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Survival Strategies

Chapter Text


by [info]aolian

 


by [info]ice_ziggee

 

"I hate holidays," House said the Monday after the Thanksgiving long weekend. It was December 1st, the start of the worst month of all; giddy expectations, over-consumption, and inevitable disappointment. It was no wonder it was tagged on at the end. Starting fresh in January was a relief.

"No, you don't," Wilson replied. "You milk them for all they're worth, even the ones that have nothing to do with you."

"You're just pissed because I got Culture Day off and you didn't. Living in Japan for two years totally counts." He'd celebrated peace and quiet and freedom from the office, and watching a full season of Simpsons episodes was as good a way as any of promoting culture.

"You didn't get it off, you just didn't show up for work and I covered for you with Cuddy." Wilson tried to look disapproving, but only managed to look mildly envious. "By that logic, I should get Boxing Day off. I lived in Canada longer than you lived in Japan."

"Bad choice. Boxing Day isn't an official stat. Go for the extra day in July instead." Not that it was advice Wilson would take. He'd only taken Thursday off, instead of the glorious four-day weekend, opting to be on-call so that colleagues who needed to travel out-of-state had enough time for a proper visit. Or that's what he'd claimed when he told House he was unavailable for a road trip to Atlantic City.

On the bright side, it meant that Wilson had hosted Thanksgiving dinner, instead of making the trek to his parents' place, or worse, his in-laws. At least when Wilson visited the parental units, House received an invitation and/or a care package. He'd received an invitation to Wilson's dinner, but had told Wilson he had other plans, which they both knew was a brazen lie. He'd shown up at the last minute with the intention of ruining Julie's seating plan, only to discover that there was a place reserved for him. Wilson was a killjoy.

He'd also bought a turkey big enough to feed the Plymouth Colony. Better yet, Julie's parents were visiting their other virago, so Julie had left on Friday afternoon for a visit, leaving Wilson free of matrimonial, if not work, bonds. Denied the delights of Atlantic City, House had made himself comfortable on Wilson's sofa for the weekend, watching big-screen TV and working his way through plates of leftovers. Which made returning to work on Monday even more depressing than usual.

"Neither is Black Friday, but anyone not in retail still takes it off. I don't know why you're complaining," Wilson said, reaching for another chart. "It's not like you're actually doing any work, unless annoying me is part of your contract."

"It's an implied duty." House was fairly certain that entertaining him was part of Wilson's contract. Cuddy was too smart not to have written that in, once she realized Wilson didn't actually object to spending time with him. He spied a card tucked behind one of Wilson's fishing trophies. "Are you getting Christmas cards already? That's indecent."

Wilson glanced behind him. "It's a Thanksgiving card. Hallmark has sentimental slogans for every occasion."

"Do they have I'm sorry you're dying cards, because maybe you should get a bulk order of those." Wilson didn't flinch, but House gave himself a point anyway for making him look away.

"Are you just here to bring light and joy into my life, or do you have a deeper purpose?" Wilson asked, gripping his pen just a little tighter than necessary.

"Maybe that is my deeper purpose," House countered. It wasn't, of course. He had more tangible goals in mind. "Did you bring me a turkey sandwich?"

"My mother warned me this would happen," Wilson replied. "When you feed an animal, it becomes incapable of surviving on its own in the wild."

Unless, of course, that animal's natural prey was people-pleasing oncologists. House congratulated himself on having found a particularly defenceless example to feed off. "Then it would be cruel to force me to look after myself now." The cafeteria was a dangerous place for anyone to graze.

Wilson shrugged. "It's a harsh world out there. Come back at lunchtime, and I'll see what I have."

"But I'm hungry now."

"It's ten o'clock in the morning." Wilson seemed to think that had some kind of relevance. "You only got here half an hour ago."

"And I haven't eaten yet." Unless you counted coffee; which House did, but Wilson didn't. It was hard enough getting out of bed in the morning. Even standing in the kitchen long enough to prepare toast was too much to handle before the Vicodin kicked in.

"You're pathetic," Wilson grumbled. He pulled open a desk drawer and grabbed a granola bar. "Here. Eat this and leave me alone for a couple of hours." He flipped over a page and frowned. "Don't you have fellows to annoy? I bet you can browbeat them into feeding you."

Hogan had gotten the point in his fellowship where he refused to do anything for House that wasn't patient-related, but Chase was a soft touch and would probably jump on the chance to do a cafeteria run, especially if he could get an extended coffee break out of it. That didn't mean Wilson was off the hook, though. "It sounds to me like you don't want me here. I'm hurt."

"I don't, and you're not."

The words were exactly what House had expected, but something in Wilson's tone pricked the hairs at the back of House's neck. He grabbed the file Wilson was reading and scanned the test results. Another unlucky winner in the cancer sweepstakes. "T-cell leukemia?" he asked, looking for the immunophenotyping report. "Could be Sézary syndrome," he offered, noting a mention of skin lesions.

"That was Markinson's initial diagnosis," Wilson replied, "but it was an atypical presentation, so he asked for a second opinion. I rechecked the cell morphology. They're prolymphocytic."

That dropped the median survival rate to seven months, assuming Markinson hadn't wasted them away before he brought the file to Wilson. "There have been some good results with Campath-1H," House said, remembering a study he'd read in one of Wilson's journals.

"Which is what I'm going to tell him when he arrives for his 10:30 appointment." Wilson gestured for House to give him the file. "I can't entertain you right now, House. I need to be able to give my patient my full attention."

"Right. Because it takes so much concentration to tell a guy he's got less than a year to live. You should be able to do that in your sleep by now. If you had those cards, you wouldn't have to say anything at all." But he put the file back on Wilson's desk and walked to the door. "Grab me after T-cell guy leaves. I'll be starving by then." He knew he'd be able to talk Wilson into an early and extended lunch. Wilson always welcomed a distraction after delivering a death sentence.

He hesitated at the door and looked back. Wilson was studying the file again, scrawling notes in the indecipherable handwriting that he thought made him seem more like a doctor, as if the lab coat and the multiple diplomas weren't enough to hammer the point home. Wilson glanced up and waved him away with an annoyed frown, but it wasn't enough to disguise the bleak expression in his eyes.

House closed the door and leaned on his cane. On Sunday evening, they'd watched a Monty Python marathon, and Wilson had laughed so hard during The Meaning of Life that he'd fallen off the couch. House loved the sound of Wilson's laughter; the pure, unrestrained kind, not the bitter chuckle that punctuated so many of their conversations. He had a feeling he wouldn't be hearing it anytime soon.

When he got back to the Diagnostics department, Cuddy was waiting for him with a file and an ultimatum. Normally, House refused to bow to administrative pressure on a matter of principle, but he was a sucker for foamy urine, especially when it was tied to approval of his expense account. At least it would keep his mind off his stomach until Wilson was free.

The patient had other ideas, however, and decided to crash during an MRI, which was more of a distraction than House had needed. By the time they got the patient stabilized and ruled out the simple kidney infection that House had initially diagnosed, it was late in the evening and Wilson was gone for the day.

Chapter Text

The last thing House wanted to hear at ten o'clock on a Friday morning -- especially when his most recent patient had been discharged the day before -- was his cell phone ringing. Friday was an early extension of the weekend, which meant he was allowed to sleep in until noon. And even if he had a case, he had fellows to do the bedside vigil. They had to be good for something, since their diagnostic skills left everything to be desired. He glanced at the caller ID, unsurprised to see that it was one of said fellows -- the new foreign one, undoubtedly calling for help with the exchange rate.

"What do you want?" he snapped. "This number is for emergencies and phone sex only, so you'd better start with the heavy breathing or hang up."

"Do you want me to put Hogan on? He just came back from the gym."

House decided he wouldn't fire Chase quite yet. His fellows had become more tolerable and lasted much longer since Wilson had started vetting them. "Tell him to exercise on his own time. And you have five seconds to explain why you're calling before I hang up and turn off my phone."

"I just talked to the oncology department secretary. Wilson hasn't shown up for work yet." Chase wasn't much of a diagnostician, but he'd managed to develop an enviable network of informants in just a few weeks.

"Neither have I," House pointed out, "but you don't seem concerned about that."

"You not being here on time isn't unusual. Wilson missing the weekly department meeting is."

Chase had a point. The last time Wilson had been late for work, Clinton had still been President, and even then it had been House's fault. Though House liked to think it had really been the duck's fault. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because he's supposedly your friend." Chase paused, apparently realizing that might not be as relevant as he'd thought. "The duty nurse said Wilson spent most of the night monitoring one of his patients. She said he looked upset when he left."

Another dead cueball, House thought. That was nothing new. Most of Wilson's patients were nearing their expiry date. "Then he's either crawled into a bottle or the loving arms of his wife. Either way, it's not my problem."

"His wife's out of town," Chase replied. "Or did you not notice the number of new hairstyles on the oncology ward this week."

"That was a waste of money," House countered to cover his chagrin at not knowing Julie had extended her holiday. "Wilson likes needy, not neat. They'd be better off coming into work looking like they'd had a date with Mike Tyson."

"That explains why he hangs around you," Chase said. "Seriously, House. He's not answering his home or cell phone. Just stop by on your way in to see if he's all right."

In all the years that House had known him, Wilson had never actually been all right, so that was a lost cause. Just the way House liked his causes. "Don't expect to see me before noon, then. I'm sure you children can entertain yourselves without me."

It was procrastination not concern that sent him to Wilson's domicile of pseudo-domestic bliss. Wilson's apartment was on the other side of Princeton, and stopping by would put off work by at least another half hour. He made a mental note not to mock Chase until at least the afternoon as a reward.

He used the key Wilson had given him -- much to Julie's dismay -- to let himself in when no-one answered his knock. Wilson's keys, cell phone, and wallet were on the small desk by the door and his jacket was slung over the back of a chair, so Wilson was home. He checked the answering machine. Five missed calls. It was getting harder to pretend that he wasn't concerned, especially when he called Wilson's name and there was no response.

He checked the den first, expecting to find Wilson passed out next to a bottle of Famous Grouse, but the room was empty and the only scotch in sight was unopened and unblended. The bathroom light was on, so he glanced in. The medicine cabinet was slightly ajar and House gave up all pretence of indifference. He hurried back down the hallway and into the kitchen, finally finding the object of his search.

Wilson was sitting at the kitchen table, his head pillowed on his arms, apparently sound asleep, but House's pulse jumped at the sight of a pill bottle next to a half-empty glass of water. "Wilson?" he called out, his voice oddly strangled. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Wilson!" This time he banged his cane on the table.

Wilson shot upright, nearly knocking his chair backwards. "Wha – what?" He blinked and shook his head. "House?"

"How many did you take?"

Wilson blinked again. "What are you talking about?"

"How many did you take?" House gestured at the bottle, which he now saw was Advil PM.

Wilson glanced at the bottle and then back at House. "Two," he said. "I had a headache." He frowned, his mind finally clicking into gear. "See for yourself," he said, popping off the top of the bottle and spilling the pills onto the kitchen table.

House could count pills with the experts. "Okay," he muttered. "What are you doing sleeping at the kitchen table? I know your bed is empty, but this isn't exactly an improvement."

Wilson shrugged and looked away. "I just closed my eyes for a minute. I guess I fell asleep." He rubbed the back of his neck and then drew a hand down his face.

House grimaced. Wilson looked terrible, his eyes bloodshot and still half-closed with sleep. "Coffee's probably not a good idea if your head still hurts," he said casually. "I'll make you some tea." He turned towards the stove, but not before he saw the look of gratitude and surprise flash across Wilson's features. He busied himself getting the tea ready, and when he turned back with the pot and two mugs, Wilson had dropped his head on his arms again.

House put the tea down and pulled out a chair. His eyes fell on an open folder on the table. Wilson had obviously been doing paperwork before he fell asleep. He leaned forward and glanced at the top page. Lisa Reed, seven years old. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Time of death, 2:47am. House sighed and sat down. Wilson took the death of all his patients hard, but the children were the worst.

He poked Wilson's shoulder. "You should get some real rest," he said. "Go to bed. I'll call Cuddy and let her know you're taking the day off."

Wilson sat up and stretched. "I've got appointments in the afternoon. I'll be fine if I take a shower." He didn't sound as though he believed it, however.

Still, House didn't argue, just watched as Wilson got up and shuffled towards the bathroom. He grabbed a dish towel and draped it over the teapot as a makeshift cosy. When Wilson hadn't returned after the water had been off for nearly fifteen minutes, House went to investigate. The bedroom door was closed, but House had never paid any attention to boundaries.

Wilson was dressed and standing by the mirror, fumbling with his tie. It knotted unevenly and he pulled it loose, his movements awkward and abrupt. House watched, one eyebrow raised, as Wilson fumbled with the knot again, ripped the tie off with a strangled cry and slammed his hands down on the dresser. As outbursts went, it was pretty mild, but House made sure to stay out of range of flying glass.

"It's an ugly tie anyway," House commented, though by Wilson's standards it was almost stylish. No stripes, no paisleys and a colour that didn't make House want to avert his eyes in horror. "Forget it. The earth isn't going to stop rotating around the sun if you're not completely buttoned up."

But Wilson picked the tie up and started over again. House wasn't sure what he was attempting to do, but the result definitely wasn't one of the 85 known knots. Mentioning that, however, was unlikely to go over well.

This time, Wilson just dropped his hands and sagged like a marionette with its wires cut. "I can't," he said, his voice cracking. "I can't do anything."

House saw his opening and led Wilson unresisting over to the bed, pushing on his shoulders until he sat down. "Then don't do anything," he said. He returned to the kitchen and poured out a mug of tea. It was lukewarm, so he popped it in the microwave for thirty seconds before adding generous amounts of milk and sugar. It made his teeth hurt just thinking about it, but he knew Wilson liked his hot drinks sweet. When he got back to the bedroom. Wilson hadn't moved.

"Drink this," House ordered, pushing the mug into Wilson's hands. He watched Wilson take a tentative sip and then gulp the tea down. "You're not fine," he said. "Let me call Cuddy."

Wilson stared down into the mug and nodded.

House's battery was dead, so he used the phone in the kitchen, tapping his fingers impatiently on the counter as he waited for Cuddy to answer. "Wilson's not coming in today," he said before she had a chance to launched into a lecture about office hours. "You need to get somebody to change or cover his appointments."

"What are you two up to?" Cuddy asked. "I'm not giving you the day off to play one of your juvenile games."

"Did I say anything about taking the day off as well? Though I'm glad you suggested it. He shouldn't be alone." He didn't quite manage the airy tone he'd been striving for, which made Cuddy pause.

"What's going on?" she said finally. "I heard he lost a paediatric patient. Is he all right?"

"What do you think? He's exhausted, he's upset, and he's forgotten how to dress himself properly."

"You're not making any sense."

"Neither is he," House retorted. "If you want him to break down the first time he has to give a patient bad news, then fine, make him come in. I'm sure that will do wonders for the public's confidence in the hospital." When in doubt it was always best to play to Cuddy's administrative sensibilities. She could be ridiculously protective when it came to the hospital's reputation.

Of course the protectiveness extended to her staff, which House had also shamelessly used to his own advantage. "It's that bad?" she asked softly.

He knew Wilson would be mortified by the turn the conversation was taking, but Wilson's pride was the least of his concerns. "He's brooding half-dressed in the bedroom." It was an exaggeration, but troubled times called for extreme measures. "I could make a fortune selling pictures to the nursing staff."

"Maybe he should see somebody," Cuddy suggested, ignoring House's last comment. She had a lot of practice filtering out the important information in their conversations.

"Like he would agree to that," House scoffed. "He thinks he's well-adjusted." But something needed to be done. He decided a little House therapy was called for. "Damnit, Wilson!" he shouted down the hallway. "Stop trying to strangle yourself. You're way too uptight to benefit from auto-erotic asphyxiation."

"Nice," Cuddy snapped, loud enough for him to hear, even though he'd moved the phone from his ear. "Terrorize your emotionally fragile best friend. It's no wonder he's close to breaking."

"Being my friend is the only thing keeping him sane," House retorted. "It's a perspective thing. Of course being better adjusted than me is like winning gold in the Special Olympics." He listened to her sputter for a moment and then continued. "He just needs some time and a decent sleep."

For a moment he thought Cuddy was gathering her thoughts to continue arguing, but then he heard her sigh. "Tell him he can take as long as he needs. You, I want to see this afternoon."

"Yes, massah," House replied, hanging up before she had a chance to change her mind. That had been easier than he'd expected. But despite their daily battles, Cuddy was a good boss. She cared about the hospital, but she cared about people too. He returned to the bedroom and saw that Wilson had finished the tea and removed the offending tie. "Get some rest," he told Wilson. "Cuddy will make sure your appointments are covered."

He waited until Wilson nodded and lay down on the bed and then retreated to the den. It was too early in the morning to raid Wilson's liquor cabinet, but he knew where Wilson hid the chocolates he kept for the next time he pissed off his wife. When he re-emerged, truffles in hand, he found Wilson standing in the bedroom door.

"Shouldn't you be going to work?" Wilson asked, frowning when he noticed the chocolates.

"Cuddy is letting me babysit."

"I don't need a babysitter," Wilson exclaimed, his hands planted indignantly on his hips.

"No, but I need to catch up on my soaps. It's a win-win situation. Well, it's a win situation for me anyway." He limped over to the couch, eyeing Wilson critically. He seemed to have regained some of his composure, but he was avoiding meeting House's eyes, which was always a bad sign. Wilson was one of the few people who could match him eye to eye.

"What if I want to be alone?" Wilson asked, his gaze fixed on the back of the couch, as if the answer to the meaning of life was woven into the throw rug.

"If you were capable of being alone, you wouldn't jump from one doomed relationship to another in a vain attempt to make your life less meaningless. Julie's been away, what, a week? I'm surprised you haven't brought home one of the nurses who have been lining up for your attention." He expected an angry denial, or at least an outraged sputter, but Wilson just dropped his arms and hung his head. "God, you're pathetic," he said, as much to himself as to Wilson. There was no point wasting ammunition on an open target.

Wilson shuffled over to the couch, slumping into it as if he wished the cushions would swallow him up. "I'm tired, House. I can't play your games right now."

House sat down next to him. He decided he could be reasonable for once, since Wilson was too wrapped up in his own head to remember it later. "Okay." He picked up the remote and handed it to Wilson. "Your choice."

Wilson stared at the remote suspiciously. "Why are you being nice to me?" He turned on the television and brought up the Tivo grid. "Never mind. It might scar me permanently to know." He selected the previous day's episode of General Hospital and tossed the remote on House's lap.

House wondered if this was Wilson's idea of positive reinforcement, or if he was so stressed out he couldn't even make a decision about television viewing. Either way House got what he wanted, so he wasn't about to complain. Fortunately watching soaps only required a small percentage of his attention, so he was able to focus the rest on Wilson. After a few minutes, Wilson closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the couch, and House didn't even have to pretend to watch the television. Watching Wilson was more entertaining.

The deep creases on his forehead and the tightness around his eyes meant he wasn't actually asleep. "Stop staring at me," Wilson said. "You're making me nervous." He tilted his head towards House and opened one eye. "I'm depressed, not suicidal."

It was encouraging that Wilson was at least willing to admit that he was depressed, but House wasn't going to let him off the hook that easily. He had been genuinely scared when he saw the bottle of pills. "The two have been known to go hand in hand," he retorted.

Wilson opened both eyes and sat up. "This from the poster child for self-destruction. Not everybody abuses pain medication." But he softened the words with a tired smile. "I'm okay, really. You don't have to worry."

"Who said I was worried," House blustered, knowing he had been caught. But of course Wilson knew exactly what he had been thinking. How many times had he felt Wilson's eyes on him when he took a Vicodin? "I'm sorry about the girl," he said, looking away.

"So am I," Wilson replied.

"You did everything you could." It was one of those platitudes that would be meaningless if it weren't absolutely true. Wilson never gave anything less than his best to all his patients.

"And yet she still died." Wilson closed his eyes again.

There was nothing House could say to that. It was a reality of their profession that Wilson should have learned to accept years ago. People even died on soap operas these days, and not just when the actor asked for more money. "Go to bed, Wilson. You'll wreck your neck if you sleep sitting up."

Wilson smirked, but didn't open his eyes. "Why are you trying so hard to get me into bed? Are you trying to seduce me, Dr. House?"

As jokes went, it was a feeble attempt, but House was willing to give him half-marks for the effort. "You caught me. Stressed-out oncologists incapable of dressing themselves are a total turn on." He nudged Wilson, trying to dislodge him from the couch. "Go to bed."

"I'm comfortable here. Or I would be if you'd stop poking me," Wilson complained.

Like that was ever going to happen. House loved pushing Wilson's buttons, figuratively and literally. He nudged Wilson again, grinning when Wilson growled and batted his hand away. "Here, puss, puss, puss," he crooned. "Do you want me to scratch behind your ears?" Wilson hissed in response, and House shook his head. Sometimes it was just too easy. "Maybe I should get you some warm milk. In a saucer."

Wilson just bared his teeth and arched his back briefly before pressing further away from House. House wondered briefly if it was a good idea to keep pushing him. He knew better than anybody how sharp Wilson's claws were. He had a thick enough skin to endure a couple of scratches for a good cause, though.

He leaned over and pinched Wilson's upper arm. "Looks like we need to get you a new flea collar," he said, flicking his index finger against Wilson's cheek.

Wilson pushed House away. "Stop it," he whined. "Just leave me alone." He scrambled upright and stalked away, bare feet slapping against the laminate floor. It wasn't the most dignified exit, but House gave him points for drama.

House waited until he heard Wilson slam the bedroom door shut, and then he stretched out on the couch, making himself comfortable, fast-forwarding through storylines that bored him. Julie had a nice selection of soaps on the Tivo; either that or Wilson had become a fan by osmosis. House could happily while away the day catching up with his favourite melodramas, but he was still unsettled by how he'd found Wilson earlier. Instead of fast-forwarding through the next set of commercials, he let them run and made his way quietly to the master bedroom. He cracked open the door and peeked inside, not wanting to disturb Wilson if he'd managed to doze off.

But Wilson was lying on top of the still-made bed, staring at the ceiling. He turned his head to look at House. "I can't sleep in here alone," he said. "It doesn't feel right."

"Have you been sleeping on the couch since Julie left?" House asked. It was a comfortable couch, wide enough and long enough for a tall man to stretch fully out. Wilson had learned something, at least, from his first two marriages.

"I should have just stayed in the on-call room last night," Wilson replied. "At least I wouldn't have missed my morning appointments."

It had been years since House had slept on an on-call bed, but he'd always hated the lack of privacy. Inevitably, someone wandered in at the most inopportune moment. And yet there was something soothing about the hushed sounds of activity bleeding through the walls. House gave an exaggerated sigh, just to let Wilson know what an idiot he was, and nudged him with the tip of his cane. "If I lie here and pretend to snore, will that make it easier for you to sleep?"

"Julie doesn't snore," Wilson protested, but shifted over to make room on the bed for House.

House stretched out self-consciously. They'd shared rooms, even passed out on the same piece of furniture before, but this was broaching the kind of intimacy that couldn't be explained away by alcohol or expediency. "Touch me and I'm out of here," he said, though there was enough space in the king-sized bed for a kindergarten class to crawl between them.

"Now you sound like Julie," Wilson said, turning on his side to look at House. He wasn't smiling, but his expression was rueful rather than bitter.

"What was it this time?" House asked, remembering the sudden spiral into destruction of Wilson's last marriage. "Naughty nurse or late nights at the office?"

"Needy best friend," Wilson replied. "She still hasn't forgiven me for letting you drag me away on our anniversary."

"That was weeks ago," House protested. And he'd had a good reason to call Wilson, or at least a reason that had seemed good at the time. "Have you been cut off since then?" It was no wonder Wilson was close to breaking. House could manage with a credit card and his left hand, but Wilson needed the connection to another human being as much as he needed sex, even if it only lasted until morning.

"No, of course not," Wilson said. "But that was what the last fight was about. Things have been pretty good recently."

Which meant that the extended visit was out of filial love, not matrimonial woes. Unless Wilson was lying, which was always a possibility. House hadn't known how bad things were with wife number two -- though he'd been crying doom for most of the marriage -- until Wilson had shown up on his doorstep with an overnight bag and a handprint seared on his cheek.

"By 'pretty good' do you mean more than once a week or just after a particularly stirring episode of Everybody Loves Raymond?"

"I wish," Wilson retorted. "Do you know how many times a day that show is on?" He rolled onto his back again and closed his eyes. "Can we not talk about my sex life? I'm already depressed."

Less than once a week then. It hardly seemed worth the future alimony. "There are only three subjects that men can talk about," House said. "Sex, sports and work. You don't want to talk about sex, I don't want to even think about work, so that leaves sports. How about those Patriots? They've really turned things around."

"You hate the Patriots," Wilson murmured, the stress lines on his forehead smoothing out. "The Eagles are starting to look good, though."

"Philadelphia teams exist to break their fans' hearts. It's been 20 years since any of them won a major league championship. The Eagles will find a way to choke in the playoffs again."

"And yet we both know that nothing would make you happier than seeing all those hopes and dreams crushed." Wilson turned his face towards House, but didn't open his eyes. "You don't have to keep me company. You're missing your show."

"You do understand the concept of Tivo, don't you?" House reached down and pulled the edge of the duvet over him. He was just starting to get comfortable, so of course Wilson had to ruin it. "I refuse to be the one person you've kicked out of bed."

"I've kicked plenty of people out of my bed," Wilson protested, but grabbed the afghan folded at the foot of the bed and spread it over both of them.

House tried not to think about how ridiculously cosy this was, and how comfortable he actually was lying on a bed, wrapped in an afghan, next to Wilson. "Name one," he challenged, because if Wilson noticed how comfortable he was, House was going to have to flee the state, and he didn't think he'd find another hospital administrator crazy enough to give him tenure, much less create an entire department for him.

"I used to kick Peter out of my bed all the time."

House rolled his eyes. "If you're going to lie to me, at least make it believable. You've never denied your brother anything in your life." He sensed Wilson stiffen beside him and filed that away as a reaction to be examined later. "He told me himself that he used to climb into your bed if he'd had a nightmare and you'd just wrap him up in a bear hug and let him stick his cold feet between your legs." Sometimes House was grateful beyond all reason that he was an only child.

"What did you do, dope him up on sodium pentothal and interrogate him?"

That sounded like a good idea, though even without drugs Wilson's younger brother was as indiscreet as Wilson was secretive. Two drinks were enough to start the stories flowing. Unfortunately, Peter adored his big brother, which made it difficult to get anything more than mildly embarrassing anecdotes out of him. "Hey, he volunteered the information. God knows why he thought I'd be interested in your childhood perversions."

Wilson pushed himself up on his elbows. "He had trouble sleeping when our parents were out of town. And it's not his fault he has poor circulation in his feet."

"So you were fine with Ice Cube sharing your bed, but I'm not good enough?" Twisting Wilson into a knot of guilt when he was already tired and upset wasn't much of a challenge, but it was still entertaining.

"I didn't mean that. I just didn't want you to feel obligated to stay here." For a moment House thought that Wilson would offer to warm his feet -- even though he was wearing thick cotton socks -- but then Wilson frowned as he caught onto House's game. "You're an ass," he said and turned his back to House.

"And yet you still haven't kicked me out of your bed."

"Obviously an oversight." Wilson's voice was muffled by the pillow, but House could still hear the laughter in it.

House smiled to himself and stared at the ceiling, listening to Wilson's breathing even out. He waited a few more minutes and then carefully pushed the afghan away, but before he could slip away and resume his daytime television viewing, Wilson spoke up.

"I should have gone into research," he said.

"You'd be a crappy researcher," House replied. "It's numbers and calculations, which you hate, and while you can control the conditions, you can't control the outcomes."

"I can't control the outcomes now," Wilson retorted. He was still turned away, but now House could hear the hurt in his voice. He'd heard it often enough to be able to recreate a voice print.

"You can't change the outcomes, but you can control them."

"How is that different from research? The scientific method is defined by forming hypotheses and then creating experiments to prove or contradict them. The whole point is to control the outcome."

"No, the whole point is to have an unbiased, objective interpretation and analysis of data, proving or disproving a hypothesis. You can't do that. You make everything personal, you influence the results." House sat up and stared at the back of Wilson's head until he rolled over onto his back. "You can't find the cure for cancer just by wanting to really, really badly."

"Wow, there's a scientific revelation. You should write a paper about that." Even the feeble attempt at sarcasm seemed to exhaust Wilson. He pressed the heels of his hands hard against his eyes. "When was the last time you watched a patient die?"

House had lost four patients over the past year, but it had been longer than that since he'd personally called time of death. Watching Wilson struggle now was unlikely to make him change that any time soon. "Luc Gonzales. He died before we had a chance to start treatment. Nothing we could do." Sometimes solving the mystery didn't cure the patient. That was the reality of both their specialities.

"I'm not sure I can accept that any more. I can't just stand there and watch a child die and absolve myself of any responsibility by saying there was nothing I could do. I've got half a dozen patients who will die within the year, half of them kids. There has to be something more."

It was no use telling Wilson he'd done everything possible and would continue to do so. There was no comfort in knowing that everything possible just wasn't enough. "You're tired and upset," he said instead. "You're not thinking rationally. Just try and get some sleep."

"Going to sleep isn't going to bring her magically back to life," Wilson retorted.

"No, but it will make it possible for you to be there for your other patients. Or has wallowing in your latest failure made you forget all about them?"

Wilson dropped his hands and stared at him, and then turned away again. "I was wrong," he said. "I want to be alone now"

As kicking out went, it was far more passive than aggressive, but House decided to reward Wilson for the attempt. Besides, it was nearly time for Judge Judy, and seeing people get smacked down for whining about their petty problems was almost as good as a Vicodin pick-me-up.

Wilson wandered out before the final verdict, trailing the afghan behind him like a toddler's blankie. "I can't believe you watch this crap," he said, dropping down on the couch beside House.

"And I can't believe you're not sleeping. You don't have a TV in there, so it's not like you had anything to keep you awake. Unless you were entertaining yourself," he said, waggling his hand suggestively.

"Ugh." Wilson shuddered. "I said I didn't want to talk to you about my sex life."

"Who's talking about sex?" House protested. "You have books in there, don't you? I was turning pages. What did you think I was doing?" Screwing with Wilson's mind never got old, though it wasn't much of a challenge in his current condition.

"I've stopped trying to imagine the levels of depravity that you might sink to," Wilson replied, which was a better come-back than House had expected. He followed it up, however, with a heavy sigh and huff of discontent.

"You're not kicking me off the couch," House retorted. "I have squatter's rights. And I'm not turning off the television." He had no intention of leaving, at least not until he was sure Wilson would be all right on his own. And since Wilson had never been all right on his own -- as far as House could tell -- he was prepared to make camp until Julie returned.

"Do what you want," Wilson said, stretching out his legs and tilting his head back. "You will anyway."

That was true, but being given permission took most of the fun out of being annoying. Instead, he lowered the volume on the television and made a concerted effort not to disturb Wilson. This time, Wilson did fall asleep, his deep, even breaths interspersed with the faintest of snores. It was soothing, rather than annoying, but he would never tell Wilson that.

There were a lot of things he would never tell Wilson, for both their sakes. Wilson didn't need to know that moments like this -- the two of them sitting quietly together -- were the only times House had felt truly at peace since Stacy had left. It would just make Wilson more insufferable than he already was. But when Wilson was sleeping, limbs splayed wide and throat exposed, House knew that Wilson was at peace as well. At least until he woke up and remembered dead patients and a wife that preferred the company of her parents.

Watching Wilson sleep was making House tired, so he closed his eyes, just for a minute, and let his mind drift. It wasn't as if Wilson was being a good host and entertaining him. A little nap wouldn't do any harm. It was Friday, after all, and he was allowed to sleep in.

Chapter Text

When he woke up, House was muzzy and disoriented. It took a moment to realize that he was sprawled on Wilson's couch, not sleeping in his own bed, and another moment to remember why he was there. He sat up and glanced at his watch. He'd fallen asleep for nearly two hours. Wilson was no longer beside him on the couch; the afghan was abandoned in a colourful ball.

"Wilson!" he bellowed. He wouldn't put it past the idiot to have made his escape while unsupervised.

But Wilson stuck his head out from the kitchen. "My, you're pleasant when your nap is interrupted," he commented. "But your timing is impeccable. I heated up some soup." He brought out two bowls and placed one down for House. "It will warm us up before we go out in the cold."

"Who said anything about going out in the cold?" House asked. Now that he was paying attention, he saw that Wilson had succeeded in knotting his tie and had even managed to shave without disfiguring himself. It looked suspiciously as though he intended to go into work. "What part of day off don't you understand? Cuddy's rescheduled your appointments."

"I have more than just appointments to deal with at work," Wilson retorted. "I need to file the paperwork for the Reed girl, submit my weekly report to Gunnlaugson, check on my patients who are still alive..."

"All of which can be done on Monday," House interrupted. Unless there were any more rapidly fading players on Wilson's roster, which was even more reason not to go in.

"I checked my messages while you were sleeping," Wilson said. "I had five missed calls from the hospital. My patients and my colleagues needed me, and I wasn't there."

House rolled his eyes. "I hate to burst your bubble," he said, "but you're not that important. Your patients and your colleagues will manage without you for a day."

"Expendability is no reason to shirk responsibility," Wilson replied, refusing to look directly at House. "Eat your soup. I'm going in once you're done. You can come with or go home. It doesn't matter to me."

It would matter to Cuddy, unfortunately. House's parole was conditional on Wilson's absence, which made today's martyrdom even more selfish than usual. House dipped the spoon into the soup and blew off the steam. At least he'd get a free lunch for his troubles. He sipped cautiously. Turkey soup. So that's what Wilson had been doing in the kitchen while House napped through an uneventful football game on Sunday. He'd wondered what had happened to the carcass.

Since it was clear that nothing he could do would change Wilson's mind, House changed his plan of attack. Wilson insisted on driving, so House insisted on getting a ride into the hospital, claiming that his leg had stiffened up during his nap on Wilson's way-too-comfortable couch. Not that he admitted that the couch was comfortable. In fact, he blamed Wilson's taste in decorating for the hours of pain he was likely to suffer as a result of over-stuffed cushions. It made a nice distraction and stopped Wilson from realizing that House had every intention of manoeuvring a return ride as soon as possible.

House shivered involuntarily as they walked past the clinic, even though he'd managed to avoid that particular circle of hell for nearly five years. Their path also took them past Cuddy's office and unsurprisingly -- albeit uncannily -- the machine-gun patter of her high heels was soon pursuing them. House had nightmares about that sound.

This time, however, she ignored House in favour of Wilson. "I thought you were taking the day off," she accused, though her voice was softened by concern.

Wilson managed a genuine smile. "I couldn't take daytime television any longer." He flushed under her searching gaze. "I'm all right." He glanced at House. "I was just tired. I took a nap and I'm okay now."

House shrugged when Cuddy looked to him for confirmation. "Personally, I think refusing to take a free day off is a sign of mental illness, but some people are just weird that way."

The elevator opened and Wilson stepped inside, but Cuddy held House back. "You'll keep an eye on him?"

House rolled his eyes. "Like you have to ask." He slipped past her into the elevator. The last thing he saw before the doors closed was Cuddy watching Wilson worriedly. "You're an idiot," he told Wilson. "You could be milking this for all it's worth. Or at the very least a long weekend."

"Right. Because making your boss think you're having a nervous breakdown is an excellent career move," Wilson snapped back.

"No worse than actually having one." He could understand Wilson's concern, though. The current Head of Oncology was retiring at the end of the year, and Wilson was the in-house favourite to be his replacement. Which explained why Chase had risked an early morning phone call. He not only had a pipeline to the best gossip, but he already had his finger on the pulse of hospital politics, and he was opportunistic enough to align himself with a department head frontrunner.

Even though they were alone in the elevator, Wilson cringed and made shushing motions with his hands. "I'm not having a nervous breakdown, I was just over-tired and stressed out. There's a difference."

Only in degrees. House wondered what constituted a full breakdown in Wilson's mind. A strait jacket and a rubber room? Frothing at the mouth? Obviously, tie abuse and sleeping at the kitchen table was just another day in the life. Wilson might think his professional mask was perfectly in place, but House could see hairline fractures. It wouldn't take much for the whole facade to shatter; just another tap in the right place.

"You're still over-tired and stressed out," he pointed out. "Staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours isn't going to change that."

"I slept," Wilson protested. "You complained that I was snoring all the way in."

"Like a freight train," he lied. "But I could count the cars on both hands. That barely qualifies as a nap. Get your paperwork, or whatever the hell it was that was so important that you needed to come in, do your rounds, and then call it a day. You've got two hours before I come to your office with security and drag you away."

But Wilson didn't even make it past House's office before he was accosted by one of the oncology minions. They were like carrion, waiting to feast on his flesh, as if they didn't have enough dying patients to keep them in fresh meat indefinitely. House curled his lip at her, but Gunnlaugson only assigned fellows and nurses to work with Wilson who had a thick enough skin to deal with cancer and House.

This one didn't even look at him, just handed Wilson a purple-tagged file. "Dr. Wilson, I'm glad you came in. Mrs. Sanborn was asking for you."

That sounded like trouble to House. Wilson flinched, but only someone watching as carefully as House was would have noticed. House ran through his mental rolodex of Wilson's patients. Patricia Sanborn, age 33, advanced cervical cancer, metastasized to the lung. She wasn't going to be able to run for vice president of Argentina, but maybe Madonna could play her in the movie.

"I'll see her as soon as I drop off my briefcase," Wilson promised. "Did she have another rough night?"

"She's refusing treatment. She says she's ready to die."

"I'll talk to her." Wilson waited until the fellow scuttled away to haunt another over-stressed doctor and then reached up to rub the back of his neck. House had gotten used to seeing that gesture in tandem with his more outrageous stunts or comments. Things were worse than he'd thought if one of Wilson's precious patients was causing that reaction.

He followed Wilson to the office he'd been given just off the oncology ward when he'd been promoted to senior attending. It was smaller than House's office, but it had solid walls and privacy, which Cuddy apparently didn't think House needed. It wasn't as comfortable as House's office -- especially after House spent a small fortune on all the ergonomic furniture he could find -- but it was more comforting, and definitely more welcoming. House, after all, didn't actually want anyone other than Wilson to visit him.

House grabbed a tiny teddy bear wearing a winter scarf off the bookshelf and tossed it from hand to hand. "What are you going to tell her?" he asked.

"That we still have options. There's still a good chance we can shrink the tumour, allow her to go home and spend more quality time with her family." Wilson snatched the toy away from him and put it safely out of reach behind his desk.

"Is that before or after Santa Claus flies down from the North Pole?"

"It is possible," Wilson protested. "We just need to find the right combination of meds for her." Wilson dropped his briefcase on his chair and started transferring files to his desk and filing cabinet. "Don't you have a department to run? Maybe if you check your mail you can find a case of your own."

"I'm more interested in your case." He wasn't really -- dying cancer patients were a dime a dozen -- but he wanted to see if Wilson could block a body blow so soon after being dazed by an upper-cut. "I want to see how you're going to browbeat this poor woman into spending her final days in a drugged-out haze, just so your mortality stats don't take a beating."

"I'm not going to browbeat anyone into anything," Wilson said, as indignant as if House had accused him of wearing socks with sandals, despite photographic evidence. "And I don't give a damn about my stats. I'll present her with all the information, but I don't force patients to do anything against their will."

It wasn't a question of force, but of finesse. House had seen Wilson talk patients into agreeing to treatments that other doctors could only manage with court orders. His powers of manipulation would make a hypnotist humble. Only a wizard could have convinced House to willingly subject himself to the daily indignities of dealing with idiotic employees. "So you're okay with letting her die, if that's her decision."

"Of course I'm not okay with it. But that doesn't give me the right to take away what little control she has remaining in her life." He switched his suit jacket for a lab coat, shrugging into it like armour.

As armour went, it didn't offer much protection, just a symbolic separation from patients that didn't appear to be working very well for Wilson. By now it should be battered and bloody, not perfectly pressed and so white it made House's eyes hurt. It was too bad dry cleaning couldn't take care of metaphorical damage.

Wilson took his time unpacking his briefcase and sorting through messages. He was kidding himself if he thought House would just drift away out of boredom, but Wilson specialized in unfounded optimism. House thought he sensed an element of procrastination in his deliberate movements as well, which he more than understood. He'd been putting off clinic duty for five years, after all. But Wilson was ridiculously responsible, and if he was hesitating now, he'd be taking the scenic route on a guilt trip later.

"You could have stared at those files at home and saved yourself a trip and me a day off," House pointed out.

It was a reasonable observation, but Wilson gave him a look that would out-freeze a basilisk. "No one made you come in and no one's stopping you from leaving again," he said, which was also a reasonable observation, albeit completely untrue. Coercion came in many forms.

Wilson grabbed the patient file and stalked away, forcing House to chase after him at a pace that made the ruined nerves in his thigh shriek. He slowed down when he realized that he wouldn't be able to catch up and gave his leg a break. It wasn't as though he didn't know where Wilson was going. All paths led to the same destination. Only the room number changed.

The woman in the hospital bed had probably been pretty once. But that was before multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation had ruined her skin and left only wisps of hair on her head. The cancer had eaten her away to nothing, the skin tight over too-prominent cheekbones, her hands swollen by oedema. This one wasn't going to make it to 2004. She probably wouldn't even make it to Hanukkah, much less Christmas.

House stood outside the room and watched Wilson pull a chair over to her bedside. He couldn't hear what Wilson murmured, but the patient turned her face towards him, like a flower to the sun. Wilson took her hand, stroking it gently and talking softly. After a few minutes, the patient nodded, and Wilson adjusted the IV.

When it became clear that Wilson had no intention of medicating and running, House slipped away. He'd seen -- if not heard -- what he'd wanted, and it hadn't satisfied his curiosity, just let it simmer. He'd realized long ago that trying to understand Wilson was like deciphering hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone. Somewhere there was a key, but House hadn't found it yet. In the meantime, he could catch up on the latest Internet rumours in his office.

He stopped in the conference room to get some coffee. Chase looked up from his studious examination of the daily crossword at his entrance. Hogan was nowhere to be seen, which was par for the course these days. House would have fired him weeks ago if there had been any duty to derelict.

"How's Wilson?" Chase asked, as if it were any of his business.

"He slept in," House said. "Forgot to set his alarm." It was a reasonable explanation -- except that Wilson had two back-up alarms, just in case there was a power outage in the night. Chase didn't know that, however, and House no qualms about lying to him. "If he'd been smart, he would have just left a message saying he wouldn't be in at all."

"You mean, if he'd been you," Chase retorted.

"Isn't that what I said?" House flipped through his messages idly. On very rare occasion, there was something other than desperate pleas for consults or threatening letters from lawyers. This wasn't one of those occasions. "What's with all this concern for Wilson's well-being?" he asked, in lieu of any interesting medical puzzle to solve.

"Because only in your world is it unusual for people to feel empathy for their colleagues."

House had a different sense of what ruled in Chase's world. "Your only interest in Wilson is in his ability to make your job, and therefore your life, easier." Wilson was one of the few doctors in the hospital who cooperated willingly with House, which was one of the reasons Wilson had been able to convince Cuddy to give House funding for a couple of fellows. The hospital ran smoother when House wasn't required to interact with doctors, nurses, or lab techs. Chase knew that, which meant his concern was fully self-serving.

Chase shrugged. "You're right. But that doesn't mean I don't care. Maybe I have ulterior motives for my ulterior motives. In this case, I'm both concerned about him as a human being and as the only thing standing between you and a class action lawsuit on behalf of everyone who's ever met you. He'd have to be made of stone not to be stressed out."

"Wilson suckles on stress. It's mother's milk to him." But Chase had a point. House knew that some days Wilson spent as much time running interference for him as he did with his own patients. Having fellows was supposed to help with that. "But if you care that much, then you can offer to cover his duty shift this weekend, so I can take him out and get him good and drunk before the ball and chain comes home."

"Gladly," Chase replied, "if only to keep you twisting yourself into knots trying to figure out what my angle really is." He glanced at his watch. "I'll be down in the clinic if you find a case. Otherwise, tell Dr. Wilson to take the weekend off and recharge his batteries." He tossed the newspaper to House. "I left the cryptic crossword for you."

That would take care of an hour. Coffee and crossword in hand, House retreated to his office and settled in for the afternoon. He put his iPod in the docking device and found a playlist that would both annoy passers-by and not occupy much of his reasoning brain, because he was all about multi-tasking. The crossword didn't require much of his reasoning brain either, which left him free to mull over the problem of Wilson. The micro-nap couldn't have done much more than move his energy bar from red to green, but a couple of hours would drop him back into the warning zone.

He was plotting ways to distract Wilson from his depressing career and pathetic life when Hogan walked into the office and dropped an envelope on his desk. "What's this?" House asked, taking a moment to scribble in the final clue. Forty-seven minutes in pen. Not bad for a day's work.

"My letter of resignation."

House glanced at the calendar. Eight months, a new record. "It was a two-year fellowship," he pointed out. "That'll get you one third of a letter of recommendation. Do you want the first paragraph or the last?"

"I don't need a letter of recommendation from you," Hogan replied. "Six months in this job is considered a major achievement in the medical community."

"If you think you've learned all you can from me, you've either under-estimated me or over-estimated yourself. Based on your job performance, I'm voting for the latter." Though Hogan had been better than most. He'd been good under pressure in medical situations, but he couldn't handle the small indignities and daily insults that made dealing with fellows bearable. House suspected that it was only sheer stubbornness that had allowed him to last as long as he did.

"In eight months we treated maybe twenty patients," Hogan retorted. "I learned enough to get a fellowship where I can practice medicine on a daily basis instead of turning away people with genuine illnesses just because they aren't interesting enough to hold your attention for more than five minutes." He pushed the envelope towards House. "I'll finish off the month, but January 1st, I'm out of here."

"That's big of you," House said, though it was more notice than he would have given in Hogan's place.

"You still have surfer boy to run errands for you. I'm sure you'll cope." He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something else, but then just turned and walked away.

In the long term, House knew he'd forget Hogan had ever worked there by President's Day. But in the short term, he'd have paperwork to fill out, reports to file with human resources, and then someone -- Wilson -- would expect him to show up to a going-away party and give a meaningless speech and wish Hogan well. Even worse, with no one else to talk to Chase might actually attempt to interact with him more than once or twice a day. Fellows were definitely more trouble than they were worth.

He scanned the letter, hoping for grammatical errors to mock. Hogan had even disappointed him there. Then he noticed that it had been cc'd to Cuddy. That called for evasive measures. Hopefully, Hogan had at least had the decency to deliver the original first, which would give him a few precious moments before Cuddy arrived in an administrative rage. He pulled out his bottle of Vicodin and shook loose a precautionary pill, dry swallowing it. Then he packed up his Gameboy and iPod and went in search of a place to avoid Cuddy until afternoon rounds were over and he could convince Wilson to leave.

The clinic was out for obvious reasons, though it had the advantage of being completing unexpected. Too many people would notice if he walked into the clinic, however, and most of them reported to Cuddy. He considered locking himself in a clean room, but Cuddy wouldn't let a little thing like decontamination procedures stop her from tracking him down and tearing a strip off him. The coma ward was peaceful, but too accessible, while the stairs to the roof were too hard on his leg, especially in winter. There was one place, however, where no doctor willingly went, even pretend doctors like Cuddy.

The morgue attendant shook his head when he saw House slink around the corner, keeping a wary eye out for administrative spies. The coast was clear, so he gave the attendant ten dollars to take an extended coffee break. The chairs in the morgue office were almost as comfortable as his own, one of the incentives, he supposed, for hanging around dead bodies all day. Although he preferred that his patients stay out of the morgue, House wasn't bothered by spending time there. Too many times it had held the final solution to his patient's illness, but at least it was a place of closure.

As a refuge, however, it was a bust. Either he was becoming predictable, or Cuddy was getting better at tracking him down. He hadn't even made it past the second bonus level before she stormed into the morgue like a Valkryie in Versace.

"What is this?" she demanded, waving what House assumed was Hogan's resignation letter in his face.

"I believe it's called paper." he said. If he was going to get a tongue lashing, he might as well enjoy it. Cuddy was even more fun than Wilson to whip into a righteous fury. "It's produced by pressing and drying cellulose pulp into sheets."

But Cuddy had already moved on from anger to resignation, which wasn't nearly as entertaining to watch. "This is the fourth fellow that's quit this year." She sighed and refolded the letter, signalling the end of the tongue-lashing and the beginning of the lecture. "At least this one made it past probation."

"They're like Taiwanese electronics. They're not built to last."

"They're people," Cuddy snapped, "not appliances with built-in redundancies."

"Does that mean I don't get an upgrade to a newer model? I need to check the fine print next time." Either that, or Cuddy needed to revise her expectations. Six months with him was easily worth two years in another fellowship.

"This isn't a joke, House." Cuddy planted her hands on the desk and leaned forward.

House assumed it was intended to look authoritative, but all it did was give him a better view of her décolletage. If she really wanted to punish him, she'd cross her arms and wear turtlenecks.

"It takes valuable hospital resources to hire and train fellows," she continued, "but you go through them like disposable razors."

It was an apt comparison, House had to admit, since he did lose interest in his fellows once they became dull. "Then force Hogan to work out his contract. It makes no difference to me."

"I already accepted Hogan's resignation and told him to pack up and be gone by the end of the day. The last thing I need is another resentful, unproductive doctor cluttering up the payroll in Diagnostics."

"I don't think Chase is resentful, yet," House protested, smiling to himself when Cuddy threw up her hands, literally and figuratively, and dropped into the visitor's chair. "One hundred dollars says Chase will not only finish his contract but ask for an extension."

"I don't recall seeing anything in his personnel file that said he'd just been released from an insane asylum," Cuddy commented, but there was no fire in her words, just amusement.

House knew that as long as he could amuse her occasionally, as well as save high-profile patients on a regular basis, she would overlook most of his misdeeds. She was both a soft touch and a hard ass -- or was it the other way around? "Chase is desperate for a father figure to give him approval. If I dole out little morsels of validation, I can string him along for years. Besides, he's more resourceful than the other layabouts you let me hire. He's already sneaking shifts in surgery. Hourani thinks he's screwing me over by stealing my fellow, but we both know having a pet surgeon will make all our lives easier in the long run."

Cuddy didn't smile, but House could tell that she understood and tacitly approved. "In that case, I'll pass on the bet, but only because Wilson promised me that Chase was a keeper. Speaking of which," she added, frowning at him again, "didn't you tell me you were going to keep an eye on Wilson?"

"Webcam from his office to the morgue. The dead are still watching over us," House intoned, but Cuddy no longer looked even mildly amused. He didn't believe that honesty was the best policy, but sometimes it was the best fall-back plan. "He's holding a patient's hand. Three's a crowd." But when he glanced at the clock, he realized that half the afternoon was gone. "I was about to drag him away from his responsibilities when Hogan decided to join the quitters club."

"So of course you had to run away and sulk. Do you ever think about anyone other than yourself?"

"I spent the morning babysitting his sorry, self-pitying ass," House protested. "I think I deserve a little 'me' time."

"I'm sure it was a great strain on you, eating his food and watching television." Cuddy had never been easily fooled, which made sparring with her all the more challenging. "Go find him, kidnap him if you have to, but make sure he doesn't set foot in the hospital until Monday morning. And don't let him take any work home with him."

That would mean confiscating his pager and cell phone, and keeping Wilson away from computers, but House was up for the challenge. If all went to plan, Wilson wouldn't be capable of higher brain function until at least Sunday evening. "Don't worry," he assured Cuddy. "I'll make sure that your star candidate doesn't crack up before you reap the good press from his appointment."

He expected Cuddy to be insulted, but she just smiled. "You'd better hope he doesn't crack up, or you'll be hiring a new fellow all by yourself."

That was a low blow, but painfully accurate. "What did Fitzgerald say about the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still function? Something about seeing that things are hopeless and yet still being determined to make them otherwise. Sounds like the definition of an oncologist."

"You do know those essays were about what happened when Fitzgerald lost that ability."

"Fitzgerald was a neurotic novelist, who lived beyond his means in every possible way. Wilson is a neurotic oncologist, who gives beyond any reasonable means." House began to see the problem with the analogy. "Wilson isn't hampered by an over-developed sense of imagination." But that wasn't entirely fair to Wilson, who'd had enough imagination to marry three unsuitable women and picture a future where they lived happily-ever-after. Or perhaps he'd just lacked the imagination to believe that they wouldn't.

The phone rang and he snatched up the receiver before he had to examine Wilson's mental fortitude any closer. "Princeton-Plainsboro morgue, Igor speaking." House leaned away from Cuddy so that she couldn't grab the phone from him. "The ER has a DOA," he told her. "Maybe you should go find somebody who actually works here." He scribbled down the details the duty nurse gave him; just to prove to Cuddy that he could be a team player.

The name of the deceased was familiar. It took a moment for it to drop into context, but when it did, House wished he hadn't recognized it. "Damn," he said, pulling the file up on the computer for confirmation. "It's T-cell guy."

"T-cell guy?" But from the expression on Cuddy's face, she was already making the connection.

"One of Wilson's patients. He was diagnosed with T-PLL on Monday. I'm guessing it wasn't the leukemia that killed him, though." He gathered his toys together and sent an emergency page for Wilson to meet him in the lobby. "I'm going to get Wilson out of here before some over-conscientious idiot decides to let him know that one of his patients kicked the bucket."

Cuddy followed him to the elevator. "He's going to find out eventually."

Eventually was the key word. "What he doesn't know now can only hurt him later." House would have preferred never to later, but he assumed Wilson would figure out that something was wrong when T-cell guy didn't show up for his next appointment. "He needs the weekend to put things back into perspective." A lifetime probably wouldn't do it, but Wilson would just have to be like the rest of the world and hobble along as best he could.

"He's going to be furious when he finds out you kept this from him," Cuddy warned.

House had seen Wilson furious before; it was about as intimidating as a terrier having a temper tantrum. As long as he covered his ears and protected his ankles, he didn't have anything to worry about.

But when they reached the lobby, Wilson was on the duty station phone. House didn't have to see his face to know they were too late. Wilson hung up and bowed his head, curling his shoulders inward as if trying to disappear inside himself. When he straightened up, however, his features were set and his expression inscrutable.

Be careful what you wish for, House mused. He'd thought he'd wanted to see how Wilson would handle a body blow. He was wrong.

Chapter Text

Wilson had insisted on talking to the patient's family, a wife and teenage daughter who were weeping in the waiting room. Cuddy had offered to handle everything, but Wilson was adamant. It was his patient, he said, his responsibility. House pointed out that it was actually Markinson's responsibility, or the responsibility of the attending in the ER, but Wilson had stopped listening to reason around the time he married his second wife.

Which was how House found himself waiting impatiently while Wilson once again over-involved himself in his patients' lives and deaths. He'd found a chair with a good sightline to the room where Wilson had taken the family for more privacy. Once they were on their tearful way, he would lasso Wilson and drag him out of the hospital.

But when the door opened, Wilson led the two women right past him without acknowledging his presence. House considered sticking out his cane and tripping Wilson, but that would leave his ankles exposed. Instead, he waited until they were halfway across the lobby, before bellowing Wilson's name out.

Wilson stopped, lowered his head, and then turned around to face House, his hands planted on his hips.

"Excuse me, ladies," House said, giving his best imitation of a busy, responsible doctor. It wasn't working on Wilson, but two out of three was all he needed. "I need Dr. Wilson for an urgent consult."

"We were just leaving," Mrs. T-Cell said. She held her hand out Wilson, who shook it solemnly. "Thank you for all you've done. I wish --" Her eyes brimmed with fresh tears, but she still tried to smile. "Well, you know."

Wilson nodded and released her hand. "I do." He accepted an awkward hug from the daughter, who looked too shocked to speak, and then watched them hurry away.

When he turned to face House, however, his expression was frozen. "What do you want?" he demanded.

"A ride home. You drove me here, remember?"

"Take a cab," Wilson replied. He took his wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out a twenty. "I'm not ready to leave yet."

House wasn't in the habit of refusing money -- especially Wilson's money -- but taking it would undermine his negotiating position. "We agreed that you could come in for a couple of hours to clear things up for the weekend. You've had more than three, so it's time to go." He pointed to the chair where he'd been staked out. "I've got your coat and your briefcase, so there's no need to go back to your office."

"I didn't agree to anything," Wilson retorted. "Or are you using the royal we? Making a unilateral decision doesn't constitute an agreement between two equals."

"The agreement was implied," House countered. "And you can only dream about being my equal. But if you want to get all bureaucratic on me, Cuddy, who signs your paycheques, has banned you from the premises until Monday morning. Which makes it a bilateral agreement without actually having to involve you." He knew that Wilson's innate pigheadedness might resist even a direct order from the dean, but that could be circumvented. All it took was a poorly disguised grimace and slight list to the left, and Wilson's expression thawed.

"When are you due for another pill?" he asked.

House had taken his last one after Hogan had left. He hadn't needed it then, and he didn't need one now, but he pulled out his trusty bottle of Vicodin and popped the lid anyway. Need was open to interpretation when the pain never actually went away. He shook out a pill and held it up. "I can hold out for another hour if you agree to leave now."

Wilson narrowed his eyes, because although he could be manipulated, he couldn't necessarily be manipulated blindly. But House knew that he was too concerned with House's Vicodin intake not to fold. Wilson could always be counted on to make a deal that he thought would benefit someone else. "I'm not turning off my pager or cell phone," he warned.

That was fine with House. Cuddy had already told the Oncology department not to contact Wilson unless it was absolutely necessary, and he fully intended to disable all of Wilson's communication devices as soon as he'd poured enough alcohol into him to make him oblivious to anything but his ability to breathe. Wilson was a lightweight at the best of times. A couple of stiff drinks would knock him out for the count.

"As you wish." He lifted his cane and pointed to the exit. "Home, James."

Wilson rolled his eyes, but gathered his belongings up. He put on his suit jacket and overcoat, which was a clear sign of capitulation. "One condition," he said, handing House's backpack to him.

Or not. "We've already made a deal," House protested. "You can't add conditions now."

"I can as long as I'm holding the car keys." He dangled the keys in front of House, pulling away when House made a grab for them.

House knew he should have picked Wilson's pocket when he had the chance. "I'll take it to the committee, but this is going to reflect poorly on you in future negotiations." It might work in his favour, actually. As chief negotiator, House had a healthy respect for underhanded tactics. "What's your condition?"

Wilson transferred his wallet to the inside pocket of his overcoat, perhaps sensing House's larcenous thoughts. "You let me crash at your place tonight. The condo feels too empty without Julie there."

That had been House's intention all along. He had a better -- or at least more efficient -- collection of alcohol. Of course if Wilson had insisted on going home, he'd planned on camping out on his couch and refusing to be evicted, so it was an easy condition to accept. That didn't mean he'd accept it easily. "You're paying for dinner, then."

"I just saved twenty dollars on taxi fare, so I guess I can handle that. But I'm not doing your dishes. Pizza, pizza or pizza?"

House pretended to think. "How about we try something new and have pizza? Pepperoni and mushrooms from Tri Colore."

"Chicken and spinach from Old World," Wilson countered.

"Not unless you want to sit at the counter and eat," House said. "Otherwise the crust gets soggy. And I'm not ruining my pizza with spinach." Wilson had bizarre notions sometimes about what constituted junk food.

Wilson tossed his keys to House. "We'll order from Tri Colore, then, but I want green peppers."

That had been too easy. Wilson knew that green pepper was the only vegetable that House didn't object to on pizza, which meant he'd capitulated on all points. He hadn't been this pathetic since Bonnie kicked him out. "You think I'm going to drive your car in daylight? Someone might see me." He started walking towards the exit, however, knowing Wilson would trail after him like the sad puppy he was. He considered whistling for him to follow, but Wilson was as unstable as nitro-glycerine, and if he was going to explode, House wanted it to happen in a place where he could control the fallout.

No one would know it to look at him, however. If anything, House knew that he was the one who mothers would steer their children away from if they passed on the street. Unshaven, unruly men were dangerous. Neatly pressed professionals were beyond suspicion, especially ones who smiled and exchanged pleasantries with colleagues while quietly falling apart. Even House wouldn't have seen anything was wrong at first glance. Fortunately, he had a lot of practice looking behind Wilson's mask.

Once they were safely in the car, Wilson relaxed his guard enough to let the exhaustion show. The sun was starting to set, and in the diffused light through the car window, Wilson looked almost as ghost-like as his dying patients, his face pale, the skin too tight, and the lines too deep for a man who'd always looked half a dozen years younger than his age.

House had been worried that Wilson was burning out, but instead he appeared to be drowning. It wasn't that the job was draining him, it was that it had engulfed him in so much pain and grief that he could barely keep his head above the surface. House wanted to reach out and pull him to safety, but he was afraid they would both be dragged under. The best he could do was throw him a life ring and hope that he could hang on long enough for the waters to subside.

He considered taking Wilson to the closest bar, but he had everything a bar could offer and one important ingredient that it couldn't -- privacy. Building Wilson back up might require breaking him down even further, and while alcohol was the quickest way to shatter his barriers, there were too many distractions in a public setting, any number of whom would be willing to rescue Wilson from himself.

"Call the pizza in," House ordered when they reached his apartment. He made an immediate detour into the kitchen to grab two beers from the fridge. Hard liquor would be faster, but the sudden appearance of a bottle of bourbon would raise Wilson's suspicions. As it was, Wilson hesitated before taking the beer and sipped it so slowly House wanted to throttle him. He needed Wilson to have at least one drink in him before the pizza arrived.

"I'm sorry about your patient," he said.

As expected, Wilson lifted his beer and took a deeper drink. "I don't want to talk about it."

House shrugged and turned on the television. "Well, don't whine to me later than I'm not a supportive friend."

"You're not," Wilson retorted, but smiled to show he didn't entirely mean it. More importantly, he drained the rest of his beer and went to the kitchen to get two more.

"So did Cuddy really ban me from the hospital until Monday?" he asked. The first drink had brought colour back into his face and eased some of the tightness around his eyes, but he still seemed diminished, almost fragile.

House decided that feeding into his insecurities right now wouldn't be the best idea. "Cuddy's a slave driver," he replied. "If she had her way, she'd chain us to an exam room and have us working twenty hours a day." It didn't exactly answer Wilson's question, but House hoped he was too tired to notice.

"Then what were you two talking about? And why were you hiding from her in the morgue of all places?" Wilson hadn't seemed surprised at the time, but then he'd been busy processing other information.

"Hogan quit today." That should distract Wilson long enough for the alcohol to take effect.

"Unfortunate, but not unexpected," Wilson said. "What are you going to do?" He sat up a little straighter. He'd always been more interested in House's problems than his own.

"I'm not going to do anything." Two fellows had been two too many. One was still more trouble than he was worth, but at least it made delegating tasks simpler. He suspected Wilson wouldn't see it quite the same way, but then he actually enjoyed working with people.

"You can't keep alienating employees," Wilson said. "Hogan was a good doctor."

"Hogan was an idiot. He wasn't interested in learning anything from me – he just wanted my name on his resume." The worst part of it was that no one would ever call him for a reference, so if he wanted to destroy Hogan's subsequent career, he would actually have to go out of his way to do it. But Wilson was right. Hogan was a good doctor, or at least not useless enough to waste more time on.

"You said the last one was an idiot when she quit to join Doctors Without Borders."

"Because she was. Who leaves the most prestigious fellowship in the country to dole out vaccinations in Africa?" That one hadn't even lasted three months before she found God, or Buddha, or some other higher being that wasn't him.

"So Hogan is an idiot because he's self-serving and Leong is an idiot because...she's not?"

When Wilson put it that way, it sounded exactly right. "Was that supposed to be a question? Because I'm not sure what you're confused about." Hogan would get a job in private practice and bore his golf partners with stories of rare diseases he'd once helped diagnose. Leong would work herself half to death and get transferred out of the field to give recruitment lectures and write epidemiological studies. Neither of them would use the experience and knowledge he'd given them. It had been a waste of all their time.

"I take it Cuddy is unimpressed that you lost another fellow," Wilson said, as if House had somehow misplaced a grown man around the hospital somewhere. He didn't sound particularly sympathetic, but then he was smart enough to know that he would be the one doing most of the work to hire a new fellow.

"She's all up my ass about being a crappy manager. I told her if she wanted a hospital full of dead patients and happy employees, then she should hire mediocre doctors with good people skills. If that's the case, you should be a shoo-in to succeed Gunnlaugson."

Wilson didn't react to the jibe, which was a bad sign. House decided it was time for the hard stuff. He grabbed the bottle of scotch from the kitchen cupboard that doubled as a liquor cabinet, and mixed two drinks, diluting his with water. One of them had to keep a clear head.

"I thought about joining Doctors Without Borders once," Wilson mused, accepting the drink without a protest. "I wanted to save lives. Make a real difference."

As if the only way to make a difference was by saving lives on another continent. House had never understood why being a doctor was only heroic if there was a chance of catching malaria or dysentery. It wasn't as if Wilson would have to leave New Jersey to get shot over drugs. "What stopped you?"

Wilson smiled and while it wasn't much more than a twitch at the corner of his mouth, it was better than absolute bleakness. "I got arrested."

The penny dropped. House remembered that there had been a Doctors Without Borders seminar at the conference where they'd first met. House could imagine how Wilson, reeling from the breakdown of his first marriage, would have been a sitting duck for the do-gooders. Now he had even more reason to be glad that he'd bailed Wilson out and dragged him on a tour of the seamier side of New Orleans, forcing him to miss the final day of the conference. "They wouldn't have taken you," he pointed out. "You need at least a year of post-residency experience to apply." Though Wilson was stubborn enough, once he'd decided on a course of action, to have gotten around those guidelines.

"I wouldn't have gone through with it anyway," Wilson admitted. "Leaving the country for a year wasn't feasible at the time."

House didn't like the sound of that qualifier. But if it meant making sure no other time was feasible either, he was up to the challenge.

By the time the pizza arrived, Wilson was slumped bonelessly on the sofa, not quite drunk, but well on the way. House took pity on him and paid for dinner. He'd get the money out of Wilson's wallet after he'd passed out, which from the looks of him wouldn't be long.

House picked the green peppers off his pizza and dropped them on Wilson's plate, just to make a point. "Be a good boy and eat your vegetables, Jimmy."

Wilson poked at the single slice on his plate, nibbled on a mushroom, then pushed it away. "I'm not hungry," he mumbled. "I think I'll just go home."

"Not by car, you won't," House said. "Go crash on my bed for a few hours, see how you feel then. You can't bail now, after begging me to let you come over." It wasn't as if he needed his bed. Prime time hadn't even started. He'd be up for hours.

Wilson rubbed at his eyes like an over-tired child. "You don't mind?"

"I mind," House replied, "but I'll tolerate it just this once." He nudged Wilson until he stood up and teetered towards the bedroom. Once Wilson was out of sight, House scooped up his green peppers and squished them back onto a slice of pizza. He needed his vegetables if he was going to rebuild a shattered oncologist in just one weekend.

Chapter Text

House was dozing on the couch, half-listening to Letterman's opening monologue, when another sound registered, dragging him fully awake. He sat up, just barely catching his plate when it slid off his lap. For a moment, he thought he was hearing things, but then Wilson slipped quietly out of the bedroom and tiptoed towards the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" House demanded, making Wilson jump and squeak like an over-sized mouse. That was a better response than he'd expected. He'd have to try it again, preferably when Wilson was carrying something breakable.

"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Wilson was clutching his chest as if he were an eighty-year-old with angina. He was barefoot and wearing only a t-shirt and boxers, however, which meant he couldn't have been planning on leaving the apartment.

"I'm not the one creeping around in the middle of the night." House watched suspiciously as Wilson reached for his overcoat and checked the pockets. "Is this what you're looking for?" he asked, holding Wilson's cell phone up. He'd taken possession of his keys, wallet and pager as well. Wilson was rarely boring, but he was often predictable.

He was also stupid enough to try to grab the phone from House, so House shoved it down the front of his pants, knowing that Wilson was too squeamish to go after it. Instead, Wilson started digging under the pile of journals on the side table, "Where's your home phone?" he demanded, when all he found were dirty dishes.

"Do you think I'd go the trouble of lifting your cell phone if you could just dial out on a land line?" He didn't know if Wilson was under-estimating him, or if he was just that stupid.

"What if someone needs to call you?"

Definitely stupid. "Then they can call me on my cell phone. Or yours. Of course, that would imply that I want anybody to call me, which would be a false assumption."

Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose. "House. Just give me my cell phone."

"Tell me who you need to call first." House had no intention of handing the phone over, no matter what Wilson said, but he'd found that Wilson was easier to manipulate when he thought there was a possibility that House might be reasonable.

"I just want to call the duty nurse to check on Mrs. Sanborn. I left orders to adjust her meds, and I need to know how she's reacting."

"You don't need to do anything. Chase is keeping an eye on your patients this weekend. Your staff will call him if anything comes up, and he'll call me if there's anything you need to know."

"That's just great!" Wilson exclaimed. "He won't call, because he knows you'll yell at him for bothering you with something you decide is trivial, even if it's not."

"Or he will call me, because he knows that if I find out he let something slide, he'll be cleaning bedpans for the next month." He watched Wilson shake his head, and then sway precariously, catching the back of the sofa to steady himself. "Look at you. You're in worse shape than half your patients. You're exhausted, you can barely stay upright. You're no good to anyone like this."

If Wilson had looked terrible before, now he looked like a Procol Harum song, without the Bach overtones. He pushed himself away from the sofa and stalked into the kitchen, returning with a single bottle of beer.

"You're a crappy house guest," House said, unsure whether to be pissed off or worried about Wilson. He decided pissed off gave more return. "Steal my beer and don't even bring me one."

"You've still got half a bottle of scotch," Wilson pointed out. "But I'm happy to trade." He grabbed the scotch off the table and replaced it with the beer bottle, nearly knocking it onto its side.

House managed to right it before it frothed over, and frowned when Wilson poured and knocked back two fingers of scotch. Getting drunk had been a brilliant idea when he'd come up with it this afternoon, but if Wilson was buying into it now, there had to be a flaw in the logic. "Have you had anything to eat since that soup this morning?" he asked, wondering when he'd turned into Wilson's mother. Maybe he should just pack Wilson off to his parents' place, where he could be fussed over and fed until his cheeks filled out again.

On the other hand, while being the responsible one didn't sit well with him, ordering Wilson around did have a certain appeal. "You need to get some food in your stomach or you'll make yourself sick." Judging by the pinched look around his eyes, Wilson was already working on a headache. The remaining pizza was cold and congealed, but as far as House was concerned, it was better that way.

But Wilson wrinkled his nose in disgust when House pushed the box towards him. "I don't think I can keep it down," he admitted, though he didn't seem to be having a problem with the scotch. Yet.

House sighed and got up to find something that Wilson could put in his stomach other than alcohol. He had a loaf of bread hovering near the best-before date, so he checked it for mould and dropped a couple of pieces in the toaster. The orange juice in the fridge was fresh -- if frozen juice could be called fresh -- so he poured a glass for both of them and downed his while he waited for the bread to brown. When the toast was ready, he smeared it with peanut butter and jam and balanced them on top of the second glass of orange juice. A few crumbs tumbled into the orange juice, but that was Wilson's problem.

"Eat and drink," he ordered, putting the tower down in front of Wilson. "Not the scotch." He took the bottle away, tucking it behind him for good measure. "You can get drunk after you've finished your midnight snack." He grabbed a piece of pizza for himself, biting through the thick film of cheese. Delicious at any temperature.

Wilson gave him a glare that would have been a lot more intimidating if his normally neat hair wasn't rumpled and sticking straight up in tufts. And if it had been someone other than Wilson. "Is that raspberry jam?" he asked, sniffing the toast suspiciously.

"Strawberry," House replied. "And don't bitch that you don't like strawberry, because you certainly lapped up that stripper with the strawberry body lotion."

Wilson giggled, and House realized that he was already a little drunk. "Strawberry and Karamel. Now that was a flavour combination." Either he'd regained his appetite or strippers made him more tractable; he took a bite of toast and didn't grumble or make any more sad faces. He finished the first piece and picked up the second one, pausing only to gulp down half the glass of orange juice. When he was done, House offered the bottle of scotch back, but he shook his head. "Not a good idea, unless I want to spend the rest of the night on your bathroom floor. I'll take the beer, though."

House passed it over. He had a better head for spirits than Wilson did, and it would keep the pain at bay until it was time for the last Vicodin of the day. Letterman was a repeat, he realized, so he surfed until he found a poker tournament on one of the cable channels. On the first hand, the flush came through on the river, knocking out the defending champion, who'd tried to double up on two pair, aces high. "Idiot," House muttered. "He had nine outs for the flush alone after the flop. That's a thirty-five per cent chance of making it."

"Can we not talk numbers?" Wilson complained. "Stats. Odds. None of it matters if your card doesn't come up." That meant going to Atlantic City probably wasn't a good idea. With that kind of attitude, Wilson would lose his shirt, and House would be forced to buy his own lunch. He would have to put Plan B into effect.

He decided to take a poke at the hornet's nest. "Or if it comes up in the wrong hand. T-cell guy wasn't supposed to die yet. It sucks, but it's not your fault." He knew how hard it was to lose a patient, especially for Wilson, who often treated his patients for years. But Wilson had only been treating T-cell guy for a few days. Even he couldn't get over-attached that quickly. "Maybe it was for the best. All he lost were a few miserable months." It was a deliberately provocative statement, but all Wilson did was purse his lips and look away.

"He died hanging up Christmas lights," Wilson said. "They think he might have been electrocuted by a frayed wire or a loose connection, but the fall from the ladder broke his neck. His daughter had been holding the ladder for him, but he'd sent her inside to flip the light switch. Merry Christmas."

Now he understood why Wilson was upset. That was the kind of trauma that would buy a therapist a new yacht. "This is why I hate holidays," House complained. "They're a magnet for senseless ways to die." Between the drunk drivers, overeating, unrelenting depression and household accidents, it was a wonder anyone survived December.

"I doubt he thought of it that way," Wilson said. "I'm guessing that it was the only thing that made sense to him. Maybe he thought he was sparing his family."

"You think --" Wilson didn't normally ascribe the darkest motives to every action -- that was House's bailiwick -- but when you were surrounded by shadows, it was hard to see the light.

"The daughter said he'd already started to climb down when she went inside. Maybe he climbed back up to check that the strands were connected. Maybe it was just a tragic accident. That's what I told his family. And that's all the insurance company needs to know."

"Recent policy?" House asked. Most insurance carriers had a two-year exclusion clause for suicide.

"Accidental death and dismemberment only. He wasn't even covered if the leukemia killed him."

"And you know this why?" As far as House knew, Wilson had only had the one appointment with T-cell guy. Those kinds of administrative details were usually left with his assistant and hospital records. But of course Wilson read all his patients' records, even the boring, irrelevant parts.

"Because his health coverage was as crappy as his life insurance." Wilson rubbed at his eyes, the exhaustion catching up to him again. "He'd already burned through his limit just getting diagnosed. I spent most of the week trying to get him into a clinical trial for alemtuzumab. There's a study in Houston that may still be accepting participants. I found some funding for travel costs, but I hadn't had a chance to talk to him about it yet. All I had to do was pick up the phone, and he'd still be alive."

Wilson's capacity for self-blame was a force greater than gravity. House felt as if he'd just identified the event horizon of a black hole. "When did you hear back from the trial administrator?" If Wilson had managed to push through an out-of-state applicant in less than a week, House would voluntarily resume doing his clinic hours

Wilson looked away, and House knew he was safe from patient purgatory. "I'm still waiting for confirmation," he admitted. "But I should have told him that there was a chance. Any kind of hope is better than none at all."

And apparently any kind of guilt was better than a clear conscience, as far as Wilson was concerned. "First of all, there's no real reason to think that it wasn't just a stupid accident. Second, the remission rate might be promising for alemtuzumab, but the median remission length is still only a few months, and second-round treatments haven't been effective. A few months wasn't going to solve the life insurance issue."

"But it was time he could have had with his family." Wilson was playing the anti-Pollyanna, finding the negative in every argument. It was almost as if he didn't appreciate House's attempts to cheer him up.

House, however, was undaunted. "Then he would have had to come up with some Fourth of July-related accident and the daughter would have spent the rest of her life hating America. Is that what you want? At least this way she'll be cured of excessive Christmas decorating that strains the power grid. You might not have saved a life, but you helped save the environment."

Wilson stared at him. "Do you ever listen to yourself?" he demanded. "He was my patient. You may not care, but don't belittle his death."

"How about I stop belittling his death when you stop magnifying it. Yes, it's a tragedy. The world is full of tragedies, almost none of which are your fault. Get over yourself, do your job, and stop whining to me about things that are beyond your control." The last time he'd given that speech, Doctors Without Borders had gotten a new recruit, and he'd been down a fellow. Fortunately, he didn't think this was a good time for Wilson to leave the country either. It was one of the few reasons he had for making sure Wilson's marriage lasted a little longer.

Though when Wilson sputtered in amusement, rather than outrage, House thought maybe that wasn't the only thing holding Wilson in Princeton. "Get over myself?" Wilson exclaimed. "Those are the words of comfort you have for a troubled friend?"

"If you're looking to me for words of comfort, you're more desperate than I thought," House replied. "Which was pretty desperate to start." He turned his attention back to the TV, where one of the two remaining players went all in on a straight, only to be beaten by a full house built on pocket twos. It was enough to make anyone pack up and leave. He stood up and stretched elaborately.

"I'm going to bed," he announced. "If you're going to cry yourself to sleep, try not to get snot all over my upholstery."

"Good night, House," Wilson replied, not without affection, and moved over to the sofa.

"Night, Wilson." House turned the light out on his way into the bedroom, leaving Wilson bathed in the washed-out glow of the television. He'd find a way to make everything look brighter, but it would have to wait until morning.

Chapter Text

The scent of freshly brewed coffee greeted House when he emerged from his bedroom the next morning, and he remembered why he didn't mind Wilson invading his space.

"All you have is bread," Wilson complained, handing him a still-steaming mug. "I can't even make French toast, because you have no eggs, and someone stole my wallet and car keys last night."

If House had thought he could trust Wilson not to head directly to the hospital, he would have gladly released him to go grocery shopping. Wilson could always be counted on to fill his refrigerator with food that would last beyond his stay. But if all worked out according to the plan he'd devised while waiting for the last Vicodin to kick in, any fresh food in his fridge would go to waste. "We'll grab breakfast en route," he said. The East Brunswick IHOP was only a few minutes detour.

"En route to where?" Wilson asked, though with less suspicion than House had expected. Either the full night's sleep had restored his spirits, or he'd resigned himself to humouring House for the weekend. He looked rested, at least, and while he hadn't primped to his usual anal extent, his hair was damp from the shower and his eyes were clear and bright.

"Uniondale," House replied. "I know a guy who knows a guy who can get us tickets for the Islanders game." He'd already called the Islander's assistant general manager from the bedroom. Saving his only sister's life had to be worth something.

"It's an hour and a half to Uniondale," Wilson said. "Are we travelling by wagon train?"

"It's an afternoon game, moron," House retorted. "By the time we get out of here, stop for breakfast, and crawl along the Turnpike and Parkway, we'll barely have time to find parking and a place for pre-game wings and beer." They could find a hotel in Long Island and head into the city on Sunday. House didn't have any connections with the Rangers, but it shouldn't be hard to get tickets for a team languishing near the bottom of the standings.

"We could be on the road now if you weren't such a sloth." But Wilson topped up his own coffee and added a spoonful of sugar.

It wasn't resignation, House decided, though he was still wary of Wilson's lack of protest. A few hours of sleep didn't erase the guilt over two dead patients or the anxiety of another patient on death row. He suspected Wilson had snuck next door and borrowed his neighbour's phone to call the hospital. The least he could have done was borrow some eggs at the same time.

But if Wilson was willing to leave town, the report must have been favourable. Wilson didn't even insist on stopping by his apartment for a change of clothes, borrowing a sweatshirt and pair of jeans from House instead. He claimed he had a change of underwear in the trunk of his car, which House decided not to examine too closely. He'd found, to his past disappointment, that Wilson's reasons were rarely as interesting as the ones House imagined.

House was tucking into his second stack of pancakes when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He glanced sidelong at Wilson to make sure he hadn't noticed and excused himself, commenting loudly that he had to make room for more coffee. Once he was out of sight and earshot of the table, he pulled out his phone and checked the call log. Chase. That couldn't be good.

"I told you not to call," he hissed, when the return call connected.

"You told me not to call unless something happened that Wilson needed to know about."

"Something that I think Wilson needs to know about," House clarified.

"Well, you can decide if he needs to know when I tell you what it is. I'm just passing along information." Chase was a little too cocky for House's liking. It was early enough in the fellowship that he should still be intimidated, even from miles away.

"You do know that the saying 'Don't shoot the messenger' exists because people actually have shot the messenger? Undoubtedly for being really annoying. Or maybe just Australian."

"Do you want to know what happened or not?"

House had absolutely no desire to know what had happened, but unfortunately he wouldn't be able to say the same for Wilson. He didn't ask for information from his fellows, however – he extracted, inferred or compelled it – so he waited Chase out as a matter of principle. He didn't have to wait long.

"One of Wilson's patients just coded. They brought her back, but the duty nurse doesn't think she'll make it through the day."

That was something Wilson would want to know. House was less sure that he needed to know it. Telling him would be devastating in the short run, a knock-out blow that would undo the full night's sleep and an overindulgence of French toast. But if he said nothing and the patient died before Monday morning, Wilson would never forgive him. He'd been willing to take that risk with T-cell guy, because there'd been nothing Wilson could have done. There wasn't anything practical he could do now even if they broke the speed limit racing back to Princeton, but House also knew that Wilson would never forgive himself if he wasn't there to witness a patient's passing, and House wasn't willing to risk that.

"Is it Evita?" he asked.

"Evita?" Chase was smart, but he was slow on the pop culture allusions.

"Sanborn. Cervical cancer." He heard the rustle of papers as Chase flipped through files.

"No. I didn't get a report on her, so she must be doing all right. The patient who coded is named Fitzsimmons. As far as I can tell her cancer was responding well to treatment, but her heart just gave out."

That wasn't surprising. If House's memory was correct, Dolly Fitzsimmons was eighty-seven years old. She'd been one of the first patients Wilson had taken on after he'd arrived at PPTH.

"Tell the duty nurse we'll be there in half an hour," he said. "You were right to call." He hung up before he was tempted to thank Chase. He took his time returning to the table, though. Wilson might as well finish his breakfast.

But Wilson was standing up, his coat on, waiting by the table. He'd paid the bill -- House had relinquished his wallet and keys once they were safely on the road -- and had even boxed up the rest of House's pancakes. Cold pancakes weren't as good as cold pizza, but House could make do.

"I take it that was Chase," Wilson said. His voice was steady, but he was gripping the back of the chair hard enough to blanch his knuckles white.

"How did you know?"

"Your hand twitched when the cell phone vibrated." Wilson smiled thinly. "Also, the bathrooms are over there." The smile faded away. "Who is it?"

"Grandma Moses." House thought he detected a flicker of relief, followed immediately by a full shudder of guilt.

"You know I hate it when you give my patients nicknames," Wilson said, though the scolding was more out of reflex than conviction.

"No, you don't," House replied, because arguing with Wilson was better than watching him sink back down into quiet despair. "You think it's quaint and amusing, and you're secretly pleased that I pay attention to your cases."

"Actually, I think it's creepy and disrespectful, and I'd be openly pleased if you paid as much attention to your own patients as you do to stalking mine."

"I don't stalk," House protested. "On rare occasion, I listen to you drone on about your precious patients and their treatment." And then he stalked them, but only when it was in Wilson's best interests. "Her heart's failing," he said, leaving that argument for another day. "But you knew that already." He hadn't needed to stalk Dolly Fitzsimmons. She was one of the few patients Wilson had who refused to let House interrupt her appointments. If he needed Wilson for a consult or just to act as a sounding board, then he had to sit through a litany of side effects and symptoms, punctuated by endless digressions about her numerous progeny. And if he even cleared his throat, she would hit him with her old lady purse. Dolly Fitzsimmons was his hero.

"We should go," he said gruffly. "I'll drive." He fished Wilson's cell phone out of his back pocket and handed it to him. "You can get caught up on the way in."

For a moment, Wilson looked like he was going to cry, but while he often looked like a whipped puppy, House had never actually seen him break into real tears, not even when he was drunk and maudlin. "I'm sorry," he said, with only the tiniest quaver in his voice. "I know you went to a lot of trouble to set this weekend up. I'll pay you back for the tickets."

House was tempted to take the money, but Wilson would find out sooner or later that they were comps, and he would have to endure days of disappointed looks and passive-aggressive pouting. "I'll call my contact and get them changed to another game," he said instead. "I didn't want to see Chicago play anyway." They hadn't been the same since Tony Esposito retired.

He kept the radio low on the way back, so that Wilson could talk on the phone with his team. From the sounds of the one-sided conversation, Dolly was fading even faster than Chase had said. She'd regained consciousness and had been briefly lucid -- long enough to sign a DNR and summon her family -- but she was drifting away.

"I worried that she wasn't strong enough for that last round of chemo," Wilson said as he snapped the phone closed. "But you know how she was. She never gave up." Attitude had taken her further down the road than most. It had kept her alive when her body had turned against her, sustaining her through five years of illness and remission.

Wilson's gift as a doctor was in harnessing attitude, blowing on the embers of resistance until they flared into a full flame. His belief in his patients' ability to survive was infectious, even when it was misplaced, and so they did survive, longer than the odds he hated would have indicated. House wondered what had gone wrong with T-cell guy. Maybe one meeting wasn't enough. Or maybe there had been no embers. He had been dead before he walked into Wilson's office.

"You don't get to blame yourself for this one," House said. "The cancer didn't kill her, the treatment didn't kill her." The last round of chemo had knocked her back into remission, giving her those months with her family Wilson had wanted for T-cell guy. "Unless you're holding out on a cure for old age, it's not your fault. Her heart just wound down."

Wilson placed a hand over his own heart. "This will be the third patient in thirty-six hours. I don't think I can keep doing this," he said.

"Then don't," House replied, pushing back instinctive panic. "Quit. I'm sure there are all sorts of worthwhile things you can do with your years of education and training, like doling out antibiotics at a family clinic. You were this close to the big leagues, but I'm sure you'll be satisfied living in a small town where everybody comes to you for glib advice."

"Did you just compare me to a character in a Kevin Costner film?"

The expression on Wilson's face would made House laugh if the pancakes hadn't been doing somersaults in his stomach. "I don't know what the problem is," he protested. "I let you be Burt Lancaster. But you're right. You should just give up medicine altogether and spend your days at a desk job where nobody is inconsiderate enough to die in your presence. Or maybe you should remember why it is you became a doctor in the first place."

Wilson chuckled, that bitter little laugh that House hated. "I became a doctor to help my patients. But nothing I do makes a difference. You save lives. All I do is end them."

House wanted to reach across the seat and smack some sense into him. "Now you're just being ridiculous. Cancer ends their lives. You extend them." For every patient that Wilson lost, he had another dozen responding well to treatment or in remission. Those were the numbers that counted.

"I told a man on Monday that he had terminal cancer. On Friday he was dead. How is that not down to me?"

They were back to T-Cell guy. If he weren't already dead, House would have killed him. "If I had told the guy he was dying there might be a legitimate correlation. But I've seen you talk to patients. People don't leave your office wanting to kill themselves. They leave knowing what they're facing, and knowing that they have a doctor who's going to give up tickets to the Islanders to be with them when the inevitable happens. But if nothing you do makes a difference, then we may as well just turn around and head back to Long Island." He pulled into the Gulf station just off the Brunswick Pike. "Is that what you want?" House had no problem with turning around -- they had plenty of time to get to the Coliseum in time for the national anthem -- but he knew Wilson would feel guilty before they were back on the Pike.

Wilson didn't say anything, and House wondered if he'd pushed too far. He wasn't used to being the one talking reason to Wilson. Aside from his love life, Wilson had always been the sensible one. This was what came from actually dealing with patients. House's leg throbbed and he reached into his pocket, his fingers curling around the bottle of Vicodin. If Wilson quit, he'd need to find a new supplier.

Finally, Wilson sighed. "You know that's not what I want," he said. "It just feels sometimes that no matter how hard I fight for my patients, nothing changes in the end."

"Oncology is a war of attrition," House said. "If you're looking for glory, you chose the wrong specialty."

"You're right." Wilson scrubbed at his face. "I knew what I was getting into. I just didn't think there'd be no victories at all."

On another day, under less pressure, Wilson would be able to see that even holding ground was a triumph, but when he'd spent the week in retreat, it was hard to find a position of strength on the battlefield. House just had to hope that the spate of casualties would end before Wilson surrendered for good. House pulled back onto the road, and they drove the last couple of miles into Princeton in silence.

When they reached the hospital, Wilson wilted into his seat, and for a moment House thought that he wouldn't be able to get out of the car. House turned off the engine and got out, refusing to look behind him as he walked towards the hospital, limping just a little heavier than necessary. Wilson caught up with him before he'd crossed the parking lot. By the time they reached the lobby, Wilson's back was straight and his mask was back in place.

Dolly's numerous progeny were gathered in her room and the adjacent waiting room. One of the women detached herself from a small group and hurried over to join them.

"Dr. Wilson," she said, accepting a quick hug from Wilson. "Your assistant said you were out of town. There wasn't any need for you to drive all the way back here."

"Of course there was," Wilson replied, as if he couldn't imagine being anywhere else. By now, he'd undoubtedly convinced himself it was true. "Amelia, this is Dr. Greg House. He was kind enough to give me a lift back. House, this is Amelia Cousins, Dolly's oldest daughter."

House nodded curtly, stepping back to avoid any unsolicited contact. "I'll be in my office if you need anything," he told Wilson, but lingered in the doorway when Wilson stepped into the room.

The last time he had seen Dolly Fitzsimmons, she had been frail but cheerful, boasting to Wilson about the birth of her first great-great-grandchild. He'd joined them for a wee nip of Irish, celebrating both the birth and her remission. Now she lay unconscious in a hospital bed, no longer simply frail, but shrunken. House hated how age and illness physically diminished a person; how the body faded long before the spirit.

Wilson checked her chart and then moved to the side of the bed to do a quick physical exam, murmuring an apology for disturbing one of the other offspring. Wilson lifted her wrist to take her pulse, but the monitors told House everything he needed to know. This vigil wouldn't last long.

Dolly stirred and opened her eyes, exhaling a soft sigh. Wilson smiled and squeezed her hand gently. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged. Wilson seemed to understand anyway. "It's all right," he said. He lifted her hand and kissed the knuckles in a gesture both courtly and intimate. "Your family is here with you. It's time to rest."

House turned away, unable to watch any more. Wilson, he knew, would stay until the end, standing to the side while the family sat vigil, bearing witness in his own quiet fashion. But House had never believed in greeting death quietly, preferring to rage against the dying of the light. There was a time and a place for raging, however, and he would pay his respects by doing it elsewhere.

He'd thought he would be able to wait for Wilson in solitude, but Chase was in the conference room, reading the newspaper, when he walked in. "What are you doing here?" House demanded. It was as good a time as any to start raging.

But Chase was unperturbed. "I thought you might like to know the autopsy results on Lewis Mann," he said.

It took a moment for House to place the name. "T-cell guy?" He hadn't expected an autopsy, at least not this soon, but maybe Wilson hadn't been the only one with suspicions. Insurance companies kept their profits high by screwing over widows and children.

"Is that his gang name?" Chase asked, smirking slightly. He was getting a little too cocky for his own good, and House's comfort. "There was no sign of electrocution, but it looks like he had a TIA just before he died. It wouldn't have killed him, but it might have disoriented him enough to make him lose his balance and fall off the ladder. It's probably not much comfort now, but at least the daughter won't ever have to think that she caused her father's death, even accidentally." Chase must have bought one of the oncology nurses coffee. He even had a copy of the autopsy report. House was pleased. He'd need a good source of information once Wilson was promoted and there was an entire department to monitor, not just Wilson's patients.

"What about his other patients?" As long as Chase was here, he might as well get the full scoop.

"Nothing significant. I checked on Mrs. Sanborn after I talked to you. She had a good night. The new combination of meds is controlling her pain, but with fewer side effects. Her vitals are stronger than they've been in weeks."

Maybe Evita would make it to Christmas after all. "Go home," he told Chase. "Wilson is going to be here for a while, so I'll keep an eye on things until he's done." He could always catch the hockey game in the maternity lounge. They had the best cable package.

Wilson found him there half-way through the second period. His eyes were red-rimmed, but he was composed and more at peace than he'd been since Monday morning.

"Is she gone?" House asked, muting the television.

"About an hour ago." Wilson sat down beside House, sighing as he sunk into the cushions. "She slipped into a coma not long after you left, but the family had a chance to say their goodbyes. They're grieving, of course, but I think they're in a good place."

"What about you?" House asked, looking for the cracks in Wilson's facade. The hairline fractures he'd seen before had been spackled and smoothed over. "Where are you?"

Wilson shrugged. "Right where I need to be, for as long as I can."

It wasn't a guarantee, but House liked to bet on the long shot. It didn't hurt to fix the odds, though. He dropped the copy of the autopsy file on Wilson's lap. "It wasn't down to you," he said. "He didn't kill himself, unless you count a pack-a-day habit and a crappy diet. He had a mini-stroke. Didn't kill him, but it knocked him off the ladder."

Wilson opened the file and read it carefully. "There's no way to know that," he said. "The TIA could have happened any time before he died. They can take hours to resolve."

"Or it could have happened exactly as I said." Being the voice of optimism and reason didn't sit well with House, but he made the effort for Wilson's sake. "He was putting up Christmas lights. That's not the act of a desperate man. It's the act of someone who was planning on spending Christmas with his family."

"I thought that counted as desperate in your books," Wilson said, but he put the file aside and concentrated on the hockey game. The Islanders scored, and Wilson nudged House, a smile visible in his eyes, if not on his lips. "Do you want some popcorn?"

"Popcorn? I was counting on beer and nachos. What kind of a concession stand are you running here?"

"You'll have to take that up with the Maternity department. But if you can hold on until the end of the second period, we can hit the closest bar and I'll get the first pitcher."

That had never been in question. Wilson would buy the first, second, and third pitcher, if the game went into overtime. But for now, House was content to wait for that first beer. He could hang on as long as Wilson did.

Chapter Text

"I hate holidays," House said. He was sprawled on the couch in Wilson's office, which was too short for him, though it was still more comfortable than sitting up.

Wilson didn't look up from his paperwork. "I can tell you're completely traumatized. So much so that you're taking Christmas Day off, even though you're an atheist."

"Hey, if the Christians can co-opt a pagan celebration to get a day off, then so can I." He glanced at his watch. "It's nearly three o'clock. You're not really going to work until the end of the day? Nobody works a full day on Christmas Eve. Even Cuddy left an hour ago."

"Cuddy has a four-hour drive to her mother's place, whereas I don't have to be anywhere tonight." He glanced over at House and frowned. "And before you ask, Julie's gone to her sister's place. I'm joining them for Christmas dinner, but I'm on call until tomorrow afternoon."

"Because you're a martyr. Let someone else take the holiday shift for once."

"It's just another day," Wilson replied. "Unless you're spending it with Julie's family, and then it's an eternity. Trust me, everybody is happier this way."

House wasn't happy, though he was profoundly satisfied to learn that Julie was out of the picture for the evening. If Wilson would turn off his computer and put away the rest of his files, then he would be happy. "What could possibly be so important that it can't wait until Friday?"

"What could possibly be so important that it can't wait a couple of hours?" Wilson countered.

House saw a tiny self-satisfied smile on Wilson's face before he jotted down a note in the file he was reading. Wilson was always irritating, but he was nearly unbearable when he threw House's words back at him. House got up and prowled around the office, knowing it would annoy Wilson. He rearranged the knick-knacks on the top of Wilson's filing cabinet, slipping the scarved bear into his pocket when Wilson wasn't looking.

"Put it back, House," Wilson said without looking up.

"Do you have eyes on the top of your head?" House grumbled, but he dropped the bear on Wilson's desk, exchanging it for a stack of unopened mail.

A dozen Christmas cards were mixed in with the usual pharmaceutical propaganda, journals, and conference invitations. Another dozen or so cards were strung up along the back wall, above a pile of gifts. House had gotten a card from his insurance company, he thought -- he'd thrown it away after glancing at the address -- and a bottle of scotch from Chase that he'd kept after mocking him for being a slave to consumerism. Wilson wasn't a slave, he was a master.

House thumbed open one of the cards. "Merry Christmas, Doctor James," he read aloud. "Thank you for making me better." He pretended to gag. "I take it 'better' is a relative term." There was a picture enclosed of a young boy with close-cropped hair sitting on Santa's lap.

"He's in remission," Wilson retorted, taking the card away from House. He smiled when he saw the photo. "I'd say that's better."

House would, too, but he was pleased that Wilson agreed. He flipped through the other cards, matching Wilson's patients to most of the names above the return addresses. One of them caught his eye. "T-cell guy's family sent you a card. You must have made quite the impression." He thought Wilson had only met them the one time, under the worst possible circumstances. He handed the card to Wilson, who took it as if he were afraid it would explode in his face.

House rolled his eyes."People don't send hate mail in Hallmark envelopes," he said, though it was a line of greeting cards he'd be willing to buy. "It's the letters with four last names that you have to worry about." He had a few of those in his unopened mail.

For a second he thought Wilson wouldn't open the card, but while Wilson was a coward when it came to conflict, he always did what was expected of him, even if it was only opening a Christmas card. He read the card and nodded, handing it back when House snapped his fingers impatiently. It was just a standard holiday greeting signed by the Mann women, and probably sent out of etiquette rather than sentiment, but it was enough for Wilson.

There was a knock at the door, and the oncology department secretary, Teresa Pendleton, looked in. "Mrs. Sanborn is ready to go," she said, frowning when she saw House holding Wilson's mail. She was as territorial over Wilson as House was, especially when it came to paperwork. She'd staked her claim well before the news of Wilson's promotion was leaked. It would be made official in January, but House had seen the minutes of the board meeting. He'd been prepared to alter them if necessary.

Wilson was blithely oblivious. "I'll be right there. Why don't you head home and spend time with those beautiful children of yours. I've got everything under control here."

"Don't stay too long yourself," she chided. "And you have a Merry Christmas."

"He's Jewish," House snapped. "He doesn't give a damn about Christmas."

Wilson's eyebrows expressed his disapproval in a heavy brown wave. "House would be happier if he were living in Potterville," he said, grabbing his lab coat from the coat rack. "And my father was an agnostic who loved giving presents, so we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas. Speaking of which..." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a gift-wrapped box. "Merry Christmas, Teresa." He kissed her on the cheek, bringing a high flush to her cheeks. "Now get out of here before House manufactures an emergency to lock down the hospital."

"Hey, I'm the one trying to get out of here," House protested, but he put the mail down and backed away from Wilson's desk, his hands in the air. He winked at Pendleton, who shook her head and winked back. Maybe Christmas miracles happened after all. He glanced at Wilson, who had his armour on and looked like he was ready to ride out on parade. "So you're springing Sanborn?"

"For a few days at least. Her pain is under control, her appetite is back, and she's in good spirits. If she keeps building her strength, she'll be a good candidate for a new trial that's opening up in January."

"She's lucky," House said. "She has a doctor who wouldn't let her give up. That makes all the difference."

Wilson glanced sharply at him, checking to see if he was being mocked, but House kept a straight face. For once he needed Wilson to take him at face value. No word play, no mind games, just a simple truth that Wilson needed to hear. He didn't blame Wilson for being wary. Normally he reserved bluntness for criticism; his compliments were harder to discern.

Wilson studied him a moment longer, and then grinned. "Here," he said, pulling the bear out of his pocket and giving it to House. "Lisa Reed gave him to me, but I think he likes offices with glass walls better." The smile broadened until House could see dimples. "He can keep Chase company until you get around to hiring a new fellow."

That would be when hell froze over, or Cuddy put her foot down. Either way, House figured he could delay the inevitable at least as long as his taxes. Wilson would have Easter toys he could steal by then. "Go on," he said. "Send Evita back to her adoring people. I'll wait for you in my office. You can sleep on my couch tonight as long as you don't make me watch It's a Wonderful Life."

"Deal," Wilson said, with the air of a man who had safely set his Tivo. "Life of Brian instead?"

"I have a vewy gweat fwiend in Wome named Biggus Dickus," House intoned, and they both snickered.

House followed Wilson as far as the oncology ward and then turned back to his office. He didn't mind waiting when there was something to look forward to. And if, while he was waiting, he hummed a few bars from "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," there was no one around to hear but a tiny bear wearing a winter scarf.