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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

Freeport + Chapter 19

That November night,
Looking up into the sky
You said "Hey, wish that was me up there
It's the biggest rocket I could find
And it's holding the night in its arms
If only for a moment
I can't see the look in its eyes
But I'm sure it must be laughing."

But it seemed to me
The saddest thing I'd ever seen
And I thought you were crazy
Wishing such a thing
I saw only a stick on fire
Alone, on its journey
Home to the quickening ground
With no one there to catch it


- Kate Bush, 'Rocket Tails'

+

Duo really was an adrenaline junkie.

That was the only logical conclusion Wufei could come to. Ravachol's menacing visit got the indomitable smuggler down for exactly the time it took him to go to Volt and come back again with a bowl of noodles. And it wasn't the danger that had dampened Duo's mood; it was merely the knowledge that he would now be going up against a man he'd once admired. But if the knowledge that he now had a very powerful enemy who virtually held their lives in his hands bothered Duo at all, Wufei didn't see a hint of it, and he considered himself fairly adept at reading Duo's mood by now.

He just seemed to go out of his way to make things challenging for himself. They almost stopped using the train to get around after Ravachol's visit; instead they walked the back alleys and maintenance tunnels as if inviting an attack by Mako and the rest of Ravachol's goons. Duo still pushed the investigation forward, despite Wufei's heavy misgivings, confronting crooks and pirates to find out more about Ferret, Carver and Herb's whereabouts.

And he never told a lie. He twisted the truth into some interesting geometrical shapes on occasion, but it was never an outright lie. Considering Duo's job as a rat-catcher, that kind of limitation went beyond 'challenging' and right into the realm of 'suicidal', in Wufei's opinion.

Normally Wufei didn't care about other people and their burdens, self-imposed or not. But of course, Duo's safety was of prime importance to their future missions in Freeport and Wufei's main concern.

Or it should have been. But Wufei was honest enough with himself to acknowledge that there was another force at work here, one that he'd rarely had to deal with before.

Wufei was curious about Duo.

Maxwell seemed to be such a strange blend of destructive and constructive. He put so much energy into maintaining what you might almost call 'order' in Freeport, so that the chaos could endure. And that 'never tell a lie' thing... What could push a proclaimed survivalist like Duo, born and raised in a slum, an outcast on the edge of society, to take such a harsh vow, worthy of Confucius?

Wufei kept his curiosity rigorously in check. You did not poke around idly in the past and motivations of men such as themselves. Besides, Duo's secrets gave Wufei a moral excuse to keep his own, well, something like a moral excuse. It was getting difficult though...it was easier to distract himself about speculations regarding Duo's character than dwell on how his friend saw him, Wufei, and how Duo would react if he ever learned the truth behind Wufei's mission here.

+

Wufei put a quick hand on Duo's shoulder, as his ears picked up some noise from the floor below. Duo's picks stayed poised an inch from Herb's lock; his head cocked to one side to catch whatever it was that Wufei had heard. The distant sound became the slow shuffle of tired feet coming up the stairs behind them.

The elderly man turned down the short hallway they were in and stared at them in surprise. His eyes flickered from Duo - whose picks had disappeared instantaneously - to Herb Spasson's door.

"Can I help you, citizen?" he asked warily.

"I'm looking for Herb," Duo answered with one of his easy harmless smiles.

"Haven't seen Spasson for three days. I think he's with his woman," the man grunted. He moved towards the door next to Spasson's and fitted the key in the lock.

Duo's touch at his elbow made him start in alarm. The old man took a cautious step back, his eyes darting from Duo to Wufei and back again.

"He's not with Agostina," Duo said quietly. "And she's worried."

"Oh...?" The man examined Duo carefully. "I've never seen you here before."

"I'm not a friend of Herb's. I only met him once," Duo answered steadily and, of course, with his own special blend of truth. "But I like Agostina, and she's afraid he's in trouble. I'd like to tell her Herb is okay, if I can."

"Oh. Well, not much I can tell you...what's your name?"

"Maxwell."

"It's like I told you, Maxwell, Herb's not been here for three days. Maybe he's seeing another bird on the sly. A friend of his showed up yesterday to pick up a few things and said Herb was going to shack up with a broad; that's why I thought he was with his woman."

"A friend? You sure it was a friend of his?"

"I wouldn't have let him waltz into Herb's room and take his stuff otherwise," the neighbor snapped, his old eyes glinting cantankerously. "It was a buddy of Herb's from back when we were all in the underground resistance. That's mostly who all of Herb's friends are. Say..."

The elderly man stared at Duo, then his eyes flicked towards his braid. "Maxwell?! As in- you-you're that Maxwell!"

"Well, I don't know. Which Maxwell are we talking about?" Duo chuckled, but his demeanor didn't encourage any further questions. The old man nodded sharply, and drew himself up straight.

"Right. My name's Alex Fenton, by the way. The guy who came for Herb's stuff was Kor. Cedric Kor. He lives in Haymarket too, about five blocks from here. Ex-L2 resistance."

"Big guy? Rather fat? I've heard of him."

"Not all of Herb's friends are like that," Fenton interjected, which told Wufei volumes about Cedric Kor's character.

"Really? As I said, I only met Spasson once. What kind of guy is he?" Duo asked, leaning back against the corridor wall.

Fenton weighed Duo and his question carefully. Then he shrugged, probably judging the subject harmless.

"Herb's got a....history, you could say. I've known him for three years, since he moved into this building; we help each other out. Haymarket can be tough. Not many luxuries here."

"That's a shame. It's always nice to have something to brighten your day." Duo smiled. Wufei, who was starting to know the man well by now, saw it as both sincere and calculating, one of those contradictions Duo mastered effortlessly. "Do you know Chris's Candy Cart?"

"Over in Volt? Yeah. Not well enough to shop there, though. He don't know me from Adam." Fenton was looking at Duo with cautious hope in his eyes.

"Next time you see her, tell Chris that Duo Maxwell recommended her wares. I'm sure she can spare a few things to help lighten the load."

Fenton hesitated, staring right at Duo. He was silent for a spell, judging the conciliatory offer and the man who'd made it with the usual Freeport directness. Then he nodded towards his door and smiled.

"Come on in. No point talking in the hallway."

Duo settled down a minute later on a worn couch, while Fenton perched on one of a pair of disparate bar stools near a high table. Wufei chose to stand near the door, out of Fenton's line of sight, as he felt that his looming presence was making the old man a bit nervous.

"So what kind of history does Herb have?" Duo asked in a serious voice. "I'm starting to think it might've caught up with him."

"I'm wondering if you're not right," Fenton muttered, his mouth turning down at the corners. "I thought...but if he's not with Agostina, then I don't know where he is...She's good for him, that woman. Been together for nearly a year now, and she makes sure he stays on the straight and narrow. But you know, men like Herb and me...it's not easy. It's not easy to work day in day out like dogs, when we used to take what we wanted from the Alliance. Don't get me wrong. Being in the underground was dangerous. I had two brothers. One older, one younger. Both dead."

Duo nodded sympathetically.

"But we could...do something," Fenton muttered. Hands thickened by labor twitched in frustration against his factory worker's pants. "It was...fast. You shot your way in, you took, you made them pay for your family and your buddies, you ran away and you hid out with the spoils. And now we have to stop doing it that way, and sometimes, things just seem too slow. Too huge, like we'll never get anywhere, ever. Shit, I'm not making sense. You probably don't get what I'm saying. Agostina never did..."

Fenton paused; Duo's eyes had turned inward and there was a strange smile on his lips, both wistful and deadly.

"What am I sayin'," Fenton coughed, a rusty, nervous chuckle. "Of course you know. You were one of us! I-I mean, erm, no offence-"

"I was one of you," Duo murmured, his eyes focusing and his grin wickedly amused. "I was one of you long before I got my hands on something a bit bigger than a gun."

"Right!" Fenton's smile was completely open now, and his old eyes gleamed with something like a fever. His hands rubbed at the rough protective clothing he wore. From the charred, whitened stains on his thighs and the acrid smell slowly filling the room, it appeared that Fenton now worked in a factory, probably with acids. Wufei tried not to think of an old ex-rebel getting bored and antsy in a room full of chemicals.

"So Herb's fallen in with a rough crowd from his past, is that what you're saying? Terrorists? Gun runners?"

"I don't know exactly what they're into," Fenton sighed, coming down from his memories. "I try to keep away from all that." The tone of his words didn't imply fear or disapproval; he sounded more like a man staying away from a temptation because his doctor had told him to.

"And Herb didn't run with that crowd either; I don't want you to get that idea," Fenton added. "He was trained as an industrial plumber before the Alliance closed down the works on L2-X482 and turned it into a military depot. That's what he does now; he works as a plumber for Freeport, does his shifts in the shipyards and factories. But his friends...I don't know what they're into. Herb doesn't actually do any business for them, but he's friends with them. They remind him of the old days. When we belonged. Sometimes, he puts people up in his room if they've got to lay low a couple of days. Sometimes he'll hold packages for them, or get in touch with people outside to pass messages. Small shit like that, you know?"

"Hey, it ain't against the law," Duo snickered, and Fenton joined in. Wufei had heard people say that before and gathered by now that this was some sort of Freeport in-joke.

"It's not anything to get him into deep shit. Herb didn't want to join a gang. He just didn't want to say no to his ex-war buddies. I know the feeling. I'd do the same thing, but all the guys in my cell are dead. Except for a couple who went over to the Pigs." Fenton made a spitting noise.

"Yeah, it sucks when your pals go Lawboy on ya," Duo agreed drolly. Wufei, out of Fenton's line of sight, glared in response to the small smirk tossed his way.

Duo got a few names of Herb's friends from Fenton. Most of them ex-rebels, hotheaded elements that formed small gangs, worked with pirates and thieves, fenced and dealt in the colonies, and occasionally wandered out of their sector to have fights with similar gangs from the OZ and Alliance side.

One of these people had apparently been small with a face like a rodent. Fenton thought his first name was Albert and that he used to be a rebel from L3. The old man hadn't seen Albert for a few years, except briefly; the small man no longer hung out as much with the other ex rebs. Fenton had gotten the impression from Herb that that was because Albert was involved with something big on the outside. He knew nothing more than that.

+

Duo could swear like nobody Wufei had ever heard before. Especially when they hit yet another dead end in their search for Ferret and Carver.

But it was generally when he was working that he let rip the filthiest profanities. Most of his attention was on the mission, to Wufei's relief, but he'd spend all his off hours sweating over pieces of junk, some of them systems so outdated that Wufei had never seen their like before. Most of them were in pitiful state. Monique Desjean somehow expected Duo to repair them, perhaps by a laying of hands and a prayer. Duo would complain like hell, but he would also buckle down without the slightest hesitation, sacrificing hours of sleep or eating with his damaged right hand while his left turned a screw or browsed historical archives for wiring instructions.

Wufei could tell how the repairs were going according to how dire and elaborate the swearing became. The cursing frequently involved the Christian religion Duo professed to no longer believe in.

When he let loose a particularly sacrilegious blasphemy, Duo would glance briefly upwards and mouth something inaudible. A couple of times Wufei was at an angle from which he could read Duo's lips. The words were 'sorry Father'. Wufei had not thought the street orphan knew his father; he was pretty sure the man didn't live near the hub of Freeport, where Duo's glance was aimed.

He didn't ask any questions.

+

"Basil, you rotting heap of shit, you led us quite a chase and I'm right out of patient," Duo drawled. "Mother Mary and all the fucking Saints won't get you out of this if you don't start answering my questions now."

Basil had a stutter. Wufei was ready to bet it had developed very suddenly, when Duo had appeared as if by magic in the corner of the dingy backroom in the deepest hidey hole in Bakunin sector that Basil had been able to find.

Finally, Basil managed to splutter out the fact that he knew nothing. A three-year-old wouldn't have been convinced.

Basil was soft; he wasn't fat, but his body looked like it was made out of uncooked bread dough. Wufei thought that if he poked Basil, the imprint of his fingers would stay for a few minutes before the flesh rose back. Not that he had any wish to poke Basil. So far Basil hadn't even noticed Wufei, still deep in the shadows of the small underground room. This was one of Basil's hideouts; he'd apparently dodged into it when Duo had sent him a polite message requesting a meeting 'for information'. But unfortunately for Basil, Duo had been expecting that and he and Wufei had gotten there first.

"Basil, you ain't being smart here," Duo chided, smiling like death. "You owe me, you bastard. Remember that time in the Belts? You're not trying to wiggle out of your debt, are you?"

Basil's soft, round eyes seemed to roll like marbles. He stuttered a few more denials and took two steps back, away from that expression. His movements looked haphazard and driven by nothing but fear, yet all his stumbles were leading him directly towards the concealed rear exit. It led out into Bakunin, a dark sector of ill-repute, a maze of buildings and back alleys, courtyards and gang hangouts. If Basil made it out the back door, they'd never find him again. Since Wufei was leaning against the back door, though, Basil was not going to make it out.

Basil took another drifting step backwards towards the exit, away from Duo's advance. Wufei didn't feel like getting caught between the soft Basil and the hard door, so he extended his sword, hilt first. The last step pressed Basil's spine into it. Basil made a sound like a mouse getting squished and spun around, white as a ghost.

"Oh, you've not met my Blade yet, have you?" Duo purred. "His name is Chang. If you think I'm scary, then you better look again, pal."

Basil was looking. His little round eyes were fixed on Wufei's like a rabbit staring at a hawk. The thick mouth wobbled and whimpered. "B-bu-but I don't know this Spasson-"

"You know everything, Bas. You ooze out of the pores of this sector like sweat. You hear everything, you see everything. I know you've heard and seen my man."

"B-but-"

"You do say that a lot. I gotta warn you; Chang's very allergic to that word. Now, he may look like a heartless brute to you, but actually, underneath...he's even worse."

Cue whimper from Basil and another frightened glance at Wufei, who did his best to loom.

"You don't want those lil' 'b-u-t' words of yours to make him mad. He gets very scary when he's mad. Weeping Christ, he even scares the shit out of me."

"B- I- Duo, really-"

"So maybe you should tell me everything you know about Herb Spasson, starting with where he's hiding in Bakunin, and who's hiding him, and all that without using the B word. If you do that, I'll remember it. If you don't, my Blade will remember it. If you had to choose, which one of our memories would you rather be in?"

Wufei tried to imitate the look Heero had given Senator Watson when the latter had suggested Relena go to a local event with only minimal security.

Basil wasn't tough, but he was slippery as a snake. He looked like he was on the verge of melting with terror, yet he wasn't talking.

"Duo," he wavered, eyes cautious and calculating. "You got to believe me. I don't know where Herb is. Nobody here does."

Duo stared at him for a few seconds and then nodded. "So they moved him."

"I didn't tell you that," Basil stated quickly.

"No, you've been a wall of silence," Duo sneered. "So Herb's not here now, but he was hiding out in this sector, right? Cedric Kor told his chums that this is where he dropped off Herb's stuff. This place is full of scum like you, Basil. This is where spacers lay low when they've fucked up in Freeport and they want people to forget them a bit. This is a great place to hide, and Herb was hiding here. Where?"

"I can't tell you, Duo. They'll kill me."

"Will they make it quick? Maybe that's your best bet then. Did I mention Chang's Chinese? Did you know the Chinese invented the art of torture?"

Basil yelped. "Now, Duo, you don't mean-"

"It's only a friendly warning, Basil. You see, he may be my Blade, but what he gets up to with people who cross me is sort of his own business. I leave that up to him. So far, I'm glad to say that nobody's actually had to test the edges of his patience. They'd rather talk to me."

"I'd rather talk to you," Basil said carefully, eyeing Wufei's sword; the warrior had started to innocently toy with the tassels on the hilt.

"Good. Talk then."

"Spasson was here. He moved in six days ago from Haymarket. He shacked up with Mama Miriam; one of her girls left and got married, so Spasson took her room."

"Lucky bugger. Who set him up there?"

"His buddies. War-time friends." Basil was sweating big fat drops; they were making his limp blond bangs cling to his forehead. "Please-please Duo, don't make me give you names- if they learn-"

"Chang?" Duo glanced at Wufei, who obligingly loosened his sword from its sheath with a flick of his thumb, making the metal in the scabbard sing.

"Names won't help you-" Basil squealed hurriedly, "-Spasson disappeared yesterday!"

"Disappeared?" Duo frowned.

"He took his stuff and left! I swear I'm telling the truth!" Dough-boy started to back away from both of them, until he bumped into a wall. "They didn't know he would leave! Al was furious! None of them know-"

"Al?" Duo's eyes narrowed. "As in Albert? Al who"

Basil blinked and grew completely still.

"I can't tell you that, Duo." His voice was suddenly quiet and serious, though the terror still twisted his vowels, making them tremble. "They'd kill me."

"Bas, you may be a worm, but you're a useful sneak and fence. If one gang had it out for you, the others would probably defend you out of self-interest, so-"

"Not a gang," Basil interrupted with a hushed croak. "Not a gang- these guys- they're serious, Duo. They'd kill me. Bad. They- they've done it bef- they won't- I know you might beat the crap out of me, but you won't- you won't hurt me too bad. Right?" The last word was plaintive, but the fear in Basil's eyes was no longer for them. Even when Wufei took a menacing step forward, without Duo's prompting, Basil did nothing more than crouch against the wall and whimper a bit. His fat, moist lips were twisted in a strange resolve. Apparently fear of death could give even a worm a spine.

"This Al...is he small with a face like a rat?" Duo asked slowly.

"F-face like a r-rat?" Basil echoed, expression innocent, but his eyes had flinched.

"Right. So Herb was hidden by Albert, but then yesterday he vanished without telling his buddy Al and the others where he was going. Am I right? Don't make me put Chang on you, Basil. A nod is not worth a bad bruising, not when I'll get it out of you anyway."

Basil swallowed and nodded so quickly it might have been a twitch.

"Do you know why Herb pulled a runner?"

Basil shook his head more firmly.

"Was he maybe scared that Al and the rest of this mysterious organization would try to silence him?"

The round shoulders shrugged helplessly. "Donno. Er, Al seemed fairly friendly with him. And upset he disappeared."

"Right. Basil, my friend, I want you to do me a favor."

Basil failed to look enthusiastic, until Wufei casually leaned against the wall on Basil's other side. Basil started nodding wildly in agreement before Duo even spoke.

"You're going to keep those greasy ears of yours open, and you're going to tell me if you hear anything about Herb or Al. And you're going to remember that this big, mysterious organization doesn't know you exist. But I do. And so does Chang. You're going to give me as many details as you can, now and in the future, and maybe I'll call off your debt. If I hear you're holding back, though..."

Basil looked from one to the other and gulped noisily.

"What are you grinning at?" Duo asked Wufei when they'd left Basil's little hide-away and cleared the grimy, shadowy streets of Bakunin

"Just thinking. Sometimes, our jobs are quite similar."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you know how many times I've played good-cop/bad-cop with Heero?"

Duo made a show of putting his nose up in the air and sniffing theatrically. "Do not insult me with the C-word! That's worse than Basil's B-word!"

The mobile lips had twitched upward into a smile.

+

Duo had a tattoo on his left hip.

Wufei had caught only a brief glimpse of it as he opened the door; two words one above the other - a name? - just as thick black pants were pulled up over strong legs and a firm bare ass. Wufei had focused instantly on the tattoo. It was safer to watch that disappear under the black cloth than just about anything else.

He'd not seen it on his first day in Freeport, when he'd caught Duo in the shower. It was a bit to the front, high up on the left hip, right where a lover would rest his hand.

They'd both acted as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Wufei had come back sooner than expected from his shower to let Babka have her turn, and accidentally walked in on his roommate and stool pigeon while the latter was getting dressed. Hardly a crime, even by Wufei's strict standards.

Wufei caught himself observing Duo's left hip several times that day. And the next. His attention gradually waned, but he'd still glance up and focus on it inadvertently whenever Duo stretched back in his swivel chair with one of his huge, full-body yawns that pulled his t-shirt up and his loose pants down.

He could have just asked Duo what that stain of ink spelled out. But it was too trivial to mention, too trivial to even think about.

+

The chalk scritched horrendously, but Wufei continued to write.

"Have a heart, will you?" Duo whined behind him.

"'Nope, Wu, don't have a white-board.'" Wufei parodied, drawing another line. "What's it look like in here, a bloody conference room? Here, use the wall!'"

"Wow, you imitate me pretty good. Is that a party trick? You pick up girls that way? Sorry, I mean, guys?" It sounded like one of Duo's teases, but the tone was more abrupt than usual; they'd run into so many dead ends, and they'd just spent an hour going over them and getting more and more tired and cranky.

"What are the possible links between Carver and Ferret," Wufei growled, bruising his knuckles on the wall and nearly breaking the chalk. He'd written their names with an arrow between them. "They could be associates." He scratched the word out on the wall.

"Associates in what?" Duo countered in a bored tone. He was leaning back in his swivel chair, hands behind his head, watching the crude evidence board Wufei was putting up. "Carver worked for different political groups, according to your bloody info full of holes. You also said he took contracts that weren't political; he offed some financial fraud types too."

"So what are they doing, working together in Freeport?" Wufei muttered, the hand with the wet sponge hesitating over the word Associates.

"They could be buddies. Carver could be another ex-reb. Seems like Ferret - or Al, as he's known - has strong loyalties."

Wufei scratched out the word 'allies' slowly. Duo hadn't sounded all that convinced either. True, Ferret had looked after Herb and seemed keen to protect him rather than silence him. But Carver...Wufei had never seen him, except in a smudge of crude pixels in a blurred photograph, but Wufei knew Carver in that area of his soul that didn't require evidence to know right from wrong. Carver was a mad dog, and he would not work with others easily.

"Or Ferret could be paying Carver to help him," Duo added.

"Paying him? To kill Joshuah Brindlow, perhaps?" Wufei tapped the name Josh B. with his finger thoughtfully; it was orbiting Ferret and Carver's names, along with the names of Ravachol, Herb, Mako and a few others that Basil had reported to them.

"I don't know where Josh fits into all that," Duo grumbled. He thumped his boots onto his workbench and stared at them moodily. "And then there's this organization that Ferret belongs to. More than a gang, according to Bas. Don't know what that means, but I'm thinking it's not something I wanted to find in Freeport."

"Why not," Wufei growled, tossing the chalk into the garbage can; the whole exercise was futile. Over a week and no sign of Herb - but a lot of frightened people who suddenly didn't want to talk to Duo anymore. Wufei was never going to get out of this bloody hole! "Why not? This place is a- a pressure cooker of malcontents, criminals, thieves, madmen, smugglers-"

Duo made a V-sign to the empty air.

"-pirates, ex-rebels, hot-heads and a frightening amount of terrorists! What this place needs-..."

Duo's eyebrows arched as he slowly swiveled towards Wufei. "Yeah? Go on?"

"Maxwell, even you have to admit this place is a pit! People live in fear, disorder and at the constant edge of extinction!"

"It needs a bit of law and order, doesn't it?" Duo purred.

Wufei was tired and frustrated and angry at their lack of progress, but even he recognized the danger signals.

Unfortunately, it just wasn't his nature to let that stop him.

"If you want my opinion, yes," he bit out coldly. "You grew up with tyranny as the only authority. But the laws, when applied correctly, allow people to live and prosper in safety."

He crossed his arms severely over his chest. Duo flowed out of his chair and sauntered towards him, hands in his pockets.

"It's your own creed," Wufei challenged, refusing to be impressed by the slow predatory prowl towards him. "Don't you preach survival above all? Then why do you put up with such desperate conditions? Can't you see that a minimum of laws and civil obedience could improve so much here? I'm talking basic safety!"

"Yeah, sure," Duo shrugged. "And if this was still a penitentiary, it'd be safer still."

"What? Maxwell, why do you always exaggerate! I-"

"Yeah, maybe I'm stretching it, but that's what Outside feels like to us," Duo interrupted, stopping before him, hands still stuck in his back pockets. "A lot of guys here are spacer scum; they'd be in jail if they weren't in Freeport. When it comes down to it, the Alliance, OZ or the Peacecraft regime all rely on us to obey them to be safe; or obey The Law, as you say, but they're the ones who make it, right? Well, that's the problem. We're not tamable, Chang. We're not pets. We're roaches. We survive in our ‘desperate conditions', and we thrive. This is our home. Not just Freeport; Space is our home."

Duo was close. Wufei would have to turn his head to look away from those brilliant blue eyes. "That's what we have here: the freedom of Space. It's big and it's scary and it's fucking dangerous, but it's also what people first came to the colonies to find. Soon, humans will be leaving this dinky lil' solar system. And it will be in a Freeport-built ship with a Sweeper crew, no matter what politico is on the bridge making the speeches. And in the big, fat Unknown out there, who do you think has the better chances of survival; the sheltered planet-dweller? Or a Freeport Citizen who's always relied only on himself and his buddies?"

Wufei had his mouth open to counter with...something. Whatever it was vanished from his mind when Duo casually put a hand against the wall near Wufei's shoulder and leaned in, apparently to catch his words all the better.

"I'm a colonist," Wufei found himself saying, without knowing why.

"And as tough as they come," Duo murmured back, head tilted slightly, his gaze drifting away from Wufei's to drop to-

Wufei pulled back abruptly and banged his head against the wall. His eyes narrowed warningly.

Duo was still for a second, then his cheeky smile leapt back into place.

"You got chalk in your hair."

Wufei lifted his hand upwards- Duo leaned away and thumped him on the shoulder.

"Come on. We're stressing out here. Let's go take a hoop break before we kill each other. Best out of thirty? The winner gets the left over spaghetti; the loser has to eat Babka's cheesy potato things."

Wufei released the breath he realized he'd been holding.

"I have to clean this up," he mumbled, turning towards the marked wall and lifting the wet sponge. "We can't leave it for someone to find if they break in again-"

"Do it later," Duo ordered, dragging off his thick sweater and tossing it on his chair in passing. "I know Rav seems to walk in here like I got a revolving door, but I don't think he'd do that while we're in the yard outside."

Wufei put the sponge down and followed before his caution could point out that maybe now was not a good time to have to body-block a sweat-soaked Duo in a flimsy t-shirt.

Too late. And he was damned if he was going to eat Babka's two-day old dish lurking in the fridge. Wufei's resolve reshaped itself swiftly, his control falling into place. He forced his mind to discard the memory of two bright blue eyes, shining with a faith in the future that had no place here, in Freeport's jungle. A faith Wufei had never had; never had more than a faint longing and hope when looking at the deep-space explorers or the stars outside...

+

Duo wasn't all that good looking.

Sure, he had some charm. But if you looked at him analytically -

Wufei's eyes darted disobediently towards their study once more. Duo had gone to sleep earlier. His face was lax, no expression masking or enhancing his natural features. Wufei tore his eyes away again; Duo didn't seem to mind having him around while he slept, but Wufei couldn't have felt more uncomfortable with his uncontrollable urge to examine his ally if Duo had been sleeping naked.

The image stayed in his mind as he stared blindly at the laptop, and his mind went over it in memory.

Duo's nose was too big, and slightly upturned. His mouth was too wide. His body was rife with wiry energy instead of calm self-possession. His braid and bangs were scruffy- in fact, that described him entirely: scruffy. Wufei thought that men should be neat, self-contained, quiet, reserved, and though he did not judge a man on his descent, Asian or otherwise, he personally preferred those kinds of features.

Wufei realized he was staring at Duo's profile again. It was bathed in the glow of the laptop Wufei was supposed to be using to review the news of recent disturbances throughout L3.

Duo certainly wasn't hard to look at. But it was probably a matter of taste. Wufei couldn't focus on a single feature and say that he particularly liked that one above all others he'd seen in other men.

The lashes - thick and the same brown as his hair - flickered. Wufei was staring instantly at the laptop again. Duo slept lightly, and woke up at the slightest provocation; even someone staring at him would probably be enough. He'd gotten used to Wufei's presence over the weeks, but there were limits.

With some difficulty, Wufei refocused on incidents that had nearly led to a riot on L3-X034.

...The problem was you never had just Duo's features. It was like looking at a single wave and saying you'd seen the sea. Not that he had depths, of course, Wufei thought with an inner snort.

No, but he had a faith in himself, in the future, in this chaotic, violent colony, that...that seemed to radiate from him, feeding his restless energy. A self-confidence that made him walk taller than his five-foot-five frame had any right to be. An easy, open demeanor that had no place in a young man who had seen so much death and destruction - and who'd dealt a good amount of it, too. And he had a fierce loyalty towards Freeport and towards the people met and dealt with, even the criminals; even Ravachol, Wufei remembered bitterly, and wondered why he felt so strongly about it. He didn't think Duo would refuse to do his duty because of it...

Maybe it was because that faith had been placed in Wufei as well. And here, tonight, in the glow of the laptop's screen - scrolling through riots where he should have been present, rather than rotting in Freeport - tonight, Wufei didn't feel worthy of it, and not only because his presence here was in part a sham.

Wufei had no faith. He lived for Justice because it was his duty, his core; he had faith in nothing and no-one.

He was staring again. Duo had turned his face slightly into his pillow, but otherwise hadn't moved. He looked warm and comfortable in that bed; Wufei absently rubbed his arms, feeling the chill in the room; his eyes were growing heavy looking at that still form sleeping peacefully.

Wufei quietly and deliberately closed the laptop, banishing the image illuminated by its phosphorescent glow. He slipped into the sleeping bag, still fully dressed, but he didn't feel any warmer before he drifted off into a light restless sleep.

+

They waited until the hallway was empty and most of the workers in the sector had gone to bed. Duo rapped gently on Agostina's door. He had that annoyed and worried look in his eyes, the one he'd been wearing for the past few days since they'd talked to Basil. His expression cleared when footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. Wufei watched discreetly, oddly fascinated, as the anxiety over their lack of progress was pushed down, lost among other currents of thoughts and emotions, open and honest yet by their very presence masking others.

The self-confidence that seemed to underpin Duo's personality came to the fore, along with a pleasant smile, as the knob turned.

"Yes?" Agostina muttered, opening the door and pulling her bathrobe close around her ample bosom.

Duo opened his mouth- Agostina's dark eyes widened as she saw who it was.

The door slammed shut in their face.

Duo stood gazing at it. Strangely enough, he didn't look surprised, unlike Wufei who'd half-drawn his sword out of sheer startled reflex. There was a steely look in Duo's eyes and his smile had become razor-sharp.

He knocked again gently.

"Go away!"

"Agostina…"

"Go away! I won't talk to you!"

"Why not? Who told you not to, signora?"

"N-nobody! Go away, please!"

"How about Herb?"

"I don't know where he is!" The voice was almost hysterical.

"Don't you want to know?"

There was silence for a few seconds, and Wufei thought he heard a muffled sob.

"Come on, Agostina…" Duo whispered near the worn plastic of the doorframe. "It's been nearly two weeks since his ‘friends' came to get him. Aren't you worried?"

Of course she was worried, they both knew. More than that, though, she was scared.

"I-I can't talk to you. You're trouble." Agostina sounded plain miserable.

"Who said that, Signora?"

"Everybody! They all said it! Go away!"

"They all said it?" Duo's eyes gleamed in the dimly lit hallway. "You don't just mean Herb's friends, do you? Who else talked to you? What's Herb caught up in, Agostina? Who's after him? Do you know he's cut and run from his friends, too? Did they also show up here to ask you if you'd seen him?"

There was a sharp sob and a thump as she leaned against the door.

"Herb's all alone out there now. You know what that means. Who is after him? And are his friends looking for him to protect him, or-"

There was a sliding noise and the sobs tumbled down to near floor level. Wufei stared down in pity as if he could see the heart-broken, frightened woman huddled there.

Duo slowly sank into a crouch, reached out and touched the door gently. "Don't cry, pretty signora. I'm doing my best to find Herb. And I don't mean him any harm. In fact, the sooner he talks to me, the safer he'll be. You know who I am, right? Did some of the men who came to threaten you tell you who I was?"

Agostina whimpered an affirmative.

"I know Herb hasn't contacted you. They came here to pick him up, they know this address; he'll know better than to return here or send a message. That doesn't mean anything bad's happened to him."

Yet, Wufei mentally added.

"Listen to me carefully, Agostina. They might be watching you. They have no reason to harm you though, so don't worry too much. But if you ever feel you're in danger, you go and talk to a friend of mine in this sector. Eric Gervasa, 301 on Eighteenth. Got that? He'll get you to me discreetly, and I'll get you out of here. Just for a while. Okay? I have a very fast ship and permanent take-off permission for emergencies."

The gloved fingers soothed the chipped paint of the door.

"You show up, I'll use it. I swear I won't ask you any questions or anything about Herb. Okay?"

Agostina didn't answer, but her crying had turned to sniffles.

"Goodbye, signora. Be safe," Duo whispered, and stood in one fluid movement. His eyes were hard again as they pierced the darkness of the dingy hallway around them.

Wufei followed Duo out, scrutinizing the buildings and the few people around them, looking for the spies who were apparently following them, threatening the people they talked to. He'd been surprised that Ravachol had not acted against them after his visit and threats; it looked like he was taking the circumventive measures of blocking their enquiries instead.

"We should have broken down that door and gotten her away immediately," Wufei growled, once they'd rejoined the back alleys, keeping an eye open for tails.

"She's in no immediate danger," Duo answered. "She's got friends here, she's a good citizen. Hassling her would stand out as much as Josh's murder in Kro. They can't afford that."

That was Freeport logic, presumably. It kept this insane asylum from descending into complete chaos. It worked; it had apparently been working for decades. Anyway, Agostina wasn't a witness. Wufei had not been ordered to protect her. She knew nothing useful; it was doubtful Herb would contact her-

To hell with it.

Wufei grabbed Duo's arm and spun him around; he kept his voice low with respect to the few passer byes, but he did not hide the threat as he hissed: "If they hurt her, this colony won't be big enough to hide them, even if I have to spend the rest of my life here."

Duo didn't tell him to shut up or behave like a Blade.

"That's why she'll be safe," was all he said. The same dark fire was dancing in his eyes.

They walked around Vanzetti a couple of times, just to check, then they headed on home in silence. Words were unnecessary.

+

Duo had a few bad habits; the kind any bachelor developped, and a few that were unique to ex-Gundam pilots.

When he was bored, for instance, or frustrated, he'd sit on his bed and toss his collection of daggers at a crude chalk bulls-eye he'd drawn on the opposite wall. He ate very slowly, and he talked with his mouth full. And he talked a lot. He didn't do his laundry often enough either. Granted, the community launderette was ten blocks away, but Duo led a very active life, and he could do with changing his socks a bit more often, in Wufei's fastidious opinion.

Still, Duo was far more pleasant a roommate than Wufei would have thought, especially as they were living together in such a small space. Wufei had never even considered that potential problem when Trowa had sent him here; he'd been ready to ignore Maxwell for the good of the mission and leave it at that.

The mission was something that took over their lives from the time they closed the front door behind them to the time they returned. But the time he lived with Duo had somehow become the ground rock on which it was based, the shelter that let him rest.

Wufei had never lived with anybody before.

He was overly sensitive of impinging on Duo's space. Duo didn't seem to mind, but Wufei knew that he was taking up as much room in Duo's life as Duo was in his. Heero had apparently been a very quiet roommate; he'd asked few questions and stayed entirely focused on the missions. Whereas Wufei grew bored and restless. He went out. He talked - well, listened - to Babka and Gilla and other neighbors. He probed Duo for information about Freeport's society while trying not to ask any obvious questions, a game of wits they were both beginning to enjoy.

Wufei also had a considerable temper that easily matched that of his host. His was cold and cruel, where Duo's was hot and loud. Flare-ups were frequent, but mostly resolved with a glare or a few sarcastic comments followed by a cooling down period.

All in all it was working out pretty well, and Wufei wondered if Duo was as surprised about that fact as he was.

+

"Another email from Morgenstern."

Wufei glanced up from the encrypted notes he was scribbling down, a memo of the latest information they'd gathered.

"Again?"

"Yes. Says he'd like to..." Duo's eyes dropped to the screen, "'invite us over to dinner, and chat some more about the troubles in the colonies'. Chat. Do I chat? Only old ladies with poodles chat. I'm a guy; I talk."

Wufei rolled his eyes, ignoring the soliloquy with the ease of practice.

Apparently, Morgenstern had initiated a campaign to get Wufei to move to Kropotkin. He'd invited them over once before, and they'd gone, hoping to gather some information about the murder in the sector. Morgenstern had listened to Duo's questions carefully, but had not been able to give them any clues. Then he'd talked at length about the freedom of the colonies, the problems the inhabitants of Space faced in an Earth-governed future, and how so many good colonists lived in Kropotkin, and he was always keen to see more settle down there.

It had been interesting to listen to him; the man was obviously very intelligent. But some of his opinions made the Preventer's hackles twitch. And Morgenstern's curiosity about Wufei's future was becoming a liability.

"I'll say we're too busy," Duo muttered, typing quickly. "Put him off a bit. Hopefully he'll forget about you."

Wufei thought that Duo was the one Morgenstern was mainly interested in, and the man was talking about Wufei's future in a hope of roping in the smuggler. But he didn't correct his friend.

"Any other news?" he grunted, writing up a summary of the case's progress to date (which didn't take long). He'd have to go and drop Trowa a report at some point, to give him the information and mainly to signal to his friend and commanding officer that Wufei was still alive. After that he had to clean up the grease they'd spilled all over the workbench and the yard, and nag Duo into doing the dishes.

He glanced up as he realized that his usually voluble ally hadn't answered.

Duo was staring at an email on his screen.

"Duo?"

"We've found Herb," Duo stated flatly.

"What? Where?!"

"Recyc."

Wufei drew in a short, sharp breath. Damn, they were too late-

"Alive," Duo added. "Apparently he's hiding out in Recyc. Which was clever of him; most people don't have any dealings with the Trolls, so they wouldn't know to look for him there. No wonder we couldn't find him."

"Who sent you the information?" Wufei, ever the paranoid Preventer, queried.

"A fellow rat-catcher. I passed Herb's details around to the rest of the gang. The mail's kinda cryptic for security reasons, but as far as I can make out, my buddy was going through the lower ends of the colony looking for his own prey, and spotted Herb talking to a pirate. My buddy followed Herb when they'd finished talking, all the way to Recyc."

"A pirate?"

"Easiest and fastest way of getting out of Freeport on the sly," Duo answered tightly, springing up from his chair and reaching for the coat he'd tossed lazily onto the counter earlier.

"He's making a run for it?" Wufei guessed, shooting to his feet and reaching for his sword.

"That's my guess. The thing is, pirates are a tight-knit bunch with their own loyalties; they might tell Herb's enemies about this if they think it's in their best interest. I hope Herb didn't just go and blow his cover." Duo was already at the door, checking his spring-loaded dagger automatically.

"Then I guess we better find Herb first," Wufei grunted, shouldering on his jacket.

"That sums it up, mate. We'll take the train, no time to waste walking around. I'll keep my eyes out for what's ahead, you try to spot any tails. Got it?"

Wufei nodded crisply.

If they found Herb, the latter should now be scared enough to tell them all about Ferret and Carver in exchange for Duo's smuggling him out to safety. With Ferret and Carver's names, they'd find the bastards fairly quickly. Wufei felt sure, in his gut, that Carver was working for Ravachol, which should give Duo some means of defense against the crime lord. Once Duo was safe, Wufei could pursue Carver outside with a clear conscience; Trowa would probably assign a whole team to Ferret as well, so Wufei wouldn't have to worry about that rodent either.

That was what was going to happen. He'd leave Freeport, Duo, the neighbors, the dingy streets, the sharp scrutinies and the smiles and frowns, the small habits and customs that had filled his days for a time that seemed to stretch back much further than it had any right to. He'd leave all this and go back to a temporary apartment in a Preventer office somewhere, and deal with his job, and-

He couldn't see it. He could barely remember what the last apartment he'd lived in had looked like. He'd never known any of the names of his neighbors. Only his job felt real. His duty.

That would be all he had, soon. Wufei tried to convince himself that this small, strange episode in his life would soon be over; it was oddly hard to believe.

[chap. 18] [chap 20] [back to Maldoror's fic]