House stood in the departure hall of the airport, a lone figure in the middle of the milling crowd. All around him were people with their loved ones – embracing, saying goodbyes, saying hellos.
He looked at the huge board looming above his head. He wanted to get somewhere far away from here, as soon as possible. He didn't want to just fly to another state. He wanted to leave – make a clean break, to go where nobody would know him.
He scoured the list of destinations, looking for flights that would leave within a few hours. One particular country caught his eye. Singapore. He'd been there for the WHO conference a few years ago. With Cuddy, he thought with a sharp pang in his heart. He determinedly pushed that thought away.
He had liked it. Multi-racial and a melting pot of cultures. Modern yet traditional. Rich in culture. Well known for its high standards of medicine and healthcare. Tropical weather, so no pesky winter to wreck havoc on his leg.
He limped over to the airline counter. A little voice in him told him he was being a reckless idiot to fly all the way across the world to escape, but he ignored it, too desperate to leave the disaster that was his life, behind.
"I'm sorry, sir, there are no more seats available in business class… The only seat I can offer you is a window seat in Economy." Then the woman at the counter seemed to notice that he was leaning heavily a cane. Immediately, a look of pity appeared on her face, and she said apologetically, "It is adjacent to an empty seat though."
He scowled at her obvious pity. Nodding curtly, he handed over his credit card. He knew Wilson would probably trace him using his account number, but he didn't care anymore. By the time Wilson found out, he would be gone, gone, gone.
Two hours later, as the sun was rising, he found himself limping down the flight aisle towards his seat. Immediately, the memory of attending the WHO conference in Singapore with Cuddy came to his mind.
The flight attendant hovered behind him anxiously. He'd refused to take a wheelchair; instead insisting on passing them his cane later after he was seated.
He stopped at Row 32. Seated in the aisle seat was a dark-haired woman, her nose in a book.
She raised her head to look at him when she realized he was standing there. Then she hastily got up.
Her eyes travelled to his cane. "Would you like to switch places with me…?" she queried as she gestured to his cane. Her voice was low and pleasant, and there was no trace of pity in it. It was just matter-of-fact.
"No," he snapped.
Instead of recoiling or shooting him a dirty look, she instead raised her eyebrows skeptically at him, then stepped aside to let him in.
No more words were exchanged between them. He handed his cane off to the flight attendant, and then sunk down into his seat with a sigh of relief. He whipped out his phone, preparing to turn it off. Then he noticed the numerous messages and missed calls from Wilson. They were just short of hysterical.
Somehow, his disappointment in Wilson not withstanding, he knew he owed his best friend at least an explanation. After all, Wilson had stood by him all these years despite all the shit that had come their way. And it was after Mayfield that Wilson took him in.
He typed out a hasty text to Wilson: I'm fine. Going away for a while. He hesitated, then added, Don't worry.
Then he switched his phone off, and closed his eyes, waiting for the plane to take off.
Soon, the plane was travelling down the runway.
As the plane lifted off from the ground, House felt a strange sense of accomplishment. He'd really done it. He was leaving. He didn't know if he was coming back, or what he would do in Singapore. But right now, filled with desperation to escape from his lonely life in Princeton, he was pretty sure he was not coming back in the near future.
Still, there was a sense of regret. How had it all come to this? Years of friendship with both Wilson and Cuddy, and here he was now running away because he couldn't handle seeing them happy while he was still miserable and was desperately fighting against the current. Especially Cuddy. He couldn't take seeing yet another woman he loved getting married to another man.
But he would miss Wilson. Maybe he would contact Wilson when he felt ready.
But he didn't want to think about it anymore. He was leaving. That was that. He was, after all, the king of compartmentalizing. He was headed for a new beginning. He was not going to ruminate anymore. He was a firm believer that what he was in control of was the future, and what was coming his way. There was no use thinking about the past – it wouldn't change anything.
As he felt the plane climbing, it felt as if he was leaving everything behind too. He peered out the window and watched the New Jersey landscape shrink and drop away, only to be obscured by the white clouds.
He felt empty. But empty meant that it didn't hurt anymore.
He found himself rubbing at his thigh. The pain was bad. It was sharp and stabbing, no doubt protesting his climbing in and out of rubble just hours ago. He rubbed it hard, with long and deep strokes.
He stretched his leg as far as was possible in the cramped space. Even intruding into the foot space of the empty adjacent seat, he couldn't stretch his leg fully. Economy class seats weren't made for people six feet tall.
Thankfully, the plane leveled out at that moment, and the seatbelt sign went off with that signature ping.
He turned to the woman sitting in the aisle seat. Her nose was still buried in her book. In fact, she seemed to be concentrating so hard that her tongue was sticking out the side of her mouth.
"Excuse me," he interrupted, "I need to go to the washroom."
He didn't really want to piss off his seatmate, with whom he was stuck with for the next twenty or so hours.
She looked up, startled. Then she hastily got up, and let him out. He thought he could feel her staring as he walked down the aisle, using the backs of the seats to support himself. But he looked back, and her nose was still buried in her book.
He walked towards the back of the plane, and there, walked a few circuits around the galley and the washroom area. The flight attendants no doubt noticed his limp, and let him be. He was beginning to regret choosing a country that was a full day's flight away.
When he got back to his seat, however, he noticed it was occupied. She had moved from her aisle seat to the window seat. His seat.
"That's my seat."
She looked up from her book. Spotting his scowling face, she shrugged too innocently. "I like the window seat."
"Well, I'm not moving," she shot back. "I like leaning my head against the window." And she promptly stuck her nose back into her book, ignoring him. She leaned her head against the window, as if to prove her point.
Usually in situations like these, he would have shot back with a "It's none of your business" or "I don't need your pity."
But this time, it was different. Maybe it was the fact that his leg was killing him. Or the way she said it. She didn't seem to pity him. But he found himself sitting down in her seat. He resumed his long, emphatic strokes to try and calm the muscle as he stretched his leg out fully into the aisle.
He turned his head slightly to observe his seatmate slowly out of the corner of his eyes.
She was extremely attractive, with long and wavy hair that ended just past her shoulders. She had slightly Asian features – Asian mother? Father? – and her eyes were large and almond-shaped, but he could also see that they were bloodshot and surrounded by eye bags. Lack of sleep, possibly crying the night before. She looked about thirtyish, nearing forty. She was dressed simply in a plaid shirt and jeans, and she was slender but athletic looking.
Most strangers he met coddled him or outright pitied him or were uncomfortable around him, which he absolutely detested. But she didn't make a fuss out of it all, instead taking it in her stride and making it seem like he was just any other person. He could detect no pity or attempt to put on an act.
"I can feel you staring, you know."
She tore herself away from her book, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. His blue eyes met her dark brown eyes.
She added, "I would say it's rude, but it kinda makes sense to do so since we're going to be stuck in this space together for the next twenty hours."
He nodded curtly.
"You don't really like to talk, do you?" She set her book down on her lap, and extended a hand. "Alyssa Reeves. We might as well introduce ourselves, since we're going to be about three feet apart for the rest of the flight."
He warred with himself internally whether to reject her handshake, or to introduce himself.
"Greg House." And they shook hands.
He thought that she would try to continue conversing with him, but she surprised him by going back to her book.
He too, turned back to face the front of the plane. His right hand resumed rubbing his thigh emphatically. It was still bordering on unbearable. At that moment, the seatbelt sign came on. Great, now he couldn't even pace to get his mind off his damn thigh.
He gritted his teeth. He could feel himself breaking out into a sweat. He popped two ibuprofen and dry swallowed them. He closed his eyes, and willed sleep to come.
He was jerked out of his doze by the smell of coffee permeating the air. He opened his eyes. The meal carts were rolling down the aisle, doling out breakfast. Crap. That meant he couldn't extend his leg anymore. As the cart approached their row, he grit his teeth and gingerly supported his right leg with his hands, bending it and shifting it away from the aisle. He was breathing heavily by now. He probably couldn't extend the leg again until mealtime was over – there was way too much movement in the aisles, and someone would probably trip over his long legs and jar it, and there was no way he was going to subject himself to that sort of torture.
This was why he never ever attended conferences overseas.
He closed his eyes.
He vaguely registered the flight attendant placing a tray of food in front of him. He didn't touch it. With haze of pain he was in, the nausea made it impossible for him to ingest anything. He was certain congealed scrambled eggs, leather-tough bacon and soggy hashbrowns wouldn't agree with his roiling stomach. Even the coffee didn't hold any appeal.
He didn't realize when the tray was taken away, or when mealtime was over.
What he did register sometime later was his hand, which was situated over his right thigh protectively, being shifted away gently and replaced with a hot object. As the heat eased the pain in his thigh, he found himself gradually able to focus on his surroundings.
He opened his eyes to find several hot towels stacked on his right thigh. A plastic sheet was between the towels and his jeans, preventing his jeans from getting wet. He turned to his left, to see Alyssa reading.
She must have seen him turn, for she put down her book. "You're back."
He ducked his head to look at the towels on his thigh. Resentment and bitterness boiled up in him. Damn that leg of his. Damn the crane collapse and him having to treat Hanna. He saved her life with that amputation. And then she died from a complication they couldn't prevent. Damn the stupid infarction. Damn everything. Everything seemed to be going against him. Now he had to endure the pity of a complete stranger.
"It was none of your damn business," he hissed at her.
Alyssa narrowed her eyes at him. "You're most welcome," she replied sarcastically. "Are you like that to everyone you meet, or just people who try to help you?"
"You had no right to stick your nose into my business," he retorted firmly. "Just stay out of it."
At this, she put down her book on the seat between them, and leaned over. "You are a chronic pain – "
"How do you – "
"You have a limp. You rely on a cane. You pace to get your mind off the pain. You rub your leg to try ease the pain. You popped pills, probably painkillers. You couldn't eat, because of the nausea from the pain. And your leg was practically killing you, which was why you were so out of it just now," she listed, her eyes blazing. "And don't tell me that you have muscle ache or whatever other lousy excuse because I'm way smarter than that, Greg House."
He looked at her, a little taken aback at how frank she was, considering the fact that they were practically strangers to each other.
She ploughed on.
"And you know what? It is my business, because it hurts to see other people in pain. And so it hurt me to see you in pain. So yes, I had a right to try and help you."
She took a deep breath, but she seemed nowhere near to finishing.
"And I know it's probably the pain making you snap at me and speak in that horrible, cutting tone of yours. So I'm fine with it. You probably aren't the arrogant jerk you appear to be. Maybe you're a very nice man. Who knows? Pain changes people in horrid ways. So, once again, really, you're welcome."
She finished her fiery little monologue, her mouth set in a stubborn line. A pregnant silence hung in the air between them, the two of them staring daggers at each other. She didn't seem fazed by his famed glare - that same glare that caused many a brave soul to cower.
"I don't need your pity," he finally managed to mutter darkly.
"Concern is not the same as pity, Greg House."
They continued glaring at each other.
House was intrigued at how she had seemingly transformed from a mild bookworm, as he had earlier stereotyped her to be, to a little spitfire who wasn't afraid to speak her mind and knock some sense into him. He knew he had been unreasonable to snap at her and tell her to mind her own business. But he definitely didn't expect her to react in the way she did.
And she had been willing to look past his pain. And she recognized the fact that he had snapped at her because he was in pain. Not many could do that.
"It did help," He acknowledged grudgingly before adding hesitantly, "Thanks."
She seemed to soften. Slowly, her facial expression morphed from one of frustration, to one that was a sort of outright embarrassment. She blushed furiously.
"I'm sorry…" she murmured sheepishly. "I'm not usually this blunt to people I met…" She checked her watch, "… about three hours ago. It's just that I was pretty worried when I saw how out of it you were, and so I asked the flight attendant to get me some hot towels and… yeah. You get the idea."
He could see that she was mortified. Actually, that was an understatement.
"Do you always do that? Tell people off, then blush and regret it?"
"Just infuriating strangers like you."
"Good to know."
The tension seemed to melt away.
Her smile crinkled her eyes. "You and I both kind of lost it there for a minute."
She was right about that. He ducked his head in agreement.
"Now… since you don't seem like the sociable type, I'm going to go back to my book now."
She was right about that again, he thought, as she picked up her book again.
House turned back to face the front again, slightly overwhelmed by this woman he had just met.
Alyssa turned back to her book, but her mind was still on Greg House.
He had the most gorgeous blue eyes she'd ever seen. He wasn't handsome in the conventional way, but he was definitely easy on the eyes.
But he was, she could somehow tell, damaged. Not just physically. There was something deeply sad in his eyes -
Okay, stop, she berated herself, You are hardly in a position right now to be thinking about this mysterious man.
She checked her watch.
Eighteen more hours till she was truly free from whom she'd left behind, and welcomed a new person into her life.
Suddenly reminded of why exactly she was flying to Singapore, she found no interest in her book at all. She closed her eyes, leaned her head against the window, and drifted off to sleep.
She was woken by a slight movement of her seat. She opened her eyes blearily to find Greg House shifting uncomfortably in his seat. The cabin lights had been dimmed.
"What are you doing, Greg House?"
House glanced over at her, raising his eyebrows at her. "Do you call everyone by their full names all the time?"
She cricked her neck, which was all knotted up from the awkward angle she had fallen asleep in. "Just strangers I meet on a plane who snap at me."
"Call me House."
"You don't believe me."
"You don't look comfortable."
"And it hurts you to see me uncomfortable?" He could barely repress a sarcastic smirk. "Poor you."
She narrowed her eyes at him. This was what, the second time she was narrowing her eyes at him? And she'd known him for only six hours. He was, for lack of a better word, infuriating.
"You are still in pain," she said flatly. "Travelling long-haul sucks for you. And since the seat-belt sign is still on, you can't pace."
She pressed the call button, all the while silently daring him to stop her. For once, he didn't seem to have anything to say.
A while later, the flight attendant reappeared with several hot towels. Alyssa passed the towels to House, who accepted them and arranged them over his thigh. She noticed him relax slightly.
"The flight attendant knows your name?"
"Frequent flyer club. I usually travel business but I had to fly over to Singapore on short notice and ended up here in Economy."
A silence fell over the two of them. She noticed that he was still tense, and fidgeting. Probably fighting the urge to rub his thigh again.
"You should scoot over so that you can elevate your leg on the seat," she finally said.
He looked at her oddly, and did not move. She rolled her eyes at his obvious mule-headedness, and waited. Quite a while passed before he grudgingly lifted the seat handle between his seat and the seat between the two of them, and shifted over to sit right next to her.
She averted her gaze as she watched him lift his right leg up with two hands supporting it. She could tell he was a proud man. He probably hated the pity that naturally came with his limp.
She heard the small sigh of relief as he finally settled his leg comfortably on the chairs. His foot stuck out into the aisle though, especially since he was so tall. But it was better than nothing.
"Better," he said softly.
Somehow, she got the feeling that the words sorry and thank you were a rarity with this man.
A comfortable silence lapsed before he asked, "So what do you do, Alyssa Reeves?"
"Call me Alyssa," she grinned. He didn't seem like one to strike up a conversation but as he fidgeted in his seat, she realized it was an attempt to take his mind off his leg.
"I'm a pediatrician. New York Mercy. You?"
"So we're both doctors."
"You're not going to ask me what a diagnostician does?"
"I think I know. You're Dr Gregory House," she replied dryly. Of course she knew who Dr Gregory House was. She figured it was him after he introduced himself as a diagnostician. "You have quite a reputation. You diagnose illnesses that no one else can figure out."
"Are you going to try kiss my ass now?" Most other doctors did, after they found out who he was. "Or try discuss medicine with me?"
"You think too highly of yourself," she replied dryly, "And I'm a firm believer of having a life outside of medicine."
He was relieved. He didn't think he could deal with an entire flight's worth of discussion and ass-kissing. She didn't seem fazed by his reputation either.
"Good," he said bluntly. "Because I don't think I would be able to stand you for the whole flight otherwise."
"Glad to know I fulfill your basic requirements for a seat-mate," she shot back. "Though at this moment, I can't say the same about you."
He surprised her with a low snort. "I live to not fulfill such expectations." He studied her intently for a moment, curious. "Are you Singaporean?"
"Yeah. Dad's American, Mom's Singaporean. But I've been living in the States for the past ten years now. I'm going home to…" she faltered, and then hastily tried to change the subject. "I'm… For a visit. Why are you going to Singapore?"
"Need a change of scenery."
So he was running away from something too, she mused.
"Singapore's a great place," she offered. "Good choice."
He was quiet for a while. Then,
"Why are you headed for Singapore?"
She hesitated. She probably would never see him ever again anyway. "Ex-husband. And I've become the legal guardian to my nephew. My sister and her husband passed away in a car accident last week… Your turn."
An awkward silence fell upon them.
"I'm sorry about your sister." He'd never been at ease with offering words of comfort.
She smiled sadly. "Life can't be great for everyone."
He silently agreed.
His voice was quiet. "Just going away for a while… A break."
"All the way across the world?"
"I just needed to leave it all behind."
"Me too," she agreed softly as she looked out the window.