House was enjoying the uneventful end to an uneventful day when his pager went off. He glanced into the conference room and saw his team already moving to the door, which was unusual, as they didn't have a case at the moment. He glanced at the message. Emergency response, ER now. Obviously the page was intended for people who cared. A second message came through a minute later. That means you, too, House.
Curiosity had always been his ruin. He pushed himself out of the chair and limped after his disappearing fellows. With luck there would be an interesting case that would keep him from expiring of boredom for another few days.
The lobby was a maelstrom of activity, all circling towards the emergency room. House knew two things immediately: the page really had been an emergency, and this was the last place he wanted to be right now. He was about to slip away and let his fellows represent the Diagnostics department when Cuddy cut through the lobby to intercept him before he could escape. House could move fast when he needed to, but nobody was faster than Cuddy on an administrative mission.
"Don't even think about leaving," she warned, blocking his path. "There's been an explosion at a homeless shelter in Trenton," Cuddy said. "They're sending the overflow here, so we need everyone to help out."
Under normal circumstances, House would have just walked away, but the words "homeless shelter" and "Trenton" fit together in a way that made him suddenly cold. "What day is it?" he demanded, though he knew the answer.
"Thursday," she replied. "And I don't care if you've got plans — you're helping out in the ER now or I'll triple your clinic hours for the next month."
The threat was just white noise. "Wilson does his monthly atonement at a homeless shelter in Trenton." House pulled out his phone and speed-dialled Wilson's cell. "Answer, you son of a bitch," he hissed as the phone rang in his ear. He flinched when the call went to voice mail. He hung up and called again. And again. "Call me now," he said the third time he reached voice mail, and snapped the phone closed.
Cuddy was staring at him, eyes huge in her face. "Oh my god," she whispered. She punched Wilson's pager number into her cell phone and then stared down at it, as if she could will a response.
House didn't wait. He pushed his way through the crowd in the ER and scanned the arrivals for someone conscious and coherent. A young woman was hovering just outside the triage area. She was pale and soot smudged, but she was standing. House pulled her to the side. "Do you know this man?" he asked, showing her a photo on his cell phone. It wasn't the most flattering picture — actually, it was fairly embarrassing, even by House's standards — but it wasn't as though Wilson would be going back to the shelter any time soon.
She blinked, startled, and then looked closely at the image. "Dr. Wilson? Sure, he volunteers once a month or so."
"Was he there today?"
She nodded, and House wondered if his heart had actually stopped beating or if it just felt that way. "Yeah. He was helping treat the injured last time I saw him."
"So he's all right?" House thought if he said the words aloud they would be true.
She nodded again. "As all right as any of us," she whispered.
House called an orderly over to help her to a chair and then sagged against the wall. "He's fine," he said, when Cuddy hurried to his side. "The idiot is probably still there trying to treat patients with rags and tap water."
Cuddy made a soft sound of relief. "Okay," she said, pulling herself together. "All we can do now is our job."
The next hour passed in a blur of agony that, for once, was not his own. Cuddy put him in charge of triage, where he sorted through lacerations, bruises, burns, and broken bones to determine the most serious cases. The most critical patients had been sent to the trauma centre at CHS, but there was still a steady stream of wounded to treat.
House was wondering if it would ever end, and where the hell Wilson was, when a familiar figure followed the last gurney into the emergency room. Only sheer will power, and the fact that he was in the middle of stitching a lacerated leg, kept him from hurrying to Wilson's side. The nurse assisting him, however, noticed his sudden inattention and told him she could finish up. He glared at her and made a point of stitching slowly and carefully. A plastic surgeon couldn't have done a neater job. He'd have to compare scars with Taub later. Only when he was satisfied with his work did he make his way through the crowded room to Wilson's side.
"Why didn't you answer your phone?" he demanded.
Wilson looked up, his eyes unfocused. "It was in my jacket pocket." He was stripped down to a dirt- and bloodstained undershirt, the pinstriped blue Oxford he'd been wearing that morning another apparent casualty. His face was smudged with soot, but House could see the beginnings of a bruise on his left cheek and a clotted, untreated cut above his left eyebrow.
"Where's your jacket?" he asked, searching Wilson for signs of other injuries.
"I don't know," Wilson said, looking around the room, as if his jacket were somewhere to be found. "There was a girl. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. I couldn't tell. Her shirt was on fire, and her hair. I used my jacket to put out the flames." He stumbled backwards until he hit the wall. "I think she died. I don't know. I don't know where my jacket is." He started to slide down the wall, but House caught him under the armpits and held him up.
"I need some help here!" he shouted, relieved when Cuddy appeared by his side almost immediately. "Get a chair," he ordered. "Anything for him to sit on." He groaned with relief when Cuddy slid over a stool and he could lower Wilson onto it.
"What happened?" she asked, already reaching for a penlight to check Wilson's pupils.
"Shock. Adrenaline crash. Exhaustion. Take your pick." He ran his hands gently, but thoroughly, over Wilson's body. "Blow to the head." He pushed up the undershirt when Wilson flinched at his touch. "Bruising on his left side consistent with a fall or blow."
Wilson got his breathing under control and pushed House's hands away. "I was just walking up when it happened." He swallowed heavily and leaned his head back against the wall, eyes closed. "The explosion knocked me off my feet. I guess I hit my head. I didn't feel it at the time."
"You didn't lose consciousness?" House confirmed.
Wilson shook his head. "No. I just got up and went over to help." He took a deep breath. "I'm okay now. It just kind of hit me all at once." He sat up and looked around the emergency room. "We should get back to work."
"You're done for the day," House retorted, daring Cuddy to object. "Go take a long shower and change into scrubs. I'll meet you in the locker room as soon as I finish off here."
They watched Wilson move slowly towards the lobby. "Finish up with your last patient and you can both have tomorrow off," Cuddy told House. "And let me know if he needs counselling. An EMT told me there was at least seven dead at the scene and another half dozen who still might die."
House closed his eyes and wondered how Wilson was going to handle this. He was used to patients dying, but in a hospital bed or hospice, not violently torn from life. He hurried back to finish examining the leg laceration patient, not wanting to leave Wilson alone any longer than necessary.
The man was sitting up now and drinking a cup of juice. "Is Dr. Wilson all right?" he asked.
"Better than you," House retorted, testing his pupils. No sign of head trauma, and the leg was the only external wound. He noted his vitals on a chart and wrote a quick prescription for antibiotics before signing a release.
But the man didn't leave. "He a friend of yours?"
House would never understand why people insisted on useless conversations with total strangers. "That's none of your business."
Chatty Charlie was undeterred. "I'm guessing that means yes. He's a real hero, you know. Tell him we all think that."
House didn't like the sound of that. "What are you talking about? What did that idiot do this time?" House had been trying to beat back Wilson's hero complex for as long as he'd known him. Wilson's need to save everyone he met had resulted in three bad marriages, a heartbreaking career, and a friendship even House couldn't justify most of the time.
"It was a nightmare. People screaming, terrified. Nobody knew what to do, but Dr. Wilson just stepped in and started getting people to safety. And then he organized those of us who weren't too badly hurt to manage the basic first aid while he looked after the worst injuries." He nodded to himself. "A real hero."
House had heard enough. He slapped the discharge papers onto the man's chest and hurried to the locker room as quickly as his leg could handle. The room was deserted — all hands were still on deck helping out in the ER — but he could hear water running. "Are you decent?" he shouted, and then walked into the showers.
But Wilson was decent. In fact, he was fully dressed. He was also standing under the shower.
He had toed his shoes off, but what remained of the day's attire was now soaking wet. He was leaning forward, one hand pressed against the shower tiles, his head bowed as the water rolled over his neck.
"It is customary to take your clothes off before you turn on the shower," House said helpfully.
"Tried to take off my socks," Wilson muttered, not lifting his head. "Got dizzy."
"That explains the socks," House said, pushing back a fresh wave of worry. "But not why you decided to ruin your shirt and pants."
"They were already ruined."
That was true. The undershirt was already a write-off, but the pants had also been torn and dirty. Now they were torn, dirty, and soaking wet. "Strip," he ordered succinctly. "I'll get you something to wear." He headed back into the change room and grabbed a set of scrubs and an armful of towels. When he returned, Wilson was sitting on the floor of the shower stall, his knees pulled up to his chest. He was stripped down to his boxer-briefs, the rest of his clothing in a sodden pile at his feet. He had, at least, turned off the water.
He looked up at House's entrance, and House took an involuntary step backwards at the desolation in his eyes. "Wilson."
There was no answer. Water streamed down Wilson's face, and House had to suppress the urge to take a towel and dry him off. Instead, he dumped two of the towels on Wilson's lap and placed the scrubs and a third towel just outside the stall. "If you don't dry off, I'm taking a picture and sending it to Cuddy for her desktop."
Wilson blinked. "You wouldn't," he said, but picked up a towel and scrubbed at his hair.
House watched as Wilson struggled to his feet. The bruising on his side was hectic red against pale skin, and House scanned the rest of Wilson's body for any other injuries he might have missed. There was an abrasion on his left leg, and when Wilson turned away, House could see the beginnings of another nasty bruise on his right shoulder. He wondered if it was from the same fall or if Wilson had left something out of the story. "You're a mess," he announced, trying not to sound too concerned. He didn't want Wilson to suffer any more shocks to his system.
"You say the nicest things," Wilson replied, pushing down his underpants and wrapping a towel around his waist.
House shook his head. Only Wilson would try to maintain a semblance of modesty in the midst of a breakdown. He watched as Wilson stumbled over to the nearest bench and sat down. He was shivering slightly, so House leaned over and grabbed the scrubs. "Get dressed before you catch pneumonia."
"I don't think that's medically probable," Wilson muttered. He took the scrubs anyway and slowly dressed, wincing as if every muscle ached. When he was done, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
House waited patiently for nearly two minutes and then nudged Wilson's foot. "You can't sleep here. More to the point, I can't sleep here."
"Then leave," Wilson said, the words slurred and barely audible.
House nudged a little harder. "No can do. Cuddy told me to look after you, and you know I always do what Cuddy tells me." He waited in vain for a smile or chuckle and sat down next to Wilson when all he got was a slightly hitched breath. "I'm not leaving." He counted to ten in six different languages before Wilson stirred.
Taking a deep breath, Wilson sat up and scrubbed at his face with both palms. "Okay," he said, his voice stronger. "Let's go." He stood up and smoothed his hair and tugged down his top. Another deep breath and his shoulders squared. If it weren't for the bruise and cut on his face, he'd look like he'd just cleaned up after a messy procedure or a puking patient. It was, as usual, impossible to tell how deeply fucked up he was by the surface. Fortunately, House was used to looking below the surface.
"Where are you going?" he demanded, when Wilson headed for the elevators instead of the lobby.
"I need to get my spare keys," Wilson replied. "And cancel my credit cards. And let the hotel know about the key card." He rubbed his hand over his eyes, wiping away his stoic mask briefly. "And deal with my cell phone. And pager."
House was stressed out just hearing the list. He wasn't sure how Wilson was still functioning. "You don't need your keys. And you can make those calls from my place," he said. "Better yet, I'll make those calls. They won't let me cancel, but I can put your cards on hold." He knew the numbers already. Just in case of emergency. Or a late night shopping spree.
Wilson just stared at him. "I..." His voice trailed off and he clenched his fists, the muscles in his forearms cording. "I need to..." He shook his head and looked away.
House wanted to tell him that he didn't need to do anything, that he would take care of everything, but he was afraid that would just confuse Wilson. "Cuddy's coming," he said instead, seeing her heading towards them.
If he hadn't known Wilson, the transformation would have been startling. But he had seen Wilson shift from mischievous schoolboy to serious professional in the time it took to open a door. The smile Wilson found before he turned to face Cuddy wasn't very convincing, but it was enough to fool Cuddy into smiling back.
"I'm glad I caught you," she said when she reached him. House saw her reach out to touch Wilson on the arm and then hesitate. Maybe she wasn't fooled after all. "I just checked my messages and there was a call from CHS. One of the EMTs picked up your jacket. They're sending your things over to the hospital on the next trip." This time she did touch his arm. "I'm afraid the pager was smashed, but I'll arrange for a replacement tomorrow. You don't have to worry about anything."
"My car," Wilson said. "I need to get my car."
As far as House was concerned, Wilson wasn't going within a mile of that place, ever again. He could find some other outlet for his misplaced guilt. "No driving for you. Cuddy can send a couple of my minions for it when your jacket arrives."
Cuddy looked as though she was about to protest, but she just nodded when House caught her eye and shook his head. "I'll get it myself, if necessary," she offered. "I'll drop it off at House's place so you have an escape vehicle." When Wilson just smiled politely at her, she stepped forward and pulled him into a hug. "I'm glad you're all right," she said, holding on a little longer than House liked.
"Grab her ass," he suggested. "She likes that."
"Shut up, House," they replied in tandem, and then broke apart, chuckling.
"Seriously," Cuddy said. "If you need anything, call me. Even if it's just to talk."
Wilson nodded, his eyes wide and puzzled. "What was that about?" he asked House as they walked to his car, their pace slower than usual.
"You didn't answer your phone," House replied. He was glad he'd driven the car in today. Wilson looked too tired and beaten down to protest about the motorcycle, but that wasn't how he wanted to win that argument. He stopped and turned when he realized Wilson wasn't at his side any more. "We tried to call you," he explained. "I — Cuddy was worried when I told her you volunteered at the shelter. And then when you didn't answer your cell phone or pager..."
He saw understanding break like a wave across Wilson's features. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Don't apologize to me," House replied blithely. "Cuddy's the one who gets upset when she thinks she has to hire a new department head. I can find a tame oncologist anywhere."
"Of course," Wilson said, falling back into step. "Doctors that are willing to deal with you are a dime a dozen."
"Or forty for the price of three," House countered. "But they're definitely more fun when you have the power to shatter their dreams." He relaxed slightly at the familiar banter, but a sidelong glance at Wilson ratcheted the tension back up. Wilson was smiling, but it was a forced smile that barely touched his mouth, much less reached his eyes. "I don't have any food in the house. How about we stop for takeout?"
"I don't have my wallet," Wilson pointed out. "Does that mean you're buying?"
"Blasphemy!" House exclaimed. "I'll lend you some money until you're flush again."
Wilson just shook his head, but the smile was a little stronger. "Whatever you want is fine. I'm not all that hungry."
House didn't argue, but he called the Greek takeout on his speed dial and ordered enough food to keep them in leftovers for days. If he happened to include most of Wilson's favourite dishes, it was only because they had similar tastes. A shared love of dolmades was the basis of most successful friendships.
Wilson didn't speak until they reached House's apartment, and then only to mutter that he had to go to the bathroom, as if he needed permission from House. When he emerged several minutes later, his face was flushed and his bangs damp, but the dark despair in his eyes had lightened a little. House handed him a plate and they ate on the couch, watching mindless television.
It was nearly nine before the doorbell rang. Wilson glanced sideways and then got up, obviously deciding that hospitality was too great an effort for House. It was, but House was curious enough to turn and watch as Wilson opened the door and greeted Cuddy. Wilson stepped into the entryway, and House had to lean back, nearly tipping the couch, just to catch a glimpse of them. Wilson's arms were around her again, but House decided not to object this time. If Wilson needed a hug, it was better someone else provided the service — as long as that was all they were providing.
"No French kissing in the foyer," he shouted when he decided Wilson had had enough comfort. He grinned when Cuddy leaned through the door and scowled disapprovingly at him. "If I catch you making out with the Wilson boy again, young lady, you'll be grounded until graduation."
Her expression softened when Wilson chuckled behind her. "I'm co-opting your team to help with the overflow in the wards tomorrow," she told House. "But I expect you to put them to the work they're being paid for on Monday." She smiled when she turned to Wilson. "Your assistant is rescheduling your appointments. And you get a free pass from the finance committee meeting tomorrow. Consider it an early Hannukah present."
"Better than gelt," Wilson replied with a crooked smile. "House can't steal it off my desk."
"You can't just leave chocolate coins lying about and not expect me to take them," House said.
"They were for my patients!"
"You took candy from dying children?" Cuddy asked, though she didn't sound particularly surprised.
"Not right out of their hands," House protested. "That would be wrong."
"I'm surprised you can make that distinction." Cuddy touched Wilson lightly on the arm. "I had a talk with some of the EMTs. You did good today."
Wilson ducked his head, but not out of modesty. When Cuddy saw the muscles in his jaw clench, she looked helplessly at House. "Do something," she mouthed.
But House could only shrug. He wouldn't have allowed the gratuitous hugging if he'd been capable of comforting Wilson himself.
A car horn sounded twice in front of the building and Cuddy grimaced. "That's my cab." She reached up and brushed Wilson's cheek with just the tips of her fingers. "I know this doesn't mean much now, but you did everything you could. I couldn't be prouder of you."
This time Wilson smiled shyly. "That will always mean a lot to me," he replied. He glanced quickly at House and then kissed Cuddy on the cheek. "I'll see you on Monday." He closed the door behind her and crossed back to the couch, his smile now smug. "She totally likes me better than you. She wouldn't even let you grope her ass, and she thought you were dying."
"Oh, please," House scoffed. "You kiss your mother like that. Get some tongue action and then talk to me."
Wilson wrinkled his nose. "With my mother? That's disgusting." He leaned back and tilted his face towards the ceiling, closing his eyes. "Can I stay here tonight?" he asked quietly. "I don't feel like going back to the hotel."
If House had his druthers, Wilson would be a permanent fixture in his apartment, preferably one that came with cooking and cleaning options. But Wilson was choosy about things like his own bed and sleeping before midnight, and even worse, drying his hair in the morning, so House had to settle for a boys' weekend now and then. "Haven't you been paying attention? I doubt Cuddy is giving me a free pass to let you sulk in the Holiday Hell for three days. And don't think she hasn't found a way to spy on us. She probably planted a tracking device while you were trying to cop a feel."
Wilson didn't open his eyes. "You don't have to babysit me."
"If I'm your idea of a babysitter, it's no wonder your family is so screwed up." He had plenty more to say on that subject, but it wasn't the right time. "I prefer the position of partner in crime or, better yet, evil overlord. I'm giving you tonight off, but you'd better be damn entertaining tomorrow."
"I always wanted a career in show business," Wilson murmured. He sat up and tried to concentrate on the rerun of Law and Order on the television, but his eyes quickly lost focus and he slumped down on the couch.
"Why don't you crash in the bedroom," House suggested. It would be hours before he was ready to sleep, but Wilson looked like the walking dead. "I'll probably fall asleep in front of the television anyway." There was a bottle of Maker's Mark in the back of the cupboard that would help with that.
"Okay," Wilson said, and again the lack of protest made House uneasy.
He watched Wilson walk slowly towards the bedroom, wishing there were something he could say or do to make the day's events just disappear, but the best he could hope for was not making things worse. He had never wanted to be anything other than what he was, but sometimes he wished he could be more. At least on those rare occasions when Wilson needed more.
Barely an hour passed before Wilson came back into the living room. "Can't sleep?" House asked, watching out of the corner of his eye as Wilson hovered near the bookshelf, running his fingers along the spines of the books.
Wilson shrugged his shoulders and walked towards the kitchen. "I'm going to make some coffee. Want some?"
"Little late for coffee, don't you think?"
"I'll take that as a 'no'," Wilson said.
House listened to Wilson putter around the kitchen, turning on the tap, opening the fridge. "Get me a beer while you're at it," he called out, not really expecting Wilson to comply. But a moment later, a bottle was dropped into his lap and Wilson walked wordlessly back into the kitchen. House supposed he was lucky Wilson hadn't opened the bottle.
He grabbed the remote and turned on the local news. The explosion at the shelter was the lead story. Nine dead, more than fifty injured. Experts were saying the cause was a fault in the gas furnace. An hour later and the shelter would have been serving dinner. Two minutes later and Wilson would have been in the building. It could have been much worse.
He watched the footage from the scene: the building half collapsed and smouldering; people huddled under blankets; fire trucks and ambulances and the usual chaos that attends a sudden disaster. He tuned out the interview with the spokesman from the fire department, focusing instead on the action in the background. Wilson was kneeling next to a body — House couldn't tell if it were male or female — putting pressure on a leg wound while shouting instructions at an EMT. There was something surreal about watching Wilson on television when he was only a few feet away.
"Turn it off."
House looked up. Wilson was standing in the doorway, his pale face stark in the back light of the kitchen. He was cradling the coffee mug against his chest, his shoulders curled inward protectively. House turned the television off. "Sit down," he snapped to fill the sudden, uncomfortable silence. "I hate it when you hover."
Wilson shuffled over and dropped onto the sofa next to House. He stared down at the coffee mug, then finally glanced up at House and immediately looked away. "I thought it was a bomb," he said quietly. "That's what you think when something explodes these days. And it's not like people don't hate the homeless. They beat them in dark alleys, set them on fire, dump them on the outskirts of town." He squeezed his eyes closed. "But most of us are just indifferent. Which is just as deadly. The furnace should have been replaced years ago, but there was no money. There's barely enough money to keep the doors open."
House wasn't sure what Wilson expected him to say, so he said nothing. It was easier and infinitely less dangerous.
"They had nothing, just the hope of a hot meal and a place to stay warm for a few hours. We're the most powerful country in the world, but the most vulnerable members of our society are left out in the cold." His voice cracked and he gulped down a mouthful of coffee to cover.
"You should get some sleep instead of hopping yourself up on caffeine," House suggested. He knew Wilson needed to talk, but there were professionals for that kind of thing. "Or take one of your happy pills instead."
Wilson was used to ignoring his suggestions. "To sleep, perchance to dream," he quoted. "Ay, there's the rub." He drank more coffee defiantly. "I don't want to sleep. I don't want to close my eyes and see it all again."
"Well, god knows I don't want to listen to you whimper like a baby all night," House retorted. He glanced over at Wilson and sighed. "You're pathetic," he complained as he stood up and kicked Wilson's legs out of the way, heading for the kitchen. He ignored the bottle of Maker's Mark in favour of the brandy hidden behind it.
Wilson didn't appear to have moved when House returned to the living room. House paused to watch a moment. Wilson was looking down, the curve of his neck just visible between the scrub shirt and the fall of his dark hair. He looked vulnerable. House hated vulnerable.
He stepped forward and poured a healthy dollop of the brandy into Wilson's coffee mug. "Drink that," he ordered. "Doctor's orders."
Wilson stirred the brandy in with his index finger and then licked it clean. "You obviously went to the same school as my Nana's doctor."
House dropped down next to him and picked up his beer. "To the ones left out in the cold."
Wilson didn't smile, but he did knock his mug against House's beer bottle and take a sip.
House picked up the remote and turned the television back on, switching quickly to Comedy Central. House was certain Jon Stewart, even in reruns, was a better therapist than whatever quack Wilson was seeing. He felt vindicated when Wilson snickered softly and took another drink.
And when Wilson started to talk again, the story slipping out slowly in disjointed details, they both pretended House was listening to the television.