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"How do I look?"

House glances up from his desk to find Cuddy standing before him in a red, floor length gown with a plunging neckline. He loses his breath for a second, which she can still make him do, even now, almost a year into their relationship. "So good that I actually want to go to the stupid fundraiser."

She smirks, smug and satisfied. "Funny, because that was exactly my plan when I bought this dress."

"Cunning woman."

Cuddy walks over to him, sits down on his lap, and wraps her arms around his neck. "I'm glad you're staying here though. Beth needs you."

House nods. Right now the only thing he can focus on is saving his patient, a woman named Beth who has been dying in front of him for the last three days. The mystery is consuming him more so than usual, as evidenced by the fact that he even knows his patient's name.

"I don't want to lose this one," he admits out loud, surprising them both.

He should be objective, and not emotionally invested. He should want to solve the puzzle, and not care about the person attached to it. It's not as easy these days, especially when the patient is a single mom with a four year old daughter who reminds him a little too much of Rachel. He's been trying to shake the resemblance since he first laid eyes on the kid, trying desperately not to think about what his failure could mean for her. He's been hiding his feelings well enough, he thinks — Cuddy hasn't called him out on it, and neither has Wilson. He almost wishes they would, wishes one of them would rip him out of the vicious cycle of his own self-destructive thoughts.

"You're going to solve it," Cuddy says with confidence, and then kisses him lightly on the lips. He's not so sure, but he appreciates her belief in him. House pulls her closer, deepens the kiss, needing to really feel her before she leaves for the night. He considers asking her to stay, because simply knowing Cuddy is there while he works is like a security blanket. But he knows she has a job to do, and that her doing her job is what allows him to do his.

"Get a room," they hear suddenly, causing them to pull apart. Wilson is standing in the doorway in his tuxedo. "I had a sneaking suspicion I might find my plus-one in here."

House shoots him an annoyed glance. "She's my permanent plus-one. You're just a loser substitute."

"Of course," Wilson concedes.

Cuddy laughs as she stands up, but not before giving House one last kiss. "I'll see you later."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do tonight," he jokes.

She winks on her way out. "That doesn't exclude much, now does it?"

-—/—-

Cuddy sits at the table staring straight ahead of her, not in the mood to be there. Normally she's the center of attention at events like this, but she's too preoccupied by the nagging sensation that she's missing something obvious. It's making her feel claustrophobic, like she wants to get up and run out of the room.

"Are you okay?" Wilson asks, because he knows her well enough to notice. "The richest couple in Princeton just walked by and you didn't flinch."

He's right, of course. She should've gotten up, introduced herself, and made a play for a generous contribution. "I feel like I should be at the hospital."

"Why? Are your House senses tingling?"

Wilson is teasing, but it's an accurate description of what she's experiencing. "He's so stressed out about this case."

"Yeah, but he has to sulk and throw the ball around. You know there's nothing you can do."

"I could be there. Instead of here. This one is really getting to him."

"I think it's because you're making him soft."

For some reason, Cuddy thinks of Alice Tanner. She remembers the moment when House almost revealed what he knew about her son's death, but ultimately decided against it. Cuddy knows that House is still very much House; he hasn't changed, and in many ways he never will. But he does process things a little differently, as if their love makes him see things he couldn't see before. It makes her proud to think she's expanded his worldview, opened him up to perspectives he otherwise wouldn't have considered.

Then it hits her all at once, and she's furious at herself for not seeing it until now. She realizes exactly why this case is important to House in a way that it wouldn't have been a year earlier.

"I'm an idiot."

"What?"

"His patient's daughter. She's been in the room with her mom most days. She kind of looks like..."

"Oh," Wilson understands what she means. "So, you really are making him soft."

"I think Rachel deserves more credit than I do."

"Go," Wilson encourages, knowing there's no way Cuddy can stay now. "I'll cover for you."

She's up and on her way before he finishes his sentence.

-—/—-

When House sees Cuddy walking towards his office, he thinks he's either so sleep deprived that he's imagining it, or that he's completely lost track of time. He looks down at his watch to confirm that her event couldn't possibly already be over.

"What are you doing here?" He asks as soon as she opens the door.

"I left early. I missed you."

"You missed me after an hour and fifteen minutes apart?"

"Yes."

"Well, that's embarrassing for you."

"As if you didn't miss me just as much."

He did. Painfully so. Wanted both his boundary-pushing boss and his supportive girlfriend by his side every second she wasn't. "Who exactly is raking in money for the hospital right now if you ditched?"

"Wilson, Chase, and Foreman are all still there. If the three of them combine their charm it almost makes up for my cleavage."

House scoffs. "Nothing makes up for your cleavage. And definitely not those three."

"I stopped for coffee. And I smuggled some food back for you, since I'm guessing you haven't eaten."

"Thanks."

She puts two cups of coffee down on his desk, and hands him three napkins full of appetizers. He's amused as he imagines his fancy Dean of Medicine shoving shrimp and tiny quiche into her purse out of concern for him.

"Has anything happened with Beth since I left?"

"No," he tells her. "Everything's the same."

"And how's her daughter?"

House knows from the look on Cuddy's face that he's been caught. "You didn't miss me. You're checking up on me."

"Why can't it be both?" Cuddy asks, and then gets more serious. "House, the fact that you're thinking about Rach…"

"Shut up," he cuts her off, but with affection in his tone. "The Cuddy women are seriously ruining me."

"Would it help to talk it out? The symptoms, I mean. Not how we're ruining you."

"You really want to spend your Friday night wasting that dress on my office, drinking bad coffee instead of expensive champagne, and working on a case with me?"

"Yes," Cuddy answers, like it's obvious. "But the coffee isn't bad. I went to that place you like."

House marvels that she came back to offer him exactly what he wanted without him having to ask for it. They've always been inexplicably connected, but it's gotten far more intense since they've been together.

She sits down across from him and picks up Beth's chart. Sometimes House is overwhelmed by how much he loves Cuddy. Tonight he feels overwhelmed by something else. Something related, but slightly different.

"Cuddy."

"Yeah?"

"You're my best friend."

She drops the file in her lap, looks up at him in shock. "What?"

He shrugs. "You are."

"Does Wilson know about this?"

"Nope. I'm kind of hoping it can be our secret."

Cuddy reaches out across the desk, puts her hand over his. "House, believe it or not, you've been my best friend for years. You've always been the person who knows everything about me."

"Yeah, because I didn't give you a choice. If you tried to hide something from me, I found it out anyway."

"Maybe, but I got used to that— to knowing you'd be there. It was oddly comforting. Even when I was alone, I never felt truly alone. I always knew you'd be lurking somewhere around the corner."

"It's a lot more fun now that I don't have to lurk."

"I agree."

"Plus, people do say you should marry your best friend. At least now I don't have to marry Wilson."

He sort of means it as a joke, as a way to lighten the mood, which is quickly slipping into far more serious territory than he intended to be in. It doesn't come out that way though, and somehow he's brought them even deeper into a meaningful conversation.

It's not like he regrets it, or like it isn't true. He does picture them together forever, as much as he tries to avoid it, as much as he's still terrified of getting hurt. But it's the first time he's ever mentioned the possibility out loud.

He watches her swallow as she considers what he's said. "Are we...getting married?"

"One day," he answers, trying not to lose his calm demeanor, or let her know that his entire body feels like it's on fire. "It's a little soon. I mean technically it's not, considering how long I've known you. But I figure we should probably ease Rachel into it."

"Okay," Cuddy agrees, trying to hide her grin, but smart enough not to overreact or push him any further. "Tell me your latest theory about Beth."

So House does.

-—/—-

Beth has MS, despite there being no lesions on her MRI. It's a comment Rachel makes about her dolls that triggers an epiphany, and the team confirms it with a spinal tap. The day Beth leaves the hospital, her daughter hugs Cuddy while House watches them, still thinking of Rachel. Motherhood will look different for Beth from here on out, but she'll still get to be a mother. It makes House feel like he did something right.

A few days later, Cuddy comes into his office while his team is downstairs working in the clinic.

"Close your eyes and give me your hand," she instructs without explanation.

"Why?"

Cuddy rolls her eyes at his reluctance. "Has anything bad ever happened to you after you gave me your hand?"

"No, but I doubt you're going to shove my hand in your underwear while we're at work, so I'm not sure what's in this for me."

"Just close your eyes."

House gives in, shuts his eyes, and holds out his left hand. A few seconds later, he feels Cuddy tying something around it. "I don't remember agreeing to a safe word," he jokes.

"Shut up, you're ruining this."

When House opens his eyes again, he finds a black string on his wrist.

"What the hell is that?"

"A bracelet."

"You must be confusing me with your other boyfriend. I don't wear bracelets."

"It's a friendship bracelet."

He shakes his head in disbelief. "What?"

"I'm taking my official role very seriously."

"Cuddy, no. This is so cheesy I might barf."

She holds up her wrist. "I'm wearing one, too."

She does, in fact, have a white string on her own wrist.

"I'm afraid to ask this, since I'm not sure I want to know the answer, but why is yours white?"

"Yin and yang."

"Nooo," House whines. "That's so gross."

"It's just a piece of string, no one will even notice you're wearing it, and no one has to know what it means. It'll still be our secret."

Usually House knows Cuddy's motives before she knows them herself. This time, he's lost.

They are not this couple, they never have been. They don't do things like this, and he doesn't know why they would start now.

"If you're not publicly claiming me, why are you doing this?"

"What you said the other night about us being best friends meant almost as much to me as when you told me you loved me."

"Really? Why?"

He knows it was a nice moment between them, but wouldn't have guessed it moved her to this extent.

"Because it means that you realize what we have is a lot bigger than chemistry and banter and great sex."

"Mind-blowing sex," House amends.

"It means we have everything we need to make it. You can't be with someone for the long run if you don't have friendship. I sort of already knew we were there. But hearing you vocalize it…"

"I get it," he admits.

"Plus, some days you might need a friend more than a girlfriend. So, this can be our reminder in case we ever need to pull the friend card."

It's dumb and he kind of hates it but he's not going to take the bracelet off. Not with Cuddy looking at him like their future is limitless. He tells himself it is just string, after all. He already carries her purse and zips up her dresses and has a purple car seat in the back of his car. This probably isn't too much worse. Probably.

"You're so weird."

Cuddy shrugs, unphased. "Your best friend would have to be."

-—/—-

It only takes Wilson two days to notice. The three of them are eating lunch together in the cafeteria when he curiously points down at their wrists. "What are you guys wearing?"

"It's a sex thing," House answers without hesitation.

"No, it's not," Cuddy corrects. "He just thinks you won't ask any other questions if he says that."

"And why doesn't he want me to ask questions?"

House kicks Cuddy under the table, and she kicks him right back. "Because," she says, "he doesn't want you to know that he bought them for us last weekend when we were at a fall festival."

House has to wonder how long she's had that lie prepared. "Cuddy —" he fakes annoyance, pretending he wants her to stop talking, when in reality he now finds the whole scene incredibly amusing.

"House doesn't want you to know he goes with me to festivals and holds my hand and buys me..."

"String?" Wilson completes, a little skeptically.

"You had to be there, but I promise it was very romantic."

"I guess that's sweet," Wilson admits, before turning to House. "Although honestly you could've sprung for diamonds, considering your salary and what you've put her through."

"Next time," House says, as he bites into his sandwich.

-—/—-

-—/—-

House uses it first, though he isn't planning on it. He's planning on asking Cuddy to come with him to a show, because one of his all time favorite blues groups is coming to town. Unfortunately, it's the same night Cuddy has her board meeting, so he knows he's got an uphill battle.

"Cuddy. Come on."

"You can find someone else to go to the concert," she says from behind her desk, furiously typing out an email while they speak. "They can't find another Dean of Medicine."

"We can get Wilson a dress and a wig. They'll never know."

She laughs, but shows no signs of caving. "I think they might."

"This group never plays in Jersey. I want to take you."

"To a concert? Why?"

House doesn't want to explain that sharing things with her means a lot to him. In the beginning, he worried that their many differences would break them. Now he knows that Cuddy was right—it does make them better. House can't exactly do yoga, but not all of Cuddy's interests are horrible. And while other people tolerate his interests, Cuddy gets interested herself. She's become fascinated by his fascination with bikes and guitars and she even indulges in the occasional soap opera. He knows that if he can get her away from work, she'll enjoy herself at the concert. And he'll enjoy her enjoyment. That's the night he wants.

But he doesn't know how to say all that. So, he just holds up his wrist. She looks at the string and stops typing.

"Okay," she concedes. "I'll go."

"Seriously?"

"Yes. You don't ask for things like this a lot. I should make time when you do."

"I didn't expect that to work. What are you going to do about the board meeting?"

"I'll tell them I need to reschedule. Sanford Wells does it all the time. Why can't I do it once?"

House looks down at his arm like he's in possession of some kind of magical object. "Damn, this thing is powerful."

"Don't abuse it," Cuddy warns. "Now, go upstairs to your office so I can make a call and pretend I have a good reason for inconveniencing everyone."

"I'm always a good reason," he jokes.

"You are," she says pointedly.

Two weeks later, House sits at the concert, waiting for Cuddy to come back with their beers. She can be chivalrous when it comes to him avoiding long lines, which House is endlessly grateful for. When she returns, she hands him two drinks and sits back down next to him. Her hair is still windblown from their bike ride. He adores her like this—carefree and relaxed.

"I like this song," she says, leaning against his chest.

"Yeah? It's one of my favorites, too."

"Do you know what inspired it?"

He does. He gets to tell her.

She's listening to him intently, hanging on his every word.

All that exists is them and the music.

Best friend.

Best decision ever.

-—/—-

-—/—-

Cuddy stands on the front porch, a familiar sense of dread pooling in her stomach.

"Ready?" House asks.

"For my mother? Never. We shouldn't have agreed to this."

"For the record, I advised against it several times."

"I should've listened to you."

"About telling her we couldn't come to dinner because we moved out of the country?"

"Yeah, it was a good idea. No clue why I shot it down."

"Normally I'd appreciate that admission, but I think you're just trying to stall by keeping us out here talking."

"I am."

"Then I'm going to ring the doorbell, so we can get this over with."

Cuddy takes a deep breath as House pushes the button. A few seconds later, Julia answers, which is a surprise. Cuddy wasn't expecting to see her sister. "Julia. What are you doing here?"

"Good to see you too, sis."

"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. Mom didn't tell me you were coming. Is it just you?"

"Yup. No kids or husband tonight. Mom said it was going to be 'just us girls.' She didn't mention you were bringing House."

"But she was the one who told me to bring him. Repeatedly."

They follow Julia inside, and find Arlene sitting on the couch in the living room. "Did you somehow forget that House was coming?" Cuddy questions, trying not to sound as agitated as she already is.

"I didn't forget that you said he was coming, but you never know if he'll bother to show up or if he'll 'get stuck at the hospital.'"

House doesn't hesitate to push back against that accusation. "Right. Because my inconsiderate patients are always dying at the most inconvenient times."

"Yes, it does seem like they are."

"You didn't have many complaints about that when you were my patient."

"Are you kidding me? I had plenty of complaints when I was your patient."

Cuddy sighs out loud and scans the room for the nearest bottle of wine.

-—/—-

Seventeen. That's the number of passive aggressive statements Arlene has made towards Cuddy since they arrived. House started counting because otherwise he would start yelling. He's supposed to be on his best behavior, but it's hard — the continual digging at Cuddy triggers something in him, something difficult to control. Miraculously, so far he's managed.

They're sitting at the dining room table eating dinner, and Julia is telling a story about a pregnancy scare she had last month. House doesn't need to know these things, but they don't care. Apparently Julia thinks it's hysterical that she almost added a fourth kid to her pile of misbehaved brats.

"It's a bit odd, isn't it?" Arlene muses. "I've got one daughter who gets pregnant at the drop of a hat, and one who can't get pregnant at all."

House sits up a little straighter, his annoyance growing, because it's the last thing Cuddy needs rubbed in her face. He's about to say something rude when Cuddy answers for herself.

"Well, it's more that I couldn't stay pregnant."

The room gets silent. She never talks about this. Never.

"Wait a second," Julia processes. "Are you saying you had a miscarriage?"

"Yeah."

"When? With House?"

"No. This was years ago."

Which could be the end of it, but Julia keeps pushing. "What?! Who were you dating?"

"No one. I tried IVF."

"You did what?" Arlene says, as if Cuddy admitted to committing an unspeakable crime.

"In vitro fertilization," Cuddy answers calmly.

"Yes, I know what IVF stands for. How did we not know about this?"

House for one is shocked that they didn't know, and always assumed they must have. With how invasive and relentless Arlene is, he never imagined Cuddy could hide something so big.

"I didn't want to tell you until there was something to tell. And there wasn't for very long."

"So you did this alone?" Julia asks.

"House knew— he helped me with the injections. And Wilson knew later on."

"Of course you tell your two loyal idiots and not your own family," Arlene fumes.

"House and Wilson are family to me."

Arlene scoffs, and Julia looks hurt. "What exactly happened, Lise?"

"Do you really need her to explain her miscarriage?" House finally interjects, wanting nothing more than for the conversation to stop. "I know you're not exactly the smart sister, but…"

"It's fine, House," Cuddy waves him off. "I tried IVF three times. The first two didn't take and the third one I lost."

He was her person, even then. Years ago, before they were together, he was still the one she trusted more than anyone else. He's horrified to realize she went through the miscarriage completely alone. He hates himself for not being there and even more for the things he said. He thinks about every time he let her down, every time she put his problems over her own, and starts to feel his cheeks flush warm and red.

"I see," Arlene nods. "That certainly explains a lot."

"About what, mom?"

"Why you adopted a child off a dying patient. You thought it was your only option."

Dragging Rachel into this is a whole different level that even House thought Arlene wouldn't stoop to. "That's your reaction to finding out your daugther had a miscarriage?" He snaps.

"Miscarriages are very common."

Technically Arlene isn't wrong. House knows the statistics. But this isn't some patient in the clinic. It's Cuddy. His Cuddy. And this is about the pain that made him understand her. The pain that made her understand him.

"My daughter is not a last resort," Cuddy bites back. "I wouldn't change anything that happened, because it got me to Rachel."

"You don't need to be dramatic. I love Rachel. She's my granddaughter. But it's nice to finally understand why you didn't take a more conventional route."

"Convention is for suckers," House says.

"Of course you think that. An iron is too conventional for you. And we both know Lisa enjoys the attention of being...different."

"Attention? Whose? Yours? Pretty sure you only take your attention off Julia long enough to insult your clearly superior child, which continues to baffle me beyond belief."

"It's noble of you to defend her as her boyfriend, but…"

Cuddy's hands are resting in her lap, and she's playing with the white string on her wrist. House knows she's not trying to tell him anything, she's just nervous and uncomfortable. It tells him something anyway.

"I wasn't her boyfriend when she was doing IVF," he reminds them. "What she went through was horrible but she did it while running a whole hospital and still taking care of everyone else. Including everyone at this table."

"Us?!"

"Yes. Even then I knew exactly how much time she spent listening to you complain about everything and Julia bitch about her loser of a husband. Pretty funny that Cuddy has a kid and works full time and somehow complains less than you two ungrateful whiners."

"I will not be spoken to like that by—"

"Oh look at that," House picks up his phone, which is clearly not ringing, holds up it to his ear like it's an important call. "One of my patients is dying at an inconvenient time again. Guess we better go. Although, who knows, maybe they're just doing it for attention."

He stands up, grabs Cuddy's hand, drags her outside. He makes sure to slam the door behind them. His heart races as he mentally vows she'll never, ever be alone again.

-—/—-

The ride home is silent because Cuddy isn't sure what to say. She's grateful that House stood up for her, but she's still shell shocked by how it all unraveled so quickly and by her mother's behavior. Maybe she shouldn't be. Maybe it's exactly what she should've expected. Maybe deep down she always knew her mother felt that way about how Rachel came into the family. Somehow that doesn't make it hurt any less.

When they pull back into the driveway, neither one of them moves. Cuddy notices how tightly House is gripping the steering wheel, and knows his outburst wasn't an act put on for her benefit. His anger is genuine, which means he's truly defensive of the family they're building together. That knowledge makes her own muscles relax and allows her breathing to settle.

"Every time we storm out of places I'm sure we're right," she says, hoping to ease some of the tension. "Just seems like we need to storm out more than most people."

House lets go of the wheel, turns to meet her gaze. "It's probably because we're smarter and better than most people."

"Yeah, that must be it."

"Have I ever mentioned that your mom really sucks?"

"You have. But you can say it again."

"Your mom really sucks."

"Rachel is everything to me."

"I know."

"I hate that her own grandmother is going to make her feel ...less than. Some part of her will always favor Julia's kids because they're her blood and Rachel isn't. Kids are smart. Rachel is going to pick up on it eventually."

"Limiting contact with Arlene seems to be an easy solution that's a win for all three of us."

Cuddy thinks about the way House has integrated into her life, and the way he's been shockingly open to integrating Rachel into his.

"House."

"What?"

"You've never done that. Made me feel like Rachel is any less my daughter."

"Have you met her? She's definitely not anyone else's kid."

"But you gave me that whole speech during IVF about genetics mattering."

"Because I didn't want you to have a baby with a loser," House says, before revealing that it was even deeper. "And I didn't want anyone to have a part of you that I didn't have. Maybe it was selfish, but it wasn't because..."

"I know," she nods, because deep down she always did. "But I also know you value biology."

"How much could I value it if I never bothered with my own biological dad? There was no point. He didn't want me. I didn't want him. I'm glad you know Rachel's biological history in case it ever becomes medically important. But anyone who spends more than five minutes with her can tell she's all you."

Cuddy knows he's right, but also thinks he underestimates his own, growing role. "There might be some other contributing influences these days. Last week I said her teacher wouldn't lie about giving them no homework over the weekend and she looked at me and said 'everybody lies.'"

"Gotta teach 'em young."

"Well, mission accomplished on that front."

House frowns, and Cuddy isn't sure why he's still upset. He looks down, like he's too ashamed to say it to her face. "I'm sorry I wasn't there. During the miscarriage."

"It's okay. It's not your fault that I didn't tell you. And you were a little busy almost going to jail."

"I was busy getting high. But I should've figured it out anyway. I can't believe you saved my ass, even with what you were dealing with."

"Sometimes two friends are both going through something at the same time and it gets...hard. But we survived."

"I was a shit friend to you for a lot of years."

"No, that's not true."

"You shouldn't rewrite history."

"I'm not rewriting anything," Cuddy insists. "It wasn't always conventional, but you were there for me. Don't focus on the one time you weren't."

"Hard not to when it was kind of an important time."

"I wasn't always a perfect friend to you either."

"A vague memory I have of you sitting at my bedside all night holding my hand would say otherwise."

"There were also times I screwed up and hurt you or didn't see something I should've. We were both dealing with a lot of fear and confusing feelings towards each other."

"I guess."

"We don't need to relive this. I was giving you a compliment for how you treat my daughter. The way you are with her now is what matters."

House nods, agreeing to let it go. "I guess we better go inside and relieve uncle Wilson."

They get out of the car and all the remaining stress leaves Cuddy's body as soon as she walks into her home and sees Wilson and Rachel sitting on the living floor working on a puzzle together. House joins them, quickly telling them where they've gone wrong, earning a welcome home hug from Rachel and an eye roll from Wilson.

Cuddy watches her two loyal idiots with the daughter she stole from a dying patient. Her mom may never understand it, but it doesn't matter. She wouldn't have it any other way.

-—/—-

-—/—-

It's Cuddy's fault that he's there. In all the years they worked together, House never once came to the hospital spring picnic. But he does things like this now. For her. Not always happily. But he shows up.

She loses track of him while she mingles with her staff. She has to say hi to everyone, be the ever gracious host. She doesn't mind, because this is one of her favorite events — there's something wonderful about a Saturday afternoon where they all get time outside at the park, away from patients and procedures.

When she finally manages to get a moment to herself, she grabs an iced tea and then looks around for House. She assumes he's hanging out with his team and Wilson, which means she only has to be marginally concerned about him causing trouble. But when she doesn't see him anywhere among the tables of her colleagues or on the line for food, she starts to imagine him wandering off somewhere, somehow finding a patient to diagnose on the swingset.

She almost chokes on her drink when she finally locates him: House is on the baseball field with a group of other male doctors. She can't believe she forgot about the stupid annual baseball game, organized by some of her most obnoxious surgeons. She should've warned House ahead of time, and is mad at herself for failing to. But she can't figure out why he didn't just walk away, why he's still standing there, knowing that he can't possibly play a game that involves running around bases.

Cuddy watches from afar as the two captains, Dr. Blake and Dr. Levy, pick their teams. Blake is the worst kind of doctor there is — arrogant, rude, condescending, sexist. Cuddy knows people think House is all those things, too. But Blake doesn't have a single redeeming quality and he's one of their weaker surgeons, who can't handle anything more complicated than basic orthopedics. At least House's arrogance is backed up by his results.

Wilson has already been picked for Dr. Blake's team and Cuddy is certain Blake did it just to piss House off. The surgeons keep picking and picking and House is still standing there, like no one can even see him.

Wilson used to say that House pulled her pigtails like they were kids on the playground. Now she feels like they're on the playground all over again. Like her friend is about to get hurt by the school bullies while she's standing helplessly on the sidelines. When even Taub gets picked before House, Cuddy can't stand another second of it.

House can handle himself. Cuddy has no doubt about that. And she also knows he isn't exactly the most popular employee. Not getting picked for a team probably has as much to do with his attitude towards his colleagues as his leg. It still feels like House is being ignored because he has a hole in his thigh. And that makes her want to go to war.

She puts down her drink and approaches a picnic table where some of her favorite female doctors are sitting. "Can you come with me?" She asks.

"Who?" One of them answers.

"All of you. I need a favor. To prove a point."

They follow her without question, because they all owe her enough favors to last a lifetime.

"Hey, Blake," Cuddy calls out, walking onto the baseball field with the group close behind her. "Did you forget this hospital is run by a woman?"

"What?"

"How come you never bother to ask any of us to play?"

"Didn't think you wanted to."

In her peripheral vision, Cuddy sees House watching her with intrigue. But if this is going to work, she knows she can't make eye contact with him just yet.

"Well, you were wrong. We do want to."

Blake shrugs. "Fine by me."

"You're going to have to start over," she demands. "You're not picking all the women last."

"You want to be one of the captains, boss?"

"Yeah," she says defiantly. "I do."

-—/—-

House has imagined himself in a lot of places with Cuddy, but he never imagined them together in the back of a dugout. He leans against the fence bemused by her tantrum and by the fact that she's in no way dressed to play baseball. She's wearing skin tight jeans, a low cut tank top, and pure white platform sneakers that she's trying to tie tighter on her feet.

"My ego could've handled it, you know."

"What?" She looks up at him.

"Don't play dumb, Cuddy. Gender equality in employee softball games is not one of your highest priorities."

"You don't know that. Maybe it is."

"Sure."

She stands up, steps closer to him, puts her hand on his forearm."I know you could've handled it. But Blake was pissing me off. Are you mad?"

"Nope."

He's far from mad. He loves that as well as he knows her, he still can't always predict her behavior.

"I didn't mean to make you feel…like you needed to be rescued, or whatever."

"You didn't," he assures her. "It's great watching you manipulate a situation to get exactly what you want. Makes me feel like I've been a good influence on you. Besides, everyone except me totally bought your feminist meltdown."

"You know you don't have to play."

"Can't back out now."

"You've got nothing to prove to these people."

"Says you."

"Am I allowed to ask why you're clearly in a dick swinging contest with Blake? I know he's the worst, but it seems like there's more to it."

"You'll think it's stupid."

"Oh, I'm sure I will. But tell me anyway."

House isn't an insecure person. He knows that people talk about his relationship with Cuddy, and he doesn't care. But every once in a while, he gets genuinely pissed at what's being said about them. Blake has a big mouth, and has crossed the line more than once. House has resisted a confrontation, but he wasn't going to let the most incompetent surgeon in the hospital belittle him just because he's not as physically strong.

"You know how there's a hospital wide bet about us breaking up?"

"I didn't know for sure, but I can't say I'm surprised," Cuddy admits. "Blake bet against us?"

"Everyone bet against us, except for three people."

"Wilson," Cuddy knows instantly. "And who else?"

"Chase and Foreman have a surprising amount of faith in us."

"In other words, the three people who know you best know that this is real."

"Or they just know I'd fire them."

"What does this have to do with Blake?"

"Not only did he organize the bet, but he likes to tell people that he's going to swoop in with you after we break up. He's made some comments about how you can do...better."

"He thinks he's better?"

"Yeah."

"That's delusional."

"Obviously."

"So who cares if he wants to live in some fantasy world? I think I've said maybe ten words to him in the last year. And they've all been about scheduling surgeries."

"You don't get it. I know it's never going to happen. But I have to defend my honor. And my woman."

"House, you're really raining on my feminist moment."

"Your fake feminist moment to save me from embarrassment? Besides, I'll be fine to play."

"Will you? I mean, I'm intimately familiar with your upper body strength, but…"

"Exactly. I can hit. I have to keep my balance, but I can do it. The issue is that I can't run. I'm going to have to hit it out of the park every time so I can limp around the bases. Otherwise I'll be out automatically."

"I could run for you," Cuddy suggests.

"Don't think that's allowed."

"Isn't there, like, a designated runner or something?"

"There very much isn't, captain."

"But I'm the boss of this hospital, so I'm the boss of this game."

House loves the way her jaw is set in determination and tilted slightly upwards.

"Bossy Cuddy and manipulative Cuddy appearing within the same twenty minutes? It's like seeing a shooting star."

"Does me running for you interfere with you defending your honor?"

He loves her for going along with it, for trying to accommodate what she likely still doesn't understand. Maybe he should feel pathetic for needing her help. But he doesn't. He only feels pride that she's his.

"It's not a secret that I can't run. Might be kind of cool to work together to tell him to fuck off."

"So we have a deal?"

Cuddy holds out her hand. House spits into his own before he shakes hers. "Deal."

She scrunches her nose in disgust, pulls her hand away, wipes it on her jeans. "Ew."

"Sorry. That's part of baseball."

"A very unnecessary part."

"You're going to pretend you're grossed out by my saliva? Really?"

Cuddy slaps his ass in response. "That's part of baseball too, right?"

House smirks. "A very necessary part."

-—/—-

Right before it's House's turn to bat, he calls Cuddy over and hands her a catcher's helmet. "Put this on," he instructs.

"Why?"

"Because your face is too pretty to risk me hitting it with a foul ball."

"Do I look ridiculous?" She asks after getting it on.

"It's not as sexy as the motorcycle helmet."

"All the better to repel Dr. Blake, I guess."

Chase strikes out, which means House is up. There's already two outs and no one on base. House's only real goal is to not end the inning. He walks up to the plate, using the bat as a cane to help him get there. Cuddy follows him and stands off to the side, just off of the first base line.

"What's happening?" Blake asks from the pitcher's mound, pointing at Cuddy. The fact that he's pitching is either going to make this better or worse, depending on how well they pull the whole thing off.

"I'm running for House," Cuddy answers. "Anyone have an issue with that?"

Blake looks like he's about to say something, but decides against it. So House takes the batter's box and carefully lifts the bat to his shoulder without losing his balance.

He swings at the first pitch and misses, because he's far too eager. He can tell the second pitch is a ball, so he doesn't swing. But on the third pitch, he makes contact. He hits a hard line drive to center left field and Cuddy starts running, still with the catcher's helmet on. She's already at second base by the time the ball bounces on the ground in the outfield. Wilson fumbles the ball a little as he throws it to third base, although House will later wonder if he did it on purpose, because it gives Cuddy enough time to make it home and score.

When she does, she throws the helmet off and runs into House's arms with enough enthusiasm to be hanging off of him, but not enough aggression to knock them both over.

"Well," Blake says, watching them closely. "You two make quite the team."

Any remaining competition between House and Blake ends then and there, dies for good on that field. Because Cuddy looks Blake with all the animosity she can summon and says, "Bet on it."

-—/—-

-—/—-

House has just finished up a case. He's starving and wants to have breakfast with Cuddy, but he can't find her anywhere. She's not in her office or the cafeteria or the clinic, so he takes out his cell phone and calls her.

"Where are you?" He asks as soon as she answers. "It's time for celebratory pancakes."

"Hi," she says, voice groggy and low. "Please don't talk about food."

"Why not?"

"Because I can't stop puking."

"You're sick? Are you still at home?"

"Yes and yes."

"Must be bad for you to take a day off. Do you...need me to come over?" He questions, hoping it doesn't come out too awkward. Despite their closeness and intimacy, he's not overly confident in his ability to be the sympathetic, comforting boyfriend.

"No, I'll be fine. And you've got another case. Foreman has the file."

"I could work it by phone if you're..."

"It's only a virus, I'll live."

"You got a fever?"

"Low grade."

House feels unsure, doesn't know if he's supposed to insist that he drop everything and take care of her. But Cuddy is a grown woman and also a doctor. He figures she wouldn't say she was fine if she wasn't and maybe she doesn't want him hovering over her shoulder while she's sick.

"Well, stay hydrated."

"Thanks, Dr. House. There actually is one thing you could do for me that would be a huge help."

"What's that?"

"Can I have Marina drop Rachel there after school? I know it's not ideal when you're working, but I don't want Rachel to come home to this and I don't have the energy to keep up with her right now."

"Yeah, sure."

"Thank you. I'll have my phone on. Try not to get sued today."

"I'll do my best. But only because getting sued isn't any fun without you."

"That's a weird compliment."

"I've given you weirder."

"True."

"Feel better."

House has been a doctor for years, but he realizes it might be the first time he's ever said those two simple words out loud.

-—/—-

Wilson is filling out paperwork at his desk when House opens the door without knocking. "Need to borrow you," he announces. "Patient is crashing and Rachel's in my office. Go sit with her until I get back."

Normally Wilson would at least pretend to protest the demand, but he knows Cuddy is home sick and that House is trying to balance a kid and a case, which can't be easy. So he dutifully gets up and makes his way to House's office. Once there he finds Rachel sitting in House's chair, leaning on his desk coloring.

"Hey, Rach. What are you working on?"

"Hi Wilson," she says cheerfully. "I'm making a picture for Hayley."

"Who's Hayley?"

"My best friend. She's in my class and we sit together. She loves butterflies so I'm drawing them for her."

Rachel holds up a piece of computer paper with butterflies drawn all over it.

"That's beautiful. I'm sure she'll love it."

"Thanks." Rachel puts her crayon down and looks directly at him. "Who's your best friend?"

"House."

"Oh." Rachel gets this really strange look on her face, like he gave the wrong answer.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"You made a face. Tell me what's wrong."

"House's best friend is my mom."

The response is so cute and sincere that it makes Wilson want to laugh out loud. But he tries his best not to, because Rachel sounds so serious. "Oh really? Did he tell you that?"

"They have friendship bracelets," she whispers. "House thinks it's stupid but he still wears his all the time."

"You mean the black and white ones?"

Wilson knew there was something highly suspicious about that whole fall festival story. Now that he knows the truth, he's never going to let House live it down.

"Yeah, those. I'm not supposed to tell, but I don't want you to be sad because House is best friends with my mom and not you."

"I'm not sad," Wilson promises. "Before you were born I spent years and years of my life convincing House to be best friends with your mom. Besides, you can have more than one best friend."

"But best means better than everyone. That means only one can be the real best."

The confident look on Rachel's face is all Cuddy and the smart-assery is all House. Sometimes Wilson has these moments where he realizes this kid is truly the product of the two people he cares about most. Even if she's not the product of their DNA, she's still a weirdly perfect combination of their traits. A child that was half Cuddy was always bound to be half House, too. Wilson knew that well before they did, but it's still jarring to have the proof staring him in the face.

"That is what best means," Wilson agrees. "But you can still have more than one best friend. It's more like a category of friendship."

"How?"

"You said Hayley is your best friend. I'm guessing that's your best friend at school. Who else are you best friends with?"

"Mommy," Rachel says. "She takes care of me and gives me cuddles and I tell her everything."

"Anyone else?"

"House. He teaches me lots and he plays with me no matter what."

"See? Different friends do different things for you. House and I have been friends for a long time. He has to put your mom first, because they're also in love. That doesn't make me sad, it makes me happy. Because your mom is one of my best friends, too."

"That's confusing."

"It sounds confusing, but it isn't. Best friends want what's best for you. What's best for House and your mom is being together."

Rachel nods. "House told me that before he was with my mom he was sad a lot. Now he's happy even when his team is being dumb 'cause my mom loves him."

Wilson is a little taken aback, wonders what else House and Rachel have talked about. But he doesn't get to ask any more questions, because House walks into his office, sweaty and a little out of breath. There's also blood on his shirt, but Rachel doesn't flinch at that, another sign of who she's being raised by.

"How's the patient?" Wilson asks.

"Not dead."

Rachel claps her hands together. "That means we get ice cream?"

"We usually don't get ice cream until the case is solved, but I guess we can celebrate me not killing her. Especially since I never got my pancakes this morning."

"I want mint chocolate chip!"

"Go ask Chase for spoons. They should be by the coffee."

Rachel hops off House's chair, runs into the office next door.

"Friendship bracelets?" Wilson says, as soon as she's out of earshot. "Seriously?"

"Are you telling me that little rat blew our cover story?"

"I can't decide what's funnier: that you're wearing a bracelet, or that you lied to me about why."

"I can't believe she blabbed when I was barely gone fifteen minutes."

"She was only trying to protect me from the harsh reality that I'm not your best friend."

"She does unfortunately have Cuddy's sensitive side."

"She said you're one of hers, by the way."

"Huh?"

"Rachel said her best friends are Cuddy, you, and some girl named Hayley."

"Hayley's mom is a raving bitch. Cuddy and I both think Rachel could do better friend wise. Fortunately Hayley is moving schools soon."

"Yeah, don't care about that. More interested in how close you and Rachel seem. Almost like you're her…"

Rachel bangs on the glass, interrupting them, and holding up two spoons. "Sorry Wilson, I'd love to talk more about this, but the ice cream is calling me."

Wilson knows better than to stand between House and food. Or, more importantly, between House and a Cuddy.

-—/—-

When House gets to Cuddy's for the night it's eerily quiet. He sets Rachel up in her room to play and then grabs a glass of water and walks into Cuddy's bedroom. He expects to find her in bed, but doesn't. He makes his way to the bathroom, but stops short because the door is locked.

"Hey," he knocks loudly. "Open up."

"No," he barely hears the weak reply.

"Why not?"

"Because it smells like vomit in here."

"So? You clearly have no problem forcing me around vomit in the clinic."

"If you come in, you'll never want to have sex with me again."

"Please," he scoffs, leaning against the door. "As if that could ever happen. You think I care about vomit? I vomited on your shoes and you still had sex with me."

"Like two years later."

"I bet you would've jumped me that night if my brain wasn't all fractured. I'll totally have sex with you right now if you let me in."

"Go away, House."

He didn't push earlier, he let her take care of herself because she's independent and strong and told him to stay at work. But now he's certain that he shouldn't leave her alone on the bathroom floor.

"I can't. I have a VIP pass on my wrist. It says I'm not allowed to leave you in there."

"Don't use the bracelets against me now. It's not fair."

"Sorry, but I'm pretty sure friends are supposed to hold back their friend's hair when they puke."

"When they're drunk, maybe."

House sighs loud enough for her to hear him. "Seriously, Cuddy. You weigh like 100 pounds and it's all in your ass. You could faint in there and I only have one good leg to kick the door down."

She's quiet for a minute until the door slowly opens. Cuddy looks tiny and weak and so, so pale. She's wearing nothing but her underwear and one of his t-shirts. House is overwhelmed by the desire to help her.

"Happy now?" She says, without any of her usual fight.

"Wow. You look gross. I'm out of here." He pretends to turn around and leave for just a second before he steps fully into the bathroom. "Only kidding."

"You're hysterical."

"How are you doing?"

She answers by turning, bending down, and throwing up. He lowers himself down to the floor to be next to her, and does in fact hold back her hair. When she's done she lifts her head and uses the top of the shirt to wipe her mouth.

"That's okay," House teases. "I didn't like that shirt anyway."

"I'm sorry."

"Relax. I'm kidding again. Did you puke out your sense of humor?"

"No, you like this shirt. But I was wearing it when I woke up and I never made it to the shower."

"Don't care about the shirt," he says, handing her the glass of water. "Drink this."

She grimaces at the thought. "I can't."

"You have to."

As she takes it from him and forces a few sips, he can't help but to remember his hallucination. He remembers imagining them sitting on the bathroom floor just like this, except it was her taking care of him. It always got to him, that he hallucinated her helping him before he hallucinated the sex. It's how he knew he was in love with her. And as impossible as it would've seemed then, he knows he's even more in love with her now.

"If I knew you were this bad, I would've come over. You shouldn't have been alone all day."

"It got worse in the last few hours. I can't remember the last time I was this sick."

"I didn't even know you could get sick. Thought you might be a robot."

"I feel so awful."

"You'd probably feel better in bed."

"It took all the energy I have to get up and unlock the door. I don't think I can get up again."

"Alright, give me a second." House holds onto the sink to pull himself up, so that he help can pull her up too. Once she's standing, he scoops her into his arms and carries her to bed. "We really can't have two cripples in this relationship."

"I feel like I'm burning."

"That's because you are."

"But I'm also shivering."

Her face is hot against his chest, he can feel it even through his shirt. He sets her down gently on the bed and tosses one of the lighter blankets on top of her.

"House, you have to take care of Rachel tonight."

"Really? Because I thought now might be a good time to let her figure out how to work the oven."

"I'm too weak to yell at you for that joke right now, but remind me to do it later."

"I can take care of Rachel."

"She has school tomorrow."

"I know what day of the week it is."

"You have to give her a bath."

"Yeah. I can do it."

"Okay," Cuddy mumbles, as she holds onto her pillow. "I trust you."

-—/—-

It feels bizarre to have dinner at Cuddy's table without Cuddy. Like a part of them is missing. Yet it's also bizarre how easy it is for him to sit and eat with Rachel. He's been alone with her for hours and isn't sick of her or even slightly annoyed. Maybe that says something about his own maturity level, or maybe it says something about what Wilson was alluding to earlier.

"Who do you know the longest out of mommy, Wilson, and me?" Rachel asks him out of nowhere.

"Why?"

"Just wanna know."

"Your mom. We met in school."

"Like in kindergarten?"

"Nope. We met in doctor school."

"Did you like each other then?"

"I only went to this dumb dance because I wanted her to dance with me. So, yeah."

"Did it work?"

"Even better than expected."

"Who do you know the second longest?"

"Wilson."

Rachel looks displeased with that answer. "Oh."

"You know you're a baby, right? Do the math. Wilson's an old fart, I can't have known you longer unless I just met him."

"I'm not a baby."

"Whatever. You basically just graduated from being a baby."

Rachel glares at him in a way that makes him question how on earth it's possible that she doesn't have Cuddy's genes.

"Don't get all grumpy about it, little Cuddy. I've known you the whole time you've been alive, which I can't say about your mom or Wilson."

"You have?"

"Yup. I met you right when you were born. I came to find your mom and she was staring at you all in love. I was standing right next to her being my handsome self and she couldn't take her eyes off of you even though you were just a squishy blob."

House remembers the dread he felt that day. He was so sure Cuddy was going to leave him behind and had no idea how to express that fear. He never would've guessed where the three of them would end up. He wouldn't have believed that Cuddy wanted him to be a part of it, or that he was capable of being part of it.

"Did you like me when I was a baby?"

"Honestly, I usually find babies extremely boring. But a few days later, your mom brought you to see me so we could bond. And do you know what you did as soon as I picked you up?"

"What?"

"Puked on me."

Rachel laughs hysterically at that.

"See, you're laughing like your mom did. She thought it was cute. But it was gross. Went all over my shirt."

"Sorry."

"Don't be. It worked out because I had a huge crush on your mom and she sat really close to me when she cleaned it up."

"When mommy sits close you can smell her and she smells so good."

"True. Plus, if you puke on someone, you're bonded for life. That's how I knew you and I would be cool."

"For life?"

"Yeah."

Maybe he shouldn't be making promises like that, but by now he couldn't stop caring about Rachel if he tried. Even if Cuddy decided she didn't want him around, it would be impossible for him to flip a switch and pretend like all this time with Rachel hasn't meant something to him. Because it has.

"Kay."

"Are you done eating?"

"Yup."

"Good. We need to get you ready for bed. It's your mom's turn to puke on me."

-—/—-

House is in bed with Cuddy, holding her between his legs, her back pressed against his chest.

"Congratulations," he says, giving her a gentle squeeze. "You haven't thrown up in twenty minutes. We have achieved a new record."

"You're good at this. Taking care of me. I bet you thought you wouldn't be."

"I don't want you to get any ideas about my bedside manner. This is for you and you only."

"I bet you thought you wouldn't be good at taking care of a kid either. But you are."

"Exactly how high is your fever right now?"

"I've never had anyone take care of me this way. I've never trusted anyone enough to think they could see me like this and not leave."

"See you like what? Human?"

"I look so awful."

It's partially Arlene's fault, House knows. That Cuddy has so much of her self worth wrapped up in her appearance. He couldn't begin to count the amount of times Cuddy saw him at his worst and didn't judge him, can't imagine why she'd think he would judge her for something so normal.

"This is nothing compared to the lowest, disgusting lows you've seen me at. And I stand by my willingness to have sex with you even now."

She lifts her head and turns a little so that she can look at him. "I really love you."

"You're dehydrated and sleep deprived."

"Yeah. But I also really love you. Would you ...move in here?"

House isn't sure he's heard her right, because it's the strangest possible time to ask such a significant question. They've never talked about this before, despite that House can't remember the last time he slept at his own apartment. "What?"

"I don't ever want to do something like this without you again."

"You don't ever want to projectile vomit without me? How romantic."

"I want you here. All the time. You can keep the apartment. I know you might have a sentimental attachment to it. I don't care. Just please live here with us."

"The only sentimental attachment I have to that apartment is related to you coming over and telling me you loved me."

"Really?"

"You think I'm attached to, what? The fond memories of shooting up morphine?"

"House."

"I'm going to make sure you mean all this when your brain is functioning properly again, but if you do, I'll move in."

"I mean it," Cuddy says, sleepiness in her voice. "Don't ever want you to leave."

For years to come, when House retells the story of how he moved in, he'll refer to Cuddy's virus as the best stomach bug there ever was.

-—/—-

-—/—-

They're in her office arguing over the results of a biopsy when House stops mid sentence, like he can't catch his breath. He's been doing this periodically for a few days, and acting like Cuddy should ignore it. But she can't.

Cuddy's biggest nightmares include House's heart stopping, them running out of time when they just made their way to happiness with each other. She's already had to almost lose him so many times. To infarctions. Gunmen. Bus crashes. Surgeries. Vicodin. It was hard enough then, when their love went unspoken. She knows she wouldn't survive losing him now. It would be impossible to come back from.

He's sober and healthier than he's been in a long time, but he still did years and years of damage to his body that can't easily be undone. She thinks about when and if it's going to catch up to them far more than she would ever admit to him.

"That's it," she says, slamming her hand down on the desk.

"I told you the biopsy was going to come back negative."

"I don't care about the biopsy. We're going upstairs. Right now. To cardiology."

"Relax, drama queen. I'm fine. Focus on the patient."

"House," her voice is shaky and she's holding back tears. She can't understand how he's taking it so lightly, or how he can possibly expect her to play along. "This isn't funny."

"You're overreacting."

"And you're being incredibly selfish."

"Selfish," he repeats back, like he doesn't understand. "How?"

"This isn't just about you anymore. It's not even about me or us."

"I'm still not following."

"My daughter loves you, so you can't drop dead."

She sees that she has his attention, and that for once he doesn't have a response. So she keeps talking.

"That means you can't ignore stuff like this. It's irresponsible. And it's unfair to Rachel. Your universe isn't so small these days. I wish you would start acting like you get that."

House furrows his brow, and Cuddy isn't sure if he's pissed or thinking it over.

"I do," he finally answers. "But we still don't need to go to cardiology, because it's not my heart."

"How do you know that? Did you give yourself an EKG?"

"It's the NSAIDs. I'm taking several 800 milligram doses every day for my leg. It's burning a hole into my stomach and possibly my esophagus. Which I know isn't ideal, but I'm also contending with a hole in my thigh. And no access to narcotics."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

She's been so laser-focused on her imagined worst case scenario that she overlooked the far more obvious answer.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Didn't want you to worry."

"Well, that backfired. I've been worried sick. Has the leg pain been worse?"

"A little."

She knows he's downplaying it, like he always does. "You have to talk to me when these things happen. I'm the one you tell, House. Me."

"I can with everything else. It's still hard when it comes..."

"Your leg," Cuddy completes. "I know."

"And medicating it."

"I get it."

And she does. Because there's history. So much of it. There's breakdowns and hallucinations and always the threat of relapse hanging over them. She thinks she's gotten better at understanding, at assuring him she'll be there through it all, but he still struggles with vulnerability in this area.

"I don't want my pain to run your life."

"Our life," Cuddy amends. "That's what I'm trying to say. It's not... a separate thing. I can't do that. I can't ignore your pain like it has nothing to do with me. And I know you'd never ignore mine. You'd obsess about it."

"True."

"Are you taking an acid blocker?"

"Every morning."

"Can you switch to acetaminophen?"

"Doesn't work."

"You haven't been to physical therapy in years. What if you tried some with the acetaminophen? Or we could try nerve blockers for a bit until you build up some strength?"

"I hated every second of physical therapy."

Cuddy despises feeling so useless when it comes to helping him. She wants so desperately to be able to give him an answer, but she can't control or reason this away.

"I know. And I know that I'll never know how much it hurts. And I'm sorry that you only have bad options to choose from. I wish I could…"

"Stop," he interrupts. "Not your fault."

"The thing is, as bad as the choices are, Rachel and I really need you to not be bleeding internally."

"I guess that's fair."

"You don't take the best care of yourself, even now. You drink mostly coffee, soda, and alcohol. You eat so much meat and dairy. When you're downing medicine like that you have to reduce stomach acid other ways. You don't exactly eat and drink for pain relief."

"You think I could do this job without coffee and alcohol? Have you met my boss? She's a raging control freak."

"I think you could do this job with less coffee and alcohol. I've kept my mouth shut because I don't want to seem even more controlling than you already think I am. And obviously anything you're doing now is better than Vicodin. But you're a doctor. You know I'm not making any of this up. I wish… I wish you'd use that giant brain of yours to take care of yourself for once."

"I still contend you're having a very dramatic reaction to what, at worst, is an ulcer."

"You're right," she says sarcastically. "What's a little burn in my boyfriend's stomach, or a little esophageal cancer from the acid destroying his throat?"

"Why does it feel like you're blackmailing me with love?"

"I want you to be okay. Behind all the jokes, I know you know that's all I want."

"Fine."

"You'll try?"

"I said fine, Cuddy."

It's a better reaction than she ever expected, and she won't risk making him say it again. She breathes a deep sigh of relief, already mentally making phone calls to get all the best resources they'll need.

-—/—-

House rests his head against the passenger seat window of Cuddy's car. "It's not normal to be up this early," he complains.

"This is when adults are awake," Cuddy tells him unsympathetically.

"It's 6:30 in the morning."

"This is the only appointment they had before work."

"If only my boss was nice and gave me time off for physical therapy during the day."

"But then she wouldn't be able to go with you."

"I have no idea why she needs to go with me."

"Because she's a raging control freak," Cuddy repeats his accusation lightheartedly. "Have some of my chai."

"No way. I don't want your stupid tea with your weird yoga milk."

"Yoga milk?"

"Too tired to remember the real name."

"It's almond milk. And you can't even taste the difference."

"I hate you."

"I know."

"That's not true," Rachel says suddenly from the backseat. "You love her."

"You're supposed to be asleep," House answers. "And, by the way, when you're awake you're supposed to be on my side."

"I am. Mom said we're helping your leg feel a little better."

"Why are there two of you?"

Cuddy reaches over to pat his thigh. "You're just lucky, I guess."

"And why are there two of you coming to physical therapy with me?"

"Because you're predictable and stubborn so I know you'll try harder if we're watching."

House wishes she were wrong, but he will work his ass off not to look weak or lazy in front of them. "I hate you."

"I know."

"You sooooo don't!" Rachel yells again.

-—/—-

Despite caving and having some of Cuddy's gross tea, House is still barely awake when they arrive. Cuddy does all the work signing him in and filling out the forms. After ten minutes, House meets his new physical therapist Jason. He looks far too young and stupid to be helpful and House can't believe that this guy is supposed to be the best there is.

Cuddy being Cuddy extends her hand to introduce herself to the man-child in charge of his care. "Dr. Lisa Cuddy."

"Are you his doctor?" Jason asks.

"Yes. I've also known him for over twenty years. Which means I know that at some point he's going to get annoyed, probably at you, and he's going to stop coming here. I want to learn the exercises he should do so I know how to help him when he inevitably quits."

"I see you brought a notebook."

House looks unkempt and unshowered but Cuddy is fully dressed for work looking perfect and holding a brand new notebook and two folders against her chest.

"Yes, I did. I want to learn as much as possible."

"Okay, well, I'm going to take him back and loosen up the muscles with a massage before we get started. I'll call you back when we're ready."

Cuddy nods and House wordlessly follows him.

"That's a really good friend you've got with you today."

"She is," House agrees. "She's also my girlfriend."

"Damn. I was kind of hoping you wouldn't say that."

House snorts. "She's a little old for you, don't you think?"

"Yeah, but... look at her."

Maybe Jason isn't quite as stupid as House first suspected. At the very least, he has good taste. That doesn't mean House is going to let him go on about Cuddy, as much as he can sympathize.

"If you don't stop ogling my girlfriend, I'm going to have to quit coming here a lot sooner than she thinks I am."

"Sorry. That your kid with her?"

"Is that relevant?"

"Kind of. Patients with supportive families tend to have better long term outcomes. So do patients who are fighting for something."

House looks back at the lobby and sees Rachel standing on a chair waving at him while Cuddy looks over notes, no doubt on something related to physical therapy. He's tired and cranky and in pain, but he knows he has to try. Because they're the long term outcome he cares about.

-—/—-

House lasts three months before quitting, which is two months longer than Cuddy ever thought he would. When he does quit, she's fully prepared with a notebook full of exercises.

She's created a ranking system, rating the moves from one to ten, depending on how much they help him. It's proof positive she can administrate any situation if she tries hard enough.

One morning, bright and early, Cuddy straddles a still sleeping House while wearing nothing but a sports bra and tiny spandex shorts.

"Good morning," she says.

His hands are her ass before his eyes are fully open.

"Nope," she corrects. "We're not having sex right now."

"But you're on top of me."

"Because I'm waking you up to do physical therapy."

"False advertising."

"Not exactly. I'll do the exercises with you. Dressed like this."

"Hm," he feigns consideration. "Tempting."

"And if you finish the exercises in time, I'll have no choice but to reward you in the shower."

House's eyes widen, and he sits up, almost knocking her over. "Get off me, woman. You're sitting on me, preventing me from doing my vital physical therapy, which I love with all my heart."

She jumps off the bed, ready to start their day. "That's what I thought."

-—/—-

-—/—-

The hospital is celebrating some big anniversary with a ridiculous ceremony. House can't remember how many years they're bragging about, but he knows Cuddy has to give a speech. She's been writing it for three weeks, overthinking every last word, and wasting their perfectly good time obsessing over how it'll be received. She keeps asking him if it has the right 'tone,' as if he has any idea. He can't wait for tomorrow when the whole ordeal will finally be over.

He's made dinner for them, but Cuddy's rushed through it and already has her laptop back out on the kitchen table. Rachel is in the chair next to her still working on her own food. With her mouth half full, Rachel asks House for more juice, so he sets the bottle down next to her just as his phone starts ringing.

"I've got this," Cuddy says, pouring juice into Rachel's cup so House can answer his call.

He gets distracted by Taub updating him on their patient, starts pacing as he listens to all the test results that have come in. He's in the middle of harshly dictating the next steps they should take when he hears Cuddy let out some kind of inhuman scream. He hangs up, turns around, and finds juice spilled all over the table, all over Rachel, and all over Cuddy's laptop.

Cuddy picks up the computer instantaneously, but House can already tell that the screen went blank.

"No!" Cuddy yells. "No, no, no. No."

Rachel bursts out crying. Cuddy's so panicked she loses all color in her face. House freezes momentarily, doesn't know which one of them he's supposed to deal with first. He goes for the little Cuddy because she's completely soaked in juice. He scoops her up in his arms and carries her down the hall to her room. "Hey, it's fine. You're fine."

"But I spilled it," she squeals, grabbing onto House's shirt.

"Yeah, but your mom should've put the cap back on."

"Was an accident."

"I know. Sh—stuff happens. You didn't do anything wrong."

"Is mommy okay?"

"She's fine. It's only a computer."

Rachel is such a sensitive kid, knows her mom has been working hard on something, even if she doesn't quite understand what that something is.

"I'm still sorry."

"That's because you're a Cuddy, which means you like to feel guilty for things that aren't your fault. We'll work on it."

House gently places her down on her bed, rummages through her draw for clean pajamas. Miraculously he finds her favorite pair and hands them over to her. "Everything will feel better after you change into these."

Rachel is old enough to dress herself, but he grabs a washcloth from the hallway closet so he can wipe the juice off of her neck. He cleans her up and pulls her hair back, tying it up in something resembling a ponytail.

"There," he says when he's finished. "Was I right?"

"Yes," Rachel admits, tears subsiding.

"You okay here while I go check on your mom?"

Rachel agrees, so House goes back to the kitchen, where Cuddy is also tears. Sometimes he forgets how much she has on her plate. She's stretched so thin that one thing going wrong has the ability to send her spiraling at the worst possible time.

"I'm guessing from the look on your face that you didn't back it up?"

"I thought it was in the cloud," Cuddy says, sounding defeated. "Things are supposed to be in the cloud."

"But it's not?"

"It's an old version. Way old. Like last week's version. The speech is in twelve hours. Now I'm going to have to stay up all night trying to remember what I said, and then give the speech completely sleep deprived…"

"You don't have to do any of that. I can rewrite it for you."

Cuddy sighs into her hands. "What are you going to write? A list of complaints?"

"You've been practicing this speech out loud for five days. In the shower. In the car. In front of the mirror. I could give it myself at this point. You're in panic mode right now, so it's impossible for you to remember. But I remember it."

Cuddy looks at him in utter shock. "You were… listening?"

"Yup."

"Enough to rewrite what I said?"

"Yup."

"I'm...speechless."

"For now, but I'm going to rewrite it."

She laughs at his stupid joke and House feels good about his ability to bring her from tears to laughter in under two minutes.

"Thank you."

"I guess we learned three valuable lessons tonight. One, put the cap back on the juice. Two, back up your work. Three, and this one is the most important, I'm always listening to you."

-—/—-

The next day the entire auditorium is packed for the ceremony. House is seated next to Wilson in one of the back rows when Cuddy comes over to them. She looks stunning in a perfectly tailored suit — no one would ever guess that she had a total meltdown the night before.

"House. Come sit up front with me."

"I'm good here."

If he sits up front, he'll have to behave perfectly, and she's going to be on the stage for most of the ceremony anyway. It doesn't make sense for him to be abandoned with the Board members, especially since most of them still hate him.

"But you wrote the speech. You should be up there with me."

"He wrote your speech?" Wilson asks in disbelief.

"No," House corrects. "Cuddy wrote it. Then Rachel spilled juice on the computer. So I retyped the speech while Cuddy had a panic attack."

"He can downplay it all he wants, but he saved me big time."

"I thought the front row was only for spouses," House switches tactics.

"Andrew Mills has the twenty year old he's been dating for two weeks sitting next to him."

"So, spouses or flings. Sorry, looks like I don't quite fit into either category."

"But I want you there. It'll make me feel better. Less nervous."

Wilson chuckles, knows the battle is already lost. "Goodbye, House."

House stands up and Cuddy takes his hand, which she doesn't always do in professional settings. He doesn't blame her for not wanting to highlight their relationship when she's working. But today she seems confident and steadfast as she walks in lockstep with him.

He feels everyone's eyes on them as they make their way to the front of the room with their fingers intertwined. He also notices that the white string on Cuddy's wrist now has red stains from where juice must've spilled on it the night before. But she hasn't taken it off.

"I'll be right back," she tells him, once he takes his seat in the front row. "Have to do some last minute checks."

He sits uncomfortably, wishing Wilson was with him. He's relieved when most of the board members ignore him, until Sanford Wells catches his eye. The chairman of the board has complete confidence in Cuddy, and her judgment, which means he tends to give House the benefit of the doubt.

"Welcome to the big leagues," Wells greets him. "Here for moral support?"

"I know, it's weird."

"You are the hospital's biggest asset. It's not that weird for you to be up here when we're celebrating an anniversary."

"Nice try. But it's weird."

Cuddy grins at him from the stage, and Wells watches the interaction with amusement. "Weird or not, I have a feeling you're going to have to get used to it."

House remembers years ago, when Wilson asked if he wanted to be the man with answers, or if he wanted to be the man with Cuddy. He knew it then as surely as he knows it now—that he wants to be the man with Cuddy. If that occasionally means he has to support the Dean of Medicine and sit in the front row, it's a very, very small price to pay.

When the ceremony starts, House zones out until it's Cuddy's turn to speak. He's memorized by her, as he always is, and admires the way she has every single pair of eyes glued on her. Everyone always pays attention to Cuddy.

"I know it sounds cliche," she says from the podium. "But I really have seen lives change at this hospital. And not just for our patients. I've seen some of the most promising doctors launch their careers here. And I think I've been to at least five Princeton Plainsboro weddings by now."

This part wasn't in the speech Cuddy practiced, or the one House typed up. He wonders if she's ad-libbing or if she's planned this.

"This hospital has changed my life, too. It's the place that hired a young, female Dean of Medicine, at a time when not many would've. It's the place where I met and decided to adopt my daughter. Rachel said her first words in my office, and as many of you well know, she runs around these halls like they're her second home. Of course, this is also the place where I fell in love with our crankiest doctor, which I know many of you have enjoyed watching more than a soap opera. If anyone's still paying attention, I got him all the way to the front row today. So, I'm not sure there's any turning back now."

She looks right at him, soft and sure.

Always the man with Cuddy.

-—/—-

-—/—-

House is lounging on their bed when Cuddy emerges from the bathroom, fresh from the shower. She's wrapped in a towel, hair still soaking wet, and she holds up a broken, familiar white string. It's dirty and frayed and now in two distinct pieces.

"House," she whines. "It broke."

"Figures," he says, surprised that the flimsy bracelet lasted well over a year. "Pretty sure string doesn't come with a lifetime guarantee."

Cuddy is pouting like a child. "Yours didn't break!"

"I take mine off before I shower. You don't."

"I'm sad."

"Well, I guess this friendship is finally over. That's a relief, because you're a lot of work. See ya."

He gets up and pretends like he's leaving the room. She chases after him, grabbing him by the arm to stop him. "That's not even funny."

As he wiggles out of her grip, her towel falls off her body. He takes the opportunity to pull her naked body against him.

"I'm sure I can make you feel better somehow," House kisses her, a plan forming in his mind as he does.

-—/—-

-—/—-

House barges into her office like he has a million times before. He walks up to her desk like he's on a mission, and the determination in his gait makes her certain he's had a patient related epiphany that requires her approval. "What happened?"

"Close your eyes and give me your hand," he instructs, taking her by surprise.

"What? Why?"

"Has anything bad ever happened to you after you gave me your hand?"

Cuddy recognizes the conversation, grins so wide when she realizes what's happening. House must've gone out and gotten her a replacement bracelet. She never in a million years imagined that he would.

"No, but I doubt you're going to shove my hand in your underwear while we're at work." She stops herself and laughs out loud. "See, this role reversal doesn't make sense because I wouldn't be at all surprised if you shoved my hand in your pants."

"True, but I won't."

"Are you sure?"

"Hey, I'm just trying to save the friendship over here. Apparently we're being held together by a literal thread."

Cuddy closes her eyes and holds out her hand across her desk. She waits to feel the string being tied around her wrist, thinking about how sweet it is for him to recreate this moment for them. Instead, she swears she feels something sliding up her finger.

"What the hell are you doing?" She questions, opening her eyes.

She looks at her hand, at the giant diamond now sitting on her ring finger, and then back up at House.

"Do you want to be my best friend forever?" He asks.

"What?"

She can't process what's happening; it feels like an out of body experience. The unrecognizable look on House's face, almost boyish and scared, isn't making it any easier to ground herself in reality.

"The string broke," he explains. "I said next time I'd get you a diamond."

"What?" She repeats, because it doesn't sound familiar to her at all.

"Remember? Wilson said I should spring for a diamond. I said next time. Now, it's next time."

"Oh my god."

She remembers then. The day in the cafeteria. The stupid lie about the festival. Them kicking each other under the table. The way House shrugged casually when Wilson said it should've been a diamond.

"Did I break your brain?"

"You want to marry me?"

House frowns. "Why are you acting like that's shocking information?"

It's not that she doesn't believe it, but she assumed there would be more conversations before it happened. She assumed House would want to know what marriage would look like for them, that he would need some convincing and encouraging, before he took this leap.

"We haven't talked about it since…you only mentioned it once… and I didn't know if you really meant…"

"I did," House says firmly. "You're my best friend. Rachel is the coolest kid ever. Life wouldn't even be life without you two. I know because I remember what it was like before. And I don't ever want to go back."

"House," she says, almost breathless.

"You haven't answered me."

As if there would be any other answer. "Yes."

Cuddy comes around from behind her desk, pushes House against it as she kisses him, and feels her heart racing against her rib cage.

"Before you do me on your desk, I should probably tell you that Wilson's hiding in your bathroom."

She stops, pulls slightly away from him. "What are you talking about?"

"Wilson!" House shouts. "You can come out now!"

"Hey," Wilson emerges, one hand awkwardly in his pocket, the other holding his phone. "He made me hide in there to take pictures."

"It's sweet that you knew I'd want pictures," Cuddy says, impressed that he thought it through. "But it's incredibly weird that Wilson was in my bathroom watching us get engaged. Although, probably also appropriate considering he's been here for everything else."

"I was stuck in there for thirty minutes," Wilson complains, giving House a dirty look. "It was only supposed to be five."

"It's not my fault she answered the phone right before I was planning to come in!"

As House and Wilson bicker, Cuddy looks at her finger resting against House's chest. The ring is as perfect as the moment. It makes it completely impossible for her to miss a piece of string.

-—/—-

-—/—-

Cuddy is going through Rachel's backpack early on a Sunday morning when she finds a note from the teacher attached to her daughter's writing journal.

Dr. Cuddy— I hear congratulations are in order. Thought you might want to read the sweet entry Rachel wrote yesterday. Our prompt was "What does friendship mean to you?" See you soon!

Cuddy reads through Rachel's work, feels her emotions catch in her throat as she does. She reads it again and again and again, trying to hold it together. On her fourth read she decides there's someone else who needs to read it, too.

"House!"

She finds him stretched out on the living room couch watching cartoons still in his pajamas. She turns off the program and stands in front of him. "You have to read this."

"What is it?"

"Something Rachel wrote in school. Read it out loud."

House takes the notebook, begins to read the passage. It's somehow even sweeter hearing her daughter's words in House's voice:

My Uncle Wilson taught me that friends want what's best for you. Uncle Wilson listens to me and is always there when I need him. We do puzzles together and go to the park. He's one of my best friends and he's also best friends with my Mom and House. It sounds confusing, but it isn't.

My mom is my best friend because I can talk to her about anything and we do so many fun things together like play dress up and read stories. She is the nicest person in the whole world. She is so smart and takes care of sick people but still takes care of me too. I want to be like her when I grow up. My mom just had a wedding to House and I was her maid of honor because I'm her best friend too.

House is my other best friend. He makes me laugh every day and has the best imagination. He teaches me music and how to cook and hugs me when I have bad dreams. House helps sick people that no one else can help even when they're sick in the middle of the night. I'm glad House is with us all the time because whenever he's there I feel safe and happy.

My mom and House are best friends with each other. They met in doctor school and now they're in love and married. House always makes sure Mom is okay and Mom always make sure House is okay. If one of them is sad they feel better as soon as they see each other. They do that for me too. I think that's what friendship is.

When House stops reading, Cuddy has tears streaming down her face. "We did that," she says, sitting down in his lap. "Us."

"Yeah. Guess we did."

They sit in comfortable silence, the impact of Rachel's writing vibrating between them. Cuddy realizes then that everything she has, everything good in her life, stems from the foundation of their friendship. She's confident House would say the same.

"I do have one question though," House says.

"What's that?"

"Why the hell did Wilson get mentioned first?"

Cuddy laughs. "Because she was setting up the narrative structure. Maybe she's going to be a writer."

"Nope. Rachel is going to be a doctor."

"Is she?"

"It basically says so right here. She wants to be like you when she grows up."

"So you admit I'm a doctor, not an administrator? Interesting."

"Well played, Mrs. Doctor House."

"What makes you so sure I'm changing my name?"

House holds up his left hand, showing off his wedding band and the black string still there. "Take your pick."

Cuddy kisses the inside of his wrist, lips touching the bracelet he refuses to take off. As usual, House is absolutely right.