She slipped inside the mudroom, quietly closing the door from the garage because she couldn't stand the echo of a slam. She was glad she had been quiet when she caught sight of the bright yellow light spilling into the hallway.
Her heart skipped a beat; the breath came faster in her chest, her legs and arms froze in place. She hadn't left the kitchen light on. The low humming that floated down the hall only confirmed what she had already known.
There was someone else in her house.
She gripped her purse in both hands, silently cursing that she'd let the cell phone inside die. Her car keys were still in their coat pocket; she could slip back out and call the police from the hospital.
Just as her legs began to agree to move, a deep voice, a male voice, came from the direction of the kitchen. Directed at her, like he knew he was there. Cuddy's breath hitched in surprise, and she stifled her gasp.
"Are you going to finish coming home, or am I going to have to feed you in the mudroom?"
That son of a bitch.
"Because really, there's a lot more to your house than just the garage."
Cuddy automatically stepped out of her shoes and pounded down the hall toward the kitchen. "What the HELL are you doing here, House?"
House looked up from what he was doing as she stormed into the kitchen. At first, he affected the picture of innocence—wide eyes, slack mouth—but as he caught sight of the dynamo heading toward him, his eyes narrowed. He appeared to be bracing himself for a beating with a purse.
Cuddy was sorely tempted, but she stopped, surprised, as she entered the kitchen. All the lights were on, the candles on the windowsill were lit, and the kitchen looked altogether more welcoming than it had in months. Not because it was occupied, oh, no. The purse landed on the floor with a heavy thunk.
"I'm making you dinner," House said, looking back down. He was standing behind her kitchen island, doing something on the counter, but his actions were obscured by the bar. He waved a knife in her direction, then pointed it at a barstool on her side of the island. "Sit down, get a load off."
She huffed a noise that might have been somewhere between disbelief and exasperation. Nevertheless, she let her coat slide from her shoulders to puddle on the floor next to the purse.
House set the knife down and held out a glass. "Beer?"
Cuddy padded across the kitchen and took the glass before House decided to drink it himself. As she hiked herself onto the barstool, she noticed the single place setting laid out in front of her: one of her trendy black square plates, a set of red lacquered chopsticks on a plain little stand, a dish of soy sauce, one of her red linen napkins. He must have inventoried her entire house, if he found those napkins. She raised one eyebrow and asked, "You're not eating?"
He shrugged and picked up his knife again. "I'm your itamae this evening. Before you get any lascivious ideas, that means I'll be making the sushi." He sliced a small piece of deeply pink fish into mere slivers while he talked. He glanced up at her, a little smirk dancing on the edges of his lips. "Don't worry, I'll eat my share."
Cuddy sipped at her beer; it was crisp and nutty and just a little different. From her perch at the bar she could see how House had covered the workspace of her island: a bowl of rice, a stack of dark green paper-thin seaweed, a bamboo placemat, bowls of ingredients she couldn't quite identify. As he finished slicing the fish, he hobbled over to the refrigerator and retrieved her other two cutting boards, which were also full of sliced fish and vegetables.
He set the cutting boards on the counter and leaned back on an adjustable stool. Cuddy recognized it as the one she was storing in her spare room for her father.
"Ever had—" House began asking just as Cuddy said, "Why are you—"
They both chuckled and paused. House waved graciously. "You first." He dipped his fingers in a bowl of water, then scooped out some rice and began shaping it.
"Why are you doing this?" Cuddy asked, indicating the spread on the workspace. "This looks like a lot of work, and I know how you feel about work."
"This isn't work," House scoffed, his fingers deftly shaping the rice into little bite-sized oblongs. "Good sushi is a challenge: to find the best fish, to get the rice just right, to get all the ingredients in balance." He ducked his head as he worked, hiding his eyes, and his voice quieted. "You're not pregnant, your refrigerator is as empty as mine, and I bought too much to eat by myself."
His offhand description of her loneliness brought it back, sharp and hot, from where she had forgotten it. But it didn't last in the cozy, well-lit kitchen, in his company. Her voice was affectionate as she asked, "So you think breaking into my house, ransacking through my belongings, and feeding me raw fish is going to get you out of clinic duty?" She took another sip of her beer, and the warmth spread lazily from her stomach to her toes.
He glanced up, a little smile playing on his face. "Worth a try." He picked up a very long pair of wooden chopsticks and began transferring bundles of rice and fish to her plate. "We'll start with some nigiri-zushi. This—" he waved one bundle before setting it next to the others, "—is sake, not the same as the drink. Salmon."
House set down the long chopsticks and picked up a different set, red that matched hers, then used them to pop one of the bundles into his mouth.
"To answer your question, yes," Cuddy said before eating one of her sushi pieces. The salmon nearly melted in her mouth, and a little shot of wasabi between the fish and rice surprised her. Since they were both chewing, he waved his chopsticks at her plate, You've had sushi? She waved her own chopsticks back at him in reply and nodded her head, Yes.
He smiled and swallowed, then took a sip of his beer, which he had stashed somewhere on the workspace. "I bet you just love California rolls," he said with a hint of contempt.
"Well," she replied when she had had some of her own beer, "you take what you can get in Michigan."
He snorted and topped up her beer from a Sapporo bottle. "You mean you first had sushi at that little dive just off campus?" At her nod, he shook his head sadly. "No California rolls here. Tonight, you get real sushi."
"What is on the menu tonight, itamae-san?" Cuddy smiled; the first few pieces had taken the edge off her hunger and combined with the beer to soothe some of her lingering, ever-present tension.
House pointed his chopsticks around the workspace. "Ebi, shrimp, unagi, eel, and chutoro, tuna. Those go in the maki-zushi, with the veggies. Saba, mackerel. Tastes a bit stronger, and if you don't like it as nigiri, well. I'll eat it." He set down his chopsticks and began shaping more oblongs of rice. "The big finale is o-toro, the belly meat of the tuna." He pointed the small stack of translucent, dark pink fish he had been slicing when she arrived. "If you don't like that, I'm afraid I'll have to beat you with my cane." He set a few pieces of mackerel nigiri on her plate with the long chopsticks, then started making a roll.
"Why is the o-toro so special?" The word felt odd on her tongue, in spite of the easy way it had rolled off his.
"You'll know when you taste it. I had to bribe and threaten to get it—it's not often they get o-toro that quality."
Cuddy watched him put the roll together as she ate what was left on her plate, munching pickled ginger in between bites and sipping on her beer. It was obvious he'd done this before; he moved quickly and competently. "Where did you learn to do that?"
"Lived in Japan for a while. Getting a job was a way to get out of the house, which is what every teenager wants, right?" He talked mostly to the food as he worked, so she watched his hands, too. "I did the grunt work, cleaning and stuff, but they were impressed with how fast I picked up Japanese. They let me watch, after hours let me try my hand at a couple things. I learned the basics by the time we left." He used the bamboo mat to tightly curl the roll.
"And you've been doing it ever since?"
He shrugged. "Off and on. More often than not." As he sliced the roll and put some pieces on her plate, he said, "Don't tell Wilson."
She gave him a confused look, and was about to ask when he continued.
"Wilson thinks I live on canned soup and peanut butter."
"You mean you don't?"
House smiled wickedly. "I am a doctor, Cuddy. I know better."
"And if Wilson finds out that you actually eat quite well—"
"—he'll quit cooking for me."
Cuddy found herself smiling back. "You realize you've just given me more leverage."
House topped up her beer again. "Be careful with the leverage talk. I've been here for hours." He leaned back and pointed at her plate. "Eat your maki."
For once, she didn't feel rebellious and did as she was told. The roll was delicious, with just the right crunch from the cucumber and carrot. The 'balance' House had referred to extended to how it looked: each piece was lovely, a snow-white disc shot through with pale green and pink and orange. She was tempted to ask for more when she saw House preparing a second roll.
She rolled her head on her shoulders, realizing for the first time that her muscles felt loose and rubbery. She smiled at House, then giggled girlishly. "You keep refilling my beer."
House smirked in response. "That's the way it's done in polite society."
"Since when are you polite?" Cuddy repressed another giggle, then dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin in an effort to regain a little long-lost dignity. "I think I'm a little tipsy."
"I think you're ready for some o-toro." He set a few pieces of nigiri on her plate next to the maki. "If there are gods, this would be the food of." He ate a piece of his own, closing his eyes with a look of pure bliss.
Cuddy watched him a moment, amazed at how much younger he looked when he allowed himself to look happy. She didn't let herself watch for too long, though, and popped a piece of the o-toro in her mouth.
This fish did melt in her mouth. She rolled it along her tongue, drawing out the flavor. It was like Poseidon himself had given her the essence of the ocean on a little bundle of wasabi and vinegared rice.
House growled from somewhere deep in his chest, a low and sensual rumble that took Cuddy by surprise. She was hard-pressed not to groan in response—he hadn't undersold the tuna. She wasn't aware that she'd closed her eyes until she opened them to see House watching her eat. She felt her blush creep down past her collarbones.
Surprisingly enough, he didn't say anything, just sipped at his beer and kept eating.
As they finished the last pieces of nigiri and maki, Cuddy leaned against the back of the barstool. She resisted the urge to rub at her very full stomach, but she did let out a resounding belch.
House looked up, startled. "Why, Cuddy."
She quickly looked down. "I'm sorry, that wasn't very polite."
"Maybe not, but it was impressive. Good reverb, given your size."
Cuddy swirled the remaining beer in her glass and downed it with one long swallow. "Oh, I'm full," she sighed.
"That's the idea." He watched her as she stretched languidly before sliding off the barstool. He stood up himself. "Go put on something more comfortable; I'll clean up here."
His suggestion was a great idea; the skirt suit she was wearing really didn't have room for a meal like she'd just eaten. As she padded to her bedroom, she pondered just what he meant by 'something more comfortable.' How the rest of the night would go could depend on what she decided to change into.
She stifled a laugh when she saw what he'd laid out on her bed—she was too tipsy to be irritated he'd gone through yet more of her things. He'd found the old flannel men's pajamas she'd had since college—bought on clearance for a great price because they were smalls—and posed them on her bed, like whoever had been lying there had simply deflated.
Once changed, she opened the door between the bathroom and bedroom and was surprised to find House sitting on the end of her bed, remote in one hand and a mug in the other. The bedcovers were turned down and all the pillows in the room were piled against the headboard. She crossed to sit next to him.
He spared her a brief glance, never pausing in his channel-flipping, and handed her the mug. "Have some tea."
She curled her fingers around it, but didn't drink. "House, not ten minutes ago I was complaining about how full I am."
"Fine." He shrugged, took it back from her, and sipped at it himself.
She giggled, just a little, half-tipsy and half-nervous. The closest she'd come to a man in her bedroom in the past six months had been House, standing at her window; now he was casually flipping channels while perched on her bed. For a moment she missed the hormonal rush of the fertility treatments—at least then she'd have an excuse for the butterflies.
"Here," House announced suddenly. He tossed the remote toward the pillows, then stood up. "The Philadelphia Story. And it's just starting." He pointed at Cuddy, then at the head of the bed. "Get in."
She found herself moving even while protesting. "But I never go to bed this early. And I'm not tired."
He set the mug on the nightstand and tucked the blankets around her hips, then straightened back up. "You're not going to bed, you're going to watch a good movie and not bother to move for the rest of the night. That's called relaxing, Cuddy, and if anybody needs it, it's you."
As he turned to the door, she said quietly, "You could stay. You know, relax with me."
His chuckle was a low grumble that she found impossibly endearing. "You temptress, you. What will the nosy little gossipers at the hospital say?"
Cuddy's chin lifted a little. "The only way they'd find out is if you told them, and you know it."
He nodded his agreement. "I can't stay. We both know it."
"You got me drunk, and now you won't even take advantage of it. What's the point, House?" She sighed and sank back into the pillows.
He looked down at the floor and leaned a little harder on his cane. "The point is, I owe you. A lot."
"I'm not the soulless bastard I play on TV," he said, so softly she could barely hear him.
"I know," she replied just as softly. She waited for him to look up so he could see her smile. "Your secret is safe with me."