A/N: Thanks again so much to everyone for your wonderful reviews -- I love you guys! Have a very Merry Christmas or happy holiday season, whatever you celebrate.
Stave V: The End Of It
When House next woke up, weak sunlight was making its way through the gaps in the curtains. He could just see outside that it was going to be one of those bright, crisp days, the perfect kind of winter's day that inspired Christmas card illustrators. Interestingly, all the symptoms of his flu had disappeared. He was positive he hadn't been hallucinating his sore throat and painful sinuses, but that had all miraculously disappeared.
He knew, after everything that had happened the night before, that the disappearance of his flu shouldn't be the only miracle to come out of the experience. But the weird thing was, he didn't feel any different. He was no re-born Scrooge, eager to run out of the house in his PJs, handing out money to passers-by and paying for an extra large turkey to be served at the homeless shelter. There would be no pay rises for his fellows, and Thirteen was still on call, just as he'd decreed.
Something was different.
Small, and bright, and pointed, and it hurt in an itchy kind of way, prickling him from the inside.
He got out of bed and made himself coffee and a bowl of Fruit Loops, his own little Christmas tradition. After eating his breakfast he sat down at the piano and played a few Christmas songs. His mother used to love it when he'd play carols for everyone to sing along to. Once he'd got old enough that his father's threats no longer worked, he stopped doing it. He was a bit rusty on a few of them, but he was surprised at how quickly they came back to him.
After playing for about an hour, he had a quick shower and dressed, putting on some clothes that had come back from the cleaners a few weeks ago, still pressed and hanging in their plastic cocoon. The shirt was ironed and he put on a tie, knowing that Wilson and Chase would be dressed up too.
There was no time to rush out and buy last minute Christmas presents for everyone. Besides, if he turned up with an armful of brightly wrapped gifts he'd be more likely to get certified than congratulated on his change of heart. All those presents would do would be to convince a room full of doctors he'd finally snapped the one last, slim thread that was holding him on the happy side of sanity.
Besides which, the good stores were all closed.
Cuddy didn't deserve a last-minute gas station gift. Or a cheap box of chocolates from a convenience store. But he wasn't about to run out and make the jewellers open up so he could buy her a solitaire either.
Cuddy likes champagne.
The idea whispered through his brain, the imprint of a breathy, elderly female voice left in its wake, along with the faint smell of lavender. This time it didn't give him goose bumps, instead he headed for the closet in the hallway and began rummaging around in the bottom. Eventually he found a crumpled gift bag and pulled a bottle from inside it. It had been given to him by a pharmaceutical rep the year before and as he wasn't the greatest fan of wine, he'd stored it away, mentally labelling it "for emergencies". He guessed this counted, although he had to admit, it wasn't quite the kind of emergency he'd pictured at the time.
The bottle had a white flower painted on it, the art nouveau style stem scrolling up one side. Perrier Jouet, Belle Epoque Brut 1995. He wasn't a connoisseur, but he thought that it was probably a good French champagne – besides, the rep it had come from had been trying to sell a very expensive drug and therefore he figured they'd have to be providing very expensive alcohol.
He didn't have any wrapping or ribbon or even a card, but he figured the fact that he was turning up and bringing wine was probably going to be enough of a shock for Cuddy to deal with without adding further to her burden.
When Cuddy opened her door to his knock, she couldn't cover her surprise at seeing him.
"Oh, House!" She stepped back to let him in, one hand flying to her throat to twist the pearls there in a habitual nervous twitch. "I didn't think you were coming."
"Pleasant surprise, I hope?"
"Of course!" There was a slightly awkward moment as House leant in to give her a peck on the cheek. It felt like a kiss gone wrong, but House knew that every guest who turned up would at least give her a peck if not a hug, and he was determined to get things right. He didn't quite know what that meant yet, but being comfortable with greeting each other had to be a start.
"Is there enough food?"
Cuddy laughed. "There'd be enough even if you brought the neighbourhood with you."
She headed into the house, gesturing for him to follow. It was strange being in her home again so soon after he felt he'd just been there, and he was amazed at how clearly his memory had conjured the interiors during his delusion. House was growing more and more convinced that what he'd experienced the night before had been some kind of very vivid nightmare. Perhaps he'd had some kind of twenty-four hour bug, and the fever had activated some dormant creative spark he hadn't known he'd had. He had been watching the Muppet Christmas Carol before he'd gone to bed after all, so the idea was in his mind.
"Drink?" Cuddy asked as they reached the kitchen.
House looked around and realised that there were no other guests in sight.
"Am I the first one here?"
"Yes," Cuddy said, sounding a little nervous. "It's only midday and I told everyone one o'clock. It doesn't matter," she added hurriedly, "but you might have to put up with hanging out in the kitchen with me for a little while because I've still got a few last minute things to take care of."
House shrugged, starting to feel more and more uncomfortable. The tie felt like it was choking him and he could sense Cuddy's unease at him being in her home – at being alone together. And why shouldn't she feel on edge? It wasn't as if the last time they'd been here he'd kissed her and then walked out and then they'd played games, dancing around each other for weeks. Oh, wait . . .
As he shrugged off his jacket and scarf, he was reminded of the weight of the bottle. He laid his clothing over a chair and walked over to Cuddy.
"Here," he said, hating that he couldn't find anything more elegant to say.
"Oh!" Cuddy accepted the bottle and then her face lit up as she realised what she'd been handed. "House, you shouldn't have! You didn't have to—"
"It's a Christmas present," House said. "You can open it today or save it for another time when you've got something special to celebrate. Like when Hope comes home."
"Hope?" Cuddy frowned.
"Uh," House stuttered. Had his brain really invented a name for Cuddy's foster child? And, actually, now that he thought about it, Andie hadn't been particularly specific about Hope's parentage. She'd just said that Cuddy was her mother. Which could mean, well, just about anything.
"I could have sworn I hadn't told anyone that, but yes, that's one of the names I was thinking for the baby. I couldn't call her Joy, of course. Not again."
"No, not again."
They looked at each other for a long while, and something passed between them. It was House who pulled away, turning to the table in the kitchen and grabbing a chair.
"You mentioned a drink?" he said, making himself comfortable.
"Sure," Cuddy said, bustling about the kitchen, slipping instantly into the perfect little hostess persona. "Would you like eggnog?"
"Ew," House said, screwing up his nose.
Cuddy chuckled. "No, I should have known that wasn't your thing. It's still early, so how about a coffee? I could slip a little brandy into it for that Christmas feeling."
Cuddy made them both coffees with brandy and put whipped cream and cinnamon on top.
"Is this what you have every morning?" House asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, right. As if my run wasn't hard enough." Cuddy rolled her eyes.
"You look in pretty good shape to me."
Cuddy didn't dignify what House had to admit was a pretty lousy line with a response.
"So what's with the whole Christmas thing anyway?" House asked, changing the subject. "Thinking of converting?"
Cuddy rolled her eyes. "No, it's just . . . " She sighed, obviously trying to find the words to explain herself. "I wanted to have everyone over for lunch, and most people are off work today. And then my neighbour asked me to be part of the decoration committee and every house in the street was having a Christmas tree in their window. I just thought I'd go along with it. The lights are really pretty. And I put a menorah in the window as well."
"Oh, well that's okay then. I'm sure God's fine with that."
"House," Cuddy complained good naturedly, "can we leave religion out of this?"
"Hmm, can we leave religion out of religion? I wonder if that's the solution to peace in the Middle East?"
Cuddy sighed and House could tell her annoyance factor was ratcheting up a notch. She bent down at the oven and leaned in to baste a turkey that looked bigger than a small horse. There certainly was enough food to feed an army.
"You must have been up late last night cooking," House said, trying to be pleasant again, trying to reel in his baser instincts.
Cuddy closed the oven door and turned back to him, her face flushed. She smiled. "Yes, I was up til about midnight. I hope it will be worth it."
"It smells amazing," he admitted. House was pleased to see Cuddy flush further at his praise. Not that he'd been particularly effusive. Simply telling her that the food she'd cooked smelled good was enough to please her. It made him stop and think about their usual conversations.
"Well thanks. We'll just have to see if it tastes—" The doorbell rang, interrupting Cuddy's protests of modesty. "Oh, that'll be my neighbour. Excuse me for a minute."
Cuddy headed out to the front door and House heard her chatting enthusiastically with another woman.
"Yeah?" He answered before he fully recognised the voice. Amber stepped into his line of view from somewhere near sink, completely destroying his theory about it all having been a nightmare. Either that or destroying his theory about it being a twenty-four hour bug. Maybe he was about to have a stroke after all.
"Don't fuck it up," Amber said bluntly.
House nodded. "I'll try."
Amber smiled. "You know, I could go all Yoda on your ass. 'Do or do not, there is no try'. But for you, House, trying is good enough."
House swallowed hard.
Cuddy bustled back into the kitchen just as Amber faded back into shadow. He figured there was no point telling her that there'd just been a dead woman in her kitchen. It probably wouldn't lead anywhere good.
"Look! They made gingerbread! And the kids decorated them." Cuddy put down a plate of cookies in front of House with grotesque swirls of icing, mounds of M&Ms, and sprinkles in the kind of random patterns only children were capable of. To House they looked utterly appalling.
Cuddy pulled back the cling wrap covering the plate. "Want one?" she offered.
"God no," he said, recoiling in horror.
"Oh, okay." Cuddy was clearly disappointed. She re-covered the plate and put it away on a shelf and House cold feel the frostiness descend.
He'd just told Amber he'd try not to fuck it up. Seemed like he wasn't doing such a good job so far. He searched his brain for something to get them back on track, something that would make her blush again, something sincere.
"You wouldn't have any fruit cake would you?" he asked.
Cuddy gave him a coy smile. "Actually, I do. I baked it myself; I got a special recipe from a friend. Would you like to try some?"
House nodded. He watched her move about the kitchen and had to give himself credit for how rationally he was dealing with what had happened to him. So he had been – perhaps still was – hallucinating. So he'd already seen the tin that Cuddy pulled out from the cupboard he knew she'd go to, filled with fruit cake he'd already known she'd made. So what?
Cuddy lifted the cake from its brightly coloured container and even over the pervasive aroma of the roasting turkey, House could smell the brandy and sugar and fruit. He had the same reaction to it as he'd had last night, a gut-level reckoning of his past mingling with this moment in his present, and all it might mean for his future.
She cut two thick slices, laid them on a plate and put it down on the table. Taking a seat on an angle to him, she picked up her cup of coffee and held it up in salute.
"Cheers. Happy holidays."
House clinked his cup against hers. "Happy holidays."
He took a sip of coffee and then picked up the slice of cake, biting off a big chunk. He closed his eyes, in order to better savour the taste, humming under his breath with a simple, pure, heartfelt pleasure. He swallowed, the taste of brandy still strong in his mouth from the cake and the coffee.
Opening his eyes he saw Cuddy was watching him, her face suffused with joy, and he realised how much satisfaction she was getting from the simple act of feeding him and having him appreciate that food.
"Good cake, Cuddy," he said.
Out of the corner of his eye, House was distracted by a blinking light. He thought it might be some kind of kitchen appliance, but the light grew until the doll-sized Andie was once again hovering in his sight. She floated just behind Cuddy, sitting over her shoulder like some bald, cancer-ridden Tinkerbell. The little girl was jumping up and down with excitement. Her voice was mute, but her intentions were clear. She pointed frantically at Cuddy and made exaggerated kissing motions with her mouth.
"I'm glad you liked it," Cuddy said, looking down, her hands twisting in her lap, clearly uncomfortable with this version of House, in her kitchen, one who kept alternating between insulting and praising her. Insults she was used to, he figured. Praise? Not nearly so much. "I made it a couple of weeks ago and I've been—"
House cut off her words by leaning forward and pressing his mouth against hers. Cuddy was almost surprised enough to pull away, but after just a moment, she closed her eyes and her lips melded into his. She tasted of brandy and coffee and gingerbread and House could have sworn he could smell patchouli. Just their lips met, still tentative, gently exploring each other.
After a moment, Cuddy pulled away.
"House, I can't—" she began.
"I know," he said interrupting, anticipating her objection, knowing exactly what she was going to say. He paused a moment, waiting to see if he knew it because some ghostly female voice had whispered it to him but, no, this time he was sure these were his own thoughts. "I don't want to go through it all again either."
"The games?" Cuddy asked, her voice quiet, afraid. Her hands flew to her throat again in anxiety. House reached out and grabbed them, holding both her hands in one of his.
"No more games," he promised. Then he smiled, a wicked, happy grin, full of promise – full of what the future might yet hold. His heart laughed. "Merry Christmas, Cuddy."