WARNINGS: mlid spoilers through the end of season five
Life is a miracle.
Cameron has always been taught this, and that as a doctor she ought to have an even greater appreciation for the wonder of the human body.
She's spent her life being called an idealist, hopelessly naïve.
Once, those people were right.
Once, she'd made a point of noticing beauty, of opening her heart to love and possibility.
Over the years, she's let herself become apathetic about these things, influenced by House's cynicism and the war zone of the ER around her. No longer does she see the body as a testament to nature's ingenuity. Rather, it seems a precarious balance of a million complicated processes, a house of cards whose collapse Cameron bears witness to every day.
Sitting in the rocking chair Chase bought for her, holding her child and watching the sky turn pink with impending sunrise, Cameron feels as though she is staring down the edge of a precipice, poised to tumble in at any moment. This life, this blue-eyed feathery-haired baby, is what she's always wanted.
And yet, now that she is here, where she expected to feel love, she finds instead only agonizing turmoil. This is the life she has wanted, has worked for, has felt she sacrificed toward. But now she finds herself caught between two worlds, learning that when she is divided between the roles of mother and doctor, she fails repeatedly to do either well.
Her shortcomings are evident every time she looks into her baby's eyes—coming home late for the fifth time in a week, offering a bottle instead of her breast, having only case notes in her mind where the bedtime stories ought to be.
"Babe?" Chase looks as exhausted as she's ever seen him, leaning in the doorway with sleep-tousled hair and wrinkled pajamas. Proof that fatherhood actually is harder than being a surgeon.
"Morning." Glancing at the clock, Cameron stands, cradling the now-sleeping baby against her shoulder and offering Chase the half-empty bottle of formula. Now that he's awake, she feels propelled forward by the panicked energy that's seemed to consume her over the past few months. "Can you take her? I have to go."
Chase frowns, but steps forward to take the baby from her anyway. "It's only six-thirty. And you've got another month of leave, at least. Two if you count the one you haven't been taking." He sounds just the slightest bit disappointed, but it's enough to let Cameron know that he's shored up the rest behind his carefully-maintained façade of acceptance.
She's learned from being with Chase that letting things fester is a disastrous idea—not because he's vindictive as she'd once thought, but because he works so hard to take care of everyone else that he pushes himself to the utter breaking point. She knows this as well as the smell of his aftershave or the tenderness of his lips on her cheek, and yet—
"It's my department," she tells him resolutely. "I need to be there to run it."
"You know, the ER did exist before you got put in charge of it," Chase says dryly, then takes a shaky breath, catching himself and cradling the baby a little closer to his chest as she starts to fuss. "I just—feel like I haven't seen you in forever. Maybe this weekend we could have dinner? Just order in, or something. But eat it together."
Cameron shrugs noncommittally, grabbing her bag as Chase follows her toward the door. "We'll see how busy things are."
In his eyes, she sees misery—her inadequacy she's powerless to fix. And so she runs.
The ER is quiet when she arrives, caught in the hushed lull between the three AM rush and the beginning of the mid-morning crowd. She makes her way through the locker room in a fog, dropping her bag and shrugging into her labcoat almost without realizing what she's doing. There is a pot of perpetually stale coffee in the break room, and Cameron pours herself a cup, sipping it without tasting the bitterness that seems to dry at the back of her throat. It isn't until she makes her way to her desk and finds Cuddy standing in front of it that she becomes suddenly aware of where she is and exactly what she's doing.
"Dr. Cuddy," Cameron says tightly, already instinctively bristling against the disapproval she perceives in the older woman's eyes. "Can I help you with something?"
"I don't know," Cuddy answers, giving her an appraising look. "That's what I'm here to ask you."
Cameron makes her way past Cuddy and around the other side of her desk, feeling as though it's a shield between her and the rest of the world's judgment. "What do you mean?"
Cuddy takes a step closer, laying her palms flat on the surface of the desk. "I'd just like to know what's been going on in the ER the past few weeks. I mean, I assume there must be some fairly major problems for you to have been leaving your new baby at home with two months left of your maternity leave. That seems like the kind of thing I ought to be informed of so I can make sure you don't have to keep coming to work."
Cameron stiffens, recognizing this for what it is. "It's my department," she says coldly. "Unless you have a problem with the way I'm running it, please let me do my job."
Cuddy sighs. "I have no problem with your performance at work, Dr. Cameron. It's your family I'm concerned about. Your baby needs you."
Cameron opens her mouth to defend herself again, stunned by the hypocrisy of being judged by a woman who's worked practically from the moment her baby came into her life, but is mercifully interrupted by the shrilling of her pager. Glancing at it, Cameron feels at once relief and a fresh wave of adrenaline.
"Sorry, Dr. Cuddy, I have to go. Pediatric trauma, arriving in ten minutes."
It takes less than an hour to determine that the patient is braindead. It's coming up on time to change over to the day shifts, everyone eager to tie up loose ends. And there's always a special rush surrounding pediatric patients. They remind everyone of their own children, one of the most seasoned nurses had told Cameron when she'd first transferred to the ER.
The neurology consult takes all of ten minutes, and is as cut and dry as they come: This child will never recover. Not even if she manages to survive the severe blood loss, collapsed lung, and imminent sepsis from her perforated bowel. Not even if her parents pray for a miracle. This child is only as alive as the machines making her lungs inflate and her heart contract. That is how the neurologist puts it, anyway.
The girl is a three-year-old angel, with blonde curls and blue eyes which do not show any response to the neurologist's pen light. According to the paramedics, she was playing in the spare room where her father's been working on home improvement projects, and somehow knocked a stack of cement blocks over onto herself. It took her parents half an hour to realize that she was no longer safely behind the baby gate in the nursery, and that was long enough for the injuries to overwhelm her small body.
Cameron recognizes the girl's parents the moment she steps into the waiting room, both from the resemblance the child bears to her father, and from the nervous hunch of the couple's shoulders she sees dozens of times a week. Once, this would have been a moment out of one of Cameron's nightmares, but this morning she feels only the deep-seated exhaustion that comes with the closing of every trauma case.
"Mr. and Mrs. Kendrick?" Cameron confirms, watching them stiffen further as she takes the gray upholstered chair across from them.
The woman nods, grabbing her husband's hand for support, and Cameron feels a weak stir of sympathy begin to break through her shell of detachment. They are a young couple, with the kind of innocent attractiveness that tells Cameron they've always been happy together. The kind of people with good jobs and a cookie cutter family whose friends would be jealous if they weren't so nice. Not anymore. Never again, after today.
"I'm Dr. Cameron. I wanted to tell talk to you about your daughter's condition."
"She she all right?" the father breaks in nervously, and Cameron feels her heart sink further.
"Emily was very badly injured in the accident. She has a major bleed in her brain, her left lung collapsed, and her intestine ruptured, which makes infection a major concern. However—I have to tell you that the damage to her brain is very severe. Even if she is able to recover from her other injuries, it is the opinion of our neurologist that your daughter will never regain consciousness."
There is the familiar moment of stunned silence during which Cameron folds her hands in her lap, studying the pallor of her skin even next to the light pink fabric of her scrubs. Then the girl's father gives a tiny intake of breath which sounds suspiciously like a sob. These are the moments Cameron has come to feel are too intimate for her eyes, too personal for her to deserve to share with the families of her patients. And yet she does stay, every time.
"You said—you said that's the neurologist's opinion," the mother answers, biting her lip resolutely. "What's yours?"
Cameron takes a careful breath, seeing something in this woman's eyes that she hasn't felt in a very long time. "Mrs. Kendrick, your daughter is on life support. She has a catastrophic injury to her brain. There's nothing we can do to improve that. We can keep her body alive with machines, but the truth is, at some point you may have to decide that--"
"No!" The young woman is on her feet in a flash, the intensity of her voice making the rest of the waiting room go silent. "She's my daughter! I can't just give up. You haven't even tried to—Please. There must be something you can do. At least give her a chance."
The words leave Cameron momentarily frozen, feeling suddenly very young and not very far from tragedy again, caught off-guard that this place in her heart still exists after so many years. Taking another breath, she puts a hand on the other woman's shoulder. "Let me talk to my colleagues."
"No. Absolutely not." Foreman looks at her over his steaming cup of coffee, judgment seeming to emanate from every fiber of his being, purple silk tie to shiny black leather shoes. She's ambushed him in the Diagnostics conference room, knowing he'd be here earlier than the rest of the team, as he always is. "And you know better than to ask, so what's really going on here?"
"Why does there have to be an ulterior motive?" Cameron counters, noticing that he's got a case file of his own beneath the stack of journals on the table in front of him. He'll be preoccupied, she knows, and it will make him less likely to help her. But she doesn't have a choice. "This is a child we're talking about. She just turned three. Don't you think she deserves every chance we can give her?"
"Of course I do," says Foreman tiredly, and Cameron wonders sourly whether he's ever truly known what it's like to care about a patient or family. "But I'm not sure what you think I can do that you can't. Or that the actual Neurology department can't. We have one of those for a reason, you know."
"I want surgery," Cameron says quickly, looking at the floor to avoid the incredulity she knows will be reflected in his eyes. "She has massive bleeding in her brain. If we can put in a shunt, relieve the pressure, then maybe the inflammation will improve and she'll get some function back."
Foreman sighs. "No. You know as well as I do that even if she was stable enough to survive the surgery right now, it wouldn't do any good. I know that's what Dr. Bateman told you in the Neurology consult. I also know that you know he's a good doctor. I'm not going to question his opinion. Surgery would just kill her faster than she's already dying."
"You don't know that," Cameron argues, though she knows he's right. She can't seem to shake the image of the girl's mother from her mind's eye, or quiet the voice in the back of her mind which insists that a few months ago she would have been able to come up with a better idea. A few months ago, she would have been a better doctor.
Closing the ER case file and handing it back to her, Foreman gets to his feet. "Yes. I do. And so do you. I know you, Allison. Don't think I don't know what this is really about."
"Really?" Cameron snaps coldly. "Want to tell me what it's about, then?"
"You have a baby now, so you feel the irrational need to save this family from their child's death. Just like you used to be obsessed with saving young couples in love because your husband died. The fact that you feel sorry for them doesn't change the fact that this girl is already dead." Foreman raises his eyebrows in the expression she's come to know means he's sure he's right.
"And here I thought you didn't want to turn into House," Cameron retorts, snatching the file from him and quickly fleeing the room.
On her lunch break, Cameron takes refuge in her office again, hiding behind her desk under the guise of doing paperwork. Emily Kendrick has been transferred to the NICU, and her parents have not left her bedside since being allowed in for visiting hours. The case ought to be wrapped up from Cameron's perspective, having moved beyond the ER and handed off to other doctors who are better equipped to care for this patient in the long term. Yet the little girl hasn't left Cameron's mind all morning, nor has her mother's plea. And so, forgoing the cafeteria for the third time in a week, she digs her phone out of her desk drawer and dials.
"Change your mind about working today?" Chase asks by way of greeting when he picks up the phone on the fifth ring. He sounds harried, even more tired than before, and Cameron wonders momentarily what is going on that she's missing at home. But that thought sends a fresh wave of panic through her gut, the sound of his voice reminding her of the shattered weariness that lined the face of Emily Kendrick's father the last time she saw him, and she shoves it aside.
"No. I have a case."
There is the sound of shuffling on the other end of the phone, and what might be water splashing, and Cameron wonders again what is going on. But to ask would be to involve herself, she thinks, and right now these people need her here. She will only disappoint Chase. She will always disappoint him, it seems lately.
"You—what?" he asks distantly when he's settled the phone against his ear again.
"I have a case. You know, those things we do at work?" It comes out more harshly than intended, and Cameron feels instantly guilty, rushing ahead with what she has to tell him. "There's a little girl. She has a bleed in her brain. She's on life support right now, and Neuro is advising the parents to take her off, because there's no indication of brain function."
Chase sighs. "And you're telling me this—why?"
"I need your help." Cameron grips the phone with white-knuckled fingers, dreading the rejection she's certain is imminent.
"My help?" Something falls to the floor with a muffled clatter.
"She needs surgery. But no one in the department will listen to me. I tried to ask Foreman, but he's all caught up in a case of his own. I need you to talk to your friends in the department. Or come in and do it yourself. If we can just clear some of the bleeding, relieve the pressure, then maybe—"
"Allison!" Chase cuts her off sharply, and Cameron flinches, nearly dropping the phone. "This is crazy."
"I know," she admits, the feeling of utter helplessness that seems to pervade everything in her life creeping up in the pit of her stomach. "But crazy is what we do, isn't it? It's what House taught us to do."
"And we're not working for House now," Chase interrupts again firmly. "And even he knew when to give up. There's no mystery here, Allison. Nothing to be done. I don't even need to be there to tell you that you just have to accept the opinion of the neurologist. Give it up. Don't give the parents false hope."
Swallowing, Cameron takes a shaky breath, feeling as though all the weaknesses which plagued her when she'd first come here have come back with a vengeance. Everyone seems to know her better than she knows herself. "Please. I just—I need you to do this for me. We have to try."
"Cameron, no." Chase pauses, and she can picture him on the other end of the line trying to compose himself. She can't remember the last time he called her by her surname. "I can't help you with this. There's nothing to be done, and even if there was, I've got no time or energy to do it. You insist on working, and I haven't tried to stop you. But this is too much. Someone's got to be here for our daughter. Who, incidentally, is alive and healthy. Or maybe you'd forgotten."
"Chase—" Cameron protests weakly, feeling as if the word is caught in her throat.
"No," Chase repeats harshly. "I've got to go." And he hangs up the phone without waiting for a response.
When her shift is past ended, and the NICU is closed to visitation, Cameron slips into Emily Kendrick's room. She knows she ought to go home, ought to find Chase and apologize to him before this gets too far out of hand, but that seems an insurmountable task at the moment. She feels drawn to the little girl, compelled to see the fate to which her failure is condemning this family. Emily still looks angelic as Cameron takes the creaky folding chair next to the bed, even with purpling bruises covering the fevered skin of her face, and machines all around her. For a fleeting second, Cameron tries to picture her own child at this age, wishes to know the despair she would be feeling were it her daughter on life support. Those would be appropriate emotions, she thinks, and wishes even for grief to replace the emptiness and guilt which consume her now.
Cameron jumps and turns to find House loitering behind her, and realizes with a start that she doesn't know how long she's been here. "Go away, House. It's not your case."
He comes a few steps closer instead. "Interesting. It's not your case either, and yet you're here."
"She came in through the ER," Cameron retorts defensively. "It's my case."
"And now it's been passed off to NICU. So…not your case. Not to mention that you shouldn't have any cases right now, because you're officially still on maternity leave for another two months." House raises his eyebrows. "Imaginary cases? Maybe I am still crazy."
Cameron rolls her eyes. "I'm concerned about her family. Is that such a crime?"
"No," House answers, and she knows immediately that there's more to come. "But that begs the question—Why aren't you concerned about your family? You don't know these people. You only think you know them because you share their role as a parent. But it's a role you've been refusing to accept in your own life. So why is it easier for you to sit here watching someone else's child die than to go home to your husband and your disgustingly perfect new baby?"
"This isn't about my family!" Cameron snaps. Then, though she already knows the answer, "Did you come here to help or to interrogate me?"
"To interrogate you," House says, nonplussed. "I would expect you to know that by now."
"You're an ass."
"I would expect you to know that too." House spins his cane on place on the floor, regarding her in silence for a moment. "You think you're a bad parent. That's why you're here. It's easier to be at work, because you're good at work. And punishing yourself with cases like this helps you ignore your guilt by thinking you're doing a good thing."
"That's not true!" She's out of her chair and onto her feet before she's even aware of what's happened, and she knows instantly that he's seen straight through her.
"Right. That's why you're yelling at me in the middle of the NICU." House softens ever so slightly, and for a second Cameron thinks she can see a glimmer of humanity in his face. "What is it? You feel guilty because you don't want to give up your career for a child? You got angry at her in the middle of the night because you hadn't slept in a week? You wanted to throw her out the window when she wouldn't stop screaming?"
Cameron shrugs, looking at the floor. "She—she wouldn't breast feed. No matter what I did. Not even with the help of the nurses here. She cries when I'm around her. I never know what to do. Chase is good with her. I just make everything worse."
"Chase isn't afraid of making mistakes," says House, as if this explains everything. "We're not ducks. We don't have a set pattern of behaviors that gets activated the instant we give birth. Which, when you think about it, is pretty stupid evolutionarily. Human parents don't ever know exactly what to do with a baby. We have to learn by trial and error. Chase is willing to be wrong. He's willing to look stupid. You—you have the compulsive need to be perfect the instant you try anything new. He's been learning all this time while you've just been running away."
Cameron bites her lip, unable, for once, to find anything to say. She knows he's right, and yet the prospect terrifies her.
House pauses in the doorway, looking back at her over his shoulder. "Think about that. Think about who you want to be ten years from now. Will you know who your daughter is then?" Without another word, he turns and leaves.
Cameron stays the night at the girl's bedside, House's words playing over and over again in her mind. Chase calls several times, but she lets the phone vibrate in her pocket unanswered, not ready to talk to him yet. Now, at least, she knows what she has to do first. When the Kendricks arrive at the start of morning visitation hours, Cameron is waiting for them in the doorway of their daughter's room.
"Dr. Cameron?" Mrs. Kendrick asks, her voice soft and ragged with hours of crying. "Did you have any news for us? You said you were going to talk to your colleagues. Did they—did they come up with a way to help Emily?"
Cameron takes a slow, deep breath, centering herself and tightening her grip on the consent forms in her hand. "Mr. and Mrs. Kendrick—I told you yesterday that I would do everything in my power to help your daughter. But—it's been twenty four hours and she's still showing no signs of brain function. She has a severe infection which isn't responding to antibiotics and has damaged all of her vital organs. I know it seems impossible to accept, but there is nothing we can do for her. It would be unfair and dishonest of me to tell you anything else."
There's another moment of silence, and then Mrs. Kendrick turns to hide her face in her husband's shoulder, sobbing roughly. Cameron bites her lip and forces herself to make eye contact with the man. She's sworn to herself that she will do what is right for this family, what she has failed to do so many times before in her life.
"What—" he asks at last, barely audible, "what do you suggest we do, then?"
"You have to let her go," Cameron answers, just barely managing to keep the tremor out of her voice. "So that all of you can move on. So that all of you can stop suffering."
Mrs. Kendrick straightens, still crying. "Do you have children, Dr. Cameron? Is this—is this what you would do?"
"Yes," she whispers, thinking at once of her baby at home, and of the day she made the decision to let go of her first husband.
The rest seems to pass in hushed slow motion, with the odd air of a ritual. They sign the forms resignedly, and then sink into the chairs at either side of the bed, flanking their daughter and taking her hands. Cameron turns off the machines carefully, their absence plunging the room into true and utter silence.
It takes only a few moments for Emily's heart and lungs to go still, for all that was left of the little girl to be gone.
A few moments, Cameron thinks, as she turns to leave the family to their private grief. And what if nothing came before?
Cuddy finds her in the locker room as she's shoving her things into a garbage bag. Cameron somehow instinctively recognizes the sound of her heels on the tile floor, coming to a pause a respectable few feet away. Folding her labcoat over one arm, Cameron turns to greet her.
"Dr. Cameron." Cuddy nods. "You've been here all night. Going home, finally?"
"Yeah." Cameron glances down at the garbage bag full of the odds and ends she's accumulated over her seven years here, then back up at the nearly-empty locker, and finally at Cuddy's expectant gaze. "I'm not coming back. Not for a while, at least. You'll have my letter of resignation in a few days. I'd say this is two weeks' notice, but as you pointed out to me yesterday, I'm technically still on leave."
"That's—a big decision," says Cuddy slowly, like she's trying to decide whether Cameron is actually serious. "Are you—sure this is what you want? I'd hate to see you give up your career."
"No. I'm not sure," Cameron answers softly. The idea of not having this place to come back to tomorrow is frightening, but suddenly less so than the possibility of entirely missing her daughter's life. "But it's what I need to do right now. My career can wait. My family—"
Cuddy softens, coming closer and pulling Cameron into a tired hug. "You're making the right decision. But we'll all miss you. You're welcome back anytime, if you decide that's what you want."
"I'll keep in touch," Cameron says quietly as Cuddy steps back. Grabbing the last book off of her locker shelf, she slams the door closed.
Chase is asleep on the couch when Cameron gets home, the latest copy of the hospital newsletter over his face, like he's passed out while reading it. There is only silence coming from the nursery, and she thinks that all must be well as she drops her bags by the door. Making her way carefully into the living room, she sits on the edge of the couch and lifts the glossy pages with pictures of the latest oncology benefit off of Chase's forehead. His hair is getting long again, and she runs her fingers through it, feeling him stir into wakefulness.
"What time is it?" he asks groggily, frowning at her.
"Almost nine," Cameron says quietly, swallowing down the guilt.
Chase sits up, pushing her hand away. "You didn't come home last night. I tried to call you at least ten times. I assume you didn't get any of my messages?"
Cameron looks away, heart pounding in her temples as she hopes desperately that it isn't too late to fix this. "I didn't. I'm sorry. Things—"
"Right, things came up!" Chase cuts her off angrily, throwing up his hands in frustration. "Things always come up. You don't know how to say no. You make us your last priority because you figure it's safe that way. We'll just wait indefinitely for you to decide you've got five minutes of time. What was it this time? Badgering someone into doing meaningless brain surgery because I wasn't ready to come when you called?"
"I resigned," Cameron says simply and resolutely. She forces herself to meet his eyes, though it physically pains her to see the disappointment there. This is her fault and hers alone.
"You—what?" Chase looks at her warily, like this might be some kind of cruel joke. And how far she has let them fall, Cameron realizes, that she doesn't blame him for that mistrust.
"I resigned," she repeats. "I want—I want to be here with you. Before I thought—"
Chase's brow furrows in confusion, and he reaches out to touch her cheek, anger fading in an instant. "What did you think?"
"I thought I was making things harder by being here," she whispers. "Worse. It felt like I was ruining us."
"And now?" He brushes the pad of his thumb against her cheek, and Cameron shivers.
"I want you to teach me. What you know. What you need. Maybe I'm not good at it, but—This is where I want to be. I love you." It's taken a day to make this decision; it will take the rest of her life to truly act on it, she knows.
Chase regards her for another long moment before nodding slowly. "You've never been anything less than exactly what I want," he says. "I just want you with me."
Getting to his feet, he pulls Cameron up with him, wrapping his arm around her waist and steering her down the hall toward the nursery, a little half-smile curving his lips upward. "Come on. It's almost time for breakfast."
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