Author: The Manwell
see part i for warnings, notes, disclaimer

The Stand-In
II.

"Good morning!"

I nod once to my employer in greeting. It's been well over a month since I'd started working here and I still don't say much. But, luckily, my job doesn't require me to. I take a glance at the list of current jobs to be completed, scanning the names and order numbers. It's not long before I've fallen into the familiar routine necessary for fitting custom frames: locate the order, assemble the frame, cut the glass... The hours go by quickly as I polish and wrap up each completed order.

I glance at the clock as I slide the brown-paper wrapped parcel into the number six bin. I have just enough time to finish one more before my shift ends. I return to the job list and notice that order number 5633 is ready to be fitted. It's a matted photograph called "5 Friends." I take note of the name and begin to assemble the order's components. I join and re-measure the frame before I cut and clean the glass. I pull the image out of its protective sleeve beneath the counter and gently turn it over to brush off any lingering dust particles. The soft bristles of the brush pass once over the surface of the photograph before I process the image therein. And I freeze.

"What have you got there?" my boss asks, noting my petrified state. She glances over my shoulder. "Ah, the Schbeiker order. I was going to show you that." Pointing to the second figure from the left, she continues, "That looks just like you, doesn't it?"

I don't say anything. I can't. So I nod.

Returning to the dry mount press to check on the poster she's affixing to archival foam-core, she muses, "They say all of us have a double out there in the universe somewhere..."

I've heard that as well, but this isn't my double. This is Heero Yuy. This is the young man whose body I inhabit. I stare at the photograph, recognizing three other faces. A young man with blond hair and vibrant eyes: he'd visited me once at the hospital, apologizing for having to leave so quickly. I think I recall him saying something about his business but I'd been so exhausted that my mind hadn't really processed any of it. I can also recall the taller young man with the long bangs that conceal a great portion of his face. A whisper of memory comes to me and I can almost hear his voice: "I see you don't need me to look after you this time..." And then, of course, there's the young man with the long braid. In the photo, he has his arm slung over my shoulder and he's leaning against my side. And I wonder... is it my imagination or is my image actually leaning back against him as well?

Regarding the photograph, I take in the faces of these five friends and feel my hands start to tremble. I set it aside and pick up the shop's copy of the order sheet. The name, Hilde Schbeiker, means nothing to me. Would it have meant something to Heero?

I have to leave again. On this colony, I'm too close to Heero's past. If I remain, they'll find me. I realize how lucky I am to get this warning so far in advance.

"Is everything okay?"

I look up at the owner of the small framing store and nod. With my usual efficiency, I clean and assemble and wrap. Collecting all of the order sheets for each completed piece, I head for the phone to make calls for the last five minutes of my shift. Not surprisingly, I save the Schbeiker order for last.

As I dial the number, I hope for a voice mail message. And then I change my mind, hoping for a real person; a voice mail would be evidence that I'd been in the vicinity. If I'm really lucky, I'll speak to someone who won't recognize the sound of my voice.

"Hello. You've reached..."

Shit. Voice mail. I clear my throat and anxiously wait for the beep. "Hello. This message is for Hilde Schbeiker. I'm calling from You've Been Framed to let you know that your framing order is complete and you can pick it up anytime at your convenience. Thank you."

And just as I lift my shaking hand to the disconnect button, a voice comes over the line. A woman's voice. A voice I don't recognize. But I recognize the name she gasps.

"Heero? Heero, is that—?"

I hang up. Time to move.

Now.

I clock out and bid my boss good bye. I don't tell her this is likely to be the last time she'll ever see me.

...

The spaceport is nearly empty this time of day. I slump in a seat in the lobby and wait for my flight. The meager weight of my single bag rests against the side of myfoot. It had taken me fifteen minutes to pack. In the two months since I'd fled from the hospital, I hadn't bothered to collect many material possessions. Perhaps I'd been subconsciously waiting for this day to come.

Bored and anxious, I watch as the activity around the gate I'm staking out increases. As uniformed service personnel get ready to receive in-coming passengers, I close my eyes and sigh. In less than two hours, I'll be on my way to nowhere. Again.

I wonder how many times I'll have to pick up and run like this. Surely not for the rest of my life? The thought causes a significant ache in my throat. I attempt to distract myself from the thought by watching the spaceport employees open the gate doors. Soon, a slow trickle of rumpled-looking passengers begins to pour into the terminal. I glance at the clock, counting down the minutes until my own escape.

Momentarily, I wonder if I should have stolen aboard a shuttle again, like I had before. But no, now I have money and a passport. There's no reason to take the risk. I'll be gone from here soon. I can't risk getting arrested and detained... discovered.

The foot traffic thickens until a veritable herd of people are passing before me. I don't bother to study them. I mind my own business, hands fisted deep in my jacket pockets. I begin to compile the list of everything I'll need to do once I arrive at my destination. A more complete plan begins to take shape within my mind. I'm feeling more confident by the moment. I can do this. I can do this.

Only the stragglers are emerging now. Again, I don't pay them any attention. Why would I? They are coming as I am going...

But then a specific movement draws my attention. The sway of a hip, the line of a jean-clad leg, the sound of the heavy tread of boots on the worn carpet... the motion reminds me of...

I can feel the traveler glance in my direction and as soon as he does, he stops dead in his tracks. I look up and into shocked royal blue eyes.

It's him.

"Heero?" he croaks.

Oh, shit.

I don't bother trying to act the part of the specter he no doubt believes me to be. I follow my instincts.

I run.

...

I lose myself in the crowd -- twisting and turning, doubling back and ducking around corners. And as I move, my brain feels like it's going to be torn in half by the twin, opposing thoughts competing for dominance.

I cannot -- absolutely cannot -- believe my abominable bad luck. Of all the places in the Earth and the colonies... How had this happened? If I had only waited for a later flight... If I had only booked passage on a shuttle departing from a different terminal...

However, if I had done anything differently, I wouldn't have gotten to see him again. He'd looked tired and stressed, but... but he's still beautiful.

I slow my pace until I'm drifting along the sidewalk toward the taxi stand with the rest of the herd. I don't bother to look back over my shoulder. I've lost him by now. My jaw clenches and I raise a hand to my face, burying my cheek in my palm and rubbing my fingertips over my right eye. If anything, the ache in me is more painful than it had been the first time I'd run from him.

But, damn it, I'm not who he thinks I am. And I can't help but wonder, as I often have when no distractions present themselves to me, if I'd been the cause. Had I done something to get rid of Heero Yuy? What had happened to him? And why am I living his life?

I reach for the open door of the cab and begin to lean forward into the shadowed haven of the backseat when a hand grasps my arm and whirls me around.

For a moment, I'm too stunned to struggle.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" he demands, nodding for the person behind me to take my ride.

I lean away from him and glare. What right does he have to dictate where I go and what I do?

"God damn it, Heero! I've been looking for you for months. All of us have! How could you just take off like that? Still injured? I thought we were friends!" He glares at me without reservation. "Friends help each other," he concludes, looking like he'd rather rip out my small intestines and strangle me with them.

I retreat, my face schooled into a mask deliberately lacking any emotion. "We are not friends," I tell him. And it hurts me that the first words I've spoken to him are these.

His grip relaxes and I free myself from him. Turning, I continue to head down the street. I pray he'll let me walk away.

"What the hell do you mean we're not friends?" he shouts as he sprints to catch up with me.

I turn and hold up my hand, stopping him from coming any closer. He jogs to a halt, his face tense with anger and expectation. I give him the best explanation I can: "You don't know me."

His body tenses and a harsh gleam enters his eyes. "The hell you say," hecounters. "I do know you, Heero Yuy. You're—"

"Not Heero Yuy," I interrupt.

A moment of startled silence emanates from him. "What?" he finally asks.

I repeat, "I am not Heero Yuy." His confusion is genuine and it hurts me to see it, but I don't know how to make him understand. I offer, "I'm sorry."

I turn away again and this time I think he remains where I leave him. I'm both relieved and anguished. But then:

"The hell!" He practically spits the words out of his mouth. In an instant, he's gotten a grip on my jacket and is spinning me around to face him. I glimpse the dark anger in his face and a flurry of motion at his side before my breath explodes from my lungs in a powerful rush. I blink back the instinctive tears that come to my eyes. It's then, as I'm nearly doubled over, that I realize he'd punched me.

"Wh... why?" I gasp.

"I told you," he replies calmly. Coldly. "You owe me for X18999. Now seems like as a good a time as any to collect."

I meet that hard, chilling gaze for a brief instant before I feel my body begin to fail me. Half-healed ligaments and bones roar with pain in the heartbeat before I'm tumbling head-first into familiar darkness.

~End of Part II~

Author's Notes:

:: Trowa's comment about Heero not needing "looking after" refers to Episodes 12 and 13 of the series when Trowa nursed Heero back to health after he self-destructed Wing.

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