My scars itch.

Okay, so they’re not exactly scars. They’re at that awkward in-between stage. No longer new wounds, but not completely healed, either. My head knows that the itching means they’re healing, that the skin so violently sliced open is trying to knit itself back together. But it’s driving me crazy, and I want to rip the bandage off my arm and scratch until it bleeds again.

I can’t help but chuckle at that. “Driving” me crazy? I’ve been crazy for a long time. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever sane, though I guess I must have been, at some point. No one is born crazy, are they? Well, maybe they are. Maybe I really never was sane. It would make sense. Sense. Like anything about me made sense.

Oh, the damn itching! I look down at the bandage, and it takes all my self-control to stop myself from ripping it off right then and there. Again, I have to chuckle. Aren’t I a funny guy? If I had any self-control, I wouldn’t have the cuts in the first place. And I wouldn’t be sitting here on the floor of this ridiculously opulent bathroom in one of Quatre’s many estates, about to do it again.

Yeah, do it again. That’s right. I’m in this itchy predicament because I sliced my arm open myself, on purpose, with the razor blade I am once again holding in my hand. I stare at the blade, fascinated by its sharpness. I study every facet of the edge, moving it back and forth to see how the overhead light glints off the stainless steel. I let out a sigh, my heart constricting in my chest. How did I ever get so fucked up?

My left hand absently rubs over the bandage on my right-upper arm, in a vain attempt to banish the itch. Underneath the gauze and adhesive are four deep slashes, maybe two inches long, and two days old. They are the result of that blade running through my skin, parting it easily and cleanly with a hiss of pain. It had been so fascinating to watch the blood well up, forming dark red beads where the blade had cut deepest. How comforting the chill that ran down my spine when I brought my lips to the cuts and licked that blood away, tasting it on my lips. My blood. My blood that I had spilled.

The cuts were deep, deep enough that they probably should have had stitches. But how to explain them to Quatre’s medical officer? No, I had just bandaged them up myself, like I always did, using the first aid kit I’d found under the bathroom counter. They would scar horribly, new bright pink skin filling in the gaping slits, but I am no stranger to scars.

No, no stranger to scars. I look down from the razor blade to look at my body. I’m clad only in boxers. It’s the middle of the night, after all. I should be in my room, sleeping. But instead I’m sitting on the bathroom floor, surveying the roadmap of scars that is my skin. They begin on my skinny thighs. Angry red lines that stand out boldly against the pale skin. Some long, some short, some thin lines, others wide and gaping, where the skin had been so efficiently parted that it had been unable to knit itself back together, forced instead to fill in the slit. Like the new ones on my arm. Dozens of scars, covering both thighs, disappearing up under the line of my boxer legs. Some were years old, and fairly faded, others had been there for only a few weeks.

My gaze travels upward, to my arms.  Again, dozens of lines marred the pale skin. I examine each forearm, running a finger along the lines. For some reason, the scars here seem to fade faster than those on my thighs, and though most are not as old, some of the oldest are barely visible. Finally my eyes move up to where the scars are the worst. My upper arms. The left one was completely covered in long, horizontal lines. Most were thick, where the cuts had gaped from being so deep. Again I trace a finger along the lines, marveling at how sensitive they feel, even the older ones. My left upper arm is not nearly so covered, but the white bandage there was proof that that would not remain true for long.

I sigh and lean back against the cupboard, the handle digging into my back, but I don’t move. I bring the blade up and look at it again. Why? Why? WHY??? The question swirls in my brain, and remains unanswered, as usual. All I know is the need I feel to see my blood flow, to taste in on my lips, to feel that hiss of pain. I bring my left arm up and gaze at the marred skin. Gently, I lay the edge of the blade against the forearm, tantalizingly close to my wrist. I press down, and feel the blade begin to sink into my flesh. I begin to draw the blade down, closing my eyes and relishing the small sparks of aching pain. The blade travels slowly, agonizingly, for maybe two inches, and then I stop. I open my eyes and look down. Blood is beading along the cut, thick and dark red. I bring my arm to my mouth and lick the wound, savouring the salty taste. I sit like that for awhile, my eyes transfixed on the cut, licking it as the precious red beads form. But all too soon they taper off and then stop altogether, leaving only the shining red slit that has begun to sting and ache.

I am about to bring the blade to my skin again when suddenly there is a knock on the bathroom door, bringing me out of my transfixed state with a start.

“Duo? Is that you in there? Are you okay? It’s four in the morning!” Quatre’s voice, laden with concern, travels through the door.



“Duo? Is that you in there? Are you okay? It’s four in the morning!” Quatre’s voice, laden with concern, traveled through the door.


“I-I’m fine, Quatre, just a minute!” I replied, hoping my voice didn’t betray the coil of panic racing down my spine. I hastily climbed to my feet, swaying momentarily as the blood rushed to my head. I quickly shoved the razor blade into its little case, and then put the case away in the toiletry bag that contained the rest of my bathroom stuff, which was on the bathroom counter. I glanced into the mirror and was dismayed by the hollow look in my eyes. Then another realization struck me, sending another cold coil of panic through my body. I had neglected to bring a robe with me to the bathroom. I had to pass Quatre in the hallway, wearing only my boxers.

“Think, think, think…” I muttered to myself. I couldn’t let him see me like this. See the scars, the bandage, the fresh cut. The thought sent a wave of nausea over my stomach. Okay, he probably hadn’t turned the hallway light on. If I turned the bathroom light off as I opened the door, then I could probably brush past him in the darkness and be out of range when he turned the light on himself. Yeah, that would work.

As an afterthought, I reached over and flushed the toilet, so he would think I was finishing up. I ran the water in the sink, splashing some on my face. Taking a deep breath, I reached up and flicked the light off as I unlocked and opened the door.

Forcing a sheepish smile (which he probably couldn’t even see since I had just plunged us into darkness) I brushed past Quatre, who was no more than a dark shape in the near-black hallway, and started towards my room, calling over my shoulder: “Sorry, Quatre, for hogging the bathroom. That’ll teach me to not drink so much Pepsi right before I go to bed.”

“Well, you were in there for quite awhile, are you sure….” His voice trailed off as I continued on to my room as if I didn’t hear him. He sighed and went into the bathroom.

Once the door shut, I paused and slumped against the wall in relief. That was close. I had to be more careful. I had a robe, one that I had bought for the sole purpose of covering up my scars on occasions just like this, but I had left it in my room. Stupid! I smacked myself in the side of the head, hard, and was gratified by the resulting tingly ache. I resumed the trek down the hallway to my room.

The next morning I was woken up by the smell of pancakes. I rolled over, groaning into the pillow. I didn’t want to get up. I never wanted to get up. The very thought was almost enough to have me in tears, except of course that boys don’t cry. I rolled over again, and stared up at the ceiling. I really did have to get up. Quatre probably had stuff planned. It was, after all, the first time that all five of us were under the same roof in almost six months, since the war had ended. I sighed, pressing my hands into my face for a moment, and then I forced myself to sit up. Who knew getting out of bed in the morning could become one of life’s greatest struggles? It’s not like I would even sleep more if I stayed in bed. I’d probably just lie there like a log all day, maybe dozing a bit now and then. Sighing again, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and stood up. There. I was out of bed. First battle of the day won.

God, this was pathetic. What does it say about you when you consider getting out of bed in the morning a victory? Unwilling to think about that right now, I got dressed, pulling on my customary black pants and priest-style shirt. Sleeves rolled down, of course, but as I glanced out the window I saw that it was probably going to be a pretty warm day. Damn.

I went to the bathroom and washed my face, splashing on cold water to try and make myself feel more alive. It didn’t really work. I half-heartedly braided my hair. I haden’t been able to muster up the energy to shower for a couple of days now, and my hair was starting to feel greasy. I promised myself I would shower that night. When I was done I just stood there staring at my reflection in the mirror for a moment. I was too pale, pasty even. I had lost weight, and I had never had much to spare in the first place. My eyes looked hollow and sunken. Sighing, I realized that I wasn’t going to get through this day without some help. I turned away from the wretch in the mirror with a sneer of disgust and returned to my room.

I dug around in my backpack and pulled out the bottle I was looking for. The label read: Ener-G. They were a combo of caffeine and a host of other chemicals, with some stimulant herbs thrown in for good measure. The guy at the store where I bought them laughingly called them “legal speed.” The instructions said to take 1 or 2, but I shook out 4, my usual dose, and quickly swallowed them, washing them down with the glass of water on my nightstand. Great. In a little while, I’d be feeling much better, and I’d be able to play the joker for my friends, pretending everything was okay.

I would be the only one who knew that nothing was okay.

Now, to face breakfast. I sighed and left my room, heading downstairs, where I could hear the voices of the others.


Part 3

I walked into the dining room and saw my four fellow ex-gundam pilots already eating breakfast. They were seated around the large oak table, helping themselves to the pancakes heaped on a serving platter. I paused for a moment in the doorway, just looking at them. Quatre was talking animatedly with Trowa, who listened attentively and nodded every now and then. I noted the closeness of their chairs, and how Quatre’s body almost seemed to lean into Trowa’s. I had been so relieved when they finally got together. Living with a war /and/ the repressed sexual tension between two of your comrades was not fun, believe me. Heero and Wufei were chatting with each other as well, and Heero even laughed at something Wufei said. They’d both loosened up so much in the six months since the war had ended. It was amazing, really.

The changes weren’t just in behaviour, either. They’d all grown another couple of inches, gained a little weight, and lost that war-weary look. Only I was still a shrimp. Not only had I not grown a single millimeter, but, as I mentioned before, I had actually /lost/ weight. Next to them I must have looked positively unhealthy. That was certainly the message I’d seen reflected in their eyes when I’d arrived here yesterday and they’d seen me for the first time since shortly after the war ended.

It was strange. I trusted these four guys with my life, had fought in battle with them and risked death with them. I knew we shared a bond of common experience that was pretty special, which was why Quatre was so insistent that we stay in touch. But at that moment, standing just outside the room and looking in at them, I was overwhelmed with such a feeling of isolation that I shuddered in an effort to brush it off.

Plastering what I hoped was a convincingly cheery smile on my face, I entered the room and took the empty seat to Quatre’s left. “Hey! What’s up guys? Any big plans for the day?” I exclaimed, infusing my voice with as much feeling as possible. The pills I’d taken had barely even begun to kick in, so it wasn’t a whole lot.

I was unnerved by the sudden silence as all conversation ceased and the four of them turned to look at me. They had the oddest looks in their eyes. Confusion? Curiosity? Maybe… concern? My mind quickly dismissed that. They were probably just not used to my “cheerfulness” after being apart for so long, that was all. I fidgeted in my seat and reached for the serving platter, helping myself to some pancakes.

After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only a moment, Quatre broke the silence. “Well, there’s nothing really specific planned for the day. I thought maybe we could drive into town and go shopping. This afternoon some more people are going to come, and we’re having kind’ve a party tonight. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

“Yeah, Q-man, sounds awesome! Who else is coming?” I asked as I mechanically shoveled a forkful of pancake into my mouth. Finally, I was starting to feel the effects of those pills, so there was actually some excitement in my voice. I had to force myself not to grimace as I chewed the pancakes, though. They were good and everything, but I’ve had little to no appetite for a long time now, and those pills only made it worse. Eating was the last thing I felt like doing right now, but I knew it would’ve looked weird if I’d passed up breakfast.

“Well,” Quatre continued, “Relena and Noin are coming, and Catherine, and so is Sally Po. Oh, and I asked Hilde to come. She’s really looking forward to seeing you, since it’s been so long.”

“Wow, that’s great man,” I said before shoveling more food in my mouth. Just a little more and I could feign being full. It really would be nice to see Hilde again. I hadn’t seen her since her recovery from the injuries she’d suffered in the last battle, and she’d been great company when I’d had to hide out on L2 during the war.

Whoa, I was really starting to feel the effects of those pills now. Energy was starting to hum along my nerves, and I unconsciously started fidgeting, my left foot tapping on the floor. The silence from the others was starting to get to me, too. I had to say something.

“So, uh, what have you guys been up to the last six months, huh? Anything interesting?” I asked, and then winced internally. My voice was a little louder than it had to be. I studiously ignored Quatre’s inquisitive look.

The rest of breakfast was torture. I listened to Heero talk about his work with Relena’s security team, Wufei describe how he was helping out with an organization that aided war refugees, Quatre discuss the various charitable foundations the Winner Corporation was in the process of setting up, and Trowa relate how well the circus was doing. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, I was. I even dominated the conversation with my comments, questions, and wisecracks. But I could feel the blood rushing in my ears, and my heart was beating so damned fast because of those pills. I even felt it miss a beat here and there, a most unpleasant sensation. And it was depressing hearing how well they were all doing. I was happy for them, of course, but I felt so damn pathetic and useless in comparison.

Finally, it was over. We agreed to meet in the foyer in an hour to go into town to get supplies for the get-together that night, and then went out separate ways. I just barely managed not to run as I fled to the upstairs bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and stared at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were wide and round, the pupils dilated. I took several deep breaths. My heart was still beating too fast. My head was practically swimming, and I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. /Damn it, Maxwell, you’re high!/ I thought to myself. How could the others not have noticed? They would have said something if they had, right?

I stepped back from the mirror and leaned against the wall, my rapidly beating heart constricting painfully in my chest. I had to swallow back tears that were suddenly threatening to spill out. Why would they have noticed? They’ve never noticed anything about me before. They always readily accepted the clown, the joker I pretended to be, and they never looked any further. We shared the bond of being gundam pilots, but they didn’t know /me/, the real me. And they probably didn’t care to. I couldn’t really blame them, either. Who would want to?

A little voice at the back of my brain told me that I’ve never really given them a chance to know the real me, and I can’t deny the truth of that. I sighed and banged my head back against the wall, hard enough that I saw black spots for a moment. Why am I so stupid? Any smart person would open up, and share with the people who supposedly cared about them. But I’d die before I told anyone about how I felt, and what I did. I’d die if anyone ever found out. The very thought of someone /knowing/ that about me was enough to make me weak in the knees. And I couldn’t make myself believe that the others would care. In fact, I was sure that they would be horrified, disgusted, and repulsed. How could they not be, when /I/ was horrified, disgusted, and repulsed by the fact that I mutilated my own skin? No, no one could ever know.

I shuddered, the familiar self-hatred coiling in my stomach. I had to do something. I couldn’t just stand there anymore. I found myself reaching for the toiletry bag on the counter, for the razor blade case inside. My hand was trembling, but whether it was from the energy pills or something else, I couldn’t say. I stared at the blade with grim acceptance for a moment before pulling up my left shirtsleeve. I placed the blade against the pale skin, practically at the crook of my elbow. I drew a shaky breath and then pressed it into my skin, the pain sharp and sudden as the blade cut deep. I began to draw the blade through the flesh, slowly, agonizingly, my eyes going foggy from the pain. Finally I stopped and looked down. I felt my stomach turn in on itself. The cut was deep, very deep. Blood was running down my arm in glistening dark red rivulets, and as I watched it started to drip onto the tile floor. I hastily brought the cut up to my lips, lapping at it with my tongue to stop the flow. The taste sent a chill down my spine. Suddenly I felt faint and I sat down hard on the floor, tongue still licking the flow of blood.  I sat like that a moment, until it registered that the cut wasn’t bleeding as much. I numbly reached out and grabbed a handful of toilet paper, placing it over the cut and applying pressure

I felt sick to my stomach. I don’t know if it was because of the pills, or because I forced myself to eat those pancakes, or because of what I was feeling. Maybe it was all three. I just sat there and let my mind wander as I stared, transfixed, at the drops of blood on the floor. My blood. My blood that I had spilled. As my mind continued to drift, I found myself thinking back on the time that I had come closest to letting my guard down, and telling someone the truth….


Part 4

I felt sick to my stomach. I don’t know if it was because of the pills, or because I forced myself to eat those pancakes, or because of what I was feeling. Maybe it was all three. I just sat there and let my mind wander as I stared, transfixed, at the drops of blood on the floor. My blood. My blood that I had spilled. As my mind continued to drift, I found myself thinking back on the time that I had come closest to letting my guard down, and telling someone the truth….

I slouched into the dorm room Heero and I were sharing and threw my bag down on the floor in a huff. I flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. It had been an incredibly bad day. I heaved a world-weary sigh and rubbed my face with both hands. I was /not/ going to cry. Boys don’t cry, especially not over something as pathetic as a “bad day.” I couldn’t even put my finger on any one thing that had me in such a state. It just seemed to be everything and nothing. I had moved through the day on autopilot, feeling unbelievably disconnected from the people around me. And it wasn’t just because of the glaringly obvious fact that I was an undercover gundam pilot. As I looked around at the other students, listening to their inane chatter, I got the distinct impression that I would have felt isolated from these people even if I had been just another so-called “normal” student.

Everything was just /weighing/ on me. I felt like I was drowning. I felt empty, alone, scared…. I was feeling so many things that I just couldn’t explain. Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t just explode. It was all just too much, and I couldn’t even say for sure what “all” was.

I looked at my forearms. There was a scattering of long pink scars on the white skin. My own handiwork. In my opinion, there were more there than could easily be explained away as accidental scratches, but apparently no one else thought so, since no one had ever asked about them. It was only recently that I had started cutting there, in a place that was so visible, and I had continued to wear my shirtsleeves rolled up, almost daring anyone to ask, to care. But no one did. Sometimes I thought I’d give anything just to have someone ask me if I was okay and mean it, so that I could spill everything. Most of the time, though, I was terrified of anyone finding out.

My chest felt so tight, filled with inexplicable pain. My left food was tapping rapidly against the mattress, a nervous gesture that reflected how restless I was. With another world-weary sigh, I sat up, and then nearly fell off the bed in fright when I saw Heero sitting at his desk. He had apparently been there the whole time, his attention completely focused on the textbook he was reading.

He must have heard me come in. Why hadn’t he said anything? I thought my actions had spoken pretty loudly about me being in a less-than happy mood. He could at least have asked if I was okay. I thought back to my musings of only a moment before, and suddenly I desperately wanted him to ask me that question, wanted to spill my guts to him as I had never spilled my guts before. First, I had to break the silence.

“Hey, Heero, didn’t see you sitting there. You studying?” I asked in a near-monotone, purposely leaving out the false joviality I usually projected. /Ask me, Heero./ I silently begged. /Ask me if I’m okay./

“Hn,” he said. Okay, so he wasn’t going to make this easy. I got to my feet and went to stand just behind him and a little to his left, looking over his shoulder.

“Trigonometry, huh? Got a test or something?” Not exactly sparkling conversation, but that was the message I was trying to convey, after all. That something was wrong. /Ask me, Heero. Please, for the love of God, ask me./

“Hn,” he said again. I had to resist the urge to shake him. I was in pain here, how could he not notice? Sure, I still acted the clown for the most part, but for weeks, months even, the mask had been faltering, cracking, becoming more and more transparent. At least /I/ thought so. It had gotten to the point that I honestly didn’t know how even a complete stranger could look at me and not immediately know that something was seriously wrong. But here was this guy who spend a lot of time with me and was supposedly maybe even a friend, and he didn’t seem to have a clue! Was he really that blind? Or maybe he just didn’t care, was that it?

Frustration and pain that had been building up for a long time came roaring to the service. I rubbed my hands together to keep them from shaking. That was it. I had to tell him, someone, anyone! I couldn’t go on like this. It was too hard. He /was/ my friend, wasn’t he? He /would/ care, right?

Drawing a shaky breath, I opened my mouth for the third time: “Heero, I –“

He suddenly turned in the chair, eyes ablaze with fury, cutting me off. “Damnit, Duo! Do you want something? Otherwise could you just shut up! I have a lot of work to do and your chatter is distracting me!” he snapped.

My eyes went wide as saucers as he glared at me. He clearly wasn’t interested in /anything/ I had to say. My resolve disappeared. “N-no, Heero, I don’t need anything.” Satisfied, he turned back to his book. I just stood there for a moment, feeling stunned. But I quickly started to fidget again. Suddenly, I had to be anywhere but here, and I was feeling a very familiar need. Grabbing the little travel shaving kit that held my razor blades, I gave Heero one last sad look and then made a beeline for the bathroom.

I gave my head a slight shake, bringing myself back to the present. Crap! The time! I looked at my watch. I had to meet the others in less than ten minutes and I was sitting on the bathroom floor, holding a wad of toilet paper to the deep cut I had just inflicted on my arm, and reminiscing on painful memories from the past.  I shook my head again, and tried to focus on the situation at hand.

First, I lifted the blood-soaked tissue and examined the gash. Damn, it was deep enough to require stitches. That just wasn’t going to happen, so a bandage would have to do. I shifted away from the cupboard door enough so that I could swing it open and grab the first aid kit. It was awkward bandaging the cut with only one hand, but I’d had lots of practice and managed to get it done pretty quickly. I then hurriedly mopped up the few drops of blood on the floor and put away the razor blade. Last of all, I took stock of myself in the mirror. I still looked and felt pretty high, but the others hadn’t noticed before so it was unlikely that they would now. Experience had taught me that I was the clown to them and nothing but. I was dismayed to see that my hands were shaking, but hopefully no one would notice that either. Plastering my grin on, I ran downstairs to meet them.

They were all waiting for me in the foyer, Wufei and Heero looking pretty annoyed at my lateness. Quatre and Trowa seemed too wrapped up in each other to care, though. We piled into one of Quatre’s vans, Heero taking the wheel. The trip into town for party supplies was pretty uneventful. I let the energy pills do their work, chattering incessantly about everything under the sun without really saying anything at all. Even Wufei’s mutterings and Heero’s death glares couldn’t shut me up. Okay, so maybe they hadn’t changed all /that/ much. The whole time, though, I could feel the sharp sting from my fresh cut, and I would often unconsciously pat it with my hand, as if confirming to myself that it was really there and not just a figment of my imagination. Maybe I was doing it because I didn’t really feel as if /I/ was there, like maybe I wasn’t a real person, and the pain proved that I was. Weird.

I was a bit more subdued on the trip back out to Quatre’s estate. I could finally feel the effects of the pills winding down. They were intense, but they didn’t last for very long. We had finally finished bringing in the last of the stuff we’d bought when another van pulled up to the front gates.

“Oh, great!” Quatre exclaimed. “The others must be here!”


Part 5

“Oh, great!” Quatre exclaimed. “The others must be here!”

I quickly quelled a flash of panic. Crap! With the effect of the energy pills fading, it was becoming harder and harder to keep up my “normal” façade of the happy-go-lucky joker. It was only going to get harder with more people around. Suddenly I became aware of my new cuts itching again, both the one from earlier today, and the ones from a couple of days ago. Absently, I started to rub the bandage on my upper-right arm through my shirt as I watched the people start to pour out of the van.

Relena and Noin were the first off the van, giggling like schoolgirls. I raised an eyebrow, wondering what was up with them. They didn’t usually act like that. They were followed by Catherine, Sally, and finally Hilde. As soon as she saw she me she ran over and threw her arms around me, and I returned the hug. Quatre used to tease me about Hilde and I being an item or something, but it was never like that between us. We were just good friends, and it really had been too long since I’d seen her, almost six months. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t made the trip out to see her in all that time. She lived on the neighbouring L2 satellite to mine. I guess I’d been avoiding her, just like I’d been avoiding everyone else.

Suddenly, she pulled back, holding me at arms’ length, and really looked at me. A frown creased her delicate features.

“Duo? Are you sick or something? You’re so thin! And you look like shit run over twice!” she exclaimed, her voice dripping with worry. I blushed furiously. That’s Hilde, blunt and to the point. I blushed even more as I realized that all the other conversations and greetings going on around us had fallen silent, and everyone was looking intently at us.

“I-I’m fine, Hilde. It’s nothing,” I stammered, uncharacteristically (at least to them) at a loss for words. Her frown deepened.

“Like hell, you’re fine, Duo. Something’s obviously wrong. You never weighed much to begin with, but now you’re nothing but skin and bones. And you’re so pale, like you haven’t seen the sun in weeks,” she retorted. Right about then, I was wishing the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I squirmed under everyone’s scrutiny. Suddenly it seemed hard to breathe, I felt so trapped. Unconsciously I rubbed at the bandage under my shirt again, as my eyes flicked nervously from Hilde to the others and back again. I was about to open my mouth and say something, anything, to end the awkward silence, but Hilde beat me to it.

“Fine,” she said in a voice that signified that this was anything but over. “We’ll talk later.” She must have realized that this was hardly the time or place for this. Her face softened, and she pulled me back into a tight embrace. “I really have missed you, you know,” she murmured in my ear.

I hugged her back, tightly, wincing slightly at the pain that it caused my latest cuts. “I know. I’ve missed you, too,” I murmured in response. Slowly, the conversations started up around us again, though a bit more subdued than they’d been a moment earlier. I was exceedingly glad that the moment had passed. But I knew with a sinking feeling that sooner or later Hilde was going to demand answers. I had no idea what to tell her. No one had ever really asked before.

After all of the girls’ bags were brought in and they were shown to their respective rooms, we all went to the dining room for supper. The meal was pretty much a blur to me. I really wasn’t used to being around so many people. I had to admit to myself that I’d become sort’ve a hermit over the last six months. The earlier energy pill-induced giddiness was all but gone, and I was still reeling from the incident with Hilde earlier, so it was quite a struggle to be cheerful and chatty, like I was supposed to be. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed to me that I was getting a lot of funny looks from people, which was making me nervous. And I know for sure that Hilde kept shooting me worried glances. It was all giving me one bitch of a headache.

I tried to shake it off, and concentrate on the conversations around me, mindful of making wisecracking remarks wherever I thought they would be expected of me. Everyone was talking animatedly, clearly happy at the chance to get caught up. Relena, of course, was very busy with her work as Vice-Foreign Minister. Noin was the head of her security team. The two of them kept looking at each other and giggling, like they were sharing a secret. Catherine was now part-owner of her circus, and was greatly enjoying the business end of the organization, as well as continuing with her knife-throwing act. She proudly announced that when the ringmaster retired in a couple of years, he would be handing over the entire business to her. Sally was working with a refugee-aid society which was located, surprisingly enough, on the same L2 satellite on which I’d been living for the past six months. I hadn’t even known. Hilde had started taking college courses. As the other former pilots filled in the girls’ on what they’d been up to, I deftly avoided talking about what I’d been doing, just as I had when we’d been talking about the same thing over breakfast. Once again, my evasiveness raised a few eyebrows, but nobody pushed the matter.

Finally, dinner was over. Quatre announced that everyone should go freshen up, and that the party would start in the “casual” living room (as opposed to one of the “formal” living rooms, or which there were several – rich people are funny that way) well, whenever everyone showed up there. I seized the opportunity to flee upstairs, much as I had after breakfast that morning. This time I headed for my room, shutting the door behind me and leaning back against it with a sigh of relief. Maybe coming here had been a mistake. I had had my doubts when Quatre had first invited me, a couple of weeks ago, but had finally given in. I did miss everyone, after all. But it was becoming increasingly clear to me why I had been unconsciously avoiding them. I was in no condition to be pretending that everything was okay, when it most definitely was not. I was just not up to this, any of it.

And it was starting to look as if the others were suspicious. It was obvious in Hilde’s case, but the others were worrying me, too. Though there were times when I would have given anything for someone to notice, to see past the mask, to see ME, the real me, and care, most of the time I was still scared. Scared and ashamed. Man, they’d all been so oblivious during the war! I walked around with my sleeves rolled up, cuts perfectly visible on my forearms, and no one said a thing. I relentlessly played the joker, thinking to myself the entire time that it was a ridiculously transparent façade, that anyone would see through in a second, but apparently I was wrong. They all took the joker at face value. It had hurt, badly, that none of them seemed to care enough to look beyond the surface. But I had learned to more or less accept it (hadn’t I?), and all of this… this /concern/ was freaking me out. And no one besides Hilde had even said anything yet!

Shit, what was I going to do about Hilde? A small voice in the back of my head told me that I should do the smart thing when she finally confronted me and demanded answers: tell her the truth. Tell her all about the pain, the misery, the unbearable emptiness and loneliness. All about the inexplicable and undeniable need to try and get those feelings /out/, somehow, anyhow. All about how I /hurt/ myself, mostly by cutting, but also by hitting, and on one memorable occasion, by burning my leg with a cigarette. All about how I can’t explain why I did that, even to myself. All about the disgust and shame I felt, knowing I did those things to myself. God, the list of things I could tell her about was endless. But I couldn’t do it. I /knew/ I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid. Afraid of the disgust I was sure she’d feel for me, if she knew all my darkest secrets. The disgust anyone would rightfully feel, knowing those things.

And how the hell was I going to make it through that damned party tonight?


Part 6

Damn, the party. It was going to be torture. Briefly, I considered weaseling out of it by claiming sickness or something, but that idea was quickly dismissed as being way too suspicious. God, I shouldn’t have come.

Well, there was no getting out of it, so I figured that I may as well hurry up and get ready so that I could go back downstairs before Hilde managed to confront me alone somewhere. I remembered that I needed a shower badly, so I stripped off my clothes, threw on my robe, grabbed my shampoo and conditioner out of my bag, and ducked down the hallway to the bathroom. Thankfully, I didn’t run into anyone on the way.

Once I was safely in the bathroom, I let out a sigh of relief. I turned on the water in the shower and then turned around and took off the robe, catching sight of myself in the mirror. I wanted to avert my eyes, but my gaze was strangely transfixed for a few moments, staring with a combination of disgust and wonder at the roadmap of scars on my skin. No matter how many times I saw them, they still took my breath away. They still shocked me. I could not understand how I could have done such a thing to myself. Why I continued to do it. With slightly trembling fingers I removed the two bandages on my arms, grimacing at how awful my most recent cuts look. Those on my right upper arm from a couple of days ago looked particularly bad, the gaps where the skin was cruelly parted filled with pus, the process of filling in the gaps with scar tissue well under way. God, they itched so badly. The cut on my left forearm, near the crook of my elbow, was much fresher, done only this morning. It was still red and sharply stinging, and frightening in its depth. It had bled a lot, the bandage caked through with dried blood.

Cursing myself under my breath, I turned away from the mirror and got in the shower. I hissed as the water made the cuts sting. I took my time showering, hoping the deliciously warm water would prove to be comforting and relaxing as well, but it was in vain. I was just too keyed up. Sighing, I finally turned the water off and stepped out of the shower, dreading facing my reflection in the mirror again. I was surprised to see that I’d been in the shower for as long as half an hour, so I hurried to finish getting ready, drying and braiding my hair, and carefully putting fresh bandages over my cuts before throwing my robe on and returning to my room to get dressed.

After I’d pulled on yet another pair of black pants paired with a long-sleeved black shirt with minister’s collar, I stood indecisively in my room for a moment. I still didn’t feel up to a party. They’d all expect me to be playing the clown big time. I eyed my bag that held my bottle of Ener-G pills, but I decided against taking any more. The effect from the ones I’d taken this morning may have worn off, but my heart was still giving a little lurch now and then. Oh, well. I figured I’d just have to rely on alcohol. A lot of alcohol. It was a good thing Quatre had bought so much for the party when we’d gone into town earlier. Sighing resolutely, I turned to leave the room.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I opened the door to find Hilde standing there, about to knock. She jumped as well.

“Oh! Duo, you startled me. Listen, I was hoping we could talk before -” she began, but I cut her off quickly, my mind racing.

“There’s no time to talk now. There’s a party to get to! Come on, you don’t want them to start without us, do you?” With that, I brushed past her and hurried down the hall, not giving her a chance to respond. I heard her trailing behind me.

“But, Duo, this is important –“ she started again, rushing to catch up to me. I didn’t slow down, and I called back to her over my shoulder, cutting her off again.

“It can wait! Tonight’s for having fun,” I said with a joviality I didn’t feel. I heard her exasperated sigh, and felt a pang of guilt, but what could I do? I couldn’t talk to her now, if ever. She didn’t say anything else, following me downstairs to the room where the party was being held.

As we entered the large wood-paneled room I noted with surprise that we were the last to get there. I must have taken even longer getting ready than I’d thought. The others were standing around in little groups, chatting. I took in the large, self-serve bar at the end of the room appreciatively. God, was I going to need it. When Relena saw us walk into the room she beamed.

“Oh, great! Everyone’s finally here! Before things get underway, could I have everyone’s attention for a moment? Noin and I have an, ah, announcement to make,” she giggled. Silence fell over the room as everyone turned their attention on Relena. Noin went up to stand next to her, and I blinked in surprise when they linked hands.

“Noin and I are… engaged. We wanted all of you to be the first to know, since you mean so much to us.” Relena announced, a gleam of happiness in her eyes.

The room was locked into stunned silence for a moment, but then exploded in a chorus of cheers and exclamations as people rushed forward to hug and congratulate the happy couple. I blinked back my own surprise as a smile crossed my face. So /that’s/ why they’d been giggling and carrying on like schoolgirls since they’d gotten here. I really was happy for them. They were obviously ecstatic together. My smile faded as I bit back a loneliness than ran so deep I swear it ached in my bones. Okay, time for a drink.

“This calls for a toast!” I yelled with forced cheerfulness, capturing everyone’s attention. They all agreed, and we moved to the bar, and soon everyone was holding a glass of champagne. I raised my glass to the air. “To the happy couple, who so successfully hid their relationship from all of us, and managed to take us completely by surprise!” Everyone laughed. “May you have a long and happy life together!” With that, everyone took a sip from their glass. Except for me. I downed the whole glass in one shot, much to everyone’s amusement. I resisted the sudden urge to toss the fluted glass over my shoulder, and instead I set it back down on the bar.

“Okay, let’s get this party started! Where’s the music?” I called, making my way over to the massive stereo system. I heard more chuckling behind me. Yup, no problem here. Just me being the crazy party animal everyone expected. I rifled through the stacks of CDs, looking for something that both matched my mood and would be appropriate for a party. Finally I shoved on an old 20th century band called Limp Bizkit. It was nice and loud for a party, but also appropriately angsty. After cranking the volume I returned to the bar.

I poured myself a shot of tequila and threw it back in one smooth motion, then I poured another and threw it back as well, though the first one was still burning a path down my throat. The plan was to start out fast and then coast through the rest of the evening. I had just poured another when Hilde suddenly appeared at my side. I eyed her warily before forcing a smile. She returned my gaze steadily before picking up a shot glass and indicating that I should fill it, so I did. We threw the shots back together. I let my eyes roam over the others. Most were still sipping on their first glass of champagne. Quatre, Trowa and Catherine were already on the dance floor, Quatre and Trowa moving closely together, with Catherine dancing with them, but a little ways apart, smiling at them indulgently. The rest of them had taken their drinks and gone over to the little sitting area to talk, though I supposed they were shouting to hear each other over the music. Finally, Hilde broke the silence between us as I poured my fourth shot.

“You aren’t wasting anytime getting plastered are you?” she asked, even as she held out her glass for a refill. Again, we threw back the shots in unison. The tequila was filling my stomach with a decidedly pleasant warmth, and I could feel it starting to work it’s magic on my brain. I shrugged at her.

“It’s a party,” I replied, grinning. “You’re supposed to have fun.” Her expression remained unreadable. Damn, she was making me uncomfortable. I absently rubbed the bandage on my arm through my shirt. It was itching again. Suppressing a scowl, I turned away from her and helped myself to yet another shot.

“Yeah, well the party’s barely started and you’ve already had six drinks,” she commented dryly. Ignoring her, I grabbed the vodka bottle and filled a tall glass halfway, and then topped it off with coke. I took a long drink from it, savouring the burning sensation down my throat, even as I winced from how strong it was. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth spreading through my body, the numbness beginning to envelop me as the alcohol hit my bloodstream and traveled to my brain. Oh yeah, getting absolutely wasted was /exactly/ what I needed right now.

Suddenly I became aware that one of my favourite Limp Bizkit songs had come on, “Nookie.” Taking my glass with me, I grabbed Hilde’s hand and hauled her out to the dance floor. Grinning like a maniac, I began to dance wildly to the music, periodically taking drinks from my glass. I could see that Hilde was still concerned, but she began to loosen up a little, dancing with me, and even laughing when I would make a face at her, or when I would mimic being a guitar player. I even sang along to the chorus, eliciting laughs from everyone in the room. As drunk as I was getting already, it wasn’t too hard to play the clown for them.

As the night progressed, I remained the life of the party, periodically singing along and carrying on like a madman. Most of the others were getting pretty tipsy, but I don’t think any of them were even coming close to approaching the levels of drunkenness I was reaching. And I was still throwing them back. I kept the loud, angsty music going on the stereo, and I danced wildly, stopping only for trips to the bar to refresh my drink. None of the others had my stamina. They’re was always at least a couple of them sitting off to the side, taking a rest. I kept playing the clown, randomly pulling other dancers into my embrace and grinding with them. I’ll never forget how Heero blushed and pulled away when I pulled that with him! Mostly people took it in stride, laughing along. I was only doing what was expected, after all.

At one point, late in the night, I stumbled over to the bar for a tequila shot. I was so drunk that my whole body felt numb. The room was spinning crazily, and for the past little while it had become quite the struggle to remain upright while dancing. Hilde joined me at the bar, frowning.

“Hhhheyyy, Hilde,” I slurred, “Having fun?” I mentally kicked myself. I couldn’t believe how drunk I sounded! I was still in complete control, wasn’t I? Her hand shot out and grabbed my hand, which had been about to lift the shot glass to my mouth.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” she asked. Anger flared in me and I scowled at her. What right did she have to say that? I jerked my hand away, nearly falling over in the process, and spilling half the tequila all over the front of my shirt.

“Fuck! Now look what you made me do!” I snapped, louder than I had intended and still slurring my words. Hilde reached forward to take hold of my arm.

“You’re really drunk, Duo. Why don’t I take you to your room and you can go to bed?” she suggested evenly. I jerked away from her again, and this time I did fall, smacking my head on the edge of the bar in the process. I saw stars, my vision swimming even more than it had been before. I lifted a hand to my temple and felt blood. I stared dazedly up at the ceiling, feeling incredibly disoriented.

“Duo! Are you okay?” Hilde exclaimed, crouching down beside me, her face a mask of concern. Suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of legs, as people gathered around to see if I was okay.

“Leave me alone! I’m fine!” I yelled, pushing her away and trying to get to my feet. Man, why was I yelling so loudly? My voice rang in my ears, intensifying the pain from the gash on my head. My legs were like rubber and I slumped back to the floor. Suddenly hands were all over me, trying to help me up. I pushed them away violently. “Christ, get the fuck away from me!” I was so angry. Why was I so angry? A moment ago I’d been having fun, the last one on the dance floor, still dancing wildly. Now I was sprawled unceremoniously on the floor, unable to get up, and filled with inexplicably rage. What the hell was wrong with me?

“Duo, we’re just trying to help you get up,” Wufei said, as if speaking to a particularly dense child. He reached for me again. I smacked his arm away wildly.

“I don’t NEED your help! I don’t need ANYBODY’S help! I’m perfectly fine!” I cringed, not only at the volume of my voice, but also at how badly the words were slurred. Christ, I could barely talk. I tried again to get to my feet unaided. My body was so numb, my limbs like rubber. I couldn’t seem to get them to do what I wanted them to do. Somehow, I got to my feet, but was only managing to remain so by clinging onto the bar like it was a lifeboat. Not only was my head swimming, but now my stomach was turning over on itself, and I was feeling distinctly ill. More hands reached out to steady me. I spun around, nearly falling again, my back making painful contact with the edge of the bar. I flailed my arm wildly in the air, smacking the others away. “Leave me ALONE!” I bellowed.

They were all /staring/ at me, like I had three heads or something. What was their problem? Okay, so I’d had a little too much to drink. What was the big deal? Okay, so maybe it was a /lot/ too much. Still no reason to be /looking/ at me like that. I had the sudden crazy thought that they could see right through me, right inside to the /real/ me, and they were horrified and disgusted at what they saw. I could hear the cacophony of their voices as they spoke to me, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Condescending, placating voices, like they were speaking to a child. My face burned with embarrassment and anger.

“What the FUCK is everyone staring at? Get away from me!” I screamed. My eyes were burning with tears, and I didn’t even know why. I launched myself away from the bar, intending to storm out of there, but I didn’t make it. Didn’t even make it one step, in fact, as my legs gave out from under me and I hit the floor on my hands and knees /hard/, sending bolts of pain up my numbed limbs. Suddenly, I was emptying the contents of my stomach all over the floor. I think I was still throwing up when I passed out.

Part 7

My head was one massive knot of pain.

That was my first coherent thought when I woke the next day. “Woke” is putting it kindly. Clawing my way back from the dead may be a more accurate description.

I sat up gingerly, shutting my eyes against the harsh daylight. I rubbed both hands against my aching head, and slowly opened my eyes, giving them time to adjust to the light. What the hell had happened? I examined my surroundings. I was in my room, at Quatre’s estate. I was on the bed, but still fully clothed. Only my boots had been removed. I spotted them over by the door, arranged neatly. The next thing I became aware of was the absolutely horrible acidic taste in my mouth. Had… had I thrown up or something? I struggled to remember what had happened. Slowly, things started to come back to me.

The party. I remembered going to the party. And tequila. I remembered drinking lots of tequila. I groaned. What had I been thinking? My memories after that got murkier and murkier, but… yes. Hilde. Hilde had approached me, concerned. And I had reacted badly. Yelling? Vaguely I remembered yelling. But at who? As I struggled to remember, more vague images came to mind. Of everyone standing around. /Looking/ at me. And falling. And more yelling, at everyone and no one in particular. And worst of all, I remembered throwing up. In front of everybody.

Oh God.

Icy fear gripped my heart. Had I really behaved like that, in front of /everyone/? What must they be thinking? How could I have been so stupid? How the hell was I going to get out of this mess???

Suddenly, a wave of nausea overwhelmed me. Choking it back, I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the bathroom. Thankfully I didn’t encounter anyone on the way. I vomited into the toilet for a few moments, though it was mostly dry-heaving, as I had already thrown up the night before. Afterwards, I brushed my teeth to get the awful taste out of my mouth, and then plundered the medicine cabinet until I found a bottle of aspirin, swallowing four of the little white pills in hopes of subduing my pounding headache.

I stared at myself in the mirror. I looked like shit. There was a small, bruised gash on my temple. Oh yes. I had hit my head on the bar the first time I fell down. /Idiot!/ I cursed at myself. How could I have let myself lose control in front of the others like that? Lord only knows what they were thinking. My stomach twisted with shame and embarrassment at that thought. I glanced at my watch. After one in the afternoon. Well, I couldn’t hide up here all day, as much as I would like to. My blood icy with fear and anticipation, I made my way downstairs.

I heard voices as I approached the dining room. Everyone must be at lunch. I paused outside of the door, glancing in, but making sure I couldn’t be seen. My stomach twisted again when I realized the topic of their discussion: me.

“We can’t just ignore this. There’s obviously something very wrong here. He needs our help,” Hilde said, her voice radiating concern.

“I don’t know why you’re so concerned. The baka just had too much to drink. Shameful to be sure, but hardly a reason to be alarmed. This is Maxwell, after all. He’s not known for his self control,” Wufei stated dryly. I bristled.

“Hn. I think that Hilde may have a point. We’ve all seen Duo drunk before, but this was… different. He was really upset,” Heero said. There was silence for a moment as everyone digested this. No one was used to expressions of concern from Heero. I could hardly believe my ears.

It was Quatre who finally broke the silence. “Well, what should we do? I agree with Hilde and Heero. I think there’s a real problem here.” His face twisted a little. “I don’t think people get /that/ drunk and upset without there being some underlying cause for concern.” Trowa reached out and patted the blonde’s hand reassuringly.

I leaned back against the hallway wall. My heart was pounding with panic. I /hated/ it that they were talking about me like that. I was so embarrassed. What the hell was I going to do?

“I’m not sure,” Relena remarked thoughtfully. “It was definitely upsetting seeing Duo like that. But it’s possible that he simply had more to drink than he could handle. You could be reading too much into it. He could have just gotten carried away.”

“How can you say that! God! Have any of you /looked/ at him since he’s been here? He looks /terrible/! Something is really wrong with him,” Hilde said with vehemence. “I mean, think about it! Have any of you actually seen him in the past six months, before you all came here? Do any of you even know where he’s been living, or what he’s been doing? All I have is a phone number and an e-mail address, and I’m guessing that’s all any of you have, too. God, he doesn’t even use vidphone, or else we would have seen the state he’s in. I’m /scared/ for him, guys. Something’s really wrong. He needs our help. I don’t understand how any of you can have seen him last night and not think the same thing. It was… /horrible/ seeing him like that. He must be in so much pain…” She turned away, obviously fighting tears.

“I have to agree. Duo was dangerously close to alcohol-poisoning last night. And he’s lost so much weight. I think those are signs of a deeper problem,” Sally said.

“But this is Maxwell! I respect his skills as a pilot, but as I stated before, he’s not exactly known for his self-control. Why does one occurrence of poor judgement, which is not exactly out of character for the braided baka, have to be a sign of some serious underlying problem? What exactly is it that your are suggesting, anyway?” Wufei argued.

“That he needs /help/! He hasn’t been himself at all, and no one has said anything! Why didn’t any of us become concerned when he had so little contact with us? Shouldn’t we have seen that as strange? But we were all too wrapped up in our own little lives to notice, and he’s been paying the price. God, it’s so obvious to me now, why can’t you see it, Wufei? Relena? I think…. I think Duo’s depressed.” Hilde replied, her voice shaking.

My heart twisted in my chest, and panic curled around my brain. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. I was so confused. They were concerned? Now?! Why hadn’t they cared before? But it was obvious that some of them, at least, cared. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve their concern. I was a horrible person. Last night was proof of that. What kind of pathetic loser gets that unbelievably drunk and freaks out like that? A small voice in the back of my head told me that this was my chance, my chance to tell them everything. But icy fear washed down my spine at that thought. No. No one could find out. They didn’t deserve to have to deal with my shit. They’d abandon me when they found out just how fucked up I was anyway. How could they not? I was disgusting. No. They were too close to finding out, and I couldn’t handle that. I was too scared. I had to get out of here.

I took off running back up to my room, though my head pounded violently in protest. I knew that they must have heard me, but I didn’t care. My suspicions were confirmed when I heard people scrambling to their feet, and Hilde’s voice singing out behind me.

“Duo! Duo, come back!”  I ignored her and continued running up the stairs, not stopping until I’d reached my room and slammed and locked the door behind me. I leaned back against the door for a moment, panting, my mind racing. Yup, I had to get out of here as fast as I could. There was no way I could handle this right now. I moved forward and started throwing the few things I’d brought with me into my bag, pausing for a moment to change shirts, as the one from the night before smelled vaguely of vomit. As I was buttoning the fresh shirt, there was a tentative knock on the door.

“Duo? Please open the door. We need to talk to you.” Hilde called. Oh shit. We? What were they doing, ganging up on me?

“Go away.” I said as I continued packing. Someone tried the knob, only to find it locked. There was a shuffle outside, and then I heard Heero’s voice call through the door.

“Duo, if you don’t open the door right now, I’m going to break it down.” Geez, Heero, so nice of you to care. Now.

“Go AWAY!!!” I yelled, surprising even myself with my voice’s vehemence.  God, this couldn’t be happening. I noticed with horror that my hands were shaking as I threw stuff into my bag. There was murmuring outside, and then, just as promised, there was a crash against the door and it flew inwards. They all came pouring into my room. And I mean ALL of them, my four fellow ex-gundam pilots, and the five girls. The room seemed suddenly much smaller. I had never felt so trapped in my life, and I must have looked it, too, judging by the way they were staring at me. I tried to ignore them, tossing the last of my stuff into the bag and jerking the zipper shut shakily.

Hilde approached me warily, almost as one would an injured wild animal. Maybe that’s what I was. “Duo, you’re not leaving are you? There’s no reason for you to leave. In fact, we’d really like to talk to you. We’re worried…”

“Save it,” I spat out, cutting her off. She flinched. I hated being so rude to her, but God, I just had to get out of here. “It’s time for me to go, and you can’t stop me.” I grabbed my bag and took a step towards the door, but Heero moved to block my path. Though my eyes were suddenly burning for some strange reason, I met his gaze evenly. “Out of my way, Heero. I’m leaving.”

“No, you’re not,” he replied, just as evenly. “You’re not leaving until you’ve heard what we have to say. Hilde is very worried. We’re all worried…”

Suddenly anger flared up within me, the same anger as last night. And just like last night, I was at a loss to explain where it came from. All I knew was that it was all consuming, and it made my chest feel uncomfortably tight. I exploded.

“You’re WORRIED??? What, about me? You all sure have a funny way of showing it!” I screamed, my face contorted with rage. Nine shocked faces stared back at me. Oh yeah, I’d surprised them now. Duo, acting decidedly un-Duo like. But, damnit, I was sick of that mask. It was too tiring. And with how I was feeling right now I just didn’t have the energy for it. “You all think you’re my friends, but you don’t even know the real me. You don’t know ANYTHING about me! Last night was a mistake, nothing more. I’m FINE! Not that any of you would notice or care anyway. As long as I’m the joking clown you’re all happy. I make ONE mistake and now suddenly you’re WORRIED! Give me a break!” Damnit, my eyes were absolutely stinging now. I was on the verge of tears. Oh God, not now. But sure enough a moment later they overwhelmed and a few tears began to track down my face. I think that, more than anything, was what was making Heero’s eyes look like they were about to fall out on the floor.

Silence reigned in the room for another few moments as they all continued to stare at me in mute shock. Hilde tentatively reached out to touch my arm, but I brushed her off angrily and stalked around the still stunned Heero towards the door. Hilde made another attempt, this time lunging forward to grab ahold of me before I could leave. She managed to latch onto my left arm, her fingers clamping shut right over the bandage covering the deep slash I had made the previous morning.

“Itai!” I yelped, simultaneously dropping my bag and jerking away from her, cradling my left arm against my chest. Hilde looked perpleaxed.

“Duo, are you hurt? Is it something you did last night?” she asked.

“Here, Duo, let me have a look at it,” Sally took a step forward.

“NO!” I screamed. It seemed that I had been doing that a lot lately. It was a wonder my throat wasn’t raw. I could feel the fabric of my shirt growing damp over the bandage. The wound had been reopened and was bleeding again. Shit. At least they couldn’t see it on the black shirt. “I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth. “It’s nothing. Listen, I have no interest in continuing this conversation. I’m getting the hell out of here.” I picked up my bag again, and hastily wiped the traitorous tears from my cheeks.

“Duo!” Quatre called, stepping forward uncertainly. “Please don’t go. If there’s something bothering you, you can talk to us about it. We’re your friends. We care about you, but you’re scaring us. Please, tell us what’s wrong.” I turned my gaze on him, and my heart softened a little at the earnest, concerned look on his face. But my voice lost none of its steel.

“Don’t you get it? You can’t help me! None of you can!” I winced at the pained expression on his innocent face. No, no, no! My presence alone was hurting them! I had to get out of here. It was best for everyone. “I’m leaving. Don’t try to stop me. If you don’t want one of your cars to bring me into town, Quatre, then I swear to God I’ll walk the whole way.” My eyes locked briefly with Trowa’s as I tore my gaze away from Quatre, and what I saw there surprised me. Understanding, I think, and a quiet acceptance that this was how things had to be. I gave him a curt nod, and then I turned and left the room. I stopped into the bathroom to grab the last of my belongings (my toiletry bag, complete with razor blade case) before making my way downstairs. The others followed mutely.

Downstairs Quatre called one of the servants to bring a car and driver round to the front of the estate. I stood stiffly as I waited, refusing to look at any of them. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife.

Finally, Hilde broke the silence. “That’s it? We’re just going to let him leave? You’re going to HELP him leave by providing a ride into town?” Quatre just turned away, tears pricking at his eyes, his face a mask of pain. It was Trowa who answered her, his voice even, his face neutral.

“It’s at least 100 degrees out there. He won’t make it to town if he tries to walk there, which I don’t doubt he would try to do. Besides, we cannot keep him here against his will.”

Exasperated, she made one final plea to me. “Duo, please don’t do this. We can help you, whatever it is! If you’re embarrassed by what happened last night, don’t be! We don’t think any less of you, we’re your friends! Running away won’t solve anything!” All I could do was stare at the floor, tears tracking down my face again. God, how could I be so weak! This was for the best! Why did it twist my heart so much to turn away from them? “Damnit, Duo! At least tell us where you’re going!”

The car pulled up then, and I turned to leave without a word. There was nothing more to say. Hilde threw her arms around me, sobbing, and I flinched a bit as she put pressure on the bleeding cut again. Gently but firmly, I disentangled myself and strode to the car. “Go,” I murmured to the driver as I climbed in, and he started to drive away from the estate. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing back one more time. They were all silently watching the car drive away, their faces grim, obviously at a loss for words. The last thing I saw before quickly turning away was the look of shock and horror that came over Hilde’s face when she noticed the blood that had been smeared on her shirt when she hugged me.


Part 8

My head was one massive knot of pain.

Hmmm. This was getting to be a bit of a habit. That was my first thought when I awoke one day about a week and a half after I fled from Quatre’s. Or maybe it was one night. As I blearily looked around my dreary bedroom, I wasn’t quite sure if it was night or day. Or even exactly what day it was.

I sat up slowly, wincing at my pounding headache. I gave a small cry of pain as the movement set off unexpected pangs of sharp pain in my arms. I looked down. I swallowed back the sudden lump in my throat. /Oh, shit./ My arms were covered in dark dried blood. I even had to unstick my left arm from the sheet, which was also caked with blood. That caused several of the cuts there to start bleeding again. Crap, how much damage had I done?

I fumbled for the bedside lamp. Stretching my arm out like that sent waves of pain up my arm. Finally I found the switch and the room was bathed in light. I blinked back tears until my eyes adjusted, and then was finally able to examine my arms more closely. I sighed sharply.

It was pretty bad. Both the front and the back of my forearms were covered in long, deep cuts. Fresh wounds criss-crossed old scars. Most of them looked as if they really should get stitches. A couple even looked to be in the beginning stages of infection. Great. Just great. Just what the hell had I been doing?

The last crystal clear memory I had was leaving Quatre’s. I had a cocktail on the shuttle back to L2 in the hopes of easing my hangover, but that one cocktail had turned into half a dozen. By the time I’d gotten to my colony, I’d been thoroughly smashed. I had stopped off at a liquor store on the way to my apartment, and it all pretty much went downhill from there.

There were vague memories of drinking, cutting, and more drinking. I think I’d ordered liquor in when I’d run out. I took stock of my surroundings a bit more carefully. The sheets were bloodstained. You’d think there’d been a murder in here or something. And it wasn’t just my arms. My thighs ached as well. Sure enough, they were covered in long deep gashes as well. I was only wearing boxer shorts and a tank top, so I could clearly see all the damage. My stomach flip-flopped, and I /knew/ it wasn’t just from my hangover. It was shocking to see so much done in such a short span of time. Empty beer bottles and vodka bottles were strewn about the room. The digital clock read 7:23. But was it morning or evening?

Moving very carefully, so as not to disturb all my cuts too roughly, I made my way to the window and peered behind the heavy room-darkening privacy shade. Aah. Evening. Now I just had to figure out exactly what day it was.

Suddenly I became aware of an intense need to use the bathroom. It was probably what had woken me up. The nausea rising up through me in waves also told me that getting to the bathroom would be a good idea. I gingerly made my way to the bathroom, every movement of my mutilated limbs agony, my head pounding. I vomited in the toilet, but my stomach was all but empty, so I ended up dry-heaving for about five minutes. I couldn’t believe how sick I felt. After I finished that and emptied my bladder, I peered at myself in the mirror, and I flinched at what I saw reflected there. If Hilde thought I looked unhealthy before, she should have seen me then. I was downright ghastly. I’d lost even more weight. I looked practically skeletal. There were flecks of blood dried on my face. My hair hung about my shoulders in clumps, half out of its braid. It needed to be washed badly. My eyes were bloodshot, and there were dark circles under them. They almost looked bruised. I turned away, unable to stomach the image any longer.

I quickly washed the dried blood off my hands and face, but ignored the rest of my body. Maybe I would shower later. Maybe. I supposed those cuts needed to be cleaned out sooner or later. I couldn’t make myself really care.

In a daze I wandered out to the living room. I was a little sickened to see the drops and smears of blood scattered everywhere. Apparently in my drunken state I hadn’t exactly been careful about bleeding all over the place. Just like my bedroom, there were empty bottles scattered about, adding to the general mess. Christ, I’d gone on quite the little bender, hadn’t I? They weren’t /all/ from the past week, over-indulging in alcohol had been something I’d been doing more and more often over the past couple of months, but a lot of them were.

I went over to the phone. The display gave the date as Saturday, and it was eleven days since I had left Quatre’s. Hooray for me, I knew what day it was. It also indicated that I had almost two dozen messages. Hilde, Quatre, and maybe a few of the others, trying to check up on me no doubt. They had the number, but I had meticulously rerouted it so that it couldn’t be traced. I was sure no one would be able to find me.

In the kitchen I found a pot half-full of rice in the sink. It was dried into a rock-hard mass. I wondered when the last time I ate was. Judging from the state of the rice in the pot, it had been at least a couple of days since I’d last cooked. I supposed I should be hungry, but I didn’t feel like eating. I just felt hollow inside. Instead, I just mechanically went through the motions of putting some coffee on.

While the coffee was perking, I went in search of a liquor bottle that wasn’t empty. I knew perfectly well that the reason I’d gone on such a bender was to avoid thinking about what had happened at Quatre’s, and I saw no reason to start thinking about it now. I just wanted to feel numb again. My hands were trembling as I poked through the cupboards and then turned my attention to sorting through the bottles strewn about the living room. I winced as each movement sent needles of pain stabbing through me from all the cuts. Despite my best efforts, my search didn’t turn up a single drop of alcohol. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised. Why would I have sobered up like this if there had still been anything left to drink in the apartment? I would have to call the liquor store and arrange another delivery. I certainly wasn’t in any shape to go out. I did, however, come across a couple of blood-encrusted razor blades, which I took back to the kitchen with me.

As I sat sipping black coffee from a Scooby Doo mug, I stared down at the blades, which I had laid on the table in front of me. My limbs were a mess, I would even go so far as to say they were mutilated, and I had done it to myself with those blades. The thought filled me with shame and self-loathing. God, I was a freak. What kind of a person does this to themselves? I looked at my wrists. None of the cuts there were /too/ deep. It seemed that even drunk I had subconsciously avoided accidentally opening a vein. /Pity./ I flinched at the thought, but could not deny its truth. It would be better if I had not woken up, if in my drunken slashings I /had/ laid open a vein and spilled my blood until I passed out for the last time.

Setting down the mug I picked up one of the blades and wiped as much of the dried blood off of it as I could onto my shirt. I held up my left wrist and gazed at it for a moment, then I brought the blade up and rested it against the pale skin. /Why not?/ The words whispered quietly in my mind. I swallowed hard, my chest tightening. Why not just go ahead and do it? I could not think of a single good reason why I shouldn’t just sink that blade into the vein right now. I traced the blade against my skin, following the path necessary to lay open the vein, but not pressing very hard, just enough to break the skin. Small red droplets of blood formed along the line. Sure, some of my friends would be upset, but they’d get over it, and they’d be better off without me anyway. My chest tightened even more, and I could feel tears prickling at my eyes. I traced over the line again, pushing a bit harder, cutting through a few more layers of skin. My hand was trembling. A small trickle of blood started to run down my arm, dripping onto the table. There was no reason for me to keep living. This was not a life, keeping yourself constantly inebriated so that you wouldn’t have to think, to feel. And even in the numbness of being drunk, I was still in enough pain to lead me to slice up my arms and legs worse than I ever had before. I shivered. Suddenly I felt so cold. I felt a tear run down my cheek. That was it then. There wasn’t really any reason not to. And there were more than enough reasons to go ahead. One deep slash and it would all go away. The pain, the loneliness, the misery, the shame… it would all just go away. Still trembling, I poised my hand over the cut, ready to slice down with enough force to reach the vein.

And was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing.

I was so startled I dropped the blade. I /never/ have visitors. The only reason anyone would have for coming to my door was for a delivery, but I wasn’t expecting anything. The doorbell rang again, followed by a voice calling out.

“Duo? Are you in there? Please open the door!” It was Hilde! I jumped to my feet, panic gripping my heart. How the hell had she found me? I should just pretend I wasn’t home. I certainly couldn’t let her in here. The place was a mess. /I/ was a mess.

“Duo! You have exactly two minutes to open this door, or else I’m going to break it down.” Heero? Heero was here, too? I couldn’t believe it. But I had to do something before they came in here, I couldn’t let them see all these cuts. The confrontation would be bad, but I would get rid of them as quickly as I could, and then I’d finish what I’d started. Why couldn’t they have shown up an hour from now, when it was all over? Why’d they have to come /now/? Damn! My arm was bleeding. I had to cover it, and the rest of the damage, and fast. I grabbed a dish towel and wrapped it around my arm. Moving as quickly as I could, I hurried to the bedroom and threw on the cleanest clothes I could find. It was all I could do to keep from screaming as I drew the cloth over the cuts on my arms and legs, but at least they were covered. My left sleeve looked a little funny with the dishtowel still wrapped around my arm underneath it, but hopefully they wouldn’t notice. I had no idea how to explain the blood splattered here and there all over the place, but I didn’t have time to think about that right now. Hopefully I’d be able to make them leave without letting them in. If not, then maybe they just wouldn’t notice. /Yeah, right./

I hurried back out, figuring the two minutes were probably nearly up. I paused in front of the door, taking several deep breaths, but it was no use. I couldn’t quell my panic. My heart a heavy lump in my chest, I opened the door to face them.

I found not just Hilde and Heero waiting on the other side, but Sally as well. They all paled when they saw me, even Heero. Like I said before, I looked ghastly. Man, Hilde looked like she was about to cry. I swallowed back the lump in my throat.

“How did you find me?” I asked quietly. I nearly flinched at how hollow my own voice sounded. They continued to stare at me for a moment, until finally Hilde answered, her own voice sounding hollow and strained.

“Heero tracked down your phone number. It took awhile since you’d obviously taken a lot of care to make it untraceable, but he persisted until he found this place. Um… Quatre wanted to come with us, but Trowa and I convinced him that too many people would make you feel… trapped. Sally lives right here on this satellite and I want you to see a doctor anyway, so who better than one who cares about you?”

I was startled to say the least. I knew without a doubt that it would indeed have taken a /lot/ of time and effort to crack the block on the phone number. That Heero had bothered to do so was what surprised me. I stared at him, the shock plain on my face, and to my amazement he looked away, looking mildly embarrassed. What the…?

“Look Duo, can we come in? I’d rather not have this conversation in the hall,” Hilde said, her voice nearly cracking. I tore my eyes away from Heero to meet hers, but looked away again quickly. I could not bear the pain I saw there, pain that I was causing.

“Well, I wasn’t really expecting company, and the place is a mess, and I don’t really feel like talking…” My rambling was cut off as Heero pushed past me to walk into the apartment. I guess that settled that. With a defeated sigh I waved the girls in as well and then shut the door behind them. They stood awkwardly just inside the living room. It seemed they didn’t know how to start. I sighed again and went into the kitchen, retrieving my cup of coffee. My hands were trembling again and I wanted something warm to hang onto and to keep them busy. The others followed me mutely. Hilde wrinkled her nose when she spotted the mess in the sink. With a start I noticed that the razor blade and fresh drops of blood were in plain sight on the table. As nonchalantly as possible I stepped over to block them from view.

It was Hilde who finally broke the awkward silence, speaking rapidly and obviously very nervous. “Duo, we’re very worried about you. We think… we think you’re sick and that you should see a doctor. Sally could examine you if you like, or we could take you to the hospital. You’ve lost so much weight, Duo, you… you really don’t look well. And well your behaviour at Quatre’s… we think you should talk to someone about that as well. You seem… depressed or something. We’re your friends and we’re here for you if you need to talk. We care about you, and we’re just really concerned. You… you just haven’t been yourself….”

The whole time she was speaking I stared down into the swirling black depths of my coffee cup, which I was gripping fiercely in both hands. I could feel the rage building inside me with her every word, but that last statement was the last straw. My head snapped up to look at the three of them, and I could see that they were all surprised at how angry I was.

“Haven’t been myself? HAVEN’T BEEN MYSELF?!?! And just how would any of you know how I act when I act like “myself”? You don’t know me! None of you know me! All you know is the joker’s mask that I put on for you, to help get us all through the war. Well there’s a PERSON underneath that mask, not that any of you bothered to find that out, not even when I was practically screaming for your attention!” To my horror tears were starting to roll down my cheeks. Christ, how many times was I going to cry in front of them? “Maybe this IS the real me, unhappy, miserable, lonely, anti-social, take your pick. Maybe your just finally seeing what’s underneath the mask, and you don’t like it. Well you know what? I’VE BEEN HERE ALL ALONG!!!” With that I threw the coffee mug against the wall, shattering it.

They all jumped at the sound, even the ever-implacable Heero. They all stared at me mutely, shocked at my outburst. To tell the truth I was shocked as well. But I /was/ angry, damnit. Every word was true. This was the real me, always had been, for as long as I could remember. Where did they come off saying they were my friends now, that they cared about me? My whole body was shaking, and I wrapped my arms around myself, even as I flinched from the needles of pain shooting from the cuts.

“Damn. That was my favourite coffee mug.” I said softly, and then winced. There I went again. Try to make everything okay with a lame joke. Like anything would ever be okay again. It seemed to break the spell, though. Sally moved away from the others out into the living room, observing the mess of liquor bottles with a critical eye. Heero continued to stare at me like he was trying to think of something to say, but was at a loss for words. I’d never seen him looking so… uncomfortable. Hilde looked to be deep in thought, even as she gazed at me with sad, wounded eyes. I guess she was trying to think of what to say next. With a weary sigh I sank down into one of the kitchen chairs, rubbing my face with my hands. God, I just wanted them to leave. I wanted them out of there so I could just finish….

Just when I thought the awkward silence would stretch on forever, Sally strode back into the kitchen, her face grim. She stopped right in front of me, and I looked up at her with tired eyes.

“Duo, where did you hurt yourself?” she asked quietly. Heero and Hilde looked up sharply. I stiffened, and I swear it felt as if the world had just dropped out from under me. My mind raced, and I opened my mouth to reply but was unable to make a sound for a few moments.

“Wh-what… do you mean?” I finally managed to get out, swallowing the huge lump in my throat. Her face softened, but her voice remained cool and in control, even as I realized with a start that she actually was upset. Over me?

“There’s no use denying it, Duo. Hilde told me about the blood she got on her shirt the last time she hugged you, and that made me suspicious. And now I see that there is blood all over the place in here. I did a psych rotation as part of my medical training, so I have heard of self-injury.” I swallowed hard, my chest tightening. This could not be happening. It just could /not/ be happening! My startled gaze flicked from Sally to the others. Hilde was staring at me with her mouth hanging open in shock. Heero had bristled and was now scanning the room, perhaps in search of the blood Sally had mentioned. His eyes came to rest on the table and widened slightly. Oh shit. I hadn’t even realized it, but when I sat down I had no longer been blocking the razor from view. He’d seen it.

Heero strode forward and picked it up, eyes narrowing as he observed the fresh blood on the blade. Then he turned his gaze on me, and I just wanted to crawl away and die. His eyes were brimming with emotion, anger, hurt, concern, guilt. Guilt? He none-too gently nudged Sally aside and hauled me to my feet. I couldn’t help but cry out in pain as his hand fastened around my left wrist. He looked at me, and then pulled up my shirtsleeve. I just stood there numbly, knowing there was no point in resisting. He frowned at the blood-stained dish towel, and then pulled it away, breathing in sharply when he saw not only the gashes from over the past ten days, but also the old scars and the new gash from barely ten minutes ago. He looked up at me again, still gripping my arm, but much more gently, and this time his eyes were brimming with pain. I looked away, tears spilling from my eyes.

“You were going to kill yourself,” He said it simply, a statement of fact, not a question. His voice betrayed little of the emotion I had seen in his eyes. Hilde rushed forward to look at my exposed arm, and then turned away, choking back a sob. Sally’s mouth was set in a grim line. “Why?” he asked.

It was too much. It was just too much. The hangover still pounding at my brain, the sick feeling in my stomach, the shame and self-loathing and utter /misery/ of a lifetime coming to a head, the decision made only today to /finally/ put an end to this nightmare, the shock and utter embarrassment at being discovered, and a /million/ other things. It was all just too much for my addled brain to handle. I snapped.

I pulled away from him violently, and he wasn’t expecting that so he easily lost his hold on my arm. I backed away from all three of them, my whole body shaking with anger, shame, and misery. My eyes flashed daggers at them.

“Why? WHY? Why not?” I spat at them. All three of them flinched at the venom in my voice, but I didn’t care. “Give me one good reason why this… this NIGHTMARE should continue! I’m sick of it! I’m sick of all of it!” I was sobbing now, the tears running freely, but I barely noticed. “I’m tired of just going through the motions of being alive, and I’m not even doing a good job of it anymore. I just want it all to be over! The misery, the pain, the loneliness… I just want it all to go away! Why can’t it just all go away?” I sank to the floor as the strength in my legs gave out, feeling suddenly faint. “Don’t I deserve some peace? I can’t be expected to go on living like this forever, can I? It’s not living, it’s not! I’m already dead anyway. I’m already dead ANYWAY! What difference could it make? I’m already dead….” I was babbling through my sobs, and barely aware that they had gathered around me. Hilde had crouched down and was gently shaking me. I looked up at her through my tears, my face set in an anguished grimace. She was sobbing, too.

“We’re going to help you, okay Duo? Everything’s going to be okay. God, I’m so sorry. Everything’s going to be just fine, just let us help you, okay?” she said, her voice shaking. I felt a sharp jab in my arm and turned just in time to see Sally empty a syringe into my vein. I stiffened.

“It’s just a sedative, Duo,” she said soothingly, stroking the side of my face as if I was a child. “It’s just going to calm you down and make you feel better, okay?” She was talking to me like I was a child, too, but it couldn’t hide the pained pitch to her voice. “This is what we’re going to do, okay? We’re going to go to my clinic. It’s not far from here. I’ll examine you and look after those cuts, okay? Then we’re going to go to L4. There’s a hospital there, on the same satellite as Quatre’s main estate, and they’ll be able to help you there, okay?”

I closed my eyes, taking deep weary breaths. A mental hospital? They wanted to ship me off to a mental hospital. But I was too tired to argue. Was that shot Sally had given me working already? All I could do was nod weakly.

“Okay then. Heero, Hilde, why don’t you pack a few things for him?” Sally sounded distinctly relieved that I wasn’t going to argue. I opened my eyes and watched the two of them disappear down the hallway, Hilde still crying, but having gotten herself more under control. Heero looked back at me, an odd look on his face. While they were gone, Sally remained crouched by me on the floor, the hand that had been stroking my face now reassuredly rubbing my back, and she was telling me everything would be okay. Tears were still rolling down my face, but I was no longer sobbing either, just taking labored, hitching breaths. It all felt like some kind of bad dream.

Heero and Hilde returned a few moments later with a packed bag, both looking visibly shaken. I guessed that they’d seen all the blood on my bed. Sally helped me to my feet, gently taking hold of my arm. I let myself be led out of my apartment, watching mutely as Heero locked up behind us. I couldn’t have cared less if he’d left the door wide open, I didn’t plan on ever going back there. Still holding my arm, Sally led me down the stairs and out to her car. The three of them didn’t relax until I was safely buckled into the backseat. Maybe they thought I was going to try to run away or something. But I didn’t have the energy. I just laid my head against the cold glass of the window and closed my eyes as the car jerked into movement. They were probably pleased with how agreeable I was being. Little did they know that I had no intention of ending up in some loonie bin.

Part 9

By the time the car pulled to a stop in front of Sally’s small free clinic, I was definitely feeling the effects of the drug she’d given me. I felt almost pleasantly numb, except for when I moved, sending needles of pain radiating from all my cuts, and I had to concentrate to focus my eyes. The clinic was closed, since it was late in the evening by then, but Sally had the keys. We filed inside mutely, Sally once again gently taking hold of my arm to lead me. I don’t know if it was a gesture of support, or if she was worried I would try to run away.

“You two wait out here,” Sally instructed as we passed through a small waiting area. Hilde flopped into a plastic chair soundlessly, looking decidedly drained, but for a moment Heero looked like he was going to argue. He appeared to decide against it, though, and sat in a chair opposite from Hilde. Sally led me down the hallway and through an open doorway, flicking on the light to reveal a fair sized room with an examination table and a counter with a sink. She closed the door behind us and gestured for me to sit on the table. I swayed a little as I walked over to it, a little dizzy from the drug

“How are you feeling now, Duo?” Sally asked me.

“Peachy,” I replied, attempting deadpan, but it came out a little fuzzy. I blinked. “I don’t know what that shit was that you gave me, Sally, but I sure like it.” Damn, that was a smart thing to say. Now she’d think I was a major druggie or something. Sure enough, I saw her back straighten a little.

“And do you often take drugs, Duo?” she asked, managing to sound almost casual. Boy, she was a crafty one, thinking she’d get me to admit to stuff in my incapacitated state….

“Oh, sometimes,” I found myself answering. Well, shit. I scowled, but it was half-hearted. After all, what difference could it make now? Sally seemed to decide to move on, though I was sure that she stored that tidbit away to bring up at another time.

She turned to the small sink and started to wash her hands. “Could you please take off any clothes that are covering up cuts? I need to clean and bandage them.” Her voice was almost steady. Almost. Grimacing, I reached up and started to unbutton my shirt, suddenly not feeling quite so mellow anymore. But there was no way out of this now. I shrugged out of the shirt, wincing from the pain caused by moving my arms and by the cloth rubbing over the mutilated skin. God, my arms looked bad, especially under the bright fluorescent lights. For a moment, I considered whether or not I should show her my thighs. I figured that at this point, there really was no point in keeping it from her. It’s not as if I could imagine ever feeling more ashamed and humiliated than I did right then. So I stripped off my pants as well, leaving me only in my bloodstained boxers.

I turned to look at Sally. She still had her back to me, busying herself at the sink. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves after she dried her hands. With an audible sigh, she turned and raised her eyes to look at me. I saw the shock on her face as she saw the extent of the scars and cuts, though she tried hard to hide it. She turned white as a sheet, and her lips pressed into a thin line as she drew in a sharp breath. Though it hurt to do so, I drew my arms up and wrapped them around my chest, turning away from her. I was wrong before. It was possible to feel more ashamed and humiliated. Right then I felt worse than I could ever imagine. I had never felt so exposed and naked in my entire life. Tears burned at my eyelids.

Sally came up behind me, gently placing her hands on my trembling shoulders. “Oh, Duo…,” she murmured. And then, defying all expectations yet again, I felt even worse. She was in pain, and it was all my fault. I should have killed myself months ago and spared them all of this.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. God, I felt like shit. How could this be happening?

“No,” she replied firmly. “You have nothing to be sorry about. It’s all of us who should be sorry. You’ve obviously been in pain for a long time, and we should have noticed.” She was just trying to make me feel better. I knew who’s fault this all was. Mine. I just wanted to crawl away and die.

Sally returned to the sink to fill a washbasin with water, and I sat on the exam table. I couldn’t take my eyes off my arms and thighs. The harsh lighting was merciless. Every line stood out starkly against my pale skin, a roadmap of pain and misery. Faded marks that had all but disappeared, newer lines laid out in shades of pink and red, some raised and ridged, and finally the freshest cuts, angry dark red slashes crusted with dried blood. I could barely wrap my mind around it. The shame I felt was indescribable. Finally my eyes turned to the freshest cut of all, my interrupted suicide attempt of less than an hour ago. When would I have the opportunity to finish it? Should I finish it? I found that my earlier resolve had crumpled once again into the endless game of “should I or shouldn’t I?” But how could I live, knowing that soon all my friends would /know/ what I had been doing to myself all this time? Knowing that they all knew how weak and disgusting I was? God, I was so confused.

I was interrupted from my reverie by Sally returning with the filled basin, which she set down on the table next to me. She pulled over a chair and a tray of first aid supplies and sat down in front of me. Taking hold of my left arm, she dipped a cloth in the basin and began to gently clean out the cuts, wiping away the dried blood. As careful as she was being, I couldn’t help but flinch every time the cloth came into contact with my skin.

Without taking her eyes off her work, Sally began to speak. “It’s still earlier on L4, so when we’re done here, Heero will give Quatre a call, and he’ll contact the hospital about setting up an appointment for you, hopefully for tomorrow, okay?”

I looked up from watching her clean my arm, confused. “An appointment? You’re not locking me up?”

She looked up at me, startled. “No, Duo, of course not. It is a psychiatric hospital, but they have an extensive outpatient program. The appointment is an evaluation of sorts, for you and the doctor to decide together what the best course of action is. We would never just throw you into a hospital, Duo. I know we’ve failed you so far, but we are your friends.” She resumed her work, a slight quaver to her hands. She finished cleaning my arm, and began to apply an antibiotic cream, along with steri-strips to hold the deeper gashes closed. She finished by wrapping the arm in gauze. Then the whole process started over with my right arm.

I felt so guilty. I’d gone and assumed the worst from them. They were only trying to help. I didn’t deserve friends like them. It was too bad that they didn’t understand that. I was a horrible, despicable person, and all I was doing was causing them pain with my shit. After all, it wasn’t really their fault that they hadn’t seen behind my mask. I chose to wear it, and they just accepted it at face value. Who could blame them? Maybe, even without knowing the truth, they had subconsciously sensed what a disgusting loser I was, and had kept their distance accordingly. Now they were finding out the truth. I hadn’t seen disgust from Sally, Hilde, and Heero yet, but surely they were simply in shock, having just found out. Once the information had sunk in, they’d change their tune. Maybe even change their minds about throwing me in the loonie bin.

I observed Sally as she worked quickly but gently, moving on now to my left thigh. These crazy thoughts were getting me nowhere. I longed for the mental cotton of the drug Sally had given me earlier, which had been all too fleeting. Instead, I concentrated on the needles of pain that were sprinkling my skin under Sally’s ministrations. Yes, feel the pain, don’t think about anything else.

Finally, she was done. As I looked down at my gauze-wrapped limbs, I realized that I looked like half a mummy.

Sally quickly cleaned up the supplies she’d been using, and dumped out the basin in the sink. “I’ll go see if I can find you some clean boxers, since those have blood on them.” She left the room, and returned only a moment later. “Here we go,” she said as she handed me a pair of white boxers. “I knew that there were usually some in with the scrubs. I’ll leave you alone so you can get dressed. I’ll have Heero call Quatre now, and you can join us out in the waiting room as soon as you’re done. We won’t tell him about all of… this quite yet. That’s something that should be done in person.” She paused, and then smiled at me reassuringly. I’m not sure if it was me she was trying to reassure, or herself. Probably both. “Everything’s going to be okay, Duo.” With that she left the room again, shutting the door behind her.

I sighed deeply. I didn’t think anything would ever be okay. Moving carefully, I changed my boxers and then pulled my other clothes back on. After being cleaned and poked and prodded, all my cuts were absolutely radiating pain. Once again, I tried to focus my mind on it, clearing away all other unpleasant thoughts. But as I finished buttoning my shirt, my eyes fell on the medical supply cabinet, and some unpleasant thoughts began to seep in. I went closer to peer in at the contents through the glass door. There was a box of scalpels, caps over the blades to protect their sharpness. Heero and Hilde had probably packed my toiletry bag, but I couldn’t remember if there were any razor blades left in it. Without even realizing it, I was opening the cabinet door, and had slipped one of the scalpels into my pocket. Just in case I needed it. Whether simply to cut more, or to finish what I’d started earlier tonight, I wasn’t sure. But I felt better just having it.

Not two seconds after I closed the cabinet, the door opened and Heero stood there, looking uncomfortable. He peered at me, frowning.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

I rubbed my hands wearily over my face, suddenly feeling incredibly tired and drained, both physically and emotionally. I grimaced from the pain that movement caused in my arms, and Heero’s frown deepened.

“I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, my voice sounding hollow.

From the clinic it was only another short drive to the shuttle bay, and before I knew it, we were on our way to L4. When I had woken up only a couple of hours ago, I had been in complete despair, and had been about to take my life. But now three of my friends knew my worst secret, the rest were about to find out, and I was on my way to have an “evaluation” with some psychiatrist. I was so confused and blown away by the events of the past couple of hours that it hurt to think about it. So I sat on the shuttle, hugging my arms around myself so that I could feel the needles of pain, with the reassuring presence of the scalpel in my pocket digging slightly into my hip, and staring out the window at the vastness of space, and my uncertain future.

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