"Tell me that I need be a stranger no more." Stranger in Paradise, Kismet


Late Wednesday morning, they were contentedly sprawled around the living room, House on the couch leaning against Cuddy with his leg stretched out and propped on the coffee table on a pillow, Thomas in the recliner, the girls on the floor next to the couch, close to their parents but not climbing on their father's many sore points. Belle supervised from the arm of the couch. Abby had her stuffed unicorn and Rachel the stuffed Ember, and a line of Breyers watched TV from the coffee table. This was the first day since the bomb that House could tell a real difference physically. His ribs still stabbed him on any sudden or incautious movement, but the general aches and bangs were starting to retreat, and while his leg hadn't forgiven him yet for being in an explosion, it was at least beginning to consider it.

The end credits began to roll on the current family movie, and Thomas reached up with his good arm to scratch cautiously around the long line of stitches across his right temple. "Quit that!" Cuddy scolded. He gave her an unrepentant grin but obligingly dropped the offending hand.

"Quit what?" Rachel asked, puzzled.

"It's all right, Rachel. I was talking to Thomas, not you. He needs to leave things along, or they'll never heal right." Cuddy moved her husband's head gently off her shoulder and came to her feet with an ease that both of the men envied at the moment. "Does anybody want a drink? Anything else? Should we watch another movie?"

"Yay!" Rachel nodded vigorously. She was worried a little whenever she watched her father and Thomas move, but she also was loving the extended time together these days without that annoying adult place called work that took her parents away. "Milk, please, and I wanna watch Aristocats."

Abby set the unicorn aside and stood up. "You need something, Abby?" Cuddy asked.

Her younger daughter ignored her and walked the few feet to Thomas' chair. She cautiously scrambled up into his lap, obviously being careful, and he helped her out gingerly, surprised and pleased. Once she got to where she was sitting on the arm, close as she could to eye level, she tilted her head and nailed him with those blue eyes, her father's and his father's, on full differential. "Who are you?" she asked.

Rachel laughed. "It's just Thomas, silly."

"I'm a friend," Thomas told her. He smiled at her, and even in the increasing tension of the moment, part of him was appreciating bilaterally the difference in his granddaughters in personality. Abby might be far quieter than Rachel and slower to connect, but when she did communicate, she came directly to the point, and her perception was amazing. These last few days of time together and slow healing that he had been appreciating (as was Greg, Thomas thought, not that his son had admitted it) were yielding unintended side effects. Clearly, she had seized the puzzle even if not quite sure what the end picture was, and he suspected that she would prove harder to distract than her older sister.

Sure enough, Abby shook her head, not buying the friend statement any longer. "Who are you?" she insisted.

Time seemed to pause, holding its breath. Thomas looked across at his son, and Abby tracked the look before turning to pin him down again. "Who?"

House jumped into the situation verbally even if he couldn't physically. "We'll talk about that sometime later, but right now, why don't we order a pizza? We can have that before watching the Aristocats."

"Not another pizza," Cuddy objected automatically. "We've already had pizza twice this week."

"NO!" Abby stubbornly refused to be diverted, although Rachel had started looking around in quest of that pizza-producing phone. Abby slid down off the arm of the recliner and walked over to her father, locking eyes with him now. He tried to sit up straighter to gain a little more space, and his ribs stabbed at him. "Not a same friend. Not like Wilson. Who?"

House looked helplessly at Cuddy. She stood silent but waiting, firmly refusing the hand-off. The ball was in his court, and Abby wasn't backing down. He tried to frame a suitable lie, but his mind was too full of wrestling the truth the last few days to come up quickly with a convincing one. He looked at the old man, who had chosen to leave him in that hell hole and remain in the background, who had laughed at him and told him he was where he belonged at age six, who had given him the music, who had saved his life on Saturday. He sighed. "He's . . . he's my father."

That got Rachel's attention fast, and she stood up, looking from House to Thomas. "He's your father?"

House nodded and then cringed, waiting for the questions and the demand for an explanation. Rachel's smile widened as this soaked in. "Yay! Like Grandpa?" she asked her mother.

"Yes, Rachel," Cuddy said. "Grandpa is my father. Thomas is Daddy's father."

Rachel scampered over to the side of his chair. "Like Grandpa, only he doesn't have a real horse, and you're funny. Is Ember my sister?" she asked him.

All three of the adults burst out laughing at that, House flinching and bracing his side a moment later. "Now there I draw the line," House insisted.

Abby had been standing next to her father's knee all this time, just watching, but now she walked back to the recliner to eye the occupant steadily again. "Why. . ." she started, then stopped for supplemental consideration, and House braced himself. Abby was the analytical one. Here it came, the whole string of questions on the past. Why hadn't they known before, what was the big secret, and why hadn't the old man ever been around in their short lives prior to the last few months. House was not going to tell his daughters at 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 about that bastard John, no matter how much they demanded details of ancient history. They were simply too young for it.

Abby finished framing her question, but it surprised him. It wasn't looking back, at least not trying to explain the past, just wondering about the logistics now. "Why are you far?" she asked.

"Relatives don't always live close, Abby," Thomas stated. "Your other grandparents don't live right here in town, either." Thank God for that, apparently. He was curious about them even more since that brief phone call he'd overheard Sunday morning, but he had to admit that he wasn't at his best right now with the injuries, and the consensus seemed unanimous that he would need to be when he finally did encounter them.

She looked back across at her father. "But . . ." She hesitated, looking for the word. It wasn't quite want, not that simple, but she knew there was something. Her father seemed different in some way she couldn't quite define when Thomas was around. This wasn't the same as Grandpa and Grandma's visits. Visitors always left, and he was glad to see them go, as was Mama even if she tried to pretend that she wasn't. But Abby didn't think her father really was looking forward to Thomas leaving. It was like seeing only part of the image on the pieces of her puzzle.

Thomas squirmed a bit under the blue microscope, powerful even if small, and then dodged. "I belong in my own house, Abby. I will visit, though, whenever you want me to."

She had caught his quick sidelong glance at her father as he answered, and the determined toddler trek across the living room was repeated. "Why is he far?"

House abruptly was caught by the simplicity of the question. She was asking not why wasn't he here, but why isn't he here? At least to her, the present and the future were the point, not the past. Was it that easy to accept his identity? No questions, at least not ones about things undone? For them, apparently it was. For himself, as much ground and yes, connection had been gained back in the dust and rubble and darkness at the racetrack, healing remained a work in progress, but maybe once in a while, he might learn from a 2 1/2-year-old's perspective. So many years lost, but some still remained, and those did have potential value. Did it make sense to delay what he and the family were offered now over a past that wasn't fixable anyway? "He lives far because he hasn't moved to this town yet," he replied.

Rachel gave an excited hop. "When will you move here?" she asked Thomas.

He was watching his son, weighing the words and the more significant unspoken ones. "I guess I just hadn't gotten around to it," he said finally.

"Then do it," she demanded, full of impatience with the adult world. She didn't understand them at all sometimes.

He smiled at her. "Okay, Rachel. I promise, once I'm healed up from our little accident" - Cuddy couldn't help a silent eye roll, along with a fine inner tremor of her soul at what could have been represented by those innocent words our little accident - "I'll move up to Princeton. It will take some time to get everything done, but I will, and I'll buy a house that's close. Okay?"

"Yay!" She scrambled up into the recliner, less carefully than her sister had, and Thomas tried not to flinch. She gave him a hug, then broke off a moment later to ask, "Can Ember come, too?"

"Of course Ember will come, too. I'd never leave her behind."

Rachel gave Thomas another happy hug, picturing both him and the horse not being far. Abby looked at her father with her sunshine smile, and her chin went up. "Knew he's somebody," she said. She looked like a miniature of himself after solving a case, the satisfaction simply oozing from her.

House reached out to ruffle her hair proudly, though he was still amazed and relieved at the lack of interrogation. "Yes, he's somebody."

"Good." He reached a little too far in touching her and winced, and she focused with quick concern. "You okay, Daddy?"

He carefully readjusted himself on the couch, and she moved closer. "I'm fine, Abby," he said, then quickly amended, "at least I will be."

She nodded, accepting it, leaning into his loving hand.

Rachel, in the recliner, released her hug. "Grandpa Thomas?" she asked.

He closed his eyes for just a second, reveling in it, then opened them again. "What is it, Rachel?"

"We need to celebrate. You know how we need to celebrate? Pizza!"

House looked up at Cuddy, the mischievous light she loved firing up in his eyes. "But your mother thinks we've had too many pizzas, Rachel. I guess we can't celebrate today with one after all, so we have to be stuck eating vegetables instead, even if he is my father. Go kill the fatted zucchini, Lisa."

She couldn't have summoned up a strict look for him right now if she had tried. "Oh, all right. We'll have pizza. We'll even have ice cream. Let's celebrate right."

"Yay!" Unable to stay still in the face of all of this, Rachel slid down from the chair to run a circle of the living room, snatching up her stuffed Ember along the way and prancing around to an accompaniment of hoofbeats. Cuddy picked up the phone and started to place the order, and Thomas and House looked at each other steadily across the distance still between but without the younger turning away this time. Thomas studied his son's eyes. The scars of the remembered pain remained, and not all questions had been settled, but there was also a tentative acceptance and a sort of release. He hadn't known quite how to bring it up without Abby's push, but he didn't regret the last five minutes. Thomas mouthed the silent words. Thank you, Greg. House's eyes shifted from his father's to look at his two daughters, then back again with a subtle warning delivered purely by expression. Be good to them.

Cuddy hung up and walked over to kiss her husband. "Thank you, Greg," she said herself.

House shrugged. "Can't change biology, after all, even if I tried. But there are going to be ground rules. First of all, that D-A-M-N-E-D H-O-R-S-E isn't invited to the house, understand?"

The stuffed Ember whinnied as Rachel skidded to a halt. "Don't spell!" she protested.

The adults laughed, and then, as they waited for the pizza, they started discussing plans, the whole family together.