Here we go with another ride in the Pranks universe. This story follows Verdict. Actually, I guess it technically follows Belle, but Belle is such an odd one in the series that it kind of inhabits a secondary circle of its own. Plotwise, this picks up from Verdict. House and company are not mine. Jensen, Abby, and Thornton are mine. Also, please remember that the Pranks universe angled away from the TV show partway through the Greater Good. Nothing since halfway through S5 on your TV screen has happened in my little world. Enjoy!

(H/C)

"What's in the envelope?" Jensen asked as he came across his office with a cup of coffee in each hand.

House had just finished getting himself settled in his usual chair with ottoman. He looked down at the manilla envelope in his left hand and promptly dropped it on the floor on the other side, away from the chair Jensen always used. "I'll explain that later."

"Okay." Jensen sat down and handed him a cup. House was always amazed at how the psychiatrist could put topics on hold when he wished, never forgetting them but not still pushing away at them, either, just accepting the temporary postponement. Of course, Jensen did have another inviting track to explore at the moment. "What happened today?"

House took a sip of his coffee. "How do you know something happened today?"

The psychiatrist absorbed that reply and plugged it into the puzzle. Ah, so he wanted to have a tug-of-war over the existence of the topic first before actually discussing it. That only confirmed Jensen's first impression, that House was very unsettled and bothered by something specific today, totally aside from the contents of the mystery envelope. By this point in therapy, he didn't usually resist getting into discussion unless they were on the edge of something large. "You're only confirming that something did happen, you know," Jensen pointed out. "If nothing had, you'd simply tell me I'm wrong instead of asking how I knew."

House rolled his eyes. "Forgot you were a mindreader there for a minute. What's the use of talking to you at all? You could just tell me instead; saves time that way."

Jensen smiled. "I don't know details until you tell me. But how I knew something was up should be obvious if you think about it."

House tilted his head, scenting a challenge. "You read body language pretty well. But you didn't just say something had happened; you said it had happened today. How do you know when? Since I only walked in here a minute ago -" He trailed off. "We were talking very briefly last night. You called to remind me of the time change for today, not that I'd forgotten it, but given the occasion, makes sense you wanted to make doubly sure everything was set. So you must have concluded in a 1-minute conversation last night that nothing acutely was bugging me then, ergo it's happened today. But how do you know I just didn't tell you last night? That call was too short to talk about anything besides time slots. I could have just decided to put it off until today's session."

Jensen gave him a nod. "Go on, Dr. House. It's a good analysis."

"That leads us straight back to you being a mindreader."

"Not a mindreader, just somebody who has known you for quite a while now. Last night, you had enjoyed an evening home with your family, and your tone carried nothing at all besides that. I suppose it is possible that something major happened later in the evening, although there wasn't much evening left, but you aren't worried like you get with things related to Dr. Cuddy and the girls. Far more likely that it happened this morning at work."

House looked away, starting to tire of this game. "It's not something major."

"Prove it," the psychiatrist challenged. "Let's talk about this minor, inconsequential thing that happened today, then."

House sighed. This was pointless; he'd known that in the first place. Jensen was the most politely persistent person he'd ever run across, and escape hadn't been possible anyway. They were going to be discussing this in session today. "Thornton's latest email came this morning," he said, capitulating.

Jensen settled back in his chair. House and his biological father had been communicating by email for two months now since the trial of Patrick Chandler, a tense exchange but a regular one. Jensen, getting the play-by-play from the sidelines, admired Thomas Thornton's intelligence and persistence more all the time. It was almost a campaign being conducted, House on the one hand constantly pushing at his father, trying to either get him mad or make him give up, and Thornton always civil but unmistakably there and not going anywhere. This morning's email must have been a humdinger. House wasn't usually this tense even on this topic. "What did he say?" Jensen prompted when House stalled for a minute. House wasn't dodging that time, just hesitating on the brink of the jump.

"I had asked him a question last reply. I asked him to name even one thing he had ever done for me during my childhood." He paused again, and this time, Jensen gave him a moment. "He said that he arranged and paid for the piano lessons and actually bought Mom's piano."

The psychiatrist was surprised himself, although thinking about it, that made sense. Thornton, son of the concert pianist, would have been much more likely to encourage his son into that avenue than Blythe. But the logistics would have been challenging to put it mildly, since Thornton was nominally no more than a family friend stopping by for visits every year or two. Blythe and Thornton both hadn't realized that John - or that House himself, later - knew the true paternity. "How did he manage that?" Jensen asked. They would have to get into the emotional impact of this information, which was significant, but House always processed better starting with the facts of something.

House spread his hands. "I don't know. Maybe he's just lying to me?" He didn't believe that himself.

"He didn't give any further details?"

"No, damn it. Just the one sentence and then signed off. He never gives me a full answer to anything. He wants me to ask him." Jensen tossed another mental salute to Thornton, who clearly understood about making use of his son's curiosity to keep him on the hook.

"You've mentioned the piano lessons a few times, and if I remember correctly, you said that your mother just had a friend at one station who gave them, so they set it up between them. They didn't know how good you were until the lessons started." In fact, House had mentioned the lessons more than a few times because it was the one thing his mother had stood up to John about. That was definitely out of character for her. No, Thornton had to be telling the truth, and he, not Blythe, had been behind it.

"Right. Mom got the piano as a late birthday present from John. She had mentioned several times over the years wanting a piano someday, not that she could play much, but she just liked the idea of a piano in the house, I think." Jensen nodded. A physical representation of a nice, happy home. Classic Blythe, to go for symbols instead of substance. "And then this friend of hers found a used piano she knew of that the owners had to move quickly. It was only $50 because of the urgent time line. Mom told John, and he liked the idea of getting something worth so much more just for $50, so he bought it, and the piano teacher arranged delivery with some people she knew. That's how we got the piano."

Jensen studied his patient. "$50 for a piano? And you believed that?" House looked away. "Of course you did," the psychiatrist realized a second later. The arrival of music in his life would be too precious to be questioned, an oasis in the stark desert of his childhood. He would never have allowed himself to challenge that, not even in the privacy of his thoughts.

House's eyes were distant. "I remember the piano arriving. I'd never played one, never even touched one. I had no idea of it. But Mom was so excited when the truck pulled up, so happy, almost bubbling. I'd never seen her like that. And John was walking around all proud of getting such a deal on it. The next afternoon, I went into the room and just touched one key. Just one note, over and over. I was afraid to do anything more, but I'll always remember the sound of that one note. There was nothing in that house before it came that ever sounded like that. It was C-sharp; I had picked one of the black ones, not that I knew what the notes were. Just a little upright piano, nothing like I've got now, but it was almost magnetic." He took another swallow of coffee, lost in a memory that for once wasn't traumatic.

"Then a few weeks after that, now that a piano was in the house, Mom's friend wanted to start giving me lessons because she hardly had any boys as students. She wondered if boys would be less or more talented than girls as a general group." House's lips twisted in a humorless smile. "John didn't object to that - not at first anyway - because it wasn't costing him anything, and he was absolutely sure I was going to prove to her that boys aren't cut out for sissy stuff like that. I was just a piece of data in an experiment, and I was supposed to fail. Later on, he would grumble some about lessons, but Mom would remind him that they never cost him anything. All the teachers wherever we went were glad to have me as a student once they knew I was good. And the piano wasn't mine; it was hers that he gave her himself. That helped protect it." He looked back over at Jensen. "Perpetual free lessons and a $50 piano. No, I never questioned it. Even all these years, I'd never questioned it." He shook his head. "But how could he . . .?"

"Ask him," Jensen suggested. Honestly, stage managing that behind the scenes had Thornton's signature all over it, now that he thought about it. The man was an excellent strategist.

"But that's what he wants me to do." House looked away again. "So we would have to talk about it."

"You have to know by now, Dr. House, that you aren't going to make him go away. You were hoping that would be the question to stump him and make him give up, weren't you?"

House nodded after a moment. "I didn't think he'd have any answer to that."

"I'm sure he would have had some kind of answer, even if just, 'I wish I could have done something directly.' You aren't going to get him to leave you alone, Dr. House. This constant pushing at him isn't going to work. Either you are going to have to be the one to break it off and walk away, or you're going to have to start actually talking to him instead of only challenging him." House was silent. "That's frightening, isn't it? Because if you can't get him to leave, if that isn't his default modus operandi, then maybe you have misjudged him all along. Just like if he was behind the music, he actually was involved and interested in your life behind the scenes then and doing as much as he could without annoying John. Hard to change an idea of someone that you've held for 50 years."

House flared up. "He did leave me there. That's a fact."

"Yes. Without knowing what he was leaving you in. Everybody left you there, even the ones in the same house."

"I know," House grudgingly admitted. "You might have mentioned that before."

Jensen changed gears, backing away from Thornton. "How are things with your mother?"

House finished off his coffee in about two large gulps. "Odd," he admitted. "Things are different talking to her, but it's . . .just odd."

Jensen nodded. "Like I said, it's hard to change an idea you've held for 50 years. Even harder in this case because of how the thought that you had to protect her was pounded into you."

"She agrees that she missed things; she's surprised that I haven't brought it up before. It's almost like she expects it, like you said."

"Yes. The big thing needed here is you processing the feelings for yourself. She's already been working on her own guilt for over two years of therapy, so you don't have to convince her she made mistakes. You just both need to deal with the past, you more than her because the trauma to you was immeasurably greater. Guilt later is nothing compared to the reality you lived with for years then. It will be hard on you. Have you mentioned Thornton to her yet?"

House shook his head sharply. "I just need to keep them separate right now. Hard enough to learn to deal with them apart. I don't want to combine it. Thornton's left her alone as a subject, but I know she'd be all over talking about him if I mentioned he was back in my life. She'd be wondering when the date was for him to meet the girls, and she'd be justifying his whole past. I don't want to hear it, not from her. Not while things are already changing between us."

"That's okay,"Jensen assured him. "I was thinking that she might be able to provide some factual details on the music if you need them, but asking him for details would be even better." Blythe's major contribution with the piano would be confirmation in case House thought Thornton was lying, but while he was obviously shaken up by the idea of his father providing the music, he wasn't really doubting the veracity of it. Still, Jensen reminded him of his mother's waiting confirmation in case House did start thinking himself out of believing it. It really would be better to ask Thornton if House could bring himself to do it. That sort of open question, not a challenge but a genuine request for information, would be a step forward for them. "How are you sleeping?" Jensen asked, turning the subject away from his parents. House was hitting the limit here. They had to go slowly.

House relaxed some. "Pretty good. I haven't had any nightmares this week, even with the dose on the sleeping pills cut back."

"Good. Keep the string going tonight, all right? Don't let this email ruin tonight for you and Dr. Cuddy."

House shifted uneasily. "You think I ought to take more just for tonight?"

The psychiatrist considered it for a minute. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "I'll leave that as a judgment call for you to make depending on how you're feeling when you go to bed. Maybe deciding not to have nightmares would work, or you might truly need a little more help with it the first night after this new revelation. Just be sure it isn't stubborn bullheadedness that makes the decision for you. There isn't a wrong or 'weak' answer here; either way could be valid." Jensen glanced at his watch. "We need to be wrapping it up. Are you ready to explain that envelope?"

House reached for the manila envelope he'd carried into the office and simply held it in his hands for a moment, studying it. "This will need a little bit of a road map," he said finally. "This is for Cathy."

Jensen smiled at him. "She'll love it." Today was Cathy's birthday, and the psychiatrist had adjusted his usual Friday schedule, trimming out some appointments and backing House up a few hours so that he could leave the office early and be home when his daughter returned from school.

House looked at the plain brown package. "You can't know that yet."

"Actually, I can. She'll be delighted that you thought of her, whatever it is. But where does the road map come into play?"

"It's a CD," House said. "A recording of a piano piece."

"An original piano piece?" Jensen asked, his own enthusiasm kicking in. As tense as House was about gifts, though slowly getting better, he gave spectacular ones, always based on true analysis of the recipient. Cathy would love a piece written by him for her.

House nodded, confirming the guess. "Yeah. Then there's the sheet music. I wrote it down, but . . ." His restless fingers drummed against the envelope for a moment. "She won't be able to play it. Not now, at least. She will someday, with work at it. Maybe not as well as I can, but passably. But while it's not impossibly difficult, it's way beyond her current level. When I first thought of the idea, I was thinking of giving her something that she could play now, but it just didn't turn out that way." Cathy was enthusiastic about her lessons and making slow but steady progress since changing teachers almost a year ago, but House had already gathered from questions that she was far from Abby's natural genius. Even Abby would take time to develop the gift, even apart from her hands needing to grow.

"That's okay," Jensen reassured him. "The challenge is worth something in itself. She'll appreciate that better than something obviously dumbed down for her."

"That's not all, though. After I wrote it out for her and realized it would take her a few years to get there, I rewrote it. Not dumbing it down; I couldn't do that to it if I wanted to. But I . . . I split it. I arranged it a little differently, two instruments instead of solo, and rewrote it as a piano/guitar duet. Same song, different format. That one is much easier with things divided between the two and the instruments working together. She'll be able to do that one a lot faster, although she'll still have to work at it." House looked up from his hands, puzzled and worried about the lack of immediate feedback on that part of his idea.

Jensen was staring at him, absolutely speechless for once. House misread it and looked away, and the psychiatrist quickly scrambled to explain. "That's perfect, Dr. House. That's even better. Two versions, one for her to work on together with me now, something that we can share and spend time with, and the other one as a challenge goal for later. Plus the recording of the original version. It's wonderful. She'll love it. I love it. You really do give amazing gifts."

House relaxed a little, but he still deflected. "Better hear it before you decide you love it. You have no idea what you're voting on here."

"Yes, I do," Jensen insisted.

House held the envelope out tentatively. "So you can explain the two different sheet music copies to her."

"Actually," Jensen said, "why don't you explain it yourself?" House straightened up too quickly and flinched as his leg protested. "Come home with me and give it to her yourself, Dr. House. She'd rather have a live performance the first time she heard it instead of CD, too."

House looked desperately at his watch. "Lisa will be expecting me at home. We've got our weekly date tonight."

"And we're also running three hours ahead of our normal schedule. Dr. Cuddy is working at the hospital, I'm sure, until her own appointment, and Marina is with the girls. You can still be home at your usual time, and a slice of birthday cake in between won't ruin your appetite for dinner."

Birthday cake. People. Parties. House lurched to his feet. "I don't need to crash her birthday party."

Jensen stood himself. "Her big birthday party with friends and all is tomorrow. Better scheduling on a Saturday between her friends and Mark and his family. They couldn't get clear down from Albany after school is out this fast. This afternoon is just me and Melissa. No crowded party, I promise." He still hadn't taken the envelope. "You don't have to," Jensen yielded. "But as perfect as your idea is, it would mean even more hand delivered." House debated, still uncertain of all this. "Everyone there this afternoon would love to have you join us, and the gift is going to be a big hit. It will be fun. Unless, of course, you don't like cake and ice cream."

House grinned after a moment. "What flavor?"

"Chocolate on the cake, not sure on the ice cream. Come on, Dr. House. This isn't a final exam that you need to prepare for. Just one 10-year-old girl, and I promise, you're going to make her day. There is no way to fail with this." Unerringly, he zeroed in on the true reason House had planned to give the gift by proxy; he wouldn't see the initial reaction himself that way, just in case it went wrong. Jensen knew he was pushing him here. He couldn't help it, picturing the end scene himself from a father's standpoint, but that didn't make his prediction any less true. House was a lot more tense in the last few minutes, but he wasn't actually running.

House looked at the other man's expression and sighed. Jensen's eyes spoke more than the words. He seriously did want House to come home with him for this instead of just delivering the gift himself, and he rarely asked House for anything even as a favor and never pulled the "you owe me" card. He was one of the few people in House's adult life who could have legitimately whipped that card out and yet never had. House slowly pulled out his cell phone. "Let me call Lisa and get her vote. She'll want to know where I am anyway." The conversation was fairly one-sided, most of that being Cuddy's side. After a minute, House ended the call. "All right, but if I have to leave, I . . ."

"You'll have your car with you. All you need to do is say you've got to get back to Princeton." Jensen touched him lightly on the arm. "Thank you for this, Dr. House. She is going to love it. Come on, let's go."

Together, they left the office.