Warnings: Allusion (non-explicit) to the death of a recurring character. Also, I am an enormous spoiler whore. Some S7 revelations and speculations have found their way into this fic. Read at your own risk.
Disclaimer: None of these characters belong to me. Story vaguely inspired by the BtVS episode "Tabula Rasa" and the Bones episode "The Fifth Bullet." Neurological exam questions are from Still Alice by Lisa Genova, used here without permission. Quotations preceding each chapter come from Arthur Conan Doyle.
Thanks: To soophelia for tantalizing tidbits, my f-list (especially menolly_au, cuddyclothes, and readingrat) for tips and encouragement, and most of all to my beta jezziejay for gratifying enthusiasm, valuable concrit, and incredible patience throughout the writing process :)
Chapter 1: Tabula Rasa
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence."
My first memory is of waking up on the floor. The nubbly carpet pressing uncomfortably into my cheek turned out to be a utilitarian gray. My mouth felt parched and tasted of stale, bitter coffee, my stomach threatened rebellion, and my head pounded periodically with dull pulses of pain. When I rolled reluctantly onto my back, my stiff neck prompted me to groan in protest.
I pulled myself up to a sitting position and took a look around, careful not to turn my head too far. I was on the floor of an office, spacious enough, faux wood paneling on one wall, glass half-hidden behind Venetian blinds for the other three. There was a large glass-topped steel L-shaped desk adorned with a lamp, assorted personal paraphernalia, and a Dell. An ergonomic office chair was tucked behind it, and two hard, curved wooden ones faced it from the front. Low shelves holding ill-organized stacks of books were topped with an interesting collection of antique vessels and instruments. A wheeled steel cart sagged under an old analog television set, contrasting with an expensive-looking lightbox mounted on the wall. An Eames lounge chair lurked in the corner near the door, the lettering on which I was able to read in reverse with a little effort.
Great. So who was Gregory House, M.D., and what was I doing on the floor of his office?
The insistent dig of a squarish object into my right buttock offered an answer to an even more urgent question. I leaned on my left arm to fish a wallet out of my jeans and flipped it open to the driver's license, which featured a photo of a scruffy-looking middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and piercing blue eyes. Shocked, I rubbed the sandpapery skin of my jaw and traced the profile of my nose for confirmation. Apparently I was Gregory House.
I had almost no time to process this revelation before my office door was pushed open and four people in white coats filed in. One, a slim, dark blond, ridiculously good-looking male in his early thirties, said in a blurred but unmistakable Australian accent, "Our patient has stones, and she isn't responding to the NSAIDs."
Beside him, an attractive black man stared down at me, unblinking, and an intelligent-looking but absurdly young girl in a too-short skirt, fuzzy tights, and hugely impractical heels stood biting her lower lip. Just as I was starting to wonder whether all of these doctors had been selected primarily for their decorative appearances, a short, balding, unequivocally Jewish man straggled up to peer anxiously around the Australian.
None of them seemed terribly surprised to see me sprawling on the carpet. Ditto the fact that I was dressed in blue jeans, Nike Shox, and – I glanced down – a black Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, none of which were particularly clean. In fact, the rank tang of stale, alcohol-impregnated sweat rising from my clothes was threatening to make me heave.
A rubber-tipped wooden cane with a curved handle was lying on the floor near my hip; I grabbed this and used it to lever myself, wincing, to my feet. My right thigh was unexpectedly unable to support my weight, and when I ran my hand down the denim, I could feel the puckered surface of what must be an ugly scar. I maneuvered myself behind the desk and sat down in the swivel chair, which was comfortable enough and seemed molded to the shape of my very own seat but did not bring back the surge of familiarity for which I'd halfway hoped.
What now? My visitors were all looking at me expectantly, as if waiting for some kind of miraculous epiphany to strike me from above. Okay. They were all wearing photo badges, but I couldn't read the lettering. They were… at least mostly young, dressed like doctors, and treating me with deference and consulting me about a patient. About whom I knew absolutely nothing. But what could be so mysterious about kidney stones?
To buy time, I waved my hand vaguely. "We'd better reconsider our options. You, uh, Sweet Sixteen," I said pointedly to the girl, pegging her for an eager beaver, "let's have a quick recap."
To my relief, her face lit up, and she unconsciously straightened and lifted her chin. "Twenty-two year old female varsity athlete presented last week with complaints of recent clumsiness and underwent a thorough neurological examination, but was later sent home without a definitive diagnosis when symptoms could not be confirmed. Yesterday evening the patient was readmitted after a track meet with severe unilateral lower abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting."
She looked briefly over at the black man as if for permission, then continued, "Dr. Foreman took charge of the case in your absence. The sudden onset of pain and subsequent hematuria suggested the presence of kidney stones, which were not detectable by X-ray but have since been confirmed by ultrasound and CT."
I nodded to indicate that I had understood, then wished I hadn't. "Thoughts?"
"Radiolucent stones suggest a low percentage of calcium, so we're probably looking at uric acid stones rather than oxaloacetate," the Australian answered, apparently not embarrassed to state the obvious in order to score points with the boss.
"Serum uric acid levels were normal," the Jewish man argued.
"How's the urate to creatinine ratio?"
"Two point one," the girl volunteered when no one else spoke up. Good memory for numbers, anxious to prove herself, but also aware that she was low on the totem pole.
"And that suggests…?" Puzzled looks all around. I sighed. "What else have you observed?"
The three men exchanged glances. "Well," the Australian ventured, "she's irritable. Has a charming habit of throwing the kidney dish at our heads."
"She's in severe pain. General jerkiness is not a symptom," the black guy, presumably Foreman, snapped.
"If it were, we would have admitted at least one person in this room a long time ago," the Jewish man muttered. Heh. He was obviously kind of passive-aggressive.
"Last week her teammate reported that the patient hadn't been herself lately," the girl put in suddenly, with the glimmer of understanding in her eyes.
"Excellent. How are her lips?"
"Her… lips?" the Jewish man repeated.
"Ugly. I think she's been chewing on them," the girl said, a grin breaking out on her face.
"Lesch-Nyhan, in a twenty-two-year old female?" Foreman asked incredulously. "There was nothing in her family history."
I shrugged. "Very rare, but it happens. Spontaneous paternal mutation, with mild, late-onset symptoms due to X-inactivation. Confirm with RT-PCR. Treatment?"
"Lithiotripsy for the stones if needed and control of uric acid levels with allopurinol," Foreman said, shaking his head.
"Too bad there wasn't a competent neurologist around here who could have caught that earlier," I mused.
I had no idea why Foreman scowled and the others smirked as they filed out of my office.
Once they were gone, the reality of my strange and frightening situation returned full force. I found myself trembling with the aftereffects of adrenaline, feeling as though I had just passed a momentous examination – not necessarily that of diagnosing the disease, but of not giving the game away to the doctors who were probably my closest colleagues. I also felt more nauseated than ever, and decided that I had better get out into the fresh air before I christened my office carpet. On a hunch, I tried the closed door back near the window and found myself on a balcony.
It was peaceful out there; I took a deep breath, filling my lungs and clearing my aching head a little, and looked down over the hospital grounds, three floors down by my estimate. I just needed a few minutes to myself to think.
An abrupt movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. A dark-haired man, most likely in his early forties, had just walked out onto the next balcony, his shoulders squared as if for a difficult confrontation. He hopped over the low wall between us and stopped in front of me, jamming his hands in the pockets of his pristine white coat. His hair looked damp, as if he'd showered very recently, then hastily combed it into place.
"Hey," he said, looking at me sidelong, like he was dying to ask how I was doing but was determined not to for some reason. He almost seemed braced for some kind of blistering attack.
"Hey," I echoed, trying to catch a good look at his photo badge without being too obvious about it. James E. Wilson, I thought it said. Hmm, that was tricky. Clearly we knew each other, probably pretty well. He might go by James, or Jim, or Jimmy, and if I guessed wrong, it could be a dead giveaway.
"You must have a hell of a headache," he said.
"I'd nod," I agreed, "but your shoes look better without my spew on them."
"I didn't even hear you leave this morning." He stood staring at me thoughtfully, his posture gradually relaxing from its inexplicable rigidity to mere wariness. "You know, House, after last night, I was thinking…" He hesitated, looking rueful, a bit embarrassed, but there was an air of shy hopefulness that I found charming. "Now that Sam's gone and… and everything, maybe you'd like to move back in with me."
Suddenly my head was reeling, and not just from whatever had recently laid me out on my office floor. That was way too much information for a casual conversation on the balcony. So this Dr. Wilson was gay, apparently, and some guy named Sam had just moved out, and something had happened between us last night, and so now he was interested in… getting back together with me? I appraised him with a new perspective, noting his softening but still reasonably trim physique, the full, glossy brown hair, the good-humored lines around his eyes and mouth balanced by the worried crease between his heavy brows. I began to suspect that I had a weakness for brunettes.
Wilson had apparently mistaken my rapid recalculations for reluctance and added quickly, "Of course, I understand if you want to think about it. I… treated you badly, before. I mean, it was Sam's idea… but no, that's not fair. It was my decision, and I blew it. I am sorry about that." He took a step closer, his left arm twitching almost imperceptibly as if to touch me before it fell back into his pocket.
Curiouser and curiouser. Had he been cheating on me with this dude? Still boyishly handsome, sharp dresser, expensive-looking watch and shoes, probably a target for gentlemen and ladies alike. Or maybe there was something even more sinister going on? Although somehow I found that hard to believe of this kind-faced, concerned-looking man. What the hell.
"Okay," I told him impulsively.
"Seriously?" There was no mistaking the relief and pleasure in his eyes.
"Yeah. I mean… you're not the only one who has reason to apologize, right?" I gave him a meaningful look, allowing him to interpret that statement however he saw fit.
He was staring at me with a stunned expression. At first I wondered if I'd just fucked up royally somehow, but then he stammered, "W-wow. Do you know how long I- Um. You know what, never mind, I'm just going to take a moment to savor this historic occasion." His tone was teasing, but there was a glint in his eye from which I inferred that I wasn't the sort of guy who generally admitted when he was wrong.
"Very funny," I said curtly, and got us back on topic. "So when do you think you'd want me to bring my stuff over?" Where does he live? Do I even have a car?
"Did you bring the bike today?"
I have no fucking idea. "Yeah," I bluffed, and rubbed my right thigh, which was in fact beginning to throb, figuring him for the gallant type.
Sure enough, he said quickly, "How about if I give you a ride home later and help you pack? Now that all of Sam's stuff is out, your old room is just like you left it. You can move back tonight."
Huh. He was too eager, even for a lonely man who'd just been dumped. I couldn't help suspecting that there was some reason why he didn't want me going home, spending the night at my own apartment. But what could it be? And how could I find out without arousing his suspicions? Or maybe…
"Don't want me spending the evening alone, do you?" I asked, looking at him intently.
Wilson crimsoned. "It's not that I don't… trust you," he said carefully. "And we don't have to talk about it, but… I thought that you could use the company. And I know I could."
"I'm fine," I said, with what I hoped was the right mixture of uncertainty and bravado.
"You do seem to be handling this a lot better than I'd expected," he admitted. Strangely, this thought seemed to arouse both dismay and suspicion, both quickly damped down.
"Yeah, well, I'd better get back to my case," I said vaguely. "See you later?"
"Sure. I'll come by your office around seven." He started to pivot on his heel, hesitated, then turned back. "And, uh, House?"
Once Wilson had disappeared back behind the door opposite, I took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. A few minutes ago, I'd thought that my biggest problem would be figuring out who I was and what the hell had precipitated the necessity of doing so. Now I had inadvertently reconciled with a handsome ex-boyfriend and was well on my way to moving in with someone whom, as far as I was concerned, I'd only just met.
Well. This was certainly not going to be boring.
I commandeered an empty exam room, locked the door, and started at the top, with a thorough examination of my head. No blood, dried or otherwise, and although the inside of my skull still throbbed, no tender areas indicative of a recent bump or bruise. There was, however, a subtle discontinuity that suggested a healed skull fracture, and beneath the thinning hair, a large red birthmark. None of this provided the plausible explanation that I sought.
Much can be deduced from the hands. Mine were strong, lean, and liver-spotted, with calluses on the left fingertips suggestive of playing a stringed instrument. One finger seemed slightly crooked, as though it had once been broken, but long enough ago now to have healed. My right palm also had a callus, presumably from using the cane, although logically I should have been holding it on the opposite side from my lame leg; I made a mental note to practice using it correctly. When I looked closely at my wrists, I found fine lines, probably the remnants of parallel cuts, and had to wonder briefly whether these had been self-inflicted. But most immediately relevant, there were no indications that I had attempted to break my fall this morning, supporting the hypothesis that I had suffered a loss of consciousness before collapsing on the floor.
Next I took off my stinky t-shirt, wondering whether I would be able to stand myself for much longer without a shower. Giving yourself a thorough physical without a full-length mirror is not as easy as you might think. I found myself contorting into all kinds of awkward positions, angling a dental mirror I'd found in a drawer. My upper body alone featured a fine collection of old scars, none recent enough to account for traumatic memory loss; apparently I'd even been shot at fairly close range. This suggested a man who was 1) clumsy or oblivious to his surroundings, 2) a risk-taker, careless of possible personal injury, and/or 3) well-practiced at pissing other people off.
I did not have any reason to believe that I was clumsy or oblivious.
I hesitated before pulling off my jeans, all too aware of the angry ache in my thigh. Despite having a fairly good idea of what I would find, the sight of the scar itself threw me for a moment. A substantial chunk of the rectus femoris had been removed, leaving an ugly indentation. But the edges were smooth and the wound had healed properly, suggesting surgery, possibly following a severe injury or a clot cutting circulation to the muscle. I was probably lucky not to have lost the whole leg.
None of this had offered any promising clues to the trigger for my amnesia, though, so it was time to dig deeper. I foraged for some phlebotomy supplies, tied a tourniquet, and slipped the needle into my median cubital, apparently with the ease of long practice. I filled three vials of blood before applying pressure; without any knowledge of my recent whereabouts or activities, there were a number of tests I'd need to run. Afterwards I collected a urine sample, and found myself fighting the uneasy feeling that I was fingering a stranger's cock. At least my dimensions were nothing to be ashamed about.
I found the Pathology Lab and dropped off the blood and urine samples, labeled with a fake name since I couldn't remember that of our patient. The medical technician who accepted them didn't attempt to hide her astonishment. "You mean His Lordship is actually going to trust mere mortals to run his labs? Never thought I'd see the day." Then she leaned forward conspiratorially. "Or is this some kind of test? Making an end run around your team so you can show them up later?"
Grasping gratefully at this explanation, I nodded. "You know me too well. Make sure the results get reported directly to me, would you?"
"Sure thing," she said with a wink. "You take care, now." As I left the room, I heard her whisper to the woman next to her, "He's actually kind of cute when he's not trying to take your head off."
While I waited for my test results, I rooted surreptitiously through my desk drawers. I swooped down on a bag containing change of clothing, glad to see that I was capable of planning for such contingencies. Ten minutes later, I had found the locker rooms and was washing the worst of the alcohol and stale sweat off of my skin. I was a little nervous about the possibility that I might seize or suffer another loss of consciousness in the shower, but whatever had affected me earlier in the day didn't recur.
I found myself squinting and holding the computer printout at arm's length, apparently having omitted to bring a pair of reading glasses to work with me this morning. Liver enzyme levels were slightly elevated, but that could have been due to my obviously heavy drinking of the night before. More ominously, the AST/ALT ratio was up, suggesting that my recent binge was not an anomalous event. I resolved to take it easy on the alcohol for a few days and then retest myself to make sure that my liver wasn't fried. Meanwhile, all of the tox screens I'd requested had come back negative.
I sighed and rubbed my strained eyes. There were still plenty of possibilities, many undetectable by current methods. A family and medical history might help. Tomorrow I'd see about getting my hands on my medical records.
I wondered who my primary physician was.
My team reconvened at the end of the afternoon to report our diagnosis confirmed and the patient discharged, the small stone having passed. I was a little surprised that I hadn't been alerted so that I could say good-bye myself, but on the whole, it was probably fortunate since I would have had to pretend that I remembered her, and really I'd prefer as few opportunities to fuck up as possible.
By this time, I'd had a chance to review my team members' personnel files and at least didn't have to worry about screwing up their names or specialties, although I found it difficult to hide how appalled I was by the absurdly long stints Chase and Foreman had apparently done as Diagnostic fellows. Either they were singularly lacking in ambition or their mentor – me, I had to remind myself – had found them to be irreplaceable, but so far, I had little data by which to distinguish between these hypotheses. I also didn't understand why I had agreed to hire a third year medical student, even one as obviously bright as Masters, or why an older, obviously successful plastic surgeon in private practice had decided to take this position at a tenth the salary.
Regardless, I dismissed them for the day, relieved that I had managed to maintain my imitation of the man they knew so well. From our case files and a couple of quick Google searches, I knew that I was the founding chair of Diagnostic Medicine at PPTH, that we rarely had more than one patient at a time, and that I was quite particular about those whom I chose to accept. Apparently only the most difficult diagnostic puzzles were worthy of our attention; sometimes days or even weeks went by without a new one. In the meantime, though, I saw several automated email reminders that I had clinic duty tomorrow morning beginning at eight (underlined, with the annotation, "No, this is not a joke. You owe me.")
As promised, Wilson appeared at my office door punctually at seven. "You ready?"
"Yeah." I hesitated, then shut off my computer monitor without logging out. Tomorrow I'd have to try to figure out my password. Maybe I could convince the hospital's IT personnel that it had been so long since I'd used it that I'd forgotten. Something.
"How's your patient?"
"Oh…" I racked my brain for the patient's name and came up with exactly squat. "Gonna be fine, I think. We diagnosed late onset LNS, prescribed some allopurinol, and discharged her."
Wilson nodded. "What tipped you off?"
"Radiolucent stones. That, and recent personality changes."
"Huh. Well, anyway, that's great news. You hungry?"
"Yeah." I grabbed my backpack and slung it over my shoulder, then reached for my cane.
"I was thinking I'd just order a pizza over," Wilson mused as we walked down the corridor together. "I know you've got beer. Although maybe you should consider giving your liver the night off."
"I can't even think about alcohol right now," I admitted. "But mi cerveza es tu cerveza."
Wilson glanced over at me and frowned. He took a few more steps, then did it again. "Something's different about you."
"Well, I've showered and changed since you saw me earlier. Couldn't stand my own stink."
"Yeah," Wilson waved a hand, "Believe me, I noticed and appreciated it, but that's not it." Suddenly he stopped and snapped his fingers. "You're using your cane with your left hand!"
"That's the side it's supposed to be on," I pointed out, cursing myself for my own carelessness. I hadn't even considered the fact that of course everyone would be accustomed to seeing me using the cane improperly. I opted for attempting to brazen my way out of this. "Any first year PT student could tell you that. Using it on the same side as the injury causes posture problems."
"Okay," Wilson said dubiously. "But that's never stopped you before."
"First time for everything," I said, glad that he couldn't know just how much I meant by that statement.
Wilson was a conservative driver, as I might have predicted from everything else I'd observed about him, and he had terrible taste in music. I flipped through all of his presets, snorting, before scanning through the available stations on my own and finally settling on a classic Aerosmith song, air-drumming along to the lyrics. "I gotta take myself a permanent vacation / the sky's the limit but my plane won't fly…" Wilson rolled his eyes a little but didn't say a word.
Once the song faded into a commercial, I wondered how long it had been since I'd ridden in his car; surely I would have taken the earliest opportunity to reprogram his stereo. Although his words to me this morning suggested that perhaps we had been estranged for some time, and had gotten together last night unexpectedly. And he'd known that I was hungover, and that I had beer, so maybe he'd come over to my apartment, we'd had a bit too much to drink, and one thing had led to another? I was still puzzling over this when we turned onto Baker Street, and shortly after that we were pulling up to the curb in front of 221.
I was relieved to see that I only had one plausible house key on my keychain and wouldn't have to try to guess which one opened my front door. Even more happily, my hand reached automatically for the light switch on the wall when I stepped through into the apartment. I had to remind myself to act casual – it would only look weird if I stood around gawking like I'd just been invited into someone else's home. Although that was, in fact, exactly what it felt like, or so I imagined.
Wilson, though, was obviously comfortable, in familiar surroundings. "Here's my wallet in case the pizza guy comes while I'm the bathroom," he said, tossing it to me and heading down the hall. Fine; that gave me a chance to get a good look at my surroundings without him noticing.
It was an intriguing space, cluttered but not messy, masculine but not macho. Curious objects and short stacks of books covered the mantelpiece and heavy wooden desk, and tall bookcases filled with an eclectic selection of volumes arranged in no discernable order lined another wall. Next to the fireplace shone a gorgeous black baby grand Yamaha, with a series of vintage guitars mounted lovingly on the wall behind. In contrast to the reasonable neatness of most of the living room, the large leather sofa had a pillow propped at one end and was half-draped in a wool blanket, as though its occupant had hastily flung off the covers that morning and then had been too busy to return to fold and put it away.
Oddly, despite the decided abundance of character, there was almost nothing in the way of personal memorabilia – framed art, yes, but no portraits, no photo albums, no obvious souvenirs. There also had been no attempts to create a space suitable for entertaining – no company chairs, and meals would be taken in front of the television set. This was clearly the home of a solitary man of many interests and a haven from the outside world.
Right, I was supposed to be packing. I limped down the hall, found myself facing a closed door that apparently separated me from Wilson washing his hands, and turned left into a bedroom. Full-sized bed with a solid wood frame and gunmetal gray sheets, unmade; a desk, a dresser, and more bookcases filled to overflowing. Here as well, while pieces of framed art had been hung on the walls and propped on available surfaces, there was a marked absence of evidence of personal connection. No photograph albums, no journals, no greeting cards or handwritten letters.
Could I really be a man who cared so little about being surrounded by the words and faces of friends and family members? Or, ironically, had my excellent memory simply rendered such things superfluous?
These explanations were not, I reminded myself, mutually exclusive.
Wilson stuck his head in the open doorway while I was musing over these matters. "How's it going?"
"Uh, fine. Forgot to bring a bag in with me."
"Probably in the hall closet," Wilson said helpfully, and returned a moment later with a compact wheeled carryon. "All you need for now are the essentials, a few days' worth of clothes. We can come back this weekend for the bigger stuff." Just then the doorbell rang, and he disappeared once more in search of dinner.
While Wilson paid the delivery boy, I went into the bathroom to pack a toiletries bag. Going through the medicine cabinet gave me a funny feeling of invading someone else's privacy. There was nothing stronger than ibuprofen in the way of painkillers, but I did find a vial of Effexor past the expiration date. No cologne, no aftershave, I didn't even own a decent razor. I rubbed the rough stubble on my face irritably. It wouldn't do to make any abrupt changes in my appearance, but maybe I could gradually acquire some new habits.
I paid close attention to our route from my apartment to Wilson's loft, which was on Brook Street, in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Princeton. It was nearly nine when Wilson pulled into his own parking space in the lot next to our destination. The lobby was a little cluttered, but clean and respectable, with white crown moldings and old-fashioned brass mailboxes.
"Greg!" This from an attractive early forty-something woman with shoulder-length honey-blond hair who had been pulling a handful of letters out of the mailbox marked 3B. "It's been so long!" She looked down at my rollerbag, then up again. "Are you going to be staying for a while?"
"I think that's the plan," I said, with a pleasant smile and a glance at Wilson, who, unaccountably, was looking kind of tense.
"Well, this should liven things up a bit around here," she smirked. "Listen, I know we really got off on the wrong foot last year, but go ahead and let me know if you need anything. My toolbox is still at your disposal."
"I hope that's a euphemism," I offered gallantly.
"Oh, you are too much! As if James would stand still for that," she winked, her grin faltering slightly as she got a good look at Wilson's face. "Kidding. Well, I won't keep you. Welcome back!"
"Thanks," I said sincerely.
"I still think James' proposal to you was the most romantic thing I've ever seen," she called after us as we entered the elevator. Jesus. I had to fight down the impulse to react, to check my finger for evidence of a ring. Wilson had proposed to me in front of this neighbor of ours? Had I accepted? And if Wilson and I had been that committed a couple only last year, what terrible thing could have happened to tear us apart in the meantime? Plus it meant that this moving in together again had to be a huge deal. I really hoped that I wasn't going to blow it.
"What's eating you?" I couldn't help asking as Wilson punched irritably at the buttons.
He sighed. "Oh, just flashing back to when we first moved in together. You really milked the gay couple card for all it was worth, remember?"
I didn't at all, so I decided that I'd better steer us away from a potentially damning conversation as quickly as possible. "So, um, that reminds me, I should probably have my mail redirected… if you really think I'm going to be here for a while."
"Sure," Wilson said stoutly, pulling out a set of keys and unlocking the door. "Oh, before I forget, here's your copy." He handed me a shiny silver house key, which I hefted contemplatively in my hand for a moment before putting it into my pocket.
Lagging behind, I quickly flipped through the small stack of mail on the table in the entryway while Wilson had his back to me. James Wilson. James E. Wilson. And below those, two envelopes, mass-mailings from the look of them, for Gregory House. I shivered a little, feeling like I'd just been brushed by the ghost of my former life. Then Wilson turned around, and I had to fight the urge to jump like a guilty schoolboy. "Oh, yeah, there's a couple that came for you yesterday," he said. "I didn't bother to bring them to work since…"
"Yeah, sure," I said, struggling to sound casual. "Don't worry about it. Probably isn't anything important."
"That's what I figured, just junk mail." I followed Wilson into the spacious common area, which was lovely, high ceilings and hardwood floors and fireplace with a classic mantelpiece at the far end. The furniture was in muted, neutral shades of cream and brown, high-quality but impersonal, exactly like what I imagined a decent decorator would do for her well-heeled, childless bachelor client. The notable, jarring exception was a odd-shaped piece in one corner, covered by an expensive-looking linen sheet.
Wilson walked past the dining table and breakfast bar into the well-appointed kitchen and poured himself a glass of water, then washed it out and placed it to dry. I inferred that Wilson was just this side of anal retentive and/or exceedingly reluctant to give others any reason to clean up after him, and from the excellence of the appliances and cookware that he must be at least a semi-serious amateur chef. "Anyway, I'll let you get settled. Your room is pretty much like you left it. Bed's already made up, but I can change the sheets if you want – they might be kind of dusty by now."
My bed? So we wouldn't be sharing one, at least not tonight. I recalled the abandoned blanket on my couch and realized that it most likely had last covered Wilson, who had failed to hear me leave in the morning. Well, we weren't horny teenagers, and maybe two middle-aged men set in their ways needed their own space. Maybe one of us snored stentoriously. We might well have been involved for so long that Wilson felt no further explanations were necessary and was ready to slip right back into casual routine. Meanwhile, I had so many questions that I wanted to ask, but I couldn't risk blowing my cover. "I'm sure it'll be fine."
"I won't mind if you use the tub in my bathroom to soak your leg," he said, sounding a bit embarrassed. "The safety rail is still in your closet if you want to reinstall it."
"Thanks." Wilson still seemed to be waiting for something else. His face looked wan and oddly vulnerable. I hesitated, wondering whether I should touch him, maybe take his hand.
But then he sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't get much sleep last night. Think I'll turn in early."
"Yeah, me too. I have clinic duty at eight."
A look of surprise flickered across his features, then was gone. "You can ride in with me, if you want."
Wilson nodded and started to walk away, then pivoted to look me in the eye and said simply, "It's good to have you here."
"Yeah, well, I'm glad to be back, too."
I watched as a wave of relief washed through him and left him swaying slightly on his feet. "That's-" he stopped and allowed himself to smile, which suddenly took twenty years off his tired face. "Good night, House."
"Good night," I echoed, and limped thoughtfully after him to dump my bag in the empty bedroom. In defiance of my exhaustion, my thoughts were racing without reprieve as I changed into an old t-shirt and pajama pants, gulped down a couple of ibuprofen, and brushed my teeth. The dramatic events of the day had kept me distracted, but now that I was alone and trying to relax, all of my doubts and distress returned with a vengeance. What the hell had I gotten myself into? What would Wilson be expecting of me? How long would I be able to maintain this insane charade? I was so woefully ignorant, and there were just so many goddamn ways for me to screw this up.
And it was much more than that. As babies, it doesn't occur to us to question the lives we're born into, the more or less lucky roll of the genetic and environmental dice. To be dropped fully formed into a stranger's life, and an apparently sad and solitary, if respected, one at that, was deeply unsettling. If only I could be free at this point to develop, to discover my essential self. But "I" had no independent existence apart from Gregory House, and whether or not my memories returned, I would have to learn to be this man, to live this life.
With so much on my mind, I thought that going to bed was likely to prove futile, and in fact I tossed and turned for a good thirty minutes. But then Wilson's face, glowing with that last, unexpected expression of genuine joy, slipped soothingly into my thoughts like a Seconal, and the next thing I knew, it was morning.