Author's Notes: This was originally written for help_lisa on Livejournal. The person who won this auction was liacuddles, who wanted a fic where House and Cuddy discover that they have the same hobby. There are spoilers through "Bombshells" (although this is only vaguely touched on) and sexual situations in this piece. If that offends you, turn away now. I should also say that this fic alternates between two timelines, one that follows House/Cuddy from college to the infarction and one that mostly follows the arc of the series. Hopefully things aren't too confusing.
Disclaimer: Show doesn't belong to me.
Pawns In A Game
By Duckie Nicks
"You're supposed to be downstairs," Cuddy admonishes as she pushes her way into his office.
"We're a little busy." House doesn't bother looking up as he pulls a waxy card from its container. He's guessing he's just making her pissier, but he's truthfully far more interested in seeing if Foreman gets the green wedge than hearing her talk about the medical crisis going on downstairs.
"You're playing a board game. That's not busy."
House ignores her, though he knows she's now standing in front of his desk. Instead he asks Foreman, "Your question is: 'What African animal's name is made up of the letters n, g, and u?'" Finally he looks up at Cuddy. "This is important," he tells her. "When Chase loses, they'll –"
"No," she interrupts, irritation infused in the word. She's mad enough that her own agitation makes her louder than Chase's attempts at a denial.
House is amused, not deterred in the least. "Sorry," he tells her good-naturedly. "That's not the right answer. Close. But there's no u or g in that, so I guess you weren't really close at all."
His humor is not shared with her. "No."
"Pretty sure I'm right about that."
"No, I mean I'm not playing. And neither are you."
"We'll get right on that." He focuses his attention back on Foreman. "You gonna answer or…?" He lets the thought hang in the air in the hopes of prompting a response. Unfortunately the others in the room have yet to realize that Cuddy's not much of a threat (no matter how often he insists), so he's not all that surprised Foreman stays silent.
"Well, I guess you got your answer," House says with defeat, looking at her once more. Chase and Foreman don't need any more motivation. Sensing his loss, they're quick to get to their feet. They don't run out of the room, perhaps out of a sense for their own pride. But there's no hesitation on their part either, and it's clear who they've chosen to obey in this instance.
The second they leave, she's smiling smugly. "Now it's your turn."
"You forget. I'm not as easy as the others."
"Oh, I think that's impossible to forget."
"Then you understand why I need incentive to leave."
Her arms fold across her chest. "This is your job. That's the incentive you have."
"That's it?" He frowns. "Sounds kinda boring."
"It's not my job to entertain you."
"And yet you're wearing that top."
"It is your job to –"
"But where's the fun in that?"
The challenge is an unspoken one, and she doesn't need an explanation. He likes that about her.
"Gnu," she says almost immediately. "That's the answer to the question."
"Well of course it is. You can see the back of the card."
"No, I can't."
"Sorry. Judges have already ruled: you cheated."
They are at the point where it would be reasonable for her to say that he has to work regardless. He's not saying he would listen, but it would fair for her to at least attempt to end the game right now.
Instead she tells him, "Get a new card."
He doesn't, his fingers toying with the glossy index card in his hands. She has to know, he thinks, that this won't work; he's not going to get up and do what she wants just because she's answered a question correctly. He decides to point that out.
"You think I'm going to do what you want just because –"
"I think everyone else you would play with is doing their job."
She doesn't deny it. "I'm your only option. And I'm smarter than you, which means I'm going to beat you."
"No, you're not, and no, you won't."
She is undeterred. "And when I beat you, you're not going to want to play anymore, because you're a child. And then you'll have no choice but to go to work."
"It's that simple, is it?" Slowly he clears off the board, setting Chase and Foreman's pieces to the side. As he dumps the wedges out of his own wheel, House says, "You're gonna win and ruin my fun? You think that's what's going to happen?" He grabs a playing piece for her. "You realize this isn't the children's version, yeah?"
"I'll even let you go first." She grins as she takes a seat across from him.
There is no hesitation on her part, no reluctance to waste time playing with him. That fact should come as a surprise, given how often they find themselves at one another's throats. But he is hardly in shock.
Competition is part and parcel for them. Collaboration and implicit trust are necessary to their working relationship, obviously so. But those elements have little pull on either of them.
It's nice – maybe; he doesn't believe that with any certainty. Yet that warmth fails to capture his attention for any substantial period of time. Because, while he has no desire to make her an enemy, the fact is she will never be a friend. She's too pretty for that, knows too well how to stir within him heady need he has no capacity to satiate – and knows that she has that effect on him. The ruthlessness with which she flaunts that in his face comes too naturally, as his penchant for returning the favor. And for that reason, there will never be friendship between them. The need to conquer is simply too strong for them both, which is why he's not surprised to see her in front of him now.
They might be getting ready to start a game, but this is a game they've been playing for years. It might be a start, but it's hardly the beginning for them.
He glances at her and uncharacteristically smiles. That knowledge in his head, he says confidently, "You're going to lose."
As always though, she is undeterred. The possibility of defeat has never stopped either of them from this, from circling one another both eagerly and without intention of ever doing anything. He understands that it should be no different now. But he finds himself impressed anyway when she remains unmoved.
Assured as ever, she throws back at him, "We'll see."
He knows though, more than anyone else, that she's most confident right before she loses.
After all, they've done this before.
He doesn't doubt they'll do it again.
The first time he sees her, she's sauntering across the college lawn. She's nipping at a professor's heels, her lips moving quickly as she talks. House is too far away to hear what she's saying, and to be honest, he doesn't really care. It's warm out, sunny, and contentment has made him lazy. Questions, if only for a moment, do not plague him, as he sits underneath a tree with an apple in his hand.
The fruit is almost too sour to consume, he thinks as his gaze lingers on her. Juice dribbling down his fingers, he barely notices the mess. He's too busy trying not to choke when she bends down to tie her shoe and he catches sight of her taut ass stuffed into tight denim.
By the time he can breathe again, she's gone.
The second time he sees her is at one of the school events, a hoedown, which he has tracked her down to. For a brief moment, by her asking, he's dancing with her. But his tongue is effectively tied; the alcohol he's imbibed earlier (and jokes about hoedowns he's thinking of) keeps him uncharacteristically silent. And when the song is over, she moves on to someone clean-shaven and burly, muscles snug in a varsity jacket. He quickly forgets about the wisp of an encounter and moves on with his life. Someone that hot shouldn't be touched, he tells himself. After that, he doesn't think about her again.
But she does not disappear from his life.
The next time he sees her is actually more like the sixth or seventh time, probably, he's been in the same room with her. By sheer chance, he gets to endocrinology class early and is there to watch her come in. She bends down to grab the pencil she's dropped, and he recognizes the ass he stared at a couple weeks ago. In that moment, he feels like an idiot – for not associating her face (or her breasts) with the backside he's refused to think about since the hoedown.
Mentally he decides to rectify that mistake by memorizing every feature of her, so that he'll remember from now on. But that just makes him feel like an even bigger ass, because he's taking the effort to remember someone he may as well forget. He's not looking for a relationship and certainly not one with a random idiot in his class. He's wasting his time, and he doesn't even understand why.
Not that that stops him.
Identified ridiculousness should have him listening to the guest lecturer, an older man whose body looks and probably smells like it died a long time ago. But the fossil doesn't fuel his imagination like the hot girl does. Endocrinology is little more than memorization and guessing anyway, so House doesn't think he's missing much. He can make up the former later and the latter requires no learning at all. And in any case, none of it is interesting. It doesn't make him pour over textbooks or journal articles for more information any more than the topic of the digestive system does (though he has done both). Hot Girl is just fundamentally more fascinating, and for that reason, he can't turn away.
Quickly he discovers that she's desperate to appear smart. She likes to ask questions, offer answers and corrections to the old coot as if to show everyone that she's the smartest person in the room. She's not, of course, as House is obviously in the same room as she is, and he has no doubt that he's more intelligent than she is. But it's possible she's in the top twenty percent.
It's definite that she's the only one who cares about the subject that much. She looks young, too young to be in medical school like most of the room who view this class as nothing more than a prerequisite. She's taking this class by choice then. Frankly, House suspects it'd be off-putting – to everyone around her – if she weren't so damn beautiful.
But that is nothing more than a theory. What he knows, after listening to her for a few minutes, to be fact is that she really isn't an idiot. She's desperate to seem smart, because she feels she has something to prove, not because she actually does.
In the end, he's not sure how intelligent she is, but Hot Girl at least notices his attention on her. She's not completely oblivious to how she comes off.
He thought he was being discrete; he wasn't trying to get caught. But he has failed, because the second the class is over, she heads straight for him. Other students file out behind her. Every once in a while, one passes and shoots her a dirty look; she's kept them five minutes late with her incessant chatter, so it's understandable. Her focus is solely on him though.
His stomach flip flops as she approaches him. She's too gorgeous not to inspire a reaction from him. That's what he tells himself anyway – that his biology is simply responding to hers.
It doesn't mean anything.
It's harder to believe that though when she's standing right in front of him.
She looks at him with steely eyes. "It's Lisa Cuddy," she says as though she's correcting him. It makes no sense, but he feels himself being drawn in anyway. "In case you were wondering if there was a name attached to the breasts you've been staring at for the last three hours."
He purposely stares at her tits, her perfect perky rack. There are so many things, he thinks, that he'd like to do to those luscious puppies. But with the way she's glaring at him, he knows he has to play it cool.
"Odd name," he comments. "But all right." He points at her breasts. "Which one's Cuddy? The left one, right?"
She smirks. Not at all put off by his behavior, she surprises him.
"Wanna know what my ass is called?" she asks in a voice that's just too quiet for the professor, who's standing at the front of the classroom and talking to the guest lecturer, to hear.
"Hmm…." House scratches his chin like he's trying to guess. "Yes please."
"Let's try: you wish."
He isn't hurt by the rejection. She's hot, but it's not like he wants to date her. One night he could get down for, especially if she went down, but he's not so invested in the idea that she's hurting him like she thinks.
"This class has been in session for three weeks. We meet twice a week for three hours, which means we just finished our sixth time – a full thirty-six hours into it, and I just noticed you today," he points out bluntly. "It's not I wish, but the other way around clearly if you're so quick to believe that I want you. You're eager for male attention, which is why you're here, why you're entering a male-dominated field with a bra that pushes your breasts up that much."
She glances down at her top, probably out of fear that she's shown too much. He's tempted to tell her that's not possible but doesn't.
Instead he says, "Nothing to be ashamed of." He's being patronizing and enjoying it. "Everyone's father buys them fake tits to –"
"They're real, and I –"
"Let me guess. This is the part where you say you're not desperate for attention. And yet you felt the need to point out that your rack is real, because –"
"You arrogantly believe you know everything, and it's about time someone told you otherwise."
"Based on every test I've ever taken, there does seem to be quite a bit of proof that I am, in fact, knowledgeable on a great deal."
She folds her arms across her chest. "I know your reputation, House."
He loves the fact that she's heard of him but doesn't consider why.
"Then what's your point?" He's impatient.
"I'm not impressed, and I'm not interested."
"Fine. But I'm still gonna check you out."
She flicks a hand through the air like it's not a big deal. "By all means, you do that. And as you do, maybe you should ask yourself why you're so focused on me and not the class."
"The class is boring."
She readjusts her bag on her shoulder. It's clear she's had enough of the conversation. "If you say so." She starts to walk away.
Quickly he calls after her. "This isn't about you."
She waves him off. "Of course not." Without saying it, she's accusing him of lying.
Her disbelief only makes him want to prove her wrong. He doesn't care what she thinks, but for whatever reason, he wants it to be obvious that she has no idea what she's talking about.
His intentions don't get him far.
Now that she's presented herself as a bit of a challenge, he discovers that she enthralls him. Somehow she keeps popping up where he is, and he knows this, because every time he notices her.
He's working at the bookstore, and she's browsing the racks. She goes to buy something, and he's fumbling to charge her properly for the pencils she's trying to purchase. He's leaving class, and she's right there. He pretends not to see, but it's obvious he does. He picks up a girl at a bar, and she's outside, trying to use her fake I.D. to get in.
No matter what he does, Laura? No. Leslie? No. Lindsay? That's not right. Whatever-her-name-is – Cuddy is right there.
When he catches sight of her after lacrosse practice, he's reached his limit. She's paying no attention to him, unfortunately. She's stretching her legs, probably getting ready for a run around the track that rings the lacrosse field. Her focus is on everything but him, which makes his predicament that much worse. He's the only one who has paid any attention to these chance meetings, which makes it seem like he cares.
He doesn't, he reminds himself, but it definitely doesn't look like that.
Approaching her, he understands that this will make it harder to convince her to go away.
"Stalking me?" he asks, lacrosse stick slung over his shoulders. She looks over to him, takes in his sweaty appearance. His gray shirt clings to him, allows her to get a good view of his body, well defined and tanned thanks to his love of the sport. Her gaze is approving though she tries to hide it, and he hates that that pleases him. "Show up everywhere I am so I start to notice you. Then when I get sick of you and say something, it looks like I wanted you all along. A little ridiculous, don't you think?"
She straightens her spine, stretches her neck with a small smile. "The idea that I would do that is ridiculous."
"I know what game you're playing, Cuddy –"
"You remembered my name."
"What?" He pauses. She's right. "I thought that was the name of your –"
"You know what it's my –"
"What I know is that you really do need to stop following me around," he says, cutting her off.
"I wasn't following you."
"Your breasts say that's a lie." She doesn't understand so he explains, "This is the part where you say you're just here for a run, but that would be a lie. If you were a runner, you would know that the repetitive bouncing of your sweater puppies," he says, ogling her. "Will lead to chapped nipples, possibly even bleeding ones without a sports bra. Which you're currently not wearing. And since I don't take you as one who's into cruelty to animals or cracked nipples –"
"The bra is built into the shirt."
That makes sense, but he's not really interested in logic. He just needs to make it seem like she's here for him and no other reason.
"Then this is a new habit. You don't have a noticeable tan, something you would have if you ran outside –"
"Which would make sense since I normally run on the inside track. Since it's under construction –"
"Then there's the matter of your ass," he points out.
"It's too big."
She smiles like she's calling his bluff. "There's nothing wrong with my ass."
"No," he agrees. "But if you were a runner, a regular runner, it would be smaller."
"Or I just have a big ass. I would ask you to consider that possibility, but I'm sure you've done plenty of thinking about that part of my body."
He shrugs, doesn't deny it. "I guess we'll see." He motions for her to get started. "Go on."
She doesn't move. "You're going to watch me run?"
"I have to make sure you're telling the truth. If you're really a runner, you'll be able to do a mile in –"
"This is a little pathetic, even for you. Maybe you should just admit that you like me."
His response is immediate. "I don't like you."
"Okay. Then you better get your stop watch ready."
He ignores the challenge in her voice, ignores the much louder one shouting inside that this is stupid. Inwardly House concedes the obviousness of the ruse, but he defends it. He doesn't want her, but he has his reasons, and he will see it through – if only because walking away now would give him away.
And in the end, he learns, as she takes long strides along the track: she really is a runner. She isn't here for him, and that fact doesn't disappoint him, because he doesn't like her.
But his eyes trained on her, he sure doesn't mind watching her run.
He sighs, fearing this hasn't gone the way he'd liked.
"You're supposed to be recuperating, easing into this."
She responds to his presence with disapproval, and he thinks that post-ketamine life isn't all that different than life before it. Which is why he couldn't help but approach her the second he saw her.
He'd come to the park for a jog, for the first real measure of his recovery. Soap operas and prank calling Wilson in the middle of the night had been entertaining for only so long. Today had been no different. Since returning to work wasn't an option, House had decided he'd waited long enough to see how much function he still had in the leg. Choosing the park for its soft grass and well-worn running paths, he was a little surprised to see Cuddy here. He knew she still ran after all these years; why wouldn't she? But part of him had hoped to do this in secret, without a witness in the event of failure.
Truth be told, he's committed himself to the inevitability of diminished capacity and a recurrence of pain. He can walk without assistance now, but he prepares himself for a time when he reaches for his cane again. He feels no pain, but it's been a part of him for so long that he imagines that he's living on borrowed time, the aching beast temporarily pacified but ready to strike at any moment.
Minutes ago, he forced himself to approach the woman he's known for so long, understanding that avoiding her would only guarantee in some karmic way that she noticed him eventually and came to him. And House is slightly bitter about that. Fearing that something will go wrong, he doesn't want witnesses, most particularly witnesses that know him. Part of him would rather suffer defeat alone or as alone as he can be, if only to avoid any resultant pity. Yet by the same token, he is a little relieved to have someone there when – not if – things go wrong. She has seen him in every state imaginable. He has been spared, he realizes, no indignity in front of her, not really, and if failure is the guaranteed outcome, perhaps there are worse things than having her there with him.
He doesn't tell her that.
Instead he says, "And I did that. Recuperated, eased myself into several different women, recuperated some more, and –"
"So it's safe to say that you'll be returning to work soon, because you need money."
"At least I can pay someone to have sex with –"
"That's supposed to be insulting to me, right? Not to you?"
He's got a quip on the tip of his tongue. The insult is right there for him to use, but then he has a thought. He suddenly realizes that he is enjoying this; for the first time in years, he's getting ready for a run. She's standing across from him with her hair pulled back and body ensconced deliciously in spandex, as it has no doubt been many times over the years. Nothing has changed for her. Nothing has even really changed for them, but everything has for him personally, because there is a chance now that he might be able to join her. The electric thought jolts him into silence instantly.
At that moment he understands that he can stay here and talk to her, or he can go. He can do what they always do – insult and evade and go back and forth. Or he can test just how much his body is ready to handle. He can do something new, something different.
The choice for him is an obvious one.
"Yeah," he says dismissively. "You're right. My bad. See ya."
She grabs onto his blue t-shirt before he has a chance to take off. He looks down to where she has a hold of him. He would be amused if she weren't so annoying, he thinks. Gaze flashing back to her, he makes sure she notices the irritation in his eyes.
"Don't push yourself."
"I'm not." She looks at him doubtfully. "I'm not. I'm just seeing how effective all of this was. Given that most of this is your work, I'm not that confident, so you don't have to worry."
"House, it's only been –"
"It's been long enough."
He sounds, even to his own ears, more determined than usual. He guesses he is, and maybe that's why Cuddy relents, lets go his sleeve.
"Go slowly," she orders, as though she's in control of any of this. "If –"
"I'll stop if it hurts. I know. I'll be fine, Mommy. And if I'm not, luckily for me, you're right here."
She scoffs. Fingers tucking her iPod's headphones into her ears, she tells him, "I'm not wasting my time hovering over you. If you're going to do this, you can deal with the consequences all on your own."
"Good to know."
Without warning, he takes off in the opposite direction she seemed to have been interested in heading in. He's not hoping she will follow as he starts jogging. He's too busy looking down at his feet, as though staring at his steps will make them that much surer. Naturally, House expects her to follow – and she doesn't disappoint, the sound of her shoes scuffing along the ground proof of her predictability. But there is no part of him that secretly hopes she will tag along for his jog.
Especially when it becomes clear that his body is not ready for this.
His leg doesn't hurt, not like it did anyway. But his muscles are unprepared for the sudden burst of movement. They are unpracticed, and he can feel that almost immediately. Within a couple minutes, he can feel his lungs struggling to take in enough air. He's starting to sweat, and his knees burn, the fire spreading down through his calves and shins. His ankles quake each time he makes contact with the ground.
He's not worried that he'll fall, not because of that anyway. Nonetheless, it is a reminder that he is not a young man anymore.
That's okay. At the moment, it doesn't exactly feel like a good thing, but he forces himself to remember that things could be much worse. The past several years, he couldn't even make it this far, he tells himself. This doesn't feel like much; he's not even three minutes in, and he wants to stop, and that feels like failure, because he refuses to let himself think too optimistically. For his own protection, he keeps in the back of his mind the possibility that this will all end abruptly. But at the same time, what he's doing right now is a success, no matter how temporary, even if it doesn't feel like that.
And it really doesn't feel like that when he hits the four-minute mark and has to stop. He's been jogging slowly in the hopes of avoiding the need to quit so soon. But he's so unprepared for the exercise that he has no choice but to immediately come to a halt.
Wheezing, he hunches over, hands on his knees. For a brief second, he smiles even as he tries desperately to catch his breath. But the instant Cuddy's hand is on his back, the grin disappears.
He doesn't need to look at her to know she's concerned. He doesn't need to see her to understand that she isn't out of breath, isn't sweating. He just knows that's the case, and suddenly his small victory feels like anything but. It's not a win if she's bested him.
"I'm fine," he tells her breathlessly before she's even had a chance to ask how he is.
"I told you this was a bad idea." Apparently, concern takes a back seat to reminding him that she was right. "You can't –"
"I'm fine." He straightens back up to reiterate the point.
"You need to sit down."
"I really don't."
She tucks her fingers into the crook of his elbow. His gaze instantly slides to the point of contact and then to her face. As predicted, she isn't sweating; she doesn't even look like she's slightly warmed up.
"Can you walk?" she asks, clearly ignoring everything he's just said. She must assume that the answer is yes, because she starts to tug on him. "Come on."
Weariness makes him compliant. Under normal circumstances, he knows that wouldn't be the case. He wouldn't behave because of exhaustion. The opposite would more likely be true. But right now, knowing she won't listen – knowing she won't leave him alone until she's had her way – forces him into acquiescence.
Secretly, he can admit that the bench she's leading him to is probably a good idea. As his heart rate drops, his body slowly relaxes one more. But it's still in the realm of possibilities that something might happen with his thigh, that the exhaustion he's feeling might make him light headed. He'll never tell her that though.
Visibly irritated, he lets himself be pulled in the direction she wants.
When they get to the bench, she instructs, "Sit down."
"What do you think is about to happen?" he asks curiously, knowing her train of thought because he has considered the same list of possibilities already. He sits anyway.
As she joins him on the rickety bench, she doesn't answer the question. "You have to give it time."
"Then why –"
"Because I wanted to see what would happen."
Their eyes briefly catch sight of one another, the look of her exasperation impossible to miss. But just as quickly as their gazes meet, they turn to the scenery in the park – the trees, a squirrel gathering nuts across the path. Anything that takes his attention away from her is welcome at that moment. It's not that he's afraid of what she might say, quite the opposite; he knows exactly what she's going to say. Maybe not the precise words, but he knows she's going to take the moment to be... nice to him, and he's not interested in anything that will even remotely approach a heart-to-heart.
"I know you want the ketamine to have worked," she says, each word cautiously chosen.
"Of course I do." He is dismissive, unimpressed by her stating the obvious. He starts to speak again, but she is faster at getting her words out.
"But when you push yourself like this –"
"It did work."
That gives her pause. "You don't feel any pain right now?"
"Oh I have considerable pain from this conversation. But from my leg? No."
Cuddy is incredulous. "Then why did you stop?"
"Because," he snaps, rolling his eyes. "The last time I went running, I wasn't missing a chunk of my thigh muscle; Cameron was becoming a woman, and you actually had sex." He looks at her in spite of his previous choices. "So you put that tiny brain of yours to work and tell me why I stopped."
"You didn't feel any pain," she says. She's obviously choosing to ignore the insult and instead looking for clarity. "The ketamine's –"
Her face turns smug with victory. Lips pursed together, she barely suppresses her gleeful smile. Not at all coy, she doesn't understand – or at least doesn't care – that her happiness is almost enough to make him wish the ketamine would fail.
It really is almost enough. Right now, he guesses she's being bearable. But the longer the treatment works, the more she will become convinced that she has single handedly saved him. She'll believe that she has done him a favor, and then any time they're arguing, she'll hold that over his head. And of course, he prefers that to the alternative. That doesn't make it any less annoying though.
"Oh stop," he nearly whines, like that will work.
"I'm not doing anything." But it's clear she knows she is.
"What do you want from me? You want me to thank you? Is that what it's going to take to get you to be slightly less irritating?" There is a bite to the words, but he's not as angry as he could be – as he will be if this continues. Mostly he just sounds put out by the situation… because he is.
He doesn't like the idea of being beholden to Cuddy for anything.
"Thank you," he says with agitation. "There. Now you can run along in your tight-enough-to-give-you-a-yeast-infection pants and –"
"This upsets you." She's still smiling when she has that realization. "You can't stand that I –"
"Won't go away?" he deflects. "That's true. I readily admit that."
She doesn't respond immediately. Perhaps weighing her options, she doesn't say anything at first. But after a small moment of silence, one of her hands pats his knee.
"Fine." She eases herself off of the bench. "I will leave you alone."
But naturally, Cuddy doesn't leave. She's still too worried, he thinks bitterly.
"Are you sure –"
"Go home. Relax. You'll –"
"Be able to outrun you soon enough?" he supplies, knowing that it will push her buttons.
The veins in her neck bulge a little. "I wasn't going to say that."
"Why not? It's true."
"No, it isn't."
"Yes, it –"
"I plan on running four miles today. I can do more than that if I want. There's no chance that you'll ever be able to beat me in a race. You do realize that, right?"
"Maybe not today." His mind tells him definitely not today. "But there is this little concept called building stamina and –"
"It doesn't matter," she says confidently. "I'll always beat you. I always have."
He's not sure what her purpose is. Is she trying to make herself feel better or merely attempting to discourage him from pushing his own body towards fitness? Probably both, he decides. She wouldn't want him to hurt himself, he thinks snidely, as she has demonstrated several times already. But she is a competitive person by nature, and there's no way she'll let him think, even for a moment, that he's just as capable as she is.
"Funny thing about that is it doesn't mean that will always be true."
"Maybe not, but it will be. Now go home before you hurt yourself."
He doesn't, won't – can't, because he is unable to leave the conversation on that note.
"I want a race."
She shrugs. "Okay. But it's not going to be today so –"
"When you're ready. And don't force yourself to –"
"Of how badly you're going to lose?" she shoots back. "A little bit."
He smiles and leans back against the bench. "I don't know. Better start training now if you want a chance at –"
"I am going to beat you."
She must decide not to push the matter further, because she backs down at that moment. Calmly she just tells him, "Let me know when you're ready."
But that never happens.
Impending competition drives him harder than his body can handle. He ignores the signs as long as he can, pushes her concerns away as quickly as he does his own. Yet reality is something he can only stave off for so long. The soreness in his calf muscles spreads, shifts, moves. The pain slowly begins to intensify, like the smallest trickle of water slipping through the cracks of a rock. And then when one day, when he's not looking, the weakness he's overlooked becomes a fact of life once more. A fear he'd ignored in the hopes of keeping it at bay will no longer be ignored, and pain greets him again with icy fingers and the knowledge that they will never be parted past this point. He works so hard to avoid the conclusion he finds himself in, as though denial alone will protect him. But he knows long before the proof ever comes that the ketamine has failed.
They will never have that race.
He is relinquished to the pain, this physical hole the one thing he will never be free of.
She gets stuck with him for a partner in class. Neither is particularly pleased about this. They were originally paired with other people for lab and for the project due at the end of the semester, but their respective partners hated them and teamed up for a switch behind their backs. Again, neither House nor Cuddy is happy about the change.
His motives are neat, simple: he doesn't want a lab partner. He doesn't want to do any of the busy work associated with the class. That's all it comes down to.
Her reasoning is equally obvious though she never explicitly states it. He makes it clear from the beginning that he has no intention of wasting his time doing any of the work. She is a stickler for following the rules, for doing precisely what is required of her as perfectly as possible. She understands that he will be a hindrance to that, which means she'll have to work harder to portray the perfection she's desperately trying to attain. He suspects that that alone would mean little to her. Cuddy feels she has something to prove, and from what he's seen, she's never shied away from doing the work necessary. This is a woman who will run miles in a row until she shaves the predetermined amount of seconds off her laps, until she's satisfied. What would she care about his lack of participation? She wouldn't.
But House is wise enough to know how these things work. His reputation is that of a genius. People hate him, but they know he's smarter than all of them. If their project and lab reports are stellar, he and not she will receive the credit. She'll be written off as someone who rode his coattails, and she doesn't seem like the type who cares about recognition, but she's also not the type to love that rumor. She never says anything about it though, just says when he first meets her in her dorm room, "If you're going to help, help. If you're going to sit there and mock me, I think we both know you have better uses of your time, and you can leave."
"Wow. You'd give up that quickly?"
She looks up from the giant wooden desk she's seated behind. There is an air of authority about her, the oversized furniture making her seem more austere than her lithe body alone would allow on its own. Some day she will do this for a living, he thinks. Power suits her, and there's no doubt that she's smart enough to kiss the right asses in order to get ahead quickly.
But there are cracks in the façade. She's got rubber bands bundled together in balls, paperclips stacked together to form little shapes of people and animals. On the outside, she appears calm, but these knickknacks were created by the hands of someone brimming with energy. Instinctively he relates to this, his own fingers relying on the same physical stimulation while his mind untwines a puzzle. He relates to her, and in that moment, she is no longer a mere object of desire. She is transformed into something far more interesting than an image he can jerk off to.
He doesn't let on.
It is then that she explains, "We both know you don't want to do any of this."
"And you want to do all of it?"
"I want it to be done right," she insists, pulling out a few textbooks and setting them on her desk.
He's confused, amused. "You think I don't know how –"
"As I have told you, I am aware of your reputation," she says through gritted teeth. "I know that you're intelligent. I also know that you're lazy. You have no interest in demonstrating your level of intellect, so assured you are of its existence, which makes you prone to cheating. You haven't been caught – yet – but it's only a matter of time before you will be, because you can't help but believe that you are better than everyone else, so much more clever."
He sits on the edge of the desk, his fingers gingerly moving the paper clip figurines until they're doing something lurid. "If you say so," he tells her, not bothering to confirm or deny her suspicions. "And you think I'd cheat if I were to –"
"If you help, you do it honestly. I don't care if you screw up your career. But you don't have the right to do the same with mine." She is firm. "If you can't be bothered to do it right, I'll do it myself. And if all you're going to do is irritate me, I can do it alone and fill you in later."
"And I'm supposed to just trust that you'll do a good job," he says doubtfully. "You want to do me –"
"I really don't."
"But," he continues, ignoring her entirely. "You don't like me, and I'm supposed to believe that you won't try to screw me over?" He shakes his head. "I don't think so."
She isn't amused. As she lines up highlighters on her desk, she points out, "I have no reason to mess with you."
"But it would be so fun," he says sarcastically.
"Then I guess you're going to have to be a big boy and do the work, aren't you?"
He would scowl at her condescension, but the truth is she's right. She's just interesting enough to have motives he can't easily deduce. And seeing as how she's a wild card in this game, he can't let himself believe that she will do what she must in a way that benefits him as much as it will her. Thus far, she has been unusually immune to his lascivious behavior, and that alone tells him that there's something in her that's a little too much like him.
"You're taking the notes," he says warningly, like this is what he's wanted all along.
And that's how they slowly become… friendly. There is never a friendship between them; remarks about her body, a day of timing her runs, and hours working together only bond them together so much. But those small moments together alone are more than he can handle. The more he is with her, the more he thinks that maybe… it's okay to be with her. An ease between them develops, even as they hurl insults back and forth like the worst of enemies. And he finds himself breaking all of the rules he didn't even know he'd made.
He's starting to like her.
Years afterwards, when he puts that very desk in her office as a peace offering, Wilson comes to him questioningly. If Wilson ever suspected they'd had sex, the gesture seemed to have confirmed it for him.
"This isn't about what happened between you two… then… right?" As he ages and divorces, Wilson seems to be increasingly self-aware that talking about panty peeling is borderline creepy and has made an effort to stave off the impression that he's a pervert. Therefore he won't ask outright (at least not right away) if House had sex with Cuddy on that desk. He'll just hint until euphemism is overcome with the need for a straight answer.
And no matter what House says, the answer is this: he's never had sex on the desk… sadly. If she has, he has no desire to know. In the end, his memory of her, sitting at that desk with frizzy hair and pouty lips, unscrambling the medical mystery in front of her, is far more seductive than the curve of her breasts or hips could ever be. Regardless of his wishes, that image has grabbed hold of him, captured his attention in a way he is no longer eager to ignore. Sometimes he wonders – fears – if that's when he realized there was so much more to her than he had initially believed, if that's when he found himself in love with her.
Rachel is the proof this is not a game. When the pressure of a relationship becomes overbearing, he tries to tell himself that they're just testing this out, having a little fun, seeing what might happen.
Rachel is proof this is a lie.
Cuddy has introduced her to him; she's allowed him to spend time with her daughter. And if those two things alone don't spell out the seriousness of the situation, he's not sure what will. But then, he doesn't need any more to comprehend what he's gotten himself into. As much as he likes to lie to himself, he is aware, and completely so, that he is, in fact, lying. His delusions offer him no comfort, no relief.
With every move he makes, he knows that there is no room for error. If he screws up, he will have to fight for forgiveness, to prove that he has earned this place in Cuddy's life. So too does he understand what success will mean. If this isn't a passing flirtation with one another, then he's in this relationship hoping that it will last. And if he succeeds on that front, then his boss becomes his partner and her child becomes more so his own than he would have ever imagined possible.
He does not take that responsibility lightly.
After the dime incident, he has been hesitant to accept said responsibility, of course. Nearly killing Rachel has made him doubtful of his ability to take care of Rachel. He was always afraid, knowing what failure would mean, but after that, he's even less convinced that he knows what he's doing. And as such he is reluctant to dabble in affairs involving the child. Above all else, she should be safe, and he's afraid that that means limiting her exposure to someone as messed up as he is.
At the same time though, he can't avoid her completely. That would just make Cuddy suspicious and even more doubtful that he could ever blend in to her life. Because of that, he can't say no; he just can't, at the moment anyway, allow himself to volunteer for the job of babysitter.
But he does anyway one rainy Saturday morning when Cuddy wakes up with a migraine that renders her useless. Shaky and nauseous she hurries to the bathroom and retches, which is what he wakes up to at four in the morning. He's quick to force medication down her throat as by his calculation she has only an hour to recover before Rachel starts running around. And for a brief moment, it seems to work.
She pulls away from the toilet long enough for him to take a cool washcloth to her face. The pain eases just long enough for her to thank him for the small paper cup of water he gives her, allowing her to rinse the bile out of her mouth. It's not his instinct to believe the problem is over, as he carefully sinks to the bathroom floor. With caution then, he allows her to curl up against him, her head resting on his lap. The smell of vomit lingers in the air, and he's reluctant to let her anywhere near him as a result; the possibility that she will get sick again is strong. But for a second, it seems like things will be okay.
Then in a rush for the toilet, she gets sick again, and the medicine out of her system, he knows she's going to be out for the rest of the day. Given that she'll be useless, he's tempted sorely to call Marina and then leave.
But in truth, he has done that enough. Cuddy has come to anticipate his abandonment, he knows. Selfishness and fear have led him to slip out doors without a glance back when he thinks she's not looking, and experience has steeled her for betrayal. When she asks him to stay these days, it is little more than an order coupled with as many threats as she can find. If she doesn't ask, she assumes he will leave. And no matter what, when she looks at him, all he sees is the expectation of his disappearance. Forgiveness is easier wanted than earned.
Rationally House knows that her doubt in him is well founded. Fear kept him from her during her cancer scare, made a joke out of his attempt at sobriety. She needed him there, and he went for the Vicodin instead. One seemingly endless break up and several promises to do better later, they were back together… but the sting of betrayal has lingered for her.
He's not surprised.
His behavior then was nothing short of disgusting. The addict in him, his inherent selfishness, led him to believe he wasn't doing anything wrong, but he can see now he nearly lost everything. He left her to face the threat of cancer alone. He caused her to doubt, and if she assumes he'll head for the door again at any given moment, it's only a reasonable conclusion she's come to, based on his actions. But that inspires a resolution of his own; if she doesn't trust him, he must do whatever it takes to change that. That means if he wants to leave now, he can't. If he doesn't want to watch Rachel, he has to do just that. Past mistakes have backed him into a corner, and he needs to find a way out. He needs to make this right, a fact that only furthers his understanding that this isn't a game.
If only for the way he has begun to treat their relationship, he knows that this is far more serious than he's let on in the past. And though it scares him to be aware of that, he can no longer deny it either. He has to do what is necessary to be with Cuddy.
The thought is a solemn one, a resolute one, and firm to that fact, he doesn't allow himself a moment to question what he's doing. Without hesitation, he gives up on the idea that he'll be anywhere but here today.
"If you think you can handle it, let's try to get you back in bed," he whispers softly. She still cringes at the sound of his voice, noise too much for her pounding head. But she offers no protest when he stands up. When he starts to help her up though, that's a different story.
The next couple of minutes pass stressfully. He knows the only way through this is to have her sleep it off. She can't stomach the medicine, and he can't leave her on the bathroom floor all day. Getting her to bed is a priority. But if he jostles her too much, she'll get sick. Avoiding that though is hardly easy. Every movement she makes seems to turn her a more vibrant shade of green. When standing or walking is too much, she has to stop and lean against him, with her eyes closed and breathing deep. And he has no choice but to let her do this, to patiently wait for her to ride it out. He wants to tell her that it will be okay, that they are that much closer to the bed. But as her migraine progresses, she'll become increasingly sensitive to noise. Instead of making her feel better, he'll accomplish the opposite. So he stays quiet and silently helps her forward, and eventually he gets her where she needs to be.
He tucks her into bed and kisses her temple. The act is meant to be one of kindness, but it just makes her groan. He guesses that's to be expected. Given that she's still queasy, he waits until she has settled to move; there's a part of him that itches to uncharacteristically fuss over her, but he resists the urge.
When she's finally relaxed, he ensures she will stay that way. Gingerly he gets up. To the block the light out, he draws the curtains closed as quietly as he can. Returning to the nightstand, he turns off the baby monitor and pockets both his cell phone and hers.
Now that there are no distractions in the room, he feels comfortable leaving. But he's not going to stop there. Heading straight for the kitchen, he wants to make sure she'll have everything she needs for the next while.
A glance at the clock reminds him that Rachel will be awake soon, so he knows he has to work fast. He pulls a sleeve of saltines out and places them on a breakfast tray. Then as he boils water for tea, he pours a glass of seltzer. When he finally has everything in place, a mug of piping hot black and ginger tea freshly brewed, he heads back to the bedroom.
In truth he probably could have waited to do this part. She's not going to touch any of it for a long time, and the tea will be cold by then. Then again, if he waited, he would have to do all of this and deal with Rachel, which is less than ideal. Better to do one thing at a time, he tells himself.
That becomes exponentially more obvious when he enters the nursery. After taking care of Cuddy, he decides it would be best to sit near Rachel so that he's right there to grab her before she screams that she's awake. But the second he pushes past the door, he sees that he is almost too late. Because there Rachel is, one leg swung over the crib's gate.
Being the handful that she is, she has heard him coming apparently. She knows she's not supposed to get out of her bed like this. In recent weeks, Cuddy has tried to convince her that it's time to sleep in a "big girl bed," but Rachel has resisted the change. At the time, House didn't understand why she would prefer to be cooped up in her crib, but he gets it now. This just isn't a bed for her; she treats the thing like a jungle gym too… which she must know she's not allowed to do. Because she's not just climbing on the gate when he comes into the room. As though she's afraid of getting in trouble, she is, as he sees, trying to climb back into the crib.
The last thing he needs is for Rachel to hurt herself, so he moves to stand behind her in case she falls. "What are you doing?" he asks in a voice he makes intentionally light. "You know you're not supposed to get out of –"
"In," she insists, sitting down in her crib as though she wasn't just trying to get out.
He reaches in to pick her up. As soon as he's got a hold of her, she announces, "I pooped."
She doesn't need to say it. It's obvious to him the instant she is in his arms. Cuddy likes to claim the kid is potty trained, and he guesses Rachel is. She's trained to crap her pants accidentally only when he's responsible for taking care of her.
He grimaces. "Of course you did." His disgust only makes her smile.
By the time he's finished changing her, she's giggling at him with such earnest that it makes him wonder what kind of person it is Cuddy is raising Rachel to be.
Of course he's probably not helping matters. After breakfast, he lets her watch TV. Or rather he lets her watch TV with him. Since Peep And The Big Wide World doesn't interest him, she's being entertained by something obviously inappropriate.
"That's Jenny," he explains, knowing – hoping – Rachel won't pick up on anything he's saying. "Chuck, who's now her step-brother, sort of, tried to rape her in the series premiere. You'd think the writers would remember that before having her dad marry Chuck's former-step-mother-turned guardian or before having Jenny lose her virginity to him. But you would be wrong."
Rachel just stares at the television in interest. He concedes then that if anything goes wrong with the kid as a person, he's more the cause than Cuddy. But he's not sure what to do about that. He'd feel as though he would be overstepping his boundaries if he started to decide what was in Rachel's best interests. Surely, she shouldn't be watching CW programming (no living creature should). But to tell her no, to censor his words, tastes in television, or anything else… he's not comfortable with that. He's not her father, and it's not his place to act like one. Just the idea that his relationship with Cuddy is headed that way is enough to make him feel sick.
It doesn't help that the last time he really tried to tell Rachel what to do, she ate money and made his life hell. He's involved himself in getting her into a good school, he supposes. But the success of clicker training aside, his efforts were a failure all around. That was just confirmation that he has no business involving himself in this little girl's childhood. But he's not willing to give up his relationship with Cuddy in order to protect the kid.
He pushes onward to be with Cuddy, to give himself the happiness and love he wants though hasn't earned. Eventually this will come to a head; a choice will have to be made. For now though, he's content to act as though this is leading nowhere, as though nothing will go wrong with this act. He's just being a good boyfriend, a last minute babysitter.
It's a struggle not to overthink it.
That said, the day goes unusually smoothly. When she gets bored of watching TV, Rachel plays with her dolls quietly at House's feet. She eats what he makes her for lunch, goes down easily at naptime, and is, much to his astonishment, empty of change, magnets, lint, sand, and anything else that might seem edible to a child her age.
Better still, after he leaves Rachel, he goes to take a shower, and Cuddy is… improving. She's not one hundred percent, of course, but she's sitting up, drinking the tea that has gone cold.
"Think you can swallow a pill?" If she's conscious, he doesn't want to lose the opportunity to get medicine inside her. Most likely coming to the same conclusion, she tiredly nods her head. Once he's handed her another dose of the drugs she threw up earlier, he can't help but joke, "And I didn't even make a blow job joke."
Her smile is weak. "That must have been tough for you."
"You have no idea," he says, helping her back to bed.
Illness has her fast asleep in no time, and he leaves her to shower.
The hot water feels good against his tired body and aching thigh. The heat eases the pain he can't escape, and slowly he starts to relax. So too though does the warmth surrounding him bring to the surface the effects of being awoken so early. Sleepy he would like nothing more than to use Rachel's naptime as his own. But before he even has a chance to lie down, Rachel is shouting his name.
Part of him hopes, foolishly, that she'll give up if he doesn't come right away and go back to sleep. Naturally though that doesn't happen. She just gets louder.
It's loud enough that the noise wakes Cuddy with a groan.
"Wuh?" Eyes closed she turns her head in his direction. She groans again as she realizes what's going on and then offers weakly, "Want me to –"
"No. You rest."
There's no time for reluctance. If he hesitates, she'll force herself to get up. So he hurries to Rachel once more.
The situation steadily goes downhill from there. Her short nap and his non-existent one create a bad combination. She's awake enough to want to play but too tired to find satisfaction in anything. He's sleepy and busy resenting the urge to be short-tempered to put all his focus on finding something fun to do. He just wants to set Rachel up with something so he can sleep. Nothing seems to work though.
She won't sit still to watch television – not even the stupid cartoons she's fond of. Every time he tries, she whines, fights him off, and runs away as quickly as she can go.
The same thing happens when he tries to get her to color or play with her dolls. She's cranky and unwilling to even try to have fun.
Reading to her works in silencing her for five minutes. Then she's trying to shove the book closed.
"Sweetie, I can't read if you do that," he says, trying to be nice.
"I don't want you to read no more."
Given their moods, he doesn't bother to keep reading. It's not like he's dying to find out what happens anyway. All the while knowing he's running out of options, he lets her hop off his lap.
Leaning back in the rocking chair in her room, he asks, "What do you want to do?" He's trying to keep his irritation at bay. He really is. It's clear he's not succeeding. "We're running out of options."
She sways back and forth out of boredom. In a singsong voice, she says, "I don't know."
"Want to play with your Barbies?"
"Watch some more Peep?"
He thinks. "Um… how about you color in your coloring book?"
"No! I wanna play a game," she says with a stomp of her foot.
He's relieved that they're getting somewhere. "What kind of a game?" Secretly he hopes it's hide and go seek. He could make her go hide. And if he were to have an unusually difficult time seeking her, well, that would be all right, wouldn't it?
Her answer, however, is a frustrating, "I don't know."
"Hide and go seek?" he suggests outright. There's no harm in not being subtle.
"Okay. How about we play the napping game?" Rachel, having never heard of such a thing, seems slightly intrigued. "You and I go to sleep and whoever stays in bed the longest –"
"No," she says sharply, her eyes narrowed on him like she understands what he's trying to do.
He looks at her carefully. No, he thinks. He has no idea what kind of person she'll grow up to be. But one thing he'll say for certain is that she won't be a fool. Whatever she'll be, unfortunately for him today, she's not stupid.
He notices the dog-eared pamphlet peeking out from between two books on one of the shelves in her dorm room. The first day he was there, he memorized the layout as best he could so that he might notice when something changed. Others might have called that obsessive; he just wanted to be able to torment her to the best of his abilities.
The new addition capturing his curiosity, he doesn't bother to hide his interest as he heads straight for the bookshelf. Cuddy must assume he's getting one of the texts to help with their homework, because she doesn't even notice what he's doing until he says judgingly, "Rock climbing?"
She looks up in surprise at the sound of his voice. When she sees the pamphlet in his hand, she rolls her eyes. "Someone handed me one at the student union. It doesn't mean anything."
"The whitening of the spine says you've been opening it frequently though. Means you're thinking about it."
"So what? Why does it matter if I'm interested in –"
"It doesn't matter. I'm just surprised. I would think your sport of choice involves you going down, not up."
She doesn't miss a beat. "My knees got tired."
House has to suppress his smile. "Well, you're not gonna find any relief climbing this mud pile," he says, tossing the brochure back down on the bookshelf. "It sucks."
"You've climbed it," she deduces with some measure of shock. She's watched him play lacrosse, but apparently there's still some part of her that's reluctant to see anything remotely athletic about him.
He nods his head. "Once. Where it wasn't muddy, the rock was chossy, which will be particularly problematic if your thighs go thundering up those hills."
She ignores the insult though her demeanor comes across as strained. She wants to seem conversational when she speaks, but her irritation isn't completely hidden. "As much as it pleases you to assume I have the abilities of a blow up doll –"
"I have rock climbed before."
"Really?" He's not so much doubtful as lazily curious. Or really, it's not so much curiosity as it is a reluctance to do the work they've been tasked to do. "Based on the texture of your skin on –"
"Why are you paying attention to that?"
"Soft hands. Not even a bruise on your shins or knees. You might run around a track, but there's nothing about you that suggests you like getting dirty," he explains.
"My father used to take us on hikes whenever we were on vacation. I like the view." Her own explanation is curt, without any emotion whatsoever.
He hates that he finds this intriguing. She should bore him by now. Yet the more time he spends with her, the more he wants to – which he can't stand. Even more unbearable is the fact that this byproduct of their encounters is entirely unintentional. At no point has she tried to be interesting. For whatever reason he hangs on every word, but this hasn't ever been her goal.
The temptation to bang his head against a wall hits him hard. Nevertheless he hears himself asking, "How's your rope work?" She doesn't say she's inexperienced, but the look on her face tells him that she is. And then much to his chagrin, he's offering, "Well, if you're serious about going, you're going to need to be good at that. I guess I can –"
"You want to come with me?" she asks with an amused scoff.
He cocks an eyebrow. "I was going to say I could give you some tips, so you don't fall off the cliff and die."
"Oh." She shifts in her seat uncomfortably. "Okay."
"But it is interesting that you thought I was offering –"
"Don't read into it, House."
"No?" He contemplates doing just that, his mind toying with the idea. If she believed he was interested in going with her, if said belief didn't immediately create disgust, then it means something, he thinks. But then… what's the point of him considering that? If she doesn't like him, then any attention paid to the idea makes it seem like he's the one who's interested. And if she does like him, then House, who certainly does not like her, has no reason to excavate that fact from her. Digging for an admittance would mean he could hold it over her head, sure. But then he would also have to deal with the consequences of that knowledge, and he's not in the mood for that. Besides, he's, for whatever reason, ready to offer to take her, just as she wanted. If wanting him to come is a sign of something bigger, surely his acquiescence means far worse.
"Fine," he says, knowing that no good can come from pursuing the subject. "I'll take you." His tone makes it sound like he's doing her a favor; he tells himself that he is. "And don't read into that," he tells her haughtily.
It takes her a moment to reply, "No."
"No?" He scowls in dismay. "You're going to assume it means something – after I purposely refrained from doing the same thing to –"
"No, I mean no, you don't need to take me," she says with agitation.
Her rejection is keen. Looking at her, he can tell that it's also honest. She's not trying to hide a desire for him to tag along; she really doesn't want him to go.
Immediately he begins to wonder if he's misjudged the situation.
Then she explains, "You admitted you've done it once. That hardly makes you an expert."
"I've done that area once," he admits. "But I've been rock climbing since I was teenager." Her doubt galls him. "And I'm pretty damn good at it too."
She seems almost amused by his offense, soft smile lazily tugging at the corners of her lips. She picks up a pen and lets it wind through her fingers. "Did I upset you?" The pleasure in her voice is unmistakable but thankfully wanes quickly. "Well, I didn't mean to. I'm just surprised you and I have something in common."
It's not hard for him to read between the lines.
"We have plenty in common," he counters. "A class, interest in the same profession and the way your ass looks in those jeans." She rolls her eyes, and he continues. "You're not surprised we have something in common, even if it is something most wouldn't assume two med students would be interested in. You're surprised that I might be good at something you're not. You're surprised that I might be better –"
"In order for that to be true, I would have to believe that years of alleged practice have paid off in any way."
She shrugged. "I have no reason to doubt, but I also have no reason to be jealous."
"We'll see about that." It is a declaration. Whether she wants to admit it or not, she is doubting his capabilities. And right now what he wants more than anything is to prove her wrong, to take her to the top of that cliff and then force her to concede that she was wrong to doubt him.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that because you think I'm lying, I have to prove otherwise."
"You really don't."
But her protestations get her nowhere. That Sunday he picks her up at six a.m. to take her rock climbing. He anticipates a fight to get her to go along with him, but she's ready, dark curls barely contained in a ponytail and perfect breasts tragically hidden beneath a Michigan sweatshirt.
"Don't be so disappointed," she tells him.
He can only say, "Let's go."
They're quiet in the car. She keeps her attention on a thick book in her lap, which she's been reading for their project for a week now; every once in a while, she'll bite her lip in thought or offer him a tidbit of information that he's supposed to find interesting. But it's rare that he responds, and any attempt at conversation dies almost as quickly as it begins.
He's not complaining though. The hour-long drive passes easily enough and without issue. Perhaps on its own, the trip would bore him. Including her, however, keeps his mind occupied. Simply put, the current state of things surprises and confuses him. This may be a hobby they surprisingly have in common (and who would have guessed that?). But there has been no attempt on either of their parts to bond. They have both maintained a lack of interest in any kind of friendship. When they're together, he talks about her body, and she focuses on the work in front of them. That's it. Half the time (okay, more than half) they aren't even remotely kind to one another. He thinks she's an idiot, and she knows he's an ass, and they work together well but without any delusions as to how they feel about each other. And yet…
They're getting along.
The silence between them is easy and friendly.
It confounds him quite frankly, and in her silence, he finds mental stimulation in trying to explain how all of this has come to be. They've never wanted to like one another, but somehow… they're acting like they do.
He tries his best to come up with an explanation but can't. And when they're finally standing at the base of the cliff, all thought over the matter ceases. No doubt his mind will return to that line of thought later, but for now, his attention shifts to the jagged rock in front of them.
It's actually quite beautiful, he thinks. The sky is perfectly blue with clouds rounder and bigger than Cuddy's ass, which he believes is truly saying something. Grass dots the face of the cliff, frequent footsteps etching a thick slash of brown through the ground. The lack of rain recently has removed the mud he remembers so vividly from the first time he was here, and for that, he's grateful.
Not that that makes what they are about to do any easier, of course.
Cuddy leans down to retie her shoes, which gives him time to eye the stone he's planning to top. Standing at the base of the mountainous area, he is no longer as sure as he was in her dorm room. Memories erode his confidence, the last time he went rock climbing with someone else suddenly hitting him at full force.
The smell of blood and sweat feels real once more, the scent trickling in like a phantom in the air. He recalls the sounds of bones hitting the earth, the cries of his friend – the pleas from him for help, for life, for death, for anything that would make the pain go away.
Sometimes House wonders if that – not the buraku – was what made him become a doctor in the end, if it was the helplessness then that has spurred him on since. Maybe it was as much about the freedom purpose creates as it was the freedom being right has. Carrying that boy, he was able to do nothing but hope his strength would last the long hike back to the base. His arms trembled, legs barely able to cope with the extra weight, and the thought of what might happen should he not get them back was inescapable. He had no medical training, no means of aiding the kid's recovery or ensuring his survival. And looking back at the situation now, he's not sure there's a feeling worse than that.
He stands there uncomfortably full with memory. But he doesn't panic or become afraid of what might happen with Cuddy this time. In the years since he's done this with someone else, he has grown. He has learned. Recollection makes him uneasy, but he has no reason to let the feeling be known.
If anything, gazing upon the small mountainside, he becomes more confident as to how this will turn out. Most people would only see the rock, the immensity of the task before them. But he does not cower away.
He only sees choreography, chess.
A foot there, hand grabbing onto a small indentation here, rope reliance at this point – the movements are clear, as obvious a path as the road he drove on was.
There are some intricacies, of course. His companion isn't nearly as tall, doesn't have the same upper body strength. Then again, she has smaller feet and hands, which gives her access to places he'd never be able to fit in.
His head tilting to the side, he suspects there's a pussy joke in there somewhere.
"I'm ready," she interrupts as she stands back up.
He nods his head once but doesn't say anything. Given the direction his thoughts are headed, it's probably for the best.
So they silently get started.
As they make their way toward the top, her skill level takes him by surprise. There's no way she could do this on her own, he realizes. But she's not completely useless either, which shocks him. Really, her reliance on his guidance isn't nearly as oppressive as he thought it would be, and, not that he'll admit it, but the journey is less unbearable than he imagined.
At least, he believes that until they're three quarters of the way to the top. Up to that point, she is eager to do as he tells her. Not once does she second guess holding onto a crumbling ledge or putting all of her weight on a foot that's barely got anything beneath it to support her. In fact, for the majority of the journey, she's not a pain in the ass, amazingly enough.
And then they hit the last portion of the climb.
They're both sweaty, in need of a cool place to sit and an even colder glass of water. He's tired but not taking a short cut when he says, "Grab here."
She hesitates to reach for a small crevice in the cliff side.
He understands her reluctance. There's barely enough space for her hand, and at this point, he is aware (as no doubt is she) that one wrong move and subsequent fall could end in injury. But he expects her to listen to him as she has throughout the day thus far.
Her vehemence takes him aback. Until now she's trusted him, and her decision not to do so now puts him off his game.
"No?" His confusion is obvious, but he doesn't wait for an explanation. Dangling off the side of a cliff, they are in no position for discussion. "You'll be fine," he is quick to add.
She doesn't reach for it.
She shakes her head. "I can't."
Given her feelings, another person would have looked for another path. He doesn't. He has no doubt that she can reach the ledge he's pointing towards. He knows he hasn't miscalculated her abilities.
That can only mean whatever the issue is is something he's not aware of. Since there's nothing he can see, the problem has to be one inside of her. Fear is an obvious answer, but it rings false. Surely she wouldn't have come if she were afraid of heights.
"What's wrong?" he asks roughly, fed up with speculation even before he's started.
Her voice quivers slightly. "I can't reach it."
"What? Of course you can."
"No." As though she doubts herself, she lifts her hand a little. For a second he thinks she'll go for it. Almost instantly though she pulls back. "No. It's too far."
"No, it's not," he insists, shaking his head at her behavior. "You're fine."
"No, I –"
"No. You can. It's completely within reach."
"And if I miss –"
"Nothing will happen."
And it won't. They've been working side by side the last five feet or so, and he's right next to her now; even if they didn't have some precursory safety gear, she's so close that he would be able to stop her from falling too far.
"You don't know –"
"Actually I do, because I'm right next to you, and I can see that you can –"
"Shut up, House."
"You're wrong. I can't do it," she snaps in a rush of hatred aimed at him. "You are wrong."
He doesn't say anything at first. Her rage – that's the only way he can describe it: rage – silences him. Out of place, it gives him pause, makes him realize that he can't force her to do what he wants as things are. He has to change tactics.
After a moment, he tells her calmly, "All right. Stay where you are. Don't move." For whatever reason, his words seem to upset her more.
"Why? What are you going to do?" She's suspicious of him, her eyes darting back and forth between him and the rock she's clinging to.
His response is to descend the cliff, his actions swift but calculated. Carefully he gets closer to her, his feet scraping against the work, until he's eventually right below her.
"House?" Her voice wavers though he thinks that might be a trick of the wind and nothing more.
He talks louder so that she'll hear him. "Okay. I'm right below you." He reaches up and presses a hand to the back of her leg. It's just enough for her to feel, not enough (he hopes) to scare her. "You screw up, I'm here. You fall, I'll be the one –"
"This is stupid," she complains.
On that they agree, but he keeps that thought to himself. It won't help him to say anything negative, not right now anyway. At this point he doesn't care if they continue onward or abandon the cliff altogether. Either way, he needs to ensure a little cooperation from her if he wants things to move forward.
"I'm right here. All you have to do is reach up and grab the ledge." She looks up at what she's supposed to grab, considers it. "Just trust me," he implores. "I'm right about this. You're going to be fine."
She thinks about it some more, then says, "If you're wrong –"
"I'll jump to my death to avoid hearing you bitch about how I was wrong," he finishes.
He knows it's not the promise of his own death that motivates her. He doesn't mean it enough for it to be believable. If she moves at all, he guesses it will be because she's just as sick of the stalemate as he is.
Yet for a moment, all thought of potential motivation seems unnecessary. Her gaze is fixated on the spot in the cliff, but she isn't doing what he has told her to. Fear or something equally powerful stays her hand, overrides whatever interest she has in rock climbing or in trusting him. He waits for her to do what he wants, but as time stretches on, it seems less likely that she ever will.
If that's the case, he wonders what his next move must be. They can't stay like this forever.
Just as he thinks that however, she makes her move. Her body leans into the rock, feet hugging the ledge as best she can to protect herself from the breeze. Fingers outstretched, she reaches up.
She grabs hold of the crevice in the face of the earth.
Not once does she falter.
Not even for a second does it seem like she might fall or be hurt in some way.
He is vindicated.
He is right.
As he climbs back to his original position, he notices the embarrassment on her face. She should be ashamed, he thinks. But that is a thought he doesn't share – at least not until they reach the top.
Then, when he doesn't need her cooperation any longer, he feels free to share how he feels. The second they catch their breaths, he's telling her, "See? I was right."
She's hunched over, wiping sweat and dirt off her hands, so he can't see how his words go over. He assumes not well. And that suspicion is confirmed when she speaks.
"Yes. You were. Thank you."
Although he has no intention of dropping the subject, he lets it go for now. Her tone is lethal, and he's not entirely sure she'll resist an urge to push him off the cliff right now.
"Come on," he says, gesturing for her to start moving. "There's a stream with good water not too far from here. We can walk and get a drink before we head back down."
She glances back to the spot on the ridge they just appeared over. "Wouldn't it just be faster to go back down to the car?"
"Forgive me if I'm not in the mood to head down just yet."
She must be aware of her mistake, because she follows him in silence. Then when they reach the stream, she tries to placate him – a sure sign of guilt. With a forced smile, she says, "This was a good idea. It's pretty."
It is. Only a mile or so away from where they climbed, the stream is small, surrounded by lush trees and the sound of chirping birds. But he can't find it in himself to be lulled by the peaceful setting. His words aren't nearly as kind.
"It was. You'll find that I'm always almost eventually right."
"I'll keep that in mind."
It almost sounds like a promise, her solemn demeanor giving credence to that idea. With the utmost seriousness, she scoops handfuls of water into her mouth. If she has it in her to fight back, she isn't. But looking at her, he's sure his harsh words have done their job. The delicate sound of her slurping and the trickle of water around him leave enough room for his guilt to sneak in in the silence.
He looks away from her. He tells himself he doesn't have any reason to feel bad, but rational thought does little for him. It's clear that she has no intention of denying her mistake – something he has pushed her toward. He won't pretend like that wasn't what he wanted all along. But in getting it, he feels as though he has been ungracious, hurtful in a way he didn't need to be.
Well, it's her own fault, he thinks stubbornly. The least she could have done was come out the gate admitting that she had overreacted. She could have said that he'd been right all along without needing the prompt. Even now, when she has fallen silent, it has been mostly through his force that any mistake on her part has been admitted. Suddenly he doesn't feel bad anymore. Nevertheless, he is grateful that she finally – finally – accepts that he wasn't wrong.
For that reason, he decides there's no point in punishing her any further by lashing out. He has gotten what he wanted. His frustration dissipates with her capitulation, and it would be cruel to force the issue of her screw up any longer.
Sitting on the grass next to her, he wonders why it matters to him anyway. Why does he want her to trust his judgment? Why is her failure to do so so galling? And why, most importantly, does he hesitate now to rub her nose in her mistake? He would never feel bad if this were anyone else.
He comprehends, fears, that the answers to those questions aren't good ones.
Thus a distraction is necessary.
He takes a few sips of water, hoping that the cool drink will help him clear his mind. But long after he stops feeling parched, the questions bothering him remain.
So he asks one out loud.
In as non-threatening a way as possible, he breaks the silence. "What happened?"
"I don't know" is her immediate response. The look on her face says she doesn't, the honesty coming to her naturally, surprisingly enough. "That's the first time that's – I don't know. That's never happened before."
She seems convincing enough. Looking at her, he sees that she's not lying. But then… it's not a satisfying answer either.
Just as he waits for her to say more, she adds, "I didn't think I was afraid of heights." Nervously she dips her hand into the stream. Her fingertips dance atop the softly flowing water. "Maybe I am though. I must have looked down too long."
That doesn't ring true to him. If she's gone rock climbing before (and her skills prove that she has), he knows she's used to the disorienting terror that instinctively bubbles up within you when you're looking down. If she's as experienced as her body says she is, she is capable of suppressing that fear. In the very least, if she weren't capable of doing that, she would have never considered taking the pamphlet about rock climbing when it had been initially offered to her. Since she did take it, since she was willing to come with him, her so-called fear of heights is really something else.
Distrust in him perhaps?
Possibly. She said she used to go rock climbing with her father; that's definitely different than going with someone she doesn't really know. Maybe.
Whatever the reason, she must be afraid House will stumble upon the truth. Surely it's not a coincidence that she takes off her sweatshirt at that moment. It's warm out, but by the water, it's definitely not hot. The heat of their climb has worn off, so if she's disrobing, there's a reason – and his body makes that reason obvious.
His gaze and thoughts instantly divert to her cleavage, the way her white tank top clings to her breasts and reveals just a sliver of the pale flesh beneath. No, he thinks, that would not be a choice she made happenstance. But the way her body looks right now dissolves any irritation he might feel about her diversion.
"If you're so attracted to me," she says in amusement, drawing his eyes upward once more. "Why don't you do something about it?"
He blinks. "Such as?"
"You could kiss me," she suggests nonchalantly.
He looks at her mouth, those sweet lips, for a second. It's a tempting offer.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he throws back. It would be too easy to just give into the attraction. He would like to (maybe), but it would be too simple, would feel like he were accepting defeat. Until she admits that she feels the same way, he alone cannot say those things, act on his desires. He can't surrender alone – that's what it comes down to.
But she is equally stubborn. "How do you figure?"
"Oh I'm sorry. Do you always tell men you aren't attracted to to kiss you?"
She leans in close – his heart thunders at the possibility of what she might do, mind tries to unravel the mystery of her behavior. Will she admit it? Will she kiss him? Is this what she wants? Is he insane for thinking any of this is a good idea?
His eyes start to close. He wants this –
And then she says coyly, "Maybe."
She'll never give in before he does. When he opens his eyes, that's what he sees: determination, stamina.
Just like that, the moment is over. He thinks he might hate her for making this so difficult. On the other hand, she is all the more attractive for being just as pig-headed, just as much of a challenge as he is. He respects that, is drawn to it, even as he despises it.
No matter what though, he won't give in. He won't. If she wants this, she'll have to give in to their chemistry before he does. Until then, he will hold out.
Abruptly he pulls away from her. She won't admit she wants him today. Knowing that, he is cold to her as he stands.
"Come on. Let's go home," he says in a voice that approaches command.
There is no room for disagreement. They got close to taking the next step, but they won't – not today. They've had their fun, and now…
Now it's time to return to reality.
The lit fireplace and candles cast the room in gloomy shadows. The storm that knocked their power out has calmed to a quiet drizzle, rain pinging against the windowpane. Half empty wine glasses nestled between a barely touched bowl of popcorn and packet of Twizzlers, it all amounts to what should be a romantic evening with Cuddy. Their plans of watching a movie together have been ruined because of a stray tree hitting some power lines nearby, and that alone should have him in a good mood; he got to avoid another one of Owen Wilson's awful movies (it was, sadly, her pick tonight), which is reason enough to celebrate). And yet the mood in the room is decidedly not romantic, and he's definitely not happy right now.
In a brief moment of reflection, he realizes that this is all his fault. When the power went out, he could have gotten one of their laptops to finish the movie. He could have suggested they go to bed, an untimely end to their night, yes, but one that surely would have been more fun than this.
Unfortunately, he went with option C: playing a game of Scrabble.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. He had no desire to watch his girlfriend get hot and bothered by Owen Wilson. And since it was a Saturday night, he also had no interest in going to bed at nine; sex would have prolonged sleep for a while, but afterwards, it would still be too early for bed. So why not beat her at a game they both enjoyed playing?
Well… that's not how things are turning out. He sees that now. At first, when he started to lose, he tried to distract her by making all of his words sexual. She knew what he was doing; he wouldn't insult her intelligence by pretending otherwise. Yet she tolerated his antics and even went so far as to laugh at some of the slang he was putting on the board one wooden tile at a time.
He understands now why.
All of those four letter words were entertaining, not distracting. She's played just as well with his strategy in place. Instead of closing the gap, he has efficiently widened it. And of course, just as he's about to do some serious damage by getting a triple word score with the phrase, "with squirrel," she protests.
"That's not a word."
"Sure it is." It's not. "Means pregnant."
She sets her glass of wine down roughly, cabernet dangerously sloshing close to the rim. Her agitation prevents her from noticing.
"It does not," she says in a high and mighty tone – like there's nothing worse than cheating at Scrabble. Their relationship has made them a team against the outside world, but it has done nothing to remove the inherent competitiveness between them.
He reaches for a piece of licorice sitting nearby. As he plucks the candy red strand from the plastic bag, he deflects. Mouth full, he says, "You've had more wine than I thought if you think that's true."
She's unmoved. "I'm not nearly drunk enough to believe that 'with squirrel' means –"
"But it does."
"Even if that were true and you know it's not, it's two words."
"That didn't bother you when I spelled out, 'eat –'"
"No, it's not."
"House. I've let you cheat for half the game, and you're still losing. You might cut the amount you're losing by, but until you play the game seriously, I'm going to continue to kick your ass." She tosses her hands up in defeat. "So if you want to keep screwing around, by all means, cheat. It doesn't bother me a bit."
She's too at ease for him to write it off as a bluff. She really doesn't care, and considering she'll still be up fifty points even if he adds squirrel to her with, that's not hard to understand why. The best he can do is narrow the gap, not close it, and after this, what will he do? He'll be stuck with writing variations of ass for the rest of the game.
"Well?" she interrupts impatiently. "Are you going to make a move or not?"
She rolls her eyes. By now she has no doubt surmised based on the current score and number of tiles left that she will win. Hell, even he knows it, if he's being completely honest. The only way he'll win is if she becomes distracted or overly confident that she blows the entire game. No, he thinks, she's got to screw up and he has to play perfectly in order to win. Her actions clearly say she doesn't think that will happen.
House, however, hasn't given up. It's likely he'll lose, but defeat will be that much harder to swallow if he doesn't fight to the very end. She'll be that much more annoying if he quits now.
"Okay," she says, cutting off his thought process. He begins to suspect that she's doing that intentionally. "While you decide how to use a q to spell a euphemism for vagina –"
"Quim" is his thoughtless remark.
She pays no attention to the comment.
"I'm going to call the hospital and make sure they still have power. Try to figure something out without cheating while I'm gone."
Never mind that she has already called twice and received reports saying that everything is fine. Forget that she is aware the downed tree has only cut off power to the neighborhood and that the hospital has a few generators in case of emergencies like this. She has chosen to overreact, and he's let her. She's put too much work into running the hospital to overlook possible crises. She cares too much, and just as she has checked on Rachel several times, Cuddy isn't willing to neglect her other baby either. He understands this; in the two years they've dated, he's seen just how deep her love for her job goes. He would be moronic to try to come between that, especially since he can use her distraction to his advantage.
The second she turns away from him, he sees that a diversion is in order. Dirty words are great, but they haven't been effective. He needs something bigger, something surprising. Offensiveness will be expected of him, so he must do better. He needs –
She walks to the kitchen to grab her cell phone, and he makes his move. In a whirlwind of hands swiping through the remaining tiles, he scurries to find what he needs. Unfortunately the letters he has won't help much.
Two Rs immediately pop up; he takes them. Blocks hit the cardboard lid as he rummages for an A. He grabs an E underneath an upturned C and sets it aside. In the background he hears Cuddy asking the unlucky bastard on the other end the same questions she asked twenty-two minutes ago. He grabs an M, another M. He can't find an A, but another E will work well enough, he supposes. He doesn't have time to keep looking, not when Cuddy's reaching the end of her laundry list of questions. It'll get the message across anyway.
Half his attention focused on the noise coming from the kitchen, he can sense the relief in her voice. She's going to hang up, and he's still a letter short. Without thinking, he goes to plan B the Y he needs.
Practically diving for the licorice, he struggles to pull a Twizzler out of the bag. His fingers struggle on the waxy candy, but there's success the second Cuddy says, "Goodbye."
Frazzled he rushes to arrange the words.
Just as she returns, he finishes, sits back.
"What are you doing?" she asks suspiciously.
"I know it will be hard for you, having never been hooked on phonics and all, but you could try reading."
"Just because you're losing doesn't mean you need to have a bad attitude," she lectures as she glances downward.
The wine and candlelight slow her reaction time, and she leans down to make out precisely what he's written on the coffee table.
"Merr and what's that? A mangled V? Merr-V me?"
"What? No." He leans forward to make sure he wrote it right. The tail on his Y is too short, but it's still not very V-like. "That's a Y."
She closes her eyes, exhales. "You mean merry – spelled incorrectly. Marry me?"
"Couldn't find the A or the Y," he says with a shrug. "But you get the message."
Her eyes open once more. Then they narrow on him. "This is a joke."
"Of course it's not." Technically it's not a lie. This isn't a joke; it's not an honest question, but he's not kidding. He's distracting.
"Right," she says doubtfully, hands moving to her hips. "You're proposing to me. With Scrabble tiles –"
"The first time I said I love you, we were playing a game of –"
"And gnawed on Twizzlers," she continues, ignoring him.
"I couldn't –"
"Find the letters. So you've said. And what? No ring?"
He's not so stupid as to say no now. She's not about to accept a proposal, of course. But she is about to unravel his [fairly obvious] plan and return to beating him if he doesn't proceed carefully.
"Sure," he lies. "I have a ring."
"Uh huh. What'd you do – steal a ring pop from a little girl in the clinic? Make one out of licorice? Stop at a sex shop and buy a –"
"No. Although I like where you're headed with that last one."
"Then where is it?"
"Getting sized?" The answer comes out as a question. He is gifted with considerable intelligence in any number of areas. Jewelry is not one of them. He goes with something that sounds reasonable.
He must have said something right. The answer stops her questioning, and now she's smiling a little, nodding her head as she laughs softly.
"Okay, House. I accept."
He doesn't get it. "What?"
She shrugs like they're discussing what to do for dinner tomorrow. "I'll marry you."
It seems like she's serious for a second there. But then that can't be right. She doesn't kiss him. If she really wanted to marry him, she would kiss him in celebration. The fact that she just sits back down in front of the game like nothing happened says she has no interest in his proposal.
"No, you won't," he accuses.
"I will too." She looks at the board. "Did you decide on a word yet?"
"Don't act like we're getting married." She has somehow managed to turn the tables on him, and that makes him more flustered than he wants to be. "You didn't even kiss me."
Her voice is dry. "I was supposed to?"
"Yes. At least. If we're engaged, you should be doing much more than that."
She smiles. "Who says we won't?"
"Right now? The distance between my penis and your mouth says it."
"That can wait. First I'm going to beat you." She reaches for her wine. "I think it's still your turn."
He frowns at her single-mindedness. Sweeping his proposal back in the box with the other unused tiles, he thinks that this hasn't gone as planned. "We're not engaged," he announces.
She swallows the wine she's been sipping on. Her tongue lazily runs along her lower lip, like, he fears, she's toying with him before going in for the kill.
"But you asked," she drawls. "Don't tell me you would lie about your love for me and our relationship to win a game." He is reminded that she is just as good at playing mind games as he is.
"That's not what I did." But saying that, he senses the trap he's wandered into.
If he rescinds his proposal now, such as it was, she will take it to mean that he doesn't love her enough to marry her. She will believe he has used their relationship, preyed on her emotions for no good reason. He doesn't think she wants to get married, but now that he has casually thrown the idea out there, she will be mad if it seems like he thinks taking their relationship further is something to make fun of. Maybe she won't think that tonight. She'll be too distracted with the game to consider the matter further. But then one day, she will realize what he's done, and she will be mad.
In order to avoid that, he has to make it known that this isn't a game to him.
Unfortunately it was a game to him, he realizes.
That alone is bad enough for him. It's unforgivable if he admits it out loud. But here she is, giving him the option that doesn't end in immediate heartbreak for them both. He wasn't proposing to her, but he gets the feeling then that she's hardly being facetious in kind. She is being completely serious with her blackmail, in her expectation that he will bend to her will.
The alternative being too terrible to consider, she's right. He will do as she wants. He has already lost her because of his selfishness, his inability to change. He did his best to be there when Arlene was ill, but he nearly ruined everything when Cuddy herself seemed to be on death's door. She'd told him then what she needed from him – to be there – and he hadn't listened. He screwed up and then had to undo that mistake. He spent all the time trying to recapture what he lost, knowing that he wouldn't have lost in the first place if he had listened. He cannot afford and does not wish to lose her again.
His lips pursed together, he shakes his head. "I wouldn't do that."
She looks almost gleeful. Whether that has to do with being engaged or backing him into a corner, he doesn't know. He doesn't ask. He'll choose to believe it's the former – if only because it will make his ambivalence less prominent.
Then she tells him, "Now. Play the game, so I can beat you already."
Only his pride keeps him from admitting to her:
She's already won.
He's sore from rock climbing but in need of an escape. After dropping Cuddy off, he hasn't been able to settle down. Their near kiss torments him, what might have been something he wants to forget but can't. Sitting alone in his dorm room isn't exciting enough to distract him. And in spite of himself, all he can think of is how much he wishes she would have kissed him.
Throughout the short time they've known one another, it seems as though they've been circling around an inevitable ending. Desire has existed from the start; he's wanted her from the minute he saw her. And as they've gotten to know one another she has come to want him. No matter what she says, she wouldn't push him to admit his attraction if she didn't feel the same way.
But that next step…
To want it as much as he does and yet fear it just as keenly is maddening. If only because he understands he won't give in before she does, moving forward seems out of the question.
And then the paradox presents itself. He wants to be with her. He won't risk being humiliated, being the one who caved first. Waiting for her is his only option, and yet it is precisely this need for self-restraint that makes the urge that much harder to resist.
Making matters worse, the longer he is alone, the more his thoughts seem unalterably fixed on the subject. And the more he fixates, the less he wants to protect his dignity.
It is important though, he reassures himself. He has made his attraction for her known enough that he would look like a fool to do anything more without her meeting him halfway. He has a point. And if he doubts that, the solution is simple:
He needs something to take his mind off things. That's not hard to find on a college campus where someone is always throwing a party. All he has to do is follow in the direction drunken girls in tube tops are coming from.
Within ten minutes, he's located the party – a keg visible through one of the windows and couples making out against tree trunks in the yard. They're just outside of campus, so university security can't do anything about it, and so far it would seem that no one has called the cops. That might change, he thinks, as he sees out of the corner of his eye, a guy take off shirt. Moonlight and foliage can only hide so much, and House knows it won't be too long before the authorities are alerted.
He decides to take the risk, given that he can legally drink and all. But at the same time, he has no interest in standing here and seeing any more of that loser getting naked, so House slips through the cocked-open door. Instantly he is greeted by the smell of booze, the sounds of music being blasted through a boom box nearby.
And the sight of Cuddy.
She's standing in the archway to the kitchen. Her back resting against the wooden molding, she has a red plastic cup in her hand and a smile on her face.
A smile aimed at the guy she's talking to.
Envy barrels through House's body. A sense of betrayal – and the acknowledged ridiculousness of the feeling – threaten to loosen his tongue. Seeing her flirt, he is humiliated, hurt, and tempted to make her suffer the same.
His focus is pulled as a drunken, redheaded man wearing a beer hat hands him a large cup of the homemade punch (filled with God only knows what) sitting on a table in the living room. "Relax, dude," the stranger slurs.
House tries to smile at the reed-thin man offering him a reprieve from this embarrassment. But seeming happy turns out to be as difficult as actually being happy, and the friendly grin comes out as a grimace instead.
Suddenly a hand is on his forearm.
"I didn't expect to see you here," she says loudly, surprising him.
Drink sloshing in hand, he turns around, unprepared to face her. "Why wouldn't I be here?" The gruffness he shows takes her aback.
"You're right," she says shrewdly. "Free alcohol, drunken girls – why wouldn't you be here?"
Not kissing has altered their chemistry – poisoned it. Watching her with someone else has just made matters worse. And he doesn't even pause to consider how to get them out of this. He returns the iciness she served him instead.
"Absolutely. But you know, I'm sure the guy who was just staring at your breasts was really interested in talking to you sober and –"
"You noticed that, did you?"
"Don't be smug. You said it yourself: I'm here for the easy, drunken women. The second I entered the room, I spotted the easiest of them all."
She doesn't even seem fazed by his malicious words. "Right," she fires back. "I'm the easiest, faster than the half-naked girls having sex in the –"
"They're already pre-occupied."
"And I wasn't?"
"You want me to say you were? Because that seems like that would be the bigger insult."
"Well on that we agree." She mutters this under her breath. But their conversation, louder than normal so that they can hear one another, attracts the wrong kind of attention. The women in the room look like they want to throw their drinks on him and slap her for calling them easy. The guy Cuddy was talking to looks like he wants to throw much worse in House's direction and do far more than slapping.
For a second House fears that he will get into a fight with the douche. He's not afraid of an argument because he worries that he'll get hurt. It's just terribly cliché, and the last thing House wants is to feel like he's in a teen movie. But then again, he's in no mood to back down.
"Oh come on," Cuddy says, grabbing his hand. He doesn't want a fight, and clearly neither does she. "We're leaving," she announces, which is unnecessary given the way she's yanking him toward the front door.
When they are outside, he says in protest, "You didn't have to do that."
"And you didn't have to ruin my night."
"How the hell did I do that?"
"You talked negatively about every woman –"
"I wasn't alone in that, was I?"
"You insulted the guy I was talking to who also happens to be the person throwing the party."
He chugs the drink he'd been given and tosses the cup on the lawn. "So?"
"So if you hadn't said those things –"
"If you hadn't started the conversation, I wouldn't have. But you came over, and we talked, and it happened."
"So you're blaming me."
He looks at her with surprise. "I could not possibly care enough to assign blame. You on the other hand seem very intent on making yourself look like an innocent party."
"Because I am innocent."
"Is that why? Or do you just want to look good for your boyfriend?"
"Because I did nothing wrong and could have had fun –"
"With Jose Cuervo. But no. Thanks to you, I'm stuck on someone's front lawn and –"
"Well, if you want to get drunk –"
"Why do you think I'm her?"
"I think I can help." He's of age; it's not like he can't buy a bottle for them to share.
She's not interested though. "Please don't."
"Why not? If I screwed things up –"
"Since you're so sure this is my fault –"
"Then let me make it up to you." He's come to get away from her, but in spite of himself, he's offering to hang out with her. So much for resisting her, he thinks.
"I want to have fun, House. Getting drunk alone with you isn't –"
"Pretty sure that's what drinking games are for."
For whatever reason, that convinces her. "You're right. I have a game in mind."
She doesn't elaborate, and he doesn't ask her to. Somehow he's just managed to cock block someone she might have otherwise slept with, and now House gets to spend time alone with her. That's good enough for him.
Side by side, they walk to the liquor store. Each step he takes, he tries to act like this is completely normal. They are completely normal.
Nothing's changed. It feels like it has, sure. They're becoming friendlier, and for a moment, he thought they were going to kiss. He thought it, wanted it, but nothing happened.
Nothing is different.
But telling himself that means little. He's self-conscious, aware of every step he takes, every word he utters in her presence at the liquor store. He feels awkward, warm, his palms sweaty. By the time they get back to her room, he's relieved to crack open the warm bottle of tequila.
"Should I bother getting a shot glass?" she asks, hesitating to sit down as he already has on her bed. The implication of closeness is not lost on him.
He shakes his head. "Where's your roommate?"
"Home for the weekend." Immediately changing subjects, she says, "Ready to play?"
He takes a long pull from the bottle, cringing as he swallows. Handing her the liquor, he says, "Sure. What are we playing?"
She smiles. "Truth or dare or shot. Answer truthfully, do the dare, or take the shot. It's simple."
That sounds easy enough, which is to say he's pretty sure he can manipulate the game to suit his needs.
To force the truth from her lips.
"All right. Since I just took a shot, I guess it's your turn to go."
She sits down next to him on the mattress. "Fine."
The fact that he is on her bed with her disorients him. Her leg brushes against him as she gets comfortable, and just that small bit of contact has him craving more. He's not even sure how this happened, how he lost control of his… feelings.
It's such a foreign concept for him – to be this interested in a girl, so much so that it has begun to affect him. But then again… it's not so strange. He's used to going after what he wants, fighting for it. He's never been one to back down from a challenge, and he's certainly never been afraid to call people on their lies. That's what she's doing by pretending not to like him, lying. And so maybe, he tells himself, this can be explained by that. He's not pathetically whipped by wanting. He's doing what he has always done.
His confidence boosted, he asks, "Truth or dare?"
She looks at him carefully, like she can't figure out which option is safer around him. "Truth."
"I figured it was safer. If I said dare, I doubt I'd be wearing a top."
His eyes go wide with possibility. "I'll keep that in mind for when you want a dare."
"Good. My turn."
"Wait," he says, holding up a hand. "I didn't ask a –"
"Sure you did." She smiles as though she's pleased at having tricked him. "You wanted to know why I chose truth."
"That doesn't count."
"Of course it does."
"No, it –"
"Does it matter? You'll have plenty of chances to ask more questions." She's toying with him, which he is beginning to suspect is her favorite hobby.
"Because I say it matters."
"That's not a compelling argument."
"I bought the tequila. I don't need one."
"And why did you have to buy the –"
"I didn't have to do anything. I could have just left you there to let you figure out how you'd be able to get your buzz on."
That's the argument she needs apparently. Because although she spits out, "Fine," she's giving into him. She realizes that being responsible isn't the same thing as accepting blame, and he won't do what she wants just because he's screwed up her evening.
He fights the urge to make fun of her losing the fight. "What's the question?"
He smiles. "Tell the truth: do you like me?"
"Are we in middle school?" she asks, rolling her eyes.
"We're playing truth or dare, and you're so pathetic you can't even play fairly, so the answer your question would be: seems like it. Now. Answer the question."
"Right now, my answer is no. I don't like you."
Sensing the opening, he asks, "So if I weren't annoying you –"
"You know how to do that?"
He pays no attention to the dig. "The answer would be yes?"
"I'm not answering that," she says firmly.
She smiles. "It's your turn to play." He realizes she's right. "Truth or dare?"
"Shot." He grabs the bottle from her and chugs a little. The tequila burns going down, but he needs the alcohol to play this game. And if he wants to beat her, shot is the only option he can take.
"Coward," she accuses.
"Maybe. Truth or dare."
Again she assesses him to see which option she should take. "Should I take the shot too?"
He shrugs. "If you want, but that's not a good strategy."
"Because at best, we both get drunk and forget the game. More realistically, you get drunk cause you're smaller than I am and then I exploit that to get you to tell me all sorts of things."
Normal, sane people would more than likely call off the game right then and there. Lines he won't breach exist, but talk like that gives the impression otherwise.
She either knows that or doesn't care. It's probably a bit of both.
Regardless of the reason, she has no trouble looking him in the eye and saying, "Dare."
She grabs the bottle and takes a small sip, winces. "I'm not afraid."
"Good to know."
"What's the dare?"
"I dare you to kiss me," he says slowly.
It's a cheap way to force her hand, but he doesn't mind that. He won't win awards for chivalry, of course; however it's the best option he has right now. If he wants a… relationship with her or something like that, if he wants her to make the first move, this is the path. And if she wimps out and goes for the shot, that's fine. He'll just change tactics, find another way.
But he doesn't need one.
Cuddy leans closer. One of her hands covers his tentatively. Unlike this afternoon, he is prepared for the possibility of her pulling away. Just because she appears to be into the dare, he reminds himself, doesn't mean she actually is.
"Nervous?" she asks with a lopsided grin.
He looks down at her palm atop his hand. "No," he tells her, looking back up. It's not entirely a lie.
"Good. I don't back out of dares."
He's about to point out that so far she hasn't fulfilled the challenge, hasn't proven what she's saying to be true.
Then her lips descend on him, and they are no longer playing a game. The kiss is brutal in its passion, her fingers against his jaw with enough force to bruise. One of them slams the tequila bottle onto the nightstand nearby. He has no idea who moves it, because every last bit of his attention is on her. He doesn't even consider that he's won; he's gotten her to act on the attraction first.
She moans into him. The sound makes him want her like he's never wanted anything before, as though passion itself were born in this moment and never previously. He has been a stranger to the desire and need he feels right now, and he fears, as she takes her sweater off, that he will never last long with her.
Cleavage spills over the cups of her bra as if her breasts are desperate for his touch. The sight makes his cock uncomfortably hard. Instantly he reaches for her and palms her chest. She quickly forces his head to follow, and his mouth is all too happy to obey, tongue, teeth, and lips doing their best to taste her.
Make her moan.
"Yes," she hisses encouragingly when his mouth closes on one of her lace-clad nipples. As he suckles her, tongue laving over the tightening bud, he hears her unzipping her pants.
Suddenly reality hits.
This is happening.
He's going to have sex with her.
At least eat her out, he thinks, his tongue coating with saliva at the thought.
Or, he tells himself, trying to keep himself from coming in his pants, if she changes her mind, if they don't have sex, he'll still see her naked.
It dawns on him that that doesn't help maintain control. So he forces himself to pull away.
Their eyes meeting, he feels obligated to ask. "Are you sure?" Much to his dismay, she pauses in slipping her pants off. "You're not doing this because –"
"Of a dare?" She looks at him like he's crazy. "No."
But it's not enough for him. Part of him, mostly the bit in his pants, wants to just go ahead with it. He wanted a kiss, and if she wants more, he should just accept that. He wants to. He really does. And yet… as always, he wants to know why she's doing this. Specifically, he wants to hear that this is real, not a drunken one night stand.
"Then why the change of heart from this afternoon?"
"Sorry," she taunts. "I fulfilled my dare. It's my turn now." It's an unsatisfying answer, but the sight of her body is too pleasing to keep him unhappy for long.
Her hands move to the fly on his jeans. "Truth or dare, House."
Shot should be his answer, but it seems unfitting, given what they're doing. His fingers are cupping her breasts, and he's about to have sex with her, and alcohol is the last thing he needs or wants.
"Truth," he says, excitement making his hips thrust in her direction.
"Do you like me?" she nearly whispers.
He swallows hard, deflects. "That's kind of a hard question to answer with your hand on my penis."
"Maybe." She slips her fingers into his pants. "But it's also the kind of question you have to answer if you want this to go any further."
He impresses himself by holding out. "No."
She isn't put off. Pulling away from him, she reaches behind her back. "Really? Are you sure? Do you need more incentive to be honest?"
It's a rhetorical question.
Slowly she takes off her bra.
His eyes wide, he breaks.
Against his wishes, he says it first.
He admits it.
But as he pushes his dick inside her, as he finally gets what he wants, he realizes he doesn't care.
Some games are, after all, better lost.
More Sundays than not recently, he wakes to the smell of earl grey and the soap with which Cuddy washes her face each day. Bedtime wars with Rachel have robbed them of quiet nights lately, but in return, mornings are now peaceful as the little girl sleeps in. Cuddy despises this of course, hates that she has to wrangle her daughter to get her out of bed and to first grade on time. But House can't complain. It's not in his nature to be an early riser, but time alone with Cuddy has been lacking these days. And never one to miss an opportunity to get her by herself, he has learned to wake up earlier than he would on his own.
On this particular morning, he is greeted by the sight of her, alone thankfully, hair messily pulled back and thin nightgown riding dangerously low on her chest. She looks like she considered doing yoga but decided against it, instead preferring to relax before the day truly begins. A mug of tea is forgotten nearby, her interest narrowed on the newspaper in her hands.
He rolls over to be closer to her, body spooning against her side. He kisses her shoulder but says nothing; that is greeting enough. Within seconds, he's asleep once more.
When he wakes up again, some minutes or hours later, he notices immediately that she is still there, next to him; his nap couldn't have lasted that long. If it had, she would have left.
Instead she's smiling at him. "Good morning," she says gently, placing a soft kiss in his hair. "I thought you might sleep in."
Bleary eyed he blinks, doesn't move, can't. "What time is it?"
"Around 7. Rachel won't be up for a while." He's too tired to respond. "Want to do the crossword with me?"
Slowly her words seep into him, and he realizes what she's saying: it's early, and they are all alone for a while. There might have been a time where he would waste time on a game. These days though, he likes more direct interaction with her.
Instantly he looks at her like she's crazy. Suddenly wide awake, he says, "You and I are alone. In bed. You think I want to play a game with you?"
"Why not? You're pretty creative."
He doesn't bother to respond. There's no need to. A smile on his face, he reaches up and kisses her. Perhaps this isn't creative. If anything slipping his hand beneath her nightgown and spreading her thighs with his fingers is pretty damn expected. But he's willing to wear the label of predictable, domesticated. He's alone with the woman he loves, and that's all that matters to him right now.
As he pulls her against him, he thinks:
No, he has never been one to miss an opportunity.
Kindness burns more than cruelty. Lying in the hospital bed, House wishes malice were involved. Hatred would make this easier. The betrayal wouldn't be so hard to digest. But the truth is Stacy has done this out of love; Cuddy has manipulated him out of some sort of devotion for the genius he possesses. That too is a kind of love for him, he realizes. She values his mind above all else, but he is more than a mere resource to her. Sometimes he questions that, but every time he comes to the same conclusion: their one night together years ago has bonded her to him for reasons he can't understand. For reasons he doesn't know, other than that they exist, as her behavior has proven now.
She would not trick a regular patient as she has tricked him.
Her talent lies in making you think she follows the rules more than she does. Bypassing a patient's wishes and mangling their body at the order of a girlfriend though… that's a risk Cuddy wouldn't take for anyone.
And Stacy, knowing the legal implications, knowing how much he will hate her for it, wouldn't consent unless she cared.
But concern makes this that much harder to take. They have done this out of love, but what they have done is ruin his body. They keep talking about physical therapy, about how this will get better, the pain will go away, he'll be able to use his leg just fine, blah, blah, blah. He no longer listens to them when they get like this.
They comfort him to lessen the horror of their own behavior.
He can't even begin to pretend that the conversation is about anything else now. The lies they speak are for themselves. They console out of guilt, out of denial. Cuddy leaves when he reacts to their selfishness. Patients and paperwork always seem to pop up when her optimism is called into question. Her point of view is the only one she'll listen to. After all these years, she's still desperate to prove that she knows more than anyone else in the room. Only this time, she's wrong, and she knows it, so she leaves before she has a chance to lose the argument.
Stacy, on the other hand, rarely leaves his side. Afraid she'll lose him, she clings. Terrified that she will be seen as disloyal, she stays by his side as if that proves otherwise. But it doesn't – not to him anyway. He hates her too much for that right now. Her constant presence is met with anger and resentment, which he has no problem voicing. Still she stays. The crueler he is, the more determined she is to be with him, to get him past this, to ride his mood out.
She doesn't realize he can't get over it.
He has lost part of his leg, thanks to her choices. Every time he looks down, he will be reminded of her betrayal. Even if the pain goes away, that scar will still be there. He will never be able to forget and so he will never be able to forgive.
Today she has left while fighting tears. He's aimed to hurt her, and he's succeeded. Yet triumph quickly falls victim to regret and guilt.
He doesn't want to be like this, he tells himself. He doesn't want to lose her – which he will if he obsesses over what cannot be altered now.
All of that goes out the window when Cuddy comes into his hospital room with his lunch in her hands.
"I brought you extra pudding," she tells him like he's a little boy and that's the kind of thing that makes him happy.
"Thanks, Mommy." Normally the remark would go without incident. But these days sarcasm is more biting than he thought possible. Innocuous comments quickly devolve into the most hateful sentences he can craft. Cuddy's intolerance for it merely enrages him. If she refuses to listen, he gets louder. If she doesn't appear hurt, he digs deeper. She treats him like a child, because he is, pink and screaming for her attention. She comes to him knowing that there's no reason this conversation won't go the same way as the rest.
Because of that he's not surprised to hear her say, "Don't start."
"I'm starting something?" he asks with mock innocence as she sets the tray down. "You really do like to read into my words, don't you? Find hidden meanings where there are none?"
She doesn't take the bait. "I brought you lunch. I'm not trying to fight."
"Of course not."
"You can be mad at me all you want –"
"Oh goodie. Thank you for your permission."
"It's not going to change anything," she insists, uncovering the lids on his food tray. "Try the potatoes first. They don't smell as –"
"You think I don't know things won't change? You think I'm unaware of that, Doctor Cuddy?" He throws her title around, because it's a joke to him now. Additionally it infuriates her, which makes him happy. Or at least, it would make him happy if he could take this any longer.
And he can't. Right now, her presence is too much for him to bear, and he wants her to leave.
Forgiveness is of course inevitable; manipulating and ignoring patients is the kind of medical practice he's pioneered. Her choice is a mirror to his own, and if he hates her for this, then there are bigger problems for him to address than a part of missing thigh muscle. Assurance in his methods therefore necessitates forgiveness and vice versa, he knows.
But getting there is more difficult than he anticipated. Letting go is out of reach right now, and he can't help but push her away.
Today however, she isn't so easily pushed. Normally she would leave at this point. This time she just sits in the chair by his bed.
"Of course you do. I apologize." She's desperately trying to stay calm, to keep him calm.
His eyes narrow hatefully. "I'm sure you do."
"Now who's reading into who?"
"Whom," he corrects.
She rolls her eyes. "You must be feeling better if you're playing games with me."
But the thing is: he's not playing games, a phrase that implies he's having fun. It goes without saying that he's not.
She seems to sense that his thoughts are turning dark. "It will get better," she repeats.
"Right. I can't run –"
"You don't know what your limitations are. We haven't tested how –"
"No rock climbing," he says, ignoring her, using the example because they have a past. They don't talk about that though. "No –"
"House," she says, covering his hand. "We don't know that yet. You're getting ahead of yourself."
He shakes his head. "No. I'm not."
"Pretending that's true –"
"Pretending that's true, there are other things you can do."
"Lucky me. I get to play Trivial Pursuit for the rest of my life."
"If you're going to pity yourself, at least have better criteria for deciding your life is over," she says dryly. She's joking… sort of.
He imitates her tone. "I'll keep that in mind."
She cringes, frowns. Sadness ages her features. "Don't be like that."
"Wow," he says loudly. Frustration immediately instigates him to go further. When she's telling him what to do, he can't hold back. "You really do like to read into what I have to say. So let's play a game. What am I telling you when I say: fleck of soy guru? You get that?"
Even if she didn't get the anagram, the way he's speaking makes the message obvious. It's almost as obvious as the look of dismay on her face is when she figures it out.
Lips pursing together, she stands. It is not surprising that she's choosing to leave. That's what she does.
She heads to the door, pulls it open. But before she leaves, she turns to him. Holding the door open with her hand, she says tauntingly, "I like the anagram. See? You've already taken up a new hobby. Who knows what you'll pick up in the future?"
She's making fun of him, and he hates her for that.
But after she's gone, he slowly realizes that he's hoping she's right. He hopes that there is something to look forward to, something to make his life more than pain and diagnoses. He can handle the pain and the betrayal if he knows that it will at some point end. The fact that he has no idea how any of this will turn out is what galls him the most, scares him.
Still, lying in the hospital bed, House thinks she's wrong. How long did he go untreated before being diagnosed? How complicated has this been already? Given his current situation, it's impossible for him to imagine things getting better.
From where he is, after what he's lost, he just isn't sure life will ever be good to him again.