Disclaimer: These characters belong to David Shore, FOX, and many others who aren't me. I'm making no money on them and will put them back when I'm done.
"You never told me," Wilson says, in that quiet tone that means it'll be no good trying to deflect or outrun him, "what you were doing in the bar that night in the first place."
In the side mirror, House sees a spiraling cloud of white dust rising from beneath the 'Vette's rear wheels as Wilson pulls to a stop alongside the gas pumps. He shuts off the engine and waits.
"Getting drunk," replies House, because he must put up at least a token resistance. The dust cloud curls over his head. "I thought that was obvious." Each evasive word feels like a length of rope, twining around his own neck. He has to stop this, and he's afraid to stop it. Truth has always been House's very own knife, kept well-sharpened and hidden. If he hands it over now, Wilson might use it to cut the noose or to cut House's throat.
"That's not an answer."
House takes a breath, like he's about to dive into dark water. "Three thousand, five hundred and seventy-four dollars," he confesses, wondering how long it will take for Wilson to do the math. To remember, take the knife, and do whatever he's going to do.
"Three ... " Wilson starts to repeat the number, scowling and blinking in the hard midday sun. "House, that ... oh." All at once he sounds dry, strangled, like the noose is around his neck, too.
"Receipt was in your pocket. Coat was in your office. You weren't."
"You're an asshole."
"When were you going to tell me? The day after the wedding?"
"That's not fair."
"I thought if I got drunk enough, I could congratulate you and ... and you'd know I meant it."
"The other three times, no."
"You never said that the other three times."
"Ever think that might have had something to do with my not telling you?" There it is, that cool sharp edge, House's own blade at his throat.
"I thought you knew." A horn blasts behind them, making Wilson jump. Saved by the bell, thinks House, and then looks back and corrects himself. Saved by the Buick. He drags himself awkwardly out of the low-slung leather seat, onto his feet. "I'll go pay for the gas," he offers, hoping the shock will make Wilson fumble the next question just long enough for House to get away.
"You thought I knew what?" No such luck. The Buick-moron honks again, but Wilson doesn't flinch.
"That you ... you got it right. This time." House stands there choking on dust, exhaust, the hot breath of a hungry eighteen-wheeler that lumbers past them toward the diesel pumps. Wilson simply sits and looks at him. So much of the time he can read Wilson's thoughts just as clearly as a billboard. Other times, like now, the emotions slide around in those dark eyes like pieces of ancient broken hieroglyphs, their meaning known only to their maker.
House turns away, leaving his own uneven dust-trail as he heads for the dirty little store. Not much of a shelter, but he'll take what he can get, while he can get it.
He drifts back to awareness, back from wherever his mind went while his body stalled out in front of the coolers full of Smirnoff Ice and cheap-but-overpriced beer. Above his head, one of the fluorescent lights is flickering madly, buzzing like a drunken bug.
"Okay," he says, rubbing a hand over his face to clear the cobwebs. "Let me pay for the gas."
"I ... used your card. Unless there's something you want in here, come on."
Where'd Wilson get -- House wonders briefly, but the hell with it. He's raided Wilson's wallet often enough; it's not surprising if Wilson's now done the same to him. "Okay," he mumbles, and follows Wilson toward the door. There is only one thing in here House wants, and the goth boy behind the counter can't sell it to him.
Wilson doesn't slow his stride. He has the engine running well before House gets to the car, and for a second House thinks that his friend will simply drive off and leave him standing there, wrapped in a shroud of dust.
He gets in and puts on his seat belt, the memory of crunching metal, the spin of a tumbling vehicle all too fresh in his mind. They're off with a roar and a flash; Wilson's as bold in the 'Vette as House is on the bike.
When Wilson glances over at him, House still sees nothing but hieroglyphs, figures and water-squiggles and perching Horus-hawks, the foreign language of the dead. His innards press against his spine, which presses against the seat as Wilson shifts gears and hits the gas, hard. "Where are we going?" House asks. He really doesn't know. He'd shown up at Wilson's place and told Wilson to pack, and Wilson had told him to go to hell and slammed the door in his face.
But a few seconds later the door opened again, just a crack, and Wilson said that on second thought? Fine. But he'd only do it if he could drive, and by 'drive' he meant drive the Corvette.
They'd left an hour later, with Wilson pointing them south and House not bothering to ask about the destination. It didn't matter half as much as it mattered that Wilson was there.
It still doesn't matter. Wilson could say they're on the way to Mexico and never going home, and House wouldn't give a damn. He's curious, though.
"I have no fucking clue," says Wilson. "South." He turns on the radio, knocking House's hand away from the tuner.
"... Trees whipped by; me and Del were singing
I was a-flyin' ..."
Tom Petty isn't House's favorite, but for now it seems all right.
Wilson watches pastures roll by, barns and white fences, little towns with two stoplights. All these places where life goes on; cattle graze and the sun shines and no one knows or cares about the life he's just lost forever.
It doesn't make sense for the land to be this green when she's gone from it. When he has a giant smoking crater where his heart used to be. There should be burned meadows, smoldering remains of buildings, something sympathetic instead of all this pretty, spiteful sunshine.
He's taking the back roads, country highways he's rarely seen since he was a kid. He doesn't need a map. As long as the signs all read SOUTH, he knows he's on the right path.
House has fallen asleep, reclining in the passenger seat. Relaxed like that, he looks like the House version of normal, but he's not, hasn't been since the wreck, and Wilson's not even sure if he wants that old, normal House back.
I'm not sure I ever even knew what normal really was for him.
All-consuming grief had kept Wilson from seeing the truth, until Lisa Cuddy had guided him into her office the day after the funeral and told him that she was putting him on leave for at least a month, and furthermore, that she strongly recommended he get the hell out of town and take House with him.
He'd gaped at her, made some sort of indignant reply -- not about going on leave, but about going anywhere with House. Cuddy proceeded to turn him inside out.
"Your friend," she said, "put aside his own medical judgment to do whatever you wanted. He was willing to do whatever it took. He didn't just risk his life; he risked his mind."
"He ... felt guilty." True, but Wilson knew it was a lame excuse even as it left his mouth and thudded onto the floor.
"For an accident he couldn't have predicted and sure as hell didn't cause. Even if he feels guilty, that doesn't mean he is, and you'd know that if you were capable of rational thought right now. You can't come to work, James; you're a walking train wreck."
"I can't stay home," Wilson argued. "I don't ... have a home anymore. Again. I know I shouldn't work; I just ... don't know what else to do."
"That's exactly why you need to go somewhere. You need to be with people who love you, and I promise you that there is no one on this godforsaken planet who loves you more than House does."
"Is that all?" he'd asked, and she merely told him to go think about it. He'd tried not to, tried for days and mostly failed. Then, early this morning House had shown up, freshly discharged and still smelling of hospital, telling him to pack his bags.
Rather than simply follow orders, Wilson made a counter-demand, to which House instantly acquiesced. It had surprised Wilson, but now he thinks it shouldn't have. The last thing Wilson had asked could have cost House his life. What was a car, by comparison?
Looking again at the sleeping figure beside him, Wilson thinks that this might be easier if House would fight him, yell at him, insult him, behave like himself instead of like a prisoner from the losing side of a war.
Wilson's own mind answers him, in a tone that sounds far too much like Cuddy's. Maybe he would, it says, if you'd just put down the damn gun.
The feeling of deceleration wakes House from a dream in which the sky has cracked wide open, dissolving into airless, deadly space. If this one means something, House doesn't want to know. He's had enough dream-interpretation to last him a lifetime.
He opens his eyes, looks up and sees a sign on the side of a smallish building. In faded pink cursive it reads Bella Stella's. Clumsily painted vegetables, dishes and pies float around the lettering, dancing in zero gravity. House starts to smile and then stops when even that slight movement makes spikes of pain shoot through his head.
"Ugh," he remarks.
"It's the only place I've seen for thirty miles," says Wilson. "Deal with it."
"Restaurant's fine. Head isn't. Damn." House shuts his eyes again, his growing hunger battling against the sure knowledge that the moment he moves, he'll wish he hadn't. A weight falls across his chest; he cracks his eyes open again to find Wilson's hand there, a tiny pill in his palm. "Tell me that's morphine. Please." At Wilson's nod, House holds out his own hand and lets Wilson dump the pill into it.
"Here. Might help it kick in quicker." Wilson pulls loose a water bottle that he's wedged between the seat cushion and gear shift. Half the water is gone already, meaning Wilson's been drinking it, and that makes House want to smile again, the pain be damned. "Don't make assumptions," Wilson adds. "I want it to work so we can eat. I'm starving."
House swallows the pill and a few gulps of tepid water. If he already feels better, he knows it's only the placebo effect. The Wilson effect, insists another part of him, and he doesn't have the energy to argue with himself. Especially since it's the truth.
"Are you okay?" Wilson asks, and oh, there's the Wilson he knows, hovering in that annoying way that's somehow not annoying at the moment.
"Hell, no. Neither are you. But I'm not dying." Why's he always have to pick the exactly wrong words? "Wilson. I didn't mean --"
"Shut up, House. I know what you meant. And your apologizing is just ... weird." He gets out of the car and shuts the door more carefully than House expects. "I'm going inside; I'll get us a table and order you a coffee. Come in when you're ready."
"Ready now," House lies, or maybe doesn't lie. His head isn't ready, but he and his body are often at odds with one another. The spirit is willing, he thinks, but the flesh got hit by a garbage truck. The story of his life.
Wilson has stopped outside the restaurant's door, conveniently wasting time by fishing through his pockets to find quarters and buy a newspaper from the machine. That process takes just long enough to let House get out of the car and wobble up alongside him.
Both men pretend it's a coincidence, but they both know it's no such thing.
"Cuddy said I was a walking train wreck." Wilson didn't really mean to reveal this, but the weight of ... of everything is pressing on him so hard that if he's not careful, he'll find himself talking to Jolene when she comes back to refill their coffee. "I think she's right."
"She has her moments," House admits, and leans his head backward into the padded corner of the booth. "So if you're a walking train wreck, what's that make me?"
"A limping plane crash?" Wilson doesn't say the thing he's thinking of, all those cowboy books he used to read as a kid. There were stories about wild horses getting captured and bound, beaten until their spirits broke and they'd do whatever they were told. House wouldn't appreciate that thought. Wilson doesn't, either; it's just that he can't get it out of his mind.
They order lunch as if it were an ordinary day. A milkshake for House; a couple cheeseburgers; nothing they have to think about. "Carolina shoreline," Wilson says, just after Jolene takes the menus away. "That's where we're going."
"North or South?"
"Whichever. I don't know. First place I find clean saltwater and a place for us to stay."
"You didn't have to do this. Whatever Cuddy's paying you ..."
"She isn't. You didn't have to almost fry your brain."
"Yes, I did." House leans his head back again, looking somewhere else, past the white walls and fake flowers of Stella's place. "I had to know."
"I didn't have to ask you. I shouldn't have."
"And in the same situation, under the same circumstances, you'd do it again."
"I didn't need you to ask. I needed you to let me. Told you. I had to know."
"Please don't ever kill yourself for a diagnosis again. One death is ... already more than I know how to --"
"I needed more than the diagnosis. I had to know what I'd done."
"I needed to remember, so I could quit wondering if I was lying when I said I didn't ... mess with her."
"You ... weren't sure?"
"You didn't put it past me. Why should I?" House slumps downward. He doesn't have to say, I did it to Crandall. That memory, with all its guilt and shame, is visible in the angle of his shoulders, his chin.
"I know you didn't ... I should have always known. I have no right to be angry with you, but I am."
"Planning to drown me once we get to the Atlantic?"
"Only if I can make it look like an accident."
"Alcohol, morphine, recent severe head injury, and saltwater," House says. "They'll buy it."
Jolene returns, setting a tall cup of ice water in front of Wilson and a milkshake in front of House, her wedding ring tapping against the sides of the glasses. Left-handed, Wilson thinks, and nervous. There's a whiff of tobacco about her; she must be craving nicotine.
These are the sorts of things he notices, the things he almost never noticed in the prehistoric days Before House. "Alcohol?" Wilson hears himself ask it, softly, the moment Jolene's out of earshot again.
"Calm down. I'm not ... I meant, if you spiked the punch, nobody'd believe I wasn't getting wasted on purpose."
"I'm not sure I want to have this conversation here."
"What do you want?" House is looking at him, into him. Pushing for a diagnosis, Wilson realizes, so he can do something to cure it.
"I don't know," Wilson replies, and damn if it isn't true. "Time."
House nods once, and neither of them speaks again as they eat lunch, safe for now beneath the flag of their quiet truce.
They're on the western outskirts of Richmond when Wilson knows he's had enough. The seat of the car feels confining and hot; his back aches; his attention keeps drifting. A minute ago, the car drifted with it, almost across the center line of the road.
His hands hurt. Has he really been gripping the wheel that hard? And how long has it been since the classic-rock station faded out, only to re-emerge as ... this crap?
"Islands in the stream, that is what we --"
Wilson twists the volume knob, silencing the not-so-easy listening.
House is dozing again, as he has been all afternoon, his eyes shut beneath dark sunglasses. No sensible doctor would take a skull-fracture patient on a road trip, but Wilson can easily imagine what House would be doing if he were sensibly confined at home. He's getting more rest on the highway than he ever would in his apartment.
Rounding a wide curve in the road, Wilson sees a black-and-yellow billboard: DAYS INN, FIVE MILES, TURN LEFT. That'll put them a little closer to I-95, which he'd been hoping to avoid -- but there's food near the interstate, gas stations, everything they'll need.
He turns the radio dial again -- past rap, country, a sermon, and a half dozen car dealer ads -- satisfied when he finds a Led Zeppelin song. Wilson cranks Black Dog until, finally, House groans and wakes up.
"We're stopping," Wilson tells him, "before I fall asleep too."
The Days Inn is ... a Days Inn. They luck into a ground floor room with two beds. There are blue floral bedspreads, a blue carpet. Chintzy sailboat pictures are affixed to the wall by screws, lest someone with neither taste nor morals should decide to take them home. It's a stupid world, thinks Wilson, but he says nothing to House, who already knows.
It smells like clean polyester in here -- not bad, as cheap hotels go. Neither of them wants to get back in the car, so Wilson orders a pizza, and House doesn't argue over the toppings. They drink Coca-Cola because Wilson can walk to the vending machine to get it.
Words are scarce for them tonight, used only as a last resort. Their weariness, their aches, are a language in themselves, louder for now than whatever other noise is between them.
In the morning, Wilson wakes to find the TV still on and the room in heavy shadow. What light there is, is filtered through the heavy blue drapes, and it makes House look as if he's drowned in the night. Stricken with an unexpected horror, Wilson watches until he sees the rise and fall of House's chest.
Wilson gets up, inhaling deeply, forcing air in against the constriction in his body. He opens up the drapes and the room floods with hard sunlight, turning House's face from dead to alive, if not well. House groans and shifts on the bed, raising his arm to cover his eyes.
Wilson keeps seeing her there instead, her life ebbing outward as inevitably as the tide, and he has to turn away.
He goes quickly into the shower, where House won't hear any sounds he might make.
"You want me to pick the place?" House is certain this is a trick, or a test, or ... something, but Wilson appears to be serious. He turns his laptop around on the breakfast table and shoves it until it bumps House's cereal bowl.
"I said I'd drive. Didn't say I had a plan. Anyway, you're the one with the bad leg and the broken head. You'll make sure there are feather pillows and no inconvenient stairs. All I ask is ... not more than a block from the water. And not a damn hotel."
"So I don't really get to pick the place."
"You'd pick the same thing as me anyway."
"Because my head's broken."
"Touché. Just ... find us something. We've gotta check out of here before noon."
House does as he's told, searching vacation homes -- why are they all done up in white-and-pastel like Easter eggs? -- with one hand while scooping up Froot Loops with the other. Ah, the Days Inn "continental breakfast." One of the many unsung joys of traveling. Wilson had looked at the Froot Loops, huffed his disapproval, and then come back to the table with a heaping bowl of Corn Pops. An excellent choice, but now he's proceeding not to eat them.
"This could take a while," House says, reluctantly eyeing the last soggy, purple "O" that languishes in his bowl, sinking in the dregs of cereal-sweetened milk. "And this is the loser-est of loser breakfast bars. Tell me again why we're not next door at Dunkin' Donuts?"
"The internet connection is here," replies Wilson. "That's why."
"Only one of us needs the internet. The other mighty hunter could go forth and kill some food. Glazed, sprinkled food. Food involving bagels, bacon and eggs. Real coffee --"
"Fine, House." Wilson holds out a tired-looking hand. "Gimme some cash."
"I suppose I deserve this," House gripes, but he takes out his wallet. Spending money on Wilson is easier than it used to be.
The Dunkin' Donuts smells like heaven, and Wilson almost wishes it didn't. A few days ago he'd thought he'd never again enjoy the scent or the flavor of anything. Mostly, he still doesn't, and this little twinge of pleasure feels like a betrayal, like he's joining with the rest of the world that doesn't know or care that she's gone.
You think, says his mind, in a voice that might be his own or hers or House's, she'd rather you were lying on the floor in a puddle of snot?
He's kind of grateful that his brain is a jerk. Too many nice people have told him how to feel, told him that she wouldn't want him to hurt like this, wouldn't want him to grieve so much. Fucking useless things to say; Wilson vows never to repeat them to anyone else.
She really was a lot like House, and that means she'd want to know that losing her knocked him sideways, the same way a garbage truck slams into a bus. She was a lot like House, and that means ...
"Two extra large coffees," he murmurs, finding himself at the head of the serving line with the employees staring expectantly over the counter at him. "A ... half dozen of the sprinkled glazed donuts, and ... two bacon, egg and cheese croissants. To go."
If she were standing beside him now, Wilson thinks she'd be smiling, approving as he spends House's money.
House has worked fast, as usual. He munches donuts while talking on the phone with some unfortunate rental agent. A pink sprinkle and a yellow one are hanging out together in the stubble on his cheek. Wilson doesn't tell him.
"Yeah, sounds good," House says. "We'll call you when we're getting close." He clicks his phone shut, closes the laptop, and grabs the croissant sandwich Wilson brought.
"I'd show you the place I found," he says, around a mouthful of bacon and egg, "but I'd rather just eat."
"Me too," replies Wilson, and he really does mean it. Whatever House has done, it'll be fine. House likes to be comfortable; he won't have gone for a place that's a dump.
A half-hour later when they leave the Days Inn, the donut-sprinkles are still stuck to House's face, and Wilson still doesn't mention it.
It's well past five in the afternoon, and for the second straight day House has done little other than eat, take pills, and doze. It is, he thinks, like being in the hospital, if the hospital were small, mobile, leather-upholstered, and run by a really angry Jew.
Wilson's own hair is mocking him, curling up in the wind to make a little duck-tail at the back of his head. Wilson, meanwhile, has grown stiffer by the mile, with a pinched little V where his mouth is clasped shut in the middle. He seems determined to not enjoy his own company or House's, not to notice the bright curve of evening sunlight across the Corvette's hood.
If he can't breathe this in, can't just be alive, how can House?
When they'd begun, Wilson had been driving fast, like he could feed his furious grief into the engine, leaving it behind him in a fading trail of fumes. He's calmer now, slower, but his silence is no less frightening. Despite all the times House has told him to shut up, he usually prefers when Wilson talks. Makes it easier to tell what's going on in there.
"I need to get out for a while," House says, massaging his thigh, his time-honored signal for pain. It's really not that bad, and they've only got about an hour left to drive, but irrationally House fears that if he doesn't break Wilson's trance now, something will go irreparably wrong -- again. "Doesn't matter where," he adds, like Wilson still cares what he wants.
Wilson pulls in at a 7-11, claiming he needs to pee anyway. He fills the tank (on House's card), does what needs doing, and looks startled when he walks inside and House thrusts a cherry Slurpee at him.
"You are now officially on vacation," House intones, offering the traditional spoon-ended straw with a reverent flourish. C'mon, Wilson, I know you're in there somewhere. Come on.
Wilson takes the straw, unwraps it, and -- to House's disappointment -- fails to shoot the wrapper, blow-gun-style, at House's head. The straw makes a happy plastic pop when Wilson shoves it through the domed Slurpee lid, his mouth finally softening as he takes a tentative taste.
"Get one for yourself," he says, "because you're not stealing mine while I'm driving." Wilson turns and walks out. The electronic door-chime -- it sounds to House like ping-pong -- cheerily confirms that one of them has just scored a point. House isn't sure which one.
He smiles at Wilson's back and returns to the Slurpee machine.
They've left the huge hotels of Atlantic Beach miles to their north, coasting quietly down highway 58, looking for the few old streets tucked in between the upscale new housing developments and the endless string of cheesy condominium resorts. They pass the Sand-A-Way, the Laughing 'Lantic, and a dozen others whose names make Wilson's head hurt.
He has to slam on the brakes to avoid shooting right past the faded street sign for Whitecap Drive.
The "cottage" is right there, one of a straggling remnant built, most likely, right around the time that House was born. It's a plain little bungalow, all made of wood, with a planked front porch. A set of stairs lead up on the left side, and a ramp on the right.
Who knows how many hurricanes it's survived, Wilson thinks, and he decides that he likes it, even before the agent lets them in.
Wilson lets the guy -- young, tan, didn't catch the name, doesn't care -- show House around, rambling on about high-speed cable, the nice big TV, the proper use of the thermostat, all the crap House already knows. What Wilson notices are white walls and dark wood floors. The front door opens into the living room; there's no dining room, which is fine since they wouldn't use one if they had it. A bar counter divides the living room and the tiny, warmly-lit kitchen, with its refrigerator humming quietly in the corner.
To the left of the kitchen, going straight back, is a single short hall with three doors. Two bedrooms and a bath, then.
The stools along the kitchen counter are covered in the same brown leather as the living room sofa, and Wilson feels himself let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. When he thinks of beach houses he can never escape the memory of his aunt Karen's turquoise-colored travesty, the interior encrusted with mirrors and seashells.
I never told House about that, he thinks. He's never told House a lot of things.
Wilson wanders into one of the bedrooms, sits down on the bed, and is shocked to find the mattress welcoming and soft. Inhaling, he smells warm salt on the air. He's just starting to wonder whether Amber would have loved this place or hated it, when his thoughts are interrupted by House's tall outline filling the low door-frame.
"You've gotta be starving by now," House rumbles. "I am."
"Need to bring our bags in," Wilson answers, feeling like it's an impossible task; he's so tired.
"Done. I got Mister Ken-doll to help the poor cripple." There's a silence, House just leaning in the doorway, watching. "You look like crap. I can drive us."
"Your skull is broken," retorts Wilson, heaving himself up off the so-seductive bed. "I'm keeping the keys."
Their first day passes without fanfare; House learns the ropes of unfamiliar cable and scans the restaurant listings, the bars (as if he could drink now; as if he would, and have to ask Wilson to drive him home). There are a couple of strip clubs at the far end of the island, and House couldn't care less. He knows he's not all right because he doesn't feel horny, not even when he looks out the window and sees a whole harem of golden-tanned girls, bouncing down the road in their tiny, heavy-laden bikini tops.
House closes the blinds and stretches out on the sofa. Cuddy would be so proud of him, lying around like this, taking it easy.
Waiting for Wilson to come back.
He's been gone all day, leaving House with a little food, the remote control, and a simple command: "Call if you ... actually need anything. Call me for nothing and I will turn off my phone."
The only one House has talked to is Cuddy, and for her benefit he'd pretended to be better than he is, dropping his voice into a husky tone and asking her what she was wearing. She'd laughed; she seems to have a better sense of humor when House isn't actually in the room.
He'd smiled in spite of himself, but the warmth hadn't lasted. It's late afternoon now, the light getting low and gentle, and still no sight nor sound of Wilson. House picks up a towel from the folded pile on the living room armchair. He doesn't have swim trunks -- when he packed, he'd had no idea where he was going -- but what he wants is sun on his face, not water on his body.
He clicks the door shut behind him and gimps barefoot down the front porch ramp. The boards are cool, shaded by the house, but the bright, warm beach is just a block away. It'll be a bitch, because his cane will sink into the sand, but if he's careful he can manage it. Difficult things are occasionally worthwhile.
The second day is much like the first, except that House cuts the legs off one pair of his jeans, just above the knees. By the time Wilson returns, at dusk, House's arms and lower legs are ... well, not tan; he'll never be tan, but he's a darker shade of white than he was.
Wherever Wilson goes, he doesn't talk about it when he gets back. House's instinct tells him Wilson's not going anywhere in particular -- just driving, giving into that primal urge for flight that kicks in when all fighting has failed.
Wilson drives them to dinner, and House thinks that when this man avoids the kitchen, day after day, it's a very bad sign. They end up at the same place they went the night before, a nondescript beachy grill where the seafood is fresh and the patrons reek of coconut oil.
Their meal passes in silence, neither particularly amiable nor angry, just ... flat. House thinks of getting dessert, but realizes he won't enjoy it, no matter how good it might be. It's a distant third choice. His second choice, also distant, would be alcohol, which he can't have. His first choice ... isn't even his choice to make.
Without complaint, he lays the money on the table, and they leave.
Wilson's been taking Xanax in order to get to sleep. He seems unashamed of this fact, so much so that he leaves the bottle in plain sight on the kitchen counter. House briefly entertains the idea of taking a couple of the pills for himself. Because stealing prescriptions from Wilson worked so well last time, right?
House tries adding it up, as he lies in his bed and waits on unconsciousness. As far as he can remember, he and Wilson exchanged all of ten sentences today.
They've rented this place for a week, but House doesn't know if he'll survive five more days.
On the third afternoon, Wilson runs out of places to drive. He goes back to the cottage, changes into swim trunks and walks back out, with as few words to House as possible. House probably thinks he's furious, but the truth is ... he doesn't know what the truth is. He's furious, but maybe more at life than at House. Finally, Wilson got it right, picked the right one, only to have her snatched from him, all her treasures thrown away. Amber didn't have time to be mad about that, but Wilson does.
He walks on the sand until the sun is low behind him and the swarms of vacationers are dark bugs off in the distance.
From the shore, Wilson can just make out the outline of a sailboat on the horizon, hazed over with sea-mist in this early evening light. That might be House out there, on the other side of a deep, wide channel. In his mind he can see the history, the shipwrecks in that water. If it were only the ruins of Amber, things would be different, but there's so much more than that.
There's the jagged hull of Tritter, lurking beneath those waves. There's a dangerous pointed mast jutting up, the long-hidden spike of the cancer House never had and never apologized over. There's a jackknife in the sand, barnacles starting to crust over the scorch marks on the blade. Somewhere on the whitecaps, a bottle of amphetamines bobs quietly along, bumping up against the sodden paperwork of a lawsuit that failed -- but should never have been brought to begin with.
Had Wilson not been on call that night, he'd have gone and picked House up. He'd have had a drink, maybe a minor argument, and almost certainly a good time. He'd have accepted House's inebriated well-wishes for the frightened and genuine thing that they were, and House would happily have climbed into Wilson's car. House wouldn't have tried to run from him the way he had tried to escape Amber. There'd have been no bus, no harm. Life would have gone on, and he'd have thought of House's actions as foolish, touching, a little sad and a little funny -- but not wrong.
It really wasn't House's fault, and House had risked absolutely everything he had to try and make it right, all the same.
The problem, Wilson realizes, as he starts to wade in, the sand swirling around his ankles, is not what House has done. It's even possible that he's already been forgiven, forgiven for all of it, the moment he sat in that chair and put his life, his whole self, on the line for Wilson's sake.
The problem is that only God knows what House will do next. One more knife in the fucking socket, one more overdose of anything, one more ... whatever the hell it will be, might kill them both.
He walks out until he's up to his knees in calm surf, then stops and sits down in the water, letting it lap against his chest, soothing him. Unseen little fish are swimming past him; he feels their tiny brushes and taps on his legs and his back. They're not afraid of him, and he likes them for that. The thought makes him smile, and the smile turns into a grimace, gives way to tears, and it's all right. House can't watch this, can't take this from him -- no one can -- but the ocean knows how.
"I know what I want," Wilson says, standing there utterly still in the middle of their rented living room. His stillness alarms House in a way that no amount of yelling, gesturing, throwing stuff, ever could. Wilson never just stands like that, not unless he's gone past all the fluster and noise and fooling himself, and gotten to something entirely true.
House mutes the television, leaving it on because the room would be too dark without it. Wilson's eyes reflect it, a little blue-flame spark like a pilot light. His hair is damp; he's dressed in nothing but swim trunks, an oversized orange towel, and a pair of those stupid yuppie all-terrain sandals. He ought to look ridiculous, and the fact that House feels no urge to mock him is yet another troubling sign.
House doesn't have to ask. He only has to wait for this wave to break over him, maybe drown him, maybe crush him, maybe lift him up -- no telling, with Wilson. He sits silent, looking steadily at the friend he may not know half as well as he'd like to think.
"I want you to quit killing yourself." Wilson stands just for a moment more, staring at him, and then walks out of the room.
Down the hall, the bathroom light comes on, the door shuts, and there's the muted buzz of the vent fan running. It sounds a little like the rush of blood in House's ears.
That was it?
No lecture, House thinks, and it feels like he's drifting in space, with no ground beneath his feet and a bunch of crudely-drawn, pointless vegetables floating around with him. No lecture, no demands about pills, booze, money or boundaries or ... that was ... it?
"Of course that was it, you idiot," he hears himself whisper in reply. "That's always been It."
Quit killing yourself, Wilson said. Because he's already lost one person he loved, and he ... can't lose the other one. It's not easy, but it is simple: quit killing yourself.
Wilson's right. It's time to get off the damn bus, jump out of the airplane, all the things House had insisted couldn't be done, or didn't matter. It matters to Wilson. It matters to House; it shouldn't, it's way too risky, but he told himself the truth on the Number 36 to the Grave. There's no escaping it now.
If he could have run the other way, he would have. He'd never have come here, trying to hitch a ride with Wilson, back into some kind of life.
He's still sitting there on the sofa, not watching the silenced television, when Wilson emerges from the bathroom, freshly showered and clad in a floppy old t-shirt and sweats. Wilson regards him for a moment, those dark eyes full of hieroglyphics again, unreadable -- and sits down on the opposite side of the sofa.
He's waiting, House thinks, for my answer. And House does have an answer, but saying it won't do a damn bit of good. It's far too soon to ask Wilson to believe him.
"Put some real clothes on," House says, prodding gently at Wilson's thigh with the end of his cane. "I'm taking us to dinner."
"Where?" Wilson blinks, like he's just snapping out of a daydream.
"Hell if I know. Not the fish place. I'm ... kind of making this up as I go."
A trace of that old light -- the bright thing in Wilson he's always known, always needed -- shows itself at last. There's just that little bit of softening, that eternal Wilson hopefulness, not wholly snuffed out after all. Wilson nods, gets back up, and heads for his room.
He emerges a couple minutes later, in jeans instead of sweat pants and with his hair only sloppily combed. "That's a good look," House observes, and he means it; he's getting used to the sight of his friend without the armor of dress shirts and ties. "You should stick with that," he says, and follows Wilson out the door.
Outside, in the driveway, Wilson abruptly turns around, stopping House short. His hair, his eyes, shine in the streetlight while he mutely studies House at close range.
"What now?" House asks, though he's not at all sure he wants to know.
"Drive." Wilson holds out his hand, with the keys in his palm, glinting streetlight-gold.
If he could, House would step forward, wrap his arms around his friend, and breathe out his relief over Wilson's shoulder. He's never done that before, though, so he can't do it now; the strangeness might make Wilson take back what he's just offered.
Whatever, exactly, that is. House closes his fingers around the keys, but his eyes are on Wilson's face, trying to read this latest set of brilliant hieroglyphics. The strain for understanding must be showing, because Wilson's hand rises to rest on House's shoulder, and a smile -- small, tentative, but real -- curves the corners of his mouth.
"You'll figure it out," Wilson says, his voice as soft as the waves on the dark shore. He drops his hand away, turns and walks over to the passenger seat, climbs in. "You always do."
I always do, House thinks, but not always soon enough. Easing in behind the wheel, he realizes he's become used to being a passenger; the driver's seat feels unfamiliar now. He finds the release and slides the seat back a few inches, making room for himself.
"You know," muses Wilson, nodding toward the hood as the Corvette's engine sparks to life, "I really like that sound." His sadness clings to him like a heavy mist, but he's talking, trying to smile through it, and that's more than enough for House.
"Yeah," House agrees, smiling back. "Me too."
He thinks he won't have to explain that he's not talking about the damn car.