Sorry for the delay. Thank you, everyone, for reading and commenting. You made the story a joy to write.
Thanks to my excellent betas, bookfan85, bishojo_kitsune, and leakey_lover.
Also, my thanks to hwshipper for creating Wilson's salt-of-the-earth oncology secretary, Nora, who is the inspiration for peppery admin, Bruce.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Never will be.
"Hey, West! Wait up!"
A voice cut over the heads in the crowd and struck its mark. West recognized the deep-chested tone before turning around. He'd hoped to avoid such a meeting, but it wasn't to be.
He saw Wilson standing near a short flight of stairs that separated the hotel's conference rooms from the lobby.
Nodding curtly up at the oncologist, West waited for Wilson to head for the ramp off to the side, but was surprised to see him walk down the steps in a normal leg-over-leg motion, albeit slowly and gripping the brass rail for support.
He was further amazed to see how well Wilson appeared as he drew closer. Fit and trim. Eyes clear and bright. Puffiness and rosy blotches no longer obscuring distinct cheekbones. For a moment, he wondered if this was Wilson's brother, but what would a bartender being doing at a medical conference?
Still, he couldn't help but tense up. The last time they talked was two years ago, when Wilson dumped him for House's phone number, and then for the actual grizzled man. It wasn't long before Wilson's resignation was the banner headline on the hospital grapevine. West kept to himself until Wilson gathered up his nameplate and posters and walked out the door.
But he had to admit he took some consolation in seeing Rayburn's reaction to Wilson's announcement. The director pouted and sulked for weeks.
Before Wilson opened his mouth, West took the initiative, "I see congratulations are in order. You're listed as head of oncology for Princeton-Plainsboro in this year's roster."
The approbation was swept away with a wave from Wilson's hand.
"West," said Wilson. "I caught your presentation on autoimmune and lupus. Brilliant. You gave the news crews enough sound bites to get the attention of the national media. Rayburn's gonna explode with joy all over his imported antique paneling."
He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Warm praise from Wilson. Totally out of character.
There ought to be a law about falling under someone's charm in less than ten seconds. After all this time, he should be immune to Wilson's mojo.
"It will be yesterday's news after your closing panel presentation tomorrow on cutting edge clinical trials." West returned the compliment. In the last few months, he had learned how to take flattery to a new level.
"You're right. You wouldn't believe the offers rolling in from Hollywood just on the buzz alone. It will be this summer's blockbuster," Wilson deadpanned. "So how've you been?"
Glancing quickly at his watch, West answered, "Fine, but can't talk to you now. I have to go, or I'll be late to Heller's seminar. We can catch up later." Pleased with his diplomatic deflection, he felt guilty as Wilson nodded, looking disappointed, before he made a one-eighty and started walking away. With 4000 attendees, he thought it most unlikely that they would bump into each other again.
Best to keep a distance since they had both moved on.
"West!" There was a hand on his arm. He looked back at liquid brown eyes dripping with concern. West had never witnessed this before.
"Why are you limping?" Wilson asked softly.
"You mean my ankle? It's nothing." West smiled wryly. "I was in Aspen this weekend skiing and did a helluva job spraining it. Gives me an excuse to keep my hotel mini bar stocked with ice." West wanted to kick himself with his good foot. He managed to skim over two sensitive subjects in almost the same breath – skiing and drinking.
He inspected Wilson's face for the trademark thunderclouds, but the man stood there displaying undisguised relief.
"Skiing? Wilson smiled ruefully. "This is a side of you I never knew. But I didn't give you much opportunity, did I?" He suddenly became serious. "I left Chicago in such a hurry we didn't have time to talk. Are you free tonight? I'd like to buy you dinner."
Against his better judgment, West couldn't help but give Wilson a hard time. "Did I hear correctly? You want to buy me dinner? As in, you're picking up the check?"
"As in, 'the treat's on me.' Yes. So I'll meet you at The Oaks dining room off the lobby at eight?"
"What's this? You know that's not the coffee shop?" West had some misgivings about spending time together, but shrugged them away. Maybe this would help him let go of the past and move on to the next step in his life. "Well, I wouldn't miss an opportunity to see you open your wallet for the world. I want to see the picture of Jack Benny in it, and watch the moths fly out."
"You've heard of Jack Benny? That's new." It was Wilson's turn to be mystified. "I can see we have lots to catch up on. How about getting together earlier at seven?"
As if on a first date, both arrived in fresh suits and ties, and a bit embarrassed to be caught showing up five minutes early.
The Oaks lived up to its name. Flickering tapers on the tables warmed the oak floors and paneling. The mandatory hunting scenes were spaced in pristine order around the walls, while crystal chandeliers highlighted the dazzle and gleam of goblets and silverware reposing on elegant tablecloths. A soft melody drifted over the diners from a disembodied string quartet.
When the maitre' d asked if they wanted a booth, Wilson nodded that it would be fine. The sumptuous leather horseshoes were along the back wall and up a level. He managed the two steps with reasonable ease.
Before Wilson could spread his napkin over his lap, West was asking, "Hey, what's with the prosthesis and the stairs?"
"I finally sprung for a microprocessor knee. Costs almost the price of an arm and a leg, or at least the price of my car." Wilson buried himself in the menu after adding, "It was House's idea."
And a good one. He didn't have to be as mindful when he walked, was less fatigued at the end of the day, and experienced less pain, which reduced his Vicodin use to the odd occasion. And an offshoot to those tangible benefits, it restored his self-confidence.
Of course, in return for giving in to House's nagging about 21st century technology, he had to tolerate "bionic man" cracks, and no matter how well he functioned in bed, he had to endure digs about bionic cocks.
"You won't ever have to take Viagra," House leered.
This information he didn't share with West.
The menus kept them busy until their drink orders arrived. A chilled martini for West, and a squat liquor glass filled with ice cubes and club soda for Wilson.
"You, uhm…" West put down his cocktail, and wiggled a finger at Wilson's drink.
"Yeah. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I've been dry for nineteen months." It was still as hard to admit now, as it was the first time, but he felt he owed West that much after all the crap he'd given him for nearly five years.
"For what it's worth, you look better," West said. "You're …different, too."
"You mean I'm not the same asshole you remember? Look, Nate, I'm sorry about that. I was a real son of a bitch and you never deserved---"
Just then the waiter returned, asking if they were ready to order.
West chose a modestly priced entrée, a top sirloin, but Wilson wouldn't hear of it, telling the waiter to make it a t-bone and bring all the fixings. He doubled up his own order, asking the waiter to delay preparing the additional meal until the end of theirs and packing it "to go."
Another brief explanation. "I promised House a doggie bag."
"House is at the conference?"
"Let's say he's in the hotel taking advantage of the amenities." And snooping. Wilson could have sworn he caught from the corner of his eye someone limping past the entrance a minute ago.
"House did come down to see your presentation, and only made two barbs under his breath, so I'd say he was impressed with your diagnostic skills."
West rattled the ice in his drink. "He couldn't possibly object to the way I thoroughly tortured my patients."
"No, that's when he became quiet. Said he wouldn't mind doing a consult with you."
"He's a hard act to follow," West observed.
Wilson concentrated on rearranging the silverware. He couldn't agree more. There was only one House. West didn't come close, but no one could.
Most people still found House's hospital persona abrasive, while Cuddy claimed there was an improvement. No one actually knew how different the man at work was from the man at home.
When they returned from Chicago, even Wilson was surprised to see a new side to House. A patient side.
More than a few mornings began with Wilson nursing a mother of a hangover, expecting House to voice his regret that he ever asked him to move back, but it never happened. Feeling guilty, Wilson vowed he'd stop drinking, only to break the promise by evening.
But one morning, he opened his eyes and discovered he was sprawled on the floor halfway between the couch and the hallway with no memory of what happened. His crutches in disarray not far from him. He got up and went to the bedroom and discovered House doubled over in agony, refusing help and not willing to explain what happened.
Nagging and coaxing bits and pieces of the story out of him, Wilson discovered he was the cause of House's pain. He was too slobbering drunk to make it from the living room to the bedroom on his own, and asked House for help. But he was so unsteady, he lost his balance, falling against House and knocking him to the floor. To make matters worse Wilson fell right on top of him, grinding the scarred thigh into the unforgiving hardwood.
When House found enough strength, he abandoned Wilson to his drunken stupor, and tried to get his scorching pain under control from the safety of his bed.
Almost as distressing was the fact that Wilson hadn't remembered any of it. He hovered over the white-faced man, attempting to check him over, but was helpless to do anything about House's agony but bring him icy compresses. Climbing into bed, he tried to spoon next to him.
The calloused shell that had surrounded Wilson for the last five years cracked under the weight of his emotions along with his voice. Tears escaped as he repeated over and over, "House, I'm sorry. I swear, it won't happen again…."
The head twisted around and blue eyes stared back at him. When House squeezed his arm and began to speak, Wilson thought the words would ease his guilt, but House said tonelessly, "Don't beg, and don't swear about things you have no control over. Can you leave now? I need time alone, then we can talk."
Those quiet words devastated and sobered him like nothing else could. He headed to the living room and tried to think calmly while fighting off rising panic. This second chance with House was the best thing in his life and he was drinking it away.
He didn't wait for House to make the first move. He returned to the bedroom, and packed a bag, "Can we hold off on that talk? I spoke to Cuddy. I'm going into rehab."
He was gone for months, first detoxing from alcohol and painkillers, then learning new habits. He returned to House hoping that as soon as they embraced, his drunken behavior from that awful night would be forgotten.
House was waiting for him with open arms, but there was a blunt edge to his enthusiasm. From the hollow hug, Wilson knew there was no "get out of jail free" card that was going to let him off easy.
House insisted that they pick up where they left off and talk. They lay down ground rules. "You're sober enough to listen now and know the difference between what you want and what you need."
House was right. Wilson knew what he wanted, and it was House. They set about constructing a new foundation for their relationship, cautiously building, brick by brick, a new infrastructure that was stronger than ever before. They were even able to strike a balance where Wilson could enable House's neediness more often than the other way around. Some therapists would claim it unhealthy, but it suited them like old slippers.
Wilson returned to the present when West cleared his throat. The server was preparing a tableside Caesar. Light conversation returned as they finished the tangy greens and moved on to devouring heifer-sized potatoes and elephant-proportioned steaks.
Other than the one sad, faraway look on Wilson's face, West was impressed to see him so vibrant and interested. He asked questions about Trinity and what he was up to. He thought he'd successfully skated over the parts about his personal life, until Wilson just came out and stated a fact.
"I hear you're in a relationship with Bruce's son, Jason. Mazel tov."
West almost choked on a mouthful of sautéed spinach.
A smile played around the corners of Wilson's mouth, "Blushing becomes you, Nate. So it's serious?"
West stopped himself from releasing an audible sigh. "Yes. This weekend Jason asked me to move out to Los Angeles. Says he has connections at Cedars-Sinai, and is setting up an interview."
"You said yes, I take it."
"I did." West shrugged. "The long distance romance was getting hard on both of us." He was struck by a thought, "Have you been speaking to Bruce?"
"I talk on the phone with her. She and House email." The previously missing dimple, lost during the drinking years, was back and making an appearance as Wilson smiled smugly. "She says she can't wait for the two of you to set up housekeeping. Then she can officially say you are her favorite daughter-in-law."
Relaxing, West responded, "Not hard to be the favorite when she has only one son and seven daughters. She made me promise to share my meatloaf recipe with them."
"Lucky women, or should I say, lucky husbands?" Wilson's eyes sparkled.
They were laughing and trading gossip by the time dessert arrived.
"Bruce doesn't like your successor," West disclosed. "Says Pecota hides behind paperwork and isn't a people person."
"My people skills were nothing to boast about back then, either," Wilson answered solemnly.
"You could have gone easier on the residents, but the patients didn't suffer for it. She says Pete's every move is based on dollars and cents. He refused to replace her broken electric stapler with a new one. Told her that a regular one would tone up her muscles and she'd lose a half a pound a year using it."
"The man's insane." Wilson rolled his eyes. "He's lucky she didn't staple him to his office door. He's gonna lose her."
"All the other department heads are courting her. She has lunch with a different doctor every day." West lowered his voice and spoke confidentially. "Orthopedics has a pool. Even I can't pry out of her which department she's interested in. I'm betting Rayburn grabs her up for himself. They've had some long lunches together."
Wilson's fingertips began bouncing against the table as he winked. "Hope you didn't place too big a bet."
"Holy crap! She told you and not me? I'm…I'm almost family."
"But you're not her employer." Wilson was enjoying his private joke, but decided West should be the first to know. "House and I have been talking to her. She's agreed to come work for the two of us. She'll be submitting her resignation next week.
"Said working for me gave her a taste for the unpredictable. She's disappointed that I've mellowed, but thinks House will make up for it. Besides, four of her girls live between New York and Maryland."
Stunned but laughing, West shook his head. "Perhaps House will let me work on a case with him when Jason and I visit her at the holidays."
When the check arrived, West made a grab for it, citing "old times," but Wilson insisted.
"Listen, Nate. One steak dinner doesn't make up for how badly I treated you while we were together. I want to make amends."
A rectangle of paper materialized in front of him. It was a check.
"It's for all the times you picked up my expenses." Wilson proffered a humble apology. "As for our relationship, it can't be measured with money. You were loyal and more than I deserved. I was a total jerk." Blowing out a breath, he continued, "No. Make that a first-class fucker…when I was out of bed. Tell me what I can do to make it up to you…."
"Forget about it, Jimmy—" West froze. He'd slipped and used the dreaded J word, but Wilson didn't bristle, only looked directly in his eyes waiting for an answer.
Nate placed his hand over his former lover's, giving a gentle pat, and moved it away. "Don't make me out to be saint. My jealousy got the better of me, and it wasn't all, 'I give and you take.' You gave me something I needed at the time - someone to take care of. And a lesson. A relationship needs equal footing between partners…and trust. When Jason showed up in my life, I was ready." He ripped the check into pieces and delivered the scraps to the owner.
"There are no debts between us. Let's call it even."
The meal wrapped up soon after, with the men indulging in warm handshakes and a few quick cuffs to each other's arms. They parted at the dining room entrance, comforted that they could look back at their relationship without any regrets or bitterness.
Even lugging a heavy shopping bag full of food for House, Wilson felt lighter. Not all his amends had gone so well, but this one meant a lot. Nate would always be special.
His sponsor had warned him, rejection should be expected. Some people would want nothing to do with him, and he should simply accept it. It wasn't an excuse to go on a bender.
At least his most important encounters went gratifyingly well. When he finally visited his parents, he did it with House by his side. The family knew he and House lived together before Chicago, but hadn't exactly jumped with joy at the idea. But his parents gave House a warmer greeting than they gave him.
He thought he'd become impervious to awkward moments as he explained to his prickly and offended parents about his drinking and why he had stayed away for so long.
He was wrong.
It was harder than he could imagine watching tears spill from his mother's eyes when she heard about his leg, or watching his father's granite composure crumble just before he turned away with an excuse to get something out of the study.
He ended his confession by telling them that he and House had set up living arrangements again, and was dumbfounded when his parents championed the idea.
His father said, "So you aren't a complete putz."
And his mother hugged him and whispered in his ear, "I only want you to be happy."
Walking out to the car, House summed it up. "You played that well, Jimmy. If you pushed the cripple card any more, they would have offered to throw us a destination wedding to Costa Rica."
Wilson's emotions had barely cooled down from the confrontation. He had only enough energy to shut House up with a passionate kiss.
The next time they all got together was to celebrate Passover at his parents' place. His brothers greeted them at the door, apparently told by his folks why he had avoided everyone. Ben said, "Look who's here, everybody. The Castaway volleyball made it to shore.'"
"Thanks for replacing me as the black sheep of the family, bro," Jonathan swung a genial arm around his shoulder. Turning toward House, he winked. "See you brought along your favorite shepherd."
Since that holiday, they participated in one or two family events a year. Just enough to keep everyone happy, and prevent House from whining and asking Cuddy for clinic hours to get out of going.
The chime of the elevator roused Wilson out of his reverie as it arrived at his floor.
At the hotel room, he knocked instead of using his key card. An irritated voice called out from inside, "What?"
"Room service. You called down earlier for Maalox, denture cream, and Preparation—"
Before he could get the "H" out of his mouth, there was a hand grabbing his tie and pulling him into the room.
"It's about time. There better be more than prune whip in that bag." House hustled the package out of his hand and looked inside before dropping it onto a small table.
Wilson eyed the flashy flat screen the hotel suite provided. He paused to take in the scenery. Two well-endowed women were back-to-back and straddling a man's torso, holding him down to the bed. He was obviously happily aroused by his predicament.
"How can you think of food when you're watching this?" He gestured at the TV.
"I'm starving, but not for what's in the bag, you idiot."
Wilson was immediately swept up in a searing, fiery kiss as he was captured in an iron-banded embrace. It was second nature for them to support each other with their good legs, so all he need do was supply the heat from his own desire.
Passion enflamed them. It was deep. It was thorough. But it didn't hold a candle to what they worked so hard to become in their relationship. Each one the half of a whole.
Their mistakes were left behind in the past.
They reveled in the present.
And as to the future:
Neither could walk in the other's shoes, but they would always follow in each other's footsteps…
…because it would always lead them back to where they belonged - each other's arms.
A/N: My thanks and love to everyone for following this story to it's conclusion, and for offering inspiration and encouragement along the way.
As always - any and all comments welcome.