Kate's best friend and Jensen arrived at the track almost simultaneously, sorting their way through the road blocks together. As they entered the back of the large waiting van, Kate looked up and started to stand. Her friend made it to her first and lifted her the rest of the way into a hug. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get here," she said. Kate crumpled against her, and Patterson and Wilson both felt a surge of relief that one of her own people had made it to share the vigil.
Cuddy had been staring out the window toward the track as if her vision might penetrate the building clear to her husband and Thomas within. Other than the emergency vehicles congregated outside, the huge building looked deceptively normal. She didn't notice Jensen's entrance until he spoke to Wilson. "Any more news?"
"Not since my last call. No word on whether the snake is working yet."
"It's good that they're going slowly." Jensen's usual unflappability hadn't made the trip with him; he was obviously very worried, although still thinking through the situation.
Cuddy stood up and gave him a hug. "Thanks for driving down. At least we know they're alive now." She gave a sidelong guilty glance a second later at Kate, whose was deep in low conversation with her friend.
"He's nothing if not resilient," Jensen said, trying to reassure her. "And Thornton is, too."
Wilson abruptly was seized by a giggle, the stress taking over. He choked it back but not before Cuddy glared at him. "What is funny?" she demanded.
"I was just thinking, the whole point of today was for them to spend time together," he said. "Well, this is one way to accomplish that. Why should House do something like everybody else?"
"This is not what they meant," Cuddy snapped. She sat back down, staring out at the building again.
At that moment, the police spokesman re-entered the van. "We've made contact," he announced. He immediately had everybody's full attention. He spoke to Kate first. "Your husband is alive." She sagged back into her seat. "He's unconscious, and Dr. House thinks he might have a fractured skull, but his vitals are stable." New worry warred with hope in her face, and she lightly touched her stomach. For the first time, Wilson gave a closer, medical look and realized that Kate was pregnant, just a few months along, barely beginning to show. It still took imagination to see it at this stage. House, he thought, remembering Sandra, would have noticed hours ago.
The officer turned to Cuddy. "Dr. House says he's a little banged up but not too bad." Wilson, Cuddy, and Jensen all three groaned skeptically in unison. That was a Housism if they'd ever heard one, probably manufactured for Cuddy's benefit. The effort was wasted, as she wasn't fooled for a second. "Mr. Thornton has a bad cut on his head, but the bleeding has stopped, and he's awake and coherent. The team is getting more details now on their situation, but he says they have a fairly good-sized space. He wanted to get word to you as soon as possible."
Cuddy sighed. "A little banged up," she repeated in disgust. "Damn it, Greg. And Thomas is 75. Did he actually say a bad cut?"
The officer nodded. "His words. A bad cut."
Cuddy chewed on her lower lip, thinking. House wouldn't have added that adjective unless it were a really bad cut.
"They're both at least awake and coherent," Jensen reassured her. "And they know rescue is on the way now." He turned to the officer. "How's it coming with the building?"
"They've starting bracing strategic sections, but it's a slow process. Too tricky to hurry up with it. This is probably going to take another hour or two." Cuddy and Kate sighed together. The officer's earpiece squawked at him just then. "Excuse me." He turned away, exiting the van.
"Just think, Cuddy, he's not only alive but able to lie to us. They're definitely in touch with House." Wilson squeezed her arm.
Jensen sat down next to Patterson. "Thank you, Ruth," he said.
She leaned over and hugged him. "I'm glad I was close enough to pitch in."
"Are you okay?" he asked softly, not mentioning her husband outright, but he clearly knew about that other collapsed building. She nodded.
Watching them, Wilson suddenly wondered how they knew each other clear from their separate states. They were on a first name basis, and while their body language wasn't that of lovers, not even past lovers, they were definitely friends who held a lot of mutual respect and affection for each other. "How did you two meet?" he asked.
"In med school," Patterson replied. "We had almost every class on the schedule together in psychiatry. In fact, we got a little competitive at it." Jensen grinned, abruptly looking much younger than his usual serious self. "I was older, since psych was my second field, and he was young and gung ho at it, but we found out we studied well together. We sharpened each other, challenged each other to think of the material in ways we might not have alone. And then we'd compare test and paper scores after the fact."
"Who came out on top more often?" Wilson wondered.
"I did," they answered together, then laughed.
Cuddy looked a bit wistful, remembering meeting House in college, and once again, she looked out the window, her eyes magnetically drawn back to the distant building. A little banged up. She started mentally forming her scathing response to that statement and hoped she would get the opportunity to deliver every word of it to him once this was all over and they were healing. And how bad exactly was that bad cut? She sighed again, and Wilson and Patterson, on each side of her, tightened their hands, just being there, waiting together.
House gritted his teeth as he started his next reply. The intense focus required to hold a full conversation this way was getting harder, the pain demanding progressively more of his attention and not wanting to leave space for Morsing. Also, the physical strain of the taps had increased. He had been unable to distinguish a long tap from a short one against the pipe, so he had used a tap-scrape, striking the pipe and then sliding down it an inch or two, to form his dash. But now that they were into full words, more and more dashes were interspersed with the dots, and every time now that he did that scrape, no matter how carefully he tried to isolate the motion to only his wrist, it ricocheted back along his whole body. Whoever was running the on-off switch on the snake didn't have that problem and could make long and short distinct just fine for dashes and dots, and their side of the conversation hummed along briskly, while his responses slowly grew more laborious.
He had insisted on sending a status message to Cuddy first thing, even before answering further questions about the bathroom. He downplayed his and Thomas' injuries as much as he could for her sake, but he was careful to include the cut. Thomas had bled freely across both of them, and once they were out of here, he didn't want Cuddy having a heart attack when she first saw them in the ambulance. They probably looked like they'd walked off the movie set of a horror film. Stopped, he pounded out carefully on the pipe. The bleeding has stopped. He is coherent. Hopefully she would take time to plug that in and realize that any blood she saw was just left over from earlier.
The worry and the pain swirled together. He could tell he was starting to sweat more; it made his various nicks and scrapes sting. He forced his mind to stay focused, reading the Morse hums, though he was careful throughout to keep Thomas with him, insisting on regular comments to keep him from falling asleep.
The messages were starting to repeat themselves. He had been through every detail he could remember from his brief glimpse in the light and from his crawls afterward. The team knew exactly where they each were positioned against the wall, how much of the room was left, how often and how severe the debris falls close enough for him to hear were. All that data was being plugged in. He and Thomas had been assured that the world out there was coming, just as soon as they could, but the building must be stabilized carefully first. However, like a 911 operator, the Morse expert on the other end was now trying to keep the line open, apparently intending to stay in conversation until the medics had them on gurneys and hauled them out of this hell hole. Reassuring psychologically, but physically, it was annoying.
Thomas' hand closed over his wrist, interrupting his latest tap. "Let me take over for a while, Greg," he said.
"I'm fine," House snapped. "Besides, you're hurt."
"So are you. Those broken ribs -"
"Cracked ribs," House insisted.
"They're broken. I can tell the Morse is hurting, no matter which hand you use. Just rest for a few minutes. It will help."
"You're as weak as a kitten yourself," House replied. "You're not strong enough to keep up a conversation like this right now, old man." For perhaps the first time, there wasn't even hidden affection in the title; he meant it to sting, the more the better. Damn it, he didn't need Thomas on his case trying to ferret out how badly his leg was hurting.
Besides, he told himself, he was right. Thomas was not strong enough to keep this up for any length of time, even less so than he was. That was a medical fact.
There was a brief silence, but the old man's voice was steady when he continued, absorbing the dart. "We can switch off," Thomas suggested. "Five minutes each."
"You'd never make it. You're having trouble even sitting up straight."
Thomas momentarily pulled himself back up against the wall from his slumped posture in silent defiance. "You can't keep this up much longer, Greg."
"I don't need you to . . ." House broke off in a hiss as, shifting minutely to try a different angle on the pipe that might spare his ribs a little more, he jolted his leg. It snarled ominously, and he could almost see the gleaming white teeth of the pain as they approached, even through the darkness. Not now, damn it. Not here. Not in front of . . .
"Greg?" The concern in Thomas' voice ramped up sharply, coming through loud and clear.
"I'm fine," he managed, but even as he said it, his debris telegraph key dropped from fingers which, with a will of their own, jumped to his leg. His balancing act on the tightrope tipped, swaying much too far to the right over the canyon yawning beneath. Then the pulse roaring in his head drowned out voices and taps altogether as, with an involuntary whimper of pure pain and failure, he went into free fall.