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

AN: Thanks to Dawna for the beta! Dedicated to Dacia, as always

Freeport + Chapter 6

aliviame, Maria, aliviame
dame otro beso de jerez
maņana te lo pagare

tu risa me da risa
tu calor me da valor
dame otro beso de licor
maņana te lo pagare

//

Soothe me, Maria, soothe me
give me another kiss of sherry
I'll pay for it tomorrow

Your laugh makes me laugh
your warmth gives me worth
give me another liquor kiss
I'll pay for it tomorrow


- Malegria, Manu Chao

+

While Wufei mulled over his thoughts of justice and his rigid personal code, Duo had hesitated at a crossroads, playing with the end of his braid and looking up and down the harshly lit metal streets.

"Hey, docker." Duo finally hailed someone sitting on a stoop nearby, reading under the harsh flood of neon overhead. "Anyplace around here I can grab some Chinese food?"

The man Duo had spoken to looked up from his newspaper - actual newsprint, on actual paper; an intriguing archaism, though the print was sloppy and cranked out on a cheap press, and the paper was so recycled it looked like a well-used rag that had been strategically flattened.

"Chinese food?" the man looked Duo over carefully, then Wufei. Apparently this intense scrutiny was the norm in Freeport. It never ceased to surprise Wufei; in the slums and war zones, people tended to keep their head down and never made eye contact if they could help it. He kept his face neutral and returned the stare; he would definitely stand out if he didn't.

"You can try Hyun," the man said slowly. His eyes lingered on Duo's coat, on Wufei's collar. "She'll be cooking for the shift that just ended. She's over thataway. Two streets down, left, go straight for something like five streets, hit the Che lock road, house with a blue door."

"Thanks," Duo answered with a wave and a grin. The man nodded in return. His paper hung loose in his hands. Wufei felt his eyes on their backs until they turned the corner.

Duo managed to follow the man's instructions as if they'd been accompanied by an accurate map. A few feet from the blue door, Wufei knew they'd found the place. The distinct smell of fermented cabbage and radish, broth, fish bouillon and spices competed with Freeport's ambient aroma. Duo knocked summarily and went right in.

They were in someone's hallway, and Wufei nearly backed out again, assuming this was a mistake, but Duo walked on, obviously following his nose to the kitchen. Wufei hesitated, and then followed past rows of kid's shoes, bags, coats, jackets and hard hats.

The kitchen alone was almost as big as Duo's room, with a big cooker on which several massive pots boiled. A long table with a bench on either side hosted six people, all men, two of them of Asian descent. They were all eating out of cheap plastic bowls, or they were until Duo had entered. They, like the small woman who'd been tending the pots, were staring at the two newcomers. Wufei had to force himself not to retreat in confusion, certain that they were invading someone's private home.

"Hi!" Duo said brightly to the woman. His right hand flickered briefly up to his head in a small salute, a gesture Wufei had seen several times this morning, in the crowds of workers going home; it was apparently a local greeting. It looked like the 'all clear' signal people used in space-suits when comms were down.

The woman looked to be in her late fifties, dressed in a long white house coat with a mandarin collar. Her hair was cropped short, very black against her almond-pale skin. Sloe eyes were sharp and inquisitive in a nest of wrinkles. She had her hands on her hips, one of them holding a pair of long cooking chopsticks; the pose accentuated her stocky figure.

"I'm Hyun Ho-Dai," she said abruptly, in accented Standard. "You are?"

"Duo Maxwell, at your service," Duo answered, his voice polite, but his usual cheeky grin fully in place. There wasn't a woman alive who'd resist those big blue eyes and roguish charm for more than three milliseconds; that unwanted and thoroughly inappropriate thought popped unbidden into Wufei's mind, much to his annoyance. His sudden frown caught Hyun's attention; her black eyes examined him closely.

"Someone mentioned your excellent cooking," Duo continued warmly. "And my friend and I haven't eaten anything more than N-bars in the past twenty-four hours. Do you have room for a couple more for lunch? Smells wonderful."

At the table, most of the men had continued with their meal. Hyun stood there with her hands on her hips; she glanced over Duo, then once again at Wufei. She stared at his face for a few long seconds, and then nodded abruptly. "Can't leave you boys hungry," she commented, turning back to her stove. She grabbed some plastic bowls, and skilfully used the sticks to scoop some noodles into them. Then she took some bigger bowls from a stack near the stove and used a ladle to serve two portions of stew. Fish stew with kimchi, Wufei guessed from the smell.

She plunked the bowls down on the counter nearby and nodded at them. "Condiments here. Chopsticks, spoons and forks." The utensils were plastic, in a basket next to spices and soy sauce.

Duo nodded gracefully and thanked her in broken Cantonese. Wufei winced slightly; the woman's appearance, name and cooking were all Korean. Black eyes caught his reaction and sparkled, as she murmured a polite reply in the same language.

"You can eat at the table or in the courtyard," she added, turning back to the stove.

"Oh, I think we'll sit in the courtyard; it's such a beautiful day today!"

At the table, one man chuckled in his bowl. The woman went 'humph!' and shot the joker a glare over her shoulder, but her lips were twitching.

Wufei took his two bowls and a set of chopsticks and followed Duo out to the courtyard, walking through what was apparently the woman's house. Two doors were closed, but one was partially open, and two young children behind it were sitting on a bed, poring over a book. From the number of small beds in the crowded room, Hyun was either extremely fecund, or several families lived here.

The courtyard was an enclosed area with a few sheets and clothes drying on a line and kid's toys scattered here and there. A long bench at the back, against the wall, was the only place to sit. Duo made a pleased sound and headed towards it. He set his bowls down and straddled it, using it as both seat and table. Wufei slowly imitated him, facing his Handler.

"Nice place, this, gotta remember it," Duo said vaguely, and sniffed the kimchi. "Is this actually Chinese?"

"No."

"Oh." Behind his usual grin, Duo looked slightly disappointed. He wasn't looking at Wufei, stirring the bowl with his fork.

"It looks good." Wufei stuck his sticks in the stew, then let the mouthful slither away as a sudden odd thought crossed his mind: that Duo had wanted to go to a Chinese eatery as some kind of...peace offering or something, maybe a small gesture of apology for his earlier doubts. Wufei wasn't sure of it, though. Even if that were the case, he wasn't sure what it was he should say, if anything, in return. He took a bite of the stew, dismissing the thought. It wasn't too bad; the fish balls were the frozen, reconstituted variety and there was a small aftertaste to the broth that made him think of the local water, but it was hearty and spicy, and the kimchi tasted like it had been home-made with care.

Duo tucked in with gusto as well, and they were silent for a few seconds, until something else occurred to Wufei; a thought that had been hovering at the edge of his mind, trying to catch his attention. A fish ball slipped from his chopsticks with a small splash as he realized-

"Did you pay for this?"

Duo blinked, then looked around the courtyard quickly, a cautious gesture that made Wufei tense and glance around as well. The courtyard backed against an alley, and they were some distance from the three-story building and its windows.

"No," Duo finally said, with a last careful look around. "That's not how it works here."

Wufei put the bowl down with a slight clunk, his fingers numb. "Did we just march into someone's kitchen and- and bum lunch off-" he couldn't even finish. Threatening some small-time crook was acceptable, according to his rather complicated personal code, which had learned to make room for mission necessities. But begging food off of an old lady was just-

"Oy, don't give me that look, now," Duo scolded gently, stirring some noodles in the broth. "That's just the way things work here. That's what all those other guys did."

"...she feeds people off the street for free? Just like that?"

Duo hesitated minutely. "Pretty much."

Wufei didn't like that 'pretty much'. At all. His glare probably said as much. Duo sighed. "Look, just trust me on this, okay?"

"You didn't-" Wufei interrupted himself. No, that he wouldn't believe.

"What?" Duo looked at him curiously.

"Nothing." Wufei picked up his bowl again and gathered up a small amount of the fermented cabbage.

"'Nothing' nothing. Come on. What?"

"I wouldn't eat this if I thought you'd somehow intimidated her into giving it to you," Wufei finished curtly, knowing he'd not get away with silence now that the notorious Maxwell curiosity was awakened.

"Oh, yeah, she looked really intimidated," Duo snorted. "I guess that put your mind at ease."

Wufei wondered if the slight hint of bitterness in Duo's sarcasm was his own interpretation or not. "I just don't think you'd stoop that low."

There'd probably been more diplomatic ways of saying that. Duo was looking at him a bit fixedly. Then he cocked his head to one side and smiled. "Really? 'Cause you keep sayin' I'm nothin' but a petty criminal."

Wufei hesitated. Duo had sounded more indifferent than insulted. It probably didn't matter a damn to him what Wufei thought of him.

But it mattered to Wufei.

"You know very well what I think of your smuggling career, Maxwell. And you're the one who chose to live in Freeport. But-..." Wufei paused. How could he go about explaining the sort of lines that existed in his mind, that delineated what was right, what was wrong and what was just about acceptable?

Honesty and reserve exchanged a few heated blows, and honesty won out. He owed Duo an explanation, at the least.

"When I knew you five years ago...we did not fight for the same reasons," he continued slowly, a bit reluctantly. He did not like speaking of such things. Words were inadequate. It was like explaining the difference between black and white. "We did not have anything like the same attitude. We do not have the same background and we would not make the same compromises. But you had your honour, even though it was different from mine, and this would not be something it would allow you to do." His sticks twitched, taking in the bowls.

"That was five years back, though," Duo drawled. "I've changed. Maybe I threaten and mug old ladies as a side-job these days."

"You have changed. A bit. But you still have that honour."

"How do you know?" Duo challenged.

"I know because you're still crazy enough to help me onto Freeport just to stop Carver from...dating your sister." Discretion kept him from talking about dead children. That, and the fact that Duo wanted to pretend he didn't care too much about that aspect of the case, and Wufei was willing to let him keep up that pretence. "You thrive on attacking the strong, on breaking the unbreakable. You'd find preying on the weak distasteful. And way too boring."

That last made Duo's lips twitch. He toyed with his noodles, but he was looking at Wufei through his lashes. Weighing the response. More than that. Wufei felt that Duo was trying to pierce his own pretences, look at his own reasons for being here. Maybe examine the integrity of Wufei's honour, the nature of the compromises he'd had to make these past fives years. Suddenly uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Wufei lifted his bowl to sip at the broth.

"I couldn't pay if I wanted to. We don't have any money in Freeport." Duo's voice was abrupt, but also matter-of-fact; accepting Wufei's answer, and his trust.

Wufei glanced over the lip of his bowl. "With the amount we pay you, you should have enough to buy more than a few bowls of kimchi," he mumbled around a mouthful.

"All that money goes into keeping Scythe up in the air, as well as bribing people in and around the colonies, mainly for information Heero needs."

'Mainly'. That probably meant that some of those bribes furthered Duo's smuggling career. Wufei wondered if this was giving Trowa ulcers. Probably not; Trowa's notion of justice was as flexible as the times required it to be.

"So you're saying, you and everybody else on this colony are broke, so brave women like this one decide to feed you rather than see you starve?"

"No." Duo was oddly hesitant, as if he was unsure of how much he should say. "I'm saying we don't have any currency in Freeport."

Wufei had just finished his broth. He put the bowl down with a thump. "What?"

"No currency. Money. Dough. Creds. Payola. Ca-"

"What do you mean you don't have any?!"

"Keep your voice down. This is one of those things that everybody here knows, so you'd look weird asking about it." Duo looked around carefully before finishing his stew in a few mouthfuls and slurping down his noodles.

"So...you work on some sort of credit system? Is that why you gave her your name?" The exchange of names had felt oddly formal, and more than a matter of common courtesy.

"...something like that. Say, this is damn good. What kinda food is this?"

"Korean. She didn't ask you for any ID though."

"I have an honest face," Duo replied, batting his eyelids, wrinkling his nose and dimpling his cheeks. For an instant he looked like a six-year-old who'd been in the cookie jar and knew you couldn't prove it. Wufei just couldn't relate this to the man in the black coat, looming over him like an interrogator, or having him attack Pot-belly just to make a point. It just...for a very brief instant, he wondered with some concern if Duo wasn't suffering from some kind of post-traumatic personality disorder - god knew he'd have reason enough. Except that every one of Wufei's instincts, including the baffled ones, were telling him that the cheeky bastard in front of him was as mentally solid and well-balanced as a slab of Gundanium welded to the floor.

"So how does it work?" Wufei finally asked, curiously. Duo hadn't paid Chris or Madir, either. He'd assumed the smuggler had some sort of tab. But Hyun didn't know them from the next two bums on the street. "Do you have credit lines? Why not use cards and-"

"Why do you care? You're the kept man in this instance," Duo drawled. Wufei's eyebrows shot up almost to his hairline. "I mean, you don't have to pay for anything. I provide you with food, clothes and all that; it's my duty as your Handler."

"I don't want to expose myself accidentally by not knowing something so fundamental," Wufei whispered with another glance around.

"Well, now you know. And if you don't talk, you can't screw up. Remember?"

"Of course! But I-...I might have to talk to you in public, tell you something urgently-..." Wufei nearly stuttered in frustration. It just seemed wrong to be ignorant about this. It could only trip him up, and even if it didn't- "Knowledge is your most reliable weapon!" he finally bit out, falling back on the old saw of one of his childhood tutors

"In this case, it might give you an ulcer..." Duo murmured cryptically.

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

"Look, Heero didn't know that much about the inner workings of the joint, and he was fine. If you just...don't talk and follow orders, what reason is there for you to know?"

"I'm curious!" Wufei snapped.

"Really? That's not a character trait that I remember from the war." Duo looked at him quizzically. "Isn't that a hindrance to being a good lil' soldier? Can't be easy following orders when you want to know what's behind them. That can't be popular." His voice was teasing.

"I'm not a soldier," Wufei shot back. "Before the war I was a scholar. If that doesn't explain my curiosity, I am now an investigator. I'm paid to stick my nose where it's not wanted, ask questions, understand as much as I can, and be as unpopular as I can fucking well be!" His voice was dangerously close to ringing out in the small courtyard at the end of the sentence. He bristled and breathed heavily as Duo made shushing motions with his hands.

"Oy, calm down! Okay, so you and Heero aren't quite wired the same." Duo looked entertained, but also somewhat curious himself. "A scholar? How the hell did you ever get mixed up in the war?"

Suddenly the smile vanished, and Duo blinked. He was silent for a heartbeat, eyes plunging into Wufei's, and then he stared at the bowls on the bench between them.

"I...can't believe I never asked you that before."

Wufei said nothing, caught completely off-balance.

"You never shared even that much during the war," Duo continued softly, into the heavy silence that had settled between them. "You seemed almost aggressively uninterested in anything that wasn't a target. You surprised I never thought you could be curious? You never asked about us, either."

"Because you were going to die, Maxwell. We were all going to die. We-" Wufei realized that the chopstick in his fingers was creaking as he bent them almost to snapping point. It was wrong to say that he hadn't cared why the others fought. But Duo had never asked him, and Wufei realized that he only had the most tenuous idea of the L2 native's own motives for fighting back then. It had taken awhile for them to even consider each other as allies; most of the war, they'd battled alone. The longest time he'd spent with Duo had been in the Lunar Base cell, and they'd talked exclusively about their mechas, escape and retaliation, before going each their separate way. Later, they'd fought for a common goal, but they'd never discussed the paths that had led them to it. And that was right, and sufficient; circumstances, being alone against the might of OZ and the madness of war, had bound them together more surely than sympathy for one another's causes ever could.

"You didn't ask me, I didn't ask you, it didn't matter," he muttered. Duo was staring at his gloved fingers playing with his fork, eyes in the past. "It was...just the way it was."

"Yeah..." Duo whispered. Then he shook himself. "Ah, let's not talk about that kinda shit on this nice sunny day!"

Wufei cast a pointed glance around him, at the invisible ceiling far above their head, lost in darkness, only lightly peppered by red warning lights and the backwash of neon. Duo grinned. The darkness that existed only between them slunk back into the past.

Duo waved his fork around like a conductor's baton. "Okay, if you're interested, I guess I can tell you a bit about Freeport. I'm kinda curious to see how you gonna take it- damn, I wish I had my camera with me! Oh well, I guess I'll-"

They both tensed and turned towards the door to the courtyard. They'd registered the steps behind it, but now a voice had made itself clear, with the words 'out there?'

"-tell you another day," Duo concluded softly, eyes narrowed, a dangerous edge in his stance, even seated. "If that's Theo, she's damn good at finding people quickly. As usual, let me do the talking. You just stand around and look mean. Don't attack unless I tell you-" the door opened before he could finish. They were already standing.

Wufei grunted assent, facing the woman and two men who walked into the courtyard as if they owned it.

+

Theodora turned out to be a heavy-set woman in her mid-thirties. She looked like a working mom in her grey overalls and long knitted coat, except for the look in her eyes, which spoke of knowledge used as a weapon, and weapons used without hesitation. She didn't seem particularly upset at the way Duo had threatened Pot-Belly. Annoyingly enough, in Wufei's opinion, she and Duo walked a ways to the side of the courtyard and talked there for five minutes in a low voice. Wufei was left staring at the two men who accompanied her. One of them wore a Blade's collar, and Wufei felt a moment of worry, wondering if there was a way he should be behaving towards his 'colleague'. If there was, the other man gave him no indication; he just watched Wufei without particular animosity or interest while their Handlers talked. The other man was typical space-born; small, slight, and, when he started biting the fingernails of one hand, obviously polydactyl. That kind of genetic damage was common in the less respectable space colonies, and from what Wufei had seen in the crowd this morning, Freeport was no exception. The man was dressed like a scruffy Sweeper, in pressure-suit pants and a thick ragged vinyl jacket. Maybe he was one of Theodora's freetrader friends.

The meeting ended without any drama; Theodora left with her two followers and Wufei and Duo went to wash Hyun's bowls in the sink and thank her for lunch. She gave them another piercing, weighing look, nodded regally and continued feeding the dozen or so children who were now seated at the table.

The rest of the day followed the same pattern. Duo met with other people, most of them in their homes, or seated behind their carts of merchandise, or working in shops like Pot-Belly's. Wufei gathered from those conversations he overheard that these people were fixers, small-time smugglers or informants. Most of them seemed to have decent, normal jobs in Freeport, and there was often little sign that they indulged in a criminal career on the side. Not for the first time, Wufei measured the importance of Duo's status as his informant. The Preventer wouldn't have known where to start.

Duo played his part admirably. He never told a downright lie, but his half-truths sounded very convincing. With just a few words and sheer attitude, he let it be understood that he'd been contacted by a new 'customer', who wanted some 'fragile cargo' delivered to the colonies - he meant explosives, Wufei gathered after a few half-worded conversations. When it came to buying, making and handling bombs, it was obvious to any of their listeners that Duo was an expert. He also showed a good grasp of his potential clientele; the names and organisations he mentioned was the information Wufei had given him a few hours ago; the list of those who'd been arrested, or who were still at large, and the names of their political movements.

Every detail and name he dropped solidified his cover story and confirmed Duo's status as a smuggler who knew this route, who would be trusted by a customer to make the run. The smuggler would then heap elaborate curses on the Preventers. Particularly the 'fucking Specials pigs', who'd gone and killed or arrested all of Duo's potential customers, and screwed up his intended trade-route. Now he was looking for another way in and some uncompromised business outlets; he'd even be ready to cut another freetrader in on the deal if he had to. Someone who could bring guns and explosives in to L2-X953...and maybe smuggle one or two of Duo's terrorist friends out again, to get them away from the heat.

After several hours and numerous conversations, Wufei was getting the hang of Duo's methods, of the way Freeport operated, and how they would go about finding Carver among eighty thousand souls, most of whom were wanted by the law and didn't much trust anybody, even within the colony. The Preventer had also picked up new faces for his mental 'wanted list', and memorized a good deal of information about certain terrorist and gun-running networks he was going to have a pleasure investigating once he got out of Freeport.

"Don't get a hard-on for all that info you heard these past few hours," Duo muttered as they rested for a bit on a park bench. They'd been walking for over eight hours, visiting several sectors, doubling back repeatedly when the person they needed to speak to wasn't in, forcing the pair to return later, at the end of a shift, or after their intended informant got out of bed.

Wufei had been staring blindly at an intricate jungle-gym, which the local urchins were making good use of. He'd actually not been thinking about the information he'd collected; the fatigue of the previous weeks still lurked on the edges of his reserves. He'd been watching the children's acrobatics and roughhousing, and idly wondering when was the last time he'd seen kids play like that. In his world, children played mostly with online educational programs and computer games, or watched TV; in the slums they played with needles and guns.

"What? All that stuff about terrorist cells and the gun-trade?" he asked, finally figuring out what info Duo was talking about. "I can use this information without compromising your position, Duo-"

"That's not the point. Most of that stuff is out of date now, and the rest will probably be obsolete by the time you get out of Freeport. The guys we were talking to, they're small-time fixers, wankers trying to impress me. They're hoping if they can flash what looks like important info, then I'll use them to get to the big boys, give them the credit of having provided a business opportunity. They give me some shit to impress me, but it's third hand, if that."

"Why are we talking to them?"

Duo sighed and rubbed his neck. He'd thrown off the coat despite the cold, and it was almost as if he'd thrown off the persona as well, letting his weariness show through. "It's necessary. I don't know the Black Nines run that well. I got a few contacts, but I can't afford to get them into this Carver mess, in case it goes sour. Besides, it's a different league. None of my guys - or me - run guns, drugs or people. Well, I might run people, but I wouldn't run a shit like Carver."

"You're trying to find the people who got Carver off-colony despite martial law, right? By finding the people who might deal with that kind of smuggling?"

"Yup. Knew you were bright." Duo gave him a tired smile. He slipped a liquorice stick from an inner pocket of his discarded coat and stuck it in his mouth. His next words were slurred around it. "You gotta realize, it's going to take awhile. Information is like gold dust in Freeport, 'specially among scissormen and freetraders. It'll take time to find out who runs that route, sniff around them, see if I can find out more about who Carver is, who his friends are...that'll lead me to where he'll be staying..."

"Would they know? What if he just gave them a wad of cash to carry him in without questions asked?"

"They'll know." Duo sounded coldly confident. "Some of these 'traders would run their own mother to a slave pit for the right amount, but they would not bring anybody into Freeport unless they knew him well. It'd be suicidal otherwise."

"Okay..." Wufei thought this sounded a bit too reliant on some kind of Freeport inviolability, but he remembered that Duo had told him the same thing about smuggling guns aboard. So far that had proven true. There were things about this place he wasn't sure he understood.

A kid screamed and chased another around the twisted iron in the centre of the playground. Then they went to investigate a nearby junkyard. Trust kids to be more interested in a broken-down stove than their designated recreations. A man chased them away and back to the jungle gym with a few barked words. He was dressed in black, with a heavy chain dangling from his nose to a piercing in his bared nipple. The kids made terrible faces at his back, and then started throwing junk at the twisted metal of the jungle gym, to pass the time.

Wufei watched the man through his lashes; he wore a thick jacket, practically body armour, open to display the hole in his shirt that left the chain and the nipple ring visible. He had a short sabre at his side, low slung with the scabbard tied to his leg. As he walked away, Wufei noted that the back of the jacket was decorated with an insignia; a black fist on a red circle. The Mano, a notorious pirate gang. Wufei absently etched the man's features into his 'guilty' list, while feeling somewhat incredulous that the bastard was just walking around with what came down to a Jolly Roger and a Wanted sign on his back. And nobody was giving him a second glance.

"So what do we know?" Wufei dragged his attention back to the case. He could get very, very distracted if he let himself, but Carver had to be his first priority. "From what those fixers were saying, the smugglers most likely to have gotten Carver out of X953 work for this Rav-echol?"

"Ravachol," Duo corrected his pronunciation. "Rav. I think his first name is Frank. Not that that's his real name either way."

"You know him." It was a statement.

"I knew him at one point," Duo admitted, eyes closed. The stick wobbled in his mouth as if splicing his words like a foil. "Not that well, mind you. Before and during the war. I don't deal with him now though. There's worse out there - we could have done a lot worse than end up having to do this dance with Rav and his gang. But I don't like dealing with him."

"Why?"

"He runs shit. Bad drugs. Big time." Duo's lips tightened over the stick. "And...I don't like his attitude. It's just stuff. Forget about it. There's no bad blood between us, at least that I'm aware of. If we end up having to deal with him, it won't be a problem...but we shouldn't. What we need to know is peanuts to him. Just the name of one of his ships, the details on one of their runs, info on one of their customers...he won't give a shit. It's just finding out what we need to know that's gonna be hard. And then tracking Carver from there."

Duo stood up slowly and stretched, then he looped the coat over his arm.

"Come on, let's head home. I need to check a few of my sources in Makh. I got a couple of friends sounding out the hitman side of things. I donno if Carver drums up his business here; he might use fixers to put him in touch with potential clients on the outside, in which case, somebody knows him. It's harder to check though; not my stomping ground. And besides, assassins tend to watch their six. Asking too many questions about Carver directly will just spook him. Man, my throat is sore and my head aches; I've been talking too much."

"This may be a sign of the end of the world," Wufei murmured, with a wintry smile.

"Shut up, Hound," Duo growled, a bit theatrically. Then he sighed and shook himself. "I'm up for dinner and an early bed. I've got some frozen stuff...or, if we're truly unlucky, and God and his Saints have condemned us, we'll have to face Babka's borscht when we get home."

"Who is this Babka you keep mentioning?"

"She's my neighbour. Sweet elderly lady, around seventy. Makes food that would have the angels weeping in horror."

"...I think we've met."

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