Many thanks, as always, to maineac.
"Can I help you, sir?" The customer, an elderly man with a cane, didn't look like he was browsing.
"I'm here to collect an order for House."
She looked at today's list next to the till. House – the order wasn't checked yet. "It won't be long now, it's not quite ready yet. Why don't you take a seat and I'll get you a coffee?"
He looked like someone ready to create a scene because his order wasn't ready on time – gruff and there was a dangerous sparkle in his eyes. He was obviously considering it.
But then he sat down and accepted the coffee without a word of complaint. Sometimes she actually liked being wrong about customers.
Wilson would have been proud to witness this. He had managed to not rip the girl's head off because of the delay. Instead he had sat down, stretched his leg and accepted the coffee. Good coffee always worked for him. And maybe he'd even get a croissant out of the girl if he looked pitiful enough. It was worth a shot.
He never thought he would be here today. Not here, as in 'Colette's Cakes' downtown Seattle, but here, as in this situation.
Fifteen years ago it didn't look like he would even see this day, never mind collect a cake.
Fifteen years ago Wilson had decided he wouldn't fight the cancer.
Fifteen years ago House had decided he would have to go along with that if he didn't want to lose what little time he had left with Wilson.
Fifteen years ago he had also decided that Wilson was worth one last shot. So he faked his own death and set in motion his best and most elaborate manipulation ever. He had managed to scam Wilson into something he didn't want to do. Not unusual in itself, he had done that plenty of times over the years. Except that this one really counted.
Fifteen years ago he had tricked Wilson into choosing life. Wilson had spent most of his adult life fighting cancer. He deserved a chance; House decided that he would agree to honor Wilson's decision not to fight for life, while at the same time working like a bastard to show him what life could be like without rules, without constraints, without work. Hence the road trip. Hopefully, Wilson would see sense. This could only work if Wilson didn't know what was on offer, if he discovered it all by himself. It was a risky business but how much did he really have to lose? If Wilson didn't fall for it, there was nothing left for him anyway. So he had gone all in.
The day Wilson looked up from his diner breakfast and, almost with a hint of apology, said "I'd like to look up Sebastian Webber in Seattle when we're done here. Word is he's come up with a new protocol for stage II and III thymoma treatment. I'd like to talk with him, if that's okay with you…" was the day House did a little silent victory dance inside. Wilson had taken in all House had offered over the last two months and had come to his own conclusion. On the outside he stayed calm and just nodded. "Sure. Let's get packed after breakfast and go."
What followed was a rough ride. Radiation, chemo, surgery – it was touch and go for a while and he was sure Wilson had been ready to throw in the towel more than once. But House kept his promise; no gawkers, no phone calls and no meaningless Get Well cards. Just him and Wilson in that chemo suite. And somehow they made it through. Wilson probably stuck with it because he felt bad for having dragged House across the country. Seeing House sleep in that recliner night after night, his bum leg resting on extra pillows, might have helped, too.
House was sure Wilson had figured out the elaborate scam House had pulled on him. But he never let on. The day they sat in front of Webber's desk and Wilson finally got the all clear he just looked at House and nodded.
Once, just once, he had tried to thank House. For what, House wasn't sure because he hadn't even let Wilson finish the sentence. No matter how you looked at it, their lives were by now so intertwined with each other, there was no telling anymore who had saved whom. House was sure, he wouldn't be here today if Wilson hadn't fallen for his road trip ruse all those years ago. He had never told Wilson, but there wouldn't have been much reason for him to keep going. He had died once, quite spectacularly. What would stop him from doing so again, quietly this time?
They kind of got stuck in Seattle after that. Wilson took some months to mope around the apartment they were renting before he settled on joining a small general practice. After years of high-flying he seemed content and even happy most days to diagnose high blood pressure and the flu with the occasional STD thrown in for variety.
That left House at a loose end. If Wilson could change his life, then so could he. So he went back to New Jersey to sort out his legal status. With Stacy's help he found a good lawyer who managed to spare him more prison time. After all, technically those tickets alone could never have caused that much damage if the hospital's plumbing hadn't been faulty in the first place. It was tough on Foreman who now had to fight the hospital's insurance for damages but that was no skin off House's nose. Let Foreman deal with it, that was his job.
Having refused all pleas to come back to PPTH, he set up his own online consultancy. Every now and then he accepted a speaking engagement, and two nights a week he played some music downtown. As far as he was concerned, this was as good as it got.
"Would you like a refill? We also have fresh croissants, if you're interested. On the house, since you're having to wait for your order." He was starting to like the girl.
Happily munching on the freebie croissant, he stretched out his legs, careful not to trip any other customers who passed by his table. A commotion was the last thing he needed today, so he stashed his cane out of the way. He smiled when he did so. He really didn't need it much anymore these days. In fact he had kept it mostly for sentimental reasons. But it did come in handy every now and then, mostly for balance.
Nearly ten years ago now he had slipped on an icy patch outside, and fractured his right leg badly. He still vividly remembered being in the ER with Wilson looking very worried when his surgeon came to talk with him.
"Surgery is going to take a couple of hours at least. I'm confident I'll be able to save your leg. But we won't know how much mobility will be compromised until we open the leg." Seeing the look that passed between House and Wilson, he continued, "We can make you comfortable and give you some time to discuss your options." House had closed his eyes, taken a deep breath and said, "There is nothing to discuss. I've had almost twenty years to think about this. Go ahead with the amputation. I don't want him stuck having to make that decision when I'm under. Do it." Feeling Wilson's hand squeeze his shoulder told him he had made the right decision. Wilson would stick around, leg or no leg.
The decision was made in a matter of seconds and he hadn't looked back since. There had been some initial phantom pain, almost forgotten now. Compared with what he was used to, it was nothing. He could hardly believe he was now nearly pain free every single day. Yes, there were the aches and pains of getting older but that was a walk in the park compared to what he had gone through for nearly twenty years of his life. A while ago he had even been able to take up running again. Slowly, short distances, nothing like before – he was pushing seventy after all. But the exhilaration at being able to do this again was something else – the first time he had been out of breath from running again he had literally cried with joy. Wilson had been worried to find him sitting on a bench, catching his breath with tears in his eyes. "House, are you okay?"
"Am I okay? How can you ask that, Wilson? I'm flying! I'm high as a kite and not a hint of drugs in my system!"
And then they had sat there, one minus a thymus gland, the other minus a leg, both laughing out loud. Passers-by kept looking at the odd couple but neither of them really cared, not even Wilson.
He chuckled at the memory. The girl behind the counter looked up at the sound in the otherwise quiet café. Not for the first time, he wondered what people saw when they looked at him and caught him rubbing at his leg or what was left of it. It was a habit he hadn't been able to shake. If Wilson caught him doing that, he just grinned, knowing full well what usually brought it on. He was obviously happy House was with him and finally healthy and – happy.
Neither of them had a high-flying job anymore but yes, he finally considered himself happy. Two old guys living together, still not gay, no matter what the neighbors thought.
His cell phone rang. Shit, he had forgotten that the wombat was waiting for him outside in the car.
"Chase? Come inside, the cake isn't ready yet. They serve great coffee here, though, so I think we'll be able to survive." A glance at the girl behind the counter told him he was right – Chase was included in the free coffee offer.
A minute later Chase, just a little grey around the temples, strolled into the store and sat down across from House.
"You couldn't have told me that half an hour ago, when you left me sitting in your junk heap of a car and told me you'd only be five minutes?"
If anybody had asked him, not that they did, but let's just say if, he would've admitted to being glad at seeing Chase again. They had not lost contact over the years. Still considering House something of a mentor, Chase asked for a consult every now and then. Both of them enjoyed House charging Foreman through the nose on those occasions. They usually split the fee, with House getting the bulk of it, of course.
Chase had flown in from Princeton, making this really something of an occasion. Foreman hadn't been able to make it, a fact House wasn't too sad about since Foreman was even more of a party pooper than he had ever been. At least the wombat could take a joke and wasn't too annoyed that House had forgotten he was sitting outside in the car, especially after he had just spent most of his day on a plane.
Stacy had arrived two days ago, and they had gone for dinner last night. Of course, Mark had been there, too, they were making a mini vacation out of this trip, apparently. When Mark made his apologies for tonight's do, though, House had breathed a sigh of relief. Even after all those years, he still found he disliked the man, even though he was clearly one of the most likeable people he had ever met.
Seeing House again had been somewhat of a revelation for Chase. They had stayed in contact via phone and email over the years but actually seeing him was … strange. He thought he had covered up his surprise pretty well at the airport. It was easy enough amid luggage and hundreds of other passengers. But back in the car, and then later at the coffee shop Chase found it harder and harder not to break out into a massive smile whenever he looked at his old mentor.
Old he was, yes. He almost looked his years. And yet, he seemed in some ways so much younger and, well, happier, than Chase had ever seen him before. His limp was barely there anymore even though he still carried a cane. Which was a bit odd. Something was going on.
It wasn't until after they had finally collected the cake and had gotten back to the car that Chase really paid attention to how House moved, how he got into the car and started driving. And suddenly things were clear as day.
"You bastard, House! When did you have it done? And why didn't you mention anything?"
House kept his eyes on the road but the smirk on his face was clearly visible.
"I have no idea how Foreman could give you the Diagnostics department – it took you until now to figure it out? What kind of diagnostician are you?"
Chase leaned back into his seat and laughed. "The kind who learned from you. So, tell me!"
"Nothing much to tell. Slipped on ice and broke my leg nearly ten years ago. Badly. They weren't sure how much mobility they could restore." House shrugged. "For once in my life, it was an easy decision and there were no complications. Considering my age, things healed up pretty well."
Chase nodded. "You look… House, you look well. I'm glad."
After a pause in which he navigated some road works along their route, House nodded. "Yeah. A pain free life will do that to you."
"Oh, hey, I almost forgot this", Chase remembered and pulled a little package with a note out of his coat. "I met up with Thirteen at the airport before my flight. We see each other every couple of months. She sends her regards and this for the present. I… I asked her to come but – "
House looked across at him and asked, "How bad is it?"
He hesitated for a second. "She was part of another drug trial, very promising. Kept her stable for a few years. Getting worse now, though. She said she'd rather not come but sent this for Wilson. Don't read it, please. Put it in with the others. And - she didn't tell me what this is about, but she's asking if you still have a deal."
He was curious and kept his eyes on House so he wouldn't miss his reaction. But House stayed focused on the road and there was nothing in his face he could interpret. Then he turned his head and looked out the side window for a second, so all Chase could see was the back of his head. That bald spot now covered nearly half the back of House's head. And yes, somehow at nearly seventy, he still managed to look like he'd just fallen out of bed.
"Yeah, we still have a deal."
Finally – peace and quiet. Everyone but Chase was gone. And House, of course. Chase had been meant to sleep on the couch but after House had fallen asleep there, mid-conversation, sprawled across its length, Chase had ended up taking House's room.
Wilson started the dishwasher and got himself one last beer from the fridge. There weren't many left, it had been a good night.
He looked at House; head bent back, mouth open, snoring quietly, and took a throw to cover him. The way he lay there draped across the couch, he would be stiff when he woke up. But Wilson hesitated. House never slept with the prosthesis on but he wouldn't want Wilson fiddling with it either. In the end he settled for lifting House's legs up on the couch, so he would at least be somewhat comfortable. He knew House would be grumbling about the pain in his neck when he woke up but he would also secretly enjoy it. They both would. House complaining about pain somewhere other than his leg was still somewhat of a novelty, even after all those years. Pain-free House was, Wilson thought hard about that one and finally settled on, less intense.
Seeing House and Chase come into the jazz club earlier had been something of a flashback. If House hadn't been carrying that massive box in his arms leaving Chase to hold his cane, he could have thought himself transported back to Princeton, twenty years ago.
But if there ever was a day to feel sentimental and happy, it was today. Well, technically yesterday, it was past midnight and his birthday was officially over. It had been a good day with old friends, a few colleagues, good food and drink and, to top it all, a massive Oreo cake – he still laughed at the memory of House wheeling that monstrosity out of the kitchen. House had organized the party for him and rented a private area in the jazz dinner club he played at twice a week. It was meant to be a surprise but Wilson had seen through the lame excuse to get him there, though he hadn't let on.
He sighed and leaned back. It had been a good birthday and it had all been down to House. In more ways than one, actually. After dinner, he had tried to put some of that into words in a short speech.
"I didn't think I'd ever see this day. Most of you know why, so I won't go into detail. But it's down to one man that I'm here today to celebrate my birthday with you-" That was as far as he got because at this point his look had fallen on House, sitting between Stacy and Chase and looking very uncomfortable. This wasn't the way to go, so he changed tack. "This is all down to House who managed to organize a great party for me, so thank you, my friend!"
House had looked up then, so they had locked eyes for a few seconds, and he made sure House knew this wasn't just a thank you for a party and a cake.
The party wasn't House's only present for him, though. House hadn't mentioned anything but Wilson had noticed that the piece he had played on the piano after dinner was not part of House's usual repertoire. He would bet a lot of money it would sound even better on the organ at home. He would find out tomorrow.
Time for bed now, though, he wasn't getting any younger. He took the gift box from the counter. In his room, he sat down on his bed and began sorting through the contents. No prize for guessing whose idea this gift was. Lovely, sweet, funny and some thoughtful notes had been attached to a collection of hideous ties, one for each year of his life, sent by friends and colleagues from all over the country. Chase had brought many of them with him from Princeton; House's former team had contributed as well as those of Wilson's old oncology staff who still worked at PPTH.
While he had read the notes earlier, he hadn't had a chance to look at all the ties yet. There were dozens without a note; those were the most hideous ones. Clearly, they were House's choice. Wilson laughed at one with a hula girl swaying her hips and then another with spaghetti printed all over. He would make sure to wear it the next time they went for dinner.
Finally, he pulled the last one out from the bottom of the box. He hadn't even seen that one until now. It was an anatomical representation of a heart on a bright blue background. The color choice alone made him squint. About to put it back into the box, he felt a note on the back of the tie and turned it over in his hand.
A small card filled with House's nearly indecipherable scrawl was pinned to the tie.
"Happy 60th, Wilson. I'm glad yours is still beating."
He grinned, turned over on his side and pulled the covers up.
Me too, House, me too.