SUMMARY: Sometimes you find yourself adrift on a different sea.
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson, OCs
RATING: R for language and themes (gen fic).
WARNINGS: This is a very alternate universe. Adult themes and adult language.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Never will.
NOTES: This is the fifth chapter of Part Five. Earlier chapters are New Hires, Scavenger Hunt, Krater, and Rock and A Hard Place. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
"Anyone awake in there?" House's voice on the com startles Natan out of a dream. He'd been on the boat again, the bed slowly rocking beneath him.
"Awake now. I thought you were --"
"Finding an answer. Seems someone locked me in while I was working, though. Can I come save my patient's life all by myself, or do I need a gun-toting chaperone?"
"Get in here," Natan says. He's past suspicions now, past caring, keying in the code to unlock the doctors' quarters. "Now. Your door is open."
When he turns around, he sees Krater's eyes open, watching him.
The doctor is barefoot, wearing nothing but a thin ship-issue night tunic. He limps in with his left arm wrapped around himself, and then pulls something -- a black cylinder the size of a Myriad warhead -- out from between the robe and his chest. Natan sucks in a breath -- stupid, he rages at himself, stupid, all it takes is one time --
"It's not a weapon, you idiot," House snaps. "You think I'd go to war in a bathrobe? It's my portable spec. I slipped an extra sample of blood into my pocket tonight."
"In case you needed a snack?" Krater says.
House's eyes go very wide, only for a second. Krater smiles at his own joke, and that seems to be all the reassurance House needs. "You want to know what's killing you," he demands, "or would you rather laugh all the way to the grave? You need to get him out of here first." He nods at Natan. "Doctor's orders, Golden Boy. Shoo."
"Go on," Krater agrees, softly. "Just this once. Doctor House is not going to hurt me."
Natan goes, though every bone in his body tells him not to. He will wait in the hall with his ear to the door, and while he knows he'll hear none of the conversation, he should at least hear it if Krater cries out.
It is awful, to be out here trying to listen through the door, instead of in there, where he belongs. Natan wants to know that no more things are going wrong, to hear the monitors hold steady and to be certain, from one moment to the next, that his friend will not die. Cannot die.
Friend might not be the right word. On one station, many years ago, Natan struck up an acquaintance with some stockmen who said ori-hem. When Natan asked, they said there was no Standard translation. It meant guard-spirit, someone bound beyond friendship or blood, and who did whatever must be done for you. "That is what you have," they said to him, pouring him another ale. "Be careful of it."
Those herders had it right. They couldn't have known, but Evo had been father and brother, playmate and teacher, partner, guardian. Confidant in all things because there was hardly anyone else, and never anyone who understood so well.
Natan's parents are blurred outlines at the far Verge of his mind, ghosts drained of color and fading into heavy clouds of smoke. He isn't sure if he really remembers Evo finding him that day, weeping in the ruins of the village, or if he's just imagined it because Evo told him the story. It was that long ago; Evo was just sixteen and Natan, perhaps four. His real age, his birth date -- burned away by the firebombs. What family name he once had, he has never been able to recall.
It wouldn't matter anyway.
Sometimes -- like tonight -- he dreams they're on the boat again, bedded down in the old cabin with its warm air reeking of oil, fish, fuel and brine. A storm breaks on the water; the hull pitches, slants, throws him out of bed as the boat rolls upside down and he knows they're both going to die, knows it right up until the moment he gulps in a breath of clean air and is awake again in the stillness of space.
He'd been fifteen when it happened, strong and bright enough to get himself out of the rapidly flooding trap. But he hadn't been quite conscious. Falling from his bunk, he'd struck the back of his head, coming up dazed, slow, in and out of awareness. What he remembers is thick tumbling blackness, Evo's voice, the rush of cold water, an arm around his ribs. Nothing more until he was looking up at two moons, coughing out saltwater.
Evo had gathered a string of net-floats around them, and at first when Natan looked down, he thought the moon-bleached shapes were skulls. He'd been concussed; he could be forgiven for believing that he and Evo were somehow alive because a congregation of the dead bore them aloft.
Clinging together, the two living bodies and the dead white floats, they had no choice but to go where the storm would choose. It chose, right about sunrise, to ease its wrath and land them on a sandbar, where the mollusk-pickers would later find them, half-dead of hypothermia.
It was the last time they'd ever go fishing. Evo Krater was done with the sea.
The very next day, he took all the money he'd saved for ten years, and signed the lease of a crappy old lightrunner. The most laughable thing in the sky, but the best he could afford back then. In the space of three weeks, Evo the fisherman became Krater the merchant, and Natan went from navigating the bays to piloting the Leafhopper. He'd never even been into space before that; how he didn't get them both killed, he'll never know.
What he knows is that Evo has saved his life twice, and put his own life in Natan's hands more times than either of them could count. And now that life is in the hands of a stranger, a refugee, not even quite human -- and Natan has only an ear to the door, hearing nothing but the tide of his own blood flowing. He doesn't trust House, or hate him; he only wants back in.
If Evo drowns in this new storm, that old white string of skulls will pull Natan down too.
The five minutes this door has been closed feels like an eternity.
"He'll live," House says, as the door at last slides open. "It's a polymicronis virus. Hazard of those crappy Verge stations where you guys do business. Initial treatment is ... humiliating. You didn't need to see that."
The flush of relief makes Natan's legs wobble as he goes to Krater's side. Krater is awake, captive to his oxygen mask and, now, a dialysis loop strapped to his left arm. One tube taking blood into the cylinder, another feeding it out again, back into Krater's vein. Fleetingly Natan thinks that to House, this might be tainted food.
"How did we not find it?"
"This joint is too high-class. Good medical equipment comes from nice, clean Focus worlds where polymicronis doesn't exist. My portable spec is a knockoff job from a dirtier corner of space, so it knew what to look for. Give me your arm."
"Need blood?" Natan grins, giddy with knowing that it is over, that Evo will be all right. He ought not taunt the haemovore, but he can't quite resist.
"That or a stool sample," House answers. "Your choice. I prefer blood."
"Blood will be fine," Natan says. "Just ... not from the throat."
"Weird," House answers. "That's exactly what Wilson said."
"You're clean," House announces. "And I'm tired. I'm going to bed. See you at breakfast. And by 'see you at breakfast,' I mean I'd like you to be there, just to make sure nobody kills me."
House limps out, and Natan enters the highest security code as the door closes again. He's not sure why; it's not like another virus is going to walk in here and shoot someone. Maybe it was what House said. Make sure nobody kills me -- as if he thought someone still would, now that Krater will live. Natan lies down on the spare clinic bed, there beside his friend, and takes Krater's hand in his own, warming it.
"You should sleep, little bird," Evo murmurs. "You look almost as tired as me."
Natan will, but he's going to leave the lights on and a gun at the ready. Just in case.
"A fucking virus." Natan takes a deep breath, trying to accept that the danger is really past. "Can it really be that simple?"
Krater doesn't answer right away.