He'd been standing by the nurses' station in the Clinic, pretending to write Important Doctor Notes on a chart in order to avoid actually seeing any patients, when one of the younger women had come up with the news. He had been only half-listening, most of his thoughts on the sixth race at Santa Anita, when one word pierced his reverie and caused him to snap to attention.
"What did you say?" he asked the nurse. Her nametag read "Jenny Ferguson"; he mentally filed it away for future reference and forgot it almost instantly.
She looked at him, puzzled. "Dr. ... House? What are you doing here today?"
"Never mind that -- what were you saying?"
Her look of bafflement increased. "About Dr. Wilson!" he said, emphasizing his point by loudly thumping his cane on the floor. The nurses at the station all looked at each other in sudden understanding.
"He's coming in." The young nurse spoke shyly; she'd been warned about the irascible, scruffy man with the cane. "By ambulance. I was talking to Danny outside the ER and he told me. Dr. Wilson was at ..."
But it was too late. The man with the cane had spun on his heel and was hobbling more quickly than seemed possible to the banks of elevators by the opposite wall.
House stood by the ER's outside door and tapped his cane impatiently as the wailing ambulance sirens wound down and the back doors opened. Everyone seemed to be moving so slowly -- this was an Emergency Room, wasn't this an emergency? Horrible visions crowded through his head -- Jimmy in a car accident, bloodied and broken, Jimmy in a mugging, shot or stabbed, Jimmy ... he shoved the thoughts away, but the cold feeling they had brought to his gut remained.
He moved closer as the first EMT got out.
Working carefully, the medical techs lifted out the wheeled cot and its passenger.
The wave of relief that swept through House left him momentarily weak-kneed, and he leaned heavily on his cane. Jimmy wasn't covered in blood or writhing in agony; he wasn't even unconscious. He did seem to be in pain, though, his face pale and drawn. His right arm was crooked upwards and tightly strapped to his chest, and his right leg wore a temporary splint. Nevertheless, he was awake and talking to the ambulance techs.
"This really isn't necessary."
House could hear James's voice, low and embarrassed.
"I don't need all this, really. Dr. Chase could've just driven me in ..." And there was Chase, dressed casually in blue jeans and a red polo shirt, climbing out of the ambulance. House's eyes narrowed. What was going on here?
"Sorry, doc," one of the EMTs said as he adjusted something on the cot. "Hospital regs. You get hurt at a PPTH-sponsored event, you gotta ride in a PPTH ambulance."
James mumbled something that sounded like "Ah, crap," and rested his head back against the small pillow.
"Don't worry, Dr. Wilson," Chase said, standing next to the cot and stretching out the kinks acquired from riding in a crouched, cramped position in the back of the ambulance, "it's the weekend. Nobody'll see you and you'll get a few days off out of it."
Jimmy appeared to cheer up slightly at the thought as the small entourage entered the ER and headed towards an open exam room.
"You're right, Chase. At least House isn't here; he'd never let me live this down."
"Live what down, Jimmy?" House boomed, choosing this moment to emerge from behind the nearest pillar.
Everyone, including several total strangers close by, jumped. House allowed himself a slight smile. It had been a good entrance, even by his exacting standards. James, on the other hand, looked like he'd just swallowed a goldfish.
"God, please no," he groaned.
"Now, Jimmy," House drawled, "is that any way to greet your physician of record? Speaking of which ..." he rounded on Chase and the EMTs, who were getting ready to transfer Jimmy from the ambulance cot to an exam bed, "why wasn't I notified of Dr. Wilson's little joyride?"
"House, it's not their fault." James said, softly. "I told them not to call. It isn't that serious."
The anxiety and fear that had been only partially released came rushing back. "That's for me to decide," he snapped. "You'd tell anyone you're fine just to keep them from worrying. You don't want people to bother about you because you don't think you should burden them with your problems. Hell, you'd tell Torquemada things were just peachy-keen and wouldn't he please give another turn to the rack because you're not tall enough yet!"
The exam room was silent. The two EMTs were frozen in place. Chase was looking studiously at the floor. And Jimmy ...
House wrinkled his nose. "Why do you smell like shit?" he asked.
For the first time, he noticed the greenish-brown smears on both Chase's and James's blue jeans, the grass and dirt caked on their ... cowboy boots? What the hell? The aroma was becoming more fragrant by the moment.
"Horse shit," he said.
"You shoulda smelled the inside of the ambulance," one of the EMTs said dryly. "Okay -- one, two, three!" In one smooth, practiced motion, the three men lifted Jimmy from the cot and slid him onto the bed. House's jaw tightened as he saw Jimmy grow even paler and heard the gasp of pain.
"Hope you feel better soon, doc." The two emergency medics left, taking Chase with them and pointedly ignoring House, who was still staring at James's legs.
"What the hell were you two doing?"
"It was for the kids," James said. "And what are you doing here on a Saturday anyway?"
The regular ER doc came in and House waved him back out. James looked after him, helplessly.
"House? What'd you do that for?"
"I can examine you, Jimmy," House said. "Keep talking. What's this about kids?"
"House, you don't have to examine me. I can tell you what's wrong."
"Really? Before you pass out?" House stomped around the exam room, snapping on a pair of latex gloves and fishing a penlight from his pocket. "Because you're pale and sweating, and looking pretty damn shocky ... and Jesus do you stink!"
"Well, you'd stink too if you'd been rolling around in horse shit!" James shot back. He used his left hand to bat away the penlight House was trying to shine in his eyes. "Don't you ever read your inter-office mail? Today was Ranch Day for some of the kids from the Oncology and General wards. PPTH bused us out to some dude ranch that caters to special-needs kids."
House stopped trying to examine his friend for a moment. "Doesn't explain what happened to you," he said.
James rested his head back against the pillow again and closed his eyes. He suddenly looked very tired.
"I was on a horse," he said. "Something spooked it, it reared up. I managed to stay on -- it lost its balance and fell. I got caught under it. Broke my collarbone for sure and maybe my leg. End of story."
House shook his head. "You should've known better, Jimmy."
James opened his eyes and looked at him, questioning.
"Jewish cowboys? No way."
"Right. I know. We were too busy building financial empires and robbing widows and orphans. No time for punching cows and oh fuck ..." James's voice suddenly trailed off into a hiss as he squeezed his eyes shut. House was at his side instantly.
"Where?" he asked.
"Everywhere," James ground out. He was starting to tremble a little. "Gave me Levorphanol in the ambulance ... guess it's starting to wear off."
"That, plus delayed reaction to the trauma of getting crushed under a thousand-pound animal," House observed. "Drugs, drugs, where do they keep them in here?"
"Told you ... you shouldn't have sent away ... the ER doc," James gasped out.
"Oh, Jimmy," House said. A syringe had somehow appeared in his hand. "Such little faith."
House found Chase in the men's locker room. He'd showered and changed into fresh clothes, and was sitting on a bench tying his shoes when House approached.
"Man From Snowy River!" House barked.
Chase rolled his eyes and kept lacing.
"What'd you think you were doing out there -- herding kangaroos? How did Wilson get hurt?"
Chase's fingers stopped moving and he looked up at House. "Didn't he tell you?"
House sat down next to him on the bench.
"I want to hear it from you," he said. His voice was level; his blue eyes fixed on the young Australian.
Chase sighed. Straightening, he met House's gaze. "One of the kids, a little boy, was really excited -- running around while the nurses were trying to corral him. He ran right up to Wilson's horse, scared it." He raised both hands, using them to illustrate. "When the horse reared, Wilson yanked the reins hard to the right so the kid wouldn't get kicked in the face." The left hand and right, pulling at invisible reins. "The horse overbalanced ..." the right hand, tilting, "went over." The left hand, horizontal, coming down. "It crashed onto Wilson."
Chase's left hand slapped violently onto his right. The sudden noise echoed off the hard surfaces of the locker room. "And of course, it had to be on top of a pile of fresh crap the stable guys hadn't cleaned up yet. I'm sure our clothes are a dead loss ..."
House was silent, staring at Chase's hands, still palm-to-palm as if in prayer.
Chase leaned back. "It all happened in a split second, House. It was nobody's fault."
The silence stretched out.
"Why? What did he tell you?" Chase finally asked.
House didn't look up. "He lied."
"I didn't lie!"
James was in a private room, admitted for overnight observation. House had made sure of that, overruling Jimmy's every objection.
"You didn't tell the whole truth, either!"
The two men glared at each other.
James broke first, letting his head drop wearily against the pillow and closing his eyes. "House. What do you want me to say?"
House hesitated. What did he want Jimmy to say? That he shouldn't have gone on this trip? That he shouldn't have put himself in danger? That he was sorry he'd scared the hell out of him? That he ... no. Shut up. Stop thinking.
James opened one eye. "What are you doing here anyway? It's Saturday. You should be at home, being miserable."
"Ha!" House crowed. "Now you're trying to change the subject!" From his seat next to the bed, he started to poke at Jimmy's right leg with his cane, then remembered it was injured and put the cane down. The temporary splint had been removed; X-rays had shown no breaks or splintering. It was bruised and badly sprained, though, and Jimmy was going to be on crutches for a few weeks. The thought of cane vs. crutch duels in the hallways of PPTH filled House with joy. There was still the broken collarbone, though ...
"You could've been seriously hurt, if not killed," House said, his voice much quieter. "If that horse had rolled over on you --"
"Yes, I know," James interrupted. "Thank you, but the thought I might actually die in such a painfully stupid way is not something I want to revisit." He looked down at his right arm, restrapped across his chest after its own set of X-rays. "Chase got my foot out of the stirrup," he said. "If the horse had gotten up and dragged me ..." He shook his head.
House grunted. "I'll buy him a jar of Vegemite, tell him it's a thank-you gift from you for saving your life."
James choked back a laugh. "Your generosity and depth of spirit know no bounds."
"I keep waiting for you to notify Stockholm," House growled, secretly pleased to have made Jimmy laugh.
His good mood evaporated a moment later when James said, oh so casually, "So ... why are you here? It being Saturday and all."
The silence stretched out as they stared at each other.
"You need some water?" House asked abruptly, starting to rise. "I'll get you some water --"
"House! Sit down!"
House sat down.
"What are you doing here?" James's voice was soft. "This isn't like you. If I hadn't been hurt you'd be with me, or at that Off Track Betting parlor you go to, or in your apartment, playing the piano ..."
"Apartment's mfjahfpipesdgkfhf," House mumbled.
James was confused. "The apartment's what?"
House tried to look anywhere but in Jimmy's eyes.
"Pipes. Broken in the place next door, between the building and the street. City crew's there doing repairs." He cleared his throat. "It's ... really noisy. Jackhammers. Can't hear myself think."
"But ... the OTB parlor?"
House shrugged. "Didn't feel like it. Probably wouldn't have won anything anyway."
"Not open yet."
There was another long silence.
House just looked at him.
James squeezed his eyes shut and flopped his head back. "House."
"Jimmy?" House replied, hopefully.
"You didn't have anywhere to go ... but here."
House began to hem and haw. "Well, that really depends on your definition of 'anywhere,' because you see ..."
James's head snapped up. "House!"
"Don't you see this just confirms what I've been saying all this time? You're lonely --"
"Not lonely," House grumped.
"-- and miserable --"
"Damn it James, I'm not the one that's miserable!"
For once, James was speechless.
House levered himself up out of the chair. "Get some rest," he snapped, and left.
The next day, James was uncharacteristically quiet as House led him through the routine of hospital discharge. He'd informed Jimmy that he was coming home with him to stay for a few days, until he got accustomed to managing his crutches with the additional distraction of a broken collarbone. James had just nodded and was silent during the drive to House's apartment, which alarmed House but only slightly. While he would prefer a talking Jimmy, he didn't want an emotional Jimmy on his hands, either.
It wasn't until after dinner, when both men were sitting on the couch watching an old movie that neither of them were really paying attention to, that James spoke more than three words.
"Do you really think I'm miserable?"
House cast his eyes upward. Here we go.
"I didn't say you were miserable. I said I wasn't miserable. There's a difference." Although not much of one, he thought.
"Not much of one," James said, and House made a face. He hated it when Jimmy read his mind.
"As a matter of fact, you don't even want to be having this conversation," James continued.
"Well, since you asked, no, I don't."
"You don't want to discuss this." James's response was almost instantaneous.
House felt a thread of irritation start to grow.
"No," he shot back.
"You don't want to talk about anything." James's questions were rapid-fire and assured.
"Not even about us."
"Then why are you miserable?"
"Because --" and House's brain caught up with his tongue and his mouth snapped shut. He stared at James, who stared back, unafraid but with the hint of a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. "You ..." he breathed, and James's smile broke through into a full-fledged grin.
"You sneaky bastard," House said finally, shaking his head.
"I learned from the master," James replied matter-of-factly, settling back into the sofa cushions and carefully propping his sprained right leg on the coffeetable. His shoulder was starting to ache again; he'd need his pain meds soon.
"You need your meds yet?"
House nodded and turned back to the TV. It had begun to rain outside, the drops pattering softly against the windows. Both men sat in a comfortable silence, and if either one was miserable in that moment, it wasn't visible from the outside.