Title: One Step at a Time
Author: Maineac
Rating: PG
Spoilers: none
Pairing: None.
Summary: A post-infarction story with House and Cuddy.

A/N Don't own. Just rent.

"Stop by my office when you have a minute," Cuddy had said. But House ignored the new Dean of Medicine's request until, by the end of the day Cuddy was forced to stop by his office. The door to the Nephrology Department was shut, its blinds drawn, and when Cuddy entered she found House gazing out the window of the cramped room, his right leg propped on the windowsill.

"Hey," said Cuddy. "How'd it go? First day back…"

"Fine. Good," said House. The face he turned to her was pale and drained and he moved with evident pain as he lifted his leg to the floor so he could swivel around to look at her. He had not yet developed the trick of using his left leg to swing the right leg down, hiding the need to support it..

"Half days will be good until you get more used to…being on your feet all day," said Cuddy awkwardly. "No need to rush things."

"Sure."

"Well, I just thought I'd give you this," she thrust some folders at him, "and maybe run some ideas by you."

House picked up the folders. He flipped them open. One was labeled "Your Rights as a Handicapped Worker." The other said "Handicapped Access at the Workplace." Watching House flush a deep, angry red and toss the folders to his desk, Cuddy found herself flushing, too. "It's a requirement by HR. You need to sign off that you've read them all."

"They gave me all this crap at PT," he said shortly, turning back to look out the window. "I don't need a damned handicapped parking spot, okay?"

"Are you sure?" asked Cuddy. "That's easy to say now, but in the winter—"

"I'm fine," said House, pushing himself briefly to his feet so he could dump the folders into the waste basket. "The parking garage is fine."

But watching him struggle to stand was painful. It wasn't just that Cuddy couldn't imagine how he could ever negotiate the garage stairs. It was more that she was still used to thinking of House as a man who moved with a thoughtless, easy grace in everything he did, from the biggest motions (his backhand volley; the habit he had of taking the stairs two at a time but you didn't even notice it because his legs were so long) to the smallest ones (leaning his lanky frame against the entryway to her office, one leg crooked lazily over the other; or sliding into a cafeteria booth with his lunch tray in one smooth motion). Within months, that physical grace would reassert itself to a very large extent and the cane would become an almost invisible extension of his body. But on this first day back in the hospital the cane was still new and foreign, so new that he sported a bandaid on his palm from blisters. The bandaid reminded her of how the PT people had despaired of House. Not only had he refused to continue on crutches as recommended (easier on his leg as well as back and shoulder), but he had perversely insisted on using the cane on the 'wrong' side as well.

And this morning House had been painfully clumsy, handling the new cane awkwardly. She had always thought of the hospital as handicapped accessible, but in little ways she'd never considered, she saw that the it presented a whole series of small obstacles. A simple action that House had done a thousand times, ten thousand times, without even thinking about, suddenly required a complex series of steps to achieve. Opening the clinic door, for example, required both forethought and choreography. An unencumbered, able-bodied person would have grasped the right-hand door with his right hand, pulled it open, and walked through in a single motion, all without thinking about it. House couldn't do that, because both hands were full: his right hand with the cane, his left with a briefcase. To open the door would require him to use his cane hand to pull open the door, which meant placing all his weight on his bad leg and then backpeddling several steps.

Cuddy watched from the desk at reception while he sized up the problem, then stepped up and tried opening the door with his left hand, which still held his briefcase. Twice he fumbled it, probably aware that all eyes were watching him grapple with this simple task.

One of those watching was Dr. Aylesman, a surgeon on the staff who had been the object of House's sarcastic wit more than once. He was standing beside Cuddy in the reception, and just as House finally managed to tug the door open enough to pass through, Aylesman went over and clapped him on the shoulder. "Dr. House," he exclaimed. "Good to see you back." He stuck out his hand to shake, which forced House to switch his cane to his left hand, and thus let go of the door. To make matters worse, as House attempted the maneuver, he fumbled the cane, unable to hold it with the hand that also held the briefcase. It clattered to the floor, and the two men stood staring at it for what seemed to Cuddy like an eternity.

"Let me get that for you," said Aylesman loudly, in case not everyone in the lobby had witnessed the scene. He picked it up and passed it to a silent, helpless and furious House, and after several more exclamations designed to establish his bonhomie—anything he could do to help, anything, just ask-- he concluded by making a show of opening the door as wide as it would go and gesturing House through it, smiling and clearly satisfied that he had made the largest possible spectacle of this smallest of acts.

From the corner of her outer office Cuddy had watched again, a few hours later, as House went through the same door with Wilson. In stark contrast to Aylesman, Wilson anticipated House's difficulty, subtly reaching for the door before House could, and shouldering it open inconspicuously, all the while keeping up a flow of talk that diverted all attention from the act. No one, even House, she was sure, noticed what he had done.

A memory of last summer's faculty tennis tournament sprang unbidden to Cuddy's mind—House humiliating Aylesman on the doubles court, with Wilson as his partner--and she shook her head, trying to return to the present.

"Listen," she said, deciding to ignore the HR folders in the wastebasket, "this isn't the real reason I wanted to talk to you. The real reason is, you remember back a few months ago—before you got sick—the board was discussing the idea of creating a Diagnostic Medicine Department?"

House nodded. Cuddy hadn't been Dean of Medicine then, so he was surprised she knew about his involvement. Someone on the board must have told her he had written a few proposals for funding it. Had, in fact, been uncharacteristically aggressive about pushing the idea.

"Well, the board has approved it, the funding has come through, and I'd like you to apply for the Department Head job."

"No," said House, without a moment's hesitation.

"No? But—"

"Not interested. "

"Why? Six months ago—"

"Six months ago things were very different."

"I don't' see—"

"If you offer me that job, everyone will assume you did it for all the wrong reasons."

"What are you talking about?" said Cuddy, although she could guess perfectly well what House meant.

"They'll think you did it out of guilt, some overdeveloped sense of responsibility you have for…this." He glanced down at his leg. "Or out of pity for the cripple." Cuddy had never heard that word in his mouth before—cripple—and it grated as he had intended it to. House noted her reaction and kept right on going. "Or maybe they'll think you did it out of fear, fear of a big fat malpractice suit. So…buy me off with a Department Head job. Kill three birds with one stone."

Cuddy leaned over House's desk and glared at him. "House," she said, "God knows you can be accused of lots of things, but low self-esteem is not on the list. Not even close. What makes you think you don't deserve this job? And since when do you care what other people think? Let them think whatever they want. I'm the one who'll have to deal with the fallout, and I'm a big girl."

House gave her an assessing glance. He had to admit to being impressed. Cuddy was right about the fallout. It would largely be her problem. As to her barb about him caring whether people thought he'd gotten the offer out of pity or guilt, well, she was right there, too. That barb had gone home. But he wouldn't let her see that. The face he turned to her was a mask.

It was an expression Cuddy had never seen on him before and it nearly broke her heart. Gone was the candor she had once, in what seemed another lifetime, valued so much in him.

"You're right," he said stiffly. "The hell with them. I don't care what the rest of the hospital thinks."

"Good. Then you'll consider it."

"No."

"No? I thought you said—"

"I said I didn't care what the rest of the hospital thinks your reasons are. I do, however, care what you think your reasons are." He yanked his cane off his desktop--in a swift motion that reminded her of a soldier unsheathing a sword-- and pushed himself stiffly to his feet. Limping heavily, he rounded the desk until he was face to face with her. She no longer looked down at him; even hunched over his cane, planted squarely between them, he loomed over Cuddy, which she realized was his intent. "Why are you doing this?" he demanded. "Is it out of pity? Or guilt? Not from fear, I hope. Because you should know I'm not going to sue the hospital."

Cuddy was taken aback. But she recovered quickly and met his gaze, unfazed by the intensity of those blue eyes. "I'm not giving you this job on a platter, House. You need to apply for it. It'll be competitive. I'm also asking Rosene to apply, and Haverford from Mass General. And Martin Hamilton from UCLA has expressed an interest—"

"Rosene is an incompetent, drunken asshole. Haverford couldn't diagnose a nosebleed, and Dr. Marty is a lazy, condescending prick who thinks his shit tastes like ice cream."

Cuddy lowered her head to hide a smile that threatened to give her away. "Then you think you might be the best candidate after all? Certainly you are the most humble and self-effacing of the lot."

House's glare melted a few degrees, and he pulled a bottle of Vicodin from a pocket and busied himself opening it. Unlocking his gaze from her eyes at last, he pivoted away, and went to stand by the window. As he tossed his head back, pill cupped in his hand, Cuddy couldn't help noticing how prominent his adam's apple had become, how his jacket hung from his shoulders. She winced as he swallowed the pill dry.

"All right," he said at last. "I'll send you my CV. Just to protect you from yourself. Anybody who'd even dream of hiring Haverford shouldn't be allowed to run a nursery school, much less a hospital." He lowered himself into the desk chair. "But I warn you" he added as he lifted his leg back to the windowsill, "if you hire me, I'm gonna have a lot of demands. I want a private office, with lots of glass. I'm going to want my own couch—I'm thinking jaundice yellow--with a foot stool. A balcony would be nice, too. And cable TV, now that's a deal breaker. A wide screen—"

Cuddy shut the door firmly as she left.

Next day, when he arrived at work at noon, House found a car in his parking spot on the third floor of the garage. Just as he was cursing the thought of having to park on the fucking fourth floor, and wondering whether he could get away with keying the obnoxious red intruder—a spanking new Jaguar convertible—he saw that the name on the parking space had been changed. Instead of "House," the fresh white paint read "Aylesman."

He backed his own car up and drove out of the garage around to the front entrance of the hospital. Here were the choicest parking spaces, reserved for the President of the Board, the Dean of Medicine, and the faculty members with the most seniority. Aylesman, by dint of sheer longevity, had recently achieved the coveted spot next to Cuddy's. Except today the name on that spot had been repainted.

House pulled his car into the space, got out, smiled, and walked up the steps to work, one step at a time.