Chapter 21: Aftermath
They're idly watching as Joel sorts peppers, cucumber sticks and cherry tomatoes into piles and throws them around every now and then, Lisa leaning against his propped up legs, one of his arms casually draped across her stomach while with the other hand he plays with her hair. She's drawing patterns on his forearm with the tips of her fingers, which gives him a funny sensation somewhere below his midriff.
"Switzerland?" she asks.
"What'll you do there?"
"Enjoy the mountain panorama."
"And when you've finished looking? You can't hike with a wheelchair in tow."
"I loved The Sound of Music when I was a kid. I wanted to be like the oldest von Trapp girl."
"That was Austria, not Switzerland. And the girl was a moron."
She turns her face to smile at him. "See, you know the movie, so don't go all 'intellectually superior' on me. And it's all in the Alps, so same difference."
He rolls his eyes in mock despair, resisting the urge to kiss her. "Go for someplace flat."
"What's flat in Europe, Amsterdam?"
"The places I want to go in South America are anything but flat, and I'm thinking Asia might be difficult with a wheelchair. We could stay in the US, I guess." She chuckles morbidly, tracing the veins on the back of his hand. "We could visit Amy in LA."
He shudders. "Europe it is. Barcelona?" Rachel likes beaches and seafood.
"That's where Messi plays, isn't it?" she asks. "Think we can get tickets for a match?"
He narrows his eyes at her in mock jealousy. "You're not ogling muscular young men in skimpy shorts in my presence."
"Rachel is the soccer fan here, not me," Cuddy laughs.
"Yeah, sure," he says, wondering whether he can cop a feel under cover of a little skirmish about her supposed fondness for soccer players. He moves his hand up her ribs, saying, "And I'm just imagining your accelerated heart beat and shallower breathing at the mention of Messi's name."
Feeling her stiffening, he looks up. Wilson and Rachel are approaching. Were approaching. They're a bare hundred yards away, but they've stalled. Or rather, Rachel has come to a complete halt. To say that she's scowling would be an understatement; she's shooting virtual daggers at him. Wilson stops too and turns towards her, every fibre of his body indicating discomfiture and unease, his left hand already up at the bridge of his nose pinching for all it's worth. It's a safe bet that (a) Rachel has spotted Lisa and him in close communion so to say, and (b) that she isn't happy about it.
Lisa undrapes his arm and rises. He gets up too, looking down at Lisa for a cue as to how she wants him to act. Is he supposed to pretend this never happened? Since Rachel disapproves of him, then has this just un-happened? What misplaced sense of optimism made him believe that Rachel would accept him as easily as she did Chris Clark? His heart literally misses a beat, and then picks up and accelerates while he waits for Lisa's next action.
She turns to him, soft eyes looking up at his face. "Pete, no!" she says, one hand rising to his cheek.
That's it, he thinks, straightening and trying to wipe every expression off his face.
She rises on tiptoe, kisses him swiftly on the other cheek and says quietly, "I'll fix this. Just hang in. Don't panic, please!" The hand that's on his cheek trails down via shoulder and arm to his hand, giving it a quick squeeze before she turns away and walks to Rachel.
Wilson, looking distinctly relieved, abandons his post and comes over to where Pete is standing. Pete can sense his disapproval without looking at him. He can't hear what Lisa is saying to Rachel, but it's obvious that it has no impact whatsoever. He doesn't need to hear Rachel's replies to gauge her mood; he can see that they are monosyllabic. Finally Lisa gives up and returns to where he and Wilson are standing awkwardly.
"I guess I'd better take her home," she says, not really looking at either of them.
"Yeah, I think Joel has had enough too," Wilson concurs. "Why don't you go ahead? House and I will pack up over here."
Lisa nods. Pete turns around and busies himself, chucking things randomly back into the picnic hamper and trying not to listen for the sound of Lisa's departure. He's pathetic; he's aware of it. This morning he hadn't even envisioned starting something with Lisa, and now he's behaving like a lovelorn teen, unable to face rejection with stoicism. Someone touches his arm. He freezes.
"Will you come downstairs later?" she asks.
He nods without looking up. They'll have to talk sometime, he supposes. Lisa will wind her way out of what she stumbled into today, quoting rational arguments, assuring him that he'll be better off without her, and neatly side-stepping her true reason for giving up on them: her daughter. He'll be civilised; he'll accept her arguments and add a few of his own, because she's right. If Rachel doesn't accept him, then Lisa will feel guilty about being with him on anything between three and twenty-three levels. They'll agree not to let this unfortunate interlude poison the atmosphere between them, part with mutual professions of good will and understanding, and avoid each other assiduously for weeks, months, or however long it takes Wilson to move to Boston.
Wilson watches him 'tidy up' without offering to lend a hand. He only swings into action when Pete tries to pull the picnic blanket out from under Joel, snatching the pooper up before he can tip over.
"Seriously, House?" Wilson snarls as he places Joel in the stroller. "Get a grip! Did you expect Rachel to jump enthusiastically out of her wheelchair, shouting, 'Howse, how wonderful! I've loved you since I was a toddler, I've missed you so much, and I've always wanted you to be my daddy!' or what?"
"I didn't expect anything," he mutters.
Wilson raises his hands defensively. "Okay, I'll attribute your bad mood to the music, which I'll admit could hardly be worse." The Rolling Raccoons' rendering of 'Love Me Tender' sounds like a bad parody, with the lead singer missing the high notes and wailing his way through the lower ones.
"I mean," Pete explains, pushing the stroller from the lawn onto the path, "I didn't expect any reaction from her at all. I get that she doesn't want her mother to date, but … "
He leaves the thought hanging. Yeah, he isn't the world's greatest dad, but fatherhood isn't what's up for debate here. He merely wants to be with Lisa, that's all. He isn't claiming any sort of relationship with Rachel, he isn't asking her to respect him, listen to him, or even like him. All he wants is a non-aggression pact, but even that seems to be asking too much.
Wilson smiles coldly. "You forget that you're married to me."
"Pot meet kettle!"
"Beside the point," Wilson says. "Rachel is outraged because a man in a committed relationship is hitting on her mom."
Pete can't help feeling a twinge of amusement. "She has moral objections?"
"She said (I quote), 'Why is Pete flirting with Mom? He's married to you!'" Wilson does a passable imitation of Rachel's treble. He adds drily, "I think she was hoping I'd challenge you to a duel with pistols at dawn to restore my honour and bring you back onto the path of virtue — should you be fortunate enough to survive. I got a distinct 'kill him!' vibe from her."
"I assume you informed her that we're all about 'openness' and 'trust' and 'not tying each other down'," Pete says, lifting his hands off the stroller to sketch quotation marks.
Wilson snorts. "I didn't get down to telling her that you have a predilection for sham marriages. Cuddy was there before I could rob her of her youthful innocence and destroy her illusions of romance and eternal love."
The matter rests while Wilson wrestles Joel into his seat (Pete opts for the less challenging task of folding and stowing away the stroller) and pops his favourite nursery rhyme CD into the car stereo (not even Wilson is up to another repeat of Joel's musical efforts), but once they pull out of Mayfield Pete picks up the topic again.
"How'd you get Melanie's kids to accept your adulterous relationship?" he asks, partly because he is genuinely interested in a foolproof recipe for dealing with your love interest's crabby kids, partly because he is annoyed with Wilson for succeeding in an area where he has just failed spectacularly.
Wilson has the decency to look discomfited. "They don't … I mean …" he blusters.
Pete chortles. "You haven't told them you're married."
"It hasn't come up. You don't introduce yourself to a couple of children saying, 'Hey, I'm James and I'm married.' Melanie knows, though," Wilson says, on the defensive.
"They haven't noticed the ring?"
Wilson flushes furiously.
"Okay, no ring," Pete says, pulling his ring off and slipping it into his wallet.
"How about 'no Cuddy'?" Wilson suggests.
"Says the expert on sexual abstinence."
"Millions of women on either side of the Atlantic are willing to drown themselves in your baby blues, but you have to chase the one woman who —"
"I didn't chase her," Pete defends himself, interrupting Wilson because he doesn't need to hear why dating Lisa is shitabulous in a thousand different ways. "I suggested that she should take a break, go and chill somewhere, and suddenly she was all over me."
Wilson waves Pete's words aside. "She has managed to stick to a self-imposed restraining order for over nine months, giving you a wide berth. What has changed? … Oh, shoot! This is my fault."
Although Pete concurs heartily, he's pleasantly surprised by Wilson's level of self-awareness.
Wilson continues, "I should have made sure that there was someone — someone who isn't you — waiting in the wings to take over before I …"
"Before you decided to move to Boston," Pete augments when Wilson doesn't complete his sentence.
"Boston?" Wilson says, turning to Pete for so long that Pete leans forward to grasp the abandoned steering wheel.
"Boston. City in Massachusetts. Place of residence of one Melanie Robbins, author of shallow teen lit."
"I'm not moving to Boston. Nothing is further from my mind."
"Get your eyes back on the road!"
Wilson thankfully returns his attention to the traffic, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.
Pete leans back. "You're lying," he says.
"I have no intention of moving to Boston. If I did, I'd have no excuse not to see my parents regularly. ... Goodness, that sounds callous!" When Pete doesn't react, Wilson gives him a quick glance. "I'm staying here indefinitely. Melanie is flexible; her kids will be off to college soon. I enjoy sharing a house with Cuddy and Rachel. They're good for Joel and good for me. I'm happy here. Besides, Pearson is retiring in two years. The dean has indicated that I'm a strong contender for his post."
"Ah, buying your loyalty, because he fears you'll take subtle revenge for Lisa's disgrace."
"It can't be because I'm qualified for the post, respected by the other oncologists, and generally well liked in the hospital?"
Pete doesn't bother to reply, because Wilson is obviously staging a little diversion. He subjects Wilson to an intense scrutiny. "If you're not moving away, then why are you behaving as though you've wronged Rachel and Lisa?"
"I'm not —"
Pete reaches over and mutes the volume of the car stereo. Today the black sheep won't sell any wool. "No?" he says softly.
"Baa-baa," Joel calls from the rear seat. "Baa-baa!" His voice rises to a plaintive wail.
"House, for heaven's sake, turn his music back on! You know how he gets when he doesn't have music in the car."
Joel starts bawling. Pete lays his hand protectively over the volume control so that Wilson can't get at it.
Wilson caves. "Okay, okay, I'll talk."
Pete turns the volume up again, making sure that only the rear speakers are active. "Spill the beans."
Wilson is silent for so long that Pete places an admonishing finger on the volume control again. "You remember when Cuddy and Chris Clark went splitsville?" Wilson finally asks.
"Vaguely." He wasn't exactly thick as thieves with Lisa at that point. "Lisa refused his marriage proposal. And then …"
He pauses, realising that he has no idea why they finally broke up. Clark doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd let an ill-timed proposal impede him on his pilgrimage to perfect bliss. Pete remembers Lisa looking under the weather for a few days before snapping out of it, but she didn't volunteer any information and he didn't ask. What is bizarre is that he can't remember Wilson gossiping about the break-up either. "You had a finger in that pie?"
Wilson's expression is smug. "It was more like my whole hand."
"What did you do?"
"If I told you, I'd have to kill you, because if Cuddy finds out, I'm roadkill."
Pete walks his hand along his thigh towards the car stereo, his index and middle fingers scissoring like legs.
"I may have indicated that Cuddy's sex life is diverse, comprehensive, and extensive," Wilson says hurriedly.
Pete pretends to ponder this, scratching his chin. "Not good enough. We're talking about someone from the State Department whose minion planted bugs in our apartment. He'll have checked your story."
"Precisely. And he'll have found out — though he probably knew as much before — that you dated Cuddy. And that there has been gossip about Cuddy and you ever since she employed you. That there have been rumours about you and me ever since I started working at PPTH. That you and I shared an apartment — and possibly more — years ago. That you started dating Cuddy shortly after you moved out of our shared apartment. And that I lived in Cuddy's household for months. That I was engaged to her for a short period about two years ago. That we now live in the same house, all of us. That there seem to be no clear demarcation lines between us."
"You told him that we — you, Lisa, and I — are a threesome?"
"I prefer the term 'polyamory', but — I didn't tell him anything. I merely sowed the seeds; he must have watered them with nourishing rumours or assumptions."
Pete leans back. "You are one evil bitch, James Wilson."
"Let's not be overly lavish with compliments," Wilson says, his smile complacent.
"Baa-baa," Joel says. "Baa-baa."
"Song's over, buddy. This one is 'Yankee Doodle'," Pete says, turning towards the back so that Joel can hear him over the cacophony coming from the speakers. He has no preferences either way, but twenty repetitions don't improve any of those nursery rhymes. He'll have to check online for jazz or blues versions.
"Baa-baa," Joel insists, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown, the corners of his mouth turning downward dangerously. "More Baa-baa."
"Just put 'Baa-baa, Black Sheep' on endless loop," Wilson says, looking over his shoulder as he changes lanes.
"You want to enable him by giving in to his demands every time he bawls?" Pete asks. "What kind of parenting is that?"
"He said, 'More Baa-baa'," Wilson says. He repeats, enunciating clearly, "More. Baa-baa."
"I heard him."
"His first two-word sentence; a verbal milestone. It begs for positive reinforcement."
Pete fiddles around with the car stereo until the opening bars of 'Baa-baa, Black Sheep' trickle from the speakers and the 'loop' icon appears on the stereo's display. "There you go, critter. I'm glad you're showing signs of cerebral development; I was worried that you take after your mother."
Wilson chuckles bitterly. "As in 'low maintenance', 'gullible', or 'easy to manipulate'? No such luck, House. He's every bit as obstinate and tiring as you are."
Back at the apartment they have a slight disagreement about whose turn it is to put Joel to bed, Pete stating that he fulfilled his daily duty in Mayfield (Wilson can't know that Lisa stepped in for him), whereby it is now Wilson's turn, while Wilson insists that Mayfield doesn't count, being reparation for the book that Pete trashed.
"I can't stop you or Cuddy from behaving like idiotic teens," Wilson finally says, "but I won't encourage or enable you by doing more than my share of parenting. Suck it up."
He backs out of Joel's bedroom, pointing a finger at Pete. "Don't give me those puppy eyes and don't pretend you believe that all you're asking for is a farewell visit because she'll kick you out on your sorry ass. She won't. Unfortunately. Your problem isn't Rachel's whole-hearted and well-deserved disapproval; Cuddy can brave veritable tsunamis of negative vibes from everyone around her, and then some. Your problem is that while Cuddy will insist that Rachel's animosity isn't your problem (and even believe it herself), she'll nevertheless expect you to do something about it."
So he reads Joel a book about a badass rabbit who rides a motorcycle through the forest and harasses the sylvan fauna with a wooden mallet. The ending is lame, so he skips it; luckily Joel doesn't seem to know this book well enough to notice. When the kid finally falls asleep, he tiptoes out of the room. Wilson is in the kitchen, preparing a marinade for next day's roast. Pete drops the baby monitor onto the kitchen counter, puts on a clean shirt and brushes his teeth.
When he returns to the kitchen to get Wilson's spare key for Lisa's place Wilson, glancing at him sideways, asks with studied indifference, "Will you be back for breakfast?"
He hesitates. Wilson could be wrong about Lisa's robustness, in which case he'll be back in roughly an hour, licking his wounds. Then again, if Wilson is right — it has been known to happen —, then he'll stay an itsy bit longer than an hour at Lisa's place. Maybe not all night, but one never knows, does one? And then, in the morning, he could say something like, 'That was nice; we can do it again sometime, but now I have to have breakfast with my husband.' ... It doesn't take amazing relationship skills to figure out that this is not an option.
"I'm making banana-and-blueberry pancakes," Wilson purrs, adding (unnecessarily), "Joel likes them."
Of course Joel likes them! Everyone likes them. Pete swallows hard. Ever since Lisa put Rachel on a diet, the morning repast in the Cuddy household has consisted of muesli with fruit and yoghurt and other misery-inducing options. (He came, saw, and fled from the Cuddy breakfast table the first time Wilson absconded to Boston.) Even if Lisa was to soften sufficiently to make pancakes, they'd be ... rotten compared to Wilson's.
Wilson's mouth twitches. "Relax. If you can't bear to leave Cuddy, then just bring the girls with you. Now go before your plight moves me to tears!"
He nods gratefully, grabs the keys and heads downstairs.
Lisa is cross-legged on the couch, her laptop perched precariously on her knees, print-outs on the coffee table in front of her. She's frowning at the screen, her teeth worrying her lower lip, while her fingers type an occasional word.
"Hey," he says quietly after observing her undetected for a few minutes.
She looks up and smiles, lifting her laptop and placing it on the coffee table before uncurling her legs. Then she pats the couch next to her invitingly. (Maybe Wilson is right.)
"Another job application," she volunteers after he has sat down, with a wave at her laptop. "The city needs someone to head the health centre on Woodland Avenue. And a medical centre in Center City is looking for endocrinologists."
"Hmm," he says, shelving the information whilst looking down at her face for a clue regarding her intentions.
"Pete, I'm not going to back out just because Rachel is suffering from early-onset puberty," Lisa says. "Maybe it's my fault; I never dated much, and when I did, she mostly didn't know about it."
"Clark?" he prompts, relaxing just a little as he leans slightly towards her.
"Honestly, do we have to talk about my exes?" Lisa asks.
"If they're pertinent to the subject, then yes."
She sniffs exasperatedly. "I inflicted Chris on her in small doses at first, so she'd have time to get used to him. I didn't think I'd need to do that with you; she's known you for ages."
"Maybe that's the problem."
"How do you mean?"
He takes her hand in his, tracing over her knuckles with his thumb, then running a finger along metacarpals and phalanges of her index finger. She leans her head against his shoulder, sighing contentedly. He says, "Rachel doesn't have me down as your boyfriend. She sees me as a fixture in Wilson's life, not in yours. She can't remember the first time we dated, any more than I can, and you never told her about the second time, did you?"
Lisa shakes her head. "Plus, she has grown up with my mother's stories of Big Bad House. I don't think she pictures you as the perpetrator of all the misdeeds that my mother attributes to you, but ... she knows they're about you. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah." He gets what Lisa is trying to say. Rachel isn't actively scared of him, but she has been indoctrinated to see him as someone you wouldn't wish on your frenemy, let alone on your mother. "What did she say?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing. She refused to comment on the situation, refused to acknowledge that it exists, even. It's as though she believes that if she doesn't talk about it, it'll be gone by tomorrow. She withdrew to the swing the moment we got home."
"She's out on the swing now?" Pete asks, pointing his thumb at the yard. It's pitch dark outside, and although daytime temperatures at Mayfield were in the balmy seventies, they're around sixty degrees now and dropping fast.
Lisa nods. "I took a throw out when she refused to come back inside. If she stays outside much longer, I'll have to get a heat pad and the extension cord."
He leans in to kiss her, first lightly, then more deeply. When it gets to the point that he'd really rather not stop, he pulls back, enjoying Lisa's frustrated mewl since it pretty much mirrors his state of mind. But there's business to be taken care of, and kissing Lisa was meant to motivate him to get it done, not keep him from doing it.
"I'll go out and talk to her," he says, rising without relinquishing her hand.
"Yep." (Once he has cut through the layers of social convention that Wilson plasters around his advice, he can sometimes find a solid core of insight.)
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Lisa says, sitting up and hanging onto his hand.
"Don't worry, I don't antagonise kids half as much as I do adults," he says, as much to convince himself as her. He bends down to kiss her neck and bury his face in her hair — he enjoys doing that no matter which shampoo she uses — before freeing himself from her hold and going outside.
The only light outside comes from the door to the living room, yellow streaks along the wooden slats of the deck. The yard itself is completely dark, at least for someone who is coming from the light. He can hear the steady creak of the swing, but he can barely make out its form on the lawn. He moves to the balustrade around the deck and leans on it, considering the pros and cons of having a smoke while his eyes adjust to the darkness. The cons outweigh the pros, if only because Rachel hates cigarette smoke almost as much as her mother does, so he takes tentative steps out into the yard.
The lawn is a monument to Hernandez's gardening abilities: true to his prediction, it is now a dense, lush carpet, kept at a uniform length of two inches. Hernandez preys on plants that he classifies as weeds — by his definition anything that he hasn't planted — with the ferociousness of a goshawk protecting his nest. He has laid out flagstone walks to every place that might be of interest to Rachel: the swing set, where she spends most of the day; the sand box, which she gives a wide berth; the place where Hernandez intends to build a stone barbecue grill. (He is undeterred by Lisa's insistence that a barbecue grill, stone or otherwise, is the last thing she needs.)
Pete walks along the flagstones to the swing set, wishing he'd brought a coat and reciting under his breath:
"Little Rabbit Foo Foo
Riding through the forest,
Scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.
Down came the Good Fairy and said,
'Little Rabbit Foo Foo, I don't like your attitude,' ..."
"What's with you?" Rachel's disembodied voice asks.
Pete snorts quietly. "Too many brain-addling toddlers' books."
He turns his back on the lights from the house and concentrates on distinguishing objects in the dark. He can see Rachel's swing, a darker blur in the now blue-ish surroundings, but he can't make out her features. Next to it Joel's toddler seat — the nest swing was dismantled again after the Great Tumble — vibrates lightly. Grabbing hold of the ropes, Pete levers himself onto it, perching precariously on the bucket seat. The horizontal beam of the swing set creaks ominously.
"And what's with you?" he asks Rachel.
"Nothing! … You're too heavy for Joel's swing."
"We'll see." He's feeling cold and he dislikes not being able to read her expression. He's at a disadvantage, because the rod cells in Rachel's eyes have adapted to the dark already. "Let's keep this short. You don't like me. I'm fine with that. If you make your mom choose between us, she'll choose you. I'm not fine with that. What do I have to do so that you accept that I'm dating your mom?"
"What about Wilson?" Rachel asks with a hint of indignation. "You're married to him."
"Wilson doesn't care." That's a half-truth. Wilson disapproves, but he does so as a matter of principle, not because he's married to Pete. "He's seeing someone on the side too."
"He isn't," Rachel says uncertainly.
"He is so! Ask him."
After a beat Rachel says, "You're supposed to love each other, not other people."
He considers questioning the way she equates love with eros, but that's a distinction that has led older and wiser people than Rachel down the winding route of digression and diversion. "Marriage is a social contract. Means, it's like a game: the people playing it can negotiate the rules and the aim of the marriage, like you invent new rules for chess when you play it with Wilson, but have to stick to the classic rules when you play with me. People get married for tons of reasons. Love is probably the least important of them."
Rachel's tone is truculent as she asks, "What reasons?"
"Money, social status, children, convenience, societal expectations, to name a few. Sexual attraction."
Rachel takes her own sweet time to digest this revelation. It's anyone's guess whether she has comprehended any of it. "Why'd you marry Wilson, if you don't love him?"
His personal adaption of Mark Twain's aphorism regarding the truth reads, 'When in doubt, tell a lie.' He scans through a few promising fibs, but discards them again. Rachel is bound to discover the truth sooner or later, and when she does … He shuts his mind to the realisation that he's assuming he'll still feature in Rachel's life when she discovers that he is Joel's biological parent, and concentrates on the task at hand.
"Joel," he says. "We married because of Joel. Besides, I do ..." He can't bring himself to say that he loves Wilson, but he comforts himself with the thought that his feelings are none of the girl's business and that she'd equate 'love' with something mushy and sentimental anyway, not with what he means. Meanwhile, the toddler seat cuts into his thigh.
He can distinguish enough of her features by now to see that she's wrinkling her forehead in disbelief. "You don't even like Joel!"
"Family isn't about likes or dislikes. No one asks you whether you like your mother, do they? You're expected to cope as long as she doesn't neglect you or beat you to a pulp. Same with parents: they have entered a binding commitment, regardless of whether they 'like' their kids or not."
"Mom loves me!"
"You can love people without liking them," he points out.
Rachel broods over his words. "You're saying you love Joel?"
Actually, he meant that he's responsible for Joel, committed to ensuring his well-being the way Lisa is committed to Rachel, but explaining that would mean letting Rachel in on Joel's parentage and swearing her to secrecy until Amy relinquishes her legal hold on the kid. Which might be ... never. He can't place the burden of truth on Rachel: should she slip up and tell someone (Douglas, for instance), there'd be hell to pay. He pictures Joel ripped out of Wilson's arms and returned to Amy, and his heart sinks.
Where does commitment end and love start?
"Yeah," he says quietly. "Yeah, I suppose so."
"Huh. … What'll happen if Wilson decides that he doesn't want you to love Mom and divorces you?"
"That isn't going to happen," he says, certain about Wilson as he is about little else. "Wilson won't drop me. He's innately incapable of abandoning me."
"But if you and Wilson aren't married according to the real rules —"
"You've got this wrong. Other people are married according to simplified rules. They can say, 'I don't love you anymore,' and then they're out. Wilson and I are in the Quidditch version of marriage: we don't get to decide when the game is over and we have to keep going until the snitch is caught, no matter how long it takes, what the weather is like, or whether we're injured."
"And if you don't keep going?" Rachel asks. Again, he wonders whether she's following him.
"Then we lose Joel. If Wilson and I muck this up, then there's a good chance that the sprog's mother will step in and take him back."
Rachel says, "Maybe Wilson will be mad at Mom for loving you, and then he'll ... move out and leave us."
"Wait, your problem is Wilson?"
"Yeah. If you hadn't turned up, he'd have married Mom."
The Higher Power that he doesn't believe in grant him patience! The kid is sulking, not because she is convinced that her mother deserves a better boyfriend than he is (i.e. anyone but him), but because she's rooting for 'Wilson as Daddy'. There's nothing he can do about that; even if he tried, he wouldn't be able to take the place she has planned for Wilson in her life.
"If I hadn't 'turned up', as you put it, there wouldn't be a Wilson anymore."
"He would've married Mom if he hadn't married you," Rachel reiterates, unimpressed by his medical awesomeness.
The seat has interrupted the blood flow to his left leg, numbing it. He hops off the swing with more vigour than elegance and proceeds to massage his thigh and buttocks. "I doubt it."
"Everyone says so."
"Julia. And the nurses at the hospital. They told me Mom and Wilson were engaged, and then he left her for you."
He considers explaining what really happened in the wake of Wilson's liver failure, but it's beside the point, really. "You should be mad at Wilson, then, not at me."
"I'm not mad at you," Rachel says with audible reluctance. "I just don't want Wilson to go away because he's mad at everyone."
"Perhaps it'll be the other way round. He may want to move away to, uh, be closer to the woman he's seeing, but he'll have to stay, because I want to stay here with Lisa."
"You think so?" Rachel says hopefully.
No, he doesn't. Wilson won't change his agenda to suit Pete's love life any more than he, Pete, will adapt his lifestyle accommodate Wilson's romantic aspirations. But Wilson will stay, if not for the sake of Pete's happiness, then for Joel's (because Wilson is convinced that Joel will benefit from contact with his bio dad), and for Rachel's (because he knows he's more of a father to Rachel than Simon, Pete, or anyone else that Lisa drags along can ever be), and for Lisa's (because if Lisa dates guys like Pete, she's going to need a shoulder to cry on every so often). He is needed by at least three people here, sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser extent, never so much by one individual that he's bled dry, and yet never completely expendable.
All of that, however, is much too complicated for Rachel. What she is asking for is reassurance — not his strongest suit, but still.
"Yes," he says, putting as much confidence into his voice as he can. And to stop her from asking more complicated, unpleasant questions he adds, "It's cold; you should come inside."
"Yeah," Rachel says, her tone indicating that she has no intention of moving anytime soon.
It's Lisa's problem, not his. He turns to go, wincing slightly at the pins and needles in his left leg.
"Pete!" Rachel calls before he has gone ten yards. "Don't you think you're too old to date?"
He's speechless. It's only when Rachel giggles that he realises that he's being ragged. He flips her the bird as a parting salute.
The living room is quiet and seems deserted. Looking around for Lisa, he spots her stretched along the couch, one arm under her head. She's asleep. He considers his options. He could wake her, but Lisa tends to get pissy when she's exhausted. She'll drag her feet to her bedroom and collapse on her bed, possibly yelling at him for allowing her to drop off on the couch in the first place. Better to leave her where she is. He looks around for the throw that's normally draped over the back of the couch, but it isn't there. Right, it's outside with Rachel.
He returns to the swing. "Time's up."
When there's no reaction from Rachel, he reaches for the winch control and lowers the swing to the ground. "It's past ten and Lisa has fallen asleep on the couch. You can either follow me inside quietly, or I'll wake her up so that she comes and gets you. It's your choice, but remember that she's a grouch when her beauty sleep is interrupted."
Rachel huffs theatrically, but levers herself out of the nest swing, indicating that he should push the wheelchair closer. He does so and holds it steady while she climbs inside. The winch, while undoubtedly a major improvement, isn't the perfect solution to Rachel's mobility problems.
"What happened to the service dog you were supposed to get?"
"It's still in training. Mom says it'll take another month till I can go into handler training."
"Taking their own sweet time, aren't they?"
"I mucked it up," Rachel says without much regret. "The dog people said we needed a scrip from the doctor in order to get a service dog. When the doctor asked me how I was coping with daily life, I said I was doing fine and could manage by myself, coz I thought he won't let me have a dog if I can't take care of it and feed it and all that. So then the doctor said I didn't need a service dog, and Mom blew her top, and then we needed a new doctor for me, and all that took a while. Can you push me up the ramp?"
He goes inside ahead of Rachel, opening doors for her along the way so that she doesn't bump into doorframes and wake Lisa. Rachel heads straight for her bedroom.
"Bathroom," he says from her doorway. "Catheterise."
Rachel glowers. Pete jerks his thumb towards the bathroom.
"Okay, but I'm not brushing my teeth. Or my hair."
He removes himself from the doorway so she can pass, and watches her enter the bathroom. He stays to wait for sounds that indicate that she's doing as she's been told: the cupboard that holds catheterisation kits being opened, the whoosh and whump of Rachel moving from the wheelchair onto the toilet. Then he returns to the living room and spreads the throw over Lisa. No, he isn't going to get all sentimental and drop a kiss on Lisa's cheek — straightening her hair for aesthetic reasons doesn't count as a caress — so after turning off the lights except for the floor lamp in the corner he turns to go.
On second thought, however, he makes a short detour to Lisa's bathroom. Her favourite shampoo, the vanilla and orange one, is in the shower. (Lisa, eschewing baths because she is convinced that they will age her skin, nevertheless takes showers long and hot enough to dehydrate an elephant's cutaneous layers.) He grabs the bottle, and another of her body lotion for good measure. In her bedroom he pauses again to switch on the lamp on the nightstand. A few lights here and there will ease Lisa's way later.
He sits down on the edge of her bed and bounces experimentally a few times. Nice and springy, her mattress. If Rachel weren't a cripple, she'd probably come here to bounce on the bed; chances are that Joel will do so as soon as he figures out that Lisa has the biggest, bounciest bed in the house. He throws himself onto his back, his arms spread-eagled across the bed, and looks at the room from that perspective. The curtains have a floral pattern, bed and armoire are of solid cherry, the ceiling lamp is one of those pendant affairs with a cloth shade. It's not bad, but very — feminine.
He turns his head into the pillow, breathing in deeply to take in the scent. It's a mixture of her shampoo, her perfume, and her body odour — a mélange that is so much more her than just the shampoo. Letting the bottle of shampoo and the lotion drop from his outstretched hand onto the rug, he buries his face in her pillow. He has no memories of spending nights in her bed, absorbing every particle of her scent. All he can remember is tussles on worn-out mattresses in sleazy hotels, Lisa usually rising and getting dressed again long before midnight. Oh yeah, and that first fateful encounter in his apartment in Bristol, and the one time she'd spent a weekend with him in a motel, just before he'd discovered his true identity. That had been nice: waking up next to her, her warm body tucked into his, her hair spread over the pillow ...
He wakes (sort of) to a muffled exclamation — something about shoes on the bed — followed by small hands tugging at his trainers. An ineffectual attempt to get his legs onto the bed, which he supports by grunting and rolling over. Sounds from the bathroom — the toilet flushing and running water — which lull him back to sleep. Then, the mattress dipping and the duvet being pulled out from under him. Half awake and irritated by the light from the nightstand lamp (which he turned on, idiot that he is), he growls in disapproval until warmth returns in form of a soft body spooned up against his and the duvet being tugged over him. The stupid light finally goes off. He drapes an arm comfortably around her waist, drawing her closer and dropping a sleepy kiss on her shoulder.
"Night," she mutters.
If she thinks either of them will get much sleep now that she has cuddled up next to him with her butt practically in his groin, then she has another think coming. But for the moment, he's good just holding her, with his nose buried in her hair and a hand caressing her hip and comfortable warmth all along his body. Yeah, he could get used to this.
A/N: Quote from: Michael Rosen, Little Rabbit Foo Foo (Walker, 2003)
A big hooray for my intrepid beta, menolly_au, who accompanied me all the way, was endlessly supportive and encouraging, and contributed great ideas and tons of tongue-in-cheek comments.
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