"I do the jokes."
That was the point where a lesser woman would have said something like 'I'm not joking' or, even more hackneyed, 'This is serious'. But Stacy knew who she was talking to and she knew he was hiding behind a Berlin Wall of wisecracks. So she waited silently for a few moments, until he stopped fiddling with the coloured magnets on his desk and made eye contact.
"So, to sum up: nice delivery, needs some work on the timing. See you at home," he said briskly, and ducked his head back down to the magnets, clicking them together and pulling them apart rhythmically, and, she suspected, therapeutically.
She rolled her eyes, but her muscles were finally relaxing and she no longer felt on the verge of tears. He had that way of making you smile, she thought, even when you thought you were going to cry.
She pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the desk and sat down. He looked up again then, over her shoulder, eyes scanning the empty all outside.
"Planning your getaway?"
"Ha. I'm waiting for test results," he leaned against the back of his chair and looked at her. "As, apparently, were you."
"Listen, I know you're working. But I wasn't going to tell you on the phone."
He didn't reply, but got to his feet and picked his jacket from the back of the chair. "I guess we need to talk."
"What about those test results?" she asked, twisting in her chair as he crossed towards the door and grabbed his rucksack from the armchair.
"These days, with the Internet and all, these things practically solve themselves," he replied. He stopped at the door and waited. She rose, and they left together, in an awkward, secretive silence.
He reached up into the cupboard and got down a glass. Leaning his back against the kitchen counter, he watched her raise exasperated eyebrows. They had been discussing this for the past hour. His only policy so far seemed to be repeating "it's up to you" several times.
"This isn't just my decision," Stacy replied firmly. "You-"
"If you're sure, I'll be here. I'll do the right thing and I'll be around. What you have to decide," House's voice lowered, "is whether you want that."
She looked at him oddly. His eyes were fixed on the floor, and he looked, for one split second, so vulnerable. Then it was gone, and he was looking her right in the eyes, wanting an answer.
"Of course that's what I want. Why wouldn't it be?"
He shrugged. There were a thousand reasons he could think of, but relating any of them seemed counter-productive. He filled up the glass from the tap, like he always did, even though she always kept a jug in the fridge, and gulped it down.
"You should just be sure. I'm not going to change overnight, and maybe you can handle that, but some poor kid is going to be seriously screwed-up."
She didn't seem to think this was as serious a consideration as he did. He felt uncomfortable, but he had no objections concrete enough to voice. It was just a vague, dark dread that had descended upon him at various times throughout his life. There was no way, no way, that this could possibly work out well. Even if everything was all right to start with, it would never last. One day, this child would see his true colours. Maybe he could fake a pure heart to a toddler, but there would come a moment when his flesh and blood would look him in the eye and know him for a bastard.
"Are you still throwing up in there? Because I wanted to check my hair before I start out for work..."
"Did I mention that I hate you?" she called back weakly. "I think I'm all right now. Feel free to preen to your heart's content."
He smirked and poured her a glass of water. He held it out silently as she exited the bathroom.
"Does this fist-sized entity have a name?" he asked abruptly as she took a sip. She smiled slyly, reading interest behind the flippancy.
"Do you have any suggestions?"
He frowned cartoonishly. "Captain Awesome?"
"I'm assuming that's a no."
"How about Edward?" he suddenly said, softly. She paused. Her mourning black was only just washed and ready to be laid away again, and her father's name resonated achingly in her ear.
"If you're okay with that," she said, leaning up to kiss him.
She didn't fully understand the suggestion (or maybe she thought she did) until a week later, when she was tidying away some records that had found their way onto the floor. She had seen the Son House one before – he played it quite lot – but never had she held it in her hands and looked at the blurb.
'Edward James House, better known as Son House...'
He was staring gloomily at the departures board and trying to follow the conversation of the Paraguayan couple behind him. The phone rang, that irritating default tone that he'd never gotten around to changing. He flipped it open irritably and saw Wilson's name (or rather his number – he'd never gotten around to creating a phone book either) on the screen.
"Do you have any idea how much it costs to pick up a call from here?" was his greeting.
"Do you have any idea how much it costs to make a call out there?" Wilson retorted. "Is your flight on time?"
"Yes, I'll be boarding at get-off-the-damn-phone-and-let-me-pick-up-my-boarding-pass o'clock."
"Ha," Wilson paused, unconsciously savouring the half-second of knowing something House didn't know. "Stacy's gone into labour. Half an hour ago."
"Oh... fuck. I'll be there in..." he paused to listen to a muffled Spanish tannoy announcement. "Well, apparently there's a hurricane approaching the Mexican coast, so I'll be there sometime tomorrow afternoon."
"Well," House went on cheerfully, "you'll be much better there than I would. More comforting, more patient-"
"Less biologically implicated."
"There is that."
"And I do actually have a job. Quite important. Lives depending on it, in fact."
"Wilson, I don't know if you're referring to the practice of medicine or your moonlighting as a ten-dollar rent boy, but-"
"I see where this conversation is headed," Wilson interrupted, "and I chuckle in advance. But I actually have other things to do."
House heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Fine. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Right. House – I'll take care of everything. Okay?"
House allowed himself a small smile and hung up.
"It would've been quicker by train" he grumbled from the passenger seat of Wilson's car, over the roar of a plane passing overhead.
"And I wouldn't have had to get out of bed and pick you up from the airport at two in the morning," Wilson replied mock-cheerfully. "Gee, I guess we both lost out."
"Is everything all right?" he asked next, so quietly that if the plane had still been above them it would have been inaudible. Wilson gave him a quick side-look before replying.
"Fine. Eleven-fifteen last night. Seven pounds, four ounces."
"Right," he nodded, staring at his knees. He wasn't sure if it was the winding road in the darkness, but he felt empty and sick He must have looked visibly ill, because Wilson was looking at him in the rear-view mirror.
"Are you okay? I can stop for a while if you want."
"I'll be fine," he whispered roughly.
"You sure? Because vomit isn't the greatest gift a father can give his newborn."
Wilson had been at the birth of quite a few babies in his time, and he had seen a fairly wide spectrum of emotions from newly-minted fathers. Some would be rendered speechless for a few moments, some would shake and grow pale, some would just start gabbling sentimental nonsense. He accompanied House as far as the door of the hospital room. Stacy was asleep, and the baby was in a cradle next to the bed. Wilson watched, feeling inexplicably nervous. There was a horrible moment when House paused on the threshold and Wilson could have sworn he was about to bolt. Then he strode in, brisk and authoritative, and stopped by the transparent plastic cradle.
"Looks pretty normal," he said, nonchalantly, leaning down and picking the child up with a somewhat scrutinising expression.
Stacy's eyes opened and Wilson nodded and slipped away.
"Just got in," House mumbled. "Everything okay?"
"I'm good, thanks," she said. "Didn't have anyone to slap or scream at."
"You should have told me you wanted someone. I would've sent Wilson."
"The sooner we get some kind of cut-rate Mary Poppins installed, the better," House said, shooting a mildly exasperated glance at the Moses basket next to his desk.
Wilson eased up the ring-pull of his soda can. "I thought Stacy hated the idea of a nanny?"
"She did. Until approximately four hours after the birth, when she realised that while babies are a great accessory for the defendant, they don't look quite so appealing on the prosecutor."
"Can't your Mom and Dad look after him?"
"My mom's having lunch with some old school friend. As for my Dad, I could do without one hour of childcare in exchange for two hours of why-you're-going-to-fail-at-fatherhood-101. Apparently, I 'don't have the right character to be an effective role model'."
"Well, I could have told you that. Who the hell does?"
House smiled, leaned back in his chair and watched Wilson sit down in one of the soft chairs.
"Wilson, you like kids, right?"
"At a distance. And preferably on mute. Not going to happen, House," he said, his eyes closed.
"Do you have any idea how much nurses go for unmarried guys who look after babies?"
"No, but I'm sure you can tell me after I wake up."
Wilson had been working since eight that morning and was asleep with the speed that only doctors and soldiers can achieve. House looked into the basket thoughtfully. Eddie's eyes and nose were his mother's and his hair was a wet-sand colour, lighter than either of theirs, more like his mother's had been. There was little of himself in the child, unless it was in a certain narrowness of face. He remembered what his mother had said when this lack of paternal resemblance was pointed out to her, as she held her grandson for the first time.
"Well, some babies inherit their father's face and some inherit his ways."
She had said it so genuinely, so proudly, with no trace of the sneering irony his father's half-smile showed at the words.
Eddies stirred, his mouth opening wide in a silent yawn. House wanted to do something, but he didn't know how. He'd never been demonstrative, something Stacy had always understood, but how the hell was a baby supposed to know that? He reached out a tentative hand and lay it gently on Eddie's forehead.
When Wilson entered the apartment, Eddie was in his high chair, food smeared liberally over his face. House was attempting to spoon-feed the child with middling success. The battle became hopeless when Wilson appeared. Eddie's face lit up, and he began beating his cup against the table.
"Hey there, little guy," Wilson grinned, ruffling the child's downy hair.
"Hi! Hi! Hi!"
Wilson turned to House.
"I see he's learned a word."
"And they say kids are useless. I'm going to put him into Japanese telemarketing," House replied. Wilson looked at Eddie's face.
"Does Stacy usually do this, or does the kid starve?"
"It was going fine until you called me. He can tell when I'm talking to you, I swear."
"It's probably the barbed comments that give it away," Wilson said. "Let me have a try."
"Oh please," House rolled his eyes, "let's avoid that cliché. Obviously you'd do it perfectly."
"Well, duh. I feel sorry for the poor kid. He must feel like Liz Taylor under all that."
House rested a hand on Eddie's shoulder and looked directly at him, spoon poised. His tone was serious.
"Eddie, look at me. Oh no!" he cried, "What's that? Your tongue's fallen off!"
Eddie's eyes widened. Wilson shook his head in disbelief.
"Let Dad use his mad doctor skills to fix it. Open your mouth. Come on, Eddie – open – your- mouth."
Eyes filling, Eddie's wobbling lip lowered. House thrust in the spoon with a satisfied grin.
"Don't cry, Eddie. Dad fixed it," House reassured him, patting his shoulder.
"He might be seven months old, but he won't fall for that twice," Wilson observed. "You won't get anywhere now. Let me have a go."
House ignored this comment. "What are you even here for?"
Wilson sighed and shuffled his feet.
"I'm getting a divorce."
House stood up and wordlessly handed him the spoon.
Stacy stepped into the bedroom and quietly re-closed the door before speaking.
"Greg, you have got to go back up to the hospital."
He was lying prone upon the bed, a bag of ice cubes wrapped in a towel pressed to the right thigh of his black shorts. His face was taut and white with pain and sweat stood out upon his forehead like condensation on a windowpane. He shook his head, the tendons of his neck standing out like steel cord.
"I'll be fine."
"Eddie can hear you. He keeps crying."
He snorted derisively, although it ended up sounding more like a grunt of pain. "Baby."
"Yeah, these one-year olds really need some toughening up," she raised her eyebrows. She suddenly let her shoulders relax, the defensive stance melting away. If he couldn't even muster up the strength and concentration to fire something, anything, back at her, he really was in trouble. She crossed over to the bed and sat down on the edge. He opened one eye, and then shut it again before she could see the watery shine. She lay her hand gently on his forehead.
"I wish there was something I could do."
"Just pass me those pills. I need to get some sleep before I go off my head," he muttered. "Tomorrow morning, I'll go back to the hospital."
He took one pill and sank into a forced, listless sleep. And yet it was he who woke her, standing by her side of the bed, fully dressed and silent. She sat up, blinking, and immediately noticed that the medical volumes that had lain around the room yesterday had been put away. His face, hard and serious as he looked at her but through her, confirmed her suspicion.
He had cracked it. And it wasn't good.
He was on a lot of morphine. He couldn't remember exactly how much they had said they were giving him, but it was a lot. His eyes seemed to shut of their own accord and in the blackness gas-flame blue and mottled pink streaks swirled. His hearing was a little off - he felt as though he were ten years old again and at his father's air base, wearing headphones too big for him and watching the planes come in. Chunks of time kept disappearing and sometimes he didn't realise that Wilson or Stacy was there until they reached out and touched his arm. Occasionally he heard voices of people he knew were dead or faraway, voices he didn't even know he remembered. His nanny in Singapore, ticking him off in her ridiculous English. The vendor of artefacts in downtown Cairo who had so often accosted him going to and from school. Stacy's father, his soft Texan brogue offering beer and gently but firmly explained that if his daughter ever got hurt, he would personally destroy the bastard responsible.
"Daddy, don't! I'm not some naïve twenty-year old! Spare me the Don Corleone act. Are you sure you don't want something to eat, Greg?
Greg? Greg, wake up, honey..."
He opened his eyes.
"When'd you get here?" he mumbled, words slightly slurred, soft around the edges like a tide-worn pebble.
"About a half an hour ago. Greg, you have to make a decision. You can't just let them pump you full of morphine forever."
"I can't let them take the leg," his voice cracked, from weary emotion and a dry throat. "I can't..."
She took a deep breath. "You've got to. Eddie needs you around. I know if it was just you you had to think about, you'd take the chance. But you have a family. You have us, and I..."
She broke off. She didn't need to say any more, he thought bitterly. He didn't have a choice. She was right.
When she left, not until she left, he signed the papers.
The last thing he felt was her hand on his cheek, the fingers, still damp with tears, tracing a gentle line above his jaw. Then there was nothing, nothing at all.
When he wakes up, he doesn't feel any different. His legs, both of them, are solid, in place. He is too full of morphine to lift up his head or move an arm. He feels like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, weighed down with fetters and chains. He moves the left foot, a tiny incline of the toes. Then the right. He feels the toes bend and smiles dreamily. They didn't do it. Something happened, something great, and they decided not to amputate. He is without pain, alive and whole. For once in his life, he feels as though he has been blessed. He hasn't even opened his eyes yet, preferring to keep them closed against what he can sense is a harsh light. I'll keep them closed, he thinks, keep them closed until Stacy comes in with Eddie. Then I'll open them and they'll... God damn, how much morphine am I on? He smiles. When did they operate to insert a great big lump of sticky sentiment?
The relief is short. It always has been. He remembers what he has known since his first year of medical school. Amputees often continue to experience 'feeling' in a limb which has been removed. They can swear they feel pain, heat, cold. They can feel movement.
Ten seconds ago, he wouldn't have believed he could force open his eyes. Not only does he open them, he pushes aside the drowsiness and makes himself raise his head.
One leg, then a flat expanse of blanket.
He hates himself immediately, before any other feelings can get through. How could he be such a fucking idiot? How could he allow himself that thoughtless euphoria. He slams his head back into the pillow and lets angry tears stream down his cheeks.