The clock in the clinic read 4:56. Cuddy paced circles around the nurse's station, her arms folded across her chest. As she forced air through her nostrils, she fixed a glare on the closed vertical blinds of exam room two. She rolled her shoulders, preparing for an ambush like an angry lioness.
This afternoon, House had offended a small legion of patients in record time. Outraged parents had demanded to meet with another doctor. Sputtering, red-faced husbands and wives had insisted on personal apologies for accusations of infidelity. Two women had threatened the hospital with sexual harassment suits after House had casually remarked on their attire and likened them to hookers. Cuddy, of course, had been stuck with the damage control.
Narrowing her eyes and exhaling forcefully, Cuddy strode to the exam room window and tried to distinguish House's silhouette. She tracked his shadow as it moved across the blinds; it halted as House's voice boomed from under the door.
"You can huff, and you can puff, but you won't blow-"
She heard a snicker and rolled her eyes.
"-this door down, so go fume in your office."
"Open the door, House," she hissed. "Stop being childish."
He answered with an ear-piercing falsetto. "Not by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin."
If the afternoon hadn't killed her good mood, she may have cracked a smile. "If you're still cowering in there by five o'clock, I'm calling a janitor for the key."
The blinds suddenly parted and House scowled at her from behind the glass. Cuddy arched an eyebrow at him, projecting her confidence, but faltered a moment later when his mouth curved into a familiar grin, a dimple in his right cheek. House pointed over her shoulder, and she followed the path of his finger to the clock on the wall. 5:02.
Working her jaw in frustration, she faced the window, expecting to meet House's insufferably smug expression, but found the blinds swaying and spied House several feet away, speeding towards the lobby, his face hidden behind a brochure for genital herpes. She called his name as she scurried to catch him. He stayed silent, apparently feigning deafness, and continued walking, the brochure still blocking his face. She followed him out of the building and managed to hook her hand around his bent elbow, forcing him to a stop.
"What?" He wheeled around sharply, the soles of his shoes grinding against the sidewalk.
His voice seemed to echo off the walls of the building. Cuddy felt the stares of passers-by, who traced wide paths around the two of them. Perched on a nearby stepladder, a short, middle-aged Hispanic man glowered at the back of House's head. The man, wearing a khaki janitorial uniform, rolled his eyes and absently stroked a dripping squeegee across the window.
Cuddy's cheeks flushed with embarrassment, and she resisted the urge to retreat into the hospital and release House to a weekend of hard liquor and Pay-Per-View programming. But when she caught sight of her own reflection in House's eyes, she straightened her back and raised her chin in an effort to muster some authority, tightening her grip on House's arm.
"You will apologize to your clinic patients," she snarled. "Monday morning. I'll pull your phone records to make sure you do."
"Sorry, I have better things to do than waste half of the morning apologizing to a bunch of morons."
He tried to shake her hand from his arm, but Cuddy tugged sharply, and he jerked forward, his eyes blazing at her. "Maybe if you spent five minutes actually treating your patients, you wouldn't have to waste your time with apologies."
House hooked his cane around his forearm. "Maybe if these idiots spent five seconds putting on a condom-"
Halting his own words with a grunt, House twisted and wrenched his arm free. He stumbled backwards, lost his balance, and crashed into the ladder behind him.
Suddenly, sounds melded into a meaningless hum. Cuddy's body and voice seemed paralyzed as she stood with her mute mouth agape, her eyes fixed on a plastic jug at the top of the ladder that wobbled and tipped onto its side. The janitor scrambled for the jug, his lips forming words Cuddy couldn't interpret. Before he could pull it upright, the jug's contents spilled in a clear stream as House, drawn by the shouts from above him, looked up.
Seconds too late, House dropped his face and raised his arms to shield himself. As the liquid cascaded over him, his body curled in on itself and a deep howl ripped from his throat, cutting through the monotonous drone in Cuddy's ears and shocking her into motion.
Vaguely aware of her own voice, she barked orders at the flustered janitor, who gathered the jug in one arm and hastily replaced its cap. House rocked against the sidewalk, and she knelt beside him. His hands covered his face. Muffled broken cries accompanied shallow breaths. The pungent odor of ammonia assaulted her nose, and she slapped a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes against the unnerving images flash-flooding her brain. Patches of blackened, coagulated skin. Cloudy irises like the eyes of dead fish. Red, swollen eyelids missing their lashes. Her hands shook as she tried to haul him up from the ground. "Come on, House, a little help here."
House reached for her, eyes shut tightly, and managed to get one foot beneath him. With the help of raging adrenaline, Cuddy heaved him to stand and dragged him towards the doors, abandoning his cane on the sidewalk.
She considered wheeling him to ER, but it was a floor beneath them-too far, too many wasted seconds. Thankfully House showed little resistance and let her support him as she led him. His body was heavy and uncoordinated, and the weight made her knees tremble. Sweat gathered along her hairline, and her breath came in short huffs as she steered him into the Clinic, past clusters of alarmed faces.
As they passed through the doors, Cuddy shouted at a wide-eyed nurse. "I need a bottle of Alcaine and four-" Her order broke off with a hiss as House stumbled and forced her to brace herself against the wall. "-four liters of saline in exam room one, and page Dr. Wilson. Tell him it's an emergency."
With the strength worthy of a linebacker, she muscled House towards the door and threw it open. Inside, a patient sat on the exam table waiting to be seen.
"Out!" she demanded, maneuvering House to the counter to bend him over the sink.
The patient stared dumbly at her.
Cuddy ignored the patient's disgruntled murmurs as he scuttled from the room and, with near-superhuman speed, stripped House of his stinking, saturated jacket, turned on the tap, and pulled on a pair of gloves. As she guided his face towards the water, she drew measured breaths, mentally reviewing procedure, the medical mechanics.
"Okay, House," she said, adopting a tone of cool professionalism to cover the panic racing up her throat, flooding her mouth. She forced a swallow. "I need you to open your eyes as wide as possible."
A pained grunt slipped between his lips as his eyelids blinked open. The first vibrant, fury-red flash of sclera shocked her. The clarity of twin blue irises, however, pulled a tiny sigh of relief from her mouth as she laid a hand on the back of his head to urge him into the water.
House flinched at the water's contact and shut his eyes. "Fuck. It hurts."
A pang of sympathy rippled through her. "I know, but you have to keep them open."
"I can't. It hurts."
"Then hold them open. We need to flush your eyes and restore the proper pH balance to prevent any permanent-"
"Let's pour industrial chemicals into your eyes and see if you can keep them open! We'll have a staring contest!" He blinked rapidly under the stream of water.
Cuddy's mouth snapped shut as the door opened and a nurse bustled inside, depositing an armful of supplies. Cuddy lunged for the small bottle of Alcaine and unscrewed the cap.
"Here's an anesthetic," she said, and applied a drop to each of his eyes. "It'll help you keep your eyes open." She was spouting information that he already knew, but the habit comforted her.
As she capped the bottle, a voice called into the room. "Hey, you needed to see me?"
Cuddy turned her head and found Wilson leaning into the room. She watched as his eyes settled on House, suddenly alert and full of concern. "What happened?" he asked.
From under the water, House interjected. "One of Cuddy's incompetent employees apparently couldn't tell the difference between a person and a pane of glass."
"Shut up, House." Cuddy swiped her forehead with her sleeve before turning towards Wilson. "He accidentally bumped a ladder and got a face full of window cleaner. Chemical burns in both eyes." She tracked Wilson as he approached the sink. "I would have taken him to the ER, but I didn't want to waste time."
"How long has it been?"
Cuddy shrugged. She had lost a clear concept of time. "Five minutes, maybe ten."
Wilson frowned and propped his hands on the counter beside the sink. "House, how's your vision? Is it blurry?"
For a moment, House was quiet. His lips opened and closed several times before he offered a flat "No".
Cuddy noticed the crack in House's voice and, when she glanced at Wilson's face, she knew he had heard it, too.
"House," Wilson uttered and paused to inhale a slow breath. "Can you see?"
Cuddy bit her bottom lip and stared at House, watching his Adam's apple bob in his throat. She caught the subtle shake of his head and squeezed her eyes shut.