Well, here it is, all - hopefully at least halfway worth the wait. I have a few ideas bouncing around for other stories. Nothing really solid (I had to finish with this world before I could start trying to create another), but you'll probably see me around. And if anyone has any suggestions, by all means, let's hear 'em.
Thank you so much to all of you who've read this far, and especially anyone who's taken the time to review. A final shout-out to the last chapter reviewers: Shikabane-Mai, Eleanor J., AR, Elliesmeow, Nikelodean, PaulaAbdulChica2007, Kish32, coco1116, sinister scribe, huddytilidie, SnowySleigh, HigherThanSoulCanHope, SmilinStar, kittyge, abc2, Captain Tish, J Lesley, and Snivellusly Ozalan - you guys are awesome. Thanks!
Chapter 14: And Mate
Cuddy released a shaky breath once they reached the cool night air. That sound, a slight stutter in her otherwise assured step, and the way her eyes closed just a split second longer than a blink required were the only evidence that she had been unnerved by the boring eyes and wagging tongues that had followed them as they'd walked together down the hall.
They had had to stop at her office to collect her purse and her car keys, and with the main exit so close, going out any other would have only added fuel to the four-alarm fire that had quickly spread from one staff member to the next throughout every department of the hospital. True, they would've made quite a pair even if no one had known them: him with a cane in one hand and a child in the other; his leather jacket draped over her chic blouse and skirt while her bandaged arm was held carefully against her chest; both their clothes stained with blood.
The ride to her house was quiet. House drove, having snagged her keys as soon as he'd buckled Ari into the backseat. Cuddy had glared at him for a moment, but acquiesced without a word, instead mumbling concern about not having a child safety seat.
For the first time outside of his supervised teenage years, House drove just under the speed limit.
His hands were full, but still he unlocked and opened her door, ushering her inside before entering himself. He didn't ask what he should do with the boy, automatically taking him to Cuddy's bedroom and setting him on the bed, removing the child's sneakers and slipping him under the covers.
He rifled through the bureau, finding and snagging a t-shirt. Cuddy was still standing by the door when he returned, and he took his jacket from her shoulders and handed her the shirt, leading her to the couch. Turning on the TV softly so that something would dull the silence, he flipped through the channels, stopping on the first thing that wasn't broadcasting blood or violence or angst: a curling match.
Cuddy didn't protest or question his choice, her eyes following the path of a stone as it was swept across the screen. Leaving her, he trundled into the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator and finding a bowl of grapes. When he returned, she had changed her shirt and taken off her shoes, but otherwise hadn't moved.
"You know you're gonna have to get something edible for the kid, right?"
"Not all kids hate anything healthy, House," she answered tiredly, glancing at the contents of the bowl he handed her, plucking a few grapes from the vine and setting the rest on the coffee table.
"Shows how much you know," he scoffed, hunkering down on the couch beside her. "Good luck getting a kid to follow your directions without anything artificially colored or flavored as incentive. I know you like to think you're sweet, Cuddy, but – "
"What am I going to do with him for a week?" she interrupted quietly. "I don't know anything about kids."
She might not have said it, but still the unspoken words hung in the air: you said so yourself once. The exact wording was hazy, but the look on her face as water streamed down it was a sight he'd never shake. He frowned, but wouldn't let her see it.
"You'll feed him, water him, give him plenty of sunlight…."
"He's not a plant, House."
"Animal, vegetable – same rules apply." He shrugged. "And you've got a half-grown one. House-trained and everything. He'll tell you when he's hungry. He'll even tell you when what you're feeding him tastes like crap. You'll manage."
She seemed to consider this for all of half a second before doubt returned like a shadow. "He should be with a real foster family – someone who actually knows what they're doing."
"Seriously – how badly can you screw up a kid in a week? Even you don't have that kind of talent."
She still hadn't eaten the grapes, rolling the green globes around on her palm, the blue light of the television flickering off their pale skins. He reached forward and snatched one, tossing it into the air and catching it in his mouth, the sweetly tart juice bursting as he crushed it between his teeth. Holding out her hand, Cuddy offered him the rest of the grapes without a word.
"Cuddy. I've trained you for this moment. And the size of this kid actually gives you a fighting chance if he starts anything. Relax – you'll be fine." Catching another grape in his mouth, he aimed the last one at hers. An arched eyebrow was her response, but he didn't give in completely, pressing the fruit to her lips. "How's your arm?"
Chewing slowly, thoughtfully, she finally swallowed. "How's your leg?"
He felt the pressure of her head on his shoulder, her curls brushing against the nape of his neck, and he had to defy the compulsion to run his fingers through them. "You know, between your run-in with the doorframe – "
"That was your fault."
" – and today's little incident, we're going to have to keep you on a pretty tight leash. Any more bruises and the Board's gonna start to wonder what you're doing in your spare time."
"After today, I'm sure they'll have a pretty good idea."
"I said what not who," he answered, smirking.
She sighed, shaking her head and nuzzling further into his shoulder. This time, he did bring his hand up to her hair, tousling it, and she hummed softly at the tender gesture.
The sound continued to reverberate through his mind even after it had disappeared from the air. Something so simple, barely a syllable, that somehow managed to voice contentment, gratitude, and half a dozen other emotions that he understood even if words for them had yet to be assigned.
"Lise?" Her eyes had fluttered closed, but if he didn't continue now, he never would. "I'm… glad you're okay."
He knew when she didn't answer that she had drifted off, understanding all too well that the only sleep a new wound would allow her would come in fits and starts snagged from complete mental and physical exhaustion. Muting the television, he eyed the afghan that lay folded at the other end of the couch and set to devising a way he could use his cane to reach it without waking her.
"Did they make a mess?"
The tiny voice so close to his ear was unsettling until he turned and found the boy standing beside the sofa, staring curiously at the television. "It's a game. Curling. They sweep the ice to guide the stone."
Ari tilted his head as one of the teams stood amongst the rocks on the ice, deliberating its next move with the aid of brooms and broad gestures. "That's dumb."
"Don't let any Canadians hear you say that," House scolded lightly, grinning. "Or Scots, for that matter. They invented it."
"Were they bored?"
Turning from the game, Ari glanced around him to Cuddy's sleeping form, creeping closer and whispering loudly. "Is she sleeping?"
"Yeah. You should be, too."
"I was 'til I waked up." Without waiting for an invitation, the boy climbed up on the sofa beside him, staring up at him accusingly. "You're not."
"When you're grown up you can stay up as late as you want."
Ari's scowl was expected – bedtimes an injustice to children everywhere. His glare fell on House's legs and softened to curiosity. "What one's the hurt one?"
House rubbed his palm against his thigh without a thought, his fingers brushing against Cuddy's loosened fist, the touch of her hand so light, he hadn't known it was there. "This one."
"Does it hurt all the time? What if I touch it?"
The kid's hand was poised a few inches above his leg, prepared to lower, but House caught the tiny wrist before it had a chance to descend. "Don't."
"She's touching it," Ari pointed out, aiming an outstretched finger to where Cuddy's hand rested on his thigh. "Is that why her name's Dr. Cuddly?"
House smiled softly. In only a few moments of sleep, Cuddy had already pressed herself closer against him, as if afraid he would slip through her fingers if the weight of her body wasn't holding him down. "Something like that. She likes to think she's tough, but it's all an act."
"I got hit with a baseball once. Right here." Ari held up an elbow and pointed at the top, continuing defensively before House had a moment to question the probability of a baseball hitting that exact spot. "But I didn't cry."
"Tough guy, huh?" He flicked off the TV, casting the room into darkness.
"Don't!" Ari yelped, jumping up, knocking the once-baseball-battered elbow against House's chin with a loud smack.
House turned the television back on, swiftly muting it again and glancing at Cuddy, still asleep at his side. He rubbed his chin, wiggling his jaw to make sure everything was still hinged as it should be. Ari stood on the couch beside him, eyes wide in the flickering light and glued on the television screen.
"I-I…" Ari stuttered, "I wanna see who wins."
"You don't even know how to play."
The boy frowned, caught in his lie, and turned to Cuddy, whispering loudly once again. "She doesn't like to sleep in the all-dark." He must have registered the mixture of amusement and skepticism that flashed across House's face, because he continued quickly, struggling to save his case. "If you ask her, she'll say no, but she told me."
"Did you tell her that if she closed her eyes, she wouldn't be able to see anything anyway?"
Ari nodded vigorously, his red curls trembling. "She didn't believe me. There're monsters in the dark."
Not laughing was a struggle, but somehow House managed it, his face stonily serious as he nodded in agreement. "She never believes a word I say either." He gestured at the television. "If I keep this on, you have to go to sleep. Sit down and shut your eyes."
The boy half obeyed, squeezing his eyelids closed but not sitting back down. "You have yours shut, too?"
As he watched, Ari's eyes snapped open and he leaned in so they were nearly nose-to-nose. "No you don't."
"Neither do you," House stated, mirroring the child's accusatory tone. For a few moments, they glared at each other, neither blinking, until House finally sighed, rolling his eyes before closing them. A battle of wills with an overtired four-year-old was one contest it wasn't worth the effort to try to win. "Okay, they're closed."
"Me too." A thump and the soft bouncing of the couch cushions announced the boy's return to the sofa beside him, and House felt the tickle of curls and the warmth of a silky cheek against his bare arm. "Still?"
"Yes," he answered, smiling now that no one could see him. "Go to sleep."
The boy followed orders with miraculous speed. His muscles twitched and breathing deepening within minutes as if someone had flicked a switch. This wasn't a position House would ever have imagined finding himself in: Cuddy asleep on one shoulder and a small child on the other. And even though he wasn't at all tired and the dull throb of his leg was steadily increasing to a stabbing ache, he found himself more relaxed than he had been in quite awhile.
He didn't realize his fingers were intertwined with Cuddy's until he felt her squeeze them, gently, and he opened his eyes to find hers studying him. "How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough to know I'm afraid of the dark."
"Wait'll the rumor mill gets a hold of that one."
"It'll already be too busy digesting the fact that you actually have a soft side." She nodded at Ari. "You're good with him."
"You must really hate me if you'd jeopardize my reputation as an egomaniacal narcissistic pain in the ass. D'you know how long I've worked to – "
"Yes, actually." Her expression read plainly: he would have to be dense to even begin to ask that question, let alone finish it. He grinned.
"You love it," he stated. "This is fun, remember? You do something to make me miserable; I do something to make you miserable... They're your rules."
She refused to meet his eyes, staring instead at her fingers as they drummed against his own. "What if I'm not miserable?"
"Ah ha!" He said it a little too loudly, and Cuddy lifted her head to take a quick look at the still-sleeping boy. Lowering his voice, he kept up his triumphant tone. "I knew you'd give in sooner or later. Check and mate. I win."
"How do you win if you were supposed to make me miserable?" Cuddy countered, her point valid, though he'd never admit it. "And since when is this chess?"
"Candy Land a little more up your alley?" He had a fleeting image of the colorful candy-coated board and deck of cards flying through the air. Even as a child such a simple game had frustrated him, but he had no doubt that a four-year-old Cuddy would have played it with practiced dignity and patience, solemnly lining up her marker with each colored square. "I wouldn't say you've exactly held up your end of the bargain either, Queen Frostine. Not my fault if you refuse to acknowledge my grueling efforts to make your life a living hell. You admitted defeat first. You forfeit – I win."
"Faulty logic." She stifled a yawn. "But whatever makes you happy, House."
"Whatever makes me miserable, you mean," he teased. "But if you're gonna be that way about it, we'll call it a stalemate."
Easing both Cuddy and the boy off him, House stood, helping her up and lifting Ari. "C'mon. To bed. You won't be able to move tomorrow if you sleep on this couch. And I don't want to get stuck waiting on you and chasing after Spidey. He'll already need a good dose of Benadryl as it is just to shut him up for awhile."
Cuddy followed him silently into her bedroom, disappearing into the bathroom and shutting the door. Placing Ari back under the covers, House set to removing his shoes and socks, taking a bottle of pills from the pocket of his jeans before tossing them into a pile on the floor. Retrieving his cane and limping to the kitchen, he filled a glass with water and brought it back to the bedroom. Cuddy had still not left the bathroom, so he knocked softly on the door.
"Lise? You okay?" He cracked the door open when she didn't answer, relieved to find her standing by the sink. The reflection of her eyes in the mirror flicked to his, and he offered a quick explanation for his intrusion. "Thought you fell in."
He sighed, rolling his eyes and crossing the room to her. The harsh light of the bathroom illuminated her wounds, and he struggled to ignore them, failing miserably. Setting the glass of water on the edge of the sink, he opened the familiar orange bottle, tossing a pill into his mouth and swallowing, holding the bottle up by her ear and rattling it suggestively. "Cheers."
"House, those are – "
"Yours." He watched her raise an eyebrow as she recognized her own name on the label, backwards in the mirror's reflection. "What – you can't share? I gave you one of mine earlier."
She answered him by reaching for the Vicodin, taking a pill and raising the glass of water to her lips. The muscles of her throat fluttered as she swallowed thirstily, and as insanely unfounded as his sudden jealousy of that water glass was, he acted on the impulse, snatching it from her hand and gently turning her so he could press his lips to hers.
She responded instantly, drinking him in as eagerly as she had the cool water only a moment before. The taste of her mouth was divinely tainted by the peppery flavors of toothpaste and Vicodin, was the only thing that took away his pain more completely than a shot of morphine straight to the spine, and he wondered for a split second if he had even half that effect on her.
Too soon, she was pushing him away, managing the gesture while clinging to him at the same time. "God, House…. You know we can't…."
Drumming a fist on the counter, the action releasing only a fraction of the frustration that had been dammed up inside him since that afternoon, he looked straight into her eyes. "Lise. Just shut up."
His voice was gruff when he meant the words gently, but she must have understood, because her fist was twisting the fabric of his t-shirt and she was pulling him close already, her lips hard and bruising, her teeth gnashing against his. He let her dominate him as he knew she wanted, because she needed this, too – an outlet for tension and aggravation and anger – and he was more than willing to comply.
When she paused to take a breath, he subtly stole control, slowly stretching and softening the kiss so that it said everything he had tried and failed to tell her, until she was resting her head tiredly on his shoulder and his lips were pressed against her forehead, having followed a lazy path from her mouth, across her cheekbone, and over her temple. She nipped lightly at the nape of his neck, and he chuckled softly, shifting so that his arm could snake around her waist. "Someone's a little sleepy. C'mon."
She brushed her hand against the light switch as they left the bathroom, but he quickly flicked the switch so the light shone brightly. "Leave the light on."
He let her go, carefully angling the bathroom door so a stream of light spilled across the floor and climbed up the side of the bed, spreading across the covers. Shuffling to the closet, he peered inside, shifting her clothes with his cane so he could see every angle before closing the door with a soft click.
"What are you doing?"
Passing Cuddy, he smiled innocently at her inquisitive gaze, easing himself carefully to the floor and glancing under the bed, swiping his cane underneath for good measure. He felt her hand on his shoulder, heard the soft moan of pain she tried to hide as she knelt down next to him, her forehead furrowed questioningly.
"Just checking for monsters," he finally answered, offering her a lopsided grin before stealing a quick kiss. "You're afraid of the dark, remember?"
And so it ends.
As always, reviews are savored - you guys have been wonderful. Thanks!