EVEN TRADE

By GeeLady

Pairing: H/O, W/O & H/W

Ratings: NC-17 Adult, SLASH, ANGSTY. (What else have you ever got from me??)

Warnings: Non-con, blackmail, mentions of addictions, drugs, self-harm.

Summary: House becomes the object of someone's dangerous obsession, but it's Wilson's freedom that hangs in the balance.

This Story: I started writing before I saw episode 6x10, and it acknowledges everything up to and including "Wilson", with the exception of Wilson and House going in together on the loft Cuddy didn't get.* In my fic', they are not living together and it continues to deviate from there.

*Kudos to Wilson for the greatest thing he has ever said or done for House: "She hurt my friend. She should be punished." Whew! Who would have taken Doctor W. as a caveman!?

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"When I'm with you I feel like I could die and that would be alright, alright."
- Third Eye Blind

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FRIDAY (Jan' 3) 08:00

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Finally her grandmother's desk, tied up snuggly in thick blue moving blankets, was lifted, carried out in two pairs of strong man-arms through the propped open exit doors and placed on the moving truck. The office of former Dean of Plainsboro Hospital Lisa Cuddy, was now empty of her things and stripped bare of any mark of her personality.

House glanced out to the hospital entrance and saw Cuddy standing at the back of the truck, her red winter coat wrapped around her shoulders, her hands tucked into the pockets, speaking to the driver. She exposed one of them long enough to hand him a slip of paper. Directions to her new house, where she will spend her new life. New job, too, at a small medical center, a less demanding position so she could raise her daughter like a right and proper Mommy. Cuddy finished speaking to the husky fellow and he climbed into the cab of the cube truck, firing up the big diesel engine. Cuddy smoothed her hair and turned toward the entrance-way.

House hurried on, his cane and feet making a fast, but uneven escape. He had already said his goodbyes to Cuddy and he didn't want any last minute tears from her, or sarcastic slip-of-the-tongue from himself. She would probably make the rounds of good-bye and good-luck's before leaving for good. He'd hit the cafeteria and linger, though she probably wouldn't come by his office anyway.

Cuddy and Lucas were hunkered down in their new domestic arrangement, living together in a new house in a neighborhood Wilson had suggested. He'd called his third ex-wife for real estate advice, and emailed a list of good possibilities to Cuddy's In-box. House knew all this, and also that this was her last few minutes as Dean of Medicine at Princeton Plainsboro.

He hadn't met the new guy, a youngish Neurosurgeon who had been hand-picked by the Board and brought out from Seattle. He was reputed to be a brilliant physician and surgeon by the name of Rostan, Rodon, Ryan, something like that. House didn't care. At least he still had his tenure. This entire last year of treatment, counseling and staying clean had much improved his image in the eyes of the Board, and he had been granted another four years, with bi-yearly reviews.

The only bad thing about it was he would have to keep his billing up-to-date and accurate from now-on. Maybe Wilson would be willing to rent out his own assistant when ever month-end rolled around. Or he could hire a Girl Friday. A hot, young, eager to please Girl Friday. Another doe-eyed but un-jaded Cameron clone.

Wilson fell into step beside House. "Did you say goodbye to Cuddy?"

"Yup. Last week." House hurried his pace, a move he knew as futile. Wilson always managed to catch up or find him whenever he gave him the slip. House cursed his thigh for the thousandth time.

"Last week? She's leaving this week. Today in fact."

James Wilson or, his less well known moniker, Doctor Points-Out-The-Obvious. "Yes, I did mark it on my calendar. Thus last week I wished her and her perfect, non-former addict, non-former alcoholic, non-jerk of a new husband well." House said. His leg was killing him, and this little foot-race to his office wasn't helping.

"Very heart warming."

House dropped the jokes. "I said a nice goodbye." He stopped, turning his whole body to the left to stare at Wilson for emphasis, shoving his face to within an inch of Wilson's who, used to House's attempts to intimidate, did not back off. "Happy now?" House asked.

Wilson nodded, and couldn't help the look of sympathy that flashed across his face at House's defeated tone. He knew Cuddy's decision to move, and her subsequent engagement to Lucas had stung him deeply.

Wilson himself had been a little surprised at her thoughtless lack of forthrightness when it came to how she had felt about House. All the signs, including hers, had pointed to she and House eventually hooking up. Then, just as House was getting well enough, cleaned up enough, to finally do something about it, Cuddy, during an out-of-town medical conference, had pitched a hard curve ball at his head by accidentally exposing her already four-month-long involvement with Lucas which, up until then, she had been hiding. It had been a low blow, and House had returned to the hotel room looking like he'd been sucker punched.

"Are you?" Wilson knew it was the wrong thing to ask but he couldn't help himself. House was better but he wasn't all-better. He wasn't over Cuddy and Wilson knew he was feeling particularly lonely since Wilson had met Leanne and fallen head-over-heels in love. Within six months he was once again a married man. Though House had been given the green light by Nolan to live independently again, all on his own, it was obvious he wasn't doing so well with the alone part. Wilson hated that he felt guilty about that.

House, clipped and impatient, answered while trying to hurry up and limp, gunning for other floor-tiles away from Wilson's pitying look. "Peachy. What do you want, anyway? Wife number four kick you to the couch again?"

"Her name is Leanne, and no." Wilson broke off. He'd done enough damage. He switched directions, taking an alternate route to his office. "Sorry I bothered to care."

House stared after him. "So you're mad at me now?" He asked much too loudly. "No lunch today?"

Wilson cringed. They were only standing twenty feet apart, but he waved his hand, not turning back around. "No, and yes. See you at twelve."

Cuddy was gone for good and Wilson was married again. One in a while it would be nice if life would pleasantly surprise him. House thrust open his glass office door and thumped to his desk, his half-way content mood soured by both encounters. He scratched at his beard. Things emoting all around him always made him itch.

His fellowships, old and new, were not yet in. There was no hurry as he currently had no patient. A really sick person better turn up fast, or he was going to take a personal day and do something to make himself feel better. Something fun, like toilet-papering Lucas and Cuddy's new suburban dream.

A pleasant "Good morning" popped House's little bubble of self-pity, and he looked up to see a man standing in his open doorway. He was keeping the door propped open with his elbow, but both hands remaining shoved in his pants pockets, the sides of his suit jacket bunched up behind them.

His visitor was a tall, very slim, and exceptionally blonde, standing there with a look of confidence, casually regarding him and his furniture. The overhead lights reflected off the fellow's head. His hair was so blond it was almost white and was already thinning though the fellow couldn't have been over thirty-five. House could see through the sparse growth to the freckled scalp. Blondie was also clean shaven, dressed in a avocado-colored, stylishly expensive suit, and veritably reeked of success.

House didn't recognize him but figured who he might be. "You Ryan?"

The fellow stepped into the room. "Royston. I'm the new Dean."

"Pleasure's all mine." House said, then returned his gaze to the haphazard papers strewn across his desk. He couldn't remember what he had been looking for. Oh yeah - there it is. Cuddy's new address and home phone number. He'd conned it out of her truck driver during a previous furniture run, and all it had cost him was a twelve pack of medium priced beer. A bargain if ever there was one. He'd buy a twenty-four of Charmin on his way home. Maybe a can of black spray paint, too.

Royston's silent scrutiny made House look up again. This time he couldn't keep the irritation out of his voice. "Something you wanted?"

Royston smiled very pleasantly. "Not at all." He slowly turned on his heel, all the time keeping his eyes fixed on House's face, until finally his whole back was turned, forcing his head around to look where he was going and left, letting the door swing shut behind him.

House felt like he'd just survived a show-down with a coiled snake. The new Dean was young, wore thousand dollar suits, entered private offices without knocking and played at being inscrutable. For a new Dean, the hospital appeared to have hired a basic nightmare. "Great." House muttered.

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FRIDAY 10:30

A patient was admitted.

House's mind was everywhere but on this patient who, by what they knew so far, was going to turn out to be a simple dermatological infection or ingrown psoriasis. He was already bored. "Patient history?" He asked, silently cursing all Deans named Cuddy or Royston.

Thirteen read from her notes. "Patient is suffering from repeated bouts of burning rash. Topical ointments only give her relief for minutes at a time. After about a day, the rash disappears, but always reappears. No pattern to it. She's been to seven doctors and three emergency rooms for pain killers. She can't work or leave her house in bad weather - "

House blinked hard at that bit of history. "She can't leave her house in bad weather? Was one of those doctors a psychiatrist?"

Thirteen consulted her notes. "Um, no."

"But when its snows or the wind blows, she gets a rash?" House asked. "Wow. Sounds perfectly sane to me." He threw his hands out to his sides in a gesture of "case-closed". "Send her home."

Thirteen ignored her boss's antics. It wasn't easy but it got easier every day. "No psychiatrists. Do you want us to send Stone in?"

"No." House frowned, grabbing the chart from in front of Thirteen. "Chase." House said from behind the blue folder, "Go get a second history. Flash those pretty eyes at her and get something useful this time."

Thirteen rolled her eyes. "I took a complete history. Those were her words."

"Since when do we rely on the patient's words for an accurate history?" House pointed out. "That's what she said, but that doesn't mean that's what it is." House retorted. "In the meantime you - Thirteen, and Taub, run a epithelial culture. Look for common house-hold antigens and contaminates. Go see what creepy-crawlies have set up house in our patient's pores."

House looked at Chase. "And once you're done getting us a more accurate history, run a scratch test for allergens." House again pointed at Thirteen with one corner of the chart. "And you, find out if this woman's been in therapy for depression or just good, old-fashioned insanity. Wind allergy my ass." House sniffed. "A Wilson-fart allergy on the other hand..."

Thirteen looked insulted, and shook back her long hair with a toss of her head. "If you already think Prudence is mistaken or lying about the weather connection, why do we need to check her mental history?"

House shrugged. "Because if she's a whack-job, I might want to trade amusing anecdotes with my fellow club-member." House closed the chart and tossed it back to Thirteen. "Besides with a name like Prudence, if she isn't nuts, her parents were." But at least this wasn't quite so boring anymore.

House left his team scrambling to their assigned tasks. Presently his patient was stable, so going home for the day was perfectly in order. Being the boss didn't suck.

Wilson caught up to House as he swung his leg over his motorcycle. "Hey..."

House switched off the engine, waiting for Wilson to say whatever he wanted to say. Wilson raised his eyebrows, evidently having something juicy to discuss. "Meet the new Dean yet?"

House nodded, though disappointed. Discussing the new Dean was a one-way ticket to Snoozeville. "Sure. Delightful fellow."

"Really?"

"Nope."

Wilson swayed back and forth, balanced on his toes. "He came to my office, introduced himself, said he will interview each of his department heads in the coming weeks, shook my hand and left." He sounded calm but look worried.

House picked up on his discomfort. "Well, you're as clean as a baby's freshly wiped ass, you've got nothing to worry about. Which means I've got everything to worry about."

"It'll be fine. You can't tell much about a man you just met." Wilson held his hands up, palms out, as though trying to calm a storm before it began. "But, just in case, please show the guy you can be civil. You've got four more years House, don't blow them off by blowing him off."

"How about just blowing him?" It might be amusing to see how far it could get him with the Dean's good graces.

Wilson let his head sag sideways at the gutter joke. "Charming. Just save yourself ahead of time by not being yourself."

House adjusted the strap on his helmet. "I haven't been "myself" for a year, remember? I did four months of rip-roaring fun at Mayfield to prove it. I'm only the good side of House now."

"Right." House had dropped to examine his fascinating helmet strap, picking off imaginary grit with his fingers. Wilson hadn't meant to insult him. He tried to give House a smile apology. It fell flat. "Well, um, see you tomorrow."

House watched his friend walk off toward his new car. Home to domestic bliss. At least until the divorce.

House rode home to his scrubbed-of-all bad drugs apartment, swallowed Nolan's anti-depressants and non-narcotic laughably-called pain killers, ate popcorn for dinner and spent the rest of the night with a heating pad on his thigh watching reruns of Two and A Half Men.

Even at fifty years of age, House mused, no surprises there.

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Royston leaned back in his thickly padded, buttery leather chair and swiveled back and forth. His new kingdom - the prestigious Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, containing a highly skilled and reputable staff of physicians, was now his.

Several of the doctors on staff were at the top of their field, including one infamous but genius diagnostician. Royston had looked into those startling blue eyes - really, he'd had no idea how very blue they would be. The poor quality photo on the man's CV had not done them justice - and knew he'd made the right choice. Royston smiled to himself just a little, recalling House's unshaven, rumpled appearance, un-abashed display of irritation at his day being interrupted by the new Dean. Royston smiled, much amused. "Of all people - the nerve!" House's expression had seemed to say. But Gregory House's casual dismissal of him when the diagnostician's fine sliver of patience had vanished, was the cherry on top of an un-tried dessert.

And James Wilson. Friendly, open, anxious to please and be accepted. Royston could see through it all to the man's dark center. Wilson was way too nice to be so nice. The youngish oncologist was three times divorced, dark haired, a sultry ladies man, and had graduated from an Ivy League school, finishing his studies and internship two and half years sooner than most. He had become the oncology department head in a prestigious medical center by age twenty-eight. Very impressive. He was a physician dedicated to his patients and to his friend - Gregory House.

Who was not dedicated to anything or anyone, save for perhaps curing his patients. House was reputed to be absolutely brilliant. Royston had read articles written by him and about him for years. Every detail of the events that had left him crippled for life he had absorbed and pondered over. Prior to visiting House in his office, Royston had taken time to observe the man from afar. House was roughly attractive, though he seemed less interested in grooming than playing his Game-Boy. He appeared to be unaware, over-all, of the sets of female eyes that longingly followed him everywhere.

Already his job was looking more and more interesting. These two men would be a challenge to keep under control. House was an irrepressible rebel and Wilson was his willing keeper. Royston's mouth was already watering.

House, despite his aversion to social graces and being - well, liked at all by anyone, was also a natural born leader and lead a team of three fellows and an assistant department head. His cure rate hovered near one hundred percent. That phenomenal success was a draw for donations from those rich enough to offer thanks by way of dollar signs. Small wonder his predecessor Lisa Cuddy had broken her back trying to keep him on staff and under control though, during her tenure, having at one time or another lost both battles.

Royston found it an intriguing point of character that House had not sued the hospital over the misdiagnosis of his leg and subsequent permanent disability. Cuddy's hospital had crippled him for life, leaving him in constant pain, and House had not pursued any by-right compensation, through legal representation or otherwise. That suggested a man accustomed to self reliance. Perhaps defiantly so.

Royston guessed that at times that fierce independence had brought grief rather than satisfaction. Royston suspected those very facts heavily underlined why Lisa Cuddy had created the Diagnostics department (entirely her idea), in the first place. She was anxious to fix the grievous error her staff had made regarding House's diagnosis and mismanaged medical treatment, and had fought tooth and nail for funds to make up for it.

House had accepted the offer of employment and been at Plainsboro, with short interruptions, ever since. One such interruption had been a four month stay in a mental institution for a nervous break-down. Royston looked forward to learning the more intimate details of that and the events leading up to it. Yes, both these doctors were an interesting study. He had his fun cut out for him.

There was one contradictory thing about House - he seemed to draw lasting friendships despite being, for the most part, a thoroughly unpleasant man. His lurching, painful looking stride, a pathetically endearing sight, was perhaps part of the reason he was so often granted social and professional leniencies despite that glaring flaw. It was going to be interesting to see how well House stood up, mentally and physically, under specific circumstances. Both of these men had not only roused his curiosity but he suspected both would prove a stimulating challenge.

Royston linked his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. Finally, after five years, he was standing at the threshold of his singular goal. He had tired of his old toys, and craved these new diversions. Indulging in visions of the days to come, Royston felt a rush of warmth flow from his extremities to his center. His cock twitched.

The fingers of his right hand abandoned his left and drifted lower to rub against his erection beneath the layers of cloth. Behind the clinic counter, the nurses and doctors hustled here and there. No one was paying any attention to the new Dean sitting in his chair, and he was free to fondle himself for a moment. He closed his eyes, a rapture sweeping across his features as he envisioned a mouth down there, moaning, sucking happily, willingly giving over more and more of himself, looking up at him in total hatred but perfect obedience. Royston stopped himself before he reached the point of no return. It would not do to carry a wet stain at his crotch for the remainder of the day.

He picked up his phone and asked his assistant to send up a cup of fancy coffee, and to bring him the CV of every current department head, starting with James Wilson. When his assistant had efficiently fulfilled those requests, he sipped a thick cappuccino and with a contented sigh, leaned back in his chair with the CV of his oncologist department head on his lap. "Now then, Doctor Wilson..."

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Wilson entered without knocking. Not really necessary between him and House. Besides House always saw him coming, or sensed his presence, and within that thin niche of their relationship, the man was psychic. Wilson sat down in House's visitors chair, linking his hands. "Had my interview with Royston."

House raised his eyebrows. "Looks like you've made yourself a brand new friend."

"He's all right. It looks like he just wants to run the hospital and do it well. I respect that."

"What did you talk about?"

"My tenure. Am I happy here - he's divorced, too."

"Ah." House said. "One of the good ol' boys. Did you trade infidelity secrets?"

Wilson sighed a little, refusing to let House spoil his good mood or bate him once again into the old, worn out discussion of his wandering penis. "You know, it wouldn't hurt you to at least give the man the benefit of the doubt."

"Giving someone the benefit of the doubt just means you're testing their trustworthiness, then waiting to see whether or not you're going to be screwed over. Royston could be a gangster or a fraud, or a psychopath - or a woman." House insisted. "He's certainly feminine enough."

Wilson stood up. "You're a jerk."

"A hundred bucks says I'm right."

"Done." Wilson walked away, saying over his shoulder - "I'm holding you to that bet, House." He opened the door, adding as he turned sideways to accommodate it, "And you can't borrow the money from me to pay me back when you lose."

Through the glass conference room walls, House watched his friend walk in the direction of his own office, until he disappeared around the corner. What would he buy with the hundred?

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FRIDAY 12:00

"Royston found funds for my trial."

House glanced up from his cafeteria-made corned beef sandwich. Mustard coated his index finger and a pickle spear was sticking out between his teeth as his incisors slowly ground it to mulch like a tree-shredder. He swallowed. "Trial? Which wife's husband did you humiliate this week?"

"I have not cheated on Leanne. My drug trial? Remember?" Wilson sat down opposite his friend and pulled out his own egg-salad on rye and orange juice, the kind served in little plastic containers with the peel-off, tin-foil seal. "We talked about it yesterday? I put the request in with Cuddy and I guess she passed it onto Royston. He just called me about it."

"Since when have you done research?" House knew of course, that Wilson dabbled in research here and there, in conjunction with two of his colleagues, his contribution being statistics on his patient's cancer types, treatments, successful and not, death percentages, remissions and lengths of. All that boring numbers crap that he wouldn't touch without an elective lobotomy.

"The point is," Wilson bit into his sandwich. "That this is big for me, House. It's a major star on my career board. Royston has approved my contribution to the trial, the over-time, my assistants' over-time, everything. My career is finally turning a corner."

"Little Jimmy's made himself a sugar-daddy. The money'll certainly be better."

"I'm not doing it for the money. For once, I have an opportunity to be a part of something special." Wilson tilted his head. "And I wouldn't even say friend by the way, though it doesn't hurt to be friend-ly - especially if you need something."

"Bet he asks you for a date."

Wilson rolled his eyes and abandoned the rest of his egg salad. It was more sour than sweet. Too much pickle, and not enough mayonnaise. "You're a miserable jerk. I thought you'd given that up?"

"When called for." House finished his own lunch. "Royston's interested, Wilson. I saw him reading your CV in the cafeteria."

"He's reading everyone's CV." Wilson drained the orange juice and tossed the container, and the plastic sandwich wrap with the remainder of his sandwich inside, into House's trash basket.

House picked up his last pickle spear. "He's reading yours for the second time. " He made a show of sucking on the thick pickle like it was a delicious popsicle, never letting his eyes fall from Wilson's.

Wilson got the silent joke. "Why can't we ever eat together without you making some crude verbal or physical reference to a dildo."

"Who says I'm referencing a dildo? Maybe I'm just practicing."

"Gross. So he's reading my CV again. So what?"

"Royston's buttering you up for the big squeeze." House's pager went off.

Wilson stood. House was being summoned by his team. "House..." Wilson waved a weary hand at House's ridiculous claims. "Just...go suck your pickle."

House finished the sour treat. "Bowling Wednesday? Or has Leanne vetoed all of this week's fun again?"

"Yes. Meet you there. Usual time."

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FRIDAY 12:32

"Talk to me." House saw the patient himself. Thirteen and Taub were dealing with an outbreak on the patient's chest and abdomen. Angry bright red wheals had popped up all over from between her sagging breasts to her flabby stomach. Thirteen was spreading a topical cream over the portions of the patient's skin afflicted with the erythema. Taub glanced at him. "Some of these are fluid filled. This isn't an allergy, it's a pruritic eruption."

House walked over to the suffering woman. He didn't sit down. He wasn't there to comfort, he was there to investigate. "Does it itch?"

She was pale and sweating. "No, it burns."

House nodded. "Are you sexually active?"

Prudence looked uncomfortable. "Once in a while."

"When was the last once?"

"Why do you need to-?"

"-Because I'm a doctor," House swung his cane around at the walls, "and you're in a hospital, so I'm guessing you probably came here for treatment. I don't care if you're riding the New Jersey Devils, when was the last time you had sex?"

"Six months ago." She said, her face red, though not from rash. Raising her voice in defense - "I've had a dry spell."

House looked at Taub. "Check for HIV." He glanced at the patient one last time. "Did you always use protection?"

Prudence bit her lip. "No, not every time."

House said "Well, the next once, don't be such an idiot and use protection. On every corner there's a drugstore. In every drugstore there are condoms. Aisle Four, right next to the KY."

House's pager went off. He read the message and left. After her inconsiderate doctor had walked out, Prudence turned to stare at the nicer doctor. "Doctor...Thirteen is it?" She asked with frightened eyes. "Do I have AIDS?"

Thirteen shook her head. "Doctor Hadley and no, we haven't confirmed that. Doctor House just wants to be sure. He's concerned." To her right, Taub snorted. Thirteen ignored him and smiled warmly at their patient. "I'll be taking some blood now..."

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WEDNESDAY (Jan 8) 19:26 "Pins N' Things" Bowling Alley:

Wilson had his shoes tied, his pencil and score forms ready. He'd drank two medium diet Pepsi's and eaten a small bag of corn-puffs. When his stomach was full, he looked at his watch for the tenth time in fifteen minutes. Seven-twenty-six. Twenty-six minutes after their usual start time. He'd already paid the fee's for three games and was reluctant to give up just yet.

Another five minutes and still no sign of House. Wilson tried House's cell again, and got the same typically worded recording. "Only leave your name and number if you either owe me money, or aren't wearing a stitch of clothing. Be-e-e-ep!"

Wilson angrily closed his phone. "Selfish jackass." Probably some puerile punishment because he'd canceled last week's bowling night to take Leanne to a one-night-only stage show. Wilson bent over and untied the bowling shoes, returning them to the cashier behind the counter, who sprayed the insides with Lysol and returned them to their little slot among a hundred others. Wilson slipped into his sneakers and gathered his coat, muttering. "He can be such a child sometimes." Wilson left the bowling alley, abandoning his thirty dollar payment and drove home. Tomorrow he would ignore House all day and see how he liked it!

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THURSDAY (Jan 9) 09:47

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House was not yet in, and Wilson, caught up on paperwork and patients, paced his friend's vacant office for a moment, wondering if he should crash House's apartment and boot out the hooker House had most likely rented for the night. Probably that would not go over very well.

The thought had crossed his mind that maybe House was ill, or maybe his car had broken down, but then why had he not called for assistance? Getting madder every second, Wilson finally shoved open the door between the office and the conference room where Foreman sat perusing test results. When Foreman looked up - "Did House call in?" Wilson asked.

Not cracking an expression, Foreman shook his head. "He isn't answering his cell either." He sounded unconcerned.

Wilson pursed his lips. House was late and ignoring his cellular. It smelled like old times.

Whenever House's behavior took a sharp downward angle, Wilson's worst fear was always that House was using again. But he'd been clean for a year and a half, and back living on his own for five months of that. House had resumed his own life without the need for a twenty-four hour babysitter. Wilson mentally searched for any particular stressors, other than Cuddy leaving, that might have triggered a relapse.

He shook his head, feeling silly. No point in getting ahead of himself. "Where's the rest of the team?" He asked Foreman while having no real reason to ask. Only it wasn't like House to abandoned a patient, unless he was ill, or annoyed with Cuddy, or furious at his best friend. Did any of those apply? House's usual calm had certainly been ruffled by Cuddy's leaving but if House had been truly mad enough to try and manipulate her, he certainly would have done so while she was still present so the proper pressure could be applied.

Wilson dismissed one motive after another as to House's mysterious absence, finally arriving at zero.

Foreman was answering his last question. "Taub's doing his clinic hours."

"Perfect. Looks like House is doing everything he can to endear himself to the new Dean." Not!

Foreman shrugged. It said to Wilson this sort of behavior from his boss was old hat and he shouldn't be such a nervous Nelly. "Royston didn't seem to care one way or another."

Wilson was surprised by that and it showed by his eyebrows inverting from their usual slightly upward slanted Spock-like bushes, to a fuzzy tent-like shape. "Really?"

All of their musings were rendered moot when House entered his office, walking a little slower than usual. A lot slower actually. Wilson entered from the other door. Stupidly he had not once considered that maybe it was House's leg that was making him late. "Bad leg day?"

House nodded, keeping his eyes on his chair, as though if he looked elsewhere, he might lose his way. He eased his frame down onto the soft cushioned Pleather with a grimace, dropping his back pack with a hard thump to the floor.

"Wow." Wilson commented once he got a full view of House's face. "You look terrible, House."

"And good morning to you." There was humor intended but it never reached his face.

"You should talk to Nolan - have him adjust your med's."

House nodded. "Yeah. I'll do that."

Wilson felt like he ought not to say more, but he was just curious enough to be a little nosy. "Why didn't you answer your cell phone?"

"I forgot it at home." House explained. "Had to turn around and go back for it."

Wilson nodded. That would explain why House had answered neither his cell or his home phone. But his explanation had come across as pat and perfect. Logical. Un-arguable. Convenient, almost. Wilson was reminded of the sort of excuses one heard when a favorite aunt forgets to send her favorite nephew a birthday gift. "It's fragile. I didn't want it to break.", "I'm coming out in a few months, so I thought I'd just bring it with me.", or the weakest stand-by when all other excuses were used up. "The postal office must have lost it." Such excuses came out of the same bin that was marked - "The Check's In The Mail.".

House wasn't telling him everything. Maybe he really did just have a bad night of break-through pain. Or maybe he was telling the truth, and it was pointless to speak of it further. But this was his best friend. His best friend who, not too long ago, had suffered a serious mental break. "Are you sure you're all right? You missed bowling."

House raised his eyebrows, like he had forgotten all about it. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. Had an emergency meeting with Nolan. Forgot to call you."

Well, that was good. A meeting with Nolan was a healthy move if he was having leg troubles. Or other undisclosed troubles, like his dead girlfriend's ghost playing his lute, or Kutner watching football with him while bleeding on the carpet.

House had done the right thing then. The bowling was forgotten.

Wilson still felt wrong about it somehow. House had spoken openly and honestly, and yet it had sounded a little forced. Falsely at ease.

But this time House's countenance had been perfect. Convincing. "You'd tell me, wouldn't you, if you weren't okay?"

House nodded. This third time, he seemed perfectly calm and natural. "Yeah. Why are you fussing like a Baba? Don't you have bald-headed patients to poison?"

Wilson sighed. "Fine. Don't talk to me." He had to get back to his own practice anyway. "See you at lunch."

"Uh," To Wilson's amazement, House actually stumbled over the next words. "Can't. Sorry - my...the patient. Can't really,...can't spare the time." The face was definitely House's but the delivery was frightened underling. Chase on his first day. "Sorry."

Wilson, recovered from the shock of hearing House babble like a scared first-year intern, would have to chase this down later. "Okay. If you're sure."

House nodded once. "I'll see you later."

Again, that dead-pan, rehearsed tone. Wilson slipped away. What would have been a usual, almost routine, little spat and make-up talk between them had settled on Wilson's shoulders like lumps of clay. Now he was almost certain that House was indeed hiding something. Had he gone on a bender? On his present regime of pills, alcohol was strictly forbidden. Had House broken the rules and gone bar-hopping? It would explain his recent shortness of temper, the hesitant manner, the awkward speech, the lateness, the fact that he'd come to work looking like a pile of unwashed clothes, and pale enough that there was no way he'd found his way to bed in the past twenty-four hours.

If House was drinking again, it could un-do all the progress he had made. He could end up right back where he'd been; no license, no practice, and no where to go but down. Or back to Mayfield if it got that far. Wilson sat down at his desk and dialed Nolan. Cuddy was gone. He had to talk to someone about this and he didn't trust House's team enough to keep it to themselves. Foreman would only be too happy to step back into House's slot the second House was behind a locked door, and again wearing the standard issue pajamas of the mentally ill.

Nolan answered after four rings. "We have to talk about House." Wilson spoke right away, not bothering with formalities. Nolan knew his voice by now and that he would not be calling unless he felt it was urgent. Nolan would also understand the reason for his call coming in the middle of his morning sessions. It was because they shared a common interest - they'd both been there, watching House make all those great strides toward wellness, and now they wanted to do whatever they could to keep him well.

"What's going on with him, James?" Came Nolan's deep, resonating baritone. It was a calming voice. Wilson was glad House had got Doctor Nolan as a therapist. He was not only very good at his job, he was as smart and as crafty as House was, which was an absolute must if your intent was to beat House at his own game, and make him well against his own sometimes foolish will.

Drinking was the more likely returning demon. For one thing, booze was easy to get. No prescriptions and no walking the streets at night trolling for a hit. Also it was the less physically dangerous of the two addictions that plagued House. Wilson refused to admit that he suspected alcohol more than Vicodin simply because House had not abused the former nearly as recklessly as he had the latter.

But if House had returned to alcohol to numb his pain, physical, mental or both, that was still relatively simple to fix. And there were plenty of professional "functional drunks". House could cope for a long time before the alcohol would begin to interfere with his work or his mental state. House had a Doctorate in concealment and faking wellness.

But pills? Dozens of pills, or hundreds, plus insomnia, hallucinations, delusions...that was a world and then some away from a chronic hang-over. Shit-fuck-shit! "I'm worried about him. I'm afraid House, um,..." Wilson took a deep breath. He wasn't only properly worried, he also felt terribly let down; at House for slipping this badly, and at himself for neglecting him. "I think he might be using again."

XXXXX

Part II asap