Wilson knows the equations. He knows the physics. He knows the clich├ęs. Equal and opposite reactions. One thing leads to another. Karma.

He doesn't buy it.

Pop psychology has nothing to do with reality. Chicken soup can't save anyone's soul. Bad things really do happen to good people. Good people die, no matter what anyone does while some bastards get all the breaks.

Wilson wonders when it was that House's cynical nature seeped into his brain. When it was that he stopped believing that being nice was its own reward. When it was that he stepped over that line again, the line he never seems to see until it's too late.

He sits on the edge of the bed, listening to the buzz of the fan and the hum of running water from the hotel bathroom, and wonders whether he's just another bastard or if he can still think of himself as a good guy.

He reaches for his shirt, then his pants and pulls them on. He can feel the slight weight of his wedding ring in the pocket and pulls it out. He rolls it between his fingers, feeling the texture of the rich scrollwork that he and his wife had ordered, with lines that intersect when their two rings sit next to each other. Wilson slips it onto his finger as the shower stops.

Wilson slips on his shoes, ties them quickly and picks up his suit jacket from the chair near the door. He pauses only a moment before opening the door and slipping out without a word.

Bastard. He knows what he is. He shouldn't try to fool himself. He's a bastard. He's a son of a bitch. He deserves everything she'll call him. Both this woman -- Wilson struggles a moment to remember her name, Adrienne, he thinks to himself, or maybe Erin -- as well as the woman at home.

He passes up the elevator and instead opens the door to the stairwell. The fluorescent lights are harsh, the plain gray of the concrete matches his mood. It's two floors up to his own room and he takes them two at a time as if he could outrun the guilt. Out race remorse.

Wilson opens the door and steps out into the hallway. He has to take a moment to remember which way his room is. The halls all seem the same and he always get confused in each Marriott or Hilton or Sheraton. He gets turned around somehow. He finally heads left, counting down the numbers until he reaches his own door. He can't find the key card when he opens his wallet, and worries for a moment that he'll have to go back downstairs, have to face her to retrieve it, but then his fingers touch hard plastic in his jacket pocket.

He turns on the lights, then the TV as soon as he steps in. He doesn't care what's on. He just wants noise, distraction.

Wilson steps to the window and stares out at the city below him. The lights from the tower of the Hancock Center are straight ahead and he lets his eye follow the line of Michigan Avenue. He can make out each block by the street lights and stares at the grid laid out at his feet.

He hadn't meant for it to happen, but then he never does. But she had come to him after his panel discussion, asking specific questions that let him know she had been paying attention to the points in his presentation. That she had been impressed.

Maybe, she had said, we could talk more later, if you have time. There was Italian food, and red wine, and a cold breeze off Lake Michigan. She had forgotten to wear a coat and he put his jacket over her shoulders as they walked back to the hotel. Her hand was cold when she slipped it into his.

She told him he should come up to her room. She was on an expense account, she said. They could break out the mini bar, and find something that would warm them both up.

Now he turns away from the window and takes off his jacket. He worries about whether the wool has picked up a hint of her perfume, and thinks that maybe he should drop it off at the cleaners on his way home from the airport.

He hangs it in the closet next to the two suits already there -- each one a conservative cut in a conservative color. Amy, his first wife, had helped him shop for the first two. She had smiled, told him he looked like a proper doctor now, no longer the med student or resident. It was all about the image, she had said. He couldn't change his face, the fact that he looked young. But the right suit, combined with the right words, would give his patients confidence in his skills.

He'd never found the right words to tell her anything though. He had confessed within days of his first indiscretion, worried she'd find out through the hospital grapevine. He'd thought it would hurt less hearing the truth from him.

"Why?" Amy had asked, wiping away tears.

He'd stared down at the floor. "It just happened," he said. "I'm sorry."

"But there has to be a reason why," she'd demanded. Her tone had changed, become angry. "You can't just sleep with some damn receptionist and then say there's no reason."

"I didn't plan it," Wilson said. "She'd had a hard day, and her car wouldn't start."

"So the reason why you ignored everything we've had together is because you didn't have jumper cables?"

Wilson shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said again.

"That's not a reason either," she said.

He didn't have any better reason to give her the second time it happened. She didn't wait for the third time.

He wonders if Elizabeth will take the news any better. He wonders if she'll demand to know why.

The only reason why, he thinks now, is that he's a bastard. He's a son of a bitch.

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

"The human condition is a strange one." House is standing in the middle of Wilson's new apartment three weeks later, a beer in each hand. He gives one to Wilson, who takes a drink, then puts it on the floor as he sorts through one of the boxes. "Take sex, for instance."

"Don't you ever get tired of this topic?" Wilson takes the books out of the box and stacks them in a new bookcase. He'll sort out the titles later.

"Hard to get tired of it when you keep bringing me new themes to contemplate."

"How about contemplating it in silence then?"

"The monastic life isn't my style," he said. "Too much religion, not enough sex." He sits on the floor under the windows, his back against the wall. "And speaking of sex..." He takes a drink and studies the ceiling for a moment. "Humans today don't have the same need to procreate that our cavemen brethren did. Even the most foolish among us is aware of certain forms of protection." He turns to stare at Wilson.

"If you're looking for more salt to throw in the wounds, you should check in the kitchen," Wilson says.

"I'm good," House says. "So then, is it just pure carnal desire that leads us astray?"

Wilson glances over at him to see House staring back at him, eyebrows raised. "If you pay close attention, you'll notice I'm ignoring this subject," Wilson says.

"You never ignore this subject," House says. "You love this subject. You just don't talk about it."

"So you shouldn't be surprised that I'm not talking about it now."

"And you shouldn't be surprised that I'll continue," House says. "So if sex isn't about biological need, is it just a matter of choice?"

"Still not listening."

"Of course you are," House says. "You're not answering. That's completely different." He takes another drink from the bottle. "And if it's choice, then what do our choices say about us?"

Wilson empties out the box next to him. He looks around the room at the boxes stacked against the walls. At the bags and suitcases that cover the new sofa. At House, who stares at him as if he expects an answer. The air seems stale. It's too warm. He opens a window.

"I choose to believe that you're not really a self-centered bastard," House continues. He cocks his head sideways to look up at Wilson. "If you were, you wouldn't spend so much time around me -- no personal return on the investment."

"Thanks," Wilson says. "Appreciate the vote of confidence."

"It comes from the bottom of my cold, dead heart." House tips the beer bottle at him.

Wilson wonders again why it is he asked House to help him out. He knew what House would say. He knew House would expect answers as payment for a few hours of work. He knew those answers would only make him miserable.

Maybe, Wilson thinks to himself, he deserves to be miserable.

"Your heart on the other hand is big and warm," House says. "Too big, some might say."

"Someone like, say, my wife?" Wilson turns away from the window again and looks out at the room. He tries not to think about how much he has left to unpack.

"Wives, to be precise," House says. "But my point is this ..."

"You have a point? I thought you were just mocking me for the sheer fun of it."

"I always have a point."

"What about that time when you ..."

"Stop trying to change the subject," House says. "Which was you. And your wives. And whether you ever respected them at all."

"What makes you think I didn't?"

"Statistics," House says. "One screw-up -- or screwing around as the case may be -- we can write off as a mistake. Twice is uncomfortable, but still not outside of the realms of reason. But after the fifth time the reasonable person starts to suspect there's a pattern involved."

"Not that you'll believe me, but I did love Elizabeth. And Amy." Wilson pushes himself away from the wall and picks up the empty box. He tears the packing tape off from the bottom and folds it flat.

"But did you respect them?" House pushes himself up and takes the box from Wilson's hand. "I mean, love, honor respect ... they're supposed to all go together, aren't they?" He stares at Wilson, daring him to look away. "So with honor out of the question, you have to wonder whether love and respect have anything to do with what's been going on."

Wilson reminds himself that he knew House would push him. He knew it and yet he asked him to come over. He wonders what that means, as if answering that question would solve House's riddle too.

But he has no answer. At least not now. Or at least none that he wants to admit to. "How about a little respect for me?" Wilson says, then turns and crouches down to open another box. "I could use a little more work from you, and a little less preoccupation with my love life."

House sighs but puts down his beer and picks up two of the boxes marked for the bedroom. "Fine. I'll give it a rest for now, but that'll just give me more time to make observations for later diagnosis."

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

It's dark outside, and gray inside with the only light coming from the muted TV and through the blinds from the hallway. Wilson strains to make out the notes in his files. He hadn't turned on a light when he came in. It had been lighter outside then, late afternoon sun spilling through the window. Now the sun has set and he's just getting used to the dark.

"You never answered my question." House's voice is rough. It's the first time he's spoken since Wilson has been in the room, and the nurses had said he'd been quiet for most of the day.

"Hey," Wilson says. He puts his papers on the floor, then leans forward in his seat, his elbows on the chair arms. "I was starting to think you'd learned how to sleep with your eyes open."

"Not sleeping, thinking." He looks over at Wilson. "And you still haven't answered my question."

Wilson shakes his head slightly. "You didn't ask one."

"Sure I did. I asked if you still loved your wives when you were screwing someone else."

"When ..."

"Back when you first moved into your new place."

"House, that was six months ago." Wilson shakes his head. He almost wishes House hadn't improved. If he were still in ICU he could check the monitors for House's vital signs. He reaches out toward House's hand where it lays on top of the blanket, but House pulls it back before Wilson makes contact.

"I don't have a fever," he says. "I told you then that I wasn't dropping the subject, just giving it a rest. The rest is over."

"And I thought I told you I didn't want to talk about it."

"Why, exactly, are you here?" House shifts slightly on the bed. "I'm not speaking metaphorically. Why are you here?"

Wilson shakes his head at the sudden change in the topic, but goes with it. "Because I wanted to keep you company?"

"Right. So keep me company. Keep me amused. Tell me one of the great mysteries of the universe." House waves his hand in Wilson's general direction. "Tell me how it is you can claim you love someone even while you're doing someone else?"

Wilson stares at him, trying to judge how serious House is about this. Between the pain and the pain meds, House's attention had wavered wildly during the past week. He'd express grim despair over the flavor of his Jell-O, but completely ignore the details of long conversations he'd had with Stacy about changes she was making at home. "Are you joking?" Wilson shakes his head slightly. "Am I just a joke to you?"

"Yeah, sure, that's it, I'm just joking," House says and takes a deep breath. "Or maybe I'm not getting any for the foreseeable future and I want to live vicariously. Give me something to work with."

Wilson hadn't seen Stacy when he'd gotten to House's room that evening. She had left him a message earlier that day that she was heading home early to take care of some bills she'd ignored for too long.

The few times he has seen both Stacy and House together in the past few days, they barely spoke to each other. He knows they'll both have a difficult adjustment to make. And Wilson knows they both have to realize that as well.

He's beginning to wonder if House is just now realizing how much things have changed, and if he's imagining how much more it will continue to change. If he's wondering what will be left between them now.

He wonders if House thinks Stacy sees him as damaged goods now, and if House sees himself as damaged.

He wonders what he's supposed to say that would reassure him.

"Hey," Wilson scoots forward to the edge of his chair, keeping his voice low. "Stacy still loves you, you know. She's not going to ..."

"I'm not talking about Stacy," House says, "or me. I'm talking about you."

House stares at him. Wilson has heard this tone before. It's the one he saves for particularly thick residents. It's the one that's supposed to scare them into doing whatever he wants. The one that gets him the answers he says he needs. Wilson isn't scared, but he still isn't sure what exactly House wants.

Wilson hears House take a sudden breath and sees him shift slightly on the mattress, one hand reaching down toward his right leg. Or maybe, he thinks, House isn't lying. Maybe all he wants is a distraction.

"So am I just a puzzle to you?"

"Consider it a compliment," House says. "You'd like everyone to think you're an open book, that they can take you at your word, but you're not. You're Fort Knox. You're a Gordian Knot."

"And, what, I'm supposed to just let you root around in my psyche to keep you amused?"

"Root around, nose around, sniff around, explore, examine, investigate ..."

"I get the idea, Roget," Wilson says. He stands up and walks over to the far end of the room. He watches a nurse doing paperwork at her desk, watches a resident pass by, followed by two med students. There's not much to see, and House has been staring at these walls, these blinds, these halls for more than a week now.

He walks to the end of the bed and leans onto the footboard. The plastic trim around the edge feels cool beneath his palms. "What do you want to know?"

House smiles. "Not much," he says. "Just one thing: why did you do it?"

"Oh, sure start with the easy questions." Wilson looks down at the end of the bed, at the lump of House's feet under the blanket and thinks for a moment that House seems too tall for the bed. He wonders if it's possible for him to feel comfortable at all on his short and narrow mattress. Then he shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "I don't mean to. It just --" he shrugs and finally looks up at House, " -- happens."

"Don't give me that crap," House says. "Nothing just happens. A house burns down because of faulty wiring or because someone forgot to turn off the burner or because someone lit a match. Diseases spread because of lousy sanitation or lice or vermin spreading germs. Even a virus has a better excuse than 'it happened.'

"Besides," House continues, "it's not as if you forgot their birthdays or didn't notice their new haircut. We're talking about a sin of commission, not omission."

Wilson finds himself thinking that no one has determined yet exactly what caused the clot in House's thigh. "And you think that if you can figure out the answer to my ... issues ... that everything else will make sense?"

"Not everything," House says. "Just you." He looks at Wilson and waits while Wilson sits again. "Had you been fighting? Before you screwed around, I mean, not after. Were you pissed at her? Bored?"

Wilson considers his answer, tries to remember how he felt before everything went wrong. He leans forward. He can see the edge of the bed and the tile floors beneath it, but isn't focusing on anything. "No," he says. "Things had been good, I think. We'd been good."

"So why did you ..."

"Like I said, I don't know. It's not like I plan these things." He shakes his head. "It just ..."

"Yeah, sure," House says. "It just happens. Give me a break. You went all Animal Planet for a reason. Did you think that you were being a nice guy by providing a shoulder to cry on -- among other things -- for some poor lonely soul? Doubt it."

Wilson stands up again. He turns his back on House and stares out the window. He doesn't want to listen. He never wanted to think about why it happened. He doesn't want to think about it now. Somehow it always seemed easier not to know. To not probe too deeply.

"Did you want to want to punish them for not being everything you hoped they would be? For not laughing at your jokes? For not understanding why you're at the hospital so much? For asking why you're not there when they need you?" House asks.

Wilson can't see much outside, just the parking lot with its rows of street lights, a few cars and asphalt. He can see his own faint reflection in the glass.

"Or did you want to punish yourself for not being everything you hoped you'd be?" House asks. "For not being the perfect person you'd like everyone to believe that you are?"

Wilson turns away from the window. He can't do this. Not now. He picks up his files from the floor and heads to the door. "There's nothing more to say." He steps out into the light of the hallway and slides the door shut behind him.

---------

House does not call for help, Wilson reminds himself. He doesn't say he's in too much pain to drive, he just sits in Wilson's office until Wilson leaves, then follows him to the garage.

He doesn't say anything about missing Stacy, though it's been more than a year since she moved out. He just sits in the dark, staring at the furniture she left behind, flipping through the television channels in hopes of landing on something that will distract him.

He doesn't say that he's hungry and has no food in the condo. He just calls for delivery.

So why, Wilson wonders, did House leave him a message this afternoon informing him that he's too tired and sore to shop, but needs coffee, bread, milk, cereal and peanut butter?

Wilson stopped by House's office to discover he'd left early. House wasn't answering his cell phone or his home phone. Wilson cancels his dinner meeting with the new drug rep, but promises he'll try to hook up with her later.

"If you've got time later, we can still talk," she'd said, and smiled and wrote her cell phone number on the back of her business card. "Maybe we can have a drink."

He'd already told Julie he'd be working late, that she shouldn't wait up, so he didn't need to make any more excuses with her. He tries not to think about what he'll find at House's place.

Wilson knocks on House's door, but has his spare key ready, expecting he'll have to let himself in, when the door swings open.

"It's about time," House says. "I thought the pizza was going to start congealing before you got here."

House leaves the door open and makes his way back into the living room. He settles himself on the couch. Wilson doesn't notice any change in House's walk or his posture, and finds the worries of just a few moments ago giving way to confusion.

"Pizza?" Wilson steps inside and closes the door behind him. Everything looks normal. The TV is on, a pizza box open on the table with a stash of paper towels for napkins. House takes a drink from his beer, and Wilson can see an unopened bottle of Heineken sitting on the table next to the pizza box.

"Pizza," House says. "After all, I broke up your dinner plans, right? That was the idea anyway. I thought you might still be hungry, though."

Wilson stands next to the couch, looking down at House. "What's going on here?"

"I thought I explained that," House says. "Dinner? That meal you should be having with your wife, but aren't?"

"So instead of eating with my wife you think I should eat with you?"

"Better me than the new pill pusher. I'm just trying to save you from her. And from yourself." House nods at the bag of groceries that Wilson is still holding. "And put those away first, will you? I hate warm milk."

Wilson can't think of what to say, so he takes the bag to the kitchen. He shoves the milk in the refrigerator, but leaves the rest sitting on the counter.

"And hurry up," House calls to him. "Your beer's getting warm."

"How did you know I was supposed to have dinner with the drug rep?" Wilson sits on the couch and slides a piece of pizza onto a paper plate and grabs a paper towel. "And why should you care?"

"New pharmaceutical employee shows up in town, and suddenly you're rearranging your calendar," House says. "It wasn't exactly a hard case to crack."

"It's just dinner," Wilson says. "They've got some new anti-nausea meds they're bringing onto the market and she was going to ...

"It's never just dinner with you." House picks up one of the slices and leans back. He takes a bite. "It's never just a drink, it's never just coffee." He finally swallows. "Your problem is that you're not perfect," he says.

Wilson widens his eyes and stares at him. After a few moments he shakes his head. "One, I never claimed I was, and two, what the hell does this have to do with anything?"

"It has to do with the idea that you think you're supposed to be perfect," House says. "The perfect son, the perfect student -- I'll bet you're still pissed that you missed a perfect score on the SATs by twenty points. That math portion is such a bitch."

"How do you know my ..." Wilson stops himself. He wonders briefly if House weaseled the SAT information from his parents, or just looked them up in a file somewhere he shouldn't have had access to, then shakes his head. "Never mind," he mutters. He checks his watch and thinks about calling to reschedule his dinner, but knows it's too late.

"Now you think you have to be the perfect doctor, the perfect listener," House says. "You join every damn committee out there so you can set the perfect example for the tenured staff member."

"So what, trying to do good is bad?"

"Trying to be good is very trying," House says. "And you think that by being perfect that you can protect yourself and everyone else. You've tried to build yourself a fortress, but instead of brick and mortar you've got the good grades and the top credentials and the smooth bedside manner."

Wilson shakes his head and drinks down the last of his beer.

"Oh, and it's a very beautiful fortress," House continues. "It's up on a hillside, so everyone can look up at it and be impressed."

Wilson finishes up his pizza slice and reaches for another one, though he's not really hungry any more. "I'm not in the mood for mind games tonight, House."

"Good," House says. "Because this isn't a game. It's a differential diagnosis: adultery and its many causes. Or maybe we should just think of it as a symptom."

Wilson shakes his head, but House ignores him. "Your problem is that you start to think that if you do everything perfect, if you look right, if you save three more people from cancer this year, if your lab coat is perfectly clean, if your pens are in order, if you wear the right tie -- " House leans forward to match Wilson's pose, "-- if you marry the right woman, that you can finally have everything."

Wilson leans forward and gathers up the paper towels that House has tossed onto the coffee table. He's heard enough. "And your pissing everyone off, what's that supposed to accomplish?" Wilson stands and picks up the stack of garbage. He turns his back on House and walks into the kitchen. He dumps the paper into the trash can and leans onto the counter. He can hear House walk into the kitchen, but doesn't turn around.

"So there you sit. Very comfortable. You start to think you've got it all made inside these walls of yours. The problem is, every fortress has its weakness," House says. "Sometimes the enemy can breach the walls. Sometimes they tunnel under the walls. Sometimes they find a way over. Sometimes someone very, very foolish opens the door and lets them in."

House stands just inside the doorway. Wilson wonders if House is afraid to come too close to him. He tightens his grip on the edge of the counter and wonders if House should be afraid. He wonders why he's still there.

"Sometimes you get so comfortable inside that fortress that you forget about how hard it was to build in the first place. You start thinking that it won't hurt to let a little fresh air inside." House takes a half step inside the kitchen. "Maybe you start thinking that you'll open the door. Invite a few neighbors over for a visit."

Wilson pushes himself away from the counter and walks across the kitchen. "You don't know anything," he says. "You never did." He sees House stumble slightly as he pushes past him, but doesn't really care.

"I'm telling you this for your own damn good," House calls across the room as Wilson reaches into the closet for his coat. "I'm telling you because you keep feeling so damn comfortable in your fortress that you start to think that everything really is perfect. You start to think that it won't hurt to meet the new nurse for coffee, that maybe having a drink with that pharmaceutical rep would only be business. Then they start telling you about their day, about their lives, about how they're lonely, about how they're stressed, about how nice it is to have someone they can talk to."

Wilson pulls on his coat, but takes a step back toward House.

"Fine," he says. "I'm not perfect. And you're a miserable son of a bitch whose only pleasure in life is driving everyone else away. Then you can sit in the dark, all by yourself and reflect on how miserable you are."

House narrows his eyes and walks toward Wilson, closing the distance between them. "I'm telling you so that you'll stop thinking everything is perfect," he says. "I'm telling you so that maybe you won't make that same damn mistake again and again and again."

Wilson doesn't want to think about how easy it would be to push House away. To shove him down. To make him hurt. He forces himself to take a step back. "So making me feel like crap is supposed to somehow help me?"

House shrugs. "Maybe," he says. "Or maybe I don't care if it helps you. Maybe I just get tired of listening to you whine about your crappy marriage, and I figure the less you screw around, the better it is for me in the long run. After all, I'm much happier in the dark by myself than having to listen to you."

Wilson shakes his head. "Go to hell." He opens the door and slams it shut behind him.

He takes the stairs down the three flights to the street, too full of energy to wait for the elevator. He gets into his car and puts the key in the ignition, but doesn't start the engine. He leans back against the head rest, staring up at the street light beyond the windshield.

He'd told Katherine they could still meet after dinner to talk about the new chemo meds. He told her about a pub just around the corner from her hotel. He'd told himself that it would be easier to meet there, with fewer distractions from patients.

Wilson turns away from the street light to look up at House's building. He wonders if House is standing at the window, watching him in his car. He knows he probably is. He pulls out his cell phone and dials the number that Katherine had given him that afternoon. It rings through to voice mail.

"Hi, it's James Wilson," he says. "I'm sorry, but something came up. I'm going to have to take a rain check on tonight. Why don't you stop by the office sometime tomorrow. We can set something up with a few others from the department at the same time. Just call the office administrator. She knows our schedules, OK? Sorry again. Goodbye."

He hangs up the phone and tosses it onto the passenger seat, then turns the key in the ignition, pulls out and heads for home.

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

Her name is Naomi. She has red hair that curls halfway down her back and Wilson can't stop wondering if she comes by the color naturally.

She left her spare key card on the bar when she left, telling him he should come up whenever he's ready. Wilson had finished his drink, then ordered another.

He's on his third now, watching the ice melting into his Irish whiskey as his left hand plays with the card. He runs his thumb along the edges, rotates it. Does it again. He hasn't picked it up yet.

He wants to pick it up.

He wants to take it into his hand, to walk out the door and to the bank of elevators. He wants to ride up to the 23rd floor. He wants to forget about who he is. He wants to forget about responsibilities. He wants to see San Francisco through her windows. He wants to find out if she's a natural redhead.

He closes his eyes. He fingers the card again. He takes another sip of the whiskey and takes out his cell phone. One ring. Two. Three. He hears the answering machine pick up.

"House," he says. He keeps his voice soft. "You're right. I'm not perfect. Not even close."

He hears a click on the other end of the line. "I'm not a priest," House says. "I'm not interested in hearing your confession."

"I'm not Catholic," Wilson says, "and you want to hear everyone's confession -- but not for absolution. Just for your own warped enjoyment."

"Who says the priests don't get off on hearing about sin too?" House asks.

Wilson doesn't say anything, just tries to pick up the sounds from the other end of the line, but it's noisy in the bar, and only House's voice cuts through the confusion.

"You realize a booty call doesn't actually involve a telephone, right? And even if it does, you called the wrong number."

Wilson nods, though he knows House can't see him. Somehow he knows that House can understand him.

"So why are you calling? Just to say I was right? I already knew that."

"No."

"I'm pretty sure you're not looking for advice."

"No."

"Then what, a shoulder to cry on? Someone to listen to you rehearse your newest set of excuses?"

"I love my wife."

"You keep saying that, but she's going to ask for proof one of these days."

Wilson takes another drink. The ice has melted just enough to begin to alter the taste of the whiskey. He remembers the smell of the peat fires in Ireland when he and Julie were there for their third anniversary just two months ago, and the way the rich smoke would rise from the flames and seemed to flavor everything -- the whiskey, the food, the sheets, her hair. He's beginning to feel as if the rest of the bar is fading away. There's just him, this stool, the drink, the key on the bar and House's voice in his ear.

"How drunk are you?"

"A little," Wilson says.

"Have you figured it out yet?"

Wilson runs his finger along the edge of the card again. "Figured what out?"

"Who you're trying to punish."

Wilson takes his hand away from the card and rubs his eyes. "They've all been right, you know," he says. "I'm a bastard."

"No you're not," House says. "You're just screwed up, just like everyone else."

Wilson takes another drink. Smoke, he thinks. Mists and vapor and clouds. Memories and promises that seem impossible to hang onto. Impossible to keep.

"I'll see you when I get back," he says, and hangs up the phone.

He calls over the bartender and pays his tab. He swallows down the last of the whiskey and steps away from the bar. He leaves the card behind and heads back to his room.

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

Wilson pours himself a cup of coffee and stares out the kitchen window. He can hear the shower start up down the hall, and wonders why House asked him to come by early to pick him up if he wasn't actually planning to leave early.

Probably, he thinks, House just wanted to see if he'd actually do it. In the weeks since Wilson moved out, in the days since he'd left Grace, House seemed to be keeping tabs on him. Asking him for favors. Testing the boundaries of their friendship to see whether the walls will still hold.

Wilson doesn't want to push back. He knows he's the one who screwed up, who ignored the lines, who ignored common sense. House was just the one who made him face those lines. Again.

And House has been under more stress than he's wanted to admit. It's been more than two months since House first said his pain level had increased. Wilson had thought then that it was psychosomatic -- House's own internal fortress attacking its most vulnerable point after Stacy left. Now he's not so sure.

Wilson takes his coffee to the living room. A spare pillow he'd used still sits at the end of the couch and he wonders why House hasn't tossed it into the closet yet. He looks around the room and sees a book he was reading still on an end table. It doesn't look like the bookmark has moved since he placed it there. Maybe House thinks he'll still move back in. Sometimes Wilson thinks maybe he should.

Both he and House are just living with the remains of what they thought they could have. Stacy, Julie, happiness. All gone. All that's left is the rubble of breached walls, of broken stones, of broken dreams. At least when he's around House, Wilson can forget about what's broken, and concentrate on someone else -- on something else besides his own screwed up life.

Wilson wonders if any of it has been worth it. For all the comments House made for months and years, for all the reminders of Wilson's wandering ways, the attack this time came from inside. From the place he didn't expect. From the person he thought he'd been protecting by maintaining those walls. Guess he should have paid a little more attention to what was happening inside them. He finds himself wondering if karma played a part. Maybe God really is a woman, and Julie's actions were just a way she could reciprocate for everything he'd ever done to everyone else.

And this time House had been the one to open himself to attack, when he allowed himself to imagine something beyond the walls of misery that he'd built around himself.

Since Stacy left, House has closed himself off once more. Escaping into familiar pains. And Wilson wonders if his own familiar patterns are waiting for him. Somehow, that doesn't sound so bad just now, but he knows where those patterns led him last time -- from House's couch to Grace's bed.

He shakes his head and takes a drink of his coffee. There's no point to thinking about what he can't have. What he shouldn't have. He doesn't need distractions now, he needs to move on.

He tells himself that he really does want to move on. That he will move on. He will find something new. Something good. Something worth protecting. Maybe not now, but soon.

Soon.