A/N: Thanks for all the well wishes for the funeral. It was a beautiful ceremony with full military honors. There is just something about hearing a bugle play Taps.
Back to the land of fic, this update is short, but next chapter will be a good bit longer, and I hope you all like it. I've always liked that chapter of this story since the plot first started coming together. After these two Christmas chapters, this one and next one, we get down to the nuts and bolts of House talking with Blythe extensively about the past. Some new things will be revealed there and I think a better view of both sides. Not that I'm excusing her or she is excusing herself; there is no excuse for her missing what was going on. But as the saying goes, it is a very thin piece of paper that doesn't have two sides. Also, I will, in fact already have set up starting in Legacy, change a few pieces of presumed canon information on the past. Thus is the common right of fic writers, but also, I take the position that things that House told us in a few places in the TV series were what John had told him. That doesn't necessarily make them true, just makes them the information House was given. John could have lied. :)
But before we start all that, down to Christmas, with the stressors of next (fic) week postponed as well as possible into next (fic) week. Merry Christmas early, readers.
Laughter. The living room seemed to have more than three young children in it, with Rachel in a flurry of excitement, switching from present to present in turn as if she might not have enough time to adequately play with them all. Abby's smile lit the room, even if she was less rambunctious than her sister, and Daniel flopped in Sandra's arms in 6-month-old frustration, trying to reach out for the bright colors in every direction. Belle was in a feline frenzy, forgetting temporarily about the guests in the attraction of paper and boxes. Everywhere she turned, there was something else to pounce on. Her antics only added to Rachel and Abby's merriment.
House sat watching it all. There was no danger here, no hidden meanings, no subtext. His family was safe and happy. His girls had no idea how different things could be, and he hoped it would be a long, long while before they - purely informationally - found out.
The unopened presents beneath the tree were dwindling, but House, who was on the floor next to the pile acting as self-designated mailman, pushed back the ones from Thornton every time. It was getting to the point where he would have to give them. Cuddy, watching him closely, was torn between loving understanding and frustration. He was making this so hard, and it didn't have to be. But of course, he had no concept of that. She hoped once they were past this and he saw the girls' reactions that he would call his father later once things settled down. She had asked him to let her speak to Thornton herself next time he called, carefully not suggesting when to call, just saying she wanted to thank him for the picture.
Now, House avoided the two bigger boxes one last time. He picked up an envelope that had been lost between them and tossed it over to Wilson, who was on the couch with Sandra and his son. "Wilson. Catch!"
Wilson caught and looked at it skeptically. It was from House. "You've suddenly discovered Christmas cards?"
"How long have you known me? Christmas cards are just a conspiracy, retailers using guilt to try to get us to spend for more people, even the relatives who don't qualify for actual presents. Have you seen the prices on those things lately?"
Cuddy hid her smile. She had woken up this morning to a Christmas card along with a present on her nightstand. The card had a beautiful snowscape on the outside, blank inside for a personal message, and he had written only, "Love, Greg." The present beneath it was a diamond pendant that she had been admiring in the mall just a few weeks ago when they were shopping for the girls. He had noticed, of course, even while apparently fully focused on adequately complaining about the mall crowds and the Christmas retail hype. She was wearing the pendant now. Blythe, Sandra, and Wilson had all commented on it. She had told them all whom it came from, but she hadn't mentioned the equally precious card.
Wilson opened the envelope, which in fact was from a Christmas card originally. House had simply recycled it. Wilson withdrew the contents and studied the ticket. "A model train expo?"
"You'll love it, Wilson. Model trains aren't just for kids. In fact, most of the people at these train shows are adults, serious collectors. They have all sorts of models there, even ones big enough to ride on. I'm going myself."
Cuddy fought back a laugh. Wilson looked down at House on the floor. "Ones big enough to ride on?"
"Just sitting on top like a kiddy toy, or actually getting into them? And what's the power source?" Wilson's eyes were lighting up now.
House shrugged. "Come with me and see in January."
"It sounds perfect for both of you," Sandra threw in. "He does know you, James." She wondered why House abruptly seemed to tense up at her words, losing the light mood of a moment ago. He looked back at the two final presents beneath the tree, then slowly picked up the bigger one.
"Rachel." It took a second time to catch her attention. She was still being a whirlwind through her already existing pile of gifts. House pushed the big box across the floor toward her. "This is from Santa Claus."
As the box slid across the floor, Wilson noticed the tag on top. The "from" section was thoroughly blacked out with magic marker. "From Santa Claus?" he asked, curious. Cuddy quelled him with a look as she knelt to help Rachel open the box.
"Horsey!" Rachel pulled it out of the box, using the ears for a handhold, and the stuffed horse whinnied at her. She almost dropped it in surprise. Cuddy guided her hand, showing her the correct spot, and the horse whinnied again. Rachel and Abby both laughed. "Like on the Beast!" Rachel announced. She loved the animated horse in Beauty and the Beast as much as she loved the cartoon kittens in the Aristocats. Animals always drew her attention. She squeezed the ear and laughed again.
"Squeeze the other one," Cuddy suggested. Rachel did, taking a few attempts to find the right spot, but when she hit it, the resulting snort drew another laugh from both girls. Rachel squeezed the ears in turn, left and right, and the equine sounds filled the living room.
Wilson looked at House. "Santa Claus picked well for her, but don't you think this will wear old pretty quickly?"
"Kids need to make noise, James," Sandra said. Daniel had several sound-enabled toys of his own from this first Christmas.
Rachel broke off temporarily from playing stable and ran across the living room, dragging the horse along by a leg. She launched herself at House, hugging him fiercely. "Thank you for horsey! Thank you."
House paused, his eyes meeting Cuddy's. "It's from Santa Claus, Rachel," he said after a moment. Wilson reached out for the discarded paper, trying to get a closer look at that blacked-out tag to confirm his guess, and Cuddy pulled the paper away from him (and Belle) and stuffed it quickly into the trash sack.
Rachel hugged House again. "Thanks," she repeated. She shoved the horse at him. "Squeeze, Daddy."
House rolled his eyes. "Wonder if Santa Claus takes returns?"
Rachel hopped from one foot to the other in impatience. "Squeeze!" she insisted. House dutifully made it whinny, and she laughed again.
Resigned, House picked up a leg to show her the hoof. "There's more, Rachel. Squeeze the hoof." She did, producing a few seconds of clip-clop at a trot. "Each one of the hooves has a different gait." Rachel looked puzzled on the word gait but quickly forgot it in the excitement of the different sounds. The names didn't matter to her right now. She happily squeezed the round of hooves, going back to the ears for a whinny or snort occasionally.
Abby joined them for inspection. "Noisy," she proclaimed.
Rachel snatched it away. "MY horsey."
"Rachel, be nice," Cuddy accosted. House picked up the final remaining present quickly.
"I don't really think she wants the horse. Here, Abby. This one is for you. It's from Santa Claus." Wilson leaned over on the couch, trying to see if this gift had a blacked-out tag as well, and Sandra elbowed him in the ribs.
Abby opened her present with help from her father and looked at the small computer curiously. House pushed the button, turning it on, and the screen lit up. Abby reacted before he could explain. "'rella!" She reached out to touch the Cinderella icon on the screen, and the corresponding song launched. She smiled.
"Look." House showed her the line of notes at the bottom.
"Music." She knew what musical notation looked like from his books, though she couldn't read it yet.
"Right, music. It's the music to that song. Someday, you'll be able to read it." Cinderella ended. "Pick another one, Abby. Each picture goes with a song." Abby tilted her head, considering the selection. Even at two, she could recognize the picture icons. She picked another. Rachel came over to listen to the song but quickly drifted back to her horse. The song electronically without her father playing it wasn't half as fun for her.
Abby, on the other hand, was enchanted. She hugged her father. "Thanks."
House didn't bother correcting it this time. The girls were convinced he had given them these gifts, and no Santa disclaimer was going to work. "I'm glad you like it, Abby," he replied. Cuddy looked at him, and he gave a half shrug.
The computer eventually made its way to the couch, where Wilson investigated it for himself under the guise of letting Abby show it off to him. Nobody was getting the horse from Rachel; she was happily galloping around to the hoofbeats. House couldn't help noticing again that she had no sense of matching rhythm, but he was smiling watching her. The girls both loved these, their favorites among the gifts. No longer was Rachel gift switching in high speed, though he was sure the others would get their share of attention later. Right now, though, the horse was it, and Abby was looking at the notes scrolling along the screen like she was trying to learn to read music right there.
Cuddy came over and sat down next to House on the floor. She picked up his hand and squeezed it, not saying anything in front of the others, just holding on.
House watched his family, wondering how or if Thornton might fit in. What sort of a grandfather would he be? Okay, so he could pick out gifts, but all that took was a wallet. The standard had to be higher than that. Thornton had no previous track record to go on as grandparent, since Tim had died without offspring. The only proven history he had was missing everything as a father. (Although Tim looked happy in all the pictures, a small voice insisted.) Looking at his girls, though, House felt a grudging gratitude. Even from Santa Claus (he insisted to himself that that wasn't really a lie that counted), his girls loved the toys. "We're going to steal the batteries from that horse in a week, tops," he predicted, trying to downplay the moment.
Cuddy shook her head. "No, you won't," she said confidently.
He looked over at her in swift challenge. "I notice you don't say you won't."
She smiled at him. "Thank you, Greg." She leaned over for a quick kiss while the attention was elsewhere. Rachel promptly ran back up to them, and the horse whinnied, breaking the moment.
Gradually, the morning settled down. Cuddy and Sandra together cleared away the boxes and paper, and the girls played fairly peacefully, each with her own present. Daniel fell asleep in Wilson's lap. Belle scouted for missed paper.
House still watched his daughters. Finally, as the three women started cooking lunch, he stood up. "Keep an eye on them for a few minutes," he told Wilson. "Pit stop." Wilson nodded, and House retreated not to the bathroom but to his bedroom. He closed the door softly, then immediately reopened it as Belle started scratching. "Don't let Cuddy see you do that," he told her. She jumped onto the bed and sat tall, looking at him, waiting for the next step of this exciting day.
House sat down on the bed, pulled out the cell phone, and called his father.