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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!

Freeport + Chapter 14

God in his wisdom took you by the hand
God in his wisdom make you understand
In this colony...


- Joy Division,.'Colony'

+

Wufei's feet rang like thunder in the hall and stairwell. Doors opened behind him; someone grumbled a question - faint, hurried footsteps followed his. He ran on regardless, his mind fully on the chase. 'Ferret', or whatever his real name was, would not escape this time.

He saved his breath for running, but in his mind, his battle cry was raging: Twenty one dead! Twenty one dead and they were still counting the injured when I left! I'll pin your hide to the wall if it's the last thing I do, you motherless bastard!

The front door crashed open so hard it bounced back and slammed shut right behind him, but Wufei was already through, his feet sliding to a halt on the rough metal of the street. He looked around wildly. There! At the mouth of an alleyway-

Crossbow!

He was used to people pointing guns at him, not anachronistic medieval weapons, so he'd taken a second to recognize the unfamiliar shape of a small crossbow, barely ten-inches wide, aimed at his chest. But the warrior's instincts had sensed the danger in Ferret's sudden turnaround; Wufei was already half-way across the street and plunging towards the cover of a doorway not too far from his prey. The crossbow only had one shot, and they took a few second to reload. If Wufei was close enough-

The weapon was quivering. The rat-like face was creased with fear and confusion. He didn't know Wufei; he wouldn't have a clue why this strange Asian man was after him. But Ferret fired anyway. He was the kind where fear always overpowered doubt.

Wufei pressed himself back into the shelter of the doorway - the bolt whistled past. Wasn't Duo right behind him- ? No, Shinigami wouldn't get pinned by a small shit like Ferret. Never.

Ferret dropped the crossbow with a frightened whimper and took off down the alley like a rat running from a terrier.

Wufei glanced back - just to be sure - Duo slammed into the wall next to him, red in the face and panting like a hound.

"What the- fuck - are you -"

"Agitator! On X953- murdered-"

"Shhh!" Duo's braid went flying as he looked around quickly in alarm. Then he stared at Wufei. "What's he doing casing out the crime scene?"

"Don't know-"

Duo's eyes narrowed to metal-blue slits. "Let's ask him."

They broke into a run side by side into the alley down which Ferret had scampered. Wufei rued every precious second he'd lost getting Duo up to speed; the rat they were chasing had all the instincts of his kind when it came to dodging heat. He'd slipped the Preventers' nets time and again, on L3, on L2- Wufei lengthened his stride, his breathing controlled, his entire body honed for the hunt.

Duo stopped, head cocked for the sound of footsteps - Wufei kept pounding on. They had to make up for lost time!

"Duo! You take this side, I'll take the other!"

"No! It's too- wait! Chang!"

Wufei had already plunged down a narrow alley and broken out onto a small road between low buildings. He heard Duo swear behind him, the words quickly covered by the metallic tattoo of the scissorman's black boots hitting the street a block away, heading in the opposite direction.

An atmospheric filter unit huffed warm, stinky air at him as he passed, blowing his hair out of his face; a few strands stayed snared against sweat-soaked skin. Wufei spun in a circle, then headed roughly in the direction of the airlock. Ferret would want to get out. The Preventer let his instincts and the pounding rhythm of the run take over his mind, leading him onwards in a rough search pattern.

The road clanged beneath his feet and he paused, instincts suddenly prickling. He was on a walkway over an empty space; a canal cut deep into the sector's floor. Maintenance access for sewage and-

There! He should have known he'd find the little rat down some kind of hole. Ferret was trying to scrunch into the shadows beneath another walkway about two blocks away. He was crouched, obviously out of breath. Even across that distance, Wufei saw the little eyes widen in fear as they met his. Ferret staggered off down the canal, which plunged into a tunnel sixty feet further on.

Wufei didn't hesitate; he vaulted over the bridge's rails-

"Wu-?!"

- and landed in a neat crouch on the hard metal of the canal, fifteen feet below. He was up and running instantly. Now he had the little bastard!

Duo's wild and profane cursing bounced from one side of the canal and back again. Wufei glanced over his shoulder in time to see a dark figure make the same drop from a more distant walkway, the black coat flaring. Duo had come in from the other side, he'd lost ground to Ferret and Wufei, but he should be able to keep up. Good, Wufei would need Duo's help when- in the distance, Ferret ducked through a large hatch in the side of the tunnel. Wufei accelerated and burst through only a few seconds behind him.

He was in the hull separating upper and lower level, like a mouse scurrying between the floorboards. He was running down a maintenance access to the systems that sustained life support in the sector above. The corridor was narrow, dimly-lit and rife with pipes; Wufei had to slow down. Good thing he wasn't one of those big, bulky types that looked so good on the Preventer recruitment posters.

Ferret was even smaller than Wufei and probably as agile as his code name implied; but there were no rat-holes to dodge into down here. The dimly lit corridor ran straight as an arrow, and there was nowhere to hide. Wufei just needed to stay close enough to Ferret to be able to hear him if the bastard found a crossroad and took another way-

The narrow access tunnel opened into a circular room with machines and huge pipes along the walls. The smell of ozone, burnt plastic and machine oil prickled his nose. Off to one side, four men in dirty blue overalls with tools in their hands were cluttered around a leaking pipe and pressure gauge. They weren't working, though; they were all staring down one of three corridors leading away from the room, probably amazed at the small figure that had dashed by them. It was as good as a road sign; Wufei passed them at a dead run and plunged down the tunnel they'd been gaping at.

Someone shouted behind him; he ignored it. He could hear Ferret's footsteps up ahead. Almost as loud as his own; he was getting near.

Then another shout, louder this time. Damn! Some of the workers were following him. Wufei was probably not supposed to be in here. This must be a restricted area. He accelerated. Catch Ferret in the flat stretch, first; deal with the rest of the complications afterwards, when he had his hands on the bastard, preferably unconscious.

Another maintenance room -

-and a man coming at him, swinging a pipe.

Wufei hurtled towards him, unable to stop. He barely dodged in time; the metal hissed an inch above his head. He rolled, coming to his feet in a crouch, back to the wall.

It wasn't Ferret! Damn! Wufei looked around frantically; this room also had three other exits to it, and no more signs of Ferret.

Wufei took in a deep breath to shout out 'which way did he go' - his Blade's collar tightened against the inhale, squeezing his throat like a warning.

Fuck! He couldn't ask- he was going to lose the murderer!

And that wasn't his only problem.

Two of them. The one who'd taken a swing at him with the pipe was moving towards him slowly; average height, thick waist and arms under a stained one-piece coverall. His head was shaved, with a smear of grease across the stubble above the ear. Hard eyes moved from Wufei's sword to his face, as if trying to gauge how dangerous the cornered man was. The second person was a few feet further away. He was dressed in the same one-piece coverall, with a protective face-plate shoved up onto his forehead. He looked puzzled, but he was hoisting a wrench with the air of someone who was willing to join in now and ask questions later.

The first man took a step towards Wufei; the metal pipe swung up again.

A thunder of footsteps announced the arrival of the four workers from the previous maintenance room. Oh, great, just to make things worse-

"He's here!"

"Both?"

"Nope, just the guy with the sword."

"Hey, Abe! Whatcha got here?"

This was tossed towards the man with the wrench, who had paused when the others had entered.

"Donno. Rat-catcher, maybe? Do you know who this guy is? And the other one who ran by, with a face like a weasel?"

"No, just saw them shoot through Junction Eleven like the entire OZ armada was after them. Looked like this one was chasing the little guy - hell, he's a Hound!"

Every eye fastened on Wufei's collar.

"Damn. Does anybody know- hey, hold up!"

The pipe-wielder ignored the order, swinging hastily at Wufei's head. The Preventer easily slipped under the crude swing; he held off any retaliation. He wasn't sure what was going on here, but these people might just be innocent bystanders, if such a thing existed in this colony.

"Hey, stop, man! What's going on?! Abe? What'd this guy do to you two?"

"Er, nothing." Abe didn't look so sure of himself now; the wrench twisted a bit guiltily in his thick fingers.

"So what the hell's going down here, then?" One of the new arrivals hooked a hand beneath the pipe-wielder's arm and hauled him back. "Cool your jets. He's not going anywhere, not against the six of us. What'd he do?"

Wufei, at bay, watched the interaction without understanding it. The other four men ringed him in, but they made no move towards him. They didn't look particularly afraid of his sword; most of them had taken the time to grab some blunt instrument or other. Hard eyes pinned him to the wall, scrutinized his face, weighed his appearance and his presence here...but nobody attacked him...

...from the darkness, the stink, down the rivulets of sweat on his back, the answer to a question he’d barely asked started to prickle...

This was Freeport.

He'd assumed these men had followed him to kick him out of a restricted area. But there probably was no such thing in the lawless colony. No, these men had shown up because they'd seen one man chasing another in their sector, and that automatically involved them. They were here to stop a fight, or at least make sure it didn't get out of hand, and enjoy a break in their workday while they were at it.

He'd thrown the question at Duo: What's to stop people from stealing and murdering everybody?

Everybody else...

The smuggler's words had been an insult to Wufei’s values. He'd thought the place was chaos, gangs held in check by a delicate balance of power. But these men weren't part of a gang; they did not know Wufei and Ferret; they had no apparent interest in what could turn out to be a dangerous fight. Yet they'd armed themselves and followed anyway.

That man was holding back the pipe-wielder because he wanted a damn good reason before he let someone bash in Wufei's head in his presence. They'd have kept Wufei and Ferret apart for the same reason, if the Preventer had managed to catch his target. Of course, once a good reason was provided, they'd stand back and watch; no need to waste good entertainment, Freeport style. But it wouldn't be hidden; it wouldn't be without a valid reason. It might be a small dust-up, a bloodied fight or a duel to the death, but it wouldn't be murder.

In the rest of civilization, good citizens ran away from potential trouble, or called the cops and forgot about it.

Here, the citizens were the cops. And judge, jury and executioner too, when it was called for.

This sudden understanding illuminated a lot about Freeport; some things good, some things he still didn't approve of. But unfortunately, it didn't help Wufei in the present circumstances. These men were curious, and they wanted an explanation. And because of his damned collar, Wufei couldn't give them one, creative or otherwise.

Wufei's attacker scowled at the intervention, but his eyes flickered over the assembly. He lived here, he would know the customs, and realize he needed a justification. He shook off the restraining hand and gestured at the Preventer with his pipe.

"He's trouble, Steve! He's chasing- the other guy's wanted on the outside. This fucker wants to collect bounty on his head."

Wufei took a second, much closer look at the pipe-wielder, etching the man's features into his policeman's memory. Ferret surely had not had the time to make up a lie and pass it on, with Wufei right on his heels. Why was this man covering a criminal's tracks?

Unfortunately, the word 'bounty' had been loaded. The mood suddenly got ugly. Steve, the worker who'd stopped Wufei's attacker, frowned and took a step back. The others pressed closer.

"A bounty dog?! A rat-catcher I could live with, but not a-"

"Were you gonna ex him and claim cash from the pigs outside, Hound?!"

Wufei fought down the instinct to draw his sword against the gathering threat. These men were not criminals in his eyes, not now; they were only being manipulated. He wasn't in his right to- but he couldn't explain himself either!

"That's not pretty, dude." One of the late arrivals leaned over a toolbox and picked up a hammer. "We don't like shit like that in our sector. Gonna teach ya a little lesson."

"I'd put that down if I were you..."

The quiet words wrapped themselves around the circular metal walls of the maintenance room, sparking small echoes from the bulky machines.

Duo had apparently materialized out of the darkness of the corridor behind them, and spoken right into the ear of the brute who'd picked up the hammer.

"Good," Shinigami murmured, as the worker leapt back with a hoarse yell, dropping the make-shift weapon in shock.

Duo moved smoothly, placing himself unhurriedly between Wufei and the angry men. Hands in his coat pockets, he met them stare for stare.

"Sorry I'm late for the dance; wasn't sure which corridor to take. The echoes in this place, yanno? Now, somebody got a problem with my man here?"

There was a purr of menace behind the easy drawl. Several of the men flinched away from the clear, dangerous gaze directed at them. Weapons dipped into less aggressive angles as they were reminded that a Blade was an extension of his Handler, and that any beef they had with Wufei should have been taken up with Duo, not sorted out on the spot.

The incipient violence dissipated somewhat. Duo seemed to be winning a complex argument with the strength of his fearless stance alone.

It's more than knowledge, it's attitude, Wufei remembered Duo saying, back in Scythe. You gotta have it or we won't make it...

But they weren't home and dry yet, not by a long run. Now they had to explain their presence here, and Duo, with his reluctance to lie, was going to be hard put to do so. If he didn't make it convincing, then the pair of them would be facing six big, beefy mechanics armed with blunt weapons in a tight space. Wufei relaxed, and shifted to get his sword into a better position for a fast, short draw. He wouldn't kill anybody, not if he could help it, but he wouldn't let them harm Duo or himself either, not for something they were innocent of.

"Who are you?" Abe challenged.

"Why'd you send your Hound after that little guy?" Steve asked slowly, in a way that indicated he was taking control of the situation.

Duo hesitated and Wufei chewed the inside of his cheek in impotent anxiety. He'd not had time to give Duo any details, not that Duo would be able to repeat any if he had. ‘My buddy is a Preventer and we want the little rat for questioning’ would go down like the Libra.

"He caused a friend of mine some trouble," Duo finally said, his brief hesitation well masked by the easy confidence in his voice. "But I give you my word I did not want to hurt him. I just wanted to ask him some questions."

The six men shifted and looked at each other, weighing Duo's words.

"I don't know you," Steve finally declared, turning back to Duo. He said it slowly and deliberately, an open challenge.

"Do you know the guy we're chasing?" Duo countered dryly.

Steve grunted. “No, never talked to him.”

The other men looked at each other. Echoes of "Not really", "Never seen him", and "Didn't get a good look" rumbled around the room. Wufei's eyes darted towards the man with the metal pipe, and he noted with interest that the latter had fallen back a few steps and was scowling uncertainly.

Abe had glanced at the pipe-wielder too, waiting for him to speak. When his colleague said nothing and didn't meet his eyes, Abe started to frown. Freeport citizens were sharp; Abe was probably starting to realize he'd been made a fool of.

"The guy you're chasing...you don't want him for bounty?" he asked Duo. It wasn't a challenge this time; he said it with the reluctant air of someone who has to ask an unpleasant question to see it settled and forgotten.

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously and the man closest to him edged back. Wufei could hear the unfeigned fury in Duo's voice as he answered the accusation.

"No. The only thing I want from that bastard is an explanation. I'd have let him go afterwards.

"I'm a freetrader and a fixer, not a bounty hunter," Duo added, his voice striking echoes from the pipes and steel surrounding them, harsh with anger and offended pride. "My name is Duo Maxwell, I live in Makhno. Sweeper Howard can vouch for me; so can my neighbours and most of the people in my sector. And where's the man who told you this lie? Did he give you an introduction? Do you know his name?"

The workers fidgeted as if they were being scolded, glancing at each other and then looking away. Duo's name made one of them look up in surprise. Wufei saw the mechanic lean forward to whisper to his neighbour. The knowledge seemed do diffuse among the small assembly, almost by osmosis. Duo's next words fell into a waiting, almost respectful silence.

"I give you my word; I only wanted to ask him some questions. It does have something to do with outside, and it's a private matter, so I can't give you any details. But it is not something I feel ashamed of either. Duo Maxwell does not lie."

Wufei stared at Duo's straight, proud stance, and the way the men measured his words, his attitude.

Was this the true currency of Freeport? A man's honour...The trust and backing of his friends...Was this his 'credit'? Simply his word? He remembered how Duo had been so anxious that Wufei might ruin his reputation in Freeport. The colony's population wasn't that big; a rumour and a name would spread quickly here.

The worker stared at them both; Wufei held himself as he usually did. Better to show them the arrogant warrior than the man who had a pretty big secret to hide. The familiar Freeport scrutiny weighed him, matched his stance to Duo's. Judged him. It was the look everybody gave him, and he understood it now. It was a look that tried to ascertain where he fit into Freeport's anarchist society; if he was a wolf or a sheep, and above all, if he had enough honour to deal with people fairly, and be dealt with fairly in return.

He finally understood one of the cogs that made this place run; here, in this dingy, enclosed maintenance room with condensation dripping from the pipes, the smell of sewage and dust choking him. A moment of enlightenment, with the shadow of armed men falling upon him and his friend.

His friend...the cheerful smuggler who had put his own life and reputation in jeopardy to help Wufei accomplish his mission in this dangerous environment. In the heat of the chase, Wufei hadn't thought twice about splitting away from Duo and going off on his own, even though he knew a Blade should stick close to his Handler. He'd thought it was just a custom. And it was. But in a place with no rules, no laws, nothing except an archaic trust in honour and tradition, that 'custom' was as strong as an enforceable edict. From now on, he would remember that.

The men glanced at each other, then at Steve. The big mechanic rubbed his bristly hair under a grimy kaki cap, making a scratching noise that scurried away down the corridor.

"Guess that's okay then," he said gruffly, moving to one side. He was leaving them clear access to the exit, but not to the rest of the room, or the remaining three corridors where Ferret had vanished.

Duo nodded shortly and walked away without a protest. Wufei would have liked to ask these men some questions; he'd have liked to pursue Ferret, or interrogate the pipe-wielder, and find out why the man had covered Ferret's escape. But Steve's simple gesture was a clear warning: Duo's word, name and attitude would allow them to walk out of here without further questions or a fight; it wouldn't get them anything more.

As soon as they'd stepped into the corridor, urgent whispers started up in the junction behind them. As Wufei and Duo made their way through the pipe-cluttered corridor, the whispers washed around them, unintelligible, rising and falling, crashing into waves of arguments and then abating, like the sound of surf.

Wufei breathed deeply as they stepped out of the maintenance tunnel and emerged into the weak light of the sector. Now if they were attacked, they'd have a fighting chance. But he didn't think they would be.

He turned towards Duo as soon as the hatch door clanged shut.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have run ahead like that."

Duo glanced at him in surprise. "If you hadn't, we'd probably have lost him for good. I didn't even see the fucker; the first I knew he was down here was when I saw you throw yourself off the bridge like a maniac. You run fast, Chang. What was that shit back there, about bounty?"

"You saw the man with the pipe?"

"The one skulking near the back like he had something to hide?"

"Yes. He came up with that, I'm ready to bet. I don't think Ferret had the breath or the time to tell him anything, I was only seconds behind him."

"Ferret?"

"His code-name. We don't know his real identity."

"Ferret, Carver...you pigs have way too much imagination." Duo smirked, but there was a hard, dark edge to his smile. His eyes were still angry. "If that was spur of the moment, it was pretty inspired. A lot of people have a price on their head in this colony. The word 'bounty' will get you in more trouble than skinny-dipping in reactor coolant. Good thing you kept your cool back there and didn't fight back; it could have gotten ugly. I-..."

Wufei glanced up at the hesitation. Duo was looking at him from beneath his thick bangs, with a small smile that was different than his usual grin. "Six big bruisers with pipes and hammers coming at you, and you still didn't say a word, break your cover or lose your cool. I'm slightly impressed."

"That made it all worthwhile then," Wufei growled, latching on to that the teasing tone with some obscure relief, and ignoring the strange surge of warmth he'd felt at the half-hidden look.

"So, what's the deal with this 'Ferret' character?" Duo banished the moment with the bright question.

"I'd better tell you when we get home."

They were back in the canal, heading towards a ramp leading back up to street level. There were people in the street above, still talking in low voices and glancing around. That reminded him of Joshua. From the way Duo frowned, he'd remembered as well.

"I just wished we could have asked those men some questions," Wufei whispered, angry with himself even though there was little he could have done. "Especially the bastard who helped Ferret get away."

"Oh, don't worry, this ain't over. We need to let things calm down a bit; give those guys the opportunity to ask around and check my rep. But tomorrow, or the next day, I'll pull some strings. I'll track them down, and if what they hear about me don't satisfy them, then I'll show up with the kind of backing they won't dare to say 'no' to. I got contacts here; Alan Morgenstern himself will vouch for me. We'll get our info. I really want to have a talk with that guy who tarred us as bounty-dogs."

Duo glanced over his shoulder in the direction of that maintenance room, eyes narrowed. Wufei had the distinct impression that Duo was still extremely pissed off at that 'bounty hunter' accusation. Possibly because it had hit a bit too close to home, the Preventer thought uncharitably, and then admonished himself sharply. There was a difference. It was true Duo was getting paid for helping the Preventers catch their man, but despite his pretence to the contrary, Duo was more worried about the crimes his prey had committed, rather than the sum on their heads. Wufei had felt from the start that the money was merely a way for Duo to mark his independence from his one-time allies, and show them he was his own man, not some Preventer stooge.

Wufei had his suspicions about Duo’s true motives. A word he’d heard a few times now, in different tones of voices, was stirring in his mind. He stared speculatively at Duo's back as they headed out of Kropotkin. He had a lot to think about, what with the murder, Carver's presence, and Ferret's appearance, but Wufei wouldn't mind adding one more question to the list. One that concerned a certain brazen smuggler.

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