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

AN: Thanks to Dawna, as always! Though in this case, this chapter go so heavily edited post-beta there are probably loads of extra mistakes in here. Oh well, hopefully it's readable! Dedicated to Dacia, spelling errors and all!

Freeport + Chapter 4

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed a girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
Heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smokey wind
Dirty old town
Dirty old town


- 'Dirty Old Town', The Pogues

+

"Welcome to Freeport!" Duo exclaimed, with a sweeping gesture as if he were giving Wufei the colony on a platter. "What do you think?"

Wufei looked up and down the long corridor. "I think that I've seen submarines that were more attractive."

Duo snickered as if that answer had been everything he'd expected it to be. He walked away with a wave of his hand inviting Wufei to follow.

Their steps echoed in the wide hallway. It was as badly lit as the docking ring: a long tunnel with wires running along the unpainted wall, with the occasional crop of crude light bulbs sprouting out of the tangled vines of cables. The floor was steel with metal lattices down the centre, through which Wufei could see pipes carting water, sewage and high-power lines below their feet.

They passed dozens of doors, probably leading to other docking rings, until they reached a huge open-sided elevator. Wufei saw a few people further down the corridor, putting boxes and crates onto a wide electric cart, but nobody looked their way as the elevator clunked and started to rise.

They were in almost complete darkness for a few seconds as the elevator climbed through the thick floor separating the docking ring and the section above. Then they were through. The elevator didn't stop; it continued to inch its way up the wall, slowly revealing another part of Freeport to the newcomer’s eyes.

Wufei tried hard to keep his face in its usual cold, slightly arrogant mask as he leaned against the elevator's guardrail and looked out into the huge sector around them.

"You okay?" Apparently his attempt to keep his surprise off his face had been only partially successful. Duo was examining him curiously. "You look like your eyes and nose are itching. Smell's pretty bad here, heh?"

Yes, it was. The chemical reek was choking here, as they rose above Freeport's industrial zone.

Freeport had been a working penitentiary at its beginnings. Wufei had absently envisioned a workshop full of licence plates, or something on that scale. Apparently the colony had expanded on whatever it had been bequeathed when it had gained its independence. The industrial sprawl dropping slowly below them was immense.

The yards and buildings were lit by harsh white floodlights; the remaining shadows were peppered with smaller lights, red for warning and yellow for emergency exits and streetlights. Huge factories echoed with the bang of manufacture, the roar of turbines and the growl of heavy machinery. Instead of chimney stacks, pipes sprung from the buildings like arteries; they pumped the poisoned air to a huge filter unit the size of a house, hissing and belching out vapour, the hot air mingling with the cool temperatures of the colony. From the heavy chemical stench prickling the delicate insides of Wufei's nose, filtering for anything more lethal than toxins, carbon monoxide and dioxide was considered a luxury that Freeport didn’t need.

A hiss and rich golden-red glow caught his attention; a few buildings away from where their elevator slowly crawled up the wall, a huge vat of molten metal had tipped its contents into long moulds manipulated by cranes. Making steel girders, he guessed, though it was hard to tell. A waft of scorched metal scent drifted over the two observers. The steel sparked and flamed in the moulds and turned cherry red as it cooled. It was like the third of the ten levels of Hell, Wufei thought, a bit fancifully. The one reserved for felons, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, fences and rioters. How very appropriate.

Duo spat out a piece of the chewed up stick he'd been gnawing at and spoke loudly over the din: "We make some of the components we need for the shipyards. The rest is imported from other colonies, but we cut costs by making some of it here. Also produce necessities for Freeport."

"Is that a chemical plant?" Wufei asked slowly, his eyes fixed on a building at the edge of the colony's 'horizon'. It was ringed with a complex array of long pipes, tanks and distillation vats.

Duo leaned past him to look, almost too late to catch a glimpse of it before it was hidden by the colony's curve as the elevator rose higher. "Looks like it."

"Good gods, Maxwell, that violates every rule of- of fundamental security-" Wufei closed his lips tightly, remembering the insane waltz of ships outside, each a potential threat that could crash into the colony at any time. Right. Freeport apparently had fairly loose standards that way.

"It's probably not anything real volatile. We don't allow that on the colony." The elevator had dragged them through another floor, obliterating their view of the huge space below and plunging them into near-darkness again, relieved only by the dim lighting of the elevator's buttons and emergency exit sign. "Anything really explosive is kept on the mining satellites or in floating refineries out in space, same as other colonies."

Wufei remembered the tiny figures scurrying around the yards, driving trucks, working around those pipelines and vats of molten metal. Whatever Duo said, he was rather glad to not be in their place. Being on the same colony was going to be bad enough.

"Nearly there." Duo was looking upwards, where a dim light promised the end of the elevator ride. "Then we can take the shuttle to the living quarters."

So they wouldn't have to walk? Good. Wufei was getting tired. It wasn't only the past two weeks that were catching up with him; he'd been pushing the envelope this past year, and dammit, he wasn't fifteen any more!

He'd been fine when he’d first joined the Specials unit of the Preventers. Riots, unrest, multiple plots...he'd faced them all with the zeal of someone recently and finally converted to the ideals of Peace. The unrest had lasted over a year, but then things had started to quiet down; the lessening tension had felt like a reward for their hard work, a promise that things were really improving. Humanity had learned its lesson.

But then last year, riots and trouble had started to boil up again in the colonies and some hot-spots on Earth. Mainly L3 and L2, with a few of the L4 mining colonies thrown in. Wufei had spent over a month hunting down gunrunners in L3, trying to keep the situation from erupting into something worse, and then he'd been doing extreme riot control for Une in L2. And those two weeks on L2-X953. If he never saw that particular colony again, he'd die a happy man. At this point, he didn't care if he was in Freeport or in Hell: he just wanted to get to where they were going and sleep in a bed, for the first time in over eight days.

The elevator left them in a wide bay. On one side was an elevator pod waiting to take passengers through a hole in the ceiling; going up into one of the spokes leading to the Zero-G docking bay at the axis of the colony. Duo walked past it and stopped at the edge of a platform besides several sets of train tracks, which vanished into the darkness of a tunnel on either side of the bay. There was no one else around. They’d barely made it to the platform when a noise down the tunnel announced the train's arrival.

It was automated, with only two long wagons behind a small engine. There were four people in the first wagon, but Duo got into the second one. Wufei followed him to a set of hard plastic benches and sat next to him.

"Maxwell, where are we going to start looking for-" the train started and completely drowned Wufei's words. There had been no attempt to soundproof the train's wagons. Or do much about suspensions. Wufei felt his teeth rattle, and he grabbed the edge of his seat to avoid being bumped off. After a minute the train's rhythm eased and the ride was a bit smoother, but it was still too noisy for conversation.

They rode without a word for a few minutes. The train slowed and stopped a couple of times. Two people got on at one of the stops, going into the other wagon. Wufei didn't have the patience to continue grilling Duo during the few seconds of respite from the noise.

Another stop and someone entered their wagon. Wufei observed him discreetly. Male, late twenties, medium height, thick build, black hair, dressed in protective gear soiled with oil and marks of solder wiped off on his thigh. Wufei's skin prickled as he realized that the man was staring at him, then at Duo. The Preventer shifted, making sure his scabbard wasn’t blocked by the seat. Before he could get truly worried, the man looked away lazily; he tossed a hard hat on a bench five rows ahead of them and sat down. Wufei glanced at Duo; the latter was chewing his liquorice with his eyes almost closed, but a flash of blue showed he was paying attention to every other person in sight. If he was disturbed by the worker's unexpectedly intense scrutiny, he didn't show it.

The train shook in a bone-jarring bump over a set of points. Wufei looked out the grimy plastic window; they’d just passed a set of thick airlocks. They must be entering the half of the wheel that contained the living quarters, he guessed. The set of locks were there to isolate it from the industrial zone in case of a serious fire or explosions; a thought that wasn't really all that reassuring. The ride became smoother; the noise faded a bit, to less-than-deafening level. Not that Wufei felt at leisure to talk, with the stranger sitting nearby.

"Here, this is our stop," Duo announced suddenly, nudging Wufei. "We'll go through Volt, it's faster. Plus I can drop by Chris's stand."

Wufei followed numbly, trying to shake some feeling back into his body, nerves deadened by the vibrations. His ears rang as the train pulled away. He followed Duo to yet another airlock.

"You're not afraid of heights, right?" Duo tossed over his shoulder as he led Wufei through a low tunnel.

"Of course not," Wufei muttered.

"Good." Duo hit a button and an automatic door opened. They stepped out onto a small platform over a drop of several hundred feet, dimly lit by the ever-present yellow and red bulbs.

"What..." Wufei realized there was an elevator platform slowly rising to meet them. "This goes all the way through to the outer hull?"

"Yeah. There's one of these shafts every three or four sectors of the living quarters. There are two levels in this part of Freeport. The outer level of the wheel is storage, pumps, filters, recyc, hydroponics, all that sorta stuff. The middle section is the living quarters, and the highest level is the shuttle tunnel."

"Oh." Wufei glanced around. The elevator platform was still some distance away and there was no one around. "Duo, what exactly am I supposed to know? As your, er, Blade?"

"You heard what I told Karl. You're new in Freeport, and a new Blade too. That means you're allowed a number of dumb questions, and hopefully it'll give you some leeway if you screw up." Duo looked like he was rather expecting it. Wufei throttled his snarl. "Keep in mind, though: people who come to Freeport...well, they already know about it. Hell, I practically lived off Freeport legends in the fucking god-awful slums I grew up in, and so have most people who managed to make their way here. There's stuff all spacers like me know about. And you..."

Duo gave him a look at that point. It was steady, measuring, and slightly dismissive.

"You are rather misinformed," Duo finished, looking away again.

Wufei could feel his hackles rise, though he couldn't deny Duo's words. He didn't actually know all that much about Freeport, except for rumours and legends, and those were mainly about the lawlessness and criminal underworld that thrived here. Wufei had been too busy on Earth and the more orderly colonies to worry about Freeport these last few years.

They stepped out onto the platform as it ground to a halt with a thump at their level. It was ten feet by twelve, big enough to carry small cargo, open on the side with only thin guardrails protecting its passengers from the drop below.

Wufei was about to ask another question when a noise interrupted him; it grew-

A grinding, chugging, hissing uproar echoed around the metal walls like a drum being relentlessly pounded. Wufei had his hand on his sword's hilt, a useless gesture of defence that was ingrained into his bones. He stared wildly at the ceiling above their head. He was remembering the ships dancing around the colony's wheel-

"Cargo train!" Duo shouted above the noise.

Oh. Wufei stood down with a shudder. In his mind, the chemical plant was exploding, sheeting the colony's air with fire and gasses; ships were tearing into the hulls; all the space debris outside was pounding through the walls...

"Get many incidents of space mania in this dump?" he snarled, as the racket above their heads faded with a distant rhythmic clacking of wheels on tracks.

Duo simply shrugged.

The elevator crawled down a few more feet. Wufei stared around him. Apparently the lack of lighting was generalized. The darkness was oppressive.

"What's the suicide rate?" Wufei added, a bit snidely.

Duo merely grinned and nibbled at his stick.

"What you got to realize is that most people in Freeport have as many lives as a cat, and they spent over half of them getting here," Duo finally drawled, glancing lazily at Wufei who was trying to look just as relaxed, and probably not succeeding all that well. "Space puppies like us tend not to let the wibblies go to our head."

"The lives of a cat? Then by any reasonable estimate, you have a tab running, Maxwell."

Duo smiled proudly, but his reply was cut by a ringing thump coming from below, followed by a ratcheting clatter.

"And so has Freeport," Wufei added, his voice a bit hoarse. "What-"

"Someone moving a cargo pod down below," Duo answered without even glancing around. His eyes were still on Wufei, weighing. "All this gonna be a problem for you, Chang?"

"I was born and raised on a colony," Wufei reassured him stiffly. And, to be honest, A0206 had been pretty dilapidated too. Wufei had grown up, like most space-born citizens, in an environment where a sharp metallic ‘ping’ could be the sound of a gasket breaking, a seal breaching, the start of the invasion of the devouring void that surrounded them and tried to rip them apart at the seams every second of their lives. All colonists lived with that constant feeling of vulnerability, with the ever-present precautions they had to take, with the knowledge that if something went wrong there would be no second chances, and probably not even a first; they were at the mercy of vacuum and that was notoriously merciless.

Some people broke down, reduced to wrecks by the constant, inescapable knowledge of their own human frailty in an environment that was as ultimately as hostile to them as it could get. The incidence of space mania had decreased steadily in the last two decades on civilized colonies, where some effort was spent on mimicking earth conditions; fake skies, day and night cycles, artificial breezes and as much nature as the colony could afford. But the human mind couldn't always be fooled. Those who succumbed to the phobia either went back to earth or ended up in a psych ward. But Wufei had learned to live and fight in space; he had his flaws, but that one, fortunately, had never been one of them -

- a second grinding thump echoed up from the shaft, followed by a deep, creaking noise -

Until now, a small part of Wufei amended. It was the part that had had the nightmares when he was seven, after his parents had been killed in a shuttle accident...the knowledge of what vacuum victims looked like, combined with the loss...

This wouldn't be a problem, though, he judged calmly, reining in the memories. The mental discipline of the warrior would keep him focused, where the survival instincts of the colonist were telling him to get the hell out of this deathtrap already.

The elevator platform stopped after dropping seventy feet, and they stepped off. Another airlock protected the living quarters. It hissed open to a waft of air and the scent of a lot of people living in close proximity.

The sector was darker than any night on earth could ever make it. The ceiling was invisible above their heads. The streets were lit by harsh white neon, nearly blue in their intensity; space lighting, the kind his colony had only used in space-ship hangars and docking rings. They sliced the eternal night of the streets into monochrome chunks.

This wasn't what Wufei had expected though. He'd been envisioning a seedy slum, lit up in all the colours of an oil slick by seedy neon, advertising bars and strip joints. Like Neo-Tokyo. The air was rich with the smell of a rather inadequate recyc and sewer system, and the chemical tang that had followed them from the industrial zone, but the stench of rotten garbage, piss, vomit and misery were absent.

Buildings four to six stories high lined the wide, harshly-lit streets. They must nearly brush the invisible ceiling. A dribble of smoke eased out from under a manhole cover, air warmed by the sewage system beneath it escaping into the ambient chill. Their steps echoed; everything was metal here, no care had been taken to hide the fact they were in a glorified tin can floating through space.

A cat, thin and feral as a rat, paused as it crossed the street to eye them coldly before disappearing in a small open space between two buildings. Junk had been stacked there, with odd neatness and order - bed frames, broken chairs, a smashed computer screen, cracked cupboards, pots of paint...After the next block was another open space, but this one was clear and lined with crude benches. A seesaw and a sandpit were being ignored by the kids playing there, though apparently not by another cat which was carefully digging away at the sand, oblivious. The three children were dressed in grey and tattered woollen jumpers against the cold; they were running around screaming, playing a violent game of tag. Their voices bounced around the buildings, shrill and loud, then they were completely drowned out by another clatter from up above, a bit more muffled than in the elevator shaft but still ominously present. Wufei tensed; the kids didn’t even pause in their game or glance upwards. An elderly man on a bench watched the children without interfering in their rough game; he appeared to be darning socks. He had a whole stack of them next to him, and he split his attention between the children and his needle.

Duo walked down the street with his usual long-legged assured gait. Wufei followed more slowly, observing everything carefully while keeping his head down. There were no shops that he could see. Maybe this was just the 'dorm' section of the colony. A few citizens leaned out the windows as they passed, or sat on stoops, talking. They watched the two men pass with open curiosity, which surprised and worried the Preventer. They didn't look like layabouts; most were dressed in thick workman's pants, jumpers or coats, and he didn't see any of them drinking or taking anything illicit. Damn, Wufei remembered, taking the liquorice stick out of his mouth to glare at it; at this point I'm more of a disreputable figure than they are.

"Just stopping at Chris's stand," Duo said over his shoulder; he turned down a road perpendicular to the main thoroughfare. A few carts had gathered halfway down the street; simple metal frames cobbled together with cheap plastic boarding, small enough for a man to be able to push about without too much trouble. They were gaily decorated with coloured paper and paint. It was the first splash of vivid colour Wufei had seen in Freeport, apart from the arterial red of warning lights. A couple of women loitered nearby, talking to one of the stall's vendors in the low, intense voices of gossips everywhere.

Duo drew up before the most colourful of the carts. There was something colourful behind the cart, too. Wufei, with mission-born concentration and ingrained Asian restraint, managed not to stare. Chris, if that was him - her? - was a thickset person in vivid red overalls with an electric blue shawl over big, round shoulders. Bulky fingers worked some knitting needles, turning grey wool into a thick-knit tube. He...she?...seemed to have a good five o'clock shadow going on thickset jowls that were nonetheless cheerfully rouged. Eyes painted the same colour as the shawl measured Duo up.

"Hiya, Duo. Who's this?"

The gaze was turned towards Wufei. It was piercing, astute and measuring to a fault. Wufei adopted the same neutral look he'd used with Karl. He knew it made him look cold and a bit arrogant, but it was better than showing his uncertainty.

Chris tossed his long locks, dyed black, over his shoulders (on reflection, Wufei felt pretty sure it was a man, though he wouldn't have bet his life on it).

"He's cute," the creature announced, not making Wufei feel very flattered. "New Blade? What happened to Heero?"

Wufei started slightly at his friend’s name.

"Heero's...not here," Duo said. Once again, he sounded a bit more pained than annoyed. "Long story. Outside stuff."

"He okay?" Chris asked. There was genuine concern in the brown eyes as they returned to Duo.

"Yeah, he'll be fine. This is Wufei. He's new."

"I know," Chris put in dryly. "I'd remember that pretty face if I'd seen it before. Damn, Maxwell, isn't it bad enough you're the cutest thing on this colony, you got to dangle some more attractive goods I can't have under my nose?"

Face neutral, Wufei reminded himself.

"That's life, Chris!" Duo smirked. "Say, can I have some liquorice sticks?"

"You got some just the other day," Chris objected, thick brown eyebrows, like a pair of combed caterpillars, raised questioningly.

"I need some straight stuff. No boosters. You got that, right?"

"I got that, sugar. What's wrong, Chris's little bundles of comfort not doing their job anymore?"

"I love 'em more than ever, Chris, you know that," Duo grinned. "It’s for Wufei; he’d rather not have anything interfere with his sword arm, yanno?"

"Ah." Once more the eyes tracked over Wufei inch by inch, from his sword, to his face, to the collar, to his stance. "Okay. I think I can swing it. Just a sec."

Chris put down his knitting and picked up a small confectionary bag. Wufei had taken a quick overall measure of the cart as they'd approached; the merry colours and decorations framed a dozen big bottles and crates full of sweets. The words 'Chris’s Candy Shop' were painted on the cart's eaves. Chris reached into a small box, drew out some liquorice sticks and put them into the bag. Wufei lost sight of things then as he suddenly noticed that the bottle next to that one contained brightly coloured pills. The big glass jar next to that contained some more of the liquorice sticks, which, he remembered abruptly, were not as innocent as they appeared. They were interspersed with bottles full of homemade candy canes and bonbons - well, they looked homemade. And they looked like candy. At this point, though, Wufei wanted forensic evidence of that.

Candy shop?! Wufei struggled to keep the neutral look on his face. He was thinking of the kids playing nearby. He stared at the predator with his brightly coloured 'candy shop' and wished he could actually do something about it. He felt repulsed that Maxwell would even stop here.

Chris passed the packet of sticks to Duo, who handed them to Wufei who, after a second of frozen immobility, forced himself to reach out his hand and take the things. Duo grinned at Chris and waved briefly. "I'll chat later, gorgeous. I'm barely keeping a-flight now, I’m so tired. Gonna go bunk. Stay safe!"

"Sure. You stay warm now," Chris replied with a leer.

Wufei followed Duo stiffly through the streets. A loud rattle echoed around the buildings, ringing through the empty space and around the metal streets and alleys; another cargo train passing over their heads.

"Relax, man. It's not as bad as you think."

Duo's voice had been so soft that Wufei barely heard it over the metallic clanging filling the sector’s empty spaces.

"What?"

"Chris. It's not as bad as you think. Most of those pills are homemade homeopathic meds for sleeping or digestion, or some very mild shit."

Wufei glanced around worriedly.

"No, you held your cool remarkably well," Duo continued with a smirk, as if reading his mind. "It's just that Heero had the same reaction and I'm ready to bet you two are wired pretty much the same way, hm?"

"Oh." They were in an empty stretch and the echoes of their voices still muffled by the train rattling over their metal ceiling, so Wufei leaned over and chanced a hiss. "Tell me, Maxwell, does he also -"

"She."

"...whatever. Does she also sell this 'mild shit' to the kids?"

Duo's reaction was immediate, a sudden tension and a hiss. He took a sidestep and, to Wufei's shock, put an arm around the Asian man's shoulders, dragging him near. The gesture was companionable, Wufei realized after a mental stutter of surprise; they probably looked like a couple of friends talking quietly over the noise.

"Wu..." Duo glanced around. "Look, don't...ah, never mind, we'll deal with that later. Don't ask any more questions, okay? And no, Chris would never give any drugs to a kid. She's a responsible citizen, and actually a well-respected figure in this sector."

Wonderful. The friendly local drug dealer. Admittedly cleaner, brighter and friendlier than a lot of the drug runners Wufei occasionally arrested. But that did not make it any better.

"One more stop; I gotta pick up my boots from Madir. He should have them repaired by now.”

Duo dropped the arm he had around Wufei's shoulders and headed off on a side-trip again. He twisted down two alleys between buildings and fetched up in a small courtyard. There were rows of big metal shelves along one side and a workbench on the other. The man behind the bench was looking at the courtyard entrance as they came in, alerted by their steps ringing against the metal of the streets outside. He was tall, big-boned, with stooped shoulder. His coffee-coloured skin was tainted with the sallow yellow characteristic of a lack of UVs. An interesting scar almost bisected his nose, giving it a bulbous, spongy appearance.

"Oh, Maxwell, you're back," he murmured.

"Hi, Madir. You got my boots ready?"

"Yeah. Shouldn't look too bad. You gonna be wearing 'em down to the soles again?" Madir's eyes had skipped over Duo to fasten onto Wufei.

"I'll do my level best," Duo replied with a smirk.

"Lemme check them. Glue should be dry. 'Bout time you changed them though."

"I can't!" Duo seemed honestly horrified at the idea. "Me n' those boots go way back!"

"Yeah, I'm sure yer mam wore them, you little spacer rat," Madir sniffed.

Wufei stiffened angrily, but Duo just laughed. "Nah, Mad, it was your mom who gave them to me! Why do you think I'm so attached to 'em?"

"Attached to 'em? She was that good a lay?!"

"'Course not! They were my payment, and man, I earned 'em!"

Face neutral, Wufei reminded himself again.

While Duo and Madir continued to exchange endearments, and the latter also checked the repaired soles of a pair of thick black boots, Wufei felt the prickle of eyes on his neck. He glanced discreetly over his shoulder. A kid, seventeen or thereabouts, had poked his head out of the second story window and was staring at him. It was much the same stare Chris had given him, a scrutiny that made him uncomfortable, especially since he wasn't sure what he'd done to catch the boy's attention. Unless it was the collar...? But the boy turned the same look on Duo a few seconds later. Duo, true to form, felt it immediately despite the distance. He twisted around while rearranging the boots in his arms. Instead of being discreet like Wufei, Duo stared at the kid directly. The kid didn't glance away and they measured each other for a short while. Then Duo went back to talking with Madir as if nothing had happened.

Footsteps alerted Wufei. He turned from the kid, who was staring at him again, to see a young woman enter the courtyard and stop a few feet away. She started to scrutinize him too. Wufei fought to keep the unreadable look on his face; if it wasn't the collar that was making him stand out, then he was having grave doubts about his cover. The woman continued to stare at him, completely unabashed. There didn't appear to be any hostility in her gaze. Wufei found himself returning it almost defensively, and her eyes didn't even flicker. Just as Wufei wondered if he was going to have to embark on a staring contest, Duo finished his civilities with Madir - Wufei had stopped listening when he heard the term 'barnyard animals' - and stepped away from the workbench. The woman took Duo's place, nodding to Madir who suddenly looked a whole lot more polite.

She had a baby in a carrier on her back, about a year old, chewing on a bright green pacifier. The kid turned the same point-blank stare on Wufei, who felt his eyes begin to water.

"C'mon, let's go home," Duo tossed back as he headed out of the courtyard. Wufei, rather unsettled, flinched away from the brat's gaze and followed.

He waited until they were once more on the main thoroughfare which was still mostly empty.

"Duo-"

"Nearly there. We're at the lock. Then we'll be in Makh sector, where I live."

The thoroughfare went through a double airlock, separated by a low corridor of a dozen feet. Both locks were open, though they would probably slam shut at a drop in air pressure or fire on one side or another. Their footsteps echoed in the corridor. A light at the end shone on a nameplate. Ma-something. Not just 'Makh', but Wufei didn't have time to make out the peeling paint; Duo was accelerating.

They walked for another five minutes. The buildings in this sector were low and sprawled, with junkyards and big courtyards ringed in by chain link fences. Things scurried in the piles of scrap as they passed. Wufei let himself imagine it was simply a few cats. The streets were nearly deserted; the few passers bye all gave Wufei the same long searching stare. Duo must have noticed, but he didn't look particularly worried, so Wufei tried to put it from his mind.

Duo headed towards a grey three-story building. There was a man sitting out front in a wheelchair, a plaid blanket over his legs. He was reading a book out loud to a young girl of about six, in old French. He looked up as they approached. The usual gun-barrel gaze was levelled at Wufei, who was beginning to get used to it.

"Hey, Duo, you're back. Who's this?" He had a thick accent Wufei couldn't place; it didn't sound European. Maybe L3's Slavic population.

"This is Chang Wufei. As you can see, he's my new Blade." Duo reached over, snagged Wufei's shoulder and shoved him forward a bit, like he was showing him off. The man blinked up at him and Wufei realized that he had a faint scar crossing one eye; the brown cornea looked dim.

"Wufei, this is Gilla," Duo continued. His hand was squeezing Wufei's shoulder almost painfully, a reminder not to bow or nod or say anything. It was hard, especially when Gilla himself waved a greeting.

"Hi, Wufei. Nice to have you here. Not that I want to pry, Duo, but where's-"

"Heero isn't available. For the conceivable future. Unless things change," Duo replied curtly.

"Himno, don't tell me he got married?!"

"Er, no." Duo looked blank. "What on earth made you think-"

"He just struck me as the kind who could easily get entangled with a woman and not be able to get himself disentangled short of strangling her. So he's either married, in the army or in jail." Gilla nodded wisely. His voice was deep with a cultured tone that sounded out of place here, compared to the other citizens of Freeport Wufei had met, including Duo for that matter. The young girl by Gilla’s side, sitting on a ragged dirty pillow, still hadn't said anything, though she was staring at Wufei as if memorizing his features for a police line-up at a later date; Wufei wasn't all that surprised by now. Apparently this was the Freeport norm. He returned the gaze somewhat resignedly. Her features looked more mature than he'd first thought; she was probably older than six and small for her age. She was wearing tough brown pants, rolled up at the cuffs to fit her, with pink knit pantyhose beneath, peaking out between the pants and a pair of dirty sneakers. Her jumper might have been blue once; it had faded to light grey with washing, and was also a bit big for her. But her hair and face were scrupulously clean, and she didn't look malnourished. Or strung out for that matter, Wufei reflected gloomily, remembering some of his recent trips to Amsterdam and Neo-Tokyo.

"No, don't worry. Heero and I had a little disagreement, you might say." Wufei thought he caught a flash of a look thrown his way. Duo had said that in a rather dry manner. He'd apparently not forgiven Heero for the inconsiderate hospital stay that had left him with Wufei on his hands.

"Oh, I see. And this young man...?"

"Is also an old friend. Bit of the same story, really."

"Hmm," Gilla muttered, scrutinizing Wufei again. He had the same gaze as Karl, slightly hostile, as if he wasn't sure he trusted Wufei and intended to keep an eye on him. It wasn't very promising. It was also a bit puzzling that he'd shown no signs of this suspicion when he'd first greeted the Asian Preventer.

"Gonna go hit the sack, Gill. Been up for longer n' I can count at this point. Stay safe. You too, little bit."

The girl's serious countenance suddenly broke into a startlingly bright smile for one short second, then she was back to gazing at Wufei as if she suspected him of having stolen her puppy. Wufei followed Duo into the building's interior with some relief.

"I live in the back. I have the yard to myself, too. It's enclosed, not that that makes it any warmer. Except if I have an engine running. Then it's warm and stinky!" Duo's voice bounced around the corridor like the braid bounced against his tan jacket. Wufei stared at it, nearly hypnotized by the swaying motion in his current state of fatigue.

"This door is to Gilla's. This door is to Babka's." Duo jerked a thumb at two doors on either side of the hallway. A few feet further, two similar doors also received an introduction. "This is the toilet, and this is the shower room. The whole building uses them. The guys upstairs said they didn't mind, and it saves us from having to set up and maintain a water pump. Water pressure is kinda lame most days anyway. I won't tell you to spare the water; you're colony-born."

"Yes," Wufei answered belatedly. Duo was already on another subject.

"-will have a job to finish at some point in the next three days. Don't know how long it'll take me, either." Duo opened a door at the end of the hallway, still talking.

A flick of the switch near the door lit the neon over a small kitchen area immediately to their right. It was delimited by a long metal table with a cubical fridge beneath it, a microwave on it, a few cheap kitchen cabinets against the wall, some shelves holding a few condiments, a basket of cutlery and three plates. A small high stainless-steel sink stood close to the kitchen area; it looked oddly out of place to the tired Preventer until he realized it was the same model as you found in shuttles. Duo must have salvaged it and played with the plumbing. The mirror above it was cracked, but both looked quite clean.

The rest of the room was dimly illuminated by the neon and splashes of streetlight sneaking through locked steel shutters of a window to their left. A second door in the opposite wall, of strong steel with a good lock, probably led to the yard Duo had mentioned. A window beside it was also shuttered and let no light through.

A metal worktable ran along the whole left side of the room. Several toolboxes lay open around a half-dismantled mechanism. Wufei frowned and walked over to it quickly.

"Maxwell-"

"Construction mecha," Duo cut in with the heavy sigh of one who's used to being unfairly put upon.

"Really? Looks like the stabilizer unit of an Aries to me," Wufei challenged in a low, dangerous voice, hands fisted on his hips as he glared at the piece.

"That might be where we got it from," Duo admitted vaguely, as if casually searching his memory. When Wufei looked at him the blue eyes were teasing. You're in the middle of Freeport, Lawman. Whatcha gonna do about it?

"We patch up our mechs with whatever we can get our hands on, Chang. If it makes you feel any better, we don't have any of the suit's weapons here," Duo continued, his voice generous and slightly condescending. "This place is enough of a disaster area without waving around things that could blow chunks out of the hull."

Since there was no way for Wufei to verify that, he'd have to take Duo's word for it. He doubted he'd have the luxury of investigating this, though in theory he should. Freeport arming with mobile suits took precedence even over Carver. He'd keep his eyes open, but in the balance of evidence, he did tend to trust Duo. The man might be a bit mercenary and something of a fighting fool, but he'd sacrificed just as much as the other pilots had, putting himself between two armies to defend the colonies and stop the slaughter. Wufei didn't think Duo Maxwell would be party to starting a new war.

There were two swivel chairs in front of the worktable, the only seating available in the place. Apparently Duo ate at his workbench or on the bed. Two metal cupboards stood against the opposite wall to the right of the entrance, and there was a small bookcase full of books, vids, and computer disks next to the bed.

Ah, the bed. The double bed. With two pillows. Wufei managed not to look at it too pointedly, though since that was it as far as furniture was concerned - not even a couch - it was obvious there was nowhere else to sleep. He wondered again what might be between Duo and Heero, and more importantly, whether Duo expected them to share the bed too.

Duo was already ferreting around one of the cupboards. He drew out a rolled-up mat and a sleeping bag. Wufei felt torn; relieved at not having to share a bed with a man he hadn't known for over five years, but a bit disappointed too. So much for sleeping in a bed again. Damn.

"Here, set yourself up...well, wherever you want to, really. Avoid the worktable area, unless you want to get woken up by soldering sparks one of these mornings."

Wufei opted to set himself up against the far wall, under the window, halfway between Maxwell's bed and his workspace. It wasn't the most comfortable of setups, but the sleeping bag looked warm, and Wufei had roughed it out in worse. He laid out the mat and bag, dropped his knapsack next to them, put down his sword and glanced around, taking stock. So this was going to be his base of operations for the next few weeks? In just this one small room, with Duo, and his workbench, and -

He looked around a second time, then a third, more carefully.

"You don't have a TV?" he asked slowly.

"No, buddy, sorry." Duo was unpacking his duffel, heaping clothes carelessly into one of the metal cupboards. "Reception out here is crap. Nothing much interesting on anyway. I play movie vids on my laptop if I have the time, and a few places have big vid screens where they retransmit the games from L2. They have a twenty-second delay but it’s better than nothing. Hope you have a friend back home to record your favourite shows or you'll be missing out!"

Wufei didn't bother answering, but he was thinking that that was at least one annoyance he'd been spared.

A yawn behind him preceded a sleepy announcement: "I've been up and around for way too long, Chang. How about you? You tired?"

"Yes," Wufei answered shortly. "I've not slept since- for awhile." He'd been trying not to think about the situation he'd left behind. The riots still simmering, the problems with the governor of X953, and Heero still in the hospital. Hopefully Barton would be able keep on top of all that. Wufei rather wished he could have delayed this trip for a day or two, just to make sure Heero was okay. Head wounds could be tricky. But he'd not been given an option. Besides, by their best estimates, Carver had returned to Freeport two weeks ago, just as the riots on L2- X953 were getting into full swing, fleeing the trouble like a rat leaving a burning ship. Wufei didn't need to give him any more time to dig himself deeper into Freeport.

He caught one of the pillows Duo tossed him, and then sat down on his makeshift 'bed', arms around his knees. "What are our steps now? How are we going to find Carver? Do you have any idea where to start looking?" Then, on reflection, and in a lower voice: "Can we talk here?"

Duo glanced around automatically. "Yeah. Babka's a bit deaf, and Gilla's mostly out front. The inner walls are kinda thin though, so don't start preaching about your Preventer duties at the top of your lungs." Duo snickered at Wufei's glare. "We'll worry about Carver tomorrow. Just follow me around, keep your mouth shut and watch my back. That's all Trowa wants you to do." The latter was said with thinly veiled irony.

Wufei grunted morosely - then he flinched and glanced up automatically at the ceiling as a distant racket heralded the passage of another freight train. As far as assignments went, this one was shaping up to be one of the worst. He just hoped he'd be able to stick Carver in jail by the end of it. That'd make it somewhat worthwhile.

"You hungry?" Duo had tossed his tan jacket on the end of the workbench and was toeing off his steel-capped boots near the door.

"No." Wufei had given up on the liquorice, not liking the slight buzz that came with it. The smell wasn't too bad here, or else he'd gotten used to it, but its remnants and the fatigue were making him feel slightly nauseous. "Do you have something to drink?"

"Soda, juice, filtered water. You wouldn't like the stuff they have on tap here." Duo wandered over in his socks to the small fridge and opened it.

"Juice."

"Yessir. Note that normally you should be getting this for me," Duo pointed out, though not very strenuously. He took out a couple of bottles, opened them by levering the tops off against the counter, and walked over to Wufei with another yawn.

Wufei took the bottle with a grunt of thanks and caught Duo's right hand at the same time, stopping him from straightening up and pulling away.

Duo stiffened. Momentary surprise and the slightest flinch gave way to indifference. He said nothing as Wufei examined the black glove and the fingers he'd captured.

"When did this happen?" Wufei asked quietly.

For a moment he thought Duo wouldn't answer, and he let go, trying to think of something to say.

"Two years. Bit more now," Duo finally replied. His words were short, but he didn't sound upset. He dangled his bottle by the neck with three fingers of his right hand and used the left to shove up the cuff of his long-sleeved shirt. The skin-tight black glove went up past the elbow. It had a band around the top that glinted metallically in the light from the kitchen. Duo's fingers twisted around it and the band released with a soft click.

Wufei stirred, feeling a bit embarrassed. "You don't have to-"

"I take it off to sleep," Duo informed him calmly, rolling the glove down. The metallic band had left red spots on his biceps; pressure points from electrodes. There were others further down too, on his forearm.

Bottle and glove in the left hand, he held up the right, fingers splayed. The little finger had been shorn off at the first joint, leaving only a reddened stump; the right ring finger had been cut off at the second knuckle, a triangle dip showing where the joint had been removed. There was more scarring, rough pink pits in the flesh along the side of the hand, the other fingers and his arm.

"Looks like shrapnel damage," Wufei hazarded, a bit puzzled.

"Coulda been. Explosion in a feeder tube on a half-built ship in Zero-G. I was lucky, really. My colleague got one eye and part of his face blown away, and the engineer had her legs broken. Found one of her kneecaps ensconced in the bullwark. Still walks with a hella limp."

"But you can't steady a gun anymore," Wufei pointed out bluntly. He doubted Duo had ever needed anything sugar-coated in his life.

"Well, I wouldn't get my hands on one in Freeport anyway. I can still pull a trigger outside. When Heero and I go chasing people in the outer satellites, I use a sawed-off shotgun. Subtle it ain't, but it gets their attention!" Duo's grin was wide, open and quite savage.

"The glove gives me some mobility and grip," Duo added, waving it around gently. The fingers that corresponded to his missing digits were still full. Prosthetics, activated by the muscles and nerve inputs in the arm, transmitted by wiring in the glove. They moved in good synchronicity with the intact fingers, but to a trained warrior like Wufei, they’d stood out already back in Scythe, as soon as he’d seen Duo touch his instruments.

"I was pretty good with my left hand already. Don't slow me down much. 'S funny, ain't it?"

"...What is?"

"You and me, we came through the war pretty much intact!" Duo turned around, stuffing the glove into his back pocket. "Compared to Heero or Trowa, anyway. It's the peace that mangled us."

"Very ironic," Wufei agreed, unlacing his boots with one hand.

"Quatre's the only one of us who's kept his baby-fine skin intact till now."

Quatre had his scars on the inside, Wufei thought to himself, finishing his orange juice. He watched Duo through his eyelashes as the smuggler removed the other glove and sat in one of the chairs. Duo seemed to have taken his injuries with the same casual acceptance Wufei had. Neither of them had ever expected the universe to give them a break, just because the war was over.

He tugged off his boots and rummaged in the knapsack full of Heero's clothes. He remembered Duo packing a pair of sweats in there. He took them and one of his t-shirts and toiletries and headed towards the door.

"You'll have to use this sink here." Duo was looking blindly at the shuttered window while he toyed with his bottle of juice. "The toilets and showers don't have any."

"...Oh." Wufei headed towards the toilet anyway, then came back and brushed his teeth in the tiny sink. He nodded numbly as Duo headed out the door, saying something about 'dumping a load too'. Wufei changed his clothes quickly, his eyes fixed on the mat and the sleeping bag, which were looking very attractive by now. He heard Duo's voice in the hallway, and Gilla's deep rumbling bass in return. He didn't wait but slipped into the bag.

His eyes shut before his head even touched the pillow. Two weeks sleeping when he could, a few hours at a time, while the riots shook the colony L2-X953 and its neighbours. Then no sleep once Heero had been injured; Wufei had held the fort, done what he had to do, while Une and Trowa were in transit and before the riots could escalate into a full-blown revolution. He'd snatched a few hours on the shuttle on his way to the RV with Duo, but he hadn't slept too long; he'd been intent on reading up on Carver, preparing for the new mission. And then...his mind lost itself trying to calculate his average sleep time in the past two weeks. It kept coming up with a number that was too ridiculous to contemplate...

Soft noises in the background of the darkness that was nibbling at his consciousness. Duo. Getting ready for bed.

"Wufei? You asleep already?"

Near him. Wufei couldn't open his eyes. He grumbled 'yes', or at least that was his intent. It came out as barely a grunt.

"That's what I thought."

Wufei sank into sleep. Though part of him kept alert, feeling Duo still near him, standing over him. Staring down at him with the same assessing look that had confronted Wufei all day...others were standing behind Duo: Chris, Madir, the young mother and Gilla, all staring -...no, wait...Wufei realized distantly that he had his eyes closed so he couldn't be seeing them...he was dreaming already...

"It's gonna be a pain draggin' you around Freeport, Wuf." The whisper was no louder than the dream encasing him. "Not to mention a health hazard! And I expect you to have a coronary at some point during your stay."

Coronary...coroner...corner...

"Still...it's good to see you again..."

...

[chap. 3] [chap. 5] [back to Maldoror's fic]