Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Greg House. Including his creators. And theirs.
Prompt: 39 - Wilson is dying and House needs to perform a dangerous test/procedure/treatment to save him but Cuddy has said no and warns they'll be over if he doesn't obey. House has to choose between Wilson and Cuddy.
Winter had come, raw and rheumatic. In the campus park behind the hospital skeletal trees swayed ponderously in the occasional gusts of wind, branches groaning like old men's joints. The air was frigid, too cold to breathe. The ground beneath their shoes was as stiff and solid as a cadaver.
Sat side by side on a bench, Wilson and Cuddy warmed their gloved hands around steaming thermos cups. Their backs were pressed to the hard edge of the picnic table and the moisture that intermittently tinged the air and pattered on their faces told Wilson that they faced the lake. The warm weight of his young black Labrador lay sprawled across his sneakers. From time to time, the occasional scrape of its tail amidst the last of the fallen leaves rustled them into a brief hurly-burly.
They had talked about everything and nothing in the fifty minutes they'd spent together, being chauffered aimlessly around the outskirts of the campus. But the dog had grown restive in the stifling warmth of the car, so they'd parked up by the water to give it a break. Wilson shifted his toe along the fleshy softness of the dog's side in an idle caress; his new best friend had not been alone in needing a respite from the claustrophobic clutches of sympathetic fury and frustration.
"You should forgive him, you know," he said at last, staring into the middle distance without seeing really the pale glow of the sunlight dappling the water.
Cuddy sighed, her long synthetic hair fluttering audibly against the upturned collar of her jacket as she shook her head and needlessly avoided his eyes.
"How can I?" she asked, in a voice worn thin by the unending battle between love and hate. "I've put up with some outrageous things from him throughout the last fifteen years but this? This was beyond the pale."
Wilson shifted the direction of his gaze from the abstract chiaroscuro of the midwinter lake to the misty length of the white cane propped against the bench beside his knee.
"House lives beyond the pale," he pointed out, fostering some vague notion that their friend did indeed have some Irish blood in him that would lend validity to the careless adage. "You can't know him and still be surprised by this."
"I'm not," Cuddy told the dog. "But I can't forgive him. Can you?"
Three months ago Wilson would have wagered his car, his loft apartment and whatever was left in his bank account that he could not and would not and sworn that House could go straight to hell with a French loafer up the rear to help him on his way. Now, he chuffed out a soft chuckle, imagining the pale bursts of breath dancing amusedly around his face.
"It's hard not to forgive a man who, a month after my fourth emergency surgery, cling-wrapped me to my bed to prove that it could be worse. After all, I could be—"
"Paralysed," Cuddy guessed. She laughed too, reluctantly. "That bed is totalled, by the way. It took the caretaker fourteen hours to get the cling wrap off and he damaged the mechanisms doing it."
"Put it on my insurance bill," Wilson offered, but Cuddy's hair whispered against her collar again. No.
"I've billed it to Diagnostics. After all he's done to you, he can do something for you too."
Wilson glanced at her, more out of habit than because he stood any chance of reading her face.
"He saved my life, Lisa. I think that counts as doing something for me."
"It counts as assault." Cuddy's voice held the ragged cadence of words shouted over and over in an unresolved war with her partner and employee. "He violated your DNR."
Wilson waited for the sharp shock to his stomach and that terrible feeling of falling inside, as if he should put out both hands to catch his intestines where he'd been gutted. There was a flicker of discomfort, then, nothing. He sipped his hot chocolate and shrugged.
"Yeah, he did."
He could feel Cuddy staring at him.
"How can you be so calm about this?"
"My heart tends to stop if I do anything too exciting."
He didn't have to see it to know Cuddy's eyes had rolled so hard they should've fallen out of her head.
"You're as bad as he is," she grumbled.
Beneath the disparagement of their sense of humour, Wilson could hear the ache of loneliness in her voice. She was as stubborn and headstrong as House herself, but she was rarely oblivious. She'd known for years how often he humoured her, tempered himself in the relationship. Except, of course, when they fought. Then minimum safe distance was at least three states away.
Wilson said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Both of the fiery duo were more at ease around him than each other. He gave Cuddy a few seconds to collect herself, feeling carefully around for the thermos, then offered it to her.
As she poured, she said: "You know, I think I'd forgotten that chemo could cause cardiomyopathy." She chewed her lip and added, "Administration rots the brain."
Wilson half-smiled obligingly. "It's like that when you're first diagnosed. Medical training goes out the window. The brain doesn't seem to process the details when its you."
They exchanged wry empathic looks. The pause was sad. Cuddy laid a gloved hand over Wilson's, threaded her striped woollen fingers between the chilly tips of his and frowned at his black fingerless mittens.
"It's the doxorubicin in the ABVD regime," Wilson offered to break the quiet before it broke his heart. "It can cause toxicity-induced cardiomyopathy. It's rare. Hodgkin's lymphoma has an eighty-five to ninety percent survival rate, especially at stage two. But it happens. Case in point." He sighed. "My luck to develop the least fatal cancer in the whole cornucopia and die from the treatment. Nearly die."
"I'm sorry." Cuddy's hand tightened on his, it and her voice becoming tight and choked. "I'm so sorry. I tried to stop him. I know you never wanted to survive like this."
A flutter of her fingers against his suggested she'd indicated the cane, the dog and the HeartMate II Left Ventricular Assist Device clipped to his hip.
"Really? I always thought it was my life's ambition." Residual anger, directionless now, and resentment at his predicament made Wilson acerbic. "It was on my check list of things to do. Have no wife. No kids. No job. Be half blind from a random stroke. Take up semi-permanent residency in the Cardiac ICU. And have my heart running off batteries. I love having the life span of…"
"The Energizer bunny?" Cuddy interjected.
He felt her start, then the reverberations of a stifled laugh. What on earth was she worried about? Her sense of humour was as warped as his.
"House?" she hazarded.
"House," Wilson confirmed. "Look, I'm forty-nine, Lisa. In seven months I went from being the head of oncology and playing sport at weekends to being a patient in my own department and being exhausted by the effort of getting up to pee. I have, at most, seven years of that joy – and more likely two or three. The LVAD is a bridge to a transplant that I can't have. Of course, I didn't want to live like this."
"That… That's what I don't understand." Cuddy let go of his hand to scrape a hand across her face, her hat rustling as she itched vigorously at her scalp beneath her glossy black wig. "How can you forgive him? He tore up your DNR!"
Wilson drank his hot chocolate again, waiting for her agitation to subside. To his left, the driver of the ambulance car they'd commandeered to escape to the campus grounds stomped his feet and chafed his hands together against the cold. Wilson glanced off toward the lake, enjoying the soft warmth of the sun scuffing against his cheeks like the tentative brush of a friend's hand. The blue of the lake became House's eyes in his imagination, bottomless pools of love and anger, glittering with frightened tears and the shards of hope.
"He forgave me," Wilson said, realising how easy it had become to accept that. "He forgave me – for signing it."
He felt Cuddy's attention on him again, doubt and trust and questions all knotted up inside her. House would've dismissed it with a snort, but Wilson was sure that the incense-burning hippies were right about this: lose one sense, gain a sixth. Technically another fifth. Whatever. The numbers could go hang.
"He did my medical this year." For the first time, perhaps because no one was telling him he needed to express himself, to feel what he was feeling in order to adjust, perhaps because she needed it, Wilson found he was inclined to talk about it. "I had back ache, Lisa. That was all the heads up he got in the exam room. Three days later he's banging on my door at five in the morning demanding a consult and I have to self-diagnose Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The elevators were broken that day – he climbed six flights of stairs to get to me."
Wilson palmed his empty cup, remembering the wild flush on House's cheeks, the steely neutrality in his eyes, the sudden buckle of his gimpy leg and sickened collapse onto the couch. He remembered the first numbing rush of shock as he realised whose results he was studying. Then the beeps of the phone as House placed an emergency call to oncology and silently held out his cell phone for Wilson to self-admit. He remembered the desolation in House's eyes that time – and the times after that.
"I had my first episode of heart failure in his office," Wilson went on, quietly and without any of the hectic emotion that had got tangled up in it the first few times he'd tried to think back. "The second I collapsed at his feet in a stalled elevator. I died in front of him twice and the third time I left instructions for him not to save me."
"You did what you felt was right for you!" Cuddy cut in, her voice a fraying patchwork of anguish and exasperation. "House – he just didn't want to be defeated by a puzzle!"
"How to save the man with a duff heart that the transplant committee have written off?" Wilson shook his head, thinking of the raw loneliness in his friend's eyes, his terror that all he'd have left was his medical obsessions and a passionate rollercoaster relationship between pure chemical attraction and make-believe happy families. "No. I'm not just a puzzle to him, Lisa."
He paused, let her absorb the honesty and the familiarity and the sting of that, before he reminded her quietly:
"And neither are you."
Cuddy swallowed noisily, wiped at her face again.
"I know that," she said huskily. "I know. But…when my time comes…" She curtailed the thought, wrapped her arms around herself, and parroted a platitude as if it meant nothing. "If you really love someone, sometimes you have to let them go."
That notion had haunted Wilson a few times. House's efforts to save him had been more demandingly selfish than altruistic. He'd never really got the hang of give and take in the same relationship. He gave endlessly to Cuddy; grabbed, demanded, snatched or stole everything he could from Wilson. It had been like that for so long Wilson wondered if the world wouldn't skip a revolution the day that stopped.
"Don't sign a DNR then," he said lightly. "Red rag to a bull."
Cuddy chuckled wetly.
"Thanks for the…death lesson."
Wilson snorted. He could feel her pulling herself together, gloves rasping against skin as she wiped her eyes, bench creaking as she sat up straighter. The warmth and the weight shifted off his feet as AC/DC sat up hopefully, ears perked. When no one stood, the dog sighed and slumped back, elbow joints digging into the top of Wilson's sneakers.
"Maybe I knew," Wilson ventured, finally giving voice to a theory he'd been warily guarding since he woke up tubed and hooked up to his own personal power grid. He glanced at Cuddy, challenged her. "You should've known. When you told him no, you must've known that he'd save me anyway."
Cuddy wriggled beside him, guessing rightly that he knew about the ultimatum outside the O.R: Him or me, House? Him? Or me? If you do this, we're finished!
"Noohhh," she protested, swift and automatic. "No, I—I…"
She broke off, turned her face up to the neutral winter sky and sighed. In the long contemplative pause that followed, Wilson knew why she'd forced the choice.
"I did," she owned at last. "I did."
There was an odd beat where an oath should be, then Cuddy's arm was around his shoulders, pulling Wilson against her, her hat and wig crackling and rough against his temple, her chapped lips possessive and guilty against his cheek.
"I did," she whispered into the shell of his ear.
Her forehead dropped to his shoulder. Wilson set his cup aside, holding his guts in with one hand. The other came up instinctively to cradle the back of her head.
"Maybe that's why I can't forgive him," Cuddy muttered into the cool, frost-speckled shoulder of his pea coat. "I—oh, I'm a selfish cow!"
Wilson stroked her back, grit his teeth and smiled tightly, humourlessly, at the shadows between the trees.
Cuddy took a deep breath and raised her head. She hugged him tightly again, still leaning into his shoulder.
"That is why, isn't it?" she murmured, glancing sidelong toward one of the high glittering windows Wilson knew she could see in the dark lump of the hospital. House's window. House's office. "I can't forgive him, because…because I don't think there's anything to forgive him for."
Wilson squeezed her shoulders for a moment, then gave her a gentle shove, needing to be away from her now, needing a moment to be silently selfish himself instead of the same idiotically self-sacrificial Prometheus he seemed pathologically incapable of not being.
"Go kiss and make up with him," he advised.
Cuddy kissed him again instead and hopped off the bench. She wavered for a moment, then straightened her coat determinedly.
"I will," she promised. "I've got an appointment first, but no doubt he'll gatecrash it anyway." She touched a tender spot over her heart, where a central line would sit and smiled, seeming happier than she had in months. "I'll leave you the car and driver. Don't stay too long out in the cold – your lungs aren't strong enough."
Wilson saluted her mockingly, deciding to accept that as the reason the air was suddenly hard to breathe.
Her nose wrinkled. "Stop that! I get enough of that from House."
She started to walk backwards, slowly, as if she wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to him. She paused under the oak tree where she'd taken to trying to feed the ducks with her daughter, while House insisted on teaching Rachel how to hit Wilson on the nose with bits of screwed up bread because he couldn't duck.
Cuddy stopped, running her fingers over the trunk where House had carved all of their initials inside a heart like some high school kid with his first love. Instead of the requisite 4eva there was a series of notches, counting down the days until he had to cross off a name.
"He's going to move back into the loft, isn't he?" Cuddy inquired, studying the tree. "You know, when the time comes."
Wilson nodded. "Yeah. You don't mind?"
She shook her head, fingering – he suspected – her own name on the wrinkled bark.
"No. No, I'm glad. I'll make sure you can take all the equipment you need to be discharged to stay with them. You'll take care of each other."
"We'll get Rachel stoned every night, teach her to play poker for her tenth birthday, drink too much and coerce her into being a doctor – or a stripper," Wilson deadpanned.
Cuddy laughed and the effort to get back enough breath to join her felt worth it. She let go of the tree and spun in a circle, arms spread, welcoming the warm touch of the sun and the scattering of idle flakes that spiralled down from the tree. For a few seconds in the sparkling air it seemed as if she were inside a snow globe: fragile, kitschy, but enduring. Wilson chuckled again, softly, realised in time that he would forgive her too.
"Go. You're going to be late."
Cuddy scrunched up her nose and lips ruefully.
"Something like that," she agreed and set off back toward her hospital.
Wilson watched until he couldn't distinguish her colourful silhouette from the blur of buildings, streets and trees. Then he turned back to face the lake. Speaking to the same hidden shadow that he'd smiled at before, he said:
"So. How long has she got left?"
The faint, acrid tang of smoke on the wind preceded the lopsided crunch of sneakers on leaves and the dull tromp of a cane tip against the earth.
"Six months, by your very last diagnosis. You should know that."
"How do you know that?" Wilson spoke without rancour.
The bench juddered as House plonked down beside him. There was a soft hiss as he crunched his cigarette out against the moist wood.
"Can't hide ovarian cancer, try as she might. Kicking me out in a pissy fit over saving you was a pretty big symptom."
"You're fighting over me so that you don't have to fight over her?"
The way House said it, as if it were that simple, proved that it wasn't. His voice held that sad, stubborn edge it had when he'd refused to have his leg amputated after the infarction. A hard decision. A brave decision. A decision even he thought was stupid. A decision that would hurt like hell to live with.
Abruptly, Wilson understood.
"You're going to let her go."
"I love her."
The words were matter of fact, the tone cracking and hopeless.
Wilson shifted until their shoulders bumped, felt the answering prop and pressure that, through sickness, health and practical jokes had kept them standing side by side.
"Should've known you were the soppy romantic," he jibed gently. "All that time you spent projecting it onto me."
"Hey, in six months you're voluntarily moving back in with me. Expect mockery over easy every day."
"Can't leave you on your own," House countered, with a note of relief overriding his sadness. "You might electrocute yourself with a hairdryer. Got to have someone around to stop you from—"
"Dying?" Wilson demanded, less kindly.
Okay. Fine. He'd almost forgiven House.
He felt like a tool a second later as House squirmed, cleared his throat, and still sounded young when he said:
"Whatever. I don't want to be the last man standing."
Wilson felt his lips buck at the improbability of it all.
"Fate's a funny thing," he acknowledged. "What the hell is that?"
House flicked the top off a prescription bottle and smiled grimly as he knocked two back. He handed it over so that Wilson could thumb the Braille beneath the smooth illegible print. He closed his eyes, ruined heart wrenching.
"Vicodin. Oh damnit, House."
House tucked the bottle back into his pocket with an all too familiar fatal rattle and pressed his shoulder tighter to Wilson's, staving off the inevitable.
"What did you expect?" he asked gently. "When you die, I'm alone."