Author: The Manwell

see part i for warnings, notes, disclaimer

The Stand-In
VIII.

How do I fix this?

I frown with the thought as I stalk down the street, hands shoved deep into my pockets. It had taken me a... while to get myself together after that call to Quatre. And when I'd finally come down from the rushing, shuddering wave I'd gotten caught on, one thing had been completely, irrefutably clear: it doesn't matter whose fault this mess is. It's doesn't fucking matter. I'm here and Heero's not. And, God damn it, someone has to figure out how to fix it.

Starting... right... now.

I lift my gaze from the sidewalk and check the street names on the intersection. I draw in a deep, fortifying breath; I'm almost there. Now I just need to figure out what I'm going to do when Duo opens his door. Assuming he will open his door...

Hm. Maybe I haven't given this enough thought. Perhaps I'll need to offer an incentive for him to see me.

I glance around me for a source of inspiration. Spying a profusion of color, I move toward it automatically until I find myself standing in front of a small vendor. I reach out, running the tip of my finger over one of the nearest items on display. Never in a million years would I have thought I'd even be considering buying something like this.

Feeling my face warm despite the cool breeze sweeping the street, I hastily make my selection and hand over the correct change. The young woman takes the bills from me with a kind smile, perhaps sensing my acute discomfort.

She nods toward my selection and comments on its significance. Her words only further heighten my embarrassment but I don't ask to exchange my purchase for something more... neutral. I follow my instincts on all things. And in this case, something tells me that this offer won't be inappropriate.

I hope.

+

The sound of the bolt disengaging throws me completely off-balance. I find myself a spilt second away from facing Duo and my tongue has suddenly adhered itself to the top of my mysteriously dry mouth. Crap. I can't even lasso one of my frantic, half-formed thoughts, so even if I could speak I doubt I'd be very articulate about it.

Plus, I'm not 100% sure he's even opening the door. I mean, why would he after I just walked away from him last night without even making an effort at an explanation?

Maybe I'm hallucinating.

The door opens and there stands Duo wearing a black tank top that snuggly embraces his muscled chest and his hair twisted back into its usual braid.

Hallucination?

Dear God, I hope not.

He blinks at me, his brows furrowing slightly in a question he does not ask. Hell, he doesn't even say "Hello." It's as if we're both staring at ghosts that will vanish with the slightest disturbance.

I search for words but my jaw seems to have become permanently fused together. Okay, backup plan.

Duo jerks his head back reflexively as I thrust my fist out toward him, my offering suspending between us. He twitches slightly as the gift sways in my fist, gently bumping against his nose.

"For you," I manage somehow. "I'm sorry," I continue. "About last night."

Every muscle in my body is coiled so tight I think I could implode any second. But then Duo's expression softens and he lifts one hand in order to gently curl his fingers around my fist.

"I..." he beings. "It's..."

We stand there, staring at each other for a moment longer.

With a small sigh, Duo takes a step back and gently tugs at my still-raised fist. "C'mon in," he invites softly.

Unable to think of a witty reply, I follow his lead and step over the threshold.

"This is a surprise," he continues and I wonder if he means the visit or the gift. And with that reminder I release the single, red tulip into his grasp.

"One of my talents," I try to explain, not sure my words are making any sense whatsoever. "Being unpredictable."

Duo grins and I finally feel a lessening in the tension that has me strung taut. "You're good at it."

I grunt.

He laughs and I find myself relaxing even more. He gestures toward the sofa in his efficiency apartment. "Have a seat."

I do, watching him as he pulls a tall glass from the kitchenette cupboard and fills it with tap water. My gaze follows his every move until he starts to turn back around. Quickly, I avert my eyes and find myself staring at the photograph of the five friends. I'm peripherally aware of him setting the tulip in its glass on the coffee table as I stand.

"You kept it," I say, feeling his gaze on me as I move toward the framed image.

After a heartbeat of silence, he moves to stand beside me and says, "Yeah, I did."

I frown. "But... Hilde Schbeiker placed the order..."

Duo sighs. "Yeah," he agrees again, "she did." He glances at me, his expression somewhat calculating, somewhat judging... as if he is weighing his next words and imagining my possible reactions. "I've been helping her out with her family's salvage yard. She wanted to do something to thank me."

There's a long pause during which I continue to stare at the image of Duo Maxwell leaning against Heero Yuy's shoulder. And I'm sure that Heero is in fact leaning back against Duo as well.

Then, Duo softly blurts, "We're just friends, she and I."

I blink before looking over at him. I can't think of anything to say to that, so I simply stare at him, saying nothing. He doesn't remove his gaze from the photograph to meet mine. I watch his lips part, watch him draw a breath, watch the brief movement of his tongue as he wets his lower lip.

"I'm sorry, too," he tells me. "I... In fact, I'm the one who owes you an apology, not the other way around."

His eyes flutter closed for a brief moment and he crosses his arms over his chest before his lashes open once again.

"I'm..." He sighs heavily, looking irritated. "God, why can't I just say it?" he mutters. The muscles in his jaw clench with frustration. "Back on Earth, when you finally woke up, when I was feeding you and smuggling in take-out, I thought I was finally making progress. I thought you might finally be willing to let me be your friend."

"How can you say that?" I interrupt. "I never spoke a single word to you!"

Duo's shoulder muscles relax slightly as he smiles. Sort of. The grin itself is a little lopsided and very shaky but he finally looks at me straight-on. And I can almost smell it; its presence is so real:

He's vulnerable.

"I didn't think of it that way," he replies softly. "I focused on all the things you didn't say."

"I don't understand," I confess.

And he's kind enough to clarify, "You never once told me to go away and leave you alone. You never ordered me to get lost, to shut up, to bother someone else."

"He... Heero used to say those things to you?" I demand, feeling oddly betrayed and rather angry. It's beyond me how anyone could be so cold to Duo.

He shakes his head. "No, he... No. I always backed off right before... I could kinda see it coming, you know?"

I don't know. "What did you watch for?" I hear myself asking.

"Well, first his words would shorten, until he was almost spitting them out of his mouth. Then he'd stop bothering to look me in the face. After that his shoulder muscles would tense up and his jaw muscles would clamp down and he'd ignore me completely..."

"And then?" I persist.

Duo shrugs. "I never pushed any further than that."

I'm quiet after he speaks those words. Really, what could I say?

But then Duo tilts his head to one side and continues in a voice made lighter with hope and uneven with trepidation. "But, in the hospital on Earth, you never pushed me away, never tensed up, never deliberately looked away from me and I thought... maybe... finally I was getting through to you."

"And then I ran," I remind both of us, disgusted with myself.

Duo rocks back on his heels and shakes his head. "I was so damn pissed at you for doing that," he tells me. "I thought I was finally getting to see a little bit of the real you -- the guy behind the mission..." He closes his eyes again, briefly, to gather his breath and possibly his words. "I've been a real asshole to you since I saw you at the spaceport," he states.

I open my mouth to disagree, not wanting him to feel so badly about it. But he isn't yet finished and I'm forced to keep my silence or talk over him.

"The best excuse -- the only excuse I have to offer you is that I was... scared. For a few days I got to just hang out with you and take care of you and be there for you and then... and then it was like waking up. Like the whole thing had been a dream. You took off and everything was back to normal. And I didn't want that.

"But then, when I saw you again and you denied being Heero Yuy I couldn't... I just couldn't accept that I'd lost my chance. And I couldn't understand why you were denying me this."

Duo pauses and runs a hand over his braid, from the top of his head to the nape of his neck. Reluctantly, he admits, "For a while, I was mad at you for not being Heero. I was mad because I wanted to get back to that place where you trusted me. I was mad because I thought I'd blown my one shot at it. But then I kinda started to enjoy hanging out with you and I stopped being mad. And that was when I realized that I wasn't really missing Heero anymore because I was starting to like you... a lot."

Total silence descends between us. I can't believe what I'm hearing.

I don't back away as Duo slowly reaches for me. I feel his fingers curl around my shoulder and I remain right where I am, wishing I could lean into him just little but unsure of where this is going, unsure I'm really understanding what it is he's trying to tell me. But then he closes the distance between us and wraps his arms around my shoulders.

I can feel the warmth of his breath against my ear when he whispers, "And that's when I realized I'd been kidding myself. I never wanted Heero back. I wanted you."

My breath catches in my throat. In my chest, my heart feels as if it's stopped beating in order to listen more closely.

Still whispering, Duo confides, "And every night when I go to sleep I wonder if -- when I wake up -- you'll be gone and Heero will be back. And every day I'm so... damn... relieved that you're still here."

"Duo?" I inquire softly, hesitantly wrapping my arms around his waist.

"Don't go," he murmurs, his cheek pressed against mine, his lips brushing the edge of my ear with every syllable. "Stay, Sasha? Please?"

Oh, God. How can I say "no" to that? To him? To the sound of my name tumbling off of his tongue? He's never said it before, never conceded that I could be who I say I am. And the sound of those two syllables... the power and the seduction they carry with them... I want to give in. I crave it. But I have to be sure he understands, really understands...

"Duo, I can't... Heero..."

"You're not Heero," he tells me. "I know that. Just promise me one thing."

"If I can, it's yours," I respond without hesitation.

His arms tighten around me. "If there's... any way you can, I want you to promise me you won't let Heero come back. If it's within your power, promise me you won't leave by choice."

I can feel my heart breaking in my chest at the sound of his fear. He's afraid of losing me to Heero... perhaps I'm just as afraid of losing him to Heero as well. My embrace tightens around him until we can no longer inhale at the same time. As he inhales, the motion pushes the air from my lungs and vice versa but neither one of us suggests loosening our hold.

"I promise, Duo. Whatever happens. If I have a choice, I'll stay."

I can feel the breath shuddering out of him, can feel the relief in him, can feel the moment when he stops striving to tuck me into his chest and starts cradling me in his arms. I close my eyes as his fingers feather through my hair but open them again when I feel him lean away.

We're nose to nose when he asks me if I'll consider staying the night.

My hands slide down his back to his hips. I nuzzle the corner of his mouth and dare to rub my chest against him. His lips tremble apart when I tell him he'll have to loan me a clean pair of boxers in the morning.

And then I touch the tip of my tongue to the corner of his mouth. He shifts in my grasp, his mouth blindly gravitating toward mine. It's my first kiss and it's fierce and hot and wet. I try to keep my eyes open, but I quickly loose myself in the intensity of it. I bury one of my hands in his hair and pull back long enough to whisper one of the last coherent thoughts I can recall having for a good, long while: "Lead me."

~End of Part VIII~

Author's Notes:

:: In reference to Duo being able to sense when he'd been about to push Heero too far, there are a few moments during the series when Heero is rather aloof in Duo's presence, but what Duo describes here is a little embellished on my part.

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