A/N: Thanks everyone for the reviews and hope you all had a happy new year! I didn't expect many comments, because as I said at the start this is kind of an in-joke story. But I'm really glad so many of you enjoyed it and I'm so grateful you took the time to leave a review. I'm also very glad that there are lots of people out there like me, willing to keep up their faith and patience in the hope that we get the House back that we know and love. I had to give this final chapter of House's dream (or is it?) to myself - please forgive the self-indulgence. :)
He blinked to adjust his eyes to the darkness after the bright lights of the hospital. As objects became clearer, House was aware of movement to his right. A woman walked towards him out of the blackness beside the eighth door. She had blond hair and light eyes and he pegged her for Australian before she even opened her mouth and revealed those uniquely flat vowels.
"Hi," she said quietly. "It's nice to see you."
"You've done well."
He shook his head. "Not really." He hadn't solved the puzzle yet.
"Thanks for being in my dream," she said.
"I thought you were in mine?"
"It's strange how it works that way, isn't it? Maybe this is your dream inside my dream? Someone should write a movie about it."
"I don't understand." House wished he had a dollar for the number of times he'd said that in this dream.
"I know. But that doesn't matter so much here. What matters is solving the puzzle."
"I can't." House threw up his hands in defeat.
"You've got all the pieces," she said, her head to one side, giving him a thoughtful look.
"No I don't. I only barely remember everything I was told at each door, and that's only thanks to that woman from Louisiana giving me the clues."
The woman didn't seem to mind. "Let me show you."
The eighth door stood beside them, shimmering and fading in and out, as it had been since he'd arrived in this place.
She waved a hand and the non-corporeal door lifted and began to rotate. It flipped up until it was floating flat in the air, parallel with the ground. And then it began to shrink. It floated as it shrank, moving slowly, and House and the blond woman followed it. The table that had once held the snacks was now empty and the door hovered above it, lowering slowly, continuing to shrink. By the time it landed with a gentle bump on top of the table, it was about the size of a sheet of paper. Its edges glowed more firmly than they had before, but House wondered if that was a trick of the light.
"See?" The Australian woman took his hand and tugged him closer. "This is the puzzle. Now you just have to make the pieces fit."
"But, how?" House still didn't understand.
The woman reached into his front jeans pocket, searching around with long fingers in a terribly intimate manner.
"What the . . . !" House started, jumping back in surprise.
She gave him a wicked grin and a wink. "Couldn't help myself." But then her hand emerged, holding something.
"What is it?" Curiosity overcame his sense of personal invasion and he peered at her hand. She opened it slowly to reveal pieces of a jigsaw sitting in a pile on her palm.
"How did they get in there?"
"You collected them as you went; you just didn't realize it. The women you met helped you – they each gave you a piece when you weren't looking."
"They should form a criminal syndicate with those skills," House muttered, annoyed that he'd been reverse-pick-pocketed seven times without his notice.
"I'll suggest that to them," the woman said mildly. "But in the meantime, do you want to take a closer look at these?"
House grimaced, but she was right, he couldn't get this far without trying to finish the puzzle. He took the stack of pieces from her hand and peered at the one sitting on top.
"A heart." The first piece had an anatomical drawing of a heart, sepia toned, with a book beside it. Seeing the picture made the memory flood back. This was much easier than the recall he'd tried to do in the clinic. Although, perhaps that little revision had helped to prepare him.
He looked again at the piece in his hand. He recalled the dark-haired woman and her crooked smile, the way she'd sat in the corridor of his apartment, reading her book with an intense concentration.
The piece was shaped to fit into a corner and House sat it down carefully in the top-left of the door-shaped frame on the table. The piece glowed as soon as he put it in place and then seemed to sink into the frame, matching it perfectly.
The woman beamed at him. "You've got it."
House pointed at the puzzle, his memory clear again. "This was about Sherlock Holmes. About mystery and puzzles being at the heart of everything."
"That's right." She gave him an approving nod. "It's what created the love."
"Love." House echoed uncertainly. He still wasn't sure he understood that.
"Love means different things to different people," she reminded him.
"Right." He nodded. He'd think over that later.
The next piece in his hand was covered with words. Words everywhere, so many and so small he couldn't read them. He brought the piece closer to his face, wishing he had his glasses with him.
"I can't read it," he said, his frustrating showing.
"You don't need to," she soothed. Her hand rested on his arm in a calming gesture. "It's not about the words themselves."
"Plot, it's about plot," House crowed. The typist, her busy fingers, those amazing images on the wall of all those different settings and characters.
He paused, wondering at his own thoughts. Characters, not people, was the word he'd thought.
The blond woman nodded as if she could read his mind. "That's right. It's the writing. The characters. People we meet and learn to care about deeply – even if only for a short time."
"And my . . . friends." Is that who those people were in the pictures he'd seen pinned up on the wall in that room? Friends? But he didn't have that many of them for a start. And he usually remembered . . .
"Yes, your friends," she said, interrupting his thoughts. "And your lovers. And your enemies and acquaintances and colleagues and family and children and—"
"Whoa, whoa." House held up his hands to interrupt. "I think you should stop there."
She smiled ruefully. "Yes, you're right, I probably should."
House took the second piece and fitted it into the top right-hand corner of the frame. Like the first, it glowed and then sunk into the puzzle, joining up with the first piece. The top part now began to look like a solid door, if miniaturized.
The third piece in his hand was simply a watercolor blue. No image, no detail, just the cool, washed-out color.
The woman took his other hand in hers and gave it a comforting squeeze.
"This is to remember the drama," she reminded him.
Yes. The woman who cried for him, he remembered her. She told him to expect pain, and yet a moment later tried to relieve him of it. She told him they wanted his suffering at the same time as they wanted to save him from it.
"Contradictions," was all he said.
"Yes, it does seem that way," the woman replied. She reached up on her toes and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
He frowned at her. "What was that for?"
"For letting us break your heart."
"Thanks," House replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
She just smiled and squeezed his hand again. House squeezed back then returned his attention to the puzzle. Maybe he'd ask her out for a drink after this, he thought. And then he remembered this was a dream.
He somewhat reluctantly placed the third piece just below the first and its picture of a heart, not entirely sure it was in the right place. But it glowed and sunk down, connecting to the side and the first piece, letting him know he'd got it right.
Looking down at the collection of pieces in his hand, he saw that the next one had a picture of links of chain on it.
"Loyalty," he said instantly, remembering the elegant blond woman and her dogs. The sunshine had sparkled on the lake and yet they'd talked of Cate and Antarctica. And Amber's death. Wilson's loss.
He gripped the woman's hand more tightly.
"Yes." She nodded. "Things were difficult. External influences as well as internal ones. But loyalty paid off, with heart, and sorrow, and story." She pointed at the three pieces of the puzzle that had already been placed as she spoke.
He nodded. He was beginning to see how it all fit together. "And this piece goes here." He put the chain-link-decorated piece on the right, under the one covered in words. It sunk into place, clicking in softly with the piece above, but there was a space left in the middle.
The next piece had swirls of color all over it. He remembered the two women in their silk dresses, the flowers and the whisky, the reminders of his hallucinations. Things that had felt right at the time but had turned out to be a terrible mistake . . .
"This one was about trust," he said. "In the grand design."
"Having faith," the woman agreed. "Something that's very difficult for you – we understand that."
"But it's been difficult for you too, hasn't it?" He gave her a piercing look, wondering how he knew that about her.
She blushed slightly and didn't meet his eyes. "Yes. It's been difficult. I've kind of lost my faith." She took in a breath and looked back at him, her expression earnest. "But I guess the fact that I'm here – that we're all here – means there is still some trust there. Some vestiges must still exist. I guess I want to have faith that the mistakes that have been made will be corrected. That's what finishing the puzzle is all about."
House caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye and looked around. He realized that the women behind the doors of each puzzle piece that had been fitted had emerged and were standing in their doorways, halfway between this space and their own, watching him. They each looked slightly anxious – he could almost feel their silent willing of him to complete the puzzle.
The two women from the fifth door were still inside their little room, but the door was open wide. They gave him encouraging smiles and flicked their hands as if to hurry him up.
House placed the piece under the blue one, in the bottom left corner of the door frame, and it fitted in with a glow.
He turned and gave the two women the thumbs up. They grinned back at him and stepped into the doorway, fighting good-naturedly with each other for position.
The next puzzle piece had a picture of a lion on it.
The activity room at Mayfield. The woman from Philly who wouldn't let him leave before he'd admitted what it was about his life that he had pride in. She'd told him that these women all had things to be proud of too.
"There's a lot to be proud of," he said.
"Yes, there is. And whatever happens, I'm not going to lose sight of that." Her voice held a steely thread of determination. "If nothing else, I've learned to spell everything with a 'z' and without a 'u'."
House considered her for a while and gave her a short nod. "Good for you."
The sixth piece fitted in the bottom-right corner of the puzzle, sinking in like the others with a glow. The frame was now filled but for two spaces in the middle.
House picked up the last piece in his hand. The image on it was of box tied up with ribbons. "Patience," House muttered.
"You know how the lessons have been mixture of lessons for you and lessons for us?" the blond woman asked, squeezing his hand gently.
"I think in this one it's very clear. The message about patience-with-a-C is for us. We have to be patient. We have to wait for something good to happen, for the reward for our trust and faith and pride and love. The message for you is about patients-with-a-T, to not forget how important they are, and that you, being a doctor to your patients, is why we're all here in the first place."
"Well duh. I didn't do all those years in medical school to become a tax accountant."
She gave him a satisfied smile. "Good."
He placed the piece at the top, in the empty space that had been left in the middle by the other pieces. It sunk down and glowed, and House was filled with a sense of satisfaction – until he saw that there was clearly space for one more puzzle piece to be fitted.
House looked down in his hand – empty. He searched his jeans pocket – nothing. He searched every pocket, but still nothing.
"There's one more piece!" he said, beginning to feel frantic. "And I don't have it."
"It's okay," she said calmly, "I do."
"Well why didn't you say?" House muttered, feeling stupid for his panicked pocket search.
"Here it is."
The woman produced a piece of paper from somewhere. It was far too large to fit into the space left empty in the puzzle.
"But that won't fit."
"Leave that to me," she said with a mysterious smile. "Here you go." She handed him the paper and an elegant fountain pen.
House looked at the paper. He couldn't read the words, but it seemed familiar somehow. And he knew what he had to do without hesitation. He rested the end of the paper on the table and bent over to sign it with a flourish.
He looked down at the signature. He could make out an "H" but the rest was almost indecipherable. One thing was clear: despite the "H" it didn't say Gregory House. It didn't appear to be his name at all. And yet it was.
He handed the page back to the woman.
"I think I'm beginning to understand," House said, as he watched the Australian woman fold the piece of paper he'd signed.
She folded it again and again, making it smaller and smaller, until finally it was the perfect size to fit the gap in the puzzle.
She presented it back to him with a sad expression that contrasted sharply with the satisfaction House was himself feeling.
"Why are you sad?" House asked.
She gave him a weak smile. "Because we can't know if you've really learned your lessons – not yet." She looked down at her feet. "We can't know yet whether we've lost everything we've been working towards. It will reveal itself over time."
He lifted her chin until her eyes met his.
"Faith and trust, remember?"
She blinked and a single tear tracked down her cheek. House wiped it away with the back of his finger.
"So you do remember." Her voice was almost a whisper.
"I remember." House recited his lessons. "Faith and loyalty. Stories and drama. Pride and patience."
"And love. Don't forget the love."
"And love. I won't forget the love." Compelled by the whim of whoever it was that was dreaming this dream – for he was no longer sure who that was – House placed a gentle kiss on her lips. When he pulled back, he was pleased to see she was smiling.
House looked down at the folded piece of paper in his hand. He had to complete the puzzle, that much was sure. He gently placed the paper into the gap in the middle of the frame, grinning in genuine pleasure as it glowed and sunk into place, completing the door. The whole frame gave off a joyful glow now, bright enough to illuminate the darkness of the space.
"We're all very happy to see this," the woman said, her composure seemingly restored.
She made a small gesture and House looked around. All the women had come out from behind their doors and were smiling at him. Other people had appeared too, emerging from the darkness – a woman holding a baby waved and smiled at him; House gave her a salute-like wave in return. More women appeared, all different shapes and sizes, creeds and colors, but all smiling. House even noticed a couple of guys in the throng; both gave him a nod in acknowledgment.
His blond companion gave another wave of her hand and the completed door puzzle floated up in the air again.
"Now what?" he asked.
"That's entirely up to you," she said with a little shrug. "It always has been." She flicked a hand and the door reversed the journey it had made earlier, floating back over to its place, spinning until it was perpendicular, settling into place, solid and whole, next to the seventh door.
House walked over to it and put his hand on the doorknob. As he touched it, the door changed and instead of the images from the puzzle pieces he'd placed, the door shimmered and turned green – a solid, British racing green. A brass letter "B" sat beneath the doorknocker.
"Thank you," he said, turning around, meaning it for everyone in the room. A chorus of "thank yous" and "good lucks" and "make us prouds" washed over him.
He opened the door and stepped through, ready for whatever he would find on the other side.