Author: The Manwell

see part i for warnings, notes, disclaimer

The Stand-In
XI.

Behind me, Duo gasps. I can only blink at the screen, my heart pounding in my chest. How does he know? My name... I'd chosen it. I had. Hadn't I?

The doctor chuckles. "You're wondering how I know that name, aren't you, boy?"

I don't bother to reply. It's not as if he can hear me anyway.

"I met a young boy named Sasha Abei a long time ago," he continues, "shortly after I'd asked a rather impressive young lad if he'd like to learn how to pilot a Gundam."

I shake my head. None of this is making any sense. Behind me, Duo is perfectly still, clutching to me as if I'll disappear any moment. But then, since neither one of us knows what impact this message will have one me, it's possible that I will disappear isn't? It's possible that Duo could find himself wrapped around Heero Yuy any minute now...

"I found him wandering the streets after a fierce battle," J tells us. "I'd watched him, watched the way he moved, and I saw the signs of a child who could become a brilliant soldier. So I brought him back to the lab to start the training."

The doctor chuckles again. "But no, that's not the end of the story. Nothing is ever that simple, is it, Sasha? You see, even though I had a good feeling about this kid, I knew certain tests would have to be conducted. I would have to learn what made him tick, what his limits were, what his fears were before we could begin.

"And so, during a counseling session, I asked that the boy be put under hypnosis and that was when I met you, Sasha. I learned that you'd been a small child when you'd seen Odin Lowe kill your parents. You'd witnessed the entire thing and he knew it. But rather than kill you, he kept you with him. And you, Sasha, rather than getting angry, you went cold. You built a wall around yourself to protect your soul from the pain.

"Odin encouraged this, training you to be efficient and wary, showing you how to kill and survive. And during that time, Sasha stayed hidden behind the mask."

The doctor pauses, changing the subject for a moment, "You'll want to confirm these facts, of course. I've included what information I could find about your past and your family. But really, the details aren't so important to my role here.

"When you told me what had happened to your parents, when Sasha came out to speak with me during the session, I knew that you could never be a true killer. I knew your heart was too kind, your soul too pure, your grief too strong. But I needed you to pilot the Gundam, you see. Your reaction time was incredible. Your aim more accurate than any other candidate I had interviewed. And your willingness to follow orders and you dedication to see those orders through made you perfect for our cause. So, I compromised.

"I left Sasha alone and worked on training the other you. The mask. The person you'd created to protect you from the trauma of your past. But I knew that if you survived the war, the soldier in you wouldn't be able to cope. So I set about programming you. I designed a flaw directly into your mind that would cause a deterioration of all I'd taught you. On After Colony 196, midnight of Christmas morning, you were to cease your functions as a soldier. The mask would crumble and Sasha would be awakened again."

A beat of silence echoes in the wake of this admission.

"Do you understand what I am telling you?" he persists. "Heero Yuy was not real. He had never been real. He was a creation, a programmed drone whose purpose was to fight for our cause. That is not to say he couldn't function on his own; Heero Yuy was a very capable young man, but he was merely a visitor in your life. A stand- in designed to keep you safe and sane until your term of service had expired and you could be free to live your life again."

The doctor draws a deep breath. "You are not responsible for Heero's actions during the war. I am. I made him and molded him into the person he'd become. It might have been your body, but it was not you, Sasha.

"There is so little innocence left in this world," J says quietly. "It would have broken my heart to destroy yours.

"Heero Yuy is gone. Forever. You will likely never remember any of the childhood you spent hiding in your own mind. You will likely never remember the war or how to fight or even the basics of how to fly a mobile suit. That was part of Heero. And I promise you, you are free of him.

"It will be difficult adjusting to this change, I know. And I am sorry. I hope you will stay in contact with your comrades from the war. I believe they can help you through this.

"Take care, Sasha Abei, and Godspeed."

And with that, the screen flickers until the doctor's likeness is replaced by a small subdirectory listing. If I'd chosen to inspect the files, I'm reasonably sure I would find the data from his research, the results of his experimental procedures, and information about my past. But I don't reach for the keypad again. I'm staying right where I am until I'm good and ready to move.

I can feel Duo breathing behind me. I can hear the raspy catch in his breath denoting his shock. It disturbs me to listen to that sound from him. I stir in his embrace, just a little. Just enough. He tightens his arms around me in a silent request for me to stay put. I'm not sure if he realizes my intention had not been to leave, but to gain his attention.

"Duo..." The sound of his name is almost guttural in my throat. The tension has stiffened my vocal chords and the surprise has deprived me of deep breaths with which to speak.

He doesn't offer a verbal reply. I feel him nuzzle the hair over my left ear and I have the crazy impression that he's trying to blink back tears.

"You were right," I tell him in a muted voice. One of his hands ghosts up my arm until his fingers curl around my shoulder.

"There was something underneath the soldier..."

Behind me, he shudders in agreement. I turn slightly in the tight circle of his arms until I can finally see his eyes. Eyes that are shining with sympathy and wonder and relief. And we know. Both of us know.

It's over.

And I'm still here.

And I'm free.

My lips curve upward as I finish my thought, "There was... me."

...

"Are you ready for this?" I shout over the irregular roar of the wind.

Beside me, Duo leans away from the open door and nods. "Count on it, baby."

I glare at him but I think my goggles ruin the effect. I hate it when he calls me that. And he knows it. The asshole.

He grins widely and I can just see it in his face, can read it in the cocky angle of his chin: //What are ya gonna do about it, Sash?//

My stare promises retribution but he doesn't seem too concerned. In the past ten months I haven't been able to really follow through with any of my lectures or paybacks. I... we keep getting, uh, distracted.

Duo reaches for me, hooking his fingers around the back of my neck and pulling me close. "Why is it," he says loudly over the growling engines, "that you're getting me a present for your birthday."

I shake my head. Where Duo had gotten the notion that Christmas Day my first real day as being "Sasha" is my birthday, I'll never know. I have a perfectly good birthday, which he also insists on celebrating, but that's beside the point. I holler back, "It's not my birthday!"

He rolls his eyes. He's very used to this argument.

I smirk. He has no clue where I'm going with this. I continue, "What's the date today?"

Duo sends me a look that's both tolerant and exasperated. Don't ask me how he manages it. "The day after Christmas. Duh!"

I laugh. "And do you know what happened last year on this day?"

He pauses and I watch his expression become thoughtful. After a moment, he shakes his head.

I wrap my fingers around the back of his neck and inform him, "I saw you for the first time!"

I can still vividly recall that moment, too. My first glimpse of him, completely unguarded as he'd slept at my bedside. I think I fell for him right then and there... that is, if I hadn't fallen for him before that. I'm not entirely sure I hadn't been completely unaware of my surroundings when Heero had dominated my mind. I'm not entirely sure little bits of me hadn't eked out during the war to entice Duo into digging deeper into Heero's cool indifference. But no matter how it had happened, the end result is the same: he's the one the only goofball I'd brave my fear of heights for.

I yell, "Happy anniversary!"

He can't seem to decide between staring at me and laughing breathlessly. I save him from making a decision by leaning forward and kissing him. For a moment, his grip tightens almost painfully around the back of my neck. But I understand what he means. His lips are soft and warm and when I pull away he's smiling. I don't need a more sincere "thank you" than that.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I glance up at the small plane's copilot and acknowledge his hand signals. It's almost time.

I stand up and grasp one of the handles on either side of the open hatch. Duo gets a grip on the second. We both spare a few moments to check the harnesses and buckles of our parachute packs. Everything looks in order. I force myself to take a deep, calming breath. I can do this. I can. Really, what's so hard about jumping out of an airplane, anyway? People of dubious sanity do it all the time...

The copilot waves to us and it's time to jump. I stop thinking about poorly packed chutes and tangles lines and our bodies splattering into a large pile of manure in some dairy cow pasture bellow... I stop thinking entirely. The instant Duo disappears through that door I can't not follow.

For an instant, I'm afraid. But after that first, mindless second, the freedom of freefall takes over and I feel the rush of it storm through me. I dive until I'm even with Duo and, side by side, we descend.

I don't know if I reach out to him or if he reaches out to me perhaps it's a little of both but I feel our fingers interlace and the touch grounds both of us even when no solid footing exists.

It's a fitting metaphor for who we are when we're together.

I laugh at that. Check me out. I'm getting all poetic while plummeting though the Earth's atmosphere. Without a doubt, I'll have to share that little joke with Duo later.

All too soon, I finish my countdown and reach back to grasp the chute release. By luck or design, both of us end up deploying at the same time and after we settle into the wind and are steadily guiding ourselves down to a nice safe landing, I hear Duo's laughter.

"Hey, Sash! That was wicked, dude!"

I grin. "Glad you enjoyed it," I call back.

"But hey," he replies with a slow, evil grin, "how're you gonna top this next year?"

I feel my eyebrows go up. "Me? It's your turn next year! How are you gonna top this?"

He laughs again. Then, in a sly tone, promises, "Oh, I'll think of something."

I laugh, too, knowing he will and looking forward to seeing if both of us survive it.

End of Part XI

Author's Notes:

:: J's account of how he met young Heero is from "Episode Zero."

:: During the series, J told Relena (shortly after her father's death) that even though Heero is a trained killer, he's really a kind-hearted boy. (Or something close to that effect.) That assertion has always intrigued me and I had fun playing with it in this story.

:: As for scientific evidence and/or theories that will support J's claim that he "made" Heero Yuy and "programmed in" a limited life span of that personality... Um, yeah. Right. I claim artistic license.

[part x] [part xii] [back to The Manwell's fic]