Disclaimer: I don't own House, NASCAR, or much else except my little project farm. Well, the bank and I together own that.
A/N: This one-shot was born full-fledged in one gulp from a video a NASCAR-loving relative sent me a few days ago. Please, you need to watch this short video first to get the full feel of it. Go to You Tube and search for Best Prayer Ever NASCAR Joe Nelms. It's the video posted by paulk9pg. This was one of those shazam fics, that just hits full blown. Hope you enjoy it. Again, it is a one shot, and it's not related to any series or any specific season. Enjoy!
A/N 2: General stuff in progress report. All writing is going along great mentally. I do have one other one-shot floating around, might write it down when I get a chance. Three Cases is rolling, lots of work still to come, but it's got some nice momentum. House juggling three important cases (VERY important cases, in one sense or another) simultaneously. Meanwhile, Cuddy has some serious difficulties of her own. Also, I think there might even be another Pranks story after that already, just beginning to form up, titled Verdict. THAT one is the return of Patrick Chandler, and again, it's not quite how I expected it to go, but the muse is in charge. That one is extremely preliminary, just shadows at the moment, will see if/how it grows. But Three Cases will come first.
Meanwhile, I give you "Smokin' Hot."
Cuddy sat on the couch, trying not to fidget.
Not that her position was uncomfortable. House was next to her, his warm body right against hers. She would have been perfectly content at the moment if she had thought his mind was anywhere in the same room. No, his mind was off at a racetrack several states away, his eyes glued to the TV screen with unnatural focus. He was as rapt as he got during a case.
Tonight was their one-year anniversary of being in a relationship. And House was totally focused on NASCAR.
She had dropped a few reminders the last couple of days, which bounced off him without penetrating his sarcastic shell. If he even realized what today was, she'd be surprised, and pride had prevented her from mentioning it outright. Subtle hints were all she would allow herself. She had had a few hopes when he invited her over to his place late this afternoon, but her arrival found him in standard sloppy attire, not a flower in sight, and he had immediately said that she could watch NASCAR with him, as if this were a suitable anniversary date. No romantic dinner, no candlelight, no reservations at a great restaurant. She even suggested subtly that they might go out to eat tonight, and he shrugged and said, "We can find something here. Too much trouble to go out."
Cuddy fought back a sigh. She enjoyed being in a relationship with House. He was surprisingly considerate at times in his caustic way, he was a great lover, he was everything she had dreamed of . . . except for one. All her life, in the back of her mind, had been the dream of marriage, of being part of a true family together. Would House ever be capable of committing like that, of taking such a risky and public step? Or would he ever deflect into the comfortable present? Would a relationship with him be an extended version of watching NASCAR?
She stole a look over at him. The race hadn't even started yet, and he was totally immersed in the prerace hoopla and even the commercials as if they were the most enthralling competition ever conceived. He wasn't even looking at her. Hadn't even noticed her perturbation, which was unusual for him. Normally, he would have to dig at it, excavate whatever was bothering her. Tonight, though, he was oblivious, completely in his own world.
What was her place in that world? Was he capable of serious, permanent commitment?
And if he wasn't, where did that leave her?
House gave an audible groan, directing her attention to the screen. It was the first sign of life he had shown in 10 minutes. Ah yes, some preacher was getting up for a prerace prayer, and House considered the whole concept of prayer phony. "What a crock of shit," he said, looking over at her for the first time. "Why can't we just get on to the good part?"
Cuddy looked at him, but his eyes had already dodged away from hers and back to the screen, intently watching the prayer he didn't believe in. Yes, she thought. Why can't we get on to the good part? Does being in a relationship with me for a year mean anything special to you? Is it more than just a series of good nights?
"Heavenly father," the pastor started. House snorted in derision, but the prayer quickly dodged off the usual tracks, as the man shifted into thanking God for the "mighty machines that you have brought before us," going on into an itemized list of those machines.
House grinned. "Haven't seen Jesus up in Detroit on the assembly line recently. Yeah, people had nothing to do with it. There weren't race cars in the Bible."
"And the Goodyear tires that bring performance and power to the track . . ." the pastor continued.
House straightened up. "I know what's going on. Sponsorship. Extra money every time the name of the sponsor is mentioned. This isn't a prayer; it's a joke."
Cuddy sighed aloud that time. He looked over at her. "Don't worry; the real race will start soon."
That wasn't what I was worried about, she thought.
The preacher moved on suddenly to a part of his prayer that was undeniably not inspired by sponsorship. "Lord, I want to thank you for my smokin' hot wife tonight, Lisa." The crowd gave an appreciative roar, and House sat up straighter, his eyes going distant. Cuddy watched him, sensing some change of subject in that ever-whirling mind, wondering what he was thinking. He didn't seem to notice the rest of the prayer, not even cracking a grin at the "boogety, boogety, boogety, amen," with which it closed.
The prerace festivities continued, but House suddenly seemed to lose focus. The broadcast that had held him spellbound so far lost appeal. He turned to her and took a deep breath. "Cuddy . . . Lisa." She came to attention. He hardly ever used her first name, just occasionally in bed. "I can't get on one knee, but would you please be my smokin' hot wife tonight . . . and for the rest of our lives?"
Her jaw dropped. "You're . . . you're asking me to marry you?" she clarified, waiting for the smirk and deflection, waiting for the punch line.
It did not come. His blue eyes looked entirely serious. "Yes," he said simply.
She laughed; she couldn't help it. How absolutely like him to seize a line, a quip from a movie or TV show, and jump off of that, living in the moment, not thinking of the full ramifications of what he was asking. "No, House." He immediately looked away, hitting full retreat mentally. She could hear his mind peeling out, burning rubber as it left at high speed. "Not like this. Not some spur-of-the-moment impulse just because somebody on TV happened to get in a good line. That isn't what marriage is about, House. It's a serious commitment. It's full-time. It means something. It's saying that you want this forever. You need to think about it, not just toss off a proposal that you obviously haven't thought through." He lurched to his feet, suddenly completely ungraceful. She reached for him to try to steady him, and he pushed her hands away. "House . . . I'm not saying no forever. I'm just saying that we both know why you're doing this right now, and it's for the wrong reasons. You need to make sure you know what you want and that you're ready to give yourself. We can't just wake up tomorrow and go back after a proposal, House. This would change things. It's not a TV sound bite; it's real. I couldn't do it casually."
He pulled away and stalked out of the apartment, the door slamming. Cuddy dropped back onto the couch, her legs suddenly weak beneath her. She didn't regret her answer, though. To propose because somebody on TV got off an accidentally appealing line that spoke to his situation wasn't how their relationship needed to move forward.
Of course, their relationship probably would never move forward now. Even the casual, pleasant, one-night-at-a-time version they had had was most likely over. She buried her face in her hands, the tears coming. On the TV, the race started, the cars zooming around the track, ever circling, going nowhere at high speed. What an analogy for her life.
The doorbell startled her a little later, and she looked at the closed door in surprise. Not House coming back - he no doubt was out in some bar. Wilson? The doorbell sounded again, and with a sigh, she stood up and walked over to open it.
It was the caterers from her favorite restaurant, and she stared at them, dumbfounded. "I didn't order dinner."
"Dr. House did, ma'am. Special dinner, complete with candles and tablecloth. He's been on us about the details on this order all week. May we come in?"
Speechless, she moved away from the door. They swarmed in efficiently, setting the table, laying out the food, which included her favorites. "Shall I light the candles now, ma'am?" They must think House was back in the bathroom.
"No, we'll get them in a few minutes," she lied. Her mouth felt numb, making it hard to talk. Her soul felt numb. She reached for her purse, and the lead caterer shook his head.
"It's all already paid for, ma'am. Enjoy your anniversary dinner."
The door closed, and she was left alone.
The tears overwhelmed her that time, sobs that wracked her shoulders as she sank again onto the couch. Anniversary dinner. He had remembered. He had planned a full romantic night for them with all trimmings. In fact, in retrospect, he had seemed too focused on that race broadcast, almost nervous, probably hoping he had done everything to her satisfaction. She knew that she had high standards, maybe too high at times, and so did he.
Oh God. The proposal. What if the dinner wasn't all he had planned? What if he actually had intended to propose tonight, fully realizing what he was doing? What if the quip from the prayer had only given him a confidence boost to bump up the timing slightly, not given him the whole idea in the first place? The more she thought about it, the more sure she was.
What on earth had she done? She pulled out her cell phone and dialed quickly, getting voice mail as she had feared. She tried again with the same result, then left a message anyway without much hope he would ever listen to it. "House . . . Greg. I am so sorry. I was wrong, and I completely misjudged you. Please . . . just be safe, okay? Call me when you can." She hung up, fear seizing her. She had heard his motorcycle roaring away after he left. What if he was out in a bar getting plastered and then tried to drive home? Visions of his broken, twisted body lying in the road yanked her to her feet. Without a second glance at the dinner laid out for them, she grabbed her purse and bolted for the door.
She had never realized how many bars were in Princeton. She checked all of them, seeing more of the down side of Saturday night in the city than she had ever wished to, fighting off getting picked up in several of them. She looked around each and questioned the bartenders, but the answer was always the same. No, they had not seen a tall, limping guy with a cane tonight. She went to PPTH and searched his favorite haunts, the coma ward, the roof. Nowhere. In between, she never stopped trying to call, but he wasn't answering. His phone probably wasn't even turned on.
Leaving the hospital, she sat in her car for a moment, fingers drumming the wheel. Where would he have gone? Suddenly, on a whim, she headed for the jogging park where she had found him once avoiding clinic duty.
He was there again, his long frame making a slightly lumpy outline of one picnic table in the gathering dusk. She hurried across the grass toward him. His eyes were open but staring up at the sky unseeing. The expression of utter devastation on his face smote her again. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "House?"
He jumped sharply, not having noticed her approach. He looked at her, then quickly looked away, and his tone had full, Housian bite to it when he spoke. "Thought of something else you could mock me with? You didn't have a chance to rehearse that speech in advance, after all. Surely you forgot something."
Cuddy sat down on the edge of the table. "I'm sorry," she said simply. "I was totally wrong. I'm sorry."
He snorted. "No, you're guilty. Big difference. The dinner got there, I guess, and you realized that I wasn't jerking you around, so now you're thinking you should have let me down easier."
"No," she insisted. "I'm sorry. I don't blame you for not believing me, though. I realized in retrospect how distracted you were all afternoon, building up to tonight. Should have realized it sooner, but I was distracted myself."
He looked back, surprised. "What was distracting you?"
The curiosity underneath the hurt made her think that maybe she had a chance at reaching him here. She wasn't thinking of another proposal, not now. She just wanted to apologize, to make him understand that she had not actually been mocking him. Yes, she had been dead wrong, but no, she had not been intentionally cruel. "I thought you'd forgotten our anniversary."
"As many reminders as you've given me this last week?"
She gave a sad smile. "I thought you didn't pick up on them."
"I'm a genius, remember? I notice details. But honestly, I hadn't forgotten, even before you kept mentioning it." He looked away again. "There is a ring. It's in my bedroom; I really hadn't planned to propose until dinner. Just couldn't help it right then after what that preacher said. But I still have the receipt on the ring. It's dated three weeks ago. I'll show it to you as proof."
She shook her head. "No, House, I believe you. I should have known better anyway. But I was feeling all sorry for myself this afternoon, and that had me preoccupied, so I wasn't reading your signals. I did think it came out of the blue. But that was all I was reacting to. I wasn't trying to put you down, and I shouldn't have laughed. Hell, I should have known anyway. You would never propose as a joke or on a whim. Other things, yes, but not that." He was still looking away. "Please, House, believe me on that. I didn't mean to hurt you. I know I did anyway, and I apologize."
He relaxed slightly, though he still seemed a bit withdrawn. Hardly surprising. "Apology accepted," he said after a moment.
She couldn't help starting to analyze that. "Are you sure? I know I don't deserve to . . ."
"Cuddy, knock off the guilt fest. You screwed up. Welcome to the club. I know you don't like the notion, but we all do. Some of us more than others, even."
"I just want you to know how . . ."
He sat up quickly, flinching slightly as the leg moved abruptly, and he leaned over to kiss her, taking time for one imperative on the way. "Shut up."
They parted a few minutes later, and he grinned. "What?" she asked.
"I was just wondering what pathetic substitute that poor preacher has that he's calling smokin' hot."
She smiled herself. "I can't speak for her, but he wasn't anywhere close to being in your league." She saw the brief uncertainty flicker through his eyes. "I mean that, House. You are smokin' hot yourself."
"You could do a lot better."
"No, I couldn't," she said definitely. She leaned in to kiss him again.
Something deep in him seemed to relax after they parted. "Did you mean what you said earlier? That you weren't saying no forever to me, just to that moment?"
"Yes, I did. Even though I was totally misreading the moment."
His next comment was under his breath, and she couldn't make out the words. "What?"
He looked down again. "Maybe I won't need the receipt for that ring after all."
"Is that why you kept it? To return it in case I turned you down?" He nodded. "You really thought there was a good chance I'd turn you down?"
He shrugged but couldn't resist poking at her a bit. "Hey, I was right on that, you know."
"Oh, shut up. That wasn't a real rejection, and you know it now. At least I hope you do. That was just . . . like dress rehearsal. You know, it's actually considered good luck to have everything be a disaster at dress rehearsal? It means that when you really get to opening night, it will all be wonderful."
"Well, I was trying for an opening night. Like you wanted, I mean. Candles and dinner and all. That was Plan A. I just got distracted by some stupid prayer on NASCAR."
"And I was distracted feeling sorry for myself, when I really had no reason to. So let's agree to write that off and try again."
"I don't have the ring with me."
"We'll get it later. Along with the dinner. Actually, this is a beautiful park. You said once it made you feel free. Let me share that with you, House."
He looked straight at her, the stunning blue eyes glinting in the dusk. "Cuddy, will you please be my smokin' hot wife?"
"Yes," she said without hesitation. "And you can be my smokin' hot husband."
They came together again. A few minutes later, a late jogger plodded past the picnic table and paused to whistle. "It's a PUBLIC park, folks. Get a room!"
They parted, laughing. "I think there's a romantic dinner getting cold back at my place," House pointed out.
"At least I didn't let them go ahead and light the candles. And then after the dinner, we'll see if anything else comes to mind."
He grinned. "Oh, I always had plans for dessert, too. Remember, I did say it would be too much trouble to go out to eat. It just makes it longer home."
She slid off the picnic table, landing neatly on her feet, and offered him a hand. He hesitated for a second, then took it, his grip firm and tight, and she steadied him as he came to his feet and found his balance. Together, they headed back to the waiting anniversary dinner.