James Wilson couldn't imagine a better day. The sun was shining, his pager hadn't gone off once, and he was six over par with only one hole to go in the annual hospital golf tournament. He wasn't going to win low gross - the new orthopedic surgeon was a scratch golfer - but he was on track to break 80 for the first time in years. Maybe he would join a golf club, start taking the game seriously again. Julie would enjoy the social aspect, and it would give them something to do together.
He stepped onto the 18th tee and settled into his pre-swing routine, adjusting his grip and balancing his weight, before taking a couple of practice swings. It was a short par four, with a slight dogleg right that didn't play into his natural swing, but if he could cut the corner with his new hybrid, he'd be in good position for an easy pitching wedge to the green. No point in risking a wild drive with trees and bunkers in play.
Wilson moved up to the tee and took a deep breath, letting the tension drain away. Grip relaxed, he pulled back, shifted smoothly into the downswing - and then an air raid siren went off in his back pocket.
Startled, he over-rotated and popped his right knee, but the sight of his ball sailing over the big S bunker and into the trees drove that out of his mind. "Damnit," Wilson exclaimed, dropping his club in frustration. The phone kept wailing, so he pulled it out, though he didn't need to see the screen to know who was responsible. He only knew one person who would program an obnoxious ringtone into his phone just to set it off at the worst possible moment.
He turned to glare at Gregory House, who was leaning against the side of their shared golf cart. House had given up even pretending to play four holes ago and was drinking his way through Wilson's beer. Wilson knew, though, that he'd quit from pain, not boredom, as he'd claimed. House could gauge the line of a putt better than anyone Wilson knew, and he could still drive the ball straight, if not long, but he couldn't manage more than a dozen holes on a good day. This had been a better day than most, but Wilson knew House's leg had to be aching underneath the liberal doses of Vicodin and beer. Any sympathy he might have had, however, had flown away with his errant tee shot.
"Oops, sorry," House said, not even trying to look innocent. "Pocket dialed. My bad."
"All I had to do was make par and I could have shot 78," Wilson exclaimed. "78! Why did you have to ruin that for me?"
House rolled his eyes. "Take a mulligan."
"I can't take a mulligan, it's a tournament." That hadn't stopped House from improving his lie whenever possible or pretending that badly duffed shots never happened, but Wilson had stricter personal standards.
"Who's going to complain? Are you going to complain?" House asked Chase, the only other person in the hospital who was willing to play a round of golf with the House handicap. The new fellow, Cameron, might have tolerated an afternoon of humiliation and abuse, but someone had to stay with Diagnostics' latest patient and watch for new symptoms.
Chase hurried forward to offer Wilson a replacement ball. "Go ahead and take another shot."
Wilson stared at him until he dropped his hand.
"Maybe I'll just tee off first," Chase said, and proceeded to shank his ball into a fairway bunker.
"It doesn't matter if nobody complains," Wilson told House, stowing his hybrid back in his bag. "I'll still know."
"Look," House said with exaggerated patience. "Bell can shoot in the mid-70s blindfolded, so you're not going to win low gross. And I know that Collins lied about his handicap, so you're screwed on low net as well. You're not cheating anyone if you take a mulligan."
But Wilson wasn't playing to win, at least not against the rest of the field. Despite the conservative tee shot, he'd still been hoping for a birdie putt and a chance to shoot 77. "Maybe I got a lucky bounce," he said. If he had a playable lie, he could still make par. "No thanks to you." He knew that playing with House meant a continual assault on his concentration, but this time he'd gone too far.
Wilson left his clubs in the back of the cart, and started to walk towards the fairway. Just as he stepped off the cart path, his right knee buckled, and he realized he'd twisted it worse than he'd thought. He managed to keep his balance, but House had seen him stumble.
"Get in," he said, pulling up alongside Wilson.
"I'd rather walk."
"No, you wouldn't. You're tired, you hurt your knee, and you need a beer." He held out a can, which would have been a more effective peace offering if it hadn't been Wilson's beer.
Wilson ignored both House and the beer and kept walking, trying not to limp.
"Fine," House snapped. "Be a martyr." He got out, dumped Wilson's clubs on the ground, and drove off towards the clubhouse.
Wilson sighed and picked up his clubs, slinging them over his shoulder. By the time he reached the stand of trees where his ball had disappeared, his knee was aching, and he was just about ready to call it a day. He found the ball quickly, though, nestled in the rough between two trees. The lie wasn't great, but at least he had a clear line to the green. Wilson pulled out his wedge, but then reconsidered. He didn't want to risk catching an overhanging branch, so he gripped down on his 7-iron instead and tried to punch out a low stinger. It came out fast and skipped over the green into the far-side bunker. Wilson kissed his 77 goodbye.
It wasn't a deep bunker, but the ball was close to the lip, and Wilson knew he'd need to get under it if he had any hope of popping it onto the green. He dug in, opened up the clubface, and exploded the ball out in a spray of sand. As he turned into the follow through, his right knee locked. For a moment he balanced in absolute stillness, sand spilling around him, and then the pain hit, and he slid down into the bunker, wondering how such a perfect day could have gone so wrong.
"You'd better not be getting sand everywhere," House said over the intercom. "Because Cuddy will kill me if we wreck her precious MRI."
Wilson didn't have a problem with Cuddy killing House. It would save him the trouble. "I'm not talking to you," he replied and closed his eyes, wishing he'd taken the Vicodin that House had offered him on the way to the hospital. The Advil he'd had in his glove compartment had barely dampened the pain.
"You just did talk to me," House pointed out. "Maybe I should check for neurological deficiencies while I've got you in there."
Wilson ignored him. It was easy to lose House's voice in the steady clicking and thumping of the machine, just one more annoying sound grating his already shredded nerves. He should have been basking in the satisfaction of a game well played. Instead, he was trapped in the MRI at House's mercy, he couldn't bend or straighten his right leg more than a few degrees, and he had sand in his hair and down his back that might or might not destroy Cuddy's expensive equipment. He closed his eyes and tried not to scream.
"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" House asked when he walked into imaging room at the end of the scan.
Wilson had never understood what difference it made. The bad news didn't invalidate the earlier good news, and good news couldn't eliminate bad news. Whatever order he chose, House was going to tell him something he didn't want to hear. Besides, choosing one would require talking to House, which he was still not doing. He sat up and considered the five steps to the nearest chair.
"Let me pick for you," House said. He walked over and took the chair for himself. "The bad news is you've torn the medial meniscus. There's a loose piece that's impinging the joint."
Wilson hadn't needed an MRI or House to tell him that. He'd realized that much as soon as he'd tried to straighten his knee. As bad news went, it could have been worse, though it almost certainly meant surgery.
"The good news is I didn't seeing any damage to the MCL, PCL, or LCL."
That was only good news to someone who didn't have a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. Wilson waited for the other shoe to drop.
"The bad news is the ACL is torn."
"How badly?" Wilson asked.
"I thought you weren't talking to me."
Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered what he'd done in a past life to deserve House as a best friend. "How badly?" he repeated.
"Grade one, maybe grade two, which brings us back to the good news. I'm not one of those over-paid specialists with a low handicap, but I don't think you're going to need reconstructive surgery. Isn't this the knee you sprained that time at Stowe?"
"You mean the time you goaded me into skiing slackcountry with you and then wiped out into me?" Wilson was beginning to see a common thread. Friendship with House had more hazards than a golf course.
"I didn't goad you," House protested.
"You said, if I recall correctly, that only pussies skied inside the ropes." Wilson might not speak half a dozen languages like House, but he had a good memory for conversations in English, especially ones that ended with him in the emergency room. "Too bad you can't walk the talk. Or ski the slope." They'd barely strayed from the marked trails before House had caught an edge and pinwheeled into Wilson, knocking them both over in a spray of snow, skis and accessories. House had come out of it without a scratch, but Wilson had spent the rest of the trip on crutches with a grade one ACL tear.
"You probably did more damage to your knee skiing back to the nearest chair lift and downloading. I told you to wait for the ski patrol."
"They would have fined us for being off-piste," Wilson retorted, though the real reason he'd struggled back into his skis and traversed to the nearest trail was that he couldn't bear the thought of being strapped into a stretcher and pulled down the mountain. It was the same reason he'd pulled himself out of the bunker, putted out, and staggered off the green, refusing Chase's offer of help. Pride goeth before a fall, and after as well.
House tossed a pill bottle at Wilson. "Don't worry," he said. "It's the wimpy stuff. I had Cameron run it up while we were waiting."
Wilson glanced at the label. Tylenol 3. All the liver damage without the wicked high. He took two.
"You're looking at day surgery for the meniscectomy and physio to protect the ACL. I talked to Bell while you were whimpering in the car," House said. "He's got a break in his schedule tomorrow, so he can fit you in for an arthroscopy, or you can wait a week until he has another opening. He shot 74, by the way. You never had a chance."
"It was never about beating Bell," Wilson said. "It was about playing the best game I could." The bunker shot had rolled to eighteen inches from the cup. Chase had conceded the putt, but Wilson wasn't going to take the easy way out after he'd refused a mulligan. He'd wanted that 78 to be pure.
Any other day, he would have rolled the ball in easily, but his hands were shaking and he could barely stand. As long as he'd kept most of his weight on his left leg, the pain was bearable, but the awkward balance made it difficult to keep the putter steady. The putt had rolled smoothly to the hole, broken slightly to the right, hit the cup, and lipped out.
"You broke 80," House said, ignoring the glare Wilson gave him. "Most of the guys out there would give their left nut to do that. And if you weren't such a stubborn idiot, you would have had your 78."
"I might have had a 77 if some asshole hadn't deliberately ruined my tee shot. Who does that to their friend?" But House had done far worse over the years. He'd also kept Wilson sane through two divorces and dozens of lost patients. "Forget it," Wilson said, softening his voice. "I'm just tired."
House looked away. "Sometimes," he said, "when I see you doing things I used to take for granted, it feels like I'm being left behind."
For as long as he could remember, Wilson had been trying to keep up with House, even if it meant following him out of bounds. The infarction hadn't changed that, hadn't slowed House down in any way that counted. He thought about putts that lipped out and drives that dropped a hundred yards short, and wondered if it was just a question of reading different lines. "Why would I want to go ahead alone?" He smirked to take some of the sentimentality out of his words. "And when could ever match me in golf?"
"Strong words from a guy who had to crawl off the course today." House tossed his cane to Wilson. "Cameron left you a pair of crutches."
Wilson could feel House's eyes on him as he made his way to the door. The cane helped, but each step was still agony. He wasn't going to complain about pain to House, though. He'd take Bell's first opening and get the surgery over with as soon as possible. He reached for the crutches gratefully.
"I'll give you five yards," House said, when Wilson gave him back the cane, "but ten bucks says I still beat you to the elevator."
Wilson didn't have House's experience with walking aids, but he knew how to protect a lead. Two steps from the elevator, though, he pretended to falter and let House catch him at the wire. Sometimes winning didn't mean finishing first.