Author's note: This oneshot, along with the next several after it, were meant to be pieces to another story I was planning. These sparkled brighter to me than the other bits, and spurred their own sort of loose plot outside of aforementioned planned piece. Out of the ashes...they say.


[One]

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"It's good to see that you've rejoined the trial."

It finally seemed that Natalie had put her wide-eyed optimism in check, and while she smiled as she spoke, her eyes betrayed no inclination that she'd spent more time than necessary hoping for his return. The warmth in her demeanor was still there, but the empathy and naivety that always shared a dual place in her eyes had vanished, only to be replaced with a kind of compassion that had to be distributed fairly to everyone. She was aware of the change as much as the nurses who witnessed her working with the Recklinghausen trial patients. The difference couldn't be shown in a series of before and after pictures; only through careful observation could it be detected, and enough time looking into mirrors had been spent to give her the needed insight.

Barret had changed as well. The tumors that had begun maiming his body in his late twenties, making his life a continuous hell, were no longer just plaguing his face, arms, and legs. The bitter cynicism that accompanied the disease had faded although the tumors had spread. Perhaps the knowledge that dying alone wouldn't spare him the pain of living had altered his mood, or perhaps he decided that a doctor with such good bedside manner shouldn't be treated with fickle indifference. Either way, he had changed, and while physically the change wasn't for the better, socially it was.

"I made it past spring," he answered the non-question, giving their conversation a point of reference while she checked his stats.

"Which I'm thankful for," she gave him one of those soft smiles reserved for other patients, and he shifted uncomfortably under the light she flashed carefully in his eyes.

"We've altered the medication," she intoned as she moved away from where he sat, making notes on the clipboard she always brought to his physicals. "No one is suffering from rashes any more."

That was good. He knew that was good, and while he should be pleased that this new medication might be the trick, a doctor's somberness goes a long way at putting a blanket on pleasure. "I saw that it was still double-blind."

She nodded as she moved back. "No one likes not knowing," she admitted, instructing him to carefully stretch his arm so that she could retrieve a small sample of blood.

"Surely, if the medication is working, you can see who is getting better and worse, though?" There was a time, when he had begun his first trial in Minnesota, that he would get queasy at the sight of blood. But he'd long since become accustomed to the sight. In fact, anymore, the only time he experienced nausea was when he looked into the mirror.

Natalie gave a small tilt of her head, aware of how close this conversation was to their last. As she capped the vial and slid it into the pocket of her lab coat, she thought of how tempted she had been the year before to figure out if he was receiving the medication or the placebo. Looking at him, and knowing that now, more than ever, his life depended on receiving the correct pill, she didn't want to know. In fact, she hardly wanted to think about it.

"That's true," she stated, "but you'll never know unless you try."

I am trying, he said in his head. Smiling, he took the white pill she handed him and popped it into his mouth. Years of practice allowed him to swallow it without the small, paper cup of water she held up for him. He took it anyway to wash down the taste, and nodded to let her know it was done.

"The NIH was worth a second chance," he said as she began to pack away the equipment she had used on him. They would be sanitized and used later that week on him again, he knew.

She allotted him another one of the smiles that the other patients usually got, and he finally understood what the mutual feeling in the room had been since the physical had started. Unease. Maybe it was just her unease and he was feeling it? Or, perhaps, having noted the change in which she regarded him, he had begun to feel uncomfortable as well.

"I'll see you on Wednesday."

Barret gave a slight bob of his head. He had lived to see spring, to see his neighbor's flowers grow and to help her pick them. He'd even made it to summer, the mild days of June and the hot days of July, much longer than he had thought he would the year prior. He had a promise to keep with his doctor, he knew, but it seemed that the woman he had made it with was putting him in check with her kind eyes.

The bargain was off.

He was, after all, just one of her patients in a trial.

A year does a lot to change someone, he thought.

"I'll see you, Wednesday, Dr. Durant."

The door closed behind her with no reprimand for his use of her title.