Title: Past Imperfect, Present Tense

Rating: PG
Genre: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Characters: House, Wilson

A/N: This story is lovingly dedicated to blackmare , who patiently--and literally--pulled every single word out of me.

Cuddy's phone call had been quiet, unemotional. Neutral, even. No attempts at guilt, not even a plea to come "for old times' sake." She'd simply given him the facts. And then, almost inaudibly, "I'm worried about him." She'd clicked off even as her last word hung in the air between them.

Of course he was going. He had to, right? He didn't believe anymore that maybe he and House had never been friends. Hell, maybe he hadn't believed it when he'd said it. The first couple of months after that talk in his office, he'd forced himself to believe it, even though every time the phrase scraped across his mind the bleeding would start again.

He'd hear himself saying those words: We're not friends anymore, House. Maybe we never were. And the fresh pain would swallow everything else. Even the grief for Amber was absorbed into his loss of House for a little while, and this phenomenon somehow just magnified both losses.

After while, the remembered words lost some of their power. By the fourth month, House had become a phantom limb--not there anymore, but still causing pain when he least expected it.

And now it's been five months. He tells himself he's adjusting to the amputation, that the blade of those words had cut quick and true. That he's recovering. But still. Sometimes he remembers that amputation means losing a part of yourself, something that belongs. And then he knows he'd lied.

It was the biggest lie I ever told--but I needed to believe it. More--I needed House to believe it. And... oh, God--maybe he did.

No; House was smarter than that. House knew it was anger talking, confusion. Grief. House knew that Wilson couldn't mean that. House knew. Right?

Wilson packs quickly and without thought. He almost doesn't pack at all; he can buy whatever he needs once he gets home to Princeton, he thinks. Startled, he replays the thought in his mind: home to Princeton. Home. Princeton.

"No," he says aloud, and continues packing.

Hours later, standing at House's front door, Wilson considers his options. Cuddy had told him that House hadn't been to work all week. On Tuesday, he'd ignored her phone calls. Wednesday, she'd gone to his apartment. As she approached the door, she told Wilson, she'd heard the piano--discordant, loud. Ugly. She'd banged on the door and the awful sounds had ceased immediately. Cuddy had knocked and pleaded for twenty minutes; House had silently waited her out.

He's not even angry with Cuddy, and she's all he's got left. If he's freezing her out, no way he's gonna answer my call, much less invite me in for tea.

Wilson reaches into his pocket, slowly withdraws a single key, and studies it. Running his finger over the warm metal, he wonders idly why he'd kept it. Wasn't like he'd ever planned to use it again. It's useless anyway, by now. He's got to have changed the lock. Hell, probably first thing he did--big, dramatic gesture, securing the castle against Wilson the Betrayer.

Wilson rubs the key like a talisman as he realizes that this little piece of metal is all he has--his last tie to House, the only tangible token of the friendship-that-was--and the only chance in hell he has of entering this apartment. Resigned, he inserts it in the lock.

His eyes widen at the ease with which the knob turns under his hand. But he can't stop right now to consider why this key should still open House's door; he blinks back his surprise and steps inside.

The living room is dim--and empty. Wilson spares the kitchen a quick glance, then rapidly turns toward House's bedroom. He's stopped by a sound from behind the closed bathroom door; House is in there, retching violently.

Okay; so he's... what? Sick? Hung over? OD'd? He's... Whatever else he is, he's alive. Wilson, suddenly trembling, sinks down onto the couch to wait.

After a couple of minutes, he hears the toilet flush, then the water running. He uses the time to try to compose his expression, but he's not sure what it should be. Annoyed? Angry? Hi, I was in the neighborhood? So when House, leaning heavily on his cane, exits the bathroom, he freezes at the sight of a confused Wilson, fidgeting uncomfortably on his couch.

House's voice is cold. "What the hell are you doing here?" He doesn't move further into the room, though--doesn't move at all--and Wilson's trained eyes assess him quickly.

God, he looks... awful. Skin's pale, almost marbled, and respiratory rate's double what it should be; dehydration. But he's been sweating pretty heavily; hair's plastered to his head. Wilson focuses on House's right hand, fingers convulsively clenching and loosening around the cane handle. His nailbeds aren't perfusing properly; the dehydration's severe. I've gotta--

House sways suddenly, but rights himself before Wilson can get to him. "I asked you," he rasps, his voice fading, "to what do i owe the... dubious honor of your presence?" House is clearly weak, but his eyes are bright and intense, boring a hole right through Wilson.

"I... Cuddy's worried about you. No one's seen you for a week. Just... tell me what you're up to, and then I'll leave, if you want me to." Wilson takes a few steps towards House, intending to guide him to a seat. He reaches out a tentative hand, his fingers barely brushing House's arm.

House reacts instantly, raising his left hand impatiently to brush away Wilson's attempt at help. But he's so debilitated that the abrupt movement is enough to unbalance him, and in the next second, Wilson's half-carrying, half-dragging him to the couch.

House doesn't thank him, just leans his head back and closes his eyes. "What I'm up to," he muses. "And you think you have a right to know? I don't owe you any answers. I don't owe you anything. You're... not my friend, remember?"

Wilson's immediately alarmed; House's breathing is even shallower, more rapid now. Wilson won't risk upsetting him further until he can figure out how bad things really are. So instead of answering him, Wilson stands quietly, begins to look around. He's spent enough years watching House at work to know that even if House won't talk to him, maybe the apartment will.

I don't smell any alcohol; no empty bottles, either. He doesn't feel feverish, and food poisoning doesn't last this long. Hell, from what I can see, he hasn't eaten in days, anyway. Looks like he's just been throwing himself a pity party; must've gone overboard with the Vicodin. Nothing's changed.

Shaking his head and swallowing an involuntary sound of disgust, Wilson turns toward the kitchen. He'll try to get a glass of water into House before he leaves. Medically, Wilson knows he needs a lot more than that, but it's not his problem any more. He'll call Cuddy, of course, give her the unpleasant details--but no way is he gonna stick around. No way.

"No one asked you to," House says. Wilson starts; he hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. House's eyes are still closed; Wilson notes that his breathing's a little slower, a little stronger now. But he's rubbing at his leg, and if Wilson didn't know better, he'd think those deep furrows around House's eyes were caused by pain. He knows I'm onto him; it's an act. Well, I'm not buying it. Not this time; not ever again. Wilson reaches into his pocket for the key and tosses it onto the piano.

House opens his eyes to track the sound, sees the key glinting dull silver on the glossy black piano. He stares coldly at Wilson, then inclines his head towards the door. "I think you know where the exit is. And make it one-way this time."

"I'll leave as soon as I get you some water," Wilson says, and leaves the room before House can argue any further.

In the kitchen, a quick look around confirms that House hasn't been eating. There's a warm bottle of soda on the counter next to a bottle opener, but the bottle's still capped. His hands were probably shaking too badly, Wilson thinks, and has to push away the sudden mental image of House alone, ill, unable to care for himself in this most basic of ways.

He takes a glass from the cabinet and fills it at the sink. House's Vicodin bottle is sitting at the counter's edge. "Might as well try to figure out how much damage he's done; Cuddy's gonna need to know," Wilson says to himself, and reaches for the familiar plastic vial. He picks it up and frowns in confusion; it's full. And the date on the label is nine days ago.

Wilson closes his eyes, shakes his head back and forth slowly. Then, cradling the bottle in his palm, he goes to face House.


When Wilson enters the living room, House opens his eyes and raises his head. His gaze falls on the bottle Wilson is carrying; he looks quickly away.

"You're detoxing," Wilson says quietly, and waits until House finally, grudgingly, gives a single nod. Wilson returns to the couch then, and sits beside him.

"Why, House? Why now?" But Wilson's beginning to think he knows. He's tried everything else. Apologies. The phone calls, the emails I ignored. Paying me back the money he owed. Getting Cuddy to intervene. Even a private detective. This... it's all he has left--the only other friend he's got--and he's willing to give it up. He's giving it up, on nothing but a chance that it might make a difference. God.

Wilson stares in wonder at House, as if he's never seen him before. And maybe I haven't, not when it's been important, not when it might've meant something to him. And now Wilson's remembering those times when he'd allowed himself to go blind. Tricked himself into believing he was doing what was best for House. Tricked House into believing that Wilson was somehow better than he was, that Wilson's friendship was conditional. That House wasn't worthy of Wilson. He's killing himself to try to reach the bar I set for him, while I pass judgment and let him think it's all his fault.

"It's not because of you," House responds as if he's read Wilson's mind. "It's just... I just... I was proving I could." House ends with a gasp, and begins to retch again. But there's nothing left to come up, and after a few moments House regains control, says stubbornly, defiantly, "I'm not doing it for you; I'm doing it because I can."

Wilson knows what he has to do; they can deal with everything else later. He stands purposefully and looks down at House. He puts his hands on his hips and speaks in a business-like tone. "No you can't, not like this." He meets House's eyes, holds them with his own. "Nothing's worth this, House. And anyone who'd require this of you isn't worth it, either."

House frowns at him in angry confusion, but Wilson doesn't have to look very hard to see the quiet spark of hope that's sprung up behind the louder emotions. Oh, House, I'm so sorry.

"You still have injectables here, right?" Not waiting for an answer, he turns and heads straight for the last known location of the gray metal lockbox.

"Don't," House says strongly, and Wilson, box in hand, stares at him in surprise.

"House, you're hours away from needing hospitalization--if you don't need it already. We've gotta get you out of pain, get some fluids into you. We've got to treat--"

"We don't need to do anything," House interrupts. "I'll be fine. Thanks for stopping by, though--always good to see an old... an old... yeah." House looks away, struggles to catch his breath.

Apparently, they're going to have to deal with some of it now.

Wilson sets the box on the coffee table. He considers sitting next to House on the couch, but instinct tells him this isn't the time to encroach into House's personal space, so after a moment he perches uncomfortably on the edge of the table himself, facing House directly. "Why?" he asks again, knowing why, hating the anguish in his own voice. But he owes it to House to listen.

House is studying his face closely; Wilson knows he's weighing the odds, wondering if it's safe. Wilson looks back at him unguarded. Whatever House has to say, Wilson knows he deserves it. But there's no way he could've predicted, no way he could have readied himself for what comes next.

House is finished pretending a strength he doesn't have. His voice is almost inaudible; Wilson strains to catch the words. "The pain... the pills... maybe you were right. Maybe the pills changed me. And maybe I can... get off them, try something else, and..." House pauses and his eyes drift away from Wilson, fix on the ceiling. "Maybe we could... be okay again."

Wilson has to swallow hard before he speaks. "I was wrong, House. I was wrong. God knows, we've spent enough time rehashing all your sins, but I've committed a few of my own. When Amber died, I... it was easier to tell myself it never would've happened if you... if we weren't friends. You're a pain in the ass. You suck all the air out of any room you're in. You think the world revolves around you. Yeah... you're reckless. You're selfish and egotistical, and sometimes you're even dangerous, but you're also--why are you smiling?"

"Weirdest 'apology' I ever got," House says faintly.

Wilson smiles back. "Sorry; force of habit. What I'm trying to say is, you're who you are, and... that's good enough."

"No; I've changed. Before the leg, I--"

"Before the leg, you were still a pain in the ass. But we've both changed. We've made mistakes, said things we didn't mean, did things that weren't..." Wilson's voice trails off, but the sound of his regret hangs heavy in the air between them.

House is watching him warily, trying to process what he's saying. Wilson wishes he could give him all the time he needs, but House's health--or lack thereof--is just as critical an issue.

"House, you trusted me once. And I... I betrayed that trust. Hell--I abused it, twisted it, I... I used it like a weapon, and... I almost killed you with it."

Wilson stops speaking, because what he's seeing now isn't the man who's in front of him. It's that same man five months ago, strapped unquestioningly into that cold, unyielding chair. Sitting there, waiting to maybe give his life for me--like he thought I had a right to it, just because I asked. No fear... He was so frail, so broken... I was the only one who could've protected him then--

Wilson shakes his head to clear it--no time to wallow in guilt now, but maybe a chance to do things differently. He pulls the lockbox over to him, but he keeps his eyes on House.

"I have no right to ask you to give your trust back to me now; I know that. But I'm asking anyway. I'm asking you to forgive the choices I made, to forgive me. I need you to let me help you."

As he's been speaking, Wilson's been opening the box, preparing the medication, watching House watching him, waiting for House's permission to help him. Now, House's eyes are on the syringe, and Wilson's out of things to say.

Finally, some of the tension leaves House's body, his eyes soften, and he nods. Wilson stands slowly and helps House lift his legs onto the couch, holds him in an almost-hug as he lowers his head gently onto the pillows. And only when he's certain that House is as comfortable as possible, Wilson kneels by his side, picks up the syringe and reaches for his arm. Then, as gently as he can, he slips the needle in. No fear.


Two hours later, House is sleeping peacefully. He's managed to keep down a few ounces of Gatorade, and Wilson's beginning to relax. He sits beside him and reaches quietly to House's wrist for a pulse. As he nods his satisfaction and begins to pull away, House's fingers close around Wilson's wrist. Surprised, Wilson tries gently to untangle them--but they tighten even more. Must be having some sort of dream. He's exhausted; hate to wake him. Wilson tries again to loosen the fingers without disturbing House, but then House whispers his name. The tone is anguished, pleading.

Wilson frowns. Something wrong? "House?"

House opens his eyes, doesn't move his hand. An expression of disbelief crosses his face as he regards his friend, keeping vigil at his side. House licks his parched lips. His voice comes out rusty and broken. "Sticking around?" he asks.

Wilson reaches slowly into the pocket of his jeans and holds up the key. Then, making sure that House is still watching, he tucks it securely back into his pocket. He covers House's hand firmly with his own. "Go back to sleep," he says softly. "And by the way, you're still an idiot."

House's eyes are already closing. "Yup," he agrees as he drifts off again, the ghost of a smile on his face.