Author: Maldoror
Genre: Action, investigations, my usual strange humour, tiny touch of angst, some weird politics and a bit o' romance (yes, I still know how to write those - just don't expect anything majorly fluffy)
Pairings: 2x5
Rated: NC17 - for language, violence, sexual content
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Spoilers: Some, for series and episode zero.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. The very idea is laughable. See? This is me laughing. Ha ha.

Summary: Freeport colony: a notorious den of pirates, smugglers and thieves. Wufei persuades one of its denizens, his one-time ally Duo, to help him catch a killer hiding there. Agent Chang thinks he knows what to expect, from this case, from Freeport and from Duo Maxwell. He couldn't be more wrong. 2x5

Dedication: To Dacia, for her site's third-year anniversary (http://www.raygunworks.net, in case you didn't know). Which was back in July. Which is when I started thinking about and writing this fic ^^; No one can accuse me of being fast, now, can they. Dacia's pet pairing is 2x5, so that's what she asked for as a present. I immediately got hit with this rather weird idea...and then another weird idea...and another...before you know it, hey presto, a new multi-parter, probably in the 30 chapter region (but fairly short chapters, this time). Oy vey, I needed this like I needed to get hit in the head with a hammer. But I had so much fun writing parts of this fic and imagining the plot and the 2x5 and the colony and-...what can I say; hit me again! Hope you enjoy it too, Dacia

Warning: I'm sticking very close to the series' timeline in this fic. There won't be too many spoilers as the action happens at a later date. But for those who have not seen the series, note that this means that Duo and Wufei have NOT spent all that much time together during the war, and no, the boys never found themselves playing 'house' in one of Quatre's legendary mansions for months, or all hiding out in the same school or anything. EW didn't happen though (I sometimes wish EW had never happened in the real world, either...)

Huge thanks to Dawna for beta-ing and egging me on

Freeport + Chapter 1

"...False security has lulled the madness of this world into a slumber. Wake up! An eye is upon you, staring straight down and keenly through, seeing all that you are and everything that you can never be. Yes, an eye is upon you, an eye ready to blink.

So face forward, with arms wide open and mind reeling. Your future has arrived...are you ready to go?"


Powerman 5000

+

Chang Wufei was quite prepared to admit that he lacked diplomacy.

His friends, who were diplomatic to a fault, would regretfully agree with him on this. Sally could persuade and coax and convince you that black was white and make you happy about it. Trowa spoke clearly and simply, his words cutting straight to the point and you would find yourself on the wrong side of logic if you even thought of arguing. And Heero...well, nobody disagreed with Heero. Except for Trowa, but not where anybody else would hear. That was diplomacy too...

Wufei wondered how his colleagues would handle this upcoming meeting.

He hadn't seen Duo since they were both fifteen-year old terrorists. These would be the first words Wufei had spoken to his one-time ally since they'd said a casual 'Good luck' on MO2 five years ago, before Wufei became a Preventer and Duo disappeared into the worst dens of sin in the solar system.

In those circumstances, 'Hi Duo' seemed...rather inappropriate.

The other alternative was: 'Maxwell! I'm here on a mission! You will help me, or I'll make sure Trowa stops ignoring the petty smuggling operation you occasionally indulge in.'

His memories of Duo were distant now. A fiend in a cockpit. An apparently cheerful killer who enjoyed fighting way too much. An adrenaline junkie. An L2 spacer street rat turned war hero by the odd set of circumstances only a civil war could conjure. Wufei had not been particularly surprised to hear that Maxwell had not settled down much in this new peace they enjoyed. No, not surprised at all.

Wufei remembered Duo Maxwell well enough to know that option number two - 'help me or else' - would result in absolutely zero cooperation and a punch in the jaw to boot.

Better stick with 'Hi Duo'. Even if that sounded a bit disingenuous.

“Don’t blame me if he kicks you out the door. He doesn’t like surprises,” Hilde muttered for the third time. She never raised her voice or looked at him directly when she said it though, as if frightened of his reaction. Wufei pretended to ignore her once more, but inwardly he was beginning to wonder if Duo would let him even get the 'Hi' out.

The television was on in the background. It seemed that everywhere he went these days, a television was running, and people were watching it like cows chewing cud. Even the Schreibeker woman was looking at it frequently, as if she needed its reassuring presence and calming effect to counter the sombre Preventer's presence. Wufei glanced at the screen. Some slice-of-life garbage. A competition between three small villages to make the best float for the New Year's peace march. Hilde watched these people she would never know build a useless contraption she would never see and that would not improve her life in any capacity, as if she were witnessing the birth of a niece or nephew. Wufei sunk deeper into the couch and glanced at his watch. Two hours he'd been waiting. He wished they had another RV point for Duo than Schreibeker's house.

The documentary ended; Wufei didn't catch which village won the competition and only knew it was finished from the way Hilde sighed happily. It was followed by a news broadcast. The headline news was President Relena Peacecraft - no great surprise there - opening the latest Peace Park, somewhere in Europe; well, it wasn't going to be in Taiwan, or the bombed out zones around Seattle, or L2, now, was it? The ESUN Economic section of the journal elaborated on the employment rate, which showed another wonderful increase of 0.5% this month. Wufei glared at the anchorwoman's earrings, swinging like hypnotizing pendulums. He knew those figures did not include the statistics for regions below the Economic Disaster Line, colonies in transition governments, or ex-soldiers under the Rehabilitation Act.

The L2 riots were briefly mentioned after ten minutes of news, right after the report about Prince Milliardo's latest Mars project, and six pieces of advertisement. The second one was trying to sell some product or other. The only thing he really noticed was that the Perfect Woman on the screen had long honey-blond hair and the peaceful eyes of a ruminating cow; an echo, if not a downright copy, of Relena, but without any of her surprisingly strong will and determination. As if the TV execs wanted to water down her image, make her harmless and easily swallowed by the public, along with the latest brand of perfume or dish soap. Although that was possibly his cynicism talking. Trowa had often warned Wufei that watching too much television left the Asian Preventer a bit keyed up.

"I'll just go see what my guys are doing out there with that scrap," Hilde said quickly in a tight voice, and nearly ran out the door. Wufei realized he'd been scowling murderously at the screen. The same advertisement ran again, right on cue. The woman didn't look that much like Relena, on second glance. But it was still annoying.

He took advantage of Schreibeker's absence to switch the TV off, a minor breach of propriety that was necessary for his sanity. He took up her post at the window, automatically standing to one side of it where he couldn't be seen and shot at. Hilde lived on the edge of her scrap yard, a business she'd started up during the war as a front for Duo's terrorist activities. But apparently the woman had taken to trash. Well, it took all sorts.

Talking of which...

Wufei's one-time ally wasn't being particularly careful - beyond the fact he'd snuck into the back door, where he couldn't be seen from Hilde's scrap yard. Wufei heard the soft footsteps and he had three seconds to turn around and face the door before it opened. Not enough time to decide just how he was going to re-introduce himself.

"Heero, bud, you-....you've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Maxwell."

Well, that worked too. He didn't think any warm and friendly greeting would have made this any easier.

Duo Maxwell. Same face, same braid. Dressed in the khaki and tan work clothes of a scrap-dealing Sweeper. Wufei felt a touch of surprise: no signature black, except for a pair of tight leather gloves. No visible weapons. But he carried himself like he was armed.

He hadn't changed all that much.

As Duo took a few steps into the room, Wufei realized, belatedly, that Duo was no taller than he was, maybe even a hair shorter. The way he held himself, it was not immediately apparent.

Eyes, of that unusual shade of blue that Wufei remembered, were fixed on the Preventer. Duo wasn't smiling. "Please tell me that Heero is hiding behind the couch ready to jump out shouting 'Surprise!'"

"You think that's likely?"

"No, but that's the best outcome at this point."

Wufei had been expecting some hostility. Heero had warned him that Duo would probably be pretty negative from the get-go. It was true, Duo did not like surprises. Unless he was the perpetrator and the surprises were the kind that went boom.

"I know you were expecting Heero for this mission." Wufei tried to be placating. It came out stiff. His hands were trying to fist by his side. He didn't like the way Duo was looking at him, as if Wufei was the punch line of a joke that wasn't particularly funny. "But Yuy can't make it this time."

"He better be on his deathbed," Duo growled.

"...Not quite that bad."

The nature of the tension changed as Duo's eyes widened and his mouth turned down at the corners. Wufei relaxed slightly and leaned against the window frame. With those four words, he was no longer an intruder and possible problem. He was one of five people - closer than friends through no particular desire of their own, but linked nonetheless - who was potentially here to give Duo a piece of very bad news.

"Just how bad?" Duo asked softly.

"He'll be okay," Wufei answered briskly. "He should be out of the hospital in a couple more days."

Duo relaxed a bit and rubbed his chin. "Damn, Chang, you scared me there. Thought the Suicide King had finally managed to get his ticket punched."

Wufei snorted. "Looked like he was trying." Some of his own anger at his friend's recklessness was still simmering. They could have both been killed! "We were on L2 X953 - you know about the riots, right?"

The expressive eyebrows mocked him. "I live in Freeport, Wufei, not under a rock."

"The fool jumped from a ten-foot wall right into the middle of a knot of rioters - in his Preventer uniform, of course - just because he thought he saw some kid being crushed in the press."

"Yeah...sounds like Heero..." Duo's eyes drifted to one side, as if he could see something Wufei had missed.

"Someone got him in the head with a half brick. Concussion, not serious."

"No, the head was never Heero's weak spot," Duo snickered.

"Then some rioter winged him with a baseball bat. Broke his upper arm."

"And where were you?" Duo asked coolly, eyes back on Wufei again.

"Cold-cocking the bastard who was aiming at Yuy's back with a shotgun," Wufei bit out.

"Oh. So you jumped from the wall too." Duo smiled faintly. He didn't look surprised. "What about the kid?"

"Picked herself up, called Heero a 'fucking pig', tried to steal his gun and ran off when I glared at her."

"Sounds like L2 hasn't changed that much. So he's got a broken arm."

"Yes. And mild concussion."

"Did he try to set the bone himself?"

"No, he waited for the paramedics this time."

"Oh? He's mellowed in his old age, hasn't he?"

"I insisted."

"Ahhh."

Some of the initial tension crept back, but it wasn't as bad. The past and the friends that connected them hindered it somewhat. That connection would stop Duo from kicking Wufei out the door perfunctorily.

It wouldn't stop him from staying 'no' to the mission, though.

"Here." Wufei went back to the couch, slipped the photograph and ID from the folder he'd left there. "Know this man?"

Duo approached on a tangent, holding out his hand. He glanced at the pic for one second and tipped it back to Wufei, holding it carelessly between two fingers. "Nope, never seen him."

Wufei wouldn't have expected him to say 'yes' if the man was his blood brother or worst enemy. Not without some good reason to first. "We've code-named him Carver."

Duo wasn't looking at him; his expression suggested that nothing Wufei could say would actually impress him. But Wufei thought he saw the slightest hint of interest in those blue eyes. That might have been wishful thinking.

"I want you to take me to Freeport, Maxwell, and help me find him."

"Yeah, I was afraid you were gonna say that," Duo chuckled, lacing his hands behind his heads in a sort of relaxed shrug of dismissal.

"Look," Wufei snapped, his limited store of patience already wearing a bit thin. "Let me give you his outline and why we need him."

"Sure, why not." The shrug was still in place as Maxwell wandered towards the window. "Make it good."

"He's a hitman."

"Make it better," Duo snorted, with a mocking sideways glance at the Preventer.

"Nine victims known to date. Three of those were children," Wufei added, playing what he hoped was his trump.

Nothing in Duo's stance changed, except that his gaze twitched from Wufei to the window. But Wufei felt that he'd managed to engage a bit more of Duo's attention.

"I find it hard to believe a hitman would take out kids...unless they were witnesses?" Duo asked slowly. His head was slightly cocked, waiting for the answer.

"No. It was deliberate. In the case of two of those victims, he murdered their father and then went all the way to the end of the hallway to their room to butcher them while they slept. Seven and five years of age. The third was twelve, killed along with his mother while walking home from school."

Wufei slipped crime-scene photographs from the folder and held them out, waving them slightly like he was wiggling a baited hook. It went against his instincts to share this much, but Heero had carefully coached him on what to do and say from his hospital bed before Wufei had left to catch his shuttle. Heero had been most insistent; it was crucial that Wufei involve Duo in the details of the crime as much as possible, particularly the bit about the kids. Duo would not take Wufei to Freeport just because they were one-time allies and somewhat connected, or because Wufei could throw Maxwell's ass in jail for a couple of years if he didn't.

Duo's gaze flickered towards the photographs, but he didn't come any closer to examine them. Then he went back to staring out the window; his hands sunk themselves into the pockets of his Sweeper jacket.

"What makes you think he's in Freeport?"

"We have evidence," Wufei replied shortly. Then he frowned. He'd forgotten something..."Oh, Heero asked me to tell you that he uses some kind of blade. He doesn't use a gun." For some reason, his friend had been very insistent he mention that.

"A flick blade or something?" Duo sounded only slightly curious; his gaze wandered over the scrap yard outside. He'd taken up the same position as Wufei had previously, to one side out of sight.

"No, a lot bigger. More like a machete. We don't call him Carver for nothing." Wufei glanced in distaste at the crime scene photographs before putting them away.

"...Really...?"

Wufei looked up. Duo hadn't moved, but his eyes were no longer focused out the window. After a few seconds of silence, he shrugged.

"Sounds like a real bastard. So, what's your angle?"

"Angle?"

"Yeah. You and Heero only deal with the highly-flammable political stuff. I'll admit I wouldn't want this guy dating my sister, but why are the Preventers so desperate to nab him that Trowa'll risk sending one of his 'Specials' to Freeport? He's just a hitman."

Wufei stared at the folder in his hand. He hadn't thought Duo would pick up on that detail, or question him on it.

"Most of Carver's clients to date have been radical organisations, as far as we can tell. He's been put in the Class A category because of potential information he might have about their networks."

"...Sounds a bit slim to me." Duo seemed puzzled. And well he might be. Carver had made it into Class A by only the barest of margins, and there were many other more important terrorists and organisations out there.

But Wufei didn't care. This was the case Trowa had given him - and the reasons for that were none of Duo's business, and highly unimportant anyway. This was Wufei's mission. And for Wufei, a total of nine murders was never going to be something he would think of as negligible!

"I've been asked to retrieve him. Trowa wants you to help me find him in Freeport. Are you going to be difficult about this?" he snapped.

He could hear the anger in his voice. That was stupid, it wasn't directed at Duo; he shouldn't antagonize the man needlessly.

He'd let Maxwell refuse to take him to Freeport. Then he could get mad at him.

"Look, Chang, I'd love to oblige - after hauling my hump all the way out here and everything - but you'd not last three minutes in Freeport." Duo leaned against the wall next to the window and smirked.

"You've taken Heero there and helped him with his missions on four occasions. He's spent nearly two months there at one time. He managed." Wufei was trying hard to keep his voice even.

"Yeah, but that was Heero. No offence."

Considerable offence taken, Wufei thought. Heero was probably the best fighter the human race had produced to date, a one-man army, a soldier to the tip of his deadly fingers, but he was crap at undercover work and Wufei knew it.

"Well, Heero can't make it," he ground out. "He's going to be stuck in a cast for at least a couple of weeks, and on sick leave for as long as Barton can keep him tied to the bed. And then he has some other stuff to deal with." More important cases. And the twice-yearly New Threat To Relena was already over-due; Heero would not want to bury himself in Freeport for a few weeks at this juncture in case he missed it. For some reason, every revolutionary organisation seemed to be persuaded that bumping her off would usher in a new era of something or other. She acted a bit like a lightning rod as a consequence. Wufei thought this was actually a fairly good use for her, but none of his colleagues seemed to share his opinion.

"You can't take Heero's place. It just won't work. You and Freeport?" Duo gave out a short bark of laughter, as if the very concept was a joke.

"Why not?"

"Why not?!" Duo blinked. "You'd have to do everything I say, at the drop of a hat! You'd have to shut up and behave! You'd have to blend into Freeport!"

"If that's what it takes," Wufei said softly.

Duo stopped grinning. He examined Wufei, as if suddenly realizing his true determination.

Wufei held the folder up. "I. Want. Carver. You know me, Maxwell. We fought side by side for a while, in pretty desperate circumstances. Did you ever know me to not do what it takes to bring about justice?"

Duo's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Maybe he was remembering the way Wufei had let himself be captured, chained and nearly executed, just to get Nataku repaired. Or the way he'd continued to examine Altron's specs when their air was running out. Wufei had never let even impending death get in the way of his goals.

"I know you're committed, Wufei, but that's not enough to wing it in Freeport. You're going to get yourself killed," Duo grumbled. "More importantly, you're going to get me killed."

"Barton has authorized me to offer you ten percent more than your usual fee," Wufei declared, trying to hide his distaste.

"He'd have to pay me a hell of a lot more than that to get me to commit suicide, yanno. I happen to believe that my life ain't cheap."

It's still up for sale though, Wufei thought, without particular condemnation; at least Maxwell was smart enough to put a price on it. Five years after the war, Wufei was still throwing his away on a regular basis for free, or to be more exact, for a yearly salary that made his banker cry into her mocha latte.

"Twenty percent," Duo stated, but Wufei thought he didn't look really into the negotiation. His eyes kept drifting towards the powder-pink folder Wufei was holding.

Interesting...and more in keeping with the Duo Maxwell that Wufei remembered. Never one to resist a challenge, or the opportunity to do something dangerous and violent for some good cause or other.

Wufei held the folder up, waved it temptingly. "Ten percent and the knowledge that this guy will end up in jail and will never date your sister." Or kill any more children.

"Eighteen percent. I don't have a sister." But at this point, Duo had already agreed. The money was just a way of letting Wufei know he wasn't happy about it.

"Twelve. ESUN has emergencies left, right and centre and we don't particularly want to throw money away."

"Fifteen. Times are hard for everybody, Chang. And I'll be doing all the work anyway..."

The last wasn't even a mutter, more a movement of the lips, but Wufei caught it nonetheless.

"Fifteen, and you'll get me aboard Freeport and assist me in apprehending Carver?" he asked suspiciously.

"Fifteen, and I'll make sure you guys arrest him next time he leaves the colony. Tro won't give me a single cred until then anyway," Duo pointed out.

'I'll make sure'? Wufei opened his mouth to protest. Then he remembered Trowa's hasty last words before he shoved Wufei onto the shuttle:

"Be aware that Duo might try to park you into a corner and go and find Carver by himself. That is not an acceptable risk. Duo is a very precious resource to us; he's our entry into Freeport. You will not endanger him, and you will not allow him to endanger himself. But," Trowa had smiled sardonically, "he's not going to like it, so make sure you get him at least halfway to Freeport before being your usual stubborn and confrontational self. Got it?"

"Fifteen percent. Done," Wufei grumbled, glaring at the folder.

"I'll spend the bonus on a shrink; I need to get my head examined," Duo sniffed, heading towards the hallway leading towards the back of the house. "Come on, let's get you dressed."

"Dressed?" Wufei stumbled slightly as he was picking up his bag. He was wearing his usual clothes when he wanted to go incognito into some slum or other.

"Yeah, don't want you to stand out, and jeans will, in Freeport. And you've worn that jacket with your shoulder holster too much, there's a bit a' bulge at the seam."

Wufei blinked at Duo's back and resisted the temptation to twist around and check. Damn, who was the investigator here?!

"S'okay," Duo tossed over his shoulder, "Heero leaves his Freeport clothes here when he's done with a mission."

"Heero's clothes?!" Wufei hadn't been sure what to expect once Duo had agreed; since he'd been given the mission he'd been busy reading up on Carver, remembering the little he knew about Freeport, and thinking up various threats to get Duo to take him there. He'd not thought much beyond that; he had just assumed they'd be off the minute Duo had agreed to be his Freeport stoolie. Getting dressed in his best friend's clothes in some strange woman's house had not been part of his mission planning.

"Yeah, Heero's not fond of them, inasmuch as that guy has any preference over anything. He wears them in Freeport out of necessity and leaves 'em here, ready for the next mission." Duo opened a door that led to a sparsely furnished guest bedroom. The air smelled stale. There were dead flies on the windowsill, and scrap yard grime was slowly climbing the glass panes on the outside. "You two are 'bout the same build, they should fit you."

"Actually I'm wider in the shoulders than Yuy. And narrower in the hips," Wufei objected absently.

Duo had thrown open a closet, to the slight smell of mothballs. He'd stuck his head in, but withdrew it to look at Wufei quizzically.

"You know this for a fact?" Duo purred.

"A fact?" Wufei was distracted by the clothes Duo was taking from their hangers. "We're often on missions together. We frequently get our jackets mixed up."

"That explains the shoulders but I'm dying to hear how you know about the hips." Duo’s voice was a cheerful leer.

"We got our sports bags mixed up once. At the gym," Wufei muttered through clenched teeth, knowing he was being baited.

"Huh-huh. Okay, Mr-not-so-wide-in-the-hips, try these on for size."

Wufei looked at the clothes tossed carelessly on the bed. "I've got similar clothes in my bag."

"You have a pair of leather pants? I wouldn't have thought you the type. At all. Unless these are clothes you keep in a bag in a closet somewhere, with 'undercover' taped to its handle."

Which hit pretty much close to the mark, but Wufei wasn't going to give him the pleasure of admitting it. "I'll get my own clothes out and-"

"Allow me." Duo pounced onto his duffel and dumped it on the bed.

"Maxwell-" Wufei growled, but the zip had already flown up. And Wufei had promised Trowa he'd try to cooperate.

"Let me see." Duo's quick fingers rifled through the clothes. Strangely enough, he was peering at labels and hems and such as well as the clothes themselves. "T-shirts...bought by the dozen at the same shop Heero gets his, you guys are so predictable. These are okay, they're cheap and they're everywhere, even in Freeport."

Wufei stared at his t-shirts dumped on the thin bedcover. Heero's last mission on Freeport had been ten months ago, he was surprised Duo remembered his t-shirt brand.

"Jeans, though, no. Not practical or warm enough, and nobody wears them in 'Port."

Warm enough?

"Same for the leathers. Nice pair by the way. But you've not worn them enough, and it shows. They're also more expensive than your cover story would explain. And you'd freeze your tail off. Oh, and this definitely stays here." The last was said as Duo reached into the bag and pulled out Wufei's spare Browning.

"Can't you smuggle it in past the blockade?" Wufei queried, voice heavy with irony.

"The blockade isn't the problem, and no. You don't bring guns to Freeport." He put the Browning on the bedside table and started packing the discarded clothes back in Wufei's bag. "Did you happen to bring a sword?"

Wufei had his mouth open, about to challenge Duo's assertion that a clever smuggler such as Maxwell couldn't get a small Browning past customs. It stayed open for bit. "...Sword?"

"Yeah. You used to have one during the war, didn't you keep it?"

Of course he'd kept it. And what's more, he kept it with him wherever he went, to train and perform his martial arts forms with it. At least that's what he told people it was for, and the three friends who knew about its sentimental value just nodded and said 'sure'.

"I left it at the shuttleport, in their business safe. It's valuable - to me, at least. I don't want it stolen. Why-"

"It probably has as good a chance of getting stolen at the shuttleport as it does in Freeport; this is L2 after all," Duo pointed out idly. "No matter, here."

Duo reached into the cupboard and pulled out a short sword in a plain black scabbard. He tossed it at Wufei who caught it and unsheathed it with a practiced grip.

"Wakizashi," he said shortly, tilting the blade to the grey light from the grimy window. "Heero's?"

"Kinda. I got it for him, but he leaves it here, with the rest of his Freeport stuff. You can use that. At least you know how to use a blade, that's one plus."

"You mean...." The import of the conversation was finally dawning on Wufei. "You mean I might actually have to use a sword on Freeport?!"

"Yup. Well, no, hopefully not, but if we get into a fight-"

"People fight with swords?!"

Duo looked at him steadily, his eyes searching. "Wufei...just how much research did you do on Freeport?"

Wufei let his wrist go soft, feeling the sword's balance. "Not much," he admitted shortly. "I was only handed this mission yesterday. I didn't have much time to prepare for it. I heard of the weapons ban the blockade imposes, of course. It was there even during the Alliance. But I assumed people violated it all the time." Smugglers such as Duo, for example. "But I should hope, if you are going to have me fight with a sword, that the opponents will not be armed with a gun?"

"Nope, no guns."

"Then..." Wufei lifted the sword's tip then flipped the cutting edge to one side in a quick, deadly swipe. "Then I think we'll take a detour by the shuttleport to go get my sword before we leave. This one is not all that good." He’d just take his sword everywhere with him and not lose sight of it for a minute.

"Well sor-reee," Duo grumbled. "It was the best I could afford. Heero never complained."

"That's because Heero doesn't cut with a sword, he bludgeons," Wufei sniffed. "Even his foil technique relies mainly on his unnatural speed and strength. If you gave Heero a crowbar, he'd manage just as well."

"Huh. You should hear what Heero says about you," Duo commented archly.

"I know what he says about me, he says it to my face, and I return the favour."

"You two share such a beautiful friendship," Duo chuckled. But there was a serious note behind the teasing tone. As if he were perfectly aware of the real depths of the two Preventers' friendship, when all but two of their co-workers thought Wufei and Heero got along about as well as fire and ice. Wufei sheathed the sword and looked at Duo obliquely while the latter fished a few more things from the cupboard. Just...what had Heero told Maxwell? How close were these two?

Wufei put the sword in a corner, frowning, imagining Heero's hands on the hilt. He and Heero had a lot of unspoken rules to their friendship. One of which was, they didn't meddle in each other's relationships. So Wufei wasn't sure how close Heero and Duo were. One of the best Preventers in the force, and a conman and smuggler? You could make several cheap and cheesy movies out of that one. It seemed farfetched to say the least, but Wufei couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't the reason Heero had agreed to dive time and again back into Freeport, or take Duo with him as an 'advisor' when cornering some gun runners in the Inner Satellites...there had always appeared to be some connection between the two during the war, the kind that could have grown into more, assuming Duo swung that way...well, none of his business.

"If you'd rather use your own slicer, we can pick it up before we head to Freeport. Though you won't have to fight," Duo added, and he seemed very sure of that fact. Wufei just nodded tightly, and watched the smuggler add a pair of utilitarian grey boxers to the clothes he'd selected. Wonderful. He wasn't sure how close Yuy and Maxwell were, but that was already more intimate than Wufei wanted to get.

Duo gave him then the clothes a pointed look. Wufei looked back, waiting. Duo turned slowly, but it was only to move as far as the cupboard and lean against it, arms crossed over his chest and a slight smirk hanging around the corner of his lips, like a thrown gauntlet.

Great. Looked like Maxwell hadn't grown one bit. Very well. If Duo wanted to look, then let him get an eyeful. Wufei honestly didn't care what his body looked like, to himself or others, as long as it worked like the fine-tuned weapon it was.

No hiss or exclamation when Wufei stripped off his shirt. He was unbuckling his pants when Duo spoke.

"Do I even want to see the other guy?"

"The other guy is dead." He did not need to ask what Duo was referring to.

"Of course. What did he use, a flame-thrower?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Napalm."

Wufei stopped stripping to run a hand down the planes of his chest. A careless God had flayed off long stretches of skin from his left side and upper arm, and replaced it with a smooth, hairless simulacrum; whorls and dips like divine fingerprints were visible at the edges where He'd tamped it down onto Wufei's body. Scarred remains of a nipple drew a faint brown line against the paler skin.

"Napalm." Duo's voice was flat, his eyes entirely clinical as they went over the burns. The eyes of a soldier. "You were bloody lucky, Chang."

"No, I was careless. I didn't dive away fast enough, got caught by a small splash. Fortunately for me, Heero was present as well."

"Hee- ah. Right. So that's where he got those burns on his palms and forearms."

"He didn't tell you?" Wufei asked, startled, as he slid down his pants. He tried to fit that piece of information into his Yuy-Maxwell theory, ignoring, by force of habit, the prickle of deadened nerves his hand brushed. The damage dribbled down to his left hip in the savage pink keroid scarring of a second-degree burn; not as bad as the left side of his chest where the epidermis had been completely scorched away in places. The lighter burns on his hip and arm had hurt, agony like a blunt saw taking him apart. He'd barely felt the handful of chemical on his chest that was killing him, spread across the skin as he desperately rolled to put out the fire. The smell...He half-remembered swearing like a madman at Heero; it had felt like his friend was ripping Wufei’s skin off with his fingernails. Heero’s matching second degree burns on hands and arms were a silent reproof of Wufei’s carelessness; Yuy had risked his limbs to wipe the sticky, burning jelly off of his partner’s body before smothering him in fire blanket. It had taken...some time to come to terms with that debt. A few months; until it was his turn to save Heero's life again. Trowa made a point of keeping score. He pretended it was a joke, for Sally and Une's benefit. It wasn't; it was a reminder that each time, they'd come a bit too close to death, and Trowa could not afford to lose either of them.

"No, Heero never did tell me where he got those scars. Just showed up with them on one of our undercover gigs, couple years ago. I bugged him, of course, so he said he'd been in an accident. But he never gave me any details." Duo shrugged. The movement shoved him away from the dresser. He walked slowly towards Wufei, examining the burns with nothing more apparent than slight curiosity. "Nice grafts. Very nice."

Wufei glanced down in surprise. He'd not thought of them as being nice or otherwise. He'd refused the cosmetic surgery that would have reduced the appearance of scarring. None of the damage impaired his movements - he'd been lucky with that, too - and he'd already wasted two months of his time in and out of hospital over the burns. He wasn't going to waste more over something that didn't matter. He slipped down his briefs, tossed them into his pile of clothes and went to pick up the boxers Duo had laid out.

"Must have hurt like a bitch," Duo noted, with casual sympathy. Then his voice leered: "Ah, but I see that the Chang family jewels didn't come to any harm."

Wufei gave him the look he normally reserved for rats, bureaucrats and other vermin. But he didn't hurry his movements to draw on the boxers. This whole thing, watching him undress, the jab - Duo was trying to fluster him, press him, gain some sort of advantage over him. Wufei didn't know why, or if there was even a reason, but he was damned if he was going to let it happen.

"When did this go down?" Duo asked, settling back against the dresser. His eyes were going over the rest of Wufei's body, maybe checking for other injuries he'd not heard about. He must have noticed the stitches on Wufei's back, the bruises, the obvious impact of a bullet against a flak jacket on his belly; he made no comment.

"Three years ago. A year and a half after the Last War."

"Note the irony. Are there many lunatics armed with napalm out there yet?"

"Less," was all that Wufei said; Duo's status was that of an informant, and strictly no security level, as far as Wufei was concerned. He slipped on the pants. The leather was coarser than his own, tougher and they were quilted inside; very warm and quite comfortable, though, predictably enough, a bit too large at the hips. He cinched in the belt, and judged them acceptable. The leather didn't creak as he moved. They were well-worn.

The long-sleeved t-shirt was also warm, though the cloth was rough and cheap, a rasp against his skin and a distant prickle against the scarring. Wufei moved his arms and shoulders around, trying to tame the feeling and get the fibres settled down against his skin. He looked up to find the jacket held out to him. Duo's pinkies were standing straight out; the elaborate, mockingly elegant gesture a contrast to the bulky jacket that looked like something a less reputable biker would wear. Wufei ignored the taunting gesture and slipped his arms through the sleeves. Duo settled it over his shoulders with a couple of pats. It was surprisingly heavy but also well worn - it felt like some kind of tough polyester ribbed with rubber edges at shoulders and elbows. Wufei relaxed his shoulders then his fist shot out, giving the air a couple of deadly punches. It wasn't too tight over the shoulders, not enough to hamper his movements anyway.

"Not too bad," he grumbled.

"Hmmm." Duo was back at the bed, stuffing Wufei's t-shirts and other articles of clothing from the cupboard into a stained and beaten knapsack. Wufei caught a swift glance from beneath the thick bangs. The gaze was searching and maybe a bit inquisitive. Wufei wondered if Duo had been baiting him to get him to react, to prove he couldn't shut up and take a very small piece of humiliation or scrutiny. The Preventer felt a flash of annoyance but he kept it from showing. The last time he saw you, you were a child, he reminded himself; a fifteen-year-old warrior with a bit too much pride and arrogance, stubborn and uncompromising.

Wufei had kept the pride and the arrogance, but now they were founded on his true self; they came from knowing he was doing something essential, that he was protecting what he'd killed for in the past. He did what had to be done, said what had to be said. However much that inconvenienced some people. Or himself. If Duo didn't realize that, then that space-jockey didn't remember Wufei all that well either.

[chap. 2] [back to Maldoror's fic]