A/N: Updated 6/15/10 to fix the horizontal rule issues. Grrrr.
Title: Bartok Bear
Pairing or Category: House/Wilson friendship
Rating: PG-13 (some language and child abuse)
Prompt: 52. House has a special stuffed animal he kept from his childhood.
Spoilers up to 6.10 (Wilson)
House sat awkwardly in front of the closet of his old apartment, surrounded by boxes. A Coleman lantern provided the only illumination for his task. It hadn't seemed practical to turn the electricity back on for just a few days – he was only here so he could move out of here. It was only now dawning on him how much work he was going to have to put into moving. If he had realized how much junk he had accumulated in his life, he would have told Wilson to forget the condo – having a bedroom that wasn't infested with Amber relics was not worth the trouble of moving his stuff.
House sighed as he tried to remain organized and sort everything into piles. Did he really still need his golf clubs? If he was going to be realistic with himself, even if his leg magically healed up and became pain-free, the memories associated with the last time he went golfing were still too powerful. He didn't think he would ever enjoy the sport again. He pushed the clubs into the "Goodwill" pile. His cool purple Nike Shox that he had worn so often that the left shoe developed a hole in the bottom of the sole? He had always thought he might be able to fix the shoe with superglue or something, but the shoes had been sitting on the bottom of his closet for six years now. He probably was not going to follow through on his goal of becoming an amateur cobbler. He tossed both sneakers into the "trash" pile.
At least so far most things had escaped being boxed up for moving by virtue of landing in the "trash" or "Goodwill" piles. That made House happy, as the fewer boxes he ended up with, the easier the move would be. Also, he wasn't sure where he was going to put all of this stuff in their new condo. Sure, the ceiling was fabulously high, and the living room was huge, but this was closet stuff; stuff that wasn't supposed to see the light of day, and closet space was sparse at the condo. Wilson walked back in through the front door and was also pleasantly surprised to see the growing piles.
"Good for you, House. It's about time you got rid of some of your clutter." Wilson beamed as if he was about to offer House a cookie.
House twisted around to look up at him. "Just take the damn trash pile out to the dumpster and quit yapping at me."
Wilson rolled his eyes, but was nonetheless eager to help. "The one with the shoes that look like they didn't survive the '90s?"
House nodded as he turned his own attention back to the innards of the closet. "Yeah. And when you get back you can grab the Goodwill stuff, too. I think I'm almost done with this closet."
"Why don't I order in some lunch, then? It should get here about the time you finish."
House was wrestling with a dusty old vacuum cleaner that he had completely forgotten about. "Can't. Phone's been off since Mayfield," he muttered, ducking as his displacement of the vacuum caused a box to fall to the floor.
Wilson popped out his cellphone with a triumphant flourish. "Never fear, 21st Century Man will save lunch!"
House rolled his eyes as he pushed the vacuum cleaner toward Wilson. "Hey, see if you can figure out whether this works."
Wilson gave House The Look. "With what electricity?"
House shrugged. "I'm sure 21st Century Man won't let a little obstacle like the power being turned off stop him from saving the world from dust bunnies. Figure something out."
Wilson huffed as he wheeled the ancient vacuum away with him toward the front door. House again turned his attention back to the closet. He pulled at the box that had fallen loose, unable to avoid sneezing at the massive amount of dust that was billowing up from it. He opened the top flap of the box, curious about its contents. The first item he saw was his graduation regalia from medical school. He carefully picked up the fabric and placed it into one of the new, clean boxes that were going to the new condo. Looking back in the old box, he saw what looked like a fuzzy ear sticking out. Grabbing the ear, he pulled the item loose.
"Bartok Bear," he murmured to himself, surprised. He thought his old teddy bear had long since bitten the dust. It had been a gift from his piano teacher when he had lived in Yuma.
Yuma, Arizona – 1967
"We're going to work through Bartok's Mikrokosmos from the beginning to the hard stuff," Mr. Johnson announced one day after Greg had taken lessons from him for a few months. When they moved to Arizona, Greg had begged his mother to allow him to take guitar lessons. He wanted to be able to play like the guys in The Beatles, or the folk musicians who lived exciting lives in New York. His father had put the kibosh on that plan, but as a compromise acquiesced to piano lessons. John had even let Blythe move Oma's old piano all the way to Arizona so that Greg would be able to practice at home. Greg didn't think the piano was as cool as guitar, but once he started working with Mr. Johnson, he soon decided that he liked it anyway. There was something soothing about losing himself in the music.
"How long will it take to get to the hard stuff?" Even at eight years old, Greg looked for a challenge.
"Well, there are one hundred and fifty-three pieces. They get progressively more difficult. So why don't we see how you do with the first one, 'Six Unison Melodies?' Try to sightread it," Mr. Johnson put the sheet music in front of Greg. Greg played through it and thought that Mr. Johnson was right – the first piece was awfully simple.
"Good job playing that sight unseen, Greg. Now what I want you to do is take the book home and see how many pieces you can play through on your own. The more you practice, the easier the more advanced pieces will be to play. I want to see how far you can get this week."
Greg dutifully took the book home, but practice was not his strong suit. He had always been able to get through things by exerting the minimum of effort – he never had homework, because he was always able to quickly finish his work at school and still have time left over. He was able to pick up the nuances of the piano fairly quickly, and thus was able to get away without practicing most weeks. Blythe did remind him to practice, but never forced him. However, when Mr. Johnson asked Greg to show him what he had practiced during their next lesson, Greg found that Mr. Johnson had been right the previous week – he did not get very far on the fly.
Mr. Johnson gave Greg an unhappy look. Greg squirmed, knowing he'd been caught. "Greg, you have to practice in order to become a good piano player. You can only go so far on natural talent alone."
Greg bowed his head and nodded silently. Mr. Johnson stopped lecturing and developed a thoughtful look. He got up and went to one of the bedrooms of his house – past the point that Greg was allowed to go. Greg was only supposed to stay in Mr. Johnson's living room, or, if offered something, the kitchen. Mr. Johnson came back with a teddy bear.
"Here's what we're going to do, Greg," he began. "You are going to start practicing for an audience. This guy here – uh, we'll call him 'Bartok Bear '– will be your audience. He has been a great audience for my three children, and now that they're all grown up, he's been getting a little bored and lonely. I want you to put him right up on top of the piano so that every time you practice, he can hear you."
Greg was intrigued but a little miffed. Everybody knew that eight year old boys were too old for teddy bears. He would much rather have had a toy truck, like the candy apple red truck that Billy Gibson next door had. But Greg also knew that talking back to adults, especially adults who were about to give you a gift, was very rude and certainly unacceptable if Blythe or John were to hear of it. So he wisely said nothing except, "Thank you."
Wilson was standing above House, quietly watching the older doctor who seemed lost in thought.
"House?" he asked tentatively.
House snapped out of his reverie with a flinch. Coming back to the present time, he saw it was just Wilson. He looked concerned as he knelt down to House's level.
"Wilson," he said quietly, still holding Bartok Bear. "I was just…." His gaze was on the bear, not Wilson.
Wilson didn't know what was going on inside House's head, but tried to overlook the awkwardness of his gruff best friend all but cuddling a teddy bear. "Is that coming with us or trash?" he asked casually.
House was silent for a minute, not giving any sign that he had heard the question. When he finally spoke, his voice shook. "He's coming with. Always has."
Wilson nodded and reached for the teddy bear. House quickly pulled away from Wilson's grasp, hugging the bear close to his chest. Wilson raised an eyebrow in unspoken question, but said nothing. He just backed off and waited for House to start talking.
"This is Bartok Bear," House said, not knowing where to start. He took a deep, shaky breath. "I got him from my first piano teacher when I was eight. About a month before we moved away from Arizona."
"I didn't even know you had lived in Arizona."
House nodded. "Marine Corps air station in Yuma. We weren't there for long, though. Can't remember my third grade teacher's name. But I do remember Mr. Johnson. He got me started on Bartok's Mikrokosmos pieces. He actually got me to practice," he said with a laugh.
"And he gave you a teddy bear? Why? And why on earth did you keep it all these years? My mother got rid of all my old toys a long time ago. Like before high school, I think."
House couldn't meet Wilson's eye. "Mine didn't. She let me keep him."
"Just the one?"
"This was the one."
Wilson was silent for a moment, trying to figure out what House meant. "You mean…you mean this was the only toy you had?"
Wilson's expression softened. "I'm sorry, House. I didn't realize you guys were that poor."
House's eyes snapped up. "We weren't. He didn't think good, disciplined children needed toys to keep them well behaved. So since they weren't necessary, he wouldn't allow me to have them."
Wilson couldn't think of anything to say. He looked back and forth between House's eyes and his hand, still clutching the teddy bear tightly.
House sighed. "Anyway, he let me keep Bartok because he was a gift, and it would have been rude to refuse. So Bartok sat on top of the piano to watch over me while I practiced. And then later on…he was always there to watch over me." House had clearly wanted to say more, but held it in as he so often did. Before Wilson could respond, there was a knock on the door.
"It's probably lunch. I'll go take care of it," Wilson said, scrambling up.
House gently placed Bartok Bear at the top of one of the boxes, making sure not to crush him with anything heavy.
Jacksonville, North Carolina – 1971
"Didn't I tell you to mow the lawn this morning?" John House roared.
"Yes." A twelve year old Greg answered nervously, unconsciously backing away and trying to put some space between his father and himself.
John's hand snaked out and backhanded Greg before he could even say anything else. Greg gasped, but made no other sound. Don't say anything. Don't talk back. Let him yell. The sooner he gets it all out, the sooner he'll leave you alone.
"And why didn't you do as I told you?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I…went for a swim with Kenny."
"You went swimming and shirked your chores." John's voice was dangerously low.
Greg nodded miserably. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry."
Another slap, then John said, "Well, you're about to be a whole lot sorrier. You're gonna go mow the lawn like you were supposed to in the first place. Then you're going to go to every single neighbor on the block and ask them if they would like you to mow their lawn for free today. Think of it as community service. Understand?"
Greg nodded, eyes down.
"What the hell does that mean? Do you understand? Answer me, boy."
"Yes, sir. I understand."
Greg finally came home after dark, sunburned and exhausted by the North Carolina afternoon heat and humidity. Although John and Blythe were still eating, he was late for dinner, which meant he didn't eat, so went straight to his room instead of joining them. He knew he at least had some peanut butter stashed inside his closet. He opened the door and slid inside the closet, sitting down in the dark corner. He felt around on the floor and finally found what he was looking for. Bartok Bear had been waiting for him since the last run-in with John, patiently keeping watch over Greg's most secret, safe place. He grabbed the bear and the half-full jar of old peanut butter next to it, and curled up into ball, holding Bartok close to his chest. Even though crying was for sissies, he couldn't stop a tear from leaking out. "It's not fair," he whispered, and began a long conversation with Bartok about everything he couldn't say to John.
House was still staring at Bartok when Wilson came back to get him. "Come on, the pizza's going to get cold. And your microwave needs electricity to run, so…."
House finally looked up, his eyes rimmed with red. If Wilson didn't know better, he would swear House had been crying. But House just reached for his cane and pushed himself up.
"I hope you didn't get those nasty anchovies," was all he said.
When they finally unpacked the box with Bartok Bear, Wilson put him on top of the piano. He thought it was a fitting place for the bear that had helped House practice and become the player and person he was today. The next day, though, the bear was gone. Wilson didn't think anything of it, and soon forgot about the bear until about six months later. He had been looking for his red striped tie, which House had inexplicably borrowed and not returned. Looking on the floor of House's closet, he never found the tie. The closet floor was mostly clean – very odd for House. In fact, had Wilson sat down on the floor, there would have been enough room for his legs to stretch out and then some. Even though the top shelf was stuffed to the brim with boxes and knick-knacks, there were only two items on the floor. Bartok Bear was sitting in the far corner of the closet, propped up against an old jar of peanut butter.