A/N: Comments/Me are my OTP. Please leave a word of review.
It was at four minutes past two that Dr House slunk out the Clinic front doors with a silent but disapproving Dr Wilson watching him from the door of Exam Room One.
It was at six minutes past two that Dr Wilson's examination of a three year old girl's throat was interrupted by a rap at the door and Dr Cuddy's voice asking if she could come in, in a tone that didn't need to ask.
"What's the matter?" he asked, pausing the examination to address the head that had just emerged from behind the door.
"Where's House?" she asked, already exasperated as if in preparation.
"I don't know," he recognised the scepticism in her face. "Really, I don't!"
She rolled her eyes and shut the door hard. Wilson gave the toddler's mother his cutest rueful smile and recommenced the exam. He had a fairly good idea where House was, but so did she. She was just going through the motions. Maybe she would go down to the park herself and find him; maybe she would just wait for him to return and minister an appropriate punishment.
House crossed the park slower than usual. It had rained the previous night and most of that morning, so when he strayed from the path in seeking his favourite spot he found himself sliding unsteadily through glistening mud. So focussed was he on watching his feet that he didn't look up to see his preferred bench until he was almost there. He was breathing hard and sweating a little from the concentration of remaining on two legs, and he leaned heavily on his cane when he finally got through the mud and onto some solid ground. He looked at the bench in front of him and frowned.
On the bench sat a kid. A boy of about thirteen or fourteen, tallish and with pale brown hair. He was wearing battered sneakers, mud spattered jeans and a white T-shirt, with a grey jacket lying next to him on the bench. House advanced until he was only a few paces behind, and then cleared his throat loudly. The boy looked back at him briefly, and House caught a glimpse of dried blood crusted inside one nostril.
"This is my bench," House stated. The boy frowned and looked down at House's cane. House smiled slightly. Always worked a treat.
"You wanna fight me for it?" the boy retorted instead, but stood up and picked up his jacket. He sat down on the edge of the bench's concrete base and put the jacket down next to him. "Happy?"
"I actually meant go away," House muttered. "But thanks anyway."
He stumped around the base and settled himself down on the bench. Ahead of them was another path, then there was an expanse of grass edged by a thick band of trees. House tried to slip into his usual routine of observation, looking at the joggers nearby or watching squirrels, but the kid sitting next to his feet kept drawing his attention. He had pale blue eyes and downy brown hair over his jaw and upper lip. Every few minutes he would raise a hand to his bloodied nose and touch it tenderly. Eventually, House leaned forward and prodded his shoulder with the cane. The boy span around sharply.
"Shouldn't you be at school?"
"Day off, stomach hurt. Shouldn't you be at work?" the boy muttered sullenly. House smirked, the image of a dark-haired woman with a severely pissed-off expression flickering through his mind.
"Yep. I should."
"You work at the hospital?" the boy asked, and House saw that he was looking at two nurses who were sharing lunch on a bench on the other side of the path.
"My uncle works there - porter. What do you do?"
House breathed in a shot of cold air. "I'm a janitor."
The boy looked around at the cane again, then stared House in the face coldly. "Don't bullshit me."
"Right. I'm a diagnostician. I-"
"I know. You work out what's wrong with people. Are you any good at it?"
"Nope, I'm a deranged drunk who can't tell a tibia from a fibia. They only keep me on out of kindness."
The boy ducked his head and House could tell he was smiling. When he lifted his head again there was no trace of humour. "Is it hard?"
"Depends on the patient," House answered. "If they've got a lot to hide it can get messy. Let's take you as an example."
"Me?" the boy said. "I just had a stomach ache this morning - I'm not sick. Not fair to have a healthy patient."
"For lack of alternative, I'm gonna go with you. First symptom - bloody nose. You've been hit."
"I fell," the kid corrected. "Over there," he pointed over towards the large pond over to their left. House's eyes followed his finger.
"No-o," he drew out breathily. "It's like a bog over there. If you'd fallen on your face you'd look like Al Jolson. And the bruise forming on your arm confirms it."
The boy rested his elbow on his raised knee and leant his forehead against it. "A boy at school hit me."
"Eh-eh!" House made a 'wrong answer' buzz. "Incorrect. You haven't got a bag, any books. You haven't even been to school today." He glanced off at the joggers, then at the nurses giggling over sandwiches. "Which means you got into a fight. You don't look like the sort of kid who's out looking for a punch-up."
"You don't know anything about me!" the boy exclaimed, his voice rising slightly.
"Pssh! That's just pretentious teenage hormones talking," House replied. "The first place a boy who gets into a fight runs is home. Unless the person he got into a fight with is at home."
The kid was silent and pale. His mouth twitched as House spoke, but aside from that he showed no emotion. He ran a hand across his nose again. House tapped his cane on the ground, looking down at the ground.
"Stepdad? Big brother?" House said. There was a silence until House looked up again.
"Dad. It's my dad."
House, acutely self-aware, slowly sat up straight and leaned backwards. He stood the end of the cane between his knees and let the handle rest against his chest.
"Happen a lot?"
The boy shrugged. "Not really. Maybe every couple of weeks, if I piss him off. My Mom says he used to be different before I was born, but it's probably bullshit."
"Used to be different. What happened? You're what – thirteen?"
"So...I'm thinking Gulf War. Your dad in the Army?"
The boy looked around, frowning, his eyes suspicious. "Yeah, used to be."
"What does he do now?"
"Collects social security checks every week," the boy replied briefly. "Come on, how did you guess that? Your dad fight in..." he thought for a second, scrutinizing House's face, "Vietnam or something?"
"No. I'm a doctor. See it all the time," House replied brusquely. He was lost in thought now, his stomach feeling empty, the kid was just a white and blue blur at his feet. In his mind was the faceless uniform and a smarting kid who might have been himself or this boy.
"Okay," the boy said, dragging House's attention back to him. "You've got all the answers. So what should I do?"
House was a little surprised at this sudden openness, but a glance at the boy showed that he desperately wanted an answer. He sighed and leaned his chin on his cane.
"What you should do and what you will do are different things. What you should do is call the police, make a statement, get your dad arrested and live happily ever after. What you will do is tell yourself you can put up with it. I mean, few more years and you can move out, right? And at least if your dad's taking it out on you he isn't taking it out on your mom. You think if you just try that little bit harder, just try to act how you dad thinks a kid should act, maybe it will stop."
The boy looked at him for a long time, a look of intense concentration on his face. Then he suddenly grinned knowingly. "Okay, there is no way you don't know what you're talking about."
House took a long, shallow breath. He was starting to get cold now, and his leg was stiffening. "Whatever," he muttered.
The boy gulped hard and checked his wristwatch. "I better get home," he said, getting to his feet and putting the jacket on. "My dad said if I wasn't home by three, he'd make me sleep in the yard," he stood in front of House awkwardly, avoiding his eyes. "I couldn't tell if he was bluffing."
House smiled bitterly. "He wasn't."
"Yeah..." the boy nodded. "Thanks."
"It's all right. Except it's not."
The boy nodded again. "Yeah. I come down here a lot. I won't sit on your bench next time, but I guess you'll see me again."
"Hopefully not in a professional capacity," House said, grimacing.
"I'll be okay. See ya."
As he watched the kid walk away, he felt a dull pain, as though part of him were going too.