Author's Note: Spoilery allusions through the beginning of Season 6. We never see Foreteen, Chase doesn't kill any patients on purpose, and no one performs in a talent show in the loony bin. On the other hand, House dies at the end of Season 3. You win some, you lose some.
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 my valiant beta readers Susanne and menolly_au, whose constructive criticism over multiple drafts improved the first half of this piece immensely.
Dedication: To Chris Norris and Marie Franco, and to Jerrie, the best cat ever.
Chapter 1: March Goes Out Like a Lamb
The day had begun like any other. Cameron was sitting at the desk answering House's mail, Foreman was tilted back in his chair, leaning against the wall with half-lidded eyes, and Chase was doing the crossword at the conference table with occasional assistance from his more literate colleagues. "Five letters, Golden Bowl author. Anyone?"
"James," the other two supplied in unison. "That's my favorite novel," Cameron added.
"There's even a movie with Nicole Kidman," Foreman pointed out.
Chase sighed. It was a bitter, blustery sort of day, and he'd have been just as happy to stay curled under the covers for another hour instead of dragging himself in to be greeted by House's typical tardiness and Foreman's customary contempt. Even happier if Cameron had been willing to stay over at his apartment the previous night instead of claiming that she had a phone date with her brother. "Sorry, I guess I'm a little distracted."
That earned him an eye-roll. "Yeah, I've heard that sleeping with your co-workers can have that effect."
"I'm not Chase's co-worker, I'm his boss," House corrected Foreman, limping into the conference room even later than usual. "Oh, sorry, was that our little secret?" No one so much as smirked, but he couldn't really blame them for remaining resentful - even he still felt uncomfortable whenever he thought about his disastrous attempt to be enrolled in that clinical trial. And that experience really wasn't going to improve their reception to the announcement that he was about to make.
"Never mind. It's good that you're all here, because I have something to tell you. I've been diagnosed with terminal cancer." House loped over to the counter and poured himself a cup of coffee in the ensuing silence.
It was finally broken by Foreman, who said sourly, "That joke just isn't as funny the second time around."
"It's no joke," House said, as gently as he could.
Chase reddened. "You can't seriously expect us to believe you after what you pulled last month." He glanced at Cameron for support. She had folded her arms defiantly but was starting to look uncertain.
"Anyone besides me reminded of the story of the boy who cried wolf?" Foreman said to the ceiling.
"The boy who cried wolf," House pointed out, "was eventually eaten." Something must have crept into his voice, because Foreman finally rocked forward and looked, really looked, at his face.
"Oh god," Cameron said, covering her mouth. "You're serious."
"How-" Chase started to say, and swallowed hard. "How far along?"
House took a deliberate sip of coffee. "I have a nine centimeter pancreatic adenocarcinoma with hepatic involvement. So I'm guessing… maybe a few months."
Chase and Cameron were now looking almost as stunned and bereft as they had two weeks ago, but there was still a glint of suspicion lurking in Foreman's eyes. House jerked his chin at him. "You wanna see my CT scan? Or, wait, how about if I take off my shirt and you can palpate the mass for yourself?"
"Jesus," Foreman said, his face torn between pity and disgust.
"Uncle Thomas," House riposted nastily. "Here, give me your hand."
"Stop it!" Cameron snapped. "We believe you." Her eyes began welling with tears.
"Finally," House said. "No case today. Cover your clinic hours. Do whatever it is you do when we're not working together. Try having sex at home for a change." He finished the rest of his coffee and turned to rinse the mug in the sink. When he swung around again, Cameron and Foreman were walking down the hallway together, already beginning to bicker.
One week earlier
"You didn't flush," Wilson pointed out.
"I didn't pee!"
The next morning, House was in Wilson's office, no closer to relief. "I haven't peed in three days. I need you to write me a prescription for alfuzosin."
"If you hadn't peed in three days, you'd be dead."
"Intermittent dribbling doesn't count. Besides, at this point, being dead might be preferable."
Wilson peered closely at his face. "Jesus, House, how much Vicodin have you been taking? You're jaundiced!"
"Probably just the pee filling up my eyeballs," he groused.
"Right, because that's how these things work. This is serious! We need to lower your dosage right away."
"I can't lower it, I'm in pain! Mainly due to my distended bladder because I can't fucking pee!"
"You know that the Vicodin is probably causing your ureters to spasm. Drop the dosage and you'll stop being such piss-poor company in no time."
House rolled his eyes at the atrocious pun. "Come on, my bladder is killing me. Write me a scrip or I'll write it myself." The second he said it, he knew he'd gone too far. The scars from their trials with Tritter were still far too fresh.
"That's not funny," Wilson snapped, and House saw plainly that if they hadn't already been in his office, Wilson would have walked out. Actually, even odds said it would still happen.
But then his friend blinked and frowned. "Wait, your bladder hurts? Not your leg?"
"My leg has finally been upstaged."
For the first time, Wilson looked worried. "Uh… I'd like to schedule you for an ultrasound."
"What the hell for?"
"It could be something other than the Vicodin." He clearly had phrased it that way in the hopes that House would jump at an alternative explanation and come along quietly instead of pitching a bitch at the prospect of being manhandled and subjected to his scrutiny. Just as clearly, he had no desire to divulge the possibility that had just occurred to him.
House had no reason to think that it was anything else, but he figured that once Wilson got a good look at him, he'd feel guilty enough to write that prescription. "Fine," he said. "But make it snappy; I have to get back to check on Sgt. Jim."
"John," Wilson corrected him automatically.
"House, you've lost weight."
"Oh, stop. You obviously don't need flattery to get my pants off," House said, gesturing eloquently at his hospital gown.
"No, really. Have you been eating less?"
House shrugged. "Maybe. I haven't had much appetite lately."
Wilson snapped on a pair of gloves, smoothed some gel onto House's abdomen, and positioned the transducer, keeping his eyes on the monitor. "Well, you weren't lying about the distended bladder."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"I'm going to move upwards and see if I can find anything else." House sighed and willed his body to relax, hating the feeling of helplessness. He couldn't see the monitor from this angle, which was probably deliberate on Wilson's part.
Suddenly Wilson went white. He looked from the monitor down to House's body and back. Then he wiped off the transducer and replaced it. "What's wrong?" House demanded.
"Hold on a second," Wilson whispered. He placed one hand on House's ribcage and began groping around just underneath it with the other. After a few seconds, he froze. "There," he said.
Wilson slid his hand out of the way as House brought his own up to replace it. Palpating patients had never been his specialty, and his skills had only gotten rustier over the past six years, but subtle this was not.
"We'll do a CT and biopsy to confirm," Wilson said, avoiding his eyes.
"Is it just me, or does House seem unusually pissy today?" Cameron asked Foreman.
Wilson delivered the verdict in House's office, first drawing the blinds so that it would seem slightly less like they were in a giant goldfish bowl.
"The biopsy confirmed pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. The primary mass is now nine centimeters long, and it's spread to the liver. Surgery really isn't an option at this point. We might have caught it sooner if the Vicodin hadn't masked the pain and slowed your bowel. But as you know, pancreatic cancer is usually pretty far advanced by the time any symptoms appear."
"So that's it? I'm dying?"
"Pretty much," Wilson said, looking him in the eye at last.
"Wow. You won't be making your usual ten dollars off THAT delivery. I always thought that you were a lot better at this," House sneered.
"Yeah, well, it's different when it's-" Wilson broke off. His mouth worked silently for a few seconds. "You know what I mean," he finally murmured.
House did. "But you love everybody," he couldn't help pointing out.
"Not like this," Wilson said simply. After a pause, he blinked hard and placed his hand on House's shoulder. They stayed that way for a while, not looking at the clock or at each other's faces.
At last House roused himself, almost imperceptibly shrugging off Wilson's hand. "Have you told Cuddy?"
Wilson shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. "It's your call," he finally managed to mumble.
"Like that ever stopped the two of you before," House scoffed. He experienced a bitter sense of satisfaction as Wilson visibly flinched.
"That's different," Wilson said. "We were trying to keep you from killing yourself."
"No point in that anymore, huh?"
"It's your call," his friend repeated more vehemently, a universe of meaning implied in his dark eyes.
The twin triumphs of diagnosing his mendacious Marine with hereditary telangiectasia and unburdening his bladder brought House only temporary relief. For one thing, interacting with Wilson had become more tedious and awkward than he could ever have imagined. The diagnosis was now the elephant in the room. Wilson was obviously determined not to bring it up before he did, yet just as clearly incapable of thinking about anything else while in his company.
During lunch later in the week, House found himself making outrageous speculations on wombats and leather ties just to see whether Wilson was paying attention, and when faced with failure for the umpteenth time, he finally lost his temper.
"God, Wilson! When did you become this boring?"
Wilson blinked. House could see surprise, hurt, and annoyance vying for supremacy on his friend's face.
"I'm sorry if my concern bores you," he said sarcastically.
"Your problem," House said, snagging one of his fries, "is that unhappy people always make you feel guilty."
"And yours has always been," Wilson shot back, "that happy people make you miserable."
"There, see? It's like old times."
"This isn't a game, House," Wilson began, but then bit his lip.
"No shit. Solitaire with a fistful of papercuts would be more fun than this." House grabbed his cane and limped out of the cafeteria, leaving Wilson to bus his tray.
The following afternoon, Cuddy came to his office, shut the blinds behind her and stalked over to his desk. Her skin was paler than usual, enhancing the shadows revealed by her low-cut burgundy blouse.
"Did we have an appointment?" House asked. "Because I already have a hooker scheduled for tonight, and I'm not as young as I used to be."
Her failure to react was his first clue. "Wilson was just in my office."
"Oh, are we playing musical chairs? Should I go to Wilson's office now?"
"You'll start treatment immediately?" It was not really a question.
"So much for doctor-patient confidentiality," House growled, grabbing his cane and levering himself to his feet.
"Yeah, you can sue us later. When's your first chemo session? You can have all the time you need; I just want to know your schedule so I can handle your cases accordingly."
House hesitated, a little puzzled. "Cuddy, it's stage four. You know the stats as well as I do. Chemo could kill me as quickly as the cancer."
Cuddy shook her head, looking away with suddenly bright eyes. "Or it could prolong your life by… months, maybe years. You don't know."
"De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt," House remarked as if to the ceiling.
"Goddammit, you don't know. Wilson doesn't know, and even you don't know. You owe it to us to at least try."
"Really?" House said sarcastically. "I owe my friends months of misery, nausea, and pain, and probably the privileges of holding my hair and wiping my ass, just so that they can feel like I fought the good fight?"
Cuddy reached out and grabbed his arm, then laid her other hand gently against his cheek. "Like we fought the good fight," she said. "Yes."
House stared down at her for a moment, then pulled himself out of her grasp and limped towards the door, saying, "I think I will go to Wilson's office, after all."
Cuddy watched him go, looking crestfallen. "Oh, shit," she sighed.
"You told him?"
"You were the one who was so worried about him! It's been three days - I thought that he needed a kick in the ass!"
Wilson had already been wan and haggard from a series of sleepless nights; now he was wild-eyed as well as he paced in front of Cuddy's desk. "I've been going out of my mind trying to back off and give him the time and space that he needs to figure this out. I only talked to you today to keep myself from getting in his face about it. And then the first thing you do is go give him a lecture on how to behave responsibly in this situation? You know what the man's like! Telling him what to do is just a surefire way to make him dig his heels in!"
"I know he hates taking your advice, but I thought that if I-"
Wilson laughed rudely. "You thought that words from an authority figure would be more welcome? How long have you known him?"
Cuddy covered her face with one hand. "You're right. It was stupid." Predictably, Wilson immediately looked contrite and came over to touch her shoulder consolingly. She waved him away. "I'm okay. I'm not the one you need to be concerned about right now."
"At least you'll let me be in the same room with you," Wilson said darkly.
Cuddy stared at House incredulously. "You want to do what? You never go anywhere!"
"Yeah, well, I've accumulated a lot of vacation days, and this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take them, if you get my drift."
"So you're going to the Galapagos? Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Well, it will have to wait. As of now, you have a patient."
"I have no patience," House corrected her without missing a beat.
"You said it, I didn't," Cuddy said sweetly, handing him Emma Sloane's file. "She's an award-winning photographer for Rolling Stone. Should be right up your alley."
House flipped through it briefly. "She's pregnant. Sounds more like she's right up your alley."
Cuddy fixed him with a glare. "Get in there. And be nice."
If he hadn't known better, House would have inferred that the universe disapproved of his scheme and was deliberately thwarting him at every turn. Every plan he had made so far to get away to parts unknown turned out to have a fatal flaw. He had just managed to book a kayaking trip to Johnson's Strait when his fellows invaded his office to inform him that Emma was jaundiced. There was no time left to lose.
House left the Cottages standing around glumly and headed to Emma's bedside in the ICU to deliver the news. "The swollen bladder is not the only problem. We can't leave it inside you; we have to terminate."
"Can't you deliver him? Put him on a respiratory machine until, till you figure out what's wrong?"
"We can. It won't matter. The fetus is still at least two weeks away from being viable."
Her face relaxed in relief instead of despair. His heart sank. "Well, I'll suffer through this for two more weeks then."
House spoke patiently. "You're on dialysis for your kidneys. Kidneys can wait. They don't make dialysis for your liver." He paused. "You're not going to make it two more days."
She fought tears, looked away, shook her head in denial. "I'm not going to let you kill my baby."
"It's killing you."
"I'm not having an abortion."
"It's not a baby, it's… a tumor." Even as Emma held up her hand to stop his words, he was struck by the thought that someone seemed to be projecting around here. Great, now he was channeling Wilson, making a mockery of House's best attempts to avoid him.
House tried one last time. "I understand dying for a cause, sacrificing your life so that your child might live, but that's not the choice here! Either it dies, or you both die."
"Or you fix him, and we both live!"
"I can't fix it." So true, of so many things. He struggled to his feet. "I'm scheduling a D&C."
"I won't consent," Emma said, lifting her chin defiantly. "So I guess you have two days to figure it out."
He swallowed and left.
He'd suspected that Cuddy would identify with the patient too much to persuade her to undergo the one procedure guaranteed to save her. He had not been prepared for the alacrity with which she usurped his case, convincing his team to undertake a transjugular hepatic biopsy on the off chance that the liver problems were just a huge coincidence, then swamping the fetus with steroids to speed its lung development over their protests. House tried to convince himself that the tightness in his chest when Cuddy dismissed him from Emma's case and sent him off on his vacation was just another symptom of metastasis.
He was packed and waiting for his cab to the airport when she turned up, triumphant, at his door.
Chase predictably rose to the challenge, proposing exploratory surgery to differentiate between the possible causes of the abnormal lung buds on the most recent MRI. And then, in the OR, House had experienced what could only be described as an epiphany.
"Uterus is fully exposed."
"Start draining the amniotic fluid."
"Haven't you ever sucked beer out of the bottom of a keg? Where did you go to college? Give me that."
In the middle of the aspiration, a faint but unexpected pressure prompted House to pause. He looked down and saw that he'd been caught and held by the fragile fingers of the incomplete creature that he'd described as a parasite. In that moment, however illogically, it was transformed for him from a fetus into a baby, and thus, a patient in its own right.
He was acutely aware of Cuddy's hopeful blue eyes fixed on his face, and suddenly he felt certain that together, they were going to resolve this case. Cuddy had provided the irrational passion to pursue the end, and he had contributed the intellectual audacity to discover the means. Thanks to them, Emma wouldn't be required to sacrifice her most precious possession in order to save herself.
The fact that the patient went into v-fib a few minutes later and Cuddy nearly electrocuted him restarting Emma's heart only served to hammer the point home.
Cuddy stopped him on his way out to crow over her victory as well as to present him with a little surprise, a first class round trip ticket to Vancouver Island so that he could travel in comfort to his kayaking trip.
House thought that he detected a faint whiff of Wilson and couldn't help wondering whether this was yet another awkward attempt at reverse psychology, but he took the envelope without any protests to that effect. Instead, he said, "You didn't need to apologize."
"I'm not, I told you why I-"
He shook his head. "You screwed up."
"I saved a life. I saved two lives."
"You let your maternal instinct get the best of you and nearly killed two people," he said, stepping forward to get in her face.
As the conversation continued, he revised his conclusions. There was no conspiracy. Cuddy was just happy to have her fairytale ending, and she seemed sincerely to want him to be, too.
"Be happy," he repeated sarcastically to himself as he turned away from her glowing face and limped towards the exit.
But on his way home, House reconsidered the events of the day, including Cuddy's well-meaning gesture and his own obstinate attempts to escape his circumstances. He'd been fooling himself that what he really wanted was to take this last chance to see the world before leaving it forever. The only way to make the most of the time he had left was to do what he did best: diagnosing and saving the patients whom no one else could help. He tore the ticket in half and tossed it in the trashcan, then curled up on the couch and relived the memory of that tiny hand in his.
Chase lingered after the others had left and stood staring at a point just beyond House's right ear. Hackles raised, House halted, clutching his cane and feeling as though he might bolt right through Chase's body at any moment. "What?"
Chase took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. "I forgive you."
House regarded him with the same expression he might use if Chase had suddenly dropped trou and urinated on the carpet. "For what, exactly?"
"For one thing, letting us think that you had cancer last month and watching us all make idiots of ourselves."
"Ironic, isn't it? Consider it a case of premature ejaculation."
"Also, almost four years of mockery and verbal abuse." He said it lightly, but the earnestness in his eyes alarmed House. "And there was a certain punch in the face."
House sneered at him. "I was going through withdrawal. You were being a pain in the ass. How many times do I have to apologize for that?"
"Once would be nice," Chase said.
"Yeah, well, you ratted me out to Vogler," House retorted. "So I say we're even. At least."
Chase shrugged, and the corners of his mouth crooked up. "So do you forgive me?"
House swallowed with some difficulty, staring into the startlingly sweet smile, the ancient hope in that impossibly young face. "Yeah."
"Good. Then we're even." Chase stepped forward.
House eyed him. "You're not going to hug me again, are you?"
"I'd like to," Chase admitted. "But I won't if you don't want me to."
"I get a choice this time?"
"I'll take that as a yes," Chase said and gracefully closed the space between them to enfold House in his arms. He buried his face between the other man's neck and shoulder, then tightened his embrace with a suspicious snuffling sound. This time House didn't ask whether he was crying because his own throat was too tight. Instead, after a few seconds, he extended his own arm to pat Chase awkwardly on the shoulder.
At last Chase pulled away, swiping his sleeve across his cheek. House, almost unbalanced by the sudden loss of support, was forced to quickly reposition his cane. "I'm not your father," he told Chase cruelly, to compensate for his momentary weakness.
"I'm not yours either," Chase said, but he smiled as he spoke, as if to take the sting away. "I'll see you around."
Foreman found him in the clinic as he was exchanging patient files at the nurse's station. He followed House into an empty exam room and stood in the doorway, arms folded, staring at him somberly.
"You know I'm not much for hand-holding," Foreman said. "But if you need anything, all you have to do is ask."
House, stubborn son of a bitch that he was, wouldn't ask Foreman for a damned thing, and they both knew it. "All I really need right now is a shoulder to cry on," House replied, pulling a sad clown face. "But if that changes, I'll be sure to let you know."
Foreman nodded fractionally, reached out as if to squeeze House's arm, then changed his mind and abruptly turned away.
Cameron did not come to see him. He'd expected something, a lecture, a declaration of devotion, a pitiful bouquet of flowers with a "Get well soon" balloon. Once his clinic duty was done, he began stumping irritably around the hospital in search.
He finally found her in the lab, recalibrating the centrifuge. "You are so predictable," he teased.
She sniffled, fished a damp tissue out of her lab coat pocket, and blew her nose. "Is that what you came here to tell me?"
"No," House said, and hesitated. "Actually, I wanted your advice."
"Do you need to fire one of us again?" she asked, her voice wavering between distress and defiance.
His little girl was all grown up. "Nope. I need to decide whether to let Wilson put me through chemotherapy. Well, technically Cuddy," he said, lowering his voice confidingly. "But I bet that Wilson put her up to it. He's been playing his cards very close to the chest lately."
Cameron tilted her head, considering. "What are the odds?"
"Does it matter?"
"Not really," she replied frankly. "If you do the chemo and die anyway, you'll be a tragic hero and we'll all say how brave and unlucky you were. If you don't, you'll be the selfish bastard who wouldn't even try to help his friends keep him alive."
"I think I love you," House said. Cameron flushed, although whether with pleasure or shame, he wasn't really sure. "So you're saying that I should go ahead with treatment?"
Cameron shrugged. "Even if it doesn't work, Cuddy and Wilson will appreciate the effort, and at the end, you'll have access to all the morphine you want."
"The real way to a man's heart is through his veins."
"Also, the chemo will suppress your immune system, so you'll have to stop seeing patients almost immediately."
House smirked. "Sounds like a win-win. Thanks for the advice." He turned to leave, then stopped to wag a finger at her. "Now, don't you go getting your hopes up about any marriage proposals, there, missy."
Cameron planted her hands on her hips. "You can be a real shit sometimes," she told him.
House peeked around the corner to make sure that Cuddy was alone before continuing the last few yards to her office. She was elbow-deep in paperwork but set everything down immediately when she spotted him. "House," she said, trying to keep the relief out of her voice. "You're still here."
"I'll do the chemo, but I want Dr. Chernin to be in charge of my case."
Cuddy cocked her head. "Why? Wilson's the best oncologist we've got, and he happens to be your personal physician."
"Yeah yeah yeah," House said, raising a hand as if to fend her off, "when I need a prescription refilled, he's my go-to guy. But I don't want him involved in this."
"It isn't a good idea. Wilson's not… objective."
"Because he actually cares about you as a person?"
"Well, maybe none of your friends or colleagues should be involved in your care."
"Colleagues, fine. Friends, no. Fortunately for you, I don't have very many to exclude."
"Last time I checked, I could count them on the fingers of one thumb," Cuddy replied with some asperity. "House. Be reasonable. If Wilson were… were sick, and no one knew what was wrong, you would take his case. Tell me that you wouldn't pursue it to the ends of the earth."
"I'm not Wilson."
"Right, you don't care about patients at all. You never risked your license by telling a bald-faced lie to get a bulimic woman a transplant, for example." House sighed but was otherwise silent. "What, you don't have an answer to that one? I do. Let Wilson be in charge of your case. If things are as hopeless as you seem to think, what can you possibly have to lose?"
Only everything I've got left, House didn't say aloud before nodding brusquely in defeat and setting off to find Wilson.
House poked his head into Wilson's office. "I've decided to do the chemo," he announced.
Wilson tried not to look triumphant and almost succeeded. "Really? Are you sure?"
"Yes. BUT," he added, leveling a finger at his friend, "we both know that this isn't a cure. At some point, the misery of living is going to outweigh the misery of dying. When that happens, I'll let you know. And then you'll put me out of my misery. No discussion. That's the deal."
"All right," Wilson said solemnly, extending his hand. They shook on it.
Wilson explained the course of treatment with great care and concision. Intravenous gemcitabine weekly, along with an anti-emetic and pancrelipase at meals. Small, frequent servings; bland foods; no alcohol. House sat, to all appearances listening attentively, and made notes in his planner. Wilson managed to squeeze him into an initial appointment for the following morning.
"Greg?" She cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and signaled to her assistant to take a quick coffee break. "This is a surprise." They both knew that it was more than that. She felt suddenly dizzy and nauseated, and her heart was hammering in her chest.
"I know." He paused. "I want you to help me draw up my will."
"Mark and I are doing great, thanks for asking. What the fuck, Greg? We haven't spoken since you seduced me and then dumped my ass, and now you're calling me out of the blue to ask if I would help you draw up your will?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry about that. I thought it would be easier for both of us if we weren't in touch. Listen, I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."
"Important," she repeated, hoping that this would all start to make sense soon.
"Greg," she groaned in exasperation. "Are you just jerking my chain here, or what? Your will, really. What brought this on, a sudden glimpse of your own mortality?"
"You could say that."
"Yeah, well, you know, Greg, I'm a just little weirded out here, and I'm not sure that this would really be appropriate. I can recommend someone, a friend from another firm-"
"You represented me a year ago," House pointed out.
"Sure, when we were actually on speaking terms. Also, I was employed by your organization. This time you'd be my private client. It would be personal."
"What, you're afraid that there would be a conflict of interest? Don't worry, I'm not planning to leave you anything."
Stacy snorted. "Don't think I've forgotten that you still have some of my underwear."
"Actually, no. I put it on Wilson in a moment of weakness, and he swears I'm not getting it back."
"And thanks very much for that mental image." She sighed, massaging her temples. "Fine, whatever. Just give me a minute to check my calendar." She skimmed through quickly. "We're pretty swamped right now. How about the last Friday of next month? I'll drive into town after work and we can have dinner."
There was a pause. "Would it be possible to make it sooner?"
Stacy felt a flash of annoyance, followed quickly by one of fear. "Greg? Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Of course. I just, you know, don't want to lose momentum, let it slip off my radar."
"Are you sure?
"Would I lie to you?"
"I mean about anything important," in an aggrieved tone.
"You once told me you'd been a back-up guitarist for the Stones."
"That was only so you would go out with me."
Stacy decided that they were moving into dangerous territory, counted to five, and thought of Mark. "Fine, how about the last Friday of this month?"
Another pause. "I could probably hang on until then," House agreed.
"I'll see you at Spiletto at eight." Stacy hung up, feeling the familiar heady mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion that had always accompanied her interactions with Greg. She might need an alibi. She would certainly have to be very, very careful.
Having made up his mind to prolong his life and powers of problem solving for as long as possible, House threw himself into the part, faithfully following the regime that Wilson had outlined. To settle his stomach, he avoided coffee and most of his favorite foods – Indian, Thai, anything fried or too greasy. He cleaned out his office and gathered up the contents of his liquor cabinet at home, storing all of his alcohol in a safe place where he wouldn't be tempted to reach for it on an especially bad day. Once a week, he walked down to the outpatient clinic for his fix, watching the straw-colored poison drip from the IV bag on its way into his vein.
Stacy was shocked when she saw him. He looked as if he had aged twenty years instead of one, his hair dull and thinned, clothes hanging loosely on his always-lanky frame. "Greg!"
"You look great," he said, lowering himself into the chair opposite with more care than usual.
"You look like shit. What the hell is going on with you?"
House brushed self-consciously at his balding scalp. "Tried this new product. The ads promised a full and luxuriant head of hair in two weeks, but I guess you just can't trust anybody nowadays."
"You've lost weight."
"I'm on a diet. Wilson's been on me to watch my cholesterol."
"Greg, do you have… cancer?" she whispered, leaning closer.
"Yes!" he said loudly enough that she jumped a little and heads turned all over the restaurant. "Congratulations, you dragged it out of me with your mad detective skillz."
"Oh my god. Is it your prostate?"
"Does Mark approve of your prurient interest in my prostate?" He sighed. "It's pancreatic. Not one of the warm, fuzzy ones."
"How are you doing? Wilson has you on chemo, doesn't he? Is it working?"
"Stacy… it's just palliative. It might slow the progression of the disease, but it won't cure it."
Stacy swallowed. "How long?"
"That's what she said," he leered.
"Please don't do that. If you make me laugh, I'm going to start crying."
"Funny," House said. "I say these things because otherwise I might start crying." He held her gaze for a moment, then flipped through the menu. "Have you tried the sweetbreads?"
The next morning, Stacy convened an emergency meeting of Housaholics Anonymous in the lobby of her hotel. As soon as Wilson walked in, she leveled an accusatory finger at him. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
He sat, staring uneasily like a puppy eying a rolled-up paper. "House told me that he'd asked you to prepare his will. I thought you knew!"
"How long have you known?"
"Three weeks. Seriously, Stacy, I thought he'd already told you." Wilson sighed. "In retrospect, I probably should have wondered why you hadn't called me."
Cuddy entered as they glared at each other. "Stacy," she said, embracing her. "I'm glad you're here."
"About damned time. Wilson, how's he doing? He looked like a hol-" Stacy realized that "holocaust survivor" might not be the most apt comparison in present company and finished somewhat lamely "-low shell of his former self."
Wilson frowned but didn't pursue it. "In terms of his prognosis, it's too early to tell. In other ways, much better than could be expected."
"You remember how he was after his leg-"
"We remember," Stacy and Cuddy chorused.
"Yeah, well, I thought it would be like that. I figured he'd be a holy terror. The man's always bragging about much he gets away with because of his cane; you'd think that cancer would be carte blanche for bad behavior. But he's been keeping all of his appointments, following the dietary guidelines, everything. It worries me."
"What doesn't?" Stacy teased.
Wilson lowered his voice self-consciously. "He's just been so… obedient. Meek, even. It's weird. I worry that we… that we've broken him."
Cuddy was staring at him with a complicated mixture of compassion and exasperation, as if she couldn't quite figure out how her favorite department head had made it through med school. "Just because House might be trying to be a better person doesn't mean that he's broken. Maybe he's finally grown up enough to appreciate what we're trying to do for him."
"Yeah, that must be it," Wilson said sarcastically.
"Better late than never," Stacy shrugged.