Some of you will love this fic. Some will find it too saccharine for words. (Heh.) The second half of this fic is based on a prompt from my pal gnortn (and others), although she probably expected me to go a little deeper than I did. Still, hopefully you will all have a little laugh and a little cry reading this one. xo
Lisa Cuddy had a special ring tone on his phone.
He probably should've changed it after she dumped his ass, but he'd forgotten to. (Or at least that's what he told himself.)
So when his phone broke into a chorus of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," he felt like he was hearing a ghost.
He answered the phone quickly.
There was silence, then a rustle, possibly the sound of breathing. He thought maybe she had accidentally butt-dialed him.
Then a tiny, whispered voice: "Howse?"
"Hi Howse. It's Rachel," the little girl said.
"Kinda picked up on that, kid. Is everything okay? Where's mommy?"
"In the kitchen," Rachel whispered.
"Does she know you have her phone?"
"Rach, how'd you even dial this number? You can't read—or count for that matter."
"I said, 'Call House'—and it did," Rachel said, proudly.
House had to smile. Ah, the miracles of modern technology.
"What's up, shorty?"
"How come you never come over to play anymore?"
"Cause your mommy dumped me," he said.
"It means she. . .doesn't want to be around me anymore."
"Because she doesn't like me anymore."
"Because she thinks I'm a selfish bastard."
"A bad man."
"You're not a bad man, silly."
"Thanks Rach. I'm glad one of the she-Cuddys feels that way."
There was a pause. Then, as if getting down to business:
"Can you come over tonight and read 'Goodnight Moon' and do the funny voices for me?"
This kid was seriously dense, House thought
"No, Rach. That's what I've been saying. I can't come over tonight."
He could hear it her voice. The beginning of a complete toddler meltdown.
"I have a better idea. . ." he said, improvising. "Why don't we become phone buddies, okay? You can call me anytime you want. And I will do a whole rogue's gallery of funny voices for you over the phone. Sound like a plan?"
Rachel thought about it for a second. She had no idea what a rogue's gallery was, but it sounded cool.
"Sounds like a plan," she echoed.
"But this is very important: Mama can't know about this, okay? Because it will make her mad."
"Okay," Rachel whispered.
"Alright, talk to you soon, my little cell phone bandit."
House looked at his phone. For reasons not completely clear, he felt like he wanted to cry.
He also knew one thing for sure: He needed to change Cuddy's ringtone right away.
It took her almost 5 days to figure it out.
She looked down at her call log and saw 5 calls from House. (Had he called and hung up?)
But one of the calls was 45 minutes long. The others were close to 10 minutes.
Then she realized they weren't incoming calls, they were outgoing ones.
"Rach!" she bellowed.
"Yes mama," Rachel said, looking up from the unicorn stickers she was playing with.
"Did you take my phone out of my purse?"
Rachel bowed her head guiltily. Her little cheeks became splotchy and red.
"Yes mama," she said.
"To call House?"
"Because he never comes over to play anymore," Rachel said.
Cuddy closed her eyes tightly. She had expected Rachel to start asking about House. She just hadn't expected her to take matters into her own hands.
"You can't take my phone, Rachel. It's wrong. You know that, right?"
"And you shouldn't talk to House."
"Because mommy and House aren't friends like that anymore. We're just work friends now. Do you understand?"
"No!" Rachel said, stubbornly.
"Sometimes grown-ups drift apart."
"Howse said you took a dump on him," Rachel said.
Cuddy almost laughed.
"You mean, I dumped him?"
"Yeah. . ." Rachel said.
Cuddy shook her head. House was incapable of being euphemistic, even in front of a 3-year-old child.
"Did he say why I dumped him?"
"Cause you don't like him anymore."
"That's not true honey. It's a lot more complicated than that."
"And he said because he's a selfish bastard."
"Rach! Don't use that word. It's a bad word!"
"Why is Howse a selfish bad word?"
"He's not, sweetie. He's a good person who occasionally does not-so-good things. And, at some point, he did too many not-so-good things and mommy decided he wasn't right for us anymore. Do you understand?"
"Well, I'm sorry Rach. Sometimes adults do things that kids don't understand. But you have to go along with them anyway. So promise me you won't take my phone ever again."
"But I wanna talk to Howse!"
Rachel looked at the floor, said nothing.
"It makes me sad," she said, finally.
The kid had her grandmother's way with a guilt trap.
"I know Rach. It makes me sad, too. But you've got to promise, okay? What you did was wrong."
"Okay," she said, sighing dramatically.
"How bout we have some mint chocolate chip ice cream to seal the deal?"
"Okay," Rachel said, slumping her shoulders, like she was doing Cuddy some sort of huge favor.
Cuddy went into the kitchen, pulled out two bowls—they were shaped like little ice cream cones—and began scooping the ice cream.
"Hey Rach," she said, as a thought crossed her mind. "Why was that one phone call 45 minutes?"
"Because we watched the show together."
"What show?" Cuddy said, alarmed. Then she shook her head. "Nevermind, let's have our dessert. We can talk about this later."
"Are you out of your mind?" Cuddy said, barging into House's office the next day.
"Lovely to see you, too, Cuddy."
"You've been having private conversations with a three year old? Watching shows about drunken pirates together?"
"That happens to be a very educational show. Especially on National Talk Like a Pirate Day."
"This is not funny, House."
"Apparently, you are. Behind my back. Did you think I was never going to find out?"
House scratched his head a bit.
"I don't know. I guess I didn't think that far ahead."
"You never do."
"She called me! What was I supposed to do—hang up on the kid?"
"How about: 'Put mommy on, Rachel.'"
"Like you're so keen to talk to me these days," he muttered.
"Encouraging Rachel to steal my phone and have secret conversations behind my back is not acceptable House!"
House bowed his head. For a second, he looked as sheepish and abashed as Rachel.
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to talk to her. Is that so wrong?"
Just briefly, Cuddy felt herself soften, then she recovered.
"Just don't do it again, okay?"
"Okay," he said, sadly.
And she had a strange urge to offer him some ice cream.
The insipid strains of Barney's "I Love You, You Love Me" sounded from his phone.
He picked up.
"Rach," he whispered. "You can't call me anymore. Mama's going to get mad."
"This is mama," Cuddy said, sharply.
He had been splayed out on his lounge chair. Now he sat up quickly, as if Cuddy could see his bad posture all the way from her house.
"Oh, uh, hey," he said. Then he winced a bit: "What's that infernal racket in the background?"
Cuddy held up the phone to the room. The racket was now quite unmistakably the sound of a three year old, wailing.
"This is your handiwork," Cuddy snapped.
"What did I do?"
"She wants you to tuck her in and read her a bedtime story."
"Oh. . ." he said, scratching his head. "So what's the play here? I forget? Do we negotiate with the terrorist or not?"
"In this case, we're in Code Red and I need you to come over"
"To your house? Now?"
"Yes, to my house. Can you?"
House felt his heart thumping a bit in his chest.
"I think I can clear my schedule."
Rachel was in full-on convulsion mode by the time he arrived—dramatically gasping for breath with each sob.
Cuddy looked at her wits end.
The minute House stepped into the living room, though, it was like a switch had been flipped.
Rachel stopped crying and gave him a tight, possessive hug. Her wet face pressed into his leg.
"Hiya, kid," House said. "I'm no expert, but you seem upset."
"Are you here to tuck me in?" she sniffed.
House glanced over at Cuddy, who nodded, grimly.
"Yeah, but just this once, Meryl."
And he led her into the bedroom.
Cuddy puttered in the kitchen for as long as she could, until curiosity got the best of her.
She stood just outside Rachel's door, eavesdropping.
"You can't melt down like this anymore, okay, kid?" House was saying.
"Okay," Rachel said.
"Your mommy works very hard and you know what her favorite part of the day is?"
"Coming home to see you. So it really kind of su—stinks if you're blubbering all the time. Cause your face looks totally funny when you blubber and snot comes out of your nose and it's really kinda gross actually."
"I am not gross!"
"Oh, you're totally gross. You're like, slime on vomit gross."
Now Rachel was laughing uncontrollably.
"On poop?" she added.
"Exactly. Slime on vomit on poop."
Rachel was now laughing so hard, fresh tears were coming down her eyes.
Outside the door, Cuddy shook her head.
"You want to make mommy happy, right?" House said.
"So no more gross vomit crying, okay?"
"But mommy doesn't want me to see you," Rachel said. She knew he was being silly before, but now it was time to get serious.
"I know. And that. . .stinks. But that's just boring everyday stuff. I'm always here if you really need me, Rach. You know that, right? I will do anything for you, anytime."
"And mommy, too?" Rachel asked.
"And mommy, too," House said earnestly. "Just know that. Always."
Cuddy let her head rest against the hallway wall. Damn House and his eternal loyalty. Damn him.
"I know," Rachel said.
"Close your eyes, kiddo. It's late."
"Will you sing to me?" Rachel said, in a baby voice.
Once she realized that House was coming out of Rachel's room, Cuddy stepped away from the door. She pretended to busy herself by dusting magazines on the book shelf.
"She's asleep," House whispered.
Cuddy looked at him.
I will do anything for you, anytime.
"Thanks House," she said, sincerely. "You didn't have to come over tonight. But you did. And I really appreciate it."
"Anything for. . .Rachel," House said.
Cuddy nodded. Just for a brief moment, she touched his arm.
"Good night," she said.
"Good night," he replied.
That weekend, she went to Julia's for lunch. They drank mango iced tea on the patio, as the kids played in the yard.
"How's your week been?" Julia asked.
"Good," Cuddy said, nodding. "One minor hiccup."
"What kind of hiccup?"
"Rachel has been missing House. She actually stole my phone out of my purse to call him a few times."
"Something he taught her, no doubt."
"He was sweet, Jules. He said he missed her and he just wanted to talk to her."
"Please. He was just doing it to impress you."
"I don't think so," Cuddy said. "House and Rachel have this. . .bond. I can't explain it."
"That's because he's the only adult as immature as she is."
"That's not completely inaccurate," she said.
She took a sip of her iced tea.
"Do you know what Rachel said about Lucas after I broke up with him?" Cuddy said.
"That he smelled bad."
"I never thought Lucas smelled bad."
"Me neither. Rachel must've not liked his cologne or something. But the point is, she knew Lucas even longer than she knew House. No connection there, whatsoever."
"That's kids for ya," Julia said, breezily.
"Anyway, it gets worse. Rachel had a complete meltdown the other night. Worst tantrum ever. She was demanding that House come over. So he did."
Julia frowned a bit.
"And he said the most incredible thing: He said he would always be there for us. No matter what."
"Oh shit," Julia said, looking at her.
"What?" Cuddy said, guiltily.
"That look on your face."
"That dreamy look. You're falling for him again."
"I am not," she said, unconvincingly.
"You made your choice, sis. You made the right choice for you—and your daughter."
"I never said I didn't," Cuddy said, testily. And she looked toward the kids, who were climbing all over each other in the yard.
"Hey, not so rough!" she shouted.
The conversation was clearly over.
A few nights later, there was a knock at the door of Cuddy's house.
She peered through the peephole. It was a youngish guy in a baggy tan suit.
"Dr. Lisa Cuddy?" the guy said.
"Yes?" she said, opening the door.
He handed her a manila envelope.
"You've been served," he said.
"I. . . what?" she said.
But the young man was already heading back to his car.
She furrowed her brow, opened the envelope. And her face went white.
"What's wrong?" House said, standing in her office the next day.
"Who said anything's wrong?" she said.
"You ordered breakfast this morning, but didn't take a bite. You forgot to wear your earrings—you never forget to wear your earrings. And your in-box is overflowing like Mt. Vesuvius.
"And your shirt is wrinkled," Cuddy countered.
House folded his arms.
"If you don't want to tell me what's wrong, that's fine," he said. "But don't pretend nothing is wrong."
Cuddy sighed, stood up, closed the door.
"If you must know," she said, lowering her voice. "I got served with papers last night. Rachel's biological grandparents are suing for custody."
House's mouth dropped open.
"I know. It's insane."
"They can't do that, can they? I mean, you legally adopted her. You raised her. She's yours."
"I'm quite sure they can't," Cuddy said firmly, as if trying to convince herself. "But just to be on the safe side, I've hired the best family lawyer in the state of New Jersey."
"The best family lawyer in the state of New Jersey is not the best family lawyer in the country."
"Probably not, but I'm sure she's good enough."
"Good enough is not good enough," House said. "I'm going to make some phone calls. Call in some favors."
"That's not necessary," Cuddy said. "I mean, this has to be an open and shut case, right?"
She looked to him for reassurance.
"Right," he said, although he really had no clue.
"And House, do me a favor? Can you just keep this between you and me? I don't want this getting around the hospital."
A week later, he saw her coming out of the stairwell, her face streaked with dried tears.
"What is it?" he said.
"I just spoke to my lawyer," she said. She looked like she was about to cry again, so he took her arm and led her back to the stairwell.
"The grandparents are claiming that they had post-traumatic shock when they signed Rachel over to me. They're claiming the adoption isn't valid. House, they could take my baby away from me!"
It was taking all her strength not to cry again.
He wanted to steady her. He wanted to take her in his arms and console her. But he wasn't sure that was the right thing to do.
Instead he said: "Cuddy, that's not going to happen."
"I'm completely freaking out, House."
"Cuddy, look at me," he said. "I am not going to let them take Rachel."
"It's not up to you."
"I won't let it happen," he repeated.
Cuddy swallowed hard.
"Okay," she said.
"Okay," he said. "Can I call in those favors now?"
She blinked back a tear and nodded.
House had treated—and cured—Terrence Weaver, a world-famous adoption lawyer who suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder. He called him. Weaver was on the next plane to New Jersey.
Cuddy met with him in a conference room at the hotel.
The case was tricky for two reasons, Weaver explained: The court always favored two parents over one. And the extreme circumstances of their daughter's death gave the grandparents a legitimate claim to PTSD. Also, the worthless little piece of shit who had gotten her pregnant was now a junior at Rutgers who claimed he wanted to play an active role in Rachel's life.
"What are the odds I could lose her?" Cuddy asked him, her voice trembling.
"Honestly?" Weaver responded. "50 percent."
And Cuddy had to excuse herself for a moment so she could go to the bathroom and throw up.
"I love you, you love me. . ." (He had chosen the ringtone ironically. But it was, objectively, the worst song in the world).
"Rachel, what did I tell you about calling me?" he whispered into the phone.
Then heavy breathing, some sniffles. Finally, "House?"
"I know you are."
"I'm really, really scared."
"Can you come over?"
"Yes," he said.
And he popped up so quickly, his leg buckled.
When he got to Cuddy's house, it was past 9:30. The house was dark and the curtains were drawn. Rachel would already be asleep.
He made a calculated decision not to knock. He used his key—he had never taken it off his keychain (another thing he had "forgotten" to do)—and let himself in.
Cuddy was sitting on the bed, dressed in a nightgown and a flimsy robe, her knees drawn close to her chest. She was shaking.
"Are you okay?" he said.
She looked at him, then burst into tears.
He rushed toward her on the bed, took her in his arms.
"It's okay," he kept saying. "Shhhh, I'm here."
She cried for a very long time. His shirt was soaked with her tears. Finally, they parted.
"Weaver says 50-50 chance," she sniffed.
"Not gonna happen," he said.
"But what if it does?"
He took her face in his hands.
"Cuddy, if it comes to it—and I'm not saying it will—we're taking Rachel and we're getting the fuck out of Dodge."
"What? You mean, go on the lam? Be fugitives?" she said—she thought he was joking.
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
She wiped her eyes.
"You'd do that for us?"
"We will get in my car and keep driving and driving until we can not be found."
She knew he meant it. ("I will do anything for you, anytime" he had said. This was that promise in action.) His words were comforting to her, but terrifying too. Because House wouldn't say something like that unless he believed she could really lose Rachel.
"You think I'm going to lose her, don't you?"
"No, I don't. This is just me being prepared for anything. It's what I learned in the Boy Scouts."
"You weren't a Boy Scout," she scoffed.
"I was. For 2 whole days, until I got kicked out. But the Be Prepared part really stuck with me."
She gave a weary smile.
"House," she said. "Thanks. You've been my rock through all of this."
"It's nothing," he said, with a shy shrug. "Don't mention it."
"It's not nothing. It's everything."
And they gave each other a meaningful look.
"C'mere," House said finally, beckoning her. "You have a big day tomorrow. Try to get some sleep."
And like she had so many times when they were dating, she tucked herself into the crook of his arm, pressed her body against him, and fell asleep.
He barely slept himself. Just lay there next to her, fully clothed, watching her uneasily rest.
She tossed and turned. She was having nightmares. He felt helpless.
When she woke up, it was slightly awkward between them. All of the emotions, the intimacy of the previous night had dissipated.
"I should take a shower, get dressed," she said. "I'm due in court in two hours."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"No," she said.
He wondered if she thought that her pill-popping, former mental patient ex would be a liability more than an asset. Can't say he blamed her.
"But you got that thing I wrote?"
"Yes. Thank for you that."
"What about Rachel?"
"She's going to preschool. Weaver said it would help my case to have her testify. I said, over my dead body."
House nodded. A mama bear protecting her cub.
"It's going to be okay," he said.
"You promise?" she said, ironically.
Turns out House was right. The judge said that adoptions often occurred after the sudden death of the mother and to let the grandparents claim PTSD would be creating a dangerous legal precedent. Besides, Dr. Cuddy had a binder full of glowing testimonials from her colleagues, Rachel's teachers, even her famously grouchy ex boyfriend ("I've had a front row seat to their beautiful love story," House had written)—by all accounts, she was an excellent mother.
When the judge ruled in her favor, Cuddy went to her car and wept. Then she pulled Rachel out of daycare early. She hugged her little girl so tightly that Rachel could hardly breathe.
"Mama, you're squeezing me too tight!" she said, gasping a bit.
"That's because you're so squeezable," Cuddy said, finally letting go.
Rachel had no idea that she was adopted, let alone that her custody had been in jeopardy mere hours ago. She only knew that her mama was hugging her extra tight and acting a little funny right now.
"Why are you crying mama?" she said.
"Because I love you so much," Cuddy said.
"I love you, you love me. . ." the stupid dinosaur sang.
House picked up the phone.
"Rachel?" he said, uncertainly.
"You bloody scallywag!" Rachel said, with a giggle.
"Kiddo. You've got to stop calling me!"
"Can you come over for dinner tonight?"
The kid was dumb as barrel of dirt.
"I told you, Rach. I can't."
"Mama says she's making your favorite, chicken pot pie."
House narrowed his eyes. He hesitated.
"That's still your favorite, right?" Cuddy said, taking the phone.
"Yes," he said.
"Then be here at 7 pm."
"But. . .what does this mean?" he said cautiously. "For us?"
"It means I want you to have dinner with us tonight. To thank you. For everything. And then. . . we'll see."
"7 pm," he said.
"Yes. And House?" she said. Her voice had taken on a slightly sultry quality.
"Bring a change of clothes."
He decided he needed to change Cuddy's ringtone again. He chose "We Are Family."