Cuddy knocked on the door of Wilson's apartment. She shifted from foot to foot while she waited, wondering if she should have called ahead. Finally the door opened and House stared at her, neither welcoming nor repentant. "I thought I might find you here," she muttered.
"Good for you. You found me. What do you want?" He didn't step aside to let her in.
"I dropped by to see if Wilson needed anything." She peered over his shoulder, trying to see if Wilson was covering up evidence of their usual childish behaviour while House distracted her.
"Checking to make sure he isn't playing hooky?" House demanded. "Did you think he was faking it? Shirking his responsibilities?"
She hadn't seriously thought that, but she bristled at his tone. "You mean like you? You can't just leave the hospital and expect your team to cover for you."
House glanced at his watch. "Seems to me they did a pretty good job, if it's taken until now for you to track me down."
"I had better things to do than chase after absentee department heads."
"And I had better things to do than sit in my office waiting for lab results."
"Oh, right. Like hanging out and watching television with your best friend. That's not what I pay you for, House."
"I don't care what you think of me," he said, his voice harsh with anger. "But he deserves better than that from you. When was the last time he took a sick day?"
She didn't know. She'd been able to give him a two-month leave after Amber died because he hadn't taken a sick day or extended vacation for as long as she could remember. House might lead Wilson astray from time to time when he was at work, but he always showed up. And even his participation in House's schemes was with her tacit consent, as long as it kept House out of worse trouble. "Is he all right?" she asked, beginning to worry.
House finally stepped aside. "See for yourself," he said.
There was no sign of Wilson in the living room. And the only signs of House were a few files spread over the coffee table. No empty pizza boxes, no game consoles, no DVD covers with dubious titles. She hesitated, and then followed House around the corner to the master bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, but the lights were off and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
House nudged her forward with his cane and she moved to the side of the bed, looking down at its restlessly sleeping occupant. Instinctively she reached down and felt Wilson's forehead, looking sharply at House when she registered the fever. "How high?" she whispered, her hand dropping to check his pulse.
"104.1, last time I checked," House whispered back. "It's been getting higher all day. The Tylenol knocked it back a bit earlier, but it started to spike again a little while ago."
Cuddy looked around and saw a basin and cloth on the nightstand next to a pitcher of water. She soaked the cloth and wrung it out, then laid it on Wilson's forehead. He moaned at the touch, his eyelashes fluttering slightly. Cuddy stroked his cheek with the back of her hand.
"Amber," Wilson muttered, leaning into her touch.
She didn't snatch her hand away, but couldn't stop herself from flinching. House noticed. House noticed everything.
"It could be worse," he shrugged. "He could've called you Mom."
Cuddy drew the cloth across Wilson's face, wiping away beads of sweat as quickly as they formed. "Do you think we need to admit him?" she asked.
House shook his head. "Not unless you want him to sulk for weeks about it. His temperature always shoots up like this when he's sick. Last time the wicked witch of west Princeton called me in a panic, thinking he was dying." He smirked, but there was no humour in his voice, and no spark in his eyes as he watched Wilson shift restlessly.
Cuddy frowned, feigning disapproval at House's favourite nickname for Wilson's third wife, though she hadn't particularly liked Julie either. She tried to imagine House and Julie teaming up to look after Wilson. There had been no love lost between the two of them, but they had both loved Wilson, in their own ways. She supposed it was common ground of a kind. "You could have told me," she said softly. "I wouldn't have argued with you."
House chuckled mirthlessly. "What was I supposed to say? Give me the day off because Wilson's sick?"
"If you'd explained to me instead of getting your staff to cover and lie for you..." She shook her head in frustration. "He's my friend too. You don't hold a monopoly on worrying about him."
"Who says I was worried?" House blustered back. "I just wanted a day off to watch my soaps in peace." But when Wilson moaned again and moved his head from side to side, he leaned over Wilson. "Easy, chief," he murmured. "Settle down."
Wilson's lashes fluttered again and this time his eyelids cracked open. "House," he whispered, his voice nearly inaudible. "Is Amber here? I thought..." His eyes tracked around the room, memory flooding back when he saw Cuddy. "Cuddy? Is everything all right?"
She managed a reassuring smile, even though her heart was breaking. "That's what I came to see for myself. How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay," he replied, though he wouldn't meet her gaze.
"You're an idiot," House retorted. He gazed at Wilson with narrowed eyes, cataloguing his appearance. "Your head is killing you, it hurts to breathe, and you wish you could jump out of your skin."
"Why did you ask if you knew the answer?" Wilson said tiredly, closing his eyes again.
"I didn't ask — Cuddy did." He shook Wilson's shoulder. "Come on, sit up. I need to listen to your chest." He gestured for Cuddy to hand him the stethoscope while he manhandled Wilson upright. Wilson flinched when the cold metal touched hot flesh, but House was focused on what his ears picked up. "Breathe deeply," he ordered. This time Wilson flinched with pain. "Again. Cough."
Wilson shook his head. "Hurts," he protested.
House rapped him sharply between the shoulder blades. "Cough," he ordered again.
This time, Wilson had no choice, as a coughing jag ripped through his body. Each paroxysm left him gasping for air, which set off another round of harsh, painful coughing. At last it tapered away and Cuddy poured him a glass of water.
"Try to drink something."
Wilson shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. "Not thirsty," he muttered.
"Too bad," she said, trying for a stern tone and failing miserably. "You're getting dehydrated." She looked up and caught House's eye. He frowned and went out of the room, returning a moment later with a glass of ginger ale.
"Drink this," he ordered, pressing the glass against Wilson's lips. "You need the sugar."
Wilson shook his head and tried to push the glass away, but House was unrelenting, tilting the glass until Wilson was forced to open his mouth to stop the liquid from spilling down his front. House waited until he swallowed, watched to make sure it would stay down, and tilted again. This time Wilson drank willingly and finished the glass with small, steady sips.
"Good boy," House said, with only a trace of sarcasm in his voice. "We'll wait a little while and then I want you to drink a full glass of orange juice." He shook his head when Wilson grimaced. "I don't want to put you on a saline drip, but I will if I have to. Or we can take you to the hospital and they won't give you a choice at all."
Wilson didn't reply, just rolled onto his side, facing away from House and Cuddy. House sighed. "Don't be stupid. You're sick. I know you hate this and I appreciate that the natural order of the universe has been shattered, but you need someone to look after you."
Few people could give Greg House a run for the money in terms of stubbornness, but apparently Wilson was a strong contender. He burrowed deeper under the covers, ignoring House completely.
"Let me try," Cuddy whispered. She sat down next to Wilson, and stroked a hand through his hair. "Do you remember last month when I had a migraine and you found me in the bathroom puking my guts out?"
"You followed Cuddy into the bathroom?" House exclaimed. "You dog."
Cuddy jabbed him in the stomach with her elbow. "You're not helping," she hissed. "Go get the orange juice." Gently she pulled at Wilson's shoulder until he reluctantly rolled onto his back, immediately covering his face with one arm. "You held my hair back," she continued softly, brushing Wilson's hair off his hot forehead. "And then you helped me back to the couch and took care of me until the meds kicked in." She brushed tiny circles around his temples, a faint imitation of the massage he had given her that had helped the pain recede. "And the entire time you kept telling me that everything was fine and that it was all right to let someone else be in charge for once." She smiled when he dropped his arm and looked up at her. "Were you lying to me?"
He didn't respond, but there was something so broken and vulnerable in his expression that it twisted her stomach. She saw House walk back in with the glass of juice, his expression grave, and didn't think he was any more immune to Wilson's pain than she was. "Will you drink the juice for us?"
He nodded and took the glass from House, holding it steady with both hands, and drank slowly, his brows knit in concentration.
"The pills, too," House said, tipping out a Tylenol-aspirin cocktail.
Wilson grimaced and coughed heavily into his elbow before meekly swallowing the pills with the rest of the juice to wash them down. House nodded approvingly. "I'll have you trained as a drug addict in no time."
"Not funny," Wilson muttered, lying back down and curling onto his side. He shivered. "Did you open a window?" he asked. "I'm freezing."
"Your fever's up again," House retorted. "Or is basic medical knowledge eluding you?" He frowned, looking worried. "A couple of hours ago he was out-diagnosing the idiots you let me hire. Cognitive dysfunction is indicative of delirium."
Mistaking her for his dead girlfriend was fairly indicative as well. "I'll go get another blanket for the bed. Where does he keep them?" She had no doubt House had mapped every inch of Wilson's apartment.
"I'll get one. I wouldn't want you to find where he hides his porn."
Cuddy straightened out the bedclothes, tucking them around Wilson. "How are you really feeling?" she asked softly when she saw that he was relatively alert and looking at her.
"All right," he whispered. "I think I might need tomorrow off, though."
She laughed and shook her head. "I think you'll need the rest of the week. I want your watchdog back as soon as your fever breaks, though."
Wilson squirmed until he was mostly upright. "Don't be too hard on him," he said. "It was my fault. He wouldn't have come over if I'd just called him."
"Why didn't you?" she asked, though it occurred to her that perhaps he had wanted House to come, consciously or not.
Wilson shrugged. "I don't know. I wasn't thinking much beyond making sure I covered my appointments. I guess I didn't think it was that big a deal."
She brushed his bangs off his forehead. "You have a high fever, James," she chided. "You're too sick to be on your own." Immediately she knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Whether it was the first name — the last person who'd called him "James" was Amber — or the ill-advised reminder that he was now alone, it caused him to look away and bite his lower lip.
He looked impossibly young and fragile, and while she knew it was an illusion, she reacted instinctively and pulled him into a hug. His face was hot and dry in the crook of her neck, the sweat burned away before it had a chance to form. His back muscles were taut under her hands, but then he relaxed and reached up and grabbed hold of her shoulders as if she were a life raft and he were drowning. She rocked him slightly as chills rippled through his body. "Shhh. It's all right," she murmured, stroking one hand through his hair. "You're not alone." His grip relaxed and he slumped against her, barely conscious.
House returned, a blanket slung over his shoulder. "Really, Cuddy. Seducing a sick man. That's desperate, even for you."
"Shut up," she snapped, her voice cracking. "Just shut up and help me. His fever's spiking." To her surprise he did as she asked, moving around to the other side of the bed.
"Let's lay him down," he said, taking Wilson's weight as she eased him off her shoulder. He settled Wilson gently on the bed and then reached for the thermometer on the bedside table. "104.9," he muttered grimly, scowling at the reading. "Up nearly a degree in less than an hour. It's show time." He snapped on the bedside lamp, casting a harsh glow over the bed.
"What are you talking about?"
Wilson's eyes fluttered open and closed and his cheeks were splotched with vivid red fever marks, but the chills had eased slightly.
"His fever either breaks or we're calling an ambulance." House grabbed the cloth and dipped it in the basin of water. "Go get another cloth and some more water. And grab the container of juice from the fridge. We need to keep getting liquids in him."
Cuddy rushed to follow instructions. There was no point in arguing. She could carry supplies in both hands. When she returned, House had pulled Wilson's t-shirt off and was sponging down his face and chest. Cuddy settled on the other side and added her own efforts to the cooling process. They worked quietly and efficiently together. She had to change the water several times, and when cool cloths didn't work fast enough for House, she made icepacks that they positioned in Wilson's armpits and groin.
He roused slightly at the sudden change of temperature and blinked his eyes open. His unfocused gaze moved lazily around the room until it settled on House. Recognition sharpened his expression, but his first words proved it illusory.
"Michael?" Wilson whispered. "Michael, tell Mom I can't go to school today. Don't feel well."
House flinched. "I will, Jimmy. You just rest and get better." He turned away, reaching for the cloth again, but Wilson clutched his shirtsleeve.
"Don't go, Michael," he cried. "You promised not to leave again."
"I'm right here. I won't leave you." He took Wilson's hand and squeezed. He glared at Cuddy, daring her to comment. "I promise."
Wilson blinked back tears and then nodded, closing his eyes again and drifting back into a restless sleep.
"Who's Michael?" Cuddy whispered. She'd met Wilson's brother several times, most recently at Amber's funeral, and she was sure his name was Peter. It occurred to her that she knew very little about Wilson, despite having worked with him for more than a decade. He had listened to her talk about her affectionately frustrating relationship with her mother, had supported her decision to adopt and written a reference letter that was both glowing and insightful, and yet she didn't even know the name of his first wife.
"Someone who just made me a liar," House replied harshly. He didn't elaborate and Cuddy didn't press. House might pursue gossip with the single-minded purpose of a Javert, but he could be surprisingly closed-mouthed when he chose. He checked Wilson's temperature again and shook his head. "No change."
"At least it hasn't gotten higher," she pointed out. But that was little comfort as Wilson continued to toss restlessly and mutter to himself, no matter when they did. They managed to rouse him slightly, and she slipped behind Wilson, keeping him upright while House force-fed him sips of water.
"Amber," he whispered, and she closed her eyes, knowing that if she looked at Wilson, or looked at House, she would start to cry. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice a little stronger.
"Why are you sorry, James?" she asked, the instinct to respond as Amber too strong to resist.
"You didn't get the job. You didn't get what you wanted."
She glanced up when House sucked in a sharp breath. The guilt that she'd looked for after Amber's death was etched into his face.
"Tell him I offered her the job if she would break up with him, but she refused."
Cuddy wrapped her arms around Wilson and hugged him tightly. She would deal with House and that little revelation later. "I got what I wanted," she said firmly. "You're more important to me than any job. House was just pissed off because he knew that."
House snorted, but didn't argue. At Wilson's next wistful words, however, he stood up and walked out of the bedroom.
"I wish you could be friends."
Cuddy remembered the custody battle and the punishment she'd imposed, and she remembered how Wilson had laughed when he told her about House and Amber changing bedpans and making hospital beds together. "I think they could have been," she replied, and without House to watch, she wept for all that might have been and all that was lost.
Wilson sighed deeply and slipped into a quieter sleep. When she checked his temperature again, it had dropped nearly a full degree, but still she held onto him until her tears dried.
House was sitting on the couch, a half-glass of bourbon before him, when she went out to check on him. He handed her the bottle and a glass when she sat down next to him, and she poured herself a generous measure. "I thought he was over Amber," Cuddy said when she couldn't take the silence any longer. "It's been six months." But it wasn't as if there was a time limit on grief. And while Wilson had seemed to be coping since his return to the hospital, she knew he wouldn't have let her see anything else.
"Wilson doesn't get over things — he just buries them so deeply that he never has to deal with them. Except that never works." House looked away. "He wouldn't take an antiviral, even though wasn't amantadine."
"Does that surprise you?" she asked, her heart aching afresh for Wilson. "I know it bothers you, but grief isn't rational."
"He stopped going to his support group. He thinks he's fine, but he's not."
Cuddy didn't bother asking how he knew that. She hadn't seen any suspicious bills from Diagnostics recently, but she suspected House still had that oddly charming PI on speed dial. "You have to give him time, House."
"I've given him time. I gave him two months to grieve alone, and then I gave him another two months to pretend we weren't friends any more, and now I've given him two months to convince himself that everything is normal again. Look how well that worked."
"It's the flu. Everybody gets it."
"Not Wilson. He's the first in line for a flu shot every year. He's got a disgustingly hearty constitution. Until it all catches up to him, and then I'm stuck playing nurse without a union contract."
"You did this with Julie?" Cuddy asked.
House smirked at the disbelief in her voice. "What part of that surprises you? Her, me, or the two of us together?"
What was most surprising was that he was the least surprising element. "Julie," she said finally, causing his eyebrows to shoot up in genuine confusion. "I don't pretend to understand your friendship, but I don't deny it either," Cuddy said. "You were capable of putting aside your dislike of Julie for Wilson's sake. If she could have done the same, maybe the marriage would have lasted."
Amber, she thought, might have been able to do it. She and House would have argued boisterously over courses of treatment, snapping at each other's heels like terriers defending their territory, but Wilson would have basked and flourished under the warmth of their combined attention. She wondered if Wilson's matchmaking efforts between her and House had been born from a desire for someone else to have the happiness that kept eluding him.
"Are you planning on staying here tonight?" she asked, glancing at House, who was far more comfortable in Wilson's home than he ever had been in hers.
House shrugged. "Not that it's any of your business where I spend my nights, but yeah. I don't break my promises."
Cuddy remembered what he'd said to Wilson in the midst of his delirium and nodded in understanding. "Do you need anything? Juice? Medicine? Porn?" She was rewarded with an almost imperceptible smile.
"I got the kids to stock us up earlier. Thirteen has great taste in porn."
There were too many things wrong with that sentence for her to know where to begin objecting. She could hear Wilson coughing in the bedroom, and her stomach clenched with worry. "Are you sure he'll be all right?"
The smile faded. "No. But he'll get over it. He always does."
She knew he was talking about more than the flu. "I'll go check on him," she offered, but House shook his head.
"Finish your drink," he said. "I'll shout if we need anything."
Cuddy hoped he meant that. Someone had to look out for Wilson, since Wilson was apparently incapable of looking out for himself. She'd always thought that House was the one who needed Wilson, but the few times she had talked to Wilson after Amber died, after he'd resigned, he had seemed diminished by more than grief. Without Amber, he had been without happiness, but without House, he had been without purpose. As for House, he had been almost giddy since Wilson's return, the happiest she'd seen him since the ketamine failed.
She took her glass to the kitchen, but left the bottle on the table. The fridge was indeed well stocked with juice and ginger ale, and she found a pot of leftover chili that she put on the stove to reheat. She checked the freezer and smiled when she saw a tub of ice cream haphazardly balanced on top of a homemade lasagne. Both House and Wilson had stocked up.
House walked quietly up behind her as she stirred the chili. "His fever broke," he said. "He won't be good for much of anything the next few days, but the worst is over."
He looked tired, but content, and Cuddy realized she hadn't seen him take a Vicodin or lean heavily on his cane since she'd arrived, despite all the time he'd spent on his feet. "Take tomorrow off," she said on impulse. "Wednesday, too, if you can keep him from coming in. I'll mark them down as sick days."
He laughed softly to himself. "No point in wasting them when you're actually sick."
The toilet flushed, and a moment later Wilson shuffled into the living room, bleary-eyed and sleep-tousled. "I'm tired of lying down," he complained, stretching out the length of the couch.
House rolled his eyes, but hurried over before Wilson could claim the remote. "Guests choose," he said, pushing Wilson's feet out of the way so he could sit down.
There wasn't room for three, but then there rarely was where House and Wilson were concerned. Cuddy decided to change the sheets and tidy up the bedroom. When she came out, they were still bickering over the selections on Wilson's TiVo.
"I'll leave you two to your dubious entertainment," she said. "There's chili on the stove. Don't let it burn."
Wilson struggled to sit up. "You should stay for some dinner," he said, dragging House over to clear room for her. "We're watching The French Connection."
"We're watching Hot Fuzz," House retorted.
Neither sounded appealing, especially when she had a meeting at seven the next morning. "Another time." She leaned down and pressed her lips lightly to Wilson's forehead, relieved to find it still cool and dry. House smirked at her, so she pecked him on the cheek before grabbing her coat to leave. He made a show of wiping his face in mock disgust, but when she was almost out the door, she heard Wilson call out, "Thank you," followed by a reluctant, gruffer echo.
She looked back. They'd compromised on Lethal Weapon and were watching intently, Wilson listing slightly against House's shoulder. "Night, boys," she said and closed the door behind them.