TITLE: Exit Wounds (8/?)
WARNINGS: Spoilers through 8x11.
NOTE: Sorry for the delay on this. I feel like I've been writing this chapter a few sentences at a time all summer, but I still have more planned! If you want more frequent updates on fandom things (and gratuitously adorable pictures of my birds) you can follow me on Twitter at BirdBrain711.
Cameron chooses the last booth against the wall in the cafeteria, fighting the urge to keep her head down as she wraps her hands around the warmth of a cup of coffee. She has been back in Princeton for nearly two weeks now, and yet it still feels as though she is trespassing here, waiting to be discovered. Glancing around as she takes a sip of the strong coffee, she realizes that she does not recognize anyone else in the room. Though she has never made much of a habit of socializing outside of her department, the familiar atmosphere of other people's routines moving around her own had been a comfort. Now she is forced to acknowledge once more that this world has continued to turn without her, that the life she has temporarily left behind in Chicago will continue forward as well. Not for the first time she feels helplessly torn, a riddle without solution she has created for herself.
"Hiding in the cafeteria?" House's voice makes her jump, though Cameron supposes she ought to have expected this as she watches him slide into the booth across from her.
"I'm not hiding, I'm having coffee," she answers, taking a sip to punctuate her point. "You don't seem to have had any trouble finding me."
"Not hiding," House parrots, slowly. "And yet you're having coffee down here, while Chase is upstairs in physical therapy. I thought you and your Florence Nightingale complex would be all about watching that session like a spectator sport."
"He asked for privacy," says Cameron, attempting to swallow the first subtle stirrings of unease. "Unlike you, I try to respect those requests." House has an angle; he's come here for a reason, and she's almost certain that it will hurt worse than Chase's rejection of her latest attempts at support.
"But you don't," he insists. "Not when you think someone needs your help. You poke and prod until they give in and act grateful."
"Maybe I've changed," Cameron answers flatly. She knows instantly that he is baiting her, though she is unsure what he hopes to accomplish, how he plans to use her vulnerabilities this time.
"And maybe I'll be running the New York Marathon this year," House shoots back, without offering any further explanation.
Cameron draws in a deep breath, and takes a deliberately slow sip of her coffee. It has begun to get cold in the relentlessly artificial hospital air. House is unnervingly still, simply watching her with a gaze which seems to travel beyond her, into the past.
"What are you doing here?" she asks at last, willing to grant him this small concession in order to simply move forward.
"Interviewing," says House. "Too bad you didn't think to buy any food. Then I could have had lunch, too."
"What, I've been gone so long that you've forgotten who I am?" Cameron snaps back, increasingly unsettled. "Or did you just miss psychoanalyzing me?"
"Dr. Cameron," says House, ignoring her question, voice swelling with familiar grandiosity. "You might be aware that I am short one team member."
"Because you think Chase will finally be done with your insanity after this, or because you're trying to scare me into believing that he won't get better?"
House shrugs, unfazed by either accusation. "Those are two possibilities. Either way, I've got an open spot for a while. Or longer. Of course, there's also the convenient fact that hiring a third woman for my team would make the upcoming departmental Jello wrestling tournament much more interesting."
Cameron rolls her eyes, rapidly losing patience with this ploy. "Seriously, House. What's your goal here? To run me off after you wanted me to come in the first place? Test how much you can manipulate me now? To humiliate me, make me cry in front of the whole class? Not going to happen."
House shakes his head, growing serious for the first time in this conversation. "My goal is to offer you a job in my department. What exactly is your plan? Moonlighting for pocket money while you're here?"
"My plan is none of your business," Cameron answers, tensing.
"Do you really think I haven't done any digging on you in the past two years?" House asks, darkly. "I know that you're not exactly in a position to be getting any paid time off. You know, there was a time when you occasionally believed I was capable of good intentions."
Only then does it sink in that he is serious, that he actually expects her to take over Chase's position on the team. As if that would not seem the ultimate betrayal. "That was before you ruined my marriage," Cameron snaps, giving in to anger at last, though she is aware it is not entirely rational. "And here you are still trying to play me against him. If you honestly think I would do that to him now, you can go to hell."
House's gaze darkens. "Right. You're here to help Chase. How exactly are you doing that, again? By hiding out here in the cafeteria while he goes to therapy? Helping him check out of the hospital too soon? Allowing him to continue avoiding any kind of emotional reaction to the fact that he'll probably never walk again. Yeah, that's really helpful."
"He wanted to be alone!" Cameron answers, realizing belatedly how loud her voice has grown when a woman at the next table turns to stare. "He's angry. What do you expect me to do?"
"I expect you to push," says House. "I expect you to poke and prod and make that ridiculously concerned face you're so good at. I expect you to be who you were before you left, because that's what Chase needs right now."
Cameron bites her lip, looking down into the depths of her now-empty coffee cup, familiar doubt settling weightily on her shoulders. House is right, she knows. House is always right. Things with Chase feel impossibly fragile now, moment to moment like spinning glass. "Maybe I don't remember how."
"Take the job," says House, evenly. "Might jog your memory."
"You don't really want me on your team." Suddenly it seems unmistakably clear. "You just want a way to keep tabs on me and Chase."
House does not offer a denial. "Money doesn't hurt either."
After therapy, Chase is pale and silent, obviously in pain though he refuses to admit it. Cameron allows him the space as they leave the hospital, stealing sideways glances at him on the short drive back to his apartment. The conversation with House has left her questioning everything once more, doubting her ability to help here. He is right, she thinks, that she has been allowing Chase distance, allowing him the comfort of avoiding his own emotions, or at least avoiding sharing them with her. It has seemed like the safest course to take, given the circumstances, and given his resentment when she'd gotten too close.
Now she is reminded that physical distance is what's made her feel so responsible for his self destruction. It seems that perhaps emotional distance might be just as bad.
"How was therapy?" she asks at last, as she helps him from the passenger seat into the wheelchair they have on loan from the hospital. It feels odd having him in the chair, though over the past week he has grown more adept at this particular routine. Still, it is an unwelcome reminder of that eternal year with her first husband, in which she'd learned far more supportive care than any other time in her true career.
Chase shrugs, offering no further answer as she wheels him up the sidewalk toward his building, silently grateful that it is a mild winter, saving them the danger of icy ground. The elevator ride makes Cameron feel intensely vulnerable on his behalf, instinctively ready to protect him from questions should one of his neighbors appear. It makes her wonder what Chase is thinking, whether he feels equally threatened by the world right now.
"I'm coming with you next time," Cameron says, when they are inside his living room. House's words have continued to weigh on her, though she still cannot bring herself to fully trust his intention to help Chase.
"What?" he looks up at her finally, as though just registering that they are no longer at the hospital.
His jaw is taut with pain, and Cameron moves quickly to bring him a fresh dose of the pills which have replaced his IV. "I'm coming to your next therapy appointment. I should be there."
Chase swallows the pills with a reflexive ease that reminds her eerily of House, face shifting into a mask of disapproval. "I don't need you to do that."
"But I need to be there," Cameron repeats. "I should have insisted on it today."
"I don't want you there," says Chase, his tone growing more forceful now. "I'm not your play thing, you don't get to come sit around and get off on watching them try to fix me! Not like there's anything to see anyway. Two hours practicing getting in and out of this damn chair. Showing me how to move my legs up and down so my muscles don't completely atrophy while I wait for my heart to heal enough to try and stand up. Turned on yet?"
"That's why you're upset," says Cameron, calmly, ignoring his venom. Suddenly the pieces seem to fall into place. "Therapy's moving more slowly this time."
Chase drops his head into his hands, shoulders shaking as he draws in a long breath. His voice is muffled when he speaks again, filled with exhaustion. "Last time—they had me walking in days. Not a lot, but still—walking."
Cameron kneels in front of him, gently taking his hands so that she can see his face. When he meets her gaze at last, his eyes are filled with grief so intense that she finds it difficult to breathe.
"I'm sorry," she offers, gently. "I just want to be there so they can teach me how to help you. That's all."
"They wanted you to be there today too," Chase admits, swallowing visibly. "God, I'm making House look like a saint, aren't I?"
Cameron laughs wryly, surprised once more by this hint of intimacy. "Not quite yet."
"I'm sorry," he offers, pulling his hands away after another moment.
Cameron nods once, getting to her feet. "Do you want to lie down? I can help you change."
Chase nods in return, but refuses to look at her as they move into the bedroom, as he struggles to get onto the bed. This, too, has become more routine, though Cameron finds it impossible still to remain completely detached, to see this as purely medical. Chase pulls his shirt over his head with visible effort, sinking back against the pillows to watch her pull on surgical gloves. The gauze that protects his stitches feels impossibly insubstantial as she peels it away, pleased, at least, to see that there is no evidence of fresh bleeding. His chest is darkened by bruising around the incision, painful to look at, and he grimaces as she gently cleans the area before replacing the bandage.
"Thank you," he whispers as she throws the gloves into the trash, handing him a clean shirt. Cameron recognizes it suddenly as one she'd often worn to bed when they were together, and the realization makes her heart catch in her throat.
Chase looks up at her when she's been quiet for a moment too long, and Cameron shakes herself, taking a pair of sweat pants from a dresser drawer. He manages to pull them on with her guidance, slowly, a little at a time, the most laborious task he has attempted all day. Afterward, he leans back against the bed again, breathing hard and obviously still in pain. It feels odd not to touch him now, when their relationship has always been so intensely physical, when he is so obviously in need of comfort. Cameron finds herself playing with the sheets again, searching for something else to do.
"I talked to House today," she says at last, because it is the only thing she can think to say. And because she is certain House will do more damage if she does not tell him herself.
"Yeah?" Chase shifts in the bed slightly, exhaling with the effort of even a small movement.
Cameron hesitates, immediately questioning her decision to bring this up now. "He—wanted me to take your spot on the team. I told him absolutely not. That the last thing I want is for him to start playing games."
But Chase shakes his head immediately, surprising her with the intensity of his reaction. His emotions are a complicated rollercoaster now, impossible for her to figure out. "Take the job."
For a moment she is utterly speechless, taken aback by his refusal of her intended solidarity. "Why? I thought you didn't want anything to do with him."
"I don't," says Chase, voice rising again. "But I want you to take it."
"That wasn't the deal," Cameron protests, unsettled by the thought that once again House knows him better than she does. "I came here to help you. I don't want anything to do with House. Not ever."
"I don't care what you want," Chase answers, bitterly. "You have to take it."
"Why?" Cameron presses, feeling overwhelmed by this sudden rush of adrenaline, truly panicked for the first time by the enormity of being back here, of being pressured by House in a way that she's vowed never to allow again.
"Because," says Chase, "House is feeling guilty about what happened. At least I know he's trying to protect me. You—I still don't know what you want."
This time the retort hits her like a punch to the gut, and she finds herself unexpectedly blinking back tears.
"Then maybe I should go back to Chicago and let House take care of you." Cameron regrets the words the moment she's spoken them aloud. He has every right to doubt her, she thinks; what hurts is that she has put herself in this position, has violated his trust so terribly.
"Please don't," Chase whispers, sounding utterly broken again. "God, I'm sorry. I don't know why I keep trying to hurt you."
"It's okay," Cameron answers, but she's said these words so often lately that they are beginning to lose meaning. Carefully she sits on the edge of his bed, needing to be closer though she doesn't dare reach out to him now.
"I wanted you to take the job because I'm selfish," says Chase, surprising her by laying a hand on her arm. "I want you to stay, at least for a while. And I know that I'm not—enough."
"You were enough to get me here," she says quietly.
"But never enough to keep you." Chase lets his hand fall back to the bed, leaving her feeling oddly chilled. "Think I always knew that. Just didn't want to believe it."