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Chapter 18: Playmates

"You're back," Cuddy says, standing on tiptoe to give him a quick peck on the cheek.

"Good to see you," Wilson says, shrugging out of his coat and hanging it up. Joel, ignoring Cuddy completely and pushing her away when she bends down to hug him, tugs at his hand, pointing across the living room towards the yard. "Wait a moment, Joel."

"Do you want to go into the yard?" Cuddy asks Joel. He lets go of Wilson's hand, taking Cuddy's instead.

She disappears with Joel in the direction of the deck. Wilson takes off his shoes and goes into the kitchen, wondering whether Cuddy will return or whether he should join her and Joel outside. Rachel is probably outside, though, with Hernandez the gardener. She spends entire afternoons in the swing set they installed last fall. Joel will join her on the swing set and Hernandez will push his swing. And Wilson can have a cup of coffee in peace, without Joel tugging at his hand.

"How was it?" Cuddy asks when she returns.

"Not great. Amy says she has to think about it. She doesn't want to do anything rash."

"That's new!" Cuddy says with a roll of her eyes. "Couldn't she have begun her thinking process a little earlier – like, two years ago or even one year ago? She seemed only too happy to get rid of Joel then."

"Ah, but then I wouldn't have him now, would I?" Wilson says, even though on a rational level he agrees with Cuddy.

"Coffee?"

He nods. "It's a big decision, and she rightly says that if she consents to an adoption, her decision is irreversible. My impression is that she's gaining maturity. She didn't bring Tyler to the meeting with her lawyer, which is a first."

"Or she's trying to manipulate you," Cuddy says shrewdly. "If she consents now, she loses leverage for the future."

"Yeah, that's what House says too," Wilson says once the grinding of the coffee maker subsides, "but she isn't really the type to play the long game."

"Pete knows?" Cuddy asks, placing a cup of coffee in front of him and sitting down opposite him.

"Yes, I spoke with him before I left Los Angeles."

"That would explain his foul mood. I thought maybe his patient died."

"He's here?"

"Yes, he arrived from Seattle yesterday."

Wilson considers this piece of information. "It's probably his patient; the news about Amy didn't seem to surprise him, while five days would be pretty quick for a case that stumped Foreman. Hardly long enough to re-run the necessary tests. Have you checked with Foreman?"

"No, it isn't that bad."

"Are you sure? House wasn't upstairs just now."

Ever since House went on a bender a few weeks after their wedding, indulging himself with every non-opiate he could lay hands on, Wilson's been keeping a wary eye on him. House snapped out of it again and came back as good as gold with no visible damage done, but Wilson has been on tenterhooks ever since. Cuddy says it was the stress of adjusting to his new role and all that, but Wilson doesn't buy it. It was House acting up and indulging his self-destructive tendencies. When House gets stressed, he takes a 'time-out' and the world has to wait for him. When Wilson gets stressed, he has to stay strong, first for his family, then for his patients and for House, and now for Joel. No one ever asks him whether he'd like a time-out to go on a little bender.

"Yeah, I'm sure. He's out in the yard with Hernandez and Rachel." Cuddy tips her head towards the window.

Wilson gets up and peers out into the yard. Rachel, Hernandez, and House are beside the swing set, Hernandez gesticulating wildly while House frowns down at a sheet of paper in his hand. Rachel isn't in her customary place in the nest swing, but in her wheelchair on the flagstones that Hernandez laid from the deck to the swing set, watching the two men with interest. Joel is on Rachel's lap, his thumb in his mouth.

"What's going on?" Wilson asks. House and Cuddy have gotten into the habit of avoiding each other, which isn't much of a challenge given that House isn't around nearly as often as Wilson would like. Cuddy doesn't come upstairs of her own accord when House is in Philly, while House doesn't accompany Wilson and Cuddy to the synagogue (pigs might fly!) or to work, so their interactions are limited to those mealtimes that Wilson habitually shares with the 'Cuddy girls' – Wednesday evenings and Sunday lunches. House does, however, take advantage of Cuddy's yard to keep Joel occupied whenever he's supposed to mind him; Cuddy for her part withdraws from the deck into the house whenever House is in the yard.

"Oh, Pete said there had to be a solution to the problem of getting Rachel in and out of her nest swing that didn't involve an adult (aka Pete) getting lumbago lifting her in and out of it, so he organised a winch and Hernandez strengthened the beams of the swing set, and now they're adding a winch control that Rachel can work by herself."

Now that he knows what he's looking at, it's obvious. The winch, which is fixed to the lateral beam of the swing set, raises and lowers the swing. "She lowers it to the ground?"

"That's the idea, once they've added a hand-held control. When the swing is on the ground she can clamber into it."

"And you're good with that?" Wilson asks, eyeing the whole contraption dubiously.

"She fell flat on her face trying to get on the swing by herself. It swung away while she was strung between it and the wheelchair. So yeah, I'm good with this solution. She doesn't want to wait around until someone has the time and the strength to heave her into her nest, because believe me, I'm not strong enough to do it anymore. I suggested one of those ramp swings which she can drive her wheelchair onto, but she refused point blank." Cuddy's face says it all: The Battle of the Swing must have been fought and lost while he was gone.

"You took a 'no'?"

Cuddy sighs. "She spends hours lying in that nest swing, reading and listening to music. Sitting in a wheelchair isn't the same, she says. Pete supported her, by the way. I told him that he's free to champion widows and orphans as long as he finds a solution."

His argument with House resolved, Hernandez climbs the ladder up to the winch and busies himself with a screwdriver. Then he climbs down again and pulls the ladder away. A thick black cable with a box attached to the end hangs down from the winch. House throws himself into the swing and grabs the box. The winch purrs; the swing descends until it hits the ground. House and Hernandez high-five each other.

"Up again!" Wilson hears Rachel say.

House obliges, and the swing rises until it's about a foot off the ground.

"Did House say how long he's staying?" Wilson asks. He hates having to touch Cuddy for information, but getting a definitive answer from House is like trying to get a word out of Joel — very much a matter of chance and good luck. Not the world's greatest communicator, Joel is — like his father.

Cuddy shakes her head. "I got the impression that he's reallocating the time that he'd planned to spend on Foreman's case. So, a few more days, maybe?" Her expression is sympathetic and knowing.

"Fine, then maybe I can go to Boston for the weekend and check on my parents," Wilson says, pretending to be immersed in the happenings outside so Cuddy won't see his guilty flush.

"Now me, now me!" Rachel says.

"Me, me!" Joel echoes.

After lowering the swing to the ground, House climbs out. He plucks Joel from Rachel's lap and indicates to her that she is to clamber into the swing. Joel squirms in House's arm, trying to get down and into the nest swing. Wilson turns away from the window. If the contraption holds House's weight, it'll hold Rachel and Joel, but he'd rather not watch the first time they try it out.

"Are you all set for the interview in Portland?" Wilson asks Cuddy. "We could practice again if you like."

Cuddy looks embarrassed. "I withdrew my application," she says.

"Why?" Wilson enquires worriedly. She isn't spiralling downwards again, is she?

"Rachel doesn't want to move to Oregon. She's happy here in this house: she enjoys the swing, she's looking forward to getting a dog, and she is reacting very negatively to the idea of moving away. She loves you and Joel, and my family lives fairly close. Moving across the country means leaving all of that."

"Children adapt quickly," Wilson says. It's all very well to refuse a new post in view of the sacrifices it'll engender, but so far, Cuddy hasn't found anything in the vicinity of Philadelphia that compares to the offer from Portland.

Cuddy looks skeptical. "You know that because?"

Wilson shrugs helplessly. "Isn't that a Basic Truth of child-rearing, rather like Bohr's model of the atom for chemistry?"

"If Pete is to be believed, Bohr's model is one big scam."

"I'd rather not know — another of my favourite myths being debunked by modern science. I haven't recovered yet from having lost Pluto as a planet. What's your plan now?"

"I've been offered a job at the Community College: developing a degree course in Public Health, administrating it, and some teaching duties. They have Health Care, but not Public Health, and it's a growing field."

Wilson hurriedly snaps his mouth shut. "That's … well, fascinating!" It is fascinating — in a morbid manner. The pay will suck and Cuddy will leave the medical field altogether. "What's the attraction? The stellar salary or the stimulating environment?"

"Nice," Cuddy says, "but save the sarcasm for Pete. It's my chance to build something new, something that I can shape and mould. The things I can do at the Community College might actually make a difference. All the other offers entail adapting to existing structures, ensuring continuity, and all that."

"Okay, that's a valid point," Wilson concedes, although he isn't quite convinced. He is tempted to ask whether Cuddy's sudden decision to stay and apply for an administrative/teaching post instead of a better paying job in hands-on health care is in any way connected to her changed relationship status and the regular appearance in Drexel of a certain charismatic personality from her past. But he has annoyed her already; besides, he can't really fault her for the way she has handled living in the same house with him ever since he and House got married, and maybe he doesn't want to know anyway.

He turns back to the window. Rachel is swinging in her nest swing. Joel is standing in front of his toddler bucket seat, tugging at it with a look of frustration.

"Oh, no!" Wilson says.

Cuddy looks up enquiringly.

"Now Joel wants a nest swing too."




It's none of her business; they'll have to work it out on their own. There's no reason to suppose that Wilson will be grateful if she gets involved, and gratitude is foreign to Pete's way of thinking.

Fact is, however, that Pete is putting down roots on her deck once again, glowering in a manner that puts the sunset to shame (which is kinda cute), smoking (which is less cute, bothering her sufficiently to drive her off the deck, not to mention that it's a bad example for the kids), and interpreting the concept of 'keeping an eye on Joel' in a very creative and laissez-faire manner (which bothers her rather more, because she's going to be the one to drive Joel to the ER when the inevitable happens). But she's going to keep out of it, because Pete is immune to any sort of advice, and she isn't going to end up the way Wilson did when House and Stacy combusted or when she and House broke up: caught between the fronts, torn between duty towards a friend and self-preservation. The first time around, when Stacy left House, Wilson lost a wife, the second time he nearly lost his life, earning no thanks from anyone involved in the humongous mess. Certainly not from her.

Not even piano music at three a.m. (Chopin and blues) manages to shake her resolution. It does, however, make it wobble enough for her to ask Rachel casually at the breakfast table, "Any idea what's up with Pete — other than that he's having to look after Joel by himself for an entire weekend?"

"Wilson told him to take Joel to his swimming class today. Pete says that if Wilson wants Joel to learn swimming, he can take him there himself instead of skedaddling off to Boston," Rachel says around a mouthful of cereal.

"That's all?" Cuddy can't decide which is stupider: Wilson expecting Pete to participate in a parent-kid activity with other parents, or Pete refusing to attend the swimming class. Taking Joel swimming is a sure guarantee of peace and quiet for the remainder of the day, Joel generally being completely exhausted after an hour in the water.

"It's not that easy," Rachel says. "Pete doesn't want people staring at his stump, and he can't very well go into the water in pants. I think Wilson kinda forgot that Pete only has one leg."

That figures. It's easy to forget that Pete is disabled in any manner when one observes him coping with daily life. Now that she thinks about it, she sees that accompanying Joel to his swimming classes would be difficult for Pete, even if he wasn't sensitive as hell about his leg. He'd need to take his prosthetic off and approach the pool with his crutches, which in turn would mean that he'd be unable to stop Joel from performing acts of kamikaze at the deep end of the pool.

Rachel continues, "But Pete is kinda stupid about it too. It's not like anyone cares that he has a stump."

"No?" Cuddy says.

"No; he's old. People expect old folks to have disabilities," Rachel says with full conviction.

"Right," Cuddy says, suppressing a smile. "Did you tell him that?"

"No," Rachel says, wrinkling her nose. "He doesn't like being told he's old."

"That's very wise of you," Cuddy says, "and tactful."

"I'm trying, but it's difficult," Rachel confides. "It's not like he is tactful."

"No, but as you say, he's old. Old people are allowed to be eccentric. 'Eccentric' means that they have odd habits and idiosyncrasies, and Pete's idiosyncrasy is being abysmally rude." Cuddy sincerely hopes that Rachel will repeat most of this to Pete, because she has a sneaky suspicion that he has been coaxing Rachel to be 'painstakingly honest' to her teachers and her classmates, the net result of which is that Cuddy has had to answer a number of irate emails.

Cuddy's resolution crumbles completely later that morning when Joel falls off the swing. Before leaving for Boston Wilson gave in to Joel and switched the toddler seat for a small nest swing like Rachel's. Cuddy disapproved silently, Pete mocked volubly. At least Wilson had the sense to mount it a mere six inches above the ground.

Joel isn't the kind of child to sit around in an immobile swing. So far, this hasn't been a problem: when Wilson, Esther, or Hernandez are around, they are happy to push the swing for hours at a time. Unfortunately, none of the three are around this morning.

Rachel gives her two cents' worth. "You gotta move your body forwards and backwards, Joel," she tells him. "Watch me!"

But Joel's movements are too hurried and erratic; he ends up howling in frustration.

Needless to say, Pete isn't the guy to spend hours nudging a swing just to keep a kid happy; his solution to the problem is to tie a rope to the frame of the swing set and toss the end to Joel. He has to demonstrate its use — Joel screams in protest when he is evicted from his swing, but watches in awed silence as Pete tries to accommodate himself in the low-slung basket and tugs at the rope — and after a few tries Joel catches on.

Disaster strikes after Pete has withdrawn to the deck with the newest edition of Scientific American: Joel, after giving the rope a particularly hard tug, doesn't let go when the nest swings backwards again. He doesn't so much fall off the swing as get pulled off it, which is probably why the damage done is limited. Rachel's shout of alarm rouses both Pete on the deck and Cuddy in the kitchen. She looks out of the window in time to watch Joel, who has scrambled back onto his feet, get knocked off them again by the rebounding swing.

By the time Cuddy gets to the yard Pete is down by the swings, grasping a bawling Joel by the back of his overalls and swinging him into his arms.

"The toddler seat is coming back," he mutters, dusting Joel off and checking for injuries.

"You're fine," he tells Joel. "Your diaper took the brunt of the blow." His tone, however, is gentle and his fingers probe carefully.

Unfortunately, Joel isn't interested in whether he's physically intact. He stretches his arms out towards Cuddy, who takes him and comforts him. Pete looks down at them silently, his eyes narrowed. Then he turns away and stomps back to the deck.

"He can join me on my swing and I'll look after him," Rachel offers. "I can lower it till it's almost on the ground." She works the winch until her swing is a mere inch above the grass, and then stretches out her arms for Joel.

Since Joel's sobs have subsided, Cuddy decides that he's fine — and that it's time to return to her policy of non-interference, so she hands Joel to Rachel with an injunction to swing only with the gentlest of movements and to call for help immediately should Joel get restless. Then she returns to the kitchen via the deck.

At least, that's her intention. It isn't Joel's mishap — minuscule compared to what she has witnessed in the way of childhood injuries during her clinic hours — that stops her in her tracks; Pete's expression persuades her to give up the neutrality and distance that she has managed to preserve for upward of nine months.

He's wearing that lost look that she has observed too often on him, the look that he wore when he realised he'd been crippled, when Stacy finally left, when Wilson opted out of their friendship after Amber's death. The look with which he accepted the inevitability of their split-up even as he pleaded with her. He's completely immobile, staring straight ahead, his mouth soft and vulnerable, his fingers rolling something they aren't holding. Her first guess is that it's his cane that his subconscious is conjuring, but then the right association surfaces with a clarity that pierces her gut like a glass shard: it's an illusory Vicodin bottle that his fingers are twisting this way and that.

She stands immobilised for ten … seconds, minutes? She doesn't know, but when she realises that she's staring at him, most likely with dread splattered across her face, she composes herself and sits down next to him.

She is wondering whether he has noticed her presence when his fingers cease their movement. He looks down at his hands.

"I'm fucking useless," he mutters. "He doesn't even want me to comfort him when he's hurt."

"You're not useless," she says quickly. "He knows me and Rachel better, but you're the one who can assess best whether he's okay or not."

"I'm not his paediatrician. I'm supposed to be his father. He doesn't even have a name for me."

That is, unfortunately, undeniable. Joel has names for Wilson, herself, Rachel, Esther, and Hernandez, not necessarily phonetically related to the original names — Esther is 'Tata' — but each unique to the person he uses it for. So far, however, he has resolutely ignored Pete.

Cuddy puts a comforting hand on his arm. When he stares down at it as though it was an interesting but somewhat creepy reptilian specimen she withdraws it again.

"It's not about doing or being something for him," she says, somewhat against her own convictions. "It's about being there. Someday he'll look back and he'll know that you were there for him, even though he didn't appreciate it at the time."

"You don't believe that yourself," Pete states without even looking at her to confirm his impression. "Hernandez features more in his life than I do."

"Not the point," Cuddy says. "My dad wasn't around much when I was young either. We were traditional; my mom was responsible for keeping the family up and running, while my father worked long hours and withdrew whenever things got unpleasant. I still adored him. He was the most important person in my life for years — until he died, actually. I never wondered whether he couldn't have been around more or whether he couldn't have spent more quality time with us when he was around. I accepted that his interest in us was limited to a few minutes here and there and to certain parts of our lives."

"So according to you, in order to be a good father, I only have to put in an appearance every now and then."

She bites her tongue. It's so like him to take her words, which were meant to reassure, as a statement of absolute truth, to be analysed and dissected. "No, of course that isn't enough if you want to be a stellar dad. But not doing more doesn't mean you're a total fail. There isn't just 'good' and 'bad'. There's a vast area in between."

"I'm not really an 'in-between' kinda guy."

She pats his knee patronisingly. "Welcome to the universe of paradoxical parenthood, a parallel universe to the one you lived in till now. It's all about shades of grey, not about black or white. Even if you do everything right, things can go awfully wrong, while undeserving parents are loved unconditionally by their kids. No one's perfect, no one's absolute crap — well, almost no one. It isn't about trying to be the best. It's about being there, an anchor in the kid's life."

"Not my strength," he mumbles.

"And because it isn't the area in which you excel, you aren't prepared to try for as much as a 'D'? Joel can work with a 'D'; what he can't work with is absenteeism."

He tries to unnerve her with a critical, unbelieving stare. "You're saying that because his standards are low, I'm allowed to slack."

"I'm saying that although you're not an 'A+' dad by any standard, you don't have the right to quit. You're not total crap. What you can do is good enough for this task. You have the ability to handle fatherhood."

"Like you have the ability for that new job of yours that someone with half your brains and a third of your qualifications could rock?"

She scrutinises him. His words aren't flattering, but there's no sting in his tone. It's almost friendly. Is he trying to reassure her in turn? Difficult to say. "If you want to put it that way, yes. Like parenting, it's open-ended, with any number of results being acceptable. There's no life-or-death imperative, no need to achieve perfection at the first try."

"Boring," he opines.

"Yes, thank God!" Cuddy breathes. Thank God that large stretches of parenting are boring and repetitive, lacking any kind of challenge. It's the non-boring bits that bite you in the ass with amazing regularity, taking large chunks out of it.

"Wilson should never have left me alone with the kid," Pete grouses, leaning sideways to pluck a stalk of grass from the edge of the lawn, which he proceeds to shred systematically.

Okay, that's a lot better already: he has moved his focus from his own failings (real-slash-imagined) to Wilson's. Bad for Wilson, good for Pete's sobriety.

"I believe his parents aren't doing too well," she says vaguely. When Pete gives a sardonic half-grin, she adds in Wilson's defence (why the heck is she even defending him, when he took off, leaving her to deal with Pete's melt-downs?), "So far, when he visited them he always had Joel in tow, demanding his attention and not allowing him to focus on what his parents need."

"Is that what you call it nowadays: 'parents'? Time was when it was called 'fuck buddy'."

"Na-a," Cuddy says, eyeing him from the side. "Wilson isn't —"

"He is," Pete says with certainty. "He's doing a woman from his past."

"Who, Amy?" Cuddy asks incredulously. Her opinion of Amy, never high, has recently sunk so low that she'd need a drilling rig to recover it.

"Nope, Melanie."

"Who, pray, is Melanie?"

"The woman Wilson is screwing … oh, probably right now," Pete says with a glance at his watch that is studiously casual. "High school sweetheart of his. Writes shallow teen novels."

Oh, Wilson! Cuddy thinks, sinking into herself. "And you know that, because?"

"When Wilson's visits to Boston increased in frequency, I put Douglas on him."

"Lucas? Pete, you're crazy! Lucas ruined your Ossur blade and wreaked carnage in your apartment, and you …!" Words fail her, so she just shakes her head at him. She likes Lucas, she really does, and whenever she sees how good he is with Rachel, she feels a pang, not of regret but of ... guilt, but there's no doubt that he can be a vindictive bastard. She's lucky he took the end of their short engagement so well — she has a sneaky suspicion that he might have proposed in order to provoke a break-up, because he was far too understanding — because if he hadn't, her first months with House would have gotten very ugly indeed.

Pete bats his eyelashes at her in insincere innocence. "See, I believe in the good in mankind. I am confident that he won't bite the hand that feeds him."

"He could be lying," Cuddy states flatly. "He doesn't like you or Wilson."

"The feeling is mutual, but he isn't lying. Wilson admitted as much." Pete shrugs as though he doesn't really care.

"Oh, Pete!" Cuddy breathes. What a mess! And what the hell does Wilson think he's doing? Heaven knows that she herself is prone to ruthlessness, but even she wouldn't dream of subjecting her partner to the humiliation and heartbreak of infidelity. Before she did that, she'd … . Okay, that's an option that Wilson doesn't have; he and Pete have to stick it out somehow for Joel's sake. "Are you okay?"

"My heart isn't broken, if that's what you're wondering," he says with a simple directness that she has ceased to expect from him, his gaze frank. "Wilson's idea of matrimonial bliss doesn't include the 'bliss' part, if you get my meaning." He rolls his hand.

Cuddy digests this. When Wilson suggested the marriage he hinted that the 'arrangement' was meant to stay platonic, but she'd assumed that once both got used to the idea, they'd get intimate. During their Princeton days there'd always been rumours about them, and there were times when she too had wondered whether there wasn't more between them than 'just' friendship. And ever since the wedding they've behaved like any other couple she knows. Wilson acts possessive, while Pete — difficult to say, really. He certainly goes out of his way to stay out of her way, which is what you'd expect from someone who is worried that his present partner might be jealous of his ex.

She has noticed that they don't exchange PDAs the way House used to insist on doing with her, but she hasn't attributed much meaning to the omission: Wilson, wary of homophobia in his environment and wishing to shield Joel from the consequences, may be insisting on complete public abstinence. Rachel did ask her once why Wilson and Pete didn't share a bedroom, an incongruity that Cuddy hadn't noticed because she seldom went upstairs when Pete was there, but at the time she didn't attach much significance to that morsel of intel either. Wilson needs his sleep more than ever, and sleeping in the same bedroom as Pete is, as she knows herself, not exactly conducive to that.

"You mean you don't …?"

"Bump and grind? Make the beast with two backs? Do the nasty? Bump uglies? Do the horizontal mambo? Get a bit of the ole in 'n' out? Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo? —"

He can probably spout sex euphemisms for hours, so she holds up a hand to silence him.

"No, we don't," Pete admits. "Wilson is so worried about tumbling out of his closet by accident that he has delved all the way through to Narnia and is now frolicking with fauns."

"You're saying he's gay or bi, but in complete denial."

"No one's that straight," he says dismissively, "so it has to be denial."

"It can't be that he just isn't into you?" Cuddy teases gently.

Tossing back his head, Pete draws his fingers through his sparse hair. "Impossible!"

Although Cuddy can't help laughing, her curiosity isn't satisfied. "And are you into him?" she asks, not really expecting a serious answer, and she doesn't get one.

"Oh, I'd be prepared to be gay for him, if that's what it took. But my humble — please note I say 'humble', not 'small' — offerings have been rejected." He shreds another blade of grass, his mouth working. Then he says slowly, "I'm good with the way things are. More than this would be too complicated."

Cuddy doesn't buy it. "You like complicated. You've never shied away from conflict."

He twists several strands of grass into an intricate Celtic knot, turning the result over in his hands to inspect it. She waits, masking her impatience. Without looking up he says, "You're dating or cohabiting with someone who knows you better than you know yourself, who reminisces about common experiences that you can't remember, who holds deeds over your head that you can't recall. You're conscious of the abyss that separates your perception of the relationship from his, and you know that you'll never — can't ever — tap into the memories that shape the relationship for him. Think you'd be happy?"

She opens her mouth to respond, but the platitudes her brain automatically comes up with stick in her throat. She shakes her head slowly. "No," she says slowly. "No, I suppose I wouldn't."

He turns his head to meet her gaze, his slate-grey eyes soft and empathetic. "I'm sorry, Lisa," he says, dropping the grass ornament into her lap.

Then, his attention swerving from her, he rises. Rachel is at the foot of the ramp, next to the stairs, with Joel tagging along beside her wheelchair.

"I think he pooped," Rachel says.

"No!" Joel says.

"Yes, you did. You're smelly."

"No-o!"

"Okay, I've got this," Pete says, unfolding his long limbs and stretching out his hand to Joel. "Come along, punk," he says.

"No!"

"We'll do it next to the swing and then you can go straight back on it again. Hey, we can even do it on the swing — if you hold still," Pete says, grabbing the changing bag he brought with him and leading Joel back to the swing set. Joel, conflicted, goes with him, wailing, "No, no, no," all the way to the swing, but shutting up instantly when Pete hoists him onto his nest swing and lays him down.

Rachel, observing them, says, "If he wriggles now, it's gonna be really icky-yucky disgusting."

"Pete knows what he's doing," Cuddy responds.

Rachel returns her attention to her. "Why was Pete apologising?" she asks suspiciously.

"Oh, for letting Joel fall off the swing," Cuddy lies. There's no way she's initiating Rachel into the intricacies of Wilson and Pete's relationship.

"It was Joel's fault, not Pete's," Rachel opines. "I told him not to tug so hard on the rope."

"Joel is too small to understand," Cuddy says. "Pete should have watched out for him."

"Then Pete should apologise to him, not to you."

"He …" Cuddy begins when it strikes her that Rachel is right. Pete wasn't apologising to her for not wanting an intimate relationship with Wilson. "Oh!"

"What?" Rachel asks.

"Nothing," Cuddy says, rising and turning away so Rachel won't see her wiping away the tear that has snuck out from the corner of her eye.

"Why'd you say, 'Oh'?" Rachel perseveres, driving her wheelchair up the ramp so she can follow Cuddy into the house. The calibration of her bullshit radar is increasing in accuracy; soon Cuddy will be saying (like her mother used to when she was a child), 'None of your business, young lady.'

"I … I forgot that I'd promised to call Nana this afternoon," Cuddy improvises around the lump in her throat. Her words elicit the desired response; Rachel stops following her and turns back into the yard.

She manages to stave off the memories for the remainder of the day, focusing on her duties, everyday tasks, some preparatory research for her new position, and even a telephone call to her mother, because although she'd lied to Rachel about promising to call her mother, in terms of distraction potential Arlene Cuddy's diatribes and recriminations are hard to beat. But that night, when Rachel is asleep and melancholy blues chords drift in through the open window of Cuddy's bedroom, mental visuals crash over her in mounting waves: Pete accosting her in the restaurant of the Brunel Hotel in Bristol, Pete cooking dinner for her in his seedy apartment, Pete rowing her along Bristol canals, Pete dancing with her in a Latin night club. … Pete standing in front of her door explaining why he didn't want to date the woman he'd assaulted.

The next day Wilson returns, and after Pete has left for England, he comes downstairs for Sunday dinner with a bemused expression on his face. Cuddy tries for a friendly, open expression, but the knowledge that she has been subjected to a weekend of emotional turmoil so Wilson could get it off with the next love-of-his-life doesn't exactly improve her mood. Wilson, however, is too distracted to notice the chill wave that cuts through the summer heat.

"Did … anything happen?" he asks.

"Why?" Cuddy asks in return, because a lot of things happened, but mostly in her mind. After a night of crying into her pillow she's way too tired to put together a coherent story that leaves out her part in it entirely.

Wilson stands with his head bent, his hand massaging the back of his neck. "When I asked House when we'd see him next, he didn't evade or try to put me off. He went to the planner and started noting down when he'd be there — for the next three months! Said he might come more often or for longer, but those were the slots he could guarantee."

"That's good, isn't it?" Cuddy says somewhat snappishly, because Wilson doesn't seem to appreciate his windfall.

"Joel fell off the swing," Rachel offers by way of an explanation.

"He what?" Wilson says, alarmed.

"Nothing happened," Cuddy puts in, giving Rachel a quelling look. "He didn't even have a bruise."

"Where was House?"

"Fielding a telephone call from Cameron."

That isn't quite true: the phone call from Cameron came earlier in the day, but Cuddy is sick of the stress that Wilson and Pete's on-going parenting battles are causing. Nothing happened, for God's sake! Joel doesn't have as much as a scar, let alone a serious injury, and if Wilson wants his son to be protected from every potential evil, he should swathe him in bubble wrap and put him in a padded cell. Wilson knows what Pete is like. Besides, he's the idiot who installed a nest swing for a toddler.

"Cameron asked whether he'd consult for Diagnostics at Princeton-Plainsboro," Cuddy continues. "It's a good offer: he's to go in once a month, look through potential cases, select the ones that he deems interesting for the department, and assign them to the doctors working there. He can choose whether he'd like in as a consultant on any of the cases, but he gets his money either way."

"Oh, okay," Wilson says, not looking particularly surprised. "That's good! It explains how he knows when he'll be here again."

"And when is that?" she asks.

"In two weeks," Wilson says. He subjects her to a close scrutiny that makes her blush. On his way out he turns and points a finger at her. "Cuddy, …"

"What?" she asks defensively.

"Just … mind your step."


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