Characters: House, Wilson, Cuddy, plus the characters created for Priority's Exigencies and zeppomarx's A Gentle Knock at the Door.
Summary: House's minions find a new patient, one who is reluctant to allow House to treat him. Begins three months after the opening scene of A Gentle Knock at the Door. Part of the Contract universe, which includes DIY Sheep's intense and angsty The Contract, and Priority's sequel Exigencies.
Thanks: To priority and houserocket7 for encouraging me to writing this side story to A Gentle Knock on the Door, and for their faithful diligence in copy editing my sloppy prose.
Disclaimers: You know the drill. Don't own `em, never did, never will. Wish I did.
Warnings, etc.: Generally safe, but references to torture, rape and major character death that has happened in the past. Some chapters are pretty angsty.
Chapter 1: Clinic Duty
Setting: Three months after the beginning of A Gentle Knock at the Door. It's late summer.
Inhale. Wince. Exhale. Flinch. Grimace. Rinse. Repeat.
At 7:28 on a sticky hot Monday morning, James Wilson sat in the big, plush recliner and watched anxiously as his friend slept. If you could call it sleep. Someone in that much pain could never get the refreshing REM sleep the body needs to repair itself. But it was the only real rest Gregory House was likely to get, now or ever.
Throughout the early morning, every morning, as the soft light filtered dust motes through the venetian blinds into the room, Wilson had no choice but to watch. Riveted to the irregular breathing pattern, he believed that if he didn't focus closely, one dawn something would shift, the pattern would change, the breathing would stop altogether. And it would be all his fault, because he hadn't paid close enough attention.
I'm not trained for this, he thought, and not for the first time. He was trained to give bad news, to read biopsy reports, to cut out the cancers before they killed his patients and to hold their hands when nothing else worked. He wasn't trained to watch his demolished friend sleep, to tread carefully, to be hyper-sensitive to every perceived danger, to see progress in such slow increments that they were nearly impossible to appreciate… to feel this overwhelmed. But it's better, right?, he thought.
As his mind drifted, he remembered the moment nearly a year after House had returned to him, when hope had crept in. He'd been in the kitchen, washing dishes, when he thought he heard a noise in the living room. Turning off the water, he listened closely, anticipating a pained moan… the only sound House allowed himself for the many months during which he had retreated deep inside.
No, nothing. He turned the water back on only to hear the sound again. Water off, he grabbed a dishtowel and padded cautiously on stocking feet through the dining room and into the living room.
House sat, as he always did, staring straight ahead, back as ramrod straight as his crumpled form could manage, not even allowing himself to lean back against the sofa cushions. The television was on, muted, but House wasn't looking at it. He never looked at it. Convinced the sound came from his imagination or some bird outside the window, Wilson returned to the kitchen, but just as he reached to turn on the faucet once more, the sound filtered through again, a slight echo bouncing off the plain walls. This time, leaving the water running, he ran softly toward it. When he got to the living room, he saw House staring, not at the blank wall, but at the television, where Wilson was startled to see the disturbing image of a man in prison—some grainy, black-and-white film, now deemed safe for children because it contain no graphic sex or bloody violence—grasping the bars of a prison window, looking out at angry faces surging toward him.
A fearful cry escaped House's mouth, and Wilson saw a solitary tear tip over his lower right eyelid and slowly roll down his cheek, catching on his lower lip before bouncing off onto his chin.
As upsetting as that moment was, with its forcible realization of what House had been through, the fact that House reacted to the image on the screen and allowed himself to respond with a cry and a tear, gave Wilson more hope than he'd had in at least six years. Speaking softly, he attempted to reassure his friend that here, at least, no one could harm him. Although it would have been better if House had laughed instead of cried, it was progress. Wilson's emotions spilled over into his own tears of relief as he swallowed sobs and returned to the kitchen to finish the dishes.
Not long after that, House decided the secure environment Wilson had struggled to create for him was safe enough to return to.
And here they were, many months later. Amazingly, House was back to work part-time, reclaiming his life and his career, occasionally sharing his experiences with others, allowing himself to open up and even to help another fractured soul.
Maybe even if Wilson didn't pay close attention every minute, it might be okay.
Inhale. Moan. Exhale. Clench teeth. Rinse. Repeat.
* * * *
Pain. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Surrounding, enveloping, drowning him.
The ceiling was his friend. Counting the small, irregular bumps, creating patterns in his mind as if he were still a child staring at the sky and imagining dragons in the clouds, he left his pathetic attempts at sleep behind. The ceiling helped.
He'd said he would go to work today, so the pain didn't matter. Had to be put aside, ignored.
With an effort, Greg House pulled his arm out from under the warm comfort of his covers, roughly shoving away the bedclothes.
There. That was a start.
Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
He heard soft voices in the living room, smelled the gourmet coffee just brewed. What he felt didn't bear dwelling on.
Turning his body slowly, he shifted so his shoulder bore his weight for a moment as he pushed off from the pillow and the bed.
Moving the rest of the bedclothes out of his way, he twisted his waist and began the laborious process of swinging his legs off the bed and toward the floor.
Pain. Sharp, excruciating, mind-numbing pain hit him.
No, he wasn't going to throw up.
He was going to go to work.
* * * *
Short, grim, abrupt nod.
"Let's do it, then."
Good. He's upright.
Relief. Settled into the wheelchair.
There was no way this was going to be anything less than a hell of a day. Might as well get it started so it could be over with that much sooner.
* * * *
In the clinic, Devi Rajghatta grabbed the intake form for the next patient and headed toward Exam Room 3.
Opening the door, she saw a tall, middle-aged man sitting uncomfortably on the end of the paper-covered exam table.
"Good morning. What seems to be the problem today?" she asked.
Although her eyes were focused on the file, Devi's mind was elsewhere. Only another hour, and then she'd return to the office down the hall. For the first time in several weeks, her boss would be sitting at his desk. What kind of shape would he be in? Since she'd first met him, a year back, he'd been fragile, ever so slowly getting better, but never what you might call well. How could he be? After years of torture, both mental and physical, he was a shell of a man. And now, after again being murderously attacked, this time by another doctor in a vindictive rage, what would he look like? Could he be any worse than before? How carefully would they have to tread, fearful of setting off another bout of PTSD?
"I think it's… food poisoning." His voice was soft and slow.
For a moment, she was so far into her own thoughts she actually thought the voice belonged to House. But of course, House was nowhere near the clinic… and never would be again. She willed herself to make eye contact with this patient, to bring herself back into the exam room, to remember that this situation was the most important thing she needed to deal with right now. Something about the patient's pause caught her attention. The man looked gaunt and pale.
"Tell me your symptoms."
He paused again, embarrassed, hesitant, as if unwilling to tell the small, slim, dark woman that he'd spent days on the toilet, or that it was difficult it was to leave the safety of his bathroom to drive to the free clinic.
"Diarrhea and nausea," he said, reluctantly.
She looked up from the blue file folder.
The man nodded.
"Ummm…. two weeks."
In the short time she'd worked with House, Devi Rajghatta had learned a few things. Therefore, she knew the man was lying. Not two weeks. More like two months.
She stared at him sharply. He looked away.
"Okay, a month."
Make it three months.
"That's too long to be food poisoning."
"What is it, then?"
He looked at her as if trying to decide if she really was old enough to be a doctor.
She paused again.
"I'm not sure. Have you seen any other doctors?"
The man nodded. "But they couldn't find anything." He didn't tell her he'd been going from clinic to clinic for months now… anything to avoid coming here.
Devi smiled what she believed was a reassuring smile.
"Well, sir, I think we'd better admit you and do some tests."
"Admit me? What kind of tests?"
"Blood work. We'll take some stool samples."
"I-I can't. I've got work to do."
He seemed embarrassed, not an unusual reaction when stool samples were mentioned.
"Sir, this could be serious. I'm afraid I'll have to insist," she said, moving closer to the patient.
She couldn't quite read the expression that flitted across the man's face. It might be panic. Or perhaps… anger?
"I promise we'll do our best to find out what's going on."
The man looked troubled.
"Would you be the one to work on my case?"
"Yes. And if necessary, the rest of my department. I'm in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine, so you'll be in good hands. It's our job to find the answer when no one else can. The head of our department is Dr. Gregory House—he's one of the best diagnosticians in the world."
The patient's head snapped up when she mentioned House.
"Uh… no. No! I'm… I'm fine."
Suddenly, to her great surprise, the man hopped off the exam table and ran out of the room before Devi had a chance to say more.
Sixty-three minutes and three patients (all with summer colds) later, the man forgotten, she returned to the conference room. Her colleagues, Eric Foreman and Robert Chase, were already ensconced at the table, files spread out in front of them.
She looked around. The office next door sat dark and empty.
"Is he…?" she asked hesitantly as she fixed herself a cup of tea. Perhaps he wasn't well enough to come in after all. Usually, she drank Darjeeling, but today chamomile seemed more soothing.
"He's here. In with Cuddy. Probably filling out paperwork after being out so long." Then, after pausing: "I'm sure he won't be feeling any better once he gets done with that."
Chase tended to keep his feelings to himself, especially when it came to House and what had happened, but occasionally, like now, Devi sensed an undercurrent. Maybe sadness, maybe wistfulness. Was he remembering how things used to be? Thinking, perhaps, of Cameron—her murdered predecessor?
"How does he seem… is he okay?" she asked.
His mood suddenly changing, Chase shook his head angrily before spitting out a few words.
"Of course he's not okay. He'll never be okay. But he's here." His brows were furrowed, his head jerked away, and he stared out the window.
Abruptly, Foreman spoke up, always eager to change the subject from the state of House's health and emotional stability.
"Anything interesting in the clinic today?" he asked.
Ah. The man with the diarrhea.
"Actually, yes. Something a little bit odd."
Chase looked up eagerly. He'd hoped that they'd land a good case the day House came back. Anything to avoid having to acknowledge the reality of their boss's condition. But the case files in front of him revealed nothing of interest.
"Got a guy who's had diarrhea and cramping for at least a month. Probably more. He said he thought it was food poisoning, but of course it wasn't. I tried to admit him, but he kind of freaked out, and left before I had a chance to get very far."
"Freaked out?" asked Foreman, looking at her for the first time since she entered the room.
"Really?" said Chase at nearly the same instant. "Too bad. I was hoping we'd have something—something to keep us all occupied today."
Devi glanced at him, just as he looked away again. Yes. Leave it to Chase to verbalize what we are all thinking: Anything to keep our minds occupied.
"Afraid not. He left the clinic. In quite a rush, I might add."
"Oh, well," said Chase, disappointed. Then, after thinking for a moment, he looked intently at Devi, picking up on Foreman's question. "What was so odd?"
"Well, it was only when he realized he'd have to deal with our department that he got weird and left."
This got Foreman's attention, if only for a moment. Then he shrugged.
"Probably someone who saw House in the clinic back … well, you know, before. Or heard about him from the tabloids and didn't want to see someone that messed up … not that House will ever go face-to-face with a patient again. But this guy probably didn't realize that."
Devi nodded. Just as she'd suspected.
"Too bad. He ought to get checked out. Maybe he'll go somewhere else. Hope so."
Foreman turned away from the table, uninterested. Of the three of them, he was the most reluctant to hear, or deal with, the reality of House's situation, and he tended to avoid all conversations about House's health and well-being… or, for that matter, anything even vaguely connected to his boss.
By the end of the day, the patient was long forgotten. House, moving slowly and hesitantly, had lasted barely till one before Wilson had insisted on taking him home. With nothing else to do, Foreman, Chase and Devi offered to help out in other departments—one of the advantages to the hospital of having three talented doctors who occasionally went days without much to do.
As soon as House left, Foreman practically ran out the door, leaving Diagnostics in his wake as he headed off to Neurology. Once there, though, he couldn't concentrate. His left foot beat a pattern on the floor, and his hands twitched, fingers drumming on any nearby surface. Not being an introspective man, he couldn't figure out why he was so agitated. He attributed it to too much coffee.
What it really came down to, what Foreman couldn't face, was that he had hugely mixed feelings about House. Although he now knew House had used that massively annoying façade to protect himself—as well as Wilson, Cuddy, Chase, Cameron, his own parents… and Foreman—from the horror that had overwhelmed his life, Foreman could barely remember the moments when House's brilliance has amazed him.
When the troubles began, the two had been at odds. Foreman had quite literally hated his boss, detested working for him, and had no patience for him or his methods. He wondered why once he'd seen his fellowship with House as a prize. All he could see were the games, the manipulations, the sharp meanness and emotional distance of the last few months before House was arrested for Cameron's murder.
As soon as he could line up something better, Foreman had intended to quit. But every time he got a job interview, his prospective employers had been interested in talking to him only because he worked with the great Gregory House, not because of his own achievements, which they didn't seem to find all that appealing. As it became obvious that each interviewer was much more concerned with finding out what he'd learned from House than in what he himself could contribute, the tide would turn. At some point during each interview, he would be unable to keep his resentment of House below a simmer. As soon as the interviewers picked up on his negative feelings, he would be ushered out the door.
Of course, after House was imprisoned, notoriety by association kicked in, and Foreman was a pariah in the medical field—unable to get a job even as an orderly. He was lucky that Cuddy had been willing to keep him on staff at PPTH, although he never really saw it that way, blaming his inability to move away on House himself, rather than on the terrible circumstances and his own resentment of how it all affected him personally.
His mind was full of conflict. Even though Foreman firmly believed House couldn't have killed Allison Cameron—no matter how much his personality had changed before the murder, he knew in his gut that House wasn't a killer—Foreman still didn't actually like his former boss. It was as if his mind had two cupboards—one for House the victim, the non-murderer who had been imprisoned unjustly, and one for House the unadulterated, arrogant ass. And he was able to keep the door to the non-murderer cupboard successfully locked most of the time as he focused on the arrogant ass cupboard.
Then, the man came back a hero. And Foreman had to add another cupboard, a really large one for the man who had permitted violent maniacs to torture him nearly to death because it was the only way to secure the safety of those he cared about… including Eric Foreman. It was impossible for Foreman to reconcile the three versions of House that were rumbling around in his brain. And he especially couldn't accept that the arrogant ass had been willing to endure nonstop anguish to ensure that he, Foreman, would remain alive. In short, he had an extreme case of cognitive dissonance.
Fractured and quivering, a good three inches shorter than he'd been, thanks to repeated bone breaks during his tortured imprisonment, House was almost unrecognizable as the towering bastard Foreman had hated so much. Although he and Chase were no longer fellows in the department, House was still their supervisor and still had the uncanny ability to find the answers no one else could, a fact that bothered Foreman almost more than anything else. Since House had come back, the two had locked horns a few times, and Foreman found that underneath the jitteriness and frailty, House's massive intellect remain intact, as had his stubbornness.
It was painful and desperately uncomfortable to have House in the room next door, and Foreman secretly wished the man had never returned to work. It was much easier on the days when House was too ill to venture in, or on Tuesdays and Thursdays, his days off.
A few weeks after House's initial return to work, the part of Foreman's brain containing mixed feelings tipped over and crashed. It became harder and harder to pretend that House's sacrifice didn't affect him. During slow moments—and there were plenty of those—his imagination kept drifting, imagining House in prison, House being tortured, House screaming in pain, suffering the catastrophic injuries that garnished his face and hands… the injuries that confronted Foreman constantly not only every time he looked at the man but also in his dreams.
Why do I feel so guilty? Foreman wondered. I told people I knew he hadn't killed Cameron.
But House is still an ass, and I still don't like him
These thoughts began to duke it out with others.
He went through that agony to save your life, said a little part of him, a part that got louder and louder until it was screaming inside him. You owe him. And if he was willing to go through all that for you, then perhaps he's not the man you think he is… perhaps you're wrong about him... perhaps you're wrong about a lot of things.
Finally, late in the afternoon, Foreman felt a pain in his chest. Indigestion, he thought at first, but then the pain grew and grew. Heart attack? But when it radiated throughout his chest, left and right side, he knew it wasn't a heart attack. The pain continued to spread as his conflicting points of view about House argued in his head. And then, suddenly and dramatically, he began to quiver. Furious with himself, he struggled to shove all the unpleasant feelings back into their proper compartments. But they just refused to go back where they belonged. After a couple of hours of uncontrolled shaking, he left work and headed home.