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

AN: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!

Gundam-sized thank-yous to everybody who dropped me a line! To my considerable relief, the pacing seemed good for everybody, even the politics and details and the fact that there won't be a decent lemon for another, oof, dozen chapters or more. The only complaint was the fact I'd left it on a cliff-hanger, which I think is pretty legitimate. So I managed to squeeze out the next chapter before my family descends upon me like a plague of nice, well-mannered locusts. Consider this my thank-you and Christmas present to all my readers!
(Oh, and, duh, me and my stupid memory, thanks to Sol for bouncing off some of Duo's ranting in the last chapter, and for coining the 'Survival' motif of Freeport)

Note: Spoilers for episode Zero, sort of. I speculate a bit about all that 'in-vitro conception' stuff evoked in episode Zero. It's all my own guesswork for the most.

Freeport + Chapter 9

"Que ce soit l'Armée rouge,
Les flics de Pretoria,
Malgré le sang qui coule...

Makhnovtchina, Makhnovtchina,
Armée noire de nos partisans.
Qui combattez en Ukraine
Contre les rouges et les blancs!"


(Be it the Red Army
or the Pretoria cops
Despite the blood flowing...

Makhnovtchina, Makhnovtchina,
Black Army of our partisans
Who fought in Ukraine
Against the Reds and the Whites!)


- Bérurier Noir, 'Makhnovtchina'

+

"Maxwell. Fancy seeing you here again."

Wufei dropped back another step, giving Duo room to dodge. Six men were coming up the street to his right. Five were walking over from the porch, blocking the other way. There were three men in the service tunnel, stepping through the airlock. Some of the attackers were openly armed - two long metal pipes, a sawed-off pool queue, a small crossbow - but the others walked like they were carrying something lethal too.

"Erickson." Duo sounded loud and bored, and his tone was about as placating as a well-chosen finger in the face. "I'd say it's a pleasure, but it ain't. You gonna be stupid again?"

"We made it clear what would happen if you returned to Zapata."

Erickson was built like a Terran, six inches taller than Duo, and a bigger, heavier frame under a loose bomber jacket. Lank blonde hair fell over a pale face with strong, regular features. He had his hands behind his back where he was swishing something. Officer, Wufei thought immediately. Definitely OZ. Must have been pretty young during the war, he was barely past his mid-twenties. One of those young wolves who worshipped Treize, then; the ones who thought they were the new leaders of the human race. What the hell was he doing in Freeport?

The man was looking at Duo fixedly. He was trying for cold and professional, but Wufei had learned to read people these past five years. Erickson was looking at Duo like some junkies look at their next dose, with a mixture of need and loathing.

Wufei turned to face the men behind them, putting his back to Duo's. Shinigami could take care of Erickson and the two from the service tunnel without breaking a sweat, but the pair could easily be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. This was the worst of tactical positions. Erickson had set this trap up remarkably well and with officer-school precision, considering he'd only had about forty minutes tops to prepare it.

"Don't be a rabble-rouser, Erickson," Duo drawled. "I was just leaving. I wasn't here more than-"

"You're not going anywhere," Erickson cut in softly. Wufei wondered why Duo was even trying to talk his way out of this one. Erickson was going to try to kill them. That much was very clear.

"Oy, who says you're the one to dictate right-o'-way!" Duo's voice rang out, the baritone bouncing against the metal of the street, the rigid front of the buildings behind him and the sector wall before him. Wufei weighed up their attackers, wondering if some of them might be cowed. There were only a couple of real fanatics on Erickson's level in the lot, staring at Duo with murder in their eyes, but the rest looked perfectly eager and willing for a fight.

"Give me one reason, you-"

"Shut up." Erickson had taken a step forward, interrupting Duo's loud tirade.

Then a window opened in the building behind them, and another, and Wufei realized what Duo had been trying to do. Two women rounded an alley coming out of a courtyard. A grizzled elderly man opened a door nearby and hobbled out on a crutch, an artificial leg clanging against the metal walkway.

"I didn't do anything wrong! Whatever hangup you got with me from outside, is your own fucking problem!" Duo had taken a step back, putting his back to Wufei's, staying out of weapon's range of Erickson. Wufei wanted to move away and give Duo room, but the men around him were too close, he'd be flanked. The presence of potential witnesses had had surprisingly little impact on their aggressor's attitude.

Wufei took a second look at the faces of his supposed 'witnesses' and re-evaluated the situation. The half-dozen people who'd showed up gave no signs of running away from a potential fight, but they didn't seem intent on breaking it up, either. On the whole, they were watching this the same way the people in Che sector had watched that duel the other day. Which was really not a promising parallel. Wufei felt the cold of battle-calm coming over him, muting even his anger and outrage; the odds of getting out of this without a fight were small and getting smaller.

"What's going on?" There was a whisper in the growing crowd beyond the men boxing him and Duo in, as more people wandered over from the houses and streets to see what the gathering was about. Still nobody looked ready to intervene. Maybe seeing two people getting beaten up was good entertainment if you didn't have a TV. If anybody showed up with a popcorn and hotdog stand, Wufei had the feeling he was going to go ballistic, Preventer ethics be damned.

"Donno. Erickson's boys?" The words shimmered through the crowd, from different throats. A dozen strong now. In more civilized areas people would avoid a fight, or call the cops, or just stay indoors to avoid a stray bullet. Maybe the lack of the latter made the Freeport citizens bolder. Two of Erickson's men had faded back into the throng of bystanders, visibly more comfortable as spectators rather than perpetrators. That still left twelve men. Most had bludgeoning weapons, four had drawn long knives, one had the crossbow; a crude one-shot piece, but it didn't need to be sophisticated at this distance. Wufei had his back turned to Erickson and his two cronies, and couldn't see what they were carrying.

"Who'd they corner? A rat?"

People were staring, milling around, talking quickly in near-whispers. The crowd's voice held a note of interest and concern that Wufei hadn't expected. He chanced a glance over his shoulder. Duo wasn't shouting any more; he was staring Erickson down, but his head was tilted ever so slightly, his back a line of tension as he listened to the growing throng. Apparently the spectators were more of a deciding factor than Wufei had initially guessed.

“Donno. Seen those two before?”

"No."

"Not from around here. Not from Haymarket either."

"Looks more like Erickson's guys caught themselves a shit-stirrer."

"A rat-catcher?" someone asked sharply; Wufei felt a glimmer of hope, there had been concern and disapproval in that voice, and it felt directed at Erickson’s premeditated violence. What was a rat-catcher?

"No, s' that terrorist Maxwell."

That had been one of Erickson's men in the crowd. Wonderful. Somebody muttered Gundam, and the temperature, always rather cool in Freeport, plummeted to sub-arctic.

The pressure of Duo's back against his was suddenly gone. Duo had taken half a step away. Giving them room to dodge and manoeuvre.

Wufei slowly unhooked the bottom catch of his sword's strap, angling his body to hide the movement between himself and Duo. He kept his fingers on the leather of the strap though, leaving the scabbard hanging casually from his shoulder. If Duo could still worm their way out of this situation without bloodshed-

"Erickson." A woman walked through the crowd. She had a one-year-old child on her hip, and she was wearing a worker's overall and a thick blue jumper with crude daisies crocheted on it, but she carried herself with natural authority; nearly everybody in the crowd suddenly stiffened, distant echoes of standing at attention. The rest of Freeport might be under the rule of anarchy, but Wufei gathered that Zapata had kept a rough hierarchy reflecting the one-time military order of many of its citizens.

"Maxwell has friends, and they will know. That is all I have to say," the woman announced firmly. Her eyes were cold and hard. She had a scar at the edge of her chin, spearing up towards her ear; her hair was crisply braided back, scornfully refusing to even try to hide it. She was in her mid thirties, Wufei estimated. He wondered how she had ended up in Freeport. She seemed considerably more out of place than even Babka.

"Do we know each other?" Duo asked lightly behind Wufei's back. There was a dangerous edge to his voice, the playfulness of a cat chatting up a mouse. It was obvious that Duo did not consider himself outclassed in this situation.

The woman gave him a scornful look. "Reba Hamilton-Grey," she rapped out, and Wufei could almost feel a 'Major' or a 'Colonel' standing crisply at attention behind the name.

"A pleasure to meet you. Nice sector you have here, ma'am. Open, friendly and fair," Duo drawled sarcastically.

Her eyes narrowed, her mouth tightened, but she ignored the taunt and the slur on her sector. She turned, hitching the child further into her arms.

"You shouldn't have shown up here, Pilot," she threw over her shoulder.

"My, my, this does bring back memories. Buncha soldier-boys against two small colonists," Duo chuckled. "You gonna actually attack us this time? Or you gonna make us surrender by threatening to blow up a colony?"

Hamilton-Grey spun around, eyes blazing. "Don't you dare-"

"Erickson, I know it goes against the grain to leave your flight squadron behind," Duo continued, completely ignoring her. The chuckle still haunted his words, a mocking lash. "But how about we leave our friends outta this, and do this the Freeport way. You gonna be a man, and take me on like one, or-"

The sword, still in its scabbard, flew over Wufei's shoulder as he jerked down on the strap. He caught it and accelerated the movement as he took two steps forward, slamming it into the shoulder of the man holding the crossbow. The crossbow wobbled, its bearer gasped and staggered; the scabbard swiped sideways and caught him in the jaw, hard, snapping his head around. The man crumpled; the crossbow hit the deck. Wufei brought his booted heel down on it sharply. Crunch. No more projectile weapon.

The shooter's neighbour had just started to turn, eyes wide - Wufei slammed the point of his scabbard into the man's gut, then grabbed his chin as he folded over the pain and shoved him backwards, into the person next to him. They went down in a jumble of limbs. Wufei had already moved on. Less than five seconds had elapsed.

He took down the next person in line with a street-brawl blow his mentors would have disapproved of. The man dropped the dagger he'd barely raised, fell over and started to vomit.

Someone shouted harshly behind him. Wufei glanced over his shoulder - Duo was smiling, five-foot-six of pure menace, even with his hands in his pockets. He seemed oblivious of Wufei's attack; he didn't break eye-contact with Erickson and his two sidekicks, who were staring back at him, frozen in indecision between two threats. But beyond Duo, an ex-soldier on the other side of the circle of mostly stunned attackers had finally reacted; he was coming towards Wufei, a cosh raised -

Duo didn't look away from Erickson, but his vicious backhand connected with the attacker's throat, clotheslining him neatly.

Wufei didn't see what happened next - Duo could manage; Wufei was going for Erickson and his sidekicks, before they snapped out of their trance and attacked Duo, three-to-one. He batted a long dagger aside with his scabbard and didn’t break his stride; the next step threw his entire body weight against the knife-wielder, pounding him into the nearby wall. Erickson finally started to turn, away from Duo and towards the attack, unsheathing a short sabre. Wufei spun away from the winded man and backhanded Erickson in the same movement. Missed - merely caught the edge of his chin - Erickson stumbled back. In that second of leeway, Wufei whipped his sword sharply at the second sidekick near the service tunnel, who was trying to get around Erickson. The sword stayed in Wufei's hand; the scabbard flew off, catching the man in the face; he fell back, startled, and tripped on the lip of the service hatch.

Erickson was back, sabre swinging at Wufei. Naked blades met, hissed edge to edge - an orthodox fencer, Wufei judged instantly. His quick and dirty retaliation followed that realization in the next split second; he twisted his blade up to shoulder height, and when Erickson broke his stance to step back, like the good fencer he was, Wufei let his blade swipe forward neatly, around the belled guard, to smash Erickson's thumb against the sabre's hilt. He used the flat of the blade; Duo had not told him he could shed blood. Or slice Erickson’s thumb off.

Erickson grunted, fingers loosening in shock - Wufei leapt at him, wrenched the sabre from the injured hand by the blade, spun around and smashed the sabre's hilt into his opponent’s face. Erickson fell back, momentarily stunned.

Wufei dodged a blow from someone on his right by falling into a half-crouch; he threw himself sideways - his shoulder slammed into the attacker’s midriff, sending him staggering back, winded, in Duo's direction.

Wufei straightened and dropped the sabre. He didn't need to look; a muffled thud somewhere to his right meant one less attacker. He grabbed the tottering Erickson by the back of bomber jacket with his free hand, spun him around and brought his sword up sharply against his victim's throat.

It had been less than two minutes since Wufei's sword had slammed into the crossbow-bearer's shoulder. Many in the street around them were still frozen in shock. Erickson's men, those still standing, stared wildly around, looking for the support of friends who were no longer there. They'd been infantry, MS pilots and such; they could attack quickly as a coordinated group with suits or rifles, but they weren't used to street-brawls with two expert killers.

"...Or shall we let my rather twitchy Blade take care of all of your friends and then we'll see where we're at," Duo finally concluded, a bit dryly. He had his hands in his pockets again and not a hair out of place, as if he had nothing to do with the two bodies at his feet. His voice was a steely purr; he looked utterly in control of the situation. There was just the tiniest acid look tossed Wufei's way before Duo turned to Hamilton-Grey; the only indication that Duo had been caught off-guard as much as their attackers, though he'd rallied ten times faster.

Wufei held that brief look with an angry one of his own, though he carefully kept up his mask of icy arrogance for the benefit of the viewing public. Yes, maybe he should have waited for Duo's signal, but that would have been foolish. The moment had been exactly right: everybody was concentrating on Hamilton-Grey or Duo, forgetting Wufei; Erickson had made clear his intentions to not let them get away; and Duo hadn't yet managed to go through with his stupid suggestion of single combat with a man taller than he was with all fingers intact. Wufei made a mental note to himself to chew Duo out for that moronic and dangerous idea later; it was Wufei's job, to take the stupid risks, not Duo's. But that would be later. Right now, with the crowd slowly recovering and Erickson's men climbing to their feet and glaring at him, the situation was still entirely too open and volatile to start thinking about victory.

He took a quick tally. Two of the men he'd attacked would not get up again before the fight was well and truly over. Three others were injured. They would still be a danger, but they would be slower, easier to deal with. One man at Duo's feet was not moving. Wufei didn't know what Duo had done to him, but it looked like it would last awhile. The first of Duo's victims had gotten to his knees, rubbing his throat and groaning hoarsely, his cosh lost. The others looked cowed, or stared anxiously at Wufei's sword at Erickson's throat.

Duo had his back to his Blade and the hostage now. He looked relaxed, his hands still in his pockets, but Wufei could see that his fists were balled so that they gave that impression without hindering his movements. His slim stiletto was in his left hand; it was hidden in a fold of the Sweeper jacket. He stood to one side of Wufei, guarding the flank where Erickson didn't shield him. Which of course wasn't ideal: Duo was the one they needed to protect. Wufei's life wouldn't be worth gutter-dirt if Duo were killed. Hopefully the gang wouldn't jump them with Erickson's life on the line.

Erickson made a strangled sound. Wufei didn't trust the ex-officer to be reasonable; he had his sword across the man's Adam's apple and pressed right into the skin. He could feel a thin trickle of blood run warm and gummy against his fingers on the hilt. Erickson would probably order his men to attack and take his chances in the struggle; that was how badly he wanted Duo's hide. But Wufei didn't think he'd cut his own throat to do so.

The crowd was the unknown quantity-

Wufei had thrown himself back and down before he'd even registered the loud crack. Gunshot!

Duo was on the ground. For a heart-stopping moment Wufei thought Duo had been hit. But Duo’s knife-hand was held out, fingers straight and empty. There'd been the impact sound of a bullet on the wall near the service tunnel, Wufei registered after the fact. Echoes were still rumbling between the metal buildings.

A strangled grunt to his left; someone fell forwards, scattering Erickson's men on either side. Erickson made a choked noise and Wufei automatically twisted the blade, biting deeper. His hostage stilled.

Duo stood up slowly, unhurt. Wufei let his blade ease against Erickson's throat before he accidentally slit it.

Someone was hyperventilating in the crowd. People stepped back, leaving the fallen figure alone in a widening circle. Wufei shifted Erickson around to get a better look; the leader was completely still, as if stunned.

A man lay crumpled on the deck, one of the aggressors from the side of the circle that Wufei had not attacked. Duo's knife protruded from his throat. A bubbling wheeze, fading fast, was the only sound except for the person gasping in the crowd and a child crying. Then a dog yipped excitedly in the distance, and someone shouted, alarmed, a few streets away.

The man's spasming fingers twitched over a small gun until Duo kicked it away.

The whistling breath staggered, ended in a rattle. Hamilton-Grey's voice covered the man's death-throes. She took a step forward, hand on her child's head, shielding him from the sight of the dead body.

"Everybody, disperse. You. Go get a Red Band. Tell him to contact Brian Nassau or Seeli M’nara and then come here. You, stay with me. Everybody else, leave. Now."

Hamilton-Grey stopped briefly by the gun, before facing Duo. Her eyes were beyond angry. She stared at him as if she would love to have him lined up against a wall and shot. Duo stared back, challenging. She tore her eyes away to glare at Wufei.

"Let him go," she ordered.

Yes, colonel, Sir! Wufei thought sarcastically and tightened his grip on Erickson. Most of his men had vanished with the well-disciplined crowd, carrying the unconscious, but four of them hung back at the mouth of the nearby alley, staring anxiously at their leader.

Hamilton-Grey glared, then with a hiss turned the look on Duo, who was completely unimpressed. His eyes were shining with adrenaline, his mouth twisted into a smile that was both pleasant and lethal. He took his time, staring at her, waiting for that slight flinch in her eyes, before glancing over his shoulder.

"Let him go," he said softly.

Wufei reluctantly obeyed, but only because it was his role. What he really wanted to do was discuss with Erickson the cowardice of a dozen thugs attacking two men, and what Treize would have thought of such despicable behaviour. And then he would have liked to arrest the bastard if at all possible. But this was Freeport, and his mission was Carver, and he had to be Duo’s Blade; he’d given Duo his word. He stared back at Erickson as the man shot him a venomous glare and wiped the blood from his throat.

Maybe Erickson guessed that the black eyes going slowly over his features were adding him to a long list in a longer memory. The glare faltered and he looked away with a grimace.

"Did you know?"

Erickson turned quickly towards Hamilton-Grey who'd addressed him. He glanced at the gun. "No." His voice was hoarse, his hand still at his throat.

Hamilton-Grey scrutinized him, the blatant, challenging Freeport stare, looking for any signs of hesitation or lies. In her arms, the child whimpered and struggled to turn its head. She soothed it with a few murmured words, then she looked at Duo.

"Go. Leave. Now."

Instead of leaving, Duo took a step forward and kicked the body over. Hamilton-Grey made a noise in her throat, but something in those blue eyes stopped her from protesting further. Duo leaned forwards and wrenched his dagger loose. The corpse twitched. Wufei could smell the stink of shit and blood covering Freeport’s usual tang of metal and sewage, the scent of death distilled. Duo wiped his dagger on the man's jacket and turned without sheathing it. He passed Erickson without a glance, heading towards the service lock. Wufei followed him in silence.

+

Wufei kept looking over his shoulder. Duo walked on as if nobody could touch them, but Wufei remembered the way Erickson had looked at them, the way Hamilton-Grey had too, for that matter.

He assumed they were taking a safer route when Duo suddenly turned at a right angle to the road and headed down an alley. They stopped at a manhole cover. Duo's face was strangely neutral as he undid the catch and lifted it up. He swung down, his feet hitting the rungs of a ladder, and disappeared into the darkness. Wufei cast a last look around. Nobody watching as far as he could see; he climbed down after his Handler, dragging the cover shut after them.

Duo was a distant ringing of feet against rungs in the near darkness. Wufei followed, a bit slower. He wasn't that used to ladders.

The ladder went down and down. Wufei felt his fingers stiffen with the growing cold. Not a very reassuring sensation when one is going down a ladder that probably stretched a hundred feet to the floor of the cargo hold below.

A bare bulb at the bottom slowly grew nearer and nearer. Duo was nowhere to be seen. When his feet were once more on firm metal, Wufei looked around carefully. Huge cargo containers were piled high on either side, heavily locked. There was no trace of Duo in this maze. Just as he was thinking about shouting - a daunting notion, in this stillness of hulking metal giants and darkness - he caught a flicker of movement and quickly followed it.

A service door to the outer hull area was swinging slowly shut when Wufei neared it. He poked his head cautiously through the opening. The corridor beyond was dark and very cold; it smelled of dust and crude engine oil. A narrow slice of greyish light, quite unlike the red and yellow neon of the colony, delineated the exit. Wufei advanced cautiously.

A star port...Wufei glanced from the thick glass and the starscape outside, to the dimly visible figure perched carelessly on a big box, one foot dangling like a child, the other caught up protectively against his chest.

Wufei hesitated, and then sat on another box ten feet away, leaving Duo his space. Duo's face was calm as he watched the stars. Almost peaceful. Wufei scrutinized him from beneath the cover of his lashes and hair.

There was no regret in those blue eyes, or in the way he held himself as he stared at the stars. No sadness. Certainly no guilt. Just contemplation. Because, for men like them, it was very, very little matter to take one life. It was, in fact, very easy, and often simpler than the alternative. This was why Duo was taking this moment; not to regret, but to look in the silence for that space that existed between him and the monster he could become. Wufei understood this, without question, nearly without thought; it was like an instinct; he felt it, as if it were as visible as Duo's profile in the starlight. It was strange, because Wufei himself was different that way. He kept no space between himself and his actions. In his meditation, he remembered and tallied and judged. Had he done the right thing; acted with honour; stayed true to himself. If he had, then it mattered little what he was, or what he might become. Yet for all it was different, he could still understand this moment, this silence which wasn't his. Which was probably why Duo had let him follow him into darkness and starlight.

The silence between them didn't feel uncomfortable at that moment. Wufei tasted a faint regret; that it took a dead body to connect them; that they understood each other like this only after blood had been shed. Wufei sank into a light trance, reflecting on this; safe in the knowledge that nobody could approach them in this out-of-the-way space without footsteps ringing against the metal and echoing around the containers like an alarm. He watched the slow dance of tugs and shuttles around a cargo-freight under construction, bathed in the harsh beams of spacelights. And the stars, beyond them all, superposed yet unconnected.

Finally Duo relaxed and leaned a shoulder against the wall, turning slightly towards Wufei. His eyes were still on the stars beyond the small viewport, but his body language indicated that communication was now acceptable.

Tactics and worries and questions about Erickson and future safety measures buzzed at the back of Wufei's skull, but they stayed behind the moment of stillness and silence that had yet to be broken. Wufei dug some of Erickson's blood from beneath his fingernails, and the question that broke the silence had nothing to do with those prompted by duty.

"Why did you come here? To Freeport, I mean?" His whisper seemed to linger, tangled in his breath turning white, frozen in the icy air and the half-light.

Duo finally tore his eyes away from the stars to look at Wufei inquisitively.

"Survival?" Wufei prompted, as if that explained everything. "You were hardly desperate or threatened. You surely had other options."

"I always had options. Steal or starve. Fight or die. When I was young, I..."

There was another silence, one that divided them this time. Wufei felt there was a lot left unsaid there. Something that did not belong to the war-bond they shared, and that Duo would have no reason to confide in him. Wufei wondered briefly if Heero had ever heard the words that Duo did not say at this point.

"I had choices. I could sell what I had. To a pimp, or to a gang. Well, the former, nah. And the latter...the mob, the juvies, the runners, the sharks...they were just like the Alliance, yanno? Just bullies. They made me sick. So I took option C - none of the above. I didn't know much more about Freeport than rumours, legends and tall tales, but hey, at least it sounded fun! So I stowed myself away on a Sweeper ship, with the half-cocked notion that I could sneak into the colony and start living the life of milk and honey, like. I was eleven, keep in mind. Fate happened to shove me into G's ship and the rest is Recent History 101, Operation Meteor, the revised edition."

Wufei stared at the stars and tried to imagine - but that was pointless. He had his own childhood, that would probably startle and horrify quite a few people too, but it was completely different than the little glimpse he'd been allowed into Duo's. He couldn't even imagine being in that situation, having to make that choice, at that age. Not that Duo had mentioned his youth with self-pity or remembered pain. No, it had just been to explain and excuse his rather simplistic idea of sneaking into Freeport. Duo sounded amused; affectionate approval for that young child's brashness.

"I meant, after the war," Wufei elaborated.

"Oh, yeah, like all the doors were gonna open because I was a war hero or something? Relena didn't want to make us into- into-"

"Figures of admiration. Role models," Wufei supplied.

"Right. That meant I was just one more soldier without a job."

"You could have had a job," Wufei said carefully.

Duo snorted. "Yeah, that's what Une said. Now, just try, for a sec, to wrap your head around the concept that is 'Agent Duo Maxwell, Preventer'. Stop when you're getting a headache. When I turned her down, that just convinced Une of what she knew all along: I was just some piece of spacer junk, floating around looking for trouble. And say, Fei? Why the hell do you look like you sat on a tack each time I say 'Spacer'? I noticed that before."

"It's...not..." Wufei cleared his throat and tried to find the words that seemed so clear and obvious when put down in the Codes of Conduct Regarding Minorities, and seemed so ludicrous here, in the cold darkness with the scent of blood and metal clinging to an icy starport.

"What, s'not politically correct to say 'Spacer' outside?" Duo quizzed, apparently guessing the origin of Wufei's discomfort.

"Well, no."

"What're you supposed to say, then?"

"...Naturally born colonist."

The breathless second of silence that followed shattered as Duo practically fell over backwards, laughing like a loon. Wufei felt his lips tug upwards into an embarrassed half-smile. The twilight and quiet were definitely dispelled, along with the contemplative mood, as Duo started to wheeze and whimper and hold his sides, repeating 'naturally born colonists' as soon as he could breathe, and then laughing again. The laughter purged whatever darkness had been lurking in the small space with them.

"Oh...oh Jesus..." Duo wiped his eyes, still prone to fits of chuckles. "Oh, that's such bull. That's so typical. Fuck it, we're spacers! Warped genes! Rejects! Raised in slums, born from piss-poor, uneducated parents who didn't know what space radiation did to the fucking genome. Naturally born-" Duo dissolved into snorts of laughter again. His words had been cocky and brash, warped with that strange in-your-face pride that would probably startle and horrify the kindly, pitying HR person who'd written the memo about 'addressing naturally born colonists with the proper respect and dignity afforded to any human being, regardless of origin'.

"Nobody can help their birth," Wufei objected a bit weakly, his propriety rising up to bite him in the ass. "It shouldn't be a hindrance to-"

"Yeah, well, it is," Duo snorted. "'Cause when you're born and brought up in a slum, guess what? No schools, or schools that look like war zones. In our society, poverty is a family disease, and all that ‘we all have the same chances’ shitlicking nonsense is bull. Fuck, I didn't know how to read and write until Fath- some people sent me to a proper school when I was seven, and that was pretty damn lucky for me. We have a saying, where I come from. Once a spacer, always a spacer, and your kids are spacers too. The Alliance used to treat us like rats, like sub-humans. I grant you, the new regime's better. But still... You know any spacers in high office? On TV? Except for that punk over on Edgy Channel or whatever they call it; gimmick-boy there. I’m sure those long-lobbed ears aren’t even real. Know any spacers in Preventer upper echelon? No, they’re all blue-bloods like you."

Wufei stiffened, his glare crossing swords with a mocking, knowledgeable glance.

"Well, aren't you?" Duo teased.

"...my parent's gametes were screened for genetic damage, yes. In my clan, the children are conceived in vitro.” It had been the same for any self-respecting family, ever since men had come to space; until recently that is, when colony shielding against space radiation had been improved. Normally conceived children were just starting to be born in some of the better colonies.

“But there’s no other selection to the gametes, fertilisation is left to chance. The eggs are-" were. Past tense. They were all dead. Wufei breathed in slowly and started again. "The eggs were re-implanted into the womb after conception and then nature was allowed to take its course. We did not believe in any genetic manipulation whatsoever."

"Really? Lucky draw, then," Duo purred approvingly, eyes travelling over Wufei's body in a way that was downright provoking. Wufei managed to switch an incipient blush for a glare, but it was a close thing. "Well, you're still a blue-blood in my books, by education if not by genetic mucking-around.”

Wufei couldn’t deny it, though it sounded almost like a slight, the way Duo said it.

“At least you're not as bad as Quatre; he's got a pedigree a mile long, and the best genetic enhancements money could buy."

Wufei frowned. That would be a fairly logical conclusion, knowing that the Winner family, like many great colonist empires, relied heavily on in vitro techniques and genetic manipulation, producing offspring like you produced race horses. But Wufei had always wondered about that. He met with Quatre regularly. The last time he'd seen the businessman was four months ago, at a charity relief affair with half of his sisters, and though Quatre had grown to be a really good looking man, taller than Wufei, he was still two inches shorter than any of the Winner women Wufei had met. And the space-heart business...Wufei had never heard of any genetic enhancement that could produce that. That sort of mutation was more of a spacer thing- but it was not for him to speculate, particularly about a man he respected, and a friend.

Duo obviously didn't have his restraint. "Heero now, he's got more than money could buy. It's obvious that poor guy got put together in some kinda lab, with funds that could feed L2 for a year. Didn't even have an ID tattoo, can you believe that? We had to have one made for him when he came here the first time. Yeah, when Zechsy-boy said that the people from the colonies were a new race, a better humanity, it was you guys he was talkin' about. I don't think blondie even knew I was on the radar. And I happen to know Une shares that opinion. She trusts me as far as she can throw me. In Deathscythe!"

"Why do you say that?" Wufei asked curiously. The one time Une had mentioned Duo within earshot of Wufei, it was to bemoan the fact that he'd turned her down and run to the wrong side of the law.

"It's old history," Duo shrugged expressively. The ghost of a pout twisted his lips; he looked more annoyed than truly angry. "It was when I was bumming around right after the war. I was, yanno, doing stuff for Hilde, living my life, wondering if I wanted to hook up with the Sweepers, or own my own ship. I didn’t want to move too far away from Hil and Heero. And the rest of you, of course."

Wufei looked at the stars. He hadn't known what Duo had been doing right after the war. He himself had...imploded. Too much confusion; too torn, too bloodied. Treize had done his final mindjob on him- Wufei didn't like to remember those bitter, lost months. Peace was this all-pervasive, nauseatingly sweet concept everybody suddenly believed in, and Wufei had felt like the war was still raging, right in his soul. He didn't like to think about what he might have done, the mistakes he might have made...Trowa had spotted him during surveillance on a possible problem colony, and Heero had showed up two days later to knock some sense into him. Quite literally.

By the time he'd reflected on his life, his beliefs, found his place in the scheme of things, and joined the Preventers, Duo had already disappeared. Gone into quarantine in Freeport.

"I might have stayed outside," Duo explained, eyes back on the star-port. "Or I could have become an out-of-towner; that’s what we call a freetrader who lives outside and mostly shows up in Freeport to do business and meet friends. But Une and Tro did their number on me, trying to get me to join. They get on well together; quite the double-act! Apparently they've gotten even closer these days- Hey, is it true what I hear about those two?"

"No, though I might add that it is not my place to speculate either way."

"Really? ‘Cause it'd be the perfect couple. He's got no personality and she's got quite a few to spare!"

Wufei stared, too surprised to be offended on his friend's behalf. "I thought you and Trowa got along well?"

"...We did. Oh, I guess we do. Kinda. We didn't hang much during the war, mind you, but we got along okay afterwards, or so I thought. I guess I just thought he'd be on my side, and it turns out he was on Une's. I really wasn't surprised to hear he got promoted; saw that one coming a mile away. Captain, now. Bet he's good at his job, too."

"I don't-"

"When I turned her ladyship down, she sicked her boy-toy on me.” The annoyance didn’t feel genuine, or rather, it felt overblown, covering something like hurt beneath it. “And did he say, 'no ma'am, Duo's my ol' pal, he wouldn't do nothing'? Nope, the bastard broke into my apartment and checked it out like I was some potential agitator with my terrorist cell allegiance card stuck on my fridge with a magnet!"

The bit about having Duo's place searched, Wufei wouldn't put past Une at all; she'd always been properly paranoid where Gundam pilots were concerned. They all had the training, the attitude and the inclination to do a lot of damage to the establishment if they saw fit. Wufei knew he’d come close to it, for one. It would make sense for her to send Trowa, too. Trowa had rapidly been promoted to the position of her aide, and made Captain two years ago, as soon as his fake ID said he was eighteen. On the surface, he was her go-fer, her stand-in, and the commander of a branch of the Specials. In practice, particularly back then, he was the person she sent to do a lot of her dirty work, the kind that couldn’t make it into a report. Wufei wouldn’t be surprised if Trowa had been the one to toss Duo’s place, but he wondered how Duo could be so certain, and take it so personally.

"How do you know Trowa checked your apartment?" Wufei asked rationally.

"Hey, you’re talking to the master of stealth here!” Duo countered, visibly challenged. “However good someone is, there are always subtle signs that-"

"Maybe, but Trowa is very good; besides, how could you know it was him specifically?" Wufei argued.

Duo’s wolfish grin dissolved into a grimace. “Okay, if you got to know, he left everything perfectly intact, from the lint in the sofa to the dust-bunnies under the bed. He also left my very well-hidden black-market Luger on the table with a post-it note stuck to the barrel saying, ‘Duo, next time I come here, this is either gone or registered - I'm in the bar at the corner if you want a drink. Trowa’.”

Subtle signs, huh? Wufei took one look at Duo's chagrined face and burst out laughing. He had to grab the edge of the box to catch his balance.

He tried to stifle it, covering his mouth after that first outburst. He didn't laugh out loud, he didn't lose control like that in front of others. Maybe that was why he couldn't stop it now. The laughter faded to a chuckle, but refused to end; it popped up again every time he remembered Duo’s indignant expression. He choked and coughed, and glanced up in embarrassment. Duo was looking at him with a small, almost hesitant smile; he looked enchanted.

"Wow. I don't think I've ever seen you laugh...almost worth having Trowa make a fool outta me."

Wufei forced the laughter down, wiped his eyes. He sighed, shook his head. "You realize Trowa did that on purpose, right? To warn you?" he asked, simply.

"Of course. But he couldn't have just dropped by and, like, told me? He had to rub my nose in it?! I spent hours finding a good spot to hide that Luger!" Duo was making wide gestures and looked theatrically affronted. Wufei struggled to keep the laughter from bubbling up again.

"Anyway...that pissed me off a bit, but it wasn't anything I didn't expect," Duo continued, staring out at the stars again. "It just reminded me of what living outside implied. All the rules, for good and bad. And...I made up my mind. I knew I belonged here. In a way I always have. Always been making my own rules. I went and had one last drink with Trowa at that bar, stopped by to see Hil, left Heero a note - he was on some mission somewhere - and hopped the nearest Sweeper ship to Freeport. And here I am."

+

Their footsteps rang hollowly, chasing each other around row upon endless row of cargo containers.

Wufei was starting to think like a Preventer again.

"That man, Erickson. He knew who you were. Does he know where you live?"

His voice covered the echoes of footsteps, making him glance around uneasily.

"Erickson? That loser?!” Duo’s brash baritone careened into the eerie silence around the containers, knocking it over and then flipping it the bird. “Sure. A lot of people know where I live."

"Doesn't that worry you?" Wufei ground out. "What if he decides to drop by your place while we're sleeping? You killed one of his men, after all."

Wufei was thinking of Babka and Gilla down the hall; of bombs by the window; of someone ambushing them in a dark alleyway near the house. He was confident in his and Duo's ability to fight it out, but he was also aware that they'd been lucky, earlier, to defeat that many opponents without any casualties on their side. He didn't feel like trying his luck again.

"Erickson don't need an excuse to want to recyc me. He's a mad dog." Duo sniffed carelessly. "Five years ago, when his commanding officer surrendered along with Une and the lot, Erickson shot him and tried to take command of his unit. You'd killed Treize about five minutes before, and the whole 'Une surrendered' thing didn't sit well with him. Sweet Jesus, I just realized! Thank god he didn't know who you were. He'd have gone bat-shit."

"He knows you were a pilot," Wufei pointed out, now having something else to worry about.

"It's that fucking vid they took of me, when I was captured. I've changed a bit, but some OZ personnel still recognize me. And though I don't brag about what I did in the war, I won't hide it either. Others know, and talk."

"If you cut that bloody braid, Maxwell-"

"You're assuming I care," Duo interrupted with a dangerous purr.

"It's your funeral," Wufei muttered.

"Erickson's not a problem. It's not just me he's after, he hates everybody; for making him a fugitive, for putting him here, for losing the war, for the goddamn universe that refuses to recognize him as the superior human being that he is. He picks fights all the time, he's got a whole list of pet hates: ex-White Fang, ex-resistance, ex-Alliance, ex-Gundam Pilots...He's got a lotta guts and charisma, so he has a following, as you saw, but that won't help him forever. One of these days we'll find him in the gutter with his throat cut and no loss. But right now he's got bigger problems. One of his men was packing.”

“Ah, yes. The thing you said couldn’t happen here,” Wufei growled, remembering another subject to get angry about.

“It shouldn't!" Duo snapped, and there was a flare of outrage that easily matched and passed Wufei's. It echoed the horror of the crowd as they'd drawn back from the body and the gun. The reaction had been strangely over-the-top, even for a society where most people were not armed. Wufei had felt a moment of surprise that the man had even dared to pull it at all; he must have lost his head when he saw the blood on Erickson's throat.

"I told you, the firearm ban here is serious!" Duo continued.

"Why? They sure weren't going to hesitate to kill us with metal pipes. If anything, a bullet would be more merciful," Wufei countered.

"Actually, the crowd mighta stopped them before they actually ex-ed us. That wasn't a duel, and I hadn't done anything wrong. But the gun..." Duo hesitated. Wufei caught a sideways glance in his direction. When Duo finished his sentence, his voice was loud and Wufei thought it sounded oddly defensive. "It's just too dangerous. Too random. Anybody can fire a gun and kill someone. In Freeport, we like our fights to be up close and personal, mano a mano. It's our way. Yeah, guns are a no-no. Even if Erickson didn't know anything about the piece, that's gonna stick. He lost face."

Duo said that last with the import of ‘he lost a limb’.

"That'll just make him more dangerous. I ask you again, what are we going to do to stop him from coming to Makhno and-"

"He won't show up in Makh. He didn't before; he won't now. He'll only attack people who show up in Zap, or in areas he considers as his stomping ground." Duo seemed very certain.

"Why? There aren't any laws here to stop him, right?" Wufei growled, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jacket and glowering at the containers around them. Bloody Freeport. Freeport was just as responsible for that man's death as he, Duo and Erickson were, in Wufei's opinion.

"No laws, except the law of survival," Duo corrected him dryly. "If Erickson showed up in Makh with his friends, he'd be meeting my friends. Or friends of my friends. Or just guys from White Fang who might consider that if they let him jump all over me, they'll be next. Erickson's got some serious issues, but neither is he completely psychotic, or his men wouldn't follow him. He knows that if he makes too much noise, somebody will nail his hide to the sector wall."

"Do you have many friends?" Wufei asked pointedly. "You know the people in your building, but none of them could do much more than slow Erickson down. If he really decided to come after you, you'd be defenceless."

"Shinigami is never defenceless, Chang," Duo laughed, eyes gleaming in the sparse lighting. "Like that Grey chick said earlier, I got friends. They may not all live in Makh, or in my building; but there are enough people who'd come looking for blood if I croaked in anything less than legitimate circumstances. Because of that, I'm safe from people who want a rep taking down a G-pilot, or just ex-ing me because they feel like it. Some people know who I am and respect me for what I did, as many as hate my guts for it. I had plenty of offers to live in other sectors when I’d finished quarantine. Alan Morgenstern practically had a room all ready for me, over in Kropotkin. He's a respected guy in that sector; said he'd be honoured to have me, and wanted to make sure my past wouldn't catch up with me. There are a lot of ol' colony rebels in his sector, Sweepers from Peacemillion and a few White Fang, but Morgenstern and others run a tight ship, and there's almost never any trouble. Quite a few people know me there, and consider I was kind on their side, since I was against OZ."

"Why didn't you go there then? It sounds safer for you."

Duo appeared caught short by the question. He paused near the elevator doors they'd reached.

"I guess I could have," he said slowly, in a voice that told Wufei that forming an alliance that he'd refused to consider during the war, just for his own safety, had never been even considered. "But Makh is a sector where people can do mechanics; the scrap yards are good for parts. More my style. Liked the name."

"Makhno? What does the name have to do with it?"

Duo shrugged carelessly, his eyes fixed on the elevator indicator. “I read up on the guy in quarantine. He's just a guy. Not really important."

"And what did this 'guy' do?"

"...Something stupid. Just old history. Pre-colony. Ukraine, I think. The dude led a small anarchist army full of people with big stupid glorious ideals. They fought the royalist whites one way, they fought the commie reds another. They stood in the fucking middle and fought everybody."

Sounds familiar, Wufei thought, watching Duo's profile in the light from the elevator whose doors had just opened.

[chap. 8] [chap 10] [back to Maldoror's fic]