Whoever invented the bathtub had given the world a very, very good thing. Baths were lovely. Baths not only got you clean, they eased pain in truncated muscles and severed nerves, created a soothing cocoon when the weather was vile, as it was today, and aided both alcohol and opiates to offer relaxation for body and mind.
House sipped his whiskey, set the tumbler back in place with care and turned up the volume on Wilson's CD player. While Buddy Guy wailed on 'Have You Ever Been Lonesome', House reached up with his left foot to open the overflow valve. Cooled water gurgled down the drain in a steady flow. Once the volume in the tub was reduced by half, he flipped the valve shut and clamped his toes on the faucet knob. It took a little doing, but soon enough a stream of blissfully hot water replaced lukewarm. With a sigh of contentment House picked up his copy of Weekly World News and continued to read. The on-demand heater had been a brilliant idea—well, his idea realized by Wilson. Since his friend had started to spend most weekends at 221-B some months ago, the place had undergone a slow and steady campaign of renovation which had started with the heater. Bathroom plumbing had been fixed and an access rail installed as well.
"It's as much for me as it is for you," Wilson had said when House had bitched about that last item. "I don't want my obituary to read 'he died from a subdural hematoma incurred by falling on his ass in a bathtub'." House had quite a bit of fun with that statement until at last Wilson told him to go to hell and stalked out of the room. Still, the railing had proven useful.
And the improvements hadn't ended there. Fireplace chimney inspected, repaired and cleaned; hearth stacked with seasoned fruitwood from an orchard somewhere in the wilds of upper Bucks County; a new washer to replace the ancient model that had leaked rusty water for months; kitchen scrubbed spotless from top to bottom by a team of cleaning women so cheerful they made House's teeth ache; new slipcovers for the chairs, and repairs to the leather couch. There had been no overt changes-no chichi color schemes, ornate window treatments or rearranged furniture. Instead Wilson made do with small touches, like new potholders or a bright bouquet of flowers. House grumbled at him for tarting up the place, and secretly enjoyed the clean window blinds, a canister on the counter filled with homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies, and freshly-laundered tee shirts, underwear and socks in his chest of drawers. He wasn't a slob, though he knew his team thought otherwise, which suited his purposes well enough; he just wasn't as anal as Wilson—few people were. But there was no reason why he shouldn't take advantage of his friend's neuroses.
A tentative knock at the door interrupted his musings. It was the subject of his thoughts, just arrived from work. "House? You in there?"
"Hiya Wilson," House said, mellowed by relative lack of pain.
"Do I dare to ask just long you've been marinating?"
House squinted at his watch, perched atop the toilet lid next to the CD player. "How much is six minus two?"
"Four—you've been in there for four hours?" Wilson sounded incredulous. "How'd you get the time off?"
"What time off?" House turned a page. "Foreman thinks I'm holed up in the lab. I keep texting him from there, so he's none the wiser."
"Oh, trust me, he's wiser," Wilson said in a wry tone. "He's just relieved you're not attempting to blackmail the donors he's romancing. Med/Surg has first claim on that money." He paused. "You aren't, are you?"
"Nope. Not yet, anyway."
"Good to know." Wilson sounded relieved. House felt a brief spurt of amusement. No point in telling him Chase the one designated to take care of business; Wilson had asked if he personally was involved, so he could truthfully say no. "Uh-if you haven't turned into the world's largest prune by now, how about letting someone else use the facilities?"
"There's a perfectly good sink in the kitchen," House pointed out. "If you're dumping anything besides liquid gold, use the garbage disposal. Unless you've been eating a lot of fiber."
Silence fraught with shocked disbelief fell for several moments. "And . . . you would know that how, exactly?"
"Pipe problems. Not mine, the toidy's," House said. "Last year it took a couple of days for the plumber to get here, so in the meantime—"
"Okay, okay okay okay! I get the picture." One corner of House's mouth quirked up.
"Well, you did say 'exactly'," he said.
"I won't ask for details again. Ever." Another pause. "Are you all right?"
"'mfine. Now stop bugging me. Important medical research going on here, do not disturb," House said, and gave the tabloid pages an ostentatious rustle before he turned back to the centerfold.
"Gah," Wilson said, and stomped off.
Dinner was underway when House came into the kitchen. A faint reek of cleanser hung in the air, almost unnoticeable under the delicious aroma of browned butter, garlic and chicken. Wilson was busy at the stove, spoon in hand as he stirred something. House glanced at the sink, now agleam after what looked to be a thorough scrub-down. His smile faded when he saw only one plate and set of silverware on the island. "You on a hunger strike?" he said, and hoped this wasn't a sign of things to come. The weekend loomed, and the thought of hours spent with a sullen Wilson did not appeal.
"No, I happen to be dealing with a root canal. Or part of one, anyway." Wilson didn't turn around. "You must have noticed I was gone for most of the afternoon yesterday."
"Figured you were off playing slap and tickle in the supply closet with that new nurse in Pedes," House said.
"I was not!" Wilson set the saucepan on the back burner and replaced it with a skillet. "We use an empty room in long-term care like everyone else."
House snorted. "What's for dinner?"
"You're having sautéed chicken breast with mashed potatoes, gravy and steamed garlic green beans. I'm having just the mashed potatoes," Wilson said. He turned and House saw the left side of his face was swollen, the corner of his mouth bruised and a bit torn.
"So someone finally slugged Pretty Boy Jimmy. Bet it was a jilted nurse," House said, and hid his concern behind a mocking tone. "Either that or your dentist includes an adjustable wrench and a car jack in his practice."
"Actually she bent two drills on calcium deposits inside the tooth," Wilson said. He went to the fridge and took out some butter and milk. "There's a temporary cap in place over a wad of gauze soaked in acid. It's supposed to dissolve the deposits. I wish to hell it would take care of the damn nerve first. Anyway, I'll go back in a week to get things finished."
"And you're not writhing in agony because . . ." House let the sentence trail off. Wilson paused.
"She wrote me a scrip for Vicodin," he said at last. The reluctance freighted with guilt in his tone made House's hackles rise.
"I see," he said. "Reduced to using hydrocodone. How the mighty have fallen. Better make sure you keep the bottle on lockdown so I don't steal it."
"House—" Wilson started to face him and jumped. He put fingers to his jaw as he winced.
"Ah, nice timing," House said. "Now I don't have to listen to whatever pearls of wisdom you were about to scatter in front of me." He headed out of the kitchen and into the living room. Wilson followed him as he wiped his hands on his apron.
"I wasn't—I—I don't—" He sighed. "I don't think of you like—like that. Not anymore. Okay?"
"Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. You just can't help yourself, can you?" House dropped onto the couch and swung his legs up. He grunted with the effort; sometimes it seemed like every day it became that much harder to execute basic functions. "Fine by me if you want to tell naughty little fibs. I'm not the one who constantly lectures his best friend on the Evils of Addiction and then denies doing it."
"I haven't—I mean, not lately-" Wilson stopped. "You know what, let's not go there, okay? How about we just do our best to have a nice evening watching tv and forget I ever mentioned—what I mentioned." He hesitated again. "Dinner's ready," he said at last, and went back into the kitchen.
House was careful to make plenty of noise while he ate. Wilson ignored him, his focus on the news. He'd managed a few spoonfuls of mashed potatoes, but it was clear even soft foods caused him pain. Now he sat at the other end of the couch, having changed out of his work clothes into his old McGill sweatshirt and flannel pants, a pair of thick socks on his feet. He was pale, his dark eyes shuttered.
"You know, you can take more than the prescribed dosage if you're still hurting," House had said at last, exasperated by this display of stoicism. "It's not like you'll end up hooked on the stuff for years. One of us has already done that, so presumably any deity ruling the law of averages is happy now."
House rolled his eyes. "Then suffer in silence somewhere else. You're getting on my last nerve." He peered at Wilson, who glared back. "Get it? Last nerve?"
Wilson sighed and heaved himself off the couch to go into the kitchen. He emerged a few moments later, a cold pack held against his swollen jaw. Without a glance at House he padded down the hallway and into the bedroom, to shut the door behind him with a quiet click. House settled back on the couch and picked up the remote.
It was several hours later when he was wakened by a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Go to bed," Wilson said softly. "If you sleep out here you'll have trouble with your leg later."
House yawned and sat up. He tossed the remote on the coffee table, something he knew Wilson hated because it always made the hatch on the back pop open and spill the batteries. The remote hit the hard surface and promptly fell apart. Without a word he limped off to the bathroom.
He'd just pulled on a pair of clean sleep pants when he realized Wilson's side of the bed was made up, neat and wrinkle-free. A pillow was gone, as was the extra blanket. House stood there for a moment, then went out to the living room. Sure enough, Wilson lay stretched out on the couch with the pillow tucked behind his head.
"Is this some new level of martyrdom you have to master before you get your Joan of Arc poster for the fridge?"
"I'm probably gonna be up half the night," Wilson said. There was a terse quality to his words that told House all he needed to know about his friend's pain levels. "Sue me for being considerate."
"Oh, cut the crap! This is all about you trying to out-suffer me, which is possibly the most moronic competition you could think up because I'll win every time!" House added a bit more venom than he might have otherwise, just to see what sort of reaction he'd get. Wilson said nothing, just turned his head away with a slight wince. House returned to the bedroom and closed the door behind him with a loud thump.
He woke on a vivid dream that faded away even as he tried to remember it. The smell of coffee and fresh-baked muffins tickled his nose, led him to sit up, hand on his thigh as he yawned and came to life, bit by bit.
Wilson was nowhere to be found when House entered the kitchen, but the carafe was full of dark roast brew. A basket of blueberry muffins sat next to it, with a plate, knife and butter dish as well. He poured a cup and dumped in a generous amount of sugar, snagged a muffin and took a large bite. Crumbs scattered over the counter as he looked around for a note, but nothing hove into view. A niggle of foreboding tugged at him. He polished off the muffin, limped back to the bedroom and poked through the pile of dirty clothes by the hamper, found his phone and tossed it aside in disgust when it showed no charge. "Someone needs to invent infinite-life batteries," he muttered, and went into the living room to use the landline. His first call went to voicemail, as did the second. When Wilson hadn't called him back fifteen minutes later, the niggle became a full-grown worm in his gut.
It was the work of a simple online search to find the dentist's office, located in a strip mall in Willow Grove, of all places—a forty-five minute drive one way under normal circumstances. House grabbed his jacket from the coat rack and headed out. He cursed under his breath when he opened the outer door and was rewarded with a hard slap of icy wind and half-frozen rain. By the time he reached the car he was soaked. It took forever for the heater to offer any warmth, and after it finally kicked in he had to stop and fill the gas tank. He forked over an outrageous sum, fired up the car once more and headed for West City Avenue. In this weather it was better to stick to the main highways, though they were more treacherous than the secondary roads; he hoped Wilson wasn't stranded somewhere in the no-mans-land that was Trenton, or all bets were off.
At least the office was easy to find—just a stone's throw from the mall on route 611, it was a tiny storefront shoehorned in among a dozen others, surrounded by bare landscape trees and a parking lot full of potholes. Wilson's Volvo sat close to the entrance, glazed with road salt and street grime. House gave it a cursory glance as he limped by.
The waiting room held a respectable number of people, most of whom looked as though they'd rather be anywhere else. House went to the receptionist's window and rested his hands on the counter as he leaned in. It was possible to see past the desk into the back, to the bays with open doorways where he presumed the patients were worked on. As he craned his neck the high-pitched whine of a drill filled the air. House gave an involuntary shiver.
"Can I help you?" A burly older man with rough features addressed him.
"Wilson!" House said in a loud voice, and ignored the man. "Are you in here?"
"Hey, knock it off," Burly Guy said in an aggrieved tone.
"Wilson!" House raised the volume a few notches. "Did they give you novocaine yet? Because if not I'm coming in—" He paused. The man's lived-in face was inches from his; he smelled of Marlboro menthols, coffee and a discreet hit of Jack Daniels. A fist the size of a ham took hold of the front of his jacket and held it in an unbreakable grip.
"Siddown." It was not a request. Burly Guy released him and pointed at the waiting room. House glared at his opponent, but backed off just as Wilson emerged from one of the bays. He had a bib fastened around his neck and a trail of spit down his chin. It was plain the suction tool had been removed before it had done its job properly.
"'oush?" Wilson squinted at him.
"Yeah, it's me, 'oush," House said. "What the fuck, Wilson!"
"'Sh all righ'. Go home."
"You idiot! You drove yourself here alone when you knew you'd be under sedation?"
Burly Guy gave Wilson a surprised look. Wilson blinked and tottered a little but stayed upright. "Go home," he said again.
"Oh, balls," House groaned. "Gimme your keys."
Wilson drew himself upright, dignity on display despite the drool on his chin. "Uh uh."
House glanced at Burly Guy. "They're in his coat. Tan Burberry, lower right pocket."
The receptionist nodded and turned away. "Gotcha."
"Hey," Wilson said. "Hey! 'eorsh!" He followed the other man into the bay. A moment later George emerged with keys in hand. He tossed them to House, who fielded them with a neat catch.
"I'll be back," House said, and made his escape.
When he returned an hour later it was to find Wilson seated in the waiting room, propped in a chair with a battered copy of Vogue in his hands. He stared without comprehension at an ad for Vuitton handbags.
"Take it from me, if the front cover's missing and the sell-by date precedes Obama's first election, it's no longer au courant. C'mon," House said. "Time to go, Jimmy boy."
Wilson submitted to being bundled into his coat. As they left the office he said "I though' you were 'onna ma'e me 'ake the bush."
"You ever pull a stupid stunt like this again, you can count on it." House propelled Wilson toward the Volvo. "Though I should just let you crack up this nightmare and spend the rest of the weekend at Holy Redeemer's ICU for shits and giggles."
"Aw, don' be mean." Wilson opened the door and plopped into the passenger seat. He struggled with the safety belt as House moved around to claim the driver's side.
"For god's sake, you can't even walk and breathe at the same time right now. Leave it!" House growled, and started the engine.
The ride to Princeton was accomplished in near-silence. Only once, as they waited in a traffic snarl, did Wilson speak.
"I know ish a long 'rive buh I'e been coming 'ere f'yearsh."
"Hookers might be—notice I said might be-worth this much trouble, not dentists," House snapped. "Find someone closer and get your damn records transferred. You hang onto rituals like a defrocked priest, it's pathetic."
"'You're a fine one 'oo 'alk," Wilson said. "'uck you." He turned his head away and stared out the window.
It was complete humiliation, helping Wilson into the apartment building; they staggered over the slippery sidewalk like Atlantic City casino tourists on a weekend drunk. Once they gained the entry House stuffed him into the hallway.
"You don' haf'a push," Wilson said in a reproachful tone. House rolled his eyes and unlocked his door, removed Wilson's coat and aimed him at the couch.
"Sit," he ordered, and went back to the car to bring in the bag of groceries he'd purchased at the rundown store several blocks from the dentist's office. When he returned Wilson was ensconced at one end, wedged into the corner. He held the tv remote in both hands.
"'ow doesh 'ish work a'ain?" he asked. House took it, turned on the tv and put on Lifetime Movie Network before he went into the kitchen.
When he returned twenty minutes later it was to find Wilson snuggled under the afghan he'd brought with him from the loft. He blinked at House, his gaze a bit unfocused. House set a tall cup on the coffee table and sat down next to Wilson. With more gentleness than he'd intended he put his fingers to the other man's carotid and took his pulse, then took Wilson's chin in hand and held his head steady.
"Why haven't you told anyone you have problems with novocaine?" he said quietly as he assessed respiration and pupil response.
"Ish no' a big deal," Wilson said. His gaze slid away. House let his hand drop.
"Your heart rate's up, you're wheezing a little, you're having trouble tracking movement because your strabismus is worse, and your cognitive impairment is more pronounced than it should be for the amount of numbing agent the dentist used. I'd say that's a big deal."
"Ushu'ly I wai' in the par'ing lo' un'il the sh'uff wearsh off." Wilson stared at the cup. "Wha'sh tha'?"
"You wait in the parking lot for your symptoms to subside? In that neighborhood? In a Volvo?" Wilson said nothing. The silence stretched between them. "I thought you had the first part of the root canal done yesterday," House said at last. "You were going in next week to get it finished."
"I . . ." House saw embarrassment and shame in Wilson's dark eyes before the other man looked away. "I' hur' 'oo mush. Bu' I knew you were hur'ing more . . . sho I called 'ish morning an' they go' me in before they opened."
House exhaled and counted to ten. "There's being obsessive, and then there's insane heights of self-sacrifice," he said at last. "This is way past both, it's pure idiocy. After this you find a dentist in Princeton and have someone come with you every time you get your pearly whites dealt with. Got it?"
Wilson wouldn't look at him. "Maybe."
"No maybe about it, you brainless twat." House took Wilson's hand, turned it palm up and placed an object in it. "Now eat your breakfast."
Wilson stared at the thing. "Wha' . . . isha shraw."
It was indeed a straw—hot pink, all curves and loops. A tiny model of Princess Jasmine perched atop the uppermost whorl.
"Everything tastes better through a crazy straw," House said.
"Where you ge' it?" Wilson examined it, clearly fascinated.
"Previous visitor left it behind." He got up, went into the kitchen and brought back another cup. His straw was electric blue; Yosemite Sam glowered from the top loop. "Go on," House said. "Try it. I added some warm milk so it isn't too cold or thick."
With obvious trepidation Wilson placed the straw into the contents of the cup and took a tentative sip. After a moment his eyes closed in apparent ecstasy. "Mmmm . . ." The yummy noise escaped without any attempt to stop it. House smiled a little.
"Genuine chocolate malt milkshake," he said. "Fashioned from Turkey Hill All-Natural ice cream, malt powder and a hint of vanilla extract. Mom always made it for me after a trip to the doctor. Later tonight you can have some of Mrs. Campbell's chicken noodle soup. You want saltines or Ritz crackers?"
"Ri'sh," Wilson said. He stirred the shake in an absent manner. "I really am o'ay, you know. Been doin' 'ish f'yearsh."
"You've been friends with me for years too," House said. "Look what that got you."
"More 'an I bar'ained for," Wilson said. "Bu' ish no' sush a ba' thing shome'imesh." He smiled a little. "'anksh, 'oush."
"Oh, shut up, mush-mouth. I hate it when you're boring."