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6. After Midnight, ...

Pete is sitting at the bar twiddling his thumbs — or rather, spinning the credit card that caused all this bother — when the tilt of the bartender’s head alerts him to Lisa’s arrival. She’s magnificent when she’s on the warpath, even at one a.m. when she’s had too little notice to freshen up her war paint. Her hair is tied back in a tight ponytail, but she has put on a business suit and a low cut blouse that bodes ill for whoever she’s declaring war on. He hopes it’ll be the bartender, not himself.

She ignores him as completely as she does the pole dancers, fixing the bartender with a hard stare instead. “Next time, call him a taxi, will you?”

“He isn’t drunk; he can’t pay, is all.”

“If he can’t pay, make him rinse glasses or mop the floor,” she says.

“I can pay,” Pete says, aggrieved, flourishing the credit card.

The junior manager — probably recently promoted from the position of bouncer — materialises at the bartender’s elbow, snatches the credit card from his fingers, and coughs in a manner that is probably supposed to be reminiscent of an English butler, but sounds more like a walrus with laryngitis. “He has a credit card issued to a certain … Gregory House, but he signed as …” He pulls a print-out from his pocket and slides it over to Lisa. “… P. Barnes. Looks like credit card fraud to me.”

“Then why didn’t you call the police?” Lisa asks pointedly.

The junior manager puts on a smarmy expression. “Because he produced a driver’s licence issued to ‘Gregory House’ and the picture looks a little like him. We didn’t want to involve him in any unnecessary unpleasantness.”

“You don’t want the cops checking out your back room for what goes on in there,” Pete mutters. The place has a sleazy air and some of the dancers have indicated that they’d be prepared to ‘go further’ if they were given the right incentive.

“Keep out of this!” It’s not advice; it’s an order, and Lisa reinforces it by holding out her hand. He looks at it stupidly until she says, “Driver’s licence.”

He hands it over. She takes a quick look at the picture — taken a mere nine months ago, when he finally obtained a bona fide driver’s licence — and levels a glare at the manager. “A little? You’ve got to be kidding! It’s definitely him.”

The bartender and the junior manager look at each other sheepishly. “Then why did he sign as ‘Barnes’ instead of ‘House’?” the bartender asks in a last-ditch stand.

Lisa casts a furtive look around, and then she leans confidingly over the bar, exposing a lot of cleavage and the top of a lacy bra.

“He’s in a witness protection programme,” she breathes at the bartender (the name stitched on his T-shirt identifies him as ‘Sam’), whose eyes are glued to the hilly vista in front of his nose. “Used to be private physician to the head of a Columbian drug syndicate. Saw too much, heard too much, talked too much, so they cut off his leg as a warning.” She taps his prosthetic, letting them hear the hollow echo. “They were considering cutting off more, higher up …” She nods at his groin. “… so we organised a new identity for him. But when he’s drunk, he forgets and uses his old name.”

The story is so improbable that the two idiots buy it.

“Now sign the receipt,” Lisa instructs him, “and then we can go.”

“Excuse me,” the junior manager says, “but we’d rather have cash.”

 When Lisa lifts an incredulous eyebrow at him he hurries to explain, “That credit card has, um, issues. Mr Barnes —sorry, House — has issues. This establishment would rather not get involved with the Columbian drug mafia. Besides, most of our patrons pay for their drinks in cash.”

Well yeah, they don’t want their wives blowing their tops when the credit card statement arrives in the mail. He doesn’t have that problem. He shrugs at Lisa apologetically.

“Seriously?” she asks. “You don’t have enough cash to pay your bill here?” She turns to the bartender. “How much does he owe you?”

“Ninety-six dollars.”

He does a neat little trick, making his credit card disappear up his sleeve and reappear out of her ear when he reaches up there. She’s not amused.

“What exactly am I paying for with my ninety-six dollars?” she asks acidly, glancing at the dancers.

“Dances are strictly cash, so only his drinks,” ‘Sam’ says. “Then there was a few drinks for the young ladies over there.” He nods towards a table a few yards away, where two young dancers are sitting, observing the scene and giggling. They turn away when they catch Lisa staring at them.

Lisa’s face hardens, but not before he catches a glimpse of hurt flutter across it.

“A paternal gesture?” she says. “How sweet! But are they even old enough to drink legally?” She turns back to the bartender. “What else?”

“He threw a round for everyone at the bar.”

She subjects the bartender to another incredulous look coupled with ironically raised eyebrow. “You poured drinks worth ninety-six dollars without checking his financial status or his credit card?”

“He’s been here before, and we’ve never had any problems with him.” Translated into plain-speak that means that he gives good tips. “Besides, he paid for the lap dances and tipped when he was at the rack, so we assumed that he had enough cash.”

Lisa digs in her purse, slaps the money down on the bar, takes his elbow, and propels him out of the place. He isn’t exactly sad to leave; had they let him pay with his credit card, he’d have been out of there an hour ago. Not a word from her as she stalks to the car and slides into the driver’s seat. He gets in beside her. When he reaches for the radio — the silence between them is frosty — she slaps his hand away.

“If you want to walk, just say so.”

He tries to explain himself. “I tried to phone Wilson, but he —”

“You what?” She brakes in the act of pulling away from the curb.

She gets called out of bed at one a.m., she has to pay a whopping bill for him, and all she’s bothered about is that he could have disturbed Wilson’s beauty sleep? Okay, Wilson is as mad at him as she is, but from the looks of it he’ll come round faster.

“Didn’t think you’d want to come and get me,” he says.

The driver behind them flashes his lights. Giving him an irritated wave Lisa pulls into the lane. “I didn’t, but a midnight pick-up is the last thing Wilson needs. I thought you read your Mayfield records. Didn’t they say that Amber — his girlfriend — was killed after she picked you up from a bar? You think Wilson needs to be reminded of that?” Her voice reverberates in the confines of the car.

He hadn’t thought of that. How could he, when it was but one among a multitude of stories in the folders that he read while at Mayfield? A memorable story to be sure, but one that made little sense. He hadn’t killed the woman, hadn’t even wished her ill, and there had been no connection between him needing a ride home because he’d gotten drunk and her getting killed by a garbage truck. True, she hadn’t deserved it, but you didn’t get what you deserved. You got what you got. Anyway, today he isn’t drunk. He is, unfortunately, pretty sober, and he wouldn’t have needed a financial boost if those morons at the strip club hadn’t been such douche bags.

“And that makes you feel better, to go to your death instead of sending him?” he can’t help querying.

“No. It makes me feel better to know you’ll be irritating me, not him. Now shut up before I make you walk.”

“Why don’t you?” So far, he hasn’t been able to figure out why she came to get him.

“Because Nolan is here and he wants to see you — alive.”

His stomach clenches. He can avoid Wilson and piss Lisa off until she’s so mad that she won’t talk to him anymore, but Nolan is a different case altogether. Not being involved, Nolan won’t get provoked the way Lisa and Wilson do, which will make diverting him from the issue a difficult undertaking. Besides, it’s practically a given that Nolan will be on Wilson’s side: Wilson is still his patient while he, Pete, isn’t.

So, who’s on Joel’s side? the ‘Wilson’ part of his brain asks.

Joel gets what he gets, he answers himself impatiently. At the moment this isn’t about the kid; this about a set of adults getting hung up over a ‘situation’ that isn’t all that bad. It has had a few bad-hair days — for instance, when Amy decided to change the game — but other than that it was stable until Lisa decided to make it crash.

So he says, “What if I don’t want to see Nolan?”

“I couldn’t care less.” A red traffic light makes her brake hard, so that he’s flung forward almost through the windscreen. When he has recovered he reaches for the seat belt. Her driving tonight leaves something to be desired; it is sadly reminiscent of his first few attempts at driving with a prosthetic. Perhaps he should just shut up and let her concentrate.

She continues speaking as though nothing untoward has occurred, “You might want to keep in mind that at the moment Nolan is the only friend you have on this side of the Atlantic.”

Oh, snap!

He’s silent the remainder of the journey back, thinking about Wilson, getting drunk in bars, dying girlfriends, and other imponderables, until they draw up outside her apartment block. “Thanks,” he says awkwardly.

“Huh?”

“For coming when I called. And helping.”

She stares straight ahead of her. Then she gets out of the car without acknowledging his apology. It’ll take more than words to fix this, which is why he doesn’t believe in words. They’re useless, empty, interchangeable. He follows her inside the building and lingers in the hallway, wondering what to do. It’s almost two a.m. Lisa, waiting for the elevator, finally takes notice of him again.

“Go and knock,” she instructs him. “Wilson has disconnected the bell, and even if it was working, he’d murder you if you woke Joel.”

So he knocks on the door. Nolan opens it within seconds. “Ah, Greg. Excellent! I was getting worried about you.”

He is subjected to a quick but thorough scrutiny; no doubt Nolan is checking for signs of drug use, senseless violence, etc. “I’m fine.”

“Good!” If Nolan doesn’t believe him, it doesn’t show. He steps out of Wilson’s apartment, closing the door behind him. “Now, how do we best handle this?”

Pete allows his eyes to wander around the hallway, gliding over the beige paint on the walls, the mailboxes at the entrance, and the worn runner leading to the elevator. He’s about to get chewed up, swallowed, and regurgitated, ending up in an unappetising mess that Nolan and Wilson can poke with a stick, wondering why they even bothered with him. “Say what you want to say, and get it over with,” he advises.

“Oh, I don’t believe in tackling controversial issues between ten p.m. and eight a.m.,” Nolan says cheerfully. “In your case, make that ten a.m. Besides, James is finally asleep. I don’t think we should wake him. Why don’t you go to bed and come back tomorrow morning for breakfast?”

“Why don’t I go to bed and not come back tomorrow?” he suggests, rolling his hand towards the door to the street.

“Because Joel happens to be your son.”

When he snorts Nolan says, “Greg, it’s past midnight and I’ve had a long day. Don’t pretend to be indifferent, because I’m not buying it. You’ve interfered in Wilson’s life and you’ve tried to apologise to him. You wouldn’t have bothered to do all that if you didn’t feel some measure of interest in the boy. I think you’ll find it easier to follow your agenda, whatever that may be, if I’m here to mediate between you and James. It’s an offer: take it or leave it.” After a moment he adds, “You needn’t decide till tomorrow morning. Either you’re here at ten or you aren’t. Good night, Greg.”

Nolan leaves him standing in the hallway. He considers his options: he can either find a hotel or sneak into Lisa’s place and crash in her guest room. The surrounding area isn’t exactly great on cheap accommodation and he has no cash for a cab, so it’s Plan B. That’s if Lisa still leaves her key under the doormat. (After a few hours’ sleep he’ll be fit enough to deal with the shouting and screeching that’ll ensue when Lisa discovers him in her apartment.)

The key is still in its customary location. But when he creeps past Lisa’s bedroom towards the guest room, her bedroom door opens and he’s face to face with her again. He waits for the yelling to begin, but with a resigned shake of her head she waves her hand towards the guest room. “Nolan sent you?”

He nods.

“Bastard,” she says listlessly.

“Who, me or Nolan?”

“Both of you. Where’s your stuff?”

Okay, that means he can stay. “At the airport. I tried to get a flight back tonight, but they only had one tomorrow afternoon— no, this afternoon —, so I put my baggage in storage.”

“You’re leaving today.” Her voice is flat; disapproval emanates off her in waves. “Running away. The sad thing is, I’m not even surprised.” She turns towards her bedroom.

He says defensively, “There isn’t anything I can do here at the moment. Wilson needs time to cool down.”

“Sometimes,” she says as she goes into her room, “it isn’t about doing anything; it’s about being there.” She shuts the door in his face.

A good old-fashioned yelling, he decides, would have been preferable.
James has two blends of coffee: a Melange of Colombian and Kenyan coffee and a Mocha-Java blend; the odour of the ground beans suffice to reanimate Nolan. Nolan is willing to bet that James bought the latter with Greg in mind. But it’s his job to support James, not Greg, who might be a no-show anyway (and who will hopefully imbibe a few cups of coffee before he appears for breakfast, because otherwise he’ll be unbearable), so he heaps a judicious number of spoons of the Melange into the filter and turns on the percolator. Then he turns his attention to the matter of food. He knows that James is a sucker for pancakes, so pancakes it is. It isn’t his area of expertise, but in these modern times even mediocre cooks like him can turn out decent chow, Google be thanked. With his iPad propped up on the counter, he assembles the ingredients and gets cracking. James, he notes, has organic milk from ‘happy’ cows, organic butter and organic maple syrup (whatever that may mean) imported from Canada. He can’t tell whether the eggs are organic as well, since they come in an unmarked grey carton that screams ‘local farmers market’. They could be anything from anywhere — are they even hens’ eggs? — and their lack of a sell-by date makes Nolan fidgety.

Twenty minutes later James shuffles in, his eyes bleary and his shoulders hunched, a baby monitor clipped to his belt. He perks up visibly when he smells the coffee and the pancakes, although he subjects the ones that Nolan has prepared already to a skeptical scrutiny. James, Nolan remembers, is a culinary perfectionist.

“Did you sour the milk?” James asks.

“Huh?”

“You add vinegar or lemon to the milk or you use buttermilk,” he explains. When Nolan pulls a face, James says, “You don’t taste the vinegar and it makes the pancakes fluffier.”

“Next time,” Nolan says.

“It reacts with the baking powder, you know.”

“Fascinating!” Nolan says with only the slightest of intonations.

“Sorry.” James scrubs a hand across his face as he sits down. “I’ve got a thing about pancakes.”

Who would have guessed? Nolan smiles as he pours a cup of coffee for James and pushes the sugar and milk towards him.

“Good!” James praises him after the first mouthful, but Nolan isn’t fooled. James is being his usual polite self. Greg, should he turn up, will undoubtedly give a harsher, more honest judgment. Before that can happen, however, the baby monitor hiccups into life, emitting a few plaintive wails. James rises and, with a regretful glance at his cup of coffee, leaves the kitchen. Nolan gives him a few minutes before following him.

James has taken the baby out of his cot and is talking to him in low soothing tones. “Oh, that diaper is wet, isn’t it? Shall Daddy change it for you? Yes, we’d better do that. There! … Pooh, that wasn’t nice, was it? … No, no, don’t wriggle like that; we have to get you into your onesie. … Huh, it’s getting too small for you. You’ve grown, Joey. Daddy’s big boy, aren’t you?”

Daddy’s Boy stares at James with solemn eyes throughout the procedure, sticking out his lower lip in displeasure as James manoeuvres him into a clean onesie. Then, when James picks him up with a little toss, Joel gurgles. James blows a raspberry at him; he blows one right back.

Nolan feels his tensed shoulder muscles loosen. All’s clear there; no need to worry about the boy. Last night, after letting Nolan into the apartment, James apathetically made a bottle for Joel and fed him. He wasn’t rough or uncaring, just listless. That listlessness is gone now. Nolan would hesitate to describe James as energetic or focused, but he seems balanced enough. Nolan waits until James notices him before returning to the kitchen. James follows a moment later with Joel on his arm. He gets the extra bottle of formula that he’d made last night from the fridge and heats it.

“I’ve asked Greg to drop by at ten,” Nolan remarks.

“Oh?” James, who has sat down again with Joel on his knee, looks up. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“You’ll have to deal with him sometime.”

“Can’t it wait until I’ve calmed down sufficiently to suppress the urge to wrap my hands around his neck and squeeze hard?” James deadpans, pulling a lunging Joel away from his cup of coffee and giving him the spoon instead.

“By that time Greg will have skedaddled, and when he decides to turn up again, I won’t be here to defuse the situation. You don’t want to deprive your son of one of his fathers, do you?”

James sighs, while Joel bangs on the table with his spoon. Nolan finds it difficult to concentrate while the boy squirms, makes a racket, and takes up at least half of James’s attention, but James doesn’t seem to notice anything untoward. “I’ve been dealt a crappy hand,” James says. “It’s a lose-lose for me.”

“Why?” Nolan asks. It’s funny how all of his patients tend to make value judgments on a given set of circumstances, instead of accepting the circumstances as a neutral given.

“I have no desire whatsoever to be fair or even polite to House, but if I want to be just to Joel, I’m going to have to put up with him, aren’t I? And he can afford to be as outrageous as he pleases, because he knows that I’ll put Joel first.”

Nolan wriggles and rotates his shoulders experimentally. The joints crack ominously, but there are no sharp jabs of pain, a miracle given that he spent the night on the couch after giving his shoulder a good banging against James’s front door. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he agrees.

“Is there any other?” James enquires. It’s a challenge.

“You hold the trump card: maybe Greg is the biological parent, but you’re the one who has custody. You don’t want anything from him, while he wants something from you. It’s the ideal bargaining position.” In actuality, Nolan hasn’t a clue about the legal niceties of the situation, but it’s a fair bet that Greg isn’t about to start a custody battle.

James’s eyes widen. “Are you encouraging me to use the kid as leverage against House?” he asks with a hint of humour.

“Oh, no, never!” Nolan hastens to assure him. “I’m pointing out to you that you can afford to be generous. Greg is going to be obstreperous, unreasonable, and demanding — in short, the way he gets when he’s cornered. It would help if you remembered that and didn’t allow yourself to be provoked.”

James regards him in silence for a long moment. “That’s quite something you’re asking of me,” he finally says.

“See it this way,” Nolan says. “I’m acting as Joel’s advocate because he can’t protect his own interests as yet. You, James, may be best served by allowing yourself to vent your anger and frustration (absolutely justified frustration, in my opinion), but the same can’t be said of him.”

“You’re saying I should suppress my own needs in order to fulfil those of a child who isn’t my son, but the son of the man who has gone behind my back. Shouldn’t you be persuading House to chip in and do his part, instead of making me run in circles around him?”

Nolan takes a deep breath. “I think,” he says, “that Joel has rights and that those rights exist independent of your personal needs or your biological ties. You have no obligation towards Greg, but I do believe that you, both of you, have a moral obligation to ensure that Joel gets what he’s entitled to.” And if that can only be done by running in circles around Greg, he adds silently, then that’s what they’ll all do.

At ten to ten he gets up to make another round of pancake batter for Greg. “So, how do I sour the milk?” he asks, hoping to get James involved, but James doesn’t rise to the bait.

“Don’t bother,” he says. “House should be grateful he’s being fed at all.”

Nolan is inclined to agree with James, but it’s a simple truth of human interaction that compromises are easier to find if both sides are mellowed by good food. But souring the milk now, after James has indicated that he’d see it as a concession to Greg, is off-limits.

Greg is fashionably late — pushing the envelope already. Nolan sighs inwardly. Greg’s long absence has made him forget just how much of a challenge he can be. Besides, dealing with him during his last stay had been a walk in the park by Greg’s standards: Greg had been mortified by his relapse and eager to cooperate in order to find out more about his past. This time, with the stakes so much higher — it isn’t just Greg’s well-being that’s at stake, but James’s and the child’s too — it’s very inconvenient that Greg’s inner terrible teen has to make an appearance.

Nolan nods at him to sit down at the place he’s laid for him and pours him a cup of coffee too.

Greg eyes the pancakes even more critically than James did. “Do you have eggs and bacon?” he asks.

Nolan is about to rise and look for bacon in the fridge when James says, “There’s no bacon in there.”

Greg tips his head to the side like a curious sparrow. “No bacon?”

“No bacon,” James confirms.

“You knew I was coming and you didn’t stock bacon? I’m hurt.” He pushes out his bottom lip in a childish pout.

“I’m raising Joel kosher,” James says with a challenging look.

Greg’s chin drops half an inch before he catches himself and shuts his mouth. “You’re not religious. Why are you raising him kosher?”

“Because …” James pauses, then says with a hint of indignation, “Who says I’m not religious? I may not have been particularly observant lately, but I believe in the basic tenets of my faith and I want to raise my son in them.”

That’s a clear statement of James’s intentions regarding Joel’s custody, coming rather sooner than Nolan expected, outside the frame of the mediated conversation that he’d spent almost all night preparing. He’ll have to scrap his notes and play it by ear.

Greg leans back. After the first shock his face has settled into an unreadable mask. “What does Annie say to your sudden desire to walk in your Jewish ancestors’ footsteps, dragging her kid in tow?”

“It isn’t sudden: I’ve been observing all the Jewish festivals with Cuddy and Rachel. And Amy thinks it’s great. She says it’ll give Joel an appreciation for traditions; her parents weren’t observant Christians and she says she missed religious rituals and traditions when she was a child.”

Nolan wonders whether this isn’t wishful thinking on James’s part or even an outright lie, but that isn’t his problem.

“The hatafat dam brit will take place as soon as we’ve settled in,” James adds.

“The what?” Nolan asks, since Greg seems to know what James is talking about.

“It’s a symbolic circumcision,” James explains. “A drop of blood is drawn from where the foreskin used to be. Amy had Joel circumcised right after birth, but according to Jewish law that doesn’t count, because it wasn’t done correctly and with religious intent.”

Greg rises to prowl through the kitchen. It’s unnerving in the confined space that already seems cramped with three adults in it, but Nolan holds his peace. Sure enough, after two rounds Greg explodes.

“You’re subjecting the boy to archaic rituals of mutilation?”

“It’s one drop of blood, House!”

“An unnecessary drop of blood. What happened to, ‘First do no harm’?”

Now James is standing too and yelling back at House. “The ceremony is totally harmless. It symbolises Joel’s entry into the community.” (Joel, who fell asleep again after his bottle, snoozes through the commotion. He’s probably catching up on the sleep he missed last night. Nolan wishes he could do the same.)

“Does the rabbi know that neither of the parents are Jewish and that you haven’t officially adopted him?” Greg asks. “No? What do you think he’ll say when he finds out?”

James is silent. He looks at Nolan beseechingly as though to say, ‘He can’t stop me, can he?’

Nolan doesn’t know the answer to that question; he isn’t conversant with the intricacies of Jewish law or child custody regulations. So he shrugs at James and says to the room at general, “Let’s all sit down and talk about the situation.” When both men have sat down again, Nolan continues, “Let’s start off with our expectations.”

He turns to Greg. “Greg, what aims do you have for this meeting and what are your expectations?” The question seemed fine when he noted it down last night, but in the clear light of morning, with two men who are singularly resistant to conventional forms of therapy, it sounds empty and trite.

Greg’s response is predictable. He pulls a face and says, “I have no aims or expectations. You said I should come, so I did.”

“So, you threatening to expose James if he tried to perform a Jewish ritual on Joel was all in my imagination?” Nolan says with a smug gleam in his eye.

“I’m stopping him from raising the kid in an atmosphere of superstition and unscientific hocus-pocus,” Greg protests, but he has lost some of his bluster.

“Then you do have an aim, namely to ensure that Joel’s childhood is secular.” Nolan leans back, satisfied that he has made his point.

Greg narrows his eyes. “An inveiglement!” he says, a hint of admiration beneath his irritation.

“Stop seeing yourself as a victim,” Nolan advises. “And don’t, either of you, get the idea that this is a bazaar where haggling will get you an advantage. The sooner both of you verbalise your true wishes and expectations, the quicker we’ll be done.”

The kitchen clock on the wall ticks. Outside, a woman yells at her dog. A car door slams. Joel breathes rhythmically. Nolan resists the temptation to look at the clock — he has an appointment at two.

“James?” he prompts. It isn’t fair on James to have to open up first when he hasn’t done anything to let things come to this pass, but Nolan has little hope of making Greg behave with any semblance of sense and maturity.

James leans back. “I’m amenable to the customary kind of custody arrangement: House gets every other weekend and one weeknight,” he says, straight-faced.

Greg’s mouth twitches. Then he chuckles. The corner of James’s mouth turns up in response. He tries to keep a straight face, but within a few seconds both men shake with laughter. Nolan allows himself to relax a little; the ice seems to be broken. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that this will not end in a complete fiasco. A quick glance at his watch tells him that he has another hour to wrap this up. He’s about to suggest that they get down to the nitty-gritty when he senses rather than sees Greg tense next to him. He looks at Greg. All signs of amusement have left his face; he’s stiff as a poker and staring at James with something akin to horror. Nolan switches his attention to James, whose shoulders are still shaking with laughter while his face is buried in his hands. It takes Nolan a moment to realise what Greg has recognised: James isn’t laughing anymore, he’s crying.

Nolan takes a deep breath before slipping into his ‘comforting’ routine. This isn’t exactly a shock; he has witnessed too many men and women break down in his room and cry to be fazed by one more example of the same, but it’s obvious that Greg finds the situation … challenging. Nolan scoots closer to James and lays a hand on his arm: James isn’t averse to physical contact, but he isn’t particularly receptive towards it either. He doesn’t say anything; James should be allowed to take all the time he needs.

Greg shifts uncomfortably on his chair. Nolan ignores him; if he decides to make a run for it, then so be it. But Greg waits three minutes, four and then five. James’s heaves have subsided, but he’s still covering his face and his shoulders are hunched.

“I’m … I’m sorry.” Greg’s words cut through the silence.

More silence. Finally James lifts his head. “Do you know what ‘sorry’ means? It means that given another opportunity, you’d act in a different manner. Can you honestly say that?”

Greg breaks eye contact with James. His eyes roam around the room, flicker over James and come to rest on Joel. Slowly, he shakes his head. “No,” he says, that piercing gaze back on James. “No, I can’t.”

“I didn’t think so, House.”

“I wouldn’t let you die for the sake of sparing him,” Greg nods at Joel, still peacefully asleep, “the pain of existing. I honestly don’t believe his life will be all bad, despite the less than stellar start he had.”

“And if he grew up with you?” James asks pointedly (and not very kindly, Nolan thinks.)

“Ah, that would be a cruel and unusual punishment,” Greg says. “Can you honestly say that you love him less now that you know I’m his father?”

It’s James’s turn to look down at Joel. His face softens visibly. Then he, too, shakes his head. “No. But,” he points a finger at Greg, “that doesn’t mean you did me a favour!”

“I’m not saying I did.” Greg rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’m saying you’d do no one a favour by insisting that I raise him.”

“I’m not saying you should raise him. We don’t even know whether you’re his father. It could be me, it could be someone else altogether,” James says.

“What?” Nolan says before he can stop himself. “You don’t know for sure that Greg is Joel’s father?”

Greg shrugs. “We can do a paternity test,” he says, “but I’m not optimistic about the outcome. My swimmers are that good.” He wriggles his eyebrows suggestively.

“No,” James says sharply, “no test.”

“Why not?” Greg says. “Then we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”

James massages the back of his neck. “As long as we don’t do a test,” he says slowly, “I can choose to believe that he’s my son.”

“And that gets you — what exactly? A feeling of fuzzy paternal fluffiness when you carry that screaming bundle of misery around at night?”

“He’s sleeping through most nights now,” James says, diverted. He catches himself at once. “As long as I can say with all honesty that as far as I know, I’m the father, I can justify making decisions that’ll affect his future. The moment I know I’m not the father, how can I do that?”

“I’m perfectly okay with any decision you make in my name,” Greg says drily.

“Except every decision I’ve made so far, such as raising him in the Jewish faith,” James says equally drily. Greg tips his head to acknowledge the point. “You may be okay with any decision I make, but if I’m not the father, then Amy might not be okay anymore with the custody arrangement as it stands. You’re assuming that she’d want me to raise Joel regardless of whether I’m a blood relative of his, but she might see that differently.”

“So, you don’t have to tell her,” Greg says with his best ‘duh’ expression.

Nolan decides to interfere before the argument gets circular. “I get the moral implications, even if you don’t,” he says to Greg. To the room at large he says, “Okay, no paternity test. Not even secret ones.” This with a pointed look at Greg.

Greg makes a show of being disappointed, but Nolan gets the impression that on a deeper level Greg, too, would rather not know. That’s an interesting development that Nolan files away for later contemplation. It’s also possible that Greg has already done a paternity test without telling James. In that case he’s showing admirable reticence in not rubbing the result under James’s nose. Again, an interesting thought. He’ll have to ask Greg about it at an opportune moment. “What other ground rules can we agree on?”

Both he and Greg look expectantly at James, who shifts uncomfortably. “I … haven’t really thought about it yet.”

“Do you want Greg involved at all?”

“Yes.” There’s no hesitation in James’s voice. “You said so yourself: this is about Joel, not about House or me.”

“Okay. What shape could his involvement take? Greg, what can you offer?”

Greg looks stymied. “Uh, when he’s older I can take him to strip clubs,” he deflects.

“Greg,” Nolan says warningly.

Greg stares at the table. “I can come over regularly,” he says quietly. “I figure I can babysit when I’m here; it can’t be rocket science.”

James quirks an eyebrow. “If your neglect of Rachel is anything to go by —”

“Excuse me,” Greg says sharply. “She was fine when I looked after her. She still rants about the great time she had with me.”

“I don’t mean this time; I mean when she was small. You left her unsupervised the moment Cuddy turned her back on you, and you treated her like a dog. I’d rather not subject Joel to that level of non-caring. Rachel was too small to complain — and so is Joel.”

Greg is absolutely silent, immobilised. His jaw has slackened and his face has lost its characteristic tenseness, allowing a glimpse of his true emotions. It’s one of those rare moments of vulnerability that Nolan cherishes, although it takes a major hurt for Greg to open up like that. When Nolan sees him like that, he can’t help feeling protective, so he steps in. He’s sure Greg can babysit when he puts his mind to it, but unless and until James feels the same, there’s no use in expecting him to place his child in Greg’s care. How much of James’s attitude is genuine worry for Joel’s safety rather than suppressed resentment against Greg is another matter altogether, but it’s one that’ll have to wait until he and James can tackle it in a therapy session.

“Okay, it doesn’t have to be babysitting. Greg can help in other ways. You can cook,” he suggests, turning to Greg.

“So I’m to be a glorified housekeeper,” Greg says bitingly.

“Whatever it takes to build trust,” Nolan says mildly. “I suggest you agree on when Greg should come next and how long he should stay. Dr Cuddy and you are moving into a house in the suburbs in the near future, aren’t you?” James nods. “It might be best if he stayed with Dr Cuddy, so that stress that isn’t related to Joel is minimised.” Expecting James to deal with a baby and with Greg is asking too much of him.

James and Greg look at each other. “Not a good idea,” James says.

Yes, she’s an interfering busybody, but I’ve busted her balls (metaphorically speaking, of course), Nolan thinks. Aloud he says, “Greg and she may have their differences, but I think she sees that her behaviour in this matter wasn’t constructive.”

Greg and James glance at each other again. “Uh, her behaviour?” James says.

“Yes,” Nolan says, the vibes around him mystifying him. “She shouldn’t have interfered, but it’s done now.”

Greg leans back, grinning sardonically. James passes a hand through his short hair. “Please tell me you didn’t give her a dressing-down,” he says.

Nolan looks from one to the other. “Actually, I did. … Is there something I should know?”

Greg’s grin turns malicious. James, giving Greg a warning glance, says, “No, not really.”

Nolan feels a flush travelling up his neck. He should have suspected that Dr Cuddy’s foul mood was down to more than moral outrage, since strict adherence to a moral code has never been an outstanding character trait of hers. Greg must have … what exactly?

 “If I wronged her,” Nolan says to James, “it would be better if we cleared the air.”

“Openness is overrated, huh, Wilson?” Greg says, confirming Nolan’s suspicion that he did something to upset Dr Cuddy.

James nods his head. “Actually, I agree with that. If she didn’t tell you what happened, then she’s good with the present state of affairs.”

This is what makes therapy sessions with James and Greg such an uphill task. They’re both secretive by nature. Other patients evade, lie, or gloss over events in order to avoid embarrassment; James and Greg do it because they are convinced that they know better than their therapist whether a piece of information is relevant to their treatment or not. They don’t trust others, least of all their therapist, to discard superfluous bits and hang onto what is relevant, so they do the pre-sorting themselves and feel perfectly justified in doing so.

Something of this must show in his face, because James says, “She’s feeling stupid about what happened, and she doesn’t like feeling stupid. She won’t thank us for telling you about it even if it makes you feel more charitable towards her. She’s used to people oozing disapproval at her; she’ll survive.”

‘Oozing disapproval’ hits the nail on the head. Thinking back, Nolan figures that his behaviour was unprofessional. Well, this isn’t the first time; he, too, will survive.

Greg rises, saying, “Are you giving me a ride to the airport?”

Nolan raises an eyebrow at him.

Greg smiles. “You’ve been squinting at the clock or at your watch in ever decreasing intervals, so you’re leaving soon. You’d be an idiot to leave us together by ourselves, so it’s a win-win if you take me with you.” He turns to James. “Let me know when you feel up to dealing with this,” he says, flicking his hand to and fro between himself and Joel.

“And then?” James asks.

Greg shrugs. “We could go to Nolan’s custody counsellor,” he suggests, widening his eyes as though he has just had a revelation. “The one Lisa and I went to once.”

James chuckles, but Nolan isn’t amused. He doesn’t have many friends, and Greg will cost him the few he has. Confidentiality forbids Staines, the counsellor to whom Greg is referring, from telling Nolan about the meeting with Greg and Dr Cuddy, but whenever they meet up to play golf, he makes snide comments about Nolan referring sociopaths to him.

He rises. “Baby steps,” he says to James. “Don’t expect miracles; don’t expect the perfect little family. Above all, don’t expect to make this perfect for Joel. He’s lucky to have you; anything over and above that is a bonus.” Then he crooks a finger at Greg. “Let’s go, then.” Better get him out of the apartment before he says or does anything else to annoy James.

Greg nods at James. Then he looks down at his sleeping son. “Do I get invited?” he asks.

“To what?”

“The hatafat dam brit.” Greg’s eyes narrow. “Wait, you weren’t even planning one, were you? You just said that to … oh, damn!” He slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand.

James grins. “I’m having it done. And yes, I’ll invite you. You can be the sandek.”

“I don’t —” Greg protests.

“Your choice,” James interrupts smoothly. “We don’t need one since it isn’t a bris, but the rabbi says I can devise the ceremony as I choose.”

It’s a test. The seconds pass. Finally Greg’s gaze drops. “Okay,” he says. “Sandek it is. But no mikvah before, and I’m not paying the costs for the feast.”

Nolan takes hold of his elbow and drags him out before they start haggling like fishmongers. He’ll ask Greg on the way to the airport what a sandek is.

Previous Chapter Chapter Index Next Chapter

Date: 2015-09-21 11:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] menolly-au.livejournal.com
Nolan can come and cook me pancakes any day of the week - I won't even complain about the souring/non-souring of the milk :)

James leans back. “I’m amenable to the customary kind of custody arrangement: House gets every other weekend and one weeknight,” he says, straight-faced.

Nice one, James :) At least he's pretty safe in making that offer :)

Had to laugh at Pete's horrified expression when Wilson starts crying - poor Pete, I think he could have handled it better if Wilson had taken a swing at him.

“You’re leaving today.” Her voice is flat; disapproval emanates off her in waves. “Running away. The sad thing is, I’m not even surprised.” She turns towards her bedroom.

He says defensively, “There isn’t anything I can do here at the moment. Wilson needs time to cool down.”

“Sometimes,” she says as she goes into her room, “it isn’t about doing anything; it’s about being there.”


True words spoken by Cuddy - but 'being there' has never been something that House has been particularly good at.

Date: 2015-09-21 06:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingrat.livejournal.com
I won't even complain about the souring/non-souring of the milk
And you wouldn't dream of asking for bacon :)

At least he's pretty safe in making that offer :)
You never know — I've heard rumours that there are people who actually find Joel cute :)

I think he could have handled it better if Wilson had taken a swing at him.
Probably. Heaven knows he courts it. But I couldn't have handled that: the next scene would then have had to be House egging Rachel on to trash her classroom with a baseball bat. Dunno ...

True words spoken by Cuddy
... and she's in a bad enough mood dig out a grudge that she thought she'd buried once and for all. Unfortunately, House doesn't get the allusion, his memory not being the best.

Date: 2015-09-21 02:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cuddyclothes.livejournal.com
How interesting that during the story Pete becomes Greg, and not just because Nolan is referring him to that name. I'm going to go back and read the whole series, because this is just that good.

I'd eat Nolan's pancakes...I've never soured milk. Damn, James knows everything about cooking.

One notable feature of this story is that I'm perfectly comfortable with your using their first names. Usually that jumps out at me, but in the context of this story it makes perfect sense. As does the changing of POV depending on the scene.

Date: 2015-09-21 07:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingrat.livejournal.com
during the story Pete becomes Greg, and not just because Nolan is referring him to that name.
It's mostly a pov thing. Nolan sees House primarily as the patient whom he used to call 'Greg', so he continues doing so. Cuddy prefers to forget the past, so she calls House 'Pete', while Wilson would like to rejuvenate it, so he calls him 'House'. I don't have Wilson and Cuddy thinking of themselves as 'James' or 'Lisa' because IMO that alienates the reader, who is used to referring to them by their last names: House is the exception to that rule because of his amnesia. There's no way he could have thought of himself as 'House' in The Kelpie.

I've never soured milk.
Neither have I, but the 'net tells me that it's the best way to do it.

I'm going to go back and read the whole series, because this is just that good.
Thank you! People re-reading my stories is the best compliment I can get.

Date: 2015-09-24 04:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] leesarenae.livejournal.com
Cuddy all dressed in her business suit at the, Gentleman's Club. Perfect touch.

She does not want to be there, but damn she has to put her "face" on to deal with what ever Pete has done.

“Why?” Nolan asks. It’s funny how all of his patients tend to make value judgments on a given set of circumstances, instead of accepting the circumstances as a neutral given.
This sentence made me look at myself :/

The House /Pete "It's my son" No. I want nothing to do with him dynamic is not working for me. Wilson is blind sided, but he is still, and probably is forever going to forgive, let House off the hook. But how does Pete know this?

I wish you were sitting next to me so we could discus!

Thank you for writing House & Cuddy.

Date: 2015-09-24 04:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingrat.livejournal.com
she has to put her "face" on to deal with what ever Pete has done.
Cuddy finds it very difficult not to step into the breach for her boys.

It’s funny how all of his patients tend to make value judgments on a given set of circumstances, instead of accepting the circumstances as a neutral given.
This sentence made me look at myself :/

Yes, it's me too — join the club!

The House /Pete "It's my son" No. I want nothing to do with him dynamic
I think that on a subconscious level House is very aware of the fact that he has a son for whose well-being he is ultimately responsible. But although he doesn't consciously remember his childhood, on a subconscious level fatherhood must have negative connotations for him. It's not something he wants. So, while he verbally denies wanting responsibility, his conscience/instinct/call-it-what-you-want is going to keep making him act in ways that will force him to take responsibility. He needn't have let Cuddy know that he's the father, he could have stayed in England instead of visiting Wilson in order to confess, he needn't have turned up in the morning for the meeting with Wilson and Nolan. He does what needs to be done in order to keep his foot in the door, but he talks like he doesn't really care. Hope that makes sense. And no, he shouldn't really rely on Wilson forgiving him, but in canon he does so too and is surprised whenever that doesn't work out (the Tritter arc).

Thank you for writing House & Cuddy.
You'll probably hate me sometime around Chapter 17, but let's hope that you'll forgive me by Chapter 21. :)

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