CHAPTER THIRTYONE

Dinner was fish, not fresh caught, but fried up in a nice Cajun rub and served with a vegetable medley. The table was set with candles and flowers. Cuddy wanted the night to be special. They were going back tomorrow and he still hadn't said he loved her.

She kept trying to tell herself it didn't matter, that she was too old for such school girl behavior, but she wanted him to say it. It was stupid, and she wanted it anyway. So she put on a sexy dress and did her hair in loose curls, which he once told her he liked, and put on just a hint of perfume and makeup, enough to entice without looking like she was trying too hard. Then she looked in the mirror and sighed.

House was going to see right through her. He would tease her about it, make her regret ever coming here with him. She started to undress. They were in the wilderness, she shouldn't have even brought the dress. It was new, low cut and a deep garnet color. She didn't own anything else in that color, but it had caught her eye when she went to Saks just a week ago. She was saving it for the spring benefit she would be hosting in a few weeks but for some reason she had brought it here.

House came out of the bathroom before she could get the dress off. He walked over and zipped it back up. "You look amazing," he said, looking at her through the mirror as he wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck gently.

"Thank you," she said genuinely, glad, now that she had brought the dress.

"Shall we?" House had dressed up a little as well, and he had shaved. Cuddy hadn't seen him fresh faced in…she couldn't remember when. She stared at his face in the mirror, trying to process the change.

"What do you think?" House asked her. He looked uncomfortable.

"It's…not you." She didn't know what to say. House didn't respond well to polite lies.

"You hate it." House's face fell.

"No. I…" she turned in his arms and ran a hand along his bare cheek. "I appreciate the effort." She tilted her head up and kissed him gently.

"Well, I can guarantee it won't happen again." He was slightly hurt, but also relieved. She passed another of his little tests.

"Good." She smiled and took him by the hand. "I'm hungry. Let's go eat."

House paused for a moment when he saw the beautifully laid table.

"You just sit down here, pour us some wine, and I'll be right back." She had to put the finishing touches on dinner, and prayed she hadn't burned anything because she couldn't decide on what to wear.

The kitchen smelled wonderful and after a few minutes of fussing, she brought out their food. House was standing by the fireplace, staring into the flames. He was holding a half empty glass of wine in his hand.

"Dinner's ready," she called over to him, feeling more domestic than she thought she should.

"I'll be right there." He was deep in thought. He had to pull himself from the warmth of the fire, but he was glad he did as the smell of fried fish hit his nostrils. "It smells good."

"It is good." It was trying to impress him and had pulled out all the stops.

"Well then, let's eat!" House cut into the fish and put a large piece on his plate. He put a smaller one on hers. He smiled at her like a child, far too proud of himself.

A silence fell between them as they enjoyed their meal. House took breaks to look up at her across the candlelight, but looked back at his food whenever she showed a sign of returning his gaze. As soon as his head dropped, Cuddy looked up at him then back at her dish.

"We go back tomorrow," she said half heartedly.

"Bet you can't wait to get away from me," House half joked.

"I had a nice time."

"Just nice?" House was disappointed.

"I had a wonderful time, House." Cuddy was being cautious. She didn't want to say or do the wrong thing.

"Good." House nodded his head once firmly.

"Did you?" She was slightly afraid of what his answer might be, but she had to ask.

"Have a wonderful time?" House was mocking her, slightly. He saw her recoil slightly. "Yes."

"Our month is almost up."

"What?" House was actually ignorant, for a moment, then it dawned on him what she meant and he almost choked on a piece of broccoli.

"The experiment, our experiment?" She pushed a pea around with her fork. She didn't dare look at him or he would see hope written all over her face.

"So, what do we do now?" He wished she hadn't brought it up.

"I'm open to suggestions." She didn't know what she wanted. She needed someone she could talk to. But all her friends thought she was crazy to want to be with Gregory House, and Wilson would do anything to try to 'fix' House, even if it wasn't the best thing for her. Her parents hated House so she just didn't talk to them about him at all.

She felt so alone. She couldn't talk to House about it without taking a huge risk. She had played out the possibilities in her mind over and over during many sleepless nights. She lay staring at the ceiling, imaging a fight so bitter that they never spoke to one another again. She imagined having to fire House, how empty the hospital would seem without him.

It was much more difficult to imagine their relationship working. She couldn't picture House living in her house, or her living in his apartment. She couldn't imagine him fathering her children, or attending family functions or friends dinner parties. She couldn't seem to merge the man across the table from her with her childhood version of the man she would marry.

She had always imagined finding a man just like her father, a warm, jovial man dedicated to his family, to helping people, to charity. That wasn't House. House was…aggravating, misanthropic, complex, challenging.

"You could dress up as a peasant girl, and I will be the evil tyrant who forces you to feed me grapes and rub my feet and service my every need."

Cuddy was snapped out of her revere. "What?"

"I think we should give it another month."

"Really?" She tried not to sound too hopeful.

"We haven't had enough sex yet."

Cuddy tossed a pea at him.

"Sexual compatibility is very important in a relationship. Even if everything else was perfect, and we both know this is far from perfect, it can all fall apart if we are not sexually compatible."

"We are sexually compatible House. That was never the problem."

"What was the problem then?" It was bound to come out eventually.

"You know what the problem was."

"If I knew, I wouldn't have to ask."

"We were young…"

"And stupid." He remembered the look on her face when she'd walked in on him and Sarah.

"And stupid. And I don't think either of us was ready for a real relationship." She hadn't been ready.

"And in the twenty years that followed?" There had been plenty of chances for them to try to have a relationship. So why hadn't they?

"I didn't think you were interested." She didn't really have an answer, so that was as good as anything.

"Oh come on!" House protested. "You can't be that oblivious. All the flirting…"

"You sexually harass me House, on a daily basis."

"That's me flirting."

"No wonder you've only had one steady girlfriend."

"Your record is not much better. You were with Jack for what, three weeks?"

"Yes. I believe it took you three weeks to drive him away."

"Before that was Barry." House cringed. "How could you possibly call that name out in the heat of the moment?" House mimicked her voice, "Oh Berry, you're sooo big."

"Shut up!"

"I had nothing to do with you dumping that tool."

"No. It was his wife who had something to do with me dumping him."

"Rick the Dick…"

"Was a nice guy!"

"I told him I'd seen you naked and he ran. Couldn't handle the completion obviously." House stuck his chest out proudly.

"You told him WHAT?"

"I told him the truth. He couldn't handle it."

"I'm sure it was HOW you said it."

"That was years ago. Get over it."

"I am over it."

"And under me." It was a questioning statement.

"You wish!"

"I know." He had a hidden weapon. He wasn't ready to use it yet, but when the time was right, he would. He knew that now. He was ready. "Care to make a bet?" House was always up for a bet.

Cuddy studied him carefully. He was too cocky. "Not a chance."

"Because you know you can't resist me."

"Because I know you're up to something." She started to clear their empty dishes. She could hear House getting up and following her, the familiar thump of his cane entered the kitchen as she put the dishes in the sink.

"You think I drugged you?" He wished he had thought of it sooner.

"I wouldn't put it past you." She turned on the water and began rinsing off the dishes.

"You really think I'd do that?" House slipped an arm through hers and pulled the plate out of her hand. He dropped it into the sink and water splashed up.

Cuddy turned to face him. "I don't know what you'd do, House." She saw the honesty in his face. "That's one of the things I like about you."

"What else do you like about me?" He often thought there was nothing about him worth liking.

"You want me to stroke your ego?"

House grinned slowly. "I've never heard it called that before." He took her hand by the wrist and slowly slipped it between them.

Cuddy tried not to laugh. "I like that you don't play nice…or fair." She hooked her fingers into the waistband of his jeans and yanked him toward her. "When you want something, you go after it and you don't let anything stop you. When you think something is right, you won't listen to anyone who tries to convince you it's wrong. You challenge me every day."

"And that's a good thing?"

"That's a great thing." She pulled him into a kiss, her arms wrapping tightly around his neck.

House took a moment, after she pulled away, to reminisce about the taste of her tongue in his mouth and the warmth of her lips against his. It was a long moment that lasted only seconds. "Do you want to know what I like about you?"

She was afraid to say yes, afraid he would bring up her ass, or her breasts or the way he was always able to get what he wanted out of her. "Will I regret saying yes?"

"Probably." He was holding her tightly in his arms. He liked how it felt.

"Tell me anyway." Her curiosity was getting the better of her.

House had to fight the urge to cover his true feelings with a snide remark. It wasn't easy, and he had to look down her shirt to find the courage. It wasn't necessarily that it was her shirt he was looking down, he just had to find courage anywhere but in her eyes. One look in those baby blues and he wouldn't be able to say a thing.

"I like that, after all these years…" he couldn't get the words he wanted to pass his lips. "After everything I've done and said to you, you're still here. Why are you still here?"

"Because I love you House." It was getting easier and easier to say.

"Why?" It was something he had a hard time with. He didn't consider himself lovable. He had never thought of himself as loveable. He was cruel and abrasive and a bastard. He needed a reason.

"I ask myself that every day." She sighed. Love didn't come with a list of reasons.

"That's not an answer."

"It's the best I can do."

House ran a hand along her back. He liked the gentle arc and the way he could feel her muscles beneath her skin. She was strong, but soft. "I could do better."

"Go right ahead." She was leaning against the counter now, content to stand in his arms despite the feeling of the hard edge digging into the spot just below her back.

He felt like he would die if he kept going, but he knew he could lose her if he didn't finally open up to her and tell her how he felt. It had to be done, and it had to be done now, before he had a chance to reason his way out of it. "I don't deserve…" she was about to stop him, but he held up his hands to stop her instead. "I don't deserve to be loved by anyone, least of all you. I treat you like shit, I humiliate you in front of your staff, I constantly push you away and I don't do a damned thing you tell me to do. Anyone else would have given up on me long ago. Anyone else never would have taken a chance on me in the first place. But you did. You see something in me that I will never see in myself. That makes you naïve and stupid but it also makes me wonder if I could ever be half the man you think I am. So I love you, for thinking I could be that person and I hate you because you are a constant reminder that I will never be the man you want me to be."

Cuddy was crying as she stared into his eyes. He had never been this open with her before and it frightened her. "You are that man House." It broke her heart that he couldn't see that. "I don't want you to be anyone other than who you are. I just want you to be…happy."

"But I'm not happy. I'm never going to be happy. If you want me, you're going to have to settle for miserable, and you shouldn't have to settle." He loved her too much to make her settle for that.

She bit her lip. "If I have to settle for miserable to be with you, then I will settle for miserable." It was a decision she had wrestled with for years and she finally accepted the truth. She knew a life with House wasn't going to be roses and sunshine. She knew it wasn't going to be the life she had dreamed of as a girl. She was going to have to give up some of the things she'd wanted, like children, dinner parties with friends, certain physical activities he was incapable of, but she could get over it. She had to. She wanted House in her life. It had all become so simple.

"But WHY?" He didn't understand it. He needed a reason, a logical, definitive reason why she would want to be with a miserable jerk like him.

"Because I love you."

"But WHY?" If his intention was to drive her away, he was going to have to try a lot harder than that.

"I DON'T KNOW! Believe me, if I could change it, I would. My life would be a lot easier if I didn't love you, and no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try to make me hate you, I can't. So please House, do us both a favor and just accept it. Don't question it, don't try to pull it apart, just accept that I love you for no good reason."

"That makes no sense."

"It's love House. It doesn't have to make sense."

"I don't deal well with things that don't make sense."

"I know you don't."

"But I can try." He smiled cautiously.

"That's a start." She kissed him to stop him from saying anything else. She wanted to end on a high note, not give him enough rope to hang himself with.

House was appreciative. He knew what she was doing, and didn't try to stop her. Instead he leaned into her kiss, letting it wash over him. The fear was not gone, but she had given him hope that maybe this was one good thing in his life that he wouldn't completely screw up. He had a feeling she wasn't going to let him screw it up, and he couldn't love her more for that.