Written for JB for her generous donation to the rslbdaydrive — thank you to everybody who donated! And thanks as always to elynittria for the beta.
When Robert Chase first started his fellowship, he would occasionally wonder why James Wilson sometimes seemed to spend more time in the Diagnostics conference room than the Oncology department. The pattern wasn't hard to identify, however. Whenever House did something particularly reckless, or his pain levels spiked, or they lost a patient, Wilson would find excuses to drop by the office more frequently.
And whenever Wilson was having marriage problems — which happened with increasing frequency as the months passed — or he was working too hard and teetering on the edge of burnout, House would find a case with a hint of cancer and drag Wilson into a differential.
So when House showed up early one morning, not long after Wilson had taken refuge on his couch, and immediately took a case without being bribed, threatened, or blackmailed, Chase knew what to do. "Could be paraneoplastic syndrome," he suggested early in the guessing game. He thought House might even have winked at him before he slipped out the balcony door.
"Hey, you!" he heard House shout, echoing a clatter of pebbles against glass. "Got a case that needs a sharp oncologist. You'll have to do."
"Wilson was here all night," Cameron said quietly. "One of his patients passed away. The Sanchez girl." Cameron always seemed to know when one of Wilson's patients had died. It was part of her own pattern. She had told Chase about Wilson's warning not to get too close to patients. They'd agreed he was much better at giving advice than taking it.
House returned, looking even more pleased with himself than usual, with Wilson trailing in his wake. He was carrying one of House's red mugs and went directly to the coffee machine for a refill. Chase thought he looked exhausted, but Wilson still smiled and exchanged pleasantries until House snapped that the patient didn't give a damn how any of them were.
Paraneoplastic syndrome was ruled out by the first set of test results, but House ordered a chest x-ray, insisting it might be sarcoidosis. Chase had a pretty good idea by then as to what it might really be, and he was positive House had known the diagnosis before he even started the differential, but they still needed confirmation. The x-rays would help, one way or the other.
Wilson was studying the films when House's cell phone rang. House glared at the display screen before answering it. "Why are you calling me?" He switched his glare to Wilson. "He has his own cell phone." He frowned and listened. "She is? She did? I'll take care of it." He snapped the phone closed and walked to the conference room door, locking it.
"What are you doing?" Foreman protested, as House started to lower and close the blinds.
Chase just shook his head, bemused. There was no end to House's insanity. It seemed to take a different form every day.
"We're working. No outside distractions. Don't open that door to anybody or you're fired." But he'd only just closed the last blind when the door handle rattled. "Don't answer," House warned, as he stalked back to the whiteboard.
Someone rapped on the glass. "Open the door. I know you're in there," a female voice, sharp and annoyed, demanded.
Chase didn't recognise the voice, so he saw no reason to let her in regardless of what House had ordered. If it had been Cuddy, that would have been different. Cameron stood up, but House hissed at her and she dropped back into her chair. Foreman didn't even blink.
"House," Wilson said wearily, but he didn't move either.
The rapping continued. "Stop playing games and open the door."
"Sorry!" House called out. "No one's home. Don't bother trying later."
"For god's sake, James. Stop hiding and act like a man."
Chase sat up. This was a new and interesting development. Not interesting enough to risk House's wrath — if not his job — by opening the door, but interesting enough to watch how it played out.
Wilson sighed and started for the door, but House cut him off. He snapped open the blinds to reveal an attractive — and annoyed — woman. Chase had seen her picture on Wilson's desk, though not recently.
"I'm sorry," House said smarmily, cracking open the door. "I called for a hooker, not a whore. I prefer my partners to be professional." He glanced pointedly at the legal-sized envelope in her hand. "Though I see you're looking for payment in other ways."
"That's enough, House," Wilson said, but while his voice was low, he was angry enough that House stepped away without a word of protest. When he passed Wilson, though, he brushed his fingers lightly down the sleeve of his lab coat. Chase wondered whether he was making an apology or staking a claim.
"Julie," Wilson said, angling his body between the woman and House. "Why don't we go to my office to talk?"
"Why? To avoid an embarrassing scene? It's a little late for that, don't you think?" Julie Wilson stepped into the office. "This won't take long." She held the envelope out to him. "You must know by now what to do with these."
Wilson looked at the envelope, but made no move to take it. "Please. Let's just talk about it first."
"There's nothing to talk about," she replied, her voice brittle. "If telling you that I was having an affair wasn't enough to make you realize the marriage was over, maybe this will do it. My lawyer is expecting to hear from your lawyer."
But Wilson stepped backwards, shaking his head. "I know things have been crappy. And I know it's mostly been my fault. But do you really think we should be rushing into a divorce?"
"The marriage has been dying for more than a year, James. You need to accept that and move on for both our sakes." Julie looked almost regretful, but her expression hardened when she looked past Wilson at House. "You must be overjoyed. You finally won."
"That's not fair," Wilson protested weakly. "Whatever problems we had were between you and me."
"If it had just been you and me, there wouldn't have been a problem," Julie replied. "I could have lived with coming second to your work, to your patients. But I won't come in third to him." She pursed her lips together. "I'm not surprised you went running to House, but hiding in his office instead of doing your job is a little pathetic."
"Dr. Wilson is consulting on a case for us," Cameron replied sharply.
"Is your patient dying? Because that's all James is good for. Standing by and watching his patients die."
Chase heard Cameron gasp, but he was already on his feet and moving Julie out the door. Once they were outside House pushed past him and crowded into Julie's personal space, forcing her to step backwards. He was angrier than Chase had ever seen him. Chase took a prudent step backwards as well.
"That's it," he hissed. "From here on in you deal with me. You want to talk to Wilson, you talk to me. You want to see Wilson, you see me. And if you ever do anything like that to him again, I'll make your life hell." He jerked his head at Chase. "Ask him. He'll tell you I can do it."
"You already ruined my marriage. Why stop there?"
"Wilson doesn't need any help ruining his marriages," House replied dismissively, but then his hand clenched over the handle of his cane. "But that doesn't mean I don't think he's well rid of you. I bet you were saving that little zinger for a day he lost a patient."
Her eyes widened and Chase almost felt sorry for her. "I didn't...I didn't know."
"Little girl. Maria Sanchez. Seven years old. Wilson spent most of last night standing by and watching her die."
It occurred to Chase that House always remembered the names of Wilson's patients, even when he refused to learn those of his own. He looked back into the conference room. Wilson was facing the balcony, his body unnaturally still and his shoulders pulled high with tension. Both Foreman and Cameron were watching him helplessly. He saw Cameron step forward, but Foreman grabbed her arm and held her back, shaking his head.
House brushed past him again, anger and urgency making his limp more pronounced. Chase watched him lead Wilson into his office and then turned to stare at Wilson's wife. "I think it would be a very good idea if you left now."
Julie's eyes were brimming with tears. "You must think I'm a bitch." She shook her head. "I don't blame you. This isn't who I am."
"I understand," Chase said, and he did. Grief over the death of love, like the death of anything, could be expressed in an infinite number of ways. Some people lashed out at those who had left; others retreated into a bottle. "He'll understand, too, eventually." He had overheard Wilson complain to House about the state of his marriage more than once, had seen him invent excuses to avoid going home, but he had never heard Wilson say an unkind word about his wife.
Julie brushed a finger under her eyes, careful not to smudge her mascara. "It's just hard, knowing he's happier in that room with House and all of you than he ever was with me. And knowing that he still has that, while I have nothing left."
Chase didn't remind her that she had her new lover. Perhaps a warm body in bed wasn't any better a substitution than a perfectly mixed martini. "You can love somebody and still not be happy with them."
She laughed bitterly. "Or you can be happy with somebody and not love them. I was never sure which was the case with James." She looked down at the envelope she was still holding. "I do need him to sign these," she said and held it out until Chase was forced to take the envelope from her. "Tell him I'm sorry," she said and walked away, her gait stilted, as if she were struggling not to run.
Chase looked at the envelope in his hand and then back at House's office. Wilson was sitting on the edge of the yellow chair, not sprawled casually like he usually did, but stiff and staring at the ground. House was perched on the corner of his desk, watching Wilson and squeezing his oversized tennis ball. He rolled his eyes when he saw Chase hesitate in the doorway and gestured for him to come in.
"I see the bitch made you her messenger boy," House said. He waggled his fingers, indicating that Chase should give him the envelope, which he immediately dropped in the trash can. "You told me you didn't cheat this time. Is she filing on the grounds of her own adultery?"
"They're papers for a legal separation," Wilson replied tiredly. "Julie likes things to be done right. The sooner I'm out of her life, the better."
Chase glanced at House, who just shook his head and bounced the ball on his desk. "She asked me to tell you she was sorry," Chase said hesitantly. "I'm sure she didn't mean what she said."
Wilson looked up and Chase felt his chest hollow at the naked emotion on his face. Wilson had cultivated a careful mask of neutral geniality that he wore to comfort and reassure anyone who came in contact with him. Chase had seen it slip occasionally in House's presence, a glimpse of anger or frustration, a hint of mischief gone so quickly it might just have been his imagination. But now the mask was gone and Chase could see nothing but fathomless pain.
"Why not?" Wilson replied, and the pain was in his voice as well, raw and aching. "She's right. If I'd been a better husband, she wouldn't hate me. If I'd been a better doctor, Maria Sanchez would still be alive."
"Don't be a moron," House snapped. "The only reason she lived as long as she did was because of you."
But Wilson had looked down again and wasn't listening any longer. House jerked his head at Chase, who decided that circumstances warranted unquestioning obedience. "Go down to Oncology," House said quietly. "Tell Wilson's assistant that I need the envelope. She'll know what that means."
It only took a couple of minutes to walk from Diagnostics to Oncology. Chase made it in less than a minute. He shifted anxiously from foot to foot while Wilson's secretary, a frighteningly efficient woman who ran the administrative side of the Oncology department like a military unit, dealt with a call. "House needs the envelope," he said, when she hung up the phone. "He said you'd know what he means."
Teresa Pendelton rarely smiled, but Chase had never seen her look quite so grim. "I take it his wife found him."
"Soon to be ex-wife. She delivered the separation papers."
Chase wasn't sure, but he thought he heard her swear under her breath. Her features softened as she opened a drawer in her desk. "Is he all right?" She shook her head. "Of course he isn't. Dr. House wouldn't need the envelope otherwise." She pulled out a manila envelope and handed it to Chase. "Tell him it's up-to-date. And tell Dr. Wilson that he doesn't need to worry about the department. Everything's under control and he should just take some time for himself."
Chase glanced at the envelope as he hurried back to House's office. Written on the front, in House's surprisingly neat handwriting, were the words, "Wilson. In extremis."
House was waiting for him by the door and snatched the envelope out of his hand before he'd even crossed the threshold.
House grabbed a chair and dragged it over to Wilson. He sat down and stared until Wilson looked up and met his gaze. "She's angry and she's upset. But she's not right. If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe this." He opened the envelope and spilled the contents onto his lap. Photos. Dozens of photos. He picked one up at random. "Jenny Wasko," he read. "Remission since March 2005." He handed Wilson a picture of a little girl with long braids and a gap-toothed smile and picked up another one. "Peter O'Sullivan. Remission since June 2001." That one was of a man surrounded by his family. "Doris Lee. Remission October 2003." An elderly woman with a child on each knee.
Wilson took the photograph from him. A glimmer of a smile passed across his face as he traced the image lightly with his finger. "Where did you get these?"
"Your patients love you so much, they send you pictures. It's pathetic, really," House muttered. "And after the Great Meltdown of 2003, Pendleton and I decided you might need to be reminded now and then that not everybody dies."
It was an unusually optimistic statement from House, but Wilson just pursed his lips and returned the photo carefully to the envelope. "Everyone — and everything — dies eventually. And I just stand there and let it happen."
House clenched his fists and took a deep breath. "Stop being so damn literal. I know you hate numbers, but this is one you should remember. Your terminal patients, on average, live 23 longer than the statistical mean. They have those extra weeks, months, years that you think are so important, because they have you for a doctor."
It didn't surprise Chase that House could reel that statistic off the top of his head, nor that he had taken the trouble to chart it. He had no doubt that House had a mental tally sheet on every doctor who had the misfortune to cross his path. Nor did the information surprise him. Wilson was almost as well known in his field as House was in his. Chase's own father had consulted him — Chase wondered if he might have lived longer if he'd stayed under Wilson's care.
What did surprise him was that House had spoken without even a hint of mocking or sarcasm. Chase knew that House was capable of caring, on his own terms, but his acts of kindness generally came with a warning label.
It surprised Wilson, as well. "Is this some kind of shock therapy?" he asked. If it was, it was working. Wilson still looked exhausted, but a spark of amusement enlivened his eyes. "Did you just tell me I was a good doctor?"
"Everything's relative," House retorted. "Oncology is a field of attrition. Slow down the cancer cells, shrink the tumours, keep the patient alive long enough for something else to kill them. You poison your patients, cut them in pieces, turn them radioactive, but they still come back to you bearing cheesy little tchotchkes as offerings of their incomprehensible adoration. Why do you think that is?"
"I have no idea, but I'm sure you're going to tell me." Wilson was smiling now, comforted by House's harsh words.
"Because you make them believe that the pain and the puking and the endless tests and trials are worth it. And because they believe it, they keep fighting. And because they keep fighting, they live just a little longer, and they live with hope. You don't just stand there and watch them die. You coax and bully and encourage them through whatever life they have remaining. And you win a hell of a lot more times than you statistically should, so stop wallowing in self-pity." He glared at Chase. "And the only reason you're still here is so I don't have to revive this speech the next time one of his crappy relationships falls apart or one of his patients kicks the bucket."
"Don't worry," Wilson replied. "I'm writing it all down so I have something I can literally throw in your face the next time you call me Dr. Mengele."
"Then my work here is done. Let's go," House said. "I'm hungry. You're a totally lame house-elf. No freshly brewed coffee this morning. No perfectly browned toast. No lettuce-less salads in the oncology lounge refrigerator."
"You should have thought about that before you gave me the 'Three Time Loser' t-shirt. And it's barely eleven." But Wilson stood up, and while his shoulders were still pulled high with tension, the mask was back in place. Chase wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
"What about the patient?" he asked, when it appeared as though House and Wilson were just going to walk away.
Wilson turned around. "You know the diagnosis," he said. "You don't need him to confirm it for you. This one's yours."
It occurred to Chase that Wilson had never been fooled by the request for a consult. Knowing the patterns didn't always preclude following them. The differential was over. House's work there was done. But whether it was a round of the right antibiotics or an early lunch, the patient still needed to be treated. Chase watched them walk away — this time House slowing his step to match Wilson's — and returned to the conference room to finish the job.