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

Freeport + Chapter 2

If travel is searching
And home has been found
I知 not stopping

I知 going hunting
I知 the hunter
I値l bring back the goods
But I don稚 know when

I thought I could organize freedom
How scandinavian of me
You sussed it out, didn稚 you ?
Yeah!

You could smell it
So you left me on my own
To complete the mission
Now I知 leaving it all behind

I知 going hunting
I知 the hunter, I知 the hunter


- Bjork,'Hunter'

+

A glance out the dock's viewport and Wufei spotted their destination; a small shuttle which showed signs of a lot of post-manufacture tinkering. It didn't look very pretty, but Wufei was ready to bet that it was fast. It was Duo's own property, bought after the war with funds which it would be wise not to examine too closely. Wufei had never begrudged Duo the ship; he knew that the L2 native had a passion for space, and Duo deserved some kind of reward for the war which he'd helped to win. It was what he occasionally chose to do with his wicked little ship that Wufei disapproved of. Smuggling contraband to colonies still under martial law. Transferring stolen goods from other clusters to wherever they would be fenced. Occasionally getting outlaws past check points in space, for a price...At least, as far as Wufei knew - he was trusting Trowa's information on this - Duo had never run guns or drugs, or participated in anything remotely political himself. Until he crossed that line, he was more useful to them free and helping them to corner more serious threats to peace than a small-time conman and crook could represent.

There was a funny smell in the air as they breached the airlock seal and entered the ship. Something slightly chemical, but not ship fuel or plastic. Hard to define. It seemed to permeate the bedclothes of the small bunk, the towels near the showerhead, the change of spare clothes in the cubby-hole into which Duo casually tossed his jacket in passing. The spare clothes were black, Wufei noted, with something like a flicker of recognition.

He navigated his way around a few boxes that had overflowed from the cargo hold and had been fastened by steel nets to various points of the cabin. Hopefully there was nothing in there that he, as a Preventer, should be worrying about. Probably not; Duo was taking them into Freeport via the legal route, which meant he was going to have to cross the blockade.

Duo moved with his usual coiled energy, hopping over the armrest to land lightly in the pilot's chair, hands already on the console with a controlled yet eager gesture. Wufei sat down in the co-pilot's chair with considerably more dignity. He stayed out of Duo's way while the latter went through pre-flight checks; if Duo needed his help, he'd ask. Wufei doubted it would be either required or wanted. Duo had always been extremely twitchy about people meddling with his 'buddy', Deathscythe; even Howard's engineers on Peacemillion during the war had been no exception. The Gundams had been sent on their Viking funeral to the sun years ago; this ship was now Duo's pride and joy. The fact he'd called it 'Scythe' was probably a good indication he'd feel just as protective towards it. Wufei kept his hands away from the console and composed himself to wait patiently until they were on their way.

"Freeport, here we come..." Duo murmured, edging the ship out of docking. As the clipper lost the colony's spin, Wufei felt the familiar full-body lift of zero G tug at him. He glanced out the viewport, then at the radar readout. The clipper was heading towards the space lane furthest from the L2 colony where Schreibeker lived.

Freeport was, in theory, part of the L2 colony cluster, being set at that Lagrange point; but both geographically and politically this wasn't the case. Wufei glanced at his watch. It would take nearly two hours to reach their destination; one of the furthest flung colonies of the Space Sphere, bar the Mars project and a few mining satellites.

Duo set the autopilot and checked his flight plan and engine turnover with the cheerful conscientiousness Wufei remembered. The complete focus he gave to his task offered Wufei the opportunity to discreetly examine his one-time ally.

Neither of them had gained much more than half-a-dozen inches in height - colony stock, the both of them. Wufei had his Asian heritage to add to that, while Duo...well, with Duo, it could be the result of any number of genetic or environmental factors. Wufei didn't know much about Maxwell's past, but he remembered Heero mentioning one of the L2 slums, and Duo himself had told him once he was an orphan since he was a baby. Didn't take much imagination to figure out in what circumstances he'd grown up; Wufei had seen many victims of that kind of upbringing in the past five years. Enough to realize how very, very protected his own childhood had been, despite his intense warrior training.

Duo's body had grown in other ways; he'd gained some wiry muscles, his chest and shoulders were broader. Combined with his relative lack of height, it made him look considerably more...solid than when they were children. But he moved with fluid grace and precision as he double-checked engine output and life support, reached up to test the fuel jettison switches, and across to prod the O2 monitor which appeared to be vacillating. Wufei wondered if Duo still kept to a soldier's physical regimen these days.

"It's just the detector," Duo mumbled over his shoulder absently as he scowled at the O2 detector. "I've already triple-checked the air on my way out. Gotta change it. Oy, something else to take care of." The end of the sentence was a grumble. His voice hadn't deepened much; it had been nearly mature five years ago already. Wufei remembered that slightly sardonic drawl well: it seemed to tell the world to stop taking itself so seriously...unless it wanted Duo to start taking it seriously too, in which case blood would be spilled. He'd picked up twangs of an odd accent since the war. A couple of times during take-off he'd used some space lingo Wufei wasn't familiar with. Probably local to Freeport.

The subject's face had become a bit leaner with age, the features bolder. Still very distinctive, with a wide mouth, slightly upturned nose and big eyes, of an odd blue. The braid drifted across his back as he bent to check another dial. His hair was darker now - due to lack of sunshine, artificial or otherwise, probably - and the braid was a couple of inches shorter. His bangs were still thick and wild. Wufei's fingers ran over his hair, caught back in its neat, tight pony-tail. How on earth could Duo fight, or pilot, with hair hanging in his eyes?

Duo entered a few commands into the onboard computer, the leather of his gloves whispering over the plastic. He'd not taken them off. Wufei found himself staring at the fingers flying over the keys. His eyes narrowed. Oh...how did that happen...? He wondered if it was proper to ask. Duo had certainly felt no compunction about grilling him over his burns - Wufei's lips twitched at the unintentional pun - but Wufei still found himself constrained by the propriety he'd inherited along with his sword, his pride and his purpose in life; it sometimes popped up to war with his tendency to be blunt and mercilessly straightforward, as a warrior should be.

"Right, auto-pilot's on and we're on our way, so hand over the file." Duo snapped his fingers at Wufei, the sound muffled by the gloves. Talk about politeness...Wufei simmered internally but dug out the file from the knapsack he'd slipped into a holding net near his chair. Duo leaned over against his harness and tugged at it. Wufei had to force his fingers to unclench. Damn it, this wasn't highly confidential information but still- Wufei reminded himself that Trowa had ordered him to cooperate, and he let go of the file before it could turn into a tug of war.

Duo affected not to notice his reluctance; he settled back into his chair, feet propped against the flight console. He flicked through the folder quickly, appraisingly, then he took another longer look at Carver's picture and what specs they had on him.

"Looks like a right bruiser. 6'3'' huh?"

"That's our best estimate. He's very good, only rarely got caught on camera. Some of those men he's seen with, in those pictures, are people we arrested; most of them are radicals, terrorists, rioters. They couldn't tell us much about him, though. Carver only worked with them when he absolutely had to - to get information on his targets, or to create a diversion...he's apparently hired by the heads of whatever resistance cells and sent to do his job with very little help or interference from the small fry."

"Christ...he sure believes in being thorough..." Duo commented laconically, as another photograph drifted, weightless, above the console with the rest of the information he'd read and discarded. Wufei remembered that one. Second victim, male, still a John Doe to date. The photograph was somewhat disturbing; the oblique cut had removed part of the victim's brain case and one eye, leaving the sinuses and other internal parts of the head slightly crushed and exposed like an anatomy chart gone haywire. A very sharp machete, forensics had thought necessary to add to their report...

"You don't know much about this guy." Duo's eyebrows were twitching towards his hairline as he read the profile, what there was of it. "You don't even have a clue about his political affiliations?"

"None whatsoever. He probably has none. He's a paid hitman." Wufei didn't hide his disgust.

"Yeah, that's a given, but...normally these guys are still politicos, even if they get paid for their hits. It's already weird this guy's worked for different revolutionary branches - a couple of which are known for not gettin' along too well. But all his victims and supposed contractors had something to do with resistance movements, so I can't believe this guy doesn't give a shit about politics."

"All the victims and contractors we know about," Wufei stressed, crossing his arms over his chest.

"What do you mean?"

"I found a couple of cases which looked familiar. Strong indications of his MO. No real proof though. The victims were figures in the mob. High financial fraud."

"...That's an interesting combo. Why is this not in the file?"

"It's my personal theory. I happened to make the link, but they- the Preventers are more concerned with the political threat of-"

"Yeah," Duo smiled cruelly, "what does it matter if a couple of shysters and their kids get cut up, right?"

"It matters," Wufei said softly, staring at a blinking light on the console.

There was silence from the other chair - not even the gentle whisper of pages turning. Wufei glanced up after a few seconds. Duo's gaze twitched towards the folder's contents again. Wufei thought he'd caught a look before the folder had come up like a barrier...intrigued?

Duo continued to read, eyes scanning each line as quickly and as thoroughly as he'd once reviewed schematics for his killing machine during the war. Wufei wasn't surprised at the amount of attention a mere informant was paying to the case. Because it was by now pretty damn obvious, from the lack of details Duo was giving him about his 'cover story' and what to expect on Freeport, that Duo was going to ditch Wufei somewhere safe and try to do most of the work himself. Wufei had nothing against Maxwell earning the obscene amount of money they were paying him for his 'jobs' in Freeport, but Trowa's instructions had been explicit. And besides, Wufei's pride and stubbornness would not allow him to let a non-Preventer do a lawman's job. He glanced at his watch. They'd been travelling almost an hour; they were about thirty minutes away from the blockade. Trowa had probably not meant his instructions 'get halfway to Freeport before being stubborn and confrontational' literally; but Wufei occasionally took perverse satisfaction in carrying out his more irritating orders as literally as possible, especially when that would rub someone the wrong way.

"Do you have any leads from that?" he asked the silent pilot, still bent over the folder. "It won't be easy to find Carver in Freeport if we have no clue where to start looking. How many inhabitants? Forty thousand? Fifty?"

"Eighty thousand dockers, six to eight thousand migrants, nearly that many outtatowners, thirty thousand Sweepers and miners," Duo recited a bit absently.

Wufei blinked. "That's...a hundred and thirty thousand residents?!" There was no way a colony of that class could support even half that number!

"No, a hundred and thirty thousand citizens," Duo corrected, examining a transcript while thoughtfully drawing the seam of his glove against his lower lip. "Sweepers and miners rarely land for any length of time."

"Sweepers are, er-"

"Citizens of Freeport, yeah."

Wonderful. He wondered if ESUN was aware it had thirty thousand potential vagrants and pirates in space. Most Sweepers he knew dabbled in smuggling, and hell, he was hardly in a position to complain about it, after they'd sold him contraband ammo and suit parts during the war, but the idea that they...'belonged' to the den of pirates that was Freeport...was rather unsettling, considering their numbers.

"What are...migrants and atta-...whatever you said?"

"Never mind. Just Freeport stuff." Duo cocked his head and lifted a piece of paper. "Heero wrote this bit, didn't he. The surveillance summary of possible exit methods this Carver fella used to get off L2-X953 once the riots went amber."

Amber? Wufei dismissed the unasked question and glanced over the rim of the folder. "Yes, Heero wrote that up. The typos are due to the painkillers we slipped him at the time."

"I gathered. He knows what I need, though, what to look for. I trained him well," Duo added proudly. Wufei managed not to bridle on Heero's behalf.

"So, what do you make of it?!" he snapped. "Is there any information you can use?"

"Some," Duo answered vaguely. "Right, Wu, let's set the rules. Trowa did tell you about the rules, right?"

"Yes. I'm to follow your advice-"

"That's 'obey my orders', bud."

"Yes, yes," Wufei muttered. A Preventer at the orders of a stool pigeon. Hopefully his ancestors were paying homage to the Celestial Jade Throne and not watching what their last descendant was going to be put through.

"Now, you know we can't arrest the bugger on Freeport, right?"

"I know," Wufei ground out. "I am well acquainted with the complete lack of the rule of law in that...that den of iniquity. We will find out what we can about Carver, who his contacts are, how he gets in and out of Freeport despite the blockade, and hopefully where he will be going next. Then I can pick him up next time he lands on one of the colonies. Heero has given me an outline of how you two operate on Freeport."

"Right. Just keep that in mind. In fact, delete the words 'arrest', 'rule of law', and 'Preventer' from your vocabulary. If you can," Duo added a bit sardonically. "They'll only get you up to the collar in recyc. In deep shit, I mean."

"I have been on undercover ops before, Maxwell," Wufei growled.

"Yes, but none like this one, I can guarantee."

"What's my cover story?" Wufei asked tightly.

"You're a guy who hangs around with me. Here, I got something you need to put on. You'll be in my room most of the time; you won't have to do much. The cover story will explain why you don't have to talk with anybody, and I really mean anybody. Nobody will ask you any questions. Even when you go out to take a piss. You'll be invisible. So you can-"

"No."

Duo had released his harness, drifted to one side and started rooting around in a loose cloth bag that was tied to a handle on one side of the cockpit. He turned slowly to face Wufei, and his eyes were like blades.

"I'm sorry, but what was that you just said?"

"I'm not staying in hiding while you chase down Carver. Trowa told me that you might want to take this route, and he's informed me that this is not acceptable. Carver is my responsibility, and we do not want to risk your position as our informant in Freeport."

"Barton's all heart," Duo spat out.

"He doesn't want you to get killed, either," Wufei added, realizing how cold that had sounded. Of course this was Trowa they were talking about; he cared, a lot, but there was a lot of chilly, empty space to get through before you reached that bit of his personality, and realized how warm and fiercely protective it could be. He kept it well hidden; that was his job.

"You could have fooled me. 'Cause if he's ordered you to stick to my ass, he's just signed my death warrant," Duo sneered.

"What do you mean?" Wufei challenged, temper slowly building. "Don't underestimate me, Maxwell, I'm a very proficient-"

"You're a fucking liability, is what you are, Chang! Don't even joke about following me around. Sure, it'll be hella risky for me to run around Freeport without backup for the kinda info I need to get, but hauling you around-" Duo interrupted himself with a burst of humourless laughter.

"Heero said he follows you everywhere you go," Wufei countered tightly.

"Yeah, but that's Heero." Duo had drifted back to his seat, bracing himself in with a foot against the console, his face set in a stubborn scowl.

"I can do everything Yuy can."

"No, you cannot! Because one thing Heero's ace good at is taking orders, and you just refused your first one!" Duo shot back triumphantly.

"I can do everything Heero can," Wufei answered softly, "as long as you treat us the same way. If you'd ordered Heero to stay back and hide while you went solo - and thus put the mission at risk - he would have given you the same answer I did. In considerably shorter terms."

Duo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Mission-shmission. This is my fucking life we're talkin' about. You're going to get me killed! Or you'll screw up so badly I'll lose my rep!"

Wufei's eyebrows twitched. Reputation? What kind of reputation could he possibly endanger, in a hive of scum and villainy?

"I will not screw up, Maxwell. Trowa has ordered me not to endanger your position in Freeport."

"Oh. Oh, that makes me feel so much better! If Trowa ordered you to fly, would you start flapping your arms about and-"

"If you tell me what to say and do, then I'll do it!" Wufei barked, his legendary temper fighting against the control he normally imposed on himself during a mission.

"I very much doubt that. You're too...Oy, don't even know how to say it, but fuck, if I'd run out of Gundanium plating for 'Scythe back during the war, I'd have used you instead. Though I'm very sure that's admirable when you're guarding the palace and bein' all authority and law n' order and such, in Freeport you'll-"

Wufei's harness hissed back and his fist hammered down on the console a foot away from Duo's arm as he lunged out of his chair. Duo reacted instantly, but he was caught against the seat. He recoiled against it, ready to defend himself like a rat in a corner, eyes dangerous, as Wufei drifted over him, his very stance and closeness an unspoken menace.

"Maxwell, you tell me what to do, and I'll do it," Wufei murmured, in a voice that even Heero never argued with. Duo didn't look impressed, but at least he was listening now.

The next words came out of the heart of Wufei's conviction, the kind that would see Carver in jail if it cost Wufei his life. "I give you my word that I will not endanger your reputation on Freeport." Whatever that was. "I will do what you tell me to - if you do not try to voluntarily shunt me out of the way. And I will help you find Carver. And remember this, Maxwell: you are risking your reputation, maybe your life. But my mission and my own life are also in the balance, as well as our future missions in Freeport, and the lives of Carver's next victims if I don't catch him. All that is not something I would stake if I did not think I could succeed. I've been through the fire myself, Maxwell. You would do well to keep that in mind."

Duo's eyes had twitched towards Wufei's chest at the mention of 'fire', and they were now tracing his features, millimetre by millimetre, as if he could weigh and measure a man's determination that way.

"I don't think you know what you're getting yourself into, Preventer. This ain't Luxemburg, yanno."

"I know. Hell, Maxwell, I'm never in Luxemburg," and that was better for everybody concerned. "Most places I work in are no better than Freeport."

"Hm. Well, we'll see about that," Duo muttered, annoyed, but the previous stubbornness had given way to a calculating look. Or at least Wufei hoped he was reading that right. Duo's features were wonderfully mobile and expressive, but Wufei knew from years back already that Maxwell could hide his feelings behind that face as well as Heero could when he wanted to. A good face for a poker player, or a smuggler; for someone who gambled with the law and death with a wicked smile and a pair of loaded dice. Wufei was actually surprised that Duo was being so cautious. He'd have thought that adrenaline junky wouldn't mind the challenge of oiling Wufei past whatever gangs they might have to confront, with his smooth tongue and easy wit.

Finally Duo shrugged. It was a marvellously expressive gesture. It made sure Wufei realized that this was in no way a surrender, and yeah, Duo still wasn't impressed, thank you. "Okay. Tell ya what. I'm ready to bet Heero never actually told you what he does in Freeport. Right?"

"No, he doesn't talk about it much." The subject of Freeport always seemed to annoy Heero somehow.

"Allow me then. I'll give you the download. And at the end, I want you to give me your word again that you think you can do this. That you won't screw up so badly it'll get us both recycked. Killed, I mean. You up?"

"That sounds fair," Wufei agreed, settling back down in the co-pilot's seat with a push against the flight console.

"Right. First off..." Duo reached back for the cloth bag and drew something out. "First off, you got to put this on."

Wufei looked at the thin black strip floating before his face, then at Duo's grin which could only be described as evil. He took the thing from Duo's hands and examined it. A strip of thick leather with a buckle like a tiny belt.

"Where do I-"

"It's a collar," Duo purred.

Wufei managed to keep his expression neutral with considerable effort. At this point he was wondering what the hell was his cover story exactly, but he pressed his lips shut against the question; Duo was just waiting to pounce on that one. So instead he put the leather at his throat and fumbled the buckle without a word.

"Here. I'll do it." Duo's voice was almost gloating; it made Wufei want to break something, possibly the mocker's other fingers. He didn't bother to hide his scowl, but turned obediently in his chair so that Duo could fasten the collar. It was tight - Wufei instinctively fingered it, trying to loosen the pinch to his windpipe. It was quite high up on his throat, just below the chin, with the buckle at the back. The jacket Duo had given him had a high, straight collar, but even that wouldn't hide this little piece of humiliation. Wufei wasn't going to dwell on it though. He'd done things before, in the pursuit of his investigations, his justice; he'd rubbed shoulders with types that he'd sooner exterminate than talk to...oh, he'd learned some patience in the past few years, when it came to his mission at least (it was when something or someone obstructed justice that he was still, as Une so elegantly put it, 'difficult').

"Is that all?" Wufei asked archly, ready to prove his determination. There was something of the challenge with which Duo had watched him undress earlier in his next words: "Am I supposed to call you Master?"

Duo had been in the act of sitting back down. His eyebrows shot up and for an instant Wufei thought he'd managed to catch the joker at his own game. Then Duo burst into laughter.

"Master? Christ, you really don't know much about where you're going! Yeah, call me Master, Chang, if you want to end up lynched to a lamppost. No, just call me Duo."

Wufei frowned and fingered the collar again. Damn, it was tight. He hadn't worn it a minute and he already hated it. It was going to interfere with his breathing during a fight, he just knew it.

"So, what's my cover story? Am I your slave?"

"Sweet baby Jesus, no, Chang!" Duo rubbed his face vigorously. "What are you, some sorta closet bondage freak or something?"

Wufei didn't answer, but his gaze probably informed Duo that the latter would be swallowing more of Wufei's sword than he could stomach if he ever made such allegations about Wufei's personal life again.

"You're gonna be my Blade. The collar is just to signal this; it's worn so everyone can see it easily. It used to be a headband, originally, or a cap, but some of the citizens are on the hairy side, and a hat could be lost in a fight. If someone calls you a Blackcap, well, it's the same thing as a Blade. They might also call you a Guard, or a Hound, though that last ain't really polite, like. But people shouldn't be calling you anything."

Duo had drifted forward again and adjusted the collar a bit during his speech. It felt better, it wasn't pressing quite so badly against Wufei's throat. Then Duo's hands darted up and-

"Hey!" Wufei tried to grab Duo's hand but the man was as quick as a thieving cat. Duo grinned triumphantly at the hair band he'd stolen; Wufei's hair, released in a savage pull that smarted against his scalp, floated around his face.

"That talk of hairy citizens reminded me...this'll make you blend in more. Huh. I never realized..." Duo cocked his head to one side and looked at Wufei thoughtfully, a bit of surprise and warmth in his small smile. "I've never seen you with your hair loose before."

"For a reason, Maxwell! I can't fight with my hair in my face," Wufei ground out, trying to gather it back.

"You get used to it," Duo informed him coolly, ruffling his own bangs. "If not, we'll think of something, but that 'do made you look too clean cut. Might as well have a buzz crew. Right." The hair fastener got propelled into the disposal unit seven feet away with superb precision despite the zero-G conditions. "Where were we...so, you're gonna be my Blade."

"Does that mean your thug?" Wufei asked morosely, trying to shove his hair back. It was about as controllable as spun silk once it was out of its hair band, and it was surging around his face and neck like a live thing under the lack of gravity. When it had been badly singed three years ago, during the napalm incident, he'd thought of shaving it off and keeping it that way - done and dusted once and for all. Sally, Lance, Heero, Trowa, Quatre and even Une had mounted a campaign of attrition to get him to change his mind before he could get out of the hospital and head towards the nearest barber shop. He rather wished he'd not let them win at this point.

"No. Not really a thug." Duo chewed his lip and looked hesitant. "It's...sort of hard to explain."

"What's to explain?" The word 'Blade' had made it pretty clear. Wufei knew this one; he'd been practically living in one gangland or another for years now. "I'm your thug, you're my boss-"

"No! Do not call me boss," Duo cut in firmly.

"What then, my lord and master, whose orders I have to-"

"Agh! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Duo wailed, waving his hands towards the viewport as if those notables had appeared on the nose of his shuttle like hood ornaments. "This guy's gonna get me lynched!"

"Okay, okay, no boss." This must be like those triads in what was left of Taiwan and Bangladesh, after both natural disasters and the Alliance had pounded anything sane out of those two, torn countries. There was a lot of show in those gangs about calling each other 'brother'. Of course, Wufei reflected acidly, there was always an 'older brother' somewhere, and you obeyed his orders blindly or he nailed your feet to the floor and then murdered your mother. Wufei was very familiar with this setup and the strange and rigid rules that bound them; he'd arrested quite a few 'older brothers' in his time. They tended to like gun running as a way of supporting their extended and murderous 'family'.

"Calibrate your audio circuits, Chang," Duo leaned towards him with steely patience in every line of his body. "This is important. Hopefully you will never be questioned on this, but this is more than knowledge, it's attitude. You gotta have it or we won't make it five feet past the sniffers."

"The what?"

"Save the questions for later. We've not got a tenth of the time needed to teach you how to act correctly - hell, we'd need three months for that. I hope you're a damn sight better at improvisation than Heero is. 'Cause at least Heero knew this stuff. Even if he didn't really understand it all. Right. A Blade and his Handler aren't just a thug and his boss. It's more like blood brothers. It's more like- put it this way, when I'm asked why you're with me, I'll tell them about how I saved your life during the war. And how you saved mine. That's the kind of bond between us. Okay?"

"Oh." That didn't sound too bad. Fairly honourable, in a way. He wasn't sure where the collar came into this, but-

"But there's a hella imposition here," Duo continued. "This is not something easy. For starters, you can't speak to anybody. And this is crucial, Wufei. This is like...a signature. It's a symbol. We're kinda big on those, in Freeport. You can't talk to nobody. Not to suspects, not to someone who asks you questions, not to the little kid you accidentally knocked over in the streets."

"Nobody?" Wufei's eyebrows shot up. "You mean, I'm supposed to be mute?"

"More than that. You can't even nod, wave or use sign language either. You - can't - communicate! You only talk to me."

"...Duo...it's an understatement to say that this will put a crimp in my ability to conduct an investigation," Wufei mumbled, dazed into something like hysterical humour.

"Heh, that's why you have me around. Don't worry, Heero manages."

"I'm not surprised," Wufei grumbled before he could stop himself; he didn't want to give Duo ammunition to get rid of him. Besides, this was his mission. He could do this! He hoped.

Duo looked at him astutely, as if guessing his thoughts. "Needless to say, you will do everything I order you to, blindly. Even something illegal. Even kill."

That took any kind of humour, surreal or otherwise, out of the situation. Damn. Well, he'd done...some pretty ugly things in his time. And he didn't think Duo would have him assault someone who hadn't attacked them first. He...sincerely hoped. But-...he had to focus on the mission. Carver. And also on Duo, for that matter; he couldn't risk Duo's position in Freeport. Trowa was right, an informant of Duo's calibre was needed there. If that meant eliminating someone who might have found him out- to save Duo's life and his own, he'd kill. He'd done it during the war.

Besides, there were surely very few people in Freeport who could be deemed innocent.

He nodded grimly, and Duo sighed. "Hopefully, it won't come to that. It's not that common for people to die in fights. Remember that. If someone 'bushes us, you can draw blood, wound or maim, in that order of seriousness. But only kill if I tell you to."

"Very well." That was ever so slightly reassuring. "So...exactly why am I not a thug? I'm just looking for an explanation here."

"Because...because you don't obey my orders for money or drugs or anything. You obey my orders because you trust me as much as you do your own right hand."

Wufei examined Duo's solemn face, surprised at the suddenly serious look in the blue eyes.

"It's something like...you're placing your soul in trust to me. Anything you do...it's as if I'm doing it. I'm held accountable for any of your mistakes and crimes."

Oh. No wonder he was afraid of what would happen if Wufei screwed up.

"Now you're getting it." Duo nodded, catching the slight widening of Wufei's eyes. "You can question me in public, in theory, but there's a line you cannot cross- better not talk too much when we're out and about. That's how Heero handled it."

"This is..." rather weird, was what Wufei wanted to say. "I'm not saying I can't do this, but out of curiosity, why can't you smuggle me into Freeport, or pretend I'm your employee or something?"

Duo closed his eyes and breathed out through his nose. "You don't work for nobody in Freeport. We don't have employees."

What do you have, buccaneers and gunny boys? Wufei bit back the sarcasm. He knew a bit about Freeport, but not enough apparently. This was sounding more and more bizarre by the second. Like he was sailing towards Tortuga, back during the conquest of the Caribbean seas.

"Now, you could come aboard Freeport and work with me, as a mechanic. You've got the skills. By the shitload; you used to repair your Gundam same as me."

"So...?" Wufei raised an eyebrow.

"So you can do this, if you're willing to work on a mining satellite or the outer space docks for a year. Got that time to spare, copper?"

"What?!" Wufei stared at him, bewildered.

"Oy, I didn't think Freeport customs were that unknown, even among you upper crust types. Didn't you hear about the quarantine?"

"No. I mean, I know what a quarantine is - I heard there is one, come to think of it. They lock you up for awhile, check your background, I suppose? I thought you could smuggle me past that." In fact, he'd rather assumed that was the main point of hiring Duo in the first place.

"They don't lock you up, exactly. But...let's not go into that. Let's just make sure you get one thing. You're not a citizen. You won't be much of anything, in Freeport. You're an extension of myself. That's because you didn't go through quarantine and migration. In a way, this is your quarantine. That's partially why you're not allowed to talk to anyone, why you have to- to centre everything around me. I'm your quarantine facility, if you want."

"You're not making much sense, Maxwell."

"That's because we're running out of time." Duo glanced at the ship's clock. "We'll be at the blockade in less than ten minutes. I've given you a brief outline. What's your word, Chang? Do you honestly think you can do it? Take a minute to think about it."

Wufei did. It wasn't what Duo had said about his cover story that bothered him; he'd expected worse once the collar had made its appearance. It was all that he didn't know that worried him. Freeport seemed to have a lot of customs that he knew nothing about.

"I only speak to you. I won't be expected to talk to anybody, or be asked questions?" he asked slowly.

"That's right. I can give you permission to speak, but that hardly ever happens. Ever. This is a very serious tradition, Wufei. If you start talkin' to people, even to say please and thank you, you'll be flagging that you're not who you say you are. I can't lay this on thick enough. No. Communication."

"Well...in a way, that's a good thing."

Duo's eyebrows twitched upwards in a prompt to elaborate.

"You're using terminology I'm not familiar with, and all these customs and rules-"

"We call 'em traditions."

"Whatever." Wufei rolled his eyes at the quibble, but that was a good illustration of what he'd been trying to say. "If I don't speak to you too much, and to nobody else, the chance of accidentally betraying myself are a whole lot less. Doesn't sound too hard."

"It'll be harder than you think," Duo corrected him. "There's my orders, and there's attitude too...but...I think I'll take a flyer on you as far as that goes." The blue eyes were tracing his face again, as if discovering something there that they hadn't thought to find. "So, you think you can do it?"

Orders. Duo's orders. Wufei hadn't actually considered that too closely, even when Duo had mentioned ordering him to kill someone. Because...

Because even if they hadn't seen each other for five years, even if they had always been extremely different, almost alien one to the other...there was still that grudging connection between them. They were like brothers who didn't know each other that well, but who were bound by ties of blood. A hell of a lot of blood.

Wufei was still leery of Duo Maxwell, of course. Duo was a criminal, if small time; he was a smuggler, maybe worse. If nothing else, he was a civilian. It went without saying that he did not have Wufei's abilities and priorities. But because of the blood between them, Wufei trusted Duo. He trusted Duo to not lead him astray, to not ruin his mission, because Duo now realized how important that was to him. And once he had Wufei's word, Duo would trust him with his life in return. The link between them did not need perfect understanding, or harmony, or a unity of purpose. It was the faith of men who'd fought back to back until they'd been welded together, and had to trust each other still. Pretty much...pretty much as if that nonsense about Blade and Handler were real. Hell, come to think of it, Duo had not said they were going to be pretending.

He straightened in his seat, one hand braced against the console, and bowed without thinking how out of place that tradition was here. "I swear, on my honour: I will do what it takes to complete my mission, and I will not endanger you. You have my word."

"Oy, no need to be that solemn." Duo was laughing and for the first time since Wufei had shown up in Heero's stead, his eyes were laughing freely too. "Just say 'yeah, Duo, I promise I won't screw up'!" But he'd sounded oddly pleased behind the laughter.

"Duo, I promise I won't screw up," Wufei repeated dryly, fingering the collar which was still a bit too damn tight. Hard to imagine Heero with this thing. Hard to imagine Heero in this situation. Hard to imagine himself, for that matter!

"I'll hold you to that," Duo tossed lightly over his shoulder as he turned back to the console and disengaged the auto-pilot.

Duo didn't have to hold him to anything; Wufei was always his harshest judge, still struggling to compensate for the many failures in his past. His friends sometimes told him he was too hard on himself, but that was the only way he knew how to be. He'd sworn that oath to Duo on his honour; he'd keep it with his life.

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