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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 3 [novella] - the turnip patch
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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 3 [novella]
Title:  Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part:  3

Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part 3

I asked Dr. Barton to tell me about his views on death.  This is what he had to say:

"Death is a natural part of life.  As an allergist, I don't exactly fight against death every day, so maybe I'm not in a position to say much about it, but death happens.  It happens to all of us.  Some sooner than others, some more painfully than others, some more sudden than others, but eventually, death comes to us all.

"When I grieve for someone, it's for the potential left unfulfilled, for the pain caused by the hole they leave in their passing.  It's a recognition that they will be missed.  It's a sadness that they will never be able to do all the good in the world that they might have done if they had lived.  It's an acceptance that death is indiscriminating.  It picks and chooses as it pleases, without warning and without pattern.

"All we can do is live our lives to the fullest, and be ready when it comes."

Duo slipped into my Thursday eleven o'clock class and installed himself in the back of the room to wait for the end of the lecture.  I finished off my topic, listed the reading for Tuesday, and dismissed my students.  They never quite bolted for the door like I expected them to, but soon enough it was just the two of us.

"What are you doing here?" I asked in a friendly tone.  I wasn't trying to be hostile.  I was only trying to figure out his presence.  We were supposed to have met for lunch at twelve-forty-five at a cafe Duo had suggested for an informal interview.

He countered with a question of his own.  "Were most of your students enrolled before the semester started, or did a lot of them join up after the first day?"

I gave him a puzzled look.  "I suppose an unusual number of them did join late.  Why?"

"That would explain those girls in the front row," he muttered to himself before continuing on in a normal tone of voice.  "I thought I'd drop by and pick you up instead.  It's this little hole-in-the-wall sort of place, and you've never been there before.  I thought you might have trouble finding it.  Hope you don't mind."

I gathered my books and notes and began stowing them in my bag.  "It's not a problem.  How did you know where to find me?"

He shrugged nonchalantly.  "Looked it up on the online course listings.  'Anthropology of Science and Technology', eh?  Sounds nice and friendly.  I hate those course titles that sound all mysterious and intimidating, like they're a sentence long and contain words that you'd only get if you had already taken the course."

He had personal experience with those, I surmised.  "They asked me to pick a name.  I gave them a name that described the content of the course."

"Of course."  He smiled oddly at me.  "You're a straightforward sort of fellow, aren't you?"

"I like to think so."  I walked over to the door and gestured for him to precede me.  "Do you mind if I drop by my office and drop off some of this stuff?"

He shook his head and accompanied me outside.  My temporary office was more like a cubicle in an area set off for visiting professors, small and unimpressive, but conveniently close by to where my classes were taught.  Duo surveyed the surroundings with a frown.

"What?" I asked, studying the area myself and trying to view it with a 'strange' eye.  I suppose it looked rather Spartan and unfriendly.  Books and papers were about all that sat there, all neatly ordered and stacked away in their places.  It probably wasn't a very comfortable place for students to visit me, but it wasn't a place where I, or anyone, for that matter, spent much time.  I used it mostly for storage.

"I was hoping for something a little more... interesting," he explained with a sheepish smile.  "I admit, I also came out here so I could observe you in your natural habitat."

It amused me that the anthropological lens was being reflected back at me.  "This is not my natural habitat, Duo."  As if in emphasis, I ushered him outside and then let him lead the way to his car.  Because I lived in an apartment fairly close to the campus, I took the bus to get here.

"So what is your natural habitat?"

That one made me think.  Duo had that ability.  "Hmm.  I don't think I have a natural habitat."

Both his eyebrows raised in an eloquent expression of incredulity.  "Don't tell me you spend all your time in other people's habitats."


"Ugh, Heero.  You have got to learn to live your own life instead of living vicariously through other people's."  Some girls standing under a tree had their eyes on us.  Duo winked and waved at them in a familiar manner, and I expected them to swoon in response to his charm, but instead, they seemed a tad disappointed.  I wondered why.  I could probably study the culture of women until the end of time and still never understand them.  Hopefully, this hospital study wouldn't take nearly that long.

"I have a life," I answered mildly.  "It's just an incredibly boring life."

He rolled his eyes.  "There must be some place that you can call your natural habitat.  I mean, what about your home?"

"Apartment," I corrected.  "I just moved in there when I came to town to start my study, and when it's over, I'll be leaving it behind.  I do that a lot."

"It's just the place you sleep at night?  How depressing.  What about a place you grew up in or something?"

"There were a few places I lived while growing up.  Nowhere I'm particularly attached to, I suppose."

"Nowhere at all?" he pressed, a tinge of exasperation coloring his tone.

"Well, I suppose there's a small vacation house my parents owned.  I inherited it from them.  I stay there sometimes when I'm in between projects, or need somewhere to work."

"Inherited?" he repeated.  "Shit, man, I'm sorry to hear that."

I shrugged.  "They died in a car accident quite a while ago.  When I was fifteen.  God, that seems like a lifetime ago."

"I know what you mean.  I grew up a ward of the state, but there was a time, a long, long time ago, when I lived in a house with a white picket fence -- well, red picket fence, really.  And I had two parents, a big fluffy security blanket I slept with every night, and I was best friends with the kid next door."

"So what happened to the rest of it?"

He laughed ruefully.  "I still have the blanket.  Not so fluffy anymore, and not so big.  Well, it only seems smaller these days, I guess."

"And the kid next door?"

"He died."

"...Oh."  Well, what was a person supposed to say to that?

"Some nasty terminal-like disease got him.  I never knew what, exactly.  It's not like they tell these things to a six-year-old, and you're only allowed to ask insensitive questions when you're a six-year-old, so I can't very well ask his family now.  I suppose my folks probably knew, but I can hardly ask them anymore, either."

We got to the car, and the time it took to climb inside and buckle my seat belt gave me the opportunity to fall into interview mode.  "Does that have anything to do with why you became a doctor?"

He inserted his key into the ignition thoughtfully.  "No.  Not really," he decided, starting the car.  "I think it'd be a little over-dramatic to say that I was inspired to become a doctor because of Solo.  I mean, I was just six years old, ya know?  But I think about him a lot, when I'm doing my thing.  I think about what I learned from him, and what I learned from that time.  So he's not really a reason, but he's become a part of the whole thing."  He backed out of the parking space and headed out of the lot.  "So why do you do what you do?"

Any interview with Duo almost always became a bartering of information.  "I'm interested," I replied simply, fairly certain I had said that before.  He probably wouldn't let it go this time.

Sure enough, he probed further.  "Why?"

"It's an interesting topic."  That was probably rather unenlightening, so I attempted a shallow explanation that skirted the complete truth.  "People deal with death in so many different ways, and all of them are equally... valid.  Individual.  Personal.  But I played it safe and got a second degree in college in computer science," I continued, changing the subject almost completely.  "Something to fall back on, or actually make money with, if the anthropology thing didn't pan out."

"Yeah, I noticed that."  He kept his eyes on the road, but still managed to give me the sense that he was actually talking to me.  "When I was looking up your name in the catalog, another course popped up under computer science.  And I was thinking, what are the chances that there are two Heero Yuys teaching at this one college?"

"No, those would both be me."

"And I thought, no wonder he's teaching an anthro class on science and tech stuff, if he's into that stuff already."

"I try to keep up with developments in both fields, but I don't have as much time as I'd like to keep track of all of the research being done in computer science, so I figured I'd focus on just the one thing for now."

"I was sort of surprised that they didn't have you teach a class on your work."

"Who would want to take a class about death?"  Personally, I didn't find the subject matter particularly depressing, but I was quite different from one's average bear.  College students were people just reaching the primes of their lives, still filled with that heady ambrosia of youth that granted them their feeling of power and invulnerability.  The last thing they wanted was to be reminded of their own mortality.

"I might," Duo answered surprisingly.  "It's an interesting topic.  Heck, I might even have signed up late for the class."

Probably.  He was never late when others were counting on him, but he did have a habit of following his own schedule when it came to other matters.

"How do you do it?"  His tone was a little more serious this time around.  "How do you live so immersed in death all the time?"

"Death is just the flipside of life."  It was strange.  I had been asked variations of this question before, but mostly they had seemed to be defensive questions, or an attack on my character.  While there were a few people that admired or were interested in my work, there was an even greater number that thought I was possessed of a terrible, morbid disposition, or that I was simply a sicko that got off on watching others grieve.  The fact that I wasn't sensing that sort of vibe from Duo made me actually want to explain myself honestly and plainly, a rare occurrence indeed.  Perhaps he sought understanding in the same way that I did.  Nevertheless, I held something back.  I was still a researcher, and I wasn't about to contaminate the pool with too much of myself.

I was much better at asking others to form their beliefs into words, not having to do so myself, but I came up with a few sentences.  "I think that the study of death can lead us to a better appreciation of life.  When we react to death, after all -- when we grieve, for instance.  Do we mourn the death, or the passing of life?  Do we keep the way they died in our hearts and minds, or the way they lived?"

He was silent for a moment as he studied the oncoming traffic for an opportunity to make a left.  I marked the street name in my mind, a distant observation that served to remind me that he was supposed to be the one being interviewed, not I, so I turned the interrogation lights back towards him.  "And you?  How do you do it?"

There was another long moment of silence.  "Isn't that what you're here to find out?"

"And I'm trying to find out right now.  The interview can be a powerful researching technique."

He sighed.  Implicit in his agreement to do this interview with me had been a promise of cooperation, and Duo Maxwell always kept his promises.  "I deal with it.  Not a good answer, I know.  But that's it, I guess.  I suppose in a way, I volunteered to be in an environment where I would be dealing with mortality an awful lot, but at the same time, I volunteered to fight, to make sure that I kept that interaction down to the smallest possible amount.  And I fight with everything that I've got, but... sometimes... sometimes you just can't win.  And when that happens, I just have to deal with it, and make sure I'm ready for another battle the next day."

"How do you deal with it?" I asked quietly.  "What is it that you have to deal with?"

"I have to deal with death, Heero.  I have to deal with kids with terminal diseases, with bodies that have turned against them, that die way before their time."  Impatience, and a little bit of pain, fell into his voice.  He thought it was obvious.  It was, after all, our topic, but I was looking for something a little more precise.

"Is it sorrow?  Guilt?  Rage?  Depression?  Dealing with death can mean a lot of things, Duo."  I was careful to keep my tone level, soft but clear.  It was a voice my mentor had made sure I mastered before sending me out in the field to conduct research in such a sensitive area.  The sound of it had become my natural mode of speaking, and it rarely varied.  Duo's voice, on the other hand, fluctuated from bold and outgoing to quiet and withdrawn and everything in between.

"No.  Yes.  All of those.  Maybe."  With one hand, he raked his fingers through his bangs; with the other, he palmed the wheel as he made a right turn into the cafe's parking lot and pulled into a parking space.  Shutting off the engine, he laid both arms across the top of the steering wheel and rested his head on them, facing me.  "I get the normal stuff.  I'm sad, of course.  I'm upset.  Sometimes with myself, sometimes... just with God, life and the universe in general.  Sometimes I have to go back over my cases and try to reassure myself that I didn't do anything wrong, that I didn't miss anything.  And sometimes...."

He turned away from me, rested his chin on his forearms and stared blankly out the front window.  "Sometimes I'm just filled with this... this ball of emotion.  And I don't know what to do with it.  It's just... rage, and passion, and... I don't know.  Everything intense and overwhelming and I need to find some way to disperse it safely, and I can only think clearly again after I do.  And I always think, God, this is so wrong, that I can feel all of these things, and those poor kids can't feel anything anymore.  Sometimes I feel like I'm feeling everything they'll never be able to feel, and then it feels like some sort of penance, and I feel horrible that I try so hard to throw it away like last week's leftovers, but I just have to channel it into something, somehow, or else it'll just eat me alive.  But at the same time, I feel bad that I can get rid of it so quickly, like that makes it all superficial or something.  And I know it's bad.  I mean, it's not pretty, what I've done...."

He turned back to me, sitting up straight and changing the mood.  "Look, can we finish this after lunch?  Can we just go in there and have lunch like two normal people and not talk shop at all?"

I blinked, his spell over me broken.  It was a good thing I didn't need a tape recorder to remember his words, because I would have missed a beautiful thing.  "Yeah, sure."  He turned to exit the vehicle, but a light touch on his wrist by my hand stopped him.  He turned back to look at me, giving me pause.  I wasn't sure if this was the right thing to say, but I plunged on ahead anyway.  So many years spent watching others comfort and be comforted, and I still filled both roles poorly.

"You know," I started casually.  "There's this tribe of headhunters from the Philippines.  They're called the Ilongots.  When they experience the death of a loved one, of someone close to them, they are consumed by this indefinable rage, something intense and powerful and unstoppable.  They get rid of this feeling by headhunting.  They need a 'place to carry their anger'.  They go out in the fields, lie in wait, and sometimes this takes days or even weeks, and they take the head of the first guy that happens along.  They don't keep the head as a trophy or anything, like other headhunting tribes.  After that, they cast the head aside, and in doing so, they cast aside this rage they're feeling, and they can move on.  It's a ritual of purging, of cleansing."

He stared at me for a short while, and I almost started to fidget in my seat, wondering if perhaps that had been the entirely wrong thing to say.  There really wasn't a point to my little story, only that his own story reminded me of theirs.  Maybe I was just trying to say that there was nothing wrong with the way he reacted to death.  There was nothing wrong with his way, or my way, or the headhunters' way.  There was no one true way to view death.  There was no good or bad.  He was not even alone in his reaction.

Finally, he blinked.  "Are you calling me a headhunter?"

"There's nothing wrong with headhunters," I said, trying to take the defensiveness out of my voice.  "I've always found them to be a rather fascinating people, myself."

"Ah."  He blinked again, and a quirk of a smile returned to his lips.  "I think I do, too."

I walked into the department a little later than usual one day.  I had been held up at office hours by a student.  "Good afternoon, Sylvia," I greeted her as I stepped out of the elevator.  She looked up from her computer screen and returned the greeting.

I noticed Quatre's blonde head behind the nurses' corral and called out a greeting to him as well.  When he didn't appear to have heard me, I leaned over the kid's counter and tried again.  "Quatre?"

"Huh?"  He glanced up from the chart in his hands.  "Oh, Heero.  Sorry about that.  Hi."

Quatre was pretty easy to read.  There was something on that chart he didn't want to see.  "What's wrong?"

"It's Midii," he told me.  Her family had permitted the doctors to keep me informed of her condition for my study, partial anonymity being a condition.  They didn't know exactly what it was I was researching, but they knew that I was studying the way the doctors interacted with their patients, and they thought it was alright for me to know who and what they were interacting with.  "She's got an infection.  Side-effect of the chemo, you know, what with the myelosuppression and all."

"Is that bad?"  I could figure out that it wasn't good all by myself, but I didn't know how much an infection would affect the course of her treatment.

He blew his bangs out of his face with an upward puff of breath and put the file away.  "Not majorly bad.  It'll set her back a bit, though."

"That's tough.  Duo must be upset."  I don't know why I thought of him first instead of the child.  It must have been because I had been studying him.  I hadn't had much one-on-one interaction with Midii.  It hadn't been necessary.

"Yeah.  I know he hates having to be the one to tell her parents, but I also know that he would never let anyone else do it.  It's his responsibility."

I nodded in agreement of his assessment.

Five hours later, Duo snagged me on his way out and dragged me along with him with barely a word of explanation.  The thought did irrationally occur to me, as we drove in silence out of the city and towards the countryside, that he might have been taking me out there to take my head off.  Perhaps I shouldn't have told him that story after all.  I was guessing that he was feeling the burden of Midii's complication and needed to cast it aside.

Finally, we pulled off onto a small service road that eventually turned into a dirt road, and drove a little further until it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere.  It was a small field overgrown with weeds, with a clear view for a few miles ahead of us, and trees at our backs.  The bright red pipes off to the side justified the existence of this little clearing, with its loud sign from the gas company warning us to stay away from it.

Duo got out of the car and started walking into the field.  I exited after he did, but after taking a few steps in his direction, I stopped and hung back instead, giving him what privacy I could.  He hadn't made any gesture for me to follow him.

After about fifty yards, he came to a halt, and then he screamed.  Loudly.  I jumped, startled, and reflexively looked around me to make sure there wasn't anyone else around that he could be alarming.  For a moment, I had thought he had been bitten by a snake or something.  And when he ran out of breath, he refilled his lungs with air and yelled again.  Three times he did this, shouting his burden to the heavens in a formless sound of pure, primal emotion.

When it was over, he stood there, head thrown back and arms hanging loosely at his side.  The sudden silence was almost a force of its own.  The emotion had dissipated, leaving only my pounding heart in its wake.  Something powerful had just been released in that fearsome call, something I didn't understand, but I was trying, and ignoring the voice that whispered to me that I would be forever denied.

His head snapped back up and he turned to look over his shoulder almost nervously at me.  I could only return his gaze in silence, and with a heavy step, he returned to lean against the hood of his car.  As he moved, the low sun at his back traced a silhouette with drooping shoulders, cast a face into shadow.  "Sorry about that," he mumbled, his voice slightly raw.

I shook my head, both to negate his statement and to clear my head.  The mood kept my voice hushed.  "No.  Don't apologize for that."  I wanted to tell him something of how his reaction had moved me somehow, but the words eluded me.  "You didn't have to bring me with you today.  Thank you."

He chuckled ruefully, scratching at his head in a sheepish manner.  "Well, I figured I would have just sounded insane if I had to explain it to you, so I figured I might as well let you see for yourself and, well, prove that I really am insane, I guess."

"You're not insane, Duo.  This is normal.  Healthy, even."  Stop judging him, I told myself.  Even if I was judging in his favor, it wasn't my place to tell him if his ways were right or wrong.  If self-castigation was a part of his ritual, then who was I to take that away from him?  Normally I listened to what I was telling myself.  Today, I didn't.  It was enough that I knew how he suffered under the burden of his occupation.  I didn't need to witness him wallowing in it.  Besides, part of the reason I studied these phenomena was so that I could share that knowledge.  "In ancient times, when someone died, the women would beat their breasts, tear at their hairs, and wail their grief aloud for all to hear.  And there was no shame in that."

"I will not be tearing at my hair, thank you very much," he answered with dignity, pulling his braid forward to clutch at it protectively.

I smiled.  "My point is just that everyone deals with their emotions differently, Duo.  That's all."

He started fiddling with the tuft at the end of his braid, turning his head away from me so he could watch the gradual setting of the sun.  "It still scares me, sometimes.  What this can do to me.  I tried... different things, in the beginning.  When I was a little younger, a little fresher, I used to hit clubs, bars.  Thank god the doctor in me didn't let me get into drugs or anything.  Didn't stop me from getting smashed a few times, though.  That... had to stop, though.  Being with people helped, and one time I got wasted with Hilde, and I, um," he glanced sidelong at me out of the corner of his eye before rushing to finish his sentence.  "I sort of accidentally slept with her."

I blinked.  Accidentally?  It wasn't as if he slipped on a banana peel and 'accidentally' ended up inside of her.  But he was in an unusually forthcoming mood, so I didn't say anything.

He seemed to be encouraged by my lack of censure, so he continued.  "But, you don't know that, of course.  And luckily, she knew that I, uh, didn't mean to do that, so, um, we've just put that little matter behind us.  But the incident was very enlightening.  I realized that maybe I really shouldn't be around people then, because who knew when I might try going home with some random person I met at a club or something?  That... wouldn't have been good.  And I can actually see myself getting stupid enough to do that, too, if things got bad enough, so I make sure I don't put myself in those sorts of situations.  Unfortunately, that put me into other situations.  Being alone isn't really the greatest thing either, because one day I found myself staring at a razor and really thinking about using it.  Nothing permanent, of course.  Just... something painful.  And once again, good thing my common sense reasserted itself.  And other times, I wanted to do something dangerous, like go play on the train tracks or something.  But that... I guess it was like the final wake-up call, you know?  That was when I knew I had to find another way.  So yeah, anyway, that's the story behind why I'm out here being all crazy, instead of being all crazy somewhere else."

"You're not crazy," I muttered, my automatic reaction to his assertion.  If he was crazy, then so was I, and I had already invested a good deal of energy in convincing myself that I wasn't.

He didn't argue it with me, so instead, we just stood in silence and watched the rest of the sunset.  And when the sun finished sinking, and a chill started to settle in, he broke the moment.  "Let's go grab some dinner," he declared more than invited, and off to dinner we went.  Through the rest of the evening, the somber mood didn't return, but there was a sense of determined abandon in him.

"Clear your schedule for tonight," Sally told me as she caught me staring at the paintings in the playroom again.  I still hadn't thought of something to paint, and I was seriously beginning to doubt that I ever would.

"Why's that?" I asked her.  When I had first planned my schedule for this study, I hadn't anticipated there being so many activities after hours.  I had wrongly assumed that most of the reacting would be done at work, and that work would mostly be left at work when the doctors went home for the day.  Luckily, the classes I taught were not too early in the day, giving me the mornings to prepare for them.

She settled down on a pillow next to my beanbag, arranging her white lab coat so that she didn't sit on it.  "We might have to start Midii on radiation therapy."

"I thought you already supplemented her primary treatment in chemo.  That still wasn't enough?"

Sally shook her head, and the names of drugs rolled off her tongue as easily as her own name did.  Although she loved the kids as much as any staff member here, her forte was more academic in nature.  "The etoposide and thioguanine haven't been as helpful as we'd hoped it would be.  We aren't looking into bone marrow transplant as an option right now, but even if we were, we still haven't found a match for her yet, so it looks like radiation is going to be the only way to go."

"Do you think that'll do it?"

She sighed.  "I certainly hope so.  Her leukemia has proven to be rather resistant so far, though.  We can only keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.  So, as you can see, you'll be busy tonight.  Drinks would be my guess."

"If I thought you people drank to get drunk, I'd be worried about you."  They drank mostly because they convened at Howard's.  I'd never seen one of them intoxicated yet in the few times we'd gone out.  If they could have gotten the same sort of atmosphere, they probably could have gone out for coffee or something instead.

"There's no 'you people' about this one, Heero.  You're on your own."

"I beg your pardon?"

"It's just going to be you and Duo tonight."

I blinked.  "Why?"

"The rest of us are busy tonight, and I've come here especially to ask you not to decline because of that.  I know that if you weren't here, then Duo would have to make do on his own, and since you don't want to influence things around here, you might hesitate to agree to turn a one-man activity into a two-man activity.  Maybe you won't.  But if you do, then I'd like to ask you to put aside your anthropologist cap for one night and just be his friend."

"Friend?" I repeated, somewhat numbly.  I wasn't supposed to be their friend.

She laughed at my expression.  "Yes, Heero, a friend.  That's what you are to us, you know, despite all your efforts."

Efforts?  What efforts?  I wasn't actively trying not to be their friend.  I just never made friends.  It was somewhat annoying to find that I had somehow become friends with exactly the people I shouldn't.  "Are you sure that's a good idea?  Going with him tonight?"  Efforts or not, I just wasn't a very useful person when it came to consolation and reassurance.

"He just needs someone with him, that's all, Heero.  Just do what you always do.  Just sit there and listen."  She patted me on the shoulder and left the room.

I nearly groaned.  Great.  I was their friend.  Well, anthropologists were allowed to be friends with their subjects, so long as they didn't let it color their objectivity with any bias, right?  I'd never had this problem with any other of my studies.  I had always been accepted, but never embraced, not like I had been here.  No one had ever forgotten that I was a vulture, hovering over the bodies of the dead or dying to scrutinize them in their most painful moments.

The words of my mentor echoed at me from the recesses of my memories.  'Don't get involved with the natives,' he warned.  'You can't let them distract you from your goals.'

...but what if one of them was my goal?

What if one of them had the answers?

What if I wouldn't be allowed access to those answers if I maintained my distance?

And what if I lost all respect for myself if I didn't?

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