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Break Point

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by [info]tli


by [info]virvavirva

Prologue

The first time James Wilson saw a therapist, it was a family dynamics specialist at the university where his father taught. The entire Wilson family gathered in the comfortable office, sitting uncomfortably in a circle, unable to meet each other's eyes. Michael refused to speak at all, and Peter sat wide-eyed and confused, so James tried to co-operate. It didn't work. His mother started to cry five minutes into the session and he was too worried about her to pay attention to the questions the counsellor was asking, so he stammered over his answers and sounded evasive. They kept up the sessions for months, but nothing changed, and then Michael left.

He tried couples counselling for all three of his marriages, sitting uncomfortably in a series of comfortable offices while his every fault and indiscretion were painstakingly dissected. He went to every session, hoping it would be penance enough, but therapy didn't work unless you were willing to change, and eventually all three wives left.

He recommended counselling for his patients on a daily basis, kept a list of excellent therapists in his address book for referrals, and willingly provided a sympathetic ear to any of his employees who needed to unburden. He played amateur shrink to House on what seemed like a daily basis--sometimes welcome, sometimes barely tolerated--but he told himself there was nothing a therapist could tell him about his own screwed-up life that he didn't already know. And then everything changed and he realised he had no one left.

Part One: June 2007

When he finally decided to get help, to correct that deeper error House had once accused him of making, Wilson chose a therapist in New Brunswick. It was close enough that he could book a morning appointment and still get back to the hospital before House wandered in, and far enough away that even when House found out he was in therapy--and it was definitely a question of when rather than if--House would have to work to find his file.

Wilson took precautions. He staggered his appointments so that House wouldn't notice a pattern and built a plausible cover story in case he did. He paid in cash and had the office hold his receipts. He planned to submit them to his insurance company in a lump sum after six months. Six months would be long enough to make a difference, he hoped.

As it turned out, less than five months passed from his first appointment to when he yawned once too often in House's presence.

Three weeks later, after Foreman left, after Chase was fired, after Cameron quit, House summoned Wilson to his apartment. "Don't bring anything," he said, which should have made Wilson suspicious, but things were still off-kilter between them and he was wary of questioning any overture from House.

He realized he should have been suspicious when he let himself into House's apartment and saw the bottle of rum on the table, flanked by two glasses. "Celebrating your latest triumph?" The rum was aged Havana Club--the real thing, not the Bacardi knock-off. He didn't ask where House had gotten it. Plausible deniability had become a defining feature of their relationship.

House filled both glasses and nudged one towards Wilson. "It seemed appropriate. Fidel and I smoked my last cigars, though, so you'll have to do without."

Wilson rolled his eyes. "I'm heartbroken." He scanned the room, saw something different, and glanced at House, raising his eyebrows. "New guitar?"

"Just arrived today. See? I'm totally down with change."

Hope fluttered in Wilson's chest. Maybe the loss of House's team wouldn't be the total disaster he expected. "I'm impressed," he said. "You bought it all by yourself?"

"Yep. They let me use the Internet now and everything."

"Actually, I meant with your own money," Wilson clarified, "but I haven't seen my Visa bill yet, so I could be speaking too soon." He was pretty sure he was safe, though. He'd learned the hard way to set an alert on his credit cards for any unusual activity. He raised his glass. "To change," he said, and took a careful sip. It was like swallowing a sunset. Maybe he would find out who House's connection was.

House watched him silently, topping up his glass before it was even half empty.

"Why are you plying me with alcohol?" Wilson asked suspiciously. It had been months since they'd just hung out together drinking.

"Because you forget to lie when you're drunk," House replied.

Suspicions confirmed and validated. "Why don't you just shoot me up with thiopental and be done with it?" Wilson asked. Not that he thought it would make any difference. One of the first things the therapist had suggested was talking to House. Wilson nearly didn't make a second appointment. If he could talk to House, he wouldn't be slowly losing his mind from worry and fear and the knowledge that nothing he did made a damn bit of difference. He talked to House all the time, but House didn't listen.

"I already had the alcohol." House sipped and sighed appreciatively. "Drink up, Jimmy, and make sure the only thing you spill is your guts."

Wilson stared at the glass and then decided he didn't care. House would get his information, one way or the other. At least if he were drunk enough he wouldn't have to remember the humiliation of baring his soul to an uncaring bastard. He gulped down the rest of his drink and refilled the glass himself.

House had that smug expression on his face that made Wilson want to hit him. "We'll start with the easy questions," he said, putting down his drink. "Why did you lie to Tritter?"

If House thought that was an easy question, he'd need a lot more alcohol to get through the difficult ones. There was, however, an easy answer. "Because you're my friend. Because I didn't want you to go to jail." He wasn't drunk yet, which made it easier to turn the question back on House. "Why are you asking? You knew I'd lie. You counted on me lying."

House shrugged. "I know a lot of things. That doesn't mean I understand them." He shifted restlessly in his chair and sipped the rum. "You could have lost your practice for overprescribing. Or worse."

Wilson wondered if he knew what Tritter had threatened. He wondered if House knew just how close he had come to quitting everything, not just referring out his patients. "It's over and done," he said shortly. "Talking about what didn't happen is a waste of time."

"Then let's talk about what did happen. Why did you cut the deal?"

"Do you want my reasons or the general consensus?"

"Which one is the truth?"

"They're all someone's truth," Wilson replied. "I did it because it was the only way left to help you. I did it because you were out of control and Tritter wasn't going to give up until you were thrown into jail or lost your license. I did it to get back my car and my accounts and my precious tumour-ridden patients."

House winced. "Do you remember everything I say?"

Wilson shrugged. "It's not like you were the only one to say it." He didn't want to talk about this any more. "Is that answer enough for you? I can poll the hospital for other opinions if you're not satisfied."

But House was silent. Wilson shrugged again and poured himself another drink.



October 1984

James woke to the sound of someone forcing open his window from the outside. For a moment he lay still trying not to breathe, but then he decided that not breathing would be suspicious. He tried instead to breathe as if he was still asleep, but he didn't actually know what that sounded like. He would have to set up a tape recorder one night, assuming that whoever was breaking into his bedroom didn't murder him in his not-sleep.

He thought about Peter in the room next to his and about his parents sleeping soundly down the hall. Michael, he figured, could take care of himself, if he'd even bothered to come home. But he couldn't just lie there and let the rest of his family be taken by surprise. He'd read In Cold Blood. He knew a simple robbery could turn bad.

The curtain was pushed aside and moonlight silvered into the room. James let his eyes adjust and then looked around for a possible weapon. Why did his mother insist that he keep all his sports equipment in the downstairs closet? A baseball bat would be perfect right now. Even a ski pole would be better than nothing. Tomorrow he would root through the closet for his putter. It was nice and solid and could be stored easily by the bed. If he survived that long.

The only thing solid and heavy within reach was his history textbook. He reached slowly towards the bedside table and picked it up, prepared to fling it at the intruder's head. Then a familiar Nike-clad foot swung over the sill. James sat up and turned on the reading lamp.

"Turn it off," Michael hissed. "You want to wake up everybody?" He swung his other leg through the window and dropped lightly to the floor.

"My door's closed," James whispered back. "Nobody will see anything. Or do you think Mom and Dad have a buzzer in their room that goes off every time I turn on my light?" He reached for the lamp and turned the head so that it shone directly into Michael's face. "What are you doing climbing through my window anyway?"

"Forgot my key," Michael replied, shading his eyes. "Are you trying to blind me?"

"Pupils not contracting?" James wondered. "What are you on?" He sniffed and had his answer. "Are you completely brain dead?" he asked. "Do you think Mom isn't going to smell that, or have you figured out how to do laundry yourself?"

"So many questions, little one." Michael patted him on the head, and then bent over and slipped off his shoes. "Mom notices what she wants to notice. A little weed isn't going to ping her radar."

James realized that was probably true. Their mother tended to pick and choose her battles, preferably ones she could win. A B on James's report card was a sign of the impending apocalypse, but Michael stumbling home wasted was just youthful spirits. He wondered where she would draw the line, and hoped they'd never have to find out. He glanced at his watch. 2:37 am. "Where have you been, anyway?"

"Took a trip down the Amazon," Michael replied blithely. "Looking for El Dorado."

"I thought that was up the Orinoco," James said and smiled. It was hard to stay annoyed with Michael when he was in a good mood. Pot mellowed him, made him a little more like the brother James remembered and loved. He took a chance and pulled Michael down on the bed bedside him.

Michael glanced at the textbook James was still holding and chuckled. "What were you going to do? Bore me to death?"

James ignored him. "What are you doing, Michael? Staying out late every night getting drunk or high? Working odd jobs for spending money? What's the point?" He braced himself for a fight. The last time his father had asked the same question, Michael had stormed out of the house and hadn't come home until the next day.

But Michael just laughed softly and leaned back on the bed, covering his eyes with one arm. "There isn't a point. Not everything has to have a point."

James tried to wrap his mind around that. He couldn't think of anything in his life that didn't have a point, or at least the means to a point. People did things for a reason, whether they knew what it was or not. "Then the point is not to have a point," he said.

Michael dropped his arm and stared at James. "Have you been smoking, too?"

"On a school night? No." He'd tried pot a couple of times, but hadn't thought much of it. Inhaling made him cough, so he'd just pretended to puff and hadn't felt anything at all. "You must have a plan."

Michael laughed. "You and your plans. I bet you have your whole life mapped out. Talk to me in twenty years and we'll see how well that turned out."

Twenty years seemed a long way away, but James knew that in ten years, he'd have his medical degree and things would progress from there. It wasn't a plan so much as a direction, one he'd been heading in for as long as he could remember. "You don't have to know what you want to be for the rest of your life," he said. "But you're going to have to find a real job eventually."

"Why?"

James blinked and shook his head, wondering if he were still asleep. "What do you mean, 'Why?' You can't just do nothing indefinitely. Mom and Dad aren't going to support you forever." Their father was already starting to lose patience, and James was afraid he'd kick Michael out before he was capable of looking after himself. Though he was beginning to wonder if Michael would ever be capable of that. "You don't have to go to college, but Dad will pay for any kind of training. Welders make good money. Or plumbers. You'd be raking it in while I'm still paying off student loans."

Michael curled his upper lip. "Right. Fixing other people's toilets. No thanks."

James knew an office job or a service position would be just as distasteful to Michael. He had no idea what else to suggest. "You have to want to do something. You have to support yourself somehow."

Michael smiled and sat up. "Don't worry about me, kid. I may not have plans, but I have ideas."

That was the kind of statement that kept James awake at night. "How many of those ideas are going to end up with Dad having to bail you out of jail?"

"Only a couple. And only if I get caught." Michael grabbed him and knuckled the top of his head hard enough to make James yelp and pull away. "You worry too much." He fished a joint out of his jacket pocket. "I'll teach you how to smoke properly, and then maybe you'll chill out." He pulled out his lighter and laughed when James snatched it away from him. "I'm not going to light up in your bedroom, nimrod." He tucked the joint behind James's ear. "You know, the guy I bought this off of is paying his way through Rutgers selling dope. Business major. Maybe that's what I should do."

"You'd be good at business," James said, ignoring the commodity in question. Michael's only marketable skill, as far as he could tell, was his ability to get his own way, time after time. He was executive material if he could just get started. "You're smart, Mikey. Don't waste your life."

"I'm not wasting my life--I'm doing what I want right now." He slid off the bed and turned out the light. "Maybe you'll figure out how to do the same before it's too late." He picked up his shoes and tiptoed across the room. "Wake me in the morning and I'll kill you."

James listened until he heard Michael close the door of his own room, relaxing when he didn't hear his parents stir. He took the joint and slipped it though a gap in the hem of his curtains. Michael would probably come looking for it once he'd finished the rest of his stash, but maybe they would smoke it together. It had been a long time since Michael had taught him anything.

He set the history textbook back on his bedside table and turned out the light. He left the window open, though. Intruders were the least of his worries.

Part Two: June 2007

"It was because of what I said to Cuddy, wasn't it?" Two days had passed since the alcohol-fuelled interrogation, but obviously House hadn't abandoned his pursuit, just let it simmer on the back burner.

Wilson briefly thought about feigning confusion, but House wouldn't believe it. That didn't mean he was prepared to play House's little guessing game. "I have an appointment in five minutes," he said. "Do you have a point or are you just making random observations?"

House ignored him. "Or was it because I hit Chase?" He frowned. "No. You gave that one and the one about cutting the kid in half to Tritter, so that can't be it."

"I told you why I made the deal," Wilson replied impatiently. "Try and keep up."

"Oh, I'm up," House said. "Your shopping list of reasons doesn't cut it. They're somebody's truth, but they're not yours."

"I made the deal to try and make the problem go away. It was a mistake. I screwed up. I underestimated your stubbornness and miscalculated Tritter's motives."

"All true," House conceded. "But not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's a good thing you never testified."

Wilson looked away. "I tried to take back my statement," he said. "I wouldn't have testified against you."

"I know," House replied, and Wilson wasn't sure whether he sounded impressed or disgusted. "Tritter told me. He thought I should know just how much better my friends are than I deserve. That's why it doesn't fit. I humiliated you in front of a patient's family, stole a dead man's prescription, and you turned around and tried to throw yourself on a grenade for me."

"I pulled the pin." Wilson really didn't want to talk about this now. Not just before he had to tell a patient that her cancer had returned. Not when he was trying to cut back on the antidepressants. And definitely not sober.

"Tell me why you pulled the pin and I'll leave you alone."

A knock on the door rescued Wilson. House gave him a look warning him that he wasn't off the hook and slid open the balcony door. "My place tonight," he said. "Bring tequila."

Wilson took an extra minute before he stood up to greet his patient. Rescinding a reprieve wasn't going to be the worst part of the day after all.

But that evening he still found himself driving to House's apartment, accompanied by a bottle of Cuervo Tradicional. If he was going to drink tequila, he was going to enjoy it. At least he'd have the weekend to recover this time.

House waited until Wilson was on his third shot before he restarted the interrogation. "The deal," he said. "The truth this time."

"I told you the truth, several times." Wilson slammed down the shot, gagging slightly as the alcohol hit the back of his throat. "Just because you don't like an answer doesn't mean it's a lie."

"Why should I believe anything you say?" House retorted. "You lied to me about moving in with your patient. You lied about the brain cancer patient with Addison's. You lied about the antidepressants. God knows how many times you lied about having dinner with Stacy. When have you ever told me the truth?"

To be fair, Wilson thought, some of those were lies of omission born out of a rusty sense of self-preservation. "I was telling the truth when I said I wasn't cheating on Julie." Though that was a matter of perspective. He hadn't cheated on Julie, but he hadn't been faithful either. "I tell you the truth all the time--you just pick and choose what's convenient for you to believe."

House pretended not to hear him. "Let's get back to Cuddy. I saw you go into her office, do your sensitive guy schtick. What did that trigger?"

"Nothing. I talked to Cuddy because she was upset and I was concerned. But it wasn't the reason I went to Tritter, just a symptom of how badly the situation was unravelling."

Wilson didn't care if House believed him or not. The truth wasn't something you could just point to and say, "This is it. This is everything." It was a bundle of incidents and interpretations, moments and beliefs that pieced together in a way that couldn't be described, just known.

"I stole your prescription pad and forged your signature," House said. "That wasn't enough of a sign that things had already unravelled?" He studied Wilson thoughtfully. "Your accounts were frozen, your car was impounded, your practice suspended, but you carried on like a loyal little soldier. But I yell at Cuddy, punch Chase, and all of a sudden you're beating a path to enemy headquarters."

Wilson flinched, remembering Tritter's smug smile when he'd knocked on the door and offered himself up. "It wasn't just about me any more. You were hurting other people. I had to do something."

"It wasn't the first time I hit someone. It wasn't the hundredth time I insulted Cuddy."

It might have been the tequila, or it might have been House's dismissive tone. The words slipped out before Wilson could censor himself. "Did you know, when you told Cuddy that she'd be a lousy mother, that she'd had a miscarriage?" He forced himself to look at House, to accept whatever truth House would let him see.

House couldn't meet his gaze. "I suspected," he admitted. "I knew the IVF wasn't working."

Wilson stood up. "You're a bastard," he said. "I might have done the wrong thing, but at least I did it for the right reasons." He grabbed his jacket, but left the tequila on the table, all the better for House to poison himself with.

"Which one?" House called after him. "The bitch, the ditz, or the princess?"

Wilson paused, frowning a moment before he realized that House thought one of his wives had miscarried. "It's not that simple," he said and left.



November 1984

"You've been quiet, James," the therapist said. She had a way of making even the simplest observations sound earth-shattering, and James wondered just what family dysfunction his silence indicated. "How are things at school?"

"James is at the top of his class," his mother said proudly. "Straight As this term."

"Yes, James is perfect in every way," Michael drawled. It was the first thing he'd said in three sessions, so everybody turned to look at him. "No point wasting any time on him. Peter, on the other hand, still hasn't figured out fractions. Must be pretty embarrassing for the vice-chair of the physics department."

"Why don't you tell her how you passed math," James suggested sharply. Michael could make fun of him all he wanted, but Peter was off-limits. As far as James was concerned, the whole point of this exercise was to help Peter cope with their messed-up lives. It was too late for the rest of them. "Or English."

Michael smiled lazily at him. "Are you still upset about that? I just used the resources available to me. How different is that from you or Dad helping Peter with his homework?"

"There's a difference between helping and cheating," James retorted, knowing that meant nothing to Michael. "What you did only hurt people."

"I wish you two wouldn't argue," Helen Wilson sighed. "Is it too much to ask for you to be civil to each other?"

James blinked and glanced at Michael, and they shared a moment of affectionate disbelief. Michael snickered and looked away, and James tried hard not to smile. "I thought that was why we were here," he said. "Isn't this about working through family dynamics?" As if on cue, the door opened and his father walked in.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, sitting down on the couch next to Peter. "The department head meeting ran overtime, which threw my whole schedule out of whack." He smiled at the therapist, one professional to another. "Unfortunately, when academics start talking, it's hard to get them to stop. But I'm sure you see that all the time."

"You said you wouldn't make any other appointments for this afternoon," Helen said. "I thought we agreed this was important."

"Of course it's important," his father replied patiently. "But so is my job. Sometimes things come up that I can't anticipate."

"I need you to help me, Joe. I can't do this on my own."

And that was the problem, really. His mother couldn't cope by herself, and his father was never there. James wondered if the therapist had figured that out yet, and if not, how she had managed to get her degree. He didn't particularly feel like helping her do her job, so he cast about for a distraction. He glanced over at Peter, who looked a little lost in their father's shadow. "Hey, Petey. Why don't you tell Dad what happened today?"

Peter shook himself out of whatever daydream he'd been caught in and sat up straight. "I got 9 out of 10 on my five-minute speech," he boasted. "Highest in the class."

Joe beamed proudly and gave Peter a high five. "That's my boy. We'll stop for milkshakes on the way home to celebrate."

"So what was this prize-winning speech about?" Michael asked, as if he hadn't sat through a recitation the night before.

James wanted to kick him, and then he wanted to kick himself for bringing the subject up in the first place. He tried to think of a way to steer the conversation in a different direction, but Peter was virtually vibrating with excitement, eager to share his new area of expertise.

"Jack the Ripper!" he exclaimed. "Everybody listened, even the slackers in the back."

James grimaced, and glanced quickly at the therapist, wondering what she would make of that. But she only nodded in encouragement.

"That's an unusual subject for a speech," she said, but she seemed amused, rather than appalled. "What made you choose it?"

"It was Jimmy's idea," Peter said guilelessly, but James knew there was nothing innocent about the brat. "He said pick something that interested me."

Enemies all around, James thought ruefully. "I never said to do a school report about a serial killer," he protested. But he had given Peter a book about unsolved crimes, knowing how much Peter loved mysteries.

"It's history," Peter retorted. "And you liked it last night." He rolled his eyes. "What? Are you afraid she's going to think you're a bad influence on me?"

Everyone laughed at that, except James. James didn't think therapists were supposed to laugh at their patients. Maybe she didn't have a degree after all. She could be a grad student, working her way towards a PhD by listening to faculty members' screwed-up families. She'd told them to call her Emma at the beginning of their first session. It was all first names, even his parents. She probably wasn't even a doctor.

"What do you think, Peter? Is James a good influence on you?" she asked.

"He's pretty bossy," Peter teased, grinning when James pretended to scowl at him. "But yeah. I mean, he makes sure I do my homework, and cooks vegetables when Mom and Dad are away, which is just wrong, but he does cool things too, like showing me sailing knots or teaching me orienteering."

James hoped Peter wouldn't mention the time he took Peter out to the woods and left him to find his own way home. He didn't think his parents would appreciate that story, even if he'd only been trying to teach Peter survival skills. But Peter had just sat down on a log and waited until James came back for him. It hadn't exactly been the lesson James had wanted to teach, but it was one Peter had learned a little too well. James worried, sometimes, who would come back for Peter when James went away to college.

"Does James look after you a lot?" Emma asked.

"Only when our parents are away," James interjected, before Peter could answer. "I'm old enough now to babysit overnight, and Michael is usually around, so it's nice for Mom to travel with Dad when he goes to conferences."

"That's a lot of responsibility for someone your age."

"I'm nearly sixteen." James bristled. He hated being treated like a child, especially by someone who sat there all day judging people.

"James has always been very mature for his age," his father said, reaching across Peter to ruffle James's hair, even though he knew how much James hated that. "Sometimes I think he skipped adolescence altogether."

James could tell Emma wasn't very impressed by that, at least not in a positive way. He was obviously going to have to come up with some reckless act of teenage rebellion--or at least get caught--before she decided something was really wrong with him. "Shouldn't we be talking about communication?" he asked, desperate to change the subject. "Isn't that the key to positive family dynamics?"

Michael turned and stared at him. "You've been studying for this, haven't you? You went to the library and read up on family therapy." He shook his head. "Man, you're a freak."

"Don't call your brother a freak, Michael," Helen chided. "At least he's taking this seriously."

That wasn't exactly true. James took the sessions as seriously as he took anything, but he didn't think they would actually help. But his mother was clinging to them as if they were the last hope for the family, so he did his best to hide his doubts.

"I'm just communicating what I think of him. Isn't that what we're supposed to do?"

"Perhaps that's something we can address at the next session," Emma suggested smoothly. "We've only got about five minutes left today, and Joseph hasn't had a chance to check in."

Peter nudged their father and snickered. Nobody called him Joseph, except their Nana. It was always Joe, or Dad, or Professor Wilson.

"Maybe if Joseph had better time management skills, he'd have more time to talk," Michael mocked.

"I've had just about enough of your mouth, Michael," Joe snapped. "I apologized for being late. The subject is closed."

"Shouldn't that be up to her to decide?" Michael retorted, jerking his chin in the direction of the therapist. "You don't get to close a subject just because it makes you uncomfortable."

"Michael has a point," their mother said. "You were late last week as well. If you can't commit to these sessions, then I don't know why we're bothering."

"I have responsibilities in my job that I can't just drop."

"You have responsibilities to your family."

"I work to support my family."

This time James laughed too. "Right, Dad," he said. "You're straight out of a Springsteen song. You knocked up Mom and got a job working construction in the Johnston Company."

"What's that supposed to mean?" It was hard to tell sometimes if his father was angry. His temper was unpredictable, which made it all the more unnerving.

"It means you're not exactly working double shifts for minimum wage just to keep food on the table," Michael said. "You're doing exactly what you'd be doing if you didn't have a family, so don't use us as an excuse."

"You have no idea what I've sacrificed for this family, what your mother has sacrificed," his father said, his voice cold. Definitely angry. Michael's temper was an active volcano, roiling just beneath the cone, but their father's was ice, flash-freezing everything it touched. Where lava and ice met, they left nothing behind but scorched, cracked earth.

Peter edged closer to James, and James slipped an arm around his shoulders. He wished he'd just kept his mouth shut. Talking never did any good.

"Don't put this on her," Michael retorted. "We know damn well what she's sacrificed. You never let us forget it."

"Watch your language," Joe snapped.

"Watch my language? You're unbelievable. It doesn't matter what we do or feel, as long as we behave nicely in public. Well, fuck that."

James looked nervously at his mother. Her face was expressionless, but her hands were so tightly clenched together they looked like marble. Beside him, Peter was so tense James thought he might shatter to the touch.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Joe demanded. "I expect you to act respectfully towards your mother and myself, whether we're in public or alone."

Michael just snorted and looked away. "You are so full of shit."

The last time their father had hit any of them was after he'd caught Peter about to climb out his bedroom window via a poorly constructed sheet rope, and even then it had only been a fear-fuelled spanking. But James was suddenly certain that his father would hit Michael the next time he opened his mouth. "Cocksucking son of a bitch!" he shouted, and a second later his father's palm slapped the side of his face hard enough to snap his head back.

"Oh, Jesus," his father said, as Peter started to cry. "Jimmy, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," James replied, rubbing his cheek. The sting was already starting to fade. "I meant for you to do that. Michael would never have forgiven you if you'd hit him."

Michael gaped at him and then turned to the therapist. "I hope you're taking notes," he told her. "Because the family's in fine form. You might even get a paper out of it." He glanced at his watch. "Too bad we're out of time."

James touched his cheek and hoped that wasn't true.

Part Three: June 2007

"Have you told your headshrinker about the black sheep brother?" House sat down in the chair in front of Wilson's desk and made himself at home.

Another day, another interrogation. Wilson was surprised it had taken House this long to start poking with that stick. Though as a rule, they rarely mentioned Michael. "Haven't you stolen my file yet? You're slipping in your old age." He closed the browser window on his computer and sat back in his chair expectantly. This time he was ready for House's prying.

"Your penchant for paranoia has so far outmanoeuvred my mad stalking skillz," House admitted, looking chagrined. "But I'll find out eventually."

"It's not paranoia if the stalking is real," Wilson pointed out, pleased by the chagrin. He needed any advantage, however fleeting, just to keep pace with House. "And if you think I'm going to let you anywhere near my file, you've taken way too many Vicodin today."

"Well, duh. We wouldn't be having this conversation if I didn't do that on a regular basis."

Chagrin turned to smugness, and Wilson knew his momentary advantage was gone. He wondered why he'd ever said smugness was an attractive quality in House. "I know what this is about," Wilson said, trying to deflect the conversation onto a safer path. "You miss the kids. They were idiots, but they were interesting idiots. They had all kinds of issues for you to poke and prod at and keep you entertained. You need to hire a new team. Get yourself some new puzzles to play with."

"Why would I do that when I have China right in front of me--a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, bound up in a mystery."

"It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," Wilson retorted. "And Churchill said it about the Soviet Union. If you're going to make some mildly clever remark at my expense, at least get it right."

"Whatever," House said dismissively. "I don't know why you're so intent on keeping secrets," he continued, undeterred. "It's not like anything you tell that quack is going to be more embarrassing than the idiotic things I've seen you do."

"It's not about being embarrassed," Wilson replied, wondering if there were any possible way of putting it in terms House could understand. "It's about keeping just one part of myself private."

House rolled his eyes. "I hate to break it to you, chief, but when you start spilling secrets to a shrink, it stops being private."

"Private from you," Wilson clarified. "Heresy though that might be." House was the most private man he knew, but he plundered other people's lives freely, exposing their weaknesses and feeding on their failings. Keeping secrets from him was a matter of self-preservation, as well as a habit. Wilson knew House would steal his file without a qualm, which was why Wilson had made sure it was out of reach. Confidentiality was only a concept of convenience to him. Stacy had found that out the hard way.

"What could be so terrible that you won't tell me? That you cheated on your wives? Slept with a patient? Sold your best friend out to the cops and then walked out on him in the middle of an overdose?"

Wilson sucked in a breath reflexively, as if House had sucker punched him. Even now he couldn't think about it, couldn't bear to remember Christmas morning and finding House semi-conscious on the floor next to a puddle of vomit and an empty bottle of Oxycodone. The next day, he'd called the therapist in New Brunswick.

"Sounds to me like you don't actually need to see my file," he said evenly. "You're well aware of all the skeletons in my closet." He should. House was responsible for at least half of them.

"I wasn't aware of your mystery brother until a couple of years ago," House pointed out. "God knows what else you've been hiding all these years. And don't give me that crap about it not being relevant. Everything is relevant."

"I'm not one of your patients," Wilson retorted. "You don't need a complete history to diagnose me." He pinched the bridge of his nose, as if he could suffocate the encroaching headache before it took hold. It was harder doing this sober. And much harder than talking to a stranger who didn't treat each revelation like a shiny new toy to play with. "You've always avoided talking about my problems before. Why the sudden interest?"

"You weren't on antidepressants before."

"So because I'm taking drugs, I'm not boring any more?"

House stood up and paced around the office. "You've always been a head case," he said. "How could you not be, hanging around me? But I thought you were just messed up in that suburban middle-class way that you can't really do anything about."

"You can't fix me, House," Wilson said softly. "Any more than I can fix you. Isn't that what you've been trying to tell me for years?"

"That's different. I don't want to change. But you don't want to be unhappy." He pretended to study Wilson's diplomas.

"That's never seemed to matter to you before." That wasn't entirely fair, but it was hard for Wilson to forget all the times House had simply walked away when he needed someone to talk to, someone to listen.

"What are you saying?" House demanded, and Wilson knew the hurt in his voice was genuine. "That I want you to be unhappy?"

"No," Wilson said. "But I think it's less lonely for you if I am." He knew he'd hit close to the truth when House curled briefly over his cane.

For a moment he thought House would just walk away, but then House turned and came back to the desk. He took a deep breath and sat down again. "Tell me about your brother."

Wilson had avoided talking about Michael for years. Despite what House obviously thought, he had barely mentioned him in five months of therapy. But he recognized the gift House was offering him, and he couldn't refuse. "You would have liked him," he said, smiling as he allowed himself to remember all the good things about his older brother. "He was smart, and cocky, and he wasn't afraid to take risks."

"And you were," House said.

Wilson snorted. "Look at me. I wear a pocket protector. I drive a Volvo. I always do what's expected of me, even when I hate every second of it." And yet he had no idea how to live his life any other way, and he didn't think five years of therapy could teach him differently. "Michael was everything I wished I could be, and everything I was afraid I'd become."

House stared at him, as if he were a whiteboard of contradictory symptoms. "It's a good thing Bob Hartley loaded you up on drugs, because obviously you're never going to get anywhere just talking about yourself. You have no idea who you are, do you?"

That was an unfair question. Wasn't therapy supposed to help him find that out? "And you do?" he snapped.

"I know you're not someone who's afraid to take risks," House replied. "You're careful, and you take precautions, but you're not a coward."

"That's not what you said a few weeks ago." Wilson watched House scan his memory banks and pinpoint the incident.

"I apologized for that," he protested. "And you believed me. You even bought me the bitchin' cane."

"I bought you the cane because Hector chewed through your other one." Exhibit A for the prosecution, Wilson thought. As hurt as he'd been by House's tirade in the hallway, he'd still come running the second House had called. He'd bought the cane because it was the right thing to do, because he always tried to do the right thing, even when it ended up being the wrong thing. "And you may have apologized, but you still meant it." It had hurt all the more, because he'd known House was right.

"At the time, yeah, but we both know I was just pissed off because I didn't get my way. It's not in you to manipulate and lie to distraught parents. Even if you should."

Wilson couldn't help smiling. House giveth and House taketh away. And then House surprised him by giving again.

"Our friendship is the emotional equivalent of walking blindfolded through a busy intersection, and you do it every day," House said. "You're quite possibly brain damaged, but you're not a coward." He paused and tapped his cane on the floor. "Did your brother call you a coward?"

Michael had called him a lot of things before he left for the last time, most of them cruel and unbearably accurate. Michael had hated cowardice almost as much as House did. It hurt to remember that Michael had hated him at the end. His chest tightened, and for one terrifying moment he thought he actually might start to cry. He breathed deeply, forcing air into his lungs. "What does it matter what my brother said or did? It's in the past."

"Why are you on antidepressants if it's all in the past?" House demanded.

"You don't think I have reason to be depressed?" Some days Wilson had trouble thinking of a reason not to be depressed. "I'm on my third divorce, I tell people they're going to die every day, and my best friend is in chronic pain and the only thing I can do is give him drugs that will eventually kill him."

"This isn't about me," House retorted, but he looked away.

"Of course it's about you; it's always about you. The antidepressants are interesting, but not interesting enough for you to waste a bottle of good rum. Why don't you just ask me what you really want to know?"

House stood up, pushing his chair back abruptly. "I want to know about your brother. He's the one variable I can't predict. He's the particle or wave that you can't see, but you know is there because of how it affects everything around it."

Wilson watched him cross the room, his gait made awkward by agitation. "I don't understand," he admitted. It seemed to be his default position with House lately.

"I need to understand the effect. I need to know how he acted on you. If I know what he did, then I'll know what I did to make you give up on me."

Wilson flinched, but there was no reproach in House's voice, just regret. "I didn't give up on you, House," he protested. "I just didn't know what else to do." But he had been furious when he saw the name of the patient on the empty prescription bottle, when he realized House had exploited their friendship to get his drugs.

But House shook his head, as serious as Wilson had ever seen him. "I pushed it, and it broke, and I need to know what the break point was so that I don't do it again."

For the first time in what felt like months, Wilson could breathe freely. He didn't know any better than House what had caused the break, but maybe the two of them together could figure it out. Maybe together they could mend it. "Okay," he said. "I'll tell you what I can."

House didn't do grateful--it wasn't in his DNA--but he did look relieved. He finished his circuit of the room and sat down on the couch. "You protected him," House said. It was a statement, not a question. "He was your older brother, but you were the one who looked out for him, kept him out of trouble the best you could, tried to make things easier for him."

"Did Peter tell you that?" He loved his baby brother, all the more for being the only brother he had left, but even at 35 he was a tattletale.

"I know you," House replied. "Peter didn't have to tell me anything." He smirked when Wilson let relief show on his face. "Though he did. Might have been better if you hadn't protected him," he suggested quietly.

But that had never been an option, not until it was the only option. "He was my brother." He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and took out the bottle of scotch a patient had given him on the second anniversary of her remission. "I loved him." He found a couple of clean glasses in one of the bookshelf cupboards and poured them each a finger. It was close enough to quitting time that it wouldn't matter.

House took the glass, but didn't drink. "Even after he hurt you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Wilson replied, but his hand lifted involuntarily to the back of his head. He tried to disguise the motion by rubbing his neck, but House had seen and taken note. A single slip was all he ever needed.

"Interesting," House said. "I know about the scar on your arm, though I don't know how you got it. Peter didn't know the details, but he did say it wasn't the first time Michael hurt you. What did he do? Beat you up? Hit you on the head and steal your lunch money?"

"It wasn't like that," Wilson protested. "It was an accident." He reached for the scotch and realized he was no better than House, popping a Vicodin every time something annoyed him. He put the glass back down.

"Tell me about the accident and I'll let you play my new guitar."

Wilson knew that was House's way of letting him off the hook after one story. The problem was, he didn't know how to start. "I was fifteen," he said finally. "Michael was nineteen. He'd dropped out of college, wasn't doing much of anything except hanging out with his buddies. Our parents were away for the weekend. Dad had a conference or something. They left Michael in charge, but they gave the grocery money to me. By that time even Mom knew better than to trust him." He fingered the back of his head again. "Unfortunately, I wasn't old enough to drive yet." He closed his eyes and lost himself in the memory of a cold December day.



December 1984

James stamped his feet, trying to keep his toes from turning into icicles. Michael was late, as usual. He and Peter had been waiting outside the movie theatre for nearly twenty minutes. Most of the matinee crowd had dispersed, and ticket buyers for the next show were warmly tucked in their seats watching the coming attractions.

Peter shivered exaggeratedly, and James took off his scarf and wrapped it around his younger brother's neck, tugging the ends playfully. "I told you it was going to be cold," he chided, zipping his jacket all the way up.

"You sound like Mom," Peter said, but crowded close to James, leeching his body heat.

"I'm channelling her while she's away." He wrapped his arms around Peter and rested his chin on the top of Peter's head. "I thought I'd make spaghetti for dinner. That okay with you?"

"Why can't we just order pizza?"

"Because Mom said no. But we can make popcorn after and stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live." Peter would be asleep before the first musical number. It was the Honeydrippers, though, so he wouldn't chase Peter to bed until after the song. He hummed "Sea of Love" softly, chuckling when Peter tried to squirm out of his grasp.

"How about meatballs?" Peter asked. "Can we have meatballs with the spaghetti?"

James had wanted to try a new sauce recipe with the pasta, but he knew Peter would balk at anything other than meatballs now. "I think there's a can in the cupboard. If we do meatballs, you have to have salad."

He didn't need to see Peter's face to know he was rolling his eyes. "I was wrong. You're worse than Mom."

"You think Mom wouldn't make you eat salad, or worse?" James protested.

"Yeah, but she's a mother--she's supposed to make me eat boring things. We're supposed to have fun when our parents are away."

James snorted. "Yeah, you had a really shitty time just now, didn't you? It must have been some other kid laughing like a hyena beside me." He boxed Peter's ears lightly and laughed when Peter ducked away and turned to glare at him. He stepped aside as Peter lunged at him and caught the end of the scarf, keeping Peter from falling to the ground.

"Doofus," he said fondly. "And you know Mom would never have let you go to that movie, so you can thank Michael for getting us in. If he ever gets here," he muttered. He was used to Michael being late, but it was annoying, and his feet were freezing. If Michael didn't show up soon, he was going to drag Peter onto the bus.

He was a minute away from heading for the bus stop when a car pulled over on the other side of the street. Michael got out of the passenger seat and pounded on the roof. "Let's go, brats. Time's a-wasting."

James made a point of looking at his watch once they'd dodged their way across the street. "I wasn't aware you were familiar with the concept of time," he commented.

Peter was blunter. "You're late and I'm cold. We've been waiting for ages." He glanced into the car. "Why is Josh driving? What did you do with Mom's car?"

"None of your business," Michael retorted. "And stop complaining. I'm giving you a ride, aren't I?"

"Josh is giving us a ride," Peter muttered, but pushed the front seat forward. "Hey, Josh."

"Hey, kid. Good movie?" Josh Randall had been Michael's best friend since preschool. He was the only guy Michael hung around with who didn't treat them like radioactive waste.

"Awesome! Eddie Murphy rocked. He's on Saturday Night Live tonight. We're staying up to watch."

"That'll be good." Josh swung out of the driver's seat and leaned over the hood of the car. "What do you think, Mike? Maybe we should stay in tonight and watch with the kids. Honeydrippers are on, too." He pushed a shock of dark blond hair off his forehead, and then blew on his hands and rubbed them together.

"Honeydrippers are bogus," Michael said dismissively. "It's just a publicity stunt for Robert Plant."

Josh rolled his eyes. "He's having fun, playing what he wants. Besides. Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. How can you not want to see that?"

"Whatever. Let's get out of here. Unless you want to stand around talking about crap music while we freeze our nuts off." Michael nudged Peter forward with his knee, ruffling his hair when Peter turned around and scowled at him.

"Don't," Peter snapped, patting his hair back down, but then scrambled into the back seat. James was about to follow when he glanced into the front and saw a couple of empty beer cans crushed on the floor and a six-pack tucked partly under the passenger seat.

"Get out of the car, Peter," James said, holding open the door. "We can take the bus home." He grabbed Peter's arm, stopping just short of pulling his younger brother out of the car physically. Peter crawled out reluctantly, shifting his scowl to James. James rolled his eyes and gestured for his brother to follow him.

"Don't be an idiot, Jimmy," Michael retorted. "I said we'd give you a ride. Get in and shut up."

"You've been drinking."

"Josh hasn't and he's driving."

"Jimmy, come on. It's cold out and the bus takes forever." Peter tugged on James's jacket, switching from sulking to puppy dog pleading. James had never built up immunity to that.

He studied Josh carefully. He wasn't holding a beer, but that didn't mean he hadn't been drinking earlier. James liked Josh. He was the only one of Michael's friends who wasn't a complete loser. He was the only one of Michael's friends he could trust. "Are you okay to drive?"

"I'm fine, kid. I promise."

James hesitated. It was only a few miles. And it was cold. "Okay," he said reluctantly. He held Peter back and crawled into the back seat first, remembering that the driver's side seatbelt didn't work. The last time Josh had given them a ride, he'd spent the entire time trying to make it catch. "Buckle up or we walk," he told Peter, who rolled his eyes.

Only a few miles, James told himself again, and put his arm around Peter's shoulders. Josh sped up as they left the commercial district and turned onto the parkway. Traffic was light, just an occasional car heading the other direction, and James looked out the window, letting his mind wander.

He tried to remember if they had all the ingredients to make spaghetti sauce. There was ground beef in the freezer that he could thaw and cans of tomato paste and diced tomatoes in the cupboard. He was pretty sure there was an onion left and some garlic, but he'd have to get Michael to pick up some supplies for Sunday dinner. His parents would be back in the afternoon, but they would be tired from the flight. He could make a roast, maybe poach a salmon, and let his mother relax.

James was torn out of his culinary musings as the car swerved abruptly to the right, cutting onto the shoulder. He turned his head and saw Josh push Michael away with one hand. "Wilson, you fucking moron," Josh screamed, as he twisted the wheel, skewing them back onto the road.

James could tell almost immediately that he'd overcompensated. The car veered into the oncoming lane and back again, and then they were skidding sideways across the road, the tires spinning without traction on the slick surface. James tightened his arm around Peter and tried to brace them as best he could. At least there was no oncoming traffic to worry about, just a stand of oak trees near the shoulder. He knew exactly which one they were going to hit.

Later, he couldn't remember the actual moment of impact. They were moving and then they weren't. He looked to his left and saw that they had come to rest against the very tree he had picked out, but there was no satisfaction in being right. He turned to Peter. "Are you okay?"

Peter nodded, his eyes dark and wide with fear. "Yeah," he breathed. "What happened?"

"Your brother is a fucking idiot, that's what happened," Josh shouted, pushing Michael up against the passenger door. "He pulled the wheel. What the fuck were you thinking?"

Michael twisted away and opened the door, jumping out quickly. "I was just having some fun," he said, dancing away when Josh scrambled across the seat after him. "Chill out."

"I'll chill you out," Josh retorted. "This is my sister's car. She's going to kill me. But not before I kill you first." He stopped, though, and glanced into the back seat. "Are you guys all right?"

James nodded, still a little dazed. For a moment it was as though he were watching the scene from outside his body, and then he heard a hissing sound and he snapped back to awareness. Gas leak. One spark and the car would explode. "Get out," he said, shoving Peter towards the door. "Get out and run. Hurry!"

Josh blinked and looked puzzled, but he pushed the seat forward and pulled first Peter and then James out the door.

James stumbled slightly when his feet hit the ground, but then he shook his head and grabbed Peter's arm. "Run!" he shouted. "It's going to blow!"

But Michael just laughed and pointed at the front of the car. "You idiot. It's just the tire. You watch way too much TV."

James looked where he was pointing and realized that the hissing sound he'd heard was air escaping from a punctured tire. The sudden burst of adrenaline flowed out of him, leaving him cold and shaky, and he rubbed a hand over his face. Michael was right. He did watch too much television. He felt like an idiot.

But then Josh grabbed his shoulders. "You're bleeding," he said.

It was only then that James realized his head hurt. He blinked and touched the back of his head. His fingers came away stained red, and he stumbled backwards in surprise. Only Josh's grip on his shoulders kept him from falling. "Oh, shit," he mumbled, and then he saw Peter's face. "It's okay, Petey," he said. "I'm okay. It's just a cut on the head. Head wounds bleed a lot." He pressed the heel of his hand against the spot where it hurt the most, hoping that would be enough to stop the bleeding. He wished he had a handkerchief, or even just a package of tissues.

Josh let go of James's shoulders and scrubbed his face with his hands. "What are we going to do? You need to see a doctor. Probably need stitches. But the tire's blown and I don't have a spare."

"I don't need to go to the doctor," James protested. A doctor would want to call his parents. A doctor would want an explanation he wasn't prepared to give. "I had a tetanus shot last year, and it's hardly bleeding at all." But when he took his hand away, his palm was slick with blood.

"Fuck," Josh said and pulled the car door open. He rummaged around the floor and came back with a handful of clean napkins from a fast-food restaurant. "Use this," he said, folding them carefully and pressing them against the back of James's head. "I know your folks are out of town. Is there anyone else we could call?"

James shook his head and tried not to panic. Peter needed him to think clearly. "We're only about a five-minute walk from our house. I can look after it there. If it doesn't stop bleeding, I'll go to the clinic on Hudson Street." He didn't think he needed stitches. As long as he kept the cut clean and free of infection, it would heal all right. It wasn't as though he needed to worry about a scar.

"My place is just up the road," Josh replied. "I'm going to have to call a tow truck anyway. Don't worry," he added, when James started to protest. "My parents drove to New York to see a play and I dropped Barb off at a friend's house. She won't be home for a couple of hours." He patted James on the shoulder reassuringly.

"God, stop talking about it and just do something," Michael complained. He leaned against the hood of the car and opened a beer.

Josh stepped away from James, but Peter was faster, launching himself at his oldest brother. "Like you care," he shouted, swinging wildly at Michael. "This is your fault. You said we'd be safe, but you made us crash." He landed several blows before Michael grabbed his arms and shoved him away.

Peter stumbled backwards, but quickly regained his balance and would have rushed Michael again if James hadn't grabbed him in a bear hug and held him back. "Don't," he said in Peter's ear. "It's not worth it." He struggled to keep Peter still, and his head started to ache with the effort. He could feel blood trickle down the back of his neck.

"Let me go," Peter demanded, trying to pull loose from James's grasp. "Why are you protecting him? Why do you always protect him?"

It was a good question, one James couldn't even explain to himself. "I'm protecting you," he replied. "He's drunk. He might not mean to hurt you, but he will."

"Don't be so dramatic," Michael retorted. "I wouldn't dare harm the little bastard."

James tightened his arms around Peter. "Ignore him," he whispered. "You know he's an asshole when he's drinking."

"And you're a self-righteous little prig," Michael said, a split second before Josh punched him in the mouth. "Son of a bitch!" he swore, and shoved Josh hard against the side of the car.

Peter stopped struggling. "Serves him right," he muttered, though he winced when Josh pushed back and knocked Michael to the ground.

Michael scrambled to his feet and tackled Josh, and they both landed hard on the side of the road. They rolled on the ground, each one struggling to gain even a fleeting advantage. James wondered if he should try to break them apart, but he decided they could look after themselves. He reached back again and dabbed at his head with the napkins. It stung, but not too badly. He hoped he wouldn't have to get Peter to cut his hair away.

He was about to drag Peter away and start walking home, when he heard feet pounding down the pavement towards them and somebody shouting.

Josh sat up and shoved Michael away. "Oh, man," he moaned. "It's Barb. She's going to kill me."

He scrambled to his feet and hurried over to his older sister, who had stopped just short of the car, her hands planted angrily on her hips. "It wasn't my fault," he said before she could say anything. "Wilson pulled the wheel and made us crash." He turned and kicked a spray of pebbles at Michael, who was just sitting on the ground, a bored expression on his face. "Stupid bastard could have killed us." He lunged at Michael, but Barb grabbed his arm.

"Don't even think about it." She picked up the beer can Michael had dropped when he tackled Josh. "If you've been drinking and driving, Joshua, I'll dismember you and then I'll tell the parents."

"I dropped you off, like, twenty minutes ago. When was I supposed to get drunk? And what are you doing here? I thought you were at Tammy's."

"She got called into work. And why am I explaining myself to you? You're the one who just trashed my car. I better be able to drive it back to school on Monday." She walked around the car and stared at the flat tire and crumpled bumper. "Jesus. Was anybody hurt?"

"Jimmy cut his head," Josh replied.

James stepped back. He didn't want anybody else involved. He could convince Josh not to say anything to his parents, but Barb had been one of their regular babysitters before they'd been old enough to look after themselves. She had never let them get away with anything dangerous. "I'm all right," he said. "Just a flesh wound," he added, in a bad British accent. He grinned, but it faded away when Barb frowned.

"Let me see," she said. "Turn around."

But James continued backing away. "I said I was all right. It's hardly bleeding any more," he said, shoving the bloodstained napkins into his jacket pocket. He tugged Peter's arm. "We need to get home. Come on," he snapped when Peter didn't move. "If you'd done what I'd asked before, none of this would have happened."

Peter stared at him with a shocked, hurt expression, and James looked away. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean that. I just want to go home." Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, and he brushed them away angrily. Michael would laugh at him now for being weak. But Michael wasn't smiling. He even looked a little worried, which frightened James more than the crash had.

"Josh, go to the house and call a tow truck," Barb ordered. "But give me the keys first. Michael, I don't care where you go, but come back when you've sobered up and we'll talk about how you're going to pay to fix the car. I'll make sure your brothers get home safely." She took the keys from Josh and opened the trunk. She pulled out a small first-aid kit and rummaged through it until she found a gauze pad.

She walked slowly towards Peter and James, stopping just out of reach. "It's all right if you don't want me to look. But hold this against it, all right?"

James nodded and took the pad, pressing it against the back of his head. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't mean to freak out."

"I'd say you had a pretty good reason." She smiled at Peter. "I haven't seen you guys for ages. You're taller than me now."

That wasn't surprising. Barb was barely five foot two. She'd been a star athlete in high school, though, and had never needed height to keep three unruly boys in check. It was Barb who taught him how to do a back flip off the diving board, and who hit ground balls to them when Michael couldn't be bothered. He took a step back towards her.

"Do you have any antiseptic?" he asked.

"Are you saying my car is dirty, or have you just not washed your hair recently?" she teased and held out her hand. When he took it, she led him back to the car and sat him down on the bumper. "Let's see," she murmured. "Bend your head down so I can get a good look."

James closed his eyes and tried not to flinch when she moved the gauze pad and dabbed at the cut. He was glad he had washed his hair that morning. Now he understood why mothers warned about clean underwear. Greasy hair was almost as bad.

"Good news," she said. "I don't think you'll need stitches and we won't have to give you a buzz cut. I'm going to trim a little bit of hair away, but it won't be noticeable."

He heard Barb rummage around in the first-aid kit again, and then cold metal touched his scalp and he nearly jerked away. "That's freezing!" he exclaimed.

"It's winter, genius. Metal's a conductor." But she took the scissors away and blew on the blades. "This is going to sting," she warned, a second before she dabbed antiseptic on the cut.

James managed not to whimper, but he couldn't stop his eyes from watering. He hoped Michael wasn't watching. Barb squeezed his shoulder and dabbed again, a little more firmly this time.

"I'm going to close it with butterfly tape. If that doesn't stop the bleeding, you're going to need stitches. But it's not deep and the edges are clean, so I think you'll be all right."

James had already come to that conclusion, but it was a relief to have it confirmed. He rubbed his eyes as casually as possible and took a deep breath. When he looked up, both Josh and Michael were gone, but Peter was standing in front of him, shifting nervously from side to side. James wanted to tell him that everything would be all right, but he wasn't sure that was true.

Barb sat down beside him. "You want to tell me what was going on? It's not like you to freak out like that."

James lowered his head again. "Delayed shock, I guess," he muttered. The embarrassment was real, even if the excuse wasn't. He hated losing his composure, and remembering what he'd said to Peter made his stomach turn. "I'm sorry," he repeated. The third time wasn't a charm. Everything was still falling apart.

Barb didn't reply. When he glanced sideways at her, she was staring out into the distance, a thoughtful expression on her face. "If you're afraid to tell your parents what happened, I can do it for you."

James shook his head hard enough that it hurt. "I don't want them to know. Mom will get upset and Dad will freak out on Michael, and it'll just be a mess. I'll make sure Michael pays for your car. You don't have to worry about that."

"I don't care about the car," Barb replied. "Another dent isn't going to make a difference, and I can replace a tire. I'm worried about you. What if it had been more than a bump on the head? What if Peter had been hurt?"

James's stomach lurched again and for a brief, dizzying moment, he thought he would throw up. Concussion, he told himself. Blood loss. It would pass. "But he wasn't. Right, Peter?"

Peter nodded, but his face was pale over the ridge of James's scarf, and he couldn't stand still. "But you were," he said, and James was afraid he was going to start crying. "Isn't that bad enough?"

"It was an accident." He believed it. He had to believe it. Michael was thoughtless and reckless, but he would never deliberately hurt someone. Michael would never hurt him.

Josh jogged up, puffing tiny clouds with each exhaled breath. "I called the tow truck. They said half an hour, forty-five minutes. I'll wait for it." He handed James a can of Coke and two aspirin. "Here. The caffeine makes them more effective."

James had heard other stories about Coke and aspirin, but he was pretty sure it wasn't really an aphrodisiac, and no one he knew had managed to get high off the combination. "Where's Michael?" he asked, washing the pills down with a swallow of soda.

Josh shrugged. "Don't know, don't care. He went home, I guess."

Barb stood up and held out her hand to James. "Come on. I'll walk you guys home."

"You don't have to," James replied, but he took her hand and let her pull him up. "We can look after ourselves."

"I know," she said. "It's just habit." She held his hand for a moment. "I won't tell your parents," she said. "But I think they need to know. You're not helping Michael by protecting him."

But it wasn't just Michael he was trying to protect. His mother acted as though anything Michael did wrong was a sign that she'd failed as a parent. And his father and Michael were barely talking any more. James wasn't being noble or self-sacrificing; he was being selfish. A cut on the back of his head wasn't worth his family falling apart.

The house was dark and locked when they arrived. There was no sign of Michael, no sign that he had been and gone. James was relieved to see his mother's car still in the garage. At least Michael wasn't behind the wheel. James knew he wouldn't be able to protect Michael if he hurt someone else.

Barb wrote down a number and handed it to James. "Call me if the cut starts bleeding again," she told James. "And if he's too hard-headed, you'll call, won't you, Peter?"

Peter nodded. "I'll watch to see if he has a concussion, too."

"I don't have a concussion," James retorted. "Hard-headed, remember?" But he would watch for the signs as well. It didn't hurt to be cautious. "Why don't you see if you can find the meatballs," he suggested. When Peter nodded and scampered off to the kitchen with a backwards wave, James shifted uncomfortably and stared down at the floor. "I'm sorry about your car," he repeated. "I have some cash hidden in my room and I can get some more from the bank on Monday morning."

"I want you to stop worrying about the car," Barb scolded. She scribbled down another number. "This is my number in Princeton. Call me any time you need to talk. Promise?"

James took it and nodded, though he knew he wouldn't call. The family had done nothing but talk for weeks, but it hadn't done any good as far as James could tell. "Good luck on your exams," he said. "You're finished this year, aren't you? What are you going to do after graduation?" He tried to remember what she was studying. International Affairs, he thought.

She smiled and her eyes lit up. "I've applied to grad school at Columbia. And I'm hoping to get an internship at the United Nations."

"You'll get it," he said and smiled back at her. He'd found that people almost always believed him when he smiled. It didn't fix anything either, but it made it easier for him to try. And he'd meant it. She'd always known what she wanted and how to get it. He stepped forward and hugged her awkwardly. "Maybe I'll see you around at Christmas," he said.

"Sure, Jimmy," she hugged him back, and her arms were as strong as he remembered. "You take care of yourself."

He watched her walk down the driveway, then closed the door and went into the kitchen to start dinner. Michael didn't come home that night or the next morning, but he wandered in an hour or so after his parents returned, with the news that he'd found a part-time job at the hardware store. His mother insisted on baking a cake to celebrate, and his father gave Michael a beer, and Peter wanted to know if he got to use the power tools.

James said nothing and tried not to finger the scab forming on the back of his head. None of them ever mentioned the accident.



June 2007

Wilson stopped talking and stared at his desktop, noting idly that most of his pens seemed to have disappeared. He'd have to transfer a couple from his lab coat pocket. A long moment of silence passed, broken only by the humming of his hard drive, and then House stood up. Wilson tried not to flinch as House walked over to the desk, but he refused to look up.

House stopped just behind his chair. "Put your head down," he said. When Wilson didn't move, he placed a hand between Wilson's shoulders, but didn't push.

Confused, Wilson bent down and rested his forehead on his left forearm. He closed his eyes. He was too tired to care what House was doing. It was far too late to protect himself.

House's fingers slipped gently through Wilson's hair, searching his scalp by touch. They ghosted over the old injury and then paused and returned. Wilson could feel the warmth from House's fingertips seep into his skin, all but the dead strip of scar tissue. He shivered, and House's hand dropped to the nape of Wilson's neck and rested there.

Wilson breathed shallowly, afraid to shatter the moment with even the slightest movement. He couldn't remember the last time House had touched him with kindness. He could barely remember the last time House had touched him at all.

"You're wrong," House said, when the silence finally grew uncomfortable. "I would have hated your brother." He flicked Wilson's ear with his finger and walked away.

Wilson heard him open the balcony door; listened as it slid shut again. But he kept his head pillowed on his arms long after House was gone.

Part Four: June 2007

House was suspiciously quiet the next day, if one ignored the random guitar riffs resonating through the too-thin walls. After the second hour Wilson had managed to tune them out so successfully that he didn't notice when the music stopped. He started when the balcony door slid open with a crash, and he nearly knocked over his third coffee of the day. Sometimes he didn't know which was worse for his nerves, the caffeine or House.

He braced himself for the daily inquisition. Without a team or a caseload, House's attention was too firmly focused on him. Something was going to have to change soon, or Wilson was going to lose his mind. But House just sat down on the couch and stretched his right leg out.

"Shouldn't you be heading out on tour soon?" Wilson asked, opening a new file since it looked as though House was settled in for the long haul.

"I was all ready, but they cancelled the Boston gig."

"Oh well, I wouldn't worry about it. Boston's not a big college town." A smile twitched the corner of House's mouth and Wilson relaxed. Maybe House just dropped by to share some gossip or make fun of his latest clinic patients. He was overdue for a break, anyway. "You should firm up a couple of dates before Cuddy gets on your ass to hire a new team."

"Cuddy is welcome to my ass, though I can think of some other body parts I'd prefer her to handle." He leered at Wilson. "But I guess you'd know all about that."

"A gentleman doesn't tell," Wilson replied primly.

"True, but I'm talking to you."

Wilson shifted uncomfortably. It wasn't nearly as fun when he was the subject of the gossip. And he would never be able to convince House that his outings with Cuddy were purely platonic. "Tax deduction, remember?"

"You should set up your own charity. The James Wilson Foundation for Needy Women and Drug Addicts."

Wilson didn't know how to respond to that, and the silence stretched uncomfortably. Except House looked perfectly comfortable and more than a little pleased with himself. "That's a lousy name for a foundation," Wilson finally retorted, annoyed with House for always knowing the right buttons to push, and with himself for always reacting. "It's too long for address labels and you could never make it into a legible logo."

"The James Wilson Giving Fund, then." House looked even more pleased with himself now that Wilson had taken the bait. "That's what you do, isn't it? Give and give until there's nothing left for anybody."

"As opposed to taking and taking until you drain everyone around you dry?" If House wanted to hit hard, Wilson was more than willing to stand toe to toe with him.

"Is that what your brother did?"

Here they went again. House would have made an excellent interrogator for the Spanish Inquisition. He already had the comfy chair. "I told you what you wanted to know about my brother," Wilson said, holding on to the frayed edges of his patience with difficulty. He'd let House poke and prod at him for more than a week now, and it was beginning to take its toll.

"That was yesterday. I have new questions today."

There was always another question. Answers only fuelled House's curiosity, though it blazed without any tinder at all. "Maybe I don't have any new answers."

"Pfft." House waved a hand dismissively. "You always have answers. Maybe not the right ones, but that's never seemed to bother you before. Even if you make something up, I can at least eliminate it from the list of possibilities."

"Right. And whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth?"

House didn't smile, but his features rearranged into a slightly less disapproving expression. "One version of it, at least."

Maybe that was why he kept answering House's questions. The version he had now hadn't given him much peace lately. "What do you want to know?" He glanced away so he wouldn't have to see House's smug look of triumph.

"You covered for your brother, even though he nearly killed you."

"It was an accident," Wilson interjected. That was one version of the truth he couldn't give up, though it hardly made a difference after all these years.

"Fine," House conceded. "He accidentally nearly killed you. And your brother. Because he was drunk and he was a moron. Not a good combination."

"Is there a question in there somewhere?" Wilson wondered. "Or are you just summing up for the studio audience?"

"You know what the question is. What did it take to make you give him up?"

"That's not the question," Wilson retorted. "You don't give a damn what happened back then. You only care about my life in terms of how it affects you. And I've answered that question over and over."

"Answer it again."

"I went to Tritter for the same reason I covered for Michael. I was trying to protect you. You said you understood that." But House had been lying about everything else: faking the rehab, undermining everything Wilson had tried to do for him. He'd wanted to believe that the apology was genuine--it was the only way he could carry on--but he realized he'd just been fooling himself. The past was never gone; it was merely lurking in the shadows waiting to ambush him again. "I don't know how to explain it any differently."

"You protected me by turning me in." There was no anger in House's voice, just matter-of-fact observation.

Stated like that it sounded absurd. But Wilson had believed he was doing what was best for House in the long run. "I was protecting you by making a deal before Tritter found someone else to testify against you. It would have worked if you'd taken it before you went and committed another crime." But he knew House had only stolen the Oxycodone because Wilson had forced Cuddy to cut off his Vicodin. He hadn't thought through the deal properly; he'd just seen an avenue of escape for them all and turned blindly down it, only to discover it was a dead-end street. He should have known that House would never admit he was wrong or take the easy way out.

And yet he had on Christmas Day, though long after it had stopped being the easy option.

Wilson realized that he had his own questions he needed House to answer. "Why did you change your mind?" he asked. "Why not accept the deal when it was offered?" For a moment, he thought House would just ignore him--he'd always been better at asking questions than answering them--but then House shrugged his shoulders.

"I had nothing to lose," he said and looked away. House could lie straight-faced and with an unwavering gaze, but emotional truths always forced him to avert his eyes. "I just had to hold out three days. I'd done it before."

Wilson had manipulated him into doing it before. Maybe he would only escape the past when he actually learned from it. "What changed, then?"

"You walked away. And maybe I realized I had something to lose after all."

This time House looked directly at him, and Wilson almost wished he hadn't. The vulnerability in House's eyes hurt almost as much as walking away had. What hurt more was the implication that it might have made a difference with Michael if he'd stopped helping him sooner. "I'm sorry," he said, and he didn't know if he were apologizing to House or to his brother.

House stood up and slid open the balcony door, and Wilson thought he was just going to leave. But he looked back and gestured for Wilson to follow him. "You've got exactly fifteen minutes to play the Flying V. Unlike Tritter, I don't renege on my deals." He turned away quickly, but not before Wilson thought he saw a flicker of an impish smile. "And clear your calendar. I could use a good sideman on the tour."

There was nothing on Wilson's calendar or desk that couldn't wait fifteen minutes, or even a couple of hours. "If we turn the amp to eleven, do you think it would shatter glass?"

There was no mistaking the smile this time. "Let's find out."



January 1985

"I need to borrow some money."

James looked up from his book. "How much?" He was used to playing banker for Michael between paycheques. It was one less thing to worry his mother and annoy his father, and while Michael rarely paid him back, it was a small price to pay for household peace.

"Two hundred." To his credit, Michael looked vaguely embarrassed, something James hadn't seen for weeks.

"Two hundred dollars?" James repeated, wondering if he'd heard wrong. "I can't just give you $200." He had maybe $50 tucked away for emergencies and a few hundred dollars in the bank, but he was saving for college. He wasn't going to rely on his parents or count on scholarships to get him through.

"Seriously, Jimmy. Do you think I'd ask if I didn't need it?"

Obviously, Michael thought he was both stupid and a soft touch. He'd borrowed $30 just two weeks ago, which James found out later he'd blown at a blackjack table in Atlantic City. He frowned, wondering how much more Michael had blown. "What kind of trouble are you in?"

"Why would you think I'm in trouble?"

James assumed that was a rhetorical question. If Michael needed the money legitimately, he would have tried their father first. But James thought he would have heard the laughter even through his bedroom door. He tried to think of all the reasons why Michael might need $200; none of them were good. "What is it?" he demanded. "Drugs? Gambling debts?"

"Sony Discman. It's the latest thing."

"I'm not giving you $200 to buy a Discman!" They were cool, though. Maybe he'd ask for one for his birthday. His Walkman was starting to eat his tapes.

"But you would if I needed it for drugs?"

"No!"

Michael shrugged. "It's for a gambling debt, then." Michael didn't look embarrassed any more. In fact, he looked like he was struggling not to smile.

"Now you're just making fun of me." One of these days, he'd learn to stop falling for Michael's tricks. It made him feel younger and stupider than he was. "I've got homework," he said pointedly, hoping Michael would take the hint and leave.

But Michael just scuffed one foot against the leg of James's chair and jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I'm not kidding, Jimmy. It's not gambling debts, but I do owe money to some guys."

"So tell them you'll pay them back when you have it." Michael was earning decent money at the hardware store, better than what James made from the occasional babysitting job or shovelling snow for the neighbours.

"That's not how it works. I don't pay and I get into an accident. Or someone else does."

James pushed his chair back and stood up. "What are you talking about, Michael? What have you gotten yourself into?"

"I made an investment," Michael said, looking away. "It didn't pay off and now I have to cover the shortfall."

"And they threatened you if you didn't? Who else did they say they'd hurt? Mom? Peter?" James figured he could look after himself, and Michael could take care of his own problems, but his stomach twisted at the thought of anything happening to his mother or younger brother. "Jesus Christ, Michael. What were you thinking?"

"Don't lecture me," Michael snapped. "You're not my father." He rubbed his eyes and blew a sharp breath through pursed lips. "Either give me the money or don't. I don't give a damn."

He started to walk away, but James grabbed his arm. "When do you need it?" he asked.

"Tomorrow," Michael replied just a little too quickly, and James wondered if he had really intended to walk away. "I have to meet them before four."

"I can't get you $200 tomorrow," James protested. "I have school. How am I supposed to get to the bank?" He ran a hand through his hair and wondered if he could cut his class before or after lunch. He had exams in a week and he couldn't really afford to miss any time, but there didn't seem to be an alternative. One of these days he was going to kill Michael, if someone didn't do it for him first.

"How much cash do you have here?"

James pulled open his top desk drawer and lifted up the false bottom, revealing his favourite hiding place. He'd have to find a new one now--he didn't trust Michael not to raid it while he was at school. "Sixty," he said, gathering the bills together and counting them. "And I've got another six or seven in my wallet."

"Give me the sixty," Michael said. "Maybe if I give them a portion of it they can wait until I get paid on Friday."

Something didn't seem right about that, but James handed over the money anyway. "They won't hurt anybody?" he asked.

Michael pocketed the money. "Do you think I'd let anything happen to any of you?"

From the way his shoulders drew together and his gaze fixed on a point above James's shoulder, it was clear Michael expected him to protest unconvincingly or even say "yes," but James didn't even hesitate. "Of course not." He even believed it, to a point. He didn't think Michael would deliberately hurt anyone, but he had still caused more than his share of pain. "But it might not be up to you."

"It's not the mob," Michael retorted, smirking at James. "They're not going to break my kneecaps or kidnap Peter if I'm a couple of days late."

"But you said..."

"I was just making sure you'd actually give me the money." He turned away again, but James grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him back.

"What are you playing at, Michael?" he demanded. "Do you really need $200 or were you just trying to get as much out of me as you could?" They both knew James would have handed over twenty or thirty dollars with only a token protest, but he would have balked at twice the amount.

"I told you what I needed it for," Michael replied, the smirk gone now.

Michael's eyes were mid-point in shades of brown between Peter's and his own, but when he was angry they darkened to charcoal smudges. James took a step back. He'd learned the hard way not to get close to Michael when his eyes were as dark and empty as the night sky.

"You can believe me or not," Michael said. "Just keep your opinions to yourself."

James watched him leave, wondering who Michael thought he could possibly tell.


The next day, James stayed after school to watch a basketball game. It was early evening by the time he started home, but to his surprise, Michael was waiting for him just outside the school grounds.

For an instant, James saw Michael as a stranger, not as his brother. He didn't look menacing or unkempt--even wearing faded blue jeans and a cracked leather jacket, Michael was neat and well groomed--but he still looked dangerous. He lounged against a parked car as if he didn't have a care in the world, flicking ash from his cigarette indiscriminately on the sidewalk. He was almost terrifying in his obvious disregard for anyone else around him.

But when he saw James, he grinned, and James recognized the brother he'd adored for as long as he could remember. Michael ground the cigarette out beneath his foot and gestured for James to follow him.

James jogged to catch up. "Is everything okay?" he asked, scanning Michael quickly for obvious injuries. It didn't look like he'd been worked over, and he was moving easily and without pain, but Michael was good at hiding. "Did they take the $60 or do you need me to go to the bank?" He had a study period adjacent to lunch the next day, which would give him enough time.

Michael glanced quickly at him, but kept walking, head down and shoulders hunched forward against the cold. They walked in silence for two blocks, heading away from the bus stop towards the centre of town. They stopped at an intersection and Michael leaned against the light post.

"Would you really do that?" he asked. "If I told you I needed the money, would you go to the bank and get it for me?"

James didn't want to deplete his savings, but he didn't see how he had any other choice. "How much do you really need?"

"What if I told you $500?"

That wouldn't just deplete his savings; it would wipe them out entirely. James hesitated, and then felt guilty for hesitating. He could always make more money. "If that's what you need," he said.

Michael was studying him, not letting any expression show on his face, but his eyes were light and clear. "What about $1000?"

"I don't have that much," James replied, looking for any indication that Michael was joking. "I don't know how I'd get it." It would take weeks to earn that much money, even if he shovelled every driveway in the neighbourhood. He could ask his parents, of course, but they'd have questions he couldn't answer. "How can you owe so much?"

The light changed and they started crossing the street. "I never said I owed that much. I don't even owe the $200."

James stopped in the middle of the street, confused, then scrambled across when a car honked at him. "That's not what you said last night," he protested when he caught up with Michael. "I don't mind giving you the money, but at least be straight with me about it."

"Why?"

Talking with Michael was like a dog trying to catch its own tail, chasing around and around in circles until it collapsed from exhaustion. "Why be straight with me?"

"Why give me the money?"

James wondered if he were missing something. Maybe he was. He didn't think Michael would clean out his bank account for him. "Because you're my brother."

Michael reached out and tousled his hair. "You're an idiot," he said fondly. "People are going to take advantage of you if you don't smarten up."

That was probably true. But the alternative--standing by and doing nothing--was worse. "I don't need you to teach me any lessons," he said, wondering what Michael had actually used the $60 for. He found out a couple of blocks later when Michael pushed open the door of a pool hall.

"Wait outside," Michael told him, closing the door on his face.

But it was cold outside, and the hall wasn't licensed, so James followed him in, hovering near the entrance as Michael disappeared into a back room. James might be an idiot, but he wasn't naive. He'd overheard enough of Michael's conversations to know that the local bookie operated out of the back of the pool hall.

He'd misspent a few hours of his own here, watching Michael and his buddies play pool, sometimes getting a game when they needed a fourth to play partners. Michael had taught first James and then Peter how to play on the worn table in the corner. The coin slot was broken and Michael had figured out how to release the balls without paying. James had convinced their father to get a pool table when he turned the basement into a rec room, but somehow it felt more authentic to play in a place where everyone was trying to escape their lives for just a game or two.

He leaned against a pillar and watched a college kid attempt a tricky bank shot. He wasn't even close to the right angle and just barely avoided scratching. His buddy missed his next shot altogether, and James wondered why they were even bothering.

An older man in a dirty jean jacket sidled over and asked if he was looking to buy anything. James shook his head, not making eye contact, and wondered what other connections Michael made here. There was just a faint whiff of pot mixed in with the bouquet of stale cigarettes and unwashed bodies, and James decided the college kids had come for more than just a friendly game of badly played pool.

He thought about using his last two dollars to challenge the winner--he wasn't as good a player as Michael, or even Peter, but he could handle either of those two jokers--but then the door to the back room opened and Michael walked out, grinning like he'd just run the table off the break. He tried to look disapproving when he saw James waiting for him, but his grin didn't fade.

"Before four," James said, piecing it together. "Post time at Santa Anita?" He didn't think Michael knew enough about harness racing to be betting on races at Monticello or the Meadows.

"Three bets of $20 each, and one came in at 12 to 1." Michael counted out six $20 bills and handed them to James. "Doubled your money in less than 24 hours. Not bad."

Fifty percent was a pretty high commission, but James had more important battles to fight. "You used the money I gave you to place bets? Even after we talked about broken kneecaps?"

Michael rolled his eyes. "It was a sure thing. And they don't break your kneecaps if you lose your own money."

"My money," James muttered. If Michael was borrowing money from him to place a bet, it couldn't be long before he'd start wagering on credit. It wasn't even racing season on the East Coast yet. "And obviously only one of them was a sure thing."

Michael shrugged. "Can't win them all. Come on," he said, patting his front pocket where he'd put the rest of his payout. "We can stop at McDonald's on the way home. I'll buy you a burger."

"And a Coke and fries," James pressed, naming the price of his silence.

"I'll even spring for a hot fudge sundae," Michael agreed. He glanced across the room and caught the eye of the guy in the jean jacket. "I just have to take a whiz first."

James left before he had to see who followed Michael into the bathroom. It was cold outside, but at least he could breathe. To his surprise, Michael followed right behind him.

"The bathroom in there is disgusting," he said. "I guess I can hold it a couple of blocks." He looked up as a few flakes of snow drifted down. "Hot chocolate instead of Coke," he suggested.

James nodded and shouldered his backpack. "Race you there," he said and took off down the street. Michael passed him at the corner, but James didn't care.

Part Five: June 2007

On Friday afternoon, Wilson was paged to the fourth floor lounge. House was waiting for him when he arrived, guarding the foosball table against interlopers.

"And in pastels, we have the challenger James Wilson, representing Oncology. Give it up for the Patron Saint of Lost Causes."

Wilson rolled his eyes, but danced around the table, clasping his hands above his head like a victorious prizefighter. "What does that make you?" he asked, when he took his place opposite House. "The King of Cures? The Emperor of Asses?"

"I'm about to kick your ass at foosball," House replied. "Which makes me Absolute Ruler of the Table."

It wasn't much of an accomplishment. As far as he knew, no one else would play against House, and Wilson was the first to admit that he was a crappy foosball player. He'd never been any good at switching rows quickly, and his reactions always seemed to be just a split second too late to get a hard shot off. He owned House at air hockey, though. House had no defence against a left-hand shot. They hadn't played since Wilson shut him out two years ago. The foosball table had appeared in the lounge shortly afterwards, coincidentally not long after House had borrowed $500 from him.

"What's up?" Wilson asked. "Did you need a break from hours of doing nothing? I know how exhausting that can be." Eventually Cuddy would realize House had no intention of hiring a new team on his own, and she would start applying the screws. But until then, House seemed happy to keep his version of regular office hours, whiling away the time playing his guitar, watching his soaps in Coma Guy's room, and annoying Wilson.

House responded by rolling the ball into play and scoring before Wilson had a chance to grab the handles. "1-0 for the good guys," he said.

"Only because you cheated," Wilson protested.

"I don't need to cheat to win," House said. "It just makes it happen faster." He reached around and retrieved the ball from beneath Wilson's goal.

Wilson stepped back from the table. "Oh, well. If you're in a hurry, I can just stand here and let you shoot uncontested."

"And that's different from how you normally play?"

"You know, just because you have nothing better to do than insult me, doesn't mean I have time to listen."

"And yet you're here," House pointed out. "You couldn't have thought I called you for a consult."

"Because that would imply you had a patient." Wilson rubbed the back of his neck. It had been a long day--a long week--and it was a struggle just to keep up with House, much less outwit him. "Are you going to play or not?"

"I don't play," House said, rolling the ball back into play and getting a shot off that just missed the goal. "I conquer."

Wilson managed to trap the ball in his midfield, but when he released it, the ball rolled sideways, and his shot went wide. "The floor's tilted," he complained, unsuccessfully trying a one-time shot from his left wing.

House knocked the ball back into Wilson's end, onto an attacker, and into the goal. "2-0. Man, you suck."

"The first goal doesn't count," Wilson protested. He snatched the ball out of his goal before House could pick it up again. "It didn't touch any of my players. Competition rules."

"A competition requires two people," House retorted. "So far, I appear to be the only one actually competing. 2-0."

"Fine," Wilson said, tossing the ball to House. "Play with yourself." He wandered over to the coffee machine and looked for a cup that wasn't hosting a biological experiment.

"You're pissy today," House commented, sounding vaguely pleased. "What's the matter? No needy nurses to chat up? No cancer chicks to shack up with? That hotel room must be getting pretty lonely."

"At least I have patients," Wilson replied, though he realized it wasn't much of a comeback. House could always outscore him, no matter what game they played. "Not to mention women who are willing to sleep with me without credit card authorization."

"Because risking your career and taking advantage of a dying woman is so much better than paying for sex."

Guilt curled like wisps of smoke in Wilson's gut. He hadn't taken advantage of Grace, at least not consciously, but he couldn't deny that he had gained as much from the affair--such as it was--as Grace had. He had only wanted to help her, but by helping he had started to heal the wound to his self-esteem that Julie's infidelity had inflicted. He knew it wasn't healthy, but it was the only way he knew. "Well, this has been fun," he said evenly. "I'll go back to trolling for patients now."

He abandoned the quest for coffee and headed for the door. House cut him off, placing his cane across the doorway as a barrier. "It's not so fun when you're on the other end of the lecture, is it?"

Wilson slumped against the wall. "You don't lecture, House, you criticize and belittle. Can you save it for a day when I haven't had an eight-year-old girl slip into a coma or a newlywed go into renal failure?"

"I'm not patient enough to wait that long," House replied. "Job isn't that patient." He tossed the ball back to Wilson, who caught it instinctively, bobbling it a bit before closing his hand around it. "But your last two patients today are good news appointments. You might as well get out your frustration on the foosball table so you can actually smile when you tell them they're not going to die."

Wilson wasn't smiling yet, but only because he didn't want to give House the satisfaction. "How do you know they're good news appointments?"

"You never tell people they're dying on Friday. You discuss treatment plans at the end of the day, so that your patients don't have to worry about being rushed through the options, and you leave them with good news at the end of the week so that they can enjoy their weekend." He gestured to the table. "So get back here and lose like a man."

"You make it sound so fun," Wilson said, but he walked back to the table. House was right. Even if he lost, the game was a good stress reliever.

House tried not to smirk with satisfaction and failed. "Let's make it more interesting," he suggested. "Every goal you score, I'll give you $20."

Wilson waited for the catch. House would bet on anything, but he usually had an inside line.

"Every goal I score, you answer a question," House concluded.

The stakes weren't exactly even. Twenty dollars didn't mean all that much to Wilson, but answers were like lifeblood to House. And yet, Wilson would far more willingly give up answers than House would ever give up money, so perhaps it balanced after all.

"Show me the money first." Wilson knew from experience that House would conveniently forget any debt that wasn't paid off immediately.

House rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet. "Game's to five," he said, and fanned out five $20 bills for Wilson to see. "We'll start over."

But Wilson thought he might as well get it over with. His first good news appointment was in just under an hour. "The second goal can stand. Do you want to ask your first question now or save them all up for a single bombardment?"

"I've never been one for delayed gratification," House said, and pretended to think, though Wilson knew he was just reviewing his mental Rolodex of mysteries. House was never at a loss for questions. "Let's start with an oldie but goodie. Get you warmed up." He stared down at the table, no longer smirking confidently. "Why didn't you move back in after Grace went to Florence?"

Wilson's first instinct was to laugh in disbelief, but he could tell by House's body language that he was serious. "I know I never thanked you properly for taking me in," he said carefully. "It was exactly what I needed at the time." And it was. House had always been a refuge for him--one with bars on the windows and hidden trap doors, but a refuge nonetheless. "But you were right. I had to accept that my marriage was over and move on."

"Let me know when you actually do that," House retorted. "Because living in a hotel is like being permanently in transit."

It was more like being permanently in limbo, but Wilson didn't correct House, because he wasn't entirely wrong. It was only supposed to have been temporary while he and Julie worked out the details of the divorce. But it was easy, and it was convenient, and weeks had turned into months without him even noticing. "And sleeping on a couch is a better idea?"

House shrugged, but Wilson knew the answer had been accepted. "Let's play," House muttered, gesturing for Wilson to drop the ball.

Wilson scored first, a fluke goal that glanced off House's defender and trickled into the net. He scored again on a turnover, getting off a hard shot before House had a chance to move his goalie. He relaxed slightly, starting to feel confident, which was always a mistake with House. Two quick flicks of the wrist, a rebound, and House had tied the game. This time he declined to ask his question immediately, and Wilson wondered what he was planning. His confidence evaporated and so did his concentration, and it took less than ten minutes for House to score the final three goals.

"Question time!" House exclaimed gleefully. He leaned against the table, taking some of the pressure off his right leg. "Let's try a new approach today. How does a nice upper-middle-class family end up with one son missing and another so pathetically desperate to please he'd go to jail for someone?"

"It is a mystery," Wilson agreed. "Especially for such an ungrateful bastard."

"Your Honour, the witness is avoiding the question."

"If I knew the answer, I wouldn't be spending my paycheque on alimony and therapist's bills. Not to mention bail money and shiny new toys for you." But he'd always known the problem. It was the solution that wasn't easy to identify.

"How about I give it a shot," House suggested, as if he were Nero Wolfe gathering the suspects for the grand revelation. "You spend more time at the office than you do at home--such as it is. I'm guessing you learned that behaviour from Papa Joe. And from the way he was ogling the bridesmaids at your last wedding, I bet that's not the only bad habit you picked up from him."

Wilson pursed his lips. He wasn't about to confirm or deny House's speculations and give him more information. House could pick him apart to his heart's content, but he wasn't about to subject his family to House's relentless probing.

"That doesn't explain the caretaker mentality, though," House continued. "You try to fix damaged women, which means Mommy issues."

Wilson wondered if that made House a damaged woman or if he just considered himself an anomaly. "It's so much more fun when you get to ask the questions and answer them, isn't it?" he commented.

House ignored him. "I've watched Desperate Housewives. What was it? Pills? Too many cocktails while the kids were at school? Shtupping the pool boy?"

Wilson took a deep breath and tried not to show how much the question had hurt. "Peter's already squealed about the sleeping pills, and it only happened that once. She drank as much as anybody did in the '70s, maybe even less. And as far as I know, my father was her first and only lover." Wilson had said all he intended on the subject of his mother. "That was question three, by the way."

House frowned, but didn't seem too concerned. They both knew the five questions were only a temporary constraint. "We'll leave the dysfunctional parents for now and go for the big money. What was the worst thing your brother ever did?"

That was the easiest question of all. "He left," Wilson said flatly.

"Really? Because I'm thinking that was the best thing he could have done."

"Of course you would," Wilson retorted. "You'd like to think there's a statute of limitations on caring about someone."

House pushed himself upright and stalked around the table. "Yeah, he was great to have around." He poked Wilson on the back of the head and then grabbed Wilson's right arm and pushed up his sleeve until the faint outline of an old scar could be seen. "He did that to you, didn't he? The last time you saw him?"

Wilson pulled away and stepped back, putting a safer distance between House and himself. "Is that a question? Because I wouldn't want you to waste your last one if it was just rhetorical."

"Here's the question." House tilted his head so he was looking directly at Wilson, but his bright blue eyes were shadowed. "Why would you want anything to do with someone who hurt you like that?"

It didn't take a genius to hear the question behind the words. Wilson thought carefully before he answered. "I could ask you the same thing," he said finally.

"I'm the one asking the questions," House replied, but the shadows retreated. "You're the one supposed to be answering."

Wilson looked away. "Maybe because some love is unconditional, no matter how much it's bent or broken. Maybe because the good outweighs the bad and makes it all worthwhile." He wasn't entirely certain he believed that about Michael any more, but it didn't matter. House had never been interested in his brother as anything other than a proxy.

House was nodding as if Wilson had confirmed something he already knew, and Wilson had his own answer.



February 1985

James was in the kitchen, making himself a roast beef sandwich, when Michael walked in and dumped his Adidas bag on the kitchen table. He snatched the sandwich off James's plate and took a bite, chewing messily.

James glared at him, but started making another sandwich. "Where have you been?" he demanded. Michael hadn't been home for three days. His mother had been frantic after the first day and they had barely been able to convince her not to file a missing person report. It was only when Peter mentioned that he'd run into Michael on his way home from school that she calmed down slightly, though she still rushed to answer every phone call. James had seen her watching the driveway that morning, a mug of coffee slowly cooling in her hand.

"Things to do, places to go, people to see," Michael replied, taking another bite. He opened the fridge and pulled out a jug of milk, washing down the sandwich with a deep swig.

"That's disgusting," James complained. "You're going to get crumbs in the milk." He grabbed the jug away from Michael and poured him a glass. He watched suspiciously as Michael grabbed an armful of apples and oranges out of the refrigerator. "What are you doing?"

Michael dumped the fruit into his bag and then plundered the cupboards for boxes of crackers and cookies. "Supplies," he said. "What are you doing?" he asked when James picked up the cordless phone.

"Calling Mom to let her know you're alive." The bridge game was at Mrs. Kaplan's this week. His mother always left the number by the phone in case of emergency. He started to dial, but Michael grabbed the phone from him.

"You can call her when I'm gone," Michael replied, tucking the phone in his jacket pocket.

James tried to reach for it, but Michael pushed him away. "She's been worried sick, Michael," he protested. "We've all been worried. Just talk to her."

"You call her now and she's going to rush home. But by the time she gets here, I'll be gone again. At least let her enjoy her bridge game." Michael turned away and tried to jam the boxes into the Adidas bag, but there wasn't enough room. "Go get me your backpack," he ordered.

"I'm not giving you my backpack," James retorted. "And you just got here."

"I'm meeting someone in an hour," Michael said. "Not that it's any of your business."

James watched as he wolfed down the rest of the sandwich and wondered when Michael had last eaten. Probably more recently than he'd washed, he thought. "You reek," he said, curling his lip in disgust. "Go take a shower and I'll find you something better to eat than crackers and cookies."

Michael hesitated, but then he ran his fingers through his hair and grimaced. "Yeah, okay." He shucked his jacket off and draped it over the back of the chair. "But don't call Mom. She'll just get upset if she misses me."

The last thing James wanted to do was upset his mother more than she already was, so he nodded reluctantly. "You'll call when you get a chance," he negotiated. "And you'll be home for Sunday dinner."

"Depends on what happens with this guy," Michael replied. "But, yeah. If I'm around, I'll be here." He drained the glass of milk and put it in the sink, then headed for the stairs.

James wondered if he should tell his mother anyway, but he imagined her arriving just as Michael was leaving again, pictured the disappointment on her face when Michael just kept walking away, and he knew he couldn't do that to her. He'd invent a phone message from Michael instead, tell her he was out of town on a temporary job. He hated lying to his mother, but it was kinder than the truth.

He made two more sandwiches for Michael, finishing off the roast beef, and wrapped them in waxed paper, stacking them together to keep the ends down. After a moment's thought, he grabbed the peanut butter and jam and made two more sandwiches. He didn't have much faith that Michael would actually show up for Sunday dinner. A couple of juice boxes and a handful of granola bars replaced the crackers, but he left the cookies.

A sudden rush of water through the pipes signalled that Michael had turned on the shower, so James dumped the contents of the Adidas bag onto the table, looking for clues to where Michael had been for the past three days. If he were caught, he'd just say he was packing the food up. He didn't mind lying to Michael.

Michael had owned the bag for as long as James could remember. It was cracked and grimy, but the zippers still worked. Aside from the food, there were a couple of paperback books, a filthy t-shirt that James immediately tossed into the laundry room, a pair of running shoes, a spiral notebook with half the cover torn off, several crumpled-up lunch bags and sandwich wrappers that had probably been in there for years, and a miscellany of pens, loose change, and crumbs.

He checked Michael's jacket pockets next, but Michael had taken his wallet with him. He did find a crumpled-up betting slip. Michael had lost $100 on the Nets the night before. James wondered where Michael had gotten that kind of cash. He'd quit his job at the hardware store at the beginning of the month--though James had overheard his father say that Michael had barely quit before he could be fired--and as far as James knew, he hadn't been working anywhere else. He hadn't come to James for a loan either, which made James nervous. Hundred dollar bets and no visible means of support weren't a good combination.

The water was still running, but James decided he'd better pack up the bag anyway. He noticed, however, that the bottom wasn't quite sitting flat. He remembered how things used to get stuck under the hard plastic insert at the bottom of his Adidas bag, so he reached under the slot. His fingers brushed against paper and he stretched them a little further until he could curl them around the object, careful not to let it catch and tear. He had a good idea what he'd found, but it was still a shock to see the stack of bills, bound by a rubber band. He thumbed through it quickly and calculated that there was over a hundred dollars in small bills. He reached in again and touched two more stacks.

James stared at the money, dread hollowing his stomach. It could be money from bets Michael had won, but he didn't think so. But the alternatives were worse. He'd either stolen it--or pawned something else he'd stolen--or made it. And there weren't a lot of legal ways for an unemployed 19-year-old to make that kind of cash. He picked up the notebook and flipped through the pages. A square of brightly coloured blotting paper fell out.

James had never tried acid, but he knew what the perforations on the paper meant. He counted the tabs--a full sheet of 100. He tucked the sheet back into the notebook and wondered if he should wash his hands. He turned the pages more carefully, but found only the one sheet. At the back of the book, however, there was a list of initials and numbers.

He heard a key turn in the door and started repacking the bag quickly, just barely remembering to shove the money back where he'd found it. He kept the notebook out, however. He had some questions for Michael.

Peter bounded in, his hair damp with sweat, jacket slung over his shoulder. "We won!" he said, kicking off his cleats and leaving clumps of dirt and grass on the kitchen floor. "And I nearly got a goal." He looked at the bag on the table. "Is Michael here? Good. One of the guys on my team wanted to talk to him."

"Why?" James asked suspiciously.

"I don't know. He just said to tell Michael he was looking for him."

"What's his name?" James demanded, flipping to the back of the notebook.

"Curtis van Mulligan. What's it to you?"

Halfway down the page, James found a note--CvM - 5. "Tell your friend to stay away from Michael," he said, the hollowness in his stomach turning to bile. He stalked out of the kitchen and ran up the stairs. The bathroom door was closed and locked, so he pounded on it until Michael cracked it open and stuck his head out.

"What's wrong with you?" he demanded. "I just about broke my neck getting out of the shower."

James almost wished he had. "Are you dealing to kids?" he shouted, waving the notebook in Michael's face.

"Did you go through my bag?" But there had been a moment's hesitation, enough to tell James that he had guessed right. And Michael always went straight to the attack when he was in the wrong.

"What are you selling? Acid? Pot?" He hoped it wasn't anything worse. For all he knew, Michael had a bag of crack tucked behind the money, or hidden away somewhere else. James pushed his shoulder against the door, wedging it open wider. "How much do you make from a sheet? Two, three hundred dollars?" It would account for the bundles of money.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Michael tried to close the door, but he was barefoot on a wet floor and James was fuelled by anger. He stepped back abruptly, laughing when the door slammed open and James stumbled into the bathroom, falling to his hands and knees. "You want to search my clothes while you're down there?" he asked, wrapping a towel more securely around his waist.

James scrambled to his feet, ignoring a sharp ache in his left knee. "You think this is funny? You've got a 12-year-old kid looking to score off you."

"I don't sell acid to children," Michael protested. "Just the odd joint or two, cut with tobacco, so they can sit around and pretend they're cool."

"That doesn't make it right." And yet, he didn't think anything of it when his own friends lit up, even if he usually let the joint pass him by. Maybe that made him a hypocrite, but he didn't care. Part of being an older brother was making sure his own mistakes weren't repeated. "What if Peter wanted to buy off you?"

"Peter knows better than to touch that shit. He's got Mr. Perfect to set an example for him."

"What kind of example are you setting?" James asked. "One I should follow?" He pulled out the blotting paper and detached one tiny square, balancing it on his index fingertip. "How much are you selling them for? Two, three bucks a tab? You can take it off your tab." He lifted his hand to his mouth, but Michael caught his wrist.

"Don't be an idiot, Jimmy. You're so uptight you're guaranteed to have a bad trip."

A bad trip would be an improvement over reality. He'd been bluffing Michael, but for a moment the possibility of escape was so tempting that he ducked his head, trying to reach his hand.

Michael shoved him against the wall, pinned his arms, and flicked the tab off his finger. It landed on the floor and dissolved in a wet footprint. "Give me the rest," he demanded, trying to pull the notebook from James's grasp without tearing it.

James let go when Michael twisted his wrist, and the blotter paper fluttered loose. Michael swore and managed to snatch it before it hit the ground. "Do you have any idea what that's worth?" he shouted, shoving James against the wall again when he tried to duck free.

James was capable of simple arithmetic, so he assumed it was a rhetorical question. "I know what it costs," he replied. "Do you?"

Michael's temper was flash-fire but predictable, so James really should have been prepared for Michael's fist to sink into his stomach, but he wasn't. When he could breathe and think again, he heard Peter shouting and Michael swearing, and he straightened up in time to see Michael shove Peter away from him.

Peter hit the edge of the door hard and fell to the floor, yelping in pain. James froze, torn between wanting to hit Michael or help Peter. Concern won out over anger, and he bent down to make sure his younger brother was all right, but Peter was already scrambling to his feet. He rubbed his hip, grimacing a bit, but otherwise appeared unhurt.

"I hate you," Peter said. "You're a bully, and you don't care about anybody except yourself." He rubbed his hip again. "You don't care who you hurt as long as you get your way."

James stepped between his brothers, afraid that Peter would try to hit Michael and get knocked down again for his trouble. "Why don't you go get a change of clothes for Michael," he suggested. "I need to talk to him alone."

"I don't know why you bother," Peter retorted, but he stalked away, limping slightly. "He never listens."

James waited until he had disappeared into Michael's bedroom. "If you ever hurt Peter again, if you even touch him, I'll kick your ass." It was an empty threat. He might get the first punch in, but unless it was a knock-out Michael would overpower him without breaking a sweat. "And if I find out you've been anywhere near Peter's school, I'll tell Dad what you're doing. I won't protect you. Not over this."

"I don't need your protection," Michael retorted. "And I sure as hell don't need you messing around in my business." This time he succeeded in pushing James out of the bathroom. "Tell Dad. Tell the cops if you want. I'm out of here as soon as I get enough cash together anyway." He grabbed a bundle of clothing from Peter and slammed the door.

James stared at the closed door and then scrubbed a hand across his face. "Tell me if you see him anywhere near your school or any of your friends," he told Peter.

"You think he's sticking around?" Peter asked. He sounded as though he didn't care either way.

James wished he didn't care. "How do you think he's going to get the money to leave?" he asked and went downstairs to finish packing Michael's bag.


Michael was there for Sunday dinner and their mother was so happy that she didn't notice that neither Peter nor James would talk or look at him. If their father noticed, he didn't say anything--he even made an effort not to interrogate Michael too thoroughly about his absence. After dinner Michael offered to get a movie from the video store and Peter thawed a little when Michael suggested he choose. For a brief moment James thought everything could go back to normal.

"I have to catch a plane on Thursday afternoon," Joe said while Helen made popcorn in the kitchen. "Do you mind having your birthday dinner on Wednesday?"

James had almost forgotten that his birthday was coming up. "Wednesday's fine."

"Good. Ponderosa?" It was a rhetorical question. They went to the Ponderosa for every family celebration. Between the steaks and the salad bar, everybody was happy. "I'll make a reservation. Are you going to be there, Michael?" It was phrased as a question, but it definitely wasn't rhetorical.

"Can't," Michael said shortly. "I've already got plans."

"It's your brother's birthday," Joe retorted. "Change them."

"Actually, it's not his birthday, as you pointed out. I'm available on Thursday. If it's so important, change your plans."

"I can't do that. I'm giving a lecture at Northwestern that evening."

Michael smirked. "You booked a lecture on your son's 16th birthday. Wow, I can see where your priorities are."

"It's all right," James said quickly. "We can go to dinner on Wednesday and then Michael and I can go for pizza on Thursday. Right?" He stared at Michael, willing him to agree.

Michael shrugged and crossed his feet on the coffee table. "Works for me."

Joe frowned, but when Helen walked in with the bowl of popcorn he let the issue lie.

It lay undisturbed until Wednesday night, when they got back from the restaurant to find a note folded in half and addressed to Helen on the kitchen counter. James recognized his brother's handwriting from the single word and he didn't have to hear her choked sob to know that Michael was gone.

He ran upstairs to his bedroom. His dresser drawers were haphazardly pulled out, his books lay in piles on the floor, and the contents of his desk drawer were strewn on his bed. Michael had raided all his hiding places. He checked the back of his underwear drawer, but Michael had found his birthday money, his saved allowance, and the money from the bet he'd never gotten around to depositing in the bank. Two hundred and fifty dollars. Enough to buy Michael a bus ticket pretty much anywhere he wanted to go.

James sat on his bed, amidst the ruin of his room and family, and wished he weren't too old to cry.



June 2007

"How long have you been seeing the shrink?"

Wilson had wondered how long it would take House to get to that question. This time, House had waited until the end of the day to ambush him, which meant he was intending more than just a strafing run. Wilson didn't even have a board or committee meeting scheduled to use as a convenient escape.

He weighed the pros and cons of telling the truth versus picking a date that would give House no new information, and decided it would be easier just to let House draw his own conclusions from the facts. "January."

It didn't take House long to make the connection. "Interesting," he mused. "I go into rehab and you pick up a drug habit. Were you trying to maintain the balance in the universe?"

"That would have been futile," Wilson pointed out sharply. It still rankled--not that House had faked rehab, but that he had allowed himself to hope that House was willing to get help. He wouldn't make that mistake again. Hope and House always led to disappointment. "Actually, I didn't start with the antidepressants until the beginning of March." He waited for House to connect the next dot.

"Even better. You think I'm depressed, so you go on antidepressants. Is that your way of leading by example?" His eyes suddenly narrowed and he leaned forward, gripping his cane with both hands. "Or were you planning even then to spike my coffee?"

"No," Wilson replied quickly, though he wondered if the idea had always been buried in his subconscious. "But they helped. I felt better than I had for months, so I thought maybe they could help you too." And they had helped, no matter what House said. House had been happier. "So I switched to a prescription that would interact better with Vicodin. That's what caused the yawning." It was karma, he supposed. If he hadn't switched, House might never have noticed that either of them were on antidepressants.

House looked up and Wilson knew he'd made that connection too. "Are you still on them?" he asked.

Wilson nodded. He reached into his jacket pocket and tossed House the pill bottle, trying hard not to think of the consequences. "I've cut back. Maybe I'll go off altogether." He didn't want to believe he was depressed, even if it was true.

House closed his hand around the bottle. "I thought you didn't want me to see your file."

It was a long way from knowing the prescribing physician's name to finding his file, but House travelled fast. "I don't. But I haven't given you a lot of reasons to trust me lately. Maybe I can start by trusting you."

"You didn't trust me enough to admit that you're just as screwed up as the next idiot whining about his problems to someone who gets paid to care. Why start now?"

"It's not as if I could pay you to care," Wilson retorted. The only time House paid attention to Wilson's personal life was when he thought it might affect him. Most of the time, Wilson preferred that--House's interference generally ended up with Wilson drunk, drugged, or dumped--but sometimes he wished for a more sympathetic best friend. "You act all hurt and disapproving when you find out I've kept something from you, but when I try to talk to you about my problems, you just walk away."

"Once. I walked away once, more than a year ago, and you're still bitching about it. Elephants have shorter memories than you." House tossed the pills back without looking. "Maybe you shouldn't go off them," he said. "Not if they're helping." He leaned back again. "You'll tell me if you change your prescription or your dosage."

Wilson nodded and tried not to smile. "You could always prescribe for me," he suggested. "Prove that you know more than the headshrinkers," he added to deflect his embarrassment. Asking House directly for help never worked. It only made them both uncomfortable.

House shook his head. "I might not learn from my own mistakes, but I can learn from yours. What?" he demanded, when Wilson tensed and looked away. "If nothing else, this last year should have taught you that prescribing for me is bad for you. And god knows, I could do without the lectures or the begging."

Wilson started to protest that he'd never made House beg for a prescription, but then he remembered turning down House's first request for Vicodin after the ketamine failed and refusing to prescribe an anti-emetic at Christmas. Both times he'd thought he was doing the right thing, but that didn't mean he hadn't hurt House. "You're right," he said, surprised he hadn't choked on the words. "Maybe it would be better for both of us if you found someone else to write your scrips." He pulled the file back into his sightline. There was always more paperwork to be done, another patient to visit, another diagnosis to deliver. He could avoid talking to House forever.

He heard House stand up and assumed the interrogation had ended for the day, now that House had his latest answers. But House just walked around to the front of Wilson's desk and stood there until Wilson looked up. House was watching him intently. Wilson recognized that expression; House had moved on from one puzzle to the next. The object was the same, but the subject was ever-changing.

"That sounded convincing," House observed. "Why don't you say it like you mean it?"

"It would be better for you if someone else wrote your scrips," Wilson repeated, enunciating each word as if he were humouring a small child.

"But not better for you," House commented, and Wilson recognized his slip. "Why is that? Trying to hang on to a patient who isn't taking a one-way trip down cancer highway? Or do you just like having that kind of control over me, stringing me along, doling out the meds? Does all that power make you feel special?"

"Special?" The word snapped out of Wilson's mouth like a slingshot. "You think it makes me feel special to sign my name to a prescription, knowing this could be the one that pushes your liver to the point of no return? Or having to worry that this time you might take one too many pills, by accident or on purpose?"

"So stop. I'm not holding a gun to your head."

"I can't!" It was suffocating sitting behind the desk while House loomed over him, so Wilson stood up abruptly, shoving his chair back into his bookshelf. He had the fleeting satisfaction of seeing House look surprised and almost concerned, and then he turned away and started righting the books his chair had knocked over.

"Wilson." House's voice was quiet, but it carried easily in the sudden stillness of the room. "Wilson."

"Just leave it, House," Wilson replied. He pressed his hands down on the shelf, trying to ground himself to something. When House nudged him between the shoulders with the tip of his cane, there was almost no give.

"What are you afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of anything," Wilson protested, ignoring the tight band of panic constricting his chest.

"I don't have to smell fear. I can see it from a hundred yards, and you're barely one yard away. I bet your heart is racing faster than it was on speed."

That was another thing Wilson didn't need to remember. He flinched when House's hand curled around his wrist. It was the second time House had touched him in less than a week. He didn't know whether to be worried or comforted.

"One-twenty and rising," House observed. "You're either freaking out or your resting pulse rate is really messed up." He let go, but didn't move away. "Calm down before you give yourself a heart attack."

Wilson spun to face him, his hands drifting to his hips unconsciously. "Why? A heart attack isn't going to kill me--I'm in a hospital."

House snorted. "Remembering everything I say to you is kind of creepy, you know."

"Not as creepy as saying it in the first place," Wilson retorted. "You didn't give a damn how I reacted to the amphetamines, as long as it answered your question. All the better if I'd had a heart attack or stroke, because it would have narrowed down what kind I was on." He knew that wasn't really true, but he didn't care. It was nice not to care for once.

"And you were walking the path of righteousness, slipping me your prescription in secret while pretending to be a good friend?"

Wilson took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down and think through his next words. "Is that what you're pissed off about? That I wasn't buying you coffee just to do something nice for you?" House never hesitated to borrow or steal what he wanted from Wilson, whether it was half his sandwich, his last ten dollars, or his car. It had never occurred to Wilson that he might make a distinction between receiving and taking. "I'll buy you a coffee right now, if it'll make you happy. You can watch to make sure I don't put anything in it." The anger faded away, leaving him exhausted. "I wasn't trying to be a good friend. I thought I was being a good friend." He held up a hand to stop House's next retort. "I was wrong. Just like you were wrong to dose me. But at least I was trying to help you."

"Implying that I wasn't."

"The last time I checked, amphetamines weren't a valid treatment for depression."

"Just trying to put the manic back into manic-depressive." House retreated to the couch. "How could I treat you if I didn't know what was wrong?"

"And that's ever stopped you before?" He sat back down in the chair and swivelled it to face House. "And there wasn't anything for you to treat. I had a problem, I got help. End of story." It wasn't that simple, of course, but it was the kind of pragmatic approach to diagnosis that House appreciated.

"And if I had a problem, I'd get help."

Wilson wished he could believe that. "You don't get help, you get high." The brain tumour ruse had been a little of both, though. It had been wildly inappropriate and unethical, in typical House fashion, but it had been a start.

"God, you're a hypocrite," House exclaimed. "Tell me again that drugs aren't the answer, while you're throwing down your own happy pills. At least I'm upfront about my drug use."

"Right. Stashing away hundreds of pills, stealing prescriptions, forging signatures is really upfront. Snorting antihistamines and shooting morphine is responsible drug use." Wilson could feel his blood pressure rising again, so he took another deep breath and slouched lower in his chair.

"Again. Stop prescribing for me if you think I'm an addict."

This time, Wilson managed to push back the wave of panic before it engulfed him. "I know you need the pills, House," he said, avoiding the question of whether or not he thought House was an addict. It was no longer relevant.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, wishing he could just wipe the last year from his memory. "If I stop, I can't keep track of how much you're taking. Despite what you think, I don't actually like lecturing you, or pestering you to cut down, but if it makes you hesitate before you take that one pill too many, then at least I've done something." He stared at his hands, knowing House would only mock him for thinking he had any power to alter his behaviour. "It's the only way I can help you," he admitted. He couldn't stop House's pain, he couldn't magically regenerate what was missing. All he could do was try to manage the unmanageable. Even if he did as much damage as good, it was better than standing on the sidelines watching helplessly as House slowly spiralled out of control.

He thought about Michael, who had been gone for 11 years now, though he had been lost to them for twice that. There hadn't been a break point, not really. Just a series of small fissures that had widened and cracked under the pressure until there was a crevasse too deep and wide to be bridged. He hadn't recognized what was happening at the time--he'd been too young to understand how easy it was for someone just to drift out of your life--but he'd be damned if he let that happen with House.

"Okay."

Wilson glanced up and saw House watching him, no sign of mocking in his expression. "Okay, what?" he asked.

"You may as well keep prescribing for me. No point in breaking in another drug mule." He leaned back and stared at the ceiling, feigning indifference. "You can even keep lecturing, though I reserve the right to ignore everything you say."

"You do anyway," Wilson pointed out. That wasn't entirely true. Every once in a while he managed to stop House from doing something completely insane, just often enough to keep him trying. He wondered sometimes if House calibrated his compliance to ensure Wilson never entirely gave up on him.

"You're wrong, by the way." It wasn't said with the usual scorn House attached to those words. "You help me just by being here. And I do know what that costs you."

It wasn't an apology, but Wilson had never asked for House to apologize to him. It wasn't even a promise, though Wilson knew it was as good as one. House wouldn't change, but he wouldn't leave either, and that was all Wilson had ever needed.