Chapter 18

Trial By Fire

Wake me up when it's all over.
When I'm wiser,
when I'm older.


"So t-that's why he w-w-wouldn't answer his p-phone."

"I'm sorry." Foreman sat down at House's bedside. "I'm sorry we kept this from you last week."

"Does Cuddy know about m-me?"

"No."

"She just wants to protect you." Chase added.

House did not reply to that. For awhile, he pondered the pros of his involvement in Wilson's diagnosis.

"Cuddy is r-r-right." He then whispered, more to himself than to Foreman and the team. "I c-can't do this. I can't."

"I don't think that's what she meant when we talked about it." Taub replied. "She doesn't want you to carry this kind of responsibility."

"It's n-not that." House's stare darkened. "I don't t-trust my own judgement. I'm c-comp-c-com-promised."

"How do you know." Foreman stood up. "I am your neurologist. I scanned your brain a thousand times. I tested your memory, attention, executive functions... You can't walk, so what? You need help holding things, so what? You are here, it's all that matters. You performed great on any tests that didn't involve motor control. You were lucky enough..." He pierced House right through with his stare. "You were lucky enough to have your rational mind spared, or healed... whatever, House." He spread his arms open. "I trust you. We all do. We're just asking for a consult."

"You m-must be s-s-so in the d-dark." House joked.

But Foreman was serious.

"Wilson is sick, and we don't know why. Radiology is gonna give us the MRI scans back in half an hour. Do you think you can join us?"

House sat back against the headboard. He felt broken and alone. All the joy of his reunion with Cuddy had been sucked into the pain of losing Wilson, the vortex of bitter words that had elapsed from the lips of both, the abyss of silence that had followed and now the possibility of being parted forever. But there was no way he could trust himself at the present moment. The team would never distrust his medical advice, because they still believed this sickly version of House had a better chance than any of them at saving Wilson's life. He perceived their request as harbored by his own incredible recovery: they were so amazed at having him back as they thought he used to be, that they were convinced his medical judgement was still the same. And there was no way he could know that his mental capacity was, indeed, untouched when it came to diagnosing. That very moment, House realized he could go on forever with being bedridden, but was crushed by what he believed to be the loss of his only source of excitement and purpose in life. His benign addiction... His only addiction, now.

"I'm s-sorry." He whispered to the surrounding, awaiting silence. "I'm s-so sorry."

Foreman, Chase and Taub stood up. Upon leaving Taub turned back to House, one last time.

"We'll keep you pos..."

"Don't."


Conference Room
November, 28th
-

"Wilson is leaving. A.M.A." Taub dashed in, slamming Wilson's patient file onto the glass table.

"Are you kidding me?" Chase put the coffee cup he was washing back in the sink and came back to his chair. He leaned against the backrest. "Why would he do that?"

"He doesn't want House in on the case." Taub rubbed his forehead, resigned. "He told Cuddy, and Cuddy told me. And then he said he was leaving."

"House said no." Foreman stood up. "There is nothing for Wilson to worry about."

They sat in silence until Chase's words broke their awkwardness.

"We asked House, already." He admitted. "Chance was he'd say no. But Wilson is right. We tried to involve him and he clearly doesn't want th..."

"Why does he always have to protect him?" Taub stood up and went for the door. "He's being an idiot, risking his life just to keep House out of it. I'm gonna get the MRI scans now." He walked out. "Whatever crap Wilson pulls." His voice faded away as he marched to the elevators.

Foreman and Chase exchanged looks.

"Why the myoclonus, then?"

"Ask Princeton General, that's where he's going to be in two hours."

"I can't believe it." Cuddy combed her curls back with her fingers, pacing the floor of her study, more incredulous than angry. "How did you even think of going behind my back with this?" She leaned back against the bookshelf, holding out a sigh. "As if Wilson's crazy symptoms weren't enough." She whispered.

Taub and Chase stood in silence, lips tightened, arms crossed on their chests.

"I made the decision." Foreman walked in, slamming the door closed. "This doesn't have anything to do with Wilson leaving. He doesn't even know we asked House for a consult. He wants to leave because he's being an idiot."

"This is not the point." Cuddy tiredly sat down at her desk. "The point being – obviously -" She highlighted her last word, "...that you involved a patient in a case."

"It's House."

"There's a conflict."

"Come on. He's the best doctor we have." Foreman shook his head.

"He is a patient."

"We gave him a choice to be in on the case. He refused."

"What if he'd said yes?" Cuddy asked, raising her brow. "What if he changes his mind tomorrow and wants in on the case?"

"He needed to know that his friend is sick." Foreman remarked.

"Wilson didn't want that."

"Wilson is an idiot. And House too." Taub spread his arms. "We need to do something now."

"House in a very delicate situation. And Wilson is our patient too. We must protect both. We can't go against Wilson's will if he wants this to be kept from House."

"Wilson is leaving. There's gonna be no more will to respect." Chase noted.

They stood in silence for awhile. Then Cuddy grabbed her laptop and went for the door.

The three men all turned to her.

"Where are you going now?" Foreman asked.

"DDXing Wilson. Thanks to you three."

"Here." Cuddy slammed the shiny MacBook onto House's bedside table and turned it to him. "What do you see."

"An anatomical, T1-weighted, s-sagittal MRI s-sc-scan of someone's b-brain." He replied flatly.

"House," Cuddy sat down on the edge of the mattress and placed a hand on House's lap. "Please."

"I t-told th-them. I c-can't." House whispered.

"You can't, or you won't?"

"H-how b-bad..."

"Bad. Intermittent myoclonic seizures. Vomiting. Motor deterioration."

House sat silently through the news. Was he really looking at Wilson's premature death on that laptop screen?

"T-there's n-no tumor t-there." He declared.

"There isn't." Cuddy whispered. "Listen," She took his hand in hers. "I don't want to see you get old in this room." Her eyes filled with tears.

"P-please... don't..."

"No, you listen." She pierced him right-through with her stare. "Something is holding you back. And... it shouldn't."

House raised his stare up to the ceiling to hide the mist covering his blue irises.

"I c-can't t-take t-this. I'm b-broken." He whispered.

"Wilson is sick... and the team trusts you. Even though," She released a hollow laugh. "Even though I could damn well lose my license over this, I have scolded them enough for involving you."

"They c-can d-do it. They're g-good."

"I know. But it's not for them. They're right: you need this. And I want you in because," She smiled, this time with the utmost sincerity. "Because I pray to God nothing bad happens to Wilson, but I'm here now and you are here too, and you're not gonna be alone in this. I want you to exercise your mind, and be worried, and be in it." She swallowed a bout of tears. "You need this. Wilson needs this."

"I'm... I'm sc-scared." House lowered his stare, his voice almost inaudible.

"Me too." Cuddy ran her fingers through House's hair, caressing his forehead and cheeks. She kissed him on the lips, lightly. "Look at these scans, House. Please."

And then, House felt the usual chill, the familiar stinging excitement, the solution to the puzzle wanting out from the abyss of his high-functioning cortical pathways. Four years had passed since he had last crossed that threshold, and his whole life had changed. All he wanted was to save Wilson, to know what was wrong with his friend's body. House didn't know how to link the two, but he wanted both, for different reasons.

I need this in my life.

"Here." Chase turned on a gigantic LCD screen hanging from the side wall of the conference room. Immediately, four squared windows appeared, each containing a different view on the insides of Wilson's head. House raised his brow.

"I s-see you have lived up to my expectations." He noted.

Chase and Taub exchanged amused looks. Foreman walked up to the screen and pointed his index finger at the top-left image.

"This cost us six months of clinic rotation." He added casually. "Here is Wilson's CT scan immediately following the accident." He enlarged the picture with a pinch of his fingers on the screen. "It's clear."

"And yet, the j-jerks." House's lips tightened. "Why."

"He went home and came back a few days later because of those." Chase surfed through the patient file. "He's been having intermittent myoclonic seizures since then."

"The scan is clear." Taub remarked. "He had a mild concussion from the accident, but the tissue looks isotonic."

House sat back into the wheelchair, silent. Nobody dared turn to him but the whole room was fibrillating in a mute, tense wait. And then his voice broke the silence.

"He's bleeding into his brain."

Nobody replied.

"Show m-me the s-second scan."

Taub's fingers hovered on the LCD screen and the pictures changed to a new, sharper view of Wilson's brain.

"This is the MRI from yesterday. Six days post-trauma. Still clear."

Chase stood up and went for the screen, pointing at it with his biro pen. "There's no visible contusion and no laceration. The pia mater is intact." He pointed at the thick, white contour enclosing Wilson's brain tissues. "There's no bleeding here."

"The seizures can be a symptom of post-concussion syndrome." Foreman added. "It's the easiest explanation."

"They've gotten worse overtime." Chase noted. "And his motor and visual systems are deteriorating too."

"How's the ADH?" Hose asked, eyes fixed into the screen.

Foreman handed him the blood panels. "Increased."

"Vasopressin and Oxytocin?"

"Increased as well."

House's eyes surfed through the numbers on the paper sheet. Their meaning was there for him to disclose. All he had feared was to be blind to them, but they were talking to him now, and he felt like he was truly, really rising from the dead.

"He's b-bleeding. He m-must b-be." He whispered to himself.

"The truck pulled over just in time, the impact..." Chase spread his arms. "It wasn't that hard."

"Chase is right. If there was a sign of contusion we could have watched for a haemorragic progression. But there weren't any. Nor last week, nor now."

House's stare could set the room on fire. The team exchanged looks.

"Rule-outs." He declared. "Neoplastic disorder. G-go."
"Brain scans are clear." Foreman noted.

"Psychogenic."

"Glucose, cortisol, B6... all normal. And," Chase crossed the words on the whiteboard. "He's not showing any behavioral changes."

"Exercise, overwork..."

"Glucose levels should be altered."

"Nothing developmental, clearly." Foreman added. "He has never experienced seizures and has no familiar history of epilepsy."

"Drugs. Poisoning."

"Seriously?" Chase raised his brow. "Tox screen came back negative, anyway."

Then, everybody's pagers went off.

"Doctor Cuddy. He's not breathing." A young nurse with braided hair pulled Wilson's head back, keeping his neck firm with her fingers. "We need to intubate him."

"Come on, come on, come on..." Cuddy's gloved fingers felt frozen and stiff as she tried to penetrate her friend's throat with the tube. "He's shut. We need a thinner tube."

Chase came closer. "I can take over, come on."

"I said we need a thinner tube." She swallowed a lump of terror: trying not to panic she ended up making it into Wilson's airways. "Got it. Got it. I'm in. Leave the tube."

They stepped aside to have a look at the monitors.

"O-two sats rising." Taub turned off the alarm and the room got quieter.

Cuddy firmed the bands holding the tube in Wilson's mouth.

"What the hell is happening to him."

They all turned to the window with a view on the hallway from the ICU area. Through the glass, House's blue irises glared at them for a few seconds. Then, he laboriously turned his wheelchair and rolled away.

"You can't leave." Cuddy sat at Wilson's bedside. "It's too dangerous to move you now."

He flashed her the saddest glance.
"You're on anticonvulsants for the seizures but we don't know what's causing them and why you stopped breathing this morning." Foreman added. "Stay. Please."

"Okay. Okay." Wilson whispered. "What's in the MRI?" He exhaled and then put the oxygen mask back on his mouth and nose, breathing in heavily.
"It looks clear." Cuddy's lips tightened.

"Don't... don't lie to me, please." He looked up at her and saw it in her eyes. They weren't lying to him: they didn't know. That very moment, Wilson knew the helplessness he had experienced back in the early days of House's coma, and realized he could die suddenly, in the blink of an eye he could just stop breathing once again and this time the tube wouldn't come out, his heart would stop beating, his brain wold get its last bout of diffuse, overwhelming electrical discharges and then he would just lie motionless and silent. He made as if to raise his left hand to touch Cuddy's.

"I can't feel it." Wilson's feeble pitch trembled. "I can't feel my hand."

"You need to see him, House. Please." Cuddy pensively sank a sugar cube into her coffee cup with a silver spoon.
"He doesn't want t-that." He noted. "No s-sugar for m-me. L-literally."
Cuddy dropped the cube she was about to pour into House's tea back into a flower-painted ceramic cup, and pushed it aside. Laboriously, his hand sought to grasp the teaspoon on the table. She got a straw from a pouch in her purse and stuck it into House's cup, then helped his fingers on it.

"Here." She smiled. She kept his hand firm for a while and then released the hold, slowly. "Easier this way."

"T-that's awk-ward." He noted.

"Absolutely. And no spilling." The corners of Cuddy's lips turned slightly upward.
"You c-can't even k-keep it s-s-serious."
"I said no spilling."

They sipped their beverages in silence.

"Cuddy."
"What?"

"You n-need to t-trust m-me." House's expression wasn't any sad, or undecided, or imploring. It was a matter of fact floating in his blue irises, glaring at Cuddy. "If you d-don't, we're g-gonna l-lose him."

November 29th
Conference room

Foreman stood beside the whiteboard, holding a large-pointed black marker. Taub put a plate of bagels and three cups of coffee on the table and sat down. The wall screen got turned on and Chase's fingers selected a mid-axial view of Wilson's MRI scan from the day before. Cuddy and House sat by each other at the short end of the room.

"Respiratory arrest, low O-two sats, weakness, myoclonus, vomiting. Hemiplegia." Foreman declared.

"Repeat the MRI." House's order came out in a whisper.

"House..." Chase spread his arms. "We scanned him two days ago. He's not bleeding."

They sat in silence for some time, each focused on their own thoughts. The impact against the truck couldn't have caused any kind of serious traumatic brain injury. And it looked like it hadn't in fact.

"I'm t-telling you. He's b-bleeding." House noted. "It's Delayed Intracerebral Hematoma."

"House is right. It's the continued bleeding of microvessels fractured at the time of primary injury," Chase stood up. "Even if the first scan didn't show any signs, and neither did the one from yesterday... He's worsened overtime."

"We should see the bleeding expanding on serial scans." Taub noted. "It's the consequences of a process that should be beneficial but mistakenly goes too far." Taub checked Wilson's blood panels. "Crash triggers micro-bleeding. Brain cells die. Free radicals get released in the process of clearing cell debris, and cause further cell death around the primary injury site."

"We still don't know why he's bleeding, if he is. And why we're not seeing it." Foreman was already holding the iPhone to his ear. "The car crash can't be the principal cause." Someone answered the phone on the other end. "It's doctor Foreman. I need an emergency MRI scan for a patient."
Cuddy had sat through the whole process in utter silence. For once, she felt like she should leave House to do his thing with the team without intervening. Most of all, though, she realized how terrified she was of losing Wilson. Her friend whom she was once about to marry, on whose shoulder she had cried her eyes out when House had fallen ill, who had accepted her u-turn from their life together with the utmost humility: without begrudging her with one single bitter remark, one rancorous glance.

He doesn't deserve this.

Immediately after her thought, though, she heard House's voice in her head.

People don't get what they deserve. They get what they get.

"We need to check his coagulation parameters." Taub stood up, folding Wilson's bloodwork into his patient file.

"Do you think he has a bleeding disorder of some sort?" Chase asked, pointing vaguely at the brain scans. "Something that's been triggered by the crash in a delayed fashion?"

"That makes sense." Foreman nodded. "It does."

House's orders interrupted their discussion. "I n-need to t-talk to Wilson."

Wilson lay asleep. The heart monitor beat its inexorable rhythm, oxygen flew through his airways and nourished his blood. The entire left side of his body looked weak and flat.

He can't die. I can't let him.

House hesitantly raised his hand and reached for Wilson's needle-pinned forearm.

"That's gay."

Wilson's feeble smile cracked the dark of the room open wide. House couldn't help his own.

"Hi."

"Hi. Shouldn't you be on the miracle floor?" He whispered.

"Sh-shut up. L-looks like I'm your d-doctor now."

Wilson's smile faded away.

"I told them to leave you alone."

"I know." House raised his brow. "You won't g-get r-rid of me so easy."

"I almost did." Wilson noted jokingly. "But you woke."

"I m-meant... the other day." House's gaze darkened. "I'm s-sorry."

"Me too."

"I'm s-sorry for b-blaming you."

"It's okay. I was bitter. It's been hard for me." Wilson smiled tiredly. "I thought it was all my fault. Kinda self-centered," He admitted. "But I cared. A lot. All this time, I've tried to protect you."

"I k-know. I m-made a m-mess."

"No, House. It's different. I thought you were dead to us. For years." Wilson inhaled through the mask, then he pushed it aside. "When you woke up, I thought... I thought you'd be changed, and needy... Turns out we all were. You, and Cuddy, and I."

"We are." House felt like being finally delivered of a poisonous weight.

"It's been hard to accept it."

Wilson's eyes got foggy, his stare wandered through the shady room, focusing on nothing in particular. His consciousness was starting to slip away.

We need to move fast.

"Wilson."

"Yeah."

"After the accident," House bent over to him, closer than he could. He needed to look him in the eye, see him alert for perhaps the very last time in his life. "D-did you have s-stiff neck?"

"..."

"Wilson. Look at me. What d-did you t-take for the neck?"

"Ibuprofen." He whispered.

"I think you're b-bleeding into your brain."

Then, Wilson fell unconscious, and all was left was the monitors beating the rhythm of his vital parameters.

"There is no risk unless there's some pre-existent bleeding," Foreman was looking at the new scans of Wilson's brain. "then it acts as a blood thinner... at this point it's too late."

They all could see the diffused blood-staining on the new scan.

"There was no way we could have detected this on the first CT." Chase noted. "Even with a contusion, tissues can look isotonic for days..."
"And then he went home and took ibuprofen, and he started having secondary bleeding in the microvessels surrounding the primary lesion." Taub rubbed his forehead. "And everywhere else."

"Coagulation parameters are all messed up." Cuddy brought the new blood panels in. She slammed the sheets onto the glass table. "It's DIC from the trauma. It caused consumption bleeding that got exacerbated by the pain meds he was taking."

"House was right." Chase turned off the backlit wall panel. "He's gonna die."

They looked at the patient, lying unconscious before their helpless eyes.

"House." Cuddy hit him gently on the forearm to wake him up. He blinked awake, and turned to her.

"I'm sorry." Her lips tightened in pain. He could see the tears wanting out from the corners of her eyes.

This is not happening.

"You were right. He's had microbleeding for six days due to traumatic DIC. It got evident on the last scan we did." She swallowed a lump in her throat. "It would have resolved if he hadn't taken ibuprofen for the stiff neck."

"What an idiot." House whispered. But the joke didn't get through. Something was breaking open inside him. A gaping chasm of some sort that was taking his breath away.

"We told him he was fine. CT looked clear. Nobody could've thought of that, then."
"We k-killed him." He replied, flatly.

"No, House." Cuddy took his hand in hers, and bent over to him. "No. You know that. It's something he's developed afterwards. A few days have gone by, he came back here," She tried to reassure him but her own certainties were starting to shake. "And we found it. You did. You were right."

"I d-don't care." He paused. "He's g-gonna die."

He's dying.
Cuddy dried her eyes with the back of her hand. "We're giving him IV fluids, and fresh frozen plasma, and saline. He's in the ICU, if you wanna see him."

They gazed at each other, crushed by the heavy realization that something was going to change forever. Chase, Foreman and Taub stood by the door, ready for orders that they knew weren't going to come. Not at this point. Wilson's health had taken an unfortunate turn, suffering from complications from the head trauma that had been readily identified... though too late for anyone to save his life.

What am I going to say to him.

House felt like his whole journey from the awakening had come down to this very moment, when he would see his best friend meeting a cruel, unfathomable destiny, so very similar to that of Amber, so many years earlier.

"It's my f-fault." House whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"Shut up..." Wilson's eyes wandered in the darkness. He couldn't see House, or anything, clearly anymore. "I was tired and stressed out, and I took the car," he breathed in heavily through the mask. "I could have done this any other night."

"The things I s-said to you... You were a-angry."

"It's okay. We..." Wilson's speech was getting more and more laborious. "We're okay."

"I know." House's words couldn't convey what his eyes were yelling desperately at Wilson.

I love you. I don't want you to die.

Their gazes met each other. Wilson's smile got House by surprise.

How can you smile.

But it was clear that despite his suffering, the one thing that had worked in his life was still on, and that relieved him of some of the pain. Most of it.

"Yeah. You can't turn us off, it seems." He whispered.

And then House saw it, crystal-clear.

Inhibition of sulfonylurea receptor-one with injectable glyburide may provide protection against haemorragic transformation associated with recombinant tissue plasminogen activator in cerebral ischemia.

A seminar he had attended to please Cuddy just before the wedding, four years later. A rat-model of a drug that could reduce edema formation, swelling and haemorrage in the brain. Something which could contain the toxicity caused by the contact between brain tissue and blood. A way to minimize the damage and maybe hope for a recovery of what was left. Something that was gonna be so illegal.

"Wilson."
"Yeah?"

"This is your l-lucky day."


Epilogue

Six Months Later

"So."

"So?"

Foreman and House exchanged looks. It was the end of May, and the breeze of springtime caressed the roofs of Princeton like a cottoned blanket, fresh and pure. House leaned against his left crutch and pointed the right one up to Foreman.

"Get out of my way." He grinned. "The Board can't be left waiting."

"As if you cared about that." Foreman joked. He moved aside to let House in.

House moved a slightly laborious step forward.

"Of course I don't care," He declared, turning back to Foreman. "But it's gonna be my fifteen minutes of fame and I don't wanna be late for that."

They stood in silence for awhile, House's joke landing quietly between the two of them.

"It's..." Foreman shrugged. "It's unbelievable. What you did, House... I'm,"

"Shut up."

"I'm proud of you."

House flashed him an amused glance.

"Your freedom ends where my signature lies."

"There's gonna be no special treatment. I'm gonna be your boss. Cuddy is gonna be your boss."

"Wait and see. I am going to paint your workdays a nice shade of hell. And Cuddy's."

Foreman raised his brow.

"Remember you owe me for getting you the glyburide last winter. Legally."

House turned serious.
"I do. Thank you."

"Your exam starts in what, ten minutes?"

"Can't wait."

"You don't say." Foreman joked. "Good luck then." He held out his hand.

"Thanks."

As a neurologist, Foreman still watched House's progress with disbelief and amazement. As a friend, he was sincerely proud of what he had seen so far. He still had not managed to link the two: one year earlier, he had observed a slow, though miraculous awakening. House's brain had been scanned to infinity and beyond: it had rewired and reshaped itself in a way that had made it possible for House to shift from a minimally conscious state, to what was his life now. It had taken him three years to fight the damage of hypoxia, the fatal lack of oxygen supply that the cardiac arrest from the overdose had caused to his brain. Three years during which his tissues had healed and rewired, making new pathways to replace the broken-down mechanisms of the old ones. House was a ghost in a damaged machine for endless months, watched as a lost cause by every doctor on the Neurology and Neurosurgery floor. And then, his hollow looks, his decorticated posture had faded away, slowly. Every time his pager would go off during those times, Foreman thought that something was happening to House, that he was about to die on his watch. Instead, the less-than-one-percent scenario had happened: the crutches and the stutter were nothing compared to what it could have been, the sequelae to his reasoning mind were nonexistent. A surprise for the scientific community, another, less resonant "Terry Wallis case" to look at, and learn what classical neuroscience could not have taught to any scholar. So far.

A few minutes later, House walked in the examination room and sat down at a desk in the first row. His computer was already turned on and asked him for his personal data. While typing his name and date of birth, House could not help the chills running down his spine and the rush of blood warming his cheeks. One year earlier, he was fighting the ventilator.

"No cheating, no smart remarks, no cellphone." Foreman's solemn tone interrupted House's stream of consciousness. The entire Board was waiting at their seats: after years spent disapproving of his behavior, bedside manner, take on medicine and moral philosophy, they had gathered here to congratulate him on his comeback.

Walking past House's desk, Foreman imperceptibly touched House's shoulder.

"We'll be waiting for you." He whispered.

"You're so gonna regret this." House snarked, in an amused hiss.

"I know."

Then, House was left alone in front of his future.

In the rear of the room, Cuddy saw his shoulders shrug pensively. She held out a smile and stood in the doorframe for a while. A few minutes later, she quietly left.

The room was shady and silent. House's stuff still lay all around: a pile of printed-out scientific papers on the windowsill, the last issue of the New England Journal of Medicine spread open on the armrest of the lounge chair, showing his single-case paper on the use of glyburide for minimizing damage in delayed haemorragic progression of traumatic brain injury; then doodled notes and sheets on the bedside table, and his guitar plugged into the amp set, resting silently. He had lived there, at Wilson's constant watch, for months. It had been his own road to recovery, and the definitive signature on their friendship.

"He's gonna be okay." Cuddy whispered to Wilson's ear. "We all are. I promise."

A tear elapsed from the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek as he lay, intubated, in the shady room. Cuddy adjusted the oxygen flow, then took his hand in hers and sat by his bedside.

House didn't miss one single answer and scored 100% in every section of the test. When he checked the very last multiple-choice question, he knew this was his second chance at life.

It all came down to this very moment: all had turned upside down in the recent years, all had been put on the line or had hanged on by a thread for some time. His friendships with Wilson and Cuddy first, then his own life, his mental and physical recovery, and then again his relationships, and Wilson's life. And now, he had to prove that his reasoning mind and his genius still worked as the legendary duo that had blessed so many lives, included that of his best friend.

It had been a year-long return for House. To loving and be loved. To making up and forgiving, and be forgiven. A long return to people and their problems, and his own: a return to life with its many shades of happy and tragic. A return to innocence.

A month and a half after Wilson got released from the hospital, House got board-certified for the second time in his life.

––––

Christmas Night, 2018

House's fingers tapped a silent, short tune onto his knees. That wasn't exactly satisfactory in terms of coordination, but what can you expect after an opioid overdose, cardiac arrest, hypoxic brain injury and coma?

He now aimed at the piano keys. One by one, the notes came out. His old, familiar living-room filled with music.

Damn it. This sucks big time.

He repeated the exercise, faster this time. Then he turned to Cuddy, who had just come in from the other room, where Rachel had been tucked in, told to wait for Santa.

"So, what d-do you s-s-say?"

"That was pretty." Cuddy sat down beside him on the piano bench. "But I don't believe in marriage."

"Me n-neither." House declared.

"Me neither!" Wilson added, from the kitchen.

They all laughed.

"So this wasn't a proposal?"

"Of c-course not. We both tried with you." House snarked. "You're a lost cause when it comes to c-commitment."

"Fair enough." Cuddy raised her hands, sincerely amused. The whole load of their past had now become a source of benign irony between the three of them, and between House and Cuddy. She shrugged. "Never play a bridal march again, then. Not in my presence."

"I p-promise." House's lips curving in his secret smile were Cuddy's bliss and joy. She had watched him lie silent and indifferent to life for a long time and now he was back in her busy days, rendering them busier. And messier. She planted a kiss on the back of his neck, then slowly went up to his left ear. He lifted a hand and turned her chin to him. Their lips touched as he kept her close with his free arm, caressing her back with his open palm, savoring the texture of her skin underneath her satin shirt, finger by finger. As they kissed, the snow was covering the streets of Princeton.

When all the church bells in town rang the festive hour of Christmas, House and Cuddy woke up in bed, soaked in each other's embrace.

"Merry Christmas, Cuddy."

"Merry Christmas, House."

A few seconds of silence followed, during which only the soft tapping of the snow falling from the tree branches down to the rooftop was heard. Then, a contained whisper was heard from the living room.

"Screw your couch, House. My back is killing me."

"Stop the whining or go home." House replied, jokingly. They heard Wilson's footsteps on the wooden floor. Then, he materialized in the doorframe, wearing an embarrassing red pajamas, with furry white edges and a Santa cap. He now wore glasses because of the damage of the brain injury to his vision centers, which made the picture actually funnier and his overall, everyday appearance kind of fascinatingly intellectual.

"Up for a drink?"

They all walked to the living room. Soon after, three steaming Irish coffees were put on the table.

"Merry Christmas, guys."

"Merry Christmas, Wilson."

The End


Oh, life is trial by fire
And love's the sweetest taste
And I pray it lifts us higher,
To one safe place.
One safe place.