When his phone rang at three in the morning, Wilson picked up without checking to see who was calling. At that hour, a phone call either meant a patient was deteriorating or House was in trouble. The ratio was disturbingly even, considering that Wilson's patients were often deteriorating. But then House was often in trouble. Wilson was unsurprised, though unimpressed, to hear House's slightly slurred voice.

"Son of a bitch took my keys."

With House, slightly slurred generally meant double the legal limit in blood alcohol levels. "Remind me to send him a thank you card. Did he take your wallet as well, or have you not heard of the concept of taxis?"

"Why would I pay for a ride when I can get one from you for free?" House's drunken logic was unassailable, if only because he was even less likely to listen to reason than when he was sober. Still, Wilson tried.

"Only if I agree to leave my warm bed to act as your personal chauffeur, which I have no intention of doing." He yawned and burrowed under his duvet. "Good night, House."

"You're not going to --"

But Wilson did. Hanging up on House was as satisfying as a soufflé, but just as quick to collapse. He tried to close his eyes and go back to sleep, but he was treated to the image of House staggering out into the night: taking a wrong turn, falling into a snowdrift, tumbling into traffic, passing out in an alley. Or getting on a bus.

He sat up and turned on the light, checking his recent calls. The last number belonged to the strip club House had dragged him to a couple of times. House's inability to keep his cell phone charged made it easier to track him down.

By the time he reached the club, the bouncers were clearing away the last of the clientele, but they let him in when he said he was there to pick up the surly cripple at the bar. House was indeed still at the bar, arguing with an indifferent bartender. He crowed with delight when Wilson walked up.

"You're pathetic. It's at least fifteen minutes from your dead girlfriend's apartment and you made it here in less than twenty." He turned to the bartender. "Never bet against Jewish guilt."

The bartender glared at Wilson, and Wilson had to resist the urge to back away. "Show me some ID."

Wilson handed him his driver's license, unsure whether he should be relieved or worried that he'd updated his address right after he'd moved in with Amber. It had been a statement of confidence at the time. He'd fully intended it to be a permanent address, at least until they'd had time to buy a house together. Now it was just another way station, more comfortable than a hotel room, but still not home.

"I should have known," the bartender said, handing back the license. "Anyone stupid enough to answer this asshole's call is stupid enough come all the way out here."

Wilson could hardly argue with that. "What did he bet you?" he asked, hoping it wasn't something that would cause him further inconvenience that night.

"His tab."

That would do it. "How much?" he asked, opening his wallet. House, he knew, would refuse to pay on principle, and the bartender would be stuck with a tab he'd have to pay from his own pocket, just because Wilson was a predictable idiot.

"I don't welsh on my bets," the bartender replied, and made a show of wiping down the counter, though his eyes stayed on Wilson's wallet.

"It was a sucker bet," Wilson said, handing over the last of his cash. If he'd known House was going drinking, he would have stopped at an ATM after work. But judging by House's level of inebriation, sixty dollars would cover the tab, if not a tip. The bartender took the money with a satisfied smile and gave Wilson the confiscated keys. Either House wasn't as drunk as he looked, or he'd been drinking from the well. Wilson wondered if that were some form of penance.

"Drink up," he said, staring at the finger or so of scotch still remaining in House's glass. "I have meetings tomorrow morning."

"See, someone who cared about that wouldn't have called you in the first place," House pointed out, taking a frustratingly small sip.

Wilson wanted to smack the glass out of House's hand, but that would be a crime against alcohol, even if it was well scotch. "The reason why he knew I'd come," he told the bartender, "was because the last time I didn't pick him up, somebody died." It was a cheaper shot than the scotch, but it left a satisfying burn all the same.

It faded away, however, leaving behind only a bitter aftertaste, when House drained the glass without a word. Wilson looked down. "I didn't mean that," he muttered. "I'm tired." House hadn't called him for a ride since that night. Things were finally getting back to what passed as normal between them, but he'd hoped that normal wouldn't include these late-night calls.

"Don't apologize for telling the truth," House snapped. He stood up, holding himself straight with the kind of dignity only achieved -- and then undermined -- through an excess of alcohol. "I'll go quietly now, Sheriff."

"I'm parked down the next block," Wilson said. "You think you can make it?"

"I'm drunk," House retorted. "And crippled, but the former balances the latter." He stumbled against Wilson, who shoved him upright.

"Only in the sense that you now have no balance at all." Wilson kept a hand on House's elbow. "It's only part of the truth," he said quietly. "And not the most important part. That came later when you nearly died trying to save her." He'd spent four months trying to forget that. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

House didn't say anything, but he didn't pull away, and he allowed Wilson to support most of his weight as they walked out of the club.

They were out the door and halfway down the block, when House spun away suddenly and staggered into the alley. Wilson wrinkled his nose when House leaned against a dumpster and started to gag. Between his patients and House, there was altogether too much vomit in his life.

"Serves you right for drinking cheap scotch on a work night," he scolded. "Who gets shitfaced on a Tuesday? Even college students wait until Wednesday." He wondered what he was missing. House hadn't lost a patient recently, and he couldn't think of any anniversaries or events that would have sent him into a tailspin. But then House had never needed a specific excuse to drink.

House straightened up and spat one more time. "You're still here? Isn't walking away your specialty?"

Wilson refused to react, though he could almost feel the muscles in his shoulders knotting. House was a master at wounding with the truth. "What, and miss the opportunity to watch you debase yourself in a filthy alley?"

"Would you rather I puke in your car?" House retorted.

"You puke in my car, and you're walking home." It was an empty threat, and they both knew it. House had puked in, on, and over Wilson's car a dozen times over the years. Wilson had done the same to House's car, though at least he paid for the cleaning. "Let's go. I'd like to get a couple of hours sleep before I have to tell people they're dying faster or slower than they'd thought."

It was still hours before sunrise, and the moon was hiding behind a full cloud cover. The hairs on the back of Wilson's neck rose, as he peered into the gloom of the dark alley and thought he saw movement. Before he could call out, however, House bent over again, retching. "I've got a bottle of water in the car," he said, distracted by a more immediate concern. "It might help settle your stomach, or at least wash out your mouth."

House gasped and slumped against the dumpster. "Just need a minute for my stomach to stop turning somersaults."

Wilson saw movement again and grabbed House's arm, but when he turned around, a man was blocking the path to the street. He looked behind them. Another man appeared in the dim light cast by the street light at the other end of the alley. He held something in his hand, and as he approached, Wilson saw that it was a metal pipe. "House," he said quietly. "I think we have a problem."

House looked up. "Walk towards the street, Wilson," he replied, his fingers tightening over his cane. "I'll keep them occupied while you go for help."

"Don't be an idiot," Wilson hissed. "I'm not going to leave you here alone. We'll give them what they want and walk away together." He stepped in front of House. "Can I help you?" he asked, hoping his voice didn't betray his nerves.

"That depends on what you've got in your wallet," said the guy with the pipe. He was close enough now that Wilson could see beads of sweat on his forehead, even though the temperature was near freezing.

Wilson pulled out his wallet slowly, not wanting to startle him into a violent reaction. "I don't have any cash on me," he said, "but I have some gift cards. Can't trace them, can't put a stop on them."

"Jesus, Wilson," House exclaimed. "Why don't you just take them shopping? You can do lunch." He didn't reach for his own wallet, not that there was likely to be anything in it. House didn't need to carry cash when he had his own personal ATM.

"Just shut the fuck up and give us your wallets," the second man said. He didn't have a weapon, but he was as tall as House and broader. He looked like a linebacker gone to seed; too many glory days turned into nights spent propping up a bar. Wilson would rather take his chances against the pipe.

"I don't think we're going to do that," House said evenly. He held his cane up like a light sabre. "You're going to leave, and then we're going to leave and nobody will get hurt. Or you can stay and get introduced to a greater understanding of pain."

That was when the third man walked into the alley, which wasn't an encouraging development for someone who'd been raised on film noir classics. "Give them your wallet, House," Wilson hissed, taking out his own and tossing it at the pipe guy's feet.

Instead, House reached into Wilson's jacket and took out his iPhone, because he never listened to Wilson, even when men with weapons were involved. Pipe guy looked momentarily confused, but the ex-linebacker started an end run as House unlocked the phone and tapped three numbers.

Wilson had never played football in school, but blocking seemed straightforward in theory; just a question of angles, timing and leverage. He moved to intercept the incoming attacker, lowering his shoulder into the rush. He had the angle and the timing right, but he was short fifty pounds, two inches, and years of experience crashing through guards. The impact jarred every bone in his body, but he managed to grab on, stopping the guy long enough for House to calmly tell the 911 operator the nature of their emergency. He was brandishing his cane, keeping the guy with the pipe and the third man at a respectful distance, and Wilson thought they might actually be able to hold them off until the police arrived

Then something crashed between his shoulder blades, and he hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him. House shouted his name, but he couldn't gather the breath to answer. He heard a crack, and hoped it was a cane, not a pipe. The gasp of pain wasn't familiar, but then he heard a grunt and a howl that was familiar, and he turned his head in time to see House crumple to the ground, clutching his right thigh.

"House!" he cried, and scrabbled towards him. He sliced his right palm on a piece of metal, but it barely registered beneath a surge of adrenaline as the guy with the pipe brought his leg back to kick House. Wilson had just enough time and space to launch himself into the man's other leg, knocking him to the ground.

He had never been much of a fighter, but wrestling with two younger brothers had taught him about containment, and four years of medical school had taught him where and how to inflict the most pain. He jammed his knee hard into the guy's groin, and grabbed the pipe from suddenly slack fingers, sweeping it wildly in self-defence. It connected with a shin, and he pushed himself onto his hands and knees, but before he could swing again, a boot caught him in the side and knocked him onto his back. He rolled frantically away, and the next kick glanced off the side of his head, hard enough to leave him dazed, but not hard enough to knock him out. Something warm trickled down the side of his face, and the part of his brain that still worked identified it as blood.

He heard House shouting his name again, and he tried to call back, because he'd never heard House sound frightened before, but the word twisted in his mouth as the third blow connected with his ribcage and there was suddenly too much pain to speak or breathe. The last thing he heard was sound of sirens.