by JuneBug <email@example.com>
Please see Page One for Disclaimers.
Twenty-Seven - Picture Perfect
David walked along the deserted corridor, his shoes squeaking slightly against the floor as he made his way from Casualty to the carpark. A glance out the window told him it was fast approaching evening on a thankfully-peaceful Saturday, the deepening colours of the sunlight throwing yawning shadows along the bland vinyl floor. Three ODs stabilised in ICU, one penetrating wound cleaned up and sent home...It's been a good day.
Still lost in his thoughts as he approached the elevators, David did not notice the figure waiting patiently by the console, nor did he see the smile of recognition dawn on her face.
"Dr Foster?" The smooth voice insinuated itself into the periphery of his hearing, and he turned to see a familiar face. "Piersen Evans, we met -"
He nodded, his gruff face twisting into a brief, stiff grin. "Kai's friend, of course. How are you?"
"Great, thank you. How's Giselle?"
Giselle? David coughed convulsively once, the question bringing him off-balance before the pleasure of it suffused through his skin. Hell, I don't get that question asked quite enough... He grinned again, more freely this time. "Fine, thank you. Good of you to ask."
The blonde woman smiled, watching reticent face blush before tactfully looking away. "You'd never think this was the same place on weekends, would you?"
David nodded. "Just thinking the same thing." His eyes followed hers, tracing the empty hallway stretching into the distance. "Visiting?"
Piersen nodded absently, her attention caught in that moment in a speck of dust refracting maple sunlight into a thousand colours.
Brown eyes turned to the blonde profile, quizzical. "Isn't it a bit late for you to be seeing your husband? Kai's usually pretty strict about keeping to visiting hours."
Piersen looked up, only hearing the latter half the sentence, then pursed her lips ruefully. "I've heard she's got a pretty strict reputation in this hospital." She looked up thoughtfully into David's somewhat startled expression. "I've yet to see it first-hand, though."
So... you've been listening in on hospital politics, huh? Are you really buying into all that? "They say all sorts of things about Kai - she's done a lot to get where she is." He watched her carefully, and seeing no response, prodded further. "Her work is her life."
She nodded in understanding. "All work and no play..."
He pressed his lips together for a moment in thought. "You're probably doing something about that though, aren't you?"
"Me?" Piersen laughed, something inside dismissing the suggestion innately. Yet somehow, as her laughter died down, there was something that in the doctor's words that touched her far beyond their intent. And while she struggled to find her words, she found there was only one response.
"I'm going to try my hardest." She grinned, glancing at the elevator doors which slid open at the moment. "Are you coming up?"
David shook his head, his corrugated features giving way to a crooked but relieved smile. "No, I'm heading down. Good seeing you, Piersen." He extended his hand, gripping hers quickly before the sliding doors closed between them.
David stood alone in the corridor, his hand rubbing at his beard with some satisfaction. It wasn't customary practice for him to interrogate Kai's friends thus, but - well, I don't know that Kai has too many friends around I can do that to.
David wasn't too familiar with the neurosurgeon's personal sphere. He knew more about her than most people, knew that many have sought her attentions in some vain personal or professional hopes. Amidst all the lukewarm acquaintances, however, David could not name a true friend of the surgeon save himself. Until now.
He had a good feeling about the petite woman - perhaps it was her luminous presence, or the earnest steadiness in her gaze. Or maybe it was the fact that she didn't condemn Kai for her reputation. There was a fiercely protective instinct that rose within him still when it came to Kai - memories came too easily of the young, serious intern who knew more about saving life than living it. And while it would be conceited of him to continue thinking of the eminent chairman of neurology and neurosurgery as his protegee, in matters such as this, he felt it his duty as a friend to take an active interest in her well-being.
The elevator returned. The grey-haired man stepped in sprightly, whistling a meandering tune as he pressed for the carpark. Hell, Kai - you may not have many friends, but this one... she's a real keeper.
The doors slid closed, shutting the doctor's somewhat lopsided grin from further view.
And damn does that girl have a killer smile.
The light from the same sunset filtered through the thickened glass of Professor Jamieson's office. But while it lent its ruddy warmth to the stale vinyl of the hospital corridor, within the dark polished surroundings of the large office it gave a tense, rumbling overtone consistent with the conversation which was in progress.
"Don't give me that load of crap, Geoff. For every day we keep him up here, we can afford to send off ten of these. The sooner we find out what's wrong with him, the sooner we can do something and get him discharged." Kai grated, removing her glasses in an explosive movement as she slapped a stack of pathology reports to the table.
"Kai, the tests you've run so far have shown nothing. This is a coma induced from a simple head trauma. Nothing more."
"The fluid samples from the lumbar puncture show oligoclonal bands, and a raised immunoglobulin albumin ratio."
"Those are all non-specific markers - the raised protein could be a result of his head trauma, and the immunoassay tells you nothing about current infection. They don't mean anything."
"Or it could be an exacerbated latent viral infection that could flare up into a generalised encephalitis in an hour."
"What are the chances of that, Kai? We treat what we find - we don't go looking for all the possible pathology hoping to cure them all!"
"We don't know what we have! We have a piecemeal history given by his wife, no presenting complaints, nothing but the lab tests that confuses more than it illuminates. This isn't a normal picture, Geoff - way beyond a subdural haemorrhage, a gunshot wound to the abdomen -" The greying doctor tried to interrupt, but Kai raised her hand, cutting him off. "I'm not willing to take risks in this situation, Geoff. I'm going to request these procedures, whether I have your approval or not."
An uncharacteristic flare of anger. "Is that how things work here, Kai? You tell Laurence to live with the ten percent you've slashed from his budget, yet you're not willing to work within constraints of your own?" He bit off his sentence, knowing he had gone too far.
There was a stretch of silence, the tick of a clock keeping time as seconds seemed to yawn into minutes.
Kai's voice was steely quiet, just shearing dark undertones. "So, he's been taking up his case with you."
"I apologise." He did not look up at her, but his tense voice acquiesced to a slight degree. "There are people who are still waiting for you to make a mistake, Kai. You're getting comfortable."
"This isn't a mistake."
"But it will be misconstrued. Everything you do can be twisted into something else by people who want to see you fall."
A short, derisive bark of laughter. "Taylor?"
Geoff looked at her steadily. "You know I can't answer that."
A warning. "Kai."
"Taylor and Rickson. In the board room, with the auditing ledger."
The ascetic doctor smiled slightly at his superior's black humour, but said nothing as Kai leaned back in her chair, the leather creaking softly beneath her. The humour on the angular features disappeared as quickly as it came.
"I'm not getting comfortable, Geoff. I'm already very comfortable. They can watch me twenty-four seven, but they won't get a thing." She steepled her hands in front of her, blue eyes watching him intently. "I don't make mistakes."
"You know it's ultimately your call. But bear in mind my reservations regarding this matter."
"Your objections are duly noted, Geoff. Thank you." There was a soft knock on the door. "Come in."
The heavy wood panel angled open, revealing a familiar face. "Am I disturbing?"
"Not at all. We were just finishing." She gave Geoff a lingering, significant look. "Weren't we?" The older man held her gaze for a long instant before nodding, and without further word, slipped past the doors quietly as the blonde woman entered.
Piersen looked about her, taking in the dark lines and lingering tension in the large office as she stepped tentatively closer. "Hello."
"Hello." Kai glanced around the clutter on her desk, her voice a touch weary. "Sorry about the mess. There have been lots of things to review."
"Do you want to leave this for another time?"
"No - I need this. Get out of the office, stretch my legs." She let out a slight breath, and pushed herself out of her chair. "Do you want a drink?"
"No, I'm fine. You go ahead."
The tall doctor stepped out into the reception area, moving behind Adrian's desk to the filing cabinet. She reached over and flipped the switch to the kettle, before proceeding to rummage through the patient folders.
Piersen wached with some amusement beyond the doors. "You keep your drinks in the filing cabinet?"
A smile. "No. Just a particular blend of tea. Adrian hides it in here."
"Well, he musn't do it very well, if you know where to look for it."
"Actually, it would have been the perfect place to hide them. This is the outpatient cabinet. When they have their appointments he usually brings the file in along with the patient, so I never really go near the cabinet at all."
"So how did you find out?"
"My patient files started to smell of cinnamon." She chuckled, then grinned triumphantly. "Ah ha." Pulling out a small packet, Kai laid it out carefully on her secretary's desk and unwrapped it. She breathed in deeply, then motioned for Piersen to come closer. "Try it."
"Ooh." She inhaled, her eyes closing as she savoured the warm woodsy aroma. "I think you've persuaded me. Why does he hide it?"
"He uses to calm me down. After spending an hour with fourth year medical students, there's a lot of calming down to be done." She heaped several teaspoons into a teapot, and grabbed two mugs. "I can't be indulged too much."
"Oh, we'll see about that." She smiled a little, then became serious. "Seems like you needed a bit of calming down before, with that man there."
Kai paused, unsure how to reply. "Not really. Just conflicts in patient management." She grabbed the steaming kettle and poured. "It happens."
Piersen saw the angular features close up, her hair falling in a curtain obscuring her face. I guess she doens't really want to talk about work - not after all that. Whatever it was... I wish - Piersen paused, searching for another tack. "How about that guided tour, huh?"
"Sure." Handing her a steaming cup, Kai cocked her head to the door. "Mind if we walk and drink at the same time?"
"Running around the wards with a cup of tea in your hands? Is this common practice?"
"No - then again, neither is a guided tour. I guess you just attract things that defy the commonplace." Kai grinned as she opened the door, stopping in the doorway and offering her arm.
Piersen gave her a lingering glance, her lips quirking into an impish smile as she laid a hand lightly on bronzed skin. "Then lead the way, Professor Jamieson. Lead the way."
Ring ring, Ring ring.
The phone rang quietly in darkness of Piersen's living room, intruding into the somnulent peace of the empty house. The sun had set a few hours ago, leaving only the thin strands of illumination from the porchlight for company.
Amidst the solitude, there was a click and a faint whirring, before a familiar, lilting voice was heard.
"Hello - sorry I missed you, but leave a name and number and I'll call back soon as I can. Thanks."
"Piers? Chris here. You'd never believe this, but have I got news for you..."
A single shaft of light illuminated Kai's large desk, setting the deep-toned wood aglow amidst the sea of scattered papers. Kai sat at the edge of the creative storm, watching the slim blonde woman beside her explain an artistic concept to her while she sketched floridly with a stick of charcoal. Which she pulled from her coat pocket. Kai smiled, something in that small touch warming her from within.
It was not the first time Kai experienced Piersen's consummate passion for art. And tonight the curator was in full form, her enthusiasm taking her away as communicated her thoughts in words and pictures. As the neurosurgeon performed her final rounds on her patients that evening, Piersen received her tour of Cahill 18 and was introduced to several patients, one of whom contributed a painting to the exhibition. While Kai performed tests evaluating his cerebellar functions, Piersen began a lengthy discussion with the affable man. Their energetic conversation was soon joined by other curious patients in the room - filling the somewhat sterile surroundings with boisterous laughter and good-natured argument as they talked well into dinner hour. So it was with some regret that Kai escorted Piersen away, caught in the bewilderingly buoyant atmosphere that was so unusual as to be almost magical.
The curator had prattled steadily as they made their way back to the Clinic, continuing in her vein of thought as they settled themselves back into Kai's office. Beginning the evening opposite the expansive table, Piersen began a gradual migration as she warmed to her subject; wielding pen, paper and charcoal, eventually ending where she was now - kneeling beside Kai's large chair.
Stopping mid sentence, Piersen looked up at the dark, silent woman. "I've lost you, haven't I?"
Kai shook her head. "Not at all. It's a pleasure watching you draw."
She grinned, then raised her hand. "You know, stop right there. Don't move an inch."
The seated doctor briefly arched an eyebrow, but otherwise complied.
"Seeing as we were on the topic of Minimalism, I thought I'd illustrate the point with something closer to home." Piersen quirked a smile at the doctor, then bowed her head over a fresh sheet of paper. "An exercise I used to do was to see how many strokes it took for me to capture the essence of the subject. The phrase says that a picture is worth a thousand words. But like I was explaining last night, what is left unsaid, what is left unmarked - that is worth a thousand pictures." She looked up, handing the paper to her friend. "Take a look."
The page was barely touched by charcoal. The strong curve of jaw here, the smooth forehead there. The classical line of nose to the softness of lips framed by the suggestion of high cheekbones. Pale, pale eyes intimate yet pensive, the traces of an amused smile lingered at the fine eyebrows. All adorned by the broad strokes suggesting thick, raven hair falling past broad shoulders.
Kai looked up, unable to speak. Piersen smiled deprecatingly. "I cheated. Half your face was cast in shadow because of the lighting in the room. It was a lot easier than if it was in full light."
"This is really beautiful."
"It captures the essence of the subject. You are a beautiful person to draw."
Kai snorted, uncomfortable in the wake of those words. "I can't draw for crap."
"Sure you can. It just depends on your medium. Charcoal is difficult to control if you're not used to it. Then again, heaps of people find watercolour easy, and for me it's the hardest flaming thing I've ever had to work with."
The tall woman laughed, leaning forward in her chair and reaching for her set of drawers. "Depends on your medium, huh? Here's my preferred artistic medium." Pulling it open, she reached in and pulled out a box, handing it over to Piersen who turned it over in her hands, puzzled.
"What's this?" She turned an enquiring look at the surgeon, who motioned for her to open it. "This is heavy. Are you into sculpture or something?" With a quick tug, the cardboard yielded its contents into her palm.
Kai grinned. "Digital camera. I use it to document lesions I see in the wards. It takes stills and clips, which is good for assessing movement disorders: Parkinson's, Huntington's disease and so forth."
Piersen laughed. "Each to their own. Do I get to see a sample of your work?"
"You'll have to sit in on one of my lectures." She patted her keyboard. "It's all uploaded here, and I incorporate it into Powerpoint for presentations. It's hardly as inspiring as what you do."
"I wouldn't say that. I can think of very little that is more inspiring than what you do." She turned the camera in her hands, pressing the power button and watching the silver casing come to life. She handed it to her friend. "Let's see you at work then."
Kai mulled over the camera for a moment. "Can you draw something for me?"
Smiling, Piersen reached for her wrapped piece of charcoal. "I thought you were meant to show me what you could do."
"Just positioning the subject." Kai cocked her head as she placed the camera on the table. With a teasing grin, she angled a pair of thumbs and forefingers before her in a perfect rectangle, framing bright blue eyes that studied the slight woman kneeling beside her. "Ignore me."
That's kind of hard to do, Kai. A soft chuckle, but the blonde head bowed over a fresh piece of paper, the fine neck arching her profile into the desklight. With that shifting movement, the harshly unforgiving fluorescence was refracted by her hair into an autumnal incandescence, the fine shards of light smoothing bronze across pale skin. Kai watched mesmerised, hands reaching for the camera even as her neural networks desperately tried to freeze the spark of that moment in her mind. Softly, she rose to her feet and moved silently around the table, her mind's eye recording what the digital lens could not.
Five minutes passed, but for Kai it seemed barely five seconds when she finally allowed her hands to fall. She returned to her seat, brushing Piersen briefly on the shoulder and depositing the camera into her grasp. "I'm done."
"Wait - one more. Come on." Piersen stood, wrapping an arm around Kai's broad shoulders and settled on the smooth armrest of her chair, holding the camera at arm's length. Unable to restrain a giggle at the startled expression on Kai's face, she leaned into the warmth of the dark woman's presence, feeling the muscles beneath her touch tense momentarily before long, tentative fingers curled around her waist. It was a instant so clear, so perfect - neither woman needed a warning of the moment's capture.
Twenty Eight - Heart Sounds
"What is the prognosis of glioblastoma multiforme in the left lenticulostriate region?"
The small ward rang with the precise timbre of Professor Jamieson's voice, followed by a flurry of whispers as a congregation of medical students conferred tentatively amongst one another. The small group had gathered around a hospital bed with the powder-blue curtains hastily drawn to provide a small measure of privacy, focusing on the patient who lay sitting up on a generous mountain of pillows.
The imposing neurosurgeon directed a look at a student who did not appear to be floundering, and he answered obligingly. "Not too bad. The tumour is still limited to the left hemisphere. And it hasn't metastased to local lymph nodes or distant organs. He might have a few motor deficiencies from the basal ganglia involvement, but aside from that..."
A tiny furrow appeared between the Professor's dark eyebrows, causing the student's answer to slowly grind to a halt. The doctor turned her laser blue eyes to another student.
"Is that what you would tell the patient?"
The rather bookish girl blinked once, twice, then nodded hesitantly.
"If that's what you would tell the patient, you'd be slapped with a lawsuit for professional negligence. And if that's what you write in your neurology exam paper, I would be failing you on the spot." Kai took a slow, controlled breath, raising her voice slightly to address the small crowd. "The brain has no lymphatics, ladies and gentlemen. It can't metastasise directly to draining lymph nodes because there aren't any - if you would care to refer to your pathology textbooks, you would remember that primary tumours will rarely metastasise outside the CNS. Because this neoplasm is so aggressive, most often it will spread locally - to the midbrain, the cerebellar peduncles, or seed along the spinal cord. The prognosis for this case would be terrible. Luckily, Mr. Dawson here has had a fortuitiously early detection and resection of his tumour, and is expected to make a satisfactory recovery."
She straightened, casting a sombre look over the group gathered in front of her. "I don't want to have any of you end up in a courtroom - this knowledge is basic anatomy from first year, and for your sake I hope you'll do some revision before next week's rounds." She looked at her watch, then nodded briefly. "That will be all for this week."
The students quickly filed out, a few stragglers remaining to ask a few questions before moving on to their next tutorial. By the time Kai was finally left alone, nearly half an hour had passed.
She eased herself down beside her patient's supine form, half-smiling at him apologetically. "Sorry to subject you to that."
"Nah. They have to learn somehow - I'd rather they learnt off me as a patient than as a corpse, you know?" He smiled weakly.
"We won't see you as a corpse for a few good decades yet, Mr Dawson. The follow-up prognostics show good results. I think we've got this under control." She attempted a half-smile. "You're very lucky - usually these tumours are extremely difficult to find, especially at such an early stage as yours. This is probably the one time I would be grateful that you had a stroke - without the contrast MRI we did, we may have never found it in time. Many people lose much more than movement in their right leg. " She patted it briefly, knowing he could not feel the comforting gesture, then rose to her feet. "Physiotherapy will come up to help you with adjusting later this afternoon. You have to remember to take extra care of this leg - a small cut you can't feel can end up causing lots of problems, especially with your diabetes and all."
He laughed, his bearing somewhat more relaxed. "I'll make sure my wife keeps an eye out on it for me. Thanks, Doctor."
Rising, Kai drew the curtains back from the bed, squinting slightly at the mid-morning sun that shone into her eyes. She moved onto the next room, a more private setting with a view over eastern Sydney towards Paddington and beyond. She knocked briefly at the door. "Mr Oppenheimer?"
"Come in." She saw the reclining figure shift slightly to meet her, bearing his weight on his arms.
"I'm Dr. Jamieson. Dr. Sanders was looking after you for a little while, yes?"
"That's right - he mentioned that my doctor was away. That would be you, I guess."
Kai nodded in the affirmative. "I'd like to take a quick look at you, if that's alright."
"Sure. Go ahead." He gestured towards his legs, which lay motionless as he watched her lift the blankets from his bed. Kai hefted her tendon hammer and began to elicit his lower limb reflexes. She could sense his eyes on her, and she kept her expression neutral so as to not betray her suspicions.
"How am I, Doctor?"
She moved to his abdomen, lifting his gown further up his body. "I'm just testing to see how well your nerves are working. Dr. Sanders has explained to you what usually happens in Guillain-Barre syndrome, hasn't he?"
"Yes - that the disease just keeps spreading, due to some allergy or something."
"That's right - at the moment, I want to see if the inflammation has spread any more since he last saw you." She took out a small monofilament and a ball of cotton wool. "I'm going to test your sense of touch on your abdomen now. Close your eyes, please."
"I can't move my legs. Is this really going to spread to my arms, and my lungs?"
How to put a difficult answer into words...? Kai hesitated before answering, covering her lapse by gently arranging his limbs. "There is a possibility that your arms may be affected. Can you feel that?" She worked the filament along his skin, watching his face for reaction. "Your lungs won't be affected so much - the concern is that the muscles that help you breathe might be involved. In that case, we'll be putting you on a respirator until you can breathe on your own again." She tested further up his abdomen. "How about this?"
He shook his head. "Can you do anything to stop the spreading?"
"No, unfortunately." She gnawed at the inside of her cheek slightly, some concern overshadowing her eyes. How much have you told him, Geoff? These are all very basic questions... She was aware that some of her more conservative colleagues still practiced with a certain degree of paternalism, despite the current push for greater freedom of information and choice for the patient. I'm going to have a long talk about that at the next board meeting. Mentally shaking her head, she moved to the skin of his chest. "But the disease should go away - because it is inflammatory, it usually subsides with time - similar to a sore throat, or an ear infection. It should not cause you any permanent disability. Can you feel anything here?"
"No - yes, here." He nodded as the filament touched his shoulder.
Kai suppressed a frown, moving to cover up her patient instead . From T10 to T2 in only a few days. This is definitely Landry's Paralysis - it's moving much too fast for Guillain-Barre. "Are you otherwise feeling alright?"
"This is really - freaking me out, Doctor. One minute my toes feel a bit numb, and the next morning I can't feel anything in my feet... Now I can't even walk, can't go to the toilet..." He trailed off, trying to reassert some control over his tightening voice. "I just want this to go away, Doctor."
She watched him with quiet dismay, feeling strangely helpless in the face of his grief. "It will, Mr Oppenheimer. Just give it time."
He nodded, but his eyes remained downcast, making Kai wonder if he actually heard her at all.
She touched him briefly on his shoulder with some awkwardness, wishing there was more she could offer him. "If you have any questions, just call one of the nurses, and they'll page me to come see you."
Taking her leave, she replaced the blankets over her patient, gathered her equipment and left the ward. It wasn't until she was safely in the corridor, writing in her patient's progress notes that she heaved a sigh, effectively pushing her concerns from her mind for now. This whole issue could be discussed more comprehensively with Geoffery Sanders later back in the Clinic - right now she needed a clear mind for the remainder of her morning rounds.
In the wake of the clusters of students that followed her every step, Kai was grateful for the relative silence that now accompanied her, feeling her floor settling back to its customary efficiently quiet pace. This morning's tutorial with a group of second-year undergrads had concerned her, knowing that her teaching abilities were not optimal for budding students on their first few weeks in their hospital placements. Well, seeing as I didn't have people running away screaming at the sound of my name, it couldn't have gone that badly.
She stifled a laugh, the mental image coming all too clearly to her. Juggling her camera and her patient files, she paused in the corridor to scribble a few progress notes before making her way to her next patient. She had hoped to finish up rounds before lunch, when she had planned to edit the material she had written up for the Piersen's exhibition catalogue. I can do that over lunch, provided Adrian hasn't booked outpatients in my lunch break.
Not that you're in danger of withering away, judging from the way you've been eating lately. The previous evening had ended with dinner at the Rocks, Piersen having been adamant in reciprocating for dinner after much too long an absence.
"Uh-huh. It's my shout." Piersen protested as she lifted Kai's fingers from the folded receipt. "My turn, remember?"
"I don't remember anything about taking turns."
"Well, I've just reminded you." She grinned, placing her card onto the plate and handing it to the waiter.
"It seems my memory is fading. I better get it checked."
"Hm. Know a good neurosurgeon around here?" Piersen enquired wryly, then her features softened. "I had a great time tonight, as always. Thank you."
As always. Kai smiled, nodding her agreement. Have I really known you forever, or does it just seem that way?She could almost recall all the times they have never been together... it was so easy to sit with her like this - a quiet table, the faint light drawing a curtain around them.
All the times we've never been together? Kai chortled internally. My god, Kai - you really do need to get your memory checked. She straightened, mentally gathering her attention and redirecting it to her dining partner. "How did you like the kitsune-soba?"
"It was lovely." The waiter returned with the cheque, and Piersen surveyed the slip of paper before signing it.
"Arigato gozaimasu." He bowed.
The blonde replied easily in the same rhythmic, melodic language. "No, thank you. The meal was a pleasure."
"Oh, you speak Japanese?"
Kai watched with some surprise as her blonde companion launched into a brief, but rapid-fire conversation, the words coming from her lips with skilled familiarity. Nodding to the departing waiter, Piersen turned an apologetic smile to her friend and motioned to rise from her chair.
"He just wanted to know where I learnt the language, and how we enjoyed our meal."
"Where did you learn?" Kai moved on ahead to open the door, and the two women stepped out into the night.
"My roommate at Cambridge was from Sapporo. She was amused that Japanese wasn't counted as a 'Modern Language' in the course I was reading, so she took it on herself to broaden my horizons."
"Cambridge - I spent some time there a few years ago."
"I know - " Piersen began, then blushed as she realised what she had said. "I mean, I was aware you spent time in -- they mentioned your work at Harefield hospital in one of the journals..."
Blue eyes widened a little in surprise. "You read medical journals?"
"Well - not really, but - " Flustered, Piersen blew out a breath, running her fingers through her cropped pale hair. She was grateful for the night air that cooled her suddenly heated cheeks, and the darkness that shrouded her recalcitrant blush. "I was interested in the paper you just presented at Boston, but when I called the editorial office this morning they said it hadn't come into print yet, so I looked up some of the past journals at the library..."
Had Piersen not been so preoccupied with her own tripping heart beat, she might have seen the beaming smile that illuminated Kai's planar features. She read my papers...
"They were really good." Piersen nodded lamely. Really good. Yeah, Piers - talk about it like it was Jane Austen or something. 'Oh yes - I rather enjoyed the p-values and confidence intervals. The methodology was lyrical and rivetting.' She chided herself sarcastically, then pushed on, looking to change the subject. "Which college were you with in Cambridge?"
Kai looked up, as if startled by the question. "College? Oh - Trinity College. I was with the head fellow of medicine, Professor Cunningham."
"Hey, I was at Trinity! I can't believe we never..." Her voice trailed off, then stopped entirely. She shook her head. "I guess it just wasn't the time or place, was it?"
"I guess not."
"I used to go walking along the Cam on Sundays, watching the morning rowers go by." She sighed. "I loved their fluid movements - I used to sit by the banks, ditch my finance notes and draw the way they glided along the water."
"You did." Kai smiled sadly, waiting for the brief weight on her chest to fade before she spoke again. "Would you like to go rowing sometime?"
There was a brief moment as Piersen caught up with the non-sequitur. "Oh - what, here? With you?" She laughed off her surprise. "Golly, I didn't know you rowed..."
"You're not going to find that in the journals." The taller woman quipped, the dryness in her voice betraying her amusement. She watched as Piersen seemed to consider for a moment, before an engaging smile dawned on her face.
"Sure, I'd love to."
Kai nodded. "I go Saturday mornings down the Parramatta River."
"Saturday mornings?" Piersen scoffed and laughed at the same time, shaking her head with dismay. "Alright - but you realise I'm giving up my valued sleep-in time to get there."
They had reached Piersen's BMW. "How about I come to pick you up - it's a bit hard finding your way to the boatshed. Six-thirty sound alright to you?"
"Six-thirty. Sure - I guess any hour you name before nine o'clock would sound like the crack of dawn to me." She grinned, unlocking the car. "You might have to work on the doorbell, but I'll get out there, don't worry."
Kai laughed. "How do I get to your house?"
"Address. Of course." She took out a business card from her purse and fumbled for the charcoal in her coat. "It's right by here, actually. If you look over there at the hill, my house is one of those right at the top." She handed the card to her friend, careful not to smudge the writing. She indicated Kai's white button-up shirt. "You better keep that away from your clothes."
"Yeah." The taller woman shifted slightly, then looked at her watch. "I guess we both have early starts tomorrow morning."
"That we do." Piersen nodded, then reached out, lightly gripping Kai's arm. "Thank you for today."
"It was my pleasure. Drive safely." Kai took a few steps back, and was about to turn away when she stopped. "Oh - Piersen?"
"About the journals... I'm really pleased -- that you were interested. Thank you." This time, Piersen did not miss her smile - brilliant and bashful at the same time.
Touched to the quick, Piersen could only smile in return. "Good night, Kai."
Kai's feet stopped abruptly, snapping her out of her reverie. Turning her next patient's folder in her hands, she cast her eyes up to the doorframe, reading -
Not knowing why she knocked, Kai stepped slowly into the doorway, feeling her heart pitching slightly as she approached the bed. Just check his reflexes and review his monitoring notes, Kai. No need to act like you're some junior on your first ward round.
The screen hovering by the bedside gave steady readings with every slow breath, his pulse rate and blood pressure keeping time with their rhythmic fluctuations. The sun streamed brightly in through the windows; bisecting the room in a pale bolt of light that ended on Richard Stamford's reclining figure, still motionless save the even movements of his breathing.
This is stupid. Why are you even feeling this? Her thumb found his bicep tendon and she tapped out his reflexes in quick succession, noting them to be brisk. He is your patient, just like Tom Dawson, or Jack Oppenheimer, or Ian Pollack. Why should he be so different?
She repeated the same motion on his other arm, then lifted his blankets and tested his legs. He was slightly hyperreflexive, as he was before, though there was no apparent deterioration in his reflex arcs.
You're not falling for their wives, that's why.
Kai sighed, knowing this was familiar mental territory, and replaced the blankets. It had been so long since she had examined him, and even then it was from a purely medical, objective point of view. As she stepped back and watched the face in repose now, however, it was not to gauge the extent of his blood oxygenation, or the presence of cranial nerve deficits.
I've been looking after you for so long, and I haven't even really noticed what you look like.
Time and time again she had bowed over the high forehead, ignoring the dark brown eyes as she checked for their motion in response to light. She had been more interested in finding cuts in his scalp than the style of his hair, the prematurely-grey crop that might have more carefully trimmed had he been conscious, and lacquered to a conservatively fashionable finish. In the non-descript blue of regulation hospital gowns, Richard Stamford appeared much older than his forty-two years - but Kai remembered, faintly, his tall frame cutting a neat figure in a dark suit as he charged the delirious drug-addict almost half an lifetime ago.
But it hasn't been a lifetime, has it? Kai drew in a deep breath, pale eyes searching the face that seemed to hold too still to be real. It's only been a few weeks... five, at most.
His hands were loosely gathered across his stomach, the way Kai had placed them after she had examined him. They were large, square hands - much larger than Piersen's - the pulps of his fingers free from callouses, the ring... still there.
She reached out and found his pulse, feeling the artery bound against her fingertips. The quality of the rhythm told her he had a strong heart; the even, regular rise-fall of blood that lay so close under the skin rushing palpable life through his body. Kai's free hand drifted to her own neck, easily finding her right carotid. Lub-dup. Lub-dup. Lub-dup.
The two pulses seemed to transmit from her fingers to her brain, unravelling to her with hypnotic clarity the irony of her situation. In those five weeks...
I've only just begun to live.
The sky still held the grudging remnants of daylight as Piersen and James ambled through the quiet residential area in the Rocks, despite the harsh monochrome of the overhead lamps which dominated the streetscape. Their attache cases were gripped loosely in their hands as they slowly made their way home, swinging in time to their unhurried footfalls.
"So, Piers - what are you planning for tonight?"
Piersen heaved a sigh, an indication of her weariness. "I'm spending tonight at home. I have to finalise layout for the catalogue, and work on the audits that have come in from last quarter."
"And how do they look?"
"They're pleasing - not crash hot, mind you, but I think it was a positive period of... stability and consolidation."
James quirked an eyebrow. "Is that how you're going to pitch it to the Trustees?"
Piersen nodded with a unapologetic grin, acknowledging her euphemism. "Yep. Think they'll buy it?"
"I think they're grateful for the turn-around, Piers. It wasn't too long ago that they were going to close us down." He took an exuberant swing at a loose pebble, setting it skittering down the cracked footpath. "Maybe your renaissance won't be coming immediately, but they can see your positive influence. It's only a matter of waiting while your changes come to fruition."
A brief sigh. "I just know the Museum is capable of great things. The contemporary art scene here needs a focus like the MCA. We could be right at the centre of the action, if only we had..."
James reached out and patted her shoulder. "Give it time. Your contract isn't due to run out for a while yet."
"No, not for a while..." Pausing before crossing a busier intersection, Piersen's eyes wandered to the row of storefronts on the opposite side of the road. "Have you been to that restaurant there?"
Hazel eyes followed the pointing hand. "Matsukaze? No, I haven't. Why, have you tried it out?"
"I was there last night. Their soba is made on the spot - it's the best I've had in a long time."
There was no reason for Piersen to remark on the restaurant or the quality of their cuisine - indeed, her mind was not focused as intently on the sequestered building as she was on the events that had taken place within it. James watched her with a smile, noticing the meandering quality of her voice, the eyes that looked into and beyond the restaurant facade.
"Were you there with the Doctor?"
"'The Doctor'?" His voice seemed to jolt Piersen back to reality, and she laughed, casting a peculiar look at her friend. "She has a name, you know. And yes, I had dinner with Kai last night."
A knowing nod. "I hope you girls didn't party too late after opening night."
Piersen smiled, but did not immediately respond. Partying. She doesn't strike me as the partying type - but I've been surprised by her before...
James saw the faraway look return, and rolled his eyes. Wandering off with the fairies again, Piers. I don't know what's going on in that mind of yours, but I'll bet you're having a spiffing good time in there. "You know, speaking of partying - Adam is opening the floor at the Red Room this weekend. You want to drop by?"
"Is this where I get to hear you sing?"
"Oh yes. And anyone else who chooses to come up - though there's no guarantee that they'll all be as tuneful as me."
The blonde woman laughed. "Oh good, so I'll be sitting there, listening to a whole bunch of people - save a particularly tuneful exception - who can't sing?"
"Hey! You'll also be enjoying the wonderful company of Adam and Myself. What more can you ask for?"
"Oh, twist my arm, why don't you." Piersen feigned a look of exasperation, then relented. "Sure I'd love to come. Mind if I asked Kai along?"
James beamed, a touch triumphantly. "Not at all. Hell, we might even be able to persuade her to get up on that stage."
"Oh, I don't know about that, James. I don't think she's the type that flaunts herself on stage like that..."
"Precisely my point."
The museum director's delight at the suggestion was echoed in her brilliant, conspiratorial smile.
Piersen emerged from her bathroom, her damp hair slightly unruly as she dried it briskly with a towel. It had been a decadent compromise between the lingering pleasure of a bath and the relative economy of a shower - an extended encounter with the sharp, near-scalding spray that buffetted her skin, leaving it slightly ruddy but feeling altogether wonderful.
Shuffling familiarly in yet another set of slightly oversized pyjamas, she made her way to the couch where ledgers and folders awaited her patiently on the coffee table. Collapsing gracelessly into the yielding cushions, she was about to engage her audit notes when the quiet blip of her answering machine caught her eye.
That's right - I forgot to check my messages last night... She chastised herself, remembering that there had been very little else on her mind save the prospect of rowing with her friend on Saturday morning.
Hey - I've never been rowing before. I have a right to be excited. She smiled, reaching and tapping the play button. As the answering machine began to speak, whatever thoughts she had in her mind regarding the upcoming weekend vanished as she took in her brother's familiar voice, and everything he had to say.
Oh god - the world could have collapsed around my ears, and I would never have known about it... Blonde brows furrowed as she quickly calculated the time difference, picking up the handset and dialling a series of numbers in rapid succession.
"Good morning, this is Chris."
"Sure that shouldn't be VP Chris?" She smiled, teasing him gently with a note of dismay in her voice.
Her brother's deep tones broke into an affectionate chuckle on identifying his caller. "Interim VP, thank you. Though in moments of lucidity, I wonder how exactly I got myself in this position."
She laughed softly, sadly. "How did you?"
A pause as he shrugged unheard. "She out-maneouvered me."
"Oh Crispy - I'm so sorry for getting you into this..."
"I don't think it could be helped - it was the reason she called me home. She had it planned from the beginning, and I walked into it without suspecting a thing."
Leaving you floundering as she ran rings around you. Piersen finished in her mind, the scenario all too familiar to her. She is so good at that...
She straightened. "You said you'd come by next Saturday. How long will you be staying for?"
"Just a few days to sort things out at the office. Will you be free?"
"I'll make sure I am." Piersen beamed, sighing with wistful pleasure. "Golly - it'd be so good to see you..."
His smile was almost audible. "MIssed you too. Got a place for me to stay?"
"Sure. Hey, I'll even meet you at the airport. 10pm arrival, wasn't it?"
"That's right." He paused, his voice turning serious. "We need to discuss this more when I get here, Piers. She has every intention of seeing Richard come home. With you."
She sighed. "What happens if he doesn't?"
Chris put on his best southern American drawl, for no particular reason. "Then it ain't interim no longer, ma'am."
My god - she's practically held him to ransom... She spoke carefully, frowning with concern. "Chris - do you really think you should be involved in this?"
Hearing the tight distress in his sister's voice, Chris moved to reassure her. "Hey - we're sticking together on this, alright? That's the way it's always been, and I don't plan to change things now." A pause, broken by a chuckle. "Besides, I'm not completely incapable in negotiations, you know. I have contingencies."
Trying to out-play her hand? "I'm not sure that's wise, Crispy. You may get ahead for a while, but in the end, you'll lose."
Piersen could clearly hear the dangerous smile curling the edges of her brother's dapper accent.
"I guess we'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen then, won't we?"
Twenty-Nine - Saturday's Child
The Saturday sun streamed in golden rivulets through the window of Piersen's bedroom, leaving squarish imprints of light on the rumpled covers of her bed. There was very little sound or movement in the house save the quiet breathing of its tenant, whose face was burrowed somewhere between the scattered pillows and thick folds of her doona, a few visible wisps of mussed blonde hair marking her place.
Cthock, cthock. The heavy thud of a weighty brass knocker from her front door broke the silence. Piersen stirred, murmuring something as she pulled her pillow closer to her body, and returned to her slumber.
Cthock cthock. Though the sound did not appear to register visibly with her curled-up form, it had somehow permeated into Piersen's dreamscape, manifesting in varied, undefined morphologies - the unyielding pound of drums, the solid timbre of axe against wood.
Or was it a sword against a torso?
Cthock cthock. She stirred again, this time with some agitation. A slight crease was just visible in a portion of exposed forehead, indicating a less-than-pleasant turn to her foray into the Land of Nod. The thudding that had began rhythmic and measured now became scattered, ringing, chaotic. A flash of steel - no, a pair of eyes - making their way to her amongst a swirl of sounds that was fleshy and metallic all at once, preceeded by a screeching descant that could have been screams animal or human. Or an unoiled, prostesting brass hinge.
Piersen sat up abruptly, her green eyes wide as she caught her breath. Kai.
I'm supposed to be rowing with Kai. This morning. She took a quick glance at her bedside clock. 6.40am. Oh no...!
Throwing the covers off her body, she leapt out of bed and ran downstairs for the front door, running a hand roughly through her hair. Hold on - I can't see her like this. I'm a complete mess. She stopped in the middle of her hallway, shouting slightly in an uneloquent croak. "Kai?"
The familiar, liquid voice was laden with amusement. "Rise and shine."
"I'm so sorry about sleeping in - do you mind waiting while I get myself together? I won't take long, I promise... I'm so sorry."
"Sure, take your time. I'm just parked across the road."
"Great. Just give me ten minutes." Piersen raked her hands through her hair again in some attempt to order her muddled, fuzzy mind, then ungraciously stomped her way back up to her bedroom. Though not before stopping briefly at the kitchen bench to flip the kettle on.
Rowing clothes, rowing clothes, rowing clothes... what the heck do people wear when they go rowing? Her small figure bent over an opened drawer, rifling through various articles of clothing before selecting a pair of dark grey shorts, matching sports bra and maroon singlet. She shed her baggy pyjamas quickly and donned her new attire before pacing to her slightly open window that looked over the street.
She raised her voice again. "Did you want some coffee?"
"I'm fine." The doctor's langorous reply floated evenly back to her with a strong hint of a smile. "Take your time."
Closing her window, Piersen grabbed a cloth bag and deposited a change of clothes and a few extra items from her dresser table. Looking briefly into the mirror, she completed her preparations in the bathroom before half-jogging into her kitchen, zeroing in on a small jar of coffee.
She heaped two spoonsful into a mug. Well, at least you warned her that you were going to sleep in, right?
Still, it's not the best thing to do, having her wait for you like that. She sighed, pouring the heated, but not boiling water into her mug, stirring impatiently. When the coffee had blended to her satisfaction, she gulped the liquid down quickly. Bleugh. Toothpaste and Lukewarm coffee. But it could be the one thing that keeps you from keeling over into the water, so drink up, Piers. Taking another mouthful of the richly aromatic liquid, she rinsed out her cup hurriedly and made for the door, throwing on an oversized polartec as an afterthought before throwing the door open.
She took two steps across the threshold and promptly stopped again.
Across the road, leaning casually against the door of her Land Rover was Kai, her tall frame painted black by her wetsuit leaving lean, darkened shoulders and thighs bare. Her arms were folded across her chest, apparently basking in the risen sun, and her long hair was caught in a cap that overshadowed her eyes, but did not hide the brilliantly white smile that appeared as Piersen stared.
"Good morning. Sorry I had to intrude on your sleep."
"Sorry to keep you waiting." Piersen recovered, answering with a smile of her own. "I told you I'm a heavy sleeper."
Kai straightened, and opened the car door. "I can think of worse. I wake up to anything."
"Is that why you're up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning?"
The tall woman laughed. "I guess I made the right decision, then. I was going to suggest we start out just before sunrise."
"You would have been rowing alone, believe me." Piersen nodded in affirmation, joining in the laughter. She climbed into the passenger seat and buckled up. "Where are we going?"
"To the Parramatta River. It's a direct continuation of Sydney Harbour that stretches out and narrows as it heads westward. My rowing club has a boatshed in Five Dock." The ignition engaged, and the engine roared into life.
A blonde eyebrow quirked with some interest. "Rowing club, huh? Must be a good way to meet people."
"I'm sure it is." Her hands executed a neat three-point turn. "But I tend to row a little earlier than most people, so I don't really run into anyone else."
"You prefer it that way?"
"I don't like to share the river." A broad grin. "There are advantages to getting out there before the break of dawn, Piersen."
"Oh, you'll have to do a heck of a lot of convincing for me to believe that." She joked, considering her companion's profile. Though it's easy to imagine you wanting the river and sunrise to yourself.
Kai's smooth voice eased into her thoughts. "Well, we'll see how today goes for you. Once the feeling of working the water gets into your system, there's no turning back."
Piersen smiled. "What star sign are you?"
Blue eyes blinked once, but Kai quickly obliged. "I'm a cusp - Sagittarius and Capricorn."
The blonde woman's face lit up with surprise. Of course - it makes perfect sense... "That's near Winter solstice, isn't it?"
"Summer, actually. Southern hemisphere, if you remember." Feeling the silence grow, the doctor's curiosity got the better of her. "Why did you ask?"
"Well -" Piersen frowned, trying to piece her thoughts together. "You see, Sagittarius is a Fire sign - it tends to overpower and control water. But Capricorn is an Earth sign, which is nourished by water, and derives its strength from it. It fits you like a glove."
"I'm sure there are lots of rowers who are neither of these signs, Piersen."
"True, but I doubt that many of them would take as much pleasure in it as you do."
Kai nodded, unable to deny her the truth. "You believe in horoscopes?"
"No, not really. They're like an alternate philosophy; another way to understand human nature." She snorted a little, her lips twisted in a wry grin. "I don't think that every Piscean will find true love on Tuesday, lose all their money on Friday and encounter a tall, dark stranger on Saturday, if that's what you mean."
Kai laughed. "Trying to understand human nature is quite an undertaking."
"Hey, I can only try." Piersen chuckled briefly, then became more composed as the laughter faded. "All artists, at some point, are looking to understand human nature. Even if its for a moment in capturing a look, a voice, a note - you are captive to the expression of something innately present, but diffusely intangible. I've been doing it all my life."
A soft smile. "Have you been successful so far?"
"I don't know. I'm constantly learning, but the cup is never full..." Piersen trailed off, becoming engaged in her thoughts for a moment. "Do you believe in souls?"
Dark eyebrows raised at the non sequitur. "I'm sorry?"
Piersen quirked an apologetic grin. "That came from nowhere, didn't it? What I mean is - as a neurosurgeon, you've seen lots of brains. And you know the ins and outs of their structure and function. With all that knowledge... do you still believe in the existence of the soul, of intuition? The psyche?"
"Don't mess around with the easy ones, do you?" Kai smiled, finding the question unsettling, intriguing and endearing all at once. Honestly, Kai - I don't think you've ever really sat down and thought about this kind of thing. She chewed at the inside of her mouth absently, lips pursed in thought. "We all have the same brains, Piersen. All our neural connections go the same places, and corresponding parts of our brains are specialised for the same kind of functions."
They paused at a red light, and Kai leaned her arms across her steering wheel, her aquiline features setting into a look of intent consideration. "They once said that a gland in the brain - the Pineal gland - was the seat of human intellect and the soul, because it was the only structure that didn't display the left-right symmetry that exists for all other parts of the brain. Turns out it produces Melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleeping and awakenings. Though some people still think it holds truth, in both the literal and spiritual sense."
The lights changed to green, making Kai aware of her digression. "If anything's certain, it's that there is no one place that is the 'seat of the soul'. Until I get evidence otherwise, I'm content in thinking that the soul is something outside the nervous system."
Piersen took in a breath. "So... scientific, Kai."
A wry smile. "I am a scientist, Piersen."
"But what about pure faith? Do you - believe?"
For a moment, Kai remained silent as she phrased her thoughts. "I want to believe," She deadpanned in her closest FBI agent approximation, then smiled somewhat deprecatingly at her poor joke. "I believe in something that defines us, which isn't reliant on our biology alone."
The blonde head nodded as she absorbed the information. "I guess knowledge and faith are very different things..."
"That they are." Kai agreed. "But they aren't as fractioned as you may think, Piersen. The professor I worked with in Cambridge once told me that to believe in knowledge is to travel on a path where others have been. But true bravery and discovery is to take a leap of faith."
Piersen turned to her companion, only to find blue eyes on her.
Kai looked away. "Scientists can be the most impossible dreamers." She shrugged, her profile remaining resolutely trained on the road.
And what impossibilities have you dreamed of, Kai? The question was caught in Piersen's throat, unable to voice it aloud. Every day I seem to learn something more about you - and with every day there are more questions to ask.
Asking these questions was not peculiar for Piersen - her natural curiosity and desire to portray her subjects completely had seen to a cultivation of that trait. Yet her new friend had so completely captured her imagination - so open in conversation, but leaving volumes unsaid at the same time. A manner that was casual and stiff all at once, a presence familiar and strange. The dichotomous mix drew her in, but this same mesmerising gravity that caused her to instinctively keep away. Her own reaction confused her, creating more questions... Yet...
So much to think about - so many questions... She sighed. Perhaps the way is to let the answers come in their own time. Perhaps I should just -
Take a leap of faith.
Piersen smiled, feeling a degree of an incredible freedom descend on her like angel's wings. She leaned back into the soft leather of the seat, remarking in wonder. "Wow. What a way to start the morning."
Kai laughed indulgently, her pale irises warming in the strengthening light. "And you said you weren't a morning person. We'll have you out here at the crack of dawn yet."
The Land Rover continued its course along the highway.
The slender boat, with its two sliding benches and four collapsed oars, bobbed in the water like a wounded duck. Kai and Piersen stood close by on the wooden deck, watching its erratic, hiccuping motions.
"And how you you propose I get in there without falling into the river?" Piersen eyed the lightweight fibreglass hull with some apprehension. One hand rested comfortably on a hip which was now covered by cotton shorts, the polartec sweater having been left with their belongings in the car. The other hand shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun, which was still low in its journey up the sky.
"How about I get in first? It'll help stabilise the rocking." Kai stepped in and folded her long legs into the narrow interior of the boat. She reached for the edge of the platform and pulled the boat in closer to Piersen, who looked gingerly at the empty place in front of her smiling companion.
Kai offered her hand. "It's more stable that you think."
"Hm. That's what they always say." Piersen groused, then smiled as she leaned into the proferred arm. Lowering herself to the polished seat, her hands found the grips of the oars as Kai pushed them out into more open water.
"Okay. Remember what we discussed about technique?"
"I think so." She pushed the oars slightly against the water, testing the resistance.
"Do you want to give it a few strokes, just to get the feel of it?" Kai watched from behind her sunglasses as Piersen placed her feet against the braces and positioned her grip. "Just take it easy. Remember, we're going backwards."
"Hey! I know that part!" Piersen protested laughingly, flicking a fine spray of riverwater back at her friend.
Kai couldn't help but smile, her mind's eye unwittingly lingering on the moment when the clear diamond-like arc framed bright gold-green eyes and flaxen hair. "Alright then - show me what you've got."
"Wipe that smirk off your face, Kai Jamieson. I'll be blowing your socks off."
Oh, don't I believe it. Kai grinned internally. You've already done that more often than I can count... She felt the boat begin to move, hesitantly at first, then assume a steady momentum. Her eyes clinically analysed the way in which the muscles in the slight shoulders bunched and relaxed, the flexure of the sharp, defined bumps on her spine, the symmetry of her contracting and lengthening stance.
Kai reached out, speaking as she gently corrected Piersen's posture. "Okay - just keep your movements flowing, with a straight back. And lean from your hips, not your upper back." She placed her hands on either side of Piersen's waist, passively guiding her movement.
"Perfect." She answered absently, blue eyes tracing the interface of her dark hands against the porcelain skin. No - too dark, too large, too rough...
They quickly left Piersen's body as if the skin beneath burned, and folded benignly into a loose clasp between her bent knees. Kai shook her head, clearing away her thoughts. "Rowing is actually more about your legs than you think. Try to transfer more power to pushing with your legs than pulling with your arms. It'll save you a lot of pain later in the day."
Seeing the figure before move with greater familiarity, Kai began to extend her oars into the water. "I'm going to join you now. You call the pace, and I'll follow."
Piersen felt the resistance lighten as the taller woman's strength came into play, the boat seemingly jerking into life with every stroke. She felt the boat being smoothly propelled forwards, keeping time with their slow, deliberate rhythm - a perfect magnification of the movement of bone and muscle.
They continued wordlessly for a handful of minutes, broken by Kai's voice. "How are you going? Are you warmed up?"
"Sure. I feel great."
"Do you want to try something?"
A smile. "What do you have in mind?"
"Go thirty strokes at a moderate pace, then fifty strokes fast." She heard Kai count out the timing of the strokes. "I'll keep track of how much we've done. At the end of the eighty, just pull your oars in towards you, and keep the ends out of the water, okay?"
"I'm game. Let's go." Listening to the voice behind her begin to keep time, Piersen began matching her movements to the indicated beat.
She gradually lengthened into her strokes, her body bending fully into each pull, recovery and lunge. She was right. This feeling of working the water is... wow. She revelled in the physicality of it, how every move seemed to break her body down to its basest elements; air powering the fire in her lungs, spreading heat throughout her body as she pushed into and against the water.
"Three, two, one..."
Her friend's smooth voice counted steadily behind her, the reassuring presence apparently barely winded as the sound of her strokes remained constant in their driving rhythm. It feels good, working in tandem with her like this. It's like we're parts of something greater than ourselves, working towards the same destination...
"Three, two, one... Alright - this is the last ten - "
Piersen pulled intently at the oars, pacing herself to reserve the bulk of her energy for the final stretch.
"Three, two, one - Give it all you've got!"
Taking a deep breath, Piersen bore down on her legs and began to execute powerful strokes, feeling as if her spine was one, long elastic cord that contracted and expanded as her body folded itself closed and open. Her eyes remained on her feet as she concentrated on the purity of movement, the smooth incision of oars into water, the sharp whisper of the water rushing only inches beneath her.
In an instant, she was all power and motion. It was an indescribable sensation - when the body simply became the perfect machine, the mind centred on the sounds that swirled about her. Before she knew it, Kai's voice had barked out the final set of ten, and she pulled the oars in towards her, lifting them high out of the water. The boat continued to glide powerfully along the river, the thrilling momentum causing Piersen to lift her aching neck and look up.
The sun had ascended higher, shining almost directly into her eyes as the river seemed to shrink away from her. Her heart was thudding. The cooling air pressed against her back. Her breath came in clear, deep gulps, her arms and legs almost dizzy from the sensation. The green banks rushed past her in a blur against the iridescent river.
"Whoo! This is incredible!" Piersen shouted over the sound of rushing water, her exuberantly laughing face alight with exertion. She allowed her fingertips to trail in the water lazily and her head fell back, feeling the sunlight caress under her chin, the length of her neck, her heaving chest.
Kai watched quietly with a smile, oblivious to the risen sun as she basked in her friend's radiant pleasure.
The gnarled trunks of the huge Moreton Bay fig trees of Mrs Macquarie's Point sprawled dappled shadows across the grass, which sloped in an ever-increasing gradient towards the rocks and waters of Farm Cove and Woollomooloo Bay. The park sat on a slight out-jutting of the central Sydney foreshore, blending into the neighbouring Botanical Gardens and the Domain.
Kai and Piersen sat comfortably along the slopes, the particular incline at that position perfect for leaning back into the slightly overgrown grass. The neurosurgeon, clad in the clean lines of dark blue 501s and a simple, white Bonds T-shirt, sat upright just in front of her blonde companion and her motley collection of mobile phone, diary and pager. Her hands were currently engaged in a commentary of their surroundings, gesturing across the body of water that spanned towards the East.
"Those are the naval dockyards - most of the warships that enter the harbour are cleaned up there. Fortuitiously located right next to Kings Cross, a big nightclub and red-light district - perfect for the sailors, I'd suspect." She brushed a lock of loose, dark hair from her face.
Piersen smirked, her eyes alight. "They have to get it from somewhere." Her bare arms smoothed out the sky-blue linen dress which she had changed into, the soft material grazing mid-way down her thighs.
Dark eyebrows quirked in the curator's direction, a slight smirk appearing and wiped away by Kai's long-fingered hand. "I don't need to tell you what's over there." She looked towards the west, where the magnificent span of the Harbour bridge dominated the horizon, flanked by the Opera House and CBD on the south side, and the clustered houses clamouring for waterfront space on the north shore. "That's why this place is popular with the tourists."
"Why is this place called Mrs Macquarie's Chair?"
"Governor Macquarie was one of the great colonial governors in the early 1800s. This whole area of land was practically his backyard, and his wife particularly liked to sit along here and watch the water." She pointed just behind her, over the crest of the hillside they were sitting on. "Take a look over there - see that rock with the inscription? That's the chair he ordered to be carved out for her."
"What a gift indeed." Piersen leaned back on her elbows, breathing in the salt-tinged air. "This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. I wish I had a sketch book out here, or something. I could spend hours here."
Kai quirked a grin. "There are other ways of capturing your surroundings, Piersen."
A soft laugh. "Oh right. Professor Jamieson and her digital camera... you slave to technology, you."
"Hey - some of this technology is going to save your life one day." The surgeon joked back, turning a sky-blue glance over her shoulder. "You'd better hope I was competent with all that stuff."
Piersen eyed her mobile phone with smiling scrutiny. "Somehow, I don't think Ericsson or Nokia is having anything to do with saving my life."
"Perhaps not, but it might get you in touch with me in the off chance that I can do something about it."
"Alright - I won't argue with that." The curator laughingly conceded her point. "But technology isn't always the answer. It's like your digital camera - a fantastic instrument, and an item of amazing convenience. It helps you save time - but in the end, you still find yourself tooo busy to sit down in a beautiful place, simply to draw for a while."
"Perhaps that can be the agenda for our next venture, then."
"I would like that. Very much." A quiet settled between them, and Piersen smiled, closing her eyes; taking genuine pleasure in the gentle beat of the sun on her skin.
Their time on the Parramatta River went by faster than Piersen had thought, hours falling away like minutes as they worked their way downstream, and up again. It was the most substantial amount of exercise Piersen had indulged in since her move, and her body voiced its approval in the pliant, uniform soreness that warmed her muscles.
Driving to the hospital - free parking, according to Kai - the doctor had indicated to her the showering facilities at her offices. Short of a bathtub, it was practically a hotel in there. Except the soap provided was of the alcohol-based, disinfectant variety. Piersen stifled a chuckle. When she questioned the purpose of the showers, she was surprised to learn that they were not purely available for the convenience of gym-going consultants.
"Very often, if you're called to do an emergency procedure in the middle of the night, it's not worthwhile getting home and coming back in time for a morning start. They set up the bathrooms here with showers so you can freshen up before heading back to the office for a few hours before the day begins." Kai punctuated with a brisk tap of papers against the wood of her desktop, gathering and placing them in her briefcase.
Piersen gave a quiet chuckle of disbelief from her vantage point, leaning against the doorway of her friend's office. You're not serious. "So you could, say, be called up at three in the morning, finish your operation at five..."
"... and catch up on work or sleep in the office for an hour or two."
"Golly, Kai - do you do that?"
"From time to time. I live on the northside, so depending on how I feel I might not want to run the gauntlet of the harbour crossing in the mornings. So I stick around - I can go visit my lab over at the Garvan, or stay in here for a while."
Piersen shook her head helplessly, unable to articulate the feeling that hovered somewhere between amusement, concern and dismay.
The doctor smiled, indicating a hinged section in her wood-panelled wall. "I keep a wardrobe in there. And that couch by the wall there is very comfortable. It's not exactly a hardship, you know."
It's a wonder you have a life outside of work. Piersen took in a breath, mindful that the time Kai had spent with her could have been put to better use. Like finding a cure to some other disease, or something...
Sighing quietly, she opened her eyes and saw the tall figure folded up, arms slung loosely around her knees as she surveyed the harbour. "You're all hunched over, Kai - wasn't all that crouching over a pair of oars enough for the day?"
Kai smiled uneasily, but the expression went unseen by the woman sitting slightly behind her. "I'm fine."
"You won't be, when you try to stand up." Green eyes watched the stoically motionless form with some amusement. "Hey - we're sitting in the middle of a gorgeous field of grass - how can you not want to lie down in it?" She patted the spot beside her. "Come on - stretch out a bit. Besides, I'd rather talk to your face, not your back."
Chastened, Kai shifted up the slope of the hill, unable to stifle her reaction to the stiffening muscles. Oof.
Piersen saw the slight wince. "That's really sore, isn't it?"
"No - I'll be right." She fiddled with her pager, suddenly wishing it would ring.
"I'd believe you, but something tells me you wouldn't pay much attention to it." She smiled impishly and reached out, fingertips brushing Kai's shoulder. "Move a bit closer - I'll fix it up for you."
The dark woman withdrew, knowing that massage of any form was her greatest weakness. It was pure hedonism, and her entire body knew it - in the early days at Cambridge, her entirely-involuntary vocal responses to the most innocuous of muscle rubs earned her quite a reputation within their small circle of friends. Even Laine blushed, once - Kai recalled ruefully, her face colouring at the memory.
Unwilling to undergo the same humiliation, particularly in view of her fledging friendship with Piersen, Kai shook her head firmly. "No - really, you shouldn't... I'm fine -"
"You know, for a doctor, you can be pretty pigheaded about looking after yourself." Piersen chided gently, rising to her feet. Placing her hands on her friend's shoulders to still her movements, she settled just behind her in the soft grass. Her thumbs swept strong arcs from the midline out to the tips of Kai's broad shoulders, feeling for areas of resistance in the smooth expanse of muscle. "You're really tense, Kai."
Kai's eyes widened slightly before falling shut as she felt the delicious pressure kneading at her shoulders. She gritted her teeth in order to contain the growl that threatened in her throat. For god's sake... why the hell does she have to be so damn good at this? "It's nothing... just - it's always been a bit... I've only just picked up rowing again..."
With the heel of her hand, Piersen rubbed deep circles along the columns of muscle on either side of her spine. "Why did you stop?"
"Work. Moving from Cambridge." Her lips parted in a silent groan, and her head fell forward entirely of its own accord. "They offered me this job year and a half ago."
"So you haven't been back home for long."
"No -" She tried to suppress a gasp, inhaling as deeply and deliberately as she could. Her eyes flew open to the whites as fingers found a particularly obstinate knot just medial to her shoulder blades. Oh boy -- right there... Renegade muscles leaned back against the strong, firm touch, seeking more of the bone-deep pressure.
Monosyllabic answers. Piersen smiled, pleased that her friend was feeling better, even if it was at the expense of proper conversation. She eased the intensity a little, and tried to coax the doctor out further. "Why did you come back?"
"Sydney is home. I could never leave for too long." Kai took a quietly shuddering breath, feeling her muscles seem to melt under her companion's hands. She continued to talk, her mind concentrating intently on the sensations in her back and shoulders. "I trained and worked at St. Vincent's before I left. After I got published they thought it would benefit their image if they appointed a new head of Neurology and Neurosurgery. So they asked me."
"To benefit their image? You mean like a pin-up girl?"
Kai laughed as much as her erratic breath would allow. "No one would mistaken me for that, Piersen. Anyone who did would have been discouraged from thinking that pretty quickly." She tersely related the surprise of the hospital board when they discovered that she had neatly transferred much of the department's power to her administration.
A pin-up girl with brains, then. I guess this is a glimpse into the Professor they talk about... "I see what you mean. But it seems you both win, in the end. You got what you want, and they got what they wanted."
"I guess I'm just lucky."
"It's not all luck, Kai. I'm sure individual capabilities play a role too." She smiled wryly, unwilling to see the doctor undervalue herself.
"Perhaps." It was then that Kai realised the deep massage had evolved into even, superficial strokes that served to awaken her nerve endings and stimulate blood flow. She turned and repositioned herself so that she faced her friend, smiling with awkward gratitude. That was bad, Kai. That was very, very bad.
But it felt so damn good... She rolled her shoulders, noting that the dull throb had transformed to a uniform heat that suffused her muscles. She grinned in spite of herself, a touch embarrassed, and sought to turn her mind elsewhere. "So - while we're on the subject, did you really come out here just to work at the MCA?"
Piersen did not reply immediately. Blue eyes watched with some puzzlement as the frail figure shifted until she was facing with her back towards her. "I guess - this was as much a chance to further my career as to see the world." The slender neck dipped, a silent request for reciprocation.
Kai stared for a moment, a thousand thoughts flying in her mind. I guess that's the etiquette with this kind of thing, isn't it? Oh boy. Large hands reached for the exposed shoulders, then gradually found their place on the warm skin overlying the fine ridges of her scapulae. Taking a deep breath, she set her jaw and began, resolutely maintaining her part in the conversation. "But you were already quite well travelled before this, according to your resume."
"Yes - but I think... I needed a broader escape. Past Europe, past what was familiar. I wanted something completely different." Green eyes closed, and a frown appeared as Piersen found herself caught between the glorious pressure of Kai's strong grip and her discomfort at remembering her reasons for relocating across the world.
Escape. The word struck Kai as being a strange choice, but she continued. "An adventurer, then?"
A chuckle. "Not really. I'm not exactly here looking for a thrill."
"Sydney's a city full of surprises, Piersen. You'll never know what you might find here." Kai joked lamely, trying to turn her mind from the ivory smoothness beneath her fingertips. Her thumbs kneaded in deliberate, long strokes, careful to avoid pressing too much into the pale skin.
"Oh, I believe it. Moving here was the best thing I've done in my life." She laughed, feeling the awkward weight in the air dissipate, and gave herself over fully to the gradual loosening of her stiff shoulders. "Just a little harder, please."
Harder. Kai's nostrils flared as she took in another deep breath, her internal voice almost growling. Alright. She obliged, feeling slim body slump imperceptibly further towards her.
"Oh, that's perfect, Kai. Don't be afraid of putting your weight behind it - I won't bruise."
Strong, tapered thumbs worked on the pressure points down either side of her spine and up again, feeling Piersen shiver reflexively at the slithering sensation. Kai continued to speak. "The city's beautiful, but you need to head out to the country, out into the bush. That's where the real beauty lies."
Piersen laughed a short laugh, but made no attempt to qualify it.
"Something amuse you?"
"I can't see you being out in the country, Kai."
An eyebrow arched. "And why is that?"
"You have your fine wines, your haute cuisine. You're a creature of urbanisation. Besides, the hospital will probably go crazy if they don't know your whereabouts by the hour." She threw a significant glance at the small heap of communications devices beside them.
"I may surprise you yet, Piersen."
Piersen's intercostals contracted under Kai's fingertips as she laughed. "Was that a challenge?"
"Did you want it to be?" Her voice was low and silky, the smile tauntingly elusive.
The blonde woman was silent, apparently giving Kai's proposal some careful consideration. With a start, she turned from the doctor's touch and knelt before her, small hands keeping her balance on Kai's forearms. "Okay then - I challenge you to a trip out in the country. One weekend out in the bush, as you people here call it."
"That's the challenge?" A somewhat cynical tone accompanied Kai's smile.
"Oh, not tough enough, Professor?" Emerald eyes narrowed slightly before softening into a laugh. "Alright, we up the ante. No mobile phones, no pagers, no digital cameras or whatever. Completely gizmo-free. And we cook our own food - none of this five star gourmet fare. Still think you can handle it?"
"Do I get to name the venue?" Kai countered, and was met with a smile and a nod from her friend. "Let me know when you have time, and I'll get things organised." She paused, a thought suddenly coming to her. "Wait - what do I win?"
Piersen laughed with feigned indignation. "Oh, we're a little confident, aren't we? What are you prepared to lose?"
Everything. Kai found mind speaking before she could stop it, and mentally shook herself free from the unexpected lapse. She inclined her head. "You decide."
"Okay then - the prize is a wish. A favour." Piersen grinned brightly, viciously. "If I win, you will perform whatever task I name. And if you win..."
"Understood." Kai nodded calmly, despite her fervent gratitude that she was already seated as she swallowed, hard.
Thirty - Metamorphosis
The Red Room was filled with patrons, providing a background of energy and conversation that blanketed the interior. The dimly-lit room was broken by the bright spotlight which was trained on the stage and its performers, their music dominating the richly dark lounge atmosphere.
"Popular event." Kai remarked dryly, her imposing height cutting easily through the crowds as Piersen followed in her wake.
"James gave the impression that this was pretty big." She moved closer to her friend, buffetted by the swarms of people just as they walked past the bar area. "I guess everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame."
They moved to a vacant spot along the ornate iron railing that bounded the seating area and claimed it, leaning comfortably as they focused on the performer who seemed to have commandeered the crowd's adulation with a flamboyant rendition of an old standard.
When you kiss me, Fever when you hold me tight -
Piersen's face froze in an expression of laughter, astonishment and horror. "Oh golly - that's -"
"James." Kai supplied with a quirked eyebrow, though there was no hiding the surprise on her face. "He is very good with that falsetto."
In the morning, Fever all through the night...
Piersen laughed, more freely now that the initial shock has worn off. "Wow. That man has no fear." She watched the trim outline of her friend draped over the microphone stand, overtly seducing crowd with his voice and makng eyes at Adam, who accompanied him on the grand piano just behind his left shoulder.
Eyes which looked up and found hers. James smiled brilliantly and beckoned them both with his finger, remaining completely in character as he indicated the empty table at the foot of the stage.
"I think that means we go up and sit there." Piersen brushed her companion's wrist and led in a weaving path through the tables, finally reaching their table and sitting down. From this vantage point, James almost appeared larger than life, a poster boy from the fifties; with tight black T-shirt covering his grecian torso, tucked into pressed grey pants ending in polished, black shoes.
Kai smiled. "You must have so much fun working with this guy."
"Hey, I'm as surprised as you. I've obviously underexploited his talents." Piersen laughed, then cheered along enthusiastically with the crowd as the song ended. They made room as the two men left the stage and moved towards them.
"Thank you, thank you very much." James intoned in a poor Elvis imitation, beaming as he sat down.
"Stick to Peggy Lee, alright? She's more your range." Adam teased, then joined them at the table. "Glad to see you both could make it! How are you going?"
"Wonderful, thank you." Piersen replied, still laughing. The four exchanged pleasantries and orders drinks all round, bantering easily amongst the buzz of voices that filled the opulent room.
"Will we see more of you tonight, James?" Kai inquired over her drink, her lips curved in a half-smile.
"No, that was it from me - it's always my Grand Finale. We've been booked up pretty heavily tonight - almost everyone wants a go on stage." He threw a look at his partner. "Adam will be playing a bit more - he tends to play intermittent through the night -"
"Hey, I own the place - I can play when I want to," Adam joked, feigning offense.
" - Just as a breather between some of the more, or less popular acts." The sandy-blond man completed, looked up on stage as a patron attempted Dave Brubeck and sighed.
"What, people can get booed off?" Piersen shook her head. "Golly - it's like a firing squad."
"Yes, but we feed you, and give you the best cocktails in town - so at least you die from humiliation in style." James grinned unapologetically, then gave her a significant look. "Now?"
The smaller woman nodded, returning a sharp smile. "Oh yes. Now."
Kai watched the exchange with a suspicious arch to her brows. "What's going on?"
Adam gestured dismissively. "Oh, just preparing the next act." He watched as James leapt on stage and made for the microphone.
"Alright, Ladies and Gentlemen - have we got a treat for you. Put your hands together for Adam and the lovely Ms Jamieson!" The crowd erupted in applause, all save one - who pinned Piersen with a poisonous cobalt stare.
"Oh no. No you don't." Or was that a hint of fear in those blue irises? "I am not going up there to sing."
"Please, Kai - I've been looking forward to this all day." She reached out and covered the large, bronzed hands. "Just this once - let it all hang out and have some fun, alright?"
"Come on, Kai - the crowd's cheering for you. Let's go." Adam stood and offered his hand, smiling steadily at the dark-haired woman who mouthed dangerous words to her seated friend as she stepped up on the platform.
James returned to the table, every hint of his stance impossibly proud of himself. "Well, that was easy, wasn't it?"
"Yes. But I propose that we bolt as soon as the song finishes." Piersen drew a breath, remembering the shiver that went down her spine when she caught the doctor's playful, but very sincere threat for retribution. Oh golly - but the look on her face was so worth it...
She turned her eyes to the stage, watching Kai bow over the piano as she whispered with Adam, holding the microphone loosely in her fingers. The applause died down and tall woman turned slightly towards the audence, remaining in the sharp curve of the grand piano as she leaned against the polished surface. In her jeans, t-shirt and boots she cut a dramatic figure against the black of the stage, her lanky frame as relaxed against the piano as a gunslinger at a saloon bar. Her eyes, however, remained on one person in the crowd.
Her smoky voice caressed the microphone, amplified to a velvet caramel. "Hope you like Cole Porter."
The smile on Piersen's lips died away as the laser-blue gaze rested on her, and she was helpless to do anything but to remain beneath it's weight. All other sounds died away; James' presence receeded into the subconscious - it seemed that the yellow-white spotlight found the only person in the entire room, who sang only to one.
Night and Day, you are the one.
Only you, beneath the moon and under the sun.
Whether it's near to me or far,
It's no matter darling where you are
I think of you
Night and Day.
The voice she knew to be warm and vibrant turned sultry, langorous. The lips she knew in a smile, parted in laughter now appeared sensuous, made lethally red by the strong light that bleached the colour from her skin, highlighted the planes of her face. The eyes that reflected the sky, that warmed her heart now coaxed it to beat harder, faster.
Night and Day, under the hide of me,
There's an - oh, such a hungry yearning
Burning inside of me.
And it's torment won't be through
'Till you let me spend my life making love to you,
Day and Night,
Night and Day...
The aural seduction ended - and the piano faded. Slowly, as if in a wave, the cheers and applause reared and broke into Piersen's consciousness once more, bringing her out of a haze that she now barely remembered. Only the lingering sensation of her heartbeat remained - one that thudded closer to her skin, closer to her awareness than she could ever readily explain.
Kai returned to the table, her eyes meeting Piersen's wonderous gaze. Her smile, however, was rakish and shy - an expression that made Piersen doubt if the incredible transformation she witnessed had actually happened at all.
James crowed loudly in his delight. "Kai! I had no idea you could sing like that! Any chances of signing you up as a regular?"
The surgeon replied with a crooked twist of her lips. "Only if you can convince Piersen to hop up and perform as well."
The sound of her name snapped Piersen fully into the present. "No! Golly, there's no way I'm going to make a fool of myself up there."
Kai laughed exuberantly, a triumphant expression on her face. "So that's what you thought of my singing."
"No!" Piersen reached out and placed her hand on Kai's wrist, partly laughing, protesting, and reassuring the tall woman who watched her with teasing eyes. "You weren't a fool at all."
Beat. "You were beautiful."
The tall woman beamed at her, her teeth a brilliant flash of white in the dim light of the Red Room. She was about to respond when a light beep caught her attention, breaking her smile as she turned to reach for her phone. "Jamieson."
Taking a deep breath to clear her thoughts, Piersen turned her attention to Adam who, continuing in the Cole Porter vein, began with "I've Got You Under My Skin". The deft piano-playing and subtle harmony was mesmerising, yet for all appearances Adam's hands seemed to fly across the keyboard with effortless ease, his head bobbing slightly in time to the upbeat swing.
She anchored herself to the music, feeling strangely adrift and light-headed. So intent was she on the music that she did not realise anything was amiss until she felt Kai's forgotten hand move from beneath hers.
Piersen looked up, startled at the unfamiliar pallor on Kai's face as she disconnected her call. She spoke quietly, searching her friend's granite expression carefully. "Kai? You alright?"
"I'm sorry - something's happened with one of my patients. I have to go." Her voice was steady but almost too deliberate, a stony dullness where it was warmly resonant just moments before. She glanced apologetically at James, whose face mirrored Piersen's concern, before moving away.
"Wait - " The blonde woman did not think twice, rising to her feet and stepping beside her. "I'll come with you."
"Piers, I don't think - "
Piersen cut in, looking firmly into the pale blue of Kai's troubled eyes. "Please."
Beat. "Alright - let's go."
Without another word, Kai's long strides took her halfway to the exit, leaving Piersen to blink surprised in her wake before jogging after her.
Piersen could see Kai's hands fidget as the lift passed fifteenth, then sixteenth floor, even though the rest of her towering figure was stiffly composed. They could not speak during their quick jog along Oxford Street to the hospital complex, and now, as Piersen's thudding heart began to slow, speaking did not seem to be the right thing to do. The elevator space, albeit empty, seemed almost too small for them as unasked questions and an inherent feeling of unease permeated the air.
The lift doors had barely chimed open when Kai slipped past and strode to the front desk, finding her night registrar speaking with some agitation into the phone. Looking up at the approaching figure, the young woman finished her call quickly and hung up, coming from behind the counter to meet her supervising consultant. "Dr. Jamieson -"
"Lauren! Where is he?"
"He's back in his room." The woman she addressed led her a short way down the corridor into a nearby room, into which the surgeon entered. Piersen felt an invisible barrier drawn across the walls where her friend had disappeared, and decided to stop just outside the nurses' station where she could just glimpse Kai's broad shoulders, everything else obscured by a half-closed door.
The ward's lights were dimmed, with night shift well into its third hour. Despite this somnulent setting there was a level of background activity that was like static in her ears - the muttering of nurses behind her as they dialed phone numbers and scribbled notes, the tension that seemed to crackle in the awful stillness - causing her own skin to crawl with foreboding.
Amidst all this, Piersen could resolve a familiar voice, snippets of conversation that floated to her corner with wavering acuity.
"How did this happen?" Kai's normally calm, measured tones were harshly demanding.
"He managed... bedsheets... tried resus, but there was too much hypoxic damage..."
"Damn!" There was a tense pause. "This can't have just happened out of nowhere."
"I agree... mental state. . . seemed positive..."
"Have you informed his family?"
"Yes... any time now. Do you want...?"
"No. I will talk with them alone. I need to look at his records. Has he ever been scheduled with a counsellor?"
"Yes... mild anxiety... nothing out of the ordinary..."
Piersen tore herself from the conversation, not quite trusting herself to piece the real meaning of the conversation together, yet somehow implicitly knowing something of great import had transpired. She looked so worried - one instant smiling, then the phone call comes and everything fell away like a midnight spell...
There was a quiet bell as the elevator doors slid open down the hallway, followed by a rush of footfalls. The family. Piersen could sense the barely restrained haste as a small group of people moved towards her, seeking the nurses station. The woman leading the way spoke tersely to the nurse, and waited as the she disappeared down the corridor, calling for the Professor and returning with the tall figure close at her heels.
The form was familiar to her, but the bearing was so different - commanding and formidable all at once, an undeniable presence that demanded attention with a flicker of her eyes.
"Mrs Oppenheimer - if we could speak in here, please." Kai motioned the family members into the waiting room, turning over her shoulder to give Piersen a fleeting, lingering glance before stepping inside, closing the door behind her.
Piersen awoke suddenly, lost in a heartbeat's disorientation before realising she had dozed off at the nurses' station. She lifted her arms from the neat, but cluttered counter and rose to her feet, stepping outside into the corridor once more.
A tired-looking doctor stood writing notes in folder, the same young woman who had greeted Kai earlier in the night. Her curly brown hair was tied back severely from her face, and her stethoscope was slung around her neck. The black rubber and metal appeared much too heavy for her slender neck, almost a yoke that added further weight to her weariness.
She looked up, revealing eyes that were alert, though slightly haggard. "Hello."
"Hi." Piersen smiled slightly, running her hand through her cropped hair. "Has K -- Dr Jamieson come out at all?"
"No - she's still in there. The police just arrived about 15 minutes ago, so they might take a while." The doctor looked down the corridor, at the door which was still closed. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you. Though I'd swap places with you if I could. You look like you could do with some sleep yourself."
"No, it's alright. Thanks for offering, though." She flashed a quick smile.
They both looked up abruptly as a tall, familiar figure emerged into the hallway, followed by two uniformed officers. The neurosurgeon bade them goodnight, watching them as they made for the elevator, then turned her gaze to Piersen and her registrar.
Indicating for the doctor to step towards her, Kai spoke quietly to her for a few moments, intently giving instructions for the remainder of the shift. Piersen watched the brief interaction, green eyes studying the stark, angular face that was composed - much too composed - the lack of expression appearing more like an unreadable veneer.
The hushed exchange broke, and Kai turned and approached her, finally. Piersen opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by two tersely muttered words.
They both made for the elevator, the doctor pressing for the ground floor with an absent flicker of her finger. Piersen stood within an arm's length beside her but felt worlds away as she forced her attention on the illuminated display. She looks so - wooden, so pale... Without thinking, she reached out and touched the large hands that grasped the metal support bar, wishing she could brush the mask-like stoicism from the aquiline features...
There was a visible flinch, and Kai shot her a startled, burning look - the ice-blue eyes wide, haunted. Piersen held that gaze, her insides gripped by the unspoken emotion within it, unable to look away.
The lift stopped. Kai stepped away from the touch and drew herself straight, though her hands were gripped tightly into fists as they walked out into the corridor.
"Kai... maybe I should drive you home."
There was no response for a protracted moment. Then the tall woman nodded once, an obsidian hardness darkening the blueness of her eyes. Piersen wanted to melt that unyielding expression away, but she knew implicitly that the surgeon did not want to have her distress acknowledged, even if the hospital was nearly deserted.
They stepped out into the night. As they walked to her car, it struck Piersen just how alone she felt in her presence, and she wondered how lonely her friend must be feeling.
The door opened, sending a shaft of moonlight into Kai's darkened hallway which widened as two dark figures stepped inside.
Kai did not bother to turn the lights on, instead walking into her vault-like living room with a weary, but still purposeful stride. Piersen closed the door behind her and watched as the doctor poured herself a drink, gulping it down in one smooth motion before repeating the cycle once more.
Piersen stepped to the threshold where the foyer ended and the living space proper began. She hesitated to move further, not knowing how far she was intruding on the silhouetted figure's privacy. The drive across the bridge to MacMahon's Point had been deathly silent, save the brief directions that had been given. Yet, despite the fractured atmosphere within the car, Piersen had been certain of her role. As she regarded her current position in the neurosurgeon's home, however, there was an awkwardness that left her wondering whether she should leave or remain.
Green eyes dark with concern searched for the doctor again in the blackness, and found her beside the bank of windows that revealed the glowing cityscape and the night bathed in moonshine. The glass had been left on the bench - a fact that settled her somewhat as she soundlessly approached the lanky shadow.
The familiar voice that she knew to be vibrant and sonorous was roughened at the edges, a raspiness that indicated exhaustion, drink or emotion - Piersen was uncertain. Yet all the possibilities worried her, and she moved closer still, past the couches and coffee table, stopping outside of an invisible circle several paces away from the object of her concern.
Piersen swallowed, then spoke, softly. "Will you be alright?"
The tall silhouette nodded slightly, bearing a tense stiffness inherent in the rigid stance.
Piersen watched the ripple of muscle as the dark woman's jaw clenched, trying to turn away from sight. But the unwitting motion only threw her face in pale relief against the colourless moon, revealing a sliver of frustrated anger, a shadow of hidden ache.
"Oh, Kai..." Two steps, and Piersen was beside her, a tentative hand on her arm. Even with the feather-like contact the surgeon seemed to stiffen, the tension snapping taut despite the strong pull she felt to lean into her touch.
The silence crackled between them, and while Kai remained frozen in between heartbeats, Piersen seemed to absorb the stifling pressure as her eyes calmly traced the fineness of cheekbones that framed faraway eyes.
Coarse, gravelly words. "It's hardly the first time. I've seen fifty-one others go before him."
Surprised, Piersen looked up at Kai -she's kept count, every single one...
She saw the mask, and past it; into a pain that was ancient and fresh at the same time - something in that realisation resonated deeply within her, and she understood - To have one person die... and to have it happen again and again, all fifty-two times... It was as if a small echo of Kai's experience had rippled over into her own body with that one glance - the fleeting sensation of wrenching in the pit of her stomach, of a suffocating pressure behind her eyes and on her chest.
She reached out, and covered Kai's hand with her own.
The two words hovered between them as they stood facing each other. Without another word Piersen rose on her toes and wrapped her arms around her friend's broad shoulders, tightening her embrace as she lost herself in the sensation of holding and being held - trying to allow her friend's grief to flow into her own body.
There was a flinch that registered briefly on Kai's planar features as the slender figure bore her dark weight with fragile arms. But when she finally closed her eyes, Kai gave her the weight willingly, surrendering to the empathic warmth of Piersen's slim body as the tension oozed into a boneless weariness.
A whisper, so soft that it was almost a caress against Kai's ear. "I wish I'd been there."
The dark head looked up, a question falling with a dark lock of hair into her pale eyes.
"The last time." Piersen reached out and slowly tucked the raven wisp away. "The first time."
The words tumbled over Kai's consciousness, and with a washing sensation time seemed to receed, showing her another amorphous reality when Piersen was indeed there, holding her as she was now... Green eyes looking past her skin into her own heart of darkness, sweeping away all thought save the knowledge that this felt so undeniably familiar, heartbreakingly real.
The events of the day had become as surreal as Impossibility for her - to have risen to such heights of happiness, and to fall again so hard, so fast - only to find herself being carried down to ground by such gentle, gentle hands... Kai closed her eyes and fought the bittersweet feeling in the smooth curve between Piersen's neck and shoulder, in the perfume of rose and wildflowers.
"I wish you had."
A quirked smile brushed against Kai's cheekbone. "Better late then never."
"I - I'm just not used to -" Talking like this. Having someone here like this. Have every word go under my skin like this... Swallowing hard, Kai stepped away from the hypnotising embrace and ran her fingers through loose thick hair. "I'm going to fall over if I don't sit down."
Piersen blinked, feeling the abrupt distance acutely as Kai padded silently to the couch and sank into it, the leather giving way under her weight with a soft hiss. The rushing sound brought the blonde woman back to the present, and she followed her friend's path, lowering herself beside the tall reclining form. There was no apparent response to her presence - Kai's line of sight remained firmly fixed somewhere beyond the windows in the dark harbour.
Piersen spoke softly. "Neither am I."
The azure gaze turned to her, with a hint of a sad smile. "Neither are you what?"
"Not really used to being there for someone; talking, listening. There aren't - there weren't many people I could practice on. But I - I'd like to be good at this, very much." Piersen swallowed, feeling trapped by her own words. "Will you help me?"
"If you'll return the favour." Kai's lips curved broader into a half-grin, but it was gone as quickly as it came, their light banter dissolving into the weight of tonight's events pressing insistently at her chest.
"My patient - Jack Oppenheimer - killed himself at about nine o'clock tonight."
Piersen's bow-like lips parted slightly in a quiet breath. Killed himself?
"He hanged himself... took his bedsheets and looped it around the overhead support, then simply rolled off the bed -" Long-fingered hands gestured vaguely in air, ending with a silent, falling cadence. "He came in with loss of movement and sensation in both his legs."
Sensing the need for clarification, Kai continued, trying to drown herself in the comforting sterility of medical facts. "He has a condition known as Guillaine-Barre syndrome - an acute, progressive polyneuropathy. It causes the nerve sheathes to become inflamed, and it spreads along the course of the nerve, there is progressive loss of function." Her eyes found the dark waters again, noting the calmness within her own heart. Strange... now it seems to easy to talk about it, to let it go...
"I told him that it could either stop, or keep spreading; there was no way of knowing. The normal pattern of spread was from the toes up - it could go high enough to paralyse the respiratory muscles."
Piersen extrapolated the information. "And then he'd suffocate -"
"No." Kai's voice cut in quietly, emphatically. "We'd put him on a respirator, and wait out the inflammation. The disease is transient - it only lasts for about 12 weeks at most, then it all goes away... as if nothing had happened. We told him and his family that it was almost always reversible - that while we didn't know the cause or the cure to the disease it didn't normally cause permanent damage, and that with time it should receed with no complications."
"I think he was so afraid about suffocating he forgot the part about it going away. I told him to give it time, but I never told him how long... That's what I should have done - told him." Kai shook her head, a hint of steel creeping into her voice. "His note - he left a note - he said that he thought he wouldn't walk for years. That he couldn't work, that he'd be a burden to his family, that they'd have to support a cripple. Years! He thought he'd be paralysed for so long, when it could have been all over in weeks..."
Her arms remained gripped on the couch tightly, her entire body coiled with imploding emotion. Then, as if it had suddenly blown over, she leaned back, quietened, resting her head against the sofa - leaving her eyes open to stare blankly into the ceiling, exposing the long length of her throat.
"His death was senseless, so completely senseless..."
Piersen watched her quietly, knowing that behind the unseeing eyes were burning thoughts the smoke of which hung heavy in the air between them. The dark-haired woman's posture was a shifting paradox - stiffly reclining, knitted brows challenging her own thoughts even as her neck stretched vulnerable as if a sacrifice. You and I - we've both been touched by death...
The realisation gave her some comfort, in a way - it was a tenuous platform of commonality for her to understand Kai's silence. And perhaps... Perhaps it would be a road to understand her own vivid silences.
Piersen reached for Kai's loose hand and drew it close to her, watching her face turn slowly towards her, acknowledging her touch with the briefest of smiles. With a halting breath, she tentatively spoke.
She couldn't help but smile. "Not personally." That earned a soft chuckle from Kai. "But I've found that the more senseless it is, the harder it is to let go."
"Sounds like something from experience."
Piersen answered with a slight movement of her head - not a nod, nor a shake, but somewhere in between.
Quiet blue eyes traced patterns in their entwined hands. "Having someone kill themselves on me was never really in my experiential repetoire, Piersen. And to have to find a way to make sense of it to his family..."
"But that's for tomorrow. Tonight it's you, and me." Piersen smiled gently, reaching out without thinking to smooth out a small knot in Kai's brows. "Consider it a referral."
Kai's lips broke into a tired smile "I never really took up those referrals, you know. Everytime a patient passed away the attending medical officer would be referred to a psychologist - I hated the idea of it."
"Of being told it's okay to cry, it's okay to grieve, it's okay to feel everything you're feeling." The frown returned. "I don't want to know if it's okay - I want to know how I can stop it from happening again."
You against the world, Kai? Thinking there's a cure to everything, but there's no cure for this - not the pain I see in your eyes. A brief wave of sadness gave way to a weary sardonic grin. "Is the Professor planning the discovery of the immortality gene?"
"No, it's not about immortality - death is the natural progression of disease and it can't be helped. But something like this -- I could have changed. Said something differently, spent more time with him, reassured him... so many things I could have done to take away his fear."
So many things you could have done... Piersen sighed, concern and resignation mingling in the one breath. You can't cut him open to excise his fear, Kai - no amount of wanting will ever change that. "Kai, don't -"
"'What-if' questions will always be asked, Piers. Even from the Iron Lady experiences human doubt once in a while."
"You're hardly made of iron, Kai." She reached out, absently tracing the rope-like tendons on the prone, limp hands. "You're one of the finest people I know."
Her lips curved, her heart aching. "You need to get around more."
Piersen guffawed, shattering the starkly bleak moment with her bell-like laughter. Kai looked up, startled, watching the blonde woman attempt to stifle her chuckles. "I'm sorry - it's really not that funny at all. More like... ironic." She shook her head, lost in her own mirth.
A lazy, smiling drawl. "Well, one of us should be having fun."
"It's not what you think - it was something I said to myself, not too long ago..." Piersen composed her face, then resettled herself on the couch cross-legged, tucking her hands and Kai's larger one in her lap. She leaned forward, capturing Kai's curious blue eyes with an intent smile.
"Do you remember that night when we first met?"
Could I ever forget? Kai nodded, her expression mirroring her friend's.
"I had spent sixteen hours at the office that day, hammering through the shreds of a museum left behind by the last director who seemed determined to run it to ground. I remember thinking how frustrating it was, sorting through the mess and chaos... Dark brooding spawns even darker brooding, I suppose, and I was in quite a mood by the time it hit midnight or so. It got to a point where I was wondering how I could have possibly picked up my life and moved it half a world away from everything I knew. 'Piers, if this is the way you're going to be spending your evenings from now on, you definately need to get around more.'"
Piersen smiled at her reclining friend, her voice mimicking Kai's own just moments before. She grinned, teasing the doctor with her eyes and her voice as she continued. "And then I met you, that very night. The most arrogant, self-centred doctor I ever had to deal with... You were cold, oozing confidence and seducing me with jargon, talking at me as if I wasn't a human being. After everything that had happened that day, you were the final straw - "
Somewhere along the line, Piersen lost the direction of her tale. She had meant to tweak her friend a little, lighten the heavy air with a laugh, a smile - but she found herself being drawn into a memory that played as clear as celluloid, and her voice could only follow; helpless to do anything but the telling.
"It wasn't until I must've said something really offensive, something hurtful -- You froze within a split moment of time. And I saw what I had done, how wrong about you I was. In half a second of absolute clarity, I knew you. I'd never experienced anything like that before."
Piersen paused, suddenly realising how much she had said. She tucked a wisp of blonde hair behind her ear, swallowing tightly, then looked up into Kai's silent gaze. "And look where we are now."
Kai spoke, her quiet voice carrying clearly in the stillness between them. "I quite like where I am right now."
Piersen felt a firm squeeze from the hand cupped within her own.
"So do I."
To Be Continued - Page Twelve
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