Chapter eight

The lights were off in the hotel suite, although the TV screen flickered; ghostly light dissipating into the darkness. She paused briefly near the door to slip her shoes off; sinking her toes into the plush carpet in relief. Despite wearing heels regularly, her feet still ached at the end of every day. She squinted into the dim room to find House's head just visible above the back of the couch. Sighing, she stepped forward quietly until she was close enough to touch the bald patch on the back of his head. He was slumped on the couch, his chin nearly touching his chest. He was snoring quietly, his right leg stretched out on a throw pillow and propped on the low table before him. She resisted the urge to run her fingers through his tousled hair, and instead smiled to see he had his laptop resting on his stomach. The screen was black, but as she touched a finger to the mouse pad it leapt to life. His powerpoint glowed brightly on the screen, and Cuddy smiled to see that he'd been working on it. She scrolled though the presentation briefly; noting the bulleted points, linked publications and enhanced photographs he'd included of everything from the labwork to the images at the cellular level. The same bizarre pride she'd felt watching him at the conference washed over her; and she took the laptop from him and saved the file before setting it aside.

House had been invited to join an infectious disease taskforce the year before to study the virulence of H5N1 and the likelihood of virus' pathogenicity in transition from enzootic to panzootic. The taskforce had initially worked in partnership with a vaccine development team from GlaxoSmithKline; sharing research and data, but the partnership had been strained from the start. Having House on the team had probably not helped, she mused. His dislike for the type of corporate influence that partnership garnered was almost legendary. The taskforce's report on the threat of H5N1 had become one of the most anticipated events for the year; although she still wasn't certain what had transpired to force House into presenting their results himself. He hadn't attended a medical conference in over five years; and just the announcement of his presence had sent the medical community into a fondly, she set his laptop aside and paused to consider whether waking him or simply throwing a blanket over him was better for him. A low moan caught her attention, and she glanced anxiously down at House, only to find him still deeply asleep. She stared at the TV, only to find the erotic image of a beautiful, scantily clad woman…writhing on top of a man. Swanky music began to play; and she felt an unexpected blush rise in her cheeks as the couple on the screen began to moan and the bed began to creak.

Damn House. Damn him anyway.

She sighed loudly, even as she sought the remote and turned the TV off as soon as she found it. For the first time since she'd come in, she noticed the primary addition to their room. Congealed, leftover food lay on a plate on a service cart, along with a used wine glass. An empty bottle of wine sat in a bucket of mostly melted ice. So he'd helped himself liberally to the finer things of life from room service. She felt a mixture of relief and shame—House had obviously felt well enough to move to the living room. To review his presentation. And he'd felt like eating—also good. But—she paused to check the wine-stained receipt— a three hundred dollar bottle of wine? And there was no doubt that his little "adult" entertainment would show up on the hotel's bill as well. Damn him! She resisted the urge to pummel him awake, and settled for swatting him in the shoulder. House stirred then, inhaling noisily as he blinked himself awake. Judging from the glaze over his eyes, he'd enjoyed the wine or his Kadian liberally before passing out. Or both.

"You're back." he murmured sleepily, and gingerly stretched while keeping his leg still on the pillow. "How was the conference?"

He wanted to make conversation? Cuddy found herself unable to answer for a long moment as she opened and closed her mouth in fury. House appeared not to notice; cautiously flexing his right foot and sliding a hand along his thigh to knead it carefully.

"Fine." she ground out angrily, and put a hand to her forehead as she still struggled with where to begin. House—well, House was House. It wasn't as if she hadn't told him to call for room service. In the end, she knew he'd have done what he wanted whether she'd stayed all day or gone out on her own. Defeated, she sighed aloud.

"I got notes from Mathis' presentation."

"What was it on again?" House asked as he slid closer to the end of the couch and retrieved his laptop. He briefly skimmed through the slides and then saved the file before shutting it down.

"Rowell's syndrome."

House snorted, smiling slightly. "It's never lupus."

"It's a known condition. Even has its own diagnostic criteria." she shot back.

"It's bad medicine." House said smugly.

"Mathis made a solid presentation on the prevalence of lupus in first world countries and the emerging pattern of occurrence in developing third world nations." Cuddy spat through gritted teeth.

"Lupus is a cop out. It's what doctors diagnose when they don't have a clue what's really going on." House shifted on the couch to lift his leg to the floor. He gasped slightly when the motion jarred his leg, and Cuddy struggled to hold onto her ire in the face of his discomfort.

"Then why are there over five million cases diagnosed world wide?"

"Are you really trying to pick a fight over lupus?" he asked skeptically; his blue eyes wide and innocent. "Or is there something else going on I should know about?"

She sighed aloud, feeling all the tension of the moment drain away. She massaged her aching temples and tried to will away her frustration with House; her anger at his childish antics, guilt over his pain, and concern for his well-being. Not to mention the significance of his presentation for both his own reputation and the hospital's. She struggled to focus on the aspects of House's actions that heralded improvement: his playful banter suggested the pain was tolerable for the moment.

"How are you feeling?" she asked finally, and House gave her one more wary look before he began to wiggle his way to the edge of the couch in preparation for standing.

"Leg's quiet," he said tersely. "'bout a four."

"The neuropathy?"

"Also about a four or so."

Cuddy raised an eyebrow in surprise as House firmly planted the tip of his cane on the floor and leaned heavily on it as he pushed himself to his feet. He wavered, and Cuddy stayed the impulse to grab him and hold him upright.

"Really?" she asked, and he nodded.

"It's better when I stay off of it." he admitted reluctantly.

"You should opt for a wheelchair more often then." she told him, and smiled when he made a face at her. She could tell from his expression that he was thinking of their recent bet, too.

"Are you going to reassign my parking spot again?" he asked glibly.

"I will if you don't make your clinic hours this month." she grinned at him as he shuffled slowly forward; his gait was that of an eighty-year-old man. He glared at her as he rounded the couch and stepped threateningly into her space. She refused to be intimidated and stared up at him defiantly as he loomed over her.

"Are you ready for tomorrow?"

"Yeah." House looked around for a moment before nodding at his laptop on the coffee table he'd settled it on. "Everything's ready."

"Are you nervous?" she asked, and he shook his head.

"This isn't my first conference, you know."

"It's your first in a long time. Aside from the one Vogler made you do."

"Tried to make me do." House corrected, and Cuddy smiled wistfully. House was a megalomaniac on his best day, and Vogler had definitely brought out both the best and the worst in House. It didn't help that House had been right about the man, and he'd been right to oppose him. But still: a hundred million dollars. She still dreamed about it.

"Fine." she agreed, and House grinned.

"I am fine." he parroted, and she slapped his shoulder playfully.

"Then go to bed." she ordered, and House nodded slowly and started forward once more. He walked with a distinct swing to his right leg; almost thrusting it forward from the motion of the hip rather than any true locomotion from the quadriceps or the knee.

"House?" she asked as he neared his door. He paused, grasping the doorframe for support as he half-turned to look at her.

"What?"

"Why did you want notes on Mathis if you knew he was speaking about lupus?"

"Because it's almost never lupus—" he amended his refrain, smiling crookedly; "—until it is. And Mathis is a world-renowned immunologist specializing in autoimmune connective disorders. I figured he might have something worth listening to."

She blinked in surprise; she'd expected House's desire would reflect something more sinister; say, something along the lines of his obsession with . As she did so often; she'd underestimated him. And his professionalism.

"Good night, House."

"Night, Cuddy." he said, and let the door close behind him.