Disclaimer: I don't own them, obviously, and have just borrowed them to play with. I do own Jensen, Abby, and Thornton.

Series: This follows Superstition in the Pranks universe. This one in particular plays on a lot of material from the earlier stories and would be very hard to read out of order.

A/N: Just a reminder, although it should be obvious by now, that the Pranks universe is fully AU and does not follow later canon events. It diverged from the show halfway through the Greater Good and took on its own life thereafter. I didn't even watch House past season 6 and have never seen the last few seasons, don't even read fanfiction based on them as it's missing too much background for me. I mention that as we enter this story particularly because I recently found out from a reader just informationally that Blythe did appear in a later episode with a more extended plot. I haven't seen that one. I still have no idea what the plot was there, and that look at her character has nothing at all to do with Pranks. The only appearances of Blythe I had seen for Pranks purposes were Daddy's Boy and Birth Marks.

The Daddy's Boy scene in particular fascinated me at the time, that brief cafeteria scene with the three of them. It was apparent to me then that John had been abusive in the past and even still was emotionally, while keeping up a good old boy public front. He also had no fear at all that House would ever openly state the truth in front of his mother, even all these years later. House's expression staring across the table at him after the dismissal of his disability and the statement he didn't know how lucky he was was marvelous acting by Hugh. There's an emotional intensity there, a focus of hatred beyond what we ever saw with any patient or routine House-as-jerk scene. Also clear to me from that brief interaction that Blythe ("He was only trying to help") had no idea of the true reason for tension between her son and his father, which would take some missing over the years, and had her own incomplete and warped view of their relationship. That scene in the cafeteria, as much as any one scene in the show, was the root of the Pranks universe. Anyway, whatever was done with Blythe in later seasons is supremely inapplicable to this story. In fact, I don't myself even know what it was.

Hope you enjoy this one, which more than any of them explores the relationship between Blythe and House. Starts out a bit slowly, but it will speed up quickly enough for you, I think. A lot happens in this one. Thanks as always for reading and sharing in this universe with me. I do have a lot going on in RL at the moment as we are entering rush hour of the musical performance year. Updates will be as able.

By the way, Mom had a Grinch mug as described. Wish I had a picture of the squashed, lopsided thing, but it broke years ago.

(H/C)

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Phillips Brooks

House stood in the conference room, staring at the whiteboard. Someone - no doubt Kutner - had strung a rope of red tinsel around the edge of the room just below the ceiling, but to House, it might have been May or December or any routine day. He was fully focused on the symptom list, resorting, pulling each one out in turn, trying different combinations of them. He didn't yet have the answer himself, was scrambling just as much as the team down in the lab right now, and that annoyed him. Furthermore, he had to leave early today, no way out of it, and he really didn't want to leave this puzzle unsolved and finish it by cell phone. They had to get this today.

A sound in the adjoining office caught his attention, and he looked over to see the mail delivery minion entering awkwardly, having pushed the door open with her hip as she balanced a fairly large box with a stack of letters on top of it. Curiosity took over, and House temporarily moved the differential to a rear burner, although it would never stop processing even back there, and entered the office. This was the obnoxiously bright young one, and she looked up with a smile as he entered. "You have a box, Dr. House!"

"Wow, with diagnostic skills like that, why aren't you in practice?" He limped over to inspect it, and she held it out invitingly to him. He gave her an eloquent glare, and only then did she realize that it was large enough that juggling it with a cane would pose a problem. Awkwardly, she resumed her route to his desk.

"I'll just put this here for you." She set it down on the corner of the desk, eager to escape the office now, and as she turned a little too quickly, she knocked off the stack of mail on top. House stood with exaggerated patience, leaning on his cane and waiting for her to finish, and she quickly dropped to her knees, gathered the errant letters, and deposited them on the desk again before hitting a rapid retreat.

Once the door had closed behind her, House dropped the pointed annoyance and went forward eagerly. He had already confirmed from the return address his guess that this box was from Thornton. Damn the man. This would definitely draw attention, but House had to admit that he had never done anything this noteworthy before. Sooner or later, he really had to give him the home address. At least this was the season for random extra deliveries to the hospital and wouldn't seem too out of place to the mail room. No doubt Wilson had received several tokens from his grateful patients, at least those still alive.

The box surrendered to the desk scissors, and House opened the flaps. A few smaller wrapped boxes and one large one were carefully tucked in with crumpled up newspaper. He extracted the first box, which happened to have his name on it, and ripped it open. It was a coffee mug but one unlike any he'd ever seen, crumpled up along one side and looking exactly as if a fist had closed around it in annoyance and hadn't released yet. The base was flat, so it would stand, but the entire cup above it was skewed sideways and half crushed. The Grinch looked out dourly on the world from the side, and below that was printed in large red and green letters, "Bah, Humbug."

House grinned before he caught himself. Returning to the conference room, he filled the mug, then went back to investigate the rest of the box while taking an experimental sip. It had slightly different mechanics for drinking, but it functioned well enough. The next box, smaller, was tagged for Cuddy. House studied it suspiciously, even lifting it to give it an experimental shake. It did not rattle. He stared at it as if his eyes could penetrate the paper. Thornton had actually talked to Cuddy twice at this point, very briefly, during his intermittent conversations whenever House decided to call him, but information on her to date had to be minimal. House had heard everything she had said. Twice, House reached for the taped down edge of the paper to just rip it open, and twice he caught himself on the brink and stopped. Finally, he set that one aside and dug into the big box again.

Next up was a flat envelope, looking reassuringly not like a Christmas card. That was for him, and he opened it and withdrew two tickets to a model train exposition in Philadelphia the third week in January. He reread the tickets. Model trains? He took another swallow of Grinch coffee, lost in thought, then put the tickets back in the envelope and put it down on the desk.

The next package was tagged to Abby. Thornton had never sent them anything before, nor spoken to them. The girls were a very limited and tentative topic with House, one on which he was determining the speed of progress. This was jumping the gun. His suspicion level rose sharply, and he reached for the paper without hesitation. Forget who this one was tagged to; he wasn't going to just blindly pass along. . . abruptly he realized that one end of the box had the wrapping paper only folded, not taped. The whole thing was carefully arranged to be opened for inspection ahead of time. Grudgingly scoring Thornton a half point - he was sending gifts to the girls but at least expected prescreening - House slid the inner box out of its Christmas paper shroud and read the description.

It was a very simplified IPad sort of thing, though only with one program. Pictures on the screen represented children's songs, and touching a picture would play that song, as well as show the notation for the single-line melody along the bottom of the screen. Curious, House opened the box and ran it through its paces for a few minutes. Clever, even if on a very juvenile level. He finally reboxed that, slid it back into the wrapping, and pulled out the largest box of all, the bottom one.

That, of course, was for Rachel, and it, too, had one end conveniently left open. House pulled the box out and opened it. This was a stuffed horse, about 18 inches long and pleasantly floppy, like a beanbag. Its main feature, according to the box, was various sound effects. Squeezing the left ear would produce a whinny, the right ear a snort, and the hooves when squeezed each sounded hoofbeats in a different gait. House ran the round of all of them. Rachel would love the thing, but he wondered how long life with this would last before he and Cuddy would be ready to euthanize it. All sorts of noisy possibilities ran through his mind, but picturing Rachel galloping around with it, he could see the smile on her face already. With a sigh, he reboxed the horse.

Setting the now empty outer box down off his desk, which he couldn't have done with the loaded version earlier, he put it more discreetly in the space between his chair and the bookshelf, then reloaded it, except for the package to Cuddy and the Grinch mug. He would, of course, need help getting it to the car later, and thank you very much for that reminder. Tucking Cuddy's present into his pocket, he picked up the coffee for another sip and switched on his laptop, sending off a quick email.

Model trains?

Stop trying to corrupt my kids with noise makers. Wonder how long actual parents have lived with these things before snapping.

H

Exiting the program, he hauled himself to his feet, suddenly realizing that for the last 20 minutes, he hadn't been as aware of the ache in his leg, even though it was reacting to the wintery day today. Or maybe it was just reacting to his tension about today. Nope, it had to be the weather. Running a hand down his thigh, he then grabbed the cane in one hand, the Grinch in the other, and returned to the conference room to see if his differential had benefited from the brief respite. He sat down and studied the whiteboard. A model train queued up in his head, a symptom on each car, and ran along the tinsel surrounding the room as its track. He started to take another swallow of coffee, then froze with the crushed mug halfway to his mouth.

Trains. The engine made all the noise and provided the power, but it was the contents of the less distinctive cars behind, be they people or cargo, that really mattered on the trip, contents which couldn't always be guessed just from the markings on the side.

He had it. With a smile, he finished the aborted drink of coffee, and his mental train circling the ceiling gave two sharp whistle blasts in victory.

The team filed in a few minutes later, fresh lab results in hand. Kutner started the update. "Negative on the . . . cool mug. Where did you get that?"

"Santa Claus came early. Unfortunately, you all weren't here, so looks like you're out of luck for this year." House took another swallow of coffee. "Any of you ever been to a model train expo?"

Foreman sighed, and Taub shook his head in answer as if the question were routine. Kutner, of course, had. "I went to one a few years ago. You wouldn't believe the things they had there. All the way from little sets to garden and back yard ones big enough to ride on yourself."

"Lots of kids?" House was wary of packs of shrieking children in general, though he had to admit that his were worth knowing.

"No, actually. Most of the crowd was full-grown adults. Collectors. Lots of people are into model trains, and there are even magazines on the topic. I picked up a couple of sample issues that day but never subscribed."

"And what do model trains have to do with our patient?" Foreman asked.

House drained the Grinch mug and stood up. "Foreman, Foreman, Foreman. How many times do I have to tell you that everything is potentially relevant?" He stopped in front of the whiteboard and picked up the marker, at the same time tossing a comment back over his shoulder without turning around. "Hands off, Kutner." Kutner, who had picked up the crumpled mug for inspection, guiltily returned it to the table. "Now, then. When a train comes down the track, you notice the engine first. You might not even be able to tell at first glance what's riding along in the cars, but that can be the most important thing. The engine just provided the power to move it."

(H/C)

Twenty minutes later, after the team had had their delayed epiphany and headed off to start treatment, House returned to his office to check email.

You'll love the train expo, Greg.

As for noise makers, that's just part of being a parent. I have served my time. Tim went through a drum phase, thought about them, dreamed about them, begged us for a set for Christmas. Tim, remember, had missed the line for Dad's musical talent. He had no sense of rhythm at all. Emily and I were cringing just thinking about it, but we dutifully bought him the set for Christmas. Sometimes, you just have to make sacrifices for your kids, but I was forever grateful that his interest only lasted 6 months or so. He switched to wanting a chemistry set after that. Emily and I had a whole celebration dinner out in honor of selling those drums. Hope the girls have fun.

Thomas

House was smiling by the end of reading that, imagining his brother with no sense of rhythm pounding away happily on drums while his parents cringed. He sincerely hoped that Rachel never went through a drum phase; she was similarly beat-challenged. He hit reply.

If you ever send Rachel a set of drums, I'm returning them, COD. I play drums, but I didn't get into them until college. John would have shot a drum set if one ever showed up in the house, I think.

If I don't love the trains, do I get a refund?

H.

He looked at his watch, stood up, and headed for Cuddy's office. She was on the phone, but he marched in anyway, pulled out the present from Thornton, and plopped it on her desk. "Yes, thank you. Next week will be fine." She finished the call in a hurry, then looked from the gift to him, puzzled. "Christmas isn't until two days from now, Greg."

"Start early. Beat the rush." She looked at the package again, then back to him. "Want me to demonstrate? You pick it up and rip. Come on, Lisa, either you're opening it right now or I am."

She picked up the gift and started on one end, neatly slitting the tape with a letter opener, then stopped as she noticed the tag. To Lisa from Thomas. She looked back up at House. "Thornton sent me a present?"

"Apparently. You have ten seconds to get that paper off before I take over." House was tired of guessing. Cuddy smiled and resumed unwrapping, still more leisurely than he would like, but at least progress was being made. She pulled the paper off and opened the small box inside. House's long body was leaning so far over the desk that his nose was just about above her hands.

It was a small silver frame, intricately worked around the edges, which held a picture of House, roughly age 14, playing the piano. Cuddy picked it up for closer inspection. "Come on around the desk, Greg." She was afraid he was going to fall over it. He limped around to her side, and they looked at the picture together.

"Don't remember that one," House said. Obviously another former attachment to one of Blythe's 129 updates to Thornton on his life.

Cuddy was lost in the picture, studying his face and body trapped in that stage between teenaged awkwardness and maturity, a foot in each world. Past and future both there physically, as well as the focus that marked him in all music pictures she had ever seen. "That's beautiful."

House snorted. "Lisa, boys aren't beautiful. Especially teen ones. Pick another adjective."

"No," she insisted stubbornly. "You're beautiful. The face, the music, the personality, all of it. This is a neat frame, too." It obviously had never seen the inside of a Wal-Mart. "Tell him thanks for me, okay?"

"Yeah," he said noncommittally, and she made a point to tell Thornton herself the next time she got to talk to him for a minute. Maybe House would call him on Christmas.

"Did he send you something, too?" she asked, pushing just a little.

"A crunched up coffee mug - that's better than it sounds - and tickets to a model train show in January." She grinned. "Don't tell me you've been to a model train show. Kutner I could believe, but not you."

"No, I haven't, but I'm sure you'll love it."

"He also sent gifts for the girls." House trailed off, his eyes thoughtful. He was still undecided on passing those along. Cuddy knew better than to push any further at that moment. He snapped back out of reverie a few seconds later. "Anyway, there's a big box in my office behind my chair. I've got to leave now. Could you put it in your car next break and bring it home with you tonight? No point in me hauling it around Jersey all afternoon."

"Of course." She caught the specific flavor of disability in his tone there and agreed without making a point of it. She looked at her watch.

"I know," House snapped. "Time to hit the road." His tension from this morning had returned. She reached out and touched his arm gently, saying nothing. He tightened up but after a moment settled into the touch. "I'll call you from Newark, let you know I got there."

"Okay. I'll see you at home tonight." She stood up to kiss him. "Good luck this afternoon, Greg."

"Nothing happens this afternoon," he insisted, trying to convince himself as well. "I'm just picking up my mother at the airport."

Cuddy embraced him again, silent sympathy but also pride in her eyes. He straightened up after a minute and turned for the door. "See you later, Lisa."

"See you tonight, Greg." She sat back down, looking at the door for a few minutes even after he left, her mind running over the agenda for the next several days. This would be a nerve-wracking visit but a needed one, she thought. All of them had agreed that it was a needed one. Still, the stream of anxiety ran along under the surface. She hoped everything for Christmas and, even more, the week after would finally bring some closure for him, but things involving Blythe had a proven tendency not to go quite as planned.

The phone rang beside her, startling her back to the present and her office. Her work day wasn't over. "Lisa Cuddy-House, may I help you?" Even as she answered, she picked up the silver-framed picture with her other hand, and the smile on her face was miles removed from hospital business.