Author: The Manwell

see part i for warnings, notes, disclaimer

The Stand-In
IX.

And he does... lead me.

I follow his mouth as he retreats across the living room, leaning in for searching kisses that bring with them the warmth of a homecoming. I follow his scent, his touch, the brief, quiet sounds he makes in the back of his throat.

I give in submit and consequently banish my inhibitions and fears. I trust him. And I want to be in this moment with him. I lean into his heat as he climbs, still moving backwards, onto his bed. His fingertips linger over my throat and I kick my shoes off before joining him on the mattress.

I find myself in his lap, one of my knees gently pressing up against his crotch. Again, I'm gifted with the soft, fleeting sound of his voice as he whispers almost groans my name: Sasha.

I shiver.

His lips glide over my skin, visiting my nerves with his teeth and tongue. His fingers twist into the hem of my shirt and I lift my arms obediently when I feel the caress of the cooler air touch my exposed abdomen. His hands smooth up my torso and he lingers as if he could drink in the feel of my scarred skin.

My sense of time dissolves as the heat builds between us. Duo's shirt is cast aside and our jeans unbuttoned. We kneel together, in the center of Duo's bed, mouths seeking each other, hands questing over necks, across shoulders, down arms and navels.

And when his hand firmly closes around me, I almost cry out. I can feel the heat of him even through the thin cotton of my underwear and it's... exquisite. I almost don't have enough presence of mind to reciprocate, but I manage to fist my hand around him as he moves against my thigh... as I move against his thigh... as our mouths and bare skin meet in an accelerating rhythm.

There are no words to describe our surrender. Even knowing that the intensity of our touches, the magic of our chemistry, can't last forever, it doesn't stop us from reaching for that blinding moment before us.

And reach it, we do.

A violent shudder rips through my body as I release. I can barely catch my breath, can barely keep his face in my sight, can barely record the sight of him as ecstasy stretches him taut. As soon as the unforgiving grip of my climax falls away, I slump against him, panting against his skin and leaning my forehead against his shoulder. A moment later, he falls into me as well and we wind up supporting each other's weight. There are no words between us. He purrs softly in drowsy satisfaction. I manage a quiet groan in reply.

I don't recall lying down in his arms. I don't recall kicking off my jeans and wet boxers. But I must have. Because much later that evening, when I wake up, I am naked and so is Duo and I have absolutely no qualms about kissing him awake so that we can fix something for dinner.

...

I carefully fold the paper lids closed over the steaming rims of both Styrofoam cups of instant ramen. Having already tucked the utensils required for its consumption into the back pocket of my jeans, I carefully grasp the warming containers and head for the living space. I keep my attention on not spilling any of the scalding hot water on myself and only glace at Duo after I've set both cups on the coffee table. In the act of reaching for the utensils in my pocket, I hesitate in order to appreciate the sight of Duo regarding the lone, vibrant blossom leaning crookedly against the inner rim of its impromptu vase.

"Duo?" I ask, wondering at that look on his face.

He looks at me, the wistful grin lingering on his lips. In answer to my poorly articulated question, he says, "I just never figured you were the romantic type, I guess."

Ah. Of course. "I'm not," I confirm and his smile widens.

"What? You mean you didn't buy this for me? Someone held a gun to your head and ordered you to give it to me?"

I snort. "I had a moment of madness," I try to explain while clawing my meager shreds of integrity closer, "next to a cart of flowers."

Duo's expression shifts as doubt enters his thoughts. "You sure you didn't have an epiphany? You know, with the heavenly light carrying the divine chorus of angels singing 'Hallelujah' and all that?"

I feel my mouth stretch into a lopsided grin. "More like a vision of you deciding to let me stew on your doorstep all afternoon."

Duo chuckles. "Nah. Never would have happened," he assures me.

"Great," I grouch, not knowing how else to react to that statement. "Next time I'll save my money and just try to look pitiful." I pause, jerking my gaze up to Duo's and adding with mock horror, "Oh, wait. Did I just ruin the surprise for you?"

Duo laughs. "Dude, what makes you think you don't usually look pitiful?"

"I see how it is," I toss back, enjoying myself immensely. "Duo Maxwell, patron saint of pathetic strays."

"What an illustrious title," he muses, trying to hold back a snicker.

I glare at him. "Just don't let me catch you taking in any other hard cases."

"Or you'll what?" he challenges.

"Or I'll take my flower back," I reply and have the pleasure of watching Duo clutch dramatically at his T-shirt which is incidentally inside-out.

"You wouldn't!" he gasps in something that could have been horror if he hadn't been smiling.

"Watch me." And before he can protest, I snatch the tulip from its sanctuary. I can feel the evil grin stretching my mouth as Duo's expression swiftly morphs from shock to playful calculation.

"Hey, that's mine."

"Not anymore."

His hands move to the edge of the seat cushion on either side of his thighs. "You gave it to me fair and square."

I shake my head. "Nope. It was on loan."

"Loan?" He blinks at me.

"Yeah. Loan. Need me to look that one up for you?"

"You..." he starts, his smile widening into something very... predatory.

I don't have any warning. One minute he's braced on the edge of the couch and the next he's leaped over the coffee table and is straddling my lap. He reaches for the tulip but I hold it back, beyond his reach.

"You will surrender my incredibly sappy present, Abei," he growls playfully.

I retort, "Give me one good reason to, Maxwell."

"I'll give you five," he assures me, slyly. And before I can wonder about that decidedly out-of-place threat, his fingertips delve under my shirt and brush over my side. Reflexively, I twitch violently. I even make a sound. It's not anything so undignified as a... squeak or anything. It's more of a... surprised grunt. Yeah.

Having established his advantage, Duo laughs evilly. His fingers press more firmly against my skin and I bite back a yelp at the way his touch tickles my flesh. I reach for his hand and manage to pull him away by his wrist, but even I know it's a losing battle. After all, I've only got one free hand in my arsenal while Duo has two. And he's far too strong for me to try to shackle both of his wrists with one hand.

We wrestle in the beat-up recliner until I have tears of mirth squeezing past my lashes and I'm laughing hysterically. Of course, it doesn't help that Duo's grinning like a kid on Christmas morning.

"Okay! Okay!" I pant. "I surrender!"

Duo leans back, his touch changing against my bare skin to a genuine caress. "Pushover," he accuses.

I don't bother to deny it. Lowering the tulip between us, I watch his face as I gently slide its petals down over the bridge of his nose and across his lips. "Yeah," I agree, watching him inhale its perfume deep into his lungs. He turns his face toward its softness and I watch fascinated as his eyes drift nearly shut when I glide the very edge of the blossom under his chin and along his jaw.

He makes a small noise in the back of his throat. It's so quiet I almost mistake it for the sound of his breath. But then he turns slightly away from me, offering the expanse of his neck. Resisting the urge to reach for him, I lightly trail the simple, red flower down his throat. His lips part and his gaze focuses on my mouth, which can only open softly silently in reply. I brush the tulip very carefully over his collarbone, then smooth it back up until it lays against his pulse, subtly shuddering in time with his heartbeat. I pause, taking a moment to moisten my dry lips with my tongue.

"You know," I tell him, my voice a thread of sound, "every flower has a meaning."

The tulip ghosts up and over one of his eyes, down across his cheekbone and follows the curve of his face to the corner of his lips. "Yeah?" he urges me to continue in a soft, husky voice.

"For example..." I nearly forget what I want to say as I study the play of the vibrant, crimson petals over his lower lip. I'm mesmerized by the brief appearance of his tongue as Duo follows the blossom's path, attempting to taste the fragrance left in its wake.

"For example?" he whispers back.

I repeat, breathless, "For example... the color red is the color of love and devotion."

"Mm?" he comments, his eyes drifting closed in anticipation as I move the flower up over his brow.

"And the tulip itself is the flower of the perfect lover." I drag the petals slowly over Duo's other eye and as soon as it reaches his cheek, I see him looking at me once again, his eyes dark and shuttered.

His lips barely move as he murmurs, "So a red tulip means..."

I smile, rather impressed with myself for remembering the flower seller's comments from much earlier. "A red tulip," I tell him, gently twirling it against his damp lips, "means... requests... the recipient to believe..."

Duo moves his lips against the flower and I can feel the puff of his breath in the slight, sudden bending of the stem grasped gently by my fingers. "What?"

I stare into his eyes and finish the message, "In me. Believe in me."

For a moment, neither of us move. The tulip rests against his mouth, perfectly still. But then, slowly, Duo reaches for my wrist and urges the flower away until there's nothing between us but a few meager inches of very thin, very warm air. He leans closer and my pulse reacts swiftly to the small groan that precedes the sound of my whispered name: "Sasha?"

I can only inhale silently in reply.

His mouth ghosts over mine and I can feel as well as hear his words as they pour past my parted lips. "I believe, Sasha. I really do."

I close my eyes and open my mouth to him, offering whatever he wants, whatever I have the capacity to give. I'm swamped with a rush of pure, profound relief and the combination of it and Duo's heat is so heady I shiver.

He kisses me slowly, caressing every part of my mouth with careful deliberation, re-learning the feel and taste of me. His hands brush over my jaw, cradling me close. He cherishes me. Takes nothing for granted. And I realize that I believe him, too.

My arms settle around him and I'm dimly aware of his fingertips trailing down my throat and his hands disappearing beneath my arms. He follows the line of my back down until he can shove his hands into the bit of space created by the crease of the chair and my slightly slouched posture.

I pull him more snuggly against me, holding him secure and balanced on my lap as his conquest of my mouth continues. And when he finally withdraws, both of us are breathing hard through reddened, fuller lips. I lean my head back against the cushion, completely blown away by Duo's very thorough kiss. I answer his quiet grin with one of my own and enjoy the feel of his warm hands pressing against my bare skin just above the waistband of my jeans.

I almost close my eyes as his fingers begin a gentle massage. And if I had closed them, I would have missed the sudden change in his expression. I wouldn't have seen the startled surprise then the widening, delighted grin. I frown at him as he removes his hands from me and it's not until he holds a pair of disposable chopsticks, a fork, and a tablespoon up in front of my face that I realize the cause for his sudden change in demeanor.

I grin back at him. I'd totally forgotten about the noodles. Idly, I wonder if they've been rendered to mush yet. I reach out and tug the fork and spoon from Duo's grasp, claiming them.

"Where's your chopsticks?" he demands with a sparkle in his eyes.

I arc a brow at him and, inserting my index finger between the two metal utensils in my fist, clink them together meaningfully.

Duo laughs.

Slowly, he slides off of my lap. "Don't tell me you can't use chopsticks," he teases.

"I can't use chopsticks," I deadpan.

Shaking his head and grinning, Duo opens his mouth to reply to that when suddenly he stops and frowns.

"What is it?" I ask.

He looks at me for a long moment before reaching down and gently guiding the hand still holding his tulip until the petals brush his lips again. "In the hospital, when I brought you Chinese take- out..." He blinks at me and I can see him putting it all together. "It wasn't your hand bothering you," he concludes softly. "You didn't know how to use them."

I nod once, wondering where this is going. Is he having second thoughts? He seems so surprised... Had he really begun to believe I'm not Heero? And if he does believe me, as he'd said, then why does he look so--

My thoughts are cut off when he leans down and gifts me with an impish grin before snatching the fork and spoon from me. "Well, Abei," he declares, "it's about damn time you learned how to eat noodles like a real man."

Both of my brows rise at that. "You're going to make a man out of me?" I quickly reply in the most neutral tone I can manage.

"Oh, yeah," he promises, his voice husky again. "You can count on it."

End of Part IX

Author's Notes:

:: The meaning of a red tulip is (according to several on-line florist shops) exactly as Sasha describes.

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