Gregory House was at his desk, making his usual effort to look busy — which is to say none at all — when a blur of white flashed past his peripheral vision and his office door swung open.
"What are you doing tomorrow?" James Wilson asked before the office door had closed behind him, his lab coat settling sedately along his body.
"American Idol auditions. A veritable orgy of shattered dreams. It's like chicken soup for the blackened soul."
"TiVo it," Wilson said, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. "There's a great double feature at the rep theatre in East Brunswick."
House rolled his eyes. If he had to sit through another Hitchcock movie with Wilson whispering random trivia and key lines a split-second before the actors, he'd need an early refill of Vicodin. Yet there was something infectious about Wilson's enthusiasm. Fortunately, House was trained in curing infectious diseases. "Don't you have a board meeting tomorrow?"
"I sent my regrets. Important out-of-town appointment."
"You're playing hooky?" That was interesting. Wilson could, on occasion, be convinced to sneak out of the hospital for a few hours if he was only toiling away at paperwork, but he never skipped meetings. Especially important, career-advancing board meetings. "Don't you own every film Hitchcock ever made on DVD?"
"Some of the early ones still haven't been released," Wilson replied. "And it's not a Hitchcock double feature. It's Clint Eastwood. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Unforgiven."
"Both of which have been released on DVD. Why don't you just rent them?"
"Because it's not the same. I've always wanted to see them on the big screen."
"You've never seen them in the theatre?" That was hard to believe. Wilson had memberships to most of the art-houses and repertory cinemas in the area and rarely missed a critically acclaimed film. While their definitions of great movies might differ — House still maintained Emmanuelle had been unfairly overlooked by the awards committees — those were undeniably classics of their genre.
"I wasn't born when The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released," Wilson pointed out.
House hated being reminded that Wilson had only seen a glimmer of the '60s. It wasn't that it made him feel old; it simply made him wonder why he was hanging around someone whose formative cultural experience had been disco. "We've established that there are such things as second-run cinemas. And even you were old enough to get into an R-rated movie when Unforgiven was released."
"I was in my last year of med school. I didn't have time to breathe, much less go to a movie."
"Why don't you take your wife? At least during a movie it won't matter if she's not talking to you."
"Julie hates Westerns. And violence, so it would clearly be an excellent idea to take her." Wilson shrugged dejectedly. "But if you don't want to go, that's okay."
It was like seeing a small child discover there was no Santa Claus after all. House was pleased he'd been able to fill a metaphorical hole in Wilson's deprived Jewish childhood. "I never said I didn't want to go," he said when the kicked puppy look was too much even for him to bear. "I just find this gap in your cinematic experience inexplicable."
"Oh, well, I'm glad there's a mystery for you to puzzle over." He turned to leave, shoulders slumped, and even though he was shamelessly overplaying it, House caved.
"Fine. I'll go." Wilson was a manipulative bastard, forcing him to spend five hours in a darkened theatre watching Clint Eastwood shoot people. But he was always generous in victory. "You're buying the tickets. And the popcorn. And the Junior Mints. I'll spring for the drinks," he conceded, just to keep the playing field level.
"Last of the big spenders," Wilson muttered ungraciously, but he was smiling. "We'll need to leave before six. If you behave, we can stop at a drive-through for dinner. Or I'll buy you a hot dog at the theatre."
House couldn't decide which appealed to him more — spilling food all over Wilson's car and watching him stroke out, or chowing down on a tube steak and the nachos with fake cheese that he'd add to the order. He decided not to limit his possibilities. "I always behave," he protested, and allowed himself to smile when Wilson just rolled his eyes and left the office with a backwards wave.
He didn't behave — sending Chase to cover his clinic hours and paging Dr. Feel Good to his office over the hospital intercom when he was ready to leave only constituted good behaviour under House's own definition — but Wilson still stopped at the Wendy's drive-through on the Brunswick Pike.
"I like their salads better," Wilson said, when House whined that he wanted to go to Burger King. "Driver chooses, so stop bitching."
A hamburger was a hamburger as far as House was concerned, square or round, but he was willing to concede a minor victory to Wilson, as long as it came with a side of chili and fries.
They were late setting off and traffic was heavy, so Wilson broke his ban on eating in the car. House helpfully assembled Wilson's mandarin chicken salad, despite Wilson's protest that he wasn't exactly in a position to eat it yet. But he didn't even blink when House "accidentally" scattered the dried noodles on the floor. "Just be more careful with the dressing," he said.
"Wow," House said. "It's finally happened. Julie's cut off your balls altogether."
Wilson just raised one heavy eyebrow — all that exercise was obviously what was keeping his hairline from receding — and plucked out a piece of chicken. "Maybe I'm just tired of playing the bad parent."
"Does this mean you're going to get me hopped up on sugar and dump me on Cuddy's doorstep?"
"I find it highly disturbing that you think of Cuddy as a mother-figure," Wilson mused. "It's very Greek tragedy of you." He speared some iceberg lettuce onto the plastic fork without taking his eyes off the road.
"And I find it highly disturbing that you ordered a salad from a fast-food restaurant. What's the point?"
"I could just be blowing smoke, but I think it has something to do with the word 'fast'."
"Yeah, you're just whipping through that salad." House had already finished his chili and was making short work of his fries.
"Some of us like to watch the road while we're driving and keep at least one hand on the steering wheel," Wilson commented, glancing down just long enough to snag a slice of mandarin orange.
"Safety first," House agreed, especially since it meant he could steal chunks of chicken while Wilson was conscientiously keeping his attention on traffic. He pulled the pickles off of his hamburger and slapped them on top of the salad, though, because he was generous like that.
They made it to the theatre in plenty of time to buy tickets, though Wilson fidgeted and fretted until he had the tickets in hand and didn't relax until they were actually through the door.
"Popcorn," House said, when it looked as though Wilson intended to bypass the concession stand. "You promised me popcorn."
"You just ate!" Wilson protested. "And I never promised you anything. You demanded." He glanced at his watch and frowned.
House rolled his eyes. "We've got plenty of time. I'll find us seats while you get the snacks." He gave Wilson an encouraging push towards the counter. "Don't worry," he said. "You won't miss the trailers. And get me a Coke!" he shouted as he headed into the theatre. He found two seats on the right side of the room, knowing Wilson would look there first, and stretched his leg out into the aisle.
When Wilson returned with the requested items and handed them to House without any further complaint, House started to get suspicious. A compliant Wilson was either too beaten down to argue or trying to lull him into a false sense of security, and since Wilson hadn't been dealing with an excess of death or divorce recently, caution was in order. Then Wilson held out his hand.
"You owe me five bucks," he said.
"For what?" Wilson knew damn well that was not how things worked.
"You said you'd buy the drinks. Give me the money or I'm taking the popcorn back and you'll never see the Junior Mints." He pulled the box of candy out of his jacket pocket, dangling it just out of reach until House huffed in annoyance and pulled out his wallet.
He held a bill between his fingers and made a grab for the candy, but Wilson drew his hand back. "Not until I see that it's a five."
House scowled and replaced the dollar bill with the correct denomination. "Satisfied?" he asked, waving it in front of Wilson's face.
"Very," Wilson replied smugly and handed over the Junior Mints. "See? It didn't kill you to live up to your side of the bargain."
"Anything can kill under the right conditions," House muttered.
Wilson just snorted and grabbed a handful of popcorn.
"Keep your hands out of my popcorn," House warned, moving the bag out of Wilson's reach.
Wilson just leaned across and grabbed another handful. "My money, my popcorn. And stop talking. Trailers are on." It was a second-run cinema, so the trailers were all for second-run movies, but Wilson still leaned forward eagerly. His eyes widened when he recognized the first movie, a black and white trailer for The Third Man. "When's this playing?" he whispered. "Remind me to pick up a schedule."
"I thought we weren't talking during the trailers," House retorted, not bothering to whisper. He had absolutely no intention of reminding Wilson about anything that might involve another trek to East Brunswick. "And I know you own this DVD." He watched the trailer anyway. "Are you kidding me? 'He'll have you in a dither with his zither?' Why not, 'He'll knock you in the wazoo with his kazoo'?"
Wilson chuckled. "All the way to Kalamazoo. I hope they're showing the original version, not Selznick's American cut."
"Film snob," House muttered. He groaned slightly when the next trailer came on. "I'm not watching this with you." The last time Touch of Evil had come on TCM, Wilson had wasted far too many minutes of House's life comparing him to Hank Quinlan. He'd even found a poster of the movie — the 1998 re-edited version, of course — and hung it in his office, claiming it would act as a reminder and lesson to House. ("Of what?" House had asked. "Not to frame my patients?")
But there were more hazards than lectures on ethical behaviour to avoid. "If I share my popcorn," House said quickly, "do you promise not to talk about Welles's 55-page memo in excruciating detail on the drive back? Or ever?"
"My popcorn," Wilson reminded him. "But throw in some Junior Mints and you've got a deal."
Fortunately, the last two trailers were for more recent second-run movies that — lacking a rediscovered director's cut — didn't hold any interest for Wilson. He'd wondered what it was with Wilson and old movies until the first time he'd sat through a Wilson family dinner. He'd actually volunteered to help with the dishes to escape a seemingly endless argument between Wilson and his father over the AFI's top 100 list. Wilson, he recalled, had insisted that Vertigo deserved to be much higher in the rankings.
Wilson settled down in his seat as the trailers ended and the first, familiar notes of Ennio Morricone's score floated through the theatre. House winced when Wilson tried to whistle along softly. "That wasn't even close," he hissed. "Keep it up and I'll cut your tongue out." The next three hours passed in a captivated silence, though House didn't protest when Wilson hummed along as Clint Eastwood rode away from Eli Wallach for the last time. But once the end credits were over — he'd learned over the years that Wilson wouldn't budge until the final name scrolled past — House demanded a hot dog and soda refill.
He wasn't hungry, but he was curious to see just how far he could push Wilson. Wilson rarely asked for anything from him, and House would never deny him anything that didn't involve money or drugs or too much effort, but that didn't mean he wouldn't take advantage of Wilson until he smartened up enough to say "no."
"You're a bottomless pit," Wilson complained, but he stood up and kicked House's foot until House shifted to let him pass through.
House watched him amble down the aisle, all loose-limbed, casual grace, shoulders low and relaxed, as if the burdens of dying patients and a dying marriage had been briefly lifted. House would have sat through a double feature of Mandy Moore films to see that. Though only with a flask of scotch to ease the pain.
When Wilson returned, he was balancing a hot dog, a bag of Twizzlers, and two drinks, and the easy lope had been replaced with cautious, shuffling steps. For a moment House considered sticking his cane out and tripping Wilson, but he wanted the food more than easy entertainment. Still, Wilson was being far too accommodating, even for him, and he narrowed his eyes as Wilson dropped the hot dog unceremoniously on his lap and secured the Twizzlers between his teeth before clambering awkwardly over House's legs.
Something fluttered at the edge of his memory, a fragment of conversation that he'd overheard and dismissed about a presentation to the board that had sounded excruciatingly boring. And yet Wilson had made a point of luring him out of town, undoubtedly anticipating some sabotage on House's part. That meant he was probably skipping the meeting with Cuddy's blessing. House was both impressed and disappointed with him. But the lights dimmed for the second feature, and House tucked the hypothesis away for later exploration. Not even Wilson's machinations could distract him from amoral gunfighters killing indiscriminately.
The rolling walk returned as they left the theatre, even more noticeable in contrast to House's one-sided stride that Wilson normally adopted instinctively. It was as if Wilson had disembarked from a long sea voyage and was trying to get back his land legs, or...
House looked down to hide a smile. "So was it worth the forty-minute drive and 40 in snack food to see them on the big screen?"
"Reckon so," Wilson replied laconically, and it was all House could do not to laugh out loud.
He had seen this before. After their last Bond marathon, Wilson had lounged on the couch with more than his usual elegant grace, spoken a little more formally and precisely, and developed a craving for martinis. House had kept a sharper eye on him around the nurses for the next few days. When Wilson watched Jimmy Stewart movies, his stammer became more pronounced, even when he wasn't nervous or upset, and he brimmed with boyish charm. House was fairly confident that the box set of All in the Family videos he had given Wilson one birthday had hastened the demise of marriage number two by at least a couple of months.
He dropped a few paces back, smiling unobserved as he watched Wilson amble ahead with unhurried confidence, his left hand hovering at his hip, fingers splayed. Just before they reached the car, Wilson abruptly spun and whipped out his cell phone, pointing it at House.
This time House couldn't suppress the sudden burst of laughter. "What are you going to do? Call me?"
"The way I figure, there's really not too much future with a sawed-off runt like you," Wilson drawled and then ruined the effect by giggling. He put the cell phone back in his jacket and took out his car keys.
"I'll see you in hell, James Wilson," House retorted.
"Yeah," Wilson replied flatly, and unlocked the car with a click.
House allowed himself one last smile before his slid into the passenger seat, though it was hard to keep a straight face when he glanced at Wilson and saw him squinting against the nonexistent glare from a sun long set. They were back on the Pike before House decided to explore his earlier epiphany. "So what did Cuddy give you to get me out of town tonight?"
Wilson looked unsurprised that he had figured out their little conspiracy and didn't even attempt denial. He had, after all, completed his part of the mission successfully. "Cash to cover gas, tickets, and enough food to keep your mouth otherwise occupied all night."
"And you still made me pay for the drinks!"
"You offered," Wilson reminded him. "And I threw in the Twizzlers."
"I can think of better ways to spend Cuddy's money," House complained. "Like on lap dances at Cheetah's."
"Oh, please. You'd never have believed I was going to skip a board meeting to go to a strip club." But he was concentrating just a little too deliberately on the road, enough to raise House's suspicions again.
"And why was it so important for me to be banished, not just from the hospital, but from the city?" He couldn't think of any reason he might be expected to cause trouble, other than the sheer joy of making Cuddy's head explode.
"She was worried you might not just cause a scene, but actual bodily harm. One of your arch-enemies was making a presentation. Frank Stoller."
"Who?" House's list of enemies was longer than Nixon's, and he could think of quite a few he'd like to introduce to the business end of his cane, but that name didn't ring a bell. "Never heard of him."
"Sure you have. Insufferable bastard out of New York. Specializes in administrative efficiencies for hospitals. He was on the board at Mercy when they fired you. You said if you ever saw him again you'd use him as a test subject for invasive surgical procedures without an anesthetic."
That sounded like something House had said about any number of people, but he remembered the name of every board member and department head who had fired him, and Frank Stoller wasn't one of them. "He's not on the list."
"Huh," Wilson said. "I could have sworn he was. My mistake." His eyes widened in what appeared to be genuine confusion.
But House's ear was specially tuned to smug satisfaction and it was coming through loud and clear. "You didn't make a mistake," he said slowly. "You told Cuddy I'd make a scene if I ran into what's his face." House could see it clearly: Wilson coming to Cuddy, sharing his fears hesitantly at first, but slowly feeding into her natural paranoia where House was concerned. It would have been Cuddy's idea for Wilson to divert House; Wilson would even have protested that he didn't want to miss the presentation.
"You bastard. You used me to get out of a boring meeting. And you got Cuddy to pay you to go to the movies instead." House stared at Wilson, who was struggling not to smile triumphantly. He shook his head admiringly and wiped a mock tear from his cheek. "You make me so proud."
"I couldn't have done it without your guidance and example," Wilson replied modestly.
It was true. Wilson had an innate talent for manipulation, but years of dealing with House had honed his craft. "So what are you going to give me to keep this little charade between the two of us?" If nothing else, House thought he deserved franchise residuals.
"You mean beyond the free movies and food?" Wilson curled his lip dismissively. "Go ahead. Tell her. Which one of us do you think she'd believe?"
House wondered if Plato had felt the same mixture of pride and resentment about Aristotle. "Remind me again why people think you're the good guy?"
Wilson took his attention off the road long enough to flash the grin that had made House forgive far too many transgressions and kept Wilson's marriages alive longer than they deserved. "Because I'd give my jacket to a dying soldier?" The grin softened to something more affectionate. "And because I'll always give you your share of the gold, even if I leave you hanging for a while."
"I'm claiming my half, then. My place this weekend. You bring the beer; I pick the movies." He already knew Julie was out of town, so Wilson was off the leash and could play guilt-free. He considered the possibilities. A Bogey-fest would bring out the cynical side of Wilson, which always made for interesting conversations, but there was potential for greater entertainment by freeing Wilson's inner musical comedy star. He made a note to bump Singing in the Rain to the top of his Netflix queue.
Traffic was light and the trip back to Princeton was quiet and smooth. House leaned into the heated seat and closed his eyes. Visions of Wilson tap dancing around his apartment, a beer in either hand, lulled him to sleep with a smile on his face.