House had forgotten how easy it was to get used to pain, to act as if something was normal, even if it wasn't. He'd woken up over an hour ago, pain clawing at his thigh like any other day. But the vicodin bottle which stood sentinel on his desk, a bastion against all his agonies, big and small, had nothing but air underneath its plastic helmet.
He had to stare at the bottle, had to remember what it could do for him. Because, although his vicodin was missing in action, he knew exactly where a squadron of relief could be found. The little bottles of liquid underneath his bed, tucked in next to a small pile of syringes and a line of surgical tubing; the little army was calling to him, a siren song of pleasure and freedom.
If the vicodin sought to protect House, to bolster his confidence by freeing him of pain, the morphine obliterated it. But it obliterated everything, and he needed his wits today, couldn't stay abed dreaming in Technicolor while his morphine regiment sang him to sleep.
So, he got up.
House made it to the elevator of Princeton-Plainsboro by sheer force of will, but the cab ride he took to work had done nothing to improve his mood. And, when he arrived, he realized his car had been towed the night before. He tried not to brood about how Wilson had been lacking in his friend duties as of late. So, when Wilson strode into the elevator with House, whistling a merry tune, House chose to show him how to be a good friend by saying absolutely nothing when Wilson sidled up next to him. Wilson, however, did not take the hint.
"You look like hell."
House didn't respond.
"What, are you giving me the silent treatment because I didn't return your calls?"
Again, not a word from House. He stared at the flickering elevator light, ticking off floor numbers. Even the elevator was against him today.
Wilson shook his head. "That makes you a pouting five year old or a jilted teenage girl. And that's just weird."
The laughter in Wilson's voice made House's well-intended resolve crumble. "Maybe I wouldn't be so upset if my car had actually started last night." House flinched—revealing his feelings was never a part of the plan, unless they were lies.
"Look, I'm sorry. I thought you were just calling me to come watch TV or help you break into a patient's home or something. I had some other things going on that night and—"
"What could be more important, by your all important good guy standards, than helping a friend in need? Breaking your own moral code never looks good."
"But you do horrible things all the time."
"That's the point. I lie. I cheat. I occasionally steal. But you are the upstanding, sacrificing friend of said liar, cheater, and occasional thief—which only makes you look good if you bail my ass out whenever I call you."
"Oh yes, taking care of you is what makes me a good person. Not helping people with cancer."
"Taking care of suffering people who actually want your help is worthwhile, but helping a friend who routinely manipulates and torments you? Priceless."
Wilson rubbed his temples, his over-starched lab coat rustling. House's mood had improved—Wilson would stay glued to his cell phone, desperate to make up for his transgressions. The needy were just too easy.
The elevator chimed, the doors sliding open on House's floor. He stepped out, then put his cane against one door, preventing it from closing again. "Just out of curiosity, what were you doing last night that was so important, anyway?"
Wilson looked up, a strange expression on his face. "I was on a date with Cuddy. Our second, in fact."
House couldn't protest as Wilson stuck out his foot, pushing House's cane out of the way so the elevator doors could close.
Still stunned by Wilson's revelation, House walked into the conference room, feeling even worse than he had earlier. Chase and Cameron were huddled by the table in the corner, heads close together as they talked. Ignoring them, House dropped his things on the floor, then got himself a coffee cup. But the smell of hazelnuts and cranberries assaulted him as he reached for the coffee decanter.
"Who the hell let Cameron make the coffee this morning?" House said, rounding on the two members of his team.
"I did," Chase said, not even sparing House a glance.
Cameron sat in her chair, sipping her coffee, steam swirling around her eyes as she looked at House.
"Why?" House slammed the cup on the counter. A crack etched up the side of the ceramic from the blow. "You hate this stuff almost as much as I do."
"No one could hate anything as much as you do, House," Cameron said.
"Besides, I don't think any of us really gave it a chance," Chase said, eyes still locked on Cameron. "It was worth another try, don't you think?"
"Of course it was," Cameron said.
House felt something hot skitter underneath his skin, lodging in his heart with its tiny claws like the pain in his thigh. Even if his mind wasn't so wrung out by pain, Foreman entered the conference room before House could even begin processing what had just happened.
"I've got a new patient. Thirty-three year old male with hypertension and liver failure, but has no prior history of alcoholism."
"We're still working with Creepy Girl. We can't take on another case," House said, wiping a sheen of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Maybe you can't handle more than one patient a week, but I know I can multitask well enough."
"Yeah? And what have you done for her, recently? Do you have any idea what's wrong with this kid?"
Foreman paused for a moment, looking confused. "I put her on a low dose of aripiprazole but she hasn't responded—"
"Then up the dosage, for Christ's sake."
"If she's not schizophrenic, high doses of antipsychotic drugs could be fatal and you know that. And since when did you stop caring about a diagnosis so early?"
For the second time in twenty minutes, House felt his resolve crumble again. But behind his defenses no anger rallied, just more pain layered with fatigue and confusion. "Go ahead. Take the patient. I've got somewhere to be."
He had gotten everyone's attention by giving up. Walking out of the room, his small victory was bittersweet.
House checked his watch—Ms. Woolerton wasn't expected until the next day, but she seemed like the type of case worker who checked in on her patients, no matter how strange they were. Case workers like her were nothing if not predictable—if she came in again, it would be the same time as yesterday. Considering the way his morning had gone, his afternoon would be much better spent at home, in front of his television, ignoring the calls of his morphine as best he could.
House felt his pager vibrate and sighed. He yanked the contraption out of his coat pocket: it was an urgent call from Cuddy. He knew she would be watching the lobby, recognizing his knee-jerk reaction to avoid her summons, no matter what it concerned. Wilson's revelation in the elevator still echoed in his mind, requiring instant explanation.
But standing was wearing him out and any joy he could have derived from outfoxing Cuddy was ruined by his lack of energy. Like a prisoner headed for the gallows, House resigned himself to his fate.
"So you've decided to let Foreman handle things on your own terms this time around?" Cuddy asked, sitting at her desk, not looking up from the paperwork she was scanning.
House dropped into a chair, attempting to muster his energy reserves in good enough form to get him out of there for the rest of the day. "He wouldn't shut up until I gave him something—he's a control freak."
Cuddy looked up, no hint of reluctance in her eyes. Wilson must not have updated her on outing their relationship. "That's not what I heard. The team tells me you've been distant recently."
"You'd think they'd love that. I thought I was doing them a favor. Less time spent around a bitter, genius misanthrope, the better."
"Only two thirds of that statement is true, House."
"Bitter is a bit melodramatic, isn't it?"
Cuddy stood and came to sit in the chair next to House. She was wearing the same shirt she'd worn weeks ago, showing ample enough cleavage for a skittle to sail into. House saw his memory like a man in a lighthouse, staring at a ship sailing into the horizon. It kept getting further and further away from him.
"The only reason Foreman is a control freak is because you've bred it in him—you're never too far from your work. This isn't distance; your newfound lackadaisical attitude has gone way beyond the usual avoidance schemes. If you've lost interest in the puzzle, than this hospital may really be better off without you."
Her voice wasn't harsh—in fact, it was soft, almost gentle. House wondered if she spoke to Wilson that way. He pictured them in the semi-dark of a movie theater, pressed close together, Cuddy whispering in Wilson's ear, lips brushing against his skin.
Cuddy placed her hand on top of House's. Her fingers were cold. House thought of how Eudora would handle this situation, how she would go for the jugular, discredit her opponent, make him look stupid. House was surprised a patient had been good for more than just the diagnosis.
"Wilson tells me you're sleeping together."
Cuddy pulled her hand back as if she had been burned by his words. Her eyes opened wide, her face paled in shock.
House didn't wait for Cuddy to recover. So what if it wasn't the truth? The truth hadn't been waiting for him much, recently. "I guess you two are having some wild nights together. Funny, I never thought you'd end up some rich doctor's fuck buddy, but I should have known you and Wilson would end up boning sooner or later."
It was vulgar and it was working. Cuddy, instead of using her anger as drive to question the validity of House's statements, was accepting his proclamation like it was holy writ from on high. He must have hit closer to home than he'd realized.
"I—I need to make a phone call." Cuddy looked at House, but she wasn't really seeing him. House could picture the images Cuddy was conjuring, the connections she was making.
House rose, making no attempt to hide the pain in his thigh. Sitting, even for such a brief period, had been a bad idea. "I'm going home. I'll be back tomorrow. The team can handle everything until then."
Cuddy didn't reply. One hand covered her mouth, as if she could hold back her insecurities. House pulled out his cell phone as he left, preparing to call a cab for a ride home.
Mornings had gone from purgatory to utter hell in House's estimation, and his current situation was no exception. House had been vomiting for the past hour in short but vicious cycles. When his head wasn't trying to crawl into the toilet bowl, he lay curled on the bathmat, forehead pressed against the toilet's cool porcelain, cradling his stomach, trying to stay still so as not to upset the pain demon residing in his thigh.
When he'd come home from work the day before, he tried watching television for hours, reruns of anything mind-numbing on MTV. When even spitting vitriol at the idiotic, spoiled teenagers on "My Super Sweet Sixteen" couldn't distract him, House decided to make one final shakedown of his apartment for heretofore undiscovered bottles of vicodin he may have missed in his previous searches. The fading voice of reason inside his head may have mentioned once or twice that such a search would prove fruitless; he was much too careful with his medication to have misplaced any of it. House told that voice of reason to shut the fuck up.
It was around four in the morning when House gave up the search, leaning against his now-empty bookshelf, his floor littered with medical journals and mystery novels by Raymond Chandler. He was panting, the pain sending bright sparks across his field of vision. In a desperate attempt to ease his pain, House hobbled to his bathroom, pulling out his often neglected bottles of Excedrin, Aleve, and Extra Strength Tylenol. Wilson had brought these over before the ketamine treatment, hoping to lessen House's dependence on vicodin. And didn't it make perfect sense that thinking of Wilson would make everything hurt even more?
Even though the rational side of his mind could name at least three different textbooks outlining the seriousness of mixing aspirin, acetaminophen, and naproxen in large doses, House ignored them all, downing the pills with a bottle of Glenlivet he'd been saving for a special occasion.
House wasn't sure if the special occasion he'd had in mind wouldn't have ended in his current puking spree even without the medication. But that was neither here nor there when he woke groggy from a heavy slumber. His head felt like it was the size of a weather balloon.
His cell phone vibrated against the tile floor. House groped for it, staring blearily at the bright screen. There were seven new messages waiting for him and House realized why: it was almost one in the afternoon. That was late, even for him. House shoved aside the hopeful feeling welling up in his chest. Maybe he could tell someone about his new descent into familiar pain—maybe someone would decipher his strange behavior as more than just bullshit.
He listened to the latest message.
"House," Cuddy said. "I don't know where the hell you are, but I talked to Wilson. You may not have actually lied to me, but you sure as hell implied a lot more than the truth yesterday. I should have known better than to listen to you." She took a sharp, angry inhale. "I know you think you're in pain. But your pain was no excuse to say those things. No excuse. I've been letting you get away with foolish things for far too long. It's time you shape up, House. As of today, I've put a stop on your vicodin medication. Anyone who gets their pharmaceuticals through this hospital knows they will lose their job if they even so much as give you an aspirin."
House's head ached with the unintended irony in Cuddy's words.
"I'm through catering to your addictions. You can work here clean or you can find another job."
The message ended and House threw the phone against the bathroom wall, where it landed in the bathtub with a sickening thump.