Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

AN: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!

Thanks to Anaitis and Tsuki for the advice and the fixin'. This chapter got a complete overhaul, as much as I can manage at present. Thanks to all you reviewers out there! I really needed the morale boost this week *cheers and sobs in pure gratitude*

My writing schedule is officially shot all to hell by a change in jobs (good change though). Chapter postings (for Freeport and Source) might be unpredictable for the coming month, month and a half. Then I should get back into the swing of things, and it should (I hope!) become regular again.

This chapter is a deliberate change in pace; something of a breather. Don't worry, things get violent again shortly.

Freeport + Chapter 12

"La grâce de tes mouvements
Belle danseuse de l'Orient
Paroles poésie
Remplies de nostalgie
Les charmes de ton corps
Danses royales du Cambodge
La fleur du Laos
Ton coeur est une rose

Tu chantes résistance
D'un monde en souffrance
Sous les drapeaux rouges sang
Ont fuit les éléphants
La grâce de tes mouvements
Belle danseuse de l'Orient"

(The grace of your movements
Beautiful oriental dancer
Words and poetry
Filled with nostalgia
The charms of your body
The royal dances of Cambodia
The flower of Laos
Your heart is a rose

You sing for resistance
In a suffering world
Under blood-red flags
We're fleeing elephants
The grace of your movements
Beautiful oriental dancer...)


- Beruriers Noirs, 'Danseuse de l'Orient'

+

The hammering on the door rang in his sleep like machine gun fire. The squeak of the alarm from the laptop was an urgent counterpoint. Wufei was half out of the sleeping bag, sword unsheathed, before he was fully awake.

His eyes darted around the room, scrutinizing shadows - one of them was moving. Duo ghosted towards the door in such complete silence that Wufei almost doubted his senses for a second. A saw-toothed blade in Duo's left hand caught and cut the streetlight shining through the shutters.

"Duo?" The voice, muffled through the door, preceded another round of loud knocking.

Duo relaxed and moved more naturally, without the silence and deadly intent of a knife. Wufei, prompted by the change in his ally's body language, stood down as well and sheathed his sword.

"Petey, for chrissakes, stop before you wake up the whole sector," Duo grumbled. He opened the door a wedge and checked the corridor outside with a swift glance, before throwing it fully open.

"Sorry, mate, I'm in a hurry. I'm gonna miss the shuttle."

"Off to the shipyards?"

"Yeah. Look, I tried to get that info for you, but-" Petey glanced over his shoulder then around the room, and he continued in a whisper.

Wufei headed towards the kitchen area, his eyes on the coffee maker. He and Duo had spent the entire previous day walking all over the docking rings, and they'd gone to sleep only five hours ago. He put the coffee in, then remembering how Duo liked it, he trebled the amount. He didn't actually want any of the poison; the smell alone would be enough to wake him up.

The coffee burbled as Duo closed the door. Wufei took one look at the uncharacteristic frown on his friend's face and drew his own conclusions.

"That good?"

"...Yeah. Another dead end."

Wufei rubbed his face. It had been four days since that near-fight with Mako, and nothing had cropped up. In a way, that was good. Wufei had been expecting a lynching party every time he turned a corner. He’d spent four days jumping at shadows and flinching at the many loud sounds in Freeport. Four days of nerves coiling every time someone gave him the Freeport Look for a second longer than seemed normal.

The mob bearing tar and feathers failed to materialize, but so did any further information. Terrence Darbois had left Freeport on a 'vacation' the very day after the Mako incident. Duo had sworn fit to peel the paint off the walls when he'd heard about that. Every other source in Ravachol's organisation had completely dried up, not that Duo dared to press too hard. Even Duo's informants couldn't get anything out of the gang; the gag order was quite thorough. So far it hadn't been possible to determine if it was general, or aimed specifically at Duo and his friends.

"What now?" Wufei asked, shoving a cup of coffee at Duo, who was scratching his abs through his ragged black t-shirt with the dazed air of someone who could have used more sleep.

"Keep on digging," Duo answered with a morose shrug. Then he grinned, his usual cheerfulness and self-confidence rising to the fore at the first whiff of the thick brew in the cup. "Rav's men may not be talking, but I know others who will; people who will have seen Carver's ship come in and allowed him entry into Freeport. Like most freetraders, I'm friendly with the guys who volunteer for customs. And they love me on the flight deck!"

Wufei looked at him dubiously, remembering just how much they loved the smuggler on the flight deck. He hoped that Duo wasn't being overly optimistic there.

"Give me a couple hours and we'll hit the streets, start looking along those lines." Duo glanced at his watch. "I have to wait for a repair job from Monique; something else broke in the-"

"Duo, we don't have the time for that!"

"I don't have to fix it today; I just need to make sure I'm here to pick up the broken rotor when her runner drops it off. I'll fix it in my spare time," Duo replied, conciliating.

That meant that he'd fix it instead of sleeping one night. Duo's day-to-day schedule, in conjunction with the needs of the mission, made for a brutal timetable, even by Wufei's excruciating standards. Wufei didn't particularly want his informant burning out on him, but his protest was firmly cut off by a wave of Duo's damaged hand.

"This is important, man. For the investigation too, actually. Monique is a...well, she's a tartar. She'd give wartime Une a run for her money, but she's a power in this place. And she's got a tab with me now. She's the person who organizes the repairs and maintenance for anything that flies in and out of Freeport. Her and her crew know everything there is to know about which ship comes in from where and in what state."

"Sounds like she's in charge of a lot," Wufei asked, interested despite himself. "Who decided she gets to have a say in all that?"

"She did," Duo informed him dryly. "And nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever dared tell her otherwise. She's not 'in charge', like, officially. But she's got the memory of several computers networked together, and the organisational skills to match. She's just the best for the job. That's how most people get steady work like this." Duo jerked thumb at the mechanic’s workbench behind him in illustration. "By being so good at them that they'd be wasted on the shipyard floors."

“And I guess she’ll help us with information only if you help her with her repairs,” Wufei growled.

“That’s the way the world works, man. Or you could try to serve her with a subpoena. I’ll send your remains to Tro.”

"Very well," Wufei grumbled, caving in with bad grace. "And if she can't help us?"

Duo had set down his coffee to pull his prosthetics glove onto his right hand, twisting the neural connector into his biceps.

"We do have other avenues," he answered briskly. "I'm already tracking Carver through the general rumour mill, and I've put out a few feelers into Freeport’s assassin's network." His eyes remained thoughtful, focused on numerous threads of enquiry. His fingers started their daily routine, re-doing his sleep-mussed braid practically on automatic.

"If the freetrader side completely seizes up, we'll hunt for the fucker the old-fashioned way. Find out how he gets his jobs, set a trap, bait the bastard out, nail his ass. I just gotta come up with a really, really good reason why a smuggler like me would want to hire a hitman, 'cause- " Duo interrupted himself with a gigantic yawn.

"Two hours to wait," he growled, once he got his jaw under control again. "I coulda used the sleep."

"Slip back into bed. I'll keep an ear out for the door," Wufei offered, rooting around his knapsack for his thin sandals. Then he remembered the state of the scrapyard outside and decided to wear his boots instead.

"Nah, no point," Duo muttered into his brew. "After that wake-up call, I'll never get back to sleep."

"Have breakfast then."

Wufei pulled on a tight tank-top instead of the loose sweat he'd worn to bed, and bent down to fasten his boots.

"Whacha doin', Fei?"

"Going out back," Wufei answered shortly, grabbing his sword.

"Why? You've already cleaned out the yard twice. I don't think it's ever been that spotless." Duo was looking at him quizzically.

"Exercises."

"Oh."

Duo didn't take the hint of Wufei's curt responses; he trailed after the Preventer, blinking sleepily. Wufei resisted the urge to shoo him back inside, knowing that would only encourage him. Instead, he took an extra long time with his warm-up exercises. Sure enough, after ten boring minutes, Duo went away without any prompting. He left the door open a few inches. It wasn't that much warmer inside the room than in the yard outside, and the quality of the air was the same everywhere in Freeport: it was air with a great deal of personality.

Wufei heard the rustle of clothes as Duo got dressed. Then a swivel chair creaked in the room; something on the workbench was picked up with a slight scrape of metal on metal. After a few seconds, a regular squeaking shivered the silence, a wrench attacking a bolt. The small sound was almost immediately drowned out by a banshee screech of cables and the ratchet of a crane, coming from the sector wall a few blocks away; supplies being hauled up from the cargo area.

Wufei glared at the wall in the rough direction of the noise. He'd cringed again. He still wasn't used to the sudden bursts of racket in this hell-hole. Duo never even glanced up. It was galling: Wufei expected better discipline of himself. All he had to do was forget the deadly little tango of ships around the hub and rim of the colony; the chances that one of them would spin out of control and crash into Freeport. Forget the probability of twenty tons of rogue steel and fuel cells ripping open the fragile metal skin of the wheel and exposing them all to agonising death. Piece of cake.

He shook his head and breathed deeply, banishing the little prickle of fear that clung to him still. The air was rich with the scents of metal, chemicals, sewage and life. It might smell like cesspit perfume, but it was real in his lungs. He forced himself to relax and forget about accidents and killing vacuum. The perpetual stress and the frustrations of the investigation were getting to him. He needed to do some Wushu, and connect to the still, calm centre of his soul.

Banishing the clattering noise and distant shouts of workers from his mind, he took up a stance in the centre of the cleared-out part of the yard, hands at his side, body loose. He let his eyes focus on an empty spot beneath the netless basketball hoop. He breathed deeply, and started to move.

The Tai Chi forms loosened his muscles and rounded off his warm up. His mind started to flow from the rigid straight lines of mission-mode.

His feet drifted over oil stains and metal shards. The grace of the open-hand forms felt foreign against the backdrop of the junkyard. The very contrast was intriguing. He watched his own hands move, detached, admiring the strange beauty he was creating in this setting. The calm and concentration touched his soul. It focused him on the here and now; on feeling; on drawing one breath after another. His body occupied the space between the junk piles in precisely controlled movements, that gifted him with a strange inner freedom.

He held the final form for a few minutes, breathing evenly, letting aggression and worry flow out into the ground. Light crept into his body through his lungs; energy warmed him, flowed through him.

His sword murmured, a cool hiss as he drew it. He loved that sound. It seemed alive; light played on the blade. It gleamed, cold, hard and intransigent in the murky darkness; it sliced the thick air and all the doubts and frustrations. Pure. He nodded to it appreciatively-

There had been a small thunk from the room. Wufei felt a prudent pair of blue eyes observe him from the shadows around the partially open door. They flicked over his sabre and scrutinized the yard, looking for enemies. Wufei went to put down the scabbard, as well as his cast-off tank top. No need for words. Duo would read reassurance in the way Wufei walked and breathed.

"Aren't you cold?" Duo quizzed, opening the door wide and leaning against the frame, his eyes still scouring the corners for possible danger.

Wufei shook his head. The calm and composure of his ritual warmed his body, eased his soul.

He heard Duo grunt and go back into the room. A movement of air brushed against Wufei's skin; it chilled him slightly. A shiver tried to scurry up his arms. He shook himself, and brought up his sword into the first form.

He fell back quickly into his familiar routine. The blade seemed to draw him into the Tai Chi Dao and he followed, like a dancer with his partner.

As he held the 'Striking the Tiger' form's slow kick, he felt/heard Duo's quiet return. His mind and body flowed into the measured, controlled and elegant moves, following the blade, and he didn't even consider stopping...There was something in the silence now, something that chimed in harmony with his serenity and concentration: he somehow knew that Duo would not interfere or distract him. His friend would watch in silence, with the eyes of the warrior that existed side by side with the cheerful smuggler. And Wufei found he didn't mind the company as much as he should...

The world started to blend, to become a coherent entity. The smell of coffee, the swish of the sword, the crackle of an N-bar wrapper; each took their place, like one heartbeat following the next. It felt strangely complete, and right.

The brush of Wufei's boots against the metal floor. The pure, beautiful whisper of his dao's song as he whipped it around, 'Pushing the Boat with the Current'. In the background, Duo started at the suddenly abrupt movement, and then coughed quietly on a bit of energy bar. Wufei's lips curved in the slightest of smiles. He didn't hide it behind a mask. There was no repression here, only control.

He came back to first position, fists at his side, sword straight and still despite its weight. He breathed deeply, letting the cold air fill his lungs. He didn't look towards the doorway where Duo was sitting on the stoop. Let him watch. His sword was already tempting him into the set of forms that were unique to his clan: the Dragon's Wushu.

His feet fell into the moves. They followed the footsteps of his father, brushing the grass of Master Li's temple. Wufei’s grandfather had followed these forms, under the orange trees that had been coaxed into blossom on a broken-down colony. His great-grandfather had swung this same sword through the clean crisp morning of a Chinese springtime. His ancestors had followed this ritual over the hallowed stones of an Emperor's palace and the dirt of battlefields; on the wooden floors of practice halls and in small gardens and temples.

His thoughts darted like the sword. The Dragon Wushu of his clan was not the slow, meditative steps of Tai Chi Dao; they were rapid, deadly forms, meant to enhance a warrior's strength and battle spirit. He was one with the sword, one with the graceful, murderous movements; he was even one with the junk-filled yard and the biting cold air. His senses swept out, prowling. There hadn't been any more sipping noises from the mug since he'd started, though when he'd spun and darted into 'Dragon Fighting Phoenix', a two-fold blow as fierce as it was graceful, he'd heard the liquid slosh and spill, so Duo hadn't actually finished his coffee yet.

His mind spiralled, tighter and tighter into the finish, body and being drawn into the final moves, violent, lethal, beautiful. The final slash was a catharsis, as always.

He straightened from the last lunge slowly; the final form was borrowed from the Tai Chi Dao. It was meditative, calming. He finished, and then bowed to the enemy he'd cut to ribbons, to his ancestors, and to the terrible beauty which lived in the heart of each man. Then he sank to his knees, dao across them, eyes closing of themselves. Meditation was the logical conclusion to the final liberating moves and the slow step down into the last form.

The scrapyard and the silent presence on the stoop came back to him in pulses, in time with his slowing heartbeat. His senses were heightened by the Wushu. He could tell, just by the way his skin prickled, that Duo was still sitting on the doorstep and staring at him. Wufei peeked through his eyelashes, momentarily setting aside the gathering threads of his trance.

Duo's elbows were planted on his knees, and he had the mug frozen halfway to his mouth; Wufei wondered how long it'd been like that. The blue eyes were wide, his expression distant. He was staring at Wufei, who wondered what his burn scars looked like under the harsh yard lights and trickles of sweat. The suddenness and strangeness of that thought caught him off-guard; he hardly ever wondered about his appearance any more.

Though his position hadn't moved from the relaxed stance of meditation, and he'd been looking at the other man through the barest slit of eyelids, hidden by sooty lashes, Duo nonetheless started and lowered the coffee cup. The blue eyes blinked and darted to Wufei's. The barest flush brushed his spacer-pale cheeks-

Duo stood up quickly and turned. "Jesus, don't tell me you're going to sit like that!" he exclaimed, already inside the room. "You ain't got the sense God gave a kitten! You'll catch your death, sweating like that! Get you a towel-" the voice faded.

Wufei stared at the empty doorway for a few startled moments; then he frowned and closed his eyes, sinking into meditation by habit. Or trying to.

The point of the Wushu was that it made you remarkably clear-headed. So Wufei was having a hard time dismissing that brief, dreamy look on Duo's face as just one warrior being impressed with another's martial moves.

What was worse, Wufei was having a hard time feeling the required disapproval, too.

He was on a mission, and Duo had no business looking at him like that, anyway. Wufei had exceedingly high standards in that department, and Maxwell failed to qualify-

Then why did I let him watch...?

Wufei felt a frown work its way through his composure. Why had he let Duo watch? He'd barely questioned it during the Wushu. Wufei was an intensely private person, and he didn't like people ogling him while he practiced or meditated. And the Dragon's Wushu was something particularly intimate. He always isolated himself when he performed it. He wouldn't consider showing it to any of his lovers, much less a somewhat-friend-onetime-ally he'd not seen in five years. Heero had seen it, and Quatre, and- why hadn't he stopped when Duo had shown up with his coffee? Duo would have respected his wishes; the smuggler might be a stubborn adrenaline junky at the best of times, but there'd been something there; a warrior's understanding. If he'd stopped, Duo would have immediately gone back inside-

That's why Wufei hadn't stopped...

And he couldn't deny that he had rather liked having those blue eyes on him as he moved; watching the pure, graceful forms and the naked blade...

He couldn't deny that he'd like that last look, either. Admiration mixed with a hint of interest that had nothing to do with martial arts. The memory of the brief flicker of pleasure Wufei had felt when he'd caught that look troubled his mind, like a rock skipping across the still surface of a pond. It was going to run roughshod over his attempts at meditation until he'd accepted it.

Yes, he'd enjoyed the way Duo had been staring at him. He wasn't often looked at like that, as a warrior or as a man. Warriors were, to say the least, out of fashion these days, and it couldn't be easy to admire his body, which was very visibly a weapon, every burnt inch of it.

Once accepted, it became easier to dismiss. Duo was an ally, and a friend, and an informant helping Wufei with his mission. Three good reasons not to go there. Wufei had been through this before, with Heero. With Trowa too, for that matter. Wufei walked a warrior's path which not many people could aspire to. It was tempting to reach out to the few other men who could stand with him. But that was all it was; a temptation. He was too disciplined to even consider giving in to it. He kept everything carefully separate and under control. He lived alone, he had sex with a few well-chosen friends, he treated Heero and Trowa like the brothers they were, he existed for Justice.

Duo probably understood this - that's why he'd broken off his staring and left like his braid had caught on fire, Wufei concluded. He'd backed off just as quickly as Wufei had from a potential complication, one that Duo wouldn't want either; the smuggler was too smart for that. It looked like they were both on the same wavelength. Wufei just hoped there would be no awkwardness-

A towel landed on his head, answering that concern quite adequately. He snatched it off to glower at the familiar smirk.

Yes, this was best. Back to normal.

"Maxwell-"

His search for a suitable threat, and Duo's look of anticipation of same, were abruptly cut by a loud knocking at the front door.

"Huh, the courier's early," Duo commented, trotting away to get it.

Wufei used the towel so generously provided, then picked up the scabbard-

"Yeah? What's up?"

His sword stopped at the lip of its sheath, then whispered as it sliced the air to lie ready by his side. Duo had spoken loudly; loud enough to be heard from the courtyard. He shouldn't be asking Monique's courier that question. Wufei made his way as silently as possible towards the open door.

"You Maxwell?"

"Yeah, me Maxwell. Who you?"

Wufei took in the room with a glance. A very big man was talking to Duo near the door. He was dressed in thick protective clothes and an apron, but Wufei also spotted the bright red band tied around his arm.

Shit.

When Reba Hamilton-Grey had reacted to the sight of a gun by ordering someone to fetch a Red Band, Wufei had gotten a fairly good idea of what a Red Band was. Figures of authority, inasmuch as anarchists had any. He'd met a couple of Makhno's Red Bands since that day in Zapata. One of them had been in charge of stopping the turbine when Kolia had wanted to repair the vent in Centre Street. The next day, a woman, with the same piece of red cloth tied around her upper arm, had shown up to thank Duo for Wufei's assistance with the vent. She'd mentioned, with a hopeful look, several other repairs in the sector that required a couple of good mechanics. Both Red Bands had been friendly; they were local to the sector and knew most people by sight.

But from Duo's behaviour, this Red Band wasn't a citizen of Makhno, and his presence was unexpected. Duo looked relaxed, but his hands rested loosely at his sides, ready to react. This might be the next of Mako's attempts to uncover Wufei's identity...

"Name's Cadma. From Lao," the Red Band grunted, in response to Duo's query.

"And you're a man of few words. What exactly can I help you with?"

The Red Band scratched his chin pensively, as if this was a rather complicated question. He was in his mid-twenties, with long thick black hair melding into a beard. The radiation apron and bulky protective gear indicated he should have been at the far end of the colony, working on its core, instead of knocking on Duo's door.

Wufei forced himself to relax a bit. The guy was alone, and apparently not too bright. Surely Freeport could have sent a better spearhead to a lynch mob if Mako had-

"Gotta message. From Elder Braun."

Duo's head came up swiftly. He stared at the message tube Cadma was holding out to him.

"Take it. Gotta go work," Cadma muttered, a deep rumble low in his big chest.

"Thanks," Duo chirped, recovering in an instant. "Wanna cup of coffee? No, you're obviously too busy," he added a bit weakly, watching Cadma's back disappear down the hallway at a lumbering pace. "Have a safe day!"

There might have been a faint grunt in response.

Duo closed the door by leaning against it and letting his weight do the work. He was staring at the message tube, checking the electronic seal.

"Balls, now what...?" he muttered, twisting it open and shaking out a piece of paper.

Wufei was at his side in a second, reading over his shoulder. That close, he could hear the faint intake of Duo's breath.

The note was scribbled in a leaky pen. '201-3-3rd Av, Kropotkin. Amber!'

"Amber?!" Wufei gasped, skin prickling. Duo had told him, before they'd even docked in Freeport, that flashing amber lights were a serious warning. Like a hull-breach or a radiation leak, that kind of 'serious'. The metal of Duo's building, and the sector walls around them, seemed suddenly pitifully thin in Wufei's mind, when stacked against the crushing vacuum of space.

Duo crumpled the piece of paper and stuffed it into his pocket. "Get dressed," he ordered shortly.

Wufei ran towards his pack automatically. "Amber? Does that mean we've breached?!"

"No, I think people would be doing a little bit more running around if we'd sprung a leak," Duo drawled sarcastically. "And we'd have sirens and stuff." He threw off his comfortable house-jacket and pulled on his leather coat, after strapping on his spring-loaded sheath over his tight black glove. "Amber's just a code for urgent. 'Fucked-up' level of urgent. We gotta hurry. Get dressed!"

"What were those numbers? An address?" Wufei asked, fumbling through his neat pile of folded clothes for something warm. Sweat was drying on his chest, under his arms and at his waistband, chilling him, but no time to shower-

"Yes. In Krop. Come on."

"Are we going there?"

"Yes!"

"Why?" Wufei countered. "What does this-"

"Because if Braun sent me this, it means I gotta be at this address yesterday! Now hurry or I drag you through the streets like you are now!"

Wufei, in his underwear, with his leather pants in one hand, took half a second to throw a scowl at his Handler before getting dressed as fast as he could.

+

While Wufei threw on his jacket and strapped on his sword, Duo scribbled a note directing Monique's runner to drop the broken mecha piece off at Gilla's. Then they headed towards the Voltairine airlock almost at a run. Which turned out to be rather pointless, as they had to wait a quarter of an hour for the train.

When factory and shipyard shifts were turning over, the trains were packed to capacity. But at this hour, both carriages were all but empty. Wufei and Duo settled all the way in the back, empty seats all around them as a matter of course.

"Is this summons anything to do with Mako?" Wufei asked quietly.

"No. Well, maybe. Maybe Braun wants to meet me to warn me about somethin'. But then he'd have dropped by, or asked me to stop by his office. Donno why we'd meet him in Krop if it was that." Duo fished a liquorice stick out of his pocket, twirled it around his fingers agilely, then flicked it into his mouth.

"I've been worried about a Red Band showing up with Mako behind him for several days now," Wufei admitted in a low voice, finding the right pitch to be heard over the train's racket without being indiscreet. This was the first time in four days he'd actually voiced one of his concerns; they'd fallen back into wartime patterns, where they'd not talk over the worst that could happen, just quietly prepare for it, each on their own.

"I wasn't worried about Mako showing up with a Reddie. I've been more worried about him showing up with forty bruisers and lead pipes," Duo admitted in a mutter; Wufei read it on his lips more than he heard it.

"It'd be worse if it were someone in authority, though. Right? Then we'd have the whole colony against us," Wufei reasoned.

"Not really. Some guy picking up a piece of red cloth in a lottery don't have the authority to move the whole colony against you, not without proof. And if Mako had any kinda proof, then we'd have had a mob at our door with a nice, shiny rope," Duo mumbled distractedly around his liquorice stick, staring out the much-scratched plastic window.

The train taking them to Kropotkin thundered over the tracks. Cla-clack, cla-clack, cla-clack-

"What did you say?"

"Rope. Sorry, Chang, we don't have courts of appeal here-"

"No, I meant, how did you say Red Bands are chosen?"

"Lottery. A random draw."

"That's what I thought you said the first time, too. You're joking, of course."

"Nope."

Wufei stared at Duo, who gave him a fairly serious look in return, well, as serious as he usually got.

"I can't believe even a bunch of- of-"

"Anarchists."

"-of anarchists like you would choose your supervisors randomly?!"

Duo shrugged casually. "That's how it works. If you live in Freeport two years, and you're over eighteen, you're in the draw. They select twenty to forty Red Bands, depending on sector size. Ain't been chosen yet, and I hope my luck holds out. You get to do all that rationing and organizing and shit, and you still have to do your own job, s'insane-"

"...a random draw every six months..."

"Yup."

"This works?!"

There was only a pair of lovers necking at the other end of the near-empty train wagon, and a couple of girls talking quietly. The couple ignored Wufei's loud exclamation. The girls stared at him, then went back to talking together and giggling in a way he found rather discomforting.

"But these people are in charge!" he hissed at Duo, keeping his voice at a reasonable level this time.

"You just loooooove that word, don'tcha."

"That's insane! Why can't you have elections to decide who'd do the better job?!"

Duo stopped staring out the window and turned around. Wufei had the distinct impression Duo was enjoying his confusion, and finding it an acceptable distraction from worrying about the urgent summons. "An election? Do we look that organized? Besides, around here, 'politician' is a dirty word. It just means the kind of rat who likes to boss people around, and spends all his time and energy trying to get re-elected so he can do it again."

"Isn't this-" Wufei's lips curled, he refused to call it a 'system', "-isn't this lunacy open to abuse? If you select just anybody, and they know they don't have to be accountable to an electorate-"

"Oh, everybody plays the system a bit, but remember..." Duo smiled ferally. "The position is only yours for six months. And after that, someone else will get picked. And that guy might be the one you screwed over. Makes you careful."

"But what about- for fuck's sake, Maxwell! This place is rife with- with desperate psychos and- and thugs, pirates-"

"Smugglers!" Duo put in proudly.

"-and god know what! You don't mind when one of them gets put into power for six months?!" Wufei had always assumed the Red Bands were chosen through a responsible and thoughtful election. Rational and Freeport apparently didn't mix.

"Well, there's thirty nine others to balance out any real lunatic element, and to help each other out," Duo answered distractedly. His fingers were beating a nervous tattoo on the edge of the seat, and his eyes twitched every time they crossed a junction and the lights in the wagon flickered. "It's not just the loonies you gotta worry about; we also got people who can't read and write, and those who are a bit low on brains. They're citizens too, and some of them are my friends, but I wouldn't trust with an electric toothbrush, much less an air filter turbine. They have their strengths; they leave rationing, repairs and organizing to the other Reddies, and they take care of the people, they make sure everybody's happy, and that there's no growing friction. They break up fights and stuff. Everybody's got something Freeport can use. Even the psychos. And you know what?"

A disrespectful hand slapped Wufei on the thigh. Wufei started violently; he was still a bit spooked by had happened between them earlier- but Duo's smile was nothing but teasing. Wufei scalded the space-jockey with a look that could have melted Gundanium, but Duo only smirked.

"Psychos, pirates, smugglers, terrorists...and it's still better than the politicians we used to have on L2!" Duo declared. "You still have them out there. You guys may have elected Relena to power - and I pray to God Almighty she's matured a bit since she wandered around after Heero, getting herself kidnapped and all-"

"She has," Wufei grunted.

"Good, good. But the thing is, the middle management and civil service...they're still the same! They serve her, they served OZ, they served the Alliance and the Federation and the Colonies before them. You couldn't even prosecute the ones who were responsible for crimes against humanity, like the bastards who let the plagues run rife through L2 fifteen years ago, trying to clear up the riffraff. Blanket pardon! Thank you, Ms Peacecraft."

"That pardon allowed the five of us to escape-"

"I'd have gladly gone to jail with the fucks!"

Duo's voice had been a snarl, sudden and vicious.

Wufei leaned back, trying to gauge how serious those words had been, though his gut was telling him Duo had meant every one of them and more. Duo turned away to stare out the window, and the ugly light in his eyes dimmed. He spat out a piece of the stick he'd accidentally bitten through. The lazy grin came back a few seconds later.

It had only lasted a moment, but Wufei had caught sight of a bitter hatred that was probably almost as old and strong as Duo himself. What shocked him wasn't the emotion. He knew how he'd feel in Duo's place. What confounded him was the way it melded into the cheerful blue eyes and mocking grin once more, without a fuss. It wasn't banished. It wasn't pushed down and ignored, like Wufei's past was. It burned softly in Duo's pupils, it sharpened his grin. If Duo met one of those men, and he thought he could get away with it, he'd kill the rat. Without any regret or remorse. But until that happened, he wasn't going to dwell on it. Wufei would have been consumed by it years ago...

"Well, no matter. I guess we all got to move on," Duo drawled, probably remembering that he was talking to a Preventer, an agent of law and order, who would have something to say about vigilantism and cold-blooded revenge. Wufei felt a flicker of relief. If one of those men suddenly disappeared while Duo was on the same colony, Wufei didn't want to know any more about it than he already did. He didn't like it when Justice and his duties as a Preventer collided.

"As for how us poor lil' citizens choose who's in charge...each to his own, Wufei, each to his own. Me?"

Wufei was still staring at the strange creature by his side, emotions bright, primal, uncontrolled, yet as strong and effective in his own way as any of- he was paying so much attention to Duo's psychological makeup that he lost sight of what the joker was actually doing, and so he wasn't able to avoid another lightning-fast slap on the thigh. Duo had snatched his hand back before Wufei could do anything constructive about it, like break his wrist.

Duo's grin was much brighter than the train's grimy neon. "You can keep your politicos and their cadre, Chang! Me? I prefer the randomly-chosen psychos!"

Wufei nodded slowly, picking up the challenge. In the ten minutes it took them to get to Kropotkin sector, he'd marshalled a few stinging arguments on political theory and democracy that left Duo grimacing and rubbing his neck in a familiar gesture. Wufei had the advantage of a formal education in both history and politics. He knew the kind of arguments to put forth and how to present them, whereas Duo only had information he'd gleaned from the books he'd read during his quarantine, and a mind that was more suited to practical mechanics than philosophical discussions.

Despite the uneven match, Duo put up a damn good fight. His wit was quick as his stiletto, and he'd obviously thought about this more than his casual endorsement of the system seemed to suggest. The discussion was a nice distraction from the worries and tensions that had ridden them these past four days. The argument was just getting interesting - as well as a bit loud, though still friendly - when they arrived at their destination.

Wufei hadn't been in Freeport that long, but it was obvious there was something very wrong in Kropotkin the moment they set foot in the sector. There were people in the streets, but they were not going back and forth on shifts, or working on their secondary jobs. They stood, muttering in doorways and alleys, in knots of twos and threes. There were no children about, though small eyes peeked at Wufei over window sills, wide and worried.

Duo was in his element again. His smile was bright, curious and entirely innocent. He inspired confidence. The sector's inhabitants looked worried and angry, and reluctant to share whatever it was with someone not from their home turf. But Duo cajoled and charmed; he greeted people he knew, badgered those he didn't. Before they'd walked more than three blocks towards the address Braun had sent them, they'd figured out what had happened.

There'd been a murder in the sector.

[chap. 11] [chap 13] [back to Maldoror's fic]