A/N: Thanks to whozit the Grand Canyon tightrope walker for that image. Personally, I think the guy is nuts, but the metaphor was irresistible for House in this situation.
And thanks to all my readers. Enjoy!
Wilson re-entered the van, putting away his cell phone. The initial cell phone blackout at the track and casino had been lifted now that bomb-sniffing dogs had made a few sweeps through the rest of the facility. Cuddy, Patterson, and Kate were sitting together now, and Cuddy looked up quickly. Wilson answered the question before she could even voice it.
"The girls are okay," he reassured her. "They were a little worried when they woke up, but they accepted that you had to go somewhere." It happened sometimes with work, after all. "Marina is there now along with Sandra, and everything is under control." Cuddy gave a small sigh of relief, glad that things were under control somewhere today at least. "I also called to update Jensen," Wilson continued. "He's coming down, probably a little over an hour away now."
"Good." Not that Jensen could do much, but he was good company as long as they were stuck with this maddening waiting, and he would want first hand news as soon as possible himself. She knew how much he cared about House by now. She turned to Patterson. "I told Sandra not to tell the girls." Her tone mingled stubborn refusal with a hint of a question beneath it, and Patterson nodded.
"Not now. Two and a half and three and a half are too young for a vigil like this, especially without either parent there during it. You will have to tell them when it's over and we have a firm outcome, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it."
Kate stirred. She was still obviously in shock, her eyes horrified, but Patterson had been trying to draw her out and get her to talk a little. Now she spoke up. "You have young daughters?"
"Yes," Cuddy confirmed, softening slightly into a brief smile even through the worry.
Kate shivered. "I am so sorry," she repeated. "I never thought . . . I always thought if Dale decided to do something, he would come after me. Why would he do this? He must have killed himself along with them." The story about her ex was coming out in erratic dribbles so far, many blanks still left to be filled, but none of the others had pushed her for the background.
Patterson gripped her arm tightly. "We don't know that they're dead yet." She modified that after a moment. "Except for your ex. If he was wearing a bomb directly attached to himself and it did that much to the building, he's got to be dead. Which is good; the others don't need to be dealing with him now, whatever their condition is. But we don't know about them."
"But the building . . ." Kate protested. Wilson sat down on the other side of her.
"You said you heard him on the phone calling out to you in the background," Patterson reminded her. "In the background. Not right at your husband's elbow, and that was only seconds before the explosion. The officer said the bomb went off in the entry passage. If the others were clear inside the room, they've got a chance, and it's not likely that all four of them were standing packed right together in the entry. There had to be at least some distance between."
At that moment, the police spokesman returned, his stride brisk, and they all came to attention. His whole expression proclaimed that he had news even before his voice did, although he spoke promptly. "They've heard something while doing a sound scan of the rubble," he announced. "The letters H and T in Morse code, over and over. Somebody is tapping that constantly on a pipe."
Cuddy sagged under the rush of relief. "I knew he would find a way to communicate," she said. He was alive. He was alive. And so was Thomas.
Wilson was smiling, too, but Kate wilted a little. Patterson was the first to notice. "That isn't necessarily a statement that your husband is dead. Dr. House would be trying to keep it as abbreviated as he could, just hoping anybody would hear. It's a call for help, not a complete list of survivors." She was indeed certain that the omission of Kate's husband wasn't an intentional message from House, although the reasons were more complicated than she admitted to Kate. She knew that House, assuming he was alive and coherent, would be every bit as worried about Cuddy as she was about him. The memory of last year with the President would be chewing him up, and he had to feel totally helpless himself, waiting for news of a disaster just like they were, only in reverse. Patterson was impressed that he had remembered to add an indication for Thornton; more couldn't be expected under the circumstances.
"Hopefully we'll have more details soon," the officer continued. "They're going to try to make contact. This is a long shot, and no guarantees that it will work, but they've sent for a motorized plumber's snake. If they can manage to drive it into or at least close to that pipe that he's on, they can switch the motor off and on. It should make an audible whine for him if it's close enough and even make the pipe hum a little. That would be their telegraph key, and they can read his responses with the high-tech listening equipment they're using to scan the pile. Does Dr. House know all of the letters of Morse code?"
Wilson spread his hands. "I've never had a conversation with him by Morse, but I'm sure he's fluent in that, too. He speaks everything else."
Cuddy was trapped between the prospect of direct communication and a new worry. "They need to be careful not to vibrate the building too much trying that," she warned.
"They know that, Cuddy," Wilson assured her. "They wouldn't try it if they didn't think it was possible without triggering a full collapse."
The officer nodded. "This team is expert on damaged buildings. They're getting the smallest snake they can, diameter a lot less than the pipes it will be in, so that will cut vibration. And they will advance slowly into the damaged area and monitor all the time. The instant the building gives them a hint it can't take it, they'll abort the attempt. But Dr. House - assuming it is Dr. House - has been tapping heavily on the pipe probably for quite a while already, and he's creating as much vibration as they will with this, and the building is tolerating that. If they can talk to him, they can get a lot of valuable information from his side. It would really help them to know exactly what the situation is in there."
"And," Patterson said softly to the two women, "it would let everyone in there know that help is coming."
"What's the situation with the building?" Wilson asked.
"They're analyzing the data now," the officer replied. "This is going to be tricky stabilizing it enough to dig in, but they will solve the puzzle. They're the best."
Kate was still chewing her lower lip, but Patterson could almost see the soft thrill of new knowledge coursing through Cuddy's veins at each heart beat. They were alive. Whatever else, even if it took hours to reach them, they were alive. All at once, there was renewed hope.
"So even though he had come in to complain, he wound up making a donation after all, only more than he ever would have planned on in the first place." House finished the latest Cuddy at work story and paused for a response.
Thomas gave an appreciative chuckle. "She really is quite a woman."
"Oh, she is. I knew it the first time . . ." His voice trailed off into silence.
"You said once you'd known her a long time," Thomas stated, not an outright question but the hint of one.
"We met in college, but it didn't work out then," House replied shortly.
He would never forget meeting her. To that point in his post-John freedom phase, enjoying the college experience in every possible way and the nearly unbearable relief of being away from home, he had thought sexy was the most anyone could shoot for in a woman. She, though, had all that and even more than others physically plus a delightful spice of personality besides. She not only attracted him; she intrigued him. Their one night together had been the first time in his life he had ever allowed himself to consider a long term relationship or think that one containing him might work. To hell with John's predictions that nobody would ever be able to stand him and his entire relational future was doomed. That night, together, the world had seemed at their feet.
Then had come the news the very next day that he was being kicked out. He had actually been able to hear John laughing. It seemed like the world's confirmation, backing up John's opinion, squashing that daring hope back down again. He had been deluding himself to think a future with anyone but especially with her was possible. It would never work. Furthermore, she deserved far better than life with him. So he slunk away with his tail between his legs like a coward, and while he had thought of her in the intervening years at times, it was always wondering whom she had wound up with and mentally reciting how much better that partner must be. She, now, would have made it work. Lisa Cuddy would no doubt be as successful in love as she was in everything else. She was the one with a future. He had been stunned years later to find her still single when their paths crossed again.
His mind snapped back to the present, the heavy darkness and the occasional groans and sighs of the building. Keep talking, he reminded himself. The medical part of his mind had been spinning away in full differential during their conversation. There was some degree of concussion, he thought, but it could have been much worse. The old man was perfectly lucid, although he had a tendency to drift toward sleep any time House left him alone for a few minutes.
The weakness that filled every word and every line of the slumped posture against the wall was eating away at House's medical instincts more. Of course, that could go right along with a concussion, but his instincts thought there was something else to it. Remembering that red river, which had been flowing enough to bleed over both of them before he woke up and which had saturated two sweatshirts after that before he got it stopped, he was now wondering about blood loss. Hard to quantify in that early light, and it had been still bleeding for a while after the lights went out. Also, damn it, he had to admit that even at the beginning, he hadn't been trying to measure exact mL. He had been too intent on stopping it. But it was quite possible that Thomas needed transfusion of a unit or two. House the ER doctor added hemoglobin to his list of tests.
He nudged Thomas' shoulder gently as they sat side by side against the wall. "How are you feeling, old man? And tell me the truth, damn it."
The reply was slightly delayed. "Tired. And my head hurts. Lots of other points aching but not too bad."
"In that order?" House demanded. "Tired comes before the headache?" He checked his pulse again. Still steady but a little fast. The T-shirt seemed to still be dry.
Thomas sighed. "I'm all right, Greg. How are you doing?"
"Fine," House replied. He felt like he was walking a tightrope across a canyon of pain, trying to keep his balance, occasionally swaying slightly between the influence of the ribs on his left and the leg on his right and then regaining equilibrium. One false step, and he would plummet. To make things worse, his hands were getting tired of nonstop Morse, even with the piano exercise that had strengthened him.
"I can take over the tapping for a while if you need me to," Thomas said, annoyingly reading his mind.
"You know Morse code?"
House gritted his teeth silently. If they ever got out of here, he vowed, he would extract an unabridged list of every single language the old man spoke just to find the one that was missing, the one that was his alone. He ignored the offer of help. "They've got to hear us soon. It has to have been a few hours." It seemed like a few years, but yes, he was confident in saying hours plural now, even if he had lost track of time.
Keep talking. Keep talking. "How did you meet Emily?" he asked. "You said earlier today that was a night of bad luck turned good."
Thomas laughed softly. "I was on a date. Not with her. I don't even remember that one's name. All curves but nothing in between the ears; I was bored with her before we'd been out half an hour. The first date with her, of course. I never would have asked her for a second one, but I was in the Marines and in my early 20s, and a chance at anything female was worth checking out. I had a pass for the evening, and I borrowed a friend's car and took that date to the movies. We went to the drive-in, but she was making the most idiotic comments, couldn't even see half of the plot points that were going on. Even trying to neck with her was boring. I went to get us popcorn, and while I was walking back, a downpour started. Then she griped about the soggy popcorn. Never said anything about me getting soaked; it was like she thought I'd planned the rain to ruin her snack. Then the movie reel snapped. Still pouring down rain. She asked me to take her home, so we left. On the way back, the car broke down."
House laughed himself; he couldn't help it. He'd known nights like that. The laugh changed into a hiss as his broken ribs stabbed him, and Thomas stopped quickly. House jumped in before he could ask. "Go on, old man. So where did Emily come in?"
"I couldn't get the car to start again at all. Finally left it there with her in it and walked for help - no cell phones. Of course, we were in between towns. It was about five miles, pitch black and raining. Every now and then, a car would whiz by me and splash me, but nobody saw or at least nobody stopped." Thomas paused himself for a moment, and his voice was softer as he went on. "I finally came to a diner, and I went in to use their phone. I must have looked like a drowned rat by then, and there were mud splashes from a few cars, too. Emily was working the grill. And she looked up when I came in, and . . ."
"And your eyes met, and birds sang, and all that," House suggested, trying to distance himself from the pain. The tightrope beneath his feet was quivering.
"No. She looked at me for a minute, and then she laughed and asked what ditch I had rolled out of. Only she wasn't laughing at me. I could tell. She was laughing with me. I wasn't at first, but I joined in soon enough. She was irresistible when she laughed. She let me use the phone, and I had a burger while waiting for a friend to show up and drive me back to the car to rescue whateverhernamewas. And we talked. I gave her my number and said maybe we could see each other again some time when I wasn't on the date from hell if I hadn't scared her off, and she said she'd enjoy going out with someone who got his disasters out of the way beforehand. It went from there. But by the time my friend arrived and we got back to that broken-down car, I couldn't even remember the other one's name." Thomas straightened up a little. "What's that?"
House, balancing medical differential and pain and interest in the past, was a few seconds later hearing it. A low whine, like a very small drill or a very large mosquito. It seemed to be approaching in the wall behind them. It would hum for a moment, then pause, then hum, then pause. He put a hand on the pipe, and it was quivering very slightly, rhythmically. Then the pattern of that intermittent pulse registered, and his smile widened. "I think somebody out there finally picked up the damned phone."