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The Stand-In

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I can't make sense of any of it through my closed eyelids and ringing ears. It's chaos and the only thing I can manage to grasp onto -- the only sensation I can identify -- is the warm strength of slender arms around me. I think I moan. I think I hear a woman's softly crooning voice over the pandemonium. I think she brushes my hair back from my brow with her fingertips.

Do I know her?

I doubt it.

I don't even know where I am.

I can feel myself falling. I'm beginning to loose consciousness. I don't even have time to wonder what I'll dream before I'm there: in the dark of my mind, in the quiet of my body.

The world could be exploding around me or cradling me close. I don't know, either way. I'm lost. I'm alone.

And there are no dreams that come to me.


I can hear the sound of someone's slow, even breaths if I hold my own.

Who's there? I almost ask. Almost. Instead, I wait. I feign sleep until I'm reasonably certain my visitor is also asleep.

I open my eyes and stare. My companion is a young man. I study him carefully in this brief moment of wakefulness I'm allowed. He sits in a plain, plastic chair at my bedside. His arms are resting on the edge of my mattress and his head is pillowed on his forearms. I take in his wrinkled, dark jacket and know he'll have creases in his cheek when he wakes up. I'd almost like to be around to watch that happen.

I continue to stare, wondering who he is, wondering why he's here. And I wonder what color his eyes are. I indulge myself with following the curve of his jaw up to his ear which is partially hidden beneath his golden-brown hair. His long golden-brown hair. My gaze travels over the loosely woven braid until it disappears below his shoulders. How long is his hair? I'd really like to know.

But I don't even know his name.

Or my own.

The thought spurs me to test my body, to find something I can count on. My limbs respond sluggishly and after only a moment of effort, I feel suddenly exhausted. I cast my gaze around the room, wondering where I am. In a hospital room, I surmise. But a hospital where? And what had happened to me? Had I been ill? In an accident or—

My thoughts still and disappear when my gaze lands on the open bathroom door. It stands at just the right angle for me too see someone reflected in the full-length mirror. And for one crazy, near-panicked moment, I think someone else is in the room with me and my visitor. But no. That stranger in the mirror is...

I lower my head just to confirm it.

Yes. That's me.

But that's not me. I don't look like that.

And yet, somehow, I do.

I don't know what to think, what to do. I'd been worried because I couldn't remember my name but my face? I lay back and close my eyes, trying to hide in the darkness, trying to call it to me so that it will carry me away from this nightmare. And as it answers my summons, I permit myself one last glimpse of my visitor.

And then the questions don't matter anymore as I became cocooned once more in my non-dreaming darkness.


"Hey, Heero. Wake up, buddy. Breakfast."

I resist the sound of that voice, the scent of food. I don't want to open my eyes. I don't want to look into his and see the me he expects reflected in his expression. As long as I hide in the darkness, I don't have to think about who I am... or rather, who I'm not.

"C'mon, Heero... Please?"

He sounds tired. How long has he been watching over me? Does this voice belong to the young man with the braid who'd fallen asleep during his vigil? The curiosity more than anything else causes my lashes to flutter. I can hear his quickly indrawn breath.

"Heero?" he tries again. That must be my name.

But it's not. That's not my name.

"Are you awake?" Pause. "Heero?" He'd sounded so confident that he'd finally been getting through to me, but that last word, whispered on a thick breath had been uncertain. And as much as I don't want to face the strange world I find myself in, I can't allow his anxiety to continue. Part of me wonders if this "Heero" would have felt the same.

I open my eyes for him.

And it is him. The long braid, the rumpled jacket, and the dark blue eyes. Royal blueeyes. Those wide, mesmerizing eyes blink back tears he doesn't shed. His wide mouth performs a dazzling smile for me.

He's beautiful.

"You are awake," he informs both of us.

Slowly, I nod.

"I've missed you, man," he continues, simply gazing at me.

I don't know what to say to that, but I manage a soft sound in the back of my throat. He can translate it whichever way he likes. But he does what I don't expect: he laughs.

"That's the ol' Heero Yuy we all know and love," he quips and I think he's teasing me. My eyes narrow at him but his grin only widens.

"Here," he says, offering a paper cup to me and guiding the plastic straw to my lips. "It's just cold water."

I sip at it for a moment, attempting to re-hydrate my mouth and throat. After a moment, I pull away.

"Ready for the main course?" he asks lightly.

I say nothing. I'm not ready to try my voice. Not yet. He glances at me as his hand hovers over one of the nondescript food containers on a tray nearby, waiting for my response. I nod.

"Nothing but the best for you, my man," he continues, obviously pleased with my reluctant communication. I watch him stir the contents of one of those containers with a spoon before leaning closer to me across the limp bed linens. "Europe's finest applesauce," he announces, lifting the spoon to my lips.

This is ridiculous. I can feed myself, can't I? As soon as I attempt to raise my arm, he quickly dumps the spoon in the container and gently lays a hand on my wrist.

"Don't, Heero," he tells me. "You've suffered dozens of stress fractures, strained muscles, and torn ligaments. You really need to rest. Please, just let me do this for you."

I can feel the truth of his assessment of my condition in the constant aching of my tired, battered body. I wonder how it happened, but it would require using my voice to ask. And I just... can't do that. I stop trying to move and just lay back against the pillows. He rewards me with a smile as he removes his touch from my skin in order to stir the applesauce again.

"Of course," he continues in a tone that's too light, too casual, "you realize that after you heal up, I'm going to kick your ass for what you did to me on X18999."

I stare at him, uncomprehending. He doesn't seem to notice.

"Open wide," he orders, the spoon approaching my mouth. And because if I'm eating I can't answer any of his questions, I do so without complaint.

It's not until later, as I'm drifting back to sleep with a full stomach, that I realize I still don't know his name.


My doctor regards me solemnly and with a steady gaze, waiting for my reply.

I don't really have one so I content myself with glaring back at him.

After a long, tense moment, he relents. "Right," he mutters. "I'll take that as an affirmative. So, you do know why you're here and what's happened."

I know no such thing but I attempt to look impatient. I don't want to be here any longer. I don't want to risk my... visitors finding out that I'm not really their friend. That although I seem to look like this person they call Heero, I'm not him. I'm... someone else.

"Shall I assume you also remember your reasoning for firing a space calibrated beam cannon on a residence shielding the Vice Foreign Minister?"

I blink. There are so many things in that question that are complete gibberish to me that I can't even begin to sort through it all. What in the hell is this man talking about? I offer up a grunt to the silence. Still, I haven't used my voice properly. Probably because it's not actually my voice. It's Heero's. Whoever that is. Was.

"The authorities will want to interview you," the doctor continues. "I've told them to come back during visiting hours tomorrow if they want to speak with you." He pauses and continues to stare at me, as if his gaze can peel the thoughts from beneath my flesh. "I must admit that I'm also curious as to what you were thinking at the time."

He's not the only one. But I don't dwell on that. I'm busy trying to chase the word "authorities" out of my head.

A knock on the door precedes an increasingly familiar face. I watch as the young man with the long braid peeks into the room. "Hey, Doc," he says. "You almost done with the third degree?"

The older man sighs, sounding very martyred indeed. "Yes. All done." He glances back at me. "For the moment." The doctor reaches for my med chart and scribbles a few things on the electronic touch pad. "There are some tests I've been putting off until you'd regained a bit of your strength and stamina. I'm scheduling them for tomorrow morning." I watch him replace the tablet and feel his gaze scan me once more, from head to toe. And I have to wonder... does he know? Does he know I'm not who everyone thinks I am?

"Get some rest," he orders me and leaves the room.

The youth offers a hearty wave and a big smile, watching the retreating figure through the slowly closing doorway until he's gone. Then, from some mysterious location about his person, my visitor produces a sizable white bag.

"Heya, Heero. I brought you some real food."

I say nothing and simply arc a brow at him.

"Aw, now don't look at me like that. It's edible, I promise." The grin he gives me is rather evil and I wonder what sort of mischief he's either making at the moment or remembering. But I'm very careful not to let either my thoughts or my reactions show. Over the last day and a half, I've begun to realize that no one seems to find my reserved silence all that strange. But I find it odd that the strategy I'd employed in order to buy time to gauge the situation only ended up convincing everyone that "Heero" is perfectly fine.

"Here," my visitor says, plunking himself down on the edge of my bed, managing to make the motion appear both careless and graceful at the same time. He reaches into the bag and extracts a small white carton and a pair of chopsticks.

"It's Kung Bo Chicken," he says into my moment of hesitation, still holding the carton and chopsticks out to me.

Reluctantly, I accept them. I balance the carton in my lap and examine the chopsticks. They're still attached at one end within their plastic wrapper. I hide a frown and covertly watch Duo as he first removes the cellophane from his own set then snaps the utensils apart.

"What's the matter, dude? Did I screw up or something?"

I transfer my frown to him as I begin to fiddle with the easy open end of the wrapped chopsticks.

He holds out a second carton to me. "I also got General Tsao's Pork. Do you want this one instead?"

Ah, he thinks I'm unhappy with the food. I carefully pry my chopsticks apart and shake my head. He continues watching me and I wonder if I know how to use chopsticks.

"You don't have to eat it if you're not hungry," he tells me, misreading my reluctance.

It's a good excuse. One I ought to take. But he's been so... friendly to me that I don't want to disappoint him. Still, I've got to wonder if I'm being fair to him. He still believes I'm his old friend. Shouldn't I explain the situation to him? But what would I say?


I look up at him, into those incredible eyes. He's worried about me. Or is he worried about Heero? God, it's all getting so confusing.

I arrange my expression into one of inquiry.

He sighs. "Well, if you don't mind, I'm gonna eat," he tells me as he shifts the chopsticks between his fingers and pops open the top of his take-out box. I watch him for a moment as he samples his dinner before I carefully delve into mine. The chopsticks feel strange alongside my fingers. I'm almost positive I've never done this before. Clumsily, I attempt to lift a piece of marinated chicken to my lips.

My companion half chuckles. "You remind me of myself when you first taught me how to eat with these things." He clinks the tips of his chopsticks together for emphasis. "Remember?"

Of course I don't. But Heero might. I grunt. Again.

"Hey, you're not planning on wearing half of your dinner are you?" he asks as the carrot I'd trapped slithers free of my grasp and plunks back into the box.

I sigh. Setting the chopsticks aside, I do the only think I can think of. I flex my hand as though it's stiff and sore. He notices. Popping another bite into his mouth, he puts his own dinner aside and turns toward me.

"Here," he says quietly, collecting my chopsticks. "I'll do it." He picks out a water chestnut from within the box and holds it up for me, intending to feed me again.

I glare at him.

"It's my fault anyway," he replies to my silent objection. "I should have known you wouldn't feel up to this."

I continue to look at him, absorb the sight of him, this beautiful stranger. I ought to turn my head away, decline to eat, but I know I won't. As frightening as his attention is, I crave it. As unfair as it is for me to allow him to continue to believe I'm his good friend, I know I won't turn away from him. But I will. I'll have to. And soon.


I wish I could have thanked him. For his kindness. For his sincerity.

I walk toward the spaceport, following the clearly posted signs, and wish I could have said a proper "good bye" to Heero's good friend.

Heero, I decide, had been a very, very lucky guy.

I don't join the lines of people and parcels at the ticket counter. I don't have any money with which to pay for passage to anywhere. I bypass the other travelers and quietly make my way toward the hangars. I chose a shuttle based on its cargo and my ability to disappear amongst it. I don't particularly care where I'm going; I just know I can't stay here. In a few hours, the "authorities" will be coming to the hospital to demand answers of me that I can't give them. Something inside me, some instinct, tells me that if I stay, I'll not be able to avoid the moment of truth. And I don't want to see the look of betrayal in the eyes of the young man with the long braid. Although, in slinking away in the middle of the night, I know I'm betraying him, still the difference is that I won't have to see it when he realizes what I've done.

And his friend "Heero" will still be alive.

And that's my real reason. As envious as I am of Heero Yuy for having such a beautiful soul for a devoted friend, I can't kill him. And I can't -- won't -- hurt his friend. But telling him the truth will most assuredly do that.

I crouch among the crates in the dark, cold cargo hold and wait for takeoff. I don't know where I'm going. I don't know how long it's going to take for me to get there. But I know I'd better have a name for myself by the time I step outside again.

So I settle back, cross my arms over my chest, and begin the process of redefining myself.