House's eyes drift towards Wilson's wrist, which is as close to an apology as he's going to get.
"Sorry you expected her and only got me. Remy's in the Twin Cities, trying a new protocol. She sends her greetings."
Actually, she's getting worse. But there's no need for House to know this right now.
"So, where are we going for my first drink as a free man?"
House sits down near him and buckles up, and Wilson's surprised by how comfortably familiar it feels. Yet it didn't happen much in the last two years.
"You already drank all the alcohol you had a right to in your life and then some. Your first drink will be a coffee, but a good one: be patient, we're almost there."
He carefully parks the Volvo and starts walking towards a very long queue stretching out on the pavement under the spring sun.
"Zorba's Brother? Wilson, I don't want to spend the next two hours queuing!"
"You won't. Ignore the onlookers and walk in - look, someone's waving at us."
They walk past the crowd, as Wilson's secretary greets them from a secluded table. As they sit down, she stands up, smiles a goodbye and leaves; the restaurant's owner does the same, and the murmurs of the waiting crowd slowly subside as they see he's okay with this.
"How... how did you do that? Zorba's Brother has a strict policy that everybody has to queue personally."
Wilson chuckles. Sometimes it's good to be able to call in favors. "I don't know whether he really has a brother named Zorba, but he definitely has a sister whose thyroid cancer has been in remission for six years. We treated her after Princeton General had suggested palliative care. Stop worrying and order whatever you want, it's on me or, more probably, on him."
House drinks the last sip from yet another coffee refill. "Delicious. That was a great way of celebrating freedom, but I want to go home now."
Wilson's hand strokes the back of his neck. Some news cannot be delayed forever. "I'll drive you. But first you must know that there have been some changes."
"The police found my Vicodin stash? Doesn't matter, I'll just get back in touch with my pusher." House is almost mellow, so happy he is. And now he must shatter that.
"House... your apartment was sold by court order to pay Cuddy's damage."
The blue eyes widen, more surprise than pain in them. So far. "And what happened to my piano? My guitars?"
"I bought that, and some of your books and.. well, you'll see. It's all at my place, and you can stay as long as you want in your old room until you decide what your plans are."
He hopes he manages not to sound condescending, or House will bolt, despite having nowhere to bolt to. It's bad enough that what was supposed to be their place is now Wilson's, and it's all his own fault too.
"Or until you start wooing another ex."
There's a sharp bitterness in House's voice, but still less than he deserves.
"House, I... I'm sorry."
He could say more, like how he's really, really sorry, and has been for the whole year of Cuddy madness, and then for the whole year after that.
"It's not your fault that I trashed her living room and had to spend six months in rehab and three in jail. Next Thursday would have been our second anniversary, you know."
He hasn't forgotten Cuddy, of course, how could he. He probably still loves her, even if she sucked him empty and kicked him to the curb when he couldn't do the impossible. Maybe changing topic is best. Any topic, even an awkward one, possibly a terrible one.
"Three months in jail, and you look like you've spent three years there. I don't even want to know where each blue spot comes from."
"I sheltered from rape a teenager, in for killing his mother's abusive boyfriend. The mother was hospitalized for several weeks after the assault and will have permanent damage, but the boy had precedents for fistfight and shoplifting so he got time."
He feels his heart loose its rhythm as he focuses on a single word. House's eyes are devoid of any emotion, like they have been the very few times he has managed to talk about his father's abuse.
"Rape? What... what happened to you?"
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the truth erupts and he's powerless to stop it.
"I should have gone to jail in your place. It was so much my fault anyway, I shouldn't have let you drive, stoned and sick as you were."
House looks tired more than sad. "Don't worry Wilson, no one rapes an old geezer like me, they just beat me up. That would have been different had you been the one in jail. Your idea of taking my place there is chivalrous but unsound."
"I still wish it could have been me. Hell, I wish I could have been the one with the infarction. You would still be with Stacy, probably, and I would have skipped Julie."
There's so much truth in what he says that it's a miracle House doesn't stand up and walk away mid-sentence. But the House that might have done that, or at the very least mocked him mercilessly, no longer exists. The last year has changed them both.
"Don't be an idiot. So what else is there that you didn't tell me while I was in jail?"
He knows that there's more, of course. The blue eyes seem to pierce his soul, like a beacon searching for truth. There's nothing to do but start moving to the next unpleasant topic.
"Your medical license will be reactivated soon. How's your job search going?"
"You already know the answer to your question, don't you? No one wants to hire a doctor with my past. At least no place I would even vaguely consider."
House looks like he's in acute pain, and for once his thigh has nothing to do with it. Living without his job, the job he is uniquely qualified to do, is probably the worst imaginable torture for him. They may as well stick him in prison for life if he isn't allowed to go back to work.
"I had heard indeed. I talked to several people at a number of Oncology meetings. Still, you do have options to consider. Here, look at this."
He pulls an envelope out of his bag and passes it over, making an effort to keep his hand steady.
The envelope has House's name on it, and yet has been torn open. House just raises an eyebrow at the obvious invasion of his privacy but doesn't comment as he pulls out the letter and reads it carefully to the end. Then he replaces it into the envelope and remains quiet for a few seconds. He next speaks looking at the sender address on the envelope.
"This would be a great offer except it's from a hospital in Sidney, New South Wales. Did you plan this with the help of the fucking wombat? He came to say goodbye before accepting the position back home, talking to me as if I was his goddamn father."
There are distinct overtones of affection and pain in his voice. Wilson feels very much like offering physical comfort, as he often does with his patients when delivering a death sentence: a hand on the forearm, or on a shoulder. But House would see through that, and he keeps himself in check, offering words instead.
"Chase did indeed help me. A lot. It's a great offer, isn't it? A diagnostics department, Chase as vice-chair to deal with administration, and three fellows. A good income, freedom to select your cases and no more than four clinic hours per week."
House's eyes lit up at the 'free to choose your patients' clause, but they quickly become despondent again. He sighs.
"Wilson, I'm 53, too old for a change like that. Accepting this offer would mean leaving behind everything and everybody I know. All my life so far."
At least to this he has an answer. He pulls out a very similar envelope and passes it on.
"Not quite. Look here."
"I don't care about your mail, unlike you with mine, so... oh. I see. Senior oncologist at the same hospital. So you're going to cheat them, right? Pretend you're going as well and drop out as soon as they hire me, using their offer to get a payrise here. Actually, that would be cheating them and me."
There's desperation and disbelief now in his eyes, and it's Wilson's turn to sigh as he hands his friend a folder whose contents House first barely glances at, then examines carefully while listening to Wilson's answer.
"I have precisely as much time as you have to take a final decision, but whatever happens I'm not staying in Princeton."
His heart's beating faster than usual now. He has often thought of telling House, but never found the opportunity. The visiting room of a jail is just not the right place for a certain kind of conversation.
Although in a sense there is really nothing to say. He fixes his attention on his friend, who seems to become paler as he goes through sheet after sheet of the small sheaf of letters and official documents in his hands. When he's done, he lifts his eyes and faces Wilson as if he were a ghost.
"Wilson, this is crazy. You... you resigned from Princeton Plainsboro three months ago, with immediate effect? Why would you do that?"
"I resigned when the board refused to hire you back."
"It wasn't their choice, but a straightforward application of the tenure rules."
"Your going to jail terminated your tenure, not your appointment - you automatically went on unpaid leave for the detox and the prison term. due to Cuddy's conflict of interest, any long-term decision about your case was deferred until the appointment of the next Dean. They could have hired you back once you got re-certified, but they chose to kick you out. And the reason you're not getting offers anywhere else is that they're all asking Cuddy for references."
He has tried hard not to say this, but it has blurted out of him. A close friend at Sloane-Kettering has actually shown him Cuddy's letter. He shivers at the recollection. House wouldn't be able to get a job as a janitor with a letter like that.
"So you just left, and they waived goodbye to the guy who put their Oncology Department on the map? I can't believe it."
He feels incredibly embarrassed now. His friend's so much the better doctor, and yet he's the one PPTH has tried to keep.
"The Dean asked me to reconsider. I said he should ask different people for letters and request the board to re-appoint you. I insisted that giving you a job meant saving lives, and he didn't even listen. I started packing my office the day they removed the writing Diagnostics Department from your door."
It's good that they are in a secluded separé, because Wilson can feel his own eyes tingling, and House's also look somewhat red. Time to change back the subject to something a bit less painful. Something with hope in it.
"They've offered to give us adjacent offices in Sidney, although they have no balconies. It's a city without harsh winters, hardly ever snow or ice."
House's hand grips the cane near him. Wilson knows how hard bad weather is for him, and that sun and heat in summer aren't a problem.
"I'll need time to think about it. It was... unexpected." House's eyes make it clear he's not just talking about the Australian offer.
"Sure, you have almost two months, and don't forget that the starting date is negotiable. You can enjoy the summer here and then go to another summer there."
House is going again through the pile of paper in front of him on the table, between the two empty coffee cups. Everything else has been cleared away, and the restaurant is empty except for them.
"Here it says 'Thank you for your application.' I apparently forgot I had applied for a job in Sidney. Do you want to help me run a differential diagnosis for selective amnesia?"
He smiles. He knows that House knows, and this is just teasing, as can be seen by the smile in his eyes, even though his lips remain drawn in a tight horizontal line.
"You can fake my signature well enough, and I'm not that much more stupid than you are."
This time House smiles openly, for the first time since Wilson has picked him up. It takes him a moment to realize he's smiling back himself, and the tension in his neck and shoulders is gone.
"You put a lot of work into this, right?"
"I had a lot of time. I was home and had nothing else to do."
No need to mention the many hour-long phone sessions with Brown, who had been rushed through board approval as his successor to keep Oncology working. Or the many visits to his former patients, and their funerals. He just keeps talking, enjoying how relaxed they are with each other now.
"Chase helped a lot, of course, but also Foreman, Cameron, Taub, most of all Thirteen - even Kutner's parents and Masters wrote incredibly supportive letters. I also included recommendations from former patients, among them two top level politicians on opposite sides of the spectrum, one from the FBI, and one from a researcher at the South Pole." Wilson winked. "She said you'd be so much nearer to her in Sidney."
House smiles more broadly, apparently he finds the list of people willing to help him find a job to be comforting.
"Maybe I should really give it a try. And now we should go, this place has closed forty minutes ago and I want to finally be home."
As he tries to pay and is politely but firmly waived away, Wilson feels suddenly better than he has in a very long time. Home, indeed. He'll be given a second chance to keep his promise, to repair the damage, to soothe the pain.
In the car House switches the music on, and probably notices that the selection is still the same one he had made for Wilson years ago. He swallows an OTC painkiller, part of the healthy regime he's on now; luckily he found a more humane place than Mayfield to detox.
Since he's going home he doesn't need to put so much attention on driving, hence he can occasionally steal a glance to House, who's lost in thought and looks fixedly through the window, at the once-familiar places he has missed for so long. Places he may have to leave behind forever.
He cannot see House's face, which is why his voice catches him by surprise. It's huskier than usual, and seems to come from somewhere very dark and deep inside him.
"Wilson, when you said you would have gone to jail for me... you meant it."
It's not a question, but an acknowledgement of a fact. Wilson keeps his eyes on the road, and breathes deeply before answering.
"Same about the infarction."
There's a long pause, but the silence isn't cold or tense.
"You're really an idiot, Wilson."
As he parks the car in the garage he thinks that House's affectionate tone is a very good omen for their new life together.