Characters: Wilson, House
Spoilers through episode 5-7
Summary: Going into a field like oncology, he had inoculated himself with death and grieving, one patient at a time so that when the real thing came along, he would be immune. Maybe House was right. Maybe this was his body’s way of telling him that it didn’t work that way.
“It’s not your heart.”
“Shut up, House.”
“Just breathe. You’re still not doing it right.”
But House always sounded pissed when he was worried, so Wilson didn’t bother pushing him away. House was always in his space metaphorically, but lately he’d been pushing into the literal, and Wilson could feel warm breath next to his cheek. Worrying had always irritated House, and he was keeping time on Wilson’s shin with the tip of his cane.
“Stop poking at me.”
“It’s not your heart. Your heart’s fine. Breathe deeper. You’re hyperventilating.”
Wilson was well aware that there was nothing wrong with his heart. The fact that it was rioting in his chest meant nothing. It was psychosomatic-- a phantom symptom of a mind that Wilson hadn’t even realized was troubled. But there it was. Every test that filled his medical file now said the same thing. James Wilson was perfectly fine, except for the fact that he wasn’t.
“Please shut up, House. I’m breathing.”
“Like a damsel in distress. Breathe like a man, or I’m going to call a nurse to start you on oxygen.”
“Don’t!” Wilson grabbed House’s arm, dead serious. “I don’t want anyone to know.”
“Then stop hyperventilating, and your dirty little secret is safe with me.”
Like anything was ever safe with House. And yet Wilson felt as safe as he had since this whole damn thing began. The door was locked, the lights were dimmed, and nobody was getting in. House had tossed both their pagers on the exam table in the room where Wilson had collapsed, and their phones were pocketed and on mute. They’d been through this before, and House apparently was learning what worked and what didn’t. Wilson tried to calm down.
And yet his heart was beating like it was trying to escape from his chest. House was right. Wilson was hyperventilating. He wasn’t about to resort to anything as humiliating as a brown paper bag, so he forced himself to take a deep breath and then another. He tried anchoring his mind on the reassuring images his shrink had suggested: walking along Jersey Shore, hiking in the forest… rainbows and puppies and happy, happy things. He was fine, just fine. There was nothing wrong, nothing to see folks, move it right along. Wilson wondered when the Xanax would kick in.
“That’s better.” House shifted even closer to him, slumping a little and adjusting his bad leg so it stretched out parallel to Wilson’s. “See? Crazy’s not all it's cracked up to be.”
“So they tell me.” Wilson reached for the glass of water House had put on the floor next to him. “A mind’s a terrible thing to lose.”
House almost looked like he was going to smile. “Oh, I don’t know. You can get a lot of mileage out of a nervous breakdown…”
As he half-listened to House list the responsibilities he could avoid by having himself committed, Wilson told himself that he was feeling better. He should feel better. He should feel fine. He was fine. They’d already run every test that Wilson’s excellent POS health insurance had authorized and the ones they didn’t authorize, House simply charged to the hospital.
“Call it a business expense,” he told Cuddy. “It happened in the line of duty.”
“He’s a doctor, not a soldier.” Cuddy had rolled her eyes, but she allowed House to run the tests he wanted, authorizing them all. They were both worried about Wilson but were trying to keep the whole mess out of the rumor mill. It wasn’t easy.
Wilson’s first collapse had taken place post-op after the double mastectomy of a sixteen-year-old girl. It had been an unusual case and one that the press had sensationalized. The girl’s mother was good for giving tearful interviews and had brought along a cameraman and reporter to find out how the surgery had gone.
House later swore that the whole thing was Cuddy’s fault for letting them in. Wilson had dealt with the press after the bus crash, when the local media had deemed Amber’s death the most tragic of the fatalities. She was young and beautiful and in love, and the local media had pursued Wilson relentlessly for weeks, vying for an interview with the grieving handsome doctor. Wilson had declined politely again and again until he finally called his lawyer, and then they went away. He had handled it fine when it was about Amber. For some reason though, this time, the camera crew took him by surprise.
“Dr. Wilson? How did the surgery go? Can we get a statement? The mother has signed a consent form for you to talk to us.”
They were in his face, and it caught him off guard. He took a step back and then another. He had blood on his scrubs. There were lights, and there were cameras, but all the action in the room seemed to tunnel into nothing as bright pain splintered outward from the center of Wilson’s chest. He was dizzy, light-headed. His heart was pounding, pounding, pounding… too fast. It could be V-tach, V-fib, and then he was going down. He was gone.
Not much later, Wilson opened his eyes to heart monitors beeping cheerfully and House glaring down at him.
“Always knew you’d die of a broken heart. I’ve already ordered all the tests. Nothing’s showing up yet on the monitors.”
Wilson knew all that was synonymous for, “How are you feeling?” but that was just House.
His heart rate had been racing when they’d brought him in, and it hadn’t even taken House’s bullying to keep him hooked up to a heart monitor for twenty-four hours. Even after he woke up, he was having symptoms – he was alternately lightheaded, dizzy, nauseous, embarrassed, and terrified. But it was awfully reassuring to watch the monitor. Wilson believed in those numbers. His faith in medicine had served him well, except for what had happened with Amber, but that was over. It was getting easier and easier to live with her loss. He was sad much of the time, but it was getting better. House would figure out this heart thing, and he’d be fine.
But nothing showed up. Nothing. House consulted with Hollers, Princeton’s head of cardiology and Wilson found himself hooked up to a state of the art home monitoring system, complete with a phone that transmitted his status to the “mother ship” as House put it. House ordered every test: stress echo, ECG, MRI, multiple chest x-rays and put him on an unnecessary regime of beta blockers, aspirin, and even a bottle of fish oil supplements. Wilson had done an exaggerated double take at the fish oil, considering that House frequently derided such supplements as “voodoo.”
House had shrugged. “There’ve been studies…”
But it was all for naught. Test after test said the same thing - Wilson’s heart was fine.
House griped, “All that fuss, and they can’t find a damn thing wrong with you. You even ended up on the news. ‘Tragic figure in Princeton bus crash collapses, news at 11:00.’ Keeps them coming back for more. Drama queen…”
But House had still looked worried, which didn’t make Wilson feel better. Something was definitely wrong, even if it wasn’t his heart.
He’d lost track of how much time they’d already spent holed up together. Next to him, House fidgeted, yawning, but Wilson knew he was anything but bored. Still, he felt like he should apologize.
“I feel stupid. I can’t believe that my brain still thinks this is real.”
“You should feel stupid. The head of oncology presenting with a mundane anxiety disorder. What are you going to tell the real sick people?”
“You don’t know what it’s like.”
“Hello? You’re talking to me. Dying all the time? Last minute resurrections ring a bell?”
Wilson snorted. “Yeah, but your dying never bothers you. It only bothers everyone else.”
“You’re not dying.”
House was right. Wilson was not dying; he wasn’t even in any known danger. But his body’s adrenaline was real, and it had been a wild ride. Fight or flight didn’t even begin to explain it. One way or another, he’d never felt anything like it. Wilson had experienced mild depression after his divorce. He had lost himself in grief a while after Amber and had spent many sleepless nights worrying over House, but that was nothing compared to this.
“I’m feeling fine now,” he said.
“Better but not fine.” House reached for Wilson’s neck, making him flinch, but then pressed his fingers against the carotid. “Your pulse is still too fast but not so ADD this time.”
“Good to know.” House smirked, and Wilson smiled. None of this was funny, except for the part that was.
Wilson noticed then that House had turned off every light except the banker’s lamp on his desk. It was dim and kind of comforting. He was glad he’d brought it from Amber's apartment when he moved back in. He'd tried for a British library look but never quite made it work, what with the stuffed animals and other patient keepsakes that had already piled up on his desk. But his office was his refuge.
House’s arm was lying on the back of the couch just behind his head. It was casual but intimate, and it made Wilson feel better.
“So, what does that ass of a shrink say you’re supposed to do about this? Light some soy candles and think happy thoughts?”
Wilson wasn't about to tell House how close that was to the truth. House seemed to hate Dr. Evans for no good reason that Wilson could think of, other than the fact that the psychiatrist seemed to be their last resort. House had tried everything else first. After all the tests with cardiology, House had Foreman run another CT to check for lesions or tumors. House had wanted to send Wilson over to immunology, but Wilson flatly turned that idea down and also refused to enter a trial for waking sleep disorders. That left little but exploring psychiatry, which was as good as admitting defeat, as far as House was concerned.
“Nothing Dr. Evans can do about it,” Wilson said. “Anxiety disorders are hard to treat. He says we need to give it time.”
“So what set it off this time? A dying saint? Can’t be that accountant you’re treating for lymphoma. She’s more of a bitch than Amber was—” House stopped short, almost looking guilty. He’d gone too far. It had been a while since House went too far. House was still being careful with Wilson, especially since this had begun.
“Go to hell,” Wilson said lightly, also being careful.
He actually didn’t know what set this attack off. He’d been walking down the hallway on the third floor, all by himself, reviewing charts. He’d passed by the trauma bay, and suddenly the lighting seemed too bright, but it was only in his head and his heart was beating so fast that he felt himself starting to fall. He managed to drag himself into an empty exam room, and that was when he called House. “Need you.” That was all he could get out over the phone, but it was enough.
“Sorry,” House muttered. “Old habits.”
Apologizing was new, definitely not an old habit. But Wilson nodded, too tired to push for more. After the initial rush was over, he always ended up bone-tired like he’d been after Amber died.
“I just found a guy on Youtube with this amazing voice but his looks... not so good. He’s competing on Norwegian Idol.” House was offering up another apology.
“There’s a Norwegian Idol?” Wilson was interested despite the fact that all he wanted to do was to sleep for days.
“Yeah. You’ve got to see this guy. He really can sing.”
“So he's ugly but talented?”
“Something like that.”
“I guess life is fair sometimes.”
“Not fair enough.” It was House’s turn to look away.
True. This didn’t seem fair. They didn’t need this. Dr. Evans couldn’t explain why it was happening now but had linked it to a predisposition for depression. Mental illness ran in Wilson’s family on both sides. Evans believed that with the new meds, the attacks would fade over time but it might come back when Wilson was stressed. In his line of work, it wasn’t an encouraging prognosis.
“I really should get up. I’m breathing fine.”
“Sit. Lie down. Do whatever you need to, but you’re not getting up. You almost passed out on me last time you tried.”
“House, this isn’t a cardiovascular condition. My brain’s just making it up.”
“It’s not cardiovascular. Doesn’t mean it’s not real, Doctor Wilson. I would think the world-renowned head shrink would have told you that.”
“Doctor Evans has been over it with me. And please don’t stalk him. The man’s actually been helpful.”
House held up his hands in mock surrender. “My stalking days are well behind me. Fired Lucas, so you know. And if you’re happy –”
Wilson pointed a finger. “Don’t start with that again. Just don’t. It was upsetting the first time you said it.”
“Just know that I’m not doing biofeedback with you, and I’m not holding your hand while you hyperventilate. It’s bad enough that I’m supposed to ‘acknowledge and accept your fears.’”
Wilson actually smiled. “You read the pamphlet.”
“And I’m not talking about your feelings.”
“But I don’t mind talking about your symptoms.”
This was what they’d settled on. Talking about Wilson’s symptoms was the new protocol. Once Wilson said them out loud, then they could both let them go. It came dangerously close to talking about feelings, but it seemed to work better than anything else had, up to that point.
Wilson sighed. He really didn’t feel like talking this time, but House was whacking him on the shin again to make him start.
“Racing heartbeat, that’s the worst. It feels like it should be an arrhythmia, even if it isn’t. Muscle constrictions, tingling around my eyes.”
“Is that new?”
“No. Just didn’t want to talk about it before.”
“Idiot. Keep going.”
“I start sweating and getting cold and then I feel lightheaded and –”
“That’s when you feel like you’re going to pass out.”
“No, that’s when my stomach hurts. I can’t breathe.”
“Your stomach hurting and breathing shouldn’t be connected.”
“You’re the one who wanted to hear my symptoms.”
House nodded, pulling the curve of his cane under his chin. He was staring but not at Wilson.
“Time slows down, but it’s going too fast. I can’t get enough time. I feel like I’m going to die.”
“Slow and deep. You’re breathing too fast again.”
“I feel like I’m stuck in a loop. Fear of fear…”
“But now that you know what’s causing it, that’s got to help.”
“It’s like skydiving and half way down, you realize you left the parachute on the plane.”
“Like you’d ever go skydiving!”
“I’ve been skydiving. In college. I went with friends.”
“Seriously?” House looked impressed. “You’re afraid of heights.”
“Yeah well, so much for facing my fears. Obviously it didn’t help.”
“It’s helping. This one didn’t last as long as the others.”
Wilson supposed he was right, but it felt wrong. It felt like it had been an eternity.
House was still thinking. Wilson could tell by the tapping of the cane. His thinking always had that certain rhythm. “Maybe it’s not your head. Maybe it’s real after all.”
Wilson looked up in surprise. This was House in all his diagnostic glory, but it wasn’t like there was anything interesting to solve this time. Every physical cause had pretty much been eliminated. Wilson was grateful for the company, but he wasn’t even sure why House would bother giving his case this kind of time.
“Do you still think it’s a heart issue? Maybe an electrical problem?”
“Not your heart. There was no sign of any arrhythmia. I think it’s more like your body is remembering something it’s been trying to forget. Kind of like a muscle memory.”
“It mimics a heart attack, but I’ve never had one. How could my body remember something it’s never been through?”
“No. But you have had a broken heart. Your body doesn’t know the difference.” The way House said “broken” would have sounded mocking to anyone else, but Wilson grabbed the tapping cane to still it.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think this is a panic attack. I think it’s something more like posttraumatic stress. Your body is reliving something you already went through.”
“Evans is sure that it’s a textbook anxiety disorder.”
“Evans is an idiot.”
“He is not! He’s top of his field.”
“A field of idiots.”
“Besides,” Wilson went on. “I haven’t been through any trauma.”
He cut himself off, realizing how ridiculous a statement that was. His heart even beat a little faster, as if rebuking him. When he closed his eyes, he could still see Amber looking at him before she died. He hated thinking about her like that and tried hard not to.
As it happened so often, House echoed what he’d been thinking. “Nothing says trauma like pulling the plug on your dead girlfriend.”
Wilson glared, definitely breathing too fast again. “Who told you that?”
“Nobody told me. Obviously I read her chart. You called time of death. But I never heard more…how it happened.” House tapped his fingers on the sofa cushion to a tune only he could hear. It was a sign that he wasn’t thinking any more, just listening. Wilson knew it was as much of an invitation to talk as he was ever going to get from House.
Wilson hadn’t talked about Amber’s actual death to anyone. Not to Dr. Evans, not to Amber’s parents, not to the grief support group he’d attended for the first few months after her death… not to Cuddy or his mother or even to Cameron who might have understood, because she was the one who had carried out her husband’s living will.
Wilson had talked about his feelings plenty -- his grief, his regret, the loneliness that never really went away. But as far as Amber’s actual time of death… he had never even talked about that with himself. For some reason though – he wasn’t sure why—he suspected this might be a good time to start.
Slowly, he began, starting with the basics. “Amber was in a coma. I woke her up to say goodbye. Cuddy said it was the right thing to do.”
“Pretty damn easy for her to say.” House did not look happy.
“I told her about the tachycardia, the V-fib, how it led to renal failure. She would have been a great diagnostician, House. She put it all together. The anti-virals. ‘I’m dead.’ That’s what she said. She already knew. I didn’t have to tell her. God, I can’t talk about this.”
“You don’t have to.”
“It should have been me. I should have been on that bus.”
“But you weren’t. And you’re not.”
“I wanted to be.”
They were close enough that their shoulders were touching. House was too close this time.
“What stopped you?”
“I didn’t want you to be alone.” There. He said it. He’d never even thought it before, but somehow, he’d said it out loud.
House actually looked stunned. But he covered it too late; Wilson had seen the look on his face.
“Not going to happen. I’m the one who gets first dibs on dying.”
“She wasn’t angry.” Wilson suddenly wanted House to know that. “She didn’t want to die feeling angry. She was cold. I was holding her, but she was already cold. She was tired.”
“You didn’t want to let go.”
“She said that we would always want just a little longer. I didn’t think I could do it, but I kissed her.”
“And then you flipped the switch.”
“She loved you.”
“But she died.”
Wilson could feel himself start to crumple again, but House had the decency to look away.
“I’m an oncologist,” Wilson managed after a while, still struggling. “I’ve watched hundreds of people die.”
“But this was the worst. It was too much.”
“I can’t do this again, House.”
“Everyone dies. Nobody gets off clean.”
Wilson said softly, “I guess... I guess I’m not doing as well as I thought.”
All his life, Wilson had been more afraid of grief than death. At his father’s funeral, House had said that Wilson always needed to be prepared for the worst. Going into a field like oncology, he had inoculated himself with death, one patient at a time so that when the real thing came along, he’d be immune. Maybe House was right. Maybe this was his body’s way of telling him that it didn’t work that way.
House wasn’t making any move to get up. It made Wilson feel selfish and a little greedy to keep House to himself when there was nothing really wrong with him. House should be out saving lives, but he was saving Wilson instead.
“Big scary world out there,” House said with an exaggerated yawn and stretch. “Cuddy’s gonna be out there looking for me. It’s a perfect excuse for getting out of clinic hours – I can say that I was holding hands with my insane best friend and lost track of the time.”
Wilson tried to look exasperated but couldn’t hold onto it. Amber’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, but it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.
House was sounding off again about Norwegian Idol, and Wilson laughed, listening to his friend’s off color version of the homely contestant’s song. Wilson had wanted everything to be back to normal, but maybe this was good. Maybe this was better.