A/N: A bit of a departure from my normal style - written for the Friday night challenge on the Fox Forum, with the theme 'Mothers Day'. Hope you enjoy!
Wilson sat back on House's sofa, taking a large bite from the slice of pizza in his hand. He was looking forward to their rare boys' time together. Although he'd been careful not to take sides in House and Amber's custody battle, he did think that perhaps House had got the raw end of the deal. But tonight was going to be good, they had pizza, they had beer, they had a hockey game on television and House had promised that he had some tantalizing piece of gossip from the hospital to share.
He looked around House's apartment and had to admit that a small part of him was very grateful that his friend hated change so much. It provided Wilson with some stability in his typically unstable life to know that some things would never change; that when he came to this apartment, the furniture would still be in the same place, the pictures on the wall wouldn't be different and the layer of dust on the bookshelves would simply have gathered a new level of depth.
As his eyes roamed over the lounge they settled on Steve's cage. And with a start, Wilson realised something had changed.
"Where's Steve?" he asked, sitting up in shock to look closer and make sure that the cage really was empty.
House swallowed his mouthful of pizza and sighed.
Wilson looked over at House, full of sympathy.
"Oh, I'm sorry House. Still, how long do rats normally live? He probably had a good life…"
House shook his head as he reached for another piece of pizza.
"No, he didn't die. He disappeared."
"What do you mean? He escaped from the cage? After all this time?"
"Not exactly." House wondered how to explain the rat's disappearance without making himself sound stupid and without Wilson getting all squeamish about it.
"He didn't come back from his nightly run."
"What nightly run?" Wilson asked suspiciously.
"He was getting fat and lazy," House said, a touch defensive. "So I used to let him out at night for a few hours to have a run around. He always came back."
"You let your rat run around the apartment?" Wilson almost felt like lifting his feet off the floor. He'd never really liked the idea of House having a rat as a pet, but as long as it was in a cage he could pretend it was a hamster or something else similarly ordinary. But running free across the floor? That was too much like…like…vermin. Wilson tried hard to suppress a shudder.
"So when did he go missing?" Wilson asked. He could see that House was more bothered than he'd admit about the rat's disappearance and so Wilson was trying hard to be supportive – despite thinking that this turn of events was probably all for the best. He did not want to come over to visit knowing that a rat might scoot across the living room rug at any moment.
"Last night," House said. After letting Steve out of the cage as per normal, he'd sat and watched some television. Then he'd done the usual scan of the lounge room floor but this time the little brown rat was nowhere to be found. On any other night, Steve stayed within a few feet of his cage as if afraid to venture too far from his source of food, and, when House came to collect him from wherever in the room he'd got to, he would just sit still and wait to be returned to his prison home.
But last night House had spent more than an hour searching around the apartment for Steve. There'd been no sign of him. House had eventually given up, the search had tired him out and he realised that it was probably futile anyway. Rats could fit themselves under doors if they wanted to, and if Steve really had made a bid for freedom there was probably very little he could do about it.
"I wondered if he might have been sick," House mused aloud. "He was sleeping a lot more recently. Maybe he just went off somewhere because he didn't want to die in a cage. I can understand that."
"I'm sorry House," Wilson said, genuinely feeling sad for his friend's loss. He wondered if it was the same as losing a dog or a cat – didn't they say the best therapy was to go out and get a new puppy or a kitten straight away? He felt that now might not be the best time to suggest a replacement rat – or maybe a hamster or a guinea pig this time, he thought hopefully – but he filed it away to cover off in a couple of days.
"Yeah, well…" House shrugged. He had to admit, he already missed the little guy. That morning, when he looked over to the empty cage, he realised that greeting Steve had become a regular part of his morning ritual.
They both fell silent, watching the game for a while even though it was proving to be a disappointment – it was already clear who was going to win.
When they each reached for a piece of pizza at the same time, somehow House's beer was knocked and it landed with a thud on the floor, immediately foaming up and spreading froth everywhere.
"Good one Wilson," House said accusingly.
Wilson jumped to his feet and ran into the kitchen, knowing without needing to be told that even though it was House's place – and he was pretty sure it had actually been House that had tipped the beer over – he would be the one cleaning it up.
House picked up the bottle and raised his feet to the table in order to give Wilson plenty of room to mop.
"Get me another beer while you're in there," he called out to Wilson.
When there was no answer and also no sign of activity, House turned to face the kitchen.
"Wilson?" he asked.
Wilson was standing in front of the kitchen cabinet under the sink. The doors were open, but he was just standing, staring into it. House couldn't see past him and had no idea why he hadn't grabbed a cloth or mop to soak up the spill.
"Wilson, this beer isn't going to clean itself up, get your ss into gear."
"Uh," Wilson answered, shock reducing his vocabulary to grunts. Eventually he shook his head to clear it and said quietly, "House, I think you'd better come see this."
"See what?" House grumbled, but he rose to his feet, curious as to what in his kitchen cabinets could be so fascinating. Then he had a thought – had Wilson found a dead rat? House was surprised by the feelings that provoked. Taking a deep breath to brace himself, he limped into the kitchen to look over Wilson's shoulder.
Inside the cupboard, on one side about halfway back, some of the assorted rags and cleaning cloths that House kept untidily thrown around had been pulled together. Lying in the middle of them, wearing what House could only described as a very startled expression, was Steve. Three pink, hairless little bodies writhed against him, and there was clearly a fourth about to emerge from under his tail.
"Steve?" asked House with a raised eyebrow, as if the rat could answer him.
Wilson turned and gave House a look, clearly a mix of disgust, shock and amusement.
"Did you not know your rat was female?"
"I…uh…never thought to look," House admitted. Then he grinned. "This is cool."
"Cool? House, a rat is giving birth in your kitchen cupboard. It's disgusting."
"Get me a beer," House instructed, moving to take a seat on the floor. "This is more interesting than the game anyway."
Eventually the two of them were sitting on the kitchen floor, beers in hand, looking intently into the cupboard. They watched as babies four and five arrived, immediately obeying their biological instincts to suckle.
"Should we tell her to breathe?" Wilson asked, not entirely sarcastically.
"It doesn't look like she needs any coaching," House said. He could have sworn that Steve was giving him the type of accusing look he'd seen labouring women give their partners. He held up a hand in defence.
"Hey, don't give me that look. This is nothing to do with me; you got yourself into this, you harlot."
House's comment startled Wilson and he suddenly felt very uncomfortable sitting on the floor.
"You do realise this means there is another rat somewhere around."
House shrugged, but then gave an ironic laugh.
"Here I was thinking we were two lonely bachelors and it turns out my pet rat is not only female, but is also getting more sex than I am."
Wilson laughed too, but it didn't take away his revulsion.
"You will set a trap, though?" he urged.
"I'm going to have to change her name to Stevie," House said, leaving Wilson's question unanswered. "Like Stevie Nicks."
"Steve's a Stevie. And Stevie's a mommy," Wilson said solemnly. "What does that make you? Granddaddy?"
Wilson had to laugh again as he watched House seriously consider the question.
"Grandfather, I think. More dignified."
"And what are you going to call your kiddies?"
"Well, the first one's got to be Fleetwood, obviously. And the second one Mick."
"After Jagger or Fleetwood?"
"Either," House said dismissively. "Then the third one will be Nick, for Stevie Nicks, and the fourth one…" He thought for a moment.
Wilson rolled his eyes.
"The fifth one I'll call Blythe after my mother…"
"House," Wilson interrupted. "That's awful."
"You can't name a baby rat after your mother."
"Why not?" House asked, challenging Wilson.
Wilson just sighed, knowing that arguing would be pointless. He changed the subject.
"Hey, is it just me or is the sixth one taking a while?" He leant in a little closer.
"She's tired. She's just had five babies. Give her a break."
"What if it's a breech?"
"Then pray to god we don't need to do an emergency caesarean."
They both leaned back against the heavy butcher's block in the centre of the kitchen and took long swigs of their beers.
"Seriously House, what are you going to do with six – maybe more – baby rats?"
"No idea," House said airily. "But I have five weeks to decide. Rats reach sexual maturity at five weeks and they don't have any rules against incest. If we don't do something by then, we could be setting up a practice birthing dozens of little Stevies."
"Ugh," Wilson made a disgusted sound, remembering just how much he disliked rats. The image of lots of little rats scurrying around made his skin crawl. Even if he did have to admit that the tiny, pink, closed-eyes babies right in front of him were kind of cute.
"Six!" House called out, a little too eager for Wilson's taste, as a new baby wriggled its way to join its siblings. "This one's Mac."
"Do you think that's it?" Wilson asked.
"I have no idea. We'd better just keep an eye on her for a bit." House shifted around to sit more comfortably on the floor.
"Okay, so we have Fleetwood, Mick, Nick, Rhiannon, Blythe," Wilson couldn't help grimacing as he said that name, "and Mac. That's quite a brood, grandfather. Good job, Stevie," he added encouragingly.
"The miracle of birth," House said profoundly, holding his beer bottle aloft in salute and then taking another long swig from it.
"Yeah," Wilson sighed wistfully. "It does tend to spread good cheer and make people happy for no reason." He turned to House. "You'd better be careful, you might get some on you."
House narrowed his eyes at the dig.
"So now what?" Wilson asked.
"I think the show's over. I say we reheat the pizza and have another beer."
"Okay." Wilson rose to his feet and offered a hand to help House stand, then headed into the lounge to recover the cold pizza.
"Good night Stevie," House said quietly, closing the cupboard doors gently. "Look after your mom, kiddies."