Please see Page One for disclaimers.
There is one heck of a long history about to be delved into here in Chapter twenty-one.
Chapter twenty-three was inspired by a poem and a play - Poem VII from Book four of Horace's Odes, and Tom Stoppard's play Invention of Love. Actually, the poem featured greatly within the play itself, and in a way this chapter pays homage to both. Stoppard is a legend in his own time, and that play is one of my absolute favourites. If you get a chance, borrow the script and have a read. It's truly one of the funniest, most breathtaking and heartrending pieces I've ever had the privilege to read.
Twenty - The War Room
The silver BMW sleekly manouvered through the narrow streets of Darlinghurst, a rush of dust and fallen leaves swirling behind the hurtling vehicle.
Piersen was irritated. The feeling had been building up insidiously over the past week, first as a tight pressure in her forehead and a general restlessness, and now as a fully fledged nausea that was compounded by jittery, almost hyperreactive nerves. This is not good, Piers.
Piersen knew that the presentation she was due to make this afternoon was extremely important, despite James' assurances to the contrary. He keeps telling me the exhibition's in the bag, but... She tried to place her finger on the fragment of doubt that niggled at her mind. Something tells me this isn't going to be just a Q&A session.
The exhibition was due to open in a week, and while most of the preparation was right on schedule she felt the whole lead-up was much too rushed and messy for her liking. And for once, none of it was our fault. James managed to procure a surprisingly varied and comprehensive collection of artwork, the gallery was already being outfitted and set up as of yesterday, the advertising and marketing was extremely effective given the short time frame they had to work with, and the funding from the sponsors had come through as arranged.
So why, why is it that I get such an awful feeling about this? Her fingertips tapped out a terse rhythm as her car tore around a tight corner.
James briefed her on his interaction with the hospital staff, giving her an idea of the people he believed were the powerbrokers, and a short-list of potential allies and enemies. Golly, you made it sound like a battle, James.
"Well, I hate to put it like that, boss. But it's true, those medics are so stewed in politics and bickering, the place reeks of it."It was so easy to dismiss the exhibition entirely. After all, the hospital was the one that came to us - she humpfed, a trifle indignant. But she knew that this was an opportunity that had more to it than met the eye. We need this kind of exposure. Developing good relations with institutions outside the usual fields, and collaborating with them - it could really broaden the appeal of the museum and get us back into the black... Piersen already had many ideas on the drawing board that grew from the exhibition, the best of which was to make this an annual event, offering people with physical or mental disabilities an opportunity to showcase their work. And maybe, just maybe, we could package it up and send it on a national tour... golly, that would be perfect.
A disbelieving look. "Come on, James. Surely it's not that bad. I mean, we work at an art gallery, and artists are meant to be the temperamental ones."
"Uh uh. Believe me, Piers - when they said that hospitals were the bastions of care and compassion, they obviously didn't take their bureaucrats into account. You're going to have to be careful - one trip-up and they'll send the exhibition flying into the nearest fumigator."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, James."
"Oh, we have utmost confidence in you, commander. That's why we're sending you in." A big, evil grin.
But first we have to get past this afternoon. She frowned, reflecting on the possible scenario. The meeting was going to involve the core group of departments concerned - neurology, oncology and occupational therapy, plus several committee members of the hospital board. One person she knew was on their side was the public relations officer attached to the Neurology department - Julian. The one name aside, James had tried to make an easy rule for her to remember. The ones that look pompous and grumpy usually are. The younger members are generally enthusiastic about the cause, except for the oncologists who think it is a waste of time. Anyone from occupational therapy is wonderful. Nuns should be very accommodating if they are worked on very hard. And if I come across 'The Professor', steer clear of him as quickly as I can.
'The Professor' was a significant unknown in the equation. James had listed him as one of the main wielders of power in the departments - head of neurology, was it? - but was probably one of the few people he did not meet. Which is probably a good thing, considering what he had heard about him. There were always grumblings and muttered curses directed at the Professor in the neurology meetings that James attended, and while Piersen was loathe to pass judgement before she had the opportunity to see for herself, she could not deny the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that poised uneasily along her nerves.
Well, we'll see. I'm sure he's not as bad as people say he is. I hope.
She drummed her fingers on the leather of the steering wheel as she swerved without blinking, narrowly missing a hatchback slowly reversing out of its driveway.
She sighed deeply, feeling the weight of the meeting's importance in her chest. Who knew dealing with doctors could be so difficult? She drove on a moment, then laughed as she realised what her mind said.
"Oh no. You know exactly how hard it is." Her face lost its smile as she thought of the one particularly difficult doctor she knew. She asks me to call her, and no one answers the phone. When I finally call through three days later, the mention of Richard's name gets me transferred to another doctor's office. She snorted, the frustration of the situation coming back to her. Did she just see fit to dump m- dump Richard by the wayside without bothering to tell me about it first? One minute she tells me that we'll discuss his condition, and the next - her eyes narrowed, trying to ignore the twinge of hurt - Well, that's exactly it; there IS no 'next'.
She's just - Piersen's thoughts stumbled, fishing for the word that would fit her current sentiment. Gone.
The twinge became a pang, and Piersen resolutely pushed it deep into her gut. She drove her foot into the accelerator, noting the motley collection of hospital buildings appearing over the horizon. "I can't believe I'm getting worked up over this. Get over it, Piers - you have a presentation to make." That's right. You're going to go in there, you're going to wow them all, and when you're done, they're going to be begging for you.
Green eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as her car ripped across the asphalt. "Watch out, Professor. You won't know what hit you."
Twenty One - Part One
Kai stood before the mirror, stepping into a puddle of satin and pulling it up her body, feeling the kiss of the cool material whisper along her skin even as she snorted in disgust.
Oh crap. Too much sitting around, Kai. This is a bit tighter than you last remembered.
She reached behind herself easily and found the zipper, tracking it up slowly as she watched the ever-shifting blue of Richard Tyler's creation encase itself snugly around the smooth contours of hips, waist and breasts, then carefully adjusted the broad shoulder straps to sit evenly on her toned shoulders.
Treatment regimen is one jog of at least an hour's duration, taken before breakfast with multiple repeats. Commencing tomorrow.
Kai sighed out of a strange mix of frustration and relief. Tomorrow would be the first opportunity since her arrival in Boston to engage in any activity of the recreational kind, an extremely welcome change of scene from the events of the past few days.
Her week in the States was spent almost exclusively fulfilling her duties as professor emeritus at Harvard. Shuffled between the Longwood medical area and the affiliated teaching hospitals, she alternated between giving her lecture series and a battery of operations, all the while being continuously surrounded by an academic entourage which loomed over everything she did, recorded every word she said.
Their constant presence had turned her tasks from something she found rather pleasurable to an interminable chore, and there were quite a few precarious moments when Kai would have gladly relinquished her firm hold on civility and kicked them all out of her theatre. It was indeed fortunate for her minders that Kai had a refined sense of duty and control, since it was very possibly the closest experience to suffocation outside of death she had ever experienced. And Kai was not one to indulge in hyperbole.
Walking to the dresser, she spied her earrings and threaded them in her ears, fine trickles of tiny diamonds scattering a rivulet of pinpoint lights just beneath her earlobes. A slight frown knotted her eyebrows.
But to get to tomorrow, I've got to get through tonight.
Tonight was the formal opening of the 50th International Conference on Neurology, held in the guise of a glittering charity dinner on the night before the conference began. It was the rare opportunity where all branches of the specialty met in the one place to showcase new ideas and discuss all things neurology.
In a way, Kai was grateful. Here she would be safely lost in a constellation of eminent surgeons, geneticists, ophthalmologists and other neurological subspecialties, people who had been in the profession long enough to know how to draw the limelight to themselves. Hey, who knows. Maybe I actually can sit down to a good meal, relax with a good glass of wine, and sneak out after a few hours without anyone being the wiser.
She dabbed some perfume behind her ears, knowing from past experience that the chances of her succeeding were slim.
With a cursory look in the mirror, she grabbed the midnight-blue stole and wrapped it around her shoulders, giving herself a final once-over before preparing to leave. Well, happy or not - it's time. She gave her reflection a flat look and a sigh before grabbing her bag and heading for the door.
The steps leading to the foyer were crowded with people as Kai approached, her face set in a neutral expression as she perused the crowd, watching the myriad of figures mill about the opulent reception room. It reminded her of a scene from a turn of the century novel, where neat, distinguished men and elegant, matronly women mingled in resplendent finery. The grandiose setting made it easy for Kai's sensory perceptions to transpose temporal planes, and suddenly she found herself distant from it all, a 20th century stranger in the world of 19th century gentry.
She shook herself free from that feeling, grimacing wryly. This is far from being a theme park, Kai. Some of the people here are out for your blood. She did not notice the wave of heads turn her way, their appreciative eyes following her as she made her way across the room. Instead, she made her way to the staircase, carefully holding the cascading material away from her feet as she climbed the steps purposefully, the iridescent sheen of her satin dress trailing the marble behind her.
The attendant waiting by the inner entrance watched her with polite interest, mentally noting that she was considerably younger and far more attractive than all the others that had passed through his doors tonight. Some surgeon's daughter, perhaps. He bowed adequately, his New England accent rather pronounced as he greeted her. "Good evening, ma'am. May I ask who you are accompanying this evening?"
Kai paused for a long moment, holding him down with an amused look. She waited until he shifted and cleared his throat uncomfortably before opening her purse, handing him her invitation almost agonisingly slowly, some sadistic part of her wanting to tweak the man. Just a little.
Taking the card, he gave it a cursory glance before indulging in a slightly longer examination, his face performing an admirable piscine imitation for a quick, but very satisfying instant. "Oh, please excuse me, Prof. Jamieson. My apologies."
The doctor favoured him with a
genuine smile, feeling a little guilty at the pleasure she derived from that moment. She
slid the stole from her shoulders, and the attendant very obligingly removed it for her,
handing it to his colleague beside him as he ushered her inside, unbelieving eyes
remaining on her.
The inner reception room was even more impressive than the foyer - there was marble everywhere, sheathing the fluted columns that rose up from the floor to the upper row of sequestered balconies before reaching the ceiling, decorated a glittering mosaic of the night sky and the constellations. She swept her gaze across the room taking in the glorious, deliciously simple elegance, not actively registering the approach of a waiter bearing a tray of champagne, yet her fingers reaching unerringly for a glass.
Mm. Dom Perignon. These Americans really know how to throw a party. She sipped her champagne, taking her leisure in surveying the imposing magnificence of her surroundings as the sounds of people faded from her peripheral senses.
A figure stood in the recessed balconies above, his face half-obscured by the intricate shadows that cast themselves carelessly on the darkened walls.
He leaned easily beside a marbled column, his lazy frame not quite relaxed as he scanned the crowd disinterestedly, ignoring the other guests who arranged themselves on the benches located around the colonnade. The slim cigarette was withering to a stub in his fingers, while his glass rested on the railing untouched.
He was grateful for the relative quiet of the smoker's gallery, the only place he knew where he could escape the pool of humanity gathering below him. Interesting - he noted dryly - the creme de la creme are gathered here below, and you're not even making the slightest effort to talk to them.
Instead, he stood quietly, keeping vigil on the comings and goings of the crowd. He had been waiting here for a long while now, watching the entrance of each insignificant figure gradually blending into another, and another yet - forming a syncytium of faces, arms and voices that was becoming numbing to watch.
He took a long, final drag before crushing the remnants of the cigarette beneath his foot and reaching for his champagne, his stubborn gaze returning back to the front doors to begin his methodical trawling once again, a single objective in his mind's eye.
He had already begun to re-settle into his ennui when every muscle in his body jumped, sparks suddenly crackling at the nape of his neck sending quicksilver slithering down his spine.
His eyes shot unerringly to a figure in the anonymous sea of people, her smooth movements a synergy of power and grace as she ascended the stairs. Dark eyes narrowed speculatively, never leaving the blue-clad woman.
He followed her every movement - saw her talk briefly to the doorman, then slowly slide the stole from her shoulders to fall loosely at the crook of her elbows, saw the attendant carefully remove the material to the cloakroom.
His lips curved into a smile, a genuine expression of pleasure slipping his tight control as he watched her slowly sip her drink, the classical lines of her face appearing to his gaze when she turned, appraising the crowded room.
It's her -
There was an almost palpable jolt that ran through him when her line of sight collided with his, the striking eyes being far bluer than he remembered. He willed himself to remain still, to ignore the triumphant rush and wipe away the smile on his face. Instead, he challenged her with a glance, watching with satisfaction as the statuesque features stilled in that frozen moment.
and after so long...
Easing a casual smile on his face, he raised his glass to her slightly, his dark eyes still trained on her as she nodded with polite detachment before tilting her own glass to him, her face waning from his sight as she slowly turned away.
Intermezzo - Five Years Ago
"On behalf of the university and the department, I'd like to welcome you all to Cambridge." The frail, silver-haired man raised his glass, and smiled. "To success."
"To success!" The small crowd shouted good-naturedly, toasting the man on the podium and each other.
Kai stood to the side just below the stage, her eyes shining with anticipation as she quietly drank from her glass. She felt the alcohol swimming in her bloodstream, its effects made more acutely noticeable by her jetlag, but the slight biological reaction was inconsequential compared to this.
This was her dream realised - and the person she admired most was standing there not a stone's throw from her, standing at the edge of the stage.
Matthew Cunningham, the retired surgeon, brilliant scientist and infamous eccentric had publicised the chance of a lifetime a year ago in all of the major scientific journals of the world - to be one of ten people participating in his joint venture with the University - which he had, with his distinctive brand of dry cynicism, rather quaintly named "Research Plus". Many had laughed at this, the timbre of which, admittedly, had the appeal of laundry powder. But it was the aims of the project that caused the most controversy.
It was a boldly-issued challenge to scientists of all levels of experience, an invitation to submit ideas which would further the progress of medical knowledge - to create a new renaissance in the world of medicine. The incentive was extraordinary - the authors of the ten most promising proposals would be invited to Cambridge, and would be provided with the staff and facilities to realise their goals, entirely at the expense of Dr. Cunningham's own funds.
Such a program was unheard of in the cutthroat realm of research. Many denounced his offer, claiming that it was a hoax. Medical schools deemed it a poor joke to lure unsuspecting students and disillusioned researchers to their demise. Scientists all over the world laughed it off, dismissing it as yet another ludicrous, endearing stunt by 'the quirky old Prof. Cunningham."
So it was somewhat surprising to her colleagues at St. Vincent's that Kai jumped at the chance. But she had seen this opportunity for what it was - the chance to continue her series of personal research projects, conceived before her time in medical school and nursed diligently through the subsequent years, eventually becoming a fully fledged official, if only modest, venture.
Her work had stalled two years ago as the funding and use of facilities grew more and more restricted, even as her clinical commitments escalated proportionately. The hospital finally refused her additional time and funding, claiming that her goals were unrealistic and of no immediate import.
Kai had been furious as she saw her life's work put on interminable hold, but she channelled her anger into a core of burning ambition, driving her to complete her neurosurgical training in record time, to excel beyond anything she had ever envisioned for herself, beyond anything the hospital board could ever imagine she could achieve.
So now she was here in Trinity College, in England... Kai felt the significance of this keenly, knowing that this was the threshold to something magnificent, the beginning of events that could satisfy that granite ambition that punched a hole inside her so deep, it demanded fulfillment.
She gazed over the crowd, a collection of old and young gathered in a quiet rabble in the centre of the room. In truth she had not much stomach for these social gatherings - while she was more than capable of holding her own in any situation, it had to be said that if she had her way, she would make for the labs right now. Her eyes followed her wandering thoughts, alight with the pleasure of anticipation. They idly traced the lines of the heavy wooden beams overhead, joining the solid stone columns heavy with history.
It was then that she noticed a pair of dark eyes and a smile resting on her.
The lanky, slight man stood across the hall with wine glass in hand, propped as easily against the wall as the rumpled jacket hung from his shoulders. Kai studied him calmly, noting that he was brazenly holding her gaze and she made no attempt to shy away from it. His unruly mop of curly brown-black hair seemed to have suffered an attempt to tame its waywardness, his face showing the traces of middle age despite a certain ageless charm in his features, which were now etched into something between a boyish smirk and a casual smile.
He cock his head a little to the side, his expression not changing as he lifted his glass to her briefly, waiting for her to respond. Kai deduced that he had probably been watching her for some time and, while much of her was faintly wary of his continued observation, she nonetheless returned the gesture with polite amusement.
In the midst of this peculiar interaction with the stranger, Kai heard someone approach followed by a light, female voice.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. He might get the wrong idea."
She turned slowly, not knowing whether or not she was grateful for the presence of the immaculate platinum blonde now beside her. "And what idea would that be?"
"He'll ask you to dance."
Kai raised her eyebrows, a twist on the edge of her lips. "The point being?"
"You don't strike me as the dancing type." She shrugged, speaking with an utmost seriousness, then her face broke into an apologetic grin. "That was awfully presumptuous, wasn't it?"
The taller woman nodded in sober agreement. "It was terribly presumptuous."
"But you were absolutely correct. Thank you." Kai deadpanned, watching the woman's frozen expression turn to laughter.
"That was cruel - but it serves me right for forgetting my manners." She recovered herself slightly and extended her hand. "I'm Laine Somerset."
"From Australia? Well, I'm doubly pleased to meet you then. Matthew's mentioned you."
Kai frowned internally, knowing she had not yet been acquainted with anyone here to warrant a mention from them. Well, I'll find out who he is soon enough. She allowed a smile, shaking hands with the woman. "Likewise."
"So how have you been enjoying yourself? Besides seducing strangers with your eyes."
Excuse me? Kai choked back an incredulous response, her composed expression slipping a little even as the blue eyes in question issued a mock-warning. I do not seduce strangers with my eyes.
The blonde woman watched her with mirthful grey eyes for a more forthcoming response.
Kai huffed internally, not quite knowing why she allowed herself to be pulled into conversation so easily. After all, I hate this kind of thing, right? Making small talk and crap like that. Networking and socialising was definitely not one of Kai's favourite activities, despite her recognition of its necessity. Yet the unapologetically outspoken manner of this woman intrigued her, and thus Kai found herself happy to play along, for now.
"I've been enjoying myself fine, thank you." But I'd really much rather get this cocktail party over and done with and get started on some work.
The elegant woman smiled knowingly, sensing the unspoken sentiment behind the non-committal response. "I think you're just waiting for the moment to slip out and head for the lab."
Do you just have a habit of taking thoughts right out of other people's heads? Kai arched an eyebrow to her, her face amused. "Am I that obvious?"
"Well, I don't blame you. These kind of functions take a lot to get through." She shrugged. "I'm guess I'm not new to this - boorish old scientists, consultants who are always so full of themselves, so on, and so on..." She sighed, hands gesturing a further list of unspoken complaints. "Think of me as an avid sympathiser."
Kai chose not to comment on the consultant remark, having only recently been told by the board that her promotion was imminent. "Thank you." She smiled with genuine gratitude, surprised that she might not find this woman's presence bothersome after all.
"I've also got the sinking feeling that we are the only two people under the age of 30 in here. That might have something to do with it too."
Kai looked around her, the comment bringing the realisation that interactions with people within her age bracket on a professional basis were an extremely rare occurrence. She chuckled faintly. "You might be right."
"Well, instead of sneaking away to your lab, how about we ditch them all a bit later, and I'll show you the best nightlife Cambridge has to offer." She gave Kai a pointed smile. "Think you're up to it?"
Kai knew that their perceptions of nightlife probably differed enormously, but she was never one to refuse a challenge. She levelled an enigmatic smile at the elegant blonde, her tone dry. "Oh, I think I can manage that."
Well Kai, Her interval voice prodded dryly. If that's they way you intend to spend your evening, you should at least find out something about her, shouldn't you?
Kai promptly fulfilled her task with characteristic efficiency. "So. You are a medical doctor."
Laine smiled at the abrupt statement, wondering if it was a question or an outright assumption. "Yes. I've just done a year's residency in London - I'm hoping to get into ophthalmology. How about you?"
"Ooh. A surgeon." She raised an eyebrow, debating quickly as to whether she should make use of her substantial collection of surgeon jokes, and deciding against it. "How far are you into it?"
Kai shrugged, rolling her glass between her hands. "I got my FRCS just before I came here."
"That's wonderful! Congratulations." She gripped Kai's arm warmly, catching sight of her empty glass as she did so, and snagged another from a passing waiter. "Here, you can't celebrate without this." Laine grinned, even as she felt something jar in her mind.
Kai marvelled silently at the gesture, catching her off guard. The obvious energy of this woman was almost infectious, and the taller doctor was about to take a drink when she noticed a frown appear on the pale face.
"No - it's just that..." her brows knitted. "Hold on. We're the only people under thirty in this room - I'm twenty-five, and..." She looked up suspiciously. "How old are you?"
Kai smiled. "Twenty-six."
"Exactly. And you're a neurosurgeon. And you -" Laine broke off, her face a study of quiet consternation even as her mind whirred with calculations.
None of the pieces falling together, slim woman looked up with a puzzled expression, her voice steady with conviction. "Getting an FRCS in Neurosurgery at the age of twenty-six is impossible."
Kai nodded as she realised the source of the confusion. "I started med school when I was fifteen."
Laine's eyebrows were about as high as they were anatomically possible. "Fifteen?"
Kai laughed softly at the surprise on her features, feeling somewhat bemused herself. It had been a while since she had to explain her age to her colleagues, knowing it would save a lot of time and efficiency for her to simply add a few years to her life. I guess I'm the only woman over twenty-one to lie about my age in that direction.
The dark-haired doctor smiled, speaking with dry candour. "I had a terribly misspent childhood."
"Wow. Although that probably shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, should it? Judging from the company we're in." Laine shook her head as she recovered substantially, and suddenly laughed. "You must get called Doogie all the time."
Doogie. "Excuse me?"
"You know, that awful TV show. The snotty ten year old genius who does median sternotomies like he was opening a packet of chips."
Kai winces at the image. "Should I acknowledge being likened to a snotty ten year old?"
Laine gave her a sidelong grin. "Well, I certainly hope you lay claim to slightly more finesse than a snotty ten year old."
Now it was Kai's turn to laugh. "Oh, you should hope so. It could be your brain I'm opening up one day."
"Heaven forbid - this blonde is natural, thank you very much!" The white-blonde flashed her a brilliant smile before toasting the aforementioned celestial body, gulping her drink down quickly.
Laughing with her, Kai took the opportunity to sip her own champagne, a detached part of her mind distinctly surprised at the way the last few minutes played themselves out. How long has it been? Half an hour? I usually walk out at the fifteen minute mark.
This conversation with the blunt-spoken blonde was unlike any she had ever experienced at a business function. And while she would normally have been grateful for this spell of silence, Kai now found herself, surprisingly, in a quandry. This was perhaps the first time in her career that she was not obliged to make conversation, yet somehow... she wanted to.
Not that Kai was an unaccomplished conversationalist. She had dozens of conversation-openers for situations where pauses teetered on the brink of protracted silence, yet she knew that they were only appropriate in the work setting. And it was with some certainty that Kai knew this woman had not approach her with a professional objective in mind.
Oh goodness me, Kai - her mind drawled to her sarcastically - Could it be you actually want to make conversation with this Laine person? Ignored the derisive echoes in her ears, she took a quick breath.
"So, what's your project about, then?" Yeah, Kai .Talk about work, why don't you.
Laine looked up, puzzled. "Oh - no. I'm not involved in this. I'm here with my boyfriend." She gestured at the blond-haired man helping Prof. Cunningham from the stage.
Kai's eyes followed her finger with some interest. "Are they related in some way?"
"Yes - that's Christian. The man he's helping is his father."
"I see." Her eyes lingered, not quite hearing the blonde woman's voice, but still acquiring the knowledge as she watched the fragile man descend the stairs slowly.
Laine noted Kai's obvious interest. "He spoke very highly of you. Have you met before?"
Spoke highly... oh. This Matthew. He spoke about me, huh? Kai felt a giddy, sheepish grin take hold of her, and suppressed it quickly as she shook her head. "We have corresponded in the past, but we've never met in person."
"Well, come on. I'll introduce you." Kai felt a hand on her arm, but it did not belong to the slim, elegant woman stepping away from her.
Kai turned sharply, and looked into a piercing dark-eyed gaze and disarming smile. His voice was a smooth baritone.
"May I have this dance?"
Twenty One - Part Two
"May I have this dance?"
Kai stopped, tea cup halfway to her lips as she heard the all-too-familiar voice.
Dinner had nearly progressed through its full course as the night grew older, many of the conference members already lingering over dessert and conversation, or dancing to the swing band located by the centre of the ballroom. Kai had been infinitely grateful that she had been placed in the company of several rather eminent neurologists whose work she was familiar with, and had only just disengaged from a particularly stimulating discussion with her dinner partner before this sudden development.
She turned around, her startled features softening into a smile as she recognised the visitor. Euan. She had entirely forgotten about his presence, their short encounter earlier in the evening having been sent to the back of her mind when she was promptly swallowed up by a group of neurosurgeons eager to meet her. The rabble had commandeered her for the better part of an hour before they relinquished her for a somewhat delayed arrival at her table, and the events prior to that were forgotten as she lost herself in her discussion.
Now she remembered. Remembered the surreal feeling she had been experiencing catch her in a rush, leaving her in neither then or now. Everything about it screamed welcome familiarity and jarring wrongness, only her body remembering how to respond appropriately while her mind froze in the headlights between colliding past and present. His sudden appearance was the last thing she expected - not in Boston, and certainly not at this particular neurology conference.
Being caught unprepared was not something Kai enjoyed. But I'll be damned if I let him find out. Her low, rich voice remained calm, betraying none of her thoughts. "Good evening, Euan."
The wizened professor sitting beside her looked up, first at the stranger, then questioningly at Kai, who promptly obliged him. "Prof. Finkelstein, this is Dr. Euan Fraser." She turned veiled eyes to the man standing beside them, continuing with an unidentifiable nuance in her voice. "We go back a long way."
The two men shook hands, each regarding the other politely. It was when she noted that Euan had not moved from his position that she remembered his original intention for being here.
"Perhaps you might like to join us, Euan? It's been most enlightening talking shop with Prof. Finkelstein."
The elderly man laughed good-naturedly as he raised his hands in protest. "No - Prof. Jamieson, do dance with the gentleman. You have already given me too much to think about - allow me to digest your insights for a few moments."
She returned her eyes to Euan for a long instant, and rose gracefully. "Very well." The slight, dark-haired man offered his hand, and Kai took it without hesitation despite the tightness around her eyes, and followed his lead through the tables.
She did not hear the music, did not see the people around her as they joined the other dancers. Instead, she studied him out of the corner of her eye, surprised at how quickly he had aged in the past two years - the unruly hair was still there, but it was now cropped shorter, the trimmed sides already greying a little, giving him an appearance of maturity instead of the youthfulness she remembered. His face had a few extra lines she had not noticed before, but the dark, intense eyes were the same - the spark of immense intellect she knew, yet they now seemed to burn with something she could not identify.
Eyes which she found looking at her expectantly, waiting for her to assume her position. She placed her hand on his shoulder and felt his touch on her hip as she was forced to look full in his face.
They settled easily into the familiar steps, no longer shielding their open scrutiny of each other. She tolerated the unwavering gaze, meeting it steadily with her devastatingly blue eyes as she finally began to hear the rhythm of the snare drum in the background.
"Remember the song?" His voice was the same, even baritone.
Kai nodded, thinking back to the night in the great hall of Trinity College. "Yeah. You couldn't dance to save your life."
He made a motion to disagree. "Oh, I wouldn't say that..."
"I would. Very much so." She sharply tapped his foot with her heel, her eyes bright as she gave him a faint smile. "But there seems to have been some improvements since," She commented dryly as they continued.
"Thank you." Euan took her through a particularly difficult manoeuvre, Kai effortlessly following the steps.
So you still remember how to do that. It took Laine and I months to teach you that move. Kai raised an eyebrow at him, seeing his face slowly ease into a thin smile.
They settled back into the dance, listening to the faint breath of brush on snaredrum, the mellow sounds of muted brass resonating in the hall. It was a link in the evocative chain of stimuli, beginning with the balcony, then the invitation to dance, and this haunting song... Sounds and images that strayed carelessly in time, blurring the interface between reality and memory.
It was like suffering double vision - Kai's thoughts drifting between the man before her, and the man with the same face that she used to know. The duality struck her keenly like a blow, revealing the stark differences with an almost painful clarity.
Is this what tonight is about, Euan? Something to hold on to, for old times' sake? Her troubled eyes tried to read the map of his features, searching blindly for answers. Will we pretend that nothing has changed?
His urbane voice surprised her from her questions. "You're looking well, Kai."
"Thank you." It was another turn before Kai continued, considering her answer. "You've aged."
"I've been working hard."
Kai chuckled despite herself. "You were always working hard, Euan."
He seemed to contemplate this for a while, chewing the inside of his cheek. "Yes, but you always worked harder than me. So why is it that you're not old and grey?"
"I eat interns for breakfast. They keep me young."
Euan laughed, remembering her reputation at Harefield hospital. "They were so scared of you, Kai. You were always much too forthright and plain-spoken for us Brits, you know."
"No - only to the incompetent." Kai shrugged before moving through a few steps that separated her from her partner for a moment.
There was a long pause before Euan spoke again, slight abrasion in his voice. "I see you haven't become any less arrogant, either."
There was something in his voice that ruptured a dormant abscess of hurt she had safely sequestered away, the shocking awareness startling her. "It's not a matter of arrogance or pride, Euan. I refuse to compromise my standards - not for interns, not for consultants. Not for anyone." Kai had wanted to say this in the only way it could be said - as a simple, unadorned truth, but it had come out much sharper than she had intended. "Surely you know this."
Not for anyone. Euan's eyes flashed, his face hardening as the words struck him with far greater force than he would care to admit. "Of course." He forced casualness into his voice, looking intently into the arctic-blue eyes as a thin smile edged to his lips. "After all, you did say once that I knew you better than anyone else."
"Indeed. Once." Kai's resonant voice was steady, measured. She could feel the tenuous connection between them disappearing like mist into oppressive fog, only the weight of a heavy silence remaining.
They continued wordlessly - a strange study in irony as two people danced: in each other's arms yet worlds apart; facing the other, yet looking away; elegant forms moving together in fluid, synergistic movements yet their minds as separate as distant stars.
The song ended, and Kai stepped away from him, his presence now distinctly uncomfortable to her.
"Thank you, Euan. Goodbye." Nodding with poised formality, she excused herself and returned to her table.
His dark eyes followed her retreating figure, lost in the shifting column of muscles under the tanned skin.
"Not yet, Kai. There is still too much catching up to do."
Twenty Two - GMT +10
Piersen quietly unlocked the door to her office, weaving unerringly through the maze of clusters of crates as her eyes adjusted to the dark.
Laying her attache case on her desk with deliberate slowness, she blew out a prolonged breath between pursed lips, her face lost in a hundred mental processes.
Well, that went well.
She knew she should be more than satisfied by the results of the afternoon's meeting. The scenario was as James had predicted - the Occupational Therapy staff were more than enthusiastic towards her proposals, the oncologists were eventually brought to line with heavy justification of the exhibition's potential benefits. She had eliminated most of the opposition, but she still did not feel convinced that they fully supported the exhibition. And she knew exactly why that was the case.
If the 'wonderful' Professor had shown up we might have gotten somewhere today.
She frowned, feeling some of the anger she had experienced earlier in the afternoon rising past the weariness. Both Julian and his office confirmed his attendance. And yet he sees fit to just toss all this by the wayside...
I don't know about you, Professor, but this exhibition is very important to me and I don't appreciate you brushing us aside like that.
What incensed her the most was the implicit arrogance in his absence, without explanation or apology or even prior notification. Even Julian was flustered. No one was told that he decided to skip out. But I guess the 'Professor' is allowed to do that, right? After all, he's meant to be some world-famous surgeon or whatever, isn't he?
She snorted derisively, clutching her frustration into a tight ball in her belly. I suppose when you're famous enough, you can get away with anything. Including a distinct lack of civility and professional protocol. Angry, she planted herself ungraciously on the edge of the table, fingers drumming the hard wood with suppressed agitation.
And here I was hoping that he mightn't be as bad as they say he is. Blasted arrogant doctors - they're all the same...
The ringing of her phone snapped her out of her reverie, and Piersen jolted once before leaning over the length of her desk, reaching for her handset. "Yes?"
James' familiar voice. "You're still here?"
Piersen smiled at the comment despite herself, and flipped her body over until she was lying on top of her clutter. "Well, James, since that is immediately obvious, I'll pretend that was a rhetorical question." She teased in her clipped London accent.
"Hey, it's been a long day." Piersen nodded silently in affirmation. "So, how did it go?"
"Fine." A pause, then a sigh. "Or rather, not."
"The nuns got to you?"
A wan smile. "No... they liked me. I guess I should be grateful I checked my hemlines this morning."
Laughter. "If you've got 'em, so why not show them off?"
Piersen paused, not really knowing how to answer that one, and decided to move on. "The 'Professor' decided to skip out."
"Really? You should be grateful."
"No - without him, I think this afternoon was a complete waste of time." She sighed, bracing her palm against her forehead. "Most of the others are happy with the idea now, but the whole time I knew that they were looking to the Professor for approval before they'd commit their support."
"Hm. I have heard that he was one of the people that were against the project." A pause. "Still, that's quite substantial headway you made. What's your gameplan?"
"Well, I'm not going be cheated of my opportunity to sell it to him. I'll dictate a letter and have Cass send it off with the prospectus tomorrow."
"Okay." She heard a shuffling of papers. "In the meantime, what will you be doing?"
She closed her eyes, feeling the lead weight of her eyelids press into her skull. "Go home, review some numbers, go to sleep."
"Sounds like an exciting night out. No dinner?"
She smiled ruefully. "Nothing in the fridge, James."
"Well, why don't you come round for a meal? Adam and I are doing swordfish steaks tonight."
Ooh. Piersen smiled immediately, a golden eyebrow raised with interest. "You're quite the gourmet."
"How about it? He won't be home till later, but we can kill some time. Go shopping, or something."
She felt the bundled-up tension within her dissipate to nothing. She sighed, not quite sure whether it was out of despair or relief. "Oh James - you've picked out my two worst vices in one fell swoop."
"Food and shopping." She giggled, her tiredness allowing the ridiculous sound to escape her nose wrinkled with amusement. "If you picked a hot bath and warm bed in equal third place you'd have a trifecta."
Exuberant laughter. "You'll have to help yourself with those two. But food and shopping we can handle."
"Great. Meet you at the lifts in five minutes?"
"Sure." He chuckled. "See you later."
Piersen hung up, refusing to move as she blindly groped over the edge for her drawer, grabbing what she hoped was the dictaphone.
"Hi Cass. If you could please look up the name of the Head of Neurology at St. Vincent's hospital, and address the following letter to him. Dear Professor, comma, paragraph."
She thought for a moment, lips pursed speculatively as she focused on her thoughts. "Your anticipated presence at the meeting on Monday the 13th was sorely missed. Stop."
That'll get your attention.
She continued her dictation with a wicked gleam in her emerald eyes.
Twenty Three - Diffugere
The skies were clear as Kai emerged from the hotel foyer, clipping her cell phone on her sweatpants and jogging down the driveway onto Commonwealth Ave. The cold air grazed her cheeks as she slowly picked up pace, her feet eager to take her far away from the hotel and make the most of her time alone.
Her experience from the night before still rattled her, though she would not admit to herself exactly how keenly she felt this. On leaving the dance-floor, she had plunged back into her discussion with Prof. Finklestein with a startling ferocity, wanting to push away the thoughts arising from certain unexpected events by fully engaging the logical, calculated side of her brain.
She did achieved a transient success, and while she managed to exhaust her intellectual processes and utterly baffle her mental sparring partner, she found that later in the quiet night, her thoughts inevitably returned to him.
Him. She scoffed at herself. He has a name, Kai. Use it.
Euan - for much of her three years in Cambridge he had been her colleague, her rowing partner, her friend, her confidant. Theirs was a strange friendship, two people from vastly different backgrounds and yet were so completely alike. He belonged to a wealthy family famous in the medical world, the resentful son pursuing the family trade in accordance with the wishes of his blue-blooded, domineering father.
"If medicine wasn't what what you wanted, what is it?" Kai crossed her arms and leaned back against the lintel of the boatshed, her wetsuit sleek like a second skin.We were both following dreams. That we would find what we were looking for in Cambridge.
Euan blinked, taking time to replace his oars. "No one's ever asked me that before." He turned around to face his friend, her silhouette framed against the doorway by the morning light. "You really want to know?"
Kai smiled easily, shrugging. "Sure."
He joined her on the porch, locking up the room. "I wanted to go into classics. Latin, Greek. You know, Roman poets and verses, that sort of thing."
The midsummer's morning bathed the countryside in golden tones, setting the ripples on the River Cam alight as it whispered over rocks and under willows. The pair grabbed their packs and walked eastward, feeling the sun on their faces as they followed the water's edge.
Kai's brows furrowed in thought, unable to understand how he could excel in something he had undertaken with so little passion. But it would've been a shame to have lost your brilliance to Classics, Euan.
Her voice was compassionate. "You've strayed a long way from that path."
Euan kicked at an unoffending rock, nodding sadly. "I know. But being here in Cambridge has been the best chance for me so far."
Finding their customary spot between two oak trees, she dropped herself unceremoniously to the ground and fished her breakfast from her pack. "Your father?"
He nodded, joining her on the soft carpet of grass. "Being away from him helps. Not to mention the above-average classics department they have here." A droll smile softened his face, and he looked at her intently. "What about you?"
What about me...? Kai sighed, replying in the only way she knew how.
"This is all I've ever wanted to do. Ever since I was young... I've dreamt of making discoveries, extending our store of knowledge, maybe somehow save the world along the way, you know?" She laughed at herself. "I think every doctor's had dreams of finding the cure for cancer or something at some point in their childhood." A flash of white, ravenous teeth tore at her sandwich.
"Not any normal child I've met, Kai."
She chuckled, swallowing her mouthful as she leaned back against the tree-trunk, a wistful smile on her face. "I've always dreamed that one day I'll have a department of my own. It doesn't have to be big, or prestigious... just a place where I can use everything I've ever learned, and make it as perfect as I can..." She stopped, suddenly feeling self-conscious as her dreams were laid bare.
"Sounds like an admirable thing to pursue."
"Possibly. But admirable or not - until we find what we want, there's going to be a emptiness..." She pressed her fingers hard against her chest, a nociceptive reminder of her truth.
Euan's eyes looked at her with quiet intensity, his words barely eloquent as fingertips gingerly touched his own heart. "It's... right here."
Kai nodded, meeting his steady gaze with complete understanding. "Yeah. I guess we're both looking for something."
Believing that they searched for the same elusive goal, the two doctors worked closely together within and without the hospital. Over time, Kai drowned willingly in her research, while Euan grew more and more withdrawn, until his interaction with her became merely an extension of his brooding silence.
Looking back, it should have been easy to see that things between them were changing. Yet at the time it seemed that their tenuous connection had shattered with a swift suddenness that blind-sighted her, scattering pieces too far apart to scavenge.
Strange that I find him now, in another Cambridge, in another time.
Jogging across Storrow Drive and into the Esplanade, she continued towards the sound of rushing water until the path rounded a huddle of pine trees. Her steps slowed, her eyes drinking in the sight of the expanse of grass still dew-tipped in the crisp air, and the rippling currents of the Charles River flowing past the distant Harvard bridge. The gravel crunched beneath her feet as she stopped by a low fence, her breath coming in puffs as she leaned against the barrier. This is beautiful...
She spent a long moment enjoying the quiet, feeling the warm tendrils of sunshine ease their way through the misty air to reach her upturned face. Closing her eyes, the image remained in her mind as the sounds and textures around her magnified themselves - the steady tattoo of the other early-morning joggers' feet, the seething rush of water over shallow shoals, the whispery touch of a breeze, the rich brown smell of loam and damp earth - somewhere amidst all that came words from Kai's dormant memories to fall hesitatingly from her lips.
"The snows are fled away... leaves on their shaws and grasses renew their birth -"
A set of footsteps made their way to her consciousness. "...mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas flumina praetereunt. Horace, Book four, number seven." The steps came closer. "Hello, Kai."
"Euan." She did not turn to see him approach, her eyes remaining closed as her body froze in a heartbeat. But she felt his intrusion as a cramping of her neck muscles and a thudding pulse, her body suddenly very much aware of its immediate surroundings. She tilted her head back a little to ease the ache, keeping as casual a stance as she could muster.
As if on cue, a pair of large hands moved to her shoulders and began kneading at her muscles. "Shoulders still giving you trouble?" Kai's face flinched, but her body betrayed nothing. "I guess you're still rowing. It was always so hard keeping up with you, you know."
She remained silent, holding completely still. The touch was familiar, but the circumstances were now foreign. Too much has changed for your touch to remain casual. She knew he could feel the corded muscle tighten further under his ministration, and she made no effort to hide it.
Realising that his attentions were unwanted, Euan slowly removed his hands. "So..." He moved beside her, propping his lean body against the balustrade. He directed his dark brown gaze at her for a long time, searching the face whose now-opened eyes reflected the surroundings mirror-like onto her cornea.
Kai was content with the silence, knowing the longer they were without words, the longer they could retain some amicable link between them, artificial as it may be.
"It's been a while, hasn't it? A year and a half?" His dark eyes wandered over her profile, trying to read the passive face.
"Yeah." She looked ahead, focusing on the stretch of lawn ahead of her. Something in the timbre of his voice spoke volumes to her, a film of forced casualness that exposed more than it concealed.
He rubbed his hands together to ward off the chill. "I'm surprised you still remember that poem. Remember where we first heard it?"
Kai inclined her head, feeling the memory return slowly. "That wine bar out on Rose Crescent. Poetry readings on Wednesday nights." I loved it so much, you bought the Latin version and recited it to me the next day.
He chuckled. "That was a quaint old place, wasn't it? Pity it's closed down now - but I guess neither of us have time for things like that anymore, do we?" He looked at her carefully, then lips curled in a speculative grin as he spoke, his upper class accent giving his rich voice noble cadences. "I've heard you've been doing some amazing things out in the colonies, Kai." He squinted in thought. "Australia, wasn't it?"
Kai nodded, noting with dismay that his words were couched in a very fine layer of derision. No, this isn't a social call, is it? What do you want from me?
"That's right - you were born there, weren't you?" He chuckled weakly, smoothing over the comment that could have been a veiled accusation. "You fit in so well with the rest of us at Cambridge, I could hardly think of you as being from anywhere else." He eyed her intently, knowing she felt his gaze on her. "Been keeping in touch with the people there?"
"No, unfortunately." Why are you doing this? We both know there can be no happy conclusion to this conversation. She shifted her weight to her other foot, and gave him a sidelong glance. "You?"
"Oh, not really. When I'm home I usually run into Laine quite often at Harefield - she's a consultant now, working at their ophthalmology department." He buffed his nails against his sleeve, watching her from the corner of his eye. "She's married, you know. Matthew Cunningham's son - Christopher, is that his name?" He gave her an arched, enquiring look.
Kai gritted her teeth, swallowing the annoyance that would have given him much satisfaction had he known. Is this why you're here? "Christian. Yes, I know."
He snapped his fingers. "That's his name! They were always breaking up and getting back together, weren't they? I was kind of surprised, to tell you the truth." He sighed a little, a thin smile working its way to his lips as he spoke wistfully. "Well, I sure hope they're happy together."
She stifled the irritation, and turned to fully face him, her calm gaze commanding his attention. "Is there a reason you came here to see me, Euan?"
An innocent look. "Kai! Really. Can't old friends get together and reminisce about old times?" He gestured expansively, shaking his head in mild reproach. "It really wasn't the same after you left, you know. It was always you, me and Laine hanging out after work... we missed you."
Kai could feel that their dialogue had moved to a different, darker level - the true sentiments behind the courteous words began to cut into her, despite her efforts to steel herself against them. You never used to be like this, Euan. You were the most earnest, understanding person I knew... "I guess we all move on. So have you, if I recall."
"Oh yes. Boston is really quite..." He tapped his chin, looking for the right word. "Charming. The Americans here are a wonderful lot - so eager to talk about themselves, so friendly it's almost... childlike. It's so very different from England. Luckily, there's just enough of it in this part of the world to remind me of home." He chuckled a little, stealing a glance at her expressionless face before moving on. "And they really do have some state-of-the-art toys here at Harvard."
...And now I see a shallow-minded elitist, the one you swore you'd never be. Did you succumb to your father's will after all? Kai nodded, responding beyond her companion's words. "I'll bet."
"I guess it's pretty hard to get good funding in Australia, isn't it? We were all quite surprised you decided to take up your position, Kai. You know that this is where the action is."
A dark brow shot up at his comment. "You've broken away from Cambridge?"
"Yes, about a year ago. Cambridge was great, but -" He pleaded reason with a crooked smile. "Really, Kai. We would have gotten nowhere if we stayed in Cambridge. Would you have been content to sit in Cunningham's shadow?" A dismissive gesture. "We all knew Laine was happy to stay where she was... but we both wanted more. We deserved more than that."
She growled in muted fury, resisting
the urge to punch him. You worshipped Matthew - out of all of us, he took care of you
the most, you ungrateful bastard... "Matthew gave us our careers, Euan. Our names
might have been on the papers we published, but it was his resources, his project, HIS
kindness that got us where we are." She clenched her jaw, her eyes flashing.
"Don't ever, ever take it for granted."
The shocked flinch was quickly smoothed over by a wry grin. "Kai! Kai... really. Lighten up, will you? What's gotten into you?"
What's gotten into me? She replied as evenly as she could through gritted teeth. "You know, I could ask you the same question."
"Uh uh, that was tetchy, Kai. It doesn't become you." He scolded mildly, waggling a finger at her.
A tiny, ominous smile. "And that was patronising, Euan. You need an honorary chair before you can do that." She drawled evenly, a part of her angry at being goaded into such childish bickering even though most of her was beyond caring. Her electric-blue irises burned into him as his dark features flickered with annoyance before he guffawed, throwing his head back as he laughed open-mouthed into the crisp morning air. Competition? Is that it, Euan? Some sort of jealousy? Was it worth throwing away a friendship for that?
Her eyes waited on him patiently, anger simmering down to an oppressive calm as she straightened to full height, arms folded across her chest. "Do you want to say something to me, Euan? Because if you do, I'd appreciate it if you'd come out with it here." She politely indicated the ground in front of her, inviting him to cross the imaginary line. "I don't need you hovering around, daring me to knock that chip off your shoulder at every turn because I injured your pride sometime in the past." Her eyes were dangerous.
He made a move to retort, but it was quickly replaced by an urbane smile. "Pride? No... my pride is all intact, thank you. As for having a chip on my shoulder, I'd ask you to take a good look at yourself and where you are, Kai. I'm perfectly happy where I am, and I have no desire to swap fates with you and end up in some backwater continent building up a third-rate department from the ground." He pushed himself from the fence, easing into his stretches as he prepared to leave. "Granted, you've done some fantastic things, and I applaud your achievements." He straightened slightly, looking full into her face with mocking eyes. "But I think you make a grave mistake in turning my offer down."
So, that's what it is... Her voice softened, a hint of sadness making its way to her features. "There were clauses in your proposal that just weren't acceptable to me, Euan."
He shrugged, pulling up the zipper
on his tracksuit. "Your loss. I'm not sentimental like you, Kai - I move on without
regrets. And you'll realise this, one day. I will be vindicated." He turned to
walk a few paces, then called over his shoulder as he jogged away. "I wish you every
happiness, Kai. In everything."
Kai found herself alone. The breeze had picked up, stirring the clean grasses up into waves across the thick lawn. Loose slivers of black hair whipped about a drawn face, but clear eyes did not notice as they focused across the shores.
"Nec Lethea valet Theseus abrumpere caro vincula Pirithoo." I'm sorry, Euan. I'm so sorry.
To Be Continued...
Postscript: The song Kai and Euan dance to in Chapter Twenty-One is a swing band version of the very lovely "Learnin' the Blues" by Dolores Silver. At least, when I wrote it, I had Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing it in the background. It seems very appropriate, somehow. "The tables are empty / the dance-floor's deserted. / They're playing that love song / it's the tenth time you've heard it..."
Now, what Euan said about Americans. This
is purely his character talking - not me. Personally, I love Americans, and I think
they're amazingly friendly people. But Euan's a bastard, so that's what he thinks. Please
don't get up in arms about it, alright? *pleading look*
Return to The Bard's Corner
Australian Xena Information Page