Ahh, and here we come to the end of another story. I really enjoyed writing it and I'm glad that it seems that some other people have enjoyed reading it. Please leave comments and criticism and let me know if the ending meets with your approval!
After the phone call from House, Cameron felt the sudden need to get out of the apartment for a while. She couldn't explain her reasons, if asked, but they had to do with a need to keep busy with something that had nothing to do with the man whose rat she was currently watching. The weather was still cloudy, but she didn't think it would snow again. It was too warm for that. She grabbed her coat, added another book to the stack on top of Steve's cage, and headed out.
Two hours and she'd hit the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the video store and the pet store. She'd managed to avoid thinking about Steve and House for approximately half the time and by the time she'd hit the pet store, she'd given up. She bought clips to hold Steve's cage closed, and couldn't resist a little plastic ball that was meant to be stuffed with treats.
She entered her apartment calling out Steve's name, and smacked the heel of her hand against her forehead an instant later. Then she shrugged out of her coat and gave up again.
"Hey there, Steve. Lonely while I was gone?" she asked, approaching the furry creature who yawned and stretched in such a way that Cameron was forced to contain a girly giggle or slap herself again.
There was definitely something about having him in her living room that made the entire apartment feel warmer and friendlier. Possibly it was the fact that she'd rarely had any human friends occupying the same space. Foreman and Chase had both started out assuming that she had a constant stream of friends and lovers in and out of her life. Foreman had been the first to figure out how wrong he was. Chase had taken a bit longer. Neither of them asked about her weekends anymore.
Following a familiar pattern, Cameron draped her laundry over the sofa and lugged the grocery bags into the kitchen. A few minutes later, she returned, grabbed the clothes, stripped off the cheap plastic wrap, and toted them into the bedroom. She usually transferred everything from the sharp wire hangers onto the perfectly matched plastic ones that hung on the rack, but this time she just shoved everything into the far end of the closet. She'd fix them later.
Steve was racing around his cage when she returned to the living room, and she found herself smiling despite herself. It was tough to be morose in the face of such clear affection.
"You want to come out?" she asked, and opened the cage without getting an answer.
Five seconds later and Steve had climbed up her arm and onto her shoulder. Apparently he expected a repeat of the previous afternoon's movie watching and popcorn snacking. Cameron saw no reason to deny him and popped in a DVD. This time it wasn't anything starring his namesake, but instead a collection of old British sitcoms.
With Steve still perched on her shoulder, she went about making popcorn, grabbing a bottle of water and snagging a handful of peanuts, one of which was immediately given to her furry neck warmer. It was almost three by the time she turned on the television and she wondered when House would call. She didn't have long to wait.
At five past four, the phone rang. She picked it up on the second ring.
"On the road yet?" she asked, not even bothering to ask who it was.
As before, he seemed a bit taken aback by the fact that she apparently found him so predictable. Strangely, it didn't occur to him that he was her only caller and so she had no reason to expect anyone else.
"Yeah. We just stopped for gas. Should be back late in the evening."
Cameron nodded and gave Steve a piece of popcorn to distract him from nibbling at the phone. "Okay. I'll have him ready to go whenever you call."
There was a pause where he seemed to be thinking. "You don't have to be so accommodating. You can just drop him off tomorrow before work."
"It's not a big deal," she replied. "Really."
"You'd give your right arm to someone in need and say it wasn't a big deal," House snarked.
"Very funny," Cameron said without laughing. "Maybe I just can't wait to get him out of my apartment," she countered his argument.
"Not a chance. Steve is very loveable, and a definite lady's man."
Cameron gave a short laugh. "Fine, you've got me there."
"Ha! Of course I do."
Blue-gray eyes rolled and Cameron glanced at the wall in exasperation, wishing House could see her expression.
"So you'll call when you get in?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll call. Should be by nine at the latest. Wilson drives like a man possessed."
"I think you're talking about yourself. Wilson drives a Volvo and I bet he goes five to ten miles over the speed limit. Tops."
"Usually, yes, but he's just spent forty-eight hours in my company. Even his wife is starting to look good by comparison."
This time Cameron really did laugh, and was startled to hear a low chuckle coming from House as well. Real laughter coming from him was something she'd rarely heard. In fact, she tried to remember if she had ever heard it at all.
"Okay. Well then… I guess I'll talk to you later," she said, suddenly feeling awkward, as if she'd just walked in on a private moment--except that the private moment was actually between the two of them.
"Yeah," House replied, back to his normal monotone. "Later." He hung up without saying good-bye, which was no longer a surprise.
Between television, reading, rat-petting and some light cleaning, Cameron kept herself busy for the rest of the day and evening. She had to remind herself to eat something for dinner, and settled on stir-fried chicken and vegetables. Steve watched her through the doorway as she cooked and made squeaking sounds of approval. He was down for another nap by the time she finished cooking, and so she ate silently with a book in her lap and a cup of tea beside her on the coffee table.
It was with a slight feeling of melancholy that she started gathering up Steve's things after she cleaned the kitchen. It was absolutely ridiculous that she should miss a rat she'd only known for three days, and yet she had a feeling the apartment would seem twice as lonely with him gone. Food, treat and travel cage went into the car and then she picked up her book again and waited for House's call.
That call came at slightly past nine o'clock. Cameron was nearly finished with her book, and she reminded herself for the hundredth time never to buy something that had been recommended by Oprah. They always left her weepy and this time was no exception. When the phone rang she answered it with a small sniffle as she closed her book and slid it onto the sidetable.
"Yes. I guess you must be home." Cameron sniffled again and rubbed at her nose.
"Yeah. Just got in. But you don't need to come over. Sounds like you'd be better off in bed." House's voice carried a dose of snideness, but also an unexpected concern.
Cameron's brows drew together as she tried to understand what would have brought that on, and then she sniffled again and realized the source of his uncharacteristic kindness.
"No, I'll come over. I was just reading something sad. I'm fine."
House's normal sarcasm came back stronger than ever in order to cover his previous sentimentality. "Leave it to you to depress yourself with books when life already sucks."
"Yeah, that's me all right," Cameron replied testily. "Now, do you want your rat back, or not?"
"Well, since you're so eager to get rid of him, yes. No telling if you'll suddenly break out the rat poison in the middle of the night."
"Right. I'm a cold-blooded killer at heart, you know."
"I always suspected as much," House snapped.
This exchange was much more barbed than previous conversations had been and Cameron wanted to take back half of her words and go back to how they'd spoken to each other that morning, but she didn't know how. She sighed and held the phone loosely in her hand.
"I'll be over in twenty minutes, okay?" she said, feeling suddenly defeated. Obviously the semi-normalcy between them was drawing to a close, along with the weekend.
"I'll be here," House told her.
"Good," she answered, and this time she was the one to hang up first.
Steve had been roused from his nap by the sound of Cameron's voice, and he scampered up his ramps to the top shelf and poked his nose through the bars as he looked up at her.
"Time to go home," Cameron told him, leaning over to pick up the cage. "Your father's home."
Lugging the cage down to her car was more difficult than lugging it up, but she managed to get it situated inside and made comforting shushing noises to the rat when he started tearing around the bottom of the cage.
"Don't worry. It's a short trip. Remember?" she said, unable to stop herself from talking to him despite how silly she knew it was.
The only evidence of the previous day's snow was slightly dirty drifts along the sides of the road and Cameron made her way easily through the darkened streets towards House's townhouse. Traffic was light and she arrived sooner than expected and sat in her car staring up at the yellow light coming from House's front window. Her heart felt like it was thumping in an odd rhythm and her stomach tightened. Why did this have to be so hard? She felt that giving up Steve was giving up whatever tenuous connection she had with the man she was trying so hard not to care about.
"Looks like we're here," she announced over her shoulder.
Steve squeaked softly but remained tucked inside one of his tunnels.
There was no traffic on the street, and the sounds of Cameron's door opening along with the sound of her shoes upon the sand-strewn asphalt seemed preternaturally loud in her ears. She wished another car would drive by, but it was Sunday, and most people were already home for the night.
"C'mon," she said as she slipped her arm through the handles of Steve's bag of food and tugged his cage out of her car. She closed the door with one swing of her hips and crossed the street to House's front door.
Pale light spilled out onto the landing as soon as she set foot on it. House stood there with the door open, and Cameron wondered if he'd seen her sitting in her car.
"Here he is, safe and sound," she said, with attempted cheerfulness.
"Hmm. I'll be the judge of that," House said as he took the cage from her and limped heavily into the living room, cane hooked over his forearm.
He set Steve's cage back on its stand and poked a thick finger in through the cage bars.
"She treat you all right?" he asked. "Or was she poking you with sticks all weekend?"
"Ha, ha." Cameron said, smirk firmly in place.
House stood up and faced Cameron for the first time, his eyes sliding quickly off her face and down to the floor. He shoved one hand in his pocket and fished out a crumpled wad of money.
"I'll have to owe you half," he said as he held out the cash. "Beer and pretzels aren't cheap when they have a monster truck label attached."
Cameron took the money, feeling like it was coming from the allowance of a twelve-year-old boy. "I guess you're probably good for it," she said with a slight flash in her eyes.
House looked up and met them, holding her gaze for a few seconds longer than usual. "Yeah, that's what Wilson always says. Sucker," he said with a broad grin. "Don't worry though, the promised Chase torture will proceed on schedule."
"As if that was even in question," Cameron teased. "The real payment would be getting you to stop riding him so hard."
House cocked his head and stared at her face intently. "Is that what you want?" It was a challenge. Do you want me to play nice with him? Are you that attached to him? You want him to be happy?
"Nah. That'd just be strange," she replied.
With a little har-umph of a sigh, House started limping back towards the door at the same time Steve started tearing around his cage.
Cameron knew that House expected her to beat a hasty retreat, but she faltered and failed to move in his direction. Instead she pointed at the fast-moving rodent. "He wants to come out."
Glancing over his shoulder, House nodded in agreement. "Yeah. He's not great about that yet."
"Sure he is," Cameron insisted, walking deeper into the living room instead of towards the door. She unlocked Steve's cage and he scittered up her arm and under her hair. "See? Good as gold."
House tried his best not to look impressed.
"Yeah, you probably rubbed cheese behind your ears."
With head bent, Cameron looked at him through her lashes, expression bordering on exasperation. "Yeah, because impressing you with my rat training skills was always my big plan," she said dryly.
"I wouldn't doubt it," House responded as he moved closer and held out his hand, looking stupidly pleased when Steve crawled onto it and then up onto his shoulder.
Cameron looked at the two of them somewhat wistfully. This was ridiculous. She had to go. Right now. If not sooner.
"Yeah. Okay, I should go," Cameron said in a rush. She reached out a delicate hand and gave Steve a light pat on the head. "I'll… I'll see you tomorrow."
"Right. Bright and early. Don't be late," House told her as she let herself out.
She turned and pinned him with her gaze. "I'm never late," she said, and then hurried out the door. She didn't look up at House's window again, and she therefore didn't see a man with a rat peering out a window at her speeding car.
Back at her own apartment, things seemed not only quieter, but colder as well. She quickly stripped off her clothes, pulled on fleece pajamas and slipped into bed. It was too early for her to be tired, but she laid there in the dark anyway, watching the changing shadow-patterns thrown across her ceiling by the moon. Her eyes were bright, even in the moonlight, and it took a long time for them to drift closed as she subconsciously waited for a phone that wasn't going to ring anymore.
Cameron had to drag herself out of bed the next morning, despite the bright sunshine pooling on her bed and drenching her room in light. Her head was pounding by the time she got out of the shower and she pinched her temples with thumb and forefinger before downing her small palm-full of medications and gulping down water to ease the process.
Not quite half an hour later--but still five minutes late--she was walking through the lobby of PPTH, her hair pulled back neatly, light makeup perfectly applied, pantsuit pressed and professional looking. Only the slight tightness around lips and eyes gave away the fact that she wasn't feeling her best. She didn't want to admit to herself that the lack of soft scurrying sounds in the night had contributed to her insomnia during the night and dejected mood since waking. She clutched her computer case a fraction tighter and cursed herself for being so damn sentimental and hopeful when House was right; life sucked.
As she passed by the clinic she caught a bit of a conversation between two nurses. It sounded like House was already at work, and terrorizing patients. That was a first. Usually Cuddy couldn't bribe him into fulfilling his duties there until at least ten or eleven. She must have snagged him when he went to get coffee at the cafeteria. No doubt she'd hear something from him about how her tardiness (and therefore her lack of coffee making) had cost him valuable Gameboy time. He would, once again, conveniently ignore the fact that she was usually at least half an hour early while he was generally fifteen to twenty minutes late.
Foreman passed her in the hall and called out that their new patient was on the way. He was on his way to the lab to check on the boy's blood work. Chase was in the conference room, feet up, doing a crossword puzzle.
"You're late today," he commented, as she hurried in, taking her coat off as she walked to the coat rack.
"Thanks for stating the obvious," she replied, surprised at her own bitterness.
"Whoa there! House already bit my head off once this morning. I was just making conversation. You okay?" He seemed genuinely concerned and Cameron sighed.
"Fine," she told him. "Just a bad morning."
"Well grab some coffee and drink it fast. New patient coming up and like I said, House is on a tear, as usual."
Cameron filled her mug, added cream and took a sip, smiling just a bit at Chase's assessment, and remembering House's promise. She doubted that the two had anything to do with each other, but she still found it amusing. She walked to her desk while Chase gathered his files and headed out, probably to join Foreman in the lab. When she pulled her chair back, the usual light clattering of its wheels was accompanied by the more hollow clattering of pills in a bottle.
Rolling around on her seat was a prescription bottle. Cameron picked it up and read the label, seeing her name, an Rx for a drug she'd only heard of a few times, and Dr. Gregory House's name typed neatly under 'Prescribing Physician'. The warmth in her chest was entirely out of proportion to the gesture, or at least it would have been if Gregory House had been any other man.
She hadn't taken her usual ibuprofen yet, so she took the new medication instead, following it with a swallow of terribly brewed coffee. She really needed to get to the hospital earlier if only to keep Chase away from the coffeemaker.
The rest of the day passed with a sort of unpredictability that they had all come to accept as actually quite predictable. The patient was brought to their ward, and while Cameron, Chase and Foreman dealt with him and his family, House spent much of his time in his office surrounded by books, iPod firmly in place. As new symptoms appeared, more meetings were called, more tests run, and more drugs prescribed. Thankfully for all involved, the boy never worsened to the state many of the patients wound up in, but the drugs didn't seem to be helping much either. Unfortunately, it would take time to know if both their diagnosis and their treatment were correct.
Foreman had drawn the short straw and would stay at the hospital overnight and monitor the boy while the rest of them went home and hoped that they wouldn't be paged back to the ward. Often in such circumstances, House would hang around a bit later than his usual five o'clock, but tonight he left right on time. Cameron passed his darkened office on the way to her desk and sighed. He'd barely said five words to her all day and they'd all had to do with their patient.
She noticed that Chase's coat was gone as she grabbed her own from the hanger. He never wasted time when it came to leaving. Her computer was still on, the screensaver bouncing random streaks of light across a blackened background. She bent to get her case and frowned slightly at weight it already contained.
Opening it up revealed a miniature truck, made to be identical to the Grave Digger truck she and House had seen together. There was no note, but tucked into the truck-bed was twenty-five dollars. Cameron held the truck and smiled, wondering if he'd had the money all along. She would never ask.
She packed up her computer and pulled an empty bag from her desk, using it to carry the truck. She wanted to leave it on her desk, but she had a feeling House wouldn't be too happy if she did. Too many questions he didn't want to answer, from her or anyone else. It didn't matter really matter anyway because she didn't think she wanted to answer them either.
The hospital was still quite busy as she stepped into the elevator, and she was patient even though it stopped on every floor on the way down. When Dr. Wilson got on she nodded and gave him a little smile.
"Dr. Wilson," she said, somewhat formally. "I hear you had a good weekend."
Wilson raised one eyebrow and chuckled. He was still a little surprised that House had asked her to watch his furry plague-bearer and he was more surprised by the few slips House had made over the weekend.
"Yeah. Pretty good. That rat behave himself for you?"
Cameron smiled again and relaxed a bit. "Perfect angel. Well, aside from escaping once, but don't tell House that."
"My lips are sealed," Wilson promised, and Cameron knew he would keep it.
The elevator stopped at the lobby and both of them got out and headed towards the garage.
"I'll actually miss the little guy," she admitted, glancing down at her bag and thinking that even a present from House was a poor substitute for the bit of company Steve had provided.
"Judging by how often House checked in, I'm guessing he missed the furball too… of course I suppose he might have been calling for other reasons." Wilson wasn't quite looking at her, instead finding the tile floor to be quite fascinating.
Cameron fumbled around for some words that didn't betray her disbelief but couldn't come up with any. "I didn't think--"
"He left his cell phone at home and had to use mine. It shows the last numbers that were dialed."
"Oh," Cameron said, still feeling blindsided. "I still don't think it meant anything," she said lamely. "Gave him something to do, that's all," she continued, intent on keeping her own expectations low.
"You're probably right," Wilson replied and then there was an awkward pause as Cameron said nothing. Wilson glanced at her once more and then jerked his thumb to the side. "There's my car. Drive safe, Dr. Cameron," he said as he veered off to the left.
"You too," Cameron replied by rote, and gave a little wave in his general direction.
She spent her drive home convincing herself that what Wilson had said meant nothing. By the time she'd finished her little routine of changing and cleaning and cooking, she'd almost managed to achieve her goal.
If the television was turned a bit louder and a few more lights were on than usual, there was no one but Cameron to notice. She ate her dinner on the sofa, letting a mindless sitcom purge her brain of more complex thoughts. She didn't laugh once, but at least she wasn't thinking too much either.
The phone rang at eight thirty and she took a chance when she answered it saying, "Well I know you're not calling to ask about Steve."
"No. Although your motherly presence seems to have had a positive influence on him. You know a rat needs male and female role-models to grow up well-adjusted."
Cameron chuckled, but there was little mirth behind it, and instead more sadness that House only seemed to be able to relate to her through a third party, be it Wilson, Stacy or Steve. "Oh, so you've picked me to be his mom?"
"You seem to have a knack for it."
A thin smile drifted across Cameron's face before fading away. "Well, he's pretty cute. I guess I could do worse for a surrogate son."
This was the part where she expected a snappy one-liner - perhaps 'just don't take me to court for joint custody' - and then a hang-up from House. She was surprised when he stayed on the line, breathing into her ear.
"Cameron," was what he finally said, and nothing more until she felt compelled to prod.
"I didn't just call about the rat."
Now Cameron was silent for a moment before replying, "I sort of figured that out."
"Good. Glad to have that settled."
Now he was definitely going to hang up, but Cameron stopped him with a word. "Wait!"
"What is it?" he asked, and the time it took him to speak told her she'd been right and he'd been lowering the phone and about to hang up.
Great. She had nothing to say.
"I… just… It's been nice talking to you like this." Lame. Very lame, and she closed her eyes and pressed her fist into her forehead.
"Yeah," he said gruffly, and Cameron opened her eyes. "It has." He gave a slight cough to clear a throat that wasn't blocked, before saying, "Don't be late tomorrow."
Cameron didn't reply, expecting the quick hang-up to follow. Instead she could almost hear him thinking on the other end of the line.
"G'night," he muttered, so quickly and quietly that she might have missed it if she hadn't been concentrating on the steady in-out of his breathing.
The familiar click and dial-tone followed immediately and Cameron didn't have time to reply.
She stayed up for a while longer, watching the news, although she wouldn't have been able to repeat a single story if asked. At ten-thirty she made her round of the apartment, starting the dishwasher, turning out the lights, checking the front door. The air seemed lighter, warmer than before. She told herself that it was the promise of impending visitation with Steve, as if that reason was better than the thought that she was once more hoping that things between her and House were actually getting better.
With the steady hum of the dishwasher providing a comforting background noise, Cameron changed her clothes, got ready for bed and took her medications, including the new one House had prescribed. She had only started the new pills today, but already they seemed to make her feel better.At least the headache had disappeared by noon.
One lamp illuminated her room and she snuggled into her bed and read for a few minutes before setting aside her book and folding her glasses neatly on top of it. The room filled with darkness as she shut off the light but her chest didn't have that heaviness that had plagued it so frequently. She rolled over and let her eyes adjust to the dim moonlight casting the room in blues.
Her eyes started to drift closed, but she kept them focused for a few moments longer, looking at the small truck parked on her nightstand. Such a silly thing, but it caused a wistful smile to tilt the corners of her mouth. They'd had fun that night. Maybe they would again.