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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

Thanks to Anaitis for the beta


//...// is dialogue over a communicator or phone line.

Freeport + Chapter 26

"The main question is not what motive inspired the law, but what it will be possible for men of bad motive to do with the law... "


- Benjamin Tucker

+

Wufei caught Duo's punch on his forearm and retaliated on instinct.

"Sloppy," he commented harshly.

A feral growl was his only answer, as Duo stepped back and rubbed his ribs where Wufei's knuckles had impacted.

"Try again."

Duo stepped back and fell into a pose that was almost, but not quite, completely wrong. Wufei managed not to say anything. That dangerous little light was back in Duo's eyes; now would not be a good time for Wufei to drop his guard and play mentor. This was the flip side of their sparring sessions, the demon that needed to be let out...

Duo's fist lashed out, punching into Wufei's open palm. Wufei didn't say anything; they both knew the blow had been all over the place.

The ensuing spark of self-directed annoyance ignited the fight Wufei had been expecting.

This time it wasn't a formal punch but a roundhouse kick that was aimed at him. Wufei managed to deflect it, and then he had his hands full. He fell back, bending into the short sharp blows and absorbing their kinetic energy while parrying.

It degenerated into a down and dirty tussle. Wufei caught Duo's wrist and pinned him into a hold, but he collected a few bruises and what felt like a bite mark to boot.

"You fight like a rat, Maxwell," he spat. Here in the yard, those kinds of words could be said. It was part of their unspoken rules.

"You fight like you're a fucking cadet, Chang," Duo countered, breathing hard. Wufei could feel him testing the hold, seeing if there were any weaknesses in the grip on him. "You think you can pull off this martial arts shit in the streets?"

"I do and I have," Wufei retorted, shoving Duo away before the smuggler could break free. "Enough?"

"Hmmm." Duo flexed his shoulder. He was frowning. Just when Wufei thought they were going for a second round, Duo lifted his head and looked straight at Wufei, eyeing him astutely. "Enough? You tell me."

"I'm fine," Wufei grunted.

If he were pressed, he'd have had to admit that he liked this recent habit of theirs, these 'sparring sessions'. He liked being able to vent some of his frustration; he liked to have a space where he didn't have to watch his words, where they could both lash out if they felt like it. If he were tortured, he'd even admit that it was as satisfying as meditation in some violent, primal way; but since Duo didn't have a set of red-hot pokers on his person, Wufei wasn't about to confess anything of the sort.

"My turn then." Duo's knife appeared in his hand as if it had materialized there. His body language wasn't threatening though; his momentary anger had passed. He wouldn't let fly while he had a weapon in his hand, he was much too disciplined for that.

"We should go eat," Wufei hedged.

"You need to practice the moves I showed you." Duo flicked the butterfly knife around his fingers. "What kind of student are you?"

"A reluctant one," was the grumbled answer. Duo was showing him how to use the small knife street-fighter style, in exchange for Wufei's lessons in more formal martial styles (or his 'smooth Chinese moves', as Duo so disrespectfully put it). Now, there might be times, particularly in Freeport, where being able to kill quickly, quietly and in close quarters with a hidden knife would be very useful. That didn't mean Wufei had to be enthusiastic about his 'lessons'.

"We'll do it tonight, before hitting the sack," Duo decided, glancing at his watch and then flipping the knife away - it seemed to vanish from his fingers as magically as it had appeared. "Let's go eat." He sounded perfectly relaxed now; a contrast to the snarling, biting bundle Wufei had been trying to pin down just a minute ago. Wufei sighed inwardly and followed in silence.

Duo trotted up the three steps form yard to apartment, went to hit the 'Start' buttons on the microwave, then practically ran to the workbench, grabbed his thick sweater and slipped it on over his sweat-damp t-shirt. He rubbed his arms vigorously and shivered.

"I didn't think it was possible, but it's actually colder inside than it is outside," he groaned.

Wufei, with more dignity, picked up his thick shirt and jacket and slipped them on. "Did that idiot in the commissary say when they'll be getting the pieces to fix our furnace?"

"Tomorrow."

"Strange, that's what he said yesterday."

"Yeah, I noticed that too. If he doesn't come up with them soon, I'll break up that motor I have in the yard and wing it with the spare pieces."

"And violate every safety regulation in existence. You really to use a furnace fixed with spit-and-string to heat an entire building?"

"You want to freeze? It could take months for the commissary to get a hold of the parts. At least I have someone to warm my bed at night, but the other poor buggers in this building are single."

Wufei's rant about the lack of efficiency of Freeport's distribution system died in a startled cough.

Wufei was a creature of control and reliable, steady emotions. When he wanted to punch someone's lights out, he didn't feel the urge to snuggle up with them too. Living with someone who felt absolutely fine with both emotions concurrently...was 'doing his head in', to adopt a phrase from the nuisance in question.

At least their battle entente hadn't been compromised. It had been over three days since they'd left Recyc for the last time, three days of hunting for their prey in the back alleys of Freeport. Wufei would not have tolerated any drop in their fighting efficiency. But when they were out on the street, they were a unit now. Blooded together in battle. Two weapons, one mind.

Then, when they returned home to eat, sleep, rest or take stock, they'd end out in the yard, fighting like dogs under the guise of ‘training sessions'.

Wufei didn't object; the violence was controlled, and did no more than add a few light bruises to the healing ones that they'd gathered in Recyc. The exercise was beneficial, and they needed to vent. Duo was still a bit angry with Wufei; that was understandable. Wufei's lies had endangered the smuggler's position in Freeport. As for the Preventer, he was starting to feel the frustration of too many days spent chasing a quarry he'd let slip through his fingers once already. And hunting down these 'Breakers' who were about as tangible as air.

Besides, the sparring helped them keep their battle instincts ready.

....and behind those perfectly valid reasons, others lurked. Maybe they also fought because they wanted to keep some distance between them, when it felt like they were falling towards each other almost helplessly, fitting together too well...they'd both learned long ago the price of letting others get too close....

Despite the blows and the vicious words, when they curled up in bed at night, the distance between them seemed to become more and more negligible, a few inches that were fast meaning nothing...it wasn't that they were having sex; too busy, too tired. Maybe that was the problem. Wufei knew where sex fitted in to the scheme of things. This...

It was worse since the damnable heater had broken. For the last two mornings, Wufei had woken up with Duo's cold hands and feet pressed against whatever part of Wufei's body was warmest and most accessible. He'd complained, of course, and received a smug sleepy grin in return that was like a faint echo of the dawn he hadn't seen since he'd arrived in this anarchist colony...

And a whole new day would start, in which Duo alternatively fought at his side, watched Wufei's back, tried to nail him to the junkyard floor, curled up in bed for a quick kiss and grope...

"Here. Enjoy." Duo set a deep plate in front of him and flourished a fork with the hand he'd been trying to bury in Wufei's midriff about five minutes ago. Wufei took the utensil with a small nod, instead of grabbing Duo by the braid and shaking some kind of constancy out of him like he wanted to do. Duo was helping him with his mission, despite everything that had happened between them. Wufei really had no luxury to complain. Out loud, at least.

They both turned to their plates and poked the food for a few seconds in silence.

"I think it's got potatoes in it," Wufei hazarded, turning over a lump.

"Everything Babka makes has got potatoes in it," Duo grumbled. "That or beets."

"At least it's healthy," Wufei noted philosophically, spearing the lump and bringing it to his mouth.

"It hasn't killed us yet. She's never tried to feed me this much before. It's only since you got here. Have you been giving her hungry puppy dog looks each time you visit with her?"

Wufei didn't answer, just chewed thoughtfully.

"It's not too bad, actually," he finally judged.

Duo took a cautious nibble and shrugged. "I've tasted worst. Too salty, but that's standard for her. Maybe she's finally learning how to cook."

"I doubt that's the problem," Wufei corrected absently, before blowing on a piece of meat (probably a piece of meat).

"Huh?"

"She and her husband lived on a mining and refining satellite for nearly two decades. Rare earths: neodymium, that sort of stuff. They were under Alliance contracts, and we all know what the Earthers thought about safety conditions in space versus productivity. The dust from processing those rare minerals can cause lung cancer, but it can also damage the nervous system, particularly the olfactory senses."

Wufei finished another bite and took a drink of water to wash away the saltiness. He glanced up to find Duo looking at him thoughtfully, a fork stuck motionless in the stew.

"You see, if her sense of taste has deteriorated, she-"

"Yeah, I got it, I got it. That would explain a lot." Duo was still looking at him in that odd, weighing way. "Did she tell you that?"

"I doubt she's aware of it; she wouldn't cook if she was."

"I meant, about the mining colony, and the accident, and her husband and kids and all that?"

"Yes."

Wufei took a few more bites, slightly uncomfortable under Duo's strange scrutiny.

Thinking about Babka distracted him; she weighed heavily on Wufei's mind, and not only because her cuisine wasn't always that digestible. Wufei was afraid that the respectable elder would be the first victim if he and Duo were attacked.

They were taking as many precautions as they could. That was why the heater was broken; the piece of junk had been on its last legs already, but it had expired when Wufei and Duo had taken it apart to install an anti-tamper device in it. They'd done the same to the electrical installation and fire alarm response system. If the Breakers decided to attack them on the sly, to maintain their secrecy, they could arrange an 'accident' that might engulf the entire building. It wouldn't be an easy thing to do in Freeport where eyes were always watching, but Duo maintained that if the Breakers could invade Recyc, then they were probably magicians.

But what if their foe took a much more direct approach?

Duo had dropped his fork to make 'brrr' noises and rub his arms. "Almost too fuckin' cold to eat," he complained.

"Duo, you have to find a way of convincing Babka to go stay at her friend's house in Barbieri." Gilla was away most of the day working at the local child-care centre, and all the other inhabitants were young and agile enough to run away from a firefight-

"Babka? Babka was born and raised in Ukraine. This is mild spring weather by her standards. It's our lily-white spacer asses I'm worried about."

"I meant, in regards to the fact that armed gunmen could strafe this building at any time," Wufei ground out. "As for myself, I can stand the cold perfectly well."

"Yeah, I guess your ass isn't that lily-white. More of a cream color," Duo stated with a cheerful leer. "Hah, that's warmed me up."

Wufei glared at the smarmy bastard as Duo reached for his plate again. He just...how could Duo be a bit mad at him, but also lustful and cheerful and-

"I wouldn't worry about gunmen, mate; not on Freeport." The pest was back to serious and businesslike again, as if a switch had been flicked. The aggravated Preventer couldn't ignore the possibility that all this was just one more way Duo had found to even the score with Wufei. "I don't think they'd try anything open even with normal weapons; they're trying to keep a low profile, remember?"

"Which part of 'low profile' does invading Recyc correspond to?"

"The part that'll put them in the grave," Duo answered with a malicious grin that was rather ruined by the fact he'd half-buried his head in the collar of his sweater and was shivering. They shouldn't have sweated that much out in the yard, not while the heater was on the blink. But they were both men of action, and the wait was grating. Another good reason to keep up their 'training bouts': it was a way of keeping their edge. They couldn't afford to let the tension and apparent calm dull their reflexes.

"They have to act soon," Duo muttered, gaze turned inward as he loaded his fork. "We have the names of some of the dead guys. We know where they lived; we know who their friends were. We found out that some of these guys have been making quite a lot of off-colony trips in pirate and smuggler ships this last year, but nobody knows where to. A couple of them decided to pick up arms dealing as a hobby a few months back. If this is Ravachol we're dealing with, he's not gonna let us get any further. He's not the 'wait and see' kinda guy. Hell, we're starting to know almost as much as Herb did, and they killed him for it. We're a major pain in their collective asses and they've already ignored us for too long."

Why was Herb killed...? Wufei dragged his fork through the sauce. The Breakers' secrecy was apparently vital to them, but they'd broken cover to silence Herb. So...why? Did Herb know something even more dangerous? Maybe the identity of the boss...? But Wufei and Duo knew that too; considering Ravachol's courteous visit the other day, it was obvious that-

"Yeah, by all rights, we should be dead already," Duo announced with some satisfaction before taking a huge bite and chewing with a smirk.

"Something to look forward to then," Wufei muttered. "I just wish we knew what it was they were doing."

"Hopefully Tro can cover that side for us," Duo mumbled around another big mouthful.

"Yes..."

It had been a possibility from the start that these Breakers were simply some kind of local mafia. With the paranoia and self-regulation of the citizens of Freeport, organized crime directed against their own colony would not be tolerated (as opposed to organized crime directed against the rest of the Space Sphere, which was pretty much considered fair game). Carver and Ferret might be mere employees, who spent their vacation outside the colony killing and causing riots for profit.

To see just how far the web spread, Wufei had sent the profiles and names of the dead men and whatever associates he and Duo could find to Trowa. Heero could help him fish around the Preventer files and see if these people and their crimes came together in a coherent picture outside of Freeport.

Wufei had a fairly good idea of what they would find. In his mind's eye, he could see a shadowy organization sending ex-rebels - trained and skilled veterans with a bone to pick when it came to Earther rule - out from Freeport, secretly, into the colonies...and the colonies were erupting into violence, like the outbreaks of a virus.

Ferret had been one of the igniters of the X953 riots. Wufei and his colleagues had thought until recently that he was just some hot-headed agitator who'd taken advantage of an opportunity to cause trouble. But the volatile situation on that colony had started when Carver had assassinated a local cell leader. As far as the Preventers were concerned, these two facts were unfortunate in their cumulative effects, but also unrelated. Now Wufei had the proof that Carver and Ferret were linked. Had Carver's murder really been a contract killing? What else had the Breakers been doing out there? Just how much of this was going according to some overall plan?

Who were these people? Merely gun-runners who were fanning the flames of violence to fatten their profit line? Mercenaries? Or...

Wufei's instincts, honed by years of war and detective work, were screaming at him, but he disciplined himself to wait as patiently as he could for some actual hard evidence before rushing off half-cocked.

Duo and Wufei had dropped by Scythe every day, waiting for Trowa's answer, but so far they'd only gotten one on the very first day. The encrypted note was terse and to the point.

'Knew you couldn't keep out of trouble. Glad you're both still alive. This new data takes top priority. We downloaded the names and related info you sent. We'll analyze and send you results ASAP.'

Wufei decided that this was official sanction to do his worse to the Breakers. And to Carver, who obviously belonged in the gang, right? But Carver wasn't his only aim now; he remembered Herb and Lesley and Agostina sobbing behind her door. No, the other Breakers were also going to pay...

"Wake up and eat, Chang. We got a lot to do this afternoon," Duo told him prosaically, chewing down more quickly than he usually did. Wufei nodded glumly. A fellow rat-catcher was keeping a discreet eye on a suspect named Tor Kendle. He was a citizen of Kropotkin who was a known friend of three of the men now fermenting in vats in Recyc. It was likely this was the same Tor who had commanded the strike force in Recyc. But Duo couldn't ask his friends to take too many risks. Wufei and Duo would have to do most of the following and observing.

"What really depresses me is that once we finish these leftovers-" Duo paused to cough, swallow and take a swig of water. "After we finish this mystery-meat dish, we're left with commissary food. And we won't have the time to-"

Footsteps. Duo froze, food still in his mouth. Wufei paused, glass in hand, narrowed eyes on the door.

The knock was brisk and probably not the herald of an ambush.

"Yeah?" Duo called out, standing up cautiously and moving away from the workbench in complete silence after that single acknowledgment. Wufei imitated him; it was an old and healthy habit. Anybody bursting through the door with a gun - or a crossbow in Freeport - would not know where they were in the room.

"Maxwell? You there?"

"That you, Ellie?"

"Yeah. I just got a note: you're needed in Lao Tzu. Elder Braun wants to see you. It's amber."

Wufei and Duo stared at each other, and then Duo grabbed his coat while Wufei picked up his sword. The last time Braun had summoned them on an urgent matter, they'd ended up with a dead body. What was it going to be this time?

+

The only way Wufei would have guessed that this building was the Elders Compound was the number of Red Bands running around in the streets leading to it. It was a square building that looked a lot like the bar where Duo and Wufei had met Mako. Some murals on one of the concrete walls might have been an attempt to distinguish it from the other buildings in Lao Tzu sector, but since they looked like something an enthusiastic fourth-grader would paint, the effect didn't exactly bring the grey building any dignity or reverence.

Wufei's scholarly curiosity about Freeport was still alive and busy sorting the multitude of facts he'd gathered these past months. These days, he had to concentrate on his case - and if he were honest with himself, he'd have to admit that a lot of his spare mental energy had gone from figuring out Freeport to figuring out one Duo Maxwell, Citizen. But he still gathered information automatically when he could; he took this opportunity to observe the nerve centre of Freeport with interest.

The entire first floor was apparently a meeting hall, with plastic chairs clustered around a podium. The next few floors were offices, many of which bore the decorations of grandchildren to individualize them.

The place was surprisingly empty. Wufei only spotted a couple of elderly women talking to four Red Bands, and another man who could have been Master Li's father, typing at a computer. The other offices and cubicles he passed were empty. The Elders probably spent most of their time in their sectors, living their lives and making sure the other citizens were okay.

Wufei wasn't very surprised. Freeport didn't have a centralized authority, only a few hundred pair of watchful eyes. It bothered Wufei in a very fundamental way. Sure, individual sectors were fairly tight; people knew each other, watched each other. But he remembered how Duo had gotten lunch from that Korean lady on their first day here. She'd judged him to be honest with a glance, and dished out the soup without payment or return. What if someone abused the system that way, going from sector to sector bumming food and goods from people, and never giving anything back? Without some kind of centralized control, you could abuse the system in hundreds of ways.

'We probably have some freeloaders,' had been Duo's answer. 'But it's gotta be a lonely life, don't you think?'

Apparently, Freeport preferred the abuse of a few desperate individuals to the possible abuse of some central authority. This bugged Wufei, not on a political plane - okay, maybe a little bit on a political plane, but mainly it was a question of fairness. There was no currency, no credits, nothing to guarantee that Duo was adequately recompensed for all the products he'd brought to Freeport over the years. Duo imported a lot of crucial equipment and fixed it up when it broke, and then it took days, maybe even weeks, for Freeport to cough up a regulator for the furnace. Where was the justice in that?

"Stop glowering, you're gonna frighten the natives," Duo whispered at him.

Wufei transferred his non-specific scowl to a specific target. This system worked because people like Duo put up with it and supported it. Wufei wasn't sure he could...

They followed Ellie, one of the Makhno Red Bands, up three flights of stairs. Braun was waiting for them on the topmost floor. Wufei noted that the doors on this floor were all closed, and were solid and secured compared to the open offices in the floors below.

Braun dismissed the Red Band with a curt nod. He didn't move or even look up until her steps were no longer audible in the stairwell.

"This had better not happen again," he said softly. The look he finally gave Wufei was angry. He turned to open the door behind him before Duo could ask any questions. They trailed after the old man who'd stomped into the room towards a desk against the wall.

There was a high quality communicator there, the kind that could take colony-to-colony transmissions on a narrow band. Braun hit a button with a short, sharp jab.

"He's here," he snapped.

//Ah, thank you, Mr Braun.//

Wufei felt his skin go cold. Duo's breath whistled through his teeth. That had been Trowa's voice.

//May I talk with my man in private?// Trowa asked politely.

"No," Braun answered, and walked off a few paces, motioning Wufei to take his place.

Something's happened to Heero...Wufei knew Heero could take some pretty big risks with his life, but normally Wufei was around to watch his back- he sat down quickly, eyes on Trowa's face.

"Barton. What it is?"

Trowa's expectant look had frozen into something unreadable when Wufei had sat down. He was silent for a few seconds, green eyes a trifle wide, then he smiled faintly.

//This...is Chang Wufei I'm talking to, right?//

“Wh- of course it is, Barton!"

Wufei huffed, caught between anger and mortification. He was suddenly acutely aware that his hair was loose, wild and rough from Freeport's hard water, and that his clothes made him look like a less-reputable kind of thug. With his luck, he probably had a grease streak on his face after fighting Duo in the junkyard. Trowa, by contrast, looked every inch the competent Preventer in his crisp uniform, his unruly hair held back by his Specials' beret.

Behind Wufei, Duo was chuckling, obviously relieved by Trowa's levity, and also highly amused himself, the bastard. The smuggler had joined Elder Braun a few feet behind Wufei. The Elder wasn't laughing, in fact he was radiating disapproval, and no wonder if a Preventer had asked him to fetch the agent undercover on Braun's colony.

"What's up?" Wufei asked tightly; he assumed Trowa had called him up for a better reason than to make fun of his attire.

Trowa small smile widened, but it was now a practiced, non-committal mask that Wufei knew well; it triggered several alarm bells.

//Good news for you, actually. The Freeport op is finished. You can come home.//

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