FIRE (never make me choose)

House heard the sirens before he saw the flashing lights. It took another minute to realise that they were in front of his apartment building, and he broke into as close to a run as he could manage. "What the hell!" he exclaimed as he pushed through the crowd of spectators. Two firetrucks and an ambulance were blocking the street, and he could see the remnants of smoke still trailing out the windows of the building. He was annoyed, but he didn't become worried until he saw a familiar silver Volvo parked just up the street. "Wilson!" he shouted, scanning the faces around him. No brown-haired oncologists in sight. He ducked under a barrier and grabbed hold of the nearest fireman. "Did you get everybody out?" he demanded, still looking around. "That's my apartment. My friend's in there."

The fireman pulled free. "There's no one inside, sir."

"Then where is he?" His eyes darted about the scene until at last they fell on a blanket-shrouded figure sitting on the bumper of the ambulance. "Wilson!"

The figure looked up, then stood up and hurried towards him. "House! Thank god." When Wilson reached him, he grabbed House's shoulders.

House was going to protest — he didn't do hugs, Wilson didn't do hugs — but Wilson's hands were trembling. He reached up and patted Wilson awkwardly on the back, then pushed him away. "What's wrong with you?"

Wilson's bangs were plastered to his forehead, and soot streaked his face like tears. "I thought you were in there. I got here and saw the smoke and called 911, but your bike was out front and I thought maybe you'd fallen asleep smoking, or left the stove on. I couldn't find you inside, but it was hard to see, and I thought maybe I'd missed you somehow." He paused to catch his breath and coughed.

House dragged him back to his perch on the bumper. "I'm right here. I just went for a walk."

Wilson stared up at him. "A walk?" He laughed and let his head droop forward. When he pulled the blanket around him again, House could see that his left hand was bandaged.

He took it gently and examined it. "Burned?" he asked. "How badly?" he pressed when Wilson nodded.

"Second degree," Wilson murmured. "The door knob was hot."

"And you went in anyway."

Wilson shook his head. "I'm not that stupid," he objected, smiling wryly. "Broke the bedroom window. Went in that way."

House wondered what other injuries the blanket was hiding. "Did you cut yourself anywhere? What about smoke inhalation?"

"I'm okay," Wilson said. "The paramedics checked me out. Nothing serious."

But House was already pulling the blanket away. "What do they know?" He searched Wilson carefully for injuries, satisfied when he found only the one burn and a superficial cut on one arm. "Okay," he muttered, draping the blanket back over Wilson's shoulders. "I guess you're all right."

"Steve's all right, too," Wilson said, coughing lightly into his hand. He nodded to the side, where the rat's cage was sheltered under another blanket.

"You got Steve out?" House asked, not sure whether to be relieved or appalled. "You don't even like Steve."

"That doesn't mean I was going to let him suffocate to death," Wilson replied. "You don't have one of those Save My Pet stickers on your door, so the firemen wouldn't have known to get him." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I'll pick one up for you tomorrow."

"Don't forget to get a Save My Idiotic Friend sticker while you're at it," House snapped.

"It'll be next on my list after I get the Ungrateful Bastard bumper sticker for you."

House glared at him. "Why should I be grateful? Because you saved a rat? Let me call the mayor's office, issue a press release."

Wilson just stared at him, his dark eyes all too readable. After a moment, he laid the blanket neatly on the bumper, stood up, and started walking towards his car.

"Where are you going?" House demanded. "Are you just going to leave me to deal with this on my own?" It was the wrong thing to say. Normally, he delighted in saying the wrong thing, in leaving ripples of outrage in his wake, but not when the only result was to make Wilson walk away faster. "Wilson, wait!" he shouted, following in his friend's wake.

Wilson stopped and hung his head. "What do you want me to do?" he said, when House caught up. "Call your insurance agent? Book a hotel room for you?" He paused to cough again and House flinched at the sound. "I wish you'd make up your mind whether or not you want my help."

It wasn't a question of wanting or even needing. "I can call the agent. And book the hotel room. And whatever else needs to be done." He forced himself to look directly at Wilson, even if it meant getting lost in that sad, dark look. "I don't need your help. I just want you to stay."

Wilson rubbed his eyes and then nodded. "How about you come with me instead?" he said softly. "There's nothing we can do here now. We'll grab something to eat, call the agent, and meet back here."

The last thing House wanted to do was eat, but a strong cup of coffee with a shot of something stronger in it would be welcome. "Give me your keys. I'll drive." It meant he had control over where they went, which included the nearest emergency room if Wilson kept coughing. Wilson handed them over without protest, which did nothing to reassure House.

"Stay here," Wilson ordered. "I know you don't need my help, but you don't need to alienate the fire department either."

House watched as he talked to the fireman in charge and then detoured back to the ambulance to pick up Steve's cage. "He should be all right in the back seat of the car," Wilson said when he returned.

"Would you stop with the rat?" House exclaimed.

Wilson blinked. "Well, we can't just leave him on the sidewalk."

House hated it when Wilson was reasonable. It made him want to rip the cage out of Wilson's hand and toss it into the garbage. "He's a rat!" House shouted. "He has a life expectancy of one year undomesticated. He's already living on borrowed time." He laughed when Wilson turned his body to shield the cage.

"It's not funny, House," Wilson retorted. "I know you care about Steve. You never would have kept him if you didn't."

"What do you want, Wilson? Do you want me to get sentimental over a rodent that I was willing to sacrifice for Foreman? Do you really think I care more about a rat than I do about you?" He clamped his mouth shut, angry that he'd been goaded into saying more than he'd wanted.

Wilson walked to the car, but passed House closely enough to brush shoulders lightly. "It's not a zero-sum game," he chided.

He waited until House unlocked the car and then settled the cage securely in the back seat, buckling the seatbelt around it. House wondered how Wilson could be so insanely cautious about everything but himself. "You know what's a zero-sum game? Arguing with you. Even when I win, I've lost moments from my life that I'll never get back."

"So if you always lose, then I must always win," Wilson replied without missing a beat. "Works for me."

It worked for House too. Wilson was safe. Steve was safe. His apartment was probably trashed, but his insurance was up-to-date. Maybe this time, everybody won.