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Five times House wasn't Rachel's father, and one time he was

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1.

For the Cuddy women and their search for perfect pre-school, the third time is in fact the charm. Rachel didn't get into Waldenwood, despite what House considers one of his best, most comprehensive undercover operations. He still thinks he could've pulled it off in the end, if only he had known about the damn siblings in time to take them out of the running somehow. Rachel didn't get into Brye Park either, and his career day performance certainly hadn't helped matters. Even his heartfelt speech to the principal couldn't save the debacle that was attempt number two. But Rachel did get into West Woods Academy, without any interference or schemes, and just in time for the spring semester.

It's not until Rachel's third month of school that House gets to see the place for himself. That day, Cuddy is called into a last minute so called emergency meeting over what the Board is referring to as 'a dangerously long flu season.' House wants to tell them that it's perfectly normal for the flu to still be active in early March, and that his girlfriend can do nothing to control its prevalence in the state of New Jersey. But Cuddy insists she has it under control and asks him to"do something helpful instead of embarrassing," which is how he winds up on his way to a pre-school pick-up.

He's not surprised as he pulls up to ivy-covered gates; all the best, snobby schools are oversized, intimidating brick buildings with statues of dead, rich donors lining the walkways. He is a bit surprised, though, that in order to get inside he has to sign-in and show two forms of ID at the door. The school has better security than the hospital. Maybe that's not much of a feat, considering he's had a gun shoved in his face on two different occasions, but the point still stands.

"Can I help you?" A receptionist at the front desk greets him once inside. Behind her, two teachers linger by their mailboxes chatting amongst themselves. He notices that one looks like she has the flu (maybe she should be at the meeting instead of Cuddy), and he makes a mental note to talk to Rachel about carrying hand sanitizer in her backpack.

"I'm here to pick up Rachel Cuddy."

"I see." The receptionist, who has to be pushing seventy, scrunches her nose in displeasure at his statement. House assumes this is the kind of place where routine matters and that he's thrown her off her habitual game. "Are you Rachel's father?"

"No," he says simply. "Rachel's mother is stuck at work."

"And your name?"

"Greg House."

"Oh," The flu-infested teacher turns to look directly at him, and her face lights up in recognition. "Dr. House?"

This sort of warm reaction is usually reserved for grateful former patients, desperate medical students, or awed colleagues. He can't imagine this teacher falls into any of those categories, so he's perplexed by her enthusiasm.

"I'm Ms. Campos, one of the aides in Rachel's classroom. She talks about you all the time. And I know Dr. Cuddy has you on the list..."

"List?"

"Of people pre-approved to pick Rachel up."

"He is," the receptionist confirms, as she pulls up a file on her computer. "I'll buzz Rachel down."

House is intrigued, not by the absurdity of buzzing a four year old to the office like she's a doctor being paged to the ER, but because Cuddy never told him about any list, never asked if he wanted to be on it. He wonders if it's exclusive or if, for instance, Wilson also made the cut.

He leans forward, attempting to see the file for himself, prepared to be charming if it'll get him answers. "And may I ask who else is on this special, VIP list?"

"Other than you? Just Marina Nolasco," Ms. Campos tells him.

It makes sense. House is the closest, most convenient option aside from Rachel's babysitter. He wants to be smug that he's made it over Cuddy's mother and sister, but it might be a matter of geography, not trust. Still, he feels accomplished somehow. It must mean something that he's Cuddy's first choice for a back-up child chauffeur. Maybe he's pulling off the whole supportive boyfriend thing better than he thought.

"House!"

He doesn't have time to consider it further, because Rachel comes barreling towards him, and grabs onto his good leg for a hello hug. He gets one every time he sees her, and some days her unadulterated joy still feels like a punch to the gut that leaves him breathless. He looks down at her, hair in pigtails, dressed in the obnoxious West Woods plaid uniform, and notices that one very important item is missing from her ensemble.

"Forgetting something?"

"What?"

"It's 22 degrees outside. Could've sworn you had a jacket on this morning."

"Oops!"

He watches as she spins around and runs back to her classroom. Sometimes Rachel is still a paste sandwich (like when she forgets her jacket in the dead of winter), but other times she amazes him. She's curious and intuitive, which he appreciates even when her never-ending questions drive him mad. She's headstrong and stubborn, which is no surprise given who her mother is. She watches cartoons with him, laughs at his pirate voices, tries to make them right back at him.

Rachel's teacher grins. "I hope you know that little girl is quite fond of you."

Rachel is a pain in the ass. She climbs into bed before the sun is even up to snuggle with her mother, and too often kicks him in the face in the process. She's the pickiest eater he's ever known, she demands cheese and crackers over fruits and vegetables even when it makes her stomach hurt. He's been on the receiving end of at least six juice related tantrums in the last two months, and Cuddy spends far too much of their valuable time explaining that there's not an evil moose living outside their window.

Still, he feels it slowly building inside of him, an emotion akin to pride. He knows that despite his best efforts to avoid it, he's growing quite fond of Rachel, too.

That doesn't mean he's anywhere near ready to admit it out loud, or that it's any of this teacher's business. She stares at him expectantly, waiting for a heartfelt affirmation of his love for his girlfriend's daughter. He just glares back and says, "I hope you know you have the flu."

2.

Cuddy is away at a four day endocrinology conference. House desperately tried to convince her to invite him, but she wasn't buying his sudden interest in thyroids and knew he was only after hospital subsidized hotel sex. She said he'd be a distraction and that she needed him for something far more important. Because while Marina agreed to watch Rachel on Friday and Saturday, she wasn't available for Sunday or Monday. Which means House is playing Nanny, whether he wants to or not.

He can't complain because he's getting two whole days to himself out of the deal. His Fridays and Saturdays are always spent with Cuddy or Wilson, which is fine - great actually - but everyone needs alone time sometimes. His very important plans include sitting on his couch, drinking beer, watching the Real Housewives of New Jersey, and not speaking to anyone. Quiet time is an ever growing rarity in his life, and he plans to cherish every last moment of it.

And he does. For the first day, at least. Oddly enough by Saturday morning alone time isn't as satisfying as he remembers. What he remembers is that he needs Cuddy. Not just as his girlfriend, but as his partner, his boss, his friend. Even before they were dating, he rarely went a few hours without annoying her. Diagnosing is a good distraction, but far less so when there's no one around to tell him not to cut out half of someone's brain. Taking a case while Cuddy is away would be a waste of time. It might even be dangerous. His team knows it, too.

Tired of walking around his empty apartment and throwing his infamous ball against the ceiling, House sends Cuddy a few texts. He knows he's not going to get a response. Cuddy was always a good student - attentive, driven, eager to prove herself. Those traits have stayed with her, and House is sure she's being a perfectly diligent conference attendee.

Which only leaves him with one choice for entertainment: dragging Wilson out to lunch.

The two of them are halfway through a meal that Wilson is definitely going to pay for when House's phone goes off and finally, finally he has a message from Cuddy.

Miss me yet?

He doesn't need her to know just how much he does.

Who is this? He writes back.

Wilson watches him, annoyed. "Can I ask why you forced me to reschedule a consult to come out with you if you were just going to text Cuddy?"

"She wasn't answering me before."

"Well, you have twenty minutes before I have to get back to the hospital."

House barely hears him, as another message comes through.

This is your very bored girlfriend who is currently stuck listening to some arrogant asshole mansplain the hashimoto diet.

He's shocked to learn that she's talking to him mid-lecture. He assumed she was on a lunch break.

Don't they know you only have room for one arrogant asshole in your life?

I tried to explain that to the conference organizers but they weren't moved by my plight.

You know what would cure your boredom? Sending me a pic of today's cleavage. Withdrawal is not a joke, Dr. Cuddy.

Hm.

He knows better than to think she'll agree to it. But she does sends him a picture, one of her sticking her tongue out, the speaker clearly visible at the podium in the background.

"What are you smiling at?" Wilson asks.

"I told Cuddy to send me a picture of her boobs, but she sent me something even better," he explains, holding out his phone. Wilson instinctively covers his eyes with his hands, no doubt expecting something x-rated.

"She's not naked," House assures him. "I don't care how long of a dry spell you're in, Cuddy's nudes are for my eyes only."

Wilson looks at the picture and then back at House with astoundment. "So, let me get this straight, you're saying a picture of Cuddy making a funny face is better than a picture of her boobs? You really are in love."

"You're missing the entire point. She's being disrespectful during a conference. On the hospital's dime. I'm so proud."

"I'm so leaving," Wilson says, throwing down money on the table.

Which is fine by House, because Cuddy is texting him now and he's done with his BLT. But he follows Wilson out the door anyway, because he happens to be his ride.

They're almost back to the hospital when House's phone rings. He's hoping it's Cuddy, but the caller ID says Marina. She's frantic and the connection is spotty, but he makes out the important parts: Rachel fell off the slide. Arm looks broken. On the way to the hospital.

House feels bad that Rachel is hurt, but he's not overly worried because kids break bones all the time. He'll do the x-rays himself and make sure her cast is put on perfectly. She'll sleep it off. She'll be ok. He's seen a hell of a lot worse. On the long list of potential kid-related crises that could happen while Cuddy is out of town, this may be one of the simplest for him to handle. But then he hears it...

"The ambulance is taking us to Princeton General. They said it was the closest hospital to the park."

House is pissed, because he's no longer in control of the situation. The idea of Rachel being taken to a second-rate hospital where he has no say in her care makes his stomach churn with a new and unfamiliar brand of fear. Rachel is Cuddy's whole heart. House loves Cuddy's heart and he can't let anything happen to it. He knows it's not Marina's fault, and that she's likely blaming herself for a clumsy five year old's bad eye-foot-coordination, but every instinct in his body wants to scream. Instead, forcing himself to think of what Cuddy would want, he manages to stay cool and tell Marina he's on his way.

"We have to make a detour," he announces after hanging up.

Wilson scoffs. "I'm not driving you to Cuddy's apartment so you can sniff all her sweaters."

"Rachel fell off the slide. She's on her way to Princeton General with Marina."

Wilson makes a sharp U-turn. As much as he may tease House, he cares deeply about Cuddy and Rachel. The four of them are a family, found and chosen and steady. He's sure he's never seen his best friend drive so quickly.

"Want me to park and come in?" Wilson offers, as he pulls up to the front entrance.

"No, I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

He isn't sure. Not at all. This feels like a test of some sort, and while he's cheated his way through almost every exam he's ever taken, it's different now. In med school, he felt no need to care. A million multiple choice questions wouldn't make him a better diagnostician. But proving to Cuddy that she can trust him to make sure her daughter is safe? That might make him a better partner in a real, tangible way.

"Nope. But I'm still going inside alone."

On the fifth floor, House finds Marina, who is a mess. He sends her home, because there's nothing more she can do. She hesitates to leave, of course, but accepts that Rachel's health is best left in his hands. House also promises to call Cuddy, and Marina seems the most grateful for that. Cuddy treats Marina like family, but she's still a fierce mama bear when it comes to protecting her little cub. She can still strike fear in the hearts of her employees, at the hospital or elsewhere.

When House gets into the exam room, Rachel already has a cast on her arm. She looks so small, and somehow so much like Cuddy. They make the same pained facial expression when they're trying to pretend they're fine. He thinks of Cuddy on that plane years ago, refusing to take antibiotics until that moronic scuba diver got them first. He thinks of the heart-wrenching hour when he thought his call not to turn around may have cost her life. It had disturbed him then how debilitating it can be to care about someone. He had no idea how much worse it could get.

Rachel's doctor, young and hesitant enough that he can tell she's still a first year resident, looks him up and down. "Mr. Cuddy?"

He snorts, wishing Cuddy was there to witness the mix-up. "No."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Are you Rachel's father?"

He doesn't know how to answer with Rachel looking right at him, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. She's a brave girl, and more used to hospitals than most kids her age, but this is her first real injury, and she's in a strange building with her mother nowhere to be found. Instead of answering the question, he takes a chance that his reputation precedes him, especially in the neighboring New Jersey hospital.

"I'm Dr. Greg House."

"You…" the resident trails off, clearly recognizing him. "You are."

"And your miscreant patient here is Dr. Lisa Cuddy's daughter. I know Dr. Cuddy isn't exactly as notorious as I am, but you may have still heard of her. Brilliant and smoking hot Dean of Medicine at the far superior hospital twenty minutes away?"

"I know Dr. Cuddy. She guest lectured here during my internship."

"Well, it seems the ambulance driver got a bit confused about where to drop off the mini-Cuddy. So while I appreciate you bandaging her up, I'm here to reroute her back to the competent doctors. And I'll need a copy of all of her x-rays while you're at it."

"Unfortunately, I can't legally release Rachel, or her records, to someone besides a relative or legal guardian. Are you..."

He's not, and he knows he has no shot of faking something as big as this on such short notice. "Dr. Cuddy is in Pennsylvania, but I can get her on the phone. She'll give you whatever permission you need."

"I wish it were that easy. But protocol…."

"If anyone understands breaking protocol, it's Cuddy."

The resident remains unconvinced. "Dr. Cuddy lectured my class on hospital ethics."

"That may be true, but she's also let me shoot a corpse before. Plus, she's my direct supervisor and we're dating. Shouldn't that give you an idea that she's not going to sue you?"

"I'm sorry. Is there another relative you can call?"

He contemplates sneaking Rachel out of the hospital, but he physically can't make a run for it and he doesn't want to end up calling Cuddy from a jail cell on kidnapping charges. Not sure what other option he has, he gives in and calls Arlene. She doesn't answer, but he leaves a voicemail. A few minutes later she texts him that she's on her way.

With nothing to do but wait, House sits on the examine table next to Rachel.

"I can't go home with you?" She asks, confused by the hold up. "You bring me home all the time."

"People are stupid. The earlier you accept that, the easier life will be."

"Thought everybody lies."

"They do. Glad you're keeping track of all my sage advice."

"My arm aches and I miss mommy."

"My leg aches and I miss her, too. I'd say we're about even."

"Did you fall off the slide?" Rachel challenges.

"Not recently."

"We're not even then. Marina said I fell five whole feet."

House laughs, because Rachel is already as competitive as her mother. Luckily, he's always prepared. He hands her a lollipop from his jacket pocket - grape, her favorite flavor, which is baffling, because grape is disgusting. "We even now?"

She accepts the treat and snuggles up to him, which is something she does more and more. He's getting better at knowing how to hold her against his chest, his arm secured around her shoulder.

It takes a full forty minutes for Arlene to show up. When she does, she storms into the room, huffing at the inconvenience. "Why do I feel like I'm picking up two delinquents from detention?"

"This is a formality," House insists.

"A formality that's for the best. I doubt you have the patience to look after an injured child."

"And you do?" He pushes back. "What was that sweet thing you said to me when we first met? I believe it was 'children are awful.'"

"I'm not going to be lectured by the world famous doctor who can't be bothered to marry my daughter or, apparently, take care of my granddaughter without almost killing her."

House would do anything not to have to listen to her demean what the three of them have. It's none of her business. Rachel is a happy, well rounded kid. Cuddy is happy and she never stops telling him how grateful she is for their life together. Arlene doesn't soothe Rachel's nightmares or sit through ridiculous tea parties or help her with her homework. He doesn't care if he's unwanted by his almost-mother-in-law, there's no way he's leaving Rachel alone in her care. She can't stop him from following them back to Cuddy's house, and he knows Rachel will side with him on that.

Cuddy gets home that night disheveled and exhausted from rushing back. She hugs her daughter, expecting her to be in pain, but Rachel is all smiles. She's excited to show off her cast, which House has drawn three pirates on. (She asked him if she could use a cane now too, but he told her she'd need to try harder to break her leg next time).

"They wouldn't let me take her home," House explains, arms around Cuddy's waist as they huddle in the hallway. "Relatives only."

Cuddy kisses him, soft and sweet. "Thanks for staying with her and my mother."

"I didn't even have to sedate anyone."

"I have to admit I am kind of surprised about that."

He knows that Cuddy isn't mad at him, but he can tell she's holding something back. "Rachel's fine," he promises, in case she doesn't yet believe it. "I stole her file on the way out, so you can see for yourself. It's a minor break. She'll be back to swinging off the monkey-bars in no time."

"I know," she smiles, eyes bright, leaning in closer to him. "I was just thinking about how I wasn't worried. I mean, I ran home because I wanted to be with her. But I knew she was okay. I was calm because she was with you."

He swallows, unsure how to respond. He's passed the self-imposed test, gotten what he wanted: Cuddy's heart is safe. His beats for the love she gives him in return.

But their moment is interrupted because Arlene is on the attack. She calls Cuddy into the kitchen and the fight that follows between mother and daughter is predictable, though still harsh. House lingers in the hallway, finding it impossible not to listen in.

"You'd leave Rachel for four days? For some conference? On what? Administration? Paperwork? Something else on your never-ending list of things that take precedence over her?"

The lecture is precisely why Cuddy didn't ask her mother to babysit in the first place. She didn't even want Julia to babysit, knowing it'd get back to her mother.

"Rachel is the most important thing in my life. She always will be."

It's obvious in every decision she makes. House can't fathom how Arlene doesn't see it, hates that Cuddy has to defend herself against such absurd accusations. He thinks of her journey to motherhood, every painful step, every loss, and the only gain that mattered.

"Right. Because Rachel is so important that you'd leave her with a drug addict."

"Stop."

House hears the tone of Cuddy's voice change, from slightly frustrated to impassioned, from ambivalent to enraged.

"Your daughter is in a cast and you still want to defend him?"

"He wasn't even there when it happened," Cuddy spits back. "Rachel was with Marina when she fell off the slide. Marina called House because she knows he'd do anything for her. I know that, too. Not that it's any of your business, but even though he's still in pain almost all of the time, he's clean."

"Don't be naive, Lisa. An addict is an addict. They never change, as much as they try to convince you otherwise."

House knows he's not good enough for them. It's not like he needs a reminder. The progress he's made over the last few years doesn't change the person he's been. He spends most of his time wondering when Cuddy is going to realize how much better she could do, how many better men there are for Rachel to have in her life. He's baffled every day that she doesn't, bewildered that her faith in him seems to grow instead of wane.

"Mom, I love you. But you're wrong. And you can't stay here if you're going to say things like that about my family."

Arlene sighs, loud and dramatic. "Do you really trust him with Rachel?"

Cuddy doesn't hesitate, not even for a second. The speed at which her answer comes will stay with House for a long, long time, will balm wounds he didn't even know he had.

"Completely."

3.

On Sunday mornings in the fall, House and Cuddy go to Rachel's soccer games. It's not a terrible way to spend time. Cuddy is the hottest mom at any of the games; the competition isn't remotely close. House likes that everyone knows they're together. He likes that she wears his favorite skinny jeans and rocks the ugly team sweater that clings to her just right. When Rachel runs up the field with the ball, Cuddy anxiously grabs his knee. When she's in a good mood, she even lets him drink juice boxes (they're meant for the team, but she saves him some anyway).

Often Wilson joins them. At first glance it might seem like they've come a long way from monster truck rallies, but the concept is surprisingly similar. The kids are monsters, that's for sure, and they slam into each other more often than not. Wilson brings snacks and he brings Cuddy coffee, because he's a suck up. He cheers the loudest for Rachel. He asks her to score a goal especially for him.

That's not a difficult request because Rachel is really good at soccer. She's the best offensive player on the team. She runs fast, kicks smart, anticipates what the team's defense is about to do before they get the chance to do it. She might only be six, but House can already tell she's a natural athlete. He thinks she'd be a great hockey player, but Cuddy is horrified by that idea. He'll have to wait a few more years before he sneaks Rachel off in skates.

That morning, they're in the middle of a close game, with West Woods down by a single point. The team is setting up for a penalty kick when out of nowhere Rachel pushes a girl to the ground and kicks her in the leg. At first House thinks it's a member of the other team and perks up at the idea that Rachel is a more savage player than he ever suspected. But he quickly realizes that Rachel is kicking a member of her own team, which doesn't make any sense. He recognizes the girl on the ground as Jen, who has just moved schools, and who seemed like a nice enough kid. Although House is prepared to blindly hate her in solidarity with Rachel over whatever the hell is happening.

Cuddy jumps up from the bleachers, wants to run to the field, but House holds her back. The referee and coach get there first and Rachel is pulled off Jen, without explanation or apology. Lacking any reasonable validation for her outburst, she gets suspended from the game. She storms off the field, makes no eye contact with her mother, and heads straight to House's car.

The whole ride home, she refuses to speak. She sits in the back seat, red-faced, arms crossed, fuming. House has never seen Rachel this mad. Cuddy is horrified into stunned silence, which he's seen a million times before, but never with Rachel as the cause.

When they arrive home, Cuddy stops Rachel in the hallway. "Tell me what happened," she demands without yelling. "Please."

"No."

"Then I guess you can go to your room and stay there until you're ready to talk to me."

Rachel runs down the hallway and slams the door behind her.

"What the hell just happened?" Cuddy desperately looks to House for answers. "I don't understand."

"I'm sure she'll cave and tell you eventually. When has she ever shut up for more than ten minutes at a time?"

He feels as useless as his answer, which is one of his least favorite feelings in the world. He has no diagnosis, no way to run a differential on a six year old's tantrum. All he can do is sit on the couch with Cuddy and rub the tension out of her shoulders.

An hour or so later, there's an unexpected knock at the door. Cuddy answers and standing on the front porch is Jen, still wearing her grass-stained soccer uniform, and a woman who House assumes is her mother.

"I just got home from work and heard what happened at the game today," the woman says.

"I was going to call you," Cuddy insists. "But I haven't gotten an explanation out of Rachel just yet."

"Well, I got an explanation out of Jen. And as soon as I did I wanted to bring her over to apologize."

"Apologize?"

House loves a good plot twist. He gets up from the couch and wanders down the hall to get Rachel. He pushes open the door to her room with his cane, and finds her sulking on the bed.

"That girl whose butt you kicked is here to talk to you. Gotta say this whole thing is more of a mystery than my current case. And that's saying something, considering I've got a woman who can't blink."

Rachel doesn't smile, just hops off the bed and walks by him without a word, which is more jarring than he'd care to admit. He can usually get through to her with ease, drawing her in and and soothing her with his humor. House follows her, despite her continued silent treatment, because he's still willing to fight Jen on her behalf if he has to.

By the time he gets back the hallway, Rachel is standing next to Cuddy in the doorway. House loves how Cuddy puts her arm around Rachel defensively; she has her daughter's back without even knowing what's happened. House thinks of his own father then, how he never offered support, unconditional or otherwise. He assumed House was at fault in every situation, unable to grasp the way his son's mind worked, never willing to even try to see things from his own child's point of view. Rachel doesn't know how lucky she is, but maybe one day soon House will try his best to explain it to her.

"Go ahead, honey," Jen's mom nudges her daughter, who only looks down at her feet. "Tell Rachel what you came here to say."

After a few seconds of awkward silence Jen finally speaks, though her voice barely registers above whisper. "I'm sorry that I made fun of the way your dad walks."

House is grateful that he's standing behind Cuddy, that he can't see the look on her face as she realizes Rachel kicked a teammate because she was defending his sorry, pathetic ass. The only thing he hates more than processing what Rachel did, is knowing that Cuddy can relate. It's been years, but she gets much of the same at the hospital. He knows that nurses still whisper behind her back, department heads roll their eyes, donors question her judgement. All because of him. Most days he can accept that Cuddy made a decision, that she knew exactly what she was getting into by choosing him, loving him. But Rachel is only a goddamn child, who didn't ask for any of this.

"Whatever," Rachel only shrugs. "You're mean. And it's not okay." She isn't impressed by the apology and quickly marches back to her room. Not exactly thrilled by being forced to speak, or by the rejection, Jen runs back to her mother's car.

"I'm so sorry," Jen's mom, flushed and embarrassed, pleads with Cuddy. "I'm not here to make excuses for her, but she's been struggling since we moved. I hope that eventually Rachel can forgive her."

"Rachel shouldn't have kicked her, regardless of….the circumstances."

"She was standing up for her dad. It's understandable, even commendable. To be honest, I think Jen's a bit jealous of Rachel. She used to be the star of her soccer team back on Long Island. It's just the two of us. We moved here for a job that has me working non-stop. I ripped her away from all her friends."

"I work a lot, too. Sundays are practically the only day I'm not missing out on stuff with Rachel. And I was a single mom for the first two years of her life, so I get it."

Jen's mom looks directly at House, like she's just put together that he's not really Rachel's father. He wants to tell her to fuck off, because obnoxious apples don't usually fall very far from obnoxious trees. But he's too busy digesting that Cuddy doesn't think of herself as a single mom. She hasn't been single in years, but he thought 'single parent' meant your kid only has one parent. He doesn't know what it means for him.

He's so in his head that he doesn't even notice Jen's mom leave. The next thing he knows Cuddy is standing in front of him, hand on his arm, fingers tracing his veins. "House, are you okay?"

He snaps out of it, not wanting to make this about his feelings. Not when Rachel is back in her room with the door closed. "You think I'm offended that a six year old noticed I limp? Doesn't exactly take a genius."

"Okay," Cuddy accepts his answer. "But I think we need to talk to Rachel."

He hears it then, loud and clear and amazing and terrifying.

We.

How often has Cuddy been saying it? This can't be the first time, he knows that. But he can't trace its origin in his mind. He can't put together how long she's been counting them as a single parental unit. He notices everything. Yet somehow he hadn't noticed this?

Their fingers intertwined, Cuddy leads him down the hall and into Rachel's room. Cuddy calls the shots, she runs the show, but he's very much a part of it. He has the power of influence, the ability to speak his mind and shape Rachel's life. Hadn't he only a few minutes earlier been thinking about talking to Rachel about his own fucked-up father? Suddenly he's horrified that Cuddy would grant him that freedom, and that he would take it so easily.

Cuddy sits down on Rachel's bed. House is too aware of his presence, doesn't know what to do except lean against the wall, like he needs to be near an exit. He wonders if Rachel is mad at him, if the silent treatment was intentionally directed at him. Maybe she blames him, or maybe she resents him. Frankly he could understand either one.

"Rachel, when people say mean things, you can't react violently."

"I know, Mom."

"Well, I thought you knew. But apparently you don't."

"I just got so mad."

"This isn't the last time someone at soccer or at school will say something to make you mad. Do you know how many times a day I get mad at work? Sometimes I lose count. You're right to want to defend your family. That's a good instinct. But you have to promise to use your words to express yourself, okay?"

Rachel nods, the fire now gone from her eyes. She's left only with the shame of disappointing her mother.

"Do you have any questions you want to ask us about what happened to House's leg?"

"I already know."

"You do?"

House remembers the morning she asked. Cuddy was in the shower, only at the very beginning of her lengthy morning routine. He was barely awake, but could hear Rachel blabbering next to him in the bed. He was in boxer shorts instead of his usual sweatpants, his scar exposed before he realized. As he opened his eyes, he saw Rachel staring at his mangled limb, and was sure he would frighten her off forever. He was certain it was the end of his hello hugs, the end of her comfort around him. But Rachel didn't seem disgusted, only worried. She simply asked 'you're hurt?' so he simply answered.

"House almost had to get his leg cut off 'cause the muscle in it died," Rachel explains. "You did your best to save it but now he has to use his cane. It still hurts a lot and that's why he's cranky sometimes but he told me to yell at him if he's ever cranky to you when you don't deserve it."

Cuddy smirks, looks back at him with what seems like approval. "Did he?"

"Yeah, but I only yelled at him one time so far. Jen is always talking bad about everyone. House can't help that his leg hurts."

"I love you, Rachel. And what she did was wrong, without a doubt. I'd still like you to apologize for hurting her though. That doesn't mean you have to be okay with what she said, or that you have to be her friend. Okay?"

Rachel nods, accepting her fate.

"Give me a hug."

House watches the mother-daughter embrace and thinks maybe he should give Rachel a hug, too. But he can't bring himself to move. He wants to tell her that no one has ever defended him with such pure intentions. No one except her mother, who defends him even when he doesn't deserve it. Her mother who lied under oath to save him from a prison sentence, who knew he needed help before he knew it himself, who took a chance on him and somehow, beyond all odds, doesn't regret it.

House never had unconditional support growing up. He had a father who valued discipline over love, order over warmth. He had a mother who didn't know how to stand up for herself, let alone her child. He thinks it might be ok, because it brought him here. Cuddy gives him unconditional support and makes him feel valued. She gives him warmth and a sense of home. She gives the same to Rachel. She's taught Rachel everything she knows. House never realized she might have passed it on, that he might have a child in his life who sees beyond his exterior, his pain, his past.

"Goodnight," he says, awkward and unsure. "Thanks."

Thanks? He hates how stupid he sounds. But Rachel sticks her tongue out at him, which is one of their things. It's how he knows that she doesn't resent him, that tomorrow she'll still want him around.

"Most kids are jerks, Rachel. But you're not one. You should hold onto that."

"Okay," she agrees. "Night, House."

Later, when House and Cuddy are alone in bed, he knows she isn't sleeping. He needs to know if he's imagining the tension. "Are you pissed at me?"

"No," Cuddy turns to face him, and he knows instantly that she's emotional, but not angry. "But I had no idea you told her about your leg."

"She asked a while ago. Didn't want to lie."

"I'm really grateful that you two have a relationship where you can talk to each other like that, without me."

"You sure? You might come to regret that when she's old enough to join in my schemes against you."

"Might? I definitely will."

"At least we scientifically proved today that nurture is stronger than nature."

"Did we?"

"The Cuddy women incessantly risking their careers to defend my honor? She learned that from you. At least she didn't perjure herself."

"Not yet. There's still time. Though somehow I think Rachel's soccer career will live to see another day."

"I had Wilson check and West Woods ended up losing by six points. They'll think twice before they suspend her again."

"So at least there's a bright side."

"There's multiple bright sides. I think we should forget that whole hockey thing. We should get her on the wrestling team. Or maybe boxing. Do they have boxing teams for first graders? She took that girl down hard."

It's a joke, but he hears himself slip into the We territory like he's been there before, too. He doesn't know when he started saying it, can't trace its origin in his mind. It feels comfortable though, like he could even live there.

Cuddy kisses him and they go to sleep.

4.

House is writing on the whiteboard, and without turning around, he can tell he's lost his team's attention. "Why is no one listening to me?" he asks, as he continues to furiously scribble. "A guy with green hands and green blood oozing out of his ears isn't exciting enough for you?"

"You have a visitor," Foreman answers.

He only ever has one visitor, and he can't imagine why Cuddy is here, because he hasn't done anything reckless yet today and she's supposed to be in meetings all afternoon. Either way, he doesn't have time for fighting or flirting, as much as he wishes he did.

"No afternoon delight today, honeybuns."

"It's actually the….smaller Cuddy," Foreman corrects.

House turns around to find Rachel's face pressed up against the glass door of his office. Her hair is a mess, static and falling out of two braids, and she has chocolate smeared all over both of her cheeks. He puts down his marker and limps over to open the door.

"What are you doing here? And have you ever heard of a napkin?"

"I'm so bored," she whines, in almost a sing-song voice. "Mom's meeting is taking for-ev-er."

House can sympathize all too well with that predicament. "Who is she in with?"

"Dunno. Some guy with a weird mustache."

House rolls his eyes, because he doesn't know why Cuddy continues to placate Dr. Weird Mustache, better known as Dr. Davidson, who finds a new frivolous thing to bitch about every other week. "That guy never shuts up. Plus, I'm pretty sure he wants to kiss her."

Rachel's eyes widen in disgust. "Ew."

"Relax. Your mom only likes kissing me."

Rachel softens, but only slightly. "That's still gross. You guys kiss too much."

"No such thing, kid. Where'd you get the chocolate?"

"Uncle Wilson."

"Of course. And yet Uncle Wilson will conveniently be nowhere in sight when you refuse to eat dinner and I'm the one who gets yelled at."

"He said it's payback for you always eating his food."

"He thinks that will work? Now I'm just going to eat even more of his food."

"Then I'll get even more chocolate!" Rachel jumps a bit as she says it, evidence that she's already on a sugar high.

"How'd you manage to get away from your mom's assistant anyway? I thought you were on lockdown."

Rachel often gets stuck at the hospital on Thursdays after school, when Marina isn't available. But she usually stays in Cuddy's office and works on her homework until it's time to leave.

"Said I left my homework with you and had to come get it."

"I admit I respect your innovative thinking under pressure."

"So can I stay? Because my homework is really done already."

He knows she isn't lying, because she has the same tell as her mother. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to let her hang around his office, or that he'll be able to concentrate with her inevitably interrupting his thought process every few seconds.

"You sure you don't want to go annoy Uncle Wilson some more? Because we're kind of in the middle of diagnosing a dying patient here."

"I'll help you," Rachel informs him matter-of-factly. "Please?"

Saying no to Cuddy is hard, and he rarely ever manages to do it. Somehow saying no to Rachel is even harder. Her pout is more convincing, her puppy dog eyes take up more than half her face. It's impossible for him to win against her.

"Fine. You can stay. But you'll sit here very quietly and won't under any circumstances tell your mom if you overhear anything gross about blood or guts."

Rachel nods, agreeing to the terms. She climbs into an empty chair between Taub and Masters. House can't pick between a joke about Rachel being as tall as Taub, or about Masters having the same haircut as a six year old. While he considers it, he pulls a packet of baby wipes out of his desk drawer and throws it on the table.

"Wipe your mouth, Rach. You look ridiculous."

The team stares at him as Rachel dutifully follows his instructions, like she's used to listening to him. Foreman bursts out laughing, the only one brave enough to say aloud what the rest are thinking. "You keep baby wipes in your desk now? The Cuddy women have you beyond whipped."

"Shut up. None of you get to make fun of me until after you offer an explanation for why our patient is a leprechaun."

"It's not diabetes," Masters reports, as if he doesn't already know. "Even though it fits perfectly. I still think..."

"I don't care what you think about diabetes," he interrupts, growing impatient. "I'm looking for an explanation that I didn't already rule out two days ago."

"Two days ago you said it was autoimmune," Taub reminds him, a slight taunt in his voice. "But the ANA was negative, and we ran it twice. He has no fever, no joint pain."

"What about the toxicology report?"

"Clean," Chase affirms.

"Then someone give me something else."

It's already been three days and all they've done is run in circles. They have nothing to show for all the tests they've conducted, all the theories they've considered. This case will keep him up at night, will drive him to the brink of madness.

"My tongue turns green when I eat the green play-dough," Rachel announces. "My hands turn green at school when we fingerpaint."

House sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop eating play-dough? I should've known from the day you ate a dime that you were going to be one of those kids."

Rachel shrugs innocently. He's already regretting letting her sit in when Masters' face contorts in what he's come to recognize as her Idea Face. "When we were at the patient's house he had at least twenty paint guns in his room," she says.

"So, what? He's a future serial killer? Unfortunately we still have to save his life."

"Aren't some of the BBs they use for those guns made of copper? If he dropped a few, or they fell off a shelf, the copper particles could've gotten into his system. That would explain the discoloration of skin and fluids and it would explain the nausea, too."

"Impressive. Except for the fact that Chase just told us the toxicology report was negative."

"The toxicology could've been cross contaminated by the antibiotics we had him on when we thought this was an infection."

It's viable, likely even. And he's pissed he didn't think of it himself. "Go confirm," he instructs the team, who promptly run out of the room.

A million ridiculous things have led them to answers before, but it's a first for Rachel Cuddy. She looks at him, simultaneously smug and curious. "I helped?"

"Shockingly enough, you did. Do you know what that means?"

"What?"

"You're a doctor now. But it's not all fun and games. Doctors have to do clinic duty."

"Mom always makes you do that."

"She does. Because she's mean. You see, Rachel, the clinic is a horrible place, filled with idiots who like to stick inanimate objects in places they shouldn't. And now you're going to have to work there, too. You should probably be afraid."

"Well, I'm not," she rebuts, hopping off the chair. "Let's go."

They walk down the hall, hand in hand, as every doctor, nurse, and med student openly stares at them. He doesn't care. If anything, he finds it amusing that no one can figure him out. They all know that, for the most part, he hasn't changed at work; he still barks at patients, refuses to be a team player, makes everyone's life a bit more difficult. But they also see him accompanying Cuddy to hospital galas, holding her purse on the way out of work, bringing her flowers when she's having an off day, and softening his edges for Rachel. No one knows what to make of it. He revels in that.

In the clinic, House finds Rachel a lab coat. Or, more accurately, he steals her a lab coat right out of Taub's locker. It's still absurdly big on her, hanging off her like a blanket. But she's giggling and smiling as he puts a stethoscope around her neck, so he feels like it's already a successful mission. Cuddy always says it's no surprise they get along, because his maturity is on Rachel's level. That seems accurate enough, but House still marvels at how easy things are with her.

Nurse Underwood, one of Cuddy's closest allies in the hospital, eyes him suspiciously. "Since I'm guessing Dr. Cuddy has no idea what you two are up to, you better not be thinking of bringing Rachel near anyone contagious."

As if he would ever consider putting Rachel in the same zip code as danger. "I'm not a moron," he bites back. "That's why I'm not a nurse."

Sometimes it pisses him off, when people act like he has no right to do anything or go anywhere with Rachel without Cuddy's expressed permission. He has her implicit permission. If he didn't, she wouldn't have asked him to move in. But she had, with the casual ease that only she could get away with, like she didn't care what the answer was. One morning over breakfast she simply asked why he bothered paying for an apartment he barely spent time in. She asked if it still made sense for him to keep it, suggested he might consider moving the rest his stuff into her house. It had been hard, at first, to let go. Not of the apartment itself, but of the independence he thought it represented. But he made peace with the trade, knowing he was gaining more than he was losing. Now he steps on barbies instead of beer bottle caps, and does laundry with detergent that smells like coconuts. He lives with Rachel, sees her every single morning and night, and yet people still don't seem to think he's capable of not killing her.

For the next hour, House brings Rachel to see (harmless) patients. He lets her sit on his lap as he pulls q-tips out of earlobes, administers flu shots, treats a nasty case of gout. He grins as he picks up the next case file and takes Rachel into the room of a patient he knows she'll be interested in.

"Dr. Cuddy the sequel, what do you think he has?" He challenges, holding up an x-ray.

"Broken arm," she figures out immediately. "I had one of those once!"

"She fell off the slide," House informs the patient, a man in his early thirties. "How'd you do it?"

"Lost my footing on my staircase."

He was obviously drunk, but Rachel doesn't need to know that.

"You'll be okay," she tells him. "You have to wear a cast. But your friends can draw on it."

Just then, the real Dr. Cuddy opens the door, taking in the scene before her. "There's my little escape artist. So much for staying in my office. What's going on in here?"

Rachel lights up at the sight of her mother. "I'm a doctor! I solved the case of the green guy!"

"Did you? That's very impressive. How about you tell me all about it on the way home?"

"I want to stay here and finish clinic duty."

Cuddy laughs. "It's wonderful that you're so interested in the clinic. You may want to teach that to some of our less committed doctors, who shall remain nameless. But you need to eat dinner and take a bath. It's a school night."

House wonders if maybe Rachel will grow up to be a doctor. He can almost picture hiring Rachel to work on his team twenty years from now. Cuddy would be sporting grey hair but probably still in a pencil skirt and heels, running down the hall to stop them from performing an unauthorized surgery.

"Go home," House encourages his prodigy. "Your work here is done."

Rachel climbs off his lap, doesn't bother to return the stethoscope. A bunch of stuffed animals will have their non existent hearts checked tonight. Cuddy gives him her I love you look as she takes her daughter's hand. He knows he's going to get rewarded for this later, but he's surprised to find that's not why he did it. Spending time with Rachel used to be a game he played to make Cuddy happy, which would make him happy in return. Now he spends time with Rachel because he enjoys her company, because he wants her to be happy, too.

"Smart kid you've got there," his patient remarks after Rachel and Cuddy leave.

"She is pretty smart."

For the first time, House doesn't correct someone who makes the assumption that Rachel is his. Instead, he lets it slide, testing out how it feels to say out loud with no one around to judge him.

"And if you don't mind me saying so, you've got one hot wife."

"Believe it or not, the hot wife is also the Dean of Medicine. Runs this whole place."

"Well, didn't you hit the lottery."

He has hit the lottery. And those who win the lottery shouldn't go out and play the slots. They shouldn't push their luck. They should be grateful for what they have, and not ask for anything more.

The words hang in the air anyway, heavy and wonderful. His kid. His wife.

He shakes it off, because it's merely a fantasy. He lives with the two most important people in his life. That's his victory. It's more than he deserves. It's more than enough.

5.

Cuddy opens the door to his office so quietly that he almost doesn't hear it. It's only 4:30 in the afternoon and the sky outside is dark and gloomy. It's one of those days where everything feels cold and hopeless, which is appropriate considering House is miles passed exhausted and his patient is inching closer to death.

"Do you have a second to talk?" Cuddy asks.

He's happy to see her, hoping for a brief respite to his day from hell. He could use her encouragement, her belief that he will solve this puzzle in time to save a young woman's life. When he meets her eyes, though, he knows that's not why Cuddy is here. He doesn't have a second to talk, if he's being honest. But he won't be able to focus on the diagnostic mystery if the mystery of What's Bothering Cuddy takes over his thoughts instead.

"What's wrong?"

"I need to show you something."

"I can pretty much already see everything in that top."

As she sits down across from him, he can offer her the normalcy of their banter; usually it's a gauge for how upset she is. She smiles, but only weakly. He has a feeling this might be serious.

"At first I didn't know if I should even bring this up, but I'm afraid she's going to ask me about it if I don't. I can't just ignore it and hope she forgets about it. I mean, she never forgets anything, does she?"

"Who are we talking about? You seem to have started this conversation without me."

"Rachel," Cuddy tells him, pulling out something from behind her back. "She made this for you at school today."

House realizes immediately that it's a Father's Day card. There's a macaroni border badly glued to a piece of blue construction paper. There's glitter forming what he thinks is supposed to be a cloud. There's a hideous drawing of Cuddy's home. Rachel has no future as an artist and he'll happily volunteer to be the one to break that news to her.

In the front yard, there's three stick figures. A woman, a child, and a man who looks like he has an extra leg. House knows it's not an extra leg. He knows it's supposed to be a cane. Rachel's written Happy Father's Day at the bottom in purple crayon. The S is facing the wrong way even though he's been practicing letters with her all week.

House remembers those days at school, when his teachers wanted him to make terrible projects just like this one. He remembers the dread that formed in his gut, how he tasted the bile in the back of his throat, how much he didn't want to give anything to a man he was so afraid of.

"I'm kind of surprised West Woods celebrates Father's Day," he says, trying to buy himself time to process. "I thought they were into non-traditional families."

"Apparently the students were able to opt out. But Rachel…. didn't."

"Oh."

"I can talk to her, if you want, about how you're not…." Cuddy struggles to form a coherent sentence, which isn't like her at all, and is painful to watch. "But I….I thought….you should know how…. well, that she..."

Not everyone needs a father. In fact, some people would be better off without them. House knows that because he was one of those people. He recognizes Rachel might be, too. She would have an amazing life with Cuddy as her mother and no help from anyone else. They only need each other. They don't need him.

But if even for one single second he made Rachel excited about a project that otherwise would've made her feel the same dread he once felt, then maybe, just maybe, it isn't the worst thing in the world.

And then he stops himself. Because maybe Cuddy isn't comfortable with Rachel's attachment to him. Not at this level. She might be perfectly fine with school pick ups and cartoon marathons and even being roomies. But maybe she doesn't want her daughter making Father's Day cards for a former drug addict. Maybe that's fair enough.

"Do you not want Rachel to give this to me?"

"That's not what I'm saying at all," Cuddy reassures him. "I don't want you to think I expect you to be ready for this. Or that I'll love you any less if you're not. I'm grateful for how things are. You do so much for her, without me even asking."

"I do," House agrees. "Which is why I don't think it would be fair of you to deprive me of this crappy present."

He doesn't know why he's so possessive of it, but the card was made for him. He wants to keep it, doesn't want Cuddy to get rid of it discreetly or tell Rachel she was in the wrong for making it in the first place.

"Are you sure, House?"

"Yeah. Why? Were you expecting me to freak out?"

"I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't serenity."

"It's only a school project," House rationalizes, downplaying the significance. "Making it into a whole thing will be way more traumatizing for her. It's not that big of a deal. She might even have one for Wilson, too."

That's a lie, pure and simple. Rachel loves Wilson. Rachel also loves Julia's husband. She even sort of loves Foreman and Chase and Cuddy's assistant. But none of them will be getting a card. He knows who he is to Rachel, even though it goes unspoken. And unwritten. Until now.

"I'll just put it back in her backpack then."

"Cool. I'll just get back to saving lives."

"I'll see you at home." Cuddy gets up to leave, but turns to have the last word, and maybe to bring them back to safer ground. "By the way, you're not inducing a coma."

That night House gets home after dinner, his case solved and behind him. The unsettled feeling that usually dissipates after his patient is cured is still with him though. He's not sure what to expect as he walks through the door. His fears are unfounded because Rachel is already asleep and Cuddy is distracted by a phone call from someone in HR. The card isn't brought up at all.

Until Sunday when, over breakfast, Rachel hands it to him. She doesn't make a show of it, doesn't seem confused or hesitant in the slightest. "I made this for you," she informs him. House realizes that it actually is Father's Day and that Cuddy's making bacon with their eggs. Cuddy doesn't eat bacon and neither does Rachel. This breakfast is for him.

"Thanks."

"Do you like it?" Rachel asks.

House almost makes a joke, about how she's a better doctor than artist, but she's looking at him with such hopeful eyes that he can't bring himself to do it. "Of course," he says instead, ruffling her hair.

And then he has this bizarre moment of realization where he knows that if he was forced to choose between his seven thousand dollar bike and the flimsy piece of construction paper with a backwards S, he would choose the latter. That, more than anything, throws him for a loop.

.-.

On Monday morning, House slips the card into his bag and brings it with him to the hospital. He needs someone to help him untangle the jumbled mess of emotions he can't quite pin down. He needs a second, outside opinion. Though admittedly it's a bit of a stretch to call Wilson an outsider.

"Look at this," House demands, barging into his best friend's office. He hands over the card and then flops down on the familiar couch. Wilson studies the piece of paper for a few seconds, and then looks up, surprised and pleased.

"This is big, House."

"West Woods allows kids not to participate in projects like this. But Rachel did participate. She wasn't backed into a corner and forced to pick the closest thing she has to a dad. She wanted to make me a card."

"Are you melting down?"

"Not exactly. Or at least not in the way you'd think."

"It says a lot that Rachel looks at you like this when you're not…"

"I'm not what?" He sits up, on the defense. "Say it."

"Nevermind."

"When I'm not really her father," House finishes the thought, because the script is all too familiar by now. "So I keep hearing."

"I didn't mean it in a bad way, I meant it as a compliment. You don't need the official title."

"I used to think that, too. But maybe I do need it."

"I'm pretty sure the card proves you don't. And since when do you care about titles?"

He doesn't. He never has. Except when it gets in the way of him doing what he needs to do.

"Imagine if you showed up to work every day and did the job of an oncologist, but you didn't have the title. And imagine because you didn't have the title, you didn't have access to the things you needed. You couldn't write prescriptions, or use the MRI, or even talk to patients without supervision."

"Can we maybe fast forward to the point of this condescending illustration?"

"I have to be put on a special list to pick Rachel up, I have to call Arlene to take Rachel home from the hospital because I'm supposedly not a relative. I can't stop thinking that if something happened to Cuddy, or to Rachel, I wouldn't have a say. Me. The most qualified person to be making those decisions would be completely left out of them. Yet I'm still there with them every day putting in all the work. I have to do all the things that every other dad does, but I don't get a single one of the benefits. I'm starting to get angry about it, which isn't good for anyone involved."

"I never thought I'd hear you admit there are any benefits to fatherhood."

"Maybe that was a bad word choice. Rachel is smart and funny and I'm getting none of the credit even though I'm clearly the only one in her life with a sense of humor."

"Not to mention that maybe you want credit because you love her. And her mother. "

There's no witty comment to be made, no point in pretending otherwise. "Yeah."

"You know, no one thinks you're capable of fatherhood so it might be nice to prove them wrong by making it official."

"You don't need to use reverse psychology on me. I got there on my own. Half the nurses in this hospital think Rachel is going to die under my care. So does every Cuddy woman over seven years old whose first name isn't Lisa."

Arlene and Julia and the nurses and every other person who has ever degraded his place in Rachel's life. He wants to shut them up once and for all.

"So, what are you going to do about it?" Wilson challenges, as he so often does.

But House has no idea.

.-.

Epiphanies have always come to him in the strangest ways, and his most important one is no exception. It starts in the midst of a bad pain night. A really, really bad pain night. In the beginning of his relationship with Cuddy, on nights like this, he used to stay in their bed and watch her sleep. It kept him grounded, reminded him what he stood to lose. Now, years into their relationship, he's almost too secure. If he relapsed, if he was in agony and genuinely slipped up, he knows that Cuddy wouldn't leave him. She would be angry and disappointed. She would demand he get sober. She would drive his ass straight to rehab. But he wouldn't lose her completely.

House gets out of bed, silently wincing with every movement, and wanders into the kitchen desperate not to wake Cuddy up. She always insists he tell her if he's having a flare, even if it's in the middle of the night. But he doesn't because it isn't fair to her. In the morning, House can sleep in, he can let his team handle his case or he can simply refuse to take a new one. Cuddy has to be at work at seven, sometimes even earlier. If she stays up with him, her day will be miserable. He's not that selfish. Not anymore.

He walks over to the fridge for a glass of water and Rachel's card stares at him, blue and sparkly and taunting. Cuddy hung it there, supported by magnets shaped like farm animals with exaggerated facial features. Suddenly he isn't thirsty anymore. He takes the card off the fridge, limps to Rachel's bedroom, stands in the doorway, and watches her sleep.

Cuddy wouldn't walk away if he relapsed. But Cuddy is the best mom in the world. Rachel comes first, as she should. If he relapsed, he wouldn't be allowed anywhere near her. Not while there was one single milligram of Vicodin in his system. He's sure of that, which is good, because he still stands to lose something.

House stands to lose Rachel. He can work with that.

He walks back to the couch, sits down, and tries to get comfortable. He flips on the TV, still clutching the card in his hands, bringing it close to his chest. He tries not to crumble it, or rip it by the sheer intensity of what he's feeling. He focuses on his stick figure in the drawing and reminds himself that he needs to stay in it. It would devastate Cuddy and Rachel if he jumped off the roof right now, which is what his pain makes him wish he could do sometimes.

"House?"

Cuddy is standing there and he wants to curse his unintentionally loud footsteps. "Shit, sorry. I woke you up?"

"No. I had to pee and you weren't in bed. Are you okay?"

He doesn't say anything, just gestures towards his leg and she understands. She also notices what he's holding onto.

"Did that card…." Cuddy begins, choosing her words carefully. "I know the physical pain is very real, but did Rachel giving you that maybe….. trigger emotions that started a flare?"

She thinks the pressure of Rachel looking at him as her father may have sent him spiraling mentally, which impacted him physically.

"You've got this so wrong, Cuddy."

She won't push him for an explanation, she never does, but she deserves one anyway.

"If I take Vicodin tonight that's the end of me getting make-believe Father's Day cards from a kid I don't deserve. So I'm trying to focus on that instead of the drugs I want to take more than anything. Except apparently more make-believe Father's Day cards. Who would've guessed?"

"Me," Cuddy says, and rightly so. She's always known, hasn't she? She sits down next to him, runs her fingers through his hair. "And it's not make-believe. That card is very real. So is how much we love you."

House puts down the card on the table and leans into her touch. "Can I distract you?" She asks suggestively. "Give you something better to do?"

"Your efforts are valiant and appreciated, as always. But I don't think I have it in me."

"So we're at a nine tonight?"

House nods. When his pain is between a five and an eight a naked Cuddy can distract him easily. But anything over that and his body won't cooperate, as much as he wants it to. She knows his pain scale as well as he does, knows what every digit on it means.

"I'll just sit with you, then. And don't bother telling me to go back to sleep, because I can't knowing you're out here in pain. What are we watching?"

"Arie's journey to find love."

"How's it going?"

"Not great. But he's a dick, so it's to be expected. According to spoilers he's going to get engaged to Becca but then dump her for Lauren like five days later."

"You read spoilers for The Bachelor?"

"RealitySteve's blog is a gold mine."

"I'm so glad I'm still learning new weird things about you all these years later."

She has one hand on his thigh, lightly massaging. She knows exactly where to apply pressure, which indents in his skin to avoid. They're not married, but this is what a marriage is. This is what it's supposed to be - the ability to know a person in every way there is to know them, to feel their pain, to be a we instead of an I.

They have a marriage. And House has a daughter. But he doesn't. Not really.

On screen, Chris Harrison teases Arie's engagement, calling it the most dramatic season ever. Harrison is a hack who says that every year, so it doesn't hold a lot of weight, except for right now, when it makes House realize what he wants. Because Arie can get engaged to Becca, and then get engaged to Lauren a few days later. There was a time when he would've laughed at that, used it as evidence that the whole institution is a hypocritical nightmare. But now it makes him oddly protective. Cuddy shouldn't have less than Becca or Lauren, because Cuddy is the most magnificent woman in the world. And if those idiots get to be married, then perhaps they, who have real love and a kid and a home and a future, should be, too.

"Maybe we should get married."

Cuddy laughs, and it hurts more than it should. "Sure, House. I know plenty of rabbis who perform three am ceremonies."

"I'm serious."

"You're in serious pain."

"You of all people should know that's when I have some of my best ideas, boss."

"What's her problem?" Cuddy gestures to the blonde on screen who's yelling at Arie. "Why is she so pissed off?"

Cuddy wants the topic dropped. It's clear she doesn't believe he means it and he's too weak to fight her. At least for tonight.

"That's Krystal. She's mad that all these other girls are coming on the bowling date."

"That's relatable," Cuddy quips. "We've never once gone bowling without Wilson."

.-.

In the morning, House wakes up sprawled out on the couch, no memory of how or when he fell asleep. He's barely conscious until he hears Cuddy tell him to take the morning off and feels her kiss his lips before she leaves for work. The whole scene is as predictable as the dark circles under her eyes.

Surprisingly, House feels much better. As he stands and stretches, he knows he could easily go in to work, but he decides to take advantage of his Cuddy approved vacation day. He has something he needs to do.

He calls Arlene because he's missing a vital piece of information. Under different circumstances he would find a clever way to obtain it that didn't involve the world's most annoying senior citizen, but time is of the essence.

"What's Cuddy's ring size?" he questions as soon as she answers. "I know she's got tiny fingers, but I don't know how that translates into size."

"House?"

"Nope. This is your daughter's other boyfriend."

"Lisa's ring size is 6. Why?"

"Oh, no reason. I just passed this vending machine at the hospital with a sweet ring pop I thought she might like."

"House."

"To be very clear, I'm not asking you for permission. I think Cuddy would be weirded out if I asked you for her middle-aged hand."

There's silence on the other end of the line. He wonders if she's hung up on him. It wouldn't be the first time. And maybe she thinks he's joking, too. "If you're still here I can assure you this isn't a prank. I'm not that stupid."

"Then go with a gold band," she instructs, which is probably as close as he'll ever get to her blessing. "Silver might be in with these millennials, but gold is classic. Just like my daughter. None of those weird, oval shaped diamonds, either. Keep it simple. You can go big, but still simple. And you better go big. I know exactly what Lisa pays you."

"Copy that….Mom."

He thinks her advice is likely spot on, but he's definitely going to mess with her and send a picture of a silver band with an oval shaped diamond later.

As ready as he'll ever be, House drives to the hospital and texts Wilson to meet him at the back entrance, where he knows Cuddy won't see them. When he shows up, House rolls down his car window and shouts, "get in loser, we're going ring shopping."

Wilson looks at him, hesitant and confused. "What?"

"Have you never seen Mean Girls? You're so uncultured."

"My reaction was more about the ring shopping. And why on earth we'd be doing that?"

"Isn't it obvious?" He deadpans. "I figured out what I'm going to do about it."

Wilson's goofy, approving smile confirms that House has arrived at the right answer.

.-.

There is someone's permission he wants, because he knows he can't do this without her. More than that, he owes her this, because she's given him a strength he didn't know he was capable of, a bravery he didn't know he needed. He finds her in her room, sitting on the floor, working on her math worksheet. He's struck with the memory of the first time he was in this very room, as a reluctant babysitter who needed to call for help, who would've done just about anything to shirk responsibility. Now, as he sits down next to her, back against the floral couch, he's actively seeking out the biggest responsibility of his life.

"Can I ask you something, Rach?"

"You just did!" She says, and he can't be mad, because he's the one who taught her that kind of wise-assery.

"Very clever."

She sticks her tongue out at him. He takes a deep breath. "Would be cool with you if I married your mom? Because I want to, but I need your approval first."

Rachel puts down her pencil, squints her eyes like she's considering it thoroughly. "Why?"

House should've seen it coming, Rachel and her never-ending-questions. "Why do I want to marry her? Or why do I want your permission?"

"The second one."

"Because she'd never do anything you weren't happy with. And because you'd have to share her with me, so I figured I better check that you're willing to."

"We already share her."

"True. But this would make it official. I'd give her a ring and then you'd legally have to share her with me."

"I like sharing with you. What's legally mean?"

"The law. Like the rules mom makes up for the two of us, except these are for everyone. It would make your mom and I husband and wife instead of boyfriend and girlfriend."

Rachel nods. "You probably should, because you've been boyfriend and girlfriend for like a hundred years already."

"It's actually only been eighty, thank you very much."

Rachel laughs, and it's really that simple.

"Wanna go play mario kart until your mom gets home?"

"Yeah, but you can't take yoshi again because I'm yoshi."

"Sorry, kid. I only agreed to share your mom. I never agreed to share yoshi."

She takes off towards the hallway without him, but stops in the doorway and lingers like there's something else on her mind. "If you marry mom and become her husband by the law, will the law also say that you're my dad?"

Once upon a time Cuddy chose Rachel. And then she chose House. Now, the two of them are choosing each other. It's some serious full-circle shit that would make Wilson cry. And might even be making his own heart clench.

"I'd have to sign some different papers for that. But I can. I'd like to."

"You probably should, since you've lived here for like fifty years."

They make each other better. All three of them. Together.

"Stop exaggerating. It's been thirty five, at the most."

.-.

He can't bring himself to make it into a big production. He would, if he thought it's what Cuddy would want. But she would roll her eyes and find it insincere. There's only one way to convince her he means this, and that's by being honest. That's what they're good at when everything else is stripped away. That's how they started their relationship, when she came to him, vulnerable and willing to risk it all. Now it's his turn.

So that night, when they're in bed, he starts the conversation, abrupt and unrehearsed.

"It wasn't the pain talking."

"Hm?" Cuddy is only half listening as she reads reports, focused on calculating expenses and balancing budgets. "What wasn't?"

"Last night? When I said maybe we should get married, it wasn't the pain talking."

This, of course, gets her to put down her work. "Okay," she says calmly, trying to read his expression. "Then what was it?"

"Me realizing that we probably should've done it a while ago."

She's unmoved, sounds almost impatient that they're still having this conversation. "And it was... The Bachelor that made you have this realization?"

"Kind of. But not really. I've been thinking about it for a while, without even knowing that I was. Don't you think it's stupid that we're not married on paper when we're married in every other way?"

"You told me the only reason that anyone gets married is because, and I quote, 'homo erectus females needed protection from predators while breastfeeding.'"

"If you're pulling out the transcripts, I believe I also said people get married so they can throw obnoxious parties to make everyone in their lives feel unworthy. Which is still true, by the way. But as it turns out, there can be other valid reasons."

"Like what?"

"Like I never want to be in an emergency situation where someone tells me you're not my family just because we haven't signed a piece of paper."

"That's very romantic. But you're already my medical proxy. And we can change our wills. We don't have to get married for that."

He needs to get her attention somehow, and so far it isn't working. "It would be easier for me to adopt Rachel if we were married."

Cuddy half arcs her eyebrow, and he truly can't tell if she's surprised or if she's been expecting this. "You want to adopt Rachel?"

"I want to be her father."

"You already are, House. You have been for a while. You're not perfect at it, but I'm not a perfect mother. My daughter has two adults in her life who love her more than anything. You don't need to marry me to prove it. She already has more than what a lot of kids have."

House sees himself, on the floor, helpless and ashamed, his father standing above him. "Trust me, I know she does."

"I know you know," Cuddy softens, because she can tell exactly where his mind is. "I think that's a huge part of why you're so good with her. I think… I think you want better for her. It's probably the most selfless thing I've ever seen from you."

"When we started dating, I was convinced she was going to be the worst part of it. But I do want better for her. And, yeah, I also want people to stop telling me she's not really mine when that's not how it feels. Maybe this is coming from a petty place, but I hate feeling like I'm not fully a part of your family. I think we should get married because I think it makes sense for all three of us. We're still uncommon, Cuddy. We always will be. But maybe it wouldn't be the horrible for us to be common in just this one way."

He takes the ring box out of his nightstand and opens it, revealing a gold band and single round diamond.

"We could make a day of it at city hall," he continues. "Do the wedding on one floor, the adoption on the next. Get the whole thing wrapped up in time for half priced pizza night. I would get down on one knee, except that I physically can't, so you're just going to have to believe me."

"I don't need you down on one knee."

Cuddy meant it all those years ago. She never needed him to change. She's never pressured him to be someone he's not. To do anything he wasn't ready for. He's changed, anyway. Or perhaps grown is a better word. He's grown into a person wholly worthy of the life they've built.

Cuddy takes the ring out of the box, holds it like she needs to feel it in order to believe that it's real. "Do you think we could bring a mariachi band to court?"

"Oh, we're definitely bringing a mariachi band."

"Both floors?"

"Both floors," he promises.

She slips the ring on her finger. "Okay then."

6.

House sits on a bench in the hallway of West Woods middle school and looks impatiently at his watch. Cuddy is already fifteen minutes late and he's going to kill her if she abandons him here, of all the horrible places. If he had any luck, the appointment before him would run over. But it doesn't, because he's not that lucky. Mr. Reynolds, Rachel's third grade teacher, stands before him ready to begin. "Looks like you're my last appointment of the night," he says.

"Any chance we could wait a few more minutes? My wife is running late and there's just no way my sparknotes version of whatever conversation we have is going to be good enough."

West Woods is obsessed with punctuality, but he hopes that Mr. Reynolds is willing to cut him some slack. He's one hundred percent positive he's not capable of surviving a parent-teacher conference on his own.

"No problem," Mr. Reynolds takes mercy on him. "You're both doctors, aren't you?"

"We are."

"Rachel is particularly engaged in our science lessons, I'm guessing that starts at home."

Rachel doesn't have his genes. Still, somehow, she has his piercing blue eyes and need to solve whatever puzzle is in front of her. Rachel doesn't have Cuddy's genes either. But she has her tenacity, her protective nature, her compassion for everyone she meets.

"Not home, exactly. She spends a lot of time at our hospital. She likes to pretend she's a doctor. I might be biased, but I think she's smarter than some of the actual doctors my wife employs."

"I believe it. Last week she got up in front of the class and started naming all the bones in the skeleton."

"I'm raising her to be a show off."

House hears the familiar sound of heels clicking against marble tile, and he praises the god he doesn't believe in that Cuddy has arrived.

"I'm so sorry I'm late," she offers, genuine and charming. "Problems in radiology."

Cuddy takes off her jacket and scarf, and she looks beautiful as always, but House's eyes are drawn first to the diamonds on her wedding ring; somehow they glisten even in the bad hallway lightening, reminding him that she's his, now and always. He stands up, grabs that hand in his own.

"No need to apologize. It gave me time to chat with your husband."

"Is he behaving himself? Or do I already owe you an apology?"

"He's been just fine. Why? Is he usually a trouble maker?"

"You have no idea."

Cuddy squeezes House's fingers, teasing and loving.

"Please, come inside," Mr. Reynolds says. "I'd love to tell you more about your daughter."