Title: Play Golf with the People You Hate

Timeframe: Pre-Season One, November 2003

Summary: How we know the people we think we know depends on where we know them.

Important Note: Written in 2008, which make some of the events in Cuddy's life AU.

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15 November 2003

"You're right. This is grounds for termination." Lisa Cuddy sighed heavily as she looked up at James Wilson and pushed the file away. He remained standing indignantly in front of her desk, hands on hips and jaw clenched.

"It should have been done a year ago."

She swallowed and squared her shoulders. "I know how you feel about this."

"Really," he threw his hands up with an exasperated laugh, "I don' t think you do. I'm tired of watching a friend careen towards self-destruction at full speed egged on by another reckless lunatic. "

"I know you're concerned, but I think your personal feelings are getting in the way. This is a separate matter."

He laughed again. "My personal feelings? I wouldn't be human if I wasn't concerned." Wilson turned towards the door and ran his hands through his hair. For several long moments he was quiet. Suddenly, he spun around. "You're just as culpable. You never want to be the bad guy! You always want to be a part of the 'in-crowd'. Do your—"

Refusing to be bullied, she stood up behind her desk and cut him off. "I said I would take care of this."

A heavy curtain of silence descended between them.

"Fine," he spat as he started for the door, "but, if you don't I'll call the University President Monday morning and then I'll call the New Jersey Medical Board." He punctuated his threat by slamming the door hard enough that she was surprised the glass had not cracked.

Cuddy collapsed into her chair physically exhausted by the confrontation. With another sigh, she opened the file and scanned over the autopsy report and the documents stapled to it. For the next hour she reviewed the papers in search of a laudable error. Luckless, she glanced at the clock and scooped the other file off her desk.

Cuddy hated this part of her job.

Clutching the personnel file, Cuddy made her way toward the ER. The echo of her expensive shoes in the empty corridors added a sinister edge to the occasion. She felt as though she were the villain in a grainy black and white war movie. Her enviable knowledge of Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital's layout led her through a series of dark halls and doorways marked "NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY" to the ER's back entrance. She knew her hospital intimately—every corridor, every back door, every supply closet and every classroom. Additionally, she knew more about her faculty than most administrators. Like the villain from the war movie, she tried to know all of the dark secrets, yet redeemed herself by never writing them down. She mentally cataloged the disasters that befell her employees: divorces, drug abuse, bankruptcies, health issues and a plethora of personal problems ranging from the darkly comedic to the deeply disturbing. Cuddy's motives were not malicious. While she would never be considered a confidante or friend by most of the people she supervised, she knew them and when necessary helped anonymously by nudging a schedule, moving an office or slipping a birthday card under a door. As an administrator—the captain of a venerable ship of fools—she believed she had to know her staff to protect her hospital. What some might describe it as "cunning", she called "maternal instinct".

Cuddy startled a nurse coming out of the locker room. Her eyes were puffy and she clutched a handful of Kleenex. Cuddy smiled silently and pretended not to notice the tears, but made note of her nametag. It might have been nothing serious, but she would double check. The nurse was young, probably not more than a couple of years out of college, and sometimes the younger staff needed to be reminded that they weren't alone. Either that or most likely Gabby Steinham was back on the warpath and reverted to screaming at nurses, despite at least a dozen reprimands. Cuddy sighed and made a mental note to put Dr. Steinham in the clinic with Greg House on a slow Thursday afternoon so that they could scream at each other.

She forced her focus back to her more pressing task.

Cuddy's quarry should have been easy to locate. Trauma junkies could always be counted on to work overtime on weekends and holidays. Like moths to the flame, they never had to be asked and always tended to show up when things were overcrowded and understaffed. Such doctors could be the both the hospital's best asset and greatest weakness. God complexes ran rampant, the adrenaline rush of heroic measures spawned recklessness and mistakes could be deadly. At the same time, the same egos produced the best results. Lives were saved. She had yet to resign herself to see procedure and protocol as more valuable than human life. Medicine, in Cuddy's opinion, was a results oriented art—55% gut and heart, 45% reason and science.

She pushed her way through the reflective yellow back doors into trauma ward and scanned the small crowd of doctors, nurses and loitering paramedics. Ten 'til eleven on a Saturday night and the ER looked surprisingly calm. Three quarters of the beds were empty and the only real activity was the nervous looking resident being supervised by two attendings as she sutured a fingertip. Cuddy exchanged pleasantries with the attendings, spoke to the nursing supervisor and circled the department twice fulfilling her administrative responsibility for unannounced departmental visits. She whisked through the waiting area and triage before stepping outside to check the ambulance bays and service docks where many medical professionals embraced the greatest of ironic vices—smoking.

No luck.

Cuddy returned inside and slipped through an unassuming, but locked door, and took advantage of one of PPTH's countless supply and service routes. A labyrinth of coded corridors tied the ER complex to the older part of the hospital. Designed to facilitate the movement of students and faculty behind the scenes between the hospital and emergency medical complex, the web of hallways converged at the heart of the medical school. It was a hidden world of faculty offices, classrooms and teaching labs. Here the hospital gave way to a quiet Ivy League academic realm of hardwoods, soft lighting and burnished steel accents. Cuddy loved this part of her world and she envied those who dwelled in these safe spaces—nameplates and advising hours posted on doors and dark offices on the weekends.

Someday she hoped to teach full time and abandon the administrator's mantle to another hapless idealist. Passing by the Emeritus Wall she stopped and scanned the brass plates of retired and distinguished faculty members and compulsively straightened the current faculty group portrait. She needed to organize a new photograph, but hated the power struggles involved over who stood where, lab coats vs. scrubs, post graduate vs. graduate departments, tenured vs. untenured and how to get everyone to stand still for three minutes. Furthermore she was reluctant to replace the portrait as she thought the January 2001 version made her appear as though she were in control. She was that day—of course it took a megalomaniacal tirade, a dozen promises to collaborators, countless threats and having the worst tenured offenders standing at arms length.

Further down the hall, student bulletin boards contained a less distinguished looking display of photographs, posters and flyers for conferences and special topics lectures. She paused to examine an announcement for a Friday Night Horror Movie Mixer pinned to the board outside the resident advisor's office and wondered why she had not been invited. She used to receive invitations to student activities. Her schedule prevented her attendance, but she liked the invitations. She liked the connection. Students proved easier to deal with compared to her faculty. Cuddy's smile faded.

Another collage of pictures and mementos drew her attention. Marjean Prodhon, "Dr. Maggie", had taught in the gastroenterology department for over twenty-five years. She was a perennial favorite and the professor former students always returned to visit. Cuddy scanned over the dozens of photos and postcards stuck to the inside of the narrow window that ran the length of the doorway. A pang of jealousy rose in her throat. Prodhon never married, but had a vast extended family of former students. Cuddy felt guilty as she caught herself looking for the frowning old woman she secretly hoped Prodhon was in the pictures of her holding the children of doctors she'd trained. Disheartened and ashamed of her jealousy, she traced her finger over a sloppy glittery butterfly made for "Aunt Maggie". The closest thing she'd received to the lovingly made butterfly was a stick figure drawing of her being run over by a train left behind by Greg House after a faculty meeting.

"Come down here to fire me or one of my attendings?" A male voice interrupted her thoughts.

Cuddy jumped and blushed simultaneously. "Dr. Barker," she said trying to not to act like she was talking to the captain of the football team. Crimson crept across her cheeks.

Payne "Pain in the Ass" Barker leaned against the doorframe of his office drinking a soda and eating a slice of pizza. He was tall, built like an aging superhero and had a smile that Cuddy could feel in the pit of her stomach. "Eat a slice with me and give me a chance to defend the damned?" He suppressed a belch and gestured with his pizza crust.

"Dr. Barker," Cuddy inadvertently resorted to her professional voice, the nasal one that made her sound like her grandmother, "I don't have time, I really—"

"Should eat something before people start talking about your eating disorder again."

"I don't have an eating disorder!" she flushed angrily at the thought of such a vicious rumor.

"Yeah," he nodded, "but those ICU nurses are the meanest cattiest gossipmongers out there. Don't give them any ammunition by looking hungry. C'mon, it's from Old World over on Nassau," he tempted.

"I'm a veg—"

"Black olive and bell pepper. Missy joined PETA when she started at Berkley last year. I'm a good dad and promised my girl I'd try to stop eating animals. So far, I can only be guilted into changing my pizza habits."

"One slice—since you're trying to be a good dad." Cuddy gave in and followed him into his cluttered office. Barker's mess reminded her of the email battle that raged over the glass walls elsewhere in the hospital. Despite the aesthetics, the majority of the faculty hated the glass house design. When the endowed departments were moved to the remodeled third and fourth floors, the office space in the "dungeons" became more valuable as the walls were solid. Cuddy found herself in the middle of a dozen petty arguments over office space and the premium many faculty members attached to their privacy and ability to disappear.

"Sorry about the mess," he offered as he pushed a stack of x-ray film and case files onto the floor so Cuddy could have a chair. "I don't really live here, I promise." Barker was trained as a trauma surgeon, taught the emergency medicine electives and supervised the acute care clinical rotations. The ER belonged to him nights, weekends and holidays. Despite his promises, Cuddy imagined he spent more time at the hospital than at home.

"I've seen worse. Thank you," she accepted the slice of cold pizza and tried to maintain some grace as she ate it. It must have been from lunch.

"Green file? That's from the upstairs crowd." Barker honed in on the folder on her lap. "Gotta be a fellow or resident and somebody you'd expect to be down here hanging out on a weekend… Shit. Bert Morgenstearn, isn't it?" He frowned and made no effort to hide the irritation in his voice. "Bert? You can't screw Bert over. What ever she did is fixable."

"How are Missy's classes?" Cuddy tried to change the topic.

"Bert's a godsend for this place." He leaned forward. "House has tenure. Nobody's going to do anything other than bitch about whatever the hell stupid thing his lackey did to a patient. He's untouchable. Don't nail Bert—make House stand up and answer for his fellow in the MMWR."

"Dr. Barker—Payne, I don't want to talk about this. I feel bad enough as is." She set her slice down on the box top. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Then why are you doing it? Why should you feel bad about something that's part of your job?" Barker folded his muscular arms. He had not earned the name "Pain in the Ass" for being a pushover. He was one of school's most demanding and intimidating professors. When he gave praise it was genuine and his criticism was equally sincere. He was never cruel or manipulative, but refused to accept anything other than the truth and the absolute best others had to offer—even if he had to beat it out of them. Med students were equally terrified and in awe of him.

"I'm not going to talk about it." She headed off his inquiry with a glare.

He studied her silently for a moment. "Ever been to New Mexico?"

She was taken back, but welcomed the change in topic. "Santa Fe once, for a conference."

"If you go south and keep going south there's a little town about an hour east of Roswell called Tatum. My dad owned a tow shop on Highway 380. Town's got a convenience store and a Dairy Queen and that's about it. I was so damn ready to see the world the minute I graduated from high school that I only applied to schools at least a thousand miles away. Ended up going for an engineering degree at Montana State."

"Beautiful place to go to school." Cuddy added not knowing what to add, but wanting to be a part of the conversation. His charm was intoxicating—a hybrid of a war hero, a schoolgirl crush and a cowboy. He was easy to fantasize about.

"Snows a lot." He paused. "When I was a senior my roommate and two other guys got drunk and drove head on into a family of five coming back from a ski trip. Six people died, because the Cowboys played a shitty game and we were drinking shots for interceptions." He caught her surprised look and a sad smile sullied his handsome features. "One stupid choice and I lost my best friends and this nice couple from Seattle lost their kids. I walked away without a scratch."

"I'm so sorry." The abrupt turn his story took surprised her.

He nodded his appreciation for her concern, but was not looking for sympathy.

"Survivor guilt, now that's bitch I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. I'd never been so terrified as I was in the ER that night waiting to hear about my friends. I hated myself for not being hurt. And while I sat there afraid and alone I decided to become a doctor."

"That's noble." Cuddy offered.

He took a deep breath and shook his head. "My reasons were selfish. I wanted to suffer and force myself to confront the accident, the fear, the guilt everyday for the rest of my life." A strange smile surfaced. "But, life follows the course it needs to follow. I busted my ass on my MCAT and got into med school with a mechanical engineering degree. I hadn't dissected anything since my freshman year and had the weakest stomach out of my whole class. By the time I puked my way through my M.D. I had three kids and a wife. Time flew." He studied the back of his hand for a moment. "I woke up one morning fifteen years after that accident and remembered that I was supposed to be doing this to punish myself. It was a strange feeling." He lowered his voice. "After all those years and all that work, I couldn't find anything I loved more than being that guy who tells people it's going to be ok when their worlds have crumbled to shit. I don't have my marriage anymore and my kids grew up, but I've got this," he gestured to the clutter, "and it's me. I went from the idiot who came up with that stupid drinking game to this reality. I like my life and wouldn't change a damn thing about it."

"I never knew these things about you, Payne," Cuddy was sincere, "that's an incredible story."

"Don't spread it around—I like being an enigma. But really, Lisa, I love my job. I love being a doctor. It's not stupid altruism. No, it's the feeling you get when you know that you took the right path. Makes you want to go up and grab the miserable people, give them a good shake and tell them there's still time to open Door #3. Gotta do what you're meant to do."

"If you decide to start doing that, would you wait until I'm on vacation?"

"Fair enough. Now, it's your turn," a sly smile surfaced on his lips. "I want to know the sad story about why you became a doctor?"

"The sad story?" She thought for a moment as she laced her fingers together.

"Well?"

"It's not sad. My dad was an accountant at one of the casinos in Las Vegas." She spoke slowly as if explaining a complicated equation. "Dad was the entertainer, the socialite, and my mom was an obstetrician. Anytime we had anything planned or were about to do something, she'd have to attend a delivery. As kids we were always annoyed by it. Hated it. But, my dad—he was so proud of her. You would have thought she was doing heart transplants by the way he went on about how important she was to all the people he knew." She blushed. "I remember how it embarrassed me, but dad wouldn't stop." Cuddy played with the corner of the file. "My sisters and I were daddy's girls. Mom made dad happy. When she died of lymphoma I was thirteen. I decided to be just like her to keep dad happy. I did it for him. It wasn't even an original idea—both my sisters had it, too. They graduated from Minnesota and share an ob/gyn practice in Miami. I went to Michigan." She stopped. "It's not a very sad story."

Barker's broad smile beamed. "Is your dad happy?"

"Stupidly so," she laughed as she thought of her father and all of his idiosyncrasies, "he retired to Ft. Lauderdale last year and has taken up karaoke, yoga and Thai cooking."

"He sounds like a hell of a guy. But, you need a sad story." His green eyes twinkled as he reached for another slice. "We're supposed to be complicated damaged people in this profession. You need a miserable story worthy of a nineteenth century French novel."

She exhaled. "Dean of Medicine."

"One of the youngest, most beautiful and best in the country," he raised his cold greasy slice in her honor, "or at least that's what all the ICU nurses tell me."

"If you're looking for the sad story—there it is."

"Why? You're brilliantly successful."

"Successful? It's all been an accident. In 1997 when Morris, the Associate Dean of Student Affairs, resigned no one wanted the position. I hadn't been here a year, but thought 'What the hell' and applied. I never expected an interview let alone the job." She laughed. "Next thing I knew, Burtner's spot opened up because he went to work on some Federal grant to save us all from a Y2K disaster. I started getting calls telling me to throw my hat in the ring. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I was the fifth schmuck 'handpicked' for the Deanship and the only one dumb enough to take it."

"Careful there, I was interim Dean during that 'handpicking' and they didn't offer it to me." He winked.

"You were great as the interim."

"So great that I got sacked."

She tried to keep a straight face. "You went down in a blaze of glory."

"Damn straight," he failed to hold back his laughter, "firing Greg House rates right up there with losing my virginity and the birth of my three kids." He paused to take a bite of pizza and chewed thoughtfully. "What a way to end the millennium."

"It was an impressive playground brawl. There's a framed copy of the police blotter in Maggie's office."

"And Maggie refused to post bond," he said with mock indignity shaking his head. "After we tried to kill each other they dumped us in the same cell at the university cop-shop to sober up and we sat around comparing bad municipal golf courses. It was a stupid fight over nothing, but when you're in your forties that sort of irresponsibility makes you feel like you're twenty again. President Gilley came by with two provosts yelled at us like we were kids in junior high and suspended me for three months. Told me right there that he didn't like me any more than he did House and the two of us could go to hell together. I was grateful to be sitting in that cell, because Gilley was ready to murder us both."

Cuddy turned pale at the memory. "Gilley was irate. The next day the Rank and Tenure Committee blew up at him. Your students staged a walk out in protest. Stacy screamed at me over House." She cringed at the horrors of her first day as Dean. "And before I could try to smooth things over with Gilley, House started calling his donors and had all of his grant proposals frozen. I threw up in my desk drawer after Zig Pablaoski from Rockefeller called to tell me to disregard the certified letter I was going to receive confirming a two million dollar grant to establish a Department of Diagnostic Medicine. That was the worst January in my entire life." It sounded surreal described aloud.

"This might make you feel better. I was suspended without pay and had to hustle hours over at Princeton General—alimony and child support for three teenagers. Since House also ended up over there, we had to sign a statement disclosing a previous relationship. The only document their lawyer could cough up on short notice was the one used to disclose a divorce. You think our ICU nurses are bad, the girls at PGH put me and House in a torrid love affair that ended badly."

She couldn't help but laugh at the thought. "They were lucky to get you two. I started getting calls from all over the country from the vultures trying to pick up House and you had quite a few offers, too."

"Well, the Rank and Tenure Committee had filed grievances to the Board of Regents in our honor. House declared war on Gilley and I was upside down on my mortgage and stuck in my contract here despite being suspended. By February you got my three months reduced to one with and promotion and managed to get House rehired, his tenure reinstated and made him a department chair by August. You've got a gift for that administrative stuff."

"I can't take credit for House. He had his infarction the first week of June and part of hiring him back was to head off Stacy suing everyone. The thought of a hospital attorney as a plaintiff in a malpractice suit was too much to take."

"It wouldn't have gotten very far. House had that infarction because he'd been working himself to death for two years straight over here and put the nail in the coffin at General. PGH called and offered him a job in nephrology the minute it hit the wire that he'd been fired because they knew he'd also put in ER hours. PGH pays big bucks for anybody stupid enough to go near their ER. You sign on for the money, not for a pleasant work environment. They're the municipal/county clearinghouse—car wrecks and the knife and gun club. House started clocking graveyard shift overtime his second day on. I'm a workaholic and admit I was putting in a lot of hours, but his fifteen-hour days non-stop for months—that was suicidal."

"I can't imagine House putting in overtime." Cuddy tried to picture her arch nemesis with a work ethic. "It's as unbelievable as seeing him show up before 10:30."

"You'd be surprised. Eat your pizza." He motioned to her barely touched slice. "I've known House since about ninety-four. When we were all scrambling for tenure he was a nightmare. He published like a lunatic, taught, always had a half dozen consults going and pulled a lot of overtime in the ER and over at the Harrington Kidney Institute. I don't know when he slept." Barker glanced at the open door and lowered his voice. "And he also had a pretty expensive little habit." He tapped the side of his nose for emphasis.

"There's a very small part of me that's sorry I missed the early years." She shook her head in disbelief. "I'd give a kidney to see him publish something or teach."

"You'd hated us all." Barker assured her. "Me, House, Carlson, Lehman and Patel came in together. We were the junior faculty from hell—the back biting and scheming that went on, I'm surprised no one was murdered. They'd just started construction on the new building and all of us had offices in this hall." He paused. "It was mayhem. Patel was the plotter. Carlson was so obsessive with publishing anything that he'd stalk people for their cases. Lehman—uh, we called him 'Lehman the Ladies Man' you figure it out." He winked. "Kim and I were in our last years, so I was pissed off at the world. House had half of Colombia's gross national product snorted up his nose and was always looking for a fight. We all hated each other—still do—and we all played golf a couple of times each week."

"Even though you hated each other?"

"It's best to play golf with people you hate."

"I'll keep it in mind."

"I'm serious."

"Ok." Cuddy was not certain where he was going with his idea.

"I like a ten o'clock tee time, because the grass isn't as wet and you don't have to wear a jacket that screws up your swing."

"Alright."

"But, to have a ten o'clock tee time during the week is a little tricky, especially if you have a job that needs you around at that time in the morning." He paused to let the idea sink in. "The five of us played golf together because everyone here knew we hated each other. No one was going to suspect anything. They never did."

"How'd you keep from killing each other on the course?"

"It's golf, Lisa, people act differently in different environments."

"Again, valuable information," she agreed and wondered how long the golf story was going to go on. She hated golf stories.

"Little Jimmy Wilson joined our group later after Carlson went to the Mayo around ninety-seven," Barker continued. "He was an odd fit. Too interested in everybody's details. My ugly divorce and custody fight fascinated him. He wanted to know the source of Patel's shyness and gave Lehman relationship advice. Naturally, House picked up on Wilson's quirks and made it his mission in life to screw with him. He's the type of person who'll kill himself figuring you out just so that he can latch on to that one thing that'll drive you nuts. House is methodical in the way he studies people. Wilson became a psych experiment."

"Wait," she stopped him, "you're saying that House befriended Wilson to screw with his head." It made sense, but cast House in a sinister light. "Wilson has been a really good friend to him especially since Stacy left. There aren't that many people who can tolerate House. He's a good friend."

"I agree, he tolerates House being an ass better than most people. Yet, we all still play pool—except for Wilson."

"What?" He lost her with the shift to pool.

"Me, Patel, Lehman and House used to play golf and now we play pool, smoke cigars, drink beer and tell dirty jokes every other week."

"Without Wilson?"

"House keeps Wilson in the 'hospital friend' slot. He likes for him to think that he's brooding when he's not here. People pick up your dry cleaning for you and loan you money when they think you might be suicidal." Barker paused to register Cuddy's reaction. "It's gotten a little out of control, but it's always been a game. A mean twisted game played by a mean twisted person. Wilson should know better, but he sets himself up for it. I hate to say it, but it's kind of entertaining to watch from the sidelines." His dry laugh was silenced with Cuddy's disapproving glare.

"Lisa, Wilson is naïve. Hell, you're naïve when it comes to House. That infarction gave him a carte blanche to be a bigger asshole than the one he was six months before it happened. He has an excuse to take narcotics and flaunt it. He has people defend him for being a jerk. He can do what he pleases. People see what they want."

"I am not naïve. I knew him at Michigan. He wasn't his short tempered or cranky. I think you're overlooking the fact he's in a great deal of pain." Cuddy did not like to defend House to Barker, but felt it was necessary.

"Of course he's in excruciating pain—it's probably knocked twenty years off his life—but House, the mean manipulative ass, wasn't made by that infarction. He hasn't changed, although he likes for the people who don't know that to think that way."

"So, he's an evil mastermind? Did he plan the infarction?"

Barker smiled indulgently at her defense. "Who writes his Vicodin 'script? You're his attending, you're on his insurance, but his buddy writes the 'script for his pills." He arched a brow. "You signed off on his medical release to work, but he didn't do any physical therapy."

"With his personality—"

Barker laughed and raised his finger accusingly. "He can't walk. I know this because I was in the room when Reinhardt removed most of his quadriceps. Had he gone to physical therapy the therapist would have dumped him in a wheelchair."

Cuddy continued to be defensive. "He gets around better now and it will improve with time."

"Lisa, he gets around like FDR. He's good at hiding it, but knows his boundaries. Chairs, tables, walls, rails—he avoids open spaces. He's not hiding because he's brooding and avoiding the world, he can hardly walk and doesn't want to put himself in a situation where it will become painfully obvious to his employers."

"What are you suggesting? Where are going with this?"

"He's got you as duped as Wilson."

"I don't think so."

"Play golf with the people you hate," he repeated his maxim. "About a year ago Patel's wife threw out the pool table at their house. The four of us now play at Paulie's Tavern out on the highway. It's a shit hole. Nobody knows we're doctors, no one cares. Nobody knows that House has ever been anything other than a cripple. There's no pretense. There's nothing there aside from the uneven table and crap on tap. Nobody knows anything about it." He spoke more slowly. "Bert started coming along with us a few months ago. House offered up his flunky as a designated driver after Lehman got his D.U.I. We all like Bert. She's a she, but one of the guys. Bert plays pool. Bert plays poker. Bert plays guitar. Bert swears. Bert drinks. Bert smokes. Bert can tell a dirty joke to make four old jaded doctors blush. Who the hell wouldn't like Bert?"

Cuddy caught on and supplied the answer. "Wilson."

"He doesn't know anything, but what Bert is to Wilson is what House shouldn't be. House's screw-with-Wilson game created a monster. He's suspicious and doesn't really know why, but has somebody to blame. With Bert the golden rule was broken—play golf with people you hate. House doesn't hate Bert."

She hung her head as the strange chain of events started to make sense. "Wilson's going to have me destroy a career, because you guys wouldn't let him play pool with you?" Anger swelled in her throat. "I feel like I'm the principal of an elementary school. This is childish and stupid and asinine! I've got to fire her or all hell is going to break loose."

"I figured as much," Barker exhaled. "What did she do to give Wilson enough ammo to force you to fire her in order to protect House's weak little spirit?"

"She forged a signature on a consent form for an autopsy." Cuddy had to credit Barker's prowess in circling their conversation back to the starting point she tried to avoid over an hour before.

"Family file charges?"

Cuddy blinked. "No."

"Pathology bring it to your attention?"

"No."

"House know?"

"After the fact."

"Well, nearly 70% of autopsy requests are turned down by family members, regardless of how much it would help. It's frustrating. Censurable, but I think all things considered and the nature of case—"

"It's a really egregious forgery. She's as obsessive as House about confirming cause of death. Combined with some of the other indiscretions I can't protect her. Wilson is threatening to call the University President and the New Jersey Medical Board."

"Tell him it's not Bert's fault. Dump it all on House and tell Wilson that you're going to hang his buddy out to dry. Call his bluff and take it to Rank and Tenure."

"A little extreme? House is probably guilty of a thousand other things I don't know anything about. It could make things even worse."

"Rank and Tenure won't touch him. Wilson will protect House. Bert's ass will be saved."

"I can't risk it. I'd end up going down in flames with House."

Barker sighed. "House has NIH grants and a lot of money running through that department—he's not going anywhere."

"My job," Cuddy sounded defeated, "I can't risk my job. Everything House does gets put in my file. I'm supposed to be keeping him in check. Bert's on her own and if I pull something out of a hat this time Wilson will just come up with another thing. He's made her into this horrible corruptive influence on House and thinks that House will become a saint if she's gone."

Barker's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. "He thinks Bert corrupted House?"

"You're the one who said that House was screwing with Wilson's head. This is the end result."

For a long moment Barker looked as though he'd swallowed glass. "Fine, pull the fellowship out from under her and give her to me in the ER. She's got the experience I can use—she did humanitarian medical in the Balkans with MSF. Don't destroy a career to appease a deluded oncologist." He bit his lip. "You've got to sit down with House and come up with a solution. You fire her and she'll be ruined."

"I've got until Monday morning."

Barker snatched a piece of paper off his desk and scribbled a hasty map. "I will insult you and deny everything. Tell no one. Ever."

She looked at the paper.

Barker's pager buzzed frantically.

"What is this?"

He stood up. "Tomorrow night is Trades Night. The beer is cheap and the food isn't safe for human consumption, but it's almost free. We all show up around 8:30 to get a table. Bert's covering for me in the ER, so she'll be out of the way. I'll be rude and Patel will probably piss his pants if he thinks you're going to tell his wife. Lehman will hit on you and be an ass. House will be approachable."

"You want me to show up at…Paulie's Tavern?"

Barker lingered for a second at the doorway. "Also, we're plumbers, except for Patel. He's an out of work convenience store clerk. It's just like golf, Lisa, people act differently in different environments. You need to come out and play golf with the people you hate. It just might save Bert's ass."