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The Difference

Chapter Text

~Spring, 2005~

There’s a shadow just behind me

Shrouding every step I take

Making every promise empty

Pointing every finger at me

 

“Race you to the car!” She laughs as she bounds away and you can’t help but share in her enthusiasm. It’s contagious, as any infectious disease guy could tell you, and even an old curmudgeon like yourself is not immune. A smile pulls at your lips as you take a moment to admire the curve of her ass encased in dark washed denim before following her at a fast walk, the closest you can manage to a run. Your legs are long, so it’s good enough, and you arrive at the car close behind her. Even the pain that rips through your thigh at the exertion isn’t enough to erase your rare good mood, and so you toss a couple of pills down your throat, hoping she doesn’t notice as she searches through her purse for something. Surely she’d have something to say about mixing painkillers with the couple of beers you shared earlier.

But notice she does not, and so you open the passenger door for her and then settle yourself behind the wheel.

You’re not ready for the night to end and so you drive around aimlessly for a time listening to her happy, tipsy chatter about the colourful trucks and the even more colourful people who were seated around you on the bleachers. Classic rock plays softly on the radio and you watch her from the corner of your eye while you drive. She looks so different in casual clothes. Not older exactly, but without the vivid contrast between her youthful appearance and her professional attire, the age difference seems less daunting and you feel attracted to her in the way of a normal red-blooded male, and not as a creepy old man.

She slyly, or so she probably thinks, tosses a few more personal questions your way and you answer them with only token protest. You find you want her to know you. Or, parts of you anyway, and not only the parts below your belt, though they are certainly interested as well. You ask a few questions of your own, partly to steer her away from your life and partly because you’re finding you want to know her too.

The sun sets with a weak show of pink and red while you’re driving, reminding you of other nights spent riding in cars with girls, looking for places to park and neck. You cringe inwardly at the old fashioned expression and wonder briefly if she even knows what it means. You don’t dare ask; the question itself is an invitation you’re not entirely prepared to issue. So, you flick your headlights on, make another random turn, and listen to her med school reminiscences with half your mind, while the other half wonders what comes next.

Minutes and miles pass. Eventually she notices you’re driving in circles and questions your intentions in a tone of voice that is infused with equal parts confusion and flirtation. You make a decision in the split second it takes her to run her tongue along her full bottom lip. You didn’t lie before; it really wasn’t intended to be a date. But now, you think, maybe it’s become one. Shrugging your shoulders you turn your car in the direction of her apartment.

When you arrive, you don’t wait for an invitation. Instead you turn off the ignition, open the car door and silently follow her inside. The instant the elevator doors slide closed you have her pushed up against the back wall. It should have taken her by surprise, but somehow you don’t think it did. Her hand is at the back of your neck pulling your head toward her in the same instant that your hands land at her waist. You lean down to capture her lips with yours and she meets you halfway with more passion than you would have imagined possible from your reserved immunologist. You obviously don’t know her as well as you previously thought. Perhaps it’s time to change that.

The elevator doors slide open just as you’re slipping your hand under her top. She bats you away playfully and sashays down the hall, not even pausing to make sure you’re following. You grin at her newfound confidence. You should say something to knock her off balance, partly to regain the upper hand and partly just for the fun of it, but you don’t. Don’t even want to really. You feel like you’re high, and maybe you are, just a little, but it’s good because the combination of the pills and the woman and the beer and the exhaust fumes have all led to this and it’s been a really, really long time coming. She looks back at you from over her shoulder just before she unlocks her door and disappears inside. You add another little white friend to the collection in your belly and follow.

***

You know you’ve fucked up before you even open your eyes. Your leg and your head are competing to see which one can bring you the most pain and something you suspect is her hair is tickling your nose. Through sheer power of will, you manage not to sneeze because the last thing you need is for her to wake up before you can come up with a viable escape plan. Holding your breath, you listen carefully for signs that she may be awake. Only when you’re positive she’s not do you finally open your eyes. There’s no clock within view of where you’re lying but the pale light coming from between the slats of the window blinds tells you dawn is approaching. You’ve been asleep maybe three hours, four at the outside. You’re too warm and the bed is too soft and an all-encompassing sense of wrongness pervades the air. Or maybe it’s just inside you, but either way, the need to flee threatens to overwhelm you and you feel on the verge of a panic attack. You close your eyes again and try breathing as deeply as you can without moving.

The memories of the night before are vague but you know there was sex interspersed with alcohol, and pills taken only when you knew she wouldn’t see. You’re pretty sure she didn’t realize exactly how under the influence you were by the time the two of you finally fell asleep. The fact that she had been drinking too was probably your saving grace. But, mood-altering substances aside, you’re not really sure how you let it happen. You knew better. You know better. She’ll only end up wanting more from you than you can give. You open your eyes again and turn your head slightly to discover that she’s facing away from you. Her tangled dark hair is everywhere, flowing down over her naked shoulders and landing on your pillow. The sight of her brings back visions and sounds and feelings from the night before that manage to calm you somewhat, but the need to get away persists. It’s too claustrophobic in to think.

Luck is with you for once and you are able to get out of bed and dress without waking her. Glancing back at the rumpled bed and the woman in it, for a moment you allow yourself to imagine her rolling over to face you. In your mind’s eye, her lids flutter open and she smiles up at you while pulling the covers back. Patting the bed beside her, she beckons to you with a look of such love in her eyes that it steals your breath.

That could be your life. It’s all right here in front of you; you just have to open up enough to let it happen. You picture yourself walking over to the bed, taking her hand and leaning down to kiss her. She wraps her arms around your neck and pulls you down into the bed. You tumble in and laugh as you tangle yourself up in her.

But, you sadly realize, that version of you doesn’t carry a cane. That version of you isn’t an addict. That version of you probably won’t end up ruining her life.

You turn away from the imaginary scene, your vision blurring slightly. That version of you doesn’t exist, can’t exist, and for the first time in a very long time, you wish he did. Seems it’s not only her that would end up wanting more than you can give.

Pulling a vial of pills from your pocket, you swallow two. And then you leave without looking back.

***

Avoidance becomes your middle name and you don’t ever speak of your night together. You don’t really know what to say, so you’re prepared to just wait for her to bring it up. You’ll then explain what a bad idea it was in such a way that she’ll never mention it again. Problem is, she never does bring it up, although on more than one occasion, you suspect she’s about to. For reasons known only to herself, she always changes her mind. You don’t really understand; she always struck you as a ‘let’s talk about our relationship ad nauseam, ad infinitum’ type of girl, but since this way actually works better for you, you leave it be.

For several weeks the two of you operate as though you’re existing a half dimension apart – able to see each other, but not interact unless the universe or Cuddy forces you to. You both do your jobs. She participates in differentials, but you don’t mock her theories, just agree or disagree as necessary. And when you do disagree, she doesn’t argue further and simply accepts your opinion for the fact that it is. There are no looks that last a little too long. There are no inappropriate jokes. The fact that no one seems to notice this at all speaks to the level of self-absorption of those around you. This does not surprise you in the least.

What is surprising, however, though perhaps it shouldn’t be given her tendencies toward martyrdom, is how quickly things get back to normal. The pessimist in you suspects the word ‘too’ should come before the word ‘quickly’ in that thought and perhaps things aren’t really normal at all. But, after a month or so, she’s smiling at you again. And she’s laughing at your jokes, and sorting your mail and arguing with you when she feels the need, and so you push your concerns aside. One can only exist in a state of high alert for so long after all, before the human tendency towards acceptance takes over. She enjoys your company; you, though you’re loath to admit it, enjoy hers. It’s only natural that when the immediacy of the situation faded, things would return to a state of equilibrium.

But, just as it does, a bigger worry arrives to take the previous one’s place - bigger both in severity and in just plain girth. The hospital is under new management. You, of course, have already managed to royally piss him off. And your team will pay the price – you have to get rid of one of them. Should have been an easy choice, given that Chase has seemingly turned on you, but that option has been taken from you. You’ll have to figure something else out. You close your door, don your headphones and attempt to formulate a plan.

***

What it comes down to is this: You need her help.

Vogler has presented you with a way to keep them all, but not without a price. He’s demanding you give a speech extolling the virtues of his new, but not really, ACE inhibitor. Fifteen minutes of your time. Twenty, tops. To say you don’t want to do it is akin to saying you don’t want to spend the rest of your life working in the clinic treating crotch rot and the sniffles. That is, you loathe the very idea of it. Fully and completely. It’s beneath you; you suck at writing speeches and you don’t particularly enjoy limping across a stage in front of dozens of idiotic doctors and drug reps so they can whisper to each other about your crappy reputation.

Of course, you’re going to do it anyway. What choice do you have? You need your whole team, not just a fraction of it. There are three of them for a reason – there’s a science behind it, both in the selection of their specialties and their personalities. And you’ve worked hard to mould them into the finely tuned machine they currently are. Or were, before this mess began and they started turning on each other. Each of them has a part to play, and they are all, all, essential. Beyond that, the thought of losing any one of them because of a fucked up situation like this, that is no fault of their own, rankles you. They’re all damned good doctors and they don’t deserve this. You’re not a sentimental man, never have been, but this is just wrong. You’ll do what you can to stop it.

Never let it be said you’re not a team player. Or a masochistic sonofabitch. Six of one, half dozen of the other...

But you’re not so masochistic that you’re going to write the damned speech yourself. That’s where she comes in. If she wants to keep her job, and you’re certain she does, she’ll write it. You’re only grateful that sufficient time has passed between now and the Night You Lost Your Mind, as you’ve come to think of it, that she probably won’t connect the two situations. Because there is no connection. None. It’s not just her you’re fighting for.

***

The day before the convention, you’re at your desk trying not to crash your tiny virtual car into a tiny virtual wall when she walks through your door, all sober and downcast. She knows the score. The information packet Vogler gave you is laid out before you. You’ve read it; you’re not impressed. She won’t be either, but she’s moderately better at kissing ass than you are. Not as good as Chase, but he can’t write worth shit.

She raises an eyebrow when you gesture for her to close the door, but does so before turning and holding up her pager. “Yes?” she asks. “You rang? Do we have a new patient?”

“Nope,” you reply, making a popping noise at the end of the word like the demise of a tiny balloon. “We need to talk.”

She visibly deflates, becomes something small and insignificant before your eyes and you suddenly realize she thinks you’re talking about something else entirely. You momentarily hate yourself for doing this to her, but push the feeling aside and get down to business.

“Sit,” you instruct and you’re relieved when she complies without comment.

Picking up one of the pamphlets, you proceed to read it aloud. “Viopril inhibits angiotensin converting enzyme, or ACE, in human subjects and animals. ACE is a peptidyl dipeptidase that catalyzes the conversion…”

Looking confused, she holds up a hand to interrupt. “House! Stop. I know what an ACE inhibitor does. What is this about?”

“Ah,” you retort, “but how much do you know about Eastbrook Pharmaceuticals brand spanking new ACE inhibitor, hmm?” You tilt your head to the side and wait while she works out where she’s heard that name before. It doesn’t take long.

“Eastbrook Pharmaceuticals? Vogler’s company?” she asks cautiously.

“The very one.” You shove the pamphlets toward her. “Here, read these. Need you to write a speech about it.”

“A speech? What? House, I don’t know...I’m not really very good at public speaking, and...”

You roll your eyes at her. “Relax. Not for you. For me. I need you to write a speech for me to give at some boring conference so I can keep Vogler off my back and all you kiddies can keep your jobs.”

This clearly takes her by surprise. So much for the hospital grapevine. “You’re...you’re going to give a speech? For us? But, you don’t give speeches. I’m forever sending out regrets emails whenever someone invites you to give one. You said, and I quote, that you’d rather snack on glass bananas than give a speech to a bunch of dumbass wannabe diagnosticians who would already know everything you were talking about if they were any damned good. And this isn’t even a speech about diagnostics! It’s a...a commercial! You can’t do this! I can’t believe you’re even considering it!”

“And you say you’re no good at speeches.” She doesn’t react to your little witticism and so you shrug and ask her what other choice you have.

She doesn’t respond for a moment, but you can easily see the wheels turning. The screech is almost audible when they come to a halt, having made the connection you were hoping she wouldn’t. “Is this about...” she gestures into the open space between the two of you.

“No.” You cut her off before she can complete the thought. “Just write the damned speech. You’ve got ‘til tomorrow afternoon.” You rise from behind your desk, make for the door, and limp out of the room. You can still feel her eyes burning into your back from halfway down the hallway. You dig around in your hip pocket and pull out what you need to forget that feeling.

***

You’re lying on the couch watching television, a blanket draped over you and the cardboard remnants of your dinner on the coffee table beside you. Lately a lot of your nights are spent like this – at home, alone, watching TV and eating take out. There was a time you had some semblance of a life. You’d go to concerts, to ball games, to bars to shoot pool. Stacy sometimes forced you into attending more cultural events and while you enjoyed giving her a hard time, you usually enjoyed the event as well. Or maybe it was just the company you liked. Then, later, after you had healed as much as you were ever going to, Wilson would drag you out and make you face the world. Now that he’s married again, you have to drag him. More often than not, you just don’t have the energy.

Tonight, however, you wish you did, because sitting here with nothing to do but think about tomorrow isn’t helping anyone, least of all yourself. You’ve talked yourself out of doing the speech only to talk yourself right back into it so many times that you’ve succeeded only in giving yourself a pounding headache.

You reach out for the amber vial of pills on the coffee table and shake two out into the palm of your hand. Vicodin for a headache is surely overkill, but these days regular ibuprofen won’t even take the edge off. And anyway, your leg hurts too. It always does. You toss the pills to the back of your throat and swallow, chasing them with a gulp of coffee that has been cold for hours. You grimace and then slide lower on the couch, pulling the blanket up over your shoulders. The room feels like January, though it’s late April, and a shiver passes through you as you burrow your feet deeper into the warm blanket. You’re not quite sure why you don’t just go to bed, other than some vague, vain notion that going to bed before ten, even on a weeknight, is something only old people do. You flick through the channels twice before finally settling on something banal and mind numbing that you have no intention of actually watching.

You’re very nearly asleep when you hear the knock at the door. It’s so soft that had you been completely out you never would have heard it. It’s the kind of knock people deliver when they aren’t really sure whether they want the door to be answered at all. Even in your current groggy state, there’s no doubt in your mind who it is.

You struggle to your feet and almost fall on your face as your feet and cane get tangled up in your blanket. Cursing colourfully all the way to the door, you yank it open. Cameron, messenger bag slung over her right shoulder and a six-pack of Corona in her left hand, is standing there looking like she’s already regretting whatever screwed up thought process has brought her here. You raise your eyebrow and wait for an explanation.

“I finished the speech,” she volunteers. “I thought you might want it tonight. So you have more time to learn it before tomorrow night.”

“You thought wrong.” You wait for her to either continue trying to talk her way in or give up and turn away. She does neither; instead she smiles, shrugs, and pushes past you - an unexpectedly bold move. Traipsing straight into the living room, she deposits her encumbrances on your coffee table.

“Won’t you come in?” you invite sardonically. “You know, you could have just emailed it to me.”

“Yes, well, I know how you like that personal touch.” She’s gathering up the remains of your dinner from the coffee table, nose wrinkled in distaste. You know you should help, but hey, you didn’t ask for her company or her maid service. Instead you help yourself to one of the Coronas.

“Where’s the lime?” There’s no way she brought a lime.

“In my bag.” Before you realize what she’s up to, there’s a green projectile flying at you. You have to drop your cane in order to catch it, but catch it, you do. “Why don’t you cut it up while I clean off the table?”

Leaning down to retrieve your cane, you bite down on a few unfamiliar tasting words of approval before they escape your mouth and you follow her to the kitchen.

***

The speech is well-written, thoroughly researched, complimentary towards Vogler and his company, and she absolutely does not want you to give it. Instead, she wants to sacrifice herself.

“I can get another job easily, House. Believe it or not, having worked for you lends my resume a certain cachet.” Glancing up at you, she rolls smiling eyes. “I have no idea why.” She’s sitting shoeless and cross-legged on the couch beside you, having made herself comfortable while you were reading. Her appearance is a study in contradictions. From the neck up, she’s Dr. Cameron through and through with her hair in a tidy bun; a pencil tucked behind her ear; discrete, tasteful earrings; and the same understated makeup she wears at work. But the rest of her is...who? Allison? Ally? Just plain Al? You realize you have no idea what form of her first name she prefers, but anyway, the rest of her is someone you’re unfamiliar with, dressed for comfort as she is, in grey workout pants and a worn, black t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a metal band you would never have expected her to know about, let alone like.

“Smart ass,” you reply, after swallowing a mouthful of citrusy beer, because you appreciate her effort at lightening the mood. Doesn’t mean you’re going to let her follow through on her plan though. You’re giving the damned speech. You reach over and pull the pencil out from behind her ear – why do you find that incredibly hot all of a sudden? – and begin crossing out words here and there and changing them to ones that sound more like something you might say.

“This drug,” she goes on, after looking askance at the pencil, “it’s virtually identical to Eastbrook’s previous ACE inhibitor. On which, coincidentally, the patent is just about to run out. It’s just a cash grab, House, on the backs of the patients. You can’t get up there and endorse that!”

“Is the drug any good? Does it do what it’s supposed to?”

“Well...yes.”

“Then it’s not compromising patient care?”

“Well, no. But...”

“I’m giving the speech, Cameron. Eastbrook makes some money; the insurance companies lose some money. Life goes on. No biggie.” You manage to sound a good deal firmer than you feel. Fact is, you agree with her one hundred and twenty percent. There is a knot in your stomach the size of a golf ball and no matter which option you consider, it’s only getting bigger. When you think about giving the speech and compromising one of the few positive traits you’ve got going for you – your integrity – it grows to the size of a baseball. But when you consider not giving it and losing Cameron – because that’s the choice now; she’s not going to let you fire Foreman – the knot morphs into a football, with pointed ends jabbing at your insides.

You pull off your reading glasses, toss them on the table, and then scrub at your face with your hand. “Look, it’s not an ideal solution. In fact, it’s a piss poor one. But it’s the only one we’ve got right now.” She opens her mouth to continue arguing but you reach over, cover it with your hand and continue. “It’s the only one we’ve got right now. We’ve still got most of tomorrow to come up with something that doesn’t involve anyone hawking overpriced drugs or anyone quitting. Have a little faith, will you?” She nods and you remove your hand.

It’s a stall tactic, plain and simple. You know there’s nothing else you can do. Vogler is not going to change his mind. You don’t have enough influence with the board to oust him; actually you don’t have any influence at all. You’ve got a private investigator trying to dig up blackmail dirt, but that’s a Hail Mary pass at best. But what you don’t want her doing is going in tomorrow and quitting.

The two of you descend into silence, lost in your own thoughts as you pretend to study the speech and she stares off into space.

“Well,” you say finally. “It’s getting late.” And, you realize, it is. It’s nearly midnight.

She agrees, rises, and collects her belongings. You unthinkingly walk her to the door and then instantly regret it. It’s awkward; you don’t know what to say, what to do, when you get there. You should’ve stayed on the damned couch where you wouldn’t be tempted to kiss her goodbye, because that’s what guys do when they walk women to doors. Especially women they’ve slept with.

She reaches out, touches you on the arm. “You know what?” she asks. “I love my job, I really do. And I don’t want to give it up. But, if it comes to that, there could be an upside to me not being your employee. To you not being my boss. Just think about it.”

A quick smile and her fingers trail down your arm, grazing your hand before dropping away. And then she’s gone.

And you do think about it. You think about it while you prepare for bed, as you brush your teeth, when you strip off your jeans. You think about it while you swallow the one last Vicodin for the day that should hopefully allow you to sleep. You think about it for a long time, but it’s all pointless, because the employer/employee factor was never really the problem.

***

Your intentions are good. When you get up there on the stage in front of everyone, and unfold the speech Cameron wrote for you, you fully intend to deliver it. She’s out there in the audience. They all are: Wilson and Cuddy, Chase and Foreman, other various and sundry colleagues and acquaintances. But she’s the one you look at and she’s the one who gives you a little smile of encouragement. To encourage you to do what, you aren’t entirely sure, because while you spent the entire day preparing to save her, she spent the entire day telling you why you shouldn’t.

In the end, she both wins and loses, because it turns out you can’t do it. You’re up there onstage in front of a hundred people and you just...can’t. You can’t compromise your ethics, as eccentric as they may be, not for Vogler, not for your team, not for Cameron. She already knew that; you should’ve listened to her in the first place and saved everyone some trouble.

You try to escape after a quick sentence or two, before you can do any irrevocable harm, but Vogler, obviously not knowing who he’s dealing with, baits you into going back to the podium.

His mistake.

What happens immediately afterwards is mostly a blur of shocked and angry faces, hotel hallway and darkened parking lot. You brush past Vogler and the other panellists and head immediately for a side exit. The minute you’re outside, your hand is in the pocket of your freshly dry-cleaned suit jacket, pulling out your pills. You’re shaking so badly at first that you can’t open the bottle, so you lean up against the cold red brick of the building and force yourself to calm down. After a minute or so, you’re able to get two pills out of the bottle and down your throat without choking on them. Then, you find your car and drive yourself home.

***

Your home phone comes to life twelve times within the space of an hour. Your cell, many more times than that. The rings sound like condemnation and you answer none of them. Instead, you sit at your piano, picking out bits of random songs and waiting to see who will be the first to arrive at the door. You’re too numb just now, or maybe too stoned, to berate yourself for what you’ve done. There’ll be time enough for that later, in the unemployment line, because you have serious doubts whether you’ll even have a job after this, never mind your team. Tenure or no, a man like Vogler won’t take humiliation of the sort you dished out tonight lying down.

The knock at the door you’re expecting isn’t long in coming. You win a bet with yourself when you peer through the peephole to discover Cameron on the other side. Or maybe it wasn’t so much a bet as a wish, as she’s probably the one person you’re willing to let in at this point. You pull the door open and step back to allow her to enter.

“I’m sorry. I should have taken a couple of extra Vicodin and just held my nose,” you joke as she closes the door behind herself.

“I’m guessing you did take a couple extra Vicodin.”

“True.” That earns a small smile, but you can see she’s shaken. Of course she is. You’ve just turned her world upside down. She may not have been opposed to it, but that doesn’t mean she was entirely prepared for it.

“So, I guess this is it,” she says, her voice tinged with something that should be regret but probably isn’t.

“I could fire Foreman,” you offer.

She shakes her head, just as you knew she would. “No. He needs this more than I do. I’ll be fine House. So will you.”

You snort. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Just wait until his royal hugeness gets a hold of me.”

She gives another small smile and a shrug of reluctant agreement. Your eyes meet and lock in one of those strange moments of understanding you always seem to share with her.

You know she’s awaiting some sort of assurance from you, waiting for you to tell her that this isn’t over, that you’ll see each other again, but you can’t. You haven’t had time enough to process this. You don’t know what you want, other than you don’t want things to change. But that’s no longer an option and you don’t quite know where that leaves you. Or you and her. Things are too muddled right now and you’re not going to make her any more promises you can’t or won’t want to keep.

In the end, she just holds out her hand. “Goodbye, House. You know where to find me, if you want to.”

You transfer your gaze from her face to her hand and after a moment you grasp it reluctantly. Rather than shaking, she pulls you toward her until you’re mere inches apart. She rises up on her tiptoes and presses her lips softly and all too briefly to yours. Then, backing away only slightly, she completes the handshake and releases your hand.

You stand there and watch her leave without uttering another word.

Her last words to you echo in your mind. “You know where to find me, if you want to.”

You’re doubtful that will prove to be a good thing. For either of you.

***

Two interminable weeks later, the king is dead and you’re knocking on her door.

She opens it, breathless and sweaty, and you’re immediately reminded of the last time, the only other time, you were here. The faint flush on her cheeks makes you wonder if she’s remembering too, but then you catch a glimpse of the treadmill behind her and realize her current state has nothing to do with you. Yet, one part of your body amends, but you’re determined to ignore it. For now at least. You’ve got more pressing matters to discuss with her. If she’s hurt you haven’t contacted her before now, she shows no sign of it. Instead, she invites you inside.

“You can come back now,” you announce after following her in and closing the door behind you. “I saved all the mail for you.”

She turns to face you as her jaw drops open. “Excuse me, what?”

You roll your eyes and repeat yourself more slowly. “You...can...come...”

“Vogler is going to let you hire me back?” she interrupts, hands on her hips.

“Nope, he’s gone.” You walk over to her couch and settle into it, right arm draped across the back and feet up on the coffee table. You look around for a remote control before realizing there’s no television in view. You were too busy to notice that the last time. Who doesn’t have a television in their living room? You’re about to pose the question when you realize she’s staring at you impatiently, obviously not done with the previous subject. “It’s a long and boring story,” you tell her. “Someone will fill you in on Monday. It won’t be me; I’m giving myself electroshock therapy this weekend so I can forget the whole thing.”

“And you think I’m just going to come back as if nothing happened? What if I have another job?” she demands. She doesn’t. You know this because you’ve been ducking reference calls all week, hoping for a miracle. But she doesn’t need to know that.

“So, quit. Things can go back to the way they were.” Why is she being difficult? She should be thrilled. You’re starting to get impatient. Why can’t this be easy? You say come back, she says sure. The End. You slide your left hand into your pocket and play with the pill bottle inside.

“The way they were was kind of weird.” She sits down beside you. Very close beside you, and this, surprisingly, calms you. You missed her. More than you ever expected to. And you understand now where this is going and what she wants from you. You half-expected something like this and if that’s what it takes to get her to come back, you’ll push aside your misgivings and try to give it to her. It’s not even that you don’t want the same things, because right now, in this moment, you sort of do. Unfortunately, you also know yourself well enough to realize it won’t probably last. It doesn’t matter. You need her to come back. You need her.

“Weird works for me,” you reply, bringing your arm down from the back of the sofa to rest across her shoulders.

She looks up at you and nearly whispers, “Not for me.”

She goes on to haltingly explain she’s not willing to come back without a change in your relationship. It’s time for you to choose. All or nothing. She can be in your life both professionally and personally or you can never see her again. Those are the only choices. In the end, it’s not really a choice at all. You pull her closer and tell her all the things she wants to hear. You even mean most of it.

***

One night, after she’s been back for about a week, you take her to dinner. She wears a dress and you wear a tie and there’s small talk and pleasantries and you have to escape to the men’s room for chemical fortification before your waitress even approaches the table.

You order the puttanesca and she has the ravioli.