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

AN: The bits that are correctly spelled with good punctuation are due to the efforts of me beta, Dawna (bows in thanks). The rest is my last-minute editing ^^:

Freeport + Chapter 5

We sail tonight for Singapore
Don't fall asleep while you're ashore
Cross your heart and hope to die
When you hear the children cry
Let marrow bone and cleaver choose
While making feet for children shoes
Through the alley, back from Hell
When you hear that steeple bell
You must say goodbye to me.

We sail tonight for Singapore
Take your blankets from the floor
Wash your mouth out by the door
The whole town is made of iron ore
Every witness turns to steam
They all become Italian dreams
Fill your pockets up with earth
Get yourself a dollar's worth
Away boys, away, boys, heave away


- Tom Waits, 'Singapore'


+

Wufei came awake in a single lethal instant. His fingers were grasping the hilt of his sword before he could analyze the noise that had woken him: Door opening. Further down the hall. Voices, people leaving the building. Duo's apartment was silent and dark.

He rolled over, eyes darting around the nearly invisible corners of the room. There was absolutely no change in the lighting that slipped in through the shutters from the streets outside. He glanced at his watch. Eight hours had passed. The colony must not have a night/day cycle, as he'd suspected. That was going to take some getting used to.

Eight hours of sleep. What a luxury. He should probably feel guilty.

He glanced over at the bed. The covers were thrown back, the sheets rumpled grey ghosts in the obscurity. Duo was nowhere to be seen.

Damn. Now he did feel guilty. And furious.

No, Maxwell would not be stupid enough to ditch him and go out hunting Carver by himself. Right? They had an agreement!

Wufei threw back the sleeping bag with an aggrieved growl. He grabbed his clothes and then hesitated. If Duo was gone then Wufei couldn't go running after him. That would be unwise. So might as well go and take a shower. Maybe inspect the fridge for anything edible, his stomach suggested with its own growl. Then, when Duo came back, Wufei would be awake, refreshed, fed, and ready to flay him if he'd done something dangerous.

There was an impressive lock on Duo's door, but Wufei didn't have a key. Damn. Well, he would only be down the hall, and he'd hurry his shower. He took his sword with him as a matter of course, and a threadbare towel he found in one of the metal cabinets. He made sure the door didn't close behind him and walked towards the shower quickly. He tried the handle and, finding it unlocked, wrenched the door open, with a swift glance at the empty hallway behind him.

Duo stopped scrubbing his back and glanced over his shoulder -

- Naked shoulder- water cascading over it to fall to his-

"Ah, you're up-"

Whatever else Duo might have said was cut off by the door closing just as briskly as it had opened.

Wufei hastily retreated back to the one-room apartment. His emotions vacillated between anger, embarrassment and a certain earthy appreciation of the brief sight which he didn't want to admit to. He finally settled on anger as being the most reliable and the one he needed to feel the least awkward about.

Damn that Maxwell! Why didn't he lock the shower door?! Wufei stood half way between the workbench and the bed and glowered at nothing. He concentrated his thoughts and irritation on unlocked shower doors and exhibitionist smugglers. He avoided thinking about a naked shoulder...braid carefully gathered and pinned...water falling down a muscle-padded back to- not thinking about that. Maxwell's fault. Should have locked the damned door. Anybody could have walked in. And seen the water cascading down a strong back to run down a firm - not thinking about that in particular!

Wufei spun around as the door to the apartment opened, ready to bite that braided head off-

"You could have just come in, yanno."

He was wearing nothing but a towel around his hips-

"There're three shower heads."

Not a very big towel at that.

"I'll take my shower now," Wufei growled, marching towards the door.

"Oh, wait!"

Wufei paused without glancing back, hand on the doorknob.

"You have to put the collar on if you leave this room." Duo's voice was serious. "You should be wearing it at all times, as a matter of fact."

Wufei glared at the door, then turned around, eyes on the floor, and went back to the pile of clothes he'd discarded eight hours ago. He didn't remember taking the collar off, but he realized now he'd have been hard put to sleep while wearing it. He fastened it around his neck reluctantly.

"Are you hungry?"

"Yes," Wufei replied shortly, tightening the leather through the buckle. He tied it a bit looser than before. As long as it didn't slip too far-

"What do you want to eat?" The fridge opened behind Wufei, there was the sound of rummaging. Annoyingly, he didn't even have to look; his unruly imagination was busy providing him a visual of Duo kneeling down in that dangerously short towel. He breathed in through his nose and gathered his usual strength of mind, banishing the inappropriate mental image. This was not the time for those kinds of thoughts, and besides that he didn't think Duo would- not going there. His control was normally impeccable on a mission, but Duo had rather caught him off guard...

"I've got some frozen diners, if you want to do it Asian style," Duo mused. "They're not very good, mind you. Or else we can grab a couple of N-bars and then eat later."

"Energy bars are fine." Though he was hungry, he still didn't feel much of an appetite coming on. The Freeport tang in the room was compounded by the faint smell of old solder and burnt plastic.

"Okay. Got some more juice-"

"Can I go now?!" Wufei snapped, hand once more on the doorknob. His temper ignited; considering how chilly it was in the apartment, Wufei was fast coming to the conclusion that he was being deliberately teased. The last wisps of the brief carnal pleasure evoked by that sight in the shower-room disappeared like the sulphur on a struck match.

"Did you need the soap?"

I swear, if he even smiles, I'll- Wufei turned around, his knuckles white around his sword's sheath, but Duo's face was perfectly straight as he handed over a brown unmarked bottle.

"Soap and shampoo, can be used for both. I've got some conditioner-" Duo turned towards the sink where he'd left his toiletries bag. The towel chose that moment to give up its precarious hold on slim hips and slip down to-

"I'm fine," Wufei ground out, already half out the door.

"Whoa, sailor, it's not like I got something you don't-"

The door closed on that chuckled statement. Wufei stomped down the hallway to the shower room.

This was annoying. He shared the shower-room with Heero after a mission, and it had never been an issue. But his well-disciplined mind had already stamped Friend and Colleague on that particular case, and consigned it to the Do Not Go There file. That same well-disciplined mind was having problems classifying Duo; an ally? A friend of five years back? A stool-pigeon? Whatever; there certainly wasn't room for anything else in that description. Except for 'complete lack of propriety'.

With firm resolve and self-directed irritation, Wufei stuck Duo in the same file as Heero, Trowa and a few other colleagues. He would insure that such a- a lapse would not happen again, even if the braided annoyance trotted around naked. Which Wufei wouldn't put past him, when he remembered the daring, teasing look with which Duo had watched him strip yesterday.

Wufei swung the shower door open and slammed it behind him, glaring at-

-the spot where a lock should have been, if there had been one.

In the same instant he realized he wasn't alone in the room. He spun around, stumbling against the door.

The woman stared back at him, squinting myopically. She was probably in her late sixties, her body wrinkled and worn, breasts hanging over rolls of yellowish skin on her torso. Her grey hair, in tight curls all over her head, had gotten wet under the spray. The eyes, rheumy with age, fastened first on his sword, then on the collar.

"Oh, you must be Duo's new Blade. Gilla told me he met you."

Fortunately shock had robbed Wufei of anything more revealing than a gulp.

"You're new to Freeport, he said." The woman was scrutinizing him, leaning forward like an old bird, hands on thighs. Her eyes caught on the acars revealed by the t-shirt's sleeve on his left arm, rose to his face again. She took a step towards him, apparently to get a better look; a pressure plate in the floor whispered as her weight left it, and the water turned off. "Hmm, you certainly look new, and I don't even have my glasses on."

Wufei kept his eyes riveted on her face as if one of her sons were behind him, holding a gun to his head. He knew she had children because he'd noted a very old C-section scar, though he really wished he hadn't. His hand started to scrabble for the doorknob behind his back-

"Just hang in there a minute; I'm done, you can have it."

She shuffled to the door against which Wufei was pressed. He dug himself into the metal for an instant, and then quickly moved aside, though he couldn't believe she'd just walk out of there like that-

The door groaned open; she reached out and grabbed a fuzzy robe that had been hanging on a hook outside, and toed in a couple of slippers. The robe had probably been white and considerably fuzzier once, but it was clean, and a hole at the shoulder seam had been neatly patched. She used it to towel herself off without any sign of embarrassment Wufei was by then admiring the water spigot and pressure plate system as if his life depended on it. She slid her feet into the slippers with a small 'ahhhh' of pleasure.

"There you go. If you hang your pants or towel outside the door, it will indicate someone's using the showers; most people will not intrude unless they're really in a hurry. We do not have so many people in this building that we need to take communal showers. Good luck in Freeport, child. Have a safe day."

'I'm sorry', 'Thank you', 'I have my sword right here if you want me to kill myself'; Wufei could have been tortured to death, and he wouldn't have spoken a word to break his cover. A little old lady almost undid him. He clamped his lips over the words that his sense of propriety wanted to spill out even if he would be lynched for them.

The door clicked behind her. It took Wufei a minute or two to nerve himself to undress, hang his clothes outside, and go and take his shower. He stared at the door as if the weight of his glare could keep someone else from bursting in while he was vulnerable and unarmed. The water cascaded over his hair and body, tickling his scars; it smelled of iron and chemicals.

What a way to start the day...

He rather expected to find Duo in the nude on his return, just to annoy him.

That was far from being the case. A cautious coil of tension ran over Wufei's damp skin as he slowly closed the apartment door behind him. This wasn't the cheerful space-jockey he'd been recently reacquainted with.

Duo was wearing black again, head to toe. Tough black pants reinforced and padded at the knees, crotch and high waist; a black shirt tucked into them; the black boots Madir had repaired; a long black leather trench coat down to his calves. And a deadly smile as he checked the spring-loaded sheath of a dagger strapped to his left forearm, over the glove. More than the clothes, it was the stance, the smile, the gleam in blue eyes that were shockingly different. This was like another person altogether.

Wufei's Preventer instincts, honed over the past five years of working among dangerous criminals, were prickling in alarm.

"That was quick. Here." Duo smoothed down the trench's sleeve over the sheath; the leather was so fine and flexible it slid like cloth. He picked up a foil-wrapped object and tossed it to Wufei. An energy bar, Wufei could tell through the wrapper, though there was no brand name on it, only a number.

Duo hooked a foot under one of the chairs and rolled it at him.

"Sit, Chang."

Wufei sat down with a frown. Duo was looking at him like a hawk. It was making his own aggressive instincts stir, but he smothered them. He had to cooperate.

"I need to know everything about the recent L2 riots, particularly the radicals you arrested," Duo announced, tone hovering on the edge of an order. "Names, age, whether they have a mole on their butt, the works. A normal Preventer wouldn't know this unless he cuffed them himself, but I know Heero spends all his free time readin' every goddamn crime report and arrest sheet that comes in, and I'm willing to bet you're the same."

"Yes," Wufei admitted shortly. "It's useful to gain a comprehensive overview of radical organisations in the colonies, and also be able to recognize any potential-"

"It's mainly a sign neither of you have a life, but in this case I won't complain. Spill."

"Why?" Wufei countered without blinking. Yes, of course he was going to cooperate, but he wanted to know what he was cooperating with, and that was only part of the reason for the counter question. Despite his best intentions, he was reacting to the unspoken challenge.

Duo took a step nearer, hands in the pockets of his pants. He was looming over Wufei in the chair, using the advantage of being fully clothed and standing. If that was meant to impress the Preventer, then Duo was forgetting which of them was the one who usually conducted interrogations; Wufei knew all the tricks. He met the dangerous blue gaze with his own, challenging Duo to say 'because I told you to'.

Instead, a sudden smile changed the heart-shaped face radically. Wufei was caught off-guard, but he managed not to push the chair back or otherwise react.

"You got attitude, Fei. And you don't impress easy. That's good." Duo took a step back and leaned against the workbench. The level of threat in the air vanished as if it had never been. Duo gestured lazily in Wufei's direction with a cup of coffee that had apparently materialized straight into his hand. "I still need to know that shit, mind you. I need to know what's changed out there, in the L2 underworld. I don't have that many feelers in the colonies that rioted, and from what his file says, that's where Carver worked these past few months and where he left from. So go on, fill me in."

Wufei was silent for a few moments, perplexed. The request was reasonable, and none of the information highly secure. It was just that...he was normally a shrewd observer and judge of character, and right now he was damned if he could tell which, of the deadly smile or the cheerful grin, was the mask that hid the other.

He put the puzzle aside for now, until he had more observations to work with. He'd apparently passed one more of Duo's little tests.

"After I debrief you, will you tell me what I need to know about this place? Since we're going out?" Wufei stared pointedly at the coat.

Duo was silent for a few seconds. Wufei didn't try to match the aggressive stance or glare he'd been given previously. This was a reasonable request, in his mind; there was no point making a cock fight out of it.

Finally, Duo scratched his neck beneath the braid. "I'd tell you all you need to know if we had six weeks. As it is...I can't really think of anything that is bound to trip you up if you don't talk to me where others can hear. Whatever I tell you, I won't cover every possible situation or problem that can crop up. You'll just have to play it by ear, and listen for my cues."

Wufei judged that in silence. He wasn't all that surprised. Duo was a seat-of-the-pants pilot and operator, and he probably would have a hard time organizing his thoughts into a strategy that didn't rely on improvisation. Heero must hate it. But then again, Heero had probably had a bit more time to acclimatize.

"Think you can manage? You can always stay here, I-"

"No."

"I won't be doing anything really danger-"

"No."

"You really think you can do it?"

"Yes."

Wufei didn't bother trying to meet Duo's dubious gaze and stare him down; this was not up for debate. He opened the bar's plain wrapper and started telling Duo a bit more about the violence that had shaken L2 and L3 in the past year.

+

The heavy chain scythed the air a bare inch above the man's head. If the blow had landed, the chain would have caved in the fighter's skull like an egg.

Wufei tried to move, to walk on by. Duo hadn't even noticed that his Blade had stopped following him; the smuggler in the black leather coat was cleaving through the crowds of drably dressed factory workers like a slim black shark through a shoal of sardine. Despite his best intentions, Wufei's eyes flickered away from Duo's receding back to the two men trying to kill each other.

It's not like I can do anything...the chain whistled again. The man ducked again. He had a bruise on his forehead, partially hidden by lank brown hair, and he was limping. He didn't stand a chance; his opponent was taller, heavier and didn't seem injured. Wufei wondered which part of him was rooting him to the spot, goading him to intervene: the Preventer who wanted to restore law and order, or the warrior who insisted on a fair fight-

"Wu."

The words were very soft in his ear. A discreet hand tugged at his jacket.

Wufei kept his face unreadable as he turned away. Nobody was looking at him; the factory and space-dock workers who'd stopped and gathered around were all staring at the two circling fighters. A man with a piece of red cloth tied around his forearm was shooing people back. But not away. No, apparently, watching this- this execution wasn't a problem for the citizens of Freeport. Wufei shoved his way through the gathering crowds of men, women and older children, ignoring the thunk of metal hitting flesh. It was loud; the spectators were strangely silent, only a few mutters and one cat-call briefly covering the frantic shuffle of feet.

Bile churned in his mouth. But this was Freeport. He drew one of the plain liquorice sticks from his jacket's pocket and bit into it savagely.

"It's not my sector. A Red Band was there, so it's a legit duel. Can't do anything."

The words were soft. Wufei glanced at his informant. Duo looked and sounded indifferent, but there was a small frown-line between his eyes. It disappeared as they turned the corner, the metallic ringing of boots against street covering sudden shouts from the crowd.

"That kinda stuff never happens without a good reason," Duo added with a shrug. "None of our business. You okay?"

"Yes." He wasn't, but it wouldn't change anything. It didn't matter.

"Come on, then."

They'd been walking for over an hour. The streets had been empty when they'd left Makh, but in this sector they were full of men and women in the half-pressure suits worn by zero-G workers all over space, or thick, grey overalls of factory workers. A shift must have just ended, and people were going home. Shouts of recognition rang out, people waved as group blended into group, separating into the narrow alleys, breaking for airlocks into other sectors. Most of them looked tired. But not particularly desperate, downtrodden or beaten, which was what Wufei had half-expected from all he'd heard about Freeport's working conditions. The Preventer had put a question mark next to that piece of information in his mental file on Freeport; this could have been a scene at the end of the work-day in any other industrial zone on Earth or in the colonies. Until they'd stumbled upon the 'duel' in the middle of a large street.

The two men who'd been fighting with short, heavy chains weren't dressed like factory workers. They looked more like Duo and Wufei, and the dozen other thugs he'd spotted amongst the groups of workers like killer bees lurking amongst the drones. Maybe that's why none of those good citizens had intervened. They were letting the crooks fight it out amongst themselves.

Fair enough, but they didn't have to watch, a small part of Wufei retorted angrily. He throttled that reaction quickly. He was going to be living and operating here for weeks; he had to distance himself from what he was seeing.

He followed Duo quietly, concentrating on keeping his thoughts off of his face. His eyes automatically picked out a few more wolves from the sheep as he passed them. Leather, bicycle jackets, long coats, heavy metal belts, fatigues, tattoos, caps, spiked collars, insignia from various gangs...the Freeport criminal class wore the universal uniform of thugs everywhere. A few had swords or long knives hanging from their belts; that was the only weapons he spotted. He didn't assume they weren't carrying anything more lethal, concealed in those bulky jackets and coats. He just hoped Duo was right when he said guns weren't prevalent in Freeport.

What was surprising was that, apart from the two guys trying their damn best to kill each other back there, most of these thugs weren't doing anything out of the ordinary. They walked, talked, shopped at carts and hung around with the workers as if they were on par with them. There wasn't any of the overblown arrogance and blatant intimidation that distinguished gang members from the ordinary citizens in slums throughout the space sphere. Wufei watched, with some disbelief, as two tall bushy-haired men in spiked leather jackets, fierce tribal tattoos all over their faces, helped an old man manhandle a big bag of potatoes through a window and presumably into the guy's kitchen. Duo moved on too quickly for Wufei to see if the gangers tried to shake the old geezer down afterwards.

The eternal neon night, the smoking grills over gutters and the shouts and rasp of feet ringing on metal streets went on and on. Duo didn't seem to be in any hurry to start their investigation. He stopped at gaudy carts lining the roads, offering their wares to the home-coming workers. Most of what was on offer looked hand-made: knitted jumpers, a few of them in bright colours that seemed to light the darkened streets and attracted the eye; foods still in their pans and dishes; toys crafted together from moulded plastic or welded iron; a few knickknacks, cheap hand-made jewellery, pottery and baskets. Other carts had rows of books and vids on them. Wufei noted a few of the carts that looked unattended; he supposed their owners were in the houses nearby, keeping an eye on their merchandise.

Duo frequently stopped to chat with the vendors and acquaintances, including some of the gangers and other criminals. Wufei listened to their conversation, riddled with space lingo and vernacular, trying to see if Duo was doing some clever investigating under cover of talking with old buddies. If he was, Wufei didn't catch it. It mainly boiled down to saying 'hi', getting the latest news, and finding out who was screwing who. The Preventer reined in his impatience and forced himself to listen to the words and the cadence of speech. Might as well learn to blend in, just in case Duo ever let him talk in public. The dialogues he heard twanged with every accent under the sun and in space. 'Fuck' appeared to be comfortably integrated into the vocabulary. After a couple of hours, Wufei had concluded that the only way he'd be able to stand out in Freeport, as far as speech patterns went, would be to stand in the middle of the street and shout 'you're under arrest!'

"Tired?"

Wufei gave Duo the contemptuous glare that ridiculous suggested warranted. Duo grinned in return. "Good. 'Cause we're about to make our first real stop."

Duo jerked his thumb towards a warehouse between two buildings. A huge number, 1290, was painted over the garage door - Wufei suddenly realized he'd not seen any vehicles since he'd arrived, apart from the shuttle. With the air quality and the streets being what they were, that was probably for the best. Duo opened the door next to the garage, and a bell clanged over his head.

Long workbenches full of various tools lined two of the walls, a counter ran along the third. Then a small flight of stairs led down to the floor of the workshop, full of machine-tools with programmable stations and boxes of metallic scraps. To Wufei's surprise, there wasn't anything being obviously produced there. A woman in her forties was busy at a milling machine in the back, working on something that Wufei couldn't make out. The only other person in the workshop was a thickset bald man behind the counter. He had a finger on the page of a thick, dog-eared instruction manual and he was holding up a piece of machined metal, but he'd stopped studying it when Duo and Wufei had entered the shop. He was scrutinizing them suspiciously, giving them the straight-forward, weighing look that Wufei was fast recognizing as a Freeport trademark. He put down the piece he'd been examining and, after another dubious look at Duo's coat and Wufei's sword, he crossed his arms over a rounded belly. His fingers were thick and heavily callused with traces of numerous small burns and cuts, probably gained on the machines in the back room.

"Yes?" he asked, not very pleasantly.

"I'm looking for Theodora Harris," Duo announced, stopping a few feet from the counter, hands in pockets. For what should have been a relaxed pose, it exuded a surprising amount of steely self-confidence.

"Who's askin'?"

Duo was silent, looking the man over minutely.

"I want to speak to Theo, not you," he finally said, smiling in a way that was clearly dismissing Pot-Belly.

Pot-Belly didn't like that one bit. His brows, bushy enough to make up for his baldness, nearly merged together over a bulbous nose.

"Look, kid; I don't know who you think you are, but my youngest is older than either of you brats. Why should I bother Theo over the likes of you?"

"I want to meet her to discuss a business route," Duo drawled. "I'm a Scissorman and I have a business deal for her."

"You? A Scissorman? Don't make me laugh, kid, the doctor told me it'd strain my arteries."

Wufei watched the interaction from beneath his lashes, keeping his face cold and distant. Scissorman? More space lingo. He'd heard that one before. A Scissorman was a 'fixer', someone who set up deals, who put people in contact with other people, and got a cut, a commission on whatever lucrative, illegal contract was passed. They could also provide things for people, smuggling it to them if need be.

"I want to talk to Harris," Duo repeated. There was the slightest shift in his stance. Wufei tensed.

"Beat it, boy, before I tell your ma!" Pot-Belly shoved the instruction manual out of his way and leaned forward against the counter.

Neither ex-Pilot missed the way his other hand dropped, too casually, below it.

"If you want to talk to my mother, you'll need a good medium," Duo countered, in a coldly amused voice that left the impression he'd slit her throat himself for a couple of credits. Pot-Belly looked slightly impressed and momentarily cautious, before he shook himself.

"I don't bother Theo for nothing. I-"

"I'm interested in some trade routes. Cargo. To the Black Nines and back. Fragile...cargo..." Duo murmured, casually examining his glove.

Pot-Belly hesitated. Whatever he was grasping beneath the counter shifted minutely, with a tiny metallic noise. The counter was a long high table; the front was nothing but thick brown paper stapled to the frame, it would not stop a shot.

"I know you're from L2, kid, I can hear it from your accent." Pot-Belly sounded a bit more careful now, but still obdurate. "You might think you know all there is to know about freetrade in and out of those colonies. But you don't know nothin'. It takes more than five cred and a lollipop to pay for a trip to the Nines; a customer who'd ask you to be his fixer must be either broke or stupid, and Theo don't deal with those kinds. She's got friends she can't let down."

"Oh? Who are her friends?" Duo asked softly.

"Get lost," Pot-Belly bit back, arm flexing as it held whatever weapon he had under the counter.

"Oy!" Duo sighed heavily. Blue eyes flicked towards Wufei. Hesitating an instant. "You're being so stubborn. Can we at least leave you our names, so that Theodora can get back to us?"

"Yeah, sure," Pot-Belly snickered, relaxing a fraction.

"Good. Wufei, can you please show this docker our credentials?"

Wufei reacted instantly, darting to one side, sword hissing out of its sheath. Something twanged heavily under the counter - then Pot-Belly was pressed back against the far wall, eyes crossing wildly to keep in sight the sword that had stopped a breath away from his carotid artery.

That was odd. Wufei had expected a bang, or the muffled pop of a silenced shot. What weapon made that kind of noise? He glanced behind him quickly, since Pot-Belly was away from the counter now, frozen against the far wall and not likely to move anytime in the next hour. To Wufei's horror, Duo hadn't dodged. But he didn't look shot, either. He was looking at Pot-Belly with a slight smirk, hands still in his pockets. The woman at the other end of the workshop had stopped her milling and was staring at them, but she did not look armed or ready to interfere.

Wufei reached over the counter and felt around with his free hand, his sword's point still a tenth of an inch away from Pot-Belly's throat. His fingers touched metal and cable, something more complex than the shotgun he'd expected. And though it swivelled on a ball-point axis at the brush of his fingers, it seemed fixed to the shelf too.

A flicker of concentration, a small breath in. Chi flowed, from his chest, to his belly, up his arm-...a wrench, seemingly effortless, and whatever it was came loose in his hand with a metallic crunch. Pot-Belly's eyes bugged out and his mouth dropped open. Wufei lifted his prize to the top of the counter.

...A crossbow...tight little lines, light, made of aluminium alloy, very professional. Double-loaded, a second bolt still in the cradle. Looked like a sport competitor's pride and joy. Wufei stared at it for a second, stunned, then glanced wildly at the wall behind Duo. He spotted the bolt planted in the cheap plaster easily enough now that he knew what he was looking for. The paper covering the front of the counter had a neat little hole in it he could have slipped a finger through.

Fortunately Pot-Belly was goggling in amazement at the torn-out fixtures that had anchored the crossbow to the shelf, rather than looking at Wufei's face, because it must have been a picture for a brief instant. In his entire career as a Preventer and his previous one as a soldier, nobody had ever tried to shoot him with a crossbow before.

Actually, judging from the hole in the paper and where the bolt had fetched up, Pot-Belly hadn't been trying to shoot them either. It looked like the bolt had been aimed between the two men. It was probably intended as a warning shot if Duo proved difficult. The second bolt remaining in the crossbow would have been back-up if the first wasn't enough to get them out of the shop.

Duo walked slowly up to the counter, glancing in appreciation at the crossbow.

"So, you will be giving our names to Theodora, won't you?" he purred.

Pot-Belly made a gulping sound. He didn't have the leeway to nod.

"I do have a small question first..." Duo put a gloved hand gently on Wufei's sword arm, pressed down ever so slightly. Wufei withdrew the blade, though he kept it ready to thrust, just in case Pot-Belly had any other surprises in store. Though by now, he really was beginning to believe that there might not be any guns in Freeport. Who the hell fought with swords and crossbows in the age of Gundams?!

"You were jawin' about Theodora's friends." Duo smiled kindly at Pot-Belly who'd let out a wobbly breath once the sword was withdrawn. "Anybody I know?"

Pot-Belly swallowed, rubbing the thick skin of his throat, though Wufei hadn't put a scratch on him. "She mainly fixes for Daai Yan Gao's lot and for Ravachol. Sometimes for Manneti."

"...which one would be most likely to be dealing with L2-X953?" Duo asked, his face suddenly completely neutral.

"That one? The Nine with the riots recently? Er, don't know for sure, probably Ravachol's lot."

"Rav. Great." Duo smiled. To Wufei's eyes, it looked slightly forced. "Well, if you can please tell Theodora that I dropped by. My name is Duo Maxwell. Sweeper Howard can vouch for me. So can Ravachol, for that matter."

Pot-Belly's eyes bulged again. "Oh," he said weakly.

"I'll be in this sector for the next few hours. She should be able to find me. You take care now!" Duo waggled his fingers in a mocking little goodbye gesture and turned away without looking back at Wufei.

The latter hesitated, aware that the crossbow was still loaded on the counter. He wasn't sure how to release the catch without firing it. Duo was nearly at the door- Wufei plucked the bolt out of the cradle, spun it around in his hand and stabbed it deep into the counter in front of Pot-Belly, who still hadn't moved away from the far wall. Pot-Belly looked suitably impressed and intimidated. Mission accomplished, Wufei thought sourly, sheathing his sword and following Duo out the door.

He caught sight of the black coat disappearing around the corner of the warehouse and he ran to keep up, but it turned out Duo was waiting for him halfway down the alleyway, out of sight of the shop's door. Duo glanced over Wufei's shoulder carefully, and then ran an eye up and down the Preventer's frame. He looked like he was taking stock of him all over again.

"That was pretty impressive..." Duo drawled.

A compliment from Duo Maxwell, Wufei thought sourly. If it hadn't been about his ability to correctly threaten some small-time fence or smuggler, he'd be actually slightly honoured. As it were, both action and approval left a bitter taste in his mouth. As did Duo's slight hesitation before he'd given Wufei his clue. Duo hadn't been sure he'd catch it or know what to do with it.

"Glad I was able to surpass whatever lowly expectations you had of me," he sneered, after a quick glance around. They were in between the shop and a building; no windows gave out onto their tiny alley.

Duo didn't even twitch. Neither did he deny it. "Cool your jets, pilot. Look at it from my point of view. Last time we met, you weren't exactly the sneakiest or most spontaneous one of us. If you'd asked me twenty four hours ago, I'd have said you'd stand out in Freeport like a streaker in a nunnery."

"That was five years ago," Wufei objected, since he couldn't very well deny it. "I've done a lot of undercover work since then."

"Yeah, and I bet you hated every minute of it," Duo countered with a smile that seemed to slip right past Wufei's shell and open him up like a clam. He couldn't deny that either.

"Whether I like it or not is irrelevant. I am a disciplined, well-trained investigator and- I can compromise when it comes to the good of the mission! I'm not a loose canon! I-" Wufei interrupted himself and glared at the jagged edges of a broken manhole cover near their feet. His harsh, angry words seemed to be bouncing around the walls still, or maybe they were just circling inside his head.

When Duo said nothing, Wufei glanced up, prickly and hostile. Duo had tilted his head slightly, and he was scrutinizing Wufei's face. "Loose cannon? I never said that." He sounded curious instead of angry. "Sure, I'm pretty surprised that you've adapted damn well in an environment that's gotta be pretty alien to you. But all I did so far was pat you on the back; you did good. I certainly didn't say-"

"Thanks," Wufei grunted. "Did we actually learn anything from that individual back there, or-"

"Who says you're a loose canon?" Duo probed, ignoring the attempt to change the subject.

"Nobody. Don't - just forget it."

Duo stared at him, but finally shrugged, dismissing the matter.

"So...you've done some undercover stuff...anything big? You any good at worming your way into organized crime? Spend months undercover to-"

"No," Wufei admitted, a bit disgruntled. "Trowa or Sally takes care of those cases. They send me on short-term missions, to infiltrate or break into terrorist hideouts so that when the assault starts I'm in position and ready to take out the leaders."

Duo's lips twitched. "What you mean is, you play the part of a mean, arrogant son of a bitch for a few hours, until you can bully or bullshit your way into the joint and then shoot everybody?"

"That is not-"

"But that's great! Go with your strengths, and that'll certainly help you be a good Blade. As long as you can keep it up for a few weeks instead of just a few hours, I'm feeling a lot more confident about surviving our mission together!" Duo was striding out towards the distant mouth of the alley.

"Maxwell, I said that wasn't what I-" Actually, that wasn't too bad a description of most of his undercover work, but he didn't want to admit it.

"Hey, as long as you can pull that attitude, and cope with the urge to arrest all the scurvy criminal elements around you, I'm happy! Come on, Chang, let's go grab something to eat. Those N-bars could barely fill a hole in my tooth, and the afternoon is going to be busy; we need the energy."

Wufei followed him, trying not to stomp. You'd think, after five years of it, he'd be used to people assuming he couldn't handle anything that required finesse. Especially since he occasionally used that reputation to his advantage, when the situation required someone who could be blunt and wasn't afraid of the consequences. It just annoyed him when the fools assumed he'd compromise a mission for- but Duo was right; based on what he knew of Wufei five years ago, when he'd not been the most subtle of the five pilots, the smuggler's assumption that he couldn't stay undercover in Freeport was probably justified. Duo had appeared rather puzzled at his outburst. Apparently, Heero had never told Duo the 'highlights' of Wufei's career. That was good. Duo's change of attitude after Wufei had handled Pot-belly was even better. Maybe his informant would stop second-guessing his abilities now.

One thing was sure: Wufei was never going to tell Duo just how he 'coped' with rubbing shoulders with the criminals he couldn't arrest. That was something private. He'd seen things, in Neo-Tokyo's wasteland of neon, broken lives and black streets, which he'd wanted to correct and had to ignore for the imperatives of his investigation. Unlike Heero, he couldn't switch off the part of himself that was angry at what he saw for the sake of his mission.

So he made himself a promise. He watched. He witnessed. Every petty criminal, every sordid crime, every pimp, every drug-pusher. Every corrupt politician, every untouchable businessman...He remembered them. So that if fate and fortune smiled upon him in the future and he was in a position where he could do something about them, he would remember them, and ensure that justice was done. If that opportunity never came, then it wouldn't be his failing, it would be destiny's. It just seemed important to him. That someone, somewhere, had witnessed their crimes, knew them for who they really were, pitiful parasites living off other men. As if his gaze could somehow insure that karma was met, their crimes eventually punished because they could not be ignored by everybody.

He was aware that this was the height of arrogance and maybe even vanity, to think his opinion mattered that much on a cosmic scale; which is why he'd be tortured with a red-hot poker before admitting any of this to Maxwell. The smuggler would probably laugh for a week.

[chap. 4] [chap. 6] [back to Maldoror's fic]