"Goodnight."

What else is there to say?

The door closes with a soft click and for a moment, there's just the ragged sound of her breathing and the slow slapping of her bare feet against the floor as she returns to her position against the nursery wall.

The guest room wall.

It's coming again— the burning sensation in her eyes and the choking in her throat as a fresh outburst of tears consumes her. With every blink, Cuddy sees her baby once more, a flickering film reel of loss.

For a few precious minutes, it had stopped hurting: her energies diverted to the thrust and parry of argument; the surge of adrenaline she required to combat the feeling that her body was slowly being ripped apart from the inside. The kiss that meant she wasn't alone; even the confusion had helped. House might not be anybody's idea of a sympathetic soul, but when he gave her something, it was always exactly what she needed.

There will be no sleep tonight; of that much she's already certain. In the same way, she knows that eight o'clock will find her smartly dressed and safe behind her desk.

Sometimes life not changing is harder to deal with.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Cuddy tries to talk it out, to approach the aftermath with maturity. Her only consolation in the face of House's increasing bouts of innuendo is that most of the hospital writes it off as another baseless rumor. After all, he'd started most of the ones already doing the rounds.

The unspoken agreement is to avoid each other, and for a week or more, he's just an occasional reflection in one of the glass walls she's grown tired of, or a few measured beats of rubber against linoleum before she ducks down a corridor or hides in an empty exam room.

Avoidance isn't her style, but self-preservation suits her just fine.

Of course their paths were always going to cross again, and all too soon he's pacing unevenly across the carpet in her office, averting his eyes as he rails against the unfair restraints of law and ethics.

At first she can't listen, only fragments of his sentences penetrating her discomfort. He prods at her conscience, provokes her into full-blown dissent and by the time the yelling starts, she finds herself only inches from him, seemingly miles from the safety of the chair she started in.

She tells him no. He continues to argue, eyes aflame with righteous indignation when he finally meets her stare.

This time she kisses him, and there's no hesitancy, no tears. Only the confusion remains and when he walks away once more, she makes no effort to stop him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Her life seems so much emptier now, even though all she lost was a promise. Cuddy has always loved her job, and though she still puts in the hours, there's no mistaking a waning in her enthusiasm. Silly little habits are developing: she avoids the pediatrics ward, telling its doctors they have to come to her. Nobody dares to make a comment, but the whispers of gossip she overhears let her know it hasn't escaped unnoticed.

Difficult days are bringing her down much more quickly than they did before. It's not quite running on empty, but she's approaching it with the unsettling knowledge that she has nothing in reserve. When the clock hits 10 and 11 at night, it's just a little harder to keep her posture straight and her eyes open. She draws the line at sleeping in her office, so some nights she calls a cab because she's too tired to drive. The company helps too-- a chatty cab driver fills a little of the silence that awaits her as soon as she leaves the sliding doors.

She pays the driver with a generous tip, grateful for the chat about the Phillies and the distraction it provided. It doesn't surprise her that House is waiting on her porch, though it probably should.

House hands her one of those dark blue folders that dominate her life, ferried from one department to another, the endless line of counter-signatures that make her own name blur into nothing. This one proves that she was right after all, and it stuns her slightly that he would admit this at all, much less bring it to her.

"Why?" is all she can think of asking.

"I'm not the kind of guy who buys flowers. You look like you need to cheer the hell up."

Generosity, the last thing she's come to expect from him. The light plastic of the file folder feels awkward in her suddenly clammy hands, and as she contemplates kissing him once more, he stomps off into the night.

That night, she does sleep before midnight for once, and in the morning she sees the file on her bedside table. She smiles for the first time in weeks, and though the underused muscles protest gently, the slight discomfort is worth it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Cuddy had almost talked herself out of having this first floor office, right in the quiet chaos of the clinic. The architects had expressed reservations, not to mention the concerns expressed by everyone, from the Head of Security to the nurses. She has never enjoyed the perks of her status, secure in her belief that the power is to benefit her staff and her patients, not her own ego. Not that she's in any hurry to give up her excellent parking space or healthy salary, but she wants to stay in the heart of her own hospital. If she can't treat patients, she can at least be in the thick of things when other doctors do. Every time House fights her about clinic duty, she wants to smack him for being so dense. Doesn't he see that this is medicine too? She's sure he knows that she'd rather be out there doing it herself, but a couple of hours a week is all she can manage. He understands too much for her to be comfortable with.

Most of all she loves the view from her office. Though most of her time was spent huddled over forms or staring at the bleakness of her computer screen, she makes time every day to look of out the window. Outside is the tranquillity of the memorial garden, a bequest from someone important long before her time. When she'd arrived early for her interview all those years ago, rehearsing in her head the many reasons she'd make a fantastic addition to the Endocrinology department, it was there that she'd passed the time. One simple wooden bench and a small fountain amidst a riot of vibrant flowers, enclosed from the ugliness of the parking lot by a hedge that made her think of Burnett's Secret Garden.

She's staring out at the bright flowers, unsure if they're gardenias, making a mental note to ask the Head of Maintenance on their next monthly walk-through. It's something to look at while she wonders why her pager isn't buzzing, why there's no response to the message she left.

Most days she's been able to cope by pretending nothing bad ever happened. She packed up every item of baby paraphernalia and had it delivered to Becca's apartment the day that she left the hospital with Joy. That child would grow up with an entirely different name, but she would always be Joy Cuddy to at least one person. Keeping busy has never been a problem, but today even the most pressing concerns can't block out the wailing of the baby waiting to been seen in the clinic.

Cuddy knows she isn't brave enough to go out there, to see it up close. She's already called the nurses in to ask them to deal with the infant as a priority. But sick children are not easily appeased and so for 20 minutes, Cuddy sought solace in the beauty outside her window. Eighteen minutes ago she paged House, a reflex action that had clearly been pointless.

The crying stops suddenly, the sudden jolt of silence causing her to snap the rubber band she's been playing with against her fingers. When she looks up, it's House of all people that she sees hunched over the now quiet infant, alternating his gaze between the baby and its mother as he issues instructions. Within moments, the patients are on their way, and he's making his way to her office with his usual mask of irritation firmly in place.

"You summoned me, oh evil one?"

Normally, she'd have the perfect barb to shoot back with, but her thinking is sluggish these days. A condition not aided by the flashing memories of the kisses she's shared with this man so recently.

It had become a habit, every bad day, every untenable situation and she'd seek him out. Ostensibly, it was to vent her frustration through their inevitable fight, but she engaged him knowing how it would end. It kept happening and once again, it was all she could think about: the roughness of his stubble against her face, but the softness of those lips so knowledgeable in thrilling her own.

"We need to talk, House. About how I've been behaving lately."

A skeptical eyebrow was raised, his knuckles whitening as they grip the handle of his cane. This isn't the first time this conversation has been attempted.

"I don't know why I keep doing it, but this has to stop."

He answers her with a superior grin.

"I know why you're doing it. You've broken the seal."

She splutters at the seemingly random comment, unable to form a reply.

"Like when you're drinking beer. You can be on the sixth bottle before you start thinking it's time for the little boys' room. In fact, even when you first feel the need you can hold it a pretty long time."

"House, are you comparing kissing me to…to urination?"

His solemn nod is mocking her, and he continues to expound his theory.

"But when you finally relent and decide to go, you're screwed for the rest of the night. Every five minutes, you're running back to the bathroom. That's what you've done. Twenty years you resisted my charms, and frankly, that's to be applauded. Lesser mortals would have caved long before their world fell apart. Now you've kissed me once, you find yourself unable to stop, and the intervals become shorter and shorter as well."

House and his ever-ready metaphors exasperate her, but this Cuddy sees its funny side. In the midst of her hand-wringing and soul-searching, he's made her laugh again. Another recommended dose of what she needs, something she hasn't been able to find for herself.

She doesn't entirely trust him being nice to her, though it's not unprecedented. The conflict is what sustains her, the knife-edge of knowing that even the most benign conversation can turn sarcastic without warning. They're as bad as each other, unable to commit, unwilling to take a risk.

"We should stop." That's all she trusts herself to stay.

"Why?"

"It's a bad idea."

House steps closer to her, another dangerous invasion of her personal space; already her resolve is beginning to weaken.

"But Cuddy, at this rate you're going to put out by the weekend. Why would I stop before that?"

He presents it as the most logical thing in the world, and it's worse to know that he's right, because every time it's been harder to bring to a halt. Each time their hands have ventured a little further, the kiss has lasted a few seconds longer. The inevitable is bearing down on her and Cuddy is fresh out of escape routes.

"I don't know what I want. I can't expect anything from you, House, I don't know if I can trust you."

That blow lands, as effective as his own well-aimed jabs. Of all the things he's burned up and destroyed, he's always been able to maintain her trust.

"So don't look for something I don't have. If you were cut out for picket fences and happily ever after, you'd have it by now. Why can't we just be there for each other when we have the time to notice we're lonely?"

She hates that it makes sense, accepting that her life can't accommodate what she claims she wants. Cuddy thought she could have it all, but maybe that was a lie after all.

So maybe they'll screw it up, maybe they'll hurt each other a little a long the way. For once, she's willing to take that risk, if the payoff is not waking up every morning and feeling so desperately alone. To have her own space but the option of somewhere to go when that's too much for her. It's stupid, bordering on the insane, but common sense and playing by the rules hasn't worked out so far.

She wants to laugh again, at the notion of being rational about this, when the real guiding force here is an overwhelming desire to jump him. Sadness and frustration could be so easily wiped away, temporarily at least. Perhaps she really is a fool, but she invites him over that night anyway, holding her breath in case it is a cruel joke on his part.

His simple "yes" leaves her breathless. They do nothing to acknowledge the change in the game, not with her blinds wide open and unsubtle eyes already on them. Everything feels exactly the same, except for the dead weight she's been carrying around in her chest. For the first time in too long, Cuddy feels her depression lifting slightly.

There might just be hope for her after all.