Disclaimer: I don't own GW or any of its characters. I wish! Please don't sue me, I'm just a starving student!
Author's note: <sweatdrop> This just kept bugging me and bugging
me until I had to write it. Forgive me if the ending is a little abrupt,
I kinda ran out of steam.
Quatre could tell it would be a bad landing from the start - Deathscythe came in tilted to one side, and the landing thrusters were firing in spurts instead of steady streams. Standing in the rose garden at the back of their current safe-house, where he had come to enjoy his afternoon tea, Quatre couldn't see any obvious damage to the Gundam, but that didn't mean there wasn't any. He braced for the shock of impact.
With a crash and the sickening sound of twisting metal, Gundam Deathscythe touched down, tripped over its own feet, and tumbled head over heels to land on its back. Quatre could see Wing coming in over the horizon, but it looked to be under much better control.
He was on his feet bolting through the hallway before his mind had even caught up with the situation. Trowa and Wufei were just appearing from their rooms, where they too had felt the impact.
"What's going on?" Wufei demanded.
Quatre didn't slow his headlong rush down the hall. "Deathscythe landed bad. Duo's gotta be hurt. Trowa, grab the first aid kit - I'm going to find Rashid and tell him to get the doctor. Hurry!" This last was tossed over his shoulder as he took the steps three at a time. Behind him, he could hear Trowa and Wufei rushing after him.
Quatre found Rashid by crashing into him as he turned a corner at top speed. He scrambled to his feet, shouting orders back at his manservant as he ran toward the fallen Gundam. He arrived just in time to see Heero jumping from Wing's cockpit, not even bothering with the pulley, as Deathscythe's cockpit hissed open.
A dazed but unhurt looking Duo popped his head out, then clambered out of the Gundam. "Saaaa," he drawled, "I've definitely had better landings!" He took in the damage to his beloved Shinigami with sorrowful eyes. "Sorry, old buddy, guess I lost it for a minute there."
"Duo!" Quatre exclaimed, then had to stop to pant for air. "Duo!" he tried again, more successfully this time. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Duo shot him his trademarked grin. "Guess I've been sucking a little too much high atmosphere. I think I passed out for a bit there."
"Hn," was Heero's comment, but even his stone face couldn't hide the obvious worry in his eyes.
Quatre let his eyes roam over his fellow pilot. It had been nearly a month since he'd seen Heero and Duo last, and while Heero looked exactly as the Arabian remembered him, Duo looked - frailer, somehow. More delicate, as if he'd bruise if you looked at him too hard. And he'd looked thinner last time than the time before that - and the time before that, as well. "Duo, are you sick?" Quatre asked, worried. "You look thin. Have you been eating?"
For an instant, an unidentifiable expression flashed across Duo's eyes. If Quatre hadn't known better, he would have sworn it was - fear? What could Duo possibly be afraid of? But the manic grin was back in place so fast Quatre thought he must have imagined it.
"I never get sick. I think I'm just falling asleep, 'cause Heero's typing keeps me up all hours!" He stuck his tongue out at his partner in a familiar childish gesture, which Heero, as usual, ignored.
"But " Quatre began, doubtful, but just then Trowa, Wufei and the medic all arrived, and in the ensuing chaos the blond forgot all about his worries about the braided pilot. If there was something wrong with Duo, after all, Heero would take care of it. And he wouldn't appreciate any intrusions, either. For all that he and Duo weren't officially together yet, Heero could be amazingly possessive of the braided American pilot.
Everything was back to normal at dinner, as Duo laughed and chattered
with - or, more accurately, at - the others, catching them up on the last
month of activities. Though Heero stayed quiet and restrained throughout
the meal, none of the others missed the frequent looks he slid at the braided
boy. Wufei smirked, Trowa observed in silence, and Quatre beamed. He had
been afraid that Heero would never come out of his shell, but it looked
like Duo was coaxing him along quite nicely. He didn't think anything had
started between them yet, but it would happen soon, he was sure of it. He
turned a thoughtful eye on his own brick wall, and contemplated the best
method to return to bashing his head against it. Maybe he could ask Rashid
to set up a nice, private dinner for him and Trowa tomorrow?
Duo kept up his easy banter, only half his mind on what he was doing. The joker's mask was reflex now, he didn't need to think about it any more. The important thing was that the others had tuned him out, and weren't paying any attention to him. Or, more importantly, to his meal.
Duo was well known among the group for being a hearty eater. Hell, even Trowa had once cracked a joke about the amount of food he inhaled in a single sitting. But tonight, he was mostly just shoving food around on his plate, once in a while dropping bits into the napkin on his lap when he was sure no one was looking. It wasn't that the food was bad - hell, compared to the slop they served in public school cafeterias, OZ ration bars would have tasted like ambrosia, never mind Quatre's Cordon Bleu chef. And it wasn't that he wasn't hungry, either - the smell of the food had his mouth watering like crazy, and his stomach was practically wrapped around his backbone in eagerness.
But the fact that he was practically starving was exactly what prompted Duo not to eat the food before him. He'd started this, and he was determined to see it through. Even if it killed him.
It had started innocently enough. Just a stupid, jealous kid, who'd
probably have shit his pants and run crying to mommy if he'd ever even seen
a Gundam up close.
It wasn't the first time Duo had been called 'chubby'. And he knew he wasn't, not really - his body had the lanky wiriness of a swimmer or gymnast, and his training had honed his muscles into fine shape. But he DID still have a layer of baby fat, especially obvious in his heart-shaped face, where it served to give him an even more feminine appearance.
Normally, it didn't bother him at all. The girls certainly didn't seem to mind, and if all his training hadn't gotten rid of it, then there was nothing for it. Yes, he tended to eat large amounts of food, especially junk food, but his high metabolism burned off the calories faster than he could ingest them. He was just going to have to wait and grow out of it.
But today, for some reason, the insult had stung, though he didn't show it at the time. The only way to react to a little twerp like that was to not react at all, and deny him the satisfaction of knowing his barbs had hit. But after returning to the room he shared with Heero, Duo had spent some time sitting on the end of his bed, gazing moodily at his reflection in the full length mirror on the wardrobe door.
At first, Heero had been glad for the silence, as it allowed him to do his work with none of the usual interruptions. But wasn't long before the sheer wrongness of the situation began to grate on his nerves. Duo was too quiet. Duo was never this quiet. He kept waiting for the sudden explosion of movement that would show that Duo was just testing him, or trying to surprise him, but it never came.
Heero slid a glance at the other boy from the corner of his eyes, his typing not missing a beat. Duo was gazing morosely at his reflection, an oddly haunted look in his eyes. Heero felt something in his chest twist. 'He looks lost hurt '
"Heero?" Duo suddenly asked, and Heero jumped, swinging his head back to the laptop screen. Then he cursed silently for acting like he was guilty of something. 'I was not worrying about him - I just want to make sure that whatever it is isn't going to interfere with the mission.' He slid another glance to the American, who hadn't taken his eyes off his own reflection.
"Heero, do you do you think I'm chubby?" There was a wistful quality to his voice that Heero had never heard before.
Heero blinked, once, surprise registering on his face before he quickly clamped down on it. 'Where on earth did that come from?' he wondered. "You're in adequate physical shape for the mission," he replied in a monotone. "What else matters?"
He'd been expecting a retort that the war wouldn't go on forever, that the mission wasn't everything. Or maybe a jab at Heero's own stocky figure. But Duo just sat and looked at his reflection some more. 'Something's wrong here.' Heero's instincts were screaming at him, but he had no idea what to do. He'd never seen Duo acting even remotely like this before, and he himself was hardly the nurturing type. 'Whatever it is, Quatre will deal with it when we see him next time,' he decided, and turned back to his typing.
Duo saw Heero's renewed concentration reflected in the mirror, and sighed internally. He should know better than to try to compete with that damn laptop for attention by now. The mission was far more important than any momentary self-doubts he might be having.
But were they so momentary? Duo suddenly realized that he'd been feeling out of sorts for a long time. The jester's mask was so familiar now that he often didn't realize himself when the joviality was real and when it was forced. He was lonely, he realized, and frustrated as all hell. At this war, at the scientists and their constant orders, at his emotionless roommate, and most of all, at his own inability to change or control any of it. Suddenly, that last stubborn bit of baby fat that just would not go away seemed to be mocking him with the fact that he wasn't even in control of his own body, much less his life. Slowly, Duo's face became resolutely determined. THIS, at least, he could do something about. This, he could change.
In the first few weeks, the changes were subtle, positive even.
He stopped hoarding junk food, and started eating more sparingly at regular
meals. He was more determined in his daily workouts. He was brighter and
more awake in the mornings, and more alert in his classes in general. Even
Heero was moved to comment on the change, tossing out an off-handed remark
about Duo's efficiency improvement.
Duo developed a nightly ritual. Every night, after he'd stepped out of the shower and brushed his long hair to a waterfall of chestnut silk, he stripped off the towel and eyed himself critically in the mirror. After the first week, what little fat had remained on his body had disappeared quickly, but the childish roundess of his cheeks stubbornly refused to give way. Duo growled at his reflection, and resolved to do better.
The next week after that saw Duo frequently skipping lunch (he'd never eaten breakfast in the first place) and eating less at dinner. Heero shot him a few odd looks, as ordinarily a missed lunch would have Duo whining until dinner, but made no comment. Duo became more fanatic in his nightly ritual. Even the slightest trace of fat still on his body could send him nearly to tears. He started to weigh himself constantly. If the scale went up by so much as a quarter of a pound, he'd punish himself for his own lack of discipline by skipping what supper he did allow himself.
Each day Duo grew imperceptibly thinner, and each night he looked his reflection in the eye and decided it had not been enough. He started pushing what little food he took at dinner around on the plate, instead of eating it, and used his keen pickpocketing skills to slip a good deal of food into his napkin right under Heero's hawk eye. By the end of the second month, he was tiring easily in gym class, and began skipping his daily workouts. He slept badly at night, and dragged his way through the day with little energy. His skin seemed paler, and more delicate, bruising at a butterfly's touch. Heero even stopped punching him for annoying him, as the bruises were far too obvious to classmates and teachers. He was snappish and depressed, and watched his reflection obsessively. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and even his hair seemed less lustrous and bouncy than usual.
Heero had not failed to notice the change in his partner. The always-in-motion chatterbox known as Duo Maxwell had become much quieter, and he tended to sit still for long periods of time, where his motto before had been 'Never sit with you can stand, never stand when you can walk, and never walk when you can run!' His piloting was becoming sloppier, as if he couldn't bring himself to care about his results. Twice, Heero had to rescue Deathscythe from almost certain destruction. Finally, Heero demanded to know if Duo was sick.
Duo turned violet eyes on his partner, eyes which looked even larger than normal in his now-thin face. "Sick? Me? You've gotta be kidding me! Shinigami doesn't get SICK, man. I'm fine! Just been too long since I've seen some action, that's all. This quiet is getting on my nerves - OZ must be up to something big!"
The quiet was getting to Heero too, but it wasn't OZ's recent inactivity he was worried about. There was something very, very wrong with his partner and - he was finally ready to admit it to himself - his best friend, but he had absolutely no idea what, nor what to do about it. The sense of helplessness which he felt was driving him crazy.
Duo knew he was walking a razor's edge. His best weight, in training, had been 127 pounds - a little under the norm for a boy his age, but he'd always been small. After three months of eating hardly anything at all, he was down to nearly 100 pounds - that wasn't healthy and he knew it. The baby fat was long gone from his face, but it wasn't about that any more. It was about controlling SOMEthing in his miserable life. It was about the gnawing, twisting hunger he felt all the time now, but which could not force him to break his own resolve not to eat. It was about mastering his own body and its needs, and proving to himself that he could do SOMETHING right if he put his mind to it. It was about keeping control of himself, not allowing himself to gain so much as an ounce of weight. He was starving himself to death, and he knew it - and it satisfied him.
The real trouble started at the beginning of the fourth month. Duo was barely eating anything at all now, though he kept up the pretense well enough. He tired quickly and got dizzy if he stood up or changed direction too fast, and he had a sick feeling that he was absolutely not capable of piloting Shinigami in his current state. It was that last concern which had kept him from going all the way and starving himself outright until now, but even that concern now paled next to his burning determination to succeed at this suicidal task he had set for himself. He'd been lucky in that their gym class in both of the last two schools had been in long periods of Health Ed., which was desk work and didn't require anything strenuous. But now they were at yet another school, and they were playing basketball. Duo grit his teeth and forced his body to behave as if nothing was wrong.
Heero knew he had a problem on his hands within five minutes of stepping onto the court. Normally, he and Duo could easily sweep the floor in basketball, practically reading one another's minds and moving perfectly in unison. Now, Duo was missing easy passes and losing the ball to the worst players in the class. He was having trouble dribbling, and got called for traveling twice. In the three chances he'd had at the hoop, he hadn't sunk a single shot, not even the easy two-pointer.
The Perfect Soldier's mind raced, analysing the situation in the only way he knew how, as if it were a battle simulation. The American's reflexes were completely off, his reaction time less than half of what it should be, and if Heero hadn't known better, he'd have sworn Duo was having trouble WALKING, never mind playing. Duo was NOT performing at his peak efficiency, not anywhere near it, and he had to do something about it.
But he didn't realize just how bad it was until halfway through the class. He was surrounded by three players, twisting this way and that, easily avoiding their attempts to grab the ball from him, even when they resorted to illegal tactics when the ref wasn't looking. He spotted an opening between two waving arms, and saw a graceful arc of chestnut - he fired the ball without even thinking.
As if in slow motion, he saw the ball sailing through the air in a perfect pass to his partner - who stared dumbly at it coming at him, as if he wasn't sure what to do with it. Belatedly, Duo raised his hands to catch the pass, but it was too late - the ball smacked him squarely in the face.
For a moment, time stood still, as Duo looked at the ball which had fallen into his outstretched hands with a faint expression of surprise. Then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed onto the gym floor.
Time sped up again for Heero, as Duo was instantly surrounded by a swarm of the female population of the class, who had been practicing on the other court. Heero shoved his way brutally to the American's side, heedless of the cries of protest which followed his sharp elbows. He knelt beside the braided boy and quickly checked his vital signs - his pulse was a little thready and his colour was pale, but his breathing was fine. Without a word, he scooped the other pilot into his arms and headed out of the gym at a trot, ignoring the teacher's instructions to take Duo to the school nurse.
Back at their room, Heero laid Duo down on his bed with a gentle tenderness that would have shocked his fellow pilots, had they been there to see it. He moved to the washroom and dampened a cloth, then returned to lay it on Duo's forehead. Then he settled in to watch over his friend, trying to keep the worry and fear he was feeling off of his face.
Duo woke slowly, convinced that Heero was jumping Wing up and down on his skull. He sat up without thinking, then quickly lay back again when his reeling head sent the room spinning. A wet something landed in his lap, and he looked down in surprise to see a damp washcloth - Heero's washcloth. He turned his head sideways to see his partner sitting on his bed in his favorite pose - one knee drawn up to his chest, arm resting on it, other leg outstretched. Cobalt eyes regarded him from beneath tangled brown bangs, and Duo would have sworn he could see something resembling worry for him in those endless depths.
"He..." he croaked, swallowed, and tried again. "Heero? What happened?"
"You passed out," Heero answered in his usual monotone - but was that the barest hint of a tremor?
"I..." Duo sat up again, more carefully this time, and felt his head. Didn't feel like he'd hurt his head when he fell, but he knew he'd have nasty bruises up and down the side of his body that had hit the floor first. "I... guess I didn't get enough sleep last night." He dredged a smile from the depths of his soul, but he knew it didn't reach his amethyst eyes, and his partner obviously wasn't buying it.
Heero exploded with a suddeness that sent Duo cringing back against the wall, expecting to get hit. "What the hell is wrong with you, Duo? You've been out of it for weeks! If you're sick, just SAY so, we can get Quatre's man to check you out..."
"I'm not sick," Duo snapped, his own temper frayed by the constant hollow gnawing in his gut. "And I certainly don't need YOU, of all people, mothering me! I can take care of myself, dammit!" Heero glared at him, and he met him dirty look for dirty look.
"Duo..." Heero intoned threateningly, but Duo wasn't budging. He'd long since become immune to Heero's particular brand of intimidation.
"I'm not sick," he repeated stubbornly, and to prove it, he climbed out of bed and headed for the door, forcing his watery knees to support him. "And if you'll excuse me, I've missed enough class." He slammed the door behind him with a satisfying crash. When he came back late that night, Heero was focused on his laptop, and said nothing to the braided boy. Their room had a strained tension in it after that, as neither wanted to be first to speak to the other. Heero even forbear to comment on the fact that Duo now skipped gym regularly, and slept through most of his other classes.