"Yes?" Wilson looked up to see a smiling woman standing in his doorway, a takeout coffee cup in each hand. "Oh. Caroline, hello." He rose and came around the desk to usher her into his office, closing the door behind her.
"Is this a good time?" Caroline asked brightly before she sat down. "I know you're very busy."
"Ah, this is as good a time as any," Wilson said as he gestured to a chair. He settled himself behind his desk and remarked, "Actually, you have excellent timing—I have some space in my schedule right now. What can I do for you?"
Caroline handed him one of the cups. "I brought you some tea. You look like you could use a pick-me-up." He really did—between his disintegrating marriage and House's couch, he hadn't slept well in weeks.
Wilson smiled as he reached over the desk to accept the tea. "You always did strike me as someone who mothered everybody. But how are you?" He took the cover off the cup and took a careful sip. The tea was a perfect temperature. His body must have been anticipating the caffeine; he could feel the tension start to ease from his shoulders.
"I'm doing pretty well, considering." She smiled back, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. "Mom's passing wasn't exactly a surprise, after all."
"She was quite a woman," he said, and she nodded. "The whole team misses her." He took another sip, bigger this time, and felt relaxation spread with the warmth.
Caroline's shoulders tensed slightly, and she blinked. "I wanted to let you know ... how much I and my family appreciate your doctors. You put a good team together, and you really took care of all of us, not just Mom."
"You're welcome. I'll be sure to let everyone know." A long drink took him halfway through the cup, and he felt like he had just taken a refreshing nap.
"I was here to deliver her last shipment of newborn caps," Caroline sighed and wearily leaned back in her chair. "Right to the end, Mom's knitting was perfect as ever."
"Ah, I remember. All the times I talked to her, I don't think her hands were ever still." Wilson smiled again, and Caroline nodded. He noticed for the first time the dark circles of fatigue beneath her eyes. He wasn't surprised; he had seen many family members in a similar state. "How many of those caps did she make?"
"Thousands, most likely," she replied softly. "She made the last batch with red and purple yarn, though. I don't know how many new moms will go for those."
"Oh, I think you'd be surprised. I imagine new parents get tired of pastels." He ducked his head as they shared a chuckle. After a quiet moment, Wilson looked up again and waved his cup. "What is this? It's fantastic."
Her smile changed slightly; her face seemed to tighten somehow. "Just plain Earl Grey, with a little sugar. Mom used to worry about you, you know."
"She thought you worked too hard."
"Maybe I do. But your visit has done wonders—I feel much better," Wilson replied, realizing how good he felt. Like he'd had a night on a custom sleep-number bed instead of a restless cripple's couch. He drained the last of his tea.
"Well, then, in that case," Caroline announced with forced brightness, "I should probably get going."
She got up from her chair far more slowly than he had, and he helped her to the door with a solicitous hand on her elbow. "Thank you for the visit, and the tea."
Wilson watched her a moment as she made her way down the hall. Kirkpatrick, files in hand, silently appeared at his side. She followed Wilson's gaze down the hall and asked, "Was that Caroline Paskin?"
"Hmm?" Wilson started and turned. "Oh, yes. She dropped in to let me know how much she appreciated your team."
Kirkpatrick smiled. "I already knew; Edith made me a red and purple scarf. You wanted these?" She handed him the files.
"Yes, thanks." He flipped the top one open to peruse it.
As she turned to go, she remarked, "She really shouldn't have had the energy she did, considering."
"Wait—what?" Wilson called after her.
She turned back and said, "Edith Paskin. She's the only person I've seen stay upright and active on that treatment regimen. I don't know how she did it." And Kirkpatrick disappeared, leaving Wilson to his paperwork.
Wilson sat, the quiet of the hospital room interrupted only by the occasional beep of a monitor. He had not been there when House lost half his thigh muscle. He had not been there when House gained two bullet wounds. For the second time, he sat in the aftermath, in House's hospital room, watching him sleep, sweat, moan, dream. Six years ago he had sat in House's room, sat in the aftermath, and whispered while House whimpered in his sleep, "Oh, House. Trade you." Now, he sat silently, and waited.
He had argued with Cuddy over the ketamine. The procedure was risky, but the chance that House could live without his pain was worth the risk. Finally Wilson had the opportunity to take his friend's pain from him. Eventually, his arguments and his signature next to House's had convinced Cuddy it was worth it, too.
The ketamine had to work.
Unlike House, Wilson enjoyed his clinic hours. Since he wasn't making up years of backlog, he only spent a few hours a week seeing clinic patients. Those hours tended to be full of average people and benign maladies; he usually welcomed the break.
But without House creating havoc in the hospital, clinic hours had begun to lose their appeal. Wilson checked the date on his watch as he picked up the next file. Only a week before House was back to work, on two legs instead of three. He flipped open the file, checking the symptoms the intake nurse had written and the results of the labs—all added up to a simple UTI. He tucked the file under his arm as he entered the exam room.
A small dark-haired woman was seated on the exam table, and she smiled as he entered. "Dr. Wilson, this is a surprise!"
"Caroline?" Wilson flipped the file back open as the door closed. Yes, Caroline Paskin, written right across the top of the chart. "How're you feeling?"
"It's all written there, the nurse was thorough," Caroline waved at the file he was holding. "I've had plenty of UTIs; this one isn't any different. I don't have cancer, do I?"
Wilson smiled his best reassuring smile. "No, absolutely not. We all spend some time in the clinic; it's part of the job." He stepped up next to the table and tapped on her lower back. "This hurt?"
Caroline gave a small wince. "It's a bit tender, but not bad. I had one a few years ago that was really awful."
"Well, your labs confirm it. Drink plenty of water, cranberry juice is good too, and I'll put you on some antibiotics." He sat down on a stool to write out her prescription.
"You still look tired, Dr. Wilson." Caroline was watching him intently.
"Too bad you didn't bring any of that tea," he muttered as he wrote. He smiled as he tore off the paper. "You could make a fortune. I felt great for three days."
Her face paled as she smiled weakly in return. "It doesn't work that way." She took the sheet from him and stood up. "Thanks."
"Wait," he said, reaching out to grab her wrist. "Did you...give me something in that tea?"
"You mean, drugs?" Her eyes widened at the implication, and she pulled away from his grip. "No, it was just tea. It was a gift."
A moment passed; something she wasn't saying to answer a question he didn't know he had. And then it was gone. Wilson leaned back a bit and smiled reassuringly. "Just asking. Don't forget to take the whole bottle, even if you feel better." He waved at the prescription in her hand.
"Of course," she replied as she left the exam room. Wilson shook his head and went to get his next patient.
"God doesn't limp." The echoes of House's parting shot echoed in Wilson's office in spite of the carpeting. In quiet moments, it would bounce back to his ears, ricocheting off the bookshelves by way of the desk lamp. The teddy bears had always been silent witnesses, but now their blank eyes regarded him with something like reproach.
He had failed House in every way. He was glad, for the first time, that House had only ever thanked Cuddy for the ketamine treatment. His half-assed attempts to make House emotionally healthy had managed to make things worse. Maybe he wasn't the best guide on the path to mental health.
His eyes caught on something colorful beneath a stack of paper on his desk, and he pulled out a comic book. Spectacular Spiderman 110. Wilson scrubbed at his face and sighed. Last week Kirkpatrick had passed along a request from a 14-year-old inpatient collector—this was the last of a story arc, she said, and the girl's parents had no idea where to look. Of course, House had produced it less than four hours after Wilson had asked.
The young collector had been ecstatic to get the issue. This morning Kirkpatrick had delivered the whole story arc, four comics' worth, to Wilson during their morning meeting. "She thought you might like to read it," was all Kirkpatrick had said as she left them on Wilson's desk.
Wilson eyed the cover of the book, idly wondering if he should pull the other three out and read from the beginning. A box on the lower right screamed at him in blood-red letters: "ALL MY SINS REMEMBERED!"
"Oh, rub it in, why don't you?" Wilson muttered to the book.
Wilson was on the balcony above the clinic when House, once again leaning heavily on his cane, hobbled through the front doors. They locked gazes for a moment, and then House leaned back on his left leg and raised his cane in a military salute. Wilson nodded his head in response. He wasn't forgiven; that much was obvious. He could also see that there would be no discussion, as usual. But they would be OK.
The pager buzzed insistently against Wilson's hip. He was relieved to see "CONSULT GH EX RM 2" across the small screen; he had lost interest in his paperwork twenty minutes earlier. House hadn't called him for a clinic consult in weeks.
As he pulled on his lab coat and closed his office door behind him, he idly wondered if House was calling him to look at something singularly disgusting or another spectacular pair of breasts. He really hoped it was the latter. As he started down the stairs he realized House had probably discovered his newest transgression, and was finally calling him for a consult so they could 'discuss' it. He didn't want to be caught out again.
Wilson knocked and waited a beat before entering the exam room. House was alone, spinning on a stool.
"It was me—" Wilson began at the same time that House said, "Do you know—?"
Wilson and House both stopped, and the door thudded closed. Wilson quickly saw that House had called him for something entirely different, and he mentally backtracked. He blanked his expression, spread his hands and said, "Sorry, go ahead."
House tilted his head. "No, you first."
"You paged?" Wilson asked.
Wilson crossed the room to lean against the counter. "What's your question?"
"What's your confession?" House wheeled his stool closer and set his chin on the handle of his cane.
Wilson sighed. He'd given House just enough, might as well finish the thought. "Ezra Powell."
House sat up straight and let out a low whistle. "Huh." He frowned. "That explains a few things."
House held up a hand to tick off his list. "The too-full morphine bottle in my office. Cameron's jumpiness. You're too cool for jumpiness, but you've been extra cool lately—"
"You don't think you could have something to do with that?" Wilson interrupted.
House barely let him finish before he said, "Caroline Paskin."
"Caroline Paskin," House repeated and dropped a folder on the exam table between them. "Says you treated her a month ago, simple UTI. You remember her?"
"Yes," Wilson replied, and he quickly continued when House looked about to interrupt, "Her mother was a patient of Kirkpatrick's. That's why I remember her. You think she has cancer?" He picked up the half-inch-thick file and flipped it open.
"Munchausen's." House started to spin his stool again, slowly this time. Wilson began to page through the forms in Caroline's file as House continued, "She's racked up an impressive number of clinic visits in the last six months. When did her mother die?"
Wilson looked at the ceiling while he thought back. "Well...it was while I was living with you, so...?"
"So it's Munchausen's-by-proxy turned Munchausen's. No mommy to torture, she turned on herself."
"What!? House, is she here?"
"Exam One, broken finger. Says she caught it in a car door." House stopped spinning and gave him a look that told exactly how much he believed that.
"And you think she gave her 75-year-old mother lung cancer."
"She...supplied the ciggies?"
Wilson continued to page through the file. "And then gave herself a UTI, a dislocated shoulder, two bouts of bronchitis, a scalp laceration, an ear infection, and now a broken finger?"
"She likes the attention."
"House, she doesn't have Munchausen's; she's just unlucky."
"That's just what she came here to get treated." House waved at the file in Wilson's hands. "Who knows what's in her file at Princeton General?"
"Munchausen's patients have vague symptoms, they don't actively seek real infections."
"Crappy luck is a lousy explanation."
Wilson gave House a long look. "Sometimes crappy luck is just that: crappy luck." House's jaw twitched, then he dropped his gaze to the floor. Wilson suddenly didn't want House anywhere near Caroline Paskin. He said, "Remember what you said about that Munchausen's patient you had?"
House's expression softened. "The grapey gambler?"
Wilson nodded in response. "If you send her out of here with a diagnosis of Munchausen's, you guarantee no doctor will take her seriously again." He closed the file. "Let me talk to her."
House wheeled over to a cupboard and dug around until he found a lollipop. "Fine. Munchausen's or crappy luck, you're right that I wouldn't do anything but patch her up. Let me know when I'm done treating her." He waved his lollipop at Wilson, indicating his dismissal as he settled back and pulled out his video game.
Wilson turned off his car, unsure of what to do next. He hated this neighborhood, but he knew it intimately; he had spent the better part of a year haunting an eight-block radius from the spot where he lost his brother. The experience of trying to inconspicuously watch for his brother served him well now: he was parked in just the right spot to watch the goings-on through the St. Joseph's cafeteria windows.
Earlier that afternoon, Wilson had questioned Caroline closely about her visits to the clinic. Her explanations had been just odd enough, and she was just embarrassed enough, that they had to be true—she said she had cut her scalp when ducking her head into a metal cupboard in the soup kitchen where she volunteered, and the broken finger really did seem to be caused by a car door. Wilson had initially been satisfied that crappy luck was the only explanation. So why was he here, watching as Caroline doled out cornbread?
She carried on an animated conversation with her chili-pouring neighbor while smiling and nodding at the owner of each new plateful. Out of habit, Wilson glanced at the faces of the men and women standing in line. One man stood out: bright white hair stuck out at all angles below a red and purple knitted hat, and he nearly doubled over with a coughing fit. Wilson followed his hacking progress through the line and noted Caroline's concern as she put cornbread on his plate.
He watched for another ten minutes, unsure what he was waiting for. He was getting ready to leave when he spotted Caroline weaving her way through the tables, a mug in her good hand. She pressed it into the hands of the coughing man, obviously urging him to drink it. Wilson leaned forward and put his arms up on the steering wheel.
Over the next fifteen minutes, the man sipped at the mug. As Wilson watched, his coughing subsided. When the man got up to leave, Wilson looked back around the cafeteria for Caroline, who was no longer in view. He got out of the car and headed for the church's side door, intending to slip inside and find her.
As he rounded the corner, he heard someone coughing, a gurgling-gasping hack that sounded an awful lot like pneumonia. Caroline was leaning against the wall, holding a splinted hand over her face as she coughed. Wilson stepped up next to her and held out a handkerchief. She looked up, startled, but accepted the handkerchief with a small smile as she got her coughing under control.
"You should get that cough looked at," Wilson said as she wiped at her face.
"I will; thanks for this," she replied, waving the handkerchief. "I'll wash it and bring it round the hospital." She turned to go back inside, and Wilson caught her arm.
"It takes more than six hours to develop a cough like that."
She looked back at him, her dark eyes wide. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You were fine when I saw you this afternoon. Tonight, a man in a red and purple hat had a cough like that when he came in to eat, and now you have it."
She pulled out of his grasp. "Doctor Wilson, what are you suggesting?"
"When you came to see me after your mother died, you were bone-tired when you left, and I felt like I had slept for days."
She grabbed the door handle. "Now you're imagining things. I'm going back inside, and I suggest you go home and get some sleep."
He reached around her and held the door closed. "Doctor Kirkpatrick said your mother had more energy than she should have, given her treatment."
She gasped and stepped away from him. "Please, Doctor, go home."
Wilson let go of the door and leaned back against it. "I think you know what I'm talking about, even if I don't. What's going on, Caroline?" He watched as she started to cough again.
As the coughing subsided, she whispered roughly, "You wouldn't believe me, so please, I need to go." She turned and started walking toward the front of the church.
"Caroline," Wilson called as he ran after her and grabbed her shoulders. "Wait." He turned her around, looked her in the eye. "I'm not going away. I can guess at what's going on, but I have to know. I can help you with that cough without you having to go to the clinic. But you have to help me. Please."
She looked at him warily and coughed weakly. "What do you think I can tell you?"
"It's crazy, but I think you absorbed all those injuries and infections. I think you somehow took that pneumonia, and the broken hand." Wilson waved at the handkerchief wrapped around her splinted finger. "I think you can tell me how to do it."
"Why? Why would you want to know?"
"Because I have a friend," Wilson replied. "If I'm right, you could show me how to help him."
"And how do you want to help him?" Caroline asked quietly.
"I would...heal him," he answered just as quietly.
She looked at him a moment, then looked through him. She glanced around the alleyway, and she seemed to shrink as she hunched her shoulders. "There's a room we can use, inside. Come on." She waved him back toward the door.
On Friday night, Wilson let himself into House's apartment, bearing groceries as usual. He could hear House in the shower; it must have been a bad day for the leg.
House was only slightly surprised to hear activity in the kitchen as he hobbled, caneless, from the bathroom. The leg had been vicious that afternoon, working itself into a screaming mess before he'd managed, shakily, to make it home. It hadn't felt that bad in months. The heat of the shower and the Vicodin had combined to beat the pain back to a dull murmur, leaving him feeling mellow and boneless. As he got dressed, House was secretly pleased that he hadn't obviously forgiven Wilson just yet—Wilson always cooked more when he wanted something.
They ate in near-silence, the inane babble from the television the only sound in the apartment. Wilson had been waiting for the chance to try his new Moroccan chicken recipe, and he was very happy with the results. House grunted as he cleaned his plate. Wilson allowed himself a small smile at the effusive praise.
As he pulled House's plate from his lap, Wilson asked, "How about some tea?"
House tilted his head and arched his eyebrows at Wilson. "How about beer?"
"It's cold in here, I know you took some kind of painkiller, and tea is always recommended after a Moroccan meal."
House rolled his eyes. "Have you ever even been to a Moroccan restaurant?"
"Well, no," Wilson admitted, "I might have made up that last part."
"You mean you lied."
Wilson hung his head a moment. "I'm in for the long haul, aren't I?"
House grinned. "Oh, yeah." He rested his head on the back of the couch. "Are you making it?"
"Duh. I want tea." He started for the kitchen.
Wilson heard a dramatic sigh follow him from the living room. "Well, if you're already making some..."
He washed the dishes while the teakettle heated. Wilson only half-listened to House's discussion with the movie as he worked. Mostly he thought about the instructions Caroline had given him. She had said the essential elements were the ritual recitation, the thoughts about what he was trading, and the will to make it happen.
The words and the will: sounded like something out of a fantasy novel, or a comic book. Like something impossible. But it had worked, hadn't it? He had seen it. He had seen it work on him. Caroline had said that it was an old ritual, passed down through her family, from before the world had rational explanations and cold science. Cold science had failed House; Wilson had nothing left to try but this.
He pulled mugs from one cupboard and teabags from another, idly wishing that he'd brought his infuser from home. As he poured the hot water into House's mug, he began to repeat, quietly, what Caroline had told him: "Arweiniwn 'ch beichia." The words were foreign and difficult on his tongue. He tried to focus the way she had taught him, to think about the exchange: his health for House's pain. She had told him not to think too deeply of the medical specifics—"It might be harder for you because you're a doctor," she had said—but to trust the old magic to translate the physical components of the trade. Just before the tea was finished brewing, he muttered, "I told you years ago I would trade places with you, House. I would carry your burden." He tossed the teabags in the trash and picked up the mugs. With a deep breath he said to himself, "I hope this works."
Arriving in the living room, he set House's tea on the end table next to him and settled himself in the leather chair next to the couch. House barely glanced at him and picked up the mug. Wilson was surprised at the flutters of nervousness in his stomach as he watched House take his first sip. He sipped his own tea in an attempt to look natural.
House grudgingly admitted, only to himself, that the tea was rather soothing after the spicy meal. He was surprised as he sipped to discover that it was also acting with the shower and the pills to quiet the jangling nerve endings in his thigh.
As Wilson watched House watch the movie, he became aware that his shoulder was starting to ache, deep in the rotator cuff and the shoulder blade. Of course, House worked that shoulder in ways it wasn't meant to work, day in and day out. Apparently the old ritual had begun its translation of what 'House's pain' meant.
The tension in House's face started to ease, and he settled deeply into the couch cushions. He took another drink, a longer swallow this time, then rested the mug on his stomach. Wilson felt the ache spread from his shoulder down his arm, and it radiated into his lower back. His right calf also started to protest. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
Wilson closed his eyes and leaned his head back. House glanced over at him and said, "Go home. Get some sleep; you look like shit."
Wilson chuckled. "You're one to talk." His right palm itched insistently. He brought his hand to his face so he could see the callus forming across his hand, then rubbed his eyes to conceal the gesture.
House took another long swallow of tea. He hadn't felt this good since the ketamine treatment. Hell, he hadn't felt this good since the infarction. He looked down at his bare feet, resting on the coffee table, and was a little surprised that he wasn't a puddle of goo.
Wilson could feel his whole body coiling, tensing at each new sensation. The pain in his right thigh started as a tingle, and each time House took a sip, it escalated. He wondered how Caroline's magic would finish its work.
He didn't have to wonder for long. With a last gulp, House drained his mug. Wilson couldn't stifle a yelp as his skin twisted and his thigh muscle disappeared, nerve endings frayed and suddenly screaming. His pant leg collapsed into the sudden hollow.
"What?" House asked sharply, reaching to set his mug on the end table and looking over at Wilson, who was gripping his right thigh.
Wilson's face had gone white, and he pulled in a shuddering breath. Little beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. He had thought he was prepared. He had thought House was prone to hyperbole. He wished he'd thought ahead enough to take a pre-emptive painkiller.
House watched him closely, but was unwilling to move just yet. "What is it? Charley horse?"
"Hunh," Wilson sighed, "something like that." He was afraid of what would happen if he loosened his grip, but he looked over at House and tried to smile. He couldn't seem to breathe more calmly than a pant.
House narrowed his eyes at Wilson. "If that's supposed to be a reassuring smile, you're worse at your job than you think."
Wilson decided the best course of action was a hasty retreat. He levered himself up out of his chair, keeping most of his weight on his left leg. He managed a hop-step around the chair and started for the bathroom. Between gulps of air, he said, "Just...need to...walk...it off." He hoped he could make it the eight feet from the support of the chair to the support of the hallway wall.
But as he put more weight on his right leg for the first time, he forgot about how House would stick his leg out to the side to support himself without his cane. Wilson felt the leg start to buckle, there was nothing to grab to keep himself upright, and he didn't even have time to scream. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
House heard a sharp intake of breath a split second before he heard Wilson land hard on the floor. "Hey!" he shouted. When he got no response, he heaved himself up and maneuvered around to Wilson's sprawled form. He poked Wilson's shoulder with his cane. "This is not funny. I was feeling good for the first time all day; I'm not in the mood for games."
When Wilson didn't respond, House eased himself down to the floor next to him and gently turned him over. He checked Wilson over for head trauma, peeled back his eyelids, and held two fingers at his throat to check his pulse. It was racing, and Wilson continued to breathe shallowly. House frowned.
It took House a few seconds of looking at Wilson to remember why he'd gotten up in the first place. Wilson had been gripping his right leg. A muscle cramp was hardly enough to cause someone to pass out, so House started mentally drawing up a list of tests he'd need to find out what was really wrong as he reached over to Wilson's knee. He ran his fingers up the muscle, expecting to find the knot.
The hollowed-out muscle, with its ridge of scar tissue in the middle, should have felt familiar, but he had never touched it from this angle before. House was halfway up the leg before he realized what he was feeling under the cotton of Wilson's pants. He jerked both hands away from Wilson and scooted backward. "What the hell?"
Wilson groaned in response and shifted slightly.
Breathing heavily, House reached over and ran his hand along Wilson's thigh again. He hadn't imagined it; Wilson's thigh still had a long dent where it shouldn't. He scooted himself closer, then unfastened Wilson's pants. Tugging awkwardly, he managed to get them down to Wilson's knees, and he hissed sharply as the leg came into view.
He sat for a shaky moment, studying the scar from the angle the rest of the world saw, on the rare occasions he let them look. This was impossible. His scar, Wilson's leg. House ran his right hand from his own hip to his knee. He felt a ridge of muscle under his jeans, muscle which should not have been there. His hand tightened on his leg. "This does not make sense," he murmured.
With deep, gulping breaths, he stood up, marveling at the ease of it, at the lack of pain, and pulled his jeans down to his ankles. House looked down at his own thighs, a perfect pair. He felt like fainting himself.