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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia! And a little wink to KD, from the Ventilation Shaft fanfic archive. 'Because everyone needs clean air and something to crawl through', as she puts it; and Wufei and Duo killing stuff, too.

Thanks to Anaitis for the beta, and thanks for all the reviews! I'm sorry, I've not been reviewing much myself this week; I've had, to put it mildly, a bad one. I've been unwell, ended up in ER, and have overall a bad case of the blues. Feeling better now, though. Fortunately, I'd gotten ahead with my chapters, so I didn't have to write this one last week. I'll soon be back to my usual laid-back self, and I'll have loads of good fics to catch up with.

Freeport + Chapter 21

"Entre chiens et loups
Quand tombe la nuit"


(Between dogs and wolves
When the night falls)


- Mano Negra, 'La Ventura'

+

Carver was towering above him in the dim light of old neon and dusty bulbs. Wufei eyes flickered over his target: chest like a wall; light body armor from shoulder to groin; knee-length brown coat. A red scarf had slipped down from a square face set in an oddly neutral expression, considering he'd just tried to kill Wufei twice.

Wufei felt a small smile twist his lips as his eyes met cold brown ones. He'd immediately committed Carver's features to memory, now that he'd seen him face to face. But there would be no need to track the killer down later in the streets of Freeport. Since Carver had attacked him, Wufei would insure the man would cease to be a menace to society. Here and now.

Carver was fast. The machete was a blur as it was yanked away from Wufei's sword and up, ready to cleave the smaller man in two.

Wufei was faster; his body uncoiled like a shot; his elbow slammed upwards into Carver's throat.

The killer fell back in surprise, coughing- Wufei spun and cut low, trying to catch Carver's thigh below the body armor that protected his chest and abdomen.

Carver stepped back, almost as quickly as his attacker. Wufei's blade caught the brown coat and sliced off a button.

The machete was already retaliating. No smile on Carver's face, no sign of challenge; there was only Wufei's extermination in those brown eyes. Wufei felt a flash of pity for Joshua Brindlow; the small, skinny Freetrader hadn't stood a chance.

Wufei dodged the blow and stayed within Carver's reach, turning his relative shortness into an advantage as the killer couldn't swing freely and use all of his massive strength. Wufei dodged a grab, and his fist shot out, seeking the edge of the body armor near the shoulder, a feint. At the same time his sword came down, a short hard blow aimed at Carver's left wrist to disarm him; if Carver lost the hand as well as the machete, all the better.

In a move that spoke of many battles, Carver ignored the light punch, jerked his machete away, avoiding the sword cut aimed at his wrist, and turned the evasion into a sideways swipe that could have cut Wufei in two.

Wufei leapt back, parrying at the same time, letting the machete slide against his blade and flicking the point upwards at the end of the parry, in an attempt to catch Carver in the arm again. Carver hissed. He'd been about to step forward and press his advantage. Instead he fell back, felt the new slice in his brown coat over his biceps and glanced with no apparent emotion at the stain of blood on his fingers.

The two fighters were motionless, blades ready, weighing each other. Carver's eyes narrowed a fraction; apparently reevaluating Wufei and his skill.

Wufei chanced a glance behind his enemy, worried at having heard nothing from Duo. His friend was still on the other platform, where he'd been stranded by Carver cutting the ladder on the pipe separating them. Duo was standing above a slumped form near a door out of the room; apparently another of their foe had been nearby. Duo was gripping an empty crossbow in one hand and riffling his victim's clothes for bolts. He'd already used his one throwing dagger- it had probably hit Carver's body armor-

There was a startled shout behind Wufei; the Preventer instinctively dodged and pressed his back to the wall.

The gangway he and Carver were on led to a rounded door out of the room. A small figure in a red scarf stood there, beady eyes fixed on Wufei and nearly popping out of their skull. Ferret, Wufei would bet his life on it. Herb was behind Ferret, looking frightened and unsure.

Wufei could afford no more than a glance; Carver was too high caliber a warrior to ignore. Wufei would have to kill or disable him first-

"The Trolls spotted us! We gotta get out of here!" Ferret shouted, his voice high and panicky. "The boss told you to stick with me!"

Carver's eyes flickered towards Ferret. His lips twitched into a sneer, quickly banished.

The machete came whistling straight at Wufei, a crude, powerful blow. Wufei grunted as he parried; the force of the attack slammed him into the wall. Breathless and bruised, his sword nonetheless darted out instinctively, finding the opening such a brazen attack would have left-

His sword's point caught against the edge of body armor and flailed into open space. Wufei stumbled. Carver hadn't carried through, hadn't even stayed around to see if his blow had gotten Wufei out of the way; he'd just leapt past the smaller man and was already halfway across the gangplank, heading towards Ferret.

"Come on, Herb! This way!" Ferret pushed Spasson's shoulder, and the taller man stumbled towards an elevator platform at the far end of the gangway. It looked like he was going with them willingly, and Wufei wondered why.

Ferret yanked the scarf away from his mouth and whipped a small com unit from his pocket.

"Ralph! Tor!" the small man shouted, his voice more assured now that he had Carver between him and Wufei. "Get your asses in gear! We got two meddlers here. The boss wants them dead! Get all your guys on it."

Damn.

Ferret turned towards Wufei with a sneer on his face- an expression that turned to abject terror when a crossbow bolt slammed into the metal half a foot from his ear. Behind Wufei, Duo muttered a curse at having missed. He'd probably been aiming at Carver; the killer had dodged the shot with casual ease and hadn't bothered to glance over his shoulder to see if Ferret or Herb had been pinned. Definitely not old war buddies...

Ferret and Herb jumped onto the elevator platform, which ground and clanked downwards, towards the level where more men waited to cover their escape with their crossbows. Carver stayed put for just a second longer, a barrier between Wufei and the others. For an instant those eyes flickered; a dark promise. One day, they would finish this fight, and only one man would walk away from it.

Then he was gone, still without one word, dropping silently from the gangway onto the elevator platform already ten feet below. Wufei, who had no intention whatsoever of waiting a second longer to finish their discussion, pushed himself away from the wall and started to pursue-

- and found himself flat on the ground, winded, with a heavy weight on his back.

He tensed - but the presence above him was familiar. As was the vibrating noise of a crossbow bolt planted in cheap metal sidings somewhere where his body would have been.

"Head down!" Duo hissed above him. "Our friends downstairs found themselves a better shooting angle."

"How-how did you-" In Wufei's mind, the large pipe loomed between the two platforms above a fifty-foot drop. Duo must have a cat somewhere in his ancestry to get past that obstacle so quickly.

"I think we lost Ferret again," Duo muttered. "And Carver."

Wufei bared his teeth in impotent denial. No! Not when he’d been so close!

A shout bounced around the walls of the large room. A bolt whistled above their heads and hit the wall.

"And these guys are trying to kill us," Duo added, as if remembering a minor annoyance. He squirmed off of Wufei and rolled over onto his side.

“Duo…?” Wufei licked his lips and tried to push down his battle fervor and blinding hurry to go after Carver long enough to marshal all the diplomacy he had, pitiful amount that it was. “It’s essential to our future missions in Freeport that you survive, but Carver- I can go after him, and you can try to make your way out- you can sneak out of here if I’m not-“

“I know what you're gonna say, and I think you can stop now,” Duo drawled, the anger in his narrowed eyes belying the lazy tone.

“But-“

“We can still tail Carver if we-"

“No,” Wufei growled, his fingers tightening on his sword's hilt till they creaked. “It's too dangerous- look, just get out of here and wait for me at the door to Recyc-“

“I’m sure the Trolls will give me a small pot-plant with a few of your remains in it if I asked. We go together or not at all,” Duo stated as another wild shot ricocheted over their heads, the bolt tumbling a few feet away from them.

Wufei wanted to yell, to curse, to order- which would bring him absolutely zero results apart from a little energy wasted. With a snarl he started crawling towards the door from which Carver, Ferret and Herb had emerged. Once out of the room, the shooters below would no longer be able to target them. Duo followed with a snort, probably a comment on Wufei's temper.

Wufei rolled through the door in one movement, sword ready. It led out into a short corridor, then onto another gangplank Wufei could barely make out in the darkness. He could hear shouts echoing from somewhere in the dimly lit sector around them. If the men who'd been shooting at them found a way around, or if they had com units-

He had to get them out. He had to get Duo out. But...his fingers clenched on his sword hilt.

"Relax, man," Duo whispered, patting him on the shoulder absently while casting a cautious glance behind them for the shooters. "It's okay. We'll track 'em down again."

"We're back to square one!" Wufei snarled, glaring down the empty corridor as if he could conjure Carver and Ferret before them through sheer force of will.

"Not quite, not-" Duo jerked back. A crossbow bolt shot through the opening of the door and thudded against the opposite wall. "Let's move."

+

The next room over was as big as a hangar. It contained huge hermetically sealed vats of something; it would be better not to think about it too closely. The air was heavy with the smell of chemicals and fermentation. Five men weaved their ways around the vats, heading towards the main door to the purifier room, reinforcements for the two crossbow shooters.

As the first one passed, Wufei dropped down from the vat atop which he'd been hunkered down. His extended arm scythed into the leader's shoulder, bringing the man down with a startled shout. Wufei landed crouched and flexible; his sword shot out and cut into the stomach of the next thug in line.

A third man leapt back with a shout and hoisted a spiked mace, but Wufei was on him before he could swing. The sword grated against the man’s ribs, doubling him over, then Wufei’s fist sent him crashing backwards into the vat. The creep fell down like he'd been shot.

Wufei breathed out, senses tingling. He knew without looking that behind him, Duo had already disabled - probably killed - the last two men. Wufei turned back towards his first victim who’d just sat up, rubbing his shoulder and groaning.

“Mine,” Duo murmured.

A black shape materialized between Wufei and the recovering thug. The man was jerked upright and slammed against the nearest vat. As an afterthought, the red scarf he’d been wearing was ripped away from his face.

“Hmm. Seen this guy around before. Not part of Ravachol’s regulars…maybe a merc. You got balls, man, coming to Recyc just because somebody paid you.”

The man made a move, then doubled over around Duo’s fist.

“I wasn’t done talking,” Duo told him pleasantly, grabbing him by the throat to straighten him again. “Though if you want to spill your boss's name, I'm all ears."

The thug was scrabbling at the tightening grip around his neck, but he still managed a defiant scowl. Then his hand darted towards his belt-

Duo sent the com unit flying with one swift cut of his free hand. "I guess that's a 'no, Mr Maxwell, I'd rather you hurt me bad'. Fair enough. You'll be glad to hear I'll let you live, though."

The man didn't look all that thankful. He was choking and slowly turning red.

"You're gonna give your boss a message from me." Duo's fingers eased around the throat as he leaned forward. Wufei was keeping a lookout a few feet away, but he pricked his ears up to hear.

"You tell him, this is Freeport. This is my home. And I don't like mysterious paramilitary organizations murdering people and running around like they own the place. No sir. That has what you might call 'bad connotations' for me. Tell your boss that he's made a big mistake. He just went to war with the wrong person. You tell him that. Or not, if you're too scared. I'll be telling him myself soon enough if you don't. Good night."

Duo's short vicious punch sent the man's head smashing back into the vat. The thug's eyes rolled up into their sockets and he slumped, slipping from Duo's hold.

“He might have told us who their boss is,” Wufei objected, absently cleaning his sword with a red scarf he'd picked up.

“No. No, I don’t think he would have.” Duo was looking down at the unconscious man thoughtfully. “I've seen that face before…and I don’t think he's a mercenary. This ‘boss’ must have very loyal followers…come on, let’s get out.”

Easier said than done. Wufei and Duo stared at each other over the fallen man’s body. They could hear shouts all around them, the hunters getting close.

But those fools weren’t the hunters. They were the prey.

Wufei felt the blood flow through his veins, the speeding of his heart. It wasn’t fear; it was anticipation. The men hunting them were cowards, small-time crooks, but they had numbers on their side by the sound of it. That made it interesting. Wufei lived for Justice, but deep within his soul, he knew he was only truly alive in these moments; when the slow tread of the law gave way to the immediate cut of the sword. When doubts could - had to be put aside, and the present was as thin and steely as a dagger’s blade.

Duo was grinning like a skull. “Feel like going out the hard way?”

Wufei stared at him without comprehension - though those words did evoke a memory…

“That’s two each at this point, right?” Duo added wolfishly, nodding at the felled thugs. "Not counting that last one, since we both worked him over."

“Two…?”

“Best man wins.”

Wufei stared at the hand extended towards him and remembered. The Lunar base. Two fifteen-year-olds still groggy from oxygen deprivation in a base full of armed enemies. Except that was only the surface of things. The real truth, the one that distinguished between life and death, was that they were two ageless killers in a base full of uniformed sheep who thought they were wolves.

He also remembered the stuck-up little brat he'd been back then, turning his back contemptuously on Duo’s extended hand. At the time, Wufei had just wanted to get himself and his new Gundam away from the Lunar base, and away from this doubtful ally who didn't seem to take anything very seriously.

Duo's eyebrows twitched in surprise as Wufei gripped the hand extended towards him.

"The hard way," Wufei agreed. "And this time I'm actually counting mine; you won't be able to claim a false victory by default, Maxwell."

"I won back then, Chang, and I'll win this time too," Duo chuckled, his eyes gleaming with amusement and murderous fervor. Wufei didn't find this strange or contradictory. The word that flitted through his mind, before the lust for battle turned the world into black and white still-frames full of targets, was ‘intoxicating’.

+

Wufei's feet rang noisily down the corridor just as the men passed near the darkened door at the halfway mark. The four men in the hallway froze for a second in sheer disbelief that they were being charged by a single attacker- then one lifted a crossbow-

Wufei dodged to one side, hitting the wall, rebounded- three more steps-

The man at the back of their formation screamed, a high-pitched burbling noise-

Wufei absently noted that Duo must have slit his victim's esophagus to produce that kind of god-awful noise.

The crossbow wavered- Wufei's sword blurred, his whole body behind the strike, through the first man's shoulder all the way across the body.

Thank you for the distraction, Duo.

Two men left-

Wufei's sword sliced at the second crossbow that had wobbled, hesitating between two deadly dangers. The man screamed and jerked away from the pain; the crossbow and most of his forearm hit the metal floor. Wufei punched him across the face with the heel of his free hand, and spun, sword ready-

The last man twitched, eyes and tongue bulging, a black stain spreading down the legs of his dark overalls. Wufei glanced at the dagger that had pierced the back of the man's skull, and gazed at the grin behind it.

"Mine," Duo murmured, voice teasing.

"Then that's four each," Wufei concluded, because at this point, the humor in the cold tally was just one more way of saying they were still alive and breathing, still defying death and fear.

"No, don't-" he started to say, as Duo leaned towards one of Wufei's victims to tear off the red scarf and see who they were dealing with. They didn't have the time-

A gasp at the far end of the corridor- and the sound of a catch releasing-

Wufei threw himself sideways, strong-arming Duo against the wall in the same movement. But he felt the body against his jerk, the sound of cloth tearing.

With a strength that surprised even him, he hauled Duo across the corridor into the small maintenance room in which Duo had lain in ambush earlier.

His hands were rough as they turned Duo over-

"M'okay!" Duo gasped. "Just nicked."

Wufei's fingers fastened around an arrow shaft- but it wasn't stuck in Duo's flesh, only in the leather coat. He ripped it out absently and threw it to the ground.

"We have them! We have them cornered!" An excited and frightened voice was shouting somewhere in the hallway beyond. "I shot one of them! I shot one of them!"

Duo glanced up at Wufei, who mouthed 'two'. His hand was still feeling Duo's back, a warm wet stain spreading under his fingers; he noted the smuggler flinch. But Duo stood up the next second, moving smoothly. Minor wound.

"Tor?!" Another voice. The second man, unless more reinforcements had arrived. "Tor, they killed- there's four of our guys down- where are you?!"

Duo stared at Wufei, then glanced at the wide ventilation shaft above them. The grimy aluminum hood, easily removed, ran from the ceiling of the small room, through a filter and into the walls on either side. It would open in numerous grids in the wall, one of them behind their enemy's back.

"I'm too broad in the shoulders," Wufei whispered.

"That's from working out like the health freak you are," Duo countered softly, slipping out of the leather coat. "Hold this for me, willya?"

There could be more on their way- you're hurt- I'm the one who should be taking the risks-

In the black and white world they inhabited, that sort of objection didn't exist. There was only one way, one path. Despite his anxiety as he watched Duo's hips wriggled into the opened shaft, Wufei felt a strange sort of calm, a dark joy. Having no choice was always liberating. He kept an ear out of reinforcements as the men shouted in their coms; he held his sword ready in one hand, the leather coat carefully in the other; he waited, listening to his heart beating, feeling the air move through his lungs, each moment unique while he still lived against all odds...

A clang: a grid being loosened further down the corridor-

Wufei burst out of the door with a war cry, effectively distracting the two dead men twenty feet away.

+

Mishmash of images. He was...on L2-X953? The terrorist base. He had to get out! The riot squad would be attacking soon-

"Wu?"

Duo? Duo hadn't been there-

Wufei shook his head; the resulting pain cleared it quite effectively.

"You okay?"

Duo was leaning an elbow against a pipe, legs wide, other hand braced against his thigh; the posture spoke of fatigue. Recyc. How long-?

"I'm okay."

"You sure? You look like you blacked out there for a sec."

Wufei blinked the fuzziness from his eyes and shook his head again, a bit more gently. He was sitting down on a floor made of metal grids; something warm and gummy mired his hand to the metal. He stood up slowly, feeling his balance. His stomach was tight and cramped and his scalp burned where the cudgel had cuffed him, but he didn't think he was concussed.

"You sure you're-"

"I'm fine," Wufei grunted. "And it's Tuesday today. In case you wanted to ask."

"And Relena Peacecraft is President. Don't remind me. Come on, I hear more coming."

The news meant nothing to Wufei. Neither did the bodies he stepped over to move to Duo's side. A warrior lived only in the now, and as long as the next sword cut.

"That's eight for me and seven for you," Duo muttered. He was shaking his left arm, loosening the fingers around the hilt of his serrated knife.

"That's eight all over and you damn well know it."

"Just checking," Duo chirped with an endearing grin. Blasted adrenaline junkie was enjoying this way too much.

Wufei felt his face, stiff with blood and drying sweat, crack into a gruesome smile. It was...good to be with someone who knew the dark joy of the warrior's path, who understood the purity of battle. And who treated death about as seriously as a giant game of poker with marked cards.

"Which way now?" he grunted, focusing.

"This way." Duo headed down one of the corridors without any hesitation. Wufei followed, rubbing the sore patch above his ear. That had been close; he'd twitched his sword up towards the source of danger that had suddenly appeared behind him, and the man had impaled himself on it after clocking Wufei. They'd fallen together, but only one had risen.

The enemy knew that he and Duo were slaughtering them. They'd grouped up into stronger units. The next fight would probably be the last, one way or another.

Wufei glanced at Duo. There was a lot he wanted to tell him, some things he should confess. But now was not the time. He'd apologize to Duo afterwards, either at the doors out of Recyc or at the gates into Hell.

Duo was smiling. It was strangely cheerful. He walked lightly, like a fifteen-year-old. Wufei blinked away the vision of a priest's collar, and rubbed his eyes.

Somebody shouted behind them and they broke into a run; the predators turned prey once more.

The pounding pace hurt his head with each jolt, but the pain was just one more sign of life. There was a beautiful clarity over the whole situation. Kill or be killed. No laws, no rules. Simple. The men they were hunting were out of their reach, but their pawns were all about them, and lying dead or wounded behind them.

It wasn't such a bad day after all.

+

Wufei felt a sneeze working its way through his sinuses. Considering their present position, it would be a rather deadly reaction to dust.

"Shit, Tor, we have to split up! We'll never find them!"

The words echoed around the metal and the shadows, twisting into cryptic vowels and consonants.

Tor's answer was too muffled to make out, but it didn't sound enthusiastic at the idea of splitting up.

"Tor, Amy says there's a dozen Trolls heading this way," announced another voice.

The enemy was about twelve strong. Four of them were at a crossroad nearby, while the rest hunted through the mazes of machinery that was the water processing plant. They were all staying within shouting distance of each other, and they were between the fugitives and the exit, according to Duo's blue-prints. Somebody had spotted Wufei and Duo dodging into the plant, but the man had been smart and waited for the others to catch up instead of following the two killers into the shadows and meeting sudden death.

"They could be fucking anywhere. We're not going to find them."

That's it. Give up. Go away.

"You want to tell that to the boss? They killed our own, Hendrick."

There was some complaining, the exact words lost in further echoes as they both moved away.

Wufei and Duo were squashed in the narrow space between a tall machine and the ceiling; it was good thing they were both fairly small. This spot had probably not been cleaned since it had been built; dust, grime and oil were slowly mixing with his sweat to cement Wufei to the unit. His tired muscles were starting to stiffen and remind him of his various lumps and bruises.

Wufei didn't like this strategy, but in the world of the hunter and prey, it was a good one; hiding conserved their energy while the foe wasted theirs. To find them up here, their enemies would have to look very closely; to do that, they'd have to split up into smaller groups, because they were already running out of time in hostile territory. And if they split up, Wufei and Duo would slaughter them. Wufei gripped his sword, controlled his bodily reaction to the dust by sheer strength of will, and waited.

Distant arguing- and sudden shouts. Running feet; the sounds of steel-capped shoes on metal and a funny shuffling sound. Wufei suddenly remembered the rubber boots the Trolls wore. He glanced at Duo.

"Time to vamoose."

They dropped from the top of the machine, filthy as demons, silent as ghosts. The enemy was still in the plant, but from the sounds of running and distant struggling, they had other things to worry about.

Now to get away from their hunters and the natives.

"Whatever you do, don't kill any Trolls," Duo hissed, walking cat-like towards the nearest exit.

"I'll do my best," Wufei muttered, as the shadow of a hooded, rounded creature waving a club was projected briefly on a distant wall.

"Hey!"

They broke into a run without even glancing back at whoever had shouted. Duo dodged around a coil of pipes higher than either of them, and Wufei followed.

They ran, swift and silent. Speed would save them now.

They didn't break a step when they burst through the door out of the plant. Two men beyond that- red scarves but no rubber clothes or hats-

Duo was already on the first man, knife blade a murderous blur ending in his victim's throat. Wufei sliced the trembling crossbow aiming at his friend out of its wielder's hands and slammed the blunt edge of his blade into the shooter's stomach. Then they were running again, their pace barely broken.

Two more corridors. Duo was no longer looking at the blueprints; either he'd memorized them while they were hiding, or he was homing on instinct.

Three Inner Trolls were standing at a console in a long room where four machine-tools were filling and sealing barrels. They glanced up, amazed, at the door that had crashed open. Wufei and Duo raced right past them without a glance. Shouts behind them. Drowned by the clamor of their boots as they thundered over a hollow section of the floor.

The sounds of pursuit were fading. Their enemy had more than two young men to worry about now. Ahead of Wufei, Duo slowed down and started running more quietly, stopping near intersections and checking ahead.

He opened a door carefully, stepped out onto some stairs leading down and suddenly froze, his hand thrown out in a gesture of caution. Wufei moved right up to his side anyway, ready for one last fight.

They were at the top of a flight of metal stairs at the far end of a huge hangar full of barrels and crates, some as large as a house. Supplies for Recyc. Wufei didn't know the layout, but functionality dictated that this was an exit point to the place. They'd made it out.

At the other end of the large hangar was a door with two figures near it.

Ferret had lost the red scarf. Even across that distance, Wufei could make out the rodent face, red and twisted with fury. Strangely enough, Ferret hadn't even spotted Wufei and Duo yet; it was hard to tell from that distance, but Wufei thought that anger was directed at Carver.

Ferret hadn't noticed them, but Carver had. The killer had turned in his tracks at the same time Duo's hand had shot out to hold Wufei back. Carver was staring straight at them, his machete in his hand.

Neither Carver nor Ferret looked like they were armed with projectile weapons, though Wufei hung back, ready to jerk Duo into the protection of the doorway if Carver made any suspicious move. His eyes drilled into the distant assassin; the clarity of battle that was his soul had already calculated the distance between them. If Ferret and Carver wanted to run, they'd be on the streets and out of harm's way before Wufei and Duo could get halfway across the hangar.

Ferret followed Carver's stare and did a double-take that was visible all the way across the large room as he spotted Wufei and Duo. Then he was out the door like a shot.

Carver stayed where he was for a few seconds, staring at Wufei. Then he turned his back to them and left, at a speed that clearly indicated he wasn't impressed.

"Bugger," Duo stated neutrally. He'd probably measured the distance between them and the killer already, and come to the same conclusion as Wufei.

Wufei grunted in agreement. He noted that Duo's voice was weaker than usual. Over two hours had passed since Carver's machete had nearly beheaded Wufei, and they'd been fighting, running and hiding continuously since. They were both tired. Physically, they were in no shape to catch up and defeat Carver now. It was surprising they'd even caught up with the man at all; he must have hung back for some reason.

"Herb wasn't with them", Wufei noted.

"Maybe he broke away in the confusion." Duo's voice was indifferent. He was still walking in the shadow of the valley of death; the only life he'd care about at this point would be his own. And Wufei's. Left hand, right hand, one unit...Wufei felt the tender lump near his ear, trying to clear the confusion and strange drifting thoughts from his mind without shaking his sore head.

"Did you notice...?" Duo made a gesture towards his throat.

"Yes."

"Huh. Well, you learn something every day."

Tomorrow, Wufei would be a Preventer again. Tomorrow, he'd remember the slaughter, the dead and the wounded he'd left in his wake, and the dark pleasure he'd taken in their death and his own survival. He would wrestle with his conscience- trying to force it feel something for the men he'd killed, so that he could persuade himself that he wasn't a monster, that he hadn't really enjoyed it on some strange level. While knowing that it was a lie. He would feel pity for the men as if they'd been victims of a forest fire, an avalanche, some random act of God. They'd stood in the way of something more dangerous than they could understand. They'd fallen. He had survived. End of story.

Then, tomorrow, he could wonder why the silent Carver had been wearing a Blade's collar, like a strange, warped reflection of Wufei's own image.

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