|The Kindness of Strangers
Author: KathainBowen PM
A random chance encounter leads to a bittersweet present for House the first Christmas after his release from prison and a few years after Steve McQueen has passed away. Tag to the Contractverse - Pencils Are Dangerous.Rated: Fiction T - English - Friendship - G. House & J. Wilson - Words: 6,667 - Reviews: 14 - Favs: 16 - Follows: 2 - Published: 08-13-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5299378
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Kindness of Strangers
Kevin Reid had never seen someone so distraught over the passing of a common Norwegian rat. In fact, the vast majority of Americans seemed rather pleased to see the little brown rats dead through a variety of extermination techniques. They were, to most eyes, disease carrying vermin to be feared and scorned at the same time. Most people also still believed the myth that these poor little creatures harbored bubonic plague - while Kevin new it was truly a bacteria that did not incubate in the Norwegian rat and was transmitted by the rat fleas common on ground squirrels and wood rats.
However, this particular man looked on the verge of absolute tears when he came into Pet Paradise in the morning and announced in a solemn, whispered confession, "I killed Steve McQueen."
It had all started a few years before, when Doc House came in. No one knew much about the surly man when he first came limping into the shop. This was certainly well before the scandal surrounding the death of his colleague and his conviction. The doctor had hobbled through the store, surveying everything from cans of cat food to small mammal cages with a shrewd eye. He seemed like just any other customer, and Melissa had made the grave mistake of assuming such. She had walked right up to Doc House and asked, as was the customary ice breaker trained into all employees by the painfully boring corporate tapes, what sort of pet he had. Doc House had snorted, actually snorted, and tried to ditch her by turning a cold shoulder and ducking into another aisle. Melissa, concerned by the cane and pronounced limp, persisted, pestering him by constantly asking if he needed assistance. Eventually, Doc House snapped viscously that he had a rat that may or may not have a tumor caused by some sort of infectious disease or contaminate and- oh, yeah- he may or may not be extremely contagious himself, so could she point him to the local small mammal expert. Melissa bolted after that for her "scheduled" lunch break, leaving Kevin at Doc House's mercy and hoping that the doctor never returned. How unfortunate it was for Melissa, then, that Doc House became a regular customer, a perpetual reminder of that dismal first encounter.
Unlike Melissa and most of the other employees, Kevin had rather liked Doc House. Yes, he could be.... well, Kevin felt the polite way to put it was "curt." Yes, he could be rude and abrasive. However, he was still a good customer. Pet shop customers fell into two camps. Good customers took care of their pets, appreciating their companions and assuring that their basic needs both physical and mental were met and/or exceeded. They investigated their pets and stayed versed in the animals they were keeping, welcoming new insight. Good customers were a joy to work with as a pet shop employees. Bad customers took abysmal and often downright neglectful care of their animals, usually with good intentions. Bad customers often impulse purchased animals like Easter bunnies without doing any homework on them and ended up in a terrible mess. Bad customers could just about break anyone's heart. However, Doc House had been a good customer despite his acerbic demeanor, lavishing attention and treats on Steve McQueen.
Kevin appreciated good customers like Doc House, especially after the store adopted the Pets-For-A-Lifetime policy of taking in unwanted animals purchased at their store - no questions asked- to adopt out. Kevin hated seeing the sad conditions in which some people brought their now no longer wanted animals back, and began to savor the company of someone like Doc House who truly cared about their pet. He had started coming in once every week or two to idly purchase something for Steve McQueen. Sometimes treats, sometimes just staple foods and bedding, sometimes a new little toy or mental diversion for the rat. It seemed almost incongruous that someone could care so tender for a wild, brown rat caught in an attic. While other employees when running in the opposite direction, Kevin would smile and waltz right up to the doctor to say hello and chat about Steve McQueen's latest antics.
Over the course of the last year before his incarceration, however, Doc House came in more frequently, looking increasingly hollowed by the visit. His weekly visits turned into near daily visits, each time purchasing something new for the rat. The doctor lavished even more attention, toys, and treats of Steve McQueen. This did not escape Kevin's notice, nor did the bruises, various injuries, and dark depressions about the eyes that Doc House seemed to accumulate with time. Kevin began to wonder with a hazy concern if Doc House were in some sort of trouble, but he shrugged it off, knowing that the man was private by nature.
It came as a great surprise then, when the news hit that Doc House had murdered that poor girl. Kevin, along with the rest of the staff of the shop had, of course, recognized their most loyal, if not most strange, of customers when his face appeared on every newspaper and television touting the brutal act. The other employees spoke in hushed whispers around the store about how they should have seen it coming, about how lucky they were if Doc House could so viscously assault and kill a close colleague that he didn't do it to any of them. Kevin did not believe the news. How could someone who would care so warmly about a rat - vermin - honestly be capable of such brutality? No. Kevin knew it could only have been some sort of a mistake.
Kevin found himself worrying the more and more the news went on. There was no mention of any family related to Doc House, or an extensive social network. In fact, if anything, the news focused on that fact that the apparently brilliant diagnostician was something of a misanthrope with few friends, a shut in of sorts following an illness some years before. Kevin did not like the sounds of that. No friends and little family meant little to no options for Steve through Doc House's trial, meaning Steve McQueen likely ended up in an animal shelter that could not care for him and would never find a placement, or that Steve had been put down. Neither option appealed to the fondness of the rat that Kevin had fostered through the doctor without having met the creature. He often wondered what happened to poor Steve.
It was only a month or so after his arrest that a new face began to appear in the store, a face the other employees appreciated far more than Doc House. He had a disarmingly sincere face, with sweet, chocolate brown eyes like a big puppy. Kevin found this new customer poking around in the section of bagged small animal foods, looking rather confused by the various formulas and treats.
"Looking for someone in mind?" Kevin inquired politely from what he had found the best range of conversation with customers, not too far away to be rude, not too close for comfort, just a few lazy steps to the side.
The man laughed a nervous chuckle and admitted, "Something like that."
Kevin then asked, "Well, what kind of pet do you have?"
"A pest is more like it." The man smirked for a moment before sighing sadly and solemnly, shaking his head glumly and explaining, "I kind of, accidentally adopted a pet rat. He was my friend's but my friend is..." The man paused, carefully choosing his words, his eyes glossing strangely. "No longer able to take care of him."
Kevin frowned, not entirely liking that statement. "I'm surprised. Rats usually make relatively easy and affordable pets. Your friend develop an allergy or something?"
"Or something...." the man trailed off painfully sadly and uncomfortably still for a moment, his eyes going distant in thought and vacant before snapping back to life. "I'm sorry."
"No, it's alright," Kevin replied, feeling a mite bit out of his league when faced with this clearly downtrodden yet well dressed and impeccably groomed man.
"I shouldn't have come here," the man quickly blurted out with a fickle shake of his head.
"No, it's okay," Kevin repeated firmly but easily, stopping the stranger in his tracks. "You've got a pet rat. Okay. A good start. At least you know what you're working with. We have people come in all the time who don't even know what kind of pet they have." Kevin smirked, his lips quirking into a strange ghost of a smile. "Swear to god we had a guy come in here once that had caught a rattlesnake without knowing what it was."
The stranger smiled softly, looking down to the ground and nudging some imaginary rock with his toe as he accused, "You're a terrible liar."
"Stack of bibles!" Kevin cried out with a laugh, holding up his hands in mime of swearing on them. "Guy found it out in the front yard sunning on a rock and picked it up before the thing ever had a chance to wake up really. Grabbed it and put it in a huge 180 he had stored in the basement."
A tiny spark lit behind the man's eyes. "The rattling wasn't a giveaway?"
"Oh, no. We didn't figure that one out until Paul - our resident reptile guy - went out to go try to identify the snake in question. The dude told Paul it was a truly exotic snake and sweet talked him into going out to take a peek. Paul couldn't resist anything 'exotic.'" Kevin emphasized the point with gratuitous air quotes. "Said he opened the door, closed it right away as soon as he heard the rattle, and told the man quite politely that he'd better call local animal control and get his check book out to maybe pay a big fine for it."
The stranger chuckled in earnest and murmured, "My friend... he would have gotten a real kick out of that story."
Kevin had once heard of a franchise of pet stores that called their employees "pet counselors." Kevin rather liked the title. Granted, it was another corporate bullshit maneuver to make employees feel more important, like "Target Team Members" and "store associates," but Kevin liked it. He often felt that he and his coworkers were counselors of sorts. Something about working with animals disarmed people, made them bear themselves honestly and openly. It was the employee's task, then, to dig down to the root of any past, potential or current care issues by reading carefully between the lines of the stories. Seasoned employees could feel the instinctive tug at the back of their mind, such as the one that plagued Kevin now when faced by this stranger.
"Close friend, I take it?"
The stranger shrugged, hemming and hawing uncomfortably over the answer. "We were. For a long time." He paused, unconsciously chewing on his lower lip. "We had a... falling out."
The younger man felt the pain to the admission and let the subject drop. "So, why don't you tell me what supplies you have, and we can figure out what, if anything, you need."
The man nodded slowly and started to list supplies that sounded vaguely familiar. A large, ample sized cage for a small adult rat. A wheel for exercise and several other pieces of basic "furniture" to occupy the creature's mind and entertain it, including a plastic igloo type house for the rat to sleep on or in. What sounded vaguely like an assortment of pumice stones and wood toys, excellent for keeping the creature's teeth naturally rasped down to a healthy length without the need for clipping so long as it chewed. A ceramic food dish with a weighted bottom, and a sizable water bottle. A large bag of Carefresh bedding, perfect for small animals as they were nontoxic and did not contain the same aromatic oils that would irritate the rat's mucous membranes. Plenty of high quality block food, Nutro dried dog food with a teeny-tiny measuring spoon, a variety of dried grains and seeds. Everything and then some to not only keep a rat healthy, but in excellent shape, well beyond the supplies of the average rat owner.
"I'm surprised," Kevin admitted, quite impressed. "Sounds like your friend set you up pretty well to take care of him. Stockpiled for you by the sounds of it."
The stranger looked upset by that, his eyes misting. "Yeah." When he blinked, Kevin thought he saw a tear, but the man rubbed it away quickly with the back of his hand before continuing in a cracked whisper, "Like all he'd been doing was working and spoiling Steve for the last year."
Something clicked in Kevin, and his heart nearly stopped as he gulped and blurted, "Steve.... McQueen?"
"Yeah," the stranger blinked, clearly as taken back as the shop employee was.
"Wait.... you.... y-you h-have Steve McQueen?" Kevin stammered, feeling the color drain from his face and his hands tingling in shock. When the stranger nodded slowly, confused and perhaps a bit frightened, Kevin nearly feel head over heels in relief. "Oh, thank god."
"What?" the man demanded.
It was Kevin's turn to blink in surprise. "I'm sorry. It's just.... I knew... well... him."
The stranger did not need any further clarification; the stranger's eyes darkened as he composed himself. "I take it you've seen the news."
"Yes," Kevin answered quickly.
The man folded his arms across his chest and asked sternly, "And?"
"And.... I've just been kind of worried about Steve."
The man's expression changed from a defensive, accusatory tone to one of intense relief and warmth nearly instantly as he stuck out a hand. "Wilson. Dr. James Wilson."
Kevin shook his hand, sealing the odd friendship that would sprawl the next year or two as James Wilson, or "Doc Wilson" as Kevin preferred, came in for various treats and essentials for Steve McQueen. It seemed the spoiling of the common rat did not end with Doc House, and Wilson tended to keep Kevin just as updated on the rat's activities, although nowhere near as amused as the prior owner had been. Doc Wilson was just as guilty, perhaps out of concern for his friend as both he and Kevin watched Doc House confess to the murder of Allison Cameron. Kevin even set Doc Wilson up with one of the first club discount cards when the owner of Pet Paradise came up with the idea.
One day, maybe a year or so later, out of the blue, Kevin could not help but ask, "Do you think he did it?"
Doc Wilson needed no further explanation. "No." He looked down to the ground. "House wasn't - isn't-" he corrected himself with a chiding expression "-capable of murder. Not like that. Not mentally." He paused for a moment, as through grounding himself and sorting through the details of the crime scene, of the sheer brutality before admitting honestly, "I don't think physically either." He looked to Kevin, curiously. "Why do you ask?"
Kevin sighed. "I don't know. I just keep getting this feeling."
Doc Wilson nodded, but neither said a word about Doc House's supposed guilt beyond that.
About two years after Doc House was convicted, Doc Wilson came bolting into the store, searching every aisle frantically until he found Kevin and blurted out in a horrified whisper, "I killed Steve McQueen."
The newer employees might have been confused and taken back by the statement, but not Kevin. Kevin was a well seasoned employee. He had been with the store through high school and into this, his freshman semester at TCNJ. Kevin had known Steve McQueen well after all this time. He'd heard just about every Steve story from both the doctors.
"Aw, man," Kevin started, shaking his head. "I'm so sorry Doc Wilson."
Before the doctor could start bawling in the middle of the store, Kevin quickly ushered him into the back break area and, with a stern yet caring voice that seemed impossible from someone so young, ordered the doc to sit down. The break area had never been any great shakes, just a tiny closet in the back of the store, next to the giant sump for the saltwater system and outfitted only with a pathetic minifridge, a tiny television, and a semi-comfortable chair that looked like it had been torn from an old library. However, it had always been a refuge away from customers, and Kevin was certain Doc Wilson would appreciate being out of the prying eyes of any random passer by should he have the emotional breakdown he seemed dead set on. He left the doctor only briefly to grab a cup of water and a fistful of paper towels, both of which Doc Wilson gratefully accepted.
"I don't know what happened...." Doc Wilson murmured, shaking his head and dabbing his face with the paper towel. "I woke up this morning, and he was just..... dead...." Doc Wilson shuddered, curling up on himself and whimpering, "House is going to kill me if he ever finds out."
Kevin had always suspected the rat had grown on Doc Wilson more than he let on. Or, perhaps, it was the simple fact that Wilson felt he owed their failed friendship to take care of Steve McQueen while Doc House was in prison for the rest of his natural life. Kevin had just never imagined Doc Wilson would be this upset by it. The younger man said nothing for a moment, just waiting for the doctor to compose himself.
After the worst of it seemed to have subsided, Kevin did the math aloud. "Doc House found Steve what, a year or two before he was put in jail?"
"Yeah?" Wilson answered with a sniff.
"And you've had Steve how long?"
Doc Wilson thought for a moment, those eyes of his calculating. "About two years."
"Okay, and Steve was full grown when Doc House got him, so he could have been at least a few months old or maybe older than that. So, that's what? At least three to four years old at the worst, maybe older at the best," Kevin calculated.
Kevin rolled his eyes and sighed patronizingly. "Sooo, that's a relatively long life for a wild rat like Steve. Doesn't sound like you did anything wrong at all."
"I didn't kill him?" Doc Wilson whimpered, starting to look up slightly.
"Nope. Not at all," Kevin assured him with a shrug of his shoulders. "He very likely died of old age." He smiled warmly at the doctor. "It's okay. You did good. You gave Steve McQueen a far better life than he would have had with anyone else." He paused and patted Doc Wilson on the shoulder. "Doc House would be happy to know that."
Doc Wilson didn't take much cheering up after that. They shared a few words after that, meaningless niceties really, before Doc Wilson walked out of Pet Paradise and quite starkly out of Kevin's life after that. Without Steve McQueen, there was no need for Doc Wilson to stop by, nor did the doctor show any desire to replace Steve McQueen. No. Steve had been his pet, not Doc Wilson's. Kevin could not blame him when it clearly wasn't in Doc Wilson's mind to keep any other rat other than Steve.
Kevin continued to work at the pet shop through college, and even after. The economy took a downturn, and Kevin found himself lingering to both ride out the recession and contemplate perhaps going back to school for veterinary medicine. As time wore on, the rest of the staff forgot about the strange doctors and their even stranger pet, but Kevin never forgot.
Years later, however, much to Kevin's surprise, Doc House's name appeared in the news once more quite out of the blue. He watched in startled horror as the real story unfolded, watching with the same rapt attention as the rest of New Jersey did and learning of the ordeal as it unfolded. House, a doctor blackmailed into signing a horrific contract. House, a friend forced into a terrible corner. House, a man who had suffered impossibly for five years in the dark, without any end in sight. Kevin watched the news because he simply could not turn away. A month or so later, Kevin breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that Doc House had been granted a full pardon and release from prison.
A few weeks after that, Kevin watched in transfixed horror as House appeared on the news once more. He looked...... just ghastly. Every major news station played the same footage over and over again that day as Doc House was wheeled out of Princeton-Plainsboro and into a waiting ambulance to be whisked away to "rest," with Doc Wilson at his side the whole time. Kevin had heard of the abuse, the eyes and the ears especially, but he had never seen the pictures. Seeing the sheer extent of the damage was far different than hearing the tales, even with thick gauze pads and bandaging covering what had to be the worst of it, the empty sockets where once bright and crisp blue eyes had been.
The next morning, Kevin could not look at the rats in their cages the same way.
In mid December, late that same year, Evil Knievel arrived. Kevin could not help but smirk at the portly little rat. Evil Knievel had beautiful markings. An ivory coat with a quite unique, dusky, brown hood that vaguely resembled a bicycle helmet. It had a charming sort of effect on the creature, and the pattern had clearly inspired the name.
However, unlike the real Evil Knievel, this Evil Knievel was portly. No. Portly was a polite way to put it. This Evil Knievel had been spoilt to the point of morbid obesity. Evil Knievel's owner, a rather fickle preteen boy, had lost interest in his once beloved pet, and cared only to refill the creature's food again and again. As a result, when the boy's frustrated parents returned the rat under the Pets-For-A-Lifetime policy, Evil Knievel could downright waddled. In fact, Evil Knievel was so round that, when placed upon a shoulder, the rat could only flail timidly in air, waving legs too short to reach solid ground beneath before giving up.
Kevin immediately grew quite attached to Evil Knievel, but he seriously doubted anyone would want to adopt a severely obese rat like he. While the rat had a downright endearing sweetness and tenderness to it, most people only wanted cute, cuddly puppies, kittens, hamsters or gerbils for holiday pets, ignoring Evil Knievel. In fact, Kevin started to worry about the customers that were large snake owners, who started almost immediately to eye Evil Knievel like a fat little meatball for their pet pythons. It was only fortunate that the Pets-For-A-Lifetime policy prevented any returned pet from becoming food for another animal. Pets-For-A-Lifetime pets were for adoption only.
There seemed something so odd to a rat who could only really waddle slowly about, something nagging. Kevin had learnt that the secret to being a good pet shop employee was matching the right pet to the right person. Surely, there had to be someone out there who would appreciate a rat who could hardly roll about their cage, let alone exercise or play.
The closer Christmas drew and the more Kevin became attached to Evil Knievel, the more a tiny, strange thought began to germinate in him.
Dr. James Wilson still hemmed over how exactly to celebrate Christmas. It was the first free Christmas House had seen in five years, technically longer if he considered the time his friend had spent under the rule of that awful contract. House was still weak, still struggling with the hand coordination necessary to properly use silverware, meaning he had to be careful about what to prepare, if anything. The lack of strength and coordination also meant wrapped presents where a thing of the past. House's dismal energy reserves meant that there were few of the usual gifts that could be enjoyed, while the blindness ruled out any of the video games or puzzles Wilson might have otherwise given him. He frightened easily, meaning no surprises or anything too out of the ordinary. All of those facts curtailed any of the usual things he and House had shared on Christmases past.
Wilson had briefly entertained the notion of setting up a tree in the living room as he once had before completely abandoning the idea as utterly the most foolish thing he had ever thought. House could not see a tree to appreciate it, and it just wasn't practical. House's wading pool and nest of blankets took up much of the room that would have been otherwise afforded a tree, ruling it out logistically. However, that was not what Wilson worried about. Secretly, Wilson harbored a terror that House might accidentally knock down the tree and seriously hurt himself either by the simple act of clambering about on the ground, or during a panic attack, in which he was prone to flee in any direction. In his mind, Wilson could see it so very clearly, House's gnarled, scarred body curled up under a fallen tree amid a sea of ironically brightly colored glass shards from shattered ornaments. No. Wilson could not chance something as foolishly frivolous as a tree with that disastrous possibility lingering over his head.
Wilson sighed. He wanted to do something for House for Christmas. No. He needed to do something for House. The man's vigor had been renewed since the conference, but that had been short lived as time progressed and drew closer to the holidays. He still listened to the journals, slowly catching up on new publications between his Library for the Blind tapes and reading aloud from Clarence and Wilson, but, the closer Christmas drew, the more House seemed lost amid the usual holiday hubbub. House had never been a Christmas person by nature, but that did not mean that Wilson did not see him nursing what could only be described as a growing despondency.
Wilson had half contemplated simply skipping the holidays for a heartbeat as well, but that was just as foolish an idea as thinking he and House could simply go back to business as usual from before the contract. Since the surgery on House's ear, he could hear the various, overly saccharine holiday movies endlessly repeating on television. He would know it if Wilson attempted to just skip the holidays, and he'd be sorely pissed.
All of these facts, and many more, Wilson had to ponder one otherwise quiet, Thursday night after House went down for bed. He still slept curled up in his corner on the floor, swaddled up in a sea of blankets and one electric one Wilson had insisted on him using to ward off the winter cold that still sent chills playing through his underweight body and renewed throbbing aches his joints and countless old fractures. House remained adamant about his plans to reclaim his position as Head of Diagnostics, fighting taking too many naps in the day and avoiding the once necessary Ativan for his nightmares and panic attacks. Yet, this led to the necessity of a generally early bedtime for House of his own free will, usually around eight-thirty when his body gave out after his dinner meds. That day, Clarence had been a little tough on House's PT, and the man went down early in the night, drooping already by seven-fortifive before giving in entirely at eight.
So lost in his thoughts, Wilson nearly jumped clean out of his skin when he heard a soft rap upon his door. He glanced at his watch and found it a little past nine. He and House rarely had visitors ever, usually only Clarence or people expected well in advance, never any surprise guests, and especially not so late. Wilson frowned. If it were Clarence, he would have just used his copy of the key to come on in as opposed to risking walking 'the doc.'
Wilson moved quickly to answer the door before whoever it was could knock again. He'd never gotten used to House's initial deafness, rushing to answer the phone or the door before the sudden, loud noises could startle the easily frightened man. As such, transitioning to a post-tympanoplasty House who could once again hear had been a simple one. He opened the door, fully prepared to hiss a barrage of perfectly timed swears at whoever might come at this late of an hour, but, as was, Wilson nearly keeled over when he opened the door.
"Sorry to stop by so late, Doc Wilson."
He blinked in outright surprise. Out in the Jersey cold, bundled up in a thick peacoat, swaddled with a knitted scarf, and clutching a small cardboard parcel, stood that geeky kid from the pet shop. Wilson started, struggling for a moment to recall his name. Something with a hard "c" sound. Conner? Carter? Kale? No.
"Kevin....." Wilson breathed in shock. "What are you doing here?"
He smiled, perhaps a bit bashfully, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm not a hundred percent sure." Kevin swung his head to the side, surveying the chilled night and the vapor of his breath hanging frozen upon the air. "It's.... kind of cold. Um.... can I.... uh.... can I come in?"
Wilson nodded slowly, timidly. "Yes, yes of course. Just...." The doctor glanced over his shoulder to the house- more precisely to the hall that lead to House's room- before dropping his voice to a hushed whisper. "He's asleep." He paused before begging, "Please... just be very quiet."
Kevin gave a quick jerk of his head, enough for Wilson to know he understood. The oncologist stepped back and eased the door open further and gesturing for Kevin to enter. The kid had gotten older, aging and growing more mature than Wilson thought possible over the years. His eyes no longer bore the youthful innocence Wilson recalled. He was no longer a child, but a man, Wilson knew. He remained deathly silent as he entered, not even commenting on the wading pool, or the abandoned nest of blankets in the corner.
"Can I.... get you something to drink?" Wilson whispered hesitantly.
Kevin shook his head tersely, answering, "No. I won't be long." He looked down to the ground. "I saw him.... on the news." He chewed his lip. "How is he?"
"He's...." Wilson paused, mulling over how to answer precisely before giving the honest response. "Better. Much better." Wilson's lips curled into a slight smirk. "We did this conference in Atlantic City a couple months ago."
"Yeah?" Kevin lifted his head, his piqued interest genuine. "How'd that go?"
"Spent much of the weekend berating old rivals," the doctor finished with a stifled chuckle.
"Sounds like him."
Neither said a word for a long, odd moment. The time spanned infinitely before them as both played out what to say next in the back of their mind. When one finally spoke, it was Wilson who dared break the silence.
"How did you know where we live?" He inquired.
"Looked up your old discount card file." Kevin frowned. "Boss never throws anything out." He looked up suddenly to Wilson and blanched. "Oh, god. I'm sorry. I shouldn't-"
"No, no," Wilson insisted politely. "I was just... curious."
Again, silence prevailed over the two of them before being broken by a strange, scratching sound. Wilson furrowed his brow, but Kevin jolted from whatever silent reverie that held him so transfixed by the situation. A mad grin spread across the younger man's face, and he dramatically extended the small parcel to Wilson.
The doctor eyed the the box curiously but suspiciously, asking, "What is it?"
"It's a.... an early Christmas present," Kevin promptly decided, smiling warmly, looking down to his feet. "I thought Doc House would appreciate it."
Wilson raised an eyebrow but gingerly took the tiny package of thin cardboard with tiny holes punched into it. The box trembled in his hand, shifting oddly. Wilson jumped, nearly dropping the thing. When the doctor looked to Kevin, the younger man just grinned broadly in return. Wilson shook his head at him and opened the carefully folded tabs at the end, peering into the dark interior of the box with a tiny tremble of curiosity. A pair of beady, gleaming eyes stared back in return. Wilson reached into the box and pulled out the fattest rat he had ever seen in his entire life.
Kevin reached across and stroked the clearly obese rat's head lovingly. "His name is Evil Knievel. Kid brought him back for us to adopt out and...." The younger man drew a breath. "And I thought Doc House might.... I don't know.... like to have him."
Wilson nodded appreciatively at the gesture and, more so, the thought that had gone behind it. Evil Knievel hardly looked like he could get very far on his own accord, meaning House wouldn't have to worry about him getting loose while handling him. Even better. Evil Knievel's portly stature meant he also provided the perfect shape for House to hold with his ruined hands. The perfect rat for House.
"You don't think he'll get mad at me for trying to replace Steve McQueen, do you? Because I can take him back if Doc House doesn't want him," Kevin abruptly blurted out.
"No, I think he'll love him," Wilson affirmed.
After that, Kevin ran out to his car to bring in some things, a fresh bag of bedding and food. They shared a few whispered updates on their lives before Kevin excused himself for the night. Wilson could sense the unease in the younger man. Kevin was worried, yes, but more so afraid that he had or would somehow offend or frighten House by his presence. The younger man made sure Wilson still had everything he needed to take care of a rat from Steve McQueen before heading back out into the cold for the night. Wilson promised he'd stop in the shop in a couple of days to let him know how the introductions went.
Wilson locked the door behind him and turned, Evil Knievel in hand and tucked safely up in the crook of his arm, his twitching whiskers tickling Wilson. The oncologist walked silently down the hall to House's room. He knocked gently, and, upon hearing no return call, slipped through the door. The room was dark, but Wilson had put in one of those little, blue led nightlights early on so he could slip into House's room without turning on all the lights or risk tripping on the man. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the pale, blue illumination but, in time, he came to spy House's silhouette huddled up in his preferred corner on the air mattress. House did not move, did not wake or even show signs of stirring as Wilson approached, further testament to how much the Clarence's strenuous PT regime had taken out of him. Wilson knelt beside him and placed a hand on House's shoulder, giving just enough of a squeeze to rouse his friend, sending the man spasming in surprise.
"Wilson?" He whispered, his voice groggy and thick with confusion from being torn from his slumber so soon after hitting deep sleep. "Night meds?"
It was curious how House could still express such a wide range of emotions even without his eyes, perhaps equally as curious as how deep the hollows where his eyes had once been appeared with the intense shadowing. House's face wrinkled with some discernible effort in something akin to puzzlement. Wilson knew it took effort, but he appreciated it just the same, especially when House had been both blind and deaf, when those facial contortions where the only clue to a higher brain function surviving House's grizzly ordeal.
House scowled. "What is it?"
"Someone came by to give you an early Christmas present. Remember Kevin?"
House's brow knit as Wilson gently manipulated his gnarled, twisted fingers into a roughly cup like shape before placing Evil Knievel in his hold. House concentrated, focusing on the shape, his fingers skimming over the fur and exploring. A hint of a smile began to form on his face as House slowly realized what Wilson had handed him. It had been years since House had felt anything remotely like that, and he gave a convulsive little jerk, perhaps holding back sobs as his fingers continued to stroke and pet the soft fur of the rat. Meanwhile, Evil Knievel seemed quite content to enjoy the touching, his tiny nose twitching away in quiet contentment.
"His name's Evil Knievel," Wilson announced.
House shook his head and gently poked at the roly-poly creature's plump girth. "Feels more like a fat Elvis." There was a moment of hesitation before House swallowed and asked, "I can keep him?"
"You like him?" Wilson asked softly, a bit unsure.
"Yeah," House replied softly, as he drew the creature up to his chest and held him close. "Yeah, I really do."
The oncologist beamed, despite the fact that House couldn't see it and rubbed his friend's shoulder. "Then, merry early Christmas."
"Thanks," House murmured, drawing Evil Knievel close to his chest to cuddle up with him, adding, "And thank the kid for me."
Wilson thought he saw a tear glisten on House's cheek as he said that, but the man turned away in the dark. He rose slowly now that he knew House and Evil Knievel would be safe together. Wilson had to go dig Steve's old cage out of storage to set up that night so the rat could have a secure place to sleep. He made it to the door when House called softly to him, his voice such a hushed whisper that Wilson almost thought it his imagination, especially considering what was said.
"And merry Christmas to you, too."
Author's Notes : Yeah, all my other stories were bringing me a little down, so I wanted to take a quick break. I wanted to write a small, little, teeny, tiny ditty that ended on an upbeat note for once (*Seriously.... look at my track record of angst ridden tales). So, I picked the world's most angst ridden House fic series (The Contractverse) and the most angsty part of even that -verse (Pencils Can Be Dangerous), and tried to make something light. Alex, if you're reading, I love your work! House needed a rat after everything in the Contractverse imho, and Steve wouldn't likely have lived long enough to be alive when House got out in PCBD.
Inspiration! My good friends and I used to actually work in a pet shop that had a Pets-For-A-Lifetime policy. My roommate actually adopted through that policy these two incredibly fat rats about the size and description of Evil Knievel (so fat that you really could put them on your shoulder and they could not crawl or fall off!). They were the sweetest rats I'd ever met!