The flight home was far easier than the trip to Lexington had been. The girls were worn out from the bustling day without a nap and very quickly conked out in their seats, each clutching her toy tightly, Rachel the horse and Abby the eighth notes. This allowed House to actually sit for the flight instead of constantly twisting to talk to the girls and get things for them and shuffling back and forth changing rows several times while getting run into by other passengers. The seats on this plane seemed more comfortable, too; at least, his leg was hurting less in them than it had last Sunday. No flight would ever be easy on him, but this one was as good as they came. He wound up sitting beside Cuddy for most of the trip. Rachel, beside them in the window seat, was totally out, snuggled up with the stuffed Ember.
House looked at his sleeping daughter and the silenced horse. "I like that thing a lot better without batteries," he commented. "Think we could . . ."
Cuddy smiled. "Tempting, but she'd never accept it." She looked briefly at the manilla envelope which he still held, but she had not asked. When he was ready, he would tell her as much as he chose to. More peace regarding her family left room for the work worries to push in, and her mind turned to dreading what her desk was going to look like in the morning.
"You need to start yoga again," her husband said. "You've missed a few days." He felt her tighten up and quickly expanded the thought. "And that wasn't a comment on how you look. Mentally, you need it. It relaxes you, and you've been too focused on everybody else. Physically, you're still smokin' hot." He squeezed her arm, the azalea preventing him from going much further.
"You're right," she admitted. "I hadn't really thought much of missing the yoga this week, but I did. Okay, I'll be sure to do that in the morning before heading off to paperwork battles."
"And then, after paperwork battles," House said, "we need to get back into date night tomorrow night. We've missed the last two weeks." Two weeks. It was only two weeks ago tomorrow that he had picked his mother up at the airport for her Christmas visit.
Cuddy hesitated for a moment, PPTH and date night in a tug-of-war with both shortchanged, but date night won. "That sounds great, Greg. But just for tomorrow, let's skip the sessions first and go straight to the date." She had talked to Patterson several times in the past week during the crisis, and he had had what must have been a marathon run with Jensen on Wednesday.
"Sounds good," House agreed. He turned his head to Jensen, in the row behind him, and said, "The wife wants us both to play shrink hookey tomorrow and fool around instead, so I'm cancelling for this week."
"That sounds like a wonderful plan to me," Jensen said. "I'll just go home early." Home. The closer the plane got, the more he was itching to get back home himself. He wanted to get back to work, too, but it was his family he had missed far more. He still had to run back to Princeton - the luggage had required two cars, so his and Cuddy's both were stashed in long-term parking at Newark - and that would add a detour into his route, but after that, it was just two hours. Maybe even a little less tonight.
Wilson heard the thought. "Too bad you can't just go straight from Newark. It would be faster for you, but we'd never fit everything in one car to Princeton."
"It's all right," Jensen said. "I'll still get there tonight."
The fasten seat belts light came on, and Wilson tried to look across Abby out the window eagerly. They were probably over New Jersey now as they prepared to land. Couldn't be far off it, at least. He was practically in the same state again as Sandra and Daniel.
The plane touched down smoothly. With all of their baggage between the girls and the plant, they waited for the other passengers to clear before starting to pack up. The girls were still sound asleep. Marina wound up taking Rachel, House had Abby, and Wilson and Jensen had car seats and bags, while Cuddy carried the azalea. Thus encumbered, they slowly exited the plane, and the first sight waiting for them beyond the tunnel was Sandra holding Daniel.
Wilson nearly dropped his load. "Sandra!" He managed to get himself unpacked, and then she was in his arms, and Daniel was smiling at him. "What are you doing here?" he asked a minute later. "I thought you were working this afternoon." They should have arrived at home at roughly the same time tonight.
"I traded," she replied. "I didn't want to wait any longer to see you."
He kissed her again. Only four days since Sunday when he'd said goodbye, but it seemed forever. She hadn't gone to see them off at Newark on Sunday, since it was obviously impossible to avoid long-term parking anyway, and she also had thought that adding yet another child and more fanfare to the airport convoy might make things even harder for House. But today, for the homecoming, she was here. "Missed you," he mumbled into her hair.
"Yes, I'm sure she's got that idea by now," House noted. "Along with everyone else in the airport. Now that you're officially welcomed home, at least the public-rated version, can we get on with it?"
Wilson grinned and backed away, carefully extracting his shirt from Daniel, who had a handful of it clutched. "We'd better find a luggage cart. We've got three times this much that went in cargo."
Sandra was eying the plant, but she didn't comment. Instead, she turned to Jensen. "I also thought you might want to go straight home. My car can join the baggage train."
The psychiatrist perked up, mentally erasing that detour in the wrong direction. "Thank you. That's very thoughtful of you."
The luggage cart was found and the baggage claimed. Jensen took his one suitcase off the carousel, hiding his smile as Cuddy gave it an envious look. "Have a good date night tomorrow, and I won't see you. Not till next week." Unless needed, but House knew he was available without saying him it.
House nodded. "Thanks," he said gruffly, with a quick look around as if he were afraid he might be overheard at it.
Cuddy put down the azalea long enough to give Jensen a hug. "Yes, thank you so much. For everything." And for Wednesday, whatever Wednesday had been. She still hadn't had details and was willing to wait or even have none if House chose, but she knew that Wednesday had been the turning point for her husband, and she knew that Jensen himself had been exhausted by the end of it.
"You're welcome," he said. "I needed this trip myself." He was looking much better, she thought. Eyes clearer, back to his usual steadiness. He gave the others a general farewell and then headed off, and as they watched, his stride lengthened, picking up speed all the way as he headed for the doors, going home.
It took longer to get the rest of them loaded up out in the parking lots, of course, but finally, the baggage was all stowed, and Sandra, Wilson, Daniel, and Marina were in Sandra's car. Cuddy gave a final check of the straps on Abby's car seat and then closed the rear door and got in the front passenger's seat. House already had climbed in behind the wheel, and as she joined him, he silently handed her the envelope. She opened it, withdrew the drawing, and studied it for a long moment. Perfect likeness and with that extra glimpse into the character that only a gifted artist can add to a portrait. "He's really good," she said.
House gave a wordless grunt and started the car. "Let's go home, Lisa."
Saturday morning, Thomas backed the BMW out of the garage, hit the button to close the door, and then started down the street. He had loafed for most of yesterday, taking a few naps, watching an old movie, and not doing much other than going out to groom Ember and talk to the farrier about her shoes. This morning, though, he felt like he was finally catching up on sleep. He had even been tempted to take his usual 4 1/2 mile walk today, but then, looking at his foot, he decided to put it off one more day just to be careful. The foot was feeling better this morning, a significant improvement, and it was finally starting to fade even if still colorful.
Before he reached the end of his street, his cell phone went off with a new ring tone that he had added just yesterday: Here Comes the Sun. Thomas smiled as he pulled it out and hit speaker. "Good morning, Greg."
His son didn't return the greeting, but he hadn't expected him to. "I'm supposed to remind you to count hooves today."
"No danger of forgetting it. In fact, I'm heading out for actual hooves to count right now."
There was a hint almost of concern in his son's tone, flashing across briefly before it was buried again behind the words. "Sure your foot's ready for that?"
"I'll be taking it easy. She's got a battle scar herself from this last week, three stitches worth, but she wasn't lame yesterday. Just a little nicked up. I thought we might take a walk. Nothing more." A nice, long walk, getting out on the trails alone. He had a lot to tell her. "But my foot is feeling a lot better this morning. It's starting to fade, too."
"Don't make a habit of that. You're lucky you didn't break it."
"I can't think of any other tombstones I'd like to kick, so I should be safe enough. How's Lisa?"
"You ought to know. You talked to her yesterday." She had called Thomas in the morning.
"I talked to her before she spent all day at work after she hadn't been there in almost two weeks. I'm sure she was having administrative kittens by the end of it."
A soft chuckle. "Yeah. She was buried to the neck in paperwork, but I managed to dig her out last night. She's going in today for a while. If she camps there too long, though, I'll take the girls down to PPTH, and that will end things. Two toddlers and paperwork don't mix." Another pause. "So you're driving to the stable right now?"
"In the sacred Beamer. Glad to know you've got your priorities straight." He sounded like a petulant 6-year-old for a moment, obviously partly as an act, but there was still that buried thread of insecurity running beneath.
"You could buy your own easily, Greg. I really recommend them. This is my second one. Emily and I picked it out together to replace our first after we had road-tripped that one to automotive retirement. That was right before she got sick."
There was a brief silence as his son absorbed that, both the stated and subliminal text. "What color is it?"
"Which can cover a lot of ground."
Thomas smiled. "I'll send you a picture of it, okay?"
"If you want. Not that it matters, since you'd never share it." The earlier message had been received. Thomas could tell that Greg was simply grandstanding now. "I'd better go. Don't kill yourself on the talking horse, okay? I'd hate to have to explain it to Rachel."
Thomas' smile widened. "I'll keep that in mind and try not to inconvenience you. Bye, Greg." A click, and his son was gone. Thomas found himself humming as he drove on, the words to the old Beatles' song running through his mind. I feel that ice is slowly melting.
The stable was at its busiest on Saturday mornings. It would be even worse than this in the summer, but this was a pleasant day for January, bright sunshine and not too cold. Several riders were in one of the outdoor rings, and Bob was giving a lesson in the other. Thomas parked carefully at the far end of the grassy parking area, well away from any other vehicles, and then entered the barn.
"Thomas!" An 8-year-old girl had her Welsh pony cross-tied in one of the grooming stalls on Ember's aisle, and she looked up eagerly as he walked by. Little Jenny Morrison, getting ready for her lesson. "You weren't here last Saturday."
"No, I was out of town." He paused, eying her and picturing Rachel in several years. Now that he had appearances and personalities firsthand to plug in, it was easier to daydream about his granddaughters. Rachel was truly interested in horses, he thought, and they would be very good for her, steadying her as well as feeding a passion. It would be good for her to have something she was as passionate about as Abby was with music.
"I wanted to show you Frosty's new halter."
Thomas walked over for a closeup inspection. It was bright blue nylon with a white noseband with the pony's name in blue letters stitched across it. "Nice! Did you get that for Christmas?"
"It's great." He stroked the snowy pony's nose. "You look all dressed up now, Frosty. Such a fine halter."
A sharp crack echoed through the aisle, and both Thomas and Jenny looked at Ember, three stalls away. She had her head out the door, looking toward Thomas, and her eyes were blazing. Once again, she smacked the sturdy oak door with a front leg.
Jenny giggled. "You're gonna be in trouble," she predicted.
Thomas gave Frosty a final pat and then walked on down the aisle. "Ember, you don't need to be jealous of Frosty. If I ever tried to ride him, he'd walk straight out from under me." Jenny laughed outright at that image, and he pictured Rachel again a few years down the road with her own pony. Thomas got to the stall, picked up Ember's own halter (leather with a brass nameplate) from the hook beside the door, and then spoke firmly, with none of the joking tone of a minute ago. "Get back." The mare obediently retreated, not trying to push into him or past him as he opened the door. He buckled her halter on, then led her out. Her new shoes rang on the concrete aisle as he led her to the set of cross-ties next to Jenny, and he found himself listening as always. This, too, was a form of music.
Once Ember was tied, he went to get his grooming tools, and when he came back, Jenny, now saddling Frosty, was looking at Ember. "What did she do to her leg?" she asked.
Thomas bent to check the small bandage. "She threw a shoe and cut herself on a nail. It's not serious." And with the new shoes, she definitely hadn't been favoring it a minute ago. The music on the concrete aisle had been perfectly even in its rhythm. Yes, he thought they could both handle a trail walk today just fine. He started brushing the mare.
A minute later, as Jenny finished bridling Frosty and started to lead him to the outside ring, she paused as she passed them. "You're happy today," she observed.
Thomas smiled at her. "I'm always happy out here. Vitamin H, you know."
She grinned at the old barn joke but pushed on. "Not always like today. You're happy today."
He looked up and down the aisle, no one else in sight at the moment, then yielded. "Yes. I'm happy today. But I can't tell you why."
"I can keep a secret," she protested.
"I'm sure you can, Jenny. But some secrets have to stay secret just the same."
"But it's a good secret?" she pushed.
"Yes. It's a good secret. But even having a secret is a secret sometimes. Can you keep that one for me?"
She straightened up proudly and crossed her heart. "I won't tell. But I'm glad you've got a good secret. See you later, Thomas." She led her pony on, the hoof beats softer and lighter than Ember's, variations on the same song.
Thomas finished brushing Ember. The aisle was quiet just now, all the activity outside. "I'm glad you can keep a secret," he told her softly. Hours and hours worth she had heard, his unofficial psychiatrist. "You won't ever tell on me, will you, girl?" He tapped her neck, and she whinnied at him. "Good to know. Thanks." He gave her a piece of carrot. Returning the brush to his grooming caddy, he took out the hoof pick and then ran his hand down the back of her leg. She promptly picked up the hoof, and he started cleaning it. Thinking not just of Rachel but of all of them, Greg and Abby and Lisa, too, and of the future stretching out in front of them, he let himself start counting. "One."
Here ends this story. Thanks to all who have taken this roller coaster with me. This one is my favorite out of the series, I think, and I hope you've enjoyed it, too. Reviews are like carrots, or would be if I were a horse (which I have been accused of a few times over the years).
Coming soon to a computer near you: Father's Day. Thomas visits Princeton, and he and House try spending a "test" day alone together.