H. Protector

It wasn’t love at first sight; not by a long shot. The bedraggled little lump with the bulging eyes and bat-like ears looked exactly like the end result of a bad encounter with a wicked witch. He sat shivering and looking pitiful in his cardboard Johnny Walker carton on her doorstep, the rain having soaked him, and even though Cuddy had her arms full, she’d managed to quickly scoot the box over the doorsill with her foot, cursing at the weather.

She set aside the briefcase and coffee mug, then kicked off her shoes and looked at the quivering puppy, feeling exasperated. The puppy huddled in one corner of the box, trying to stay warm, his head down. A quick wave of empathy welled up in Cuddy, overtaking her irritation—whatever else, this was another soul left damp by the rain.

Carefully she reached in and picked him up; he was lighter than he should have been, and didn’t resist. She brought him closer, cradling his little body against her blouse, not particularly worried about it as the puppy’s tail wagged feebly. “Okay buddy, who stuck you in a box on my doorstep?”

The pup didn’t answer, of course, and a quick look through the box revealed nothing inside but several damp, striped dishtowels. Cuddy rose and took the puppy into her kitchen, keeping him close against her chest as she clucked to him. She dried him off with one of her own kitchen towels and took a closer look at him as he gave a snuffle and his tail continued to wag hopefully.

He was a squat little thing, with a pushed-in snout and stubby legs, and his coat was a shade of butterscotch, with black around his mouth and nose. Cuddy didn’t know much about puppies, but he looked young. She smiled when he enthusiastically licked her fingers—the gratitude was a nice change after the hard day she’d just come home from. She set him down and he sniffed her stocking covered toes with interest, then circled around her feet, making it clear that he wasn’t about to wander off from his benefactress. Cuddy laughed.

“Okay, so you’re thankful, I get it. Let’s see if we’ve got anything for dinner.”

She found some ground turkey and cooked it in the microwave, then rummaged through cabinets looking for pasta and a jar of sauce, thinking all the while. Where had the puppy come from? Someone had tried to keep the little thing comfortable, but probably hadn’t counted on the rain—so that meant the puppy had been left before the downpour, a mere half hour earlier.

Someone knew she would be home soon—that thought wasn’t comforting at all. Cuddy stirred the pasta and set it to boil, then wandered to her bedroom, puppy at her heels. She looked down at him. “I’m going to change—“ she announced, and picked him up.

He was more interested in the bedroom than in watching her change, and for that Cuddy was grateful. Slipping into dry sweats, she draped her damp clothes along the towel rack in the bathroom and looked back at the puppy. He had wandered under the bed, but came out when she got on her hands and knees to peer at him. With an almost jaunty, fat-bellied stride he sauntered up to her and tried to lick her nose.

He smelled warm and fuzzy; Cuddy fought against melting.

Damn it.

The puppy was cute—small, but much happier than he’d been in the liquor carton, and she carried him back to the kitchen, murmuring softly to him. “All right—let’s block off the kitchen doorway and lay some newspaper down—don’t get used to this---“

He ignored her and focused on the scent of warm turkey meat, gobbling his little plate full of it gratefully, and when he was done, he gave a snuffly sigh and moved back against her ankle, settling near it possessively, the warmth of his now rounded body against her exposed skin.

Cuddy smiled, and smiled. She’d had dogs when she was a girl—her mother had had a Boston Terrier named Eleanor—and this pup was getting to her.

Not that she needed a dog. After all, she had a full and busy life; work, play, sleep when she could squeeze it in—but there were times, just like this, when another . . . soul . . . would be nice to have around. Just something glad to see her, and not about to argue or explain or demand anything more than a walk and a meal.

*** *** ***

She took him to work. She had to, she justified weakly to herself—he had no way of getting to the back yard on his own, and Cuddy knew he would yowl and cry if left alone—he’d done that in the night until she let him into the bedroom, where he’d settled on her bathrobe on the floor and dropped right to sleep.

He was smart enough to know about scratching at the door, and quick to mark his territory like the bossy little male he was. Cuddy stopped at the twenty-four hour market on the way to Princeton-Plainsboro just to pick up a leash and collar, and walked out with them, along with a foam bed, a few chewy toys, a can of treats and a sigh.

“This is crazy. I don’t have time for a dog. I work insane hours, and all sorts of things go on at the hospital. This will never work,” she told the puppy.

He snuffled and curled up in the foam bed on the floorboards of passenger side seat.

She tucked him in under her coat, feeling foolish for sneaking him in. Once in the office, Cuddy set the pup down and he made a tour of the place.

“Yeah, just make yourself comfortable—“ she told him with mild sarcasm, unable to put much annoyance into her words as she hung up her coat. When he’d made his tour he came back to her feet, and she scooped him up, glaring at him. “Stop being . . . cute. Let’s get your collar on.”

He didn’t like his soft green collar. Annoyed he scratched it with a hind foot, making it jingle a bit. Cuddy ignored him and opened her Email, trying to get back into the swing of her morning. Notes from the Neurology department, a response to her reimbursement from Accounting, a new rotation schedule for the upcoming semester—

For several long minutes, office was quiet. Too quiet. Cuddy looked around suspiciously, but everything was in place—plants, coffeetable with magazines, coat rack . . . puppy. He was under the sofa, just his little muzzle and front paws peeking out, busy chewing on a lost pen. “You!”

Moving quickly rounded her desk and bent down, taking the end of the pen. Puppy thought this was a fine game and gripped his end harder, giving a playful little tug. Cuddy fought a smile and managed to pull the pen free from tiny teeth; giving up, the puppy clambered out from under the sofa and sat up, licking her face.

“That’s SO . . . unsanitary—“ came House’s sardonic observation, “Although it’s worth it to see you on all fours like this, Cuddy. Enough to give a person certain . . . ideas.”

“House—“ she snapped, embarrassed and annoyed. Cuddy reached for the pup, but he had darted forward towards House and eyed him carefully. Amused, House leaned down and locked gazes with the bug-eyed butterscotch puppy, glaring at him.

The puppy growled. Not loudly, or long; just a little mano a mano warning as he stood his ground.

House blinked first, and to cover it, he spoke up. “Yeah, well my business isn’t with you, Pee Wee, it’s with her, got it?” He tried to move past the dog in a lofty sort of lurch, but the puppy scrambled forward and nibbled House’s shoelaces, wrestling with the ones on the right sneaker, his pipsqueak growl completely unthreatening.

House rolled his eyes and gave a long-suffering sigh. “Call your dog off, Cuddy—“

“Why? I think he’s doing a great job of looking out for my interests,” came the amused retort. Exasperated, House lifted his cane and poked gently at the puppy, who turned his attention from the untied laces to the more interesting game of chewing on the rubber end of the flame covered cane.

Feeling the point had been made, Cuddy came forward and scooped up the puppy, one hand under his fat belly, the other supporting his back feet. He turned and got in a good lick along her neck; Cuddy strove to keep her dignity while House snorted. “And they call it puppy love, eh?”

“You said you had business with me?”

House held out a file and the negotiations began. He argued his case, his voice getting louder as he made his pertinent points, but when he attempted to loom over Cuddy, a tiny growl made both of them look down at the puppy, who was sitting back in his haunches, bat ears swiveling a little.

“Oh for—you’re not even a part of this, whelp boy!” House snapped, preparing to jab at the puppy once more with his cane.

Cuddy growled. Startled, House looked up at her, and although she was smiling, he noted her teeth. She spoke up in a low, pleasant tone. “Poke my dog again, House, and you’ll be hobbling out of here with a long wooden rectal probe.”

“Oh that’s how it’s going to be, is it?”

“Yes,” she replied in a simple tone, giving the little dog a quick, affectionate glance. “Someone left him on my doorstep, and whatever else people say about me, I take care of my own.”

House pursed his mouth and said nothing. Cuddy took the file and signed the topmost form on the bottom, then handed it back to him. House turned and made his way out of her office. He’d almost made it to the door when Cuddy called to him. “House? Missing any dishtowels?”

He hesitated a moment too long. “No,” he muttered, and pushed his way through the wood and glass doors.

Cuddy smirked, and moved over to the sofa, sitting down and patting it invitingly. The puppy jumped up, but only the top half of him made it; Cuddy boosted up his back end and he cuddled up next to her, head in her lap, his adoring gaze on her.

“Hector. Hector Protector sounds right. What do you think?” she murmured.

Hector wagged his stumpy tail and went to sleep.




House index