Author's Notes: Inspired by the fraternizing prompt: "It is far harder to murder a phantom than a reality." Virginia Woolf (though I ended up writing a different story for the challenge). Thanks to elynittria for the beta.
Disclaimer: James Wilson and Gregory House are the intellectual property of David Shore and his production partners.
Once or twice a year, James Wilson dressed in his oldest and most comfortable clothes and wandered the poorest areas of Mercer County, looking for his brother. The likelihood that Michael was still in the area after all this time was slim, but a part of Wilson refused to give up hope.
Most days, Wilson couldn't remember what Michael looked like. More than ten years had passed since they'd last met, and the man he'd faced on a dark street corner then had been a virtual stranger. When he tried to picture Michael, what he saw was the reckless, handsome boy he once was, not the gaunt, broken man begging for enough money for his next hit.
He'd had a picture created by a police artist a few years back, when Michael's face first started to fade from his memory. He didn't recognize the person in the picture; he didn't want to recognize him. But he always hoped that someone else would. He took copies of the drawing with him to every conference he attended, and showed it at shelters and soup kitchens. He left Michael's face behind him wherever he went.
He missed Michael most in October and February, around Michael's birthday and his own. Michael was born on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio, and he'd managed to cultivate the worst of both signs, masking anger with passion and elevating self-absorption to an art form. But he was charming and persuasive, and people always forgave him. Until they didn't. Still, the smell of burning leaves and the sight of Halloween decorations brought reminders of Michael at every turn, until Wilson took to the streets to search for his brother and banish the ghosts.
It was harder in February. February was the month that Michael left for the first time, slipping away one night just before Wilson's 16th birthday, stealing Wilson's hoarded allowance and breaking their mother's heart. February was the month that Michael walked away for the last time, leaving Wilson alone beneath a burnt-out streetlight. February was the month that Victoria Madsen came into the emergency room and stripped raw all the memories that he had never really exorcised. In February, all Wilson could do was sit on a cold concrete wall and wait for someone who was never going to come.
It was twenty years since Michael had left home and he was still ruining Wilson's birthday.
In 2005, Michael's birthday fell on a Thursday, so Wilson booked the day off work, telling Cuddy that he had a golf game. His paperwork was up-to-date and he'd kept his calendar clear of patient appointments and meetings. He felt mildly guilty about taking a personal day, but he was more than owed the time.
He told his wife he was going to Philadelphia to meet with a colleague about an article for JAMA, on the off chance she might call the office. It was a very off chance. They'd barely spoken since he'd abandoned yet another dinner party to talk House through the latest chapter in the Stacy saga.
He'd started to tell House that he wouldn't be in the office on Thursday, but House had caught sight of Mark Warner wheeling into Stacy's office, and he'd stalked off to interrupt with some fabricated legal matter. Wilson hadn't tried to mention it again. He wondered if House would even notice that he wasn't at work.
What he'd actually done was make arrangements to volunteer at a shelter in Trenton. It wasn't much, but it gave him a chance to talk to people who might have seen Michael, to feel that he was doing something for his brother on his birthday. He deliberately left his cell phone in the charger. If it was an emergency, he had his pager. If it wasn't, he could answer the messages later. He didn't think House would make the distinction, and it wasn't likely that anyone else would call.
The volunteer supervisor at the shelter was thrilled to find someone who knew his way around a kitchen. For the first two hours, he peeled and prepared vegetables, including the two sacks of potatoes he'd brought with him. But when one of the other volunteers sliced open her finger instead of a carrot, he saved her a trip to the clinic by suturing it himself. The shelter director pulled him aside and asked if he would look at any of their clientele who, for whatever reason, didn't want to visit a free clinic.
He could hardly object. He wanted to believe that wherever Michael was, there was a doctor who would help in whatever way possible. He retrieved the supplies and drug samples he'd collected for the shelter from his car, and the staff cleared a space in the dining room for him to set up a makeshift exam area. Over the next few hours, he saw a steady stream of homeless men, women and children, and more than a few of the shelter volunteers. It was mostly minor complaints, easily fixed, even with the limited resources he had at his disposal. But he knew his treatments were only stopgap measures.
He could clean and bandage scrapes and cuts, lance boils and wrap sprains, but he couldn't reverse the effects of malnutrition and exposure. He could hand out samples of antibiotics, but he couldn't provide shelter or clean water. It was a relief to treat skin lesions that weren't cancerous, but ulcerated needle marks posed their own potential death sentence.
Wilson was listening to the lungs of a teenaged boy with a dry cough when he felt the hair at the back of his neck prickle. Someone was watching him, someone he knew. He could feel the air change in the room, and for one brief moment he thought if he turned around he would see Michael at last. Then he heard the faint thud of a cane against linoleum.
He didn't bother turning around. "What are you doing here?" he muttered. "Did you follow me again?"
"Right. I tailed you down here and hid in the shadows all day before I decided to reveal myself." But House sounded as though he wished he had done exactly that. "How could I follow you when I didn't even know until today that you weren't coming in to work?"
"It wasn't any of your business," Wilson retorted.
But House considered everything his business. "Not only did you lie to Cuddy," he said disapprovingly, "but you forced me to talk to your wife to confirm your lie."
"You called my wife?" Wilson couldn't remember the last time House had willingly spoken to his wife. And vice versa. It made hospital functions that they both attended a nightmare, though House at least enjoyed using Wilson as a go-between to ask Julie ridiculous questions. He couldn't blame his wife for hating House, really. He was less clear about House's reasons, however. "Why would you call her?"
"To find out what lie you told her, so I could narrow down where you weren't."
"And what if I'd told her the truth?"
"Please," House scoffed. "Lying is your default setting. Especially where your mystery brother is concerned."
It had been a small saving grace that he had never told his wife about Michael. House would never have forgiven him if she'd known something he hadn't. Fortunately, his family's talent for secrecy had worked to his advantage for once. "Why do you assume this is about my brother?"
"Today is October 20. That's his birthday, isn't it? The big 4-0." He grinned at the expression on Wilson's face. "Your high school yearbooks narrowed down the year. Newspaper archives did the rest." He cocked his head to the side. "Joseph and Helen are pleased to announce the birth of their first child, Michael Andrew Wilson, on October 20, 1965, weighing 7 lbs 8 oz." He grimaced. "MAW. And I thought you were the only one your parents hated. What's Peter's middle name? Edward?"
Wilson didn't want to be having this conversation, but he knew from experience that House wouldn't just walk away. He turned back to his patient and managed to find a reassuring smile. "You need to stay inside for the next couple of weeks until that cough clears up. No bunking in the park. Use the shelters whenever you can." He gave him a card. "If it gets worse, or if you develop any other symptoms, come to the clinic at Princeton Plainsboro and ask for me."
House rolled his eyes. "Congratulations, Dr. Schweitzer. You've cured the homeless."
Wilson took a deep breath and fought back a surge of anger. "What do you want? Do you want me to pat you on the back for being clever enough to track me down? Do you want me to apologize for not telling you where I was going? Fine. You're a genius and I'm sorry." He glared at House until the other man looked down.
"I want you to come to a bar with me, get hammered, and forget about your loser brother."
Wilson bit back a sharp reply and listened to the meaning behind the words. "I don't want to forget him. Not today." He rubbed the back of his neck, pushing against the tension building in the muscles. "I'm sorry you drove here for no reason."
But House never did anything without reason. He glared at the closest volunteer. "You. Minion. Go tell the head honcho that Dr. Wilson is done for the day," he ordered. "But don't worry. He'll feel guilty enough to come back before long." He nudged Wilson in the back with his cane. "I made Chase drop me off, so you have to drive me home."
"You can take a cab," Wilson retorted, almost convincing himself that he meant it. House accused him of being a master manipulator, but he was a rank amateur compared to House. "And I'm not done." Except no one was waiting for medical attention. Dinner service was just starting, though, and there would be cleanup and prep for the next day to keep him busy. The one thing he knew about shelters was that there was always work to be done and not enough bodies to do it. He pulled out his wallet and handed House two twenties. "That should be enough to get you home." House pushed the cash away, which meant he was either serious or sick. Wilson couldn't remember him ever refusing money before.
"You don't have to forget your brother," House conceded. "But you've given enough. He'd want you to celebrate his life today instead of atoning for it." He smirked. "Besides, I thought you Jews did that atonement thing last week. Are you slow or can you just not read a calendar?"
There were times when Wilson didn't know whether to hit House or hug him. Neither would be welcomed, but he suspected both would be tolerated. Grudgingly. "No dives," he warned. "I want draft beer that I can trust."
"I'll let you pick the place, as long as it's not one of those unbearable wine bars where pretentious assholes stand around talking about structure and palate." House wrinkled his nose. "And there has to be a television. I don't care what game they're showing, but there has to be a game."
"Of course there has to be a game." Wilson thought about his brother, an all-state shortstop until he'd been kicked off the team for showing up drunk to a game. "Just not baseball."
House frowned, and Wilson knew he'd provided another puzzle piece of information. But apparently House wasn't ready to use that information yet. "World Series starts on Saturday," he said. "You can watch the golf highlights for inspiration when you lie to Cuddy about your game tomorrow."
"Cuddy hates golf. She's not going to ask me about the game." Which was why Wilson had chosen that particular lie. "And Julie's not going to ask about the paper." He thought that should hurt more than it did.
"You mean the one you finished last week?"
Wilson didn't bother trying to hide his surprise. "I never showed that to you."
"Why? It's not bad. For a diagnostically dull subject like cancer."
"That's exactly the ringing endorsement I needed for the submission," Wilson said wryly. "I can't imagine why I didn't email you a first draft right away." Though that was about as close to praise as he could expect from House. "How did you read it anyway? Did you break into my office?"
"Technically, it's not breaking in if the door is unlocked. The balcony door," he clarified. "Obviously, you subconsciously left it open, wanting me to search your desktop and computer files. And subconsciously you wanted me to look for you, which is why you didn't tell me you were taking the day off. So stop pretending to be annoyed that I found you."
Was that why he hadn't said anything, Wilson wondered? He had tried, but while House had ignored him, he could have tried harder. It would only have taken a simple lie. House was no different from anyone else. He believed what was convenient for him to believe. He hadn't expected House to be fooled by the cover story he gave Cuddy, but he also hadn't expected House to go to the trouble of tracking him down. He wasn't sure whether he had underestimated House's curiosity or his concern. "I didn't think you'd be interested," he said finally, which was close enough to the truth.
"Not if you'd told me," House admitted. "Now, not telling me, that's interesting. But that's something else your subconscious knew. It's a hell of a lot smarter than you are."
Wilson was tired. Tired of being a disappointment and being disappointed. Tired of being mocked and ignored and taken advantage of, all at the same time. "My subconscious is a masochist. Believe it or not, I didn't consciously want you to come out here and make fun of me."
"I didn't come here to make fun of you," House replied. "Today, at least. You get a birthday dispensation."
"It's not my birthday," Wilson said softly.
"You realise that if he stayed on the streets, there's a good chance it's no longer his birthday either." House simply stated it as fact, without being mocking or cruel, but that didn't make the words any less painful.
Wilson looked away. "I don't want to think about that today." But he'd thought of nothing else with each patient he'd seen. He'd been reminded of a dozen ways Michael could die. Wilson had always been grateful that neither of his parents were doctors. They'd never had to see someone die of a drug overdose or knife wound, never had to watch them die painfully from a disease that could have been treated with basic medical care. "I want that drink now," he muttered.
He stopped to give the shelter director his card, and made a vague promise to return. He wasn't sure when that would be. Whenever the ghosts became too real, he supposed.
Wilson turned at the sound of a male voice behind him, hope and fear rising like bile. The teenager he'd just examined ran over to an older boy, dragging him over to where House and Wilson stood. "Dr. Wilson. Could you take a look at my brother? He's been coughing longer than I have."
Wilson blinked and breathed in raggedly, suddenly light-headed. He managed a smile that would fool anyone but House. The older boy - Jimmy, Wilson thought, fighting down real bile - was blond, blue-eyed, and looked nothing, and everything, like Michael. He was under-dressed for October in a t-shirt and ripped jeans, and when he lifted his arm to cover a cough, Wilson could see infected track marks on the inside of his elbow. "Sit down," he said roughly, pulling the stethoscope out of his medical bag.
"Fuck off," the boy replied. "We're getting out of here," he told his brother. "Get some food and go."
Jimmy's eyes were glazed and there were hectic fever spots high on his cheekbones, but still Wilson reached out to feel his temperature. He thought a gentle touch might establish a tenuous connection, but his instincts were wrong.
"Touch me again and I'll break your arm," Jimmy snarled, knocking Wilson's hand away. He took a step towards Wilson, fists clenched, but he backed away quickly when House raised his cane.
"Touch him again and I'll turn you into a Popsicle." House snatched the stethoscope out of Wilson's hand. "I'll handle this one. The cough sounds like my field, not yours." He used his cane to push Jimmy down onto the closest bench. "That's a good thing, by the way. Wilson does cancer. I'm just a lowly infectious diseases guy." House dragged a chair over and sat down in front of his unwilling patient. He handed his cane to Wilson. "Hit him if he tries to move."
Wilson held the cane, but smiled reassuringly at Jimmy's brother. Dan, he thought the boy's name was. There hadn't been much in the way of introductions earlier. "Is there anybody we could call?" he asked. "Your parents, another relative?"
"No," Dan said defiantly. "We don't need anybody except each other."
Wilson rubbed the back of his neck, fingers pushing at the tension building. "You need to stay somewhere warm and eat properly until you're both stronger." He pulled his wallet out. "There's a decent motel on 206. Stay there for a few days."
"I thought you only knew the motels that rented by the hour," House retorted, pulling the stethoscope from his ears. "And don't be an idiot. You give them cash and it's going straight into his veins."
"House." It was hard to sound disapproving when he knew House was right. The one thing he'd finally learned was not to give Michael money. Of course, once he'd stopped giving Michael money, he had disappeared for good. "Give me your cell phone."
"Give me your samples of Ery-Tab. And write him a prescription." He tossed Wilson his cell phone. "If you want to help, call it into the pharmacy and put it on your account." He pawed through the remaining samples, finding the drugs he needed. "Take these, don't sell them, and don't even think about trying to scam the pharmacy. You have pneumonia. It's already clearing up, but the pills will help with the skin infections, too."
Jimmy snatched the pills from House's hand and shoved the bench backwards, giving himself room to get away. Wilson sighed and handed the prescription to Dan. "Take this to the pharmacy on East State Street. I'll call in some cough syrup for the both of you, as well." He gave the boy all the cash he had in his wallet, ignoring House's disgusted snort. It wasn't much, but it would buy them some food and a room for the night. He hoped that's what they would use it for.
Dan stared at the money and then up at Wilson. "Thanks," he muttered, and ran off.
"You moron," House said. "How are you going to buy me a drink now?"
Wilson didn't have to fake that smile. "This is my way of ensuring we go someplace that accepts credit cards." He repacked his bag carefully. House, as usual, had left everything in complete disarray. Then he called the order into the pharmacy, adding some multi-vitamins as an afterthought. House just rolled his eyes and pushed him out the door.
House waited until they were at Wilson's car before he spoke again. "The older kid'll be dead before he's twenty."
Again, it was stated as a simple fact, but this time Wilson wanted to put his fist through House's mouth. "Shut. Up."
"Oh, come on. If he doesn't OD, the next bout of pneumonia will kill him." House shrugged. "Probably the best thing that could happen to his brother. He's young enough that he might have a chance in foster care."
"You don't believe that."
"That he'd have a chance in care? No. That he'd be better off without his brother? You bet. He's at least trying. Wearing sensible clothes, eating good food when he can, seeking medical help. He's not strung out yet, but give him another six months with big brother and he'll be fucked up, too." He tugged on the door handle impatiently. "Of course, he'll probably use that money you gave him to buy his way into the wonderful world of addiction."
"You'd know all about that," Wilson replied bitterly, unlocking the doors. He slid behind the wheel, but didn't put the key in the ignition. "I know this is a foreign concept to you, but I was just trying to help."
"And I'm just trying to make you understand that you can't help those kids, any more than you could help your brother."
House's ability to expose and state painful truths was one that Wilson had always admired, even when it was aimed in his direction. But that didn't make those truths any easier to accept. "Is that why you came out here? So you could tell me I'm wasting my time? So you could remind me how I failed?" When House didn't answer, Wilson turned to face him. House didn't do kindness or comfort. But sometimes what he didn't say was enough. "Never mind," he muttered and started the car.
The radio filled the gaps where conversation might intrude until Wilson found a bar just outside Princeton that they both liked. He pulled up in front of the door to let House out while he found a parking spot. "Get me a beer and start a tab," he said, handing House a credit card. They were close enough to home that he could retrieve his car easily if he took a cab.
House leaned into the open door, the glow from a streetlight cutting deep shadows across his face. "You didn't fail your brother," he said and slammed the door closed.
Wilson closed his eyes, wishing that were another one of House's truths. When he opened them again, House was gone, but he'd left the credit card on the passenger seat. He spied a parking spot down the street and drove to it, knowing that when he returned, there'd be someone waiting.