The ride back to Princeton was interminably quiet and tense.

Wilson tried to engage House in conversation a couple of times, his curiosity driving him to try to find out what House planned to put in his own version of the contract, but House remained stubbornly silent, refusing to discuss it.

So the two of them fell into a sort of heavy, uneasy silence which lasted long past the two hour drive. For a couple of days, House was evasive with Wilson, keeping his distance and refusing to answer any questions Wilson aimed in his direction. When Wilson asked him how much progress he had made on the contract, if he might be ready to discuss it, House simply told him that it wasn't finished yet, and he would let him know when it was.

The awkward tension was starting to get to Wilson. He couldn't stand living with House, working with him, seeing him nearly every moment of every day, yet barely speaking, hardly touching, for days.

The second night, Wilson decided to do something about it.

House was sitting on the couch, frowning thoughtfully and writing in a spiral notebook, when he walked through the front door. House didn't even look up, just kept writing, without so much as saying a word.

But… maybe that's a good thing… if he's almost done with the contract…

Wilson slipped up behind House, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pressing a tender, enticing kiss to his neck. House's only response was a deepening of his frown as he leaned away from Wilson in annoyance, tilting the notebook so that the writing inside was outside Wilson's range of vision.

"Almost done?"

For once, Wilson's low, slightly hoarse voice sounded not all that interested in the contract, and much more interested in House himself, as he placed a hand on the side of House's neck, holding him in place so that the next time Wilson tried to kiss him, he couldn't pull away.

"No," House declared pointedly. "Nowhere near it. So go jerk off in the bathroom and leave me alone, 'cause you're not getting any until I am."

Frustrated and embarrassed by House's blatant rejection, Wilson withdrew immediately, his voice low and resentful as he muttered, "You're doing this to punish me, aren't you? Taking forever to finish this contract? Just because you want to get back at me for…"

"No, I'm taking forever to finish this contract because I want it to be right."

Wilson was quiet for a moment, his dark eyes troubled as he ventured in a soft, uncertain voice, "Is it too late? Have I… have I ruined this? Is that why you… don't want me to touch you anymore?"

House seemed to seriously consider the question for a few moments before correcting him in a surprisingly gentle voice, finally focusing his attention on Wilson as he set the notebook down.

"No. It's not. You haven't. And I do."

He reached out and caught Wilson's hand, pulling him back just as he was about to move away from the sofa. He waited until Wilson sullenly met his gaze to continue in a soft voice full of more sincerity than House usually offered.

"I just think that… until we know exactly what we're doing… we shouldn't be doing anything at all."

Wilson stared down at House, surprised by the calm, reasonable manner in which he was actually communicating for a change, and touched by the amount of thought he had obviously put into it.

Maybe… maybe he's finally taking this seriously…

"Okay," Wilson agreed softly, moving back toward House and wrapping an affectionate arm around his shoulders. "You're right. Of course you're right. Take as long as you need, and I'll keep my distance until you're ready."

They stayed like that for a moment in silence, before House raised an eyebrow, turning his head to give Wilson a dubious look.

"Wilson?"

Wilson blinked, suddenly understanding.

"Right," he sighed as he removed his arm abruptly and backed away from behind the sofa, his hands raised in front of him in a gesture of surrender. "Right… I'll just be… somewhere else…"

He shook his head in rueful embarrassment as he retreated to the bedroom. House's words made perfect sense, and Wilson wanted to respect his boundaries – but it seemed that he couldn't go five seconds without touching him, despite House's request. And to make things worse, Wilson had no idea how much longer it would take House to finish his contract.

This is going to be harder than I thought…

****************************

Wilson didn't even venture a glance in House's direction as he walked through the door the following night, wanting to spare himself the temptation.

"It's finished."

Wilson's eyes widened in surprise, and he stared at House for a long moment in disbelief.

"It's finished?" he echoed in a tone of cautious excitement, as if not quite daring to believe that House was telling the truth. "Really?"

House nodded, a slight, almost serene smile on his lips, though his eyes were solemn and intent.

"You ready to hear it?"

"House, I've been ready since you started working on it."

"Oh, please," House muttered, rolling his eyes – but there was a flash of amusement in his eyes, and his tone was good-naturedly teasing. "Deny you for a few days, and you're a useless wreck. Slut."

"Yeah, well, so's your mom," Wilson replied almost automatically, his tone eager and impatient as he moved quickly to sit down on the couch beside House. "Go ahead. I'm ready."

"Okay."

House drew in a deep breath, glancing down at the pages in his hands. Wilson noticed that the words were printed on plain white paper, and felt a surge of affection for House with the realization of how much thought and effort he had put into the contract. There was a rare openness and vulnerability in House's eyes when he raised them to meet Wilson's gaze.

"First of all… I don't want to be with you… just so you can fix me. If you're going to be with me… I want it to be… because you want to be with me… even if the things you don't like never change." House paused, glancing down at the paper again, though he was not reading it as he added softly, "I know… I'm not exactly a prize… but… I still don't think that's too much to ask."

Wilson felt a sharp pang of remorse, blinking back the moisture that suddenly formed in his eyes. He shook his head, his voice barely audible as he affirmed, "No. No, House, that's not… too much to ask…"

House continued as if Wilson had not spoken, desperately trying to move past the thick emotion in Wilson's words, his own voice hurried and trembling slightly.

"So… my rule number one is… no more… holding the threat of leaving me over my head. If I do something that genuinely hurts you, or… or this relationship… then, fine. You've got the right to walk away just like you would in any other relationship. But... if you want to be with me, then you want to be with me… whether we continue this whole dominant-submissive thing or not. If at some point down the road I decide… that I don't want to do this anymore… you can't just… walk out on me because I don't want to be under your complete control."

Wilson was too choked up to speak, his guilt intensified by the subtle note of hurt and reproach he heard in House's voice. House was looking at him, waiting for his response, so Wilson nodded quickly, swallowing back the hard knot in his throat to whisper a hoarse, gentle response.

"Okay…. of course…"

House continued, a nervous edge to his words betraying his doubt as to whether or not Wilson would accept his next condition, and Wilson prepared himself for an argument.

"The second rule is… you can't try to dictate exactly how many pills I take… can't hold me to a specific schedule…"

"House," Wilson interrupted in a voice that was gentle but warning, "the pills were my main concern from the beginning. I don't want you to hurt yourself…"

"If you think I'm taking enough pills to hurt my work performance, the people around me, or… or me…" House swallowed hard, not quite looking up at Wilson, his face flushed as he continued, "… then… you can punish me. In… an acceptable manner that I've described further in this contract. That's… that's fine. But…"

House hesitated, looking up at last to meet Wilson's eyes… and the traces of desperation and fear Wilson saw there nearly took his breath as House went on, his voice strong with conviction despite his misgivings.

"… my Vicodin should always be in my possession. You can't… withhold it from me – not because you think I'm taking too much of it, and definitely not as a punishment. You can punish me in other ways if you think I'm taking too much, but you can't… control my meds. Because… I'm the only one who knows… my own pain. I'm the only one who can really know… how much I need. Can you… can you deal with that?"

Wilson couldn't look at House, acutely aware and ashamed of how carelessly he had handled House's pain. Of course, House was right. There was no way that Wilson could really know how much pain he was in, how much Vicodin it took to alleviate that pain. How could House possibly trust him, under the constant threat of having his pain neglected or ignored?

And yet… he's still willing to let me punish him for taking them… just as long as I let him take them… God, what am I doing?

"Of course I can, House," Wilson agreed, his voice low and carefully controlled. "Of course."

House raised a dubious eyebrow in Wilson's direction, wordlessly reminding him that no so very long ago, Wilson had not been nearly so willing to make such a concession, but then continued on without belaboring the point.

Or maybe he's afraid if he gives me the chance I'll change my mind…

"And rule number three… the last one…"

Wilson was surprised at that, having expected House to take much greater advantage of the opportunity to control the situation, but he kept silent, waiting for House to go on.

"It's about punishments. I'll… submit to whatever punishments you decide to use, with certain… conditions." He handed Wilson a smaller sheet of paper, folded in half, but didn't look up at him as he explained softly, "That's a list of items that are never under any circumstances to be used to punish me."

As Wilson began to read the list, his vision blurred with tears, as his mind took the vague suspicions it had harbored and processed them into fact, with the added evidence of the list in his hands.

Belt, switch, hairbrush, ruler…

There were several other items as well, all of which were in keeping with the dark, terrible theme in Wilson's mind – the explanation for House's extreme reactions when he had attempted to use such items in the past – and it only served to increase Wilson's guilt. As Wilson quietly folded the paper again and handed it back to House, nodding his agreement, House continued, his tone hushed and subdued.

"Also… you can never hurt me bad enough that it's noticeable the next time I'm in public. And you can't ever use… my leg… against me. Can't… hit me there, or… or anything like that…"

Horrified, Wilson looked up at House, eyes wide with shock. "House," he gasped, shaking his head in dismay. "Surely you don't think that I would ever…"

"No," House reassured him in a halting voice, shaking his head, his eyes focused on his own knees. "I just… wanted to be clear. You never think that… anyone would… do those kinds of things… and yet, those things happen. People do things you'd… never think they'd do."

Wilson was silent, fighting back the impending wave of emotion that threatened to take him under at the thought of how House had come by that painful knowledge. He did not want to give way to his tears in front of House, especially when those tears were for House, and would surely be perceived as pity, and rejected with disgust. He swallowed back a sob, struggling to get control again before finally speaking.

"Well… I wouldn't," he insisted, his voice low and determined. "I can do the things that you've asked, House… and I'll prove to you that… that I would never do a thing like that to you." He reached out a tentative hand to rest on House's knee, relieved when House allowed the gesture. "I… I love you."

House merely nodded, but Wilson saw the words returned in his grateful but guarded gaze. After a moment, House ventured to speak again.

"I think as long as I know that… if it gets to be too much… if I can't handle it… I can end this part of our relationship… without ending… our relationship... and that… I'm going to be in control of my own meds… my own pain, then… I can do this." He was silent for a moment, looking up to meet Wilson's eyes as he amended, "I want to do this."

Wilson shifted closer to him on the sofa, wanting to offer comfort and reassurance for the vulnerable uncertainty he saw in House's eyes. When he placed a gentle hand on House's waist, drawing him closer, he was relieved that House responded to the gesture, edging closer to him as well. Wilson raised a hand to cup the back of House's head, and House yielded to his touch, his lips parting to accept Wilson's kiss.

When they finally drew apart, both were breathless, aching with the desperation of their recent enforced separation, and the fear of the failure of the relationship that was coming to mean so much to both of them. They clung to each other, as if trying to cling to what was between them and protect it against the turmoil that was threatening to destroy it.

"We can do this," Wilson insisted, muttering the words against House's mouth between fervent kisses. "We can do this, I know we can…"