mgowriter's note: I've been missing the old House/Wilson bromance a lot lately, so I dusted this story off and finally finished it :] It's pretty heavy on the hurt/comfort, slightly AU, and set somewhere during mid-season 5.

Some disclaimers: the NJ State Penitentiary is a totally made up place; I also only have a surface knowledge of anatomy/physiology and pathology, so the ideas/treatment section of the story is short, but there are probably errors nonetheless.

I hope you guys like it!


Starting Over

Doctor James Wilson exited the driver's seat of his black Audi and smoothed the wrinkles on his jacket. He took the opportunity to stretch, relieving his muscles from the two hour drive. His watch read 9:48 a.m. They had a few minutes to kill before the gates would open.

Lisa Cuddy joined him after exiting the passenger side. She wore a muted gray pencil skirt and suit jacket over a simple blouse. The two doctors shielded their eyes from the sun as they looked across the street. A non-descript building sat in front of a complex surrounded by a perimeter of barbed wire fencing. The letters "New Jersey State Penitentiary" stood out in white against the beige bricks.

Wilson adjusted his tie for the second time. He checked his watch again. Breathe in, out, relax. Cuddy's hand reached across his back, resting on his shoulder.

"It'll be fine. You worry too much." She gave him an encouraging smile.

He nodded to appease her. He didn't feel fine. It had been six years to the day since he was here last, standing at the same spot in the gravel just off the road.

. . .

Voluntary manslaughter. That was the charge. She was a pretty girl with bright red hair who presented with granulomas everywhere—in her lungs, her liver, her lymph nodes, and her skin. The team agreed to take the case and went from antibiotics to Amphotericin to corticosteroids, back to antibiotics. They were exhausted. He was called in on a consult; but everyone already knew it wasn't cancer. Then House had a breakthrough. He always did. He wanted to give her high-dose Methotrexate, insisting it was berylliosis even though she had never been exposed to beryllium. Cuddy was at a conference in Atlanta and there was no time. House went ahead with the treatment.

She was doing better for about a day. Her vitals improved, the color started to come back on her cheeks, and she was surrounded by visiting kids. She was a twenty-three year old camp counselor that they adored.

The next morning, without warning, her kidneys started to fail, then her liver, and finally her heart. The side effects of House's treatment were too much for her already stressed system to handle.

The kids at camp held a midnight vigil for her in the woods. They invited everyone at the hospital that was involved with her care. Wilson was invited, for doing a two-minute consult. He didn't go, but was surprised to hear that House had gone.

He wasn't surprised when the lawyer came into House's office to serve the summons to court. It happened more often than one would expect. Half of House's patients were already dead when they landed on his desk. The treatments he concocted were all Hail Mary's, in a way.

They were having lunch and House was trying to gross him out by describing each species of bacteria that was probably in his turkey with room-temperature mayonnaise sandwich from the cafeteria. He was enjoying spending time with House again, despite the topic of conversation. It had been three months after Amber's death and only a couple of weeks after his return to work.

The lawyer didn't say much, but there was something wrong with the picture. Why was a lawyer doing a process server's job? House didn't look up from his Reuben sandwich. He tossed the paper in the trash, as usual.

"Mommy's going to be so mad," he said with a mischievous grin.

It turned out to be more complicated than anyone had thought. The girl was an heiress to literally a fortune. She was the daughter of the man who had the largest weapons manufacture contract with the United States military. The War on Terror had given daddy a big paycheck, and he was going to spend as much of it as he needed to make sure the man that killed his little girl would see justice.

House, for the most part, was silent. He said only two words at the trial, "not guilty." But Daddy had powerful lawyers; he only hired the best. They presented the evidence industriously: the leg, the Vicodin, the unorthodox treatments, and the number of patients that had died under House's care over the years. It was almost too easy.

That night, as they were making their way through their second bottle of bourbon, House told Wilson that he wouldn't be appealing the verdict. Wilson stared at him stupidly, trying to shake the fuzziness out of his brain.

"What do you mean?"

House smiled and said he had killed too many people in his life. He was going to stop himself before he killed Wilson, too.

Naturally, Cuddy was in an uproar. House's parents couldn't understand why he was doing this to himself. Wilson wouldn't let himself believe it. House was being House. He had probably already figured out a way out of this mess.

. . .

House was incarcerated in November of 2008, and Wilson, despite his efforts, hadn't seen him since. He allowed Cuddy to visit once a year, on the anniversary of his imprisonment. She came back from each visit more haunted than the last. Wilson pressed relentlessly, but she only said he would be the first to know if House wanted to see him.

It wasn't good enough for Wilson. He needed details, answers. It placed a strain on their relationship. He tried to avoid Cuddy as much as he could in passing. All of a sudden, the head of oncology at Princeton Plainsboro wasn't a dream job anymore. Nonetheless, he poured himself deeper into work. He published more papers, saw more patients, and added research on top of his full practice.

House's office was eventually cleared out. Diagnostics was done and the team went their separate ways. Tulmon from Dermatology had coveted the space for years. Cuddy finally gave in to him, when she ran out of excuses for keeping it empty.

Wilson struck up an unlikely friendship with Tulmon, a short, round man with perfect skin. They shared a small number of skin cancer patients. Wilson often had lunch in his office. House's office.

. . .

Wilson shook his head to clear the memories. He looked across the street to see two prison guards unlock the outer set of iron gates. A moment later, another guard walked out of the building with a limping figure behind him.

It took Wilson a second to confirm that the figure was House, and another to realize he wasn't ready for this.

House stepped just outside the iron gates. He was about 200 yards away, staring at something on the ground.

"Let me go first," Cuddy said softly.

Wilson nodded, keeping his eyes on House.

Cuddy covered the distance quickly, her stiletto heels clicking on the hard pavement not quite as loudly as on the linoleum floors of the hospital. She stopped in front of House, placed her hand on his arm, and said something in his ear. He nodded, eyes still on the ground. She turned back to Wilson and motioned for him to come forward.

Wilson felt his feet move, but without his conscious control. He kept his eyes on the pair before him. House was wearing the same clothes he had on six years ago. He didn't know why it surprised him. He'd seen it a million times in movies—they kept your stuff when you were in jail and gave it back to you when you were released. In the movies, the protagonist always patted his well-fitting tuxedo, placed his wallet in his pocket, and waltzed out of the place smiling.

The image in his mind couldn't be further from the truth. House stood before him in dark jeans, the red Jimi Hendrix shirt he won from poker, and a black suit jacket.

It wasn't right. This wasn't the scene he had pictured a thousand times in his mind. House's clothes were too big for his thin frame. They hung from him like clothes on a skeleton, one of those Halloween toys that kids dressed in pirate uniforms.

The hands that emerged from the end of his sleeves were too thin. Blue veins crisscrossed underneath the skin and cast a sickly color from within. His right hand gripped an old, wooden cane with enough pressure to turn the knuckles white. It was a throwaway cane that served as decoration or part of a costume.

Wilson stood before his best friend without remembering walking the distance. House had always been on the thin side, but looking at him now was heartbreaking. The hollows of his cheeks were the most prominent features on his face. His skin was pale and fragile. His hair was cut shorter than Wilson had ever seen it. It looked almost like his dad's, a military cut. House hated that. His unkempt stubble was mostly gray rather than the salt and pepper Wilson remembered.

They stood in silence for a full minute. It was clear House wasn't going to make the first move.

"Hi," Wilson said finally.

House looked up at him.

"Hi." His eyes were unfocused. He didn't offer anything else.

Cuddy's pager buzzed from her pocket and it relieved some of the tension. Saved by the bell, as it were. She checked the message and frowned deeply.

"What it is?" Wilson asked.

She shook her head. "This must be a mistake. I'm getting a 911 from my assistant."

She took out her cell phone and pressed a number on speed dial. Wilson and House were left alone as she stepped to the side.

"House," Wilson whispered, surprised by the lack of confidence in his voice. He had rehearsed what he was about to say more than a thousand times.

House's wandering gaze stopped at his eyes, for just a second. Wilson wouldn't be able to fully comprehend what he saw in them until a few days later. They were filled with not just pain, but also fear.

Cuddy's conversation was quick, and she rejoined them before either man could say anything else.

"I can't believe this. There's a psych patient in the ER who set two gurneys on fire and is now threatening to do the same to himself. Wilson—"

His eyes pleaded with her. No. I need you here.

"I'm sorry, but I have to get back. I'll take a cab. You guys go ahead."

Wilson looked over at House. His gaze had returned to the ground. House was waiting for him to make a decision.

He sighed. "We'll see you later, Lisa."

. . .

Wilson noticed House's eyebrows rise almost imperceptibly at the sight of the car, but the other man's lips remained silent. House had always teased him about his previous Volvo, saying it was the most predictable thing an oncologist could drive.

Wilson allowed himself a small smile. It was the first indication that the House he knew was still there.

His smile was erased a few seconds later, when he witnessed the amount of difficulty it took for House to get into the car. Every movement of House's leg caused him pain, enough for him to show it on his face. He breathed heavily in the silence of the car.

Wilson reached into his pocket to pull out a small, plastic, orange pill bottle. He set the bottle between them, on the armrest.

"Cuddy told me about the pills," he said simply.

House hesitated for moment. His grasped the bottle with care as he stared at the contents inside. He popped the cap, carefully doled out two oval pills, and downed them silently. After closing his eyes and leaning back into the seat, he didn't stir until they were entering the outskirts of Princeton.

House finally cleared his throat. "Who's the lucky number four?"
Wilson glanced down at the wedding band on his left hand. "Ex-number four," he said. "I set a record this time…four and a half years. The divorce should be final in two weeks."

The answer was satisfactory for the usually much more inquisitive diagnostician, and he settled back into his seat to watch the familiar scenery.

. . .

They arrived at Wilson's apartment a little after noon. Getting out of the car for House was another exercise in pain. He looked up at the stairs leading to the second floor and wondered if his leg would make it.

Wilson watched House's knuckles turn white from gripping the staircase and sensed his hesitation to put any kind of pressure on his right leg. He clenched his teeth together, but said nothing. What took him ten seconds to climb every day took his best friend the better part of five minutes to complete.

When they were finally inside the apartment, House took the most direct route to the dark, leather couch and sat down painfully. His forehead was wet with perspiration. Setting down the cane, he noticed his hands shaking slightly. He fished out the bottle of Vicodin from his pocket, and placed one more inside his mouth. He held it there for a moment, tasting the familiar bitter coating of the pill. He swallowed it dry, and forced himself to close the cap on the bottle.

Wilson brought over a glass of water and placed it on the coffee table. He busied himself in the kitchen and prepared a modest lunch for the both of them. By the time he brought over the plate of food, House had fallen asleep on the couch, his features etched into a frown. Wilson sighed, and took a seat next to the sleeping figure. He ate his sandwich in silence, watching the rise and fall of House's chest.

House slept through the rest of the day, and Wilson found himself exhausted early in the night. He pulled out a comforter from the closet, placed it over the still figure, and whispered goodnight.

Wilson woke to the sound of music the next morning. The melody floated into his room and he was reminded of a simpler life. For a moment it sounded like House was playing the piano in the next room, but that was impossible; he didn't own one.

He was quiet in getting out of bed, padding softly into the living room. House was sitting up on the couch. He had the TV tuned to one of those classical music channels that played music with a screensaver background.

Wilson walked up to the couch. "House."

House opened his eyes quickly, looking behind him. His body tensed up in a fraction of a second.

"Did I wake you?" he said.

Wilson shook his head, looking at House with a frown. He saw the beads of sweat on his friend's face, and visible dampness in the shirt that he slept in. House's hand had a firm grip on his right leg. He had obviously been in pain for a long time. Wilson wondered if this had been his life for the past six years. Pain, exhaustion, and sleep; an endless cycle.

"How many Vicodin did you take last night?" Wilson asked.

"Six." House was too tired and too much in pain to think of a lie. "I didn't want to overdose on my first day back, so I thought I'd better hold off for another couple of hours." He tried to smile.

Wilson sighed. He ran his hand through his already tussled hair.

"We need to go to the hospital. You're malnourished, in pain, and you're getting that leg checked out. Give me a couple of minutes to get dressed." He moved toward his bedroom.

"No," said House, so softly that Wilson thought he imagined it.

"What?"

"I don't need a hospital. I'm not going."

Wilson walked back toward House. "Look at yourself. You're about to pass out. You're not in prison anymore. You don't have to—"

"I'm not going," House repeated, this time more firmly.

Wilson, more than anyone else, was used to House's stubbornness, but he felt the frustrations of the past six years spoil over as he turned on his friend.

"Dammit House, I don't give a shit what you want right now. We're going in to get your leg checked out."

House's demeanor changed in an instant. He lowered his gaze quickly, and sunk further into his seat. His shoulders tensed even more. He looked as if he was waiting to be struck.

Wilson froze in place. He realized he was towering over House, and lowered himself to the floor.

"House," he began, forcing himself to level his voice, "tell me what happened in there."

House didn't look up from his gaze on the floor. "It doesn't matter. I'm not there anymore."

Wilson wasn't sure if House really believed what he said. "We don't have to go in. Can I…will you let me look at your leg?"

House considered the option for a second, and nodded his consent.

Wilson carefully rolled up his right pant leg, revealing the scarred tissue on his thigh. It was too thin. The femur was outlined prominently against pale, almost translucent skin. The muscles in his leg had atrophied to the point where Wilson could see the outlines of the fibular head and the lateral condyle of the tibia. It reminded him of the cadaver he dissected during his first year of medical school. After peeling off the skin, fat, layers of tough fascia, and muscle, you finally reached bone. He remembered thinking that it was the innermost part of a human you could see.

There were deep bruises around the area where House's quadricep muscle was missing. Some were an ugly, yellow-green color, but the majority were purple and blue. They were more recent. His fingers barely touched the wounds, but the pain provoked an involuntary grunt from the older man.

Wilson looked up at House. His eyes focused straight ahead, staring into the TV screen. The piano solo continued to play.

He didn't ask. He didn't have to. He knew that the bruises could only come from intentional trauma with heavy force. The multiple colors told him it was done on a routine basis. He wasn't sure why he was surprised. It was how prisons worked. Everyone had their own place, and any weakness would be exploited. House's weakness was obvious. He needed a cane to walk. His leg. Naturally, that would be the best place to hurt him.

Wilson felt sick to his stomach. He knew House was barely taking any pain meds in jail, because the other prisoners took them from him routinely. Cuddy had told him that after her first visit, when she cried in his arms and said House was barely there when she saw him. He was going through detox. He couldn't imagine how the leg must feel without Vicodin, after all the abuse.

He examined the leg up to the point where the fabric would no longer bunch up.

"Unbuckle your pants," he said.

House looked at him and managed a small grin, the first hint of the old House that Wilson had seen since yesterday morning.

"I'm not that kind of guy, Wilson."

Wilson rolled his eyes. "I'm not either. I want to look at your upper thigh. Unbuckle it or I'm going to do it for you."

Surprisingly without commentary, House did as he was told. Wilson probed his upper thigh with professional hands. He was satisfied that nothing was broken, but had a suspicion that constant bruising and healing to the area over the past couple of years had led to referred nerve pain. It seemed like anywhere he touched on the leg felt excruciating to House.

In the process of zipping up his pants, House accidentally lifted his T-shirt. A flash of pink tissue caught Wilson's attention, and he stopped the hand that tried to cover it.

There was a long scar on the side of House's torso. The ragged tissue extended from the bottom of his ribs to the top of his hip.

"What's this from?" Wilson demanded.

House answered truthfully, for once. "A guy named Mono. And his sharpened, pink toothbrush handle."

Wilson examined the tissue gently. "Did it reach the liver?"

"Nope," House replied. "But it got me a week in the hospital by myself. Totally worth it."

Wilson looked up at his best friend. "You could've died."

House shrugged his shoulders. "Not much of a loss."

The younger man shook his head. He got to his feet and started to walk away, but changed his mind. He turned toward House.

"Why didn't you let me see you? Why Cuddy, and not me?"

If House was surprised by the question, he didn't let it show.

"I didn't want to. Why do I need a reason?"

"No. Not good enough," Wilson heard his voice rising, but didn't care.

House buckled his belt quickly. He reached for his cane and started to get up. "I'm not having this conversation right now."

Wilson pushed him back into the couch, with force. The action surprised himself more than House. "We're doing this. Now."

House remained silent, as if driving his point across.

Wilson's anger spread into his words. "Did you think dealing with a dead girlfriend and dead best friend would be better for me than just dealing with a dead girlfriend? Really House, is that what you thought? Because let me tell you, it didn't really work out that way. It felt more like my entire life was ripped out from underneath me. You could've answered one fucking letter. You could've called one time."

Wilson realized he was pacing and forced himself to stop. He didn't expect a response, certainly not the one that he received.

"Because you're my best friend," said House. "Because I killed your girlfriend and you were worried about how I was dealing with it. I don't deserve that. I'm not that kind of person."

Wilson opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again. He sighed, the anger suddenly drained from his voice.

"I know you felt guilty. But Christ, House, did you ever stop to think that I was hurting too? That I might have actually needed you to be there for me instead of blaming yourself for everything?"

The older man shook his head. He looked up at his friend. "You were the only good thing left, Wilson. I had to save that part of my life."

"House—" Wilson began, his voice softening.

House stopped him mid-sentence. "Don't. None of that mushy bullshit."

Wilson stopped himself. He placed his hands on his hips, and stared at House. It was clear the confession was the only thing he was going to get out of his friend. After a few moments, he gave up on the pose and walked into the kitchen. He returned a minute later, with two old-fashioned glasses filled with liquor. He handed one to House.

"You're the most messed up person I know, but you're my best friend." Wilson raised his glass. "To starting over."

House sniffed at the glass, and allowed a small grin at the scent of his favorite bourbon. He returned the toast and swallowed the contents whole. Settling down in the leather seat, he flipped through channels until he found the one he was looking for. The caption read, "Nurses Gone Wild III." Wilson looked at the screen, and back at House.

"I don't have a subscription to that channel."

House grinned, wider this time. "You do now, Jimmy." He patted the seat next to him. "Come on, enjoy the benefits of a free man with me."

Wilson rolled his eyes. He grinned as he turned away from the inappropriate scene on the screen.