James locked the door to his office and turned toward the elevator bank. He hummed a tuneless bit of Christmas carol under his breath as he strode down the corridor, pleased with himself; he'd managed to finish up a full forty-three minutes ahead of schedule. That meant he'd miss most of the rush-hour traffic for once. And he wouldn't be stuck in line at Golden Dragon when he stopped by to pick up the traditional Christmas Eve takeout dinner. All in all, he'd be at House's place just a little after five. House himself was long since gone, of course. He and his team had just finished a lengthy case, and in honor of the holiday he'd sent everyone off to do clinic duty while he skipped out early.
A chime signaled the arrival of the elevator. James stepped in and hit the button for the lobby, held the door as someone hurried to join him—Jen Stevens, one of the new nurses Cuddy had hired for Pediatrics the month before. He'd had seen her around, just a glimpse in the cafeteria or the hallways. Now she stood next to him, a bit wilted but still charming in her peach floral scrubs and sheepskin jacket. She offered him a slight smile and leaned against the rail.
"Long day," James said, and winced mentally at the inane comment.
"The longest," Stevens said. "The holidays are the worst that way." She eased her backpack strap up a bit higher and rolled her shoulders with a soft sigh.
"So-are you ready for Christmas?" A standard question guaranteed to generate conversation.
"Hanukkah is the big holiday at our house," she said. "We had a traditional dinner on the last night, for my partner's parents."
Partner. James sighed silently. "We'll have to trade recipes," he said aloud, and offered a generic pleasant smile. She brightened.
"That would be nice. I tried a new one for sweet potato latkes this year, I'd be happy to share." The elevator slowed and stopped with a bump. "Thanks, Doctor Wilson."
"You're—you're welcome. Have a great weekend," he said, as the doors opened. Stevens hurried out of the elevator. James watched her go. It wasn't until the doors were almost closed that he realized she'd gotten out at the lobby level.
After a lengthy ride to the second floor and back, he finally returned to the lobby, and out the front doors to freedom. It was already nearly dark; thick snowflakes floated down, a sign of what was to come later that evening and into Christmas morning. James made his way to the car, careful to avoid slick spots. What little snow they'd gotten the night before had melted, then frozen in small pools of black ice. The ER was full of people who'd fallen prey to those nearly-invisible little puddles. He didn't plan to be one of them.
It took some time to navigate through the tangle of traffic around the hospital, but soon enough he arrived across town at the shopping center. James circled the parking lot half a dozen times. Patience paid off; he finally scored a spot close to the front entrance for once, shut off the car, checked his wallet for his list—he had it on his phone too, but a paper version was insurance in case the battery died—and headed inside.
One hour and fourteen minutes later, burdened with bags and a sizeable purchase from the liquor store, James made his way back to the lot. He checked his watch as he hurried down the line of cars and arrived at the Volvo. It took only a few moments to unlock all doors, stow his purchases, raise his arms to bring down the hatch—and feel his feet slip out from underneath him. James made a frantic grab at the car frame, but was a fraction too late. He landed on the ice-coated asphalt with a hard, solid thwump.
For a few moments he just lay there like a landed fish. Vaguely he was aware of raw, bitter air, cold wetness as it seeped into his coat first, and then his slacks. His right hip and thigh hurt like hell, but it all felt distant, disconnected somehow. Shock, he thought in a dazed fashion. I'm in shock. I should get up. How the hell do I get up? Slowly he looked around for something to hold onto, and realized two things at once: all he had was the bumper, and the black ice would prevent any kind of secure footing as he tried to stand. He ran a hand over his hip and thigh, gritted his teeth as he probed for damage, but found nothing serious-his coat and suit had cushioned him a bit. He flexed his knee slightly and it moved, though not without a good amount of pain. He'd probably twisted it on the way down.
"Oh my god! Are you okay?" A woman a few cars away came over, her expression one of concern. "You fell pretty hard—here, let me help . . ." By degrees she managed to get James on his feet. He carefully closed the hatch and sidled away from the ice puddle, toward the driver's side. The woman followed him. "Are you sure you're all right? You're really pale—I could drive you to the ER—"
"I'm—I'm fine. Thanks for your help," James said, and did his best to sound unfazed. "No, really—I'm okay, thanks."
It took some work, but soon enough his savior was on her way. James opened the door and eased into the driver's seat, sat with care, shut the door, and put the key in the ignition. His soaked, dirty clothes would make a mess of the interior detailing, but he had little choice. He still had one more stop to make, and it would take all his concentration to get there. Anyway, he'd get the car cleaned up after Christmas when he took it in for the weekly wash and wax. The idea of a delay was irksome, but couldn't be helped.
The Golden Dragon was packed of course, and he had to stand in line for some time before he could claim his order and pay for it. By the time he got to the counter he was in immense discomfort, but he did his best to ignore it, as well as the sidelong stares of the other customers. His coat had a small rip in it, and it was smeared with road grime and salt too. He'd disguised the damage as best he could, but it was still noticeable. There was nothing else he could do now, except get on with the business at hand.
As the clerk ran his credit card, James checked to make sure everything was there. "Extra pancakes for the mu shu," he said, and dug deeper in the sack. "I don't see them."
The clerk rolled her eyes, but went back to the kitchen and returned with a small box. "Extra pancakes," she said, and thrust the container and the credit slip at James. He signed, took the extras and stowed them carefully in the sack, then sidled through the impatient throng behind him, and made his slow way to the car.
It took forever to get across town. By the time he reached Baker street, his pain levels had risen and his patience was nearly gone. It disappeared completely when he realized there was no place to park anywhere near House's apartment; all the usual open spots were filled. No doubt the other residents had family or friends there to visit or stay . . . and of course last-minute holiday shoppers had probably taken the rest, since every space in town was filled. James clenched his jaw and looked for anything that wouldn't earn him a ticket. He ended up two blocks away and downhill. Actually it was more of a slight incline, but it suited his mood to call it a hill. Anyway, it meant another difficulty added to his walk.
He knew the moment he got out of the car that it would take him a considerable amount of time to get to the apartment. His hip and leg had stiffened up during the ride, and now he could barely bend his knee. Well, tough; he didn't plan to make two trips. He'd have to manage everything in one, and do his best to stay upright.
It was pure misery from start to finish. Laden like a pack mule, James struggled up the narrow, uneven, icy sidewalk, around the corner, and past several residences to House's address. But now another obstacle loomed—the step at the entrance. How the hell would he be able to lift his foot and hold onto everything at the same time?
He set the bags off to the side on the step and used the wall to brace himself. The pain took his breath away, as did the fear of a fall, but when he opened his eyes he was still on his feet. With a quiet sigh he gathered up the bags and limped to House's door. He'd just begun to put the key in the lock when the door opened. "Took you long enough. Where . . ." House's voice trailed off. "Something happened."
"I'll say it did," James muttered. "Could you move out of the way?"
House stayed where he was. "Your coat's a mess." His sharp glance flicked over James, top to bottom. "So are you."
"Thanks ever so much for that in-depth evaluation. Move, please." James winced as his bruised hip throbbed. House's eyes narrowed. He said nothing more however, just stepped away. James eased into the living room, dumped the bags on the coffee table, and stuffed the keys in his coat pocket. "Dinner is served," he said, and left for the bedroom.
Once the door was shut behind him, James peeled off everything but his briefs and examined his injuries properly for the first time. Both hip and right thigh showed a fair amount of swelling and reddened flesh; by tomorrow they would sport deep bruises. His knee was a bit swollen, but there was no other evidence of damage, at least on the outside. He ran a careful hand over his leg once more. It seemed pretty clear he'd sustained nothing more serious than a pulled muscle or two.
He took a set of clothes from his drawer in the tallboy, a concession of convenience he'd wrung out of House with great difficulty some time ago, and went into the bathroom. The clothes ended up on the stool next to the tub as James started the bath and was confronted with the problem of entry and exit. Even with the handrails he'd had installed, he wasn't sure he could get up and down safely. He stood there and stared at the water as it gurgled out of the faucet. What do I do now? he thought, stymied by the logistics required.
"I really hope you're not so uptight you take baths in your tidy whities," House said behind him. Startled, James jumped and grabbed the handrail for support. House's eyes widened. "Holy shit, Wilson," he said softly.
"Oh, shut up." House came in, moved the clothes off the toilet lid and dumped them on the floor. "Sit."
James stayed where he was. "I've already examined—"
"I shouldn't have to point out that a man who does his own exams has a fool for a doctor." House gestured at the toilet. "Sit down before you fall down." Slowly James obeyed. House moved in, shut off the bath water, and faced James. "Lemme see."
"House, come on—I'm all right, I-I just—I slipped on some ice—" He hissed as the other man touched his hip. House's examination was gentle, but it caused pain all the same.
"You took a bad fall. You should have called me." The clipped tone, the short sentences, indicated House's opinion without overt statement. James sighed.
"I'm fine. I'll have a soak in the tub, take an Advil with dinner. No big deal."
"You have significant bruising and a banged-up knee. Advil isn't gonna touch any of that." House sounded amused. James felt his temper rise another notch.
"It'll take down some of the pain and inflammation, that's good enough," he said, and tried to keep his voice level.
"Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. That martyrdom complex of yours is not your best feature, I don't care what your parents told you." House moved so that his gaze met James's; he made a quick assessment. "You didn't hit your head."
James looked away. "No, I didn't. But I'm getting a headache anyway, if you catch my subtle drift."
"Then a visit to PPTH is definitely called for, at least to get you a prescription for something stronger than OTC analgesics. And no, I'm not trying to score off your scrip."
"I am not going anywhere," James snapped, at the end of his patience. "I plan to soak for a while, put on some clean clothes, have some dinner and take an Advil. I fell, I bruised my hip and leg, end of story! Now if you don't mind, the bath water's getting cold."
House straightened, then left without another word. James watched him go. After a moment he got to his feet with difficulty, shut the door, peeled off his briefs, and occupied his time with a way into, and an hour later, a way out of his bath.
When he emerged from the bathroom with pain lessened a bit, more comfortable in sweats, a loose sweater and thick socks, it was to find music issued from the kitchen, along with a savory smell that made his nose twitch. Suspicious at this uncharacteristic behavior, James limped to the doorway. House stood at the stove, wrapped in the blue apron he'd stolen from the cooking class they'd taken a while back. He stirred something in a skillet, glanced at James, then away. "Go sit down," he said, as the microwave timer pinged.
"I—I'm—I didn't—Sorry everything's cold," James said. He felt defensive for some reason.
"There's this incredibly sophisticated cooking technique called reheating food. I've mastered it to perfection over the years, so we'll have a hot supper after all. Go sit down. Or lie down. Or turn into a self-sacrificing pretzel. Just get out of the kitchen."
James pushed aside a ridiculous sense of hurt, and returned to the living room. He took the remote from the coffee table and chose to use the recliner he'd bought earlier that year, to replace the uncomfortable modern lounge House owned. It had taken some persuasion, but a trip to the furniture store for extensive tests on the right chair resolved the difficulty.
The soft cushions felt good as he eased down. Slowly he settled in, turned on the tv, and sifted through the channels for something to watch. Christmas Eve was always a mix of the usual reruns seeded in among sappy holiday specials and movies. He knew House wouldn't be interested in anything with a Christmas theme, so he searched for something non-holiday, and ended up with the news. He watched for a few minutes, relieved to find his pain levels had retreated a bit. The forecaster talked about snow amounts as James closed his eyes . . .
James started out of a light doze. House stood next to the chair. In his hand was a steaming bowl of food with a pair of chopsticks stuck in it. He offered it to James, who accepted automatically. "Bowls are easier," House said. With that cryptic remark he took the remote and limped over to the couch, where his own repast waited on the coffee table. James turned his attention to the food and dug in, suddenly hungry. He hadn't had time for lunch, and breakfast had been nothing more than coffee and toast.
"Somehow we got extra extra pancakes," House said, and stuffed a wad of mu shu pork and scallion pancake into his mouth. James paused, his a wad of noodles halfway to his mouth.
"Damn," he said. "I just stole an order."
House chewed noisily and swallowed. "So what? They've ripped us off before. It all evens out."
"I'll go back this weekend and pay for them."
"You're not going anywhere for the next two days at least."
"I'll be fine." James ate the beef lo mein. He had to admit, it was easier to have everything in a bowl so that he didn't have to worry about spillage.
House grunted. "Huh. Wait till tomorrow. We'll see what you say then."
They watched the rest of the news, then switched over to an episode of The Big Bang Theory. James thought of a second helping. But that meant he'd have to get up, and right now he didn't hurt much at all. He glanced at the kitchen doorway.
"You know, you can ask," House said. He sounded amused again. "I promise not to spit in your food, which is more than you got from the people who cooked this."
"You ate from the same containers," James pointed out.
"I figure everyone has to unknowingly ingest a certain amount of bodily fluids in their lifetime." House shrugged and got to his feet, moved over to the recliner and held out a hand. "Gimme."
James surrendered the bowl and watched House limp into the kitchen. He didn't use his cane, just held onto the chair, and then the door frame. No wonder there are fingerprints on everything, James thought, as he always did. He watched House fill both bowls and bring them back. It was harder now for him to navigate without a free hand; his gait was more uncertain. It was something James had seen dozens of times over their years together, but for some reason tonight it bothered him. "I could have gotten this," he said as House brought over his food.
"You're welcome," House said with considerable sarcasm. He went to his spot on the couch, hand on his ruined thigh, and lowered into his seat.
"You're being awfully magnanimous." James said it as a test to see if he'd been drugged, and to try for some information. House never did anything nice without an ulterior motive. It was always wise to find out what he was up to, if possible.
"There's no reason for two cripples to be bumping into each other. I know my way around with a bad leg, you don't." House settled in.
They finished off the second helpings and watched tv in somnolent contentment. James always liked this—no parties to attend, no dinners full of awkward conversation to endure, just him and House and the tv, and the quiet of the apartment. It was possible to hear the other neighbors around them, the impersonal muted sounds of human occupation, and somehow that was comforting too; people nearby, but engaged in their own separate lives.
"You bought a shitload of groceries for tomorrow," House said after a while. "Nice selection of booze at least." He stretched a bit and set his bowl on the floor.
"Mom always made roast chicken over the holidays." James glanced at the fire; it needed to be stirred back to life. "I thought it would be a good choice."
"You really believe you'll be capable of making dinner." House snorted. "Okay, keep your delusions."
"It's just a bad bruise, it's not like I broke it," James said, exasperated. "I'll manage."
House rolled his eyes. "Fine by me, Joan." He folded his hands over his belly. "If you're so limber, take the bowls back to the kitchen. I brought you seconds."
James knew a challenge when he heard one. He gripped his bowl and lowered the footstool on the recliner, then got to his feet. It was an exquisitely painful endeavor from start to finish; he'd been motionless for some time now, and his muscles had stiffened up again. Still, he took a step forward, and then another, until he was next to the couch. He started to bend down to pick up House's bowl, and stopped when his battered leg and hip both snarled at him. Bent over, he waited for the pain to subside, but it didn't. He had a choice now—stand up and admit defeat, or court even more pain. With a silent sigh he bent the rest of the way and grabbed the bowl, stacked it inside his, and straightened. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he sucked in a breath, startled.
"Orthostatic hypotension," House said. "Better get used to it."
"I know what it is!" James waited for the lightheadedness to pass. Eventually he made his way to the kitchen, and found a mess on every counter. In resignation he put the bowls in the sink and began to pack up leftovers.
"Bring some beer with you when you come back!" House said loudly.
By the time James put away the last container, his entire right leg ached fiercely from hip to toes. He pulled half a dozen bottles from the fridge and stuffed them into a handy grocery bag. On his return to the living room he placed the bag on the coffee table and took two bottles for himself. Before he sat down, he stirred the fire and put in another log just for the hell of it, though by now he was more than ready to stop moving. House peered into the bag and took out a beer. "Planning ahead already," he said. "Quick learner." James took his seat, opened his beer and said nothing.
They finally settled on the Doctor Who marathon on BBC America. James made it through half a beer and an episode, but it was a struggle; exhaustion had crept in, along with relaxation.
"Go to bed," House said. His tone was harsh. "If you can't stay awake, you might as well snore someplace else."
"I don't snore," James said—a weak riposte, but he was too worn out to care. With what dignity he could muster, he moved the recliner upright and got to his feet. "It's been a long day, sue me if I'm tired."
House flapped a hand at him, apparently absorbed in the Doctor's antics. James turned away and made slow, careful progress down the hall to the bedroom.
It took forever to get ready, and by the time he sat on the edge of the bed, he needed more Advil. There was no point in it now, he couldn't take ibuprofen on an empty stomach, and another trip to the kitchen held no appeal whatsoever. He'd have to just deal with things as they were . . . A glass of water stood on the night stand. James looked it over; it hadn't been there earlier in the day. He picked up the glass, examined it, sniffed the contents. There was no residue or strange odor; it was just water. Cautiously he sipped some of it. It tasted good, cool and sweet. He drank more, then set the glass aside and eased under the covers. Sheer exhaustion sent him into sleep faster than he thought. He sank deep into the quiet darkness, glad of the chance to escape.
"Come on, wake up. You're gonna miss this stupid holiday."
James struggled out of murky dreams. Golden lamp light filled the bedroom. House stood by the bed.
"Wh . . . what time issit?" James's throat felt as if it was lined with fur.
"Time for you to get up and get busy." House turned away and left him there. James cast a bleary eye at his travel alarm. The readout looked like two ones, but that couldn't be right—he never slept in later than seven-thirty or eight, even on weekends . . . He squinted at the clock again, and saw it was actually several minutes past eleven. Realization struck after the shock wore off. Righteous indignation propelled him out of bed, down the hall and into the living room, where House was parked on the couch with a quart mixing bowl full of cereal. Presents lay scattered around him. James had intended to wrap them last night. At least now he didn't have to worry about it.
"You drugged me." He heard his voice shake, and wasn't sure if it was from anger or some strange hysterical amusement.
"No," House said. "You were in shock, in pain and exhausted. No help needed there."
"You planted that glass of water—"
"No," House said again. "I did not drug you. Capish? Comprende?Verstehst du?"
"I understand you perfectly. I'm just going on past experience." James hobbled into the kitchen and leaned against the counter as his injured leg protested. He put a hand on his thigh, and felt a strong shock as he remembered how many times he'd seen House do the same thing for the same reason.
The realization sobered him. As his resentment slowly leached away, he looked around the cooking area and in that moment, saw it with new eyes—the big microwave, the open shelves, the fridge next to the arch into the living room. It was set up for easy access and a minimum of movement, and he'd never really got that before—intellectually yes, but not where it counted, in blood and bone, damaged muscle and sensitive nerve. He stood there, pain and understanding combined to create something like true comprehension. It was about as welcome as a hangover, and even worse was the knowledge that this insight would never really go away. It would sit in the back of his mind, whether he wanted it to or not.
"I don't hear the joyous sound of food being prepared," House said. "That chicken won't roast itself, you know."
It took James forever to return to the bedroom, get out of his pajamas and into comfortable clothes. Dinner prep was even longer because he had to sit down every five minutes; still, within an hour or so the chicken was in the oven, accompanied by potatoes, carrots, onions and celery, and he had the dinner rolls and gravy ready to heat, along with a couple of store-bought pies. He'd even managed to scour out the coffeemaker and get a fresh pot brewed. He poured a mug of joe for himself, stirred in some sugar, took some cookies from the jar, piled them on a salad plate and went into the living room. House grabbed two of the cookies as he passed by. James rolled his eyes and settled into the recliner with a groan.
"Feeling a little hard done by, no doubt," House said. James sipped his coffee.
"Just sore," he said in all truth. House gave him a keen look.
"Uh huh," he said, his skepticism plain. He crammed in the last cookie and chewed. As his jaws worked he continued to stare at James. "You had a thought," he said through a mouthful of crumbs. "Share with the rest of the class." It was more accusation than statement. James shook his head.
"Contrary to popular opinion, I have a lot of thoughts. You'd be surprised," he said wryly. "But . . . the way you do things, set everything and everyone up—maybe now it's not quite so weird."
House looked at him for a moment, his expression impassive. He wiped his hands on his shirt. "Mmpf." He reached over and picked up one of the presents, a little red Dalek. "Already have this."
"Somebody stole the one on your desk. I noticed it was gone when I unpacked everything, after you came back from prison."
House set it aside and chose a black tee shirt, shook it out. The front had an image of a battered Illinois license plate with a city name barely visible in the faded paint. "Joliet," he said, and raised a brow at James.
"I thought it was appropriate."
House made a noise like a chuckle and tossed it aside. "No one here will get it. Perfect." He got to his feet and picked up his bowl. "Gonna make some toast."
"There's fresh coffee in the pot," James said. "Bring me more cookies. And it would be nice to have a fire in the fireplace. Please."
House gave him another long, assessing look. At last he nodded once and limped into the kitchen. James settled back in the recliner and glanced at the grey day beyond the windows. Snow fell on a quiet, empty street, but in here he was surrounded by warmth and light, and that was all that mattered.