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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 6 [novella] - the turnip patch
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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 6 [novella]
Title:  Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part:  6

Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part 6

The next morning, he woke before I did, and thus did we avoid the awkward moment that surely would have arisen from finding ourselves in each other's arms.  By the time I emerged from the bedroom, looking as clean and crisp and professional as I could manage, he had a polite, but not cozy and intimate, breakfast ready.  We ate quietly, unable to avoid the sad looks that sometimes passed between us.  On several occasions, one of us was about to say something, but then changed our mind before making a sound.

He dropped me off at my apartment before he went to work.  I still had a class to teach that morning.  Before I got out of his car, I had to stop and ask, "Is this really okay, Duo?"

His eyes fell to stare at his hands on the steering wheel.  "Okay being a relative term," he muttered to himself before sighing.  "You... you were right.  It's possible that we have... next to nothing.  No matter what we might think right now.  Maybe I am just using you, and maybe you're just using me.  And if we wait, we'll find out.  ...  I think... I think it's for the best."

I nodded and closed the door behind me, thinking that I probably knew how he felt.  I knew we had something, but I just didn't know what that something was.  Yes, we could have just gone with it.  If it fell apart in the end, then at least we would still have the time we had had together.  But really, why put ourselves through that pain?  With our agreement not to look to each other for love right now, we hadn't agreed to terminate our friendship, but we would have, if we had gotten ourselves into a rotten relationship.

By the time I arrived at the hospital that afternoon, we both had our game faces on, and no one sensed anything amiss.  Time had gone back a day for us, and erased what had happened last night from the official record books, but I spent a little bit of my spare time that day wondering and deciding that it hadn't just been the sex.

I had had a couple of sexual encounters in college, of the 'accidental' variety, one might say, although in this case alcohol had nothing to do with any of them.  It was just they hadn't been my idea.  In a way, I had just been suckered into it by a partner that wanted it, and I had never been particularly impressed, nor had I been bothered by my celibacy since then.  I felt little for these people, and what I had felt during the act itself was reducible to physical stimulation, hormones and endorphins.

It had been different with Duo.  Very different.

So it was Duo, not the sex, and that made me feel a tiny bit better.

Perhaps it was the ethically correct thing to do, but realistically, how many people really cared whether they were getting into a lasting relationship or not?  How many people really sat down before starting a relationship and decided whether or not it was founded on solid ground?

Then again, how many of those people ended up only with heartache?

Maybe so long as we knew and didn't pretend blindly that we had love, then maybe it would be okay.  As long as we knew we might merely be using each other, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if we broke up in the end.  It would only hurt if we lied to ourselves and each other.  Maybe that was just a lame rationalization, but it was one we eventually ended up using, just a little bit.

It took a couple of weeks, but we started touching.  Told ourselves it was casual, that we knew we didn't really mean it.  It was only a brush in the hallway, a hand on a shoulder.  We shared a passionate kiss the night after one of his patients in remission had a relapse, but he backed off rather immediately after that, afraid that the 'convenient outlet' theory had been true.

One night, I found Duo asleep on the sofa in the staff lounge.  He'd been working on and off all day between patients on looking into treatment options for AML, but the search had been unfruitful, and finally, he had sprawled himself on the couch, too tired to even go home.  He had an appointment early the next morning with Midii's parents anyway.  I got the night nurse to find a blanket for me, and then tucked him in, and left a request with the front desk to have whomever was on duty the next morning wake Duo with enough time to get himself straightened up before his meeting.  I admit to brushing his hair out of his face with lingering fingers.

One of Trowa's patients got through his bout with bronchitis, and there was a spontaneous hug of delight.

We went to an arcade just for fun, and stood real close to each other as I helped Duo finally pass 'Ninja Assault' for the first time.  He held his lightgun poorly, and I resisted the urge to stand behind him like they do in the cheesy movies, and put my arms around him and whisper into his ear as I showed him a better stance.

Midii went through a bad spell, and I found out Duo hadn't been eating or sleeping properly.  I went home with him for a few days to make sure he took proper care of himself.  There were a few good night kisses, and I watched him for a while to make sure he got to sleep alright.  I accidentally left a spare toothbrush in his bathroom.

We progressed slowly but surely to a very friendly amount of kissing, with a little judicious groping thrown into the mix, but things always cooled off whenever it was possible we might have been reacting to the news of the day.  I think Duo bore the burden of that unfairly since it was he that the news affected.  I was only affected by him.

I wanted to say that, because we got along well when it seemed a remission in Midii's leukemia was possible, what we had between us wasn't really a reaction relationship, but that by itself was a reaction, because then it was a reaction to good news, of an escape from imminent death.

It didn't matter for long, anyway, because soon enough Midii's positive prognosis took a turn for the worse again, and we were beating on each other in the workout room.  An interactive partner was more productive for him, rather than the punching bag.

I was following Quatre on his rounds one day when he had a little break and we sat down in the staff lounge to chill and have a little chat.  We weren't talking about anything significant at all, when suddenly, we were.

"Heero, how do you feel about Duo?"

The question caught me unprepared.  We had come to an unspoken agreement that our strange relationship would be kept away from his colleagues, so I didn't know what Quatre knew.  My first reaction was to tell him that it was none of his business, but I knew that that wouldn't fly.  This entire department was like one big, happy family.  They looked out for each other.

Quatre didn't look like he was prepared to condemn me or anything for my answer, so I responded with a certain degree of honesty.  "I'm not sure.  Why?"

"Hmmm."  He steepled his fingers before him, and he looked very contemplative.  "You two seem to have this... thing going on between you."

It seemed useless to deny that.  I nodded.  "But as to what this 'thing' is...?"

Quatre had this talent for looking like he was seeing straight into a person's heart, and he exercised that skill now.  I found myself wishing that he would be able to see something that I couldn't, but he shrugged in the end.  "All I know is that I've seen Duo go through some rough times before.  And while it's never manifested itself in the work he does with the kids, I know he takes it hard, and he usually takes it alone, and it's always worried me.  But not this time around.  We've always let him know that he can talk to us, but he's never taken us up on that offer.  But now it seems he has you.

"I don't say that like I consider you an interloper or anything.  You've been a friend to us all for quite a while now, but that doesn't change the fact that we are still your research subjects.  I just wanted to see what your intentions were.  I'm grateful that you're here and willing to be with him, but I will not tolerate your hurting him in any way."  There was a flash of hardness in his usually mild expression, and I knew he was very serious.

I sighed, but I was glad that Duo had such good friends looking out for him in turn.  Quatre was the great mother hen, second only to nurse Sylvia.  "I have no intention of hurting him, Quatre.  But whether I do or not..."  With the current state of our affair, I thought we weren't hurting each other, but that may have just been me.  Maybe I was just another form of release for Duo, but at least I didn't think I was making things any worse for him, cold comfort as that may have been.

"Is that all I'm going to get out of you?"

"It's all I have to give you, Quatre."  Like he had said, Duo was both a friend and a research subject.  It wasn't that easy reconciling the two, and I certainly couldn't see him as only one or the other.

The way a child deals with death is especially unique, particularly when it is his or her own death.  It is ironic that, while the death of a child is typically the most tragic for those around the child, it is often the child that handles it the best.

When one is only ten years old, yes, one believes that one is immortal, and yet that concept becomes largely meaningless when there is no good grasp of its opposite, mortality.  At that age, dreams still consist of princesses and shuttle pilots and superheroes, and they haven't solidified to the point that a child might become depressed by their incompletion.

A little girl dresses up as an angel for Halloween.  She doesn't get too bothered by the idea that she may soon become an angel in fact.  If she gets sad because her mommy and daddy seem very sad, she tells them not to worry, because she'll always be there to watch over them when she's an angel.

Midii was sick.  Very, very sick.  The kind of sick that sometimes a person just doesn't bounce back from.  Duo sat down and had a long, long talk with her parents, and when they came out, they asked her to help them make a decision.

She was eager to oblige.  She'd been lying in her hospital bed for hours now, with only me to keep her company.  One can imagine how bored she must have been.  We played some cards, had a conversation with her teddy bear Charlie, who had been with her through this whole thing.  And, to my surprise, she asked me some interesting questions about my work.  She must have sensed what was coming.

Duo had informed Midii's parents that there was now very little chance of her recovery.  Practically non-existent, really, given the lack of effect the treatments had had.  They had tried the traditional chemical and radiation therapies, had been unable to find a matching bone marrow donor, and were now left with only an experimental drug being researched in a clinical trial, but the researchers had taken a look at Midii's case file and judged that it would probably do her no good.

The choice was this: to prolong her life with additional therapy, but have those extra months be fogged over with pain, or to stop the treatments, and let her slip away naturally.  The doctors predicted she would have about four weeks.

She looked at me, and I knew she was thinking about what she had asked me about, and then she declared cheerfully to her parents that she wanted to go to the aquarium and visit all the fishies there, but that was all.  That was all she wanted to do before the end, and she couldn't do that if she was in the hospital all the time.

They asked her a few more questions, just to be sure she really knew what she was talking about, but in the end, it was decided: no more therapy.

Duo hustled the parents back out of the room for some final words about how things would proceed, and behind their backs I saw him give a sigh of both defeat and relief.  He was losing a patient, yes, but it was always harder when they fought all the way to the most bitter of ends.

I mentally re-arranged my schedule for that night, deciding to grade my papers this afternoon so that I would be free later to deal with Duo.  Before I left, however, I spent a few more minutes with Midii, and she thanked me for helping her make the choice.

That was startling, to say the least, and made me feel something new inside.  It was that feeling you sometimes get when you help someone.  A sense of fulfilment, of accomplishment, of wonder, of humility.  My work had always been done for myself, even if I claimed it could benefit others.  I had never believed that claim until now.

I found Duo in his office later.  He was curled up around a small pillow on the old couch he had inherited from Dr. G's office, and I moved automatically to sit by his side.  "You're still here," I said rather obviously.

"Can't leave until they do."  In case they had questions.  He leaned against me, and I decided that an arm around his shoulders would not be uncalled for.  "What did you two talk about?" he asked me.


"She looked at you after we asked her.  And she was remarkably calm about the whole thing, like she'd already thought the whole thing through."

I hesitated a little in answering him.  I had been asked long ago not to divulge information about my work to the children, but she had asked me a direct question.  "I think she knew, Duo.  She asked me things about death."

He twitched in surprise.  "Like what?"

"She asked me if it hurt.  I told her there was no more pain after death.  She asked me how I thought her parents would react.  I told her they would probably be very sad for a long time, and that they would miss her always.  She said they were already very sad, and already missed her, she spent so much time at the hospital, and that she wished she could spend less time in the hospital, because maybe then they wouldn't be sad for as long.  And she asked me about how other people felt when they were about to die.  And I told her that some people kept fighting and fighting, even when they knew they were going to lose in the end, and that other people didn't.  But just because you don't fight, doesn't mean you're giving up, and just because you keep on fighting, doesn't mean you're being brave.  And then she asked me what I would do if I were about to die, and I told her that I'd try to finish up all the things that I had started, do all the things that I wanted to do, and do all the things I could so that the people I left behind would be as not sad as possible, and then I could probably die pretty satisfied."

There was a long moment of silence before he spoke.  "You're better with people than you think, Heero."

"Hn."  We didn't move or talk again until he got a page from the front desk.

It took me a little while to figure out why he didn't go out and do... something that night.  I would have thought that he needed it, needed to get it out of his system, but as it turned out, he was storing it all up for the end.

Midii passed away peacefully in her sleep, leaving grief in her wake.  A part of me had worried that I would be glad when she died, because I could finally see how death affected the subjects of my research, but when I found out, I wasn't happy at all.  Although I admit to feeling a little relieved by that fact, I was mostly... subdued, really.  I was still being too practical to be feeling depressed.  It was sad that she had died, of course.  It was untimely, yes, but she went bravely, and she did all she could do to make sure her parents didn't grieve too bitterly, and she got to go to the aquarium to see the fishies, and she died surrounded by love.  It was a good death.

There were tears in Sally's eyes.  She dabbed them away discreetly with a handkerchief from her pocket as she went about her duties.

Quatre spoke softly to the parents with his condolences before he disappeared into his office for a little while.

Trowa picked up his charts and did his work, but he made sure the people wandering in and out of the ward that day remained quiet and respectful and away from the room where Midii lay.

There was no lively chatter coming from the nurses' station that day.

Alex the janitor took off his cap when he passed the room and stood with his head bowed for a moment of silence.

And Duo... Duo had to sign the death certificate.  He stared and stared at it as if he could make it go away, but it didn't work.  His fingers held the pen with a white-knuckled grip until he finally forced his trembling hand to relax enough for him to sign his name at the bottom of the innocent-looking piece of paper.  Without looking at it anymore, he shoved it in the direction of the nurses to take care of and then spent the next hours both performing his other duties and hovering near the room, waiting for the parents to finish their good-byes.

I lost him at some point, and couldn't locate him in the ward, so I flagged down Trowa and asked if he might have some notion of where Duo had gone.  He told me he had seen Duo heading towards the stairs, which probably meant he had been destined for the rooftop.  I thanked him and made the climb up.

Duo was standing a couple of meters from the edge of the roof, his head thrown back and his arms flung wide, and it reminded me of Christ upon his cross, suffering for his people, and it touched me as a holy moment.  There was something palpable in the air, and for a second, just as he once said he thought that ball of emotion came from the feelings that the child would never be able to feel, I felt like, bundled somewhere in there, were all the emotions that I hadn't felt either, only now, looking upon him, I almost could.

Some people, when they come near death, then chase life as if to reassure themselves that they are still alive.  They often ironically do this by pursuing some life-threatening activity, as if to flaunt their life in the face of death, although I suppose the resulting adrenaline rush is a powerful factor.

Duo wasn't standing near enough to the edge to be taunting death.  The winds that day, though enough to cause a distinct chill and whip his braid into a restless rhythm, weren't so wild that they threatened to pull him off the rooftop.  Duo wasn't there looking for an adrenaline rush.  It was as if he wanted the winds to carry away the burden of his pain, to scour clean the grief from his soul.

From the way his hands were clenched tightly instead of open wide, I guessed it wasn't working.

I stood back and watched him for a few minutes before sighing to myself.  I was about to interrupt a ritual.  Prof. J was going to kill me -- or maybe not.  Maybe he'd slap me on the back in approval.  Who knew what was running through the old professor's mind anymore?  Who knew if someone stopping Duo was a part of the ritual?

I walked up to Duo until I was about a meter behind him and called his name, but he didn't respond.  I tried again, and still he didn't move, so finally I moved even closer and slid my arms around his waist.  He had left his coat in his office.  I could feel the cold of his body through his thin shirt.  Perhaps he sought a numbing effect from the winds?

Stop analyzing, Yuy.

I put my chin down on his shoulder and waited for him to come back to me.  It took a little while, but eventually his arms fell loosely to his side before reaching up to grasp at my hands locked in front of him.  "What are you doing up here?" he asked dully.

I snorted, a soft puff of breath in his ear.  What did he think I was doing up here?  "Are you ready to go back inside yet?"

He didn't answer, and I knew he wouldn't until the answer was 'yes'.

What was it he saw as he stared out over the graying skyline?  Did he see the sun setting on a life?  Did he see the continuation of a relentless cycle?  Did he see an uncaring ball of gas floating far, far away in the dead of space?  Did he see anything that was there at all, or was he simply looking out over the horizon and seeing the faces of the children he had lost, or the children he had saved?

I would not ask him to share.  I didn't even know if he would be able to explain it to me, or if I could understand.

Later that night, we found ourselves in that empty field just outside of town again.  There was no screaming this time.  Although it looked like Duo wanted to, something held him back.  Maybe there just wasn't the right mix of emotions for that explosive force just now.  Nevertheless, there was a tension, an electric energy that crawled over his skin, and what leapt across the distance onto my own skin was merely a faint echo of that.  Would the dam burst, or would he be able to release the pressure a little at a time in controlled spurts?

I watched as he stood there and for some time I thought there would be a repeat of the performance on the roof, when he turned towards me and caught me off-guard, pushing me roughly against the closed door of the car and ravaging my mouth with his own, and I had to grab at the side view mirror for support.

Long moments passed in a frenzy of gasps and moans, of greedy lips and ungentle hands, and just when I thought our knees would no longer hold up beneath the onslaught, he pulled away with a harsh, rasping breath and let his forehead fall upon my collarbone.  "Wait," he panted out.  "Wait.  This... This is using you, isn't it?"

My head tilted back, coming to a stop against the frame of his car as I struggled for composure.  His hands were still burning against my skin beneath my shirt.  His exhalations warmed the fabric over my pounding heart in a steady rhythm.  Electricity ran through my veins and I felt overcharged with the power he had poured into his kisses.  "I'd let you," I whispered hoarsely.  It was an offer, a surrender, a ringing self-condemnation.

"That doesn't make it any better," he answered in kind.

I was sorely tempted to change the rules right then and there.  There had been something stunning there, something incredible, and what it could have blossomed into, what it could have manifested itself as, had we continued with what he had started both frightened and excited me.  I thought the fire of his emotions could have overwhelmed me, drowned me, but maybe that was what I sought: that pure, molten core behind his passion that had always eluded me.

So was I just using him or not?  I was close to not caring anymore.

But he cared.  Duo cared to pull back and put a stop to our mutual use of each other.  The unflappable analytical engine of my mind provided commentary: was he trying to prove to himself and to me that we meant more to each other than just release?  Was he purifying himself in a sort of denial of the flesh?  He said he sometimes felt ashamed by his need to release, to toss aside the emotion that his patients left to him; would it be even worse to release it in a worldly pursuit?  Was he holding on to the pain in repentance?

Slowly, I moved my hands around him and held him for the second time that day.  And when we ended up back at his place, I held him for the third time, and it seemed to be enough for him to release what he had been holding on to.  In the morning, he was back with us as a fully functional human being.

Duo, on that final day, had reminded me of the Ilongots after headhunting had become punishable by firing squads in the Philippines.  Denied their traditional purging ritual, the Ilongots were required to find another outlet for the immense emotional energy they accumulated over some outstanding event.  For a while, no other means was available to them, and they were forced to let it dissipate through the trials of daily life as best they could.  After a couple of years, a new option was available to them: many of them turned to evangelical Christianity.  It was a way to escape the awful finality of death by believing that their dead had ascended to some better world.  It was a new method by which they could funnel their grief away into something outside of themselves.

By his own hand, Duo was held back during those times from drink, drugs, wild abandon, carelessness with life, and any destructive or self-destructive behaviors.  While it was certainly better for his health and general well-being, it left him few options.

Religion may have helped, but I got the feeling that he had turned away from it a long time ago.  If God was going to help him, then He would have helped him before the child had died, not after.

I didn't know how Duo did it, how he had managed to release all of that pent-up energy I had gotten just a taste of.  I would have understood if he had thrown me down and pounded me into the ground right there in the middle of nowhere until the force of orgasm tore through him and left him empty in its wake.  I would have understood if he had gone to the local junkyard and found a car to smash in with a baseball bat, screaming his rage out with every blow.  I would have understood if he had gone to Howard's and stayed there until dawn, or until one of us had to come and drag his unconscious body back home.  But Duo did none of these things.  Ah, the restrictions that civilization sets upon us.  Duo somehow managed to find some harmless way to vent in a single night's time, and I had no clue from where he had found the strength to do so.

I realized that I could no longer call these reactions a 'ritual'.  To do so seemed to be quite a simplification of a very complicated matter.  Anthropologists liked to study 'rituals', things that have middles and ends, and very definite boundaries.  The term implied that things were done each time as they had been done before, but I found that certainly wasn't the case with Duo.  It hadn't been the case with anyone, really, but Duo had opened my eyes to a number of things.  His reactions were dynamic and moving, unplanned and unexpected, spontaneous outpourings of emotion when they exceeded his capacity to bear.  There was nothing ritualistic about it.

Despite the fact that that day, I didn't actually witness a beheading, so to speak, that day, I got as close to a headhunter's rage as I ever wanted to.  Any closer and I didn't think I could survive the experience intact.  I had brushed up against that depth of emotion, and finally felt its power for the first time.  I was a believer -- I thought I finally understood the power of the sorrow that lay behind the most outrageous of grief reactions.

Fate, of course, decided to prove otherwise.

I pretty much declared my study at an end, but stuck around the area as I started to write it up.  I had to finish up my semester at the college, and of course, Duo was there.  After the stress over the health of his patients leveled out (no offense to Midii, of course), we found ourselves free to finally figure our relationship out.  To the satisfaction of everyone, we found that we did indeed have enough to build on, and eventually, we discovered it was love.  I moved in with him when my lease expired, and we fell into a new, very comfortable relationship.

And then, after about nine of the best months of my life, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the headhunter's rage through the near loss of my loved one.

Duo took a trip back to L2.  He took one every year.  Every year he would visit the church-run orphanage/foster home he had grown up in, and he would bring with him a sizeable monetary donation.  Every few years, he would go visit a little shop on C Street and 18th, which just happened to be the home of a non-profit manufacturer of hair pieces for children that had lost their own hair through things like chemotherapy or fire, and he would donate a generous portion of his own hair for the cause.  This, I could call a ritual.

I didn't go with him.  Maybe I would the next year, but that year the trip was still an exclusively Duo event.  The only thing that differentiated this year's trip from any other was that there was an explosion in his shuttle on the way back to Earth, and it broke up after re-entry into a handful of pieces.  All but two landed on solid ground, killing the passengers instantly.  The final two pieces landed in the ocean, and tracking them down took quite a while.  It was thought that those passengers had perished as well.

I can not even begin to describe how I felt when I heard the news.  It was a breaking story, the type they cut into regular broadcasts for.  I didn't pay much attention to it until they mentioned the source and destination of the flight.  I thought no, at first.  It couldn't be.  Just a horrible coincidence.  Then they read out the flight number, and it sounded terribly familiar, and I just knew that I had memorized the wrong number.  There was no way that that was Duo's flight.

But it was.  It was paralyzing at first.  A shock so profound gripped me that I just couldn't do anything for the longest time.  I had Duo's flight information, what time and what gate I was supposed to pick him up from, but I didn't have his seat number, so I couldn't tell what section of the shuttle he would have been in, where he would have landed.  I was glued to the newsfeed until I realized that they were repeating the information for the families to use to contact the spaceport authorities.

And slowly, this terrible, senseless anger began to build in me.  Why hadn't I gone with him?  Why had he gone at all?  Why did he insist on holding on to this ridiculous fidelity to the people that had raised him?  Why did he grow out his hair just to give it away?  Why did he have to care so damned much?  I sobbed, but no tears came.

I had thought I understood it.  When I came into contact with Duo's 'ball of emotion', I thought that was it.  I saw the strength of the emotion, and I understood how that energy had to be diverted into something, whether unceasing wailing or mindless rage, anything to dispel the power of it.

But all I had was a taste of it.  I never understood where the force of that emotion came from.  All I knew was that it came into existence.  I didn't get the true fury of it, the visceral, earth-moving, gut-wrenching power of it until it happened to me.  Mere intellectual understanding of it was a thing of the past.  I now experienced it up close and personal.

The news hit me like the death of my parents never did.  I had wanted to grow old and gray with Duo.  We had a vacation planned in two months.  I wanted Duo to sign my copy of my own study on the doctors.  There were so many assumptions and expectations I had, all tied up with Duo, and the thought that there was no more Duo was almost inconceivable.

I told him that I had witnessed the power of this reaction, and that had made me want to truly understand it, to feel its force for myself.

Well, be careful what you wish for.  It seemed I had used him one last time.  Duo wanted me to stop living my life vicariously through the experiences of others?  Done.

I had thought that I would be able to feel it through Duo, but it seemed that in the end, I felt it because of Duo.

It wasn't that long ago that I had found Duo asleep on the sofa in the staff lounge after staying up all night adding Charlie the teddy bear to the paintings on the hospital walls, and now I was thinking of finally cashing in on my offer to add a painting and create a tribute to him.  So many images went flashing through my mind, so swift and so fleeting that I couldn't hold on to any of them.  They merged into a single looping slideshow of grief and sorrow.

Quatre called as soon as he heard, but I didn't remember the conversation.  Trowa contacted the space port for information, and I imagine the port authorities must have been grateful to speak with someone so level-headed in a time of tragedy.  Hilde came by to make sure I fed myself.  I remembered later that her emotional outlet was cooking.

Those couple of days were a big blur.  Time passed me by.  I had been sucked into a black hole by the gravitational force of my own 'ball of emotion' and I had no idea how Duo managed to keep crawling his way out of there.  It was somewhat ironic that though I now understood the source of the emotion, and no longer understood the release.

Wufei had to slap me in order to get my attention long enough for him to tell me that they had found the last two fragments of the shuttle, and that there were survivors.  Somehow, they had been the right pieces with the right structure, and they hadn't sunk or disintegrated.  That wasn't enough to snap me completely out of it, not until the whole gang coordinated to find out if Duo had been one of the lucky ones.  They found that yes, a man by that description had been found and transported to a hospital for his injuries, and still it wasn't enough.

It was only after he came out of surgery, after I sat by his bedside for I don't know how long waiting for him to wake up, after he finally came to with a tired smile and told me I needed a shave, only then did it end.  And then it happened all over again, only this time the force that pulled me under was the force of relief and unspeakable joy, and I thought that this I didn't need to release right away.  I was more than happy to suffer under this crushing pressure.

"I'm retiring," I announced through the open door.

My former advisor looked up through his reflective lenses, seeming not at all surprised to see me.  "Sorry to hear that, boy.  Why?"

I entered and took the chair across the table from him.  I noticed it was a different chair.  "Well, my objectivity's shot to hell, for starters."  And then I proceeded to tell him the rest of my tale.  J nodded and 'hmmmed' throughout the whole thing like the mad scientist he was.

"...So after I finish writing it up, that's it," I concluded.  "I'm falling back on the old computer science degree."

"Are you putting everything in there?"

"You mean Duo?"  He nodded.  "Yes.  I feel obliged to point out to the community that sometimes it's impossible to really understand the culture we're studying without stepping inside of it.  Objectivity can be both a blessing and a curse.  I know it flies in the face of convention, but I don't really care if it gets published, or if anyone agrees with me.  It just needs to be said."

"There will be readers, boy," he assured me.  "I'm glad you're taking a stand.  Your work will strike a blow against those self-righteous conservatives."

"Is that debate still going on?"  I hadn't really been paying attention to the rest of the community for a while now, but I knew that some years ago they were working to redefine the field.

"Of course."

"I thought you were above those 'petty squabbles'?"

He snorted.  "Of course I'm above the 'petty squabbling'.  I just happen to dislike the pompous fools that stand on one side of the debate."

There was a knock on the doorframe and I turned around to see who it was.  "Duo!" I exclaimed, rushing to his side.  "I asked you to stay downstairs."

He shrugged, letting me take the place of his crutches and help him into a chair.  His cheeks were a bit flushed from the effort of getting here.  He may have finally won his way out of the wheelchair, but he was still recovering.  "I found an elevator."

Prof. J cackled.  "Ah, so this is the infamous Dr. Duo Maxwell then, I presume?"

"Guilty as charged, I'm afraid."  He extended his hand across the table for a handshake.  I watched carefully for any twinge of pain from his healing rib.  "Pardon my intrusion."

"Not at all, my boy, not at all.  I should feel honored at getting to meet the man that managed to ruin my Heero here."

"Ruin?" I asked mildly.  "From the way you were just talking, I would think the proper word is 'enlighten'."

He waved my words away with a negligent toss of his hand.  "Same difference."

I shook my head.  "In any case, once Duo's had the chance to rest up, we should probably get going, if you don't mind."

"No, of course not.  I have a colleague coming over shortly to join me for lunch anyway.  Unless you'd like to come along?"

I snorted.  "Knowing your colleagues?  No, thank you.  You go out of your way to associate with the most curmudgeonly professors of them all, all for the sake of a lively debate."

There was another knock on the door frame, and I assumed that was the colleague.  I turned around to take a look at J's latest victim, as did Duo, and Duo beat me to the punch.  "G!"

Indeed, it was none other than Duo's predecessor.  "Duo," he greeted, startled.  "I heard you'd gotten into a little accident.  What are you doing here, boy?"

At his use of the word 'boy' as well, Duo and I looked at each other and laughed.  It seemed that since G had recently accepted a position at the Lowe Institute, our plan to get the two advisors to meet was no longer necessary.

The very first day I walked into the children's ward at Peacecraft Memorial Hospital, the moment I saw Dr. Duo Maxwell, I knew that he would be the one from whom I would finally get that which I sought.  I knew that because of him, I would finally come to understand those powerful emotions that had never been within my grasp.  I knew that he would be the key that would unlock the mysteries of life and death for me.

I was right.

author's notes (apologia):

i know practically nothing about the way a hospital is run, nor the duties of the people that work there.  my apologies for any inaccuracies that may have appeared here.

i don't know much about the details of AML, so i must apologize for any inaccuracies in that as well.  i found information from webMD.com about regular treatment plans and such, but all that information usually assumes that the patient's treatment is successful.  it's a lot harder to find information about the progression of a disease if treatment fails.

i don't know much about shuttle crashes either, so if the idea of duo surviving seems a little far-fetched, then substitute a disaster of your own choosing.

i couldn't think up a good name for heero's finished text, so that's why i ended up with the as-yet untitled rough draft.  i could have sat around thinking about it harder, but i wanted to get this out.

i only took one class in anthropology in college -- the anthropology of science and technology, in fact -- so i'm hardly an expert in that matter either.  once again, apologies for any misrepresentation.

apologies to professor de laet, teacher of said class, since it was during her class my mind wandered and i came up with this fic idea instead of listening to the lecture.

this fic is based on the introduction of a book we read for that class, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, by Renato Rosaldo.  he studied the ilongots and published a different work solely on them, but what i know about the ilongots comes only from what he mentions in this book.  apologies for any errors about the ilongots, and apologies for turning this man's tragedy into a fic.

i have borrowed rosaldo's role for heero's own.  rosaldo, an anthropologist, studied the ilongots (in general, not just their grief rituals), and came to an intellectual understanding behind the powerful grief that motivated the headhunting ritual, but didn't truly understand the force behind that motivation until his wife was walking along a trail one day, where she slipped and fell to her death down a sheer precipice, some 65 feet into a swollen river.  had heero's story ended the same way as his, that would have sucked.  in any case, i do believe that the book's point was that one had to take into account the social, cultural, political etc. environment that motivated an anthropological study in order for everything to be taken in the proper context with the proper understanding.

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