Chapter Nine

The reason Cherie ended up in Princeton, New Jersey is a simple one: she ran out of gas. At eighteen years of age, that was a big deal. She hoisted her meager belongings on her back and hiked into town to find a motel for the night. In the morning, she reasoned, she would go apartment and job hunting, as well as find a school where she could put her talent with numbers to good use.

It was noon before she woke. She hadn't realized how exhausted she was. But now she was angry with herself. Quickly showering and dressing, she left the little room in the mom and pop motel to find a newspaper and a gas station, hoping against hope that no one had towed her car away overnight.

Mrs. Abernathy, the 'mom' of the mom and pop motel met her in the office where the newspaper machine was located. "Good morning, dearie! Glad to see you up and around. I thought you'd sleep the day away!" She was as wide as she was tall and full of laughter. She reminded Cherie of Santa in 'The Night Before Christmas'.

"No, ma'am, I've got to fetch my car. I ran out of gas and had to hike here yesterday. Hopefully, no one has taken a liking to it. Can you tell me where the nearest gas station is?"

Mrs. Abernathy looked horrified. "Honey! I wish you'd told us that yesterday, I'd have had Mr. Abernathy go get it for you. You wait right here!" Out the door she flew before Cherie had a chance to draw a breath. Quickly enough, Mrs. Abernathy was back, 'pop' in tow.

"Let's get you in the truck little lady, we'll find your car, gas her up and get her back here in no time." Mr. Abernathy had to be nearly seven feet tall and skinny as a rail. The two of them were comic book perfect. Cherie smiled and allowed herself to be led away, as if she had a choice.

They both heaved a sigh of relief to find that the car had been unmolested, save a small sticker on the driver's side window from the local constabulary indicating the car would be towed if it was still there in 24 hours. Mr. Abernathy hoisted a gas can out from the bed of the truck and commenced emptying the contents into her gas tank. She started up with nary a hiccup and Cherie followed Mr. Abernathy back to the motel.

Once returned to the arms of safety, the Abernathys invited Cherie to share lunch with them and would brook no refusal. They filled her in on all the local goings on, what parts of town to avoid, which grocery stores were best and how to get to the community college as well as the university. After all was said and done, they offered to let her live there with them until she really felt like she had to have a place of her own. She had fallen in love with them and accepted their kind offer.

Her first job was as a bookkeeper for a small trucking firm in Princeton. It was fun being the only female around. All the guys were nice to her and several of them hit on her, but none harassed her. She was everybody's little sister. Her boss, Rufus, went so far as to offer to pay part of her tuition. She had taken his godforsaken ledgers and turned them into readable accounts. As far as he was concerned, she was a genius and a saint.

Cherie enrolled in the local community college, a little put off by the thought of attending a big university and was glad she did. Once she got her mandatory classes out of the way, she transferred to Princeton University's College of Business and earned her degree in accounting. A year later, she sat for her CPA exam and passed on the first try… an amazing feat. Soon after that, she found a pretty little garden apartment in a quiet neighborhood and amongst many tears, left the Abernathy's motel.

While her professional life was beginning, her personal life didn't suffer, either. She had more than her fair share of dates, but no one came close to Marc and she still mourned for him. Occasionally, she would date someone for a few months, but nothing ever lasted longer. Most of her female friends were sisters, girlfriends or wives of the guys she worked with. One of them took her to a club one night which featured a huge dance floor.

One of the things Cherie missed the most about Louisiana was having somewhere she could go to dance. She and her friends back home would go out every weekend and line dance. All the drama of the small town would be echoed on that dance floor and everybody did their version of Monday morning quarterbacking once they woke up from their hangovers. The owner of the club invited Cherie to teach lessons on Tuesday nights. She jumped at the chance.

Returning from work one evening, Cherie was surprised to find a rather thick envelope resting against her front door. It was an invitation for an interview with one of the largest accounting firms in New Jersey which had an office right there in Princeton. She immediately called the Abernathys and told them all about it. The Abernathy's were thrilled and wished her the best of luck. Mrs. Abernathy even suggested she wear her beige suit with the cadet blue blouse which showed off her eyes so well.

The interview was daunting. She met with three of the partners in the firm who owned what had to be the best poker faces in the world. Answering all their questions with a studied calm, she spent the better part of two hours trying to read their minds. It was useless. She left the interview not knowing whether she would get the job or not.

Two weeks after, another letter arrived from the same firm, extending an employment offer to Cherie. It was then that she finally picked up the phone and called home. She had made it. She was on her own two feet. She had arrived. Her brothers were happy for her and brought her up to date on the health of her mother. Claire was near catatonic most of the time, occasionally surfacing for a crying jag, then lapsing back into silence. The boys rarely visited her. Cherie vowed to see her mother the first time she had a vacation. She was never able to keep that vow.

Late one August night, Claire somehow managed to escape from the home and had run out into traffic, sparring with a semi tractor trailer truck and losing the fight. Cherie could never go home now. She was in Princeton for good.

Chapter Ten

Joey paced the room, holding his hands to his ears. Why hadn't Jimmy written back. Why hadn't he called. Where is he. He doesn't love you anymore, Joey. He doesn't care about you anymore. Perhaps he never did.

"What the hell is all my stuff doing in the hall?" House bellowed when Jimmy finally opened the door after several minutes of ever-increasing hammering.

Jimmy stared at him and spoke in very low, menacing tones. Tones which were not his usual style or preference. "You and your crap have been evicted. Find yourself another sap to sponge off. Go away and stay away." The door slammed shut.

House stood dumbfounded. "Wils… Jimmy, I…" A sudden, extremely odd sensation washed over him. If he'd learned anything about Wilson in the past few months, it was that he was a pushover. A caring, sometimes annoyingly caring person. It just wasn't his nature to get angry, much less stay angry. House had pushed Jimmy like he pushed everyone else. There was nothing different here. So why did he feel like he'd just killed a baby bird? And why would he care if he just had?

Jimmy opened the door, leaving his room for an evening class. He was surprised to find House still there, sitting amongst his gear, head lolled back against the wall, snoring. He kicked House's foot with his own. "Why are you still here?"

House woke with a momentary disorientation, then jumped to his feet. "If I put some of my stuff in storage, can I come back?"

Jimmy was touched. He thought he saw actual emotion in House's eyes. This was the first time he would be suckered into believing House. The pattern would continue for years. "Mine is the big bed." Jimmy left House in the hall and headed to class, patting himself on the back for cracking the marble veneer that was House. Oh, how wrong he was.

Three and a half hours later, Jimmy returned to find that the giant ogre had once again claimed the larger bed. However, the gear was neatly stowed in only one of the closets and Jimmy's belongings were where he had left them. A small victory, that. He worked on a physics problem that was driving him to distraction, finally admitting defeat and heading down the hall to the showers. Upon his return, he found the problem had somehow worked itself out, albeit not in his handwriting. The ogre hadn't moved, or so it seemed. Must be elves.

For awhile, House was on his best behavior, still bewildered that he thought it necessary to do so. He even started initiating actual conversations with Wilson. To his surprise, there was a depth to Jimmy that he'd missed before. He found they laughed at the same things, enjoyed the same music, although Jimmy's taste in movies was totally different.

Christmas break came and Jimmy wondered why House wasn't packing like everyone else. As for himself, he was excited to see his family again. He'd missed Joey. He hadn't heard from him in awhile and wanted to talk to him badly. Jon was married now and seldom home, but this year he would bring his family home with him.

"Aren't you going home for Christmas break?"

"No home to go to."

"What? Where are your folks?"

"In Holland."

"Why don't you come home with me? No one should be alone at Christmas."

"Thanks, man, but no thanks. I'll be fine."

Jimmy knew that was a lie, but didn't push it. He finished packing and picked up the shuttle which ran from the campus to the airport hourly from the week before break to the week after. Every shuttle was jammed with college kids heading home. As he settled into his seat, he couldn't help but have a twinge of guilt at leaving House behind and alone.

House sighed as he watched the shuttle pull away from the dorm. Well, at least now he could play his stereo as loud as he wanted.

Once home, Jimmy was horrified to discover just how far Joey had deteriorated. He'd lost a good 15 of his body weight and was frequently away from home for days. No one knew where he went or what he was doing. Jimmy spent most of his vacation prowling around Princeton, trying to find his brother. His parents had tried to have him committed, but legally, they could only hold him for 72 hours and no one had declared him incompetent.

On Christmas Eve, Joey came stumbling back to his home. Reeking of urine, completely filthy, Margaret took one look and broke down and cried. She couldn't take it anymore. Jon's wife quickly hustled the children off to bed. It was the last time Joey was coherent enough to comprehend his surroundings. Jimmy took the time to clean Joey up and feed him, trying all the while to talk to him, find out where his head was at. What he discovered was a lost soul, filled with self-loathing and emptiness. After the holiday, Jimmy swore to get Joey into a treatment facility.

In the morning, Joey was gone. Jimmy skipped the gift-opening (a concession to Jon's wife who was Catholic) to search Princeton for his brother who was lost in more ways than one. He finally spotted him on a street corner in a decrepit part of town. "Joey, please come home with me. We can get you help, we can help you beat this thing." For twenty minutes, Jimmy pleased. Joey looked at Jimmy with vacant eyes. He was stoned out of his mind.

"Hey, man, got some change?" Joey staggered away, not even recognizing his baby brother any more. It was the last time Jimmy saw him. He would regret not chasing after him for the rest of his life.

Chapter Eleven

Surprisingly, House had no idea Cherie was in the hospital, let alone her diagnosis. He was too busy digging up whatever dirt he could find on her. Literally spending hours at his computer, he'd found out her entire life story. Including the bit about ditching her mother in an asylum. And the baby. The marriage and the baby would be tricky, he'd have to leave that ace up his sleeve until the very last deal of the game.

He rationalized that Wilson needed to know about her mother's schizophrenia for the sake of any little Wilsons he might be contemplating, this particular mental illness skipping generations as it often did. The thought sent shivers down his own spine. It was impossible for Wilson to fall in love with anyone who wasn't a basket case, and yet, from what he'd witnessed, Cherie didn't really fit into that category. She was a puzzle. Wilson's motivations were a bigger puzzle.

Armed with his handful of terra firma, House made his way to Wilson's office where he knew the boy wonder would be knee-deep in paperwork. To his amazement, Wilson was seated in the comfy 'bad news' chair. He'd pulled it away from its usual place and set it in front of his office's window wall. Wilson was just sitting there, staring into space, ostensibly watching the rain chase itself in sheets across his balcony.

"Go away, House. I can't deal with you today."

"There's a few things you need to know."

"Nothing you have to say could be of any interest to me."

"Then talk to me about what interests me."

"Go away. Please."

"Why are you in love with this woman, Wilson?"

Was the moron completely blind? Could he not tell by my voice that I'm in trouble over here? How self-absorbed could he possibly be? Ah, but you know the answer to that, don't you?

"She has a name, start using it. Besides, in what parallel universe do you care, House? Go torture someone else."

"There isn't anyone else. Besides, there are things you need to know."

"I love her because she loves me. It's not a concept you could ever contemplate, much less understand. And I know all I need to know about Cherie. Now, for the last time, please leave me alone."

"Just what is it you know about her?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, House! She was born in Louisiana, raised in a loving family and came to Princeton on a whim." Wilson allowed himself a bitter chuckle. "She ran of gas."

"What?"

"She ended up in Princeton because she ran out of gas."

"That's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"Good for you. Mark it in your diary."

House's voice dropped a few decibels. "Did she tell you about her mother?"

"Her parents are dead. Her brothers are back in Louisiana."

"How did her mother die?"

"I don't know. I don't care."

"She ran in front of a semi that was doing about 40."

There was no response from Wilson.

"She was running away from the mental institution where the love of your life had put her."

Wilson slowly rose from his chair, still watching the rain. House moved in closer, standing just behind him.

"She'd put her there after her father died. The woman had been sick for years, hidden away by the family. He died hearing the news of Cherie's husband's death at, of all things, a rodeo competition. She lost the baby she was carrying soon after. Did you…"

Wilson spun around, the power of the blow he delivered nearly knocking House unconscious. Summoning strength he didn't know he had, he hauled him up by his jacket and jeans and literally threw House out of his office into the hallway where a crowd quickly gathered. The cane followed like a missile.

"Don't ever let me see your face in anything other than a professional context again, House. Do I make myself clear?" Wilson's countenance was a study in pure hatred. The door slammed shut. For the second time in nearly two decades, he'd thrown House out of his life. This time, it would be for good.

"House, what in the hell were you thinking? Have you finally lost your mind?" Cuddy was standing behind her desk, hands on her shapely hips, eyes blazing fury. He had hobbled into her office after the altercation, nicking an ice pack on his way through the clinic.

"He needed to know!" House's whine was more than annoying.

"Why? At a time like this, what possible use would…" Cuddy came around from behind her desk and stood in front of House, who was sprawled out on her office sofa, the ice bag to his face. She peered deeply into his one uncovered eye. "You don't know, do you?"

"I know my cheekbone is probably broken, it hurts like hell."

"No, you idiot. You complete and utter dolt! You have to be the most selfish, self-centered son of a bitch on the face of this planet!"

"Flattery will not get my pants unzipped. Especially when you're ovulating."

Cuddy sat down beside him, throwing his legs off her coffee table. The action made him wince again. "Cherie is, as we speak, upstairs as a patient on the oncology floor. She's dying, House. Inflammatory breast cancer, too far gone for anything but palliative treatment. She'll be dead by the end of the year, if not sooner. You couldn't have chosen a more auspicious moment for an old-fashioned ass-kicking and you got it. I, for one, am proud of James. Had I the strength, I'd throw you out of here myself. Now get out!"

House was thunderstruck. What had he done?

Chapter Twelve

Cherie continued on at the firm for awhile. She felt she needed to keep busy until her strength gave out altogether. Friends helped her choose wigs and brightly colored scarves for the inevitable hair loss. Her employers were more sympathetic than she could have hoped and her case load dwindled. One morning, the CEO came to her office to let her know that she would be allowed to retire at any time, with full benefits. She was nowhere near retirement age, but they were going to make an exception in her case. The fact that the CEO himself had delivered the news was not lost on her, either. Cherie turned in her request for retirement two weeks later.

James had moved in with Cherie and taken an extended leave of absence to concentrate solely on caring for her. There were good days and better days which turned into good days and bad days. Tonight was the end of a bad day.

Cherie had received her final radiation treatment and was celebrating with her head perched above the commode. She'd been there for half an hour. The weather had turned cold outside. She shivered as she rested on the cool linoleum. Where was James? What was taking him so long?

There was a knock at the door, then a pause. Cherie really didn't want to answer it. Didn't want anyone to see her like this. The knocking resumed, more insistent now. Finally, she hauled herself up, ran a hand over her near-naked head and went to answer the door.

She faced House across the threshold, not quite believing he had the nerve to be there. He put his free hand out to keep the door from slamming in his face. He truly appeared contrite. And horrified at her appearance. So different from that night at the dance club.

"Are you finished staring, or are you here for a reason?"

"I came here to see you."

"Well, you've seen me. Now what?"

"May I come in, it's freezing out here."

He wasn't lying. She had begun to shiver. "Please, Cherie, you're chilling."

She backed away from the door and allowed him entrance. He immediately headed to the sofa and pulled off the afghan which was always draped over the back. With remarkable tenderness, he covered her fragile body and led her back to the sofa.

When he was confident she was comfortable, he began the speech he'd rehearsed a million times. It spilled out all garbled and stuttery. Finally, he stopped, stood and dropped the pretense. "Cherie, I came here to offer you a sincere apology." His voice jammed in his throat. He hadn't truly apologized to anyone in his whole life. It was always a joke or a backhanded jab with a 'sorry' tacked on. True sorrow and remorse were feelings he rarely, if ever felt.

"I hurt Wilson badly by doing what I do best… interfering. By hurting him, I've hurt you. I don't know how to fix this, but I want to try." His eyes were intently studying the pattern in the carpet, his cane tracing circles around his shoes.

"You can start by looking at me." She hugged the afghan closer to herself.

He raised his eyes and met hers. It was probably the most difficult thing he'd ever done. She studied his face and decided he was, in fact, telling the truth this time. James was dear to him and he didn't like the idea that he'd pushed him away forever.

They both heard the key in the door and exchanged what amounted to panicked looks. They weren't ready. But there was nothing either of them could do. James entered the apartment, stamping off the cold, not seeing House at first. He stopped dead in his tracks when he did.

"What the hell are you doing here?" He charged at House as though preparing to once again inflict bodily harm.

Cherie stood, House brought up his cane in a gesture of self-defense. "James, wait, you don't understand."

"I understand I want this son of a bitch out of here and away from you!"

Cherie maneuvered herself between the two, placing her hands on James' chest. "Hear him out, James. Just hear him out."

House lowered his cane and looked at the only person in the world he could call 'friend'. "I… I came here to… to ask you to forgive me." Nine words that nearly choked the life out of him.

Wilson watched the internal struggle of this brilliantly flawed man. "I've heard your apologies before House, they never meant anything then and they don't mean anything now. Just leave, I don't want you here any more." Matching tears trickled down both men's faces.

House left the apartment, swearing to himself he would never again let anyone near him. James held Cherie close, knowing he'd lost the only other person in the world that meant as much to him.

Three weeks later, Cherie collapsed, pneumonia ravaging her lungs, infection raging through what was left of her body. James rushed her to PPTH.

"James? Will you do something for me?" Her voice was just above a whisper, catching now and then. The blinds of the room were closed, she hadn't wanted an audience. The potpourri her friends at work had sent her whispered jasmine through the room.

"Of course, Cherie, anything." His heart was breaking, his world falling apart before him.

"Hold me, I'm frightened."

His breath caught in his throat. Removing his jacket, loosening his tie and kicking off his shoes, he tucked himself into the bed beside her, enfolding her shrunken body into his arms.

She trembled ever so slightly with each tortured breath. There was so much she wanted to say to him, so much she could never tell him. "I love you, James. I love you so much."

"Je t'aime, mon cher. More than you'll ever know."

He held her fast, stroking her arms, gently kissing the top of her silk-clad head until her body fell silent, her soul lifting away, carrying his with it.

The nurse started toward the room to silence the high-pitched whining of the machines, but the cane shot out from nowhere, blocking her entrance. She looked up at House, his eyes red, his face wet, and backed away quietly.

It was House who silenced the machines, turned off the IV, the oxygen. As he turned to go, a barely perceptible voice sounded behind him.

"House. Stay. Please."

For once in his life, he did as he was bidden.

Fin