Author's Notes: And we're at the end of the line. Thank you to NickAmaral, House ever, Nadia, Jane Q. Doe, Aly, LiaHuddy, Boo'sHouse, Huddyphoric, newdayz, Lana, MissBates, houseblue, paroulis, newsession, MARNIC, HuddyGirl, grouchysnarky, fantasiadvd, Alex, red blood, Abby, dmarchl, Temo, GratefulInsomniac, JLCH, IHeartHouseCuddy, and EllieShelly for leaving a review and offering some support while I wrote this last chapter. I really appreciate.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Gift of Screws
Chapter Twenty-Five: Such were for Saints
By Duckie Nicks
"Essential oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws." – Emily Dickinson
The roads had glazed over once more with a solid sheet of ice. Harsh kernels of frozen snow and the remnants of road salt crackled under her tires as she carefully drove home in the dark. The rigors of work an uneasy ache in the back of her mind, it was the situation with House that seemed to bear down on her oppressively. Her focus remaining on the highway, the paperwork in her briefcase niggled at her attention. For as sure as she was that this was the right way to test him, there remained an inkling of doubt, a question of appropriateness she couldn't entirely ignore.
Sitting in front of her lawyer, she had recognized the dangerous game she was playing.
What if House said yes? What if he said no?
Somehow this idea of hers, while guaranteed to work, was beginning to feel like a great way to destroy their relationship.
An hour ago, she had pushed through that hesitation anyway. Her attorney hadn't been an idiot, had noticed that she was taking an unnecessary step here – meaning that she was purposely avoiding the more direct action. Cuddy had told him to do his job. But the closer she got to actually handing the papers to House, the more she felt that this was probably a bad idea.
If he said no, he would have been lying to her this whole time. Every insinuation that he cared about Rachel, that he would eventually care about her, would have been a lie. If he said no, how could they keep living together?
Then again, if he said yes… what would Cuddy do? She hadn't set out this morning hoping to take this step with him. When the weekend had begun, she hadn't thought it would create this catastrophe that ended with her questioning how he felt about her daughter. And if he signed the papers, she was not sure she was prepared to handle that.
How could she be?
He was making these claims – that he knew Rachel better than she did, that he loved her – when three days ago he could hardly bear to spend time with Rachel. Maybe he meant what he said; maybe he thought he meant what he said. But that didn't make it any easier for Cuddy to believe much less accept. And in the end, he could say whatever he wanted, but she needed proof. She needed to see it and know that it wasn't just an act, wasn't just a way to manipulate her.
But not for a second could he know he was being tested. If he knew she was questioning his motives, he would be angry. If he didn't mean it, he would get defensive to protect his lie. If he were earnest, then her doubt would crush him, would probably be the end of them.
And yet, even knowing that, Cuddy understood she had to see this through. Regardless of the consequences, she needed to know how he felt. She would never outright believe what he said, not when it came to something as important as her child; she needed to see it.
She had a right to.
In the hours away, this was the conclusion that she had come to: she had a right to want proof, to be suspicious and non-accepting of anything less than concrete. She hadn't been perfect by any means these past twenty-four hours. She had been riled up with fear and frustration, fueled by their never-ending problems. She wasn't so entrenched in her thinking that she couldn't see the mistakes she'd made. But she wasn't wrong to hold House to a higher standard when it came to her daughter. Maybe it wasn't fair to be so suspicious; maybe she had wrongly lashed out – okay, she'd definitely been wrong to pick fights with him last night. With Rachel though, Cuddy had a right to be cautious. Her daughter only deserved as much.
Unfortunately, Cuddy wasn't sure House would appreciate that. When all was said and done, after he'd made his feelings clear, she didn't know that he would respect her motivation. Because she'd been so… insane, she feared that he would judge her far more harshly for her rational choices.
She supposed she had earned that.
As crazy as she'd been, he had every right to react that way. Hours of work had robbed her of the intense energy that made that fact hard for her to see. Forced outside of the home, she had eventually, hours afterward, been able to focus on something other than House and Rachel. The stress of work had been an outlet, the constant text messages from House about Rachel's health a welcome reassurance. And though Cuddy felt that insanity lurking inside of her body still, she was calmer now. Well, that might have been overstating it; she was tired now. But her exhausted state was working for her.
At least, it had been; the closer she got to home, the less and less true that seemed to be. For a brief moment, it had seemed like she could properly view her behavior. Now though she was beginning to think that what she'd experienced had been nothing more than a slight reprieve from her insanity. Because the longer she drove, the more she began to think that she was making the wrong choice, the more fear began to take over once more.
By the time she pulled into the garage, she felt like she was on the verge of a panic attack. If this went wrong, she would have to deal with why House had lied to her. If it went really badly, there would be no dealing with him on a personal level ever again. And if by chance he had meant everything he'd said… she didn't know what she would do.
All she could think of, when she imagined that scenario, was that she wasn't ready. She didn't want to share Rachel. She didn't want to have him… interfering, making himself look like the hero in every scenario, as though she didn't have enough to worry about when it came to her daughter.
In her head, she recognized how childish it sounded, but Cuddy didn't care. Selfishly, immaturely, she worried what his intrusion might do to her relationship with Rachel. The very possibility of it changing terrifying her, Cuddy was horrified that his presence might mean something awful for her. She'd fought a long time to have a child, much less love one, and just the idea that House could come in now and render all of that hard work useless… made her angry.
He wouldn't have to do half of what she'd done to have Rachel in her life. But he would reap all of the reward for her hard work. He'd be the one who got to have all the fun with her; the actual parenting would be left to Cuddy, but he'd be the one Rachel would end up preferring. He would never punish her; he would never tell her no. Any time he tried to stand up to her, he would back down and reward her with whatever it was she wanted. Cuddy would do her best to make sure Rachel turned out somewhat decently, but that would breed resentment in her daughter.
And that was what scared her most of all. It wasn't that House would have a much easier time gaining access to Rachel. It wasn't that he would relate to her in a way Cuddy would not. It was that Cuddy would become the harsher parent, the one to push and punish, a singular bulwark against complacency and bad behavior.
In other words, House's increased presence would turn her into her own mother.
Childish or not, Cuddy didn't want that.
But if he signed these papers, if he meant what he'd said, she would have to give him a larger role and accept her new one. Or he would lie or refuse to sign or she wouldn't let him, and they would break up.
For a brief moment, she considered forgetting the whole thing altogether. Would it really be that hard to pretend she had never gone to her lawyer's? Would it be that difficult to simply say to House that she'd been upset about Rachel's health and leave it at that? She thought the answer was no. She also thought that it didn't matter; this issue would come up again sooner or later.
Eventually they would have to address these concerns. And the longer they waited, the more fights they would have; the closer Rachel would get to him, the harder it would be to resolve this argument honestly.
No, she thought as she stepped out of the car. It was for the best that they do this now… whatever the consequences might be.
Obviously knowing that didn't make the choice any easier. The second she entered the house, that was perfectly clear.
This wouldn't be easy.
That was never more apparent than when she found both Rachel and House asleep on the couch in the living room. He had an arm behind his head, another clutching a book to his chest. The glasses he'd worn were still on his face, and resting on top of him and the book was Rachel. Cuddy couldn't be sure if he'd willingly let her sleep on his lap or if she'd climbed up after he'd become unconscious. But what was going on before her painted a picture Cuddy couldn't deny.
They were becoming close.
Whether House meant it or not, Rachel was responding to his increased attention. Even though they had a volatile relationship, she was clearly welcoming this change, momentary or not. She was accepting enough that once again, Cuddy questioned her own rightness in the situation.
Really, if he could adjust to Rachel being in his life, if her daughter could embrace him, then what was her problem, Cuddy wondered. Why was she the only one who seemed to have any issue with the way things were going?
Because she was the only true adult, a voice inside whispered. Because she lived with two children, neither of whom were capable of or interested in considering the ramifications of their actions. They just did what they wanted, and when it went wrong, they both came to her to fix it. They didn't care enough to avoid problems; they simply believed she would take care of whatever went badly. Knowing that, they had no reason to worry about what they did. And she had every reason.
Bearing that responsibility wasn't easy. But it was obviously all hers, as no one else would ever shoulder some of that burden for her. And it might have felt awful to have to ask the questions that could destroy them, but again, it was her job to do so. No matter how much she cowardly wanted to pretend like none of this was happening, she didn't have that option.
She had to question this; she had to challenge it, because no one else would.
No one else was going to ensure that this was a healthy, meaningful, honest development. As always, she was the only one who would do that. And as hard as it was going to be, once again, Cuddy told herself that it was necessary, that avoiding this issue was impossible. If not today, at some point, she would need to know that House actually cared about her daughter, that they could be a family in a way that wasn't built on a lie, that wouldn't hurt her relationship with Rachel. So why not today? The sooner she did this, the better it would be for all of them.
If only that made it easy, she thought, setting her briefcase down next to the couch. As she stood back up, she taken by surprise.
Rachel's eyes were wide open and looking at her.
Smiling, Cuddy said quietly, "You're awake." Rachel nodded her head enthusiastically. "I thought you were sleeping. It's past your bedtime."
"I'm not tired." Unconcerned that House was asleep, she was louder than she needed to be.
"Shh." Cuddy held a finger up to her lips. "House is sleeping, so we need to be quiet, so we don't wake him up."
At that point though, Rachel was no longer listening. Shifting on top of him, she was too busy trying to climb off of him. Instantly Cuddy could see the potential danger; one wrong move, and House could have been woken with Rachel's hands, elbows, or knees digging into his thigh.
Quickly Cuddy reached for Rachel and carefully picked her up. "I got you," she said in soft tones. "Let's try not to kill House tonight."
Rachel relaxed in her arms almost immediately. Although she'd claimed not to be tired, she was inadvertently making it obvious that the late hour was wearing on her. Her head on Cuddy's shoulder within seconds, she was clearly ready for bed. Nevertheless there was just a touch of energy left in her, enough fight that she would not go to sleep easily.
However, Cuddy thought that might have been for the best. Having not had much of an opportunity to talk to her at all, Cuddy wasn't ready to put her to bed right away. She would have, had it been necessary, but Rachel didn't seem cranky enough to be truly exhausted.
"How about you help Mommy change?" Cuddy suggested. "You can tell me what you did today."
Rachel lifted her head. As they disappeared down the hallway, she started to talk. "We watched movies, and I got to eat a cookie cause I taked my medicine, and I slept a lot."
"I'm assuming he gave you more than cookies."
She frowned as Cuddy dumped her onto the bed. "He made me eat vegetables."
"Oh you poor baby," she said lightly, her fingertips tickling Rachel so she laughed. Kissing her cheeks, she told her, "Not vegetables."
Giggling Rachel rolled away. "Mommy, stop. No more tickles."
"All right. I'll stop." Hand on her back, Cuddy patted her daughter softly. "Do you feel better today?" Rachel nodded her head slowly. "You get sick at all?"
Her cheeks turned red. Her body shifting on the bed, she was obviously uncomfortable – ashamed to answer the question. "Twice," she said eventually. "I throwed up."
Cuddy leaned down and kissed her once more. She wasn't surprised that Rachel had gotten sick; glucagon could have the side effect of vomiting, and Rachel was so small that any major shift in her glucose levels could leave her reeling. The problem with that was not that it came as a surprise but that any denial of nutrition could easily send her back into a hypoglycemic state.
"House check your blood sugar?"
"Good. How's your tummy feel now?"
Rachel shrugged. "Okay." The way she said it, it sounded like it didn't matter to her. Not out of a lack of concern, the words had been uttered that way, because she knew, even at her young age, that this problem would never go away. There would always be needles, always be pills and emergencies and late nights and bad days that followed.
For Cuddy, that fact was never far from her mind. For a five year old, it must have been the kind of burden that made the world seem like it was ending.
Climbing onto the bed, Cuddy laid down next to her daughter. Close to her, Cuddy told her honestly, "I'm sorry, Rachel. I know it's been a bad weekend." Her fingers tucking a stray lock of hair behind Rachel's ear, she added, "I promise you we'll do something fun soon."
Whether Rachel believed her or not was hard to say. Cuddy would have liked to be convincing, but she understood that that was difficult considering they both knew things would never be permanently better.
If that thought was on Rachel's mind though, she never let on. Instead, she asked sweetly, "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"
"I don't know. Maybe," Cuddy said diplomatically. "It depends on how you feel and if there's school to go to. I think you might have a snow day." Rachel's lips split into a wide grin. "Maybe," Cuddy repeated. "Don't count on it."
"Then I don't think I feel good. I might throw up again."
"We'll see about that." Cuddy started to pull away. "I'm going to get changed."
As she sat up though, Rachel's eyes caught sight of the pearl necklace swaying lightly around her neck. "They look like gum balls," she pointed out.
"Oh?" Cuddy didn't know what she was talking about at first. Her gaze following the line of Rachel's sight, it took her a moment to figure out what Rachel meant.
Fingering the necklace, Cuddy agreed. "They kind of do. Although you wouldn't want to try eating these," she said standing up. "They'd break your teeth."
"Can I play with them?"
Cuddy reluctantly took off the necklace and handed it to her. "Be careful with them. That belonged to your great grandmother."
"What does that –"
"Nana's mother. My grandmother," she explained, heading to her dresser to take off her earrings. "Shocking though it may be, Nana was not hatched from an egg and raised by wolves."
She paused on the suit button she had in her grasp. Looking back at Rachel, she could see that her daughter was only partly paying attention; she was too busy rubbing the pearls between her palms to truly listen. But just on the chance that Rachel had picked up what she'd said, Cuddy immediately added, "Don't repeat that to her."
Rachel didn't say anything. The subtle clank of pearls and the rustle of Cuddy changing were the only sounds to be heard – at least until Rachel exclaimed a few minutes later, "Ow!"
Finishing pulling on her pajama pants, Cuddy turned around just in time to see the pearl necklace winding down from being swung. The angry red mark on Rachel's hand painted a clear picture. She'd been twirling the necklace violently and gotten hit on the hand.
"What did I just tell you?" Cuddy went back to the bed and carefully pried the pearls from Rachel's fist. "If you can't be gentle, you can't play with it."
"My hand," Rachel said sadly.
Cuddy ran her fingers over Rachel's red knuckles. "I think you'll be okay."
She leaned down and kissed the back of Rachel's hand a few times. "Is that a little better?" Rachel shook her head, so Cuddy pressed a few more kissed into the soft flesh. "Now?"
"A little bit."
She let go of Rachel and quickly placed the pearl necklace on her dresser. Turning back to her daughter, Cuddy motioned for her to get up. "All right, monkey. I think it's time for you to go to bed."
She expected resistance. Though there was no way Rachel could win this battle, Cuddy had anticipated a fight anyway. But tonight, Rachel sat up without hesitation. Tiredly rubbing at her eyes, she let Cuddy pick her up.
"Are you sleepy?"
"House give you a bath today?" Rachel nodded her head. "Did you brush your teeth?" There was another nod. And since she was already in her pajamas, Cuddy was relieved that she could just put her daughter in bed without any stops along the way. It made things simpler, meant that Cuddy herself would be able to sleep sooner than later.
Well, at least that was what it meant usually. Tonight she wasn't so sure that was the case. She still had to discuss things with House. So perhaps it was smarter to say that being able to put Rachel into bed straight away meant Cuddy could save her energy for the fight she knew would happen later. But in the end, even that turned out to be false.
As she tucked Rachel into her bed, Rachel admitted, "I didn't eat dinner."
Cuddy sat back on the mattress unsure of how to proceed. "Tonight or –"
"At the party."
Given how low Rachel's blood sugar had been, the information was only surprising in that it was being admitted to at all. In Cuddy's mind, the truth was something she would have to force from her daughter with bribes and threats. And the thing about that was she hadn't even considered having this conversation yet. Selfishly enough, Cuddy had only focused on her situation with House. She hadn't thought about her daughter at all.
Disgust with herself didn't even begin to cover it. The way she felt, there were no words for the amount of self-loathing in Cuddy at that moment. Although there were times when Rachel took a back seat to other things in Cuddy's life out of necessity, in this case… it was inexcusable. Because it was one thing to be busy with work, to be so consumed with saving a life that a babysitter needed to be called; it was another to barely think about her daughter within twenty-four hours of a medical emergency.
It was unforgivable.
As understandable as it was for Cuddy to be obsessed with House's behavior, she knew she should have resisted that temptation. Work and him and all the other problems she'd faced were nothing compared to her daughter. She should have never even seemed to have forgotten that. But after each and every text House had sent her way that day, reassuring her that everything was fine, she had believed him; she had refocused her attention on other things.
And she should not have done that.
At that moment, there didn't seem to be enough space within her for the guilt she felt. As though her organs and bones were being crushed by shame, she found herself frozen to respond. She had screwed up so badly, let down her daughter in ways Rachel didn't understand but surely would if Cuddy kept behaving like this.
"Are you mad?" Rachel asked, obviously scared by her mother's silence.
That snapped Cuddy out of her daze. "What? No." She shook her head. "Of course not. Not at all." Scooting up on the bed, she laid her head down on the pillow. Face to face with Rachel, she said carefully, "I'm just… curious about what happened. Because I know you're a smart little girl and you wouldn't do that without a reason."
Rachel fidgeted, twisted the sheets in her tiny hands. "I don't wanna say."
"I know. I know," Cuddy said, smoothing her daughter's hair back. "I'm not mad. I promise you: no matter what happened, I'm not going to get mad. I just want to know the truth. Okay?"
Rachel wasn't sure if she should believe Mommy. Sometimes when adults said they wouldn't get mad, they did anyway. Maybe Mommy wouldn't be angry, but there was a good chance she would, and Rachel didn't want to get in trouble. But not telling the truth wasn't an option, because Mommy would get mad if she lied, and she would get mad if she said she didn't say anything, and Rachel thought at that moment that there seemed to be an awful lot that made adults unhappy. No matter what, Mommy wouldn't be pleased, and Rachel really didn't want to say anything.
She didn't want to talk about what happened. She'd already done that once today, when stupid, stinky House had forced it from her. She didn't want to repeat what had happened, how they'd locked her in the closet and called her fat and ugly and how she hadn't been able to listen to it, again. She didn't want to cry no more, didn't want to talk about it if Mommy was just gonna insist that those poopy faces were friends cause they wasn't.
But then maybe Mommy wouldn't say that. Maybe if Rachel told her the truth, she would realize just how annoying and dumb those guys were. Maybe Mommy wouldn't ever make her play with them again!
If that wasn't a reason to talk, Rachel wasn't sure what was.
"They locked me in the closet," she said angrily. "They –"
"Who are 'they,' Rachel?"
She whined loudly in frustration. Mommy instantly tried to shush her, but Rachel batted her hands away. She didn't want to be shushed; she wanted to tell the truth and then never talk about it again.
"Those stupid guys!" she snapped. "All dem. Nevaeh and George and all of them!"
"The kids at the party last night."
"Yes. They locked me in a closet."
Mommy looked confused. "Why would they do that? Are you sure they didn't accidentally –"
"I'm not lying," Rachel said, pouting.
"No, I'm not saying you are. I just don't understand why –"
"Because they hate me. That's why. They say it all the time. They hate me. Cause they think I'm fat and ugly and stupid and a baby, and they hid my dinner, and they hate me. And I hate them."
Mommy didn't say anything at first. Rachel thought that was probably a good thing. Cause if she said something right away, it usually meant that she thought Rachel was wrong or had lied or something like that. But if she was quiet, then she was listening, and that was good, Rachel thought.
When she did speak, it was clear Mommy did believe her. Because she didn't accuse her of lying or accidentally getting locked in the closet or anything along those lines. She just asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"
But that was almost as bad as not believing her, cause Rachel had tried to tell her. "I did. You was busy."
Cuddy did her best to recall the night before and whether that had happened. She didn't think her daughter was lying, but she wanted to make sure that Rachel actually had tried to approach her.
Try as she might though, she couldn't think of anything. Cuddy hadn't seen Rachel at all after dinner, so if it had happened at all, it would have been before. There'd been the incident at dinner, of course, but Rachel hadn't been interested in the truth then, because she'd said she'd eaten her dinner. She'd lied; she hadn't given any indication that there'd been something she'd wanted to discuss.
And then Cuddy remembered: there'd been a moment when Rachel had tugged on her leg, had tried to get her attention. She'd tried to say something while Cuddy had been talking to someone else….
Cuddy hadn't listened.
"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I am. I was just –"
She cut herself off before she could finish the sentence. How was she going to finish it that made her inattendence okay? "I was just talking to someone else"? "I was too busy with work to listen"? No matter how she worded it, it sounded awful even in her own head. And that was perfectly understandable, because it was awful.
She'd been focused on work while her daughter had been tormented. Right? That was what had happened. Rachel had been locked in a closet, called all those names…. The sheer level of hatred those children seemed to have for her disturbed Cuddy, disgusted her.
Part of her wanted to believe that Rachel was exaggerating or that this was an isolated incident. But how could it be? If those children had been willing to behave like that in a house swarming with adults, what would they do, what had they done, when adults hadn't been around?
And while they'd been locking her daughter in the closet, what had Cuddy been doing? She'd been too busy talking to someone whose name she couldn't even remember a day after the fact.
Even if that hadn't occurred, Cuddy suddenly remembered all the attempts Rachel had made prior to the party to get out of going. She'd said… many, many things that upon reflection Cuddy couldn't believe she'd ignored her up until this point. No, she knew then; this was not an isolated moment, a rare fight between friends. This had been happening for a while if Rachel had been that desperate to avoid being anywhere near those children.
"I'm so sorry," she repeated, hugging Rachel close to her. "That shouldn't have happened to you."
Her voice mumbled, Rachel said, "I don't wanna be their friend."
"You don't have to be. I promise you." Cuddy patted Rachel on the back. "I'm sorry you couldn't tell anyone. I –"
"I told House," Rachel interrupted in a way that was somehow equally conversational as it was pointedly aimed at her.
Cuddy didn't consider Rachel's tone or what it might have meant. She simply heard the words and reacted.
Before she could stifle the question, she asked, "Why would you tell him?"
Instantly the mood in the room shifted. Understanding and sympathy were replaced with defensiveness and coolness. Where Rachel had been willing to express herself before, now she looked up at Cuddy as though there was nothing left to say. Like she'd been slapped in the face, Rachel seemed embarrassed, upset, sure that she had done something wrong.
Cuddy could see it in her features. The question had made Rachel think she'd misbehaved by telling House what had happened. There was no denying it – especially when Rachel pulled away and asked quietly, "Was I not supposed to?"
The question put everything into perspective.
Cuddy hadn't wanted to share her daughter with House. She'd worried, as she still did, that, if that were to happen, she would end up being the marginalized one, the parent with little affection from her child. Fearful of that, she'd done her best to protect that relationship from House. Even as she'd told him he needed to try harder, she had walled off many of the responsibilities he might have otherwise shouldered. She'd purposely, if only subconsciously, kept the distinction between her and him, so that he could never encroach upon her territory.
She didn't want to believe that was what she'd been doing; it was odd and difficult to reflect on her behavior the last few years and think that she'd been doing that. Not a particularly unaware person, Cuddy thought it perplexing that she could have been so ignorant to something that obvious.
But clearly, she hadn't known.
Or if she could have known, she had chosen not to see the truth.
Now though the truth was apparent to the point that it felt like a physical presence weighing on her mind. She'd been pushing House away.
Perhaps she could accept that on its own terms. Certainly, he had brought it up to her before, and she had ignored his complaints time and time again. But she could no longer ignore it because of Rachel.
Because Rachel was starting to think that she was doing something wrong by getting closer to him. She felt guilty for confiding in him. She was acting as though she'd been bad.
And as terrified as Cuddy was to share her with House, she knew:
She couldn't let Rachel feel that way.
She couldn't harm her child to keep things as they were.
She couldn't refuse change, because to do so would be to teach her daughter to be ashamed of getting close to new people.
She couldn't continue as she was, because it was wrong.
Rachel's guilt now mirrored in her own eyes, Cuddy swallowed hard. Her voice shaky, she tentatively said, "No. You didn't do anything wrong." She shook her head, emphasizing a point that made her anxious to even say. "I'm just…."
What she wanted to tell her was she was sorry for not being the person Rachel could talk to. But midway through the thought, Cuddy reconsidered. If – and it was an if still – House was going to play a larger part in Rachel's life, it couldn't seem like he was a back up for Cuddy. It couldn't be that he was only good to confide in when there was no one else to talk to. That would be a disservice to all of them. Again, it was still unknown how the night would go. If he'd been faking it this whole time, Cuddy would… have no choice but to cut him out. If he'd been manipulating her, that was it. But if he could demonstrate that he'd behaved with honest intentions, she would have to change some of her own patterns. And that had to start now. Because she wouldn't be able to fix the problem if she spent her time now teaching her daughter that House was either bad or barely acceptable for her.
"Surprised," she finally finished, forcing herself to ignore whatever doubt she had about House for now. "I didn't think you liked him very much."
Rachel relaxed on the bed. The guilt in her eyes slowly melting away, she shrugged after a moment. "He made me eat carrots. In soup."
"Hmm," Cuddy murmured in understanding. "But they're good for you."
"They was yucky and hot and mushy."
"I'm sure it wasn't that bad."
"Uh huh. It was. And I don't want no more of it."
"Any more," Cuddy lightly corrected. "I'm sure House just wanted to get rid of the soup, but I will let him know that you don't want any tomorrow."
Rachel looked at her carefully. "He's gonna stay wif me tomorrow?"
That hadn't been what Cuddy meant, not exactly. She hadn't thought at all about what would happen tomorrow. There was still so much left to do tonight that the idea of the sun coming up the next morning was far beyond Cuddy's comprehension at the moment.
"I don't know," she said honestly. "Maybe. It depends on –"
"I don't want him."
"Why not?" Tiredly she wondered if this was going to lead to further discussion about how House had made Rachel eat carrots.
But that wasn't what Rachel said in response – thankfully.
"Cause I don't wanna," she whined. "I want you."
Once again Cuddy was faced with still more proof that she had been wrong all along. She'd been convinced that House would be the one Rachel wanted to spend time with, because he let her do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. But maybe... that wasn't true.
Thinking about it now, Cuddy supposed it was idiotic to believe that a few days of fun could undo or match five years of nothing but love. To think that her relationship with Rachel would suffer because of House's involvement… nothing seemed further from the truth at that moment.
A doubtful part of her wasn't sure it was wise to throw herself head long into this realization. She could still end up being right in the end; maybe things didn't change after a few days. But after a couple years? Dynamics could shift, sure. If House kept up this behavior, if he further ingratiated himself into Rachel's life, why wouldn't he quickly become the favorite?
Again, Cuddy didn't deny the childishness in these thoughts. She was well aware of the immaturity, of the egotism necessary for these kinds of ideas to thrive within her mind. But there was a difference between recognizing that and changing, between understanding and acting.
It didn't matter that she could see how infantile her thoughts were. At the end of the day, that didn't reassure her. That didn't make her think there was no problem here. And without that security, it was impossible to dismiss those ideas outright.
All of that said, she was not so entrenched in her beliefs that she would seek comfort from her daughter. She would not needle proclamations from Rachel or ask for reassurance. She would simply respond as she might have if none of these thoughts had ever passed through her mind.
"Things have been a little insane lately, huh?" Cuddy said calmly. Rachel nodded her head, confirming what was apparent to anyone with eyes. "I know. And we haven't spent much time together because of work and… everything else. It's been a busy weekend. But being with House hasn't been so bad, has it?"
Rachel thought about the question for a moment. Had it been bad to spend time with House? No… and yes. He'd bought her Froggie. That was nice. She liked Froggie. And he'd let her play in the snow. But they hadn't made a snowman. That wasn't as much fun. He made eggs that were yummy and let her eat two of the cookies she'd made with Mommy a couple days ago, and she got to watch all the movies she wanted, and that was fun. But… he was weird.
He talked about stuff she didn't understand, used words she didn't know. Sometimes Rachel was sure he was making fun of Mommy, but she didn't really know, because she didn't understand what it meant to say half the things he said. She was sure though that it was something dirty or bad or something she wasn't meant to hear. She didn't care really. It was just annoying that she didn't know what he was talking about.
And while he was nice, he kind of wasn't. He gave her toys and made her food, but he didn't hug her when she throwed up. He wiped her face, gave her medicine and a drink of water, but he didn't make her feel better. If Mommy had been here, she wouldn't have done that. She'd have hugged her and kissed her and made her feel better. She wouldn't have let go until Rachel had told her that she felt okay.
Even if House had done those things though, it wouldn't have mattered. Rachel was slowly warming up to him, but he wasn't Mommy. He would never be Mommy. He would always make weird jokes and say stupid things and be all House-y with his House-iness. He was fine, but he wasn't the same thing. He didn't even know how to read right! He was okay, but he still had a lot of work to do before he would even come close.
"I want you," Rachel whined, reaching for her.
Cuddy welcomed her with open arms. "I missed you too," she said, hugging Rachel close.
"So you'll stay home with me tomorrow?"
"Maybe," she conceded cautiously. "It depends on how you feel."
"I'm not saying no, monkey." She buried her face into Rachel's dark locks and kissed her. "It just depends on a bunch of different things."
It didn't. There were really only two variables to take into consideration: Could Rachel go to school? Would House stay at home with her if not? If they were still together in the morning and he was willing and Rachel still felt sick, Cuddy would not take the day off.
Last night, she'd been afraid for Rachel, of the possibility of losing her. Because of that, Cuddy had been controlling, uninterested in letting go of Rachel even for a second. But House had been right (of course). Work would not allow her to take a step away right now. And ultimately… Cuddy didn't want to step back. She'd spent the better part of her life cultivating her career. She was good at it, and she loved doing what she did, though this weekend might have been an exception to that. As much as she wanted to be with Rachel, Cuddy wasn't prepared to do it at the expense of her job. She especially wasn't ready to do that when he was waiting in the wings to help her without being asked. If they made it through the night and he didn't resent her, she would rely on him again in the morning if necessary.
However, Cuddy would not tell Rachel that. There was just no way she would understand, and any explanation would only amplify any hurt she felt. Cuddy hated feeling as though she were lying to her daughter, as though Rachel was being led on. But what else could Cuddy do? Telling her the truth wasn't an option; even if it was, there was no good way to say it. Of course, if something happened with House, well obviously, Cuddy would have no choice but to make the necessary sacrifice for her child. In that event, it would be stupid to tell Rachel now that someone else would watch her. And conversely, if things were okay tomorrow, there was no reason to upset Rachel with the truth right this second. She would figure it out soon enough in that case.
Knowing the misdirection was better than the truth, Cuddy attempted to refocus her daughter's attention. "But you know what? I'm here right now. I'm all yours."
"But I'm sleepy."
"That's okay. I'll stay with you until you fall asleep. All right?"
Rachel shuffled on the bed as though she were equal parts uncomfortable and sleepy, fussiness starting to settle in. The temptation was there to soothe her, but Cuddy knew that tactic would backfire; when Rachel was like this, it was best to let her squirm about and whine until exhaustion silenced her on its own.
Thankfully that didn't take long.
But when she'd finally relaxed underneath the covers, she didn't fall asleep immediately as Cuddy would have thought. She was close obviously, heavy eyelids blinking at slow intervals. And yet… there was something on her mind that seemed to prevent sleep from coming. No matter how close she was to nodding off, each time, she would snap out of it.
After watching it happen several times, Cuddy quietly asked, "What's wrong, honey?"
Rachel shook her head sleepily. "Nothing."
"Are you sure about that?" Cuddy made sure to ask the question with a neutral tone. The last thing she needed was for Rachel to think that she was being accused of lying. "You seem a little upset."
"No. I'm not."
"Okay," Cuddy told her in a gentle voice.
But in backing down, she inadvertently gave Rachel all the room she needed to speak up. Within seconds, she was confessing, "I don't want to be their friend."
"You don't have to be. I promise. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. You don't need to be around –"
"They said I was fat." Her eyes bright and shiny, she no longer seemed tired. Weariness was apparent, but that just reinforced the overall impression she gave Cuddy: she'd been hurt by these children; they'd tormented her, their words continuing to resonate within.
"Don't listen to them," Cuddy stressed. "They are just… idiots who don't know what they are talking about."
Rachel frowned. "That's what House said."
Minutes ago, Cuddy would have felt a pang at hearing those words. Knowing that Rachel had gone to House, that he had heard about this first… it would have been devastating. And maybe that impulse hadn't disappeared completely, but Cuddy was able to push past it.
"Well, he's right," she said without hesitation. "They are just silly little kids, and if they can't see how beautiful and smart and wonderful you are, then –"
"They said you didn't like me cause I wasn't –"
"Rachel," Cuddy interrupted instantly. "I love you."
"They said you was pretty and I fat, and you didn't like me cause of dat."
"They're wrong." She said it with conviction, the sheer force of it making Rachel's eyes wide with surprise. Reaching over, Cuddy stroked Rachel's cheek. "Honey, you're my daughter. There is absolutely nothing you can do that would make me not like you. Nothing. I love you no matter what. Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot."
Cuddy knew she couldn't stop there. It was one thing to reiterate just how much Rachel was loved. It was an important point to make. But ending her argument there might give Rachel the impression that Cuddy was saying she loved her even though she was fat. And that was not what Cuddy wanted her daughter to take away from this.
Continuing she said, "You're not fat. You're five. Your body is growing and changing, and there's nothing wrong with that." Rachel didn't seem convinced. "You are a beautiful little girl. You have the prettiest blue eyes and the cutest little nose and soft cheeks." Cuddy kissed her hair. "And even if you had none of those things," she whispered. "I would still love you."
"Okay," Rachel said, perhaps feeling slightly mollified.
"Listen to me. I don't want you to worry about what those kids said. They're just looking for someone to pick on," she explained. "It doesn't matter what you look like or how smart you are or how funny or nice. They are sad children who aren't happy unless they can make other people miserable."
"There will always be people like that," Cuddy said darkly. The words already said once this weekend, she hated that she was now echoing them again. And part of her could only think that, if she had paid more attention to Rachel, the sentiment wouldn't have needed expressing this second time. "Do you remember what I told you while we were making cookies?"
Rachel's nose scrunched up as she tried to remember. "Um… don't eat the cookie dough?"
"Well, that too."
She thought some more. "I don't remember."
Cuddy nodded her head in understanding. "I said to you, there will always be people who don't like you – or me or House or whoever – for whatever reason. You can't pay attention to them. There are plenty of kids out there who would love to be your friend. You don't need to have friends who are mean to you. Ever. And you shouldn't listen to what anyone –"
"So I don't have to listen to you when you say eat my carrots," Rachel interrupted in a voice that was deliberately sweet.
There was a hopeful quality to the words, as though she wanted to believe ignoring her mother could be allowed based on what Cuddy was saying. It wasn't.
"If I tell you to eat your vegetables, you need to listen to me," Cuddy said calmly. "I'm your mommy. You're supposed to listen to me."
"Do you always listen to your Mommy?"
It was not a curious question. One that was purposely aimed her way, it was asked to point out her hypocrisy.
"No," she admitted uncomfortably. "But Nana isn't like most mothers. Nana is... a handful." That was the nice way of describing Arlene, the words Cuddy usually used to describe her mother. "I would listen to her if she..." No, Cuddy thought; she didn't want to finish that thought. Nothing good could come from doing so. Somehow, uttering those words would inevitably mean her mother would hear them. Somehow she would know what Cuddy had said, and she wanted to avoid that. "You have to listen to me, Rachel," Cuddy finished.
"Okay… but at some point, I don't have to –"
"You're being very naughty, aren't you?" she said with a smile. Fingers on her daughter's stomach, she started to tickle her. Rachel squealed and squirmed, legs kicking in the air as she shrieked with laughter.
Cuddy didn't tickle her for long. The point was to help Rachel wind down and go to sleep – not egg her on. But if Cuddy had been concerned that her daughter would be livened up by her actions, she was wrong. As Rachel started to calm down, her giggles tapering off, it was clear that the last reserves of energy inside of her had been used.
Beginning to fall asleep, she didn't respond when Cuddy said, "I love you so much." The little girl unconscious within minutes, it wasn't even clear that she had heard her mother.
But Cuddy hoped that the sentiment was one Rachel understood was the truth. It bothered Cuddy to think that a group of children could make Rachel think differently about or at least question all of the love surrounding her.
Then again, as she stood up to leave, Cuddy couldn't help but wonder if she deserved the doubt. She loved Rachel; it was obvious to her that she did. But… how many nights had Cuddy depended on Marina when she was still alive? How many little events had she missed over the years? How many times had she been working when Rachel had needed her?
Cuddy couldn't even estimate the number there were so many instances. And part of her was okay with that. She didn't work, because she had to. Certainly the income helped, but she did her job, because she loved doing it. Maybe that wasn't the case right now, but once all of this garbage with the D.E.A. passed, she would remember the reasons she kept doing this thankless task years after she'd first taken the job. For that reason, she didn't regret all those moments when someone else had had to watch Rachel. She wouldn't have done anything differently, not really.
Of course there was guilt; there was always guilt. But it had always been the right decision for her, to continue working as she had before she'd had Rachel.
After all was said and done, Cuddy didn't even doubt that truth now. It was the right choice for all of them. But it bothered her to think that someone else might use Cuddy's choices against Rachel, that someone – a child no less – would wield Cuddy's career as a weapon against a five year old. And knowing that she would in all likelihood go into work tomorrow, she regretted her choice to tell Rachel that she would stay with her tomorrow if that were necessary. Because if Rachel weren't feeling well and Cuddy left her with House, it might seem to Rachel like a confirmation of everything the other children had told her.
But... what could she do about that now? Wake her daughter up and tell her that she'd lied? Not go into work when the hospital needed her? She knew she couldn't do any of that. For better or worse, she was stuck on this path now; there was no turning back.
That must have been the underlying theme for all of her choices, she thought bleakly. No matter what she did today, every decision seemed to be wrought with a certain amount of... conclusion. As though once chosen, her option killed all other avenues of behavior, she was stuck with a singular path the second she took the first step. She supposed she could back out of handing House the papers. She'd had her lawyer draft them; she wasn't required to use them. And yet she knew that wasn't really the case. Because if she kept the documents to herself, House would find them and confront her, or she would eventually change her mind and hand them to him anyway. Either way, it didn't seem like she could back out of what she'd started.
Part of her wished she could. As she tentatively took steps towards House, a voice inside of her whispered that there was always a way out; he was tired, wouldn't look through her briefcase tonight; she could shred the papers before he saw them; she could lock the papers away in a desk drawer somewhere until she was sure this was what she wanted. She had gone to her lawyer ignorant of the extent to which Rachel would be affected.
Of course, Cuddy had known that Rachel would be impacted one way or another. But she hadn't considered that, as she'd sat in that lawyer's office, her daughter was confessing things to House; she hadn't thought that there'd been much of a relationship there, as evidenced by all of the fights and times Rachel had proclaimed to hate him. She hadn't realized… just how complicated all of this would be. She hadn't seen how reckless she was being, and now it felt like she was walking to her doom by seeing this through.
Again though, she knew there was no turning back. She had set this in motion. Though not well thought out, it was something she couldn't ignore. She had to finish what she'd started. Without answers, she would just keep returning to this point. She would keep having these fights with House; he wouldn't let the matter drop no matter how much he wanted. He'd found a point to make and would make it over and over, even if secretly he knew he shouldn't. And Rachel would suffer in the meantime, unsure if she should trust House, unsure if she should dislike him.
Cuddy didn't want that for her daughter.
That was what she told her herself, as she stepped into the living room once more. Instantly confronted with House's gaze on her, she immediately felt the thought slip from her mind.
He'd woken up at some point. She could tell that much. Glasses and book gone, he'd moved, changed directions on the sofa. Now he could see her as she walked into the room – not that it mattered.
They said nothing. They looked at one another, their expressions filled with all of the things they needed to talk about. But she kept silent and so did he. As though neither were prepared for the conversation they would eventually have, they gazed at one another but didn't speak.
Yet things were said. One of his arms outstretching to his side, he was inviting her to join him. He didn't need to actually ask her. Regardless of where they were personally, she welcomed the offer immediately. They would have to talk eventually, but right now, she wanted nothing more than to curl up with him. She needed it.
Closing the distance between them, she didn't ask if he was sure that he was okay with this. They had had a lot of miscommunication this weekend, but she hadn't misread his behavior; he was allowing her to lie down with him. Never mind that, at this point, she would have found herself there anyway. Even if he hadn't extended the invitation, she would have wanted to be in his arms. But that desire didn't have her hallucinating what wasn't here.
His hands on her sides, he helped guide her onto the couch, eased her down on top of him. She hadn't imagined that. His legs shifting so she could rest without hurting him, she hadn't deluded that either. And when she rested her head on his chest, the comfort it provided her was undoubtedly real. He was warm against her and soft, his arms wrapping around her as though they hadn't spent the last twenty-four hours fighting.
Her eyes fluttered shut. She stilled. She looked, in his opinion, calmer than she had all weekend long – a realization that sent another wave of guilt fluttering through his stomach.
He had been terrible this weekend. That was what he'd thought all day. He had helped the world push her to her limit, a mental space she had undoubtedly reached. This morning had made that abundantly clear. She had been given more than she could handle, and he had played a part in that.
Feeling her sigh against him, he regretted that more than ever. House knew he hadn't been wrong with his opinions; he was right to say that Cuddy had missed a lot when it came to Rachel this weekend. He was right to believe that Cuddy needed to clarify what she wanted from him, that he needed a larger place in Rachel's life. But he had taken the worst approach imaginable.
He had screwed up.
How much more successful he would have been if he had eased her into his revelations – that was all he could think of. It would have gone so much better if he'd just… slowly shown her what he'd been wanting, if he'd taken his time to calmly explain what it was he needed from her.
Instead, he'd gone for being blunt. He'd relied on the brutal honesty that had served him well time and time again, and fueled by frustration, he'd barreled through her misgivings, failing to pay attention to her needs. Entering histrionic territory, he had accomplished nothing – and worse, made it unlikely that she would ever be able to hear what it was that he'd been trying to say.
Admittedly he had no intention of backing down. House would not let this go. Having said the words aloud, he understood there was no going back.
There was no taking the words back.
She'd taken offense; she'd rejected everything he had tried to tell her. But she had heard enough to push him on the matter. He hadn't taken the right approach, but that wouldn't mean Cuddy would drop the subject.
He'd been thinking about that too today. Regardless of what he wanted, she would demand a conversation tonight. He was content with that, would make sure that he didn't lose control again this evening. However, he wasn't going to be the one to say something first. He had done that the night before, and that hadn't turned out well for him. So he was satisfied to wait, happy to just hold her.
To have her in his arms… he needed that as much as anything. To feel her against him, to have that warmth between them, and know that there was no relationship that had ever meant as much as this was necessary for him in that moment. The reminder was important. It reinforced in him why he was bothering with any of this, told him that the stress of the weekend hadn't completely undone what they'd spent years trying to create.
House could only hope she felt the same way.
Within a few minutes, he thought that that seemed to be the case. Although he was sure she had a lot on her mind, she didn't say a word. If anything she seemed just as content as he was to stay there in the silence, their bodies pressed together in a gentle embrace.
That gave him hope.
He would never deny that her reaction had been partially his fault. He wouldn't. Accepting responsibility, however, didn't prevent him from hoping she'd calmed down at work. Frankly, knowing he'd made her that way was the only thing keeping him from being furious. She'd been so irate and afraid and irrational last night that he had feared how things might go if she remained that way today. But with her on top of him, he could see that she had had enough time to at least recognize the need to change her behavior. And it gave him the slightest bit of encouragement to know that she wasn't on the rampage still.
Of course, he knew better than to assume she would stay this way. She was calm now, but one wrong move, and he could provoke her back into last night's mindset. He didn't mean to make her sound crazy; she wasn't. He didn't intend for her to seem like a wild animal capable of violence if he pushed her too far; she could hurt him, but she wouldn't. She had more control than his words gave her credit for. He was aware of his inaccurate characterization, knew how offensive it was on some level. But that didn't change his overall belief: that thoughtlessly, he could take her back to that mental space. Whatever control or calm she had achieved, it was wrong to take advantage of that, to assume it would last. If making her sound insane was the price he had to pay for reinforcing that knowledge in his head, he was okay with that.
He would do anything to avoid a repeat of last night.
For a moment, that seemed possible. His hands were warm on her back. Running the length of her spine, his fingertips traced the lines of her body. He could feel that she was relaxed beneath him, her muscles no longer tense as they had been this morning. She was calm but not asleep. One of her palms flat on his chest, she wasn't stroking him as he was her. But the love in the touch did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Her head shifted a little. Her cheek rubbing against his t-shirt, the movement was enough for him to angle his head down; he wanted to see her, wanted to look at her… and found himself somehow kissing her instead.
Their lips had found their way to one another. They moved together in a soft kiss. If this morning had wrought cold passion from them, this now was the opposite. There was heat between them, an overwhelming sense of love without need. His hand cupped her cheek, her fingers twisting in his shirt, but there was no urgency.
It wouldn't lead to sex. He thought they were both aware of that. His dick being soft enough to sell toilet paper, he assumed it was obvious where this wasn't headed.
Their hands petted and stroked but without ever dipping beneath the clothing. Their tongues met but without the sense that there was more to have, to do. They were simply kissing, touching, partaking in the comfort the other provided all the while knowing that there was no expectation for more.
Truthfully, that fact was the true source of reassurance. More than the kissing, the physical touch, it was knowing that they were on the same page. They were finally there.
All weekend long they'd been out of sync. He'd forced the truth from her about the party, and then they'd manipulated one another to get what they wanted. When he'd been reluctant to watch Rachel, Cuddy had ignored him. When she'd told him on Saturday night that sex would not provide the comfort he'd needed, he hadn't listened. And his words had fallen on equally deaf ears multiple times in the last twenty-four hours. It had simply been never ending.
The truly disturbing part? When they'd worked together well this weekend, it had been because they were trying to cover up their disjointedness. Last night, as Rachel had suffered on the bathroom floor, they'd done their best to take care of her, to cover up the anger between them. They'd worked as one, effective and without issue, but it had been…
Unbeknownst to Rachel, they'd been fighting. The image they'd managed to project had been anything but real, and the seamlessness of that had been a slap in the face. It had said to him that they could be the perfect couple, a team, but only as a cover, as something that hid the dysfunctional, unhappy relationship underneath.
Truth be told, House could take the dysfunctional label. He was under no illusions about the normalcy of their family. They were… complicated, screwed up, nowhere near average. On their own, they had problems. Together, there were times when the clash of personalities was so great it felt like they had no business being with one another. Usually though those moments were rare, typically reserved for the instances when work refused to stay there and came home with them. And when they did happen, as awful as it was, as much as it could have made him question in the moment their rightness for one another, it always passed.
But this weekend had made him reconsider that. They'd always been dysfunctional, but this was the first time it had felt like the misery was never going to end.
He wasn't sure they were finally on the other side of things. He knew Cuddy would want to discuss what had happened, and even if he did his best, he couldn't necessarily prevent a fight from occurring. This could have merely been a small break from the heartache and stress they seemed buried under. If that were true though, he thought it was even more of a reason to treasure this tiny reprieve.
And yet he knew he could not relish in the moment for much longer. The more he kissed her, the weaker his resolve became. There was no expectation of sex, nor did he think it was a good idea to even try to get into her pants. But the longer his lips were on hers, the more he touched her, the more his body started to get other ideas.
He didn't really want more. But, and this was perhaps out of habit, he could feel his control slipping. The fingers stroking her spine started to slip beneath the hem of her pants. Instead of enjoying the warmth of her body, he began to think about her breasts specifically and how they were pushed up against his chest. The heated effect instantaneous, he abruptly pulled away from her.
Her lips somehow managed to reach his once more, though briefly, as he tried to put as much distance as possible between her eager mouth and his body.
"You don't have to stop," she said with a pout. Clearly she was content to take things further.
"Careful," he told her wryly. "Keep doing that, and you're going to have to put out – and I know how much you hate doing that."
"Definitely don't want that to happen," she responded with an equally facetious tone.
He could see though that she didn't necessarily realize his seriousness. She'd taken his light words as being nothing more than a joke. And though she wasn't trying to kiss him, he wanted to make sure she didn't make a move.
"I think we could use a break," he said simply. "If you want to get laid, you're gonna have to buzz one out yourself."
"Then you should probably get your hand off my ass."
Called on it, he noticed then that his body had continued to respond to her in spite of himself. Without even knowing it, he'd slipped his hand under her pajama pants, fingers gripping her ass possessively. Quickly he rectified the situation.
Meanwhile, she changed the topic. Having destroyed the moment, he supposed she was ready to move on to other things. "Did you eat dinner?"
He shook his head. Whether or not she saw that though he didn't know. She'd already closed her eyes and laid her head down on his chest once more. "No," he said, wanting to avoid any confusion. He'd been too busy with Rachel to even consider feeding himself, and then he'd fallen asleep. But explaining that would shift the conversation to the kid; he'd be opening a door, a way out of the discussion they were on the cusp of having, and he didn't want that. He didn't really want to address what had happened, but he knew it was unavoidable. And delaying the inevitable was the last thing he was interested in. The sooner they talked, the better, he felt. "You want something?"
The pause she took to answer told him that she hadn't eaten recently. Mentally weighing the worth of taking the time to make dinner or order something, she was probably hungry – just not necessarily hungry enough to do anything about it.
"Just order something, I guess," she mumbled eventually.
He struggled to reach behind him and grab the cell phone he'd placed on the end table hours ago. Cuddy's weight on top of him didn't help, but eventually he got a hold of it. "What do you want on it?"
"I don't care."
House doubted that. If history were any indication, she would say she didn't care and then interrupt as he ordered to say all of the things she didn't want on her pizza. Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that, when she said she had no preference, he always became determined to prove she did by making the nastiest combinations possible so that she had to speak up. But as always, he chose to ignore that fact. Today though he had no interest in pushing her buttons much less upsetting their tentative balance by making any unnecessary accusations.
Choosing to dial the number without another word, he was relieved when she didn't interrupt him. It probably helped that he ordered what she normally liked or would have wanted on the pie. But again, he had no desire to aggravate her. And if this small moment of action went well, he was grateful – whatever the reason.
When he hung up, she asked quietly, "Will they deliver?"
He made a noise indicating they would. "You might have to flash the delivery boy as a tip for –"
"I don't think I can move," she said slowly, the words slurring a little.
"Tired?" His fingers running through her hair, he could feel her nod her head.
It was a small act, not intended to draw the guilt out of him. But it was doing that. Simply feeling the exhaustion within her, he was overwhelmed with the knowledge that he could have behaved differently, better. He wasn't delusional enough to think that he could have fixed everything; he slept with Cuddy, but he was not her. Yet he understood, maybe now more than ever, the part he had played in her misery. He could have made some things better, and he hadn't. He had chosen not to.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out, the words coming out in a rush. He hadn't meant to utter the apology so quickly. In his head, he'd planned to be smoother about it, to make it seem like this wasn't as difficult as it was. Having said it though, he couldn't take the apology back. It was out there.
Cuddy looked up at him in confusion. "What?" She shook her head as though she didn't understand what he was saying. "Why are you apologizing to me?"
It wasn't hard to see that she meant the question she was asking. Under different circumstances he might believe that she was saying the words to force him to fully acknowledge what he had done, to make the apology really hurt him. But what he saw in her eyes was genuine confusion. He had no other option than to explain.
"I've just been thinking," he said with a slight shrug. "It's been a… bad weekend, and I wasn't making things better for you. I shouldn't have pushed you so hard."
"I don't understand."
And she didn't. She was the one who was supposed to be apologizing, the one who should have been leading the conversation. House had beaten her to the punch.
"After you left this morning, I couldn't go back to sleep. I kept thinking about Saturday night and –"
"Saturday night?" she interrupted, more confused than ever. "I don't – what happened –"
"This." His thumb lightly stroked the sensitive spot on her neck where he had bit her a little too roughly. An instant reminder of what had happened, she thought it said something about the last few days that she had forgotten all about it.
"It's fine," she told him honestly. She didn't exactly have the right to be angry about something she could barely remember occurring at all.
But he didn't seem to agree. "It's not. You didn't want –"
"Didn't want?" She scoffed loudly at the words. "What exactly do you think happened?"
It was impossible to miss the shame in his eyes. The meaning perfectly clear, he didn't need to say what he believed had taken place. She wasn't even sure he could voice the words, the idea that he had… God, she could barely even think what it was that he was implying.
"I feel like I forced –"
"Pushed," he amended quickly. "You didn't –"
"You're an idiot." The intensity in her tone shut him up as fast as he had put forth the idea. Whether he believed her or not or simply felt too ashamed to continue speaking was unclear. But Cuddy wasn't going to take any chances. "I was not –"
She rolled her eyes. "House. You were… confused. You didn't know how to deal with what Rachel had said to you. And I knew that having sex wasn't going to make that any better."
"Which is why you hesitated," he said, as though all of this should have been quite obvious to her.
"Yes. Because I thought it was necessary to say that it wouldn't comfort you."
He looked away, sighed, and then glanced back at her. "I didn't listen to you."
"And that's so new for me," she said sarcastically. "You usually always listen to –"
"Why are you making this so difficult?"
His frustration was barely suppressed. Hints of it in every syllable, it wouldn't be long before the feeling was blatant. And that was the last thing she wanted, because she was sick of the fighting. She didn't want to keep arguing over the dumbest things. She wanted to apologize and make up with him and put those papers in his hand to see what he would do. But that last bit seemed like it would never happen, couldn't because they were too busy going over things that should have caused no problems with them to begin with.
"Listen to me," she told him. She tried her best to remain calm. Hands gently resting on his shoulders, she said reassuringly, "When you have bad ideas, you know that I take great pleasure in telling you how bad they are."
"Maybe, but –"
"Sex wasn't going to help, and I told you that. You couldn't hear that – do not interrupt me," she warned. "Which is fine. We had sex, and while I can honestly say it wasn't the best use of five minutes of my time –"
"I don't regret it either." She purposely ignored his outrage. "I didn't feel pressured. I didn't say no. It was what you thought you needed, and I willingly gave you that."
"You're pitiful." He didn't deny it. "Give me some credit. We've been fighting for the last day. I'm pretty capable of telling you no when I don't want to do something."
There was no counterargument right away. For that reason, she thought she must have convinced him a tiny bit, because if he didn't believe her at all, he would have retorted instantly. Instead he sat silently, quietly contemplating her words.
She seized the opportunity. "You needed that," she told him, pressing a chaste kiss to his lips. "Just like I needed you this morning. You didn't do anything wrong."
"Maybe. Maybe not with that," he admitted eventually. "But I keep thinking I didn't do enough to…." His voice faltered and gave way to silence. As if he didn't know how to finish the sentence, he pursed his lips together and said nothing.
Part of her wanted to speak up, but she remained quiet. She was hesitant at that moment to push him. He was trying to say something, convey something she admittedly didn't understand. And she worried that if she prodded him for more, he would, out of frustration, shut down. Or he would say what he was thinking, but he would say it in that way… where the seriousness of the point was overshadowed by the cruelty in his tone. There was a good chance she had earned any and all vitriol he sent her way. But accepting that with aplomb in the moment would surely never happen. Reacting before she could stop herself, she would push them back into a fight. Since she didn't want that, she had no choice but to wait patiently.
After a few moments of peace, that effort on her part paid off.
"I just… asked a lot of you this weekend."
"That's okay. I don't –"
"You needed me to help you, and I wasn't – I let my own… issues get in the way." He stumbled over the words, but once the sentiment was uttered, it was easier to continue. "I asked a lot from you, burdened you with too much. And then I got angry with you when you didn't have any faith in me and –"
"House, I trust you."
A lesser man would have made a pained sound at the obvious lie. But the past twenty-four hours had in a way made him numb to the reality of the situation. It hurt; of course it hurt. At the same time though, he knew that her distrust was inherently his fault. And not that that made the situation any easier for him, but he was determined to keep that pain to himself. If she were to ever trust him, it needed to be the result of a choice she made.
Last night, he had tried to bully her into realization. Tonight he knew that that would never work. And if it did, he would never be happy, because he would always know that he had had to force her to give him what he wanted. Maybe it was tempting to do that anyway, to do anything to get the results he needed. But this wasn't work; this wasn't a test he needed, a diagnosis he wanted. This was his life – their life. Bulldozing his way through her resistance would only make her resent him in the end.
If he had thought about it yesterday, he would have known that from the beginning and acted differently. Having not thought at all about her, he had made demands, something she had never been happy to respond to. And all he could do was try to avoid making the same mistakes again; she might have been willing to forgive the first few times, but she would inevitably become fed up if he kept creating the same problems.
Unfortunately for him, his silence, which she must have believed to be intentional, seemed to make her think he was calling her a liar.
"I do," she insisted.
Ironically it was that conviction that compelled him to respond. Before he might have been able to let the moment slide; hearing her speak with such a lack of awareness though… that provoked him.
"Yeah, you trust me," he said bitterly, the words escaping him before he could even try to stop himself. "Just not with Rachel, right?"
Her lips parted in surprise. Mouth slightly agape, it was clear that she hadn't expected the anger. And they were in agreement on that, because he hadn't anticipated that response either. But his shock quickly gave way to an urgent need to protect himself.
Whether he'd intended to say what he had didn't matter. The fact that he had now ruined the moment for both of them did. He'd upset their tentative peace, and now… Cuddy would punish him for the mistake.
Within seconds he had his defenses raised. If she reacted in anger, he needed to be ready for that; he needed to ensure that he didn't make his mistake worse by escalating the frustration in the room. Whatever she said, he knew he just… had to take it, accept it. One of them would have to get them back on track. Since he'd been the one to screw up, he had to be the one to fix it.
But her reaction was one he had no defense for. Rather than yell at him, Cuddy chose to… he didn't even know what to call it. Description beyond his capabilities, he was too shocked by her patience to give her response the proper wording.
Pulling away from him a little, she said calmly, "We need to talk about that. I'm not trying to pretend like we don't. But I don't want to discuss that until you understand I don't blame you for anything that happened Saturday. You didn't do anything wrong."
Clearly he didn't believe her. He didn't say she was lying, but he obviously wasn't going to accept the truth simply because she said it. That much was apparent to her.
Out of frustration, she was tempted to give up. She knew though that she couldn't. If they just moved right into the larger problem at hand, part of him, she felt, would hold onto that guilt that he had inside of him. At least, if she were in his position, she wouldn't eagerly be able to accept the change in topic.
For that reason, she couldn't move forward; she couldn't apologize for her own mistakes until he understood that his part in all of this had been…
The more he apologized, the more she could see: she'd created this issue. If she'd just pretended to listen to what he'd said last night, she could have avoided this fight. Not indefinitely, but maybe… she would have been able to spare all of them this conversation tonight.
No, she thought instantly, changing her mind. There would have been a fight. Even if she'd reacted to his pronouncements as best as she could, it still wouldn't have been enough for him. She didn't believe that he had been pushy Saturday night, but she had no doubt that he would have been when it came to his claims last night. No matter what she'd done, he would have demanded more from her than she could have ever given him. A fight would have happened either way.
And she wasn't sure what that meant, exactly. Was he earnest with his words, in his claims of love for her daughter? Or was he just trying to needle her for some reason she couldn't understand? Perhaps, she thought, he was toying with her, because she had relied on him so much this weekend.
Whatever the reason, a fight had been – was still – inevitable. Perhaps he had been less guilty than she; he was certainly making her feel guiltier by apologizing. But he hadn't been blameless.
At that moment, a voice inside of her whispered, "Let him feel bad. Let him think he did something wrong."
What would that accomplish though?
They were in a terrible place. He was apologizing for things he hadn't done; she wasn't apologizing for her mistakes. She was trying to reassure him. He didn't believe her, and through it all, it felt like they were avoiding the things that had led them to this space to begin with. Worse still, when he'd mentioned Rachel, Cuddy hadn't jumped on that opportunity; the words that would address their problems were ones she was afraid to utter. Nothing was right, but she was too scared to try to fix any of it. And again, she had to wonder what she was trying to accomplish by letting such fears rule her.
But that was all she could do – passively question her behavior. There was no time for bone-deep inspection. His gaze on her, she didn't have the option to reflect on her actions, not now.
"All right. Fine," she capitulated under the heat of his questioning look. "It would have been wonderful if I didn't have to hold your hand all weekend long."
"I know," he said looking away.
"On the other hand, neither of us could have predicted everything else that happened, so it's not your fault. I don't blame you." She was speaking in clipped tones, her agitation apparent. Knowing that the mood between them was pretty much ruined, she pulled away from him then. Slowly she peeled herself off of him. Although she would have liked to stay exactly where she had been, the dropping temperature between them made that position no longer comfortable. The closeness no longer desirable, she took a seat across from him on the coffee table.
The behavior would not go unnoticed by House, just as her tone of voice wouldn't. She would let him overanalyze it later.
"And Saturday night?" she continued. "Honestly, I didn't even think about it – and wouldn't have if you hadn't mentioned it." Even if things had gone all right on Sunday, she believed that would have still been the case. Sex was currency, equally taken and given when needed or wanted, and she had at no point felt forced, would never feel that way when it came to that evening. That he suspected otherwise made it abundantly clear just how out of sync they were with one another.
"I don't care about that," she told him honestly. "And it's odd to me that we're going back to this now when any fight we could have had over that should have happened –"
"Oh I'm sorry," he said sarcastically. "I didn't realize my reaction had to take place within a certain time frame."
"Of course. It's just surprising to me." As soon as she said the words, she started to get an idea why. "It's like you don't want to talk about what happened last night."
"Yeah. I'm totally trying to avoid that, which is why I brought it up a couple minutes ago and you still haven't addressed the –"
"Because we were still talking about Saturday," she snapped. For someone who was so upset for pushing her, he was certainly doing his best to avoid learning his lesson. "But if you want to move on to Sunday night, that's fine. Let's talk about that."
He looked unhappy. He swallowed hard, as though he were trying to bite back whatever remark was running through his mind. "We need to talk about it," he agreed in a firm but not unkind voice. "But if you're going to be upset, we shouldn't –"
"I'm fine," she said hastily, undermining her words with her behavior. "I can handle a conversation," she added, forcing herself then to sound nicer than she felt.
"I'm not saying you can't. I know we can talk about this now. But you're tired and –"
"No." She shook her head. Although what he was saying made sense, she would not put this off any longer. His offer was tempting, but avoiding this would be unhelpful. All that time not talking would be unproductively spent considering what to say when they did have this conversation. And she didn't have the time for that, not this week. "I want to do this now. I don't want to put it off indefinitely and worry about what will happen or not happen and spend all of that time in the meantime fighting, because we need to talk about it and haven't."
"Okay. If that's what you want." She could tell he was trying to be nice, respectful of her decision.
"It is. I don't want to think about this tomorrow morning."
At first it seemed like he agreed with her. "That would be nice." Then he added, "But I don't think it's going to be that simple."
"Well… maybe not. But we need to talk about it."
"We do. I just don't want to fight."
"We're not going to fight."
He couldn't have looked more incredulous if he tried. "So this conversation is going to take place in a fantasy land you've –"
"I'm being serious. I can't deal with an argument, so I'm not going to –"
"Then we're going to need some ground rules," he suggested. "Because otherwise you know that's where we're going to end up."
"Fine. Don't interrupt me. That can be the first rule."
She was being snide, but he took her tone well. With a shrug, he said, "Okay. Now one of my own." He didn't say anything, just beckoned her to him with the repeated curl of his index finger.
"You don't mean that."
"Of course I do. Come here." He patted his chest as though that were supposed to be enticing.
"You sure you want me that close to you?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Why? You plan on hitting me?" She didn't have a chance to answer. "Cause it's okay if you are. I always did have a fantasy about you as a dominatrix."
"So I've heard," she said standing up. As she crawled back on top of him, she mentioned, "I thought you hated this."
"No. You being on top of me is a guaranteed positive. But if you're going to be on top of me, usually I tend to think there are better things for you to do." In a conspiring voice, he explained, "Things that involve my penis."
Her laugh was muffled by the t-shirt her face was pressed into.
But even as she enjoyed the comment, she started to realize why he had drawn her closer. It was easy to get lost in his body heat, to be reassured by his touch. Lying with him, she found it hard to remember why she'd felt such anxiety all day. Obviously she had not forgotten entirely, but in his arms, she was reminded why she put up with all of the nonsense.
She loved him; she really did.
That didn't make things any less complicated. If anything the closeness served as a reiteration: she needed answers. Easy as it might have been to be lulled by the security he was providing, for her, it mainly egged her on. She wanted nothing more than to relax into him and call it a night. But if Rachel was an issue they couldn't overcome… Cuddy thought it was better to know that now. There'd be less heartache in the long run.
"You okay?" House asked, perhaps taking note of her prolonged silence.
"Yeah," she said though her heart wasn't really in it.
"Cause we don't have to talk about this."
"I already said I was okay to have this conversation."
"I know." His hands rubbing her back in circles, he was obviously trying to keep her calm. "I don't doubt your ability to barrel through your exhaustion any more than I doubt Wilson's ability to find the neediest vagina in a ten mile radius."
In that instant, she couldn't have been more tired of circling around the conversation. They'd gone over whether they should talk; they'd set up rules – actual rules – or at least attempted to. Looking back at it now, she thought it was avoidance keeping them from broaching the subject.
She could have possibly gone along with that for far longer. But bringing up Wilson in that way was so ridiculous that it shocked her back into reality. It made her see that they couldn't keep avoiding this. And if House was starting to talk about Wilson's sex life, they really needed to discuss their real problems, as the alternative was not something she wanted to contemplate.
Not even a little bit.
Admittedly it was tempting – almost. She knew the words she had to say, knew what she and House were on the cusp of, and the fear of it made part of her stubbornly wish to stave off reality for a little while longer.
As it was, the heart of the matter seemed difficult to get to. All avenues were equally less than ideal in her eyes. Words needed to be said, but her tongue and lips and voice couldn't work together to create the perfect sentence. No matter how hard she tried, there just wasn't a way she saw to broach the subject with even a hint of grace.
Maybe she had earned that. She'd been out of control last night, ready to lash out at any moment. If she saw no good path to take, she supposed it was the natural consequence of burning bridges.
So…the only option she had was to latch onto the first set of words she could find and go with it.
"I'm not exhausted," she said. "Well, I am, but I'd rather do this than not, because I know you deserve an apology, and I don't want you to think I'm not aware of how insane I've been."
She'd admitted it, but the truth didn't seem to have any effect on House. He didn't look pleased, didn't seem relieved that she had said what they both knew. On the other hand, he wasn't outraged either. There was no sign that he disagreed with her whatsoever. In fact, he probably did agree that she had been crazed last night. And if he believed that, then his behavior now could only mean that he wanted more from her. He expected her to continue.
"I'm sorry I didn't listen to you last night. You were trying to be helpful, and I wasn't able to see that, I guess."
He was torn deciding how to react. She wasn't downplaying her behavior; nevertheless part of him wanted to rub her mistake in. As much as she was admitting it, a piece of him still felt like it wasn't enough. From her perspective, she could probably see how terrible she had behaved. But she could never know how it had felt for him. To try to be supportive and then to have that effort rejected, derided, or outright ignored – that was something she might recognize, but she would never know how it felt.
True, he had by and large accepted his role in her reaction. He couldn't, wouldn't, deny that he had contributed to her stress. That didn't make her behavior any easier for him to take. And part of him had been willing to pretend like it hadn't hurt. Now that she was trying to apologize though, that side of him longed for some sort of justice.
But he couldn't do that. He wasn't above childishness, but even for him, this would be too much. She hadn't had any trouble forgiving him just minutes ago when he'd confessed his guilt. Obviously, she didn't have a problem with his behavior, which made forgiveness that much easier. And in that way, their positions were different. Yet House knew he couldn't act any differently than she had. She hadn't been angry about that one particular thing, but how many times over the years had he pissed her off? How many times had she forgiven him? The answer was "too many to count."
Even if that weren't the case, House reminded himself that this was just the beginning of the conversation. An apology alone was not going to fix all of their problems, which meant they had plenty more to talk about. If he were to make her work hard for it right out of the gate, there was a good chance she would become exasperated. Resentful of his resentment, she would make the rest of their discussion all the harder to get through.
Since that was the last thing he wanted, he chose to be kind, understanding. The decision right, it nonetheless felt awkward to accept the apology without a word. At least it felt weird under these circumstances. Given what they were talking about, it didn't seem right to let her get away with her callousness, her selfishness.
He'd pushed her, yes, and he hadn't handled the situation as best as he could. But she'd been unwilling to listen to him when it came to Rachel. No, it was worse than that; this wasn't merely an inability to hear him out. This was Cuddy choosing from the start to disregard anything he had to say about Rachel, because Cuddy had already decided that he had no right to speak up. She had already chosen to keep him apart from her family. And if that didn't spell out their doom, he didn't know what did.
Knowing that this was as serious as it was, he found it difficult to stay silent. Fighting he could do; letting her speak without interruption, without being forced to deal with his anger, was something he could as well. He had prepared himself all day for this discussion, had told himself that he needed to get this right or else face the consequences. But it still felt odd to go without questioning her, without making accusations.
"I was upset about Rachel," she explained. "And I took that out on you."
He raised an eyebrow. From what he could tell, she was copping to her behavior after Rachel's blood sugar had crashed. But Cuddy hadn't said anything about their first fight that evening, the event that had set the tone for what had happened once Rachel had gotten sick.
Then, try as he might to be understanding, he had to say something. He felt compelled to.
"I don't blame you for how you reacted when Rachel was sick," he said. He sounded more stern than he wanted. "Expecting you to be calm and rational right after your kid has a medical emergency would bekind of stupid, don't you think?" The question was rhetorical. "Then again, I guess I was being an idiot for trying to address our earlier fight at that moment. But all of that needed to be said. It was what I was trying to tell you and didn't earlier. So I said it then. And it's funny to me that you're here now willing to apologize for everything after Rachel got sick but not before."
"I was getting to that," she said dryly.
He was doubtful. "Really? Cause it seemed like –"
"I was getting to –"
"And now you just broke your own rule about interrupting."
She smirked. "I wouldn't be the only one then, would I?"
"You're right." He realized he had done that. "I take my point back. Keep going. You were groveling for my forgiveness."
The muscles in her jaw visibly tightened at his description. Apparently Cuddy did not like his choice of words.
"Was that putting it too cruelly for you?" he asked.
Even to him, the jab was audible. He wasn't trying to needle her, but he could tell that he was. He obviously was. Derision seemed to find its way into his tone. It wasn't heavy handed, but there was enough of it to make him less than magnanimous about the whole situation. Perhaps he had never approached true goodness, but he had tried to be supportive of Cuddy. Now he'd undone all of the work of his previous efforts.
A voice inside rallied behind what he rationally knew was a mistake. Anger lurked within, just potent enough to confuse the matter for him. He'd believed being easy on her was the way to go; bitterness made that a less-than-ideal plan.
But to give into that feeling was an act of sabotage, he realized. It was tempting to let himself go and rail against her until she could see what she had done. He wouldn't deny that the desire was there. However, she would never listen to him if he gave into that emotion. She would feel attacked, as though her apology wasn't appreciated at all. She would shut down or fight him, and his sense of injustice would only grow. At least if he tried to appeal to her sympathetic side, he had a shot. If he really got her to see her mistake, she would truly be sorry.
Granted, it wasn't like she was unapologetic right now. She was, he guessed. It just... was a shallow comment on her part. She'd focused on the fight they'd had after Rachel had gone into insulin shock, and that was enough to make him think she didn't get it. But even if Cuddy had planned on apologizing for their earlier fight, it still wouldn't be quite right for him. She could say she was sorry; he wouldn't even deny that she meant it. But until she really put herself in his position, until she understood why they'd had a fight to begin with and corrected that behavior, it simply wouldn't mean much to him in the end.
He would forgive her. He wasn't saying that he would keep being angry – at least not intentionally. He would at least try to forgive her. But this fight wasn't something they could just apologize to one another for and then move on. This was the kind of thing that required... change.
His stomach clenched at the very idea. Even as its inevitability was undeniable, evolution was in equal measures unwanted and desired, impossible and already happening. Ambivalence had stunted their relationship for a while, days passing under the false belief that they could put this discussion off indefinitely. They had couched the when as an if, had pretended not to notice that truth.
Now, they were beyond conditionals. There was no when to look forward to or avoid. They were there. And they would either take a step forward or they wouldn't, but they would never move away from that choice as though it didn't exist. She would consciously welcome him into that part of her life, or she wouldn't; he would accept the invitation, or he wouldn't. But those decisions would be made tonight.
And if he wanted it to be as painless a growth or stunt as possible, he had to rein it in. There might be an appropriate time for sarcasm or anger; unfortunately he doubted there would be. But right now she was at least trying to apologize. And no matter how hurt he was, how frustrated, he had to respect that. She was trying, he told himself.
"What I meant to say," he said in halted tones, purposely ignoring her cold gaze. "Was I shouldn't have put it like that. I should have let you get to that point when you were ready to discuss it."
Immediately she agreed with him. "You should have, yeah." The irritation quickly fell away thankfully. "But it doesn't matter. You're right. Even if we'd been getting along, I probably wouldn't have been nice to you once Rachel got sick."
She hesitated before admitting, "Okay... definitely. I know that's not fair to you, but when she's like that..." She swallowed hard, shook her head in almost imperceptible motions that he wouldn't have noticed if not for the way he was now focused on her and only her.
"You don't have to explain." And he meant that. All other behavior aside, that was the one instance where her harsh words meant nothing... or would have under normal circumstances. When Rachel was sick, that was the priority; reassuring Cuddy was. If she took it out on him, because of fear or frustration or something else, he was okay with that. He could be okay with that if everything else was fine.
But obviously things had not been fine before Rachel had woken up.
"I guess," she said in almost listless manner, as though she couldn't muster up the false conviction to even appear convinced.
"You were scared," he explained. "There's nothing you could have done to be prepared for that."
"And what you said last night? I was supposed to be ready for that conversation?"
By asking the question, she worried that she had accused him of creating this fight. Then again, she did blame him for bringing all of this up, so maybe it was predictable for that feeling to show through in her words. But predictable didn't mean that it was right.
If she hoped to take the question back or soften its bluntness, she failed. He spoke before she could say anything.
"Was there a good time for me to bring this up? You think I don't understand that I should have been more patient with you?" He shook his head. "I know I screwed up. But I saw the way you were with Rachel all night, and it pissed me off."
"And you knew something was wrong."
Saying it out loud made the idea resonate within. The past twenty-four hours, she had circled around this particular truth. Now all of the pieces had come together, and the picture it created was clear.
From her conversation with Rachel, Cuddy had learned that House had at some point talked to Rachel about what had happened. Rachel had told him that those kids had tormented her – or he had figured it out on his own; Cuddy decided after a minute that the latter was the more likely option. But either way he had come to understand what was going on when she had not. And in that light, their conversation last night took on a whole new meaning.
Before she'd been apologizing for… not listening, for overreacting and escalating the situation. But she'd been sorry in a nondescript sort of way; she could see that now. She'd been willing to apologize in order to move forward with what she wanted. She'd known that, if she wanted to see how House truly felt, she had to smooth the ground over for that test.
The way this conversation was progressing, she was seeing just how much she honestly did have to apologize for.
The realization didn't come without frustration. If anything it just made her feel like this night was never going to end. The more issues they tried to address, the more problems seemed to be created or raised. If that didn't elicit a furious response from one of them this evening, it would be, she thought, a miracle.
"Yeah," he admitted then. "And if you know that, then it's safe to assume Rachel talked to you."
"Of course she did," Cuddy snapped back. She didn't mean to be angry, but something in his words set her off. The implication that Rachel wouldn't have said something to her, that there was a possibility this would have all floated over Cuddy's head… it bothered her, infuriated her. But unlike last night, she would not let his jabs get to her. At this point, she was assuming that was what he wanted – to rile her up so that she would feel guilty.
He wouldn't get that.
"I'm sorry that I can't be ten places at once and spend every second of my day addressing all her needs."
"That's just it," he said before she had a chance to keep talking. "I don't expect you to do that. No one would."
"Then I don't understand." She sighed as she said the words. It frustrated her to no end to have to say that aloud, but it was the truth. She didn't get it. They were going around in circles, meandering back and forth between various points and beliefs of guilt, and nothing was being solved. The more they talked, the less any of it seemed to make any sense.
"You're tired," he supplied as an explanation, one of his hands rubbing her shoulder. "Anyone who did half of what you do every day would be exhausted. Now, did it piss me off that you missed what was going with Rachel? Yeah," he said honestly. "It did. Not because you screwed up, but because you think you're the only one who can take care of her."
"That would be why I had a nanny for years, why I had you baby sit Rachel for a good part of the weekend. Because I'm arrogant enough to think that I can do this without any help."
"No," he said. Trying to suppress the irritation her dry tone was making him feel, he explained, "See, you're perfectly okay with letting someone else baby sit. As long as you're the one in control, that's what matters."
She looked at him like there was no problem with that.
Again, he ignored his agitation and continued. "You know you can't be there for her all the time. It's just not possible. And anyone else in your position would have found people to help them make up for that." She looked like she wanted to interrupt him, so his voice got a little louder. "You had Marina. Now she's dead, and you haven't replaced her. You use me to baby sit, but you make all of the decisions. You don't listen to anything I have to say."
She scoffed. "Well, I'm sorry, House. I apologize for not deferring to you on all matters involving my daughter."
"If we had managed to successfully have the conversation last night, if I'd had a chance to tell you those kids had locked Rachel into a closet, would you have listened to me?"
"What do you think I would have done?"
He looked at her carefully. His gaze unwavering, he implored her to come up with the answer herself. But it was clear she wasn't going to.
"Discount what I had to say even before you knew what it was I was going to say. Find some reason to excuse what those brats did, because if you knew Rachel had been fighting that pack of morons every day, you would have to admit I was right about her going to school," he suggested. "I don't know. Something along those lines."
"You think that's what I would do," she said quietly.
It wasn't a question. He obviously believed that, and she knew it. There was a bite to his words, but that didn't mean he was trying to get a reaction from her; he was cold, but he was being honest first and foremost. And that made it harder for her to reject what he was saying out of hand.
"I know that's what you would do," he told her. "That doesn't bother me, by the way, because of some screwed up notion you think I have about you being an obedient girlfriend. I don't think that, and it's obviously not true."
"And yet you were apologizing to me twenty minutes ago for pressuring me, so obviously some part of you thinks that way."
"Actually I'm aware of just how stubborn you can be, which is why I'm stunned when you do agree to something I suggest."
"You poor baby," she said sarcastically. "Having to convince me to do something. How hard it must be for you to not have a blow up doll for a girlfriend."
"Well, if I were hoping for a girlfriend without a brain, I guess I'd be pretty happy right now since not even a minute ago I said I never thought that you would or should do what I say automatically."
Perhaps there was something reassuring in his words. It could have been nice to hear that in spite of their near constant fighting, the goal for him had never been to beat her into submission. Unfortunately, he was also insinuating that she was an idiot. And that instantly made her unappreciative of any intended kindness. Although knowing him, she doubted he had actually meant for there to be any niceties in his words, which meant he was just calling her stupid.
Enraged, she felt her nails dig into his skin as her hands tried to turn into fists. It must not have hurt, because he didn't abruptly push her off of him. But then the point had never been to hurt him.
On the other hand, it must have alerted him to her irritation, because he was quick to eat his words.
"I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean that."
"Of course not."
He ignored the remark. "I like that you challenge me; it makes outsmarting you that much more fun." He cocked his head to the side, obviously rethinking his words. "And I know you think I probably just insulted your intelligence again, but that's not what I mean. I don't think you're an idiot; I know you're not. But the only thing more irritating than when you're wrong and won't admit it is when you don't even want the conversation."
He sighed in frustration, his breath coming out in a ragged exhale.
"I would have been pissed if I'd told you what I knew about Rachel and you didn't believe me, sure. But I went into that conversation knowing that you had no intention of listening to anything I had to say."
"Then why say anything at all?" she asked. "If what you're saying is true, why even bother?"
"Good idea. Because what would really make things better between us would be to have Rachel come to you, explain things to you, and make you realize that I knew what had happened. Cause that wouldn't have created a whole different fight between us, right?"
She couldn't disagree there. She would have been livid if Rachel had told her something House had known about and kept a secret. Frankly, if they hadn't been bogged down already with half a dozen points of contention, Cuddy was sure she would have been far angrier that he had learned the truth before she had.
As it was, the predicament they were in was difficult enough; Cuddy hated knowing that he had found something out about her daughter before she had.
She hated it.
Sure, Rachel had told her what had happened. She had come to her, which was the important part Cuddy thought. It wasn't as though this had been kept a secret from her. And yes, from Rachel's reaction, Cuddy knew that she was only making things worse by being jealous, by allowing herself to believe it was him versus her. But… she couldn't change how she felt.
And if House had known and willingly kept the truth from her, she knew they would have had a fight bigger than the one last night.
"Yeah," she agreed, her gaze focused on a pulled thread in a couch cushion. "I guess that's true."
"No matter what I did, you were going to be mad at me. I get it: this relationship was gonna be difficult under the best of circumstances," he said bluntly. "You and me? That wasn't exactly asking for nice and easy."
In the back of her mind, she was impressed that he didn't take a comment like that and turn it into something sexual, about how easy she was in bed. But that was merely a passing thought. For the most part, hearing him admit that just made her wonder:
Did he think it was worth it?
The way he spoke, she wasn't sure. And the fear that he might look at their relationship like that made her insides knit together with tension.
"I don't regret that." He arched his back so that he could kiss her. His lips against hers, he whispered, "You are… disturbingly worth it." He laid his head back down. "But when it comes to Rachel, you guarantee that I lose regardless of what I do."
Instantly she found herself wanting to deny it. Or rather, knowing it was true, she felt compelled to point out, "You're not blameless in this, House. Let's not act like you've always tried to have a relationship with her and that I've always prevented you from having one."
He wanted to blame her for all of it, she thought defensively. But it just wasn't true.
"I didn't say that," he insisted. "I know I've screwed up. I can admit that; I'm not sure you can."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course I can."
"If that were true, you would have apologized already. You would see that I don't care that you freaked out after Rachel got sick. You would see that you are single handedly making things with Rachel impossible."
He was calm, eerily so. Last night he had been quick to anger, eager to go below the belt and insinuate that she was a terrible mother. Now he seemed to her completely relaxed. His words lacked the bite of accusation; as though he were trying to be as inoffensive as possible, he was saying how he felt without even the faintest hint of emotion in his tone.
He was guaranteeing she couldn't respond angrily. At that point, she wasn't sure she wanted to be pissed off, but either way, he was talking in an even voice so that she wouldn't get mad.
Twenty-four hours ago, he had taken a similar approach – when he'd tried to keep her calm after Rachel had gotten sick. It had been planned nicely, but in the end it had only made her even more furious. And her first instinct was to react the same way now.
But she couldn't.
Whether he was right or wrong, it didn't matter. If she responded to his manipulation with anger, he would appear right in every way. And maybe he wouldn't have been, but again, it would make no difference. At the end of the day, they would fight; they would resolve nothing, and the answers she wanted would continue to evade her.
Swallowing her anger, she forced herself to be calm.
"That's why the conversation didn't go well last night," he said. "Because I knew you were going to furious no matter what. I do something wrong, you hold onto it like that's all I've ever done. I do something good, and you discredit it or act like my success is an indication of some failure on your part, and it's not."
He reached forward and gently brushed some hair out of her face.
"It's not," he repeated, perhaps sensing that she would not believe him at first glance. "This is supposed to be a partnership. Letting me play a part in Rachel's life is… what's supposed to happen."
"It's not that simple."
"No, it's not easy. But it seems pretty clear to me: the more you pretend this isn't happening, the more miserable everyone is. The logical conclusion would be to stop doing that, move forward," he said with a shrug.
Cuddy didn't know what to say to that. She couldn't even believe he was talking this way. Maybe he was right, but he was acting as though change was the inevitable answer here. From anyone else, she might have believed them at face value. But this was House. Since when did he think people changed or could?
"You want to apologize for something? There you go," he told her. "You should be sorry for hurting us, Rachel."
"I'm not trying to do that."
"I know. And to be honest with you, I don't even want an apology."
She blinked in confusion. "Then why –"
"Cause I'm pretty sure out of everyone, this sucks for you the most."
"And how do you figure that?" Tongue against her teeth, she was challenging him.
His answer was immediate. "If Rachel gets upset, she can blame you or me. If I'm pissed about this, I know it's not my fault, because I've done my best to make you happy. But if you're unhappy, you don't have anyone else to blame. Rachel's five. I have tried my best to do what you want, how you want. Have I screwed up?" he asked rhetorically, probably sensing that she would remind him of his mistakes. "Of course. Trying to please you when you don't even know what you want? Yeah, that's a pretty big mistake to make on my part. But I'm trying to make things better. Right now, I don't know what the hell you're trying to do."
The doubts he had hurt. She'd had plenty of missteps during the course of their relationship, and she would never pretend that she thought she'd been anywhere near perfect this weekend. Obviously she hadn't. But not once had she believed she'd been giving him the impression that she didn't care about their relationship. And yet she must have done so, because here he was doubting that she wanted the same things he did.
"House," she said, her voice pinched with ache. "I love you."
The corners of his lips upturned slightly, briefly. "I know."
She rubbed her fingers together nervously. "I want this to work. I don't… I don't want to lose you."
"I know," he repeated. "But like I said, you don't trust me with Rachel. Not really. And until you do…." He let the resignation he felt bleed through for her to see. "We are stuck here. Nothing will change."
"Well… maybe not."
She hesitated like there was more to be said, and clearly there would have to be. If she thought something could change, there had to be some explanation to go along with that assertion. Just believing they weren't trapped by her indecision was not enough for him, which she surely knew, which meant there had to be more. There had to be, so he kept quiet. Patience would work better for him here. Pushing her wouldn't work, but giving her a wide birth might.
"I've been thinking about this and… last night," she explained slowly. "And maybe… you're right… definitely right."
He didn't take it for granted that she meant that. If anything, he responded to her words with suspicion, with the belief that she was probably going to change her mind within seconds. It would be stupid, of course, to voice those ideas, and he remained silent to see how she might proceed. But for his part, he was cautious, so much so that he wouldn't even entertain the idea that she was coming around to his thought process.
At that moment, she started the delicate process of sliding off of him once more. Feet tentatively pressing into the couch cushions, she carefully eased herself away from his embrace. For a brief moment, he feared that she had given up on the conversation; exhaustion abruptly robbing them of any chance for resolution, it was the possibility he feared most likely.
But then she sat down on the couch next to him.
Her ass precariously seated on the small sliver of space he wasn't taking up, she looked over at him. "I'm having trouble with the next step."
He reached for her, but she was quick to push his hand off. "But we have no other choice, right?"
Something about her rushed manner of speaking caught his attention. The idea that she was lying hit him, though he wasn't sure that was the case. He trained his gaze on her in the hopes of deciphering her behavior. But at that moment, she stood up and headed towards her briefcase; he continued to watch, but she made understanding impossible. And then, when she bent over and gave him a shot of her ass, comprehension became the last thing on his mind.
"You do this to me on purpose," he accused lightly, eyes never leaving the way the fabric of her pajama pants clung to her curves.
She craned her head around, saw the look on his face, and smirked. "I'm getting something from my bag."
"Keep bending over like that and you're gonna get something from my pants."
She sunk down into a crouch. "Fine. Now it's not a problem."
"But now I can't stare at your ass, so…."
"You'll get over it."
The conversation over, she rummaged through her briefcase. First pulling out her wallet, she set it on the coffee table, presumably for when the pizza came. Then she grabbed a package he hadn't anticipated seeing. But years of working in the clinic ensured that he recognized what it was.
The morning after pill.
The packet crumpled loudly in her hand as she dumped that too on the table next to her. And though she went back to digging through her belongings, he stayed focus on the pills before him.
"You haven't taken it yet," he mentioned carefully.
"It makes me dizzy. And with the D.E.A. breathing down my neck, I didn't think it was professional to get it from the hospital pharmacy, so I waited until after work."
"You stopped somewhere?" She nodded her head. "You could have told me. I would have –"
"You had your hands full with Rachel."
"You didn't wait," he suggested with increasingly obvious caution. "Because you weren't sure whether –"
"Don't be an idiot. I waited because I didn't want to get sick at work. And I needed to stop elsewhere anyway, so it's fine."
His eyes lit up with surprise. "You stopped somewhere else?" He had assumed she'd come home immediately from work. She was tired, stressed; it didn't make sense to stop elsewhere.
"I stopped by my lawyer's office," she said, answering the question he had yet to ask.
And that was when she pulled out the papers.
Handing them to him, she explained, "It's… difficult. For me to give you what you want."
She was carefully choosing each and every word. The manner in which she spoke was halted, every syllable measured and given weight. House wasn't sure if that made her honest or just unpracticed with the lie.
That sounded cold, and it was. Here she was, possibly telling him how she truly felt.
And he was prone to doubt.
There was nothing particular about what she said that struck him as being dishonest. She had tells, but right now she was too controlled to give anything away. Yet he doubted her.
How could he not though? She was saying all of the things he had longed for her to say. All of his life, he had understood that he could be persuasive, his belief in his own rightness usually enough to convince smaller minds; though Cuddy wasn't an idiot, she responded to his sureness, clung to it in moments of personal doubt. So perhaps it wasn't that odd that she should take his point of view on as her own after these years of confusion. But it just seemed... perfect.
They'd had a huge fight, and he had called her a bad mother. He had undermined his own argument by insanely dumping her pills down the toilet and being cruel to her. He knew – knew – he had been right about her, about how she treated him. But he hadn't presented this knowledge in a way that would convince someone like Cuddy. He wasn't deluded enough to think he had done a good job last night. He knew he hadn't. And for that reason, it seemed suspicious that Cuddy had come around anyway.
That didn't happen.
But glancing down at the papers in his hand, he had the proof that that had occurred. The words blindingly bold, he read aloud, "Legal guardianship." He stopped reading and looked up at her.
She nodded her head rigidly. "I trust you. But... I guess it's easy to ignore you, because you don't have the same legal stake in Rachel's life." Again, her sentences were staccato, pregnant pauses making him hang on each syllable for understanding. "So... we change that. If... something happens to me..."
The thought went unfinished, but the implication was clear.
He didn't know what to say to that. A voice inside of him told him to consider the matter before reacting. But with the way she was looking at him for an answer, he felt compelled to say something. A joke immediately within reach, he seized it.
"And here I was hoping you'd leave me your collection of crotchless panties when you go." It wasn't funny, but it bought him time to assess the situation.
As Cuddy responded, "You can have those too," he looked back down at the paperwork.
Something didn't feel right. That was his initial thought. Something wasn't right about this. She was giving him, he guessed, what he wanted. That realization was enough to throw him off.
Guardianship was what he wanted.
He... wanted Rachel.
Reading the words that would entrust the little girl into his care, he felt how deep that need went within him. He wanted her to be his. How unfortunate for her, he told himself, but he wanted it nevertheless. Imagining a scenario in which Cuddy no longer existed, he saw then that losing Rachel as well would be... the end of him. His thoughts hesitated to coalesce that understanding, shame for the maudlin belief making it hard to accept the truth.
He'd never wanted to be a father. He still didn't want to be a father. The loaded title was something he had never pictured being part of his life, and he was uncomfortable embracing it still. He hadn't wanted to be her dad, and more importantly, he knew that he shouldn't be that for Rachel, because she deserved much more than he would ever be able to give her.
But… he wanted something.
He'd never thought he would ever yen for that relationship, but here he was, unable to deny that he did.
He wanted this.
And terrifying as it was to admit, he knew that he had lied to himself. When he'd said he'd loved Rachel, he had mentally tried to take the words back. He had told himself that, actually, he'd been lying; he'd been trying to manipulate Cuddy.
He hadn't been.
Playing Cuddy might have been a consequence of the admittance, but that hadn't been the goal. And it certainly wasn't a lie.
He had been telling the truth – the words coming from him before he even knew what was going on.
He'd said he loved Rachel, and he'd meant it, knew now that it was more than the vague affection one felt for someone they simply saw day in and day out. It made no sense, but there was no denying it anymore. He cared about her, though he had never planned to. He wanted to be in her life, though he had no real right to be there. And he wanted to participate in that life, even while understanding that his presence could possibly do more harm than good. Selfishly he no longer wished to remain on the sidelines, baby sitting and interfering only when Cuddy deemed it necessary.
The papers in his hand were proof of what he wanted, evidence of the change he had no idea was taking place.
It scared him.
He had opened himself up to some small change; he had witnessed it, felt it happening all weekend, even he hadn't been ready for it. Now he was ready. And it was that lack of fear, the overwhelming sense of rightness he possessed, that frightened him the most.
No, he thought instantly. It was scary to know that this was what he wanted, more so to know that he was now capable of actually having what he wanted.
The responsibility of it all enormous, he wasn't sure he would be doing the right thing by signing the papers. This was new and therefore exciting, and he feared that he was blinded to the very real problems that could result from allowing himself to become Rachel's legal guardian. Part of him thought they should wait – at least until Cuddy actually wanted this to happen.
And that thought set off his mind.
This weekend Cuddy had made it clear that she wasn't ready for this step. Every time he tried to do something good, she accused him of spoiling Rachel or looked at the act as though it were competition. She'd been understanding for the most part of his mistakes, but there were times when she'd made it clear that all rules had exceptions to them. He had no doubt that she believed in him far more than anyone else, but he hadn't swayed her to take this step.
True, she had admitted as much when she'd whipped the legal document out. But still… it seemed like a bold move for someone who was so indecisive.
When he looked at her then questioningly, there was no missing the urgency in her gaze. It was a face that silently implored, though for what he didn't know. She was just looking for answers, searching him for information.
It was a tell.
Bitterness coating his mouth, he thought to himself:
This wasn't genuine.
If she had meant what she was offering him now, she would have just changed her will. New Jersey didn't require forms like the ones before him. If she wanted to make him Rachel's guardian in the event of her death, she could have filled out the paperwork in mere minutes and be done with it.
This was a test.
And if he signed the papers, what? What would happen exactly? She wanted answers, clearly, but she hadn't demonstrated any intention of changing her ways. So what would he get out of this?
Nothing, he decided viciously.
He would get nothing, because this had never been about resolving the situation. This had been about figuring out just how much he actually cared for Rachel. Because liked he had said earlier, Cuddy didn't trust him. She couldn't, because if she had, she would have already known, probably before he had, just how genuine he was. But she was questioning him, which meant he would get nothing from this. He might pass the test, an unlikely scenario, but what would signing some papers actually mean?
Again – nothing.
Suddenly what he wanted seemed more out of reach than ever. Now though there was the added bitterness of knowing that this was in fact what he had hoped for. He was no longer blinded to his desires, and seeing would only make the return to status quo all the more difficult.
If they even made it back to normal, he thought then. Right now, that was the last thing he wanted; being with her was the last thing he wanted. Sitting here with her watching him for some sort of reaction was not what he wanted, and then walking away from this and going back to how things were as though nothing had been wrong…
Well, that just wasn't going to happen.
"You know what the funny thing is?" he asked, looking from the papers to her. "For a second there, I thought you might actually mean what you just said."
She was taken aback but undeterred. "Of course I –"
"Please keep lying," he said with a sneer. Rage curdled within him, made him sick with the knowledge that she had never intended to give him anything. Today he had been determined to remain calm in the face of whatever she threw at him. But the torture of being given what he wanted and having it ripped away…
No, he corrected. It was the illusion of being given what he wanted, the realization that she was taunting him on a whim. That was the worst part; that was what made his anger uncontrollable.
"I'm not –"
"You're gonna deny it?" he snarled. "That's how you think this gets better? By pretending like this," he said, tossing the papers at her. She flinched, more so from the anger in his voice than the legal work hitting her in the knees. "Wasn't a test?"
If she didn't speak, it was because she was too afraid to. Fear not of him but of the way this had turned out made it impossible to respond. All she could do was think that this was the worst-case scenario; he saw right through the act to her motives.
And she had no clue how he really felt about Rachel.
There'd been a moment, a second where she'd thought she'd seen something in his tightly controlled gaze. But he hadn't voiced the words Cuddy knew she needed to hear. The specifics escaped her, but she understood that she needed him to say something – needed him to give her some sign that moving forward was the right step to take.
He'd given her nothing.
And now he was red with anger, his voice low enough to avoid waking Rachel but filled with disgust and betrayal. Now his gaze was trained on her, demanding some sort of justification for her behavior. In the face of his fury, she wasn't sure she had one.
"Nothing to say?" he asked with a taunt. "No plan B?"
She expected some remark about the morning after pill of the same name sitting by her. But he was livid and either incapable or unwilling to make a joke about any of this. From her perspective, it didn't even look like the thought had crossed his mind. That was how focused on his anger he was. He couldn't be bothered to do anything but lash out at her.
Then again, maybe not, she thought as she watched him open his mouth to say something else. But before he could speak, the doorbell rang.
The interruption should have robbed the air of its tension. That someone was waiting for them to answer the door should have made the moment of silence bearable.
The heat of his glare was intense, captivating. There was someone at the door, but that person might as well have not existed, because Cuddy didn't dare look away, say anything, or move. She didn't trust him enough to tear her eyes away; she didn't trust herself to speak. To do something would be to risk seeming weak, terrified of his outburst. And she had no intention of backing down.
Because of that, she didn't flinch when he abruptly stood up. She didn't move away when he came closer to her, when he reached down and grabbed her wallet. As he straightened back up, he shot her a look, as though he were trying to tell her she needed to rethink her behavior. But she refused to give him any indication that she would listen.
The second he walked away though, she couldn't help but sigh in relief. By no means was this argument over. The moment he bought the pizza, he would be back, and there would be a whole new round of fighting to deal with. She wasn't blind to that reality. They were far from finished. She was grateful for the break anyway.
Pulling herself to her feet, she didn't want to wait around for House to return. Perhaps that would have been the right thing to do… for some reason she couldn't quite explain. But the truth was she had other responsibilities to take care of. Specifically, she had a morning after pill to take. And she worried that if she waited to take it, she would forget.
Going to kitchen, she quickly grabbed herself a glass of water. For a brief moment, she considered bringing a glass for House… but she decided against it. Acts of kindness would be attempts of bribery in his mind; she didn't need to add that complication to things.
It was bad enough as it was.
The heavy thought rooted her to the spot. Shoulders slumped, she felt then the weight of the argument rest against her.
She had failed.
It had been an idiotic plan, she realized. Give him the chance to become Rachel's legal guardian to see how he would react – it was a stupid idea carried out because her exhausted mind hadn't appreciated how foolish it really was.
Of course, House would figure it out. He would know what she was trying to do. She'd been hoping to understand what his motives were. But he had gotten angry before she'd gotten answers, and now what was she going to do?
The question was one she didn't have an answer to, one no one would have an answer to. There was no manual to consult, no one she could talk to. She could call Wilson and ask for his advice, but what would that do? What would he say that could make any of this better?
There were no set rules of conduct when considering something as insane as allowing House to play a part in her daughter's life. There was no clear path to take.
Really, the only thing that seemed apparent at that moment was that he would never forgive her for her error. Well, perhaps he would forgive, but she would have to grovel. Truth be told, at this point, she was almost willing to do that if it meant having a clear answer one way or the other when it came to his motives. The chances of that happening though were slim. He would be angry, and she would beg for his forgiveness, and he would accept the apology and give her nothing in return. That was how that would go.
But what else could she do?
Without an answer, she returned to the living room. Under ideal circumstances, she would have a new plan. Then again, in a perfect world, she wouldn't have to have a plan. Yet she knew she couldn't avoid him forever; in this less-than-perfect reality, she didn't have an unlimited amount of time to scheme. That would make him angrier or suspicious, and she would be in an even deeper hole than the one she currently found herself in. So she left the kitchen, glass of water in hand.
He was seated on the couch, the pizza box open on the coffee table. A thick slice in his hand, his teeth viciously ripped a chunk off. He chewed with purpose, with anger, swallowing hard. At no point did he say anything to her.
As she cautiously sat on the cushion next to him, she wasn't sure if that was a good thing. She didn't want him yelling at her, but she also didn't want to suffer through the silent treatment. Of course, she wasn't exactly interested in talking at that moment either, so maybe the lack of conversation wasn't all that awful.
Reaching for the birth control pills, she tried to ignore the way his attention instantly snapped to her. But that was difficult, impossible actually. As he watched her, she questioned why he was so intensely focused on her. Was he upset that she was going to take the morning after pill? Did he still doubt her insistence that she didn't want another baby? Or, and in her opinion this was the more likely scenario, was he simply staring at her, because he was mad, because he knew it would unnerve her?
She didn't ask.
Her fingers worked to open the plastic package in her hand. Seams glued together, it was a struggle to break the bond that held the folds close. She silently fought, kept quiet as she frustratedly tried to pull the damn thing open. But she couldn't get it.
She was busy considering why nothing could go right when he snatched the pills from her grasp.
Immediately she looked over at him. He had the long thick strip of crust lodged in his teeth, a temporary placeholder for his meal. His hands working at the medicine's packaging, he roughly but effectively broke through the seal.
"Thank you," Cuddy said awkwardly, plucking the pill from his grip.
As she punched through the foil, he asked, "You're really going to take that?"
"You're not going to regret that?"
She could tell that it was a genuine question.
Her answer came in the shape of swallowing the morning after pill down with a big gulp of water.
He shrugged, clearly unconcerned with the choice she was making. "R.I.P., genetically screwed potential spawn of mine."
"Yeah, I'm sure you're really upset," she said dryly, grabbing a slice of pizza laden with vegetables. If she'd been hungry earlier, she certainly wasn't now. But the last time she'd taken Plan B, it had made her dizzy, the influx of hormones nauseating. Admittedly that had happened a few years ago, around the time she'd first started sleeping with House after Lucas. They'd been using condoms until she'd been sure House's penchant for prostitutes hadn't caught up with him in addition to the pill; one night she'd been particularly insistent, and they'd broken the condom, and out of fear, she'd taken the morning after pill. That night, while hunched over the toilet, she'd regretted that choice. Naturally, it was possible that in the years since then her body's tolerance had changed, but she wasn't willing to risk it.
Not when there was already so much wrong with this situation anyway.
Forcing herself to take a bite, she recognized that the food was fine. But it didn't taste good. She wondered, as House reached for his second slice, if he felt the same way. Somehow she doubted it.
So she stayed quiet and ate. They both did. At one point, he reached over and stole her water. He took a few sips before handing it back to her, the act as domestic as it got for them. But she wasn't fooled into thinking everything was okay. Outwardly they were calm, but beneath the surface, the friction between them was palpable. Bitterness and anger churned, a sinister undercurrent lurking around them. For a tiny moment in time, she put up with it. She told herself she would deal with it as long as it took for her to give her stomach a fighting chance with the pill.
When she was halfway finished with her second piece, she felt she had stayed silent long enough.
That didn't make it easier to speak up though.
Wanting to say something was far different than knowing what to say, and the tension between them so intense, Cuddy really didn't know what would ease that feeling. She just knew that she had to talk.
Her stomach clenched with nerves, she licked her lips. Toying with the pizza in her hands, she abruptly said, "I'm sorry."
His head bobbed slightly. No sound came out, but it was clear that he was attempting to scoff, snort, or make a noise that cast doubt on her proclamation. As if it wasn't hard enough for her, he felt the need to make it more difficult by treating her as though she didn't mean it.
The thing was – she did mean it. More than anything she wished she hadn't had her lawyer draw up those papers. She still needed answers, but she regretted being so stupid as to think she could get away with that. She regretted acting on that idea, ensuring that the conversation from here on out would be that much harder to get through.
But there was no way House believed that. Everything about his demeanor cast doubt on her honesty, much to her dismay.
"Don't," she said, her voice pleading. "Don't be like –"
"No." The rule about interrupting clearly broken and forgotten, there was no point in bringing it up. She doubted he would have appreciated it. "No," he repeated firmly. "After what you did, you don't get to tell me how I'm supposed to behave."
"You were trying to. But if you really want to dictate someone's behavior, you should start with your own."
She did her best to remain calm. "I am trying to apologize."
"Yeah, I'm sure. You're so sorry."
He shook his head. "I don't believe you."
"I can see that."
"Why?" he asked suddenly. He didn't mean to voice the question plaguing him, but that was exactly what he did. He asked why, wanted to know what the hell had convinced her into believing that doing that was good for their relationship.
She set her half-eaten slice of pizza back into the cardboard box it had originally come from. Her gaze not meeting his, she said, "I don't know."
She bristled at the assertion. But there was no way she would ever convince him that she didn't have a reason. Hoping to save time by being spared her denials, he said, " You didn't act on a whim. You took the time to go to your lawyer's, have him draw up those papers, put them in your briefcase, drive home, sit here with me, and consider what you were doing. So 'I don't know' isn't gonna cut it, because you clearly had a reason in your screwed up head for offering me a chance to become Rachel's guardian when you never had any intention of letting me do that."
He didn't add that he deserved to know why. He had the right; oh, he definitely had the right. But if she didn't see that, he wouldn't waste his time trying to convince her.
"I wanted to know if you would sign," she said, embarrassment making her voice tight and distant.
He scowled. "That's not a reason."
"It is." She jutted her chin in the air in defiance. She obviously had no plans on backing down. "Would you have?"
There was no hesitation, no thinking. He knew exactly how things would have gone if she'd been honestly making the proposal.
But Cuddy wasn't convinced. He wasn't sure if it was the speed of his answer or the content of it that made her doubtful. Whatever the reason though, her suspicion was obvious.
"I don't believe you," she said at that moment.
"Of course you don't. You don't trust me."
"No," she disagreed. "I do."
He couldn't help but laugh. "That's the thing: you don't."
She looked at him like he was insane, which… he understood. The truth was it was preposterous to be at this point in their relationship and to be without trust. They had gone to school together, worked together, had sex together, lived with one another, and by now, there should have been no doubt as to how the other person felt. And for the most part, there wasn't. They were close, and in most things, Cuddy trusted him, he knew. But with Rachel?
That was the exception.
That was the one place where Cuddy needed to trust him the most.
And she didn't.
Not that she was ever going to admit it.
But then he knew that if he hoped to get past this hurdle, he would have to force the truth from her.
Undeterred he reiterated the point. "You don't trust me, not with Rachel."
"Stop saying that." The words were rushed, insistent. "I do trust you with –"
"If that were true, you wouldn't need me to sign those papers. You would know –"
"No," she disagreed with a harsh shake of her head. "It's not that simple."
"Really? You're forgetting that I know you. I know how you think, how you behave, and I know when you trust me and when you don't."
She didn't have anything to say to that. He was right; he knew her better than most and certainly well enough to understand her patterns of behavior. She couldn't argue with that.
"Every day I give you hundreds of reasons not to trust me. I don't prove my work. I don't run stupid tests or keep accurate records or waste my time explaining to you why I need what I need half the time. And that's because we both know that I don't need to."
"I don't think I am."
"You are. But even if you weren't, this isn't work."
He ignored the comment. "You rarely know that I'm right, but you go along with my decisions. You believe that I will eventually be right, because you trust that I –"
"And I can't do that with Rachel," she snapped.
It was the argument that shut him up.
It was the admittance that shut her up.
All day she had circled around the point. She'd allowed herself to think it, act on it, but she had yet to say it to the one person who needed to hear it.
Now he knew.
Part of her had anticipated feeling relieved when he learned of the truth. As it happened though, she just experienced overwhelming pressure to explain herself further.
"You're right. When it comes to work, I place a lot of faith in you. Maybe too much," she admitted after a pause. "But… I'm willing to accept the consequences there. I'm sure you think I mindlessly okay whatever you want," she said with contempt. "That's not actually how it works though."
"Doesn't matter. Whatever the process, at some point, you choose to believe that I'm not going to completely screw things up. Make it about Rachel, however, and you assume the worst."
Instinctually she understood what he was getting at. She could trust him with other people's lives; without even second guessing herself, she could and had put her career on the line to let him do his job. A position no sane person would take, she had volunteered herself to be his protector, his freedom. She allowed him to do what he wanted, practice medicine the way he needed to, and she had defended him whenever that didn't work out the way everyone else hoped it would.
Years of that dynamic had created a set of internal expectations independent of whether the patient lived or died. Though he would be loath to admit it, he had – as he had just demonstrated – come to believe that she would inherently support him. If he were going too far, he thought she would draw him back and conversely be willing to go out on a limb for him when she thought he was right. When she didn't do that (or perhaps more accurately, when he thought she wasn't doing that), his sense of betrayal was formidable.
Considering that, she thought she could have anticipated his reaction and the argument he was now trying to make. Her hesitation in this one area was something he didn't know how to handle. To his mind it was evidence of hypocrisy, as though making that point would cause her to back down.
Truthfully, it might have worked – if the issue involved anything other than Rachel.
"I don't assume the worst. If I did that, you wouldn't be living here," she said darkly. "After some of the things that have happened this weekend? If I thought the absolute worst –"
"Fine. Maybe not the worst, but you don't trust me with her. You look for reasons not to –"
"I don't do that."
"You do, actually. Because if you didn't, you wouldn't need me to sign papers. You would know."
He made it sound so simple that she longed for it to be that easy. They would be much happier if it was that clear cut.
"You think I don't wish it were that simple?"
"Honestly? I have no idea what you want."
She stopped herself from scoffing at the dramatic stance he was taking. He was being ridiculous. He was acting like a child who had been denied something he wanted. And if Cuddy didn't make fun of his histrionics, it was because that same behavior was making her consider that perhaps he really would have signed the legal work. Maybe he did want that promised role in Rachel's life.
Then again, maybe he just didn't appreciate being denied something.
The fact that she couldn't say for sure either way was… precisely the problem.
But if she wanted an answer, she knew she would have to start offering some of her own.
"I want to believe you." Elbows on her knees, she buried her face in her palms. Fingertips rubbing at her temples, she eventually looked at him again. "I wish I could just… trust you when you say…." Her voice trailed off, the bitterness of the thought too much for her to bear. "But every time I get close to doing that, I… can't."
He shot her a look that said he was well aware of that pattern. But then how could he not be? She'd made it so obvious that the only thing left for them to discuss was why she kept behaving that way.
The problem with that was she didn't have an explanation, not really. Faced with his anger, she wanted to understand why she was behaving this way – almost as much as he did. But the best her mind could do was touch on the reason briefly before being abruptly cut off. Her motivation a vague idea in her mind, it was difficult to express that to House.
Especially when he seemed so intent on being as unhelpful and unsympathetic as possible.
She didn't think she deserved any better.
"She's my daughter, House."
"Yeah, I kinda knew that. The whole last name thing sort of gave that away."
She shook her head. "No, I mean that's what I think. When I want to trust you, I think, 'But she's my daughter.'"
"Cause you don't want to share."
"No," she said after pausing to think about the possibility.
He looked incredulous. "You don't want to share."
"Okay," she conceded. "I don't."
"Even though there's absolutely no contest between us. Even though she will always want you before –"
"I know that."
"No, you don't."
"But you still think that anyway then."
She wasn't ignorant to what he was doing. He wasn't trying to understand; he was trying to make her feel bad.
"Yes," she admitted.
"Because she's your daughter."
"Because…." She fell silent, wishing her mind and words could accurately capture how she felt. Wanting it to happen didn't mean it did, unfortunately. "Because I feel like I have to protect her" was what she settled for saying.
"From me," he added to the end of her sentence. With a wave of the hand, he said, "And we're back to the point you've been trying to avoid all night: you don't trust me with –"
"No, I don't trust myself with this."
What she had wanted to say was finally out there. No, she thought, not what she wanted to tell him but rather what, apparently, needed to be said. The words were not what she'd expected from herself, the truth both obvious and confusing to her.
Looking at it now, she thought it was clear that all of the second guessing had been proof that she didn't trust her own judgment. Over the years, she had been told repeatedly that she treated House exceptionally well, that she was blind when it came to him. From the beginning she had purposely ignored those comments, but when the matter involved her own daughter, the influence of those beliefs came out. And why shouldn't it? Rachel was far more important than any case or patient. Knowing that, Cuddy didn't distrust him as much as she worried that she was letting her affection for him, her need for him rule everything else.
She hadn't seen it before, but now it made sense.
"You aren't sure you can judge whether or not I'm being honest," he said, reading between the lines.
"I don't know."
"Then what are you afraid of?"
"I don't know."
His eyes flashed bright with renewed irritation. "All right, let's go through the list: monsters under your bed? Thunderstorms? Somehow, somewhere there's a duck that –"
"No. Would you stop?"
"Sure, if you answer the question. What are you afraid of?"
"I don't know." She laughed nervously as she repeated herself, the giggle breathless and without joy. "I – I'm afraid –"
"That I'm – or that I might – be trusting you because it's what I'm used to doing and not because it's the right thing."
He couldn't say that it was a ridiculous fear. It was clear in his mind that it was definitely possible. After all, he'd practically just asked her to trust him with Rachel, because it was normal for her to do so. But that possibility had remained just that, a possibility; it was not reality, and given how reluctant she was to include him in her life, he thought it was unlikely to ever become real.
"You're not doing that," he said reassuringly.
Saying that though… it made him realize that her point had not negated his own.
"But even if you were to," he continued, feeling compelled to bring the matter up. "Even if you let me be in Rachel's life because it's what you're used to doing, who cares? What is it about me that you think isn't –"
"This isn't about you."
"These are my shortcomings."
"Which involve me," he pointed out. "So tell me what the real issue is here."
He tried to sound as nonchalant about it as possible. Truth be told, however, he was afraid to hear what she would say. The flaw within that kept this relationship from progressing was one he wanted named, but that didn't make it easy to take. That her hesitation was born from something in him bothered him. But there was no avoiding it. And if he had to learn what the issue was, he wanted to do it as ruthlessly quick as possible. He didn't think he could handle her hedging out of kindness.
Unfortunately that didn't inspire honesty from her. Shaking her head, she denied it. "There's nothing –"
"Obviously there's something or else this wouldn't be an issue." She started to disagree with him, but he cut her off. "No, you don't get to pretend like this isn't happening. You can say you don't know and avoid it all you want, but there's something that is making you hesitate. And whether you want to admit it or not, this is my life too. If I'm doing something wrong, I have a right to know."
She went quiet. He didn't know if that meant she was considering the problem or merely letting him talk himself into exhaustion. But he would do his best to ensure that it was the former.
"See here's the thing: this is clearly a problem. You keep it to yourself, I think you don't want to make this work."
"And how do you figure that?" she asked, obviously confused by his assertion.
"We are at a stand still right now. Nothing's going to change until… something else does. If there's something that's stopping you from taking that next step, I'm pretty sure I have a right to know. Since it involves me," he explained, his voice bordering on churlish.
He didn't intend to be that way, but he found himself increasingly agitated by the dynamics between them. All he wanted was to get to the root of the problem. But every time he thought, if only for a second, that they might be getting somewhere, the issue sprouted new pathways, new things for him to contend with.
Having spent the previous night and then all day taking care of Rachel, he was in no condition for a protracted conversation. There was no avoiding it, especially now that he was neck deep in it. They'd started discussing the matter, so now it had to be seen through. There were no other options. He just wished he had the patience to get through it without killing anyone.
"If I'm not doing something right," he told her, his muscles tense as he tried to regain some semblance of calm. "You should tell me. Keep it to yourself, and how is that going to make anything better? Hmm? You don't tell me, I can't fix it."
"Because it's that simple."
"It is," he insisted. "I know what I want, and if there's something I'm doing that's preventing me from getting it, then that needs to change."
Cuddy could see the straight line of logic – and despised him for it. He had never been a practitioner of evolution; a person was who they were, and nothing would change that was his firmly held belief – a belief that she was well aware of. But House had also always held that people were first and foremost selfish creatures, that they did what they wanted out of self-interest and would always act in such a way to benefit themselves. Now he was faced with a conflict between his personal philosophies: did he change and work towards getting what he wanted or did he remain the same and lose everything?
It was obvious what he had chosen.
And she was not flattered by the decision.
Perhaps she should have been. The obstinate Gregory House changing to please the woman he loved – there was something romantic about that notion, that he would do whatever it took to be in her good graces. At least, there could have been romance in the sentiment. Instead she saw calculation.
"This is about getting what you want," she said with dismay.
He cocked his head to the side, as though he didn't understand her point. "That's… a bad thing to you?"
She shrugged. "It feels like you're willing to say or do whatever is necessary to –"
"Then I guess it doesn't seem genuine."
The words felt right to say. They felt like the truth.
"It makes me think that you're doing this, because you think it's what I want."
"Pretty sure I'd have to be in a vegetative state to think –"
"What I mean is you know that this is the way things go. The second you moved in here, you knew that at some point, you would need to start caring about my daughter. I've told you that. Several times this weekend even," she pointed out. "You knew that you would have to show interest in having a relationship with her eventually."
"And you think I'm lying. You think my saying that I would change whatever was necessary to get you to trust me is proof that I'm… what? Just trying to appease you?"
She hesitated not for the first time that evening. "I don't know. And I'm afraid that I can't tell if you're just giving me what I want or –"
"Yeah, there's not a chance in Hell that that's actually what's going on," he interrupted snidely. "Forgetting for a second that this moment in the conversation would suggest otherwise, we can both agree: you're not an idiot. If I were faking it, you would know. And you know that if I were doing that, I'd probably be doing a much better job than I have been of convincing you that I'm not a complete failure when it comes to Rachel."
She was about to say that she didn't think he was a complete failure, but he kept talking before she had a chance.
"If I'd planned this out, I would have eased into it. Slowly gotten close to her and then gradually –"
"You've thought about this," she said in realization.
"Today I thought about it," he clarified instantly. "Looking back on how this weekend went, I could – can – see why you would have your reservations, and I thought that I could have been a lot gentler about everything."
She was doubtful. "Of course you –"
"You really think I would do that? I would lie about how I feel about Rachel. The man you live with, have sex with, love is the kind of person who would think nothing of using your daughter."
No. That was her first thought – no. She might have been more tolerant of his flaws than most; those accusations might have been true, but she would not have been fooled by him if he were capable of doing that. And he might have been incredibly screwed up but no. Hearing him say it, she could feel herself realizing that her fear was unfounded.
Things weren't perfect, but he hadn't been making all of this up.
"Of course not," she said with a sigh. "No, that's not what happened. I'm sorry."
Last night, he had dealt with her resistance poorly. And in doing so, he had created a mess. Now he had the opportunity to rub in her mistake, to take offense to what she had almost convinced herself of. He had the option, and it was truly tempting. But it wouldn't solve anything. She would become defensive or worse; she might take his pleasure in her error as a sign that he was trying to fool her. Then they'd be right back where they started, which he absolutely did not want.
So although he wasn't entirely interested in the sympathetic route, it was what he chose. Scooting closer to her, he bowed his head. Lips pressed to her collarbone, he gave her two soft kisses to her warm skin.
When he straightened his spine once more, he told her, "This wasn't what you expected. It's not what I thought would happen either. I thought you would have to force me to care."
And that was the truth. For a good part of this weekend even, he had set himself apart from Rachel. He'd taken care of her, but there had been a wall, something to separate himself from her, from any sort of relationship with her. He'd done his best to ward off any feelings for her – not because he hated the kid, but because looking at himself, he knew that he was not deserving of anything from her. Just as he had never been good enough for her mother, he had believed, still believed, that he was not worthy. In the end though, that didn't seem to matter much. Regardless of his intentions, the pressure of the weekend had slowly forced him closer to Rachel. Now there was no backing off, not even if he wanted to.
"But we're here. And you can't pretend like this isn't happening just because it didn't happen the way you wanted it to." He wasn't trying to be harsh, though he conceded that he might have been. "This... is just the way things are. You – we – have to accept that."
Cuddy looked over at him, her eyes surveying his features. "If you're not ready –"
"Don't use me as an excuse. I might be taken aback by all of this –"
"This being your, what, feelings for Rachel?" He nodded his head and said nothing, which seemed to upset her. "You can't even say it, can you?"
"Pretty sure I articulated it last night," he pointed out. Reaching over he grabbed one of her hands. His fingers wedged between hers, he hoped the small bit of contact would keep the conversation calm. The last thing he wanted was for things to gear up once more, for the fight to continue when resolution might be in sight.
"I don't have a problem saying it," he explained. But that didn't seem exactly true, so he amended the statement. "All right, maybe a little bit of a problem – demonstrating it anyway. But I know exactly what's going on, and I have no trouble admitting to myself or to you what it is that I want. If I'm not saying it, it's because I know you have no intention of giving me any of it. Because you are not comfortable with any of this."
She took it as an accusation. "Well, I apologize for that," she said tartly. "After years of you showing no interest in her, I should have prepared myself for you to suddenly change your mind."
"I didn't say that."
"But that's what you want. You've decided you're ready to move forward, and now I have to be too. You're mad because I'm not ready to –"
"No. I can handle you not being ready. If you had said that, that would have been fine. But treating me like I'm lying? Testing me?" he said with a nose scrunched in disgust. "Telling me that you trust me enough to raise Rachel if something happens to you – and then 'L.O.L. Just kidding. I just wanted to see how you'd react'?" He glared at her. "You didn't need to do that."
He let go of her hand and moved away from her. He reached for another slice of pizza, perhaps to give her the impression that he was simply hungry and not hurt. But Cuddy wasn't fooled.
He was hurt.
Offended by her behavior.
That wasn't exactly a revelation. The second things had gone wrong, she'd known he was upset. It wasn't like he'd tried to hide it or she'd been so stupid as to miss it. And she couldn't even say she didn't understand how deep that pain had gone with him. She'd suspected that she'd screwed up spectacularly from the beginning after all. But watching him now, she recognized…
She had cleaved a gaping wound into their relationship. He'd been hurt, and she'd seen that, but what she had failed to realize was just how hard it would be to come back from it. That had always been a possibility, of course; she hadn't been ignorant to that potential effect. But now she could feel how much worse she'd made things. The difference between idle thought and actual experience, it was impossible to deny the horror of her behavior.
And watching him miserably stuff his mouth full of pizza, she wasn't even tempted to pretend she hadn't screwed up. His behavior was giving her all the answers she'd needed. This was, she was gradually beginning to see, not about being denied what he wanted. It wasn't anger at her for trying to trick him.
He was mad, because he wanted her to offer him that place in Rachel's life.
He wanted to be her legal guardian if something had happened.
He wanted that, because… as unlikely as it was, as nonsensical as it was, he cared about Rachel.
"Oh God," Cuddy uttered, instantly capturing his attention.
He smirked before shoveling the rest of the pizza into his mouth. "Just getting that, huh."
She didn't even respond to the quip. She just apologized. "I'm sorry." There was a pause in the hopes that he would say all was forgiven, but he remained quiet. "I'm so sorry. I didn't – I had – I…."
There didn't seem to be words that would make her mistake palatable. No excuse would explain her behavior in a way that would make him more forgiving. Her reasons were ones he no doubt already knew, ones he surely rejected with disdain or believed without any sympathy for her. He didn't need to hear them now. Which left her with… what exactly?
She didn't know what to do. And afraid that he would take her silence for calculation (which she guessed it was), she refused to waste any more time.
"What I do?" she asked.
He pursed his lips together in thought. "I say we start with a light tea bagging followed up with a tossed salad and finished up with a Brazilian flapjack to –"
"Anything that involves me keeping my pants on?"
"Why would you want to do that?"
He was smiling, amused. But she didn't take his behavior at face value. There was no way this was over. He hadn't forgiven her – there was no way he had done that so quickly.
"You're still mad," she said tactfully, knowingly.
He was no longer smiling. "No."
But Cuddy didn't believe him. "I have a hard time –"
"Fine. I'm gonna hold on a little….. It's probably gonna fester a bit." He was being matter of fact, not ominous or punishing. He had no intention of wielding that inevitability like a weapon; after everything they'd been through this weekend, this evening, they needed peace. And he wasn't going to deny that this would follow them, but he wasn't interested in belaboring the point either. She was just starting to see his way, and he wouldn't jeopardize that for anything.
She didn't deserve the torture of his stubborn anger either.
Well… all right, maybe there was part of him that thought she did, proof alone that he was still a little pissed. But he did his best – would do his best – not to act on that impulse. If he did that, there was no way their relationship could last. If he did that, he would be denying her the same courtesies she had once given him.
How many times had it been when he was unprepared for the natural progress in their relationship? How many instances were there of him screwing everything up and her forgiving him for being unable to move forward? There must have been a dozen moments this weekend alone, where she had, ironically enough, reassured him and tried to convince him that he could eventually be good for Rachel.
As it turned out, Cuddy hadn't been nearly as convinced as she had led him to believe. The need to encourage him had made her wary. His reluctance had bred suspicion or at least doubt, and now he needed to demonstrate that that had been nerves, fear, and nothing else.
He had to prove he could do the job. And he would never be able to do that if he spent all of his time punishing Cuddy for what she had done. That would just make her angry, even less trusting.
"We'll get past it," he said simply, knowing that that was the only thing to do. All other roads led to breaking up, which he didn't want. Which he knew she didn't want. "We've done it before."
She bit her lip before saying, "It's never this screwed up before."
"No," he agreed. "I think we can both accept that you've done an exceptional job at reaching a new low here." There was bite to the words, something he hadn't intended. Within seconds he pointed out, "See? A little bit of holding onto it. But I'll get over it."
Cuddy nodded her head. He wasn't sure if she believed him. Perhaps that was asking too much from her right now, seeing as how guilt ridden she was. For that reason, he wouldn't push her; he wouldn't accuse her of not really believing him. It might have been true, but it wouldn't do him any good to say it out loud.
So he kept quiet and simply motioned for her to move closer to him.
In her response was the proof that he had gotten through to her. There was no hesitation on her part. She wasn't overtly eager, of course, so as not to appear desperate for his touch. But the lack of reluctance made it clear that she was interested in the comfort he was offering.
Shuffling towards him, she didn't stop until she was on his couch cushion. One of his arms wrapping around her waist, he pulled her close. Her knees drew up under her body, and she rested her head on his chest. The second she pressed her cheek to him, she said, "I'm sorry."
"Yeah. We've covered that."
Her chin rubbed against him as she shook her head. "Am I boring you with this?"
"Absolutely," he said, hugging her tightly against him. "I mean, if you're going to say the same thing over and over, I'd prefer something along the lines of 'House's dick is –"
"You're turning this conversation into jokes about your penis."
"Oh my dick is no joke."
The sound she made was a mix of a groan and a laugh. "You're ridiculous."
"All right. I'll be serious," he said. His mood turned somber as he explained, "I don't need you to keep apologizing. I get it. You were amazingly and spectacularly wrong, and now you're sorry about that. I understand. But if you we're going to move on, you can't bring it up every –"
"So you just want to pretend like none of this ever happened?" she asked, craning her head back so she could look at him.
"Hardly. I just don't need a reminder every minute. That's all."
"Okay." She had no choice but to agree. In her opinion, there couldn't be enough apologies offered. They had quickly gone through the angry stage, and part of Cuddy worried that they were rushing through as to avoid considering what her behavior had meant. But even if they really were moving on, she still felt the need to let him know how awful she felt. As she had been the one to mess things up however, she knew she had to do what he wanted. It was not her call to do something that he was uncomfortable with; she had done that enough already. "I just wish there was something I could do to –"
"Make you feel better?" he supplied calmly and without malice.
"No. To make you feel better."
"You're not going to fix this by irritating me with your narcissism. Although I know you think that works… not gonna happen." One of his hands wandering to her ass, he said, "On the other hand, you haven't taken your regular dose of birth control. You had to take the morning after –"
"I'm pretty sure those two things are related."
"Of course." He patted her bottom patronizingly. "And I'm thinking the period you have after that is gonna be terrible."
She groaned. "I'm trying not to think about it."
He ignored her and finished, "And knowing that that's happening to you will be of great – really great – comfort to me personally." She glared at him, triggering an additional remark. "After I buy a raft for Rachel and me to –"
"Is there something inside of you that insists on being immature in –"
"Are you seriously asking that question right now?"
She sighed. "No. I clearly know the answer."
"Exactly." But he must have felt uncomfortable with leaving things there, because he asked, "You want me to be serious?"
Truthfully Cuddy didn't mind things taking on a lighter tone. Again, she worried that they were rushing to get to the other side, hurrying past their feelings of anger and mistrust so that they wouldn't have to consider what any of it meant. Rationally she feared that was happening. But selfishly she had no problem feeling, if only for a moment, that things were okay between them. For that reason, she was tempted to tell him no. She didn't want to continue this fight, didn't want to be confronted once more with her failures as a lover.
And yet, in spite of that, she was not ready to move on. Her gaze catching sight of the paperwork he'd thrown onto the ground, she suddenly needed to know.
Not answering the question, she asked, "Are you going to sign them?" She looked back at him again to see what his answer would be.
"You don't want me to."
"So?" Somehow that didn't seem to matter much anymore. After what she'd done, what she wanted seemed irrelevant.
"I could sign. Right now, I'm sure I could do just about anything I wanted, and you'd let me."
"That's not –"
"Trust me. It's true. But if I act on that, at some point, you're going to resent me for it. And if I use this to force your hand with Rachel, you'll never forgive me – and you'll never accept it. And maybe I could convince myself that I could live with that, but knowing that you would feel that way?" He shook his head. "It's not what either of us want if I've had to force you to give me what I want."
He was right. If he made himself the potential guardian for Rachel, Cuddy would be unhappy about that. He had a point. But… he wasn't insisting on signing now, because he thought that she would eventually come to her senses. She wasn't sure that would happen.
No, she no longer doubted his honesty here. He'd more than proved that he cared about Rachel; despite Cuddy's misgivings, the truth was clear. The issue was not about trusting that he wanted the best for her daughter.
The problem was momentum – or the lack of it.
He was doing the right thing, the polite thing by backing off. He had said he'd regretted pushing her this weekend, and she doubted that for the sake of his own pride he would pressure her in this regard. She feared that would be the problem them though. If he didn't force the matter, would she? Would she willingly go in that direction?
The answer seemed to be obvious. If she'd had the desire to share her daughter with House, she would have taken those steps already. At least, if she'd had the ability to act on that desire, she would have anyway. But instead… this had happened. And she feared that, if left to her own devices, nothing would change.
"I need a date," she said suddenly, knowing that she would require incentive. "I'm sorry. If that's where this is headed, I need a date."
"Because you'll never get there on your own."
She nodded her head. "No." The truth was harsher uttered aloud than it had been solely in her head. "I want to think otherwise," she explained, trying to soften the blow. "But I'm worried that…. I need that push."
"Okay." All in all, he seemed to be taking the request well. He seemed to be taking all of this well. Maybe that made sense, she thought; he was on the cusp of getting what he wanted, as long as he didn't upset her.
At least that was what she believed until he said, "You have until my birthday."
Then she thought he was picking the first conceivable date available to force her into something she wasn't ready for. As though he were only paying lip service to her insecurities, he was determined to make this happen as quickly as he could – that was what it felt like to her.
Frustrated she muttered, "You don't waste any time, do you?"
"You said you needed a push."
"Yeah, a push. Not a –"
"That's not how this works," he interrupted. "You want my help, you don't get to choose the terms. And if this is really supposed to happen, the longer you take, the harder this is going to be for everyone."
She understood that. Her hesitation created friction between them and, though he would probably never say it, doubt in him. The more time she needed, the worse it would be for them. And that was to say nothing of how it would affect Rachel. It was hard for Cuddy to admit, but if she thought about it from Rachel's perspective, she thought her reluctance had made or would make her daughter all the more resistant to House's affections. If Cuddy were suspicious of House's behavior, then of course, that would alter how Rachel felt.
But that didn't mean Cuddy could just force her way to acceptance within a matter of months.
"I know that," she told him. "It's just –"
"Soon? I don't think so. If you know that I mean what I said about Rachel – and clearly you do – then all you have to do is let me be involved in her life. And since that's not exactly a brand new concept for us, it's really just a matter of degree."
She shifted in his arms. Doing her best to roll over onto her back, she was able to eye him with greater ease. "Maybe. But you're acting like the number of degrees is small when –"
"Isn't it? The fact is I've been in Rachel's life for years now. Whether we planned it or not, I've taken on that role in her life."
He was carefully avoiding saying the word, father. Whether he was doing that because she didn't want to hear him say it or because he couldn't, she didn't know.
"I'm not asking to adopt her. I'm not –"
"No, I'd just be changing my will," she retorted, not thinking there was much of a difference.
"I want the will. Don't get me wrong. I want it. But that is the… inevitable result of something much smaller." Immediately he conceded, "Doesn't seem like it, but you just have to make a little room for me."
"And if I can't do that in less than three months?"
Although she knew she would have to try to meet that impossible deadline, she wanted to be aware of the consequences when she didn't make it. She forced herself to think when, not if. He might have been doing his best to minimize the task at hand, an act of kindness on his part to be sure. But Cuddy wouldn't allow herself to mentally do the same. She couldn't afford to do so, which was why she needed to know what she would face if she failed.
In all honesty, she expected a grim answer to her question.
Instead though he remained calm. "Then we'll have a version of this conversation – except then I'll be drunk."
"And what a happy birthday that will be."
"You don't let me lick icing off your ass, so technically by default, all my birthdays are unhappy ones."
She smiled in spite of herself. "You're ridiculous."
"So will you?" he asked undeterred.
"Will I what?"
"Let me lick icing off –"
She shot him a dirty look. "This may surprise you, but I don't get off on you drooling all over my –"
"That's what you say, but then you wear those skirts and –"
"Who says I do that for you? Or anyone for that matter?"
"Because I know you. But if you'd prefer something else, I could always lick the frosting off your pussy," he offered.
"If you think I'm going to give myself a yeast infection for a few minutes of fun –"
"Nipples?" he asked almost desperately.
"Okay," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. Under normal circumstances, she might have been content with the proposed act, turned on even; there was absolutely nothing wrong with House's tongue on – well, just about any part of her body. But right now, it just felt wrong to be having this conversation now.
Were they really discussing this? That was what she asked herself then. Were they really talking about it now, when they'd been fighting about Rachel, about their future?
"So then it won't be a completely unhappy birthday for me."
"Why are we talking about this?"
He didn't offer her an answer. He just said somberly, "We can go back to the other thing."
"We need to."
"Then by all means, do that. Although there's not really much left to discuss."
"It's three months – not even."
He scratched his beard in contemplation. "You want more time."
"Then you'll have it, after –"
"No," she gritted out with frustration. "That's not enough time, not even close. And there's no way that you don't realize that."
"You think so?"
He was toying with her was her initial impression; he was tormenting her, needling her by being as uncooperative as he knew how to be. In and of itself, that was hardly new behavior. Making things harder for her was, for better or worse, one of his favorite activities. He liked getting under her skin, enjoyed teasing her. Usually, as frustrated as it could make her, she had fun with that dynamic too. She gave as good as she got, and on some days, their back and forth was the most bearable part of her life. But there was another side to that behavior, a darker aspect. Sometimes, when he was mad, he would do the exact same things – tease her in an attempt to hurt her. And right now his intentional ignorance was obvious, but the reason for it was not.
Was he trying to guide their relationship back to normal? Or was he purposely trying to make this harder for her?
Without answers, she found herself infuriated – just as he probably wanted.
"Why are you making this so difficult?" she asked, sitting up. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"Stop. Just stop it." She pulled away from him but only a little. Retreating completely would be melodramatic, and he would surely accuse her of that should she behave that way. She stayed close to avoid any more of his taunting. "I'm tired, and I'm in no mood to play games. If you're going to keep behaving this way, I'm going to bed."
"Don't do that." He reached over and stroked her cheek. With only a modicum of sarcasm, he explained, "I don't sleep well when you're pissed at me, which means I'll be up all night – and bored, which means I'll be tempted to wake you and then you'll be up all night, so –"
"Then act like an adult."
He wanted to point out that he hadn't been the one who'd gone to a lawyer and created papers to dangle in front of him as bait. He wanted to ask who had been the one to act out on that idiotic, childish plan – and then relish in the shame she would surely feel. But doing that would in fact turn him into the immature man she was accusing him of being. By virtue of his own behavior, he would make her right. And he wasn't willing to cede the moral high ground yet.
"I am," he said calmly.
"Then you're not listening to –"
"No, I am."
"Then why are you so insistent on ignoring me when I say that I'm going to need more than three months?" she asked with accusation in her voice. "Why won't you budge on this?"
It was simple. "Because I'm not the one who did that," he told her, pointing to the paperwork lying on the floor. He didn't mean to sound as disgusted as he did, but there was no helping it, he supposed. Although he was willing to forgive her for it, he didn't think he would ever look upon the action with anything less than absolute revulsion. It just wasn't possible.
Cuddy, however, seemed to have trouble seeing that difference. "So you haven't forgiven me." She was hesitant, quiet, filled with remorse that stopped him from calling her an idiot.
"I do," he said with a sigh.
"No. You just don't want to fight anymore. You're still mad."
"I'm really not," he insisted gently. "I'm not mad, not really. But forgive me if I don't think your judgment is very good when it comes to this topic."
She was visibly surprised. "You think... what, I'm lying or... wrong when I say that I need more time?"
"Here's what's going to happen if I give you six months, a year, whatever." He aimed to be as academic about it as possible, to reason through the argument. He felt that he would have better success that way. By avoiding being (and he hated to put it this way) emotional, he increased the chances of her actually believing what he had to say. "There are two things. One, at some point in the next couple of days, you're going to be so fed up with being wrong that you're going to turn this around in your head and blame me."
"Insane? A little bit, yeah. But you're not used to being wrong, especially when it comes to Rachel, and you're going to get mad that I pushed things before you were comfortable with me doing that. So... yeah, at some point, you're going to look for some reason to blame this on me. It's just a fact," he insisted in a way that he hoped didn't come across as being too arrogant. "And the way you're going to do that is pick up on some thing you don't like about me, and then you're going to let that fester. 'I didn't trust House then because he likes to make sex jokes in front of Rachel' – something along those lines."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm pretty sure I already said that I don't like you doing that in front of her."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. This time though instead of complaining, you'll just keep it to yourself. Let it grow into something bigger, and if I give you enough time to think it through, when we get to that point where you reconsider my place in Rachel's life, you're going to use it as a reason to say no. Again."
"Pretending that that's true –"
"Oh, it is."
"Whatever." It wasn't an agreement, but it was as close as he was going to get, he knew. "What makes you think that's not going to happen in three months?"
"Because in three months, I have a better chance of talking you out of it." He looked down at that sad truth. The fact was, he was going to have to convince her again. She would no longer doubt that this was what he wanted, but she would absolutely need proof that he would be good for her daughter. And House was more than willing to meet that challenge, given what was at stake; he would do his best to give them all the proof they needed, to make it clear that this was not a fleeting whim he'd acted on to secure his position in Cuddy's life.
He just wished he didn't have to.
But there was no avoiding it, he told himself firmly. And if there was no way out of it, then the only thing he could do now was move forward.
Turning back to her, he explained, "Three months, your insanity will define the problem, but you won't have so much time to come up with thousands of grievances I'll have to address." She glared at him, clearly offended by his words, and he felt that she probably had a right to be; he dialed the rhetoric back. "I don't blame you for that. Just saying, the longer we give ourselves time to talk ourselves out of it, the more likely it is that we will."
She leaned back on the couch. He was right. His birthday seemed so close, but there was plenty of time for her to have doubts, to act on those doubts. That also meant that there would be many opportunities for House to change his mind. If – well, more than likely, when they had a big fight some time between now and then, she would distrust his abilities and so would he. Issues would surely occur in that short time period, and if they weren't careful, those things could completely derail the step they were trying hard to take. If they waited a few years... if he gave her more time to get used to the idea, who knew what would happen?
"Second," he continued. "We give ourselves more time, then we're going to take our time. And this is just a guess on my part, but I'm thinking that the last thing we need right now is to make this change as slowly as possible. If we're going to do this, then it needs to happen. For Rachel's sake."
No doubt he had expected her to fight this point as well. But to be honest, she was too surprised to put up much of a disagreement. Her eyes widening with shock, she couldn't help but say, "I didn't think I'd ever hear you say that. 'For Rachel's sake.'"
She shook her head with disbelief – not in what he was saying but in the fact that he was the one making the argument that change happened. He said "things," but the implication was that people changed; he had changed.
Looking at him though, she could see that he had done that. He had changed. And then came the empty feeling of loneliness, the cool knowledge that he had stopped playing games while she apparently had not. He had embraced the happiness, the family, he wanted. He would have signed those papers today if she'd let him. He had moved on from where they'd started, and she was alone in her distrust.
He pulled her close again, not giving her the choice to move away as his face buried in her shoulder and an arm wrapped around her waist.
"You'll get there."
There was no doubt in his words, comfort found only in his assuredness.
"And if I don't know how?"
He placed a kiss on her shoulder. "You do."
"Do I?" Two days ago she would have firmly believed that she did, that if things weren't progressing as they should have, it was House's fault. Now she was no longer sure.
"Of course," he said, pulling away from her once more. "Let's practice." She thought he was kidding at first; he could see the soft smile and the belief that this was a joke in her eyes. But it wasn't. "I'm going to tell you something, and you're not going to reject it off hand." Before she could object, he said, "I think Rachel needs a new school."
She was obviously surprised by the sudden change in conversation. "What?"
"If we're going to get to a place where you trust me with Rachel, you're going to have to start letting me help you make the important decisions involving her."
"And you think she needs to go to a different school and that right now is the time to have that conversation?"
He shot her an unhappy look. "You do realize that those kids who made fun of her go to her school, yeah?" It was clear that she hadn't by the expression on her face. But he wrote that off as exhaustion, not stupidity on her part. "You can't let her grow up with those idiots."
He was thankful she didn't respond right away. The way the muscles in her jaw clenched made it obvious that she wanted to outright reject what he was saying. That she wasn't was promising.
"And… what guarantee is there that a new school would make things better?" she asked after a moment. "Let's say I pull her out, put her some place else. There's no telling that things will be any different. Those kids might be just as mean, and what do we have to show for it? She's in a new school, with no friends… a year behind because she's failing now and no one will let her continue as –"
"Would that be so bad?" Realizing the question was vague, he added, "Not the no friends part. But like you said, she's failing. Maybe it's not a bad thing if she has to repeat."
He wasn't stupid enough to say that Rachel clearly needed the extra time. But Cuddy heard the words anyway.
"She's not dumb," she nearly yelled.
"No. She just has the misfortune of you rushing her through –"
"You're talking about the cutoff date."
Folding her arms across her chest, she couldn't believe he was going back to that. He'd opposed it when the issue had first come up. But when she'd made it clear that she wouldn't listen to him, he had dropped the matter. She thought now that she should have known better.
He thought he was right. And when he believed himself to be right, he never let it go. There might have been a moment where he seemed okay with the incorrect party winning – but that never lasted.
As he was proving now.
"Those kids make fun of her, because they know she's not supposed to be there."
"They do not," Cuddy said with a scoff. "That date was arbitrary, and the school –"
"They let you do that, because you have money. And because when you tried to convince them that putting Rachel into a classroom she was obviously too young to be in, you were more than likely wearing that push bra –"
"I was not."
"Which can make rational thinking awfully difficult. I should know."
"That's not what happened."
"Maybe not," he conceded easily. "But that's beside the point." She gave him a dirty look that hinted at all of the things she would do to him if he didn't get to the point soon. "Either way, you got her in that classroom before she was supposed to be there – and it shows. You tried this, but it hasn't worked. She's not ready for the material and –"
"I told you: she's not stupid. I know you assume anyone who is not you is a complete –"
"No, she's not. But she's also not you," he said in a firm voice.
She didn't understand what he meant. "What is that –"
"Your mother pushed you your entire life." Instantly Cuddy cringed; if he was trying to prove his point, comparing her to her mother was absolutely the worst way to go about it. But she didn't have time to object before he added, "She pressured you, made you work harder than you would have otherwise, and you... did well under those circumstances. Which," he added. "Is why I know that the less time you have to sit with this decision about Rachel, the better chance I have. You thrive with that stress."
"You're oversimplifying," she said, feeling as though she had done everything but thrive under the stress of this weekend.
"A little, sure."
"And I am not my mother."
"No. I didn't mean that. It's just – my point is: she's not like that at all. She does not do well when you push her. She can't even put her pants on if you let on that she needs to hurry," he accused in a way that suggested to her that something along those lines had happened today. But if it had, he wasn't complaining now, as he didn't elaborate any further. He just said, "She's not a moron. She's just not ready. And by forcing her, you're putting her in a classroom with a bunch of jackasses who are going to assume that she is stupid because she isn't prepared to learn. And by putting her through that, you're turning school into a place she will never want to go to."
She didn't really believe that. If she'd pushed Rachel before she was prepared, then the rest of his argument was simply logical. Cuddy wasn't sure he was right that her daughter wasn't ready for school, but there was enough doubt in her mind that the denial she uttered was hardly felt internally. If she spoke at all, it was simply to stop him from continuing. Exhausted she thought he had made his point clear; further discussion on his part would seem as though he were belaboring on the topic, attacking her over it. And if she felt attacked, then they would descend into another fight. She had denied to avoid any further disagreement.
They had done that enough already.
He must have understood how she felt, because immediately he stopped. Instead of trying to convince her further, he said, "Maybe it is." It was obvious he didn't believe that, but he was saying it to avoid angering her. "Just… think about it."
"That's it." She was doubtful that that was all, but he nodded his head. "You're going to compare me to my mother –"
"I wasn't trying to do that."
"And say that I should have Rachel switch schools and repeat grades and then that's it? You're done?"
"Yeah." He ran his fingers through her hair. "I said I wanted to be a part of her life, and I do. Which means I get to have a say – at least eventually, so like I said: this is practice."
He was being awfully calm, suspiciously so. Even if he meant what he was saying, she doubted he would remain as understanding and patient when she didn't take his advice.
"And if I don't do what you want?" she asked.
"Then you don't."
"And you're not going to be mad?" The doubt couldn't have been more obvious. "You won't accuse me of purposely disregarding your suggestions."
"I'll make that accusation if you do. If you actually consider what I'm saying, that will be obvious, because when you do whatever the hell it is that you decide to do, you'll have a reason behind it."
She didn't think it would be that painless. But frankly, if he wanted to be delusional, for now, she would let him. It wouldn't do anyone any good to get mad now about it; she didn't believe he would be nearly as understanding as he thought, but all she could now was wait and see what would happen, she guessed.
"Fine. Are we done?" she asked, standing up. She didn't mean to cut things off so abruptly, but she knew that if she stayed in the conversation for much longer, all wishes to be patient would be meaningless.
But House wasn't quick to let her go. Reaching for her hand, he didn't let her get very far. "Just think about it."
He didn't ask if she meant it, but the look in his eyes suggested that he was wondering.
"I said okay."
"All right." He must have realized that the words sounded dismissive, because he hastily added, "I mean that. I believe you."
She thought he would let her go. But what he did was simply change the subject.
"How do you feel?" he asked suddenly.
In her opinion, the answer to that question was obvious. "I'm tired, House. I want to go to bed."
"I know. But if you weren't feeling well, I was going to offer to bring you some tea or ginger ale or whatever you want."
It was the last thing she expected after the last twenty-four hours. All night he had been trying so hard to undo some of the cruel words he had said the previous evening; he'd made the effort to be kind, but somehow she assumed that the second the conversation about Rachel was over, he would cease being nice. He wouldn't be mean, but the sales pitch would be done with; things would go back to the way they usually were. Apparently, he had other plans.
And right now, she was okay with going along with it. She had no desire to question or suspect. If he wanted to keep the act going, she would let him.
Her free hand rubbing the back of her neck, she said, "Okay. I guess I could drink some tea."
"The ginger kind?" he asked, his nose scrunched up in mild disgust.
"Okay," he said instantly. "I'll make it. You go lie down."
She didn't wait around for him to change his mind. If he wanted to take care of her, by all means he could.
But in walking away from him, she found herself fixated on their conversation. Letting him become Rachel's potential legal guardian was a terrifying prospect, one that made her anxious with the comprehension of its inevitability. House had made it clear that it was what he wanted; of that Cuddy had no doubt. And as she walked down the hallway towards their bedroom, she understood that he would get what he wanted. Eventually, as he often did, he would have his way. Her indecision was very real, but at some point, she would be unable to deny him what he wanted, what was best for all of them.
The fact that it was what was best for them was the truly frightening part of it all. Making him a permanent part of her family was the right thing to do, not because he wanted it, but because they would benefit from him having that title. At the moment that was hard to accept, but she wouldn't deny it.
She couldn't pretend like it wasn't happening or wasn't going to happen. That would just make it harder in the end to accept the inevitable.
But knowing that, she still found herself wary of taking steps in that direction. House had called it practice, as though anything they did right now was merely abstract and would have no impact on their lives. Changing Rachel's school, however, holding her back a grade or at least allowing the education system to do it... that seemed as real as it got. And Cuddy didn't know if it was that thought or the act of brushing her teeth that did it, but it was at that moment, toothbrush in hand, that the nausea hit her fully.
She immediately spit into the sink. The taste of mint was too strong on her taste buds, and she feared what would happen if she kept at this basic task. Quickly she rinsed out her mouth. Palm scooping water from the tap, she tried to calm herself down. She wouldn't get sick; she wouldn't have to make any important decisions now.
But that was a lie.
Admittedly she managed to straighten back up without seeing her dinner once more. She was able to dry her face off with only the slightest feeling of sickness roiling through her. And she thought that if she could just get in bed, she would be okay on that front. The situation with Rachel on the other hand...
That wasn't going to go away any time soon.
Cuddy again told herself she didn't need to reach any conclusions tonight. But again, she knew that was a lie. House had been right when he'd said that the sooner they made a decision, the easier it would be for all of them. That was especially true in this situation; the sooner a choice was made, the more time Cuddy would have to comfort her daughter. After all, if Rachel was going to spend the rest of her school days with the same children who had taunted her, that would take some smoothing over.
Or a lot of it.
Crawling into bed, Cuddy wondered then if perhaps House was right. Maybe a new school was optimal in this instance. Repeating a year was, of course, not what she wanted for her child, but perhaps that was an acceptable price to pay to get Rachel out of the classroom she was in. Surely, if the school stated that Rachel hadn't learned enough to progress, it would be nice to have some good news. Since being held back seemed likely no matter what, the promise of new friends might have been just the thing Rachel needed to be okay with that. Perhaps that would be the thing that kept Rachel from being upset at all.
But then... Cuddy knew that, with just a little more prodding, her daughter could easily go forward with her education. House said he wasn't calling her stupid, but the fact was he had no idea what an average child was capable of; having never been one himself, having never been interested in average in any way, he had no concept for it. He was willing to see her in elementary school until he died, because he had no understanding of what was normal for a five year old. Cuddy understood though, and she knew that, regardless of any comparisons he wanted to make to her mother, Rachel was smart enough to keep going. And five minutes with the principal, five minutes of explanations about teachers giving peanut butter to the wrong students and children being cruel, would be all that it took to explain Rachel's academic performance. House would no doubt write off any success as the result of underwear worn, but Cuddy knew that victory would have nothing to do with that. It just really was easy to believe that a five year old couldn't thrive under those conditions. And punishing Rachel for it seemed wrong. It felt drastic, to let Rachel's schooling suffer because of some idiots who didn't know how to be kind to her.
Just as her stomach flip-flopped, so did her mind. If Rachel had been distracted by those things – enough that her grades had fallen that badly – how much really had she learned? From the homework they did together, Cuddy could tell that Rachel… struggled a little. All this time, Cuddy had assumed that it was normal difficulties; Rachel didn't want to do homework, or she didn't like doing it with her mother breathing down her shoulder. But maybe that wasn't the case.
Maybe… an extra year was what she needed.
Or perhaps instead of fighting with the current school, Cuddy could make better use of her time by convincing a new school to test her daughter. A placement test would offer them all the answers they needed, and in that case, no matter what happened, Rachel wouldn't be stuck with the children who had made her feel so bad.
Of course, it bothered Cuddy to think that they would be pulling her out of school because of what other people had said. She hadn't been lying when she'd said that there would always be someone out there who wasn't happy with what you did in life. And there was the very real concern now that Rachel would take from this that she could run whenever things got difficult.
But… what would it teach Rachel if Cuddy, knowing all she knew about Rachel's peers, did nothing?
What would that say?
She would have sighed in defeat then, if she weren't so sure that exhaling with any intention would make her sick to her stomach. As much as she hated being forced to prove House right, she didn't have any other choice here. Rachel needed to be elsewhere, and Cuddy couldn't ignore that on the hunch that her daughter would turn out fine, regardless of what those children said or did. She wouldn't ignore it. It just… would have been much easier to handle if he hadn't been the one to suggest it.
She could deal with it if he responded with even the slightest hint of grace. Since it was House however, she knew she should expect the exact opposite from him.
She was too busy imagining the gloating when she felt his warm hand on her forehead. The touch unexpected, it scared her, and she jumped in surprise.
"Just me," he said reassuringly, placing the mug of hot tea down on the nightstand next to her. "Your tea's ready." She was too busy swallowing back bile to respond. "Feel sick?"
"The pill or the whole mentioning of your mother –"
"The pill," she groaned. "Although…."
As her voice trailed off, he leaned down and kissed her temple. He wasn't sure if that would be enough to soothe her noticeable agitation, but it was worth a shot. "I'm sorry," he said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Drink your tea. You'll feel better."
She stayed where she was.
That meant she really didn't feel well. Naturally, he backed away; he'd spent enough of his day wiping up body fluids from a Cuddy. He had no interest in capping the day off with vomit on him.
"I don't know why you insist on not taking your birth control," he teased as he moved away from her. Changing into his pajamas, he said patronizingly, "You always get sick in the end."
"Well, from now on, I promise not to throw my pills into the toilet."
"That's my girl."
He heard the gentle scrape of the mug on the nightstand at that moment. As he entered the bathroom, he let out a sigh of relief; if she was moving, at least there was a slight chance he wouldn't be woken in the middle of the night by the sounds of her retching.
He wouldn't deny that it sounded selfish. Or even that it was selfish, he mentally corrected as he picked up his toothbrush. He just didn't care. After the day he had, he deserved a night of sleep; he needed it. If Cuddy got sick, he would be expected to take care of her. If he did, he would be unable to move in the morning, which would be a problem given that he assumed he would be watching Rachel tomorrow as well. If he left Cuddy to puke by herself, she would get pissed that he hadn't held her hair or whatever. That would be the issue she fixated on, the reason she didn't trust him with Rachel.
Of all the things she could complain about, he thought tiredly. But that was the price he'd have to pay to get what he wanted, right? He'd explicitly stated how things had to go, and now he had no choice but to ride out the consequences.
There was no way he could back out now.
He couldn't even let on that he was willing to consider changing his mind. The sheer size of the task ahead of him gave him pause, made him almost willing to call the whole thing off. He didn't regret saying what he had. It just… scared him to have his needs out there in the open with no real guarantee that she would ever meet them. And that made it tempting to swallow all of the things he said, write them off as a lie, and deal with her anger over that. But when all was said and done, as scary as it was, he wanted to see this through.
He had to.
And that meant he would never let, could never let any doubt show.
He wouldn't consider what happened if (when) he failed. He would just do his best to make it seem like he was absolutely convinced that this was the right thing to do. And the best way to keep his game face on was to limit the amount of grief she gave him (and vice versa). If she got sick and he didn't help, she would mad. If she got sick and he helped, he would be mad. Either way if she didn't sleep through the nausea, they were screwed.
When he went back into the bedroom, he thought he might have gotten lucky. She was setting the mug of tea onto the nightstand again; she hadn't puked, yet, which he felt was a good sign.
"Feel better?" he asked, as he gingerly tried to get into bed without jostling her too much.
The way she said it, she sounded angry. Her attitude made no sense, considering he was doing his best to be nice to her. It made no sense at all, given that kindness was something she had hardly earned with her behavior. He'd forgiven, as he was in the process of getting what he wanted, and she was deciding to act like a bitch in return?
Offended, he stuck his tongue out at her, though she had her back to him and couldn't see it.
She could, however, hear him say sarcastically, "Oh I'm sorry. Was I being too –"
"No, I mean – fine, I'll look into other schools."
He blinked in surprised, looked over at her as though she were nuts. "Seriously?"
"Don't gloat," she muttered into her pillow.
"I wasn't. I'm just surprised." Inwardly he would admit that there was a twinge of pleasure, knowing that she had thought about it and come to the same conclusion that he had. But he wasn't going to ruin the moment by saying any of that out loud.
"I'm not guaranteeing anything," she warned, probably because she sensed his happiness. "If it makes more sense for her to stay where she is, just switch classrooms or –"
"So those kids can make fun of her at recess? You think that's a good idea?"
She craned her head around so she could glare at him. "I'm only saying that I'm leaving my options open for now. At least until I've had a chance to research everything."
"Which I will do in all of my free time."
The bite in the words somehow seemed meant for him. On any other day, he might have been tempted to take the bait. Tonight he would let it slide, offering instead, "I can help if you –"
"Since I don't need to know which teachers at each school make the best prospect to have a threesome with –"
"That information is always useful."
She smiled before looking away. "It's never going to happen."
"Really?" Carefully he eased along the mattress so he could spoon against her. Lips on the back of her neck, he whispered, "But what if –"
"Never going to happen."
She grinned. "I know."
"You going to make it up to me somehow?"
"You want me to reward you with something because I've told you for years now that you'll never have a threesome with me?"
He nodded his head, which prompted her to shake hers.
His response was to nip lightly at her skin with his teeth. "Cruel woman." But he got over the heartbreak quickly. "Fine. What if I baby sit for –"
"Oh no," she interrupted smugly. "If you really want to play a part in her life –"
"I do," he said with all seriousness.
"Then it's no longer baby sitting, is it? You're just… being her father then, aren't you?"
She stumbled over the words, but in saying them, she found herself slightly less uncomfortable with the idea. It still scared her, and there remained a twinge of selfishness, a need to hold Rachel close and share her with nobody else. But those feelings were tempered with comprehension.
It was exactly as Cuddy had said. If he wanted to take on that role in her daughter's life, then he could no longer demand reward for participation. He would simply be expected to do his share. There would be no bargaining, no bets, no favors. They would, she knew, find new ways to incorporate their sex life into unrelated activities and issues. That was one thing they seemed to be unusually gifted at, and she had no doubt that that behavior would continue. She hoped it did.
But taking care of Rachel was now off limits. And if the prospect of seeing House's face when he realized that didn't make the situation easier to accept, Cuddy wasn't sure anything would.
Stunned into silence House didn't respond, making her smile.
"Good night, House."
Finally he said, "Why is it that that sounds like a threat?"
She patted the arm he had wrapped around her. She still wasn't ready for any of this; she couldn't say that she no longer had doubts. She did. But at least now there was something to look forward to, something she could cling to – even if it was something as small as having more control over House.
He would never see it that way, but it was true; he'd just cut himself off at the knees. He'd limited the amount of bargaining chips he had in their day-to-day lives. And it might not have been big, but she would absolutely relish that tiny victory. God, she couldn't wait to see him squirm.
Of course, she wouldn't deny his ingenuity. He would find new ways to manipulate, new avenues of control. But there could be fun in that. She chose to believe that anyway.
"Good night," she repeated, thinking for the first time that things might not be as bad as she initially believed.
I just want to thank everyone once more for taking the time to read and review and stick with this project of mine for the last couple of years. The journey has not been a quick one or even an easy one, but I hope that you all have enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it. I would also love it if you took the time to read and review just one last time for me. I've received various requests for prequels, sequels, etc, and I'm definitely open to that. So if you have an opinion on the matter, also feel free to let me know. Thank you so much. You will never know how appreciative I truly am.