Characters: House, Wilson, Cuddy, Stacy, Rachel, Foreman, Chase, Cameron, Hadley, Taub, Adams, Park.
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Greg House. Including his creators. And theirs.
Summary: There's no such thing as life after death – or is there?
On the anniversary of House's death, Stacy found herself staring, as she always did, at his picture. Motorcycle helmet in hand, he straddled his garish Repsol, cane tucked into a clip on the side, jeans tight on his long legs, greying hair wind-tousled and a shit-eating grin plastered across his scruffily handsome face. Alive. Amused. Inspired. Sweet Jesus. Tears burned the backs of her retinas. She missed him.
She widened her eyelids and studied the picture until she could almost taste the gasoline tang of the exhaust fumes, smell the burning oil and the heady unique combination of stale sweat, fresh air and filched hospital shampoo. She licked her lips and some vestige of sense memory spawned the taste of peppermint, bourbon, Doritos and Vicodin on his breath. A tear skidded down her cheek. Its skittering path stirred the skin-memory of his guitar-calloused hand cupping her jaw, his thumb pilfering her grief, nearly raising a smile. Her palm tingled with the sensation of being pressed to that lean, hard, torso; her back bowed at the comfortable recollection of being cinched into a strong, surprisingly gentle, embrace. Her body ached with love and loss, laced with guilt that she could still care so deeply, so much, about this man who had never been, would and could never be, the one she had married.
When the phone rang, she was so immersed in her reverie she half-expected to hear his gruff, irreverent voice on the other end of the line.
The tear-choked whisper jerked her back to the present, made her blink away her own selfish sorrow and squash the secret hope that would not, quite, join House in his deep and peaceful grave.
It would not have been the first time they had cried, said their goodbyes, and reminisced together. But the raw acuteness of Cuddy's wretchedness forewarned her that this was not about the man who had once been, to each of them, a lover, friend, colleague, and pain in the ass. A frisson of alarm scurried through her, sidelining the almost palpable presence of House.
"It's Rachel." Cuddy's voice quaked. "Stacy… Oh God, Stacy, she's dying."
Rachel Cuddy. Nine years old. Purple streaks in her hair from a home-dyeing project with a supposedly saintly best friend. Wickedly devious dark eyes. Too smart for her own good. And with an obsessive fondness for all things pirate. Cuddy hadn't wanted her to suffer through the funeral; but she'd held her tightly at House's graveside, while Rachel sobbed and shouted and hung a much-loved, very battered, eye-patch and a stuffed technicolour parrot from the tombstone.
Suddenly, Stacy could feel House at her elbow, a haunting so intense that the hairs on his arms seemed to scuff against hers and the anxious beat of his heart joined hers as it slammed in her chest.
"What?" Her knees caved and she stumbled back, sagged against the edge of the heavy oak desk in her office, felt for a corner and gripped it with a shaking hand. "Why? Where are you?"
"Princeton Plainsboro." Cuddy sniffed fiercely, her attempt at composure fracturing. "I've been through five hospitals. Ten different doctors. Seven different specialists. Three diagnosticians. I came here because…Chase is my last hope. Chase – and Foreman. Everyone's here, Stacy. Cameron. Hadley. Adams. Park. Taub. House's prodigies. They all came. For her. For me. But they're not helping. She's still dying." She inhaled loudly, blew the breath out again. "I need to sue them."
Stacy choked back an astonished exclamation.
"Lisa…" She caught herself glancing sidelong, her memory conjuring the phantom of a smile across the lips of her invisible dead ex-boyfriend. What? What did he – she – know that she hadn't got her head around yet? "I'm not sure—"
Before she could wrest the crowd of questions jostling in her throat into some kind of order, Cuddy rushed on.
"Since House died, things have been more…careful. I don't know why it is that his team seem to need to be sticking one finger up at the law and logic and life itself, but they do. Help me light a—" She flinched audibly at her own metaphor, remembering the blaze in the warehouse, and truncated it. "Ceilings caving in. Pranks. Litigation. Those are the odds this team have always thrived on. If I have to take them to court, get them fired, get them locked up, I don't care. I'll do anything. Whatever it takes. Help me, Stacy. Help me."
It was mad. Off the wall. Barking bonkers. She could feel her mind racing all the same. A malpractice suit. She'd need details, of course, but there would be a way. Making them dice with, well, death. Force them to prove themselves. Would it save Rachel? Wouldn't it be worth a try?
"Please." Cuddy knew them all as well, if not better, than she did. There was a shred of sanity somewhere in all this. "Please help me." She drew another trembling breath and Stacy could hear her teeth chattering as she sought to clench her jaw, to stave off her mounting panic in search of a solution. "Please. Anything you can do – a Hail Mary – shot in the dark – I don't care! Chase is as close as I'm ever going to get to having House here. And I need House."
Stacy's eyes tracked to the picture, shifted right to the goofily grinning man on the Harley beside House.
"Have you tried calling Wilson?"
Cuddy drew a ragged breath. The phone creaked as if she were hunching her shoulders, hugging herself in one of her old hospital's bright, colourful, children's ward corridors, looking down towards the oncology wing.
"The last time I saw him was at the funeral. He had five months to live. That was five years ago. There're no numbers for him any more. I've tried."
Stacy found her feet. Walking as if on water, she was drawn to the picture. She traced the chevrons on the leather jackets of the men in the photo. That sneaky hope shimmered again, glinting like a visual spill of reckless laughter on the frame's glass.
"Alright," she agreed, almost breathless with the realisation of what she was about to risk. "Alright. I'll clear my schedule and come straight down."
"Thank you." Heartfelt, that. She sounded stronger for her tiny success. It had to be killing her, that all her knowledge, all her love, was rendered so useless by this mystery disease. A tissue rustled as Cuddy blew her nose. "When?"
"Tomorrow, at the latest," Stacy promised. "I'll be with you by the afternoon." She hesitated for a final moment; then unhooked the picture from the wall and stared down at it, wondering. House's presence at her elbow seemed to have vanished. "Lisa—"
"I might know someone who can help. If I make a call…?"
"You can call the Queen of England if you think she can do any good." Cuddy choked on a damp, feeble, chuckle. "Anyone you can think of. Anything you can do. Even if it's just…"
…to tell me I did everything I could.
"I'm coming," Stacy interjected, shutting down that unthinkable, probable, vision of events as if that might somehow keep it from happening.
"Thank you," Cuddy repeated, breath shuddering as if she could shuck off the concept of a tiny coffin herself. "Until tomorrow."
"I'll be there by four."
The line closed and Stacy was left in the humming static with the cold picture growing warm in her hands.
Distractedly, she set the phone aside on the bookcase, and made her way back to her desk, checking to see that her door was closed before she sat. Then, very slowly, she turned the frame over and undid the catches that held the back to the glass. The picture remained in place, neatly tacked to the backing paper. But, tucked between the glossed black sheet and the wooden back, was an envelope, stamped and addressed to her. The postmark was illegible, only the date discernable. She traced it with one lacquered nail. It had been mailed six months after the funeral.
There was no note, nothing to indicate that it was anything more than a last will and whim on the part of a man who knew she would grieve for a lifetime. Nothing, except the certainty that he had known she was every bit as suspicious, clever, and conniving as he was. Setting the envelope aside, she lifted the backing paper and, slowly, carefully, untucked the picture from the sticky corners that held it in place. With one last look at the grinning friends sealed in celluloid, safe from jail, cancer, fire, and worms, she turned the image over. Printed on the back in House's spidery, familiar hand, was a row of numbers.
Stacy fished sightlessly in her desk drawer for her cell phone. Taking a deep breath, she flipped it open and started to dial.