The Second Level of Hell

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Thanks go out to Aurelia Priscus for double-checking the sap quotient for me. Here's hoping the sentiment hasn't ventured OOC. ::crosses fingers::

The last strains of "Silent Night" faded away. House lifted his hands from the keys slowly, giving the sounds a moment to dissipate before he picked up his glass and turned on the piano bench to face his visitor.

"And here I thought you weren't a Christmas person," Wilson said, smiling a little. He swirled his own drink absently. There was no sound of rattling ice; it had almost entirely melted by now. "You played that entirely without sheet music."

"It's not a particularly complicated song," House said dismissively. He lifted his own drink to sip the now-watery liquor.

"Now, I can't decide if that's you being uncharacteristically honest, or characteristically arrogant." Wilson narrowed his eyes speculatively, "It could go either way."

"You know me better than that."

Wilson chuckled. "Right. Arrogant it is."

House toasted him with his glass but brought it down to rest on top of his knees, loosely cradled by his fingers, rather than sipping from it. The condensation crept down the glass and made damp spots on his pant leg. He contemplated the melted ice, the empty cartons of Chinese food, and the sight of his friend. Wilson was sprawled on the couch, head propped up in one hand. He was so buttoned down in the hospital, it was nice to see him with his tie loosened, his sleeves pushed up a little.

It was going to be a shame to ruin it.

"Do you really not want to talk about it," House asked abruptly, "or were you attempting to spare me from further melodrama?"

Wilson's shoulders hunched up a little with tension. "I thought you didn't want to talk about it, either."

"This is a limited time offer," House said, lifting his glass to take a sip. "Speak now or forever hold your peace."

Wilson threw back the rest of his drink in one gulp and set the tumbler down on the coffee table. Hard. He leaned all the way back on the couch and fixed his eyes on the ceiling. "It's such a cliche," he admitted, sounding almost embarrassed. "She says I'm more committed to being a doctor than I am to her."

"Are you?"

House remembered. When they'd first met, before Wilson had gotten married, both of them had been the type to stay up late, reading medical journals and the charts of interesting cases if there was nothing else on their plates. But that had changed when James had met her. His wife. Dates had taken precedence over study. The long nights grew less common, then stopped altogether. By the time they got married, House only ever saw his friend at the hospital. He stood up for him as best man and realized, looking across at the woman in white, that he'd met her only a handful of times.

"That's the problem," Wilson said contemplatively, drawing House out of his introspection. "I'm not sure."

Oh, really. "Look at the symptoms," House said briskly. He held his glass in two fingers and ticked off points with the others. "You're spending more and more time at the hospital. When your own caseload is light, instead of going home, you come and see how my cases are going. It's past ten PM on Christmas Day and you're spending it eating out of a box with a man who doesn't even own a tree."

"Why do I care if you have a tree?" Wilson said, rolling his head to look at House. "I'm Jewish."

"Tell me you've got a menorah set up at home instead of a Christmas tree and maybe I'll buy that excuse."

"Chanukah is a comparatively minor holiday," Wilson looked back at the ceiling.

"I'm taking that to mean no menorah," House said dryly. "The fact that you're here tells me you're not trying too hard to fix whatever it is that's gone wrong. If you don't want to be married to her anymore, get a divorce."

Wilson let out a half laugh, half snort. "Not the usual sort of advice a man with marital troubles is looking for."

Bending a sardonic gaze on his friend, House set down his empty glass on the piano bench and leaned forward. "If you wanted someone to tell you that everything was going to be all right and you just had to talk to her and that love will, of course, conquer all, then you picked the wrong person to ask."

"Did I ask?" He hadn't. House had offered. James's expression was sliding slowly into curiosity. Damn it. The man knew him too well. "As I recall," Wilson commented, "you never much liked her to begin with."

How was he supposed to like the woman that was seducing his friend away from him? House let his eyes rest for a moment on James, sunk comfortably into his couch cushions, happier here than at home with the woman he was supposed to love. It didn't matter if House believed in God or not, he knew. He was going to burn anyway. If not for the old, deep warmth he felt for this man, then for hoping his marriage went to hell. As quickly as possible.

"She was too flighty to have any understanding of what it takes to be a good doctor," House said aloud. "The only reason it lasted as long as it did is because an oncologist can almost turn his career into a nine to five job."

"I never wanted a nine to five job."

"Shame that she wanted one for you."

Wilson turned his head and frowned at him. "Do you want me to leave my wife?"

Yes. "Do you?" House returned the question pointedly.

"I feel guilty for not wanting to try anymore," Wilson admitted quietly. "I'm tired of making compromises."

"I've got a couch. Get some sleep. You won't feel so tired anymore."

House couldn't look at his friend as he made the offer. James had never slept over before. Even on those long nights, long ago, they'd usually dropped off in uncomfortable chairs in one of their offices or one of the lounges or, occasionally, in the lab. House had never opened his eyes and started the day with James already there, in the corner of his vision, like he had been so often lately.

She had her chance. She had four and a half years, and she blew it. Maybe House wouldn't do any better. Maybe James wouldn't even let him. But he could try.

Tests take time. Treatment is faster. The theory worked for all sorts of heartache.

"I shouldn't drive anyway," Wilson said at last. "I've been drinking."

It had only been one brandy, but House wasn't going to argue.