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

The Stand-In
IV.

Heero Yuy had not been in the habit of taking long, hot showers.

I close my eyes and lean into the spray, admitting to myself that I'm indulging in one at this very moment for that very reason. The more I learn about him, the more I strive to be unlike him.

I inhale the thick steam. Without looking, I know my skin is blushing in silent objection to the near-scalding water. I don't listen. I need this. I need to wash, peel, burn him away until only I am left.

"My name is Sasha Abei," I whisper to myself so softly I'm almost merely mouthing the words.

Sasha Abei. The name I'd chosen during my exodus from Earth. The name that had poured from my lips as I'd jerked awake when the docking clams had shaken the vessel.

The white noise of the droplets striking the bath liner reminds me of the sound of shuttle engines. The sound of space. I shiver in the intense heat, remembering the intense cold.

As my shoulders hunch forward, I also realize I'm in the process of hiding. I'm hiding from Heero's friends. I'm hiding from Heero's ghost. Perhaps I'm even attempting to hide from his guilt. I hold out my hands and watch the clear water sluice over my calloused skin... and I wonder if the blood will ever truly be washed away.

I throw myself out of the shower with a full-body shake designed to cover the uncontrollable shiver that rips through my every muscle. I wrap a towel around my waist and another around my shoulders, trying to feel warm. My fingers tighten in the terrycloth as I stare at the fogged mirror. Somewhere in there, is my reflection.

I stand there for several moments before I realize that having removed myself from the still-running shower has had the result of allowing me to hear the voices of the others. I don't want to hear their words, but I kind of do. I want to hear their voices, their concern, their caring. Is it possible that they still care even though I'm not their old friend?

But then, they haven't honestly given up on prying Heero Yuy out of me.

Not yet, anyway.

"Are you going to be all right? Keeping an eye on Sasha by yourself?"

A long sigh precedes the reply. "Damn it, Q. Don't call him that. You're just feeding his delusions."

"But, Duo... what if he's really—"

"Shut up, Quatre."

"Grow up, Duo," the young man rallies. "Accept the possibility that Heero's soul has moved on!"

"How can you just give up on him like that? After one conversation?"

"What? Duo, listen—"

But he doesn't. He charges right ahead, swearing passionately, "Well, I'm not giving up on him. That is Heero. Somewhere in there. And I'm going to keep digging until I find him!"

"Duo..."

"Shut up, Quatre. Just shut up. He's not dead. He's just... lost. It's the amnesia. I'll find him."

There's a long pause, so long I'm not sure anyone is ever going to speak. But then Trowa contributes, "During the war, Heero Yuy had to do a lot of things he might be better off not remembering." A small sound drifts through the flimsy door as Trowa rises from his seat. "I know you miss him. I know you feel like you missed the chance to really get to know him. But is bringing Heero Yuy back the best thing we can do for him?"

"But you once told us that you'd rather have the bad memories than none at all," Wufei reminds him.

"Yes. I would. Sasha, on the other hand, doesn't want them. Don't force the issue, Duo. He'll only run again."

"What's to force? That's Heero and he's trying to screw with our heads for no good reason."

"Duo," Trowa responds calmly, "you didn't know Heero anymore than I knew him. We fought together. We bled together. In the time I spent looking after him, I never once asked him about his past or his dreams or his opinions. None of us did. None of us could. Take the chance to get to know him as he is now. You might be surprised. You might like this person he's become even more than the quiet guy we all depended on during the war."

"This might be his only chance to be genuinely happy," Quatre inserts softly. "Are you really going to try to take that away from him?"

"How can ignorance make anyone happy? The past catches up to you eventually," Duo counters.

"That's why he needs you, Maxwell," Wufei counters. "We'll all be in touch. I'll look into some things and get back with you if I find anything that might help."

"What are you going to tell Commander Une?" Trowa asks.

Wufei answers, "That depends on if I can find a way to support the stand-in theory."

"This is crap," Duo mutters, moving toward the living room windows.

"You said the healers of your clan had, for the most part, recognized this phenomenon," Quatre muses. "It's possible there are other cultures out there that do as well. And it's possible that there are researchers who have developed tests..."

"That's what I was thinking," Wufei tells him.

"I'll look around in the WEI R&D labs," Quatre offers.

"Guys," Trowa says softly. "I have to go."

"You're leaving without saying good bye to Sasha?" Duo sings in a mocking voice.

"What is your problem, Duo?" Quatre demands.

"Problem?" Duo parrots, innocently. "I'm just fine-fucking-tastic, dude."

"Maxwell," Wufei's uncompromising voice enunciates, "no matter how much you disagree with this situation can you at least admit that the person we think is our old friend believes he doesn't know us. This is real to him. Can you accept that?"

Duo sighs heavily. "Yeah, I've never known him to be a consummate actor."

"You have to be there for him, Duo," Trowa continues. "You're the only one of us who doesn't have any other obligations at the moment. I'll see what I can work out. Until I can manage to make it back here, you know how to contact me if you need anything."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, Tro. Thanks."

"It's no trouble, Duo."

I decide I've heard about all I'm going to. I carefully step into the shower and let the cooling water flow over me as I assess the situation.

Quatre and Wufei will try to find a way to prove I'm not really Heero Yuy anymore, Trowa is leaving, a Commander Une is -- presumably -- interested in my whereabouts, and they've assigned Duo to keep an eye on me. I'm not sure how I feel about any of that. And I'm especially not sure Duo and I will make it through one day, unsupervised, without killing each other.

I turn off the tap and towel dry quickly. With any luck I'll manage to catch Trowa before he goes. He's one more voice of reason to build a buffer between myself and Duo. And I have a few things yet to say to that guy.

I dress in selections from my bag which Duo had reluctantly handed over. Earlier, I'd found and counted all of my money, relieved that he'd given it all back to me. My passport, however, he'd apparently decided to hold on to.

Tossing my damp towel over the shower door, I stuff my old clothes back in my bag and make my exit. Or entrance. Whatever.

In the act of reaching for his overnight bag, Trowa pauses.

I make a point of looking from him to the bag then back again. "You're leaving already?" I try to keep my voice as neutral as possible. For now. I need to feel out this situation. Make them realize that while I may not be able to pilot a mobile suit or know a dozen ways to kill a man with my bare hands, that doesn't mean I'll just roll over and go along with every single thing they dictate to me.

Trowa nods in answer to my observation.

"Lucky you," I drawl. Turning to Duo, I dare to stick my hand into the lion's cage by saying, "Have you come to your senses and decided to give me my passport yet?"

Duo only smiles. "I'm keeping it safe for you," he replies. "Let's just leave it at that."

"Let's not and say we did," I return quickly.

"That's catchy. I think I might have used that line when I was about, oh, twelve."

"It's my passport," I point out to all present.

Duo crosses his arms over his chest. "And?"

I don't have to pretend my frustration. Slinging my bag over my shoulder I head for the front door. "Just stay the hell away from me, Duo," I growl.

"Love to, but can't!" he calls from behind me.

And since no one has tried to stop me, I have the satisfaction of slamming the door behind me as I leave. I have all of three steps to contemplate that little show I'd just put on -- three steps to feel at least partially pleased with myself for playing the part of the pissed off, colony-locked hostage -- before the door opens again and someone slips out into the hall with me.

My tension returns in an instant. "What now?"

"Calm down, Sasha," Trowa tells me. "I was just on my way out, remember?"

I glance over my shoulder at him and take note of his accomplice. "Then what's Quatre doing with you?"

The fair-haired young man steps forward and tells me with a humble air, "I was hoping we could talk before I left."

"Talk," I repeat. "About what?"

Quatre smiles. "Let's walk, shall we?" he asks, inviting me to lead the way. I do, reluctantly. We three pass a very long, very silent moment in the elevator descending to the street level of the old apartment building. On the steps outside, beneath the illumination of the street lamps, Trowa holds out his hand to me in a gesture of farewell. His clasp is warm and firm but gentle, his muscles supple but his skin calloused.

"I'm glad we met, Sasha Abei. Please allow me to stay in touch."

Cautiously, I nod once. He seems to find this response satisfactory. With a slight nod in Quatre's direction, Trowa turns and heads toward the spaceport without another word. Now alone with Quatre, I wait for him to lead the way but he simply looks back at me until I take the initiative and start walking. I don't dare lead him back to my place—not that Duo won't be able to find out where I live and work in about five minutes with my passport as his disposal... Still, it's a matter of pride, of territory. I didn't invite Quatre to see my place. He invited me for a walk.

So we walk.

"I'd like to apologize for Duo's behavior," Quatre begins after a dozen or so paces.

"You might like to," I reply, "but you can't."

Quatre continues, seeming to ignore my comment, "The road we took during the war was never the easiest one. We all came to depend on one another. We all watched each other's backs at one point or another. Even when the odds we so bad we were sure we were going to end up dying together." Quatre turns to look at me, searching my gaze. "We didn't know much about each other, but we knew we could count on another pilot to have our backs, to take point when necessary, and to patch us up when needed."

I frown considering those words and the bonds they describe. He makes me almost wish I'd been there.

"You almost died once," he continues softly. "Well," he amends with a shrug, "Heero almost died."

"How?" I ask, not really because I want to know but because I want to fill the silence. In the wake of a statement like that the dead calm of the colony is eerie.

"He was ordered to self-destruct with his mobile suit."

"Ordered?" I toss back. What kind of people had Heero fought for that they would tell him to give his life like that? What kind of person had Heero been that he'd acquiesced?

"The engineers of our mobile suits refused to hand over the technology to Oz," Quatre elaborates.

"Did they order you and the others to... self-destruct?"

Quatre shakes his head. "No. They didn't." He sighs, letting himself wade a little deeper into the memories. "I spent time with Duo after Heero detonated his Gundam and he told me about how they'd met, the initial rivalry, and all the favors they'd done for each other along the way."

"So they were friends," I venture, feeling an odd twist in my gut. I think it's guilt. Or perhaps plain old sorrow.

"Yes," Quatre tells me. "Perhaps best friends."

The pain intensifies just a little more with that. Best friends. Shit. Now more than ever, I wish I could give these people their friend back -- give Duo his best friend back.

"The way Duo spoke of him, I'm not sure Heero really understood what it meant to have a friend, but by the end of his convalescence under Trowa's care, I think he'd begun to really get it. After all," Quatre continues with a grin, "he'd saved Duo from a public execution at Oz's hands."

The silence floods back between us again as we traverse the unremarkable sidewalk. After a long, brooding moment, I have to ask him, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you need to understand. Heero and Duo had a connection. It was friendship and rivalry and competition and camaraderie and a hundred other things mixed in. It was complicated and it was tangible." Glancing once more at me, Quatre concludes, "I just wanted to help you see why Duo is having trouble letting him go."

"What about you?" I ask.

"What do you mean?"

"Why aren't you having more trouble letting Heero go? You were his friend, too, weren't you?"

The smile Quatre gives me is a sad one. "I never knew Heero beyond the role he was forced into because of the war. I never saw him free or happy. For all I know, you are the person he could have... would have been if he'd been given the chance."

I realize then that even though Quatre has decided to accept me as being different from the person he'd known, he hasn't quite accepted the possibility that that person might be gone. Forever. Never to return. Quatre sees me as a hidden part of Heero rather than his replacement. It's not what I would have wanted -- it is hardly an ideal perspective from my point of view -- but for now it will do.

"So try to go easy on Duo, okay?" Quatre says in a tone that signals the approaching conclusion of our conversation.

"Yeah," I reply dryly. "If he goes easy on me."

~End of Part IV~

Author's Notes:

:: The sound and coldness of space refers to an earlier point in "The Stand-In" when "Sasha" stowed aboard a shuttle.

:: WEI: Winner Enterprises International; R & D: Research & Development.

:: The event of Heero self-destructing his Gundam is taken from Episode 10.

:: Duo's imprisonment by Oz and subsequent rescue by Heero is from Episode 19.

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