TITLE: Simple Things (3/3)
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.
NOTE: This week is my seventh House fandom anniversary, which feels like an appropriate time to finally say goodbye. If you want updates on future fandom things, you can follow me on tumblr with the same account name. Thank you so, so much to everyone who's stuck by me this long. You have no idea how much I appreciate you.
"Your office is huge," says Chase, from the doorway. "I like it."
Cameron looks up from her computer, surprised to see him. It is the first time he's visited her at work since her return to the hospital, and suddenly nothing else seems as important as his presence here. "Hey. What's up?"
"Have lunch with me," says Chase, taking a step closer to her desk and restlessly picking up a heart-shaped paperweight. It is obvious that there is something more, but he is not going to disclose it yet. "I mean—if you can take a break from whatever you were working on."
"Lesson plans," says Cameron, closing the laptop's lid. "Lunch sounds great."
"I always thought you'd be great at teaching," says Chase, as they step out into the hallway. "But I never thought you'd want to stop seeing patients long enough to do it."
"I still like seeing patients," she answers, noticing once again the subtle shift in his gait, and wondering how much pain he must experience on a daily basis now. She'd grown used to it in House; for Chase, it still seems shocking. "But I also like knowing that I get to go home at five every day, and not be on call."
"Is that why you left emergency medicine?" asks Chase.
Cameron nods. "Didn't give me much time or energy to be a parent."
"I always wanted to have a family with you," says Chase, surprising her again. "I remember being so happy, the first time I found out you wanted kids too. Somehow it never seemed like that would have been a priority for you."
"I'm sorry," says Cameron, stopping short in the middle of the hallway. The intensity of regret shocks her, even now, after being back in Princeton for nearly two months, the echoes of everything she's given up feeling suddenly raw again.
"I didn't say that to hurt you," says Chase, looking pained now as well. "I just—needed you to know."
"I always thought you'd be a great dad," says Cameron, deciding that she does not care what implications he might hear in that statement.
Chase does not respond to that, ducking into the cafeteria without waiting for her to follow. He does not speak again until they are sitting at the table in the corner, where they have had so many conversations before.
"It's weird," says Chase, taking a bite of his sandwich and pausing as though she ought to know exactly what he means.
"I always pictured you as the one who stayed." Chase meets her eyes for a moment, tentatively, then looks back down at his plate. "And here I am."
Cameron sticks her fork into a cherry tomato, watching some of the juice bleed out before responding. "Are you happy with it?"
Chase shrugs, still not ready to truly answer. "After my dad died, a part of me wondered whether I ever would've become a doctor if I wasn't trying to prove something to him."
"And now that House is gone too, you're having an identity crisis."
"Something like that." Chase offers her the ghost of a smile, as though there is some measure of relief in simply speaking the words aloud.
"Should I be concerned?"
"I don't know. I have been thinking of buying a flat screen for the office." Chase quirks an eyebrow to let her know that he is joking, dry humor surprising her after so long.
Quickly, Cameron reaches out and steals a fry off of his plate, eating it as the shock registers on his face. "You should probably let me know if you do that. You're going to need someone to bring the popcorn."
Chase laughs broadly, contagiously, and she thinks that she cannot remember the last time she heard the sound.
Chase waits outside of Cameron's office, leaning against the wall. House would have stolen a key from Foreman and been waiting behind her desk, he thinks. But he is not House, refuses to become like House, and does not care who sees him here besides. He has spent far too long letting the opinions of others dictate his relationships. Lost too much by being unwilling to risk himself.
Cameron pauses halfway down the hall when she sees him, a slow smile spreading across her face.
"Hey," she says lightly, unlocking the door. "What's up?"
Chase follows her into the room, looking around before responding. Her office is decorated now: diplomas on one wall, a large oil painting of a moonlit garden over the desk. A pile of exams waiting to be graded on the corner of her desk. It's oddly comforting, evidence of all of the things keeping her tethered here now. Keeping her in his life.
"I need your help," he says at last, pulling out the chair on the far side of her desk and sitting in it.
Cameron sits across from him. "What's going on?"
Chase looks down at his hands in his lap, feeling as though speaking the words aloud might somehow make them a reality, as if they are not already. "When I got—attacked—I got a clot in my spine during surgery. Couldn't feel my legs. House figured it out in time, but it took me a few weeks of rehab to get back walking normally."
"Foreman told me," she admits, quietly.
"I guess he would have." He is not sure whether to be angry or relieved that she has stayed in touch with Foreman, has cared enough to ask about his life. "I thought I was over it. But now—" He breaks off, feeling choked by a lifetime of doubt, reservation, following his self-imposed rule to never impose on anyone.
"Tell me," Cameron prompts, gently.
"It hurts," says Chase, forcing the words out. She has begged him to be open with her, to let her help. If he follows his instinct to run now, to withdraw again, he will not get another chance. "My back. And my leg. Sometimes I get spasms. Can't even stand up. They don't last long, but if it happened in front of my team, with a patient—"
"Have you been back to the neurologist?" Cameron interrupts, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her desk.
Chase looks up at last, feeling breathless looking at her now. The intensity of her compassion was what he'd first fallen in love with, all those years ago, but he realizes now that he has never been able to accept it for himself. "No. I haven't had—haven't taken the time. They're gonna tell me I need to go on meds longterm."
"And you don't want that."
"Before, it would've just seemed logical. After House—" Chase shrugs, feeling utterly exposed, vulnerable.
"Why are you telling me?" asks Cameron.
It isn't a challenge, Chase realizes immediately, isn't a doubt. It's an honest question, the diagnostician that still lives in her working to solve the puzzle that is his head.
"Because—Because I'm scared," he answers, searching for the words to communicate all of the multitudinous things he is feeling in this moment. "Because I think I'm realizing that I've got to do it if I want to keep working, and I needed someone to know. Because I needed it to be you. Nobody's ever tried to take care of me like you do, Allison. Nobody."
She regards him in silence for a moment, then reaches out and lays her hand over his on the surface of the desk.
"See if you can get an afternoon appointment," she says, quietly. "I'll come with you."
By the third time it happens, Cameron is no longer surprised to find Chase standing outside of her office as she returns from her morning class.
"Hey," she offers over her shoulder, as she unlocks the door.
"Eighteen year old kid," says Chase, without any further greeting. "Sudden onset of bizarre stereotyped behavior after the family moved here from Philly two months ago."
"How's your back?" asks Cameron, setting a stack of papers on the edge of her desk to await grading. Immediately she doubts that he's truly come here to talk about the case.
"Kid refuses to eat anything but Cheerios," he answers, without missing a beat. "No milk. Also he has to take everything out of the closet whenever he enters a room, one piece at a time, even if he's done it a dozen times before."
"Has anyone thought to ask him why?" Cameron sits behind her desk, watching him pace restlessly.
"Hasn't spoken since the whole thing started."
"None since he had the flu in July, but that was before the psych symptoms started, by a good five weeks."
Cameron sighs. "What does your team think? I'm not a diagnostician anymore."
"I want to know what you think," Chase insists, stubbornly.
"Schizophrenia," she offers, though it's a lame stab at placating him enough to talk candidly; Chase would have gotten such an easy diagnosis without anyone's help. "He's the right age for a first psychotic break. How's your back?"
"Been on antipsychotics for a month, no effect. Guess again."
"No," she refuses firmly, getting to her feet and moving to stand directly in front of him. Chase stops short, mid-pace, barely avoiding colliding with her. "That's not my job anymore. How are you feeling? How was rehab this morning?"
Chase takes a breath; she can see the decision to be honest with her working across his face. "It's a lot better, actually. I just—hate being back to this. I hate making time for rehab. I hate being on steroids."
"But it's a good thing you got the steroids," Cameron reminds him, pointedly. "If you just let the inflammation keep compounding—"
But Chase is not listening anymore, she realizes, the tired frustration of a second before replaced by the look of vacant excitement she's come to recognize in House as the moment of solving the proverbial puzzle.
"Inflammation," Chase repeats, before striding quickly toward the office door. "Thank you."
"Hey, wait!" she calls after him in amused resignation. "What just happened? Did I just become Wilson?"
Chase pauses with his hand on the doorknob, expression shifting into wry humor. "No way. You'd be a lousy oncologist."
Cameron rolls her eyes. "I was going to say I'm lucky you're not an ass, but I think that ship has sailed."
"We need to talk," says Cameron, after they've finished most of a pizza and a bottle of wine. They are sitting on the couch in her apartment with the television on, what's now become a Friday night ritual. But now there's something in her eyes that makes him catch his breath, a vulnerability which has nothing to do with the alcohol.
This is the moment they have been avoiding since her return, the precipice over which comfortable friendship might become something more, or might fall to ruin. Chase feels his heartbeat pounding in his temples, takes another sip of his drink. He is tired of limbo as well. "I know."
She takes a breath, not looking at him now, and pulls a throw pillow into her lap as though she might be able to use it as a shield. "What happened to us?"
The first thing he wonders is whether this is some sort of test, whether she is looking for proof that he still blames her for everything. Chase is silent for a long moment, searching for the words to everything he feels now, after two years of wondering, of turning the details over and over in his head like a post-mortem. The ultimate case he's never been able to solve.
"I think—maybe it was inevitable," he answers, at last.
Cameron tenses, visibly, and Chase realizes suddenly that what he sees in her eyes is resignation. It isn't a test; she is simply expecting his response to crush her, expecting that this will be the end of everything once more.
"Because we were both afraid of it," he continues, quickly. "The whole time we were together, we were always planning for it to end, planning how to survive when it did. I know you were. I was, too."
"I was," she says, quietly, reaching out to set her own wine glass on the edge of the table. "I never realized you were afraid too. You always seemed so sure of it all. I felt like there had to be something wrong with me, that I was never that certain."
"Allison." It seems so simple now, that she wouldn't have known, wouldn't have recognized his fears when she was consumed by her own. He hasn't ever told her, yet he's assumed all along that she did know, that she simply wasn't capable of reassuring him and herself. "My parents' marriage was—the worst thing that ever happened to either of them, I think. All my life, I've never felt good enough for anyone. I knew I'd never be enough for you to stay. But I wanted it anyway. After you left, it was almost—a relief. Not because you were gone, but because I could finally stop wondering when I'd screw it up."
"You are everything I want," says Cameron, then begins to cry. "And I left you. Oh god, I'm sorry."
"Hey." Chase reaches out and wraps his arms around her. "I hurt you too. I don't want you to be sorry. I just—want to be happy. I want that for you too."
"I love you." Her voice is muffled against his shoulder, her fingers twisted in the back of his shirt. "But I still don't know if it could ever work."
Chase kisses her temple gently, pulling away to meet her eyes. "I'll be here when you do."
A week passes before he runs into Cameron again, as he is on his way into the hospital for the evening, and she's leaving. She has been silent since their dinner, and for a moment he is filled with anxiety, feeling as though he might have made a terrible mistake. But she smiles as soon as she recognizes him, almost as though she's been looking for him here.
"It's Christmas eve," she says, as soon as she's within earshot. Her cheeks are flushed with wind and cold, delicate snowflakes hanging in her hair, perched on her eyelashes. Suddenly Chase feels his breathing quicken, his heart catch in his throat at the memory of that Valentine's morning six years ago, that brief moment which changed his life irrevocably.
"It is." He tries to swallow the overwhelming sense of déjà vu, the unbearable pounding of his heart as he wonders how their conversation will change things once more.
Cameron crosses her arms and puts her back to the chilly wind, but there is laughter in her eyes. "You're really going to work right now?"
Chase shrugs. "Team's gone. No new cases. Good time to catch up on paperwork."
"Wait. Paperwork? Seriously? You're going to work, by choice, on Christmas eve—to do paperwork?"
"Yes." In truth it's become a habit, spending holidays at the hospital to avoid the loneliness that seems to haunt his apartment, the ghosts of a thousand regrets which berate him for being too afraid to ever hold on to his own happiness.
"No way." Cameron moves to stand directly in his path, refusing to back down even as he closes the distance between them.
"I need your permission to work overtime?" Chase grins, even as his entire body aches to reach out and touch her, to beg her to make the decision he knows he cannot force.
"There's no such thing as permission to do paperwork on a holiday," she counters.
"Coming from the woman who came in early and stayed late for four years to do House's paperwork." He's treading on dangerous ground, he thinks, yet he cannot resist the urge to tease her, to see her eyes widen in good-natured indignation.
"Play dirty all you want," she challenges, as he's known she would. "I'm not letting you get through that door."
"Then stop me." Chase steps around and past her, hoping she'll do just that, even as he keeps walking.
He's no more than ten feet away from the door when a snowball collides solidly with his shoulder. He freezes, stunned, turning just in time to see her packing a second one between gloved palms. The whole thing is so absurd, so utterly unexpected that Chase finds himself completely unable to react, even as she throws the next one, this time hitting him in the chest.
"That's your plan?" The second impact shatters his surprised stillness, leaving in its wake a rush of adrenaline, a familiar giddiness he has not felt since their relationship was a newly-conceived secret, built on stolen kisses and private corners of the hospital. Bending quickly, he scoops his own handful of snow, pressing it hastily together before hoisting it roughly in Cameron's direction. It's an ill-made missile, and it falls apart in mid-air, but it's enough to make her laugh.
"Hey!" Chase protests as he makes another. "I'm from Australia! I've got zero expertise with snow!"
Cameron ducks his second attempt easily, hitting him in the arm with a snowball of her own at the same time. "You've been living in Princeton for nine years!"
Chase finds himself laughing breathlessly too, the cold air and unexpected exertion a heady rush. His third snowball glances off her shoulder, but he realizes too late that she has been backing him up, and suddenly there's no room between him and the wall next to the hospital entryway. Cameron is standing so close that he can feel the warmth of her breath on his face.
"It's Christmas eve," she repeats, softly.
"Merry Christmas," says Chase, all thoughts of paperwork entirely forgotten.
"Come home with me," she answers.
"I got you a present," says Cameron, when they've finished the last of the orange chicken, and Sarah is sound asleep, the credits rolling on It's a Wonderful Life.
"Yeah?" asks Chase, surprised.
She takes his hand and leads him over to the little Christmas tree in the corner, bending to retrieve a tiny, unwrapped box.
"I'm going to show it to you, and then you can decide whether you want it, okay?" Her fingers shake visibly as she lifts the lid, revealing a newly-cut key.
He knows immediately that it opens the door to her apartment, that it is an invitation to share her life. It feels as though everything goes still, an extraordinary clarity washing over him as he thinks that in the end, truly, it has always come down to this. All the many paths of doubt, fear, mistakes and regrets leading here to another chance.
And it's simple, really, this choice that he's hoped and feared for the space of a lifetime.
"You have always been there for me," she says, breaking the stillness. "You never gave up, even when I wanted to give up on you."
"Because I love you," says Chase, taking the box from her with one hand, and lacing the other with hers. "All my life, I've felt like a mistake. An imposition. But you—you make me feel like I matter. Like it's okay for me to matter. Like I could actually be happy. There is no one else, Allison."
He tastes the salt of his own tears as she kisses him, her arms wrapping around his waist as he brings his free hand up to tangle in her hair.
Many years later, when he has seen three teams of fellows leave and start their own departments, when Sarah is beginning the fifth grade with her brothers close behind, Chase will wonder whether there was ever any other way to end up on this path, in this future which he has been so afraid to imagine for himself. Whether if, at any point, he'd done things just a little differently, they might have ended up somewhere else entirely.
The postcard comes on his tenth anniversary, perfectly timed as though the universe—or someone—has been reading his mind.
I told you so, it says, and the familiar scrawl of the writing makes his heart catch in his throat.
Goodbye, House fandom! I'd love to have your feedback one last time.