A/N: This is the same story as Equinox, only reversed. My muse decided abruptly to flip it. Up next: Who knows? She calls the shots. Once again, set within the Pranks universe. I own nothing but Jensen.
Throughout his life prior to this year, time had measured many things for House. The space of pain lessening - it never completely went away - before his leg would go off demanding another dose, as inevitable as an alarm clock, but one without any off button to let him opt out of the eternal cycle. The period that it took him to solve the puzzle and get the answer, almost like a timed game, or at least he had for years convinced others and tried to convince himself that was how he thought of it. In truth, he had always been aware that time was actually measured in heartbeats and that for his patients, the timer was quite often ticking down toward zero, when much more than the game would be lost. Time between people coming into his sphere, whether Wilson to psychoanalyze or Cuddy to demand, and then leaving again, leaving him alone until next encounter. Nobody ever stayed. Time in childhood had fallen into the two huge categories of fear because John was home and dreading John returning home.
But never until recently had time been measured by his longing to be with someone, not just to dispel his own loneliness, but for the benefit of the other. He had believed for so long that most people were better off without him around, that he could snack briefly on their company to dim the loneliness a bit but that he should then leave, withdraw again, so as not to ruin them by his constant presence. All that had changed in the last year. Finally, he had a place where he was not only welcomed, not only wanted, but unbelievably was needed. His body tonight and for the last 2 nights had been working furiously over the case of George Saddler, Jr., but one corner of his mind was back with Cuddy. That corner was fenced off from his work, but it was fenced off attractively with freshly painted boards, not the concertina wire of the past. Cuddy and his girls were at home waiting for him, and purely for their sake, he wished for the answer to this puzzle.
More than anything, time right now measured time away from his family.
He was worried about her, knew that she was trying too hard at this, knew that she felt guilty for even wanting time away from her daughters. He had tried to help her, tried to take turns, but Abby's homecoming with its attendant medical needs had knocked Cuddy straight back into the maelstrom of feeling that she must do absolutely everything and be supremely sufficient, and that anything less was a conviction of bad parenting. Even when he tried to share the burden, she felt guilty for wanting a break. Then, of course, he had returned to work, and this case had taken over. House felt keenly that he was letting down his end of the marriage this week.
Cuddy needed him but also felt guilty by needing others in this, by being any less than absolutely everything to her daughters. He had to get her to take a break from it, to back off and regain some perspective. But the child downstairs, critically ill and getting more critical by the hour, needed him, too. All of his conversation with Jensen a week ago, the plans they had started developing to help Cuddy, had been thrown on hold the minute the new case came across his desk.
He wished he were two people, one to be here to diagnose, one to be there for her. He knew that his would never be a 9-to-5 job, that there would be long nights at times, but he wished she would accept more help from others during the times when he wasn't there, wished that she would be less hard on herself.
So he sat in his office, a cold cup of coffee in front of him, one hand absentmindedly massaging his thigh, his eyes riveted to the whiteboard he had moved in from the conference room. Taub, Foreman, and Kutner were running tests. 13 was catching a nap in the lounge. Over the last few days, each of the fellows had hit at varying points pure exhaustion, diminishing returns, and House had sent each of them in turn for a break to sleep for a while and recuperate. He was a demanding supervisor, as the cases demanded of him, but even he would admit when his team members were so tired that they had nothing left to give.
Think. What caused all of these symptoms? The whiteboard and George Saddler's life stood between him and helping Cuddy, and the child's life alone was a significant motivation.
His phone chirped, and he took it out.
Good morning at 3:15 a.m. from your daughter.
House smiled, but with a wistful edge on it. The unspoken subtext came through loud and clear; she wished he were there for company. He wished the same, to help her with Abby. He wished she would accept help with Abby more readily. He went for the front of humor to hide how much he had read into that text. Cuddy would not want to be obvious. She probably felt guilty about disturbing him at work already. That she used a text instead of a call added evidence to that conclusion. He tapped the letters in quickly, hoping to make her smile.
Pretty precocious. Already using texts at 4 months.
He imagined her eyes lighting up, some of the stress lifting briefly. He could picture her smile.
She did enlist help from me. How's it going?
Like a bucket of cold water dashed in his face, he was knocked back from images of Cuddy smiling to the reality of the extremely critical case. He looked at the whiteboard, as if the message might have changed in the last minute.
Dead ends. Running out of time.
You'll get the answer. You're a genius, remember?
Know I'll get it. Hope pt is still alive.
Her next response was delayed, and House kicked himself mentally. He shouldn't have dumped his frustration and stress onto her. She had plenty of her own to deal with. He typed quickly. You okay?
I'm fine, Greg. Just feeding Abby. About to go back to sleep.
Kutner and Taub entered the office just then, their faces as legible as the lab printouts they carried. Another dead end. He sighed.
Pleasant dreams. I'll call later. Tests just in.
He set down the phone and plunged back into the case.
Hours, minutes, seconds ticking off for the patient. House was in the conference room now, still staring at the whiteboard. He knew that the next few hours would bring his answer. He hoped that he solved it on the right side of the autopsy.
A napkin with a doughnut landed on the table in front of him, and a cup of coffee followed it. He looked up, startled. He hadn't even heard Kutner come in. "Thought you were running more tests."
"I went down to the cafeteria. They still had some doughnuts from yesterday. Thought you might like one."
House shoved half of it into his mouth, hardly pausing to chew. "Thanks. Go finish the tests."
Kutner studied his boss's bloodshot, sunken eyes. "Why don't you grab a short nap yourself? You've had a lot less than any of us."
House glared at him, reflexively pushing away personal concern. "This kid is dying today, Kutner. If we don't solve it this morning, he leaves this hospital through the back door."
He was right, of course. Kutner hoped House would stay vertical long enough to solve it, but he knew that their patient's time was down to mere hours. He backed off. "I'll be doing tests. Enjoy the doughnut."
House shoved the other half into his mouth, his eyes once again riveted on the whiteboard.
"They CAN'T all be negative," House snapped. He limped heavily into his office, and the team looked at each other warily before following him from the conference room. House was once again studying a scan. "What are we missing?"
Nobody answered, and he looked away from the light box to them. "That was a question. Give me an answer." Silence. "Hell, give me a WRONG answer." He reached back to pick up his thinking ball off the desk and bounced it against the wall - then stared in disbelief as he completely missed the return grab. The errant ball bounded across the office to the far wall. The team was too stunned to enjoy the moment, even Foreman. Nobody had ever, ever seen House miss a catch.
House was staring at his hand. "What just happened?" he said, almost to himself.
Foreman launched into the medical explanation. "Extreme fatigue can affect coordination and. . . "
"I know that," House protested, cutting him off. They all saw the familiar blue lightning. "Reflexes. Nerve connections. There's a pothole on the cerebral highway, only a hidden pothole. We were looking for obvious ones, but a hidden one can still knock your alignment all to hell, and everything is a rough ride from there." He was out the door at a fast limp, beating them all to the elevator. The ball lay forgotten in the corner.
House sat down on the ottoman of his Eames chair. He was afraid to fully sit down in the chair, in fact had debated sitting down at all. But his leg was screaming, finally louder then diagnostic preoccupation, and he had to sit down for the first time in the last two hours. He figured if he fell asleep on the ottoman, at least he would wake up falling off. If he fell asleep in the chair, he'd still be here in the morning, and he had to get home. Cuddy needed him. It still wasn't too late to put his plan in motion tonight. He dialed, noting curiously that the numbers on the phone seemed blurry.
"Greg?" He heard the pleasure in her voice. He had given her far too little time the last few days. But there truly had been no time to give.
"Hi," he replied. The pattern of the blinds across the room looked a bit blurry, just like the phone.
"Is the patient . . ." He heard the alarm in her voice and quickly spoke to reassure her.
"Got it. He'll be fine."
He heard her sigh of relief. "Are you okay? You sound tired."
He felt . . . while tired wasn't a strong enough word, he couldn't think of one that was. "Fine," he replied automatically. "Gotta tie up a few loose ends. Just wanted to tell you I'd be home in about 30 minutes."
There was another pause. "Greg, get Wilson to drive you home."
He hadn't gotten down to thinking about the process of getting home, just about being there. He probably wasn't fit to drive right now. She had a point, and he didn't want to add to her stress. "Good idea." He trailed off, staring at the blinds. They were almost wavering, their shapes dancing and nodding in a nonexistent breeze. On second thought, he was sure he wasn't fit to drive right now. "See you soon."
"See you soon, Greg."
He heard Rachel in the background, then heard Cuddy cutting her off. "Oh, let her. . ."
Cuddy's veto sliced firmly across both his and Rachel's protests. "No. He'll be home soon. Go talk to Wilson, Greg."
"Okay." He hit end, but those blurring keys fooled him, and he heard the phone beep in protest. Muttering something under his breath, he stabbed at what he hoped was the right button. The line went dead, so it must have been.
Okay, he could get plans for tonight set in motion. He had to get some sleep first, though. If he wasn't safe to drive home, he sure wasn't safe to drive to Middletown and back. He called up his address book and blinked at the screen, then squeezed his eyes tightly shut for a few seconds, gaining a brief interval of focus when he reopened them. Seizing the window of clarity, he dialed Jensen's office.
"Dr. Jensen's office, may I help you?"
"This is Dr. House. I'm not going to be able to make my appointment this afternoon. Tell Jensen . . ." he trailed off, trying to think up a message that covered both his canceling the appointment and letting Jensen know he would initiate their strategy tonight.
"He's right here, Dr. House. He was getting a file in the outer office. Would you like to speak to him?" A rumble in the background, and the secretary's voice returned. "He'd like to speak with you. Hold on a minute."
Jensen's curious but amiable tones came a few seconds later. "What's going on?"
House sighed. He really couldn't blame the psychiatrist for detail fishing. Last time House had called to cancel a session, his whole family had been in the hospital, and he himself had had an undiagnosed severe brain injury that everyone, Jensen included, had missed at first. "I'm okay," he started. "Not in the hospital . . . I mean, I am in the hospital, actually, but not as a patient. I've just been working. I'm not going to be able to make it there this afternoon."
He heard the concern kick up in Jensen's voice, an extreme reaction for the unflappable psychiatrist. "Your speech isn't quite clear. Are you aware of that?"
House slammed one hand against the arm rest of the chair. Speech was still a sore point with him, even though he had totally overcome the post traumatic deficits left by last October's wreck. He would never forget the frustrating, agonizingly slow process of verbal recovery. "I am FINE. Like I said, I've been working. Been on a tough case for three days straight. Just solved it, but I am kind of tired. I think I need a few hours of sleep before tonight more than I need a session."
"Cuddy, time away from sacrificing herself to the volcano of motherhood. Remember?"
"Dr. House, you might wait until tomorrow evening to initiate that plan and just rest tonight."
"No." House's tone was pure, ironclad stubbornness.
Jensen sighed softly. "I fully agree that you don't need a session this afternoon. Go home and get as much sleep as you can in between. And ask Dr. Wilson to drive you home."
"She already suggested that."
"And what did you tell her?"
House gritted his teeth. "I agreed. Satisfied?"
"Yes. Mostly. Enjoy your evening, but do get some rest first."
"I will. See you next Friday." House stabbed at the phone, hitting the correct end button this time. At least the conversation with Jensen would have given Cuddy time to send Marina on home.
It took him three tries to get his eyes to focus enough to call up Marina's number from the address book.
Cuddy at the end of the tunnel. Even better than light at the end of the tunnel. He could feel his peripheral vision shutting down, but she was a sight for sore eyes as she came across their living room to greet him. He stopped, overbalanced slightly, and leaned against her while kissing her. "Hi."
Rachel banged vigorously on the tray of the high chair. "Dada!" He turned to greet her and stumbled slightly, the leg wavering before the cane caught his balance.
"Go to bed before you fall over," Wilson advised.
"Got to see my girls first." House went over to greet Rachel. "Sorry I've been gone so much lately, kid," he said softly. A private apology, and meant to be one. Cuddy would have brushed it off, but Rachel simply accepted it, locking both hands possessively in his shirt and smiling at him. He heard Cuddy and Wilson still talking behind him.
"Thanks for bringing him home."
"Anytime. I've saved one life today, anyway. Although I doubt he would have wrecked driving home; he probably would have fallen asleep in the parking garage and still been there in the morning."
House turned in protest. "I wouldn't have fallen asleep in the parking garage. Too much waiting for me at home."
Wilson had started toward Abby, and House quickly limped across to the playpen. "I get to see her first." He picked her up and studied her. Had she grown in 3 days? Had he been away that long? "Hi, Abby." She smiled and reached out, running both hands along his shaggier-than-usual scruff. "Yeah, I know," he told her. "Need to shave."
"After you sleep for a while," Cuddy said. "Go to bed, Greg." He hugged Abby tightly for a moment, always appreciating holding her without an incubator and life support equipment in between. Then he surrendered her to Wilson and limped down the hall. Quickly through the bathroom, then to the bedroom, setting the alarm clock. He hoped Cuddy wouldn't realize it was set, but she had no reason to look at it in the middle of the day. Then finally, he let himself fall onto the bed, his body almost collapsing into the mattress. He couldn't let go quite yet, though. He knew Cuddy and Rachel would come back in a minute when Wilson left. His family. He could grab another few minutes with his family before he fell . . .
Hands on his leg pulled him briefly out of sleep. Cuddy's hands - he would know them anywhere. She was trying to make him comfortable. "Sorry . . . wasn't here," he mumbled.
He heard the first part of her reply, but the words were at a distance, almost underwater, and sleep pulled him back under, even while he tried to focus on her voice.
The alarm clock was shrill, relentless, pulling him back. He fumbled blindly for it, his body reacting while his mind was still lagging annoyingly behind. He did try not to disturb the cat pressed against his side, of course winding up disturbing her anyway. He could hear Cuddy's footsteps coming just as he finally found the right button. "I apologize, Greg, don't know what that thing is doing going off at this hour. Go back to sleep."
He was still on his stomach, face in the pillow. So tempting to obey her. His body hadn't had enough rest yet, and it was informing him of that. No, he couldn't slip back under. His family, his wife needed him. "Differential: Why would an alarm clock go off?"
"Your case is solved; put away the whiteboard and go back to sleep."
He smiled into the pillow. Rachel was growing more agitated. "Dada!"
He rolled over, blinking against the light, feeling the world come into focus. "Hi, kid."
"Dada!" Cuddy put Rachel down, and she climbed onto her father. He tickled her, and she shrieked with delight.
"Didn't answer the question," he prompted Cuddy.
"Why would an alarm clock go off?"
"Who knows, Greg? Some electronic quirk."
This was like running a differential with the team on a slow day. "You're missing the obvious solution."
"Somebody set it?"
"Head of the class," he told her. He sat up, trying to be careful of his sore leg, but he could feel the adrenaline starting to pump through his veins. He had plans for tonight, and his body could take a number. Rachel was still on top of him, and he realized suddenly that she was naked and dripping wet. "New fashion statement?"
"I was giving her a bath. But I didn't set the clock, Greg."
"I know." So much fun to engage in verbal play with her. For years, even when verbal play was the only kind, he had loved talking to her. It was like a sports match, a sport where cripples could still play.
"You did? But why?"
He sighed. She wasn't at her best tonight, either. She definitely needed this. "Differential: Why would somebody set an alarm clock?"
"You wanted to get up?" She shook her head in protest. "You haven't had enough sleep yet, Greg. You've got 3 days to catch up on."
"I know that, and I plan to resume being lazy in a few hours, extending on through the weekend. But I've had enough to be functional for a little bit, and you, on the other hand, have had too much of being cooped up here lately."
"I haven't been cooped up . . . I'm a mother."
"Who has been cooped up too much lately. You haven't been out of this house all month except for Abby's doctor appointment, which is why we're going out to eat."
He saw the instant fear, the responsibility in her eyes. "Abby doesn't need to be out in public around crowds, Greg. Too much exposure to infection still."
"Let me rephrase that: We, meaning you and I but not Rachel, Abby, or even Belle, are going out tonight. Haven't eaten yet, have you?"
"Greg, we can't just . . . no, I haven't, but we can't leave the girls here alone."
"Believe it or not, I realize that. Which is why Marina is due back here at 7:15. I figured you wouldn't have eaten yet at 7:00 - you'd still be hoping I'd wake up long enough to eat with you. Good news; you get your wish."
Cuddy looked both tempted and annoyed. He absolutely loved watching her with that expression. "Greg, I can't just . . . "
"Why not?" he asked.
"Why not? I'm their mother, for one."
"Who will make sure they are well supervised. Consider this Marina's trial run for a couple of hours with Abby. We'll be a cell phone call away. Come on, Lisa, admit that you want to. I've watched you this whole month."
She sighed. "Greg, I can't just play hookey from being a mother."
"You're not playing hookey. You're leaving the kids with a responsible, trusted sitter and going out for the evening. Lots of mothers all over America do it, and nobody's reported them to CPS yet." They were running out of time. He moved Rachel aside and sat on the edge of the bed. "Marina will be here any minute - I gave you time to tell her to go after I called you, then called her. She thinks it's a great idea."
The knock was heard down the hall. Cuddy sighed again.
House smiled at her, doing his tired best to look irresistible. He knew she wanted this. If he could just convince her to take it. . . Maybe making it a challenge would work. "It's easy to say no, Lisa. All you have to do is walk down that hall, answer the door, and tell her you aren't going out after all."
She glared at him and turned away, and the smile of victory split his face. When he got her annoyed at him, rather than guilty at herself, he knew he had won. He turned to Rachel, still on the bed, and offered her a high-five, and without hesitation, she returned it.
Cuddy stopped just inside the office door, letting the impact of the place hit her. House smiled at the back of her head. Oh, yes, she needed this. Reminders of the world outside. Reminders of the rest of her life. Reminders that she could be a good mother and a good administrator at the same time. He could have stood there watching her absorb the atmosphere forever, but his leg could not. "Come on, come on," House urged in mock annoyance. "I'm hungry even if you aren't."
She snapped back into motion, and he carefully locked the door and closed the blinds. Hopefully certain courses of this dinner date would be private viewing only. "You can visit the paperwork and even hug it and tell it how much mommy has missed it, but I draw the line at conferences or employee meetings," he told her.
She smiled. "Deal. I'm glad you threw in visitation rights on the paperwork, though."
"Sure it's missed you as much as you've missed it." The smell of the food was starting to get to him, and he pulled out a bread stick. "Or there might even be other options in here for you to hug."
"You're right! The desk!" she replied, and he felt a brief pang as the shadow of the old loneliness, of being the unwanted one, passed briefly through his mind. She laughed, and the moment was broken. "I'm kidding, you big lunk. I promise you'll get your full share. I can't believe you've planned this for a week and never let me suspect it."
"Not being home kind of helped that," he said, once again feeling that he hadn't held up his end of the bargain this week.
"Quit it and eat. You'll need energy for later." Ah yes, energy for later. He wolfed down a few bites, his empty stomach welcoming the feast with delight. She was watching him, and her head tilted. "Have you eaten anything else today?"
He silently thanked Kutner for saving him from a negative answer to that question. "One stale doughnut this morning. Wilson would have bought me lunch, but you wanted him to take me home instead. And no, to answer your next question, I did not take prescription-strength NSAIDs on an empty stomach."
"You just skipped them totally instead of adding them to the Vicodin."
He shrugged. "Too busy to feel it." True, although his leg was certainly answering the roll call now. He resisted the urge to massage it.
"Take them now, Greg." He took out the bottles that were his constant companions and gulped down a familiar round of Vicodin, ibuprofen, and omeprazole. "Maybe I could give you a massage later, too."
Now that was a course in this evening he was looking forward to, both his leg and the rest of him. "Before or after we go back home?"
"What about both?" She glanced meaningfully at the blinds, shutting them off from the hospital, and he started eating faster. "Slow down, Greg." She was savoring each bite herself. He slowed down and just enjoyed watching her eat. Lately, she was so distracted with Abby and Rachel that she hardly seemed to take time to taste meals for herself. She was tasting this one, though. "Seriously, Greg, thank you. It does feel good to get out of the house."
"Jensen thinks we need to set up a regular night for it, every week. Not in your office every week, of course. We can go to a restaurant or something. But he said we both need regular time away from the girls, a little bit, anyway, especially since Abby takes so much care."
"Sounds good. What about Fridays? I can feed the girls while you're driving back from Middletown, and we can have a late reservation somewhere."
"It's a date. That's how I was going to do it today, actually, but I knew I had to get some sleep first. Only could fit one of you in today."
"I'm delighted that my husband would rather spend time with me than his psychiatrist." A cost analysis comparison sprang unbidden to his mind - even loving her completely, he still couldn't quite control the old quips that for years had been his primary interaction with her. She heard the thought. "And don't you dare make a crack about hourly rates."
"I didn't say anything," he replied, looking angelic. He gulped down another bread stick. Yes, food was good. Food with Cuddy was even better.
She finished her portion. "I was thinking this morning," she began, but the thought halted halfway. Something she still wasn't sure about mentioning to him.
"At 3:00 a.m.?" he asked with his mouth full. She looked startled. Bull's eye. "You weren't just up feeding Abby," he stated.
"You got that from a few texts?"
"I am that good," he replied.
She dropped the evasion. "I had a dream - okay, a nightmare." He was instantly swamped by a wave of concern for her, topped with whitecaps of guilt that he hadn't been there. He'd been afraid for the last week that she would add renewed guilt for last year to her guilt over not being able to mother her girls 28 hours a day. "Do you know what time it is?" she asked.
"At the moment, it's 8:45. It's also late February, and getting more to your point, I think, it's just over a year since you set the trip wire. I figured your guilt complex would rear its head over that."
"Right. Finish those bread sticks, Greg." He resumed munching, but his eyes were fully focused on her, his whole posture open and listening. "I had a dream that you were in the hospital bed after I'd tripped you. You were dying, all the monitors going off. I couldn't find the paddles. Couldn't do anything. Finally snapped out of it, and Abby's alarm was going off - just a false alarm again. I was just missing you more than usual after that."
And he hadn't been there when she woke up. That, though, reminded him of his own dream. "I had a dream myself night before last - I think. The last few days have run together. Anyway, I was catching a quick nap at one point, and I dreamed about falling."
Damn tiredness. He could have phrased that better. He saw her surge of guilt gain volume. "I wish I'd been there for you."
"You were," he insisted. "That was the dream, Lisa. I dreamed that I tripped and was falling, and then you caught me. I woke up, at least dreamed that I woke up, and you were there. And when I really woke up, it wasn't jolting out of a nightmare. I woke up glad that I knew you were there." He finished eating and forcibly changed the subject. "Enough guilt and psychoanalysis for tonight - we've already concluded that I picked you over Jensen today, and it wasn't so we can compare dreams. What about that massage - and anything else that may occur to us after that?"
The massage was wonderful, soothing his annoyed leg, making the activities that followed easier. At the end, they were both lying on the floor, comfortably nestled together, her head on his shoulder. She was there. Unbelievably, after years of misunderstandings and cat-and-mouse, they were here together. His body was rebelling again, trying to drag him back down into sleep, and he fought the crashing waves of fatigue, not wanting to miss a moment of this. But he knew, even as he felt himself losing the battle, that she would be here when he woke. No hard cases tonight, nothing separating them. Even on the nights that would have cases, at the end of it all, they were together.
His last conscious thought was of the familiar, comforting scent of her hair and of the warm reality of her body against his.