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AGAINST THE CURRENT (Part Two)

February 2005

Four days after proving – barely – that he could go a week without Vicodin and earning a month off clinic duty, House identified the mastermind behind the bet, which was about three and a half days longer than it should have taken. It was a bit embarrassing really, but House reminded himself that he had been dealing with the after-effects of a week of unrelieved pain and his mind had been on other things.

Still, it was glaringly obvious once he actually turned his attention to the question. He must have been insane to think it was Cuddy’s idea. No matter how concerned Cuddy was about his Vicodin dosage, she would balance it against his usefulness to the hospital and let things lie. No, whoever had come up with the plan had not been thinking about the hospital, but solely about House.

Once House realised that, the answer was evident. There was only one person Cuddy would have agreed to front for; only one person whose concerns she would place above potential liability to the hospital; only one person who knew just how much Vicodin House was taking; only one person who cared enough to do something about it.

Wilson.

Part of him admired Wilson’s cunning. A direct approach would never have worked, would never have brought House to the grudging admission that he was an addict. Wilson’s plan had worked, at least as far as House would let it. But that didn’t mean House would forgive him. Being right wasn’t enough, as he had learned to his cost.

As the day passed, he grew more and more angry. What right did Wilson have to play games like that? A patient nearly died because House was too busy dealing with his pain to think about the boy’s symptoms. His leg throbbed and he pulled out the bottle of Vicodin, restored to its proper place in his pocket. He fingered it longingly, but put it away. He wanted Wilson to watch him take his pills; he wanted the oncologist to see how he had failed.

He could wait for Wilson to come by. He knew now he could wait as long as a week. Not that he would have to wait anywhere close to that. Wilson had never been able to stay away long.

The anger and pain had built up to nearly intolerable levels by the time Wilson poked his head into House’s office to see if he wanted to grab some lunch.

“What are you doing here?” House snapped. It infuriated him that his first instinctive response had been to go for lunch, as if nothing were wrong, as if Wilson had done nothing wrong.

Wilson blinked, but didn’t flinch, well used to navigating the unexpected turns of House’s moods. “Was that a literal or metaphysical question? Because one of them involves being hungry, but I’m not sure which.”

It was hard to hold onto the anger in Wilson’s presence, so House deliberately knocked his broken fingers against the edge of his desk to remind him of what Wilson’s machinations had cost. “Then run along and eat. We addicts only crave our drug of choice.” He popped the Vicodin he had been saving for just that moment, wondering why the sudden stillness of Wilson’s features wasn’t more satisfying.

“If your leg’s bothering you, I could bring something up from the cafeteria,” Wilson offered, more hesitantly.

“Spare me your sympathy,” House sneered. “It’s about as genuine as the leather in your shoes.”

Wilson glanced down with a puzzled expression on his face, as if wondering why his footwear was being slandered. “Okay,” he said. “Was that a no?”

Instead of answering, House shook another Vicodin into the palm of his hand.

“You just took one,” Wilson protested, making a move to stop him.

That was enough to fan the anger back to full flame. “Do you enjoy seeing me in pain?” he demanded. “Do you get a kick out of seeing the cripple suffer? Does it make you feel better about yourself and your pathetic excuse for a life?”

Wilson’s eyes were wide with shock, the pupils so dilated they virtually swallowed up the irises. “G-Greg…” he stammered.

“Don’t call me that,” House shouted. “I don’t give you permission to use my first name.”

Wilson stepped closer to his desk and House could see him switch into exam mode, searching for signs of illness that would explain the outburst.

“I’m not your patient,” House said, making an effort to keep his voice steady. “And if last week was an example of your treatment plans, I’m shocked you have any patients at all. But then again, withholding drugs must do wonders for your budget. No wonder Cuddy’s willing to front for you.”

Wilson looked away and shifted uncomfortably. “You know.” A statement, not a question.

“I might be an addict, but I’m not brain dead.”

Something fascinating captured Wilson’s attention on the far wall and House had to resist the temptation to turn and look. “I’m sorry.”

“Too little, too late.” House liked the flinch that caused and he slammed his cane on the desk for emphasis. “What right did you have, messing with my life like that?”

“The right to stop a friend from slowly killing himself,” Wilson snapped back. “The Vicodin is going to destroy your liver sooner rather than later. There are other ways to manage the pain.”

“They don’t work.” It was an argument they’d had over and over again. But Wilson didn’t understand, could never understand, what it meant to spend every minute of every day in pain.

“Maybe not five years ago, but your situation’s changed. You’re becoming desensitized to the Vicodin. You need to find an alternative before it stops working altogether.”

“I’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now this works for me.” He started to bring the pill towards his mouth, but Wilson grabbed his hand. Enraged, he swung his cane, catching Wilson on the side, just below his ribs.

Shocked, Wilson stumbled backwards, hands dropping to his side. His mouth opened and he let out a short grunt. Unbelievably he stepped forward again. “I know you’re upset,” he gasped, “but we can talk about it.”

House raised the cane, brandishing it. “Get out,” he hissed, taking refuge in anger, knowing that he’d moved beyond the forgivable. He made a pre-emptive strike. “I’m through with you. I want you out of my life.” When Wilson still didn’t move, he shook the cane threateningly. “Get out!” he shouted, loudly enough to penetrate the office door. Through the glass he could see Foreman look up, take in the situation almost immediately and clamber to his feet. He waited until the door burst open and shouted. “Get him out of my sight.”

Foreman rushed in and stepped in front of Wilson protectively. Chase and Cameron followed and flanked either side of the oncologist, who stood frozen in shock. “Get him out,” House repeated.

Cameron and Chase exchanged a glance and led an unresisting Wilson gently out of the office. Foreman didn’t move, glaring at House until he dropped the cane on the desk.

“What did you do to him?” he demanded.

“What did I do to him?” House retorted. “Nothing compared to what he did to me. Or have you forgotten last week?” Foreman had been the only one to object to the bet, even going so far as to refill House’s prescription himself. Foreman at least should share his outrage.

But Foreman had succumbed to Wilson’s charm, or they had bonded over the rabies patient, or perhaps he just instinctively opposed House, which was the most likely scenario. “Did you hit him? Because it looked like you were about to take a swing at him.”

House watched over Foreman’s shoulder as Wilson brushed away Cameron’s comforting arm, pushed open the door of the outer office and hurried out. He didn’t even have time to count to ten before Cameron stalked in, trailed more cautiously by Chase.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” she demanded. “He’s devastated.”

“Good,” House replied, wondering why it didn’t feel all that good.

“He’s your friend.”

“He was my friend. Note the past tense.” House deliberately reached for his GameBoy and started a new game. After a few minutes of futile glaring, the juniors trailed away. House didn’t need to look at their faces to see Chase’s curiosity, Cameron’s disappointment and Foreman’s anger. He understood all three emotions all too well. It was the shock and the despair on Wilson’s face, the moment after House had hit him, that he had trouble digesting. The pain hadn’t come from the blow to the ribs; House had checked the swing even in his anger. It was for what had come after: House’s hard, hateful words.

He should have been satisfied. He’d had his revenge. He’d hurt Wilson. It was what he’d been imagining all day. And there was a part of him that had enjoyed the pain, the part that craved the Vicodin to the exclusion of all other possibilities. But the part that hadn’t been eaten away by pain and pills, the part that remembered the pure joy of his friendship with Wilson, wondered what the hell he’d done and how he was going to fix it.

The answer to the first question came that afternoon when Cuddy stormed into his office. "What did you do to him?"

House looked up, deliberately cultivating the most insouciant expression he could find. "Whatever are you talking about?"

Normally he could tease a snarky reply from Cuddy – it was what made their encounters both a challenge and an entertainment – but she clearly wasn't playing. "What did you do to Dr. Wilson?" she said with exaggerated care, as if speaking to a slightly slow child.

"Ah, yes. Your partner in crime." He settled back in his chair with a smirk. "What? You didn't think I'd work it out? That bet had Wilson written all over it."

"What part? The part where somebody gave a damn about you? You're right. That was entirely Wilson."

House had never seen Cuddy that angry before. It made him nervous, but there was no way he would let her know that. "Dr. Wilson and I had a private discussion that is absolutely none of your business. Now go away. I have important doctor things to do." He picked up a random file and pretended to read it.

Cuddy didn't move. If anything she grew angrier. "It became my business when he handed me his resignation." She leaned forward and ripped the file out of House's suddenly nerveless fingers. "And don't tell me it had nothing to do with you, because half a dozen people have already told me he walked out of this office looking like his world had been shattered."

House instinctively reached for his bottle of Vicodin. Addict behaviour, he thought. Reach for the crutch in times of stress. He dry-swallowed and grimaced, guilt more bitter than the pill. "What do you want from me?" he asked wearily. Maybe if she told him, she would leave him in peace.

"I want you to fix it. Maybe you think you don't need him, but this hospital does. I don't intend to lose him because of your desperate need to bite the hand of anybody who tries to help you."

There was enough truth in her words to make him angry. “Help me? A week of excruciating pain and broken fingers is helping me? And what about that kid? How can putting a patient’s life at risk be helping anybody?”

There was enough truth in his words to make Cuddy defensive. “No one forced you to take that bet. And no one forced you to continue treating patients while you were detoxing.”

“It’s all my fault, is it? None of it belongs to the golden boy of oncology?” House wondered why it hurt so much to have Cuddy take Wilson’s side. “What’s he doing? Screwing you on the side? Making you so dizzy with desire that you can’t see what a traitorous bastard he is?”

That should have earned him a slap across the face, or at the very least a disgusted scowl. But Cuddy just shook her head. “I’ll pretend you didn’t say that,” she dryly. “And when you calm down, you should do the same. Dr. Wilson asked me to make that bet with you because he cares about you. God knows why,” she muttered.

House knew she was still upset, but her anger had seeped away. So had his. “He resigned?”

Cuddy nodded. “He tried to pretend he needed a new start with his wife, but you know he can’t lie when he’s upset.”

“Julie’s unhappy. We – I – we – it’s just that…I’m…sorry.” House shook his head. “He sounds like a Pinter play when he’s nervous.”

Cuddy laughed, almost reluctantly. “He fooled you for nearly two weeks.”

“He lies just fine by omission,” House retorted. “Though the $500 hooker masquerading as a masseuse should have tipped me off. That had guilt written all over it.”

“Apparently we’ve got different books. I read that as a friend trying to help you get through a difficult situation.”

“That he put me in.” But House’s protests were starting to lose their force. He let his head fall back against the back of his chair and stared at the ceiling. “He’ll calm down,” he said with more certainty than he felt. “He loves his job. He won’t give it up.”

“He can get a job in any hospital in the country,” Cuddy pointed out. “He gets headhunted three or four times a year that I know about. If you’ve been counting on the job keeping him here, then you’ve seriously miscalculated.”

House forced himself to remain staring calmly at the ceiling. There was no way he could let Cuddy know just how much the thought of Wilson leaving filled him with dread, though he suspected she wouldn’t be still standing there if she didn’t already know. It was one thing for him to push Wilson away as hard as he could; it was another for him to actually go. He reached for the bottle of Vicodin again, but Cuddy snatched it away.

“You just took one,” she pointed out.

“It still hurts,” House snapped.

“I’m sure it does, but that’s not why you want the pills. You want that nice, happy feeling to mask the fact that you just lost your only friend.”

House swivelled his chair around, not willing to let Cuddy see just how close her words had hit. “Get out.” At first he didn’t think she would leave, but then he heard the pill bottle being replaced sharply on the desk.

“You have until Monday to get him to change his mind.”

“Or what?” House couldn’t help the note of challenge in his voice, but it lacked the usual cockiness.

There was a long pause and House wondered if Cuddy was having trouble choosing a suitable punishment. Finally she just sighed. “If you can think of something worse than coming into work without Wilson for a buffer, let me know. I can add it to the book I’m writing about ways to torment cripples.” He could hear her heels tap an angry pattern, even through the light carpet, as she stormed out of his office.

He considered what to do. He could wait a day, give Wilson time to settle down and realize he’d overreacted. It would blow over. They’d fought before; House had even hit him before. Wilson knew he didn’t mean what he’d said.

But he had meant it at the time and Wilson had believed him. It didn’t matter that the words were ashes in his mouth now, that the echo of his own voice in his memory was unreal and unbelievable. Wilson had left thinking they were real and the longer he waited, the longer they would eat away at him. House had to find him and he had to find him fast.

In theory, it shouldn’t be hard. House knew all Wilson’s refuges. Unfortunately most of them were in the hospital. He tried calling Wilson’s cell, but it was turned off and his page went unanswered. He thought about trying his home number, but if Wilson were ignoring his calls, it was unlikely he would answer. He would have to go directly into the lion’s den.

He drove to the condo complex where Wilson lived with his third wife. House wondered whether it had been diminished finances or expectations that had stopped Wilson from buying another house after his second divorce. House knew Wilson loved Julie, but love hadn’t been enough in the past and House didn’t think it was enough now. Wilson had a seemingly endless capacity to give, but he had never been able to take, and that made for a lonely and unequal marriage. House often thought the reason their own relationship had lasted so long was that he had never offered more than what Wilson could accept.

Julie answered his second knock. “Greg?” she said, looking surprised. “Is everything all right?”

House supposed she had every right to be surprised. He rarely went to Wilson’s house and never uninvited. The occasional dinner party, Wilson’s 35th birthday, a first anniversary celebration. Even if he drove Wilson home, he never got out of the car. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to Julie.

It wasn’t that he actively disliked her. Julie was a beautiful woman; more importantly, she was an intelligent and kind woman. But she didn’t make Wilson happy and House could never completely forgive her for that.

“I need to talk to James,” he replied, trying to sound polite.

Surprise turned to alarm. “I thought he was with you.”

House wondered if he had dumped Wilson in the doghouse. His anger had faded to the point where he was willing to fix that. “He was,” he said, which was essentially the truth, if you considered time elastic. The expression on Wilson’s face when he walked out of his office prompted him to tell the truth. “We had an argument,” he admitted. “I need to apologize to him.”

If Julie were surprised that he would apologize to anybody, she had the grace not to show it. “He hasn’t been home. And he’s not at the hospital?” They both knew that Wilson often holed up in his office when he was upset, nursing his wounds in solitude. Under normal circumstances House would simply walk in and torment him into a better mood. But this time he had managed to drive Wilson away from his usual sanctuary.

He wondered if he should tell Julie that Wilson had resigned, but decided it would just worry her unnecessarily. He fully expected to talk Wilson out of the decision. Once he found him. If he found him.

”What’s been going on at work, Greg?” she asked hesitantly, interrupting his thoughts.

House was instantly wary. He didn’t think Wilson would have told Julie about the bet, but then he never would have thought Wilson was capable of making that bet in the first place. “Nothing unusual,” he said, the lie coming instinctively. “Why?”

“He’s been withdrawn, more than normal. He won’t say anything to me, but he’s been having nightmares, talking in his sleep.”

House knew about Wilson’s nightmares. Wilson had spent a lot of nights on his couch over the years and House was a light sleeper. Wilson only gave his emotions free rein in his sleep. “Has he said anything that might give you a hint?”

Julie shook her head. “I’m not sure. He mostly mumbles, but I thought I heard him say ‘Michael’ a few times.”

“Michael?” There were no recent patients that House could think of named Michael. Granted, he rarely paid attention to the names of his own patients, but he took more notice of Wilson’s, especially the ones that died. “When did you first hear that name?” he asked, wondering if that one had slipped away during his detox week, when the only thing he had noticed was his pain.

Julie thought carefully, sensing the importance of House’s question. “The beginning of the month, I think. He came home late. He said he’d been out with you, but he hadn’t been drinking. He was just…quiet. Sad. He had the first nightmare that night.”

House thought back to the beginning of the month and tried to remember a night when he had gone out with Wilson without drinking. Wilson was good about not driving when he’d been drinking, but House usually managed to get a beer or two into him, particularly when he was upset. And then he remembered Victoria, the rabies patient, and the night he had followed Wilson out of the hospital and down to skid row.

“Michael,” he whispered. Wilson had never told him the name of the brother he hadn’t seen for nine years. He would bet a month’s worth of clinic duty that it was Michael. He thought he knew where Wilson was. “I’m going to check a couple of bars near the hospital,” he said. “Call me on my cell if he comes home. Tell him…” He hesitated, wanting to give Wilson a message that would mean something. “Tell him Greg needs to talk to him.”

Julie frowned and then nodded, catching, if not understanding, the significance of the first name. House almost liked her.

Wilson wasn’t at the street corner, but he hadn’t really expected to find him still there. It was a place to start and there were enough dives nearby to give him places to continue. He found Wilson in the third bar.

Wilson was sitting in a booth in the back, hands curled around a full glass of Scotch, ice cubes long melted. He looked up at the distinctive sound of House’s cane on the hardwood floor. “I’m sorry,” he said, before House had a chance to open his mouth.

House sat down across the table. “Stop stealing my lines.”

Wilson didn’t appear to be listening. “Tell me how I can make it up to you? I’ll do whatever you want.”

House cringed. “You can start by calling your wife. She’s worried about you.” He waited patiently, or at least with what passed for patience, as Wilson extracted his cell phone and pressed the speed dial for his home.

Julie must have been waiting by the phone, for Wilson turned away and spoke quietly almost immediately. Still House couldn’t help but overhear Wilson’s side of the conversation. “Did he?” he murmured, looking across the table, and House knew his message was being delivered. He watched some of the tension drain from Wilson’s features before he turned away again. “Yeah, he found me. I’m sorry I worried you. I just needed to think.”

That was the last thing he needed, as far as House was concerned. Left to his own devices, Wilson was capable of thinking himself into a complete emotional breakdown. It was House’s job to keep him from getting too serious, just as it was Wilson’s job to keep House from killing himself, inadvertently or deliberately. House stared at his cane, trying to give Wilson some privacy.

He didn’t notice when Wilson hung up, and several minutes passed before House noticed the silence. He looked back at his friend, who was once again gripping the tumbler with both hands, his knuckles white with tension.

“Are you going to drink that?” House asked, wondering what the tensile strength of the glass was and whether a depressed oncologist could shatter it.

Wilson looked up and shook his head. His jaw was set tightly and House knew the signs well enough to know that he was close to tears.

“Good. Let’s get out of here. We need to talk and I’m not doing it where any local cretin can overhear.” The last thing either of them needed was for Wilson to break down in public in the wrong part of town.

Wilson nodded, apparently still prepared to do anything House asked, and pushed away the drink. He didn’t say anything as they walked out of the bar, though, and House wasn’t sure whether to be glad or worried at the silence. He had a feeling that the only thing keeping Wilson together was his clenched teeth. House didn’t see Wilson’s car anywhere close by, so he steered Wilson to his own car, pushing him into the passenger seat when he hesitated.

“Where are we going?” Wilson asked, as they pulled into traffic.

“My place. I have lots of Scotch you can stare at.”

They drove in silence. “Why are you doing this?” Wilson asked finally, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“Because Cuddy will fire me if you don’t come back to work on Monday,” he joked. The joke fell flat, as Wilson turned his face to the side window, but not before House could see his jaw working overtime. “Because you’re in pain and I’m a doctor and I want to help.”

Wilson snorted softly, but when they stopped at a light, House could see a slight smile curve the corner of his mouth in the reflection off the window.

“What, you don’t believe that?”

“I don’t think I present enough of a challenge to grab your interest,” Wilson replied sadly.

There were very few acceptable forms of touching in House’s opinion, so he punched Wilson lightly on the shoulder. “I’ve never thought you were easy,” he protested. “Though the nursing staff might disagree.”

“It was just lunch,” Wilson replied automatically, but he turned his face back to the front.

A little of the sympathetic pain in House’s chest eased. “I wasn’t joking about Cuddy,” he said casually. “She might dress like a Victorian hooker, but she’s smart and she won’t let you go without a fight.” He took a deep breath. “And no matter what else I say or do, neither will I.”

Wilson was freer with touch; he cared about people and understood that human contact could be a potent medicine. He found ways of evading House’s barriers and House warmed under the hand on his shoulder, the occasional hug, the affectionate nudge that he could never return. Things had changed in the past week, though, and the space between the front seats gaped like a canyon that words couldn’t span. They drove the rest of the way to House’s place in silence.

===

Once inside his apartment, House fell back on ritual. He threw his jacket on the floor and watched as Wilson picked it up and hung it in the closet. Shaking his head, he hobbled to the sideboard, where his collection of whisky sang their siren songs. It had been a few hours since the last Vicodin and he wasn’t driving any more, so he poured himself a finger of Lagavulin and fixed Wilson a stiffer drink. Wilson took them from him, but House snatched his back and limped over to the piano and sat on the bench. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat in the room, but it was the seat that gave him the most comfort. He placed the tumbler on the top of the piano and let his fingers fall instinctively to the keys. It was awkward and slightly painful playing with the taped fingers, but as long as he kept to a simple bass line, it worked. The music flowed easily from his mood and he let it pull him along. When he looked up, Wilson was sitting on the couch, his head buried in his hands.

As he watched, he saw Wilson’s shoulders shake and his heart plummeted. It took a lot to make Wilson cry – children dying, wives leaving, though he’d cried like a baby when the BoSox finally won the World Series. Proven tearjerkers made Wilson gnaw hard on his lower lip and clench his fists, but left his eyes dry. He dealt with sorrow and grief daily in his job, but he rarely indulged in it himself.

Even as he wondered what to say, he watched Wilson’s shoulders stiffen. He raised his hand, wiping his cheeks defiantly and stood up. “I have to go,” he said, his voice not quite steady. “Julie’s worried enough as it is.”

House realised that he was still playing and his fingers slipped off the keys and into his lap. “James, no.”

The rare use of his first name was enough to stop Wilson from moving closer to the door, but he didn’t sit back down.

House stood up and without using his cane limped heavily over to the only person he cared enough about to stop from leaving his life. “Sit down,” he ordered softly, waiting until Wilson dropped back onto the couch. He sat down next to him, not touching, but close enough to touch if he had to. “Talk to me.”

Wilson curled back against the arm of the couch, as far away from House as he could manage. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he muttered, unable to meet House’s eyes.

“Well since you’re on the very short list of people I don’t actually enjoy making cry, I think we do need to talk.” For a moment he thought Wilson would bolt.

Instead he picked a point somewhere near the top of the bookshelf and focused very carefully on it. “It was the piano,” he whispered.

“I admit that my piano playing brings some people to tears, but you’re not one of them,” House replied lightly.

“I thought it would be the last time I’d ever hear you play piano. I don’t think I can bear that.”

House had to lean closer to make out the words and his proximity made Wilson flinch. “What did you think?” he said, trying to be gentle. “That I brought you back here to kick you out of my life? I could have done that a lot more easily in the bar.”

“I thought you did it in your office.”

Not for the first time in his life House wished for a machine that would allow him to rewind and start a conversation over. “I was angry. I said things I didn’t mean.”

“You meant them,” Wilson replied. “They were true.”

“But they weren’t the whole truth. You didn’t do it to hurt me. I know you would never hurt me.”

That did make Wilson bolt and he skittered across the room, ending up braced against the piano, as if it were the only thing holding him up. “I hurt you every time I sign a prescription for Vicodin. I hurt you when I give it to you, and I hurt you when I try to take it away.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know what to do any more. I don’t know how to help you.”

House wanted to comfort him, but he didn’t know how. Comforting had never been his strong suit. It had never seemed to be a necessary skill. “You help me the only way you can. The only way anybody can. And I don’t mean the pills. Anybody can write a prescription for me. You know that.”

Wilson dropped his hands, but stared at the floor. He nodded reluctantly.

House moved towards him with a care that had nothing to do with his disability. “You let me be,” he continued, letting his voice soothe. “Everybody else tries to fix me, or change me, or want things I can’t give. You don’t.”

“I did last week,” Wilson replied, sliding away from the piano and retreating back across the living room.

“Stop making me chase you,” House snapped. “You’re not playing fair.”

Wilson stopped, but as House approached him, he could see slight tremors rippling through Wilson’s shoulders. House had always enjoyed intimidating people; it was the one sport remaining to him. But he played with Wilson, not against him. The trembling increased the closer he came, so he stopped just out of reach. Fix this, House told himself fiercely. “Wilson, look at me.”

Wilson shook his head and jammed his hands into his pant pockets. The trembling stopped, but at the expense of a posture so stiff and straight that House thought he might shatter if he touched him.

“I’m sorry,” House said, the words easier to say than he’d thought. It helped that he meant them. “You pissed me off, but what I did was unforgivable.”

Wilson was already shaking his head. “You had every right,” he replied softly. “I screwed up. It was a stupid, stupid idea.” He finally turned and raised his eyes to meet House’s. “But I swear I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

House found he couldn’t bear that heavy, pleading gaze and he looked away. “I did,” he admitted. “I wanted you to hurt and I did it deliberately and cruelly.” He saw Wilson’s hand slide against his left side and shivered with visceral shame and fear. “Show me how badly,” he demanded, images of broken ribs and internal bleeding overriding rational medical knowledge.

Wilson managed a smile. “I’m all right. You were never any good at baseball.”

But House knew that heavy wood against flesh, even checked, had to leave a mark and he needed to see it. “Please.”

Wilson blinked once, as surprised by the plea as he’d been by the blow. He opened his mouth to reply, then simply took off his suit jacket and untucked and unbuttoned his dress shirt. He stood patiently, allowing House to push the material away from his side and examine the already bruising area.

House could be extraordinarily gentle when he wanted and his fingers flew over Wilson’s side as if he were playing a soft lullaby. Satisfied that he’d done no more than bruise, he examined Wilson for other damage, cataloguing the new lines, the dark circles beneath his eyes that stood out against too pale flesh.

“I talked to Julie,” he said, as if it were a daily occurrence. “She says you’re having nightmares again.” The last time the nightmares had hit hard was after Wilson’s second divorce. He had stayed with House while he looked for an apartment and had been surprisingly fine for the first few days. But then a long-time patient died and all the alcohol House could pour into him didn’t wash away the pain. Wilson didn’t scream or thrash about in his sleep, just mumbled occasionally and shed softly and steadily the tears he refused to let flow when he was awake.

“You’ve been dreaming about Michael,” he said. “Your brother. The one who’s no longer in your life. Except that’s not true. I know you. You can’t cut anybody out of your heart.”

“I don’t want to talk about Michael,” Wilson replied, neither denying nor agreeing with House’s statement.

“That’s too bad,” House retorted. “Because you owe me a story.”

Wilson frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“Nine years ago. The clinic. Your shoulder. You promised me you’d tell me the truth one day. This is the day.” House should have been pleased at the look of panic on Wilson’s face. He’d taken a shot in the dark, but the time frames had been right, and it hadn’t really been a guess. He should have made the connection when Wilson had first told him about Michael, but he’d forgotten that first encounter until today, until he’d worked out just how long James Wilson had been his best friend.

“I – I – I…” Wilson swallowed heavily, as if he could capture the words refusing to flow from his mouth.

House decided to take pity on him. “Let me help you. The reason you lied was because it was Michael who stabbed you.” He didn’t bother checking for confirmation. “That was the last time you saw your brother.”

Wilson curled up on the couch, carefully tracing an intricate pattern with his fingertips on the leather arm. He didn’t look at House, but neither did he shy away when House sat next to him. “Growing up in Princeton, even when you’re the sheltered son of a professor, you know there are places you don’t go after dark,” he said finally. “Some of those places you don’t even go in the daylight. At least not alone. I tried those places first.”

===

House sat silently after Wilson finished his story, caught between past and present and a world of regrets. A knife in a dirty alley, a cane in an office. Good intentions repaid with violence and rejection. You’re dead to me. I’m through with you. I want you out of my life. The echo of his words that afternoon made his stomach twist and for a moment he thought he might be physically ill.

Wilson noticed. Even wrapped up in sorrow and pain, Wilson noticed his discomfort and turned a concerned gaze on him. “What’s wrong?”

House hated concern. He’d had his fill of it after the infarction and it never ended. But coming from Wilson, especially now, it was unbearable. “Nothing. I’m a bastard.”

Wilson’s brow wrinkled. “I already knew that,” he said lightly. “It’s never seemed to bother you before.”

“I’ve never hurt you before.” That wasn’t strictly true. Wilson had been caught in the crossfire of House’s inability to play nicely with others too many times to count. But while he sniped and jabbed at Wilson, he had never gone for the jugular before.

“It doesn’t matter.”

House gaped at him. “How can you say that? How is what I did to you any different from what Michael did to you?”

“You came back for me,” Wilson said simply. “Michael never did.” Wilson scrubbed at his face, as if he could wipe away the pain. “Not a call to see if I was all right, not a note to say he was still alive. I went back a few days later to try and find him again, but he was gone. No one I talked to had seen him since that day.”

House wanted to find Michael Wilson and slowly and painfully kill him. But he knew better than to tell Wilson that. He had learned at great cost that sometimes it was better to say nothing at all. It wasn't a lesson he had mastered, but he always made an effort where Wilson's real feelings were concerned. There wasn't anything he could say, but at least he could show Wilson that he had listened.

Slowly, carefully, as if approaching a skittish horse, he touched Wilson on the shoulder, his fingers lightly brushing against the old scar. Wilson stiffened, but didn't pull away, and after a moment, he reached up to cover House's hand with his own.

They sat that way for a long time, Wilson's ragged breathing the only sound in the room. Finally House couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “You have an interesting definition of relevant,” he observed dryly.

“What?”

“Last month. When I asked why you never told me about your brother, you said it wasn’t relevant. Was the fact that he stabbed you and left you bleeding in a dirty alley irrelevant as well?”

“Yes.” Wilson’s voice cracked on the word and House remembered how he struggled to keep his composure as they sat out on the dark street. Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose, surreptitiously brushing away the tears that trembled unshed in his lashes. "He was my brother," he said, his voice full of dangerous emotion. "I loved him."

That was no confession. Wilson was blessed and cursed by his capacity to love.

"Why wouldn't he let me help him?"

Because he was a loser, a drug addict, a selfish bastard who cared more about himself than his family. For once, House managed to keep his inside voice inside. There but for the grace of God go I, he thought. He was arguably a drug addict and inarguably a selfish bastard. The only thing that stopped him from being a loser in the truest sense was Wilson. But he wouldn't let him help him. “Sometimes people don’t want to be helped.”

Wilson had pulled himself out of his grief far enough to read the meaning beneath the words. “So what do I do? Just give up? Is that what you want?”

What he wanted was for the pain to go away. But that wasn’t going to happen. Dead muscle didn’t grow back, whether it was in the leg or the heart. “I’m not your brother. You can’t save me.”

Wilson shook his head. “I can’t not try.”

Four words that said everything. A line from a book Stacy had given House when he was in the hospital floated through his mind. It was in those dogs to care too much and try too hard. He hadn’t read it until after she left and Wilson had become the only constant in his life other than pain. That line had left him breathless with sorrow and fear when he looked up to see Wilson watching over him in another late-night vigil, like the loyal dog standing guard over the broken ice that had stolen away his masters. He had been unable to finish the book, but neither had he been able to give it away.

Suddenly it seemed important that he read it and he pushed himself off the couch, awkward in his urgency. He limped over to his fiction bookshelf and found it easily. Curiosity had ever been his most dangerous companion and he turned to the final pages, scanning quickly over the MacDonald brothers’ final journey until he reached the last line: "All of us are better when we're loved." He blinked back unexpected tears, wishing he had read those words years ago. The book slipped from his grasp when he tried to return it to its spot and clattered to the ground. And then Wilson was by his side, not touching him, but holding him up all the same.

Wilson bent down and picked the book up off the floor, glancing at the title. "Why do you always throw that book around?" he chided with a faint smile.

"You know it?" House asked, surprised, though he shouldn't have been. He had many a time torn Wilson away from a book to engage in less edifying activities.

The smile broadened into a smirk. "I read it the last time you threw it across the room. I wanted to know what pissed you off enough to justify book abuse."

"Stacy gave it to me. Isn't that enough?"

"Enough to throw it away," Wilson agreed. "But definitely not enough to keep it." He glanced down at the book and then up at House, his dark eyes penetrating. "You’re not that guy," he said.

For once House didn’t bother to hide his emotions away under a sardonic sneer. “No,” he said, not arguing with Wilson’s observation. Wilson’s observations were rarely wrong. “It’s true, though.”

“What is?”

All of us are better when we’re loved.“ House turned and gripped Wilson’s arm. “That’s how you help me.” Wilson’s expression didn’t change, but he could feel the muscles relax beneath his hand. “If I ever meet Michael, I’ll thank him.” Before I kill him, he added silently.

Wilson frowned, the question unasked but eloquent in his expression.

“We might not have become friends if not for what happened. We might have spent the last nine years as just colleagues.” It was a thought beyond even his imagination. “What you lost, I gained.”

Wilson’s mouth quivered with a tremulous smile and then he reached up and clasped House’s other arm.

House hesitated a moment, and then pulled Wilson into an awkward hug. He couldn’t remember the last time he had willingly hugged somebody – Wilson’s last wedding probably – and he was surprised how easily Wilson fit against his body. He allowed himself to relax against Wilson’s chest for a moment, smiling when Wilson shifted to take most of his weight. He would thank Michael indeed for this most precious of gifts. After a moment he pulled away, too embarrassed by this display of emotion to meet Wilson’s eyes. “So does this mean I can get Cuddy off my back?” When Wilson looked away and nodded, he pulled out his phone and punched in Cuddy’s cell.

He handed the phone to Wilson just as Cuddy’s voice blared, “You’d better have something good to tell me, House.”

Wilson winced and looked as though he’d rather stab himself in the eye than put the phone next to his ear. “It’s me, Lisa.”

Cuddy’s voice lowered and House couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation, but he could tell by the soft smile on Wilson’s face that Cuddy was saying all the right things.

“Yeah, you can tear it up.”

House had always been both blessed and cursed by his imagination. It allowed him to devise creative treatment plans, to see patterns that others missed. Right now it provided him with a stark picture of Wilson sitting at his desk, hand writing a letter of resignation. He would have curved his wrist awkwardly to avoid smearing the ink and written carefully, clearly, so unlike his usual southpaw scrawl. He saw Wilson put the pen down and lean back in his chair, looking around his office before covering his face with his hand. He was so caught up in the picture that he started when Wilson handed the phone back to him.

“Cuddy wants to talk to you,” he said.

House recoiled as if the phone were a fanged serpent. “Maybe I don’t want to talk to her.”

“Take the damn phone, House,” Wilson replied in an exasperated voice.

House loved that voice. It meant things were back to normal. He took the phone. “What?”

“I didn’t think it possible, but your phone manner is worse than your bedside manner.”

House entertained a new picture – of Cuddy, blouse gaping slightly, looking disapproving. It was a picture he was very familiar with. “Is that what you wanted to say to me? Because I’m sure it could have waited until the next time you wanted to waste my time.”

“Well, I could wait to tell you that I’ve given you and Wilson the day off tomorrow, but then it would be too late to do you any good.”

House studied the statement, looking for an easy flaw. “Except you’ve undoubtedly already told Wilson, and I’m pretty sure he’s learned his lesson about keeping things from me, so you’re really still wasting my time.” Wilson sighed and closed his eyes in a pose of long-suffering patience, which House was pretty sure was mirrored on Cuddy. “So what do you really want to tell me?”

At first he thought she’d hung up, but when he checked the signal was still there. “I suppose I wanted to thank you,” she said finally. “I know it was self-preservation, but I appreciate it nonetheless.”

“He is pretty to have around,” House agreed, enjoying the rare opportunity to embarrass Cuddy and Wilson simultaneously.

Much to his surprise, Cuddy played along. “It’s only fair if you get Cameron.”

“I thought it was Chase you jonesed for.” He smirked at Wilson, who was looking a little alarmed. “Oh settle down, Jimmy. Cuddy’s too smart to risk a sexual harassment suit. Your dubious virtue is safe.”

Wilson just sighed again and headed for the couch. House had to admire his recovery time. “Well, now that you’ve expressed your undying gratitude to me for bringing back your golden boy, I must go. We have men things to do.”

“Does that mean everything is all right between the two of you?”

House squinted. Cuddy actually sounded hopeful. Usually she berated him for being a bad influence on Wilson. He glanced at Wilson, who was slouching on the couch. A warm surge of affection caught him by surprise and he let the muscles in his face curve his mouth upwards. Wilson looked up at him, raised an eyebrow and smiled back. “Yeah,” House replied. “It’s all good.” He cut the connection. “You wanna watch Godzilla?” he asked, heading for the couch. “The special effects commentary is pretty good.”

Wilson shook his head. “I don’t want to watch TV. I want to listen to you play the piano.”

“What do you think this is, a bar?” But he had already changed directions and limped over to the piano. He started with Erik Satie’s “Vexations” – it had a bass line he could play with two fingers – and wondered how many of the 840 repetitions he could get through before Wilson objected. He had gotten to 120 once. Actually, it had been Wilson who had insisted he keep going when he realised that 840 was the product of four through seven. Four through six had seemed to satisfy him. Wilson was a closet math geek. House thought about the ever-present pocket protector. Perhaps not closet after all. Feeling slightly sentimental, he segued into a jazzy version of “That’s What Friends are For.” Horrified by the lapse, he moved quickly to something harsh and atonal, but not before he heard a snort from Wilson.

This time, when he looked over at the couch, Wilson was smiling.

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(Deleted comment)
mer_duff
May. 4th, 2006 06:58 am (UTC)
I hope it was in a good way :) I give all credit to Alistair MacLeod. I can't read the line, "All of us are better when we're loved" without choking up.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - mer_duff - May. 4th, 2006 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
elaran
May. 4th, 2006 02:51 am (UTC)
♥ That was gorgeous.
mer_duff
May. 4th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you - I'm glad you enjoyed it.
culturevulture7
May. 4th, 2006 03:00 am (UTC)
Wow....
Just wow. If that's a detour, take many many more. Marvelous...it's heartbreaking and it's them through and through.

The topic was the expansion of Islam in the 6th century; I wrote about the rise of Islam, which was a very different thing as far as the TA was concerned.

Your TA lacked imagination. :-)
culturevulture7
May. 4th, 2006 03:01 am (UTC)
Re: Wow....
Oh, and, I LOVE this version of the meeting! It works so well....

(so do we get a sequel with a duet on guitar and piano?)
Re: Wow.... - mer_duff - May. 4th, 2006 06:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Wow.... - culturevulture7 - May. 7th, 2006 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Wow.... - mer_duff - May. 10th, 2006 12:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pinglederry - May. 24th, 2006 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
pretendagain
May. 4th, 2006 03:20 am (UTC)
I hardly know what to say! I loved this so much! There were so many little things that fit together to make this a lovely story. I also loved the small bits of humor, like Wilson as a closet math geek, lol. This was beautiful. You did a wonderful job!
mer_duff
May. 4th, 2006 05:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad it wasn't unrelenting angst and that it hung together. I wasn't so sure about that after my mother printed it out to edit, mixed up the pages and inadvertently switched an entire section around. She did admit it made more sense when I reordered it for her :)
evila_elf
May. 4th, 2006 09:58 am (UTC)
O.O
That was lovely.
Achingly sad at points.
*adds to memories*
mer_duff
May. 5th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I love the icon.
daasgrrl
May. 4th, 2006 11:29 am (UTC)
Beautifully written - I particularly enjoyed the story of their first meeting, and that House effectively 'dared' him to suture himself up. Niiice. And I was grateful he didn't actually let him do it :)
mer_duff
May. 5th, 2006 05:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks! It seemed exactly like something House would do (it would hardly be his most outrageous clinic moment). I'm sure he'd be much happier if all his clinic patients would be willing to treat themselves :)
montycrowley
May. 4th, 2006 01:47 pm (UTC)
A lovely story. I really have nothing to nitpick. I adore a good long fic that takes emotional impact and past history into consideration. Thank you very much for providing me with an extremely distracting read (I kept getting called away from the computer and was practically whimpering and hopping up and down, waiting for whatever it was to hurry up and finish so I could come back.)

What book is that, the one they're quoting? The one with the dogs, and the ice? It sounds eerily familiar, and if you get the chance, I'd love to know.
mer_duff
May. 4th, 2006 03:23 pm (UTC)
It's "No Great Mischief" by Alistair MacLeod. If just one person reads the book and loves it as much as I do, the story was a success (more easily achieved if I'd actually named the book, but it never quite worked in the narrative). It was probably a good thing that House didn't keep reading - the dog paid a heavy price for loyalty. Darker shades of "Babies and Bathwater."

Thank you for persevering with the story - I hadn't realised how truly long it was until I did the word count.
(Anonymous)
May. 4th, 2006 07:42 pm (UTC)
This is the best thing I've read in days, including the novels I'm in the middle of. You write wonderfully -- not a word out of place, and everything flows and makes emotional sense. Really, really good.
(Deleted comment)
mer_duff
May. 5th, 2006 06:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Writing it was a pleasure in itself - knowing that other people got something out of it makes it even better.
rosewillread
May. 4th, 2006 11:57 pm (UTC)
Fic: Against the Current
This is… wow, excellent.
House finds out what happened with Wilson's brother - of course! Inspired prompt useage.
Great first meeting for them.
And House's reaction to discovering it was Wilson was excellent. His anger partly at not working it out sooner, like we see in House v. God.
They made up in a very House-Wilson way. It was Wilson who apologised first, and House getting frustrated with the situation.
The echoes from the first part in the second, House's words and Wilson's telling the story worked really well. I loved the tone in “Growing up in Princeton, even when you’re the sheltered son of a professor, you know there are places you don’t go after dark,” he said finally. “Some of those places you don’t even go in the daylight. At least not alone. I tried those places first.” and the opening of the fic itself.
And brilliant Cuddy. The differentiation between her care of and reaction to House and Wilson's was well drawn.
bironic
May. 5th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC)
Re: Fic: Against the Current
And House's reaction to discovering it was Wilson was excellent. His anger partly at not working it out sooner, like we see in House v. God.

And brilliant Cuddy. The differentiation between her care of and reaction to House and Wilson's was well drawn.


Hear, hear!
Re: Fic: Against the Current - mer_duff - May. 5th, 2006 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
bironic
May. 4th, 2006 11:59 pm (UTC)
This was one of those rare stories that you can start reading in an anxious, skipping-from-fic-to-fic mood and find yourself settling, relaxing into it, until you're taking your time with every line. I really enjoyed House's moments of gentleness, Wilson being so defeated by House's attack, and of course the parallels you found between Michael and House. Just lovely.
mer_duff
May. 5th, 2006 09:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It was a huge investment to ask of a reader, so I'm glad it held you.

I've always thought that Wilson being reminded of his brother in "Histories" had to have been the impetus for getting Cuddy to make the bet in "Detox." He seems to react almost blindly to emotional triggers - marriage #3 has been in trouble since at leastclearly been failing since "Damned If You Do," but I wonder how much longer he would have let it wither away if Julie hadn't admitted to having an affair.
(no subject) - bironic - May. 5th, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mer_duff - May. 6th, 2006 05:19 am (UTC) - Expand
cagedwriter61
May. 5th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC)
Jesus Christ. I fucking love you.

*mems and dies of the absolute fucking brilliance*
mer_duff
May. 5th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
I take it you liked it :)

Thanks for reading and for that most enthusiastic response!
(Deleted comment)
mer_duff
May. 6th, 2006 04:40 am (UTC)
It's early days yet, but thank you very much for the generous compliment. Hopefully I can build up some credit, as my second entry in the fest currently leaves much to be desired (sort of an anti-marketing campaign at work...)
shadow_yume
May. 5th, 2006 04:01 pm (UTC)
I've really loved it. Great work! ^o^
mer_duff
May. 6th, 2006 04:41 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
roga
Jun. 11th, 2006 11:03 am (UTC)
I loved this - what a beautiful story...

Feeling slightly sentimental, he segued into a jazzy version of “That’s What Friends are For.” Horrified by the lapse, he moved quickly to something harsh and atonal, but not before he heard a snort from Wilson.

...and then from me :-)
mer_duff
Jun. 12th, 2006 06:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Poor House - he just can't help matching the music to the mood. I love it when he plays on the show - it seems to be the only time he's comfortable with expressing his emotional state.
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