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The Proper Care and Feeding of Young Ducklings
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by TelegramSam

House watched Chase. He’d been watching him for two hours now, since his duckling had walked in that morning. Something was slightly off with the young man, but House wasn’t quite sure yet just what had happened to change his normally sunny demeanor overnight. Sure, Chase had cracked a few obligatory jokes, but he was distracted. And far too quiet. And it was getting worse as the day wore on. Oh he could just go ask like Wilson had suggested, but where’s the fun in that? He’d likely just get lies, dodges or misdirection anyhow.


Even though the carpeting in the hospital’s offices are dirt cheap, if you’re careful, they can mask your steps, even if you limp and use a cane. He’d actually gotten good enough in recent years that he could walk quietly even on hard ground if didn’t use the cane and walked slowly (and when does he ever walk any other way without the cane these days?).


Especially since nobody expects a cripple to sneak up on them.


Chase flinched deliciously when House spoke from directly behind his right shoulder.


“I never knew a parking lot could be so interesting.”


The younger doctor regained his composure quickly, suddenly looking again as if he’d never noticed his boss’s approach at all, turning back to staring out of the lounge window, refusing to turn and face him directly. House smirked. Duckling-baiting was his favorite sport these days; almost as thrilling as lacrosse had been a lifetime ago.


His hand-picked ducklings were sharp and learned quickly and had all come far since he hired them, but none of them had quite the panache to parry the well-aimed pokes he sent at the cracks in their armor yet. Chase the least of all. He had predicted at first that Cameron would be the softest of the trio, but she had proved to be a hard nut to crack underneath all that gooey oozing sympathy. Foreman wasn’t in the slightest bit gooey, being simply prickly instead. Playing with him was like poking a hedgehog with a stick; the barbs leaped up every-which-way and the man hissed deliciously with every jab.


“You’d be surprised,” the duckling dead-panned back


Chase, however, was turning out to be mallow through and through, and no matter how thick he poured on his chocolate shell, House could nearly always put a good crack in it with a single barb these days. He’d hired Cameron in part because she was so clearly damaged. He hadn’t known why that appealed so much to him, still didn’t really, other than the fact that she was out to prove herself would provide strong motivation to keep her around even when he was making life hell for her.


Chase was much the same, or had been until recently, though the damage had been less immediately obvious than with Cameron. And some chink deep within the mallow had cracked further a few months ago when Chase Sr. showed up. He wondered idly if the man had ever gotten around to telling his son that he was terminally ill. He doubted it highly. His smirk fell into a passive expression.


House tread lightly now; the game was over. The ice was thinner out here over the water. No point in pushing a duckling in before it was ready to swim; you’d only drown it after all. And that wasn’t very funny, really. Just kind of pathetic.


His duckling swallowed thickly and glanced furtively back over his shoulder and opened his mouth, hesitating at first before he spoke at a fast clip, afraid of being interrupted.


“Um, I know we’ve got two cases right now and it’s a bad time to ask, but I need the rest of the week off.. and probably part of next week…”


House merely cocked an eyebrow and looked back at the duckling in an inquiry he hoped wouldn’t be misconstrued as a challenge.


Chase hesitated another minute before pulling a tightly folded piece of paper out of his coat pocket, handing it to his boss.


House took it and unfolded it, revealing an obituary printed off an Australian newspaper’s website. Chase let him look at it for half a minute. When he spoke again it was painfully obvious he was trying to be flippant, trying not to care. And failing miserably. Something constricted in House’s chest and he stamped down on the impulse with surgical precision.


“His attorney called this morning. Bloody bastard woke me up at 4 AM. Funeral’s this Saturday, and there’s a few legal matters to attend to, the will and all…”


The duckling tried to smirk, but just ended up chewing on his lip as he looked up at his boss.


“Go on, take whatever time you need. I’m sure we can manage around here for a few days without you.”


He turned and left his duckling to his thoughts and the oh-so-engaging sight of the employee parking lot below. He glanced back at Chase once more before retreating to his office, giving the lingering impulse fluttering in his heart one last good stomp. You’d only spoil a duckling by coddling it, anyhow.


Besides, he’d be alright, eventually. Probably. All ducklings eventually learn to swim, right? It was just a matter of the duck knowing when wait and when to push, after all.

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