Author's Notes: As some of you may know, I've been taking requests lately. When I first mentioned the idea, adieangel on twitter said that it might be cool to write a Christmas fic set in the Gift of Screws universe. So here we are. To help you get your bearings straight, Rachel has just turned five in this.
Also, there is a slight spoiler for a few of the upcoming episodes in season seven (I refer to a character's name); so if you're super spoiler-phobic, you may not want to read. There's also adult content in this piece, so again, if that's not your thing, turn away now.
Disclaimer: I don't own the show.
Gift of Cthulhu
Chapter One: The Lie
By Duckie Nicks
"No self-respecting mother would run out of intimidations on the eve of a major holiday." – Emma Bombeck
"He put you up to this, didn't he?"
Even from his vantage point in the dining room, House could hear the sound of accusation in Arlene's distinctive voice. But he supposed, as he hid himself from view, that that wasn't exactly shocking. Accusation and disapproval were her constant companions, judgment her default position.
"Of course not," Cuddy muttered in a way that suggested she was teetering on the verge of committing murder or turning into her mother's mindless sycophant – whichever was easier. "I've told you House isn't religious. He's told you he's not religious."
Discomfort flitted through his body, making his thigh ache more painfully than it had in weeks. He hadn't intended to eavesdrop on the conversation; he'd been perfectly content holing himself in his office and trying to diagnose his latest patient (who had conveniently taken a turn for the worse this morning). But then said patient had selfishly decided to respond to treatment, and House had had no reason to stay locked away.
Not that that was why he'd left his sanctuary, of course. No, if he'd left at all, it was so that he could lay the foundation for his escape later; his patient was more than likely cured, but since nobody knew that, he'd planned on acting as though he was still no closer to finding a diagnose now so he could disappear later.
He had not planned on listening to his girlfriend and her mother discuss him.
And he definitely did not want to hear them. Because, as much as he'd anticipated Arlene's insults and accepted that they'd be part of the holiday, he hadn't really thought about Cuddy defending him. And the fact that she was made him uncomfortable, even though he recognized that she must have defended him on a semi-regular basis to all sorts of people anyway.
Maybe he should have been okay with that. Perhaps it shouldn't have caused him to feel anything at all. After all, it wasn't like he wanted to be with a woman who wouldn't defend him; he wouldn't want her to agree with her crazy mother. He knew that much.
Nevertheless, he wasn't entirely comfortable hearing himself being discussed – especially when he planned on bolting on Cuddy.
And yet, he found himself listening anyway. Straining to listen actually, he couldn't exactly defend his behavior. But since he'd heard as much as he already had, he supposed there was no real harm in hearing a little more.
"So we're just celebrating Christmas for the hell of it."
He couldn't see the face Arlene was making, but he could picture it in his head. The corner of her perfectly painted lips curled into a sneer, her nose turned upward and eyes judgmental, her body language would be a testament to her dissatisfaction. You know, just in case the sarcasm in her voice wasn't enough, House thought with an eye roll.
"We're not celebrating Christmas," Cuddy snapped, the sound of a telltale bang punctuating the sentence.
What it was she'd dropped or slammed, he didn't know. Since she was cooking, however, he could only assume that it would mean the food would taste like the bleach she'd scrubbed the floor with last night.
He had tried, of course, to tell her that bleach was unnecessary, that the girl she'd hired a year ago to clean the house regularly had done a good enough job, and that, even if she hadn't, the litter of children who would be swarming the house would make cleaning moot anyway. But Cuddy had ignored him. And House guessed he could understand why: if anyone would have judged her for having a floor that was only sort of clean, it would have been Arlene.
But as it turned out, the floor seemed to be the least of Mother Cuddy's concerns; she was far too fixated on the date to care about much else. "It's December twenty-fifth."
"And we're celebrating Hanukkah."
"Which, as you know, ended twenty days ago."
Cuddy sighed loud enough for House to hear. "And you know that we originally planned to celebrate three weeks ago, but the kids got sick, so we rescheduled."
"It was the most convenient time," she explained in equal measures. "None of the kids have school. Julia could get out of work. I had enough time to find someone to replace…." Her voice trickled off then, and for a moment, House debated whether or not she'd stopped talking all together or if she'd just kept speaking in a voice too low for him to hear. "It just happened that way. It's not intentional."
There was a long pause then. Arlene must have been shrewdly considering what she'd been reminded of. Had she instantly felt any doubts about what Cuddy was saying, she would have voiced every single one of them. But instead, the old bag was being uncharacteristically quiet, and House knew that she must have been looking for some flaw she could point out.
She must not have found one, however, because after a moment, she said begrudgingly, "Well… as long as my grandchildren know they are Jewish."
"As though you'd ever let them forget it."
The comment was sarcastic, obviously so. But Arlene didn't seem to take offense to it; the loud sound of a kiss being planted on Cuddy's cheek didn't give him that impression anyway.
And that was the main reason he didn't want to be here. The bickering aside, it was the fact that, at any given moment, the entire dynamic of the exchange could change that House had absolutely no desire to deal with. Throw in the fact that there would be an equal number of kids to adults or the fact that half of those adults were idiots, and you had a guarantee that House was going to bolt this evening. Cause there was no way in hell he was going to sit patiently through any of that.
In his defense, he had done it before. When he'd been younger and still in possession of some naïveté, he'd agreed to participate in Thanksgiving with Cuddy's family. Not the Thanksgiving that had just passed, which hadn't been celebrated at all, thanks to Rachel and half of Cuddy's nieces and nephews coming down with various stomach bugs. But during the last Thanksgiving, when they had gotten together, House had stayed home.
And he still had nightmares about it.
Which was why he knew: things would only get worse.
Right now, as screwed up as things were, they were also… okay. Cuddy's mother wasn't exactly the kind of person you wanted to hang out with. She was cold, quick to sarcasm, and calculating. On the one hand, she had gravitas and charisma in equal measure, which had the effect of making people like her and want to please her. But Arlene withheld her approval, wielded her affection like a weapon; when, on the off chance, you met her standards, she would simply demand something else of you. Yet in spite of all of that, she was at least bearable.
The same could not be said of Julia, her husband, and their spawn. And that was why House planned to be long gone by the time they arrived.
As though Arlene had had the exact same thought, at that moment, she asked with dread, "When does your sister's plane arrive?"
"Not for another hour, at least."
"Good. I'd like to have several martinis in me before those children arrive." She pronounced the word, children, as though she thought they were little better than cockroaches. And frankly, in House's estimation, she wasn't too far off the mark there.
Cuddy didn't agree, offering a dutiful, "They're not that bad…."
But they all knew better. The last time Julia and Doug's kids were here, one of them had taken a crap in the middle of the floor, so yes, they were that bad.
"Speaking of children, where is Rachel?" Arlene sounded concerned, and he too began to wonder where the kid had run off to. "You know, dear, the quieter they are, the more trouble they're into."
As Cuddy promised to go look for her, House saw out of the corner of his eye one of the dining room chairs shift. Since he was pressed against the wall, not at all anywhere near the table, he knew that he hadn't done that.
Curious he quietly stepped towards the moving chair. To be sure, he assumed that what was underneath the dining room table was Rachel. But on the off chance that there was burglar with a gun just waiting to put him out of his misery, House wanted to be certain.
Alas, it was just Rachel.
Sitting underneath the table with her legs crossed, she had a stuffed owl in one hand and a fluffy yellow duck Wilson had given her in the other. Both were crushed to her chest as she looked at House with wide eyes. Clearly, she hadn't wanted to be found.
"What are you doing?" he asked, his voice just low enough so that Arlene wouldn't hear him (hopefully anyway).
Of course the second the question came out of his mouth, he realized he didn't care what the answer was. Rachel could have said that she was building a bomb to blow up the house, and at this point, he wouldn't have stopped her.
But if she had that or something else planned, he never found out; before she could even open her mouth, Cuddy discovered them both at that moment. "There you are," she said, sounding slightly annoyed.
In an instant, she was by his side, looking down at Rachel. "Nana's looking for you."
Rachel squeezed the owl closer to her face and mumbled, "I don't care."
Cuddy looked at her sternly. "That's not very nice, Rachel."
Truthfully, Rachel didn't look like she cared about that at all. And that wasn't hard for House to understand why. Although he didn't doubt that she loved her grandmother, he also didn't doubt that Rachel was incredibly intimidated by her. And given that Arlene and Cuddy had probably been at each other's throats since the older woman had arrived, he could not have been less surprised to see Rachel's hesitation.
Cuddy, however, was less sympathetic. "Come on," she said in a voice that veered into sharp territory. "Go say hi."
Rachel went, if begrudgingly, her stuffed animals flopping along beside her.
But if House assumed Cuddy would just follow her, he was wrong. Instead standing there, looking at him expectantly, she asked, "Aren't you going to join us?"
He winced a little. "I would," he lied. "But my patient –"
"Is fine," she interrupted knowingly. Her arms folded across her chest, she elaborated, "I had my assistant keep track of your team. Your patient is stable."
"Still. I should go make sure –"
"If there's a problem, your team will page you."
His brow knitting together in concentration, he tried to think of a response that she would accept, a reason she would let him leave. But as his gut told him that there was probably no response or reason he could give that she wouldn't reject, he decided to simply go with the truth.
"Then I guess I'm just leaving," he said with a shrug.
Terror – actual terror – flitted across her features. The sight of it making him feel slightly ashamed, he turned to leave; the sooner he was away from all of this, the better off he would be and feel.
It did not go by him that he was acting like a coward, that he was abandoning his girlfriend, who seemed to fear him doing precisely that.
He just selfishly chose to ignore it.
But House did little more than turn around before she desperately grabbed hold of the wrinkled blue button down he was wearing. Her fingernails scraped him through the thinning material, and surprised by the distress in the act, he couldn't help but look at her then.
"You're not leaving me."
Had it come out as an order, he would have walked out even quicker than he'd planned.
Her words, however, had not come from a position of power, and she'd clearly known it. Because instead of an ultimatum, she'd pleaded with him.
She would never admit to begging, of course, but that was what she was doing; he'd had her too close to orgasm too many times not to recognize when she was wildly desperate for something he could give her.
And he didn't know if it was the reminder of their sex life or the simple fact that she'd pleaded with him that made him change his mind, but something did.
Reluctantly, hating himself as he said, he capitulated. "Fine."
Immediately she let go of her grip on him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you" escaped her lips in rapid succession. And before he could tell her to shut up, she'd thrust herself into his arms.
Her face pressed into his chest, her arms curled around him in a frantic bid to bring him closer to her. She was shaking; he could feel the way her body shivered against him. But not for a second did he believe that she was actually cold.
Even through the worn material of his button down and the t-shirt he wore underneath, he could feel how hot she was. She didn't seem sickly, but she was warm to the touch; sweat had beaded along her forehead, and the eye make up she'd put on earlier had smudged a little bit. So he couldn't imagine that she was actually cold now.
On the other hand, he didn't need to imagine that his girlfriend was ready to snap; he could very clearly see it happening.
Wasn't the fact that she was acting like this at all proof enough of that?
It was for him.
"And to think, you still have another day and a half of fun to look forward to," he murmured in her ear, enveloping her in his arms.
"Don't remind me." He could feel her scowling when she added, "The next time I decide to do this, stop me."
Although he knew it wasn't exactly appropriate, given her mood, he couldn't help but be irritated by her comment. "I'm pretty sure I did try to do that. In fact, I think my exact words, when you suggested this, were, 'Good God no. Why would you want to torture me like that?' So I'm guessing the smarter thing would be for you to listen to me the –"
"So this is all my fault?" she snapped, obviously devoid of any patience, thanks to her mother.
House patted Cuddy's ass gently. "As much as I enjoy it when you start projectile projecting –"
"I am not –"
"You need to relax," he said firmly.
She let out a deep sigh that made her whole body shudder. Her anger melting away like cubes of sugar in a hot cup of coffee, she leaned into him further. His arms practically holding her up, she pointed out in a tired, defeated voice, "There is no relaxing while they're here."
Knowing he couldn't argue with that, he placed a sympathetic kiss on her temple and muttered, "Merry Christmas."
Unfortunately, that was the moment Arlene chose to make her presence known once more.
"I knew it." House looked up and saw her standing next to the archway that led to the kitchen. Disgruntled, she was tapping her foot bitterly as she watched them. "Christmas. You've probably got a ham in the –"
"Actually," he interrupted, Cuddy's hair tickling his cheek. "That was a sarcastic 'Merry Christmas,' so you're safe."
Arlene pursed her lips together. "That's all right, I suppose…." She was murmuring uncharacteristically, as though speaking the words with her normal strong voice would have made the admittance, that she was wrong, that much more true. "As long as you're not a missionary, trying to –"
"I can assure you the only missionary around here involves your daughter being flat on her back."
He considered adding something about how the only gods mentioned were the ones Cuddy screamed. But given the way her nails were dangerously scratching into his back, he wisely decided to leave the comment where it stood.
"I can't believe you just said that," she hissed in a voice that her mother wouldn't be able to hear.
Yet Arlene didn't seem to be upset at the comment. A smirk appearing on her lips, she said, "I'd forgotten your wit, Gregory, and how I find it simultaneously humorous and nauseating."
House extricated himself from Cuddy. Though he would have easily preferred staying close to her, he understood that he should probably greet Arlene (since he hadn't when she'd first arrived). Not because it was the polite thing to do, though he recognized that it was, but because, if he didn't, she would never shut up about it.
"Mommie Dearest," he said with a slight bow of the head.
She smiled at him, but neither made any move to hug, kiss, or do any of the other things people who were essentially family did. But he hadn't expected any differently; family or no, they were not close and would more than likely never be. Which was fine with him and seemed to be with her.
In fact, the only person who seemed to have any objection over the way the air in the room had considerably cooled was Cuddy. Spinning around at that moment, she chastised her mother. "You shouldn't eavesdrop."
The smile on Arlene's face morphed into a grimace. "Believe me, if I had known I'd be walking in on your mating rituals, I would have brought a bell with me and worn it around my neck."
Seeing Cuddy's features harden in barely controlled annoyance, House didn't dare laugh. Although he didn't normally have a problem enjoying her irritation, right now, he was certain that laughing would make her turn her ire onto him. And it went without saying that he didn't want that.
On the other hand, Arlene didn't seem to be concerned with upsetting her daughter. "I wasn't eavesdropping. I –"
"Then what were you doing?"
Arlene's eyes narrowed in annoyance at being interrupted. However, her tone sounded slightly more pleasant when she said, "Rather than watch you cook, I agreed to witness the smaller disaster that will surely be Rachel singing and dancing."
House had to hand it to her; she'd deftly managed to insult both Rachel and Cuddy in the same sentence.
But Cuddy, shockingly, didn't take the bait. "Rachel's not with us."
"Obviously," Arlene replied dryly. "She's getting ready, whatever that means. I simply came in here to say that if I'm going to sit through that, I'm going to need a lot of gin."
The demand was impossible to miss, and House felt like the kid in the class who hadn't done his homework and was praying not to be called on. Naturally though, he was.
Turning to him, Cuddy said, "House can help you." Neither House nor Arlene looked entirely pleased at the idea. But Cuddy gave them no choice when she told them, before walking away, "I need to check on the food."
"Yes, dear, you go do that," Arlene said with a pat to the shoulder as her daughter passed her. "The last thing we want is for you to accidentally poison us all, even if there's a good chance your bartender will drug me." Her eyes narrowed on House. "Of course, if the food isn't kosher –"
"I told you that it was." Cuddy had stopped moving to roll her eyes for her mother's benefit.
"And you did buy new pots and pans and utensils, right? I know you don't keep kosher." Arlene spoke with great dismay. "So if you didn't –"
"But I did," Cuddy replied with great strain. And then to House, she said, "Take care of this." He could tell that she'd meant it to be a question. But she was so frustrated that it sounded more like an order.
An order he ended up following.
As he made Arlene's drink, House realized that he was doing precisely what Cuddy wanted. And given that she hadn't been particularly kind in her request, he felt a bit like her lapdog, like her spineless minion who would simply do whatever she wanted. Admittedly, it was irrational to think that way, especially when you factored in how often he ignored her wishes (or the fact that a drink sounded pretty good right now). But nevertheless, he did feel a slight tinge of embarrassment at what he was doing.
Whether Arlene sensed this moment of shame or simply saw an opportunity to berate him, he never knew. Either way though, it all amounted to the same thing: she jumped at the chance to eviscerate him.
As he handed her her gin martini, she said leadingly, "I see you still haven't married my daughter."
He took a sip of his own drink before replying, "As always, your powers of deduction astound me."
They both sat down, him on the couch, her in the armchair. He supposed that sitting with her meant that he too would be forced to listen to Rachel caterwauling and dancing about. But he also knew that Arlene hadn't broached the matter, only to drop the subject seconds later.
"Is there a reason you haven't considered proposing?" She didn't sound curious really; it was more like she was circling a point, honing in onto a specific train of thought. "You think she's not good enough or you can do better?"
He looked at her, his gaze intent on her. Not wanting to give her any reason to think he was joking, he told her in careful tones, "No one is luckier to be in this relationship than I am."
"It's good of you to think so."
He grimaced into his glass. "I'm glad you approve."
"You know I don't approve." Her eyes were hawkish on his. "Lisa is beautiful enough, smart enough, and successful enough that she could have married anyone. Instead, she chooses to fornicate with –"
"That's right," House said in a firm voice. "She chooses. Whatever she deserves, this is what she has chosen."
Arlene set her drink down with an audible clank. "I used to think that she settled with you, because she'd run out of men to sleep with." She sighed. "But I can see that she is actually attracted to you, which is why you need to marry her, Greg. She'll never say that's what she wants."
"There's probably a reason for that."
"Oh I think there are several." She paused, as though she was waiting for him to encourage her to explain. But if she was hoping he would do that, he was determined not to.
Of course, that didn't matter; if there were one thing Arlene was good at, it was not needing an invitation. "She's afraid. I know you scoff at the idea, but I've known her much longer than you, and I see the way she shies away from weddings. It scares her."
A long delicate finger ran along the rim of her glass. "Lisa doesn't want to get married, because she's terrified that it'll end just as badly as her first." She plucked the olive-speared toothpick out of her drink. "And given that you're her top suitor, I would say that she has good reason to feel that way."
"And yet here you are, telling me to propose."
"Because you claim to love her, and she seems to believe you as well." She picked up her drink and took a long sip. "I…." She cut herself off. As though she were rethinking what she was going to say, she shook her head. "Anyway, my point is this –"
"There's a point in this?" he asked, acting surprised.
"If you actually love her, you'll get her to admit that she wants this before it's too late for her."
House didn't say anything at first. He knew he was giving her the impression that he was actually considering her words, but that couldn't be helped. He would have liked to keep that from her. But honestly, since he was considering what she was saying, there was no avoiding that impression.
Part of him wished he could. He wished he could easily write off her concerns and protestations by claiming that he knew everything there was to know about Cuddy. (Or at least by claiming that he knew more than her mother did.) But he didn't feel he could do that.
After all, if it were true….
Granted, it didn't sound like her. If Cuddy had been one thing throughout their relationship, it was honest. Perhaps not always in day-to-day settings, he realized, but when it came to what she wanted and where she expected their relationship to go? She had never lied about that. And while Arlene, who Cuddy had lied to for most of her life, might have automatically assumed (as a result of being lied to for decades) that her daughter was lying, House doubted it.
Yet, he still found himself giving the idea some pause. Again, he didn't think Arlene was right. But he wanted to make sure. He needed to make sure. Because if Cuddy really were hoping that he would propose, if there really was a chance she would regret being unmarried later in life, he wanted to know about that now. He wanted to fix the problem if there were one.
Of course, the idea that there was one was borderline ridiculous. And he knew that. He was well aware that Arlene was more than likely wrong – as she usually was when it came to knowing her daughter's innermost thoughts. But at the same time, House didn't want to write off her concerns without a second thought. Because if she were right and he ignored her, it would mean that Cuddy would, at some point, look at their relationship and regret the way it had gone. She would wish he had given her something she hadn't even realized she'd wanted. And when she saw that he hadn't, she would resent him for it. So as much as he wanted to dismiss Arlene summarily, more than that – he wanted to know for sure that she was wrong.
But the only way to know for sure was to get the truth from Cuddy herself.
Naturally, doing that would be easier said than done.
First there was the issue of trying to have the conversation with her when she was completely stressed out; there was no way that could be a good combination. But then second, there was the problem of having that discussion without Arlene knowing.
Perhaps that sounded stupid, but the last thing he wanted was for her to get involved. That would just make getting the truth out of Cuddy even more difficult. And too, he didn't exactly want Arlene to think that he had thought she might be right. So he would have to find a time to talk to Cuddy when her mother wouldn't hear.
Intuitively, he suspected that it would be a conversation that would have to wait until tonight, when Cuddy's family slunk away to their hotel (thank God the house wasn't big enough for them to stay here). But he was wrong about that.
As he stood up to make another drink, this time a vodka martini, Rachel came bounding in the room. "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready!"
She'd changed into the costume she'd worn to her winter recital and clearly brimmed with excitement over being able to show everyone. House hadn't gone to the recital obviously, but he recognized the forest green outfit anyway; every week day for the last month, she'd tried to wear it to school, to bed, to play outside, etc. And because of that, nearly every morning had begun with Cuddy wrestling her daughter out of the costume.
That fact in mind, House could only assume Rachel had avoided the kitchen. Had her mother seen her wearing the tiered dress, he was sure there would have been another fight over it.
As it was though, Cuddy seemed to be blissfully ignorant. House, wanting to be able to claim the same, quickly shook and poured the martini into another glass.
"Greg, you know I don't like vodka," Arlene said teasingly, as Rachel bounced excitedly.
"Good thing this isn't for you, then." House picked up the full glass carefully. Looking at Rachel, he said, "Sing extra loud now."
This caught Arlene's attention. "You're not staying?"
Rachel, annoyed at being ignored, whined, "I wanna start."
This, of course, earned her a look of irritation, courtesy of Arlene. And sensing the tension in the room, House eagerly seized the chance to leave.
Perhaps he shouldn't have. Maybe he should have stayed, to give the kid moral support or… something. But he truly felt that everyone – Cuddy, Rachel, and himself – would be better served if he got an answer to the question Arlene had put in his mind.
Heading to the kitchen as quickly as he could (without spilling the drink, of course), he wasn't surprised to see a flustered Cuddy when he got there.
She was flushed, more so than when he'd last saw her. She'd put her hair up in a messy bun, a few loose strands stuck to her, pasted to her skin thanks to her sweat. And she was moving around with such frenzied speed, trying to get things done, that he was surprised that she even acknowledged his presence.
"I thought you were drinking with my mother," she said, as she examined the contents of a pot.
He nodded his head. "I was. And then I thought you might like a drink of your own."
She let out a loud breath. "I don't like gin."
That was a lie. He doubted she would admit it now, but the truth was she had no problem with gin. On the other hand, it did often have the effect of making her drunk. And he supposed that, for someone so desperate to be in control, alcohol was the last thing she wanted at the moment.
Still, he couldn't help but say, "Good thing this is vodka then."
She turned around, her back against the warm stove, and smiled. "Thank you. But I can't."
House shrugged. "More for me then." He took a long chug of vodka.
The liquor burned in the back of his mouth, the fire spreading down his throat and into the pit of his belly. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Cuddy giving him a judgmental glare. But given her sudden resemblance to her mother, House only felt compelled to finish off the glass.
"If you're just going to use today to get drunk, I'd rather you left."
That actually wasn't what he planned on doing – though it certainly would have been understandable if he had, he thought. He'd just wanted one last drink before he broached a topic he would have really preferred not to discuss.
"I'm not," he told her irritably. As he moved closer to her, he explained, "There's not even remotely enough alcohol in this house to blunt how annoying your family is."
She nodded her head but didn't say anything. Instead, she stirred something in one of the pots.
And taking her silence as an opportunity to speak, he said suddenly and without any lead in, "You know… if you wanted to get married, I would, I don't know, be okay with –"
The spoon she'd had in her hands fell onto the stove top with a clang.
"I'm just saying…." He exhaled loudly. "If you're –"
"I don't want to get married." Cuddy didn't say it as though it would be the worst thing in the world. But she definitely didn't make it sound like it was something she was secretly hoping for either.
"Right," he said, breathing a sigh of relief.
She turned to look at him more clearly, now that he was standing next to her. "You know how I feel about that."
He nodded his head. "Yeah." His voice was quiet; he didn't want to admit that her mother had sowed seeds of doubt within him.
It was just too embarrassing to admit that.
"You think I've changed my mind?" There was a beat, a slight pause in conversation that suggested she'd wanted an answer from him. But the shortness in time he had to say something before she spoke once more told him that she'd figured it out on her own.
Realization in her voice, she said suddenly, "You've been listening to my mother."
"No." He shook his head. "No, I –"
"You have." She sounded amused. "She's been telling you that I'm dying to get married, and you're believing her."
She started to laugh a little.
"Stop it." Was she trying to make him feel dumber than he already felt?
At least she had the good manners to stop laughing. Her mood turning as somber as he was, she told him calmly, "I'm not making fun of you." She reached over and rubbed his arm. "But I thought we were in agreement about not listening to my mother while she was here."
They had, yeah. He knew it, remembered the conversation they'd had early this morning before Arlene had arrived. And yet… the idea that Cuddy might have some unspoken desire to get married had overridden that agreement. In his mind, it had anyway. But it seemed stupid to say that now.
"House," Cuddy said, interrupting his thoughts. "I don't want to get married, because I don't want to get married."
He looked out the window behind her. "Your mother –"
"My mother is crazy," she hissed. "You know me. She… doesn't."
She was making him sound absolutely insane for bringing up the subject. However, he didn't feel like he was out of line for saying something, and it was irritating him that she was behaving as though he had been.
"That's great," he said gruffly. "I just want to make sure that this isn't something you say you don't want as a way of testing me or something you say you don't want and then realize suddenly you do."
She rolled her eyes. "If I couldn't be happy without a ring, I would tell you that. I will tell you that if, for some unknown reason, I ever change my mind."
He nodded his head slowly. He guessed he wasn't going to get anything more from her on the matter. Still, he couldn't help but say, "I don't want you to regret –"
"There's nothing to regret," she said simply. "There would be nothing to regret."
Whether she was telling the truth or not, it was impossible to say. She'd obviously figured out that Arlene had been behind this, which might have made Cuddy want to lie. Then again, she'd also been busy, trying to cook dinner for everyone, so she might have been lying just to get him out of the way.
But then there was also the possibility that she meant every word she said… only to change her mind five, ten, fifteen years from now.
And that was what he worried about most. Not that she was lying to him now, not that she felt like she couldn't confide in him this embarrassing truth, but that she didn't even know it was the truth.
"House," she said in a voice loud enough to pull him from his thoughts. "I love you."
She moved away from the stove and stood in front of him. Her eyes meeting his, she added, "If I change my mind about getting married, okay. But I'm not going to blame you." When he cast her a doubtful look, she pointed out, "I know you think I'm as crazy as my mother, but I'm not. If I want to get married, I'm not going to give you reasons to tell me no by acting like any of it's your fault."
He could admit that that made sense. If she suddenly changed her mind, she would need to convince him that a wedding was a good thing.
Internally, he understood that he wasn't exactly opposed to marrying her.
But she didn't know that.
"So what you're saying is, I'll finally be able to fulfill my dream of watching you get it on with another chick." He grinned at the thought.
Cuddy's eyebrows furrowed together in dismay. "… No. You're going to have to do a little more than sign a piece of paper and stand through a short ceremony in order for that to happen."
"Like spend Christmas with your family and pretend like it's Hanukkah, right?"
She scoffed. "Like adopt triplets."
His face screwed up in disgust. "I think the one is enough."
Cuddy nodded her head before returning to her cooking. "The one is plenty, agreed." He knew she was going to ask the question before she even had a chance to open her mouth. "Speaking of, where is Rachel?"
"With your mother."
When he tried to dip a finger into one of the pots, Cuddy slapped his hand away. "Don't do that."
"Afraid my non-Jewish fingers will make your food treif?"
"I'd rather not find out," she replied quickly. "And don't even joke about the meal not being kosher. My mom will –"
"Not hear a word of this. I told you: she's with Rachel."
As though she were remembering what Arlene had said earlier, Cuddy said, "Watching Rachel sing and dance. Right."
He was about to say that he thought Rachel was reenacting her school's winter recital, costume and all. But he never got a chance to say anything.
It was at that exact moment that Rachel's crying, loud and shrill, rang throughout the home.
Cuddy took off toward the living room. Without even so much as looking back, she practically ran to her daughter. He followed her as well, though he at least had the good mind to turn down all of the burners being used.
But when he finally made it into the living room, he realized he hadn't missed much. Rachel was sobbing in her mother's arms, and Cuddy was looking at her mother as though she wanted to kill her.
And Arlene was looking like the perfect combination of self-satisfaction and irritation.
The air crackled with tension all around them, and standing in the hallway, House knew better than to try and snuff out the spark between Cuddy and her mother. Doing that would simply ensure that both women turned their rage onto him. So he remained in the hallway, safely and silently choosing to watch the drama unfold.
"What did you do?" Cuddy asked accusingly over Rachel's loud cries.
Arlene shifted in the armchair. "Did you know your daughter was a Christmas tree for her recital?"
"Of course," Cuddy answered with frustration lacing the tones.
"And you didn't have a problem with –"
"The whole show was about different winter holidays," she explained, readily showing how much of a hassle she thought all of this was. "They asked all of the kids what they celebrated and then assigned each of them to a different holiday for the play," she said loudly. She had to pause several times through her explanation to adjust Rachel on her hip, to shush her and stroke her back.
But absolutely none of it worked.
In fact, the more Cuddy tried to comfort her, the more upset Rachel seemed to be.
"What did you do to her?" Cuddy accused.
"She started singing Christmas music about Santa Claus," Arlene said with disdain, reaching for her drink. "Now, that's fine for Christians, but it is not okay to sing those things when we're celebrating Hanukkah."
Cuddy looked at her doubtfully. "I doubt that that's all you said."
Arlene shrugged. "I simply told her the truth." She took a sip from her martini glass that seemed to last several seconds. "I told her Santa's not real –"
"And if he were," she continued, completely unmoved by the fury in Cuddy's voice. "He would not be visiting little Jewish girls."
Rachel wailed, Arlene recapping what she'd said apparently being too much to hear.
To be honest, House couldn't blame the kid. Arlene was being so calm about the whole thing, so cold in her delivery, that it was impossible to feel in that moment as though she were even remotely capable of love or kindness. And to a five year old, what that must have felt like… House didn't want to know.
But it seemed like he wouldn't have a choice. Cuddy turning to him at that moment, she said, "Take Rachel into the kitchen for me."
Her tone left no room for discussion, no place for him to say no.
He was okay with that, though. Scooping Rachel into his arms (much to her protestations), he didn't exactly mind being forced to take care of her. Normally he would, but in this situation, dealing with her meant Cuddy would have plenty of time to handle her mother. And he was not surprised as he walked away to hear the two women start going at it in voices loud enough to hear over Rachel's sobs.
"Relax," he told Rachel once they'd entered the kitchen.
Gently he set her down on the kitchen counter, far enough away from the stove so that she wouldn't burn herself. But other than that, he wasn't sure what to do, what to say.
Deciding that this would have been a conversation better left to Cuddy, he sighed. There just really wasn't any way this could end well, was there? If he managed to calm her down, Arlene would be up his ass to propose, adopt, and who knew what else. If he didn't, then that would be proof to her that he didn't deserve Cuddy at all. And that wasn't even beginning to touch how Cuddy herself would judge him if he couldn't address this problem.
Under normal circumstances, she probably wouldn't have been mad at him at all. But today, she was dealing with the rest of her family, and that meant he was expected to clean up as many small messes as he could. And if he couldn't do that, it didn't matter how pissed she'd just been at her mother. All her rage would instead become focused on him.
He sighed again.
He should have left when he'd had the chance. But since he hadn't… the only option he had was to try his best to fix this.
"Look," he told Rachel in a voice that sounded more pained than soothing. "Nana… doesn't know what she's talking about."
Apparently, despite his misgivings, he'd said something she'd thought was worth hearing. Or, at least, she was stunned by his attempts at comforting her.
She still continued to cry, of course. But it was no longer the kind of sobbing that made him want to rip his ears off. The noise thankfully dying down, it was a moment before Rachel took a deep shaky breath. He was patient though, giving her plenty of time for the words to sink in. And when she looked up at him after a few moments, he knew he'd gotten a little bit of leverage to work with.
Not for a second did he actually believe that he'd gotten through to her; it wasn't like he'd said those words, and that would be it. Obviously it wasn't going to be like that. After all, she wasn't looking at him as though she believed anything he was saying. If anything, she was gazing upon him with the same curious interest she had whenever she saw something that struck her as out of the ordinary. And clearly, House trying to console her qualified as different.
But he tried not to focus on that.
"Don't believe anything she says," he told her wisely.
Rachel swallowed hard. In halting tones, she cried, "Nana s-say Santa not –"
"So what?" House was trying to make it sound as though what Arlene had said didn't matter. But he wasn't sure if he was succeeding or not. "She's old. She probably doesn't even realize the Civil War's over."
"What's the –"
"Doesn't matter," he said with a wave of the hand. "All I'm saying is she doesn't know what she's talking about and –"
"So Santa's real," Rachel interrupted, her eyes as wide as saucers.
That was not what he'd been trying to say.
Of course, looking at it from her perspective, he could see how she might come to that conclusion. He'd been saying don't listen to Arlene, that she didn't know what she was talking about, so it made complete sense that Rachel would think that meant Arlene had been wrong.
But that hadn't been what he meant.
Not in the least had he wanted Rachel to believe that Santa was real. All he'd wanted her to see was that her grandmother was a borderline B list movie villain who seemed to enjoy making her family feel inadequate in every way imaginable. But then again, maybe that was a point destined to go over Rachel's little head.
So much for cleaning up the mess, he grumbled to himself.
Cuddy was going to kill him.
Immediately shaking his head, he backtracked. "That's not what –"
"But if Santa's real," Rachel said, completely ignoring him. "Then why…." Her voice faded out, and the obnoxious crying came back in full force. Speaking between shrill sobs, she whined, "Why no presents?"
Panic welled within him. He should have never done this, never taken Rachel from her mother's arms. Actually, at this point, he was ready to say he should have never touched Cuddy, never even attempted to be with her, much less do this. Because really, that was his first mistake – to insinuate himself into their lives like that.
But he'd done it. He'd made that choice.
And now he'd basically done exactly what Arlene had done to Rachel.
Yeah… Cuddy was going to kill him. Quite possibly literally she would kill him. Because instead of fixing the problem, he now had Rachel believing that Santa was real and she was too bad to get presents from him.
"No, no, no," he said quickly, fear making him want to act as fast as possible. "Shhh. Don't cry."
But Rachel couldn't stop.
"Hey, come on now. I didn't mean it. I'm sure Santa is on his way."
It didn't occur to him at that moment to fully think about what he was saying. He recognized that he was lying, but at that moment, the truth seemed like the least important of all his concerns.
"I know Santa's coming," he corrected almost instantly. "He's just… a little late. That's all."
At this Rachel raised her head and looked at him. Her face was red from the effort it had taken to cry, but hearing what he was saying, she began to calm down. "Really?" she asked in a meek voice.
She sniffed loudly before wiping her nose on the sleeve of her costume. "Why's he late? He's not –"
"Who knows?" he interrupted. Creating a lie as quickly as he knew how, he explained, "Maybe the reindeer got lost in the snow. Or maybe Santa knew Nana was going to be here and decided he didn't want to deal with that."
House wasn't sure the reasons he gave were good enough for a five year old. If there was one thing living with Rachel had taught him, it was that children possessed their own internal logic and lacked any common sense. And he had no idea what a young Jewish girl believed about Santa Claus. So it really could go either way for him.
But Rachel, having spent the morning with her grandmother, seemed to comprehend why someone (even fictional someones) would not want to be around the bag. Because she nodded her head very sternly at that moment and said, "Okay."
"Uh huh." But then she asked, "That means Santa's gonna come when Nana leaves?"
And House knew that somehow the hole he'd found himself in had just become a lot deeper.
Just as he knew that there was no getting out now.
He'd started something, and whether he wanted to or not, he was going to have to finish it.
Without Cuddy knowing.
"Sure," he said breezily.
Rachel's face split into a wide grin. And though he knew he should just be grateful that she was in a good mood, he wasn't. Because staring at him in the face was the inevitability that Rachel's excitement would make her tell everyone what he'd told her.
As if to demonstrate that right then and there, Rachel slipped down off the counter. It was clear what she was doing; she was about to go running to her mother and spill the truth.
But House was quick witted enough to say, "Wait a minute."
Rachel paused, though she clearly didn't want to. Spinning around to face him, she looked ready to burst with excitement.
"The thing about Santa is he doesn't like people knowing when he gets behind on the whole gift giving part."
He made it sound as though he were reluctant to share this bit of information, as though Santa himself had sworn him to secrecy. But of course, it was a lie – a really lame, awful lie but one necessary to keep the brat from blabbing.
"So if you were to tell someone about what he did…" he said leadingly. "He might just decide that you shouldn't have any presents."
Rachel looked like she understood exactly what he was trying to get at. Naturally, she would, he thought bitterly. She didn't know how to tie her shoes, no matter how hard Cuddy tried to teach her. She didn't get why doodling on the Rs in her schoolwork (so that they looked like alpacas) made her teacher assign her more practice writing letters. But clearly, this crap he was telling her made complete sense in her head.
"I'll be quiet," she said empathically.
Part of him doubted that she'd be able to do it. Having lived with her, he knew that truths and secrets had a way of just slipping out of her mouth, even when she didn't intend to talk. But he didn't get a chance to press any further, because it was at that moment that Cuddy entered the kitchen once more.
His first thought was that she looked even more flustered than she had earlier. Her cheeks were flushed, the pale flesh splotched and streaked with bright pink. Her hands were clenched together in fists, and she looked ready to explode. She tried to hide that last fact, of course, but through the thin veneer of imposed calm, there was, he could see, anger.
So it surprised him that, after mouthing thank you to him, she went straight for Rachel.
Scooping the little girl into her arms (which made Rachel giggle), Cuddy quickly kissed her on the forehead. And with utmost sincerity, she said quietly, "I am so sorry."
It was clear by the look on Rachel's face that she had no idea what was going on, no understanding as to why her mother felt the need to apologize. And frankly, that pleased House greatly.
Perhaps he'd done nothing but lie to the kid, setting them all up for a disaster later on. He could admit that to himself, could see the danger in taking this moment for granted. But at the same time, he couldn't help but feel just a little proud of himself. He'd at least distracted her enough to forget about whatever her grandmother had said. And given the rancor with which Arlene often spoke and behaved, he felt that this was truly an accomplishment.
"I don't know what Nana said to you, Rachel," Cuddy said quietly, as though she were afraid that her mother would hear. "But I know she didn't mean any of it. Okay?"
House audibly scoffed. He shouldn't have, but he couldn't help it.
Arlene was nothing if not intentional. He understood that she wasn't entirely evil; sometimes she seemed to want him to think otherwise, but he knew that deep down, she was capable of love. That, however, didn't diminish her penchant for cruelty or her full-hearted belief in every judgment she doled out.
Cuddy was reluctant to believe any of that, which wasn't difficult to understand; she didn't want to see the worst in her own mother or consider what that meant. So it wasn't surprising when she shot him a dark look that very clearly told him to keep his mouth shut.
Thankfully though, her comments were solely directed at Rachel. "She's very sorry."
But Rachel, having effectively forgotten whatever Arlene had told her, didn't react to Cuddy's words. She just asked, "Can I go play?"
"Of course." However, Cuddy had a caveat. "First though, you need to change out of that costume."
That did not go over well.
If Rachel had been clueless only seconds ago, she absolutely understood what her mother was telling her now. And to House's amusement, she did not enjoy what she was being told.
"But I wanna wear dis," she said in a voice that teetered of the verge of whining.
"I know, but –"
"You said I could!" she shouted, her small feet kicking Cuddy's thighs from the effort of her screaming.
"I said –"
The thought was abruptly cut off. Rachel was wriggling to free herself from her mother's arms, and having been taken by surprise, Cuddy had to fight to keep herself from dropping the kid.
She didn't, of course. Being the stronger of the two, Cuddy managed to avoid sending Rachel to the hospital. But to be honest, House almost wished she hadn't.
Okay, that sounded awful.
He could see that, could hear how bad the words sounded in his mind.
But if Rachel had been hurt, a trip to the hospital would have been in order, and frankly, in his estimation, that would have been much more preferable to dinner with Cuddy's lunatic relatives.
It was a moot point though. Rachel was secure in her mother's arms, although the kid didn't seem all that appreciative.
"No," Cuddy said firmly, as Rachel tried to pull away from her once more. "No. And that is not what I said."
"Yes, it is!"
Thinking back to his own childhood, House could recall with unfortunate ease how such a situation would have been handled – had been handled – then. Suffice it to say, he wouldn't have been given nearly as much leeway as Cuddy did with Rachel. And he knew Cuddy herself hadn't been treated much differently than he had, because Arlene had never been afraid of voicing how she'd parented her children as a way of criticizing Cuddy's own methods.
But House differed with Arlene there. Although he could see how Rachel's childhood would be unlike his own, he couldn't find fault in Cuddy for making that so.
Officially, his position was that he didn't care what she did or didn't do with regards to Rachel. Unofficially… he was relieved.
He couldn't fully articulate why, but he was.
Perhaps, he thought, he just liked knowing, being able to predict what Cuddy was going to do next. Instead of unpredictable bouts of punishment, moments where you didn't know awful life would be if you did something wrong, here there was a clear sense of how things would proceed. Which made it all sort of boring, sure. But it also made it easy for him to turn away from them then and focus on the food that Cuddy had quickly forgotten.
Not even noticing what he was doing, she instead reminded Rachel, "I told you you could wear it after your recital if – if – you asked me and I said it was okay."
Aside from the slight sound of House stirring the food in one of the pots, there was silence. And from that, he took it to mean that Rachel didn't have anything to say to that. Whether that was because she remembered her mother's words and knew Cuddy was right or because she'd forgotten the conversation all together, House didn't know. But all she did was plead, "Please."
"Not today. If Nana sees you dressed as a Christmas tree any longer, she's going to have a stroke."
That was a comment House couldn't resist.
Turning around once more, he said, "Hey, now there's –"
"Stop talking," Cuddy interrupted immediately.
He wanted to say something in return. But he didn't get a chance to, because she had already turned her attention back to Rachel.
"You know who's coming today, don't you?" Rachel nodded her head. "You don't want Sethie ruining your pretty dress."
That was all it took for Rachel to say, "Okay."
And House knew exactly why. As far as cousins went, Seth was absolutely the kind nobody wanted. He was Julia's eldest kid, around eleven or twelve (House didn't know or care what his precise age was). And, perhaps as a result of being called "Sethie" his whole life, perhaps because he was simply at that age (whatever that age was), he was on the verge of being a psychopath.
Admittedly, he'd never been caught torturing animals or anything along those lines. But then he didn't exactly need to; he got his kicks tormenting his siblings and Rachel when he was here.
Obviously Rachel wasn't innocent entirely… or at all. She was absolutely terrified of her cousin, but her way of dealing with that fear was to be the one who lashed out first. And though it had become natural to keep the two separated whenever they were in the same house, it wasn't unnatural to stumble upon the two beating the crap out of each other either. Even when neither had any intention of playing together, even when they hadn't seen each other all day, they still seemed to find one another and start fighting.
It didn't matter that they weren't even remotely the same age. It didn't matter how often they'd been told to leave one another alone.
If there were an opportunity for fighting, they would find it and take advantage of it.
It was just a fact.
And being reminded of that truth, Rachel clearly didn't want to risk ruining her beloved costume.
"All right," she said glumly. But then she added, tentatively as though she were afraid of what Cuddy's answer would be, "Does he have to come?"
Cuddy nodded her head. "Yes. And I don't want to catch you fighting with him."
Rachel looked as though she didn't like that idea. She didn't outright refuse her mother, but her silence was telling enough in House's opinion.
In Cuddy's as well, it seemed, because she said, "We can talk about this while you change."
At first, he considered stopping her from leaving him to watch over the cooking food. Just because he'd agreed to stay didn't mean he'd agreed automatically to help, and he really didn't want to be her errand boy. But quickly he realized that he needed to let Cuddy go.
It had nothing to do with being nice or kind or wanting to do the right thing or anything remotely like that.
He was just being pragmatic.
After all, he'd just told Rachel Santa was coming for her (and not, unfortunately, to take her away). He'd lied repeatedly, pathologically to shut her up and calm her down. And now he either needed to tell the truth, which was definitely not going to happen, or follow through with the lie.
Obviously it went without saying that neither option was good. He didn't want to pretend like Santa was real any more than he wanted to upset Rachel. He certainly didn't want to deal with Cuddy's reaction to either of those courses of action; maybe he was wrong, but somehow he thought she would be angry no matter what he did. But out of the two choices, it was clear that the one involving presents was preferable.
At least in that case, he wouldn't also have to deal with Rachel's crying.
In order to get gifts, however, he would need assistance. Since Cuddy had him tethered to her for the day though, if he was going to buy anything, he was going to need someone to do the shopping for him.
And there was only one person he trusted to help him.
But he definitely couldn't call Wilson in her presence.
So he calmly watched Cuddy and Rachel leave before picking up the phone.