It was two weeks before Christmas.
PPTH's lobby had been transformed for the night into a strange cross between a winter wonderland, and a 70s disco club.
Wilson stood at one side of a small circle of donors, one arm casually draped around the shoulders of Jenna, his date for the evening – and pretty much every other evening since the conclusion of the trial. Things were gradually becoming more serious between them though Wilson was determined not to move too quickly this time.
Rushing into serious relationships was a pattern that had not worked out so well for him in the past.
So he and Jenna had been taking things slowly, taking their time in getting to know each other and decide whether or not they really wanted to spend their lives together. Taking House's advice to heart, Wilson was wary and cautious; but lately, Jenna had started dropping subtle hints about the idea of marriage… and Wilson found that the idea did not alarm him in the slightest.
On the contrary, it was a pleasant, hopeful thought.
The predictably silly theme for the evening was "Days of Disco", and Wilson and Jenna had gone to a thrift shop to put together the perfect outfits for the evening. Wilson was having a good time, enjoying laughing and occasionally dancing with Jenna, but mostly looking around at the other donors in their hilariously out-dated, mostly hideous costumes.
When a donor in a particularly repulsive jumpsuit walked past them, Wilson shared a laugh with Jenna, but then found himself immediately scanning the room for House, knowing that House's reaction to the offending outfit would be immensely more satisfying. His brow creased in an unconscious frown, until he finally caught sight of his friend across the room.
House was standing on the sidelines, as Wilson might have expected, sipping from a short glass containing only ice and some kind of alcohol – again, just as Wilson would have guessed.
House was no more enamored of the idea of Christmas, and all its accompanying commercial hypocrisy, than he had ever been. This event was nothing more to him than an opportunity to stand on the edges of the crowd and mock them for their every visible weakness. No, House's ideas regarding anything related to Christmas, or any other religious holiday, had not changed.
What had changed was his attitude toward the idea of indulging in the company of others.
House had always been a loner, and there were still many times when Wilson found himself shut out due to House's need to be alone. However, those times were far less frequent than they had been prior to House's ordeal of the past year. Although Wilson doubted he would ever admit it aloud, House seemed to have come to the conclusion that he actually needed some of the people around him. A year earlier, House would have had to have been somehow coerced into attending this event. Tonight, he had willingly decided to attend, of his own accord.
Of course, House was usually more than satisfied with his own little social circle, consisting of Wilson and Jenna, and Cuddy. When anyone else was added to the mix, he typically reverted to his default position, designed to keep the stranger at a distance, to drive them away before they got a chance to look closely enough at him to see the emotional scars that still remained – would probably always remain.
Still… it was a small step in the right direction.
Wilson watched as a woman dressed in a shiny silver lame dress approached House, and he openly, appreciatively looked her up and down, responding with what Wilson was sure was probably a rather lewd attempt at a compliment. Apparently, the woman took no offense, as she sidled flirtatiously closer to House, earning a slightly wider, wolfish grin from the older man.
Wilson smiled, pleased with House's obvious progress. He felt a bit of his ever-present, protective concern fade away for a moment – until another man ambled nearer to where House stood. He was tall, broadly built, with short, graying blond hair, and Wilson instinctively tensed, prepared to cross the room to House's side when he saw House's shoulders tighten as he took an automatic backward step away from the unintentionally familiar-looking intruder.
It only took an instant for Wilson to realize that the newcomer's attention was focused on the scantily clad young woman rather than House, and that he probably had no idea of the momentary panic he had incited. In fact, Wilson observed with pride, House's response to the man's approach was so slight that probably no one but Wilson himself, who was watching for it, had noticed his instinctive reaction of fear.
Wilson felt his tension easing again when he saw House reply to the man's greeting, traces of a smirk forming at the corners of his mouth, and thought that perhaps his concerns were unwarranted.
Perhaps House was getting to a place where he could hold his own again.
As Wilson watched, Cuddy approached the small group, her flawless public smile in place as she began making introductions. Wilson saw House's shoulders visibly relax, and realized with a warm sense of gratitude that Cuddy had been looking out for House as closely as he had been. If anything, her protective instincts were a bit stronger than his, prompting her to go to House's aid, when Wilson hadn't quite decided yet whether or not he needed any help.
Despite House's visible relief, Wilson still thought he might have been just fine without any assistance – and that was a very encouraging thought.
A new song began to play, and the lights went down in the auditorium, leaving it illuminated only by the flashing, colored lights that panned across the room, reflecting off the disco ball suspended from the ceiling. Wilson's attention was drawn by Jenna's playfully insistent tug on his hand. She was smiling up at him, eyes dancing with mirth.
"Come on," she urged him. "Let's dance."
"Uh… I don't know…"
Wilson cast an uncertain glance in House's direction, eyes narrowed to make out his expression in the suddenly dim lighting. Jenna's hand on his arm turned him gently but insistently away until he reluctantly met her eyes.
"Come on," she repeated. "I'm sure you've still got some moves left, right?"
Wilson hesitated, tempted by her teasing, flirtatious banter, but torn between his desire to be with her, and his desire to look out for House. Across the room, he could just barely make out House, still conversing with the lame-clad woman and the large man, still accompanied by the protective presence of Cuddy. As he looked on, House actually laughed, rolling his eyes in response to something Cuddy had just said.
He's fine. He can handle himself tonight without any help from you. Go ahead and have a good time.
"Got some left?" Wilson echoed with disbelieving laughter at her gentle jibe. "You can't even imagine the moves I've got…"
It's finally safe to relax. The nightmare's finally over.
"Those track lights can go in the fourth floor storage closet… Hey, don't trash those garlands; we can use those next time…"
Cuddy started across the room as she spoke to head off the careless waste of a couple hundred dollars by a careless employee. The Christmas benefit had gone off wonderfully, and they'd raised quite a bit of money to go toward paying the bills of their less fortunate patients. Everyone seemed to have had a good time, and now there was nothing left but the clean up.
Pity they couldn't all stay for that part, too… She sighed. I'm gonna be here all night…
She glanced up as she headed back toward her office with several donation buckets they'd placed out on the refreshment tables, and noticed a familiar figure standing near the door, leaning heavily on his cane. She frowned as she hurriedly placed the buckets on her desk, and walked out of her office again, watching House with concern as she approached.
He was amazing tonight… He's come so far… but… this evening couldn't have been easy for him…
As she neared the place where House stood, staring out through the sliding glass doors into the dark parking lot, Cuddy noted the tense expression of dread on his face, the way his white knuckles trembled, clenched around the handle of his cane. Her heart sank, aching with sympathy as she realized what the problem was.
"Care for some company? I'll walk you out," she offered, placing a gentle hand on his arm – for once, heedless of the potential attention of the staff still milling about the lobby.
House flashed her a grateful half-smile before looking away, his mouth forming a grim line as he stared out at the parking lot again. He was quiet for a long time before letting out a heavy sigh, shaking his head.
"No," he replied, not sounding at all certain of his decision. "Thanks, but… no." He glanced over his shoulder at the busy lobby, nodding toward it as he met her eyes and pointed out, "You've got a long night ahead of you, lots of work to do."
Cuddy waved a dismissive hand, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter…"
House silenced her with an unexpected hand gripping hers, before releasing her and taking a pointed step toward the doors, causing them to open before him.
"Good night, Cuddy."
She opened her mouth to protest further, but then stopped, swallowing hard as she watched House walk with slow, deliberate movements out of the range of the lights outside the hospital entrance. She momentarily considered following him, but reminded herself that there was no real danger, and thus by following him, she could actually do him more damage than good.
He has to find out for himself that he can do this… that he's stronger than he knows he is…
Cuddy drew in a deep, shaky breath, as she forced herself to turn away from the door and move back toward the working clean-up crew.
… and I have to let him.
House's heart was racing, and all the moisture in his mouth seemed to have made its way to his palms as he made his way across the parking lot with swift but shaking steps. He fought the impulse to hurry his pace, well aware that doing so would only serve to broadcast his vulnerability and fear to any potential threats that might be lurking in the darkness.
Except that there are no threats… no danger… it's safe now… Tritter is dead and gone…
Sometimes it was hard to remember that. Tritter's memory still haunted House's dreams on occasion, and every now and then when startled by a noise behind him, House would spin around in fear, irrationally expecting to see Tritter there.
Rationality was not always his friend anymore, either.
Even when he remembered that Tritter was gone, House was now acutely aware of his own vulnerability. He had never before thought of himself as a potential target for predators – but he did now. His limp, his age, his solitude – all put him at higher risk of being attacked, even at random.
Don't think about that… just as that's true, it's also true that they can see it if you're scared… be alert, but not afraid…
House's shoulders straightened, his pace even and swift, but unhurried, as he saw his destination come into view. His heart pounded as he closed the distance between himself and the car, his hand trembling on the door handle. Relief overwhelmed him as the interior light of the car came on and he climbed inside, leaning back in the passenger seat, trying to regain control of his breathing and to slow his racing heart.
Of course, now it was racing with exhilarated adrenaline, rather than fear.
He had made it.
Wilson reached across him and pulled his door shut, a beaming smile of affection and pride on his face as he rested a hand on House's arm, giving it a supportive squeeze.
"You did it," he stated unnecessarily. "I knew you could."
"Yeah," House muttered, eyes closed for a moment, though he couldn't hide his satisfied smile. "Took me long enough."
"Hey, as long as you're moving forward," Wilson pointed out with a shrug, not taking House's self-deprecation too seriously. It was impossible to mistake the pride in House's shining eyes. "You're getting stronger every day, House."
"Speaking of getting stronger…"
Wilson looked up when House didn't go on, giving his friend a questioning look as he pulled the car out onto the road.
"Yes?" he prompted at last.
House hesitated, as if still in the final stages of a mental debate, before finally sighing as he made his reluctant decision.
"I think… I do want to sign up for that class you were talking about."
"The self-defense class?" Wilson was grinning again, very pleased. "That's great!"
"Yeah, yeah," House muttered, rolling his eyes, but his irritation was mild and good-natured. "Shut up about it."
Wilson shook his head in disbelief. After a few moments of comfortable silence, he spoke again, his voice soft and carrying a note of quiet contentment.
"This is a good night."
Wilson fully expected his comment to be ignored, but a moment later House replied in a soft, pensive voice.
"Yeah. It was."
Wilson smiled, feeling unusually optimistic as he thought back over the past few months. House had been having more and more good nights lately, he realized. He had grown closer in his relationships to Wilson, Cuddy, even Jenna. He had maintained a friendship with Eve; and although he would probably never open up to them about what had happened to him, he had even been making an effort to keep in better contact with his family, particularly his mother.
That's more genuine relationships than House has probably ever had in his life… he's really come so far…
As he parked his car outside their apartment, Wilson realized with a smile that they no longer faced the nights with dread, as they had several months ago. These days, House's nights were as likely to be peaceful and untroubled by nightmares as they were to be filled with torment – which was tremendous progress from the nightly reliving of the terror he had experienced that had once haunted his nights.
Every day, things looked a little brighter, a little closer to becoming normal – only better.
It may not be easy… and I know we've still got a long road ahead of us, but finally, finally… I know… everything is going to be all right…