nightdog_barks: (House In Library)
[personal profile] nightdog_barks
Title: Highwayman
Authors: [personal profile] nightdog_barks and [personal profile] blackmare.
Characters: House, Wilson, an OC
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Yes, for supernatural elements and an especially vivid dream.
Spoilers: None
Summary: A mysterious encounter on a dark road leaves House in a quandary.
Author Notes: Cut-text is from The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooesis and Performance, by Una Chaudhuri.
Intrepid Readers: [personal profile] pwcorgigirl



Highwayman


August


A thousand yards away, pelted by the rain and riding for his life, he hears the second fuel tank blow.

Good, he thinks. Good.




The heavy hotel curtains are closed when he gets to his room, but there's still some light from the sickly yellow beams of the parking lot bulbs, so he tugs at the blackout liners, making sure that last strip of window pane is covered.

The thick clouds have made dusk fall sooner than it should. He locks the deadbolt, adds the chain, and turns off the air conditioner: It's been ten minutes since he limped into the lobby, and he hasn't stopped shivering yet. The parts of him that aren't numb are sore, or stinging from the rain. When he finally peels his way out of his soaking, stiff, ice-cold clothes, his skin is all pink along the rain-whipped zones and white everywhere else, so white it's damn near blue.

"Blue baby," House mumbles. "Blues Brothers. Babe and his blue ox," and then he has to stop because if he doesn't he'll just keep talking nonsense to himself and he can't do that, because he's got to call Wilson.

His phone's in the back pocket of his jeans, and he digs it out with numb fingers that don't want to grip, because he's got to call Wilson. Call right away, warn him about ... what? Vampire locust undead bikers from hell? Oh, yeah, that'll go over great, land him another lovely vacation at the Mayfield Resort and Spa.

Still, he should call Wilson. Too bad his phone got so much water in it. House gives up, tosses it on the bathroom countertop, and starts filling the tub for a long, hot bath.




He sits on the bed, wrapped in both the robes that had been folded on the bathroom shelf, staring at the old-fashioned hotel phone on the nightstand. The urge to call Wilson has not lessened; the trouble is what the hell to say. And that's if Wilson even answers a strange number on a Saturday night.

I counted the mile markers even though it was raining so hard I couldn't read most of them. I rode nine miles from the wreck because I'm insane and I think that's the minimum safe distance even though that's ridiculous, so here I am at this shiny new hotel with a Starbucks and a truck stop next door, and I still don't feel okay. So after we get off the phone I'm going down to the restaurant for a hard drink and to steal a salt shaker when they aren't looking.

"Also," he adds, aloud, "I needed to make sure the thing I saw hadn't already found you and killed you."

No, he may be nuts but he's still not stupid. Not that kind of stupid, anyway.

He dials the number.




Wilson won't know who this is, and he may not pick it up, but --

"Hello, this is Doctor Wilson."

Thank god. "Wilson. Are you okay?"

"I'm ... you never ask that. House, what happened?"

"Nothing happened. I'm at the Best Western off ... never mind, it doesn't matter, but if you see anything about a wrecked bike and a dead trucker on 76 northbound, it wasn't me."

"You're calling so I won't worry? Not that I don't appreciate it, but that's ... new. And why are you asking if I'm okay?"

"Shook up," House answers, more honestly than he means to. "I was ... shaken up. I wasn't in the wreck. I'm okay. I'll see you tomorrow, Wilson. Don't answer the door for any strangers."

He hangs up before he can even ask himself what the hell he meant by that.




Thanks for calling Best Western Carlisle, this is Clarissa, how may I help you?

"Hi, uh, I'm looking for a friend of mine who called from this number. Greg House?"

A pause, the clicking of a few keys. House? Spelled like --

"Just like it sounds." Rhymes with souse, Wilson wants to say, but House hadn't sounded drunk ...

Mmm, I'm sorry, I don't see that name. Could he have checked into a different location, or under a family member's name?

"Uh ... try James Wilson," Wilson says.

I see a Doctor James Wilson?

"That's the one." The one whose AmEx House pilfered and used to pay for the room, which is why Wilson couldn't find it when he went to lunch the day before. "Can you put me through?"

Certainly, sir. One moment please.

Wilson waits for the ring and House's voice, but all he gets is the steady buzzing of a busy signal. He hangs on for a minute, thinking Clarissa might return, but, having done her duty, she's gone.

He puts the phone down. I'll try again, he thinks, and this time he gets Lori, but the result is the same.

"Are you talking to Cuddy?" Wilson asks the phone. "Foreman?" The phone is obstinate and refuses to answer.

Maybe he's calling a hooker. Phone sex. The most charitable explanation is that House has unplugged the phone to try and get some sleep.

That's the explanation Wilson decides to go with as he turns and shifts in bed, trying to find a more comfortable spot.

Whatever's going on, he's sure House will tell him soon enough.




House has, indeed, unplugged his room phone. He doesn't need any more questions from Wilson.

Mostly because he can't answer them. The only question he thinks he can handle right now is, "What'll you have?", so he finds his way -- barefoot and in his double-bathrobe, limping heavily -- down to the hotel bar.

The place is dark, mostly empty, full of trailing pots of ivy. The bartender glances at the cane and at the sign reading NO SHOES, NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE, and he sees her smile as she decides in favor of making a buck rather than throwing him out. Maybe the bar staff is used to under-dressed customers when there's no room service.

When he leaves an hour later, he feels somewhat better, partly because of the drinks and partly because of the full shaker of salt he slipped into a bathrobe pocket.

House does not believe in this shit, but just in case it believes in him, he's going to draw a line of salt across the doorway to his room. He already knows how he'll explain the stupidity: He'll tell himself it's just because he's drunk.




He's almost dozed off when the news anchor's drone stops lulling him to sleep and snaps him out of it.

-- searching for the missing rider of a black motorcycle recovered from the scene --

"Shit," House says. He fumbles for the remote, turns up the volume.

-- approximately five o'clock this afternoon. At least one person is dead in a fiery crash after an eighteen-wheeler lost control, possibly while trying to avoid a head-on collision with the motorcycle.

The scene cuts to what is clearly recorded footage from a few hours prior. Daylight, with rain still falling lightly on the sheriff's crisp white shirt. It's unfortunate, but there is no way a person walks away from a scene like this, the sheriff tells the reporter, and right now it's just a mystery as to why we've only found one victim. He pauses, listening to a question that's garbled on the audio, then shakes his head. We haven't ruled it out, definitely haven't ruled out criminal activity, but that's all we can say until we find a body.

"Yeah," House hears himself say. "Good luck with that."

When the camera cuts back to the news room, the anchor is caught unaware and has to quickly exchange his smile at something off-screen for that patented Concerned Media Person face, with the furrowed brow and serious eyes.

Police are asking any witnesses to the accident, or anyone who knows the identity of the missing biker, to please call them at --

House clicks it off.

He should have bought just one more drink.




Wet reflections on the tarmac, red and gold, the high beams of the truck cab's headlights, inexplicably still on. An arm hanging out of the cab's window, untouched by fire, the hand crushing a pack of cigarettes in a death grip. The Dead Biker, right in front of him.

Run! House's brain screams, but some small part of his mind that's not gibbering in terror informs him calmly that this is sleep paralysis, and he has about as much chance of moving as of attempting a pole vault.

"Hello, Greg," the Dead Biker says, and no that voice is so familiar, no no.

The Dead Biker lifts one gloved hand, raises his face shield. Blue eyes (no), House's own face tilted at that cockeyed angle, a wide grin.

"Thought you'd never get here."

House jerks awake, gasping for breath.




The things Wilson doesn't say when he answers the door:

"My god, House, you look like hell. Go sit down."
"My god, House, did you sleep in your clothes?"
"My god, House, we need to talk."

All this does run through Wilson's mind, but what he offers is a wide open door and a sweeping gesture for come in.

"Beer?" he says.

"Whiskey'd be better," House says, but he doesn't refuse the beer Wilson brings him.

"I looked up the news reports. Please tell me you are not somehow the dead guy they're looking for."

"Nope," House answers. He takes a long swallow of beer. "But I was there."

"You were ... there, as in somehow involved?"

"There, as in first on the scene. I saw the explosion from ... maybe half a mile off."

"Okay. That's ... yeah, that's disturbing, but something blows up, someone dies, it's gruesome, but you and I see gruesome every day. What aren't you telling me?" A sudden, horrible thought strikes. "House. Are you having -- are you seeing -- "

"No," House says. "But I did see something. Besides the Big Bang."

"Okay. And?"

"And there is no way in hell I'm calling the cops to talk about it." He pauses for a long pull on his bottle of beer. "And I need to schedule an MRI. Or ... not schedule it, and not answer anyone's questions."

"You'll have to answer mine or I'm not helping you do that."

"Did you miss the part where I said whiskey would be better?"

"House, you're -- " Wilson takes a breath, blinks a few times, and comes to a conclusion. "Okay. I ... have some good scotch. This story had better be worth it."




The story starts just past mile marker 42, when House realizes he's made a fundamental error in judgment. That's the point at which someone upends a bucket in the clouds and the rain shower he's been fighting since Pittsburgh becomes a full-blown gale. If he listens closely, he can hear a voice, Wilson's voice, in the back of his mind, just under the wind and rain.

Couldn't wait, could you?

"Shut up," House mumbles, and grips the handlebars of his bike tighter. He's slowed down as much as he can without becoming a road hazard, and he's just lucky there's no other traffic coming or going, no one driving too fast behind him, ready to plow into his bike and knock him into the next county.

Whatever the next county is.

His rear tire slips, and House wrestles it back straight just before he goes over.

"Fuck," he chants. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," and then he's too busy trying to survive the inch of water on the old, sagging asphalt to say anything else.




He hears the accident before he sees it -- a dull, almost subsonic thud!, that at first he thinks is thunder but when the plume of black smoke rises above the treetops he knows it isn't.

At mile marker 49 he rounds the curve, the stink of burning rubber already hot under his face shield, and the scene unfolds. That big boom was the fuel tank of a diesel truck, jackknifed across the southbound lane, skid marks trailing behind it in an elegant double arc.

House brakes to a slow stop, because it would be really stupid to hydroplane now and become part of the wreck. He cuts the engine of his bike and sizes up what must have happened.

It was Truck vs. Motorcycle, but unlike most such contests, they both lost.

The only thing still moving is the fire, flames licking at the air like a thirsty dog, sending sparks flying. There's no trucker standing on the roadside, helplessly watching the rain fail to extinguish his rig. So either he got out and fled, or he didn't get out at all. The cab has burned into a few metallic bones on the driver's side, and what's left is caught in a thicket of smoke and fire. If there's a body in there, it's impossible to tell.

The guy who is really most sincerely dead is the biker, whose black-clad corpse is sprawled in a macabre pose on the tarmac, on the inside of the flaming ell formed by the burning cab and trailer. No blood, House notes. Broken neck, massive trauma, internal hemorrhage of the 'Congrats, you're a Jell-o shot' variety. The twisted remains of the motorcycle are strewn in two large chunks and dozens of fragments over fifty yards of highway.

Even where he is, in the breakdown lane on the northbound shoulder, House can feel the heat blasting off the truck, a bonfire.

His aching muscles don't know the difference between this and an electric blanket, so he dismounts, stiffly, to take advantage of the warmth. Loosen up that leg while he can, while the truck burns and the rain has eased back to a drizzle between one squall line and the next. And then, for all the good it'll do, he'll call 911 and let the locals come clean up the mess.

He turns around, takes a few steps south to get out of the shifting smoke, and that's when he sees that the truck's right fuel tank is still intact.

Shit. Time to make that call and get away, fast. He fumbles his phone from inside his jacket as the rain picks up again.

Fast is difficult when your hands are numb with cold and your wet leather gloves are practically glued on and you're attempting to not let your brand new phone get as soaked as the rest of you and you're noticing there are no apparent skid marks from the tires of Dead Guy's bike.

He looks again, squinting against the puddles and flickering reflections as he moves away. Nope, no skid marks at all, so either it happened too fast for the rider to react ... or it wasn't an accident. The phone is getting wet, so he shakes it, which is a useless thing to do and yet he does it anyway.

"Only assholes involve other people when they off themselves," House mutters, because come on, he should know, and also, he should get the hell out of here and then call it in, and he's jamming his phone into the nearest pocket when the body on the asphalt starts to move.

It can't move. It can't. The neck is so shattered that the head hangs backward, its helmeted crown against the body's spinal column. The arms and legs are all bent in directions nature never intended; even if the neck weren't snapped, it isn't pos--

-- the man is upright, his jet black face shield staring upward to the clouds, his splayed and crooked legs swaying beneath him.

"Not possible," House says, barely hearing himself above the strange buzzing noise that's rising all around him. He can't feel the heat from the wreckage anymore. The buzzing gets louder -- an angry wasp in a bell jar. The figure on the road shudders, shifts, and for half a second appears to dissolve into something else, a writhing mass of ink or smoke, a swarm of black insects -- and then it snaps back to solidity with all its parts where they ostensibly belong.

As if nothing had happened at all.

House doesn't know that the driver of the rig is dead, but he knows that the driver of the rig is dead.

Because this guy killed him.

House scrambles onto his bike, and his shaking hands can barely grip the key to crank it up.

A thousand yards away, riding for his life, he hears the second fuel tank blow.

Good, he thinks. Good.




"Well," Wilson says, and then, "All right," and then, softly, "All right," again. He's been mostly silent through House's narrative, making small motions with his hands to encourage House to keep speaking rather than saying anything.

Like I'm one of his patients, House thinks, and doesn't know if the thought frightens or consoles him.

"Well, I can see why you didn't want to call the cops," Wilson says. He leans back in his chair, rubs thoughtfully at the back of his neck.

"You'll stay here tonight," he says, and while usually House would argue a unilateral decision like this, right now he's just relieved.




First Week of September

Trucker's Deadly Mystery Will Likely go Unsolved

It's a minor headline on a minor article, buried three links deep in the minor local paper. Wilson hasn't told House he's been looking for this.

It was a sad, strange end of the road for Carl Paxton of Pittsburgh, a thirty-year veteran driver yada yada blah blah quiet, seemed to have few friends, missed by the company, a son in Arkansas who said they hadn't spoken much in decades.

The whole story is "nobody knows." A jackknifed truck shouldn't just blow up. A body shouldn't vanish. A bike last seen in totally inoperable condition at a salvage yard shouldn't be on the highway.

Sheriff Olson, whose department investigated the wreck as a possible crime scene, came up empty-handed. The biker's remains have still not been found. The bike's previous owner was located alive and well, and the salvage yard doesn't know when or how the machine went missing.

Asked to sum up the situation, Sheriff Olson simply replied, "It's the weirdest damn thing I've ever seen."


Not as weird, Wilson thinks, as what House saw. He considers for a moment, then forwards House the link.




Second Week of September

House doesn't usually want a cigarette at work, but he does now. The cafeteria today is too noisy, too bright, too many people, and Wilson's tied up with a chemo patient responding badly to treatment. He picks at his french fries and finally ends up tracing a double integral in the ketchup with his fork.

"Saddest fucking thing," the EMTs at the next table are saying, and at first House ignores them because EMTs are always bullshitting about sad fucking things, but it's the way this story goes that catches his attention:

... burns all over his body, he's going into shock, and all the poor guy keeps asking is What about the biker, I hit a motorcycle, where is he, all the way to the hospital and boom! his lungs collapse and he can't say anything else. And Troy keeps saying, dude, calm down, there was no biker, but the guy's on his way out.

Poor bastard was DOA, and he checked out thinking he killed someone, and that's just fucking tragic.


One of the other EMTs pipes up, and without turning around House can picture him, a mousy little guy with nicotine fingertips. Troy, House thinks.

You can always tell the guys who don't have anybody, because they worry about who else was in the crash instead of about their kid or their wife.

Or their girlfriend
, somebody else says.

Girlfriend, boyfriend, basset hound, whatever, Troy concedes, but you know what I mean. It's just so fuckin' sad, is what it is.

House has heard enough. As he leaves, he doesn't take his half-empty tray to the trash. He's shaking so hard that he doesn't trust himself not to drop it.

He doesn't stop walking until he reaches a hallway alcove over by Admissions, where he ducks into the shadows and pulls out his new new phone.

"Wilson," House says. "That MRI we talked about?" He takes a deep breath. "I'm ready."




"Well," Wilson says. "Not only are your scans normal, they're disgustingly normal."

"I love you too," House says.

Wilson almost smiles.




The next day, for the first time since he saw the crash, House rides the Repsol to work.

Wilson looks up and notes the leather jacket with a raised eyebrow. Greatly to his credit, he chooses not to remark on it.

"You busy for lunch today?" he asks, instead.

"Oh, I'm always free if you're buying." House tries out a leer. "Not that I'm a cheap date or anything."

"Don't I know it," Wilson sighs.

It's going to be all right, House thinks. Whatever he saw -- whatever he hallucinated, because he couldn't possibly have seen it -- it was born of borderline hypothermia, possible hypoglycemia, and probable toxic smoke inhalation from the wreck. A one-off, freak occurrence that --

-- doesn't explain why they never found the second body, his brain reminds him.

"Fuck off," says House, and then "Not you," when Wilson looks up and scowls at him. The scowl deepens and House realizes what Wilson must now be thinking.

"I'm not hallucinating. You've never had to tell yourself to shut up?"

"You ... usually do that for me."

"See you at lunch, Wilson."




Third Week of September

Wilson's neck hurts, as it often does, after weeks like these. He doesn't allow himself to massage the stiff muscles until he's alone here in his office, the lab coat off, tie loosened. Close eyes, breathe deep, start to feel a little better; this is right around the time when House, if House isn't already here annoying him, usually barges in.

Sure enough, no sooner does he open his eyes than he sees the tall figure on his balcony. Getting too predictable, he murmurs. House will hate that accusation.

Although, perhaps Wilson's making it too soon. House is out there in full leathers and bike helmet, with night falling and his visor down, and where is his cane? Did he drop it climbing over the wall, or is something else going on? If he's back on methadone and hasn't told me, Wilson thinks, I'm gonna kill him.

The thought is interrupted by a sound of something buzzing around his office, something heavy and large, like the flies that invaded the house when he was twelve and his dad put rat bait out and something died in the attic.

Wilson looks for the source of it but can't see any bugs. There's only House, standing out there, staring through that glass door at him. Waiting. Wilson realizes that the skin from the top of his head all the way down the backs of his legs is prickling; it suddenly hurts to breathe.

And then the dark figure moves forward, moves without moving his feet, and none of the hospital's lights reflect on that black visor but there's something else, something floating like an ember in there, and terror strikes Wilson like a fist to the center of his chest.

"You're not House," he says.

Those are the last coherent words Wilson's brain forms from that moment until he's down in the parking garage, running, looking over his shoulder every other second, stumbling, catching himself on someone's side view mirror.

House has already gone home, and Wilson has to find him. He fumbles his phone out of his pocket the moment he's safely in his car, engine running, doors locked.

"I'm hungry," House says, instead of hello.

"House. Order us something." He's panting and his throat constricted, at the same time. "But when they knock, don't fucking answer until you see who it is." He drops the phone in his lap without ending the call, and he can faintly hear House saying Wilson? Wilson! as he practically burns rubber, burns rubber on the Volvo that's never done him any harm pulling out of the parking garage.




"You told me to check before I opened the door," House says. "That's interesting."

"Stop being a jackass and let me in!" Wilson pushes past him, slams the door and locks it. Deadbolt, chain; House could swear he's eyeing the sofa as a possible barricade.

"I, I ... probably should've called security," Wilson says. He looks so pale. "It ... didn't occur to me. Are the storm windows locked?" He's pacing, and Wilson doesn't pace. "I get why you didn't call the cops," he continues. "Tell them, what? There's this guy, he has, has ... a red, a little red, glowing ... bug, or something, floating around where his face ought to be? And oh, he wants to kill me, officer, and I swear he was right there a minute ago."

House has abruptly gone from ravenously hungry to faintly sick.

"The bug," he says. "You said ... "

"Bouncing around in there like a firefly in a jar. If fireflies were red, and didn't blink, and wanted you to die, Mister Bond."

"I never told you about that." He knows he didn't mention it, because he considered and decided against. "Didn't seem important."

"It probably isn't." Wilson vanishes into House's kitchen, and when he returns, he's got two beers and House's big container of salt.

"Drink first," House tells him. "Whiskey works better. Then put the salt lines down. You'll feel slightly less stupid that way."

Wilson doesn't ask him how he'd know that.




Fourth Week of September


The thing is on House's bike in the parking garage, sitting there as if it belongs, as if it were human.

We may take, it says, and its voice is like a cicada, a buzzing grasshopper, if an insect could speak, that which is abandoned.

"I haven't abandoned my bike," House says. He can barely hear his voice over the pounding pulse in his ears. "I haven't abandoned anything. But you can take it and leave."

We would have this machine and you even now. We would.

The light beneath the black visor shifts, as if looking at Wilson, and House can't help following suit. He sees the change in Wilson's face, from sheer terror to terror-and-something-else, terror and anger, and House feels him reach out, left hand fumbling until it finds House's right, which is clenched around the cane. Wilson closes his fingers over House's, cane and all.

"No," Wilson says to the killer, reaper, insect demon swarm, whatever the fuck this is, "No," but by then its shape is elongating, stretching into a sheet of black nothingness that snakes past their faces and whips through the cars and is gone.

They stand there, hand on hand on cane, until the sound of the stairwell door jolts them out of their mutual trance.

"You're driving," House says. He walks to the passenger side of the Volvo, keeping it and Wilson between himself and his bike.

Even once they're settled and belted into their seats, they can't stop staring at the spot.

"House," Wilson says. "Did we ... did we actually see what I thought we just saw?"

House wants to say no. He wants to say no more than anything in the world right now.

"Yes," he says.

Wilson sits for another moment, still looking at House's bike. He puts his hands on the steering wheel, still looking at the bike.

"You're selling that thing," he says at last.

"No shit, Sherlock," House says. "Now drive."




The motorcycle is gone. House misses it, but not as much as he thought he would. One week to the day after the trip to the dealer, he walks in on Wilson transfixed in front of the TV, watching the news.

Something large is burning in the night. The news team says it was a tanker truck, and House will have to trust them on that. It all runs together as the last of the flames subsides into steam and smoke:

Road closed tragic fiery unknown cause one witness claims motorcycle and --

House snatches the remote from Wilson's hand and turns the thing off. "Staying here tonight?" he asks.

"I'll take the sofa," Wilson replies. He hasn't moved an inch.

"I'm calling a realtor in the morning."

"What?"

"I'm moving. Do I look for one bedroom, or two?"




October

He'd left the range light on in the kitchen, knowing he might need it if he got up in the night.

Wise move, he thinks now, as he threads his way through the canyon of cardboard boxes in their new living room. The need to pee had pulled him out of sleep, and then the leg promised to keep him up the rest of the night unless he took something now.

And then he remembered they'd been drinking a little and he'd left his pills on the kitchen counter.

He stands at their new, old-fashioned sink, filling a plastic cup with tap water, listening to a small noise from the window.

There's a bug on the outside of the glass. House watches it while he takes the pills. It's black, long, almost wasp-like, not a species he knows. It walks circles, lifts off, pelts itself against the pane, buzzes stubbornly along the outline of the window frame, trying to get in.

Something tightens in House's throat. He lifts his hand as if to press the palm against the glass, but keeps it a couple inches from touching.

Immediately, the bug is there, in the center of the reflection of his palm. House moves his hand slowly, testing. Up, left, down, right, circle, figure eight.

It follows without fail. If it were on the inside, he'd kill it.

He goes back through Cardboard Canyon, back to his new bedroom, the only one that has furniture yet. Wilson is propped up on one elbow in bed, watching him.

"You okay?"

"Had to pee." He climbs carefully back into bed, not jostling the leg, not jostling Wilson. "It's fine. Go back to sleep."

House can't hear the bug anymore. He hopes it's gone. It's probably gone.

Wilson sighs, shifts and turns over.

House wonders if he could get away with putting an arm around him.

Turns out, he can.



~ fin




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