Title: Nothin’ Else Matters in this Whole Wide World (the Jersey Shore Remix)
Summary: Once you learn how to swim, you never forget.
Fandom: House MD
Character(s): James Wilson, Peter Wilson
Original Story: Down the Shore by mer_duff
Note: Title is from Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl".
He hears the phone ringing from inside when he jogs up to his door, and fumbles at his pockets, searching for his keys. He finally finds them as his own recorded voice starts playing, reminding the caller to leave a message. He runs inside and grabs the phone before the beep, gasping a breathless greeting into the mouthpiece.
“Peter!” It’s his mother. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” he replies, wiping his forehead with his armband and feeling oddly disgruntled. “Mom, how are you?”
There’s a pause over the line and then his mother says, her voice sounding small, “Peter honey, something’s happened.”
Suddenly, the world narrows down to his conversation as he hears the heavy worry in her voice, his kitchen suddenly tiny and suffocating, his sweaty fingers curled tightly around the handset. His heart starts thundering in his chest.
It’s Dad, he realizes. Something’s happened to Dad.
“It’s James,” his mother says instead. “He needs you here.”
The viewing is on Saturday, and Peter wakes up in his parents’ house to pale, late-winter sunlight, the plants in his window box poking out fresh green shoots, and the sound of James retching in the bathroom next door.
It’s the same bathroom they shared as kids, and as he pads down the hall towards it, he feels the same sense of dissonance that has been trailing him since he arrived here. The house is just the same as it always was, the same worn carpet on the stairs, the same faded wallpaper, and yet everything is different, his bed too small, the doorways too low, his parents old and tired. In the past, it would have been Michael in the bathroom, nursing a hangover, but now it’s James who is hunched over the toilet, on his knees, struggling with something more bitter than alcohol, heaving up his grief.
Peter pushes the door open with a crack to see James leaning his forehead against the side of the toilet, eyes closed, looking exhausted. Peter hovers outside the room for a moment with indecision, but James doesn’t open his eyes or move to acknowledge him, so after a moment he leaves.
She doesn’t look like she’s sleeping. Peter has never understood why people say that. Her hands are too perfectly positioned over her stomach, her body too still, her expression too serene. He can understand why James wouldn’t walk up to see her with them. Later, when he looks at the photos of her on a nearby table, he sees one where she’s smirking mischievously at the camera, her eyes a bright, beautiful blue, and wishes he had gotten the chance to know her. He wonders when James will be able to talk about her again, when the thought of her would stop causing him pain.
He doesn’t know anyone at the funeral home, save Dr. Lisa Cuddy, who he remembers is James’ boss. He goes over to introduce himself and she stares at him blankly for a long moment before blinking and taking his hand.
“Yes, yes, I remember,” she says. “Peter Wilson, it’s good to see you again.”
“I only wish it would have been under better circumstances,” he says, noting the worry darkening her eyes.
She nods tiredly and excuses herself to pay her respects to Amber’s parents, and then he’s alone again. It’s too hard to look at Mr. and Mrs. Volakis, with the tight lines of sorrow at the corners of their lips, their muted speech, their shoulders bent inward with the heavy, aching weight of their grief. He looks for James instead, and sees him talking softly to a group of people—doctors, he guesses from the pagers on their belts. Their eyes catch and James breaks off from them to walk over to him, an unmistakable expression of relief washing over his face.
“Hey,” he says when James comes closer, gripping his shoulder to steady him. He seems shaky, like he could drift away if Peter isn’t careful. He has barely had a chance to talk to James since he’d arrived, but now, up close, he can see the dark circles puffy around his eyes, the expression on his face lost, glazed, like he’s staring out from under water. “Are you okay?”
It’s a pointless question, and Peter expects James to shrug it off as a polite courtesy, but to his surprise, James shakes his head, brings up a hand to rub tiredly over his face. Finally he says, in a shaky voice, “I have to get out of here.”
Peter sees the pain etched in his features and doesn’t even have to think yes, absolutely, anything you want. The answer springs to his lips easily. “Let’s go,” he says.
James’ car looks the same as it ever has, though he’s seeing it from a different perspective now, in the driver’s seat with James slumped into the passenger seat beside him, tight-lipped and silent. James had pushed his keys into his hand when they’d gotten to the car and he’d taken them willingly; James didn’t look like he was in any condition to drive.
As he moves to slide the key into the ignition however, he sees an old torn envelope in the cubby between their seats, with a tube of lipstick lying on top of it. The tableau startles him for a moment, makes him pause. He’s suddenly aware, as he sees himself in the rearview mirror, that he’s wearing the same suit he wore to James’ last wedding, that James’ grief is so far removed from anything he knows that he may never be able to help him.
He pulls out of parking lot and hesitates before a stop sign. “Which way?” he asks, staring at the unfamiliar roads. Now, like always, he must follow his big brother’s lead.
“Just drive east,” James says after a moment, and Peter complies, pulling out onto the road, the sun bright in his eyes.
They drive in silence for a long time, past worn-down convenience stores and old houses, images that flicker faintly in Peter’s memory. There’s something that’s been bothering him, that he’s been turning around and around in his mind, but he can’t seem to make fit. There must be a reason, he knows, and now isn’t the right time for it, but he has to ask.
“Why wasn’t House here?” He says into the silence, and even from his peripheral vision, Peter can see the way James goes oddly still next to him.
When he speaks, his voice is harder and steadier than Peter has heard all day. “I asked him not to come.”
There are things you are supposed to say in these situations, but he doesn’t know what they are. James has always comforted Peter, through scrapes and bruises and heartbreak and Peter has had no practice in this, has nothing to go on but James’ example.
“It must be really difficult—” he begins.
“Peter,” James cuts him off with an ache in his voice. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
And they fall back into silence.
Peter barely pulls into the beachfront parking spot before James is out of the car. He stares at the look of determination on James' face as he shuts the door and starts walking. By the time he turns off the ignition and pockets the keys, James has crossed the boardwalk onto the sandy beach. Peter gets out of the car and begins to follow at a slower pace, the sand hard under his leather shoes, feeling a twinge of worry at James' sudden fervor. He watches the way James doesn’t falter or slow down and realizes suddenly what he’s about to do.
He begins to run—
—but it’s too late. James walks directly into the surf and keeps walking. He stumbles at the first rush of water and falls, but then starts swimming, propelled by something stronger than reason.
Peter runs flat out after him. A small part of him winces at the thought of their expensive suits but he disregards this at the stops at the water’s edge, kicks off his shoes, and jumps in. The ice cold water is sharp and shocking, and almost takes his breath away, but he can see the dark Jimmy’s dark figure ahead of him, so he gasps in a breath and keeps going.
Jimmy was always the better swimmer, but he’s years out of practice so it doesn’t take long for Peter to catch up. He grabs at the wet fabric of James’ sleeve and pulls him back, away from the open sea, relief coursing through him. There’s a brief, terrifying moment when James struggles against him, but he holds on as tight as he can and finally James relents and they start back, heading to shore, Peter pulling him along.
They reach ground below their feet and collapse at last on the hard sand, gasping for air, soaked and shivering, the crash of ocean and James’ ragged sobs burning a memory to the forefront of Peter's mind.
Years before, during the summer his father had stopped coming to the beach with them, his mother would pile the three of them into the station wagon and take them to the shore herself. He had been still too young to keep up with James and Michael in the water, but he would try anyway, following them farther and farther past the breakers. One day, he’d gone too far and, growing tired, had decided to turn back. But for some reason, either because of the glare of the afternoon sun, or his own sudden panic, he couldn’t see the beach anymore. He turned to look for his brothers, treading water furiously, but he couldn’t see them either. There was nothing around him but cold, empty blue.
He chose a direction at random and started swimming, but he was exhausted, his arms and legs cramping up. He remembered the dead man’s float James had taught him and flipped over to his back, look up at a clear, beautiful sky and wanted to cry. He could float on forever like this, all the way out to sea, no one would ever find him—he turned back over again and tried to swim, but it wouldn’t work. He accidentally swallowed some water and started coughing, felt his chest clamping up, his vision blurring with tears and saltwater; he could barely keep his head above water. And then—there was an arm at his waist, pushing him up, pulling him along.
“You’re almost there,” James’ voice called to him, and he clung to his arm desperately, kicking hard until they finally made it back to shore. He crouched on the sand for a long time, coughing and retching, with James’ hand on his shoulder, warm and steady. James had looked him in the eye and promised, “I won’t let you drown.”