Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
"The Stolen Child," W.B. Yeats
James Wilson had always wanted to be a hero. As a boy, he had dreamed of saving the world; as a medical student, he had studied to save lives; as an oncologist, he had settled for extending lives. He worked hard, he made a positive impact on society, and from time to time he helped Gregory House save a life that no one else could. Those glimpses of reflected glory were enough. Not everybody could be a hero, after all.
But late at night, when imagination trumped reality, he still dreamed of saving the world.
Having House as a best friend meant that Wilson was used to seeing a lot of strange things. Plague patients, tapeworms the length of a garden hose, hermaphroditic models. It was all in a day's work for House. In fact, it was the only work House would take, so Wilson routinely scanned the admissions and ER charts for unusual symptoms, watching for any interesting cases that would keep House busy.
But he watched for more than that. House was reckless with his own safety and that of others. He seemed to lack a basic sense of self-preservation. And while Wilson knew his own sense of self-preservation was susceptible to a pretty face or a sob story, his sense of House-preservation was sharper than a surgical blade. It was an almost impossible task, keeping House out of trouble, but Wilson had always been a sucker for lost causes.
So when he walked past the Diagnostics department and saw two people in House's office that he didn't recognize, his radar pinged. The two men looked harmless on the surface, but Wilson never trusted surface impressions when it came to House. Their presence alone was a mystery. Strangers didn't just walk into House's office without security becoming involved. Wilson slipped into the conference room to investigate further, on the pretext of grabbing a coffee.
House's fellows were seated around the table, pretending to be working while watching the scene in the office covertly. Foreman was standing by the whiteboard, seemingly studying the random symptoms scribbled on its surface, but Wilson knew they didn't currently have a patient.
In the inner office, House was sitting at his desk, but he was leaning back in his chair, looking relaxed and casually interested. Wilson frowned, not at all fooled. He joined Foreman at the whiteboard, where he could get a better look at the two men in House's office. One of the men was dressed in a suit -- Wilson noted the cut and wondered idly who his tailor was -- and was standing back, arms crossed protectively. That wasn't unusual. House generally provoked mistrust from men in suits.
The other man was a different story. To begin with, he was wearing a military greatcoat, which was an unusual choice for New Jersey in the 21st century. He was also smiling, which wasn't the usual expression people wore when talking with House. The man in the suit was looking not at House, but at the man in the greatcoat, which was a third anomaly. Wilson couldn't remember the last time House hadn't been the centre of attention in his own office -- or anywhere else, for that matter.
"What's going on in there?" he asked, nodding towards House's office.
"Headhunters," Foreman said. "They're trying to recruit House for some special ops organization in England."
"Wales," Thirteen corrected. "It's based in Cardiff."
"I wouldn't tell the Welsh that," Wilson replied dryly. He'd had a Welsh friend in college who had been fiercely nationalistic, except during England-Germany soccer matches, when he sang Two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah, at the top of his voice with the rest of the Brits. "House is actually talking to them?"
"They're apparently more powerful than the CIA or MI5," Taub said. "Do you think House could resist that?"
Wilson shuddered. House and powerful security agencies weren't a good combination. He suspected the CIA was still reeling from their brief encounter. No one ever completely recovered from meeting House, even when they recovered because of him. "I think the clock just ticked closer to midnight," he muttered. "Let me know if he causes an international incident." But as he was turning away, House glanced over and gestured for him to come in.
Wilson shook his head and pointed at his watch, but House didn't accept that as an excuse when it was actually true.
"Get in here, Wilson," he bellowed.
Wilson sighed and pushed open the door to House's office. "I have a patient, House," he said, smiling apologetically at the two strangers.
"You don't have any more patient appointments today," House retorted. "Wilson is the master of the socially acceptable lie," he told the others. "He wouldn't want to hurt your feelings, but he really doesn't want to meet you."
"Well, that's a shame," said the man in the greatcoat, turning to greet Wilson. "Because I've always had a thing for doctors." His eyes roamed up and down Wilson's body and his smile broadened. He held out his hand. "Captain Jack Harkness."
Wilson wondered if this was how Cuddy felt when House leered at her, but there was nothing salacious in the once-over, just honest appreciation, and a hint of familiarity. He was flattered, in a purely theoretical way, but was about to gently steer Captain Harkness's attention elsewhere when he noticed House's expression. The casual interest and amusement were gone and he was glaring at the captain as if he had tried to take his PSP. It never failed to amuse Wilson when House's possessive streak kicked in, and he wasn't adverse to stirring things up a bit.
"Dr. James Wilson. And I've always had a thing for men in uniform," he replied, shaking Harkness's hand. It was like touching a live wire. He blinked and looked closer at Harkness, wondering if they'd met before.
"You have a thing all right," House said. "Wilson is terrified of men in uniform. It's a Jew thing. Secretly he's convinced they're the Gestapo in disguise, come to take him away to the camps." He wasn't smiling any more when he stared at Harkness. "It's not a completely irrational fear, is it, Captain Harkness? Sometimes the people there to protect us are the ones we have to fear the most."
Harkness didn't take the challenge, but he stopped smiling. "Call me Jack. I'm not big on formality." He turned back to Wilson. "This is my colleague Ianto Jones."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Wilson," Jones said, breaking the tension. He had a lilting Welsh accent that made Wilson think of gently flowing waters.
"It's James. Or Wilson. Most people call me Wilson." Or rather, House called him Wilson and everybody else just followed his lead. Even Amber had called him Wilson more often than not. Sometimes Wilson forgot he had a first name. "What brings you to Princeton?"
"Business, I'm afraid," Jack said. "Though I can always find time for pleasure."
Wilson didn't know if Jack was naturally flirtatious or just trying to get a rise out of House. He suspected it was a little of both. He also suspected that House would make him pay no matter how he reacted. If he backed off, House would mock him for being homophobic. If he played along, House would hound him until Wilson threw him off the scent by flirting with one of the new nurses or, better yet, Cuddy. "I'd be happy to show you around Princeton, if you have the time." He smiled, careful to include both visitors in the invitation. "I'll leave you to your business now, but please don't hesitate to call if I can be of any assistance."
"Actually, we were hoping to speak with you as well, Dr. Wilson." Jones was scrupulously polite, but even his accent couldn't disguise an underlying note of suspicion. He reminded Wilson a bit of House, but with manners.
The last thing Wilson wanted was to have anything to do with some covert organization, but the more he knew what House was getting involved in, the better chance he had of mitigating the damages. "Of course," he said, trying to sound unconcerned. "Anything I can do to help."
"That's the kind of attitude we're looking for," Jack replied, beaming. "I think we'll get on like wildfire."
"If you mean leaving a swath of destruction in your wake, then you're probably right," House said. "You still haven't told me why you're here or what you want. And just to be clear, Wilson is here as a witness to our conversation and nothing else. Understood?"
"Understood. Though you understand that if Dr. Wilson learns too much, we'll have to kill him later." Jack stared at House, who stared back, unblinking. It was like watching a rotweiller and a pit bull face off over a particularly meaty bone. Wilson could almost hear House growling. Finally, Jack laughed. "Just kidding. That's not the kind of thing we do."
Wilson wasn't reassured. He wondered what kind of things they did do, and then decided he didn't want to know.
"If you two are finished playing chicken with Dr. Wilson's life," Jones said, "might I remind you that we have a flight to catch and that traffic on the Turnpike will be insane."
"I'd definitely recommend giving yourself an extra half hour this time of day," Wilson said, even more unnerved. The sooner they left, the sooner whatever danger they represented would be gone. "And if you're flying internationally, you should check in at least three hours early."
"Don't be an idiot, Wilson," House snapped. "These aren't the kind of people who have to worry about long lines at customs."
"I don't know what kind of people they are," Wilson pointed out, somewhat untruthfully. "So far, all I know is their names."
"We belong to an organization called Torchwood," Jack said. "We operate outside of national security, beyond the United Nations. The less you know, the better."
Under most circumstances Wilson would be more than happy to agree. But if they were indeed trying to recruit House, he couldn't afford to take refuge in ignorance. "What do you want with House?"
"We're here for a consult. From time to time we run across...unusual medical situations. One of our associates, Dr. Martha Jones, tells me that 'unusual' is Dr. House's stock in trade."
If they wanted to attract House, they were certainly going about it the right way. House was no more able to resist a mystery than a free lunch. Wilson shifted slightly, positioning himself between House and Jack. "But if Dr. Jones is an associate, surely she can consult on these situations."
The smile disappeared from Jack's eyes, if not his mouth, and Wilson knew he had read the intention behind Wilson's words and body language. "Dr. Jones isn't always available. She has commitments that could potentially put her in a conflict of interest."
Wilson wasn't about to back down. "What have you done in the past, then?"
Jack glanced at Ianto. "We had a medic on the team."
Wilson noted the past tense. "Had."
"He was killed in April."
"I'm sorry," Wilson said. He was. Empathy had always been an important part of his job, but now he understood the loss of loved ones on a deeper level. He had worked his way through the five steps, come to terms with Amber's death, but it was always with him.
"But you're carrying on. Keeping the team going," House interjected. "That's good. Healthy. You have to face life, not run away."
Wilson tried to ignore him. Enough time had passed since their reconciliation that House felt comfortable enough to needle him about leaving. He was glad of that, but part of the pact he'd made with himself on his return was not to encourage the needling. Unfortunately, House rarely needed any encouragement.
"Now Wilson here is so terrified of losing anyone," he continued, "that he'll deny the very existence of a relationship just so it can't be taken from him."
Ignoring House was never really an option. "Well, maybe if you stopped almost dying, I wouldn't have such a problem," he retorted. He saw Ianto flinch and glance at Jack, who looked away. He wondered what that was about. "Were you planning on consulting here?" he asked, steering the conversation back to business. "Because it's hard enough getting House to the office five days a week, much less all the way to Wales."
"And I only fly first class," House added. "Though you can stick Wilson back in the cattle car."
"I realize you're still having separation issues," Wilson said mildly, "but I'm not going anywhere, with or without you."
"Oh, I think you are. Because unless I'm mistaken -- and you know how rarely that happens -- the good captain is much more interested in you than he is me."
Wilson glanced at Jack, and again a sense of familiarity swept over him. "Have we met before?" Normally, he was good with faces, even if he occasionally mixed up a name. But neither the name nor the face triggered a memory. Something about the greatcoat niggled at the back of his mind, though. He supposed he'd just watched too many old war movies.
But House was staring smugly at Jack. "London," he said. "The summer before Julie dumped your sorry ass."
Wilson remembered the trip, but he still couldn't place Jack. But it made sense. They must have crossed paths at some point during the conference.
"When did you remember?" Jack asked House.
"As soon as you shook Wilson's hand," House replied. "I never forget a threat. What did you do to him that night?"
"House..." Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the beginnings of a stress headache. He swayed, suddenly dizzy. When Jack reached out to steady him, he saw a flash of suspenders beneath the greatcoat. The touch of Jack's hand on his arm closed the final connection. "Oh," he said, surprised. "I think I'm going to pass out." And he did.
"You didn't mention that you knew them."
The one in the suit sounded pissed off. House was used to that tone of voice from men in suits, especially the one currently doing an impression of a wilting flower.
"Can we talk about this later?" Harkness replied, struggling to keep Wilson from slumping to the ground. He managed to get Wilson's left arm over his shoulders and half-dragged, half-carried him to the yellow Eames chair in the corner.
House glanced into the conference room and saw that his minions were showing signs of acting like doctors. He hurried to the door to head them off at the pass.
"Is Wilson all right?" Kutner asked, craning his head to look past House.
The last thing House wanted was bored diagnosticians poking their noses into Wilson's business. One was more than enough. "He's fine. Too much caffeine, too little sleep. But since you're so concerned, you can do his clinic hours. Or mine. Whoever's scheduled. Taub can take notes for him on grand rounds this afternoon, and Thirteen can make sure all his appointments are rescheduled. Foreman, you like pretending to be important, so you can go to the department head meeting for both of us." Satisfied that the four musketeers would be both annoyed and occupied for the afternoon, he turned back to his newest patient.
"Is he all right?" Harkness asked, hovering just a little too close to Wilson for House's liking. The last time he'd seen Harkness, he'd been standing too close to Wilson as well.
House resisted the urge to shove him away as he checked Wilson's pulse and pupils. Wilson was already floundering back to consciousness. "Aside from being a big sissy? He's fine. Sudden drop in blood pressure. Most likely anxiety related, and since he's an oncologist with a self-destructive best friend, that's saying a lot." He wasn't about to admit it to Harkness, but he'd been more than a little concerned by Wilson's sudden loss of consciousness. He could -- and would -- mock all he liked, but Wilson wasn't the type to pass out under pressure. "Again," he snapped. "What did you do to him that night?"
"What night is he talking about? What have you kept from us this time?"
Jones was definitely pissed off. House had the feeling Captain Dress-up was a bit of a loose cannon. He could grow to like him if he stopped flirting with Wilson.
"It wasn't relevant," Harkness said, sounding a little too much like Wilson himself. "They wouldn't have remembered me if the retcon had held. An amnesia pill," he explained for House's benefit. "I really need to adjust that formula. Maybe that's something you can help us with."
"You should probably have two formulas," House agreed, smirking with relief when Wilson sat up, blinked, and looked around. "One for normal people and one for lightweights like Wilson."
"Not all of us have your extensive experience with drugs," Wilson retorted. He'd always had a short recovery period.
"To be fair," Harkness pointed out, "you barely had any memories to recover. Owen wouldn't even have dosed you if we didn't think you'd ask Dr. Wilson too many awkward questions. I was afraid this would happen, though. If an intelligent person fixates on a strong image, the retcon almost always fails. Interesting that what triggered it for you was me touching Dr. Wilson. Why do you think that was?"
Wilson looked dismayed. "Owen. Dr. Harper. He's dead? I'm so sorry, Jack." The first name rolled a little too easily off his tongue. Apparently he'd recovered his comfort levels along with his memory.
"What triggered the memory for you?" Jones asked, frowning slightly as he looked between Wilson and Harkness.
"The coat," Wilson replied. "The suspenders. Jack."
"I am hard to forget," Jack agreed. "And it was a pretty unforgettable evening. It's not often I have to fight off an angry female in my underwear. Well, actually, it does happen fairly often, but usually there's more jealousy involved and less vengeance. And it was on Torchwood One's patch. Your former colleagues should have been tracking her better," he told Jones.
"The she-Troilog? You mean that's the scotch guy?" The suit sounded almost impressed.
"He's American," House pointed out. For a special ops group, their intelligence left something to be desired.
"Not Scots, scotch." The words weren't accompanied by an eye roll, but House could still hear the disdain in Jones's voice. "Dr. Wilson threw a glass of scotch in the Troilog's face, which slowed her down enough for Jack to stun her. It's standard procedure with them now. Apply alcohol first."
House was finding the story fascinating so far, but there were a couple of points he needed to clear up. "Why were you in your underwear? And what the hell is a Troilog? Some quaint British slang for an enemy agent?"
"It's not slang," Harkness replied, "and it's definitely not British. Not from this planet, actually. The Troilog are the teetotallers of the galaxy."
"Right." House wondered what kind of weapons they gave to these lunatics. "Did you tell Wilson you were going to play hunt the alien when you lured him into your lair and stripped him down to his skivvies?"
"I was the only one down to my underwear," Harkness said blithely. "Dr. Wilson technically still had his pants on, which is why he tripped trying to get to the bottle. Otherwise I'm sure he would have subdued the Troilog all on his own."
"God, Wilson," House exclaimed. "Could you be more pathetic? Fainting, falling. You can't even battle aliens like a man."
"Oh, like you'd do any better," Wilson snapped. "Hold the attack! Here comes House hobbling to the rescue." He crossed his arms defensively. "It's not my fault my feet got tangled in my pants."
"That wasn't in the report," Jones said. "For god's sake, Jack. You slept with him? Before or after the Troilog?"
"Let's just say she had incredibly bad timing." Harkness winked at Jones, who seemed to be both ruefully amused and mildly jealous. Clearly, Harkness was a bigger slut than Wilson. "Hence the pants around the ankles. It was my fault, really. If I'd listened to his mother, I would have taken his shoes off first."
Wilson covered his face with his hands. "Do we have to talk about this?" he moaned. "I'm sure you didn't fly across the Atlantic after all this time to reveal my sexual indiscretions." He curled away when House nudged him with the tip of his cane.
House, however, wasn't about to put up with Wilson ignoring him, so he kept nudging until Wilson sat up and glared at him. "There's nothing to be ashamed about, Wilson," House said. "Who wouldn't hit that? But you," he continued, pointing at Harkness. "I cannot believe you denied me three years of teasing Wilson about his walk on the gay side."
"You're taking this too well," Wilson said suspiciously.
Wilson had every right to be suspicious, he supposed. He hadn't exactly been tolerant of Wilson's indiscretions in the past. But a rendezvous in a hotel room with a male lunatic was like a gift from the gods. House would be dining out on this story for years. "Hey, I like a good alien abduction story as much as the next guy, and the fainting was a nice touch, but you didn't have to go to all this trouble just to hide a three-year-old fling from me. What goes on at conferences, stays at conferences."
"It's not a story," Wilson said, his voice quavering.
House looked up sharply. Wilson was sheet-white, and from the expression on his face whatever he was remembering was horrifying to a man who routinely watched his patients' skin slough off.
"It was real. All of it was real." Wilson started to tremble. "It stood in the doorway and it looked at me. And I could feel its hatred." He gripped the arms of the chair, stilling the tremors in his hands, but his whole body was shaking and nothing could disguise that. "I didn't know what to do."
"How could you?" Harkness said, kneeling down in front of Wilson. "All you had to go on was instinct, and your instincts saved us both."
Wilson shook his head. "But they didn't. I remember grabbing the glass, throwing it. And then the scream. I'd never heard anything like that before. I can hear it now." He squeezed his eyes closed, his breath coming raggedly.
House hurried to his desk, where he kept an assortment of drugs for all occasions. Fortunately, he had a fresh needle and a vial of Ativan for those times when Wilson wasn't around to soothe hysterical patients, family members, or employees. He had the dose drawn by the time he was back at Wilson's side. This time he had no qualms about shoving Harkness out of the way. He pushed the Ativan, but Wilson was still breathing too fast, and House was afraid he would start to hyperventilate. He slapped Wilson hard across the face. "Look at me, Wilson."
Wilson sucked in one long breath and looked up. He'd always listened to House, even when he tried not to.
"Good," House said. "Stop being such a sissy."
Wilson slowed down his breathing and looked cautiously around the office. "You hit me," he said, sounding more amused than outraged. "How long have you been waiting to do that?"
"Since the last time I hit you." Relieved, he stood up and turned on Harkness. They were almost exactly the same height, which made it harder than usual to intimidate, but House had motivation on his side. "Whatever you gave us before, give it to him again."
"I can't," Harkness replied, not backing down. "It's not as precise as I'd like when time has passed between sets of memories. We try to wipe them out, and it could take away everything in between."
"And that's worse than fainting spells and panic attacks? He'll be a lot of good to his patients, freaking out every five minutes."
"I give it to him and he won't remember his patients," Harkness pointed out. "He'll forget three years of research and medical advances."
"He'll relearn what he needs. I can cover for him." They could go over the charts together, re-read the studies. Wilson had always been a quick study. "Do it."
"That's not your call," Harkness said calmly. "Those aren't your memories to lose."
"Some of them are." He thought about the last three years. Stacy returning and then leaving again. Wilson's marriage falling apart. The failed ketamine treatment. Tritter, betrayal, and a Christmas overdose. Amber. He'd forget it all if he could. He turned to Wilson. "It would be better."
But Wilson shook his head. "All I have left of her is memories. Don't ask me to lose those too."
House looked away, unable to face the still-fresh sorrow in Wilson's eyes. Sometimes, when he closed his own eyes, he could see Wilson standing in his hospital room, bowed with grief. The image still haunted him, drawn sharper by the four months of silence that followed. "If there were a pill that could take away the pain and leave the rest..."
"...I'd have prescribed it to you years ago," Wilson finished. "I tried to excise a decade and a half of friendship from my memory and it caused nothing but sorrow. I won't make that mistake again." The colour was flooding back into his face, and his pulse and respiration had returned to near normal ranges.
But things were far from normal. Wilson's mind often worked in ways that perplexed House, but he wasn't insane and he wasn't capable of faking the panic attack House had just witnessed. Wilson had been attacked, by an alien or something else, and Harkness had somehow erased both their memories of a single day three years ago. House was both intrigued and worried.
"It sure has been nice reliving old times," he said pointedly, "but didn't you say something about having a plane to catch? Maybe we should get down to business." Except it was a hell of a coincidence that Harkness had a prior -- albeit half-forgotten -- relationship with Wilson. House didn't believe in coincidences. "Or are you here for some unfinished business? Did you drag your lapdog all the way to Princeton on a wild goose chase? Though it's not much of a chase. All you need to lure Wilson into bed is a sob story and a hint of desperation." Except Harkness didn't strike him as the needy or desperate type. And he definitely wasn't a woman, which until now had been the main common characteristic of Wilson's bed partners. House wondered what other secrets Wilson was keeping from him, deliberately or not.
But there would be time to interrogate Wilson later. His target was Harkness now. "There's a janitor's closet down that hall that gets a lot of action if you want to pick up where you left off." He narrowed his eyes when Wilson shifted uncomfortably and colour flooded his face. "Huh. Looks like your business wasn't unfinished after all. What happened, Wilson? You survived the alien encounter and fell in bed with the hero?"
"Yes, I did," Harkness said, resting a hand possessively on Wilson's shoulder. House wanted to rip it off. "I'm sorry, Jimmy," Harkness said quietly. "I know you never wanted House to find out."
"Fuck Jimmy," House said, enraged by the use of Wilson's nickname. "But then you already have. Is that why you came back? A little trip down memory lane? Even if it was just a one-way street."
Harkness stepped away from Wilson and directly into House's space. "What happened between Dr. Wilson and myself is no one's business but our own."
As far as House was concerned, Harkness had made it his business the moment he'd sashayed into his office and brought those memories crashing back down on Wilson. He might not know what retcon was, but he did know that things better left buried had a tendency to surface when least convenient. "Why are you here, if it wasn't to re-enact An Affair Not to Remember?"
Harkness glanced at his underling, who nodded slightly. "There's been a string of unexplained deaths in Cardiff over the past week," he continued. "No prior history of disease, no identified external cause. Just otherwise healthy people collapsing and dying of idiopathic organ failure. But we've identified residual energy patterns that indicate the incidents are linked to extra-terrestrial activity. Which is where Torchwood comes in. Our job is to combat alien threats. We were in New York to consult with Dr. Jones, but she was pulled off the case by her superiors. There's not much love lost between our organizations. Which means we need to go through our own or unofficial channels to investigate. And that's where you come in. Dr. Jones did suggest we consult with you before we flew home, but I would have come to see you anyway. Owen admired and respected you. That's enough of a recommendation for me."
House remembered Harper as a young, abrasive doctor with excellent taste in strip clubs. He had been more interesting than most of the drones at the conference. Far more interesting, it turned out. And now he was dead. "Let me see the file." He retained the right to withhold his opinion, but it wouldn't hurt to take a look.
Jones produced a memory stick and plugged it into a USB port on House's computer. "Autopsy reports, medical charts, patient histories. Everything we have, you have now." He glanced at his watch. "Just keep in mind, we have to leave in an hour."
"Whatever," House said, already lost in the first pieces of the puzzle. He glanced up and saw Wilson talking quietly with Harkness. "Stop lounging about in my chair and get your lazy ass over here," he snapped. "You have more experience with dead patients than I do."
Wilson was slightly unsteady on his feet, but he joined House without protest. "It's not cancer," he said, assessing the available information.
"No shit, Sherlock," House retorted. "Try and think outside the cancer box for once."
Wilson glared at him. "You do know you're talking to an oncologist, don't you? And you're paying for the pizza next time for using consultant-speak. What do you want to do next? Strategize the case in the context of a new paradigm?" He shook his head. "Bring up the blood panels and stop being such a condescending ass."
There were days when House adored Wilson. "Who died and put you in charge of the differential?"
"Gareth Davies," Wilson said, pointing out the name on the file. "How many cases have there been?" he asked Harkness.
"Seven," he replied. "We got involved after the sixth, when it became clear that these weren't just isolated incidents."
"Seven cases doesn't exactly rank as a pandemic," House commented, remembering that they had met Harkness at a conference on that subject. "No indication that we're dealing with something contagious?"
"Not so far. Though we have no idea what the incubation period could be," Harkness said. "There's no sign of bacterial or viral infection, however."
"Any connection between the deceased?" House asked. He would go through the histories himself later, but it didn't hurt to get the basic information first.
"None apparent," Jones replied, flipping through the electronic equivalent of a notebook. "They lived and worked in different parts of the city. No friends or family in common. They shopped at different markets, attended different churches."
"They're all Welsh," Wilson observed as he scanned the records.
"In Wales. Who would have thought? Are you sure they're not all Croatian?" House jibed.
"Now that would be interesting," Wilson said. "Because I imagine there are Croatians in Cardiff. And Ethiopians, and Vietnamese, and Pakistanis. And yet the patients all have typically Welsh names. Just because something is obvious doesn't mean it's not important."
And that was why House had needed Wilson back so desperately. House could sometimes be so focused on examining the moss on the trees that he didn't bother to look at the forest. "And just because something is obvious doesn't mean it's relevant. Jones already said they weren't related."
Wilson shrugged. "Somerled of Argyll is supposed to have half a million living descendants. You're not going to find them all on one family tree."
"I'll go back farther," Jones offered. "Look for any common ancestors." He made a note in his PDA. "Let me know if you need anything else."
"A cup of coffee would be good," House said, scanning the mortality reports. "Milk, no sugar."
"House," Wilson scolded. "You can't order him around like one of your fellows. You shouldn't even be ordering your fellows around like that," he added, as if he never made his residents and interns run errands and do grunt work. Except, of course, he didn't. The sycophantic bastards fell all over themselves volunteering.
"It's all right," Jones interjected. "Coffee is one of my specialties. I assume there's a coffeemaker in the staff room."
"Wilson likes his with lots of sugar and a dash of amphetamines," House called after him. "Why don't I have a coffee specialist?" he wondered aloud. "I haven't had a decent cup of coffee since Cameron quit." Kutner tried, but his coffee always tasted slightly scorched. He glanced up when Wilson was silent. "What? No lectures about pushing people away?"
"You already know you do. Telling you again isn't going to change anything. What about toxins?" he asked.
"It's not a toxin," Harkness interjected. "We got to the last victim before he died and there was no response to our antitoxin kit. It covers all known terrestrial and alien compounds."
"Then maybe it's unknown," Wilson replied. "What about an environmental trigger?"
"Not much help unless we can determine the trigger. Acute radiation syndrome?"
"Leukocyte count was low," Wilson agreed. "But the kind of organ failure we're talking about would mean exposure to more than 10 sieverts of radiation. And there's no record of the massive hemorrhaging that would cause." He rubbed the back of his neck. "If this is extra-terrestrial in cause, how can we treat it? This isn't Independence Day, where Jeff Goldblum could magically create a computer virus that would destroy alien systems, never mind that it was 1996 and Macs and PCs weren't even compatible."
"Don't start on Independence Day again. It's a disaster movie. It's not supposed to be realistic." Watching movies with Wilson was its own circle of hell. He could never just enjoy a film. He had to dissect and critique everything from the cinematography to the set decorations. And he expected House to actually listen. "Why don't you add something productive to this discussion and bring the whiteboard in here?"
But before Wilson could stalk away with his trademarked martyred air, Jones pushed open the door, backing into the office while balancing a tray of coffee mugs. "I'm afraid there wasn't much in the way of raw materials," Jones said apologetically, "but I made do."
House grabbed his mug and took a tentative sip. The last cup of coffee he'd had from the conference room machine had tasted like scalded dirty water. But this was a cup of liquid love. He stared at Jones. "You made this from the crap in there?" he asked. He wondered if he could fire Kutner and lure Jones away from Cardiff. Cuddy might object to the lack of medical degree, but not after a couple of cups of coffee.
"Ianto is a man of many talents," Harkness said, smiling fondly at his lackey. "But we'd cease to function without his coffee."
Their hands brushed just a little longer than necessary when Jones handed him a mug, and House knew Harkness was paying benefits that he had no intention of matching.
"I don't know what kind of answer you expect me to give you, when I haven't even examined a patient," House said, sorting the symptoms out on his own internal whiteboard.
"You never examine patients," Wilson reminded him, once again forgetting that it was the sidekick's responsibility to always back up the hero.
"I do when they're dying of a cool alien disease. Or when my minions are too incompetent to do it right the first time. God knows what kind of mess those morons in the National Health Service made of these cases." Though from what he'd been able to see of the files so far, they had done a relatively decent job with limited resources and brainpower.
Jones turned away suddenly and walked to the other side of the room. House could just hear his end of a hushed one-sided conversation. When Jones rejoined them, his face was grave. "That was Gwen. There's been another case reported. The hospital is sending the admission report to our PDAs and Dr. House's email address."
House's email alert chimed an instant later and he pulled up the message. "Twenty-nine-year-old female, admitted after complaining of stomach pains. Suspected appendicitis rediagnosed as the first stage of kidney failure. Glad they got their internal organs straightened out. Both kidneys shot in less than twenty-four hours, now the liver's failing. If everything else holds, she'll be dead in less than two days."
Harkness glanced over his own report quickly. "Ianto, call the pilot and tell him to be ready for take-off as soon as we arrive. No more than an hour from now." He turned to House. "Well, Dr. House, it looks as though you'll have that opportunity to examine a patient."
"Are you transferring her here?" Cuddy would be less than pleased at the arrival of a patient with an unexplained, possibly dangerous condition, but she'd find a way to turn it to the hospital's advantage. "My team will have to be involved."
"That's impossible," Harkness replied. "And you'll be flying back to Cardiff with us. It's all been arranged."
"You can't do that," House protested, though his experience with the CIA was proof that someone could be whisked away without warning in the middle of the work day. He'd gone eagerly then, thrilled by the cloak and daggers, but he had no intention of playing a command performance this time. "I can't just fly across the Atlantic on a whim. I have patients -- well, not right now, but someone will start dying eventually. And my boss is a real hard-ass about attendance. Too bad that's the only thing about her ass that's hard."
"We've already cleared it with Dr. Cuddy. And we took the liberty of packing a bag for you. You don't have to concern yourself with any details."
"What was the point of this whole charade, then? Why not just knock me out and put me on the plane? That's Cuddy's usual tactic for sending me somewhere I don't want to go."
Wilson shifted guiltily, as well he should. House knew the sedative had been his idea.
"That was Plan B," Harkness said lightly, but it was clear he wasn't joking. "I thought if we told you about the case first, you'd be a more willing participant, out of curiosity, if not humanity."
Plan A was a good one, House had to admit. He was curious, and while he didn't give a damn whether or not Cuddy had given permission, he could use his cooperation here as a negotiating tool in the future. He glanced at Wilson, who just shrugged.
"I'll keep an eye on your team," he said. "Make sure Foreman doesn't start a coup in your absence. I don't like the idea of them dragging you across the Atlantic any more than you do, but this is the kind of case that you live for."
"Actually, you'll be coming with us as well." Harkness grinned when Wilson looked bewildered and more than a little alarmed. "It was Dr. Cuddy's idea, actually. She said something about it being your turn to play chaperone. But after listening to you two just now, I think we could use your medical help too."
House had always known they made a good team, at least as long as he got to be the captain, but he didn't like Harkness realizing that so quickly. And he really didn't like the idea of Wilson spending any more time with Harkness than necessary. "Wilson does have real patients. Dying patients. Not to mention my clinic hours to cover."
"I'm not doing your clinic hours," Wilson retorted. "And if Cuddy's cleared it, it's out of my hands. I have my passport and an overnight case in my office."
Of course he did. Wilson was prepared for any occasion, even being seconded by quasi-governmental alien hunters. Perhaps an aging Boy Scout wasn't the worst person to have by his side. "Grab your things, Sancho Panza," he said with as much bravado as he could muster. "Looks like we're off to tilt at some windmills."
Wilson had always wanted to visit Cardiff. He'd been to conferences in London and Edinburgh and had tacked on extra days to sightsee and explore. He'd played golf -- disastrously -- at St. Andrews, tramped through the Lake District, watched the sun rise over Stonehenge. But he'd never made it to Wales, despite the sneaking suspicion that there was heavily diluted Welsh blood flowing through his veins. His middle name was a family one, and while Evan wasn't exclusively Welsh, he thought there was a great-great-grandfather on his mother's side who might have been from Wales.
But he had never thought his first visit would come after being bundled into a rental car, hustled through airport security -- without even a glance at his passport -- and loaded onto a private jet that flew them into a private airstrip just outside the city. House had grumbled the entire way because there were no stewardesses to wait on him hand and foot, though Ianto had wisely kept the watered-down drinks flowing.
They were met at the airstrip by another member of Jack's team, a young woman with sad eyes and a gap between her teeth that Wilson found utterly charming. She introduced herself as Gwen Cooper, though she hesitated slightly and glanced unconsciously at her left hand. Married, he deduced, recently enough that she still hadn't decided whether or not to take her husband's name. All of his wives had taken his name and had been reluctant to let it go, even after the divorce. Amber, he thought, would have kept her name if she had lived long enough to marry him.
Wilson had made a quick call to Cuddy on the pretext of having to shut down his computer and grab his passport, and she'd confirmed that she'd received an official request for House's assistance. She'd also confirmed his suspicions that it hadn't exactly been her idea to send him along, though she'd thought it showed unusual foresight from a governmental agency. Wilson thought that foresight had very little to do with it. Jack, he remembered, had first met him while he was babysitting House at a conference.
"Don't worry," she'd said. "I don't actually expect you to make him behave. You're there for damage control. And to try and keep him from being thrown into a foreign prison."
Wilson didn't think that was going to be a problem. As they drove into Cardiff, Gwen explained that she'd been a member of the South Wales Police before being recruited by Torchwood.
"That must be handy," House said, in a tone that was somewhere between offensive and grudgingly admiring. "Having a tame cop on the payroll." He'd commandeered the front passenger seat of the Rover, but Wilson knew that the trans-Atlantic flight and the cramped car ride to Newark would have taken its toll on his leg. Even Wilson was stiff and sore from the journey.
"Ex-cop," Jack corrected. "And she's a great deal more than that," Jack replied. "Though I can see how it would be something that would appeal to you. You could have used a tame cop a couple of years ago, couldn't you? Would have been a lot easier on everyone concerned."
There was an edge to his voice that surprised Wilson. "Are you talking about Tritter?" he asked, noting that none of them were confused by the name. "He was a bully. House handled it badly -- we both handled it badly," he amended, "but Tritter was out of line. He had no case."
"Really?" Ianto said pleasantly. "I should have thought fraud and perjury made two very good cases. Three, if you count Dr. Cuddy."
Wilson stilled, but forced himself not to glance guiltily at House. He should have known better than to trust those fractured and reassembled memories of a night more than three years in the past. He didn't know Jack, not really. And he didn't know the others at all. And now he and House were in another country, at the mercy of an organization that seemingly answered only to itself.
"The puppy has teeth," House said, sounding amused now. Wilson couldn't understand how he could be so unconcerned. But then House had never trusted anyone or anything that he couldn't confirm for himself. "The case was dismissed. End of story."
"End of chapter, perhaps," Ianto replied. "But a case was never filed against Dr. Wilson, was it? The evidence is still there. How long until an ambitious prosecutor tries to make a name for himself by going after an over-prescribing doctor?"
"If you're threatening Wilson because you feel threatened by him," House said, his voice deceptively mild, "you should retract your claws now before someone gets hurt."
Ianto laughed. "If I felt threatened by every person Jack flirted or slept with, I'd be afraid to leave my home."
"Don't mind Ianto," Gwen said, frowning at her colleague. "We're just cautious about people from Jack's past. And we've gotten a bit insular since Owen and Tosh died."
They'd lost two team members recently. It was no wonder Ianto was territorial. "I'm sorry," Wilson said, knowing how inadequate the words were. "What happened to them?"
He had spoken softly, but Jack overheard. "Family quarrel," he said lightly, but Wilson could hear the sorrow in his voice. "It's not relevant to this situation."
That was as good as waving a red cape in front of House's face. "Really? Because the fact that you picked up Wilson at an art gallery is pretty damn relevant to why we're here. And yet you kept that from what's left of your team." House had pried the story out of Wilson during the flight, though Wilson had managed to obscure some of the more personal details. "What else did you keep from them, and how much of it got them killed?"
House always knew where to sink barbs into soft flesh. "That's enough," Wilson warned. "You're not in a position to lecture about keeping secrets either. Your father was dying of cancer for over a year and you never once mentioned it to me." That had hurt. Enough to drive him out of his self-imposed exile, enough to make him want to punish House by dragging him to his father's funeral. He had done it for Blythe, but he had done it to spite House as well.
"There wasn't anything you could have done," House retorted, though Wilson could hear a tiny note of remorse. "The tests were conclusive and he wasn't going to leave his home. Did you think you could treat him from 650 miles away?"
"I think I could have talked to him about his treatment. Explained to your mother what he was going through. It's what I do." He could have been a better friend to House. By the time Blythe called, it was too late for him to help anybody.
"Wilson's an expert on family quarrels," House said, shifting his attack to an easier target. "He likes to solve everybody else's problems, but he can't stay married long enough to renew a mortgage, and he can't keep track of all of his siblings."
Wilson dug his fingers into his knees, trying not to react. He knew he'd brought it on himself, first by siding with Jack and then by mentioning House's father, but that didn't lessen the sting. Gwen covered his hand with hers, and he smiled gratefully at her. But she was looking at Jack with apprehension and concern, and Wilson wondered if House's shot had hit two marks.
"I'll take you to the hospital after I drop Gwen and Ianto back at the office," Jack said, changing the subject smoothly. "Ianto, get started on the genealogy angle. Gwen, I want you to go through hospital records for any similar cases prior to these incidents. Go back as far as you can. In particular, look for instances where death was expected, but accelerated."
"What are you thinking, Jack?" she asked.
"Just an idea," he replied vaguely. "The unusual energy readings spiked just before the last victim died. It could be linked to the cause of death. Or it could indicate additional contact. Or both. Either way, keep a fix on the patient's room. We'll need to monitor her around the clock, and not just medically." He turned down a side street and pulled to the side of the road by an open plaza.
Wilson could see a large obelisk and beyond it what must be the Millennium Centre, the copper-coloured roof catching glimmers of street and starlight. "Your office is down here?" he asked. "That must be nice. I read they have free lunchtime concerts."
"Are you planning on taking a lunch break between dying patients?" House asked. "We're not here to play tourist, Wilson."
"I'll show you around once we've saved the world," Jack said, one corner of his mouth pulled up in a lopsided grin. "You know how I feel about business and pleasure. Until then I'll be with you at the hospital, acting as liaison in case anyone tries to throw up any roadblocks."
Wilson couldn't imagine anyone trying to throw up roadblocks against Jack. He'd either smile them into submission or pull out the strange gun Wilson remembered from the hotel room. It would be nice to have some help corralling House, though, who never played nicely with other people's toys. "I'll need full access to the labs," he said. "And House will need office space and a television so he can watch Coronation Street and EastEnders. And a whiteboard," he added, trying to anticipate House's demands before he alienated the entire hospital.
"Already done," Ianto said. "I've arranged full credentials for both of you at all the hospitals in Cardiff. And I can have a tape of this week's episodes sent over. Emmerdale as well."
"I'm kidnapping Jones and taking him back to Princeton," House announced. "None of my minions will cater to my every whim without bitching about it for days."
"I can't imagine why," Ianto said, ducking out of the car.
Gwen patted Wilson on the shoulder before she got out as well. "Try not to get caught in the cross-fire," she said. "You don't want to see Jack lose his temper."
"I only lose my temper under extreme provocation," Jack protested. "Dr. House is a world-class asshole, but he still has a ways to go in the universe rankings."
House snorted, but Wilson could tell from the set of his shoulders that he'd done firing for the moment. He could also see that House was running on fumes. The two Vicodin he'd dry swallowed earlier were probably only damping the pain. Tired and hurting was a bad combination when it came to House, especially when they were already against the clock with a patient. They drove past an open convenience store, and Wilson decided a quick detour now would save lives and sanity later. "Stop here. I'll just be a minute," he said and jumped out of the car when Jack pulled over.
He bought a bag of licorice all-sorts and a handful of chocolate bars that he remembered fondly from his days in Montreal, and then grabbed a six-pack of energy drinks. There would be coffee and a cafeteria at the hospital, but it never hurt to be prepared. He realized belatedly that he only had American money -- there hadn't been time to visit a currency exchange in the airport -- but the store had an ATM tucked in the corner, so he withdrew enough pounds to keep House in junk food for days.
House's hand was already out when Wilson slid into the backseat of the Rover again. He shook his head and passed over a Mars bar and a drink. "It goes against all common sense," he said, grinning at the rear view mirror, "but here. Load up on sugar." He gave Jack a drink and a chocolate bar as well, and the mood in the front seat noticeably improved.
"He's annoying and anal," House commented through a mouthful of chocolate, caramel and nougat, "but he's a good provider."
"Looks great in a suit, too," Jack added. "No wonder you keep him around."
"Back off, Captain Jack," House said. "You've already got one well-groomed dog on your leash. Unless you're willing to trade. I could use a good office boy."
Wilson covered his face with his hand, caught between embarrassment and amusement, both familiar emotions where House was concerned. He had a feeling that given time, Jack and House could become allies, rather than rivals, which was somewhat unnerving.
"And I could use a new medic," Jack replied mildly. "But I think we both have what we need."
Wilson wondered what he needed. He'd thought he'd found it in those few short weeks after he'd managed to maneuver House and Amber into an uneasy truce. She'd died because of that truce, because she'd loved him enough to look after House for him. He'd meant it when he told House that he'd never blamed him for the accident. But he'd wanted to, if only so he wouldn't have to blame himself.
As Jack drove them past Cardiff Castle and Bute Park, Wilson tried to focus on the present rather than the past, reviewing what they knew about the case. But the past had a way of slipping into the present, no matter how hard he tried to put it behind him, and his first glimpse of the patient set his heart racing.
Jenny Thomas had shoulder-length blonde hair and a splash of freckles across her cheeks. When Wilson checked her pupils, he saw empty blue eyes. Whatever was causing her body to break down had reached her brain; she'd been put on life support just before they arrived. She was dying.
Wilson managed to make it through the physical examination, but once House started interrogating the medical team, he excused himself and hurried out of the room. His first instinct was to head for open air, but he was unfamiliar with these hospital corridors, and he had no idea where the nearest exit was. He stood in the middle of the hallway, looking around helplessly, until Jack appeared at his side and led him to the stairwell. He climbed instinctively until he reached the roof, pushing the door open and escaping into the early morning air.
The lights of Cardiff splayed out around the dark void of Heath Park, but the view was lost on Wilson. He checked his watch. Nearly three o'clock in the morning, Cardiff time. That seemed appropriate. Fitzgerald had been right. He'd been living in a dark night of the soul for months now, and it felt just like this. Desolate, empty, and alone. Except he wasn't alone.
Jack was standing just behind him. Wilson's awareness of him hadn't faded over time, or perhaps it had remained strong because there had essentially been no passing of time to lessen the connection. Three years had gone by, but it was if he were standing in front of that Frida Kahlo painting all over again, only this time it was his own pain he was trying desperately to understand.
"I lost my brother when he was just a child," Jack said. "Literally. I let go of his hand, and he was gone. He was captured and imprisoned for years, subjected to unspeakable horrors. And when he came back, he tried to destroy everyone and everything I loved. Owen and Tosh are dead because of him. Because of me."
Jack spoke matter-of-factly, without self-pity, but Wilson responded to the unspoken pain and turned away from the dark night. "But Ianto and Gwen are still alive," he said. "He didn't succeed."
"No, he didn't," Jack agreed. "And that's why I can carry on. I still have them to protect. What do you have, Jimmy?"
He had a lot of things, painstakingly identified in group counselling sessions and therapy. He had a career that gave meaning to his life, parents who loved him unconditionally, a brother he adored and one he missed, and friends who had stood by him in the depths of his grief. But above all, he had the one thing he'd tried so hard to discard. House.
"I tried to trade House's life for Amber," he said, able to fully admit it to himself for the first time. It wasn't what he'd intended -- he'd wanted them both to live, wanted that dysfunctional triangle of love and friendship to last forever. He'd been so happy those weeks when he'd thought he could have both in his life. Instead, he'd lost Amber anyway and nearly killed House in the process. He'd always been punished for wanting too much. "He would have died because I asked. How do I live with that?"
"I don't know," Jack said. "But you've been doing a good job so far."
Wilson wasn't sure about that, but coming back had been a start. And it helped that House had his own unadmitted burden of guilt to carry. It didn't cancel anything out, but it did give them a common ground.
"I was sorry to hear about Dr. Volakis," Jack said cautiously. "I wanted to send a card, something, but it wouldn't have meant anything to you."
Wilson would barely have registered an unfamiliar name in the haze of grief he'd existed in for the first few days. Cameron had answered most of the notes and cards of sympathy he'd received, saying it was one thing she could do for him at least. One day he'd be strong enough to go over them again himself.
It occurred to him that he'd never mentioned Amber's last name, but it didn't surprise Wilson that Jack knew it. "Have you been keeping tabs on me all this time?"
"I wouldn't call it keeping tabs," Jack replied guilelessly, but Wilson wasn't fooled. "I may have added you to Google Alerts."
Wilson had a feeling Jack's Google Alerts searched more than just the Internet. "You already knew about Michael," he said.
Jack nodded. "I knew he existed. I don't know where he is, if that's what you're asking. But I could look for him, if you want."
Wilson shook his head. "You can't find someone who doesn't want to be found." If anyone could, though, it would be Jack, with the aid of Gwen's police contacts and the frighteningly efficient Ianto. But Michael knew how to find him, how to find his parents, and had chosen not to come back. He had to respect that decision. It was the only thing he could do for his brother any more.
"You can't force someone to come back," Jack agreed. "But you can tell them that they're missed."
Wilson looked back into the night. Amber was never coming back, but he hoped that wherever she was, she knew how desperately she was missed. "I should head back down," he said, reminding himself that he hadn't lost everything. "House needs people to bounce ideas off. He's probably driven all the other doctors off by now." It was more than two hours until first light, but the darkness could be dispersed in other ways.
House sat in the small office the hospital had set up for him, staring at scans and lab results that shouldn't have been possible. A healthy young woman, with no previous pathology, shouldn't have experienced that degree of organ failure in so short a time. There was nothing he could do. Even if he could discover the cause, there was no possibility of recovery at this stage.
He remembered Wilson's white, pinched face when they came to that realization, how he had continued the examination in silence, and how he had nearly staggered away when he excused himself. Wilson had worked hard to develop a protective shell -- it was a question of self-preservation for an oncologist -- but Amber's death had cracked him through to the core, making him vulnerable to blonde, blue-eyed patients dying of multiple organ failure.
Harkness had caught his eye, asking permission silently, before leaving to follow Wilson. House didn't want to think about his methods of comfort, but he knew he didn't have the capacity to comfort Wilson himself.
He wasn't gone long. When House looked up from the file, he saw Wilson standing in the doorway, his hair wind-tousled and his cheeks reddened by the night air. There was a brief moment when he could have said something sympathetic, when he could have stuttered out an expression of concern, but that wasn't how they operated. "If you're going to run away every time you see a patient that reminds you of Amber," he said instead, "you're no good to me here, and you're no good as a doctor."
Wilson didn't even flinch. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry. Did you learn anything else?" And the moment was gone.
"Only that what's happening to her shouldn't be possible. She's not showing an elevated white blood cell count, which rules out an infection. The ANA, ESR, and CRP are all normal, which rules out autoimmune. The EMG ruled out neuropathies and myopathies. It has to have an external cause." He thought of Amber, her organs failing one by one as the amantadine poisoning ran its inevitable course.
Wilson nodded, and House wondered if he were thinking the same thing. "If it's environmental, we need to find the connection between the patients. Like those kids and the poisoned jeans."
"Something tells me that a 29-year-old woman and a 52-year-old man aren't buying the same jeans." But Wilson's point was a good one. House hated being isolated from his team. If it was environmental, he had to rely on Torchwood finding that connection.
Wilson drifted over and glanced through the files. Something caught his attention and he flipped between the various death certificates. "They all died between three and four o'clock in the morning."
"That's not unusual," House replied. "Statistically more deaths occur late at night. Staffing levels are lower, so emergencies aren't detected as quickly. Metabolism is at a low ebb at 3 am."
"I know that," Wilson said patiently. "But it's 3:10 now and I don't think she'll last another day. Unless you need me to run more labs, I'm going to go sit with her."
Half an hour ago, he could barely stand to be in the same room as the patient. But hard shell or not, Wilson had never let a patient die alone. "I'll page you if I find anything new in the files," House said.
A few minutes later Harkness burst into the office. "Good, you're here," he said breathlessly. "Where's Wilson?"
"He's with the patient, waiting for her to die. He's board certified in vigils."
But Harkness wasn't amused. "Gwen picked up a spike in energy readings from the patient's room. Stay here." He took off running.
House had never been very good at following orders. He was exhausted and aching, but while he couldn't keep up with Harkness, he wasn't far behind when he heard an unearthly wail coming from the direction of the patient's room. It called to mind stories of spirits moaning the names of the soon to die, and he picked up his pace.
Ahead, he saw Harkness pull out a gun, but before he reached the room, a figure slipped out and glided down the corridor. House was too far away to get a clear look, but he was certain of one thing. It wasn't Wilson.
Harkness kept running after the figure, but House knew he wouldn't be able to catch up, and he didn't care. The patient -- and Wilson -- were his only concerns. The monitors emitted a different kind of wail altogether when he reached the room, though it too was a death portent. A code team crowded into the room behind him, but House knew it was too late. He turned his attention to the living.
Wilson was pressed against the wall, his dark eyes huge in a shockingly pale face. House made his way to Wilson's side, looking him over for any sign of injury. "Are you hurt?"
Wilson recoiled slightly, but he shook his head and his breathing calmed. He straightened up. He was still pale, his skin almost translucent in the harsh hospital lights, but House didn't think he was going to have to call for a sedative.
"She's dead," Wilson said, looking at the bed. The code team was still working, but she was asystolic and there had been no response to the chest compressions and vasopressin.
"Let's get out of their way." House led Wilson out of the room. There was nothing they could do until time of death was called. House hoped the ever-resourceful Jones had booked a post-mortem room for him.
Harkness ran towards them, his greatcoat billowing behind him like some B-movie action hero. "Are you all right?" he asked Wilson. He relaxed slightly at Wilson's clipped nod. "I lost it at the stairwell," he said. "I got a good look, though, so that should help with the search. Ianto's already trying to track it through the CCTV network."
"It?" House asked. Maybe Harkness really didn't discriminate between gender.
"Technically a female," Harkness replied. "But it wasn't human."
"It said her name," Wilson said softly. "I was in the bathroom, washing my hands, and when I came out, it was standing by her bed, so I asked if there was a problem. Then I looked closer. It had long, tangled, grey hair and eyes red with grief. I thought I saw black wings hanging from its back. And then it said, 'Jenny Thomas,' and moaned. Like its heart was breaking. It reached out and touched the side of Jenny's head and the monitor flatlined. Then it looked at me, as if it knew who I was, and transformed into a beautiful young woman. It looked just like Amber."
House wondered whether Wilson was in shock. "We should get out of here," he said, giving Harkness a meaningful look. "It's been a long day, and we can't do much more until the autopsy."
"I'll arrange for the body to be sent to the Hub," Harkness agreed. "You'll have everything you need there. But it can wait until the morning. I'll drop you off at the hotel and you can at least get a few hours sleep."
Wilson had turned away and was staring into the room. "I froze," he said. "Nearly two decades of medical education and experience, and I stood there watching my patient die."
"You weren't trained for that," Harkness replied. "No one is trained for that." He stepped towards Wilson, but House moved first, angling between them.
"Don't be an idiot. There wasn't anything you could do. She was as good as dead before we even got here." It wasn't much in the way of comfort, but he had never had anything other than truth to offer. But then he remembered Amber, and how her death had been determined the moment she went into V-fib. There had only been pain in the revelation of that truth. "It wasn't Amber," he said. "Whatever you thought you saw. You're tired and stressed. Sometimes the brain plays tricks."
"Don't patronize me, House," Wilson snapped. "I'm not crazy and I wasn't seeing things. It may be more comforting to believe that none of this is real, but it wouldn't be true. I know it wasn't Amber. But I also know that it changed from an old hag into a beautiful young woman." He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. "I can't explain it, but I saw it."
"She may have been responding to you," Harkness said, as if it were the most natural thing in the universe. Perhaps it was to him. "You spoke to her, made a connection. Maybe she showed you what you wanted to see."
Wilson stiffened. As much as he loved to point out the subconscious machinations of other people, he refused to acknowledge the way his own screwed-up mind worked. Inside the room, the code team called time of death and switched off the flatline wail of the heart monitor. "There's nothing more we can do here," he said, in agreement or defeat. "Maybe there never was." He touched one hand to the window, as if in farewell, and walked away.
House glanced at Harkness, who was watching as a nurse covered the girl's face with the sheet. "You shouldn't have brought him here," he said. "He deals with enough deaths that he can't prevent. He has a whole roster of patients he can't save back in Princeton." But it wasn't those deaths that were the problem.
Harkness turned and gave him a considering look. "If you think I brought him here to relive old memories, you're wrong. I could have seen him any time in the last three years."
"Why didn't you?" House asked, offended on Wilson's behalf and curious on his own. The first time he'd met Wilson, he'd been compelled to befriend him, and the passing years hadn't lessened the bond. If anything, being separated from him for a few months had only intensified it.
To his credit, there was real regret on Harkness's face. "Because it would only have hurt him. There were things about that night that he should never have had to remember. I was afraid the retcon wouldn't hold and I was right. The connection was too strong."
"Then why now?" House didn't believe the story about Cuddy suggesting Wilson go along as a chaperone. If it had been up to her, she would have sent one of his team instead. Taub, most likely, or maybe Thirteen. She would have wanted Foreman to run the department in his absence, and she wouldn't have trusted Kutner to rein him in. Wilson had to have been Harkness's idea.
"Because I needed you," Harkness said simply. "And you need him."
Put that way, it was so obvious even Cuddy must have seen it. "And your needs had nothing to do with it," House said cynically, though if the request had come even a month earlier, it would never have been an issue. House didn't think his own memories would have returned if he hadn't seen the way Harkness had looked at Wilson. Not with love, not even with lust, but with the kind of longing and affection House had felt for nearly fifteen years.
"I never claimed to be selfless," Harkness replied. "I don't regret seeing him again, and I don't regret that he remembers what we shared. But I'm not going to lure him into my lair and do unspeakable things to him, if that's what you're worried about." He grinned wickedly. "Though I reserve the right to a farewell kiss. He's a good kisser. Epic, even."
House told himself that he wasn't jealous. It was harder to convince himself that he wasn't curious. "We'd better catch up with him," he said, "before he falls into bed with the first nurse that offers him sympathy in his sorrowful state." But it was a different kind of female altogether that concerned House. If Wilson had indeed made a connection with this spectral woman, they could have a problem. House knew better than anyone how hard it was to stay away from Wilson.
Ianto had booked them into a hotel near the Millennium Centre, and Wilson only paused to brush his teeth and strip down to his underwear before falling into bed. But though sleep was quick to come, it wasn't restful. He dreamed of ragged wings and grief-filled cries; of empty blue eyes and a monitor flatline. He heard a familiar voice whisper his name and wondered whether Amber was calling him home. But before he could answer, the phone rang, tearing him from sleep with a cry of his own.
It was the automated wake-up call. He groaned and pushed himself upright. Nearly four hours had passed, but it felt as if he had barely slept at all. He knocked on the connecting door. House could sometimes be difficult to rouse in the morning, but he opened the door almost immediately, a coffee in his hand.
"Jones better be brewing something magic for us," he said, grimacing after he swallowed a mouthful. "The stuff in the coffeemaker is shit."
"Good morning to you, too," Wilson replied, rubbing the last traces of sleep from his eyes. He leaned over and sniffed House's cup, deciding that House's evaluation was close to the mark. He could hold off until they got to the Torchwood office.
"You look like shit," House said, assessing Wilson with a long, insulting look. "Good."
Wilson rolled his eyes. "God, House. Don't be an idiot. It was an insane fling more than three years ago. I was lonely and depressed because my marriage was falling apart, and he was..." He didn't know what Jack had been. Bored? Curious?
"Horny," House suggested. "And it's not Harkness I'm concerned about. You're the one going around talking to strange women. I'm testing your blood as soon as we get to a lab."
"Why? It didn't touch me. I was on the other side of the room." He didn't think he'd actually been in any danger. Whatever the creature had wanted, it hadn't been him. "I'm just tired. I didn't sleep well."
But House only looked more concerned. "We don't know what's killing these patients. Or rather we don't know how the process starts. It knew enough to show you Amber. Maybe it marked you in other ways."
"I thought you didn't believe in aliens," Wilson countered.
"I don't," House said. "But I believe in eight dead bodies, and I believe you saw what you saw. I just can't explain it yet."
It was belatedly given, but House's belief was more restoring than a full night's sleep. "Well, we won't find any answers standing around here. Maybe the autopsy will reveal something."
Jack was waiting for them in the lobby, fresh and alert and grinning broadly. Wilson wondered how he managed it.
"I brought coffee," he said, holding out a travel mug to each of them. "Guaranteed to jump start your day."
Wilson took a cautious sip, and sighed happily. "I feel almost human again," he exclaimed, flushing slightly when he realized what he'd said. House would undoubtedly use the meaningless saying as an excuse to run a full series of tests on him. "I could have used coffee like this when I was a resident," he added quickly, trying to cover.
"Better than amphetamines," House agreed. "Though not nearly as fun."
Wilson grimaced, but didn't say anything. He hadn't forgiven House for dosing him with speed, but he couldn't complain -- often -- when he'd been drugging House as well. He wasn't even sure their motives had been all that different.
"The Hub is by the plaza. We'll take the scenic route in."
"The Hub?" Wilson asked. Jack had mentioned the name before, but he'd been too preoccupied to question him.
"Headquarters of Torchwood Three, the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute. Hub is faster to say."
He led them along the waterfront to the plaza where they'd dropped Ianto and Gwen off the day before. Wilson could see the multi-coloured slate exterior of the Millennium Centre clearly now and squinted to decipher the glass inscription on the metal dome above the entrance. "In These Stones Horizons Sing," he read aloud, then stumbled through the Welsh words. "Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen."
"Don't let Gwen or Ianto hear you trying to speak Welsh," Jack said, and corrected his pronunciation with a flawless accent. "It's taken me years to get that right."
"Wilson's crap with accents," House said, and repeated the words accurately, if not enthusiastically. "The only way he'll ever sound Welsh is if he's trying to sound German."
It was close enough to the truth that Wilson didn't argue. He'd never been good with languages, even in mimicry, which was a never-ending source of amusement for the polyglot House. Even his halting French had been hard won over four years in Quebec.
"I'm sure he has other talents," Jack said, winking at Wilson. "Ones that don't require language." He stopped in front of the obelisk they'd seen the night before, a tall steel tower with water flowing down the sides. "Stand up there with me," he said, pointing at a paving stone at the base of the tower. "And crowd in. It's a tight squeeze with three."
Wilson hesitated and then stepped up, side by side with Jack. "We don't have all day," he said, when House turned around and stared blankly at them. "Get up here."
But House didn't react to his voice. Instead he looked around frantically. "Harkness!" he shouted, sounding almost frightened. "What did you do with Wilson? I knew I shouldn't have trusted you, you son of a bitch."
"House, don't be ridiculous," Wilson replied, but Jack touched him on the arm and shook his head.
"He can't see or hear us. We're standing on a perception filter. If he wasn't watching when we stepped up, it would seem like we just disappeared. Watch." Jack stepped off the base. "I thought you were supposed to have keen powers of observation," he chided. House took a step backwards, his eyes widening in surprise. "Always keep your eye on the prize."
"What the hell?" House gripped his cane, raising it threateningly. "Where did you come from? And where's Wilson?"
Wilson stepped down before House decided to take a swing. "I'm right here," he said. "Which you would have seen if you were paying attention. This time, you get up first." He gave House a slight push towards the stone, deliberately looking away. When he glanced back, he was alone in the plaza. "Cool," he said and stepped up, House and Jack swimming into focus just in time to prevent him from jostling House off-balance.
They shuffled awkwardly until they were all on the stone without treading on each others' toes, and then Jack pushed up his sleeve and pressed a button on a datapad strapped to his wrist. "Don't step to the side," he warned, as they started to drop below street level.
They descended into a large chamber, several stories high, spiraled with walkways. Wilson stood rigidly, afraid to look down, but the scope of the room was astounding. It was hard to believe something that big could exist unknown beneath a public plaza. A flying creature -- part bird, part reptile -- shrieked and circled above them. "Is that a pterodactyl?" he asked, recognizing it from his childhood passion for dinosaurs. "The animatronics is incredible."
"That's Myfanwy," Jack replied. "And she's real. Best watchdog in Wales."
"That's impossible," Wilson exclaimed. It took all his willpower not to back away when the pterodactyl swooped past again. He gripped House's arm both as an anchor and a precaution. "They've been extinct for 65 million years."
"There's a space/time rift that runs through Cardiff. We're here to monitor the rift and recover the flotsam and jetsam that drifts through -- or neutralize it, if necessary."
"That's not something that washed off a boat and floated to shore," House said. "That's something out of time and place." He looked around, eyes wide with wonder. "What else do you have here?"
Wilson had a feeling that House's last doubts had just been eradicated. His, on the other hand, were growing by the second. He felt as though he had fallen down the rabbit hole, or at least been lowered gently on an invisible lift.
"I love what you've done with the place," House said as they stepped off the platform. "The converted dungeon look is all the rage."
It certainly wasn't what Wilson would consider office chic. The walls were rough brick and open piping, and water ran in streams from the base of the water tower, as if flowing back to Cardiff Bay. The name Torchwood was stenciled in black on the wall of a white brick tunnel leading away from the main chamber. Wilson was reminded of a subway station with great arched entrances and the lost echoes of past travelers. Steps led to a work area that was cluttered with equipment and odd artifacts, multiple monitors surrounding each station.
"Welcome to Torchwood," Jack said.
All Wilson could do was stare in amazement. Beside him, House was silent, but his eyes darted rapidly, as he took in every detail.
"Morning," Gwen said, coming over to greet them. "I hope you slept some." She looked at Wilson and frowned. "Jack told us what happened. You had a hard day yesterday," she said sympathetically. "There was nothing you could have done, you know."
Wilson didn't believe her, but he appreciated the lie.
"And it's overwhelming, I know, when the memories come back, especially after so long a time," she continued.
"It happened to you, too?" Wilson asked.
"Well, not the fainting part," she admitted, and Wilson wished Jack hadn't shared that little detail, "but the memories came back more gradually to me, and the dead bodies kind of took my mind off what else was happening."
House smirked. "Wilson's just a delicate flower. Whose petals have been plucked far too many times," he added in a low mutter.
Although he knew House was unlikely to let the previous day's revelations go any time soon, Wilson was already tired of the innuendo. "Yes, thank you. I'm a man slut. Can we move on?" He hadn't traveled across the Atlantic to listen to House make fun of him. That happened on a daily basis in Princeton. "Where's the body?"
"In the autopsy room," Jack said. "But first I want you to take a look at something. I think I found a match for what we saw last night," Jack said, bringing an image up on the monitor. It was an artist's rendering of a terrifying hag, crook-backed and snaggle-toothed. It was what Wilson had seen, but through the filter of a wild imagination.
"The Welsh call her the Gwrach y Rhibyn, or the Witch of Rhibyn," Jack said. "She's a death portent, like the banshee. Sometimes she would appear at a window and cry out the name of the person about to die. Or she might be encountered at a crossroads or stream, like the Washer at the Ford."
"That's just folklore," House said dismissively. "Fairy tales."
"Where do you think fairy tales come from?" Jack asked. "People make up stories to explain the inexplicable. There's a lot in this world that defies explanation. But not all of it comes from this world."
"Whether she's from this world or another, maybe we can find some clues in the myths," Ianto said. He'd brought over a coffee pot to refresh their mugs and stayed to look at the image. "The bean sídhe -- the cyhiraeth in Wales -- are often associated with particular families. But none of the victims are related, and I've gone back more than four centuries."
"Maybe it's not the family that's important, but the place," Gwen suggested. "The Gwrach y Rhibyn is supposed to be associated with Pennard Castle. My grandmother used to tell me a story about a man who was attacked and nearly beaten to death by an old hag there."
"I love dangerous women," Jack murmured.
Gwen hit him lightly on the shoulder. "They say that if you spend the night in the ruins you'll go mad. My best friend and I camped there one night just to see -- no comments from you, Jack Harkness."
Ianto looked as if he were desperate to say something, but flinched at a sharp look from Gwen. He typed a search string into his computer. "Gareth Davies was the first to be infected. He worked for a company that has a branch office in Swansea. Maybe he took a side-trip to the Gower Peninsula. If he encountered her there, perhaps she followed him back to Cardiff."
"It still begs the question, why him? And why this string of deaths?" Gwen argued. "There haven't been sightings of the Gwrach y Rhibyn since the mid-nineteenth century."
"That's not surprising," Jack replied. "This is the age of rationalization. People dismiss sightings of UFOs as weather balloons or satellites. Fairy lights are just phosphorescence. The Loch Ness monster is a misidentified aquatic creature. Who's going to admit to seeing a hag at a river ford keening the name of a friend or relative that later dies? A trick of the sun in the eyes, the moaning of the wind through the mountains. Or maybe she just faded out of time and the rift let something new slip in."
Wilson closed his eyes, wishing he could turn that strange apparition into reflected light and an over-active imagination. It was easier not to believe.
"Tell us again what you saw," Jack said softly. "Everything you remember. It could be important."
He sat down and tried to recreate the scene in his mind. "I went back to the room to check on the patient." Jenny, he told himself. Her name was Jenny. "Her vitals were the same, maybe a little lower, but even the slightest drop in metabolism put her that much closer to death. I went into the bathroom to wash my hands before I sat with her." He heard House snort. In retrospect it seemed overly fastidious, but it was second nature dealing with end-stage patients. "When I came out, there was someone standing next to the bed. I thought it was a nurse, checking vitals, so I asked if everything was all right. There was no answer, so I asked what she was doing. That's when it looked at me." He hadn't been frightened, not at first. The fear had come after, once he'd realized what he'd witnessed.
"I knew by then that it wasn't a nurse. I thought that it might have been a homeless person that wandered off the streets. Someone who had lived hard and rough for years. Her hair was tangled and wild, and her clothes were mixed and matched old rags. Then I saw the wings and I knew it wasn't human at all. I didn't feel threatened, though. I know I should have, but I didn't." He hadn't done anything either. He'd just stood there and watched it kill his patient. That was something he would have to live with for the rest of his life.
"What did you feel?" Jack asked.
"Sad," Wilson replied, without thinking. "It looked at me and I could feel its sorrow. Its grief. I don't think it wanted to kill our patient, but it didn't have a choice." Wilson didn't know how he knew that, but he knew it was true. "When it said her name and cried out, it was mourning. And then it touched her." He paused, hearing the double shriek of the monitors and the keening wail. "I think it was releasing her."
"And when it transformed?"
Wilson looked up at House's question. "I think I saw my own grief," he said. "I think it was trying to release me, too."
House flinched, but covered the lapse by retreating into medical certainties. "I want blood samples from everybody," he said. "Wilson saw the old hag touch the patient before she died, so it could be spread through contact. You first," he said, pointing at Wilson. "And don't argue."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Wilson replied, rolling up his sleeve. "As long as you're next."
"There's a phlebotomy kit in the autopsy room," Gwen said. "And we have blood and DNA samples on file if you need a comparison."
"Don't bother with my blood," Jack said. "It won't help you."
"But you could be infected," Wilson protested.
"It's possible that I could be infected," Jack agreed, "but I won't be affected."
Wilson remembered the broken arm that hadn't been a broken arm after all, another medical mystery for House to obsess over. He decided not to mention it. "We should get started on the autopsy," he said, steering House towards the more immediate puzzle. "Someone else could already be infected."
Gwen nodded, and led them down the stairs to an open circular chamber. Bright surgical lights on swing stanchions illuminated the area, chasing the shadows into darker corners. Wilson couldn't identify half the equipment spread out on trays, but the metal autopsy table, with a body bag laid on top of it, was the only thing he needed to understand. He glanced at House, and then walked over to the table and unzipped the bag.
Jenny Thomas was peaceful in death. Whatever pain she'd suffered as her body rebelled against her had ended with her life. Wilson didn't think it was a fair trade-off. Pain was better than nothing.
He brushed the lank strands of blonde hair off her face. "We'll need two sets of surgical scrubs," he said, carefully sliding the body free of the bag. "This isn't exactly a sterile environment, but we don't need to worry about her immune system any more."
House was more interested in the equipment than the body. "What's this?" he asked, pointing at what appeared to be some kind of scanner.
"It's a portable imaging device," Jack replied. "More accurate than an MRI. More detailed than a CT scanner. You can see her inside out without making an incision." He flipped a switch and handed House a wand-like sensor. "We found out the hard way that it's better to look before you cut."
"Incredible," House murmured, as a monitor displayed a three-dimensional rendering of the inside of a skull. He lowered the sensor and the image zoomed in. "Who do I kill to get one of these?"
"Me," Jack said. "Good luck with that."
Ianto brought in the scrubs and Wilson slipped on the surgical gown, taking comfort in the familiar scrubbing-up routine. It settled and focused him before even the most routine operations. House, who never had a problem with focus and cared little for routine, washed and dressed quickly and returned to his latest toy.
"Look at that," he said, tracing the descending thoracic aorta. "It's a non-invasive angiogram. Better. We're actually seeing the artery, rather than an x-ray or images of contrast resolution."
"It's not a toy, House," Wilson said, knowing that House was in danger of becoming more focused on the puzzle than the solution. Or at least the means to the solution. "We're here to do an autopsy, not play with medical equipment."
"But, Dad," House whined. "I finished my dinner and did all my chores." He rolled his eyes. "Don't be such a killjoy, Wilson. I'm just figuring out how to use this thing." He squinted at the monitor and frowned. "Which obviously doesn't work. Look at the kidney."
Wilson moved around the table for a better view. "I don't see anything," he said, wondering what House was talking about. "Exactly. She was in total kidney failure before we even got here. But this is a perfectly normal kidney. Pristine, even." He glared at Jack. "I don't know who sold you this lemon, but you should get your money back."
"That's not possible." Jack crowded in behind them, and the breath on the back of Wilson's neck rekindled memories of three years past. "You must be doing something wrong. It always worked for Owen."
"Owen's dead," House retorted. "Get over it." He turned to Wilson. "Stick out your right arm. You broke it when you were ten, right? If this thing works, we should be able to see the healed fracture."
Wilson had never told House that he'd broken his arm, but House had uncovered sealed juvenile records on Foreman, so it shouldn't surprise him that he'd managed to track down childhood medical records. He held out his arm. "Weird," he said, as House passed the sensor along the humerus. "It feels kind of tingly."
"Is that a technical term, Dr. Wilson?" House mocked.
Wilson rolled his eyes. "Just check for the fracture and stop being a smart ass."
"It's there," House said, pointing at the monitor. "Simple break. Boring."
"Were you hoping for a spiral fracture so you could make your usual assumption of child abuse? Sorry to disappoint. My family is messed up, but not like that." The ways in which his family was messed up were legion, but it was hardly the time or place to delve into them. "Can we move on? You saw the old injury, so the machine works. You must have made a mistake before." That, he knew, would turn House back on track. He could never bear the suggestion that he was wrong.
House picked the sensor back up, but smirked to show that he knew exactly what Wilson was up to. "Same result," he said. "Kidneys, liver, heart, brain -- all normal. Her organs are in perfect condition."
"Except for the fact that they suddenly stopped working." Wilson wondered what he was doing here. He wasn't made for medical mysteries like House. He dealt daily with a disease that he could identify, control, eradicate -- even if he couldn't categorically cure it. House would have been better off with his team. Kutner would have been in heaven exploring the Hub. Still, he would do what he could, starting with getting House moving on the differential. "What causes acute kidney failure?" he asked.
"You mean, besides a garbage truck plowing into a bus?"
Years of dealing with House had taught him not to react. He was even relieved to discover that House still had no boundaries. It had taken him four months to realize that he didn't want House to change after all. "Well, since she didn't have a boyfriend whose asshole best friend decided to drink and dash and leave his cane in the bar, that's unlikely to be the cause." House wasn't the only one who knew how to go for the jugular. "Though I suppose it was more drink and stagger, on all counts."
"Point for Jimmy," House said, almost pleased. "Too bad it wasn't a medical point, given our dead patient and all."
But House's earlier comment had struck a chord in his memory. "What about rhabdomyolysis?" he mused. "Trauma causing massive muscle cell breakdown."
"Blood and urine tests didn't show excessive levels of myoglobin," House replied, but he was at least considering the possibility. "Ibuprofen can be toxic to kidneys. Abdominal pain was the first symptom. Acetaminophen causes liver failure, which you're so fond of reminding me. Maybe she od'd on over-the-counter painkillers?"
Wilson looked at the blood tests. "There were traces of ibuprofen and acetaminophen in her bloodstream, but nowhere near enough to cause lethal toxicity. It's consistent with someone who took Advil or Midol for menstrual cramps and then moved on to T3's when that didn't work."
"Except it wasn't menstrual cramps. If what you saw wasn't human, then it's likely that whatever killed these people isn't of human origin either. So it's not going to react the same way to human medications."
"So a single Advil might shut down the kidneys? A couple of Tylenol could trash the liver?" He tried not to think about the amount of acetaminophen running through House's system at any given time. "Shouldn't we still be seeing organ damage?" He looked at the history again. "Check the appendix. Appendicitis was the hospital's first diagnosis. Maybe that's where it really did start."
"The appendix is normal," House replied impatiently, then looked again. "Or maybe not. Take a look."
Wilson peered at the image, searching for signs of a lesion or tumour. "The scan's clean. It's not cancer." Sometimes he thought he should have that stenciled on a sign that he could just flash across the balcony during one of House's differentials. Until, of course, it was cancer. Then he saw what House had seen. "That can't be possible."
"What can't be possible?" Jack demanded.
Wilson thought Jack's definition of possible encompassed far more than he could ever imagine. "The appendix really is pristine. But it should be teeming with bacteria. We'll need to do a culture to be certain, but this could be our answer. Or at least the start of the answer."
"Like the dog in the night," Jack said. "The key is not what's there, it's what isn't there." He smiled nostalgically. "Arthur and I had some wild nights arguing about the afterlife."
"We should open her up," Wilson said, changing the subject quickly. The last thing they needed right now was House to get distracted by one of Jack's anachronistic assertions. "Where do you keep your surgical instruments?"
Jack nodded towards a built-in cabinet. "I think you'll find a scalpel sufficient to cut through bone." He moved off to the side, but otherwise didn't show any intention of leaving.
It was. The metal was harder and sharper than anything Wilson had ever seen, slicing open the body cavity as if it were a hot knife through butter. It occurred to him that the reason he hadn't seen anything like it before was because there was nothing like it on earth. House just quirked an eyebrow and held his hand out for the scalpel. Wilson passed it over reluctantly, knowing that House would be tempted to sneak it out of the Hub. Jack would have to search their luggage before they left.
At first glance, the organs appeared normal, despite the fact that they'd suddenly stopped working. Wilson searched for a biopsy needle, while House examined the other organs closer for visual signs of disease or damage.
Wilson had performed thousands of biopsies over the course of his career, but this had to be the most unusual circumstances and setting that he'd ever worked in, including a stint at an under-equipped hospital in Bangladesh between med school and residency. He took a tissue and fluid samples from both the appendix and small intestine and prepared the slides. The microscope's resolution was crystal clear, and he wondered what other technology Torchwood had squirreled away, and how much of it had come through the rift.
"I've seen clean rooms with more bacteria. And take a look at these cells," he said to House. "There's something not quite right." He couldn't pinpoint any specific abnormalities, but the cells were unlike any he'd seen before.
"Is that an oncological term?" House shouldered him aside, his cane tapping impatiently, and then slowing as he became absorbed in what he saw. "It's definitely not oncological," he said finally. "But it's also not normal."
"I'll run it through our database to see if it matches any known alien cell structure," Jack said, slipping the slide under a scanner.
"How would alien cells get into a human appendix?" Wilson asked.
"Maybe they didn't," House replied. "Somehow this thing eradicated all the bacteria in the appendix. Maybe whatever it did caused the cells to mutate. We still don't know how or why, though."
"I think I might know why," Gwen said, hurrying down the steps to the autopsy room. "Or at least why these people. I found the connection. All eight of the victims have lost someone or something important to them in the last few months. A spouse, a parent, a child. Alun Bowen's house burned to the ground. He lost everything." She glanced at a notebook. "Ianto confirmed that Gareth Davies did go to Swansea just before he fell ill. I talked to one of his colleagues. She said he'd been depressed since his mother passed away last month, but when he came back, he seemed happier. He told her he'd met someone who had helped him."
"Let me guess," House said. "An old woman who reminded him of his mother. She comforted him, took away his pain, and two days later he was dead."
Gwen nodded and looked at Wilson. "You said you could sense her grief. Maybe she could sense their grief." She glanced at Jack, and then looked seriously at Wilson. "I think, Dr. Wilson, it would be best if you stayed close to the Hub, where we can keep an eye on you."
"Why me?" Wilson asked. "Amber died months ago. You lost two of your colleagues, two of your friends. House's father died last month. We're all grieving."
"How many patients have you lost in the last year, even after taking four months off?" House asked. "Fifteen, twenty? How many are in palliative care? You think the Gwrach is a harbinger of death? You may as well wear a hooded cloak and carry a scythe."
That stung, but only because it was true. Some days, it felt like all he did was hand out death sentences. But even if he didn't cure his patients, he extended their lives, sometimes longer than anyone could expect. There was always hope. "Melancholia," he said, hoping to divert House's train of thought.
It worked, even if it only made House look at him as if he were insane. "What?"
"The Greek word for black bile."
"I know what melancholia is," House snapped. "And those morons thought black bile came from the spleen, not the appendix, so how is that relevant?"
"I didn't say it was. I was just free associating." He grinned. "I thought you found my undisciplined thought processes helpful." Throwing House's own words back at him was one of his favourite pastimes. "Besides, whatever this thing is, it's not an ancient Greek physician." He could almost see the wheels start turning in House's head. Wilson loved this part of the differential, when the pieces finally started to fall into place, creating a picture only House could understand.
"Okay," House said. "Let's assume Wilson is right -- because there has to be a first time for everything -- and this thing didn't actually want to kill anyone. So according to Trooper Cooper, it stumbles across someone who is oozing melancholy and tries to help. Though not by prescribing antidepressants and encouraging them to pick up exciting new hobbies like barn restoration, or even suggesting they flush their careers down the toilet and move out of state." He bounced his cane on the ground as he thought. "The appendix is a vestigial organ full of bacteria. Maybe this is some kind of alien purging gone wrong."
"It still doesn't explain what caused the organ failure," Wilson pointed out.
"Vitamin K deficiency?" House suggested. "Or maybe removing the bacteria caused a systemic imbalance that knocked out the organs one by one, like a power surge shorting out the entire entertainment system. But it starts with the appendix."
"Ianto!" Jack shouted, apparently sharing House's managerial style of bellowing orders from room to room. "Call the hospitals and find out if they've had any recent cases of suspected appendicitis."
"On it," came the answer, a hollow echo from the main work area. A few minutes later Ianto leaned over the railing. "I found one patient admitted to Children's Hospital for appendicitis last night. Wyn Morgan. They're testing bacteria levels in his appendix and intestines now."
"Children's Hospital?" Wilson asked, dreading the answer.
"He's six," Ianto said.
"Tell them to pump him full of probiotics," House ordered. "And no painkillers, no matter how loud he screams. Hopefully the second string can keep him stable until we get there."
"Do you think that's a good idea?" Gwen asked, trying not to look directly at Wilson.
House didn't say anything, but he stared at Wilson with an intensity that -- like so much about House -- was both comforting and disturbing. "Coffee boy. Go fetch your souped-up SUV, drive Wilson out to the airport, and put him on the next plane out of here. Do not stop to pick up any strange women."
"Don't be ridiculous," Wilson retorted. "If anyone's in danger here, it's you. You're the poster boy for pain. Not to mention we could synthesize your blood to stock a small pharmacy with hydrocodone and para-acetylaminophenol."
"Except that thing didn't stare into my eyes and try to heal my poor, broken heart," House sneered. "It's already made a connection with you. Just like the rest of the harpies stalking you."
Wilson didn't dignify that with a response. House treated any woman who looked twice at him as a potential enemy. Now he'd be looking that way at men, too. "No one is stalking me," he said, "here or in Princeton, so you can just rein in your imagination. Besides," he said, playing his trump card, "I don't have an appendix." They had no way of knowing, of course, if the appendix really was the gateway for the alien contact, but it was House's theory, and he would have to abandon it to win the argument. It would be a close call, but Wilson gambled that the medical mystery was the more pressing puzzle for House at the moment.
"You're lying," House replied, trying to avoid the conflict altogether.
Wilson suppressed a triumphant smile at the uncertainty in his voice. "Check with your magic marker," he said, raising his shirt up for easier access. "Or better yet, look at the scar." It was fine and faint -- the surgeon had been famous for his needlework -- but still visible twenty years later. He pushed down his waistband, flashing just a hint of hipbone.
"You're such a tease," Jack murmured, and Wilson blushed and tucked his shirt back in.
"That's not in your history," House said, choosing to ignore the side issue.
"I had it out when I was in Montreal. Only my father knew." And only because he'd known his father would find out when the insurance company contacted him. He'd made his father promise not to tell his mother. Michael had just disappeared for the second time, and his mother hadn't needed anything more to worry about. He'd been grateful, though, when his father had arranged a meeting at the National Research Centre and detoured to Montreal to be there for the operation.
"This is why I have to resort to alcohol and amphetamines to find anything out about you," House complained. "You're pathologically secretive. I don't know why Harkness bothered wiping your memory. You never would have shared the cool story about an alien attack."
That was true enough. He would have preferred that House never found out about that night. Sleeping with Jack wasn't the problem. House would have fun tormenting him about that for a while, but it was a minor indiscretion compared with moving in with a patient. That one never got old for House. But he'd proven twice now that when the situation called for heroics, he was the damsel in distress, not the knight in shining armour.
"What other scars haven't you told me about?" House demanded.
"Nothing," he replied. Nothing, at least, that was visible. The rest wasn't relevant. "I had chicken pox when I was six, my tonsils out when I was eight, and a bout of pneumonia when I was fourteen. I know ferreting out every secret from my childhood is your life's mission, but can we concentrate on the dying six-year-old right now?"
House looked abashed, which Wilson knew was only a ruse to make him let down his guard. But at least House would have to concentrate on the case to give substance to the ruse.
"Perhaps we should bring the boy here," Ianto suggested. "If we can't cure him, we can at least put him in a cryo-chamber until we do figure out a cure."
"How often does that work?" Gwen argued. "The hippies have been in there for forty years and we still haven't figured out how to turn them human again."
"Really?" House was in danger of losing focus again. "Magic mushrooms just a little too magic?"
"One mystery at a time," Wilson said. "Dying boy first, hippies in stasis later." He looked around. The room was fine for an autopsy, but not for live patients. He remembered the pterodactyl flying above, and the open stream running through the work area. The Hub was probably rife with bacteria, and not of the good kind. "This is no place for a sick child," he said. "We'll monitor him at the hospital."
"I'll monitor him," House said. "You'll stay here with at least one person with a big gun."
"Right idea, wrong person," Wilson replied. "You're the top of your field in many areas, but patient care is not one of them. It's a better use of resources if you continue with the autopsy and I monitor the patient." There was another consideration as well. If the pattern held, the Gwrach would return sometime that night. Wilson didn't want House within a mile of it.
House scowled, and Wilson could tell he wouldn't give up without a long and bloody battle, but Jack intervened smoothly. "Gwen and I will take Dr. Wilson to the hospital. Ianto will stay here with Dr. House and monitor the energy patterns."
"You're obviously used to having your own way," House said, sounding so calm and reasonable that Wilson was immediately on guard. "And I'm sure you make it worth your minions' while to follow your orders, but I'm not one of your groupies and I don't work for you. So don't tell me whether I'm staying or going."
"You're working for Torchwood, which means you're working for me," Jack replied. "And if I want you to stay here, you'll stay here, no matter how hard you try to leave."
The mild tone didn't disguise the obvious threat. Wilson was unnerved by the flash of steel beneath the friendly smile. House was formidable in his own way, but a cane and an attitude were no match for the kind of firepower Jack could command. "Maybe we should both go to the hospital," he suggested, trying to strike a compromise. "If the boy does start to deteriorate, and we need a new treatment plan or theory, it would be better if House were on site. We can finish the autopsy and then go to the hospital with more information."
"These people operate beyond the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon," House said, but turned his attention back to the body. "Your mediating routine isn't going to work here." Unfortunately, even an unusual autopsy wasn't enough to occupy his full attention -- or his mouth. "Take a look around you. He's carved out his own little kingdom underground. He doesn't answer to anyone or anything, and you think a smile and a little bit of reason are going to smooth everything over? You can't protect yourself from people like this with just charm."
"I'm not trying to protect myself," Wilson snapped, pausing before he took a tissue sample from the liver. "I'm not the one whose knee-jerk reaction to authority figures is to antagonize them. I'm trying to protect you."
"Then you're an idiot, and those four months you spent sulking were a waste of time. It proves you learned nothing from Amber. I should have fired her the first day, before you had a chance to sniff out whatever weakness drew you to her. It would have been better for everybody, especially her."
Not for me, Wilson thought, and concentrated on finishing the biopsy. "The only thing it proves is that I was an idiot to come back." He prepared the slide and stripped off his gloves. "You were right," he told Jack. "I'm not needed here any more. We should go to the hospital now." He walked away without waiting for Jack or looking at House.
Jones watched the autopsy from a post by the staircase entrance, having undoubtedly been instructed not to leave the servants alone with the silverware. "Shouldn't you be making coffee or getting the boss's spare greatcoat dry cleaned?" House asked, disappointed when Jones just smiled.
"I have a theory that each person has a finite amount of talent," he replied apropos of nothing at all. "You've obviously been blessed with more than your share of intelligence. I understand you're an accomplished musician as well."
House wondered just how much these people knew about them. The idea of Wilson alone with Harkness was intolerable, but he'd heard Harkness mention something about lock-down procedures, and he suspected that even if he managed to escape his vigilant guard dog, he would be trapped in the Hub.
"But if talent is finite, then an excess in one area has to be balanced by a deficiency in another," Jones continued. "And you, Dr. House, confirm that theory, because you're socially retarded."
House blinked. The puppy's teeth were politically incorrect. He sensed a potential ally. "Your theory implies that I'm not capable of social niceties, when in fact I just can't be bothered."
"Why would you, when you have Dr. Wilson to trail behind you, putting out fires and smoothing ruffled feathers?" Jones was neither disapproving nor outraged, and House wondered how much of his time was spent cleaning up Torchwood's messes. "And yet you're putting a lot of effort into driving him away, so laziness isn't the reason you're an ass to him."
"Oh, please," House scoffed. "It would take a cattle prod or a pack of feral dogs to drive Wilson away now. A little salt in the wound just keeps things from getting bland." But he'd wanted to take the words back the instant they'd left his mouth. They were true, but they didn't need to be said. "Shouldn't you be monitoring energy patterns instead of criticizing my people skills?"
Jones held up his PDA. "Why can't I do both? The computer is doing a scan of the city, but it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. I've programmed that particular pattern into the security system here and I've tapped into the hospital's system as well. The second she crosses the threshold, she'll trigger an alarm."
"Using a child as bait," House observed. "You're not exactly in a position to judge me."
"Jack won't let anything happen to the boy," Jones said confidently. He winked. "Or Dr. Wilson. I'll leave you to it, shall I? Give me a shout when you're done, and I'll show you the hippies." He ascended back to the work area, leaving House alone with the body and his thoughts.
He wasn't interested in hippies, even ones that had been turned into aliens. It wasn't far from their natural state. Wilson was right: one medical mystery at a time. Wilson was right about more things than House would ever admit, but he was wrong about being an idiot for coming back. House would hurt him again and again, Wilson would manipulate and lie to him again and again, but they were still better together than apart. Even now, with Wilson only a few miles away, House was uneasy and distracted.
He reminded himself that the sooner he finished the autopsy, the sooner he could convince Jones to let him go. Wilson might not want to admit it, but he needed House.
Despite his initial impatience, House soon found himself drawn into the mystery. He realized he was seeing things a pathologist working with standard equipment would be unable to detect. It was no wonder it had taken six deaths before Torchwood was alerted. The cellular anomalies Wilson had spotted in the appendix wouldn't have been identifiable with an ordinary microscope. As he studied the cells closer, House realized what had caught Wilson's attention. In this case he was wrong. It wasn't a case of something not being quite right; it was a case of it being too right. The DNA and the structure were unaltered -- as pristine as the organ itself. He analyzed the DNA further. There were no insertions or deletions of nucleotides or amino acids, nothing but textbook gene sequences. Textbook, at least, for a newly evolved homo sapiens.
He studied the rest of the organs and found the same "perfect" cells in all of them, though in varying numbers and concentrations. He remembered the case he'd had, not long after Wilson had resigned, where cancer stem cells had caused organ failure in transplant patients. Those cells had been non-functional. These ones likely functioned in ways the human body no longer recognized. And they were entering the bloodstream from the appendix, an organ the human body essentially no longer needed.
"Hey, coffee boy!" he shouted, stripping off his scrubs. "Call the boss man and tell him the boy's appendix needs to come out now. Find a free OR immediately, even if we have to move him to another hospital."
"Jack says to bring the singularity scalpel instead," Jones replied, leaning over the balcony. "I'll get it out of the safe. Meet me at the tunnel. We'll take the regular elevator up. It's closer to the car park."
"What the hell is a singularity scalpel?" House wondered, but tidied the autopsy suite out of training and prudence. He didn't have time to sew the body back up, but he carefully replaced the organs and zipped up the body bag. If he'd been a religious man, he would have said a prayer for the soul of Jenny Thomas. Instead, he thanked her for providing the answer he'd needed. He just hoped it was in time.
They were on the elevator when an alarm on Jones's PDA buzzed abruptly and urgently. House didn't have to ask what that meant. They were out of time.
Jones tapped his earpiece. "She's on site, Jack," he said, glancing worriedly at House. "Heading towards the patient wing." He paused to listen. "We're in the elevator, on our way. I'll get there as soon as I can." He tapped the earpiece again and pushed the stop button on the elevator. "Jack wants you to stay behind until we've contained the Gwrach." He started to press the button for the work station level, but House knocked his hand away with his cane.
"You didn't actually think I'd agree to that," he said, gripping the handle tightly in preparation for another swing, if necessary. "If you leave me behind, I'll find a way out on my own, and probably destroy half your equipment in the process. So I suggest you don't waste any more time." He started the elevator up to the street level again.
Jones just shrugged, as if he had expected nothing else. "Hit me again, and you'll be walking to Children's," he warned, and House lowered the cane.
"You'd better have a fast car," he replied, shifting impatiently as the elevator rose.
"Don't worry," Jones said. "Jack will make sure Dr. Wilson is safely out of the way."
But House knew Wilson far better than Harkness -- no matter what had happened three years before -- and he had seen the expression on Wilson's face after Jenny Thomas died. He would never leave a patient in peril, especially a child. The only thing more dangerous than an alien serial killer on the loose was a grieving oncologist desperate for redemption. Putting the two of them together in one room was a disaster of cosmic proportions. There wasn't a car manufactured that could get them to the hospital fast enough for House.
Wilson took the back seat of the Rover, out of politeness and preference, letting his anger towards House simmer. House would accuse him of sulking, and House would be right, the way he was always right, no matter how much it hurt those around him.
He was right about Amber, of course. She would have been better off if she'd never known him. A few months of happiness couldn't make up for more than half a lifetime lost. And House undoubtedly wished he'd never picked her resume out of the pile. A fractured skull, cardiac arrest, and massive seizure had been a high price to pay for a relationship he'd barely tolerated. But Wilson still couldn't bring himself to regret any second of their time together.
What he did regret was failing her memory so quickly. She wouldn't have wanted him to run away, but he wasn't sure she would have wanted him to return either. And he knew she would be disgusted that he'd fallen back into old patterns so quickly.
Amber had wanted him to take care of himself, to look after his own needs, but he didn't know how to do that. Maybe if he'd had more time with her, he would have learned. He'd had four months to discover that he needed House as much as House apparently needed him, but a decade and a half of friendship had failed to teach him how to protect himself from the sharp edges of House's personality. Or maybe it was just that his emotional calluses had softened during those four months' disuse.
The anger cooled and dissipated, and he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. It was barely noon and he was already exhausted. Trans-Atlantic flights were hell on the system. But he sat up and unbuckled his seatbelt the second the Rover slid to a stop. He didn't trust Jack not to leave him sleeping in the car.
"We should put him in an isolation room," he said, trotting alongside Jack. "The last thing we want is for the Gwrach to walk into a ward full of sick children, all of them unhappy and in pain."
"Ianto would already have thought of that," Jack said, "but we'll need to secure the entrance to the room. If the Gwrach is a shape-shifter, then we'll have to scan everyone coming in, but at least with you there we can keep the medical personnel to a minimum, barring any emergency."
Wilson nodded and started making a list of everything he might need. Kidneys were next up on the path of destruction, but hopefully dialysis wouldn't be necessary or House would have to talk him through the procedure. Perhaps it wouldn't come to that. "What about his family?" he asked. "How will we keep them away?"
"His mother died in childbirth and his father took off not long after," Gwen replied, her tone making it clear what she thought about that. "He was raised by his grandmother, who died suddenly last week. There's an aunt, apparently, but she works for an international aid agency and they haven't been able to get a message to her."
"That's too much grief for one little boy," Jack said. "It must have made him irresistible." The ever-present smile was gone now, and his body was ramrod straight and tense.
Wilson could understand his anger, but he wasn't certain it was entirely deserved. Whatever the end result, he'd sensed that the Gwrach's intentions hadn't been malicious. But Wilson knew from bitter experience that good intentions weren't proof against causing pain. "We'll take care of him," he said, a promise to both Jack and himself.
Seeing a child in a hospital bed never failed to move Wilson, but years of experience had taught him to bury any trace of pity. His job required him to give treatments that were often as painful as the disease, and he couldn't afford to second-guess himself when every option meant suffering. It had been one of the hardest lessons he'd learned -- and one he was still learning -- but it was the only way to survive an oncology career.
But Gwen had no such constraints and her eyes filled with tears when she saw the still, white figure almost lost in the bedclothes. "The poor child," she said softly. "He must feel so alone and afraid."
"Gwen, why don't you talk to the nursing staff and get a list of everyone working on the ward, and let them know that Dr. Wilson will be in charge of the boy's care." Jack positioned himself at the door. "And don't worry. He's not alone any more."
Wilson picked up the boy's chart and read it quickly, relieved to see that there were no indications of kidney or liver failure so far. The probiotics were either making a difference or they had caught the symptoms early enough. He hoped House would find something definitive in the autopsy.
The boy stirred and moaned slightly. Wilson glanced at the monitors and saw that his heart rate was increasing. He was waking up. "Hello, Wyn," he said, smiling as the boy opened his eyes and focused on him. "My name is Dr. Wilson. How are you feeling right now?"
"My tummy hurts," he whispered.
"I know," Wilson said. "And we're going to fix that for you. But I need you to be a brave boy for a little while longer. Can you do that for me?"
Wyn nodded. "I'm always brave." But his lip quivered and Wilson could tell he was close to tears. "I want my Nana."
Wilson brushed a strand of hair off his forehead. "I know you do. And I wish I could bring her to you, but I'm afraid that's impossible. But we're going to bring your aunt to you just as soon as we can." He wondered if Torchwood could help with the search. Gwen and Ianto seemed to have unlimited sources of information.
"Nana came to me yesterday," Wyn said stubbornly. "She told me not to be sad, because she'd always be with me."
Wilson glanced at Jack, who stepped closer to the bed. "Was this before or after your tummy started to hurt?"
"Before." The boy started to cry. "I want my Nana."
"Shhh," Wilson murmured, rubbing his hand soothingly up and down the boy's arm. "You know what? She was right. She will always be with you. Because you'll never forget her. When you close your eyes and think really hard you'll be able to see her whenever you want. How about you try that now?" He hummed a lullaby his younger patients always found comforting as Wyn's eyes fluttered closed again. Only when the boy's heart rate slowed and his breathing evened out did Wilson straighten up and move back to the foot of the bed.
"You know that's incredibly sexy," Jack whispered. "Is that how you score with the nurses? They must be lined up outside your office."
Wilson ignored him. Jack would have to try harder than that if he wanted to embarrass him. Whispered innuendo was nothing compared to having his sex life discussed loudly in a busy hallway. He checked the IV and catheter bag, glad to have something to occupy his attention.
"I mean it," Jack said, moving up behind him. "It must drive House crazy. He doesn't like to share you with anyone, does he?"
"House might be brilliant, but he's also the most insecure person I've ever met." It kept Wilson constantly off-balance, that contrast between confident physician and uncertain friend, never knowing which side he needed to nurture. He smiled. "He once borrowed increasing sums of money from me just to see where I'd draw the line."
"Where did you draw the line?"
My girlfriend's life, he thought. But that time, at least, House had paid him back in full, with interest. "We're at $15,000 and counting," he said. "Though I'm sure the next time he's arrested the bail will be higher." He moved away from the hospital bed, afraid of disturbing the boy.
Jack followed, and they stood sentry just outside the doorway. "You probably get asked this a lot, but why do you stick around? Why did you come back?" He shrugged when Wilson looked sharply at him. "I knew when you quit Princeton-Plainsboro. And when you turned down the job at Mercy. I keep track of the people I care about."
It was a little disturbing being stalked on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was also flattering. Which went a long way towards answering Jack's question. He repeated what he'd told House after the funeral. "You don't choose your friends any more than you choose your family." He remembered what Jack had told him three years before. "There's a connection that time or distance couldn't break, no matter how hard I tried. You'd have to retcon more than a third of my life to eradicate him from my memories. Your turn," he said, shifting the focus away from him with practiced ease. Being friends with House was a master class in deflection. "You never did tell me much about you. Who's the real Jack Harkness?" Wilson asked. He'd meant it as a joke, but at his words all the laughter fled from Jack's face.
"Someone who died so that I could be a better person." Jack turned and stared down the corridor. "After my father was killed and my brother was lost, I didn't care what I did. I fought as a mercenary, joined an organization that made the CIA look like the Peace Corps, and survived as a con man. And one day, I took the name of an American volunteer in the RAF who went missing in action. It was just another scam, but then I met the Doctor. And he changed everything for me."
Wilson could understand what it meant to meet someone who changed everything. It was another reason he'd come back. "Who's the Doctor?"
Jack smiled. "If I try to answer that we'll end up in an Abbott and Costello routine. You could call him a kind of intergalactic troubleshooter. I was one of his companions for a while, one of the Children of Time. And when he abandoned me, I returned to Earth and was recruited by Torchwood. And I found a purpose again. It's taken a long time -- longer than you can possibly imagine -- but I've tried to make the Institute the kind of organization that he could be proud of."
It was still hard for Wilson to accept Jack's talk of time and space travel, but he'd seen too many things in just the past day to allow him the comfort of disbelief.
Jack touched his ear suddenly and stepped away, talking in a low voice. When he turned back to Wilson, he was grinning triumphantly. "House has a new theory. He thinks the cells you saw in the appendix have been repaired from millennia of mutations. They've gotten into the bloodstream and that's what is destroying the other organs. We need to take the boy's appendix out and then find a way to isolate and destroy what he's calling 'perfect' cells."
"We'll need to book an OR," Wilson said, reviewing the procedure for an appendectomy. He didn't do many of them -- appendiceal carcinoma was relatively rare and most cases were identified during an appendectomy -- but he wasn't confident they could obtain a surgeon at short notice.
"No need," Jack replied blithely. "Ianto is bringing the singularity scalpel."
"The what?" It sounded like something from The Princess Bride.
"Singularity scalpel. We picked it up in a salvage operation a few years back. You can use it to operate without opening up a body. It vaporizes an object within another object."
"Like a tumour." House would accuse him of thinking in the cancer box again, but he'd lost too many patients to inoperable tumours not to immediately see the possibilities.
"Yes and no," Jack hedged. "It's alien technology that we haven't entirely mastered yet. We'd originally thought it was a weapon, but Owen was convinced it was a medical tool. It's only worked to remove something alien from a body, and even then the success rate isn't promising. We have no way of replicating it for widespread use."
"How many times has it been successful?" Wilson asked suspiciously.
"Twice," Jack admitted.
"And you want to use it on a six-year-old boy?" It was the kind of treatment plan House would suggest. Wilson wondered why he was drawn to men who were obviously insane.
Jack, at least, looked a little abashed. "We should consider it as an option," he insisted. "If painkillers affect the progression of the organ failure, who knows what might happen with anaesthetic. But I'll tell Gwen to arrange for the OR as a back-up." He touched his earpiece again and had a quick conversation, pausing only to ask Wilson for specific needs. "All bases covered," he said.
Wilson knew he was being humoured, but caution in patient care wasn't a crime. He was about to point out that a known and safe surgical procedure was infinitely preferable to untried alien technology when Jack covered his ear and frowned.
"Where are you?" he asked. "Okay, leave House at the Hub and get here as soon as you can. It's show time."
Wilson stared at him. "She's here? But it's only mid-afternoon. The pattern's changed."
"Because we changed it," Jack said. "He's not deteriorating, but he's still grieving. I don't think this is the coup de grace -- it's a second attempt." He scanned the corridor. "No sign yet. I want you to go to the nurse's station and wait until I buzz you to come back."
Every instinct told Wilson to do just that, but then he turned to look at the young boy in the hospital bed. "No," he said. "I'm not leaving my patient. What if he needs medical attention?"
"He's only going to need medical attention if the Gwrach gets by me, and that's not going to happen," Jack replied. "Now get out of here."
But Wilson stood his ground. "No," he repeated, planting his hands on his hips and lifting his chin stubbornly. House called it his superhero pose, and Wilson hoped that looking the part might translate into acting it as well. But Jack only looked ruefully amused.
"Fine," he said. "But stay in the room. Don't leave the boy's side, no matter what happens."
That might be a difficult order to obey, but Wilson nodded and retreated into the room, as if acquiescing. He'd learned more than medicine from House over the years. The boy was still sleeping, which was fortunate since he didn't want to risk a sedative. His vitals were still strong and the collected urine in his catheter bag was clear and blood free. He was tucking the blanket more comfortably around the boy when he heard footsteps in the corridor.
He straightened up and carefully positioned himself between the bed and the door. The Gwrach would have to go through both of them before it reached Wyn.
Jack pushed his greatcoat over his hip and pulled out his gun. "Stay back," he said to Wilson, blocking the doorway. As the figure approached, however, he faltered and stepped backwards, shaking his head. "That's not possible," he said.
Wilson saw a tall, slender young man with cropped dark hair and a resemblance to Jack in the sharp bones of his face. He would have guessed who it was even if Jack hadn't whispered, "Gray." A trick of the light and the features aged and roughened, becoming those of his own lost brother. But of course it wasn't anybody's brother, any more than it had been Amber, and Wilson took a step towards Jack.
That brought Jack back to himself. "Stay back," he said again. "And you, back off," he told the Gwrach. "The boy is not for you." He held his gun steady and reached into his jacket just as Gwen came running down the corridor, her own gun held in ready position. "I've evacuated all the ambulatory patients on the floor and secured the others. Are you all right?" she asked Jack.
"Peachy. I was just explaining to our friend here that there's been a mistake. We'll discuss it back at the Hub." He tossed a small object at the Gwrach's feet, and a visible containment field sprung up around it.
And that was it. The boy was safe. They would remove the appendix, find a way to isolate the altered cells, and fly back home to Princeton. Everything that happened would become just another fading memory.
Wilson shook his head and wondered why Jack and Gwen still had their guns out. He found out an instant later, when the Gwrach reached out, shorted the field, and redirected the energy into Jack. The force threw Jack backwards into the room, and he lay splayed on the floor like a broken doll. Wilson couldn't tell if he was breathing, but his eyes were open and unseeing.
"Jack!" Wilson shouted, but he couldn't make his feet move. It was happening again. People were in danger, people were dying, and he just stood there watching.
"Don't," Gwen said, though Wilson wasn't sure if she was talking to him or the Gwrach. "There's nothing you can do. Stay with the boy."
That broke his paralysis. Too much of his career was spent with patients where there was nothing he could do to save them, and yet he still tried. The boy was stable, but Jack needed help. He stumbled over to where he lay and dropped to his knees, his medical training kicking in.
Jack wasn't breathing, and Wilson couldn't find a pulse in his wrist or neck. "Goddammit, Jack, don't do this!" he shouted, and pounded on his chest three times before starting compressions. It was House in the bus, all over again. Wilson thought he was going to cry.
"James, don't," Gwen called out, as she inched towards the Gwrach. "He'll be all right. I promise."
But it was only when the Gwrach swept forward, towards the bed, that Wilson scrambled to his feet. "No!" he shouted, not willing to lose the boy and Jack. "Look at me. Please. Don't touch the boy."
The Gwrach stopped and turned, and Wilson managed to slip between it and the bed. "Look at me," he repeated, and as their eyes met, the Gwrach transformed into the familiar, beloved image of Amber. "You didn't mean to hurt anyone, did you?" he said. "You were threatened, so you lashed out. But the boy isn't a threat to you."
"Wyn Morgan," the Gwrach said, and it was Amber's voice, the voice he still heard in his dreams.
He could hear more running footsteps approaching, and Ianto appeared, gun drawn. Wilson had no illusions that House would have allowed himself to be left behind, so he wasn't surprised to hear a desperate step-thump echoing down the hallway just a moment later. The situation was about to go critical.
And then Jack took a huge gulp of air and sat up. "I told you it wouldn't get past me," he said, as if he hadn't just been lying on the floor without a pulse. "Well, maybe just a little ways," he amended. He stood up and aimed his gun again. "Move away from the boy. I don't want to shoot, but I will if you get any closer."
Wilson wasn't sure what was more insane -- pointing a gun in a hospital room or spontaneous resurrection. He was trying to form the words to ask what the hell had just happened when House chose that moment to burst into the room, blithely unconcerned that he'd just walked into Ianto and Gwen's line of fire.
Jack sighed and grabbed House before he could walk right up to the Gwrach and try to decapitate it with his cane. "One amateur in the way is enough," Jack said, pulling House behind him. "Do either of you listen to anyone?"
Wilson ignored him, keeping his attention focused on the Gwrach. "We're here to help the boy," he said. "Wyn Morgan. He's six years old and he's very ill, but it's not too late for us to save him. But we can only do that if you let us." He took a step closer, reaching out his hand. It was a risk, but he needed to establish trust.
It was too much of a risk for House. "Wilson, get away from there," he shouted, his face twisted with fear. "You're a doctor, not an intergalactic bounty hunter."
Wilson couldn't remember the last time he'd seen House frightened. Maybe now he'd understand how Wilson felt when he provoked men with guns. "I'm not trying to hunt it," Wilson replied. "I'm just talking. And you're not helping." He offered his most soothing smile to the Gwrach, who transformed again, this time into a mirror image of himself. Wilson blinked, unnerved, until he realized that the Gwrach had been responding to House.
"Well, that's appropriate," House observed tartly, though he'd visibly relaxed. "The personification of killing through kindness. No one matches Wilson for leaving a wake of destruction in his well-meaning path."
"Still not helping," Wilson snapped, glaring at House. "If you won't shut up, then go away." Either option was about as likely as holding back the tide, but Wilson would stand his ground and drown if necessary. At least Jack still had one hand clamped to House's wrist.
"Let him talk," Jack said, and pushed House out the door, blocking the frame with his body.
Wilson exhaled shakily. "I know you don't want to hurt the boy," he said. "You were trying to help him. But what you did is killing him. That's not what you wanted, is it?"
He watched himself shake his head and closed his eyes, wondering how many times his face had carried that expression of guilt.
"I wanted to help," the Gwrach said, taking its own form. "To heal. He was in pain."
"I know. But some pain you can't heal," Wilson said. "What he's suffering from is grief, just like the others you tried to help. It's a normal reaction to losing someone you love. And it's a kind of pain that can't be excised like a tumour or cured with antibiotics. It has to be endured and understood, until finally it can be released." It had taken him a long time to reach that point after Amber died, and he'd caused as much pain as he'd experienced in the process, but it had been a self-preservation of its own kind.
"There was wrongness in the body," the Gwrach said, unfurling its wings slightly. "I fixed it. The pain should have gone, but it only got worse. They were suffering. I had to stop it."
"It was the appendix," Wilson replied, his hand hovering over his abdomen. "It's a vestigial organ. Its function diminished as humans evolved. When you changed it, you changed the way the body works, which caused the other organs to fail. But it's not too late for the boy. We can remove the appendix, isolate the altered cells. But I can't let you touch him."
"Please," the Gwrach said. "I can do this. Return the body as it was. Let me fix what I did."
Wilson believed the Gwrach was sincere, but it had killed eight people through good intentions. And yet, if it could reverse the damage without surgery or hit-and-miss alien technology, it would be the safest option for the boy. He looked at Jack, who nodded and lowered his gun. Wilson swallowed heavily and stepped aside, hoping that he was doing the right thing.
The tip of a ragged wing brushed his arm as the Gwrach moved towards the bed, and Wilson was filled with a sense of warmth and peace. "Thank you," it said and leaned over the boy.
Wyn stirred and moaned in his sleep, but settled under the lightest of touches from one bony finger. Wilson watched the monitors closely, prepared to pull the Gwrach away if anything changed drastically, but the boy's heart rate and blood pressure only dipped briefly and then stabilized. When Wilson looked at his face, he could see that Wyn was sleeping deeply and naturally with a slight smile on his face.
The Gwrach stepped away. "It is done." It covered its face in supplication or grief. "So much pain," it whispered. "Always before my kind have stood by, only to weep at the suffering. I thought I could do more. I will not interfere again."
All his life, Wilson had wanted to do more, to help more. He couldn't condemn the Gwrach without condemning himself. But he could offer absolution of a kind, and hope that it was deserved by both of them. "Sometimes it's enough just to know someone else shares your sorrow," he said. "And you gave the boy his grandmother one last time. In time that will help heal the grief."
The Gwrach looked at him and opened its arms. Wilson hesitated, and then stepped into its embrace. "Thank you," it said.
Wilson could feel it change around him, the arms softening and yet becoming surer, that wonderful dichotomy of strength and vulnerability that he had loved in Amber. He buried his face in her hair, allowing himself to both remember and forget. "Goodbye," he whispered, as she pulled away.
"Goodbye," she said and was gone.
Wilson kept his eyes closed, trying to hold onto the sense memory of her arms around him just a moment longer. A hand rested on his shoulders and he turned, expecting to see Jack. But it was House, looking uncomfortable and annoyed and exactly what Wilson had always needed.
A biopsy revealed that the appendix had indeed reverted to normal and was teeming with beneficial bacteria, while the blood work was clear of any altered cells. By mid-afternoon, Wyn was awake and complaining not of a sore stomach, but an empty one. Ianto was able to deliver not only a meal from the boy's favourite restaurant, but also the news that his aunt had been contacted and was flying back to Cardiff that night.
Wilson wouldn't go so far as to suggest that everything had worked out in the end -- eight deaths was hardly a happy outcome -- but at least it was one file that wouldn't linger restlessly in House's locked desk drawer.
"It's Friday afternoon. There's no point in flying back until Sunday," Jack said, as they relaxed in the Hub with a celebratory scotch. "We can book you first class on a British Airways flight that leaves Heathrow at three o'clock. You'll be back in New Jersey by dinnertime."
Wilson glanced at House, gauging his reaction. House never liked to linger at the end of a successful case. Once the mystery was solved, he moved on to the next shiny object that caught his interest. On the other hand, he wasn't one to pass up a free weekend, especially when it required no effort from him.
"Fine by me," House said. "But don't expect me to traipse about the city pretending to find a bunch of old buildings interesting."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Jack said, grinning. "I'm sure you'll have no trouble amusing yourself." He glanced at Wilson, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Do you mind if I play tour guide for Jimmy?"
The idea appeared to leave a sour taste in House's mouth, but he just shrugged and washed it away with a hefty sip of scotch. "I have, on rare occasion, been known to share. Just be sure to have him home by curfew."
"There's a blues band at CaféJazz that you might like," Jack suggested. "How about we all meet there in a couple of hours for dinner and drinks on the Queen?"
"Works for me," House said, far too agreeably. "Jonesy promised to show me the vaults." He winked broadly.
Wilson couldn't imagine someone as perfectly pressed as Ianto agreeing to be called Jonesy, but House didn't exactly ask permission before bestowing nicknames. "Are you sure you don't want to come with us?" he asked. As much as House moaned and complained about sightseeing, it was always more fun having him along.
"You two knock yourselves out," House said. "Maybe you can find a little old lady to help across the street, or a cat to rescue from a tree. Go on," he said when Wilson hesitated. "Expand your world. Expand your universe. I've got hippie popsicles to keep me entertained."
"How about it?" Jack asked. "I'll give you a private tour of the Millennium Centre. And I'll show you a view that will knock your socks off."
"Good luck with that," House commented, topping up his drink. "Wilson even wears his socks to bed. Bonnie told me," he said when Wilson tried to splutter out a denial. "She thought it was sexy, god knows why."
"I have poor circulation in my feet," Wilson muttered, wondering why he'd ever want House in the room with any one he knew. "And before you decide to spill any more of my embarrassing secrets, you should know that I have Stacy's direct line. When I remind her that you showed me her counseling file, I'm sure she'll be happy to share a few choice tales about you."
"I'm quaking, sock boy."
But Wilson could tell that he was already inventing outrageous lies to counteract whatever Stacy might say. Sometimes it was the little victories that were the sweetest. "I'll see you in a couple of hours."
"Tell Ianto I'll be checking the inventory after you're done," Jack warned. "And don't make any messes you can't clean up yourselves."
"The same goes for you," House replied lightly, but it was no less a warning.
They didn't say anything as Jack led them through the tunnels to a service elevator. "Where are we going?" Wilson asked, when he realized there were only two buttons, marked H and R.
"Straight to the top," Jack said. "My favourite spot in the city."
They emerged onto the roof of the Millennium Centre, just as the sun was setting. Wilson gasped in wonder. "This is amazing!" he exclaimed. He spun slowly around, watching the light play across Cardiff Bay, Bute Park slowly disappearing into shadows, the harsh lines of concrete and steel fading in the dusk. It was a place where anything seemed possible, where everything he'd seen might have an explanation. He turned to Jack.
"In the hospital," he said. "You were dead. You had no pulse, no respiration. And then you sat up and carried on as if nothing had happened. How can that be?"
"I can't die," Jack replied simply. "Something happened to me a long time ago. I was killed, and then I was resurrected, and now I can't die. I'm sucked into the void, sometimes just for a few brief seconds, once for three days, and then I'm hurled back out again. As deaths go, that last one was pretty easy."
Nothing about death was ever easy, but Wilson had dedicated his career to making it less hard on his patients and their families. And here was Jack, the master of mortality, an immutable force of life. Wilson reached out and touched Jack's face in wonder, and then pulled him into a desperate embrace.
"What's this?" Jack laughed, but hugged back tightly.
"Just hanging onto the one thing that death can't take from me." He thought of Jack living through the centuries, watching friends and families fade away. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't imagine how hard it must be, always being the one left behind."
Jack kissed the top of his head and let him go. "It would be infinitely worse never to have been there in the first place." He stepped to the edge of the roof and held his arms out to the city. "I come up here every time I need a reminder of why I'm here. Why I came back."
Wilson glanced at him, saw him smile with affection and regret.
"I found the Doctor. After 140 years and hundreds of deaths, I caught up with him again. You can't imagine the things I saw. The wonder and the horror. I traveled to the end of time. And then I came back, because of all the endless worlds in the universe, this is where I belong. It's a great thing to find your place in time and space. Do you know yours?"
Wilson thought he did. He'd come back, too.
"I'll show you around Cardiff tomorrow morning," Jack said, still looking out over the city, "and then we can drive up to London in the evening." He grinned mischievously. "There's a Mark Rothko showing at the Tate Modern that looks interesting."
Wilson remembered the Frida Kahlo exhibition where they'd first met. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He wondered what it was like for Jack, living lifetime after lifetime, and was glad he'd never know. "It's funny," he said. "We were drawn to each other by someone else's pain. And the Gwrach was drawn to her victims by their pain. Everything is connected by pain."
"Not pain," Jack replied softly. "Not even pity. Empathy. Compassion. Those are the threads that draw and bind us together. Through time and space and memory." He touched Wilson on the shoulder, then trailed his hand down Wilson's arm until their fingers clasped. "Come on," he said. "I'll take you on a backstage tour, and then we'll find House and my team, and we'll listen to dusky blues and sip smoky scotch until they throw us out."
Wilson smiled and let Jack lead him back to the elevator. It sounded like the kind of plan that House would endorse. He didn't wonder why all his plans included House. There was a universe full of mysteries out there, but that wasn't one of them.