless. Numb as he was, he definitely felt that, and moaned involuntarily – hot showers weren't supposed to hurt like that, were they? He was dimly aware of the men speaking low to each other, of Mac leaving the room and of House standing in the shower with him, getting as wet as he was.
"Get your clothes off," he commanded. Kutner looked at him, dazed and not understanding. "You don't get any privacy now – not after a stunt like that. You're hypothermic – you have to get warmed up. You know the drill. Clothes. Now." House reached down and pulled Kutner's cold T-shirt up and over the young man's head. He tossed it to the corner of the shower. "Kutner, stand up." But he didn't seem able to process what House wanted. Frustrated beyond all patience, House finally gave up asking. You want something done, you have to do it yourself, he grumbled to himself as he carefully eased himself onto the floor of the shower. The last thing he needed was to slip and fall in here with Kutner so completely out of it.
House inched over to the shivering kid, the hot shower stream pelting him too, and averting his eyes to preserve what was left of Kutner's modesty, pulled off the salt-soaked sweatpants he wore. Kutner didn't fight him off, since he didn't have the strength, but curled tighter into himself, obviously chilled to the bone and mortified to be seen in such a vulnerable state. In the back of his clouded mind, he understood that House was a doctor and so was he. The human body was the human body – his clothes would have been taken from him in a hospital setting as well in the same situation. And he had never been ashamed of his body before – he had even streaked at a football game once on a dare during his undergrad days. But it wasn't exactly the nakedness of his damaged body that shamed him now, it was the nakedness of his soul. He was raw, shivering, exposed – with his failed attempt to drown himself there was no more pretense, no more denying that he was a coward. House could see his weakness now, plain as day. If it had been anyone else – Taub, Hadley, even Foreman – it wouldn't have been quite so horrible. But no. House was all he had. And House saw all, and would never let you forget it. Kutner coughed again, unable to suppress it as his lungs rejected the little residual water that still remained in his system.
House sat with him on the floor of the shower for a little while longer, silent, not looking at him. Finally, as he felt the water begin to cool from running too long, he reached up and turned off the faucet. He didn't want to risk falling inside the glass-enclosed space, so he crawled out onto the bathmat and carefully pulled himself up by gripping the counter around the sink. He was as wet as his employee, but he didn't care; the main thing right now was to get Kutner warm. The yelling would come after that. And oh, boy, am I gonna yell! House thought grimly, grabbing a large bath towel for Kutner. He was just about to throw it into the shower and command him to dry off, when he fully took in the sight of the young man curled tightly in a ball on the tile floor and still shivering mightily, the spasms punctuated every so often with a cough. He had no idea why, but for some reason a memory came unbidden to him.
He was twelve. He had once again disobeyed his father, then mouthed off about it, refusing to apologize. For his punishment, he was made to sit for five minutes in an ice bath. This had been done before, but never for quite so long. And five minutes was a very long time when you were in that much agony. His teeth were chattering so hard he thought his jaw would break. Five aching, awful frozen minutes he sat there, refusing to cry as his limbs seized up. It had been a miracle he hadn't had a heart attack. He wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing him unmanned. When the time was up, he couldn't even stand up to get out of the bath; instead, he used his arms to heave himself over the side of the tub, slithering onto the floor. He was completely numb, naked and shivering, his skin pale and fingers purple. He just wanted to get warm, but he couldn't make his body move, couldn't get a towel which he so desperately wanted to wrap up in. Finally, his father threw one at him, then left the room so he could dry off. Only then did he allow himself to cry, even as his heart hardened further towards John House.
Where did that come from?! Why the hell am I thinking about that? House wondered, aghast. It was only because he could see Kutner, bare, cold and pale, his stitched wounds in raw relief against his skin, in roughly the same humiliated, vulnerable position that he had seen himself in within that memory. Somehow, he couldn't stop mulling over the two images as he unconsciously rejected the idea of throwing the towel to Kutner. Instead, he found himself once again getting down on the floor of the shower and gently putting the towel over Kutner himself. Now to get us out of here. "Kutner, you have to stand up now." When his mortified duckling did not respond, House struggled to keep his tone as even as he could without losing either his authority or his cool. "Kutner, I can't pick you up. There's nothing for me to hold onto in here. Either you stand up by yourself, or I'll have to call McNugget back in here and he'll carry you out. How much do you want him to see?" That must have reached Kutner's brain, for he clutched the towel tighter around himself and began to crawl to the shower door. Just as House had done, he wobbily pulled himself up by bracing against the toilet and then the sink. House followed him, and when both were on their feet, House said, "Can you walk to your room?" Kutner nodded slightly, still silent, and shakily shuffled his way into his bedroom. House was at his elbow, spotting him to keep him from falling. He sat Kutner on the bed and rummaged around for some clothing for him, something that would be warm and comfortable. "Put these on," he grunted, handing the dazed man his garments. As Kutner stared blankly, House said with the slightest trace of frustration, "I am not going to dress you. Go ahead; I won't look at you, but I am not leaving you alone either." Kutner slowly began to fumble with his clothes, his hands moving about eight seconds behind the commands his brain was trying to give them.
House stood tensely to one side, looking at the floor. He had plenty of choice words that he wanted to hurl at his employee right then, but he bit his tongue with every ounce of composure he possessed. No. Not until I calm down and I give him a thorough physical examination. It's bad enough I let him go rogue; if he's damaged himself with his stupid little stunt, I'm not going to miss it because I was reading him the riot act and was too angry to see it. If he's hurt, I won't miss it. I won't…
After having changed into dry clothes himself, Mac was busy downstairs. House had been worried about hypothermia, so he had turned up the heat inside the cottage and was building a fire in the seldom-used fireplace. Frankly, he was a bit chilled from his impromptu swim as well, so the heat was welcome. His mind was focused on his tasks, but he could not put the scene he had just experienced out of his mind. When he had retrieved Dr. Kutner from the waves and dragged him onto the shore, he had been unresponsive and not breathing. He was trained in CPR and basic first aid, but he had not had the chance to use those skills here. The moment he had laid Kutner's body on the sand, House had shoved him to the side and frantically begun resuscitation himself, not even acknowledging Mac's presence. Mac had shivered silently, shocked at the older man's speed, and even more so at the tirade that escaped his lips while he tried to coax Kutner's lungs to work, pausing only to provide his own breath for assistance. House had loudly berated the unconscious "idiotic" doctor, practically screaming at him with words unrepeatable to start breathing right this minute or he was "so incredibly, irrevocably fired." The moment Kutner finally took a breath and began to cough up the water he had inhaled, Mac had felt palpable relief. And as House had carefully turned Kutner to the side to prevent him from choking, it had not escaped the cop's notice that he had hurriedly reached up to wipe his face with his shirt. Perhaps he had been wiping away sand or sweat… but perhaps not.
Half an hour later, as the first rumbles of thunder began for the incoming storm, House and Kutner, both in dry clothing, were downstairs as well. House stoically settled Kutner as comfortably close to the fireplace as possible so that he might get full benefit of the glowing warmth. Despite being dry and with a significantly better pallor, he still shivered uncontrollably. House examined him thoroughly, probing and testing, listening carefully to Kutner's lungs, taking his temperature more than once, and checking the reactivity of his pupils. He did not speak except to ask if something hurt as he probed, or to command Kutner to do something. And Kutner, for his part, was quietly obedient. He was coherent, but still rather shell-shocked over what he had done, and now was growing steadily terrified of the ramifications of his actions. Why isn't House yelling at me? I know he wants to – I can see it in his eyes. Come on, House, just get it over with. I can't take this tension much longer. Oh man, he's really going to kill me, isn't he? He knew he was in DEEP trouble, so he did whatever his boss asked him to do as he tried to think how he could explain himself. But House seemed to be biding his time before clobbering him. He studied the pattern of the quilt he was wrapped in and tried to control the coughing that kept sneaking out of his throat.
During the physical exam, Mac had taken the liberty of both retrieving House's cane from the sand, carelessly flung aside when he had begun pursuing his employee, as well as preparing hot beverages for all of them. As he stood nervously in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, unsure of where he fit in to the situation, House grimly came toward him to get the drinks. "House, does he need a hospital or something?" Mac asked quietly, looking toward the passive young man by the fire with trepidation. He actually didn't want to believe that this nice young man had been trying to drown himself. He deeply wanted it to be a mistake, a misunderstanding, an overreaction on both their parts. He got the feeling House felt the same way.
"We've staved off the hypothermia – his temperature's returning to normal. So there's just the 'attempting suicide' part to worry about," House answered with an exasperated shake of his head. "He needs to be watched carefully, but I don't think he'll try again. He was panicking out there… I saw it. He was trying to come back. He almost succeeded and he changed his mind at the last minute. That happens more times than you'd think with suicides. Unfortunately, sometimes they change their minds too late. I think he scared himself too badly…" House rubbed his neck as he trailed off. "Just out of curiosity, how close is the nearest hospital?"
"There's a small medical clinic in town – they deal with minor issues, severe sunburns, jellyfish stings, heatstroke – but they have to airlift the really severe emergency cases to neighboring hospitals. The nearest ER is about an hour away by car."
"Terrific. Hell, we might as well go back to Princeton-Plainsboro if that's the case," House snapped. Inwardly he sent scathing thoughts back to Princeton: Thanks a lot, Tritter. I risk Kutner's health by taking him out of PPTH and you can't even send us somewhere with a real damn hospital? You better hope I don't have access to a rectal thermometer the next time I see you…
"Do we need to do that?" Mac asked again, intently. "I'm serious, House; does Dr. Kutner need an emergency room, or medical care you can't give to him here?"
"I… I don't think so," House hedged. But his confidence was shaken by the ordeal, and he was mentally rebuking himself. I thought I did everything right! I locked up the pills, I got rid of the silverware, I kept my gun out of his reach… I thought of everything – except the damn ocean! I didn't see the huge deathtrap right outside the back door. It's an ocean, for crying out loud – it's not like it was hidden. I focused on the usual methods, and I missed the unusual ones. I missed the unusual methods...of course KUTNER would do something unexpected. He's so predictable that way. Dammit! He had already been wrong about so many things – wrong to think that Kutner was no longer suicidal, wrong to leave him alone for five minutes, wrong to think that the worst was over. Suddenly he wasn't sure he would know the right thing to do. He had doubts and that made him angriest of all. "His immune system isn't 100% right now – he's barely a week off of major surgery and he caught a minor infection from that. I guess there's a slight risk of him developing pneumonia or another infection from the cold and the residual fluid in his lungs, but that's not a given. It's treatable with antibiotics. But if he does get sick, those are antibiotics I don't have. In that event, we would either have to get him to a hospital, or else find a way to obtain the antibiotics and bring them here. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, if we come to it at all. I can't think about that right now. I've been holding back since we pulled him out, and now I have a few choice words I need to say," he grumbled as he snatched the cup of tea and headed back towards Kutner by the fire.
House wordlessly handed Kutner the warm mug, noticing that his hands still trembled from the inward chill he had not shaken off just yet. Kutner had his ashamed puppy look, and his lips were on the verge of forming his explanation when House abruptly held up his hand. "No, uh-uh. I don't want to hear it. Not until I get a few things off my chest." House started to pace the floor, his cane thunking as he moved. His leg was on fire with spasms, but he was too angry to remember that he could easily take a Vicodin for his pain. "Of all the stupid, selfish, crazy… Arg, I have been trying to think of what to say to you for the past hour. I am very rarely speechless, but this… you know, I actually think that if you were to tell me you just went for a therapeutic swim that got out of hand, I would want to believe you. I really would. That should tell you something. Only problem is, we both know better. I mean, only an idiot would voluntarily decide to go for a swim just days after surgery in which a friggin' organ was removed, with fresh stitches in their skin. And only an idiot would do something like that in rough surf… in early April… in the North Atlantic! And whatever else I may say or have said in the past, you are not an idiot, Kutner. You behaved unbelievably idiotically today, but the fact is you are not an idiot. You knew exactly what you were doing. I know you did."
House gave an awkward angry chuckle as he looked up at the ceiling in frustration, as if to say to the god he didn't believe in, Seriously? "I just have to give you props for creativity. I mean, drowning… that's definitely unique. It's less messy than some of the other methods you could have chosen, considering I made sure you wouldn't have access to those methods. There's a nice retro vibe to drowning. Very A Star is Born-esque. However, I really do not appreciate being cast as Judy Garland in this scenario. And no, I am not going to explain that reference to you if you don't know what I'm talking about – you can google it some other time. I would just very much like to know…" House swallowed, because as much as he wanted to know the reason, he was afraid of the reason. "What did I do wrong?" he said quietly.
"You heard me. Did I say or do something to make you do this?"
Kutner was horrified. "No! House, you didn't do anything wrong! It wasn't you at all!" he pleaded, his eyes wide. Oh, he never meant for House to feel guilty for this. He truly didn't think his boss would do that – he had been certain House would blame him and him alone for being a coward. Except he had been too cowardly to take the coward's way out, so what on earth did that make him now?
"Sorry if I'm not entirely convinced by that," House snapped. "I know I'm a jerk, I know I'm abrasive. I always wind up saying the wrong thing, even when I'm really trying not to. I was the last person to talk to you, and I thought that you were fine. Or at least, you know, okay. I never would have left you by yourself if I had had any indication that you were that upset. I thought that, you know, we were getting comfortable. You actually laughed today, for God's sake! I know that was sincere. Then less than half an hour later you're a manatee! How do you go from that sort of laughter to trying to drown yourself in so short a time, unless something triggered it? I left you alone for five minutes. I was less than 30 feet away during that time. I have to know, Kutner – what could have possibly changed in those five…" House trailed off as a theory occurred to him. Kutner saw that familiar explosion of realization color House's eyes, and he knew that House had figured out his motivation.
"You heard us talking in the kitchen." House stated flatly. Mac's face fell with dismay as he realized that, with his desire to keep House updated on the investigation and the status of his other employees, he had unwittingly contributed to Kutner's meltdown.
Kutner nodded, his eyes downcast. House was silent for a moment. Then he said, with an edge to his voice, "So instead of confronting us and getting the whole story, you let yourself wig out over a snippet of conversation you were eavesdropping on from one room away? Let me guess: you latched on to the part about Donne looking for you by profiling the team, and in another demonstration of your annoyingly overblown concern for others, you decided to save them by removing yourself from the equation."
"I – I know you're pissed…" Kutner whispered.
"You're damn right I'm pissed!" House yelled. And he really was too. "If that isn't the understatement of the year! The irony is amazing – that you would act so selfishly out of a selfless notion. Unbelievable!" He kicked an end table by one of the chairs, and Kutner winced as it fell over with a clatter. "God." It was a whisper, but something within the timbre of that whisper made Kutner look up. At first he thought it was a genuine invocation of a deity, which would be odd indeed coming from House the eternal atheist. House was standing with his back to him, his hand bracing himself on the mantelpiece. His shoulders could very well have been supporting the weight of the entire planet, from the way they slumped. "God, Kutner," he whispered again. "We had a deal." Kutner wished the man would face him so he could put a tone with the words. He needed to see House's face, because right now it almost sounded like his feelings were hurt.
"We had a deal, you and me. Rule number five – I told you, if you started feeling like… like that… you were supposed to tell me. And I was going to help you. But you didn't. Why the hell didn't you say anything to me? Did you think I wouldn't listen? Do you honestly believe I care so little when it comes to your life?" House finally turned to face him and Kutner saw his eyes – so filled with hurt, so anguished. Where he had expected boiling-hot anger, there was just profound distress. They were just so full.
"No. House, it wasn't about you. I never meant for you to think that. I'm sorry…" he whispered, utterly chastised. But House interrupted him.
"I don't want to hear apologies, Kutner. I'm glad you're sorry – you should be sorry! But if you're only apologizing for how you've made me feel , that's not what I want to hear from you. I want you to be sorry that you tried to kill yourself! That's kind of a big deal, you know? What if no one had been around to pull you out, hmm? I saw you out there, the way you started struggling – you changed your mind at the last minute, didn't you? It was a damn good thing you didn't have to depend on me to rescue you, because I wouldn't have made it to you in time." With a pang, Kutner realized that with his actions, he had also made House acutely aware of his handicap, of his physical limitations, and who knew much pain House had caused himself while running to save him? Shame filled him further as he suddenly considered that for the first time in their acquaintance, he had unwittingly thrown House's crippled leg in his face, mocking him without intending to.
"What did you expect me to do if you drowned?" House continued softly. "Was I just supposed to go back to the team and tell them, 'Whoops. Sorry, guys, he found my one weakness – loosely packed sand. But he was only thinking of you - oh well?' You really think that the purity of your motives would make it okay? God, Kutner!" He rubbed his eyes in frustration as he groaned, and he sat heavily in one of the chairs. He rubbed his thigh aggressively, trying to massage the spasms away.
"I couldn't do it." Kutner murmured. "You're right. I tried. But I got out there and when it came right down to it… I didn't want to die."
"Well, you did, you know. Temporarily, at least. You weren't breathing when McNugget pulled you out. And all because you heard a snatch of conversation and panicked."
Kutner gave a small nod and muttered something House couldn't hear. "Speak up," House demanded.
"I said, I know I was panicking, but I actually felt really calm. It was like I was out of my body," Kutner repeated remorsefully. "Like I heard a voice outside myself that said I had to do this."
"A voice? Do you mean, like an auditory hallucination?" House furrowed his brow. If Kutner was hallucinating, this whole thing could just be the result of him being sick… Maybe he was grasping at straws, but if there was a chance that Kutner's suicide attempt was related to something medical, then he would take it gladly. He was comfortable with the physical, not the mental, not the emotional. But his bizarre hope was dashed as Kutner shook his head.
"No… I wasn't hallucinating. It just seemed like it was something separate from my own thoughts, telling me… that I wasn't worth all this trouble," Kutner hung his head. Despite his change of heart, he still believed what that little voice had said. "I appreciate everything you've done for me. But I'm not worth it."
"Oh yeah. You're so not worth it. Of course. That's why Chase and Taub spent hours in the OR working to save your life. That's why Taub sat with you hour after hour, refusing to go home to a warm bed and a hot wife. It's why we made the effort to move you to a safe location. It's why I risked the fury of my employees AND my boss and made the command decision to come along to take care of you. It's why I was actually reasonably polite to Michael Tritter, the Ghost of Jerk-offs Past. It's certainly why I, in all my straightness, wound up giving you the friggin' kiss of life out there a little bit ago. Because you weren't worth it. For crap's sake!" House sputtered sarcastically. "Kutner, there are a lot of people who are not worth this sort of trouble. About 99.9% of the world's population isn't worth this trouble. I am not worth the trouble. But you are one of the few who are!"
House exhaled noisily, and took a moment to regain his composure. He was getting way too emotional here. He attempted to keep his voice even as he continued, determined to be as honest as he could, to show Kutner that he did understand… "I know you feel uncertain, and you're scared for yourself and for your friends, and maybe it seemed like the easy way out. Life is miserable and you don't know where you'll find yourself. You think, I could just die, just let go, and then my pain will be over and everyone will probably be better off. Maybe for some people that's true. But not for you, Kutner. No one would be better off without you. Trust me," House said with more sincerity than Kutner had ever witnessed. "Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it. When you're dead, you're dead. End of story. At least if you're alive, there's a slight chance it could get better, a possibility to be less miserable."
Kutner was silent for a moment, thinking, processing. He lifted his head and looked at House steadily. "Have you ever tried?" he asked quietly. It was such an innocent question, yet it bore such a weight. There was no malice in his asking, only probing interest. House had spoken with far too much conviction to have never walked down that dark road himself. "I'm not talking about whatever that was with the knife in the wall socket last year. I don't know what that was about. It was weird to page Amber beforehand if you had really planned on dying, but then again, there are no guarantees when your heart stops. I'm talking about really just wanting to end it; a conscious desire to let go. Have you ever wanted to? Has the pain ever been that unbearable?"
House went dumb. He had no idea how to answer such a question. His first instinct was to brush it off. But he kept thinking, Sometimes I wonder if that's the motivation for half the crap I do. I mean, yeah, sure I've thought about it on occasion. Right after the infarction, I wished for death. But that's because I was in ridiculous, excruciating pain. The greatest lover of life would have begged for death in that instance, and I at least got a coma out of the deal. That's close, I guess, without the permanence. Then Stacy left me, and I guess I could have wanted to die then, but I still had Wilson. And Cuddy, I guess. And the job. There was that time at Christmas… But I can't tell him about this. Can I? I still don't really know if I really meant to die that night. I was so high, I don't know if I cared enough by that moment… He started to deflect, ready to dismissively mutter, "Everyone thinks about it at some point." But another voice spoke before he could.
"I've wanted to."
Both House and Kutner's heads turned to Mac, who had spoken while leaning against the doorway, as casually as if he were talking about sports. Both men had nearly forgotten the quiet young cop was still present. And now that he had contributed such information to their conversation, they were startled. Mac took in their surprise, and drifted in from the doorway, coming a little closer to them in the center of the room. It seemed that with that admission, he had received an unspoken invitation to finally participate to the discussion. So he braced himself to relate the story that still pained him every time he told it. If it would help this young man, he would hash it out again.
"Four years ago, my partner Charlie and I were pursuing a suspect in our squad car, and we wound up being run off the road. The car went down a ravine. I was thrown from the vehicle. I sustained several hard-core injuries – fractured pelvis, broken arm, cracked sternum, ruptured spleen… I was knocked out for like, two seconds – I came around really quick, but I was in bad shape. Charlie was still pinned in the car. I don't know how he did it, but he was conscious the whole time. He couldn't get out and I couldn't move to try to get him out. He was able to radio for help… and then, with no warning… the squad car exploded." Mac paused for a moment to breathe. House looked down at his cane in discomfort. Kutner did not take his eyes off of Mac, eyes that were wide and beginning to glimmer with tears. "I was in shock – I tried to crawl towards the car, thinking maybe I could still get him out, but I couldn't move more than a few feet before I passed out again. When I woke up in the hospital ER, I knew he was gone. I pray to God that he died at the moment of that explosion. I can't bear to think that he suffered while the car burned…"
Mac looked at Kutner intently. "For a cop, the relationship with your partner is a very heavy thing. It involves the deepest possible level of trust. You're putting your life on the line every day, so you have to have that trust, that bond with the people you work with. Firefighters and soldiers have the same sort of code. You always have your partner's back, and he will always have yours. We take care of each other out in the field. I was so lucky – Charlie was like an older brother to me on the force. He took me under his wing when I joined up; I knew his family… we hung out together when we weren't on duty. I was closer to him than to my actual biological brother. So, losing him like that… I felt like I had let him down. I broke the code – I couldn't save him. I didn't really even attempt to save him. It all happened so fast; one minute he was talking to me, trying to keep me awake, and the next thing I knew there was a fireball… I probably couldn't have gotten him out anyway, as injured as I was, but I wasn't even able to try.
"I spent close to a month in the hospital, undergoing various surgeries and therapy, but I refused to see any visitors. I felt certain that every cop on the force knew what a failure I was – the young, green newbie survives and the decorated hero dies. I couldn't even go to his funeral. I left the hospital but I neglected my P.T. sessions; I resigned from the unit, because I couldn't bear the thought of going back there with all those memories, of having everyone looking at me with pity or disgust or whatever my paranoia would call it. I didn't want to have Charlie replaced by some other person who I would probably also inadvertently get killed. I started drinking pretty heavily, and since I was on mega-pain meds from the surgeries, I don't need to tell you that I was pretty messed up 24/7. Five weeks after I got out of the hospital, I went on a major bender, and it ended with me on the bathroom floor with my off-duty gun aimed at my head. I had failed as a cop, as a friend… I thought that I had failed at life."
"What stopped you?" House asked, intrigued that this seemingly put-together, normal guy would react that way to pain. He had suffered just like Kutner… and me too, House thought, thinking again of that Christmas, the one where he had downed shot after shot, pill after pill…
"It was crazy… Right as I had steeled myself to pull the trigger, there was a knock at the door of my apartment. I had no plans on answering the door, but I put the gun down to go see who it was, just so I would know who I was ignoring. It was Beth… Charlie's widow. I had not seen her while I was in the hospital – she was so occupied with her kids and making sure Charlie was buried in his hometown in Illinois. She had called a couple of times, but I never picked up the phone. But now she was beating down the door and yelling at me to let her in. I couldn't ignore her – my inaction had cost her her husband of 16 years. Much as I didn't want to face her, I thought I owed it to her to let her take whatever revenge she wanted before I ended my life. Maybe if I handed her my gun, she would do the deed for me. So I let her in."
"Oh, she was pissed at me all right. But not for the reason I thought. I guess she had heard that I had resigned, and I wasn't going to physical therapy anymore. She didn't come there to berate me for causing her husband's death," Mac leaned forward to emphasize his point. "She was angry at me for shutting down, for wallowing in my grief and my guilt. Charlie was driving the car, and the suspect was the one who ran us off the road. I had nothing to do with it. She said, 'Charlie made sure you would be alright before he died. All that effort to save a life you refuse to live! How dare you throw that away! That's the biggest slap in the face to his memory I've ever seen.' She really let me have it." Mac gave a small smile. "She was right, too. After a few hours of her yelling and both of us crying, I agreed to sober up and go to therapy, and she took me back to the hospital that night. I don't know why she picked that night to come over, or why she knocked on the door at that moment, just as I had taken the safety off the gun. I'll never know that, I imagine. But I thank God she did. Now, it still makes no sense to me why one of us had to die that day, or why it had to be Charlie. I will never understand why I was thrown clear of the vehicle and he was not. But I understand that if I were to end my life, it would not bring him back. Nothing would be solved, and I would wind up causing more pain to the people who love me, which wound up being more in number than I ever guessed. I still have purpose in this life – to protect and serve."
"Dr. Kutner, I know you have friends that care deeply about you, too," Mac went on with a sideways glance to House, who didn't notice. "You may think that your death will solve the problem of their safety. I can understand the sentiment, and I can even admire the feelings behind it, but I'm afraid that's very naïve. This guy – he's a murderer, pure and simple. Maybe he would move on if he knew you were dead… but maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he would continue to kill, more and more innocent people, perhaps even your friends. You don't know why he targeted you, so who knows what would satisfy him?" Kutner furrowed his brow. He was right – Kutner had made an assumption that if his death was achieved, Donne would have no more reason to hang around. As much as he had been considering his friends, he had not considered the rest of the people in the world who could become Donne's next obsession. Mac went on quietly, "And what would your parents want for you? I don't think they would be very happy if you threw away your life."
"No. I thought of that…." Kutner hedged, recalling his panicked thoughts in the surf. His parents – all of them, adoptive and biological – would have been so disappointed in him…
"Don't you want justice for them? Don't you want justice for yourself?" He put a strong hand on Kutner's shoulder. "If you want that, and if you really want to save your friends and perhaps a whole host of other innocent people, YOU have to be the one who puts him away. You were the one who was spared, and you can question that all you like, but that means that you can be the one who makes it possible for him to pay for his crimes. But if you go through your days assuming that your survival was a mistake by whatever power you believe in… if you act as judge, jury and executioner over yourself when you've committed no crime, you'll never move past these feelings. Then the bastard wins. We can't have that, now, can we?"
He sat back again, as Kutner bowed his head, processing what Mac had said. He gave a small nod. "I know you're right. I really do. I realized as I was drowning… my parents wouldn't want me to kill myself. I do have people who care about me. I made a promise to one of them that I nearly broke today." He thought of Taub. Taub, who had stubbornly stayed by his side, who had fretted and worried and comforted him as his psyche spiraled out of control, whom he had trusted to take care of his parents' final needs. He had promised he would try to be strong. He had promised Taub that he would be ok. And he had almost broken his word with his suicide attempt. He imagined House giving Taub the news that he had died – Taub's face looking stunned and stricken, then disappearing behind his wall, hardening himself, never to let any sign of feeling show through ever again. He would try to act like it wasn't affecting him, Kutner thought. He would be so angry at me for betraying him and breaking my promise. Especially since I know how he feels about suicide. He'd never be able to forgive me. He would blame House for not taking care of me, he would blame himself for not being here, thinking he could have prevented it… I know him, I know what he would be going through. I can't believe I almost hurt him so badly. "I just… feel kind of, I don't know… out-of-control. Helpless, I guess. I really thought I was doing the best thing at the time. But I couldn't go through with it, and I'm really trying not to feel like a failure in that regard. But now I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to do next. What do you do when you've tried to end your life and you don't succeed?"
"You take it one day at a time and focus on your own healing, and you let us handle safety issues, for you and for your friends" Mac replied softly. "Listen, I know a great group – they actually focus on survivors of traumatic incidents. I went regularly for almost two years after my accident, and I still drop in from time to time. In my line of work, I see a lot of bad stuff, and you try to stay as detached as you can. But there have been times when a victim has really gotten to me. Or when we lose another man from the squad. That's when I need to reach out and touch base with people who understand what I'm going through. I think it would be good for you. Your friends will be there for you, but sometimes they can't quite wrap their heads around what this kind of event does to you… that feeling of guilt. When we get back to Princeton, I would be happy to take you to a meeting."
"Ok, maybe…" Kutner said hesitantly. He wasn't 100% sure he wanted to talk about all of this with a room full of total strangers. It was hard enough talking about it with people he knew, to know that his friends would forever be looking at him with saddened, sympathetic faces, tiptoeing around him and expecting him to crumble at the slightest thing. Of course, I'm not making a big case for myself given what I just tried to do today. It was deeply personal – not just this loss but his earlier ones as well, which were now haunting him anew with the supposed connection between the murderers. Plus, it was simply too soon to plan a strategy of therapy for 'when they got back to Princeton.'
"No maybes about it," House grunted. "We'll have to address your therapeutic pursuits later unfortunately, but whoever you do that therapy with is going to sign off on your stability before you can come back to work."
"So… you're not firing me?" Kutner meekly inquired, looking at his hands.
"You must still be waterlogged. Do you think I would have bothered resuscitating you if I was just going to fire you? Use your head a little." House sniffed.
"Are… are you going to… tell the team what I did?" Kutner asked quietly.
House rubbed his forehead and paused a moment before speaking. "Technically this could fall into the realm of doctor-patient confidentiality. So… no. I won't tell them. If you want anyone on the team to know, they'll have to hear it from you. However, if at any point it becomes medically relevant, then I will bring it up myself, for the sake of your health." House was sincere enough, but he was already thinking ahead to the possibility of Kutner getting sick from his little swim. If it became necessary to re-hospitalize him in such an event, then he might need to disclose how he got sick in the first place.
"Thank you, House. Really, thank you," Kutner said humbly, relieved that he didn't have to worry about House publicly disclosing to the world at some inopportune time that he had tried to drown himself. But House looked at him sternly.
"But you can't forget that you are currently up to your neck in deep doo-doo. You DID try to break my most important rule. Therefore, you must be punished." He sounded ominous enough, but the truth was his mind was spinning frantically to come up with an appropriate 'punishment.' He had been so certain that Kutner was too scared of him to even consider going against his demands, he hadn't thought much beyond the rules themselves. Now that the wall had been breached, he had to make sure there were suitable consequences – stern enough to indicate that he wouldn't tolerate such a breach again, yet reasonable enough to not discourage Kutner completely. Put the fear of God into him, so to speak….or at least annoy the hell out of him. But how exactly did you punish someone for trying to kill themselves? That wasn't something he had ever thought about very deeply. Hmm, if we were back at PPTH, he would be under suicide watch again, perhaps in the psych ward for observation for a little while. No psych ward here, so I guess that means he's in my own personal cuckoo's nest.
"From now on, I am your shadow," House said, making it up as he went along, but trying to sound authoritative. "I won't go to the extreme of handcuffing myself to you… at least not yet. But I will be up in your grill every time you turn around. I tell you to do something, you do it. I ask you a question, you answer it, and if I'm not satisfied with the answer, I will keep asking until I am. You are going to have re-earn your independence, because I will not leave you alone if I can't trust you not to act like a moron. You are effectively grounded." Kutner blinked at him, half in acceptance and half in astonishment. That sounded so strange to his ears; he was almost 30 years old – he hadn't been grounded in years! This would be strange indeed – it wasn't like he had a ton of freedom to begin with, in this safehouse with two people watching his every move. "I want to know right now – are you going to take your punishment like a man, or should I expect you to make another attempt to go over the wall?" Without waiting for Kutner's answer, House barreled on. "Because I have no problem just keeping you sedated for the next few weeks, if it boils down to that. I'd rather not do that though, because that would wind up being very boring for me. So what's it going to be? After what you put us through today, I think you owe me a little advance notice if you're not going to cooperate." House looked expectantly at his protégé, practically daring him to be difficult on this matter.
Kutner, for his part, knew he had lost House's trust for the time being and was well-aware that winning it back would be no small feat. He'd probably be atoning for this for the remainder of his fellowship… maybe even beyond. But he sincerely wanted to try. "House, I promise, I swear, I won't try to hurt myself again. I know I won't be able to fix myself emotionally overnight, and I honestly can't tell you I won't at least have those feelings anymore, but I won't do anything like this again. This freaked me out today – I'm shocked that I went as far as I did, and you saw yourself – I tried to undo it once I realized it. I really do promise I won't be so foolish if I should happen to get really upset again. I'll come to you, I will…"
And Kutner meant it more sincerely than he had when House had originally laid down his rules. His actions today had startled and terrified him. It was one thing to imagine death, to plan to kill oneself for whatever reason. It was another thing entirely when you were acting on those plans. How frightened he had been when he realized, as he could feel himself dying, that when it came right down to it, he did not WANT to die. It had been nothing short of miraculous that he had been saved – somehow the universe had spared him yet again, and he was becoming very aware that he might only have so many lives left, like a cat. And McNugget was right: he was the one who had to make sure Donne was put away. He had been too selfish to see it before. Surely that was why he had survived, wasn't it? He had to go on living, if only to make sure that horrible man would never kill again. He at least had to live long enough to accomplish this... for Mom, and Dad, and the team, and for House too.