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

The Stand-In
V.

"Good morning, Sasha!"

I nod once in greeting to my employer and wonder at the tedious normalcy of this moment. It's as if I hadn't left yesterday with the intention of not returning, as if I hadn't packed my bag and booked a flight to another colony, as if Duo hadn't dragged me back to his apartment and held me hostage for the remainder of the day. I could almost pretend that the entire episode had never happened. But then I find myself standing in front of the works completed bin, staring at the slanted, block letters distinctive of my handwriting marching down the spine of a thin package.

5633: Schbeiker.

So it hadn't been a dream at all.

I'm a little disappointed and a little... not disappointed.

With a sigh I move to hover over the task list for today. I know that if I work I won't think, and I desperately need to not think right now.

I loose myself in the rhythm of my assignments in the work room. Occasionally, I surface long enough to wonder if being able to so completely ignore what had transpired the night before and it's consequences is a good thing. I'm a little scared, I think, by my ability to block it all out so completely.

My boss has left to have her lunch break and I'm at the front counter looking for some paperwork when I glimpse a figure through the glass door. I almost groan as I recognize the young man reaching for the handle. But I rally quickly. This is my territory. And I won't have to watch every word I say since my boss is around the corner eating a hot dog. I can deal with this. No problem.

But then my day gets immeasurably worse. Duo doesn't duck into the shop when he opens the door. No, he holds it open for someone else. Who just happens to be my boss. I glance at the clock and realize her half-hour break has, in fact, expired.

Shit.

"That was quick," I say, and I'm not sure if I'm talking to my boss or Duo.

My employer laughs. "You weren't having fun without me, were you?" she queries.

I purposefully ignore the knowing gleam in Duo's eyes. He must be able to see how not happy I am to see him so soon. And in the presence of an audience no less.

"Busted," I deadpan.

I think I see the corner of Duo's mouth twitch upward to that and his expression changes from darkly amused to inquisitive. In order to avoid that penetrating stare, I stuff the papers in my hand back into their folder and sigh.

"What are you looking for?" the shop owner asks me and I tell her. "Oh! I was writing some notes on that order this morning. I'll get it if you'll help this gentleman."

I almost laugh at that: Duo, a gentleman.

"Sure," I manage torn between hysterical amusement and grinding my teeth in frustration.

As she disappears into the workroom, Duo leans his hip against the counter and crosses his arms over his chest. Absently, I notice he's wearing the same jacket he'd worn to visit me at the hospital on Earth. He takes his time looking me over which I endure with my best poker face. Not that I play poker. Not that I'm even sure how to play poker...

"I'm actually here to pick something up," he tells me after a moment of silence and from one of his jacket's hidden pockets produces a folded sheet of paper.

I hold out my hand for the receipt.

He arcs a brow at my silent treatment and unfolds his arms enough to lean over the counter, one hand on his hip and the other still cradling the bit of paper between his first and middle fingers. I can see the dare in his eyes and I deftly pluck the receipt from him. I send a dark glare at him through my brows as I unfold the sheet and I suppose I should have seen it coming -- if I'd thought about it, I probably would have -- but when I read the name on the order I just kind of freeze for a moment.

Schbeiker.

Somehow, I should have known. After all, Duo's in the photo. But then... who the hell is Hilde Schbeiker? Does it matter? Why do I care? I don't, I tell myself.

With a mental shrug, I turn away and pull the corresponding parcel from the bin. I set it down on the counter and begin to unwrap it in silence. Duo still leans close, smirking.

"Yeah, I can see you've really got a way with words, there," he drawls.

I resist the urge to glare at him again. Barely. I lift out the framed photograph for his inspection. I have the impression he had intended to merely glance at it, but once redirected, his gaze stays riveted to the image of himself leaning on his best friend. The look of regret morphs quickly into anger which is swiftly shoved aside as a voice comes between him and his thoughts.

"Is that the Schbeiker order?"

"Yeah, it is," I say.

My boss shakes her head as she comes up next to me to get another glimpse of the five friends. "I just can't believe the resemblance between your friend and Sasha," she wonders aloud. "It's absolutely uncanny."

Duo chuckles. "Creepy, huh? Well, they say we all have a double out there somewhere."

"That they do," she agrees.

I proceed to wrap the brown craft paper once more around the photograph. "I see it's already been paid for in full," I say, turning toward our computer. "I'll just get you your final receipt."

"Cool," Duo says, his voice oddly without hidden barbs. The friendly tone surprises me enough to cause my fingers to falter on the keys. "Man," he continues, "the weather geeks have got a gorgeous day going on out there, huh? Barbeque weather."

"Isn't it lovely?" my boss replies enthusiastically. "And it's funny you should mention barbeque because there's this little Indian barbeque cart around the corner that has kebabs to die for. Which reminds me," she continues, turning to me as I rip the final receipt from the printer and staple it to the original. "I was going to recommend it to you when you went for your lunch." She glances at the clock as I hand the parcel and receipt over to Duo. "Why don't you go ahead and just go now?" she asks me.

And what am I supposed to say to that? She's already seen the shop and the fact that I'm not working on anything at this exact moment. "Um... okay," I end up saying and before I know it, I'm holding the door open for Duo and following him out onto the sidewalk.

With Hilde Schbeiker's framed photo tucked under his arm, he matches my stride and we walk in almost companionable silence past the shop's windows. As we do so, I realize how very much more difficult Duo could have made my life just now, but he hadn't. I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. Maybe he's not such a bad guy after all. Maybe all it really takes is a friendly gesture... on my part. I'm well aware I haven't made any of those. And since I'm not really looking forward to a repeat of yesterday's interaction, I clear my throat.

"Thanks," I hear myself say.

"For what, man?" he replies, taking my blunt attempt at conversation in stride.

I glance Duo's way. He has this odd expression on his face, like he's thinking about something that doesn't quite make sense to him. It's obvious I don't have his undivided attention, but I mutter, "For not telling my boss you think I'm a certifiable head case who is but won't admit to being your best friend."

"Sure thing," he tells me and I can tell he isn't really listening to me. But then he seems to replay the meager conversation and he actually looks right at me. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it, then opens it again. "You... Heero wasn't my best friend," he informs me quietly.

I frown with the addition of this new piece of the puzzle. Not his best friend? But what about what Quatre had said? What about his reaction to the photograph? What could have inspired such strong emotions -- regret and anger? And what about his daily visits at the hospital? What could have inspired such loyalty? Such dedication? Such understanding?

And then it hits me. Oh, Jesus, I've been stupid. Stupid and insensitive. I can't believe how badly I've handled this entire situation.

The word tangles in on itself in my throat but I cough it up anyway. "Lovers?"

Duo pauses in mid stride -- freezes, actually -- and very slowly directs his undivided attention at me. And for the life of me, I cannot read his expression. And I thought I had a good poker face. The silence rolls along for several seconds and I start to wonder if life comes with a rewind button. One of those would be really useful right about now.

"Lovers?" he repeats in a whisper so soft I almost have to read his lips to catch the word.

"Er..." I say, wondering if I should apologize or not. Yeah, this sure isn't awkward or anything.

I watch Duo struggle to swallow, attempt to chuckle, try to turn away before I catch the sudden blush staining his cheekbones. "Um, no," he tells me. "Definitely not... anything like that. Remotely."

He starts walking again but I don't. I'm too busy being swamped by anepiphany. Suddenly Duo's dedication and grace and violence and stubbornness all make sense.

"I'm so sorry," I tell him, meaning it. He stops walking again but doesn't look atme. His shoulders and back tense, though, so I know he heard me. "If I could bring him back, I would."

Those words are barely more than a whisper, but I mean them. God, I can't believe I'd been jealous of Heero Yuy for having a friend with such a beautiful soul. Not that I now think Duo is any less beautiful, but because this whole mess is so... sad. If only I hadn't somehow gotten rid of Heero... if only he were still here, then Duo might have a chance to tell him how he really feels.

Duo doesn't respond and I can imagine what this seems like to him. Another mind-job. Heero Yuy just screwing around with him. Again.

I bury a hand in my hair as if I'll find the right words hiding amongst my roots. "I... ah... oh, hell," I grouse. Taking a cleansing breath, I finally succeed in stringing more than two coherent words together. "Look, Duo, whatever weird shit is going on here, whatever has happened and wherever Heero is right now... he cares, too."

And with those last few words, I gamble; I reach out and gently curl my fingers around his shoulder. I don't get a response past the slight easing of the tension in his muscles. Hoping I won't royally fuck this up, I continue, "He'd have to be a complete and utter oblivious ass not to care. I barely know you and after two minutes in your company I was wishing you really were my friend. That's why I ran." Oh, crap. I hadn't meant to bring this up. But he sort of turns toward me and I know I have to finish my thought. "I didn't want you to know I wasn't Heero. I wanted you to be able to keep your friend. I thought if I ran you'd be mad, but that would be better than finding out... the alternative."

At last, Duo actually does turn around and look at me. I still can't read his expression. And now I don't know what else to say.

"I'm sorry," I tell him again. "For everything."

His response is not what I would have anticipated. He simply shakes his head at me in a sort of confused wonder.

"What?" I ask, not sure if I really want to know.

"I've... That just sounds weird coming from you."

"What?" I ask again.

A small, sad smile curls his lips. "I'm sorry," he tells me.

For a very confusing moment I think he's actually apologizing to me, but then I realize that's his answer. "Wait a minute," I say, "you're telling me that during all the time you knew Heero, he never apologized for anything?"

Slowly, Duo shakes his head.

Yet another thing I discover I don't like about the guy who used to rent this same space. I know my expression reveals the fact that I'm getting a little irked, but I don'tcare. "Did he ever do anything right?" I demand in a flare of temper.

Duo blinks at me for a moment before his eyes narrow and his lips twitch. Then he's throwing back his head and laughing out loud.

"What?" I say a little confrontationally.

Winding down, Duo looks squarely at me again. "Yeah," he says, "Heero did manage to get a thing or two right every once in a while. Everyone thought he was perfect, after all. The perfect soldier."

I shake my head. "No offense," I tell Duo, "but I don't understand what you saw in him."

Duo grins. "I'll tell you what," he replies amicably, "I'll buy you some Indian barbeque and outline his good points, how's that?"

I grin back. "Works for me."

~End of Part V~

Author's Notes:

:: "The Perfect Soldier" is, apparently, not part of the cannon series, but the title associated with Heero Yuy by Western fans.


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