A/N - Still no particular plan to finish this, but apparently I may be compelled to pick away from time to time. :) I love the Kelly character, and Kelly and House together. Sometimes I just can't help myself!
The gift exchange was only a fiasco for those aware that Wilson had (through no fault of his own) come completely unprepared to be part of Secret Santa, which was the tradition for Campbell adults who were far too rich to need or desire much in the way of material possessions. So when Colleen received with great delight a rare collectable she'd been hunting for and the tag had read, "from James," Kelly choked on her morning tea and House smiled beautifically as he only ever did when he was completely guilty and completely proud of it. Wilson accepted the hug and the profuse thanks with a bemused expression. Kelly wasn't sure if he was struggling with his own integrity or with his knowledge of House and how this gesture was so unlike him.
The morning's highlight for Kelly and Wilson alike was Philip's Secret Santa gift to House. Well, for Kelly is was the gift, and for Wilson it was House's reaction to the gift.
House had opened the envelope to reveal a laminated piece of paper, about the size of a business card. It contained an 800 number, followed by what looked like a software key - a string of letters and numbers in groups of 5.
Kelly reached up and took the card from his hands, looking at it front and back before asking the obvious question: "What is it, Daddy?"
Philip smiled humbly. "It's just a way of hopefully insuring that we'll see Greg around here more often." He spoke to House directly. "If you ever have the time to get away and want to visit, even if only for a day or two, just call that number and give them that access code, and they'll get you here on the next plane, no questions asked."
House opened his mouth then shut it again, helpless.
"Of course, if there's somewhere else you or someone you're close to need to get to in a hurry, don't hesitate to make use of it." He smiled again. "I hope you like it."
"I, uh..." House didn't know how to "do" grateful; he only knew how to tease and berate and make light of the situation. If Wilson hadn't been there, he might have made an attempt at sincerity. As it was, he chose the middle ground, rising to his feet with some difficulty and, when Philip did the same, offering him his hand in a firm grip. "Thanks."
Philip glanced at Kelly for the briefest instant, and judged correctly by her pleased expression that this gesture of gratitude was something special and sincere.
"You're very welcome, young man," he said simply.
And with that, the gift exchange was over, despite Jillian's protests of "but there's more"! There were indeed more gifts under the tree, but any presents outside of the Secret Santa event were to be saved for later in the day and presented directly to the recipient by the giver. House had known this in advance, or else he would not have had the nerve to do what he'd done.
Brunch preparation was left to the men of the house; another family tradition, and one that both House and Wilson were invited by Phillip to participate in. It was rather an odd site (one captured in a few stolen cell phone snapshots by Esther which would promptly find their way onto Facebook): five grown men, all barefoot, in pajamas and aprons. Wilson loved every minute, but House was harder to read even than usual.
"So Dr. Wilson," Andrew began, "You'll be in for a special treat today - has Greg told you about our annual Christmas jam session?"
Wilson looked at House. House looked at Andrew. Andrew looked at Philip and smiled. "Looks like Kelly forgot to mention that."
Philip clapped House on the shoulder. "We've been very much looking forward to having you join us this year, Greg! After brunch we'll take a few hours together in the music room and do some arranging. I have a friend who takes our recordings and turns out a really nice finished product for us to have as a family memory."
House hummed noncommittally, but Wilson saw the interest in his eyes.
"And of course you're welcome to play along too, Dr. Wilson."
Wilson politely declined, but said he was looking forward to witnessing it all.
Brunch was served at 10:30, and devoured by 10:40. Esther shooed them from the dining area and reassured them she was happy to clear the table and load the dishwasher. She reminded them that they needed to "get to work" so Andrew would be ready to leave by 1. So off the Campbells went to the music room, House needing no encouragement to keep up.
Wilson stayed back to help Esther, with an ulterior motive not well hidden. After few minutes of small talk, he began the third degree.
"So you had never met House before, right?" Wilson broached carefully.
"No, I hadn't. We almost crossed paths after Philip's heart attack, but he was on a plane back home by the time Jillian and I were able to join Andrew at the hospital."
Wilson must have looked as lost as he felt, because she filled in the blanks. "Greg saved Philip's life, you know. Got his heart started again before the EMT's arrived and prevented a lot of damage. And then of course that was all AFTER he had saved Kelly's life. So as you can imagine Colleen talks about House all the time. I came here expecting to meet a man 12 feet tall and with the light of heaven shining out every oriface."
Wilson chuckled, but was busy assimilating this new information and trying to decide where to start with all the new questions that were popping up.
"And when did this all happen?"
Esther looked at him quizzically. "You really have no idea about any of this, do you?"
"House is..." Wilson sighed and searched for the words. "He's a genius, certainly. But when it comes... well, most things... Anyway, you're right. I am completely at a loss here, and I think both he and Kelly are enjoying keeping me in the dark."
"Hmmm..." The last dish was in the dishwasher, and she snapped it shut. "I'll tell you what, Dr. Wilson. I'm going to grab my laptop upstairs so I can check my Facebook. And then if I just happened to leave it logged in and you just happened to stumble upon House's profile..."
"House has Facebook?"
"...then it wouldn't really be anyone's fault, now, would it?"
Wilson had tried to talk House into getting Facebook before, but House had refused, saying it wouldn't be worth it since he only had one friend anyway. Knowing now that he DID have Facebook somehow cemented that House had a secret life that Wilson was completely unaware of. But in that moment it didn't bother him - he just needed to see what it revealed.
A few minutes later, Wilson was settled on the couch with a cup of copy and a Netbook. Esther patted his arm and told him sweetly that she'd deny everything if pressed. He thanked her and started to read.
In the music room things were in high gear. Jillian was in the corner with the morning's gifts, but everyone else was behind or holding an instrument: Colleen on keyboard, Philip on bass, Andrew on drums, Evan on electric guitar, Kelly on acoustic, and House in his glory at the piano. Esther had no skill or even real appreciation of music, but she appreciated the joy in the room, which came in loud and clear well over the sound of the instruments. She joined her daughter on the floor, and listened.
Back in the living room, Wilson was feeling like a voyeur, but he just couldn't stop himself - he would have to deal with his guilt later. After learning that House had exactly 5 Facebook friends who were all currently in the Campbell home with him, Wilson had quickly abandoned House's page, which had little content other than a record of posts and pictures he had liked and commented on, and switched to Kelly's, which was the primary source. And while it was obviously sterilized for public consumption, to someone who had no clue about any of the events and feelings described, every picture and post from the time House and Kelly had first encountered one another was a revelation. He only wished there was a way to access their private messages to one another, but that would have to be a project for another day.
Her "notes" from their time together were the most telling. It was clear she'd made them private to everyone but her family, and they were therefore more transparent than the rest. It was a diary of a journey from one ocean to another, and then back again. Wilson learned about her late husband, about her unexplained illness, about her unexpected friendship with the doctor who would go on to save her life, and about how he had agreed to help her finish her important quest for healing beyond the physical.
He shouldn't have been surprised by the tears. Wilson connected with her story of the loss of her husband on a deep level, and he was broken again by the fact that Amber wasn't with him this Christmas, and would never be with him again. But he also connected with her hope, voiced on every page. And with the vibrancy and happiness that he "watched" develop over the months that followed, and then saw in person over the last two days.
Maybe he wouldn't feel this way forever, after all.
House and the Campbell clan spilled out of the music room noisily, alerting Wilson who roused himself and escaped to his room, leaving the computer, lid snapped closed, for Esther to find. The tears wouldn't stop, so he locked the door and ignored the quiet knocking of Andrew and Jillian 20 minutes later, who wanted to invite him upstairs to see them off. He didn't, however, ignore the tone that sounded on his phone indicating a Facebook private message had been received.
This message was attached to a friend request from an "Esther Carver-Campbell". It said simply: "I hope you found what you were looking for."
He smiled through his tears and accepted the friend request, writing back: "Better yet, I think I found something I WASN'T looking for. Thanks."
Kelly knocked a while later, and feeling a little more controlled he let her in. She was surprised when he immediately pulled her into an embrace. "I need to apologize to you", he blurted before he could stop himself.
She laughed, unconcerned, and squeezed him back hard, sensing he needed it. "Whatever for?"
"I used Esther's computer to Facebook-stalk you." He released her and smiled sheepishly, not realizing the the evidence of his tears had not completely faded. "I just couldn't stand not knowing." He heard the shower spring to life across the hall. House, he surmised. He allowed himself to be led into the den and sat close to her on the couch. "I hope you'll forgive me for invading your privacy."
"Honey," she said with a reassuring grin, "I have very few secrets in this world, and those I DO have belong to other people." She glanced towards the closed door of the bathroom. "My real concern is what has you so upset." He opened his mouth to speak, to deny, but she stopped him. "The holidays are the hardest, aren't they? This is my second Christmas since Mark died. But the first one nearly killed me." Her hand went to his arm, soothing. "Her name was Amber, right?"
He was glad he'd already cried himself out, because her compassion would have undid him otherwise. He nodded sadly.
"If you want to talk about her, I'd love to listen."
"Thanks, but..." He smiled. A real smile. "You've already done more for me than you know." He paused. "But there is one more thing you could help me with."
"You could help me understand what on earth it is you see in House."
He expected her to laugh, but even her smile was half-hearted. "It bothers me to hear you ask that," she explained. "Because it either means I'm nuts, that every else is blind, or that he is too damn good at hiding the things about him that made me fall in love with him." Wilson's look of surprised matched her own, and she interrupted herself with a quick intake of breath. "Wow. I really just said that." And after that she forgot to continue, because her mind was occupied with trying to determine if what she had unwittingly admitted was actually true. Wilson let her be, watching her with fascination.
After a few moments she stood. "I... need a drink. A soda, I mean. I'm... We will talk, okay? About whatever you want. Just not now. I..."
"Need a drink," he finished, grinning. "That sounds like a wise decision. I'm going to take a shower and get dressed when House is done in the bathroom, and then
I'll be up."
She nodded, paused, and nodded again. "Okay." Then she laughed at herself, and went upstairs.
An hour later, everyone was in the living room showered and dressed, and the remaining Campbells getting ready to leave for the local homeless shelter where they would be helping to serve a turkey dinner along with other volunteers.
Kelly was doing so distractedly, though she didn't think anyone else noticed. So she was surprised when as she sat next to House on the couch to tie her sneakers, her mother addressed her.
"Honey, you're looking a little flushed. Are you feeling alright?"
"Yeah, mom, I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. Greg, does she feel warm to you?"
House was too exhausted to catch on right away. He touched Kelly's forehead, humming noncommittally.
"Honey, if you're not well, it's probably not a good idea for you to go to the Mission today; I'd hate for you to pass on a bug to one of the clients."
Unlike House, Kelly knew right away. "Mother..." she began, exasperated and embarrassed.
"Dr. Wilson, perhaps you'd like to come in her place?" Colleen smiled at him sweetly. "It's a wonderful family tradition, and we'd love for you to be a part of it."
She glanced at Philip and Evan for approval, but they were busy exchanging knowing glances.
"Um... Well, sure. Of course." He looked questioningly at House, whose expression had quickly transformed to understanding.
"Good, then it's all settled. Grab your shoes, Dr. Wilson - it's time to leave!"
"Mother!" Kelly was mortified. Colleen had always been a bit of a meddler, but never to this degree.
"Greg, you'll stay here and take care of my daughter, won't you." It wasn't a question, and didn't need to be.
"Mother, may I please speak to you in the kitchen?"
Wilson was at the top of the stairway when he figured things out, and he chuckled all the way to the bottom.
House waited patiently for the others to leave and for Kelly to rejoin him in the living room. When she did, her smile didn't reach her eyes.
"I'm sorry about that. My mother fancies herself a match-maker, apparently."
House patted the space beside him. "In her defense, you do look a little flushed, and you've been acting weird this afternoon." When she sat he leaved over and pressed his lips against her forehead. No fever. "ARE you feeling alright?"
Considering the feeling that reappeared in her stomach when he touched her, she was inclined to say "no". Instead, she ignored the question. "So... time to open gifts?" she asked hopefully. She knew he'd be eyeing the large wrapped box with his name on it that her assistant was supposed to have mailed but had hidden away instead, having been brought into the secret that House would be joining the family for Christmas. She of course had been equally interested in her own gift, but that was far from her mind now. This was purely a distraction tactic.
He knew, but didn't care. He wanted his present. "Me first!"
She retrieved them both and watched with a parental smile as he tore off the wrapping and opened the box to reveal several smaller packages. The first made him laugh - it was the Harry Potter book series. He'd given up trying to convince her he wasn't hooked, but had managed to stay away from it since he'd seen her last. He cursed at her in jest.
"You're welcome," she chuckled.
The second would have made him sentimental, were he so inclined. It was an iPod. HIS iPod, which he had thought he'd lost. When he looked at her quizzically she explained, "My assistant was at a meeting near you, so I gave him my key to your place and had him break in and take it."
"Turn it on," she encouraged.
He did so, and it opened to a wallpaper of a picture of them he hadn't seen.
"I found it on my mom's camera; I didn't even know she'd taken it. But I love it."
What she loved, he knew, was the way he was looking at her. He hadn't even realized his expressions could be so transparent.
Kelly took the iPod from his hand, clicking and scrolling until she found what she wanted him to see.
House looked, and found himself grinning. "I know what this is. You made me a mix tape!"
She ducked her head sheepishly. "Every once in awhile I would hear a song that would remind me of you, or of us, and I started writing them down. So I bought them on iTunes. But the first time at least you have to listen to them in order. VERY important. I spent a long time arranging them just right."
She was proud of herself, and he found it very endearing. He shook his head. "You stole my iPod to make me a mix tape."
"You love it."
She recognized the look of tenderness on his face and wasn't quite ready to deal with it, so she rushed him on. "There's more!"
He pulled out a legal sized envelope and put the now-empty box aside. Ignoring her offer of a letter opener, he used his teeth to rip the top and emptied the contents onto his lap. He recognized the logo on the gift certificate - it was for a dinner theatre they had visited and enjoyed on their trip home last summer. It was good for two admissions for any of next summer's shows. "What's this supposed to mean?" he asked.
"It means that you and I have a date for the theatre next summer. And if we happen to take the long way to get there and back... well, I think we could find ways to amuse ourselves in the process." She could tell he was considering the possibilities, and the tender look returned. "so... is it my turn?" She didn't wait for his answer, but lit into her own gift with a show of gusto. This box also contained several smaller packages, all individually wrapped and numbered.
She glanced up at him and saw he looked smug; he too was obviously proud of himself.
The first package was Gilmore Girls on DVD, two sets - they'd been watching it online together illegally and he knew it bothered her, so he'd bought one for each of them that was on the level. She smiled widely and praised him for such a clever gift.
Yep, definitely proud of himself.
The second package made her blush. It was the bikini she had worn on the night of the "hot shower". "How on earth did you get this?" she exclaimed.
"Let's just say your assistant is worth every penny. He got someone to find the box in storage and send this to me, and didn't even ask why." He smirked. "You may want to have a talk with him to assure him I'm not some kind of pervert."
"Oh, I'll be having a talk with him alright." She shook her head in disbelief. "So what is the sentiment behind this particular gift?"
"Your parents have a heated pool, sweetheart, and I'm here all week. You figure it out."
She had missed that leer, she admitted to herself even as she swatted at him and told him he was gross.
There were a few other items to unwrap, containing little things he knew she liked: Red licorice, pastel medium gauge guitar picks, 80's style hair scrunchies, and a book of Sudoku puzzles. All meaningful in their own way because of their time together or subsequent phone or online conversations. And then there was one box left.
Extending things by making a show of it, she held it to her ear and gave it a shake. "Hmmm, what could this be?"
Now he was actually looking nervous, and her feeling of gaiety left her. "What did you do?" she accused lightly.
"Nothing... Just open it."
She did. It was a small jewellery box. She shot him a look, but he wouldn't meet her eye.
She opened it. It's contents were obscured by a scribbled note that told her immediately what it was, and sent her back to a very late night conversation they'd had on the phone about her wedding rings, and how though sometimes she wore them around her neck just because the stone on the engagement right made it impractical when she was "getting her hands dirty", her fingers felt lonely when she didn't have them on.
The note said, "In case they ever get lonely." And she immediately recognized the gift for what it was. Even though she hadn't told him that she'd decided to stop wearing her rings before he'd bought the gift, he had hoped that she would. And was prepared with an alternative.
"It's not -" he began. "Christ. Just give it here." He removed the ring from the box and took her right hand (not her left), sliding it onto her finger. It fit perfectly.
"How did you -"
"You really need to talk to your assistant about the kind of information he gives out to total strangers. Although the fact that he knew your ring size right off the bat is troubling in and of itself, don't you think?"
She had stopped listening. The ring was beautiful. Modest enough in size to wear every day, but unique and elegant and obviously expensive. And not only did it fit perfectly, it also suited her perfectly. She was speechless.
"Do you... Did I do okay?"
She hugged him tightly, then gathered up her gifts without a word and bid a hasty retreat to hide her tears.
When she returned 20 minutes later she found a sullen House on the couch where she had left him. Sullen until he looked up to see what he had just thrown at him from across the room: his swim trunks and a large towel. And the opposite of sullen when he saw that, though she was wrapped in a towel of her own, she was obviously ready for the pool, the ring still on her finger.
"Catch you outside, Greg."
Oh yes. Yes he would.
He found her in the hot tub; apparently swimming wasn't on the menu for the afternoon. With some difficulty he sank down into the heat across from her.
"Back to how it all began," she commented.
"Not quite. This time around you already know my name."
"And I'm conscious."
"Yes, there's also that. And you weren't so far away"
The way he was looking at her, she nearly blurted it out right then. Maybe it would be better if she didn't have to see his face. She took the hand that he offered and half-swam to his side. "Do you need me on your lap to complete the re-creation, or will this do?"
"'Need' is such an interesting word. I - "
"I withdraw the question." She pressed into him. "Thank you."
"For the gifts. For being here. For not chickening out."
His arm, which had been stretched out behind her on the edge of the hot tub, came around her shoulders. "I wouldn't have chickened out. Not in the end. Though I might have left Wilson at home. He's a bigger meddler than your mother."
"I'm glad you brought him. I think he's having a tough time."
"I thought he seemed to be doing pretty well."
"That's because you've never had someone you're in love with die on you. If you had, you would know."
"Fair enough." He paused. "So how are YOU doing?"
She was shocked that he'd asked. But since their interactions had been purely long distance over the last few months, he'd gotten much better at inquiring, rather than just waiting for her to offer. Though they rarely talked about this.
"I feel bad saying it, but this year is way easier than last year. Last year I was sure I would never enjoy Christmas again." She sighed. "That may be why my family pushed so hard to bring you here. I was such a downer last year and they were trying to prevent a repeat performance."
"Yeah, that's me. Always bringing the fun in." For some reason, he felt uncomfortable talking about this in generalities. It was like he needed her to invoke her dead husband's name just to prove to him that she actually could without falling apart. But when her hand came to rest on his thigh, he suddenly felt uncomfortable in a whole different kind of way. The kind of way that brought to life many other memories... including the way she looked OUT of water in the bathing suit she was currently wearing.
Kelly sensed the shift in his attention and panicked when he started to turn toward her. "So... How's Cuddy?"
He made a frustrated noise. "Seriously? That's seriously what you want to talk about right now." He threaded his fingers through hers. "You are such a tease."
She had missed him more than she had even realized. "Well, excuse me for wanting a little clarity about where we stand before I let you do to me what I know you want to do to me."
The leer was back, though not as confident as before. "I thought we'd decided a long time ago that we weren't going to talk about it - that we were just going to let things happen as they happen."
"Yeah, that was until you drunk dialed me to tell me about kissing Cuddy."
"You're the one who's been goading me on this entire time about Cuddy!" He should have been angry, annoyed, frustrated. But only with her could he have this conversation with a smile, however wistful, on his face. "You know full well that one SOBER dial from you and I would have been on the first plane here."
She didn't bother to counter him or to make excuses. This was something she'd purposely avoided thinking about, because she knew there was no solution. "So why ARE you here?" Her head rested against his shoulder. "Why the ring and the bathing suit and sleeping in the same bed?"
"Would you like the answer in list form, or essay? Either way, we could be here for awhile." He kissed her temple. "I'm here because we DON'T have to talk about it. And I'm here because your dad paid for my plane ticket."
"Well that's good news, because now he's paying for all your plane tickets, so I should expect to see you more often." She beamed up at him. "We should probably get out soon, before our insides start cooking."
"I was so hoping you'd say that."
"You just want me to strut around in this bathing suit."
"I'd be just as happy for you to strut around OUT of that bathing suit." His hand slid down her calf as she climbed out of the tub, making her shiver.
He noticed how uncertain she looked, how quickly she wrapped herself in her towel. But he wasn't worried. It was Christmas, after all. A day for UNwrapping.