Grief and a Headhunter's Rage

I walked through the impressive double doors and was immediately assaulted by the scent identifiable best and universally as 'hospital'.  Some people also associated it with 'sterile', 'antiseptic', even 'sickness'.  For me, it held the connotation of 'death'.  That was, after all, what I had come here seeking.

I politely inquired of the front desk about the location of my destination.  The nurse was far too perky and helpful, with a bright yellow cardigan over the white uniform that spoke of sunshine and far happier places than her little enclosure.  'Untouched', my mind automatically classified as I followed her directions and ignored the way her eyes lingered upon my back.  Her supposedly cheery reception area lay far away from the life and death struggles that were waged every minute of every hour of every day within these walls.

I stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the fifth floor.  Although I have borne quite a few trips in a space such as this, I have never gotten used to the elevators in a hospital.   There is some gut response inside of me that informs me coolly that an elevator's floorspace ought to be square, not rectangular.   Strange, really, that my viscera should respond to so mundane a matter, and almost not at all to that of great import.

With an annoying ding, the doors opened, and I knew immediately that I was on the right floor.  A small garden of oversized flowers was painted on the wall directly in front of me.  Off to the right was another nurse's station.  Their nametags had smileys on them.  I bypassed it and sought out room number five-twenty-eight on my own.  The evens were on the right wall, the odds on the left, making it easy to locate the office, unlike in those places where the numbers march down one side and up the other.  I hate those.

The door was open when I got there.  I wondered if that was because the man inside had been expecting me, or if he always left his door open.  I stuck it on my mental list of things to find out; it was the first item on what would surely become a lengthy list.

I stopped on the threshold and knocked on his doorframe.   "Dr. Khushrenada?"

The man behind the large wooden desk looked up when he heard his name called, peering at me over the tops of the glasses that had slid down his nose as he bent over his charts.  "Yes?  Oh, yes, of course.  You must be, uh, Heero Yuy, wasn't it?"  He took off his glasses and slipped them into his front pocket.

"Yes."  I entered the office and shook the proffered hand, then took the chair across from him.  Initial impression of the man was that he was easily absorbed in his work.  He had an excellent record, however, so I doubted his seeming absentmindedness spilled over into his dealings with his patients.  "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me."

"Not at all," he waved the statement away, closing up some of the paperwork on his desk.  "Not at all.  I must say, your request struck me as... well, certainly unique.  I'm sure we are much more used to doing the research ourselves, rather than being researched."

"Peacecraft Memorial has a fine reputation across the board, not the least of which is this very pediatric ward."  A little buttering up never hurt anyone, but it was true.  This little section of the hospital was, relatively speaking, a small department bordering on understaffed, but despite that, it had earned an award of excellence from some council or another for an outstanding standard of personal care given to its young patients, especially in long-term care.  In fact, they seemed to specialize in it.  That was why I had chosen this place.

"We do try our best," he said depreciatingly.  "But because of that, I have to ask myself if the nature of your study will be all the more disturbing to our staff here."

"I assure you, it is not my intention to disturb anything here."  They obviously took their work seriously.  Good.

"Of course.  I understand this is not the first such study you've conducted?"

I nodded, feeling that we didn't really need to get into the particulars of my past work.  It would be better if we didn't muddy the waters by giving them an impression of the sorts of things I had already seen.  I wanted their reactions to be natural and unconstrained.  "I've spent seven years in the field already."

"Your credentials are impressive," he agreed.  "Graduated with top honors from the prestigious Lowe Institute of L1, with several works published.  I wonder what more you hope to find in our little corner of the hospital."

"I didn't come here with a particular goal, or any sort of point to prove.  I'm here merely to observe, perhaps to shed some light on a higher understanding."

He nodded sagely, as if he could possibly know what it was I was truly here to seek.  Or perhaps he was simply familiar with the methodology.  "I've arranged a meeting of the senior staff members.  They should be gathering right around now.  I hope you don't mind if we have a little chat with them before I authorize this?   See how they feel about this?"

"Of course not.  Informed consent is essential to any study.  I would have requested it myself, had you not done so."

"Excellent."  He stood, and I stood with him.  "Then if you'll follow me?"

He led us out of the office and down the hall a little further to a room labeled 'staff lounge'.  On the way, we passed by another set of flowers, and a bulletin board with various flyers tacked to it announcing things such as blood drives and immunization reminders.  I would have to go back and study it further in the future, as well as keep track of when and what things were posted for the duration of my study.  Perhaps I could have a talk with the person in charge of the postings.

There were only four people in the room when we arrived.  I noted that for senior staff members, everyone appeared to be rather young, around my age, especially considering the amount of time a doctor had to spend working his or her way through med school, and then a residency.  Then again, with so few doctors on staff, maybe the term 'senior staff member' was used with some irony.  I reminded myself that I was walking into a new cultural space.  Any previous knowledge or assumptions should be discarded.  I would have to familiarize myself with the scene before I jumped to any conclusions.

They seemed to be comfortable with each other, speaking in light tones before the conversation faded out with our entry.  There did not appear to be any division between doctors and nurse.  All of them regarded me curiously.  I wondered how much their supervisor had told them of my purpose.

Dr. Khushrenada surveyed the room before announcing that there was someone missing, but he started in on the introductions anyway.  "Dr. Quatre Winner," he named, beginning with the man closest to him.  "Everyone here does a general practice sort of routine, but everyone has their specialty, too."

"How do you do," Dr. Winner greeted politely, reaching out an amiable hand for a handshake.  I don't like handshakes, but they seem to be an unavoidable hazard of the business.  "Blood diseases."  I took that declaration to be his specialty, and accepted his hand with a nod and a murmur of my name in exchange.   Other than his age, he looked like a regular doctor so far, with his white lab coat and stethoscope hanging around his neck.

Dr. Trowa Barton was introduced next.  "Asthma and allergies," he said in return.  I repressed a sigh.  It was bad enough that doctors often referred to their patients by the ailments they were being treated for.  Now the doctors were referring to themselves by the ailments they treated.

The third was one Dr. Sally Po.  "Hi," she said.   Perhaps the twin braids she sported made her seem younger than she actually was.  "Genetic disorders, and other assorted miscellany."  I would have to keep track of what 'assorted miscellany' was.

The last was head nurse Sylvia Noventa.  There was something about her that made me like her more than I did the nurse I had encountered downstairs.  Perhaps it was the lack of a vapid smile.  The woman downstairs had looked like she had come straight out of a television commercial for some vocational school.

"Where's Duo?" Dr. Khushrenada asked his staff members, and I noted the use of the first name.

"I'm sure he's on his way," Dr. Winner asserted, and as soon as he finished his sentence, the door to the lounge opened, and another doctor slipped in to join us.

"Sorry I'm late, K," the man announced as he strode in, waving to his associates.  His step said he was one of those people that could get where he was going quickly and efficiently, and still make it look like he was taking his time.  "Got caught up with Andy."

His eyes immediately homed in on my unfamiliar face.  "Duo Maxwell," he introduced himself.  His handshake was warm and friendly.  The kids would definitely like this one.  The long hair he had confined in a braid hanging down his back was probably a plus; it would make him seem young and rebellious.  The headband he was wearing holding an arrow going in one side of his head and out the other probably reinforced that image.  The others had polite smiles on their faces, but Maxwell had one on and meant it.  On the other hand, the others were polite enough not to study me so straightforwardly.  I sensed his eyes judging my character even as I judged his.

"Heero Yuy," I said, pegging him as the resident trickster.  Many cultures have one.  "What's your specialty?"

There was a very brief moment of silence, one that I probably wouldn't have noticed if the slight hesitation didn't contrast so much with the quick and easy way he had given his name.  "Oncology.  What's yours?"  Maybe he didn't think I knew the word 'oncology'.  Maybe he was deciding how snappy of a comeback to tack on to his answer.

I knew that he would be the one for me to keep an eye on.   Before I had to answer the question on my own, however, Dr. Khushrenada took control again, or 'K', as Maxwell had informally addressed him.  It certainly was easier on the tongue.  I guessed it was a term of convenience or familiarity rather than of disrespect.  This seemed to be a very close-knit group.  I hoped it wouldn't cause me any problems.  "As I mentioned before, Mr. Yuy is here to conduct a study of the pediatric ward."

"Yeah," Maxwell said, "but you never told us what kind of study.  What is this, another standards inspection?"

"No.  I'm conducting independent research," I explained.  "Of the people in the ward, not the way it's run."

"I don't think I like the idea of the kids being studied for any reason."  He said it without any hostility, but I could tell he was protective of those under his care.

"I'm not here to study the kids.  I'm here to study you, the doctors."

He gave me a strange, skeptical look.  "What about us?"

I settled in to give my pitch, aiming towards explaining my purpose without going too deeply into my reasons.  "The field is currently redefining itself, reevaluating its classical methods and approaches, so it's a little difficult to pin down exactly what I am, but traditionally I might be called an anthropologist.  People normally associate anthropologists with aboriginal tribes and the like, and that may have been valid a long time ago, but now we've found it useful to turn the anthropological lens toward our own culture.   Over the years, a number of studies have been done, not just on various racial subcultures, for instance, but also on groups such as nuclear scientists, the rave culture of Midwestern America, or impulsive gamblers.  These studies can sometimes bring some new insight and understanding into the ways of these cultures, to people inside and outside of it.  The study will, of course, be available to you after it is complete, and you may review it for accuracy if any of it gets published."

"I took a couple of anthro classes in college," Dr. Po contributed.  "So you're here to study the medical culture?"

"Not exactly.  This is part of a larger study I've been conducting for a while.  I'm studying one particular aspect of many different cultural spaces."

"And what would that be, precisely?"  I got the feeling Maxwell sensed I was dancing around the topic, and was becoming displeased.  That was fine.  The dance had reached its conclusion anyway.

I looked him straight in the eye, gauging his reaction.   "It all contributes to an ethnography of death.  A study of death and grieving rituals."  I continued to hold his gaze even after the expected silence fell upon the room, but he looked away soon enough.  I've been told that I have a most unnerving stare.

I was in a room full of doctors, as I had been before.   Sometimes they dealt with the subject of death easily; after all, it dogged their steps every day.  Other times, the subject was near anathema, as it seemed to be in this case.  That was what I had hoped to find, in seeking out a children's ward.  No one liked to think of the death of a child.  Perhaps these people would be able to grant me the understanding I craved.

"People don't die here every day, you know," Winner finally said into the strained silence.  I noticed that when I had first spoken of my topic, his eyes had fallen upon Maxwell.  Was Maxwell their unspoken social leader?  Was he the one that I would have to convince?  Or did he have some cause to believe that Maxwell would have reason to object?

I tilted my head in concession of the point.  "Of course not.  This is a long-term study.  I never expected to be in and out of here in a week.  But it is not always the death itself that sparks the grieving.  Perhaps 'grief' is too restrictive of a word.  Reactions to death, both before and after.  And sometimes, even the reaction to near-death, if one manages to avoid it, or to the realization of mortality.  I'm not here simply waiting for someone to die."

Maxwell spoke up again.  "So, what?  You're going to pick apart our 'reactions to death', expose all of the sordid little details, trivialize everything by reducing it to some ritualized, formulaic, culturally-defined response?"  He was definitely displeased now.  If he hadn't been so serious, the way his manner contrasted so heavily with the arrow through his head might have been amusing.

I repeated what I said to Khushrenada.  "I'm not here to disturb, dissect, intrude, sensationalize, or trivialize.  I'm not here looking for a simple, universal answer.  I'm only here to observe, to understand.  If you allow it, in the end, I hope we can all come to a greater understanding of how we deal with death."  I hoped that they would not deny me this opportunity.  My answers were here, I knew it.  I could tell from the way the very word affected them.

"Rather morbid topic," Barton said quietly.

He wanted an explanation from me.  "Perhaps," was all I gave him.

"Why us?" Po asked.

Ah, there was a question not as easily evaded.  "Doctors are an interesting bunch.  They make it a business of facing down death every day, and for people that they aren't related to, or have no personal stake in, and they all deal with it differently."

"You've studied other doctors before?"

"Emergency room.  Terminal care."  I could see them coming to half-formed connections.  Emergency room doctors didn't have the chance to get to know their patients, and what killed them was often some freak accident.  Terminal care doctors accepted that their patients were dying, and that there was little they could do to fight the inevitable.  But these doctors would be different.   With the long-term care patients, they had the opportunity to become friends.  Their patients were young; battles were very rarely lost before they had begun.  They could fight with every tool at their disposal, and sometimes they could win, but sometimes they couldn't.  And again, the death of a young person was often more traumatic than the death of one whose life had reached its fullness.  A death here would be more than just a personal affront.

"As an anthropologist of sorts, you'll be wanting to participate and personally observe as much as you can, won't you?"  Dr. Po apparently remembered a few things from her classes.  "What does that mean?  You'll accompany us on rounds, come to staff meetings?"

"If you'll permit it, yes."

We went into a few more details of how my study might progress, and it seemed I was successful in my attempts to reassure them that I intended no harm as a third-party objective observer.  They all eventually agreed to my presence, although Maxwell went ahead and vocalized the threat that was written in his eyes.  "One wrong move and you're out of here."

I nodded solemnly at him.  "Understood, Dr. Maxwell."

He weighed me with his eyes for another long moment, then silently exhaled in what seemed to be resignation.  "If you're going to be hanging around here, then I guess you'd better call me Duo.  We don't stand much on formality around here."  Some of the others inclined their heads slightly in agreement.

I returned the gesture.  "Call me Heero, then," I said, hoping that was the right decision.  During the discussion, I had noticed them all addressing each other by first name, with the exception of 'K'.  Using their supervisor's last name, no matter how abbreviated, seemed to be at least a token nod of respect, but that was a familiarity I was fairly certain had not been granted to me.  The first names, however, would put me on somewhat equal terms with the rest of them.

I felt a sense of relief when Maxwell, no, Duo acknowledged the exchange of names.  I was in.

One's first view of the pediatric ward at Peacecraft Memorial begins when the shiny doors of the northwestern elevators open.   The small ward occupies a portion of the fifth floor of the hospital, right next to the maternity ward.  As one exits the elevator, one is immediately confronted with a large painting of a flowerbed, red and yellow against a backdrop of green spreading halfway up the wall.   It provides a friendly offset for the white, institutional lighting.  Directly beside the painting is a table.  On its surface is a wide variety of informational pamphlets regarding the health of young people.

To the right of the elevator's exit, there are two hallways, one stretching straight ahead, and another perpendicular to it.   Stationed on the far left corner are the nurses.  Their work area is open for any to see.  Desk space lines the inside walls of the roomy enclosure, and there are file cabinets to the back.  Typical office clutter is scattered across both the flat and the vertical surfaces: there are staplers, cups filled with paperclips, coffee mugs, pens, and notepads.  There are also sticky notes, file folders, two computer workstations, and lots of file shelves.  Despite the chaotic appearance, the competent nurses of the pediatric ward have the remarkable ability to always find what they need, when they need it.  (I asked for insight into their mystical power, but they declined to share its secret with me.)

The front side of the nurse's station is a countertop.  It is a comfortable height for an adult to lean on or do paperwork on.  That side is armed with a mug full of pens, a stack or two of standard forms, a tissue box, and the candy bowl.  Although everyone in the ward agrees that jellybeans, M&Ms, or other such small, loose candies would be tastier, it was decided that any candy filling the communal candy bowl would have to be individually wrapped for hygienic purposes.  The particular type of candy varies with the person whose turn it is to fill it.  During my stay, I observed lemon drops, candy canes, caramel chews, and even fortune cookies.

On the side of the corner office is another countertop, only this one is low enough for many of the young people to look over.   There is no candy bowl on that side -- if a child wants a sweet, he or she must ask politely for it, or else beg it off someone tall enough to reach the candy bowl.  There are, however, stickers, balloons, and other miscellaneous items, the likes of which appeal to the young patients.  These, too, vary with the supplier.

It is such a simple thing, yet it reflects such a basic philosophy of the ward.  There are two sides to everything here: one side is business-like and grown-up; this side takes care of the patients' physical health with a serious, sometimes awe-inspiring dedication.  The other side is fun and for the patients.  Yin for yang, it doesn't let anyone forget that the patients are more than just patients; they are young, and they are so much more than just the sum of their symptoms.

-- excerpt from chapter one of the as-yet untitled rough draft

And so began my study of this small group of doctors.  I went with them as they met with their patients.  They were told only that I was studying the doctors, nothing about death.  Duo usually managed to make some joke about it that sent the child into a fit of giggles, and it was, impressively enough, a slightly different joke every time.

At first, they all treated me with an interesting blend of wariness and welcome.  Duo brought that to an extreme on both ends.  He seemed to go out of his way to make sure I was included in most things, but at the same time he seemed to take delight in rubbing my nose in how wonderfully alive these children were, how individual and unique, as if he had a need to prove to me, or possibly himself, that they were more than statistics, more than objects of a study, more than the walking dead.  I could have told him that.  If that was all they were, then I wouldn't have been there.  My research was more about case studies than generalizations.  I was far too aware that everyone had their own personalized ways of dealing with death.

Duo continued to remain wary of me after the others had all become tentatively accustomed to my presence.  There was nothing overt in his attitude towards me.  It was simply different from the way he treated the others.  He was a little reserved, a little barbed, a little probing.  Two weeks into my visit, he sat down next to me in the central waiting area, where I was jotting down notes and impressions from the staff meeting that had just ended.  "Hey," he said.

"Hey," I responded, the word rolling off my tongue a little unnaturally.  That was not my accustomed greeting, but it did seem to be the natural greeting of the natives, so I used it now.

"I read some of your work," he continued.  If he expected to provoke some sort of reaction out of me, he was mistaken.  His tone and demeanor, however, didn't show any animosity.   "Interesting stuff."

"Thank you."  I waited patiently for him to get to the point.  I had found that casual conversation with Dr. Duo Maxwell was often filled with long periods of nothing significant.  It was the same with Dr. Quatre Winner, but not with all of the doctors.   I dismissed it as a personality trait specific to the individual, and not all members of this tribe.

"You know, I always wondered what kind of guys wrote this stuff.  You know, those books on the shelves that are about things you never thought books would be written on.  I always thought they must be total crackpots or something, maybe living off some fat, rich inheritance that allowed them to waste all their time in trivial pursuits, and maybe they are.  But you're not."

"Hn."  Typical Maxwellism.  Both a slight and a compliment, all rolled into one.

"So a guy can actually make a living off of this?"

I shut my notebook with a shrug.  "Not really.  I actually have a visiting professorship at the college.  I teach a couple of classes there.  Journal publications don't make money, and as you can probably guess, my book will never be a top seller."

"So why are you doing this?"

I shrugged again.  "I'm interested."

He laughed quietly.  "Man, if this is all you're interested in, you need to get a hobby."

"This is my hobby."

He laughed more loudly this time.  Nurse Hilde looked up from her desk at him.  "Then you need a new hobby," he declared.

Perhaps I did.  Perhaps after this, I wouldn't need to pursue this any further.  Perhaps after this, I would understand.

Those were words I had said before.

"You gave blood today," I noted aloud.  The sleeves on his white coat had been rolled up, and on the arm flung over the back of the chair, I could see the cotton ball held tightly to the inside crook of his elbow by the gauzy bandage things they used.  I flicked open my notebook to make a note of it.  I had seen a similar thing on Trowa's arm at the meeting.  I didn't recall the rest of them having their sleeves rolled up, so I didn't know about them.  I would have to find out.

His eyes fell upon my own arms, bared by my short sleeves.  "You didn't," he observed.

"No," I absently replied, adding to my note which section I thought it belonged in.  I would insert it properly later, when I got back home and to my laptop, where I kept all of my observations.

"What are you waiting for?"

"Hm?"  I closed my notebook again and blinked up at him.

"You scared of needles or something?"

"Uh, no."  It didn't quite click with me why he was asking.

"Then let's go."  He stood and took a firm hold of my elbow, dragging me up with a surprising strength.

I held my ground before he could abduct me.  "Go where?" I asked, confused.

He stared at me, a somewhat incredulous expression flying across his face before he shook his head and buried his face in his free hand.  "Damn, you need a new hobby."

I didn't like this feeling of not knowing what was going on.  "What are you talking about?"

He let go of my arm.  "You know what I think?  I think-- no, I bet.  I would actually wager money on this.  I bet that you spend so much time studying other people's lives -- and deaths -- with your happy objectivism, your cool, distant neutrality, and that's all you do, isn't it?  Watch life from the outside.  You knew there was a blood drive today, right?"

"Of course."  There had been a flyer advertising it on the bulletin board for at least two weeks now.  It was one of the first things I had made a note of.

"Did you ever think about actually going, or even not going, to the blood drive?"

Well, no.  But I suddenly felt very reluctant to actually admit that aloud.

He took my silence for the 'no' it was, and rolled his eyes at me.  "I knew it.  You gotta remember that you live inside this life too, once in a while.  Now come on.  Unless you've got some reason you don't want to give blood?"

He was giving me a choice.  How kind.  "Uh, no."

"Then let's go," he said again with a grin.  He waved to Hilde on our way to the elevator.  She waved back.

Dr. Khushrenada has been at this for much longer than each of the doctors under him, but he is slightly removed from it all by his supervising position.  The other doctors defer to him, but the occasions on which they have to do so are few.  Despite the respect paid to him as an elder of the tribe, during the staff meetings, the respect is shared equally among them all.

There is little structure that is adhered to during these meetings.  Meetings are held twice a week.  On Mondays, they take place in the conference room.  Before each meeting begins, the attendees wander into the room, either singly or in small groups, and take whatever seat they please, although the seat at the head of the table facing the doors is reserved for their elder.  Dr. Winner and Dr. Barton tend to sit next to each other on the left side of the table.  The others tend to sit wherever Dr. Maxwell leaves them room to sit.  Sometimes he sits sedately in a chair on the right.   Sometimes he sits on the right, and uses another of the chairs as a footrest.  And sometimes, he doesn't sit down at all, preferring instead to lean against the wall by the window, or perhaps toy with something he brought with him to the meeting.  Once he brought three small balls and spent his time juggling them as he paced around the perimeter of the room, until Dr. Khushrenada made him take a seat.  Another time, he passed a meeting by trying to straighten out a pair of antennae, two bright green shamrocks bouncing at the end of two springy wires attached to a headband.  Despite Dr. Maxwell's seeming preoccupation, however, he has never proven to be inattentive.

The Thursday meeting is the less formal of the two.  It takes place in the staff lounge, a place that seems to be a focal point of the group's casual interaction.  Seating is arbitrary.   There are two sofas placed around the low coffee table in the middle, as well as four chairs around a table off to the side.  Over the table hangs a low lighting fixture that Dr. Barton has the unfortunate tendency of banging his head into, so he prefers the sofas.

During these meetings, discussion usually goes around the table, or loose circle, starting with the elder, Dr. Khushrenada.  He typically speaks of a few bureaucratic matters, either hospital administration issues or just scheduling of shifts and allocation of resources.  Following this, each doctor gives a brief report of the status of each of his or her patients.  This is sometimes accompanied by a request for input, which is responded to in a conversational fashion.  Sylvia Noventa, the head nurse, listens and nods and makes sure that everyone is on the same page, and then adds a report of her own on supplies, appointments, any concerns the nurses have come up with, and other such matters.  Although, as a nurse and not a doctor, she does not have to be afforded the same level of respect or deference as the others, she is treated equally, and, in fact, holds something of a matriarchal position within the hierarchy.  It is, after all, her job to make sure that the doctors' needs are met.

Each patient is referred to by name, and the status reports aren't always only about the patient's health.  It was reported, for instance, that Anna was very proud to have finally lost her last baby tooth, and that Mikel's family had just acquired a cat.  This sharing of personal information seems to serve a variety of purposes.  Since it is often the case that the doctors are familiar with all the young people that visit the ward regularly, having this information allows them to react appropriately when next seeing the patient.   It is also the case, however, that the doctors simply seem to care.

-- excerpt from chapter three of the as-yet untitled rough draft

"I'm not really good with kids, Duo," I said, trying to hang back in my corner of the playroom.  There was a table there, and it was ideal for my activities.  I had room to spread out my notes, and a good view of the entire room.  From there, I could observe everything.

Duo looked at me with an expression of severe exasperation.  The fingers of his right hand beat an impatient rhythm out against his hip.  "Heero, babe, you can't hang out in a kids' ward and not hang out with the kids."

"I'm just fine over here," I reassured him, glancing down to my notes to write that Robert had just entered the room.  He was about thirteen, and a patient in the burn unit.  He came up here periodically to hang out with people his own age, or, failing that, doctors that acted his age.  He was always welcome.  In fact, the pediatric ward often played host to any young person that occupied, or even visited, any unit of the hospital.

I looked up to find out what he had chosen to do, only to find my field of view blocked.  Duo certainly could move quickly and quietly.  "Do you mind, Duo?" I asked, trying to look around him.  I stopped having to when I heard Robert speaking to Clara, who had come in with a severe allergic reaction to peanuts yesterday.  I noted it in my book.

"You," he declared, emphasizing the pronoun by pointing at me with a condemning finger, "are hopeless."

I looked calmly at him.  Duo had that one light crease in his brow that I think he reserved especially for me.  It was always present during these little confrontations, and I had never seen it under any other circumstances.  That, however, was not a fact relevant to my study.

"No, not hopeless," he corrected himself, another wave of his disapproving finger later.  "Just pathetic, because there is still hope that I will manage to drag you out of this corner."

"And if there's anyone that can do it, it's Duo Maxwell."   Quatre's head popped up next to Duo's shoulder.  I hadn't seen him approach.  Duo was taller than he was, and was blocking my view.  "You should give in now, while you can still surrender with dignity."

I put my pen down, deciding to play their game.  It gave me firsthand insight into their interaction.  The same excuse might have been used against me with regard to the children, but they hadn't invited me to play.  It made no difference to them whether or not I participated in their games, but I was already a part of the game of the doctors.  I had an expected role to fulfill in this little society, and unless I wanted to disrupt the flow of things, I had best live up to it.

I stood up, absently tossing my bangs out of my eyes as I met Duo's challenging gaze with one of my own.  The move put us close together, with no retreat for either of us.  I could only back into the table, and Quatre stood firm at Duo's back.  With the way energy seemed to emanate from the always lively Dr. Maxwell, I could practically feel his fingers drumming against my own hip, despite the foot and a half space between us.  It sent a phantom shiver up my spine.  I noted with some satisfaction that I could now see over Duo's shoulder, but I was very careful not to give my continued study away.  I kept my eyes strictly on Duo's, and caught the actions in the background without focusing on them.

He looked down at me from his slightly superior height.   Mock intimidation was all a part of the game.  I didn't mind it at all.  I was not easily cowed, and I also considered it a bit of a triumph.  It was another indication that I had been accepted into this tribe of doctors.  "Don't you have, like, a perfect memory?" he demanded.

"What makes you think that?" I answered mildly.

"For the last week or so, you've pointed out how or how not the things people have done have corresponded to their fortune cookies from a week ago."

Damn those fortune cookies.  "Maybe I just wrote down all the fortunes in my notes."

"But you weren't consulting your notes when you drew the parallels."

"Maybe I go home every night and study my notes religiously."

He paused, then made a face.  "God, I can almost see you doing that."

I chose not to be offended by that.  I was the one that suggested it, after all.  But let the record reflect that that was not what I was doing every night.  Well, every night or so I would input them into computer, but that was different.  During that time, I didn't sit around memorizing all the facts.  No, I spent that time drawing conclusions from the facts.  "Thank you," I half-smirked, making my next move in the great game.  "I'm flattered you think I'm so studious."

"Well, then, if you sit around memorizing all your notes, then--"

"Actually," I interrupted, carefully eliminating any smugness from my expression, "I don't.  I don't have to.  I happen to have an eidetic memory.  That being the case, I suppose I can forgo note-taking for one day and try my hand at interacting with the kids."  With a small smile, I sidestepped him smoothly and headed towards the others.

A small chuckle accompanied me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see that Quatre had followed me.  Duo was still standing where I left him.  "Oooh," Quatre cooed in appreciation.  "A win through surrender.  Very zen, Heero.  Very zen."

"Thank you."

"You're the only person around here that can match Duo.   Even Wufei usually comes up less than even."

"Wufei?" I asked, now taking note of the name on a new mental page.  I really didn't need to take notes down on paper to remember everything that had happened, but it gave me something to do while I was watching other people, and it also helped me organize things a little better.

"Dr. Chang.  Hemopathology."

"Ah."  I spied Duo out of the corner of my eye, turned towards us now with a peculiar grin on his face.  Somehow, it made me nervous.  I figured that the sooner I got involved with the children, the safer I would be.  Luckily, the kids hanging around today were adolescents and not any younger.  That seemed manageable.  I spoke the truth when I said that I wasn't good with kids.  The younger they were, the worse it got.  I had problems communicating with people I couldn't relate to.  Maybe I could let Robert convince me to play video games with him.  There wasn't too much communication involved with that.

As with many cultures, this one has its own set of activities that serves as rite of passage.  Before being fully accepted as a peer of the social circle, a new doctor or nurse is expected to fulfill certain requirements.  Unlike in some cultures, these demands do not take the form of 'hazing'.  Sometimes a joke is incurred at the expense of the 'newbie', but other than that, it is typically quite harmless.  The aim of the department is not to alienate, but to include.

Because of the close-knit structure of the department, many of the chores are shared equally among all of the staff members.  On the second week of the newbie's term, he is expected to bring something with which to fill the candy bowl at the nurse's station.  Mere minutes after the newbie pours his selection into the bowl, the others that are available will immediately congregate around the counter to examine the newbie's offering.  The discussion amongst themselves is quite intense as they thoroughly analyze the newbie's offering and decide whether or not he has pleased them.  This debate is carried on whether or not the newbie is present.  To date, no one has seriously displeased the members of this department.  There are currently no contingency plans to handle this matter, should it occur.

Sometimes, this sharing of duties is taken advantage of.   When Dr. Winner first came to the pediatric ward, the others managed to convince him that he was expected to take his turn scrubbing down the staff bathroom, despite the presence of their regular janitor.  It was quite fortunate for him that the doctors and nurses tend to be rather clean individuals.

Some of the rituals are quite positive ones.  When a new doctor or nurse is allotted one of the lockers in the staff 'closet', a room connected to the staff lounge, a small ceremony is held, complete with sparkling cider and ribbon cutting.

What truly binds this group of people together, however, is their common struggle against sickness and disease.  Regardless of all of the little things that bring these people together as a social group, there is nothing like a triumph over an illness that unites them.  Or sometimes, it is defeat.  Like the duties and chores that are shared throughout the department, these victories and losses are also shared equally among everyone on the staff with a tender understanding and unrivalled compassion.

During the time of my study, there were no new members added to the department.  There was, however, an opening made available four months prior to my visit by the retirement of Dr. Grodinger, or 'G' as he was commonly called.  He was Dr. Maxwell's mentor in the field of pediatric oncology.

-- excerpt from chapter four of the as-yet untitled rough draft

Trowa halted me in the hallway one day about four weeks into my study.  I rarely heard much from the quiet man, although I saw him often enough.  "Do you have a minute?"

"Of course."  When I was in this hospital, all of my minutes belonged to the staff members of this department.

He led me to a short side hallway.  It was normally pretty quiet in that corner since all that was down there were the janitor's closet and a few examination rooms.  Today, however, Quatre, Sally, and Hilde were waiting there for me.

With a wide smile, Sally held out a medium-sized case as I approached, but I declined to take it immediately.  "What's this?" I asked.  If I weren't reasonably sure that I had been accepted into this family, I thought it would have been possible for them to knock me over the head with the box and then stuff my body in the closet, and no one would ever know.

Quatre explained.  "Each of the paintings on the walls of these hallways was painted by one of us, or one of our predecessors.  The garden in front of the elevators was painted by Anne, our head nurse before Sylvia.  The lions in the playroom were painted by Trowa.  The mushroom circle in the opposite corner of the room was painted by Dr. G."

"I added the pixies," Hilde chimed in.  "With his permission, of course."

"And so on and so forth," Sally finished.  "And so, we all got together and eventually decided that it was your turn."

"My turn?"  I blinked, unexpectedly pleased by this recognition.  I had been accepted by people before, but this was being embraced.  Initially, I had considered that perhaps their acceptance of me had been something of a joke to them, with the mild hazing and teasing that they carried on.  This was no joke.

"Well, over the last four weeks, you've put in just about as many hours here as the rest of us.  You practically are one of us.  You're like our staff anthropologist.  So we decided we could make it a little official.  This section of the wall is yours."

"Of course, you won't get your name in the directory," Hilde joked.  "But this is really prime real estate.  You can see it clearly from the main corridor.  So go on, take the paints."

I reached out formally with both hands to accept the case of paints from Sally.  "Thank you," I said, and I really meant it.  Somehow, this went beyond me being happy that I had gotten just that much closer to the core of this group.  These people always exuded this air of warmth and welcome, and now they had extended it around me, in much more than a merely professional sense.  I thought then that I must know how the kids felt when they were cared for by these doctors and nurses.  It was unique.  I didn't recall any other group of people that had made me feel this way.

"They're water-based paints," Quatre said apologetically.   "Oil-based ones would stink up the hall until they dried.  Besides, this way, we can make changes once in a while.  Just be sure not to paint too close to the floor.  That way Alex won't accidentally swipe it with his mop."

"Quatre knows all about that," Hilde laughed.  I guessed his painting had encountered a minor accident.  "So, what are you going to paint?"

"You don't have to keep it to this wall, of course," Sally interjected.  "This was just the best empty space we could find.  But if you have something in mind that would fit in somewhere else, you're certainly welcome to put it there.  We just thought we would point this side out."

"And of course," Quatre put in, "Not that we probably need to mention this, but all images must be suitable for young children, of course."

"Of course," I murmured absently, staring at the wall that had been given to me as a canvas.  Hilde still stared eagerly at me, waiting for an answer to her question.  I didn't have one.   "Are you sure about this?"

I received three nods and assurances.  Apparently, Trowa didn't feel the need to make three into four.  The answer was still greater than zero.  "Do I need to do this now?"

"No, take as long as you like."

"That's even better, actually," Hilde decided.  "Now Duo can find out for himself."

"Hm?"  I had wondered how the trickster figured into this.  Duo had something to do with practically everything.

"He sent me in his place to find out what you were planning."  She grinned.  "Now he can wait around with the rest of us.  No pressure, of course."

No pressure?  Hn.  After they had wandered back to their duties, I spent a few more moments getting a feel for the blank space, but it wasn't telling me anything, so I turned around and roamed the ward, seeking out the other paintings and trying to identify each of them with its author.

I could render a picture decently enough, but finding something to render would be difficult.  I may have been accepted by them, but I was still an anthropologist -- 'their' anthropologist now -- and I still had to maintain a neutral, objective point of view.  From my own personal preferences, I wouldn't want to be too pretentious with anything that I did.  From a professional point of view, I didn't want to insinuate myself too deeply within their culture, and thus risk going native, or affecting them too much with my outside influence.  If outright refusal of their offering had been a possibility, I might have considered it, but a rejection would have meant a rejection of their culture, and that wouldn't have done at all.

There was really a lot more space than one might have suspected that was available for wall painting, although mine was probably the clearest of all that was still located in a reasonable place.  It was the first thing one would see when looking down the hall from the main corridor.

The walls in the playroom were covered with enough paint that there weren't really any decent places left for an independent addition.  It was strange that the combined effect of so many different paintings wasn't dizzying.  Instead, they all seemed to belong, and contribute to the generally 'lived-in' and cozy atmosphere of the place.  Although that could also have been because of the arrangement of the furniture that really spared a person from having to take it all in at once.

Around the doorframe was painted another frame, a simple, yet elegant arch that served as a gateway to the world painted on the back of the door.  On the other side, there was a field of daisies, rippling gently from an unseen wind as it stretched off towards the horizon of a bright, clear day.  I presumed that since the main door to the playroom was seldom shut, there was little opportunity for anyone to get confused by the disguised portal.  Studying the painting, I saw a signature in green in the lower right corner, the loops and swirls of the name cleverly hidden among the stems and leaves of the flowers in the foreground.  The field was Sally's work.

It wasn't difficult to identify Quatre's work.  I simply looked for the painting that appeared to be too low to the ground.  I found it along the northern wall.  It was a sandbox, and the walls that contained it looked a little more shallow than they ought to have been, probably because the bottom half of the wall had been wiped away.

I expected Duo to have something loud and outrageous emblazoned upon the wall, something unmissable and unmistakable, but I found nothing aside from the painting on his locker, which I knew didn't count since it wasn't available for public consumption.  Most of the others had only their nameplate attached to the door of their locker, or perhaps some small thing that personalized it further.  Duo's door was painted black, with delicate sparkles of white scattered across it in a simulation of a night sky.  The inside of his locker was painted similarly.  I wasn't completely certain, but the stars did appear to be arranged in an accurate rendition of the cosmos.

As I searched every last nook and cranny of the rest of the ward, garnering a strange look from a mother that no doubt thought I had escaped from the psych ward, I encountered paintings whose creator I could not identify, but none of them resembled what I would expect from the oncologist.  Mentally, I wrote them off as works of previous staff members.  In the end, I resorted to asking Hilde to resolve my puzzlement.

"He doesn't have one," she explained, saving her database work on the computer before leaning back in her chair to talk with me.   I raised an eloquent eyebrow in incredulity at her, and she continued the rest of her explanation with a sad smile.  "More accurately, he doesn't have one big one, but he has lots of small, little ones."

My mind flashed back over all of the images that I had observed.  Once in a while, there had seemed to be something a little off with a portion of a painting, and I realized that sometimes it was the quality of the work, and other times, it was the freshness of the paint.  "Hm, I think I may have seen some of them, then."

"One of Duo's first cases here was a little girl with an inoperable brain tumor.  He worked with Doc G on that one, but there wasn't anything they could do.  After she died, Duo gave her his painting as a tribute.  Jodie loved the mushrooms and the fairies, and she used to sit in that corner and read fantasy books."

"The dragon," I said, the answer suddenly coming to me.   Dancing among the fairies was a little golden lizard, its wings pulling it through the air in a playful somersault.  I had always thought that the dragon seemed to be painted by a different hand, even though its integration into the scene was flawless.

Hilde nodded.  "Duo and I came here about the same time.  I was more than happy to work with him to add it in.  And since then, every time we've lost someone here, he paints something up to remember them by.  So I guess it's a good thing that there aren't that many of them up there.  The tree that the lions play under, for instance.  That one belongs to William.  And the butterfly hovering over the daisies is Sarah."

There was nothing in the little additions themselves that spoke of Duo, but the fact that he painted them at all was very Duo.  Was it a memorial or sorts?  The children were immortalized in cheerful, bright images that captured their spirit and their innocence.  It was a fitting tribute.  Or perhaps it served as a reminder of those they had lost, and those they might lose in the future.   It could even have been a penance of sorts, a plea for forgiveness, for being unable to save them.  With Duo, one could never tell.  I knew what the study of other cultures told me, but Duo was practically a culture in and of himself.

It was almost universally agreed upon by the doctors here that one of the worst parts of their job is having to tell parents that their child is seriously ill, perhaps even dying.

I was never present during one of these times.   Anthropological nosiness has its limits, and I would not wish to intrude upon what is so obviously an intensely private, personal time.  I have, however, been able to observe these proceedings from afar, and to join with the doctors in the aftermath.

Six weeks into my study, a young girl named Midii came to the ward.  The ten-year-old child had been experiencing flu-like symptoms for several weeks before being brought to the doctors at the hospital.  In a process that was eventually to encompass the entire department and then some, she was first scheduled an appointment with Dr. Trowa Barton.  Dr. Barton examined the girl, found the symptoms suspect, and ordered blood work done via Dr. Quatre Winner, the resident hematologist.  Based upon his findings, Dr. Winner then called in Drs. Duo Maxwell and Sally Po to confirm his suspicions, and further testing was done in coordination with Dr. Wufei Chang, who worked in the hospital's hemopathology lab.

Together, they confirmed and confronted the unfortunate diagnosis of childhood acute myeloid leukemia.

Because leukemia is a cancer of the blood, responsibility for the case lay primarily within Dr. Maxwell's jurisdiction, with Dr. Winner working closely alongside him.  Because of certain genetic factors, Dr. Po also had a part in this.  Since Dr. Maxwell was to be Midii's primary care physician, however, it fell to his shoulders to bear the bad news to the girl's parents.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a less common form of leukemia in children.  It has a decent survival rate, and a variety of treatment options, but such dry facts hold little comfort for a family hearing the news for the first time.

I observed Dr. Maxwell as he girded himself for 'the talk'.  He held in his hands the file folder containing all of Midii's test results, as well as a number of informational pamphlets that were appropriate for the family.  As he walked slow circles around the staff lounge, breathing deeply in a meditative manner, the file was carried along, unopened.  Everything contained within had already been etched into his memory when it had first come back from the lab.

He muttered to himself as he continued around the room, coming up with and discarding ways to share the information with the family.  Several times he half-asked me for my impressions of the parents, from those brief times that I had seen them accompanying their daughter, but he turned away from me before I really had a chance to answer.  He was only thinking aloud to himself.

After about five minutes of this, he stopped in his pacing to stand in front of the door, file folder still in hand.  He held the doorknob in his other hand and bounced nervously on his toes for a few moments to get the last jitters out before coming to an almost sudden and surprising cessation of all movement.  One more breath, and he opened the door and stepped out of the room, every inch the calm, confident professional.

Midii's parents were waiting in one of the consultation rooms that were visible from the main waiting area and lobby.  These rooms have windows with blinds for privacy, which are usually left partially open.  It was through this horizontally slatted view that I was able to observe the proceedings inconspicuously from an armchair in the lobby.

John and Marie (last names omitted by request) were solemn as they waited for the diagnosis.  They knew that they wouldn't have been called in like this if it weren't serious, and they clung to each other for support.

They remained silent as Dr. Maxwell entered and took a seat across from them.  He started simply, punching straight through to the matters the parents would be most interested in with simple layman's terms.  Only after laying out the groundwork for hope did he continue with his explanation of the disease, the course of treatment and the tentative prognosis.  His words flowed with a soothing, steady pace, never stopping in hesitation, but only out of concern for the parents, allowing them the opportunity to gather themselves or ask questions.

Or perhaps he needed those times to gather himself.  After the grueling session was over, Midii's parents left the room, visibly distraught, but not despondent.  Only after they had disappeared around the corner to see their child did Dr. Maxwell finally allow his shoulders to droop, his head to hang, to rest tiredly in his hands.  It was all too brief a minute before he recovered and began to methodically gather his papers back together.  Finally trudging out of the room, he deposited the folder at the nurse's station, where he exchanged some words with Sylvia Noventa.

When she patted him comfortingly on the hand, I realized that he seemed as distraught as the parents themselves.  Gone was the image of a doctor in complete control of the situation, leaving only in its place the picture of a man that had seen too much of death.

-- excerpt from the as-yet untitled rough draft

It seemed to be agreed upon without any discussion that they would be going out for drinks tonight.  Sally had other plans for the night, but from the reactions I could tell that if she had been available, she would have went as well.

I checked my wristwatch for confirmation of the time and date, noted the gathering, and then absently jotted down some possible reasons for the outing while they were packing themselves up.  It was the third Thursday of an even month; perhaps that had been the unspoken signal for the trip.  Perhaps it was an anniversary of some sort.  Perhaps there had been little notes and signs that were in a language only the doctors here could understand, and I had simply missed them all.

Or, most likely, it was because there had been a subdued cloud hanging over the department all day since Midii's test results had come in that morning.  Considering the depth of compassion in this family of doctors, I wouldn't have been surprised to find that they did something like this any time bad news regarding a child's health arrived.

This reason made much more sense than the others I had come up with, but that was a main part of why I had had to come up with the others.  When one is embedded in a culture that isn't too foreign, sometimes it is easy to forget the role one is to play there.  I made it a point to at least make a token effort at challenging my assumptions about these people, hence the deliberate exercise in strangeness.  On the other hand, the very concept of strangeness was a relatively archaic one.  The discipline had become a little more lax in its standards of objectivity in the days since anthropology's peak.

I shook my head to myself as I shut my notes and did a little inconspicuous stretching.  A lot of the old work in anthropology had been done during the time of colonies and empires, and the methodology was skewed towards that perspective.  Things were looser now, and I appreciated it.  Change was good.

The doctors gathered in front of the nurses' station, as they often did when they were waiting for something to go in or out of the department.  There was a convenient countertop on which they could lean, and make idle chatter with the nurses if they were inclined.  If the wait looked to be a long one, they often sat where I sat now, in the front area with the low tables and the chairs and the magazines, which altogether was referred to variably as the reception area, front waiting area, or visitor lounge.  Most recently, it had been referred to as my office, since that was the place I often stationed myself to watch the flow of human traffic through the department.  I left when something caught my interest, but I always returned.  That was where I started my day, and that was where I ended my day.

I felt eyes on me, after which I noted a faint murmur of discussion.  Looking up, I saw the three doctors in attendance eyeing me.  I eyed them right back.

There was a brief pause during which Duo and Quatre looked somewhat hesitant.  Trowa wore the same neutral expression he always did.  The silence was soon broken by Duo.  "Wanna come?" he asked simply, jerking his head slightly towards the elevators.

Of course I wanted to.  The problem with my job was trying to figure out how to be nosy and inquisitive without being intrusive and rude.  By asking me, they had quite neatly taken the decision out of my hands.

"Is that alright?"  I didn't want to appear too eager.  Who knew how sensitive this grief reaction was?

Duo shrugged, and Quatre answered more clearly.  "Of course, Heero."

I responded with a brief nod, swiftly collected my things, and joined them by the time the elevator doors dinged open.

Our destination was Howard's, a small, cozy bar situated three blocks from the hospital.  I had been brought there once before, when the department had still been enchanted by the idea of having a pet anthropologist, despite my subject matter, and had showed me off quite proudly to their bartender and friend, Howard.  It was fortunate that I would be spared an introduction this time.  The first time had been a social gathering, but this seemed to be a ritual directly dealing with my research, and I wanted to disturb the proceedings as little as possible.

We entered without fanfare.  The previous time, our presence had been announced with hearty laughter as we walked through the door.  This time around, there were a few waves to the owner as we entered, and he waved back, indicating with a flip of his hand that we were free to take a table.  He arrived by our sides soon after, and by the restrained look on his face, I could tell he already knew that bad news had precipitated this visit.  That confirmed my theory that this was a regular occurrence.

"What can I get you boys?"  We were all grown men with careers, and yet we were still boys.  Granted, he was almost old enough to be a father to any one of us, but that aside, it had an almost proprietary air to it.  Not just boys, but his boys, and special enough that he would wait on our table personally.

I was glad that the others made their orders first, clueing me in on what the regular procedure here was.  Quatre and Trowa got what they got last time; Duo requested something a little bit harder.  I stuck with my trusty ginger ale.

"Don't drink much, do ya, Heero?" Duo drawled lazily at me, slouching down in his chair.  Howard's had nice chairs.

"Not really," I shrugged.  "I drink when I have to.   Parties, receptions, that sort of thing."

"Do you attend that sort of thing often?" Quatre asked curiously.  His family had money, so it was likely he had attended those things as well.  It showed, somewhat.  He was in a bar, and was still sitting up straight in his seat.  Trowa looked a little more relaxed, but on the other hand, Trowa had that look about him that made me think that he could probably blend in in just about any environment.

I smiled briefly.  As if I had a life.  "Not really."  Usually it was my publisher, some fellow researcher or professor or someone.  I didn't exactly go out of my way to socialize with them without reason, and when I did spend time with them, I found that I didn't even like them particularly much.  There was nothing wrong with them, per se.  I've just never felt like I belonged with that crowd, even though we all shared a similar focus on our work.  Or perhaps it was because of that.

"Excellent," Duo declared.  "It looks like we have here our designated driver."

"What would you have done if I hadn't been here?"

"Hung out long enough for the buzz to wear off, probably," Quatre answered.  "Howard doesn't mind.  Or maybe we'd just let Duo drive."

I raised an eyebrow at him, and Duo spoke up in his own defense.  "The alcohol doesn't hit me like it used to anymore."

"You've built up an impressive tolerance?"

"Yep.  I've run into far too many drinking occasions, thank you very much."  He blinked then, as if surprised he had actually said that, but recovered quickly.  "So, I'm sure you've got questions about what's going on.  Ask away."  He gestured permissively at me with a wave of his hand.

I shook my head.  "No, please, just do whatever you would do if I weren't here.  I don't want to disturb or distract you."

"Too bad, you lose.  We came here to be distracted tonight, and it looks like you're the main attraction.  Distract us."

"Well, now I know why you invited me."

"That's not true," Quatre protested, shooting Duo a mildly reproving look.  "We invited you because you're a nice guy, a friend, even, if that doesn't cause you any objectivity trouble with your study."

"And you probably wanted to come anyway," Duo piped up.   "Wanted to crawl inside our heads and find out how we tick."

"That's my job," I murmured.  I had no defense besides that.

"And is that the only reason you agreed to come along?"

I was fortunately spared having to answer that question when Howard fortuitously returned with our drinks, but it made me think a little.  It was certainly a main reason why I had come, but there was some tiny little part of me that claimed it would be disappointed if that was the only reason.  I noted it with a silent 'hn' and filed it away for later analysis, turning instead towards observing the interaction between bartender and guests.  Or, more particularly, this bartender with these guests at this time.

Howard was a funny old man.  I wasn't sure if he wore the Hawaiian shirt to blend in with the tropical motif of his bar, or if he had decorated the bar to match his own personal tastes.  I tended to think the latter.  His taste, or tastelessness as the case may have been, was scattered all over the establishment.

"Anyone I know?" he asked casually as he passed us our drinks.  As he was standing right next to me at the time, it took me a second to realize that he had not been referring to me, but to the cause of the visit.

Duo only stared morosely into his drink as he played with his straw, leaving Quatre to answer after he had accepted his own drink with polite thanks.  "She's new."



Howard gave a low whistle.  "That sucks."  Succinct, and quite to the point.  He knew these doctors, and knew that those few words would be taken as all the compassion and sympathy he could give, all that they would allow.  It wasn't a tragedy yet, and they would all fight as hard as they could to see that it didn't become one.  They seemed to nod in agreement, and with that, all that would be said about the matter had been said.

Howard returned to his position as someone approached the bar, and Duo swiftly changed the subject.  "You haven't painted anything yet," he said to me, and it almost sounded like an accusation.

"I haven't decided what to paint yet," I returned, and it came out like an apology.  I hated things that were meaningless, so I was unable to force myself to simply paint the first thing that came to mind.  Instead, I bided my time, waiting for the answer to strike me.  Hopefully, it would come before the end of my study.

"There's no hurry," Quatre was quick to assure me.

"But I wanna see," Duo whined petulantly around the straw between his lips.  "I wanna see what he comes up with.  I wanna see what makes Heero tick."

"Payback?" I asked dryly.

He only grinned in response, but it didn't quite reach his eyes.

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?

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.


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


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'.


"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.

I accidentally went on a date when I was in college, much like how Duo 'accidentally' slept with Hilde once.  I imagine that sinking feeling he got in the morning must have been similar to the feeling my date had when we got out to the car and I asked, 'so, who else is coming?'  I hadn't quite realized that the invitation to dinner had only been given to me until I was met with a blank stare in response.

I had another one of these moments when I met Duo by the elevators one evening.  He had asked me if I was interested in dinner, and I had agreed.  He was already there waiting for the doors to open when I came up next to him, bag in hand, and asked that question once more, "So, who else is coming?"

The doors dinged and he shooed me inside before immediately pressing the 'close doors' button.  "Just you, Heero," he said cheerfully.

There was a stunned moment during which I could have smacked myself on the forehead.  Fell for it again, I did.  Was it really my fault I had thought it would be another department outing?  "Duo," I began patiently.

"Yes, Heero?" he responded, turning to flash me a suspiciously innocent look.

"...Why are we going out together?"

"Aw, come on, Heero.  We had a good time, last time it was just us."

Oh, yes.  I remember what happened the last time we went out, just the two of us.  I didn't fancy a repeat performance.  "Duo, I'm your anthropologist."

"So?  It doesn't say you can't be my friend, too."

"Yes, it does," I answered unreasonably.  It didn't really say so in so many words, but it sort of implied it.  Casual friends may have been okay, but I think Duo and I were a little past that by now.  Then again, after eight months, it was probably inevitable.

He gave me a withering look, which I returned.  "Okay, then here's how we'll relate it to work.  You said death is the flipside of life, so life must be the flipside of death.  So if you understand life better, it can only help your research project, right?"

"...And going out with you will help me understand life better?" I asked dryly.  Well, yes, I could see that was probably true without him pointing it out to me, but I wasn't going to admit that.  I did have a weak grip on life.  That was never so obvious to me than when I was with Duo.

"Absolutely.  You are in definite need of a life."

"As you're so fond of telling me."

"When was the last time you went out with someone?"

"'Went out' in what sense?"

"On a date," he said rather impatiently.  I think my obvious reluctance to answer the question only made him more stubbornly inquisitive.  "Well?"

"College," I mumbled.

Unfortunately, he heard the answer clearly.  "College?  My god, Heero.  How long ago did you graduate again?"

I folded my arms over my chest and glared at his distorted reflection in the doors.  "I don't have to answer that."

"You're pouting!"

I rolled my eyes.  "I am not pouting."

"You're pouting."  He frowned at my frown.  "I fail to see how enjoying yourself with a native could impact your study.   It's not like you don't still talk to everyone in the department at least once a day.  Lucky for you it's a small one.  And it's not like you're here to gather information as a part of the propaganda machine that used to be in place during the good old-fashioned days of anthropology's heyday.  And I'm not trying to subvert you or anything, although what I'd be subverting you to, I have no idea.   And I'm not asking you to shed your ethnographer hat and don some scrubs and dance with the natives in some weird, uh, antiseptic cleansing ritual or... something!  I'm just asking you to be a normal person, and have fun with another normal person.  We can pretend we're both unemployed."

I was failing to see why, too, but I knew there was a good reason.  It was just slipping my mind at the moment.  We came to a stop and he grabbed my wrist to manually haul me towards his car.  "You're far from normal, Duo."

"Thank you."  He finally let me go when it became clear that I wasn't putting up much of a resistance.  I continued to follow him, much to my chagrin.

"I need to maintain my objectivity," I tried.

"For what?"

What indeed?  "The same way you shouldn't get too close to your patients, I shouldn't get too close to my... patient-equivalents."

He snorted.  "Yeah, well, I do get too close to my patients, as we're both well aware, and I still manage to do my job just fine."

But at what cost, Duo?  I knew the price he paid for that, but I didn't want to point it out and remind him of it, so I let him think he'd won me over and followed meekly the rest of the way to his car.  I also didn't point out that he didn't try to take any of his patients outside of the hospital for a little fun.  He got close to them in his professional environment, and we were moving outside of it.  Unfortunately, with the way Duo moved, my professional environment had to stretch from Howard's to a field out in the middle of nowhere.

I guess I got into the car a little too quietly, because Duo started to worry.  "What's wrong?  If this really bothers you, you know, you don't have to...."

I shook my head.  That wasn't what was bothering me.   Objectivity aside, there was something else I was wondering.  "Why me, Duo?"


"You...."  A dozen thoughts rose up at once and I took the time to sort through them all.  "You said there are times you didn't want to be alone.  I can understand and appreciate that.  But... why have you chosen to spend that time with me?  Why not one of the others?  Surely they could understand all of this better...?"

He toyed with his keys, their light jingling the only sound heard in the car for a while.  "Well, that's the problem.   They understand."  He had adopted that tone of his again, that soft, confiding tone that had taken over many of our private conversations of late.  "They go through it all, too.  A little differently, maybe, but still.  But you're... outside of all of this.  But still inside, just a little.  I think I need that.  I'm sorry if that sounds like I'm using you."

I didn't stop my hand from reaching out to brush against his upper arm.  "No more than I'm using you, I'm afraid."

He jammed the key in the ignition, started the car, and with determination flipped the radio on and to a station he rarely listened to.  It was pop rock, and it effectively killed the mood.

It was bad enough that I had an emotional investment in the locals.  Now I had somehow been turned into a grief ritual myself.  What would J say about that?  Now there was no way that I could both distance myself from his grieving practices and study them, too.  Great job, Yuy.

Duo felt Midii's leukemia was a force of nature.  I felt Duo was a force of nature.

The battle against the disease was sucking Duo under.  He was sucking me under.  Duo was lucky because he had me to hold on to.  I got stuck with Prof. J's admonitions ringing in my ears.

I took a trip back to L1.  Prof. J had invited me back to the Lowe Institute as a guest in a speaker series.  Of course I agreed.  My shuttle arrived a little bit late, meaning I didn't have much time before my scheduled talk, so I didn't get an opportunity to meet with my former advisor until afterwards.

We sat in his office, and it reminded me of old times.  I wasn't his student anymore, but I still needed his advice.

"That was a good talk, my boy."  He had a tendency to call me that, but I'd gotten used to it.  He also used to have a tendency to mispronounce my given name, so for a little while, it had been quite preferable.  I didn't like being called 'hero' all the time.

"Thank you for inviting me, sir."

He may have rolled his eyes at me then.  It was a little difficult to tell behind his thick glasses.  They were auto-tinting, and since we had just been out in the sun, they hadn't yet faded to clear.  Even when they were clear, they still managed to be rather reflective.  Looking him in the eye usually consisted of looking back at myself.  "You've been out in the field for how many years now?  We're colleagues now.  You can drop this 'sir' thing."

"You still call me 'boy'," I pointed out.  'Sir' was really a force of habit rather than a term of respect these days.

"Well, erm," he huffed.  "So how's that project of yours going?"

I found even that innocent question difficult to answer.   "I think I'm close," I answered, somewhat evasively.

"Oh?  That's good to hear, boy.  What have you learned?"

I gave him a brief summary of the people and their customs at the pediatric ward of Peacecraft Memorial.  There was a certain comfort to be found in the recounting of dry, solid facts.

"So where's the problem?"

"Huh?" I answered intelligently.

"You look troubled, boy.  I assume there's a problem."

It must have been bad, if I had actually looked troubled.   I didn't know how much to tell him.  "...I think I may be getting too involved with them."

He harrumphed contemplatively.  "Is that so?"

I nodded, a little grimly.  "I've become the focus of a grief ritual for one of the doctors."  Yes, that's right.   Place the blame on Duo's shoulders, at least while I was dealing with Prof. J.  I might have confided the story of my parents to him, but I wasn't going to be telling him about this strange attraction I had for the doctor.  "He apparently had need of an outsider, and I happened to be convenient."

He hmmmmed again.  That had always unnerved me.  I never could read him as easily as he could me.  "What does this ritual involve?"

I cast about for a succinct description of what we did, and finally settled with, "Being his friend."

The old man had the gall to laugh at me.  His laughs always sounded like a mad cackle.  Despite his sometimes frightening aspect, the kooky old professor and I had always gotten along rather well.  "So you're his friend.  Big deal."

I raised an eyebrow at him.  This was a strange change in philosophy.  "You don't think this represents a conflict of interest?"

"With anyone else, maybe.  But I know you, Heero.   You're a good boy.  You won't let your emotions get in the way of your research.  Doesn't mean that you can't have emotions, or you can't listen to them.  Just that you're a stubborn bastard with a frighteningly can-do attitude.  You're a classic overachiever that has always naturally found a way to be the best at everything.  I don't think being his friend will affect your study.  It'd be just like you to find a way to get around it."

I was somewhat incredulous in the face of his expression of confidence in me.  "What happened to 'don't get involved with the natives'?"

"You can't break the rules unless you know them, boy!"  He chortled again.  "Besides, that old piece of dogma is getting ridiculously outdated with these modern cultural spaces.  The fact that you're sitting there questioning yourself right now is good enough.  We can't have you running around without considering the consequences of your actions, now can we?"

I stared at him long and hard.  It was enough that he had made me think.  He was fond of doing that.  It figured.   Too bad his gracious 'permission' hadn't solved the rest of my problem.

I wasn't as resistant to Duo's efforts to get me to go out after that, but I still didn't allow myself to just jump into a friendship wholeheartedly.  Luckily, Midii was having a good month.  They still hadn't successfully induced remission, but at least she didn't seem to be getting much worse.  Oddly enough, however, it hadn't been the bad days that had been causing me problems so much as the good days.

When Duo needed me on a bad day, I knew, to a decent extent, what he expected of me: that is to say, practically nothing.  He just needed me there to listen, to ground him.  I was pretty clueless on the good days, though.

Ironically enough, after I accepted it, I found that I started spending more time with the others again.  It may have been coincidence more than anything else since it started with a computer crash.

I arrived at the hospital one day and was starting to set up shop in the lobby when I heard a tiny shriek of terror from the nurses' station.  I got up to check it out.  Sylvia was staring at her terminal with wide eyes, her hands held back from the keyboard carefully in that 'what did I do?  I didn't touch anything!' gesture.   "Eep," she uttered.

I leaned over the counter to see what was wrong.  She had been backing up the patient files when it had apparently stopped on her.  Yes.  That could be rather bad.  "Need some help here?"

"Eep."  She merely slid her chair away from the desk with a push of her legs and left me room to work.  I walked around to the door to the station and she silently gave her chair up to me.  "I didn't do anything weird, I swear it!"

"Stand down, Sylvia," I said, deciphering the arcane error messages the OS had plastered on the screen.  Something had gotten corrupted.

Hilde's head popped up from around the corner.  "Forgive me for being obtuse here, but can't we just reset the lil' sucker?"

I tried hitting the close button, but the application calmly informed me that certain files were still open and I couldn't terminate until they were shut down properly.  The OS, ever so helpfully, wouldn't reset until all of its subprocesses had been terminated.

Sylvia stood beside me wringing her hands together.  "Oh, what are we going to do?  All of our patient files are on that thing!"

"You back up every week, don't you?  So at worst, you haven't lost everything.  But I can probably put this thing back together if you give me a little time.  You can keep operating with the hard copies for now, right?"

And so began my short term in the nurses' corral.  I was alternately called a nurse myself because from the outside it looked like I was working with them, or else a doctor because of the 'delicate reconstruction surgery' I was performing on the hard drive's fragged memory system.  At some point in the day, Duo walked by and dropped a nurse's hat on my head, which I promptly removed.

It had been a while since I had been in the middle of the center of activity.  There was almost always something being done in that little area, someone bustling in and out, someone writing up paperwork or organizing files.  It was like everyone was coming to me instead of the other way around.  Suddenly Trowa's office computer needed updating.  It had this persistent bug in the setup that he'd never gotten around to fixing.  Sally had a program she'd been wanting to check out for DNA sequence matching, but it required a connection to an outside server database that she was having problems with because of the hospital firewall.  Quatre's computer had some advertising bug he had accidentally downloaded with a plug-in installed somewhere in the registry and he couldn't get rid of the random pop-up ads.  I even saw the inside of Dr. K's office for the first time in a long time when he sat me down and offered to pay me for my services to their department.  If I hadn't been around, they might have had to call for outside help to fix the terminal and its server.  I declined the offer.

I had thought that I would be annoyed when no one left me alone while I fixed things, but it turned out that we talked, about work and not about work, and in general, we all had a good time with each other.

"So why are you an anthropologist instead of a computer guy?" Sally asked me as I fiddled with her network settings.

"I am a computer guy," I answered.  "I just happen to be more of an anthropologist guy right now."

"Oh.  Well, that's good."

"Hm?"  I sat back to wait for her computer to restart.

"Well, if you weren't here to do a study, then we probably would never have met you."

Well that was strange.  Many people I studied wanted to forget about me since I was associated with rough times in their life.  I particularly recalled one mother that claimed that I had brought death with me when I came calling.  "It's possible I may have come by.  You know, a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, and Heero Yuy visits the pediatric ward at Peacecraft Memorial Hospital."

She laughed.  "What for?  As a computer repairman?  Somehow I think you would have had bigger plans in mind, had you been mainly a computer guy.  You don't have a wife and kids, do you?"

"No, I don't.  I can't imagine that I ever would, really."

"Well, I think that you've gotten along better with the kids during your stay here, compared to how you were when you first came to us."

"Maybe," I conceded.  "But I haven't even had a home for the past, oh, eight years or so.  Probably longer, in a few senses.  Hardly a good environment for a child."

"You just go where your job takes you?"

"Pretty much."

"So you'll probably be leaving when your study is over?"


"That's too bad.  We'll miss you when you're gone."

"You'll hardly notice," I disagreed.  It was better than saying that they'd be glad when I was gone.

"You're one of us now, Heero.  If you're ever more of a computer guy, you might consider settling down around here."

Duo's face flashed before my eyes, and I blinked it away.   "Hn.  Maybe."

A few days later, I was back on the terminal at the nurses' station, securing the lines they used to access their main server.  It would have been more efficient to interact at the server itself, but remote access was fine, especially since the server lacked a keyboard, and the old monitor was fuzzy enough that looking at it gave me a headache.

I was working after hours, trying to interfere with day-to-day operations as little as possible when I heard Hilde stop in the doorway behind me.  She had the late shift that night.  Not far down the hall, the music from the janitor's radio provided us some background noise.

She stood there for a while, watching me I supposed, and I figured if she wanted to talk to me, she already would have done so, so I ignored her and continued with my work.  After a few minutes, I heard some very faint footsteps as someone joined her in the frame of the door.  It had to be Duo.  Only he walked that quietly.

"Having fun, Hil?"  His rich voice confirmed my guess.  He must have been working late that night.

"Mm-hmmm," she sighed in satisfaction, and it suddenly occurred to me that she was ogling me, or at least pretending to.  I thought there was a smirk in that sound.  I refused to turn around to find out.

"So?  Am I right?"

"About what?"

"He is a hottie, isn't he?" he whispered loudly to her, causing me to involuntarily twitch.  Still, I refused to turn around.  He had obviously intended for me to hear that.

Hilde snickered, the sound not quite masked by the music.   "You didn't have to tell me that.  I can tell just by looking at the back of his head."

"Beauty is more than skin deep, Hil," he reproved her gravely.

"I don't need what's under his skin," she replied saucily.  "What's under his clothes will do just fine."

"Okay," I declared loudly, finishing up my work with a final, hurried flourish before swiveling my chair around.  "I think I'm done here.  You can have the terminal back.  Sorry for the inconvenience."

"Oh, no inconvenience at all," she brushed me aside airily, a definite twinkle in her eye.  "You'll have to come back and do it again sometime."

"Hn."  I got out of her chair and ignored the way she quite deliberately raked her eyes over my form.  "If I've done my job right, then I won't need to do this again for quite some time."

"Oh, pooh.  That's too bad."  The pout on her face was over-exaggerated.  "Let's break something else, Duo."

With a smirk on his face, Duo 'accidentally' knocked a pencil off the countertop.  "Oops," he said unrepentantly.  "Be a dear and pick that up for me, would you, Heero?"

I just rolled my eyes at them both and walked past him.   Their laughter followed me out the door.  Those two were trickster, and trickster jr.

I ended up at Duo's house one night after work.  After three days of forgetting to bring me the vid disc from their Christmas party four years ago, he finally just brought me home with him to watch it.  I wanted to see some of the older staff members that I had heard stories about, most notably Dr. G.  It would be interesting to see if there had been a noticeable shift in group dynamic or not.  Dr. K was the eldest of the current group, but the staff didn't interact as much with him as I had heard they did with Dr. G.   Because the hole left by Dr. G still hadn't been filled, I expected the disc to reveal a little something about how they responded to a senior authority among them.

We sat down on an old beat-up sofa in front of a moderately sized TV.  The place seemed fairly homey, not really what I would have expected out of a doctor's salary, but then again, I expected very few of the things that came out of Duo Maxwell.

Dr. G was a man that reminded me eerily of Prof. J.  He had a very sharp set of eyes above an almost comically over-sized nose, and treated his less-senior colleagues with a similar disdainful attitude that masked a certain fondness for them.  He even had the familiar habit of referring to Duo as 'boy'.

We ended up swapping stories about our mentors and advisors until a reasonably late hour.  He was curled up facing me on one end of the small couch while I sat more properly in my seat, facing the TV.  We were laughing about how we really needed to introduce the two of them because they seemed like they would get along really well -- although they would never admit it -- when suddenly, our eyes met, the laughter stopped, and time froze.

Tension held suspended in the air between us, the medium through which some sort of spark crackled, and then he was on his knees and leaning towards me, and then he was hovering over me, an arm braced against the cushions on my far side, one hand coming to lie softly upon my shoulder, and then he was closing in, and I had all this time to stop him, but I didn't.

I watched as he came closer, met his eyes evenly as he did so, stared at his mouth when his eyelids drooped half-shut, and then didn't stop myself from following him after he withdrew, our lips having touched in a singular moment of exquisite first contact.

He stopped pulling back and our lips bumped against each other once more in another short, startling kiss before we separated again, his forehead resting upon mine as we shared the heated air between us.

"Duo...," I managed in an exhalation.  I tried to finish the thought my mind had started, but my concentration shattered when Duo closed in once more, nudging me back against the cushions with the hand still on my shoulder as he pulled the very breath from my lungs.   It was only when his mouth left mine to drop light, teasing kisses up and down my jaw that I managed to gather myself.

"We--"  I was interrupted by the sensation of his lips on my earlobe, but with a swallow I forced myself to continue with a shaky whisper.  "We shouldn't do this."

"Why not?"  His question was breathed directly into my ear in a warm, moist stream of air that made me shudder.  He shifted his position so that he no longer hung above me so much as sprawled on top of me.  That didn't help.

"Because...."  I forgot why for a while when he returned his attention to my mouth, and my own traitorous mouth gave back as good as it got.  I pulled away as soon as I was able, far too soon and yet not soon enough.  "Because... because I... I'm supposed to be...."

His elbows rested on the back of the sofa, one to either side of my head, allowing his fingers to entangle themselves in my hair and tilt my head back.  "I don't care."  He breathed the words into my mouth, returning the air he had stolen earlier, and his tongue followed where his breath had blazed a trail.  One hand, eager not to be left behind in the race to explore, trailed down my face, down my neck, down my chest to tug at the hem of my shirt.

We broke off the kiss again, and I managed to regain my bearings only slightly faster than he.  I laid a previously lax hand upon his wrist through the fabric of the shirt it had wormed its way beneath, quite unfortunately pushing the heat of it even closer to my body, and I nearly trembled with the effort of holding myself still.  "But--"

He knocked me senseless and silent with yet another hot, wet kiss.  "If you haven't lost your objectivity by now, then this won't matter."  His hand slipped through my light grasp to dance its way higher up my chest.  His eyes rose to pierce me with their intensity, and their brightness seemed only emphasized by the relative fogginess that had crept into my mind.  "Screw your study."   The hand still caught in my hair lowered until it could trace a light, almost tickling line along the outer edge of my ear.  "Screw your objectivity."  He moved his lower body to press temptingly against me.  "Screw me."

How could I resist an invitation like that?  His words echoed down to my toes and back again until I could feel them vibrating in each fiber of my body and all it seemed was right.  With a cautious mental toe, I slowly, hesitantly nudged my restraint closer to the edge of a cliff, and Duo, with his caressing fingers and wandering lips, facilitated the final shove that sent it over.

An unfamiliar clock read three o'clock in the morning when I started to wakefulness in an unfamiliar bed.  My body tingled in an unfamiliar way, and there was an unfamiliar weight across my chest.  All of it was explained by the unfamiliar presence of someone in the bed with me.

I turned my head slowly to the other side, and found Duo sprawled beside me, his arm lying on top of me.  I blinked at him for a few moments, wondering how things had somehow ended up the way they had, before I felt the need to rise and clear my head, and maybe scramble haphazardly down that cliff from last night and try to put my self-restraint back together again.

Careful not to wake Duo, I slipped out from underneath his light embrace and headed to the adjacent bathroom first, locating a small handcloth.  I wet it under a tiny stream of water from the faucet and used it to clean myself up enough so that I wasn't reminded of what had just happened with each move that I made.  It was already enough that I was wandering around naked in the middle of the night in someone else's home.

I managed to find a discarded shirt from last night and shrugged it on, only remembering then that I hadn't worn a button-down shirt yesterday.  It must have been Duo's.  With a philosophical shrug, I went ahead and fastened the middle button, enough so that my pertinent bits were covered, before I went over to stand next to the window, to lean against the wall and stare at the thin lines of street light it let in.

One line led straight up the bottom of the bed to fall across the spread of Duo's loosed hair, and with a slight shiver I remembered the moment I let it down.  It had bothered me that I hadn't been able to run my fingers freely through his hair as he could through mine.

I remembered the way his hand had stayed entwined with mine, an intimate hold and a desperate clutch.

I remembered the sound of his breath as it caught in his throat, a gasp of pleasure and a choking sob.

I shook my head to clear it of the images.  This... was not good.  Had it been a mistake?  I had to answer no.  My heart demanded it of me.  But it was still not good.

If you haven't lost your objectivity by now, then this won't matter.  How true was that?  I wondered if I had ever had my objectivity.  I clearly remembered pegging Duo as someone to watch all the way back on my first day in the department.  That had been an objective decision, I thought, based purely on observation and experience, but it had still probably biased my study from the start.

So maybe he was right.  Maybe I had lost my objectivity long ago, and this wouldn't make it any worse.

And if I hadn't lost it?  Well, if, after all the things that should have made me lose it, like the moment I realized that I was attracted to him, or our growing friendship, I had still been able to carry on with my study without difficulty, then maybe this new twist in our relationship wouldn't change things.

Maybe I was just rationalizing to myself.

It hadn't felt wrong, what we had done.  In fact, it felt as if just a few more things had just clicked into place, but that, conversely, troubled me.

"'eero?"  Duo's sleepy mumble shook me from my ponderings.  When he spied me in the darkness by the window, he took the arm that had been draped across me and used it to prop himself up.   "What're ya doin'?"

"...Just thinking."

It seemed the sleep magically disappeared from his eyes at those two quiet words.  "What about?"

I couldn't stop the small chuckle that escaped my lips.   "What do you think?" I asked wryly.

"Oh."  He sat up, and the blankets slipped down to pool in his lap.  The silhouette of his shoulders seemed tense.   "And...?"

I blew my mussed hair out of my eyes with a tired sigh.   "And...," I repeated to myself.  And I knew why we couldn't do this anymore.  "You were right.  About the objectivity part of it, anyway.  I'm way beyond that now."

"...So what's the other part?"

I didn't want to say it aloud, but it would have been unfair not to tell him.  "I am attracted to you, Duo.  There's no denying that."


"...But why?  Is it because of this study?"  He looked uncomprehendingly at me.  This is the right thing to do, I told myself, but it didn't make it any easier to find the words, and then to say them.  "Duo.  I told you about my parents, how I felt, or didn't feel, and why I went out to find out about it.  I found out about it.  I learnt a long time ago about the range of emotions that people can experience over a death.  You know why I'm still in this business?  Because I want more.  Because now that I've seen the depth of emotion, I'm not satisfied with just an intellectual understanding anymore.  I want to feel it, too.   Feel what I didn't feel before.  And just now... just a few hours ago, I... I felt some of it.  I felt more alive than I ever remember feeling.  Being with you was a beautiful thing.  But that's not... that's not right.  That's not... that's not love.  So that's not fair."

He shook his head at my final whispered words.  "I don't get it.  Isn't that... What's so wrong about loving the way I make you feel?  Isn't that what love is?"

I cringed at the bewildered pain I had put into his voice.  "Love isn't... being an emotional leech, Duo.  I don't know right now if... if it's you, if it's you that's making me feel this way, or... or just your ability to make me feel this way.  I know this doesn't make much sense.  But I just can't be sure if... I mean, I know what attracts me is... hell, you're everything that I wanted to experience.  You've got that depth of emotion that I lack, and being near you, sometimes when it overflows I feel like I can soak up just a little bit of it and get just that much closer to the real thing, that much closer to finally understanding it.  Really understanding it, not just intellectually, but deep inside, too.

"But... is that enough?  After I figure it all out, am I going to find you unnecessary?  Will you cease to hold any fascination for me?  Am I just using you to get this emotional rush?  Am I just milking you for all you're worth, and when you've run dry, will I just move onto the next?  I just don't know, Duo.  I just don't know."  Don't get involved with the natives.  God, I thought it was because the relationship would interfere with the study, but what if it was because the study would interfere with the relationship?


When he said nothing further, I found myself continuing to rave in a strained voice.  "And you, Duo.  I don't know what you're thinking.  Did I just come at the right time?  Right when you needed someone outside and inside of your troubles at work, here I came, ready and willing to listen, practically begging to be purged at.   Is that fate?  Or is that just convenience?  Is it just that I'm available and receptive for you to dump your emotions into?   When all of your patients are well, will you still find me attractive, or will I become unnecessary, too?  Once we don't need each other any more, will we find out that we really have nothing else in common?"

I could see him struggling to find the answers in the faint light of the late night, early morning hours, and finally his shoulders slumped in defeat.  "I don't know," he murmured.  "I don't know."

I bit my lip, then crossed the room with a few swift strides to land myself at his side.  I grabbed both of his hands and ducked my head, trying to catch his downcast eyes with my own.  "Then I'm sorry, Duo.  I'm sorry.  I don't want to use you.  I... I at least respect you too much for that.  But unless you can tell me with absolute conviction that... that if I were just a software engineer, and if you were just a... an allergist or something, and we somehow met... if you can't tell me that we would love each other, even in those circumstances, outside of our jobs right now, then I'm sorry.  I won't get myself into what could be the best relationship of my life, only to have it end very shortly in the worst possible way.   I'm sorry."

His head bobbed up and down in what looked like reluctant resignation and agreement of my point.  "You're... you're right.  But we can... can we wait and see?"  Even that little expression of hope came out flat and depressed.

I nodded, but he didn't see it, so I raised a hand to cup his cheek and tilt his face towards mine.  He automatically turned into the hand, then half-flinched as what we were doing struck him.  "We can, Duo.  When... when this is all over, we can see what we really have, or what we have left."

One hand reached up to grasp at mine as he opened his eyes and pinned me with his stare.  "Can we just pretend?  Just until the sun comes up?  That you're just a software engineer, and I'm just a... no, Trowa's the allergist.  I just do family practice.  And we met each other at a party, through mutual friends, and we hit it off, and fell in love, and now we're just going to make love until the sun comes up because... because you're going off on a business trip tomorrow and I won't get to see you for a while?"

Suddenly, I desperately wanted that all to be true, and I nodded, and our lips came together again for the beginning of the end before we ever really started.

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 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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This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 3/23/2005 23:21:02 PST