You feel fine. Really.
Just another day in the office. Paperwork to avoid, patients to avoid even more, work colleagues to avoid the most. Really, it's fine. Everything is fine.
It's those around you that are making this into something else. Cuddy keeps hovering, watching you, touching your arm in placating ways that you see as nothing more than patronising. You shrug her off every time. You're fine. You don't need another one of her disbelieving, worried looks or another one of her barely controlled sighs as you insist, yet again, you're fine.
And Wilson. You're not actually sure he cares. Not that you want him to. He's way more interested in lecturing you about how much you're puzzling over all of this. Obsessing, he called it. You're obsessing, House. Again. And, Let it go. There are some things you're just not going to find out. Right. Says the guy who'd told you to stick a probe in your god damn brain in order to save his girlfriend. He hadn't cared if you were obsessed then, had he?
Except. You're not obsessing. You're not. You're fine.
At least Thirteen leaves you alone. Well. When she's not arguing with you that his death isn't a case, stop treating it like a case, House, you can't diagnose a suicide. You ignore her as much as you can; her red-rimmed eyes and her sallow face and, for god's sake, the last thing you want or need is Thirteen moping around your office. And Foreman is, well, Foreman. The guy has one expression for every occasion.
You're fine, you remind yourself for the millionth time as you rub your fingers into your tired and itchy eyes. You're fine. You're fine.
You'll be just fine once you get your answer.
Three weeks after Kutner dies, you lose your temper.
Not that you hadn't lost your temper plenty of times already. Except you lose your temper. You're staring down at the pictures of Kutner you'd taken from his apartment, still trying to piece the puzzle together, and it suddenly hits you like a sledgehammer to your chest.
This could've been you.
You fucking idiot!, you want to shout at the pictures. You IDIOT. You're staring at a picture of Kutner standing on a beach with his friends, his easy smile frozen in time. A simple, transient moment of Kutner's life captured on a piece of photograph paper and you find yourself so angry that you're shaking, the photo trembling in your hand. Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you give me a clue? A simple clue?
Kutner's deceivingly happy face just keeps staring back at you. You feel like hitting something. Kicking something. If only you'd known. If only you'd known that he was just like you. Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying. You could've told him that. You could've told him a lot of things. You could've told him, Don't be like me.
You swipe the photos off your coffee table in one angry sweep of your hand. They scatter to the floor, some upturned, some landing blank side up. And then you push your fingers into your eyes to physically hold back the anger threatening to take form in the shape of weak, humiliating tears. You keep them pressed there until the red sting behind your eyelids fades to a dull, angry ache.
It's been almost two months.
Everything's back to normal. You've solved two cases. You're back to scribbling differentials on the whiteboard and finding ways to worm your way out of clinic and dictations. If you squint hard enough, you can almost pretend Kutner was never even here. Almost.
All I have to do is solve this, find the answers, you tell yourself as you pour over Kutner's photos for the millionth time. You know them so well now, you'd be able to recall every single little detail in every single photo, from the crookedness of people's toothy smiles to the wrinkles on article of clothing every person in the photos is wearing. If I solve this, then none of this will matter anymore. No point in chasing ghosts once their last fingerprints have been brushed away.
All you have to do is find where those fingerprints are.
Wilson keeps calling you obsessed. You don't care. You don't even listen to him. But you're beginning to wonder why you're bothering anymore. Staring at the same photographs over and over, going through all the notes you'd made, going through the coroner's report to the point where you could recite the entire thing word for word, combing through every bit of evidence you've gotten your hands on. And coming up with nothing. Just dead ends. Unanswered questions.
Kutner would've been you, you think to yourself. You've sunk to that low place before. Right to the very depth where Wilson had found you sprawled on your living room floor in your own vomit and an empty vial of stolen oxycodone lying scattered and damning by your limp body. You're sinking back down there again. Fast. Sinking, sinking, drowning. In fact, you're not even sure you ever stopped drowning. Maybe you've been drowning your whole life and the only times you realised you were was when you remembered to breathe.
Exactly the place Kutner must've been.
Cuddy keeps calling you obsessed, too. She keeps giving you exasperated sighs, hard looks, angry twists of her mouth every time she figures out you're thinking about Kutner again. She keeps trying to insinuate herself between you and this puzzle, and you're stupid enough to fall for it just the once. A concerned touch of her hand to your forehead somehow leads to a hungry press of mouths and hands all over each other's bodies - a distraction - and in the afterglow of her lying naked and sweaty beside you in a tangle of sheets, you realise you've toed a dangerous line with her and, god. You can't afford to lose anyone else.
You're losing yourself to this, Cuddy tells you quietly in the still of the night with your bedsheets clutched up around her chest. Don't lose yourself to this, House. There's nothing you could've done.
You turn on your side, away from her.
I'm sorry, she adds softly as she touches your back with a tender stroke of her fingers. Sorry for what, you don't know. You don't want to know.
You shrug her away and when you finally fall to sleep, Kutner is there in your dreams and you tell him, It should've been me.
He just smiles at you; that same roguish smile that haunts every photograph you've been obsessing over for the last three months. That same roguish smile that you realise you've been missing since the day you found out he was gone.
At least I'm free, he replies before he fades away.
It should've been you.