He wanted to hide. But the roof was no longer accessible. And the cane stole his anonymity. It made him conspicuous, visible. He was no longer just another doctor in the hospital; everyone remembered the crippled doctor. He shifted his weight slightly as the elevator started down. He was back to an old trick, an idea straight out of those old detective movies Wilson liked so much. He tucked his ID badge into his shirt pocket and hit a button.
Mom was busy at a big desk, talking to a mean-sounding lady. Sam's fingers slowly unwound from her coat as he listened to the sounds of the hospital around him. A man and woman brushed past him. The man sounded a little panicked, and the woman was holding her belly and breathing funny. Sam didn't realize he'd followed them until someone said, "In or out, big guy," and a hand tugged on his shoulder. He stepped into the elevator.
The man and woman got out, but Sam waited to see where everyone else was going. He got off on the next floor and followed two white coats until he heard water running. He turned his attention to the blue-lit fountain. He sat on the edge and trailed his fingers along the vertical surface until a sneaky trickle of water ran up his sleeve and into his armpit. He giggled and pulled his fingers away. The sound of a rattling newspaper and a sigh that sounded just like Grandpa got his attention next. He followed the hallway to a small waiting area, where a man sat on the couch with one foot on the coffee table.
Cuddy stopped at the desk to check some paperwork. Brenda looked a little more put-upon than usual as she handed Cuddy a short stack of files. The frazzled young woman next to her gasped out, "Sam? Sam!?" She turned to Cuddy. "Did you see my little boy?" the woman asked as she clutched Cuddy's sleeve. "He has on a red coat, and he's four years old. He was right here."
Cuddy glanced around the clinic. She saw no little boys anywhere. The young woman looked close to panic. Cuddy grabbed her arm and said, "Ma'am? You need to stay calm and tell me what's wrong."
The woman took a deep, shaky breath. "My son Sam was right here with me. I'm here for a checkup, I've never been here before, I had just gotten some directions when I noticed he was gone."
"He must have wandered off," another nurse helpfully offered.
Cuddy's voice had been trained around her mother's boisterous kitchen table, and it cut easily through the din of the clinic. "Has anyone seen a four-year-old boy in a red coat?"
Most of the waiting patients shrugged and gave half-hearted nods. An elderly man on a bench pointed to the elevators. "I saw him step in there," he called back to Cuddy.
When he felt the cushions of the couch depress next to him, House grumbled and pulled his newspaper closer to his face. This hiding-in-plain-sight thing wouldn't work if his new neighbor decided to talk to him. But he had no such luck.
"Hi." The voice was small and too cheerful by half. Maybe if he ignored it, it would go away. He felt the cushions lift, and his cane shifted away from his leg. He pretended to be studying the personals section.
Behind the newspaper came a familiar squeak on the linoleum. Then a thump. House finally recognized the squeak when it came again: a cane. He dropped his right hand to his side. Thump. Nothing on the couch. Squeak! His cane. He crumpled the newspaper in his lap and shouted, "Hey!" Thump.
A little boy in a red coat looked over the coffee table at him. The cane was jammed into the kid's armpit. He had been using it like a crutch, but given the length of the cane and the size of the kid, it looked more like pole-vaulting.
House narrowed his eyes at the boy. "Do you know what I do to little boys who steal my cane?" He hadn't actually intended to sound quite so mean.
Sam silently shook his head as his eyes widened. He had rarely in his young life seen an adult angry, and none of them had sounded like that. He had a flashing vision of the man pointing the cane at him, directing monsters with dripping teeth to drag him off to a lair in the woods where no one would ever find him again.
"I make them give it back," the man sighed, holding out his hand and waving his fingers. Sam remembered to breathe. He didn't sound quite so scary anymore. Sam pulled the cane from his armpit and picked it up in both hands. The man watched him as he limped around the coffee table and put the cane back in his hand. The man's head tilted sideways. "Does your leg hurt?" he asked.
"Sometimes," Sam replied. "My dad says it's growing pains."
"What do you mean, 'sometimes'?" The man crumpled his newspaper into a little ball.
"It sometimes hurts, and it sometimes doesn't," Sam explained and rolled his eyes. The man wasn't scary, he decided, and he wasn't very smart, either.
"How long have you been limping?"
"I dunno." Sam sat back down on the couch and tried to put his foot on the coffee table. "I don't limp ALL the time."
The kid just couldn't reach the coffee table. House watched him try a few times. Finally he hooked his left foot under the lip of the table and pulled it closer to the couch, where the kid could prop his heel up. The kid looked over at House's leg, switched his own feet on the coffee table, and then grinned up at him. House felt himself soften just a little. The kid was now sitting just like he was.
This was not a way to be inconspicuous, sitting like a Hallmark scene in the middle of a waiting room. House sent the newspaper in a smooth arc to the garbage can next to the nurses' station. The kid giggled. "Where is your mother?" House growled at him.
"Talking to a mean-lady," came the reply.
"So you had to find a mean-man to bother," House muttered. He shifted his leg off the coffee table and grabbed his cane. "Come on," he said to the kid. "I know where there are lots of mean-ladies."
House watched the kid carefully as they made their way to the elevators. While they were waiting, he made the boy walk up and down the hallway while he watched.
Sam stole a glance up at the man while they were in the elevator. The man caught him looking and crossed his eyes. Sam giggled again. When they came out of the elevator, he heard Mom scream and suddenly he was smothered by her coat.
"Where were you? Don't ever do that again!" He heard the man clear his throat over Mom's breathless scolding. She stood up but didn't let go of his hand. "Thank you so much for finding Sam," she gushed. "I hope he wasn't too much trouble; he can be a bit of a handful." She went to shake his hand, found it busy holding a cane, and settled on gripping his left hand instead.
The man glanced down at Sam, then back at his mother. "Your son's hip has lost its blood supply," he told her. "He has a condition called Perthes disease. Get an X-ray and talk to an orthopedist." He shook off her hand and stepped around them. Mom's mouth fell open.
As the man limped away, Sam called after him, "Bye!" The man didn't turn around, but he did wave over his shoulder.
Cuddy caught up with House before he could make it back to his office. She smoothly fell into step with him. "You have an appointment with me tomorrow at six, O protector of the innocent," she greeted him.
"Yeah," House answered, "you're planning on telling me how I'm an all-around good guy."
"You won't answer requests for consults, you won't take cases, you won't even show up in the clinic, but you have time to rescue and diagnose little boys?"
"And puppies," House added. "I'd rescue puppies. You know, if there were any around." He ducked into the men's room with a smirk in Cuddy's direction.
"Right," Cuddy replied as the door closed in her face. "Puppies," she muttered to herself.
She knocked on Wilson's door a few minutes later and marched in at his invitation. She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "House just returned a lost four-year-old to his mother," she began.
Wilson leaned back in his chair. "Well, the sacrificing of little boys doesn't happen until next month."
"And he volunteered a diagnosis," Cuddy continued, "Perthes disease."
"But, that can take months before it's diagnosed." Wilson sat forward again. "Wait a minute. He saw the patient, and he talked to the mother? Himself?"
Cuddy nodded. "His third fellow arrives tomorrow. I have thus far been nice about getting him to do his job. That ends now. His department is going to start earning its keep. He is going to take a case, and you are going to help me."
"So, I'm your secret weapon?"
"I have the perfect case."
"The brain tumor that isn't acting like a brain tumor?" Wilson asked. Cuddy nodded. Wilson rubbed a hand over his eyes. He sighed. "I don't know what to tell him that will make him interested."
Cuddy smiled. "I'm sure you'll think of something." Wilson shuddered as the door clicked closed.