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

The Stand-In
VI.

Heero Yuy hadn't been perfect. And, oddly enough, that had been the catalyst for Duo's interest in the silent, driven, quick-witted, often-brooding comrade-in-arms. He'd been trained to be the perfect weapon, Duo had said. I can even recall the way he'd leaned across the table to confide that great secret to me. I can recall the way his eyes had lit up upon remembering all the times he'd shared with Heero. I can recall the way his voice had become a tapestry woven with admiration and frustration, with respect and exasperation, with affection and resentment.

The night chill begins to creep into my skin and I shove my hands into my pants pockets. I slouch back against the park bench and stare across the skeletal figures of the jungle gym and swing sets. It's late, I know, but I'm not ready to go back to my apartment.

That in itself is strange. My pathetic, economy-sized apartment is my haven. Or, it had been. Now... as I begin to get to know Heero, as I begin to see the strength of Duo's feelings for him, I'm beginning to wish I really could be Heero.

And that's dangerous.

It's bad enough I'm stuck inside his body. It's bad enough I've inherited hisfriends. It's bad enough I find myself forgetting that Duo's dedication isn't for me but for Heero.

I sigh and lower my head to stretch the knotted muscles at the back of my neck. The line is blurring. I want to be Heero for Duo. But I'm not. And then I look in the mirror and I think to myself maybe I am Heero Yuy, whether I want to be or not.

Carefully, I lean the back of my skull against the warped back of the bench and contemplate the dome of the colony. Under the pretense of examining the artificial stars, I think that all of this confusion could have been avoided if I'd just managed to run.

And keep running.

But how long could I have kept that up? How long before one of them would have found me? How long before one of Heero's old war enemies had recognized my face?

Then it sort of comes to me. I stare up at the fake sky and feel a tangible wave of realization crash into me.

What if I hadn't pushed Heero away?

What if this whole thing isn't my fault?

What if Heero had run away?

What if I'd been dragged into his life against my will?

For a minute, I just sit there, shivering at the implications. It seems plausible: Heero, tired of fighting, of killing, of being revered and hated, had just given up. What if he'd taken off rather than try to sort out the mess his life had become?

For an immeasurable moment, I just sit there, numb. But then, as the idea begins to settle in, I infer something about Heero's character that I find beyond distasteful.

In my pockets, my hands fist. How could he just leave his friends like that? How could he leave Duo like that? How could he not realize how his death would affect him?

I think I hate Heero Yuy.

And I think I'd rather hate him than hate myself.

Still, this helps no one.

I'm still not Heero Yuy.

And Heero Yuy is still the guy Duo wants me to be.

A small whispering voice tempts me to show Duo I'm worthy of his friendship... and more. But that would be wrong. So very, very wrong. I could never be sure if it's me or Heero Duo's seeing when he's looking into these dark blue eyes.

Heero is gone. But the longer I remain in Duo's life, the more hope I give him that one day I'll wake up and remember all of the times he and Heero had spent together. Duo had been adamant about not feeding my delusions. How can I allow myself to feed his?

So that's it, then. I've got to leave. I've got to persuade one of the other guys to let me stay with them. Unless they decide to just cut me loose and let me go where I like… I snort derisively. Yeah, like that's ever gonna happen.

I turn my gaze in the general direction of my apartment. I think I'm almost ready to go back. I know it's weird, but for a little while, there, I'd almost tried to become someone else. And if I'm not Sasha, then I just can't walk through the door of that apartment. It would seem too much like a trespass. Which makes no sense whatsoever because I am Sasha. But...

Ah, hell. I just don't know how to explain it. And I realize I've got to stop trying. What I do have to do is get away from Duo.

...

I'd been tense at work, waiting for him to show up in time for my lunch break.

But he hadn't.

And I'd told myself that I was relieved and to just stop thinking about it and eat my sandwich.

And I had.

I'd employed my ability to close myself off from any and every thought relating to Duo Maxwell and Heero Yuy. For the remainder of the work day, I'd been totally focused on my tasks. For all intents and purposes, I'd managed to forget about the creepy mess my life had become.

Maybe that explains why as I'd turned to follow the sidewalk back to my apartment the sight of Duo Maxwell lounging in a doorway had brought me to an immediate halt.

It's shock, I tell myself thereby explaining my reaction. Surprise. I hadn't been expecting to see him. I hadn't prepared myself for the return of all my problems.

I tell myself my state of complete speechlessness has nothing to do with the soft, welcoming smile on his lips, the tight black T-shirt stretching across his chest, the worn jeans defining his slender hips and thighs to perfection, or that familiar jacket -- open and hanging from his shoulders -- that I'd first seen all those weeks ago on Earth.

"Hey," he greets.

I continue to stare at him, marveling at his expression. A line from a song I'd heard somewhere comes to me out of the blue of Duo's eyes: I saw him approach, wearing a most approachable grin...

I manage to make an obscure sound in the back of my throat and I watch as Duo's grin widens.

"Heading home?" he asks me.

There's something about him that's... dangerous. The lack of calculation in his expression and the complete relaxation of his features put me on my guard. I cannot afford to think of this young man as my friend. For both our sake's.

My eyes narrow. "What are you doing here?"

"Thought you'd never ask," he quips easily. With a wave of his hand, Duo reveals two pieces of cardstock paper sandwiched between his first and middle fingers. He waves them back and forth, a self-satisfied look painting his features.

"What are they?" I ask, knowing he's expecting me to provide him with an opening to explain himself.

Duo takes a step toward me and, holding the slender bits of paper under my nose, tells me, "Tickets."

"Tickets to what?" I reply, playing his game. I try to summon up some exasperation, but I find I'm actually enjoying myself.

His grin widens. "Follow me and find out."

...

"AHHHHH!!!"


I can barely hear the girl to my right screaming; the wind rushing up against us tears the sound away. Out of the corner of my eye I can see her fingers clutching desperately to her safety harness. For a moment, I consider shouting something reassuring at her, but I'm too busy grinning.

Through my protective goggles, I stare into the projection screen as I plummet through cloud after cloud. The force of the wind and the pull of gravity combine with the visual effects to simulate a perfect freefall. I laugh as the speed increases but the harness holding me aloft and the weight of my own body pressing into it prevents me from filling my lungs to full capacity and the meager sound is snatched away.

I glance briefly to my left and take in Duo's smiling profile. He'd tucked his braid down the back of his shirt but his long bangs are almost vertical in the constant wind. I don't say anything -- the words wouldn't have been audible anyway -- but Duo somehow senses my attention and looks at me.

Even behind the bulky, cheap plastic goggles, I can clearly see his eyes. For a moment, we just look at each other. Then Duo slowly turns away, closes his eyes, and -- still smiling -- lets loose an exuberant battle cry into the wind.

It feels like an invitation. And I respond. I look down into the screen before tilting my head back, closing my eyes, forcing my lungs to fill, and sending my own holler out into the chaos.

Reopening my eyes, I turn toward Duo, wordlessly asking with a cocky grin, How was that?

Looking both shocked and thrilled, Duo slowly smiles back.

I nod once in recognition of his response and turn back to feeling the wind fully against my face. I close my eyes and let the sensation take me where it will. In freefall.

...

I set the food tray down on the table and slide into my seat. Across from me, Duo sits, leaning into his elbows which are propped up on the table, smiling. I've seen that particular smile often this evening. It's a strange mix of speculation, disbelief, hope, and affection. And it's something I don't want to think about too much. Quickly, I divvy up our food, hoping that the action of eating will erase that look.

The indoor amusement park is considerably quieter now. All of the junior high school students and families with children had gone home around nine o'clock, observing some curfew or bedtime, no doubt. Now only young adults wander through the multi-level plaza, many holding hands with a date.

"Having fun?" Duo asks me.

I glance away from my contemplation of the sudden, more-romantic atmosphere of the place and watch him take a bite of his burrito. "Yeah, I suppose," I say. "But you didn't have to so thoroughly kick my ass at stock car racing and basketball jump shots."

Duo laughs. "Aw, you were only down by a few miles and points," he commiserates. "You know what they say: 'I didn't lose; I was only a little behind when time ran out.'"

I snort.

"Besides," Duo continues, "we haven't gone up to the Jurassic Park game yet. You can still redeem yourself."

I arc a brow at him and proceed to add what most people would consider to be an ungodly amount of Tabasco sauce to my nachos supreme. "What's that about?"

With a grin that's almost evil, Duo replies, "Oh, c'mon. You don't really expect me to tell you, do you?"

"That's an unfair advantage," I charge.

"Yup," he agrees.

...

"So here's the rules," Duo begins as we buckle ourselves into our seats which are side-by-side on a rotating platform. "We're on a mission to rescue a bunch of schmucks who decided to breed dinosaurs on this island. We have unlimited rounds and have to shoot as many dinosaurs as possible."

I nod. I can handle that. I hope. But seriously, how hard is it to point and shoot something? I don't even have to worry about recoil.

"Don't shoot the people," Duo adds, unnecessarily, I think. "If a dinosaur gets a hold of one of us, the captured guy has to press one of the red buttons on the armrests as much as he can while the other keeps shooting. If the guy shooting doesn't get the dinosaur to back off in ten seconds, the other guy dies. One of us dies, we both lose. Okay?"

My hands tighten around the plastic gun in my grip. I'm not so sure if I'm going to like this game so much. It was one thing to compete against him, but it's entirely another to be his teammate. Especially when the prizes are either his life or his death. And, yeah, I know it's just a dumb game, but it's the idea...

"Ready?" Duo asks, his hand hovering over the green "start" button.

"As I'll ever be," I grumble and Duo commences the game.

The motor beneath the platform on which we're seated whirls and we spin around. Seeing only the black walls of the rest of the small room, I feel myself tense, wondering what we'll find when we finally get around to seeing the projection screen.

But when our seats jerk to a stop, I don't see any threats. Only jungle. I tense even further. The only warning we have is a single person running toward us. Then all hell breaks lose. The next ten minutes are a blur. The only thought I'm aware of as I shoot without mercy or hesitation, regardless of the accuracy of my aim, is that Duo is counting on me. Numerous times, the screen disappears from my sight as we are rotated in a circle. And each time, Duo tosses out a joke or a bit of praise. But the sound of his voice only reminds me of what I'm fighting for. And although he's trying to get me to relax and enjoy myself, he only ends up pushing me further into my role. After confronting a few more scenes, Duo no doubt senses the ineffectiveness of his tactics and no longer bothers to joke around.

"Just relax and have fun, man," he tells me. "You're doing great."

"My aim sucks," I grouch back through gritted teeth.

"Yeah, I know," he replies in an odd, strained tone.

"So don't get caught," I warn him. "Because I'll probably end up shooting you instead of the damn dinosaur."

Beside me, Duo seems to freeze but then the screen flickers to life and reveals a horde of velociraptors rushing toward us. It's tempting to give in to the sensation of being overwhelmed and had I been alone I might have done it. But instead I barely allowed myself to blink as I take aim, time after time, and fire into the melee.

"You have got to chill," Duo says as soon as our seats begin rotating again.

"Easy for you to say," I reply, clutching the gun.

Duo gives me an odd look but I choose not to meet it. "Why is this getting to you so bad?" he wonders aloud. "It's just a—"

"Game," I interrupt. "I know."

And every time the projection starts up again, the challenge is more and more difficult. I have to force myself not to panic, not to give up. I realize, as yet another creature goes down, that I really, truly abhor this game. But what are my options? If I get caught and Duo tries to save me, he'll get caught, too.

The chair swivels, granting us another brief respite.

"Dude..." Duo says.

I attempt to control my ragged breaths. When had I had to start fighting for air? I frown. Probably after I'd started holding my breath so I could concentrate on improving my aim. I can feel myself shaking with the strain caused by constantly pushing myself to do better. So I should have known that I would make a mistake.

But I hadn't.

Out of nowhere, a tyrannosaurus rex surges into my line of sight and lurches for me. I'm forced to abandon my target and I manage to get three shots off before my gun is rendered useless. I've been caught. And I'm so stunned that I don't even think to press the button that will keep me alive. I just sit there, numb.

Then a dark form leans over me and I know it's Duo. I can smell the lingering scent of his shampoo in his hair. I inhale and think I can also detect a hint of his aftershave. It's a belated moment later when I realize that Duo has leaned across me in order to slam his fist repeatedly on the crucial button while still shooting targets left and right, one-handed.

And in the next instant, I'm free and tyrannosaur is gone. As are the rest of the animals that had been attacking us.

The motor beneath us kicks on, spinning us around again. Confronted by the black walls, I almost leap out of my own skin when I feel a hand around mine, tightening my grip on the gun. I look up and into Duo's face. His expression is somber, his mouth unsmiling. Somehow, this had stopped being a mere game for him as well.

"I've got your back," he tells me softly.

I nod, aware of the fact that we have, perhaps, a whole second before we'll be jumping back into the fray.

"In this together," he says.

Those words calm me in a way none of his previous attempts had. When the screen flickers to life again, I'm ready. Duo and I hold off the predators as the people we'd managed to rescue board the helicopter. Then we climb in. Then we're airborne.
And it's over.

~End of Part VI~

Author's Notes:

:: The song Sasha recalls is "The Night I Fell In Love" by Pet Shop Boys from the album: "Release."

:: The indoor amusement park is based on one in Tokyo, Japan called Joypolis. The stockcar race and Jurassic Park game are based on actual features at Joypolis.

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