EARTH (lead me to safety)

In retrospect, it wasn't one of House's wiser decisions, though compared to a lifetime of reckless acts, a simple walk in the woods was relatively tame. But then there wasn't anything simple about walking, not any more.

The problem was, he was bored. That had always been his problem. His mother had learned quickly to keep him occupied with approved projects and activities, as his unapproved initiatives generally led to bodily harm or property damage. Stacy had discovered the hard way that his destruction only took on more creative forms when he was confined to a bed. But Stacy was gone now, and it didn't matter what she knew any more.

The only reason he had agreed to give an out-of-town lecture on infectious diseases in immunocompromised patients was because he was bored. It had nothing to do with Wilson being on the conference organizing committee. It wasn't because Wilson would be out of town for the first time since Stacy left. And it wasn't because Wilson claimed they'd had a last-minute cancellation and House would be doing him a favour.

It might have had something to do with the brochure Wilson "accidentally" left on the coffee table a few days before his supposed cancellation. "You chose this place, didn't you?" House guessed. It had a kind of rustic decadence that screamed James Wilson. Full-service spa, four-star restaurant, golf course, and theatre, all nestled between mountains and lake. "I thought you were organizing an oncology conference, not a quilting retreat," he mocked, reading the sales copy.

"There's an OTB tele-theatre in one of the lounges," Wilson pointed out. "You'll love this place."

It could be worse, House decided. The conference only lasted three days, and he was sick of looking at the inside of his apartment. "As long as you don't expect me to attend any of the other lectures," he agreed, not sounding nearly as reluctant as he'd intended.

"I think everyone would be happier if you played hooky," Wilson replied dryly. It almost sounded like a dare.

Which was how he found himself sitting in a conference room bored nearly to catatonia while second-rate oncologists tried to find fault with Wilson's work. House had read the paper prior to publication, so he knew they were fighting a losing battle. He also knew that Wilson would kill him, or at least cut off his Vicodin supply, if House said anything in his defense. It was safer just to slip out the back and find something to distract himself with until dinner.

But he'd been banned from the OTB lounge after an altercation with a particularly stupid weekend gambler, and the entertainment in the other bar was a tuneless lounge lizard, so he retreated to the room to watch pay-per-view porn.

As one of the conference organizers, Wilson had been given his pick of accommodation: a two-bedroom suite on the ground floor with a private Jacuzzi. It had a patio entrance opening onto the lakeshore, which Wilson had used at an obscene hour that morning, slipping out for an hour of fishing before breakfast. House had almost been tempted to join him — if only to mess with Wilson's mind — but he'd seen the dew slick on the grass and gone back to bed.

Now, though, he was drawn outside. He'd relearned to walk on linoleum and concrete, supported by crutches and parallel bars. It had been months since he'd felt real earth beneath his feet.

He glanced at his watch. The afternoon sessions would be ending in just under an hour. Plenty of time to explore one of the lakeside trails and get back before Wilson shook loose the sycophants who had signed up for his presentation. It hadn't rained in days, and the ground stayed firm beneath his cane. He slid the door closed behind him and strolled down to the lake.

He walked for twenty minutes before he started to tire, less interested in his surroundings than in the pleasure of just walking. The pain was there — it was always there — but the last Vicodin he'd taken had muted it to a level he could almost ignore.

He stopped to rest, lowering himself carefully onto a log, and stretched his leg out. He kneaded the remaining muscles in his thigh absently, content just to let the world revolve around him. He had always been a solitary explorer, but he found himself wishing that Wilson were with him. Maybe he would get up early the next morning. Wilson, he knew, would make sure he didn't fall.

When he looked at his watch again, he realized nearly half an hour had passed. Wilson would be wondering where he'd gone. Not that he cared if Wilson worried, but House didn't want to listen to him lecture and complain for the rest of the weekend.

It was harder to stand than it had been to sit down — his leg had stiffened, and the first step shot an unwelcome bolt of agony from his hip to his ankle. It was going to be a long walk back to the room. It only got longer when he took a wrong turn and found himself on a trail leading away from the lake. He stopped to rest and get his bearings, but the log he sat on shifted abruptly and he slid off, jarring his leg.

It was a moment before he could catch his breath and sit up. It became a longer one when he realized that he'd left the bottle of Vicodin back in the room. He tried standing, but his leg wouldn't hold his weight, and he fell again. Short of crawling, he was stranded until the pain backed down. Wilson was going to kill him, if he didn't die of exposure first.

He wasn't sure how long he had sat there, but the shadows had lengthened and obscured the path by the time he heard a familiar voice calling his name. "Over here!" he shouted, not knowing where here was, but trusting Wilson to find him. Wilson always found him. He leaned back against the treacherous log and closed his eyes.

"Jesus, House," Wilson said, kneeling down beside him. "What have you done to yourself now?"

House opened his eyes when he heard the welcome rattle of a pill bottle. He held out his hand and dry-swallowed the two pills Wilson gave him. He was getting better at that. "How did you find me?" he asked when the Vicodin finally kicked in.

"Eagle Scout tracking skills," Wilson replied. "Uneven footprints. Nice round indentations from the cane. And there's a crack on the sole of your right running shoe." He grinned when House glanced down. "Actually, I just picked the closest trail and hoped for the best."

"How did you know to look?" House clarified.

This time Wilson looked smug. "The door was latched from the inside," he said. "But the patio door was unlocked. If you'd gone anywhere else, you would have left by the front door."

"So you decided to follow the cripple. Didn't think I could look after myself?"

Wilson tactfully didn't point out that in fact House had needed his help. "You know me," he said lightly. "Can't stand to be left behind."

"Don't sit on the log," House warned as Wilson lowered himself to the ground. "It's evil." He tilted his head back and looked up through a break in the trees. It would be dark soon, but he no longer cared. Wilson would lead them back to safety. "How did the rest of the lecture go?" he asked casually.

"Same old, same old," Wilson replied. "Mullins from Mass Gen challenged every point I made, my old supervisor from Penn called him an incompetent asshole, and two guys from Mercy talked about their golf game through the Q&A."

"I'm sorry I missed that," House said. He liked nothing more than taunting overrated society quacks. "Feel free to point them out to me in the lounge later." The smirk on Wilson's face was almost as good as an extra Vicodin.

"How's your leg doing?" Wilson asked, shifting to squat in front of him. "Do you think you can stand?"

House had his doubts. But he let Wilson help him up and found walking wasn't that bad when he had more than a cane to lean on.