This story has been in part inspired by Snownut's fantastic One Week fic. If you haven't read it, then you really should. Go on, you know you want to!
A BIG thank you, as always, goes to maineac.
He knew he should have been grateful to Cuddy for putting all this into motion. And yet, all he could bring himself to feel was resentment. Even that was probably too strong a word, too strong a feeling. He didn't exactly resent her, but he knew a big part of why she went through all this, to create this new department, was her guilt over what had happened all those months ago. The diagnosis he had had to make himself, the diagnosis that should have come so much earlier. Guilt that Cuddy vehemently denied.
Of course he had said it to her face.
"You're only doing this because you feel guilty."
Her eyes narrowed slightly as she leaned back behind her desk.
"Guilty? I have nothing to feel guilty about, House. What happened was not my decision, it was Stacy's, and you know it. And I know you know because you made her pay dearly for that decision."
So this was how she was going to play it.
"And we both know she didn't think up that procedure by herself, lawyers don't usually come up with complicated surgical procedures without being prompted. Someone must've suggested it to her. Someone who thinks middle ground is safe. Some middle ground physician who is worried about her hospital's reputation. Someone who mistakenly believes that I am someone who can live on middle ground."
He leaned back on the visitor couch, watching for even the minutest of reactions across the room. There was nothing obvious there – or obvious to anyone but House. Yet, the way she sat ramrod straight behind her desk, the way her hand held on tight to the pen that she wasn't writing with…
She had called him in to tell him about this brand new plan of hers. He still hadn't fully recovered from the last surgery to place a stent in his femoral artery; officially he was still on sick leave. But Cuddy had insisted he come in, somehow knowing that he had been able to get around better of late. Wilson, the old tattletale.
Cuddy was uncomfortable, and he could tell. He had always been able to tell with her. She might be able to fool all the department heads and donors she had to schmooze but she couldn't fool him. He could still read her so well. His mood picked up slightly. Even though she thought she had him at her beck and call, he knew better. Yes, she had made him leave the safe haven of his apartment, hobbling along on the new cane, trying to dodge all the curious looks in the corridors. But it was clear that he held the strings now. And he was intent on pulling them to his advantage. Nothing elaborate, just a little tug every now and then.
"Cuddy, you and I both know whose idea the debridement was and that it didn't quite work as expected. But we also know that I'm not the vengeful type. Well, at least not generally. So let's cut to the chase. You've called me here for a reason. If this new department were just a suggestion, you would've just sent me an email with a general outline. This has long progressed past the suggestion stage. Knowing you, you've got this all wrapped up already, with a nice little bow on top. So, show me what you got."
Hole in one.
It would have been easy to say the surgeries and the pain had turned House into an obnoxious bastard. But Lisa Cuddy knew that wasn't the case. He had always been annoying. Now he was simply annoying times two. And annoyingly right, too.
She had told him that she didn't feel guilty but she knew she hadn't fooled him. And she definitely hadn't fooled herself. Yes, she knew nobody would blame her for outlining a possible surgical option to Stacy who was, after all, House's medical proxy at the time. It's what doctors do – they present all the possible options so the patient, or his proxy, can make an informed decision. But was that what she had done? All the options, really? House had made an informed decision, but it was one that nobody else was happy with. By rights, they didn't need to be. It was his leg, his life. She had suggested amputation, knowing full well he wouldn't go for it even though it was the most sensible and safest option at the time. The bypass House had wanted-and got-had been successful as far as anyone could tell, effectively saving his leg. But neither she nor Stacy could stand House being in so much pain. Neither could he. When Cuddy suggested the debridement she knew Stacy would go for this as soon as House was in the medically induced coma he had requested. Stacy believed her because Cuddy was House's attending. Because House himself was not objective anymore. Because the surgery could have worked. Could have, should have. But it hadn't. He was still in an incredible amount of pain, only held at bay by opiates. It was probably less pain than without the surgery but there was no way to tell.
Seeing House come in for surgery after surgery for complications arising from the procedure had been hard on her. Not as hard as for him, obviously. But every time he had picked up a new infection, every time he had another breakthrough pain episode, she felt guiltier than before. She had not had any other choice, she knew. That didn't make this any easier, though. For the last month, she had actively tried to avoid him. She knew his PT schedule through Wilson and timed her meetings so that she would be busy when House had to be going in or out of the hospital.
But she couldn't avoid him any longer; she had to look at him now, carefully draped across her visitor's couch. The intended effect was one of relaxed casualness, like he couldn't care less whether he was here or not, whether he was seated there or on the chair facing her desk. He would have fooled most people. When he came into her office she had caught the quick assessing look he threw around the room. In less than a second he had decided on the seat that was going to be most comfortable for him to get in and out of.
Gone was the ease with which he used to move around any room he chose to enter. Gone was the strength and grace of a sportsman. Nowadays she quietly rejoiced in the fact that he had graduated from the walker on to crutches and, just recently, on to a cane.
But the time for regrets, if not outright guilt, was gone. Now it was time to face him, time to put some things right. She couldn't give him back his old life. But she could give him something else.
"The diagnostics department, I know you're not opposed to the general idea. I know you took two or three unofficial consults from other hospitals in the area before your last surgery."
Neither of them really wanted to go into more detail on that last surgery and what had made it necessary. An attempt to return to work too early, breakthrough pain on top of that and no emergency pain medication at home. It had been a disaster. She knew he was lucky Wilson had found him that time.
House looked at her and nodded for her to go on. Good, she was on the right track. He wanted this even though he would never say so out loud.
"The board has agreed in principle, pending some details that we need to iron out now. The department will be nowhere near the size of your old one, House, you need to know that right from the off."
She didn't think this would be a problem per se. House didn't like managing people because of all the administration it involved. He hated paperwork. He hated meetings. As long as he had what he needed he wouldn't gripe about having fewer people working under him.
"How small are we talking?"
"I have approval for three fellows…" Cuddy knew she could get the board to approve at least one more but there were other items she would need to get past them and she would rather use their goodwill for those than an additional fellow House probably wouldn't need. Three was down two from his previous department, though, and she peered up at House to gauge his reaction. Nothing, not even the smallest twitch in his face. God, that man was good. She had to remember never to play poker with him.
"You have free reign on recruitment, final approval by me", she added and looked down at the list on her desk. "I've taken the liberty of posting the openings. Applications have already started coming in."
House leaned forward, now sitting at the edge of the couch, both hands on the handle of his new cane, the expression on his face unreadable. Had she moved too fast?
"You really don't waste any time, Cuddy. Why the hurry? Do you miss me that much?"
There was that smirk on his face. Good. She had not been too fast then. His curiosity was piqued; he wanted to know what else she had arranged already. Good.
She allowed herself the indulgence of smiling back at him. "Yes, I do. I'd like to see you back at work as soon as you feel up to it. I think the new meds are working, don't you?"
Now, this was dangerous ground. Being on opiates had serious consequences for House, which was why he had resisted them for so long. It was why he had spent months trying out different combinations of non-opioids, all to no avail. He knew he couldn't continue practicing as before, the normal way other doctors ran their practice or their department. He wouldn't be able to do his own procedures, never mind surgeries. He would never admit it to her face, but this was going to be hard on him. In the years he had been working here, he had been very hands-on; he had liked to have control of the important things. Things would change drastically for him. Which was why she intended to give him almost complete freedom in choosing his fellows: he would have to rely on them for every single procedure involving future patients.
House narrowed his eyes and she knew he was trying to figure out where she was going with this. They both knew that she knew the Vicodin was working as well as could be hoped.
"Ye-es, the meds are working, we know that. I'm doing okay, Cuddy. Look!" He proudly waved his cane at her, his voice dripping with irony. If it hadn't been for that hint of sadness in his eyes when he laughed at her like this…
Cuddy pulled herself together. No time for sentimentalities now. On with the show.
"It will be a small department, House. But I think small can be beautiful, don't you? Do you feel up to taking a look?"
She registered the short moment of hesitation before he began to push off from the couch, and she looked back at the papers on her desk, so he wouldn't catch her watching him. When she looked up next he was almost at the door already. He was definitely moving faster, she noted with some relief. She just hoped he was steady enough on his feet to walk to his new office from here.
He stood at the door, waiting for her.
"Come on, let's go see my new playroom!"
House didn't hold the door for her, not that she had expected him to. Some things never changed.
When he saw House and Lisa walking along the corridor towards his own office, he changed his mind about going to the washroom. That could wait. Instead he leaned against the outside of his office door and watched the two approach.
Lisa was, as always, impeccably turned out. Skirt a bit too tight maybe but her top was sensible enough today, and so were her shoes. For an administrator, anyway. No way she could spend a day in those shoes dealing with patients. But then, she didn't have to. She was walking along briskly as always. After every few steps, though, there were two or three slower ones. It was barely noticeable to the casual observer but Wilson was anything but.
He had spent the last few months becoming an astute observer of people. People called Gregory House, to be specific. People called House who never said the whole truth or gave a clear answer to any question – whether they were hungry or thirsty or in pain or needed help. Everything was only half true, every bit of information hidden behind something else. James Wilson had learned to read between the lines, to interpret frowns and looks and almost inaudible sighs. Having moved in with House for a while after the initial surgery and Stacy's departure, he had become a top-notch interpreter of House speak.
He had learned to gauge House's pain level from the way he sat on his couch. He knew when it was time to draw his friend a hot bath just by looking at how tightly House held onto the cane in his hand. He knew to interpret "I'm not really hungry" as "the meds are making me nauseous and I need another dose of Compazine".
James Wilson also knew it was a good day when, for the first time in months, he saw House looking at his piano with longing. He had avoided the piano ever since the infarction, knowing it would cause too much pain to sit on the bench, knowing that he couldn't depress the pedal with his foot. But that evening he didn't need to ask his friend about pain levels, he knew the Vicodin was doing its job. Finally they had found something that worked. When he left that night, he closed the door on an apartment filled once again with music.
But his House specialization came in handy with other subjects, too. He could tell Lisa was slowing herself down so House could keep up with her, whether she did it consciously or not.
James' eyes moved on to his best friend. He was still as tall as ever, especially next to Lisa. But leaning on his new cane, canting heavily from side to side as he moved, he seemed smaller somehow, less than before. Gone were the days of quick and fluid movement, of Wilson panting for air trying to catch up with House sprinting up the stairs. And he had lost a huge amount of weight. His clothes were hanging off him. Wilson made a mental note to take House clothes shopping in the next few days.
But he was glad to see his friend rolling and pitching down the corridor like a ship in a storm. He was upright. He was walking. He was off the crutches. He was at work and not sitting at home on his couch, brow knotted in pain, feeling useless.
A smile crept onto his face just as House lifted his gaze and spotted him outside his office.
"Are you the welcome committee? Of course you were in on it, you sneaky bastard!"
Trust House to pretend to be upset about Wilson knowing something before he did.
"Yes, House, I'm here to welcome my new neighbor. I even made a cake and bought a potted plant for the occasion."
That withering look from House didn't fool Wilson even for a second. He was secretly glad his new office was situated next to Wilson's.
Together the three of them moved on down the corridor to stop in front of a big glass wall. Lisa opened the door with a flourish.
"Voila! Your new conference room, House."
House slowly moved inside, taking in the long table surrounded by several chairs, the kitchenette in the corner and the shelves yet to be filled with his books.
"I need a whiteboard", he griped. "And a proper coffee machine, not this cheap contraption."
Lisa shot Wilson a knowing look. Clearly she had been prepared for this. Neither of them was expecting House to show gratitude. That's not why they were doing this. And it was they; the details of House's new offices were as much Wilson's work as the whole idea to create this department had been Lisa's in the first place.
While she scribbled something on a notepad, Wilson followed House through the door into his new office.
House stopped so abruptly inside the door that Wilson bumped into his back. Quickly he grabbed House's elbow to stop him from toppling over. He wasn't exactly steady on his feet these days.
"Sorry", he muttered and expected a biting remark in return. But none was forthcoming. Wilson looked up into House's face and followed his look to the Eames chair in the corner.
"What's this?", House asked and pointed over at the chair with his free hand. There was something in his voice Wilson couldn't quite decipher. It didn't sound right somehow.
Wilson skipped over to the chair and protectively put his hand on the backrest. The chair, like almost everything else in here, had been his idea. His best one, he thought. Better even than the kitchenette in the conference room.
"It's an Eames chair, House. You know, for people to sit in. For you to sit in. When you need some rest. When you want to think or read..."
Wilson suddenly realized why he was treading on dangerous ground and why House was not happy about the chair. Not happy at all.
House had never been a good sleeper but the long nights spent in agony, the different combinations of medication - anti-clotting, pain meds, anti-emetics - they all meant that he hadn't slept through a single night since the infarction. As long as he was at home he was able to take naps during the day, for as long and as often as he needed. Once he was back to work full-time, though, he would need to find another solution. A couch in here would have been far too obvious; Wilson knew he would never accept it and the board would probably raise an eyebrow or two if they spotted a couch on the inventory list. So he had found the Eames chair, hoping it would be a compromise House wouldn't recognize as such. Hoping that it was subtle enough. It was certainly subtle enough for the board, as they hadn't even frowned at the chair being on the purchasing list.
But of course he had been wrong about House. House would always be able to see through Wilson, the same way Wilson saw through House's token attempt at being upset about this. He decided on a gamble.
"Here, check it out, House", he said and flopped down in the chair. "I rescued it from Simpson's claws. Some OB/GYN doc had ordered it but then decided he'd rather take up a position at Princeton General, so this was going cheap. I had to be quick to grab this baby."
He propped his feet up on the footstool and grinned at House like the cat that got the cream. Or was it the canary? Well, we'd see about that, maybe in a second he'd be the canary the housecat got.
House stood halfway across the room. He still hadn't moved from where Wilson had bumped into him. His eyes narrowed at Wilson, as if he knew what he was up to. And, this being House, he probably did. But, in the space of a second, he decided to play along with Wilson's game. He limped over to the chair and pushed Wilson's feet off with his cane.
Wilson jumped up and got out of the way, only to turn around and watch House fold his lanky frame awkwardly down into the chair. He would get used to it. He had to, he had no other choice.
With both hands supporting his right thigh, House lifted his legs onto the ottoman and then leaned back. He glared at Wilson.
"So you thought this would be a good idea to get one over on Simpson while getting me a comfy chair at the same time… you have learned well from the master, young James!"
Wilson breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Without words, it seemed both he and House had agreed that this ruse was good enough – they would pretend to have outwitted Simpson while what they had really done was get House a means to rest during the day that was subtle enough not to hurt his vanity.
He walked over to the window behind House's new desk. When he turned around to look at his friend, he was just struggling up out of the chair. Wilson resisted the urge to rush over and help. Instead he stayed to watch House push himself up on his cane, arm shaking just a bit, unused as it still was to being the only support for his whole body weight when getting up from a seated position.
House shot him a scathing look. Wilson's right hand crept up to rub the back of his neck. He had no choice. Go over and help and he would be killed for it. Stay and wait for House to manage on his own and he got 'the look'.
Finally House hobbled over to where Wilson was standing. Arriving behind his new desk, he turned back to look at the chair again, then looked at Wilson.
"It's vomit colored. You picked that shade on purpose, right?"
He had played along with both Cuddy and Wilson. No big deal. He needed a job, he needed his work or he would go mad. And not slowly but very, very quickly. He could only do his work if he took the damn Vicodin. But if he took it he couldn't do his job as he used to. Catch 22. Damn opiates.
And now Cuddy had delivered a whole box full of applications to his apartment. His office wasn't quite ready yet. Cuddy had mentioned something about a problem with the phone lines. To hell with phone lines. He needed to get out of the house!
But he was stuck here for another two days it seemed. Until the weekend, and on Monday he would finally go back in to work. Back for good, this time. Pathetic, how happy he suddenly was about going to work. He used to avoid work like the plague, Stacy had said. Unless it really was the plague, he silently completed her little joke.
He missed her.
And he hated her.
He didn't hate her. He hated what she had done. Big difference.
There were times when he wished she had at least betrayed him properly. Gone all out, done it right. Not for some middle ground that hadn't worked. If she had shown some gumption and gone for the amputation while he was out for the count, he might actually be better off now. Oh, he would be minus a leg, and struggling with it, that was for sure. He would still be mad at her. But he would quite likely be in a lot less pain and even be more mobile than he was now.
Both he and his physical therapist knew he had reached the end of the line last week. Progressing on to the cane was as far as he was ever going to get. Sure, in time he would probably be able to limp around his apartment unaided, for a few steps at least. On a good day. But this was it.
This was as good as it was going to get.
To distract himself from this depressing thought he lifted the lid off the box Cuddy had sent over via courier earlier. If going into the hospital yesterday and seeing his new offices for himself had done one thing for him, it was making it clear that things had to change. He had had very little influence on things lately; he felt like he was just being dragged along, reacting rather than acting. Whatever his body decided to throw at him, a blood clot, another infection, spasms, bleeds, all he ever did was roll with the punches. And he was sick of it. Seeing his spanking new office yesterday, he decided it was time to change that. He was sick of being sick. Time to stop wallowing in self-pity. If he had to change his practice in order to keep working, then that's what he would do.
And hidden in that box were the people who were going to help him do just that. He took the first handful of folders and did a rough count - there were at least 40 résumés in there! What the hell…
His surprise was interrupted by a knock on the door. Had to be Wilson, he was due for Chinese tonight.
"Use your own key, you moron!"
Ever since staying with him for the first few weeks after Stacy had left, Wilson had had his own key. Which was lucky, because there had been days when House could not have made it to the door under his own steam. Even now he was still grateful he didn't have to get up from the couch.
"Don't shout at me, I come bearing gifts", Wilson muttered as he let himself in and tried to get rid of his overcoat without dropping the takeout bag.
He knew Wilson only came over for takeout every other night because this way he could make sure House ate anything at all. The meds he was on suppressed his appetite and some combinations he had tried, before finally giving up and moving on to Vicodin, had actually made him nauseous. He wasn't sure but going by the waistband of his jeans he had probably lost upwards of twenty pounds since the infarction. Wilson was bound to know the exact amount.
"Hey Wilson", he shouted towards where his friend had disappeared into the kitchen. "Get this, there are at least 40 people who want to work for me!"