November 26th, 2006

house and wilson bros before hos

It's Not Easy, 3/3

Title: It's Not Easy
Status: Complete
Total Word Count: Approx. 25,468
Characters/Pairings: All characters, essentially--House/Wilson friendship
Rating: PG-13, for a few swear words that kiddies shouldn't hear
"Summary":What if the problem with Wilson's latest marriage wasn't Julie's infidelity--what if it was something altogether different and considerably worse? Slight AU, but attempts generally made to keep all in character.

Sorry it took me rather a long time to post this last bit. Comments are much appreciated!

"Chapter" One
"Chapter" Two

X.

My blessings are in front of me
It’s not about the land
I’ll never beat the view
From my front porch looking in

There’s a carrot top who can barely walk
With a sippy cup of milk
A little blue-eyed blonde with shoes on wrong
‘Cause she likes to dress herself
And the most beautiful girl
Holding both of them
Yeah, the view I love the most
Is my front porch looking in

--Lonestar

Two weeks later House was on his way home from work when he saw Julie.

He had just pulled his bike up to the stop light at an intersection; as he waited impatiently for the light to change again, he began a game. It was a particular game which he’d played since being a boy bored to tears on family vacations—finding people nearby who caught his fancy and using their behavior and clothing as clues to guess what their lives were like. He was fairly close to accurate often enough that he even surprised himself at times, and he enjoyed the game so much he still played it when he had the chance. This was, of course, generally at stop lights.

Across the street there was a middle-aged woman, whippet-thin, with blond hair. Her movements were quick and rapid but precise, as if she wanted to control her motion and only allowed herself to travel a certain distance with each step. House watched idly as she strode, heels clicking against the pavement like Prada castanets, to the door of the Second Street grocery; before she turned inside her gaze skimmed once around the surrounding area, as if to check and make sure it had not moved while she wasn’t watching. It was when her eyes hesitated on him that House realized who she was; who she was and that she recognized him as well.

Then he was swerving dangerously through traffic and pulling into the parking lot.

House drew his bike up in the nearest handicapped space, removed his cane from the side, and swung his leg onto the ground. He left his helmet on the handlebars and headed toward the automatic doors; he made a point of ignoring the small blue-and-white sign, refusing to look at it though he knew it was there and felt its mockery tingling in the hair on the back of his neck. He had more important things to deal with.

Wilson was still living with him. It was taking awhile to get things sorted out with the divorce and House personally suspected that Wilson didn’t want to return to his old place anyway, but planned on renting his own apartment somewhere else. They fell back into their usual pattern of joshing each other and cracking crude jokes and things returned to normal except that every now and then Wilson had had a nightmare. In the early hours of the morning one day House heard a high-pitched keening sound—it had been followed soon after by a series of choking, half-restrained sobs. The noise disturbed House, sending an unpleasant chill up his spine, and he had popped a Vicodin, dragged himself out of bed, and limped half-asleep to the living room. He’d found Wilson twisted in the blanket, writhing as if in pain, face and arms pale and covered in chilling sweat. House had looked at him for a moment; then he’d sat down in a chair and flipped on the television. There was nothing on at six in the morning but he had General Hospital on TiVo; halfway through the show he’d glanced up to find Wilson awake, still pale, shaking a bit but calmer. He’d poured them each a shot of whiskey, the color came back to Wilson’s face and they went to work two hours later like nothing had happened.

(Cuddy called Wilson a good influence. If she’d known how he was getting House in at eight she might have reconsidered.)

After a similar situation had occurred three nights later, with brandy and Blackadder, House began to realize that while Wilson had told him more than he’d ever wanted to know by a long shot, the man still had told him nowhere near everything. He didn’t push Wilson about it; that wasn’t his job, his duty, and he didn’t really want to hear about whatever it was anyway. Instead he woke Wilson with the television, plied him with alcohol, and kept his mouth shut. They didn’t really talk any more, but he still played the piano.

The nightmares had begun to stop within a week. The first time House woke up at nine to the sound of his cell phone ringing rather than at six to a desperate cry for help from his living room he nearly felt the way a parent does when their kid uses the potty; he and Wilson never mentioned it, though—he’d never asked Wilson what he dreamed about, he didn’t particularly care to know, and Wilson didn’t volunteer.

When Wilson wasn’t working or watching television in the evenings with House, he was reading a book, making dinner, sleeping, blow-drying his hair, doing something else reflecting an odd male passion for cleanliness, studying oncology journals, or—and this was the latest development—calling a woman. House had had no idea who this particular woman was until he’d listened in on one of Wilson’s conversations and heard the name “Grace.” He hadn’t asked Wilson about her, of course, just waited to see what happened—nothing had, but Wilson used his cell phone for an hour and a half every evening talking to the mysterious chick about nothing in particular, and when he hung up he always seemed happier. Happy-Wilson meant Wilson-Who-Didn’t-Wake-House-Up-At-Six-A.M. It also meant House was happier. For some odd reason, he began to smile more when Wilson was and swear the pants off random strangers when Wilson was in a particularly bad mood or had related a disturbing tale recently. Swearing the pants off random strangers, of course, had always been one of his more pleasurable pasttimes anyway, but Wilson’s depression made him that much more annoyed.

It was the first time he’d been so close to anybody since Stacy, and—to be honest—the whole thing scared the shit out of him.

The oddest thing about it of all, though, was that he wasn’t trying to change it, wasn’t attempting to kick Wilson out or forget about him. The oddest thing was that he still hung around.

He was beginning to realize that, all those times when he’d insistently asked Wilson why he still stuck around and Wilson couldn’t answer him satisfactorily, those times after his infarction when Wilson had knelt in House’s own vomit to dab his face with a cold cloth, hauled him to his bed, stuck his head in a cold shower when he’d drunk too much, and House had turned round the second he got a chance and flung a beer bottle at his face, when House screamed in pain at Wilson to get out and Wilson sat next to the door—all those times this was how Wilson had felt. How, perhaps, Wilson still felt.

Not that he was particularly masochistic, but that he had to stay. Needed to stay. Because, if for no other reason, nothing else would seem quite right.

But it had been two weeks and things were really getting back to normal.

And then he saw Julie at the grocery store.

House pushed his way past a young woman with a basket of yogurt and a tongue ring, past an older man with a beer belly larger than a small collie, past a tiny boy who nearly ran over his foot pushing a minature shopping cart of his own, and into the produce section. The familiar blond head was bobbing by the asparagus. Ten minutes and one unwanted artichoke later, House was trailing her into the meat.

In the meat department she bought a large soft-shell crab, four and a half pounds of ground chuck, and a pack of a dozen Foster Farms chicken legs. In dairy she bought a gallon of milk, two cartons of cottage cheese, a tub of butter and six small containers of fat-free strawberry yogurt. In deli she bought a pound of potato salad, half a pound of fresh-sliced roast beef, and some Provolone cheese. By the time she reached baked goods House was cursing his photographic memory and furiously trying to remember the words to Bohemian Rhapsody so he wouldn’t count how many frosted vanilla cupcakes went into that cart of hers.

He finally got his chance in frozen food.

The aisle was empty, there were no stockboys within twenty-five feet—he’d checked—and she had her head inside the low-calorie dinners, checking a box of chicken marsala for carbohydrates, when he tapped her on the shoulder. He almost felt sorry for her when she jumped and cracked her head against the next shelf up—almost.

Not sorry enough though.

In his mind he saw a disturbingly cheesy montage; Wilson tied to a hospital bed demanding to know why he was called suicidal, Wilson asleep in the Corvette, Wilson grimacing when he heard the name Wilsie, Wilson drinking beer quietly in a pizza parlor, Wilson standing by the stove flipping pancakes, Wilson striding through the hallways at his shoulder letting him know in no uncertain terms exactly how stupid he was being, Wilson talking over the sounds of a General Hospital rerun which had been turned down anyway, Wilson munching popcorn and watching a movie, Wilson making fun of him, Wilson answering the phone too politely, Wilson sobering him up when he was too stoned to stand, Wilson’s sobs waking him at six in the morning, Wilson pointedly ignoring him while he swiped chips, Wilson rolling up his sleeves, Wilson lying on his couch while he played the piano, Wilson smiling in the dark—Wilson.

As House looked into the blue eyes which were practically mirror images of his own, knowing he was staring down Wilson’s demons, he realized he couldn’t hurt the woman. Not because he didn’t want to—oh, no, he wanted to. Because Wilson, naïve idiot that he was, still loved her, and because he, God help him, loved Wilson.

Julie blinked. Somehow his fingers had found their way around her wrist, and through his too-tight grasp he felt the butterfly-wing fluttering of her pulse. She was obviously frightened.

House found that he didn’t give a shit, but he released his grip anyway.

“Greg?” she said, unconsciously rubbing the marks left by his pressure. “What can I do for you?” A carton of strawberry yogurt dropped from her cart and rolled across the floor. It came to rest by a rack of small, fluffy children’s toys, leaving behind on the tile a puddle of gloppy pink liquid which made House think of blood. Nobody moved. The store radio went off for a moment; the intercom came on and someone announced that a cleanup was required in Aisle Four.

“Long time no see, Ms. Scott,” House growled. He refused to call her Ms. Wilson.

“Yes, it has been, hasn’t it?” Julie gave a nervous smile and took a step to the right. House mirrored her movement. “And what a surprise to run into you at the grocery, of all places.”

“You’re buying a lot of food. For more than one?”

“I’m having a bit of a party tonight,” Julie said. “Some friends are coming to visit.”

House had no idea why he was making inane conversation in the frozen-food section of a grocery store with a woman he hated when he should have been—he didn’t really know what he should’ve been doing, but he knew it should’ve been something different.

“No new husband, I hope,” he said.

“No.”

“Aren’t you going to ask how he is?” House snarled. “Five years. Do you even care?”

Julie stared into his eyes and backed away. She seemed to be regaining her courage. “Do you, Greg?”

“That doesn’t matter,” he said, pressing forward again. “You nearly destroyed him. Why? Why would you do that? He didn’t deserve it and you may be a cold-hearted, frozen bitch, but what you did is worse than kicking a puppy. Worse than kicking a thousand puppies.” House’s voice dropped, but the lower pitch served its purpose better than a higher one would have. “You bitch, why did you do it?”

“Need any help, ma’am?”

Both House and Julie glanced up at the noise and turned to look down at the end of the aisle; there stood a bag boy, red-apron-clad, trolley-wielding, and glaring viciously at House as though the man were the devil incarnate. His brown hair stood up in an unmerciful cowlick atop his head, his cheeks were covered in freckles, and all told he looked like there was nothing he’d have liked more than to bop House over the head with a large cast-iron frying pan.

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Julie said quickly, “thank you for asking.” The bag boy, with no small amount of reluctance, retreated. Julie snapped her head back around to House with a movement so sharp he wondered she didn’t get whiplash.

“We can’t talk about this here,” she hissed.

“No shit.”

“Let me buy these things and we’ll go to the parking lot.” The tone of her voice was that of a question, not a statement, and she made no move toward her cart. She seemed to be waiting for him to respond.

House studied her face and nodded briefly, silently. Julie’s heels clicked back across the aisle, chicken marsala forgotten; he tailed her to the checkout line, waited impatiently as she slid her Visa (wondered if it was Wilson’s money she was using), let her struggle with the bags all the way to her car. Leaned against the bumper while she loaded the goods in the trunk and jerked it shut; then, with his cane, gestured for her to sit on a bench across the way. Her eyes flickered up to him—she was short, shorter than Wilson. She obeyed, folded her hands in her lap, said nothing. House wanted to tell her she was not a lady and so she couldn’t sit like one. Instead, he limped over and stood in front of her.

“Why did you do it?” he repeated. He was quieter, slightly drained of adrenaline. Waiting in line for a man whose face belonged on a Shar-Pei to find his checkbook had the habit of doing that to a guy.

Julie raised her gaze to his. “What?” she said.

“I don’t want to play games with you. Cut the crap.”

“He’s living with you now, isn’t he.” Julie’s eyes bored into his and House couldn’t picture Wilson with her. He didn’t answer; that wasn’t her business.

“He wasn’t a very good husband.”

“Did it ever occur to you that you weren’t a very good wife?”

“Do you want me to answer your question or not?” Julie’s voice rose a bit. House sensed she was getting angry and knew that if she made it to her car he’d never get another chance as good.

“Answer it.”

“He’s not a true Jew,” Julie said. “He’s a workaholic who can’t keep his pants zipped or his hands to himself. That stupid dog of his trashed the place—“

“Charlie,” House muttered to himself, and then it hit him.

“Charlie. Where is he?”

“What makes you think he’s any place other than home?” But Julie dropped her gaze. House knew where Charlie was, all right.

“Did you have to kill his dog too?”

“He wouldn’t stay out of the garbage. Stunk up the furniture. Scratched at the doors till the early hours of the morning. What was I supposed to do with him?” Julie said, annoyed.

House shook his head. “Forget it. Keep talking.”

“He’s an embarrassment. Has the manners of an oaf.”

“So you threw plates at his head.”

“No. I—I—” Julie got to her feet, her cheeks glowing, fists clenched. “I don’t have to talk about this with you. With anybody. I have to get home. I have guests.”

“The home might not be yours for long, you know. Divorce and all.” House didn’t feel threatened; even in heels, the crown of her head barely reached his chest. Compared to Wilson, he thought, she would have been a lot taller.

“I have to go.”

“You never told me why. You’re not going anywhere.”

Julie stepped forward. House stepped forward. “You really are a crazy bitch, you know that?”

She said nothing, was motionless. Trembled with restrained anger. House thought of Charlie and shook his head slowly. “You won’t answer me.” He studied her eyes, her face, one last time.

“You know why he cried at night. You have the power to give him some closure—you owe him that. And you won’t answer me.” He shook his head again.

“But you have told me something,” House said a moment later. She still hadn’t moved. “I think you answered me anyway.”

He left Julie standing by the bench, strode to his bike and never looked back. It wasn’t until he reached home that he began to regret not punching her.

----------------------------------------

Wilson was stretched out on the couch napping in a dying ray of sunlight, an oncology text open on his stomach, when House opened the front door. Steve McQueen was rustling busily in his cage in the corner and didn’t notice a thing.

“Some guard-rat you are,” House said. He flipped the latch on the cage and lifted out his pet. Steve scrambled onto his shoulder and began nibbling his earlobe. House thought momentarily of Charlie, another test job in the experiment to determine whether dogs really went to heaven, and limped into the kitchen to hunt down something for dinner. There was a plastic container in the fridge with a Post-It stuck to the top; the note was in Wilson’s terrible scrawl. It read “House—this is my lunch. DO NOT TOUCH IT IF YOU VALUE YOUR RAT.”

House tore the note off and was about to dump it on the counter when he realized there was something written on the back.

“House—you never listen, right? Anyway, the joke’s on you this time. I made extra.” Wilson had skipped down a space or two and written, in much larger letters, “HA.”

The food was some kind of unusual spiced meat and noodles, but a third of the way through it House realized he’d lost his appetite. He popped two Vicodin, poured himself a shot of scotch, and put Steve into his small, specially-designed rat-ball. Steve disappeared in the direction of the living room, rolling at top McQueen-speed, and it wasn’t more than two minutes before House heard Wilson.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Steve—House?”

House—intentionally—didn’t say anything.

Wilson got up and came into the kitchen carrying the rat-ball in his hand; the first things he noticed were the Post-It on the counter and the half-empty dish on the table.

“I knew you’d eat it, I knew it! Didn’t I tell you, Stevie-Weevie? Didn’t I say that?”

“Talking to rats is, in most circles, considered the first sign of insanity.”

Wilson smirked. “Well, we all knew you should’ve been in an asylum decades ago.” Steve squeaked as if in affirmation.

House tossed the scotch to the back of his throat and swallowed.

“How’s the patient?” Wilson asked, sitting across from House. He absentmindedly reached over with one hand to pull open the oven. “You put them in there aga—”

“I saw Julie today,” House said, and then mentally clocked himself with the nearest bat for being about as subtle as a tanker truck. Wilson’s face went approximately four shades paler; he began rubbing his fingers lightly over the plastic of Steve’s ball and occupied himself by looking anywhere other than at House. House poured another shot of scotch and slid it down the table to him. Wilson drank it without hesitation as soon as it came within reach; he had two more before he spoke.

“And?”

“At the grocery store. She was buying strawberry yogurt.”

“Julie hates strawberry.”

“She had guests.”

There was silence for a minute. Steve began to fidget, so Wilson opened the hatch at the top of the ball and let him climb out. He ran up Wilson’s arm to the back of his neck, where he sat down and began busily twitching his ears. Steve wouldn’t sit on anybody else. Apparently he made Wilson think of pets too.

“How is—” he began.

“You don’t want to know.”

“I do.” Wilson got to his feet. “Don’t tell me what I want to know, House. Just—”

House sighed. “Have you ever seen the movie All Dogs Go To Heaven?”

“No,” Wilson said hesitantly. It took him a moment. He looked pleadingly at House and House lowered his gaze.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sure why he was apologizing.

“Why did you see her?” Wilson said angrily.

“What?”

“Why did you see her? Did you learn anything?” Wilson burst. “Do you get off on coming home and telling me my dog is dead? Are you happy now, House? Damn it, are you happy now?”

House glanced at the grain of the table and followed the pattern of it with his eyes. The blow-up had to come eventually, right?

“I don’t have anything else. You remember when I said to you that all I had was my job and our stupid, screwed-up friendship? Oh, you do? Damn you, House, I was exaggerating then. Exaggerating.”

“I know,” House said.

“You got me to where I’m not exaggerating, House. Not any more. I don’t have anything. Nothing.” Wilson’s voice caught and he pushed upright; Steve ran hastily back down his arm and onto the table again. “I won’t put you out. You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? Had to see her. Had to push. People are nothing but puzzles to you, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes.”

“I’m not a puzzle. I’m not a damn puzzle. I’m a human being, House. You keep pushing, I’ll break. You don’t give a shit about what I say to you but you still want to know, you still want to know everything. And when I won’t tell you—well, I guess we all know what you do then.” Wilson looked at his feet and wiggled a toe philosophically. “I hope she answered your questions. I hope she did. I hope she told you all the shit I wouldn’t. And I hope—I hope, House, it keeps you awake at night, you bastard.”

Thirty seconds later House heard him in the living room, grabbing the few things he’d kept while staying over—slacks, shirts, his pager, novels, medical journals, a—House winced, remembering—rubber dog bone—pulling on his shoes, picking up his keys. The door slammed and he was gone. When House returned to the scene in ten minutes, it was disturbingly empty, as if its second occupant had never been. The blanket was even folded over the back of the couch. He sat down at the piano, bringing the scotch with him, touched his hands to the keys, and began to play. He was three-fourths through a song before he realized he was playing Paper Moon.

XI.

Steve walks warily down the street
The brim pulled way down low
Ain’t no sound but the sound of his feet
Machine guns ready to go

Are you ready?
Hey, are you ready for this?
Are you hanging on the edge of your seat?
Out of the doorway the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat, yeah

Another one bites the dust
Another one bites the dust
And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust
Hey, we’re gonna get you too
Another one bites the dust

-Queen

Wilson woke up the next morning with a rat on his face.

He would not have found this quite so unusual had he been in House’s apartment, but as things happened he was attempting to sleep on the too-small, too-hard couch in his office with no blanket, no pillow, and no breakfast, and he definitely hadn’t expected to have a rat on his face at—he checked his watch—seven-thirty in the morning. Last time he’d checked, there were no rats in the oncology department.

Wilson reached up with one hand, dislodged the furry culprit’s claws from his nose, and acknowledged that it was Steve. That was good. He didn’t particularly want a rabies shot. It was much nicer to have a friendly rat on your face.

Steve.

House.

He let his head hit the arm of the couch again—bump bump stabilize—closed his eyes.

He’d been living with House for about three weeks when he’d had his first nightmare. It had been so real; it was like going back in time and reliving, over and over, the memories which he’d worked so hard to bury. But then he was woken by the sounds of a television show he recognized—General Hospital—and when he’d fought his way back to reality, he’d seen House sitting there watching the set. It made him feel surprisingly safe. There really was something to the idea of carrying a big stick.

He’d never mentioned anything he dreamed of to House. Though he was able to tell the man a lot of things he hadn’t thought he’d be able to tell anybody, some things would remain his secrets forever.

To Wilson’s credit, he’d never imagined House might go behind his back.

House and Julie had not been friends when he was married and didn’t become friends afterward—House had attended two dinner parties, caused both to end catastrophically, and, in fact, was banned from the property. As a result of that, they’d barely spoken; Wilson knew perfectly well House hated her guts. And after the phone call from the lawyers, Wilson found himself torn. Part of him still loved Julie and wanted to see her again, to find out how she was doing, and the rest of him wanted to slit the first part’s throat and was terrified of ever so much as going within five miles of Julie. He knew she didn’t want to talk to him, and there he was torn as well—he couldn’t decide whether she didn’t want to talk to him because he didn’t deserve her attention or because she’d just given up on him. There was also the possibility that she did, in fact, want to talk to him, but was waiting for him to make the first move.

Wilson was afraid of seeing Julie again, wanted to see her again; was relieved she wasn’t contacting him, was ashamed he’d been such a rotten husband that she didn’t want to contact him; knew he didn’t deserve her behavior, had a niggling feeling that wasn’t quite true and maybe he did anyway. And through all his confusion one question had resounded in the depths of his mind—why?

He was not certain really of anything else, had no clue of her motives, was even growing less certain of how he felt about himself, but he knew one thing—he wanted to hear from her lips the reason why she hated him.

Wilson had been distracted and he forgot to be suspicious. He forgot what a bastard House could really be when he sat down and gave it the good college try, and he forgot that House saw a Rubik’s Cube where everyone else saw a man. Again, his emotions told him House would not betray him, had a greater sense of honor than that, was a better friend than that, but his common sense didn’t believe it. And when House came home, told him so bluntly—as if it were an everyday thing—that he’d seen Julie at the grocery (House never went to the grocery—how did he wind up there?), told him in so many words that Charlie was dead, something had come over him. He’d lost control; he’d exploded. Grabbed his stuff, stormed out, got drunk in a terrible bar, and wound up on the couch in his office at three in the morning, dead to the world.

He’d had a nightmare by himself, the first in two weeks, and no one was there with soaps and silent brandy when he woke cold, sweating, afraid.

And there he was, drained, slightly hung over, with a rat sitting on his face.

Wilson cradled Steve in his left hand and got to his feet. The blood rushed to his head as he stood, but he ignored it. Steve squeaked in protest. Wilson lifted Steve to his shoulder and moved slowly, gingerly across the room. There was a cage by the door. Wilson bent down and picked it up. It was Steve’s. A small piece of paper had been pinned to the bars; he undid the safety pin and examined the slip. The note was written in House’s handwriting. It was unsigned.

“You’re a dog person, but Steve seems to like you. I’m sure you’ll survive.”

A few lines had been skipped, and then—

“He hates walnuts. After dinner he gets a small—small—piece of Swiss. And Wilson, if you give him alcohol I swear I will hunt you down and kill you.”

One more line—

“Take care of McQueen. He’s good company and a real ladies’ rat.”

“My God,” said Wilson reverently (if House had been there he would have said “You finally got it right”), once things had properly sunk in. He shrugged on his lab coat, dashed a comb through his hair, and made for the elevator as fast as he could considering that he had a cast on his ankle and a sleeping rat on his neck.

-------------------------------------------

House was twirling his cane. Every now and then he opened one eye and glanced up at it, spinning through the air, a blur of smooth silver against the sterilized ceiling of his office. If he squinted he could not make out the cane itself at all any more, only an oval that somehow mysteriously glowed. He thought he would make a nice kitchen fan and laughed mirthlessly to himself. The hallways and the Diagnostics rooms were silent. The white-board was blank; his markers were—thanks to Cameron—color-coded; his team wouldn’t be in for fifteen minutes. It was too early to be anywhere and he was at work. At least he had his iPod, and said machine was currently blasting Queen.

House concentrated on separating the sounds of each individual instrument from the rhythm created by the collective.

Then his own private version of meditation was utterly ruined, because the song finished and changed to a terrible ballad by Mariah Carey.

Wilson had been tampering with his playlists again.

House kept his eyes shut and scrolled to the next song. This was one Wilson had actually recommended—and he'd downloaded it, of course. He kept scrolling. There was a knock on the door—sounded more frenzied than usual. He pretended not to hear. The knocking kept up. He’d closed the blinds and locked all the doors to his office.

Five minutes later the knocking stopped. House heard limping footsteps retreat down the hallway outside. He scrolled until he found a song by The Who and lost himself in solitude.

House sat with the Coma Guy at lunch, using the man’s left hand to hold his bag of Doritos, his chin for his Reuben, his belly as a perfect soda can holder. He watched General Hospital sprawled in a guest chair with his feet propped on the edge of the bed, and nobody found him. Cuddy forced him to start doing clinic hours in between consults and his patient’s MRI; he told a fat nun she was pregnant, a man with kidney stones that he had prostate cancer, and was well on his way to telling a worried young mother with a colicky baby that her son had smallpox when Cuddy caught on and forced him to stop doing clinic hours. He left at four-thirty, didn’t get home until five. His apartment was too empty without Steve or Wilson; he ordered Chinese and cracked open his fortune cookie by himself.

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP.

4533436357456434265474356

He threw the paper into the fireplace. There was no fire but he thought there might be one eventually.

He lay on the couch, researched his case for a few hours. When he had an idea, he poured some scotch and punched buttons until he found a show on television to watch. He quit playing the piano at midnight. Then he popped two Vicodin, went to bed, and stared sleeplessly at the ceiling.

After a month and a half, he no longer liked making music for himself.

-------------------------------------------

House got to work the next morning at nine-fifteen. His team was already by the white-board; Foreman—Foreman, not even Chase—was touching his markers. He didn’t realize Wilson was leaning against the wall in the corner until he was halfway through railing on the black boy for being where he didn’t belong—they didn’t call it a white-board for nothing—and noticed that Cameron was grinning more than usual.

When he looked at Wilson, Wilson merely stared at him.

House hid his surprise by sending Cameron to take patient history, Foreman to run an MRI, and Chase to—well, as he put it, to wherever blond-haired British boys liked to go at nine-thirty in the morning. Then he went into his office, locked the door, and found his iPod. Ten minutes later, Wilson left. He still hadn’t said a word.

------------------------------------------

That evening, Wilson was sitting on the couch eating chow mein clumsily (very clumsily) with chopsticks when House got home.

Steve was in his cage on the coffee table.

XII.

Another winter day
Has come and gone away
In even Paris and Rome
And I wanna go home

May be surrounded by
A million people, I
Still feel all alone
Just let me go home
Oh, I miss you, you know

Let me go home
I’ve had my fun
But, baby, I’m done
I wanna come home

--Michael Bublé

He’d knocked on House’s office for ten minutes; there had been no answer and he’d given up.

House hadn’t appeared in the cafeteria at lunch. For a minute, he’d wished someone would steal his food and leave him with the bill.

He hadn’t gone to House’s that evening. His fear had returned with a rush. He’d driven to the apartment, limped uncomfortably up to the doorway, and stood with his finger resting lightly on the bell, unable to apply pressure. He was a certified award-winning oncologist, head of his department, and he could not bring himself to ring a doorbell; he’d approached, lost his nerve, approached, lost his nerve, finally made for his car and drove off. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of, but he was afraid anyway.

He’d waited in the diagnostics room the next morning—he hadn’t been able to say anything then either.

Finally, when he got home after work, he decided that he’d had enough; enough of tiptoeing around, trying to figure out a way to contact House safely, with minimal nervousness. Wilson plucked his spare key off his dresser, dropped Steve from the rat-ball into the cage, slid on his ratty tennis shoes (there was a pun there someplace), and drove, once more, to House’s apartment. He was sitting on the couch with his feet up eating Chinese and watching Steve sleep when House turned his key in the lock at six and came in, scowling, smelling of alcohol.

House glanced at Wilson, ignored him, sat silently on the couch and flipped on the television.

After ten minutes of being half-heartedly studied, glared at, and surveyed by a very annoyed, more-in-need-of-a-shave-than-usual House, Wilson took Steve out of his cage and dumped him on the couch. Steve scurried over to House and climbed up his arm to the back of his neck. Wilson grabbed the remote, aimed it in the general direction of the set, and pressed mute. House’s eyes could have lit something on fire.

“Steve is yours,” Wilson said, ignoring House’s stubborn silence. “I can’t keep him, and I won’t keep him. You and that rat are like—like bosom buddies. It may be unhealthy, but I can’t keep him.”

House lifted Steve from his shoulder and stroked the rat’s ears lovingly.

“Will you take him back?”

“Why did you come back?”

Wilson looked at his shoes. “I never said I wouldn’t.”

No one spoke for a few minutes. Something scratched at the front door. There was more silence, and then a bark. The bark was followed by a second and a third—each one was louder than the previous. Steve’s beady eyes darted warily in the direction of the sound. House glanced at Wilson and raised one eyebrow.

“You see, uh,” said Wilson, “there is, uh, sort of, kind of, maybe a little reason why I can’t keep him. Besides the whole your-disturbing-relationship thing.”

“Would this reason happen to have, oh, I don’t know, four legs and a tail?”

Wilson stood up and opened the door. No fewer than thirty seconds later House’s face was being furiously licked by a large fluffy brown mongrel and Steve was cowering for his life behind his own cage.

“House,” Wilson said hesitantly--very hesitantly--“I’d like you to meet Greg.”

--------------------------------------------

Oh, for heaven’s sake, you named a dog after me? What are we, married?”

“Now, now, Greggy,” Wilson crooned, hefting the dog in question into his arms and stroking its head, “he really does like you—your uncle Housey-Wousey just has something we grownups like to call commitment issues.” Greggy seemed unfazed and began slobbering thoughtfully on Wilson’s left ear. “Ooh, Greg, that’s the spot, that’s the spot. A little to the left—oh, yeah.”

“Can we sound a little less dirty when we talk to the dog?” House said, snickering. “You’ll tarnish my rep.”

Greggy leapt, with a groan, from Wilson to the floor and began snuffling under the coffee table. Upon finding a spilled chunk of meat, he settled down, crossed his paws and proceeded to make small half-growling happy sounds. Steve poked his nose cautiously around the corner of his cage, wiggling his whiskers; House grabbed him and put him inside. “Where’d you get the dog?”

“Same place I got Charlie,” Wilson said, sitting on the couch again, “the city animal shelter.”

“Okay,” House said, “try this—for a man sleeping in his office, where do you plan on keeping the dog?”

Wilson grinned. “Um.”

“You want to keep that—” House gestured at his namesake “—in my apartment?”

“Can I?”

“Look,” said House, “I didn’t expect you back in the first place, and things were normal around here again finally, and you show up with a dog. It’s named after me, which is nice and all, I guess, disturbing really, but—”

Wilson studied the top of Greg’s head silently for a few minutes, and when he glanced warily back up, House saw that the shadows in his gaze of a month before had returned.

“I’m sorry,” Wilson said. “Can I talk to you?”

It was House’s turn to stare at the dog. He rolled his eyes. “You want a drink?”

“Yeah.”

Ten minutes and two shots of Jack Daniels later, House and Wilson were sitting on the couch while Greg scampered in circles around the coffee table and Steve, in his cage, nibbled busily on a pecan he held between his front paws.

“So,” House said finally. “What’s up with this Grace?”

Wilson promptly shattered his tumbler. “What?”

House sighed. “You idiot, that was my favorite shot glass. Grace. The one you’re always calling up and grinning about.”

“Hold on.” Wilson retreated to the kitchen and returned, arms akimbo and smirking. “A doctor, a man who should know better than anybody the value of cleanliness, and you don’t own a dustpan?”

“I don’t own a dustpan,” House said, “and if I did it wouldn’t be in the kitchen. Forget the glass. It’s not gonna go anywhere. Neither are you.”

Wilson, feeling rather like a small, unruly child, sat down and focused with an extreme amount of concentration on the tip of Greg’s twitching tail. He resisted the urge to ask where, exactly, the dustpan would be, if not in the kitchen.

“Grace.”

“She is,” Wilson said, “uh, a patient. Of mine.”

“Do you talk to all your patients so much, Patch Adams?”

“Um. No.”

House grinned.

“Anyway,” Wilson said. “About the other day.”

Greg lifted his head and woofed softly. House pursed his lips and whistled. A moment later Greg was draped across House’s lap and House’s fingers had found their way to his ears. Wilson’s jaw dropped. House popped a Vicodin.

“Is there a point to this discussion,” he said, rolling the pill around on his tongue, “or are you just going to keep stuttering and yacking till we all die of boredom?”

“It’s just—well—Julie—”

“Saw her on the way home, corner of Market and Fourth, walking into the store. So I followed her, okay? Man, could you have picked a colder bitch?”

Wilson looked at his shoes. “Why?”

House sighed. By now Greg’s eyes were closing in bliss and he was beginning to snore.

“I had one side left.”

“Huh?”

“On the cube. I had one side left.”

Wilson reached over and touched Greg’s nose. “Which color?”

“Red.”

“I hate red.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Huh?” Wilson dropped the shard of broken crystal he’d been idly fingering. In years of friendship, not once had he heard those words so solemnly from House. Greg thumped his tail once, twice; House glared.

“Don’t make me repeat it or I swear I’ll shoot you and mount your head on the wall of a country club. You’re pretty enough; with antlers I could pass you off as a five-point buck.”

“No. Wait. I just don’t get it. Let me get this straight. You’re sorry that I hate the color red?”

House rolled his eyes. “You’re dumber than I thought.”

“Woof,” said Greg.

“What? You want some whiskey?”

“House. Dogs don’t drink alcohol.”

“Woof.”

“Hear that? He wants some.”

“House. Why?”

There was silence. House rubbed Greg’s ears once more and met Wilson’s eyes.

“She didn’t answer me.”

Wilson blinked confusedly. “What did you ask her?”

“I asked her why.”

“Woof.”

“Damn it!”

“What now?” Wilson’s eyes were on the ground, the keys of the piano, the ceiling, the abandoned TV Guide resting on the coffee table, anywhere but House.

“Haven’t you ever heard of walking your dog?” House grabbed his cane and got to his feet. There was a rather large wet spot on his jeans. Greg jumped to the ground, where he began running in circles and barking excitedly. Wilson snatched the leash—it had been Charlie’s—from the table and snapped it onto Greg’s collar; Steve squeaked in protest and House irritably poured another shot of whiskey, whereupon he proceeded to dump it on Wilson’s head.

“That’s for stinking up a perfectly good pair of jeans.”

“Well, that was for making me wet the bed!”

“No, you filed through my cane for that.”

“And you stuck twenty copies of Playboy in my briefcase before a board meeting for that!”

“Woof,” said Greg, dancing busily by the door.

“House. I have whiskey. On my head.”

“So? Chicks dig that.”

“Woof!”

“Squeak,” said Steve, thinking he’d join in.

Wilson wrapped the end of Greg’s leash around his hand and went outside. House examined the now-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, tossed it into the trash, grabbed the remote and began flipping through his TiVo. By the time Wilson came back House had worked his way through half the order of won ton and was busy amusing himself by throwing grains of rice to Steve. Greg curled up near the cold fireplace and went to sleep. Wilson, whose hair was plastered to his head and who still stank of liquor, sighed, sat down, rested his feet on the coffee table and opened his mouth.

“Why what?”

“I like you better when you don’t say anything.”

“House.”

The television went silent again.

“Why she wanted to hurt you, okay? Damn it, Wilson, even when I pour warm whiskey on your head you’re Mr. Rogers. I half expect you to burst into song while you do the dishes. Sure, you cheat, you drink, you swear, and you are one major pain in the ass, but nobody wants to break you for it. She wanted to break you.”

“And a puzzle piece was missing,” Wilson said to himself.

“No. Well, yeah, but I wanted to know—” House sighed and glared at the quiet television set “—for you, too. Wilson, you had night terrors. You weren’t exactly the picture of sanity. Not like you ever are, of course, Mr. I-Dry-My-Hair-At-Six-AM-And-Clip-My-Very-Loud-Toenails-For-Eight-Hours—”

Greg rolled over in his sleep and twitched an ear.

“I’m sorry.”

House sighed. “I’m not gonna ask what for—”

Wilson shrugged. “I blew up. It was wrong. You’re not a bastard.”

“No,” House said, “I am a bastard, and you know it. But, you idiot, you like me anyway. And get this.”

“Yeah?” Wilson glanced at him quickly.

“That’s your funeral—and this is mine.” House paused. “You’re a pretty-boy adulterer who doesn’t know what’s good for him—but, call me an idiot, I like you anyway. I do. And--and I need a drink.” Greg waved his paws in the air. House returned in a few minutes with two shots of scotch.

“Thanks,” Wilson said, after he’d had a swallow.

“I told you you’re a pretty-boy adulterer.”

“No, you told me I’m a stupid pretty-boy adulterer. And you said you like me anyway.”

“So maybe I don’t know what’s good for me either.”

“There’s an apartment closer to PPTH I’m gonna check out tomorrow.”

“Good.”

“Till then,” Wilson said quietly, “can I stay here?”

House turned his head. “Have I taught you nothing, padawan?”

“No, not really.”

House laughed. “Number one on the list of things never to do is ask a question when you already know the answer.”

Wilson grinned, and House found that he was grinning too.

“They’re fading,” House said a few minutes later, with an abrupt nod.

“Huh?” said Wilson, glancing briefly around.

“Those scars you were being such a girl about. They’re fading.”

Wilson looked at them himself. “I know.”

“Scars give a man character.”

“Sure do.”

“And—dude?”

“Yeah?” Wilson looked at House again.

“That whiskey on your head? Total babe magnet.”

“Maybe Grace’ll like it,” Wilson said, winking.

House whistled and the newly-awakened Greg jumped into his lap.

“If you’re ready,” House said quietly, “maybe she will.”

Wilson rested his head against the couch and scratched Greg’s ears. “Thanks, House.”

“I swear, you thank me again and I’ll—“

“Shoot me and mount my face on the wall of a country club, I know.”

“Woof,” said Greg.

“Squeak,” said the sleepy-eyed Steve.

And that night, while House played the piano and sang old Irish drinking songs too loudly with Wilson, they realized Julie didn’t matter, Stacy didn’t matter, Cuddy didn’t matter, nobody mattered. Because, whether or not the other one admitted it, whether or not the other one wanted to even think about admitting it, they’d be there.

Because scars will fade, but friendships don’t have to.

Because House could tolerate dog drool, and Wilson knew he’d always have a place to stay with no lobster in sight.

Because music sounds better when you’re not the only one listening to it.

And because House was a full-fledged, grade-A bastard, but Wilson loved him anyway.

~end
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