Or the Damaged
Summary: Cameron grows old, less than gracefully.
Notes: Written for the freeversevic challenge at LJ.
Booze and bright lights
The Eightfold Path of Perfection.
And nothing is like the stillness,
the quiet code of his hand
The night after Caf� Stiletto, Dr. Cameron had not slept at all.
This time, she woke gasping from a dream in which he, Rich, was alive and well, but both of them trapped in a morgue deep underground with a hospital above them, and a fire licking at the walls, and she turned to her side to cuddle up to her husband and let the dream wear away in his sleeping arms, but he wasn�t there.
It was the first time she had dreamt of him since she met Gregory House, and it would be the last time she ever woke believing him alive.
Chilled by the feeling that smoke was still scratching in her lungs, she stood up from her bed and made coffee, a pitcher of it, and drank four mugsful one by one. In the end, caffeinated to the point where her heart beat often enough for two hearts, she went to work two hours early and started catching up on the paperwork House never really made his minions do. Her muscles vibrated with tremors of exhaustion and caffeine and aftershocks from that terrible dreamt fire.
�Don�t shake,� she told herself, attempting sternness of a kind that she was able to maintain only with herself, the same tone of mental voice that accompanied the last burst on a five-mile run. �What is it about this dream that shakes me so much?� she wondered then, when her hands did not obey her command. �Any worse than the ones where I did watch him die, in ever more horrible ways � or the ones where I watched him crawl whole and unblemished out of the ground, in so many ways worse than mere visions of his death � or the dreams about worms in his eyesockets, or maggots in his mouth��
She paused, her pen hovering at the big loopy �C� that marked her otherwise-unreadable signature. She knew the answer to this. �I must have thought that House would cure me of that past and instead, he tried to use it as a weapon to drive me away, knowing nothing at all about what I had with him, knowing nothing, really, about anything��
Except about love, for wasn�t that what she�d seen in his eyes when he looked at his own past through the window? He hadn�t denied it, either, yesterday when she tried to communicate what she was beginning to understand. You are human, yes, you can love. But you do not want me.
She had never encountered this problem before, not really; though of course, there had been men who thought they loved her when it was only the beauty of her big doe eyes and delicately emaciated face that convinced them of whatever depths they wanted to see in her. House was not so easily fooled. She could tell, for she�d caught him looking and recognizing her beauty when she interviewed, that he wasn�t blind to her face; it was the fact that on the inside she was too pretty, too wholesome and unmarred despite
the �damage� he claimed to see, to push his buttons.
�Yes you can.�
Cameron turned around, horrified to hear his voice as if in response to her thoughts.
�I know it seems like it�s hard to finish a signature once you�ve done half of it, but if you�ve done it once you can probably do it again.� House leaned against the doorframe, backlit so that she couldn�t see his face. How long had she paused in the middle of signing this? How long had he been watching? �I�ll give you a lollipop,� he offered.
Cameron made a hieroglyph that bore only a vague resemblance to the second half of her usual signature. House came closer. Suddenly, after that conversation yesterday, he was able to look her in the eyes again; he hadn�t, really, since that date, and often had seemed to find it difficult before.
�Daylight savings is only once a year,� he cracked after a moment.
She looked up. �I couldn�t sleep.�
�They have pills for that,� he said.
�That�s not my way of dealing with things,� she said with slight, conscious emphasis on my.
�People shouldn�t enjoy their job so much that they come in at five-oh-three in the morning to do it.� At her startled face � how did he know exactly how long she�d been here? � he explained, �Janitors know all.�
�Why shouldn�t I enjoy my job?� she asked. �Because you haven�t enjoyed anything in years?�
�On the contrary, I enjoy a lot of things, and work is at the top of the list (with getting high a close second.) But you don�t want to end up like me, do you?� he said with a snide wiggle of his eyebrows.
�No, not really,� she said, abandoning the pretense at paperwork and slamming down the pen.
�Then get the hell out of here and go eat some breakfast.� He made a blatant appraisal of her thin body. �Have some bacon.�
She stood up, more angry than his comparatively mild snark should have warranted, and stalked out. The anger didn�t dissipate, her blood was still boiling, as she sat down at Starbucks for a triple espresso and a muffin, and she realized she was angry at herself.
She�d made a vow yesterday to give up, so why was it still like this? She was not in the habit of making promises to herself that she could not keep, and so she renewed this one, setting her teeth against a mysterious rebellion that threw the picture of House�s face before her eyes as she told herself this: I will not throw my heart again to the mercy of the dying or the damaged; I�ll regain possession of it and give myself only to someone whole enough to grow old with.
Three weeks after Stacy left town and four weeks before Cameron got engaged to a surgeon named Sam Colby, House went off Vicodin for good.
This surprised everyone, even those who didn�t know how much he loved and would always love his ex-wife, because the whole hospital had heard at least whispers about the affair that had destroyed a young marriage but somehow not resurrected an old one, and now that she was gone for good this time (no one knew that story, except Wilson, and he wasn�t telling) he had nothing left in his life but getting high.
It didn�t surprise Cameron, though. She had not been watching him, most definitely not been watching him because she loved another man now, but she couldn�t help but notice, working with him so closely, that he took the Vicodin only with a moment�s hesitation first, now. No less often at first, but with shame, and then one morning he came in and mentioned off-handedly to his three minions that he�d quit cold turkey.
�It won�t last,� Foreman predicted with his usual arrogant calmness. �He�s just reacting to something with Sela, but in awhile he�ll be back to his old self.�
�Maybe he�ll be his old self before he hurt his leg,� Chase suggested. �I heard he was pretty much the same, just not a junkie.�
�He�s not a junkie,� Cameron said instinctively, and her two colleagues laughed and rolled their eyes.
�Still nursing that crush of yours, are you? What about what�s�is�face with the Mercedes?� asked Chase.
�Just because I�m not interested in House anymore doesn�t mean I�m going to turn around and change my mind about who he is,� she said with as much dignity as she could muster with those two snickering boys acting like they were her twin thirteen-year-old brothers.
�He�s a junkie,� Foreman said. �He�s admitted it himself, last time he tried to pull
�Actually, I think the word I used was �addict,�� House said, popping in behind them with his usual stealth. �Junkie�s kinda harsh, don�t you think? I mean, when I hear junkie, I think about old scruffy guys living in cardboard boxes. I�ve got an M.D., don�t you think I earn enough money for a kind euphemism?�
Cameron flushed and found herself wondering what she seemed to spend her whole life wondering: how much House had heard. His blue eyes, as they darted in amusement from Foreman�s shit-eating attempt at nonchalance to Chase�s hangdog embarrassment and avoided Cameron altogether, gave away nothing more than they ever had.
Dr. Colby, more affectionately known as what�s�is�face with the Mercedes, had an emergency appendectomy that night, and Cameron was too tired to wait around for him. With the resignation so often seen on the faces of doctors who dated within the hospital, they agreed to push off the long-awaited night in with each other that they�d planned. Tomorrow night they said, but it would probably not end up working out till next week.
Such was the life.
�It could be worse,� she said to him with a smile; �at least we do have each other to reschedule with.�
Sam laughed and kissed her forehead. �I can�t think of anyone I�d rather postpone than you, Allison.� (He was one of only two or three people in the hospital who called her by her first name; it was one of the things Cameron liked about him, the way he said her name differently when they were alone.)
Still, unaccountably, she had thought of House when she made the lighthearted remark, and felt guilty; it wasn�t funny to be lonely, it wasn�t good to be smug when you weren�t. And she wasn�t, naturally.
On her way out from the surgical lounge she realized with an irritation made mild by numbing exhaustion that now she had no excuse not to read up on lupus for a case House was working on. Forcing herself not to think about how lovely it would be to sleep for twelve hours straight right now, she picked up a coffee from a vending machine and swung towards Diagnostics.
The place was almost deserted by now; Chase and Foreman had gone home, and most of the offices were closed and unlit. It was because of this, not because she was specifically looking, that Cameron all the more easily noticed House standing in his office, his back to the glass wall and his body facing the corner, holding a small object in his hands and staring at it.
Cameron shoved open the door, feeling brave and stupid, knowing she was interrupting what no one should witness.
�You�re never the last to leave,� she said, attempting lightness. �What�s special about tonight?�
He had tensed, clearly angry, when he heard the door open; at the sound of Cameron�s voice, he relaxed again and turned to her, holding the Vicodin bottle loosely but not secretively in one hand.
She stared at it, realizing that he�d privileged her with honesty, and unsure what to do with confirmation of what had been obvious but could have been ignored. �Have you taken one yet?�
��Are you thinking about it?�
�I�ve been thinking about it for forty-eight goddamn hours,� he snapped. �I�m tired of thinking about it.�
Cameron stepped closer and, as always, House began to flail for a way to back up, to look somewhere else, to avoid proximity to his beautiful intern. But she only held out the coffee she�d bought. �Trade?�
He squinted, irritable.
�Your pills for my drink,� she said.
�Caffeine is child�s play compared to drugs,� he commented sarcastically.
�I�ll trade you,� she repeated more softly. �Let me keep the pills.�
House thought a long time about this, and when he handed over the pills it was suddenly and wordlessly, with a slight shrug. �Flush these,� he directed her in a low voice, �or something. I don�t care, I can get more anyway.�
�You won�t get more,� she said with certainty.
�Yeah,� he said with a short laugh. After a pause he added, �Good night.�
Cameron stepped back a little. �House��
He lifted his eyebrows, waiting.
�Well, I� I�m sticking around to do some research tonight,� she said.
�Thanks for the update,� he said, hearing and answering the subtext with the mercifully direct cruelty he saved for Cameron.
�OK. Good night,� she said, making a hasty retreat from his office. Oh God, there was Sam still to think about, and this could lead nowhere, could not help him, could not end well for her.
Behind her, he leant on his cane, heavily. The hospital was still, and dark.
Ginger Callahan was a Southern belle in her third year of undergrad; still sounding exactly as she�d been brought up to sound in her Louisiana hometown, she came into the hospital wheezing, with symptoms that had been puzzling other doctors until one morning she woke up blue in the face. None of this made her particularly special � certainly those who had spent their early years training with House had seen stranger things on a daily basis � except that she was deadly afraid of doctors, and this made Cameron impatient.
She had, after all, enough to deal with, without patients who didn�t want her help getting better. There was Sam, who had been distant lately (Cameron wasn�t stupid � she knew the difference between the ups and downs of a marriage and something else, and this was the kind of thing that might break them if she cared enough to find out why he kept coming home so late) and there was the new intern in immunology, Janice Brewster, who was irritatingly earnest and cared far more about the patients than their medicine (a fault that needed to be nipped in the bud early).
And there was the problem without a name, the one that had made her throw up three mornings in a row this week, undignified, in the hallway bathroom that was fortuitously three steps from the door of her corner office. (On the third morning, she�d run into House as she came out. Did that man know everything simply by looking into people�s eyes, or did he merely have the gift of making them feel more conscious of their deceptions? If he knew, he was the only one, for she hadn�t told Sam yet. She might never have to, if she did what she thought she might.)
She saw that the time was noon, exactly when Sam went on break for lunch when he could (he was a creature of habit, of the clock, her husband, a mild tic she hadn�t noticed till she lived with him � meals weren�t enjoyable when they weren�t on the clock).
�Sam?� she asked when the phone picked up.
�Hi, honey,� he said in the same tone, the same cadence with which he always said �Hi honey.� �How has your day been?�
He was so relaxed� so normal. What had she needed, reassurance that he hadn�t run back for a nooner with some blonde on their couch? Cameron faltered. �Good. Yours�?�
�Not bad. Appendectomy. The usual.�
�Are you feeling less tired today?�
�Not really.� She fingered her stomach gently. �But I think I�ll get better soon.�
�I�ll make you some soup tonight.�
�Thanks, Sam.� She had a sudden thought � image, really � a child, sick in their house; Sam, serving him homemade soup, childishly proud in the way men were when they made food by themselves. �Sam?�
The door opened. Brewster poked her head in � �Dr. Cameron?�
�What?� Cameron snapped.
�Ginger, the wheezing in 2, she wants to talk to you. She�s really freaking out.�
�Tell her I�m going to cure her, not hold her hand,� Cameron said curtly. �I�m on the phone right now, Dr. Brewster. Pay closer attention next time.�
Brewster nodded timidly and left; when Cameron went back to the conversation, she�d lost her nerve to say anything true.
�You take good care of me like this,� she finally said. �Thank you.�
�That�s what I�m here for,� he said, but the note of caution in her voice had infected his. They hung up after a moment�s pause, each waiting for the other�s goodbye to set the tone.
When she looked up House was watching. He�d heard it all, she had to assume. As always, the bastard.
�I assume your stomach flu is going to cure itself pretty soon,� he said.
She could not answer him, could only stare, as surprised by his cruelty as she always was in practise despite expecting it in the abstract.
He leaned against the doorframe; she imagined he must feel sorry for the remark, but he didn�t indicate it except by the change in posture, and that might mean nothing. (He still threw her off-balance, even though with everyone else she had learned first to project confidence and then truly to have it. She overanalyzed angles of glances, twitches of mouth muscles, everything, anything.) �You were harsh with Brewster.�
�But that�s not what intrigues me. That�s just good sense, after all you can�t boss them if they want to take their own initiative all the time (very inconvenient). But you were harsh about the patient, too.�
�I learned it from you,� she said, trembling with the urge for tears.
�And very little else,� he joked mildly.
She stood up because her stomach was rumbling again, but, holding off the sickness for a moment, walked deliberately towards him and looked him in the eyes from a mere twelve inches away. He was daring to approve of her, that man, daring to telegraph that he liked the way she�d turned out after all, for he had lost with Stacy the gift to love and was left with only the ability to appreciate whatever in other people was like himself.
There was a twinge in his expression, too � small, but it was there � and she wanted to believe it was because he was remembering who she used to be, and perhaps missing that unadulterated sweetness a little. (Projection, Dr. Cameron. He doesn�t miss it; he isn�t that kind of man.)
House looked down at her stomach and back up to her eyes and broke the silence with, �I would say I�m happy to see my little Allison is growing up, but the word �growing� is just too cheesy a pun, don�t you think?�
She straightened and said slowly, hoping to give her words the impact his had had on her, �You�re happy to see me be cruel once in awhile because if other people fail themselves once it makes it less terrible that you do it to yourself every day. Oh, you quit the Vicodin, but you�re just as pitiful and lonely as you were when you were popping your stupid pills every hour, so don�t pretend that my mistakes make me your equal, because I�ll never stoop that low.� She saw that she�d hit a mark somewhere, although it was as ineffectual as her weapons against him always were and made him merely blink as if to avoid a bug flying in his eyes.
�Excuse me,� she said then. �I have to go be sick now.�
The worst thing about black-tie functions, Cameron decided as she stared in the mirror, had to be the fancy shoes.
Dressing up she could certainly deal with; she�d always enjoyed looking good and, today of all days, she needed to look good. Screw him, screw all of them. But her feet hurt like hell, and standing tall was necessary, back straight, posture elegantly upright. Even breathing became a chore when your spinal cord hurt this much.
�Oh God,� she moaned in the mirror, melodramatically, and took another swig of the Scotch from the glass she�d placed in easy reach on the bathroom counter. (The Scotch in question was her fourth, but who was counting?)
Above her she could hear footsteps and some laughter, and she closed her eyes in self-pity, then had to reach out to hold the counter in order to keep her balance. The bathroom was silent � she�d searched out the one in the basement, which was one room rather than a proper public bathroom with stalls, because she was still sober enough to know that this was not how one was supposed to behave at benefits for one�s own hospital.
�Nor is one supposed to have AFFAIRS with one�s wife�s subordinate,� she thought, tears welling again in her eyes until she pressed her fingers to just the right spot to wipe them without wiping off the makeup as well. She�d known for so long and allowed herself to know without saying it, but when she caught them� in her own bed, no less, when she came home early from a scheduled conference� and with Janice Brewster herself, a bitter
pill to swallow� it was different than the knowledge in the abstract.
Cameron leaned closer to the mirror, examining her face. Perhaps Sam had been like all the other men, falling for her beauty and imagining he was falling for her soul. Or, worse, perhaps he fell for whatever in Janice was an echo of the woman Cameron used to be, before she discarded it in pursuit of a lifestyle she thought was more realistic and hardened herself to the appeal of merely healing people, which was what she�d originally loved.
Her face had lost none of its delicacy with the five years that had passed of their marriage, but she was reaching the point, she thought as she ran her fingers over her cheekbones and felt the slight loss of tension in the skin, where instead of beautiful she was �still beautiful.� She�d wasted the last of her cheated youth on pursuing the clarity and managability that she�d thought would come if she learned to be realistic rather than idealistic. And now she was merely older and harder, and no more sure of anything than she�d been the night she set herself on this path.
She should go back to working the crowd at the benefit, and quit the self-pity, she thought. �Oh�� she groaned when she tried to move and contemplate returning to the crowd, where Sam himself was circulating � they�d decided to play it off for the night, not to let anyone know of the catastrophe that had happened only last night. �I�m too drunk to talk to people��
�And too drunk to lock the door,� added House from his position in the doorway.
She spun around, horrified. �How did you find me?�
�Someone saw you disappear with a full glass� which is now not quite so full,� he remarked as an aside. �Most women choose the ladies� room to cry, but you�re not the public type, so I figured this bathroom was the place to go.�
�As can you see� as you can see,� she corrected herself, �I�m not crying.�
House examined her closely; her eyes were unarguably dry. �I haven�t seen you cry in years,� he said. �Odd � once there was no off button for the waterworks with you.�
�Things change� I don�t cry.� She remembered to hate him then. �And I definitely think you should go away.�
He paid no attention to this and came inside, locking the door. �How�s the hubby?� he asked.
Cameron�s mouth fell open, partly in shock that everyone already knew, and partly in disgust, that he would try to tease her about this, of all things� �That�s not funny,� she said. �If you�re going to be an asshole and try to rub my face in this, then you might as well just leave.�
�So I am right,� he remarked without any real satisfaction in his tone. �You know, I didn�t know for sure if there was any juicy gossip to be heard, although you just told me there was with that quaintly angry response � but a woman doesn�t get drunk and stare at her crow�s feet in the mirror when she�s worrying about her career.�
�You think I have crow�s feet?� she gasped.
He lifted his eyebrows, case made.
�There�s another woman.�
�There always is,� he said, almost sympathetically, and came closer, standing just behind her and watching her face in the mirror.
�Now, that is juicy.�
�You�re not helping. If you want to help you should go get me another Scotch.�
She held out her glass towards him and he took it instinctively, then held it away from him as if to refuse it. Cameron met his eyes in the mirror, wondering if he�d do it, if he�d get her drunk so he could watch the fireworks, or if he�d do something unexpected, pull another rogue trick out of thin air and save her as if her deadening sadness were just another mysterious curable ailment.
He seemed caught off-guard for a moment by the pleading in her eyes. All at once the part of Cameron that was still coherent realized that she�d given herself away, that in that glance she had revealed how she�d felt about him all along.
House opened his mouth, but seemed, for once, unsure of himself. Finally he said, putting down the glass, �I�m all for substance abuse, but I don�t really like dealing with sloppy drunks, so why don�t you stick with that one and then stop?�
She looked down, swirling her finger around the rim of the glass to make a high-pitched, musical noise. �You wouldn�t have to stay for the sloppy part.�
�Not your call,� he said.
She looked up into the mirror to meet his reflected gaze, still circling her finger around the rim, a melancholy accompaniment. �So� you�d stay.�
Her voice cracked a little on the last word, and House reached in front of her to stop the nervous motion of her fingers around the glass. It was an oddly tender gesture and the first time, she realized, that he�d ever voluntarily touched her in all the years they�d known each other. Everything in her focused on that long-absent contact, on the touch, the softness, of his hand.
But House withdrew and the moment was over, whatever it had been. �Benefits are boring,� he answered quietly.
He was so close to her now, and she wanted to plead with him: come closer, closer, hold me now and erase this godforsaken night and last night and all the nights before this that I�ve wasted. But he would never come closer than he was right now; he did not love her and he was not fooled by her beauty, and this was it, this was all she�d ever receive from him.
Cameron bent her head in defeat.