What Was First

The envelope comes to his office with the 3 o'clock mail, the day after he's dropped House at the airport. The pale blue envelope with the old-fashioned red "airmail" flashes around the edges stands out from the rest of the bundled papers, and he picks it up curiously.

The address, in furious black strokes, makes him smile. J. WILSON, M.D., BOY WONDER ONCOLOGIST, it reads, and below that, the hospital, street number and name. There's no return address, and the postmark stamp is from Las Vegas, where House is attending the diagnostic conference. For a moment he wonders how the U.S. Postal Service managed to get it here within ... what? a day? He shakes his head and uses his letter opener to slit open the thin paper.

A button falls out.

It's a small button, iridescent white, from a man's dress shirt. James picks it up, then looks in the envelope, even turning it upside down and shaking it. Nothing. Just a button.

Wilson's smile grows wider and he drops the button into his shirt pocket. The rest of the afternoon, he finds himself absently patting his chest, the little button secure over his heart.

When House calls him later that night, James forgets to mention the envelope or its contents.

What Was Second

The next day, the second envelope is waiting at his desk with the early morning mail, and Wilson picks it up, grinning. Same carelessly scrawled name and address, same Vegas postmark. He tears open the envelope eagerly, and a matchbook lands on his desk, bouncing once before coming to rest face-up. He holds the envelope open, peering inside, but again there's nothing else there.

The matchbook is black, with "The Sahara" emblazoned in gaudy silver lettering on the front. James knows House isn't staying at The Sahara, but he can imagine him there -- a picture forms in his mind of House playing blackjack or poker in a smoky back room with shark-toothed mobsters, while Sinatra sings the floor show out front and girls selling White Owl cigars work the room.

He opens the booklet, and sure enough, one match is gone.

He catches himself humming "It Was A Very Good Year" while helping Cameron with a consult, and blushes when she smiles at him.

What Was Third

The third envelope comes that same day with the 3 o'clock mail, and for a moment Wilson stares at it.

Okay, House, he thinks. What's going on here?

He takes the envelope cautiously; it's pale blue like the others, with the same red flashes around the borders. There's something pliable inside, and he's careful when he slits it open.

A cocktail napkin; used, by the look of it. There's an amber ring where the condensation from a glass of something iced has soaked in. James lifts the napkin and gives it a slight sniff; catches the familiar burnt-peat smell of Scotch. Faint black lines crisscross the small square, and Wilson turns it over. Black ink, probably from a gel-tip pen, has bled through the soft paper and it takes him a few seconds to realize he's holding an anatomically correct drawing of the human liver.

What Was Fourth

The next morning Wilson opens his office door and busies himself for a few minutes hanging up his suit coat before switching on the lights. He's spoken again with House, and again, hasn't mentioned the envelopes. It seems to be a secret, shared only between them.

And there, with the morning mail already stacked on his desk -- another envelope. His admin has taken to putting them on top of the rest of his mail; he doesn't know if she's guessed who's sending them, or if it's just unusual enough for her to recognize the exception. Either way, he's not going to ask.

This envelope bears the clear imprint of something small and round; he tears it open and looks inside.

A coin. James catches it between thumb and forefinger and lifts it out; it's a copper penny, dark with age, dated 1969. His birth year. Wilson smiles. He can picture House, caned gait stopping suddenly as he sees the offending cent at his feet. Leaning down (carefully) and picking it up, noticing the year, slipping the coin into a pocket ... the daydream ends there.

Wilson tosses the coin, once. It comes up heads. He's not sure what he's won.

What Was Fifth

That afternoon the fifth envelope shows up, but it's okay now. James knows House is doling them out, dropping the letters in convenient post office boxes twice a day. He sits down with a sigh; it's been a rough day and a headache is beginning to build behind his eyes.

This envelope is weightless, and he wonders if it really contains anything this time. It would be just like House to throw a wild card right about now. Retrieving his letter opener, he slashes across the top and looks inside.

A feather. A pink feather, to be exact, and suddenly James is grinning.

The feather is loud, exuberant, a flyaway from a showgirl's outrageous costume, and Wilson can see House bending forward, laughing, plucking the feather from the air as the music comes up and the audience roars.

He tickles his nose with the feather, then sticks it, quill down, in the tiny sand Zen garden at the far corner of his desk. It's wildly out of place, but he doesn't mind. His headache is gone.

What Was Sixth

He shifts the envelope from hand to hand, wondering at the dry shuffling sound inside. It's been an ugly, oppressive summer, and the drive into work this morning had been unpleasantly warm and sticky, even with the Volvo's AC on full blast. He sighs and knifes open the envelope.

The smell of a forest rises into the air, and he freezes for a moment, surprised. The envelope is filled with green pine needles.

House? Where ... how ... The image comes to him, clear and strong, of House in a rented 'Vette, driving west from Vegas towards Lake Tahoe. Stopping along the way in the clean piney woods, walking from the car along a trailhead, picking up handfuls of pine needles and sage.

James is reminded of his university days in Montreal; the flawless sunlight over the Quebec apple orchards that run all the way down to the banks of the Saint Lawrence. He sits quietly, thinking of paths not taken and choices made, and it's a long time before he stands up and begins his rounds.

What Was Seventh

There's something long and thin in this one, and Wilson can't tell what it is. He turns the envelope over in his hands, smiling at the now-familiar BOY WONDER ONCOLOGIST that shouts at him, feeling something both hard and flexible shifting in its paper prison.

He opens the envelope, and a sword falls out. A translucent plastic sword, red, the kind used to spear olives and chunks of pineapple in martinis and tropical drinks.

James frowns. House doesn't usually order martinis, and he knows his friend would rather set himself on fire than be caught with a syrupy, overly sweet tropical potion.

Who is House drinking with at this conference? The question bothers him more than it should, and he's distracted and snappish the rest of the day.

That night the phone doesn't ring.

What Was Eighth

The heat has broken; the sky is a clear, cloudless blue. Wilson knows this is only a short respite in a brutal August, but for now he's grateful.

The morning mail is waiting; on top is the familiar blue envelope. He sets it aside, telling himself he really needs to catch up on patient charting. It is lunchtime before he finally picks it up and tries to guess the contents.

Something small and thick. It feels like a wadded-up bubble gum wrapper. Sending me real trash now, House? He sighs and slits open the envelope, and peers inside.

It's ... paper. Folded paper. He lifts it out and holds it by one end (a tail), and recognizes it at last as an origami crane.

White with printed black letters and lines standing in for feathers, it's been carefully folded out of a sheet of hotel notepaper. Flattened in the envelope but now freed from its narrow cage, the wings stretch out and the head rises, caught in eternal flight. Wilson stares at it for a long moment. The tiny paper bird is beautiful, elegant in its simplicity.

Must've learned as a kid while his dad was stationed in Japan, James thinks. Beauty and precision; the rigorous grace of doing something well. Exactly what would've attracted the interest of a preternaturally bright and nimble young mind.

He turns away and pulls his laptop closer; it takes only a few seconds to find what he's looking for.

The origami crane is a symbol for many things, but chief among them are honor and loyalty.

What Was Ninth

The afternoon mail is late, and Wilson smiles when he realizes he's actually tapping his foot in anticipation of the blue envelope. When it's not there he's surprised and disappointed.

Stupid, he thinks to himself. Doesn't mean anything. It's just a game to House.

He tries reading the new issue of Clinical Oncology, but stops when he's read the same paragraph four times over without comprehension.

Sugar. That'll help. He almost adds "cheer me up" to his last thought but doesn't. He's not depressed. Not over something so trivial.

In the hospital cafeteria, he eats a dish of vanilla ice cream, forcing himself to savor every spoonful. He sits outside for awhile afterwards, face turned up to the sun, feeling the sugar high build and subside. At last he makes his way back to his office, only to stop abruptly in his own doorway.

There's a blue envelope on his desk.

James straightens and smiles, and sits down in his desk chair. The yellow Post-It stuck to the envelope is in another doctor's sloping handwriting -- "Delivered to me by accident. J. Willets". There's something more on the back and Wilson turns the note over. "Hope it's not urgent, BOY WONDER".

With a small groan, James leans back and rubs the back of his neck. Thanks so much, House. He sighs and bends forward, picking up the envelope.

His eyes narrow as whatever's inside slides back and forth with a rustling, shifting sound. He pinches the envelope gently, feeling something granular and rough beneath the paper.

Wilson looks at the letter in his hands for a long moment, then reaches for the opener. House, this had better not be anthrax, he thinks, and swiftly rips the envelope open.

Sand spills onto his desk. Desert sand, the tiny quartz and feldspar grains catching the light. He must've driven out from the city ... stood under the sun or the night sky ...

A mental image forms -- House, in flowing white robes, a desert nomad's burnoose upon his head, blue eyes shockingly bright in a sun-darkened face. House of Arabia, James grins, trusty camel by his side.

He draws little patterns in the spilled sand and laughs, truly relaxed for the first time today.

What Was Tenth

Wilson waits at the baggage carousel, idly people-watching, and doesn't even hear House come up behind him. The painful rap of a cane against his ankle lets him know House is back. He jerks his foot away and winces.

"House, do you have to do that?"

"Miss me, Jimmy?"

"Not when you do that, no." James turns and looks at his friend, and after a moment, smiles.

House is in his customary Nikes, but he's wearing black jeans today. A faded blue t-shirt advertises a long-ago Talking Heads concert, the graphic design half obscured by a dark blue chambray workshirt. From the shirt pocket, a handkerchief in a red bandanna pattern is trying to escape.

Airmail, Wilson thinks.

House's luggage comes spinning by, knocking against the other bags on the carousel. James picks it up and they head out to the car.

"How was the conference?"

House makes a noise somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "It was a conference. Boring presentations by pretentious blowhards who think their papers are gifts from God at Mount Sinai."

"Well, it is a reputable hospital," Wilson says, and then House does laugh, just as they reach the Volvo.

House must be more worn out from the trip than he thought, because it isn't until they're almost home that House notices the small paper bird hanging from the rearview mirror like a talisman.

He reaches out and flicks it gently with one finger, then looks at Wilson.

"Miss me?" he asks again.

James grins.

"Are you kidding?" he answers. "I can't get away from you, even when you're gone."