Paint the Town Red

by Kass


This one's set after "House vs. God."

My thanks, first of all, to Hyperfocused who dreamt up the Ten Plagues Challenge...but most of all, to Tzikeh and Leaper182 for coming up with this marvelous premise (and title) and bestowing them upon me. This story wouldn't exist were it not for them; shower them with praises!

And thanks to Sanj, Michelle, and Tzikeh for beta. (Especially Tzikeh. Who got me out of a bind, once "House vs. God" aired and I had to scramble a little to make my draft fit new canon.)

He'd been looking forward to a lazy Monday morning. He had planned to dick around on the internet a little, as soon as he conquered this level of Super Mario Bros.

But if there was any truism House knew well, it was the inverse relationship between what you want and what you get. It was barely ten a.m. when Cuddy dropped a case file on the table. "All yours," she said, and left again.

Cameron rifled through it. "Twenty-seven year old male, sudden-onset coma."

"Why do we have this case? It's brain cancer," House said. "Boring."

"Actually, not." Wilson, leaning against the doorway.

"Well, of course you don't think it's boring, you're the oncologist."

"I mean, it's not cancer."

Huh. That made things a little bit more interesting. Still not interesting enough to look up from his GameBoy, though.

"Test him for bloodbornes," House said.

"Oncology already did," Cameron said. "There aren't any."

"You trust those yahoos? Test him again. Do a tox screen while you're at it."

"Yahoos?" Wilson sounded amused, with a dash of faux-wounded on top.

House glanced up. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't know you were still standing there."

Wilson snorted and headed back to his own office.

For all his grousing, House had to admit it might do him good to have something to think about besides how much he wished he'd tripped Wilson with his cane and fucked him right through his leather couch while he'd had the chance.

Work wasn't fun, but maybe it would be distracting.

It wasn't. Wilson dropped by far more often than was reasonable. Historically House had welcomed that, but these days he wasn't sure what he wanted more, to kick Wilson or to kiss him, and he was giving himself whiplash.

Plus, work was frustrating. The guy with the coma hadn't had a stroke, or trauma to the head; no perceptible electrolyte imbalances or hypoxia, no CNS infection; nothing. House would've said it was impossible, except that it manifestly wasn't.

By Thursday, all reasonable leads having been dead ends, he sent Chase and Foreman out to search the guy's apartment. While they were out, he got paged: helicopter was bringing him another sudden coma patient.

No sign of cancer on this one, either. Bloodwork didn't show anything out of the ordinary. Also’—and this made it far weirder -- he was eleven.

"Did you look for drugs, or just diseases?"

"Don't tell me you think the kid's a user. He's eleven years old." Chase sounded offended by the very notion.

House shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time. Test him again." He was busy dividing the whiteboard into two columns: Coma Guy One and Coma Guy Two.

"You think they're connected?" The tilt of Foreman's head screamed skepticism.

"Two inexplicable coma patients in the span of 24 hours? I don't believe in coincidence," House said. Of course, he didn't have much to write in either column, besides "coma."

"What if it's environmental?" Cameron, this time.

"You boys find anything at the first guy's house?"

Foreman shook his head. "Pizza boxes and beer cans, but no toxins."

"That was David," Cameron said. "This is Alex. Totally different case, remember?"

"True." House picked up his yo-yo. "Your turn. If anybody asks, say you're his teacher or something."

And then there were three. Friday morning they got an Italian guy, thirty-one. Coma, no tumors, nothing in the blood, no drugs. Not akinetic mutism; not catatonia; not a stroke. Nothing viral or bacterial that any of their tests could see.

They were arguing about whose turn it was to search his house when all of their beepers went off: guy number one was losing the ability to breathe.

"Three people isn't an epidemic in my book," House snapped.

"I don't care." Cuddy had her hands on her hips: never a good sign. "Get them out of MICU; whatever this is, I don't want to risk contagion. And fix it, House."

"I won't have time for clinic duty," he called as she walked away.

"You can make it up next week!"

"Spoilsport," he muttered. She wasn't even wearing a good shirt today. Where was the fun in Cuddy reading him the riot act if he couldn't even ogle her tits?

House had them all moved into clean rooms. Foreman prepped ventilators for guys two and three; House figured it was only a matter of time before they went the way of guy one.

By Sunday House hadn't been home in four days. Now that Wilson was gone home was less enticing than it had been, but being kept away from it still made him cranky. Crankier.

All three coma patients were on respirators now. Their vitals were steady...for now. House didn't trust them to stay that way. Inability to breathe presaged the inevitable slide from coma to brain death. Definitely not what you'd call a good outcome.

They'd tried MRIs, ultrasound, EEG, LP. Nothing revealed anything out of the ordinary. Nothing explained the coma or the failing respiratory systems.

It didn't make sense. Which worried him, because if he couldn't make sense of one symptom, he couldn't predict what was coming next. He took it out on Chase, mostly, and Cameron; Foreman was smart enough to stay out of his way.

"Wouldn't you think this cafeteria would try something original once in a while?"

Wilson glanced over the offerings, which gave House the chance to steal an olive off his salad. "Still no ideas on the coma guys, huh."

"Nothing useful, no."

"Try the orzo stirfry. It's not as bland as it looks."

House got a cheeseburger instead, and fries, and followed Wilson to the check-out line. "I'm with him," he said, and Wilson didn't even roll his eyes, just paid.

When they got to the table, House speared a baby corn off Wilson's salad plate.

"Hey! Get your own salad."

"Forgot my wallet."

Wilson made an irritated noise. "Fine. I'll get you a salad." He reached for his back pocket.

House grabbed another olive off his plate. "No need. I'm happy to eat yours."

"Fine," Wilson said, murderously, pinching two of House's fries.

House grinned. This was more like it.

"...Have you actually met Doctor House?" The voice carried from the far end of the room: the eleven-year-old's mother. Talking to -- House gave them a quick glance’—the father of guy three. They must've met in the waiting area outside the clean rooms.

House froze and ducked down in his seat a little. "Hide me," he hissed.

"You're such a baby," Wilson said, and kept eating.

"No," the dad said. "After lunch I'm going to find his office. I'm tired of getting jerked around."

"You and me both," Wilson muttered, but he was grinning.

"You know you like it," House stage-whispered, but then the relatives' conversation caught his ear again.

"...What a goddamned week, you know?" The mother said. "First we had this thing with our pipes..."

"Being jerked around isn't exactly what I had in mind," Wilson began, and there was an intriguing hint of innuendo in that, but there was something interesting happening at the parents' table; House shushed him.

"Wait, rusty water?" the father said, and the mother nodded. "Weird; us too. You think it's a municipal thing?"

She shrugged. "After that, if you can believe it, we got frogs. All over the damn yard. We don't have a pond or anything; I couldn't figure out where they came from."

"You know, we had those too. I thought maybe they were just hatching at this time of year. Is it early for spring peepers?"

House stared into the distance. Red water. Frogs... It was like hearing the first two numbers of the Fibonacci sequence and suddenly realizing what came next. He pushed back his chair and stalked over to the table where the mother and the father had their trays. "What about lice?"

They stared at him. "What?"

"Lice. Did somebody in your household get lice." When they didn't answer immediately he got exasperated. "It's not a complicated question, c'mon!"

"My son did," the mother admitted.

"And you didn't think to mention this?"

"What would lice have to do with a coma?"

"How about you, Giuseppe?" House wasn't sure what the Italian guy's name was. He was pretty sure it wasn't Giuseppe, but it had a nice ring to it.

The guy looked reluctant but finally nodded. "My boy did, too."

House turned, using his cane for a pivot, and high-tailed it for his office, leaving Wilson with the two trays.

First thing he did when he got upstairs was page Foreman. "Where'd we get that pig, the one we used to clean that guy's blood?"

"From the Agway on River Road." Foreman sounded dubious already. "Why?"

"You think they've got lambs?"

"I don't want to know, do I?"

"And get a couple of paintbrushes."

What did it mean to paint the lintel, exactly? House pondered. He couldn't reach the top part of the doorframe comfortably, so he'd have to settle for part of the post. He dipped the brush in his little bucket and drew a sticky line alongside the door.

Just then Wilson came out of his office. "House? What on earth are you ’—" he sniffed. "Is that blood?"

"Lamb's," House said, affably.

"Okay, what are you on?"

"Nothing. Vicodin. The usual."

"There's no way this is just the product of sleep debt and ordinary painkillers. What the hell is going on?"

"Okay, I might've nipped one of your 'medical marijuana' cigarettes," House admitted, "but I'll replace it with one from my own stash tomorrow! I promise."

Wilson was still staring at the wall. "You're painting my doorpost with blood."

"Foreman's doing the clean rooms."

"They're...clean rooms."

"He's not painting the insides," House pointed out.

"I'm sorry, but I could swear you're behaving like this is one of the ten plagues."

He had to hand it to the guy; Wilson was quick. "The families had all of the other ones. Blood’—well, rusty water, close enough. Frogs. Lice. Wild animals prowling around their backyards. There was hail in some parts of town on Monday..."

"And you think painting their doors with blood is going to fix this."

"Worked for the Israelites, didn't it?"

"You don't believe in God!"


"Then --?" Wilson gestured at House's brush and bucket.

"There's a rational explanation. The so-called blood was’—"

"Rust in the pipes, right." Wilson crossed his arms and leaned against the part of the doorframe that wasn't bloodied. "And the infestation of frogs?"

"Global warming," House said.

"...Global warming!?"

"Weather which hasn't occurred in centuries could be repeating."

"Yes, because El Nino always brings a rain of frogs."

"We learn from history’—same differential, different source."

"You know, you're going to absurd lengths to explain why this isn't Biblical. Which...if this isn't Biblical, why the lambs' blood?"

The best defense was a good offense. "You tell me what purpose God has in sending rusty water and lice."

Wilson grimaced. "I can't."

"Thought so."

Wilson closed his eyes for a second. "You're painting my doorposts with blood to propitiate a deity you don't believe in, but you want me to explain what that deity’—the one you don't believe in -- might be thinking?"

House considered. "Yup."

"Forget it. I'm calling pastoral care," Wilson said. "This is more than I can deal with. You need to talk to a chaplain."

The head of pastoral care was there within about ten minutes. Portly, white-haired, rosy-cheeked: the guy was practically Santa Claus.

"Dr. Wilson! It's a pleasure," Reverend Hufnagel said, shaking Wilson's hand.

House bared his teeth in what passed for a grin, but the reverend didn't seem distressed. "We had a pool going in the pastoral care office," he said, mildly. "I had $20 riding on never actually meeting the infamous Doctor House."

House had to like a guy who made random workday bets, but he didn't want to say so. "I've got three first-born sons in comas on D4," House said. "Sounds like they've been through all ten plagues."

To his credit, Hufnagel didn't miss a beat. "I see. Hence the blood on the doorpost."

"Right. Wilson tells me I need a more theologically sophisticated take on the situation."

Hufnagel furrowed his brow. "Well, strictly speaking, the lamb's blood spared the Israelite firstborns, but I'm not sure it works for non-Jews."

"Wilson's Jewish," House pointed out.

"I'm a little more worried about your three coma patients," Wilson said.

"Well, it's a nice way to show you care." It sounded like Hufnagel was trying not to laugh.

"Can we talk about the patients again?" Wilson's voice was strangled.

"Right," Hufnagel said. "What concerns me is, I'm not sure the sacrifice of the lamb works in a modern-day context. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the sacrificial paradigm ’—"

"Cut to the chase. What's the point of the plagues? What do they tell us?"

"Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites out of slavery," Hufnagel mused. "The plagues were meant to convince him to let go of the profit motive. It's possible to read the Exodus story as a triumph of social justice."

"Factory owners," House muttered, and took off at his best approximation of a run. He could hear Wilson apologizing to the chaplain for his hasty departure as the elevator doors ping'd shut.

House stalked into the D4 waiting area. "You, you, and you," he said, pointing with his cane to the father of guy one, the mother of kid two, and the father of guy three. Mama looked angry; the two dads looked nervous. The other people in the waiting room looked away.

"What the hell is going on around here?" the mother said. "I saw the Black doctor putting blood on the doorposts: is this some kind of juju?"

"That's remarkable cultural sensitivity," House said, "but no. You," he said, to father one. "What do you do for a living?"

"I manage the Burlington Coat Factory," he said.


"What about you?"

"I work for Duane Morris."

A lawyer. Figured. The pushy chicks were always lawyers. "You manage a team?"

"I run M & A."

House turned to the Italian guy.

"Sensors, Unlimited," the guy said. "Photonics research facility. Excuse me, but what does this have to do with my son?"

"Any of you dealing with worker problems right now? Contract negotiations, hassles with the union, harassment lawsuits, anything like that?"

"I really don't see what business it is of yours," Ms. Mergers and Acquisitions began, but House cut her off.

"Ten plagues. This is the last one. Death of the firstborn is supposed to make you repent from your wicked ways and give the poor people what they want."

"My son is dying?" the photonics guy asked, looking pale.

"Not yet, but he's on his way. They all are. Resolve your issues with the workers."

"And that will make Andy better?" His mother sounded skeptical.

House shrugged. "It's the best we've come up with.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Coat Factory said. He looked angry, but House figured it was a good bet he wouldn't hit a cripple.

House stared him down. "Do I look like I'm kidding? Look’—if I'm right, it's a small price to pay, whatever your workers are begging for. And if I'm wrong, at least you'll have done your good deed for the year."

All three parents were apparently stunned into speechlessness. House took that opportunity to head back toward the elevators. "I'll send a chaplain up with some Bibles," he called over his shoulder as he left.

Home at last. Except home was dark and empty.

Which would have seemed normal, two weeks ago before Wilson moved in, but now it just made House feel like crap.

He contemplated kicking something when he got inside, but poured a drink instead. Which turned into two.

And then, because he hadn't slept much all week, he fell asleep on the couch. It still smelled faintly of Wilson's aftershave.

"Hey." Wilson's voice was gentle; House blinked awake.

One lamp was on. House was stiff from the way he'd positioned himself on the couch, and his leg ached. He fumbled for a Vicodin.

"Did you eat?"

House shrugged. "Scotch is dinner, right?"

Wilson's smile was rueful. "Good thing I brought Thai."

House considered a rude response’—"you don't live here anymore," or "I can feed myself"’—but when Wilson opened the folded paper grocery bag, the scent of curry filled the living room. House's stomach grumbled.

"I'll get plates," Wilson said, and brought back two, and chopsticks, and a pair of beers.

They were midway through scarfing the food down when Wilson spoke again. "So. Um. Thanks."

"For what? You brought the food."

"For wanting to spare me from the Death of the First-Born." There was humor in his voice, but at least Wilson wasn't actually laughing at him.

"Any excuse to deface Cuddy's hospital with animal secretions is good enough for me," House said, airily.

"Ah. So that's all it is."

"What else would it be?"

"Nothing," Wilson said, but the sly sidelong glance he cast seemed suddenly filled with possibility.

There was something pathetic about being Wilson's rebound from a moribund cancer patient, but House couldn't quite bring himself to care.

"Good," House said, and reached over with his chopsticks to steal a bite of red bell pepper from Wilson's plate.

The End