Title: Contempt
Author: Sayu - mistress_sayu@hotmail.com
Warnings: TWT, Violence, Language, Angst, Shonen ai...
Disclaimer: I don't own GW, never will, and I don't make any $ off of this. ;_; Two sad facts of reality.
Chunks: 1-3/?
Pairings: 1+2, for now
Archiving: http://www.angelfire.com/gundam/sayu/ - Yep, I finally got my own website... ^_^ And if you want it, just tell me where you're gonna put it. ;)
A/N: I know I should be working on FY... But I'll get to it soon, I promise! This one just hit me on the head about a week ago, and it demanded to be written. ...I call it 'chunks' because there are no real defined parts, it just kind of flows, I guess. I have more, but it still needs to beta-ed and I was wondering what ya'll think of the story - i.e., continue it or not? C & C will be eternally appreciated!
Thanks to: The Wordsmith, who's agreed to become my beta! :D (Lord knows I needed one...) She tirelessly beta-ed this for me in an extremely short time, and her comments truly improved the story!



Rough hands reverently sketched whorls upon his skin in the burning shower, fingers slowly traced the outline of him, as if to imprint his form in memory. Eyes shut; he could not remember anything that had ever meant less. The water poured down, scalding him, so that the effect of the other's touch was diminished. The same gentle hands continued their errant path, as if searching for something. They traced a smooth trail ever upward, to his collarbones, where they laid a touch, feather-light. Moving down again with suddenness, they drew a line of wetness down the center of his chest, gently caressing. He sucked in a breath, feeling a tiny something inside him spark, the tiniest bit of life left...

Opening his eyes, slowly, with an unidentifiable ache in his heart, he gazed at his counterpart. Amethyst met azure, two pairs of eyes both calculating and passionless.

After a crushing silence, he left; hot water still pressing the skimpy tank to his muscled form, normally tousled hair now plastered to him.

Duo was glad, in a way, if the emotions he had left could be called glad. He felt relief, certainly, but he didn't know if he had any semblance of genuine happiness inside him anymore.

Calling on all his resources, he rose from the floor of the porcelain shower, legs trembling from the sudden feel of blood rushing to them. He gripped the black towel-rack, leaning heavily on the wall. He then exhaled suddenly, a long and tiring effort. The water was just too damned hot.

He exited the shower as well, savagely yanking the knobs to turn the constant flow of water off. Grabbing a towel, he quickly and efficiently rubbed every part of his body dry. Then, with slow and deliberate care, he wrung out his hair several times, till it was only reasonably damp, not dripping wet.

Pausing before the small mirror, he wondered absentmindedly why it wasn't fogged up with steam. He laughed then, quietly, bitterly and self-deprecatingly. Anything to take your mind off Heero, ne? He asked himself sarcastically.

Angry with himself and everyone else, he snatched his clothes off of the offending floor and threw them on in haste, once again pausing before the mirror to observe his outward appearance. His bangs were almost dry, yet they hung in front of his face, obscuring it from view. His normally expressive violet eyes were clouded over with - something, and he wrenched himself away from the sight. He closed his eyes, slowly, and bowed his head.

It was so stupid, so ridiculous, to think he and Heero were emotionally attached to each other in any way. They were utterly clichéd opposites, black and white, dark and light, and they were on the other side of the spectrum from each other. Opposites didn't attract; it was just all so incredibly stupid of him, so insane, to think that Heero felt anything for him, other than lust, which was a given.

He glared once more at the mirror, weighing his thoughts, then stalked out of the tiny bathroom, into the rustic, wood-paneled hallway.

Trowa was waiting there, his one visible eye, for once, vibrantly alive instead of cool and frigid. Duo wondered briefly what could stir a man like him, who he could have sworn had ice flowing through his veins.

Eyes narrowing suddenly, he knew the answer: Quatre. They were so together, so with it, so understanding, so...one. He wanted to take it all away from them. As if sensing his vague thoughts, Trowa shot a glance of barely veiled contempt towards him, and Duo stiffened in shock as he brushed past the taller man. So it was like that, was it? Well, he could deal with it. It didn't matter much anyway. It wasn't like there was that much that could hurt him anymore.

Quickly reaching the door to his and Heero's room, Duo opened it and stepped in confidently, anxious to leave Trowa's scornful gaze. It didn't matter, and as Duo repeated the mindless litany to himself, after a while, he found that it really didn't. Fuck Trowa.

Leaning against the cool wood of the door, Duo heard Heero's endless typing - Was it a miracle? - stop. He swayed alarmingly for a second, but then steadied himself, chiding himself internally, so that next time he wouldn't use such hot water - Oh, but God, how he'd wanted to burn all his feelings away, burn everything into a gray field of plain nothingness. So it wouldn't hurt anymore - how could Heero hurt him so much?

Heero's voice sounded quietly, as if from a great distance, "I have a mission." He got up, neatly pushing his chair in, leaving the room quietly, brushing past Duo, who was dumbfounded. God, I knew it was stupid of me, so fucking stupid. Who was I to believe in feeling - anything - again? He thought disgustedly.

He sank onto his rumpled bed, rife with mangas, socks and God-knows-what else. He buried his head in his hands briefly, frankly amazed at his incredible idiocy. Heero Yuy would never change; Heero Yuy had been set on a certain path since he was born - no, before - and he sure as hell would not be leaving it now, especially not for some godamned scrawny street shit by the name of Duo Maxwell.

But that didn't make it hurt any less.

Their meaningless relationship had been going on for quite some time now, but recently Duo had been growing tired of it all. He couldn't stand doing this to himself, spending time with Heero, feeling good and almost - alive - again, and then despairing when his stony partner left - which was often. But he couldn't pull himself away, either. He had a fascination with Heero, a deadly fascination, to be sure, since it would probably get him killed in the end, yet...

He couldn't take it; it was driving him crazy. He knew, with a certainty in his heart, that Heero absolutely did not love him. He often wondered if Heero had it in his heart to love anyone at all. Yet he had always stuck around, hoping for some small scrap of affection to be thrown his way.

He scowled thunderously. Just like a dog, he thought in utter contempt of himself, lip curling upwards at the thought. It's no wonder that Trowa gave me that look.


It's late, he thought, bemusedly, as he tugged on the sheets tucked around his body. It's late and I don't know what I'm doing anymore.

It was true, he thought with a shudder, he didn't know anymore. He'd started out, hopeful... Maybe, to save the world - Yes, that was right. Such a childish dream, almost worthy of a manga.

He rolled over onto his back, violet eyes staring at the dark ceiling. There --- there wasn't anything important enough to him anymore, there wasn't --- there wasn't... He made a small, keening noise in the back of his throat, and held his knees, now turned to his side.

Nothing was worth it anymore --- holding up the sad charade was --- despicable... He couldn't keep it up anymore, he couldn't be the relentlessly cheerful one...

With a flash of realization, he realized that all the other gundam pilots were in contempt of him, and most of all... Heero.

He quickly looked over to the other side of their room, where the aforementioned pilot lay, sleeping. He'd gotten back from his mission early, and he'd just walked in and went to bed.

Yes, the other pilots all despised him for what he was: the biggest liar of them all. They were all true to themselves, they'd all revealed their secrets, their pains... Wufei, everyone knew he fought for Meiran, for justice, in this vile world... Trowa fought for his sister, for the sake of his sanity, for the simple fact that there was no one else to do it... Quatre, the most innocent of them all, fought for his father, for the other innocents out there, he fought because of the goodness in his heart... Heero, he fought because he was conditioned to, because it had been what he was born for...

For a second, Duo went off track, eyes glazing as he thought about what it must be like to be born for a specific task, and to die for it... Glorious, it had to be glorious - just like Heero.

He thought about crying, then almost laughed at his foolishness. That would only earn him further contempt, in his own eyes.

It hurt, he thought dully, it hurt to be happy and stupid, careless and constantly amused, it hurt him so. Yet if he showed his true face - the scared, angry, cynical Duo Maxwell - he would be despised even more, for his utter weakness.

Crawling out of bed, he went to the door and opened it softly, careful not to wake Heero. Duo rather doubted it would make a difference, yet he did it anyway, for the sake of caution.

He walked on tiptoe towards the kitchen area, where the backdoor to the house was. He was already dressed; he'd gone to sleep in his customary ragged jeans and thick hoodie, all he had to do was find his shoes, where he'd left them; in the kitchen.

Drawing a quick breath through his teeth in shock, as his sensitive, warm feet hit the cold surface of the kitchen tiles, he searched for his shoes in the dark.

He'd left them right beside the door... His trusty sneakers... Snatching them up, he sat down heavily on the warmth-leeching floor, hurriedly lacing them up onto his otherwise bare feet. Pushing up off of the floor, he quietly opened the door - so far, so good. No one would miss him tonight, at least not until Heero woke up. And probably not even then - after all, who would ever admit to missing the weakest component of the team?

Closing the door after him, he silently started off on the cracked sidewalk, littered with weeds. He jogged through pools of streetlight, neon lights, and quiet houses, all inhabitants sleeping. He didn't know what he was doing this for - he just needed - something to get his mind off of it all... Something to do, for once, so he wouldn't feel the endless weight of his 'teammates' scorn.

Desperate cries came from an alley right in his path, and he tried to ignore them. But, he just couldn't. He rememered too well what it was like to be used, to be abused, to be... He came to a sudden halt before the dark alley, and he groaned internally. No, he didn't need this... He should pass right on by, it wasn't his business what went on... Another muffled cry went out, he gave in, and jogged toward the source.

A small group of men were apparently enjoying themselves at the expense of a woman, one that didn't look like a street prostitute.

He growled ferally, drawing their attention to himself.

"Well... Look what we have here, boys," The leader of the gang sauntered over to Duo, eyeing him greedily.

"Another little whore's come to join in our fun," The man finished, and a few sinister chuckles were heard. One of the nameless men threw the petite woman aside, and Duo heard the sound that her head made against the wall - a dull thud - he clenched his jaw. The blood was pounding in his ears, rage sang through his blood, yet he externally remained calm and still.

Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, he slowly pulled out a butterfly knife, holding it before him in a street stance.

"Not going to say anything, eh?" The leader said, as he slowly came closer to Duo. "Well, that's ok, I'm sure you'll be saying plenty when I take-" The man's sentence was cut off as Duo lunged toward him, knife flashing in his hands, aiming for his crotch.

The man quickly stumbled back, but was no longer amused. "Get him," He snarled, his face a mask of utter rage.

Duo laughed quietly, unnerving most of the men there. He counted five, including the leader, yet there could be more hiding in the shadows. "Step right up," He hissed at them, weaving his knife in and out in front of him in an intricate pattern.

The first one was big, bulky - he probably lifted weights, Duo's mind calmly analyzed - and bald, a bad combination if Duo ever saw one. Baldie went to disarm him, mistakenly thinking that he would be intimidated by his sheer muscle mass. Duo cackled with wild abandon as the man stepped closer, analyzing Duo's stance.

With a wild screech, Duo leapt forward, slicing a blody gash down the side of the thug's - bald - head. However, the man was undaunted. He jumped back a bit, then continued circling Duo, searching for an opening, and ocasionally wiping the pouring blood away. Baldie threw a punch, and Duo ducked, but it was too late. It hit him a little lower than the man expected, on his collarbone. He threw imself up against the wall, weezing, pretending that the punch had done him in - which it almost had, if it had just been a little higher.

Baldie took the bait, lunging forward to finish him off, and Duo moved to the side at the last possible second. Baldie hit the wall with an apalling smack.

As the man sagged, Duo caught him under the chin with a bloody uppercut, and simultaneously kneed him in the groin.

As he threw the muscular man to the ground, Duo turned to face the remaining members. "Care to try a little more...?" He invited mockingly.

Three men rushed him at once with bellows of rage for their fallen comrade, and he waited in a suitable stance for the right moment... He violently thrust his elbows into the two men who were flanking him. They both let loose nearly identical grunts of pain, but one snatched at him. Duo was already past, however, and he gripped his butterfly knife tightly before plunging it into the chest of the third unfortunate. The man's green eyes were wide, and his mouth formed a shocked 'o' as he fell to the ground, already coughing blood. Duo coldly wondered if he'd have much longer to live...

The two remaining others shouted in anger at seeing their friend stabbed, and charged him once again, this time with broken bottles they'd grabbed off of the street.

Duo swore quietly, because the dying green-eyed man had his knife - he'd have to do this hand-to-hand.

He held his forearms up in front of his face, guarding against the inevitable. He knew they thought that he would fold as soon as they attacked, but if he didn't, he could take them by surprise...

The first bottle came smashing down on his left shoulder with immense force, and he internally shrieked, feeling the muscle tear. A meaty fist imbedded itself in the sensitive spot just under his ribs, and he wheezed in pain. However, he was all motion, and he quickly spun around, knocking his first attacker onto the ground. He stepped on his trachea, cutting off the air. As the man gurgled, Duo smiled evilly. "No mercy," He whispered, remembering the terrible screams the woman had made.

The second bottle hurtled thourgh the air, breaking on his ribs, and Duo started in shock. <Oh shit, oh shit, I didn't think...> He threw an arm blindly out, hitting his attacker and momentarily stunning him. He pivoted and grabbed the man, then wrenched his neck to the side quickly and business-like. Cringing as he heard the vertebra snap, he let the man fall bonelessly to the ground.

He hung his head, panting, feeling warm blood drip from his ribs - God, his shoulder didn't even bear thinking about - there was glass still in there, oh God...

The leader stepped forward, sniveling, "We didn't mean any harm, honest, we were only testing you, we..." Duo slowly opened his eyes, snarling furiously, "Get out of here! Just get the hell out of here before I kill you too!" The coward quickly edged past him and ran full out.

Sighing, Duo leaned against a cool wall. It hurt, oh God, how it hurt, but at least, at least it was physical, he could deal with the physical....

Pushing himself off of the wall, he called out, "Miss?" as he approached the discarded woman who lay on the ground, "Miss, are you alright?" He asked again, slightly more frantically. Recieving no answer, he reached down and touched the side of her neck, hoping, even though he'd heard that sickening crunch when her head hit the wall, that maybe, maybe she might just make it...

She was dead. He half-sobbed, stuffing a bloddy hand in his mouth. He couldn't cry. He wouldn't cry.

He was too late, God, if only he'd been a little faster... He felt a cold tear run own his cheek, and he wiped it away, leaving a bloody smear on his face. "I'm sorry." He whispered quietly, to her, "I'm so sorry... I tried, you know, but at least you've been avenged," He said sadly.

Before he got up again, he straightened her clothes out, pulling her torn slacks back up to her waist, and closing her ripped blouse. Her beautiful, blue, unseeing eyes stared up to the heavens, and he asked her slowly, "What do you see? Was it all worth it? Was it worth all you suffered?"

He then closed her eyes, gently, pretending that she was only sleeping. Smoothing her dark, curly hair he gulped audibly as he felt the sticky blood permeating it. "I'm sorry," He whispered again, eyes tearing.

He pulled himself to his feet, slowly, God everything hurt so bad... He closed his eyes as another wave of sadness shook him, and he whispered, to himself, "Why am I always the avenger? Why can't I ever be in time? Why is it that I'm always too late? Why...?"

He walked slowly out of the alley, back to the safehouse, railing against himself every single painfilled step of the way. How could he have been so callous as to try to ignore the poor woman's screams? If he'd just gotten there just a little bit eariler... She might've lived.

He heard sirens wail in the distance, coming ever closer, and he swore angrily as he stepped up the pace, running the last few remaining blocks. He was in agony when he finally reached the safehouse, and he could barely see through the haze of red that clouded over his vision.

He ran in through the same door that he'd exited, entering as quietly as he could. He turned to look in the kitchen - there was no one there. Good, he thought with satisfaction, and a sad twist of his lips, there was no one there to witness yet another Maxwell failure.

Taking slow steps, careful not to jar his shoulder any further, he walked out of the kitchen, back into the small, wood-paneled hallway that contained four rooms: his and Heero's, Quatre and Trowa's, Wufei's, what he was searching for, the tiny bathroom.

Realizing suddenly that he might be trailing blood throughout the small house, he grimaced, but accepted it as a fact of life. He would have to deal with it later.

At last, reaching the same door he'd exited so bitterly earlier that evening, he turned the handle, and let himself in. He flipped the lights on, squinting at the sudden brightness, and looked into the mirror as he did so. Shit. He looked like absolute shit. He giggled, finding it funny for some odd reason. A small portion of his mind told him that he was going into shock, but yet another portion reminded him that this was a good thing, as he would be able to cope with it all infinitely better.

First of all, he thought grimly, the shoulder. <First is worst...> He leaned forward and snagged the medical kit off of the shelf above the toilet, and opened it up. Inside... tweezers, <Second is best...> Shit, he hoped he didn't need those... and gauze, <Third is the treasure chest!> his new best friend.

He tugged off his hoodie with an internal scream of agony, feeling the small glass shards dig their way deeper into muscle. Shit. It looked like he was going to need those tweezers after all.

Bare chested, he observed the wound in the mirror. It was a rather small, ugly thing, yet there were large, bloody red pieces of glass sticking out -. He swallowed, suddenly. I can do this, he thought. Hell, you failed that woman, this is the smallest price to pay.

Grabbing the tweezers out of the kit with his other hand, he reached up to pluck the first piece out. There were about four pieces in all, good sized, and he felt like retching. Hand shaking, he approached the first piece, and latched onto it with the tweezers. He knew that this was going to hurt like hell. Closing his eyes and trying to loosen his muscles, he took a tighter grip on the tweezers and - yanked. He shouted, hoarsely, unable to stop himself.

Blood gushed from the wound, and he clamped a hand over it, dropping the tweezers, and knowing it was only a temporary solution - he wouldn't be able to wrap it until he pulled the other three pieces out.

He bent down, jarring his shoulder, feeling like white hot metal had seared it, and picked up the tweezers. Once more, he braced himself, picking out the second piece. Then the third piece. And the fourth.

Feeling faint from blood loss and pain, he managed to sigh in relief, as the hardest part was done. He managed to maneuver his shoulder under the faucet, and he he nearly screamed again as the cold water washed the blood away. Both hands shaking, he reached over to the gauze and wrapped his shoulder quickly, before the welling blood could fount again.

Seeing to his ribs was simple, as that cut hadn't been quite so forceful, and there was no glass still in the wound. He rinsed and wrapped his chest.

Since the two major injuries were cleared up, he just needed to change clothes, as these were covered in blood - his and the thugs'. He could wake up early and clean the bathroom floor - right now he was just too damnded tired to do anything.

Heading back to his and Heero's room, carrying his hoodie, he shuddered as he thought of the woman's face, her black hair sodden with blood, her blue eyes clouded over in death... He trembled, hoping he wouldn't have nightmares, knowing he would.

He opened the door quietly, pleasantly surprised to see Heero still in bed, quietly sleeping. He dropped the bloodstained hoodie under his bed, and also yanked off his also bloodsoaked jeans, tossing them in the same place.

He shivered in revulsion as he felt the air on his bare legs, still sticky with blood. But he was too tired to do anything about it now...

There was a pair of relatively clean sweatpants on the floor, as well as a wifebeater, so Duo pulled those on, and dropped onto his bed, too tired to even clear away the mangas or socks. He pulled himself under the covers, trying to think about anything - anything other than that woman, the woman who simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, oh God... He groaned.

Too late... He'd always been too fucking late... He closed his eyes, seeing her small, pretty face, and curly black hair in his mind again.

No. It had to stop. He turned over onto his stomach, burying his head under the pillow, trying his damndest not to think at all. Sleep... Just sleep.

As Duo's breath evened out in sleep, Heero watched from the sanctuary of his own bed. Something had happened tonight. Something bad enough to make Duo leave the house, and come back smelling like blood. He would find out what it was.

Duo woke early, just as dawn announced its presence with a slight change in color in the sky. He stretched fitfully, then closed his eyes again, relaxed. He never did like getting up early... Especially not when he'd been out late last - oh God.

He instantly sat up in bed, remembering everything that had taken place the night before. Oh shit...

Untangling himself from his sheets, he practically leapt out of bed. He had to clean the floors, he'd left blood all over them, Quatre would freak...

Rushing out into the hallway, he encountered no one, as it was still too early.

First, he went over the tiled kitchen floor, searching for any trace of blood. To his immense relief, there were only a few drops here and there, and he cleaned these up quickly. Moving on to the bathroom, he heaved a huge sigh of disappointment. There was a gigantic puddle, right in the middle of the floor; the medkit was still out; the mirror had bloody spots all over it... He groaned.

Shutting the door to the small bathroom, he got to work. Pulling a mop and bucket from the closet, he filled the latter up with soapy water. He dipped the mop in, and set to scrubbing. Fifteen minutes later, shoulder screaming in protest, the floor was sparkling clean. He'd also neatly put the medkit back into its customary position, and had cleaned the mirror as well. Everything was perfectly clean - except him.

There was still dried blood all over him. Yet he didn't want to take a shower, because he'd have to redo his bandages and get the medkit out again. He paused, thinking. He couldn't NOT clean himself up, though, and Quatre might be a tad bit curious as to why he was covered in blood.

Giving in, he stepped into the shower, turning it to a reasonable temperature. He scrubbed his skin until it felt like it would fall off, and kept scrubbing until even the memory of the feel of it had worn away. He let water run through his braid, but didn't undo his hair. Once undone, he wouldn't be able to re-braid it without jarring his shoulder really badly.

Getting out of the shower quickly, he headed straight for the medkit. He re-wrapped his shoulder and ribs firmly in gauze, and sighed in relief once he was done. He felt so much better, being clean, and having his cuts all bandaged... He pulled the remarkably clean sweatpants and wifebeater on, feeling unaccountably cheerful, considering what had happened last night.

Survival mechanism, he thought morbidly. No matter what happens to him on the inside, Duo Maxwell's always got to be happy on the outside.

He exited the narrow hallway, and went through the kitchen to the adjoining living room. He noted the first rosy pink streaks of sunlight racing across the sullen sky, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. He went outside the front door, through the living room, to sit on the porch.

The sun was already rising, and he watched it slowly, in rapt fascination as it broke through the clouds and shone across the sky, highlighting it with purples, pinks, oranges, reds, and every other color in between. He sighed in contentment. The sun would always rise, he observed thoughtfully, even if everyone on the entire planet died, the sun would still rise and the Earth would still turn. It was comforting, in a way, yet also despairing in another. It meant that nothing he did mattered, that the woman didn't matter... He clenched his fists tight to his sides and muttered to himself, "It did matter. It does matter!"

"What matters?" Heero's cold voice asked, from seemingly right over his shoulder. "AHH!" Duo screamed, skittering sideways, over the edge of the porch.

"Dammit, Heero, don't do that!" He said, from his position on the ground.

"Why?" Heero innocently asked. "Because the ground is damned wet!" Duo whined, pushing off of it. Damn Heero! He'd just caused all his wounds to protest loudly again. He winced in pain, hoping Heero hadn't noticed.

Actually, he didn't really mind. Being with Heero would distract from... other thoughts.

He sat back onto the edge of the porch, beside Heero. Duo's eyes were shadowed, and he couldn't seem to muster the energy to fill his mask today. He supposed Heero would only hold him in further contempt, but he didn't really give a shit right now.

"What matters?" Heero asked again, shooting him an unreadable glance.

Duo racked his brain tiredly for something stupid and inane to say, and managed to come up with a pathetic, "My hair. It really matters to me!" He chirped at Heero.

Heero just looked at him stonily.

"What, Heero? Don't you think my hair matters?" Once he got into it, he could go from there, Duo thought sadly. His baka routine had become such an integral part of him, it was like a program he could run on autopilot.

"Well, I think it does. It matters more than Quatre's tea or Wufei's katana or your laptop. Well, I guess it would, actually, 'cause all that stuff is you guys', and my hair is my thing, so I guess it really would matter more. To me anyway." He rattled off, barely even listening to himself speak.

"Duo." Heero's rumbling voice spoke again, and he looked over at Heero.

"What?" He blinked his eyes innocently, trying to play that way.

"Where did you go last night?" Heero's cold voice stated, and Duo shot a lightening quick glance over at his impassive features. <Shit, shit, shit, oh shit, you got yourself in deep Maxwell, fuck, why'd you ever have to-> Duo shook off the voice, then replied honestly, "Jogging."

"Aa." Heero said, but he didn't seem to be finished.

"Heero... Let's just watch the sunrise, onegai?" Duo asked, honestly not ready for a triple A interrogation.

To his surprise and gratification, Heero nodded, then slowly pulled his knees up to his chest, looking for all the world like a lost soul...

Duo shook his head sharply, to clear it of the illusion. Heero was deadly. Heero was like a machine; and, most of all, Heero held him in utter contempt; otherwise, why would he use him carelessly take all that mattered from him - his dignity, his pride - and to think he'd thought that he hadn't even remembered what those were. He tilted his head back, letting the rays of sunshine fall upon his neck, closing his eyes. Yes, Heero must truly despise him, to use him like he did.

He sighed, almost ready to say something, when Quatre's cheerful voice floated out from the vicinity of the kitchen, "Breakfast's ready!" He chuckled, thinking about cosmic timing. And the minister had told him sternly that God had no sense of humor. He snorted.

"Well, Heero, looks like it's time to chow down," He said, with fake enthusiasm, rubbing his stomach.

Slowly, he got up from the porch rubbing his bare arms. "Sheee-it, man!" He cried, causing Heero to whip his head sideways at him, "It's fucking cold!"

The corners of Heero's mouth tilted upwards, and Duo felt his gut churn. Such a false reaction, that could evoke such intense emotion from him... He turned around, opening the door to the living room, when Heero smoothly got up and gripped his shoulder. <Thank God it hadn't been the wounded one> Was all Duo could think, till he heard Heero's sentence. "I will find out what happened," He said, coldly, and then walked past the stunned Duo, through the shabby living room, and into the small kitchen.

Duo realized, after a few minutes had gone by, that he was still standing outside, in the freezing early morning. "Fuck," He cursed disgustedly. That was just what he needed. Heero on his ass about - that.

He tiredly pushed open the door, with one hand. He was getting sick of only using his right arm very quickly.

Passing through the living room, he smelled something cooking... Something good... "French toast!" He screeched, then raced ahead, into the kitchen.

"My favorite!" He exclaimed happily, then, eyeing the batter-covered boy, "Quatre, I love you for this!" He plopped himself down in a plush chair, - the only plush chair - and picked up the huge jug of maple syrup.

After pouring what seemed like half of it onto his seven pieces of french toast, he at last put down the jug. Everyone else sweatdropped.

He shoveled forkful after forkful into his mouth, hungry beyond belief. <Well, buddy, healing can tire you out; you need a lot of energy for it> One voice in his mind observed, answering his unspoken question.

"So...What's on the agenda today?" He asked, wiping his mouth with a dainty napkin and leaning his chair back. "Blowing up mindless Ozzie scum? Capturing a data disk single-handledly in a base swarming full of the same mindless creeps?" <You would literally have to do it single-handedly> A disapproving voice observed, but he swatted it away.

"What?" He complained, staring at the others. They were all looking straight at him... What was their problem? With a start, he realized that they weren't staring at him, they were staring at his shoulder. <Fuck,> He thought to himself in disgust, <The wifebeater. You should've known, Maxwell...When you leaned back...It fell open...Tsk, tsk, tsk...>

"What happened, Maxwell?" Wufei asked quietly, outwardly calm, though inwardly worried.

He winked rakishly at them, tossing a smile and saying, "I whooped some Ozzie ass!"

"And you cut yourself while doing it?" Trowa's voice asked calmly.

"Yeah, pretty much - I mean, NO! The damn bastard tried to pull a knife on me!" He grinned maliciously, saying, "And that's the last time he ever tried anything again." He crossed his arms, ignoring the sharp, stabbing pains that shot through his arms, so he could prove that the wound was old <which it wasn't> and that it felt fine. <which it didn't.>

Wufei rolled his eyes and snorted, relieved, and annoyed with Maxwell for making him worry so, though he would never admit it. "You let your guard down enough to let him in?"

He could literally feel everyone's angry, contemptuous stares, so he got up, saying, "Yep, Wuffie, I was a little busy at the time. See, this other guy, uh, he sneaked up on me, and so I was a little preoccupied." He finished lamely, conscious of the fact that the story sounded like pure bunk - which it was.

He made his way to his and Heero's room, silently berating himself. He opened the door cheerfully, well aware that he could be seen from the kitchen. As soon as he shut it, however, he inwardly collapsed. He threw himself onto his bed, just wanting to sleep and never wake up again...

Which was impossible. He had a duty; a duty to the colonies, a duty to every innocent living person; he had a debt to make up. He could not die until he paid it.

Dying would accomplish nothing, anyway, he thought as he rolled over on his back. Dying wouldn't appease all those he killed; his life meant nothing in the face of the hundreds, if not thousands that he'd destroyed already.

He closed his eyes, whispering, "Every dead man, woman and child had someone who loved them more than anything in the entire world. Not only did I destroy them, I destroyed their closest friends and family as well; and as I devastated them, I in turn crushed their friends... And the ripples keep on spreading wider." He quoted softly, almost moved to tears. Everything was so worthless. Himself, most of all. It was almost blasphemey to think that he could possibly make up for all the lives he'd destroyed...

A soft knock souned at the door, and Duo guessed it was Quatre. "Come in," He called, listening as the door opened wider, not bothering to open his eyes. "Man, I am so bushed, Q, I can't-" "It's not Quatre." Heero's voice interuppted his fake-cheerful musing. His voice sounded almost... hesitant? Nah, he thought to himself, Heero's never hesitant. <He's probably just pissed I let that 'Ozzie' take a chunk out of me. He'll probably rail at me, tell me I endangered the mission...> God, how he hated that phrase.

He crossed his arms, feeling another sharp pain streak up his left arm. Ignoring it, he tilted his head towards his Heero's voice and slowly opened his eyes.

"What ya waitin for, Heero?" He asked, then uncrossed his arms, and pointed at the desk, "You're laptop's right over there."

"I didn't come in here for that," Heero replied, voice sounding... exasperated. <Shit> Duo thought, <I must be hallucinating really badly from all this pain. That's the second time I thought he had something in his voice other than... nothing.>

Heero walked in, shutting the door behind him. He sat down on the bed, next to Duo. Duo tensed up, knowing he was in a vulnerable position, and if Heero tried to attack him, this was the best opening he'd get.

"Mou... Heero. What are you doing?" Duo asked, hiding his fear under a cheerful smile.

"What does it look like, baka?" Heero asked, "I'm sitting here on the bed."

Duo's eyes widened, almost imperceptibly, but Heero caught the motion. <oh, God> He thought in panic, <He's gonna ask about the shoulder, and... Fuck I can't tell him!>

Heero looked at him, in silence, and Duo did his best to avoid the gaze. "I know... I know you went out last night, Duo." He said at last, uncomfortably.

"Aw, hell yeah, man! I told you I went out! I went jogging, you know. Got to get my lazy ass in gear somehow!" Duo joked, sounding too high-pitched and knowing it. God, he really didn't want to go there.

"But that's not all that happened, is it." Heero stated, rather than asked.

"Man, what are you talking about? Are you sick or something?" Duo said, then reached his right hand up to feel Heero's forehead, trying to distract him.

Heero wrenched his hand away, saying in anger, "Duo! Answer me, dammit!"

"Heero, man... I have no clue what you're talking about," He said, lying glibly.

"You hurt your shoulder, while you were out." He stated, still holding Duo's wrist in his hands.

"What?" Duo said, feebly, "Heero, this joke has gone too far! Quit it and leave me alone!"

"No." Heero replied calmly, then said, "You couldn't have hurt your shoulder while fighting an OZ soldier. The last mission you were on, you were with me, and combat never came to hand to hand." He stated coldly.

"Look, Heero, it was on the mission before that!" Duo said, lamely.

"The mission before that did not even involve you. Your last mission was too far away for this damage to have still be recent; it would've been healed by now. What happened?" Heero said, eyeing him disdainfully.

"Heero." Duo said coldly as well. "Let. Go. Of. My. Wrist."

"No." Heero replied simply, "not until you tell me what happened."

"Nothing happened!" Duo said, desperately, trying to free his wrist and failing.

"Then why is your shoulder wounded?" He asked, infallibly.

"Because it was!" Duo said with venom dripping from his voice.

"Duo..." Heero warned in a no-nonsense kind of voice. He hated it when Duo got like this, so stubborn and angry and... beautiful.

"Heero." Duo shot back, "if you don't let go of my wrist in ten seconds, I will hit you."

Replying with only a faint twitch of his lips, Heero waited.

Exactly ten seconds later, Duo's other fist came flying with lightening speed towards Heero's face, yet he calmy reached out and caught it with his other hand.

Duo strained against Heero's hand, which felt more like solid gundanium than human flesh, but still couldn't budge it. With a curse and a sad thought of what this would do to his wounds, he rocked back for momentum, then threw his whole body forward.

Heero, not expecting the move, tumbled onto the floor with Duo on top. Duo instantly wrenched his hands free from Heero's limp ones, and fled the room, slamming the door shut on his flight out.

Panting, Heero stood up. That hadn't been what he was expecting; not at all. He didn't think Duo would be so reticent to discuss what had happened... He lightly traced fingers across his forehead, where Duo's hand had rested willingly only minutes ago.

Duo sobbed for air as he ran farther from the pilot's residence, cursing himself for overreacting so badly. Now, Heero obviously knew something was wrong. If he'd played it cool, maybe he could have gotten away with... He shook his head, coming to a halt before an immense, dingy warehouse.

Breathing in, he winced. He was breathing much too hard for the mere one mile run it had been. Coughing, he bent down, and gasped like a beached fish.

Once recovered, Duo pulled out an ID card and slid it in the dilapidated card slot by the door. Appearances didn't matter, he thought with a gleeful grin as the thick iron door smoothly slid open then shut behind him with a slight hiss of pressurized air. This was the only place where the gundams could safely be stored without notice, in a city this big.

He walked across the empty room, black boots clicking on the concrete. When he reached the small, dusty office room, he slid the same card into an inconspicuous slot in the desk. A humming sound foretold the jarring descent, and he gritted his teeth.

After the small platform, with the desk resting on it, finally made it's way down to the floor of the underground room, Duo immediately jumped off.

He needed to finish repairs on Deathscythe, he thought calmly, completely blocking any further thoughts of his ...encounter with Heero. Deathscythe had to be operational, he had a feeling he'd be ordered out on a mission, and soon.

Whistling cheerfully, he walked around the large room, giving the other's gundams a once over. They all looked fine...

He then clambered over to Deathscythe's side - as it was laying horizontally - and slipped into the open hatch.

Three hours later, completely exhausted and drained, he staggered out of the cockpit, stretching, trying to get the feeling back into the lower half of his legs.

He'd almost completely reformatted Deathscythe's internal components, ranging from the computer mainframe to the simplest bolt. He needed to make sure his baby was running at 110% efficiency, after all...

Deciding to stay another few hours, he worked on the other's gundams, making absolutely sure that they wouldn't fail in battle or have a critical error.

Sighing, he checked his watch as he hopped out of the last gundam he'd 'made over'. He sweatdropped, as it was two o'clock.

"Shit..." He said ruefully, rubbing his forehead and smearing the grease on there even further, "I didn't mean to stay that long... I'll bet I have a mission waiting for me!"

Jogging away from the gundams, and back to the platform, he slid his ID card in a different slot, this one on the underside of the second left drawer.

The platform moved up, albeit jerkily, and Duo tapped his foot impatiently.

<C'mon...> He thought, angrily, considering what might happen if he wasn't there when a mission came in for him. Either he'd greatly decrease the time he'd have to complete it, or, his worst nightmare: one of the other pilots might take it.

They might think he was an irresponsible brat, worth shit to no one, but fuck, they were gundam pilots, and he couldn't allow them to be hurt... He...he was barely even a pilot, and after all, he'd stolen his gundam from G on his urging...

No, if something went wrong, he certainly wouldn't be missed. But the remaining pilots...

He broke out of his philosophy, soundly cursing himself for the time he'd wasted thoughtlessly musing. <Another score against you, Maxwell> He thought bitterly as he broke into a run out of the old office and across the stark, concrete floor.

Pulling in gasps of air, and grabbing at side, as he slid the card through yet another slot, this one in the iron door, he thought bemusedly <I hope I heal soon, because I can't take much more of this>

As soon as the door opened, he streaked out of it, willing himself to ignore the pain and keep on moving. When he stopped, a mere block away from the safehouse, he could barely stand. "Oh...God..." He said, hanging his head, walking slowly with one arm pressed to his side, "That hurt..."

As he made his inching way up to the house, he was met by the sound of Quatre's cheery voice saying, "See you after the mission, Trowa!"

Panicking, Duo lurched ahead. "Quatre..." He said, holding his good arm out to stop him from leaving, "where are you going?"

"D-duo?" Quatre asked in concern, glancing at him. Duo almost took the time to laugh at Quat's fake 'concern'. God, how pitiful. Well, he had to keep his kind image up somehow, even if it was as low as pretending to be worried about someone like - him.

"Where ya going?" Duo replied, in a more easy voice, straightening up.

"Oh. A mission." Quatre answered coldly now that his apparent care had been noted by Duo.

"What mission?" Duo asked, feeling like a much less threatening version of Heero.

"What are you, my mother?" Quatre said with a small laugh, then, "Maa, Duo, I have to go! This mission is very important!" Quatre impatiently replied, obviously anxious to get away from him.

"Gomen," Duo apologized profusely, then wished him luck. Feeling despair overwhelm him, he trudged inside the house to meet Trowa's stare as he sat on the living room couch, tuning Quatre's violin.

Pointedly ignoring the sullen gaze, he walked past the kitchen, once again into the tiny hallway.

Pausing before opening his and Heero's room, he wondered. Should he go in there and face Heero? Or should he just leave again? Maybe it would be better if... Before he could finish his train of thought, the door was unceremoniously yanked open, and an extremely irate Heero Yui stood framed in it.

<Holy fucking shit...> Duo's inner voice whined, scared shitless of Heero's pissed off countenance.

"Duo." Heero's nasal voice was dangerously low and angry. "Come in," he invited, in what was so obviously not an invitation, but a command. He could see Heero's jaw ticking in anger, and he gulped. Shit, this was so not looking good...

He walked in slowly, feeling like he was sentencing himself, which, in a way, he was. He sat down gingerly on the edge of his bed, looking at Heero's profile, who was still standing by the door. His muscled form was shaking with suppressed anger, and he whirled around to face Duo, slamming the door behind him in an uncharacteristic fit of pique.

"Eh...Heero?" Duo asked, a little impressed despite himself. He'd never seen Heero this pissed off before. <Maybe it was because I surprised him...> Duo thought, then laughed internally, thinking, <No fucking shit, Sherlock. I bet nobody's ever fucking gotten away from him before, much less totally escaped his deathlock.>

"Duo." Heero growled again, advancing on him, stopping a short distance away.

"Heero." Duo said again, racking his mind for something to say. "Heero," He tried once more, desperately thinking of a way to save himself.

Heero gripped Duo's shoulders, conveniently forgetting Duo's wound. He shook him, roughly, snarling, "Don't do that - ever again. I was... I was..." He broke off, finally noticing Duo's pain-stricken statement. Instead of apologizing, he glared at Duo, and stalked out of the room.

Duo sighed in profuse relief.


<Why the hell does he do that?> Heero thought angrily, as he jerkily walked down the hallway leading to the living room.

He saw Trowa working on Quatre's violin, and he nodded to him before sitting down on the couch beside him.

Fidgeting in an un-Heero-like gesture, he looked at Trowa silently, trying decide how to begin.

"Quatre's worried about Duo." Trowa's cool voice broke the stalemate, and he stealthily glanced at Heero from the corner of his eye.

"Aa." Heero replied slowly, then began, "He's different."

Trowa put the oiled violin down on the coffee table and turned to face him. "Yes... Quatre's not sure... But he tells me he can feel Duo's pain radiating..." He fell silent, waiting for Heero's response.

"Sou." Was Heero'd only reply as he got up off the couch and wandered back into his room, ready to face Duo again.

When he got there, however, Duo wasn't there. The window was open, though, and the light curtains swayed briefly in the breeze. He stared at the window, as if willing Duo to materialize. It didn't happen. He sighed reluctantly, then sat down at his laptop, willing himself not to care. It didn't matter... Right?


Duo laughed bitterly to himself as he walked down the street of the dying city, forcing himself look at the diseased bums, the cracked sidewalks, the ruined buildings and the crack dealers.

<You woulda turned out like this, buddy,> He told himself, <if you hadn't taken G's offer...> He crammed his hands in his pockets, hung his head and slouched over, walking quickly and purposefully.

He didn't know where he was going... A bar, perhaps, anywhere but that confined space with Heero... He couldn't stand feeling the other pilot's disdain of him, like a shroud, oppressive and gloomy.

A jagged grin tugged at his lips and he allowed it to come forth, yet it wasn't the same insanely cheerful grin his teammates were used to seeing. It was a terrifying smile, and it spoke volumes of his shattered past and dying present, even of his nonexistent future.

It was too hard for him to keep up his mask, he thought in utter despair, it was getting too hard and he might have to lose it...

But what did he have left, after it was gone? He was a crying ten-year-old, on the inside, there was no way...

He had to stay cheerful and stupid, he had to, otherwise he might start remembering things, details he didn't want to remember, things that were best left buried... /his dying scream choked off in a muffled spray of blood as the machine gun wielded by Duo cut him in half.../ /a once beautiful woman lying in an alleyway, dark hair matted with red...eyes open, staring.../ He shook his head sharply, dispelling the vivid images.

<No.> He thought harshly. <No. This will never happen. Your control is too good.>

He allowed himself one last desperate, fleeting thought...<God it has to be...>

He quit thinking and just focused on running, past the cracked streets and ultimately faceless people, past the bars full of fifteen-year-old prostitutes dying from disease, past the church, abandoned for years since they'd all sought consolation from a bottle, not the word of God, he passed it all and kept on running, reveling in the feel of the harsh air on his cracked lips, the pain in his lungs as they struggled to breathe, the feel of his legs pounding furiously on the pavement, muscles screaming in protest, he kept running...


Throwing himself down on the couch in the living room, he glanced at the clock on the wall as he did so. 1:30. He smiled, wistfully, practicing.

He'd stayed out late, stayed out much too late - but what did it matter anymore?

His disguise was peeling... He had to keep it. He had to. Letting his weary eyelids close, he fell into the waiting arms of sleep.


"Were you ever a prostitute?" Her sharp voice projected the question forcefully, and Duo closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the cool brick wall of the house, and grimaced.

She knew all about Heero's liaison with him; that's why she'd asked.

He opened one eye, just a slit. She glared at him, and tapped her foot impatiently.

"What does it matter?" He calmly asked in a resigned manner.

"Were you ever a prostitute?!" She asked again, demanding to know.

He crossed his arms. "It depends," He said offhandedly.

"On what?" Her voice was now dangerously low, he noted in a amusement, opening both of his violet eyes to stare at her.

"Your definition of prostitution," He answered with a sickly sweet smile.

Preparing to turn around and walk away from her, he's stopped by her hand on his.

"I wouldn't ever do that, you know," She said to Duo conversationally, staring at him with eyes that had turned cool and hard as ice. -And he knew, he'd seen these same eyes reflected in his partner's face, day in and day out.

He gritted his teeth. "You wouldn't do it if you were starving? Dying? If there wasn't enough flesh on your body to hide your bones?" He hissed, more at the pain of the memories than at her.

She continued to gaze up at him. "No," She repeated, whole in her righteous conviction, beliefs unshaken.

Duo shrugged half-heartedly. <It's her choice. I'm too tired of it all to even bother to argue. No one knows what depths they'll plumb to survive; no one.> He thought to himself.

"You know, you're unworthy of Heero," She said firmly, staring straight into his eyes, and for a brief second, he hated her. But then he relented; he knew it was true.

"Yes." He agreed, tone even.

She didn't appear to be surprised. "He should be with me. I'm perfect for him. We were made for each other. ...You do know he doesn't care for you?"

Duo nodded, smiling sadly. She was just confirming the truth.

"Good." She said, then smiled brilliantly at him.

She turned to leave, her trademark limo parked right across the street, and he took a step towards her.

"You don't want to see him?" He asked hesitantly.

"No." She answered. "Right now, the idea of you - and him - it makes me too sick. Maybe later." She replied, tossing an ice-cold smile back over her shoulder.

Duo made himself walk back to the safehouse. He opened the door to the living room, feeling like absolute shit.

Why had Relena even bothered to come, if it was only to ask him if he'd been a whore, and to tell him that Heero didn't love him? He knew the latter, and as for the former...

He dismissed the encounter from his mind. It didn't matter; Relena had her own agenda, and he wasn't one to be worrying about it.

"She's gone." Wufei stated, glancing at him from an armchair.

Relena had woken up the whole household at 4:00 AM, a few minutes ago, by her pounding on the door. Heero had opened it, but to everyone's surprise, she'd asked for Duo.

"Yeah," He answered self-consciously, well aware of the fact that he was recieving everyone's scrutiny.

He decided to pretend that yesterday had never happened. <That's right - patch the mask...> He thought, before launching his routine.

"Yeah, yeah, Relena just asked me a lot of stuff about Heero, you know, his favorite kinds of things..." He looked over to Heero, winked then added, "So, don't worry man, it's not like I'm trying to steal your girlfriend or anything!"

Heero glared at him, but didn't say anything. Dou breathed a silent sigh of relief. He was betting Heero had forgotten all about yesterday, or had signed it all off as Duo being 'moody'.

He was just about to walk out of the room when Quatre spoke up. "Duo...we need to have a talk."

Duo's palms instantly started sweating. "Eh?" He asked, scratching his head to cover his nervousness.

Quatre motioned him to sit down in one of the chairs, and he complied, feeling trapped.

The four pilots' attention was focused squarely on him, and he fidgeted.

"None of us really wanted to bring this up... But," Quatre held up a finger, "We're all really concerned, Duo."

<Shit, shit, shit, shit...> Was all he could think, the mindless litany repeating itself over and over again. He swallowed.

<Why does this bother him so much?> Heero thought sadly, noting Duo's nervousness, and the fact that he'd suddenly gone pale.

"Concerned about what? I swear, Quat, I do wash my underwear! Hell, I bet I wash 'em more than you do! I mean, wait, you probably don't even need to wash underwear, I bet you wear 'em once and then you throw 'em out, huh?" Duo closed his mouth after ending the sudden spiel, hoping no one noticed the way the last part had come out... bitter.

"Duo..." Quatre sighed, obviously exasperated with him, "That's not what I meant... You haven't been the same, lately... And...I can feel..." Here he fell silent.

Duo just barely stopped himself from laughing aloud. <'Haven't been the same, lately,'... If he ever even bothered to notice... Who would be the same after a failure like...> He paused there, /heat leaving the rapidly cooling body, pale skin, torn clothes, blood.../

Quatre frowned and massaged his forehead, waving off Trowa's offer of assistance.

"You're weakening the team," Trowa spoke aloud suddenly, in concern for Quatre.

"Oh...?" Duo asked, sniggering to himself. He couldn't weaken that which wasn't there. He didn't belong to a team. It was him - and only him. His name meant two, but that was for the memory that would always be there. He was two: Himself, and the memory.

"Whatever it is, Maxwell, you need to quit it," Wufei told him, brusquely.

Duo could appreciate that. Wufei wasn't trying to be cutesy sweet, the fucking compassionate one, he wasn't trying to pretend a semblance or uphold the facade of being a team; he was merely telling him that it had to stop.

Yes, Duo could appreciate that.

He grinned widely at Wufei, feeling a little bit more of the old mask come trickling back to him. "Anything for you, Wu-CHAN," He said, stressing the chan part.

Wufei just rolled his eyes and settled deeper into his chair. "I am above such childish insults," He declared fake-pompously, and Duo giggled.

Quatre twiddled his fingers together, looked at the ground, then looked back at Duo, loathe to interrupt the moment. Finally, he cleared his throat, gaining Duo's attention.

"Yeah, Quat?" Duo asked quizzically, brushing back a lock of hair that had fallen over his eyes, obscuring them.

"Duo. Please..." Quatre implored, aqua eyes rapidly filling with moisture.

Duo glanced at Quatre, eyes shaded. Something deep inside him shattered at the sight, and he swallowed an involuntary cry, just in time. Later, he could ponder the strange feeling the thought of Quatre crying over him gave him, but now, he just had to get out of this.

"Quatre..." He sighed, acting nonchalant and laid back, unconcerned. "There's nothing really wrong. I mean, if there's anything, it's the stress. But, you know...it's been getting to all of us," he lied convincingly.

Trowa looked at him sidelong, then appeared to except the simple explanation. Wufei nodded understandingly, muttering under his breath about the injustices.

Heero appeared the same as he always did, and Quatre asked again, "Are you...sure?"

Duo laughed, making sure to get it down perfectly. "Quatre, kid, I'm just tired. It's not that I've had that many missions, it's just all the tension... I mean, you never know when you - or someone else - could get called away to..." Duo knew he'd got Quatre with the 'someone else' part. It was so obvious. Quatre instantly shot a look at Trowa, worry etched on his features at the suggestion.

"I guess..." Quatre replied, a little reluctantly.

Duo grinned, standing up, stretching. He ruffled Quatre's hair, ignoring Trowa's cold look.

"Sure you don't wanna stay...?" Wufei asked, leaning back into the armchair, appearing content as a cat.

"Naw," Duo said, smiling at Wufei over his shoulder. He walked out of the room, feeling the smile slip away, bit by bit, as he walked down the hallway to his room.