"The preferred term is table tennis."
Wilson looked over at House, who was sprawled on the end of the couch. "It's ping pong."
House shrugged. "Whatever." He put his beer down on the end table, next to the lamp. "Ten bucks says Taiwan's still going to kick some major ass."
On the TV, two men had paddles gripped in their hands, their bodies in constant movement as the small white ball flew between them.
"Which one's Taiwan?"
"The good one."
Wilson watched a few moments longer. He hadn't taken off his coat, hadn't even unzipped it. He'd told Bonnie he was only going to be gone for a few minutes.
"I promise," he'd said before he left the house. "I'll pick up his food, drop it off and be right back."
"Why can't he pay for delivery like everybody else?" She'd held his keys captive in the palm of her hand, had grabbed them off the hook before he'd even hung up the phone.
"They stop delivering after eleven o'clock." Wilson held his hand out for the keys and tried to be patient, but worried the food would get cold while Bonnie dithered. House hadn't been hungry earlier, when Wilson had stopped by on the way home. His appetite had been unpredictable ever since they'd tried swapping out the Vicodin for Oxycontin. The experiment hadn't lasted long, but House's mood was taking a long time to snap back to its normal level of misery.
Wilson hadn't bothered trying to explain that to Bonnie. She already knew the last week had been crazy for both of them. For all of them. He checked his watch instead. The shop would be closing soon. "Twenty minutes. Tops," he'd said.
She'd stared at him a few more moments.
She'd finally opened her hand. Wilson had snatched the keys and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek, but she'd walked away. House's food was still warm when he picked it up.
"You going to keep that for yourself?" House asked as he nodded at the bag in Wilson's hand.
Wilson walked the rest of the way into the room and handed it over. House bypassed the rice and dug into some lo mien.
Someone scored on the ping pong match and the numbers changed to show that the guy with a red stripe on his shirt had taken a 10-8 lead. Wilson listened to the announcers updating the score.
"Is that Chinese?"
House shook his head. "Korean."
"Since when do you understand Korean?"
"What's to understand? It's ping pong. I can figure it out on my own."
"Whatever." House held out a container and and a pair of chopsticks. Wilson could smell the spices without even opening it. "Ten bucks on the guy from Taiwan," House said again. "You in or not?"
Wilson checked his watch. It had already been thirty minutes since he left home. It would be another ten minutes to get back even if he left now. Maybe if he waited a little longer, Bonnie would be asleep and wouldn't notice the time when he got home.
He took off his coat. "Ten bucks," he said.
Wilson woke to the sound of cheering.
It took him a few seconds to orient himself: leather couch under his back, scratchy wool blanket over his body, the faint smell of whiskey from the nearly empty glass on the table in front of him. The room took on a familiar shape in the dim light coming from the TV, which was half blocked by the person sitting in front of it.
"What the hell, House," he said. "I was sleeping."
House didn't bother turning to look at him. "So go back to sleep. You're not bothering me."
Wilson rubbed his eyes and propped himself up on his elbows. House was sitting on the edge of the coffee table, leaning toward the screen. "You call that defense?" he yelled at someone on the screen.
Wilson picked up his watch from the end table. "It's four o'clock in the morning," he said.
"Four fifteen," House said. "I missed the start of the game. Turkey already scored once."
Wilson blinked and forced himself to focus on the TV long enough to recognize the field and the players running across it. "I thought the World Cup was tomorrow."
"The finals are tomorrow. This is the third place game."
"And you woke me up at four o'clock --"
"-- to watch Turkey and," Wilson waved at the TV, too tired to try and read the score.
"At 4 a.m."
"You think if you keep repeating the time it'll change?" House pointed at his watch. "Oh, look. Now it's four-twenty."
"I was asleep." Wilson said. "Finally." He'd spent the past two nights camped out on House's couch, only dozing off for thirty or forty minutes at a time until tonight, when the combination of exhaustion and booze pushed him over the edge.
"If all you wanted was sleep, you could have gone home and made nice with Bonnie."
"I told you, I'm just giving her a few days to cool down."
"Like that worked so well last time."
The last time, Wilson had come home after three days at House's place carrying both flowers and a bottle of Bonnie's favorite wine. She'd thrown out the flowers, poured the wine down the sink, and he'd spent the next three hours listening to the list she'd written while he was gone of every mistake he'd ever made, starting with how he'd been ten minutes late for their first date.
"It'll be different this time," Wilson said.
House raised his eyebrows and turned back to the TV.
One of the players broke free with the ball and House leaned forward. "Go!" he shouted. "Go!"
"You're really going to watch this entire game, aren't you?"
"Why not?" House turned up the volume. "Singh in radiology has a pool going."
"For the third place team?"
"You wouldn't believe the odds he's offering on who gets the first yellow card."
Wilson pushed aside the blanket and swung his feet down onto the floor. If he went home, maybe he could still grab a few hours sleep in the guest room before Bonnie woke up. Maybe she wouldn't have the energy to yell at him before work. Maybe she wouldn't even notice, if he parked down the street rather than in the driveway.
On the other hand, Hector would probably hear him coming in, and if his barking woke her ...
He pushed himself onto his feet. "I'll start the coffee," he said. "Let me know if I miss anything."
There was a rhythm to it, Wilson decided, a steady ebb and flow. House wielded the remote like a scalpel, moving with precision through the channels, pausing just long enough to see what was playing, but not long enough to actually commit to watching something.
Click. Black and white images. Bogart lighting a cigarette.
Click. A commercial. Some guy with a beard comparing stains on identical white shirts.
Click. Fishing. A guy in hip waders out in the middle of a river, flicking the rod out in an arc from two to ten.
Click. Garden show. Some woman placing flowers in the dirt.
Wilson closed his eyes, settled back into the leather cushions and let the stream of voices flow over him. It was sunny and warm. A few years ago, he might have been out on the golf course, or playing tennis, or walking Hector through their subdivision, or even just sitting with a book out in the sun on the back patio. But those days were gone.
He'd barely played golf or tennis since the infarction. It didn't seem right to be out there when House wasn't. And now Hector was gone, swooped up by Bonnie when she said she'd had enough, put the house up for sale and moved across town.
"Take your stuff or I'll sell it," she'd threatened, and Wilson had packed a few boxes with diplomas, photos and books from his study, but left the rest behind.
Click. "Add the tomatoes now," someone was saying. Wilson cracked his eyes open long enough to see a blonde woman browning meat and vegetables in a pan, then House clicked away.
Wilson closed his eyes again. The efficiency apartment he'd rented for the past two months didn't have much of a kitchen anyway.
He should go home, Wilson thought. Or to what passed as a home these days. There were some charts he wanted to go through before Monday's meeting. There were always charts or personnel reports or committee reports tucked away in his briefcase. Ever since he'd been tapped to take over the department, paperwork stacked up all around him.
Click. Cheering, then music. Synchronized clapping and women's voices shouting out "Go!" "Go!" "Go!" then "Fire up!" Wilson waited for the the channel to change again, but five seconds extended into ten. Then fifteen.
He opened his eyes. Groups of women and a few men were crowded onto a stage, half of them flipping and vaulting across the length of it.
"Cheerleading?" Wilson asked.
House's hand was off the remote, his arms behind his head as he leaned back. "Hot chicks in tiny, tiny uniforms. Got a problem with that?"
Wilson shook his head.
The team on the screen finished their routine as women on both sides of the stage flew and flipped high in the air.
"Basket toss," House said. "Decent height, but they're going to deduct points because the flyer on the left didn't maintain pike position."
Wilson stared at him.
"Two points at least."
Wilson held up one hand. "First off, there are points? Second, how do you know this?"
"Of course there are points. It's a sport, isn't it?" House wouldn't look at Wilson, kept his focus on the screen. "And hot chicks," he repeated. "Hot, nineteen-year-old chicks."
The judges tally showed a two-point deduction for the final stunt. Wilson stared at House.
House finally glanced over at him. "Hot nineteen-year-old flexible chicks," he said.
"Right," Wilson said, "so you're just watching cheerleading to check out the scoring system." He shook his head. "Want to try that again?"
Wilson stood at the door, his hands on his hips. "You were scheduled for the clinic today."
"And yet you're here, at home, rather than there."
Cuddy had been dean for just over a month, and started by overhauling the clinic rotation schedule. All faculty members had to take a shift each week.
"Neither fellows, interns, residents nor med students are acceptable alternatives," she'd written in her staff memo. "The clinic is a vital part of our community outreach, and I expect it to receive the same care and attention as any other patient in our system."
House was given an easy mid-week slot. Two hours on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, but when Wilson stopped by the clinic, he found the patients backed up in the waiting room and the staff down one doctor.
"If you're tired, you could have --"
"Feeling great," House interrupted. "Peachy keen."
House had his feet up on the table, a sandwich in one hand and a Coke in the other. He waved the sandwich in Wilson's direction, then took a bite. "Peanut butter and jelly. Help yourself if you're hungry."
Wilson shook his head and walked further into the room. "Your soaps can wait," he said, then looked at the screen. No Luke. No Laura. No fake hospital set. Instead there was a stadium and a sheet of ice and men madly sweeping brooms in front of a slowly moving rock. "Curling? You're blowing off clinic duty for curling?"
"It's a very strategic game. You'd be surprised."
"It's apparently very big in Canada. You ever play it?"
"No, because it's curling. It's shuffleboard on ice."
"It's the ice that makes the difference," House said. "Everything's exciting on ice."
"Curling is more exciting than seeing clinic patients?"
"Pfft," House snorted. "Watching paint dry is more exciting than seeing clinic patients."
"I thought you told Cuddy you were going to look for a case for your team."
Wilson didn't bother asking how House had gotten into the oncology break room. Best bet would be that he just stole and copied Wilson's key one day. At least this time he hadn't forced the lock. It had cost three hundred bucks to replace the locks and keys last time.
"I am," House said. "I didn't say anything about how I was going to find a case."
"So you're finding a case by watching the Tour de France?"
The new plasma TV was tuned in to the bike race, and the riders -- lean and strong -- were making their way up a mountain pass somewhere in the Alps, spinning out a steady rotation or standing on the pedals and pushing hard.
"This guy, for instance," House said, pointing at a rider in a pink and white uniform. "He's exhibiting classic signs of endocrine imbalance."
Wilson stared at the screen. "What signs?"
"Just look at him. Metabolism's clearly out of whack, for one."
"He's a bike racer," Wilson said. "They're supposed to be skinny."
"And second," House said, "he's a bike racer. These guys know more about drugs and blood doping than you'll ever find in a pharmacology text book. Endocrine imbalance is the most typical side effect."
"Not everyone's doping," Wilson said.
House stared at him. "Fifty bucks says he's busted for doping within the next year."
Wilson watched the guy a little longer, saw him breathing hard as they neared the crest of the climb. Even if House was right and the guy was doping, what were the chances that he'd get caught?
He nodded. "You're on."
Wilson heard the click of the TV remote a moment before the set came to life. He looked up and saw House moving a stack of books from the desk chair onto the floor and then settle himself down.
"I thought you were going to help me unpack," Wilson said.
"I am," House said. "I set up your TV."
He flicked through the channels: movies, informercials, shopping channels, poker. He paused just long enough to check out the cards in the flop. His eyes narrowed and Wilson could picture him weighing the odds, coming up with some wager only he'd know about. Then he switched the channel again.
Wilson turned back to the boxes in front of him. "I was thinking more along the lines of putting my books on the the shelves, maybe sorting out my files."
Julie's house was smaller than the one he'd bought with Bonnie back when he first moved to Princeton, but Julie had cleared one of the bedrooms at the back of the house for his study. They'd come back from Vegas with a fresh marriage certificate and she'd surprised him by having bookshelves and a small desk already in place for him.
"It's ugly," House had said when he'd seen the desk. It was dark mahogany and oversized in the small room. Wilson thought it looked like the executive furniture at her father's firm, and he wondered for a moment if she'd just had it shipped over from an empty office there, but he dismissed the thought.
"It's nice," he'd said. "She wants me to feel at home."
"Right," House had said, "by forcing her tastes on you in your own room."
Wilson had ignored him, and had his boxes taken out of storage. They'd arrived more than three weeks ago and sat unopened in the study until House accused him of unconsciously anticipating his next divorce by never unpacking.
"You promised me beer," House reminded him, and switched the channel again. "I'm not touching another box until I have one."
"I'm still waiting for you to touch the first box," Wilson said, but headed into the kitchen and took out two bottles of Sam Adams, then grabbed a bag of chips to go with them.
When he got back to the study, House had his feet up on a stack of three boxes, and had stopped the TV on one of the sports channels on the upper end of the satellite dish's offerings.
"Bagpiping is a sport?"
"God I hope not." House held out his hand for a beer. "Can you imagine how much Princeton would suck at that? I think it's just the opening ceremonies."
Wilson handed him a beer and the chips. He'd nearly organized the books from one box on one of the shelves when the caber tossing began.
Wilson leaned against the desk. "And the purpose of this is ..."
"No clue." House swallowed down the last of the beer. "Maybe there's some Scottish battle technique for telephone poles?"
Halfway through the second beer, Wilson had cleared off another chair and pulled it over to the desk. "Throwing heavy stones," he said, nodding at the TV. "At least that could be useful as some kind of defense."
"If you were battling other cavemen," House pointed out, "otherwise, I think the guys with the swords and guns and cannons would have the upper hand."
Wilson brought a bottle of Scotch and two glasses with the third beers. "It seemed appropriate," he said.
He stood in the middle of the room for a moment. Boxes were still stacked up against one wall and on the desk.
"Here," House moved one of the boxes from the desk onto an empty shelf, still unopened. Wilson put the bottles on the spot House had cleared.
"That's better," Wilson said.
He poured them both a shot, then sat next to House, swinging his feet up onto the box next to House's.
"That is wheat that they're throwing, right?" he asked.
"Straw, I think." House tip a sip of the whiskey, and followed it with the beer.
House just shook his head and shrugged.
When Julie got home, Wilson was curled up on the couch in the study, sleeping.
"I thought you were going to unpack today," she said.
Wilson sat up, rubbed his eyes. "Sorry," he said. "Guess I got distracted."
She crossed her arms, looked at the empty bottles on the desk. "Guess so," she said. "That seems to happen a lot when House is around."
"I've got the mint." Wilson held up the plastic bag with fresh herbs as the door swung open.
"Hope you brought the julep too." House walked away from the open door, his cane held tight against his body and hand wrapped around the handle. "I'm fresh out."
There were empty bottles on the coffee table: beer, tequila, bourbon. "You didn't have enough at Chase's party?" Wilson asked. "It took me three days just to detox -- after Cuddy picked me up."
He'd spent twelve hours crashed out in one of Cuddy's spare bedrooms before he made his way home. The apartment was mostly back in one piece. He found a note on the table from Lady, saying that House had paid her extra to come in and clean up, but she wasn't sure exactly where everything was supposed to go, and if he couldn't find something, he could give her a call.
"Doesn't matter." House slumped down on the couch, and laid his head back against the cushions. "Booze doesn't seem to be helping anyway."
"Helping with what?" Wilson closed the door behind him, and tossed the mint on the table. "You look like hell, by the way."
"Glad to hear it." House's beard was growing in thicker, which meant he hadn't bothered to even try to trim it. His arm shook slightly as he rubbed his face.
"Still not sleeping?"
House shrugged. "I slept," he said, "but it doesn't seem to matter."
Wilson sat next to him, wrapped his finger's around House's left wrist.
"Don't." House's eyes flew open and he pulled his arm away. "I didn't call you over for a consult. I'll be fine. I just ... need some rest."
"Maybe I should go," Wilson said. He studied House's face, trying to read whatever it was that he was trying to hide.
House stared at Wilson, his eyes clear and bright despite the lines in his face. He sat up straighter. "It's the Kentucky Derby," he said. "It's tradition." He shook his head. "Besides, I could use the distraction."
Wilson watched him for a moment longer. House wasn't fine, but pushing him to come clean now would only shut him down further. Better to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open. He held up both hands. "Fine," he said. "Have it your way."
Wilson sat back and watched the rundown of the horses set for the run. "Normal stakes?"
House tossed two twenties on the table and Wilson put his own bills on top of them. Last year there had been a third set of twenties. Amber had put her money on Big Brown.
"Only suckers bet for the favorite," House had said, but Amber had waved the bills in his face when her horse won.
"Don't remind me," House mumbled now. Wilson looked over at him, but House shook his head. "It's nothing," he said. "Pick your horse."
"Since when do you let me pick first?"
"Since ..." House let the sentence drift off, and seemed to be staring at something on the other side of the room, then he shook himself back to attention. "Too many variables this year. Young horses are unpredictable in the first place, add to that the wet track, and the fact that two of the favorites aren't running, and that everyone's nervous about doping and steroids and polo ponies getting the wrong vitamins and everything's out of whack. Thought I'd let you remove one of the variables and pick first."
Wilson narrowed his eyes, waited for House to change his mind. He didn't. "Fine," he said. "Friesen Fire," he said. He waited for House to mock his choice of the horse currently riding at the top of the odds, but instead House sighed, and then leaned in closer to the TV, watching as the horses were brought out of their stalls and started the walk to the starting gate.
If he asked, House would quote him each horse's heritage, his record in past races, his trainer's reputation. But House seemed to be looking for something beyond all the paperwork and statistics.
"It's only ten minutes to post time," Wilson said.
House glared at him. "Gimme a minute."
He went silent again, looking for something that would tell him what to do. Wilson could picture him weighing the odds, adding what he knew to what the pictures were telling him, almost as if the TV screen was a white board of some kind.
Finally he sat back. "Pioneer of the Nile," he said, then nodded. "It's as good a guess as any."
Wilson tried not to think about past derbies, the way that House had been so sure of every bet, even when he was wrong, the way he'd listed every fault with every other pick.
"You sure?" Wilson asked.
"Could be any of them, but it's the best bet." He seemed a little more sure of his choice now. "Pioneer of the Nile," he repeated.
The horses slowly made their way to the starting gate, settled into place. There was a moment of quiet, just a split second, then the gates opened and the horses flew out into the mud.
"And they're off," the announcer called out. "Regal Ransom and Join in the Dance vie for the early lead, and Pioneer of the Nile is right up there."
"Told you," House said. He wasn't smiling, but Wilson could sense his mood improving.
"Friesen Fire is seventh," the announcer said.
Now House was smiling.
The horses made the turn into the back stretch, a blur of movement and mud between the umbrellas and mist of a rainy May afternoon. House leaned forward as his horse made a move on the outside.
"Come on," he muttered.
The horses rounded the final turn and Pioneer of the Nile moved up into first. House's smile widened and he pumped his fist and the horse made his move, but then there was a flash of another horse moving fast on the inside. House's smile froze.
"Who the hell is that?" he asked.
A second later the horse moved up to the front pack, then left it behind.
"And coming up on the inside is, uh --" the announcer paused, for just a split second, "Mine that Bird."
The horse moved one length in front of the pack, then two, then three. Wilson started to cheer it on and glanced at House. His eyes were wide, watching as the horse broke free. It was still picking up speed as it crossed the finish line.
"A spectacular, spectacular upset," the announcer declared, his voice breaking as he made the call. "An impossible result here."
"Not impossible, apparently," Wilson said.
"And a three-way photo finish for second between Musket Man, Pioneer of the Nile and Papa Clem."
House hadn't moved. He was watching the screen, watching as the upset winner pulled up and slowed, and as the jockey stood in the stirrups, celebrating his win.
"You lost," Wilson pointed out.
"Guess so." House was staring at the screen again, like he'd been doing before the start of the race. Maybe he was trying to see what he'd missed before. "At least my horse beat yours," he said. "That means the money's mine."
Wilson studied the results. "They almost all beat my horse."
"Told you that playing the favorite is a dumb move."
Wilson didn't point out that House hadn't actually said that. Instead he just watched him as the replay played out, showing the winning horse sneaking through holes between the horses, finding the rail and moving like lightning up the field.
House finally shook his head, and sat back.
"So does this mean that all the oddsmakers were wrong?" Wilson asked.
"It means," House said, then took a breath. The good mood he'd been in at the start of the race seemed to be disappearing, replaced with something different. Something Wilson didn't quite recognize. "It means that you never know what's going to happen next."