"I hear your disciple is sick."
House leaned back in his chair and watched Tritter pulling Chase's file from his bag.
It didn't surprise him to see the commissioner back in his office.
It was a small world.
"He's perfectly fine."
"I'd like to talk to him."
"Wouldn't be of much help. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer."
"So you're saying he's a bit slow."
"He also has a funny accent."
Tritter tapped his pen onto the folder.
House hated the fact that he was taking notes. It made Chase even more like an object.
"How is he coming along?"
"He needs lots of persuasion. Acclimatization, too."
"Which you're taking care of."
House shrugged nonchalantly. "It's what guidance is for, right?"
"I take it he's initiated by now?"
Their speech was even more revolting than the man who was using it. "No."
"So you're telling me the boy is not initiated, and yet you took him to a symposium. Why?"
"He asked me to."
"It's not good policy for the guardian to give in to a disciple's wishes." Tritter leaned back and interlaced his fingers.
House couldn't stop staring at his hands.
For a second, he wondered if Tritter had a disciple.
He didn't want to even think about it.
"I'd like to hear your detailed report on what happened."
House clenched his fist, unseen by Tritter. He hated to be supervised, but being supervised by a pompous ass made it even worse.
"There's nothing to report. He got a nosebleed. It can occur in highly strung people. The situation was unfamiliar; hence, he freaked."
"You weren't there when it happened."
"I'm not his keeper."
House bit his tongue. Wrong answer.
Tritter nodded, and it was anything but appreciative. "You can take him any place you want, but you, by regulations, are his keeper. If you, for whatever reason, are showing laxity, I'll have to advise the board to assign him to another guardian."
"You expect me to baby-sit a seventeen-year-old like a toddler?"
"I expect you to do your job. I expect you to prepare him for the life of a disciple, and develop a sense of compliance and discipline in him. Can you sincerely say that you're trying?"
"Isn't that what the symposium is for?"
"We don't encourage neophytes to visit, but if it happens, they're to be supervised by their guardian. You obviously failed in your responsibility. I can only assume you were distracted."
House sneered. "You think I was busy doing a pretty boy while three horny twits tried to talk Chase into group sex? How stupid that would be."
Tritter didn't move. His eyes were scanning him, and House strongly sensed a mixture of annoyance and barely hidden antipathy before he spoke.
"We have two problems here, Dr. House. The most obvious is your lack of care and comprehension. My second point is your disciple's physical condition. You, as a doctor, might be able to give us further insight into the matter." He leafed through the file. "According to your notes, you were giving him a thorough examination when he arrived. I have the results right here in front of me, but there is not a single mention about physiological or physical abnormalities. So I'm asking you. Is there any reason to be concerned?"
"He's not sick."
"According to the witness, he crashed, caused by a simple nosebleed."
"Then your witness must be a squeamish git."
"You're not making this any easier by avoiding the subject."
"And you're all fussy because hey, we can't afford sickness where the sun is shining and guys can have casual sex at random. You're here not because you're concerned about the boy's well-being. All you care about is the façade of a happy nation that couldn't be bothered about illnesses and decay. You're oblivious to the ugly aspects of human life, and if it dares to slap you in the face, you diminish it without further notice."
Tritter shrugged, obviously unimpressed. "We have to guarantee that potential citizens are capable of adjusting. You, Dr. House, are tolerated because you're a physician. As an inhabitant, you fail miserably in almost every way possible."
"And so does anyone who doesn't live up to your ideals. If I told you the boy was sick, what are you going to do with him? Send him back? Put a millstone around his neck and drown him like a puppy?"
"Physical health is a precondition for disciples. That's why a detailed physical is required before the mentorship can be legalized. It's your job to separate the wheat from the chaff."
"Wow. Great speech. Can I get a transcript?"
Tritter remained jarringly expressionless. "Since you are apparently not ready to cooperate, I'd like to speak to the disciple."
"He's not available."
"Shouldn't he be observed after the incident?"
"He's alive and kicking. There's no reason to tie him up to his room."
"Let me get this straight. You have a possibly ill disciple under your care, yet you don't know where he is?"
"Why can't you be like the rest of those idiots on your island and leave me in peace? I'm entitled to happiness, right? Just now, I would be happy to see your backside."
"Splitting hairs and insulting an official won't make up for the fact that you lied. You confirmed the boy to be healthy. Should there be reason to believe he's not, there will be consequences for both you and your disciple."
"You can't throw another disciple on me should he be sent back home."
"We don't send them home. Not until another vessel arrives, and you know how often that happens. If his condition turns out to be a potential risk, he'll be transferred to Moa Moa as one of their chief's personal property."
The nearest island, primitive and ruled by martial tribes, known for their brutality and animal instincts, was more or less a myth for most of the people on Panagado – and an effective threat for unruly disciples.
"It's the law", Tritter said matter of factly and collected his papers. "Let me know when I can talk to your disciple. Good day, Dr. House."
"Why didn't you tell him?" Chase asked. "I can handle it, and you're a doctor. You can take care of it."
"It's not the point."
House watched as Chase prepared dinner.
He liked to look at him.
There was something deliberate in the way he moved, and House found it strangely appealing.
"Problem is, I forged your medical report, thus endangering not only your welfare, but the whole community's. Also, I deliberately set you at risk by taking you to a symposium when you shouldn't have been there in the first place."
"So he basically blamed you for being irresponsible."
House snorted. "There are too many rules to this damned place. Problem is they don't match."
"Maybe they don't match because you don't give a crap." Chase started to peel the potatoes. The sight of his fingers so close to a sharp blade became somewhat terrifying. "I don't care about symposiums anymore. I'm not planning to go there again."
"You're not in the position to plan anything. That's another issue that Tritter so aptly pointed out."
Chase scratched his neck.
He had been in the sun too long; the rough fabric of his shirt was itching and irritated his skin.
It kept him distracted from the earnestness of House's speech, even though it was the first time he actually spoke to him.
He froze when House approached him and pulled back the collar.
"How am I supposed to think you can take care of yourself when you're too stupid to stay out of the sun?"
With that, he limped outside, only to return with a pot of liniment. "Put off your shirt."
It still felt weird to be half-naked in front of another man.
A shiver ran through his body when House applied balm to his shoulders, massaging it into his skin.
Oddly enough, he liked it. He never thought it would feel so good.
"Pull down your pants."
Chase turned his head. "I can do it myself."
"You have a fresh contusion on your tailbone. Fell again?"
"I tripped", he admitted. "The rocks are slippery."
He leaned back into the touch, stuck between House and the table.
It still felt good.
He could sense a slight tingling in his stomach that spread to his groin and thighs and chest.
Chase tried to blend out the reaction it stirred in him.
House's hands were moving over his back, firm and gentle, and his body responded in a rather unexpected way.
"We'll have to keep you away from slippery rocks and symposiums", House said. "Most of all, I want you to be careful. I won't give Tritter reason to come back."
"You don't have to protect me like a five-year-old."
"That's where you and I were wrong." House handed him back his shirt. "Get dressed. Or stay naked. Whatever you prefer is fine with me."
Chase put his clothes back on, confused by the sensation that lingered past the massage.
In an attempt to keep the conversation going, he forced himself to focus on what House had told him.
"That man from the government, what was he up to anyway? Why would he even ask about me? It's none of his business."
"It is." House took the knife out of his hands. "Sit down. I need to talk to you. I should have done this sooner, but you're-… Heck, I don't know what you are. It just didn't seem necessary."
"And now you're thinking it does." Chase furrowed his brow. "What changed?"
He looked so innocent, so naïve, so very young.
House realized that Tritter had offered him a free pass to get rid off the boy, and much to his own dismay, he had almost been willing to give in.
Whatever the consequences, he would survive.
Chase, on the other hand, most likely wouldn't.
If Chase was to be deported as a sex slave to some savage tribe, handed down from one warrior to the other, it literally would kill him.
"When you were upstairs at Mark's place, what happened? Before I came in, what were you doing?"
"I'm not sure. It was weird."
"Did they grope you? Because that's what usually happens. Men pick boys; boys pick younger boys-… You get the picture."
"I didn't-…" His voice trailed off, and he averted his gaze.
"It wasn't your fault. Tritter came to lecture me for letting you attend, not you. You're not yet initiated, which basically means I can't let you near anyone. You're restricted to live at my house until you're of age, and that will be your twentieth birthday. Once you're initiated, which will have occurred by the time you're eighteen, you're allowed to take part in sexual interlude, granted I give you permission."
House didn't expect him to pick up the information so stoically. His face remained blank, the look in his eyes vigilant.
"Why would I want this?"
"It's not a question of what you want or not. It's how this universe works. It's part of their lifestyle. They believe that sharing and enjoying each other evokes some sort of emotional bonding. It makes them happier. Less aggressive. You don't sue the guy you've had sex with, or anyone you want to have sex with at the next symposium."
Chase gave it some thought before he looked at him again.
"So I made a mistake by following Joel to his room. Why would Commissioner Tritter charge you for that?"
"Because a, I neglected to inform you properly and keep an eye on you, and b, you consequently got in a state that scared the crap out of some people. If there is anything that they can't accept, it's sickness and misery. That, and people who don't play by their rules."
He snorted. "Barely. They respect me as a physician. It's my job to sort out the sick and weak. That's what I do besides the occasional doctoring. Tritter's not a fool. He figured I faked your medical record. It's highly unethical, and dangerous. Infectious diseases can diminish the whole town. Wilson told me of an incident a few years ago when one of the newcomers brought the small pox. It killed almost half the population."
"I'm not contagious."
"You're not, but Tritter and the likes won't take any chances."
"What if he finds out?"
Chase bit his lips, uncertain if he was allowed to have an opinion of his own.
House had been unexpectedly open with him tonight, and he didn't want to ruin it.
"This place is nothing like you made me believe it was."
House raised an eyebrow, and Chase took it for a request to go on.
"None of this is your own free will. Everything you do you have to do: taking a disciple, the examinations, the tattooing, even the symposium. You're not doing this because you want it. You're doing it because you have no other choice. Or, you're sick of having a choice because it sucks having a choice."
The boy was brighter than he thought, and observant, too.
He liked that he was coming to his own conclusions.
"I'm doing my share, and in return, they leave me alone. Open anarchy is a bit over the top when you get to live in a world with plenty of sun and sex, don't you think?"
"So they bribed you."
He felt like Chase deserved an honest answer.
For the first time, he was talking to him like his equal, and House found it surprisingly stimulating.
"I chose to stay because the alternative sucked. I don't care about moral principles as long as people don't pester me with theirs. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I'm a strong believer in self-determination."
He paused. Something in Chase's eyes told him that their conversation wasn't over yet. "You have something to say, spit it out. I'm not going to spank you."
"It's just-…" Chase shifted in his chair. "You're doing things you don't believe in. It doesn't fit."
"There are regulations. I didn't make them. I think they're stupid. It doesn't mean I have to follow them blindly."
"Your point being…?"
"You've been here for more than five years. Foreman told me you never took a disciple before, so I'm guessing you knew how to avoid it. Why not this time?"
That, House thought, was an interesting question. "If I hadn't picked you, they would have thrown someone at me. 'Someone' meaning one of the losers that were left over."
"They must have told you this each time."
Again, he couldn't entirely refute.
It was true; he didn't intend to actually carry him home, or anyone, for that matter.
Or maybe, maybe he did.
Maybe he changed his mind when he first set eyes on the nude boy standing there, defensive and vulnerable at the same time; and maybe he knew that, by any chance, he got lucky enough to find someone like him: unwanted, abandoned, a stranger in a strange land.
Chase seemed the perfect choice by instinct; it had been too tempting to give it a miss.
It wasn't pure physical attraction.
Boys his age were reaching shore each year, and he had seen them all.
He had never felt anything more than sorry for them; never wasted a second thought when he watched them leaving with their new owners.
Why had it been different with him?
It wasn't like he hadn't detested their organized freedom before, which was a contradiction it itself, and all he did was to mock it.
With this boy, everything got frighteningly personal.
He hated when things were getting personal.