Warning: Contains spoilers for the Season 4 finale and possible foreshadowing of Season 5.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to Fox and to David Shore and his talented colleagues. I am borrowing them for personal pleasure, not financial gain. Please don't sue.
Thanks: To Susanne and Tom, for the free samples that got me addicted to my current drug of choice. Also to Susanne for being my beta and helping me transform a story that started out as fluff into something much darker, funnier, more complex, and (hopefully) true to the show.
Author's Note: I was active in the X-Files and BtVS fandoms way back when, but this is my first foray into the House universe. Feedback would be very much appreciated.
"Kinda love you got
Knock me off my feet
Let it all hang out…"
He belted the whisky the bartender had just slid in front of him, wincing at the obnoxiously upbeat strains of Van Morrison prancing over the loudspeakers. Were they mocking him on purpose? Jackie Wilson said. I'm in heaven when I see you smile. Fuck. He thumped down the empty glass with more force than he'd intended and signaled for another.
He hadn't seen Wilson since before the seizure. He thought he remembered spotting him standing just inside the doors to his room at one point, but it could have been just one more in a series of bizarre dreamlike fragments from his stay in the ICU. In the memory, Wilson didn't speak, just nodded and walked away. What had that nod meant? She's dead. You're alive. You can't always get what you want.
In contrast, Cuddy had spent the night, maybe more than one, in the chair next to his bedside. He'd woken several times to her holding his hand; once to her dripping tears on it without a sound. He'd realized that he'd been blind: that she loved him, and that she had put up with him, and been there for him, for so many years. And all he could think was that he wanted Wilson. At least he recognized that this was ungrateful of him. But it didn't change the way he felt.
He'd been released from the ICU once Cuddy decided that he was stable. After one day in a standard room, she'd even discharged him, possibly because by then he was conscious for long enough stretches to aggravate the nurses to the limits of their patience. She'd also warned him on pain of death to rest, to avoid doing anything criminally stupid, and to call her at once if he noticed any potentially serious changes in his condition. He noticed right away that she hadn't suggested that he call his team, or Wilson.
So he'd stayed away from the hospital for a few days, but he hadn't been trying to avoid Wilson, just those glass green eyes of Cuddy's, full of frustrated affection and thwarted maternal instincts. He'd puttered around the apartment, tried to rest. Every time a telemarketer called or a figure walked by his window, he'd nearly been choked by hope. But it was never Wilson.
He hadn't gone to the funeral. Wilson would be there, but surrounded by Amber's friends, colleagues, family. House didn't want their first encounter to take place in public, when any attempt to engage Wilson could be perceived as causing a scene, as childishly demanding his attention at an event that should not be all about House. He was also honest enough to acknowledge that he didn't want their reunion to be overshadowed by her memory. So here he was, holding his own private wake with about fifty people he didn't know.
House did feel deeply sorry about his part in Amber's death. Sorry that she had come when he called, as he so often had, to bum a bar tab and a ride off Wilson. Sorrier that he had not been able to save her despite his brilliant diagnosis, just like in the old joke: The operation was a success, but the patient died. And yes, in one sense, she was dead because of him. But there had been no malice, no intent to harm. He couldn't be held responsible.
Except that he could be, however irrationally. And his intentions didn't mean shit, only results mattered – hadn't he told his team so often enough? Besides, even if there hadn't been any intent to harm her that night, with those particular actions, could House really say that he was free of malice, of a jealousy at times so intense that he had wished her dead, or at the very least, out of his way?
He scowled and knocked back another Scotch. That mental path led to madness and belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. The universe did not reshape itself according to his desires. Wishing for a glimpse of Cuddy's breasts did not cause sudden wardrobe malfunctions, except in his hallucinations.
Then again, there was an alternative explanation for Wilson's recent scarcity. Guilt. Even though House had just survived a concussion and a heart attack, Wilson had encouraged him to undergo deep brain stimulation in a last attempt to uncover any possible clues to his girlfriend's illness. House had been stunned by the enormity of the implication: Wilson loved her more than him. Just to make sure that his best friend understood what he was asking, House had rephrased the request deliberately: You think I should risk my life to save Amber's. And Wilson had nodded, stabbing House through the heart while looking him full in the face with those beseeching brown puppy dog eyes. Perhaps the reality of the choice he'd made, to no avail as it had turned out, was haunting Wilson as much as it haunted him.
But House instinctively distrusted that explanation, precisely because it was the more emotionally attractive hypothesis. Accepting it would make him as weak-minded as the fatally empathetic fellows he'd overseen all too often. No, it couldn't be amantadine poisoning. Because that would mean that she's dying and there's nothing we can do. No, House couldn't possibly conclude that Wilson was avoiding him because he felt guilty about his decision and feared being denied House's forgiveness.
Then all of a sudden his mental gears succumbed to the excessive lubrication, something clicked, and House realized that both explanations, blame and guilt, were likely true. After all, people like Wilson generally felt terribly guilty about not being able to forgive people like House. He chuckled mirthlessly and raised a glass to his own insight. "Cheers," he said to no one in particular, downing the contents in one gulp. The bartender turned, looked him over, and confiscated his keys.
He couldn't even taste the Scotch anymore, much less remember how many he'd had, and even its color felt like an accusation. Time to leave. By old force of habit he began fumbling for his phone, groping at his back pocket for a full five seconds before he recalled the futility of the gesture. One phone call – only a week, but it seemed like a lifetime ago – and because Wilson hadn't come then, he certainly wouldn't come now. That was, after all, the whole reason House was here in the first place. What is the sound of one neuron firing? He must be even drunker than he'd realized. Well, the walk home would help clear his head.
He grabbed for his cane, missed, and nearly ended up on the floor. The gracelessly aging too-redhead with incipient melanoma next to him stopped fiddling with the stem of her wineglass long enough to reach over and pass the cane to him, waiting patiently as his fingers struggled to close over the still unfamiliar, and apparently duplicated, handle. "Hey, you don't look so good," she said. "You need a hand?"
"Nah," he responded, trying not to slur. "Just a leg." He winced as he came down on it. Fucking figured that his wasted thigh still hurt like hell even when every other part of his body felt more than comfortably numb. He took a tentative step away from the barstool, waited a beat for the swaying room to settle a bit.
"Hey Doc," the barkeep cut in, expertly clearing away the last few glasses sweating in front of him. "Time to pay up."
"You got my keys," he pointed out irritably. "Don't worry, I'll be back." Clutching the cane, he lurched across the floor, concentrating on keeping a straight path towards the exit. He missed it in the end, but only by a few inches. Correcting course, he awkwardly shoved the door open and his reluctant body outside.
It was later than he'd thought, and the temperature had plummeted. A freak late spring snowstorm had blown through the previous night. Snowbanks rose on either side of the sidewalk, pristine this morning but now spattered with grime from shoveling, even in the dim neon lights. Apparently he'd forgotten his coat inside, but it seemed like too much effort to navigate the slippery steps to the bar a second time. He was grateful for the alcohol that coursed through his veins, allowing him the illusion of a warm glow.
He spotted no cabs along the way. After two blocks, his leg was screaming bloody murder. Opiates were obviously contraindicated in his current condition, but no one ever claimed that alcohol enhanced judgment. Although his fingers felt huge and clumsy as if wrapped in cotton gauze, he managed to pop the cap off his bottle of Vicodin and down a couple of pills, closing his eyes in the sudden wave of relief that was as close to bliss as anything he'd known. When he couldn't replace the cap, he swore and hurled the bottle and its remaining contents onto the snow, then staggered on.
Two more blocks, the halos of the streetlights wavering in and out like tired fireflies. He couldn't feel the cold at all anymore, or much of anything else. Drowsiness enveloped him like a heavy wool blanket as he cut across the park on the corner of his street. A bench appeared out of nowhere, seductively nudging his shin. He didn't consciously make the decision to lie down, only felt dim surprise at the hard wooden slats rising to press against the thin fabric covering his shoulder. Just a few minutes' rest before he limped the last hundred yards to his townhouse. Somewhere in the back of his whisky-and-Vicodin fogged brain, a small voice hinted that this wasn't such a great idea, but for the life of him he couldn't remember why.
House hadn't come to the funeral. I wasn't sure whether this was meant as a display of sensitivity or carelessness on his part, and I wasn't even sure which one I wanted it to be. His posse was in attendance, however, both the old guard and the new: Cameron predictably teary, Chase's hand placed comfortingly at the small of her back; Kutner uncharacteristically silent; Hadley's unlined face looking older and surprisingly stern. I think that they might have been surprised by my dry eyes, but the past few days had exhausted my tears, leaving me hollow and brittle as an old stick. So probably it was just as well House hadn't come; the briefest encounter with him might have caused me to snap.
I hadn't spoken to him since my visit to the ICU. I'd seen him alive, awake, and probably surprised and disappointed to find himself that way. A dark voice deep inside me whispered that an unjust exchange had been made. A more dominant one tormented me with guilt for this thought. While they duked it out over the next few days, I took the stairs, shut the door to my office, avoided the cafeteria. I knew, of course, that House could walk through the unlocked sliding door from the balcony that adjoined our offices at any time. But he didn't.
Tonight I'd stayed at work late, nothing to go home to now but an empty new bed. Since Amber's death, I'd hardly slept. I wept into the pillows and tossed and turned for hours, entangling myself in the cold, damp sheets. When I finally did doze off, it was to dreams of her, the same theme recurring over and over again. We would be entwined in bed together, kissing, stroking, laughing, not a hint of foreboding to cast a shadow over our happiness. But then, inevitably, at some point I would turn away to reach for something on the nightstand – my cell phone, a condom, a glass of water – and when I turned back, I was in bed with a grinning skeleton. Night after night I awoke shaking, drenched with sweat, my throat as raw as if I'd been screaming in my sleep.
And yet, being awake was worse. I couldn't understand how the rest of life went on even as she retreated, a little more each day. No matter how tightly I clasped her pillow to my cheek, I could no longer detect the faintest echo of her scent. Thinking about her was like repeatedly exposing a photograph to the light, every eager look causing the details to fade. I was already unsure of the exact timbre of her voice, the shade of her eyes.
All I knew was that things had been new and beautiful and perfect when I lost her. Would I have felt the same way after two, three, four years of marriage? Maybe. Maybe not. But even House had agreed that Amber didn't fit the pattern of the typical Mrs. Wilson. Maybe this time it would have worked.
Even once I'd finally dragged myself down to the parking garage and into my car, I couldn't force myself to go home. I decided to go for a drive, thinking that the quiet winter night might be soothing somehow. Kidding myself that my route was entirely aimless, I was mildly surprised when I found myself gliding past House's building. The windows were completely dark, unusual even at this hour, not even the dim flicker of solitary Friday night television in evidence. I felt a twinge that might have been either disappointment or relief and drove slowly on.
Passing the park, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and paused to look back. Someone was lying curled up on the bench on the far side, apparently without even a coat. Poor bastard must be dead drunk, or actually dead, not to notice the bitter cold. It wouldn't take long to check, call an ambulance if the guy was still alive. I pulled over and got out, reaching for my phone as I started stalking towards the huddled figure, thinking that there might be something familiar about the uncompromising line of that long back.
Then I saw the cane and broke into a run.
Up close, the man was wearing dark jeans and a pathetically meager collared shirt. His face was turned against the back of the bench, but there was no mistaking the elegant hands, the long legs, the incongruous black and orange Nike Shox. Having put a stitch in my side in the haste to reach him, I now hesitated, dreading the answer to the most urgent question, but quickly steeled myself and pressed my fingers just below the bony corner of his jaw, searching for the carotid pulse. Nothing at first. Then a slow, weak flutter. He was still alive.
"House!" I leaned in to shout roughly in his ear, wrinkling my nose at the reek of whisky that sighed between his parted lips and oozed from his pale skin. "House, get up!" Getting no response, I shook his shoulder. Then I tried pulling. Without resistance, he rolled onto his back, eyes still closed.
"House, you're an idiot! We've got to get you inside!" I could feel myself grimacing as I slapped him lightly on the cheek, then again, with more force. His eyes slitted open and then closed again without apparent recognition.
"GodDAMMIT, House! Did you really think that I could stand to lose both of you?" The violence in my breaking voice shocked me and seemed at last to penetrate House's alcoholic haze. He raised his head a little to regard me with clouded eyes widening in reluctant comprehension, opened his mouth as if to speak. But in the end, he only turned to puke weakly onto the snow.
I yanked off my overcoat, swung House's legs around, tried to maneuver his body into a sitting position so that I could wrap him in it, but he just sagged limply against the back of the bench, head lolling to one side, a thread of sour saliva stretching from the corner of his mouth. "You're not going to give me any help here whatsoever, are you?" I asked. No response, so I answered myself, "Well, what's new?" and then felt slightly ashamed. After a lot of effort, I managed to slide one of his arms most of the way through a sleeve. Then I pushed his torso forward to get the coat around his back. He groaned softly, and as I forced his other arm into the coat sleeve, warm acrid steam rose to my nostrils.
"Think I peed myself," he slurred.
"Nothing I haven't seen before," I assured him, slinging his arm around my shoulders and hauling him to his frozen feet. (This wasn't strictly true. I'd seen House inebriated many times, but never out of control. In fact, it was usually difficult to tell the difference. How did you identify a loss of inhibitions in a man who, most of the time, didn't seem to have any?) I stooped slightly to retrieve his cane from where it rested at a drunken angle against the bench, not unlike its owner.
The walk to House's building wasn't that long, but the man was dead weight, well over six feet tall, and heavier than his lanky frame might suggest. Plus I wasn't exactly in top condition, having allowed my workouts to lapse during the past month. By the time I had dragged him to his door, I was breathing hard and drenched in sweat despite the cold.
I had to ease him to the ground in order to stretch to retrieve the key I knew he left over the lintel for just such an occasion. House just slumped in unnerving silence, legs splayed out like a rag doll's, head drooping onto his chest. I fumbled with the lock, nearly frantic to haul him inside and warm him up before he became yet another alcohol-associated hypothermia statistic.
At last I got the door open. This time I didn't have the leverage to lift him from the side, so I had to squat, grab him under both armpits, and straighten my knees, thighs straining to support his weight. We stumbled inside together in a grotesque parody of ballroom dancing.
His condition seemed severe enough to warrant both external and internal rewarming, stat. I manhandled him into the bathroom and began drawing a hot bath. I had to leave him lying on the floor for a minute while I jogged back to the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil, cranked up the thermostat to 80 F, then returned at a run.
House hadn't moved. I rolled up my sleeve, checked the temperature of the water against my wrist. Then I knelt beside him on the floor, peeled him out of my overcoat, and began fumbling with the buttons of his light blue shirt, popping a couple off in the process. He seemed barely conscious, pulse and respiration slow and shallow. I stripped off the shirt, revealing his lean torso, so white with cold that it was nearly blue too.
I couldn't help noticing, not for the first time, that House's upper body was impressively muscled for a middle-aged man whose most strenuous exercise program, to my knowledge, consisted of changing channels with a remote. But under the harsh fluorescent lights, his face looked every day of fifty. I briefly wondered whether the past week's events had etched the lines more deeply in his hollow cheeks and added the first patches of white to his stubble, or if I had just been too caught up in my new relationship with Amber to see it before.
I had to lay him on his back again to unfasten his sneakers and yank off his urine-soaked jeans. After a second's hesitation, I pulled off his boxers too, averting my eyes even though he probably was barely aware of my presence and almost certainly incapable of remembering any of this in the morning.
Then I had to get House into the bathtub. In and of itself, this would be no small feat, and I realized there was every chance that I would end up in the tub myself if he passed out, or slipped, or sobered up enough to get ornery. At the very least, my clothes would likely get soaking wet when I hauled him back out. There was a dingy white bathrobe hanging on the bathroom door. I kicked his clothes into a corner, unknotted my tie, unbuckled my belt and wristwatch, and methodically removed the rest of my clothes down to my briefs. Finally I placed my watch in one shoe, folded my clothes and set them on top in a tidy pile.
House was only semi-conscious during these proceedings, his eyes occasionally slitting open but then rolling back into his head. He neither assisted nor resisted me as I leveled him up laboriously from behind, sat him precariously on the edge of the tub, then got in myself and pulled him up in after me. He sagged bonelessly in my arms. I swiveled his body, eased him down to his buttocks, then kept hold of his shoulders as I climbed back out of the tub. Finally I was able to slide him down into the water, just his face and bony knees protruding.
The terrifying bluish tinge gradually receded, was replaced by his normal unhealthy pallor and then a light flush. As his body warmed, consciousness crept back. House seemed confused, trying and apparently failing to focus on my face as I bent over him, supporting his head. "I'm cold," he said indistinctly. Paradoxically, he started to shiver as his body temperature rose and his hypothalamus reoriented itself.
I gripped his upper arm. "Stay with me."
But House was getting agitated as the spasms worsened. If he started flailing around or tried to break out past me, he could injure himself. Besides, the warm water had done its job. I pulled a ragged towel off the rack, helped him slide back up to a sitting position, wrapped the towel around his shoulders. He was just barely able to get his legs under him as I lifted, although he swayed on them uncertainly. With my help, he climbed clumsily out of the tub and stood dripping on the tile.
I dried him off, rubbing the towel vigorously up and down his back and buttocks and legs as he leaned into me, still shaking uncontrollably. Then I pulled another towel off the rack to attack his chest and stomach. I avoided touching his groin or mutilated thigh.
The apartment had warmed up by now. I helped House into the bedroom, pulled back the blankets, and got him positioned in the center of the bed. The kettle was whistling furiously. I left him alone for a few minutes while I went through his cupboards for tea, settling on a half-empty box of chamomile, my personal favorite. I carried the steaming mug back into the bedroom.
When I laid my hand on his forehead to check his temperature, House opened his eyes blearily. "My leg hurts," he uttered, somewhere between a growl and a whimper. "Need my pills."
"No Vicodin tonight, you're flirting with liver failure as it is. You can have aspirin with your tea." I helped him clasp his hands around the mug. "Here, drink up."
I was fully prepared for him to throw it at me, but he obediently lifted the mug to his chattering teeth and swallowed, grimacing. "Hate this stuff."
Then why do you still have it? I started to ask, then checked myself. Stupid question. Obviously it was so he could offer me some if I came over. Which I hadn't done since I started seeing Amber. I felt a twinge of guilt but squelched it mercilessly. I was here now.
Once the tea had disappeared, I pushed House firmly down, tucking him under the covers and rummaging in the closet for an extra comforter for good measure. His body was still wracked with bone-deep shudders, and I was afraid that he might fall out of bed.
Suddenly I remembered hearing or reading somewhere that the best way to warm someone up was to crawl naked into a sleeping bag with them. This was not really the kind of technique one learned in medical school, but in this situation, given everything else, it seemed weirdly appropriate. No sleeping bag, of course, but we could make do. Trying not to overthink it, I turned off the lights, shed the bathrobe, and slid into the bed. I could use a bath myself - I stank of exertion and nervous sweat – but I didn't think that House was in any condition to complain.
House was already curled up, shivering, his long, lean back to me, arms folded against his chest and hands tucked under his armpits. I wrapped myself around his body, pressing myself against his cold, goose-pimpled flesh. House went still for a second, maybe just in surprise, then resumed shivering, albeit a little less violently. I rested my damp forehead against his prickly neck.
I had never been in House's bed before. It smelled like Zest soap and Selsun Blue and cheap fabric softener, but underneath there was the familiar smell that was House himself, something complex and sad like sere autumn leaves with a layer of rot beneath. A dry, wild, lonely smell. I inhaled it and hugged him and held his hand, waiting for him to fall asleep.
His voice, whisky-hoarse and childlike all at once, gave me chills. "Yeah?"
A long pause. The shuddering gradually stilled. Surely he was asleep by now.
"Don't want you… to hate me."
A short laugh that almost exactly resembled a sob escaped me. "I don't hate you, House."
Another pause, and then a mumbled, "I think I… kinda deserve it."
I held him closer, squeezed his hand. "Well, as you've pointed out so many times, life isn't fair. We don't always get what we deserve."
House sighed and settled back into me. Soothed by the sounds of his rough but regular breaths, I drifted off to sleep.
He swam up to consciousness gradually and painfully, as if struggling through a dark, viscous, evil-smelling sea. His mouth was parched and foul, his head felt like jesus christ what were you thinking, his bladder was only a sneeze away from bursting, and his ruined thigh was on fire. Sunlight pouring through the open blinds stabbed him behind his eyelids.
Subtler details eventually emerged. Judging from the soft rasp of sheet against his skin as he shifted his leg slightly to ease the pressure in his pelvis, he was naked. House rarely slept in the nude, particularly during the seasons when he could save money by turning the thermostat down. Although, in fact, the air in the room seemed unusually warm.
His right arm was asleep. It took him several seconds to realize that this was because he was lying on his side, cutting off circulation to the arm, and that his left arm was wrapped around the warm, soft waist of another person.
This discovery really gave House pause. Since Stacy, he'd had his share of paid encounters, but he had never invited anyone into his bed who would still be there in the morning. And no matter how desperately drunk he'd gotten in public, he'd always eventually gone home alone. Eyes still squeezed shut, he racked his battered brain, which informed him in no uncertain terms that his memory was out sick and he should try again later, after a bottle of aspirin and possibly a liver transplant. Try as he might, he could not summon anything from the night before since parking his bike outside the bar located most conveniently to his apartment. But surely he wouldn't be so physically uncomfortable if this were a dream. Ergo, there really was someone in his bed, apparently sleeping soundly under the possessive curve of his arm.
And having finally digested the enormous improbability of this finding, House found himself irresistibly curious. Just who was the fair maiden whose lightly snoring form currently adorned his boudoir? Without raising his aching head, he blinked his crusted, bleary eyes, squinting against the cruel light, and inspected the uncovered half of his supine sleeping companion. The face was turned away, towards the window, but he could see pale, pleasing skin, scattered moles on the upper arm, bobbed brown hair that had become rumpled in the back.
It suddenly registered that something was definitely amiss. Two things, to be precise. Which meant it wasn't actually a miss. In fact, unless he was wrong, and he was never (well, hardly ever) wrong, it was…
"Wilson," his breath whooshed out of him, as if he'd been sucker punched in the gut.
I was deep in a dream, the same one that I'd had every night since Amber died. In this version, I was lying on my back, while she was curled up against my side, propped up on one elbow, smiling at me. Playfully she trailed her fingers up to flick at one of my nipples, making me gasp and grin, then moved them slowly, tantalizingly, lower and lower. She slipped her hand into my briefs and twirled my public hair around her fingertips, giving little tugs that sent exquisite sparks down into my groin. Then she slid her hand back up, clasping my middle, and leaned forward, eyes closed, flushed lips parted for a kiss.
Suddenly I started out of sleep at the sound of my name, apparently hissed directly into my left ear. A sinewy arm tightened spasmodically around my waist, then withdrew as abruptly. I opened my eyes, was made aware of sunlight streaming into an unfamiliar room, sheets the color of dull metal, a warm body beside me. For a dazed second I just lay there, disoriented, failing to fully register Amber's absence or the events of the night before.
Then memory flooded back, and I snapped my head around. House was alive. Tears of relief sprang unbidden to my eyes. Other realizations followed. House was awake. And naked. And so was I, or near enough. My cheeks warmed. I swallowed against what felt like a fatally engorged Adam's apple, trying valiantly to ignore the engorged state of quite another portion of my anatomy, and managed to croak, "You're awake."
House didn't respond right away. He raised himself on his elbow, forehead wrinkling, lips clamped tightly shut. The extreme embarrassment of being caught by House in his bed was suddenly slightly outweighed by the pleasure of seeing him at once completely consumed by curiosity and utterly unable to articulate it. His gaze flickered over his own bare chest and my half-exposed body (could he possibly have missed the suspicious tenting of the comforter?), then wandered off into the middle distance as he pondered.
"So… I can't remember a thing since I left work yesterday, but putting the state of my head and my bed together, I can only ask… did you ply me with liquor and have your way with me last night?" His tone was light, ironic, but I knew him too well not to recognize the latent panic that flared deep in his bloodshot eyes.
Suddenly chilled by the realization that our friendship might well hang in the balance, I made my voice as neutral as I could: "I tried, but you were too drunk to put out."
Even as he winced against what must be one hell of a hangover, House twitched the corner of his mouth upwards in a relieved, appreciative smirk. "Good." Pause for comedic effect. "It would be a bummer if I'd just had my first free sex in years and couldn't even remember it."
He turned his face away, pulled back the covers and swung his feet onto the floor, the muscles in his back bunching up in sympathy as they made contact. "Where's my cane?"
"I… I'm not sure. I think I picked it up when I found you. Maybe outside the apartment?"
"Great thinking. Never mind, just give me a hand." When I failed to throw off the protective bedclothes and scurry to his side immediately, he turned to aim those piercing blue eyes at me and said more sharply, "Help me to the bathroom. This bladder isn't going to walk there on its own."
Apparently House had decided that the best way to deal with this awkward situation was to ignore it head-on. Shocker. My clothes, of course, were still on the bathroom floor where I had left them, and although House's robe was in reach, an attempt to cover myself would only have drawn more fire. My face hot with shame, I slid out of bed and walked around to sit down next to House, who slung his arm matter-of-factly over my shoulder. We stood up together gingerly, House grimacing in pain and leaning into me for support even as I futilely endeavored to keep a sliver of distance between us.
We lurched to the bathroom, cheek by jowl as it were. His week-long stubble was softly scratchy against my skin, and his once-sharp hipbone, now less pronounced, like most attributes of his aging body, pressed insistently against my nascent love handles with every step. I concentrated on navigating and avoided looking down: too many causes for caustic remarks between House's self-consciousness about his scar tissue and my… It occurred to me that the juvenile comment on my obvious erection that House hadn't made might be an ominous sign. Quick, Wilson, think about baseball. Or maybe Antarctica.
Getting House positioned at the john was difficult since I basically had to wedge myself between his body and the wall. At least his bladder seemed blasé about the whole affair. I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead, noting the shift in his profile as his jaw went slack in relief at the sound of the vigorous stream hitting the water.
It sometimes seemed like I spent half my working days chatting with House at the urinal, but that didn't make this any less awkward. I'd never held him up while he'd peed before. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure that I'd ever held him up before last night, period. For all his willingness to cadge free meals and drinks, or to bully Cuddy into granting him handicapped privileges, House had always been extremely sensitive about accepting any overt physical assistance from me.
When he'd finally finished, House reached for a square of toilet paper, dabbed, and flushed. Then he unhooked his arm from my shoulders and hobbled over to the sink to rummage around inside the medicine cabinet.
Stunned, I remained standing by the toilet. He was clearly in a great deal of pain, but he was just as clearly capable of standing and even walking on his own. Therefore, like so many of my interactions with House, this had been a test, one that was probably still going on. (An outside observer might wonder why I never seemed to get tired of this sort of thing. But then, medical school tends to select for people who like tests and are pretty damned good at them.)
Leaving the cabinet empty-handed, House continued his search, checking under the sink and in the wastebasket, muttering in frustration. At last he rejoined me at the toilet. While I watched, House braced himself against the wall and pried the lid off the tank, then triumphantly fished out a plastic baggie that apparently had been taped to the inside. It contained a prescription vial.
"You need help," I blurted, then could have kicked myself.
Unzipping the bag, House turned and said mildly, "And here you are, my very own human crutch." He unscrewed the cap on the vial, shook two pills into his palm, and swallowed them dry. "Of course, I don't usually get to mean that quite so literally."
That was when I realized that, yes, this had been a test, but that I wasn't necessarily the one who had passed it.
House braced himself against the wall with his left hand, closed his eyes for a minute until the drug kicked in and the lines of pain in his haggard face softened. Then he looked straight at me. "So what did happen last night, exactly?"
I struggled to keep from drowning in those deceptively clear blue eyes. "All I know is that I found you in the park on the corner, and you were very drunk and very cold."
He lifted an eyebrow, but not skeptically, more like he was trying to piece this together with the other evidence at hand. "So you brought me back here, gave me a sponge bath, and put me to bed?"
His eyes continued to bore into mine, but their expression was completely unreadable despite all my years of experience. "Probably saved my life."
I nodded slowly, then couldn't help asking, "So what, now you owe me one?"
"Nope," he answered, hardly hesitating. "The way I figure it, this makes us even."
My first, incredulous, furious thought was that nothing, nothing either of us could possibly do, would ever make us even, but the intensity of feeling that accompanied it was immediately, instinctively damped down, the thought that had triggered it forced to the back of my mind. My second was that his statement actually made sense in the bizarro universe of Houseian logic, given the premise that I had effectively risked his life to save Amber's the week before. And hot on the heels of that one came the third, which was, So what? After all, this was a man who had proven time and again that he would willingly risk his own life out of curiosity, or sheer pig-headedness, without a second of concern for the value of that life to himself or to the people he would leave behind.
In the end, what I said was, "Jesus Christ, House, if you don't value your own life, how the hell do you expect anyone else to?"
He frowned fractionally, in all likelihood unraveling every one of my unspoken thoughts in order to follow the thread that had led us here, then nodded. "Good point! Although I think it's a little inappropriate to go around taking other people's gods' names in vain, don't you agree?"
"Stop being a condescending bastard, House. You were outside in the snow, drunk off your ass less than a week after splitting your skull open-"
"Bored now. Stop being a sanctimonious bastard, Jimmy." He turned away abruptly. "And get your clothes on and get out of here before I jump your hot young bod." He limped awkwardly past me and out of the bathroom.
Chasing a naked cripple into his bedroom was still beneath even my dignity, so the conversation was over for now. Still fuming, yet simultaneously bemused, I pulled on my socks and pants, shrugged into my shirt, draped my tie around my neck, sat down on the toilet lid to tie my shoes. I would have to have the overcoat drycleaned.
When I emerged, the bedroom was empty. I found House on the sofa in gray sweatpants and an old Joy Division t-shirt that said Love Will Tear Us Apart. He glanced sidelong at me, stony-faced, the abhorrent awareness of vulnerability lurking behind blue eyes. But as usual, he cut right to the chase.
"Before you go, what I really want to know is… why did you leave me for… me?"
I couldn't pretend not to understand what he meant. But maybe this was a chance for him to understand something, too.
"Amber wasn't you," I told him. "Not really. She was manipulative, and she knew how to get what she wanted. But-" I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat "-what she wanted… while we were together… was to make me happy." I didn't bother to state the obvious implication: that in all our years as friends, House had rarely, if ever, seemed to want that.
"That's not the Amber I knew," House said, but for the first time that morning, he sounded uncertain.
"Well, people change," I replied simply.
He looked away, then back at me. "Not… usually." I felt my forehead crease in disbelief. Not usually? Coming from House, this could only be interpreted as an enormous concession, and also the closest thing to a sober apology that I was likely to get.
"House, are you okay?" I asked, half-teasing, half in genuine concern. His eyes had an unfamiliar expression, at once inward and far away.
He blinked, glared. "I'm fine. Thanks for asking. You can shut the door behind you on your way out."
I wasn't fooled, and I still had one more thing to say, although I didn't know quite how to approach it.
"House… Amber left me a note the night she… went to pick you up."
"Your point being…?"
I sighed, rubbed my eyes, summoned up yet another withdrawal from my finite account of patience. "Well, at least when I got home, I would have known what happened to her."
House scowled, obviously disappointed that I was not playing at the top of my game. "No, you wouldn't. As proven by the fact that you didn't."
I felt immediately foolish, yet still stubbornly confident about the larger point that I was trying to make. "The point is, she cared enough about me not to want me to worry." And you don't, and never have, and probably never will.
House just looked at me with the resigned expression of someone who had a moron for a best friend but kept him around for entertainment value and free fries. "Wilson. Worrying is what you do. You think that it does any good? You think that you could save everyone, everywhere, as long as you knew in advance that they were going to die? Well, big news: we're all going to die, and there's not a damned thing that you can do about it."
I stared back at him, started to say something, then shook my head. Why even bother? House and I had danced this number together too many times. He would continue pushing away, spinning off out of control, for as long as he had faith that I was still waiting in the wings to catch him. And one day I would not be fast enough.
I raised my hands in defeat. "Good-bye, House." He didn't turn his head as I walked around behind the sofa to the entryway.
"See you," House said gruffly as I shut the door.
Did you come here for forgiveness?
Did you come to raise the dead?