December's wind cut through the denim of House's jeans. It crept under the wool of his coat, through his untucked button-down to chill his skin, raising goosebumps on his arms and the fine hairs on the back of his neck. He glanced down at his open hand, frantically weighing pros, cons, advantages, disadvantages. Risks.
At some point after lunch with Wilson, a box-flat, square, as large as House's palm-had appeared inside his backpack. It had taken seconds to work out the source, and House had been fidgeting, his heart racing ever since he'd opened the box.
House's mind had filled with dozens of reasons to store this gift in its box, never open the box again, but he had allowed it to guide him to its home, and, now, House stood before a closed door, not sure if he was trembling from his rippling anxiety or from the cold. When he'd arrived at the door, he'd noticed the glow of the living room lights, but had forced himself from peeking inside. He stared between the curved shape of a keyhole and the gift in his palm: a key, its unscratched, shiny surface reflecting moonlight.
House raised the key to within millimeters of the keyhole, then lowered it, repeating the motion until the cold numbed his fingertips. He convinced himself it was the biting wind that propelled him to fit the key in the lock, twist it, and push open the door, his heart beating hard enough to rattle his ribcage.
As he stepped inside, his eyes scanned from wall to wall, searching for movement. The sounds of his footsteps and the door shutting behind him echoed within the foyer. His feet crept forward slowly, drawn helplessly to the light spilling from the living room.
When he reached the living room's archway, House slowed to a stop as his gaze fell on Cuddy, who sat at one end of her couch, her legs folded under her and a blanket folded across her lap. She was dressed in the same sweater she'd worn all day, but had swapped her skirt for a pair of flannel, polka-dotted pajama pants. He had never seen her wear flannel before, had never imagined her in it. House's eyes flickered to twin, steaming mugs on the coffee table before refocusing on Cuddy's face. She appeared to be waiting expectantly, her lips closed as she met his gaze.
Shifting his weight but not stepping forward, House raised the key, holding it between his middle and index fingers. "No card? No note?" he asked, waving the key, drawing tight circles in the air. "What, didn't want to leave an explanation?"
"I thought it was self-explanatory." Cuddy reached for a mug, drew it to her lips, and peered at him over the rim as she sipped silently at the coffee.
House lowered his hand, slipping the key into his coat pocket. He quirked his head to the side, as if it were suddenly top-heavy, and squinted at her, scrutinizing her.
"House," Cuddy said, the corners of her mouth curving with a wistful, girlish smile, "there's no catch." She rested her mug on her thigh, one hand loosely curved around it. Her other hand patted the cushion beside her. "Sit your ass down."
As his sense of uncertainty coiled even tighter his chest, House bowed his head to stare at his feet. He bounced the tip of his cane against the wooden floorboards, inhaling a tight, slow breath, forcing air into his lungs. Closing his lips, he swallowed, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth to trap the air inside him and replace the nervous burn inside him with one he could understand.
The sound of Cuddy's voice, gentle and casual, made House raise his head. "Or stand there." Cuddy shrugged, sipping then swallowing another mouthful of coffee. "Or leave. It's up to you."
Cuddy's words picked at the knot in his chest, loosening it. House felt his shoulders lower and relax as he released a quiet, even breath, steadily fixing his gaze on her. With a blink and a bob of his head, House shed his coat, draped it over the back of Cuddy's armchair, and taking his coffee mug with him, settled onto the cushion beside her.