This story takes up just after House has returned to his apartment after Hanna's death in "Help Me". It's my version of what might have happened if someone other than Cuddy had come to his aid – and how season 7 might have unfolded if that had been the case. I have assumed that Alvie had been living in House's apartment for a number of weeks before House realized. And that Alvie, being Alvie, didn't mind letting a new neighbor think that 221B was his apartment. It will be a little dark, and there will most likely be some smut at some point.
Picking up the pieces
"Hello? Alvie? Is anyone there?"
Concerned, Sarah stuck her head through the mysteriously open apartment door that had caught her eye as she'd entered the building.
"Alvie?" she called again.
The apartment looked different – Alvie had finished painting, but the canary yellow he'd been playing with had disappeared – thankfully, Sarah couldn't help thinking. There'd been nothing wrong with the existing color scheme she'd thought, a little dull, very masculine, but stylish nonetheless. She'd never understood why he was changing it; his explanation had been typically circuitous and she'd lost him somewhere along the way.
Dusty footprints led inside and trailed around the corner behind the door.
It really wasn't any of her business. But how would she feel once she went upstairs to her own apartment if she didn't make sure everything was okay? She knew she'd only worry.
She knocked on the door, causing it to swing further open. Still no answer. She stepped inside; dumped the grocery bag she was carrying on an occasional table under an oval mirror near the door.
"Alvie?" she called out again. What if he'd been up on that ladder painting again and fallen? Then again, what if she was about to spring a burglar mid-way through robbing the place?
Pushing those thoughts aside, Sarah stepped into the apartment fully and looked around. Turning to her right, the corridor led up to the bedroom, bookshelves lining the walls, and at the end, the bathroom, the only room with a light on, and on the floor—
"Oh my God."
Sarah's purse fell from her shoulder as she raced to the bathroom, her every sense on alert. Cold tendrils of dread threaded through her.
It was happening again . . .
His stare was blank, he didn't even notice her as she crouched down beside him.
"Are you okay?" He was covered in dust, it was caked into the lines of his face, and it gave away the tears that tracked down his cheeks. Blood oozed from a graze on his cheek and a cut on his nose. "Stupid question," she answered herself. "Of course you're not okay."
He was holding an orange pill bottle in his hand, staring at it as if it held the answer to life itself. Sarah knew that look, knew what it meant, only in her experience it had usually been directed at a bottle of vodka. Still, the poison didn't really matter, it was the look that gave him away.
Years of experience stopped Sarah from grabbing the pills away from him. She had a scar over her left eyebrow from the time life had taught her that particular lesson. Instead she sat down on the tiled floor beside him, her back against the bath. She mirrored his posture, right knee raised, left leg straight out on the floor. She belatedly noticed another bottle lying on the floor near her foot. She nudged it to turn the label up. Vicodin.
His was breathing hard, as if he'd been running. It caught every now and then, in a way that might have been a sob, but he was trying hard not to let it be. Every minute or so he'd grip the pill bottle tighter, fighting with it, his eyes closing as he struggled. Sarah knew this battle was his alone – no one else could fight it for him.
So they sat.
His shoulders slumped in defeat and his breath sobbed. He flicked off the lid and poured two pills into his other hand.
And still, they sat.
His hands shook terribly. Sarah noticed a smear blood on one of them but she couldn't check him out to see where else he was bleeding – not yet.
It wasn't done yet.
He smelled of sweat and fear and blood and dust.
His voice, when it came, was broken, cracked. "Take them."
Sarah wasn't quite sure what he meant at first. Then his hand shakily extended towards her.
"For God's sake," he gasped. "Take them. Take them away."
Cautiously, Sarah plucked the pills from his hand. When he made no move to stop her, displayed no sudden change of heart, she reached for the bottle in his other hand and the one on the floor as well. Twisting to her side, she emptied both bottles into the toilet, throwing in the two loose pills after them. It was a stretch, but she reached over and flushed.
He winced as the sound filled the bathroom, but otherwise didn't move.
With the immediate threat gone, Sarah's heart stopped pounding as if it were trying to leave her chest. But now her mind filled with questions. Who was he? What had happened to him? Where was Alvie?
She had a sudden thought for her own safety. She'd barged in here wondering if Alvie might have fallen off a ladder and instead found a dusty drug-addict in the bathroom. Should she call the police?
It didn't seem like this guy was here to rob the place. If he had been, he was in no condition to do it now. Instead of a finding treasure behind the mirror he'd obviously smashed, he'd unleashed his own personal demons.
She was safe, she decided. For now at least. There was a clear path behind her straight back to the front door and besides, the addict didn't look like he had the strength to wrestle a kitten, let alone attack her.
His brain seemed to catch up with her presence at the same time. "Who—?" He twisted his head to look at her and broke off with a gasp of pain, his hand rising to clutch his left shoulder.
Sarah scrambled on to her knees. "Here, let me look."
His hand fell away and she peeled back the edge of his leather jacket. A serious gash had been dressed by someone a few hours ago, but the bandage was soaked with blood and dirty. "What have you been doing? Spelunking?" she muttered, not really expecting an answer. "Here, let's get this off."
She helped him pull the jacket off his right arm so she could pull it out from behind him and gently take it off his left without twisting his shoulder. There was even more dust and dirt on the black t-shirt revealed underneath.
Grabbing a washcloth and wetting it in hot water, she peeled back the old dressing and threw it into the bath on top of the broken glass. "You're filthy," she said, wondering why she was talking – he clearly wasn't going to answer. His eyes – red-rimmed, but a clear blue despite his obvious torment – remained fixed ahead. His only movement was to wince when the washcloth touched the wound.
"You really should go and get this checked out at a hospital," she said as she gingerly wiped it clean. It didn't need stitches, but a proper exam under good lights to get rid of any contaminants was a good idea. "I'll clean it as best I can, but then you should get it checked out."
"Pity you made a mess of the bath with that mirror. You could use one. Did you know you're covered in dirt? And that's not all. I know some chicks get off on the whole real man, musky male thing, but not me. Nothing better than the smell of soap, I've always thought."
Using your vaguely flirty, chirpy nursing tone might not be a good idea when you don't have security a short scream away, Sarah chastised herself. Old habits . . .
She rinsed the cloth several times between wipes, until she was sure the wound was clean enough. Then, using the end of a towel she'd soaked under the tap, she gently wiped his bloody cheek and nose, ending up cleaning his whole face, revealing a strong jaw and cheekbones that underlined crystal blue eyes that showed his every thought.
She turned away from his surprisingly handsome features and forced herself to concentrate on the wound on his shoulder. "I'm going to put a little antiseptic on it, okay? This is going to sting. Ready? One, two—"
"Jesus!" His lips barely moved as he grimaced through the pain.
"Sorry, old trick." She grinned at him "Never wait 'til three – I always think it hurts more."
Sarah quickly placed a dressing over his shoulder and taped it into place. "You really need to get this looked at. But at the very least take the dressing off tomorrow morning and let it get some air, okay?"
She sat back on her heels. Now what? She'd pretty much done all she could. If only she had Alvie's cell phone number – she could call him and let him know that his friend was in a bad way. Maybe . . .
"Do you want me to call Alvie for you?" she asked. "Do you have a cell phone? Do you have his number?"
He stared straight ahead. Sarah could tell that he was seeing something in his mind other than the bathroom around them. Nothing to do with the drugs, more to do with haunting memories. She knew what that was like.
Her eyes flicked to the bag of groceries sitting near the front door of the apartment. Her ice cream would be sludge by now. Hopefully it had kept everything else in the bag cold, though. She checked her watch. She didn't have time to go back to the store before Charlie arrived. If Charlie arrived.
"Hey." She took the guy's hand and gave it a squeeze. Nice hands, she couldn't help noticing. "Are you going to be okay? I have to go, but I don't want to leave you alone like this. Is there anyone I can call?"
He blinked and Sarah didn't miss the pain that shadowed his eyes in the instant before he hid it from her. So, no one to call. She knew that feeling all too well, too.
"Look, will you be okay? I don't want to go up to my apartment and spend the rest of the night worrying about you." She would anyway.
Sarah shrugged. She really had done everything she could. Short of sitting on this bathroom floor with him all night or searching the apartment for more drugs or methods of suicide, there wasn't a lot more she could do to help.
The ghost of an echo flittered through her brain. You should have done more! Why didn't you try? A shudder went through her as Charlie's anguished screams came back to haunt her. Usually they were confined to nightmares in the early hours of the night. Sarah mentally shoved them back in the box where they belonged. This was different. He was a stranger. She'd done more than the average bystander would ever do. She always did.
Sarah stood and stretched, her back beginning to ache in with the tell-tale pain that foreshadowed a spasm. All the crouching and bending she'd been doing was going to cost her. She needed to try to fit in some stretches or Feldenkrais before she began cooking, or she'd pay for it all night.
"Well, take care of yourself. I hope Alvie comes home soon. If . . ." She hesitated but then mentally shrugged. What did it matter? "If you need anything tonight, you can come and find me. My name's Sarah, and I live in the apartment upstairs – exactly above this one. Okay?"
She didn't expect an answer and didn't get one. She'd made it almost to the bookcase before he spoke. His voice was rusty, croaked, and she almost didn't hear it.
"Wait . . ."
Sarah stopped short and spun around.
He was looking up at her, pleading and yet still proud. She cursed her soft heart as she felt it crack with his pain. She could practically feel his agony herself.
"I need . . . I need help to get up."
She could see how much the admission cost him.
"Are you hurt?" Concern creased her face as she walked back to him. "More than just your shoulder?"
He waved a hand dismissively. "My leg," he said gesturing to his raised right knee. "It's not new. Just . . . hurting like hell today."
Ah. That explained the Vicodin. And the addiction.
He reached up a hand.
Sarah took in a deep breath. Mentally preparing herself, she pulled in her core muscles, centering herself and ensuring her effort would come from her belly, not her back. "Right. Ready? Actually on three this time, okay? One, two, three. . ."
His groan was louder than hers as he pulled himself to his feet. He balanced on his left leg and let go of her hand straight away, putting it out to lean heavily on the wall. He began to walk to the bedroom, limping heavily, leaning against the wall for balance.
"Here, let me help you."
Without word he let her slip under his shoulder, helping him the few short steps to the bed and sank down heavily with a long sigh. The bed creaked beneath him.
"There's some ibuprofen in the drawer," he said, pointing a shaky finger at the cabinet in the corner. "Top right."
Sarah opened the drawer and found a mini-pharmacy inside. She didn't want to snoop too obviously, but even just reaching in to pull out the analgesics she saw a history that sent chills of memory down her spine – anti-depression meds, anti-anxiety meds, sleeping tablets, pain killers, even some herbal remedies. All kinds of brands and types, from drug-store packaging to hospital-pharmacy orange bottles.
Were these all Alvie's?
She frowned. It didn't make sense . . .
It was none of her business, Sarah reminded herself sharply. And it wasn't like she didn't have enough problems of her own to be getting on with.
"Here you go."
She handed him the package of pills.
It wasn't a request, but a demand. What, was she his personal slave now? Sarah shook her head as she went to fill a tumbler in the bathroom. It was her own fault. She always jumped right into these things and then wondered how she'd got there. Made herself useful and then wondered why she was being used. This wasn't the first time . . . and it wouldn't be the last.
He'd already popped the pills out of their pack by the time she returned and he gulped them down with the water in a couple of big swallows. They'd barely touch the sides, she knew that. She'd seen that kind of pain before. In the mirror, at times.
He dropped the tumbler to the floor where it bounced and rolled under the bed. Then he lifted his right leg on to the bed, lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
That was it.
He clearly didn't care that there was a stranger in his apartment. She could rob him blind now and she knew he wouldn't move from that bed.
"Yeah, thanks for all your help," she muttered sarcastically under her breath.
She paused for a moment, wondering whether she should clean up the broken mirror. Then shook herself for even considering it. She wasn't the maid. She'd done enough. Heading back out to the living room, she picked up her groceries and stepped out of the apartment, closing the door behind her. Hopefully Alvie would be home before long, and then he could sort it out.
Three hours later Sarah scraped two plates of lamb casserole and cous cous into the trash. She swallowed back the tears. It was a lesson she should have learned by now. Charlie's punishment would never end, even if a surface truce had been reached between them. There'd be a call tomorrow, a vehement and plausible-sounding excuse, a sulk if Sarah dared question it or ask for advance notice of a change in plans next time. And then, like the sucker she was, she'd make another time, another meal, work around Charlie's schedule and wait and see.
She switched off the lights and lay down on her bed, no energy left to undress. Straining to hear through the silence of the apartment, she wondered what the guy was doing. Had he overcome his earlier resolve and recovered enough to search the apartment for more drugs? Would he take an overdose?
It would be a pity. He had a nice face, even hidden as it had been behind the layer of dust. She picked him for ten or fifteen years older than her own forty, a number she still hadn't come to terms with. There was something about him. Maybe that something was just that he'd needed her – even for those few minutes. That look in his eyes as he'd asked for her help. She'd had a very great many people ask for her help over her lifetime, often with far more humiliating tasks than help to stand. But that look had been something new – he'd been ashamed, embarrassed he had to ask, but it hadn't dimmed his pride. That had shone through his ocean-blue gaze.
She hoped that pride and determination was enough to see him through these dark hours.
As her thoughts whirled, she heard the sound of a television go on. Just loud enough to be heard in the quiet of the night.
Well, at least he wasn't unconscious . . . or worse.
She lay there, staring up at the darkened ceiling, listening to the muffled sounds of TV show after TV show. The canned laughter of a sit com. The serious tone of a documentary about something or other. The screechy voices of some reality TV. Hours later – she had no idea what time – it was switched off. She'd heard no real voices, no sounds of conversation, so Alvie obviously hadn't come home.
Then there were sounds that came from directly below her, in the bedroom. A creaking noise she recalled from when he'd collapsed onto the bed.
He'd fallen into that bed as if he owned it, she recalled. A strange familiarity to have with some else's bed, even if you were really good friends. And then there was that drawer filled with medication. In a one-bedroom apartment.
"You're an idiot," she muttered to herself. Two men living in a one-bedroom apartment? Clearly, he and Alvie were lovers. She hadn't picked Alvie as gay, in fact, she'd thought he was trying – ineptly – to flirt with her sometimes, but he'd also often made mention of some vague person who he was sure was going to love the yellow paint.
That creaking bed was going to great fun when Alvie did eventually return. Nothing better than lying alone in your bed listening to your neighbors make love.
Every ten or fifteen minutes the bed creaked again as he moved around. He couldn't sleep. She wondered if he was lying down there, like her, sheets twisted underneath him, staring up at the ceiling.
Each time he shifted she found herself shifting too.
Why hadn't she heard the noise before? She'd been living in the apartment for almost three months now, and Alvie had moved in downstairs a few weeks after her. Perhaps it was simply the difference in the two men's builds – Alvie was slight, a stiff wind would blow him over. In contrast, Alvie's lover was well over six-foot and would have to be one-eighty pounds at least. When she'd helped him to the bed she'd fitted perfectly under his arm, and she'd felt the corded muscle of his torso when she'd wrapped her arm around his waist to support him.
She tried to picture him and Alvie together. They'd look ridiculous – him tall and lean, contained and serious; Alvie shorter, waifish and twitching with enthusiasm.
She tried to imagine them lying in bed together. For some reason the image just wouldn't form in her mind. They were a little too much like father and son to fit comfortably that way.
An image that did come more easily to mind was her lying in that solid timber bed. And not next to Alvie.
Those dusty hands on her skin. Her arms wrapped around that muscled torso. Pressing kisses to the smooth column of his neck along the line of his several-hours-past-five-o'clock shadow. Inhaling his smell – after a long and soapy shower.
Just how twisted was she? The first sexual stirrings she felt in forever and they were for the most broken basket-case she'd seen in a long time. That'd be right.