A/N: Final chapter! Thanks again everyone for your kind reviews. I very much appreciate you taking the time to leave me a few words of encouragement! If you've been lurking to date, this is your last chance to give me a little love!
Wilson was in his office seeing out his last patient of the day, a tiny, frail woman who was about to attempt one last ditch round of chemotherapy, when he realised the shouting was still going on. He'd become aware of it about halfway through the appointment, but then raised voices from next door were nothing new – or unexpected. However it wasn't normal for them to go for this long. Curiosity made him leave his notes for later and head down the corridor to see what was going on.
He was somewhat surprised to find House's team all sitting quietly in the conference room. The shouting was coming from House's office, where House stood, behind his desk, yelling into the phone.
Wilson stuck his head into the conference room.
"What's going on?"
Foreman rolled his eyes, Chase didn't look up from his crossword, and Cameron gave him a worried look.
"He's on the phone to a cardiologist from Chicago. They've been arguing for half an hour," she said.
"A patient, I think,"
"What do you mean, you think?"
"Our current patient has kidney failure, a swollen liver, migraine headaches and has lost his hearing," Foreman said exasperatedly. "The one thing he doesn't have is anything wrong with his heart."
Wilson shrugged. "Maybe I'll see what's going on."
"Better suit up, Chase got scorched earlier for trying to interrupt," Foreman said.
Wilson grimaced. "Thanks. Noted."
He made his way around to the office door and paused a moment before entering. The yelling continued and it was clear the argument was about a diagnosis.
"What do you mean fluid around the heart? There was no fluid detected by the ultrasound and no—" The other party obviously interrupted at that point and House let them speak for barely five seconds. "—You're a moron! What do you think—"
Wilson took a deep breath and walked into the office. He tried to make eye contact with House, but although he could see that the other man was aware of his presence, he was choosing to ignore him. That was fine. Wilson had been yelled at by House like this before – that sucked. Listening to him do it to someone else could be kind of entertaining.
"Abnormal coronary artery? I didn't see that on any of the reports—" House finally looked at Wilson and rolled his eyes. Wilson smiled, now he was part of it. It was like being back in grade school when a weaker child was being picked on – there was always an element of malicious satisfaction in being part of the bully's team.
"Of course I know it's often undetected, but I doubt it would go unnoticed in an autopsy. They generally get a real close look at the heart then."
Wilson frowned. Autopsy?
"Fine!" House bellowed, holding the phone away from his ear in order to better yell directly into the mouthpiece. "And I'm cancelling my subscription to JACC. With morons like you on the editorial board, if I want to know about chests I might as well read Playboy!"
House threw the phone back into its cradle with venom. His eyes flashed with anger and a vein clearly pulsed in his temple. He fell back into his chair, breathing heavily.
"House, calm down, you're going to have a stroke!" Wilson said, honestly concerned. "Your blood pressure must be through the roof!"
"I need a drink," House muttered. "Fucking idiot surgeons. What would they know?"
"You need to calm down."
House took a few deep breaths and then sprang up from his chair and began stuffing his iPod and a few other accoutrements into his backpack. He opened a desk drawer and grabbed something from inside that he shoved into the inside pocket of his jacket. Once that was done he opened the adjoining door to the conference room and barked a few commands to his team before he opened his office door and headed out into the corridor.
"You coming?" he said irritably.
Wilson stood up, confused, but curious to find out what was going on. "Sure. I just have to grab my things."
Wilson was quick in gathering up his belongings and shutting down his computer, he could just about feel the vibrations of House's impatient foot-tapping from the corridor.
The trip to the bar was conducted in silence, Wilson surprised that House chose the grimy, dark watering hole around the corner from the hospital. Not because it was grimy and dark, but its proximity to the hospital made it less than desirable by House's usual standards. He must really need that drink.
"Whisky?" Wilson asked.
"Double," House answered, heading straight for a booth along one wall.
House took a seat and sank into the booth, his mood filthier than the mouldy corner where the vinyl of the seat met the timber surrounds of the frame. He was angry, yes, in the way that only idiots could truly raise his ire, but it was more than that. Frustration, irritation, and something dark, wrong and unnameable that was eating away at his gut. Had been for a long time, now. Ever since—
"Here you go." Wilson slid their drinks onto the table and flopped into the other side of the booth heavily. "So what was it that some cardiologist did to deserve the five-star House treatment?"
"Forget it," House muttered.
"You disagreed over a diagnosis," Wilson mused, "but then that's a daily occurrence for you. So what's different this time? Sounded like you were talking about an autopsy, so maybe he . . ."
House could see as awareness dawned, Wilson's jaw going slack, his eyes widening in disbelief and then what appeared to be a combination of embarrassment and shame.
"House, are you still trying to diagnose Grace?"
House shrugged. "I guess." In a way he wondered why it had taken so long for someone to cotton on to what he was doing. If not Wilson then Cuddy, if only because of the international phone bill he was racking up consulting all these so-called specialists.
"Oh House, I'm sorry, I didn't realise . . ."
House shrugged again. It wasn't like he wanted to make a big deal out of it. He just wanted answers.
"I should have paid more attention, I should have been more aware of how you were feeling," Wilson went on.
House grimaced, Wilson's self-flagellation was fun to watch, but he didn't have the patience for it at that moment. He quickly downed the scotch.
"So who can I try next?" House asked. "I've burned bridges in cardiology on almost every continent. Know anyone good in South America?"
"House," Wilson sighed and House knew he was in for a lecture. He wasn't quite sure why he'd let Wilson listen in, why he'd let him figure out what was going on. Perhaps he was getting tired of it. Tired of the seemingly never-ending search for a solution.
That had never happened before.
"House, I thought you agreed? Grace's death was one of those things; those awful, tragic things that don't necessarily have any explanation. I thought we'd decided this was finished with."
"You might have."
"Do you honestly think anything you could have done would have made a difference?"
"I could have . . ." House blew out a breath impatiently. He wasn't going to do this. He wasn't going to go on in a self-pitying rant like some pathetic idiot.
He couldn't shut up the voice in his head. If only he'd taken his stethoscope – hell, grabbed one from one of those idiots who had them hanging around their necks all the time – and listened to her chest, taken the time to listen, really listen, the way no-one else had.
"House? Listen to me for once. You've never been a 'what if' kind of guy. You treat a patient, if it works great, if it doesn't, you jump straight into figuring out what's next. You don't stop to chastise yourself for getting it wrong the first time. That's what makes you so good at what you do. And such a pain in the ass to work with," he added with a chuckle. Then his expression sobered. "So I don't get what's with this guilt about Grace. You weren't her doctor – you couldn't have been, even if you'd wanted to. We won't ever know if some diagnosis, some different kind of treatment, might have made a difference. Because it happened House. She's gone. It's too late."
House was silent. In truth, he was a little shocked by Wilson's harsh words. He'd expected platitudes, reassurance, sympathy, not to be told the stark reality. Wilson used the word guilt. Was that what it was?
"Get me another drink," he ordered, because Wilson looked set to continue his diatribe.
Wilson shook his head but did what he was told, returning with two beers. House was about to complain about the substitution of beer for a strong single malt, but Wilson didn't give him a chance.
"How is Lara doing?"
House thought about it. Without realising he was doing so, he smiled. "Actually she's pretty good. She's still sad, has her moments, but I think she's really worked through things. She's—" Getting on with her life, House had been about to say. What did that mean for him?
"And what about you?" Wilson asked, in unknowing echo of House's thoughts.
"I never had a life in the first place Wilson, you know that." The jape was the only way House could find to respond.
Wilson gave him a wry smile. "House, I don't know if you realise it or not, but you have more of a life now than you did before. At least, I'm figuring that from the fact that you're far less available for drinking. And, sometimes, you even seem to look forward to leaving work."
House snorted. That wasn't true. Was it? Uncomfortable, he changed the subject. "I caught Cameron and Chase looking—"
"House, you have to promise me you'll stop harassing cardiologists. At some point you'll end up rubbing the wrong person the wrong way. Then they'll make an official complaint. Cuddy will get involved and it'll all get messy."
"Since when did you care about . . ." With a start, House realised that he didn't want to be talking to Wilson about this. He wasn't the one who understood – who really understood.
"Thanks Wilson, but I have to go." House felt as if some pieces of the puzzle had clicked into place. Not all of them, but enough.
"Go where?" House could tell from his friend's voice that he was still concerned.
"I have to go see Lara."
It was funny, House caught the tiniest whisper of jealousy from Wilson. Perhaps he was upset that, for once, he wasn't the solution or saviour to House's problems. House thought he probably should be glad of the respite.
"Up for a drink tomorrow night instead?" he asked, offering an olive branch.
Wilson smiled. "Sure. Say hi to Lara from me."
Not really sure why, on the way to Lara's place House stopped at a florist shop and bought a large sheath of pale pink roses. Something about the petals reminded him of the velvet softness of Grace's skin.
He walked awkwardly to Lara's door, balancing the flowers in one hand, and knocked.
Lara was surprised to see him, but stepped back to let him in. "I'm just in the middle of baking a cake for Larissa's—"
"Here," he said, roughly pushing the flowers into her arms.
"Oh!" She looked down at them and smiled, unknowingly doing exactly what he had done in the flower shop moments ago – she rubbed a petal between her fingers, testing the smoothness. "Thank you, they're beautiful."
"Do you want to have more babies?" he asked bluntly.
"Uh," Lara looked at him, confused, then shook her head slightly. "I think you'd better come in."
Belatedly House realised he was still standing on the front step, not even inside the apartment yet. It was just that he had so many important things to say. He followed her inside and sat down in his favourite armchair.
"Just let me finish something in the kitchen and I'll be right back." Lara put the flowers down on the table and disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, returning with a glass of water. "Here, you look like you could use this."
"Thanks." House took the water and drained it, then watched as she sat down on the sofa nearby. He pierced her with his glance, wanting, needing, her answer.
"What . . . ?" Lara began, clearly wanting to know the why behind the question, but something in his expression obviously made her clearly think the better of it. He wanted answers, not more questions. "No, I don't want to have another baby. I didn't want to have children at all and that's one of the things that made everything so hard for me. I felt guilty, because when Grace died it felt like punishment for not wanting her enough in the first place. Greg, you have to believe me, I loved her more than life itself and if I could swap my life for hers I'd do it in a second. But no, no more babies. Grace is my one and only." Her eyes welled with tears, but she blinked them back. "I do want to be the best Aunt that Larissa and Paul's baby has ever seen. You know, the kind that lets the kid eat junk food and watch all the TV that her parents won't."
House sat mute for a while, letting her words sink in. "I understand."
"I know you do." Lara gave him a watery smile.
"I need to live here, or I need you to live with me," he said abruptly.
"I realised that I feel better when you're around. Even if you are crying."
Lara gave a short laugh. "You can be decisive when you want, can't you?"
"Yes." He reached into his jacket and pulled out the ultrasound photograph. "Here. I'm sorry I took it without asking."
"Did it help?" she asked, taking it from him and looking down at it with a sad smile.
"No. No, it did not. It's back to the drawing board." House grimaced. "Again. There's a guy I've heard about in Cairo, he wrote a journal article about cardio-pulmonary disease in infants. He might be worth a try."
"Well so far I've tried London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, Johannesburg, Sydney, and Tokyo. I have to look further afield, outside the usual hubs."
Lara rose from the sofa and put the ultrasound photo on the table next to the flowers. Then she went to his chair and sat on the floor at his feet, taking his hand in hers and staring up into his frowning eyes. "Greg, you need to stop," she said quietly.
"I need to know."
"Why? What will it change?"
"It will change how I feel," he said stubbornly. "It will . . . end it."
"No, it won't."
"I need to know," he repeated. "So I can stop thinking about it," he added quietly.
"You won't. Knowing or not knowing, you won't stop thinking about her. And you shouldn't. She was your little girl, Greg. I know it's my fault you didn't have more time with her, and I'll regret that for the rest of my life, but she'll always be part of you."
House sat quietly, thinking for a moment. Then he waved Lara's hand away to get up and pace the small living area.
"Death is random and meaningless," he said after a while. "I know that. I've seen it too many times not to know that. I just . . . I hate that her death was meaningless. Pointless. Her life brought her nothing."
"Oh Greg," Lara said, shaking her head. She stood up and faced him, stopping him mid-pace with her hands on his chest. "Her life wasn't meaningless. It was the fullest life someone could possibly have in the short time she was with us. She was loved by two people. She gave us a daughter we'll never forget. And . . . she brought us together."
House looked down into Lara's face.
"But—" he began.
She reached up and put a finger against his lips. "Shh. Wait. Think about what I just said. I'm gonna go get the cake out the oven and I'll be right back. Then I want to ask you something – there's a job I have to do and I need your help." She grabbed his hand and led him over to the chair, pushing his chest lightly to encourage him to sit down. He did, and then watched as she disappeared into the kitchen.
House let out a long breath and with a sinking feeling he began to realise that Lara was right. What was worse, he realised that he'd known it all along.
Knowing what killed Grace, what caused her death, wouldn't be some miracle that would erase the entire incident from his life. Knowing wouldn't make the pain go away. It would be just another piece of information about the tiny baby whose arrival had spread long and deep ripples into every part of his life.
And Wilson was right. She was gone. What ifs and maybes were pointless. It would be hard, but he was going to have to let it go. This puzzle, perhaps the most important of his life, would have to be left unsolved.
Could it be? That the great Dr House would leave one case file open?
Lara returned from the kitchen and House couldn't help smiling at the smear of flour on her shirt front.
"There's something I've been putting off," she said, reaching to the top of the bookshelf and pulling down the box that House knew held all of Grace's things. "And you know how good I am at that," she added, smiling ruefully.
"What?" he asked, frowning.
Lara opened the box and carefully pulled out a smallish, dark grey, rectangular container. She smiled, a weak, tearful smile.
"Will you help me say goodbye?"
They took Lara's car and drove past the university, turning down Mercer Road and then into Princeton Battlefield State Park. The trees were turning, proclaiming the Fall with their reds and golds and oranges.
After parking the car, they walked a little way into the park. They passed a couple of family groups of happy picnickers, children running and yelling, adults relaxing with a glass of wine and that faint sense of disappointment that heralded the eventual return of winter. None of them had any idea of the heartbreaking ceremony House and Lara were about to undertake.
They were standing underneath a large oak tree, its branches curved elegantly overhead, leaves crackled underfoot.
The box was ugly, House thought. Its rough plastic surface gave no indication of what it contained. But then he gave himself a mental shake. It wasn't like what was inside was worth anything. It wasn't precious. It wasn't Grace.
Lara tried to remove the box's lid, but her fingers shook. She held it out to him. "Can you?"
House took the container and pulled the lid off. His hands were shaking too, but he tried hard to conceal it.
"What do you want to do?"
Instead of answering, Lara put her hand over his on the box and tilted it until the grey, grainy sand inside began to pour out. Together they spread the coarse dust around the base of the tree until it was lost in the earth, mingled with the dirt and the leaves and the roots and the sparse blades of grass.
"This is her tree now, it's Grace's . . ." Her voice caught and she couldn't continue.
House bent down and kissed her, their lips meeting and holding, eyes closed, each breathing life back into the other. Their kiss lasted a long while, then Lara buried her head in his shoulder and they held each other, watching as the light changed and shifted, listening to the leaves sweep against each other in the breeze, the faint chatter and laughter of the oblivious picnickers.
"Thank you," Lara whispered after a moment.
House nodded then swallowed hard. "You're right. I have to stop."
He felt Lara's head tilt slightly in a nod, then she lifted her head and kissed him again.
"I love you," Lara said, pulling back only slightly; House could feel the words as well as hear them.
"I love you too," he said against her mouth.
She stepped back a little further to look up into his eyes. "I would love to live with you, but promise me we'll never get married?" she asked, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears, grief and new-found joy.
House chuckled and pressed his lips to hers before pulling her tightly into his arms. Her cheek nuzzled against his chest and he rested his chin on the top of her head.
"No way," he said. "I hate weddings."