"The review on the radio made it sound like a nice place," Wilson says ruefully, one hand covering his eyes to deflect embarrassment.
"I'm sure it would be lovely, James," Bonnie says, asperity straightening her spine. Her voice stays soft and accommodating, the way it only did when she was furious. "Except that your so-called best friend is pretending to spy on us. Again."
The tiny bistro has a master chef, an exemplary wine list, and tea lights adding romance to the rich, polished decor. It also has House.
Three tables away, he lifts his water glass and waves it about until it slops over the rim. Club soda fizzes over his fingers and down his wrist. "Garr-sohn!" he shouts in a bad French accent, all the worse because Wilson knows he's fluent. "What eez thees fly doing in my water?"
Unless the waitress has the presence of mind to suggest the backstroke, her night isn't about to get any better. And unless lightning strikes down House--or, Wilson supposes, Bonnie--neither is his. Making a valiant stab at humour, he says, "I could ask him to join us?"
"Last time, he did," Bonnie points out, her smile smooth, her voice acid.
And he huffed in boredom for the rest of the night, whenever he wasn't making cracks about Bonnie's ungulate ancestry. Wilson doesn't bother to defend his joke.
Bonnie deliberately holds Wilson's gaze and leans across the table, an intimate gesture somewhat ruined by House's theatrical demands for a refund on his complimentary water in the background. "You know, James, I wouldn't mind the constant interruptions if there was any sign that you minded," she says. "Really. If you cared..."
The constant refrain of their relationship, these days. Absently, Wilson wonders if Bonnie was curvier when he met her, or if that's a regretful sigh from his imagination. She seems all elbows and sharp edges now. On their wedding day, she was a fragile ornament in his arms, a delicate filigree he'd sworn to admire. Frail, and his to protect. In the past three years, she's become smaller and more substantial, like steel crystalizing out of ice. These days he's afraid of impaling himself if he tries to get close.
House, on the other hand, is an amorous jellyfish. Absolutely no boundaries, more tentacles than Wilson can fend off, and the inevitable sting to prove it's all for Wilson's own good. Wilson glances over at his table. House is staring right back through a pair of dark sunglasses, his face a study in slack-jawed enchantment. He's munching on a baguette like it's popcorn, as if Wilson and Bonnie are the doomed lovers in an art-house film. Now that he's settled down, the rest of the restaurant's patrons are doing their best to ignore him, probably in the futile hope that he'll simply disappear if they do.
Wilson can't help it. He wants to laugh. He should be squirming in his chair at the attention House is bringing down on the two of them. But it's surreal, the way House makes these pretenses of surveillance. It's completely ridiculous. House can't think he's learning anything new about Wilson, or about his marriage, like this. Nothing could possibly cancel out the observer effect of House's beat-up green ball cap and eye-searing Metallica t-shirt. For a moment, he wonders how the hell House even found them; Wilson didn't even pick a restaurant until he'd met Bonnie after work. House's tenacity is legendary, but even if he was following them, how did he get here first? Wilson flounders briefly, before some instinct he's developed for dealing with House surfaces and urges him not to think about it--the knots he could tie himself into doing that aren't worth it. House's reasons are his own, and Wilson wants to leave them safely alone. He's pretty sure he wouldn't be able to laugh if he descended down every labyrinthine level of House's thought process.
"Let's just eat," he says to Bonnie, turning back to her with a placating smile. He covers her hand with his, ignoring House's scandalized harrumph.
"Fine," Bonnie says, sweet and clipped. "But you haven't made anything up to me yet."
Wilson's mother likes personal touches. She always insisted on handwritten thank-you notes and RSVPs, even after Wilson bought a clunky secondhand typewriter and later a word processor to get around his bad spelling and worse penmanship. So, Wilson writes to her, whenever her increasingly pointed letters or his guilt get to him, about every month on the outside.
House knows, naturally. If Wilson doesn't chase down the mailman personally, he rarely gets to his mail before House does. House tears open every envelope, even those addressed to Occupant, then brings back the well-read contents like a cat offering half-dead moles to its hunting-deficient human. He tuts over Wilson's bills and clucks his tongue at Barbara Wilson's wistful lamentations that she hasn't heard from her firstborn in positively weeks.
"Not vying for son of the year?" he asks, pouting at Wilson on Barbara's behalf.
"I've never enjoyed the swimsuit competition," Wilson returns blandly. He'll get his mail when he gets it. Rushing House's games is never the quickest way through them.
"Strange, it's my favourite part," House says, tossing the letter and ragged envelope down in front of him, sadly deprived of sport. "You've got the legs for it."
"But Michael has the figure for the ballgown," Wilson says. With anyone else, he'd stumble over this wordplay. His mind would leap to Danny, self-reproach burying the banter. But House's evident, eager delight every time Wilson sinks a jab home is too good to give up.
Trading one-ups with House has its price. Wilson is growing less certain of his jokes with anyone else. Something that would earn a chuffing laugh from House gets blinks and winces from his colleagues. The more Wilson hones his wit on House's tastes, the less he's able to unleash it on anyone else.
House shrugs and makes free with the apple from Wilson's lunch. "You won't give up that tiara without a fight." He chomps a crunchy, juicy bite out and ruminates obnoxiously. "You'll have a three-page letter about Bonnie's window treatments in the mail before last pick-up."
"You're probably right," Wilson admits, with a hint of a grin. So far, the price has been worth paying. "By the way, how's Blythe?"
House narrows his eyes. "Momma's boy."
"Prodigal," Wilson needles back.
House sets the half-eaten apple back on Wilson's plate and consults his watch. "Time to check my urine samples," he says loftily. "Not that this hasn't been delightful."
Wilson shakes his head with a little laugh as House stomps out, strangely graceful for a sulking man. House digs like a terrier, and sets his teeth in everything he finds. After ten years, he still doesn't trust their friendship. From anybody else, Wilson would take that as an insult. From House, it's reassuring.
Wilson waits until he's home to read his mother's letter himself. Sitting at his desk, an oasis of oncology journals in the just-so house that Bonnie keeps, Wilson crabs his pen across a sheet of monogrammed, pale blue note paper.
(Something Bonnie picked out, for which Wilson is grateful. Faced with the infinity of choices when buying his own stationery--colour, weight, border, lined or plain, James Evan Wilson or Dr. James Wilson or Just a Note From Jim, he could feel himself entering some kind of catatonic state. Bonnie once saw it as support, when he told her he loved what she chose. These days, her scornful looks cut through him, straight to the squirming, buried panic that chokes him whenever she asks his opinion.)
The heel of his hand smears the words as he writes them, and Wilson grimaces. House can read what he likes between the lines of Barbara Wilson's letters, but he'll never get a chance to chortle over the careful banalities Wilson writes in return. Choosing the words is nearly as bad as choosing the paper. An ocean of possible subjects, and no one to guide him through the shoals. Maybe he should get House to dictate his letters, or at least watch him write. The jumpy feeling of being watched could cancel out the awkward anxiety of putting forward his best foot to his parents.
Wilson's weirdly more productive with House's constant interruptions. House has a predilection for waltzing up when Wilson's agonizing over a hopeless treatment decision. It's impossible to procrastinate if he has to prove House is disrupting important work.
After all, House doesn't care about Wilson's dilemmas. "You have good instincts," he says, when he gets tired of poking Wilson and not getting his full attention. "Your problem is, you don't trust anything you didn't read in a double-blind, results-replicated, peer-reviewed pile of crap."
Wilson blinks in confusion. "I'm sorry, did you just admit that I'm a good doctor?"
House rolls his eyes. "No, I said that you'd brood over the exact dosage of a chemo course until your patient died on you, if it meant you didn't have to make a wrong choice."
"I happen to think the wrong choice--"
"There is no wrong choice! What are you deciding between, poison and poison?" House grabs the chart out of Wilson's hands. "Uh-huh. The trial gives a chance of a six-month life expectancy, but the patient's been doing better without it? If I told you the sky was green, would you look out a window? I'm hungry. Let's go."
Wilson is a good doctor, an excellent one he thinks sometimes, although that sounds uncomfortably boastful even in his own mind. It's being good that hamstrings him, traps him between uncertainties. House cuts a swath through a grey area like a hurricane ripping through a fogbank. Right or wrong, it's impossible to stay paralyzed with House bearing down on him. Wilson grabs the chart back and scribbles a dosage and his signature. "You're buying," he says, half-resentful, but mostly relieved that the decision is made.
House snorts. "Don't take those instincts to Vegas."
If House was watching, not just at work but everywhere in Wilson's life, then maybe Wilson wouldn't hesitate. Through the asshole act of not giving a shit, he offers Wilson balance. If he was here, he'd be rooting through Wilson's fridge looking for a beer, clicking around to find the hockey game on TV, disparaging the entire nephrology staff. Wilson would be so busy sparring back, he'd jot off a few simple sentences to his mother before he knew it, nothing drowning under stilting formality.
Instead: three pages about window treatments. Wilson could really hate House for being right so often. For being right about him. It's an uneasy comfort to be known so completely, and Wilson resists it, struggling to find his way back to the dutiful son, the loving husband he's supposed to be. He doesn't deserve anything more. House knows him and Wilson holds his breath, no matter how tempting it is to fall back into House's regard. To give in when House sees him, always, everywhere, and doesn't ask for more than that.
No matter how much he admires House's ability to slice through Gordian knots with a deft twist of metaphor, there are times Wilson's glad House can't watch him. House's smug assumptions grate, and Wilson resents him for assigning motives. During the day, there's no space to slip free of House's assessing eye, picking away each layer of Wilson's onion-skin defenses.
By three-twenty-three AM, the sincere attempt to lie still and listen to Bonnie's even breaths has turned insomnia to tense restlessness. Giving up on sleep, Wilson eases out of bed. He stretches, feeling the pop and pull of his muscles. He's only wearing an old pair of boxers and the air is cool against his skin as he steals downstairs.
He'll lag tomorrow, fuelled mostly by caffeine. If anyone asks, he'll explain away the circles under his eyes by mentioning he was on call. Only House will narrow his eyes and wonder, but he won't know. He can't see Wilson now: an uncomfortable, barefoot visitor in his own home.
Wilson hesitates before snapping on the overhead light. It's not like there's some silent, surprise-party audience that will jump out at him. No one can see him.
And yet he feels like a voyeur in his own life. He can't hide from himself. What he wants; why he's ducking into the office like a guilty cat burglar.
As he turns on the computer, nerves flutter in his stomach. His dick already knows the path his mind is following, and the anxious curl of desire is familiar. If he ignores the urge, it will build up and burst out later, in a snappish fight with Bonnie or a distracted call at work.
Guilty despite his own justifications, he sits at the computer. He wants to forget himself. How he might look, how he might sound--something he thinks about even when he's with Bonnie. With anyone. Flustered, embarrassed, he's ducked his girlfriends' compliments before. It's only a matter of being eager to please, of focusing on a woman's reactions. It's about caring--and he does care--but it keeps him invisible, inside this performance, this perfect lover. If he can drive Bonnie crazy, concentrating on her pleasure, then she won't see him when he loses control. He wears intimacy like a mask, and has never once answered honestly when a woman asks him, "Now, what do you want?"
Want is too murky a subject, dangerous ground. But he needs a release. He needs to escape the stage-fright mentality that any move might be the wrong one; he needs to get out of his own head. He turns the camera on someone else, and finds a window out of his own life. Breath quickened, he meets the performers' hooded gazes, the sultry acknowledgement that they're being watched. When he gives in like this, he can't help looking over his own shoulder, as if someone might be watching his furtive masturbation the same way.
No matter how careful he is, there will be traces. Life with House taught him to erase his browser history. He doesn't keep any videos on his hard drive, no matter how buried in innocently labelled folders. Pay sites would show up on his credit card statement. While the browser boots, Wilson rubs his palms on his thighs, feeling the swelling heat in his dick. God, it's self-delusion to think he can hide this. House has a sly insight, an incisive talent for guessing. He doesn't need to be a witness; he can extrapolate Wilson's fantasy life from a single nervous tic.
If he doesn't try to hide it, on the other hand... Sarcasm slides under House's bullshit radar, and the truth is a powerful way to lie. It's not hard to keep a straight face after ten years of practice. He suddenly wants to throw House's snooping back in his face. Pressing his lips together, torn between shame and a strange hot want, Wilson searches quickly and finds a sex toy store that promises to be discreet. Not discreet enough, of course. Does it even matter what he buys? A dildo, a buttplug, all the back issues of a BDSM magazine, dumped into his shopping cart without a thought. House can see the mask but he can't see Wilson--
Or maybe he can. Maybe the joke will fall flat, and that knowing, absent look will appear on House's face. Maybe Wilson is already catalogued in House's mind. Counted, quantified, understood. The thought is at once seductive and terrifying, bringing up his pulse, making him breathe quick and light. House will steal his mail, read his bill, calculate the itemized total of Wilson's secret. The computer offers his credit card details without prompting, and the mouse hovers over Confirm Order.
Wilson doesn't want to be seen. Not like this.
But if he was...
If House could see him now, what would he think? Half-hard in his shorts, nipples tight in the cool air, ignoring his wife upstairs in favour of Internet porn. Would House guess what Wilson wants?
Wilson clicks Confirm.
Would it surprise House at all that Wilson is looking for someone who's looking back?
"I am tired of your excuses, James!" Bonnie kicks off her heels the moment she comes in the door and keeps walking, not even stopping to hang up her coat or put down her purse.
Wilson comes in behind her, closing the door softly. At least Bonnie left it flung open instead of slamming it in his face. "I was consulting. House had a case that might have been--"
"And I am tired of hearing about House." Bonnie turned to face him, raising one hand. "Don't defend him to me. Not tonight. I don't know how often you think you can use the same excuse, but for the record, this one has worn thin."
It's not an excuse--tonight. Wilson can't hide his wince for all the times it was. House hauls him in for consults often enough, and tonight's case was interesting. That doesn't put him in the right. He tries to squeeze the tension out of his shoulder with one weary hand.
Bonnie shakes her head, looking away from him, bow mouth drawn tight. "James, I don't think you see me anymore." When she faces him, her eyes are wide and dark, set off from her pale skin. Her voice softens and she crosses her arms, squeezing her elbows. "I was waiting for my husband for two hours. Two hours of small talk and making up reasons why you weren't there. If your secretary didn't keep your calendar, I think I'd never see you."
"I'm sorry," Wilson says, knowing the words won't help. He imagines House throwing popcorn at the television during a soap's tear-filled love scene, heckling the actors who can't cry on cue, jeering the less-than-passionate kisses.
"Just say it," House suggested before they left the hospital, shrugging past Wilson on his way to turn off his office lights. "Garden parties are cruel and unusual."
Wilson sighed, tension rising from his neck to spur on a growing headache. "They're hardly forbidden under Geneva."
"That's why the CIA still uses them to extract confessions." House doesn't wait for Wilson. "Tell her staring at bloody emesis was a better time than admiring orchids."
Half-heartedly, testing the impact of a potential conciliation, Wilson says, "But I like orchids."
"Then why do you let Bonnie squeeze yours til they pop?"
But the truth isn't good enough, this time. Wilson feels trapped in a play, something over-rehearsed and drained of energy. When sitcom couples scream scripted fights, there's always a pause, a reckoning for every barb launched. Time for an audience to mark their score cards. Wilson wishes he had the same luxury, time to think of a response. He must look pathetic, mouth opening around fumbles instead of apologies.
"You're sorry," Bonnie says at last, sarcasm heavy in her voice. "Well, thank you, James. At least you're sorry." She shakes her head and leaves him, going to their bedroom.
There's no one left to see him standing bereft in the doorway. This isn't a play, or a film. If it was made for television, both he and Bonnie must have been tuned to different channels long ago.
Wilson works overtime as naturally as he breathes. The Dean is dangling the department head position in front of him like a carrot in front of a delusional mule. There's no way he'll get a top job at a place as prestigious as Princeton-Plainsboro so soon, as young as he is, but he can't resist the lure. The double shifts and weekend work and endless red tape keep him away from home more and more, and it matters less and less.
When he gets a Sunday free, though, Wilson slips away from home and drives to Lake Carnegie for a walk. It's good to get out in the sunshine, even when the weather's sharp with cold. He likes the privacy, the sense of being alone in his own head.
Well, alone except for his shadow.
"Fight with Bonnie?" House asks when Wilson rounds a corner and finds him lounging on a park bench.
"Is that my best friend?" Wilson asks the air rhetorically, stopping in the middle of the path. "It can't be, because I swear I told him I was going to pick up my dry-cleaning."
"Which you obviously only said because you knew I'd follow you," House says. "Therefore, you lied. Unless your drycleaner is a squirrel." He gave an exaggerated sniff. "Is that the delicate scent of duck shit?"
"Canadian goose," Wilson says, and joins House at the bench. "Urine not as compelling as usual?"
"Kidneys bore me," House says. "Other organs, though..." He stands up to jam a fingertip against Wilson's chest. "Affairs of the heart. Specifically, why you're having one."
The organ under consideration stops beating for a full three-count before slamming back to life. Wilson swallows. Shock drains the sting out of what should be righteous indignation. "Spying on me during my off-time isn't enough for you?"
"Not nearly," House says. "So. Tall, blonde, curvy, could only look like Bonnie if they were both tied up in a sack..."
There's no possible way for House to know. Wilson's stomach twists. The precautions he took were more than he'd ever need to escape Bonnie's fitful notice. "It's--"
"Oh, I know what it is," House says, speaking over him. "I'm just offended you didn't dish sooner."
"It's nothing," Wilson insists. Only an escape; only freedom.
House leers. "Looked like at least two handfuls more than nothing."
Wilson can only sputter at House's bright-eyed anticipation of juicy details. There were no credit card receipts, no telling dates made in his assistant's calendar. No phone calls House could have intercepted. Tammi doesn't even work at the hospital. Wilson's face hardens and he gets himself back under control. "What do you know, exactly?"
"What your guilty conscience looks like," House says smugly, and bumps his shoulder as he turns to walk with him. He lets the topic drop, but not because he's lost the scent.
Wilson lets out a huff of breath, amazed that House, who knows so much, can be so wrong. Guilty. Yes, he should be guilty. Tammi isn't the first, but she's the first to be more than...stress relief. There should be more to an affair than the physical release, the furtive exchange of pleasure. Sneaking around felt more exciting than the encounters themselves. Wilson hates himself for even thinking that, but it's true. For all he tried, Tammi couldn't even rise to the level of a dirty secret.
It felt good to be with someone who didn't expect anything from him, but it only gave him another act to keep up. The affair was nearly as exhausting as his marriage, and not because he felt guilty. When he tried, all he could conjure was a vague, hypothetical ruefulness.
But House knowing--House confronting him with knowing--Wilson suddenly smiles. It's absolution and judgement all at once. Remorse knots in his stomach, and at the same time, every minute he spent with Tammi jumps out in sharp relief. The physical sensation of orgasm is suddenly brighter in his memory because it was a transgression. House knows.
And he'll use the knowledge. Not against Wilson, or to hurt Bonnie, but in his own endless psychoanalysis of Wilson's character. House doesn't care about the affair except insofar as it tells him something about Wilson. Wilson can lie, cheat, and steal, and as long as House can pinpoint his motives. He won't interfere. He only wants to gloat because he saw it first.
Wilson shivers and it's not even cold. He wants to call Tammi from his home phone; he wants to take her away for a furtive weekend in an Atlantic City hotel and charge it to the Amex he and Bonnie share. He wants to tell her. Apologize, as abjectly as he knows how; beg her not to leave him.
There's someone watching again.
That night, Wilson greets Bonnie at the door when she gets home with a kiss. He guides her into the kitchen where he's opened a bottle of wine. "Do you know, I haven't actually cooked in months?" he says, stepping over to the stove to stir the pot of boiling gnocci. "I love to cook," he says, like it's a revelation. "I've really got to start making time for it."
Bonnie watches him, her lower lip pressed doubtfully against the rim of her wine glass. "James, what's gotten into you?"
He laughs. "I don't know," he says. He shakes his head, marvelling. "Here, taste this."
"Mm," she agrees, dipping her lips to the spoon and chewing the dumpling, but she's watching him like he might have cracked under the strain. "James, is something wrong?"
"Why would anything be wrong?" he asks. The guilt flares in his stomach, a tangled thrill. "I had a good day. Went for a walk with House."
Bonnie sets her wine glass down, and it clinks against the counter. "Oh my God. Did he follow you again?"
Wilson shrugs. If she'd just accept House's tendencies, he wouldn't be able to annoy her as much. "If I can pretend that he meant to join me all along, is it really stalking?" he says, a smile crinkling up the corners of his eyes.
"Yes," Bonnie insists, but then she laughs. "Whatever's gotten into you, I like it."
The implicit lie speeds his heart. With a sudden tenderness, Wilson wants to take care of her, show her that he truly does love her. That he wants to make love to her. Wilson crosses the kitchen to kiss her. He tastes shame and desire, mingled with the taste of pesto on her tongue. "I do, too," he says. He finally understands what she's been saying, that he hasn't seen her. She deserves better.
The gnocci is delicious, and the full red wine Wilson chose lifts through the taste of the pesto perfectly. Laughing, Bonnie gets out candle holders that they got for their wedding and have barely used since. Wilson watches her through the candlelight and thinks how strong she's become. She wants so much more than she did when they met. She's thinking about going back to school, maybe in business, maybe in real estate. Something with homes, or decoration.
She was a mouse when they met, hiding from shadows in shadows. Tonight, Wilson loves her like he did then, and he's so proud that he's seen the woman she's become. He'll break it off with Tammi. Bonnie doesn't need to know.
After they clear away dinner, and they've wash the dishes together at the sink of soapy water, Wilson takes Bonnie's hand and leads her upstairs.
It's been a while since they made love. It's like a first time; a renewal. Wilson sees Bonnie freshly, her slender strength. He banishes the memory of Tammi's wide hips and inviting breasts. He feels natural. He focuses on Bonnie: the hollow along her collarbone; the dip at her waist, above her hips.
It's when he goes down on her that the feeling slips. Concentrating on an activity he's practised like an Olympic sport, Wilson's mind falls back into the old habits, the old traps. Bonnie's hands in his hair feel clinging, her moans an affectation. No matter how many women tell him they love this, he always wonders if they're pretending for his sake.
Forget about it. There's no call for him to be thinking of other women. After she comes, Wilson rises quickly above her, and slides quietly inside her. Bonnie's eyes are closed, her head thrown back. He wishes she would look at him. He wishes someone could see him. Meet his eyes. Now, when it's all he can do not to close his eyes himself.
House knew everything Wilson had to tell before he even admitted it to himself. House laughed that Wilson is going to screw this up. Wilson pictures the amusement on House's face, the smirk curling his mouth, the blue, expectant gaze staring at him. Knowing him; seeing everything Wilson has to tell before he even admits it to himself. He can't keep a secret to save his life. He's going to tell; he's going to want to tell.
No, Wilson won't tell. He doesn't want to hurt Bonnie. Hips thrusting faster now, edging closer, his orgasm feels close and hot and real. Bonnie's hands on his shoulders are light and cool and faint. He doesn't hear her whisper his name. What would House make of this, of the two of them making love? Is it what he imagined when he called out Wilson for the affair? Despite everything House says about terminal relationships, here they are: intimate, connecting, a moment that House can't ever really share.
But of course House knows. Will know, even if he can't see them at this moment. It's not hidden. Nothing is.
It's like the pornography he watches, the heat of those pleasure-smug glances up through eyelashes. They can't pretend the camera isn't there. They're sated, satisfied, provocative: they know they're watched, even if they can't see the people who will eventually get off to what they've done.
House can't see him, but he will come as close as anyone can. Wilson's the one watched, as open to House's view as if his every movement is recorded in full colour, full sound. Wilson can't tell Bonnie what he wants, as pleasure riptides him away from the close-kept shore of his control. He can only imagine being imagined; known; taken in for all that he is and nothing more.
Coming, wide-eyed, aroused and understood, Wilson answers the only way he can.
He watches back.