Balance

by Namaste

Author's Note:
Thanks to Auditrix for the beta and providing the encouragement that helps me find my way past writing problems.

Jimmy's father taught him how to ride a bicycle on an old red Schwinn handed down from his brother. No training wheels, just his father's steady hand on the back of the seat, urging him on, telling him to pedal, to keep going.

"Balance, Jimmy! Balance!"

He'd found it easy after the first few tumbles onto the grass and soon graduated to the sidewalks, then the mile or so to school on fall days before the snow flew in the winter, and again in the spring once the drifts melted away and the lilacs were in bloom.

It was Jimmy and his brother and their friends on a collection of Schwinns and Huffys all summer long, riding to the lake for ice cream cones or to the store for comic books or long rides to the edge of town, where gravel replaced pavement and the woods were thick and cool.

It was Jack who yelled at him to keep up, and Jack who waited for him at the spot where they turned off the road and onto the two-track path. It was Jack who rode beside him all the way up the longest hill in town, taunting him the whole time that Jimmy would never make it. And it was Jack who taught him how to ride no-handed, ignoring their father's advice to keep a firm grip on the handlebars.

"The trick," his brother said, "is to believe you can do it. Sit up straight. If you lean forward like you're gonna grab the handlebars, then you throw it all out of whack."

It was Jack who pulled the book out of Jimmy's hand, telling him they needed a third for a driveway basketball game, pulling him out of the chair when he protested that he had a test the next day.

"You'll pass," he said.

"I don't want to just pass," Jimmy protested. "I want to get a good grade."

"I meant the basketball, doofus. You can't shoot for crap. Just pass me or Dave the ball when you get it. We'll take care of the rest."

Jimmy would watch his brother move into any group with ease, see how he drew people to him, balancing out a loose group of friends that took in everyone in high school from the football players to the A.V. club geeks. They treated Jimmy as a equal -- rather than merely Jack's little brother -- because Jack treated him that way.

By the time Jimmy followed Jack into high school, he'd learned how to balance the time he needed to devote to studying and how much to track and soccer. He learned how much his teachers expected from him, and how much he expected of himself. He learned how to pace himself over the first laps of a 5,000-meter race so he still had enough energy to finish with a strong enough kick to send him past the tape first.

But as Jimmy found his balance, it was becoming clear that Jack was losing his. He'd ignore his assignments or obsess over the details of one task. He lost his temper during one of the neighborhood games of touch football and stalked off the field, leaving Jimmy behind to try and apologize to their stunned friends.

Jack wandered away from the dorm his first year at college, and his family only heard about it three days later when his roommates called to see if had made an unexpected trip home. He turned up a day later, saying he'd been staying with a friend a few days so they could work on a joint project.

Jack didn't return to school the next year. He was supposed to attend the local community college, but rarely went to class. He wandered off again, then again, each time returning eventually, wondering why anyone had ever worried about him at all when it was clear in his mind that he was just fine.

Things seemed to even out once Jack was diagnosed, the prescriptions steadying him in ways he could no longer seem to do on his own. Just as things settled down, though, he'd declare himself cured and take himself off the meds, only to start the off-kilter struggle all over again.

When Jimmy left for college, he felt a little guilty that he'd be too far away to help keep watch over Jack -- but only a little. He focused instead on his classes and on training that came along with the partial scholarship he'd won for track.

For the first time in his life, he was at a place where no one knew Jack, didn't think of him as an extension of his brother. No one asked after him, no teachers stopped him after class with concerned looks on their faces. If anyone asked, he'd say he had two brothers at home, but didn't give any other details unless someone asked, and they almost never did.

He began introducing himself as "James Wilson," rather than "Jimmy." He poured his attention into his classes, finding new challenges and new ways to push himself -- first in pre-med, then in medical school.

Wilson didn't even have to think long about his specialty. He was drawn to oncology, seeing how much good a good doctor could do, how the right decisions could save lives. Unlike the ego-driven surgery specialties, though, cancer could keep a doctor humble.

Oncology was all about balance. Judge the stage of the cancer and the life expectancy of that patient at that stage. Consider the treatment options -- types of chemo, amount of radiation, the extent of surgery. Then add in quality of life issues. No case was the same.

Should they amputate the leg of a 19-year-old with bone cancer to bump his survival rate 10 percentage points or try to save it and instead rely on drugs to complete his cure? What if he has a 80 percent survival chance without the amputation? What if it's only 60 percent? Will a lumpectomy and radiation be enough for the new breast cancer patient?

And, too often, the equation simply didn't add up to the right numbers, and Wilson had to advise the family it was time to give up, to admit that the treatment couldn't extend their son's or daughter's or parent's life -- only make the time left to them all the more miserable. Wilson hated those numbers.

He had barely settled in at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital when he got a call from his parents that Jack had disappeared again. He looked at his schedule and told them he couldn't get away, but asked them to keep him in the loop.

The next day, he got a call that someone at the clinic was asking for him. Jack was there. He was unshaven and his clothes seemed wrinkled, but they were clean and he otherwise seemed to be doing fine. Wilson walked him into an empty treatment room.

"What are you doing here? Mom and Dad are worried."

"What, a guy can't check in to see how his little brother's doing?" Jack leaned back against the treatment table.

Wilson grabbed the handset from the wall phone, and dialed for an outside line. "I'm calling to let them know you're here."

"Jesus, Jimmy, calm down," Jack took the phone out of his hand and hung it up. "I'm fine. Got my meds and everything." He pulled a bottle out of his coat pocket, shaking it in front of Wilson's face. "See?"

Wilson put his hands on his hips. "You been taking them or just carrying them around for show?"

"What, you want to count them?" Jack held out the bottle. "Go ahead. Count them."

Wilson looked him in the eye, trying to judge whether he could trust him, then finally looked away and shook his head.

"Why didn't you tell anyone you were coming?"

Jack walked back over to the treatment table and hopped up onto it. "I left a note," he said. "Maybe they didn't find it, I don't know. It's not like I'm a great housekeeper or anything." He took in his brother's stance and rolled his eyes. "I swear, Jimmy, I left a note. This isn't like last time."

"Or the time before that, or the time before ..."

"Look, if you want, drive me home and I'll find the damn note for you, OK?"

"Fine, I believe you." Wilson walked over to the empty chair and sat down, stretching his legs out in front of him. "How'd you get here anyway?"

"Hitched a ride. You remember Joe Stephens?"

"Blond kid, lived a couple of blocks over?"

"That's him. He was headed to New York for business. I grabbed the train from there."

"Why didn't you let me know?"

"Either I wanted to surprise you or I couldn't find your number -- pick whichever answer you prefer."

Wilson's pager went off before he could answer. He checked it, then glanced at his watch before looking up at Jack again. "I've got to go. Listen, you've got lousy timing. I'm on for another 16 hours, minimum. How about if I give you a key to my place, I'll let Amy know you're coming and meet you there later."

"Don't worry about it, I grabbed a room at the Super 8 earlier."

"You don't have to stay at a motel."

"Yeah, like it'd be that much better on a futon in your living room. Besides, I already paid. How about I meet up with you for breakfast. I'll even let you work out your guilt by paying for it."

Wilson snorted. It was a lousy joke, but then Jack had always had a fondness for bad jokes. "Stealth humor," he called them. "The funny stuff is there, you just can't see it." Wilson found himself in a far better mood than he'd been earlier. "Fine. Meet me here at 8."

Jack pushed himself off the table. "Great. See you then." They walked out the door together. Wilson watched Jack pass through the waiting room before turning to pass through the clinic and out to the elevators.

Two days later, Jack had gone missing again. Wilson had taken him to a few haunts around town, and his favorite diner. There had been an awkward dinner with Amy, followed by beers and loud music at a bar mostly populated by students.

The next afternoon, he dropped Jack off a few blocks from the bus station. Wilson had apologized for not being able to stick around, because his shift would start soon.

"I didn't realize it was so cold," Wilson said. He shrugged out of his coat. "Here, you should take this. You might be stuck outside for a while, and that jacket isn't very warm."

"I'm fine," Jack reassured him. "Keep it."

Wilson held it out. "You can take it. I've got another one at home."

"And I've got plenty of coats at home too. Put it back on."

Wilson shivered in his shirtsleeves for a few seconds before giving in and putting it back on. "Don't forget you'll have to change buses in Philly."

"I'm not an idiot, Jimmy, give me some credit for God's sake."

"I know, I know. I just worry about you sometimes."

"You shouldn't," Jack insisted. "I'm fine. I'll be fine. I promise. Now get to work before you're late and I have to come back and kick your butt for screwing up."

Jack allowed him one quick hug before he grabbed his duffle bag from the sidewalk. Wilson rounded the car to the driver's side and waved at his brother from across the roof before climbing in and driving off.

Just past 6 a.m., his mother called to tell him Jack hadn't been on the bus when it arrived, or the next two. He left the hospital to go the bus station when it opened. Jack had apparently gotten on the bus there, but no one recalled seeing him since then.

When Jack still hadn't shown up a week later, Wilson contacted the police -- at Princeton, at home and in Philadelphia, though they all knew he could have gotten off the bus at any of more than a dozen stops along the way.

Everyone still kept expecting him to show up somewhere. He still hadn't when Wilson met House a few months later.

For a time, he had worried that House had some subtle imbalance himself. House would ignore the social niceties, then obsess over details others ignored. But Wilson quickly figured out that although House didn't fit into the standard social expectations, he had his own calm center point of existence. House simply gave different weight to things than nearly everyone else around him.

For a while, Wilson thought that maybe he could somehow stabilize House and help him align more with the rest of society. Instead it was House that pulled him off balance.

"Come on, Buddy Guy at Kingston Mines -- hell, just Kingston Mines alone. How can you come to Chicago and not hit the best blues bar in town?" House nagged him on one conference they had both attended.

"I'm not saying it's not tempting," Wilson admitted, "but there's a presentation on pain management techniques I need to catch at 7:30 tomorrow morning."

"Yeah, but that's 7:30 Central Time. Your body clock is still on Eastern Time. It'll feel like it's practically noon."

"No, it'll feel like it's 7:30 in the morning, because you've dragged me out to half the bars in town already tonight."

"So what's one more?"

Wilson grabbed his coat. "Fine. One set. I'll stay for one set."

House hadn't mentioned that the music wouldn't really get going until nearly midnight, and despite his best intentions, Wilson stayed until nearly 3 a.m. House was at his hotel room door at 7:15 with two large cups of coffee.

"Get a move on, Wilson," he said. "Don't want to be late."

"I didn't think you were planning to go to this one."

"I wasn't, but someone's got to keep you awake. Can't have you snoring in the middle of the lecture and embarrassing everyone."

House knew the late-night restaurants where the health inspection reports were spotty, but the food was both good and cheap. He knew which bars had the best pool tables and which bookstore stocked out-of-print titles.

They talked about patients, about sports, about music and cars. Wilson hadn't forgotten about Jack, but for whatever reason, his name never came up. On occasion he'd mention something about his family, about the town where he grew up, but only refer to "my brother." He supposed House just assumed it was Dan he was talking about.

Wilson still kept in touch with the police, in case Jack turned up. His parents put off their plans to move for fear that Jack would turn up at home looking for them one day.

Nearly eight months after he disappeared, Wilson got a call from Pennsylvania. Police had found a body that matched Jack's rough description. He'd need to come in to identify him. He didn't tell his parents, didn't tell Amy -- just made a vague excuse about a family emergency and signed out early.

He followed the directions to the county morgue, making the trip quickly, driving against the flow of late afternoon rush hour traffic. The officer who had called him met him at the front desk and walked him down the hallways. He recognized the familiar sights and sounds of any medical setting, could smell the combination of antiseptics and body odors

He braced himself as the curtain was drawn back.

It wasn't Jack. Just someone roughly his size, his shape, his coloring. Not Jack. Not this time, at least.

House tracked Wilson down the next morning.

"I thought we were supposed to go for a run last night. You stood me up."

"I'm sorry. Something came up." Wilson could see House studying him, his eyes searching his face and posture, trying to answer the questions he didn't bother asking.

"Family stuff," he said, trying to get House to back off. "I don't want to talk about it.

House didn't look like he was entirely satisfied, but nodded anyway. "OK, fine. But you owe me one."

"I'm good for it."

Wilson wasn't certain why House didn't press the issue, and he was just as uncertain as to why he hadn't told him everything about Jack at that time or any other. When he moved into a smaller place after Amy left, he tossed the old family photos and mementos into the same box that stored his wedding photos and divorce papers and stashed it on a closet shelf.

House had helped him find that place. He helped him move in to another new place following the second marriage, then helped haul boxes following that divorce.

"You move too much to collect this much crap," House said and dropped onto the couch. The floor at the new apartment was covered with stacks of boxes and bags. "In general, nomads aren't pack rats. You either need to settle down someplace or go through and throw out some stuff, because I am not doing this again."

"You just going to bitch, or are you going to move that stuff into the kitchen?"

"What, I can't do both?"

After the infarction, Wilson's old fears returned. He knew that House wasn't Jack: no chemical imbalance, no flights of fancy. He could count on House -- even if all he could count on was a smug remark and a general dismissal of the rest of humanity. But things had changed. House had to change, whether he wanted to or not.

House's center of gravity changed, literally and figuratively. He had to learn to rely more on his left leg and his right arm and shoulder, giving up his natural balance for one augmented by a cane.

House didn't do as well in recovering the balance to the rest of his life. It only got worse when Stacy left.

She had told Wilson she was taking only a few personal things. It would be easier for her to shop for new furniture, she said, than for Greg to trudge through stores.

It was no saving grace. Instead her decision left traces of Stacy all over House's home: the chair where she'd loved to curl up with a book, the overpriced Tiffany lamp she'd bought, the spare bed where her family and friends used to sleep when they came to visit.

After she was gone, Wilson was the only one who ever used the bed, and then only on rare occasions. The sheets and down comforter always waiting for him were the ones that Stacy picked out.

He crashed there the night he finally told House about Jack.

They'd sat there in the cold out on the street after House had followed him to the neighborhood near the bus station, neither of them saying anything for a long time, until Wilson noticed he was shivering and House had his hands shoved down deep into his pockets.

Wilson followed House to his car, climbing into the passenger seat of the sedan, operating on autopilot. He didn't even think about his own car until House turned onto the main road.

"Wait, a minute, my car."

House didn't slow down. "We'll get it in the morning," he said, and Wilson just nodded.

Wilson hadn't planned on saying much about Jack, but once they were at the condo, with hot coffee warming a mug held tight between his hands, House began asking questions, and Wilson found himself answering them. They were simple questions, nothing about how he felt about Jack's disappearance, whether he felt guilty, whether he thought there was something more he should have done, although House said later he didn't have to ask.

"I know you," he said.

Wilson instead found himself talking about how Jack had won his spot on the football team and how he'd been jealous at the attention his brother got the year the team made it all the way to the state playoffs one year. He talked about the rope swing they and their friends had hung from a tree limb out over the lake, and about how often they had ganged up on poor Danny -- who was five years younger than Jimmy and would never be big enough in their eyes.

It was early morning by the time Wilson noticed the time. House pointed him to the spare room.

"I don't know why I didn't tell you about Jack," he said as House stood in the hallway.

House shrugged. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You have now." He snapped off the light and turned toward his bedroom. "Good night."

Now Stacy is back, and Wilson wonders how House will maintain his balance when fate keeps throwing obstacles in his path.

Wilson has seen Stacy, striding the halls like the force of personality she always was. She's still the same Stacy, still able to draw the attention of everyone in the room -- whether by the beauty of her face and body or her communications skills, by equal measure charming everyone around her while also barely giving them a chance to voice their own opinion.

Any hopes he and House had that Stacy would stick to either her office or her husband's bedside were long since swept away. She seemed to be everywhere.

Wilson lost count of the number of offenses Stacy had claimed since her return to PPTH less than two months ago. He hadn't noticed House doing anything out of the normal -- for him -- lately, but Stacy seemed to find problems everywhere.

"Is it my fault everyone else just gave up and let him do what he wanted?" she asked when Wilson tried to suggest that perhaps she was pushing too hard.

Wilson heard her voice from the main hallway as he approached it from a side corridor. He glanced up to see House stop and drop his head for a moment before turning to her. Wilson can't make out much of the conversation from where he has stopped to watch them. Stacy touches House's arm, the one holding the cane, and House makes a grand gesture with his left.

"The difference is that I know I'm right," he heard House say before the volume of his voice dropped again.

Stacy shook her head before turning away and walking back in the direction she had come from. House stabbed his cane at the floor twice, staring down at the tile before he looked up and to the left and spotted Wilson standing there. He closed his eyes and dropped his head slightly before turning and moving off down the hall in the general direction of his office.

Wilson doesn't consider himself religious. He marks the high holy days, but eats the pizza House orders regardless of whether there is pepperoni or sausage covering the surface. Only one of his wives has been Jewish, and he made no comment when the others set up elaborate Christmas trees.

But he remembers the lessons he had leading to his bar mitzvah, studying Hebrew and the Torah in equal measures.

There are no rewards and no punishment in this life, the Talmud says. We receive what is due us in a future world. He wonders now if Jack is due a happy life in that future.

There is such a thing as fate, the rabbis had said. Fate is the pedigree we are born into. But we are not captives of fate. Destiny is how we respond to what fate throws at us.

Wilson looked down into the operating room. Some of the staff were starting to shuffle out, making a little more space for the vascular and neurosurgery teams setting up close to Andie's bed.

Andie must have really pissed off fate in some past life, the balance of her life this time around both painful and painfully short. Since Wilson had met her she'd been terminal -- first diagnosed before she'd barely learned to write her name. All he'd ever been able to offer her is one more treatment, one more round of chemo, one more new attempt that would add maybe a few months at a time. She kept beating the odds, but they all knew she couldn't keep it up forever.

Yet her destiny was one that ignored the pain, the limited life and the limited life span. Wilson had heard from House about how she stole a kiss from Chase. He'd laughed and told him that it hadn't been the first time she'd used the line on some handsome man -- but she rarely succeeded with anyone except med students.

Now Andie's life was in the balance once again, and the weight was on House. Wilson knew he bore some of the burden as well. He was the one who brought House in, who consulted and agreed on nearly every step and it was Wilson who convinced Andie's mother to sign off on the procedure.

Wilson hadn't agreed with House's methods, but he had to agree it could work. Hell, maybe House was right after all, and Andie's positive attitude was as much a symptom of her illness as Jack's behavior was a symptom of his.

House stood near the head of Andie's bed down in the operating room. He was talking to Foreman, but Wilson couldn't pick up the details of the conversation through the intercom. House wasn't Jack, Wilson told himself. He could handle pressure, could be counted on when he was needed most. He also wasn't Andie, handling the worst in life with an unimaginable grace. House filled some spot in the middle ground instead.

House remained near the bed. Only when the bulk of the staff had cleared out did he head for the door, limping badly. He'd had to leave his cane behind in the outer room. House's staff had made sure there were some stools in the operating room, but he had ignored them. He hadn't really moved at all from his position near the operating table until she flatlined, and only then taking a few steps to the point where he could see the screens.

Wilson knew he needed to go out and talk to Andie's mother, but he waited until he'd seen House safely into the outer room, watching each painful step. He noticed that Chase had waited as well, standing close enough to reach out a supporting hand -- just in case -- but far enough away that House likely wouldn't yell at him for hovering.

Andie's mother nodded in response to Wilson's update and asked a few questions, wondering how much longer the procedure would take. He wasn't certain yet if she really understood all the implications. It scared him a little to think that she signed on only because she trusted him, but then he's not certain if he would have agreed to it if anyone other than House were involved.

It was after 7 p.m. by the time Wilson made it to House's office. House was at his desk, his right leg resting on the desk's edge, cushioned by a pillow he apparently filched from a patient room. All the lights were off except for his desk lamp. The conference room next door was also fading into dark with the autumn sun providing only a dim reminder of its summer brightness.

"Andie's awake," Wilson said as he settled into one of the guest chairs. "She talked to her mom."

House nodded. "Foreman told me. They move her out of recovery yet?"

"Just now, to Peds ICU for the night. We'll see how she does from there." Wilson nodded toward the empty conference room. "You send everyone else home?"

"Big day," House said. He shook out a Vicodin and popped it into his mouth, placing the pill bottle on the desk. "I thought I'd give them a treat and let them knock off after a measly 11-hour shift. Better not tell Cuddy."

"Not just for them. What time were you here?"

House glared at him. "Save your Mother Hen act for your baldheaded wonder kids. They might appreciate it."

Wilson looked at the pill bottle. There was no way for him to make out how many pills were in it yet. He'd tried more than once to figure out a way to tell from the shadows within the amber-colored plastic , but hadn't perfected his attempt beyond telling the difference between mostly full and mostly empty.

House snatched the bottle away, put it in his pocket. "And that's none of your business."

"I prescribe for you."

"I could always have Cuddy start doing it again."

"Sure, but I'm far more of a pushover than she is, and you know it."

House didn't argue the point. "So you going to give me a ride home or what?"

"You're actually asking for one?"

"If you prefer we can go through the routine of you asking if I need one, and me dragging my feet about it -- so to speak -- but I figured this would be faster."

"And God knows we wouldn't want social niceties to slow things down. You ready now?"

"I've been ready."

"Fine, well give me a few minutes, because I'm not."

"Come on, whoever it is that left you a voice mail or an e-mail can wait until tomorrow for a reply."

"Maybe they can, but I just want to make sure."

Wilson took the long way through the main halls and outer oncology office to his own desk. He found his assistant had weeded out most of the items that could wait, but there were notes from his staff, e-mails reminding him of upcoming conferences and a half-dozen files awaiting his review. He set them all aside, returning only one of the calls.

He heard the phone ring twice before it picked up.

"Hi Mom," he said. "I got your message. What's up?"

Someone had referred them to another detective, someone promising he had access to more information than anyone had in the past. Wilson had supported every attempt to track down Jack in the first few years, when it seemed like there were fresh details, but as time passed, and nothing ever came of the money they'd spent, he had begun counseling against the expense.

Even his father had expressed doubts. It was Mom who kept the faith.

"I'm just saying that it doesn't sound like this guy has anything new to offer," he told her. He saw House through the glass door leading out to the patio, lifting his leg over the low wall, then heading in his direction, his bag slung over his shoulder. "Didn't the last guy try those same database searches already?"

House swung open the door and stepped inside, letting it close behind him. He tapped the end of his cane on the wooden desk top. "Clocks ticking," he said. "Wrap it up."

Wilson turned his attention back to the voice on the phone. "Yeah, yeah, it's him." He turned back toward House. "My mother says to tell you hello."

"Tell her I said goodbye, and let's get going."

Wilson ignored him. "No, I'm saying that I agree with Dad," he said into the handset. "You should at least check this guy out some more."

House tossed his bag onto Wilson's desk. It skittered across the surface, knocking over a mug, the dregs of the morning coffee dribbling out onto some notes. Wilson bit back a curse, listening to his mother on the end of the line. He glared up at House, but House was tapping his watch.

"Look, why don't you just send me the same information he gave you and I'll look it over," he said. "I'll let you know if it seems like he's got something worth following up on."

House sighed and limped over to lean against the wall.

"No, I'm not claiming to be some kind of an expert, but I can at least give you a better opinion once I've looked at if for myself, can't I," he said to his mother. House signed again and tapped his cane against the floor.

"No, I'm not mad at you, Mom," Wilson apologized. "It's just been a long day."

Wilson didn't bother looking up, but could hear House change position. "I love you too," he said into the receiver. "I'll talk to you later, OK? OK, bye."

He hung up the phone, then tossed House's bag onto one of the chairs. He picked up the mug and grabbed a few tissues to mop up the drips on the notes. Wilson stacked the files back into piles, then leafed through the message slips again.

"Oh come on," House whined. "Aren't you ready yet?"

Wilson didn't bother looking up. "I'll be ready when I'm ready."

He wasn't even focusing on the messages, just shuffling them. He stopped and looked up when he saw House grab his bag from the chair.

"Fine," House said. "I get it. You're still pissed at me." He didn't sound angry or upset, just resigned. "That's OK. I'll call a cab." He pushed open the door and stepped out onto the balcony.

Wilson lowered his head onto his hands and took a deep breath, then pushed himself up. House was unlocking the door to his office when he stepped outside.

"House, wait a minute." House turned toward him, but left the keys hanging in the lock. "I'm not mad."

House studied him for a moment in the dimming twilight. "Yes you are," he said.

Wilson took another deep breath. "Yes, I am," he admitted. "A little." He leaned back against the brick wall, propping his elbows on the ledge. "Why do you always try so hard to piss people off?"

House shrugged. "I don't try to piss people off," he said.

"Maybe you don't always try to," Wilson conceded. "But you certainly don't care when you do, either."

House stepped over to the wall to stand by Wilson. "Sometimes I care," he said.

"Not often enough." Wilson turned to lean his arms onto the ledge, looking out past the shrubs and low trees toward the line of buildings beyond the parking lot. "You always expect the worst from everyone, then when you encounter someone who's actually good, you don't know how to react."

"It hasn't been my experience that being good actually guarantees you get something good in return," House said. He leaned into the wall with his right side, propping himself up by his right elbow. "Karma's a bitch, even if you do believe in it. There's no grand scale out there that's actually weighing the difference between your virtues and your sins, no tally sheet that's going to determine your eventual reward."

Wilson rubbed at his eyes, suddenly tired. He'd barely slept the night before, his mind racing with every possibility of what could go wrong. He doubted House had slept much either. He'd seen the light on in House's office when he arrived at the hospital before 6 o'clock that morning.

"I know you have your own reasons for doing the things you do," Wilson said. He looked over at House. "I get that. But I sure hope as hell that you understand why you do them, because frankly, sometimes they seem a little bit ..."

"Nuts?" House offered.

Wilson nodded and looked back out at the horizon. "And a little bit scary."

They stood in silence for a few minutes, listening to the traffic on the road nearby, the beep of a car horn from a far corner of the parking lot.

The sun was setting off to the west, and Wilson could see its rays reflected in the windows of the offices in the hospital's north wing. House studied Wilson. "This isn't just about Andie, is it?"

Wilson turned back toward the building. He closed his eyes again. He scrubbed his hands across his face, then dropped them to his side. He looked at House and ignored the question. "I'm ready to go now," he said. "You still want that ride?"

"I thought you were still pissed at me."

"Yeah, well, I'm not that pissed. Come on." Wilson turned back to his own office and House's keys jingling, the pause as he lifted his leg over the wall, then his uneven steps across the concrete.

He held the door open for House, then gathered his things. They walked together through the room and the outer office and into the main hallway.

Out in the parking garage, Wilson thumbed the button on the key fob to unlock his car doors. He tossed his briefcase and suit jacket into the back. House was already settling into the passenger seat and held out his cell phone before Wilson could turn the key in the ignition.

"I suppose this would be a bad time to ask if you want to pick up some Chinese on the way?" he asked softly. "I'll pay."

Wilson sighed again and gripped the top of the steering wheel with both hands. He wasn't expecting anything more than leftovers at home. Julie had long ago gotten out of the habit of waiting supper for him, especially on late nights. He leaned back into the seat, letting his head drop onto the headrest.

"Make it Thai, and you've got a deal," he said.

"But Red Dragon's right on the way," House said. "It's closer."

"I know what you want," Wilson said. "But I want chicken pad thai. And I'm driving."

"Fine, fine." He scrolled through the memory until he found the number for Siam Garden.

"And order me some spring rolls too." Wilson started the car and backed out of his spot.

"You're being pretty loose with my money."

"You can afford it," Wilson said.

He turned toward the business district as he heard House calling in the order.

Wilson's mother had once asked him if he was using House as some kind of a replacement for Jack. At the time she'd been upset with him for voicing an opinion that Jack didn't want to be found, that they wouldn't find him until Jack was ready to face them again.

Wilson had denied it, making some comment that if House was supposed to be some kind of a gift to balance out Jack's loss, then God had a lousy sense of humor, but sometimes he wondered if there wasn't some truth to the question.

House wasn't Jack, of course. He may not have his brother's issues, but then he also lacked the joy that Jack had always had in just the day-to-day living. But his appearance in Wilson's life, falling just after Jack's disappearance, did have a strange sense of timing. And sometimes Wilson wondered if he would have been so open to accepting House's friendship if Jack had still been around.

Wilson still missed his brother, but missed the concept of him more than the reality. The Jack that he'd known had disappeared long before that night on the street corner. And while House wouldn't just disappear in the way his brother had, Wilson couldn't completely ignore the niggling doubt in the back of his mind that he might someday still lose him to something else.

He heard House finish the order when they were still a couple of miles from the restaurant. The street lights were beginning to come on as the sun faded, their artificial light replacing the natural one.

Wilson pulled into the restaurant parking lot and turned off the ignition. He held out his hand.

House grunted and rolled his eyes, but handed over a couple of twenties.

"I expect change," he said.

"I expect I may have to wait a few minutes for the order," Wilson said.

"So wait," House said. He eased the seat back. "I'll find some way to amuse myself in your absence."

"You know, coming from you, that's not a very reassuring phrase." Wilson opened the car door and stepped out.

"Make sure they don't forget anything," House called out. He closed his eyes and leaned back into the headrest. "I'll be here when you get back."

"Yeah," Wilson said. He pushed the car door shut. "I know."