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1. The Flare

The Aladdin soundtrack blares loudly through the speakers as Rachel sings along to her latest obsession. Cuddy can't help but smile as she watches her daughter through the rearview mirror, even though she'll probably never get the lyrics to A Friend Like Me out of her head. Just as Rachel is getting ready to belt out the familiar chorus, she's cut off by the sound of a cell phone ringing through the bluetooth. Cuddy's about to send the call straight to voicemail, because moments like this are few and far between, but then she sees the name on the caller ID.

"Hold on a second, honey, it's Uncle Wilson."

Rachel nods, as if she approves of this particular interruption. "Tell him he was supposed to bring me and House pops yesterday but he forgot."

"Hi Wilson," Cuddy answers, laughing as she does. "Apparently my daughter has something to say to you about a lollipop debt."

"Hey," Wilson's voice, a bit more strained than usual, echoes through the car. "Where are you right now?"

"Rachel had a half day of school, so I took the afternoon off to hang out with her. We're going to get manicures."

"Oh, okay."

"What's wrong?" Cuddy asks, though she's partially afraid to know the answer. "House isn't allowed to get in trouble for the next four hours. He promised he'd be on his best behavior."

"Yeah, he was."

"Was? Why are you talking in the past tense?"

Cuddy hears him sigh, and knows that he's internally wrestling with whether or not he should tell on his best friend. But Wilson is Wilson, forever a meddler, which means ultimately he'll cave and give her the information she needs.

"House was working in the clinic and he fell. His leg spasmed and he just… hit the ground in the lobby. He tried to catch himself, but it was like his leg buckled underneath him."

It's not at all what Cuddy was expecting. She was prepared to have to call the fire department, or maybe even the CDC. Now she wishes he was in trouble for causing chaos in her absence. She would much prefer House being a pain in the ass to House being in physical pain.

"Is he okay? Where is he now?"

"He's on the couch in your office. I could barely get him that far. And once I did, he kicked me out. He didn't want me to call you either, but he looks terrible and I'm kind of worried he's going to…."

"Wilson, you're on speaker phone," Cuddy interrupts, because Rachel doesn't need to know what's on the list of things Wilson thinks House might do. "Say hi, Rachel."

"Hi," Rachel yells from the back seat. "House is hurt?"

"Hey, Rach. Yeah, his leg is bothering him a little bit extra today."

Cuddy appreciates how Wilson downplays the situation despite the possibilities they both know exist. Vicodin might be out of the picture, but Cuddy's stomach churns as she imagines House cutting his own arm in her office, desperate for momentary alleviation. She has to see him for herself. She has to get to him.

"I can be at the hospital in less than ten minutes."

"Good," Wilson exhales in relief. "I feel bad about interrupting your afternoon, but.."

"No, don't feel bad. I'm glad you called."

Cuddy hangs up, and hopes that Rachel will understand the abrupt change in their plans. "I'm sorry, baby. I know I said it would be just us today, but we have to go get House."

"That's 'kay. House is part of us."

"You're right. He is."

Cuddy tries not to get too emotional, but her heart swells every time Rachel casually includes House as a member of their family.

"How come he didn't want Uncle Wilson to call you?"

"Because he knows we're having mommy-daughter time, and he didn't want to ruin that."

House was the one who encouraged her to take the afternoon off in the first place, who assured her it would be okay to leave work for a few hours so that she could be with her daughter. He would never interrupt her time with Rachel, even if that means riding out his pain alone. She appreciates what he's willing to endure for her, even though she would never let him get away with it.

"He won't ruin it. House makes everything fun."

"I know he usually does. But maybe not today. When his leg hurts he doesn't feel very fun. That means you have to be extra gentle when we get to my office, okay?"

"I know, mama. I helped him before."

Rachel has seen House in pain plenty of times, and she's always done fine with it. She brings him the heating pad, drags his cane from one side of the room to the other, waits patiently when he takes a little longer to keep up. But Cuddy feels anxious, because if Wilson is right, House might be at a pain level Rachel hasn't witnessed before. She takes a deep breath, steeling herself for whatever is waiting for them at the hospital.

-/-

House is all agony and fury as he curls into himself on the couch, hiding from his own team in his girlfriend's office like the pathetic loser he is. He knows that flares can start out of nowhere, but it's all the more frustrating when there are no warning signs before they arrive. He had no time to prepare for the spasm that led to him falling in front of nurses and doctors who are all, no doubt, gossiping about him right now. He's fucking pissed about it, even though it's out of his control.

"I told him not to call you," House groans as the door swings open. He knows it's Cuddy before she steps more than a single foot into the room. "I'm fine."

"Yeah, you look great."

He doesn't open his eyes, because seeing her face will only make him angrier— at himself, his leg, and life in general. He doesn't know where to put all that anger, but he doesn't want it any where near the woman he loves. Sometimes his first instinct is to protect her by isolating himself.

"Cuddy, I need you to leave me alone."

It's a lie, but it's also the truth. He craves her touch, because she knows what to do when he feels like this, somehow able to comfort him without making him feel like a lesser man. But he refuses to be the reason Rachel loses time with her mother.

"Too bad, House. I'm not leaving."

"You and Rachel never get..."

"Rachel wants you to come home with us. Don't you, sweetheart?"

House sits up a little and opens his eyes. He's shocked to find Rachel in the room, still in her school uniform, backpack secure on her shoulders. He was certain this would be a brutal intervention, and that Cuddy would leave Rachel with Wilson or one of the nurses. His tone changes automatically, adjusting to the unexpected presence of a five year old. "Didn't know you were here, little Cuddy."

"You 'gotta come with us," Rachel informs him, because apparently he's being double-teamed. "Everyone knows when you don't feel good you're supposed to go home from school."

"Good thing this isn't school. Although your mom does act suspiciously like a principal."

"This isn't up for debate," Cuddy ignores his deflection. "We're taking you home."

"How? I can't move. So unless Rachel has developed superpower strength since breakfast, I don't think you two are going to be able to get me anywhere."

"If only this hospital had some kind of chair on wheels for situations like this…"

"No way."

"Why not? You've used it before."

"To win a bet. Not to be wheeled out of here while everyone gawks at me."

"So it's a matter of your parking space being in jeopardy? In that case, if you don't let me take you home, I'm revoking your parking space, your cafeteria privileges, and your key to the doctor's lounge."

"Abuse of power," he grumbles, as another wave of pain hits him, leaving him borderline breathless, and too weak to keep up the pretense of this fight. "You'll be hearing from my lawyer."

"Your lawyer is the hospital's lawyer who is also my lawyer." She leans down and kisses his forehead, unbothered by the coat of sweat. "You definitely have a fever. I'm going to go grab the wheelchair. I'll be right back, okay?"

House is left alone with Rachel, who watches him with concern. "Uncle Wilson said you fell down," she quietly tells him.

He hates that Wilson called Cuddy, but it's so much worse that Rachel was there, too. He doesn't need her to know the depths of his humiliation. It's bad enough that his pain weaves in and out of the kid's life, far too often dictating her days and her schedule.

"Have you ever heard the phrase, 'snitches get stitches?' Promise me you won't act like Wilson when you're on the playground."

"But did you fall?"

Just like her mother, Rachel won't be deterred so easily. "Yep. Right on my butt in the middle of the clinic. Pretty embarrassing."

"You always say the clinic is for stupid people so who cares if you fell down in front of the stupid people?"

"Solid rebuttal."

Rachel scrunches her nose, and looks around the room as if she's searching for something. "Why does it smell so gross in here?"

"Because you're sitting next to the garbage can I puked in."

"Your tummy hurts, too?"

House doesn't have the energy to explain all the ways his entire body betrays him when his leg acts up, how the spasms turn to nausea and fevers and fatigue. "It's not my day, kid."

Rachel takes her backpack off her back, puts it down on the floor, unzips it, and pulls out a water bottle that's only half full. "You can have this."

"Thanks."

He takes a sip, even though the water is warm, because his throat is dry and still tastes of vomit. As he does, Rachel digs further into her backpack, eventually pulling out a crumpled up napkin with the remnants of her breakfast still evident on it. Before he can ask what she's doing, she moves closer to him and starts patting his head, trying to absorb the sweat.

It's ridiculous, but he's not bothered by it. He would rather focus on Rachel than on his pain. He thinks she likely wants to be like her mom, who takes care of him so well. But he also suspects Rachel has genuine affection for him, which mostly scares the shit out of him.

Still, he can't help but appreciate that affection. Sometimes he even wants to return it. Because Rachel is a pint-sized Cuddy; determined, smart, forthcoming, funny. It's impossible for House not to like every part of Cuddy, including the one patting his head with a used napkin, achieving nothing but getting blueberry muffin crumbs in his hair.

-/-

Back at home, House collapses into bed without bothering to change his clothes. The ibuprofen Cuddy gave him may start to reduce his fever, but will do next to nothing for the throbbing sensation rippling through every nerve in his body. He doesn't necessarily miss Vicodin, but he misses not feeling this.

"Rachel went down for a nap," Cuddy enters the bedroom with her soft curls and suggestions. "Want to see if we can do the same?"

"It's worth a shot."

She nods and gets into bed with him, but not on her usual side. When he's in excruciating pain, Cuddy is the big spoon. It started because she said she didn't want to press herself against his leg. House would never admit how much he cherishes her tiny form wrapped around his back. It makes him think about how someone so physically small can be the biggest force in his life. As they rest together, he focuses on her breathing against him. Cuddy is here, he reminds himself, which is the only thing he'll ever want or need. Life with Cuddy, filled with occasional flares, is so much better than the drugged-out life he had without her. After a while, he manages to drift off to sleep.

When he wakes up again, he's alone in the bed and it's dark outside, so he knows he's slept for quite a while. His fever is gone and his pain feels dull, instead of sharp and stabbing. He can hear laughter from the living room, which is all the motivation he needs to see if he can move. He swings his legs off the bed and reaches for his cane. He slowly stands up, shocked to find that he can walk, albeit slowly. He reaches the living room and finds Cuddy on the couch, Rachel sitting on the floor in front of her, and a box of nail polish on the coffee table.

"Hey," Cuddy lights up when she notices him. "Any better?"

"Tiny bit."

"Look," Rachel demands, holding up both of her hands. "We did nails. Mine are sparkly."

"They sure are."

Cuddy doesn't say anything, but he knows what she's trying to tell him with her eyes. See, House? You didn't ruin our day. Cuddy is superwoman. Of course she could look after him and still manage to salvage bonding time with her daughter.

House lays down on the couch and puts both his legs across Cuddy's lap. She starts massaging his thigh like it's second nature. "You feeling up to food yet? We saved you some."

His stomach is painfully empty, but still uneasy, his appetite not yet rebounded. "Maybe later."

Without any warning, Rachel marches up to them and puts her right hand on House's leg, trying to copy her mother. "No!" Cuddy says firmly, removing Rachel's hand so fast that he hardly has time to process what's happening. "You can't ever do that."

"But you'redoing it," Rachel protests.

"I'm a doctor. You could hurt him."

"I wanna help."

"You can help in other ways, but not like that."

Rachel looks sad and embarrassed as she sits back down on the floor. House feels sort of bad about it. He doesn't know what to say, though. He almost wants to tell Rachel it's fine, that she didn't hurt him, but that would probably undermine Cuddy's parenting, which he tries his best not to do.

"House, I can give you sparkly nails," a stubborn Rachel tries again. "Would that help?"

"No, baby," Cuddy answers on his behalf. "House needs rest, not a manicure."

Cuddy is trying to politely tell Rachel that she needs to leave him alone. Oddly enough, House doesn't want to be left alone. "Not so fast," he says. "Why should I be left out of the pampering?"

Cuddy looks at him like he's lost his mind, which maybe he has. Rachel beams at him, which he doesn't hate, and might even like, which scares him all over again.

"What color do you want?"

"You're clearly the expert. You can pick."

Rachel reaches for a dark blue bottle that unfortunately has glitter in. House hangs his left arm off the couch; Cuddy keeps rubbing his leg as Rachel starts painting his nails. The kid is terrible at it, and he has paint all over his fingertips. But he's happy, which is not something he thought he could feel on a day like this one.

"You two should open a cripple spa. You could make millions."

His leg still hurts, nagging beneath the surface like it always will. But for an hour or so, House forgets everything but them.

2. The Surgery

Cuddy storms into House's office interrupting the beginning of a differential. She's already had a morning from hell and doesn't have the patience for his infuriating games.

"House, I swear, the next time you hack into my computer, I'm going to hack off your most precious piece of anatomy."

He smiles at her, amused by her threat. "Good morning to you too, sunshine."

Cuddy pinches the bridge of her nose, at the end of her rope. It's been months of non-stop ear infections for Rachel, and she honestly can't remember the last time any of them got a full night's sleep. A few weeks earlier, the pediatrician finally suggested ear tube surgery to alleviate the pressure and prevent further infections. The procedure was scheduled for next Wednesday, until it mysteriously disappeared from the calendar. When Cuddy asked what happened, she was told that 'she' had deleted it herself. Cuddy instantly knew what that meant, but couldn't fathom the justification for it.

"Why the hell did you cancel Rachel's surgery? Are you trying to kill me?"

House's team stares at her, and then back at him, as if they know this has the potential to be a bigger fight than usual. "Go run tests, children," House tells them. "Mommy and daddy have something to discuss in private."

"Tests for what?" Taub pushes back. "You haven't even given us the patient file yet."

House dramatically opens the folder in his hands. "The patient is... in room 206. What more could you possibly need to know?"

The group turns to Cuddy, because she usually has the final say on whether House is serious or joking. "You can go take his blood and talk to the family," she instructs. "Come back in twenty minutes."

They get up and leave, despite how much they might want to stay and watch. Cuddy puts her hands on her hips and raises her brow, impatiently waiting for an explanation. "Well? This better be good."

"I didn't cancel Rachel's surgery. I rescheduled it."

"Why?"

"Because I want Chase to do it."

"What?"

"I want Chase to do Rachel's surgery," he repeats, with no additional information.

"Chase isn't an ENT. Why would you want your rogue surgeon operating on Rachel?"

"I actually want to do it myself, but you already said no to that."

"Because HR will light my ass on fire."

"That'd be one giant fire."

"House, shut up. I can't let my boyfriend, a well-established crazy person, who is also not an ENT, perform surgery on my daughter in my own hospital."

"Why not? Do they really think you're going to sue yourself? And do you really think I can't put a tube in Rachel's ear just because I'm not an ENT?"

She realizes he's trying to help in the best way he knows how. But his team being involved makes it something bigger, something Cuddy can't handle. Kids who go to House are deathly ill. She doesn't want her daughter in that category.

"Doctors can't treat family. Even if they could, you don't do routine procedures. This is routine. It takes fifteen minutes. It's beneath you. It's beneath Chase, for that matter."

"Routine procedures can get screwed up when idiot doctors are involved."

"I don't hire idiots. Dr. Herson is great at what she does. I don't understand what the issue here is."

House is quiet for a moment, and she almost thinks she's won the argument. But then he delivers his devastatingly effective closing statement. "I let Chase cut into my brain. You should take it as a serious compliment that I value Rachel's ear as much as I value my own brain."

Cuddy studies him, intrigued by his level of investment and by the way he's worded it. She hadn't thought of it like that.

"You know Chase only goes rogue when I want him to," he continues. "Yeah, it's a simple surgery that even Wilson could probably do in under a half hour. But we've both seen things go wrong in less time than that, and with better doctors. Won't you feel better knowing that I'm in the OR, making sure nobody screws up on Rachel?"

It's a rhetorical question, because House already knows the answer to that.

-/-

Rachel bursts into tears the moment she learns she has to have surgery. As House watches her sob into her pillow, he remembers why he doesn't talk to patients and why he always feels useless when it comes to comforting children.

"You're going to take medicine that makes you go to sleep, and when you wake up you're going to feel so much better," Cuddy lovingly explains, sitting on her daughter's bed. "Then you won't have to deal with all those terrible ear aches."

"But they're gonna cut off my ear."

"No, they're not," House rolls his eyes, as he leans against the wall twirling his cane. "Stop being so dramatic."

"I'm not! Operation means cuts and blood."

"I guess it's time for your first med school lecture. It's a bit earlier than I planned but..."

House walks closer to the bed, hoping he has her full attention.

"They're not going to cut off anything. You're going to take a nap. While you're sleeping they're going to suck all the gross stuff out of your ear. Then they put in the world's smallest tube so that you stop getting infections. That's it. You don't even have to get stitches. It'll be over before you know it happened."

"Dr. Chase is going to do it," Cuddy encourages, as Rachel processes his description. "You like Chase, right?"

"I guess. He has nice hair."

"He does. And House is going to stay in the room with you the whole time."

"You are?" Rachel asks through sniffles, calming down a bit.

"Yep. My dumb face will be the last thing you see before you go to sleep, and the first thing you see when you wake up. And when you get home you get to watch cartoons and open presents. I wish I was the one having surgery. Maybe there's still time to figure out a way for us to switch places. Like in Freaky Friday."

"Presents?"

"Oh, yeah. It'll be better than Hanukkah. Grandma Arlene will send you a present, so will Aunt Julia because she's competitive. Mom and I will each get you a present."

"That's four. On Hanukkah I get eight."

"Well, you didn't let me get to Uncle Wilson yet. He already told me that he's going to bring you at least two presents. I'm sure every member of my team will want to get you a present, too. Especially Chase. It's tradition for the surgeon to bestow a gift upon their patient when the patient is as cute as you."

"That's ten presents."

"All you need to do is go to sleep and wake up to ten presents. You sure that's something you want to cry about?"

Rachel considers the question thoroughly. "I want an American Girl Doll," she decides.

"Okay. We'll text Wilson tomorrow and let him know which one you want. But only if you promise to stop being dramatic. Do we have a deal?"

"Deal." Rachel extends her hand, which House shakes.

Cuddy doesn't say much, just kisses Rachel, tucks her in, and tells her she loves her. House wonders if he's about to get in trouble for intervening without permission. But when they get into the hallway, Cuddy grins and slaps his ass. "Nice work in there."

"Yeah?"

"Normally I'd be against bribery, but that was a masterpiece."

"If there's one thing I'm good at, it's bribery."

Cuddy grabs his hand, pulling him towards their bedroom. "I can think of a few other things you're pretty good at."

-/-

The morning of the surgery Cuddy is nervous, as much as she doesn't want to admit it. She's a doctor, so she knows the science of it, she knows the statistics. Nothing is going to go wrong. There's still something about seeing her baby girl in the hospital that makes her want to cry. As House wheels Rachel to the OR, Cuddy remembers the day she carried a malnourished baby out of an abandoned building, knowing exactly what she wanted to do next.

In the waiting room, House's team sits with her, watching her every move. "You don't have to babysit me," she reminds them. "You must have better things to do. Like maybe your clinic hours?"

"We have strict instructions to stay here," Masters says. "Under threat of dismissal."

"You know I wouldn't let him fire you for choosing not to stalk me, right?"

Foreman shakes his head, looks at her like she should know better, which she probably should. "Maybe so. But he'd still find out we left and make our lives hell for it."

Wilson walks through the doors next, and Cuddy rolls her eyes at the overkill. "Let me guess, House sent you here, too?"

"Nope. I'm here all on my own. Considering there's a hundred and fifteen dollar doll sitting in my office right now, I figured I should at least stop by the surgery."

"Thanks for that, by the way. I can write you a check."

"I'm not taking your money. This is finally going to secure my spot as the ultimate favorite uncle. Your sister's husband has been trying to worm his way in."

"With no luck. You're the clear front-runner."

"You going up to the gallery, or waiting here?"

"Staying here." Cuddy tells him. "I know it's stupid, but I can't watch."

"That's not stupid. To be honest, I only want to watch House in there. He was freaked out, which is not something I get to see every day."

"Freaked out? What do you mean?"

"He walked into my office last night and said 'what if something happens to Rachel?' It won't. But what if it does?' and then he left before I could answer."

"Really?"

"He's definitely on edge," Foreman chimes in. "House has come a long way, but a part of him still assumes the worst is going to happen."

Cuddy knows that's true of both of them; it's understandable, considering their combined track record. Infarctions, crazy gunmen, miscarriages, bus crashes, hallucinations, hostage situations, rehab, cranes collapsing, patients dying before their eyes. All the horrible things they've seen and shouldered together. It's no wonder their minds go to scary places in situations that aren't all that scary.

But in the end, there's nothing to be worried about. The surgery goes perfectly. That night, Rachel falls asleep in their bed, right next to her American Girl Doll, safe and sound and better.

Cuddy and House get ready to join her, washing up in the bathroom. But Cuddy can't stop thinking about what Wilson and Foreman said, and she has to know, to hear it for herself.

"Were you nervous today?"

House stops brushing his teeth, spits into the sink. "There was no reason to be nervous."

"Right. But that's not what I asked."

Every once in a while Cuddy thinks of the day she was supposed to adopt Joy. She remembers asking House why he cared. It's not like I'm ever going to ask you to babysit, she said. Cuddy suspects House knew it was a lie before she knew it herself, that he was well aware anyone in her life would be in his life, too. Because they are intertwined, and were even then, before they were brave enough to say it out loud.

"I was nervous," he reluctantly admits. "And I didn't like seeing her so still on the table. She usually never stops moving. Even in her sleep she's kicking around."

When they first started dating, House challenged her to let him into Rachel's life. Do you want to spend time with her? Honestly, before this I would've said no. But yeah. He was willing to try for her. He's always willing to try for Rachel. He doesn't always get it right, but he gets it right a lot more than people would probably believe.

"Thank you, House."

He shrugs as she places a soft kiss on his cheek. "I didn't really do anything."

But, for Cuddy, nothing has ever been further from the truth.

3. The Wake

Cuddy internally cringes when she hears House's cell phone ring in the kitchen. It's Sunday morning, and Rachel is at the park with Wilson and his godson. Cuddy and House are going out for the day, just the two of them, which is a rare occurrence. House has planned the entire thing, and Cuddy is excited because he always comes up with the best adventures. He does have a case, but he promised her it was under control and that the team wouldn't need him. As she hears him mumbling on the phone one room over, she wonders if it's a promise he can keep.

He walks into the living room, a dazed look on his face, and she assumes he's already running through new symptoms in his head. "I just lost you to your patient, didn't I?"

"No."

She's not relieved, because she knows in her gut that something is off. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," he says casually. "Well, except for the fact that my mother's dead."

"What?" Cuddy stands up from the couch and approaches him carefully, taking in the unexpected answer. "What happened?"

"She died in her sleep last night."

"Was she...was she not doing well?"

"I don't know. She called me a few weeks ago, but I didn't call her back. Has she called you recently?"

"No, it's been a few months."

Cuddy only met Blythe in person twice, and Rachel never met her at all. Every once in a while, Blythe would call Cuddy's cell phone directly to get information on her son. She got the number from Wilson, and Cuddy didn't mind. But truthfully her feelings towards House's mother increased in complication the more she learned about his childhood. She couldn't bring herself to hate Blythe completely, but she did hate her cowardice, what she let happen under her roof.

"I guess I'm going to need a few days off, boss."

"We're going to need a few days off," Cuddy corrects. "I'm obviously coming with you."

"Are you sure the hospital can live without both of us? Does anyone else even work there?"

"The hospital will probably be very happy to be rid of us both at the same time."

"But we're their only form of entertainment. Who will they gossip about in our absence?"

"I'm not sure. Especially since the queen of gossip will be coming with us, too."

House nods. "Can you call him for me? I don't think I can deal with.."

"Of course I'll call Wilson. I'll do everything, House. Does your family need help with the arrangements? My administrative skills come in pretty handy at times like this."

"My aunt is doing all that."

"The aunt you hate?"

"Yeah. She's the one who called."

"Okay. I'll call her back tonight and get all the details. I'll book us a hotel and I'll ask Julia to take Rachel for a few days and.."

"Why are we dumping Rachel with Julia?"

"I thought maybe you'd prefer not to have to deal with a hyperactive child in the middle of everything else."

"Rachel is way less annoying than you and Wilson, especially when you're in hovering mode. If I have to deal with you two, you might as well bring the spawn."

Sometimes Cuddy thinks House takes comfort in Rachel, as strange as that is. Now certainly isn't the time to question it, so she simply nods in agreement.

"You want to stay home today?" She offers. "We could relax and watch a movie. I don't mind."

"No way. I have a whole day lined up for you. We're going. You better grab your helmet, because we're taking the bike. And you can't argue with me now, because my mom died."

He's in denial, making jokes, which means a crash is coming later. Cuddy silently prays that she can be whatever he'll need to get through it.

-/-

They leave two days later. Normally House would love a road trip with all of his favorite people, but their destination is a significant bummer and is taking all the fun out of it. If his mom wasn't dead they would be listening to good music and stopping for junk food. He would make Cuddy eat french fries and she would pretend not to like them. Rachel would laugh because Cuddy is a terrible liar, and Wilson would pay for the bill. But his mom is dead. So Wilson is driving Cuddy's car while she sits in the front sending emails from her phone. There's no music on at all, only the traffic report. House is in the back with Rachel and the two of them are playing a ridiculous iPad game that combines math and ninjas for some reason.

"Have you started writing the eulogy?" Wilson asks, because he's a killjoy. House is surprised he even made it to the Jersey Turnpike before bringing this up. "You should probably prepare this one in advance."

"What's a eul-o-gy?" Rachel echoes back, struggling through the word.

"I have to give a speech about my mom. But considering I don't want to give it, winging it sounds fine with me."

"Why don't you wanna?"

House has a strict policy of not lying to Rachel, especially when she asks him a direct question. It's part of why they get along, he thinks, part of why she trusts him. But in this case, he's not sure how to be honest without exposing her to ugliness that her tiny brain shouldn't have to process yet. Cuddy turns around, looks like she's about to rescue him, but House answers before she gets the chance.

"When I was growing up my dad was a big jerk to me and sometimes my mom let him get away with it. So I don't feel like making a speech about how great our family was."

"Oh."

Rachel looks at him with curious eyes and pouty lips, and he knows he can't leave it at that. "If anyone was ever a jerk to you, your mom would kick their butts. She's good at that. She has a lot of practice from kicking my butt at work. Personally if someone was mean to you I would make them walk the plank, because it has more of a dramatic flare."

"But we don't have a boat," Rachel says, as if that's the only issue with his plan.

"We can get a boat. And then straight into the Jersey Shore they go, matey."

Rachel laughs at his pirate voice. Cuddy turns back around, the situation seemingly diffused.

"We had a lady in my classroom this year who was learning to be a teacher."

"A student teacher?" House questions, trying to follow her abrupt subject change.

"She was nice and smelled good, but she was bad at teaching us spelling. I think she was trying her best, but she kept getting confused. When she left, my real teacher said we had to make a thank you card. I wrote about how she smelled good and not about how she was bad at spelling. Was your mom trying her best?"

House feels his breath catch in his throat as Rachel poses a question deeper than she can possibly understand. It's something House has thought about a lot over the years. His mother was young when she got married, too young, and didn't know what she was getting herself into. By the time she figured it out, she was in too deep, and didn't have a lot of options. There was nowhere for her to turn without education, money, or support.

"I think she was trying."

"Maybe that should count a little."

For a while, it felt like it did count. But then something changed, ironically because of Rachel. His childhood became harder to rationalize once he started observing Cuddy with her daughter. Cuddy would turn the world upside down to protect Rachel, would die for her without giving it a second thought. It made House wonder why he wasn't worth the same. A part of him didn't want to know the answer, so his calls back to his mother became less and less frequent.

"I don't know what it should count for. And I guess now I never will."

Cuddy and Wilson don't say a single word until they pull off at the next rest stop, almost an hour later. It has to be some kind of record.

-/-

His mom's body is in a closed coffin in front of a crowded room of mourners. House feels hot and claustrophobic and can't believe he's expected to get through this whole ordeal sober. As much as he hates himself for it, he wishes he had Vicodin, because he's not interested in feeling what he's feeling. He has to focus on something else. Or someone else.

Rachel is sitting next to him on a hideous floral couch, wearing a black dress that has to be uncomfortable with all its frills and lace. She's also wearing an absurd headpiece that she keeps reaching up to readjust.

"That headband is going to cut off the circulation to your brain."

"It's itchy."

"Take it off."

"Can I?"

"Why not? You can take off those ugly shoes, too."

"But mom said I gotta be good today. Respects-ful."

"Respectful," House corrects. "It's my mom's wake so I'm in charge of the rules around here. And I say you can take them off."

Rachel removes her headband and shoes, rearranging herself so that she's sitting cross-legged, looking right at him. House notices that no one in his family has come up to offer him condolences since he sat down with Rachel. It gives him an idea.

"Now that you can breathe again, do you want to play a game?"

"The battery died."

"We don't need an iPad to play this game. We're going to pretend this couch is our pirate ship. If we leave, we're going to get eaten by sharks."

"Sharks?"

"Everyone here is a shark, except for your mom and Wilson. Wilson is a jellyfish because he's squishy and mostly harmless, but if we get too close today he might try to sting us."

Rachel nods enthusiastically, like it makes complete sense. "Mom is a dolphin. Or a mermaid!"

"Good call. Your mom is definitely a mermaid. We can let her on board the ship if we see her around. You're the captain, which means you have to protect me. If you leave me alone, I'm going to get eaten by a shark. The more you talk to me, the less likely it is that sharks will jump on deck."

"What should I talk about?"

"Doesn't matter. Anything you want."

So she does. Rachel tells House how her class is planting a garden at school, with marigolds and sunflowers. She tells him how they're learning to tell time on a "real clock," not a "phone clock." She tells House she wants a dog, which he already knew, and thinks is a terrible idea, so they debate the pros and cons.

His ingenious plan works. No one approaches him. With Rachel, he looks occupied. He gets a few acknowledging nods from people who walk by, but he's able to avoid real interaction with anyone but her.

"House," Rachel whispers, like she's got a secret, tugging on his shirt. "I…"

"What's wrong?"

He's worried she's going to ask him some horrific question that he doesn't want to answer, like about where people go when they die, or why his mom is lying in a box.

"I don't want you to get eaten by a shark, but I really have to pee."

He ruffles her hair, because he finds it amusing how seriously she's taking this mission. "I appreciate your concern, but let's go find the bathroom."

She takes him by the hand and the two of them walk through the lobby and into the back hallway, which House hopes is a safe zone. He waits outside as Rachel uses the restroom, but the second she's out of his sight, he gets cornered by one of his least favorite people in the world.

"Gregory."

"Hey."

His aunt is standing in front of him, and he's convinced she must have followed them, waiting for the perfect opportunity to confront him. Before the conversation goes any further, Rachel opens the door of the bathroom and steps out."Hi," she says shyly.

"Who is this?" His aunt asks.

"I'm Rachel."

"Who?"

"This is Dr. Cuddy's daughter."

"Who?"

"My girlfriend. You spoke to her on the phone two days ago."

"I didn't realize she had a child. What happened to the father?"

"What happened to your last two husbands?"

He begins to walk out, Rachel's hand once again in his, but his aunt is determined to have the last word. "Your mom could have used you these last few months, you know. But you couldn't even be bothered to call her back. A world-famous doctor couldn't check on a dying woman? You always were a selfish bastard."

House snorts. "Pot meet kettle."

Because maybe, just maybe, if his aunt was less of a judgmental bitch, his mom would've had the strength to leave her abusive husband.

"My sister deserved better than you for a son. And this girl, god help her, deserves better for a make believe daddy."

He's about to lose it when Rachel takes a step forward. "If you don't stop being mean, you're gonna have to walk the plank."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm the captain and we're going back to our ship now cause you're an ugly shark."

House shrugs, proud in a way he's never felt before. "Can't argue with the captain."

As they walk away, he wonders if he should talk to Rachel about what happened, about how his aunt was throwing around words like 'father' and 'make believe.' But before he gets the chance, they bump directly into Arlene Cuddy in the lobby. "Grandma?" Rachel smiles, picking up her pace, already forgetting the confrontation she was just part of. "Hi!"

House is beyond shocked to see her, and doesn't hesitate telling her. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"My daughter's boyfriend's mother died."

"So, what? You don't even like your daughter's boyfriend."

"Despite that he's an arrogant know-it-all with no manners, he has a few redeeming qualities. I'm assuming his mother was the one responsible for them. The better question is what is my daughter's boyfriend doing out in the hallway with my granddaughter?"

"Running away from the sharks," Rachel lowers her voice to a whisper. "They're everywhere."

"What on earth does that mean?"

Arlene eyes him so suspiciously that he decides to tell the truth. "It means that I'm borrowing Rachel to act as a buffer between me and all my worst relatives."

"Borrowing?" Arlene chuckles, condescending and deep. "Okay, Greg."

"What?"

"You can't borrow something that's already yours. And I can tell that, by the way, from the fact her hair is a mess and she's running around a funeral home with no shoes on."

He doesn't know what to say to that, so he just keeps walking, trying not to think too hard about the implications of her words. When the three of them get back into the main room, Cuddy is up front, talking to relatives House hasn't seen in years, as if it's her responsibility. She has on the face she wears for donors, warm and welcoming. House isn't capable of things like this, and Cuddy knows that, so she takes over. She fills his weaknesses with her strengths.

"Rachel, please go tell your mother that I'm here."

Rachel looks to House, like she needs his permission to listen to her own grandmother. He nods and then calls after her. "Remember if a shark attacks you, you're supposed to punch them in the nose. Just kidding, don't punch anyone!"

Arlene rolls her eyes, but then settles her gaze on her daughter. "Has Lisa even met any of these people before today?"

"No."

"And yet she's running the show, as usual."

"She wants to go two for two and become the youngest female Dean of Funeral Homes. Fingers crossed."

"You joke, but I wouldn't be surprised if she left here with a job offer."

"My mom is dead."

He has no idea why it comes out of his mouth, to his nemesis of all people. Everybody dies. His mom was old. It's not a tragedy. He barely spoke to her. Nothing has changed in terms of his day to day life. It still feels like everything has changed somehow.

"Yes, she is. Hence the wake."

"I hadn't spoken to her since Christmas."

He's not sure if he's making Arlene uncomfortable. He probably is. She isn't built for these conversations anymore than he is.

"We both know my daughter doesn't tell me anything, but from the very few pieces of information I've been able to gather, your relationship with your mom was complicated. You're allowed to love her and still not understand her. Lisa sure as hell doesn't understand me."

"No one understands you, Arlene."

"Don't talk back to me. Do you know how expensive it was to get a train ticket here at the last minute?"

He's about to say that nobody asked her to come, and that she better not expect them to reimburse her for her ticket, but Cuddy interrupts them. "Mom? What are you doing here? I didn't even know you..."

"Knew that Greg's mother died? Yes, thank you for letting me find out from Julia and not bothering to call me yourself."

"I asked Julia to tell you. I just didn't know you were coming to the wake."

"Of course I came. I'm the only mom Greg has left."

Cuddy is horrified by mother's joke, but House laughs for the first time all day. "Is that supposed to be comforting, or a threat?"

Arlene pats his arm. "It's supposed to be a little bit of both."

-/-

House can't sleep that night, despite how comfortable the hotel bed is. Somehow he's wound up in the middle of Cuddy and Rachel, which he doesn't think has ever happened before. Usually when Rachel sneaks into their room she sleeps in between them, or next to her mother. He doesn't know if they did it intentionally, if maybe they're trying to make him feel safe and secure.

He thinks about the three generations of women he had with him today, each offering something in their own way. Cuddy stepping out, bold and unafraid, to represent him to his own family. Rachel stepping in front of him, refusing to let him be belittled. Arlene stepping up, telling him he's one of them, the closest thing to acceptance he'll probably ever get from her.

He thinks of his mother, who will be buried tomorrow, and all the things left unsaid between them. He wants to do things differently. He doesn't want to leave things unsaid, like he did for all the painful years he didn't tell Cuddy how he felt. He loves their story, but he hates the wasted time they'll never get back.

"Cuddy? You awake?"

"Yeah," she whispers into the dark. "You okay?"

"I think I need to tell you something."

Without hesitation she sits up and turns the light on, sensing the seriousness in his tone. "I'm listening."

"I…"

These sort of things are always easier in theory, and a lot harder in execution. Cuddy looks at him with concern, but also with understanding. "House, whatever it is, it's okay."

The crazy thing is that he knows she means it. She'd support him no matter what came out of his mouth next, even if it was something she didn't want to hear. Thankfully he knows Cuddy will want to hear this. So he finally says out loud what he's been thinking over and over all day.

"I love Rachel."

"Oh," Cuddy softens.

"Yeah. Just thought I should tell you."

"To be honest, I've known for a while."

"You have?"

"It's pretty obvious."

"I should say it though. To you. To her."

"If you want to."

"I shouldn't have waited."

"Don't feel bad. She already knows, too."

"How can you tell?"

"I see it all the time, in little things."

"Like what?"

"On the drive here, when you told her that I would protect her if anyone tried to hurt her. You put yourself in the same category as me. You do it a lot, without realizing. But she realizes. You feed her, clothe her, pick her up from school. She was really little when we got together, she can't even remember a time before you."

"I guess."

He used to think actions spoke louder than words, but he's reevaluated that philosophy. He thought Cuddy knew he loved her long before he said it, long before Mayfield, but nothing was right between them until he figured out how to tell her. He almost lost her in the process. He won't make the same mistake with Rachel.

"Do you know how much I love that you love her, House? How much I love that she loves you? I never thought… I never thought I would have this. A family like this. I didn't think I could. Having it with you is…."

"I know," House says, because he does. "Me too."

"Your mom would be proud of you."

"I highly doubt that."

As much as he hates his aunt, there might be some truth to her venom, to the notion that his mom died feeling disappointed in him.

"The way you are with Rachel? You did what your mom couldn't. You broke the cycle."

Cuddy is referring to the cycle of abuse, and something inside him shatters and heals all at once. He cries, then and there, for everything he's lost, and a little for what he's gained.

4. The Field Trip

"How would you feel about getting out of two weeks of clinic duty?" Cuddy asks, as she walks into her office, with a giant pile of paperwork in her hands.

House is sitting in her chair with his feet up on her desk. The fact that she doesn't yell at him to move, in combination with the totally out of character offer, quickly raises his suspicions. "I would feel… like this is probably a trap."

"It is," Cuddy admits upfront. "You're going to hate me. Sanford Wells is sick."

"Cuddy, no. Do not even think about putting me on a case involving Sanford Wells. You know we'll both end up fired."

"No, he just has a bad stomach bug. He was supposed to run meetings all afternoon, but now I have to do it instead."

"And where, exactly, do I come in?"

"Do you remember what I was planning to do this afternoon?"

He does, and what Cuddy's about to ask of him is far worse than he originally suspected. "You were going on Rachel's field trip."

"Yes."

"No. No way. I'm not a PTA mom. Send Julia."

Cuddy puts her paperwork down on the desk, and appears sympathetic to his apprehension, but shows no sign of letting him off the hook. "Has Rachel told you anything about what's been going on at school?"

"No?"

"You know her friend that she usually sits with at lunch?"

"Amanda."

Cuddy nods. "She stopped sitting with Rachel a few days ago."

"Why?"

"She upgraded to a cooler table, I guess. I'm worried about Rachel. She doesn't understand what happened, or what she did wrong."

"Screw Amanda. Tell Rachel she did nothing wrong and that she'll find someone better to sit with."

"Do you ever worry she's going to be a loner with no friends because that's what we are?"

"No," House answers definitively. "Because you're not a loner with no friends."

"You sure? Because last time I checked my only friends are my boyfriend and his sidekick that I've inherited."

"Nope. You don't get to do that. We both know you and Wilson are friends in your own right. And you have your yoga friends."

"I don't think my yoga friends even know my last name. I'm not complaining. I'm very happy with the people in my life."

"I sense a 'but' coming."

"But I don't want Rachel alone on this trip. She's been anxious about it and I told her I was coming. You're the only person she likes as much as me, so you're the only acceptable substitute."

"That's some serious emotional manipulation you just pulled."

"Which you know I wouldn't resort to unless it was serious."

House does know that, and he also knows that he can't realistically say no to this. He might as well accept his fate.

"Where's the trip to?"

"The planetarium."

"I guess looking at pictures of space with Rachel sounds better than a week of clinic duty."

"I said I'd give you two weeks off."

"I know, but I thought I'd have to go somewhere way worse, so I'm giving you a discount out of the goodness of my heart."

"Oh, yeah? That's very generous of you."

"However, this does mean I can call in sexual favors whenever I want for the rest of the week."

"Of course. I'll call the school and let them know."

"About the sexual favors?"

"That you're going on the field trip instead of me."

"That makes more sense."

-/-

House shows up at the school and instantly feels out of place. The two other parent chaperons are young, blonde Princeton trophy wives; he can feel them judging him, which he wouldn't care about, except he knows it means they're judging Rachel, too. He walks by them without saying hello and awkwardly introduces himself to Rachel's teacher, mumbling that he's here in place of Rachel Cuddy's mom. The teacher looks him up and down, silently disapproving of his wrinkled shirt and sneakers. As if there's some sort of universally known dress code for walking around with a bunch of snotty kids.

"House?" Rachel spots him on the sidewalk outside the parked bus; he hopes she won't be too upset about the last minute switch. "Where's mom?"

"When she told me you were going to the planetarium, I begged her to let me come instead. It was a hard sell, but I got her to cave eventually. Hope that's cool with you. Space is awesome. So are gift shops."

"We're seeing a laser show, too!" She tells him, no signs of disappointment in her voice. "But what about your patients?"

"No one has gotten mysteriously ill yet today, so we're in the clear."

House struggles to get on the bus, slowly making it up the narrow steps with his cane. He realizes a cripple is not going to score Rachel any cool points with her classmates. He's sure Cuddy would've; every single kid would've fallen in love with her at first sight. By the end of the day, they all would've wanted to come to Rachel's house. Now the poor kid is stuck being associated with a guy who can't even walk.

"I'll sit with you," Rachel decides as they make their way to the back of the bus. "You can have the window seat."

"You sure you want to sit with me?"

"Yeah."

He doesn't know how any of this stuff is supposed to work. The two other chaperons are sitting together, and not with their kids. He tries to imagine what Cuddy would do. He remembers that the objective was for Rachel not to be alone, so he decides not to push her to sit with her classmates instead.

"Did you know it takes Mars 687 Earth days to go around the sun?" She asks him.

"Yeah. Did you know a day on Venus is 117 Earth days?"

"You know everything, House. We're going to see the star show. They turn out all the lights and make your seats go backwards."

As House listens to Rachel ramble next to him, he observes the other kids around them, and is able to make a diagnosis. Rachel isn't the one who isn't normal. Somehow Cuddy managed to do it: raise a well-rounded, well-adjusted kid. Rachel isn't a spoiled brat attached to her iphone, like every other kid on the bus. The downside of going to a snobby, private school is that often they're filled with kids being raised to be just as shallow as their parents. He hears a six year old behind him talking about Gucci bags, and knows exactly why Rachel has no one to sit with at lunch.

It's not that Rachel is loner who can't make friends, she just needs to find friends worth making. House thinks of Cuddy and Wilson, the friends who made him a good friend. If Rachel is a mini-Cuddy, there's got to be a mini-House and mini-Wilson for her out there somewhere. His mind fixates on it, and he won't be able to stop until he comes up with a treatment plan.

The trip itself isn't terrible. House miraculously manages to make it through the laser show without getting a headache. While the kids run around the museum portion, he spots a sign advertising an after school program. He leaves Rachel at a display about the moon and sneaks over to the help desk. "Can you tell me more about this whole after school thing?" He asks.

"Of course!" An overly-enthusiastic college student hands over a brochure. "The kids meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every two weeks we cover a new topic so it's not just space. We also do geology, marine biology, even a little bit of physics."

Rachel would love it, and House decides he will drive her himself if he has to. "You got room for one more?"

"Definitely. All you need to do is fill out the application and leave a deposit to save a spot."

She hands him the application and House remembers the days he needed Cuddy to fill out stuff like this, because he didn't know the answers. Now he knows everything there is to know about Rachel.

"Which one is yours?" The employee asks, pointing to the class. House glances back at Rachel, who is standing on her tippy toes, trying to touch a piece of moon rock slightly out of her reach.

"The one completely ignoring the sign clearly labeled 'do not touch.'"

"She'll fit in perfectly. And she looks just like you."

Normally House would object, but with her blue eyes and blatant disregard for the rules, he's certain it's the most Rachel has ever looked like him.

-/-

A few weeks later, Rachel and two of her new friends are running around the house, pretending to be astronauts.

"Can you get that?" Cuddy asks him, when they hear a knock at the door. "It should be the pizza."

House reluctantly gets up from his spot on the couch. "When I got Rachel into this program, I was picturing her making friends and leaving the house for playdates, so we could have more alone time. I did not anticipate having to tolerate even more rugrats."

"I guess that backfired on you, huh?"

"Tiny bit."

"Well, for your information, when I picked Rachel up yesterday, I overheard a bunch of 'rugrats' saying that everyone wants to come to Rachel's house, because her dad knows everything."

They don't talk about the d-word too often, or invoke it themselves, with all its heavy implications. It surprises him to hear Cuddy say it, casually and with ease, even if she's only relaying other people's words. Even more so, it surprises him that he doesn't flinch, and that he wouldn't necessarily mind hearing it again.

"House!" Rachel calls out from the kitchen, pulling him out of his daze. "Help us make slime."

"Go ahead," Cuddy encourages. "I'll get the pizza. Don't pretend you don't want to make slime."

He's happy he gave this to Rachel: passion and people to call her own. It's not enough to repay her for what she's given him, but at least it's a start.

5. The Birthday

Cuddy is in a great mood because she's just met her new crop of residents, and even though she'll now have double the paperwork, she has a good feeling about this group. One of her favorite things about her job is working with young doctors at the start of their careers. She loves hand-selecting the ones she wants at her hospital and watching them flourish under her direction.

There is one thing she has to deal with whenever new students arrive: the many stories that surround her relationship with House. The two of them have become legends, and any newcomers to the PPTH community are inundated with never-ending rumors. Cuddy learned a long time ago that it's better to address those rumors upfront. Otherwise she's left with distracted residents who gossip relentlessly about what they've heard, and what they think is true.

Cuddy has developed a speech, one she has memorized, and always gives on the first day. She tells her doctors that she met House in Michigan before he was expelled, she's honest about her involvement with his infarction, she admits he has a difficult history with Vicodin. She says that he's an insane genius who will probably interrupt their rounds to demand she sign off on some ridiculous procedure. She tells them that he's nicer than he looks, but they shouldn't expect him to care about them just because they work for her.

For the first time in a long time, there's a new addition to her speech. Because a few months ago, House asked her to marry him. So she tells her residents that she said yes because she's in love with him, although she keeps the details of that day to herself. So much of their relationship has been subject to public scrutiny without their consent, but Rachel down on one knee with a ring in their kitchen ("Had to ask for an assist from the kid since I'll never get up again if I try that," he said)is for them, and only them.

After her speech is done and Cuddy has dismissed the residents, she notices a cell phone that's been left behind in one of the seats. She picks it up and walks to the locker room, intent on finding the owner, and reminding them that doctors can't be so careless, especially when they're on call. She stops in her path when she hears the group talking.

"I want an attending who is actually a doctor."

"She's a doctor."

Cuddy can't see them from around the corner, and doesn't yet know them well enough to identify the voices. She knows she should turn around and leave. She shouldn't listen to what they're saying about her, but her feet feel stuck to the ground.

"She approves procedures more than she performs them, but she's going to teach us? Something about that seems fucked up."

"Whatever you think of her, she could make or break our careers."

"I don't see why we should trust the judgement of a washed-up administrator who is about to marry a known sociopath."

"I think you're just cranky because you didn't want to move to New Jersey."

Cuddy has thick skin. She knows far worse things are said about her on a daily basis. But for some reason, she feels like an idiot, because she thought these kids looked up to her. Getting called a bitch is one thing, but having the worst things she thinks about herself echoed back to her by strangers hurts. She leaves the cell phone on a bench and walks back to her office, feeling more dejected than she has in a while.

-/-

"What are you doing for Cuddy's birthday?" Wilson asks over lunch. "It's coming up in a few weeks."

"Don't know yet." House stuffs another fry into his mouth. "I'm sure I'll figure something out."

"Planning on drugging anyone at the dinner table this year?"

"Are you ever going to let that go?"

House spots Cuddy across the cafeteria, walking with some of her fresh meat, and knows his least favorite time of year has officially begun. "I hate when the new residents show up. They take up all the time Cuddy should spend flirting with me."

"I can actually remember the days when you'd be happy that Cuddy was too distracted to pay attention to your shenanigans."

"Don't be stupid. My shenanigans were always about getting Cuddy to pay attention to me."

Wilson laughs. "Of course."

House watches her, and can tell that something isn't right. She looks like she's trying to force a smile, and she has her arms crossed around her waist in a strange way. "She's upset," he concludes.

"It's scary how you do that from thirty feet away."

"You know something? I haven't had a second alone with her since breakfast."

"Yeah," Wilson admits. "She overheard some of the residents talking and one of them basically said he didn't want to be taught by a paper-pusher."

"Paper pusher? I'm the only one allowed to call her that."

"Maybe that's the problem."

"What are you talking about?"

"Overhearing something like that and knowing her soon-to-be-husband agrees probably isn't fun."

"I don't agree," House rebuts. "I mean she does push-papers. But it's foreplay. Me teasing her about it, I mean. Not the actual paper-pushing. Although there was one time when…."

"Please don't finish that sentence," Wilson begs.

"Cuddy is one of the only people in this dump whose opinion I actually respect. Present company included, by the way."

"Yes, because everyone knows how much you love Cuddy for her brain and not her ass."

"Everyone, including Cuddy, knows that I love her for both."

Wilson looks at him skeptically, and it pisses House off.

"She knows I think she's a good doctor. You're a garbage best friend if you think I'd make her feel otherwise. Not that she needs my approval. She knows she's a good doctor."

Cuddy would never let some twenty year old med student shake her confidence to the point of moping around. Unless she would. House can't stand the thought of it.

"You're right," Wilson concedes. "I'm sorry - forget I said anything."

Alas, forgetting has never been one of House's strong suits.

-/-

Cuddy never brings up the comments, so House stores the knowledge away, watches her for signs of self-doubt. He seeks out her advice more than usual, but not so much that she becomes suspicious. He thinks that Cuddy is doing okay, but he wishes he knew for sure what was going on in her head. Because even though Wilson is definitely wrong, like he always is, House needs some sort of confirmation.

"Dr. House?"

House looks up from his desk and finds a tiny, mousy brunette standing in the doorway of his office. He's sure he's never seen her before in his life.

"Yeah?"

"I'm Emma. I'm one of Dr. Cuddy's residents."

He can tell from her terrible posture that she'll be destroyed before the second month of her residency is over. He's surprised she's made it this far.

"Is Cuddy sending her children to yell at me about my children? Tell her my children are definitely not using the MRI in an unauthorized fashion at this very moment."

"Dr. Cuddy doesn't know I'm here."

House chuckles mischievously. This wouldn't be the first time residents tried to get to Cuddy through him. It's always a huge mistake, but he loves watching them make it.

"If you think you can bribe me into withholding sex until she changes your test date, there's really no amount of money…"

"I'm not here to bribe you."

"Well then I'm out of guesses and a little bored. Why are you here?"

"A few of us have been asking around about if the hospital is doing anything for Dr. Cuddy's birthday. Dr. Wilson said I should talk to you."

"You want to help with Cuddy's birthday?"

"Yes."

"Cuddy isn't appeased by ass-kissing. You're not going to get extra credit by signing a birthday card. You're dumb if you think she won't see through that."

"It's not like that."

"Then what's your motivation? Someone hot for teacher?"

"A little, but she's engaged and my boss."

House snorts, impressed and a bit amused by the unexpected honesty. "For the record, neither of those facts stopped my pursuit."

"You have better job security than I do," Emma says with a shy smile. "Look, it's not a big thing. We just thought if the hospital was going to buy a cake or something, we could chip in."

"But it is a big thing to you, or you wouldn't be here, talking to me, who you're probably at least a little afraid of. The question is why?"

"Dr. Cuddy has … gone above and beyond to help me."

"How?"

"It's kind of personal."

"So are my future wife's birthday plans. If you don't tell me, I'll figure it out anyway. Don't know if you've heard, but I've sort of got a thing for puzzles."

Emma toys with the hem of her sweater, weighing her options. After a few seconds of silence, she tells him the truth. "Med school has been hard on me. I basically stopped eating a few months ago. I didn't even realize what I was doing. Dr. Cuddy did. I have no idea how she figured it out. She said I'm one of her best students, that I could have a real future here, but not if I don't take care of myself. She got me help."

Sometimes House gets things wrong. He got Emma wrong. He gave her one look and assumed she was weak and incapable. But Cuddy saw something else. He diagnoses patients when other doctors can't, but Cuddy sees what other people aren't brave enough to see for themselves. A future doctor in an underweight resident. A daughter in a baby left for dead. A diagnostician in a drug addict. Love in the selfish idiot who never deserved her. She sees the world as it is, and as it could be, ignoring the giant, gaping chasm in between.

"You... just gave me an amazing idea."

"I did?"

House gets up from his desk, walks out of the room. Emma doesn't know that means he's had an epiphany, so he pops his head back in to let her know. "This is the part where you're supposed to follow me."

-/-

House puts Emma to work. He puts his team to work. He puts Wilson to work. It involves some sneaking around, a little bit of bribery, breaking a few patient privacy laws, and a whole lot of commitment. Late at night, when Cuddy is asleep, House goes through all the files his minions have gathered. He reads obsessively and wonders why he hasn't done this before. He feels like he's getting to know her all over again. He loves it, because Cuddy is some kind of miracle. Not that he believes in miracles. But he definitely believes in Cuddy.

One night he almost gets caught. He's so engrossed in a case file that he doesn't notice her walk into the kitchen. He's seated at the table, eyes glued to the page in front of him. He jumps at the sound of her voice. "What the hell are you doing?" she asks.

"Reading."

"A patient file? At three in the morning? When you don't even have a patient?"

"Yes."

"It's probably better I don't ask questions, right? That way, when you get arrested, I can honestly say I had no idea what you were up to."

"When we're married, you won't be forced to testify against me, which should really take a load off."

"Why do you think I said yes?"

He smirks. Because House doesn't believe miracles exist, or that he'd be worthy of one, even if they did. Somehow still, Cuddy is his miracle.

-/-

Cuddy wakes up on the morning of her birthday and calls out House's name. She doesn't see him, or feel him next to her. She's waiting for him to pop up and scare the crap out of her, throw confetti in her face, or something equally as obnoxious. Instead, she finds a note left on his pillow. Reset your alarm. Rescheduled your first meeting. Took Rachel to school. Happy birthday.

It's sweet. House is trying to give her something she never gets: peace and quiet and time to herself. She misses them though, isn't sure she even likes the quiet anymore, because it feels like the house isn't whole. She tries to enjoy it anyway — she makes coffee, eats the bagel he left for her, reads the paper instead of her emails, takes her time getting to work.

When she arrives at the hospital she's greeted with hugs and happy birthday wishes from her nurses. She thinks they're looking at her a bit oddly, like they know something she doesn't. It all starts to make sense when she gets to her office, which is filled to the brim with balloons. She smiles, because she knew he couldn't resist being obnoxious. He's simply relocated the obnoxiousness to their place of work. She pulls out her cell phone, dials his number.

"Happy birthday, old lady."

"Nice try but you'll always be older than me," she reminds him. "The balloons are very cute, but how exactly do you expect me to work today?"

"We could share an office again. Relive the glory days. Or maybe you should just pop them."

She recognizes the mischievous tone to his voice all too well. "Are you saying that I'm supposed to pop the balloons?"

"I would highly recommend it."

"Fine. Come help me."

"Nope."

"It's 9 AM on my birthday and I haven't even seen you yet."

"You miss me," he smugly accuses, as if it's a revelation she should be embarrassed of.

"Yes, I do."

"Sorry, but you need to do this on your own. I'll come down in a bit, Dr. Clingy. I mean Cuddy."

"What have you done, House?"

He hangs up. Because he's obnoxious. And he's given her an assignment instead of a present. Or an assignment as a present. She's not quite sure yet.

She takes her keys out of her purse and pops a balloon. She's confused when a piece of paper with a name written on it falls out. Mike Wyeth. She has no idea who that is, until she sees the word written next to the name. Leukemia. He was a patient of hers, years ago. She got him into a drug trial. He's in remission now, despite the odds stacked against him. She pops another balloon, finds another name and diagnosis inside. Katherine DeVol. Hypothyroidism.

Cuddy remembers the night she found House reading a case file at the kitchen table. Suddenly, she understands. He's been reading her case files. He must have been reading them for weeks, because he's filled the entire room with names of people she's saved. She pops balloon after balloon, finds patient after patient, and she feels tears brimming in her eyes. She's reminded she might not be a diagnostic genius, but she's a doctor who has managed to help a lot of people, too.

She wonders why he's done this. It's a grand gesture with an oddly specific message, and one she desperately needed to hear. Wilson might have told House what she overheard three weeks ago, but she has no clue how he could've known it's been bothering her ever since. She scolds herself for being surprised. House still knows her better than she knows herself.

As she keeps popping the balloons, she thinks about how people unfairly assume, because of his disability, because of his temperament, that she does a lot of the work in their relationship. People make comments about how hard it must be to take care of him, protect him, keep him out of trouble. But that's simply not the case. They're equal partners. And House is always finding the most amazing ways to take care of her.

Just when she thinks she's made it through all of the balloons, she notices that there's one left, neatly tied to her desk chair. She pops it and this time two pieces of paper fall out.

Greg House (drug addict).

Rachel Cuddy (abandoned at birth).

A sob escapes her throat. House thinks she saved them, but he's got that so, so backwards.

"Hey."

She hears his voice and turns to find him standing there. He's holding a sleeping Rachel in his arms, which isn't an easy task for him. He sits down on the couch to alleviate the pressure, and that's the only thing preventing Cuddy from jumping into his arms.

"Hi. What's Rachel doing here?"

"You really thought I took her to school? I'm not that responsible. I knew you'd want her around today. Thought she could hang out here. Too bad she fell asleep. I might have accidentally fed her too many pop tarts first thing in the morning."

He's rambling, as if he doesn't know he's just done something so very beautiful. "Thank you for this."

"No problem."

"Did you make your team blow up balloons instead of working on a case?"

"What makes you think I didn't blow them all up myself?"

She holds up the piece of paper with his name on it. "My sweet, former drug addict with decreased lung capacity did not pull this off on his own."

"My team helped. Wilson, too."

"So, the usual suspects."

"And some new ones. A few of your residents. Emma and her friends."

"You know Emma?"

"Yeah. She's like in love with you. We bonded over it. Told her I don't share though. Plus you're too old for her. Since you're so old now."

Cuddy sits down next to him, puts a hand on his knee, still processing. "This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I can't believe you did all of this work for my birthday."

"I've always celebrated your day of birth."

"Before we were dating you would do it in weird, sneaky ways. The last few years you've celebrated it at home, in private. This was a very public display of affection. There were a lot of witnesses to your kindness today."

House shrugs, like it's nothing, even though they both know it's everything. "Crazier things have happened."

Cuddy looks at House, surrounded by popped balloons, Rachel asleep on his lap, and knows she can't argue with that.

6. The Fourth Wheel

It's a cold Saturday night in Princeton, and House is in the passenger seat of Cuddy's car. They're driving back from an emergency family snack run, because there was nothing in the fridge on movie night, which is entirely unacceptable. It's House's turn to pick the movie and he's decided it's time for Rachel be introduced to the wonders of Jurassic Park. He's pretty sure she'll find a guy getting eaten by a dinosaur while sitting on the toilet as amusing as he does.

House gets a text, not necessarily surprised by what it says. "Guess what? Wilson just got dumped."

"How is that possible?" Cuddy asks, as she pulls out of the parking lot. "I saw them together yesterday and they seemed great."

"Are you kidding me? Wilson can self-destruct in way less time than twenty four hours."

"I hope it's salvageable. I really like Reese. Our double-dates are surprisingly bearable."

"I like her, too."

"You're such a liar. You don't like her. You just think it's funny to rhyme Reese with Lise. Which doesn't even make sense since you never call me Lisa, let alone Lise."

"It was going to be a reality show. Lise, Reese, and the Princeton boys."

"That title needs serious work."

"Well, it doesn't anymore— show got cancelled before it even aired."

"We should invite Uncle Wilson over," Rachel says suddenly from the back seat. "To watch the movie."

They're both surprised, because they thought she had her headphones in. "Don't worry about Wilson, honey."

"But if he's sad we should invite him over so we can take care of him."

"If we took care of Wilson every time he was sad because a girl dumped him, he would have to move in with us," House jokes. "And that would seriously cramp our style."

"House, don't be mean. Rachel has a point."

Maybe she does. Once upon a time, Cuddy said they would average their misery, because that's what a relationship is. At first House didn't understand the appeal, because it sounded like he was just going to have to shoulder more misery. But he gets it now. As it turns out, being a family involves some averaging, too. The three of them average each other out, are always the highs to each other's lows. It took House and Cuddy the better part of their adult lives to find that rhythm with each other. But Rachel already gets it. He's glad that their kid knows what to do when someone she loves is hurting, even when that someone is her weird uncle who gets dumped at least four times a year.

"I guess we did over do it on the snacks a little," House muses, pointing to the three grocery bags seated next to Rachel. "It's not like we don't have enough to share with our permanent fourth wheel."

"You two bought the entire aisle, and I don't even like any of that stuff," Cuddy says, causing House and Rachel to exchange a look, because they both know she's a liar who loves gummy bears. "Siri, call Wilson."

After two rings, Wilson answers. "Hey."

"I know you're sad about Reese," House says in greeting. "I would like to offer you Reese's Pieces as consolation."

"House, I swear, there's no greater false advertising than you calling me from Cuddy's phone. Can I please talk to your nicer half?"

"I'm calling you to be nice!" House huffs defensively. "The Cuddys would like to extend a very exclusive, VIP invitation to movie night. No cover charge, free snacks, and only limited insults from me during your time of mourning."

"How limited are we talking?"

"Dunno. Gotta check with the wife. Honeybuns?"

Cuddy feigns serious consideration before deciding. "You can insult Reese three times and Wilson twice."

"Cool. More than I expected. Do we have a deal, Wilson?"

"This is a lot to consider. I mean, am I really being invited to movie night with all three Cuddys?"

Wilson is teasing him, which is fair enough. But truthfully House finds nothing quite as comforting as what his best friend has just implied. It's simple, even though getting here has been anything but. It's been messy and complicated and so much hard work. But that's how he's always liked his puzzles. And this is, without a doubt, the best one he's ever completed.

"Yes," House says. "All three of us."