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

The Stand-In
VII.

I smile apologetically as I accept the Styrofoam cup of ice cream Duo hands me. "You saved my ass," I tell him. "I ought to be buying you ice cream."

Duo grins. "Nah, it's the least I can do for dragging you off to a dinosaur infested tropical paradise to rescue a bunch of morons."

"Well, when you put it that way," I reply, "yeah, I guess you're right."

He laughs. Then gestures toward a park bench with his waffle cone. He doesn't know it, but this happens to be the very bench I'd occupied last night, trying to sort everything out. Where I'd realized that I might not be solely responsible for this soul-switching as I'd previously thought. Where I'd realized that the likelihood that this is all Heero's fault is just as possible.

"Besides," he continues sitting down close to me, "I owe you an apology."

I frown into my ice cream. "For what? Not that Jurassic Park game—" I begin, already formulating an argument to convince him.

He shakes his head emphatically. "No. Not that. For... for this whole evening."

I look at him. "What?"

Leaning back in his seat much the way I had done the night before, he stares up at the sky and tells me, "I... I had ulterior motives for asking you to come to the park with me." He rolls his head toward me and continues, "I wanted to see how you'd react to some of the stuff I'd seen Heero do."

I'm about to ask him if he'd really seen Heero shoot dinosaurs, but of course he hadn't. He had probably seen Heero kill people, though. I turn away from him and ignore my ice cream as I stare across the abandoned park. "So this was all a test," I intone flatly. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him flinch.

Turning around to face him once again, I ask abruptly, "How did I do?"

It's a terrible silence that settles between us. I'm getting angry and Duo is... I'm not sure. Uncertain? Anxious? Remorseful? His face, as mobile as it can be, is difficult for me to read in the distant and hesitant lamplight.

"Look, man," Duo begins, daring to sit up and brace his elbows on his knees. "It's not like that. I mean..." He sighs. "Shit, you knew I hadn't bought that stand-in crap."

I had known that. But I remain silent, waiting for the rest of it.

"And now..." Duo runs a hand through his hair and sighs out a breath in exasperation. He shakes his head slowly and his voice becomes tinged with just the barest touch of fear and wonder. "Heero wouldn't have thrown back his head and screamed into the wind. He wouldn't have stalled out his car three times in the span of five minutes. He wouldn't have missed every other shot at the net. He wouldn't have ordered a nacho supreme and gone back for a second. And he..."

Duo's voice trails off just as I'm really starting to care about his observations. I don't know if I should be appalled at myself, but I really, really want to hear this. Duo just shakes his head again, abandoning his comparison.

"Don't stop there," I tell him, keeping my tone as neutral as I can. "What else?"

Duo turns away for a minute before saying in a hushed voice, "He wouldn't have been so concerned about not letting me down on a mission that he'd endanger himself."

"Is that what I did?" I reply despite knowing his words to be true.

"If it isn't then how did it happen?" he comes back quickly. "Why'd you stop breathing whenever we were engaged with a target? Why were your hands shaking so badly at the end?"

"I hated the damn game, all right?" I say, hearing the defensive note in my voice.

Duo does, too. "Why?"

I open my mouth to tell him exactly why I'd hated it but at the last possible second, I back off. "My aim sucks," I hedge.

"So you said earlier. Also something Heero is incapable of. You weren't an ace at the other games and you didn't get anywhere near that tense."

"What does it matter?" I snap, glaring at him.

"It matters because you are a walking contradiction," Duo accuses. "You say you're not Heero Yuy but you look like him. You don't act like him but you can sound just like him. Hell, even a few of your mannerisms are the same. And if you're not Heero then why in the hell did you pick 'Sasha' for a new name?"

I blink at him. "What are you talking about?" Does "Sasha" have some significance? Had Heero mentioned liking that name? If he had, then my choosing it had been one hell of a coincidence. Hadn't it?

"Sasha," Duo says in a tone void of all aggression and frustration. Weary and confused, he tells me, "Sasha is the Slavic version of Alexander. Alexander..." he pauses, looking into my eyes before continuing softly, "means 'helper and defender of mankind.'"

I stare at him, stunned. I remember him telling me about Heero's sacrifices, his risks, his total dedication to those he'd fought for. I remember Duo telling me about how Heero had gone after the chunk of a space battle station that would have brought a nuclear winter to Earth had it been permitted to strike it.

"You look me in the eyes and you tell me you're not Heero Yuy," Duo says softly. "But then you choose a name that embodies everything he stood for. Why?"

I stare into Duo's eyes, suddenly understanding he's just as lost as I am. In an instant, my wariness and defensiveness abandon me. The quiet desperation in him pulls me to lean closer, seduces me into whispering, "I don't know, Duo. I don't want to be Heero Yuy. I don't. But when you look at me like that, I honestly wish I was."

His lashes flutter closed at that and he turns away. I can see his profile -- a lighter shadow than the ones beyond -- and I watch him swallow with difficulty, watch his lips compress in order to hold back the pain.

Without stopping to think about my actions, I reach out to him, brushing the backs of my fingers over his cheek. "I'm so, so sorry, Duo. I don't want to hurt you... anymore than I already have."

Eyes still closed, he leans into my touch. The tension around his eyes and mouth eases until a soft breath is exhaled from between his lips.

I cannot adequately describe this moment I find myself sharing with him. I do not know the words to express concepts so deeply buried in my heart that I'd never thought they'd be illuminated -- even for an instant -- by the brilliance of such peace and contentment.

I watch the interaction of our flesh: his skin against mine. I dare to brush the pad of my thumb down his cheek to the corner of his lips and am rewarded with the ghost of a smile. In this moment, my world is all right. I can push aside Heero's ghost and my own fears. All that matters is Duo: that he leans into my touch and smiles at my caress.

But then something catches my attention. Perhaps it's the calluses on my fingertips. Perhaps it's the small webbing of scars I don't remember acquiring. Perhaps it's even Heero's spirit whispering in my ear. Because suddenly, I jerk my hand away, disgusted with myself.

I don't say anything. I can't. I nearly stumble to my feet in my haste to depart. I can feel Duo's gaze on me as I turn away and I close my eyes for an instant, praying he won't come after me.

He doesn't.

But my momentary relief is eclipsed by my own self-rebuke.

Oh God, what had I done? Duo doesn't want me. He wants Heero. When he looks at me, he sees Heero. I know this.

So why had I reached out to him? Why -- when he hadn't been imagining me touching him but Heero? How can I continue to confuse and betray him with my presence? How can I possibly justify my actions? If I truly care for Duo, then I must leave.

The pain is incredible, but I acknowledge it and the truth it brings:

There can never be anything between Duo and I...

...with the single exception of Heero Yuy's ghost.

...

"Hee-- er, Sasha! What a surprise!"

"Hello, Quatre," I intone, trying to hide my irritation at almost being called by his name. The reminder of who I could almost be -- maybe even who I should be -- is not a welcome one.

"How are things going?"

I don't even bother to debate if I should tell him about last night. I'd managed to shove it aside, where I'm determined the memory of it will remain.

In reply to his query, I snort. "As if you don't get progress reports from Duo regularly," I mutter and am rewarded with Quatre's chagrinned expression.

"Well, it would be nice to hear it from you," he returns gamely.

I open my mouth to tell him exactly how I am and exactly how much I need to get the hell out of here but I pause. I have to consider my words carefully. I do not want make it sound like I blame Duo for this. How can I? From the first moment I'd seen him, rumpled and exhausted and passed out at my bedside, I'd been drawn to him. This is all my fault. Still, I have to be very cautious or else I'll cause more harm than good.

And then I have a flash of memory. It's a moment I'd almost missed. In my haste to get away last night, I'd retracted my touch as if his skin had been poisonous. I'd turned away from him quickly. But not quickly enough. My chest constricts painfully as the infinitesimal glimpse I'd caught of his eyes comes to me. The weak light from the hovering streetlamp had reflected just so and I'd spent a sleepless night trying to convince myself I hadn't seen something I know I had.

Pain.

I'd seen pain in his eyes: rejection, betrayal, all of the things I'd sworn to prevent him from feeling.

"Sasha?" Quatre prompts and I jerk to attention. "What's wrong?"

Everything, I want to say. Because as badly as I want to prevent Duo from being hurt, I've managed to do little else than inflict pain upon him. And if I were to run away now, I would only be continuing to do so. After that brief touch last night, my absence would make him feel like he'd lost Heero all over again.

I can't do that to him.

I won't do that to him.

Somehow, Duo and I will have to work this out between us. Somehow, I have to help him resolve himself with regards to Heero's death.

This is going to hurt like hell, I suspect. But what other choices do I have? None that are appealing, that's for sure.

I sigh, resolving myself to staying and hoping I won't screw things up. Again.

"Sasha?"

I blink, suddenly realizing I'd completely forgotten about Quatre, my audience. Isn't this just turning out to be a splendid morning?

Clearing my throat, I give him my undivided attention. "Could be worse," I hedge. "I... was calling to see how you and Wufei are coming locating someone who can test the stand-in theory. It's... really been on my mind." And I pray to whatever conversation gods there be that he'll believe that.

"Ah," Quatre replies, looking apologetic. "I'm sorry, Sasha. No luck yet, but we are investigating."

I nod at his image on the vid screen, equally proud of my successful quick save and dismayed at my sudden change of mind. "Well, that's all I was calling for, Quatre," I say into the pause that follows.

Quatre frowns, his expression suddenly suspicious. "Are you sure, Sasha?"

He isn't buying it. Damn it. "Yes," I say firmly. And then: "I appreciate your efforts to sort this out."

Quatre relaxes a little and I surmise he's just decided that I'd been uncomfortable because I'd been having difficulty expressing my gratitude.

"It's no problem at all, Sasha."

I nod once and silently warn myself not to say anything that would threaten the veil of ignorance I am trying to weave over his eyes.

"It was good hearing from you," he tells me. "Don't hesitate to call again if you just want to talk."

"I'll keep it in mind," I tell him, face expressionless. I bid him farewell and disconnect the call. Only after the screen is completely blank do I expel an unsteady breath and clasp my shaking hands together.

For an eternal moment, I'm overwhelmed to the point of being completely lost in the rush of my own pulse and the frantic haze of my incoherent thoughts. I have to close my eyes and force my breaths to even out and deepen. Very slowly, the layers of my panic begin to thin and evaporate until the source is revealed:

Duo is counting on me to be there for him... but how I do keep a grasp on my own sanity when the lines are already so blurred?

The distinction between who I am and who Heero Yuy had been is graying, softening, becoming more malleable with every moment I spend in Duo's company.

And I am very close to not caring if it disappears entirely.

I pull my hands apart in order to bury them in my hair, clutching these strangely dark tresses tightly.

Could I be Heero Yuy?

No.

Well, maybe...

Almost?

My entire body shivers as my muscles protest the strain of my current tension.

I don't know what to do. I'm caught up in this momentum that draws me to Duo, that makes me miss him when we're apart, that wills me to risk my sanity rather than hurt him. I crave his presence so completely... am seduced by the possibility of creating more beautiful moments with him... would do anything to spend one more hour in his company...

But the more time I have with him, the more I learn, the more I fall...

And I only want... more.

Who had it been who'd said: "Everything is never quite enough"?

The raw truth of that slices through me, tearing me apart with its searing heat even as it smoothly whispers its irresistible promises.

Panting, I open my eyes, searching for some sort of anchor. Something -- anything -- to distract me. And I wind up gazing at a pair of twin droplets glimmering on the surface of my desk between my elbows.

Twin droplets, I slowly -- numbly -- realize, that are my own tears.

~End of Part VII~

Author's Notes:

:: Okay, this is creepy: I'd picked out the name "Sasha" and written Part IV before I'd bothered to look up the definition online. And yes, according to Parenthood dot com, "helper and defender of mankind" actually is the meaning of the name. The strange subconscious at work... or something more??

:: "Everything is never quite enough" I initially read at the beginning of ClarySage's "Digital." Original quotation by Wasis Diop from his song "Everything (... Is Never Quite Enough)."

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