Set sometime between "Half-Wit" and "Act Your Age" with vague spoilers for season 3. Beta'd by the always amazing elynittria. I really made her work this time. Written for dropthetowel, who wanted jealous!Wilson in return for her generous donation to the rslbdaydrive.

The line between admiration and envy was a thin one, but for the most part James Wilson walked it with ease. He was a middle child, used to finding his own path between the favoured, troubled first-born and the adored baby of the family. He quietly accumulated honours at school, minor success on the ball field, and a reputation as the kind of boy mothers loved.

Later, he discovered that it wasn't just mothers who loved him, and he fell into a series of relationships that occasionally ran parallel. He also discovered a flair for hospital politics, and only a few years after he completed his fellowship at an Ivy League teaching hospital, he found himself head of the oncology department at another Ivy League teaching hospital and a member of several key boards and committees.

Sometimes he looked at his life and marvelled at what he'd achieved, but then he remembered three shipwrecked marriages and a key to a hotel room instead of a home and knew he hadn't achieved anything lasting at all. Unless he considered his friendship with Gregory House. It was a relationship built on humiliation and admiration with a deep foundation of affection. From the first, House had mocked and insulted him, pointing out his shortcomings with infuriating regularity, often without even saying a word.

On a bad day, when Wilson's terminal stats had taken a sudden jump or House was frustrated with a case, House's constant poking and prodding could draw blood, even through the thickest calluses. But for every blow his ego took under House's disparaging comments and outright disdain, it was given a boost each time House deliberately sought out his company. As proud as he was at being a successful doctor and a good son, he was prouder of being Gregory House's only friend.

It wasn't an entirely exclusive club. There were childhood friends, he knew, scattered in the wake of his father's military career; former roommates, teammates, and classmates House mentioned with near affection; and musicians he actually respected. Wilson might even describe the give and take between House and Lisa Cuddy, their boss, as something resembling friendship, albeit with an undercurrent of tension that might drown even the strongest swimmer.

But it was Wilson he called when he needed a ride, or a co-conspirator, or just someone to listen. It was hard to feel privileged when House was interrupting his consults and demanding his time and undivided attention, but on good days he basked in the knowledge that he was the go-to guy for the ultimate go-to guy.

Most days, Wilson ate by himself in his office or the cafeteria. Occasionally, he had a lunch meeting or presentation, or a date with the current wife or girlfriend. But whenever possible he preferred to grab a journal or a file and sit by himself, catching up on some quiet reading. With luck, he managed fifteen or twenty minutes of peace before House burst into his presence to complain about Cuddy, or his fellows, or whatever poor patient was the subject of his latest medical experimentation, pausing his rant only to shove morsels of Wilson's lunch into his mouth. House was like a magpie, Wilson thought sometimes, endlessly attracted to objects that didn't belong to him. Or Coyote -- thieving and playing tricks, but then passing along the gift of life, almost as an afterthought. Wilson didn't mind. Fifteen or twenty minutes of peace were all he needed, and most days House's unique blend of wit and vitriol was as effective a jolt to his system as a double espresso.

So Wilson was surprised when House walked right past him in the cafeteria without even pausing to filch a fry or flick the back of Wilson's head. He turned to see what had caught House's attention. He hadn't heard a crash or smelled anything that might herald a culinary disaster in the works. And he hadn't noticed any of his fellow diners displaying bizarre symptoms that would attract a magpie diagnostician. But he had discovered long ago that there was neither pattern nor limit to what could interest House.

House was making a beeline for a table in the corner, and Wilson's mouth dropped open when he greeted the person already sitting there with a friendly clap on the shoulder and a handshake. Wilson couldn't remember the last time House had shaken his hand. When the man stood up and pulled House into a hug without getting punched in return, Wilson's stomach hollowed. He pushed the remainder of his lunch away. He wasn't hungry any more and he hadn't wanted the fries anyway.

House sat down across from the man, and Wilson shifted his chair so that he could see their table without being too obvious about it. He didn't recognize House's friend -- and the way House was slouching comfortably in his presence meant that he was a friend, or at least not a foe, which eliminated 90 of the population. The man was wearing a lab coat and a hospital ID, so he wasn't a patient or visitor. Wilson thought he knew all the doctors and researchers at Princeton-Plainsboro, but perhaps this was a visiting lecturer, or even a specialist House had brought in for a consult. Except he didn't think House had a case at the moment.

Then Cuddy walked over and greeted the stranger with the same easy familiarity. Wilson wondered if he should go over and introduce himself, but something held him back. It wasn't that he didn't think he would be welcome; he didn't think he'd belong.

After lunch, House holed up in his office with the mystery doctor. Wilson walked out onto the balcony with a coffee, hoping House would come out and make an introduction, but the door remained closed. He saw House look at him once and start to stand up, but then his visitor said something that made House glance away again and laugh. Wilson went back inside, telling himself it was just because he was cold.

Later he brought Cuddy an espresso and asked casually who she'd been talking to in the cafeteria. He could tell by her smile that she wasn't fooled.

"Jonas Stettner. He's doing a month-long exchange here from UCLA Medical Center. Didn't you see the memo?"

"I thought that was next month." Too often, the days blended together, only his assistant and appointment calendar keeping him on track. "Is he an old friend of yours?"

Again Cuddy heard the unasked question. "He was at Michigan. Same year as House. I didn't know him well, other than by reputation. But he and House did their residencies together and then fellowships at the same hospital. I thought they'd lost touch when Stettner got a job at UCLA, but I guess not."

House had never mentioned Stettner to Wilson, but he tended to rant about his enemies rather than wax nostalgic about the colleagues he actually liked. Still, Wilson knew House would have kept track through journals and conferences, if not in person. "He's a haematopathologist, isn't he?"

"One of the top in the country," Cuddy said with satisfaction. "I'm hoping he can bring some new ideas into the haematology lab while he's here."

Over the next few days Wilson hardly saw House, outside of passing him occasionally in the halls, and didn't talk to him at all. House picked up a patient, but he didn't call Wilson for his usual consult to rule out cancer, even though Cameron mentioned lymphoma was still in the picture. Later, she told him apologetically that Stettner had dismissed the lymphoma diagnosis and House had accepted his opinion without question.

Several days later, Wilson was working late in his office, putting together a budget for a project grant. A House-light existence might be boring, but it was doing wonders for his work backlog. That morning he'd left a coffee and donut on House's desk, only to walk by later and see it still untouched. He found out from Chase that House had only come in long enough to grab a file and then holed up in the haematology lab with Stettner.

Someone knocked on his office door and he called out a welcome. It wouldn't be House, of course. He never knocked. But then House hadn't barged in unannounced for days, either. Wilson never thought he would wish for his day to be derailed.

The door opened and Cuddy walked in. She had a slight frown on her face and Wilson wondered if he'd missed a meeting or a deadline. Then he wondered what kind of trouble House was in now. He raised his defenses. "Whatever he did, I didn't know about it." Cuddy had a tendency to punish first and determine blame later.

"He hasn't done anything," she retorted. "Literally. He's refusing to take any cases and he's had his fellows cover his clinic hours, even though I've told him they won't count towards his backlog. He claims he's helping Jonas Stettner with research, but I haven't seen any evidence that they've been doing anything that has a chance of being published."

"House is a lazy bastard when he doesn't have a case, but Stettner has a reputation to maintain. I'm sure he's just in the early stages of the research."

"You don't know?" Cuddy asked. "House hasn't told you what he's doing?"

Wilson winced at the reminder that he'd been cast out of the inner circle. "House rarely tells me what he's doing. Especially when he thinks it might get back to you."

Cuddy shook her head. "He's supposedly evaluating new markers for the early detection of ovarian cancer. Stettner said he had sign-off from you to review the clinical trials in your department."

Wilson had barely spoken to Stettner since he'd arrived, but he had no doubt the paperwork had been filed and duly processed. House was a master of paperwork that wasn't his own. "My assistant probably signed off if it was a standard research request. Do you want me to take a look and see what they're up to?" Cuddy had an unerring instinct for when projects were going off-rail -- or at least off budget. If she was concerned, there was probably a good reason.

"You really don't know what's happening, do you?" Cuddy asked, twisting the knife just a little deeper. "What's going on with you and House? I haven't seen you two skulking about for days."

"We're taking a break," Wilson said. He smiled, as if it were all just a big joke, but it was hard to keep the corners of his mouth upturned.

"What, did he take back his promise ring?" she teased, but then sighed when Wilson's smile lost its battle against gravity. "You don't look very happy about that. I'm guessing it wasn't your choice."

"When has it ever been?" Wilson didn't know why House had chosen him as his only friend and sometime partner in crime, though that was obviously no longer the case. He accepted it and complained about it and carefully measured what he could ask for and expect in return. For years, he had thought their friendship lasted because House needed something from him. Now it turned out that he was the one who needed something from House. "It doesn't matter, " he said. "Stettner will be gone in a couple of weeks and you know House. Out of sight, out of mind." God knows he'd found that out over the last week.

But Cuddy suddenly couldn't look him in the eyes. "He's applied for a permanent position in haematology. Brennan is retiring in six months, and I could probably find the money to bring Stettner on now, especially if he can bring in funding for research."

Wilson had an excellent poker face -- he could fool House, which was the gold standard for deception -- but he knew he was an open book when surprised with information. And he knew Cuddy could read the dismay on his face as if it were in oversized print.

"You think he would be a liability to the hospital?" Cuddy asked.

Wilson wanted to say "yes" outright, but he knew that wasn't fair. Stettner might not be following the proper protocols with his research, but that didn't mean he wasn't an excellent asset for any hospital. He trusted House's judgment, at least on medical matters. "Of course not," he said. "And I'm sure his references will bear that out. I'm just being selfish." He smiled self-deprecatingly. "I shouldn't admit this, but I miss House hijacking my life."

"You're jealous of Stettner?"

Wilson wondered why that would be so unbelievable, though he could see how it might be ridiculous. "You don't think I have a reason to be? House has barely looked at me since Stettner's arrived." Wilson knew he sounded like a sulky child, but Cuddy had hired House. She was used to dealing with sulky children.

"You were never jealous of Stacy," Cuddy pointed out.

"That was different. He loved her. I couldn't compete with that. I wouldn't want to." But he had been jealous when Stacy came back, like the faithful brother resenting the prodigal son returning home to open arms. He had seen that House had a second chance for happiness, and he'd been torn between encouraging him and wishing she'd go far, far away. At least until she had.

"He loves you too," Cuddy said softly. "In his own House way. Which isn't anything remotely recognizable as love, I realize."

"He tolerates me. Or at least he used to." Now Wilson really was wallowing in self-pity, but he didn't care. Cuddy was the closest thing to a friendly ear he had left. "I paged him for a consult in the clinic yesterday. He sent Foreman. I had to explain that I didn't actually need a second opinion; I just wanted House to see what this moron had managed to shove up his rectum. I bet House and Stettner had a good laugh about that." He nodded contritely when Cuddy opened her mouth. "Before you say anything, I know it's completely inappropriate to make fun of clinic patients." Though it had once been his favourite pastime with House.

"Actually, I was just going to ask what you found," Cuddy replied mildly. "There's no way it can beat the frozen pig's tail."

Wilson blinked. "Why would anyone freeze a pig's tail?"

"Right. Because that's the strangest part of it. Come on. Was it Hall of Fame material?"

Cuddy wasn't supposed to know about the collection of foreign objects the clinic and ER staff kept hidden away in a makeshift trophy case. But one had existed at every hospital Wilson had ever worked at, and Cuddy hadn't always been an administrator. "A full set of jacks and ball. I guess one just wasn't enough." He smiled, genuinely this time. "Actually, one of the reasons I paged House was because I couldn't remember how many were in a set and I didn't want to risk leaving any behind."

"I think that qualifies for the trophy case that I don't know about." Cuddy smiled. "And House is just distracted right now. You know what he's like when he finds a new toy to play with. He didn't talk to anybody for a week after he got that damn GameBoy."

Except House had let him play as well, if only to show how much better he was at each game. "I think Stettner would probably object to being called a toy," he commented, trying not to sound either bitter or hopeful. "And why would House get bored of him? They have a history together. House admires him."

"He admires you."

"He thinks I'm boring." He shrugged, tried to look unconcerned. "It was only a matter of time, really. I'm surprised he stayed interested this long."

Cuddy shook her head. "Now you're just being ridiculous. He takes you for granted because you're always there. He'd be lost without your friendship."

But Wilson had learned never to take anyone or anything for granted. Remissions ended, wives left, and brothers disappeared. Friends were no different. He would have to work harder not to lose House as well. If House was bored with who he was, he'd just have to become someone else.

Wilson hadn't actually talked to Stettner, other than the occasional polite conversation when they happened to find themselves in the same elevator or walking in the same direction, so he had no idea what it was about him that had lured House's attention away. He was given a clue, though, when he saw Stettner pull into the parking lot on a Ducati sport bike one morning. As bright shiny things went, it was a big one. Later, he watched House and Stettner speed away from the hospital, the growl of racing engines audible even from the fourth floor balcony. Wilson imagined the broad, joyful grin on House's face and knew he couldn't give that to House.

It wasn't that he disapproved of motorcycles. He just disapproved of House finding one more possible way to kill himself. But he'd watched House ride, seen him revel in the power and speed that had been torn away from him by the infarction, and saved his misgivings for days when the streets were slick with ice and no amount of skill could guarantee safety. He'd never thought of riding a motorcycle himself, though. He didn't think he'd fare any better than the architect whose challenges with braking and turning had saved House a bundle on the Repsol.

But if he were going to make himself more interesting to House, he'd have to start by sharing more of his interests. He could only watch so many daytime soaps before he started to lose his mind, and he'd never been good at video games.

He found a driving school near the hospital and booked a motorcycle lesson at a time when he knew House would be otherwise occupied, Passing the written and road sign tests was a snap, but his heart started to pound when he straddled the motorcycle and turned the engine on for the first time. It was an ordinary motorcycle, plain and solid and as safe as a two-wheeled vehicle with a top speed of 140 mph could possibly be. House would have hated it. Wilson thought it was the most dangerous thing he'd ever had between his legs (though he could almost hear House wryly beg to differ).

Once he'd found his balance, however, he began to understand the attraction. He'd been a reckless cyclist in his youth, trying to keep up with his even more reckless older brother. There was something exhilarating in being so exposed, so close to the road, so close to disaster. Riding a motorcycle was like being friends with House, he realized, and relaxed into a more familiar sense of danger.

He was doing well, starting to feel confident, which meant it was only a matter of time until something went horribly wrong. His downfall wasn't braking and turning, just turning. One minute he was leaning into the corner and the next he was pinned between asphalt and metal. He hadn't been travelling fast enough to injure himself or damage the motorcycle, but he lay still, letting the instructor right the motorcycle and help him up. He wasn't so much hurt as humiliated, and he brushed away the instructor's concern with a brusque reminder that he was a doctor and could take care of himself. It was rude, but Wilson knew he wouldn't be returning for another lesson.

He sweet-talked the duty nurse into letting him use an empty clinic room to clean himself up, reassuring her with a smile. "Just a little fall," he said. "No need to take up anybody's time." But he'd barely had a chance to wash and disinfect the worst of the damage before the door burst open. Wilson looked up, prepared to repeat his assurances that he didn't need help, but the words turned to dust on his tongue when he saw House glaring at him.

"What have you done to yourself this time?" House demanded, his eyes moving rapidly to take in the gauze, the disinfectant, the general disarray of Wilson's clothes.

"What are you doing here?" Wilson countered.

"I asked first." He stalked towards Wilson, who backed away instinctively. "I'm not going to hurt you," House snapped. He frowned. "Did you get in a fight?"

There was concern buried deeply beneath the surface disdain, enough to make Wilson relax. "I wiped out," he said. "It's just road rash. Nothing that needs a diagnostician. But if I develop kidney failure or a sudden unexplained fever, I'll be sure to call you first."

"How did you wipe out? Your bike's been in storage since divorce number two, and the last time I saw you rollerblade, Clinton was president."

"My turn for an answer," Wilson retorted. "Why are you here? Did you install a new light that goes off when I do something embarrassing?"

"The nurses know to tell me if you come into the clinic for treatment. Especially self-treatment, since I know you're too stupid or proud to ask for help." He grabbed Wilson's arm and inspected the cleaning job. "Did you put any antibiotic cream on this?" He shook his head and grabbed a tube from the supply drawer. "I hope you do a better job with your patients or you're going to have to up your malpractice insurance."

Wilson pulled his arm away. "I thought you and Stettner were making fun of Swenerton at the urology lecture."

"I was until you ruined the fun by being an idiot."

The "as usual" was unspoken, but Wilson heard it all the same. "Go back to the lecture. I don't need your help." He picked up the roll of gauze and began awkwardly wrapping it around his forearm. It wouldn't win points for style, but it would do the job.

But House didn't leave. Instead he unwrapped the gauze and rewrapped Wilson's arm, doing a surprisingly neat job for someone who couldn't be bothered to make his bed. "You never told me how you did this."

Wilson knew he wouldn't let the subject rest until he had the full story. "Motorcycle," he muttered, staring down at the floor. "Overbalanced on a corner." He looked up when House's grip on his arm suddenly tightened. When he tried to pull away he jarred his wrist against the exam table and hissed in pain.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" House demanded angrily, though his touch as he examined Wilson's wrist was feather light.

"Learning to ride a motorcycle," Wilson replied, wincing when House's fingers found a tender spot.

"It's just bruised," House said. "I'll get you an ice pack for it when we're done here." He studied Wilson as if he were a particularly puzzling symptom on the whiteboard. "You hate motorcycles."

"I don't hate motorcycles," Wilson said, though he was starting to revise that opinion. "I just think they're dangerous. Obviously I was right."

"It's not the motorcycles that are dangerous, it's the riders. You should stick to something more your speed. Like a scooter."

Wilson knew House was just pissed off about being called away from the Mocking 500, but he was sore and still a little shaky from the fall, and he wasn't in the mood to be insulted. He stood up and pushed past House on his way to the door. He could get some ice from the oncology lounge freezer. When he opened the door, Stettner was leaning against the intake desk, flirting with the duty nurse. "Sorry for interrupting your fun," he muttered as he passed by. "He's all yours." He didn't look back, not wanting to see House and Stettner laughing at him.

Unfortunately, Stettner's research was no laughing matter.

"He's looking for a single marker that will identify stage 1 ovarian cancer," Wilson told Cuddy once he'd done his own analysis of Stettner's results. He'd waited until House had left for the day before going down to her office. House had a talent for walking into the middle of conversations at the most inconvenient time. "CA-125 is only elevated in 80 of all patients and has a high false positive rate, so finding a more reliable test that will allow early intervention is the Holy Grail for ovarian cancer. There have been some promising studies on LPA levels, but a lot of the research now is going into developing a panel of markers."

"What's the problem, then?" Cuddy asked. "Because I'm guessing you'd be breaking out the champagne if Stettner had actually made a breakthrough."

"His methodology is flawed. He's claiming to have isolated a tumor antigen specific to ovarian cancer, but he's drawing conclusions from trials conducted under different conditions and with non-standardized controls. And he's citing at least one study that has since been discredited." He shrugged. "He could end up being right, but it looks to me as though he's rushing to publish before his findings are conclusive. And I'm guessing he's using House's reputation to alleviate any doubts an editorial board might have."

"Are you going to tell House?" Cuddy asked.

The last thing Wilson wanted to do was disillusion House. House didn't give his trust easily and to have it shattered again would only make him more determined to isolate himself from the rest of the world. And yet part of him wanted to shove the information in House's face, to prove that Stettner wasn't worthy of House's friendship. Like all the other ugly parts of himself, Wilson did his best to ignore it.

"I'll keep an eye on what they're doing," he told Cuddy instead. "I can ask one of my contacts at Sloan-Kettering to drop a hint or two that might make Stettner rethink some conclusions. But if I have to, I'll make sure House's name is nowhere near any published articles." Wilson didn't give a damn about Stettner, but he wouldn't let House be pulled under with him.

As usual, however, there was no need to tell House anything. Two days later, he stormed into Wilson's office past a patient who was just leaving, glowering at Wilson until the door closed. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

Wilson raised his eyebrows in polite confusion. "I was talking to Mr. Grainger. Now I'm going to update his file and prepare for my next appointment. And you?" Playing innocent was always a good opening move. If nothing else, it forced House to commit to a specific grievance.

"You've been sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

"Do tell," he drawled, deliberately trying to provoke House.

House planted himself in front of Wilson's desk. "You know what I'm talking about. You pulled your authorization for the oncology trials. I can't get hold of the latest data."

"You mean the authorization I never gave in the first place?" Wilson replied. "Why don't you just forge my name again?"

"I didn't forge your name," House muttered. "I just circumvented the paperwork. I was thinking of the environment." He held out an authorization form. "Sign it."

"And another tree falls," Wilson said mournfully. "I think I'll pass, thanks. Save it for your next sucker." He picked up his patient's file and pretended to read it carefully. Not that he expected House to slink away in defeat. House never admitted defeat, even years after the battle.

House sighed exaggeratedly. "Fine, you've made your point. I should have gone through the proper channels. I'm doing it now." He put the form on top of the file and tapped it. "Sign."

"I'm not signing," Wilson reiterated. "And it's got nothing to do with the proper channels." Cuddy had sent her own smoke signals out to her considerable network of sources and had told him quietly that she wouldn't be offering Stettner a permanent position. "I'm not comfortable associating my department with this study." He sat back and waited for the explosion.

But House just looked at him with contempt, which was far worse. "Fine," he said. "Stettner didn't want to involve you anyway, but I thought I'd do you a favour by getting your name on the paper."

It stung that Stettner was deliberately isolating him from House, though Wilson knew it was less a snub than a defensive measure. "He's using you," Wilson said flatly. "His career is going down the toilet, so he's latching onto you for credibility."

"What do you know about it?" House demanded.

"I've seen his research. Have you?" Wilson retorted. "Because I find that hard to believe. If one of your fellows had shown you work of this quality you'd have torn them a new asshole and stuffed it with the abstract."

House looked away and Wilson knew he was right. House hadn't read Stettner's work, just vetted the oncology trials for useful information.

"Jonas Stettner is a leader in his field."

"Since when has that mattered to you?" Wilson countered. "He might be brilliant, but he's a lazy bastard who cuts corners on research and expects people to overlook that because of his reputation. Or yours."

"Right," House said. "Years of publications say otherwise."

"He hasn't published in years," Wilson retorted. It was an exaggeration, but when House looked away, Wilson knew he'd noticed.

"He's had a fallow period. It happens."

"Cuddy did some checking. His last two papers -- which he's just rehashing in this latest study, by the way -- were refused by half a dozen journals. UCLA isn't planning on renewing his contract. He's desperate to get back in the game and he knows your name on his next paper will guarantee publication."

House glared at him and Wilson knew he'd overplayed his hand. "You got Cuddy involved?"

"She came to me with some concerns." He didn't add that if House had only bothered to do his job, Cuddy never would have had those concerns. House didn't need to learn any more lessons on covering his tracks. "Which I share."

"It's none of your business."

"Stettner's applied for a permanent appointment, which makes it very much Cuddy's business. And he's citing research from my department, which makes it my business as well."

"I get it," House sneered. "You're upset someone's been pissing in your territory."

Wilson looked down. In a way, it was true.

"You'd rather Stettner's research go unpublished than have him show you up," House continued. "That's pathetic. You pretend to be the patron saint of dying cueballs, but you're just in it for yourself like everybody else."

Wilson had had enough. "Do you know how many women I've watched die because their cancer was caught too late?" he snapped. "If I thought Stettner was legitimately on the path to finding a more reliable early marker, I'd pour every resource into the research. But he's not. I don't expect you to believe me, so read for yourself." He pulled out the file of information he'd gathered on Stettner's study and handed it to House. A knock on the door forestalled any further questions. "I have a patient," he said unnecessarily and waited for House to leave before closing his eyes and sighing deeply. That had gone about as well as he'd expected.

House avoided Wilson over the next couple of days, but whenever Wilson looked across the balcony he was at his desk, flipping through files or staring at his computer screen.

"I take it you talked to House," Cuddy said when she stopped by his office after failing to bribe, threaten or drag House out of his office.

"More like he talked -- or yelled -- at me," Wilson replied. "I pulled my research authorization after Jean Greerson told me that Stettner used my name to get access to preliminary clinical trial results at Sloan-Kettering. Actions speak louder than words with House. Not that he liked what I had to say when he finally started to listen." He smiled ruefully. "House, for all his faults, is as loyal as a pit bull and just as dangerous when his territory is threatened. He won't be forgiving me any time soon."

"I wouldn't worry about it," Cuddy reassured him. "He's threatening to resign in protest if I don't hire Stettner, but I don't think his heart is really in it. I give him a couple of more days before he lets himself admit that he was wrong about Stettner."

Wilson wasn't as confident. House wasn't exactly known for admitting that he was wrong, especially when it came to character judgments.

"What are you going to do?" Cuddy asked softly, seeing his uncertainty.

"Nothing," he replied. "I've protected the hospital, protected my own reputation. I do anything else and House will just accuse me of deliberately sabotaging Stettner's work." All he could do now was wait and trust House.

"You miss him," Cuddy said sympathetically.

The sympathy grated, reminded him how he was bereft, and yet he was grateful for the understanding. He did miss House. He missed the interruptions and the annoyances, as much as he missed the gossip and games that broke up his day. "Does that make me insane?" he asked lightly.

Cuddy reached out and squeezed his shoulder gently. "It makes you his friend."

Wilson could only hope House would feel the same way once the bubble finally burst.

Wilson was passing by the Diagnostics office on his way home that evening when he saw House and Stettner standing in the conference room, glaring at each other. He meant to keep walking and let them sort it out themselves, but Stettner was leaning just a little too close to House, so he hesitated to make sure everything was all right. House said something in a low voice that Wilson couldn't quite make out, but he recognized the expression on House's face, so he was already through the door when Stettner shoved House hard into the whiteboard. It toppled and fell over, but House managed to stay on his feet by grabbing onto a chair and hopping awkwardly on his undamaged leg.

"If you broke it, you're replacing it," House snapped, frowning down at the whiteboard. "Good whiteboards are hard to find. Though not as hard as good doctors, apparently."

Stettner raised his hands to shove House again, but Wilson reached him first and pulled him away. "Back off," Wilson warned, "or I'll call security."

Stettner turned towards Wilson, his fists clenched. "Dr. Wilson. Drop by to see the trouble you've caused?" He stepped closer and it was all Wilson could do to stand his ground. He wasn't a coward, but the unconcealed hate in Stettner's expression was unnerving. "Go ahead. Call for help. You're a sorry excuse for a man, a paper-pushing administrator, babysitting patients until they die. You're no good for anything else, so you tear down everybody around you to make yourself feel better."

There were days -- and more often nights spent alone in an anonymous hotel room -- when Wilson's assessment of himself wasn't much higher. He was good at his job, good at running his department, good at making the system work to his advantage, but he didn't have that spark of brilliance that he'd always admired and envied in House. Charm was a pale substitute for genius. But Stettner wasn't House, and Wilson only had one reason to envy him and none to admire him.

"Funny," he said evenly. "You didn't think that when you told Greerson that I endorsed your study." A bubble of rage rippled through him, breaking his surface calm. "Did House tell you he'd handle me or did you just think it would be easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission?"

"You should have been honoured I involved your department in this study," Stettner retorted. "You'll be finished when word gets out that you blocked my research out of professional jealousy."

Wilson was done being the bad guy. "What research? The clinical trial with inadequate controls and inconclusive data? Did you even bother to talk to Rodrigues before you cited his paper? Because I talked to him last month and he told me his latest results are taking him in an entirely different direction. Which I would have been happy to tell you if you'd bothered to ask. But it's easier to find facts to fit your theory than to actually spend the years doing the research."

He had sparred with House enough over the years to sense when a situation was about to turn physical, so he easily blocked the blow Stettner swung lazily at his head. "Missed your mark again," he mocked.

"That's enough," House growled. "Get out. Now," he ordered.

Wilson caught his breath at the anger and contempt in House's voice. It stunned him in a way Stettner's punch hadn't. For a moment he couldn't move, but then he nodded slowly and turned away, not wanting to see Stettner's smirk of triumph. He'd lost his best friend, but he wouldn't lose his dignity.

"Not you, you idiot," House said, and this time Wilson could hear exasperation and affection in the tone. "You must be the long-lost eighth dwarf, Guilty."

Wilson turned back, fighting hard not to let the surprise and relief show on his face. House didn't need that kind of ammunition against him. He couldn't prevent his own smirk of triumph, however, when he saw House glaring at Stettner.

"American Journal of Clinical Oncology," House said. "Lancet Oncology. JAMA. That's just in the last year. Where have you published, Jonas?"

Wilson's eyes widened when he realized House was listing his recent articles and abstracts. He wondered if Stettner knew that the use of his first name wasn't a good sign. Then he wondered if he'd have time to grab some chips from the vending machine before the main event began.

"Funny how I don't hear from you in more than a decade and then you coincidentally arrange for an exchange with my hospital just weeks before UCLA fails to renew your contract," House mused. "One would almost think you were hoping to ride my coattails into a new job."

"Your coattails?" Stettner laughed bitterly. "Your coattails are so threadbare they wouldn't support a flea. How many hospitals have you been fired from over the years? Do you think you'd still have a job here if you hadn't brainwashed or blackmailed Lisa Cuddy into protecting you?" He glanced contemptuously at Wilson. "Or found yourself a flunky to sing your praises, or in your case, shield you from the rest of the medical establishment?"

Wilson had never hit another human being, except in self-defence, but when his fist smashed satisfyingly into Stettner's nose, he began to understand the appeal. He shook his hand out, wincing, as Stettner spun onto the table and slumped over.

"Should have used your right hand," House commented as he watched Stettner push himself upright. "He's not worth breaking your dominant hand."

"I do know how to throw a punch," Wilson protested, though he knew writing would be a bitch for the next couple of days. "You should probably get that looked at," he suggested to Stettner, who was trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose. "You seem to have a blood disorder. Do you know any good haematologists?" His mother would be horrified if she ever found out what had just happened, but Wilson had never been more pleased with himself than when Stettner slunk back out of the room without another word. He turned to House, grinning. "You have no idea how good that felt."

"Like two Vicodin with a bourbon chaser? You punch like a sissy," House critiqued. "It's a good thing Stettner obviously has unusually soft cartilage in his nose."

"You'd know, since it's been up your ass for the last month." Wilson didn't know what exhilarated him more, the adrenaline rush from the punch or bantering with House again. The former washed away quickly though, and he sank into a chair, exhausted but still happy.

"You're looking pretty pleased with yourself," House observed.

"I think I have the right to revel in victory for a little while."

"You didn't even knock him down," House said.

"That wasn't the victory I meant," Wilson replied. He didn't elaborate, though. House didn't need it spelled out, just the first letter. He probably didn't even need that, judging by the smug smirk on his face.

"Now I know how Gary Ewing felt when Val and Abby were fighting over him," House mused.

"I'm not sure I like those options," Wilson complained. "Either I'm an evil bitch, or I go inexplicably insane for a season."

"Why does it have to be one or the other?" House countered. "How about Scotty Baldwin and Luke Spencer? The corrupt lawyer or the reformed rapist."

"Pfft," Wilson scoffed. "You don't actually think Stettner would fight for your catatonic body, do you?" Wilson would, though. He'd fight for House, body, mind and soul, whether House believed in a soul or not.

"Stettner's a lightweight," House said dismissively. "In every way possible." He grimaced. "I suppose you're going to lecture me now, tell me you told me so."

But Wilson shook his head. "I'm not going to lecture you for trying to support a friend. For reaching out to someone. He might be a lousy researcher, but at least he wasn't boring." He hadn't meant to say the last bit, but House's taunt after the fake brain cancer stunt still stung, even weeks later. He stood up, prepared to scuttle back to the safety of his office, but House grabbed his arm, squeezing the healing abrasion.

"Is that why you were learning to ride the motorcycle?" he asked. "Because you think you're boring?"

Wilson pulled his arm away. "I know I'm boring. You don't need to remind me. I drive a Volvo. I keep my pens in a pocket protector. I wear ties to work and play golf on the weekend. I watch golf on the weekend. I bore myself." But not when he was with House. He was never bored when he was with House. Terrified, sometimes, often infuriated, but never bored.

"Maybe I like boring," House replied. "Maybe I need boring. Assuming you're right," he added, "which you're not."

That was typical House, Wilson thought ruefully. Even his compliments came wrapped in an insult and a challenge.

"There's so many layers to how messed up you are I'll never get through them all," House continued. "Riding a motorcycle isn't going to make you interesting. But not riding one does." He smirked, and it was so familiar that Wilson didn't mind being mocked. "If I decide to jump off a cliff, are you going to jump too?"

Yes, Wilson thought. "Only if I get to push Stettner first," he said. "He's so full of hot air I can grab on to him and float down to safety."

"You're nowhere near as nice as you pretend to be," House said approvingly. "Now that's interesting. Of course, Stettner is nowhere near as intelligent as he pretends to be, which is what I told him just before you walked in."

"He fooled you," Wilson pointed out.

"But he didn't fool you, so I had nothing to worry about."

It was as close as House would come to admitting he'd been wrong, so Wilson acknowledged the admission the only way House would accept: with silence.

House nodded once and then walked over to the fallen whiteboard. He righted it and looked it over critically. "Doesn't look like it's broken," he commented.

Wilson stared silently at House until House turned and looked back at him. "No," he agreed. "It's all right."