TITLE: Simple Things (2/3)
SUMMARY: The news sits innocuously atop the day's completed reports, two sheets of paper declaring that his world is already shifting on its foundations. Post-finale closure.
It's decidedly odd, being in the hospital and not seeing House or Chase.
On her first day back, Cameron tells herself that Diagnostics is off limits. It's been hard enough, reconciling her decision to move back to Princeton with her desire for a new beginning. If she's honest with herself, what she really wants is the impossibility of a second chance. Not a fresh start at all, but the familiar quiet comfort of her marriage to Chase, when things were good. She'd tried to find it with Steve, tried to convince herself that she could be happy with his quiet devotion, the promised safety in the practicality of their early relationship. But she hadn't been able to live in the present, to give up grieving her past losses.
"This is your office," says Foreman, unlocking the door and then handing her the freshly-cut key. "You'll teach one course at the university and have forty percent protected research time, like we discussed."
Cameron takes a breath, looking around the space. It's a larger office than she's ever had before, with an enormous hard oak desk. The walls are painted a pale blue, and bare, practically beckoning her to make this space her own.
"Why me?" asks Cameron, turning back to Foreman. "You can't really expect me to believe that I was the best candidate for this job. I didn't even apply."
Foreman shrugs. "You didn't have to. I needed a new head of Immunology, and I know how good you are. Although I have to admit, I was surprised you didn't want the ER position instead."
"I loved emergency medicine," Cameron answers, absently. "But I love my daughter more. Working in the ER didn't exactly give me much time to be a parent."
Foreman nods, once. "I'll let you get settled, then. Let me know if I can buy you lunch later."
The first thing Chase realizes about running Diagnostics is how very decisive House has always been when choosing which cases to take. Even with him gone, the department has a reputation, and the referrals pour in at an overwhelming rate.
For the first time, Chase gets every case on his desk, has the task of reading and prioritizing all of them. For the first time, he finds himself doubting the decisions they have all made for the past ten years. Sometimes it feels as though he is being asked to determine who has a chance at life and who does not, who will recover and whose life will be forever changed. Some of them are easy to refer, but there are always too many for his team to take, even when working two or three simultaneously.
Sometimes, when Park and Adams have gone home, when the hospital has grown dark and hushed with the late hour, Chase sits in his office and pores over the backlog of files, hoping a miraculous answer will come to him.
Sometimes, late at night, he feels as though he is trying to summon House's ghost.
The pain returns with the first truly cold night, when he's been at the hospital for nearly two full days, trying to stop a little girl from inexplicably losing her vision. He's only felt slight twinges, and the occasional moment of muscle weakness since completing rehab, but the instant it happens, he knows exactly what it is. The spasm hits as he's getting to his feet for another cup of coffee, and it knocks him to his knees. The pain is intense and burning, as though the muscles in his thigh have become a writhing mass of snakes, fighting to break through his skin. The agony is so intense that it turns his stomach, and for what seems like an eternity, he does not breathe.
And then the pain begins to fade, much more slowly than it's begun, until it's quieted to a dull ache, leaving him drained and shaking. For a moment he is grateful that his team is not here to see, although this thought is followed by the fear of a recurrence, under less private circumstances.
When Chase wakes the next morning, the pain is still there, a bone-deep ache which makes him wonder for a moment whether he might truly be haunted by House's legacy.
"I'm worried about Chase," says Foreman, bluntly, on their second weekly lunch meeting.
Cameron frowns, slightly taken aback. "Why?"
"He's obsessing." Foreman stabs a piece of chicken with his fork, looks at it clinically, and then puts it back down.
"Isn't that what you wanted?" She has only seen Chase by moments since returning to work, in the lab, once, and occasionally in the locker room. It feels as though they are in limbo, waiting to see whether they will be thrown together once more by circumstance.
"I wanted him to work hard," says Foreman. "I didn't want him working himself into the ground. I was hoping he'd be less dysfunctional than House."
"Seriously?" Cameron folds her hands on the table top, remembering the conversation they'd had the day after the funeral, when it had taken all of her resolve just to walk away. "You're asking him to do the impossible. House left a huge position to fill. No matter how good Chase is, it's always going to be a terrible comparison. And he cares. He cares about everything. He can't just finish a case and go play videogames."
For a moment she is silent, surprised at herself, at the fierce protectiveness she still feels for Chase. She has scarcely seen him since returning to Princeton, and yet the possibility alone is an indescribably immense comfort.
"Did you hire me back for Chase?" asks Cameron, when Foreman remains silent, and suddenly all of the pieces fall into place.
"He needs someone to keep him grounded," says Foreman, skirting the question.
"I didn't come back to make him happy," says Cameron, though she only half believes herself.
"I know," says Foreman, standing up with his tray. "But I also know you've never been good at staying uninvolved."
"Foreman thinks you need me to keep you sane," says Cameron, unceremoniously.
Chase is hunched over his desk, open files strewn around so that it looks like there's been a small explosion. Outside, the sun is setting, the sky tinged pink and orange with cold. He looks up at her after a moment as though he has only just noticed her presence, and the shadows under his eyes tell her that Foreman's fears are well-founded.
"He told you that?" Chase sounds alarmed.
"Yes." Cameron has waited a week to approach him, forcing herself to think over Foreman's warning, silently observing from afar. Tonight she is feeling reckless, tired of this cautious ambiguity between them. For the first time, she realizes that she wants the decision to be clear, to either be in his life again or put their past out of her mind entirely.
"I'm—sorry," stammers Chase. "That can't be what you wanted, coming back here. Not after everything."
"I agree with him," says Cameron, ignoring his apology. The chair that faces his desk is covered in another stack of files, and she moves them to the floor before sitting down. "When was the last time you slept at home?"
Chase stares at her for a moment in silence, then shrugs.
"I brought you dinner," she offers, more gently, handing him the takeout bag.
"Grilled cheese?" he asks, glancing inside. She knows it has always been his comfort food from the hospital cafeteria, and for an instant Chase looks as though he might simply break down, exhaustion and anxiety wearing dangerously through his façade of steadfast professionalism.
"Thank you," he says instead, pulling out a potato chip and eating it.
"Where's your team?" asks Cameron, though she's watched them leave the hospital for the day before coming here.
"They went home," says Chase, a touch of bitterness edging into his voice. "Park and Adams have decided they don't work overtime, now that House is gone. Guess I don't intimidate them enough."
"Or you're working too many hours yourself," she admonishes, lightly. "Come on. You know it's serious when Foreman thinks you're overdoing it with work."
"And what am I supposed to do?" asks Chase, slamming his palm against the surface of his desk, making her jump. "I am not House, and sooner or later, the rest of the world's gonna figure that out. We've lost two patients this week alone. We're supposed to present one of the cases at the M and M tomorrow, but I can't even think about that until I figure out what the hell to do with the three new referrals we got while I was talking to the family tonight. They all expect me to be some kind of miracle worker, and I can't—"
"Hey," Cameron interrupts, reaching out and laying a hand over his. "The difference between you and House is that you care about the people in those files. That is making you do more than House ever did, but it's also going to make you insane, if you let it."
Chase takes a breath, still visibly upset. "So what am I supposed to do, stop caring?"
"No," she answers, stubbornly lacing their fingers as he tries to pull his hand away. "But you can't be responsible for everything, either. Talk to your team, talk to Foreman. Talk to me. Even House didn't really do it all alone."
Chase regards her for a moment, warily. "Why are you doing this, Allison? You wanted it to be a new start here—I've been trying to give you that."
"We always kept each other sane, when we worked for House," she answers, swallowing the last traces of doubt. "And I missed you too."
Chase is silent for another long moment, struggling visibly with this decision. Then, slowly, he gathers up the files and pushes them toward her, across the desk.
"The new referrals," he explains quietly. "Forty year old woman, sudden loss of ability to speak. No apparent cause on brain MRI. Eighteen month old with an inoperable brain tumor. They want a third opinion from us. And a little girl experiencing recurrent anaphylaxis, with no apparent cause or pattern."
"Take the older woman," says Cameron, glancing through the pages. "But not until tomorrow morning. Refer the parents of the eighteen month old to oncology. And a grief counselor. They're looking for you to perform a miracle, but they already have their answer."
"And the little girl?" asks Chase, taking the other files back from her.
"Give me that one," says Cameron, feeling a hint of excitement at the possibility of a complex case. "It should have been mine in the first place."
"All right," says Chase, slowly, getting to his feet to retrieve the final chart.
Cameron follows, placing herself between him and the desk, lifting his coat from the back of his chair. "And now, let me walk you out before you make yourself sick."
For the first time, Chase does not protest, surprising her.
"Thank you," he says simply, instead.
"Are you getting the usual?" asks Cameron, takeout menu spread across the coffee table in front of her. "Or have your Chinese food preferences changed since I last had dinner with you?"
"What?" asks Chase. He's grown distracted by the photographs now perched atop her television stand, of Sarah in the hospital, surrounded by family. For the first time he is struck by how Cameron's parents have aged, how he had envisioned himself as a part of these pictures.
"I'm ordering dinner," she answers, patiently. "Do you want orange chicken, or something else?"
"The chicken's fine," says Chase. It feels decidedly odd to him, realizing that she remembers something as trivial as his dinner preferences. When he really thinks about it, three years is not that long to be apart. And yet he has spent every day of it trying to convince himself that she must have wanted to forget, must have spent the time trying to erase their life together from her mind. Now it feels like a constant shock, discovering her willingness to remember.
"How was work?" asks Cameron, drawing him back into the present as she hangs up the phone.
"Fine," says Chase, avoiding her gaze. In truth he feels selfish for being here instead of taking another case, unable to resist her offer of dinner. It's been nearly a week since the first time she dragged him away from his office with the threat of Foreman's warning. He has not approached her since then, though her offer to talk has been ever-present in the back of his mind, constant now as the gnawing pain in his lower back. The thought of truly confiding in her now is desperately tempting, and yet it still seems too much to ask of her, too much of a burden.
"Robert." Cameron gets to her feet, setting the takeout menu on the coffee table and moving to stand in front of him. "Please talk to me."
"Why?" asks Chase, doubt and exhaustion flaring into familiar bitterness. "Why do you care how I'm doing? Why does it matter to you if I'm working too hard, if I make myself burn out? I'm not your problem. I don't want to be your problem anymore."
"Because I care about you," she answers, and the steely edge of resolve in her voice takes him by surprise. "I know I don't have any right to expect you to trust me. But you need to trust someone."
"I do trust you," says Chase, instinctively, though he realizes immediately that it's true. He finds himself appalled by her doubt, by her willingness, still, to take the blame for his reluctance.
"Then what is it?" asks Cameron, searching his face with an intensity that says she still does not absolve herself, does not believe him.
Once again he is reminded of the hurt he has caused her, all under the delusion of protection, of the moral high ground. People don't change, he thinks, House's voice a familiar presence in his memory. But now he finds himself desperate to prove it wrong, feeling as though it might be his final chance at some semblance of the happiness which once seemed firmly within his grasp.
"After my dad left, my mother and my sister needed so much from me, all the time." Chase takes a breath, forcing himself to meet her gaze, acutely aware of the stillness and the silence in this moment. "Eventually I just felt—used up. Empty. I had to leave them, because I had nothing left. All my life—I've never wanted to do that to anyone."
For the moment before she responds, it feels as though the floor might give way from beneath his feet, as though he might be back in that exam room with the world standing still, the scalpel placed this time in her hand.
"I guess I can't blame you," Cameron says at last, very quietly. "I spent three years keeping you at arm's length. Trying to keep it all on my terms. But I meant what I said when I married you. I love you no matter what."
"Still?" asks Chase, breathlessly.
In the bedroom, Sarah begins to cry, waking from her nap. Wordlessly, Cameron takes his hand, squeezes it once, and goes to comfort her daughter.
Chase thinks that he ought to be disappointed, awash in uncertainty. Yet all he feels is a peculiar sense of peace, knowing that her silence is an answer.