At first it doesn't look like anything, or at least not anything he recognizes.
After a few seconds of squinting and adjusting to the artificial glare of the emergency lights, shapes begin to emerge.
The twisted metal and shards of glass comprised the doorway he's stumbled through a thousand times. The hulking blackened box in the centre of the debris is the desk he's tried to climb on, hide behind and ignore, depending on the day. Atop the formerly stripped pine surface is a small blob of molten plastic that he sadly recognizes as his own personal treasure chest: the jar of lollipops he raids with impunity.
His fingers drummed out a nervous rhythm against his denim-clad thigh and it takes him a bar or two to realize that he's keeping time with the syncopated drips of the now exhausted sprinklers.
It shouldn't be this bad, this desolate. Those sprinklers should have drowned the place after a few seconds of smoke. That's why they were checked on a compulsive basis, tested extensively to the inconvenience of the staff and patients cleared out for such mundane routines. Not that House cared the slightest about the maintenance rituals of the hospital, but he noticed everything including the boring details he couldn't care less about, especially when it was something orchestrated by Cuddy.
She should be standing here, remonstrating with the fire chief or anyone else who might let her beyond the tape to be with the remnants of her hospital, her baby. He could picture it now, her soot-streaked face and a ridiculous evening gown that wouldn't do anything to diminish her ferocity.
He was standing alone, the black and yellow tape in front of him snapping gently against the breeze that had picked up. For once, House had no intention of flaunting the boundaries, of going where he was forbidden from entering. All he wanted was to be far away from this place, the incredible destruction and the smell that was affecting even his iron stomach. Yet his sneakers remained rooted to the cold marble, the only unscathed part of what he recognized as the clinic entrance.
He watched the fire fighters in their post-game conference, dark and dusty uniforms blending together as they massed around the trucks that had been summoned to the scene. Police officers huddled around, unsure of what to do with themselves as putting out the fire gave way to treating the injured and removing the dead. Fragments of conversation were crossing the noisy tarmac, numbers from the manageable to the unthinkable bandied around like football scores. Some kind of ceiling had collapsed, from what he could gather.
The guilt was coming, though House would deny he possessed the capacity for it. He was supposed to be among these walking dead, Cuddy's invitation had been explicit to the point of threatening. A huge benefit, and since he'd just been in the papers for saving some pop star, the bigwigs would be expecting him so that the board could bask in his reflected glory. He'd meant to be there on time, his tux collected from its six-month stay at the dry cleaners' and hanging on his bedroom door. It had been one drink to get him feeling sociable, and when most of the bottle still hadn't achieved that, he'd simply passed out on the sofa.
He wished he had remembered to lift his iPod on the way out: some loud guitars would be preferable to replaying Cameron's frantic voicemail over and over again in his head.
"House, you have to get down here. There's been a fire in the clinic."
When he felt the hand on his elbow, he didn't turn around immediately. Destruction was always compelling, and he wasn't quite ready to tear his eyes away from it yet.
Taub coughed politely, withdrawing his hand when it garnered no response. House wasn't ready to face anyone yet, but he grumbled an acknowledgement of the other doctor's presence at last.
"They've taken most of the casualties to Princeton General, but the critical cases are being handled here. Obviously, some facilities are out of bounds, but it's not as bad as we first thought."
Taub delivered the news as though reading the weather forecast. His neutrality must have been a great asset as a plastic surgeon, to be able to promise beauty to the ugly with a straight face.
House rubbed wearily at his eyes, sweeping his fingers down and over his jaw as he collected himself.
"Where is she?"
Economizing language seemed to be the safest way to hide any trace of giving a damn.
He stood at the entrance to the ICU, watching the various doctors milling around inside, over-styled hair and dress shirts betraying the professional armor of their lab coats. A couple of hours ago, these people had been quaffing overpriced champagne and bitching about budget cuts. Now the price of their escape was to treat colleagues and guests who had been less fortunate.
The worst was far from over. He tensed at the thought of what was still to come. Evading his team hadn't been easy, and he was sure that all of them would intrude at some point soon. Once he crossed that glass-shielded white line, all hell would break loose.
Her family had to be on the way by now, his last casual snoop through the employee records confirmed that Cuddy's emergency contact was still her sister. It wouldn't take much time to get them from Long Island at this late hour, and he felt the irritation already beginning to bubble at the thought of dealing with them.
No avoiding it though, he had to be there. All because of one stupid night when he'd found her crying in her office and decided to be curious instead of mocking her.
Another boyfriend had run screaming from the mess of a relationship with Cuddy, and despite her protestations, they both knew she wasn't crying over that particular loser. More the fact that it had been a long line of disappointments, no one guy that ever went the distance. To add insult to injury, her recently married sister had given her a particularly spiteful lecture about being so wrapped up in work, she'd die alone.
House had to hand it to the woman, she was almost as effective at pushing Cuddy's buttons as he was.
It had given way to one of their least sarcastic conversations, a mutual frustration with biological relations and the premium society put on that relationship. House was still mourning Stacy's departure, his mother pestering him weekly about not throwing it all away, souring his dark mood even further.
The idea had come out of nowhere, Cuddy started bitching about the minor surgery she had to have on her ankle, an old tennis injury finally becoming too much of a threat to her ability to wear ridiculously overpriced shoes. He'd made some unfair crack about what fun her family could have rearranging her life if the surgery went wrong and she lapsed into a coma. It was a dig, and it landed if the pain on her face was anything to go by, but it apparently set her thinking.
Two days later, she waltzed into his office late in the afternoon, blocking his impatient attempts at an exit. In her hand were two healthcare proxy forms, already completed and awaiting their respective signatures.
He would have signed just to get out of there, but couldn't help the instant of pleasure that she would want him in her life that way. It was just about as much commitment as he could handle in his fragile state. A smarter man would have done it without comment, but he just had to ask why. She smiled as she told him.
"I trust you. Not to be decent, or polite, or anything so ridiculous. But if it ever comes to a medical decision, you're the only one I trust to decide on the facts. I want to be sure someone does the right thing if I can't."
It wasn't hard to tell that the decision was born out of years of frustration and disagreement with her family. He knew her parents were strictly religious and her sister something of a flake, but this was Cuddy and he knew it was more a quiet way of getting some revenge than anything else.
He authorized her to be his of course, without Stacy there weren't many options left. That was the second form, she'd assumed the reciprocity and it felt almost natural. He didn't have the same trust in her medical abilities, but of all the administrators that might one day pull his plug, she was probably the best option. If the crushing guilt was any indication, she wouldn't let anyone gouge out his muscles again any time soon, either.
All of which meant he was the idiot left standing there, wondering how the hell the sky fell down without him noticing. The murmurs he'd heard in the hallways, the brief snippets from Cameron, none of them pointed to any positive outcome. Not only would he have to break the news to her family, but he'd also have to tell them that any decisions about Cuddy's care were now his sole responsibility. Meanwhile, she got to be unconscious and miss the whole circus. If not for the collapsed lung and head trauma, he'd suspect she planned the whole damn thing to torture him.
Ignoring his natural cowardice, the yelling voice in his head that told him to flee to anywhere but this place, he finally stepped into the hermetically sealed world of the ICU. The staff down here was wary of his casual relationship with protocol and appropriate patient care, though they were all too busy to keep a close eye on him. He knew the whispers would have been flying from the second they had discovered the proxy form in Cuddy's file, and House much preferred to start the gossip than be the subject of it.
The gaggle of nurses outside Cuddy's room miraculously found themselves needed elsewhere as he limped into view. He snatched her chart from the holder behind the door and breathed deeply for a moment before reading its contents.
He almost wished he hadn't. The damning sentences in handwriting seemed to stick to his retinas as the rancid smell of smoke had clung to his nostrils. Smoke inhalation, fractured skull, second degree burns and some minor cuts and grazes painted a pretty grim picture.
House felt sick in a way he hadn't since the night Stacy left him, worse than the nausea his Vicodin sometimes caused. The gravity he very much took for granted was threatening to make a mockery of him, and his own knees seemed to be wondering whether standing upright was such a good idea. Shaking his head to clear the panic, he steeled himself and tried to consider it like any other patient file.
All House could think to do at first was to march in there and shake her for being so brave and so stupid. He'd heard the story from Taub in the parking lot, how she didn't run when the first alarms went off. In trying to get everyone out, she'd risked her own life, becoming trapped in the very clinic she had been trying to raise money for.
Had she watched Backdraft one too many times? Had she somehow convinced herself that she was a trained firefighter? What he wanted more than anything was to go in there and hear her trying to explain herself, but the chart confirmed it wouldn't be happening any time soon. From his crude calculations, if they'd gotten to her a minute or two later, she'd already be dead.
Struggling with the protective clothing, he was finally ready to enter. The risk of infection wasn't even the worst of her worries, but some protocol he could adhere to.
All too soon he was standing at her side, the only noise he heard was the faint rasping of the ventilator; he'd learned to tune out the beeping of monitors years ago.
If this were a movie, he'd whisper into her ear that he loved her. She'd wake up and tell him she knew all along, they might even get a six-month shot at happily ever after before they remembered why they hated each other and wrecked it all.
But it was reality, the kind of cold, hard fact he usually revelled in. Black and white, logical and neat, no ambiguity about the state she was in. He read the pages again, painstakingly searching for some anomaly, some detail he could pounce on and use to beat her doctors with.
It only confirmed what he could see for himself – she wasn't breathing on her own, the machines were prolonging her life. It was his call to switch them off, it would be his job to present this fact to her family, to advise them and then inform them they had no say in the matter.
He'd give it a few hours, run a few more tests to be sure, but the lack of bustling doctors in the room spoke volumes. They weren't doing anything because there was nothing to do.
House sat in the chair by her bed, as she'd done countless times for him. He took her hand briefly, feeling self-conscious as soon as his skin made contact with hers.
There was nothing left to do but be there for her. For once, he did exactly what was asked of him.