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Coping Mechanisms

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She goes in to work before eight, hoping to get some budgeting done before phone calls, complaints, and other interruptions shred her concentration. She manages to reach the door to her office without anyone accosting her and is rooting around in her purse for the key when she senses his presence close behind her — too close behind her. She whips around and there he is, right in her personal space, grinning down at her.

"Good morning, Sunshine!" he says.

"Don't do that!" she hisses at him, peering past him to check whether they are being observed. But the clinic, not due to open for another two hours, is deserted. "What the hell are you doing here?" She doesn't add, at this time of day.

"Thought I'd check on you after last evening's dinner party. So, how was it?"

It had been dreadful. A room full of boring, irritating people. Stuffed shirts the lot of them! To top it off, some creep had hit on her and had refused to be shaken off. But she has no intention of telling House any of this, so she opts for, "Fine. There were a lot of interesting people."

"Right," he says. "You had such a 'wonderful' time that you went home early and came to work at the crack of dawn."

She arches what she hopes is a playfully insinuating eyebrow. "I went home with a hot guy who I met at the party."

"Which is why you're looking totally frustrated. No, you were home just after ten, had a tepid mug of chamomile tea, and read a few chapters of that gawd-awful Paolo Coelho before going to bed."

How the hell does he know? "You were outside my window spying on me!"

He smirks. "So I'm right? But I wasn't outside your window being bored to death by your predictable, absolutely uninspiring nightlife. I was outside Wilson's window watching him have wild, kinky sex with a guy half his age whom he'd picked up at a bar."

That's an image she really doesn't need; besides, he's probably lying through his teeth. "I'm sure that gave you vicarious satisfaction," she says disapprovingly.

"Totally. Do you know what he shouts when he comes?" House continues unabashed. "Oh God, Greg! Just like you."

"I don't …" she stutters before she can manage to get a grip on herself. She marches into her office, tossing over her shoulder, "It isn't as though you've had an opportunity to find out what I yell. … If I did yell, which I don't."

"Wrong, and wrong again. I hope you've put batteries on your shopping list. The little toy you keep in your bedside drawer is running low."

With that he hobbles off, leaving her wondering how he knows that her vibrator's batteries are empty.

The next two hours of her working day are peaceful, but when she returns from the cafeteria with a cup of coffee he's lounging in her chair, his feet propped up on her desk. (What misguided sense of optimism made her believe she'd make it through the rest of the day without having to deal with him?)

Placing her coffee on her desk she sweeps his feet off it in one smooth movement.

"Ouch!" he complains.

"That can't have hurt." She perches on the spot that his sneakers just vacated, glaring down at him. "What are you doing here?"

His eyes travel appreciatively down the length of her bare legs. "Heard your PA quit. Again. PA-less Cuddy is a pissy Cuddy, so I thought I'd do everyone in this hospital a service and step in."

"Because you're such a selfless guy," she says with a sense of foreboding.

"Consider it my Good Deed for the Day. I've already tidied up your appointments: shifted your three o'clock to four, and cancelled your four-thirty. And your six-thirty."

"You've — what?" She moves around him to peer over his shoulder at the screen.

"Six-thirty was Allingham. He wants to ogle your breasts. Can't support such blatant sexism, can I? At the last 'Equal Opportunities' workplace seminar we were told to combat all attempts to demean female co-workers. Consider me a soldier in the front line of that battle."

"Allingham pays well to ogle my breasts," she points out. "And the food at the restaurant he's taking me to is excellent."

"Was taking you," he corrects. "Cuddy, you're supposed to sell health care, not the health carer. Not even her boobs."

"What about the four-thirty? And why did you shift the three o'clock?" As though anything he did made sense to anyone but himself!

"Four-thirty was a pharma rep. His product stinks; you don't want it."

"Clinical studies have proven …" she says weakly.

"Those clinical studies were financed by his company. Honestly, if you waste your time like that, it's no wonder your daughter believes that 'mommy' and 'nanny' are synonyms."

Great, now he's managed to make her feel guilty about doing her job, even though he used to be one of the main reasons for her late working hours.

"You can't possibly make the three o'clock if you have a board meeting at one-thirty, so it had to be moved," he continues.

"Of course I can make the three o'clock!"

"Not with clinic costs on the board meeting agenda," he insists. With a click of the mouse he pulls the board meeting agenda to the front of the screen.

"Who put that on the agenda?" she wonders, tugging a hand through her hair.

"Phelps, I imagine," House says. "He's a sly rat, and he wants someone more amenable to his interests running the hospital. He's taking you apart, clinic hour by clinic hour."

A slight unrest in the clinic area catches her attention. A patient is arguing with the nurse on duty, who is beginning to cast longing glances in the direction of her office. It's just a matter of time before the problem is palmed off on her.

"Don't your people have a patient?" she says to House, waving at him irritably to quit her chair.

He obliges in a leisurely fashion. "Waiting for test results."

She pulls up the Department of Diagnostics on her screen. One patient: male, forty-seven years old, multiple seemingly unrelated symptoms. Preliminary diagnosis: neoplastic syndrome. The results of three biopsies are pending.

"See? Didn't believe me, did you?"

"Go do clinic duty!" She could bite her tongue the moment she says it, but if he notices the glitch he ignores it.

"Taub's already down here, and Chase is helping out in surgery. Diagnostics has its supportive ass covered."

He's telling the truth; she has spotted Taub in the clinic over the past two hours.

"Then go sit with Coma Guy!" she snaps. "I have to get back to work; I can't babysit you all morning." Purposefully ignoring his hurt-puppy look she turns to this year's clinic budget.

He huffs, but he walks towards the door. Halfway there he turns back again. "We'll need your okay for full body radiation."

"Test results aren't even in yet. Maybe they'll find the tumor."

He scrunches up his face. "Sneaky little bastard. They won't find it."

"Let's wait and see."

"Okay, but when we've waited and seen nothing, I want the radiation. Whom shall I send: Shallow, Fickle or Vain? I'll send Chase — you like pretty boys."

She props her chin on her hand. "Studies show that women are nowhere near as susceptible to visual stimuli as men are."

"Oh, rea-lly?" he says, tossing his head back and drawing his fingers theatrically through his thinning hair.

"Go!" she says with a shooing motion, but she can't help smiling.

A nurse from the clinic enters, sporting a harried look and carrying a file. Ignoring House she heads for Cuddy's desk. House discreetly slips out of the door that the nurse leaves ajar.

It's totally against her principles, but in the end she goes in search of him. She finds him in Exam Room 4 reading a magazine.

When he ignores her entrance she plucks the magazine from his hands. "Chase came to me for approval of full body radiation."

"See, I told you!"

"It's not happening," she says grimly. "Either they find the tumor or they find another diagnosis."

"I assume that's what you told Chase, so I don't see why you're bothering to seek me out to tell me personally. Unless, of course …?" He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.

"They're your team, your responsibility!"

He pulls a face. "You're the one who's always saying that I have teaching responsibilities. I'm teaching them to fend for themselves, to look for answers without running to daddy or mommy every time they are stymied."

"They'll end up killing the patient if you don't do something. Stop playing me and them, House! Give them a hint. You know what it is, don't you?"

He contemplates her silently for a moment before swinging his legs down and getting up. She opens the door for him to pass out in front of her.

He stops in the doorway, looking down at her. "You know this can't continue indefinitely, don't you?" he says.

She looks down as she nods.

He falls into step beside her as she walks over to the cafeteria for a late lunch.

"Foreman found the tumor in the patient's brain. He's being prepped for surgery."

"Great!" she says distractedly.

"What? No 'Thank you, House, you're awesome'? No blow job as a reward?"

She isn't really listening. "How do I prove that the clinic is a necessary expenditure? Phelps wants to cut down the opening hours by closing two afternoons a week."

"You can't prove that it's a necessary expense because it isn't." When she opens her mouth to protest he holds up a hand to silence her. "If the clinic is closed on, say, Tuesday afternoon, the patients will either wait till the next morning (by which time they'll be fine again anyway), or they'll go to the ER. Or they'll go to another clinic, which is no loss to us because they don't pay anyway. That's the downside of a free clinic — the shorter its opening hours, the better its budget."

"Look at all the patients you've gotten from the clinic, who would have died if they hadn't come here and been spotted by you," she argues.

"I only picked up patients in the clinic because it was simpler than sifting through the letters of inquiry that litter my desk. Think of all the patients I could have saved if I hadn't had to waste my time doing clinic duty."

"You never did clinic duty unless you had nothing better to do, and it certainly never cost any lives! You could try to be supportive here, you know."

"I'm telling you the truth. That is supportive. Platitudes and lies aren't going to help you."

"So what am I going to do?" she asks, hating herself for sounding so plaintive.

"Find a reason for keeping the clinic open that has nothing to do with ideals that no one on that governing board shares with you. Your reasons need to float their boat, not yours."

"Great! That was a lot of help," she mutters as she grabs a tray. When she looks up he's gone.

When she gets out to the parking lot, he's leaning against her car twirling his cane. She stiffens, but doesn't break her stride.

"Need a lift," he says.

She sighs. "I'm not driving past your place. It isn't on my way, and I don't want to waste time that I could be spending with Rachel."

There, that's payback for him saying that Rachel doesn't know her nanny isn't her mother! Not that she'll have much time to spend with Rachel; she has two days to convince the board that clinic hours shouldn't be reduced.

"S'okay," he says. "I'll come with you."

"I'm not taking you to my place!" Cuddy says firmly.

"Relax! You can drop me off at some bar along the way."

She gives in without grace, unlocking the car. House opens the passenger door. One of Rachel's stuffed toys is lying on the seat. He tosses it to the back. When Cuddy puts her briefcase at his feet he frowns and bends down as though to pick it up and toss it back too. She glares at him and he straightens up again.

He's going through her glove compartment — if he's searching for candy bars he may as well give up straightaway — when her cell phone rings.

It's Foreman. "Dr Cuddy? You'll be happy to hear that full-body radiation is off the agenda. We found the tumor: it was hiding in the guy's brain."

"Yes, I'd heard," Cuddy says curtly, "but thanks for informing me."

"Oh!" Foreman says, audibly put out. "Did Wilson tell you?"

"Wilson? … Oh, yes, of course. Yes, Wilson told me," Cuddy says, glad that Foreman can't see her face.

"Ah," Foreman says. He doesn't sound happy.

"What is it, Dr Foreman?" Cuddy asks somewhat impatiently.

"Dr Wilson did help us, but we would have found the tumor in the end."

"During the autopsy," she snaps. She senses rather than sees House's smirk of approval.

"We're still adjusting, getting our bearings as a department, now that House …" Foreman's voice trails off.

House, beside her, is rolling his eyes, pointing an imaginary pistol into his mouth and shooting himself in mock despair.

"I'd appreciate it if your departmental dynamics did not endanger patient welfare, Dr Foreman. Don't make me regret that I gave you a position of responsibility."

"You won't," he promises rashly.

"I'm regretting it already," she tells House as she disconnects the call.

He shrugs. "They're all morons."

"You chose them," she points out, "and trained them. Shouldn't they be able to do this without you? And — Wilson? Wilson? Seriously, House?"

"So what if they had to ask Wilson? He's an oncologist; they have a patient with a tumor. Why shouldn't they consult him? You're the one who is always advocating cooperation between departments."

"And who helped Wilson?" she asks rhetorically. His glance slides away.

They turn into her drive. After killing the engine she leans her forehead on the steering wheel, saying, "This has to stop — somehow!"

"You're the one who sent me to Wilson," he points out.

"I didn't tell you to go to Wilson! I told you to —"

"To take care of the problem. I did."

"Couldn't you have tried your team first?"

He stares straight ahead out of the windscreen so she can't see his expression. "I did. They weren't . . . receptive to my ideas."

She leans her forehead on the steering wheel. "Please, please tell me I'm imagining this," she whispers. He doesn't comment, which is probably just as well.

She unfastens her seat belt. House's wasn't fastened in the first place, so he merely reaches for the door handle.

"I don't want you in the house," Cuddy says warningly. "Not when Rachel's around," she amends before he can protest that he's been there before, etc., etc.

He gives her a challenging look, his head tipped, his eyes slits in his face.

"If you appear in my house while Rachel is there, I'll call in a psychiatrist!" she threatens, and she means it. Apparently he gets the message.

"Your choice," he says with faked indifference to cover up his, what, hurt? Amusement? Disbelief? Whatever. She slams the door behind her and stalks up to her front door without looking back to see whether he's obeying her or not.

When she has put Rachel to bed she makes herself a cup of tea. For the next two hours she sifts through the hospital's statistics, comparing them to those of Philadelphia Metropolitan, a hospital without a free clinic facility. By ten-thirty she has typed up a ten-page memo arguing that keeping the clinic open five days a week, eight hours a day, is cost efficient: Philadelphia Metropolitan has a much higher rate of admission to its ER and to its general departments for minor ailments than PPTH has, causing additional costs to those departments that far exceed the expense of keeping a day clinic open. (She neglects to mention that Philadelphia Metropolitan has a socially challenging catchment area and very few other medical facilities in the vicinity, while PPTH is surrounded by a network of primary care doctors and surgeries.)

Snapping her laptop shut with a contented sigh she rises to get ready for bed. Passing by Rachel's bedroom she peers inside. Rachel is sleeping, curled up with her diapered bottom stuck up in the air, her thumb in her mouth. She's adorable. Cuddy glances all round the room, but she sees nothing suspicious or out of place. Good! House has been testing boundaries lately; she wouldn't put it beyond him to argue that Rachel asleep doesn't count as Rachel being in the house.

After removing her make-up and brushing her teeth she returns to her bedroom –- and stops short. In the light of the bedside lamp she sees House casually draped on her bed, fully dressed, his sneakers on her bedspread, his hair ruffled. When she huffs in dismay he looks up from the journal he's studying.

"What?" he says.

"I told you …"

"We both know that if you didn't want me here, I wouldn't be here," he points out.

She grabs the least revealing of her pajamas and disappears into the bathroom again. When she comes back, he grimaces at her choice of nightwear, but nevertheless moves over far enough that she can slide under the blanket on her side of the bed. When she's comfortably settled she hesitates for a moment, giving him a sideways glance. Then she picks up the bedside phone, scrolls through her contacts and hits the dial.

"Hey, Wilson, it's me."

"Hey, Cuddy."

"Just wanted to thank you for helping Diagnostics today."

"I didn't mean to interfere," he says apologetically.

"No, it's fine. Really. You probably saved that guy's life. I doubt the team would have found the tumor, and full body radiation would have killed the poor man."

"To do them justice, it wasn't easy. I missed it the first time round, too. I only saw it when I took a second glance a few hours later."

Her eyes slide in House's direction again. "Really?" she says to Wilson. "You had an epiphany — like House?"

"Yes. Yes, a bit like that," Wilson says. "I sorta wondered what House would think or where he'd look, and then it came to me."

"Like it's his voice in your ear?" Cuddy asks carefully.

"Yes, exactly! I could practically hear him saying, 'Wilson, you idiot! You've been looking at the plumbing when you should be checking the control tower!' And then I switched my focus from the kidneys to the brain. . . . Do you think that's crazy, hearing House's voice in my head?"

"No," Cuddy says quickly, "not at all. Sometimes … I have that feeling too."

House pulls a face and leans over till his mouth is next to her ear, mumbling something that sounds suspiciously like, 'Blow job! Blow job!'

She swats him away with a frown. "How are you holding up?" she asks Wilson.

"It's getting better," Wilson says.

"Is it?" Cuddy says more to herself than to Wilson. When she glances over at House he's looking serious for a change, with that look of contemplative sadness on his face that she's seen when he diagnosed some poor kid with a terminal illness.

"It should," Wilson says as though trying to convince himself. "It's been over three months now."

Cuddy doesn't comment on that. "How do you deal with … with his absence?" she asks Wilson.

Now Wilson is silent. Then, after a longer pause, he says, "After Amber's death, I used to talk to her at night: I'd go through my day and tell her stuff that would have amused her had she still been alive. Now I do that with House. It makes me feel I'm keeping his memory alive."

"Pa-the-tic!" House mouths into Cuddy's ear.

"You could try it," Wilson suggests in his oncologist-at-a-patient's-bedside manner. "It helps."

"I'd end up yelling at an imaginary House the way I used to at the real one," Cuddy says, trying to make a joke of it. "Thanks, Wilson, but I don't think it'll work for me. But say hi to him from me."

She can almost hear Wilson smiling down the line. "Goodnight, Cuddy. Thanks for calling."

"Night, Wilson."

"Awww, Cuddy! You're not going to talk to me, and tell me what you're wearing under those chaste pajamas?" House whines.

"Shut up!" Cuddy says, putting down the phone. She props herself up on her elbow as she faces him, perplexed. "I thought I was hallucinating, but Wilson can hear you too. Are you real?"

"Define 'real'," House says with a quizzical expression.

This is a game she can only lose, so she changes tack. "How come Wilson can't see you?"

"Because he doesn't want to."

"Puh-lease! He's talking to you every evening."

House smiles in a forlorn manner. It looks odd on him. "He's talking to himself, not to me."

"He's heartbroken, for goodness sake! He's in a worse state than I am by far: he's barely functioning."

"So? He can be heartbroken and still be talking to himself." House has snapped back into 'working' mode. "He talks about his day because he thinks it'll help his grieving process, not because he believes that I can hear him. . . . unlike someone else we all know."

She ponders this, lying back down and staring at the ceiling. "You're saying I'm hallucinating you. My hallucination is telling me that I'm hallucinating. How crazy is that?" Her laugh sounds hysterical to her own ears.

House's cheek twitches. "Not what I said. I said I wouldn't be here if you didn't want it."

He takes off his reading glasses and puts them on the bedside table. Then he shifts down a bit.

"Are you staying?" Cuddy asks doubtfully.

He doesn't meet her eyes. "Till you're asleep," he says. "Don't worry! I'll be gone before Rachel wakes up."

Cuddy switches off the bedside lamp and curls up facing House, careful not to touch him. Her eyes haven't adjusted to the dark yet, so she can't see him, but she can hear his breathing. It calms her. She feels herself slipping into the sleep of total exhaustion.

"I'm as pathetic as Wilson, aren't I?" she murmurs.

She may be imagining it, but she thinks she can feel his fingers playing with strands of her hair. "More pathetic," he says, but it sounds like a compliment.