see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer
AN: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!
Huge thanks to Anaitis for the beta. Thanks also for the great encouragement
and reviews via the GWAddiction forum. I'm sorry, by the way, that I don't
answer every one of them individually, unless there's a question of some
sort (I do answer those, though I can be a bit late). I have virtually
no spare time, I barely read any fics anymore (which bites, let me tell
you), and I'm squeezing in writing when I can. I'm hoping that I will
be able to continue writing for a good long time to come, as long as inspiration
keeps poking me; who needs other leisure activities, anyway? But every
review I get warms me up and pokes me to write more (yes, Source chapter
40 is written and in re-reading mode, for those of you who dropped me
a line about it ). You all remind me why I do all this in the first place.
+ Chapter 16
If I can't dance,
it's not my revolution!
- Emma Goldman
There were computers everywhere in the hangar; outmoded processor cabinets
lined the walls and hummed like a swarm of drones; smaller, modern laptops
were strewn on every flat surface that the coffee cups hadn't yet colonized;
dozens of people rushed around with a phone link hanging from their ear
or a palmtop PC hooked to their hand, like alien organisms controlling
them. The air was alive with the swish of small ventilators desperately
to cool each unit. Wufei felt warm for the first time in weeks.
Most of the activity centered around a huge backlit board that looked
like a stock exchange listing, hanging from the ceiling dead centre of
the room. Wufei read a few names as they passed under it: shipping and
shipbuilding companies, mining corporations, satellite concerns and such.
"Where is he...?" Duo muttered, standing on his toes to get a better look
over the heads and computer banks. "Ah, over there. C'mon."
Wufei followed his friend as Duo made his way through the maze of people,
cables and computers; his goal was a tall, lean man in his sixties at
the back of the big room. There was nothing to distinguish him from the
other people busying themselves around the hangar; if anything, he was
the worst dressed, in the drab, grey utilitarian overalls that were the
type of free clothing Freeport distributed if you had nothing else. He
was staring at a bank of electronics, some fiber optic cables in his hand,
"Alan Morgenstern? I don't know if you remember me, sir-"
"Do you know which cable needs to be plugged into this thing to allow
a secure connection into a hardwired firewall?" the man asked without
Duo hesitated. Then he reached over, took one of the connectors the man
was holding, and stuck it into the appropriate port.
The small holo-screen off to one side blinked twice, and then flashed
a red Secured pop-up window before giving way to a command prompt.
"Wonderful, thank you," the man murmured. He typed in a few commands,
locked the unit and then turned toward them.
The appearance of being wooly-headed was immediately banished. Morgenstern
had been focused on what he was doing. And now, that focus was on them.
It was like being looked over by a laser sight. Wufei straightened under
the Freeport Stare, fuelled by what he was willing to bet was considerable
intelligence and a great knowledge of human behavior.
Alan Morgenstern. He remembered Duo's quick description of the man on
the way over.
"Morgenstern is a colonist; the in vitro, better-than-standard kind. Son
of a great family. Very rich. He was the head of a small mining colony
when he was younger; he directed it a bit like a communist collective,
but he made damn sure it earned money too. Then the Earthers shot Heero
Yuy the First and stormed Space. They told him that if he surrendered,
he could stay on as governor under their orders. His answer was to take
over the comms network, give a great ‘Freedom or Die' speech and sabotage
all docking rings on his colonies 'xcept those for escape pods. The Alliance
kinda took that as a No. Morgenstern shot his way out and made it to Freeport.
Been here ever since. Great guy, and what he doesn't know about Kropotkin,
you could write on a candy wrapper. He's a shoo-in for Elder when the
Kropotkin sector's seat becomes vacant."
According to Duo, Morgenstern used his financial savvy and his knowledge
of politics and economy to broker Freeport Corporation's business deals,
as appointed and overseen by the Elders. Wufei wasn't surprised that the
man behind those sharp blue eyes was up to such a responsability.
"Duo Maxwell. What a pleasant surprise," Morgenstern murmured. "Your timing
is as exquisite as always; I need an electronics expert, and you pop up
out of the ground. I should have realized you were a magician. According
to Monique Desjean, that's the only way you could possibly be coping with
all the work she sends your way."
Duo grinned, looking a bit bashful. "Ah, ain't that much work. Other guys
help too. And anybody here coulda told you what socket to use."
"I should know it myself," Morgenstern sighed. "Twenty years of using
these things and I still can't tell a port from a plug. How are you?"
"Fine, fine! And how about you? Still busy keeping us all afloat? How's
Freeport doing in the big picture?"
"As near to the edge of disaster as always," Morgenstern answered wryly.
He had a fine patrician accent that reminded Wufei of Khushrenada and
Marquise; it clashed with Morgenstern's simple clothes. "Our competitors
are finally getting their act together, shipping is starting to recover
from the impact of the war, and the price of oxygen filters keeps climbing."
"Aw, damn." Duo rubbed the back of his neck. "Anything I can do?"
"If you and all your friends stopped breathing for one hour every day,
you wouldn't believe the money we'd save," Morgenstern pointed out thoughtfully.
When Duo snorted with laughter, he smiled. "But enough about my stupid
business deals; they're far too boring for young men like yourselves.
What can I do for you?" His eyes flickered over Wufei, old and wise.
"Well, it's like this." Duo's voice dropped, and Morgenstern leaned forward
to hear him over the whirr of machines and the echoes of voices. "Did
you hear about that murder yesterday?"
Morgenstern's face grew hard, his eyes narrowed. "I'd be hard put not
to hear about it. It happened two blocks from here."
"Right, right. I'm sort of looking into that."
"Why?" Morgenstern asked, quite reasonably. Wufei had also been caught
short by Duo's outright admission; he'd expected more of Duo's underhand
truths. The rat-catcher had outlined last night how important it was to
keep his 'second profession' as discreet as possible.
"Well, you know Marta Bernstein?" Duo asked conspiratorially.
Morgenstern stared at Duo, his face unreadable.
"No," the financier finally answered. "Should I?"
"Probably not, she's not from this sector. It was her man who was murdered."
"Yeah. I know her, you see," Duo confided; not untruthfully of course,
though his tone implied they were old friends. "And her man...Josh was
a solo freetrader. Like me. Us lone wolves, we don't have friends in high
places to come looking for answers when we kick the bucket, so we learn
to watch out for each other."
"Oh, don't be modest, Duo. There would be many friends investigating your
death, if Freeport ever had the misfortune of losing you," Morgenstern
Duo waved that away casually. "Anyway, I want to know why Josh died. And
hell, I bet you guys do too. Kro is one of the best sectors; you guys
run a tight ship. This kinda shit don't go down around here. So...know
"I know quite a lot," Morgenstern replied dryly. "I've been living in
this sector for twenty years. But I don't know anything about the murder,
specifically. I didn't even know the name of the dead man."
Duo's face fell. "Damn, I was hoping you might have heard something; I
know you organize watches and guard duties on the streets and such...Oh
well, it was worth a try."
Duo sighed. Then he appeared to remember something. Wufei forced himself
to stay relaxed and unreadable as the real question they wanted answered
poked its nose into the conversation. "Oh yeah, by the way, while I was
asking around on Marta's behalf, yesterday, I saw some shifty guy hanging
"Shifty? How?" Morgenstern asked, puzzled.
"S'probaby nothing," Duo replied lightly, fingering the end of his braid.
"He might have just been curious, but he, I dunno, he looked a bit...shifty,
yanno? Then, when I tried to ask him a question, he ran off."
"Oh. That is strange. Then again, he might have been a bit intimidated."
Morgenstern's eyes raked pointedly over Duo, then Wufei.
"Could be. Maybe you know him? Tiny guy, smaller than me. Looks like a
rat; long nose, beady eyes..."
"That's not much of a description," Morgenstern snorted. "But no, that
doesn't resemble anyone from Kropotkin that I know, and I know most of
"Ah, okay. Say, you guys got problems with the pipeworks?"
Morgenstern blinked, obviously caught off guard by the change of subject.
"When we were looking for rat-face, yesterday, we noticed a crew going
down into the under-sector. We were too busy to really look into it closely;
we just thought they were workers. I hope they were legit." Duo's face
scrunched up in sudden concern, and he twisted his braid in his fingers,
like a little boy who was afraid he'd accidentally screwed up.
"I think we do have some work being done, as it were. I'm sure that's
what it was," Morgenstern answered dismissively.
"Oh good. Do you know the name of one of those guys? I might just check
it up. Don't want some bastards stealing pipes and circuits outta your
nice sector. Besides, if they're doing something mechanical, maybe I can
Morgenstern hesitated. "I guess, if you insist. I'll check and see if
they need an extra pair of hands. Or two. I'll be right back. And there's
something I'd like to discuss with you anyway; your arrival here today
is fortuitous-" his voice faded into the ambient hum as he headed towards
a series of office doors off to one side.
Duo's eyes hooded as he followed the man's progress.
"Damn. He's going to get on my case to move here again," he muttered.
"Yeah. I told you before; Kro's got a lot of rebels and such here. There
are also long-standing fans of anarchy like Morgenstern, and a bunch of
retired Sweepers. All these guys live here and work together; they're
the backbone of Freeport. Morgenstern is always keen to get more of the
same living in the sector; he says they're the only kind who really, truly
understand space, and want to defend her. He should know what he's talking
about; Morgenstern was one of the financial backers for Peacemillion."
Wufei looked with renewed interest at the office door. "Really? I didn't
"Oh yeah, many in Freeport pitched in with help or cash, but the colony
kept it quiet. Otherwise, the Ozzies would have sent a big bomb this way.
There was some debate about Freeport joining the war. Morgenstern and
others got very vocal about it, I heard. But in the end, Freeport stayed
neutral. Peacemillion was built and manned by Sweepers, but it didn't
have any weapons. I think she did the job anyway. Right?"
"Definitely." Wufei understood why Duo talked about Morgenstern with respect,
despite the financier's wealthy upbringing so different from the L2 orphan's.
But if Morgenstern thought he could sweet-talk Duo into moving here, he
had another think coming. Kropotkin might be full of anarchists, but it
would still feel too constraining to Shinigami; it would imply a complicated
set of alliances and obligations. And Duo Maxwell wasn't the kind to abide
even the lightest of reins.
The financier took a good twenty minutes to reappear. Duo paced around
in a narrow circle, while Wufei examined the stock board with interest;
apparently, steel prices were going up, which wasn't good news for Freeport's
It was strange to see this little island of capitalism in the midst of
the mess of extreme politics that seemed to dominate Freeport. Although
Wufei found that very little in Freeport could surprise him that much
anymore. Survival, he reminded himself dryly. Freeport might believe in
freedom, but its main philosophy was practicality and selfish survival.
Money was more important than ideals in the real world, so this crumby
hangar full of people, who were probably all volunteers, produced it for
the rest of the colony.
Morgenstern emerged from his office and walked towards them. He was only
twenty feet away, but he was stopped twice before he could reach them
by harried people with the parasitic phonelinks growing out of their ears.
"Steve Millen," Morgenstern declared, after shooing away the interruptions
and walking up to Duo. "He was the foreman of the workers you appear to
have run into. Water pressure has been uneven in the edges of the sector;
he and his men were trying to track down the cause. I gave him a call;
he thanks you, but he doesn't need any help. They figured out the problem
and fixed it."
"Ah, well and good then. Thanks, we'll be on our-"
"Hold up, Duo. Maybe you and your friend could step into my office?"
Duo rubbed the back of his head and smiled. "Well, we're in a bit of a
rush. Always too much to do and not enough time."
"I keep telling the Elders they should increase the day cycles to thirty
hours for our convenience," Morgenstern deadpanned. Then he grew serious.
"It shouldn't take too long. Let me just give you a quick outline. As
you know, I'm proud of my sector. We house many strong-willed colonists,
men and women who've made space what it is; free and beholden to none;
an equal to Earth."
Duo was nodding during the speech, and shifting from one foot to the other
as if ready to dash. "I know, I know, s'a great place. I got friends here.
But I'm happy in Makhno. I told you that already."
"I know. I understand the advantages of Makhno for a mechanic. But I was
hoping to discuss the future of your friend."
Duo blinked. So did Wufei.
"Your friend. Ah, may I address him? It seems rude to- I'm not familiar
with the traditions regarding Blades."
"Well...not really..." Duo looked perplexed, with a wary light in his
Morgenstern hesitated, and then he smiled at Duo. "I guess I'll have to
wait for his Blade contract and quarantine to end, then. But when it does,
I hope he'll consider moving to Kropotkin. We would be proud and honored
to have a warrior of his caliber here. We have, ah, many retired suit
pilots in this sector, honorable defenders of the colonies. He should
feel at home."
"...Right." Duo's smile looked a bit forced.
"And of course, if you two are...attached in any way, my offer to you
still stands, Duo. You're both quite welcome to come-"
It took Duo a good five minutes to extricate himself as politely as possible.
"That was a civil and roundabout way of saying he knows who I was," Wufei
muttered as they walked the streets of Kropotkin. It was the sector's
'evening'; people browsed stalls, chatted at corners, or went to visit
"Yeah, Morgenstern is smooth. You have to give him that," Duo agreed.
"And always keen to rope in good people into his sector. Say...could anybody
who knows your past trace your present?"
Wufei glanced at the smuggler, whose hooded eyes were suddenly sweeping
the streets carefully.
"No," he answered, rather relieved himself. "Une did not want the potential
political nightmare that would come from the senate knowing she'd integrated
three out of five of the notorious Gundam pilots into her supposedly impartial
organization. There is no Chang Wufei in...the Lady's lot," Wufei embroidered,
in case they were overheard. "The pilot of Shenlong disappeared shortly
after the war, and there are rumors he's working in a university in China."
"Ah, okay." Duo beamed expansively. "Good, one less thing to worry about.
Now we just have to worry about dodging Morgenstern's well-meaning attempts
to settle you down in Kro. S'funny, he never drooled like that over Heero.
Then again, you're friendlier than Heero. If one goes down to the microscopic
level to check."
Wufei swatted the braided head without looking.
"Now what?" he growled, refusing to be drawn into a put-down match.
"Now, we hunt down the man who let Ferret get away, then we hunt down
Ferret, and, if we're lucky and they have any kind of link, we find Carver
at the end of it all. Oy, citizen. Yeah, spare me a minute? Ever heard
the name Steve Millen? He lives in Kropotkin, and we're not sure of his
"Nope, I don't know the name of the guy you were chasing," Steve Millen
told them, a bit nervously. Getting a call from such a well-respected
figure as Morgenstern had more than confirmed Duo's credit. Steve Millen
was indeed the ‘Steve' who'd been the foreman of the team they'd run into
the day before, but his attitude had done a one-eighty.
"I have seen that rodent face around Kropotkin a few times," Steve added
helpfully. "He was just wandering around. Never saw him talking to anybody.
Which is...a bit strange, I guess." Millen looked like he'd only now thought
"And the guy who accused me of being a bounty-hunter?" Duo inquired, making
Millen cringe. "Did he have a good explanation for that?"
"Herb. Herb Spasson," Millen growled. "And we asked him for a good explanation
as soon as you gents left, let me tell you. He said the rat-faced guy
was a friend of his, a good citizen, and someone who's got connections.
I kinda doubt the last two. This ‘good citizen' apparently told Herb something
as he ran by; sounded like bounty. Herb said he might have misunderstood."
Millen's face looked sour. Freeport citizens depended a lot on their ability
to read people and situations; Millen was probably aware that he'd been
manipulated somewhere along the line.
"Since Herb's buddy is wanted on the outside, Herb thought you were bounty
dogs. That's why he stopped your man, Duo. Erm, you realize that the rest
of us, we didn't know about any of this, but I've worked with Herb before,
and Abe, and we thought- I mean, I hope you realize, there wasn't any
Duo waved away the start of yet another apology. "S'okay, Steve, I understand.
You reacted like any good citizen would. I hope if some bounty hunter
chases me down the ducts one day, there'll be strong arms like yours and
the lads at my back."
"Sure thing, sure thing," Steve assured him, nodding vigorously.
"I'd like a word with Herb, though. Won't put a hurt on him or anything;
but I want to make sure we got that bounty business straightened out.
You know Freeport: you can pick up a bad rep easier than a suspicious
itch in this place."
Millen examined Duo's sharp grin for a minute. Wufei had the impression
of someone who was perhaps a bit slow to reaching a conclusion, but only
because he thought about it carefully and integrated every piece of information
and snippets of intuition and knowledge he possessed.
"I have your word on that? Not hurting him? Herb...isn't exactly a friend,
but he's a good plumber, we worked on several ship berths together...I
guess you can call him a crewmate. If I tell you..."
"You have my word I won't hurt him," Duo said solemnly. Wufei, used to
Duo's brand of truths by now, noticed that Duo hadn't promised not to
scare Herb to within an inch of his miserable, lying life. "I won't tell
him who sent me, if you don't want-"
"No," Millen said firmly. "Steve Patrick Millen does not rat out someone
behind their back. If Herb asks you how you found him, feel free to tell
him that Steve believes you're owed an explanation and an apology."
Duo nodded once. "Very well."
"Right. Normally, Herb lives in Haymarket, on the corner of Tenth Avenue,
right up against the sector wall. But I bet he won't be there today. He'll
have gone to his woman's sector, Vanzetti. They're having a free day,
today. He's been talking about it for a week now."
"Agostina Assisi. She lives near the start of the sector, but I'm not
"I wonder what Ferret was doing in Kropotkin," Duo mused, keeping his
voice down in view of the few stragglers in the street who hadn't gone
to bed yet.
"Not in Kro. People in Kropotkin don't concern themselves with the stuff
outside; they help build ships, they maintain our computers or deal with
finance; all internal stuff. Most of them are what you would call law-abiding
citizens, if that had any meaning here. Not the kind to mix with Ferret."
Duo seemed to have a high opinion of Kropotkin. Wufei couldn't help remembering
that both Ferret and Carver seemed to frequent the sector - full of ex-rebels
and downfallen revolutionaries - and that Joshua had been murdered there.
"Millen's testimony places Ferret there ‘a few time'," he pointed out.
"Enough occasions that Millen could remember him when seeing him run through
a dimly lit tunnel. Even if he- what's going on here?"
"Fiesta!" Duo exclaimed, nodding his head enthusiastically as the airlock
swished open and revealed teeming streets filled with raucous laughter
"What are they celebrating?"
"Being alive, as far as I can tell," Duo snickered, watching a couple
near the airlock rub against each other in a way that suggested that clothing
would soon go flying.
"All sectors have one day every other month where nobody goes to work,"
Duo explained, when Wufei made a growling noise to prompt him for a bit
of elaboration. "It's our weekends and holidays, all rolled into one.
In Makhno, people go and see friends, or just stay home and sleep, but
other sectors decide to make a party out of it."
"We'll never find Spasson in this crowd," Wufei stated, loudly enough
to be heard over the noise.
"We'll find Assisi's place, but I bet they're both out here painting it
red," Duo agreed. "Maybe we can wander around the party. Have a bit of
fun ourselves. Or maybe not," Duo added with a grin as he caught sight
of Wufei's scowl.
Oil drums and metal garbage cans were being used for make-shift bonfires.
People had hung lanterns or lit candles in every window, fighting off
Freeport's usual murk. Kids ran around shrieking and waving small blue
glow tubes, normally used for emergency lighting in space. Sheets had
been stretched across the narrower streets like banners; playgrounds had
been turned into potluck picnics. The roads were packed with people chatting,
laughing and moving about in a relaxed way that contrasted with the tidal
movements of tired workers heading to and from factories on normal days.
Duo asked around for Assisi's address. His search took them past a construction
site that had been transformed into an impromptu concert pit. Duo glanced
over at it approvingly, head moving in time with the crash of synth drums.
Wufei glared at the scene reprovingly, causing a couple of young girls
who'd been heading towards the area at a run to stop dead in their tracks
and detour around him.
A bank of cheap speakers whined, saturating on the bass. They screeched
out something that was only distantly related to music, as far as the
fastidious Preventer was concerned. The ‘singer' was essentially throwing
up in a microphone, repeating ‘Death - war - death -war ‘ over and over
again, bent over double as if he'd taken a shot to the stomach. In front
of the slapped-together stage, a pack of young men and women were throwing
themselves around like rabid rats, heaving in piles of limbs as they bounced
Wufei had seen this kind of frenzy in the clubs of Neo-Tokyo. There was
something about being at the mercy of gangs, overzealous police and poverty
that brought out violence in even the most innocent and hapless of citizen.
They danced like they were exorcising demons. Wufei had found it disturbing
in the slums, but here, in Freeport, without any riot police if it got
out of hand, it was alarming.
"Oy, relax. It's just fun."
Duo had apparently caught Wufei's glower and interpreted it pretty accurately.
"That sort of fun escapes me," Wufei growled, staring at a vigorous fistfight
that had started at the edge of the crowd, blows landing nearly in time
with the ‘music'.
"Really? Cause I bet it'd do you a world of good," Duo drawled wickedly,
as the noise faded somewhat behind them. His steps had picked up a certain
bounce as he'd walked by, as if the raw, dangerous energy was lifting
"Why does it have to be so violent?" Wufei muttered, staring back at the
writhing creature made of limbs. "You people live in such desperate conditions
already; why make it worse?" He wasn't only talking about the 'dancing',
if that was what you could call the active pursuit of multiple contusions.
Wufei's exasperated bewilderment covered every skirmish, fight and duel
he'd seen in Freeport since he'd arrived.
"Blows off steam." Duo was serious behind his light smile. "This tin can
is under pressure, man. Freeport is the last stop, the last chance. People
get hounded here. The Outside is the enemy, and they're always at our
doorstep. There's never been a regime out there that didn't want to get
rid of Freeport, one way or another."
Wufei countered Duo's heavy look with a steady one of his own. As far
as he was concerned, though Freeport wasn't quite the cesspit he'd supposed
it to be - by a narrow margin - he still thought it desperately needed
some kind of order, and he wasn't ashamed of his beliefs.
Duo snorted softly as if he could read the thought scrolling across Wufei's
forehead. "We live with death, Chang. We walk in the shadow of the valley.
We have to find extreme ways of remembering we're still alive, still kicking.
We let the violence out on a leash, so it don't slip out later."
"It's just a waste of energy, and mass hysteria," Wufei sniffed, not impressed.
"Look. That's an acceptable past-time and a good way of burning off some
He pointed at a group of fifty people who'd congregated at a large crossroad
he and Duo were passing. Half a dozen of them were playing guitars, tambourines
and an accordion, a lively little tune; they were singing in some European
language, either Italian or Spanish. People danced vigorously in pairs,
or singly with exaggerated gestures to the amusement of friends clapping
on the sidelines, egging them on.
"You like the accordion?" Duo quizzed, giving Wufei a funny look.
"Not particularly," the latter ground out, "but at least this is music,
and the dancing won't leave bruises. It doesn't revel in- in death, war
and revolution and-"
Duo burst into laughter; he had to stop and lean forward to catch his
balance. Some of the dancers turned to stare.
"Maxwell," Wufei growled, poking him. "What's so funny? I just-"
His hand was snatched up
- he tried to jerk away -
- a hand at his waist blocked him.
Duo's body was against his, spinning them around. Wufei's loose hair fluttered
across his face, into his open mouth - the body against his pressed -
Wufei stepped back to regain his balance, just as Duo moved forward to
the beat - the hand that had grabbed Wufei's lifted it above his head,
forcing him back against a hard, lean arm at his waist-
"Bella ciao, o bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao..." Duo murmured right
next to Wufei's ear as the singers on stage hit the refrain.
Wufei's mouth was open in a protest that was too big to voice. He'd turned
his head instinctively. Duo's last words whispered against his lips.
Then he was just as suddenly released and glaring at an unrepentant smirk.
Wufei took a deep breath - then remembered the spectators. He stuttered
and sputtered, and Duo laughed. It was gentle, and so was the hand that
flicked Wufei's hair out of his eyes.
"You should see your face. Come on, let's go find Herb. We'll leave these
people to dance to their - hah! - nice, peaceful, joyful lil' song. Bella
ciao, o Bella ciao, Bella ciao, ciao, ciao..."
Wufei followed the joker, too stunned to even be properly angry, though
that was surely a momentary aberration on his part. Anger was probably
gathering like a distant storm cloud on the horizon. He gathered himself,
cowed with a glare the nearby couples who'd been laughing at his flushed
cheeks, and followed the dark-clad figure, glaring holes into Duo's shoulder
Bloody Maxwell. So typical.
Yesterday morning, that instant in the yard; Wufei moving through the
cold air smelling of metal; a moment outside of everything, a moment Duo
When Duo had left, and Wufei hadn't stopped him, it had established an
unspoken agreement between them. It didn't need words; it was an understanding
between two warriors who concentrated on their duty before pleasure. It
was understood. There might or might not be something there, between them,
living in that instant. A slim possibility, a ghost of an attraction barely
acknowledged. One they did not have the time, energy or luxury to explore.
Last night and this morning, Wufei had changed in the shower room, and
Duo had gotten dressed while he was out. Neither of them commented on
the change of habit. When Wufei had practiced his forms the night before,
Duo had worked at his bench and the door to the yard had stayed shut;
Wufei had approved, ignoring the feeling of absence that lingered like
a shared glance. They talked about the case, politics and Freeport's society,
but no longer anything personal, especially related to anybody's sexuality
or preferences. A clear line had been drawn.
Of course, Wufei avoided that invisible line by a wide margin. And of
course, Duo danced right along its edge.
Wufei's irritation felt more like a reflex than actual honest outrage.
He didn't really resent Duo for the little infringements on the no-man's
land between them: the touch that lingered on his skin a second longer
than it should as Duo had handed Wufei the N-bar, instead of tossing it
at him. The one-off cheeky innuendo on the shuttle to Kropotkin. The way
Duo had looked at him from the corner of his eye, an appreciate smirk
on his face, when Wufei came in from his exercises, sweating in the t-shirt
he'd conscientiously kept this time...
Wufei knew that if you slapped a rule on Duo, he'd be doing his damnedest
to break it three seconds later. It was his nature. Maybe that was why
Wufei couldn't get fully mad at the blasted adrenaline junky. It would
be like kicking a kitten for clawing at the curtains.
Or maybe Duo had been slipping some of Chris's ‘cheer-me-ups' into Wufei's
tea. That might be an alternative explanation for Wufei's strange forbearance.
Duo, apparently unconcerned by the glower aimed like a bulls-eye at his
braided head, was tunelessly humming the song and murmuring the refrain
as they walked towards the edge of the sector. A few enquiries pointed
them towards Assisi's house, where they'd probably have a wait. Spasson
and his woman would be out, enjoying the party.
Or so they'd thought. But when Duo knocked on the door, it flew open,
causing both men to start back in alarm.
"Ah, so you decided to come- huh? Who are you two?"
The woman was a bit taller than Wufei and extremely buxom, to the point
of fat. She was in her thirties, her skin a healthy olive that refused
to succumb to colonist pallor; luscious long black curls highlighted a
plump, pleasant face. She was wearing a long black skirt and a very small
sleeveless blouse. The latter looked dangerously close to slipping off
at any second, especially since she was huffing self-righteously.
"Agostina Assisi?" Duo asked a bit doubtfully.
"Yes? What do you two want?" she barked.
"We were wondering if Herb was around?" Duo asked, recovering quickly
and turning on the charm.
Wufei's observations so far were that the Maxwell smile could conquer
anything feminine, but not this time; the brunette merely started to huff
and growl all the more.
"That...fink isn't here." Her anger sounded oddly strained; it
prickled Wufei's instincts.
"Oh?" A flicker of surprise crossed Duo's face. "But what about the fiesta?
Surely he was going to want to escort a lovely lady such as yourself."
Wufei managed not to roll his eyes, but Assisi blinked and focused on
Duo, and then flushed and smiled a bit timorously.
"You'd think so. I know he was looking forward to it. We don't get many
reasons to have fun in this tin can. But a couple of friends of his showed
up less than an hour ago, just as I was getting ready. Said Herb had to
go to the shipyards, they had an urgent plumbing job for him to do."
"Damn, what a pity I missed him. What ship was he going to work on, signora?"
Assisi crossed her arms under her rather expansive chest, hoisting up
the goods a bit. The gesture looked a bit defensive; Wufei noticed that
her eyes kept flickering between them, towards a spot further down the
"Well, that's what I asked when Herb told me he had to leave," she muttered,
anger still prowling in her voice. "He said he was needed at the Christie;
urgent plumbing job. Then he left. And now I'm all alone."
Duo's eyes had narrowed, his smile became fixed.
"Didn't they finish the Christie ten days ago? They moved her out of Zero
G dock last week," he said slowly.
"I don't know. I work in the factories, I don't follow the ships. Herb
hadn't worked on the Christie for nearly a month. I guess...that some
plumbing he did sprung a leak."
Duo's smile was now completely fake. "I see. You're probably right. Hey,
who were these friends who showed up to warn Herb that he was wanted?
At the Christie, I mean. I think I might know them."
Agostina looked perplexed. "Well, the guy who actually talked to Herb
was a friend of his. I've seen him before, down in Mooncurse when I go
visit my sister. Al. Ed. Hal. Something short. He's short too, and he's
got a face like a beleta; how do you say it? A weasel. He told Herb that
they had to leave right away, they were needed at the shipyards."
"You mentioned two friends?" Duo prompted quietly, when Agostina didn't
look like adding more.
The black eyes lined in khol refused to meet Duo's. "The beleta did all
"But he wasn't alone?" Duo asked softly.
"He had a friend waiting outside the door," Agostina muttered, her eyes
flickering again to that empty spot behind Wufei and Duo. "I...don't know
him. I mean, I didn't see much of him. He was in the shadow." Agostina's
accent - L3, working class - was suddenly more pronounced.
"Can you describe him?" Duo asked her softly.
Agostina was twisting a decorative shawl in her fingers. "Didn't see much
of him," she whispered, almost to herself. "He was tall, with a really
square face. I mean, I think. Didn't seem him very well. He might have
had brown hair, and a - a long bulky brown coat...He..."
Agostina's eyes were now liquid and worried. She gulped, and looked Duo
sharply in the face, letting her anxiety flash across her eyes. "Is Herb
in trouble? What is this about?"
"Nothing," Duo answered gently. "We wanted to talk to Herb about a common
acquaintance, but if he's busy at the yards, we'll have to drop by another
day. Enjoy the fiesta, signora."
Assisi nodded uncertainly; Duo was already at the door, heading back towards
the noisy streets. When Wufei glanced back, Agostina was still standing
in the doorway, twisting her shawl, her blind eyes fixed on a spot in
the hallway where Carver had presumably stood.
[chap. 15] [chap 17] [back
to Maldoror's fic]