The Java Jive
Author's Note: This takes place early in the second season.
Thanks as always to Auditrix for the beta and suggestions.
House dropped a quarter into the slot and listened to it fall. He followed it with a second quarter, and heard it take the same route, through the gears and into the coin box with a klunk. He hit the buttons for black coffee and extra sugar.
Wilson leaned against the side of the machine. He didn't say anything, but shook his head as House reached in to to take the paper cup. He was more than familiar with House's coffee habit, though he still didn't see how he could stand the stuff dispensed by the machines down in the general waiting areas.
"If you down it fast enough when it's hot enough, you don't taste anything," House had told him one time. "Then you've got the added benefit of a quick jolt from a fast hit of caffeine."
House straightened up and shifted the paper cup to his left hand, reaching out to take his cane from where he had placed it against the side of the machine. "Sure you don't want some?"
"It's my turn to pay, you know."
"You always say that when it's machine coffee," Wilson pointed out, "But it's never your turn at Starbucks."
"Funny how that works out, huh?" House headed down the hallway away from the clinic. He hit the elevator button and took a gulp of hot liquid as he mentally checked off two more hours of clinic duty from his Cuddy-imposed sentence. He wondered if his team had made any more coffee while he was off doing penance. He doubted it.
Foreman was strictly a morning coffee drinker, and Chase rarely bothered to have any unless there was some already in the pot. By mid-afternoon Cameron would have taken it on herself to dump and clean out the pot. House had tried pointing out to her that the dregs from the last morning brew still was perfectly good to drink even hours later, but apparently she didn't agree.
That left the vending machines as the most reliable source of caffeine between the clinic and his office chair . After two hours of making his way in and out of exam rooms, bending and stretching over patients and reaching for equipment, all House wanted was to sit for a few minutes with his leg up on the desk, some strong coffee in his hand and decent music coming from the speakers.
Twenty minutes was all he wanted. Twenty minutes alone with no one asking for anything. No Foreman, no Chase, no Cameron, no Cuddy, no Stacy -- especially no Stacy.
Well, there was one exception. House looked over at Wilson, leaning back against the wall, flipping through one file while another half dozen were tucked under his arm. House noticed again how tired Wilson had looked lately. Not just lately though, he corrected himself. Probably ever since Vogler.
Vogler's attack on Wilson had caught them both by surprise, but while House knew what it was like to be everyone's favorite target, Wilson didn't.
While Wilson had celebrated Vogler's leaving along with House and his staff, he was still working alongside some of the same doctors who had voted to revoke his tenure. House knew they had apologized, explained their actions away by citing the good that could have been done with Vogler's money. Wilson had made nice with them, but House had noticed he also had avoided them in the staff meetings since. Wilson wasn't going to be that quick to forgive and forget.
Good for him, House thought.
The board's wholehearted support of expanding the oncology department shortly after Vogler's departure was an obvious ploy to try and win back his trust, and keep him from bolting to greener pastures. Cuddy had timed her motion perfectly, able to play on the unspoken guilt issue while also able to point out PPTH's increasing recognition in cancer treatment circles since Wilson had taken over. Besides, as she had noted to the non-physician members of the board, there were always donors interested in targeting their funds toward cancer research and prevention.
The expansion meant a new home for oncology, moving both the department and Wilson to a central location in the hospital, but again brought more work Wilson's way. He spent his days overseeing patient care and his existing staff while also seeking out new grant requests and sifting through piles of CVs as he considered new hires.
The elevator opened and Wilson pushed himself away from the wall, following House inside. He reached out toward the button for the fourth floor only to have House's cane block his hand.
"Hit B1," House told him. "Since you're not satisfied with the machine, I guess I'll have to pony up for the good stuff at the cafeteria."
"I'm not sure that qualifies as good," Wilson said, but tapped the button anyway. "Better, maybe, but only in comparison."
"I was going to buy you a cookie too, but if you keep bitching, I won't."
"What's got you in such a good mood anyway? Comparatively speaking of course."
The door opened and they both headed into the cafeteria, mostly empty in the mid-afternoon. House drained the last of the machine brew and tossed the cup into the garbage before following Wilson to the coffee kiosk at one end of the room.
"I have made it through an entire week's worth of indentured servitude to the clinic without being sneezed on, sworn at or forced to examine yet another child for head lice," House said. "By clinic standards that qualifies as almost pleasant. Comparatively speaking."
Wilson grabbed an oatmeal raisin cookie and put it on his tray next to a medium cup of coffee while House filled a large paper cup with the dark roast. He put it on Wilson's tray, then tossed on a chocolate chip cookie.
The clerk rang up the order and waited while House pulled out his wallet and handed over a five dollar bill.
"Outside?" Wilson grabbed the tray and started across the room when House nodded. He was already out the patio doors by the time House received his change and pocketed his wallet again.
House blinked a couple of times in the bright sunlight as he pushed through the glass doors. Wilson had grabbed the nearest table, rather than their favorite one near the trees, and House dropped down into the closest chair -- tired enough that he knew his movements weren't graceful, but also too tired to really care. House knew without looking that Wilson had noticed, but also knew he wouldn't say anything, though he suspected Wilson would add it to some mental checklist, but he really was too tired to care about that either.
House lifted his right leg up onto a chair, then stretched the left one out as well. He reached over for his coffee . "Satisfied now?"
"It'll do." Wilson had his feet propped up as well, and he broke off a piece of his cookie.
Both of them sat without speaking for a few minutes, but then House reached over and grabbed the stack of files Wilson had placed on the table. He glanced at one, tossed it down, then opened another, only to toss it aside as well.
"Hey, leave those alone," Wilson protested. "I've got a system."
"I'm sure you do." House paused at the third file, a thick manila one lacking any of the regular charting color codes. "I thought we agreed you were giving up the personnel committee."
"I am," Wilson said.
"So this is?" House turned the folder toward Wilson, where the resumes and cover letters were on full view.
"I'm just helping out for a few weeks," Wilson said. "They don't have a replacement yet."
"And the other four people on the committee would fall apart if you weren't there to hold their hands."
"It's just until we get through the next meeting," Wilson said. "Now hand them over." Wilson reached out for the other folders, but House ignored him.
He glanced at the top pages on another two files, tossing them aside. One slid across the metal surface before dropping off the edge and onto the concrete below. He stopped at the final packet and paged through the papers. "This the proposal?"
"Yeah. You got your supporting documents lined up?"
House looked up from one of the charts he was examining. "In my office, ready to go. You don't need my help, though. As soon as the Times ran a front-page story on the study about digital mammography you were golden."
"Call me crazy, but I thought it would be worthwhile to get the diagnostics chief to sign on to a purchase plan for diagnostics equipment," Wilson said. "Besides, I'm asking for a quarter-million-dollar investment. I need all the backup I can get."
House tossed the file back on Wilson's pile. "You should have had that years ago."
"Hard to get a commitment for funding during the study phase, though," Wilson said. He took the file out of House's hand, grabbed the one that had fallen to the ground and organized the stack again.
Once he was satisfied that they were back in order and that House was finished investigating his papers, Wilson leaned back in his chair. He stole another quick glance at House. He looked relaxed and settled in for a few minutes at least. Wilson heard the low chatter from another table as he let his head drop back and closed his eyes against the late summer sunlight.
The patio and coffee kiosk had been added to the hospital a few years after Wilson had started there. It hadn't taken House long to scope out a favorite table. It was off to the far right side, mostly hidden by shrubs and underneath scraggly trees that had a tendency to drop bugs, twigs and leaves down onto the surface. Wilson had to make certain he'd grab a lid for his coffee cup, or risk accidentally swallowing the foliage along with his drink.
House, though,claimed it was perfect. "The patients' families can't find you, and you can see the bosses coming your way before they spot you."
"You know, I think there's a technical term for what you're feeling," Wilson said. "Para-something or other."
"Why waste time dealing with people unnecessarily?"
"People aren't necessary?"
"Not all people," House said, "but talking to the family isn't going to make a difference in how I handle the treatment, it'll just piss me off. Making nice with some vice president or assistant dean of cleaning supplies is just going make them hate me more, and waste my time."
"Human interaction is not a waste of time."
"So you say," House continued, "But if you're such a people person, why is it you keep ending up back here in no-man's land?"
Summer had slipped into fall when Wilson was assigned a new case. He had spent hours talking to the patient and to her family. He'd explained everything, answered every question as gently and clearly as he could, but there was little he could actually do except make her comfortable during her last few months.
He was tired of talking, worn down by the questions and the stunned looks he'd seen, and found himself with a coffee in his hand and walking across the patio without really thinking about it. He told himself he just wanted 15 minutes alone, to breathe and think, yet he found himself happy when he saw House already at his usual table. He found himself talking about the details of the case without even meaning to.
"So," House said as he considered what Wilson had told him. "When she dies, will the cause of death be listed as cancer or stupidity?"
"House, you can't blame a patient for contracting cancer."
"Of course not. Statistically speaking the odds were, what, one in 70 that she'd have breast cancer by the time she reached her 70s, right?"
"And IDC is typically a slow-growing cancer that could have been caught years ago through any routine mammogram or exam -- when she would have had a 95 percent survival rate -- but she hadn't had any mammograms. Hadn't had any routine checkups, hadn't even seen a doctor since her last child was born 40 some years ago."
"That still doesn't make it her fault," Wilson protested.
"Getting cancer, no," House said. "Failing to do anything that would have allowed her to survive cancer, yes."
Wilson stared at him, then blinked a few times before he responded. "You know, it's kind of scary, but I think I'm starting to see your point of view."
"Yes," he said. "And I agree -- you and patients should stay very, very far away from each other."
Trips to the patio ended with the infarction. Once House returned to work, he had a hard enough time just making through even the half-days he started with. The energy he didn't use just to adapt to the pain and limited mobility he squandered on hiding just how hard it was.
He'd walk as quickly as possible through the public areas of the hospital, and use his cane to push open doors, although Wilson noted he'd only do so if he had hold of something else -- a door knob or desktop. Any expression of sympathy he'd counter with scorn.
"You're sorry?" House would say. "Imagine how pissed off I am."
Once he made it past the patients and the staff and into his office with the door closed, he'd slump in his chair, usually with Wilson his only witness. Even then he'd make some weak joke about having spent the previous night watching the Playboy channel.
Sometimes he'd fall asleep in Wilson's car on the ride home. Wilson would follow him up in the elevator to the condo, where House would drop onto the sofa, barely managing enough energy to lift his leg up and onto the cushion.
"Want to order pizza?" Wilson asked one night. "Or maybe Chinese?"
"God, I don't care," House said. "Just get me a beer."
"An intriguing dinner choice, but beer isn't known for its vitamin content."
"Don't care. Too tired to chew."
Wilson sat in the nearby chair, sinking down into the leather upholstery. "You knew this wasn't going to be easy. It takes more energy for you to do stuff now. Pain management alone ...
"Is difficult, yeah, I know, I think I read a pamphlet on that once."
"You could let people help you out. Hell, aren't you the same guy who once told me the only good reason to keep med students and first year residents around was to turn them into your own personal scut monkeys? Make them do your bidding. You used to."
"It's different now," House said, then cut off Wilson's reply before he could even make it. "You know why."
"Fine, but there are other people who could help you out. Just ask them to pick up your lab reports as long as they're headed down there."
"Like I need everyone thinking I'd owe them a favor afterwards? No thanks."
"Not everybody's going to try to use it as some kind of leverage to get you to do something you don't want to."
Wilson had to agree with that. "You could talk to O'Neal, see about easing your schedule back a little more until you're ready."
"I'm ready now," House protested. "I'm just a little tired. And thirsty. Didn't I ask you to get me a beer?"
"Fine." Wilson got up from the chair, but tossed House the phone before he went into the kitchen. "But only if you order pizza. I'm hungry."
"God, some people. You ask for a simple favor, and they force you to do all kinds of things you don't want to do."
"And no hot peppers this time," Wilson said, reappearing with two beers.
Later that month, O'Neal moved the department's coffee maker to a spot just outside House's office. He claimed that they'd needed to free up some space in the storage room where it was kept previously.
"As if he's fooling anyone with that excuse," House said. "He might as well have written a scarlet C on my door for 'cripple.'"
"I did see a new color copier being installed down there," Wilson pointed out, then nodded at the mug House held. "And it's not like you're not taking advantage of the new coffee location."
"I've admitted I'm a cripple, Wilson, not an idiot."
The caffeine wouldn't make much of a difference to House's pain level, but it could provide a way to help offset the long, sleepless nights. Knowing the coffee was nearby gave House a reason to get up and track down another cup, helping to keep his muscles from stiffening up, while also giving him an excuse to sit and relax for a few minutes when he needed a break.
Wilson began taking some of his coffee breaks in House's office, and gradually House added a few hours at a time to his schedule. As he began working full shifts, House sometimes would even make it downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch or a snack, sending Wilson off to grab him some food while he claimed a table.
One afternoon in the early summer, House grabbed a table outside, just past the doors in the shade of the building.
Now time was their biggest obstacle. It was hard to find a time when neither one was busy with a patient, with clinic duty or with a meeting -- although Wilson knew that was more his issue than House's.
Meetings, Wilson thought, and sat up, mentally reviewing his schedule while pushing back his sleeve to take a quick glance at his watch under the table.
"Am I keeping you from something important?"
Wilson looked up to see House staring at him. "I'm expecting a call."
"Uh huh, don't think so." House pushed back his own jacket sleeve with a flourish to check the time. "Hmmm. 2:22 p.m. I seem to remember that Debbie from accounting usually takes a coffee break at about 2:30 -- of course, I don't know how much coffee she's managed to find lately over in oncology."
"She's been helping me crunch numbers for new staff hires."
"Crunching numbers? Is that what all the kids are calling it these days?"
"I'm not having this conversation." Wilson popped the last of the cookie into his mouth, then grabbed his files and his coffee.
"But it's such an interesting conversation," House said. "I don't know why you always leave just when I get to the good part."
"I'm leaving now." Wilson pushed his chair up to the table. "You got that report for the proposal on your desk or should I get it from Cameron?"
"My desk." House leaned back in his chair, settling in for a few more minutes. "And leave the blinds open when Debbie comes by this time, will you?"
"I'd think you have more interesting things to do watch two people examine financial data," Wilson said. "Besides the sun comes in at a weird angle in the afternoons. It's hard to read the screen if I don't close the blinds."
House snorted. "Yeah. Right. But how am I supposed to know you're just looking at spreadsheets if you don't leave the blinds open?"
Wilson just shook his head, picked up his files and coffee and headed back inside.
House watched him go, then reached into his jacket pocket for his iPod. He scrolled through the menu, finally settling on a selection. He hit play and Raul Malo's voice filled his ears, cutting off the chatter from the few occupied tables nearby.
When he looked up, he could still see Wilson through the glass. He had stopped halfway through the cafeteria to talk to someone at a table -- House couldn't tell who it was.
Wilson shifted slightly, and House could see now that it was Chen from the ER, one of the other members of the personnel committee. As House watched, Wilson opened the manilla folder and pointed something out to the other doctor.
Two weeks, House thought to himself. He'd give Wilson two weeks to step away from the committee on his own -- three weeks tops -- before House would do something to pry Wilson away from the duties.
House considered the possibilities . Well, if Wilson was just waiting for a replacement, House thought, he'd find someone. He smiled. Someone like Chase. Foreman would just bitch and say he was too important to waste his time in meetings. Cameron would try to hire every applicant, rather than have to tell them they didn't qualify.
Chase, on the other hand, wouldn't dare turn him or Cuddy down, and all that paperwork could certainly mess with the light schedule he loved so much.
House took another sip and watched as Wilson gathered up his file again and made some excuse before rushing out of the room. Chase on the personnel committee, he thought. This could be fun.