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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

Thanks to Anaitis for the beta! Huge thanks for my GWAddiction reviewers! Sorry I didn't get back this week, it was hard going back to work, but I'll try to answer at least the questions and crits sent my way sometime this week.

Freeport + Chapter 24

"A legacy so far removed,
One day will be improved.
Eternal rights we left behind,
We were the better kind.
Two the same, set free too,
I always looked to you...

We fought for good, stood side by side,
Our friendship never died.
On stranger waves, the lows and highs,
Our vision touched the sky,
Immortalists with points to prove,
I put my trust in you...

A house somewhere on foreign soil,
Where ageless lovers call,
Is this your goal, your final needs,
Where dogs and vultures eat,
Committed still I turn to go.
I put my trust in you.
I put my trust in you...."


- Joy Division, 'Means to an End'

+

Six Outer Trolls were waiting for them at the main entrance into Recyc, eyes grim over the rim of their scarves. Duo had let go of Wufei's wrist by that point. They approached the Trolls boldly, side by side, as if they hadn't crept in by a back entrance only half a day before.

The Trolls turned without a word and walked off. Their stance made it clear that it would be very unwise for the two 'guests' not to follow.

Wufei and Duo trailed after their guides, keeping out of strike range. Wufei could feel three more people falling in step somewhere behind them. At least he and Duo hadn't been disarmed. He hoped that was a good sign.

The last time they'd been through here, they'd been running and fighting. The corridors full of pipes, humidity, shadows and clanking machinery were even more ominous now that they were merely walking through them at a slow pace, Trolls before and behind them. The occasional crude pictogram looked like the curses on the walls of ancient tombs. The mournful shuffle of the Troll's rubber boots was the only sound their guides were making.

Duo walked with his hands in his pockets and a small smile on his face. Wufei could read the tension in his stance, but he still envied Duo's composure. He kept himself under tight control, showing nothing. His mind was spinning quickly. He had no hopes now of getting information about Carver or anything else out of these people. He concentrated on committing the exit route to memory and on ways of keeping Duo safe.

The Outer Trolls ahead stopped abruptly and without explanation. There were more symbols on the walls, painted in vivid red splashes. The Outer Trolls appeared unwilling to walk past them and go any further.

Wufei and Duo stopped cautiously, but their guides didn't even glance back at them. Wufei half-turned so that he covered their backs while Duo took a step forwards. The smuggler opened his mouth, about to ask a question, when a shuffling noise caught their attention. Four Inner Trolls appeared at the end of the corridor beyond the symbols, coming towards the group.

The Outer Trolls waited until the four had joined them, then saluted and left, still without a word. Wufei remembered the ceremony in which the Outer Trolls had passed two bodies to the inner working of Recyc a few hours ago. The memory was not a reassuring one.

The goggles and masks the Inner Trolls all wore made it impossible to judge their expression, but their stance was hostile even under the plastic poncho and apron. The four turned and marched off without bothering with an order or a threat. Wufei and Duo followed. They were still being tailed, by at least five people now, Wufei judged.

Duo took a deep breath- Wufei quickly brushed his hand across the back of Duo's, stopping the undoubtedly loud, sarcastic comment that had been about to come out in reaction to the oppressive silence. Wufei wasn't sure they could afford Duo's chaotic tendencies at this juncture. He pointedly caught the irritated blue gaze with his own. Duo sighed and stuck his hands back in his pockets again without saying anything.

They crossed rooms of steaming vats, the air thick with sickly humid heat and the smell of fermenting waste and ammonia. There were dozens of Trolls working on machineries, operating cranes to move barrels around, or watching consoles with clipboards at hand. All activity ceased when Duo and Wufei were spotted. The two intruders were stared at until they'd followed their silent guides to the next room. Wufei felt his sword growing heavy over his shoulder. Duo's grin was sharp and dangerous; the smuggler would not be silent much longer.

The Inner Trolls split into two groups of two and stopped at either sides of a large roll-up door. Wufei felt Duo move abruptly; when he glanced at his friend, Duo's hand had left his pockets and his eyes had narrowed.

The reason for Duo's sudden increase of tension was obvious when the door creaked, groaned and slowly rolled upwards, and a puff of freezing air hit their faces with the smell of harsh air-conditioning, antiseptic and something a good deal less pleasant. The Rendering Room. Wufei wondered if he and Duo had just obligingly walked all the way to their final destination: the ultimate destination of all space-born humans.

The silent Inner Trolls stood on either side of the entrance, an unspoken order to enter. Duo moved forward boldly and Wufei followed, falling three steps behind Duo in case they had to fight.

The cold air bit their faces harshly, a contrast to the sick warmth of the rest of Recyc. The door behind them creaked and started to descend again.

There were an impressive number of corpses on display, naked and laid out on slabs. Wufei didn't do more than glance at the silent ranks. He focused on the three living figures at the end of the room. He felt a slight flutter of relief; at his side, Duo stuck his hands in his pockets again and released a small breath of air in a near-silent sigh. If the Trolls had wanted to kill them and render their bodies, they'd have had a good deal more people at hand.

As they walked towards the small huddle of Trolls, Wufei took a second, longer look around the room. There were gurneys with plastic sheets next to a few slabs, ready to take the dead on their final trip through a pair of sliding doors a little further on. A thick window revealed the room beyond the doors, the actual Rendering Room itself. A dozen empty gurneys loitered around a big machine that disappeared into the far wall. It was perpetually drawing a conveyor belt into the maw of its inner workings. Two Inner Trolls stood nearby. Wufei didn't know if they'd just fed it a corpse, or if they were waiting for the bodies in this room to be brought out.

A lot of the bodies Wufei and Duo were passing had died a violent death, he couldn't help but note. At the foot of each slab, a plastic crate held rumpled clothes; some red scarves peeked out of a few of them. There were about twenty dead, more than he and Duo could be responsible for. Besides, Wufei knew that some of his victims from a few hours ago had only been wounded; severely, enough to disable them and stop them from following the fugitives, but not fatally unless they'd received no medical help at all.

His gaze was not friendly as it settled on the figure they were approaching. Wufei killed without regret or compunction, but only when he needed to. Finishing off the wounded was the act of a coward and a monster.

The Troll waiting for them was dressed in a red plastic poncho and a red hard-hat. The King of this twisted domain, presumably.

"Maxwell," the Troll growled.

"Hey, your majesty, how's it going?" Duo drawled, making a lazy Freeport salute. It'd take more than a few dead bodies to oppress Duo. The more you tried to keep him down, Wufei thought with something like exasperated admiration, the harder he popped right back up in your face.

There was a glower aimed at the cocky smuggler from behind the thick goggles, then the King made a gesture beneath his poncho. "I should have you spaced, you bloody dog. The fact I'm letting you live covers our debt. Is that clear?"

"Crystal," Duo assented, smiling cheekily.

Debt? Wufei remembered Duo mentioning that someone in Recyc owed him. Duo hadn't bothered telling him it was the King of Trolls himself. Wufei contemplated strangling this closed-mouth - yet oh so loud - annoyance after they'd left Recyc, but the truth was he owed Duo more than a few secrets himself.

"Right," the King grunted, voice gloomy through the mask. "Now, I brought you here for a reason."

"I gathered-" Duo started, and lost his lighthearted demeanor abruptly as the King stood aside.

Wufei moved up next to Duo and glanced down at the corpse the King had revealed. This one was covered in a sheet, affording it a bit more dignity than the others. The sheet stopped at the shoulders, leaving the face visible. It was Herb Spasson.

Duo whispered something, almost inaudible; Wufei only heard it because he was right next to Duo, his hand anchored on Duo's shoulder as they looked down at the body together.

"...sorry, signora..."

Wufei, more practical, reached out for the sheet and then glanced up at the Trolls. Nobody forbade it, but one of the others present turned away abruptly, and started rearranging some scissors and knives on a side table with a bit more clatter than necessary.

A tug of the sheet and the cause of death was revealed. A massive cut across the chest, starting near the right shoulder and digging down deep into the body nearly to the bowels. The corpse had been washed; the white skin was free of any traces of blood, except a few clots still clinging to the gaping lips of the wound, flesh and muscle and bone visible beneath. Death must have been very fast. Wufei glanced at Duo, who nodded shortly. Wufei leaned forward and examined the wound closely, not that he needed a forensic expert to tell him what had happened. It was pretty clear. But why?

"Duo, I know you don't lie. So give me a yes-or-no answer." The King spoke heavily, apparently not intrigued by Wufei's actions. "Did you want to kill this man?"

"No," Duo answered immediately. "I needed to ask him some questions, but I'd have gotten him out of Freeport alive." Wufei could hear a murderous anger prowling at the back of the light baritone, but Duo kept his words clear and distinct.

"I see."

A pair of hands in thick rubber gloves reached for the sheet and pulled it up slowly. Wufei straightened. Without looking at the corpse in its initial state and in the undisturbed crime scene, he couldn't swear it was Carver, but his gut was telling him so.

"What happened?" Duo asked, after the King had adjusted the sheet, this time covering Herb's face.

"Lesley?" the King asked, stepping back.

The Troll who'd spun away when Wufei removed the sheet finally turned back towards them. He- she, Wufei realized after a second glance - was wearing an apron and poncho, but no hard hat, goggles or mask; those Trollish implements were on the small table nearby. She appeared calm, her eyes clear and hard, but Wufei spotted movement beneath her poncho, as if she was gripping her hands hard and rubbing them together again and again.

"Herb's my brother," she announced. Then her composure wavered a bit; she bit her lip as if trying to catch the present tense of her statement before it could fully escape and be corrected.

She looked like Herb, Wufei decided after examining her clinically. Same body shape beneath the formless poncho, same round, meaty face, even the same shaved skull. Probably a few years younger.

"Hah," Duo said softly. That did explain a lot. Herb had been hiding with family. "What happened, Lesley?"

"Perry can tell you," she answered, motioning blindly towards the third Troll present. Her words were short, clipped and controlled. She stared at Duo, at Wufei, at the King or at the window to the next room, anywhere but at the corpse before her.

The third Troll was taller than either Lesley or the King. He looked thinner under his poncho, but his shoulders were broad; you probably got a lot of exercise hauling bodies around as a Troll.

"I'd taken a unit of Outers around Fermentation-D1 to try to circle them," Perry stated, voice muffled by his mask. 'Them' was the bodies he'd indicated with a vague wave behind Duo and Wufei. "But these three popped up right in front of us, they were ahead of the others. One of them..."

He hesitated and glanced at Lesley who straightened and glared back at him, daring him to soften the words for her sake.

"One of them was a really tall guy. He moved before I'd even realized we'd run into some invaders. It was too fast. I couldn't do anything."

"No, you couldn't," Duo agreed softly. "He's a professional killer."

Perry nodded quickly. "Before I even realized we'd found the enemy, he..." one more glance at Lesley, "He spun around, so bloody fast, and killed Spasson. Herb, I mean. Didn't even hesitate; like, just one stride and wham."

Lesley nodded sharply, encouraging Perry to continue. Only her eyes had flinched at the words. She started chewing her lip savagely and glaring at nothing when Perry continued, as if angered at her own small loss of control.

"Then he killed Amos," the Troll continued, voice bitter and angry. "Kid was just standing there, but he was in the way. Wack, blow from the sword-thing he carried, right in the head."

Wufei followed another vague hand gesture and realized there was a second sheeted corpse on a gurney across the room from Herb. The clothes in the bin were neatly folded and the hard hat of an Outer Troll had been placed on top of the pile.

"Then he grabbed his friend and ran," the Troll concluded. He was staring at Amos' body and Wufei caught a furious glint behind the goggles.

"Grabbed him?"

"Yeah. The third guy with them - he was small and weedy, I barely noticed him, what with everything going on. He was yelling something. Donno what. He looked really angry, and he'd grabbed Spasson's body and stopped him from falling, but then the big guy grabbed him and dragged him off."

When Wufei and Duo had caught up with Carver and Ferret, the latter had been giving the assassin a furious glare that was rather at odds with the rat's lack of backbone. It seemed strange that an amoral, cowardly creature like Ferret, who killed when it was easy and ran away from anything like a fair fight, could get that righteously upset over the death of a friend. Then again, he probably didn't have all that many. Besides, Wufei had learned back during the war that nobody was entirely black or white.

"We let them both go without trying to stop them," Perry concluded with another swift glance at Lesley. "There were only three of us left."

"That was wise," Duo stated calmly, no condescension in the quiet reassurance. "He would have killed all of you as easily as Herb and Amos if you didn't have projectile weapons."

"We don't have projectile weapons here," the King ground out. "You don't cart crossbows around a place with high-pressure vats full of boiling liquids and pipes full of chlorine. Do you know who those guys were? Yes-or-no answer." The King obviously knew Duo well.

"No, I don't. I don't know their names, and I don't know where to find them, though I'd certainly like to," Duo answered slowly, eyes on Herb's body once more.

"Then what were you-"

"I want you to find them."

Everybody looked at Lesley who had interrupted the King.

"I want you to find them," she repeated, still quietly, but there was a waver of stress in her voice. Her glare at Duo, when she finally looked at him, was hurt and frustrated, as if she already knew he would refuse her request. "I know Herb was nothing to you, but you're looking for those men for your own account, right?"

"...Sort of," Duo hedged.

Lesley blinked and her eyes grew hard and wounded, her control finally slipping. "They can't just get away. They can't just do this and get away with it. It's not right. If I knew why- if I knew who they were at least- why this happened- you have to find them! This is your fault!"

Duo didn't contradict her sudden outburst, but Lesley's voice rose again, as if he'd denied it or laughed at her.

"It's your fault! If you hadn't bumped into Herb two weeks ago, he wouldn't have been on the run. Nobody would have bothered him! He'd still be alive!"

"Lesley," the King said, his muffled voice gentle but firm. "Maxwell's a pain in the ass, but he didn't mean Herb any harm. Herb died because he went with that big bruiser."

Lesley bit her lip. She breathed deeply, as if trying to calm herself. The air hitched in her throat and she blinked rapidly. "...it's not fair," she whispered, her voice trembling, and looked away.

Wufei tended to agree with her. He knew how it felt to lose someone close and not have any justice for it. And to not even know why...

"No, it's not fair." Duo's voice was gentle. "And I'll do my best to find them. I guess that's why I'm here? I mean, the real reason?"

The King huffed, but then nodded.

"We don't mix with people outside our Temple," he growled. "If we wanted to, we could force the Elders to start a whole levee to nail the bastards that invaded Recyc, but nobody knows who they are, so that wouldn't get far. I got a feeling that smarts and discretion would be better at this stage than starting a man-hunt. Lesley, tell Duo what you told me."

Lesley rubbed her nose on her sleeve and looked at Duo. She'd gathered her composure again; only her anger was still visible.

"Herb told me about you," she said. "But you were just an annoyance. He said you weren't the problem. Otherwise, I'd kill you."

Duo nodded solemnly as if this was a perfectly natural statement. But his eyes had narrowed slightly. "Not the problem?" he prompted, when Lesley fell silent.

"Me and Herb...We didn't stay that close after we lost our homes on our previous colony, ten years ago. I came here and I entered Recyc. He went to fight. But he came here after the war...We talked a bit when I could get permission..."

Duo had told Wufei that Inner Trolls and people from the 'Outer World', that is, the rest of Freeport, didn't mingle much if at all. The Trolls were their own little colony, and the few recruits who made it into their ranks were entering a sort of monastery of life, death and rebirth.

"He contacted me over a week ago 'cause he said he'd run into trouble and had to disappear awhile. He said a rat-catcher had tried to bug a friend of his, and that he might be next. His friend - Al, that little piece of shit!"

Lesley breathed deeply through her nose. Wufei wondered why she kept herself on such a tight leash. Pride? Reluctance to break down in front of strangers? Or were Trolls not supposed to feel anything for the dead, even their own family...?

"Al hid him, so that Herb couldn't spill anything to you. Al told Herb your name. Rat-catcher Maxwell, he called you. Then he helped Herb to hide from you, because they'd been in the same cell during the war."

"Do you know Al's last name?"

"No, and I wish I did!" Lesley spat. "Herb said Al didn't want anybody to know. Said there was something big involved. He trusted that piece of shit! Herb always was too loyal to people...But he was scared about the others in Al's group. Especially when somebody started asking around about Herb and Al. Somebody other than you, that is."

Duo's eyebrows shot up. "Somebody- you sure about that?"

"Yeah," Lesley muttered, rubbing her nose again. "Herb wasn't worried about you, neither was Al. They said you were a shit-stirrer, but you didn't stand a chance of finding anything."

Duo wrinkled his nose and smiled self-mockingly. Wufei couldn't stop from bristling a bit though; if Herb hadn't disappeared from Bakunin, Duo would have found him!

"So who was Herb worried about?"

"Herb didn't know, but he knew there was some other guys after him for the same reason as you were; because he knew Al. He overheard Al tell somebody. Something about a murder, too. And then, Herb thought that made a lot of people looking for him, and all because he knew who Al and some of Al's friends were. And...that's when he started to get scared."

"Because Al might not want to hurt him, but Al's friends were another matter," Duo muttered.

"Yeah. He got a letter to me through an Outer Troll, and I-" Lesley interrupted herself, and her gaze finally dropped to Herb's body.

"Herb came here," the King said brusquely. "He hid out from everybody - from you, from this Al and his buddies, and from those other guys who were looking for him - I suppose some rival gang. He could have stayed hidden here for months. But he got stupid, and decided to get out of the colony. And that's how you and the others found him, I guess."

"Yeah."

"Lesley? Why don't you take Herb to the other room. Spend some time with him. Then- do you want to assist with his Rebirth? Perry can take care of it if you'd rather-"

"Death is Life. Death has no meaning," Lesley recited. It sounded completely automatic, and the deep hurt in her eyes didn't fade even when she drew herself up and lifted her head, determined. "Rebirth for all. I'm fine, sir. I'll take care of him."

Herb was already on a gurney. Lesley kicked the brakes off and started to push him towards the double doors, her face set in a mask of calm but her shoulders starting to tremble. The King gave Perry a pointed gaze, and the Troll followed her quickly after gathering her hat, gloves and mask from the table. Wufei could hear him whisper to her gently and consolingly as they entered the next room.

"She blames herself," the King said abruptly, causing Duo and Wufei to turn away from the doors that had closed behind the two Trolls. "She encouraged Herb to break away from this 'Al' character and hide out here."

"It was a good hiding place," Duo sighed.

"Yeah; it was Herb who blew it. If he'd stayed here and kept his head down...but when his 'friends' showed up, he must have been scared not to follow them. Who knows what promises of safety those bastards gave him."

"Carver must have been ordered to see Herb and Al out," Duo muttered, eyes sharp with speculation. "And if there were any signs that Herb might get away again, or if their exit was blocked, the boss would have ordered Carver to silence Herb once and for all."

"Carver?" the King asked sharply.

"A nickname."

"Bad taste, Maxwell," the King sneered. "And this is me talking."

"I didn't choose it," Duo pointed out with a shrug. "And before you ask, we don't know who the boss is either, but we'd like to find out."

"I want you to find out. You and your...whatever he is." This was added with a heavy look at Wufei.

"He's my Blade," Duo corrected sharply.

"Yeah, and I'm President Peacecraft. Elder Braun contacted me personally over two months ago with an exact description of this guy and told me that if somebody like him showed up in Recyc, I was to get back to him ASAP. He doesn't do that for any other Blade, and I've seen quite a few pass through our gates."

Wufei blinked and glanced at Duo, who was frowning.

"King," Duo said softly, warningly, "this is-"

"None of my business. I don't care what happens in the Outer World, I just take care of your bodies. Braun and the other Elders know what they're doing, it's to be hoped. I don't care, and I don't want to know. What I do want to know is who thought they could waltz in here and take over my Temple and get away with it. And Lesley wants to know why her brother died. And though I know you're not directly at fault, Maxwell, you are involved. Besides, you know it's safer to comply with the Troll King's request than ignore it."

Duo lifted his hands in mock surrender and nodded. His eyes were sharp as they rested upon the King.

"To tell you the truth, your Majesty, I've not had much luck so far."

"I always knew your reputation was overrated," the King grumbled, but he sounded defeated more than insulting.

"Think about it," Duo murmured almost casually, his eyes flicking over a nearby body. "They got together nearly thirty people without any sector around you the wiser; they infiltrated Recyc and found Herb in a few hours, so they must have had plans of the place."

"Actually, I meant to ask you, how the hell did you-"

"I've been hunting down a couple of these guys for nearly two months now, and this is the first real proof I've seen that they're connected and working for some organization. An organization with the balls to come into Recyc, just because Herb knew the names of a few of their members. Think about it; I know life is cheap here, but that's still a pretty weak reason to execute somebody. Just how deep are they hidden that I've not gotten a whiff of them till now? How badly do they want to stay hidden that they'd ex Herb just for that? You think I can dig them up all on my lonesome?"

The King was silent, but Wufei could read the tension as the Troll examined Duo's face. Freeport paranoia insured that a curious rat-catcher like Duo and a powerful man like the Troll King probably heard rumors about every gang and pirate raid of importance anywhere in the Space Sphere. To have something like that evolve right beneath their noses without either being the wiser...

"Seeing how hard they'll be to smoke out, maybe I could use a bit of help...?" Duo dangled this in front of his Majesty with blue eyes wide and as innocent as a newborn lamb's.

The King grunted with ill-humor, but jerked his chin at a couple of corpses behind Duo. "We've collected here all the men we found. There are no other bodies here at present. The sanctity of those bastards is not something I worry about; go ahead and see if you can find anything from them."

"That's good." Duo's eyes still stayed fixed on the King. "You know what else could help?"

The King crossed his arms over his chest and stared back through his goggles.

"Carver and his little friend Al are going to go into hiding now if they're smart. But I'm closing in on them. These bodies will show me who their friends are; I might be able to ferret them out. To do that, I might need some guys followed, or at least watched."

"Good luck," the King muttered, tone foreboding.

"I was thinking your Outer Trolls might have better luck than me. I'm just one guy. Well, two, but Chang can't go off on his own, so-"

"I don't like my subjects meddling with Outer World matters," the King growled.

"Them matters just marched right inside," Duo pointed out, waving a hand at the corpses around them. "That's gotta get you wigging."

The Troll King growled again, like a furious bear.

"I make no promises," he finally grunted. He spun on his heels before Duo could plead, and walked towards Amos' sheet-covered corpse. The King kicked off the brakes and rolled the gurney towards the other room. He stopped just as the doors swished open.

"This secret group...do you have a crappy codename for them as well?" he asked without turning around.

"No, not yet."

"Call them the Breakers."

"For breaking and entering?" Duo asked casually.

"For breaking the unspoken interdict," the King answered softly. "For violating the forbidden. For rupturing the thin line between the life of this colony and its death."

"King..." Duo licked his lips, all traces of his usual lightheartedness gone. "Just because some guys decided to play fast and loose with the rules, don't take it out on the rest of Freeport."

"If you find them, I won't have to."

The wheels of the gurney squeaked and the door closed behind the ruler of the Temple as he took Amos to his Rebirth.

Wufei and Duo shared a somber look.

"What do you think he'll do, if we can't find them? These...'Breakers'?" Wufei asked slowly.

"I'd really rather not find out," Duo muttered. "Let's get to work. You go through their clothes; do your thing. Pull out anything that looks like a name or a place or a pic. I'll check their faces, see who I recognize."

Wufei nodded and advanced towards the nearest corpse. He leaned over to examine the face without touching the body, though such precautions were meaningless considering Freeport's lack of forensics. The man was young, probably a year or two older than Wufei. He'd been impaled on a sharp weapon; blood had flowed heavily from the wound and pooled on the table beneath him, clotting in the gash and all over the pale skin. Which meant he'd still been alive when the Trolls had stripped him and put him on the slab. Wufei examined the face attentively but without feeling. Had he killed this man? Did it matter?

He turned away from the face twisted in agony and rigor mortis to riffle through the bloody clothes in the bin at his feet, while Duo moved to take his place and examine the dead man's features.

+

The blade flickered white and clean, as if it were being lit by some light source other than the dim yellow streetlamp outside.

Wufei frowned; he'd made a minute mistake in his footwork. He interrupted the next form, fell back to the centre of the yard and started from the beginning.

Duo had been thoughtfully silent on their way back from Recyc. He'd pounced on the laptop as soon as the door to the apartment had closed behind them; he'd opened up an email program and started typing furiously. Wufei had leaned over his shoulder, only to be told rather curtly to go take a shower and get some sleep. Wufei had stupidly stood there, unwilling to accept the order but also unwilling to cause an argument-

He'd made another mistake, this time in the depth of his sword swing.

Wufei's next gesture was an irritated slash that had nothing to do with his forms and everything to do with the way life had gotten very complicated in the last twenty-four hours.

He breathed deeply. Motes of dust danced and roiled like the currents of a choppy sea around him, glowing in the faint light. The unusual silence was getting on his nerves; no distant clang of crates, no train howling overhead, no people singing and talking. Even Freeport seemed to have shut up and shut him out at this point.

He wasn't about to go sleep while Duo was working, so he'd slipped out into the yard to practice his forms. The movements warmed his abused muscles. It hurt, but the forced oxygenation and motion would accelerate healing and allow his body to recuperate faster. He couldn't afford to seize up now. He had the feeling things were about to get serious with these mysterious 'Breakers' who now had Duo and himself in their sights.

The pickings on the dead bodies in the morgue had been slim. Wufei focused on them, letting his disciplined body take him through the motions of the Wushu while his mind riffled through the facts with the detached viewpoint of the detective.

Duo had recognized some of the men who'd attacked them. Pirates and thugs for the most part, but some of them were 'just people', as Duo had put it, visibly puzzled. They came from several different sectors, mainly Mooncurse, Kropotkin and Goldman, all sectors heavy in colonists and ex-Rebel populations.

Wufei had found nothing; no wallets, no names, no laundry chits or shopping lists, no charm with a girlfriend's picture, absolutely nothing.

His fingers tightened on his sword's hilt, causing the blade to dart too far in the Crane Swoop, but he ignored the mistake. That total absence of personal items was highly unusual for pirates, hoods or 'just people'. That was more in keeping with spies and terrorists.

He'd also examined the bodies; quite a few of them were scarred veterans like himself. But some of the scars he'd noted were more recent than the war. Of course they could have been acquired in Freeport; life was violent here. But this group, whoever they were, seemed intent on keeping out of trouble and out of sight of the general populace; they wouldn't go and pick duels and fights to such an extent. So...where had they been wounded like that? Some of them looked like they'd been through a war. In the past year.

He didn't like some of the ideas that were coming to mind, but he tried to keep his imagination under control. Proof. They needed proof. And any detective knew that that took an inordinate amount of time to collect. But collect it he must; this was important, as even Trowa would agree when he got Wufei's report. Looked like Wufei wasn't going to leave Freeport any time soon.

He'd made another mistake in the Wushu. His shoulders had briefly hunched as if expecting a blow and it had thrown the whole form. Pathetic. He'd been doing these moves since he could walk. He marched back to the centre of the yard. Arms loose, breathe in and out. Start.

At the back of his mind, his reason was telling him he'd have to stop soon; he was getting tired, and the next stupid mistake might harm him, canceling out any good the Wushu had done him so far. Besides...

Wufei's movements slowed, as the indefinable sense of something wrong crystallized steadily...

Besides, he'd not heard any typing for awhile now-

His body jerked and twisted on its own, years of cultured reflexes short-circuiting thought.

The dagger hit the blade of the sword he'd brought up defensively.

He fell back instantly, before the dagger could slip past the block and plunge into his belly. His blade flicked out, establishing the kill distance around him-

His head finally caught up with his body; Wufei bit off a curse and jerked the sword upwards, away from that dangerous position of parry-retaliation that could kill in an instant. Duo's big serrated dagger had still been in its leather and steel-lined sheath.

Duo wasn't there anymore! Wufei stared like an idiot at empty space - almost wondered if he'd been hallucinating-

His body was still on the edge of battle, though. He spun completely on instinct, sword coming up, but not fast enough to block or riposte the fist that slammed into his shoulder.

He staggered, then went limp, fell and rolled, increasing the distance between them- trying to anyway. Duo was there already- Wufei twisted on himself, barely dodging a kick.

He lunged and slid across the dirty floor, ignoring the grit of metal specks and oil stains on his bare hands and chest. He grabbed the scabbard he'd set aside when he'd started his exercise, and sheathed his blade in one smooth movement as he rolled to his feet and into a wary crouch. His hand dropped from the hilt of the sword to a point two thirds up the scabbard, giving him a length approximately the size of Duo's large dagger.

Duo's eyes had been coldly angry before, now they seemed to freeze over into some unnamed fury as they settled on Wufei's hold which put them on equal footing.

The attack was swift and brutal. Wufei could do nothing more than parry; in fact, after the first few seconds he had to put his mind and his objections entirely on hold and let his body take over, the only way to follow and counter the rapid, unpredictable attacks. Duo's style was formless, shifting. Wufei dodged an elbow to the jaw, but his retaliation fell short; Duo was already three steps away and darting towards his unprotected back. He spun, tried to connect with his scabbard; it was like trying to hit the wind. Wufei's free hand shot out and blocked the punch aimed at his stomach, but Duo was away before he could retaliate.

At the back of his mind, an unemotional review of their respective attacks and strategies had already given Wufei the victory. Duo's assaults were impressive and quick, but they relied on immediately defeating the enemy, and Wufei had managed to block him. Wufei only had to dodge and parry until Duo made a mistake or tired himself out, and then Wufei's greater strength and deadly technique would allow him to move in and finish this in one or two blows.

But this wasn't Recyc and it wasn't a matter of life and death, and Duo wasn't his enemy...

The gap in Wufei's defense wasn't deliberate, but neither was it entirely accidental.

Duo's foot shot out, probably on pure instinct as soon as he sensed the opening. Balance already precarious, Wufei managed one swift blow with the sheathed sword - hitting Duo's thigh - before falling, winded, to the ground. A piece of metal poked him hard in the back. Then Duo was on him, catching Wufei's knee into a leg hold that could rip the ligaments if Wufei moved his lower body. Gloved hands fastened like cuffs on Wufei's wrists. The dagger had gone spinning across the floor, along with the sword.

"You should have told me!" Duo shouted right in his face. "You should have fucking well told me anyway!"

Wufei said nothing, merely stared up, breathless, at the furious mask.

"I would have helped you if it had been just for you! Why does it always have to be for justice and the greater good and never for you?! Why do you have to be so- so predictable! You're fucking hopeless!"

Wufei flinched away from the words and the fist that had dropped his wrist to slam into the metal floor an inch from his head.

"You let them use you! And me! And it's killing you inside and you don't even care!"

With his hand free and the leg lock loosened by Duo's violent movement, Wufei could have broken free. He did nothing, he didn't even jerk away as the fist slammed next to his face again.

They stared at each other, the yard echoing with Duo's harsh breathing.

Wufei watched the anger slowly fade from his friend's eyes.

Duo released him and got to his feet. Wufei sat up slowly, but he didn't stand or look up at his friend as the latter turned away.

"Come on," Duo muttered, voice barely audible over the sound of his footsteps as he tromped towards the door. "It's been over twenty four hours since we had a real night's sleep. We're- let's just hit the sack."

Wufei stayed where he was in the oil stains and the rust.

The footsteps paused. There was a scuffling of boots on metal.

"I do trust you, you know." Duo's voice was soft, weary. "You didn't screw up. We can work together. I'm just mad right now, that's all."

Wufei didn't answer, his eyes caught on a twisted piece of scrap metal that might once have been something useful. He could feel Duo shift near the door. Wufei should probably say something. He just didn't know what. He agreed with Duo's words, but his battered, stubborn pride couldn't even produce an apology or some insignificant words of regret. He'd done what he'd had to. Even Duo knew this. The rest...was the fallout from his duty; he could only accept it.

The smuggler snorted out in sudden amusement that sounded rather forced. "Hey, if nothing else, I trust you to nail Carver, right? That guy is a dead man walking, now that Chang Wufei has him in the grinder. And I trust you to follow your orders and protect me like Trowa told you to, good lil' soldier that you are."

"That's not the only reason I protect you," Wufei whispered, hands blindly brushing off flecks of metal and dirt from his arms.

"Yeah, I know," Duo muttered. He still wasn't moving. "It's not that I...I don't actually...I do understand why you do it. I guess I even...wish that I could..."

There it was again, in Duo's stance, in the way his voice had faltered and hardened. That darkness inside, that bitterness turned inwards. Wufei wondered why Duo seemed to be angry with himself when he, Wufei, made such a better target.

"Come on, we need a shower. A real one. That chemical shit we used before is eating into my skin." Duo strode towards the door, his voice even again, a bit tired.

By the time Wufei picked himself up, inspected his scabbard for cracks and cautiously poked his nose into the apartment, Duo and his towel were already gone.

+

Wufei toweled off his still-wet hair one last time, still deep in the maze of his tired thoughts. He opened the door as quietly as possible in case Duo was already asleep.

The neon in the kitchen was on to guide him; by its light, he could see Duo already tucked into the sheets, only a ruffle of bangs visible. Wufei switched off the light, gave his damp hair a last swipe and folded the towel neatly onto the rack near the sink. He did the same to the one Duo had tossed onto the counter, then headed towards his sleeping bag.

"Don't be an ass, Chang," the lump under the covers suddenly said. "We were doing the horizontal tango only six hours ago; I'm pretty sure that entitles us to share a mattress."

Wufei stared at the dark shape in the bed. His mouth shaped the word 'but', though his voice seemed to have gone AWOL.

"Just get in here. You sleep on the floor now, your muscles'll seize up."

With that workable excuse, Wufei changed his course and headed towards the bed. He slipped between the sheets with a show of confidence he in no way felt. The covers smelled faintly of sweat and semen, which somehow only compounded his inner confusion.

A tremor and quake in the mountain range of blankets, and two sleepy blue eyes came into view.

"Though I gotta say, you're harder to sleep with than Heero."

"What?" Wufei asked weakly.

"You toss and turn and snore-"

"I do not snore," Wufei countered mechanically, because, of course, he didn't.

"Do too. Heero now, he sleeps like the dead. And I mean it. Sometimes I wake up at night and stare at his chest for a couple of minutes just to make sure he's still breathing."

Wufei settled into the covers that were warm with Duo's heat. His skin was just as warmed by the dazed, undeserved relief flooding his body. He'd have settled to going back to their uneasy alliance of the first days, a working relationship of near-strangers and one-time allies. Apparently Duo was having none of that; he wasn't going to pretend that anything in the last two months or the last few hours hadn't happened, either the good or the bad. It was up to them to deal with the consequences.

"I do not snore, Maxwell," Wufei declared slowly and firmly. As words to cement an understanding went, they lacked depth and import, but Wufei realized, with a shiver of something oddly lighthearted for his character, that he didn't give a damn.

Duo snorted gently. "Whatever." There was a moment of stillness, then an arm passed over his abdomen and rested against his skin. The gesture was neutral, until suddenly it pinched him teasingly and withdrew. Wufei caught the hand briefly, a short caress in passing, his fingers tracing the juncture of a wrist and palm. A silent thanks for the unspoken truce and a measure of forgiveness he in no way deserved.

"Let's sleep. I'm bushed," Duo muttered. Still some constraint there; even Duo's phenomenal abilities to bounce back were probably being tested by these circumstances. But Wufei preferred Duo's passing anger to his permanent mistrust any day.

The sheets rustled as they both settled, gingerly trying to gather the bedding without appearing to hog them. The blanket was a bit short on the sides. Wufei hadn't noticed when they'd shared it before. They carefully negotiated the few inches between them to the point where they were both comfortable with the new distance.

Silence - as much as was available in Freeport, which was not much - descended. For a few seconds.

"And you do snore, buddy."

"Humph."

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