It's almost moving day.
You never realized you had so goddamned many books. They're everywhere: resting in half empty bookcases, stacked haphazardly on the floor, spilling out of cardboard boxes. And you've read every last one of them, most of them more than once. Half of your furniture has already been removed, picked up that morning up by some charitable organization or another, leaving you both couchless and deskless, amongst other things. The desk is no great loss, you hadn't sat at it in months, but right about now you'd give your kingdom for a couch to stretch out on. You suppose giving up your kingdom is exactly what you're doing.
You've lived here a long time, you think as you look around the dishevelled room. Some would say too long and there have been many times over the years you would have agreed with them. Now is not one of those times. With every box you seal up with packing tape, your desire to rip them all back open and restore some sort of order to your life grows. Never mind that this whole thing is happening at your insistence. There are excellent reasons for moving, important reasons, but reasons that are, more and more, starting to fall into the category of 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'. You just don't know that you can bring yourself to leave.
A man much wiser than yourself once said something about those forgetting the past being doomed to repeat it. That scares you, forgetting. You don't want to forget, but you're not a young man anymore and memories dim as the years march on, like it or not. What if leaving familiar surroundings behind reduces the clarity with which you recall those years that you can never, ever allow yourself to forget? What if moving on is equivalent to turning your back on the past, on all the good that has happened here in this house, but even more importantly, on the bad? More than twenty years clean and sober and you still fear falling again into the darkness of those days with the primal, visceral terror of an aquaphobe on a small leaky boat in the middle of a choppy sea.
Shaking your head to clear it of such unwelcome thoughts, you wheel across the room to the piano. It's coming with you of course, even though it's going to cost a goddamned fortune to ship it halfway across the country. You lift the keyboard cover and pick out a jaunty one-handed tune. The rest of the big stuff's replaceable, but there's no way in hell you're leaving your baby behind. After closing the keyboard cover again, you gather up all the sheet music littering the general area, stack it in your lap, and start to turn your chair in the direction of the nearest open box. As soon as the wheels start to turn, the music slides off your lap and onto the floor.
You set the brake on your chair and scoot your ass as far forward as possible before leaning over to gather them up. As you stretch to try grab a page that has floated just out of reach you overbalance and topple out of your chair and onto the floor. Your leg shrieks in pain but you're able to get your arms out in front of you quickly enough to break your fall. This isn't the first time this has happened. Stupid old fuck, you curse yourself. Too stubborn to move the chair a foot forward. Rolling over onto your back, you breathe deeply and wait for the pain to subside enough for you to haul yourself off the floor and back into the chair.
It's as you're lying there that you notice it: a swatch of grey duct tape stuck to the underside of the piano. Underneath the tape, something amber coloured catches your eye and so you shuffle along on your back like an overturned turtle until you can reach the odd little package. The old tape must have barely been holding on because it comes away with very little effort and, to your complete and utter shock, you find yourself holding a small plastic bottle about three inches high and an inch in diameter. Its label has faded almost into invisibility, but when you pull your reading glasses out of your shirt pocket and slide them on, you can just make out your own name, along with the name of the drug you were last prescribed back in 2009.
All that remains of the small white pills it once contained is a fine powder on the bottom of the vial. Looks like you missed one, when you and Cameron cleaned house all those years ago.
You stop back at her house on the way to the truck rally so she can unburden herself of all your old treasures. She's out of the car before you even put it in park which tells you she's just as anxious as you to be rid of them and get on with your evening, your date. It's a strange thing, to be dating your own wife, even though it's been several years since you lived as a married couple. Strange, but good, and you're as determined as you've ever been to not screw it up this time around. You hope that she'll recognize your earlier errand for what it was – an admission of her importance to you, an admission that it's her and no one else that you want by your side as you continue your battle against old demons. It would be easy to mistake your good intentions for manipulation, because in the not so distant past, that's exactly what it would've been – 'Look, I'm getting rid of the drugs. You can trust me.' You just hope you haven't made a mistake, but when she opens the car door and slides inside, she gives your hand a quick squeeze before sliding her sunglasses on, and you know everything is fine. You smile to yourself as you back the car out of the drive.
After struggling back into your chair, you hold the vial up in the air in front of you and turn it around and around with your fingertips. You know the remnants of the Vicodin are completely impotent, but that knowledge doesn't keep you from being supremely uncomfortable with its presence in your home. If you had found this bottle within that first, iffy year, who knows what might have happened. Actually, scratch that. You know exactly what would've happened.
You don't hear her approach, as wrapped up as you are in your own private hell. Your thigh burns as if it had been painted with jet fuel and set ablaze by a flamethrower. Sweat beads on your forehead and drips down the side of your face, mixing with the tears leaking unnoticed from your eyes. If there had been pain pills anywhere within reach you would have already downed them without a second thought.
She sits down beside you on the couch, sliding her hands under yours and taking over massaging your ruined leg, just like she used to when she lived here. It's just your luck that the first time she stays over since you've been involved again, this would happen. You didn't want her to see you like this and it's all you can do to not push her away, if not physically, then with words sharpened on the rough edges of your pain. That's what the old you would've done. And you would've felt perfectly justified in doing so, as if the agony you were in gave you the right to be cruel. And the drugs, the drugs gave you the means to forget the hurt in her eyes every time you wounded her. But that's not who you want to be anymore and suddenly you're grateful there aren't any pills nearby. You meet her eyes and murmur your thanks, laying your head back against the cushions, and letting her do what little she can. It helps.
You set the tiny intruder on top of the piano for the time being, just needing to not have it in your hand any longer, and roll into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The pot has been sitting on warm since breakfast, but you're not fussy. You stand just long enough to splash some in the same red mug you've been using all day and, ignoring the dribbles you're leaving on the counter, roll back out to where the couch should be and park yourself in front of the coffee table. Old habits, they die hard. The spot on the floor where the couch once stood is dusty and littered with the small items that tend to accumulate underneath furniture that doesn't often get moved: coins, bits of paper, a ballpoint pen. And in the middle of it all is one small blue and red handmade catnip mouse. You lean over, pick it up and dust it off.
She's been nervously almost asking you something for a week now, and after the third false start, you think you've figured out what it must be. She wants a baby. That has to be it and she's obviously expecting you to say no or she wouldn't be so hesitant to bring it up. The two of you have been back together for just over five years and while you'd never know it to look at her, she's nearing forty so, reproductively speaking, it's pretty much now or never. Oddly enough, it's not a subject that'd come up before now. In the early days of your marriage, it was obviously out of the question given your issues and the general rockiness of your relationship. And then after the reconciliation, she was probably worried you could still slip back into old habits. She must figure, after all this time, that it's as safe as it's ever going to get.
The two of you sit side by side on the couch, sharing a pizza and watching a movie. You can see her out of the corner of your eye, mouthing words to herself, rehearsing.
Now or never, you remind yourself as you toss your pizza crust into the box and turn to face her. You've given the subject a lot of thought over the last couple of days, and while you're not convinced you'll make much of a father, you're willing to give it a shot for her sake. You owe her that much. "Cameron. Just put us both out of our misery and say it."
Her eyes widen, surprised perhaps, that you can see through her so easily, though really she should expect it after all these years. "I want us to get a cat," she blurts.
"A cat." you repeat, bewildered.
"Well, yeah. It would be nice to have company when you're working late and I've always loved cats. And I know you like them too. Remember that case you had once..."
You're not even listening to her anymore. A cat. She wants a cat. "Not a baby," you say, almost to yourself.
"What? No! Is that what you thought?" She grins, thoroughly amused by the idea. "What would two workaholics like us do with a baby? And anyway, I'm too old for all that now. Definitely not a baby. Just a cat. Geez, you must've been freaking out, thinking I was going to ask you to make a baby."
"Yeah. What a relief." You throw an arm around her shoulders and give her a quick squeeze. "Sure. Why not? We can get a cat." You'll never tell her, and you'll probably have forgotten all about it in a couple of days, but right now in this moment, you're a little bit heartbroken that there will never be a little girl with blond pigtails who'll call you Daddy.
Jimmy the cat, named for your best friend, died last year at the ripe old age of sixteen. He was a good cat; you still kind of miss him. Maybe when you're settled in the new place you'll get another one. And it's probably a good thing you never had kids. Would've made this move even more complicated than it already is. You toss the little mouse across the room towards an open box and cheer hollowly when you make the shot.
The coffee tastes like shit. You could throw on another pot; this day isn't going to end anytime soon and the caffeine might help. Except, of course, there's no actual caffeine in your coffee these days. Doctor's orders. You'd give your left nut right about now for a cup of the high octane jet fuel you used to drink at the hospital.
Pursing your lips, you blow out a frustrated breath and look around for something you can start and actually finish without help. Your eyes land on a neatly folded afghan sitting on the one remaining chair in the room. It's brightly coloured, a mix of jewel tones: blue and red, green and purple, and while it's big enough for your six foot, two inch frame, it's as soft as a baby's blanket.
It's early, barely nine o'clock, when you get home, but she's already fast asleep on the couch, burrowed under an afghan she knit herself last year. You'd been out, seeing a movie with Wilson while she worked late for the fourth night in a row. The bane of your existence, the goddamned ER, is short-staffed yet again and so, of course, she's been working far too much. It worries you when she gets like this; she doesn't eat right, doesn't get enough sleep. You barely see her. You wish to hell she'd take another job, with you in Diagnostics, or hell, in any other department in the hospital where someone with her seniority could work reasonable hours. But she won't. Even well into her forties, her youthful idealism has remained intact and she likes her job, likes feeling like she's making a difference, despite the sacrifices she has to make sometimes. You know this already; it's a tired old argument and while you haven't conceded defeat just yet, you don't want to get into it tonight. Tonight, you just want to hold her while she sleeps.
"Move over," you command softly, your hand on her shoulder. She complies without really waking and you slip in behind her on the couch. Turning over, she buries her face in your chest while you settle an arm around her waist and close your eyes.
On second thought, you need a nap. If Cameron were here, she'd tell you to stop fooling around and get back to work. But she's not, so you abandon your revolting coffee and grab the blanket from the chair. As you roll into the bedroom, the framed photograph of the two of you still displayed on the bedside table catches your eye. She's grinning at the camera, wearing sunglasses and a big floppy hat. You're wearing your old Gravedigger ball cap and smiling at her, completely ignoring the camera.
The year of your twentieth wedding anniversary, she'd talked you into a cruise. Why you agreed, you'll never know, but you suspect it had something to do with the opportunity to see her in a bathing suit every day for six days straight. That, and maybe the casino. As you anticipated, the trip sucked pretty royally. Half the ship came down with norovirus, and Cameron, being Cameron, ended up spending most of her time volunteering in the infirmary while you spent most of your time in your cabin, determined to avoid illness through sheer force of will. But on the last day for shore excursions, the ship's doctor insisted she has everything under control and refused to allow Cameron to spend the day working. As a show of gratitude for her help, the woman arranged for the two of you to spend the afternoon at a beach house she owned on the island.
"We're using our medical degrees all wrong," you remark, as the car that brought you here drives off with the promise to be back in a few hours. "We should be cruise ship doctors, if this is how they get to spend their downtime." It's an incredible spot, all white sand, blue sky and turquoise water. You could definitely get used to this. Dr. Holden had arranged for lunch and you can see a table for two set up on the veranda of the airy beach house.
She laughs. "You'd be bored silly after a couple of days. Maybe a week if there's a television."
You shrug. "Probably. But I'm sure as hell going to enjoy the next four hours. Get your ass over here." She does, but before you have a chance to strip her down to her bathing suit, she pulls a camera out of her bag and passes it to you.
"Here. Your arms are longer than mine. Take a picture of us." Sighing dramatically, you hold the camera out at arm's length and click. It'll be a miracle if the shot turns out because you don't even try to focus it. You only have eyes for her.
No couch, but least you still have a bed, you think, as you rise shakily from the chair to climb into it. Even getting into bed is a chore these days, but you don't complain too much, as at least it's something you can still do unassisted. For now. Your health started going downhill a year or so ago, the inevitable side effect of years of hard living combined with the ravages of old age. The worst of it, for you, was adjusting to using the wheelchair instead of your cane. Just when people were starting to no longer see you as a cripple, an oddity – because what's more normal than an old guy with a cane – you'd been reduced to a whole new level of freakhood. It rankled. Now, months later, it still does, especially with people becoming less and less willing to indulge your desire to pretend that nothing has changed and that you are immortal.
"Have you ever thought of writing a book?" she asks suddenly. You're having lunch in your office, as you often do when both of you are working. She's trying to sound casual, but she is, and always has been, so incredibly bad at falsifying breeziness that you're instantly on your guard.
"It's crossed my mind once or twice," you allow, because, in fact, it has. "Why?"
She finishes a bite of salad and sets her plastic fork down in her take out container. "I was just thinking. You've had so many fascinating cases over the years; I think they'd make a pretty remarkable book. You should think about it. I could help you. It would be fun to have a project together."
"Fun?" you ask, sceptically. "You don't think we'd end up killing each other?"
She shrugs. "I'm sure there would be some spirited debate."
It's a captivating thought; she's a more than worthy debate opponent, but still you're suspicious of where this is coming from.
Testing a theory, you make a suggestion. "Maybe we could give it shot. Work on it in the evenings after work."
Her face falls and you have your answer. This wasn't supposed to be in addition to work, but instead of it. She'd been after you to retire for the last month or so, ever since your most recent crisis had forced you off your feet and into a chair, but you thought you'd made your position clear. Apparently not.
The rest of the meal is eaten in silence.
You manage an hour's nap before some combination of leg pain and nervous energy reawakens you. There's a lot of packing left to do. You struggle to a seated position and check the clock before reaching for the pill case and the bottle of water on the nightstand. It will be fifteen minutes or so before you feel able to make the move from the bed to the chair so after you wash the handful pills down, you prop a pillow up against the headboard, lean back and close your eyes. You're very careful these days about meds and timing and dosages and side effects. Nothing like the freewheeling junkie you used to be. But irony can be a cruel bitch, can't she? And sometimes careful doesn't help.
You lounge in your wheelchair in front of her desk in the same insolent way you used to back when you still sat in real chairs. It doesn't convey quite the same contemptuous attitude, but you work with what you've got.
"House," Cuddy says, gently, and damned close to pityingly. "This isn't working anymore. You know it's not. You need to think about your health."
"I am. The mental variety," you reply shortly. You need your job. You're not meant for idleness.
"House, you're seventy-two years old and you've got more wrong with you than most of your patients. There's no shame in retirement. You've earned it. Take a trip, play your piano, there must be something you've always wished you had more time for."
"Nope. And don't pretend you're trying to do me some kind of favour, because we both know that's not what this is about. You're almost as old as I am and I don't see you cleaning out your desk in favour of bus tours of Europe or needlepoint."
"A patient didn't nearly die because I ignored my own health problems to the point that I collapsed during a procedure I had no business performing!"
"I didn't ignore anything!" you shout, startling both Cuddy and yourself. "I'm under one physician's care," you continue on, more quietly, but not more calmly. "And I live with another. Oh, and in case you've forgotten, I happen to be one too. Everything is under control. I know my limitations."
She takes a deep breath before continuing. "And yet, this still happened. You're right. This isn't about me thinking you'd be happier retired. You won't be. But you're wrong about me not doing you a favour. Keeping you employed is a risk the board isn't willing to take. They want you gone. The favour I'm doing you is giving you the chance to leave on your own terms. If you don't take it, you're fired."
Put out to pasture like some damned racehorse past his prime. They may just as well have shot you and shipped you off to the glue factory. It's insulting. You're still the best in the world at what you do and if your health issues make actually treating patients a poor proposition, well, you never much liked that part of your job anyway. You could still run the department, do the research, solve the puzzles. You're not useless. You're not.
You pick a fight when you get home – a battle of epic proportions and over something so miniscule that you've forgotten what it was halfway through the fight. She argues half-heartedly, more confused than angry and you know she's just biding her time, waiting for you to tell her what this is really about. Which you do, later that night as you lie beside her in bed, in the dark. It's better this way; you can't see the pity that's sure to be on her face. She rolls over, rests her head on your chest, puts her arm around your waist, and wisely remains silent.
Luckily for you, there are people out there who still recognize your value. Back in the living room now, you survey the massive amount of work left to do, discouraged and annoyed. You shouldn't be doing this all by yourself.
"We're moving," you announce without preamble when she walks in the door. She's distracted, juggling your takeout dinner and several other bags of whatever and only realizes you're serious when she looks up after dropping everything on the coffee table and sinking into a chair.
"I beg your pardon?" she asks in a tone that suggests you had better be pulling her leg. You're not.
"I've got another job lined up. At a teaching hospital in Denver. They're basically giving me free rein, Cameron. I can take on whatever cases interest me, hire whomever I choose to work for me, play only as active a role as I want. The only thing I have to commit to is a twice a month lecture series. It's the perfect set-up." You're starting to realize you probably should have talked to her first. But damnit, they want you. She has to understand. She has to. You need this.
"And you just...accepted...without consulting me? Without even mentioning it was a possibility? What if I don't want to move, House? I have a life here. A career of my own."
"Didn't you hear what I just said? I can hire whoever I want. That's the best part; you can work for me. Come on, it'll be fun. Like old times. Or, well, at least the good parts of the old times." You wait, and hope for her capitulation, but she's not saying anything, not looking at you.
"I can't believe you did this," she says finally, faintly. Then she stands and walks past you, right out the door, leaving you staring after her. You knew she'd be pissed, but you never imagined she'd just walk out. She has to come back; you don't know if you can do this without her.
It's the perfect job for you.
While lecturing is pretty low on your list of fun things to do with your time, you can handle two a month with one brain hemisphere tied behind your back. You've got enough material, even just from the last five years or so, to easily fulfil the one year contract.
(You're trying not to think about the reason the contract term is so short, but if you did, you'd understand it. Odds are better than even that you've only got one good year left in you.)
And it's right there in black and white: full veto power over cases and staff. There'll be no Cuddy-esque demands that you do as you're told.
(You wouldn't have anyone telling you what to do if you took one of Cameron's suggestions and wrote a book or did some kind of consulting work either, but those aren't real jobs. Are they?)
There's not even a clinic duty requirement.
(Not that you've had to do that in years anyway.)
What's not to like?
(Despite the opinion of some people, uprooting your life to move halfway across the country for a year is not that big of a deal. You can always move back, just not back home.)
It's the perfect job for you.
She's been gone for three hours and you're veering wildly between worried and pissed off when the front door finally opens again. You feign nonchalance and continue watching television as she walks in and sits beside you on the couch. Close beside you, so you chance putting your arm around her without taking your eyes of the screen. When she doesn't smack you, you take that as a good sign and you're content to remain quiet until she's ready to talk. For half an hour, the sound of the televised baseball game is the only one in the room.
After awhile, she speaks.
"This is important to you," she says quietly, and it's not a question, but you answer it anyway.
"My job is important to me too."
"I know. I'm sorry. I should've discussed it with you first."
"Yes, you should have." She pauses. Sighs. "Tell me more."
A noise outside your front door captures your attention just seconds before the door opens. Your wife enters, overburdened by an armload of flattened corrugated cardboard which she tosses to the floor before closing the door behind her.
"Hey," you say, picking up a book from a pile in a lame attempt to look productive.
"Hey. You're making progress."
You shrug. Not much of it, she's being kind. "We've got too many books, you know."
She laughs. "A good portion of them predate me; you know that, right?"
"True. Doesn't mean you get out of packing them though."
"It was worth a shot." She takes her coat off and hangs it in the closet. "Some of the guys from work are coming over to help tomorrow morning."
"Good," you say as she enters the living room. The ghost sitting on the piano lid catches your eye and you're just about to speak, just about to warn her, but then it's too late.
Her reaction when she notices it is almost funny. Almost, except it's not funny at all. She quite literally stops in her tracks at the sight of the twenty-odd year old prescription bottle sitting on the piano and you can practically see her being flung back in time to the days when those little amber bottles were a common sight in your home.
She's a doctor; she's seen countless bottles exactly like that one in the intervening years. And in fact, some of your current prescriptions come in vials that look quite similar. Similar, but not identical, and you have no reason, no desire, to carry any of them around with you. They stay in the bathroom medicine cabinet and are never,never, left lying about the house. She knows that bottle shouldn't be there, and the look on her face suggests that she instinctually knows exactly what that one should contain. She turns to face you, confusion on her face and more than a bit of fear in her eyes.
"It was stuck up underneath the piano. With duct tape," you volunteer. "I don't even remember putting it there."
She walks over and picks it up, shoulders relaxing a bit when she can see for herself the lack of pills and the bottle's obvious age. "It's funny," she says, flipping the bottle up and down, watching the grey-white powder slide around inside, "how such a tiny little thing can cause so much damage. We almost didn't make it because of this tiny, little, thing." There's a catch in her voice that tears at your heart.
She turns and sinks onto the piano bench. "Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if..." She doesn't finish the sentence, doesn't need to. You know what she's asking.
"I don't have to wonder," you reply bluntly. "I'd be dead." You wheel over to her and remove the vial from her hand. "But here and now, this..." you say to her, "...this is a tiny little thing. This is nothing." You chuck it across the room where it lands in a pile of stuff destined for a dumpster. "But this," you say, grasping her hand and pulling her off the bench and into your lap, "is everything. We made it, Cameron. And we are going to keep making it."
As you hold your wife in your arms, your thoughts from earlier in the day return. You can never allow yourself to forget the damage your addiction had wrought, and maybe the forgetting had already started, just a little bit, just enough to mess up your priorities. You're a realist; you know you don't have much time left. Where you spend it, how you spend it, is important. Do you really want to spend it in a strange city, in a strange apartment with an unhappy wife who is doing her best to pretend to not be unhappy so you can pretend you're not too old and too sick to be working? Do you want to spend it lecturing dimwitted med students just to prove a point?
Couldn't the mere fact that Colorado wanted you be enough to assuage your damaged ego? Seventy-two years old, unable to walk more than a handful of steps without falling on your face, numerous chronic and serious health problems, a widely-known reputation for being a pain the ass, and still... still they wanted you. Isn't that enough?
*~* one month later*~*
The two of you sit side by side on your couch (repurchased from Goodwill, along with the rest of your furniture, after the move that wasn't) working on your book. You dictate and scribble notes on a legal pad. She types and deciphers your handwriting when even you can't make out what you've written. It works for the most part, except for moments like this when she tries to interfere in your narrative.
You're reaching out to grab the pencil she has resting behind her ear, in order to scrawl back in a passage she's crossed out, when you're abruptly overcome by an strong sense of déjà vu. An image of a much younger couple working together on a speech while sitting on a couch a great deal like this one floats before your eyes. The woman is young, beautiful. The man is older, but not as old as he thinks he is and he's refusing to acknowledge what's staring him right in the face. He's sitting beside the love of his life. Just like you are right now. You smile at the memory before shaking it away and refocusing on the present.
"House, we've been over this. We can't say that!" She's attempting to look stern and failing miserably.
"Why not? It's the truth."
"Because it will probably get us sued! If it even gets by a publisher, which it won't."
"So if it won't get by a publisher, leave it in. Let the editors do their jobs."
She shakes her head in amused frustration, but doesn't, you note with an inner grin, stop typing.