Warnings: Language, mild violence, references to canonical abuse.
Length: Long. 25,000 words, in four parts.
Summary: House's parents die unexpectedly. In the week leading up to the funeral, Wilson does what he can.
Disclaimer: Not mine, except for some of House's family.
Notes: So, yeah. I've been writing this, which started out from the very basic premise of "House and Wilson go to House's parents' funeral" for over a year. With certain things coming up on the actual show, I figured I should get it finished and posted before Doris et al entirely upstage me this week. This is set sometime after series 3 and disregards canon beyond that point.
It's a quarter after ten in the evening, and Wilson's still in his office.
He's been finding more and more reasons (excuses) to stay late, recently, citing an increased workload whenever anyone (House) asked, although statistically he's pretty sure there are no more cancer patients at PPTH than there have been before, his workload is the same as it ever was.
The thing is, before (before what he's not quite sure; before now, before this, before everything became impossible and he'd started to wonder exactly where he'd gone so wrong) he'd always had things to drag him away. There'd always be reasons to shoot off the last email of the day as quickly as he could, and leave on the dot at six every evening; places to be, promises to keep, marriages to uphold. However crappy and soul-destroying the marriages had ultimately been, he'd at least had the comforting illusion of purpose, a reason for being that extended beyond the walls of his office.
Now, all that's waiting for him is a too-short drive to an empty hotel room, and he's looking for any excuse to put off the inevitable moment when his key card clicks in the door, and he's faced with the reality of how really, irredeemably pathetic his life has become.
He barely registers the knock when it comes, so wrapped up in this pleasantly distracting spiral of self-pity.
When Cuddy appears, it doesn't come as much of a surprise. She's been working late too, more so than usual, and he has to wonder dimly if she's trying to avoid something just as much as he is. He'd dropped her off at home, once, after their theatre-date-that-wasn't-a-date, and just before he drove away he'd turned back, seen her standing at the door fumbling for her keys and she'd looked small and fragile and terribly alone, empty house looming vast and dark behind her.
He'd figured he was projecting, and maybe he still is. Cuddy's job is hardly low-maintenance and there's every chance she's working overtime for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with her emotional state. He's always been a little too good at noticing the cracks in other people, though, especially when it allows him not to focus on all the ways his own life is going to hell.
She doesn't look right, he notices, pale, and sad, and very serious.
"I've, uh. I've got bad news."
A thrill of dread goes through him and his thoughts leap immediately, reflexively, to House. If he didn't feel ready to vomit he'd have to laugh at his own predictability, how the fear's become so constant he barely notices it anymore.
"What is it?" He's surprised at how steady his voice is.
"I just got a call from Richard House."
For a moment his mind is completely blank, but there's something in the name that rings a distant bell.
"Richard—is that House's uncle?"
"You know him?"
"Uh, no. No, he mentioned him, I guess." An Uncle Dick had definitely come up, though he can't now recall any of the details beyond the fact that House had deemed his name well-earned.
"He'd already spoken to House," Cuddy explains, off his confused expression, "but I guess that didn't go so well, he thought he should call here…" She breaks off, sighing, steeling herself. "John and Blythe were in an accident this afternoon. Car wreck, two trucks involved, five other cars. They were both killed."
"God." The room spins, a little; of all the things he'd been expecting to hear, this hadn't even occurred. "God. How, how did—" But he breaks off himself because it's not important, he doesn't want or need the details of just how they'd died, the precise ways in which their bodies had broken, crushed under layers of glass and steel, maybe, shattered against hot tarmac.
"House knows?" he asks, finally, and Cuddy nods.
"Richard called his office to tell him, House hung up and his team said he left without an explanation. His car's not in the lot and he's not picking up the phone either, big surprise."
Again the fear, only half irrational, pounding red-hot in the pit of his stomach, clawing at his chest. He swallows.
"I'll try him again."
Even as he pulls the phone towards him he knows he's grasping at straws, that House is more than capable of ignoring calls at the best of times. He listens to the ringing; one, two, three, feels his heart sink as it goes to voicemail though he'd hardly expected anything different.
"House, it's me. I don't know if you're home, or not picking up, or—(ion the floor/i, his mind interjects, horribly)–or what, but I just wanted to…To uh. God." He rubs a hand roughly over his closed eyes, searching for phrases that won't come. The silence in his ear is deafening, mocking him and his sudden inability to form words, to say the things he should and he really, really wishes House would pick up the damn phone.
"Alright, this is pointless, either you're not home so you're not listening to this anyway, or you are home but you're choosing to ignore the phone, in which case you've probably not listening either, so…I'm not even sure why I'm leaving a message."
He's on the verge of hanging up when there's a soft click on the other end of the line.
"Been a while since you left voicemail. Are you always this pithy?"
He exhales sharply, surprised. "House?"
"Is that a question?"
"I didn't expect you to actually answer."
"I gathered. Figured I'd better dam the stream of consciousness before you rambled your way through the entire tape."
"Are you okay?"
"Peachy." His voice is distant.
"I just heard," Wilson says, uselessly.
"Yeah. What, was there a memo?"
"No, Cuddy told me. Just now. She was worried, your team said you just disappeared…"
House snorts. "Drama queens. It was way past six, I was off the clock." He's downplaying this for all its worth but his voice is betraying him, low and flat, and he sounds quiet, somehow. Smaller. Something tightens painfully in Wilson's chest.
"House, I—do you want me to come over?"
Silence, for a minute, and he waits with not-quite-bated breath for the brush off that doesn't come.
"If you want."
This is, he knows, the closest House will come to admitting he might want him there, and it's enough. It's more than enough.
"Alright, I'm leaving now."
The only response is a muffled click on the line, and he hangs up before he hears the dial tone.
He gets to House's apartment in record time (one thing he doesn't miss is rush hour traffic), radio droning in the background as he tries to ignore the tightening knot of dread in his stomach.
A year ago, maybe even less, he thinks this would have come easily to him. It used to be second nature, coping with crises, knowing what to say and how to be, how to react. His patients thanked him for terminal diagnoses, his most tenuous of acquaintances and distant relatives came to him, intermittently, for advice. People turned to him for solace, for a reliable shoulder to cry on and he accepted them willingly, let them lean on him until they didn't need to anymore because it didn't cost him anything, then, he didn't have the limits he has now.
His world has shifted, narrowed; people he used to know have drifted away or maybe been pushed out, without his even knowing it, sidelined to the point of non-existence because House is always the priority, the only constant, and he leaves precious little room for anybody else.
He used to know how to hold other people together. He thinks, once, he even knew how to hold House together, knew where to apply pressure and when to keep his distance, knew every wound and every weak spot like the back of his hand because after Stacy left he'd had to learn, there had been no alternative. Nothing's clear anymore, he's not sure he knows anything for certain and it's all he can do, now, to hold himself together.
He tries to stop thinking so hard, tries to clear his head as he pulls up outside the apartment, knocks, and has to wait less time than he'd expected for House to answer.
"You have a key for a reason, you know."
"Yeah," he replies, relieved, "and if you didn't answer, I'd have had to use it."
House stands aside, clearing Wilson's way into the living room that feels different, somehow, suddenly alien. He hasn't felt like a guest in House's apartment for longer than he can remember, it had felt like home on some level long before he ever actually lived here. Yet all at once he's awkward, standing stiffly at the threshold like a stranger.
"If you're waiting for me to take your coat…"
Irritated at himself, Wilson shrugs hurriedly out of his jacket and discards it on the piano stool, not taking his eyes off House who is, in turn, looking anywhere but at Wilson. After a moment he turns and heads towards the kitchen.
Not waiting for a response, House reaches for a glass and fills it from an open bottle of scotch. Wilson takes the drink without comment, though he can't remember when the last time was that House offered him anything stronger than beer.
"Nice," he says, a little hoarse, throat burning as he sips.
"'79 Laphroaig. Only bring it out for special occasions."
House looks at him then, their eyes meeting for the first time, and there's something in his gaze that shatters Wilson, combining with the warm trail of whisky in his chest to let him finally say the words he's been choking on.
"I'm so sorry, House. Jesus. I'm so sorry." He steps forward, arm moving as if to reach out but House is already turning away, shutting down, shutting him out.
"Yeah," he says, his face a mask, and Wilson's hand falls redundantly at his side. He watches House make his way over to the couch with the bottle, refill his own glass, and sit down heavily. A few moments pass in painful, deafening silence.
House makes a small, tired sound in the back of his throat as Wilson sits down beside him, refuses to look away.
"Which part?" he asks, as if admitting defeat.
"All of it. Anything."
"Thought Cuddy told you—"
"She didn't know specifics."
"How did she know at all?"
"Your uncle, after you spoke he called the hospital. Guess he thought they should know."
"Good of him."
There's a bitter silence, punctuated only by the sound of House draining his glass and setting it back on the table.
"So, you want the official report as given by the doctor who pronounced them both DOA? Her neck was broken on impact, she died instantly. He died in transit from multiple internal injuries and brain haemorrhaging. They were pretty vague on what actually happened, but apparently it started with a truck driver who'd had either a few too many Buds or not enough caffeine pills. He lost control of the wheel, truck slid a few yards to the side and it all went to hell from there. So to speak."
Wilson opens his mouth, struggles for a moment, closes it again.
"Do you need to call anyone?" he asks, finally. "Any other family, people who need to be told? I can—"
"No need. Dick will have told his wife, so I figure most of the east coat should be in the know soon enough. She'll be all over this by now, I wouldn't want to deprive her of the drama."
Wilson nods, figuring he probably doesn't keep numbers for most of the relevant people in any case.
He looks over at House, who's staring down into the bottom of his glass like it's about to tell him something vital, something explanatory. His shoulders are hunched, the lines and rough surfaces of his face spelling out more than words could, and Wilson has a sudden, intense desire to reach out, touch, do something.
"Been trying to figure out the last time I spoke to them. She called me sometime after Christmas, I think that was it."
Christmas. He can't think of it, even the word itself, without his mind moving to Tritter, to cold bus rides and thirty pieces of silver, the daily sense of slow, creeping dread, an empty pill bottle and paralysing anger. He remembers House through steel bars and wonders if he mentioned any of it to Blythe, if she'd had any idea, then of all times, just what was going on in her son's life. He doesn't really have to wonder.
"Last time they visited."
"At the hospital? What, almost—almost two years ago, you spoke to him last?"
He isn't, really, but the reality of it makes him sad in ways he can't really explain. Reaching absently for his glass, he tries in vain to remember the last time he called his parents.
House, to his surprise, keeps talking, filling in the details of his last conversation with his mother (largely small talk, nothing consequential), before moving on to other, less significant things; anecdotes, memories, all of them mundane and utterly unsentimental, told in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone that could have been mistaken for impassivity. His father goes almost unmentioned.
He'd never really considered going back to the hotel, but in any case it's too late now to be worth it, and although the scotch is making him drowsy he has less than no desire to sleep. House doesn't show any inclination to move either and so they remain, moving fluidly between speech and bouts of relatively comfortable silence, until the first pale threads of daylight begin to expand and they watch the sun rise in streaks of red and gold.
A few hours later he's dressing for work in House's bathroom. There's a part of him, a big part, that wants to take the day off, but he has five patients booked and a department meeting to head and House doesn't show any particular desire for him to stick around.
Faced with nothing to wear, he's less surprised than he should be to discover, at House's direction, a dresser drawer half-filled with items of his clothing: socks, underwear, several shirts, a belt he'd forgotten he owned. Some he recognises as things he'd half-accidentally neglected to take with him when he'd moved out, others he doesn't remember at all.
"You know, some people might be disturbed by a friend hoarding their clothes," he says mildly, walking into the kitchen to find House leaning against the counter with a mug of coffee.
"Not my fault you insist on washing your dirty linen in my apartment," House shrugs. "You left most of it when you moved out."
"I was looking for that tie for weeks, how long has that been here? Julie never forgave me for losing that."
"What, the paisley thing? You had a lucky escape." Off Wilson's look, he amends, "From the tie. Not the marriage. Although…"
They're startled into silence by the phone, which House leaves to ring until finally the machine picks up.
"Greg? Greg, it's your aunt Sarah. Are you there? I don't imagine you're at work, so call me as soon as you get this, it's very important. Richard says you hung up on him last night – which is understandable, you were in shock – but there are things we should discuss. Arrangements need to be made for the bodies, for embalming if there's going to be a viewing, I don't know how you feel about that—anyway. Please, give me a call back as soon as possible." There's a muffled click, a shorter beep, and deafening silence.
Both of them stare at the phone for a moment, eyeing it like a foreign object.
"She sounds nice," Wilson manages at last.
"Yeah, lovely woman. Three generations' worth of emotional repression in a ninety-five pound bag."
He's not entirely sure what that means, and he decides against asking.
"I should go."
"You gonna be okay?" He tries to keep his tone light. House gives him a look like the question's not really worthy of a response, which he figures is about as close to reassurance as he's likely to get. "Look you know where I am, call if you need—I don't know. Something."
"I'll try to get by." There's a tense pause, before House nods pointedly towards the door, letting Wilson off the hook. "Go on. Go save some lives."
"Right. Go pull some plugs."
He's almost smiling as he leaves.
By the time he gets to work, fifty minutes and three separate traffic jams later, any semblance of good spirits have evaporated. The sleep deprivation, staved off so far by sheer adrenalin, is beginning to take hold, and all he wants is to get to his office in time to drink a cup of mediocre coffee before his first patient shows up.
He closes his eyes as the glass doors close behind him, praying for strength. Opening them again, he sees Cameron hurrying towards him and turns pointedly away, picking up his pace.
"I don't…" he begins, but she's already fallen into step alongside him, undeterred.
"I'm so glad I caught you, I tried calling you at home but the switchboard said you were out. I wanted to—"
Something inside him snaps, quietly, he knows where this is going and he turns on her with an expression that's anything but friendly. "Cameron, it's not even nine yet, is it too much to ask to get across the lobby without being accosted? If you need a consult, go to Brown."
But she doesn't want a consult, he knows pretty well, and as she stops in her tracks he's already regretting his snappy response. "Sorry. That was…" He rubs a hand roughly over his face. "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Any, actually."
Her face softens. "You were with House?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I was. I guess you've all heard by now?"
"Cuddy called us last night," she nods, looking forlorn. "That's what I wanted to ask. How is he?"
"He's okay. Comparatively, I mean, he's okay. I guess." He's sounding less and less sure with every word, and he's grateful when she doesn't press him further.
"He stayed home?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think you guys are on your own." And that's weird, now he comes to think of it, the fact that House hadn't put up a fight, hadn't seemed to care one way or another about missing the day. For any normal person in his situation taking leave would make absolute sense, but for House to voluntarily miss work, with his team in the middle of an unsolved case, is strange. "How's the patient doing?"
"We've got him on methotrexate, but he's not showing much improvement. Which isn't that surprising, given that we aren't working with a diagnosis as such."
"Are you going to be able to handle it?" He can see dark circles under her eyes, her hair less immaculate than normal, and wonders if she's been here all night.
"Cuddy's assigning Foreman to the case for now, I'm hoping some new ideas will help."
She doesn't sound convinced, and Wilson winces inwardly at the awkwardness of the scenario. While Chase and Cameron had returned to House as diagnostic "consultants" which amounted to effectively the same job description with a significantly larger pay check, Foreman had moved on to a research position in neurology.
"Looking forward to that?" he asks, grimly.
"Yeah, I don't know. I don't have a problem with Foreman, I never did. Chase isn't thrilled, but if it'll help solve the case…"
She shrugs, looking tired. Wilson's struck by how much she seems to have aged since he first knew her, all the ways House has moulded and hardened her over the years, forged like metal in a white-hot flame.
"Well, I'm pretty up against it today, but if you need anything–"
He feels her hand on his arm, squeezing briefly as she turns to leave and his eyes burn suddenly, the small brush of sympathy nearly undoing him. He yanks his composure swiftly back into place, thankful that it's still early enough for the foyer to be quiet, and heads for the elevator.
On his way back from the cafeteria later, steaming cup and cellophane-wrapped sandwich in hand, he literally runs into a frazzled-looking Cuddy.
"Sorry," he apologises automatically, wincing as hot coffee sloshes through the lid onto his knuckle.
"No, my fault. Sorry. I was actually looking for you, do you have a minute?"
They eat together in his office, Cuddy producing a box of sushi from a small paper bag.
"House's patient is still deteriorating," she says, after a few minutes of comfortable silence. "Foreman thought encephalitis although the others had already ruled it out, Chase was convinced it was NMS but the patient's never been on antipsychotics, they butted heads for a while until both tests came back negative."
Wilson grimaces. "You're sure this was a good idea? Reassembling the old team?"
"Foreman has diagnostic experience, it's almost certainly a neurological problem – it just made sense." She sighs. "But no, I'm not sure it was a great idea. The ratio of bickering to productive discussion seems pretty uneven, especially without House…"
"I know." He pauses, sipping. "How did you convince him to take the time off? With a case unsolved, doesn't seem like him."
"Didn't give him much of a choice. I lied, told him the patient was improving and they didn't need him." She winces. "I don't know, at the time it made sense. I thought it was the best thing for him to just…stay home. Process. I thought if he couldn't use the case as an excuse, as a way to avoid facing what happened—I mean, he's going to have to deal with it at some point. I'd just rather it was now than somewhere down the line when we can't see it coming."
Wilson is silent; everything she's saying makes sense but he's still plagued by the thought of House alone in his apartment, mind working even more overtime than usual with nothing to preoccupy him but grief.
"Regardless of any of this, the patient's getting worse a lot faster than I'd expected," Cuddy continues. "I was acting as House's friend last night, which maybe I shouldn't have been, but if it comes down to a choice between him and the patient's life..."
"Right. And I can't see him thanking you for leaving him out of the loop, if the guy dies and he finds out after the fact."
Cuddy sighs, running a hand over her eyes. "I'll wait until the end of the day. If there's still no change, I'll call him in."
She leaves a few minutes later, leaving Wilson to pick at the remnants of his sandwich and stare at the phone. Their conversation has left him with a sudden, intense urge to call House, to check he's alright and not going out of his mind, not coming apart just yet, but he talks himself out of it, reasoning that he'll probably ignore the phone anyway.
It's an immeasurable relief when two o'clock rolls around and he's busy again.
When he arrives at the apartment that night he lets himself in without knocking, without really thinking about it. House is seated at the piano, not playing, his fingers resting lightly on the keys and he looks so close to peaceful that Wilson feels an odd pang of regret when he registers his presence, reverie broken.
"Hey," he says quietly, pulling his coat off. House nods, not looking up.
Before Wilson has a chance to open his mouth again, the phone rings, and something in the way House stiffens tells him this isn't the first time. He picks up.
As he could have predicted, it's another call from Aunt Sarah (her seventh, she tells him shrilly), and he shoots House a look across the room, swapping the phone to his left ear as she continues without any apparent need to draw breath, telling him she has to speak to House, there are things that need to be decided, as the primary benefactor of the estate he needs to see a copy of the will and speak to the family's lawyer about arranging distribution, and what are his feelings on the service, should they put a notice in the paper or keep it private, is a church inappropriate since John was an atheist, does he know whether they wanted to be buried or cremated, and how does he feel about a viewing?
Wilson wards off her queries as best he can given that he has no actual answers, but she's relentless, cutting him off mid-sentence.
"I'm sorry, who did you say you were?"
"James Wilson, I'm a…A friend of the family."
It's almost true, he'd known House's parents for years and Blythe in particular had seemed fond of him. He'd received a Christmas card faithfully each year, ostensibly from them both but clearly in her handwriting. Every year without fail it arrived, always one of the same four designs (snowman, reindeer, robin, holly leaf), and every year he would feel bad and resolve to send them one next Christmas. He wishes now he'd gotten around to it.
"Is Greg available? It's nothing personal, you understand, but I'd prefer to discuss this with him directly."
"Sure, of course." He looks over at House, who's eyeing the phone with a mixture of suspicion and great dislike. Off Wilson's look, he shakes his head once, deliberately, and Wilson winces. "He's, uh…Could I ask him to call you back? Now's not a good time, but I'm sure he'd be happy to talk to you in the morning." In the background House scoffs, and he hopes the lie sounds more convincing than it feels.
"Well, all right. If you would be sure and tell him to call first thing tomorrow. The funeral home needs to know what our plans are for the bodies."
After another few minutes of reassurances, he finally gets her off the phone and hangs up, turning to House with an accusing look.
"You ignored the phone? All day?"
House shrugs, nonchalant. "I was busy."
"Seven calls, House!"
"I had nothing to say to her."
"She's just trying to help. She's—"
"An interfering shrew who married my drunkard of an uncle for his money and has no emotional attachment whatsoever to either of my parents," House finishes flatly. Wilson closes his mouth, deciding against further inquiry.
"Look, okay, she's the devil incarnate. Whatever. She's still not going to leave you alone until you have this conversation."
Wilson throws up his hands in frustration. "Come on, you iknow/i. You've probably been listening to her give the same speech she just gave me, over and over through voicemail all day. She's asking what arrangements you want to make, for the funeral. For—for the bodies."
House's face hardens; he gets up, moving restlessly away from the piano, across the room, aimless. Wilson isn't surprised to see his limp a little more pronounced than usual.
Feeling oddly exposed, he folds his arms over his chest and looks around the room for no particular reason.
"Were you here all day?" he asks to House's turned back. He's standing very still by the window now, leaning heavily on his cane.
"I don't give a damn about the funeral."
He doesn't have much of a response to that, and it's off-putting in any case trying to talk to House in this stance. Statuesque but hunched, silhouetted in the window against the fading sunset, he looks like an image straight out of a collection of slightly pretentious photographs, all black and white, probably called something like "Intimations Of Solitude". Bonnie would've loved them.
In the absence of anything better to do, he heads into the kitchen with a vague notion of trying to scrape together something for dinner. House's supplies are more pathetic than he remembers – aside from a twelve pack, a jar of olives and some questionable cheddar that's mercifully wrapped in cellophane, the refrigerator is empty. The cupboards aren't much more rewarding, yielding only soup, peanut butter and coffee granules.
"Why bother keeping olive oil when there's nothing to cook in it?" he mutters, pushing the bottle aside in vain hope of finding something edible behind.
He starts, turning, and sees House leaning against the door frame with the barest hint of a smirk on his face.
"Lubricant. Works on door hinges, among other things. Handy. It's probably fine for personal use too, if you're into that."
Wilson rolls his eyes, abandoning his search. "That was really more of a single entendre. What do you actually eat these days? You know, on the nights you don't con me into buying you dinner."
"And lo, the Lord created the takeout menu."
"I mean you can cook, I've seen you cook before–"
"And He saw that it was good, and offered a half-hour delivery money back guarantee."
"-it's not like you're incapable, just lazy..."
"In evolutionary terms, cooking's going the same way as hunting. Give it a century or two, domestic kitchens will be obsolete."
"Humans," House continues, clearly enjoying himself, "strive to obtain the maximum possible result with the minimum amount of effort. You slaughter any cows lately? No, Wal-Mart did it for you. Once somebody figured out a better way, there was no reason for anybody outside of Alaska to go to the trouble of clubbing their own meat over the head anymore."
"Right, that's a legitimate comparison."
"It's a law of human nature, if there's an easier option everybody with the resources to take advantage will. Cooking takes time, effort, money, and it's totally unnecessary in modern society. It's only a matter of time before it gets phased out completely. Sad but true."
"You're assuming the food is the point! A lot of people find cooking therapeutic, the actual process of it, the stages of preparation – perusing the newest Marcelli's menu just doesn't have quite the same effect."
"And those people are doomed, according to Darwin. The fittest of the species figure out the most efficient ways to get what they need and conserve their energy, that's how they survive."
"Uh, not if they die a premature death from clogged arteries and malnutrition. You do know that noodles actually aren't one of the five recognised food groups, right?"
He's looking through one of the menus now, a Thai place he's pretty sure they've ordered from before.
"Because using half a metric ton of oil in everything you cook, that's healthy. At some point you're going to have to accept the fact that you're a dying breed."
Wilson laughs, then; it's part relief and part nervous energy, the absurdity of the argument overwhelming him momentarily, and though he's not looking at House he's pretty sure he's smiling too.
"Fine, okay," he manages, handing over the menu. "You're buying. And I'm getting groceries after work tomorrow."
As it turns out, the food arrives in just under a half hour, and they eat straight out of the containers in front of some god awful E! True Hollywood Story. The saddest part is he's pretty sure he's seen this one before.
After what feels like a long time, he finally asks the question that's been on the tip of his tongue for hours.
"You really don't care?"
"Broadly speaking? I try to hide the pain. It's a defence mechanism, really, every day's a struggle–"
"The funeral," Wilson interrupts softly, cutting through House's weak attempt at evasion. "It really doesn't mean anything?"
"I'm sure it means something to someone. The ritual. People like routines, they like patterns. Predictability gives the comforting impression that life isn't entirely random and beyond any of our control."
"You don't find that comforting?"
House shrugs, a gesture of indifference that doesn't quite ring true.
"No, of course," Wilson says, dryly. "You despise control. You love nothing better than feeling helpless, not knowing the answers. How could I forget?"
"Of course I want control," House snaps, "as much as the next sane person. Doesn't mean I feel the need to delude myself with some empty ritual, or pretend to care whether Mom and Dad's final resting place is six feet under or scattered over some picturesque ocean or, God knows, probably sitting eternally in a really tasteless urn on Dick and Sarah's mantel. It makes no difference, none of it's—" he breaks off, takes a breath like he knows he's been caught out, he's let too much slip. "The outcome's still the same," he finishes stiffly.
Leaning forward to deposit the container of noodles he'd stopped eating long ago, Wilson takes a while before responding, trying to choose his words carefully.
"Death…death's the ultimate loss of control. Reminds us how powerless we are, how much can be taken away in a split second."
"Mm. Am I paying extra for the pearls of wisdom?"
"I'm just saying. There's nothing wrong with feeling powerless. Doesn't even have to be a bad thing, if you can learn to accept it."
"If you're trying to convince me that this is a good thing, much as I admire the attempt…"
"No. No, that's not…what I was saying."
"So what are you saying?"
He opens his mouth, faltering for a minute, then stops. What is he saying? He's not sure anymore; none of this is coming out quite right and he knows he had a point, a good one even, but it's got lost somewhere along the way and igod/i he's just tired.
"I don't know. Maybe I don't really know what I'm saying," he admits.
House nods slightly, taking no apparent pleasure in the admission. Wilson drops his face into his hands for a moment, scrubs a hand tiredly over his face, bright ribbons of light dancing behind his eyelids.
"It's okay," comes House's voice from beside him, gentle and a little impatient. "It's…Look, you get to my age, funerals in the family become less of a possibility and more a probability. I've gotten off pretty lightly so far."
Wilson nods slowly, at once understanding the truth in the words and recognising their deceptive flippancy.
"I know," he says at last. "I just think you should let…I don't know. Let yourself do whatever it is you need to. Don't think too hard about it, don't try and analyse it or diagnose it or turn it into something it's not, just…give yourself some room."
He looks across at House, half-expecting some kind of retort, an eye roll at the very least, but he's regarding the coffee table in silence looking small and weary.
"And if that means taking no interest in the funeral, in the arrangements or any of that stuff, that's fine. Sounds like your family have it covered anyway."
"All I have to do is show up," House confirms flatly. "I do still have to do that, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think so."
Their eyes meet, then, the first time in a while, and for the longest time he can't bring himself to look away. He's always been a little bit obsessed by House's eyes, huge and wide spaced and piercingly, inconceivably blue; but this is something else, something in House's expression he's not sure he's ever quite seen before or ever should have seen, something raw and precious and hidden. He can't bring himself to look away.
House simplifies things by turning away first, abruptly ending the moment as he reaches for the remote and starts flipping channels.
"So what are we watching?" Wilson asks, grateful for the distraction.
"SoapNet. There's an OC marathon till ten."
"So that's what you've been doing all day."
They watch in silence, Wilson letting the words and images wash over him as the tiredness that's been threatening to take him over all day finally wins its battle. It's all he can do to keep his eyes semi-open, his lids beyond heavy and he figures he'll just rest them for a second.
"You know, if you were going to fall asleep and drool on my couch, you could at least have waited for a scene where Mischa Barton isn't wearing a teeny tiny string bikini."
Wilson jerks upright what feels like seconds later, blinking in confusion at the now-blank television screen.
"Really, what kind of self-respecting bachelor are you?"
"The kind that's been awake for forty hours," Wilson mutters. He's exhausted and wants nothing more than to get to bed, wherever that's supposed to be, and he realises suddenly that he's not sure what's expected here, whether he's staying or going.
His dilemma is solved when House, on his way to the kitchen says casually over his shoulder, "Couch is yours."
He sleeps better that night than he has in months, and though he'd like to attribute it to sheer exhaustion he knows there's a part of him that feels more at home here, on this lumpy couch with half-empty food containers inches from his face, than he ever has anywhere else.
He never sleeps as well as he used to, now; most nights he's just restless but sometimes, more often lately, there's nightmares. They're always painfully vivid, hyper-real, so much so that there's always a moment just after he wakes up where he's convinced it was all absolutely real, and even after he's recovered the dream stays with him, dread bleeding into his thoughts for the rest of the day, images burned like sulphur on the backs of his eyelids.
It's getting repetitive now, actually. House is always dead, and there's always someone trying to find the words to tell him. Sometimes it's Cuddy, sobbing, sometimes Foreman, grave and sympathetic with the slightest air of I-told-you-so superiority. Sometimes, inexplicably, it's Grace breaking the news, her eyes boring sorrowfully into him as she glows with an aura of something he supposes is saintly.
Once, it was him. A perfect mirror image of James Wilson, smiling sadly with warm, compassionate eyes and saying the same things he's said to a thousand desperate families. He's pretty sure any shrink would have a field day with that one.
It's been worse for the past year or so, he knows, after the shooting when he'd sat numbly in the same chair for hours and days and nights that blended seamlessly into one another, drinking endless cups of lukewarm coffee and listening to House's steady, respirator-enhanced breathing, clinging to the affirmation it provided. But then there's Christmas, House crumpled face-down in vomit on hardwood and he can still remember it now, the sickening tug in his chest as he'd vaulted the coffee table, numbly convinced for all of a second that this was it, this was the big finish, this was the way the world ended.
But tonight he doesn't dream at all, at least that he remembers, and he wakes up just before his alarm sounds at seven feeling tired, but oddly peaceful. House is still asleep, which he figures is a good thing, and he moves around the apartment as quietly as possible to avoid waking him. Before leaving, the blinking answering machine reminds him of something, and he scrawls a quick note on the back of last night's takeout menu.
See you tonight (with groceries).
CALL THE AUNT.
Several hours later Cuddy finds him in his office, tells him almost exactly what he'd expected to hear.
"We put him on vancomycin overnight. He started improving, was fully awake and coherent at one point, and then his heart stopped Now he's unconscious, completely unresponsive to stimuli, his liver's failing, his kidneys are already shot—" She closes her eyes in exhaustion, massaging her temples with one hand. "House is coming in now. I made the wrong call, I should have got him in sooner."
"At this point, does it even matter? Even if he figures it out…"
"It's probably too late, I know. But try explaining that to the family."
Several hours later, the phone rings. House had solved the puzzle as always but they'd wasted too much time for it to matter, the liver failure had led to a build up of ammonia in the brain which had, in turn, sent the patient into a deep coma he wouldn't come out of.
He finds House moments later, sitting perfectly still in his darkened office.
"Hey," he murmurs.
"You know, you don't need to do that."
"Lower your voice till you're basically whispering every time you talk to me. I'm not one of your terminal kids."
"I'll try to project in future," he answers mildly.
It's more a statement than an accusation, requiring no affirmation. Wilson looks away.
"It was Cuddy's decision to make. But…but we talked about it, we thought you needed space, that you shouldn't have to worry about the case when—"
"So, you guys figured a better morale boost would be to wait until it was too late for me to actually do anything, until there was no way the diagnosis was going to be anything other than a death sentence, then decide to tell me my patient was in a coma."
Wilson is silent.
"You know, I'm pretty used to you two dissecting me when I'm not around by now, but I did figure patient care might still take priority over—"
"It was your decision, and you know it," Wilson interrupts steadily. "You're not an idiot, you knew damn well the condition the patient was in when you left, and Cuddy isn't a good enough liar to convince you he'd made a sudden miraculous recovery against all medical reason. You chose to leave the case with your team. You chose not to come in yesterday, and that's what's really bothering you. Because for once in your life something happened to you that you couldn't brush under the carpet or rationalise away, you reacted like any human being would, and now your patient's dead."
"Thanks for the clarification."
"House, your parents—No sane person would go into work right after getting news like that. No one expected you to. You can't beat yourself up because your team failed."
House doesn't respond, his eyes fixed determinedly on the floor, and Wilson has an overwhelming sense that he's fighting a losing battle. Looking at House more closely, he notices for the first time just how utterly worn down he looks; pale, drawn, eyes bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles.
"Are you okay?" he asks, softly, taking another step closer. He can't remember the last time he'd seen House looking this fragile, like he's ready to shatter at the drop of a hat.
"I'm going home."
His meaning couldn't possibly be clearer; Wilson is not invited. He watches wordlessly as House gets to his feet, collects his wallet and keys and leaves, and for a long while afterwards he doesn't move, the crushing reality of returning to the hotel gradually setting in.
Eventually, the pins and needles gathering in his right leg force him to move, and he can't remember ever having walked this slowly as he makes his way down to the parking lot. The drive is over all too quickly, the room is emptier and more painfully impersonal than ever and he feels physically sick, suddenly, his chest tightening as he surveys the newly-made bed and bare off-white walls.
Stomach churning, his eyes move to the Zoloft packet on the bedside table, one more thing that was supposed to be temporary. In retrospect, skipping his dose for the last two days probably hadn't been his smartest move ever; he likes to miss the odd day here and there, some desperately immature desire to prove to himself he's not dependent, that he could manage just fine without them if he wanted to. Idiot.
He sits there on the edge of the bed after swallowing the pill, listening to himself take deep, calming breaths from the diaphragm, until the haze starts to clear and he can think straight again.
He falls asleep hours later, TV droning soothingly in the background, and though he doesn't wake up again it's an uneasy slumber. He's always dimly aware of the room around him and the twilight state gives way, eventually, to yet another unnervingly vivid dream, another version of the same tired nightmare.
House is dead, and this time he can't be sure who it is that's telling him, there's no specific figure he can make out, just a voice from the other end of a phone line, maybe, whispering compassionately into his ear just beyond his line of vision.
Everything around him is a fog and there's only the voice, an absurd mixture of misplaced medical terminology and recycled platitudes, dream-logic dictating the speech so it's half-senseless, meaningless diagnoses recited as if by rote; ithe liver's compromised, there's bullets in the bloodstream, poison in the mind and he's beyond our help now. Can't reach him anymore, you did your best. We did everything we could.
I'm sorry for your loss.
He wakes up in a cold sweat, heart pounding sickeningly against his ribs, and spends the rest of the night trying to remember how to breathe.