Author's note: I plan to update this AU version of "House" occasionally as the team's season progresses.
The training field is a joke - a big dirty gray, metal sided building in the middle of the industrial wasteland of northern New Jersey that's as big as an airplane hangar to house both an indoor field and the offices. The summer sun stands high overhead, and when Taub stops his car, he feels the whoosh of heat rising from the cracked pavement. He fights the urge the turn the ignition back on, stay inside the comfort of the air conditioning and leather seats in his Porsche and drive away, leaving all this far behind him.
He doesn't, though. There wouldn't be any point to it.
Instead, he steps out and looks around him. A couple of dozen other cars cover the lot between him and the training facility: a tricked out Hummer, a couple of baby Jags, a Mercedes or three. A vintage Mustang vies with a new Ferrari for the best looking car on the lot. If he was forced to choose, Taub would have picked the Mustang.
But Taub isn't being asked to choose. He isn't being asked to do much of anything these days. He knows that at his age, he should be happy just to get a call to fill out a roster at all, even at a joke of a team like this one. He's parked his Porsche next to a Volvo - the Porsche Rachel had insisted on buying for him after he signed his contract with Seattle. That contract was four teams and three years ago, but the Porsche is still with him. So is Rachel, and that surprises him more than anything else that had happened.
Taub grabs his bag from the trunk and heads inside, passing a scraped up motorcycle parked just outside the building.
"Fuck," he says when he walks through the doorway.
This shithole is worse than he's imagined. Sodium lights shine down on worn out artificial turf that make Taub's knees hurt just to look at. The temperature isn't much better here than it is outside, so if there's AC, it isn't strong enough to actually accomplish anything. He looks up and sees low structural beams holding the roof up. He'll have to shank every kick to one side to avoid getting the ball caught up in them.
He drops his bag on the concrete floor. "Fuck," he says again.
"It gets worse," comes a voice from the benches to Taub's left. "You haven't even seen the locker room yet."
"Can't be worse than the Giants' practice field," Taub says.
"Hundred bucks says you're wrong."
"Call me crazy, but I seem to recall hearing something about gambling being illegal in the NFL."
"So are steroids, but being illegal hasn't exactly stopped people from doing that either."
Taub doesn't bother introducing himself. He'd seen the man play back when there was no one better. Taub was in his rookie year, watching Monday Night Football on the play when House's leg went in three different directions at the same time during a late tackle. He still watches the replay every time ESPN hauls it out of storage for its "Worst Hits Of All Time" roundup, and still feels his stomach convulse in sympathy with every frame.
The man's voice is different than it was back then, gone rough from yelling at players from the sidelines - and, rumor was, from too much booze and other ... more interesting ... substances - but Taub recognized it immediately during their two-minute phone conversation.
"Word is, they're going to cut you loose," House had said.
"I'm -" Taub paused. Nothing was official yet. He was still hoping to somehow salvage a spot for this season. "I'm weighing my options," he finally said.
"Training camp is starting in two days, and from what I hear, you haven't been assigned a room or a number yet up in Detroit," House had said. "The end of the line for most guys your age typically stops somewhere south of Detroit. That gives you three options: retire in disgrace, go play in Europe or come to Princeton." He hadn't waited for Taub to respond. "I'll keep a spot open until the end of practice on Wednesday."
Taub hadn't had the chance to say anything before House had hung up. He had almost convinced himself that he'd still get that call to come in for one more year, that he'd be offered a contract that would put into writing the deal they'd made with a handshake promise a year earlier to bring him onto the coaching staff by the end of the season.
But the call hadn't come, and instead he'd spent the night staring at the ceiling while Rachel slept. The next morning, he found himself packing his gear bag and then standing there with his keys in his hand, trying to explain to Rachel where he was going this time.
The New Jersey Tigers aren't anyone's idea of a team where a player can make a comeback bid. The glory days of playoff games and contending for a title were long gone, and the money that might have gone into building the franchise for the future had been caught up for years in a legal battle over Old Man Cuddy's will.
"Just another New Jersey superfund toxic waste site," Taub had said once himself, years ago when he still had something that looked like a future in the NFL. But those days are gone too.
Now, Taub watches as House pushes himself up from the bench. It takes House a half second to settle his weight on his left leg and a dark wooden cane, and he stares at Taub the whole time, as if daring him to make some comment. Taub keeps his mouth shut, but when House turns his back, he flinches to see the way that House's body tilts to one side when he walks away.
He can't ignore the voice in his head that says: "Better him, than me."
"Don't let him scare you off."
The new voice takes Taub by surprise. It shouldn't have. He should have been able to see the man in his peripheral vision. If this had been a game day, and the man was a receiver, he would have run past Taub almost unseen and scored an easy six points. Maybe, Taub thinks, he should take that as another sign he should just call it quits and walk away while he still could walk on his own two feet.
"This where you tell me that his bark is worse than his bite?" Taub asks.
"Wouldn't dream of it. I'd hate to tell a lie." The man holds his hand out. "I'm Wilson. I'm the defensive coordinator."
"That's not all you are, from what I hear." The Sunday morning analysts have been almost evenly divided between the opinion that Wilson was only there to babysit House, and that he was the real brains behind the team for any slight success it had managed after House was brought in halfway through the last season.
"Don't let the stories fool you," Wilson says. "House knows what he's doing."
Then why is he stuck in Jersey? Taub wants to ask, but reminds himself that it's starting to look like he was stuck there too.
Wilson picks up Taub's bag. "Let me show you around," he says, and heads onto the field before Taub can object.
The turf looks even worse close up, loose strands tangled into loops and whorls, just waiting to catch an unsuspecting player by the cleats, take him down, and twist his knee until it pops. Taub tries looking up instead and notices that half of the lights are out.
"Saves money," Wilson says, "and House has some weird idea about how receivers will unconsciously train themselves to improve their concentration if they have to pay more attention because the lights are dim during practice."
"Or they'll have so much eye strain they end up with migraines."
Wilson shrugs. "Maybe. All I know is that we've seen a two percent improvement in reception statistics since House turned them off."
Wilson takes a wide berth past the quarterbacks running drills at midfield. Even without the names stitched across their jerseys, Taub would have recognized Eric Foreman. He's the first one across the line each time, and yells at anyone who stoops over to take a breath.
Foreman had been a first round draft pick out of California who was unlucky enough to get nabbed by the worst team in the league. He's never been shy in interviews about saying that he wants out, that he wants to be someplace that deserves his talent. He blames the losses on the coaching, on the defensive line, on the lack of a decent receiver - even on the fans once, for not making enough noise.
When his contract came up a couple of years back, no one had bit. Word was that the owners and coaches all considered him to have an attitude problem. Foreman had even made some oblique comments about taking an early retirement, but when the time came, he ended up signing for another three years in Princeton.
Wilson slows at the edge of the field as a dozen players run past in full gear. He nods toward one of them at the front of the pack.
"He got you running laps again?" Wilson asks.
The man spreads his arms wide, palms lifted toward the ceiling in a pronounced shrug.
"What for this time?"
"If any of us could ever figure out why he makes us do anything -" the player lets the sentence end there as he runs off, rounding the corner.
Taub doesn't see his face, but recognizes the accent - the one-time rugby player House had recruited from Australia in a move that most Sunday morning analysts called insane.
"Which one of his drugs do you think he was on to come up with that?" is how some guy put it in his blog.
Taub stares after the players for a moment until the name came to mind. Chase. He'd actually been a solid performer despite House's unorthodox recruiting, sliding easily into multiple positions - punt reception one day, running back another - wherever House seemed to want him. He didn't make headlines like Foreman did, but didn't make mistakes either.
"You talk to her yet?"
Taub starts at the sound of Wilson's voice. He's forgotten about him for a moment, and trots a few steps to catch up with him.
"Cuddy," Wilson says, as if Taub wouldn't know who he was referring to.
Lisa Cuddy. The old man's daughter. She'd been a kid right out of college when her father bought a majority interest in the team, and had been alongside him as he brought in the players, coaches and managers that had built the Tigers into something that almost resembled a winning dynasty. Back then, everyone had taken one look at her and the way she dressed and especially the way she looked, and written her off as nothing more than a spoiled bimbo looking for an easy life.
When the old man died in the middle of a season, his will had called for her to take over, but minority stake holders in the team had contested the will, then appealed again and again. By the time the final legal claim had been settled, the Tigers were the last place team four years running.
Everyone thought then that she'd do the smart thing and move the franchise to a better market, or just sell it outright to some billionaire looking for a professional football team to add to his list of hobbies.
Instead, she guaranteed the Tigers would make it to the playoffs within two years. Then she hired House.
If she's going to live up to that promise, she has just this season left to make it come true. No one expects her to do it. Taub doesn't either, but he has to admit he likes her style.
He looks up at Wilson and shakes his head. "No point in meeting her yet," he says. "I haven't even decided whether I'm going to sign up."
Wilson stops, looks him over. "You think you're going to get a better offer?"
"I was thinking I'd suit up for today, get a feel for the place and worry about the paperwork later."
"You realize that's not an answer to my question, right?"
Taub raises his eyebrows. "Which way is the locker room?"
Wilson grins briefly, then nods toward the tunnel leading off the field. "First door on the right."
Taub takes his bag from Wilson's hand, and heads in.
The lights are dim in the locker room - more penny pinching, Taub thinks at first - and it takes him a moment to adjust. The odor catches up with him first: sweat and soap and the tang of muscle ointment in a combination that fits into his memories of every locker room he's ever known.
The room is clean, though, with fresh paint and clean towels within reach from almost everywhere. He'll give Princeton that much. The lockers are wide, with benches, padded folding chairs and stools surrounding each one.
It almost seems cluttered, but then he recognizes a pattern. Each collection of chairs includes seats at different heights: tall ones so players with sore knees can take a load off, without putting unneeded pressure on their joints; ones with arm rests that were wide enough to hold both an ice pack and a weary elbow and even fit the biggest linebacker; short ones that could double as foot stools and elevate sprained and strained ankles.
Even the dim lights make sense in a world where a concussion is just another day at the office.
NFL teams always spend big money on their stadiums, anxious to turn them into some kind of a symbol. For players, though, it was the practice facility that was home. They spent ninety percent of their team time on the indoor and outdoor practice fields and in its meeting rooms, physical therapy rooms and coaches' offices. Taub has always figured that you could tell more about the way a team treated its players by the training field than the stadium. The field itself might not be in great shape, but in this room, at least, he sees something that the analysts and the statistics haven't told him about House or Princeton.
He walks down the wall of lockers, looking for an empty space. He finds one with his name inked in on a piece of tape over the bare paint, and gets changed.
The sounds out on the field have changed by the time Taub gets back out there. The grunts and shouts have died down, and the field is nearly empty. Team meetings, he thinks, or squads split up to run the playbook with individual coaches. Each team he's ever known has had its own traditions, its own ebbs and flows. He'll learn this one quickly enough, if he decides to stay.
He sees a lone figure at the far end of the field, hears a loud whistle and sees the man wave, and he heads out.
Taub jogs out toward midfield. It's part of his routine anytime before a kick - the same number of steps from the sidelines to the middle of the field each time to set the rhythm in his head before he even sees the ball. It's a way to remind himself that every field is exactly the same dimensions, the uprights the same width and the same height everywhere. Forget about the crowd noise and the score and whatever the coach was pissed off about that morning. Just let the routine take over.
He knows it's just superstition. So is the college t-shirt he wears beneath his jersey on every game day, and the brand of gum he chews, and showering exactly three hours before kickoff. None of it makes any logical sense. He'll never be able to explain it to anyone who asks why he does these things. He knows it works for him, and that's all he needs to know.
From midfield he arcs left, and heads toward the man waiting for him with a stash of footballs. He slows as he draws near.
"You're not Monteith," Taub says.
The guy shakes his head. "Afraid not." He holds out his hand. "I'm Chase. Welcome to the team."
Taub takes his hand. "I haven't joined the team yet," he says. "Where's Monteith? I thought I'd be working with the special teams coach."
"Yeah, about that." Chase rubs the back of his neck. "They cut Monteith loose this morning. They said it was cost cutting, but I think it's because House never trusted him." He raises his eyebrows. "Of course House never trusts anyone."
"They cut Monteith?" Monteith was the only guy Taub actually knew on the staff, the only guy he's ever worked with before. He'd told Rachel that he was only going because he'd be working with him, and because he thought it would be interesting to meet House. He paces along the hash markings on the turf.
"I need to talk to House," he says.
Chase shakes his head. "He just went into a meeting with Foreman to go over the tapes from yesterday's practice. Believe me, you don't want to go anywhere near either one of them for a couple of hours."
Taub hasn't bothered bringing his helmet out onto the field with him. He wishes now that he had it, just so he has something to throw. He never should have taken House's call. Never should have come down here. This is all a waste of time. Just like his pathetic career, bouncing from one crappy team to another.
He puts his hands on his hips and glares at the far end of the building where a handful of offices overlook the field.
"Look," Chase says, "as long as you're here, you might as well get in some practice."
"With you?" Taub shakes his head. "Why bother?"
"Because House wants me to be your regular holder," Chase says. "And because if we're going to work together, I need to learn your routine."
"Learn my -" Every other team Taub has played for used a quarterback as the holder, and every quarterback thinks he knows everything. Taub has always adjusted to them, adding a half-step back here and a half-step forward there to line himself up to their chosen spot.
He stares at Chase. "But you're not a quarterback."
"So why would you -"
Chase spins a football on the palm of his hand. "Chance to learn something new. And because House asked me to." He stops the motion, and holds the ball toward Taub. "You want to practice or not?"
By the time they finish, Taub feels sweat dripping down his back. His hip and low back ache from repeated field goal kicks made further and further down the field, then at different angles. He's hit two from fifty yards out, and missed two.
He has to hand it to Chase - he has a steady hand. He didn't flinch either, even after he and Taub flubbed the timing the first time they tried to speed the action and Taub caught the edge of Chase's palm on the follow through.
"Guess you wanted me to move faster there," was all Chase had said. He's shook his hand a few times, then reached for another ball. "Ready?"
The work eases some of the tension Taub has been holding deep within the muscles between his shoulder blades. The stress headache that has lodged just above his right temple has vanished for the first time in weeks. Chase hands him a water bottle, and they both sit in the middle of the field and stretch.
Taub's tired, but feels good. He can't remember the last time he's enjoyed practice, when it's been something other than another day of work. The last time he's lost himself in the moment when his foot makes contact with the ball, and it does exactly what he wants to do.
He knows he needs to track down House yet, and find out just what is on his mind. He isn't sure whether he can trust him. Taub had seen Foreman leave a half-hour earlier - his shoulders just as set as if he still had his pads on. That means that House is done with him, which means that Taub can finally nail down House and ask what it was he expects.
"You've got a hell of a foot," Chase says. "I'm looking forward to our first game - that is, if you're going to be back here."
Taub doesn't have an answer for him. He still isn't sure where he'll be back either. That depends on what House has to say, even though Taub isn't certain what it is he wants to hear. He looks up at the row of windows where he knows House's office must be.
"Time to get this over with," Taub says, and pushes himself up onto his feet, ignoring the way his knees creak and his right hamstring tightens. He holds out a hand to Chase, and Chase takes it. "Thanks," he says. "Even if I don't come back, you make a great holder."
Chase nods, then heads across the field in a slow jog.
Taub doesn't bother showering first. He passes the locker room and finds a set of stairs toward the end of the tunnel and heads up. Two flights above the field, he steps out. There's fresh carpet. A bank of windows lets the light flood in. On this floor, at least, the air conditioning works. The cool air feels good on his hot skin. He takes a moment to orient himself, then heads down the hall toward where the executive offices must be. Someone had already crossed off Monteith's name from the wall beside one office. The door is propped open, the room already emptied. Wilson's name is engraved in a brass nameplate next to another one.
House's door is the last one, just before the hall ends at a wall of windows that look down on the field. From this height, it's easy to see every angle of the field and the sidelines. He sees the main entrance, and the tunnel leading to the locker room, making it easy to see if anyone showed up late, or left early.
The field is empty now, though, with the exception of a maintenance guy slowly making the rounds, collecting water bottles, trash, and anything else left behind after practice.
Taub turns to the door. "Get this over with," he mutters again, then knocks three times.
He knocks again, louder.
He knocks again and again.
"House?" he calls out. "Coach?"
He leans in closer to the door, trying to pick up any sound inside. What if House needs help? What if he's fallen? What if Foreman has finally reached his boiling point, and given House the punch that everyone is always predicting?
He knocks again. Still nothing.
Taub puts his hand on the door knob. Locked.
"I can loan you a credit card if you want to break in."
Taub jumps, his heart racing faster than it has in the last two seasons sitting on the bench. He turns and sees a young woman leaning against the windows, her arms crossed over her chest. She has long brown hair, is model thin and wears an old watch on a chain around her neck.
"I wasn't trying to -"
She waves him off. "Doesn't matter to me, and it might actually impress House if you managed to do it on the first try."
"I was just looking for him." Taub is suddenly aware that he hasn't washed out his pads for a long time, and that his hair - what there was of it - is plastered down to his head in a sweaty mop.
"He's gone," the woman says. "He left about twenty minutes ago. You're Taub, right?"
"He said to tell you that you need to work on your approach from a right angle at thirty-five yards."
"I hit every attempt from thirty-five."
She shrugs and pushes herself away from the windows. "I'm just the messenger," she says. She heads down the hall. "And he said he'll see you tomorrow morning."
"What makes him think I'm coming back tomorrow?"
She shrugs again. "Ten o'clock." She then turns down a hallway and passes out of sight.
Taub isn't sure why he comes back the next morning. He still doesn't know whether House was just trying to jerk his chain to amuse himself, or if he really has plans to use him.
Sitting in the hotel last night, he'd lied to Rachel, told her that things were looking really good. She'd spent years putting up with moves from one crappy town to another, put on a good front in the family section in the stands even when they both knew he could be traded any day, or even be just cut without a warning.
He'd promised Rachel years ago that he'd quit the game soon. The players' union makes sure he's paid well, but they both know it's far less than what the headline players make. They've done what was supposed to be the smart thing and invested half his earnings so they'd have options after he retired, but when the market crashed, he was left with a lot of paper and a house in Las Vegas that was worth a third of what they'd paid for it.
But the crazy truth was, he loves the game. He loves it more than makes sense. He's loved it since that first time on the high school team, trying out for a spot just to improve his social status, and finding that for some reason he could kick the ball better than anyone else in the school.
Giving it up would be hard, and yesterday's practice had felt good.
So he's come back, made the trek across the scorching hot parking lot, dumped his bag in the locker, and headed upstairs.
This time, House answers on the first knock. He stays in his seat, lounging with his hands behind his head and watches Taub cross the room. He doesn't invite him to take a seat.
"One year contract, with an option for one more," he says. "We'll pay you ten percent over the union minimum."
"That's not much," Taub stays on his feet, figuring this is one of the only times he'll have a height advantage on anyone in the team. "That's less than the contract I had last year."
"The old contract is old. That and a buck fifty will buy you a coffee at the Wawa on the corner."
Taub looks out the windows. Wilson is on the field with the defensive line as they slam into tackling dummies again and again.
He looks back at House. "Why should I sign?"
"Because I'm the only guy offering."
"That's not what I meant. What I want to know is, why do you want me to sign?"
"I need a good kicker."
"There are lots of kickers out there. A few of them would even jump at the chance to play in New Jersey. Why me?"
House leans forward, his elbows on the desk now, his hands pointing toward Taub. "Because you don't panic," he says. "I need a guy who knows what it's like when a linebacker is coming at you, ready to rip your head off, and still get me three points."
"Lots of guys with experience out there too," Taub says. "Why me, and not one of them?"
House starts to open his mouth, then stops and looks away instead. He's quiet for a moment. "I don't like it when players question my decisions," he finally says. "I gave you an answer."
He doesn't look Taub in the eye this time. Taub knows there is something else there, but isn't sure why House feels the need to keep it a secret.
House holds out an envelope. "Read over the contract for yourself, if you don't believe me," he says. "You've got until the end of the day to sign it."
Team meetings in the morning, followed by drills for everyone. House doesn't come down to the field. Wilson gives them their orders instead, glancing up toward the offices every few minutes for some signal that Taub can't quite catch.
Chase sidles in next to him as they line up for calisthenics.
"You came back," he says.
"Looks like it."
Taub is bent over, tying his shoe in the locker room after practice. He doesn't hear the door open, but he can't miss the sound as forty guys grab for towels and jerseys. That's followed by the sound of shuffling of feet as forty guys decide they had somewhere else to be. He glances up just as a pair of high heel shoes came into view. Pradas, with a four-inch heel.
"Why haven't you signed the contract yet?"
He jerks his head up, but lets his eyes linger for just a split second on the legs and body that came between the shoes and the voice. Lisa Cuddy. Of course. Who else would it be?
"House said I had until the end of the day to decide."
The locker room has cleared out in less than 30 seconds - the fastest some of those guys have moved all day. Cuddy takes her eyes off Taub only once, and that is to glance over at House who has appeared suddenly and leans against the wall with a cup of coffee in his hand.
Rumor in the league is that Cuddy had some fling with House years ago when he was a player and she was the owner's daughter, or even further back than that, but no one had ever been able to prove it. Glancing between the two of them now, Taub sees why the rumor never managed to fade away.
"The end of the day is 5 p.m.," Cuddy said. "That's two hours. You've had nearly two days. What's the hold up?"
Taub stands, but Cuddy still has him by a half-foot in height with the heels. He wishes he was wearing his pads so at least he seems bigger. He puts his hands on his hips.
"It's not just about playing time," he says. "I've been promised a position as special teams coach next season if I let them keep me in reserves for this season."
"You have that in writing?" Cuddy asks.
Taub doesn't answer for a moment. "Lou gave me his word," he finally says.
"That's a 'no.'" House doesn't bother looking at Taub for confirmation as he translates for Cuddy's benefit - and his own amusement, Taub thinks. "Strictly a gentlemen's agreement. And we all know how well those have turned out for you before."
Taub clenches his teeth. He turns to House. Enough games.
"Why me?" he asks again.
House glances over at Cuddy briefly, then looks at Taub, sizing him up, maybe deciding what lie to tell this time. Then he stands up straight.
"You've been around," he says.
"Yeah," Taub says, "I have experience in a real game. So you said."
"Playing in a game is only part of it. You've put in time at eight different teams in ten years. You've played for eleven different head coaches." He takes a step toward Taub. "I need to know what you know about them."
"You expect me to help you steal their signals?"
"As if I needed help with that," House says.
Cuddy clears her throat. "Besides, that would be against the rules," she adds.
"That too," House says. "No, what I need is bigger than that. You know what happens in the practices and the team meetings. You know whether they've been working on some play for years, or if it's just a fluke. You know who's coming up with new ideas all the time, and who's skating by on the backs of a few good draft choices."
House stands just on the other side of the bench now. His eyes have the same hard edge to them they did back before the bad hit, when he was running the game on the field, rather than from the sidelines.
"Those guys have the money to buy the biggest names," he says. "I've got a half-dozen guys that should be stars and a couple of dozen hangers on. I need to get inside the other guys' heads, and you can help me do that."
"So it's not because I can kick?"
"Like you said, there are plenty of guys who can kick, even a few who would be willing to come here. The fact that you can kick is a bonus."
"Why didn't you just say that the first time I asked?"
House swallows the last of his coffee and tosses the cup in the trash. He turns away from Taub and heads out of the room. "Because I don't like when guys try to get inside my head," he says, pushes open the door and walks out.
Cuddy was still there when Taub turned back around. She picks up the the envelope from the spot where he'd tossed it in the locker before practice.
"One year contract, guaranteed playing time," she says. "Second year is an option to begin coaching special teams."
Taub is silent at first, then reaches for the envelope, but she doesn't let go. Not yet.
"Catch is," she says, "that if we want to add to the coaching staff, we're going to have to sell more luxury boxes. To sell luxury boxes, we've got to start winning. Got it?"
"You have two hours."
Taub watches her walk across the room, watches the way she maneuvers past the chairs and discarded towels and shoes. Nothing seems to stand in her way. He looks at his name on the locker, and at the duffle bag he's carted from town to town for the past ten years.
"Wait a minute," he says, and she pauses with her hand on the door. "Have you got a pen?"
"I'm sure I can scrounge one up." She smiles for the first time since she walked into the room. "Welcome to Princeton."