MARCH

It was still dark when House woke. Not even a hint of dawn was visible past the open curtains in the living room. He thought about trying to roll over and go back to sleep, but he could only take so long on the couch, and he could tell from the ache in his back and right hip that he had already hit that barrier.

He dropped his left foot to the floor and braced himself against the cushions before he pushed up. He managed the move in one smooth motion, but hissed as the parasthesia woke in his right leg -- the damaged nerves jangling out a warning, then shooting pains arcing along the length of his leg and up into the small of his back.

He leaned forward and ran his hands along the edge of the scar tissue, as if the damaged nerves were some kind of wild animal he could gentle with a soothing touch.

Once the sharp edges of the pain finally eased, he looked up and into the dim light of the room. He could make out the rough shapes of the furniture by the light coming from the streetlights outside. He finally reached over to the lamp on the table behind him and turned the switch -- then flinched and turned away as the first signs of a headache announced itself somewhere behind his left eye.

He waited for a minute before he slowly eased open his right eye, then his left. There was an empty glass and an empty Jameson's bottle on the coffee table. No difficulties diagnosing the cause of his headache at least. He finally checked his watch and saw it was a little before 6 a.m.

That would mean he got ... House tried to remember what time Wilson left then added in the length of time he'd spent committing himself to finishing off the whiskey... and decided he'd slept close to four hours. Not bad for his recent history.

House stretched and then let out a short yelp as the pain from the damaged muscle joined in with the damaged nerves. He fumbled for the Vicodin bottle on the table and also grabbed the water glass Wilson had left there last night. He rated his pain level and shook out two of the pills.

His leg didn't like spending nights on the couch, but House hadn't been able to bring himself to sleep in the bed. He had promised Wilson he'd try, but it had been no good since Stacy had left.

Had left him there on the sidewalk on a gray Friday afternoon nine days ago in front of their building.

Left him standing alone after he'd just completed his second week back at work.

Left him exhausted and shaking.

Left him saying she wouldn't be coming up with him

Left him saying she wouldn't be back at the end of her day.

Left him saying she wouldn't see him again.

Left him even as begged.

Left him even as he promised things would change.

Left him even as he said he would change.

"Don't lie to me Greg," she said. "And don't lie to yourself. You'll never change."

Wilson talked himself into the condo a few hours later, with promises of beer and Irish whiskey. He poured the Jameson's and sat back in the easy chair. He didn't say anything about the broken glass and smashed picture frames in a pile on the floor. He ignored the long, narrow hole in the drywall near the front door.

"Just because you've got alcohol, don't go expecting me to get all weepy and pour out my troubles," House said.

"I don't expect anything," Wilson said.

"You're going to have to get your vicarious neediness thrills somewhere else."

"Duly noted." Wilson took a sip of the whisky.

Wilson hadn't asked him anything that first night, except what he wanted on his pizza.

"Don't care," House had said, and opened another beer. "Not hungry."

"Well I am, and since you'll only end up mooching off of me, I thought I'd at least get something you wouldn't bitch about."

House didn't remember falling asleep that night, but he woke sometime the next morning to find Wilson slouched in the chair, his feet stretched out onto the coffee table and his head slumped back against the leather seat back.

hadn't left for the next two days. House managed to chase him out Sunday night only by promising he'd get some real sleep in the bed, and only after he'd agreed to ride in to the hospital with Wilson in the morning.

The office and the patients would be a distraction, Wilson claimed. "And it's got to be better than sitting here throwing things at the walls all day."

"Doubt it," House said.

He really did try to sleep on the bed, but the sheets, the blankets, the pillowcases all smelled of Stacy: the faint hint of her shampoo and her soap, Chanel perfume and the moisturizer she always put on just before bed -- all of it creating an aroma afterimage every time he closed his eyes.

House lay there for twenty minutes before he got up. He stripped the bed, struggling to pull the heavy covers out from beneath the mattress, recognizing the down comforter that Stacy had bought two years ago and the sheets she bought at Macy's.

The effort left him breathing deeply, taking in even more of her ghostly scents, flowers and spices -- jasmine, magnolia, cinnamon and some deep Asian flavor he'd never been able to name.

He left the covers where they lay and stumbled toward the spare room, his arm shaking on the handle of his cane. He turned on the overhead light and saw the comforter that Stacy had picked out. He remembered the way she'd taken to sleeping there some nights during the past month or so.

He left the light on and made his way back to the living room, dropping onto the couch. He turned toward the cushions, his back to the room, ashamed by the dampness in his eyes, though no one was there to see.

The blanket was wadded up at the end of the couch when Wilson got there the next morning. House could see him look at it, then look at him, but Wilson didn't say anything. Neither did House.

House managed to put in four hours that morning, going over charts and talking over cases with O'Neal before his leg began to beg for rest. He gave in and called Wilson to ask him to take an early break and give him a ride home.

He fell asleep in the armchair for a couple of hours that afternoon before he finally forced himself back into the bedroom. The comforter was still crumpled up on the floor. Her favorite blanket was hanging from the edge of the bed. The sheets were still partially tucked in under the mattress.

House pulled them the rest of the way out and dragged them all across the floor and into the closet, dumping them in a corner where Stacy used to hang her favorite suits.

He made his way over to the hall linen closet and dug down through the pile of sheets and towels to the simple blue cotton sheets he bought years before he ever met Stacy.

House brought the sheets back to the bedroom and carefully balanced himself before he fit the bottom sheet under one corner of the mattress. He picked up his cane and made his way to the end of the bed and tucked in the second corner. Then around the foot of the bed for the third and finally up to the final corner.

The sheets were old and the mattress was thick. House had to pull on the sheet to make it fit. He tucked the edges of the top sheet under the mattress and found himself thinking that if Wilson were there he'd probably insist on hospital corners.

House made his way back to the living room and grabbed the old blanket and pillow from the couch, tossing both onto the bed before he turned off the light.

It didn't help.

When House lay down that night, Stacy's scents, embedded deep in the mattress, overwhelmed the musty odor of the old sheets. The mattress didn't even feel right. It seemed off balance with only his weight on one side of the bed. He gave up and took the blanket and pillow back to the couch.

He tried again the next night and the next. For the past three nights he hadn't even tried.

Now here he was, still on the couch, willing the Vicodin to kick in a little faster. The pain seemed to get worse with every night he slept there. He didn't know if he'd be able to handle another one.

He leaned back, and placed his arm over his eyes to try and shield them from the light. At least the Vicodin should help with the headache. He'd known when he opened the Jameson's that the whiskey hadn't been the best idea, but it had quieted his mind and helped loosen his joints and muscles enough to let him drift into sleep.

House heard the thump of the Sunday paper as it landed outside the door and could tell by the sound that it was thick and heavy, filled with the usual advertisements for the usual crappy stuff. He thought about walking over to collect it, but decided he didn't care enough just now to get up.

Coffee would probably take the rest of the edge off too, but that also require getting up. Getting up would mean aggravating his leg. And just now, that would be bad. Just now, the headache was helping him to ignore his leg. House moved his arm and let a little more light seep in. He could feel the headache ramp up, but his leg felt a little better.

--------------

Wilson checked his pockets. His wallet was in his back right pocket, his hospital ID badge tucked into his front left pocket in case he needed to stop by, his beeper was clipped to the right side of his belt, his cell phone was in his coat pocket.

He took his keys from the counter and turned to Julie who was perched in front of the breakfast bar, the paper spread out in front of her. "You sure you don't mind?" she looked up at him.

"If I minded, I would have said so the first three times you asked me," she said and flipped a page.

"I know, I know. And I know I've been gone a lot the past week or so, and you've been wonderful about it all."

She smiled and spun her stool towards him. "What do you know," she said. "We found something you and my mother agree about: I'm wonderful."

Wilson laughed and stepped up to her. He took her hands in his. "Unfortunately, she also thinks you're too wonderful for the likes of someone like me."

Julie leaned toward him. "Well, this is one time when her opinion doesn't count," she said, and he kissed her. Wilson closed his eyes and took in the softness of her lips, the warmth of her mouth, the feel of her hair as it fell forward and brushed across the edge of his jaw.

She finally pulled away, but he kept his eyes closed a moment longer, allowing himself to remember the way she smelled in the morning, fresh from the shower.

He finally opened his eyes and studied their intertwined hands, her long, thin fingers joined with his own larger ones. Her skin was smooth and her fingernails perfectly manicured. His skin was rough from the dozens of times he'd scrub them clean each day between patients.

"I wish I could stay with you," he said.

"No you don't," she said, then smiled at his confused expression. "OK, maybe you do a little, but you'd spend the whole day worrying about Greg."

Wilson nodded. He knew she was right. House was getting better. Not great, but at least Wilson no longer expected to walk in the door and find all the furniture smashed into pieces. If House had been stronger, maybe he actually would have torn the place apart. Of course if House were healthy, maybe Stacy would never have left.

Stacy had called him in the middle of the afternoon a week ago on Friday. She was crying and asked him if he'd seen House.

"Not since this morning, why? What's wrong?"

She was silent for a minute or two, then took a deep breath. "I've left, James," she said.

Wilson felt his stomach drop, felt the air turn cold. For a moment it seemed like the light had grown dim.

"What?" he asked. "When?"

"Just now," she said. "I couldn't live like that any more James. You know I've tried."

You should have tried harder, Wilson thought, but he didn't say anything.

"He doesn't want me there any more. I'm only going to make it worse for him in the long run."

"I ... I don't believe that," Wilson said. "I don't ..."

"It's done, James," Stacy interrupted. "It's over. It's been over for a long time, but I couldn't admit it."

Wilson didn't say anything. He couldn't think of anything he could say that would change anything.

"I packed up the last of my things this morning while Greg was at work," Stacy said, filling in the silence. "I'll pack up my office this weekend, and I'll be staying at my Mom's place for a while until I decide what to do next."

"You've leaving work too?"

"I told them I'll finish out some things from home, but I had vacation time built up. I couldn't stay there while Greg's there," Stacy said. "That wouldn't be fair to him, seeing me around the halls every day. Besides, I've had other offers the last few years. I've got other opportunities. It's not like Greg has anyplace else to go just now."

House barely said anything that first night. Just knocked back shots and drank beer. He nibbled at a slice of the pizza, but only when Wilson pestered him to eat something.

Wilson stayed with him through the night and all through Saturday. He refused to say anything when Wilson tried to ask about Stacy, so instead Wilson was forced to decipher House's state of mind from the comments House made on whatever showed up on the television screen.

"Should have known that Sprewell would choke," House said while they watched the Knicks.

"It's early spring in the Midwest, and you live in a mobile home," he said as The Weather Channel showed a man walking through the damage from an early morning tornado in Texas. "Welcome to the real world. It sucks."

"But wait, there's more," he said as Ron Popeil demonstrated a food dehydrator.

"Nothing lasts forever," he muttered as some woman in an advertisement showed off her diamond ring.

By Sunday morning, House was worn out. Wilson managed to get him to take a shower and slipped out for a few hours to check on a patient and grab a change of clothes at home.

When he got back to House's place that afternoon, House was surfing through the TV channels again.

"Go home, Wilson," he said.

"I just got here."

"Good, then you don't need to take your coat off."

Wilson put his bag on the floor and walked over to stand at the end of the couch. "I was thinking we could order some Chinese. The Happy Wok doesn't deliver out our way."

"No, but Sunny Garden is right on your way."

"Yes, but I can get Sunny Garden any day. I was hoping for something with a little higher grease quotient today."

"So call for takeout and pick it up on your way home."

"House ..."

"Right. And your name is Wilson. But this is a really boring game, so why don't you go home and find something new to play with Julie." House kept surfing past the channels. He stopped briefly on a hockey game, but then hit the remote again. "I'm sure you two can come up with some much more interesting games."

Wilson didn't take off his coat, but he didn't turn to leave either, just stood there watching House as House watched the channels flicker past.

"Go home, Wilson," House finally turned to look up at him. "You can call off the suicide watch."

"I wasn't..." Wilson began to protest, but decided not to argue the point.

"Go home," House said. "I'd like a little peace and quiet around here for a while."

House turned back to the TV and started switching channels again. Wilson took his hands out of his pockets. He watched House for a few more minutes. "You sure?"

"Wait, maybe the last hundred times I told you to go home, I really didn't mean it," House said. "Wait. Yes I did. Go. Home."

Wilson had been spending nights at home with Julie since then, but leaving early every morning to pick up House for work and spending a few hours each evening at the condo, ordering food in hopes House would eat, badgering him to try and get some real sleep.

But it didn't seem to work. House looked exhausted every morning, and each day he seemed to lean a little heavier on his cane. He had barely seemed capable of making it out his own door on Friday, and Wilson had been tempted to tell him to stay home. But then home didn't seem like it was much of a refuge.

Even though Stacy had moved out most of her things, her presence still seemed to linger through the condo in the dozens of things she had bought: plates and glasses, the coasters on the coffee table were hers. Stacy was even the one who had forced House to buy a new microwave. Wilson wondered what it was like for House, having to adjust to living in this space alone -- though he knew House had been there even before Stacy moved in.

Every time Wilson had gone through a split -- with wives, with girlfriends -- he had been the one to leave. A clean break. Rent a new apartment, head over to IKEA and stock up on cheap furniture.

Wilson had always thought he had the harder routine, starting over from scratch. But now, as he watched House stumble past the debris Stacy left behind, he wondered if it wasn't harder being the one left behind.

"Maybe you should thank Greg when you see him." Julie's voice interrupted his thoughts and Wilson realized he'd been staring at their hands. He looked up and she had her cocked slightly sideways at him, a half-smile on her face.

"Thank him for what?"

The half-smile turned into a full smile. "Getting you out of brunch with my parents and their friends."

"I don't mind spending time with them," Wilson said.

"Well I do. Between all those questions about when I'm going to produce a grandchild for my parents, or the scintillating discussions on tax law ..." Julie gave an exaggerated shudder. "I swear one of these days I'll shock them all and fail to show up for their monthly tradition. You, on the other hand, have a great excuse."

Wilson chuckled. "I guess I should thank Greg."

"Just tell me you'll try and make it later on," Julie said.

"I don't know, Julie." Wilson shook his head. "I may be over there quite a while..."

"I know that," she said. "Just tell me you'll try, so I don't have to lie when they ask me if you'll come by this afternoon."

"All right," he said, and tried to look serious. "I'll try to come by later."

Julie smiled. "Good." She gave him a quick kiss and turned back to the paper. "Have fun."

Wilson's smile faded. "I'll try," he said, and headed out the door.

-------------------

There was a yellow pickup parked in Wilson's usual spot when he pulled up at the front of the building. He found an open space on the street further down the block and pulled in. He stepped out of the car, then reached back in across the front seat and grabbed the bag from House's favorite bagel place. He placed it on the roof of the car, then reached back in for the two coffees he'd nabbed at House's favorite coffee shop.

He kicked the door shut and balanced the coffees in one hand. He hit the lock button on the key fob and pocketed the keys before taking the bagels in his free hand. Wilson had ordered up a mixture of bagels and cream cheeses at the shop in hopes of hitting on some combination that would satisfy House. If his grandmother knew what was in the bag ... chocolate chip, jalapeno, cinnamon crunch ... he just shook his head.

Wilson took the steps up to the front door, and was trying to figure out how to free up a hand to open it when two people walked out -- young guys, maybe in their early 20s, dressed in jeans and light jackets. They held the door open for him and he nodded his thanks. He saw them get into the truck and drive off as he waited for the elevator.

He adjusted his grip on the bag so he could knock on House's door, then waited to see how long it would take House to make it to the door. He had learned to use the response time as a first sign of how House was feeling on any given day.

"You're not getting any more money," House's voice came through the door just before it opened.

"Are you confusing me for your hookers again?"

"Never." House looked surprised for just a moment, then stepped back and made room for Wilson to step inside. "I'd never be that desperate for sympathy sex."

Wilson held up the stacked coffee cups. "Top one is yours," he said "Black. If you want sugar this time you'll have to add it yourself."

He came to a stop as he saw a plastic-wrapped mattress and box springs propped up against the piano. A long, rectangular box was leaning against the wall. "So was that the furniture fairy I saw leaving?"

Wilson put the bag and his own coffee on the coffee table. The paper was spread across its surface. He could see an advertisement for a furniture warehouse on top of one pile. He recognized the name of the place from its lousy cable TV commercials boasting it was open long hours and offered fast delivery for "a small additional fee."

"Capitalism," House said. "It's a wonderful concept. Offer people enough money and they'll do anything. Sure they may say they don't take orders over the phone or deliver on Sunday mornings, but flash a little cash and suddenly they know just who they can send."

Wilson cocked his head sideways and read the label on the box identifying it as the skeleton of a metal bed frame.

"The old mattress was getting lumpy," House said, though Wilson hadn't said anything. "It was time for a change."

"And the frame?"

"The old bed just wasn't my style anymore." House was staring at him and Wilson wondered if he was daring him to ask any more about it, or leave it be.

"And were you planning on setting this up yourself, or were you going to flash a little more cash to get someone to do your bidding for you?" Wilson walked back to the center of the room.

"And why would I need to pay anyone when you're always hanging around looking for something to do?"

Wilson sighed and plopped down on the couch. He grabbed his coffee and reached for the bag. "I'm not doing anything until I eat." He pulled out the cream cheese and a poppy seed bagel. "Get a knife, would you?"

----------------

House waited while Wilson nibbled his way through the bagel. He drummed his fingers and waited some more as Wilson took a small bite, chewed it very carefully, swallowed, then took a sip of coffee. Wilson finally finished the first half, then sat back and picked up the paper.

"Oh for ..." House said. "You eat like my grandmother."

Wilson looked up at him. "I thought your grandmother was dead."

"Yeah, and she'd still finish that faster than you." House picked up the other half of Wilson's bagel and cream cheese and bit into it.

"I was eating that," Wilson protested.

"You were dawdling. There's a difference," House mumbled. He swallowed and took another bite and walked back toward the bedroom. "You've got work to do."

House heard Wilson sigh, then heard his footsteps following him down the hall. House stopped at the foot of the bed. "What, capitalism doesn't extend to getting rid of your old stuff?" Wilson's voice came from the doorway.

"What, and deprive you of the joy of helping the helpless?"

"You're not helpless," Wilson said and walked into the room. "Just hopeless." He kicked at the pile of sheets and blankets that House had pulled off the bed but left in a pile on the floor. "You planning to redecorate around a whole hovel theme?"

"I considered it, but that neanderthal look is very last century." House bent down to pick up the sheets, keeping one hand firmly on the cane.

"Need a hand?" Wilson said. House saw him begin to reach down and he slapped his hand away.

"Hate to break the whole bachelor cripple stereotype, but I am capable to doing laundry," House said. He figured he might as well break in the bed with clean sheets. He put the bedding on the mattress, then shifted his footing slightly and grabbed them all in one clump under his left arm. "You've got bigger issues to deal with," he said, and nodded toward the bed before heading out into the hallway.

House braced himself before opening the bi-fold doors in front of the washer and dryer in the hallway. He put the sheets on the top of the dryer before he opened the washer.

He and Stacy had split most of the chores around the house before the infarction, but he hadn't done much since then. He supposed he'd have to learn how to do more now, or hire someone to do it for him.

House hefted the soap bottle and could tell by the weight it was nearly full. He checked the fabric softener. Plenty in there too. The bottle claimed it had "Mountain Clean Scent." He could hear Wilson shifting furniture in the bedroom as he put the sheets in the washer and adjusted the water settings.

They disagreed with what to do with the old furniture. House told Wilson he should dump it downstairs in the garage until Wilson could make arrangements for some charity or another to pick it up. "After all, there's an empty space," House argued.

"I'm not hauling it all the way down there myself, so either open your wallet and work some more of your capitalism mojo or learn to live with where I put it," Wilson said, and refused to take it any further than the spare room. "I'll get someone to pick it up later," he said.

Wilson insisted the new bed was too low, and wanted to add the risers from the old bed to the new frame.

"It's fine," House said. He sat on the edge of the bed, then pushed himself up, grunting slightly as he used both the cane and a night stand.

"Right," Wilson said. "It's just fine. Let's see you do that three more times."

"Don't need to," House said. "I only get out of bed once a day."

Wilson said he'd stay until the laundry finished running to help House make the bed.

Then he said they should order some Indian food.

Then he called for a rematch on the Playstation.

"Two out of three," he said, as House racked up another touchdown.

"God, but your clingy," House said. He reset the game. "Half of your patients probably die on you just so they can escape the obsessive compulsive caring."

"My patients love me," Wilson said. "And I've got the best survival numbers on staff."

"Fine, so some of them go into remission out of spite."

"I'll take whatever motivation I can get." Wilson cut into a vegetable samosa, the steam rising from it as it cooled on his plate.

"And what's it going to take for me to get rid of you?" House picked up a piece of the samosa. He blew on it to cool it down, then popped it in his mouth.

Wilson glanced over at him. "I'm not going anywhere, House."

"What, never? Julie's going to be pissed when she finds out you're moving in -- or were you planning on just trying to keep this place on the down low?"

"On second thought, maybe I'll leave now."

"What, so soon?"

-------------------

House didn't approach the bed until after midnight. First he told himself that it was because he wanted to finish the movie he was watching. Then he told himself that he wanted to finish reading one more chapter. He ignored the voice in the back of his head telling him he was just afraid -- afraid that if this didn't work, he didn't know what to do beyond drugging himself to the gills with some of Wilson's favorite sedatives.

He turned off the overhead light then pulled back the covers. He lifted his leg up onto the mattress and slid down between the sheets. He adjusted the pillows and lay back, staring at the ceiling. He listened to the first drops of a spring rainstorm hitting the window.

Spring. More rain. Mud. House wondered if the ache in his leg would react differently to a spring rain than it had to fall rain. Or to sleet. Or to snow.

He supposed the trees and shrubs would begin to bud soon, their yellow pollen filling the air. Stacy always loved the changing seasons.

Stacy.

What the hell did she know about anything changing anyway? How could she say he'd never change? It was all he ever did, since he was a kid, his Dad getting another assignment, another base, another country. Everything changed, whether he wanted it to or not. He had no choice.

Leaving home had only been another change, swapping the precision routine of military life for the itinerant life of a doctor: one town for pre-med, another for med school; go somewhere else for internship, then residency; move again for a fellowship -- his career nothing more than a wandering path from one hospital to another.

And Stacy only brought more change, moving in and taking over his life. But she almost made change seem somehow worthwhile, until she took away his only choice.

No.

House rubbed his hands across his face. He wasn't going to go there. Thinking about Stacy would only leave him pacing the floor again. Besides Stacy was the one who had changed the rules, had changed everything.

But Stacy was wrong.

Stacy was always wrong.

He could change.

He'd done it before.

He could do it now.

He'd lived without her once. He could do it again.

House turned off the bedside lamp and rolled onto his left side. He took a deep breath and tried to shut down his brain.

He closed his eyes and tried to drift into the darkness.

He could do this.

He could.