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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 4 [novella] - the turnip patch
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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 4 [novella]
Title:  Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part:  4



Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part 4


Howard looked at us funny when it was just the two of us walking in that night, but other than that, nothing awkward occurred.  Instead of the usual routine, Duo stopped by the bar, picked up a bottle of something a nice golden-brown and two glasses, and led the way to a small table in the corner.  As soon as we sat down, he twisted the cap off the bottle and poured some for each of us.  It looked like this would be a 'drink because I have to' night.

Duo slung his feet up to rest on one of the spare chairs while I swirled the alcohol around in my glass a bit to look like I was participating.  My knowledge of alcohol was fairly poor; I didn't even know what it was I was going to be drinking, and the label on the bottle wasn't facing me.  I suppose it didn't really matter.

Duo slammed back a gulp, and I took that as my cue to take a sip.  If he could hold his liquor as well as he claimed to be able to, I wasn't about to try matching him drink for drink.  "Today's been a sucky day," he declared solemnly.

I just nodded in agreement and took another tiny sip of my drink.  This Duo seemed different from the Duo that I had observed on previous occasion in this bar after bad news concerning his patients.  When Duo was with the others, he seemed to try -- a little too heartily, in my opinion -- to maintain a determinedly cheerful facade.  Everyone knew that it wasn't the truth, that it was only an illusion he kept up to try to force himself into being cheerful, but at least he tried.  This Duo didn't seem to be trying.  This Duo was already waiting for the alcohol to numb his senses while pouring himself another shot.

He said that he came here to be distracted from the downturns of the day.  The last time, I was the designated distraction.  It made me think that perhaps I wasn't distracting him in a satisfactory manner this time around.

The alcohol made me think that maybe if Duo got really sloshed, he might tell me things he wouldn't normally tell me.  Everything in me slapped that thought silly.  That was highly unethical, thoroughly despicable, and just downright slimy, rude, and mean.

I was reminded of the headhunters, of purging and cleansing rituals.  How could a visit to the bar fit that idea?  When Duo was here with the others, he wasn't purging himself of anything.  Instead, he was keeping it all inside himself.  Did he just store it up for purging later?  Then why bother with the drinks at all?  Perhaps he did it merely to keep up appearances for his colleagues.  After all, to my knowledge, they knew to a fair degree of how deeply Duo's pain ran, but they didn't know why he did the things that he did.  I didn't think they knew about the cleansing things that Duo did by himself either, like the screaming in the field, and according to Duo, those were the most 'useful' of what he did in reaction these days.  Perhaps he did this small, visible thing for his friends so they wouldn't look any further.

This was technically an 'alone' ritual.  Maybe I could observe him in another purging state tonight.

"How much did Sally tell you?" he continued, halfway through his second drink.

"Just that radiation seemed to be the next step since the chemo didn't seem to be working."

"Yeah."  That one word came out sounding very morose.  "I don't like using radiation on a ten-year-old.  Chemo is bad enough.  But...."  He took another swallow of his drink, this one much more moderate than his last.  At least he didn't seem determined to get smashed in the shortest amount of time possible.  "You know what I hate?  Flu-like symptoms."

"Pardon me?"  I wasn't really prepared for that sudden shift in topic, and I hadn't yet had enough alcohol to numb my mental processes to the point where everything made sense.  Remembering the drink in my hand made me reflexively take another sip.

"Flu-like symptoms.  They cover everything.  Chills, fever, fatigue, muscle aches, everything.  Every damned thing that is a symptom of every damned sickness in this whole world, from the common flu to leukemia to... to, hell, even to the infamous L2 plagues.  You look at any checklist of symptoms to any disease, almost all of them will say 'patient often comes in complaining of flu-like symptoms'.  Flu-like symptoms suck."

Okay.  I didn't know if his rant required response, so I hid behind another small sip.  I remembered why I drank at social gatherings.  It wasn't because it was expected of me.  I didn't care much of what my peers expected of me.  I drank so that I could hide behind my glass and not have to talk to all the annoying people that frequented those gatherings.  Not that I was thinking of Duo as annoying.  Only that a drink could be a very handy tool.

He went on without prompting.  "Cancer sucks, too.  No viruses, no bacterial infections to blame.  No, just some little carcinogen that comes along and convinces your own cells to go forth and multiply.  That's it.  Did you know that if you study the growth of humanity across the earth, the pattern has a remarkable resemblance to the spreading of cancer through the human body?  Leukemia especially sucks.  You can't operate with leukemia.  There's no convenient tumor to cut out.  And now we're spreading across the stars, too, and even the colonies are getting overcrowded.  They're completely non-sustainable.  Haven't we learned anything from the conditions on L2?  Humanity is nothing but a disease that needs to be excised from this poor earth, its host."  Finally, he stopped, listened to what he said, and blinked.  "Ummm, I didn't mean that last part."  He chuckled nervously, and took another drink to cover his slip.  He, too, knew the value of a drink in one's hand.

I thought that maybe it was time for a little shift in tone.  I wasn't doing my part as drinking companion.  "From the way you talk, either you're a space baby, or you just have a thing about cancerous growths."

He grimaced.  "Both, actually.  I grew up in the L2 cluster."

"Did that have anything to do with your decision to help people as a doctor?"

"You're never off the job, are you?"

I didn't mean for that to come out so strongly interrogative.  "Sorry.  I get caught up in my work sometimes."

"Yeah.  I know the feeling."  He shrugged.  "Yeah, L2 shaped the direction of my life.  But like I'm sure I've said before, I wouldn't say that the plagues and the whatnot motivated me to become a doctor.  I'm not so noble as all that."

I begged to differ, but I didn't think that arguing the point would get me anywhere.  There was something almost indescribably tragic in his nobility.  The strength required to continue on in the face of his near continual sorrow amazed me.  "Do you like your job?" I asked before I could think better of it.

"Do you like yours?" he countered.  I should have expected that.  "Or do you simply feel driven to do it?"

He stepped a little close to the truth with that one, but I didn't think I had ever given him reason to believe that.  "Driven?  Nothing so powerful as that."

"You can't expect me to believe that your 'interest' in this is merely academic, nothing more than intellectual curiosity."

"Yes, well, intellectual curiosity's the problem."  Dammit.  I blamed that on the alcohol.  It had been much too long since I had last drank.  That, and the fact that the alcohol didn't seem to have dulled Duo's sharp mental acuity at all.  Ridiculously enough, I stopped myself from saying anything more by hiding behind my glass again.

He waited for me to explain the rest of my statement, but I refused to cooperate.  Nevertheless, I had the feeling that he would be able to get it out of me somehow.  And strangely, that thought didn't bother me as much as I thought it should have.  I was about to blame it on the alcohol again, but honestly, I was still only halfway through my first drink.  I recognized a cheap excuse when I heard one.

"I do what I do because I can't not do it," he eventually informed me softly.  "Because even if I end up losing in the end, I can go to sleep at night knowing that at least I tried."

"Dr. K said that you could have been a researcher, a good one.  You could have chosen to help even more people in the long run, without any of the grief."  I finally finished off the last swallow of my drink, and Duo refilled it contemplatively.

"I've never chosen the easy path through life.  I never walked away from the bullies in the schoolyard.  I haven't lied, even when it would have been terribly convenient.  I somehow managed to finance my trip through college and med school when I could have just... just gotten a bachelor's in computer science or something and landed a cushy job in the tech industry.  I could have gotten a job at a bigger hospital, at a real children's hospital or a cancer institute.

"And I could have been a researcher, and never have had to look a kid's parents in the eye and tell them that their kid's not gonna live to see her eighth birthday."  His eyes slid shut briefly at the memory.  "But you know what?  There are hundreds of other guys out there begging to fill those research positions, and I bet there's nothing I could have discovered that they won't be able to, too.  It's all pretty mechanical, anyway.  But there aren't hundreds of other guys willing to take my job now.  G waited as long as he did before retiring because he was waiting to find a replacement.  It took him a while.  It took him a while to find some poor sap crazy enough to take the position.  But that's me.  A crazy sap, that is."

Once again, his declaration provoked an automatic response from me.  "You're not crazy."

"I'm a glutton for pain, Heero.  I've gotta be to work this job.  But I fill a niche.  If it weren't for me, those kids wouldn't be getting the help they need."

"Then you are a far better man than I, Duo."  The golden liquid in my glass suddenly looked very appealing to me.  I took a sip of imprudence.  "I do what I do for myself."

"Are you sure?" he had the gall to ask me.  "Weren't you... what was it?  Promoting a better understanding of our lives through the better understanding of our deaths?  Didn't you say that understanding our grief reactions and others' can make it easier for us to cope?  That's a wonderful benefit to mankind, Heero, if it's your goal to help a parent cope with the loss of a child, or a person cope with the loss of their spouse."

"A child coping with the loss of a parent...."  I practically mumbled that into my drink.  I finished my aborted sip and set the glass back down.  "No.  It's for me.  For my understanding alone.  Anyone else I manage to help... is just a side effect.  A bonus.  That spiel I give... it's just an excuse I put on my study to justify its existence."

"What do you mean?"

What I meant... was something I had only ever told to my advisor in grad school, Professor Jameson.  Or J, my mind whispered, in the manner of K and G.  Lord, I was in deep with the natives if I started using their language for things unrelated to their sphere.  What would J say to that?  Don't get involved with the natives.  What else would he say?  On the other hand, he had been surprisingly understanding of my real reasons for pursuing this line of study.  In fact, I had always been under the impression that he liked me more because of them.  Then again, J was probably crazier than Duo was.  In the face of Duo's motivation, I simply felt humbled.

I moistened my throat and took the plunge.  Maybe the alcohol made me do it.  Maybe I was in need of some purging of my own.  Maybe I thought Duo needed to understand that I wasn't anything compared to him.  Maybe I wanted him to hear me out and tell me that I wasn't crazy, one not-crazy man to another.  Whatever the reason, I spoke.

"My parents died when I was fifteen.  I've told you that before.  After it happened... I got over it pretty quickly.  Too quickly, most people said.  A cold, heartless bastard I was, according to them, because I wasn't devastated.  Because I didn't wallow in shock and self-pity for a month or more.  Because I showed up at school the next day and took my exams and still scored the highest in my classes.  Because I shrugged off everyone's empty condolences.

"In a way, I'm glad that it was them that died and not me.  I loved my parents, don't get me wrong.  We may have been a not very emotionally demonstrative family, and they may have been strict parents, but I loved them, and they loved me.

"But usually at a certain point in every person's life, you come to a realization that there will be a day when your parents aren't around anymore.  You have good reason to assume that you will outlive your parents, and that it won't be the other way around.  I don't think I would have wanted them to go through the pain of losing their only child.  That's one of the worst nightmares of a parent, I think.

"But I was old enough to know that one day, I would be standing by the graveside of my deceased parents.  That I would have to attend their funerals, sit through the reading of their wills.  That I would have to live my life without their guidance and support."  I shrugged, and downed some more alcohol.  There wasn't any pain I was trying to numb.  It just seemed the thing to do.  "So it didn't bother me too much when they died.  It just happened to me a lot sooner than I expected.  Sure, there were things we never said to each other, and moments we never got to experience together, but I suspect that even if they died twenty years from now, that would still be the case."

I wasn't used to speaking so much in casual conversation, only lecture.  I felt like I was rambling, and I was still only halfway through my story.  I looked over to my companion to gauge his reaction.  He looked back at me without any judgment in his eyes.  He just leaned forward, topped off our glasses, and leaned back again with his drink, waiting for me to continue.  I got that strange humbled feeling again.  How had our roles reversed?  He was supposed to be the one telling me his tragic stories, and I was supposed to be the calm, neutral listener.

It took me a little while to start the end of my tale, even though the ending was easier than the beginning.  "Cold and emotionless were the usual accusations.  'Still in shock' was one of the kinder labels.  'Unfilial' probably fell in there, somewhere in the middle.  They all had this idea of how I should have been reacting, and I didn't conform to it, and that made me a bad person.

"I didn't agree.  I knew that I was... just reacting to what was in my heart, you know?  It may have been unnatural to them, but for me... maybe it seemed heartless to them, but I knew my parents, better than any of them, and I know that they wouldn't have wanted me to waste an unreasonable amount of time mourning for them.  It's not like I just forgot about them.  I just continued on with my life, because life goes on, with or without you.  What else can you do?

"So that's what got me into this field, I guess.  I wanted to understand the way I 'should have been' reacting.  I knew I wasn't wrong in reacting the way that I did, but... learning everything I have has really helped solidify that for me.  I've seen so many different ways that people react to death, and mine was just one of them."  I finally looked up and spoke to him instead of to the glass I was fiddling with in my hands.  "Yours is just one of them, too."

Duo blinked at me, as if awareness were just returning to him.  My lips twitched in a smile reflex.  I hoped that look was because he had been transfixed by my story, not put to sleep by it.

That thought surprised me.  I felt like I should have been feeling somber after telling a story like that, but I didn't.  I somehow felt... almost lighthearted.  Perhaps there was something to this whole purging idea after all.  Previously, I had had an intellectual understanding of the concept, but I had never put it into practice myself.

Duo stared at me for a little bit longer, so I decided to help him order his thoughts.  "So.  Does that answer your question?"

"Uh, yeah," he answered automatically, his voice then softening as he considered his answer.  "Yeah.  I guess that does."  Following that came a period of comfortable, respectful silence wherein entire universes could have been contemplated.  "Damn," he said finally.

I quirked an inquisitive eyebrow up at him.

He shook his head, chuckling a bit, and raised his glass to his lips one more time.  "I don't know.  I kind of suspected there was a lot more to you than it seemed, but I never really thought... I guess I wasn't sure?  Or maybe I just never thought I'd ever find out about it.  Like I kept poking at ya, but I never expected anything to actually fall out.  You ain't half bad, Heero."

I smirked and propped my feet up on the chair his own feet were currently occupying, knocking our shoes together and forcing him to hand over a few inches.  "Tell me that again."

"Ooooh," he mocked me.  "You're bad now, Heero."

"I am," I agreed.  Oh, I was indeed.  I was getting involved with a native.  Nah, my more inebriated side said quite reasonably to me.  I was just participating in a local grief ritual.  A voice that sounded suspiciously like Prof. J's kicked in: that's what they all say, boy.  That's how it always starts.

And then a voice like Marlon Brando's whispered to me, 'The horror!  The horror!' and I almost snickered aloud.  I was buzzed.  Not drunk.  I was pretty certain I could still walk a straight line to the bathroom if I had to, but I couldn't in all honesty label myself sober anymore.  I looked over to Duo.  He looked rather mellow, too.  I'd say he was sufficiently distracted from the matter that had driven us here in the first place.  Mission accomplished.  "Say.  How wasted did you have to get before you accidentally fell into Hilde?"

He choked a little on a laugh-slash-snort of indignation.  "It sounds really silly when you put it that way."  I held my hands up in an innocent gesture.  I wasn't the one that had called it an accident to begin with.  He recovered his breath and kindly answered my question.  "A lot more than this, that's for sure, and I have no intention of ever getting that wasted again, thank you very much."  He saluted the pledge with another swig.

Hmmm.  I wondered if after that little incident, he had agreed to continue these little outings in order to build up a tolerance for alcohol.  That was another possible reason he went out with his colleagues.

I was pleased to realize that our visit to the bar hadn't run like one of the previous ones.  I had been worried about disturbing Duo's little rituals, but if this wasn't one of them because he didn't really do any purging at Howard's, then I was perfectly safe.  If it was one, but a different one since he was, in a manner of speaking, alone, then I was in a grand position to study it up close.  And if it was one he made up on the spot, just because I happened to be here with him, then that was fine, too.  A reaction was a reaction, so long as it was real, and I somehow felt that tonight, I had seen a good, real part of Duo Maxwell.  I wondered if he kept the things he had told me tonight as close to himself as I kept the things I had revealed to him, and all of a sudden I wanted to know if I had gained access to that information because I was an outside, non-interested party, or if it was because I had somehow become his friend.  But then that made me question why I had spoken in turn to him, and I didn't want to consider that.  I was in enough trouble as it was.

My mind then wandered off onto other tangents, and for a little while my brain and Duo's must have been skipping along hand in hand, because we talked about little nothings, but somewhere along the way my brain must have slipped and fell and bumped its head.  It was about time we thought about taking our leave of Howard's, and I was thinking that I had taken the bus to the hospital, so I didn't have to drive home, but Duo had driven us both here.  The guys were right: I knew for a fact that Duo had had more to drink than I had, and he seemed perfectly fine to me.  He would probably have no trouble getting himself home.  "Hey, alcohol dulls your senses, right?"

"Yeah."  I watched as he lifted the glass to his lips one last time, and just something about the way the liquid captured the light, something about the way his tongue darted out absently to lick at the rim of the glass, something... something made me come up with my next brilliant question.

"So I guess if I kissed you now, it wouldn't be as good as if I kissed you when I was sober, right?"  He blinked in surprise, but it didn't phase me.  "Guess I'll wait, then."

My hand went to my glass, but his intercepted and pushed my hand back.  "Oookay, buddy.  I think it's time to go."  He took me by the elbow and hauled me to my feet.

"But it's not that late, is it?" I asked, puzzled, trying to get a good look at the numbers on my watch, but he was pulling me towards the bar to settle with Howard.

"Late enough, Heero," he assured me.  He had to let go of my arm to reach into his pocket for his wallet, giving me the opportunity to first confirm the time, and then pull my wallet out just as he got his.  We both pulled some bills out and slapped them on the counter at the same time, which resulted in a silent glaring contest over who would get to pay.

Howard neatly solved our problem by taking all of the money and stuffing it into his pocket.  "Thank you, boys.  Your next drinks will be on the house."  And then he walked away.

I was still staring at his retreating back when Duo shook his head and grabbed me by the elbow again.  "Let's go, Heero.  Before you say something else you hadn't planned on saying."

"What are you talking about, Duo?"  We were about three-quarters of the way to the door by the time my mind finally caught up and managed to process the tail end of our conversation.  My feet came stumbling to a halt.  "Shit."

He snorted and kept walking, towing me along.  "I think that's the first time I've heard you swear, Heero."  Like he was one to talk.  Working with children tended to bleach out one's vocabulary.

Alcohol dilates blood vessels.  That would have been the reason I thought my face felt rather heated as we walked out into the cool night air.  "Umm, Duo, I didn't--"

"Ah, perfect," he interrupted me, looking at the bus that was rounding the corner.  "Right on time."

Yes, remarkably convenient that Howard's was right next to a bus stop on a route that would take me home.  "Duo, I--"  I stopped as the bus pulled up right next to us and sprayed some exhaust in our direction.  Inhaling that stuff always made me cough.

The door opened, and Duo pushed me inside, rather surprisingly following me in and settling me down in a seat right behind the driver.  Before I managed to get myself sorted out, he paid my fare and asked the driver to make sure I got out at the right stop.  Fortunately, the bus was empty besides us, so there was no one else around to hear that embarrassing little moment.

"Duo," I called after him as he walked off the bus.  I started to get up.

He turned and smiled at me, but there was a warning in his eye that made me sit back down again.  "We'll talk tomorrow, Heero.  When your senses aren't so dull anymore."  And with a wink, he turned and left, the door shutting behind him with a whoosh.

As the bus got underway, I buried my face in my hands.  Great.  Tomorrow.



One hour later, I was back in my apartment and had enough water in me to clear my head and send me to the bathroom.  While I was there, I scrubbed at my face until I seemed decent enough to look in the mirror and frown at myself.  Dammit, I knew I could take more alcohol than that, otherwise I would have been shaming myself at social gatherings all the time.  I knew how to stay alert around critics.  Whatever possessed me to say a thing like that?

I walked out of the bathroom in a huff and threw myself down on my bed.  I could accept the fact that maybe I had let my guard down with Duo.  He wasn't there to cultivate my connections, or to review my work, or to evaluate me for a position.  He had become a friend.  I could understand why I told him things I didn't tell anyone else, about my parents, about why I really studied reactions to death.  But a kiss?  Where had that come from?  I hadn't even known that I was attracted to him.

So I supposed, the next question naturally had to be, was I attracted to him?

Duo Maxwell was physically... nice to look at.  No argument there.

But on the inside....  Yes, I could see the attraction.  He had a unique passion and compassion that I lacked.  He had a magnetic personality, a sparkling charisma that reeled people in, parents, children, and me alike.  He had a zest for life that most people found infectious.  He had a stubborn determination to do as he felt right.

And the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.  He had his, and he bore them with an astounding strength, despite the seeming fragility of his pain.

And of course he was smart and witty and fun and all of those other little things.

He was what I wasn't.  He had what I didn't.  He felt what I couldn't.

He had my answers.

Of course I was drawn to him.  How could I not be?

...

Well, shit.



I saw him the next day at the hospital, of course.  He looked none the worse for wear, considering our little adventure last night.

We didn't get the opportunity to speak privately to each other until midday, when he managed to corner me in the staff lounge, coincidentally getting water the same time as I.

"Hey, Heero," he greeted me, a chipper note in his voice that put me on edge.  Was he planning something?

"Duo," I answered back civilly, watching his moves.  I decided that I might as well get a jump on things and take control before Duo could.  I needed to maintain a professional distance.  "About last night.... just forget I said anything, okay?"  At least I had decided not to actually *do* anything last night, no matter the weakness of my reasoning.

He looked at me over the rim of his cup, a peculiar gleam in his eyes.  "In vino veritas, Heero," he said softly to me.

If he wanted to trade Latin phrases, fine with me.  "Lingua lapsa," I returned in a similar tone, meeting his gaze levelly.

We stared at each other for a while longer before his expression shifted.  "Fine."  That one word fell between us, without animosity, without concession.  It was an acceptance.  For now.  He turned to leave, but right before he opened the door, he looked back over his shoulder at me.  "But just so you know... you're welcome to lingua lapsa me any time."  I blinked, and he disappeared out the door.

Puzzling.  It was, of course, only when I was in the middle of drinking my water that I finally figured out what he meant, causing me to choke slightly in surprise.  Duo had just left an open invitation for me to slip him some tongue.



When I heard that Midii wasn't responding to the intrathecal chemotherapy either, I automatically asked, "Where's Duo?"  It was only after I had received my answer and was standing in front of the elevators waiting for the doors to open that I rolled my eyes at myself and my behavior.

I knew that there were two options here.  Either I asked about Duo because I knew that he would be the doctor most affected by the news, so naturally I had to be there to observe him, or I asked because I had let myself become disproportionally interested in Duo, and now my attraction was coloring and biasing my study.  I wanted the former to be true, I feared the latter, and I suspected a strange combination of the two.  I knew for a fact that in the beginning of my project, my focus had been the entire group, but as I progressed, it had gradually, insidiously, shifted towards Duo.  The others had taken a back seat to my fascination for him and the way he reacted.  Whether that was for the good of my study or not, I had no idea.

In the last several weeks since my little mistake, I had constantly been second-guessing myself and my motivations, and it didn't help that I heard Prof. J -- Jameson, dammit -- laughing maniacally at me in the background.

With a certain relief, the silver doors opened and I strode into the box and hit the button for the first floor.  While I waited, it suddenly occurred to me that I no longer found the oddly shaped elevator disturbing.  Had I finally gotten used to it?  Or had my guts finally found something else to worry over?

I checked the directory when I got out of the elevator, and headed towards the physical therapy department.  Next door to it was a small gym that the doctors were allowed to use.  I figured that Duo had to be taking this hard for him to need to dump his anger in the middle of the workday, before it could leak out and affect any of his interactions with anyone else.

When I got there, I was a little surprised to see someone I recognized seated outside a closed door on a little folding chair.  It was otherwise deserted.  "Dr. Chang.  Wufei," I corrected myself, reminding myself that he was a friend of the children's wing.  He often took care of the blood work for the department that required more sophisticated tests than they were equipped to handle.  We had met on a few occasions before.

"Heero," he greeted me calmly with a nod of his head, looking not at all uncomfortable in his position.

"Have you seen Duo?" I asked him, ignoring, for the moment, that Wufei looked like he was doing absolutely nothing in the middle of nowhere.  I suspected the two were connected.

"Yes."

That was only slightly unhelpful.  "Do you know where I might find him?"

"Yes."

This was worse than talking to Trowa.  "Is he behind that closed door?"  There was a little plate on the wall that read 'in use'.

"Yes."

"May I enter?"

"No."  Tired of the twenty questions game, I instead settled for a pointed look that managed to demand an answer from him.  He relented.  "He's venting with a punching bag right now.  I've been asked to stand guard outside and make sure no one interrupts him."

"Oh."  I shifted uncomfortably on my feet.  "Have you done this before?"

Wufei inclined his head.  "Duo was shouting once.  Someone outside thought he had been injured and rushed in to help.  Duo then chose not to allow that to occur again, so he enlisted my aid."

"How long has he been in there?"

"About fifteen minutes now.  He should be done soon."

I decided to wait it out, and took up a position next to the small window set in the wall beside the door.  The vertical blinds were shut all the way, but I could catch glimpses of the inside through the narrow gap between the last blind and the wall.  I glanced warily at Wufei, and when he didn't stop me, I went ahead and performed surveillance on Duo through that small crack.

"Duo kickboxes?" I asked, surprised as he landed a solid roundhouse against the heavy bag.  His braid whipped around in a smooth arc, following his motion until he resumed punching at the bag.

"Some, yes."

I told my mind to concentrate on the more pertinent details when it offhandedly observed that Duo had nice legs for kickboxing.  He had changed from his regular doctor attire into a tank top and shorts.  He hammered away at the poor punching bag with a pair of gloves that had to belong to the gym.  He didn't keep any in his locker.  Off to the side I could see what looked like his white coat lying in a heap on the floor.  From my vantage point, I could see little of his expression, but I imagined it to be intense and fierce, his eyes narrow and his brow crinkled in a scowl.  He would be feeling little to no satisfaction from each blow he landed.  It was only after it was all over that the 'ball of emotion' he had coiled up inside of him would be gone.  This was not an incremental process.

His final blow was a resounding kick that made a hearty thwack I could feel through the wall, accompanied by a loud, angry 'kyaah', and then he sagged against the bag, heaving as he caught his breath.  My mind, having been denied the opportunity to admire the view, whirred off to analyze his actions.  A kick was more powerful than a punch.  With that final, violent motion, had something cathartic happened?

He somehow sensed my eyes on him, because he stood up suddenly and turned to look in my direction.  I withdrew.  Seconds later, the door opened inwards, and Duo's head poked out.  He studied me critically for a few moments, then said, "You can come in."  He went back inside and left the door open for me.

I hesitated, then moved to follow.  Before I crossed the threshold, Wufei stopped me and handed me a bottle of water that had been hiding underneath his chair.  Then, with a tiny bow, he folded up his chair, set it aside, and left the two of us alone.

I entered the small workout room and closed the door behind me.  The room didn't have the best ventilation, but it was a little better than adequate.  After catching his eye, I tossed the bottle of water to Duo where he stood next to his coat, extracting a small towel from the pile on the floor.  He caught it easily with a murmured thanks and immediately twisted it open to begin rehydrating himself.  After a few swallows, he set the bottle down on the floor and sat down beside it, drying his sweat with the towel while he leaned over and stretched a little.  I sat down across from him.

"So, learn anything new and exciting about me today?"

"New?  Yes.  Exciting?  Not really."

He paused to throw a mock glare in my direction.  "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

I shrugged.  "It was just a thing."  A Duo thing, really.  That made it interesting, perhaps, but not really exciting.

After a few minutes, he asked quietly, "Why are you still here?"

I blinked and turned to look at him.  I had been staring at the closed blinds, thinking random thoughts about hospital workout rooms and the doctors that used them.  "I thought I'd wait for you to finish up here.  We can walk back up together."

"I meant, why are you still here at Peacecraft?  Why are you still studying us?  What else is there for you to learn here?"

Leaving had never occurred to me.  I hadn't been here that long yet, although it probably seemed like a very long time to the staff members here.  Ethnographic studies sometimes took years to wrap up, even if I had never taken that long to see what I needed to see.  I was still missing some vital piece of the puzzle, searching for the key that would unlock everything for me, but I didn't know what it was.  But I felt very strongly that I would, if I stayed here, and that I would figure it out.  "I don't think I've seen all there is to see here, yet."

He turned away from me, gluing his eyes to the floorboards.  His fingers toyed with the corner of his towel.  There was something he wanted to say, and yet didn't want to say.  "Heero...."

"Yes, Duo?"  I answered calmly, but the anticipation was making me antsy.

He looked up suddenly and nailed me with an intense, pained violet gaze.  "Are you just here waiting for Midii to die?"

"What?" I said, startled.  "No.  Of course not.  How could--"  No, I knew how he could ask that.  It was a legitimate question.  I took a long breath and let it out with a soft sigh.  "No, Duo.  That's not why I'm here."

"But why else would you be here?"  He started off in a low voice, almost a harsh whisper, before escalating to a soft yet fierce, trembling accusation.  "That's what you do, isn't it?  You study death?  Why else would you still be here if not to study death?  Her death?"

Obviously, the state of Midii's health was getting to him.  "I study reactions to death, Duo, whether these reactions are caused by an actual death or not.  If Midii wakes up tomorrow to find that her cancer has gone into remission, then she lucks out and gets to be written up in the great escapes category, and everything I have observed goes into how people react to the possibility of death, and everything I will observe after that will go into how people react when they find that death has been defeated.  But if that isn't the case, then..."

He chuckled bitterly.  "Then you'll study that, too, won't you?"

I could do nothing but accede the truth of that statement with a regretful echo.  "Then I will study that, too."

He let his head drop and his eyes fall shut.  "You suck, you know that?"

"Yes.  Yes, I do."  Sometimes, I wished I had the excuse that the ER doctors had: that they had simply become accustomed to death, that years in their chosen occupations had desensitized them to it.  Unfortunately, I started out that way, long before I ever thought to study it.

"I don't want her to die, Heero," he whispered tiredly.  "And I don't want her to be written up as some sort of statistic, either.  About eighty percent of children with AML go into remission with the proper treatment.  Why does she have to be a member of the twenty percent?"

Someone has to, I thought, but I didn't say it aloud.  "Do you really think that..."  And suddenly the words stuck in my throat.

"It's not really, really bad that she's not responding to the intrathecal.  I mean, they've found that it's less common that CNS involvement reduces overall survival rates in children with AML...."  He said it desperately, like he really wanted to believe, but he just couldn't.

Rarely in my life had I ever felt so woefully inadequate.  The best I could do was scoot over to his side and place a tentative arm over his drooping shoulders in a silent show of support.

Duo may have walked out of that room with a feeling of emotional exhaustion about him, but by the time the elevator doors opened onto the fifth floor, he had his game face back on again, and he exuded nothing but confidence and fortitude to those who needed it.  The difference was stunning.  When our eyes met, he didn't look at me challengingly, as if daring me to prove his face a lie, or tell him he was wrong.  There was only a flicker of sadness.  We had shared something in that room, and it was understood that it was meant to stay there.




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