Declarations of Independence
Thanks to Auditrix for the beta.
House admitted defeat just after Christmas. It seemed the snow wasn't going to melt and the roads weren't going to get reliably clearer anytime in the next few months, despite every attempt he made to deny it.
"You didn't actually think we'd actually miss out on winter this year, did you?" Wilson was perched on one of the Corvette's fenders in the small underground garage at the condo.
He was wearing his heavy winter parka -- not the dress coat he normally wore to the office -- and it was zipped all the way up. His gloves, though, were the fancy driving ones Julie had picked up for him last winter, and he set down the flashlight he'd been holding to rub his hands together in an attempt to warm them up.
The garage was dry, but it wasn't heated. With the temperatures in the single digits and still falling, it had fallen well below freezing inside.
"Hey, stranger things have happened in the past 365 days than an occasional warm spell," House said. He grabbed the can of lubricant and a rag from the pile of supplies to his left, then lowered himself down to sit on an overturned milk crate, turning to the right toward the bike. "I don't know why Mother Nature felt she had to screw up my plans too."
"Let's see, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes -- yes, I can see how they're devastating, but if I have this straight, somehow they're on par with a standard snowfall in a New Jersey winter."
"Let's just say I have a very personal world view," House said. He looked over his left shoulder at Wilson. "You going to point that light over here, or were you planning on saving the batteries for your next performance of shadow puppet masterpiece theater?"
"Sorry." Wilson clicked the light on and pointed the beam toward the spot House pointed to with his screwdriver. "I thought I was coming over to watch the game, not play a round of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'"
"Who says you can't do both?"
"Well for one, the game starts in --" Wilson checked his watch " -- fifteen minutes."
"Hey," House yelled as the light wavered away from the bike.
"We've got plenty of time. This isn't that complicated, and bowl games never start when they're scheduled to start anyway," House said. "First you've got the team introductions, then some singer who thinks the National Anthem is their ticket to stardom, then the coin toss." He stopped for a moment and looked up at Wilson. "What the hell kind of a stupid idiot schedules a bowl game for a Wednesday night anyway?"
"Probably the kind of stupid idiot who decides Michigan should play in it."
"Stupid BCS," House said and turned back to his work.
House had taken the bike out for one last, short ride earlier that week just to run the fuel level down. He'd emptied a can of additives into the tank to keep the remaining gas in decent shape for its winter shutdown. Now it was a matter of prepping the gears, cables and pivots before turning his back on it for the next couple of months.
"You could just put it up for sale, you know, get some cash back, then you wouldn't have to go through all of this," Wilson said.
"Sure why not." House glanced up briefly, then scooted forward to give himself better access to the suspension linkages. He adjusted the can of spray lubrication to point the nozzle to the underside and glanced up as he reached for a rag.
"Sure?" Wilson's eyes widened in surprise.
"Then I'll use the cash towards a down payment on the new model when it comes out in April," House continued. "Early reports say it's got an extra 10 horsepower."
Wilson just shook his head. "I knew that sounded too easy."
"You've known me how long?"
"I'm an optimist. I keep holding out hope that someday I'll win an argument."
"Again. How long?" House shifted slightly and leaned forward to reach the foot peg pivots. He took a deep breath and held it as muscles already tight from the cold ached from the movement. He held still for a moment and pretended to adjust the rag in his hands as he waited for the muscles to give in and accept the motion.
They finally eased off a bit and he moved in to finish the job quickly before they objected again.
He knew Wilson didn't approve of the bike. He'd known it before he even bought it . That was why he'd been careful only to ask Wilson for a loan to finance a "new ride," telling him he wanted to surprise him with his decision.
House finished with the pivots on the left side of the bike. He wiped off his hands on the rag and moved his left leg in close to his perch on the milk crate, but kept his right leg where it was, resting straight out in the gap between the bike and his supply of tools.
He closed the tool box and put his left hand on the lid. He began to reach behind him with his right hand for his cane at the spot where he'd left it on the concrete floor, but then Wilson was there, his own right hand held out. House hesitated for just a moment, then took it. He kept his weight on the left side of his body, though, using Wilson only for additional balance.
"I still can't believe you took it out yesterday," Wilson said. House grabbed the tool box, lube and rags and moved them to the right side of the bike. "It didn't even make 20 degrees."
"Not everyone is as much of a wuss as you." House carried the milk crate over to a spot where he could reach both the chain and pivot points on the right side of the bike, then lowered himself down onto it. "I remember this one time ..."
"Is this story going to involve six mile uphill walks to school through massive snowdrifts? Because I haven't gotten my fill of those lately."
House just grunted and worked at cleaning out a spot where a few chunks of road salt had somehow managed to wedge themselves into the mechanism.
Stupid road salt.
House used to love winter. He'd see the leaves changing from shades of green to bronzes and russets, then to brown, then fall and know that they'd soon be covered with a coating of New Jersey slush.
He'd spent the first 12 years of his life shuttling with his parents from one Corps air station to the next: Pensacola, Beaufort, Honolulu -- a history of base housing bedrooms, beaches , hurricane drills and the smell of salt water -- with one brief overseas posting in Japan.
They were at Miramar just before his 13th birthday when his father received a new assignment. Greg knew the drill. First the packing, then the cleaning, the inspection of the old base housing and then into the car for the long drive someplace else. Another base, another row of identical base family housing, the size and shape of the house barely changing from base to base and state to state.
Another base school with another government-approved teacher.
Greg spent the long days in the back seat of the car reading or staring out the window, watching deserts pass, then mountains, then the plains. He listened to his parents talk in the front seat, and learned that things might be different this time: John House had been assigned to a liaison post at the Pentagon.
"It's an honor," his mother said.
"I'll be a desk jockey," his father complained.
"Maybe it won't be that bad."
"We're at war, in case you haven't noticed. They can use experienced combat pilots."
"And maybe we can use you at home too," his mother said quietly.
There would be no base housing this time. Instead his father's new commander had helped him track down a rental in Arlington.
At the new school, Greg was the only new kid. Rather than Corps brats, his new classmates were the children of politicians, of diplomats, of lawyers and lobbyists. Many of them sported long hair, bell bottoms and a few wore tie-dyed t-shirts. They talked politics and wore multicolored peace symbols. For the most part, they ignored Greg. For the most part, he ignored them.
During Christmas break, his father sent him off to Whitetail Mountain for a skiing event organized by his commander for the commander's son.
"Behave yourself and keep your mouth shut," John House said. "This guy could screw me over if he wants."
Greg sat silently in the back of the car through the nearly two-hour drive. He recognized some of the other kids from his classes. He noticed the difference between his jeans and the winter coat his mother had picked up at the NEX and their slick nylon outfits. He listened to them describe the runs they'd try, the ones they'd conquered last year, the ones they feared, the ones with the fastest drops, the ones with wicked turns.
The ski boots from the rental shop pinched when he first put them on. He nearly fell when he tried to walk, the hard plastic locking his ankles into place. He had to learn how to lean forward, pull forward with his whole leg, pick his foot up high and allow the boot to clomp down onto the packed snow, pulling him forward.
He listened to the instructions from the bored instructor at the bottom of the smallest hill, practiced the snowplow stop once or twice, then headed up.
He could feel the wind on his face as he skidded down. He could feel the texture of the snow, every bump, every hillock. He heard the snow squeaking under the skis and could feel himself pick up speed when he pushed forward with the poles. He leaned left and made a simple turn, leaned right and turned again.
At the bottom, as his momentum slowed, he pushed his legs out into the V of the snowplow position and came to a stop.
He left the bunny hill behind, ignoring the instructor who told him he wasn't ready for the intermediate hills yet.
On the ride home, his jeans and long johns were soaked through from spending so much time on his butt, his knees were sore and his calves rubbed raw from the rented boots, but he'd managed to carve out sharper and faster turns. On one of the last runs, he passed a couple of the nylon outfits.
He begged his way into a car of kids headed up the next weekend, then the next.
This was something his father couldn't do, didn't even understand. When Greg tried to tell him about how fast he could go downhill, his father said something about real speed and Mach one and lapsed into one of his stories about taking a plane to its limits.
One weekend in February, his father volunteered to do the driving, and five boys jammed into the sedan with him, skis and boots clogging the trunk and a borrowed roof rack.
His father passed on the invitation to try out the hills himself, staying inside instead and watching from the lodge, drinking coffee and talking to a few other adults there hiding out from the falling temperatures.
"I was talking to one of the instructors," John House said on the drive back. "He said you've got lousy body position and you should take lessons."
"He's wrong. I do fine," Greg mumbled, hoping the boys in the back seat weren't listening.
"Right, so the expert is wrong and you're just perfect."
Greg didn't say anything. He could hear the conversations in the back seat dying down, getting quiet.
"What's the point in doing something if you're not going to do it right?" his father asked.
"Why waste half the winter on the bunny slope just so I can impress some loser working part-time at a second rate ski resort?" Greg grumbled. "I do just fine."
"Then I guess you can do just fine without those skis your mother and I were thinking of getting you."
By the next winter, his father had been transferred again, this time back to Pensacola to train new pilots.
They were in Arizona when he turned 16 and began looking at colleges. House sorted them according to both class offerings and their proximity to ski hills.
Before accepting the position at Princeton, House skied the Poconos.
He and Stacy would head out of town whenever they could spare a weekend, heading out for the two-hour drive north and west. They'd spend days on the slopes. Sometimes House would hang back just to watch Stacy, admiring the way her favorite blue pants clung to her and the way she could make every turn seem deceptively easy.
She refused to tag along with him on the black double diamond runs.
"Come on, you can do it," House would say. "And when you fall I promise not to laugh at you."
"Oh, I'm not worried about falling," she'd say. "I've just got better things to do than sit around waiting for the ski patrol when they have to come out and rescue your sorry ass."
Now winter arrives with pain.
The cold grabs tight to his muscles and holds on until April, squeezing any sense of flexibility out of them.
And the snow hides ice. House hates the moment before he steps outside and has to stop, flip the metal snow clip over the rubber tip at the base of his cane. During that moment, usually just in front of a door, he feels exposed, as if some neon arrow has gone off over his head, pointing directly at his right leg.
Stacy had Wilson clean out the skis and skates and lacrosse sticks and even the golf clubs from their storage space in the spare bedroom sometime before House came home from rehab. House noticed the empty closet a few days after his return when he'd gone searching for an old game, hoping he'd find something there to distract him for an hour or so.
"I didn't think you'd want to look at them," Stacy said.
House leaned onto his crutches and stared into the empty corners for a few moments longer before turning off the light. "Stop making decisions for me," he said. "I'm a big boy. I can handle a few disappointments."
Stacy looked away, off toward the brightness of the living room.
"You should have at least had him leave your stuff here," House said. He closed the door and moved toward Stacy, trying to avoid a rug on the hardwood floor . "You should go collect them before it ends up as community property in his next divorce."
"James isn't even dating anyone now," Stacy said.
"Give him time."
The first winter after the infarction passed by in a blur of rehab rooms and the four rooms in the condo that he rarely left: bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen. He almost never ventured out except for PT, and then Stacy was with him -- always with the encouraging words, always with some promise of a better outcome somewhere just over the horizon.
For a while, progress was easy to mark as he became steadier on the crutches, then switched to a cane, first using it occasionally around the house, then for longer and longer periods.
Stacy would bring him home after therapy, taking a short break before heading back to her office or shutting herself away in the spare room where she'd set up a home office. He'd drop onto the couch, exhausted and frustrated, wincing at the way the barely controlled fall jolted muscles and joints already sore and aching.
"Do you need anything?"
He barely had time to catch his breath before she was standing there with a concerned look on her face.
"What can I get for you?"
It seemed like she was always standing there, always wanting to know something, always full of advice. He'd make the slightest move, make the slightest effort to push himself up, and she'd be there.
"What do you need?" "What do you want?" "Let me get that for you." "Here, let me take that."
She stood there waiting while he sat -- in wheelchairs, on benches or on the edge of the bed, working up the energy and will to force himself up onto his feet each morning.
Once House used to stand next to Stacy, and look down into her eyes. Now he was the one always looking up.
And she was full of advice -- reminding him of every rule, every guideline the therapists preached.
"Take your time," she'd tell him. "It'll get better."
"Don't lecture me," he finally said one gray day. "I don't need you telling me what to do any more."
By late winter, Stacy was gone, and it was Wilson driving him to his appointments.
"I could pick up something for you if you want to give me a list," Wilson tossed out the offer casually one night as he sat in the armchair at the end of the coffee table.
House remembered a comment one of his professors had made back at Michigan, that patients tended to feel more comfortable with a seated doctor and believed he was taking more time with them, even if that wasn't the case. He wondered briefly if that was part of Wilson's secret in dealing with patients before realizing that he'd probably have to adapt that same posture himself some day, if he ever bothered seeing patients again.
"I want to go out," House said after a moment. "It's boring in here."
Wilson shrugged. "It's March in New Jersey," he said. "It's not exactly a world of excitement out there either."
Wilson waited until House was on his feet and had opened the closet before he stood. "It's dry out there, but cold and windy," he said. "You'll want a warm coat."
House considered the options before taking Wilson's advice and grabbing a down-filled coat from the back of the closet he'd last worn during a long weekend in Vermont. He checked the pockets and found gloves and half of a roll of Stacy's favorite mints.
Down in the parking garage, Wilson's BMW was parked in Stacy's old space. House paused briefly before heading over to the driver's side of his own Mazda. He'd had Stacy take it out once or twice, trying to keep it in running condition. He ran a hand across the windshield and studied the marks left behind on the fine layer of dust collected there.
"I thought I'd drive." Wilson was standing between the cars, looking over the Mazda's red roof at House.
House nodded. "Just wondering what it'll take to get it back in shape before I take it out again."
"You or it?"
"I could drive if I wanted to, you know," House said. "I've got the keys right here." He patted his pocket.
"What do they have to say about that in PT?"
House stepped away from the Mazda's door and made his way around the back of the car. "That I should be patient." He stopped at the gap between the two cars and leaned against the BMW's fender. "The same answer they have for everything."
"Patient?" Wilson leaned back against the Mazda, ignoring the dust. "They haven't learned anything about you at all, have they?"
House smiled slightly. "I'm an enigma."
Wilson was with House a few weeks later when he took the Mazda out for a short drive on a sunny Sunday afternoon. He braced himself as the car came to a sudden stop. House grinned and took his left foot off the brake.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this," he said.
"I hate to disagree with you, so maybe it'd be better if you just dropped me off at the corner," Wilson said. "I can walk back from there."
"I'm hungry," House said. "You hungry?"
"Not anymore." Wilson braced himself again. "Red light!"
"Yellow. Think Hoagie Haven is open yet?" House didn't wait for an answer. "Let's see."
"Bad idea, House."
"That's the same thing you said when I told you I was ready to get off the crutches," House sat in Ed Ransom's office in the rehab wing of the hospital. Ransom's therapy team had managed to get him onto his feet. He didn't know why, but for some reason he figured he owed Ransom the courtesy of telling him he wouldn't be back.
"And I still say you weren't ready," Ransom said. "Just because you managed not to fall on your face doesn't mean you were strong enough to go without the extra support from the crutches."
"But yet, here I am," House said, tapping the cane on the floor. "You said I shouldn't drive, but I managed that just fine too -- and now you're telling me everything else I'm not ready for."
"Off hand, I'm going to guess that you still can't keep your right leg in the right spot," Ransom said. "It rolls out of position and you can't maintain it, at least not for long."
House didn't answer, just stared at a spot on the wall somewhere to the right of Ransom's face.
"So you're driving with your left foot."
"My left leg has been lazing around on drives for years," House said, turning back to the other man. "I figure it's about time it pulled its fair share of the work."
Ransom leaned forward, his elbows and arms spread across a layer of papers and journal articles. "So go ahead and drive, if that makes you happy. Just don't stop the therapy. Not yet. You're 90 percent of the way there."
"Then I'm pretty sure I can find my way on my own from here."
Ransom stopped, looked down at his hands for a moment. "There are four muscles that make up the quadriceps. You're missing half of your rectus femoris and a good part of the vastus lateralis. You've got nerve damage to the ..."
"I know. I read the reports too." House interrupted. He pushed himself up and turned to the door. "I knew you had nothing new to offer."
He could hear Ransom getting up from behind the desk.
"House, wait." Ransom stood between House and the door. "It took you a long time to get your leg back into any kind of usable shape, but you're not strong enough yet. Your knee is nowhere near as steady as it should be. We've got more work to do, or you could end up with even more damage there. You're at risk of damaging the ACL, the MCL, the LCL -- hell, the whole ligament alphabet. Tear one of those and you'll be back in the hospital, back for more surgery. You'll be back on crutches for months, maybe longer, and you don't want that."
"You're right," House said. "I don't want that. I also don't want to have this discussion any more, and I don't want to be here at all. Now move."
"Fine." Ransom stepped back and opened the door. He stepped aside. "Just think about it, OK?"
House didn't answer him. He didn't make any response that indicated he'd heard Ransom at all. He just walked out the door.
House drove away the summer. He'd lower himself down onto the driver's seat sideways, then lift his right leg into the car and turn toward the wheel, moving the leg back against the seat. He'd stretch his left leg across to the pedals, then close the door behind him.
He explored side roads he'd never bothered with when the car was just a means of getting from here to there, seeing how far he could go until his right leg would begin to ache. He trained his left foot to gently accelerate and brake until he was nearly as smooth as he'd driven before.
Wilson still offered to pick him up on the way in to the hospital most days. Some days he still took him up on it. Some days he ended up leaving his car at the parking lot for the night, too tired or too sore to deal with the drive home.
Summer slid into fall, and House found himself accepting more rides. Wilson didn't even bother asking one rainy gray November day. He just showed up at House's condo at his normal time, letting himself in after House slammed the door in his face. He ignored the near silence that accompanied House's sulk for the next three days.
As nights grew colder, the aches spread across his body like a fine coating of frost, moving from his leg and into his hips, up his spine and across his shoulders.
With the first snowfall came the first slip. House knew he should have gone to the store earlier in the week, but it had been so cold even then he couldn't stand the idea of stepping outside. He woke on Saturday to empty cupboards and to find that a half-inch had fallen while he slept.
It still hadn't melted by that afternoon, but he'd convinced himself that the roads and walks would be salted and cleared.
He pulled into the open handicapped parking spot and looked across the short distance of parking lot separating him from the front entrance of the store. He'd been to the store a few times the previous winter, but only when it was clear, and each time Stacy --and later Wilson -- had dropped him off right at the door, saving him the few steps across the asphalt and concrete.
Now House opened the car door and carefully stepped out. He studied the distance between the car and the store. The snow had started falling softly again in the past 15 minutes, but it didn't seem to be sticking.
He took cautious steps across the lot and up onto the walk outside the store. He had nearly made it inside when his cane hit a hidden patch of ice under the layer of snow at the edge of an overhang, sliding out from under his hand.
His right leg held him up for just a split second as he flailed for some support with his left hand, finding a metal pole. He dropped the cane and grabbed his leg with his right hand. He felt his glove slide down the pole as he continued to fall. He reached down with his right hand to break his fall, and had just enough time to twist himself around so his ass his the cold concrete first, rather than his hip and leg.
He could feel his heart race as he sat there. He tried to catch his breath and convince himself that it was safe to let go of the pole.
"You OK?" House looked up to see a woman, maybe in her 60s, gray hair peeking out from under a knit hat, wearing sensible boots and a thick coat.
"Just peachy." He let go of the pole and used his left hand to help straighten his leg away from where it had ended up in the fall. A small crowd was beginning to form around him. Someone from inside the store had rushed out, a green vest and name tag identifying him as a manager.
House reached for his cane but it was just beyond his fingertips. The manager grabbed it for him, holding it out.
"Here ," he said. "I'm so sorry, sir. Are you all right? Should we call someone for you?"
House pushed down on muscles beginning to cramp, then pulled his leg up into a position that usually helped ease the pressure.
"Maybe you should call your insurance company, check your policy on slip and fall injuries," House said. The new position helped and he pushed himself a little more upright. He took the cane from the manager.
"I'm sorry," the manager repeated. "I'll have one of my people call an ambulance. Sit tight. It'll be here in just a couple of minutes."
House looked up. The first woman had left, but everyone passing by still seemed to pause and stare at him before moving off to either the store or the parking lot His elbow and shoulder both were aching from the impact, but his leg had quieted down for now. He pushed himself back and grabbed at the pole again, pulling himself back up.
"Don't bother," he said.
His leg was hanging in there, but the muscles trembling as he stood still, taking deep breaths to try and calm himself down. House glanced over at the store windows. He still needed food, but he could see people inside staring out at him. The manager still stood next to him, shivering in his shirt sleeves.
"I could get one of the motorized carts for you," he offered.
House stepped away from the pole, and headed back to the parking lot. Screw it. He could call out for delivery until spring.
He couldn't avoid work until spring, but House did his best to avoid the actual outdoors. He put in a request for one of the reserved spots in the hospital's parking garage, rather than the free parking used by most of the staff. He'd go from the underground parking at the condo to the covered parking at the hospital, making his way to his office through the enclosed overhead pedestrian walkway into the main building.
Some days he didn't leave home at all. He could sense a rising storm front hours before it would arrive, the cold seeming to seep through the walls and into his body, leaving him so miserable all he wanted was to crawl back into bed with a hot drink, the remote control and a few Vicodin too many.
At least once a week, he'd end up accepting a ride from Wilson, even though he knew that he'd be trapped at the hospital for the day, waiting until Wilson finished with his patients and with his paperwork.
"You should have said something," Wilson said one night, once they'd made it back to the condo. "I could have taken off early and given you a ride home."
House had spent most of the day hunched down behind his desk, desperately working out the muscles that first went into spasm just after grand rounds that morning and continued to rebel throughout the day with nearly every step. He'd refused help and hidden out in his office, but one of the residents had found him still suffering late that afternoon and chased down Wilson.
Once home, House settled himself on the leather sofa with a heating pad. "You've got better things to do than play chauffeur," he said.
"Nothing that couldn't have waited 30 minutes," Wilson handed him a glass with a shot of Jameson's, another glass in his hand. "You've got, like, nothing in there," he said, nodding at the kitchen. "Want me to order a pizza or something?"
House considered it. He wasn't hungry.
"Don't you have a wife to get home to?" House tried the distraction route, although he was pretty sure Wilson wouldn't bite.
"She's got a game tonight over at the club," Wilson said. "Mixed doubles I think. You know I could run out and do some shopping for you if you can't ..."
"No," House said. He realized that Wilson was trying his best not to hover. He'd settled himself into the overstuffed armchair, but he was leaning forward, the glass tumbler held between his hands. "I don't feel like cooking anyway."
House could tell Wilson wasn't quite buying it.
"Let's go for a change of pace," House said. "Indian." He waved his hand over toward the bookshelf. "There's a takeout menu over there somewhere." Wilson walked across the room to retrieve the menu and House took advantage of his turned back to adjust his leg, shoving a pillow under his knee.
He could see Wilson take in the pillow when he turned back around, although he didn't say anything. Instead, he studied the menu. "I don't think I've had anything from here before," he said. "They have anything edible?"
"It's not as good as Shalimar, but it's not bad," House said. "Of course their curry's a little on the wussy side, so it should be just fine for your tastes."
"Hey, I see no need to go over the top with everything I do," Wilson said. "Subtlety does have its benefits, you know."
"You tend not to piss off the bosses quite so frequently."
"That's a benefit?"
"Sure." Wilson picked up the phone from the charger. "Especially when you need them to let you take off for a few minutes to do a favor for an obscenely stubborn friend." He punched in the numbers for the restaurant and waited for them to pick up. "Now what do you want?"
A thaw hit Princeton in late January, temperatures climbing well above freezing for most of a week, and above 50 for a few hours on a Friday afternoon. House took advantage of the clear roads to drive to the store on Saturday and stock up on cans of soup, frozen dinners, cereal, beer and chips -- all the staples.
It was still warm at the start of the next week, though the returning ache in his leg let him know a cold snap was on its way long before he switched the TV over to the Weather Channel.
He considered taking the day off Tuesday, as sleet beat against the windows, but he'd spent hours on Monday going over reports faxed over by an ENT specialist in Newark.
"Severe vertigo?" Wilson asked as the wipers slapped across the windshield. "For how long?"
"Recurring for nearly two years now."
"I'll go with Meniere's Disease."
"That's what her family doctor thought. He sent her to an ENT guy."
"So I guess it wasn't Meniere's."
"Especially since it was accompanied by back pain, debilitating headaches, recurring high fevers and now Bell's Palsy." House adjusted the seat back and tried to find a comfortable spot. "The ENT also spotted some swelling in the brain, so he sent her to a neurologist."
"Nothing. He sent her back to her GP, who sent her to another ENT guy."
"Who sent her to you?"
Wilson considered the symptoms as he slowed to avoid an SUV that had veered into his lane. "OK, you've got me. I have no idea."
"That's because you haven't asked all the questions," House said.
Wilson stopped at a red light and turned to House.
"I didn't know this was a test," he said. "OK, what did everyone miss?"
Wilson added the detail to the information House had already given him.
"And I still don't know," he said as the light turned green and he drove forward. "I suppose you do?"
"You doubt me?" House said. "Brucellosis."
"Brucellosis?" Wilson tried to place it. "Wait a minute, I think our dog had that."
"It's more common in animals, but it shows up in humans too. Not in the U.S. though," House said. "There were only about 100 cases here last year. Americans tend to pick it up from bad food or better sex overseas where it's more prevalent."
"And this woman went to one of those countries?"
"Nope," House said. "That's what makes this so cool. Her husband did. I think he picked it up and passed it on to her -- and he doesn't even know he's sick."
Wilson flicked on the turn signal and waited for traffic to clear before pulling onto the hospital campus.
"So you going to mention that the husband could have picked it up from food, or just mention the sex thing and see what kind of reaction you get?"
"That would be far more likely," House said. "And more entertaining."
"For you maybe," Wilson turned left into the parking lot, passing the open spots at the far end and driving toward a side entrance. "The janitors who have to clean up the broken glass after their fight may not be as amused."
"Why is it you try to suck the joy out of everything?"
Wilson didn't bother answering, just stopped next to the door and waited for House to get out of the car before driving over to his usual parking space.
By 11 a.m., House had the test results to confirm his diagnosis.
By noon, the sleet had switched over to heavy snow.
By 1 p.m., House had resigned himself to the fact that he'd have to actually meet with the patient and her husband. Both of them had been through enough of a run-around with multiple doctors and multiple misdiagnoses over the past two years that they refused to accept the word of either resident House had sent down in his place.
By 2 p.m., he'd gone through his findings with them three separate times. "Yes, I'm sure," he'd told them. "I'm just as sure as I was the last time I told you, and the time before that. But who knows, maybe if you ask again, I'll change my mind."
"You mean maybe it's something else?" the husband asked.
House stared up at the ceiling. "Nope, I was wrong. It's still brucellosis, and it's going to continue to be brucellosis even if you ask me the same question another five times."
"Everyone else was always certain it was something else," the husband said. "They were always sure too, until their cure didn't work and they shipped us off to someone else. It's been two years of this crap, and now we're supposed to believe you. Why?"
"Because I'm going to start you both on a series of antibiotics that will wipe out all the symptoms within two weeks. And because I'm right."
House pushed himself off the stool, with one hand on his cane and one on the counter. He glanced back at the couple from the door. "You should be grateful it only took two years," he said, and they turned to look at him. "Florence Nightingale had it for 30 years before she died, and they just figured she was a hypochondriac."
House made it back into his office and closed the door tightly behind him, leaning against it for support for a moment, before he turned off the overhead lights and crossed the room to collapse in his chair. He knew he wasn't due for another Vicodin for nearly two hours, but didn't care and took one anyway.
His muscles twitched again and he dropped his head to his desk, feeling the cool wood against his forehead even as he tried to work at the new cramp forming itself just above his knee.
House knew Wilson would take off early if he asked. Hell, he'd probably treat the request as some kind of a "breakthrough" in how he was learning to cope with his new life. House could even picture the grin that Wilson wouldn't be able to hold back.
Forget it. There were more ways to get around this town than Wilson's Friendly Taxi Service. House checked his watch. He could catch the next bus -- and it was still early enough that there would be plenty of seats open, so no need to appeal to someone else to move. The Number Six was a direct ride across town, with a regular stop just down the street from the condo.
He checked his wallet and found a couple of twenties. He could even call a real taxi for that matter.
He turned off the computer, and packed up his bag. He stopped with one hand on the door as another twinge hit his leg. The protesting muscle drew itself in tight, nearly pulling him off balance as the other muscles tightened in response. His knee locked itself into place and he had to grab the door knob for support. He held his breath until the cramp began to ease again.
House shook his head as the image of Wilson's car tried to enter itself back into consideration. Heated seats. A simple 10-minute drive -- 15 minutes, tops.
And Wilson's concerned looks, he thought to himself. Even if he didn't say anything, Wilson would be watching him with the eyes of a doctor, rather than the eyes of a friend.
House straightened himself out again as the muscles eased their grip. He could do this, he told himself. It's a quick bus ride. He managed to ride the bus when he was 5 years old, he could sure as hell do it now.
He opened the door and stepped out into the hall. He walked slowly past the other offices, keeping his eyes on the elevators. He stepped into an open one and hit the button to go down, grabbing tight to the railing as the floor jerked when the doors closed.
"OK, maybe a taxi," House said to himself and reached into his coat for his cell phone. Sometimes there were taxis at the front entrance, but on snowy and rainy days, the cabs were in high demand, and they had a tendency to disappear just when he needed one the most.
The dispatcher assured him a cab was on its way and House made his way to the main entrance. There was a large, covered driveway there, with salt on the pavement and a stream of cars pulling in.
Patients sat in wheelchairs, happy and smiling with friends and family, waiting for their ride home. One by one, they'd roll through the oversized revolving door, then stand and walk to a waiting car.
House's leg twitched again and he leaned against the information desk. One of the orderlies who had just dropped off a patient paused with the empty wheelchair. House pushed himself away from the desk and out the door before the man could even get the question out.
He stopped under the awning and buttoned up his coat. The main road was less than 100 feet away along a shoveled sidewalk. He could meet the taxi there, and avoid the happy family scenes.
He walked to the edge of the awning, took a deep breath, and adjusted the metal clip on his cane before stepping out away from the hospital. He concentrated on the sidewalk. The concrete wasn't as clear as it had looked from the entrance. The snow was falling steadily enough that a fine layer was beginning to cover the surface and there were still puddles left from this morning's rain and sleet. The gentle downhill slope from the entrance to the main road seemed steeper than he'd remembered.
House considered going back up to the entrance, but he was nearly halfway there by now and a return trip would require going back uphill. With each step he'd add weight to the cane slowly, making sure it wouldn't slip before he dared to move his left leg. He took a longer step to avoid a puddle that was beginning to crust over with a layer of ice and snow. House placed the cane carefully down on the far side and gently leaned on it. The cane held. His leg didn't.
His right knee gave out as the muscles cramped, pulling him off balance and down onto the sidewalk. He tried to catch himself with his left arm, but it landed in the icy puddle, slipping out from beneath him. He heard a shout from somewhere behind him and was aware that the slush and snow was soaking through his wool coat and jeans.
Someone appeared at his side -- a visitor, House guessed from the man's khakis and leather jacket. The man grabbed at his left elbow and House pulled it back.
"I'm OK," he said. "Leave me alone." He started to push himself up, but his right hamstring clenched before he'd barely moved. The nerves from the damaged quad joined in and he fell back down. He wasn't sure, but House thought that he may have screamed.
He could tell that others were there now, the white and bubble gum pink of a nurse's uniform, the dark blue of a security guard's pant leg. He could feel himself being moved into a wheelchair and he knew someone was asking him questions, but he was having problems concentrating on anything other than the pain and cold.
Someone pushed him inside and House could hear one of the nurses and an orderly arguing about where to take him before a familiar voice cut off the debate, telling them to take him into one of the exam rooms in the clinic. They pushed him down the hall and past the usual crowd waiting in the clinic to claim an empty space.
House managed to swear long and loud enough that no one tried to shift him up onto the exam table. He was still trying to work the muscles loose, massaging them through damp denim as Cuddy closed the door behind them.
"Let me guess, just my bad luck that you were passing by," House said. He could see a combination of exasperation and sympathy forming on Cuddy's face, and wondered which would win out. "I don't need your help," he grumbled. "I just need a couple of minutes."
She crouched down in front of the wheelchair, her voice soft. Sympathy then.
"You got a change of clothes upstairs?" she asked, and House realized he was shivering. He couldn't remember what was in his office -- it had been a long time since he was on call long enough to warrant keeping spare clothes on hand -- and he shook his head.
"OK." Cuddy turned to the orderly who had apparently been the one behind the wheelchair. "Get him a set of scrubs," she said. "Large?" She asked House and he nodded. "Large," she told the orderly. "And some blankets."
He left the room and Cuddy nodded to a nurse who had followed them in. "We'll be fine," she said. "I'll let you know if I need anything." The nurse left the room and Cuddy closed the blinds. The orderly poked his head back in the room with the blankets, then was gone again.
Cuddy turned back to House, "Let's get you out of those wet things," she said.
"Why is it you're always trying to get me naked?" House knew it was a weak comeback, but it was the only one he could come up with. He fumbled with the buttons on his coat, grateful that Cuddy didn't try to help.
House wished Cuddy had worn something more typically low cut so he could distract her with a quick comment, but the pink turtleneck under her lab coat was too pedestrian, and his brain refused to play along and come up with something worthwhile.
Cuddy took the soaked coat from him. House was working his way out of the blazer when the door opened and Wilson entered, carrying the scrubs he'd apparently collected from the orderly.
"Great," House groaned. "What did you do, put out an announcement?"
Cuddy didn't say anything, just put the blazer on the same sodden heap as his overcoat.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Wilson's voice was raised. No mistaking that tone. Pissed. Great. No sympathy from that side of the room today, House thought as he took off the button-down shirt and handed it over.
"Going home," House said. "It's something I like to do once a day or so." He pulled the scrub shirt on over his t-shirt, which had managed to stay dry under all the other layers.
"I thought we had an understanding," Wilson said, his voice slightly lessened in volume, though the tone unchanged. "You need a ride, you let me know."
House bent down to untie his shoes, gasping when his over stressed right hamstring pulled tight again. He saw both Wilson and Cuddy take a step forward. "Don't!" He caught his breath and clenched his teeth before bending forward again. "I may not be able to walk down a goddamned sidewalk without falling on my ass, but I can still dress myself."
He managed to loosen the laces and pushed off the shoes, then moved on to the jeans. "How about a little privacy?"
"How about you let Wilson or me check you out?" Cuddy held the scrub pants against her chest, under her crossed arms.
"According to a couple of nurses and a half-dozen other witnesses, you went down hard." Cuddy wasn't giving in. "You couldn't even respond for nearly five minutes."
"So sorry." House knew he was still shivering, but he couldn't bring himself to give in yet. "If they'd managed to come up with some interesting questions, maybe I would have had a good reason to pay attention."
Wilson stepped in and took the pants from Cuddy. He said something softly, and House couldn't quite make out what it was, but after a moment she nodded and stepped out.
"Oh, and I suppose you think you can make me behave?"
"Let's just..." Wilson sighed and put the pants down on the exam table. "Let's just see about you warm and dry for now, OK? We can fight later."
Wilson rolled a stool over to the wheel chair. "And let's get you out of that chair too. It's nearly as wet as you."
House glanced down at the puddle collecting on the linoleum beneath him and nodded as another shiver ran through his body. He unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his jeans, then locked the wheelchair brakes into place as Wilson stepped over to his right side.
Wilson leaned down toward him. "C'mon," he said, and House reached across Wilson's shoulder with his right arm. Wilson wrapped his arm around House's back for extra support as they stood, House pushing down on the wheelchair with his left hand at the same time.
Once he was on his feet, they swiveled slowly over toward the stool. House let Wilson hold him steady as he pushed his jeans down past his hips, allowing them to fall before he sank down onto the stool's vinyl surface.
Wilson kneeled down and pulled the jeans the rest of the way over his feet and handed the scrub pants to House, allowing him to pull those up as far as his knees while he dumped the jeans over with the rest of the wet clothing. Then he was back at House's side, helping him stand long enough to pull the scrubs the rest of the way up.
House was still shivering as he tied the loose pants around his waist. "He got the wrong damn size," he complained. "They're too big."
Wilson studied him for a moment and shook his head. Damned doctor's eyes, House thought, but Wilson said nothing.
"Better?" Wilson draped one of the blankets around House's shoulders, then boosted himself up onto the exam table.
House nodded, still feeling cold to his bones, but the shaking wasn't as bad.
"You really should let me take a look, you know.
"I'm fine." Wilson snorted and House gave in slightly. "OK, not fine maybe, but it's nothing new -- a couple of bruises and pulled muscles." He wrapped the blanket tighter around himself. "Been there, done that."
Wilson hunched forward, putting his elbows on his knees. "So why didn't you ask for a ride?"
"I did," House protested. "I called for a cab."
"You didn't have to do that, I would have ..."
"I know you would have." House really didn't want to have this discussion again. "You've made that abundantly clear. Saint James the Magnanimous. Always ready with a helping hand and a kind word for every sorry soul."
"Don't," Wilson said. "This isn't about me."
"No, it's not. It's about me," House said, anger and frustration in his voice. "And maybe I'm sick and tired of you, always there, always insisting I need something or someone to help me out. Maybe I just wanted to do something by myself for once."
House could see Wilson clench his jaw and knew he'd said too much again even as Wilson said nothing.
"I'm not a child," he said. "I don't need a baby sitter."
"Maybe not, but you still need a ride home." Wilson pushed himself off the table. "And they sent your cab away with another fare, so you're stuck with me." He paused at the door. "I've got some stuff to finish up, so I'll be back in 30 minutes or so. I'll tell Cuddy to leave you be until then."
Then Wilson was gone, the door slamming shut behind him.
House took the next few days off, but called Wilson on Friday morning to ask for a ride.
"Sure you wouldn't rather take a cab?" Wilson tossed the question off lightly, but House could hear the bitterness still there.
"Nah, turns out you have to actually pay for them," he said. "Crazy, huh?"
"OK, but you're paying for coffee."
House walked with Wilson through the corridors, but turned away from his usual route once Wilson had gotten off the elevator at his floor. Instead he rode back down to the main floor and followed the old corridors to the offices in the rehab wing.
Ransom's door was open and House walked in without knocking.
"I'll give you two weeks to prove your point," he said.
Ransom looked up from his paperwork. "Which point was that exactly?"
"The one where you claimed I'd be more stable by doing some more strengthening work."
Ransom leaned back, looked House up and down. "Two weeks isn't enough, especially if you're not going to commit to it."
"Fine. Three weeks."
"Six. Minimum -- and you'll have to come in three times a week, not once."
"Four, and twice a week."
"Four," Ransom agreed. "But the three times a week isn't negotiable."
House nodded and held out his hand. Ransom shook it. "We'll begin this afternoon, get a good base line reading before we get down to the real business next week."
At the end of four weeks, House could sense just enough improvement that he agreed to stick with it for one more, than another week, and another. By the time the spring rains washed away the last dirty drifts from the ditches, his leg still trembled with every storm, but it held steady.
By summer, he had enough control over the remaining quad muscles that he could keep his right leg steady up against the accelerator pedal even on long drives, though he continued to use his left foot on the brake.
Ransom's team never promised any miracles. There were still falls and near falls. There were still unexpected puddles and ice and days when he pushed too hard and the muscles still seized and cramped. But it was better.
House knew he was walking further and faster than he had in the fall. He no longer dreaded the two steps at the rear entrance of the condo.
Winter still sucked, though.
He was frustrated and pissed off when he fell on a patch of ice outside the condo the next January, mad at himself for not paying attention, at his body for continuing to betray him despite all the extra work, at the management company for failing to clear the walks before he left for work.
A winter with two bad falls he counted as a good one. One with more than five was bad. He kept count of the slips and near misses. He started a winter survival pool for himself, tossing money into an old cigar box on his dresser each winter -- $20 for each time he ended up on his ass, $10 if he only dropped to his knees. That way he figured even a crappy winter would pay out some kind of a reward come spring.
Two years ago was a bad winter, but the cash from the cigar box paid for the bulk of the docking station in his office for the iPod.
Last winter, he'd cranked up the volume to block out Chase's stories of his Swiss ski trip.
This year, he rode the motorcycle late into the fall in an attempt to ignore the changing seasons.
It was still warm the weekend after Labor Day when he took the bike out for a long ride across the state line. He was making his way along the river, headed toward New Hope, when he saw the first signs of the coming cold, a few maple leaves turning from green to red.
He gunned the engine and decided to take a longer ride, out to the west as far as Amish country, swinging wide past the buggies and the tourist buses.
It was well past midnight by the time he made it home, tired and hungry. His aching leg balked at his first attempt to lift it over the bike and he had to sit back down and wait a few minutes before trying it again.
The next weekend, he headed down along the coast -- first to the shambles that were left of Asbury Park, then south past oceanfront mansions all the way to Cape May.
Rain and increasing cold limited weekend rides through the next weeks, but House still managed a couple of decent trips despite the conditions, sneaking in a few hours on a sunny day in November and even the occasional ride in December until he had to give in.
He hated doing the work that would mean he'd finally given in to winter, but a few hours of maintenance now would mean the bike would be in top shape once spring broke, and waiting until Wilson arrived meant someone would be hand to handle the light.
"What do you have against the bike anyway?" House closed up the toolbox again, satisfied that it was as ready as he could make it. He shifted forward on the milk crate, pausing only briefly before pushing himself up with one hand on the box and the other on the bike.
"What, I have to have a reason beyond the obvious ones of a combination of Vicodin and excess speed?"
"Yeah, because a two-ton convertible with no airbags and barely functional seat belts is that much safer."
"Ah, but it is safer."
"First you bitch that I need to live a little bit more, then you bitch when I do." House picked up the toolbox and carried it the few feet over to the far end of his parking area where he had left the door open to his storage closet. He placed the toolbox on the floor. "Pick one."
He reached inside the closet and grabbed the motorcycle cover from a shelf and carried it back over to the bike. He tore open the external bag and shook out the polyester tarp.
"Maybe I just like to bitch." Wilson slid off the fender, grabbed the far end of the cover and walked it over to the end of the bike. He helped unroll the tarp, then bent down to straighten one of the folds over a foot peg.
"Nah, you usually have a specific cause lurking somewhere under those seemingly random complaints," House said. Wilson tilted his head back up at him.
"My concern that you're going to end up killing yourself is random?"
House ignored the question. "Food complaints in the cafeteria are usually because you're worried one of your patients isn't eating enough."
"Or because you keep stealing my food when I'm hungry."
"All those worries about the time it's taking to get funding for new equipment is because you've got some patient that can't afford the best possible treatment option."
"Or because I have to rush to meet some arbitrary deadline for paperwork, but they can extend the decision making process indefinitely."
House pivoted to look at Wilson, who was still crouched next to the bike hooking a tie down behind the wheel. "Bitching about how your fellows need extra supervision after normal hours is just to cover when you don't want to go home and have another fight with your wife."
Wilson stood and leaned across the bike. "Or maybe I'm just looking for an excuse to avoid yet another night listening to yet another one of your theories about how screwed up everyone else is."
House grinned slightly for just a moment, then stepped back. He grabbed his cane from where it was leaning against the Corvette and gathered up the wrapper and used rags. He carried them across the garage to the garbage can next to the elevator.
Wilson watched as House walked back toward the parking spot. He waited as House tossed the rags into the storage closet, and then locked the door.
"I can tell," he said quietly as House walked back up to him.
"You can tell me anything you want, and I won't tell anyone else," House said. He held up his right hand. "Scout's honor."
"That's three fingers, big guy. Not one."
Wilson stepped back to the Corvette to retrieve his flashlight. He clicked the button a couple of times, the light pulsing against the concrete.
"You have more problems getting around after a long ride. You rely more on the cane," he said. "You avoid walking anywhere if you can help it." He looked up at House, saw that the humor that had been in his eyes just moments earlier was gone now. "There's more road shock when you ride the bike. You don't get a break like you do in the car. You've got to deal with it in balancing, in braking. The vibrations from the bike irritate the muscles, the nerves. It adds to the paresthesias, to the overall pain."
"So does too many hours in the clinic," House said. "No one seems to be anxious to stop me from doing that."
"There are plenty of good reasons for you to be at the clinic," Wilson said. "Give me a good reason to keep the bike."
"This isn't your life, Wilson. It isn't your decision to make."
"I'm not trying to take it away from you," Wilson said. "Just tell me that it's worth it."
House studied Wilson's face, his stance. He knew he could try and sidestep the question, but also knew it would only come up again if he did.
"I know what I'm doing," House said. "I'm not an idiot." Wilson's expression hadn't changed. House looked down, his thumb unconsciously tracing circles on the handle of the cane.
"Because it's fast," he said, staring at a dark spot on the concrete just to the left of the cane's rubber tip. "Because I get bugs in my teeth and smell the manure from every passing farm. Because I'm not stuck in yet another climate controlled, air conditioned, heated, designed for your comfort and and safety metal box. Because I get wet and I get cold. Because when I lean into a curve, that's me controlling the bike, where it goes and how it responds, not some highly engineered rack and pinion steering system."
He looked up into Wilson's eyes. "Because when I get done with a long ride, I'm tired and achy and can still feel the vibrations and the bumps and every pothole I've gone over -- but I can feel it in my hands, in my shoulders -- everywhere. Not just in my damned leg.
"Because when I'm riding no one sees my leg. They just see another jerk with a bike that's too damned loud and too damned fast."
Wilson said nothing for a few moments, then nodded. "OK."
"Yeah. OK." Wilson shoved his hands in his coat pockets. "God, it's freezing down here. You done? If we rush we might be able to catch the opening kickoff."
House nodded. "I'm good, but you may need to go out and grab more beer." He and Wilson walked together to the elevator.
"And why is it my responsibility to buy your beer this time?"
"No, no, not my beer. You'll have to buy your own beer." There were still mover's quilts covering the sides of the elevator from someone's move the day before and House had to reach around them to hit the button for his floor. "I've got plenty of beer for me, but I feel like I've done enough sharing for one day."
There was a new layer of snow on the pavement a week later when House looked out the window on Wednesday morning. Thick flakes fell as he drove to work, bright white in the glare from the headlights.
That afternoon he sat at his desk, watching the snow collect on the needles on the pine trees.
He had the lights off in his office, with the glow from the computer screen providing just a dim light. The conference room next door was nearly as dark, with only a small light on next to the coffee maker.
Foreman was upstairs in peds checking out a kid showing signs of what House thought might be Alexander's disease. Cameron was down in the clinic. Chase had been making himself scarce lately.
House heard the door open and glanced up to see Wilson's reflection in the glass.
"The prediction is for up to another five inches by midnight," he said. House didn't bother turning around as Wilson took a seat across the desk from him.
"I'll offer even odds it'll be less than three," House said. "But the hype will make up for any shortfall in their forecasts."
They both sat, looking out at the snow. House noticed the wind was pushing the snow on the balcony into a drift against his door.
Wilson's pager beeped, interrupting the quiet. He was on his feet and headed across the room as he read it. "I need to check this," he said. "If you need a ride, let me know, OK?"
"Don't I always?" House turned away from the windows to see Wilson's eyes roll in response to the comment.
"You know," Wilson paused at the door. "If you moved down south someplace, you could ride year round."
"Someplace like where?"
"What about Vegas?"
"Sure it's 120 degrees, but it's a dry heat," House said. "No thanks." He spun back around towards the windows. "Besides, it wouldn't be the same without you there to bitch at me about it."
Wilson smiled slightly and shook his head before he headed out into the hallway. House waited just for a few seconds before he hurried across his office to lean out the door.
"Wilson!" He waited until Wilson took a few steps back toward him. "How do you feel about snowmobiles?"