Author: Dee Laundry (deelaundry)
Summary: Stand in the place where you are.
Fandom: House, MD
Spoilers/Warnings: Spoilers through episode 5-24, "Both Sides Now." Warning for mentioned character deaths.
Notes: The title comes from the song “Stand” by R.E.M. References to several Wilson/female-character relationships, and to House/Stacy. Thanks to daisylily for beta, and nightdog_barks for encouragement.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Lowest Rung by hannahrorlove
“Kicked out of the love nest?”
“Everything’s going fine with Bonnie. What are you talking about?”
House held up the envelopes he’d found in Wilson’s briefcase (the only interesting things in the lead-weight bundle of misery, administrivia, and aspirations toward suburban normalcy Wilson was hauling around).
“Forwarded mail from a tiny rented studio in Manhattan. Forwarded to your office, not the over-sized paean to picket-fence nirvana you and the missus share.”
“How do you know how big it is?”
“You’ve forced me to eat dinner there.”
Wilson’s lips clamped shut like Bert from Sesame Street. House amused himself by imagining Wilson’s hair limited to a small spiky patch along the coronal suture until the man’s voice (his real one, not Bert’s) broke in.
“Not my house with Bonnie. The apartment.”
“Being a New York property tax clerk is apparently an extremely boring job. They have a lot of time to chat on the phone. Now, what’s up with the mistress?”
“I don’t have a mistress.”
House’s ears perked up at the inflections of tone in that flat denial. “A master?”
Wilson rolled his eyes and shifted the basket of laundry onto his hip. “Aren’t you angling for that title?”
“Can’t help it if your slavering subbiness brings out the dom in me. C’mon, c’mon; quit changing the subject, and spill.”
The basket of laundry traveled around to Wilson’s other hip; a sock escaped and plunged to freedom on the hardwood floor. “House, there is no mistress. There could be no mistress. There is you and Bonnie and the dog and my patients and the grant documentation and the committee I got volunteered for and the horrendous games of golf with Partridge and his rich potential donor buddies so I can keep my name out there for tenure track and –”
Wilson was an idiot. Wilson had always been an idiot, and always would be.
“I’m bored, OK?” House yelled. He grunted at Wilson’s immediate look of surprised guilt and sank further into the couch. “I’m bored, and this is remotely interesting, and you’re being a rude, whole-legged, go-anywhere-and-do-anything bastard for keeping it from me.”
Wilson took a step closer and toed at the end table. “The mystery’s not exciting?”
Following a sigh, the confession spilled from Wilson’s lips. “It’s the place I shared with my ex-wife.”
“Mrs. Gone Before New Orleans?” Huh. “She still lives there,” House mused. Some people liked Manhattan, but with the alimony Wilson was forking over, she could definitely afford better than a miniscule studio in a student neighborhood. A woman who hung onto the past even more than Wilson, now that was interesting.
“No, she moved as soon as the divorce was final,” Wilson said, obliviously blowing House’s theory out of the water. “It’s another couple there now; they’re both first-year med students. They’re good kids. Ambitious, but they make time for each other. Dex is learning how to cook, and Jen actually sews. I didn’t know anybody except grandmothers sewed now. It’s sweet.”
If House hadn’t already been nauseated from pain and the new meds they had him on, the dopey maternal grin on Wilson’s face would have done it. Ugh. But there were other fish to fry.
“First-year? Were they emancipated minors when they moved in?”
“Um, no.” Exit dopey maternal grin; enter knit-brow confusion.
House stared at him, waiting for the fog to clear.
Wilson was such an idiot.
House finally had to prompt him with, “The missus moved out how many years ago now?”
“Oh.” Wilson dropped the laundry basket to the floor and himself into a chair. Goody, story time. Maybe House wasn’t really as bored as he thought. “Dex and Jen, the Rosas,” Wilson continued, “only moved in a few months ago. Before that the Kwans lived there, and before that there were the Suarezes, and –”
“And Cush begat Nimrod, and so on, and so on, back to sweet Mrs. Wilson and the horndog doctor wannabe she married.” Ignoring Wilson’s disapproving expression, House got to the heart of the matter. “Why the hell do you still get mail there, and how does the seventh generation know how to get it to you?”
“I don’t know why I still get mail there.” A shrug, and a sudden concentrated interest in folding House’s pillowcases into a perfect rectangle. “Just forgot to change my address on those mailing lists, I guess.”
“Uh huh. Forgot. For years. While remembering to introduce yourself to every tenant, so that you could get the mail you cared so little about that you didn’t bother to change your address.”
“Whatever.” Wilson pushed up out of his chair and headed toward the kitchen. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Which is why I didn’t mention it, and –” Wilson turned back toward House, glaring. “Quit going through my stuff. There are better ways to alleviate your boredom.”
As Wilson stomped into the kitchen, House realized he couldn’t think of a single one.
Everything was over. House had hired a herd of doctors to winnow down into a new team, livening up the hospital and as a side bonus, frustrating Cuddy into the alluring sheen that challenge always gave her. House’s vintage guitar had been returned, depreciated in monetary value but improved immensely in sentiment during the tug-of-war with Wilson. Not that House would ever admit that.
Only one question remained.
“Where did you hide it?”
“A self-storage facility in East Paducah, along with Jimmy Hoffa’s ashes.”
“Very funny. Where were you while you ripped her guts out?”
“First it’s an it, then it’s a she. Does it actually have a gender, or do you pick pronouns for the dramatic impact?”
“Don’t try to change the subject.”
“I’m not. We’re still talking about your guitar.”
“You couldn’t have kept it at home.”
“You’re still on speaking terms with Julie, but she doesn’t have any chairs that shade of green. Did you go back to Bonnie for a favor?”
“That’s right, House, every time I want to keep something hidden from you I go to one of my ex-wives for help.”
“You could have gone to your brother.”
“That’s right, I could have.”
“Except you wouldn’t.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You compartmentalize too efficiently. You keep me apart from your family, so you wouldn’t go to them to help out with something having to do with me.”
“Cuddy would have given me some sort of cue.”
“It’s not someone from the hospital!”
“Thank you for saving me the trouble of having to rule out your staff and six other departments.”
“Why won’t you let this go? You got it back weeks ago.”
“Because knowing will make me happy.”
“Which for you means only mildly cranky.”
“How about I bribe you?”
“This is a new one.”
“Have you considered the possibility that maybe I like you not knowing so much I’ll never tell you?”
“At least twice since yesterday. I’m trying to wear you down through sheer persistence.”
“Everything can be explained, eventually.”
“That’s been well established.”
“You kept it in a place that I didn’t think of.”
“Why does knowing have to be so important to you?”
“Of course, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t find out later.”
“Right, I’m going to come out and say where I hid it.”
“You would have after I got it back if you were okay with me finding out. But you haven’t. It must be really bad if you don’t want me to know.”
“Maybe I just like knowing you can’t figure it out.”
“You hate it when I can’t figure something out. Everyone working at the hospital does. This goes way beyond that.”
“It amazes me how little you actually respect people.”
“You like playing this game. You want me to know.”
“I kept it in Grace’s apartment.”
“I just told you.”
“Grace. Cancer patient Grace.”
“Cancer patient, career-risk, dead-for-fourteen-months Grace. Why do you ask?”
The place reminded House of college. Not in how it looked, but how it smelled. It had the faint mustiness of places that people left alone for long periods of time and then came back to. Hotels never got that smell, and neither did hospitals, but his dorm room had smelled this way each September.
Grace had liked to read in the evenings, based on which window the big green chair was placed under. She’d enjoyed deep-voiced singers, Southern Gothic and English romantic writers, Dutch masters and vegetarian cooking.
She’d learned to accommodate the way all chronic patients did, and the hallmarks of that – the clothing on top of her drawers that she wore more often, the changes to her diet – were clear to anyone who was used to thinking in that sort of mindset.
“Did she like Italy?”
“She loved Italy.” Wilson stood, hands in his pockets.
House sat down on the bed, testing the weight of the mattress. “This is all yours?”
“She sent a few things to the rest of her family.”
It was clear Wilson had catalogued everything he’d been given all the way to the last teaspoon and was trying to be dismissive, if you knew how to read him.
“And the only thing you’ve used this place for is guitar storage.”
“That’s all I’ve wanted to use it for.”
House stretched out along the bed. “I’ve been thinking about moving.”
“Yeah?” Wilson was avoiding his gaze.
“Somewhere with more windows.” House settled his hands behind his head. “I hear natural light is good for avoiding depression.”
“I was thinking that since you’re still in the hotel, we could make a trade.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Could I just have it, then?”
Wilson’s gaze went to the ceiling and then finally came back to House. “I’m not giving you Grace’s apartment.”
“You’re not going to use it if you don’t.” He arranged the pillows for more comfort. They were nice; filled with feathers. “You’ve had this place for over a year. I know you like to hold onto mementoes, but this is ridiculous.”
“Since when are you in a position to give me advice about letting go of the past?”
“I’m just returning the favor.”
Crossing his arms over his chest and looking away, Wilson said, “I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it.”
“I hear that living in a place of your own is a pretty good idea.”
“I can’t –”
“Why not? You can’t live here, you can’t get rid of it, you can’t stay in the hotel – pick the least of the evils and learn to deal with that.”
Wilson scoffed. “Right. Because moving into your former patient’s apartment that she gave to you after you slept with her is the first step on the road to perfect mental health.”
“It’s a start.”
“Are you actually concerned about me, or are you just angry that I kept this place secret from you and you couldn’t tell?”
Wilson always did ask the least relevant questions ever. House picked at the bedspread. “You should know me well enough to know how I express concern.”
“Forgive me for wanting some demonstration of actual human emotion.”
House narrowed his eyes and pushed himself up. “Would it help if I told you that I know it’s not good for you to keep staying in the hotel, psychologically or financially, and that a place of your own might be called for? There, I said it. Is that what you needed?”
Wilson tilted his head to the side. His voice seemed carefully controlled to remain neutral, although House could see the flickerings of a smile shimmering somewhere between crows’ feet and laugh lines. “Like you said, it’s a start.”
“When are you moving out of the mausoleum?”
Paperwork made Wilson stupid. That was a proven fact. House lobbed a few paperclips at the man’s head in the hopes of stimulating brain activity. From his supine position on Wilson’s low couch, though, it was hard to get the velocity he wanted.
“The one-bedroom memorial tribute to She Who Must Not Be Named.”
Wilson glared and pinged a few clips back at House. “Amber was not Voldemort. Not even close. You’re closer to Voldemort than she was.”
“Well, that goes without saying. I was better than her at everything; it stands to reason that I’d be better than her at evildoing.”
A few more clips were sent House’s way; the one that caught him on the ear stung.
“She’s been gone two years,” Wilson said, “and still you’re competing with her. You need help.”
“I got help,” House retorted, and watched the guilt march through Wilson’s eyes at the reference back to Mayfield. “It’s been two years, and you still haven’t moved on. You’re the one who needs help.”
Head bowed, Wilson shuffled some of the papers on his desk. “I’ve moved on; I’ve dated. So sue me if I don’t want to move out of my home.”
“Your home? What in that place is yours?”
Wilson looked up abruptly, annoyance flushing his features. “Everything in there is mine.”
“Yeah.” It wasn’t that Wilson couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It was that Wilson liked to walk around glasses-free, half-blind, so he couldn’t see the forest, the trees, the trunks, or the leaves, just a pleasant, soothing blur of green and brown. “Who bought the dishes you use every day?”
“Well, Amber, but –”
“Who bought the furniture?”
“I bought, um…”
“Who picked the color of the walls? The art that’s on the walls? The towels in the bathroom?” Wilson’s head had sunk low over his desk. “Who bought the welcome mat outside the front door?”
Wilson looked up defiantly. “We don’t have a welcome mat.”
“We.” House’s leg was hurting a lot today; it took him longer than he was happy with to get off the couch. “Yeah, you’ve moved on.”
Almost to the door, Wilson’s voice called him back. “How long have you been in your apartment?”
House turned to explain to this poor, stuck fool. “That’s different. It’s mine.”
Wilson was wearing his ‘teaching a lesson’ face. Good God, that face sucked. “You lived there with Stacy.”
“I lived there before Stacy; I lived there with Stacy; I lived there after Stacy. Because the apartment is mine. My stuff, my arrangement, my life.”
“My apartment is mine,” Wilson retorted, and House had to roll his eyes.
“Her stuff, her arrangement –”
“My life.” Wilson sighed and straightened the folders on his desk again. “I don’t think I want to move on.”
House shook his head and went off to bug Cuddy.
“James, what’s this?” Sophia had appeared at Wilson’s elbow, holding a stapled sheaf of paper.
“Hi, honey. Let me see it.” Wilson set aside his laptop and took the papers from his stepdaughter. Oh. He’d tucked these into the back corner of a file cabinet where he’d thought they’d be safe. “This is the deed to an apartment. Where did you get it?”
“Mom told me to give it to you. What’s a deed?”
As she pressed closer to him, Wilson pushed his chair back from the dining room table so that she’d have room to climb on his lap. She took him up on his unspoken offer– he found her willingness to cuddle in his arms even though she was “all the way as grown up as ten” to be one of her most endearing qualities – and settled down before tugging the deed away and looking at it again.
“A deed,” Wilson explained, “is the proof of ownership of a piece of real estate, in this case, an apartment in Princeton.” He paused for a moment, smiling at Sophia as she peered at the dense legal language of the document. “Where’s your mom?”
“She went in your room,” Sophia said as she put the deed down on the table. “She said a –” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Swear word when she found the, um, deed. She should get a time-out for that, right?”
Not good. Diane had obviously jumped to the wrong conclusion. Full honesty about why his previous marriages had broken up had seemed like the right thing at the time, but now it was having unintended repercussions. Wilson dragged his thumbnail through his left eyebrow. “She’s probably thinking she wants to give me a time-out now.”
“Did you say a swear word?” Sophia asked, with wonder, and Wilson had to chuckle.
“No. But I didn’t tell her that I owned this apartment, and now she probably thinks that I, um.” How could he explain this to a ten-year-old? A ten-year-old who trusted him, looked up to him, gave him love so freely it made his heart ache? “That I go over there by myself, without her.”
Sophia twisted in his lap to look him in the eye. “Do you?”
“Actually, I do. About once a month.” He sighed. “Your mom probably thinks I take friends over there, but I don’t do that. I go alone.”
“To an apartment by yourself? Why?”
A good question. He’d never been able to explain it to House, and now, looking into his stepdaughter’s eyes, he still wasn’t able to explain it. He had no words to describe the way he felt when standing in an old apartment, the security that memories gave him, remembering the happiness, the sadness, the tears, the anger, the laughter. Everything that had ever been in his heart when he’d been there would fill his heart again every time he went back.
It was too much to describe, but he was going to try. He owed it to her. He owed it to House.
“I go there because it makes me feel happy. I go there to remember the good times I had in the past, being there with someone I loved.”
Wilson closed his eyes as Sophia hugged him. “I go there because it’s where my best friend in the whole world used to live, and I want to remember all the great things about him.”