A/N: I recently started watching House, and well... this happened.
Disclaimer: This story is for entertainment purposes only. I own nothing.
Nothing is free. Everything has to be paid for. For every profit in one thing, payment in some other thing. For every life, a death.
(Ted Hughes, "The Tiger's Bones")
It's not a very noteworthy fact, if he's being honest—unless you take into consideration that he seems to be the only one who can wrap his brain around the concept. No one thinks ahead, no one notices the pattern; because they don't bother looking for answers they think they already have. But he does. Sure, he sees Point A and Point B just like the rest of them, and the line that connects the two. (Of course every beginning will have an ending, though it's never that simple, and if it is, he doesn't allow himself time enough to care and play dot–to–dot.) It's the points they keep forgetting—the tiny, insignificant events that produce several more bold lines and create a picture, a map—a mental diagram he can read and interpret for his three little monkeys and the occasional dying patient. He lays out the cards as they are, the hand some will marvel at later when they discover he's right. The hand some will think he had up his sleeve from the start. The hand some will shy away from when their instincts kick in and tell them he's crazy and they start to believe it.
Maybe they're right. Maybe he's wrong.
But it doesn't matter.
Until it does.
And then you die.
He lets the words crash over him like an endless tidal wave, play on constant repeat as he limps down the hall to his office, finding comfort in the harsh reality of truth, eagerly toeing the line between what is easy and what is right—as he has done for as long as he can remember. Going to his office? Easy. Diagnosing a patient and giving them the proper treatment? Right. There is no middle ground, and he knows it.
So, today, he takes the easy route.
He stops at the glass door, eyes following the reflection of Cuddy as she stalks right past him without a word, immensely relieved she doesn't stop by for a chat about his recent truancy in the clinic. But, then again, when would she ever pass up the opportunity to tell him how to do his job? And then he frowns, catching sight of a growing pile of mail overtaking his desk. And he wonders how he could have let Cameron off secretary duty for such an extended period of time . . . and can't remember.
A strong sense of wrongness floods his veins, mixing perfectly with the blood to breed panic beneath his ribs, where his heart quickens, pumping at an astronomical rate. The poison courses through his body in seconds and sets his veins alight with fire, forcing him to his knees. His mind surges on as his vision blurs and stomach churns, collapses to the tiled floor, face pressed to the boring color and design, light shooting around the glass door to his office like stars, constricting his pupils even as he fights to keep his eyes open, to think, to breathe, to stay alive.
And then the pain vanishes.
As if there had never been any at all.
But he knows better.
He glances around when he sits up slowly, watching, detached as nurses and doctors alike pass him by without even so much as a hint of concern, a nod of acknowledgement. The hot anger that suddenly bubbles in the pit of his stomach is a pointless follow–up to the momentary confusion—pushing himself to his feet, he knows it instantly, the fluorescent lights overhead dimming and flashing faintly as if about to give out. Which, oddly enough, seems more important to the nurses and doctors he's never bothered to associate himself with than his unforeseen collapse.
But he doesn't blame them.
Because how can he expect them to give when he does nothing but take?
That's when it dawns on him. Experimentally, ever–so–slightly, he shifts his weight to the bad leg that's labeled him a cripple. There's no pain. Zilch. Nada. And he knows something isn't right. He's lived with pain long enough that it's impossible for him not to be aware of its absence. He reaches into the pocket that always contains a bottle of Vicodin pills—and instead his hand brushes against a much softer material. Looking down, he finds he's barefoot and wearing a hospital gown.
And the scene has changed when he glances back up. No longer is he outside his office—why had he been there, anyway?—surrounded by heartless medical staff. Maybe he had never been there at all. No, he's been standing at the door to the ICU, taking in the sight of Cameron reading at the bedside of a comatose patient. He shakes his head. "You're pathetic," he tells her hoarsely.
She ignores him completely. And it wouldn't usually rouse a reaction from him, except pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place. So he steps forward on his now pain–free leg and follows her gaze when her eyes shift to the unconscious guy who had the misfortune to fall into a coma—and freezes.
Sam snaps his fingers in front of his older brother's face to get his attention. Dean shakes his head and looks back, slapping Sam's hand out of his face. "Dude, do you mind?" His eyes find the waitress across the room again just before she disappears into the back kitchen. "See? You scared her off." Dean sinks his teeth into a juicy Biggerson burger and chews, slightly annoyed. "Way to go," he mumbles around the bite, sarcasm still somehow evident. "You want a cookie?"
Sam sighs heavily. "Can you listen for five minutes?" He scans his laptop screen again. "Okay, it says there have been several power outages in the same section of the building in the past week—"
"So?" Dean asks, shrugging. "Maybe they should call an electrician."
His little brother glares at him as if to say, You think you're real cute, don't you? Pausing to read more of the article, Sam's eyebrows raise. "They already did. Twice in two days."
"And still nada?"
Sam shakes his head. "Nope, nothing wrong with the wiring. The lights still flicker on and off without warning, though, which apparently reduced a mental patient to tears at one point—"
Dean sighs impatiently. "Can you get to the part where we come in?"
He scrolls further down the page, and then highlights a small paragraph, turning the laptop so Dean can read. "Cold spots," he says, as if that solves everything.
Dean frowns. Because it's never that easy. "Ghost? Vengeful spirit, maybe?"
"Looks like it," Sam says, taking back the laptop. His brow furrows. "Weird name for a hospital, though."
"Which one is it again?"
Sam reads the name from the screen like it's a foreign language. "Princeton–Plainsboro Teaching Hospital here in New Jersey."
"Huh," Dean says. "Never heard of it."
Sam closes the laptop and finishes his cup of coffee just as the waitress returns with the bill, at which point Dean sees the interest spark in Sam's eyes, and he grins from ear to ear like an idiot. His younger brother clears his throat, mumbles his thanks quietly, and glances out the window—a good cover–up that fools the unsuspecting waitress, but not Dean Winchester.
He throws his burger down onto his plate and leans forward, forearms pressed to the tabletop, when she's gone again. "What the hell are you waiting for, Sammy?" Dean asks animatedly. "It's 2012—make a move!"
"Cut it out, Dean," Sam says, giving his older sibling a stern look before studying the inside of his empty cup, but not really seeing it. "I mean it."
Dean smirks and his eyebrows raise challengingly. "Make me." He tips his head back, shoveling a handful of fries into his open mouth, chasing them down with a few ketchup packets.
Dean shrugs. "Not really my style." He jerks a thumb in the direction of the young waitress just as she disappears yet again into the back of the restaurant. "You should ask Debbie."
Sam glares dubiously at him. "That's probably not even her name, Sherlock." He glances at the clock on the wall and stands, ignoring his older brother's continued harmless jibes. Sam tucks the laptop under his arm as Dean pulls out his wallet to leave a tip. "Think we can be there in half an hour?"
The elder Winchester stares out the window at his sleek 1967 Chevy Impala gleaming in the afternoon sun and slaps two bills down on the table. "Twenty minutes," he amends. Picking up a lone piece of bacon from his plate for the road, Dean adds, "Tops."
He thinks at first it must be a mistake, that someone's playing a cruel joke—is it April Fool's already?—taken his cane, numbed his leg somehow, gotten a body double. And when he finds faults in this theory, he moves on to the next and much more likely: It's a nightmare. He's dreaming—he has to be. Nothing else explains why there are two of him, but, regardless, he doesn't need the hospital bracelet to confirm what he already knows to be true.
The body is his. Really his.
His respiratory pattern is the first indication, but the other vital signs also point to a coma, the growth on his face brighter than a neon sign, telling him he's been lying there, dead to the world, for three, maybe four days with a hole in his brain. He sees the bandage on his neck, frowning when he tries to remember the second shot. But, bottom line, if he's here, he can't be there. And if he's there, he can't be here. And so his mind spins and he finds himself gripping the side of the hospital bed for support, tempted to pinch the hell out of his arm.
Then he remembers he's not alone.
"Cameron," he says, waiting for her to meet his gaze. She ignores him again and turns a page of the book in her lap. "Dr. Cameron," he tries, nearly shouting. No response. Already, he's had enough of this game. He paces to her side and waves a hand in front of her face. "Allison!"
He huffs out a quick breath. "Okay," he drawls slowly, pulling back, pointing an accusing finger at her. "I see what you're doing here. The silent treatment. Well, I've got news for you, Ms. Bookworm: I'm not dead yet. And two can play this game." He lifts his hand to snatch the book from her hands, but misses, his fingers seeming to go right through the pages. Frustrated, he makes another attempt, only to get the same result. By the third time he's fuming, so he plants his feet, raises his arm, and manages to send the paperback flying in a high arch across the room.
"Wow," he says, laughing at the distance the thing got. He looks back to Cameron with a smile on his face. "Guess I don't know my own—"
But her eyes are darting wildly around the room, searching for what sent her reading material airborne, apparently not seeing him standing three feet in front of her. Cameron steps toward the bed after a moment of unsteady breathing, and he moves out of the way to prevent her crashing into him, surprise gradually slipping from her features and something akin to hope overtaking them. He watches carefully as she takes his body's lifeless hand in hers, and even though he's not fused with it and completely separate from it, his own hand tingles from physical contact with another human being. He holds it out, glances down at it, curls it into a tight fist, knuckles whitening.
It makes no sense.
"So, what?" he asks her back when she releases his hand. "Am I just some ghost to you now?" He points to the motionless body on the bed. "You'd rather have some freaky, lifelike mannequin hooked up to machines as opposed to having the real thing?" He sticks his arms out at his sides to emphasize his presence, but Cameron seems intent on ignoring him in this nightmare, and getting her attention is turning out to be more work than it's worth. "Okay, fine." He shrugs. "I always liked Wilson better, anyway." He waits for a response, but she doesn't have one, and so he turns away towards the door, looking for a calendar or any indication of what day it might be. He's just about to push open the door and step out into the hallway to find the oncologist when it opens.
He passes through the door and through the person who walks in. And then through the door again when it swings shut. He's frozen for a minute as his mind processes what just happened and how it took three tries to chuck a book clean across the room not five minutes before, how he's seemed invisible to everyone he's met. He can see the visitor is Wilson when he whips around, standing next to Cameron by the hospital bed, one arm around her back to comfort her.
"No," he says, shaking his head. "No. I'm not dead, you idiots! I'm here, I'm right here—" Why can't you see me?
"How's he doing?" Wilson asks, looking down at the comatose body. He wants to take a step toward them, but his feet aren't working properly, and all he can think is the question must be more for Cameron's benefit than his best friend's own; any doctor could see his body's become a vegetable.
Cameron sighs. "The same."
She studies Wilson for a moment, weighing the sincerity in his voice, knowing her options are limited—that she can't lie to him. "I'm . . . dealing."
His best friend pats her shoulder softly. "He's gonna be just fine, Allison. Trust me, he's one stubborn son–of–a–bitch." Wilson squeezes her shoulder lightly. "He'll pull through this."
Cameron nods once. "Thanks, Wilson."
Wilson dips his head in response and moves to go, but hesitates at the door, his hand wrapped around the handle, concerned eyes fixed on Cameron. Then he shakes his head and his face turns up in a small half–smile. Though Wilson doesn't look in his direction—and it's really starting to freak him out because he's right there—and his best friend's mouth stays shut, he can almost hear him say, You don't know how lucky you are, House.
They reach the place in twenty–five minutes, but Dean insists Sam doesn't know how to read a clock (and Sam just looks at the digital one on his phone, shaking his head as he gets out of the car). Looking up at the hospital from ground level, Sam feels like an ant in comparison—tiny, unimportant.
"So, uh . . . what's wrong with you?" he asks, shoving his hands deep into his jean pockets as he glances at the driver over the Impala's hood, squinting in the sunlight.
Dean's eyebrows scrunch together. "What do you mean?"
Sam shrugs. "Well, I mean, cancer would work up until they start running tests, and then, you know, the whole explaining thing. . . ." He tilts his head, considering Dean. "You could probably fake a believable hacking cough, right? We could say you have bronchitis or something—"
Dean holds up a hand, secretly relieved his little brother had been referring to his staged illness; heart–to–heart talks really weren't his thing. "I'm not much of an actor, Sam. And neither are you."
He nods once. "Right." Sam looks away to think, surprised when Dean steps into his line of vision. He looks at Dean first in confusion, then wearily as he sees the determination written in his older sibling's features, as nothing good ever comes from that expression.
"Come on," Dean says encouragingly, voice dashed with a hint of impatience, gesturing for him to take a swing. "Punch me in the nose, and let's get this show on the road, okay?" As Sam's incredulousness morphs into obvious reluctance, he spreads his arms wide. "What? Okay, look, I know it's not ER material—"
"No," Sam agrees, swallowing hard. "It isn't."
"—but it'll get us in there," Dean continues, as if Sam never interrupted. "So . . ." He flicks his hand in annoyance at Sam. "Get angry—or something."
Sam laughs at the ridiculousness of the situation. "Dean, this is stupid."
Dean considers. "Sure it is, but unless you have any better ideas there, Einstein, I vote for this."
So Sam thinks on it, and then smiles a mile wide. "Actually, yeah," he says. "Yeah, I think I do."