He dreamed of a fence. He stood, staring through the chain links, past barbed wire to the mud and spare tufts of grass beyond. "No man's land," Dad said. "This is the end of the world."
"It's not the end of the world," Mom said. "It's just the end of our world. Their world begins here."
She hadn't been happy about Dad's unannounced stop. She'd even asked why he wanted to come to South Korea in the first place. "You don't have that many days off," she'd said, when he laid out his plans. "Why not stay home and relax? Or go to Tokyo?"
But Dad had insisted, telling her Seoul was a beautiful city and that she'd love the palaces and temples. He hadn't told her that he'd made arrangements to show them the DMZ until that morning.
"Isn't it dangerous?" she'd asked.
"I'll be with you the whole time," he'd said, " and it's important that we go."
"Why?" Greg had asked.
"Because it's why I do what I do." Dad put his hands on Greg's shoulders. Dad's eyes had that fierce glare that was always there when he said Greg needed to learn a lesson. "I want you to understand how important our job is."
Greg hadn't asked again.
Dad handed Greg a pair of binoculars. "Look there," he said, and Greg followed his finger out across the border. There, at a guard post on the other side of the fence, a North Korean soldier stared at him through his own binoculars, the sun glinting off the glass.
"He's jealous of everything you have," Dad said. "He wants what you have -- a family, money, a future. This fence is the only thing stopping him from coming over here and taking it."
"This fence and 30,000 soldiers," Mom said.
"Absolutely," Dad said. He seemed to miss the joking lilt in Mom's voice that made Greg smile. "If he tries to cross over this fence, everything ends. This is the end of his world."
"And the start of ours," Mom said, and winked at Greg.
Dad grunted, but Greg saw a slight smile on his face as he handed the binoculars back to the Marine standing next to him at the guard post.
Greg took one more look out across the fence, past the border, past the scrub brush, to the hill beyond. He couldn't see anything beyond the hill except one soldier, alone at his post. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe this was the end of the world.
"Let's go," Dad said, and started down from the guard tower, his boots landing heavily on each wooden step: thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Mom followed him, her steps lighter than his: tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
He frowned. There were only five steps, but he could still hear her steps continue beyond those five, then becoming more syncopated than her normal walk: tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.
He opened his eyes, saw the narrow walls of his office, his books in the shelves crammed under the window. "Damn," House said, and rubbed his eyes. At least he'd fallen asleep with the door closed. The last thing he needed was for O'Neal and the rest of the department morons to think he couldn't hack it back at work.
It was bad enough seeing their eyes following him everywhere, offering to get him coffee or water. "I'm going to grab a bagel, you need anything from downstairs?" Thompson had asked him on his second day back, ignoring everyone else in the room. House shook his head. The last time Thompson had offered him anything it was to give him the directions to hell.
"If I want something, I'll get it myself," House had said.
"Well, let me know if you're going down to the cafeteria," Thompson had insisted. "I can carry your tray for you."
House had just gotten up, concentrating on making every step as smooth as possible -- the cane in his right hand, his foot gliding over the floor.
"I'll be here," Thompson called after him.
"That's bad news for everyone else," House had said, "especially your patients."
Wilson had helped him set up a deal with O'Neal that would get him back in the office: half days, consulting only, no regular patients.
"Until you're ready," O'Neal had said. He'd been too anxious to agree to the arrangements. House suspected that the hospital board had pressured the department head to accept anything House asked for.
"Nothing like the threat of a lawsuit to get you whatever you want," House had said.
"You're bitching about the way you got everything you wanted?" Wilson had asked.
"I also demanded the right to bitch in my new contract," he'd said.
Stacy hadn't commented on the negotiations. She barely talked at all anymore -- at least she didn't talk to him. After a brief détente, they'd crossed back into open warfare during the winter, as House's pain grew worse with every cold, dark day and Stacy never seemed to understand when she should just leave him alone.
By February, they'd entered their own cold war, somehow ignoring each other when they were in the same room, even in the same bed.
Most nights now House went to bed hours after she'd slipped into the bedroom without a word, when he was sure she'd either be asleep or faking it. He didn't care which, as long as she didn't try to talk to him.
He'd lie awake, listening to her breathe and wishing for silence. Some nights he rarely slept at all, or he'd bunk out on the couch, trying to at least drift off for a couple of hours.
"You shouldn't sleep there," she'd said one night. "It's bad for your leg."
"But better for my peace of mind," he grumbled, and she hadn't mentioned it again.
After she left for work, he'd down a Vicodin and limp his way into the bedroom, sleeping on top of the covers so he wouldn't catch her scent in the sheets.
But now he'd started going in for a few hours each morning, ignoring every ache in his body that begged him to lie down, to take a break when he wouldn't give it. He'd sat down behind his desk sometime around 11 o'clock, meaning just to close his eyes for a moment. Now an hour had slipped by.
Tap. The sound again at the door. Tap-tap.
"Yeah," he said.
Wilson pushed open the door and stepped in. "You ready?"
House sat up a little, biting down to stop himself from groaning when he shifted his leg. Wilson closed the door and walked into the office, taking a seat on one of the chairs shoved up against the wall. House used to keep them in the middle of the room, but the first day back, the office seemed like an obstacle course. Wilson had been the one to move them, just quietly pushing each chair to a new spot.
"I'm in no hurry," Wilson said. "I've just got paperwork this afternoon. The last thing I want to do is hurry back to my desk."
"Of course you do." House moved slowly, a few inches at a time as if he could somehow sneak past the pain. "You'll probably even work late just to make sure some poor secretary gets her file on time so she can toss it on a pile and forget about it for the next month." He was on his feet now, giving himself time to balance before he let go of the desk and reached for the cane. "I don't actually blame you for that. Jewish guilt -- it's in your DNA."
"And where does your asshole DNA come from, the Dutch or the English side of your family?"
"Dutch," House said. "Definitely from my Dad."
House took one step, paused for a moment, then stepped forward again, then again, felt himself easing into his lopsided cadence across the room. Wilson stood and walked toward him, waiting for House to open the door and step out into the hallway before he followed him.
House locked the door behind them, then turned to head down the narrow hallway that led from the infectious diseases department and out to the main hall that led to the main part of the building. He moved a little smoother as his muscles loosened up, but he knew that brief glimpse of relief wouldn't last long. Fifty, sixty steps maybe and a new pain would start to take hold -- the pain that wouldn't go away, that would burrow itself deeper and deeper with each step until it reached bone, then into his marrow. House still half expected to see something there on every follow-up scan he'd had, something with teeth.
"So ..." Wilson said, "I was thinking we could grab lunch on the way back. Maybe some sushi."
"I'm not hungry."
"It's after twelve," Wilson said, "nearly 12:30."
"I didn't know my appetite was on a schedule." He stood next to the elevator, waiting for it to appear. Standing was a waste of time. It didn't do anything to loosen cramped muscles, and just gave the nerve pain more time to appear. He hit the button again.
"That doesn't actually help, you know," Wilson said.
"We need an express elevator for cripples," House said, and Wilson raised his eyebrows. "No, think about it. We get special parking, we get to cut the lines as Disney World..."
"You'd willingly go to Disney World?"
"That's beside the point," House said.
"The point being the elevator," Wilson said, "for cripples."
"And their guests. You'd benefit. You should suggest it to the board."
"But then we'd have to deal with that whole conflict of interest issue."
The elevator doors finally opened and House stepped in, Wilson alongside him. House stepped to the back of the car, putting his left hand on the rail for extra support while Wilson hit the button for the lobby. "Conflict of interest is wussy excuse."
"You always telling me I'm a wuss. I'm living up to your standards." The elevator doors opened on the lobby and House stepped out, feeling the change in the surface of the floor from the elevator's carpet to the lobby's tile. "So, no sushi?" Wilson asked.
House shook his head.
"It's two-for-one pizza day at Gino's."
"I mentioned the paperwork I'm trying to avoid, right?"
"So pick it up and bring it back to the apartment. You can eat there, far away from the big, bad paperwork."
Wilson shook his head. "What about the buffet at Chan's?"
House sighed. They were nearing the lobby door. The skies were dark beyond the glass, and he felt the wind blast through when someone triggered the sliding doors. The parking lot seemed too far away. He took two steps to the side. "Just," he said, "just go get the car."
Wilson nodded, and turned to leave. "Chan's," he said, "think about it. You know you love their hot and sour soup."
House didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about being anyplace other than stretched out on the soft mattress, maybe with a heating pad wrapped around his leg. Usually Wilson would take him home, maybe grab a bite to eat, then rush out again, giving House time to sink into something close to sleep for a few hours. Sometimes, if he was lucky, even his dreams were too tired to emerge.
He thought Wilson understood that, but now here he was, going on about lunch. And Gino's pizza may be good, but it took 45 minutes for the deep dish that House loved. Forty-five minutes, House thought. And the sushi place Wilson loved had an elaborate service that seemed to take as long as a formal tea ceremony.
Chan's buffet was easy, but it was across town, in midday traffic.
Wilson's car pulled up to the entry and House stepped out, feeling the way his muscles tightened again even in the few minutes it took in the cold to take the five steps to the car, open the door and climb in.
Wilson put the car in drive and pulled away from the door. "So," he said, "Chan's?"
House stared out the window. "She tell you to keep me away from home a little longer?"
"Stacy." House let the name sit there for a moment. He wondered when the last time was that he'd even said her name. "She called you a few minutes ago, and asked you to stall, probably called just as you were on your way out the door. Any earlier and you'd have had time to come up with an actual plan."
Wilson was silent, not confessing but not denying it either. House saw his knuckles whiten as he gripped the steering wheel.
"She give you a reason why?"
Wilson took a breath, held it, let it out. He looked left for traffic, then right, taking a glance at House. "She wouldn't say," he said. "I asked, but ..." He shrugged and turned right out of the parking lot. Toward home. Not toward Chan's.
"She probably has the movers there, taking her stuff," House said.
"You don't know that."
House looked over at him, caught Wilson's eye for a moment. Wilson looked away, out the windshield.
"Take me home," House said.
Wilson glanced over again. "You sure?"
House wasn't, but nodded.
There was no moving truck out front when they got there. No sign that anything had changed since that morning. House wasn't sure what that meant. Maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe she'd changed her mind.
He stepped out of the car, up onto the sidewalk. Wilson turned off the ignition, started to follow him. House shook his head. Wilson paused for a moment, then nodded. "Call if you need ... anything."
House waited until Wilson was in the car, and the car had rounded the corner before he took the first step up to the door, then the second. He pushed open the outside door, closed it behind him and stared at his own door for a moment. He reached out, but didn't put his hand on the knob. Not yet.
Maybe it would all change on the other side of that door. Maybe it wouldn't. Right now, he still had both possibilities, with Stacy playing the part of Schrodinger's cat.
He lowered his hand, put it on the brass knob and turned.
The door was unlocked and he pushed it open, stepped across the threshold.
The lights were off, and Stacy sat on the couch, her body looking pale in the dim winter light. Her coat was slung across a chair near the door and she had her arms wrapped around her torso. The boxes that had been stacked in the corner were gone. So were a few more of her things from the table and her grandmother's china cabinet. House closed the door behind him, and waited for her.
She didn't say anything for a minute, didn't even look at him.
"I was going to write you a note," she said finally breaking the silence, "but that didn't seem right."
House held back the part of his brain that wanted to say that she hadn't had any problem with writing the orders that signed away his life before. He didn't know why.
"I didn't want this to happen," Stacy said. "I didn't think it would, but ..." She looked over at him. "I can't do this anymore. I can't live like this, Greg. I've lost you, and some days I think I'm losing myself too."
"So you'll just throw it all away, everything we've had?"
"What we had has been gone for months." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder if we really had anything at all. Maybe because it was fun, we could make believe that we had something else, something real." She stood up finally, turned toward him. "Something that would last."
"Maybe," House said, "maybe it could be fun again." He spoke quickly, trying not to think about what he was saying. If he thought too much, he wouldn't be able to say anything, wouldn't be able to decide what to say.
She shook her head.
"We could try," he said.
Stacy stepped closer to him. "Don't say that you'll change, because you know that's a lie. We both do."
"I could try."
She stepped next to him. Her eyes were red, but she wasn't crying. Not now anyway. "Too late," she said.
She placed one hand against his cheek, but pulled away when he reached for her. She picked up her coat and her purse and stepped to the door. She took a key from her key ring and placed it on the table.
She reached for the door, hesitating for just a moment.
"Stay," House said.
She looked back at him. "No," she said, and walked out.
House dreamed ... hell, maybe it wasn't a dream at all. Enough Vicodin, enough alcohol and he couldn't say what was real anymore, except for the fact that Stacy was gone and Wilson had passed out sometime after the ouzo and before House opened the vodka.
Maybe Crandall really did stop by for a visit. Maybe that really was him sitting in the armchair across from Wilson.
"You gonna join me in a drink or not?" House asked, but Crandall didn't answer.
Crandall didn't touch the shot glass House put in front of him either, so House downed the shot for him. "You always were a picky drinker," he said. "If it wasn't an authentic booze that one of your great men favored, you wouldn't touch it, but hell, any old rot gut that they pawned off on you with a stupid story and you'd drink yourself stupid." Crandall stared at him, but still didn't say anything. "You probably would have taken that poison right along with Robert Johnson, if you'd had the chance."
House sat back on the couch. He head was swirling, but he still hadn't been able to forget, hadn't been able to let himself go. He wished he could just pass out, like Wilson, or not care, like Crandall.
"I care," Crandall said.
"Oh, he speaks." House applauded and Wilson jerked slightly in his chair, mumbled something under his breath and quieted down again.
"So does he," Crandall said, and nodded toward Wilson.
"Yeah, well he cares about every pathetic idiot." House looked from Wilson to Crandall, noting the same dark hair, the same close-set eyes, pictured the same expression on their faces whenever House said something they considered inappropriate.
"So does she," Crandall said.
"We're not talking about her."
Crandall shrugged. "You've gotten rid of two of us," he said, "when are you dumping him?"
"I didn't dump you," House said, "I just moved on."
"Felt like getting dumped to me."
"And I didn't dump her, remember? She's the one who walked out."
"Only because you pushed." Crandall looked around the apartment. He seemed to notice every empty spot on the shelves, the blank spot on the floor where the cabinet had been, the spot where her key still sat on the table. House wondered if he could even see inside the bedroom to the empty drawers.
"I warned you House," Crandall said, "you're going to end up alone."
"So are you," House said. "You think I don't know how your precious piano player ran off six months after you played in Michigan?"
"I knew we couldn't keep him forever, and I wasn't going to stand in his way," Crandall said.
"And Jamerson, he finally went into the family business. He actually started selling shoes just to get away from you."
"You seem to know a lot about me, considering you think you never cared."
"You're alone," House repeated.
"Maybe I am," Crandall said, "but I'm happy." He sat forward, his elbows on his knees. "Are you happy G? Have you ever been happy?"
House poured himself another shot. He didn't bother offering one to Crandall. He downed it and closed his eyes, heard Wilson snoring, heard the sound of the refrigerator compressor starting up, heard the pipes rattling in the apartment above his. He opened his eyes. Crandall was still there. "Damn."
"Happiness is overrated," House said.
"So are long runs in the park, but you seemed to enjoy those once upon a time."
House threw the empty glass at Crandall. It went wide, clanged heavily against the wall and fell to the floor. Crandall looked over at it, watched it as it rolled in an arc from side to side.
"Maybe you can still be happy," he said, and shrugged. "Maybe you're still going to end up alone."
"Is this the part where you tell me that all I have to do is change my ways and my life will be perfect? I already told you that I don't believe in that story."
"Maybe not perfect, but it doesn't have to turn into crap." Crandall leaned forward again. "Start small. Try not to piss off absolutely everyone." He looked over at Wilson. "No one should be alone."
House followed his gaze, looked at Wilson, slouched down in the chair so far he looked like he was about to slide off onto the floor. He looked back across the coffee table, but Crandall's chair was empty.
"Finally!" House shouted. "It's about time you left!"
Wilson jerked awake. "What?" He sat up and looked like he regretted the motion. "Was someone here?"
House stared at the empty space a moment longer, then shook his head. "Nobody," he said, "nobody who matters anyway." He looked over at Wilson. "Go back to sleep."
"No, I'm fine. I want to stay awake." He rubbed his eyes. "What were we talking about?"
House sighed. "I have no idea."
Wilson stood up, wobbling slightly before catching his balance.
"This might help," House said, and held out his cane.
"Less ouzo might have helped," Wilson said, and went into the kitchen.
"We already finished the beer," House called to him.
"I wasn't looking for beer."
He walked back into the living room with two cans of Coke. He held one out to House.
"I'm trying to cut down on caffeine," House said. "It makes me jittery."
House leaned his head back against the cushions and stared up at the pools of light on the ceiling from the lamps. He blinked and the light wavered for a moment, then steadied again. He was tired. Tired of fighting, tired of pain, tired of living. He closed his eyes again.
"Get some sleep if you want," Wilson said. "I'll be here if you need anything."
"You're always here," House said. That was a good thing. At least he thought it was.
"Do you want me to go? I could leave you alone for a while, if that's what you want."
House shook his head again, felt the room move beneath him. "No," he said, and looked over at Wilson. "Stay."
Wilson nodded. "Sure thing."
House slid down, rolled onto his side and positioned his leg over a pillow. He sensed the light change, grow dimmer as Wilson turned off one light, then another, leaving only lamp burning.
He heard Wilson sit in the chair again, heard him put his feet up on the coffee table. "Good night House," he said. "Sweet dreams."
Epilogue: Three Years Later
"Why are we here anyway?" Wilson shook his umbrella, water drops splashing onto the concrete, then followed House through the door.
"It's a book shop," House said. "It has books. I like books."
"And you hate rain," Wilson said.
"But I love flowers."
Wilson stared at him.
"April showers? May flowers? Ring a bell?"
"You hate flowers too," Wilson said.
"Not all flowers," House said, "just those annoying oversized, overpriced bouquets they sell in the gift shop." He walked steadily through the store, past the magazine rack, past the cookbooks and self-help books.
"They're a good profit center for the hospital," Wilson said.
"God, you aren't even on the board yet, and you're memorizing the budget line items?"
"You're the one who wanted me to join the board." Wilson dodged left around one of the bookshelves to avoid a reader who was planted in front of the science fiction section. "You're the one who said I should figure out how to find more money for your department."
"I wanted you to find money and take advantage of it, not turn into an accountant yourself."
House cut right into the alcove that held the music department. He ignored the racks of new releases and went past the boxed sets to the books on the shelf along the back wall. He started at the upper left corner, following the subjects listed in alphabetical order: AC/DC, the Allman Brothers, Louis Armstrong. He let his fingertips slide over the spines until he reached one he wanted.
He pulled it out, looked at the cover. "Jesse Baker: A Life in Jazz," the title read, then below it, in smaller type: "By Dylan Crandall."
House ran his hand over the cover. Hardcover. It was quality work on the binding, not one of those cheap trade paperbacks he'd seen Crandall's work printed in before, and a lot better than the alternative weeklies that ran Crandall's stuff when he was first starting out.
"Jesse Baker," Wilson said, reading over House's shoulder. "I don't think I've heard of him."
"That's because your education in jazz is sorely lacking."
Wilson reached for the book, took it out of House's hand and glanced over the back cover. "So teach me."
House shook his head. "That'll take time."
Wilson shrugged. "I've got time."
House looked at him. Dark hair, close-set eyes ... Wilson looked younger than Crandall, but then Crandall had looked a lot younger when they'd first met. He took the book back from Wilson. "This is the advanced course," he said, and reached on the shelf for one of the Armstrong biographies. He placed it in Wilson's hands. "Let's start here."