Written for a charity auction over on LJ. For liacuddles. :)
Last time I checked, I owned nothing.
As Cuddy approached House's office, it was all she could do to appear calm and collected. On the outside, she maintained her authoritative, confident mask of professionalism; she was everything the Dean of Medicine was supposed to be. On the inside, however, she was a nervous wreck. Her heart pounded out an anxious drum beat in her chest, and it seemed she was wiping her sweaty palms off on her tight pencil skirt every three steps.
All of it was thanks to the manilla envelope in her hands, or, more accurately, it was thanks to what was inside it.
The only thing she needed was a signature.
It was such a little thing: a mark on a piece of paper, but it was all that she needed to make things official. It was the last thing standing between them and the utter finality of legal separation. Such a heavy meaning to put on something so tiny, she thought.
It was in this mindset that she opened he door to his office, letting it close with an ambivalent click before bothering to say a word. By the time she opened her mouth, he was already staring up at her expectantly over his thin-rimmed reading glasses. She ran her fingers across the creased edge of the envelope, thoughtfully biting her lip.
His eyes fell on the parcel in her hands.
"Need your signature," she finally forced out. House sat back and removed his glasses, swiveling in his chair.
"Something tells me that-" He pointed his pinky at the envelope. "doesn't have anything to do with work. Or maybe it does, depending on how you look at it."
"Will you just sign it?" Cuddy sighed.
"Well not if you don't ask nicely-"
"House." They were barely into the conversation, and things were already going downhill. If she'd known divorce would be this much of a hassle she never would have married him in the first place.
Even as he spoke, though, House reached for the papers, and she handed them to him with a heavy sigh, crossing her arms over her chest as soon as he had the envelope in his grip. She supposed the psychological barrier between them should have given her some kind of superficial comfort, but it did no such thing.
House replaced his reading glasses, took the papers out of the envelope and studied them. It was a lot of dry language, emotionless words that meant nothing to him. He found it hard to care about any of them except for the highlighted X at the bottom that called for his signature. And even that...
"Never thought I'd see the day you mix personal with work," he quipped.
"I'm not mixing," said Cuddy, swaying nervously in place. "It just saves me a trip to your apartment."
"Why do you even care, anyway? Just because we're technically married in the eyes of the state doesn't mean we're together. Why go through all this red tape when moving my stuff out of your house – both literally and metaphorically – would do just fine?"
"I just want to make it official," said Cuddy.
"You said the same thing about marriage in the first place, and look how well that ended."
The words stung. Cuddy pursed her lips and handed him a pen, which he took and twirled slowly between his fingers.
Then he handed the papers back to her. Unsigned.
"You know, I don't really think I'm in the mood."
Cuddy's shoulders went slack. "What the hell are you talking about?" She didn't take the papers from him. They fluttered slightly in his grasp, inches from her. House leaned forward, removing his glasses and tossing them to the side where they landed with a clatter on the glass surface of his desk.
"Give me one good reason why you should even care if we make it official or not," he challenged.
"Are you serious?" she asked, brow furrowed. "Are you just intentionally trying to be difficult?"
"You seem to have forgotten who you're talking to." He nudged her with the papers, and she snatched them from his hand, silently hoping he got a paper cut. She was about two seconds away from stalking out of his office and seething all the way down the hall, but she paused, taking a deep breath. Time for Plan B.
"Look...come over tonight. Have dinner. Let's...talk about this." House quirked an eyebrow at her.
"I make you angry, and your first reaction is to invite me over for dinner? Where was this mindset when we were married?"
"We're still married, House," Cuddy reminded him. "At least until you sign these papers. Will you come or not?"
"All this effort just to get me to put my signature on some damn papers...Why don't you just forge it? I know you're not above that."
"I'm not going to do that, House." He huffed, halfheartedly giving her back the empty manilla envelope clasped between two fingers. She took it gingerly and slid the papers back inside.
"Rich gonna be there?" he asked.
"His name is Richard," Cuddy corrected, easily picking up on the bitterness in House's voice as he referenced her boyfriend. "And no. I just want to talk to you. One on one."
"And then make me sign the papers, right?"
"I can't make you do anything. Well...nothing pertaining to this anyway." She gestured somewhat awkwardly at the papers in her hands. "But I'm hoping you'll do it of your own free will."
"Not really free will if I'm coerced."
"Which is why I'm hoping it doesn't come to that. Eight-thirty? That way I'll have time to put Rachel to bed."
"Fine," he relented with a shrug. "Not like I'm gonna turn down a free meal." She nodded.
It was a start, at least. The beginning of an end.
She was chopping carrots for the salad when she felt a pair of slim hands on her stomach. A smile fought its way onto her face. "What time is he getting here?" a smooth, deep voice asked.
Cuddy put down her knife and turned around, kissing Richard chastely on the lips.
"Eight-thirty," she said. She glanced at the clock; it was about eight now. She had to put Rachel down soon. "Thanks for putting up with all this. I know it's not exactly...pleasant."
"Legal practices never are," he said with a sympathetic grin. "I should know."
"Stop acting like you're a lawyer," Cuddy joked.
"Hey, two years of law school under my belt," he reminded her, chuckling warmly. "How much do you have?"
"You were there for two years, and then you dropped out and became a writer. You bum." He ran his hands up and down her waist, smiling.
"I was trying to find myself," he said. Cuddy affectionately grasped his hands and placed them down by his sides.
"Well right now, I'm finding you to be in my way. I need to get dinner ready before he gets here." She gently nudged him out of her path and made her way over to the oven where the chicken was still cooking.
"Alright, alright," Richard relented. His arms fell against his sides with an audible thump. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay?"
"I'm sure," said Cuddy. "House and I...need to talk about things alone. We just need a little time to...Well, hopefully by the end of tonight, this will be behind me. Behind us..." Richard grabbed his coat as she spoke, grasping her arm and stealing another kiss before putting it on.
"I'll be back around ten," he said, heading for the door. "Text me if you want me back sooner...or later."
"Okay," Cuddy agreed. She heard a shuffling from behind her and turned around. Rachel peeked around the corner of the kitchen, thumb hovering by her mouth. "Rachel," she called. "Come say goodbye to Richard." Slowly, Rachel shuffled over to them, pressing herself against Cuddy's leg.
"Bye Richard," she mumbled. Richard knelt down to her eye level. He tousled her hair and she winced slightly.
"Bye bye, Rachel," he said with a smile. "I'll see you later, okay?"
"Mmkay..." He stood, and after giving one last smile to Cuddy, grabbed his keys and left. Cuddy pressed a hand to Rachel's small shoulder.
"Time to get you to bed," she said, bending down and picking Rachel up off the ground.
"But it's too early!" Rachel complained. She squirmed in her mother's grasp.
"I know it is, but you have play practice tomorrow, remember? You need plenty of rest. Did you practice your lines?"
"Yes..." Rachel mumbled around her finger. Cuddy could discern a lie when she saw one.
"But I don't want my tongue to get stuck!" Cuddy raised one eyebrow and stifled a laugh. She put Rachel down and led her to her bedroom.
"What are you talking about?"
"Carrie Terrance said that if I said my lines too much before the play my tongue would get stuck and I would only be able to say them and nothing else for ever and ever." Cuddy fought the urge to roll her eyes as she ushered Rachel into her bedroom and sat her down on the bed, kneeling down to her eye level.
"Well Carrie Terrance is wrong, Bug." She brushed a strand of dark hair out of her daughter's face. "The only thing practicing your lines will do is make you even better. Your tongue's not going to get stuck."
"Are you sure?" Rachel asked sheepishly. Cuddy chuckled.
"Sure you're sure?"
"Very sure. Now..." She put on her best serious face and lowered her voice an octave. "Scales the dragon is gonna burn the castle down and there's nothing you can do about it!"
Cuddy practically knew Rachel's whole scene in the upcoming school play by heart herself, she'd helped Rachel practice it so many times. Rachel's two lines were during the scene where the evil dragon Scales descended on the castle of the King and Queen, and the three shining Fairies stood up to him to protect their royal friends.
Rachel had snagged the part of Shining Fairy Number One, and she giggled before saying, "You can't get past us, Scales. We'll use our Fairy powers to banish you!"
Cuddy leaned over to Rachel's right, using a high-pitched voice as she imitated the part of Shining Fairy Number Two: "That's right, evil dragon! You're no match for our Shining Fairy Burst!"
Back to her growling dragon voice: "You fairies really think you can beat me?"
Time for Fairy Number Three's line: "Of course we can beat you! You're just a big meanie!"
Scales took over again: "A big meanie?" She looked over at Rachel expectantly.
"A big green meanie!" she shouted. "Magic Shining Fairy Burst!" She waved her hands extravagantly, and Cuddy fell backwards with a theatrical cry of dragon anguish. Rachel giggled happily.
"See?" Cuddy said, getting up and placing her hands proudly on her daughter's arms. "You're going to make a great Shining Fairy! Now...did you brush your teeth?"
"Yes," Rachel said.
"Good. Now..." She put on her dragon voice again, hiding a smirk. "To bed with you, my Shining Fairy!" Rachel giggled as she got into her bed and snuggled against her stuffed ladybug. Cuddy leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you in the morning, Bug."
Cuddy smiled, stood and turned off the light on her way out of the room, closing the door softly behind her and leaning against it for one lingering moment. This separation wasn't just affecting her, but her daughter too. Rachel had been a flower girl at their wedding, for goodness' sake, something that House had claimed was overly flamboyant and unnecessary, but she had seen the smile in his eyes as Rachel had stood beside them, picking at the petals in her basket and dropping them one by one until, by the end of the ceremony, there had been a pile of crushed flower petals at her feet.
Rachel missed him.
She took the chicken out of the oven and put it on the dining room table, and she was just straightening out the place mats when the harsh sound of knuckle on wood cut through the silence, making her jump. Her heart raced, and she drew in a deep breath – in...out... – to try and calm it. The action did little to help, but it was worth the try. At least she could attempt to appear cool and collected when she answered the door.
As it turned out, it ended up feeling like she was less "cool and collected" and more "bothered and exhausted" when Cuddy went to the front door to greet him.
"You're early," she said, glancing at the clock. Only by about ten minutes. But if anything, she'd expected him to be late.
House shrugged. "I figured you'd want me to be punctual when it comes to business affairs."
"You've never really cared about that before."
"Because there are very few business affairs that directly affect my sex life. You gonna let me in?" She ignored his sexual remark and stepped aside to let him inside, shutting the front door behind him with a tired thump and click.
The air in the room was dry, and it made her want to cough.
"I have dinner pretty much ready," she said.
"Starving," he replied. It was such a monotonous conversation for an evening that she thought should have felt much more significant. Like the calm before the storm, it made her uneasy. She couldn't help wondering if there was a typhoon waiting just beyond the horizon.
The thought loomed as she took the salad bowl from the kitchen to the dining room just in time to see House seat himself at the head of the table. She grabbed the manilla envelope – crumpled and creased from her nervous hand wringing – and placed it on the table with expert discretion. House's eyes flickered over to it.
"So," he said. "Dinner first, then divorce?" The words felt unpleasantly barbed in her ears.
"Let's just...talk," she offered as she served herself. Small portions. She wasn't hungry. House, on the other hand, had no qualms about claiming his fair share. He was going to get his evening's worth of a free meal, she supposed.
"Okay. Talk, then dinner, then divorce. I get how you run things."
"Cuddy." She pursed her lips.
"You know you have to do this." There it was. Out in the open so soon. She had hoped they would at least eat something before it came to that. But where was the point of being vague? That had never been like them. They had always been blunt, the two of them. It defined their relationship as much as anything else.
"You planning on holding me down and choking me until I do?"
"No," she sighed.
"Good, because I might just be the tiniest bit into that."
She resisted the urge to slam her palm down on the table in annoyance, instead settling for shooting House a half-hearted glare.
"I still don't understand why you're being so difficult about this," she sighed. House took a generous bite of his chicken.
"Who's being difficult?" he asked around his food.
"All I asked you for was your signature, and you-"
"You asked me at work. I would have thought you abhorred mixing professional and personal. I was just following your example."
"Oh, so now that we're not at work, you'll cooperate," Cuddy hissed.
"Sure," House said, but his tone was so bitterly sarcastic that she doubted things would proceed without trouble. "Just answer me something first."
"So I have to play twenty questions before you'll sign the damn papers?"
"Not twenty. Just one."
It caught her off-guard, and she fumbled it.
Why had she left him? Why had they decided to separate? It seemed obvious to her, and she had thought that the feeling had been at least halfway mutual. It had certainly seemed so when they'd made this choice after barely a year of marriage.
"W...why?" she repeated. "What do you mean, why?"
"Why are you suddenly so keen on getting it in writing?"
She sighed. This again... "I told you, I just want to make it offi-"
"Official, I know. You said before. But why? Why do you care that it's official? Oh, because you're the anal, workaholic type, I bet. But that's not all. If that was all, you would have done it right away, but you're just doing it now. So why?"
"Why does it matter?" she snapped, voice suddenly rising several angry decibels as she slammed her palm against the table, nearly knocking over her plate in the process. "We're not together anymore, House, and we never will be again, so why do you even care?"
"I get it, so when we're together you spend all your time trying to change me, to get me to care more, but the moment we're split, you go right back to the opposite. Don't want me to care." Cuddy pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose.
"Of course I want you to care, House. But it...it doesn't involve you, that's all. It's none of your business why-"
"None of my business," House scoffed. He laughed humorlessly. "You're divorcing me, Cuddy! That's as much of my business as anything else!"
"That's not what I-"
"Not what you meant, sure." He stood up, yelling now. In his eyes, emotions roiled and pulsed that Cuddy couldn't even comprehend: he was angry and exhausted and...hurt. Upon recognizing that, Cuddy felt the painful sting of what felt like needles in her chest.
"Did mister pre-law dropout put you up to this?" he asked bitterly. "Try and convince you that he read in a textbook twenty-five years ago that it was time to get the ball rolling?"
"Nobody put me up to this!" Cuddy snapped, now standing too. "Nobody is forcing me into anything! I chose to do this myself!"
"Exactly, yourself. You never even thought about what I wanted-"
"Well I guess I became more like you than I thought!"
They both turned toward the small voice from the hall. Rachel stared at them nervously, rubbing her eye. She looked from Cuddy to House and back again, looking confused and anxious.
"Rachel..." Cuddy breathed, leaving House in the dining room and going to her daughter, hoisting the little girl into her arms. "Did we wake you up?" Rachel didn't respond right away; her eyes were still locked on House. He looked away.
"I'm gonna go..." he mumbled, already heading for the door.
The front door slammed behind him. The papers remained unsigned on the dining room table.