A/N: This is unlike anything I've written but I hope you enjoy it. I never know how to classify my stories but this is AU and could be construed as fitting in the genre of supernatural. Judge for yourselves. This is what I get, what you get, because I re-read the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms again recently. Tell me what worked and what did not work if you can take the time. 0penhearts is my beta. This is for John M. Grey.
If it weren't for the Chinese lantern glowing in the restaurant window she never would have pushed open the door to the tinkling of a little bell and left behind the wet concrete glistening under the streetlights and the rain-slicked Sycamores with peeling bark and deep pistachio patches like sores on their dappled trunks. If she hadn't passed the antique store with the pair of green satin shoes attractively arranged in full view, the same emerald shoes out of a movie set she passed every day as she walked to the AIDS clinic on her way to work, and if she hadn't thought about the modest heels of the green pumps and about Oz and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Wicked Witch of the West, Cinderella and the Prince and the book of fairy tales her mother used to read to her before life grew into black and white and, later, after House, into a shade of gray, she would have turned away from the Chinese lantern and its red glow and the gold filigree of a fan unfurled in the window and the painting of the dragon and the print silk fabrics. But she turned as if led by hand into the little place, and inside, the light was dim and incense burned and behind the jasmine scent she smelled saffron and basil and the ding of the bell sang for a spell like a Tibetan bowl, soothing her, and then it was no more.
In the foyer she stood listening to the rain machine-gun into the windows as she fumbled with the belt of her black trench and slowly hooked her thumbs into the collar of the coat when again the happy peal of the bell blessed the quiet refuge of the restaurant and a cool rush of damp air whooshed and drops of cold rain water dripped down her spine. She heard an intake of breath and felt fingertips brush her hands as her coat traveled from her body as if it was an entity.
There is only this and no more she thought as she slowly pivoted to face her ghost. It's you, the one I never knew, she thought as her eyes journeyed from his open collar and up the throat to his battened-down-hatch of a face. A pang started in her stomach and grew to a full-blown ache and her throat tightened as tears stung and her hair shone and in his hands was her black trench and his face wore the sound of a lost train, but the up-tilted corners of his mouth belied the apparition of sadness.
"Wilson told me you died. In the asylum. A suicide," she said when she could speak although she could have said hello, House, or leave me alone because that is all I am and all I know. She could have bunched his shirt in her fists and shook him or shoved him back out the door from whence he'd come. She could have reached out to shake his hand remembering how it felt in hers, those muscles and tendons and metacarpals, remembering how she would have liked to grip it again, to hold and turn it and read what it said in its lines and sun spots and tiny capillaries, the wreckage of his fingernails. How, after all, do you unearth the truth but by tea leaves and divining rods and torture and a deck of cards? Taking a patients' history was like interrogation and still so much was unspoken and thrust deep into the recesses of the flawed, the fearful, the human, sure of nothing but his own mortality.
"That was the plan," he replied, his tone somewhere between whiskey and wry, hanging her Mac and reaching for his pea coat, the wool of which was sodden and heavy with rain water. She shivered for him, her own skin cool and damp, for she was empathy personified and felt what he felt and she had lied when she thought she never knew him. Faces don't lie, people do: a random phrase from the tutelage of her past equaled applied learning. His gaze unbuttoned her blouse and pushed the material apart for a look and she felt a tug in her belly and warmth throbbed between her legs before he buttoned her back up.
"What are the odds?" He said with a shrug leaning on the cane as she noted his knuckles and his dominate stance. "You and me, ending up like this ..."
"In Manhattan? Meeting by chance in a Chinese restaurant a year after your death? I wouldn't put money on it." She found her footing, noticing a jade Buddha the size of a Labrador squatting in a corner watching them with an inscrutable expression.
"You look the same. Beautiful." That adjective was a tired word but it applied and she accepted it with grace this time since he had extended it in a black velvet box like a diamond. "For what it's worth."
"Thanks," she said feeling his eyes all over her body and she sensed his mind moving in its peculiar orbit. She folded her arms over her chest for protection. "So, do you torture Wilson from the grave?"
"Sounds like something I'd do." He said noncommittally, scratching at his stubble as above them a rhythmic fan spun from the ceiling and cast moving shadows on the floor. "You talk to him?"
"Nothing to talk about."
Not anymore. Not with your body and bones ashen from the oven and housed in a hollowed out Magic Eight Ball that may or may not have a home beneath Wilson's Touch of Evil movie poster, she thought, and took a deep slow yoga breath.
"Was it Foreman or Chase who hated fatties?" He asked, poking Buddha's belly with his cane. "I can never remember."
"No longer matters." The past is just a goodbye she thought folding her former colleague and ex-husband like origami into the shape of a fan and pocketing it.
"I missed your wedding," he said, casting his eyes around the interior of the place, touching the same objects her eyes had touched: the black lacquer box upon which Chinese symbols were painted, the Yingqing dish filled with Chinese coins, and a blue and white painted porcelain plate not unlike Dutch Delft.
Unconsciously she reached for her left ring finger as if to toy with a ring, but her finger was naked and her arms dropped to her sides. "You missed my marriage."
"What happened? Absentee father, alcoholic mother, orphan. And for good measure, he dated a dominatrix. Would have thought Chase was damaged enough to meet your needs."
She remembered the way House had always said Chase's name as if he was chopping an onion.
"My needs are no longer your business."
When he opened his mouth as if to speak she turned on him.
"Don't you dare say, 'I'm not dead yet.'"
Behind the counter of the restaurant a woman dressed in red silk with a bone comb arranged in her blue-black hair looked up from painting her fingernails and watched them. House wore a cotton T-shirt and jeans faded in the places denim fades on his long solid frame, and the muscles of his arms bunched as he accepted a menu from a waiter and as he followed his former immunologist to a tiny booth with a glowing red lampshade and a silk print tablecloth. Paper place mats covered in Chinese astrology were incongruous and it was the year of some sacrificial animal no doubt. Cameron's linen pants clung to her slight curves and her shirt was a simple black V-neck revealing the bones of her sternum and the tiny mole above her breast. The buttons were Mother-of-pearl. Rain dripped from her hair as it lay loose and heavy and back-to-brown on her slim shoulders and the woman swiped a coat of lacquer over a fingernail and paused to study Cameron's beauty, a sea shell closed and pink on the edge of the beach that, when gently nudged, opened -- so new, so undeniable.
Questions arranged themselves in her mind, standing in line like a row of dominoes. With an imaginary fingertip, she flicked at the first one that addressed what he had done to her life by faking his death and the small black rectangles toppled as her eyes moved over the Mandarin dishes scripted on the menu. She felt his knee brush hers beneath the table and drew her thighs more closely together as heat ambushed her face at the slight contact.
"How can you live with what you've done?" She began but like an attorney with a strategy she withdrew immediately and her face broke into a smile aimed arrow-like in his direction. "Never mind. Another time, if we ever see each other again."
He reached out and snapped her menu shut, pushing it to the tabletop and ignoring her question and retraction. "Everything here is good. Don't think. Just point when he comes back. Take a chance."
What if you could press rewind? At which moment of your life would you press pause? She wondered if she had said it out loud. She pushed back the questions again, pushed back the, who, what, where, when, and most of all, the how of it all.
"Want to know what it's like, to die?" He bent to stick his cane under the table and there for her was the dip of his collarbone, the scar on his neck, the smell of cold air and fabric softener, the brown and the gray of his hair as his hand fumbled and caught at her firm thigh to right himself. His hand lingered as if it belonged attached to her leg and then moved on. Slowly he raised his head and she felt heavy under the pressure of his eyes, eyes darting like a tongue over her mouth and features and weighing her down. A little death, a little life, she thought beneath his gaze.
"Rather know what it's like to live again," she said, taking a white napkin from a ring with an engraved dragon on it and spreading it across her lap while the pale waiter with see-through skin brought tiny glasses of sake and nodded at the menu closed upon the table where House had left it.
"We'll have this," she said opening the menu to a random page and pointing at one dish and then another as she admired the decisiveness of the calligraphy, the symmetry of the Chinese characters. She smiled then at the waiter with the almond eyes and thin-boned wrist, adding, "Hold the pickles."
The waiter nodded and moved to the kitchen as if on an escalator. Through the rice paper window shade shrouded figures, shadowy shapes holding umbrellas, lurched down the street in what seemed to her a dreamscape.
House stared past her to the fish tank that stretched across the back wall of the restaurant. Glowing eels swam sinuous in the rippling, reflective water through a garden of pink and orange coral, and in the wavering shimmering water a seahorse gave birth while a sign above the tank read in clear bold English: "Don't Blink."
They watched the birth of the seahorse in silence except that his fingertips touched down on the edge of the tabletop, nimble and restless and knowing, and after a while, she looked back down at his hands and wished for a kitchen sink and a dirty dish for her to wash and him to wipe after a meal at his old place in Princeton in another life.
"You're asking the wrong man," he said, "if you want to know how to live. Think I've proved that time and again."
"But if I want to know how to save a life you've always been my go-to guy," she said lightly, stilling his fingers by covering them with her small hands. "Unless the life in question is yours."
"You," he emphasized, "never tried to save me. You," he stated unequivocally, "let me go."
"Don't," he said as tears formed in her eyes. "It was the right thing to do."
He knocked back another glass of brandy and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before reaching out to swipe a thumb across the delicate skin under her eyes where a tear was poised.
"There was nothing left to save."
"Who else knows about you?" She plucked the cloth napkin from her lap and rubbed it like a towel through her damp hair wishing for a microscope and the quiet of a lab and the heavy uneven footfall of the man he used to be looking in on her as if she were a laboratory experiment. It's a long way to fall, she thought, when you find out how it really is.
"No one knows anything as far as I can tell but I've misplaced the Magic Eight Ball and Wilson and I are incommunicado. The last I saw of Cuddy," he paused to toss her his napkin and to stare at her slim fingers as they fussed with her hair, hair baptized with rain, "was her back leaving the hospital."
"Still a lingerie-chic junkie with a notable ass?" she asked, crumpling the napkins on the leather booth besides her.
A long brown hair had somehow landed on his shoulder and draped across his chest and she leaned forward lifting it from the warmth of his body and dropping it to the floor. The warmth of his body, her legs wrapped round his back, the thrum of the Repsol as he revved the throttle, the way it hummed between her legs -- she went back there now and then, lost in the smell of leather and exhaust. It's a long way to fall when you find out that it never was, she thought wistfully.
"An ass like the Goodyear blimp," he quipped. "But in the end she couldn't do a thing ... about me."
The slim waiter with the tapered fingers arrived just then with a platter of small China dishes and the aroma rose and drifted and stirred her and she closed her eyes from the sensual affect seeing in her mind's eye the white board filled with words in his distinctive slanted penmanship. A plate of squid with black ink pooling was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes, feeling his grip on her wrist but wishing for his hands on her face and his mouth moving in and the length of him.
"I spooked you. I'm ... sorry." He held a tiny glass of sake to her lips. Outside the green, yellow, and red blink of streetlights spotted the slick cement and in the antique store green silk pumps kept each other company. Cameron looked down at the table. On the print floral cloth was a single chopstick, shiny and red. She took the brandy from his hand and drank, staring at the lonely chopstick.
"After you died I became more intentional about my life. I stopped second guessing," she said. "After you died people talked about your brain. It's largess."
"You know what they say. Big brain, big -- "
"I kept thinking about your heart." Her voice caught and she sipped her sake. "It stopped so many times before it stopped for good. Stopped and started."
"And that broke yours." He made it a statement.
"Why did you do it?" She asked at last as the food on their plates cooled and settled and the sake burned.
He took her hand from its grip on the chopstick and turned it to look at her wrist and the tiny blue veins. His fingers skimmed the sensitive skin and she jerked her hand away from him.
"Me? I tried everything. Nothing worked in the end. Pathetic," he pronounced. The sea horses swam in the fish tank and the eel possessed liquid grace.
"You didn't try me," she spoke softly lost in the blue of his eyes as he blinked.
You didn't try me.
It had haunted her all along, and kept her, when they heard the news about House, from remaining with Chase because, it turned out, she'd never been with him at all. Leave me alone, she'd said to the man she'd married, because that is all I am and all I know.
There is nothing more than this, she thought as she looked at him and wondered what it would be like to pick up her handbag with its long leather strap and rise from the table and her place across from his it-takes-a-train-to-cry face lit by the red glow of the lamp, and make her way outside, wearing her black trench, into the streets of the city where the shadowy forms with umbrella wings huddled under awnings south of Houston as a soft rain persisted in a gray world.
"What are we doing here, House?"
He looked over at the woman in the red silk with the comb made of bone fixed in her blue-black hair and she had white skin like chalk and scarlet lips and his face remained expressionless as he gave a slight nod.
"I have a working hypotheses about you. Me? I live here. There's a room upstairs."
He rose from his seat and towered over her, his eyes bearing down on her as he studied the part in her still-damp hair.
"I want to try you," he said. If it's not too late.
One moment she was a tiny figure crushed in the red booth of the Chinese restaurant with House studying her as he touched the growth on his chin and then she stood outside under the indifference of the sky with its gray gauze and long-necked, wide-winged birds passing now and again overhead and the circumstance was no more troubling to her then on any other day, any other night because -- should she choose to leave the warmth of the little restaurant, to leave him behind -- it would all begin again, the unbearable lightness of being. Tomorrow would be the same and she would push the same rock up the same hill and, as she neared the summit, the sheer momentum would win and the rock would tumble down the way it had come with her trailing it.
It's a long way to fall, she thought, and she was tired of falling. It was no way to live.
She took his hand, back inside where light flickered from a candle someone had set in front of the heavy jade Buddha, and he led her past the woman with the red nail lacquer and up a short set of stairs to a door where he paused and glanced down at her to be sure. "This is it," he said with a gesture and a questioning look. "Want to turn around?"
He waited for her.
She stepped closer lightly pressing her body against his and grasping his arms. Exploring his chest with her fingertips, touching the skin of his stomach under the T-shirt, she found her hands linked behind his neck and heard his breath change as he placed a hand alongside her face. This is it.
"Come in and let's finish this," he said, turning the knob, and she was treated to a simple room with wood and leather furnishings and a desk and a calligraphy brush and pen set and thick hardback books on shelves decorated with tiny Chinese figurines including antique pencil holders depicting scenes of summer and autumn. There was a bed and two pillows with silk print cases. He sat on the bed and opened his legs for her and she moved inside them feeling his need.
There is nothing more than this.