House opened the door and grabbed the bag from Wilson's hand.
"About time," he grumbled. "I was down to my last can of Who Hash."
"You're welcome." Wilson closed the door behind him. "And don't bitch about what I bought. If you're so picky, next time you can pick it up."
"Can't," House said. "Cripple. Need both hands free." He pulled one carton out of the bag, opened it and sniffed the contents.
"Cane," Wilson said. "That's one hand. And you never seem to have a problem carrying beer."
"That's different. Beer comes in these handy packs with handles -- specially designed for the drunk or disabled."
Wilson took off his scarf and coat and hung them in the closet. House took the last of the boxes out of the bag and put it on the coffee table along with the others.
"You forgot the chopsticks," House said.
"No I didn't." Wilson pulled the chopsticks out of his coat pocket and shut the closet door. He held out both pairs, dangling them just beyond House's reach. "Pay up."
"I could eat with my fingers, you know."
"And I wouldn't be surprised if you did. Twenty bucks."
House flipped over the bag to check the receipt stapled to the side. "This says eighteen."
"You know, Santa would have just left coal in your stocking if you weren't Jewish."
"Lucky for me I am," Wilson said. "And lucky for you, since that means I've got the time to pick up some food on Christmas Eve, which you said you'd pay for."
House sighed and nodded toward his jacket hanging on the back of the desk chair. Wilson handed over a pair of chopsticks and took House's wallet out of a pocket. "You've only got a ten in here," he said.
"And I've got chopsticks here." House broke apart the wooden sticks and dug into a carton of sweet and sour shrimp.
"What have pickles ever done to you anyway?"
"Flashbacks to a bad kimchee incident in med school. You don't want to know."
Wilson looked up from his carton. "I'm pretty sure I do."
Wilson shrugged and snagged a water chestnut. "So this isn't something solely targeting pickled cucumbers."
"It's the vinegar-influenced food family in general."
"Ah." Wilson pointed the chopsticks at House. "But what about sauerkraut? It's just not a Rueben without sauerkraut."
"I always make exceptions for fine German cuisine."
"I'm not sure there is such a thing."
"You ... have a problem with nuns?"
"Not all nuns."
"You have a problem with nuns who live in convents?"
"Not a convent, a monastery. There's a difference."
Wilson took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it. "Fine," he said. "You have a problem with nuns who live in monasteries?"
Wilson blinked twice, three times, shook his head.
"They lie -- and not just about their holy IUDs. They claim they want to help the poor, the needy, but then they shut themselves away from the very world they claim they're helping," House said. He put down the carton of Mongolian beef, picked up the half-empty box of General Tso's chicken.
"You can't have it both ways," he continued. "You can live in the world and try to change it, or you can hide from the world and meditate on how bad it all is. Shutting yourself off from the world doesn't make you a saint. It just makes you screwed up and out of touch."
"Of course you know it," Wilson said. "'I'm Mr. Green Christmas? I'm Mr. Sun?'"
House blinked at him.
"The Heat Miser?' Oh come on! 'Year Without A Santa Claus?' It's a Christmas classic."
"I have a well-rounded education, but I never claimed to be a Christmas geek -- unlike some people, apparently," House said. "Better question is how come you know it. You're ..."
"I know, I know, I'm Jewish. I was also an American kid in the '70s. You couldn't escape Rankin and Bass."
House shrugged. "Try Japan. Or Okinawa. Or Egypt ..."
"I don't know how much longer I'll be here. You know how it is sometimes." Wilson had taken his cell phone into the bedroom. He'd hoped to get the answering machine, but Julie's sister picked up the phone when it rang and had called her over.
"Sorry, I didn't get your message. I haven't been back to the office for a few hours." He stood in front of the window in the dark, listening to Julie's voice and the sound of her party on the other end of the line. "No, I didn't think it would be this long either, but some patients need more time."
He heard a few notes from House's piano, playing softly. He wondered if Julie heard them too, and wondered if he even cared if she did. The music stopped and he heard the sound of House's uneven steps as he crossed the floor.
"Listen, I'm sorry, I've got to go," he said. "I'll get there as soon as I can. Apologize to everyone for me, will you?" He listened to Julie's voice on the other end of the connection. "I know you have, and I'm sorry." Again, he thought, but didn't say it.
The lights came on and Wilson turned to see House standing at the doorway. "OK," Wilson said. "I'll see you soon. Love you." He hung up.
"You've gotten pretty good at that lying to your wife thing," House said. "Been practicing?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Wilson walked past House out into the living room. He tossed his phone onto his bag and picked up his beer.
"Even when I was four I realized that Corps Christmas parties sucked." House fished around the edges of the carton for a final piece of chicken, then left the chopsticks in the empty container and put them both on the table. "Let me tell you, Santa with a crappy fake beard and fatigues? Even less festive than you'd imagine."
"Why is it I'm thinking his bag was filled with GI Joes?"
"With Kung Fu grip," House said.
"I always wanted one of those." Wilson leaned back into the cushions. "So you're trying to say you never had a family Christmas. Never?"
"I had a very deprived childhood. Picture Dickens, only more pathetic."
"It's not that I don't believe you, but remember that I have met your mother."
"My mother is a better liar than you are, and you are a gullible idiot." House put his feet up on the coffee table.
Wilson reached for his cell phone. "I've got her number here," he said. "Care to test that theory?"
"Fine." House took the phone out of Wilson's hand and tossed it onto the table. "So she's just another sentimental sap."
He let his head drop back onto the cushion. "She'd usually try to get her hands on some kind of a tree," House admitted. "Not a pine tree, but something green. She'd find some popcorn, and have us string it and she'd put up every crappy ornament they made us make in school." He shrugged. "It was OK, sometimes."
"Did your Dad ever take, you know, leave or whatever during the holidays?"
House shook his head. "Everybody wanted leave for Christmas," he said. "My Dad had this weird idea that commanders should let their juniors have the open spots. He used to go out on maneuvers in the morning. Mom would make me wait until he got home, then we'd open presents and have a big dinner."
House looked toward the window. Wilson followed his gaze, caught their own reflections in the glass and the ghost of falling snow on the other side, just visible against the dark sky.
"A couple of times Mom and I went to her family's for Christmas," House said. "They did it up. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, dry turkey, canned cranberries. My grandmother would make all these pies, peach and pecan and apple and pumpkin."
House picked up his beer, stared at the green bottle, but seemed to be seeing something else. Wilson noticed his gaze seemed softer somehow.
"Those days were nice," House said. He took a drink.
Wilson waited, but House remained silent.
"What about your Dad's family?" he finally asked. "Ever go there?"
House shrugged. "Once," he said. "That wasn't so nice."
"This is the part where you're supposed to brag about the eight nights of presents." House turned toward Wilson from his seat on the piano bench, his hands still on the keyboard, fingers moving steadily across the white and black keys. "Salt for all those GI Joe inflicted wounds."
Wilson couldn't tell if House was just warming up with intricate scales or if it was some obscure jazz riff, but it sounded good. "The thing about dreidels? Even less exciting than you'd imagine," he said.
House changed from a minor to a major key. Wilson recognized the music from the Charlie Brown special. "Your grandmother baked pies, my grandmother loved to knit," Wilson said. "Every year, we'd have eight nights worth of hats and mittens and scarves. I hated them when I was a kid. I was always losing them, and Mom got mad whenever I did."
"She put your mittens on a string for you?"
"Until I was ten," Wilson said. "I wanted Tonka trucks and games and ..."
House looked away from the piano and over at Wilson. "What about now?"
"You said you hated them when you were a kid." House started a new song and Wilson could picture the animation that went with the music -- falling snow and ice skates and crack the whip. He remembered the feeling of wet wool and the way the snow would stick to his mittens. "Still hate them now?"
"Now? Now I wish she was still around to make one more crappy pair of mittens."
House nodded, changed keys again.
"No, the point is that he did find happiness, that it wasn't just a fake smile …"
"No, the point is that you're intimately familiar with every crappy Christmas special ever made," House narrowed his eyes. "How long have you been lying?"
"You are not Jewish."
Wilson sighed. "Just because I've been force fed every WASP moment in American culture doesn't mean I'm not Jewish. Just ... culturally aware."
"You're not just aware of Rudolph, you've memorized it."
"I haven't …" Wilson sighed and gave up. It wasn't worth lying about. "OK, so my Mom loved Christmas – not in the away-in-a-manger sense, but in the big family dinner sense. Of course, we had latkes rather than green bean casserole."
"You didn't miss anything."
Wilson leaned back. "She always loved an excuse to get everyone together." He looked over at House. House had stopped playing, had turned away from the piano, but still sat on the bench. "One year, she even bought an artificial tree at the neighbor's yard sale. She claimed we could call it a Hanukkah tree, but by Dad talked her out of ever putting it up."
House drained his bottle and got up to take it into the kitchen. "So then why are you here?"
"I thought we went over that already." Wilson handed his empty to House. "Neither one of us wanted to talk about it."
"I don't mean why aren't you with your wife – again. That's easy to understand." House called over his shoulder from the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, took out two more beers. "Why aren't you fighting with your brother over the dreidel and potato pancakes?"
Wilson took the fresh beer. "Mom hasn't done a big dinner for a few years." He shook his head slightly. "She said it didn't seem right if everyone wasn't there."
House opened his beer, took a swallow. "Wilson, did you make your Mommy cry by refusing to go home for the holidays?"
Wilson looked at the beer. "It wasn't me who didn't show up."
"Isn't a fit night out for man nor beast," House said. He poured two fingers of tequila in each of the tumblers. "Here's the man …" He downed his shot.
"And here's the beast." Wilson tilted his drink toward House, then drank it down. The taste of it overwhelmed the taste of everything else he'd eaten, everything he'd drank all night.
"One more," House said.
Wilson shook his head. The room seemed to move a split second slower than normal. "I'm good."
House ignored him, poured out two more shots, emptying the bottle. "Too good," he said. "We need to do something about that."
Wilson hesitated. He glanced at his watch. It was late. Too late for Julie's party, too late even for apologies. He leaned forward and picked up the glass. He let himself forget about where he should be. Forget about mittens. Forget about toys. Forget about GI Joe. This is all he wanted, and he could have it. He picked up the glass, looked over at House and grinned.
"Didn't I ever tell you about Bumbles?" Wilson tilted the glass back and swallowed.
House smiled, lifted his own glass to his lips. "Bumbles bounce."