50.

She didn't think she would ever see him again, but there he was, standing in front of her. He looked the same, but different. A shadow of the man she had known.

He was shabby, threadbare, uncared for. His jacket was pulled around him to guard against the cold and the rain. She recognized it. It was one from… before. She felt embarrassed. Her coat was new and gaudy. It made a mockery of his pitiful attempts to keep the elements at bay. She had bought the coat last week, attracted by its decadence and its colour. She loved bright colours. When she had worn it last week she had felt protected from the dreary depression of a rain soaked winter city. Now she just felt exposed and vulnerable.

She realized he matched the background. He was so monotone he blended in. She could barely make him out against the greys, blacks and browns of the cold wet landscape behind him. She wouldn't have seen him if he hadn't dropped the books; if she hadn't heard the laughter of the kids; if she hadn't caught the whisper of a groan as he saw the water soak through their covers.

She had automatically picked them up. Going to hand them over with a smile, indulge in a warm Samaritan feeling and be on her way. It was only then she had realized it was him. It was his eyes: they were still the same. They were still bright blue.

They stood there. Between the two of them they were only two splashes of colour against the monotony of the city: the blue of his mournful eyes and her scarlet coat as they stood staring at each other in the rain.

He was the one to break the impasse.

"Wanna drink?"

"Where?"

He pointed up the street and limped off. She followed. He wasn't as fast as he used to be. But then again, this time he wasn't running away from her.

He stopped outside the door of a shop and opened it for her. A bell jangled harshly overhead. She looked at the flashing neon sign promising 24/7 fun and looked at him questioningly. He merely shrugged in resignation and waited for her to go in.

It was as she expected. Disgust washed over her. It was dark and dingy. The lurid designs of the magazines swallowed up by the shadows. Designed so men could hide in the corners while they browsed and got aroused. It stank of dirt, neglect, sex and latex rubber gloves like the ones at the hospital.

The shop was mercifully empty except for a fat balding man behind a counter with a sign on it that said 'you come on it, you bought it'.

The bell on the door sounded harsh as it shut, closing her in from the fresh night air.

"You OK for 10 tonight," said the fat man, looking up at him from his magazine. It wasn't a question. He nodded at the fat man and lead her past the racks, through a seventies plastic curtain and into the back of the shop.

She followed him down a narrow corridor with doors on either side – all with little windows in them. She was both tempted and repulsed. She thought she could hear faint sounds. She could smell stale cigarette smoke.

They came to a door. It said 'staff only'. He handed her the books he had been carrying and opened it. She watched as he carefully manoeuvred himself down a flight of steps. His cane was old, battered, like the ones you saw at thrift shops, given to charity by yuppy kids along with mom's favourite china. The cane had no rubber tip on the bottom, just some duct tape wrapped around the end. She noticed the tape was unravelling.

Another dark narrow corridor. She began to get nervous. There was no air down here. The stench from the mould coming off the carpet was overwhelming. She felt bile rising uncontrollably in her throat. She flinched as he reached out around her, but he only leant over to flick on a light switch. It did nothing but show the filth.

He led her down the corridor and unlocked another door, yet again holding the door open for her like a gentleman for a lady. She walked into a tiny room. She stood uncertainly in the middle and waited.

With two hands he carefully leaned his cane up against the doorframe, then flicked another switch that turned on another dim bulb that did the room no favours. It was damp and colourless.

She looked around in the gloom. The walls might have once been green, but now they matched the stained curtains. There was no furniture except for a decrepit looking bed. A few clothes were folded up in make shift milk crate shelves in the corner and another milk crate doubled as a table. A door lead off to what was presumably a bathroom. There was one window.

It was cold and silent except for the irregular rattle and hum of a small refrigerator as it spluttered on its last legs.

The refrigerator was the only oddity. It was covered in multicoloured post it notes.

He went over to the window and pulled the curtains open. It did little to dispel the gloom. She was eye level with an alley. Through a grimy window she could see a scrawny brown cat with matted fur crawling through the litter that was spilling over the edges of a dented trash can. He watched the cat for a moment as it ate some rotting food then closed the curtains again.

Underneath the window was a sink. In it were a few dishes. Next to the sink was a cage with a little grey rat in it. On top of the cage sat a bottle of whiskey with a fluorescent yellow post it note stuck to it. It said one word: 'eat'. She knew who had put it there.

He didn't say a word as he pulled out a glass jam jar from the sink and rinsed it out under the tap. He carefully pulled the post it note from the bottle and stuck it to the refrigerator, adding it to the gaudy collection already there. He poured her a generous measure of whiskey. It was only then he turned to her and held out the glass in a silent gesture. She took it, looking at him, trying to read him, but he was blank.

Then picking up the bottle he limped the few steps to the bed and sat down, looking at her again with that disconcertingly blank stare.

She frowned at him and he looked down at the bottle in his hand. Sighing he stood up and made his way back to the sink. He rummaged in the little cupboard below it and a moment later came out with a chipped red mug with no handle.

She realized he only had one glass. She looked at the contents of the sink again. In it sat one plate, one fork, one knife, one spoon.

After filling up the mug he returned to the bed, putting the bottle carefully down beside his feet and then resumed staring at her.

She looked at the upended milk crate that seemed to be serving as the table. There were some books on it. She still had the books he had given her in her hand. She looked down at them. They were medical journals, library books.

She suddenly realized she was prying into a place she had no right to be. She looked at him. He tried to hide the pain on his face, but she saw it. It was in his eyes. His bright blue eyes. His eyes couldn't pretend he didn't care. They were still bright even though he tried to drown them in grey. For a moment she knew everything. She pretended she hadn't seen it. She quickly put the books down. She moved to the bed and sat next to him.

He was damp. His hair and his threadbare jacket were wet. She could smell him as he sat next to her. He smelt like wet dog.

She eyed off the glass and tentatively took a sip. Jesus! Her eyes watered. This stuff was cheap.

She pointed to the little rat. "Steve?" she asked.

He didn't look at her. "Steve died." He took a large swallow of his drink.

"Does he have a name?"

"No."

She left him sitting on the bed. She knew after she left he would discard the mug and pick up the bottle again. She imagined the little red mug getting knocked under the bed, left hidden in a corner. The only thing left. Occasionally thought about, but never touched: too painful a reminder to be seen, but never to be thrown away.

So this was how it ends, she thought. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

52.

He looked at the vast selection of cheeses on display. Which one, he thought. So many endless choices and sometimes we end up making the wrong one.

Plain stuff this time. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Cheddar would do. He wouldn't know. He was only a rat.

He put the cheese in the cart.

He automatically smiled at the checkout lady as she bagged his groceries.

He walked out into the parking lot. It was still cold, but today, just for a change the sky was clear and blue. He was glad. He was sick of all these grey overcast days. That was why he slipped. Because he was looking up at the sky, not paying attention to where he was going. One minute blue sky and the next grey asphalt.

He saw everything splatter away. The little red apples went one way, a brown jar filled with peanut butter rolled down the hill and the cheese… the cheese which had been on top, went on to the road.

He ignored the wet muddy dirt clinging to his clothes and began to gather up all the items. A passing lady came and helped him. He felt absurdly grateful at this stranger's kindness.

He was explaining that he was all right, but just a bit of a clumsy oaf when the car ran over the cheese. A 4WD. Typical. He hated them with the vehemence that only a Volvo driver could.

She put her hand over her mouth. "Oh dear. It looks like you lost your cheese."

It's not my cheese, he thought.

"Yeah," he replied. "Lucky it was only plain."

"It could have been worse. It might have been Camembert."

"Yeah."

But he couldn't take his eyes of the block of cheese – ground down into the road. A disgusting slimy mess of yellow mixed with gravel shards.

"You take care now."

Her words jolted him and he smiled and thanked her. He vaguely remembered assuring her that he was fine now.

He got up and went over to his car. As he fumbled in his pocket for a key he suddenly realized he was crying. Crying in the parking lot of a goddamn supermarket. Crying over cheese. Lost cheese. Fucking retard. Who cries over lost cheese?

He wiped his tears, put the groceries in the car and went back in. He bought another block of plain cheese. The checkout lady smiled again but looked at him strangely. Hadn't he just been in here? Hadn't he just bought a block of cheese?

He just smiled at her, took his cheese and walked off.

5.

He didn't move a muscle when the tribunal handed down the verdict. He could hear the tittering, the whispering, the laughs, but he didn't look round. He couldn't. He knew they were staring at him – pointing like gibbering monkeys. He was used to being stared at: first as a doctor to be admired, then as a cripple to be pitied. He just kept looking straight ahead, his hand clenched around the cane until his knuckles were white, shaking in anger.

He could hear the parents congratulating the board for their decision. He imagined them glancing nervously in his direction as they shook hands and thanked them for ruining a man's life in the name of vengeance.

He felt her come near, reach out with her hand but stop at the last second, as if afraid to touch him. He heard the whisper. She was sorry.

He didn't blame her. She had done what she thought was right. She was a crappy doctor, but she was a good boss. She didn't deserve blame.

But he didn't react. She didn't deserve absolution either. How many lives had he saved for her? He just stood there, stock still, an untouchable pariah, as the bustle of people moved around him.

Murderers. They were the murderers. All of them - not him. How many people would die because he could not be there to solve their puzzles and save them? How many deaths will be on your conscience Mr Dead Girl's Father? How many of these stupid doctors, bloated from their gloating, will go back to work this afternoon and kill someone through sheer stupidity?

1.

It was all over bar the shouting. But the shouting had died down too now. The fighting was over. The blood had been spilled.

The girl was gone. At least someone had had the presence of mind to get her to the ICU. Foreman she thought. That just left her with the mess to clean up.

He was on his back on the floor, quiet now, pinned by two security guards, but still on message – looking up at her questioningly, still silently, desperately trying to continue the fight. He had gone down when the leg had folded. He knew from many years experience he couldn't fight back. What he lacked physically he made up for with bravado and bluster, but when it came down to it the leg was a disadvantage he could never overcome. She shook her head at him and he sagged, admitting defeat by lying back and focusing on the ceiling.

The father was still twitching with rage and grief in the grip of another two guards.

Wilson was staring with incredulity at the blood dripping onto his hand and staining his pristine white lab coat as he slid slowly down the wall in shock. He'd had come off the worst in the scuffle. He'd been smashed in the face by the father. As always he had come to the rescue of his friend and taken the brunt of the father's wrath.

"Escort him…" she said, pointing a finger to the man on the floor… "To my office. And makes sure he stays there."

Without a word security hoisted him up like a sack of flour and dragged him off backwards down the corridor. He didn't resist. One problem temporarily solved.

Then she turned to Wilson, knelt down and inspected his face. "Not broken," she said as she tilted his head and checked his pupils. She stood up. "And you get yourself cleaned up and get down there too," she added quietly. He nodded slowly, knowing better than to argue with her now.

She stood up and closed her eyes for a second, steeling herself. That just left the father. Oh God, what a mess.

2.

It was only in her office did she unleash her anger.

"What the Hell were you thinking, stopping that elevator?"

He was staring out the window, one hand absently fiddling with her brown wooden blinds: relentlessly pulling the string, opening and closing them. He didn't turn around. He didn't acknowledge her. He just continued staring out the window. Then eventually he snapped the blinds shut with a crack and turned around slowly.

"She has a tick. It is the only thing that makes sense. The paralysis is ascending," he said matter of factly as if she had just casually said good morning.

But she had other priorities more important than his puzzle solving addiction. "You stopped her from getting to the ICU. You might have killed her… and you are still going on about that damn tick," she asked in amazement?

He stared at her for a second and then continued as if she hadn't spoken. "If we find the tick then the paralysis will reverse and she will be fine."

"House, shut up about the damn tick."

He hung his head. "I just need to find the tick," he mumbled.

"You just need to sit down on that couch and be quiet until we get word from Foreman," she said pointing. He didn't move. "Sit," she ordered. "Stay."

"Woof woof," he said mockingly, but he limped slowly to her couch, slumped down with a sigh and began a detailed examination of the carpet between his feet.

After a while Wilson came in carrying the cane. He sat down beside him on the couch and silently passed the cane over.

"Any word?" she asked.

He shook his head and joined his friend in inspecting the carpet as they waited.

The latest hospital lawyer, a nice guy – Crane or Cross or something, came bursting into the room a few minutes later. "I came as soon as I could. Brenda said something about a doctor kidnapping a patient? Please tell me none of our doctors would do something like that?" Then he saw House sitting on the couch and froze. "Oh God, tell me no? Not him."

He looked up and grinned at her. "I've still got it," he said to her. "The ability to make grown lawyers weep."

She was in no mood for him. "Shut up," she snapped. "This is serious."

"Of course it's serious. We have to find that damn tick," he shot back in his best 'you're an idiot tone' as he levered himself up off the couch, now, with the cane, back to his usual frenetic level of mobility.

"Stop it with the tick," she yelled, coming forward to meet him. "You didn't find the tick. There is no tick."

"What tick?" asked the lawyer in bewilderment. "What did he do this time? Brenda said something about an elevator."

House started to explain the process of tick paralysis at the top of his lungs. She started yelling. Wilson just put his hands in his head.

They all stopped as Foreman came in. They looked at him expectantly.

"She's dead," he said simply.

The lawyer winced and shot House a look. "I don't want to know," he muttered. She returned to her desk and sat down heavily. House just stared.

"Did you find it?" he asked eventually.

Wilson swore softly to himself in Hebrew.

Foreman shot House a venomous look. "Her heart rate just kept on dropping. We were too late to do anything."

House ignored the implication in his voice. "Well, we will just have to find it in autopsy," he said as he made for the door.

"No you won't," she growled, the emphasis on the 'you'.

That stopped him. He whirled to face her. "But I was her attending."

"Was being the operative word."

The lawyer turned to her. "He can't go anywhere near that girl. Did you just say he had been taken off the case before he kidnapped her?"

"I didn't kidnap her," interjected House trying to distract the lawyer. "Nurse Brenda is evil."

But the lawyer ignored him. "The parents will have us for breakfast," he continued to her.

"I have the right to find out what was wrong with her," House spat back. "I have to know if I was right."

The two men glared at each other and then down at her, waiting for her answer. She closed her eyes for a second and reached out to hit the intercom for her secretary.

"Jo, would you send security in here please."

He knew what that meant. She knew him too well. He swore softly under his breath. "Am I suspended too?" he asked quietly, knowing he had lost.

She nodded. "Until further notice." They both knew that unless they found House's magical tick at autopsy that meant forever. He wouldn't be coming back.

The security guards came marching in from where they had been standing outside her office door. They gave House a suspicious look and he glared back at them. She suspected they had enjoyed having a prisoner to guard – all the more because it was him. It was his own fault. She had told him time and time again not to throw things off the balcony.

"Take Doctor House up to his office and then escort him to his vehicle and make sure he leaves hospital grounds." She had chosen the word vehicle deliberately. She wasn't going to give that orange monstrosity any recognition. She hated it. Not as much as Wilson, who was terrified he'd be driving home one day and find House impaled on a stop sign like a shish kabob on a stick. She hated seeing it parked in the handicapped spaces outside the hospital as she came to work and explaining it to potential hospital benefactors. She hated it so much so she had forbidden him to park out the front and had made him park in the underground garage, threatening not to renew his disabled permit if he didn't do as she said.

3.

He knew that no amount of yelling was going to change her mind on this one, not with the lawyer there just itching to talk culpability. And Huey and Duey here had put an end to his back up plan.

"Come on then Officer Krupke," he said to the one he particularly hated the most, although after the fun trip to Cuddy's office it was a close call. "Let's go." He was just about to add that he was just misunderstood when he went down the second time that day.

The cane had snapped he thought stupidly. Of course the cane had snapped. He was face down on the floor, his nose in Cuddy's God awful beige carpet, with a crowd of people gawking down at him.

He glared up at the culprit who was looking remarkably like a stunned mullet and scowled. "Oh great timing Wilson."

He sat up and propped himself up awkwardly with his back against the sofa. "Well," he asked sarcastically? "Would anyone like to help the cripple up?"

4.

"Wilson."

Her curt command stopped him. He half waved at House to say he was coming, came back and stood in front of her desk.

"I trust you to rein him in, not encourage him," she said softly.

"I…" Wilson looked lost for words. He put his hand on the back of his head. That was something he always did when he was nervous or frustrated. He must do it a lot she thought, being House's friend. "I trust him," he said eventually by way of an explanation. "He's a good doctor. Nine times out of ten he is always right."

"Well not this time."

At this Wilson was silent. The girl was dead. There was nothing left to say. He had taken one risk too many and they both knew he was going to pay the price.

"Go," she said eventually, dismissing him. "Get out of my sight."

"You're not going to…" he asked waving his hand in a silent continuation of the question. He knew that she knew what he had done.

"I have already lost one good doctor today. I don't want you dragged into this mess. Just go before I change my mind."

6.

He should have just left everything and not bothered. Security had spotted him and he'd had to check in and get a visitor's pass. Then he'd had to be escorted to his office. He'd hoped he could just grab his stuff and go, but apparently God had other plans for him.

He didn't like being lectured, but it came with the territory, or rather it came with the big neurotic Jewish git who had cornered him and was currently lecturing him as he packed his stuff into one of those generic 'I've been fired' boxes you see in the movies.

"Have you at least thought about what you are going to do? You could teach?"

But he wasn't listening. He was looking past him into the corridor. "Actually I don't think that's going to be a problem. The nice government is going to look after me for a while. Make sure I don't assault anyone else's daughters."

"What?"

He pointed to the two men in blue uniforms standing outside the office looking at the sign on the door. They waited.

"Gregory House?"

He had closed his eyes, but opened them in surprise when he realized they weren't talking to him.

New Jersey's finest. Bah bloody humbug. Doughnuts with legs more like. They'd assumed - and typically they had got it wrong. They thought the scruffy guy with the cane was some patient and the man they wanted was the guy in the white coat.

Now the other man was looking at him, discreetly covering his ID badge, asking… He was a silly bastard, but a good friend. He'd do it too – some stupid romantic notion to give him a few more hours of freedom or a chance to escape to Mexico and start a new life on a fishing trawler. He'd been watching The Shawshank Redemption again hadn't he? He remembered lending it to him a couple of months back. Well he could keep it now.

Actually that didn't sound too bad. If peg legged pirates had coped on one and a half legs he should be able to do it with three.

But he shook his head out of that fantasy and stepped forward. This wasn't the movies where everyone lived happily ever after. This was real life. He was almost amused at the looks on the cops' doughnut addled faces as he walked forward and said: "That… would be me."

7.

'Dead cripple walking' is probably how he would have phrased it she thought. He walked between them as if it was nothing more than a Sunday jaunt in the park, sashaying lazily through the foyer as if he had no idea every single eye was on him. Everyone thinking 'who is he and what did he do to deserve to be taken like this?'

In contrast, his poor long suffering best friend, or should that be the only person stupid enough to put up with him for longer than five minutes, looked hot and flustered as he shot out of the next elevator, his coat half on as he made for Cuddy's office. She'd obviously gotten a phone call because she was rushing out to meet him. They collided midway in the outer office. It was like watching a silent movie. He gestured like crazy as he talked until she reached out and held his hands down, calming him. Eventually he sighed, his whole body deflating, and nodded. She squeezed his hands. He turned and slowly made his way to the front doors. She stood there for a minute, watching him go, a sad look on her face, then she turned back to her office.

Show over. Working in a hospital was better than the movies.

The man couldn't even walk properly, let alone run she mused. So how come everyone else had to move like crazy to keep up with him?

An intern came up with a file. She shook her head and busied herself with the present. Nurses had better things to do than feel sorry for people, especially him.

8.

He felt their hands on his shoulders as they murmured polite apologetic words, took his cane and gently, but firmly, pushed him up against the side of the car. He stretched out his arms, put them behind his head and let his chest take the weight of his body as he sunk into the cool dark glass of the window; his bad leg hanging in the air like a dog with a thorn in its paw; calmly surrendering any last vestiges of control over his fate. There was no point in pretending now.

They were gentle as they ran their hands over him, taking special care with his leg. Only Princeton would have polite doughnuts. He ignored what they were doing to his body; their official words and phrases; their hands gently pushing up his sleeves as they made sure his handcuffs were secure and just a bit too tight around his wrists. Instead he turned his head and looked down the street. A typical Princeton day: cold, but fine. The sun was going down now and people were hurrying home as the darkness descended. Everything was normal for everyone else. Tonight he wasn't going home. He wished he were. He was tired. So tired of this all.

In a way he wished he had tried to run, made them angry, angry enough to match the bubbling red hot anger he felt. He wanted to thrash and scream at them, but he did nothing as he was carefully put inside the cruiser and buckled in like he was precious cargo and might shatter at any minute - the front seat even moved forward so his leg could be stretched out. His cane was put beside him. He looked at its sharp polished brown wood. He felt a sharp pang when he realised he could not reach out and touch it.

9.

He just sensed it when he heard the laughter and the comments. He knew exactly what was happening and he felt a surge of rage run through him. It just pissed him off. House was the biggest jerk he had ever known but he didn't deserve that.

"You can't go through there," said the officer. But he didn't hear as he rounded the corridor and took in the scene.

"Hey," he yelled, then started. Oh that was loud. It echoed off the white tiled walls. That had sounded a lot louder than he thought it would. He stopped. He suddenly felt very conspicuous and vulnerable as all eyes turned on him.

Everyone was looking at him with a mixture of alarm and amusement. House looked up at him for a second, his expression unreadable, then turned his eyes back to the floor. The prisoners in the cells were eyeing him like he was a piece of meat. To them this was the equivalent of a Las Vegas floor show. The cop behind the desk was sizing him up: some pudgy dude in an expensive beige suit, probably a lawyer, trying to throw his weight around. The rookie was concerned, his hand reaching for his belt, sensing a confrontation and wondering if he should break out the mace. One of the cops leading House looked bored. He had seen it all before, but the other one looked guilty. Wilson spoke to him.

"Don't make him walk like that," he said more calmly.

He walked towards them with his hands held high – just to be on the safe side.

"Do you mind if I help him?" he asked. "I'm bailing him out… and I'm his doctor."

At this the cops relented. He thanked Jehovah that he looked unthreatening. He took House's right arm. "Lean on me," he said. House didn't acknowledge him, but he felt the weight of his friend as they moved off.

He didn't look up at him. He kept his head down. Even though it was Wilson, who maybe came close to somewhere near half way to being tolerable on the House scale. The fuckers had been laughing at how he couldn't walk properly. He gimped. He knew it. He'd long ago come to terms with that inescapable fact. Sometimes, for the odd brief liberating window, he forgot about it, but there was no getting away from the fact that Greg House was a gimp and he always would be. But it was even harder with your hands tied behind your back and a bunch of stupid doughnuts laughing at you.

And now, even worse, he was being rescued again, by his 'oh so perfect' Saint Bernard and that stupid Bill Withers song was running through his head. But right now he didn't feel strong. He just felt bone weary. He didn't want to ever lift his head again. His leg was killing him and he just wanted someone to take these damn cuffs off and push his brand new shiny non-sawn through mobility aid into his hand so he could quietly shuffle out of this noisy stinking shit hole and preferable out of his life. He was too tired to pull away as the other man supported him and together they made their way up to the desk to get his stuff. 'We all need somebody to lean on'. What a stupid song.

10.

"I'm fine," he said. "Thanks for coming to get me. You are late. Go to work."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said firmly as he shut the door in Wilson's face.

But once he was alone he slid down the door and onto the floor, letting his cane fall to the floor. He was exhausted. He ran his sleeve over his eyes, but he wasn't crying. He didn't have feelings because he was just a jerk. That's what they all said. He didn't cry at sappy movies, he didn't rescue orphaned puppies and he didn't hurt. He was an emotional vacuum cleaner. He just sucked everything up. Sucked and sucked until the dust clogged his lungs and he choked.

He was just tired and gritty and dirty and hungry and he stank. Life was shitty. His life was just shittier than most and because of a backlog in the courts he'd had no sleep and just spent the last 24 hours locked up in a filthy cell with an angry biker with one arm and a drunk guy in a wheelchair who had sung off key for hours and then puked all over himself. And that was the up-end market of the accommodations available. The cripple cell, as the fat doughnut with the as yet undiagnosed thyroid imbalance had called it.

He looked at his leg, felt its pain and for the first time almost wished they had cut it off. Your motor functions are supposed to be controlled by that lump of squishy matter in your skull not your right fucking leg. Legs were stupid fuckers and his leg was stupider than most. He could be pretty dumb sometimes, but the leg drove him to do stupider and stupider things. He knew it. The leg knew it. They just didn't talk about it much. He and the leg weren't really into dialogue. At least they shared that in common.

The leg was also more demanding than most. He fumbled around in his pocket for his Vicodin and pulled it out. He studied the little orange bottle for a moment. It was his one constant companion. He felt the sweat on his brow. He was hot but he felt cold. He felt afraid. He popped a couple of pills and waited for the feeling to go away.

11.

He'd stayed there a long time. Pills, pills and more pills. He felt serene, calm and happy. The floor was so comfortable. Why hadn't he realised this fact before. He drooled happily onto a floorboard. This was the good life.

But his serenity was shattered when he was lifted up by his belt and collar. There were vague memories of his hall and tiles before the shock of the cold water hit him. It was icy. He writhed, trying to escape it, but something was holding him in place and he couldn't move; his head tilted up so it felt like he was drowning in the harsh spray as he gasped for air.

His teeth were chattering as he sat naked on the toilet next to the sodden mess that had been his clothes. He didn't resist as the t-shirt and sweatshirt were roughly dragged over his head; his pants pulled up like he was a toddler; his woollen beanie tugged over his still damp hair making his head feel hot and wet and heavy.

He felt the blankets as they were pulled around him, wrapping him up, tucked around him until only his nose poked out from between them.

Then he heard a voice.

"Jesus fucking Christ House."

That was all Wilson said before he stomped out of his bedroom.

He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow.

12.

He hated the obsession the most. He hated what it was doing to his friend. He hated the haunted look in his eyes. He hated the growing desperation and the unspoken threat that they never mentioned. He hated that the demands for scripts came closer and closer together. He hated that even if he did try to talk about it he would get nowhere, just that look. The one that said you're an idiot; I hate you, fuck off and don't waste my time with your pathetic touchy feely shit. He hated that he was shutting him out, not telling him anything. He even hated the fact that he never even changed his damn clothes.

Bagels worked though. If he made one with lots of cream cheese and ham and left it on his desk it would generally be gone by the next morning. Not very kosher, but effective. Sometimes he would put a glass of orange juice next to it with a note saying 'I dissolved a Vicodin in this'.

Then one night it all changed.

It was early. He was watching The Sopranos. House was where he always was: at his desk. The computer on and a book open on his lap. He would he there all night. They had swapped sleeping arrangements. He had complained about the light, but as usual he was ignored. He had tried one of those little airline masks, but the muttering drove him mad. After a while he had commandeered the bedroom and on the odd occasions House slept he took the couch or more frequently when he got up in the morning he'd just find him slumped over his desk.

He heard a sigh. He looked over as House turned off the computer and methodically closed all the books on the desk and set them in neat piles. This was unusual.

"I'm going to bed," he announced to the wall. This was the first time House had spoken to him in days. Then with one sweep House violently shoved everything on the desk onto the floor. He stared at him in shock.

House stood up as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but still not looking at him. "You can take the couch tonight," he said as he walked down the corridor.

After he had gone he automatically got up and cleaned up the mess. Cleaning up after him was all he seemed to do these days: putting books back on shelves after House had ripped apart his entire library looking for something. One time he had come home to find House had thrown a particularly heavy book through one of the front windows. Shaw's Parasitic Anomalies was sitting on the pavement surrounded by broken glass.

He had asked him why he'd done it, why hadn't he cleaned up the glass. But House had just grunted that Shaw was an ass who deserved to be out on the street and returned to his computer. He had sighed, called the window repairmen and gone outside to pick up the pieces. Mr Puzzle Man he thought. Always picking up the pieces, but never quite making them fit, like someone had secretly mixed up two different jigsaw sets in the same box.

The laptop was smashed beyond repair. He took it out to the trash can and dumped it.

...

The next morning he was woken up by early morning cartoons.

He groggily opened his eyes and looked at House, sitting on the coffee table, holding a piece of toast, totally engrossed and laughing at an old rerun of Scooby Do. It was early, which was disturbing; and House had shaved properly and was wearing a tie, which was even more disturbing.

He so desperately wanted to ask what had happened last night, but feared he already knew the answer.

House laughed at the cartoon again and pointed with his toast. "Look, it is always old man so and so the caretaker, pretending to be a ghost. So easy to figure out and yet week after week they never get it until the fat chick with the bad hair and the glasses works it out… right at the last minute. Saving the day… and everybody lives happily ever after, except for Mr Villain in the white sheet and the luminescent paint who would have gotten away with it if not for those pesky kids."

He seemed to think about this for a minute. Then suddenly he stood, dropping the half eaten toast on the table. "I'm going out," he said, rising.

"Where did you put my keys?" House asked as he rummaged around on his desk, as if Wilson's cleaning up after last night's temper tantrum was nothing more than him rearranging House's desk on a whim.

"In the usual spot," he replied blandly. "In that horrible ashtray thing with the hookers eating pickles on it."

"Got 'em, and they are not hookers and pickles. They are Lesbians with cucumbers."

He thought he'd give it one try. "When will you be back?" he asked.

House stopped and looked thoughtful. "I don't know. I may be some time."

He slumped back down on the couch and listened as the door slammed.

House came back that evening. He looked tired. He didn't say a word. He just dumped his keys in the desk. He watched him as he limped slowly down the corridor and into his room.

He itched all over. He had never felt the urge to touch someone like he did right now. He wanted to follow House down that corridor and poke him and prod him, and put his hand over his heart to reassure assure himself that he was real and warm and alive, not the sad silent ghost he had been living with for so long. He wanted to tell him things would be all right even though they wouldn't be. He got up and paced the room, but every time he gave in to his fears.

Instead he sat on the couch and stared at the half eaten piece of toast on the coffee table.

How could things have gotten this bad? Life wasn't meant to be like this. Where was the happy ending?

13.

He lay on the wooden floor as the music blared through the headphones.

It was sublime. Music, whiskey and desperation were a beautiful combination. It made it all the much sweeter. Like drinking good Kentucky bourbon in a cheap bar: thick, hot and sweet - with the promise of violence, blood and vomiting.

The record came to an end. Without looking he lazily reached out a hand and plucked it off the turntable. He held it up for a moment, looking at it, burning its shiny black music into his brain, then broke it over his knee. Sweet musical violence.

He laughed and tossed the shards of record he was holding into the corners of the empty room.

Another one bites the dust. Who had sung that?

That reminded him. It was time for a tribute to another fallen soldier. It was his responsibility. He was the general. He was the one leading his army over the top of the trenches to certain death. He deserved to pay them respect for their sacrifice.

He groped around and found the whiskey bottle. Not Kentucky whiskey, but still a damn fine tribute to a good soldier and the damned took what they could get. He took a swig and felt some trickle down the sides of his mouth.

You pig he thought. He laughed into the empty room, listening as it echoed off the bare walls.

He hadn't heard the door opening, but he opened his eyes as the foot nudged his side. He looked up and smiled drunkenly, raising the whisky bottle in salute.

"Hello Captain, O' My Captain," he yelled over the music still endlessly running through his brain. "Come and join my tribute to the fallen."

"Where the hell is all your stuff?"

"Oh come on Mr Jimmy. Wake up and smell the dead teenager. I am going to be convicted and then gouged till my eyeballs pop out by Mr and Mrs Dead Teenager."

He smiled happily up at the man standing over him. "But I am good friend. I kept the couch for you."

But Mr Jimmy didn't look very impressed. Well, he wouldn't be buying him a cherry red soda any time soon. "Oh very thoughtful of you… but you don't know that and besides… the insurance will cover it."

He laughed bitterly. "The 'oh so sweet' loophole they always manage to find means Gregory will be a poor boy soon."

"Do you mean the hospital isn't even helping you?"

"Cuddy tried, but the hospital board vetoed it after they found out I was technically off the case." He smirked. "I am a rogue agent like James Bond in Die Another Day… but without the bad theme song."

"So, as I was not under their care I have been left for dead by my own side." He contemplated the bottle. "The only way I can redeem myself is by saving the world from an evil criminal mastermind with his own hollowed out volcano." He was giddy now, slurring his words as he got caught up in his fantasy. "Agent Greg House 003 and a half: licensed to limp." He raised the bottle. "I have a little help though. Good old trusty Q."

"Who? A real lawyer or Mr Johnny Walker there?"

"Who do you think?"

"That's nice of her."

'Bah' was the only response from the floor.

"She's good. She gets thing done."

He shook his head blindly from side to side. "Not going to matter. Someone ratted – probably the British homo. I didn't tell you but they searched the apartment. They found your porno collection and the morphine and charged me with that too." He rolled his hands. "The morphine, not your porno collection. That they just confiscated for later in depth study." He laughed at his own sad joke. "Add that to the Vicodin, Foreman's testimony and my 'oh so sweet' reputation and I'm toast."

He took another swig. "Do you know how long you get for kidnapping now?" He levered his head off the floor and looked at the two fuzzy Wilsons standing above him. "Twenty years mandatory. I was shocked," he said mock sarcastically.

"She'll figure something out."

"She did. She went in there and used her sweet talking lawyery words to the D.A. while she banished me to sit in the hall. Said there was no way in Hell she was letting me open my mouth in there. I shaved for fucking nothing."

"So it could work out."

He sighed. "No it won't Mr Jimmy. I was wrong."

"But if you convince them you were only doing it for the right reasons…"

"Oh come on," he cut in with exasperation. "It's going to be a circus. Every pissed off doctor I blackmailed, disgruntled clinic patient and pizza delivery guy in the area will be there for the show and ready to testify Greg House is out of control and off his tits."

He waved his arms melodramatically. "Vogler's probably reserved front row seats and is selling popcorn."

14.

The next day he sat on the couch with his head in his hands and ignored the other man as he went around with a plastic bin liner and picked up all the broken records, making sure every shard was swept up.

Neither of them said anything until the silence was broken by a snort.

"What," he said groggily, looking up.

"One survived the onslaught. Apparently you weren't drunk enough to listen to it."

"Which one?"

"Space… the final frontier," Wilson said dramatically.

"Oh God no, please destroy it."

"With pleasure." He broke Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds over his knee. He threw it in the bag with all the others. "Actually you could have got a fortune for that on ebay."

This got the desired result. A slow smile spread across his face. "But then I would to have admitted I bought it in the first place."

"You could have just said you were stoned at the time. It was the seventies, people will forgive you."

"Bill sure must have been stoned when he did it." He got up and after a second half smiled at Wilson. "I'll take a shower," he said pointing down the hall to the bathroom.

"Okay," said Wilson neutrally.

He looked awkwardly at the other man. "And then we can go and have some…" He trailed off uncertainly, looking around for a clue, but the curtains were still drawn and the apartment dark. For all his Yenta faults the Yid could be thoughtful sometimes.

"Late lunch or early dinner – take your pick," supplied the Yid in question.

"And you can pay."

Wilson gave a small smile. "Yeah I'll pay."

He nodded again and padded unevenly down the corridor.

15.

"I'm in pain."

"You're a junkie."

"I'm not a junkie. It just hurts. It hurts all the time and it is never going to stop. How long are you planning to live Mr Lawyer – another fifty years? Now imagine doing that constantly in pain. And I mean all the time. When you have to get up for a piss at three in the morning, when you eat, when you sit, when you stand, when you lie down. And you know it is never ever going to stop."

He sighed and ignored the frantic looks from his lawyers, casting his eyes downwards. "So yes I take painkillers, more than I should. Yes I do morphine sometimes…" He didn't look up. He was a coward. He didn't want to see the look on his prescribing doctor's face right now. "Because it stops the pain." God that sounded lame. But as they were currently gutting his entire life like a fish and laying it out before him in all its miserable glory – what the heck, he may as well be truthful.

What did he have to lose?

He turned to the judge. "But I'm a good doctor," he said pleadingly. "I didn't stop that elevator because I was high. She had a tick. It was the only explanation that fit." He frantically rubbed his face. "It fit. It had to be a tick," he said to himself. "It had to be."

"But they didn't find a tick, did they Mr House," said the lawyer, emphasizing the 'Mr'.

"No," he mumbled. "No they didn't. I was wrong."

16.

"I'll try," said the faggot as he held her hand.

He stood there beside her; not saying anything, because it was important to her and although he never said it, she was his life and the boy was her life. So he put up with it all. But he couldn't speak: not to this pretty boy shit with his expensive suits, his practised sincerity and his big brown eyes that gave you hope even as he told you the worst.

He hated this man. This man made a living out of other people's misery. Day after day he told people they were going to die. What sort of sick fuck got off on that? He preferred straight outright killing. He wasn't ashamed of what he had done. He had done it for his country. At least that was clean and honest. At least it was over with quick and fast. None of this lingering shit. You lived and then you died. He didn't understand why people wanted to spend so long hanging on when there was nothing to hang on to.

He was so sick of hearing the platitudes. He didn't want to know. He wanted to leave. He wanted to leave right now.

He looked past them at the figure slumped over the table. Drunk a-fucking-gain.

"Come on Blythe. Let's go."

Pathetic.

No son of mine.

17.

"What did he say?" he said lifting his head off the table and looking up at him as he came back to the table.

"He said you should look after yourself better."

"No he didn't," said House bitterly.

He turned to go. He wasn't going to do this now. He was leaving. "You're drunk. I'm going home."

House grabbed his shirt and pulled him back. He saw there were beer fuelled tears in his eyes. "Please, tell them. Tell them I tried, but…" he waved his arms half heartedly. He sagged. "I got tired. Jesus, I am so tired," he said softly.

He looked down. The fucker was drunk and overly emotional – still muttering quietly to himself. He probably couldn't even see straight.

He shouldn't trust anything he said. And House was a well known lying bastard.

He hesitated for a moment.

He grabbed House's head and pulled him tight, crushing him against him. Only because he wouldn't remember it in the morning. It was okay because he wouldn't remember a thing.

Then he felt House's hands on him, scrabbling and clinging to him, like a rat up a drainpipe, digging in wherever they could find purchase.

He looked at the ceiling of whatever non threatening domestic chain restaurant they had chosen to take House's parents to. He didn't remember which one. He would find out when he paid the bill. "Oh you stupid stupid bastard."

18.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But it was the best deal I could do. Jesus you suck," she said pushing his chest. "Do you have to tell the truth all the time?" She looked as if she wanted to say more. Her hands were shaking. He could see she was going to cry.

He put his hands on her arm and stopped her. "It's okay." He tried to smile. "I know you did your best for me. Thanks." He paused. "But really – reckless endangerment causing death is going to sound so lame. I was hoping for Murder One."

She looked up at him. God he looked young when he shaved. He'd actually been scared enough to shave. Not that it had done much good. They'd still taken one look at him and decided to lock him up and throw away the key. Now he looked like a lost little boy. Like he was before BUG – Bastard Unshaven Greg. "You did your best for me when I needed it," she said. "I had to return the favour. I am not going to Hell in your debt." She tried to laugh through the tears, shake it off, and make it a joke as they had always done.

"Que sera, sera," he said.

She wiped her eyes. "Whatever will be, will be."

"The future's not ours to see," he agreed.

"Maybe you'll get time off for good behaviour?"

He just looked at her with that expression of his that just screamed 'you are such an idiot'.

"True, just try not to spend your entire time in the hole," she said as she touched his chest, grabbing his lapels and feeling the woolly jacket underneath her hands. She had always loved that jacket.

He had bought it on a day trip to New York. It had been a trade off. She could have lunch with some girlfriends if he could go shopping.

"Isn't it the woman who is supposed to be obsessed with shopping?" She had asked him.

He'd smiled cryptically. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And sometimes that involves retail." God that man could smirk with the best of them.

It had cost a fortune from some smarmy English men's wear store he had found down a dingy lane on the east side.

"These guys are really good," he had told her as they made their way to the store. "They outfit kings and everything – back in sunny old England," he'd said as he had bounced along beside her, full of Central Park hot dog and joie de vie.

It had been worth it. It was a beautiful jacket. A heavy wool weave that, combined with the tie, made him look like a gentleman. It was a little big now, but even after all these years it still looked good. But it didn't sit well with the handcuffs around his wrists.

They came to take him away.

She almost let them.

"Hey," she looked hard at him as he was leaving. "No matter what they say… you are a good man."

He nodded once and was gone.

19.

Even though the bed was there, he still slept on his couch that night. This was the last night he would do this. His own apartment would be ready tomorrow and he could move in then. It was a great apartment: a huge fluffy plush pile carpet and cream walls. Light, modern and dull, just like the houses he had always bought with his wives. A million miles away from the old fashioned feel of this apartment that mentally stank of bourbon, Old South gentlemen's clubs and cigars. Like its owner: worn down, but still stubbornly standing and still functional.

When he woke in the morning it was late. Only a little light had penetrated the thick green curtains. He must be late for work he mused. He didn't care and Cuddy wouldn't mind. Not today. Not today of all days.

He lay there, listening to his absence, imagining the sounds that had become so familiar. The tiny rattle of the pill bottle, the slight thump of the cane on the hard wood floor, the little wheel as it went round and round. The silence that greeted him now was deafening.

He shuffled off to the shower. No need to take the blow dryer today. He had known: the bastard always knew. He never got the important stuff, but he was a whiz with the details. The electricity had been turned off yesterday. Thank god the hot water was gas. He'd probably factored that in too.

He carefully folded up the bedding that had always been kept for him and left them by the front door with his suitcase.

He ate dry cereal out of the box for breakfast, scooping it out with his hands as he stood leaning up against the bench in the kitchen. He kept his eyes firmly focused on the view through the window. He brushed the crumbs off his shirt and hid the box in the back of one of the cupboards as a surprise for the next tenant.

He walked into the bedroom and looked around. There was no sign of the previous owner but the unmade bed from the day before. He stripped the bed, stuffing all the blankets and sheets in a black bin bag which he dumped on the doorstep for whoever got there first – the homeless or the Salvation Army. He didn't care which.

He loaded up the car with his stuff and went back inside. Then in a time honoured ritual he walked around the empty apartment for the last time, going from room to room to make sure nothing had been left, that there was no trace of the man who had once lived here. Nothing had. House had made sure of that. He'd wiped his existence clean.

His final destination was the kitchen. He picked up the cage that sat on the counter and looked at its contents.

Then he locked the door and left House's apartment for the last time, carrying the dead rat with him.

20.

He looked up disgustedly at the man holding out the slip. Oh great, another 'fish'. He snatched the paper and stared at it for a moment. Why did they send anyone who looked vaguely non-homicidal to him? He looked this one up and down. He was even limping. He looked like he should be in the infirmary, not working in it.

"Why'd they send you up here," he asked.

"I have a bit of medical training."

Another one who had done a first aid course in the army and put it down on his form because he thought that working up here sounded like an easy ride. He smirked. "Okay Doctor Kildare. See that guy there," he said pointing to Joey. "Talk to him and he'll show you where the stuff is. Go wash those windows." He hoped he sounded suitably mean and pissed off. Ya gotta tell 'em from the get go who's in charge in this job.

But the inmate just smiled, almost to himself as if he's said something funny. "Yes Boss," he said.

There was no disrespect or anything, but he didn't like the fish's tone. He'd have to watch this one.

21.

He looked around the room, noticing the little dots of colour, a pink beanie here, a blue shirt there, all scattered in a sea of grey. Grey walls, grey tables, the grey uniforms they made them wear. He had never seen a world so devoid of colour. It was like a drug. It made you sleepy and slow. Maybe that was the idea.

He tried to focus. He couldn't look at his face. Instead he looked the little numbers on his chest: 501437 D. He didn't remember the D. Was it new? He wondered what it stood for. Had he done something to get himself in trouble again? It was different. Unlike all the others it had a little red patch. Red: danger, disabled? A little tiny splash of colour. Who had decided to do that he wondered.

They sat there as they always did. Over the scratched grey table. Trying to pretend the guards and the bells and the bars didn't exist. Trying to pretend they were just two normal people sitting at a perfectly normal table, one that didn't have a bolt to chain people down with. Trying to ignore the fact that one of them could get up from the table and walk away and the other one couldn't.

As usual he'd run out of things to say that wouldn't hurt him. And every question he wanted to ask he couldn't. So they did what they always did until the bell rang and had to go, leaving House there waiting for them to take him back to wherever they put him: they just sat there.

He should have brought a book.

22.

"Don't come here again."

"I don't mind. The drive's not too bad."

"I don't want you to."

There was no choice. "Are you sure?"

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it."

No he thought. It's always what you don't say that's important, isn't it?

23.

From out of nowhere the guy sitting next to him said: "It don't mean shit." He felt that as they were connected (although the chain made it more physically than emotionally) he should make some sort of response – just in case.

"What? This or life in general?"

"And if it don't mean shit why do they make you do it again and again?"

Oh right. He got it now. "Like having Christmas every year, but no one ever getting any presents."

"Exactly. I've been up five times. Every time: just going through the motions because they have to fill out the forms and say they tried."

"Well I'm screwed then. This is my first time."

"Totally man. They'll give you five minutes and pull out the 'big red stamp'."

"It probably takes them longer to fill out the forms," said the guy on the end.

"Yeah, and how long have we been waiting," said the prisoner on his left?

"I think it has been about three hours since we got taken off the block," said another. "Fuck knows when we'll get back."

"It don't matter Sam," said his neighbour. "It's meatloaf surprise tonight."

There was a mutterings of groans and laughs from the men sitting on the bench as they were reminded. Someone gave the stock response:

"It's a surprise if you can actually find any meat in it."

24.

He looked up at them in amazement. Did these idiots have the right file? "Do I feel rehabilitated? Will I re-offend? Am I sorry?"

"When I committed this 'crime' I was a doctor trying to save a patient's life. So sorry for trying to do my job. I have since lost my job, been struck off the medical register and sent to prison. I doubt I will be in position to 're-offend' ever again," he said sarcastically.

"But to keep you happy: I promise never to try to save another person's life again. I promise never to diagnose another illness, which is a pity," he said pointing offhandedly to the chairman. "Considering you have type two diabetes – a relatively new disease born on the wings of fast food and super size portions, and unless it is treated you will probably have a heart attack within five years."

"As to rehabilitation: For the past year I have been locked away in a cell, screamed at, beaten, bullied and humiliated. So yeah, if you consider that rehabilitation then I'm rehabilitated."

He was getting into this now. "I have also learnt new skills. They made me do a one week literacy course. I even have a nifty certificate saying I can read and write. Who needs medical school when you have that? I can officially spell cat now: C.A.T. So yes I am ready to rejoin society. Ready for whoever wants to employ me."

He eyed the tribunal with a look of disgust. "All I am trained to do is save peoples' miserable stupid pathetic lives and if I get out I am going to be lucky if I am allowed to pack bags at the local supermarket. Brilliant system you have here. You must be very proud of it."

Needless to say he did not get his parole. He got thirty days in solitary and a short, very painful lesson about his attitude from the guards.

25.

He looked up from his chart. "How's the leg?"

"It's fine."

But it wasn't. It was stuck out straight, pushed away to one side, as if the owner didn't want to acknowledge its existence.

"Have they been taking your drugs again?"

"No."

"Yes they have. I saw you when you came in. You can barely walk."

"It's cold today."

"You will come here twice a day to get your medication from me personally."

"No."

"You don't have a say convict."

"I don't want to die in here. That would be really really shitty."

"The officers?"

"Who else."

There was a pause.

"I maybe only have another ten months… if I don't get into any more trouble."

"Ten months of pain," he said.

Strangely the convict smiled. "It's just a damned leg."

26.

501 was in his usual spot. Alone, stretched out on the bleachers, watching the human zoo as they circled round each other yard. He never budged. Poor bastard couldn't really. It was pathetic to watch him try to keep up. They never cut him any slack. Most of them were little better than animals anyway. If they sensed any weakness they took pleasure in the kill. And a big fucking limp was a dead give away. He couldn't count the number of times they had found him sprawled on the ground, hands on his head, waiting for someone to find him and come and pick him up.

One time they'd actually thought he'd escaped, but he was just stuck in one of the outer workshops. Left behind because Paul J. McCarthy the Third was a lazy fucking shirker who couldn't keep track of a lone goldfish in a barrel let alone forty inmates. 501 had still gotten the blame and had taken a beating for it though, mostly for showing up Pig J. the Third, as they called him, for the moron he was. There was no justice in here. Not if you were on the wrong side of the bars.

But that was when he decided he liked 501. They'd all been kept late to search the prison, the place was in lock down and there were sirens going all over the place. But when he'd found him, sitting patiently next to the door of the workshop, all he'd done was look up and asked: 'What took you so long?'

After that, when he'd been transferred from Solitary to North Block, he'd keep an eye on him. Picked up the slack when the others couldn't be bothered and just wanted to lock him down. As long as you gave him some space so he could go at his own jerky pace he wouldn't bite and would talk to you like you were a real person.

That was a change. Sometimes he grew tired of being hated all the time. Neither of them wanted to be here. He'd wanted to be a rock star, but then he'd gotten Janey pregnant and his dad said the Correctional Services was a good stable career so the old fender was stashed away in the garage.

More importantly 501 also knew stuff. He'd been something important before becoming a number. He never talked about it though. But 501 just had that air about him. He was smart. Even though he couldn't move fast he always had the knack of suddenly not being where the shit was going down.

He went over and stood near him, leaning one leg on a bench as he surveyed the scene. "So what's you prediction for today," he asked looking out at the yard.

The convict didn't move a muscle or look round. "Don't know Boss," he said to a patch of dirt a few feet away.

"You always know."

"Not today I don't."

He sighed. "Okay, what's the deal?"

"I don't want anything special. I just want what's mine. Tell Pug Face and Chewey to stop taking my drugs. You know the leg hurts like buggery. I don't get much chance to walk any more, but when I do I like to take it."

He knew which guys he was referring to. Both dirty officers. "Or I could just tell them what you called them," he countered.

"Yeah, but then I just get the shit beaten out of me and judging by the size of the shank, poor old Santiago Margarita over there by the South wall dies from a mix of blood loss and a punctured lung, on your watch."

He almost forgot himself and nearly looked over at him at this revelation. "You better not be shitting me," he said.

"In about ten minutes I'd say. The fish with the stupid blonde hair is still trying to work up the courage, but he's scared and being hassled and he'll cave. I'd cave too if I was in for the first time for some piss weak possession charge and had that lot on my tail," he said with a minute head gesture to the Brothers' area of the yard. "You can tell by that haircut he isn't the brightest con on the cell block." He probably thinks he is going to get a pat on the back, not a one way trip to death row.

501 had just told him exactly who was involved and what was going down without naming a name. "You never talk to anyone. How the fuck do you know this stuff," he asked.

501 laughed softly to himself and tapped his head. "Isn't it obvious. I'm psychic." He looked up at him. "Now to seal the deal hadn't you better manhandle me off to the hole for some trumped up charge so they don't know I gave you the tip off and get back to saving Chicko's life? He's the brother of the Puerto Rican Gang leader. If you don't get there soon you'll have a re-enactment of West Side Story on your hands… but with more blood and without the cool dancing and singing. And if that happens I'd definitely prefer to be in solitary so I may take a swing at you anyway."

"You're slipping. You got the timing wrong," he said as he passed the two little white pills through the food slot. "It took the guy fifteen minutes to work up the nerve, so we got onto him in plenty of time. Made it look like a random search."

"So sue me Officer Krupke," came the reply from the other side of the door.

"Very funny 501. Keep that up and I'll extend your stay down here to a month," he said as he shut the port and bolted it, making sure the padlock was secure. But he snorted as an off key rendition of 'when you're a Jet you're the top cat in town' followed him down the corridor.

What he didn't see was House sinking slowly onto the mattress, trying to stave off the claustrophobia he felt. It was success on one front. He'd gotten his pills back and he'd probably be let out after a few days. But he couldn't help the panic he always felt when everything went quiet and he was left with nothing but a mattress, a blanket and his mind to play with.

House glanced at the door. He'd spent a lot of time down here, but every time it got to him. How could someone be so bad that they needed to confine them like this – a barred gate and a thick iron door locked down with three padlocks. How was he meant to escape through that? He could barely walk.

27.

This time it was short, sweet and exactly what they wanted to hear:

"Yes sir I am sorry for my crime. I feel ready to rejoin society. I will never do it again. I don't want to ever come back here."

At least the last part was true.

28.

He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. He'd chosen one with the wavy handle. It was a dark brown, solid, made from a thousand year oak tree in Southern Patagonia or something. It felt strange in his hands after so long without it.

A shout made him jump. "Hey buddy. Ya going to be all day or do you and the stick wanna room? Some of us would like to get out of here too ya know."

He turned around to the prisoners waiting behind him. "You're just jealous," he said to the heckler. "Of its great big shaft."

That provoked a howl of amusement from everyone except the heckler. But before it could escalate he held up his hands and smiled to diffuse the situation. "Alright, alright, I'm going."

He shoved the bag under his arm, propped himself up on his cane, tried to limp out and nearly tripped over himself. Whoa! He looked down at the cane. He'd forgotten how fast he could be with this thing. That was the problem with prison. There was all the time in the world. No appointments to keep. Nowhere to be. No need to hurry. No need for a cane.

He heard a chuckle. The heckler was smiling at him. "The shaft too big for you," he said mockingly. "That's not what I heard. I heard you could take anything – gimp boy."

He stared at the heckler for a second. Without realizing it he had lifted the cane and was moving forward. He didn't know why. Maybe he just wanted to bash the shit's skull in. The heckler rose to greet him, smirking. Thinking taking on a gimp was easy. He'd show the fucker. But he never got the chance.

"Hey, break it up or I'll break that fucking stick over your stupid head," yelled a guard. "You," he said pointing to him: "Out." The guard turned to the heckler. "And you can go to the back of the line."

He continued to stare down the heckler, but the guard's voice startled him. "Now." He saw the nightstick come out and he automatically put his head down and his hands up. "Yes Boss," he muttered, backing away, waiting for instructions. At a nod from the guard he made his way out, this time more carefully.

29.

He saw the storage guy look at the bag. "Ya just come out huh."

He followed the storage guy's train of sight to the paper bag he carried. He'd already had two cops eye him off. The bloody thing was like a neon sign. "Yeah."

"How long."

"Four years."

Jesus that hurt to say.

"I did six months a while back for car theft," said the storage guy. "My brother's in there for life. Shot a few niggers."

"Really," he said deadpan.

"Yeah, you must have known him. He is a leader in the Aryan Brothers." The storage guy waggled his hand over his head. "Got a swastika tattooed on his head."

He remembered him. He was the little testosterone pumped Nazi. Probably had a dick the size of a peanut.

"Yeah, I saw him around," he said carefully. If this was Tattooed Moron's brother then he'd better err on the side of caution. Genetics was a powerful force.

"He seem okay? I haven't been up to see him in a while."

He remembered the last time he had seen the Tattooed Moron. He and seven others were pummelling some poor black gang member behind the storage block. He'd watched for a second then turned away. First rule: you minded your own business or you'd be the next poor sucker getting the shit beaten out of him.

"He looked okay."

The storage guy nodded and went to retrieve his stuff. He came back a few minutes later.

"This it?" said the guy, holding up the army duffel bag.

"That's the one."

He checked to see if everything was there. It seemed to be. A few clothes, some papers, some personal stuff, and some money. The few bits and pieces that had survived 'the great purge of self indulgence' as Wilson had called it.

30.

He pulled out the few things from the bag the prison had given him and shoved them into the duffel bag. Then he looked at the paper bag. Where was a trashcan when you needed one? The storage guy had come out and was lighting up a joint.

He smiled.

"Hey man, can I borrow your lighter?"

They watched the bag burn, sharing the joint.

"I wish I'd thought of doing that," said the storage guy.

He smiled. "It's cool huh?"

The storage guy giggled. "Dude that, for an old guy, is very cool. So dude what heinous crime were you in for?"

His smile disappeared and he regarded the young punk for a second. "I killed a girl."

31.

He stood outside the house. He didn't even know how to approach them.

Hello, have you seen your son since he got out, I seem to have lost him? I said I'd look after him, but I lost him. I went back to the place I last saw him, but just like Danny he was gone. He must have fallen down a crack in the metaphorical sofa of life.

He looked down at the snow. He heard her voice. "James? Is that you?"

He saw the porch light came on and the door opened with a squeak. She came out. "It is you. What are you doing out there in the snow? You come inside this instant young man. You'll catch your death of cold." She made shooing motions and he smiled.

"James, come on inside you silly boy." He loved being called a silly boy by her. He loved the fact that in her eyes he was always Greg's friend. Not a big grown up doctor with bills to pay and responsibilities, but Greg's friend. It had a certain simplicity to it that appealed to him.

As always he succumbed. He went in and she made him tea and little tiny triangles of white bread ham sandwiches with lots of margarine and the crusts cut off. His mother had never made them. She had made healthy good kosher food with olive oil. Sometimes, at night in bed, he would drool thinking of those ham sandwiches. Most men drooled over beer and girls. He drooled over pig and girls.

His mother and his wife thought House was a bad influence. He knew House was a bad influence. But he loved being with House. House was older, taller, swore like a trooper and had a very flexible attitude towards traffic regulations. And damn him – he got away with it.

He realised he was not a good Jewish boy. It was only many years later that he realised he was not a good boy full stop. But, as Danny used to say when he had once again escaped mom's wrath, he also got away with it with his oh so pretty looks and big brown eyes. House did not have that luxury. He looked like a lecherous train wreck about to happen. Even before the infarction little old ladies would cross the street to avoid him.

But not to her. To her he was just Greg: Ten years old, dressed in a striped shirt and jeans with dirt on the knees, standing in the yard, smiling at her, proudly showing her his latest find, holding it up for her to see knowing that she would always come out, admire it carefully while trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell and tell him it probably wasn't a good idea to bring it into the house or his father would get mad.

Sometimes he wished he was still ten.

"He'll be home soon," said Mrs House. Even now, she was always Mrs House. She was a borrowed mom. Always treated with respect.

She sighed. "He's just a bit late as usual. You know how he is. He gets distracted so easily. Last week he said it was a leaf. Could you spend half an hour staring at a leaf James? He said he did. He said he was watching it grow."

He might have been having sex with Marjorie Aitken from down the road. He might have been watching a leaf. You never knew with him. That was Danny for you.

He shook his head and looked up at the house. The porch light was out and there was no one there waiting for him with tea, sandwiches and stories. He knew he couldn't knock. He turned away and headed back to his car. He couldn't come home to them empty handed. Not again. Not another brother lost.

32.

He was going to win. Three aces. How cool was that. He was concentrating hard when a voice cut in.

"Can anyone join in?"

The men looked up, annoyed at having their game disturbed. He sat staring at his aces and the pile of money on the table. He was going to rake it in tonight.

"No, fuck off," said Bobby.

"Awe, come on guys. They said you were nice," came the reply. "I've got enough dough."

He knew that voice. He looked up. It was the guy with the limp. He smiled. "Hey I know this guy from North Block. Don't mind the stick. It ain't loaded. He's got a limp." He leaned forward. "He knows the Arnello brothers," he said conspiratorially.

Appreciative noises were made from around the table and the guy was sized up. "It's nothing like that." The guy smiled quickly. "I just helped them out one time with a little problem they had."

"And?"

The guy took a seat. "They gave me a Corvette," he said with a nostalgic smile. "It was a real beauty."

Tony from Chicago looked thoughtful. "That was nice of them. All they gave me was a broken nose."

The men laughed and the game continued. He nodded to Tony and they dealt him in the next round. The guy was okay.

"How's the hands," said the guy after a few rounds. He realised he'd never known the guy's name. Just the guy with the limp. He'd had the worst cell on the block, the one on the ground floor next to the guards' station, cos he walked funny and was slow. You never got any sleep in that cell. It was cold and it was right by the exit. There was always someone coming or going. And you couldn't try anything or the guards would be onto you in a second.

Sometimes, when they were short staffed, the guy didn't get to go out. It was just easier to lock him down. He'd be glued to the bars watching everyone else pass by. He'd look kinda sad. But then everyone looked kinda sad sometimes in a place like that.

They'd played poker a few times. The guy had known he was a sharper from the first minute. The guy had quietly told him not to try anything or he'd tell the others and they'd probably rip his balls off. Then he'd said to come see him the next day.

He'd turned up out of interest. What else was there to do?

The guy was locked down. He said it was because he had told one of the guards he was cheating on his wife and his mistress had the clap. He'd asked how he knew that, but the guy said it didn't matter and told him to put his hands through the slot.

The guy looked at his hands, turning them over. "You've been a sharper for years, but it's getting a bit tricky now – right?" he said.

"Yeah."

"RSI."

"What?"

"Repetitive Strain Disorder." The guy looked pissed that he didn't know what RSI meant. "If you do the same thing again and again your muscles get tired and wear out – like parts on a car," he said snappily.

Then he'd shown him some exercises to do. "These will help. Keep you limber for taking the marks," the guy said as he laughed.

He'd been laughing too, but stopped when he saw the guards coming over. He looked back at the guy: they both knew what was coming.

"Go back to your cell convict," said one guard. He'd got the hint. He'd left as fast as he could. Some of those bastards were mean sons of bitches.

The guy was gone for a while, but a few days later he'd seen him at his bars as they went out. He'd looked like shit, but he had smiled at him and waggled his fingers through the bars as a reminder for him to do his exercises.

Now he proudly flexed his fingers. "Much better. I do the exercises every day." He smiled. "I'm card sharpen like I used to in my twenties."

"Not in this game," mumbled Sammy.

He looked indignant. "You know me Sammy. I save that for the marks."

The boys laughed.

"So who gave you the limp?" Asked Ted.

"My doctors."

"Wow – and I thought the Arnello brothers were bad. Remind me to pay my doctor's bills on time."

The guy laughed bitterly. "Yeah." He looked at his cards. "So… I need a place to stay and a job. Anyone know anything."

Sammy looked over to the corner. "Hey Barney – you still hiring?"

A dishevelled lump from the corner stirred. That was Barney. That man had BO that would kill an ox. But he was a good guy, even if he had a bit too much liking for the bottle. Barney played a bit with them. He liked to pretend, but he was shit. Whiskey and poker were a combination that would get you cleaned out around here. But they all liked Barney so they just took his money, let him sleep it off and made sure he had enough for the cab ride home. Who said there wasn't honour among thieves? Besides he had cheap porn.

Barney looked up from the table. "Yeah?"

Sammy pointed. "Guy here looking for a job."

Barney squinted vaguely in the direction of the poker table. "Has he got two legs?"

"Three," said Ted.

Barney ran a hand over his sweaty face. "Even better. A freakin mutant." He tried to focus on the guy. "You clean the joint n' you get board. I gotta room in the basement." "En suite and everything." He laughed to himself at some private joke that he presumed he'd get at a later date when he actually saw the bathroom. "And ya fill in when I am busy or have a date and I pay you cash."

"Oh like you ever score," said Sammy.

"Hey," Barney ran his hands through his greasy thinning hair and smiled. "I'll have you know I am a chick magnet."

The guy nodded. "It's a deal buddy."

"Call me Barney," was all he said before he slumped back over his bottle.

He smiled at the guy. Pleased to have repaid the debt. "You in?" he said. The guy nodded.

The game continued on.

33.

"How ya doing Greg?"

"I'm doing fine Mr Green. No trouble at all. I've been a good boy."

He saw the resentment and his response was quick and sharp. "Don't give me shit." You never let them get the upper hand – even for a second.

It got the desired result. The head went down and there was a quick mumbled sorry. He'd been doing this job a long time and he knew exactly how to pitch his tone so they squirmed. He softened his tone. "The job working out?"

The response was different this time. He'd known it would be. They tried to pretend, but they trained them well. All the anger was gone, replaced with that bland indifference they all seemed to share. "Yeah, my boss is okay."

"You know he has connections."

"Connections?" Maybe the guy was screwing with him.

Or may be not? He sure looked rough enough. But he'd been thrown when they had first met and the man had automatically held out his hand. They never shook your hand. It just wasn't done because in their eyes he was 'one step up from prison officer' scum. But he'd held out his hand as if they were meeting over cocktails and those hors d'oeuvrery things they serve at fancy parties.

He should have taken it, but because he was so shocked he just stared. After a second the hand was pulled back and the guy began rubbing his leg with it: Pretending the whole embarrassing incident had never happened. Pretending that shaking a man's hand was not a big deal. Pretending that it didn't mean anything; remembering exactly who he was and why he was in this depressing office trying to justify his entire life to a complete stranger; remembering that now he wasn't the type of guy who got to shake hands any more; terrified because he knew this man had complete control over his him and his decisions meant the difference between some sort of freedom and another trip on the rickety bus with the bars on the windows.

Wondering if he had blown it.

He'd watched him now as he unconsciously rubbed his leg. He knew about the leg. It was a bum leg. It was in his file. Something called an infarction. But he wasn't going to go easy on him because of that. Ironically it was the handshake that had shaken him. It said something. Maybe this guy was worth a little extra effort?

"Don't try to look fucking innocent with me," he said. "You know what I mean. You know what happens in Barney's back rooms. You get done with them and you're back in there doing hard time until you're wondering exactly why God gave you a pecker for anyway. You need to get out of there." Come on man – fight. Pretend you are a real man. Take my hand.

But he just rubbed the leg harder. "And go where?" he asked.

Anywhere, but not here. "Don't you have friends or family you can stay with?"

He watched as he thought for a minute. He watched as the guy remembered exactly who he was, gave up all pretence and gave in to whatever demons he was carrying. He'd been doing this job a long time but he still hated it as much as he did when he was young, which ironically, was why he still did it. He hated this system. But even now he still wondered exactly how did they manage to take everything? Wouldn't it be nice if, just for once, they made things better?

"No," said the con. He stopped rubbing his leg.

Fuck. He'd be back inside within six months. Another notch in the belt. He hoped it made them happy.

He rubbed his hands over his face. Fuck this. Then he grabbed a form and a pen. "Right, I know we have done this before, but we have to fill this out. I have to caution you that if you don't answer truthfully you may be in breach of your parole conditions and may suffer any relevant penalties as deemed under the statute."

He watched the man's reaction.

Fuck this to Hell and back.

He wanted to weep – and no self respecting hard assed bad motherfucker like him weeps: not in this day and age when our kids are dying ten a day in Iraq and you have to look at everyone like they are going to jump you.

But watching a grown man cringe took it out of you.

"Name?"

"House, Gregory."

34.

The dude with the stick came in a lot. Even though he'd try to hide in the corners he stuck out. There weren't many white guys who would brave a bar like this. But for the most part they left him alone. That wise dude was right when he said music soothes the savage beast. And they all came here for the music.

Besides you could tell he wasn't worth it. From the looks of him he probably didn't have a pot to piss in. But the dude knew his way around the music all right. He didn't smile as such, but he'd sway to the music, like he was weaving in and out of the notes – dodging out of their way and laughing when he missed and bumped into them.

But it was the piano that drew him. Every time he would circle a little bit closer, eyeing it off.

He'd been waiting for months for this moment. Now the dude was by the keys, looking down at them.

He didn't want to startle him. "You play?" he said softly.

The dude reached out his hand to the keys, almost touching, leaving them there, lingering. "No," he said at last. "I can't play." But he knew that was a lie. He could see the dude's long fingers stretching out, each one instinctively knowing where it should be.

He did a lower octave scale. The dude started and pulled back his hand as if he had been burned. "You sure," he asked.

"Yeah." The dude riffled through his pockets until he pulled out a dollar bill and stuffed it in his jar. "Thanks, you were good."

He took the dollar bill out of the jar, folded it up and put it in his top pocket. He never saw the dude in there again.

He kept the bill.

35.

"Damn you man, you are winning again."

He smiled slowly. "And I'll cream you in the next round." All bravado. He knew, no matter what his cards he wouldn't win the next round. He liked these friendly games. They were his bread and butter. As long as he didn't clean them out he could take his winnings and live for another week. Fuck you Mr Green. This was a much better way of making a living than packing bags at Wal Mart. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

"Hey, what's that in your pocket?"

He looked down. The rat had woken up and was trying to dig his way out of the top pocket. "Oh him, he's just my lucky rat." He grinned. "He has X ray rat vision and can see through all your cards."

"Aren't rats dirty?"

"Not if you wash them."

"Do ya wash him?"

He opened the cage door and waited till the little rat climbed on his hand. He brought his hand up to his face and looked at the rat.

"Sucker." He grinned. "It's bath time," he said sticking the rat on his shoulder.

The rat heard the water and realised its horrible fate. He could feel it trying to burrow into his armpit. "It's no use hiding there my friend. There is no escaping the Sink of Doom," he said as he ran the faucet.

The rat was unceremoniously extracted, dunked, and then soaped it up with dish washing liquid. "Just think. You'll be lemon fresh," he continued as he used a finger to lather the rat's fur.

"And under the tap for a nice clean rinsed rat," he finished as he rinsed it off. "But now the best bit," he said as he grabbed the cloth and carefully wrapped the rat up, carrying the little bundle away from the sink and back to the bed. "The reward." He held it up in front of the little bundle, then put both of them down on the bed. He watched happily as the rat worked his way from out of the cloth and nibbled his treat. All the horrors of bath time forgiven.

"Nah. Of course I don't. He's festy. Probably has the plague or something. You touched those cards didn't you? Tell me if you start breaking out in black pustules."

36.

He was sitting on the floor in the corner unloading the latest shipment of dirty snuff mags into the stands. Straight from Russia Barney had told him. "Those Ruskies are clever. On the front cover it looks like a shit porno mag your average fuckstick wouldn't even give a second glance. But inside - all your wildest kiddie snuff dreams come true. Then ya just hide them in plain sight and the Feds are duped."

He had snorted. Somehow he thought the Feds were a bit smarter than Barney gave them credit for. But Barney had shaken his head. "Those Ruskies are clever all right. And so organized you wouldn't believe."

He looked at the stack of 'Ladies of the Night' he was unloading with disgust. He always looked carefully at the men who bought those, trying to work out if there was a type.

He was startled out of his reverie by a voice in his ear. "I hear you are pretty good with the cards."

He looked up warily. It was Gino. He glanced surreptitiously around and saw some other men going upstairs. He never looked too closely at the men who came at odd hours to Barney's shop and went upstairs, but he knew Gino from the restaurant. Sometimes Barney sent him there with packages to deliver. "Now you go straight there," he'd say. If anyone asks - you are just a nice law abiding crippled guy going out for a stroll. And most importantly when you get there you don't see nothing or nobody."

He'd learned that lesson early on.

It was his first week and he was coming back from cleaning the booths when a posse of large violent looking well dressed men had strode into the shop. A few nodded to Barney; most just went straight to the back and up the stairs with out a word; but one particularly huge and violent looking guy stopped and looked straight at him.

Caught staring. He felt like a rabbit in the headlights. Standing there in his grubby t-shirt and jeans, holding his plastic bucket as the big guy came over to him.

"Who's this?" said the big guy as he leaned uncomfortably into his space and examined him intently.

"That, that's just House. He's new. Cleans the place up a bit," said Barney.

"Is he okay?" asked the guy.

"Yeah," said Barney. "He did time at Trenton. He don't see nothing."

The guy grabbed his t-shirt and pushed him back painfully into the wall. He hit with a thump and dirty water sloshed onto his sneaker. "Is that true. You don't see nothing?"

Oh shit, what was he supposed to say in this situation? How did you convinced a 300 pound thug who was currently grinding you into a wall you were on the up and up – so to speak, and that he didn't need to cut out your liver.

"I'm practically fucking blind. It's a miracle I can find my own dick."

There was a moment. Then the big guy released him and he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd played it right.

"Hey, this guy's funny," the guy yelled over to Barney. But then he turned back to him. "But just remember: you don't see nothing or you really won't be able to find you dick cos I'll cut it off."

After that he'd pretty much been ignored by Barney's 'connections', eyed off occasionally, but considered part of the furniture and left alone. That was the way he liked it. That was why he was currently looking up at Gino with a mixture of alarm and more alarm.

"I'm okay," he said slowly.

"There's a big game up on the Old Bar on Third tomorrow. We can't get in. We want you to play for us." It was all said 'all nice and friendly like', but this was not a request, this was an order. "It is being run by Benjamin Carlos. He thinks he is a hot shot at the table."

Gino smiled nastily. "We don't like him. Do whatever you have to do to clean him out. Make him look like a schmuck"

"Here is your ante money," he said as he slapped a wad of bills into his hand. "Anything you win, you get ten percent."

And with that Gino was gone. He looked down at the money in his hand. Oh Jesus.

37.

"You cheated."

"You know I didn't cheat."

"We want our money back."

"You lost it. You suck at poker and you smoke too much. You've probably got first stage lung cancer. End of story."

But that wasn't the end of the story. The end of the story was when he was kyboshed on the back of the head.

He sat up and groaned. Christ his head hurt. Was he concussed? He did a quick mental check and decided he was okay. He leaned back against the brick wall he was propped up against. He was in a street near the bar. He had no recollection of how he had gotten here. Probably dumped by the bouncers so as to avoid trouble. He didn't even bother to check and see if the money was still there. He'd lost the $250 Gino had given him to get into the game. Not to mention the ten grand he had won. Que fucking sera sera.

And no cane. That meant it was still hopefully in the alley behind the bar. He'd have to go back and get it. Only a block or two, but still not a picnic. Then he'd have the fun job of telling Gino he didn't have their money and attempting not to get his fingers broken in the process. He sighed. Could it get any worse, he mused.

Someone tossed him a quarter.

Perfect.

38.

He didn't try to avoid the blow. A backhanded slap across his cheek. It was expected. It was a show of humiliation. And not even from the head thug but Danny the idiot sidekick. That's how low down on the ladder he was.

Gino was lounging by the sink, enjoying the show, letting Danny have his fun. He knew he should have never called Danny a coprolite that time. He may have not known what it meant, but he knew it was an insult.

And speaking of that - ah shit! He could practically see the little wheels turning in his brain as the big lug spied it. Danny took his cane and began thoughtfully turning it in his hands. Jesus he thought. How clichéd can these gangsters get.

Just get on with it. I know the drill. I fucked up. I am in for it. He stood there patiently waiting for the gangster to work it out.

Danny eventually reached the end of the thought process and he went down with a sucker punch to the stomach. He'd have a nice cane shaped bruise there for a while.

He curled, trying to protect the more delicate bits of him from the cane as Danny brought it down again and again. And this was them being nice. They'd heard how Carlos had nearly shat himself that night, totally taken down in front of his boys. Gino had said he only had to pay back the $250, but he obviously wanted Danny to emphasise this point, just in case he forgot.

Then he felt the cane break. Absurdly he smiled into the filthy carpet. Oh thank God. He knew it could happen. Wood was tough, but bone was alive and constantly growing, building and making itself stronger. He'd seen a guard break a nightstick across a prisoner's back during a riot.

He looked up and saw Danny staring at the half cane in his hand. His look of surprise almost comical. Should have brought a baseball bat you stupid bastard he thought.

"Guess they don't make canes like they used to," laughed Gino.

Disgruntled at being denied his pleasure Danny threw the useless stick away and kicked him in the side. "Next time we'll break your legs," he said.

Yeah, like he hadn't seen that one coming. Were these two morons the only people on the planet who hadn't seen The Godfather?

He breathed in great big deep relieved breaths through the pain. He could sense the novelty was wearing off. No more fun playthings to hit him with. Here endeth the lesson. Now they'll get bored and leave him alone. Please let them get bored and leave him alone.

He watched nervously as Gino opened the rat's cage door and coaxed the little rat onto his hand. The rat didn't know he was in danger. To him hands meant food, shoulders to sit on and ears to nibble.

He'd never realized how tiny his rat was. He fit in the palm of Gino's hand.

"And," Gino said with a smile. "We'll crush your little rat," he said cupping the rat in his hands. Gino certainly wasn't a coprolite. He was a clever bastard.

He closed his eyes. He couldn't watch. Didn't want to think about the crunch of little bones: nothing but a soggy grey sack.

"Squish squish squish," he heard Gino say.

He closed his eyes tighter.

He felt a boot kick him in the shoulder. He groaned and rolled onto his back.

"But not today. Here. Here is your rat old man." He felt the rat as it plopped on his chest. He felt its little claws digging into his chest in fright. It was alive.

"But we want our money by tonight, understand. Two fifty or we will break the other two of your legs."

He grabbed the rat and nodded for all he was worth. "Tonight," he rasped.

He lay there for a while after they had gone, letting his breathing come back to normal. Eventually he slowly and painfully got up and put the rat carefully on the bed. He sat next to it, thinking.

After a moment he began frantically riffling through his pockets, pulling out everything and dumping it on the bed. He looked down in despair at the pitiful pile. Two faded green backs plus change, an old chewed pen, the Vicodin bottle and his library card. Basically fuck all. He looked around his room, but there was no salvation there either.

He picked up the Vicodin and shook it. Not even enough there to sell to the junkies. "We are in trouble rat." He looked down at the little grey rat on the bed. He was nibbling one of the dollar bills.

"Don't eat the money you moron. We need that."

With a sigh of resignation he slowly reached in and pulled out the little book that nestled in his inside pocket.

He looked at the rat again and waggled the book at it. "I am only doing this for you, you know."

...

His leg was throbbing by the time he reached the store. Even with the bus it had been a long painful walk – his torso ached where it has been hit. He hadn't examined it, just buttoned his jacket around it tight. He didn't want to know the extent of the bruising until he got home. But it hurt to breathe and he'd had to stop many times. He guessed a couple of ribs were cracked or broken. He wiped the sweat off his face, tried to straighten his jacket and hoping the bruise on his face wasn't too noticeable he limped in.

"Hi, I'd like to sell this," he said holding out the book with an awkward smile.

The bookseller's look of disdain turned to one of amazement, then suspicion.

"Where did you get this?" he asked.

"It's mine." He took it from the man and opened it to the front page. He pointed. "See, it says: 'House' on the title page. That's me. I'm House." He scrabbled in his pockets and pulled out his library card, putting it down on the counter in front of the man. "See, Greg House." He took a half step back - prison training.

"It would be worth more if it didn't have that," said the man haughtily.

"I know, but I wasn't meant to sell it. I've had it for years," he babbled. "One of those 'for life gifts' I suppose." He shrugged. "But then life catches up to you I guess." He smiled badly again. Painfully aware of how pathetic and desperate he looked. Trying not to let the desperation through.

He failed.

"I'll give you three hundred for it."

"But… it's got…" he trailed off, biting back his words.

"Three hundred," repeated the bookseller.

He lowered his head and thought of his remaining intact ribs and the little rat. "Okay."

39.

She was rearranging the shoes when she noticed him. Because he was hopping. You don't see many people hopping. He was trying to hop inconspicuously. Ironically this made him even more conspicuous. It wasn't really a hop. More of a step swivelly hop.

He'd been attracted to the dollar bin. When Mrs 'little old lady' Granthorpe wasn't looking she often took the tags off things she knew people needed desperately and sneaked them in there. Mrs Granthorpe suspected, but she couldn't do anything when someone would hold up a jacket or a baby's jumpsuit and point to the bin.

He pulled out an old grey sweater she had sneaked in there last week and held it up. Tucking it up under his arm he looked around the store. He hop stepped over to a stand filled with left handed hockey sticks and badminton racquets.

His eyes lit up as he pulled an old battered wooden cane from the stand. He tested it for a second and smiled.

She watched him approach the counter. He tried to hide the limp.

She wondered why.

"How much for the cane please," he asked Mrs Granthorpe, putting it on the counter.

"Ten dollars," said Mrs Granthorpe. For someone who volunteered in a thrift store she really could be a mean bitch sometimes. She smelt like little old lady too.

She saw him swallow. "Ten dollars?" It was too much. Far too much for that ratty old cane. And far too much for him. He looked round at the door. She wondered if he was going to try to make off with the cane, but Mrs Granthorpe had a tight hold on it. She wondered if he was just going to try to bolt anyway. They both knew he wouldn't get very far.

Mrs Granthorpe smiled primly. "Canes are a bit of a novelty item nowadays. Young people buy them just for fancy dress parties."

The man sighed. He put the sweater down. Cold was a way of life. The cane was essential to the lifestyle. "I'll just take the cane," he said pulling out a ten dollar note.

Mrs Granthorpe smiled primly in triumph as she plucked the money from his fingers. Her smile saying 'I knew you had it'. She saw his shoulders tighten in anger.

He picked up the cane. "Just the thing for a fancy dress party," he said sarcastically, slinging it over his shoulder.

She knew he was aware of Mrs Granthorpe's eyes on him. He didn't use the cane as he walked out of the shop. He was good. You could barely tell he needed the cane desperately. He almost got away with it. He almost walked normally. It was only the way his hand reached out and gripped the doorframe that gave it away. White knuckles shaking with exertion.

It was only after checking Mrs Granthorpe had gone did he sag against the front window, gasping slightly.

She quickly grabbed the sweater off the counter and caught up to him. "We have a special today. Buy a cane and get a free sweater."

He eyed her with suspicion. "I don't need really need it. It was just an impulse buy."

She looked at the people passing them by: a fast moving river of curled up overcoats, hats, scarves and gloves. Most going home, some coming in. All of them wanting to be somewhere that wasn't here. She looked at him, slumped against the window. His ratty jacket. Underneath - his shirt, buttoned all the way up to the collar for warmth. They are idiots, she thought. She couldn't think of a better place to be than here. "It's cold out. You might have a friend who needs one?"

He looked doubtful. "A friend?"

"Go on," she urged. "It is our special offer for today."

"Where's the sign," he fired back.

"I was just going to put it up," she said looking into his eyes. She wasn't going to back down.

He thought for a moment, then nodded and took the sweater. "Thanks," he mumbled as he pushed off. He looked a little taller with the cane. As an afterthought he turned round and smiled briefly.

She was startled by a voice in her ear. Mrs Granthorpe was standing in the doorway.

"You didn't give him that sweater did you?" said the old lady breathing little old lady fumes all over her.

She said nothing.

"They just do things like that for sympathy," she said. "It's an act. He's probably going to use the cane to beg."

She watched as he walked down the street. The sweater tucked under his arm, his lopsided gait almost jaunty. She didn't think so. Somehow he didn't look like the begging type.

40.

He stood stock still as Gino fished in his inside pocket and found the other two twenties. "And we'll take these as interest." Gino smiled. He looked on helplessly as Gino pocketed the money.

"You're okay for a Limey," Gino said as he patted his cheek.

"But I'm not British," he said in puzzlement.

"Ah, you sound close enough. Not from Jersey anyway," said Gino, laughing as he went.

What goes around comes around he thought as he let out a deep breath. At least he had avoided getting his legs broken.

Broke again. He looked over at the little rat squeaking in his cage. He opened the refrigerator in vain hope. It was empty.

Sorry rat, he thought. That forty was supposed to keep us for the next week. Enough to buy some food, some drugs for the leg, maybe get into another small time game and win some.

He dug around in his pockets. Fortunately he still had the two dollars. Not enough.

"I'll be back," he said solemnly to the rat as he picked up his new cane. "You wait there." But the little rat squeaked again.

"No, you can't come. Where I have to go they frown on little grey rats."

He sighed. "When I come back I'll have something tasty for you. And the next time I have money I'll buy you some cheese. You have never had cheese. How's about that for a promise?"

41.

He wandered around the market; he was meant to be waiting for the late night specials - pick up a stale loaf of bread or some buns - but somehow he ended up in the dairy section. He stood staring at the offerings, his fingers pressed against the glass, like some Dickensian urchin staring in the window of a sweet shop. There were so many different cheeses. A whole world he couldn't touch.

He realised he was drawing attention to himself when the idiot teenager on the other side began to cough at him. Who stares at cheese at eleven at night?

"Can I help you sir," he said between a pimply sneer?

He looked up. "No, I was just looking."

"Well you're making marks on the glass. Would you mind?"

He smiled apologetically, swallowing his shame. "Sorry," he said softly as he moved off.

42.

He liked walking down this way and window shopping. It was a bit on the seedy side, but it had some great book stores. And what passed for seedy in Princeton wasn't really that seedy, but it made a middle aged oncologist feel like he was just a little bit dangerous and bohemian, not pudgy and dull.

This store stank of stale cigarette smoke and dust. He always felt a desire wash his hands after going here, but it had such an interesting array of books, collected from various dubious sources by the odious little man who ran it. They had found many obscure antique medical books buried deep within the jumble of the shelves. He remembered House interrupting his browsing and leering happily at him as he waggled diagrams of doctors applying leeches and sawing off limbs in front of his face.

"They only re-discovered anatomy properly 100 years ago. We so suck at medicine. 100 years ago psych patients were being doused in cold water to cool the fire in their heads and cancer was probably considered in the realm of witches. Would you want me diagnosing you on the colour of your bile?"

"Yeah, that is disgusting," he said as he perused the shelves. "And no, I wouldn't want you diagnosing my by the colour of my anything."

"Oh come on." House sidled up to him. "I could always bleed you. Find out if it is really red." He consulted the book he was reading. "It cures everything apparently."

He snorted and they both ducked as the owner gave them a stern look.

"Jewish mothers had the right idea. Chicken soup," he said conspiratorially.

House grinned. "Less invasive…"

"Much tastier," he finished.

The owner looked at them again and they laughed themselves to the entrance, leaving the shop with the jangling of the bell.

They pushed happily through the cold New Jersey wind as they made their way up town.

"Lunch at the deli," he asked.

"Sounds good to me," said House as he pulled the book he had been reading out of his jacket.

"Oh not again. Why didn't you just pay for the damn thing," he asked

"The way that guy overcharges!" said House incredulously. "Never!"

He'd just sighed. "You'll get your comeuppance eventually you know. Karma?"

House just waggled his eyebrows. "Maybe, but for the moment I shall revel in the moment."

He'd sighed again. That was all he seemed to do around this man.

He wandered the shop aimlessly, randomly picking up books and trying not to breathe in too heavily. Then he saw the book in the case. He saw the four figure price tag. A feeling of dread ran over him.

"Can I see that book," he said to the man behind the counter.

The man took in his expensive coat and smelt money. His features lit up. "Of course sir. A rare find. It cost me something let me tell you," he said as he handed it gently over.

He looked through him. "I'm sure it did," he said blandly.

He opened it and looked at the title page. "I'll take it," he said to the little man and ignoring the other's wince he slammed the book violently shut.

"You promise? And I mean really promise."

"I promise." He smirked and put his hand on his heart. "Never never never…"

"Don't quote The Producers at me."

"But my Nathan Lane impersonation is quite good isn't it?"

Fuck Nathan Lane. Fuck The Producers. And fuck him. The fucker had broken his promise. He slammed his credit card on the grimy counter and then turning his back on the bookshop owner he put the book in his inside pocket and leaned back, starring into nothing, but very aware of the feel of the book as it sat next to his breast. That was it. The fucker had gone too far. It was time to put a stop to it.

43.

"Where were you last night?"

James looked suitably chastised. "I'm sorry Michelle. I was working late."

"No you weren't," she said sadly. James could tell the hard truth very well, but he lied very badly.

"What do you mean?" he said ham theatrically.

"Your shirt stinks of beer and cigarettes."

She could see the little wheels turning in his head. 'Damn, I had to pick a clever one this time' he was thinking.

"I was looking for a friend."

Her eyes widened at this admission. "Well I hope you find her."

"Him actually."

"Oh great, so now you decide to tell me you're a faggot trolling bars for a fuck buddy. Is that why you were so reluctant to get married?" She threw up her hands. "Well this will make a great story for my girlfriends."

James held his hands out, as if pushing down some immovable force. "No," he said calmly and slowly. "He really is a 'friend' friend."

He sat on the couch and ran his hand over his eyes. He didn't seem to know where to begin. "He went missing a while back," he said eventually. "I was trying to track him down."

"Do I know him?"

"No, he…" James appeared to be searching for the right word. "He left before I met you," he finished sadly. "You never met him. You probably would have hated him."

He didn't look at her as he continued. "I didn't tell you about him because I thought he was irrelevant, but I realised he is. He is very very relevant."

44.

"Are you a cop?"

"No."

"Do you wanna jerk off?"

"Er… no."

"Do you wanna buy a dirty mag?"

"No."

"Then fuck off."

"Please, I want to know if you know this guy. He is tall, scruffy and has a cane."

"He owe you money?"

At this he paused. "No, I used to work with him. He was my friend," he said.

The man snorted, spraying 'stuff' all over the counter. "That guy had friends?" he said rubbing a grimy hand under his armpit.

He raised a finger in triumph. "So you do know him?"

"Maybe."

"You have just as much admitted it," he said waggling his hands.

The man just shrugged. "Depends."

"On what?" Suddenly the penny dropped. "Oh, got it." He pulled out a twenty and put it on the counter.

The man reached over to take it and he involuntarily leaned back to avoid the smell. "You sure you are not a cop?" he said eyeing him.

"Scout's honour." He fumbled for his medical ID. "An oncologist."

"A what?"

"A doctor… but I only deal with 'girls' problems," he said quickly as he saw the guy doing the typical 'I have this boil' move. There was no way he wanted to get any closer to this guy.

The man's eyes widened. "Like Cindy had last month? It was nasty… and the pus…" He rolled his eyes.

"Tell me about it." He nodded in sympathy with Cindy and her pus.

"So what do you want with Limpy?"

He winced at the name. "I just want to make sure he is doing all right."

"Then why don't you ask him yourself?"

"You know him right?" He stopped for a second and looked him in the eye. "You have actually met the man?"

The man smiled a cheesy grin. "Yeah, I get your point. What can I do?"

He smiled. He had learned something from House after all. He now had a co-conspirator.

"So where does he live?"

"Here." The guy pointed to the floor. "He's gotta room down there."

"Where does he work?"

"He works here too. Cleans the place out for board and does the late shift sometimes. He's not a bad worker - for a gimp."

He swallowed at this. "Does he go out anywhere?"

The man leaned in close as if telling a dirty secret. He tried not to pull away, but the BO and the bad breath were making his eyes water. "I think he goes to the library."

"The library huh? Sick bastard." He shook his head in agreement with the man as they lamented about men who went to the library.

"So, if I came then and dropped some stuff off… you wouldn't tell?"

BO Man smiled. "Not if ya paid me," he said holding the hand that he had been so enthusiastically rubbing under his arm a moment ago.

He reluctantly held out his hand. He would burn these clothes, take a long shower and maybe cut off his right hand – he was left handed anyway. "Deal Mr..?"

"Call me Barney."

"Call me Jimmy."

45.

He opened the door and after carefully putting his cane in its place: behind the door – so it was hidden when the door opened and no one would get it into their stupid heads to beat him with it or break it for dramatic effect, then dumped himself and his belongings on the bed.

He leaned back against the wall. He had everything he needed. A loaf of bread, peanut butter in the fridge, a two dollar bottle of pure vintage South Korean 'Wiskie', a biography of Noam Chomsky and some trashy magazines. God bless the library.

He wasn't needed until the morning. The evening was his. He was tired. He closed his eyes and listened to the gentle whirring. It was nice and hypnotic.

Gentle whirring?

He froze.

That wasn't right. Generally his little icebox was as quiet as the grave – apart from that damn refrigerator.

He opened his eyes and looked for the source of the sound. The rat. He limped over and looked in the rat's cage.

The rat had a wheel.

"Have you been ordering things on my credit cards when I am out?" he asked the rat sternly.

The rat didn't answer. He just kept furiously running and running. Because he was such a small rat the wheel was a bit big. He watched as the rat stumbled, got caught and nearly went for a roller coaster ride all the way around before ending up in a confused mess at the bottom.

The poor little guy looked a little dazed.

He went over to the bed. Opening the loaf of bread he broke a little bit off and pushed it through the bars.

At the sight of the bread the little rat abandoned his new toy and drunkenly staggered for the bread.

"Dopey, but not that dopey are you," he said as he watched the rat sniff the offering. "Sorry – but you get the crust," he said. The rat decided it was acceptable and began to nibble.

He looked around the room suspiciously. Everything else looked normal. Nothing else was out of place.

But the rat had a wheel.

He frowned. That was definitely interesting.

He opened the fridge. It was a nice comforting gesture he always did. An illusion – because that's what real people did when they came home. They opened the fridge in the hope that there was something really yummy in there that they had forgotten about.

No, de nada - except for the block of cheese and the Tupperware container. He stopped: the block of cheese and the Tupperware container.

There was a post it note on top of the cheese. He pulled it off. 'For the rat' was all it said. He stuck it to the fridge door.

Then he went and sat on the bed.

He sat on the bed for a long time. He sat there as the room became dark and damp and colder.

He'd tried to hide in the deepest darkest pit he could find, but now the Lord of Tupperware had gone spelunking and the bastard had found him.

So what should he do?

Ignore him.

But first he'd eat whatever was in that Tupperware container.

46.

He'd felt good that morning. Work done. Hangover not too bad. Not totally his fault though – Joey had kept springing for drinks. He smiled. The strategy hadn't worked. He'd made 50 bucks last night. He was set for the next week. And just for a change there was hot water for his shower. Must remember to thank Barney – and maybe encourage him to shower a bit more too.

He'd pulled on his clean dryer fresh clothes and his new grey sweater. He'd even splurged and had his jacket dry cleaned. Mr Kim from the corner had done him a good deal in exchange for looking at his rash. He felt good. Every bit the man about town he thought as he fed the rat. The rat liked the cheese.

The cheese he hadn't bought.

He stopped and the little rat squeaked, annoyed at being denied his treat. He frowned. For a second he'd almost forgotten who he was.

He pushed the thoughts about the cheese out of his mind. Today was not a day for thinking about such things. Today was a day for celebrating. Today he'd go to the library and while away his day in mind worthy pursuits. He pushed aside the curtain and looked out into the alleyway. It was raining again. What had Shakespeare said about omens and portents?

47.

He was trying to work out what to say. A casual 'hi' perhaps or 'Gee House – fancy running into you here? I was just popping in to buy some porn' when he literally bumped into him.

He stopped and stood staring at House. House stood staring back at him.

Jesus he was thin. Stupidly that was the first thought that popped into his head. Oh good one Jimmy he thought. Don't waste time with the obvious or anything. You know if you don't 'do something' in the next ten seconds he will have bolted. 'How can a man with a cane bolt?' asked a part of his subconscious? 'Shush,' said another bit. 'This is House. Anything is possible'.

Do something now. He did the most obvious. He grabbed the cane. House nearly went over, but regained his balance, then looked at him in shock – then anger. Oh crap!

He flinched at the look in House's eyes as he began to advance on him. House didn't say a word, but he could tell that the one thing in all the world that House wanted right now was currently situated in his left hand, he was going to get it and damn the consequences.

He'd never seen him so mad. House reached out and grabbed the came. Now they both had hold of it, but neither of them was budging. He held on. He wanted to give it back, but at the same time he didn't.

A voice cut through the tension.

"Hey!"

Oh shit a cop. There was a cop. A cop with a big stick. And here he was trying to take a cane from a cripple. This was not going to be good.

But he was surprised when the cop spoke to him. "Is this guy bothering you sir?" he said as he grabbed the other man's collar, casually yanking him back and away from Wilson, leaving him in possession of the cane.

House didn't resist. In a split second he changed. His head went down and his eyes hit the pavement.

The cop seemed satisfied by House's behaviour and he sheathed his nightstick. "If you wanna make a complaint I can take this guy in."

He listened in horror as the cop continued. "I know him. He works up at the spunk shop. Just a two bit nobody with a record."

The cop shook his prisoner by the collar. "It'd be good to get him off the streets again."

House's expression didn't change a millimetre. But Wilson could see his hands futilely clenching by his sides. House glanced up at him and he saw the shame burning in his eyes.

A two bit nobody who works at the spunk shop.

"On the ground, now," yelled the cop as he swung House around and pushed him to the ground. "Hands on your head. You are under arrest for disturbing the peace and assaulting this nice gentleman here."

At this he stepped forward. "No, I'm sorry. It was just a misunderstanding." He said desperately. "We got tangled and tripped. "I got a bit angry." He waggled the cane. "It was my fault," he said holding out the cane to the officer.

The cop looked pissed off. House didn't say a word. He just lay there. Face down in the wet pavement. Waiting for instructions. They had trained him well.

The cop sighed. "Okay mister. Have it your way." He grabbed the cane off him.

"You got lucky this time," the cop snarled at House. "Get out of my sight," he said as he heaved House up and shoving the cane into his hand pushed him roughly away.

House didn't hesitate. He heard him mumble 'yes Boss' to the cop as he stumbled away, twisting to get his footing in sync with the cane. He hated the way House's eyes never left the ground. He hated the subservient tone in House's voice. He wanted to reach out to the other man and touch him, tell him. But he blinked and House was gone. Lost again in the crowds.

48.

He didn't go to the library that day. He just walked and walked and walked until he felt like all the Vicodin in the world wouldn't put out the fire in his leg.

He felt dirty. His jacket and jeans were filthy. Thanks Officer Krupke. And he hadn't done anything wrong. That was the unfairness of it all. He'd been a good boy. He'd even dressed up nice that day. But that counted for shit when you were a two bit nobody on a parole ticket and every fucker with a uniform to the parking inspectors down could stop you and search you and humiliate you. It was stupid to think he could ever forget who he was. It made him want to find some rich fat moron, punch their lights out and let them send him back to jail.

He kept walking.

Once he stopped to buy a hot dog. Once he stopped to vomit the hot dog into a trash can. But still he kept walking.

He was there when he got back, waiting by the next door shop. He knew he would be. That was why he had bought the bottle of Chinese 'Burbin' from Mr Kim.

49.

"Please."

"No."

"Come home."

"Go home…And leave me alone."

"You know I can't do that."

House paused for a moment. "I know, but do it anyway."

"House…" He reached out and grabbed the other man's sleeve, but House wheeled on him, pushing him backwards. He hit the glass of the shop front.

"What don't you understand you moron," House spat. "I'm not that person any more. Stop reminding me." And he turned his back to him and left him there.

He slid down the glass and onto the pavement. A shop assistant came out and asked if he was okay. He smiled his reassuring smile at her and said he was just a little dizzy.

She was nice. She brought him a glass of water.

51.

He realized he had nothing to say to her. Not a single word. They had known each other for nearly half their lives, had sex together, fought with each other and fought shoulder to shoulder; and now he couldn't even summon up a hello.

He just sat there and stared at her like a moron. Trying to pretend he didn't see the pity in her eyes.

He didn't want to remember the past, but it was always there to haunt him. It would be easier if he was the nowhere man - no past and no future.

He waited until she was gone and went over to the sink. He drained the last of the whisky, carefully washed out the red mug and put it back in the cupboard under the sink: until next time he needed a reminder of who he was.

But inside he always knew:

He was the moron who had fucked up the only good thing he had ever done in his life. He was the killer. He was the two bit nobody who cleaned cum off the walls in a spunk shop. He was the one who had got it wrong.

He picked up the bottle, settled down on the bed and stared at the wall opposite him, gazing absently at the watermarks and the stains that dripped down from the ceiling.

He looked down at the bottle. Now it was time to forget.

53.

"I saw him," was all Cuddy said.

He sighed sadly. "Not much to see is there," he replied. "Did he talk to you?"

"Not much. He offered me a drink."

"Well that's something. He won't even speak to me anymore." She hated the self loathing in his voice.

"When I left he looked as if he was about to drink himself into a stupor."

"That sounds about right."

He must have sounded as tired as he felt. Because she put her hand on his arm. "Just keep going."

54.

The Laundromat man thought he had seen it all, but this took the cake. The guy with the limp was a regular. He came in every week on a Thursday. One load in a pillowcase. He thought he knew limp guy from somewhere, you didn't see many guys with three legs walking around this neighbourhood… maybe the sex joint down the corner. He had only been in there once and he had been drunk as a skunk.

Then there was this other guy all of a sudden. He was a doozy. He had nice threads. He had money. He didn't have washing. Kinda weird in a Laundromat.

At first he thought it had been a deal or the doozy was a cop. He didn't want that type of thing going down in his place. But he couldn't work it out. He didn't smell like cop. The doozy had come in and sat down next to limp guy. They didn't say a word. They didn't even look at each other. They just sat there watching limp guy's washing go round and round.

Then limp guy would stuff his washing in his pillowcase and leave. Doozy would follow soon after. They did that every Thursday.

55.

"The rat says thank you."

Busted.

He froze, but he didn't miss a beat. "Which one?" he said to the interior of the refrigerator.

"The slightly shorter, furrier one."

"Ah." He finished putting the groceries away and turned around to examine the little rat in the cage.

"Your welcome," he said solemnly to it.

"Now get out."

"Okay," he said, putting the Tupperware container on top of the rat's cage. "I'm gone."

56.

He was out in the alleyway when the cop cornered him. Why was it always this one?

"Hey cripple boy. How's tricks?"

"Fuck off," he said as he rinsed out the bucket.

"I hear you have been having a visitor. A pretty boy."

"Fuck off." Maybe if he repeated it enough times the moron might get the message and go away.

"You ain't a faggot are you?"

"Really fuck off." Didn't these pricks with badges have anything better to do?

"Maybe I should have a talk with your pretty boy?"

He looked up at the Stay Puff cop. "You leave him the fuck alone."

"Is he in the biz? He seems a bit high class for you?"

He whirled round and pinned the cop to the wall. "Listen you overweight doughnut eater. I know what happened with Suzy the other night."

He watched as the cop's face fell. He laughed softly and cruelly in triumph. "Do you want to go down as the shit cop who couldn't even get it up with a prostitute?" He leaned in closer and sneered into the cop's ugly face. He had never felt so angry in his life. "I'll tell everyone 'down town' about how you are such a total pussy you probably take it up the ass too."

"So this is what is going to happen. If you go near him I will kill you." He pushed him against the wall for emphasis. "You can beat the shit out of me all you want, but you don't go near him."

"What's so special about him?"

But he ignored the question and stared into the cop's eyes, even as he heard the shouts and commands. "Do you understand me?" He whispered viciously. Then he was being dragged away and his world dissolved into a red blur of screaming and pain.

57.

His charge was sitting in a corner, wrapped around the bars, hugging them like a lover. He looked up when he saw the legs in front of him.

"What the hell did you do?"

"Nothing Mr Green."

"Then why am I here standing outside the drunk tank in a police station?"

"It was a misunderstanding."

"One that presumably involved your face and repeated contact with lots of walls, fists and other assorted objects. You look… and I didn't think this was even possible… even worse than usual."

House smiled up at him through a black eye and a busted lip. "A good look for me ya think?"

He was in no mood for this shit. "This is serious House."

The head went down again. "So what happens now?" He could hear the utter hopelessness in the other man's voice. House had no expectations. He knew House could almost smell and hear and taste the pain in his future.

He sighed and rubbed his neck. "I asked around. They told me the gen. He's a universally acknowledged prick and the fact you can't open your left eye... I fixed it. The head of the precinct and I go way back. You can go home in the morning. Just stay away from him."

The one good blue eye looked up at him. "Thanks."

He decided to try again. "Are you sure there isn't..?"

"No."

"Anyone?"

"No."

"James Wilson?"

"Who?"

58.

He looked at the nice full bottle of Vicodin and the nice full bottle of undisclosed rocket fuel sitting next to him on the bed.

It was time for act five, scene three. Enough was enough. The hiatus was over. His life had thrown him obstacle after obstacle. Like a swimmer in the surf he had always taken each buffeting and just kept on going, popping up on the other side of the wave.

But now he was tired. He just wanted to sink beneath the water.

He popped open the little bottle and looked at the small white pill in his hand. My damnation and my salvation all rolled into one he thought. My only friend. He tipped his head back and swallowed it. They went down so easily. So many years of practice. There was no hurry. This could take all day. He giggled stupidly to himself. It wasn't like he had anywhere to be.

"What are you doing here?"

"I got a call."

"Thank you Mr Green," House muttered.

He motioned to the bottle. "You can't really drown in that stuff you know."

House laughed drunkenly. "Depends on how hard you try."

He almost didn't catch the next sentence. It was whispered so softly. "And what you mix 'em with."

"Don't House. Don't even think about going there," he said dangerously.

"Why not Jimmy?" But House said it to a spot three feet to his right. Something wasn't right.

He looked closer at House, examining his pupils. They were dilated. But then again they always were.

"Did you take too many pills?"

"You were always telling me I took too many pills Jimmy," smiled House lazily back and took another swig. "But you know me. I am a coward. I prefer a slow suicide. But que sera sera?"

"What the hell do you think you are doing?" he said as he pulled the bottle out of House's grip and shoved the Vicodin bottle into his pocket. "No, I change that: what the fuck do you think you are doing?"

House seemed to focus on him. "Oh Jimmy – swearing. You're going to Yid hell for that," he taunted sarcastically.

He didn't realise he'd done it until he was staring at his bruised knuckles, wondering stupidly why they hurt so much. It never seemed to hurt in the movies. Did this happen to Indiana Jones? As a doctor he knew that the fine metacarpals in a man's hand were no match for the tough heavy jawbone and that the hitter generally ended up worse than the hittee. But it was the shocked look on House's face as he felt his lip that hurt more: Wilson was a nagging irritating manipulative bastard who was allowed to get away with murder, but Jimmy wasn't supposed to hurt him. Jimmy was the good guy.

House looked at the blood on his fingers and then slowly stood up, planting his feet in the pool of alcohol that was dribbling out of the forgotten bottle. House spoke slowly and carefully. "Leave me alone."

He didn't retreat. The stink of alcohol filled his nostrils. He took a step towards House. "No," he said, reveling in the confusion on House's face. For once in their relationship he had the upper hand. "I have already lost one brother. I am not losing another."

"In case you haven't noticed I am not your brother," said House sarcastically.

"Yes you are. Yes you fucking well are." He shook with anger. He stood before the other man and grabbed his arms in a painful grip. "Don't you realise that?"

House just looked away. "You don't deserve a brother like me."

His hands dug into House's arms. "Don't you realise," he said. "That is the problem with family." He sighed, looking into his eyes, willing him to understand. "You don't get to choose… they just turn up one day."

House looked over his shoulder. "And you realise you are stuck with them," he murmured thoughtfully.

"Something like that."

House smiled. "And they eat all your food."

"And make you want to kill them."

"Hence fratricide, patricide and so forth."

He dropped his head and smiled into House's shirt. "Exactly."

"Death."

He lifted his head and looked at House. "What?" he said in puzzlement.

"Death. Why do you think we have so many words about killing off family members? It's all about hurt and pain and death and loss."

He shook his head. He was alarmed. House had suddenly gone cold. He suddenly wanted to punch him again. Beat him senseless. He wanted to hit him again and again until he admitted he could be loved. Until he realised that this stupid arrogant ugly git could mean something in the world. It wasn't a hill of beans. Humphrey Bogart had got it wrong.

He spoke slowly and carefully. "No, that is just proximity House: most people who are killed are murdered by someone they know intimately. " He took a deep breath. "And it is a testament to all the higher gods that I haven't offed you yet."

That produced a small smile. House loved anything to do with murder. "Saint Jimmy," he muttered.

"No, just Wilson: thank you." He was winning. He'd got him thinking. The key to House wasn't his stomach, but his brain. But he knew with House this was the time to retreat. He got up and made for the door. "Family is about the little things House. The little things that matter to no one else but you. The things that no one else knows about. The secret friendship club stuff." He stared into House's eyes. "Promise me you'll think about it."

"No," said House.

'Score,' thought Wilson.

59

"Why?"

He lifted his head from the magazine he was reading and looked at the speaker. The Jewish God of Bad Ties was standing in front of him. He scowled. It was his fault. He'd been so into an article on Hugh G. Dick's penis enlargement that he'd forgotten to pay attention to the door. Dick's dick looked impressive, but no way was that baby functional. What had just come in through the door on the other hand was functional, but not impressive. And it was annoying.

"Why what?" he replied with a frown.

"Why do you let me come back?" replied the annoyingly functional one. He inwardly smirked. Bet he had a small dick.

He leaned over the counter. "Because you are stupid and I like taking advantage of stupid people."

"That's a beautiful basis for a friendship."

"Works for me."

"Please."

Oh God, time to head this conversation off at the pass. "Don't start the begging thing. You know I hate the Jewish begging thing. Next thing you know you'll be doing Fiddler on the Roof and telling me how great it is to have a washing machine now we are all in America."

Wilson put his hand to his head. "That's West Side Story House." He'd known that would make Wilson do that. That man was a walking talking set of fucking clichés.

He continued on. "Singing, dancing, Broadway – there must be Jews. Isn't that what that little pansy from Frasier sang about in that Spamalot? I don't know because I haven't seen because I was in prison," he said emphasising the last word. "And they don't let murderers out on day trips to watch Broadway musicals, no matter how much singing and dancing is in them"

His voice had been steadily getting louder with each passing word, but when one of Barney's 'friends' came in from out the back he glanced over nervously and held up a hand to stop Wilson from talking. He could see he was about to launch into another lecture.

But this wasn't the time or place. He was worried. With his fancy suit and stupid tie Wilson looked out of place. He didn't want them thinking he was a cop. It wouldn't be healthy for either of them – especially Wilson. He'd always hated Wilson's brogue numbers, but he didn't want to see them replaced with concrete boots. "Look I'm working here. Either buy something or get out," he said quickly. "Enough with the emo crap."

Wilson sensed his urgency, but wasn't going to give up completely. He reached out and grabbed the nearest video. "I'll take this," he said stubbornly as he hurriedly shoved it across the counter. "And you know perfectly well you are not a murderer," he continued softly.

But he was sick of this conversation. He looked at the video. "Hey – Lesbian Love Fest at the House of Hand Job Horror Hill III, nice choice there sir." He said it so loud that the whole store heard and Wilson winced.

Wilson shot him daggers and shoved some money over the counter. "Just shut up and bag it shop boy," he said giving up.

He narrowed his eyes and gave Wilson a dirty look. That was a low blow. "Oh, testy. Just for that the change is a tip."

He watched as Wilson headed out the door, trying to shove Lesbian Love Fest deep into an inside pocket. He suddenly felt exhausted. He took a deep breath. Wilson was gone once again. He was alone. Just the way he liked it.

Liar liar, pants on fire House, a bit of him screamed. You don't like it. He stared hard at the page of the magazine. Mr Dick's dick sure is impressive. He felt like going round to the alley and scoring something to put him out of it, but he never knew when they might decide to test him, so it looks like it's Mr Kim's Burbin again. That's legal: so he can dose himself up on that as much as he wants.

But he has another hour till the other guy gets here and he can't shut himself up.

Everybody lies House.

You know why you let him come back:

If Wilson said stop: he stopped.

Wilson was a bigger bastard than he could ever hope to be. Wilson was just more subtle. He had the flair, but Wilson had the cunning mixed with the caring. That's why when Wilson said stop and called him back when he had done something wrong he came back and faced his punishment. He may not have liked it. The Jewish twit, given half a chance, could drone on and on for hours. He knows he didn't have to really. He could have walked away. Sometimes he did walk away. But most times he just looked trite, stared thoughtfully at the floor and took it. Sometimes the yelling and the lecturing was almost comforting.

He didn't come back because of fear. No way. His childhood cured him of that. His father thought fear and pain was the key to good discipline, but fear is just the road to loathing and hatred.

Why he doesn't send Wilson away is something he calls 'desperately seeking Wilson'. And although he tried to pretend it didn't exist that desire has never gone totally away, not even in prison.

He remembered back to a cold lonely Christmas Eve:

There is no merry-fucking-Christmas in jail. It is freezing in his little cell and he already has a virus that will gradually turn into pneumonia and put him in the infirmary for weeks, but they don't care he is sick and won't do anything until they find him lying on the floor of his cell hacking up blood.

So for now he sits on his bed and coughs constantly until a guard makes him jump by banging on his bars and tells him to shut the fuck up because it's pissing them off and they can't hear the American Idol Christmas Special and if he doesn't shut up he'll go to Iso for the night.

He doesn't want to spend Christmas Eve in a punishment cell so he stuffs his blanket into his mouth and looks down at the stupid silly card in his hand. He thinks it might say 'merry Hanukkah', but he's not sure, as the handwriting is not very clear. It's written by a doctor.

He said no visits, no letters, no nothing, but still the bastard had persevered.

Wilson, no matter what, was the only one who has never ever given up on him.

And for that second, in that freezing little cell, House loves him so hard for that it hurts.

60.

He fingered the little package in his pocket. What is he doing here? He didn't want to be here. It terrified him. He wondered if he could get in and out without being seen by anybody who remembered the last time he'd been here, getting carted off by Princeton's dinkin Dunkin finest with sprinkles on top.

He bet Brenda was still here. She would never leave. One day they would have to prize the clinic charts from her cold dead hands then bury her in a lead coffin stuffed with garlic to make sure she didn't come back and haunt the place.

Although she could take up a successful career as a prison guard if she wanted. And she'd love the uniform. He'd known a couple of lady prison guards who thought they were hard-ass bitches, but Brenda left them in the dust. He knew that if she held the keys he'd never misbehave on her block. Heck, he'd never even sneeze without pissing himself.

He had tried to sneak in through the back of the hospital and hit the service elevators, but there was security all over the place. He was used to strip searches, metal detectors and standing dead still while some drug squad Fido sniffed your crotch while it contemplated giving you a new career as a eunuch. But he'd expected that in prison.

What he couldn't get over was the level of security in the ordinary everyday world. Every store, every mall, every bus station was full of rent-a-cops with guns eyeing him off with suspicion. Last time he'd gone to see his parole officer at the station they'd even checked him for explosives after they ran him through the metal detector.

He was amazed at how afraid people had become – of each other. But he'd noticed it was still the usual suspects: terrorists, black guys, crazed homeless people, murderers, and drug addicts. He snorted: that definitely put him on society's hit list. Did they still have that show Cops anymore? He'd never get on it. A. He nearly always wore a shirt, and B. the chase sequence would be crap.

So it looked like the front door was his best bet. He checked it out. It still looked like the nice friendly hospital he remembered – the one designed for helping sick people. That would be Cuddy's doing. She would have put her foot down and said no way would the little balding cancer kiddies be going home through seven layers of security.

He peered inside. There was no sign of Brenda. Maybe she had gone off to become the totalitarian dictator of a small South American country that specialized in outsourced illegal torture, gun running and drugs after all. He took a breath, opened the bomb bay doors, cranked up the guns and dived in.

Tora Tora Tora!

But luck was not on Gregory House's side. He didn't know that Brenda had been working the clinic desk. She had seen him, blinked in shock, then picked up the phone.

61.

He peered nervously around the foyer, then after a minute darted for the elevators. So far so good, he thought. He might even make it out of this mission alive. Even if Wilson wasn't there he could pick his door easy peasy. He knew there was a reason he had hired Foreman. And some of the stuff he had picked up in jail was fantastic. Who said jail didn't teach you new and interesting skills?

He was pressing the elevator button when his hopes were dashed. The mission was over. He'd crashed and burned over the South China Sea.

"Excuse me sir." He heard the emphasis on the 'sir' and groaned because he knew what it meant. Not now. Not while he was so close. He'd endured two bus rides to get here. He'd come so far. He could just taste that North Pole. He turned and looked at the speaker. It was as he figured: a big black security rent-a-cop complete with attitude and a gun, his partner: short, stocky and fat, coming up behind.

"Can I help you?" he replied. He really must remember to shave on these occasions. There were only so many fixes Mr Green could get him out of.

"May I ask your business in the hospital?"

Bing! The elevator opened. Salvation. "You may." He made for the open elevator, but a hand stopped him.

"And?" asked the guard.

He sighed. "I'm going to see the head of oncology – Doctor Wilson."

"Do you have an appointment or a letter of referral?"

"No I don't."

"So why are you going to see him?"

"He knows me."

"He knows you," said the fat guard sceptically. The two guards exchanged looks.

"What is this: Twenty Questions? Yes," he waved the cane. "I had leg cancer and he cured me. He's really clever. Cleverer than you!"

But the guards just stood there. One put a hand on his hip. He had seen that gesture too many times and was all too familiar with the painful and humiliating consequences.

He gave a sigh and shook his head. He knew he wasn't going to get anywhere with these guys. "Don't bother. I'll throw myself out," he said with resignation.

The black guard crossed his arms and smirked in triumph. "Yeah, you do that. But we'll just come along and make sure you don't fall and hurt yourself on the way out, what with your leg cancer and all."

He ached with shame and humiliation in a 'hey mom – look at the strange crazy homeless man being thrown out of the hospital' kind of way. He could feel it physically in his stomach as they grabbed his arms and 'helped' him on his way by dragging him through the foyer and dumping him outside the front door of the hospital in the bit that hadn't been cleared of snow. Brilliant: now his only pair of sneakers were wet.

Well this certainly was a bright idea wasn't it House, he thought to himself. Maybe he could get away. Go hide away again. Forget all this in the bottom of a bottle. But the package in the bottom of his pocket niggled him.

"I'll just go catch the bus," he said as struggled out of the snow and back onto the cleared pavement. The bottom of his jeans were soaked too. Oh great going Cuddy. Hire the nicest and most friendly and considerate security guards why don't you? Was 'do you like to dump cripples in the snow' on the list of application questions?

"You do that sir," said the black guard as he did that stupid folding of the arms thing again. That was so nineteen seventies bouncer. It may seem cool doing it against a defenceless cripple, but try it where I've been and you'll get torn to shreds in five minutes.

But he nodded slowly. He knew what that tone meant: 'Get the fuck out of here'. "Okay man. I'm gone," he said as he stomped off to the bus stop. His feet were cold and they squelched with every step. There was no way this day could get any worse. God bless Mr Kim and his backyard distillery. Maybe this day could have a happy ending after all.

"House!"

And just when you thought the gods were finally smiling on you.

He turned slowly. Oh great. The Evil Empress of Cloven Foot Wear herself, being followed closely by the man he had come to see – and here he was looking so smart, sharp and dapper. There was only one thing to do.

He bolted.

With agility that surprised even him, he dodged the security guards and made for the nearest escape route - the oval. His sneakers were already wet, so what the heck.

62.

He'd stopped dead outside the front doors. There was House, looking remarkably like a deer caught in the headlights. House's eyes darted between him, Cuddy and the security guards; then he suddenly made a bee line for the lawn, dodging around the back of the black truck that always seemed to be parked there.

What the hell was House even doing here?

The two security guys moved forwards, unsure why the bum they had just thrown out had fled, but Cuddy waved them back. "No, it's okay," she said. "I'll handle it." But still they stayed close.

He stared at House's retreating form. Cuddy came over. He looked round at her and, as he feared, her 'well, what are you going to do?' look was all too obvious.

Oh for Pete's sake. When did he get assigned the 'for life job' of full time House wrangler – and it was freezing. But Cuddy's look said 'fix this or die': damn her soft spot for House. Even though House wouldn't tell him he just knew they must have slept together at some point. It must have been one hell of a bang.

He turned back to his quarry. He'd made it a fair way across the pristine white field, considering the snow and the cane.

He sighed. Great. And these shoes are new. He took a deep breath and began to follow the trail of House's three legged footsteps.

He winced as he felt the slush seeping into his shoes, but soon he was gaining ground.

"House, come on in," he said reasonably as he got near. He inwardly groaned when House stopped and sat down in the snow in the middle of the field. Did the man never do anything you told him to? He swore that if he told him not to jump off a cliff House would spend years searching for a suitable one to jump off just to prove a point.

"Why" said House petulantly?

"Because you'll get pneumonia."

House shook his head in frustration. "Not that you moron."

He huffed. He was cold, he was wet, he was not impressed and nor was he in the mood for House's histrionics. "Then fill the moron in: why what?"

"Why do you give a damn?"

"What makes you think I do?" Right now, standing knee deep in snow, he wasn't sure he did.

"You keep coming back."

"I'm just fond of the rat and I don't want to see him starve."

"I feed him," replied House indignantly.

He looked down at him. "What, a steady diet of cheap booze and Vicodin," he said sarcastically.

"No," said House darkly. "When I can I buy him cheese from the deli. Good cheese. Not that crap you buy. And you know I hate apples."

"I'm sure he appreciates the gesture," said Wilson dryly. "And yes I know you hate apples, but I also know you'd hate scurvy even more."

House scowled. "I only eat them to get rid of them."

He sat down in the snow next to House; trying to ignore the fact that now his entire suit was ruined. The two of them sat side by side in the snow for a moment. "Stop punishing yourself, " he said softly.

"Why not? It appears I am good at it." House sounded halfway between bitter and defeated.

"Yes you are." He had to admit that was true. No getting around that one inescapable fact.

House was silent for a moment. "So why do you really keep coming back?"

Wilson smiled to himself. The little lost boy from Never Never Land was back. "You're important to me," he said.

"Everything's important to you. That's why you've been married four times now?"

That little observation surprised him. "How did you know it was four?"

House motioned to his hand. "New wedding ring," he said simply.

"What if I said you're very important to me?" He said putting the emphasis on the very.

House poked at the snow near his right thigh. "I'd say that sounds totally like movie of the week crap," he said stabbing his forefinger repeatedly into the snow.

"Okay, what if I said you are my friend, whether you like it or not?"

"That sounds more like you. Find some poor schmuck and hound them and suck them dry until they kill themselves to get away from you."

"Exactly," he agreed. "That was my evil plan all along. The apples were just a distraction."

They sat there for a while. He tried to forget about the fact he was getting wetter and wetter and his bum was going numb.

"Why did you help me get her into the elevator" said House eventually?

He looked up surprised. It was so House to be still fixated on something that happened years ago. Still he deserved an honest answer. "I trusted you."

"Well you shouldn't have," growled House.

"Doctors make mistakes. Sometimes people die," he replied quietly. "How many times have you said that?"

"Not me dammit!" House waggled his head in search of the words he needed. "Because I am always right." He stopped suddenly, brought back to reality by his words. "I was always right," he amended quietly.

"House, you did the right thing. It didn't work out because life and circumstance and medicine and the human race is screwed up. But you did the right thing. You have to believe that."

"But I wasn't right. I had every day of two years locked in a concrete box to remind me of how wrong I was."

"I know. And that was shitty. But I still think you did the right thing," he said simply. "Doesn't my opinion count for something?"

But House only humphed and resumed poking at the snow. That could be either a good sign or a bad sign.

But suddenly he couldn't help laugh as the absurdity of the situation overwhelmed him.

House looked over at him. "What?"

"Who else!" He threw up his hands in exclamation. He'd forgotten how much he loved this silly bastard. "Who else would make me chase him into the middle of a snowdrift to have a philosophical conversation?"

He tried to smother another laugh at House's forlorn look, but he couldn't quite do it and it came out as a sort of half snort. "I know you have a self destructive streak a mile wide, but you need to stop punishing yourself. And me," he added.

"Oh thanks for the sympathy."

"It's not always about you House. Can't I be the prima donna for a change?" He pulled a foot out of the snow. "These shoes cost three hundred dollars – and I am wet. Now enough with the wallowing."

House nodded and got up. "Right, well send me the bill." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little package wrapped in newspaper. "Merry fucking Christmas," he spat as he threw it into the snow in front of him. "And they are ugly shoes."

Then House turned and made his way to the other side of the field, leaving him sitting there in bewilderment. As fast as he was, House always ran emotional and intellectual rings around him.

He reached down and picked up the little package, shaking it gently. It didn't seem like it would explode. He peeled off the soggy newspaper wrapping it and, ever the anal retentive, stuffed it in his pocket.

He frowned. It looked like a tie rolled up with a rubber band and a sprig of tinsel. He eased the band off and let it fall. It was a beautiful tie. It was obviously old, but it was made of silk with a subtle diamond pattern. The fabric felt like magic in his hands. He turned it over and saw it had come from some English men's wear firm that had been established in 1782.

He wondered where House had got it from.

"I need a present," said the man with the cane. Typical. Only he would treat her like she was a shop girl at Macys. He'd finally come in after carefully checking that Mrs Granthorpe wasn't around. She'd laughed when, as usual, he'd stuck his head comically around the door and checked for signs of the 'evil old witch' as he called her.

He came every so often. She didn't think he was a bum. His clothes and hair were always dishevelled but clean. He just obviously wasn't into shaving or fashion. But then again she couldn't quite figure him out. She'd seen him outside the next door soup kitchen a few times, looking in with a quiet longing. But most times he just shook his head and walked away. She'd only seen him go in once, a defeated look on his face.

"Well, it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas," she parried back.

"Oh can it with the witty stuff."

"Is it for a man or a woman?"

"A guy," he said. Then he thought for a second. "A stupid guy," he added.

Okay. A present for a stupid guy. "What does he like? What does he do?"

"He's a wuss and he's a doctor," scowled the cane man. She was surprised. The cane man didn't look the type to know doctors.

"Is he gay or straight?"

"Totally gay – but not in that sense… I think. But he does blow dry his hair."

Stupid wussy gay doctor who blow dries his hair? She looked around for inspiration. "Ah," she burst out, making the cane man jump back a step. "I think we have something that will fit the bill nicely."

He looked again at the tie in his hands and smiled to himself. "Goodnight House. I'll see you tomorrow," he said to himself, before pushing himself out of the snow. His nads were freezing.

63.

"You're wet. You can't come on," repeated the bus driver.

He jiggled. "Come on man. I'm just a bit damp. It's snowing out there in case you didn't notice. Everyone is wet." Life was full of challenges and, fuck it; he'd faced bigger ones than this. He waggled his cane at the guy.

The driver looked at it and sighed. "Okay, just get on the god damn bus and try not to drip."

He smiled. The cripple card always worked.

64.

He trudged slowly back to where Cuddy and the security guards were standing.

"What he do," Cuddy asked?

"Well, he swore at me and insulted me a lot." He thoughtfully looked at the tie in his hands. "But I think House might be ready to come home."

Cuddy looked down. "Nice tie," she said. Throwing in a: "Makes a change from your usual," as she walked away.

"Dammit, why does everyone think my ties are ugly," he muttered to himself, instinctively checking his tie. It looked fine to him.

Then he noticed one of the security guards standing there, smirking.

65.

He lay on the little bed and stared up at the dirty ceiling. He hadn't moved all day. He was tired, but he couldn't sleep. He was hungry, thirsty and cold, but he couldn't seem to find the strength to move, not even to pull the blanket over him.

His body wouldn't move, but his brain was whirring like the rat's wheel. He had replayed those few minutes in the elevator a million times while locked in his little concrete box, not much else to do in prison except develop acute claustrophobia and a fear of dropping the soap, and even now the memories of that day plagued him.

Clarence had said it. What if your whole life was about the worst thing you'd ever done?

He'd seen Clarence a couple of times in the prison. Because of overcrowding and his leg he'd been turfed out of his cell and moved to the maxi wing for the last six months of his time. He didn't mind too much. It was quieter there. And because most were lifers there was less chance of getting shanked by some up and coming wannabe trying to make a name for himself or thumped by some pissed off guard.

But the downside was the mindless tedium of being locked down nearly all the time. A restless personality, a bum leg and twenty three hours in an eight foot by five foot cell with nothing to distract him did not for a happy combination or a happy House make.

Sometimes he would close his eyes, press himself hard up against the bars of his cell and, like a child does, imagine his body could melt through them. But when he opened his eyes he always found himself on the wrong side.

His father used to say if he carried on he'd end up dead or in prison – and now he'd proved him right. He hoped the old man was happy now.

He used to play long distance chess with Rusty from three doors down. Rusty was okay for a guy who had killed his wife with an axe. That had been in 1963. Apart from an amazing array of wounds, including the knife scar across his face that he had picked up somewhere along the way, Rusty now looked like everyone's grandpa, but he'd still threaten to shank you if he was pissed you were winning again.

Rusty was a good opponent. He should be after forty three years in jail with not much else to do. But he was better. Although to humour the old man he'd let him win every so often.

But then they'd killed Rusty and that had been the end of that.

They'd both been out in the corridor while their cells were tossed. He'd started it. He'd looked over from where he was spread eagled up against the wall and made a dirty remark about Rusty's use of the Kronsky maneuver. Rusty had accused him of cheating, which he did every game, and soon it was on. The two of them flinging insults left right and centre.

Most of the guards were used to their banter and ignored it. This was a game they played. Trying to outdo each other in terms of slurs on sexual prowess and heritage and obscure references. But this guy was new. He'd just come on the block yesterday and he was still pumped up from all those training videos they showed them during their two day course to become a correctional officer.

"Hey cons, knock it off " said the new boy.

He looked over at him. He had the whole 'I wanted to be in the Marines but I'm too fat and dumb and they wouldn't take me' deal going. The boots, tucked into the trousers to make him look like a SWAT guy, the belt laden with torches, compasses, survival kits and God knows whatever else they sell at those disposal/camping store, and the little piggy eyes that reminded him of someone.

And here guard boy was – all dressed up like Rambo and he was - guarding a cripple and an octogenarian. He wasn't a threat.

"The Chocolate Soldier," he said to Rusty, motioning over his shoulder. Rusty, having had forty three years to catch up on his reading, burst out laughing.

"Can it you idiots. There ain't no chocolate."

They couldn't help themselves. He looked over at Rusty and they both laughed harder at the stupid fish guard who didn't get it.

He didn't realise the fish guard was getting wound up; because the more he yelled the funnier they found it. Then Rusty made the mistake of taking his hands off the wall and turning around.

Anywhere else and it would be an amusing incident to look back on. In here it meant death.

Rusty had been here so long that everyone knew him. He had respect and all the guards knew that for all his bluster he wasn't a threat and cut him some slack.

But the new guy didn't know Rusty. And he was pissed and pumped and all he saw was a con in a uniform, not an old man.

If it had been him, he would have been black and blue for a while, but he was used to that.

But when Rusty went down under the blow the screaming started. He knew instantly what had happened. He'd watched Rusty get worse and worse. The diagnosis had been easy. He'd seen the way Rusty walked now and it worried him how fragile the old man's bones must be.

He'd tried to tell him to go and see the doctor, get himself transferred to a prison nursing home, but the old man was stubborn.

"I spent forty three years doing time here. I ain't going to die in some geriatric lock up and get my reputation ruined. I wanna go proper: I wanna be shanked, " he'd said when he'd had pushed him.

He smiled down at the floor then put his face to the bars. "No one's going to shank you old man," he yelled back from where he was sitting on the floor of his cell.

"I'll give you two packs of smokes and some dirty playing cards to do it," came the reply.

"If you can gets smokes in here I'll kill you myself," yelled someone else, Tommy from one up, he thought. Cigarettes had just been banned from prisons and the smokers hated it. Ironically getting your hands on drugs still wasn't a problem, but tobacco was hard. The staff still smoked in the little courtyard outside the maxi block. It used to drive Mad Dog wild because he had been an addictive smoker and his cell was so close to the door he could smell it.

"I'm not dying by your pussy hands Tommy. You'd botch the job."

"Hey! I killed three guys – that they know about," yelled Tommy indignantly. "I could do you easy."

He had leaned back against the wall and rested his head up against the bars and laughed quietly to himself. God life was funny.

But this wasn't funny at all. He was over there before any of the guards. He pushed fat boy aside and knelt down by Rusty, quickly ripping open his shirt and not liking what he saw. "Shush man," he said frantically trying to get Rusty to stay still, but Rusty just kept screaming and writhing.

He looked over at the fat guard, who was now sitting on his fat rump, looking at the night stick in his hand. "You stupid bastard," he yelled over the screams. "Didn't you pay attention to your training videos? You don't hit an old man because a fit of laughter."

But fat boy just gaped at him. "Especially one with acute onset osteoporosis," he spat. "Now get a goddamn gurney before he dies of internal bleeding," he yelled at no one. This spurred someone into action and the vaguely heard the sound of walkie talkies and running feet.

"I wet my pants," said the boy stupidly.

"Oh bully for you," he said under his breath.

He turned back to Rusty. The screams had subsided to gurgling now. "Hey old man. You'll be fine." But he knew that was a lie. His ribs must have shattered, sending splinters into just about every organ, including one of his lungs. His breath was uneven and there was blood coming up. There was no way they'd fix that here.

He heard the commotion going on around him, but he ignored it. "You would have won you know," he said softly. "I didn't tell you because you'd gloat, but – checkmate in two moves – if you'd played it right."

But Rusty didn't hear him because Rusty was dead.

The next night he was roused from his sleep by a voice he really never wanted to hear again. Sanders the block warden was outside his cell. He didn't like this guy. Apart from his piggy eyes and his love of pepper spray as an educational tool, he always took every opportunity to remind everyone how pathetic their lives were. That really pissed him off. There was little joy in here at the best of times. Sanders had a way of sucking every little last drop of it out of you.

"Step up to the bars convict."

Every bit of him wanted not to do what the man had said, but he was a prisoner and Sanders was an officer and there was no choice in the matter.

Slowly he got up, moved to the bars and waited.

"Grip the bar," said Sanders as he pulled out his nightstick.

He knew what this meant. He'd be lucky if he ever played the piano again. But if he played up he'd be lucky not to have to eat through a straw.

He chanced a question. "Why?"

"Because I'm telling you convict. Grip the bar," he repeated more forcefully.

"I'm not going to tell what your nephew did?"

Sanders looked surprised at that little revelation, but he composed himself. "I know you are not going to tell. Now grip the bar."

He slowly reached out until both his hands were curled, about two feet apart, around the cross bar that ran four feet high across the front of his cell. Sanders tapped both his hands thoughtfully with his nightstick, as if to ask which one first, but what he really wanted was to see him flinch. He never took his eyes off Sanders. He'd heard about this little particular punishment of Sanders and apparently it was all about how well you took it.

The first blow took him by surprise. But he didn't cry out. He shuddered and tried to breathe through the pain. His breath coming out in short hard pants as he stared hard at the man. The cold fury evident in his eyes, but both hands still tightly gripping the bar, although now his right hand was twitching uncontrollably as the little pain receptors went into overdrive, shooting agony all the way up to his neck.

Sanders took his time as he positioned himself for the next blow.

This time he couldn't hold back and a small groan escaped his lips. Sanders smiled in satisfaction.

"Next time it won't just be your hands."

He took a deep breath. "Yes Boss."

"I know you cons ain't that bright, so I'll give you ninety in Sol so you can think about it."

His heart sank. That long in Sol with a pissed off guard on your tail could be a death sentence. Once you went in there, if they didn't want it, you didn't come out. They would just extend and extend your stay there until you never saw daylight again.

"Thank you Boss. I'll be sure to mull it over."

"And?"

He dropped his head. "Like you said: us cons ain't that bright. And our brains are all drug addled so what do we know – and anyway – who'd believe a con?"

Sanders smiled. "That's what I thought." He turned to go, but stopped.

"By the way, how did you know he was my nephew?" he said sheathing his nightstick.

He wanted to say because the fat boy killer was as ugly and stupid as he was. "He looks like you Boss. He has your eyes," he said as innocently as he could. He'd finally placed the fat boy's piggy eyes.

Sanders smirked. "Genetic good looks huh?"

"Yes sir Boss." He gave a fake smile. Sanders smiled back, apparently forgetting he had just smashed his fingers to hell and back."

"Thanks. I'll get someone from medical to look at your hands in the morning."

"Thank you Boss." Only here did you have to thank the person who had hurt you. Who had made this stupid place?

He waited until after the bastard has gone before trying to disentangle his hands from the bars. They felt like they were glued on to it.

Then he sat down on the bed, held his battered hands in front of him, waited for them to take him away and cried.

When he got back from his ninety days of hell the makeshift paper chess set was gone along with all his personal possessions.

So Rusty had got a death sentence after all, he mused as he leaned up against the bars that night and tried to get a glimpse of the sky through one of the high windows further down the wing. It had just taken a little longer than most. No protesters outside the gates; no last meal; not even shanked by a gang boss: just an unnoticed stupid death of an old man at the hands of a moron.

I'm sorry Rusty, he thought. I'm sorry I couldn't protect you. You deserved better. You deserved someone looking out for you.

Clarence had come on the block just after he'd got out of Sol. It had caused great excitement. The wing was buzzing about the gossip that Clarence had won clemency because of he had something wrong with his brain that made him to crazy things. He listened to the shouting. After ninety days of mind numbing nothing, anything sounded good.

"Maybe I could say I was crazy and they'll let me go," yelled someone from further down the row.

"They ain't never going to let you go Mad Dog," came the reply.

"Hey, I'm up for parole in 2075. There's hope," came the indignant reply. "What do you think Doc? Do you think I'm crazy?"

But he didn't reply. Not even to tell that crazy moron not to call him Doc. Stupid idiot knew who he was and always called him that, but the moron was wrong. He wasn't a doctor any more. He was just a prisoner with nothing like the rest of them. But Clarence had hit close to home. A reminder of a past he didn't want to be reminded of.

He just lay on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He reached out his arms and gripped the bars behind his head. They felt cool and heavy in his grip. They were such a symbol of power. A reminder he was now powerless.

Unlike the girl Clarence was going to live; staring at bars every day for the rest of his life. But Clarence must have thought it worth fighting for and now thanks to him Clarence would live. He'd successfully solved the puzzle that time.

The next day he was out in the bull pens, the long skinny exercise cages down the end of the block. He was using the wire fence for support as he paced up and down the twenty or so feet of freedom he was allowed when Clarence was put into the cage next to him.

Clarence gave him the once over, checking to see if he was a brother or a threat. Then he stopped. "You're that doctor aren't you? The one who found out what was wrong with my brain."

He knew this would happen. He cocked his head. "Surely you are mistaken. Do I look like a doctor to you," he said sarcastically as he used his hands a la The Price is Right Girl to exaggeratedly emphasize his stunning grey uniform and the numbers on his chest.

But Clarence just snorted. "How'd you end up here?"

"Long story," he said gripping the wire and trying to lift himself up to see through one of the little high set windows that ran along the outer wall, but the glass was filthy and he couldn't make out anything. Even though it was futile he always did this. He was always trying to get a glimpse through windows. It pissed off the guards no end.

"And don't sound so unsurprised Clarence. I saved your worthless ass didn't I?"

He wondered if it was raining or sunny out there. Sometimes he wondered if 'out there' even existed anymore.

He squinted as he pressed himself against the mesh. It looked sort of blue. "I hear you got commuted," he said after a minute. No point thinking about 'out there'. What chance did he have with parole this year anyway? No way they'd let him out two years into a four year stretch with his history of hole time. Although that guard had said he might help him out. But like that was going to happen. He'd learned. People weren't so nice in this place.

Clarence nodded. "Yeah – the black brother testified for me 'bout what I had. Got me off the Row."

"So no fried chicken for you then?"

"Very fucking funny. I see you are still a son of a bitch bastard?"

"Yeah."

He went back to walking and Clarence started doing sit ups.

"Hey Clarence," he said after a while. Clarence looked up at him.

"You sorry?"

"Sorry?"

"You know, do you regret whacking all those people?"

Clarence laughed at his choice of words, but sprung up and bounded over to the fence that separated them. "What, you think now I'm here I'm gonna turn to God and become all repentant like and lecture the fish about the importance of staying clean and not ending up like us lifers? Or does it torment me in my sleep?" He snorted. "Either way - no way man."

Then Clarence paused and thought for a moment. "But the guy in the library – yeah. He didn't deserve nothing," he said slowly. "The others – maybe I should have handled them better. I am what I am and something had to be done. I just done it a stupid way and now I'm stuck looking at your ugly mug. That's done and can't be changed. But there weren't no choice in the matter."

"Had to be done," he repeated softly as he stared at Clarence through the chain fence.

"Was the right thing to do. Now quit bothering me. Like I said: what's done is done and I only got an hour." And with that Clarence turned his back on him and began to do press-ups.

He watched Clarence for a moment and resumed his slow march up and down the pen. "Right," he muttered to himself.

Back in his little icebox the rusty fridge suddenly gave a furious rattle, then spluttered and died with a spectacular bang. He shot up out of his reverie and looked over at the little wisps of smoke drifting up from the back of the fridge and the soot stain on the wall.

"Oh great rat. Barney's going to kill me. And it's all your fault," he added spitefully and unjustly. But the rat had hidden himself under a pile of newspaper and old socks.

He sat there, starring at the soot stain. Clarence's words: 'I only got an hour' running through his brain.

66.

The jack hammer across the road woke him. That meant it was about six. He staggered to the bathroom and dunked himself under the shower.

He dragged on his work clothes.

"How was it," he yawned as he got up top.

"Some guy brought in frogs," said Tony the night shift guy.

"Really?"

"I'm not kidding. Big ugly frogs – with warts."

"Probably toads then," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe he was trying to lick them?"

"Toads, frogs, whatever. I still don't want to know what he did with them. But I think there may be a couple of dead ones in there?"

"Oh fantastic." Still frogs were better than the days he'd find Barney up here first thing and get slipped a twenty and told to do a special clean up then buy himself some new clothes.

He popped a couple of Vicodin and went to get his bucket.

They were in fact frogs, just not those cute little green ones you see in Disney movies. They were the ugly kind. Surely there were other ways to get your jollies.

His two joys in life came from those nice Canadian doctors who were oh so eager to prescribe and the dependable Mr Kim. And maybe the apples.

He gave the frogs an unceremonious burial in the trashcans out back and went down stairs. He pushed into his room and made straight for the shower. He stepped in fully clothed. What with the frogs and everything they needed a wash anyway.

He pulled off his sodden clothes and hung them up to dry on the towel rail. Pulling on a designer T-shirt and jeans he had got for a 'totally not at retail' bargain thanks to the nice girl at the charity store, he slumped down on the bed. He felt washed out and grey - and even after his shower he still smelt like dead frog.

He realised he'd been sitting on the bed for a good half hour without noticing it. It was sitting on top of the rat's cage. That was where the Great God of Expensive (and now soggy) Footwear generally left things, so he knew who it was from. And it was also anally wrapped, so that was the clincher.

He stared at it for a while. Actually it was beautifully wrapped. Classy wrapping paper and red and gold ribbon, topped by a big fancy bow. Nothing like his wadded up ball of newspaper.

That was the kind of fancy schmancy wrapping you only got at up-market department stores with more tissue paper than sense.

So the question was: Was it a tie? Was it a wallet? Was it a three in one something-er-other that you got from the 'gift idea' section?

It looked more like a book. 'How to Get Over Being Sent to Jail and Having Your Life Ruined 101' by Doctor James Wilson maybe?

He didn't think so. Even from here he could see the writing on the card that was propped up on top of it. 'Merry fucking Christmas to you too' was all it said.

"Oh stuff it House – you are a big boy – and it probably won't explode," he muttered as he reached out and scared the rat by violently wrenching it off his cage and sending the card flying.

He ripped through the fancy wrapping and looked at his present.

His heart sank further than the Titanic.

Oh shit. He'd really torn it.

He threw the book onto the bed next to him and tried to ignore it.

But he couldn't keep his mind off it. There wasn't even the rattle of the fridge to distract him anymore.

Eventually he picked it up and opened the book. It was as he feared. It was 'the' book. He turned the pages slowly, then stopped.

He frowned and went back. On the title page were now three names: Walt Whitman, Gregory House, and a new one that hadn't been there before - James Wilson.

Three men, who in their own peculiar way, had always sucked the marrow out of life.

Oh.

So that was it.

He found his jacket then carefully tucked the book into his inside pocket and then even more carefully extracted the little grey rat from his cage.

"You can come this time my little man," he said as he slipped the little rat into his front pocket.

He looked around the room. There was nothing here for him. He had everything he needed.

He opened the door of the shop. He looked around. It was cold, but the sky was blue. The little rat poked its nose up out of his pocket. He spotted the object of his search lounging across the street drinking coffee out of a takeaway container.

Waiting.

Waiting for him.

It was strange how that thought made him feel.

He scowled at the man. Wilson raised his coffee cup in response. Silly hopeful optimistic git. He knew there was a reason he didn't like him.

Barney looked up from his newspaper. "Where ya off to?"

"I'm going out for a walk Barney. I may be some time."

THE END


EPILOGUE

There it was. Exactly as the limping fucker had predicted. He had been right. He pulled it out and looked at it. Even though she was gone, it was still growing, gorging itself on dead flesh.

Poor girl, he thought. Killed by something so small and tiny. She was pretty too. Oh so pretty. Even lying there with her chest cut open and her guts on the scale she was beautiful. Pretty brown eyes and big rounded red lips. He could have kissed them. He wanted to.

He examined the killer in his hand and smirked. This would serve the son of a bitch right.

He threw the tick in the bin.

"Did you find anything?" asked the autopsy attendant.

He shook his head. " No, nothing here. Looks like the crazy bastard was wrong for once."

"Yeah, well… we knew it had to happen."


DVD EXTRAS. Just like a DVD – tacked on for no apparent reason.

DELETED SCENES:

James walked in and following him was a tall skinny man with a cane.

"This is my friend House," said James.

He smiled uncertainly at her and nodded, but didn't come forward. Her eyes widened. This was the mysterious 'friend' House. Well at least she didn't have to worry James was gay and this was his lover. The guy had all the charm of a rumpled up sweat sock… and his pocket was… moving?

"Why don't you go on in," said James as he ushered his friend into the living room.

"He seems quite nice," she whispered to her husband after House had gone.

He sighed. "Oh - you just wait till you get to know him."

"You sold it to save a rat?"

"Well… he was going to get squished. You know how sensitive I am."

"Yes, about as sensitive as a brick."

"Oh come on, he is sweet looking."

"No it isn't. It looks like it is a plague carrier."

"Oh don't they all."

"Does it have a name now."

"No. But I am working on it. I thought maybe I'd call him Wilson…

…ow!

… that hurt!"

"Serves you right. And why do you smell like the reptile house at the zoo?"

"Long story. Ever wanted to have it off with a frog."


BEHIND THE SCENES

Wilson: We had fun making this.

House: Speak for yourself. I went to jail. Four years I spent in there and it turns out she really did have a tick. So not fair.

Wilson: I think that was the point of the story: life sucks.

House: It certainly seems to in that sheep's opinion. Can't that smelly little walking jumper write a story where no one breaks my knee caps for a change?

Wilson: There is that fun one where we try to outwit Cuddy.

House: And invariably fail and then she always grabs my ear – so not fair.

Cuddy: Actually I rather like that story.

House: You would… no… get away from my ear.

House: Arghhh! Oh!

Wilson: Er, Cuddy, you do realise: although you have total control of House's ear, he is face down in your lap now.

Cuddy: Oh my God!

Pushes House up.

House, while rubbing his ear: Was it good for you too?

Steve McQueen: I thought my death scene was pretty dramatic, although it was a bitch to keep still.

Wilson: And you started snoring halfway through it.

Steve McQueen: Hey! I wasn't the one moping around eating cereal and emoting for half a chapter buddy. If you had been a little quicker maybe I wouldn't have drifted off.

Wilson: I was sad. And I express it through eating.

Steve McQueen: Judging by the size of you, you must be chronically depressed.

Wilson: Watch it plague carrier.

House: Can it you two. Can we get back to my pain please?

Cuddy: Oh, get over it – you big self destructive jerk. Wilson was right. You really would jump off a cliff to prove a point.

House: I was in pain!

Wilson: Tell us something we don't know.

He and Cuddy give each other high fives.

House: Not that sort of pain you morons – deep heart wrenching emotional pain with those special sprinkles that look like ball bearings on top. Not many people know, or believe it, but I am sensitive.

There is a pause.

Wilson and Cuddy burst out laughing.

Michelle (fourth wife): Well, at least I wasn't a bitch.

House: Oy vey – you should have met Julie.

Wilson: Can we not go into that right now?

House: Tetchy!

Wilson: And I had the chance to send him to jail for ten years and didn't. What was I thinking?

House: I told you – don't mention the Tritter arc. Let us just all be thankful that the show is called House MD, not Prison House MD.

Mrs Granthorpe: I still think you were a bum.

House: Shut up grandma.


THE AUTHOR SPEAKS

Interviewer: Did you enjoy writing this story?

DIY Sheep: Did I enjoy it? I suppose the problem really is that if you live in a hot climate and you spend so much time in one chair that the faux leather gets very sweaty and that can be a problem. I have this nasty rash on my…

Interviewer: So what was with the strange numbering?

DIY Sheep: I just thought it was more Zen at the time.

Interviewer: Right – drugs.

DIY Sheep: No, really. If you go back and look you can see where the early parts of the story fit into the later bits.

Interviewer: Right – drugs.

Interviewer: When was this story set?

DIY Sheep: It's a what if story. It takes place during and after that episode with Tick Girl in whatever season that was - so if you haven't seen that episode I have soo spoiled it for you.

Interviewer: Tick Girl?

DIY Sheep: Yes, you know. It's right between the orgy episode and the Cameron discovers the joy of incendary devicves episode... or maybe it was the one where Wilson wears a nice tie? I can never remember the names of the episodes so I had to write my own episode guide... coming soon to a bookstore near you.

Interviewer: But how do type with those hoofs?

DIY Sheep: I have a very large keyboard, if you know what I mean?

Interviewer: And what was with all the swearing.

DIY Sheep: Ah, yes. I do apologise for all that, but it just seemed appropriate – and no, not because of drugs. I really don't swear that much in real life.

I know I should have put in a warning in the first chapter but I just kept ! #$$$&! son of a #! with bells on its #!& little &$# forgetting.

So I do profusely apologise once again for that.

Interviewer: I notice that you stole some dialogue from the pilot episode.

DIY Sheep: And I nicked some from another episode too. Plagiarism is good kiddies, but make sure you don't get caught. Oh bugger. I just admitted I plagiarised didn't I?

Interviewer: Where did you get your inspiration from?

DIY Sheep: I think it just helps to be sick, twisted and have a fear of iguanas.

Interviewer: Does that impede you in any way?

DIY Sheep: Well the good thing is where I come from there aren't many iguanas. In fact there aren't any iguanas, except in zoos. So as long as I stay away from zoos I'm generally okay.

Interviewer: What about looking at pictures of iguanas?

DIY Sheep: Now that's a whole new cam of worms.

Interviewer: Worms?

DIY Sheep: Can't stand worms: nasty little wriggly bastards. They 'say' they just eat dirt, but I have my suspicions. I haven't seen great aunt Mabel for years now. 'I'm just popping out to the shops' she said. And that was in 1993. But what the heck. I still collect her social security cheques.

Although I do like balls.

The neighbour's kids play ball a lot in the street and I find all sorts of balls of 'unknown origin' (get it) in my swimming pool. I have tennis balls in a wide variety of colours (although I think that may have something to do with the tennis court next door so their origin isn't really all that unknown) and this really cute multicoloured soccer type one that just popped up one day in the shallow end.

There was also a duck in there the other night.

Interviewer: A duck?

DIY Sheep: Yes, a duck.

Interviewer: Is that relevant to this discussion.

DIY Sheep: Not really, but both myself and the duck found it interesting at the time.

Interviewer: So tell us about your favourite ball?

DIY Sheep: Ah - I also have a BOUO that I found in a pet store. Yes to end speculation once and for all they really are dog toys. You can tell that by the fact that generally they come with paddy paw prints all over them. Although mine is blue and lime green, it really is brilliant for fingering suggestively around the office. It is lovely and heavy, but always gets away from me and rolls under the table. It is much better than my Smush Bush stress figurine. And I was sick of coming back after lunch and finding people had been nicking my tennis balls and using them to play handball. I bet that never happened to House.

Interviewer: Er, so basically you put it all down to your rather unnatural obsession with balls.

DIY Sheep: Basically, yes – balls balls balls balls balls, that's really all I think about. Balls!

Interviewer: And there you have it folks: total bollocks!

Ta there much:

Many thanks to all who gave feedback and reviews – yes I got to that typo, all though I am sure some made it threw…

But getting back to the point – many thanks to Perspi for her wonderful beta-ness and advice; to Blackmare for her House/Wilson insight; A Kung for their mulling over lawns versus ovals; and to the lovely C Cat for her help – and of course once again to all the people who reviewed. You have no idea how much it was appreciated. Every review from 'I hated it. You suck. Go and drown face down in a small puddle.' to 'I loved it.' was very much appreciated and thought about. Ta much there guys. I'm off to work on my House Hammer Horror Story.

House: Hammer? I better not get hit in the kneecaps with a hammer or you are one dead sheep.

DIY Sheep: Er, no hammers – as yet: I was thinking more your average 'evil since the dawn of time' thing.

House: Oh brilliant. And there I was complaining about Tritter.

DIY Sheep: I could always get Cameron to hug you.

House: Now you really are just being mean for the heck of it. What part of that scene from Words and Deeds didn't you get? I had a choice between hugging Cameron or jail. I chose jail.

DIY Sheep: Okay – how about some kittens?

House: Only if I get to eat them.

DIY Sheep: Long lost medical genius nieces?

House: You know, that whole breaking of the kneecap thing is beginning to look attractive.


So boys and girls, this is how it really ends. Not with a bang, but with … something else.

May all your stories have happy, if a bit ambiguous, endings.