And we come to the end of the line for Pranks. Thanks so much, readers, for enjoying and commenting on the ride. I did warn you that it ended optimistically but open-ended, without things tied up neatly in a bow and all problems and relationships resolved. On the other hand, you have talked me into the sequel, which will be on its way shortly, and everything that you are going to be left saying, "Wait a minute . . ." will be further addressed there. It, too, will be a roller coaster, and not much will go smoothly. Major conflicts and confrontations in that one - it reaches for more than this one did on all levels. I really appreciate the reviews and the feedback for Pranks. This story was a sort of "getting my confidence back" experiment. You have been wonderful.
And now, the final chapter of When Pranks Go Wrong.
House entered the lobby of PPTH and immediately stiffened. Several people were smiling, even the nurses and the receptionist. Everybody looked up at him and Wilson entering, and while at least there wasn't a banner or balloons, whether bright or black, he was definitely the focus of attention. Far too much interest, too much curiosity, too much pity, even just based on the limited public knowledge of the last week. He had to stop this right now before somebody actually said . . .
"Dr. House, it's good to see you back."
Damn. Too late. He pulled himself up to his full 6 feet 3, and his eyes were blue lasers, dissecting with surgical precision the receptionist who was holding out his messages. She wilted under his glare. "Didn't Dr. Cuddy explain? A full week and a half of hot sex, and she was SO insatiable at night that I just had to rest up during the day." Cuddy herself, coming across the lobby, grimaced, although her eyes held both private understanding and private laughter.
"Dr. House, nice of you to FINALLY join us. I need you . . ."
"My God, woman, can't you wait for the privacy of your office? We could go into an exam room, I guess."
". . . to work on charting this morning," Cuddy continued, not missing a beat at his antics. He noted that at least half of the audience had turned away in exasperated disgust, though. The receptionist rolled her eyes.
"Charting? But Mom. . ."
"Your team's current patient is stable and improving, solved it late last night."
"Valvular defect causing the clots?" House was immediately interested, intent.
Cuddy shot him a suspicious glance. "How did you know? The team had already called you twice yesterday long before that possibility came up."
"I'm psychic," House replied. "For instance, right now I know that you aren't actually thinking about charting but about . . ."
"OFFICE!" she commanded. "Get up there now."
"And here I thought you were going to consign me to the 7th circle of hell that's known as the clinic." He started for the elevator. Wilson hung back to give the receptionist an apologetic smile. She shrugged, wondering why it was she'd missed the jerk in the first place.
"Nope," Cuddy replied, following him. "I'll just send you to the 6th circle of hell on your first day back. We'll save the 7th for next week." Actually, she was trying to spare his still-touchy leg for the moment, not to mention keeping the details of their clinic duty deal confidential. He recognized it and appreciated the thought - as long as she didn't say it out loud.
He stabbed the elevator button with his cane, and Cuddy came up alongside him. "Oh, and Dr. House," she said loudly.
"DON'T say it!" he implored her, ducking quickly into the opening elevator and stabbing the button for the fourth floor.
She smiled at him, facing the elevator with the lobby behind her, so that he alone saw her expression. "Welcome back."
House scowled and stabbed the button repeatedly, and the doors started to close. "Wait a minute!" Wilson called, hurrying to catch up.
"You've got two good legs. Take the STAIRS," House called as the doors snapped shut. On either side of the silver barrier, he and Cuddy both wore nearly identical private smiles for a second before erasing them and putting on their usual working faces.
House entered Diagnostics and skidded to a dead halt, abrupt enough that he stumbled slightly. "Who . . ." He stared at the table in the conference room. Here there actually were a few balloons as well as a cake bearing the message, "Welcome back, Dr. House." House's eyes widened, and Thirteen and Taub both cringed. Foreman was in the corner, watching this with almost scientific interest. "KUTNER!" House bellowed, as if the guilty fellow weren't sitting in the same room with an innocent, bright grin on his face.
"What? It's chocolate, even. Everybody likes chocolate."
House stabbed a balloon with his cane and immediately felt a bit better as he actually managed to pop the thing on one try. Not bad, given that the cast still was throwing his overall balance off slightly. It took two whacks to kill the second balloon, but still, not half bad. He turned his back to the table, limped over to the whiteboard, and studied the symptoms on it. "How's the patient?"
"Stabilized since last night," Foreman replied. "It wasn't the lungs. You were right."
"Of course." House erased the whiteboard and made four columns, labeled Homey, 13, Taub, and Kutner. "Okay, new differential. How should my back charting be divided up between these four?"
Foreman rolled his eyes. "I'm going to check on the patient. Page me if anything interesting comes up." He walked out. Taub and Thirteen sighed, and Taub went over to the desk in the corner, picking up a stack of old charts and bringing it back to the table to distribute.
Kutner, meanwhile, had been using his pocket knife to cut the cake, and when House turned from the whiteboard, he was holding out a paper plate. "I'll do some charts," he said, "but why not have some cake first?"
House eyed the slice as if it were a lab specimen, but he finally took it and sat down at the table, freeing his right hand from the cane to use the fork more easily. "Not bad," he admitted with his mouth full. Kutner grinned, as pleased as a school kid praised by his favorite teacher, and quickly pulled over a chart from the stack. The three fellows worked through their respective charts as House sat at the head of the table and ate cake while simply soaking up the familiarity of the office suite, his domain.
He was back where he belonged.
By the time lunch rolled around, he was starting to get tired, although he never would have admitted it. When Wilson popped in to offer to pay for lunch, House was glad to get away from the team. "How's it going?" the oncologist asked as they rode the elevator down.
"Kutner brought a cake," House said in disgust.
"I know. He asked me what your favorite flavor was." House socked the oncologist lightly on the shoulder with the cast. "Seriously, how are you feeling?"
"Perfect." The slight edge on the response answered Wilson's question much more accurately than the word did. The elevator door opened, and they headed for the cafeteria.
"We're in luck. There's an empty booth over there," Wilson commented as they entered. The cafeteria was fairly full, but there were several options still left for seating. Wilson didn't actually suggest that House avoid standing in line for several minutes - if he had, he knew House would have refused just to be contrary - but he was glad to see House head over to claim the booth in question after hesitating for a second, leaving him to go through the line for both of them. What with the cast, House couldn't have carried a tray anyway. Wilson knew what his friend wanted already, of course. Reuben sandwich, dry, no pickles.
The line was pretty long, and it was 5 minutes before Wilson joined him. "I'll take you home after we eat," he reminded his friend, and House scowled. "Cuddy's orders, remember? You're only supposed to put in half days for the first few."
"Can't leave quite yet," House replied around a mouthful of sandwich. "I want to talk to Cuddy."
"She's at a lunch meeting with some donors," Wilson said.
"I know. I checked her schedule."
"You'll see her tonight anyway," Wilson pointed out, but House shook his head.
"I want to talk to her before I leave. Not after I've had all afternoon with nothing to do but get cold feet."
Wilson nodded. "Might be a good idea. Keep in mind, though, she is going to say yes. You have nothing to lose here, House."
"Maybe not in asking, but the actual date . . . " House fiddled with his food, his attention suddenly focused on his plate.
"When were you thinking about going out? I have a good reason for asking, remember. Babysitting."
"Next week some time, probably. Maybe next Friday. I wanted to give it a few more days . . ." House abruptly trailed off, not actually admitting that he didn't feel 100% yet, but Wilson heard the thought.
"That sounds good. Now remember, you wear nice clothes. Don't insult her or the waiters or anybody in the restaurant. Open doors, be a gentleman."
"I thought you said she didn't want me to be someone I wasn't," House reminded him.
"She doesn't," Wilson assured him. "But every now and then, she'll like to know that you care enough to try. You can revert to your old self afterward, but she'll appreciate the effort." Wilson continued through Dating 101 over the meal, and House sat unusually quietly and listened. He hoped his friend was right about all this and that Cuddy's interest would stay strong when the guilt had started to wear off.
Cuddy entered her office after the donor luncheon and sighed as she realized that House was sitting in the chair in front of her desk. "What are you doing in here?"
"Waiting for you," he replied.
"I thought I locked the office."
"Must have thought wrong," he replied with that look of impish innocence that never failed to kick her pulse up a bit, though whether in attraction or annoyance, she wasn't quite sure.
She walked around her desk and sat down to face him. "How are you feeling?"
"Glad to be back, even if I was in the 6th circle of hell all morning." His eyes fell, and he fiddled with the head of his cane. "Cuddy . . . " he started, and then trailed off.
Her interest immediately piqued. Impish House was in her office all the time, but uncertain House was a different story entirely. "What is it?"
He took a deep breath. "Would you like to go out to dinner sometime?" he rattled off with the speed of a machine gun, making it about 3 syllables.
She had to freeze the words mentally and play them back more slowly. "Would I like to go out to dinner sometime?" she repeated, hopeful but wanting to make sure she had heard it right.
"Sure, why not?"
"You mean a real dinner? At a restaurant? Like a date?"
House abruptly remembered denying once to Cameron that an outing would be a date, but Cuddy deserved the truth, deserved an honest preview so she had a legitimate chance to turn him down and spare herself. "Yes," he said simply, eyes still on his cane, nervous hands quite conscious of their handicap at the moment.
She smiled broadly. "I'd love to, House."
His head came up, and his eyes met hers, searching, gauging her sincerity. She waited for him, and finally, he began to relax. "Good," he stated. "Next Friday night, maybe? Wilson will babysit."
"I'll reserve next Friday night right now," she said, noting it immediately on her calendar. She didn't point out that she'd be seeing him tonight anyway in the meantime. She understood as well as he did that this was a whole different level.
"Great!" Her phone rang at that moment, and he stood up a bit stiffly and waited for her to conclude a quick conversation.
"I'm looking forward to it, House," she assured him as she hung up. "Did you want something else? Not that I'm trying to get rid of you, but I have a meeting in 10 minutes, and you need to go home."
"One other thing," he said, and then hesitated, letting the silence expand.
He grinned at her, impish House back. "I need to do a brain biopsy." She knew what he actually was asking. He wanted to try taking things further, but he also didn't want to lose their working relationship, their mutually enjoyed give-and-take. Nor did she.
She gave a professionally exasperated sigh. "I thought your patient was getting better."
"This one is, but I'm sure I can find somebody who needs a brain biopsy."
She shook her head vigorously. "Forget it, House." Her eyes met his in confirmation. Status more would not destroy their working status quo.
He smiled, a genuine smile that went all the way to his eyes and melted her. "I'll see you later, Cuddy."
"See you later, House," she replied. He headed out of her office, then paused with one hand on the doorknob, waiting.
Cuddy already had turned her attention to the work on her desk. Where was that form she'd been filling out right before her meeting? Questioning her memory, she opened her center desk drawer to see if she'd filed it - and her desk drawer immediately collapsed, dumping its entire contents between her feet in a spectacularly satisfying clatter.
House edged on out the office door, unable to hide the smile.
Preview of coming attractions: Desperado. House is in therapy. Blythe is in Princeton. Everything is in turmoil.