Rating: PG-13 for medical realism.
Characters/Pairings: House, Wilson; House/Wilson friendship.
Summary: In the end, what matters is how much House is willing to do.
Notes: This piece is now fully revised, expanded, and integrated into the fabric of the ‘verse. As always, thanks to resourceress7 for her indispensable research assistance and editorial skills.
House is slumped on the couch in front of Wilson's droning TV, nursing a tumbler of scotch, when he hears Wilson’s key in the lock. The door opens and shuts, and Wilson’s luggage thuds to the floor.
“Hey!” Wilson says. He’s in a good mood, oblivious to what happened in his absence. “I see you got bored while I was gone.” House doesn’t bother turning around, so Wilson moves toward the couch, already launching into a report on conference drivel. Seeing House’s face, he breaks off and shifts from convivial to concerned in point-five seconds.
“What happened?” he asks, sitting down next to him.
“Chase is in ICU with an SCI,” House says flatly, looking up from the depths of his scotch. “Occlusion of the radicular artery at L5.” He resists the urge to reach for his new, non-pranked bottle of Vicodin. Right now, it wouldn’t be for the leg. Instead, he reaches for the remote and turns off the TV. “I diagnosed the clot. Too soon to know anything else.”
Wilson nods but stays silent, inviting the rest, and House gives him a thumbnail sketch of the incident and Cofield’s inquisition.
“Chase had rigged my Vicodin to explode,” he continues. “I got the diagnosis and walked out on Cofield to get my patient treated. Patient’s wife came in the next day to add a plea in favor of my process, and Cofield was moved not to send me back to prison. He decided it was nobody’s fault.”
“Thank God,” Wilson says.
“I told him he was a coward.”
“What, you wanted to go back to…?” Wilson trails off with a frown, then his expression turns incredulous. “This is last year’s insanity all over again, isn’t it? You thought you should be punished for wrecking Cuddy’s home, and you earned yourself a year in jail. Now Chase was attacked, you feel guilty, and instead of dealing with it—”
“He could’ve died!” House snaps, slamming his hand down on the sofa’s armrest. “He’ll be a cripple for the rest of his—”
“—whereas if you’d gone to jail, the scales of justice would balance and he’d be completely healthy and able to walk?” Wilson sighs and lowers his voice. “House. Sometimes tragedies happen. And sometimes, however it offends your view of the universe, there’s no one to blame.”
“I put that patient on the diagnostic trial that caused his psychotic break.”
“You didn’t put Chase in the room with him,” Wilson says, holding his gaze. “You didn’t order Chase to bring in sharp objects. You didn’t cause that clot. And there’s at least a chance that diagnosing the clot quickly means it’s an incomplete injury. There might not even be permanent damage.” He starts to reach toward House, then reconsiders and stops himself. “Now. Logically. How is what happened to Chase directly your fault?”
“I should’ve been able to narrow down the differential without risking a psychotic—”
“I’m not defending your process to you,” Wilson says. “If he’d had a psychotic break and no one you care about had gotten hurt, you wouldn’t have given a crap.”
He stares past Wilson, imagining Chase lying in bed, betrayed by his own legs. He sees Chase’s determination to achieve some response—even just a twitch, a hint of feeling—sharpening into desperation and collapsing. He recognizes the grimace of defeat, and that futile attempt to hold back tears.
He remembers the anguish of waking to a thigh cocooned in surgical dressing, a crevasse lined with screaming nerves where most of his right quadriceps should’ve been. And then endless months of physical therapy, biting down on every stab of agony as he fought to make his fucking useless leg start to bear weight and recover range of motion, knowing it was ruined. That it would never heal, never work right again, no matter how much rehab he did or how many hopeful platitudes the physical therapist tried to sell him. And realizing, as days became weeks and months, that the pain was never going to stop. That this was going to be the rest of his life.
He closes his eyes, willing the memories away. His leg sends up a flare of warning: There is no “away.” Massaging his thigh, he refocuses on Wilson. “I told him I was sorry.”
“And he says it wasn’t my fault and he doesn’t blame me,” House says, and scoffs. “That’s the exhaustion talking. He can’t even tell a decent lie.”
Wilson’s earnestly sympathetic look refuses to go away. “Did you consider that he could be telling the truth?”
House gives Wilson a withering glare. “He may never walk again. He may never have enjoyable sex again. Hell, he may never take a dump again without—”
“And all those things would be horrible,” Wilson breaks in, “but they still wouldn’t be your fault. He chose to do that biopsy. Implicitly, he also chose to accept the risk that the patient would react violently.”
“He thought Adams was right,” House says. “If it was strep, no risk of the patient going nuts. Just a simple, stupid test to get the answer. He wasn’t thinking about risks.”
He’d been trained to generate ideas and try to prove them, and to keep going until the patient was either diagnosed or dead. Questions of personal safety didn’t factor into that process.
“That doesn’t make him less responsible for his decisions. He’s not a child you left alone with a scalpel.”
“I should’ve told them to strap the patient down.” One simple instruction, and this nightmare would never have happened. “When he didn’t have his own theory—”
“—you should have read his mind and stopped him from doing something stupid?” Wilson shakes his head. “Even you can’t predict everything, House. People aren’t equations. They do unexpected things.”
“He’s run extra tests before. This wasn’t a totally new variable I could never have seen coming.”
Wilson takes a deep breath, closes his eyes for a few seconds, then meets House’s gaze. “Look, whatever you could or couldn’t have foreseen, it happened. And sitting here, arguing in circles about whose fault it was, isn’t going to undo it.”
Nothing’s going to undo it. That’s why it’s not okay to buy into nobody’s fault and move on. Letting it go means dismissing everything Chase has lost.
Even if Chase had been telling the truth and doesn’t hate House already, he will. When the searing neuropathic pain and the deep, aching joint and muscle pain never leave—no matter if he lies still, propels a wheelchair or drags himself along on crutches. When a workday he could’ve breezed through before leaves him ready to collapse. When he’s at home alone, in pain, working up the energy to haul himself into bed. When he wakes up from yet another night of lousy sleep, thinks It’s never going to get better, and wonders if dragging himself back out of bed is worth the effort it costs him.
“He’s going to hate me. Maybe when he gets some feeling back and the neuropathic pain kicks in. Maybe when it hits him that no matter how hard he tries, his body’s never going to be normal.” He looks down at his lap. “He should hate me.”
“You don’t know he’s going to have pain,” Wilson says. “You don’t know how much he’ll be able to recover.”
“I know that at least sixty-five percent of SCI patients have chronic pain,” House says. “And I know the odds are next to zero percent that he doesn’t have permanent damage.” He reaches for his glass and drains the last swallow of scotch. He’s had enough to feel the influence of the alcohol, but probably not so much that he can’t drive home.
He considers the mostly-full bottle and pours himself another generous serving. Forget driving home. Wilson can call him a cab.
“How much have you had?” Wilson asks, confiscating the bottle and placing it out of House’s reach.
House laughs, completely without humor. “Not enough.” Alcohol’s one more thing that won’t fix this—short of drinking himself unconscious, he’s not going to feel better—but at least it’ll take the edge off.
“Uh-huh. Why do I get the feeling ‘enough’ would end with you wishing you were dead tomorrow? You need to function. You need to deal with this.”
“This is dealing,” House says tersely. “Not dealing would be getting thrown back in prison.”
Wilson raises his brows cautiously. “So you… don’t want to be thrown back in prison?”
“Of course not. I get to watch him turn into me! How could I possibly miss that?”
“He’s young. He’ll adjust, learn to cope.”
Chase is only three years younger than House was when a clot stole his leg.
“If you’re just going to lie, shut up and give me back the scotch,” House says flatly.
“What do you want me to say? That his life will never be the same? That rehab is going to be painful? That he’s going to grieve? You know that. But in the end—”
“In the end, he’ll reach the limit of how much he can recover,” House breaks in. “And then he’ll know how much he’ll never get back, how much his life is going to suck. And his idiot doctors will talk about coping.”
“Why does that make them idiots?” Wilson asks. “You can’t think he’d be better off refusing to deal with this.”
“It makes them idiots,” House says, taking another burning gulp of scotch, “because they have no clue what total lies those stupid platitudes are.”
Wilson frowns at him. “Giving him hope is a lie? Assuring him that he can still have a full life—”
“Stupid platitudes like that!” He glares at Wilson. “Those palliative pep talks you’re so good at—they’re great when people are dying. Give them sympathy and good drugs, encourage their little fantasies of poofy clouds and family reunions. Wanna take a guess why that works?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Six months, three weeks, whatever. Even if it’s excruciating, they get to come to a full and complete stop. All misery over.”
“That’s your argument? He’s not terminal, so he should be told his life won’t be worth living?” Wilson shakes his head. “Is that what you wanted to hear after your infarction? ‘The rest of your life will be absolute misery, so you might as well get used to it’?”
“False hope is insulting and useless.”
“It’ll be days, maybe weeks before it’s possible to get clear enough imaging for a prognosis. Until then, you don’t know it’s—”
“I know there was ischemia,” House says, voice low. “I know even a little cord cell death does a hell of a lot of damage. And I know what being crippled and in pain does to a life.”
There’s a silence as those facts kill Wilson’s next platitude. Finally, Wilson says, “Say you’re right and he ends up in pain, maybe in a wheelchair. All this knowledge of what he’s going through… is it just something you’re going to torture yourself with, or do you want to help?”
“He has help. There’s a whole ICU full of people whose job it is to move his legs and wipe his ass.” At Wilson’s look, he says, “I’m not you, Wilson. I don’t do kindness, patience and hand-holding.”
“Don’t you think he knows that?” Wilson asks. “If he asked you to hold his hand, you’d rule in brain involvement.”
“That’s the point! There’s nothing medical I can do for him. I suck at moral support, and I’m not what you’d call a role model for adjustment.” He levels a challenging look at Wilson. “So tell me, how am I even slightly helpful?”
“Empathy. Even if you go in there at your misanthropic worst, he knows you understand what it’s like for him to be stuck in that bed.”
“Yeah. Me and a whole support group of caring, well-adjusted new gimps,” House says.
“True,” Wilson says. “But unlike those pleasant, well-adjusted people, you know him. You care about him—and don’t even start deflecting. You have to care to manufacture this much guilt.”
House rolls his eyes at Wilson and drains his scotch. He wants more booze, but not enough to lever himself off the couch to get it. Yet.
“Look, whether or not you admit giving a damn, the question is the same. Are you going to help?”
“What does ‘help’ even mean at this point?” House demands. “Go sit in there so he can absorb my magical empathy and still be stuck in the damn bed? There’s nothing I can say that’ll—”
“Yes,” Wilson breaks in. “Go sit in there. Have a real conversation. Show him he matters enough to you that you’re doing something besides brooding in your office.”
When House doesn’t answer, Wilson says quietly, “I couldn’t fix your leg. Does that mean being there for you was worthless?”
No. Wilson had refused to be driven away, no matter how much hell House gave him. But Wilson had had the right personality, the right training, the right tangle of complexes to handle emotional fallout. “You seriously think I’m capable of being in there and not making it worse?”
“You were in there with him once and the world didn’t end.”
“Once. Briefly. And then he kicked me out.”
Wilson looks doubtful, but doesn’t call him on it.
“The longer you wait to go back in there, the worse you’re making it. For him, and for you.”
Objectivity, House, Chase’s voice says, and House releases a breath. That’s what he needs—to get a grip and start thinking with his brain.
A) Avoiding Chase isn’t feasible in the long-term. Eventually Chase will be able to transfer into a wheelchair, and from there, if he wants to see House, he’ll find a way. B), if House is going to feel guilty no matter where he is, he may as well bring his guilt to Chase’s room, where it belongs. And C), Wilson will insist on repeating this conversation every day until House decides to go in and exude empathy all over Chase.
“Fine,” he says at last. “I’ll go back.”
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