TITLE: The Long Count (1/?)
WARNINGS: Very vague spoilers for Season 7.
SUMMARY: House's team is called upon by a CDC task force investigating a deadly viral outbreak. But pathogens are the least of Chase's concerns.
NOTES: This is another AU future fic. The back story is assumed to parallel canon up through the Season 7 premiere, and perhaps a little beyond. I'm going to aim to update every 7-10 days, but I want to say up front that this will vary. I'm hoping that after November I'll be able to adopt a shorter update interval. I hope you enjoy! (By the way, today is my one-year anniversary of posting the first chapter of The Rest is Silence.)
November 17, 2012
The world is covered in frost when Chase wakes, the first glow of sunrise not yet blushing on the horizon. It is only the week before Thanksgiving, but already Princeton has been experiencing record low temperatures, more than a foot of snow dreary-gray and melting on the sidewalks. Creeping fingers of ice glint on the outside of the window as a car passes, and Chase stays shivering under his thick down comforter for a long while, watching the sun climb into a sky heavy with the bloated bellies of clouds. He has never grown fully accustomed to the cold, not even now, after living here for ten years.
Lately he has begun waking early, though he cannot say why. Nothing has changed in his life recently; even the extremity of cases at work has begun to feel routine, mundane. He has grown so accustomed to House's unpredictability that it is no longer surprising. Everything has begun to feel like a carefully choreographed pattern, the illusion of turmoil regularly repeating.
For a long time he has been comforted by the constancy: he has accepted that this is the sort of life he has earned for himself. He has not been truly happy in a very long time, but has learned to content himself with the absence of fear. Sometimes, rarely, he still dreams of Dibala's face, waking in a cold sweat. But now the accompanying guilt has taken a different turn: he is ashamed not of his deeds, but of his own acceptance. At least until recently—with the changing of the leaves, he has felt a profound restlessness creeping into the quiet spaces of his soul, a melancholy for things he dares not allow himself to consider.
The sun is shining pale yellow off of the icy sidewalk below the window as Chase drags himself out of bed at last. The condo's wood floor is cold beneath his bare feet, and seems to send a chill up through his entire body. In the past, he has thought about moving out of this place, of finding a new apartment in which to begin his life again. But he has never found the energy, and now it feels too late, a new equilibrium settled around him before he'd realized what was happening.
The walls of the bedroom are empty, but for the shadows that stretch across them as he dresses hurriedly. Most of the shelves are barren as well, save for his own tattered collection of medical texts. He'd packed up all their photos the weekend after signing the divorce papers, taken the paintings off the walls, wrapped the candles in tissue, and shoved everything into a box with Cameron's new address scrawled hastily on the flap. She'd never called to say whether the package had arrived, and sometimes he wonders if she might simply have thrown the whole thing away, cast off in an instant like the remnants of their disintegrating marriage.
He'd never been able to remember to water the plants, and when they'd died he'd scattered their crisp brown remains in the complex's courtyard and donated the pots to the hospital for the new meditation garden. Scarcely any traces of his old life remain now, yet nothing has come along to take their place. It has been three years, and most of the spaces in his world remain populated by emptiness.
Foreman is already seated at the table when Chase walks into the Diagnostics office, flipping through the glossy pages of a journal without seeming to absorb or focus on anything. A weighty sense of fatigue has permeated the department of late; nothing has changed in years and it is beginning to show, as though their very work might be becoming threadbare. Even House's perpetual vigor for his puzzles is beginning to flag. His work has not been the same since his relationship with Cuddy began, and the rift between personal and professional once born out of hope has only widened since their split. It has been six months since Taub quit in the wake of his own divorce, yet there has been no motion to hire anyone else. At first it was a relief to Chase, working with only House and Foreman. Fewer people with questions, fewer people wanting to know him. But now the department feels stagnant; they are all growing tired of each other.
"You're here early," says Foreman, not looking up.
Chase frowns, bothered by the comment, though he's relatively certain it's innocuous small talk. "Not any earlier than usual. Not any earlier than you."
"When you get here early, you mean," says Foreman, shutting the journal in a rustle of pages. "Slow night last night?"
"Mandy was on the graveyard shift," Chase answers tightly. He knows that Foreman does not approve of his relationship, and the obvious judgment makes his skin crawl.
"Oh good," says Foreman, voice thick with smugness. "Because two months is a new record for you. I was thinking you might get bored soon, and go back to playing the field."
"Why do you care?" Chase shoves a new filter into the coffee pot and jabs the on switch with more force than necessary. His head is pounding already; suddenly he wishes he had come in later, if only to avoid the questioning.
"Because," says Foreman, "when you're out trying to nail anything that qualifies as female, you get distracted and turn into a lousy doctor. Then I have to do extra to compensate."
"Then maybe you should do yourself a favor and lose the attitude of superiority," Chase retorts, sitting heavily with his mug of coffee and pulling over the stack of case files that have been accumulating in the center of the glass conference table. Cuddy has stopped delivering cases in person, instead allowing the team to sift through the pile of potentials for one House will deem worthy of his time.
Foreman snorts softly, and grabs a file of his own from the top of the stack. The first and second appear to be simple; Chase jots down a new battery of tests and marks the files for return to their respective departments. He's halfway through the history of a six-month-old baby with repeated severe infections when House arrives, earlier than usual for once.
"Good morning, team." House makes his way straight over to the whiteboard, more fixated on something than Chase has seen in a long while.
"Got a case?" asks Chase, closing the file though he hasn't finished reading it. He knows better than to try to present it to House now, when his focus is so obviously elsewhere.
"Better," says House, uncapping a marker for the first time in weeks. Its ink has dried out, and it squeaks futilely as he attempts to write with it. House pauses for a moment, staring at the parched felt tip as though he might be able to diagnose and cure it. Then, in one smooth motion, he tosses it across the room and into the trash. Two other spent markers follow it before House finds one still on its streaky last legs of life.
"This had better have something to do with a patient, House," says Foreman, his voice laced with obvious impatience.
Chase rests his chin in one hand, at once intrigued and beginning to feel the first weight of exhaustion from his sleepless night.
"It's better than a patient," says House, still writing.
"Just tell us what we're doing," Foreman pushes.
"We're going to be superheroes," House answers, turning around at last. "Or you guys are, anyway. Nobody's ever heard of a superhero with a cane."
"Superheroes?" asks Foreman skeptically. He still has not closed the file he was reading before House entered, and looks as though he would be more willing to go treat that patient by himself than participate in this discussion. "What's our super power? Saving the world from disease?"
"Stopping a pandemic," says House, pausing dramatically to let the words land with his desired effect. "Faster than a speeding bullet!"
"Okay…" Chase sits up straighter, forcing himself to concentrate. "But there is no pandemic right now. Can't stop something that hasn't started."
"The CDC thinks otherwise. They've asked for our help." House spins the whiteboard around once, neatly, obviously enjoying this immensely. "Well, my help, actually. Which would make sense, since I'm the famous infectious disease guy."
Foreman rolls his eyes; the longer they have gone without anyone new being hired to the team, the more his contempt for the entire department has seemed to grow. "Can we just get on with it?"
"Buzzkill." House mugs dramatically before turning his focus back to the whiteboard. "Meet Austin Griggs, our Patient Zero, lifelong resident of Oceanview, Oregon, otherwise known as Nowheresville. On October thirteenth, Griggs presented to Tillamook General Hospital with fever, headache and altered consciousness. He was initially treated for an early case of seasonal flu, but rapidly deteriorated and was diagnosed with an atypical encephalitis just hours before dying. Over the following week, Griggs's wife, two sons, and business partner began exhibiting the same symptoms. Only the business partner survived."
"Fever and headache?" says Foreman, not waiting for House to finish the presentation. "Anyone think it might have been meningococcal? Would explain the high rate of transmission, and the rapid fatality."
"It's not meningitis. And don't interrupt me. It ruins the suspense." House picks up his cane and loops it around his wrist, watching it swing back and forth like a pendulum for a moment before continuing. "Tillamook General notified the CDC, who sent a small team of Epidemic Intelligence Service officers to investigate. Antibodies to Nipah virus were cultured from serum and sputum samples of the deceased victims."
"Nipah virus?" Chase feels an uneasy tug in the pit of his stomach which he cannot entirely explain; he does not know much about this disease beyond the vague memory of reading ominous reports from earlier outbreaks. "Isn't that the thing that killed a bunch of pig farmers in Malaysia?"
"Yes," says House. "And villagers in Singapore and Bangladesh. There have been a handful of outbreaks across South Asia every year since the virus was first identified in 1999. Never in the U.S. before. And never with such virulent person-to-person transmission. Since Griggs's death, an additional thirty cases have been reported. In just over a month."
"What's the treatment?" asks Foreman, frowning.
"There isn't one," answers Chase, slowly remembering the articles from several years prior. "Every outbreak to date has been linked to contact with infected animals, and contained by destroying the livestock in question."
"So what animal did Austin Griggs get the virus from?" asks Foreman.
"So far, the CDC team has not been able to identify any infected animals in Oceanview," says House, tapping the marker against the board. "But the virus is still continuing to spread. Three new suspected cases reported this morning."
"And what do they want us to do?" asks Chase. "They have their diagnosis. They know what the virus is."
"They don't want us to diagnose a patient," says House. "They want us to diagnose a town. Oceanview is less than fifty miles from Portland. If a disease this virulent got loose in a major city, it could be all over the world within a matter of days. Can't contain an epidemic if you don't know how it's spreading. That's why the CDC wants our help to identify a host."
"And how are we supposed to do that when the outbreak is two thousand miles away?" asks Chase, suddenly skeptical again. House is getting an uncharacteristic amount of enjoyment from this case; ordinarily, he would be irritated by this sort of request. But today he seems almost amused, a clearly inappropriate reaction to a threat this serious.
"We can't," says House, and clearly this is the point he has been waiting to make all along. "That's why you're going to Oceanview tonight."
"What?" Chase stammers, too shocked to care whether he sounds unprofessional. "Why me?"
"Because you're expendable," says House. "Shouldn't have worn a red shirt today. Besides, you didn't really think I was going to go, did you?"
"Why am I expendable?" asks Chase, suddenly and unexpectedly angry. "I've worked for you longer than anyone else. I've put up with your crap for ten years!"
"That doesn't make you valuable," says House, completely unfazed by the outburst. "It just makes you a pushover. Consider this a favor. Maybe a change of scenery will get you out of the rut you've been in."
Feedback is always appreciated! :)