At the end of the day, Wilson went back to Amber's apartment. That was still how he thought of it: her apartment, not his, even when it had been theirs. He knew it was long past time for him to move on, but he had no idea where to go. He'd spent too many nights in hotel rooms and he couldn't go back to House's couch. That was his refuge from failed relationships, and this relationship hadn't failed, even if it hadn't lasted.
"The only wrong thing is to do nothing," Dana Miller had said, and the pop psychologist in him knew she was right. But that didn't make it true. He'd tried doing something: quitting his job — quitting House — but he'd only managed a few hesitant steps before he was reeled back in, an empty hook bereft even of bait.
Still, he tried again: washing the mug branded by her lips, giving her clothes to Goodwill, buying new sheets for the mattress he tried to pretend wasn't theirs, sheets that couldn't possibly smell like her no matter how many times he washed them. He kept her textbooks and journals, but got rid of the mysteries she'd read to relax. He erased her voice from the answering machine, threw away her toiletries and the vitamins that hadn't been vitamins, and told himself that he was making a fresh start.
The problem was, once he'd let go, he had nothing left to hold on to.
"I like what you've done with the place," House said, surveying the rooms stripped bare of accessories, the mantelpiece adorned only by a picture of Wilson and Amber smiling unsuspectingly at the camera. "Nice use of negative space."
Wilson was already regretting inviting him over for dinner. House had always been too good at seeing what wasn't there, even without the benefit of lamps on the end tables. "I don't have much of my own," he admitted. "I always gave my wives everything we bought together." He'd grown used to keeping the things that mattered to him in his office, separate from the rest of his life. Amber had made room for him wherever he'd asked, but he'd never been good at asking.
"When I said you were pathetic, I was obviously wrong," House mused. "You can only aspire to pathetic."
Wilson would have been insulted if he hadn't long since come to the same conclusion. "I should move out. The lease is up in April. I'll start looking."
"Don't be an idiot." House stumped over to the sofa and made himself comfortable, reaching automatically for the remote. The plasma TV was Wilson's, at least, bought to fill the too-empty hours during his leave. "This is a perfectly good place."
"I'm living in my dead girlfriend's apartment. You don't think that's a little creepy?" But House never missed an opportunity to pick apart Wilson's life, and he hadn't commented on Wilson's living arrangements since Amber's death.
"Not washing her mug was creepy," House said with a smirk that told Wilson he'd been holding back, but had now called open season on that little piece of insanity. "Not moving is practical. Your name is on the lease. It's your apartment, too." He rolled his eyes at Wilson's frown of disapproval. "I didn't need Lucas to find that out. Amber called the day you signed the lease. I had to give her bonus points for that."
Wilson had always suspected that Amber and House had kept a running score. He wondered what the final tally had been. He'd encouraged their rivalry, hoping, paradoxically, that it might bring them to an uneasy co-existence. It had worked too well. None of Wilson's former wives or girlfriends would have ventured out to collect House from the bar. House had told Wilson later that Amber had done it for him, but Wilson didn't think that was the whole truth. Amber had admired and respected House. In time, she might have grown to like him as well.
It still hurt to imagine what else might have happened in time, but it was getting better. Entire days passed when he didn't think of Amber, even as he sat on her couch and ate from her dishes. He made a note to buy a new set the next time he was shopping.
"My name's been on the lease of other apartments," he pointed out. "It was on the mortgage of the home I bought with Bonnie, but you told me to sell when she moved out."
"That was your lawyer, you philandering bastard," House retorted. "And it was probably the only real estate deal she ever made money on. But he was right. You were never happy there."
The corollary was unspoken, but Wilson heard it anyway. His chest constricted, and for a moment he couldn't catch his breath. He turned away before House could glimpse the fresh grief. "Dinner's almost ready," he said, keeping his voice steady with an effort. "Do you want a beer?" It was just a formality. House never turned down free food or drink. He grabbed one for each of them, leaning into the refrigerator for an extra moment to cool his face.
But when he turned back, House was standing up and frowning at his pager. "Gotta go," he said. "Patient coded. Bad news is the diagnosis was wrong. Good news is it was Foreman's diagnosis."
"You're just going to go? I cooked enough chili to feed an army," Wilson protested.
House was already heading for the door, though. "It'll keep until tomorrow, unlike my patient. Besides, chili is always better on the second day." House refused to cook for himself or anybody else, but that never stopped him from offering unsolicited advice and critique. "Add more chili peppers; you always wimp out." And on that helpful note, he left.
Wilson stood still a moment, and then turned down the stove, leaving the chili to simmer safely. He kept both beers, however, and drank them slowly, one after the other, as he sat by himself on the sofa, watching a movie that wasn't nearly as entertaining without a live commentary track. He thought about drinking a third beer, but made himself a sandwich instead.
House was right: the chili could use another day to cook. The heat would build from within, enough to satisfy even House. The last time he'd made chili, Amber had been alive. They'd had House over — another step towards rapprochement — and he'd bitched that it wasn't hot enough, but still went back for seconds and thirds. There had been laughter, between the sniping and jockeying for position, and Wilson didn't think he would ever be that happy again.
The next day, there was a new plant in Wilson's office, a scraggly, dying spider plant drooping on his desk. Wilson assumed House had picked it out of the garbage outside the hospital gift shop. It revived somewhat after he watered it, however, and once he'd cut away the dead leaves it was presentable, if not exactly thriving.
"It's hardly encouraging for dying patients," Wilson said casually, when House just happened to drop by. "I think I'll put it in my kitchen. Spider plants eliminate indoor pollution." House would deny involvement if Wilson tried to thank him outright, but he had to demonstrate that he at least understood the gesture.
"Good idea," House replied. "This place is starting to look like a jungle."
"It's comfortable, not clinical," Wilson replied, knowing that House needed to rebalance the universe with an insult. A couple of potted plants hardly constituted a jungle, even to someone with a decidedly black thumb. "My patients like it." He liked it, too. He felt more at home in his office than he ever had in any of his actual homes. Which was probably House's point. "I take it your patient survived to see another day."
"Reaction to the steroids, not minion incompetence," House said, sounding disappointed. "But we got a new symptom this morning — kidney failure — so Foreman's diagnosis was still wrong."
"Then all was not lost," Wilson said. "Are you coming over tonight? I need to know if I should pick up some more beer on the way home."
"Why do you even need to ask that question?" House pivoted away and headed for the door. "You should always keep your fridge stocked with beer."
It didn't answer the original question, but Wilson had to admit that House had a good point.
House also had a patient who refused to stay diagnosed, so the chili simmered another evening. Instead, Wilson ate the salad he'd made the night before and watched a documentary on killer whales. It wasn't an exciting evening, but it was relaxing. He was getting used to being alone.
There was another offering on his desk the next morning: a box full of books, each with his initials marked on the inside cover. He'd known that House was a packrat, but he'd had no idea how many books House had borrowed from him and never returned over the years. Most, he realized, had been lent during the months after the infarction when House had read anything to keep his mind occupied with something other than pain.
"Starting early on spring cleaning?" he asked when he caught up with House in the cafeteria.
"Reorganizing my bookshelves," House replied. "I needed to clear out the junk to make room for real books. Your taste in reading material is as crappy as your taste in everything else."
"Then there's no reason for you to steal my crappy lunch," Wilson replied, knowing that House would keep pilfering, regardless of taste, simply because it was his. "How's the patient? Did the board-certified nephrologist manage to make a diagnosis?"
"No, but the infectious diseases specialist found out about the gonorrhea the patient picked up in Thailand and hid from everyone, including Thirteen, who took his history. The couple that fails together stays together." House put his sandwich on Wilson's tray. "The idiot either didn't finish the full course of antibiotics, or never checked to make sure the quack he saw gave him real medicine."
"Lying about an STD. You must feel like you've won the Daily Double." Wilson added a chocolate chip cookie to his tray as a reward, and then tried to disguise it by getting extra pickles on his hamburger. "I take it you have your diagnosis now."
"Septic arthritis," House said with satisfaction. "The steroids made the infection run rampant, which caused the heart and renal failure. He's on good American antibiotics now and should be back to having reckless sex in foreign countries as soon as he can get his passport renewed."
"Happy endings all around. Does this mean I should heat the chili up while I restock my bookshelves or do you have to clean out your closet tonight?" Wilson thought of the clothes he had culled from Amber's closet and the space that even his own substantial wardrobe hadn't filled.
"That depends on what kind of beer you bought. I'm not drinking that crappy macro-brew you had in your fridge the other day."
"If you don't like my beer, you don't have to drink it," Wilson retorted, though he made a note to put the six-pack of Sam Adams in the fridge.
"You're a lousy host," House chided. "Your mother would be ashamed of you."
Wilson's mother was of the opinion that House was far too thin and did her best to fatten him up every time she saw him. "My mother raised three sons. She's used to catering to ungrateful, demanding bastards." But it wouldn't hurt to pick up some chicken wings to throw in the oven and some ice cream for dessert. House's mouth was more bearable when it was occupied with something other than words.
He was just taking the wings out of the oven when there was a familiar, insistent rap on the door. House had an innate sense of timing where food was concerned. "It's open," he shouted, kicking the oven door closed. He slid the tray onto the stovetop and grabbed a plate, arranging the wings around celery sticks and blue cheese dressing in a vain hope of introducing alternate food groups into House's diet.
He hadn't heard the door open, so he grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge and padded over to let House in. "You do have one free hand," he said, but then blinked when he found three diagnosticians for the price of one. Kutner and Taub flanked House, each holding an identical lamp.
"Most people just bring a bottle of wine or flowers," Wilson observed mildly. "Or are they your torchbearers?"
"Housewarming party," House said brightly. "I waited a year for you to throw one yourself, but apparently I have to do everything for you."
"Yes, you're right, I'm helpless in the face of social niceties," Wilson replied dryly. "No, wait. That's you." He gestured for them to come in, knowing that it was far too late to stop whatever madness House had set in motion.
"We're not staying," Taub said quickly, looking pointedly at Kutner, who had already put his lamp down on an end table and was wandering around the room. "We're just House's pack mules."
"At least stay for a beer," Wilson said, because he was an excellent host, no matter what House said. The horrified expression on House's face, when Wilson gave the Sam Adams to his fellows, was well worth an awkward evening. "I just took some hot wings out of the oven."
Kutner took the offered beer before House or Taub could respond. "I'm glad you kept this place," he said, and Wilson remembered that Kutner and Thirteen had searched the apartment for clues after they found Amber. "It's homey."
It could be, Wilson thought. "Were you cruising garage sales?" he asked, gesturing at the lamps. They reminded him of the rustic pottery that had been ubiquitous in the shag-carpeted rec rooms of his youth. They went with absolutely nothing else in the room. He loved them.
"You should see the deal I got on a box of eight-tracks," House replied. "I know you don't like to see how pathetic your life is, but some of us don't want to read by the light of the TV." He turned on the lamps, and Wilson had to admit the extra light brightened the room. "Aw, look. Jimmy's first fixtures," House teased, but he looked approvingly at the full bookshelf and the scattered keepsakes that Wilson had found tucked away in boxes.
Wilson grabbed two more beers from the kitchen and returned just as House snatched the plate of wings out of Kutner's reach. "I know five-year-olds who share better than you do," he chided, retrieving the plate and offering it to Kutner, who took one wing hesitantly.
"That's because they're small, defenseless creatures, whereas I have no need to play nicely with others to avoid having my toys stolen. I can survive on superior intellect and the ability to fire their asses if they piss me off. Drink up," he ordered. "It's adult time now."
"You can't just kick people out of my apartment," Wilson protested. "You guys are welcome to stay as long as you want. I've got plenty of food and beer to go around."
House shrugged and made himself comfortable on the sofa, crossing his legs on the coffee table. "Fine," he said, patting the cushion next to him. "Here, Kutner. Have a seat on the sex sofa."
It took a moment to sink in, but then Wilson realized that Kutner must have gone through Amber's laptop. Wilson wasn't sure who was more mortified, Kutner or himself — though judging by the speed at which Kutner finished his drink, it was a toss-up.
"We didn't see anything," Kutner stammered. "I mean we saw you, and Amber, but Thirteen turned it off before we saw anything." He grabbed Taub by the arm. "We should go."
Taub pulled free and calmly took a piece of celery and dipped it in the dressing. "There's a low dresser in that shop on Chamber Street that would go well with the room. You should check it out." He put down his bottle of beer, half-finished, and followed Kutner to the door. "Thanks for the drink."
Wilson nodded and smiled tautly, appreciating the attempt at deflection, but once they were gone he retreated to the kitchen, pretending to check on the chili. When he closed his eyes, he could still hear Amber's shriek of laughter as they tumbled off the sofa and out of the frame only a few minutes after they'd started filming. It had taken all afternoon to get what Amber considered a satisfactory take, but she had kept every clip.
He knew House hadn't intended to open any fresh wounds; he'd only wanted to embarrass Kutner in a spectacular new way. But House never considered collateral damage before he attacked, just dropped his bombs and admired the fallout. Wilson was used to House razing his privacy, but it was Amber's privacy, too, and now he had lost one more piece of her that he'd thought had been his alone.
He heard the door open and close and wondered if Kutner or Taub had forgotten something. But the apartment was suspiciously quiet, and when Wilson walked back into the living room, he realized House had left. The revelation that House knew about the video files had made him slightly ill, but House's departure was like a punch to the gut. Wilson wondered if his too-bright apartment could get any more empty.
The door opened again, and House walked in, as if nothing had happened. "I was waiting for Tweedledum and Tweedledumber to leave before I gave you this," he said, handing Wilson a rolled up poster. "Something to fill one of the gaping holes on your walls."
Wilson unrolled the poster. "Casablanca?" It was the 50th anniversary version, the one of Bergman and Bogart staring intensely at each other. He wondered where House had found it. "I'm surprised you didn't get Double Indemnity," he said, smiling to show that it was a joke, but the planes of his face felt wrong, and he didn't think it was working. "Barbara Stanwyck was a cut-throat bitch until the end."
House's attempt at a smile was no more successful. "That one's for my office," he said. "But that's not who she was to you. You let her be more than that."
Wilson hadn't let her be anything. He had only seen what everybody else had overlooked: the drive that had been passion, not just blind ambition, and a softness beneath the surface that had been another form of strength. He thought that House had seen it in the end as well. But it was lost to both of them now. "She didn't leave me to help her husband fight for Czechoslovakia's freedom," he said. "She died."
"You're right. I should have got you Love Story, and then I would have had one more thing to taunt you about every time I came over. My mistake. Sorry."
The fact that House hadn't done just that made Wilson realize he should be more grateful. He owed House — and Amber — more than self-pity. "Love means never having to say you're sorry," he intoned and then snickered, because laughter was always better than tears. "We never had Paris," he said softly. They didn't even have the Poconos. There had never been enough time to get away together.
"But you had Princeton," House said. "You had here. And you can get rid of all the furniture, paint the walls, and rip up the carpets, but that's not going to erase the time you had together. I don't know why you would want to. Forgetting hurts just as much as remembering."
Wilson nodded and rolled the poster up carefully. He would find the perfect place for it; one where he could remember or forget at will. "The chili's been ready for two days," he said. "It's about time we ate it."
"It still won't be hot enough," House complained, but about that, at least, he was wrong.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.