AN: I really struggled with the decision to post this story. I originally planned to post this fic in its entirety over the span of one week. But life-well, is not working that way and this story is languishing in my hard drive. So I could use some reviews to spur me on. *winks*
What good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer? - Sigmund Freud
In the cold, grey light he lay awake; staring at the ceiling. Shifting uncomfortably beneath the covers, he lifted one arm from the cocoon of warmth and rubbed his tired eyes. Gooseflesh raised along the exposed skin; testifying to the chill of the room—and the house—in general. Rolling his head along the pillow, he sighted the alarm clock on the bedside table in his periphery and sighed heavily at the hour; it was already 8:30. Given that Wilson had promised him a ride at nine, he reluctantly supposed he should get moving. Before, it wouldn't have taken him ten minutes to shower, dress and charge out the door—as long as he'd remembered to pick up his drycleaning—he'd have made it to work with time to spare. But that was before.
Now. Well, now he knew it would just take longer. Sliding his right hand beneath his thigh, he planted the left hand on the mattress and lifted himself—and the leg into a sitting position. Nerves sparked a warning at the sudden movement, and then settled down into white noise once more. He lifted the covers with his left hand, and cast them aside before cautiously easing his tortuous limb toward the edge of the bed. The leg trembled; the remaining muscle contracted painfully and set the nerve endings on fire. Hissing, he hitched in a deep breath and slid forward slowly until his legs dangled over the edge of the bed. First one, then another slow lurch forward and he was able to set his feet on the floor. Settled on the edge of the bed at last, he paused to regain his breath and stared blankly down at his bare feet until the spots faded from his vision.
On the bedside table, next to the alarm clock were all the accoutrements of his new life—an array of pill bottles both large and small. Benzothiazepine. Hydralazine. Lisinopril. And the newest addition, Embeda—a morphine sulfate and naltrexone hydrochloride blend that had been hailed as a wonder drug in the New England Journal of Medicine. With shaking, clammy hands he reached for each bottle; throwing back one pill at a time and chasing each with a sip of warm bottled water. He remembered the baggie of pre-mixed pills he'd assembled the night before and slipped it into the front pocket of his briefcase. Another glance at the clock showed twelve minutes had passed. Twelve minutes to sit up and slide to the edge of the bed. He bit his lip, crossing right leg over left and leaning to reach the crutches propped on the wall. Readying himself, he centered his left leg and thrust himself stiffly from the mattress. As he rose, he expertly settled the crutches beneath his armpits and wavered for a moment; seeking balance before slowly lowering his right foot to the floor. Five minutes to get to his feet. Shuffling forward on the crutches, he moved gingerly toward the bathroom one step at a time.
The ceramic tile was cold beneath his bare left foot. Without bothering to turn on the light he limped toward the toilet. Propping the crutches against the bath's half-wall, he fumbled with his pajama drawstring before letting them to fall to the floor. He relieved himself, then leaned against the wall to free his feet one at a time from the flannel pants before gathering the crutches up once more and hobbling five short crutch-steps to the sink. Crutches against the wall again, he leaned his left hip into the sink's countertop and balanced awkwardly on one foot. Cranking the water on, he splashed his face and stared forlornly at his image in the mirror. He looked older. Thinner. Appraising his appearance for a moment, he was startled to notice the deepening of the crow's feet around his eyes and quite a few new strands of gray in his hair. Sighing, he shook his head and took up his toothbrush.
Teeth brushed, hair combed—he limped back into the bedroom and paused before the closet. Shoving the door open, he silently studied his neatly pressed suits and selected a charcoal one that he lobbed toward the bed along with a blue dress shirt. He snatched a tie off the shelf, and slipped it around his neck before turning and making his way back to the bed. Sinking down on the mattress, he skimmed his t-shirt off before dressing his upper body effortlessly. He even looped the tie about his neck and tightened the knot before turning his attention to his traitorous lower half. For the first weeks—months—following his surgery he'd been unable to bear even the lightest fabric above the gaping wound. Even the gauze Hourani had initially packed on and around the site had been enough to drive him mad. He'd demanded it be taken off—as soon as he'd been cognizant enough to notice it. For months now, he'd opted to free-ball it at home and only slipped into shorts when on his way to an appointment.
Given that he'd been in a wheelchair for most of the past two months, he hadn't minded the sensation of boxers against his leg when sitting. There hadn't been any sense of discomfort from the way the fabric lay against his skin. Yet when he'd gained his feet, so to speak—the chafing of the shorts beneath the denser material of his workout pants had nearly been unbearable. So he'd switched to boxer briefs—with the right side rolled up just a little bit higher to avoid the surgical site altogether. Reaching into the top drawer of the bedside table, he withdrew both briefs and a pair of socks before sliding the drawer closed. One hand under his leg again, he scooted as close as he could to the edge of the bed and neatly dropped both items to the floor. He squared his jaw then; drawing one deep breath and then another before bending at the waist and leaning forward. Left leg flexed to bear his upper body weight, right leg fully extended; he slowly maneuvered the briefs over his right foot then lifted his left foot closer to step into them. Raising the briefs to his knees, he leaned forward once more to slip his socks on before sitting up again. Bringing the briefs up from his knees, he carefully guided the elastic over the scar and then leaned heavily to the left as he pulled them into position. Satisfied, he paused for a moment to breathe and rested one hand on his leg protectively. The nerves tingled beneath his reach; still agitated from the movement, and he hissed deep lungfuls of air in and out until the nerves quieted.
The dress pants were a similar production; throw to the floor, bend, pull and shift. He had no sooner paused to recover from the latter when the sound of Wilson's key in the lock caught his attention.
"House?" Wilson called, even though House could hear the squeak of his shoes on the linoleum when he closed the door.
"In here." he called back. Still partially winded from his bout of activity, he leaned back on the bed and let his weight melt into the mattress. Given that he'd only been awake—and productive—for a little over half an hour, he dreaded the interminable day ahead.
Wilson appeared in the doorway; still in his suit and winter coat. He leaned casually against the doorframe and studied House intently.
"You made it pretty far by yourself this morning." he commented lightly. House rolled his eyes.
"Mommy, I can dress myself now." he added tartly, and grinned to himself when Wilson shook his head in disgust.
"You think you can manage today? You could always extend your leave."
House shook his head. "I have to go in."
Wilson replayed every moment he'd spent with House since he'd been discharged. House had slowly regained his strength and instead of spending every moment sleeping or stoned, he'd begun to take an interest once more in reading, writing and music. Without glancing into the living room, he could picture the pile of medical journals and sheet music stacked haphazardly on the coffee table strewn with plates, mugs and empty water bottles. House needed something to do, that was for sure. Whether he was ready to go back to work or not—only time would tell. He shrugged then, watching with sad eyes as House pushed himself back into a sitting position before scooting back to the edge of the bed. He reached automatically for the Nikes that had been cast off on the floor, but House swatted him away and began loosening the laces. Wilson rolled his eyes, but when House finished he knelt obediently at House's feet to slip the shoes on and tie them.
"How's that feel?" he asked. By way of reply, House began the laborious process of getting to his feet. Once he was up, he crutched his way out to the front hall closet to get his coat. Wilson trailed along behind; retrieving House's cell phone and briefcase on his way. House was stooped uncomfortably on the crutches as he slid the bi-fold doors open and wrenched his dress coat off the metal hanger. Limping forward one step, he shoved the crutches against the wall and balanced on his left leg while he struggled into the sleeves. Now fully attired, he took up the crutches again and swung the front door open; staring out into the wintry landscape with a blank expression.
Wilson paused behind him, shoulders nearly touching in their proximity. He waited patiently; content to assist or wait for House to make the first move. House shifted his weight slightly, and asked without making eye contact; "Slippery at all?"
"No. Steps are clear. Sidewalk too, all the way to the car."
House nodded, and stepped out into the cold. Wilson followed; using his own keys to lock House's door and then trailed after him. House was starting to move faster with the crutches now; he'd already reached the passenger door and was lowering himself into the seat when Wilson took his own. House heaved the crutches into the backseat before turning himself and lifting his right leg in. He pulled the door shut and breathed noisily for a few minutes while Wilson started the car and fidgeted with the heater and vents. After a short pause, House moved to buckle his seat belt and stared blankly at the windshield. He looked tired already.
And it was only 9:30.
The hospital's corridors were not unfamiliar to him these past six months; though he ruefully reflected most of the time he'd seen it from a wheelchair's height rather than the eye level he was used to. Still, he mused, upright and walking—okay, crutching—was infinitely better than being wheeled through the hospital unable to look anyone in the eye.
He made his way to the elevator with Wilson in tow; standing on his left leg with the heel of his right foot resting lightly on the floor. Wilson was carrying his briefcase for him, and gave him a sidelong look of amusement before looking away again. He was still smiling.
"What?" he asked.
"Remember I told you Aldrich was asking about you the other day? I asked what you planned to tell him." Wilson's smile got bigger. Bastard.
"What about it?" House demanded irritably.
"I think you should decide what to tell him. Quickly."
"Why?" House ground out.
"Because he's headed this way." House turned as sharply as he could on one leg and two crutches, but Wilson was right. Aldrich was striding toward them with a concerned look on his face—concern mixed with relief.
"Greg!" he called anxiously and House rolled his eyes even as the tinny bell announced the elevator's arrival. House, Wilson and three young residents stepped on board, and House almost dared to hope they might duck Aldrich—only to be disappointed when his sweater clad arm was thrust between the doors in the nick of time. He stepped inside, wrapping House in a one-armed hug and squeezing tightly before letting him go once more. Shell-shocked, House said nothing even as Aldrich exclaimed over how much weight he'd lost—and the crutches—naturally.
"Greg! You look terrible—what happened? I heard—well, I heard you were dead."
House rolled his eyes again; staring forlornly at the ceiling as Aldrich went on and on about the rumored explanations for his lengthy disappearance. Aldrich was a sycophant at best; he was a burn specialist who dabbled in ID. He wasn't brilliant, but he wasn't bad. At the very least, House would take him seriously if he had a dog in need of a burn specialist. Aldrich had been pestering him for years now for the chance to work together—and to co-author a paper on the pathology of ID in burn victims. So far, House had allowed him to be a gopher and an occasional spy. Even sycophants had their uses. As far as Aldrich wanting to get the inside scoop—well, he wasn't going to get it from the source. In fact, he was fairly certain Hourani and Simpson would never divulge any information. HIPAA be damned, he had a feeling they were more frightened of Stacy than the confidentiality laws. Even as the elevator stopped at his floor, Aldrich continued to name possible explanations for his absence while he crutched past silently with Wilson following in his wake. Apparently there was no shaking the man, for even as House left the elevator he could hear Aldrich bellow; "It's good seeing you again, Greg! We'll catch up!"
Whatever. At least for the moment he was effectively gone and they were alone on the administrative floor. He crutched slowly down the carpeted hallway and he trained his gaze on the door to the ID bullpen intently. Step. Squeak. Step. Squeak. Step. Squeak. Above the sound of his uneven tread he could make out the sound of his own breathing growing louder and louder. He'd made it twenty-five steps from the elevator when he finally came to a halt, leaning heavily on the crutches. He could feel sweat dampening his dress shirt and beading along his hairline. The trembling muscles in his leg felt like they'd turned to water; and the misfiring nerves were radiating sparks up into his abdomen and back. He breathed through his mouth, and sluggishly tried to guess his heart rate when he saw Wilson set their briefcases down on one of the padded chairs along the bay of windows and come back to stand at his elbow.
"House? What do you need?" he asked a trifle loudly. Sluggish, but not mentally deficient, he gave Wilson a sharp, dirty look. Wilson sighed in exasperation. "You're tachy." He said quietly. He pushed at the lapels of House's heavy wool coat and House grunted faintly as he slid his arm out of first one sleeve and then the other. Wilson took the coat, and gestured at his suit jacket. "You want to keep that?"
House shrugged, and Wilson nodded as he helped House out of that layer as well. Without the added insulation, he could feel some of the sweat beginning to cool. His heart was still racing, and the pain in his leg was beginning to turn his stomach—but he felt as though he could go on without the added fear of blacking out. He resumed his trek to the bullpen; so focused on making it to his office before he collapsed that he didn't notice the surprised expressions of his colleagues as they took in his disheveled appearance. As he limped the last few steps to his desk he dimly noted no one had cleaned it in anticipation of his return.
In any case, he was relieved to have made it that far. He sat quietly, half hunched over his right leg and rubbing furiously when Wilson stepped inside and set the briefcase within reach before he knelt beside him. Wilson lifted his chin and pressed two fingers to his carotid; counting silently while House tried to ignore the dimming of his vision and the way his breath sounded loud in the silent room. After a long time, he began to come back to himself and stirred beneath Wilson's hand. Their eyes met, and Wilson reluctantly let his hand fall from House's neck.
"Are you in there?" he asked jovially, but House could see the worry lurking in his eyes.
"Yeah." House answered hoarsely. He tried to smile. "Guess the distance from the elevator to here was further than I thought. Not up to marathons yet in PT."
Wilson shook his head, and rubbed the back of his neck sympathetically. "You feel up to staying?"
"I'm sure as hell not walking back to the car right now." House mumbled faintly. He glanced up at Wilson, offering a pitiful attempt at a reassuring smile.
"Go on, Jimmy. I'll still be here when you get back."
The detritus of six months' accumulated work was scattered all over the desk's surface. Journals, files and hundreds of pink phone notes had accumulated; the pile fourteen inches high and stacked perilously against the wall. With one hand still cradling his leg, he reached toward the closest stack and rested the other hand upon it. The cool, slick cardstock of the journals was familiar; the crisp scent of the pages mixed with the smell of the coffee from the suite beyond. He breathed deeply, feeling some of his anxiety float away as he scooted his chair forward and began pawing through the clutter. Most of the files on top were newer cases; the older cases—patients he'd been seeing when the infarction had happened—were underneath. He gathered the files together—mostly in order—and set them in a pile. Next, he stacked the journals and then scrounged up the phone notes; throwing the repeated 'get well soon' wishes into the trash and collecting his patients' prescription refill requests to follow up on. The remainder were consult requests—and these he sorted by date and his level of interest.
He was nearly finished—he'd even managed to uncover his keyboard—when without warning his leg tingled and then exploded into a fireball of pain. He barely had enough time to suck in a breath before it was stolen from him. He felt his jaw clench, hissing involuntarily as he curled around the rebellious limb. He felt his stomach turn; sweat broke out on his forehead. He panted, felt the bile rise in his throat. He retched; his abdominal muscles contracted in retroperistalisis and he half fell out of the chair. Gasping, he retched again at the pain and slumped forward onto the floor, forehead resting on the carpet. His vision dimmed; all he could hear was the sound of his heartbeat singing in his ears before he slipped into darkness.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring up into the underside of his desk. The carpet was rough beneath his cheek and the pain in his leg smoldered. Nerve endings tingled, but with none of the malicious intent of before. He longed for the chalky taste of medication on his tongue, but knew without looking it wasn't time to take one yet. Not unless he'd been out longer than he'd thought. He lay still for a long while; listening to occasional footsteps in the bullpen beyond—the ringing of a phone.
He lifted his head from the floor and planted his palm into the thin carpet, pushing himself into a sitting position before blindly reaching up to the desk and snatching the handset.
"Hello?" he asked roughly. There was a pause, and then Wilson spoke.
"Hey. How's it going?"
House consulted his watch before answering; noticing nearly an hour had passed since Wilson had left. He guessed he'd been out for maybe twenty minutes. Without thinking about it, his gaze flickered to the briefcase Wilson had left sitting beside the desk. He could imagine the pills waiting inside; could feel their invisible weight in the palm of his hand.
"I found my keyboard." he said finally, and smiled faintly to hear Wilson chuckle.
"Now you see why I didn't want to grab anything off your desk. I was afraid of starting an avalanche."
"Yeah." he agreed absently. He slid one hand protectively under his thigh and squeezed slightly before letting go. The muscle was quiescent for the moment, but he knew another spasm was likely given his strenuous activity thus far. He made nice with Wilson for another few minutes before placating his way off the phone. He hadn't come to work to spend forty minutes working before passing out. Biting his lip, he hung up and then began the difficult process of climbing back into his chair. One palm planted on the floor; the other gripping the chair's armrest; he pushed himself up and back; blindly falling into the seat and biting his lip as the infarction site pulled but mercifully didn't go into spasm.
He breathed heavily; sighing in relief when he was able to pull his chair forward to the desk and pulled the keyboard close. It was half past eleven.
Time to get to work.
Nearly an hour later, he cracked his neck to one side and then the other. He'd at least made headway on the backlog of emails. Eyeing the clock, he calculated the time of his last dose of painkillers and smiled in relief when he noted it was nearly time. Reaching down, he retrieved the baggie and set it on the desktop; smoothing the plastic and tracing the outline of the pills nestled inside. He decided something to drink was in order as well; he needed something to wash the meds down with. Pushing himself away from the desk with his left foot, he eased a hand along the length of his thigh gingerly. Nerves sparked beneath his touch, but remained quiet. Sighing gratefully, he flexed his right foot experimentally before grabbing his crutches and rising slowly. Weight appropriately balanced, he stepped cautiously around the trash can near the edge of the desk and crutched out into the bullpen beyond.
"Hey, House." Someone called, and he grunted a reply as he made his way into the kitchenette. "How you doing?" Kaplan.
The assistant department head was staring at him levelly; as if gauging his recovery for himself. House paused before the refrigerator for a second before freeing up his right hand to open the door. He stared into the depths for a time before remembering anything he'd had in there would be truly beyond its' expiration date. With a slow, cumbersome about face he limped to the coffee pot before turning to face his unwanted guest.
"Better." he conceded quietly. He released the right crutch and leaned it against the countertop while he reached up to get a mug out of the cabinet. He'd no sooner brushed the surface of the mug with his fingers when Kaplan slipped in and got it for him. And instead of handing the mug over to House to do it himself, he carried over to the pot and filled it for him.
"Thanks." he muttered when Kaplan handed the mug over. He sipped at it for a second, leaning back into the counter and letting his right leg rest with his heel on the floor. Kaplan gave him a hopeful smile, and instead of leaving as House hoped he would; he crossed his arms and shifted to stand there for the long haul. His leg twitched, and he sighed in exasperation when he remembered his meds were still on the desk in his office.
"You look pretty good. Did you have a chance to look at the cases I wrapped up for you?"
House shook his head. "Not yet. Still playing catch up."
"Did what I could to crunch the budget numbers for you, too. The board will still want you to sign off on them, but obviously you'll have an extension."
"Thanks." he said again, throwing back larger swallows of coffee in the hopes of crutching back into the privacy of his office. The last thing he wanted to do on his first day back was get into the groove of running the department again. He didn't want to think about conducting reviews or going over case files or crunching the department's budget.
"How much—" Kaplan started to ask, but House spotted his savior—in the lanky form of Wilson—entering the bullpen.
"Wilson!" he called. "Glad you're here." He continued loudly. As Wilson drew closer, Kaplan nodded in understanding. He'd learned Wilson was ferocious when it came to defending House; he'd been reproached several times for trying to send work home to him. Or when he'd called to ask questions—yes. Best to leave before Wilson caught him.
"Glad you're back, House. Take care." Kaplan muttered quickly before darting away.
"What was that?" Wilson asked as he strolled in. He took in House's lean form; leaning back against the cabinets with his right heel resting lightly on the floor.
"How'd it go this morning?"
House shrugged before offering the half-full mug to Wilson and taking up his crutches. Wilson noted he looked tired and drawn—but overall better than he'd dared hope for House on his first day back.
"Ready to go home?" he asked, following House back into his office.
"Yeah. " House agreed tiredly. He rubbed his forehead; suddenly feeling the full effect of the morning's activity wash over him. He snatched the baggie off the desk and threw back all six pills simultaneously; two Embeda, one Benzothiazepine and three Hydralazine. While he swallowed, he contemplated his accomplishment. He'd made it; he'd gotten back to work.
Now all he wanted to do was go home; sleep, and let the medication kick in.
Work could wait.