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The Language of Pain, chapter one

(This is the sixth story in the Treatment series. --B)

June 11th

9:30 a.m.

When Greg opens one eye, it is to find sunlight streaming through his window. Slowly he rolls over, stretching a little, and takes a few moments to savor the lack of pain upon awakening. He still appreciates the fact that there is no sharp stab, no cramping, no hard spasm when he shifts his leg into another position.

He lies in his comfortable bed, watching dust motes float in the still, bright beams. In the past three months he's had to re-learn his daily routine. For the most part it's been a good experience. He's more active now, less chained to meds; he feels better, sharper, more clear and focused than he has in ages. And yet he cannot escape the fear that all this is temporary. He has bad dreams about finding the TENS unit unresponsive, turning up the settings until the electrodes burn him and he's in agony. When he wakes, gasping and covered in sweat, he discovers it isn't true—the pain hasn't conquered technology. But maybe someday it will, and he'll be forced into surgery; and if that doesn't work . . .

On a sigh he pushes himself up and swings his legs around, scrubbing his face with his hand. With care he stands, flexing stiff muscles and joints, and puts on his old plaid bathrobe as his empty belly rumbles.

The kitchen is silent. On the table stand a dozen half-pints of homemade strawberry jam, placed atop a folded tea towel, put there the day before to cool after processing. Greg passes them by to check the stove. Sarah's been trying to get him to eat oat bran instead of his usual cold cereals. Secretly he kind of likes the stuff; with butter, toasted walnuts and a little brown sugar it's not too bad. Outwardly he gives her a hard time of course, enjoying the snark they trade. But this morning he bypasses the pot of oats waiting to be cooked. A half-loaf of bread sits on the cutting board, face-down to keep the open end from drying out, a second testament to her recent presence.

Greg frowns, surveying the quiet cooking area. After a few moments he limps to the mudroom and looks through the back door's small window. In the bubbled wavy glass he sees Sarah sitting in her garden in the weathered old windsor chair she salvaged from someplace or other. Her back is to him, but the set of her shoulders, the downward tilt of her head, tells him she is in some kind of emotional distress.

The knowledge makes him uneasy. His first impulse is to walk away; he doesn't do well with this sort of situation. There is nothing he can say, no action he can take that will make things better or change what is; what's more, his presence has never been considered calming or beneficial by anyone. Still, he opens the door and goes into the yard, his limp a bit more pronounced because of the uneven terrain. He advances slowly, entering Sarah's peripheral vision as he perches on the tree stump used for splitting firewood. She does not acknowledge him. He doesn't take offense at this; Sarah is the only other person he knows besides Gene who doesn't feel the need to fill silence with empty speech.

Finally however, Greg is compelled to say something. "Pretty day," he mumbles, and winces at the idiocy of the remark.

"It's a beautiful day." Her voice is thickened by tears, but she sounds calm, resigned. It makes him angry.

"She's not worth this," he says, more sharply than he'd intended. "Mourning her is pointless. It won't make anything different. It won't make what she did go away."

"I'm--I didn't mean . . ." She hesitates. "I had the radio on earlier, and they played 'Twilight Time'. It was a favorite of Mom's. She always seemed almost happy, singing that song."

In the perfect recall of his aural memory he hears the Platters, the melody unwinding, slow and sweet and tender. "So she had a few molecules of human decency in her after all."

For a long time Sarah doesn't speak. "My mother had a hard life," she says at last.

Again he feels a surge of annoyance alloyed with frustration. "What the hell does that mean? She didn't get a special toy for Christmas one year and it turned her into an abusive druggie bitch who hated her kids?"

"She was abused too." Sarah wipes her cheek with the back of her hand. "There were times . . . we were never close in any way, but now and then she would get just drunk enough to loosen up, talk a little . . . she had to tell someone, I guess." She says nothing for a few moments. "After she ran away from home and got pregnant at the age of sixteen she didn't have anyone else, no friends, not ever. Dad made sure of that."

Greg thinks of his own childhood, how other mothers at whatever base they were on at the time held birthday parties and bridge nights, garden club meetings and weekend barbecues. His mom never did, nor did she attend more than a few gatherings. Dad had made it clear there was no point in getting friendly with anyone; his career came first, and that meant frequent moves. Now in retrospect it seems as though Mom simply gave up because it was easier than fighting for something she knew she'd never have anyway.

Sarah looks at him. She is not overwrought, though her sadness is palpable. "She didn't get a chance to be someone else—someone different. No one ever gave her that. Later, when she would have changed, she couldn't. I feel grief for what she never had."

"One song started all this?" he asks. Sarah looks down at her hands. In the morning sunlight her curls shimmer with red and gold sparks of light.

"It got me to thinking of her . . . just wish we could have talked one last time before she died," she says. "I would have listened, if she'd let me."

There is nothing he can say that won't be cruel or meaningless. Instead he rises and turns away, goes back to the house.

When Greg returns later it is to find the chair empty and the garden deserted. He peels off his tee shirt, loosens up with some slow windmills, then picks up the ax he brought out with him and grabs a log from the big pile by the tree stump. He sets the log on the stump, takes careful aim and splits it cleanly in half. The halves are then split again and stacked. This is a chore he's been able to take on thanks to the TENS unit, though he still has to be careful about not putting too much stress on his bad leg or standing too long in one position. At first he couldn't last past fifteen minutes, but now he can put in a solid hour and not feel like he's going to plotz. His hands are callused, he's got a bit of muscle tone in his back, shoulders and arms at least, he's no longer fish-belly white from being inside all the time—but best of all, he can lose himself in the pounding of his heart, the pumping of blood through his body, the rhythmic swing and hard, jarring thump of the ax. He's missed the way strenuous physical activity allows him to not think if he so chooses.

But he has to be honest with himself—he's out here to escape rather than work out. Roz is wiring the office and he doesn't want to be around her.

In the last month or so, something between them has changed. Well, to be fair, it's mainly his perception of her that's different, as far as he can tell. Prolonged and unavoidable close proximity has made them more familiar with each other, if not friendlier. They still trade acerbic, even cruel one-liners, but to his horror he's finding he anticipates her quick, accurate wit and fearlessness. She says things to him no one else would dare to, not even Sarah. He finds it refreshing, but he'd never tell her so.

"Hey." The object of his thoughts stands in the doorway, shading her eyes. "Sarah says come in and give it a rest, she has lunch ready."

Greg lowers the ax and wipes his arm across his forehead. "Yeah, okay."

Roz turns to go, then sneaks a glance at him. "Nice tan," she says, and gives him a cheeky grin before she disappears into the kitchen.

The radio is playing when he comes in. It's the local oldies station. Greg gives Sarah a hard stare as she takes a pitcher of iced tea out of the fridge.

"It's all right," she says without looking at him. "They play good stuff."

A few minutes later he hears the opening bars of 'Lollipop'. Sarah brings a platter of sandwiches to the counter, singing under her breath. Greg takes a roast beef on rye and catches Roz giving Sarah a sideways look full of some sly emotion he cannot fathom. Sarah glances at her, then at him, then back at Roz. She sings a little louder as she goes back to the fridge, her hips swaying in time with the music. Greg frowns at her and Roz in turn.

"What's so funny?" he asks. Roz only picks up her sandwich and takes a big bite, her eyes on her plate, but he can tell she's trying hard not to laugh. He grabs his plate and heads into the living room, aware he is being teased but unwilling to figure out exactly how. After a moment he hears the two women giggling like a couple of schoolgirls. He hunches his shoulders and turns on the tv to drown them out.

It is late afternoon, after Roz has gone home for the day, when the front door bangs open and Gene comes in, duffel slung over one shoulder. He looks tired, but he gives Greg a smile as he drops the duffel by the stairs.

"She's in the kitchen," Greg says. Gene nods and heads in the general direction indicated. As he passes the couch he pauses.

"How are your pain levels?" he asks. "Need any adjustments?"

"Oh, don't tempt me," Greg says. "Go find your wifey before my paper-thin resolve falls through." He grabs his leg. "Too late! Hand over the morphine and no one gets hurt!"

Gene chuckles and goes into the kitchen. "I mean it!" Greg yells after him. "Take me seriously or millions will perish in a horrible plague of terminal hang-nail!"

"I'll bear it in mind," Gene says. A moment later Greg hears Sarah's voice, light with happiness, and then silence. Dinner's gonna be late tonight, he thinks. Wonder if they've done it on the table yet. Now's their big chance. That means I'm eating out here though, major ew factor in play, literally.

Much later, after the welcome-home meal has been eaten and the leftovers cleared away, when shadows are slanting across the lawn, he goes to the office to inspect Roz's progress. The room's still a mess of course, but he is impressed by how much has is finished. It is more than obvious Roz knows exactly what she's doing; the work is precise, painstaking and rock-solid. When everything is ready they'll have an office of which any CEO would be proud.

Music purls through the quiet house—a tune he knows well, soft and sweet. As quietly as he can Greg moves into the living room, staying close by the stairwell so he won't be noticed, and also to see into the kitchen. By the golden light of the pulldown lamp Gene and Sarah are dancing. They hold each other close; Sarah's head rests on Gene's shoulder, while Gene holds her with long, strong arms. It should be cloyingly sentimental, this little domestic scene, but Greg knows what is happening. Sarah is making a memory to follow the one that already exists when she hears this song, a memory she can use to ease remembered pain.

In silence he leaves them, pushing away the old ache of longing he always feels when he sees couples together. He can barely remember what it's like to hold someone close, to murmur quiet words together, to know the sweetness of mutual desire, but that's no reason to intrude on someone else's moment. He goes to his empty room and closes the door, leaving the last of the light behind him.

'Twilight Time,' The Platters.

Voices Carry, epilogue

March 17th

8:30 p.m.

The Saint Patrick's Day celebration at the firehall is in full swing. It's a well-attended bash—almost everyone in the village is here, having finished off the corned beef, cabbage and colcannon and now progressed to Sarah's excellent apple cake with ginger marmalade. And beer, of course. At least it's not green, but it does have a harp on the label. Still, given the circumstances, that's not too much of a trauma to live with.

Greg is sitting in a comfortable chair in the corner, watching the pickup band. Sarah is playing piano, with Rick Hutch on guitar and someone he doesn't know playing tin whistle. They're not bad, at least they can play in time and they have plenty of enthusiasm going for them too. At the moment they're working on a boisterous version of 'Whiskey in the Jar'.

As he sips his beer Gene comes to sit beside him, folding his lean body into the chair next to Greg's. He watches the proceedings in silence, his expression inscrutable. After a while he says "Did she get out her albums?"

Greg looks at him. "The naked volleyball montage, or scenes from our secret tryst in Atlantic City?"

"No, her Irish albums," Gene says with a disappointing lack of reaction to provocation. " Black 47, Virgin Prunes, Pogues."

He shakes his head. "Nope."

"Damn, so she only inflicts them on me. Oh well. She had a lot going on this year. Maybe next time you'll get the pre-Saint Pat's ordeal." Gene tips his bottle back for a long swallow. "By the way, a trip to AC means she's just flirting with you. All her real boy-toys get a month in Cancun." He flashes Greg a grin, his dark eyes twinkling. "I've been there twice."

After Gene leaves to corral some toddlers attempting to jump off a folding chair, Greg considers what was said, trying to absorb the casual assumption that he will be here next March. He doesn't want to acknowledge any faint hope those simple words create; another year at the house probably means he'll still be in treatment. Besides, only a fool would count on anything so ephemeral. But he can't help himself. He feels the dangerous warmth of belonging deep within. He's an idiot to trust it, to give in and savor it, but in a reckless moment he goes ahead and does it anyway, what the hell. If he gets hurt it won't be anything different than what's happened before; if he doesn't, then maybe . . .

"Hey." Sarah drops into the seat next to him. "How's the leg?"

"Still attached," he says. He's been playing with the TENS settings, amazed that in conjunction with a new med regimen, the pain is still nothing more than a deep mild ache. "If you're here to get me to dance, forget it."

"How about taking over the piano for a couple of songs? I need a break and a ginger beer," she says. Greg gives her a sharp look. She glances at him, her expression relaxed and open. "You don't have to," she says after a moment. "Just thought I'd offer."

"Testing the waters?" he asks. "Seeing if lack of pain turns me into a fluffy bunny?"

"You're fine the way you are," she says, smiling a little. "Most musicians can't resist the chance to ham it up. I thought I'd give you an opportunity to show off a bit."

Maybe it really is the absence of chronic hurt. Maybe it's the beer. Maybe the moon is full and he's got excess water in his brain tissues, but he goes to the piano. It's an old beater of an upright; still, the real ivory keys feel good under his fingers, and it's in pretty decent tune. He tries a few scales up and down the board, getting the feel of the instrument and loosening his hands; then he plays a rousing introduction with the chorus melody in it to see if his fellow musicians will catch the song. It takes a few moments, but Rick nods and starts the verse after Greg vamps a measure or two.

As I went out one morning, it being the month of May

A farmer and his daughter I spied along me way

And the daughter sat down calmly to the milking of her cow

Saying 'I will and I must get married for the humour is on me now'

Others join in the chorus; there is laughter and talk mingled with the music as people drift closer to the little group of players.

The humour is on me now, oh, the humour is on me now,

I will and I must get married for the humour is on me now!

Be quiet you foolish daughter, and hold your silly tongue,

You're better free and single, and be happy when you're young,

But the daughter shook her shoulders as she milked her patient cow,

Saying 'I will and I must get married, for the humour is on me now!'

The tin whistle player takes over the singing. He has a chiming tenor voice, true and fine, and as Irish as the harp on the bottles of beer. Greg rolls his eyes but keeps playing.

'Sure who are you to turn to me, that married young yourself

and took my darling mother from off the single shelf?'

Sha, daughter dear go aisy, and milk your patient cow

for a man may have his humour but the humour is off me now!

Someone comes up behind Greg—Sarah, with ginger beer in hand. He can just see her out of the corner of his eye. Her fair face is flushed and she singing along, her clear bright alto filled with enjoyment. When her hand comes to rest on his shoulder it feels warm and gentle, the essence of their friendship; for once he doesn't flinch away. He knows she won't hurt him.

'Well, indeed I'll tell my mother the awful things you say,

Indeed I'll tell my mother this very blessed day!'

Sha, daughter, won't you have a heart, you'll start a fearful row

'So I will unless I marry for the humour is on me now!'

The crowd has the chorus down by this point and they all join in. Greg can hear Roz somewhere behind him, horribly off-key and having a great time by the sound of it.

Sha, if you must be married will you tell me who's the man?

And quickly she did answer: 'There's Liam, Pat, and Sean

A carpenter, a tailor, and a man to milk the cow

For I will and I must get married for the humour is on me now!'

Gene's strong baritone joins in on the chorus, and someone picks up a second guitar to strum along. Greg catches a glimpse of Chelsea Butterman cradled in her father's arms with her head on his shoulder, fast asleep despite the music and noise.

Well, if you must be married will you tell me what you'll do?

'Sure and I will,' the daughter said, 'the same as ma and you,

I'll be mistress of my dairy and my butter and my cow . . .'

and your husband too, I'll venture, for the humour is on you now

The musicians know the final verse and Greg joins them, making the rafters ring. It's corny and stupid and he can't help but admit he's having the time of his life, giving into the simple delight of having some silly, harmless fun.

So, at last the daughter married and she married well-to-do

And she loved her darling husband for a month, a year or two

but Sean was all a tyrant and she quickly rued her vow,

Saying 'I'm sorry I ever got married for the humour is off me now!'

Oh the humour is off me now, oh, the humour is off me now,

I'm sorry I ever got married for the humour is off me now!

[H] [H] [H]

"Were you thinking of Jim when you chose that song?" Sarah asks some time later, when they are at home sitting in front of the fire, tired but content. Gene wanders in from the kitchen, bearing a plate with a massive chunk of apple cake and ginger marmalade. He sits next to Sarah. Ignoring her sidelong glance, he picks up the cake with his fingers and takes a huge bite off the top of the slice.

"Why would I . . ." Greg sits up a little. "Who's he with?"

"Samantha," Sarah says. "She's moved in with him. He sent me a text message."

Greg is silent. The comfortable glow of the evening's enjoyment fades in the face of this news. He didn't tell me.

"Remember he's been asked not to call here," Sarah says. Gene finishes off the cake and gets to his feet.

"Stop being so admirably discreet. You don't have to leave," Greg says. Gene licks his thumb.

"I'm still getting used to sleeping in a real bed," he says. "Good night," and he is gone, headed soft-footed into the kitchen and then upstairs.

"Wilson has access to my cell phone," Greg says when he and Sarah are alone. The pain is there now, waiting patiently in the shadows. In reflex he rubs his thigh and stops when he feels the pads under his fingers. He didn't call me, he thinks. He's involved in trashing my treatment, but somehow this feels worse. I didn't expect it.

"Greg," Sarah says quietly. He won't look at her. "You may find that without your physical pain to distract you, other, older pain will come up."

A flash of something—fear, he thinks—no, it's more akin to terror--goes through him. He can feel his gut clenching hard.

"It gets easier," Sarah says. "Like telling me about the voices. It's difficult at first because the pain scares you. But it does get better. You can talk to me about anything. I'm here to listen and to help in any way I can, whenever you need me. Remember that."

Later, when he is lying in bed in the dark, his thigh a soft fluttering ache he can easily ignore, he takes the hurt Wilson tried to inflict and inspects it with caution. Why do this? And why with Sam, of all people? According to him she was a stone-cold, emotion-robbing, soul-stealing bitch. How did they meet? Couldn't have been by chance. She found him somehow, got his attention, told him what he wanted to hear . . . now they're living together. A new and disturbing thought enters his mind. They're going to get married. It's exactly the kind of thing Wilson would do. Something impulsive, something to please her . . . someone to fill the emptiness now that I'm not there. He wasn't the only one without close friends. Wilson might be able to count Cuddy, but that was more about work and schmoozing the boss than anything else, whether either party wanted to admit it or not.

He didn't call me. He doesn't need me. Greg waits for the pain to shoot up his leg and into his head, but instead he feels an odd ache in his chest. It is small but persistent, and sharp. For a few moments he wonders if it isn't angina or even an incipient coronary, but eventually reason kicks in.

So this is what Sarah meant. Trite and stupid as it sounds, this is heartache. Not that he hasn't ever felt it before, but it wasn't like this. In the past he'd been able to bury it behind other things. Now it's out in the open, stark and shivering like a naked little boy curled up in a pile of leaves under a cold, barren moon. He doesn't like it much. In fact he feels like he wants to cry; he's surrounded by sorrow and bewilderment and to his horror, a growing anger.

I can't be angry with them, he thinks. If I let myself get mad, if I resent them, I'll lose them forever, just like I lost Stacy . . . like I might have lost Mom. The rational part of him knows this reasoning is utter horseshit, but still the idea is overwhelming, even terrifying. He can't wrap his mind around it; it looms over everything, sending him into a cold panic every time he tries to puzzle it out.

Half an hour later he knocks on Sarah and Gene's bedroom door, embarrassed at what he's doing. After a few moments Sarah comes out bundled in her old bathrobe and pulls the door shut behind her, then goes downstairs. Greg follows her, ashamed of his impulse to wake her and talk.

She chooses a chair by the banked fire and waits for him to sit down opposite her before she speaks. Her soft voice is calm, reassuring without being patronizing, though she looks tired and her hair is escaping its braid in a riot of carroty curls. "It's okay, Greg. I'm listening."

He looks at the floor, his cane thumping softly on the carpet as he picks it up and lets it drop. He wants to talk, but he's afraid if he does everything will come spilling out and he'll lose control.

"Take your time. I know this can be tough." There is no unctuous undertone, no false attempt to soothe him; she is matter of fact and simple, two things he usually finds reassuring. For answer he rises and prowls around the room, ending up by the fireplace. The idea of telling her what he's feeling is a high wall he can't scale. Besides, even if he could he's not sure what's on the other side. He rubs his thigh and is astonished when a desire to rip off the electrodes surges through him. He fingers one, tempted to follow his impulse and at the same time ashamed he's even considering it.

"That kind of pain is easy," Sarah says quietly. "You can numb it with drugs or alcohol, and it takes care of the other hurt you're feeling too. But it only works for a little while, and it doesn't treat the underlying cause. It's palliative."

"I know that!" he snaps. "Why do you think I went through everything at Mayfield and here too? Just for the hell of it?"

"Why did you do it?" Sarah asks. He glares at her.

"Stupid question. My actions are self-explanatory."

"Tell me anyway," she says. He doesn't answer her, unwilling to speak about what drove him to such a desperate decision.

"Do you remember what you said to me, after your overdose?" Sarah asks finally. "You said you didn't want to hurt any more. I think that's why you came to therapy. If that's true, then talking with me about what hurts will help. I promise you, it will."

He stares into the dying fire as silence settles over them. "All of them," he says, "everyone . . . they . . . I . . ." and he cannot go on. The pain is rising, choking off his words, sitting in his chest like an unexploded bomb. He leans his forehead against the mantelpiece and watches the embers blur into a single fiery mass. He blinks, trying to send his tears back to their source. I won't cry over this, he tells himself. I won't let them down by being weak. I can't.

"What about everyone?" Sarah's tone is gentle, but not patronizing. Greg shakes his head. He cannot go further than this, he knows it. To do so is to risk falling, trying to scale that impossibly high wall.

After a time he hears Sarah get up. He flinches, waiting for her to vent her anger at his waking her for nothing. Instead she comes to stand next to him.

"It's all right," she says. "You've done enough for now. Go to bed, get some rest. We can talk tomorrow, if you like."

He turns his head to look at her. "I can't," he whispers, knowing she will understand what he's saying.

"Not right now. But maybe in the morning or after supper, or the next day, or the next," she says. "This is not a linear process, Greg. It happens how it happens. You have all the time you need to do this, and you do it in your own way." She falls silent a moment. "May I touch you?"

He gives a reluctant nod. Her hand comes to rest on his arm, that butterfly-light contact he's come to know well and maybe even like. "You've made tremendous progress since you came to treatment. You should be proud, very proud. I know I am." The emotion in her words loosens something inside him, some feeling of inadequacy or guilt, he's not sure what it is and he doesn't care. He just wants it gone.

"Proud of what?" he snarls. "Losing my job, ending up in the nuthouse, overdosing on narcotics . . . a guaranteed pathway to success, absolutely."

("You always were a fuckup, Greg. You always will be, far as I can tell. Good luck with medical school. I feel sorry for anyone who ends up as your patient. Better hope whoever hires you has a damn fine malpractice lawyer.")

"That's your father talking," Sarah says. "He was full of it. I'm the one who went to school and took all those psychology courses, not him, and I say you've worked hard to recover your sanity and sobriety. Not many people would have the strength and the courage to do what you've done. So yes, I'm proud of you. As for the rest . . ." She steps forward and gives him a lovely soft hug from behind, her slender arms holding him as if he's a prized possession; it's an amazing feeling, being cherished whether he wants it or not. "We'll work on it tomorrow, if you like. Good night."

After she has gone upstairs he sits in a chair by the fire, struggling to consider what she's said. He's way beyond tired now and his heart still aches; his head is a mass of contradictions, and it feels like the happiness he found earlier in the evening happened a thousand years ago. A part of him longs for the easy equation of drugs plus alcohol equaling numbness; he'll probably always have that desire in the back of his mind. But another, larger part of him wants the pain gone, no matter what he has to do to make it happen. Enough, he thinks at last. I'm tired of this. Just . . . enough.

When he goes to bed finally, it is to dream of an ancient wall meandering over a forested hill, and his hands stained with his own blood and smears of earth and moss as he struggles to remove the sharp-edged fieldstones, one by one.

 

Voices Carry, chapter sixteen

March 12th

2 p.m.

The drive from Newark to Hoboken is accomplished without difficulty. Gene navigates the wilds of north Jersey as if he was born there, a skill any Corridor resident would covet. After the first few minutes Greg relaxes somewhat, knowing they are in capable hands.

"Do you want one of us to go in with you for the fitting?" Sarah asks.

"No," he says without looking at her. "I'll be fine."

"I'm sure you will," Sarah says. "But you still might want some company."

He shakes his head. He doesn't want anyone else to witness his potential humiliation if the unit doesn't work.

"Okay," Sarah says. "If you change your mind, just say so."

The clinic is located in a renovated neighborhood. It's actually rather charming, but Greg doesn't pay much attention. He's focused on getting through the next hour or so with as much self-preservation as possible.

Will is waiting for them when they reach his office, much to Greg's surprise. "You didn't think I'd pass this off to someone else, did you?" The younger man gives him a grin. "No way, man. This is too important."

Greg has to pee in a cup for the drug test, but that's a mere formality. When he is ushered into the exam room he's tied in knots so tight he can barely move. The TENS unit is laid out on a tray beside the table. This is it, he thinks, and struggles to ignore the dread oppressing him.

"Pull down your jeans and have a seat," Will says, and brings over a stepstool so Greg can clamber onto the table.

"I bet you say that to all your sexiest patients." Greg unzips his jeans, tugs them down to his knees and battles the urge to cover his scar with his hand. In the cool fluorescent lighting it looks even more hideous than usual, the twisted, discolored ridges and sunken surface as prominent as ever.

"Okay if I take a closer look?" Will plunks down on a rolling stool and comes over to him, but doesn't begin the examination. Greg realizes he is waiting for permission.

"Be my guest," he says with a flippancy he doesn't feel, and looks away as Will's hands come to rest on his leg. He steels himself against a lot of aggressive poking and prodding—the usual technique most doctors employ. He even understands why they do it, but that doesn't make it hurt any less.

"Quite a bit of missing muscle," Will says quietly. His touch is gentle, palpating the areas around the incision without being intrusive or causing more discomfort than is necessary. "I can't see how you could be in anything less than major pain with this much loss." He finishes his exam and rolls over to the TENS unit, brings it back with him. "I think the best pattern to start with is one pad in the small of your back, with three arranged below and two above the scar," he says. "Once everything's in place we'll begin with the lowest settings and go from there."

A few minutes later the electrodes are set up. The sticky pads feel strange against his skin, but not unpleasant. Will turns on the unit and twiddles a few dials.

"Anything?" he asks. Greg shakes his head. "Okay, let's try this."

It happens five setting changes later. He feels a sort of slow dimming down of pain—faint but noticeable. He draws in a startled breath. Holy shit, he thinks. Did I imagine that?

"Something happening?" Will asks.

"A little . . ."

"Let's go up a notch or two."

With each change now the endless keening recedes, transmuted after a time into what seems for all the world like a muscle pull. It is amazing. There's still something there, similar to a mild strain from overuse, but it's a far cry from the agonizing dentist's-drill sensation he's endured for years.

"Why don't you give it a spin?" Will is saying. Greg slides off the table and carefully pulls up his jeans, makes a slow circuit around the room. The unit itself is small, about the size of a pager; it rides with ease on the waistband of his jeans and the leads trail down his hip, across the small of his back and along the side of his thigh. He can barely feel any of the equipment, it's light and unobtrusive. His fears of carrying around heavy, awkward bits and pieces disappear. But best of all, there is no cramping, no endless shrill burning—just a soft ache, as if he'd over-exercised his quadriceps. The limp is non-negotiable, that will never leave him, but it's not such a burden to walk now.

"Damn," Will says. "I love it when this happens." He is grinning like a fool. "How is it? How's it feel?"

"It doesn't," Greg says. A laugh escapes him, short but genuine. "It's—it's hardly there."

"Awesome. Come on," Will says. "You need to show Sarah and Gene."

The two of them are sitting together in tense silence when he comes into the waiting room. As he approaches Sarah's eyes widen. She watches him walk and begins to smile.

"It works," she says softly. "Oh, it works." She gets to her feet, and so does Gene. He is surveying Greg's progress with satisfaction.

"Time for a consult," he says. "I think we can safely say your need for my services has just been downgraded somewhat. Congratulations."

The next half hour or so passes by in a blur of talk and owner's manuals, packages with various types of pads, tubes of gel and ace bandages and a gross of nine-volt batteries. It's like sex toys gone legit, but Greg can't even joke about it, he's still in something like shock.

"You'll be tempted to overdo it for the first week or so," Will says after everything's been packed up. "So have at it—you will anyway, might as well jump right in. Learn what you can and can't do for now. Mess around, find what works. This unit's designed for a high degree of physical activity. The dials have a snap-down cover and there's a memory function for settings." He is still grinning, his dark blue eyes gleaming with delight. "I think with the amount of exercise you'll be getting we don't have to worry about further muscle loss, but we can always find you an EMS if necessary." He spreads his hands. "Any questions, any concerns, call me."

"We'll adjust meds over the course of time," Gene says. "I'd imagine your needs will fluctuate for the next few weeks, but things should settle down eventually."

"Okay," Sarah says, "that's enough for now. We can talk about details later." Her tone is gentle but firm. Greg feels a flash of gratitude for her understanding; he is overwhelmed—in a good way, but it's still all too much at the moment.

They leave the office with Will promising to check with them later on. "Dinner and a play, it's been too long. I can shuffle things around to make room in my schedule. It'll be my treat. Just let me know when you want to go."

The walk to the minivan is amazing. It doesn't hurt to take a step. There's no flinch in anticipation of a nasty stab of pain caused by every contraction of his ruined quadriceps. He isn't worried about a spasm bringing him to the ground. It is as close to a normal walking gait as he's had since the ketamine but this is better somehow, even with the ache that's left. It feels more real. He can't explain it; it makes no sense, but at the moment he doesn't care. It's like he's walking on air, both literally and figuratively. The sensation is incredible. He wants to savor it, keep it forever.

"I got us an extended weekend at the Saint James," Gene says once they're on the road. "We're in town through the fifteenth." He glances in the rear view mirror at Greg, smiling a little. "Plenty of time to rest up and do some exploring if you like."

"One thing at a time," Sarah says. "Let's get settled first."

It's a small hotel, the kind they're calling 'boutique' nowadays—funky inlaid marble floors, lots of polished wood, soft bright colors in the carpets and drapes, a surprisingly helpful and friendly staff—which makes up for the single ancient elevator and even more antiquated door-key system (there are actual keys that have to be dropped off at the desk when you leave the building, something he hasn't encountered since he was a teenager). The rooms are what can politely be called cozy, but still comfortable and clean, with plenty of cleverly-managed storage and decent amenities. Greg stows his duffle and checks out the bathroom but doesn't take in much. He is still getting used to not hurting with every step.

A quiet knock sends him to the door. It's Sarah. "May I come in?" she asks quietly. Greg moves aside to allow her entrance. He's expecting her to talk about the evening's agenda, but instead she takes a seat in a little chair by the window. He perches on the bed, watching her.

"I just wanted to let you know I'm headed over to the deli to get a few things," she said. "It's one door down, if you want to come with me."

"I'm surprised you and the Gunneymeister aren't making up for lost time," he says. Sarah laughs.

"He's out cold, poor guy." She hesitates. "You must be tired yourself."

"If you want to know how I'm feeling, ask," he says. She nods.

"Okay. How are you feeling?"

For answer he gets up and takes a short walk around the room. "That answer your question?"

She looks down—not the reaction he'd expected. "What's the matter?" he asks, annoyed and concerned at the same time.

"I'm trying not to be a weenie," she says. He can hear the tremor in her voice. "I'm—I'm so happy for you—"

"Knock it off," he growls, secretly pleased, though he'd never admit it.

"Sorry," she says, and wipes her eyes. "Sorry. Okay. So. You want to go with me or not?"

When they are on the street Greg crooks his arm and waggles it in invitation.

"Just in case the battery dies and I need someone to hold me up," he says. Sarah laughs and puts her hand through to clasp his arm; they walk to the deli together, braving the busy sidewalk and blustery weather.

Voices Carry, chapter fifteen

March 12th

7 a.m.

The big day has finally arrived.

They are on their way to Newark to pick up Gene. Then they'll head over to one of Will's satellite offices in Hoboken. They've been on the road for a couple of hours already, as it will take some time to get there even without weekday rush hour traffic. After the fitting for the TENS unit they'll stay over for a night or two. Greg had suggested Manhattan as a joke, but it's obvious Sarah's considering it, much to his surprise.

"We could use a small vacation after this past week," she'd said. "Let's see what kind of shape Gene's in, but I'd say he'll probably vote yes. We take weekend trips to the Theater District now and then, usually whenever someone has a good package deal. Anyway, it's just a drive across the river from Will's office."

So Greg is stretched out in the front passenger seat, sipping a Coke as approaching morning lightens the sky. It's peaceful despite the increase in traffic as they get closer to the edges of the city. He's thought about hauling out his iPod, but Sarah's already got Doctor John on the CD player and besides, he's feeling the need for some kind of human contact, even if it's just sharing the same space inside a minivan. He glances over at Sarah. She's bundled into her black parka, her curly hair tied back with a ponytail elastic. She seems relaxed, but when she gives him a quick look there is concern in her eyes.

"How y'all holding up?" she asks, and takes her cup of tea from the holder.

"'m fine," he says, but even to his ears he sounds unconvincing.

"If you're really bored you could read to me," she says. Greg sits up a little, intrigued by her request.

"Uh, duh," he says, unable to keep from indulging in some sarcasm. "You're that desperate to know what's in the owner's manual for this tin can?"

"Check the bag behind your seat," she says, ignoring his churlishness. He obeys, wincing as the seat belt harness digs into his shoulder, and hauls out a book. He looks it over, incredulous.

"You're kidding," he says. "Beowulf . . . this is your idea of entertaining reading?"

"Hey, you're the one who gave it to me," she says, and flashes him a quick grin. "Besides, it's the Seamus Heaney translation. It was meant to be read aloud."

Of course he'd known that when he'd hidden it in her desk a week or so ago, but he hadn't expected his gift to end up here. Still, any distraction is better than sitting in silent, growing dread. With a sigh he opens the book and squints at the words.

"Didn't bring my glasses with me," he says. Sarah digs into a pocket and hands them to him. Greg gives her a disgusted look.

"Planning for every contingency. I should have figured as much. You probably have an extra hand-crank flashlight in the glovebox too."

"I like the story," she says. "The words fill your mouth, they feel like silk and thistles on your tongue. Anyway, you're a good reader."

"How the hell do you know that?" he demands. "You've never heard me recite so much as a Playboy limerick."

"I just do," she says. "Gonna read or not?"

"Nag, nag, nag. Fine, if it'll get you off my back." He opens the book and adjusts his glasses.

"You know, you're kinda cute with those things perched on the end of your nose," Sarah says. Greg sends her a glare.

"Shut up."

"No, for real," she says. "You should have them on hand for future dates. They're guaranteed to get you anything you want."

"Cut it out or the goddamn book takes a header out the window," he growls, and she laughs.

"Yeah, yeah, okay."

He hurls a final warning stare at her before turning his gaze back to the page. With profound misgivings he clears his throat and begins to read.

She's right; the words move together, bringing the old story to life. He can feel them push against his teeth and tongue, shaped by full, satisfying vowels and fierce consonants.

"Wrecker of mead-benches," he says, savoring the image.

"Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes." Sarah moves the minivan into the passing lane.

"You're a romantic," he says in accusation.

"I'm Irish," she says.

"Bloodthirsty colleen."

"What do you expect from someone whose ancestors conducted cattle raids just for fun?" She throws him a glance. "Yours weren't any better."

"Hello . . . illegitimate child here," he says. "I have no idea what my forebears did besides live nasty brutish lives and die young from preventable diseases."

"You know your mother's side is Dutch," Sarah points out. "Just about everyone on the shores of the North Sea shares Viking blood from the raids and invasions." She chuckles. "I bet those blue eyes of yours were the best feature of some guy in a dragon boat. Thor Tudball, scourge of many cats! Breaker of mead-beakers!"

He stifles an urge to laugh and summons up his best Tim Conway impression. "Missus-ah huh-WIGGINS," he says. Without missing a beat Sarah picks up his cue. She widens her eyes and chews a wad of imaginary gum, assuming the role of quintessential bimbo secretary.

"Whaaaaaat?" she drawls. It's too much, he can't help it, he snickers and she laughs outright. It amazes him that she can enjoy a stupid joke when he knows she is still dealing with her mother's death. Her ability to accept grief as a natural part of existence is beyond his comprehension at times. She should be withdrawn, morose; instead she is involved full measure in everyday life. Even though he found her sitting by the fire in silent mourning just the day before, here she is enjoying a corny joke in his company. He is bewildered by her strength, but secretly glad of it too.

Eventually he begins to read once more and is caught up in the tale, following Grendel's claiming of ruined Heorot and the arrival of the Geats.

"The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard." He pauses. "'Word-hoard'. That's classic Tolkien blarney."

"He would have stolen it without a qualm," Sarah says. "Great image. You can just see this big burly warrior, armed to the teeth, listening to Hrothgar's watchman bluster and threaten and demand answers, and when he finally winds down, the warrior gives him the mission statement. Simple words, no bull. Very John Wayne."

"Hah," House says. "It's confirmed, you're a total romantic," and continues with the reading.

By the time they stop to put gas in the tank and get something to eat he is feeling a little less stressed out. He and Sarah have debated several points in the narrative and ruminated over various delights of the archaic words and style. Of course he knows she's doing this to keep him distracted, he's not a complete moron, but she's also clearly enjoying the discussion. Much to his bemusement, so is he.

When they are once more on the way, he doesn't pick up the story. Instead he stares out the window, lost in thought.

"What is it?" Sarah's quiet voice pulls him back.

He hesitates. "Forget it. It's stupid."

"Come on, spill." She passes a semi and glances at the GPS, but she's listening.

"What would the people of a thousand years ago think of us?" He settles back into the seat.

"You mean aside from the technology?" She is silent for a few moments. "I believe they'd find us . . . weak."

"Continue," he says when she doesn't go on.

"Our culture has problems with expressing strong emotion of any kind, but especially anger or rage," she says. "We tend to ritualize it, or save it for the moment when we can't take any more and end up on top of a water tower with a sharpshooting rifle. Perhaps it happens because people think niceness is some kind of acceptable measure for standard behavior, when it's really the perfect disguise for all sorts of not-so-nice feelings and actions."

"That's a fairly pejorative statement," he says after a moment.

"I get tired of passive-aggressive tomfoolery right quick," she says. The word 'quick' has two syllables: kwiy-yick. There is a fierce note in her tone that puts him on alert.

"Did you have that opinion before or after you spoke with Wilson?" he asks.

"Before, during and after." She doesn't resent his curiosity, something he always finds refreshing. "People living millennia ago had the same capacity to reason and feel that we do, but they weren't hamstrung by the idea that strong emotions are bad and to be avoided at all costs."

"There are plenty of codes with fairly narrow definitions of how people should behave," he points out. "Some of them go way back. But that's beside the point, actually. Wilson really pissed you off, didn't he? Let me guess. Chase wasn't forthcoming."

"It sounded to me like Rob washed his hands of whatever's going on," Sarah says. "Does that surprise you?"

"Not really. Chase has always known when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em." He gives a mock sigh and pats his chest, above his heart. "My boy does me proud." He waits a beat. "Is he headed for the spin bin?"

"Can't talk about it," Sarah says. Greg nods.

"Figured as much," he says. Eventually he sets the book aside and drifts off into a light doze.

He gets to witness the reunion in the terminal. He'd planned to wait for them in short-term parking, but Sarah had said "Gene will want to see you too," as if it was an obvious conclusion. So he limps along, feeling like a fifth wheel as usual, and watches as Sarah runs to her husband with outstretched arms. Gene catches her up and whirls her in a circle before administering a very thorough kiss. His action incites a scattering of applause in the immediate area. Greg is aware of a tightening in his chest that has nothing to do with sentiment. He's always been the one on the outside, alone. Nothing has changed.

("Greg, if you don't learn how to make yourself more appealing to people no one will ever want to be your friend. You can be very abrasive, you know. I'm telling you this for your own good, dear.")

They come toward him now, holding hands. Gene actually seems glad to see him for some reason. "Dub," he says. It is a contraction of the first half of his self-chosen title—WJ, or wack job.

"Gunney," Greg says. "Nice tan." Gene is thinner and he looks tired; still, when he smiles none of that matters for a few moments.

"Thanks."

"No nicknames from now till we get home," Sarah says. Greg knows she dislikes the one he's given himself, but that doesn't make it any less truthful. "I say we head for Will's office and get things taken care of, then we find a place to stay." She looks at him. "May I touch you?"

He nods and is surprised when she takes his hand in a firm grip. Gene is on the opposite side, and he holds her other hand. They move forward through the terminal at a casual pace, slow enough to accommodate Greg's limp and also to talk back and forth. Much to his continuing astonishment he has been included in their little family as a matter of course, just like that. He can think of several things to say, jokes about polyamory or big love or finding a bed to accommodate the three of them, but he keeps silent. It seems like the best course at the moment, and maybe his mother had a point.

"I vote for the Saint James, if we want to stay for the weekend," Gene says. "We can get tickets from the concierge and do a play after dinner."

"Tomorrow," Sarah says. "Tonight we're all getting an in-room massage, my treat." She glances at Greg as he opens his mouth, her sea-green eyes bright with humor. "NO."

He assumes what he hopes is a look of wounded innocence. "I don't know what you thought I was going to say, but you just screwed yourself out of a great deal," he says. "I know this bookstore for artists on Tenth Avenue . . ."

"Printed Matter," Sarah says. She actually gives an excited little hop like a five year old. "Yes! We have to go!"

They stroll through the parking garage, trading bits and pieces about favorite places—arguing amiably over who has the best bagels in midtown, the delights of Central Park and various museums, what's playing at the theaters. It's a surprise when they reach the van so quickly.

"Are you sure you're up for this?" Sarah asks Gene when he takes the keys. "You must be exhausted."

"You hate driving down here," he says quietly. "I'll manage if we can find some decent coffee."

Sarah puts her hand to his cheek. He turns his head to kiss her fingers. Both gestures are unselfconscious, intimate without being precious; Greg knows from previous experience that they do this sort of thing without caring if anyone is watching. He feels that tightness in his chest again, a sensation he doesn't care to name—but if he did, it might come close to envy. Without speaking he climbs into the bench seat and reclines with legs propped, relaxing his bad leg with a quiet sigh of relief.

Three croissants, two ventis, a large black tea and twenty minutes later, they are headed for Hoboken.

 

Voices Carry, chapter fourteen

March 8th

 

9:15 a.m.

It was already a miserable Monday when Wilson joined the coffee queue in the cafeteria, stainless-steel travel mug in hand. He’d overslept because the alarm hadn’t gone off; as a result he’d gotten on the road later than his usual time and ended up in the very rush-hour jam he’d been trying to avoid. Even worse, somehow he’d forgotten to buy beans the last time he went shopping (even though he’d placed them at the top of his list) and now both his kitchen and office coffee-makers sat cold and empty. So here he was, reduced to drinking caramel-colored swill for his sins, and longing for his usual double-strength, Kona blend, blast-o’ caffeine treat.

 

He bought a cinnamon-raisin bagel and cream cheese as compensation for the morning’s events and was about to head upstairs when he spied Chase sitting at a booth with journal in hand, reading while he ate breakfast. Wilson headed in his direction, his mood brightening. Finally! He’s been avoiding me. Now I can squeeze some information out of him.

“Morning.” Wilson slid into the booth. Chase frowned at him, clearly unhappy at his presence. He looked tired; there were shadows under his eyes, and his shoulders drooped just a bit.

“Morning,” Chase said, but it sounded grudging.

“So, back from the wilds of New York,” Wilson said, and winced inwardly at the too-hearty inflection in his voice. “How was it?” he asked, trying to sound a bit more normal. Chase gave him a direct look.

“Fine.”

Wilson set aside his exasperation. “Could you be a little more forthcoming?” He focused on spreading cream cheese over a bagel half, but kept the younger man in his peripheral sight. “How’s House?”

Chase leaned forward. “He’s doing really well. In fact I’d say he’s on his way to full recovery.” Robert’s blue eyes held a challenge. “Not what you wanted to hear, is it?”

Wilson paused, plastic knife suspended in mid-air. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You don’t want him to find anything even remotely resembling healing. That means you and Lucas have a common goal.”

“I am NOT working with Lucas!”

Chase straightened. “Yeah, I’m sure. Anyway, you can count me out. I won’t be a part of whatever you two have planned.” He folded the journal and picked up his plate. As he stood he said, “Doctor Goldman knows what you’re doing. She’ll be waiting for your next move. You’re a fool if you make an enemy out of her. She’s smarter and tougher than you are, and she has House on her side. Neither you nor the boy-toy stand a chance.” He gave Wilson an ironic salute. “Cheers,” and he was on his way.

Wilson watched him go, his mind churning. After a few moments he pushed the bagel aside and took out his cell phone.

Sarah answered on the third ring. “Jim,” she said, her tone neutral. “Chase must have reported in, am I right?”

Wilson was silent for a moment, taken off-guard by this uncharacteristic offensive action. “I—I don’t know what you mean,” he said at last. “No one did any reporting in.”

“So you had to go to him.” There was a brief note of amusement in her voice. “Good for Rob.”

Why does everyone think I have it in for House?!” he asked, his frustration getting the better of him. “You said it yourself—I’m the one who recommended you to him in the first place! I’m also the only one who came to see him while he was in Mayfield—I helped him get into treatment, if you remember!”

“What would you do if you discovered he’s in full recovery?” Sarah asked softly.

Wilson felt a surge of some strong emotion he couldn’t really name. “Are you saying that’s what’s happened?”

“I’m not saying anything. I’m asking you a question,” Sarah said.

“I’d be thrilled,” Wilson snapped. “It’s about time he took responsibility for his actions.”

“So you think this is about choosing drugs and acting out versus willpower and being a responsible adult,” Sarah said. Wilson paused.

“Obviously you don’t,” he said.

“I think everyone in that so-called hospital needs a crash course in Addiction for Dummies, starting with you,” Sarah said.

“I know what addiction is!” he said, loud enough to make a few heads turn. “Danny taught me everything I need to understand—“

“No he didn’t and no you don’t! You have absolutely no clue whatsoever!” Sarah’s voice had risen too. “If you understood it you wouldn’t have enabled to the extent you did!”

“If I hadn’t given him the drugs he would have found another way!” Wilson said. He wanted to bang the table with his fist at her lack of understanding. “I kept him out of jail, I kept him from hitting rock bottom!”

“There is no rock bottom,” Sarah said after a few moments. She sounded distant. “There’s only freefall. It sickens me that you would condemn someone to that state of existence for your own gain, James.”

Wilson gasped, outraged. “I—I didn’t condemn—I—I—for my own gain, that’s not true!“

“Yes it is. You kept Greg right where you wanted him. I’m not saying he didn’t cooperate. Addicts will stick with any plan that gets them what they need. I’m saying you have an almost pathological desire to fix people just enough to make you look like the good guy. You always did, even in college. Greg fits your agenda perfectly. You give him little dribbles of help, just enough to keep him hurting and needing you. Add in all the anger and resentment you feel toward him, everything you won’t admit is there right beneath the surface, and it’s a wonder Greg escaped at all.”

Her words brought his frustration to the boil. “Oh, great. I see how things are. House gets off scot-free on everything because it’s all my fault that’s he’s a mess and has been for years. And by the way, how long have you been calling him Greg? Does Gene know?”

“I never said he gets off scot-free, he has plenty of things to answer for, just like the rest of us. But you should know, Greg House is my friend now as well as my patient,” Sarah said. “If you’re suggesting I’m having an affair with him, I’d say that’s more your style than mine.”

Wilson flinched. “They’re legitimate questions,” he muttered.

“No they’re not. They’re words meant to hurt Greg, Gene and me. Fortunately . . .” She drew in a breath. “Fortunately I’m the only one who heard them.”

“Sare . . .” Wilson closed his eyes. Dammit. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re only sorry you made a mistake in showing your hand too early,” Sarah said. “You need help, Jim.”

“I’m going to an analyst twice a month,” he said.

Sarah sighed. “It’s not enough.”

Her answer caught him off-guard. “What?”

“I believe you have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I also believe it’s getting worse. You can’t see what you’re doing hurts other people to the point of destroying their lives because your addiction—your disease--has blinded you to the consequences of your behavior.”

Wilson felt the world contract around him. It was as if all the air had leaked out of the room. “You—you think—you believe I’m an addict?”

“Yes,” Sarah said.

“How dare you,” he whispered. Fear surged through him like an electric shock. “How dare you accuse me—I’m not—“ He stopped, struggling to focus his thoughts. “I’m not House,” he said.

“You mean you’re not a loser,” Sarah said. “Be honest for once in your life, Jim. Say what you’re really thinking.”

“I don’t—I never said he was a loser!” Wilson wanted to hurl the phone across the room. “I meant I’m not an addict!”

“But House is your definition of an addict,” Sarah said. “He’s a loser. I mean that literally. He’s someone who’s lost control. That scares you, doesn’t it? The thought of losing control.”

“I told you once before not to analyze me,” Wilson said. He was fighting to keep his voice down.

“I’m not analyzing you. I’m asking you . . .” She paused. “Get help, Jim. Please.”

“You really do believe I’m fucked up,” he said, stunned. “Me, not House.”

“If you need any assistance I’ll do my best for you,” Sarah said. Her soft voice held immeasurable sadness. “Otherwise, don’t call again, Jim. You’ve done enough harm. I won’t allow you to do more.” And she was gone.

He sat there for a while, watching people come and go as thoughts chased themselves around and around in his head. Finally he got to his feet, folded his uneaten bagel in his napkin—no point in wasting perfectly good food--and headed to his office. People were waiting; he had a schedule to keep.

Voices Carry, chapter thirteen

March 6th

 

10 a.m.

The house is silent at last, having been emptied of visitors a short while beforehand. Chase and Thirteen had departed first, though there had been a revealing little scene between Doctors Hadley and Reynard—an exchange of numbers, addys and a few discreet kisses too, very touching. Chase was nowhere to be found, having gone out ostensibly to warm up the car. At least he still knows how to make himself scarce; he might not be a total writeoff just yet.

Silence is actually a relative term at the moment however. The washer is chugging away cleaning the first load of sheets, pillowcases and towels, the kitchen radio is playing, and Sarah is upstairs remaking beds.

As for Greg, he’s crashed out on the couch with his Christmas-present GameBoy at his side to fend off boredom if needed. The satellite tv service is still out, but he doesn’t really care at the moment. He’s got plenty to think about.

 

The date has been set for his visit to Will’s office. A week from now he’ll be fitted for a TENS unit in conjunction with ongoing pain management. The knowledge brings both anticipation and apprehension. The drug regimen Gene crafted has helped tremendously in lowering Greg’s numbers on the pain scale—they’re down to a solid two on a good day and four or five on bad days, with breakthrough significantly reduced--but his stomach is beginning to rebel. His lack of appetite is contributing to this problem, though he eats when he takes his meds (mainly because Sarah makes sure he does so). Using TENS could help allay gastritis by allowing him to reduce his drug load. There will be tradeoffs, of course; there are no decent studies out yet on the long-term effects of continuous nerve stimulation. He also knows from dealing with various patients over the years that skin irritation or burns are common when using electrodes, sticky pads, gel and/or paper tape; still, he’ll worry about those problems when he comes to them. 

But what if it doesn’t work? That’s the question that keeps coming back to haunt him. His experience with ketamine has him fearing that TENS will follow the same path.

“Hey.”

He jumps when Sarah speaks. She’s sitting in the easy chair next to the couch, a load of sheets in her arms.

“I can feel you brooding all the way upstairs,” she says. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“I was just thinking how quiet it is here with the kids gone,” he says. “Our nest is so empty now . . .” He glances at her. “We should celebrate with some smokin’ hot sex.”

“Only if your name is Gene Goldman,” Sarah says, her amusement obvious.

“You can call me anything you want if it gets you off.” He gives her a leer. She rolls her eyes.

“I can think of several things to call you,” she says. “What has you so worried?”

He looks away. “Wow, Ms Buzzkill. Can’t we trade a few more innuendoes before heading right into the un-fun stuff?” Sarah just waits for him to continue. He sighs. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s something,” she says, and puts the sheets on the floor. “You were talking with Will right before he left.”

He is silent, unwilling to give his fears form by speaking them aloud.

“There is a chance TENS won’t be effective,” Sarah says quietly. “There’s also good empirical evidence it’ll work. If it doesn’t, you can go to the next option.”

“What happens when I run out of options?” He can barely say it. “What do I do when there’s nothing left?”

“Keep searching,” she says. “You won’t be alone. Gene and I will be right there with you. We won’t give up till we find something that helps.” She says it in that simple, matter-of-fact way of hers that always eases his apprehension. Still, he has to poke at her.

“Why do you care? This isn’t part of your duty as my analyst.”

“I disagree,” Sarah says. “And anyway, even if it isn’t, it’s something I’d do as a friend.”

“We’re not—we’re not friends,” he says in astonishment. “What the hell ever gave you that idea?”

“Well that’s a strange thing to say, because I consider you a friend.” She’s smiling, he can tell. “Have for some time now.”

“You’re an idiot,” he says. “I’m the worst kind of person to—I’m damaged. I’ve hallucinated, overdosed on drugs, treated people like shit . . .” He trails off because Sarah is chuckling.

“You’re messin’ with me, aren’t you?” she says. The native twang in her voice is subtle as the fragrance of prairie wildflowers after a rainstorm. “Who do you think you’re talkin’ to?” He looks at her. She is regarding him with a deep affection that surprises as much as it comforts him. “Gimme a break, son.”

“I still say you’re an idiot,” he says after a few moments.

“You’re welcome.” She bends down to pick up the sheets. “Do me a favor and check the soup. It needs something but I can’t figure out what.” As she straightens someone knocks at the door. “Damn, now who forgot their toothbrush?” She dumps the laundry on the floor once more in exasperation and heads for the front of the house.

When she returns Roz is with her. Greg covers his eyes. “I thought the nightmare was over,” he says.

“Glad to see you too, lazyass,” Roz retorts.

“Ouch. You should watch how you wield that razor-sharp wit of yours,” he says, and jumps when she deposits the pile of sheets on top of him.

“Make yourself useful,” Roz says. “Doesn’t Sarah do enough for you?”

“He worked hard during the blackout,” Sarah says, removing the sheets. Roz rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Somebody had to keep the ladies satisfied.” He pulls himself to a sitting position, unable to stop a sharp intake of breath when his bad leg gives a warning spasm.

“Are you okay?” Sarah asks.

“Peachy,” he growls. He limps into the kitchen, goes to the stove and lifts the lid on the soup pot. A wave of savory steam hits his nose. Chicken, onions, carrots, celery, garlic . . . He peers into the simmering depths, picks up a spoon, dips out some broth, blows on it, takes a taste. Bay leaf . . . ahah. He turns and nearly bumps into Roz.

“What are you doing?” she demands. Greg uses the lid as a shield for his face.

“No man can look into the face of Medusa and live,” he intones.

“Haha, very funny. You didn’t put that spoon back into the soup without washing it first, did you? I don’t want to eat your spit.” Roz takes the lid from his hands and puts it back on the pot.

“If you only knew how many times someone’s said that to me,” he says. “Except they weren’t talking about spit—“

“La la la,” Roz says, putting her fingers in her ears, but he’s intrigued to see she’s trying not to smile. “TMI, big time.” Her lips are surprisingly full for someone so skinny. For one moment he wonders what they would feel like if he . . .

“What are you doing here anyway?” he asks, opting for offense in place of defense. “Run out of places to wire, people to annoy?”

“I came to make sure everything was okay,” she says. “It took three passes for the snowplows to get the main roads cleared, there are trees down everywhere.”

“How’d you get through?”

“Earl dropped me off, he’s using the sleigh. It’s good exercise for the horses, and they can pull some of the smaller trees back to the farm.” Her eyes flash at him, moss-green. “You probably thought I flew here, right?”

“Yeah,” he says after a moment. “On your Nimbus Two Thousand.”

“Nah, I saved up for a Firebolt.” She picks up the spoon and points it at him with a flourish. “Ridikkulus!” He tilts his head and gives her a quizzical look. She lowers the spoon. “Guess you’re not a boggart. Oh well.”

That hurts just a little. He frowns at the unexpected emotion, not sure where it came from. Roz says nothing, but she looks a bit surprised by his response. She sets the spoon on the counter, turns away and goes into the living room.

“Listen, I’m gonna head over to Bob’s and make sure he’s doing okay, you know how stubborn he is about asking for help,” he hears her say to Sarah. “By the way, here’s your mail. I picked it up at the post office on the way in.”

The front door thumps a moment later, and then he hears Sarah pull up a chair to the dining room table. He adds a few grinds of smoked pepper and a generous pinch of rosemary to the soup, gives it a stir, lets it sit a moment, then tastes it once more. Perfect. He replaces the lid and heads into the other room. “It just needed a little . . .” His voice trails off. Sarah is holding what appears to be a letter. Her face is white.

Gene, he thinks, and limps to the table. “What is it?” he asks quietly. Her eyes flick up to his, then back to the paper.

“My mother,” she says. Greg can barely hear her. He sinks slowly into the chair opposite hers, aware of an absurd sense of relief.

“What happened?” He winces. “I mean—“

“It’s okay.” Sarah takes a deep breath. “She died in her sleep. Could have been an overdose, or maybe an MI. Heart disease is pretty common on her side of the family.”

“Could have? Wasn’t an autopsy done?” He doesn’t like the unnatural calm she’s displaying.

“I’m sure there was one, but my cousin apparently didn’t think it was worth mentioning.” She looks at the paper. It is shaking very slightly. “The funeral was held two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks . . .” The implication of that comment sinks in. He watches as she puts the letter on the table and folds her hands in her lap. Her lips are bloodless, her eyes enormous pools of gray; she looks ill. Shock, he thinks. She’s in shock. Without another word he gets up, goes to the kitchen and puts the kettle on.

A few minutes later he places a cup of tea liberally laced with whiskey in front of her. “Drink it,” he says. She looks at the cup, but does nothing. “Go on,” he says, his voice harsher than he’d meant it to be. Slowly she takes it in hand, brings it to her lips, swallows some of the hot liquid and chokes. Greg half-rises to his feet to help her but she waves him off.

“I’m all right.” She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Her fingers are trembling.

“Get as much of that into you as you can,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

He heads for the phone and speed-dials Gene’s assistant, Thomas. “It’s House,” he says before the other man can speak. “I need to get in touch with Gene right now. Have him call me stat if not sooner. It’s not life or death but it’s urgent.”

Ten long minutes later the phone rings. “I’m here,” Gene says, his voice calm and steady. “What’s happened?”

“Your wife needs to talk with you,” Greg says, and takes the phone to Sarah. She’s managed half the tea and has a little color in her cheeks now, but when she hears Gene speak on the line she lets out a ragged breath and her trembling increases.

“Hey love,” she says. “No, I’m okay. It’s my mom.”

He leaves her alone then, going into his room. By the time she knocks softly on his door he’s played through nine or ten songs and a few bits and pieces of tunes he’s worked on for a while. He gets up to let her in.

“Gene’s coming home as soon as he can manage it,” she says as she perches on the easy chair by the fire. Greg sits on the bed, still holding the six-string.

“That’s good.”

“My family didn’t mean . . .” She looks down at her hands. “They thought they were doing what was best for everyone.”

“It wasn’t their decision to make,” Greg says roughly. “They had no right to exclude you.”

“They were afraid there would be trouble,” she says softly. “My brothers are in denial about a lot of what happened at home. I’m not. The two don’t mix.”

“So rather than risk the fairly remote possibility of you cold-cocking someone during the viewing, you were uninvited to your own mother’s funeral?”

“What’s done is done.” She sounds defeated.

Silence falls in the room. He doesn’t know what to say, how to make this easier for her, or if he should even try. He remembers her comforting him after the overdose, but he’s completely incapable of reciprocating the gesture.

 

No you’re not, that little voice deep inside says—the same one that urged him to stand up to his mother. You can listen while she talks.

 

No way, he thinks, horrified. She’ll grizzle on about how her druggie mother abused her six ways from Sunday.

 

She listened to you, the voice whispers. Now she needs you to do the same for her.

There’s no refuting that reasoning. With a silent sigh he sets the guitar aside. “Come on,” he says.

When they are both seated in the living room he says “Talk.”

Sarah shakes her head. “You don’t have to do this.”

“This is not about what I have to do,” he says. “This is about your needing to tell someone about what you remember.”

“Poison, that’s what I remember,” she says. “There are no happy memories of her—none. She hated her kids. The only reason she had us was to keep Dad from leaving her, and the only reason she kept him around was for his money, when he was working.”

 

(“So he was a bastard. He was still your father. You’re biologically programmed to have feelings for him.”)

“All the more reason to talk,” he says.

After a few moments her shoulders slump a little. “Okay.” She takes a deep breath.

What follows is not a torrent of bitter memories or railing against the injustices of her upbringing. No recriminations, no hate; she just tells him what she remembers, with the simplicity and sadness of a child.

 

(“ . . . I don’t care that you didn’t like him. He was your father, and he loved you. The war is over, Greg.”)

At the end there is a long silence.

“Soup’s probably boiled dry,” Sarah says finally. “Thanks for listening.”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Greg says. “You know she didn’t love you.”

“So why am I mourning her?” She looks down. “She was my mother, and now she’s gone.”

 

(“Wilson? . . . My dad’s dead.”)  

He gets to his feet. “Need to check the soup.”

“Yeah.” Sarah stands up too. “For someone who doesn’t think he’s a friend you do an excellent  job of acting like one,” she says softly. “Thank you.” She turns away. “Share a bowl with me?”

“In a minute.” When she is gone he considers what she’s said.

 

(“ . . . I am what I am because of him, for better or worse.”)

On that remembrance and reminder he follows Sarah into the kitchen.

Voices Carry, chapter twelve

Once they were in the office with the door shut Rob leaned against it, arms folded. “I may need some help,” he said. Sarah sat down in what appeared to be a smaller version of House’s Eames chair. She looked him over. He endured her scrutiny, knowing she was well within her rights to doubt him.

“Okay,” she said. Rob took a deep breath.

“My mum was a drinker, and . . . maybe I . . .” He paused, surprised to find his throat tightening. “I don’t know what I should do,” he said, though he knew very well what came next.

“You think you’re an alcoholic,” Sarah said. There was no judgment in her tone, no condemnation. Rob said nothing. “Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Drinking to get drunk?” He started to shrug and thought better of it. “Just the usual uni stuff. Nothing since then—I mean . . .”

“You don’t drink to the point of blackout,” Sarah said. “That’s what your mother did, probably. You’re more the type to have a weekend session, mostly getting numb and staying that way, not quite drunk but close enough. You’re worried though, because those sessions have been spilling over into evenings after work lately, haven’t they?” She smiled a little at his surprise. “Physicians and healers are more prone to addiction because of the nature of their profession. I’ve worked with several doctors over the past few years.”

“I’m not there yet,” Rob said, driven to defiance for reasons he didn’t want to acknowledge. Sarah nodded.

“Yes you are. Otherwise you wouldn’t have come to me in front of Doctor Hadley.”

Rob looked at his feet. “I’ve already messed up things with her,” he said. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“You’ll have the ride home to talk about what happened,” Sarah said. “I think you’ll find she’s a good listener if you give her a chance.” She turned to her desk, took a small address book out of the top drawer and wrote down some names and numbers on the back of what looked like a business card.

“Here are a few places to start,” she said, handing him the card. “I know these counselors personally, they’re good at what they do and they’ll help you in any way possible. You can also give me a call anytime as well.”

Rob studied her. “How do I know you won’t tell House what I tell you?”

“That’s a reasonable question under the circumstances. Let’s do it this way: anything you disclose about why you’re here is open information,” Sarah said. “That’s definitely Doctor House’s concern and he needs to know. Personal items fall under confidentiality.” She glanced at Rob. “Turn about’s fair play, is that what has you worried? You came here to do some digging, now it’s your privacy up for grabs?” She leaned back in her chair. “I don’t play that sort of game. That puts the ball back in your court. It’s time for you to be completely honest with me and Doctor House about why you’re really here.”

It was pointless to keep pretending, he’d only be insulting both of them. “Wilson’s worried,” Rob said. “So is Cuddy. They’ve dealt with House for years, they know how resistant he is to anyone offering help. They’re afraid you’ve taken on too much, that you’ve lost your perspective or let House con you.” It was the official stance, the one he was to give during any potential questioning like this one. It was also the truth, as far as it went; that made it more convincing. I should add rank and serial number, he thought.

“It’s very kind of them both to be concerned,” Sarah said. Her soft voice held a touch of acerbity. “But that’s not the whole reason you’re here and we both know it.” She gave him a direct look. “Tell.”

There was something compelling in those clear sea-green eyes, a combination of absolute comprehension and a silent warning that suggested he’d be wise to do as she asked. “I . . . uh . . . I talked to Lucas,” he said, looking anywhere but at Sarah. After a moment she got to her feet, moved past him to what appeared to be House’s desk and rolled the larger Eames chair from its place to a spot about three feet away from her smaller version.

“Sit,” she said. It was not a request. Rob obeyed, wincing as his head protested.

“What does Lucas want?” Sarah asked once he was seated. All the gentleness was gone now. She sounded cold, businesslike, and under it all very angry. Rob swallowed.

“He’s . . . I think he’s trying to take House out of the picture,” he said.

“That’s not exactly news.” Sarah folded her arms. “What’s his method?”

Rob hesitated. “This is just speculation on my part, but it’s possible he wants to destroy House’s credibility for good by . . .  by sabotaging his recovery.”

Absolute silence fell in the room. Rob did his best not to fidget. That sounds really awful when you say it out loud, he thought.

“Yet you still came here,” Sarah said. “Even though you know any information you might gather could do serious harm.”

“You don’t understand!” Rob sat up a bit and winced. “House is capable of masterminding very weird and complicated games to get what he wants. I wasn’t sure—none of us knew if he was really making progress or just playing you to get his suspension lifted. I came to find out for myself.”

Sarah stared at him as if he had two heads. “And if you had discovered Doctor House was playing me, what then? You’d have given that information to Lucas without a qualm, knowing it would be used for such a terrible purpose?” For a moment she looked sick. Rob dropped his gaze to the floor.

“I don’t know what I would have done,” he said, and it was the truth. “It doesn’t matter now anyway, I can see House isn’t faking it. He’s . . . better.” It was an inadequate word for the change Rob saw in the older man; the desperation and near-mania underlying every action was gone.

“How truly magnanimous of you to concede that much,” Sarah said. Every word was as clear and cold as ice. “Did it ever occur to any of y’all involved in this idiocy that even if Doctor House was manipulating me, it might be a part of his process? You rarely progress from point A to point B in treatment. There are quite a few twists and turns and detours in between.”

“You don’t know him,” Rob said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “You haven’t worked for him for years the way I have. He’s totally amoral, he’ll do anything to get what he wants. One of the first things he ever said to me was ‘Everybody lies’.”

“He’s right,” Sarah said. “Humans lie like they breathe air. They even lie to themselves.”

She was looking at him when she made that last remark, he knew it. “So you’re as cynical as he is.”

“I didn’t say lying was the only thing we do,” Sarah said. “It is a part of our nature though, something we don’t usually like to acknowledge. Doctor House is simply being honest. But we’re getting off-point.” She paused. “I find it deeply distressing that you have no problem participating in a plot designed to harm a man who’s been your mentor and something of a father figure over the years—“

“He’s not my dad,” Rob said, lifting his head. He winced. “No way do I think of him like that. House isn’t a father to anyone, he’s not capable of it.”

Sarah studied him. “And that belief gives you the right to do what you’ve done?”

 

“No—I don’t know!” He wished his head would stop pounding. “I—I was—I’m still angry with him for just disappearing like that—for breaking up the Diagnostics department and leaving us stranded. I worked hard to get that fellowship! So did everyone else he just left behind, dammit!” He didn’t even show up for the wedding.

“How old were you when your mother went away?” Sarah’s voice was quiet.

Rob froze. “What?”

 

“You were young, probably. You came home from school and she wasn’t there, or you woke up one morning and your father said something like Your mother’s gone to visit some relatives. You didn’t see her for months, maybe as long as a year. And then she was back—no explanation, no nothing. Even worse, she was different. She wasn’t the mother you knew, but no one would ever talk about it. It was just something that happened, maybe more than once.” 

“This isn’t about that,” he said after a time. “You think I’m projecting, or whatever it’s called.” He glared at her.

“I think when Doctor House left and the department was broken up, it brought back painful memories,” Sarah said. “It caused a lot of confusion and bewilderment and under all of that, plenty of anger. Perfectly normal reactions, even for someone who doesn’t believe he has a father figure in his life.” She sat up. “It’s also natural to harbor thoughts of revenge or retaliation against the person who created so much chaos. But taking steps to act on those thoughts is another story. What you’re involved in verges on real evil.”

A hot surge of dread pushed through him. Oh my god, she knows. “He told you, didn’t he?” Rob gripped the arms of the chair. “About Dibala. That’s part of the reason why you’re angry with me.”

Sarah looked a little surprised. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t preach to me about honesty and truthfulness and then lie yourself!” His voice rose. “I know House told you what happened! He—he figured it out somehow, he always does, dammit!” He stood, intending to flee the room, and flinched as pain crashed through his head.

“Doctor Chase—Robert.” Sarah spoke quietly. “No one’s said anything to me about whatever it is you’re referring to. You have my word.” She rose, facing him. “Please sit.”

Slowly Rob obeyed. He pushed a lock of damp hair out of his eyes and stared at her. She stood before him, a slender woman bundled into a thick wool sweater and jeans with fuzzy pink socks on her feet, bright auburn curls tamed into an untidy braid, her pale face a little smudged here and there with tiredness. She looked everyday ordinary and yet there was something, some sense of calm or stillness within her that called to him in a way he could not define.

After a few moments Sarah moved her chair a little closer and sat down. She extended her hands. With some hesitation he reached out and clasped them. Her touch was firm but gentle.

“Please tell me,” she said. He hesitated, afraid to begin. “Whatever this secret is you’re keeping, it’s destroying you. Maybe I can help.”

“I killed him—Dibala,” he said finally, and waited for her to pull away. Sarah didn’t flinch.

“What happened?” she asked softly.

He told her then, all of it; it came spewing out of him the same way he’d emptied his stomach earlier. By the end he was shaking, barely able to form the words.

“Why did you do this?” Sarah asked when at last he fell silent.

“It was the right action,” he said. “One person’s death would prevent hundreds of thousands dying . . . I couldn’t not do it.”

“Would you do it again?”

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t hesitate.

“Yet you feel it was evil.” Sarah made it a statement, not a question.

“It was murder.” He gripped her hands, unable to stop himself. “I killed a man.”

“You’re a physician, a healer,” she said. “To deliberately take away another person’s life is especially abhorrent for you. And yet in this case, to let that person live would have meant condemning many others to suffering and death.”

“You think I don’t go over and over it in my mind? That I don’t feel how crazy this whole situation is, every moment of every day?” His chest tightened. “There’s no reconciling this . . . no way to make it right, is there?”

“Have the courage of your convictions,” Sarah said. Rob couldn’t look at her. “What’s done is done. You’re stuck with the consequences of actions taken. That means you’ll have to live with two opposing viewpoints fighting it out in your head for the rest of your life.”

The thought horrified him. “I can’t do it,” he whispered. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can. Many people do.” For a moment she sounded almost sad. “You’ve already acted, Robert. Fear and guilt won’t serve any purpose other than to keep you helpless and miserable.” Her fingers tightened gently on his. “Own what you’ve done. Feel remorse for the life you took. Make amends in any way you can—turn yourself in if you believe that’s the right course. But stand by what you did.” She gave his hands a gentle squeeze. “It’s a lesson I learned myself recently. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it does give you perspective.” She paused. “You might consider talking with Doctor House about this. I think his counsel would be worth seeking.”

“He’ll rip my head off and pee in the stump,” Rob muttered.

“Probably.” Sarah gave him a slight smile. “But considering the shape you’re in at the moment, it might actually be an improvement.”

He closed his eyes. “Yeah, more than likely,” he said, feeling awkward and a bit relieved.

“I have only one request.” Sarah paused. “Tell Lucas anything you want.”

Rob opened his eyes. “What?”

“Tell Lucas anything you want,” Sarah said again. “Tell him we know what he’s up to, what he wants, all of it. Feel free.”

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Why?”

“Doesn’t matter why.” Sarah loosed his hands with care and stood. Rob did the same. “If you’re ready for some coffee there’s a fresh pot waiting, or I can do some tea if you’d rather.”

“Coffee’s fine.” He turned with his hand on the doorknob. “Thanks.”

 “You’re welcome.” She gave him a steady look. “You’re a good man, Doctor Chase. You’ve got the potential to be a better one. Keep that in mind now and then, okay?”

Rob returned her look. “You really believe that?”

“I know it.” She put a hand on his arm, light and comforting. “Well done, Robert. Let’s see if we’ve got some dry toast and Tylenol to go with that coffee.”

Voices Carry, chapter eleven

March 5th

 

6:15  a.m.

Rob stirred as unconsciousness slowly started to lift. He smelled stale whiskey and frowned. What’s Mum doing up this early? She never makes it out of bed before I have to go to school. The muzzy thought didn’t feel right though.

“Wakey wakey.” Someone spoke very close by. It definitely wasn’t his mother; the raspy baritone held a familiar edge. His frown deepened as he started to roll away from the source of irritation. A second later his vision filled with a spectacular display of fireworks as pain exploded inside his cranium. Cringing, he curled in on himself.

“What a shame, you feel like shit. That’s just unfortunate on so many levels. Get up!” A hand grabbed his arm and shook him hard. Nausea flooded Rob’s body.

Don’t . . .” He crawled to the edge of the bed in a vain attempt at escape.

“Yeah, because asking me to stop always works,” the voice said in a tone much too amused for Rob’s taste. “I’m not going away anytime soon. Neither is that twenty megaton bomb that’s detonating in your head right now. Might as well get this over with.”

Bits and pieces of the previous evening’s activities began to turn up for review—the first hit of whiskey, the impatience in Remy’s eyes when she spoke to him, Will touching her hand. Slowly Rob rolled over, eyes shut tight as the room spun and his head throbbed in agony. Only one person would be cruel and unfeeling enough to torment him during a hangover.

“House,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Heeeey, right first time!” A hand smacked Rob’s knee and sent reaction howling through his body. “Looks like whatever plan you had to get the bike rider fixing your flat tire wasn’t successful.”

Rob worked his way through the metaphor and chose to be offended. “Screw you,” he said eventually.

“Nope, I’m not available either.” House sounded almost cheerful. “So when exactly did you move into the active-alcoholic phase?”

“I’m . . . not. Haven’t.”

“Denial is a wonderful thing,” House said. “It lets you get away with all sorts of cool stuff, at least until your liver craps out.”

“You oughta know,” Rob sneered, and regretted it when his stomach tightened. He moved his head over the edge of the mattress, struggling to hold everything in. He heard House get up with surprising speed. A moment later something was shoved under his face.

“It would be really rude of you to ruin the carpet,” House said. “Use this.”

It was humiliating, puking into a cute little rattan wastebasket. At least it had a plastic bag lining it. The stench of sour liquor made him think of things he’d pushed away for years.

 

(He knew better than to expect she’d be awake, but he crept into her room anyway. She lay with her face turned away from him, arms akimbo like a broken doll’s. She smelled of gin, her clothing wrinkled and limp.

 

“Mum?” He sat next to her, put a hand on her back. She was breathing, slow and erratic but still alive. On a sigh he got up and left her. It would be hours before she woke, and even then she would just look for another bottle, not him. Only when Dad was home did she pretend her priorities were different, but she wouldn’t have to bother tonight; his father was working late, as usual. )

When he had emptied out he wedged his face into the crook of his arm. “Go away.”

“Here.” Something nudged Rob’s hand. He cracked one eye open.  It was the whiskey bottle, about a third full. “Hair of the dog. It helps.”

Rob stared at it. After a moment he sat up a little, took the bottle, opened it and swigged a substantial amount of the contents. It burned all the way down, which felt good but in a bad way. “Proving a point?” he asked after a few moments. His tongue was thick and clumsy and his eyes couldn’t quite focus, but at least the nausea had started to retreat.

“Don’t have to.” House pulled up a chair and propped his feet on the mattress.

“It isn’t about Cameron,” Rob said after a time and another swallow of whiskey. “Or Dibala, or you going off the rails. I don’t really know why . . .”

“Doesn’t matter.” House crossed his legs. “There’s always a reason. What are you gonna do about it?”

“I can stop,” Rob said. He set the bottle aside, proving his point.

“No you can’t.” House looked away. “Don’t even bother to go there. It’s too boring to meander through the usual dance of denials and accusations. Let’s get right to the nitty-gritty, as we used to say back when hippies ruled Haight-Ashbury.”

“Which is?” Rob snapped. His heart was pounding.

“You tell me.”

“You want me to say I’m an alcoholic because of one night of drinking?” Rob rubbed his eyes and groaned as pain thudded through his skull.

“It hasn’t been just one night lately though, has it?” House folded his hands over his middle. “This pattern is becoming more frequent. Maybe you aren’t getting drunk every time, but you’re buzzed enough to relax or fall asleep or forget—“

“I’m not you!” Rob said loudly, and winced. “Okay? I’m not you.”

There was a brief silence.

“You mean you’re not a burned-out, pathetic jerk who’s lost everything through his inherent weaknesses and retreated from the world in some last-ditch attempt to get his groove back,” House said slowly. Rob squinted at him. That was quite a speech, he thought. He meant it too. The sadness that realization caused was a bit of a surprise. Aloud he said

“Something like that.”

“Well yeah,” House said as if it was obvious. “You’re just starting out on that ever-so-amusing and delightful journey.” He gave Rob a considering look. “You won’t have too many years to work with because you’re genetically predisposed, I think. You’ll give it a good run though. Fifteen, maybe twenty before enough of your liver hardens and the last brain cell kicks the bucket.” He tilted his head. “Or you might stir up enough free radicals to get some really good cancer on, like your old man. I don’t think he wanted you to follow in his footsteps in quite that fashion, though.”

“I’m not an alcoholic,” Rob said. He rubbed sweaty palms on his thighs and glanced at the bottle. “Things have been a little rough lately—“

“Uh uh.” House shook his head. “Can’t have it both ways. You said this kind of behavior wasn’t brought on by recent events—now you’re saying it is?”

 

“What d’you care?” Rob muttered, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.  

“I don’t.” House swung his legs to the floor. “But you should.” He got to his feet. “Talk to Doctor Goldman,” he said quietly. “And tell whoever sent you that you’re out of the game from now on. You’re too emotionally fucked up to be an effective spy.”

“I’m not a spy,” Rob protested, but House had already turned his back and left the room, closing the door with a snap that echoed like a cannon shot around the inside of Rob’s brain.

For a long time he sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the house gradually coming to life. Sunlight began to filter in around the blinds; the room air was chill, the fire died down to embers once more. He had a vague memory of Remy bringing him in, of her crouched by the hearth adding wood to burning kindling, her face illuminated by the soft light. She’d dumped him on the bed like a sack of potatoes, obviously glad to be rid of him. She and Reynard probably spent the night keeping warm, he thought, and sighed. Well, if she had he’d pushed her into it by acting the fool. Now he had a long ride home with someone who probably couldn’t stand the sight of him, and a meeting with Wilson and Cuddy that would not be pleasant for anyone attending.

He was interrupted by a click and the sound of forced air coming through the heating vents. A few moments later someone knocked on his door.

“Electricity’s back on,” Will called. “There’ll be hot water in an hour if you need it.” Rob flinched and wrapped his arms around himself. The idea of voluntarily standing under pounding spray held no appeal whatsoever, but then neither did going downstairs smelling like a distillery gone bad.

Some time later he opted for a shower. That meant he was able to show up with clean damp hair brushed back from his face and his teeth and tongue scrubbed free of the taint of liquor. He approached Sarah as she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a half-eaten roll, chatting with Thirteen.

“Doctor Goldman, could we talk in private please?” he asked quietly. He didn’t look at her companion.

 

Voices Carry, chapter ten

March 4th

10 p.m.

Remy leaned back against the bed, watching flames in the fireplace as they flickered and danced. She was tired, but in a pleasant sort of way; she could feel night drawing close, the shadows deepening.

As a concession to Doctor Goldman and House, who were (presumably) asleep downstairs, they had congregated in Remy's room. It was certainly warmer, but the intimacy of the setting disturbed her. She wasn't sure it was such a good idea, having Will and Chase there. I don't want to encourage either one of them, she thought.

"Penny for your thoughts," Will said. He sat next to her playing the six-string, his long legs stretched out in front of him. In the easy chair across from them Chase rolled his eyes. Remy sent him a warning glare. He returned it with one of his own. He looked pissed off, as if he had planned to have her to himself or something. The thought made her uneasy.

"We should go to bed." Too late she realized what she'd said and tried to correct her mistake. "I mean . . . it's getting late."

"It's okay," Will said. His smile glimmered in the semi-darkness. "I know what you meant." He strummed a soft chord. Remy watched his hands, fascinated by the way his lean fingers found the right places on the strings without effort or hesitation. She barely noticed Chase leaving the room; only when he returned to his seat with a fifth in hand did she lift her gaze to his, frowning.

"Where'd you find that?"

Chase opened the bottle. "Brought it with me." He took a sizeable swallow, then handed it to Remy. "Give it a try," he said, his blue eyes bright. "It isn't like we have to go into work tomorrow."

"I'm not getting drunk," she said, but took the bottle anyway and raised it to her lips. The whiskey was smooth and smoky with a hint of sweetness beneath the burn of alcohol. "Nice," she said, savoring the taste. "Why'd you bring it?"

"I answer your question, you answer one of mine," Chase said. Remy felt a surge of irritation. He keeps turning everything into a game, she thought. Ever since Cameron left him he's been like this. Aloud she said

"I haven't played Truth or Dare since high school." And I'm not telling anyone how good I was at it either.

"Now's your chance to re-cultivate some mad skills," Chase said. He gave Will a perfunctory glance. "You in?"

For answer Will set the guitar aside and accepted the bottle from Remy. As he did so his fingers brushed hers, soft as a moth's wing. Remy shivered at the little caress. He just copped a feel right in front of Chase, she thought, and was both startled and amused at the realization that she didn't mind. "Okay, answer the question," she said aloud.

"It was intended as a gift for House," Chase said, "but on second thought it seems a little inappropriate." He gave her a significant look. "Your turn. Why did you really come up here with me?"

"You have to use the phrase," she said, teasing him a little. He sighed and cocked his head.

"Fine. Truth or dare?"

"Truth," she said promptly.

"Why did you come with me?"

"To see if House was all right," she said, and turned to Will. "Truth or dare."

"Truth," he said.

"What are House's chances for becoming pain-free?"

"HIPPA regs and doctor-patient confidentiality prevent me from answering that," Will said. "Ask House, not me." He extended the bottle to Chase. "Truth or dare?"

"You didn't answer her question," Chase said. Will shook his head.

"Can't do it."

"It's okay," Remy said quickly. "Don't worry about it."

Will nodded and looked at Chase. "So what's it to be?"

"Dare," Chase said. Remy groaned.

"Come on, House and Goldman are probably asleep by now. Besides, it's too cold to mess around."

"Spoilsport," Chase said. "Since when have you been Miss Prim and Proper?" He sent Will a cool look. "Dare," he said again.

"Okay," Will said. "I dare you to tell us why you're really here."

Chase made a disgusted noise. "That's not a real dare. Don't be an asshat."

"Dude, it's legit," Will said. "Put up or shut up."

"Fine. Dude." Chase took a swig of whiskey. "I was asked by someone else to check on House." He gave the bottle to Remy, who didn't take it.

"That's not the whole truth," she said.

"That's all you're going to get," Chase said. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," Remy said, and took the whiskey.

"How bad is the progression now?"

She stared at Chase, unprepared for the hurt his question caused. He shrugged in apparent nonchalance, but she caught the quick look he sent Will. Using my disease to score points against someone else, she thought, and her surprise turned to anger. "Bad enough," she said.

"That's not an answer," Chase said.

"That's all you're going to get," Remy snapped, and slugged a large hit of whiskey. Eyes watering, she handed off the bottle to Will. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," he said.

"How old were you when you graduated from medical school?"

Will looked uncomfortable. "Uh . . . nineteen."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Chase said, obviously disgusted. Will shrugged.

"I always knew I'd be a doctor. It seemed like a good idea to get started early on." He said it simply, no bragging or false modesty; it was a statement of fact. He sipped the whiskey and gave the bottle to Chase. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," Chase said.

"Who asked you to check on House?" Now Will sounded annoyed, almost angry.

"No way," Chase said. "Forget it." His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bright. He's trying to pick a fight, Remy thought.

"Answer the question," she said aloud. "If you don't I have a great dare for Will to use. You won't like it."

"Hey, I'm the one who wanted to do dares and not truth," Chase said. He spread his arms in an expansive gesture. "Bring it on."

"If you don't answer the question you have to strip, go outside and run two laps around the house," Remy said. Will bit his lip and looked down at his hands, but his shoulders shook very slightly.

"It's freezing out there! I've been drinking alcohol! Are you trying to kill me?" Chase protested. He looked pained.

"It has to be a good dare or why bother?" Remy said. "You're the one who said bring it on."

"Fine," Chase growled. "Truth, then." He took a large slug of whiskey and coughed. "Wilson."

"Wilson?" Remy stared at him, a little shocked. "He's supposed to be House's best friend!"

"He's worried," Chase said. He stole a second swallow and thrust the bottle at Remy. "Truth or dare?"

"Truth," she said on a sigh as she took the whiskey.

"Are you gonna sleep with Doogie here?" Chase's tone was taunting, almost contemptuous. Remy set the bottle down with a thump.

"Stop it," she said.

"It's a fair question." Chase sat back, arms folded. "You think your dare was bad, just wait—"

"Yeah okay, fine!" She took a deep breath. "I have no plans to sleep with anyone tonight," she said. She didn't look at Will as she picked up the whiskey. The mouthful was larger than she had intended but somehow it didn't seem to matter that much. Her hand shook a little as she gave the bottle to Will. "Truth or dare," she said.

"Truth," he said.

"Who taught you how to play guitar?" she asked. Chase tipped his head back and pretended to snore.

"My mother," Will said. He sipped the whiskey, his expression thoughtful. "She had this old Gibson she found in the trash. It was pretty beat up and all, had a hole in the front, but it held true when you tuned it and the fingerboard was in good shape. I don't know where she found the money for strings. The first song she taught me was 'Froggy Went A-Courtin'." He smiled a little and glanced at Chase. "Passed out already? What a lightweight."

Chase opened one eye, straightened and reached for the bottle. "I could drink both of you under the table," he said.

"I don't think that's anything to brag about," Will said. "Brain cells and livers don't come cheap, man." He tilted his head. "So, truth or dare?"

"Truth," Chase said.

"What do you get out of being this Wilson guy's errand boy?" Will folded his arms across his spare middle and stared at Chase in challenge. "It sucks being a pawn in another person's chess game. Take it from someone who knows."

"You don't know jack, you—you tosser," Chase muttered, and dumped a substantial amount of whiskey down his throat. His accent was stronger now, his face flushed. When he held out the bottle his hand wasn't steady. Remy snatched it from his grip.

"You're already buzzed," she said, frowning at him.

"So what if I am? Isn't that the whole point of this s-stupid game?" He sat back. "Truth or daaaaare." He drew the last word out, watching her.

"Truth, Robert," she said, weary of his relentless pushing.

"Fine, you coward." He smirked at her. "Ever have any hot-chick threesomes with Foreman?"

"No." She took a swig and passed the whiskey to Will. "Truth or dare?"

"Dare," he said to her surprise. Chase gave a bark of harsh laughter.

"What do y'know, even this twat understands how to play the game better than you do!"

Will ignored him. Remy swallowed. "Okay," she said. "Okay . . . I dare you to . . . tell me about your last girlfriend."

"Shit," Will said as Chase gave her a raspberry. "Fine. She was an RN, the charge nurse in NICU. We met at Holy Redeemer, she was working the graveyard end of her rotation and I got called in for a late round, a consult with that moron Fenner. One of his patients was going south in a big way and he was trying to cover his ass." He shrugged. "We got to talking—me and the RN, I mean. Exchanged numbers, went out to dinner and a movie, all that stuff."

"What happened?" Remy asked.

"She broke it off." He leaned against the bed. "Said she didn't want to talk shop all the time. The thing is, she was the one who kept bringing up work. I was happy to leave it behind." His expressive mouth lifted in a smile. "Too bad it didn't work out. I liked her. She had nice tits."

"Oh, good grief," Remy said, torn between exasperation and amusement. Will glanced at her. His smile widened a little, revealing a small dimple in his cheek.

"You asked," he said, and stretched out to give the bottle to Chase. "Truth or dare?"

Chase grabbed the whiskey. "Forget it. You're both a pair of w-wimps." He got to his feet and promptly fell back into the chair. "Shit!" He tried again with the same result.

"Come on," Remy said, resigned to taking care of him. She rose, staggering a bit herself, and helped Chase to stand. Together they wove their way to the door.

The hallway was cold, and the floor beneath her feet even colder. Remy hurried to Chase's door, half-dragging him in her eagerness to be rid of him. To her disgust she found the fire on his side was out, not even an ember left.

"You were supposed to keep an eye on things," she snapped as she dumped him on the unmade bed and pried the bottle out of his hand. "It's freezing in here!"

"So s-start a fire," Chase said, and flopped on his side. "Start one with me," he said, giving her what he obviously thought was his best come-hither look. Remy rolled her eyes.

"You've got to be kidding," she said, and turned away to clear the fireplace of ashes.

Ten minutes later the kindling was well alight and the logs beginning to catch. Remy got up and grabbed the mantel to steady herself as the room spun a little. Slowly she replaced the screen and approached the bed. Chase was draped on his back, apparently asleep. She stood over him for a moment, indecisive. I can't leave him like this, she thought. I have to at least get him on his stomach so if he vomits he won't aspirate it. With that she stooped to turn him over. As she grasped his arm his eyes opened. His hands slid up to bring her down to him.

"Remy," he said. She winced at the blast of whiskey fumes and pushed him away.

"No," she said. "You're still married, you idiot."

"So . . . so what? Not like Cam'ron's gonna find out. She dossen care anyway." The wealth of pain under the bitterness in his slurred words tugged at her but provided a warning as well. "I need you," he whispered, and lifted his head to kiss her. Remy pulled back.

"No you don't. Go to sleep," she said, and heaved him onto his belly. Chase groaned and turned his face away. She yanked the comforter from the foot of the bed and threw it over him. He didn't move as she left, closing the door behind her.

Will was playing the six-string when she returned. Remy paused in the doorway for a moment, watching him. His head was tipped back, eyes closed as he picked the chord and tapped it gently to make it ring. In the firelight his thick dark brown hair sparked with copper and auburn lights, a tangle of waves that haloed his lean features and accented his high, broad cheekbones. It was the face of a dreamer, a poet. Brown penny, she thought, and smiled a little as she remembered his comment earlier.

"Why are you smiling?" He looked up at her, his dark blue eyes bright.

"Just thinking of a poem," she said, and sat next to him. He raised his brows.

"Which one?"

"Yeats," she said. He rested his hands on the guitar and turned to her slightly.

"Do you remember the title?"

"'Brown Penny'," she said. He nodded.

"I know it.

"I whispered, 'I am too young,'

And then, 'I am old enough';

Wherefore I threw a penny

To find out if I might love.

'Go and love, go and love, young man,

If the lady be young and fair.'

Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,

I am looped in the loops of her hair."

She looked at him. He returned her gaze, his own steady, warm, questioning. On a sudden impulse Remy leaned forward slowly, tilted her head a bit and kissed him. He tasted of whiskey, his lips a little chapped from the cold air; his breath fanned over her cheek, a slow exhalation she found exhilarating in some inexplicable way. The kiss deepened as his hand came up to clasp her neck with the gentlest of touches.

"Truth or dare," she said softly when they moved apart. Will put a finger to her lips. Without a word he set the guitar aside and helped her to her feet. When his arms went about her she thought of Chase for a moment, passed out in the other room. She hadn't pursued a relationship with him, though he'd been angling for one since Cameron's departure; office romances were a bad idea, something she knew from personal experience. Now I have another reason to say no. On that glad thought she lifted her face for another kiss, and more besides.

 

Voices Carry, chapter nine

March 4th

 

5  p.m.

Night has fallen a bit early courtesy of the thick cloud cover from the storm. It’s still snowing  but the winds aren’t quite as fierce and the temperature seems to have stopped its freefall into single digits. The kitchen is warm and smells of cooking, wet mittens and hats; the latter items hang from the rail on the woodburning range, steaming faintly as they dry. Everyone is gathered around the table, feasting on beef stew and freshly baked bread. The two younger men look a little ragged around the edges, having spent most of the day taking turns shoveling snow and clearing off their cars. Thirteen stayed in the kitchen with Sarah, either replenishing the fires upstairs or helping out with food prep and cleanup. Greg kept the downstairs fires going while doing a bit of clandestine recon along the way.

 

And so here they all are in a scene worthy of any Waltons episode, enjoying supper by the mellow glow of an oil lamp. The day has gone fairly well, all things considered; everyone is getting along splendidly. Isn’t that just peachy, Greg thinks. We can’t have that now, can we?

 “So what’s your real agenda?” he asks Chase, interrupting some boring chitchat about which hospital’s spent the most money on advanced surgical technology.

“Came to see you,” Chase says, unperturbed.

“Uh huh,” Greg says. “This sudden interest . . . the word ‘dubious’ comes to mind. You could have gotten updates from Wilson or Cuddy’s main squeeze. Why bother to come all the way to the source unless you’ve been asked to gather a little first-hand information?”

Chase sighs. He swivels so his blue eyes look straight into Greg’s. His gaze is clear, honest, direct. “I am not here to spy on you.”

“I’d buy that if Cuddy’s home number wasn’t first on your recent calls list.” Greg smacks his forehead. “D’oh! Silly me! You were just informing her of your situation, being stuck here and all.”

“As a matter of fact, yeah.” Chase folds his arms. “If you checked the next number you saw I also let my department head know I’m stranded for the time being. Covering all the bases, really thoughtless of me.”

“Thoughtless, no. Quite the opposite,” Greg says. “Still fairly suspicious though, however you parse it.” He glances at Thirteen, who gives him a ‘don’t ask me’ stare. “Okay, fine. Observe all you like. Report back to your puppet master when you finally get out of here. Just so you know . . .” He fishes for a good threat. “My analyst will beat up anyone you guys send after me.”

Will finishes off a thick slice of buttered bread and slurps some stew. “Even though I have no idea what you’re talking about, that last part is true,” he says, unaware of the amused look Sarah sends his way as she removes an apple cobbler from the oven.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chase says dryly.

“Do we have any idea when this storm will be done?” Thirteen asks, obviously trying to change the subject.

“Snow ending by midnight, winds decreasing, low overnight temperatures,” Sarah says, and puts the cobbler on a trivet to cool a bit. Everyone looks at her. “Psychic consultations are a wonderful thing when your power’s out,” she says, sprinkling some cinnamon over the crust. “So are NOAA weather radios that run on batteries.”

“How about tomorrow?” Thirteen asks.

“It’ll be clear and sunny.” Sarah is concerned, Greg can hear it threaded through her words. It can’t be the weather, which is actually improving at last; it has to be the visitors and the length of their stay. “The plows will be out and so will the utility crews, most likely as soon as the snow stops.” She turns to get some dessert plates from the cupboard. “Y’all will probably be able to head home in another day or so.”

“We still need to talk,” Will says, and reaches for another slice of bread.

“After supper,” Sarah says, and sets the plates on the counter with a little more force than is needed.

Once everything is cleared away Greg, Sarah and Will head to the office. The stove offers a bit of heat but not much, since at the moment this is not an essential room with no vulnerabilities like pipes to worry about.

“Should we post a guard?” Greg asks in a conspiratorial whisper as Sarah shuts the door behind her. She gives him a quick grin, then turns to Will.

“Speak,” she says. “Make it fast and don’t repeat any of this to the other two, or so help me I’ll blister your bottom good.”

“Uh . . . okay,” Will says, looking a little startled. “What’s going on? Why all the secrecy?”

“They’re spies for Sauron.” Greg says it in a deep, mordant cadence. Sarah bites her lip and shifts her feet.

“Hmm. Bizarre.” Will shrugs and takes a seat in Sarah’s Eames chair. “We’re on for the nerve block. The TENS unit is still doable if this craps out,” he says, his enthusiasm returning. “Whatever you decide, we’re ready.”

Sarah glances at Greg. He nods, giving her permission. “There’s something you should know first before discussing options,” she says quietly. “Doctor House had a relapse.”

Will’s eagerness fades. “When?” he asks.

“The end of January,” Greg says. He can’t look at either of them.

“He’s done thirty days with random searches and close observation,” Sarah says. “He’s clean. He’s also been cooperative in his treatment process. I can vouch for all actions with further confirmation from my notes if necessary.”

“We’ll need a drug test,” Will says after a few moments of frowning consideration. Greg doesn’t acknowledge the relief he feels; he’s still struggling with the humiliation of being talked about like a lab rat. He knows it’s necessary but that doesn’t make it less galling. “Once that comes back we can proceed.” He glances at Sarah, then at Greg. “Why doesn’t Gene know?”

“I haven’t asked my patient if it’s okay to share this with him,” Sarah says. Greg feels the familiar clenching in his gut ease a bit. He lifts his gaze to hers.

“You can give Gunney the full story,” he says. She nods.

“Okay.” Will says. “So we do the drug screen and then the block.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Greg says. Actually he’s researched endoscopic thoracic sympathectomies in every journal and website article and message board he can find, and he hasn’t liked what he’s found. Empirical evidence of complications post-surgery have increased dramatically since he first read up on the procedure some years ago. The most common side effects—changes in sweating, vascular responses, heart rate and physical reaction to exercise—are not acceptable. He knows Will is an excellent surgeon, the kid has a list of accolades a mile long; he also knows surgeons live to cut. When your favorite tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

“What’s up?” Will asks.

“I want to try TENS first,” Greg says.

“Okay,” Will says, much to Greg’s surprise. “I can get you one of the new hybrid units. They’re a thing of beauty, man, a thing of beauty.”

“I doubt that a black box with multiple leads and big patches qualifies as beautiful,” Greg says. Will grins at him.

“When it delivers you out of pain you’ll think differently,” he says. “About seventy-five percent of my patients using TENS have significant reduction in moderate to severe pain. The latest models have presets but with a wider range so you can do more fine-tuning, and the boxes are a lot smaller.” He steeples his fingers. “You’ve been reading up on sympathectomy complications. The numbers look bad, but I keep a close eye on my patients and the number of reports of side effects is fairly small. In my opinion it’s still a good risk.”

“I’m not a sideline kind of guy by nature,” Greg says. “I’d rather be in the scrim.” Will nods.

“Gotcha. Well, we said at the beginning TENS was the logical first step. Come in next week and we’ll do the drug test and get that out of the way, then we’ll get you rigged up and ready to rumble.”

“Nice alliteration,” Greg says as they get ready to exit the room. “I bet you write really bad poetry too, don’t you?”

“Total slam,” Will says. “As soon as the power’s back we’ll set up the appointment.” He steps out and Greg shuts the door behind him, then leans against it, facing Sarah.

“You didn’t tell him I OD’ed,” he says.

“No, I didn’t,” Sarah says.

“I can’t wait to hear the reasoning behind your omission,” he says with as much sarcasm as he can muster.

“If Will had asked me for details I would have offered them. He didn’t, so I didn’t.” She looks at him, an assessing gaze that makes Greg uncomfortable. “You think it was a mistake, not telling him?”

“What would have been his response if you had?”

“Knowing Will, he would have asked you a few more questions about your state of mind, how you’re feeling now . . . and then he would have recommended you come in for a drug test before your appointment for the TENS unit fitting and configuration.”

Greg stares at her. She doesn’t back down, her face impassive.

“You’re lying,” he says.

“Nope,” she says. “Want me to prove it?” Before he can say anything she ducks around him and pulls the door open a little. “Will!” she yells through the crack. “Come back, we need ya!”

When the kid is in with them again Sarah says “What would you say if I told you Doctor House OD’ed during his relapse?”

Will shifts his gaze from Sarah to Greg. “Were you trying to commit suicide?” he asks, completely serious.

No,” Greg says. “It was . . . impulse. Stupidity. I got—overwhelmed.” He pauses. “I . . . didn’t want to hurt.” He lets a little pathos creep into his words just to see what reaction he’ll get.

“Dude. I may look inexperienced, but I know when I’m being played.” For the first time Will’s voice holds impatience. “Do you think anything like that will happen again?”

“How the hell should I know?” Greg snaps.

“Well, how are you feeling? Any better or worse than you did when you OD’ed?”

“I’m absolutely sodden with bliss,” he says, glaring at the younger man. Will glances at Sarah, who puts up a hand.

“Talk to him, not me,” she says.

“So seriously,” Will says, turning back to Greg, “how are you now?”

“Better,” Greg says reluctantly after a few moments of silence. The kid nods.

“Okay. Then we’ll do the drug test and the TENS fitting as planned.” He glances at Sarah, brows raised. “Anything else? I was about to grab a beer and flirt with the chica.”

“Chase isn’t divorced yet,” Greg says. Will rolls his eyes and Sarah chuckles.

“No, that’s it. Thanks.” When the young guy leaves she folds her arms and smirks at Greg in triumph.

“Yeah yeah,” he says, scowling at her. “BFD.”

“Getting a TENS unit is a good thing,” she says, her amusement fading. “You do know that, don’t you?”

Greg doesn’t answer her. He should feel excited, maybe even happy, but all he can manage is a sense of apprehension.

“You’re afraid it’ll fail like the ketamine did,” Sarah says softly. “It might, but I don’t think so.”

“So you really are all-knowing. No wonder you’re making the big bucks,” he says, deliberately being nasty.

“No,” she says. “I’m observant.” She moves beside him. “May I touch you?”

He waits a long time before he nods yes. Her hand comes to rest on his upper back, light as air.

“Give it a try,” she says. “Remember, you have other options. Gene will be home soon and you can sit down with him to go over your pain protocols as well.”

“You don’t have to comfort me,” he mutters.

“I’m reminding you of things you know very well but have forgotten for the moment,” she says. He can hear the smile in her voice. “It’s not comfort, it’s self-preservation.”

He can’t help but smile. “Good to know you have your priorities straight.”

“Always do, son.” She gives him a slow, gentle rub, then removes her hand. “Think we’ve been in here long enough to start some rumors?”

“Maybe just a little longer. It’ll boost my reputation,” he says, and she laughs.

“Come on, let’s go babysit the kids. I’ll make popcorn if you do hand shadows.”