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. The songs/quotes used in the chapter heads don't belong to me either.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Dacia!
Huge thanks to Anaitis for the beta. Thanks also for the great encouragement and reviews via the GWAddiction forum. I'm sorry, by the way, that I don't answer every one of them individually, unless there's a question of some sort (I do answer those, though I can be a bit late). I have virtually no spare time, I barely read any fics anymore (which bites, let me tell you), and I'm squeezing in writing when I can. I'm hoping that I will be able to continue writing for a good long time to come, as long as inspiration keeps poking me; who needs other leisure activities, anyway? But every review I get warms me up and pokes me to write more (yes, Source chapter 40 is written and in re-reading mode, for those of you who dropped me a line about it ;) ). You all remind me why I do all this in the first place. THANKS!!
If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!
Freeport by Maldoror
There were computers everywhere in the hangar; outmoded processor cabinets lined the walls and hummed like a swarm of drones; smaller, modern laptops were strewn on every flat surface that the coffee cups hadn't yet colonized; dozens of people rushed around with a phone link hanging from their ear or a palmtop PC hooked to their hand, like alien organisms controlling them. The air was alive with the swish of small ventilators desperately to cool each unit. Wufei felt warm for the first time in weeks.
Most of the activity centered around a huge backlit board that looked like a stock exchange listing, hanging from the ceiling dead centre of the room. Wufei read a few names as they passed under it: shipping and shipbuilding companies, mining corporations, satellite concerns and such.
"Where is he...?" Duo muttered, standing on his toes to get a better look over the heads and computer banks. "Ah, over there. C'mon."
Wufei followed his friend as Duo made his way through the maze of people, cables and computers; his goal was a tall, lean man in his sixties at the back of the big room. There was nothing to distinguish him from the other people busying themselves around the hangar; if anything, he was the worst dressed, in the drab, grey utilitarian overalls that were the type of free clothing Freeport distributed if you had nothing else. He was staring at a bank of electronics, some fiber optic cables in his hand, looking perplexed.
"Alan Morgenstern? I don't know if you remember me, sir-"
"Do you know which cable needs to be plugged into this thing to allow a secure connection into a hardwired firewall?" the man asked without looking around.
Duo hesitated. Then he reached over, took one of the connectors the man was holding, and stuck it into the appropriate port.
The small holo-screen off to one side blinked twice, and then flashed a red Secured pop-up window before giving way to a command prompt.
"Wonderful, thank you," the man murmured. He typed in a few commands, locked the unit and then turned toward them.
The appearance of being wooly-headed was immediately banished. Morgenstern had been focused on what he was doing. And now, that focus was on them. It was like being looked over by a laser sight. Wufei straightened under the Freeport Stare, fuelled by what he was willing to bet was considerable intelligence and a great knowledge of human behavior.
Alan Morgenstern. He remembered Duo's quick description of the man on the way over.
"Morgenstern is a colonist; the in vitro, better-than-standard kind. Son of a great family. Very rich. He was the head of a small mining colony when he was younger; he directed it a bit like a communist collective, but he made damn sure it earned money too. Then the Earthers shot Heero Yuy the First and stormed Space. They told him that if he surrendered, he could stay on as governor under their orders. His answer was to take over the comms network, give a great 'Freedom or Die' speech and sabotage all docking rings on his colonies 'xcept those for escape pods. The Alliance kinda took that as a No. Morgenstern shot his way out and made it to Freeport. Been here ever since. Great guy, and what he doesn't know about Kropotkin, you could write on a candy wrapper. He's a shoo-in for Elder when the Kropotkin sector's seat becomes vacant."
According to Duo, Morgenstern used his financial savvy and his knowledge of politics and economy to broker Freeport Corporation's business deals, as appointed and overseen by the Elders. Wufei wasn't surprised that the man behind those sharp blue eyes was up to such a responsability.
"Duo Maxwell. What a pleasant surprise," Morgenstern murmured. "Your timing is as exquisite as always; I need an electronics expert, and you pop up out of the ground. I should have realized you were a magician. According to Monique Desjean, that's the only way you could possibly be coping with all the work she sends your way."
Duo grinned, looking a bit bashful. "Ah, ain't that much work. Other guys help too. And anybody here coulda told you what socket to use."
"I should know it myself," Morgenstern sighed. "Twenty years of using these things and I still can't tell a port from a plug. How are you?"
"Fine, fine! And how about you? Still busy keeping us all afloat? How's Freeport doing in the big picture?"
"As near to the edge of disaster as always," Morgenstern answered wryly. He had a fine patrician accent that reminded Wufei of Khushrenada and Marquise; it clashed with Morgenstern's simple clothes. "Our competitors are finally getting their act together, shipping is starting to recover from the impact of the war, and the price of oxygen filters keeps climbing."
"Aw, damn." Duo rubbed the back of his neck. "Anything I can do?"
"If you and all your friends stopped breathing for one hour every day, you wouldn't believe the money we'd save," Morgenstern pointed out thoughtfully. When Duo snorted with laughter, he smiled. "But enough about my stupid business deals; they're far too boring for young men like yourselves. What can I do for you?" His eyes flickered over Wufei, old and wise.
"Well, it's like this." Duo's voice dropped, and Morgenstern leaned forward to hear him over the whirr of machines and the echoes of voices. "Did you hear about that murder yesterday?"
Morgenstern's face grew hard, his eyes narrowed. "I'd be hard put not to hear about it. It happened two blocks from here."
"Right, right. I'm sort of looking into that."
"Why?" Morgenstern asked, quite reasonably. Wufei had also been caught short by Duo's outright admission; he'd expected more of Duo's underhand truths. The rat-catcher had outlined last night how important it was to keep his 'second profession' as discreet as possible.
"Well, you know Marta Bernstein?" Duo asked conspiratorially.
Morgenstern stared at Duo, his face unreadable.
"No," the financier finally answered. "Should I?"
"Probably not, she's not from this sector. It was her man who was murdered."
"Yeah. I know her, you see," Duo confided; not untruthfully of course, though his tone implied they were old friends. "And her man... Josh was a solo freetrader. Like me. Us lone wolves, we don't have friends in high places to come looking for answers when we kick the bucket, so we learn to watch out for each other."
"Oh, don't be modest, Duo. There would be many friends investigating your death, if Freeport ever had the misfortune of losing you," Morgenstern said softly.
Duo waved that away casually. "Anyway, I want to know why Josh died. And hell, I bet you guys do too. Kro is one of the best sectors; you guys run a tight ship. This kinda shit don't go down around here. So... know anything?"
"I know quite a lot," Morgenstern replied dryly. "I've been living in this sector for twenty years. But I don't know anything about the murder, specifically. I didn't even know the name of the dead man."
Duo's face fell. "Damn, I was hoping you might have heard something; I know you organize watches and guard duties on the streets and such... Oh well, it was worth a try."
Duo sighed. Then he appeared to remember something. Wufei forced himself to stay relaxed and unreadable as the real question they wanted answered poked its nose into the conversation. "Oh yeah, by the way, while I was asking around on Marta's behalf, yesterday, I saw some shifty guy hanging around."
"Shifty? How?" Morgenstern asked, puzzled.
"S'probaby nothing," Duo replied lightly, fingering the end of his braid. "He might have just been curious, but he, I dunno, he looked a bit... shifty, yanno? Then, when I tried to ask him a question, he ran off."
"Oh. That is strange. Then again, he might have been a bit intimidated." Morgenstern's eyes raked pointedly over Duo, then Wufei.
"Could be. Maybe you know him? Tiny guy, smaller than me. Looks like a rat; long nose, beady eyes... "
"That's not much of a description," Morgenstern snorted. "But no, that doesn't resemble anyone from Kropotkin that I know, and I know most of its citizens."
"Ah, okay. Say, you guys got problems with the pipeworks?"
Morgenstern blinked, obviously caught off guard by the change of subject. "What?"
"When we were looking for rat-face, yesterday, we noticed a crew going down into the under-sector. We were too busy to really look into it closely; we just thought they were workers. I hope they were legit." Duo's face scrunched up in sudden concern, and he twisted his braid in his fingers, like a little boy who was afraid he'd accidentally screwed up.
"I think we do have some work being done, as it were. I'm sure that's what it was," Morgenstern answered dismissively.
"Oh good. Do you know the name of one of those guys? I might just check it up. Don't want some bastards stealing pipes and circuits outta your nice sector. Besides, if they're doing something mechanical, maybe I can help."
Morgenstern hesitated. "I guess, if you insist. I'll check and see if they need an extra pair of hands. Or two. I'll be right back. And there's something I'd like to discuss with you anyway; your arrival here today is fortuitous-" his voice faded into the ambient hum as he headed towards a series of office doors off to one side.
Duo's eyes hooded as he followed the man's progress.
"Damn. He's going to get on my case to move here again," he muttered.
"Yeah. I told you before; Kro's got a lot of rebels and such here. There are also long-standing fans of anarchy like Morgenstern, and a bunch of retired Sweepers. All these guys live here and work together; they're the backbone of Freeport. Morgenstern is always keen to get more of the same living in the sector; he says they're the only kind who really, truly understand space, and want to defend her. He should know what he's talking about; Morgenstern was one of the financial backers for Peacemillion."
Wufei looked with renewed interest at the office door. "Really? I didn't know that."
"Oh yeah, many in Freeport pitched in with help or cash, but the colony kept it quiet. Otherwise, the Ozzies would have sent a big bomb this way. There was some debate about Freeport joining the war. Morgenstern and others got very vocal about it, I heard. But in the end, Freeport stayed neutral. Peacemillion was built and manned by Sweepers, but it didn't have any weapons. I think she did the job anyway. Right?"
"Definitely." Wufei understood why Duo talked about Morgenstern with respect, despite the financier's wealthy upbringing so different from the L2 orphan's. But if Morgenstern thought he could sweet-talk Duo into moving here, he had another think coming. Kropotkin might be full of anarchists, but it would still feel too constraining to Shinigami; it would imply a complicated set of alliances and obligations. And Duo Maxwell wasn't the kind to abide even the lightest of reins.
The financier took a good twenty minutes to reappear. Duo paced around in a narrow circle, while Wufei examined the stock board with interest; apparently, steel prices were going up, which wasn't good news for Freeport's shipbuilding industry.
It was strange to see this little island of capitalism in the midst of the mess of extreme politics that seemed to dominate Freeport. Although Wufei found that very little in Freeport could surprise him that much anymore. Survival, he reminded himself dryly. Freeport might believe in freedom, but its main philosophy was practicality and selfish survival. Money was more important than ideals in the real world, so this crumby hangar full of people, who were probably all volunteers, produced it for the rest of the colony.
Morgenstern emerged from his office and walked towards them. He was only twenty feet away, but he was stopped twice before he could reach them by harried people with the parasitic phonelinks growing out of their ears.
"Steve Millen," Morgenstern declared, after shooing away the interruptions and walking up to Duo. "He was the foreman of the workers you appear to have run into. Water pressure has been uneven in the edges of the sector; he and his men were trying to track down the cause. I gave him a call; he thanks you, but he doesn't need any help. They figured out the problem and fixed it."
"Ah, well and good then. Thanks, we'll be on our-"
"Hold up, Duo. Maybe you and your friend could step into my office?"
Duo rubbed the back of his head and smiled. "Well, we're in a bit of a rush. Always too much to do and not enough time."
"I keep telling the Elders they should increase the day cycles to thirty hours for our convenience," Morgenstern deadpanned. Then he grew serious. "It shouldn't take too long. Let me just give you a quick outline. As you know, I'm proud of my sector. We house many strong-willed colonists, men and women who've made space what it is; free and beholden to none; an equal to Earth."
Duo was nodding during the speech, and shifting from one foot to the other as if ready to dash. "I know, I know, s'a great place. I got friends here. But I'm happy in Makhno. I told you that already."
"I know. I understand the advantages of Makhno for a mechanic. But I was hoping to discuss the future of your friend."
Duo blinked. So did Wufei.
"Your friend. Ah, may I address him? It seems rude to- I'm not familiar with the traditions regarding Blades."
"Well... not really... " Duo looked perplexed, with a wary light in his eyes.
Morgenstern hesitated, and then he smiled at Duo. "I guess I'll have to wait for his Blade contract and quarantine to end, then. But when it does, I hope he'll consider moving to Kropotkin. We would be proud and honored to have a warrior of his caliber here. We have, ah, many retired suit pilots in this sector, honorable defenders of the colonies. He should feel at home."
" ...Right." Duo's smile looked a bit forced.
"And of course, if you two are... attached in any way, my offer to you still stands, Duo. You're both quite welcome to come-"
It took Duo a good five minutes to extricate himself as politely as possible.
"That was a civil and roundabout way of saying he knows who I was," Wufei muttered as they walked the streets of Kropotkin. It was the sector's 'evening'; people browsed stalls, chatted at corners, or went to visit friends.
"Yeah, Morgenstern is smooth. You have to give him that," Duo agreed. "And always keen to rope in good people into his sector. Say... could anybody who knows your past trace your present?"
Wufei glanced at the smuggler, whose hooded eyes were suddenly sweeping the streets carefully.
"No," he answered, rather relieved himself. "Une did not want the potential political nightmare that would come from the senate knowing she'd integrated three out of five of the notorious Gundam pilots into her supposedly impartial organization. There is no Chang Wufei in... the Lady's lot," Wufei embroidered, in case they were overheard. "The pilot of Shenlong disappeared shortly after the war, and there are rumors he's working in a university in China."
"Ah, okay." Duo beamed expansively. "Good, one less thing to worry about. Now we just have to worry about dodging Morgenstern's well-meaning attempts to settle you down in Kro. S'funny, he never drooled like that over Heero. Then again, you're friendlier than Heero. If one goes down to the microscopic level to check."
Wufei swatted the braided head without looking.
"Now what?" he growled, refusing to be drawn into a put-down match.
"Now, we hunt down the man who let Ferret get away, then we hunt down Ferret, and, if we're lucky and they have any kind of link, we find Carver at the end of it all. Oy, citizen. Yeah, spare me a minute? Ever heard the name Steve Millen? He lives in Kropotkin, and we're not sure of his address."
"Nope, I don't know the name of the guy you were chasing," Steve Millen told them, a bit nervously. Getting a call from such a well-respected figure as Morgenstern had more than confirmed Duo's credit. Steve Millen was indeed the 'Steve' who'd been the foreman of the team they'd run into the day before, but his attitude had done a one-eighty.
"I have seen that rodent face around Kropotkin a few times," Steve added helpfully. "He was just wandering around. Never saw him talking to anybody. Which is... a bit strange, I guess." Millen looked like he'd only now thought of it.
"And the guy who accused me of being a bounty-hunter?" Duo inquired, making Millen cringe. "Did he have a good explanation for that?"
"Herb. Herb Spasson," Millen growled. "And we asked him for a good explanation as soon as you gents left, let me tell you. He said the rat-faced guy was a friend of his, a good citizen, and someone who's got connections. I kinda doubt the last two. This 'good citizen' apparently told Herb something as he ran by; sounded like bounty. Herb said he might have misunderstood." Millen's face looked sour. Freeport citizens depended a lot on their ability to read people and situations; Millen was probably aware that he'd been manipulated somewhere along the line.
"Since Herb's buddy is wanted on the outside, Herb thought you were bounty dogs. That's why he stopped your man, Duo. Erm, you realize that the rest of us, we didn't know about any of this, but I've worked with Herb before, and Abe, and we thought- I mean, I hope you realize, there wasn't any offense intended-"
Duo waved away the start of yet another apology. "S'okay, Steve, I understand. You reacted like any good citizen would. I hope if some bounty hunter chases me down the ducts one day, there'll be strong arms like yours and the lads at my back."
"Sure thing, sure thing," Steve assured him, nodding vigorously.
"I'd like a word with Herb, though. Won't put a hurt on him or anything; but I want to make sure we got that bounty business straightened out. You know Freeport: you can pick up a bad rep easier than a suspicious itch in this place."
Millen examined Duo's sharp grin for a minute. Wufei had the impression of someone who was perhaps a bit slow to reaching a conclusion, but only because he thought about it carefully and integrated every piece of information and snippets of intuition and knowledge he possessed.
"I have your word on that? Not hurting him? Herb... isn't exactly a friend, but he's a good plumber, we worked on several ship berths together... I guess you can call him a crewmate. If I tell you... "
"You have my word I won't hurt him," Duo said solemnly. Wufei, used to Duo's brand of truths by now, noticed that Duo hadn't promised not to scare Herb to within an inch of his miserable, lying life. "I won't tell him who sent me, if you don't want-"
"No," Millen said firmly. "Steve Patrick Millen does not rat out someone behind their back. If Herb asks you how you found him, feel free to tell him that Steve believes you're owed an explanation and an apology."
Duo nodded once. "Very well."
"Right. Normally, Herb lives in Haymarket, on the corner of Tenth Avenue, right up against the sector wall. But I bet he won't be there today. He'll have gone to his woman's sector, Vanzetti. They're having a free day, today. He's been talking about it for a week now."
"Agostina Assisi. She lives near the start of the sector, but I'm not sure where."
"I wonder what Ferret was doing in Kropotkin," Duo mused, keeping his voice down in view of the few stragglers in the street who hadn't gone to bed yet.
"Not in Kro. People in Kropotkin don't concern themselves with the stuff outside; they help build ships, they maintain our computers or deal with finance; all internal stuff. Most of them are what you would call law-abiding citizens, if that had any meaning here. Not the kind to mix with Ferret."
Duo seemed to have a high opinion of Kropotkin. Wufei couldn't help remembering that both Ferret and Carver seemed to frequent the sector - full of ex-rebels and downfallen revolutionaries - and that Joshua had been murdered there.
"Millen's testimony places Ferret there 'a few time'," he pointed out. "Enough occasions that Millen could remember him when seeing him run through a dimly lit tunnel. Even if he- what's going on here?"
"Fiesta!" Duo exclaimed, nodding his head enthusiastically as the airlock swished open and revealed teeming streets filled with raucous laughter and music.
"What are they celebrating?"
"Being alive, as far as I can tell," Duo snickered, watching a couple near the airlock rub against each other in a way that suggested that clothing would soon go flying.
"All sectors have one day every other month where nobody goes to work," Duo explained, when Wufei made a growling noise to prompt him for a bit of elaboration. "It's our weekends and holidays, all rolled into one. In Makhno, people go and see friends, or just stay home and sleep, but other sectors decide to make a party out of it."
"We'll never find Spasson in this crowd," Wufei stated, loudly enough to be heard over the noise.
"We'll find Assisi's place, but I bet they're both out here painting it red," Duo agreed. "Maybe we can wander around the party. Have a bit of fun ourselves. Or maybe not," Duo added with a grin as he caught sight of Wufei's scowl.
Oil drums and metal garbage cans were being used for make-shift bonfires. People had hung lanterns or lit candles in every window, fighting off Freeport's usual murk. Kids ran around shrieking and waving small blue glow tubes, normally used for emergency lighting in space. Sheets had been stretched across the narrower streets like banners; playgrounds had been turned into potluck picnics. The roads were packed with people chatting, laughing and moving about in a relaxed way that contrasted with the tidal movements of tired workers heading to and from factories on normal days.
Duo asked around for Assisi's address. His search took them past a construction site that had been transformed into an impromptu concert pit. Duo glanced over at it approvingly, head moving in time with the crash of synth drums. Wufei glared at the scene reprovingly, causing a couple of young girls who'd been heading towards the area at a run to stop dead in their tracks and detour around him.
A bank of cheap speakers whined, saturating on the bass. They screeched out something that was only distantly related to music, as far as the fastidious Preventer was concerned. The 'singer' was essentially throwing up in a microphone, repeating 'Death - war - death -war ' over and over again, bent over double as if he'd taken a shot to the stomach. In front of the slapped-together stage, a pack of young men and women were throwing themselves around like rabid rats, heaving in piles of limbs as they bounced around.
Wufei had seen this kind of frenzy in the clubs of Neo-Tokyo. There was something about being at the mercy of gangs, overzealous police and poverty that brought out violence in even the most innocent and hapless of citizen. They danced like they were exorcising demons. Wufei had found it disturbing in the slums, but here, in Freeport, without any riot police if it got out of hand, it was alarming.
"Oy, relax. It's just fun."
Duo had apparently caught Wufei's glower and interpreted it pretty accurately.
"That sort of fun escapes me," Wufei growled, staring at a vigorous fistfight that had started at the edge of the crowd, blows landing nearly in time with the 'music'.
"Really? Cause I bet it'd do you a world of good," Duo drawled wickedly, as the noise faded somewhat behind them. His steps had picked up a certain bounce as he'd walked by, as if the raw, dangerous energy was lifting him.
"Why does it have to be so violent?" Wufei muttered, staring back at the writhing creature made of limbs. "You people live in such desperate conditions already; why make it worse?" He wasn't only talking about the 'dancing', if that was what you could call the active pursuit of multiple contusions. Wufei's exasperated bewilderment covered every skirmish, fight and duel he'd seen in Freeport since he'd arrived.
"Blows off steam." Duo was serious behind his light smile. "This tin can is under pressure, man. Freeport is the last stop, the last chance. People get hounded here. The Outside is the enemy, and they're always at our doorstep. There's never been a regime out there that didn't want to get rid of Freeport, one way or another."
Wufei countered Duo's heavy look with a steady one of his own. As far as he was concerned, though Freeport wasn't quite the cesspit he'd supposed it to be - by a narrow margin - he still thought it desperately needed some kind of order, and he wasn't ashamed of his beliefs.
Duo snorted softly as if he could read the thought scrolling across Wufei's forehead. "We live with death, Chang. We walk in the shadow of the valley. We have to find extreme ways of remembering we're still alive, still kicking. We let the violence out on a leash, so it don't slip out later."
"It's just a waste of energy, and mass hysteria," Wufei sniffed, not impressed. "Look. That's an acceptable past-time and a good way of burning off some negative energy."
He pointed at a group of fifty people who'd congregated at a large crossroad he and Duo were passing. Half a dozen of them were playing guitars, tambourines and an accordion, a lively little tune; they were singing in some European language, either Italian or Spanish. People danced vigorously in pairs, or singly with exaggerated gestures to the amusement of friends clapping on the sidelines, egging them on.
"You like the accordion?" Duo quizzed, giving Wufei a funny look.
"Not particularly," the latter ground out, "but at least this is music, and the dancing won't leave bruises. It doesn't revel in- in death, war and revolution and-"
Duo burst into laughter; he had to stop and lean forward to catch his balance. Some of the dancers turned to stare.
"Maxwell," Wufei growled, poking him. "What's so funny? I just-"
His hand was snatched up
- he tried to jerk away -
- a hand at his waist blocked him.
Duo's body was against his, spinning them around. Wufei's loose hair fluttered across his face, into his open mouth - the body against his pressed - Wufei stepped back to regain his balance, just as Duo moved forward to the beat - the hand that had grabbed Wufei's lifted it above his head, forcing him back against a hard, lean arm at his waist-
"Bella ciao, o bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao... " Duo murmured right next to Wufei's ear as the singers on stage hit the refrain.
Wufei's mouth was open in a protest that was too big to voice. He'd turned his head instinctively. Duo's last words whispered against his lips.
Then he was just as suddenly released and glaring at an unrepentant smirk.
Wufei took a deep breath - then remembered the spectators. He stuttered and sputtered, and Duo laughed. It was gentle, and so was the hand that flicked Wufei's hair out of his eyes.
"You should see your face. Come on, let's go find Herb. We'll leave these people to dance to their - hah! - nice, peaceful, joyful lil' song. Bella ciao, o Bella ciao, Bella ciao, ciao, ciao... "
Wufei followed the joker, too stunned to even be properly angry, though that was surely a momentary aberration on his part. Anger was probably gathering like a distant storm cloud on the horizon. He gathered himself, cowed with a glare the nearby couples who'd been laughing at his flushed cheeks, and followed the dark-clad figure, glaring holes into Duo's shoulder blades.
Bloody Maxwell. So typical.
Yesterday morning, that instant in the yard; Wufei moving through the cold air smelling of metal; a moment outside of everything, a moment Duo had shared...
When Duo had left, and Wufei hadn't stopped him, it had established an unspoken agreement between them. It didn't need words; it was an understanding between two warriors who concentrated on their duty before pleasure. It was understood. There might or might not be something there, between them, living in that instant. A slim possibility, a ghost of an attraction barely acknowledged. One they did not have the time, energy or luxury to explore.
Last night and this morning, Wufei had changed in the shower room, and Duo had gotten dressed while he was out. Neither of them commented on the change of habit. When Wufei had practiced his forms the night before, Duo had worked at his bench and the door to the yard had stayed shut; Wufei had approved, ignoring the feeling of absence that lingered like a shared glance. They talked about the case, politics and Freeport's society, but no longer anything personal, especially related to anybody's sexuality or preferences. A clear line had been drawn.
Of course, Wufei avoided that invisible line by a wide margin. And of course, Duo danced right along its edge.
Wufei's irritation felt more like a reflex than actual honest outrage. He didn't really resent Duo for the little infringements on the no-man's land between them: the touch that lingered on his skin a second longer than it should as Duo had handed Wufei the N-bar, instead of tossing it at him. The one-off cheeky innuendo on the shuttle to Kropotkin. The way Duo had looked at him from the corner of his eye, an appreciate smirk on his face, when Wufei came in from his exercises, sweating in the t-shirt he'd conscientiously kept this time...
Wufei knew that if you slapped a rule on Duo, he'd be doing his damnedest to break it three seconds later. It was his nature. Maybe that was why Wufei couldn't get fully mad at the blasted adrenaline junky. It would be like kicking a kitten for clawing at the curtains.
Or maybe Duo had been slipping some of Chris's 'cheer-me-ups' into Wufei's tea. That might be an alternative explanation for Wufei's strange forbearance.
Duo, apparently unconcerned by the glower aimed like a bulls-eye at his braided head, was tunelessly humming the song and murmuring the refrain as they walked towards the edge of the sector. A few enquiries pointed them towards Assisi's house, where they'd probably have a wait. Spasson and his woman would be out, enjoying the party.
Or so they'd thought. But when Duo knocked on the door, it flew open, causing both men to start back in alarm.
"Ah, so you decided to come- huh? Who are you two?"
The woman was a bit taller than Wufei and extremely buxom, to the point of fat. She was in her thirties, her skin a healthy olive that refused to succumb to colonist pallor; luscious long black curls highlighted a plump, pleasant face. She was wearing a long black skirt and a very small sleeveless blouse. The latter looked dangerously close to slipping off at any second, especially since she was huffing self-righteously.
"Agostina Assisi?" Duo asked a bit doubtfully.
"Yes? What do you two want?" she barked.
"We were wondering if Herb was around?" Duo asked, recovering quickly and turning on the charm.
Wufei's observations so far were that the Maxwell smile could conquer anything feminine, but not this time; the brunette merely started to huff and growl all the more.
"That... fink isn't here." Her anger sounded oddly strained; it prickled Wufei's instincts.
"Oh?" A flicker of surprise crossed Duo's face. "But what about the fiesta? Surely he was going to want to escort a lovely lady such as yourself."
Wufei managed not to roll his eyes, but Assisi blinked and focused on Duo, and then flushed and smiled a bit timorously.
"You'd think so. I know he was looking forward to it. We don't get many reasons to have fun in this tin can. But a couple of friends of his showed up less than an hour ago, just as I was getting ready. Said Herb had to go to the shipyards, they had an urgent plumbing job for him to do."
"Damn, what a pity I missed him. What ship was he going to work on, signora?" Duo murmured.
Assisi crossed her arms under her rather expansive chest, hoisting up the goods a bit. The gesture looked a bit defensive; Wufei noticed that her eyes kept flickering between them, towards a spot further down the hallway.
"Well, that's what I asked when Herb told me he had to leave," she muttered, anger still prowling in her voice. "He said he was needed at the Christie; urgent plumbing job. Then he left. And now I'm all alone."
" ...The Christie?"
Duo's eyes had narrowed, his smile became fixed.
"Didn't they finish the Christie ten days ago? They moved her out of Zero G dock last week," he said slowly.
"I don't know. I work in the factories, I don't follow the ships. Herb hadn't worked on the Christie for nearly a month. I guess... that some plumbing he did sprung a leak."
Duo's smile was now completely fake. "I see. You're probably right. Hey, who were these friends who showed up to warn Herb that he was wanted? At the Christie, I mean. I think I might know them."
Agostina looked perplexed. "Well, the guy who actually talked to Herb was a friend of his. I've seen him before, down in Mooncurse when I go visit my sister. Al. Ed. Hal. Something short. He's short too, and he's got a face like a beleta; how do you say it? A weasel. He told Herb that they had to leave right away, they were needed at the shipyards."
"You mentioned two friends?" Duo prompted quietly, when Agostina didn't look like adding more.
The black eyes lined in khol refused to meet Duo's. "The beleta did all the talking."
"But he wasn't alone?" Duo asked softly.
"He had a friend waiting outside the door," Agostina muttered, her eyes flickering again to that empty spot behind Wufei and Duo. "I... don't know him. I mean, I didn't see much of him. He was in the shadow." Agostina's accent - L3, working class - was suddenly more pronounced.
"Can you describe him?" Duo asked her softly.
Agostina was twisting a decorative shawl in her fingers. "Didn't see much of him," she whispered, almost to herself. "He was tall, with a really square face. I mean, I think. Didn't seem him very well. He might have had brown hair, and a - a long bulky brown coat... He... "
Agostina's eyes were now liquid and worried. She gulped, and looked Duo sharply in the face, letting her anxiety flash across her eyes. "Is Herb in trouble? What is this about?"
"Nothing," Duo answered gently. "We wanted to talk to Herb about a common acquaintance, but if he's busy at the yards, we'll have to drop by another day. Enjoy the fiesta, signora."
Assisi nodded uncertainly; Duo was already at the door, heading back towards the noisy streets. When Wufei glanced back, Agostina was still standing in the doorway, twisting her shawl, her blind eyes fixed on a spot in the hallway where Carver had presumably stood.
End Part 16
On to Chapter seventeen
Back to Chapter fifteen