Genre: Action, investigations, my usual strange humour, tiny touch of angst, some weird politics and a bit o' romance (yes, I still know how to write those - just don't expect anything majorly fluffy)
Rated: NC17 - for language, violence, sexual content
Archived: http://www.raygunworks.net and GWAddiction under the pen-name Maldoror
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Spoilers: Some, for series and episode zero.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. The very idea is laughable. See? This is me laughing. Ha ha. Songs quoted aren't mine either. So there.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!
Thanks to Sol and Saro for vetting Duo in this part. And huge thanks for all the feedback, reviews or simple little notes sent to me. They really do help :)
"The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts,
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water, but whiskey by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.
They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where
Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur.
By landslide and rockblast they got buried so deep
That in death if not life they'll have peace while they sleep."
---The Pogues, 'Navigator'
Freeport by Maldoror
"Will you relax?" Duo sighed.
Wufei spared him a short glare, and then went back to scrutinizing every shadowy corner and dark hallway. They were back in the docking ring section, on their way to board Scythe. The sound of their footsteps scattered and multiplied, and chased them down the long empty corridor. Each dark intersection was a potential ambush in Wufei's eyes.
Duo walked as if he owned the place; as if it hadn't been less than twelve hours since Ericson had tried to kill them. Wufei still had bloodstains on his jacket's cuff, but the incident was apparently Over as far as Duo was concerned. Wufei was told repeatedly that Ericson would no longer be a problem, but he was having a hard time forgetting the man's coldly rabid eyes. Not to mention the fact that at least one of his thugs had managed to get his hands on a gun.
Customs was empty and dark, with only an emergency light above the door and the airlock, but the sniffers were operational and opened for them after a three-minute wait. The docking ring was a pool of shadows, through which Duo strolled as if he hadn't a care in the world. Wufei only relaxed when Scythe's airlock hissed shut behind them.
Duo didn't waste any time; he was more interested in repairing his malfunctioning O2-meter than jumping at shadows. He dismantled the dial from the control panel in less than a minute. Then he took it to the bunk to work on, sitting cross-legged on an old towel to catch any oil, grime and small loose pieces that might fall. He absently waved Wufei towards the comms board.
"Since we're here, go ahead and type up a progress report for your bosses. I'll encrypt it and send it out when you're done," Duo mumbled around the small screwdriver in his mouth. "Then we can unload some boxes from the cargo hold."
Wufei stared at the braided head bent over the dial, then at the blinking cursor of the text editor on the comms board. What exactly was he supposed to put in his report? 'Dear Trowa. I've been in Freeport for about eighty-five hours. Duo and I have done a little groundwork, but the investigation as such hasn't actually started yet. We killed somebody yesterday. How are you doing?'
Finally he typed the code for 'still alive, investigation on track' and went to unload the boxes while Duo finished with the dial. He concentrated on the dozen or so boxes near the cargo hold entrance, at Duo's request; they wouldn't empty Scythe's cargo hold in a day, not just the two of them, but this was a start. Wufei stacked the boxes on a cart near Scythe's ramp, and rolled them over to customs. But since there was no Frank there to pass them through, the small hole in the wall through which they'd shoved the cart and boxes last time was sealed shut.
"Just leave them on the cart. Sooner or later someone will show up and give them the inspection and the rubber stamp," Duo informed him, as he followed Wufei with the last two boxes.
"What's in these?"
"Some stuff I got from Hilde. Junk that she doesn't want, because it's so old only Freeport still has those kinda systems. I also got a good deal on some discarded clothing from Clothco on L3. I got a contact there; he puts them aside for me, and sells them for a dozen cred a box. I also got spare computer parts for Freeport's mainframe. The boxes with my name on them is my stuff. There's hardware in here for my workshop, and a few creature comforts."
"And when will you get these things, if they have to be passed through customs?"
Duo made a wide and cheerful 'your guess is as good as mine' gesture. Then he started digging through one of the boxes labelled 'Maxwell'. He took out a small tin and a couple of books.
"Here, hold these, willya?"
Wufei checked what Duo had plunked into his arms. A tin of bay leaves, a jar of paprika, collected essays by Emma Goldman, and a book in Russian. Duo piled some bowls, vids, and cheap garlic concentrate on top of what he'd already deposited in Wufei's arms. Wufei shifted things around, trying not to drop anything.
"What is all this?"
"Just a few things for Babka, Gilla and some of my buddies."
"Why am I carrying them?" Wufei grunted as Duo looped a bag full of something that clinked over one of his fingers.
"I forgot to bring a duffel," Duo explained, crouched by yet another box, and stuffing computer circuits, micro-tools and a camera into the pockets of his long leather coat. "I think I have a bag in here somewhere that we can use... we'll bag the stuff while we're going through the sniffers; might as well use those boring three minutes."
Wufei stared down at the pile in his arms then at Duo, as he realized the latter was suggesting they walk out with these things without passing them through customs.
"Are we allowed to do this?!" He felt both alarmed and a bit scandalized.
Duo looked up at him with unconcealed amusement. "Which part of 'lawless anarchy' did you not get, Wu?"
"It's not like the Freeport police are going to spot us," Duo drawled. "Hell, you're the nearest thing we got to that right now. Tell you what, though-"
Duo straightened in one smooth movement, hand out, quick as a cat; Wufei started, then froze instinctively as his burden shifted - Duo wouldn't attack him-
The hand patted him gently on the cheek; Duo's fingers were warm through the glove.
"Tell you what, though; if it makes you feel any better, you can always arrest yourself," Duo murmured in his ear.
Wufei stood frozen for a second, caught in the warmth of Duo's hand and breath that seemed to cut right through Freeport's usual chill - then he realized what Duo had actually said, and caught the impish grin from the corner of his eye. The bowls and other sundries in his arms rattled as Wufei fought down the urge to drop the whole lot and sock their owner. He levelled a glare that could scorch steel instead. Duo chuckled and wandered off towards the sniffers. Wufei hesitated, and then followed in a bit of a huff, though he preferred to think of it as justified ire.
The flash of annoyance was only on the surface; beneath it, Wufei was puzzled.
Duo had been so adamant about customs when he'd mentioned it before. He'd called it one of the colony's founding principles. Wufei had been raised to respect the law; even Freeport's. To see Duo flaunt regulations like this, even over such small, negligible items, ruffled him more than he wanted to admit. Particularly the way Duo seemed to think it was perfectly alright to do so. Wufei was trying to fit this into a coherent picture of how Freeport functioned - since function it did, and had been doing so, regardless of all sense and logic, for decades.
Okay, Chang, think about this rationally. The sniffers would stop anything truly dangerous from coming onboard, and they were automated. But then why were there customs... ? Duo had mentioned hoarding. Said it could cause riots. Maybe that meant that small quantities were not regulated - hell, the whole place was run on volunteers, they probably couldn't afford to track the small stuff. But anything big, like the complete content of Scythe's hold, well, that had to be tallied and... what? Shared? Redistributed? How the hell did all this work?!
Freetraders like Duo 'paid' their way with things they bought on the outside; Wufei was holding the proof of it in his arms: the spices and bowls and books which Duo was carefully putting into a plastic bag he'd scrounged from one of the boxes. Freeport probably bought the bare necessities for its inhabitants. The Freetraders made life nicer by bringing in little luxuries and raw materials, that the cart vendors could transform into goods; Duo and his ilk received the goods in exchange. But…how could an equitable system be derived from this?
Wufei could just ask. There was absolutely no valid reason not to ask. Right.
The perfectly subjective and invalid reason he didn't feel like asking was the way Duo's eyes took that teasing slant whenever Wufei couldn't figure something out for himself. As well as the look of surprise and grudging respect he got when he did deduce something on his own, or ask a pertinent question about something that Duo had not thought he'd noticed.
Duo might tease him, but in fact, it was himself that Wufei didn't want to disappoint. He was, he had to admit, intrigued, and challenged as a scholar and a student of people and societies, for the first time in years. Though he disapproved of most of the aspects of this society he'd seen so far, he just wanted to figure out how it worked. And that, much more than his little 'one-up' competition with Duo, was what made him want to find the answer out for himself.
His cover story was an unexpected windfall in that regard: as a Blade, and a newly arrived one at that, Wufei wasn't really supposed to know how things worked, and the no-communication rule made it hard for him to trip himself up. So he could take his time and make his own observations and deductions.
Wufei wasn't used to doing things just for the pleasure and knowledge it brought him, not since his marriage. But his research had an important and practical application as well. He looked forward to making a complete report to Trowa at the end of his mission. It was essential that the Preventers collect better information on Freeport than that issued by Duo, who was obviously too partisan to be objective. Proper understanding of this society would be a necessary first step to one day putting Freeport to right-
"Stoooop it," Duo muttered. The sniffers hummed and tasted the air, ignoring them both.
"Stop what?" Wufei blinked and looked up, trying to make out Duo's features from the gleam of the emergency light in the airlock.
"Thinking. I can feel you do it in the dark with my eyes closed. It's annoying."
The sniffers opened, and Duo dodged any comeback by darting out of the confined space. He swung the plastic bag he'd filled with the spices, books and other sundries and walked away with a cheeky grin.
"What are we doing today?" Wufei grumbled as he followed. Hopefully Duo wouldn't drag them into another hostile sector full of one-time enemies-
"On our way back, we'll stop and talk to a few people I know. Sweepers. I don't have to pussy-foot around them; these guys sort of know what I'm up to. They might not help me, but they won't tell anybody what I'm after, either. Well, not once I give them a few presents." Duo patted the bag, which clinked again. "These guys sweep around that L3 colony Carver was on six months ago. They might have some info on him. Sweepers have a long memory, and if he's used them or their friends to travel, he might have left tracks. Should take us a couple hours, or more if the guys are out on the town. After that, we go back home. I got to write a few programs for the CPU of the mecha we fixed; its core got wiped. Sorry man, I know you don't understand-"
"I do," Wufei grunted. Yes, he was annoyed at yet more delays in the investigation, but after that incident in Zapata, he finally understood at gut level why they could not move faster, why Duo had to pursue his usual routine as much as possible. This was a tight community; people watched each other with a mixture of neighbourliness and paranoia that made Wufei's shoulder blades itch. Duo - and his Blade - had to be discreet.
Duo was looking at him out of the corner of his eyes. The remnants of the smug grin were still clinging to his lips, but the quirk of his eyebrows was puzzled.
"You'll probably be bored. I won't need your help," the smuggler added, as if trying to judge just how far Wufei's unexpected streak of patience would go.
Wufei was about to wave off Duo's probe when he remembered a small detail. He glanced at his watch.
"Oh, don't worry about me," he murmured. "I'm actually rather glad you have something to keep you busy today, Maxwell. I forgot to tell you, I have to go and fix the vent mechanism near Centre Street with a couple of friends in little more than an hour." Hopefully Mirael and Kolia were going ahead as scheduled with the repairs they'd mentioned, and wouldn't mind his silent help.
Duo hid his shock and concern well, but he was wide-eyed and silent for a full five seconds before he gathered himself enough to marshal a question. Wufei swallowed his own smirk. Justice was sweet.
The man's nose took the brunt of the blow with an ugly crunch; he staggered, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Wufei tensed helplessly on the sidelines.
At almost the same instant, Duo's hand dropped beneath the table and landed on Wufei's thigh.
This did nothing for the Preventer's equanimity. His fingers nearly shattered the bottle he was holding.
"Relax." Duo was very good at smiling widely and talking quietly and discreetly at the same time. "It's none of our business."
Wufei had known that. He hadn't been about to interfere in the fight. Really. He'd stiffened a bit in reaction, true, but that was perfectly normal - he shifted, then discreetly tried to shove Duo's hand away. Duo removed it while reaching for his beer. A natural gesture, as if he hadn't noticed Wufei's efforts. But there was a little smile hovering around the neck of the bottle that looked too angelic to be true.
The wounded fighter recovered with a roar and shook his head like a maddened bull. Thick blood and mucus splattered the sticky floor. Wufei wondered what he was on. His fingers had tightened on the bottle again. He took a deep breath of the thick, sour air and forced himself to relax, from his centre outwards. He had to stay focused. This was their first break in the case; he was not going to fuck this up.
Five days after the fight in Zapata, with some more Scissorman work and a few discreet enquiries behind them, something had finally 'shaken loose', as Duo put it. An email message came through on Duo's beaten-up old laptop. A rendezvous to meet with one of Ravachol's middlemen, to discuss 'things'. The man had given Duo a time and a place: a bar a few sectors away from Makhno.
Wufei had followed Duo with steely anticipation. Finally, he felt they were moving forward with the case. They were going to talk with a man who almost certainly controlled the ship and crew who'd smuggled Carver out of L2- X953. He might even know Carver personally. They just had to get him to talk.
On another, less important note, Wufei was also looking forward to seeing the flipside of Freeport. So far, he'd walked around dorm sectors, and met somewhat upright citizens in a tight, fairly caring community. Granted, he and Duo had been attacked once, killed in self-defence, and witnessed two other completely unrelated 'duels', but this was still far from the sink of ineptitude he'd pictured Freeport to be. Now, though, they were going to meet a known criminal in a bar. He was finally going to see the red-light district of Freeport, its seamy underbelly.
It wasn't at all what he'd expected. Somehow, Wufei wasn't all that surprised.
The 'bar' was a five-story tall building covering an impressive surface area. Space was at a premium in Freeport; Duo's one-room apartment was the norm for bachelors all over the colony, particularly in sectors like Makhno where a good amount of space was taken up by junkyards and mechanics' shops. The size of the bar was not the only unusual detail; its location was unexpected as well. It was in a zone which was otherwise used for cargo and hydroponics. There were no prostitutes, peepshows or other bars, no other sign of anything dedicated to the business of sin and pleasure. Just this ugly five-story structure stranded in an empty sector near the industrial zone.
There were no beckoning lights in the bar's windows, for the simple reason that there were no windows. Presumably because, as sectors went, this was probably one of the most boring and hardly worth looking out upon. Wufei felt a shiver of claustrophobia, staring up at the building's blank walls. This was compounded when he realized that the door was, in fact, an airlock, complete with sniffers. He had to force himself to follow Duo, praying to his ancestors that there were emergency exits somewhere out back. As a minute trickled by in the dark, with Duo humming tonelessly under his breath a foot away, Wufei tried not to imagine what a fire would do in this closed-up building. It made his burns itch.
"Why are there sniffers into this... place?" Wufei muttered, trying to distract himself from the thought. He avoided the word 'fire-trap'; it made it too real. "What are they afraid we'll bring in?"
The one-note humming stopped. Wufei waited. Duo took a breath, but the sniffers opened before he could answer. Wufei stepped out quickly from the confining airlock, getting his back to the wall and taking stock automatically.
The ground floor was one big continuous room, the lighting so sparse that even after the sniffer's darkness, it took Wufei's eyes a few seconds to be able to make out any details. When they did, two words formed themselves in his mind as if they were being chiselled out of ice.
The first snarl of revulsion faded as his eyes and nose corrected him. The men and women occupying the beds weren't smocking or injecting anything; most of them were asleep. He saw no pipes, needles or any other drug paraphernalia; there was no heavy smell of opiates and death in the air. He did smell vomit, piss, unwashed bodies and the thick, fermented odour of sleeping drunks, as well as alcohol, disinfectant, mildew and the smell of cheap food, the kind you found in soup kitchens.
Wufei forced himself to follow Duo as his Handler made his way through the rows of beds. His steps slowed as he examined the slack-jawed faces of the sleepers he passed Most of them looked drunk, but some were twitching and jerking in a way he was all too familiar with. Apparently, alcohol was not the only poison you could obtain here. Looked like he'd finally found Freeport's wino and junkie population, all in one place. Wufei's lips tightened as his gorge rose. Were they locked in here?
No, of course not. After all, there were sniffers - and hopefully fire escapes - out of this sedated, stinking hell. But the smell... it reminded him of the lockup in Rotterdam; that's why he'd jumped to that conclusion.
There was a memory he didn't need, particularly here. He'd had to plunge into the local drunk tank to look for an informant. He hadn't realized that Relena was visiting Rotterdam that day. More to the point, he hadn't realized that, in most civilized areas, the cops rounded up all the drunks, the beggars, the mutterers and the crashed-out junkies, and locked them away during the President's visit. Wouldn't do for a TV camera to accidentally capture a shot of the darling President Peacecraft next to an old, dead-dunk veteran sleeping under a commemorative statue.
Wufei skirted a puddle of vomit, and stared down at the junkie in the soiled camp bed; looked all of sixteen. This was bad. But Rotterdam... the Rotterdam drunk tank had horrified him, and that took a lot of doing, after all he'd been through. There were too many people who'd fallen through the cracks of the Peace, and to find them all in one place, locked up ten to a three-man cell... He'd also learned that a lot of cities poisoned the local pigeon population before Relena showed up for a peace march, in case one of those disrespectful birds decided to take a dump on her. Wufei had been all the more disgusted knowing that Relena would have been scandalized at these precautions her entourage were taking. Or at least he thought she'd be. The young girl he'd met and protected that first mad year after the Last War, who'd calmly stared down an armed gunman who'd slipped past Heero and Wufei, that girl would not stand for it.
He wondered how much of that girl was left now; it'd been two years and one election since Une and Relena's attaché had formally forbidden him from going anywhere near Relena.
Wufei shook his head and breathed out heavily, trying to clear the smell from his nostrils and the memory it had triggered from his mind. Duo was already on the far side of the huge open space full of beds, some of them containing couples having unabashed sex right in the middle of the drunk and unconscious. Wufei picked up his step. Duo, who'd not glanced either right or left as he'd crossed the room, started to climb the stairs to the next floor. Loud music filtered from above. Wufei glanced around, at the sniffers far behind them, at the sleepers, then he ran three steps to catch up and grabbed Duo by the elbow.
"Duo," he whispered sharply in the ear that was turned his way, "do people have access to hard drugs in here?"
"Define hard. You get pot, alcohol, some fun chemicals, shit and-"
"What chemicals?" If he was likely to run into a guy hopped up on some of the disinhibitors they sold these days, Ravers, he wanted to know it; he'd seen one of these junkies, in the terminal stages, break and mangle his own hand ripping it out of a cuff to strangle the officer who'd arrested him.
"Boosters." Duo informed him casually. "Party pills. Crackers. Meths. Acids. Sugars, white, brown and blue. Anything that can melt your brain for a few hours without being highly addictive."
"And they sleep it off here," Wufei concluded, mind jumping quickly from conclusion to conclusion. "What are the sniffers calibrated for? All of those? This ensures that they can't leave under the influence?"
Duo gave him once more that appraising look that meant that Wufei had guessed more than Duo would have given him credit for. "Yeah, actually. Mainly it's to avoid people taking shit outside, but they're sensitive enough where they won't let you out if you're junked up to the eyeballs. And alcohol. The sniffers won't let you out if you're completely toasted. We already have more fights and rapes in Freeport than we need."
Wufei wasn't surprised by any of this. When Babka was telling you about Tolstoy and the Haymarket Eight, you could almost forget that most people in Freeport were psychotics, free spirits, sociopaths, idealists, bitter ex-soldiers, criminals, terrorists, radical anarchists or an interesting combination of several of the above. Violence hung in the air as thick as Freeport's miasma. And they were all labouring long hours in highly dangerous conditions in the shipyards, mines and factories. Then they'd come home, and they'd work on maintaining their sectors, or creating goods, food, clothes, utilities, things they and their neighbours needed, and then when that was done, they'd take care of the kids or do odd jobs or collected trash...
The Preventers came down hard on all sorts of drugs, but no government had ever legislated alcohol and violence, the poor man's sedation. And this lawless and overworked population was tailor-made for it. Wufei had been constantly amazed at how relatively peaceful Freeport was, compared to the L2 slums. But they'd just encapsulated the drunken violence and aggression, and locked it away here, where people went when the toil got too much for them. They'd get it out of their system in a place where they were the only ones who might get hurt, and then they'd leave when they were clean, and ready to pick up the burden again.
Duo led him up the stairs. The first floor was a soup kitchen; a huge cooking area had pots upon pots of stew bubbling on them. A dozen people stirred them, opened cans, cleaned bowls, served up the cheap fare to anybody who approached the counter. Long rows of metal tables under neon lights seated people in various stages of inebriation, eating quietly. The music was still muffled; it was coming from the next floor up.
Wufei gave in. He just had to ask.
"Food's free, I'm guessing. The beds as well." Of course they were free; everything was free in Freeport. "So are the drugs and alcohol?"
"They'll give them to anyone who asks? Does anybody control quantities?"
" ...What's to stop someone from living here; drinking and injecting upstairs, sleeping in the beds, eating in the kitchen, then doing it all over again?"
"Absolutely nothing," Duo answered casually. His whole attitude was indifferent, but Wufei caught just the briefest of glances in his direction.
Wufei thought of the Rotterdam drunk tank, of Neo-Tokyo's child-trade, of methadone clinics for ex-soldiers with so few funds that some of them cut the stuff with illegally obtained coke just to avoid a riot...
...but no. No, for Chang Wufei, there was never any choice between two evils.
"That's repulsive," he said firmly.
Duo grinned, but his eyes were hard. "That's suicide," he corrected flippantly.
"Nobody stops them?"
"A good man has friends to talk him down and out; ain't always easy if he's really deep into it, but we weren't going to let him- music's fucking loud in here; the sector's Red Band should come down on that. Nobody could hear the breach siren in this fucking racket."
Wufei examined what he could see of Duo's profile in the gloom, and decided he didn't want to know what Duo had nearly said there.
"Does this place push a lot of people to suicide?" The stairs were sticky, sucking at his boots. He felt contaminated.
"Fair amount." Duo's words were unusually clipped. It might be because he had to talk over the music thumping and screaming out of the speakers as they headed towards the stairs to the next floor. No drinks and drugs here, but the flashing lights, muggy air, the heat and the vibrations in the floor, were enough to make you dizzy. People were gyrating and throwing themselves about with the same violence with which they fought and duelled in the streets and sectors outside.
Duo's voice rose above the racket, hard and apparently uncaring. "You have to keep in mind: some come to Freeport by choice. Others end up here because it's the before-last stop."
"Before-last? What's the last stop?"
They climbed more stairs in silence. That uncomfortable silence was back between them; the one that put Wufei firmly on the 'outside', and Duo 'inside'. Wufei thought that it felt... a bit artificial today, a bit more defensive than it had previously. Or maybe that was his own interpretation. Unlike Heero, Duo didn't hide his emotions and thoughts behind an impassive mask; he wore his feelings on his sleeve. And other feelings beneath those. And others beneath those... ever-increasing finesse and nuance that was at once open, yet hard to make out unless, presumably, you knew him very well.
Wufei had become quite good at reading people these past five years; it helped him understand some of the emotions darting through Duo's eyes, across his face, twisting the mobile lips, echoed in his stance. But there were always more, just out of reach, some of them deep and powerful, dark undercurrents to the bright, brazenly open personality. He remembered at one point wondering which, of the cheerful friend or the sinister Scissorman, was the 'real' Duo. Now he was starting to think that they both were. Though he couldn't be sure. When Wufei plunged too deeply into those blue eyes and embroiled, nuanced emotions, he'd end up unsure whether he was understanding Duo better, or only reading a reflection of his own thoughts, as if he were staring at a Rorschach blot, perpetually shifting under his eyes.
Well, no matter. Today, he didn't have the leisure to poke at the mystery that was Duo Maxwell. In view of the brief darkness in Duo's eyes, and the cruel gash of a grin when he'd said 'recyc', he was actually rather grateful that he had an investigation that needed his whole attention at present.
The third story was the bar where they were to meet their contact; the music seemed to shiver the floor, but it was muffled, a cacophony beneath their feet, easily ignored. Nobody danced here. There were all sorts of patrons, from friends enjoying a casual chat over beers, to the heavy drinkers at the bar or sitting in corners, nursing it.
Duo led him to the bar. "We got at least thirty minutes before they show up. Beer?"
"I'd rather not."
Wufei wasn't at ease. This place was noisy, volatile and more dangerous than the big dorm sectors like Makhno. And they were thirty minutes away from dealing with an astute villain, a middleman for organized crime who might give them crucial information regarding Carver. Wufei could feel a subtle tension from Duo, and it was keying him up. He had no intention of drinking anything. .
Duo stepped up to the bar, which was nothing but a long metal table, similar to the ones on which people were eating downstairs.
"Two beers, please, mate."
The man behind the bar was looking Wufei up and down with the usual Freeport scrutiny, so Wufei hid his surprise as well he could. Maybe Duo didn't want them to stand out by not ordering anything in what was, after all, a bar... ?
Two beer bottles thumped onto the table. Big litre bottles, brown glass with the prosaic word 'Beer' on the plain white labels. Nothing else was legal about that label; no clue as to alcohol content or provenance. Wufei had by now deduced that anything without a commercial label and with only a number - N-bars, frozen dinners, beer, medicine, hardware - was something that had been made in the factories or bought ultra-cheap from other colonies by the ship-load, packaged in Freeport and distributed in commissaries.
Duo turned and walked away, hands in his pockets. Fortunately Wufei reacted fairly quickly, and grabbed the bottles to follow his Handler like a good Hound should.
That set the pattern for the next twenty minutes, once they'd found a booth deep in shadow where they could both sit side by side, backs to the wall. Duo treated Wufei like a Blade. Everything in his attitude, the way he sat right in Wufei's personal space, which he normally respected; the way he calmly put that restraining hand on his thigh when the ugly fight started; everything was a careful act. The beers were part of their roles too. As Wufei had half-expected, Duo was only sipping, with a gesture that made it seem he was drinking more deeply. The level in his bottle barely budged. Wufei had quickly imitated him without prompting.
"So, what's upstairs?" Wufei asked quietly, trying to move past the feel of Duo's hand on his thigh. It made him uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons, some of which Duo was probably not even aware of. Duo had meant nothing by it, apart from restraining Wufei from interfering in a sudden fight among drunken patrons. With a little teasing thrown in.
"What do you think?" Duo countered, taking another exaggerated swig of beer. Great. They were back to the 'entertain me with a guess' game.
"Drug den, brothel," Wufei bit out. Because he just had to rise to the challenge, each and every time.
"Right and wrong," Duo countered. His eyes were tracking every movement, every person coming up the stairs. The fingers, that had squeezed Wufei's thigh, tapped lightly on the table before Duo caught and eliminated that unusual nervous gesture. "Drugs and stuff, yeah. But prostitution don't work so well without currency."
I don't see how anything works without currency, Wufei wanted to say. He could understand how a small area functioned; Babka fed Duo, and Chris and Madir gave him 'candy' and fixed his boots, because Duo would probably fix something for them one day, or bring them spices and books and other gifts from outside, or defend them against criminals. It was its own little community, where everybody knew each other and relied on each other. But Wufei still didn't understand why Hyun had fed them that Korean food the other day, when she didn't know Duo from any other hoodlum. There was something here, something that underpinned a lot of how Freeport worked, that Wufei still didn't understand.
Some bystanders had separated the two fighters. One of them was staggering with, at the very least, a badly broken nose and concussion, but he was apparently still willing to fight, straining madly against the arms that held him back. Drunk or drugged, for sure. More people stood up and walked over to help keep the two apart. They seemed quite concerned, for a bunch of lawless anarchists bent only on survival. Then again, it could be them tomorrow, engaged in a drunken fight and needing cooler heads to stop them before they got themselves killed.
Another fight nearly broke out between two of the peace-makers, which the two fighters paused to watch. Then everybody got separated, drinks were produced, the bleeding man was carted off to a room to one side, and ten minutes later everybody looked like they'd become fast friends.
Wufei felt the tension radiate from Duo, though he was certain he'd be the only one to notice. Duo's long lashes were brushing his cheeks, apparently looking down at his beer, but his attention was elsewhere.
"Incoming, eleven o'clock," Duo breathed. His voice was nearly lost in the noise.
Wufei didn't look right away, but he caught movement in his peripheral vision and he tracked it carefully.
"Small thick guy is Rav's middle man." The words were a quick mutter behind the beer bottle's mouth. "Others are- ...shit."
Wufei glanced obliquely at Duo. The latter's tension had increased; his eyes were dangerously narrow.
"Guy on the stairs. Watch him. Ex-commando. Lethal. Kills for Rav."
It didn't take a mind reader to figure out that this man's presence was very much unexpected, and not at all welcome.
The middleman's name was Terrence Darbois, according to Duo's quick briefing. A colonist and, as Duo would put it, a spacer through and through; the set of his jaw spoke of an unusual teeth pattern, probably extra molars, a fairly common mutation among spacer populations. He was smaller than Duo, which accentuated his rotundity. He dodged around groups of drunks who towered over him. He looked fairly good-natured, his face and manner mild. He had three men with him, comically taller, who didn't look good-natured at all. Obviously there to guard him and intimidate others. Wufei dismissed them with a glance, to concentrate on the man following them by a dozen paces. Even without Duo's warning, Wufei would have spotted him.
A few inches taller than Wufei. His hair was grey, probably dyed. It fell in thick spiky locks sweeping away from his face, gelled stiff, or else he had a quite unusual follicle pattern (when you knew that Trowa's hair fell that way naturally, you no longer judged these things without information). His eyes were wide, heavy and almond-shaped. Some Asian blood in there. Indonesian, maybe. His features were regular and neat; a straight, small nose; high, well-defined cheekbones; his lips were firm, pale but sensuous. Probably not a colony mix. More something from the Pacific rim melting pot. His body and stance screamed 'killer'. Tight, well-maintained muscles under form-fitting biker jacket and pants, wide shoulders on a lean, mean frame. The man moved like a tiger and didn't try to hide it.
Darbois and his men made a side-trip to the bar. The killer approached Duo and Wufei directly, and leaned casually against the side of their booth.
Wufei had expected some form of intimidation; he was surprised by the openly amicable tone and look that went with it.
"Hiya, Mako. How's things?" Duo's tone was friendly too, but Wufei could tell he was worried about the man's presence. "You come here to hang out?"
"Heard you'd be here tonight. Just thought I'd say hi. Haven't seen you in nearly a year."
"I hadn't realized that my little meeting with Terrence would reach the higher echelon of Rav's organisation," Duo said lightly. Wufei knew that devil-may-care drawl too well to relax.
"Well, it did. Rav says hi too, by the way."
"Give him my regards."
Mako's eyes had flickered ever so briefly over Wufei. Too briefly; Wufei felt a prickle of tension across his shoulder blades, though he kept his face unreadable. That had been nowhere near the Freeport scrutiny that usually dissected him. But nothing in Mako's stance appeared hostile. Maybe Mako had heard about him beforehand, judged him unimportant, and had just dismissed him from consideration.
Wufei barely spared Darbois a glance. Let Duo take care of him. The goons were not really that much of a problem either. Wufei kept his attention apparently on his beer, his head down and his arms loosely folded across his chest, and every instinct centred on Mako, who'd settled to idly lean against the side of the booth.
The civilities that followed were long and elaborate. Both Darbois and Duo asked each other about a long list of mutual acquaintances. Wufei's annoyance and impatience peaked and then subsided as he realizes this was more than courtesy. This was a delicate pre-negotiation, situating each other on the map of the underworld, as it were.
"And how's Henry Schwimmer these days?" Duo murmured, after taking another gulp of beer and belching lightly. Darbois took a sip of his ale and did the same. Wufei managed to keep his fastidious distaste from showing; maybe this was also part of the ritual.
"Henry? He hates the world. He lost a lot of his contacts during that Pig crackdown in the Black Nines."
Duo made a concerned, sympathetic sound, while Wufei scored one for the Good Guys.
"Fucking Pigs, heh? He was one of yours, wasn't he?"
"No, no. We only run drugs," Darbois reassured him genially. Wufei took a second to engrave Darbois' features and history onto his list, before he brought his attention back to Mako. The killer had done nothing more sinister so far than listen, contribute a few names of friends Duo knew, and pick his fingers with a fifteen-inch hunting blade he'd somehow produced from his tight gear.
"Henry's one of our regular associates, though," Darbois added. "We're not happy to see him in trouble. He runs guns, and we have customers in common. Was he who you wanted to know about?"
The switch to business was abrupt. Darbois' eyes had narrowed. Duo took a sip of beer. Wufei had the feeling that this turn in the conversation was not entirely expected.
"I don't know, Dar. If I knew, I wouldn't be talking to you, now, would I? I'm just looking for contacts. I'm sure you heard I have a deal getting set up. I want to unload some delicate cargo."
"This intended for family? Or friends?" Darbois asked. Which was the underworld way of asking, 'mob or terrorists', Wufei remembered. He would give a year's salary to be able to arrest Darbois and hold him for twenty four hours.
"Friends. It's that kind of cargo."
"Do you want names in the Nines? Or are you looking for a partner? Or are you just cutting the deal?"
"Just fixing. I don't particularly want to run these myself. You know that's not my style, and Scythe ain't that big. But this customer's a friend of mine; I have to be sure the guys who run his cargo are good mooncursers. I want their CVs. I want references. I want a letter from their moms saying these are true, straight-A runners. I want to know every little bump and trouble they had in the Nines in the last six months, and any dealings they had that might queer my trade."
Darbois was still for a few seconds. Mako glanced up from his manicure; Wufei wasn't sure how to interpret the brief flash of interest in his eyes.
"I see... I guess I could put you in touch with a few people. We've got some canny young lads who just set up new routes, taking advantage of all the disorder-"
"No thanks," Duo drawled. "I'm sure they're a fine bunch of kids, but I go with experience any time. I want someone who operated before the riots, not some young punk who thinks the shake-up is a good way of getting a rep and some pocket money."
"I see... " Darbois repeated.
Duo's hands fell away from his beer slowly, to lie on either side of the brown bottle, fingers loose on the table's surface. It looked like an innocuous gesture, but Wufei didn't like it, or the slight increase in Duo's tension it betrayed.
"I have a few names for you... who did you say your customer was, Duo?"
"I didn't," Duo answered quietly.
"You know, a lot of my lads and my associates don't like dealing with a black box. Especially after all the fuss and muss in the Nines. Maybe a name... ?"
"You can call him Mr Long," Duo answered, his voice taking on a dangerous edge. "He's got a lot of guns behind him, and a long arm, if you see what I mean. He also doesn't like questions."
Wufei took a sip of his beer, face carefully neutral. He remembered how Duo had asked him what 'Shenlong' meant, during the war. Apparently, Wufei wasn't the only one with a long memory. He wondered what would happen if you ever forced Duo, gun to his head, to tell an outright lie. He'd probably hand you the truth so well wrapped-up you couldn't tell right from wrong. Then he'd kill you.
Darbois blinked and looked up at Mako quickly.
The killer sheathed his knife, slipping it under his jacket, into a scabbard in the small of his back. "Ter, I'm not a freetrader, but even I know you don't ask that kind of question. This is Duo's deal, his customer. Why should he hand you the info to allow you to cut him out of the deal and talk to the customer directly?"
"But... Rav said we should be careful with new deals to the Nines-" Darbois started, voice uncertain, eyes searching Mako's.
"Yeah, sure. But this is Duo Maxwell. He's got a good rep. I know him; Ravachol knows him. He's neither stupid nor a stoolie. Kapish?"
Wufei kept himself entirely relaxed. Duo fairly radiated trustworthiness.
"So... get the deal closed already. Preferably outside. This place... " Mako glanced around in distaste, not liking the drunken, violent atmosphere any more than Wufei did, apparently.
"Right, right. Sorry, Duo. You know how it is. Come on, let's go outside and get some fresh air."
" ...this if Freeport, dude. The air don't get much fresher than this." Duo's hands were firmly anchored on either side of his nearly-full bottle and he looked unwilling to move.
"I meant, let's go somewhere where we can hear ourselves think. And talk."
Darbois stood. So did his goons. Mako glanced at Duo with a reassuring nod. The latter took his time taking a last swig of beer. Wufei was probably the only one to notice how Duo's eyes were not closed as he drank; they were darting from Darbois to Mako and back again. Wufei felt Duo's tension; it echoed the prickle of instinct across his back. The bar was noisy, noisome and another fight had broken out in the far corner, but both Wufei and Duo would have preferred to talk right there. But they had to follow their one lead. Wufei wasn't sensing anything particularly suspicious from Darbois, though the man was slightly nervous; unsettled by Mako's intervention, Wufei gathered. He could sense nothing from Mako, and that wasn't reassuring.
Duo slowly stood up; Wufei imitated him. They followed Darbois outside, the goons preceding him. And Mako behind them. Wufei idly scratched at the rub mark of his Blade's collar, and shifted his sword at the same time, making sure it was positioned where he could get it out of its scabbard and into an enemy's guts in one sweep.
The sniffers let everybody out, two by two, after a three minute wait. Dar made a gesture to Mako and the goons to stay behind; his eyes included Wufei in the order. Then he walked away, already talking. Duo followed him, after a small hesitation and a flick of the fingers signalling Wufei to wait with the other bodyguards. Wufei tried to tell him with his scowl just how much he didn't like the idea of Duo wandering away without Wufei's protection, but the smuggler's back was already turned.
Wufei would have followed if Duo had gone out of his sight, but the two went no further than the far corner of the building. Wufei's eyes swept from Duo to the open space around him and Darbois, then back again; his friend had his back to him, forty yards away, leaning over to listen to Darbois who was speaking in a low voice. They were under a streetlamp, harsh blue-white neon picking up highlights in the leather of Duo's coat. There were no dark alleys near them, Duo would see anyone approaching from miles away, and Wufei was at Duo's six, guarding his back. No-one would get the drop on Maxwell, not before Wufei could be at his side-
Mako took a step towards the pair, then turned towards Wufei. The killer looked him up and down, the Freeport appraisal to the nth degree. Wufei, a bit surprised, met the stare full on.
A scuffle of boot to his left. Wufei instinctively took a step to the right, then stopped as he felt another of Darbois's goons move to block him off on that side. Mako glanced over his shoulder at Duo, and then took a step forward, placing himself between Wufei and his friend.
Wufei took a step back - he was in the shadow of the bar. The fourth man was between him and the building's airlocks. There was a chain link fence behind Wufei, protecting a hydroponic pod. He was-
It was a trap, Wufei realized with sudden, icy calm.
But Duo wasn't the target.
End Part 10
On to Chapter Eleven
Back to Chapter nine