Fate or Folly
Written June 2006
Synopsis: House interferes when Cuddy meets a man on a dating website.
Disclaimer: The characters within are property of Heel & Toe, Shore Z. Productions, Bad Hat Harry Productions, and other corporations. No infringement is intended.
House stared at the fifty dollar bill with a furrowed brow. “I don’t remember; what was I blackmailing you for again?”
“Grocery money,” Wilson said, taking one of the empty chairs across from him. “Thanks for housing me while Julie was on the warpath.”
He pocketed the money with a shrug. “What did she say you did again?”
“Paid too much attention to a woman with a D cup.”
“D for divorce.”
“Don’t say that. It’s bad karma.”
“Karma,” House repeated, leaning back in his chair and looking at the ceiling. He’d been doing a lot of thinking about that lately. “So how did you get her to forgive you?”
“Apologizes, promises, flowers. I’m pretty sure there was some groveling in there, too.”
“Why do you do that to yourself?”
“Because I love her.”
House stuck his index finger down his throat and made a gagging sound.
“Sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and ‘fess up. Do whatever makes her happy.”
“And that works? You’d think women would have evolved beyond superficial begging by now.”
“It helps if you make a complete fool of yourself,” he continued. “They want to see you hurting as much as they did.”
“They could just kick me with their spiky heels.”
“Physical pain isn’t nearly as bad.” Wilson watched him lazily spin around in his chair, eyes focused on the ceiling. “But you wouldn’t understand, seeing as how you never apologize.”
“Because women never truly forgive. They may let you sleep with them again, but don’t let that fool you. Sex is a need for them, like oxygen and a closet full of purses.”
“You’re so insightful when it comes to women. Why you’re still single is beyond me. Hey, I know! You should try one of those dating websites. I bet there are at least two or three women who don’t know what an ass you are.”
“Only if they’ve been in a coma for the last forty years.”
“Well, you could always lie to them, make them think you’re somebody you’re not.”
His chair stopped rotating, and he lifted his head to look at Wilson.
“Take Cuddy’s online ex for a minute. Tell me, is it McSteve as in McDonald’s or McSteve as in MC Hammer?” House said nothing. “Doesn’t matter, I guess. The point is, that’s what Steve did to Cuddy. Led her to believe he was somebody she could have a relationship with, then stood her up twice. What kind of man does that, anyway? Why not just tell her right off the bat that he had no interest in her?”
“I told you that her Internet dating attempt would only end in failure.”
“No, you said she might not be happy when she meets Steve for the first time. Of course, we’ll never know because Steve chickened out.” He held House’s gaze, trying to keep his own expression neutral. He’d known that House was Steve for a while but had done his best to stay out of it. He’d let House perform ridiculous tests to prove that Cuddy had contracted an illness that made her happy because he wanted House to realize that there was no illness, that she was happy because of him. He’d sat quietly while Cuddy told him that House was a good friend for coming to her rescue at the restaurant because he didn’t want to tell her that it hadn’t been a rescue attempt at all. And he’d watched House hurry out of the bar after her because he foolishly believed that he would do the right thing and tell Cuddy the truth.
“Steve’s an idiot,” House said finally and continued spinning in his chair.
Wilson sighed. “Yes. He is.”
The fact that something was amiss wasn’t hard to determine, since there were three flowers in a pretty purple vase sitting in the middle of her desk. Cuddy also noticed the sole of a black and orange Nike sneaker on each side of the flower arrangement, and her mildly cheerful mood deflated like a balloon.
“What do you want?”
He peered at her from around the vase. “Why, Cuddy, I’m insulted that you think I only come to your office when I want something.”
“Get your feet off my desk and your ass out of my chair.”
“Bad day?” His question was punctuated with a grunt as she shoved his good leg off her desk and it landed with a thump on the floor.
“How did you get in here?” she asked, making a move to go after the other leg, but he had the good sense to stand up and walk away.
“I told your secretary that I was proposing marriage. She said, and I quote, ‘Bullshit.'” Cuddy’s eyes narrowed which furthered his amusement. “And when she said she’d pay to see you shove my cane up my own ass, I took her money, and here I am.”
Barely visible was Amanda’s head, peering around the corner. Cuddy marched over to the window and drew the blinds. She envisioned her secretary running into the clinic and coercing the nurses to stand outside the shadowed office, waiting for any sound: a scream, a thud, one of them being thrown against the glass as if they were hockey players.
House leaned forward on his cane and stared at her, waiting for her to say the first cruel word so he couldn’t be accused of starting the fight.
She didn’t have the energy to yell at him, and her tired voice came out with a slight whine. “What do you want, House?” She brushed past him and sat at her desk, her place of control. Her body tensed as she studied the flowers. White roses. The flower Steve said he’d bring but never did. That bastard.
She had received only one piece of correspondence from him since he stood her up for drinks. It had been simple: ‘I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.’ No explanation, no follow up emails. It didn’t matter anymore, and the pain she felt had been replaced by a hollow sensation that appeared when she saw a couple holding hands, or watched a romantic movie, or witnessed a lovers’ embrace. Now it was back, worse than before, and she was overcome by a strange desire to weep.
She looked at House, who was still staring at her, almost gauging her reaction. “Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?”
“Is what a joke?”
She took the three flowers out of the vase and dropped them into her trash can. Then she looked back at him, at his expression of surprise. “It’s not funny.”
He retrieved the flowers from the garbage and returned them to the vase. “It wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You’ve been sulking for almost a week. You need to get over it. So yell at me, or buy new shoes, or whatever it is that cheers you up.”
“So you came here to cheer me up? By bringing me the same flowers that he always promised me?” This time, she put the whole vase in the trash. “Gee, thanks, House. You’re such a good friend.”
“The best you’ve got, right?” She scoffed at that, but he ignored her. “Kind of funny since all we do is fight. But I’ve helped you through some rough times, and I look out for you in my own little way. Of course, I’ll deny it if anyone points it out.”
Something about that sounded familiar. She looked at him cautiously, heart pounding. “What did you say?”
“He was there, Cuddy. Steve was there: every date, every time.”
She began shaking her head because this was not happening. It wasn’t true. He was playing a trick on her, making her think that he was… Then she laughed, a pained, single syllable laugh, and sucked in a breath.
He said nothing, but his expression told her everything. That it was true. That it was happening.
“You rat,” she whispered.
He had been expecting a more colorful insult, and then he realized it wasn’t ‘you rat’ that she’d said but ‘your rat’. Steve McQueen. The namesake for McSteve.
“That was low, House,” she said slowly, not trusting her voice, “even for you.”
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t supposed to happen like that.”
“What did you think was going to happen? You lied to me. You led me to believe that he — you–” She groaned in frustration.
“Those dating websites are a joke, one last desperate attempt by some loser to get laid.” She gave him a look, and he backtracked. “The men, I mean. They’re sharks, only want one thing. I created McSteve to mess with you. I was going to chat with you and then find some snarky way to let you know it was me. I wanted to show you that you could be talking to anybody, that the people on those things lie. That you can’t trust them.”
“Apparently, I can’t trust anybody, not even the people who claim to be my friend.” He winced as if she’d struck him, and she felt the recoil of the action. She took a breath, closed her eyes. Don’t fight, she told herself. That’s what he wants. “Why didn’t you go through with your plan?”
“Because somewhere in the middle of discussing whether ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ or ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was the better short story, I realized that we had a lot more in common than I thought. And you weren’t as boring as usual.”
“You think I’m boring?” she asked tentatively, not because she cared what he thought, of course, but because she was curious as to how other people — again, not him — perceived her.
“You’re always in boss mode. You think that revealing anything about yourself would belie your professional image. Which is crap, by the way. No one cares that you like peanut butter on your pancakes or that you own a copy of The Tao of Pooh. On the Internet, you were yourself. Unless you were lying.”
“I didn’t lie,” she said, enough inflection in her voice to start another fight.
“Neither did I.”
“Hey, you just assumed my name was Steve. I never said it was.”
“But you never said it wasn’t. You had plenty of chances to come clean. The fact remains that you didn’t.”
“I tried. You said you didn’t want to hear another insult.”
The koi pond, she recalled, when she asked him why he wanted her to give Steve another chance. Her body tensed as the conversation replayed in her mind. The last month had been a disaster, but she wanted answers. She deserved answers. “Why did you send me an email telling me you couldn’t make dinner, knowing I’d never get it, and then show up and give me the email telling me you couldn’t make it, when in reality, you were sitting across from me? And, House, if your answer is anything but serious, so help me–”
“Because it would’ve been one big disappointment for you.” Her heart stopped at his words, and for the first time since he began confessing, she wasn’t angry. “You had these grand ideas about this guy — and you can’t say that you didn’t care what he looked like or who he was because you did, even if you didn’t realize it. All that you knew was that you liked him. That was all that mattered to you. If no one showed up, you would’ve retreated back to your bubble. And if I had walked in with a flower, well.” He scoffed the punctuation at the end of his sentence.
“You don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“I had a pretty fair idea, after you told me that I wouldn’t say half of the nice things he said to you.”
She shook her head. He wasn’t going to get out of this that easily. “Then why ask me to give Steve a second chance?”
His gaze softened. “I wanted the second chance.”
“And then you stood me up. Again.”
“Wilson,” he said, but her frown prompted him to explain. “Julie kicked him out. He showed up with those big puppy dog eyes, looking for a place to stay. Then he insisted on coming with me. And I couldn’t leave him alone in my apartment; he’d make off with my impressive porn collection.”
She had no reason to doubt anything that he said, except Wilson’s porn thieving, but it didn’t make the pill any easier to swallow. The man she had so much in common with, the one she’d told her secrets to, the one she’d started to fall for, had been House. An employee of her hospital. Her closest friend. He’d been there the whole time, and she’d never even noticed. She never even considered…
He was watching her expectantly, body tensed in case she picked up her paperweight and threw it at him. Otherwise, he looked the same as he always did. She, on the other hand, had to clench her hands into fists to get them to stop shaking. She didn’t know how she felt or what she wanted or what to say to him. Everything she knew or thought she knew had been wrong.
“So that’s it?” she asked finally. He shrugged because he didn’t know either. “I should just forgive you, forget the whole thing ever happened?”
“I can’t make your decisions for you.” He turned toward the door, and she was blocking his path before he’d taken two steps.
“Why even bother explaining this to me if you don’t care what I do? You lied to me–”
“Lied, withheld the truth, I don’t care what you want to call it. It doesn’t change the fact that you were dishonest, that you pretended to be someone you weren’t, that you used me and made me think that there was someone out there who wanted to be with me.”
“Listen to yourself! You’ve buried your self-esteem so deep that you couldn’t find it with a map and a shovel. There was someone who wanted to be with you, but you’re so wrapped up in yourself and your work that you didn’t even see it. In your defense, though, he didn’t see it either.”
She opened her mouth to protest but could find nothing inaccurate in his speech.
“You once talked about destiny, about how nothing is left to chance because it’s all been laid out for us. And I think you’re right. You and I came from different states, different backgrounds, different religions. What are the odds that we would attend the same college at the same time, that we’d both end up in New Jersey — neither of our home states — and ultimately work at the same hospital? It’s so against the odds that it has to be some sort of mathematical impossibility. Our paths have been crossing for the last twenty years, Cuddy, and I don’t think that’s chance. I think that’s fate.”
She thought about what he said, recalled the first time they met and all times after. How far they’d come, and now … how far they’d fallen.
“Now our paths have crossed again, and we have a choice. We can continue on our separate ways, or we can take a new path, one that goes in the same direction. Which one do you want to take?”
House played Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor Op. 28 No. 4,” piu grave than the usual tempo, because it was the loneliest song he knew, and it seemed to capture his mood. All that talk about apologizing and how it would do him a world of good had been a lie. Everything in his life this past month had been a lie.
Cuddy had been right; he should’ve told her from the start. But he couldn’t bear the look of disappointment he was certain she would have. Putting his heart on the line was not something he did with much frequency, and he had to be sure that it was the right thing to do. This time, he’d missed the mark completely. He had misjudged the course of events because he’d been distracted by his feelings. People often called him cold-hearted, but look at what being warm-hearted got him. Frustration. Pain. Loneliness. Nothing good.
He came out of this with two pieces of knowledge he didn’t have before. First: he missed her.
Although he knew who she was from the start, at times it had felt like he was talking to a different person. Without her administrative armor, she was a thoughtful, intelligent, funny person. Talking with her had been easy, as natural as breathing. He had looked forward to the late nights. Now he had nothing but memories.
And second: he’d been falling for her too.
He held the last note until the piano fell silent, then looked at the ceiling. There was a soft knock at the door, so quiet that he wondered if he’d imagined it. When he looked through the peep hole, he saw the one person he didn’t expect.
“That was beautiful,” Cuddy said, nodding her head in the direction of the piano for clarification. “I love Chopin.”
“May I come in?”
He let her enter then closed the door behind her. Logically, he knew she wasn’t here to fight again. He could practically see the olive branch in her hand. But on the subject of her speech, he had no guesses and no expectations.
She took a few steps before turning around to face him. “Can we start over?”
“I should know by now that you never do things the easy way.” She tried to laugh, but it sounded forced and unnatural. “You were right about a lot of things that you said, you know. The things you did weren’t intended to hurt me, and you did them because you didn’t want to be hurt either. I understand that. And you were right; if I’d start paying attention to what was happening around me, maybe I would’ve realized this sooner. That everything you said and everything you did…” She smiled sadly. “I never knew you felt that way. I never knew I did either.”
He took a step closer, and she looked up at him. “You did?”
“Did. Do.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Even before all of this, I did, but I didn’t realize — or chose not to realize — what it was. I thought it was something else, and I’m glad I was wrong. Because you are what I’ve been looking for.” She paused, put on a brave smile because she didn’t know what he would say. “I choose the path that goes in the same direction, if you’re still interested in traveling with me.”
“Stupid question,” he said as he held out his hand. “I’ve been trying to get you on that path for ages.”
She sauntered toward him with a smirk. “You know, you could’ve just asked me out. I would’ve said yes.”
He pressed against her, hands on her hips, and felt drowsy from the heat of her body and the faint scent of her perfume. “I think the hard way worked out just fine.”
“The future was with Fate. The present was our own.”
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle