Word count: 3084
Spoilers: Everything up to Season 5, episode 5
Characters: Wilson, House
Disclaimer: Not mine
Summary: Wilson has always needed to prepare for the worst. House wants to understand why.
Excerpt: Diagnosing patients was a job. Diagnosing Wilson was a calling.
Jimmy Wilson died a thousand deaths by the time he was eight years old. There were so many ways death could happen. He hoarded the possibilities in his mind, trying not to bother his parents with his worries. They already had enough to worry about. But it was a lot to bear alone.
There were so many ways that the worst could happen. If a soda bottle fell on your big toe because you weren’t paying attention, and the toenail turned black and purple, you could die of blood poisoning. If you squeezed your eyes shut too tight, your brains could ooze out of your ears. Holding in a sneeze could make your head explode.
There were less dramatic deaths, but they left you just as dead. If you lay on your belly, watching ants vanish into a split in the driveway, your father could run you over when he came home from work. You could drown in the tub, step on a crack, you could break your own back falling out of the tree your best friend dared you to climb. There were so many ways to die... Jimmy probably hadn’t thought of half of them.
Everybody died, but he couldn’t understand why he was the only one who thought it was something to worry about. He loved his family, but they weren’t much help. His mother was usually busy--very, very busy. She had gone back to work as a CPA after Nicky’s troubles started getting worse. Jimmy didn’t understand the connection, but his father said it would take two incomes to pay for all the therapy that Nick was going to cost them. She had never been much for talking things over, but especially during tax season, neediness was not allowed.
Jimmy’s father was more sympathetic to his youngest boy’s terrors, but his typical advice was to just stop worrying. When that didn’t work, he suggested going outside to play or cleaning up his room. After Jimmy came home from school three times in a single week with mysterious and terrifying pains in his belly, his exasperated father signed him up for cub scouts as a distraction. While scouting turned out to be very practical in terms of learning how to prevent sudden death from campfires or lightning, it did little to assuage his fear that there were a thousand other ways to die.
It might have been better if he was an only child. His brothers, particularly his middle brother, didn’t help. Steven found his kid brother’s neurosis highly entertaining and was more than happy to contribute to it. Later, Jimmy would find out that Steven used the family medical reference book for inspiration. From Steven, Jimmy learned about internal bleeding, cardiac arrest, and about the infinite world of cancer. Their grandmother had died of bone cancer the previous year, and it seemed like the ultimate betrayal. Jimmy never got over the idea that his own body could turn against him.
Steven was a jerk, but Nick wasn’t too bad when he was paying attention. At fifteen, Nick was clinically “troubled,” according to his psychologist. Nick dressed in black, disappeared for long stretches at a time, and quoted poetry at the dinner table that Jimmy didn’t understand and his parents didn’t appreciate.
“Existentialism is passé, Nicholas,” his mother told him, while passing the casserole. “You were born too late.”
Jimmy had no idea what she was talking about. There were things about Nicky that Jimmy wouldn’t understand for a long time. But there were things about Jimmy that Nick understood that nobody else did. Nick knew that bad things happened. Pretending otherwise didn’t change a thing.
His fears were fully realized one bright September afternoon. The weather was already starting to turn, but it was warm enough that the three Wilson brothers could still walk home from school. At eight years old, he wouldn’t admit it, but Jimmy liked walking home with his older brothers. Even though he didn’t know it then, their walks would be soon coming to an end. Nick would leave home for the first time before the year was over, Steven would discover girls, and Jimmy would be driven everywhere by the new babysitter his parents hired to make sure that he didn’t turn out like Nick.
But that September day, Jimmy still had his brothers, and it was on one of those nondescript walks home that it happened – what the Wilson family later referred to as the “oleander incident” even though only Nick and Jimmy really knew what that meant.
Oleanders didn’t grow well in New Jersey. They didn’t like the cold. However, an older neighbor named Margaret Bradbury, originally from California, had struggled mightily to coddle an oleander bush through several New Jersey winters. Jimmy could never figure out why nice, old Mrs. Bradbury had gone to so much trouble to nurture a deadly plant. Oleanders were poisonous. Before his parents knew better than to try and scare him, they had given him a whole list of poisonous substances to stay away from. Oleanders were on that list, courtesy of Mrs. Bradbury’s prize specimen.
But there was something about that bush that called to him every time he walked by. Later he would consider it forbidden fruit, but at the time, he just thought of it as pretty. Jimmy knew he wasn’t supposed to touch it, he didn’t want to touch it, but even as a cautious eight-year-old boy, sometimes his body did things that were out of his control.
The oleander was still covered with white flowers. Jimmy liked flowers, he always had, and every time he passed by the oleander, he made himself chant: don’t touch, don’t touch, don’t touch… His chant had always worked well, until it didn’t.
That afternoon, Jimmy’s hand didn’t pay any attention to his chant, and without warning, his fingers reached out and plucked a perfect white flower. A drop of sap bled from the cut stem. Forgetting himself, Jimmy touched the drop and licked his finger clean. Forbidden fruit.
And he knew he was going to die.
He started screaming while holding his treacherous index finger as far away from his mouth as possible. For once, his brothers actually bothered to turn around.
“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” Steven sounded mildly interested.
But Jimmy couldn’t answer. He could taste the sap on his tongue. It was bitter--a demonic twin of honey. Jimmy collapsed onto the sidewalk, skinning his knees, and started to retch. Nothing came up, but the back of his throat felt sour, and his vision blurred. His heart felt like it was pounding through his chest. It was so unfair. After being careful for so long, it only took one lick to kill him.
He hoped it wouldn’t hurt to die. He wondered what nothing would feel like. He couldn’t imagine what the world would be like without him. Jimmy was too scared to cry.
Nick dropped his backpack and crouched beside him.
“Jimmy, calm down. Are you sick?”
He didn’t want to answer. Saying the words – I’m poisoned—would only seal the deal. He felt a hand on his back. It was Nicky’s, which would have been thrilling under different circumstances. Ordinarily, Jimmy lived for his big brother’s attention …
“I’m dying,” he managed, only because Steven was kicking at his hip impatiently.
“Not again,” Steven moaned, and Jimmy managed to land a kick of his own at his brother’s shin. “Hey, quit it. You’re not dying if you can kick that hard.”
“Shut up, Stevie,” Nick said. “Run home and call Dad.”
Jimmy could hear feet moving against loose gravel. Steven was gone, and the warm hand was still on his shoulder. Nick was staying with him. It was good that he wasn’t dying alone.
“Open your eyes, Jimmy.”
It was an order. Nick didn’t give too many orders, so Jimmy risked obeying this one. Opened one eye and then the other. He half-expected the world to be swallowed in shadows, but everything looked almost normal. If it weren’t for the fact that he was dying, it could have been any old day.
“Okay, tell me what this is about.”
“Oleander.” Jimmy could barely say the word, astonished that his throat hadn’t closed up already. He couldn’t bear to look at the wretched bush sitting so innocently in its clay pot.
“Okay. Oleander. I still don’t know what’s wrong.”
“I think I ate it.”
Nick started to laugh. “Why the hell would you eat an oleander?”
Jimmy let out another wail, the tears finally escaping down his cheeks.
“Hey, okay, okay. I’m sorry. Do you mean you just touched it?”
“No,” Jimmy sobbed. “I didn’t just touch it.”
“Even if you touched it, it’s probably the sap that’s the dangerous part.”
Jimmy could feel his hysteria mounting, his worst fears confirmed.
“The sap, I touched the sap!”
“What did you do -- lick it?”
Jimmy only cried harder.
Nick started laughing again. “Okay, I’m sorry. But why would you lick an oleander?”
“I don’t know!” Jimmy really didn’t know why. Nothing he did made sense all the time.
Nick stopped laughing and quieted down. He had that look on his face, which usually meant he was using his impressive brain to solve a problem and not just to brood. It had been a while since Jimmy had seen him like that. Usually Nick was just sad and angry.
“Tell you what,” he said after a couple agonizing minutes. “I figured out what you should do. Do you want to live, Jimmy?”
Jimmy nodded as hard as he could.
“So let’s say you’re poisoned. I need you to stop crying and listen. Are you listening?”
“I am.” Jimmy was listening as hard as he could. It gave him a break from not dying.
“We need to get the poison out. So I want you to spit fifty times. Can you do that?”
Jimmy could. He was good at spitting. It took more spit than he thought he had, but he managed to spit fifty times. Nick watched him do it with a curious look on his face, but he wasn’t smiling.
“I feel a little better,” Jimmy admitted.
Nick did smile. “Good. Okay you got most of the poison out, but there still might be a little left. Can you stand up?”
Jimmy stood up, carefully avoiding the puddle of spit. He felt shaky but he still wasn’t dying. He looked to Nick expectantly.
“All right, watch me. Stamp your feet just like I do. We need to get all the poison out of your blood and into your toes.”
Jimmy started stamping but asked, “But won’t it hurt my toes?”
“Toes are tough. They can handle it.”
They both marched in place for a few minutes. Some other kids walked by, looking at them strangely, but Nick explained nonchalantly, “He licked an oleander.” Nick never cared what anybody thought of him.
Jimmy stopped stamping. He had stopped crying a while ago, even though his breathing hitched every now and then.
“Better?” Nick asked.
“I think the stamping helped.”
“I’m sure it did.” Nick sat on the curb and patted the spot next to him. “Let’s talk.”
“Don’t you think we should go home and tell Stevie before he calls Dad?”
Nick snorted. “I’m sure Steven’s forgot all about it. I want to talk to you before we go home.”
“Okay.” Jimmy wasn’t sure why but he felt a little overwhelmed. He wasn’t used to having Nick’s attention all to himself.
“You’ve been scared of all sorts of things lately. I know what you feel like, and no matter what Stevie says, you’re not crazy. But we need to talk about what we’re going to do about this.”
“Mom says that worrying doesn’t help anything, so I shouldn’t worry.”
“Yeah, that’ll work.” Nick sounded bitter again. “We’re not talking about Mom. We’re talking about you. And you’re going to worry until you have a plan. It’s just the way you are.”
“Is that bad?” Jimmy asked. He wiped his tongue on his sleeve for extra insurance. “Dad says I should think about happy things.”
“Dad doesn’t know everything, and that’s stupid advice. You need to be in control. Thinking happy thoughts isn’t going to do a thing for you. So Jimmy, listen. This is what I want you to do. When you’re worried about something, you need to think about the worst thing that could happen. Then I want you to break the worst thing into little pieces. Write it down if you need to. Just like today. The next time you lick an oleander, you’ll know what to do, so you don’t have to be scared any more.”
“There’s a lot of ways to die, Nicky.”
“Yeah, but you’re smart. You’ll figure a way around most of them.”
That made sense. Jimmy did feel better, a whole lot better. And he wasn’t dead yet.
“You ready to go home?”
He was. They stood up together. As Nick heaved his backpack over his shoulder, Jimmy was suddenly overcome by the need to hold onto his brother. Wrapping his arms around Nick’s waist, he held on as long as he could. Nick let go first. Jimmy was always the last to let go.
“Prepare for the worst, Jimmy. You’ll be all right.”
House glanced up in surprise as Wilson shoved through his door. Wilson had only been back at work for a few days, and it was still kind of a heady feeling to have him in and out like he owned the place. House had to smirk at the eternal question of exactly who owned whom. He’d never admit it to Wilson, but it was obviously up for grabs. Things were right between them again.
But House was concerned to see that Wilson looked angry. Before Amber, an angry Wilson wasn’t a bad thing. Made life interesting. It had been a revelation to find out that a happy Wilson wasn’t all that boring after all. Keeping Wilson happy made for a bright and shiny new pastime.
Wilson had a manila envelope in his hands, and he slammed it down on House’s desk.
“What the hell is this?” Wilson demanded, putting his hands on his hips.
“Somehow, I don’t think ‘envelope’ is the answer you’re going for.”
“Damn it, House, tell me how you knew about this.”
What a great way to end a boring day. Gleefully curious, House upended the contents of the envelope. A handful of mostly dead flower petals fluttered onto the desk.
He reached for one, but Wilson grabbed hold of his wrist. “Don’t. They’re poisonous. Oleanders.”
“Secret admirer?” House asked casually. “Someone torn between killing you and wooing you?”
Wilson let go of House’s wrist and closed his eyes. “House, for once I need the truth. Did either you or the hack you hired to follow me have anything to do with this?”
“Lucas is not a hack. He may be inept and incompetent, but he is definitely not a hack.”
“He told you I was a drug addict. And he had no idea that Cuddy was adopting a baby.”
“All right, he’s a hack. But why would he send you poisonous flowers?”
Wilson flopped himself down in the chair across the desk. House was tempted to smile. It was the first time since “the chair incident” that Wilson had sat down in House’s presence without doing a careful inspection of the chair beforehand.
“It’s a long story.” Wilson gestured rather dramatically. “An old story that I thought maybe he’d somehow gotten a hold of.”
House’s day was getting better and better.
“Got time,” House said. “And I like old stories.”
Wilson managed a smile. “I was sure… I thought it had to be you.”
“It usually is,” House agreed.
“It’s just that I haven’t thought about oleanders for so long. I’d really forgotten the whole thing until your father’s funeral. You said I had to prepare for the worst, which is what he said, and I guess that’s what brought it all back. But I don’t know how you could have known that because I never told anyone about that, and Nicky—”
“Your brother?” House leaned forward. He knew next to nothing about Nick Wilson, the long lost brother. If only Wilson would forget himself and give something away… it had always driven House crazy to not know everything about Wilson.
“But why now, after all this time? It just doesn’t make any sense. It has to have something to do with me coming back to Plainsboro again. I don’t know how Nick would even know. Mom, maybe. Did I tell you that she’s been talking to him all this time? They’ve been sending him money.”
“You didn’t tell me,” House said casually, not wanting to interrupt the stream of Wilson’s consciousness. This was Wilson at his most preoccupied, and therefore most interesting. House needed only to sit back and take it in.
“It’s got to be Nick,” Wilson said. “It’s funny. I’m not sure if he’s warning me or congratulating me. Maybe both. Huh. I know Mom wasn’t happy about me coming back to work here. She says that you’ll be the death of me.”
“She’s probably right.”
“Probably. I wonder if she said the same thing to Nick.”
“Wilson.” House leaned forward. “Why the hell did your brother send you poisonous flowers?”
Wilson looked up, with an expression that House hadn’t seen before. He swallowed. Then, Wilson swept the petals into the palm of his hand. Frowning, he stroked one of the flowers and promptly stuck his finger in his mouth.
“And why the hell are you licking the poisonous flower? Some sort of brotherly death wish?”
“Something like that.” Almost provocatively, Wilson licked his bottom lip. “Sometimes, you have to take a chance, House.”
“A chance on what? Death?”
“Nope. On life. Maybe that’s what Nick was trying to tell me. Sometimes, people do change.”
With a smile that was damn near enigmatic, Wilson let the dead petals fall out of his hand and into the trashcan by the desk.
“See you tomorrow, House.” He waved diffidently. And then he was gone.
House leaned back in his chair, staring at the blank whiteboard across the room. Diagnosing patients was a job. Diagnosing Wilson was a calling. Dead oleanders weren’t much to go on, but it was a start. House wouldn’t be using Lucas for this one.