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Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues

Chapter Text

Dust rolled across the dead and dying lawn squared off in front of the little government-allotted house, evidence of the lack of rain in the recent weeks to months. Children who once ran and shrieked in their play now, if they were outside at all, merely sat in what shade was available and squinted suspiciously at passers-by. Adults congregated in small groups to do much the same, with or without beers, grumbling about anything that would come across their minds. Weather, government, government-controlled weather. How jobs were becoming impossible to find or keep in that town and, if there were jobs, then they were at the factories who generally preferred to bring in outsiders anyway who would do it for less. Town was dying, was what they said. The town was dying and no one cared.

Inside one of those small houses, windows wide open in a desperate attempt to catch a breeze, a male figure made gaunt by a lifetime of malnourishment sprawled upon a threadbare and broken-down couch with an arm over his eyes as if to block out the heat and sun that baked and oppressed without thought to the lives it was supposed to nourish. Thoughts of a shower crossed his mind almost wistfully and just as quickly disappeared. The water would never be on at midday; the government ration mandated use only between 7 and 8 PM. Supplies were limited, too, so one had to be standing in the shower with their hand on the knob at 6:59 with any hope of getting any refreshment that week. Daily showers were a fairy tale.

Sighing softly, the young man moved his arm to stare instead at the ceiling with its sharp stucco ceiling that cast abysmal shadows like a desert hellscape A faint smell of blood lingered around his home with its focus in his room where his precious few clothes were hung. Everything smelled of blood in that home thanks to his precious, precious slaughterhouse job. Privately, he couldn’t stand the job, hated it with all that he had, but it paid and that was all that mattered. It paid enough to keep the rationed water coming, what food the stores had on his table, and the flickering and dim electricity powering his home. He was fairly well-off, really, in comparison to his neighbors, though high-poverty was still poverty.

Speaking of that hell, it was time for him to be getting ready for work. Night shift started at three and, in that time, he had to get dressed and walk across town to the meat packing plant. With a soft sigh that spoke of unending exhaustion, he rose and shuffled to his room to pull on his coveralls. He inspected them carefully for holes and missing buttons, then where his name patch was sewn on. “Duo” was sprawled in black across the white background with traces of blood spattered across it, the patch itself sloppily sewn on in preparation of Duo not being at the job very long.

Duo, for that was what the young man called himself,slipped into his coveralls and boots before tucking his long and messy rope of hair down the back of his shirt and heading out the door. Immediately, the heavy and judgemental stares of his neighbors weighed down upon him. “Scab” was whispered more than once and not exactly in a manner to keep it hidden. Duo let it pass by with the knowledge that it was untrue and happy in the knowledge. He hadn’t broken a strike because there wasn’t one. He hadn’t been fired because he still did his job and didn’t bitch about the pay or the conditions like he wanted to and everyone else had. it would have been nice had he received a raise since there were fewer employees to pay now, but management had apparently seen fit to keep that money themselves. Not Duo’s business.

The heat from the sun pounded mercilessly upon Duo as he walked. Sweat beaded and ran down his neck and made his shirt and hair stick to him something fierce, making him uncomfortable and wistful that public busses still ran in his neighborhood. Rumor had it that they flitted about the rich areas still, but those people all had their own cars and no need for public transport. It was probably just a way to make them feel good about their city, like there was something to be proud of there yet.

Duo passed a church that had its doors wide open to try to lure in parishioners to the dark interior with the illusion of cool shade, but people knew better. It was just as hot in there as the rest of the town, without the benefit of wind. Jesus wouldn’t cool you off anymore than a baptist minister who only spoke of fire and hell. What had jesus done to improve the economy, anyway? Nothing but make the sun hotter and jobs fewer.

Just twenty minutes before his shift, Duo walked through the metal gates of the meat packing plant, a wisp of a man among the burly immigrants who didn’t speak any English whatsoever but instead Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages from the Balkans and Eastern European regions. These were the men whom the plant was importing to replace people like Duo, and were doing it very well. He couldn’t hate them, really, they were just looking out for their families and trying to make a buck just like he was. Besides that, they were pretty decent men. Some of them even tried to teach Duo their languages, but how was Duo to double check if “byk” meant bull or bastard? He just had to take the men at their word and, if anyone sniggered when he said a word, just hope it was because he mussed up the pronunciation.

“Privet,” Duo nodded at the men, who nodded and replied in kind as they queued up to punch in and grab their helmets. The heat was even more oppressive in the massive building despite the fans whirring several feet above them, the blood smell pungent if familiar. The men could already hear the cattle lowing in their pens, waiting for whatever fate they held, but some would inevitably know if they caught that blood smell. It got damn frustrating when they would panic and refuse to move, forcing the workers to all use their electric prods, which the company found far too expensive and would berate them all for. There would typically go a day’s pay.

Punching in and grabbing his helmet, Duo fastened it on and grabbed a rubber apron before making his way to the killing floor. The cement was tacky still with remains of blood from the last shift as well as the bits and pieces that weren’t cleaned up right. Duo took his place on the hog line with a grim look; he hated killing hogs especially since they were far more apt to refuse to move than cows. That meant more electrical prodding, more loud squeals, and damaged meat.

Sometimes he really did hate this job.

Chapter Text

Twelve hours of limited movement while yet repeating the same action in rapid succession would put a strain on anyone’s body, let alone one that was as small as Duo’s. He left the killing floor at shift change rubbing his shoulders and generally exhausted in silence with the rest of the men. No one had the energy now to talk or banter, all thoughts instead on their beds and if they had the time to actually sleep. For those who were lucky enough to have multiple jobs, their beds were mere myths that they thought of fondly and with little longing sighs before thinking back to the bills that were being paid by the scrapings they brought in. Sure, working at the slaughterhouse brought in a somewhat decent amount, but if one had a family, then purchasing food and clothing as well as a higher rent for more people would quickly decimate even this check. Times like that, when faced with never sleeping, Duo counted himself grateful that he was single. He didn’t have to worry about anything but himself eating his money. Mostly, anyway.

There were dues he owed other than rent and utilities. The worker’s union, or the group that called itself that, demanded a percentage of each check he got that was never the same. Sometimes they would want five percent, sometimes they would want up to twenty if they were feeling particularly spiteful. Duo was fairly certain that they were just a fancy front for a mob but, since he couldn’t prove it, he said nothing. Not like saying anything would do him any good since no one in his neighborhood could even remember the last time a flatfoot had come to their area to help, instead roughing up a household, hauling off one or two members, and typically beating up anyone who wasn’t the right color of white. While their neighborhood wasn’t all that integrated, there was enough diversity to keep the law enforcement entertained. Duo himself had provided them amusement more than once. His small size was apparently enticing to the larger muscleheads.

It was near sunrise when Duo finally reached his small home and noted with some small satisfaction that the door was still locked and the windows intact. It would not have been a surprise to see his home having been broken into, and since there really wasn’t anything inside worthy of theft, ransacked and torn up. The sight of his broken-down couch still there and somewhat intact was a comfort, but not as much as seeing that his food supply was still shut into his cupboard. Duo retrieved a can of green beans and cracked it open with a sigh- unspoiled and edible, it would be his breakfast and probably his lunch as well. He sat on his couch with his can and ate in silence while staring at the wall. Duo’s mind wandered to how other people ate, people better off than him. His foreman, for example, with his pressed suit and smug look, the way he looked at Duo and the Eastern Europeans like they were dogs. Duo bet that the man had meat every night, probably wine and side dishes to go with it, maybe sat and watched television afterwards before taking a long and hot bath and going to sleep in a featherbed. It was kind of sickening, really, thinking of how differently two people who worked so closely together could live, one like a king and the other like a dog.

 

This had been Duo’s life for the past five years since he had left school. Administration would call it either dropping out or being expelled, depending on who you spoke to, but Duo considered it simply leaving. A lifetime of people telling him that he would never amount to anything but a ditch digger hardly gave him incentive to continue learning algebra and chemistry- what was the point if he apparently would never have a reason to use it? He actually enjoyed school and had somewhat of a passion for learning but if the environment was set against him, then there really wasn’t anything that he could do. Besides, he was doing much better off than his teachers had ever anticipated- home of his own, job, the works. Even his own father never believed that Duo would make it a single year on his own before coming crawling back to his parents, but Duo had left and never looked back once. Sometimes he missed his mother, but he couldn’t visit her without his father being there and deriding every choice real and perceived that Duo had made in his life. The man would mock Duo’s job, insinuate that he would never keep it long, claimed that Duo had even been drifting from job to job when the reality was that he had maintained the same one for years. The company had even given him a vague sort of “thank you” note for his service that seemed less than half-assed but was still an object of pride for Duo.

Then, too, there was the topic of children. His mother would wistfully speak of grandchildren while his father scoffed at the thought of anyone pairing with Duo long enough to make a child, if at all. Personally, Duo was still unsure about the whole ordeal; he didn’t feel like he was ready to be a father, nor did he even know anyone whom he would date let alone start a family with. The very few women that he knew were all married anyway, so Duo rarely even afforded the concept any thought unless he was going to visit his mother. Thankfully that was rare enough of an experience that he didn’t have to concern himself with it too much. Truth be told, he was rather happy being single since it kept living costs down and let him do whatever he wanted. The loneliness was droll, though, but Duo reasoned that even just a good friend could eliminate that.

 

Three months after Duo’s five year anniversary at the meat packing plant, he was summoned into the foreman’s office. Curious about this irregular turn of events, Duo entered and immediately the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Not only was the foreman there, but so were two security guards. Duo suddenly recalled seeing men escorted out of the building by two men and they didn’t come back. Fired, not allowed back. Swallowing, Duo managed a little smile.

“You, uh, wanted to see me, boss?” Duo asked with a respectful tone. The foreman nodded and sat back in his chair.

“Maxwell, isn’t it? You’ve been with our company for-” the man checked the stack of papers on his desk, “five years, my. That’s quite the time to hold down one job, especially one as demanding as this.” He paused and looked at Duo expectantly.

Playing the game, Duo nodded eagerly. “Yessir, an’ I’m glad of it. Plant gives me a good livin’, so I give my effort.”

“That you do, that you do.” A pleased nod was Duo’s reward for his answer. Duo could practically taste the derision in the man’s tone. “And in that time, you have gone to the clinic for… a significant amount of lacerations, a foot injury, shoulder pains, and… oh my, you almost lost your arm?” The false sympathy with which the foreman looked at him churned in Duo’s stomach. This wasn’t going to end well at all. “My, whatever happened?”

The man clearly knew, he had to have the entire medical report in front of him. Duo would continue to play the game, however, in the vain hope that this meeting wouldn’t end the way that he knew it would. “I was haulin’ a pig from the kill pit an’ it kicked at me, sir. Almost lost my grip but didn’ want to have to haul it from the floor, so I held on. Wrenched my arm out the socket an’ felt like it was gonna tear it plain off.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. And the pig?”

“One of the Russians reached in an’ hauled it out fer me, sir.”

“That was very nice of him. I see that the injury put you out for… a week? Oh that’s quite the time. And now? How is your arm?”

“Much better, sir, thank you. Doctor said I’m free ta work as normal.” Duo added on a big grin to add to the effect. In truth, his shoulder would start to get sore after about an hour of work and, by the end of his shift, would be throbbing. It was part of the reason that he took it easy after work before falling asleep on his couch.

“Good, good,” the foreman nodded amicably. “Well, I’m sure that you’re wondering why I’ve called you off of our highly productive line, interrupted your work. It is the board’s decision to go through the rosters and let anyone with serious injuries have significant vacations. Unpaid. That there is no need to return from.”

Duo had to stand there and stare for a moment before he found his voice again.

“So I’m-”

“Fired, yes. Thank you for your service. Fellows?” With that dismissive line, the foreman looked down at his papers and proceeded to act as though Duo wasn’t there. The security guards swiftly approached Duo and, grabbing him up by each arm, hauled him out of the office and to the door.

“I can walk, you know?” Duo tried not to squirm and risk twisting his arm, but he did frown at the indignity of the situation. They passed a window to the line and he noted with great dismay that there was already someone brand new in his station, a fresh and eager face that stood out well between the tired and worn down ones. It started to sink in, then, how utterly worthless he was to the company and how little he meant.

When they reached the doors, the guards only paused long enough to grab Duo’s belongings before literally throwing him out onto the sidewalk. Duo landed on his bad shoulder and felt a sharp twinge of muscle before his jacket landed on him. Before he could react, the guards were on him again and ripping the overalls and boots off of him. They left him on that sidewalk with nothing but his jacket and undershirt as the sun beat down red from its descending position in the sky. When the pain subsided, Duo rose and, tying the jacket around his waist, started back to his apartment. Gravel bit into his feet and only constant watch had him avoiding the bits of broken glass and cigarette butts along the way.

It was after dark when Duo finally turned onto his street and soon enough was approaching his little home. Something was off, however, and Duo peered at his door to see the paper that was taped on it. Stomach falling, he forced himself to speed up to a rough trot until he was at his door. His mouth dried and turned sour as his stomach clenched with cold ice at what he saw.

“Tenant:

We received word of your termination at 4:55 PM today. Due to your lack of employment, it is this company’s decision to evict you from these premises in anticipation of failure to pay your rent. There is no need to return your keys as the locks have already been changed. As it appeared that you were already in the process of leaving by the few possessions therein, the remaining items in the apartment have already been removed by sanitation.

Attempts to continue to occupy the residence will be seen as trespassing and you will be arrested and charged.

Regards.”

 

Duo stared at the letter, read and reread it, and if there had been anything in his stomach, then he would have thrown it up. Evicted! His food (his FOOD) and couch gone, his clothes tossed as well so that he truly only had the shirt, underwear, and jacket that he wore. He had nothing now. Thoughts turned to his parents but no, his father would never allow his mother to help him, call him a freeloader. Thinking rapidly and exhaustion forgotten, Duo began walking towards the bank. He didn’t have any bills or dues now, so all of his money was his own. He definitely had at least enough to buy a pair of pants, maybe some boots, but the majority of it had to be saved for food.

He reached the bank in about an hour, shivering in the chill as he approached the ATM and placed his thumb over the sensor. Duo’s account details flashed on the screen and he was bitterly surprised to see that his money hadn’t been rapidly claimed by whomever felt they deserved it, even the bank itself. However, he didn’t have as much as he would have liked, a mere $200. He could get boots, too, but that might, might leave him with $75-100. Sighing, he withdrew it all and walked away. His first stop was a store that he knew would be open tonight and, adjusting his jacket to keep himself decent, Duo walked inside to purchase shoes and pants. Food, he determined, would need to be purchased only when he needed to eat.

Soon enough, Duo was out walking the streets in a pair of heavy jeans and durable boots. He had been right when he guessed he would only have $75, but at least his clothes would last. The only thing that Duo wore that was questionable was his shirt, but that was fine. He could walk now. A distant train whistle shrilly broke through the night air and caught Duo’s attention. Well, maybe he didn’t have to walk. Setting off with an eager purpose, Duo made for the train yard. It was risky, very risky, to try to ride the rails, but if it meant that Duo did not have to walk everywhere, then he would take it.

Duo arrived at the train yard in a few hours (curse his large city) and, slipping through the fence, carefully made his way around while looking for a car to hide in. It took him far longer than he would have liked, allowing for security cameras, guards, and, worst of all, dogs. More than once, he had to freeze or hide up on an oil tanker when a canine got too curious in what his smell was. When Duo finally did find an actual boxcar, he immediately climbed inside and picked his way over the cargo inside to sit in the corner farthest from the door, settling with his jacket around him. Sighing, he let his eyes close and body relax for the first time since he had left for work.

In a massive rush, his situation washed over him like a tidal wave. He had no job, he had no home, and all the money that he had was in his pocket and was all that he had for food. He was alone and would probably never see his mother again. Add in his shoulder was throbbing painfully and suddenly Duo was overwhelmed with emotions. He buried his face in his knees and cried in the silent solitude of the boxcar, silent save for his bitter tears.

Chapter Text

The shrill and insistent train whistle woke Duo from his sleep, the consistent rocking of the car trying to convince him to remain asleep as sunlight peeked in through the slitted vents at the top of the car. Yawning, Duo stood up and walked about the car to stretch and get what exercise that he could. As he could only measure time by how many times he had slept, Duo figured that he had been riding in that car for about a week. He was incredibly hungry and parched to the point that his body would tremble and pain was constant. The next time the train stopped, he would get off and try to find food. Duo idly wondered where he had made it to, but overall didn’t care so long as there was food to be had.

It only took a matter of hours for Duo’s wish to come true; the train’s whistle sounded long as the brakes squealed harshly with a sound that went straight through the bones. Another few hours and the sensation of motion ceased and Duo was left feeling disoriented from the lack of it. He remained hidden behind a cargo crate in case the car was opened, though the voices that Duo could hear outside never came too close to his car. Night fell and he was still left alone, so the young man took the opportunity to crack the car door open and slide out. Upon impact with the ground, his legs gave out and Duo collapsed to the ground with a grunt. He darted his gaze about to check for bulls and dogs, all the while hoping to whatever god who would listen that there wasn’t infrared security here. That thought alone made Duo force himself to move, alternatively staggering and crawling towards a distant fence. Just get out of the yard, he told himself, just get out of the yard and then you can take your time.

The glowing moon was high in the sky as Duo crept along. For once he was grateful that he was starved to the point that his stomach had stopped growling, since he knew that this would be the one time that he would be caught by it. He had to focus all of his pitiable energy and effort on getting to that distant fence to the exclusion of all else- just run, Duo thought to himself, run far and get away. That was a mistake, as shortly after thinking that, an alarm went up and dog started barking loudly, the sound getting closer. Panic welled inside of Duo and he moved faster despite his dying body’s objections to the waste of energy. He was almost at the fence when his body finally put its foot down and gave out, sending Duo crashing to the ground without the possibility of getting up again. He tried without avail to move but there was no will from his body to comply, forcing himself to lay there and listen as the dogs, and without a doubt his death, barrelled closer to him. Duo closed his eyes with a soft sigh- this was fitting, really. After what had happened to him, dying was the next logical step.

Strong arms snatched Duo’s waifish body up off the ground and, surprising the young man enough that he opened his eyes, hauled him up over the fence. This couldn’t be a guard, he’d be treated far more roughly in that case, so who was it? Whomever it was, they were helping him escape the train yard and even carrying him away over his shoulder. Duo tried to speak to ask where they were going, but his throat was too dry to allow words. He had no choice but to lay there and let the stranger carry him wherever he would. In the meantime, Duo took the opportunity to try to look around at where he was. Industrial buildings surrounded them at the moment, but as they got farther from the train yard, not only did his supposed rescuer slow down, but the buildings became shops lit up in every color imaginable, music and good smells flowing from their doors along with laughing people, most drunk on alcohol but all drunk on leisure. Where was he?

The stranger carried Duo up to a shop but went to the side and up the stairs instead of into the gaily lit interior. A door was opened into a quiet little apartment which Duo had little time to examine before he was laid upon the softest surface he’d touched in years, since leaving his parents’ home. His bleary eyes tracked his captor-savior as the tall and wiry figure moved across the floor into a kitchenette, coming back shortly with a glass of water. Duo was propped up and the glass presented to his mouth and tilted until water touched his lips. Part of him wanted to guzzle the lifesaving fluid but the majority of his body was past the point of wanting to recover and shutting down. The man would not be deterred, however, and continued to help Duo drink. He doled out sips at a time, helping to open Duo’s mouth and working his throat to encourage swallowing, all at a slow enough pace so that Duo wouldn’t choke.

“Vy sobirayetes' umeret',” the stranger murmured and Duo blinked in familiarity. That was Russian, or something very similar. The comfort of a language known to his ears helped him relax and drink easier. He finished the glass and was about to settle back down to sleep when another was pressed to his lips. Duo tried to refuse it but the man shook his head. “Pit’,” he insisted while pressing the glass to Duo’s lips and Duo had no choice but to obey. He gradually took three glasses before the man seemed satisfied enough to let him be. He settled Duo back against the bed, propped him up comfortably with pillows, and tucked the blankets around him before returning to the kitchenette. Duo’s eyes grew heavy but he tried to watch the man as he measured out white ingredients into water and vigorously stirred it. Wondering what it was, but too exhausted to care, Duo drifted off to sleep.

When Duo was woken up, he was surprised to find that it was dark. Still, or again? All he knew was that the Russian man was there again with two glasses. Assuming it was water, Duo opened his mouth for it. When the salt hit his tongue, he nearly choked. The man had anticipated that, for he had drawn the glass back with a patient look.

“Eto sol' i sakhar dlya regidratatsii,” came the patient explanation. Duo wished that he had been more thorough in learning Russian from the muscle back at the plant, but he at least understood one word. Sol’ was salt, which Duo definitely knew was in the water, but there was definitely something else there. Sugar, maybe? Duo blinked rapidly a bit. This guy had sugar?! How rich was he, to be able to afford such a luxury? Curious and ready for the next round, Duo nodded at the glass, which was obligingly returned to his lips. It was still difficult to handle the taste, but Duo was more prepared and didn’t choke this time. He managed to get the glass down despite the occasional shudder. Seemingly as a reward, the man offered him the second glass. Expecting more of the same, Duo braced himself, but was delightfully surprised when he tasted plain water. The glass was downed in due time and Duo was settled back into the bed. Exhaustion washed over him and Duo drifted off again, a faint flickering of optimism igniting inside of his chest.

Chapter Text

It took several days to another week for Duo to regain the use of his body thanks to constant care from his new Russian friend. In that time, he slowly regained his voice and established that the other man’s name was Trowa and he was in New Orleans. Duo wasn’t quite sure where that was, not having ever left his town before, but vague memories of elementary school geography said that it was likely in the south. He tried to communicate further with Trowa to ask what had happened the night they met, or especially just exactly how Trowa could afford to live so luxuriously, but the other either didn’t understand English or didn’t want to tell him because Trowa would only shrug slightly. While recovering, Duo took mental stock of all the things that his host had that he would have only dreamt of back home. An actual bed, a couch that wasn’t broken down to the ground, sugar, an ample supply of food, and water whenever he wanted it, on tap or otherwise. It had been a true shock the first time that Duo had woken up at noon to hear the shower going.

The truly perplexing part was that Duo never saw Trowa leave the little apartment save for short grocery trips. He would go out, buy one or two things, and be back in twenty minutes, so he clearly didn’t have a job. That lead to the real question of how on earth did Trowa pay for these things? Duo was evicted before he even ran out of money, yet here was this man living an extremely comfortable life without income. Determined to find out, Duo tried asking Trowa verbally.

“Hey Trowa? How is it you live like this? You don’t work…?”

The Russian blinked at him in seeming confusion, head tilting to one side curiously. He didn’t respond verbally but merely sat looking at him as if he didn’t comprehend what was being said. Sighing, Duo then tried a crude form of sign language. Face trying to expression confusion, he pointed at Trowa, pointed to the floor, and held his hands out with a shrug. That was met with an even more confused look that had Duo sighing in defeat.

“Ugh. Nevermind.”

 

After a full week had passed, Duo was mostly recovered and able to move around the apartment on his own. Being consistently fed was unusual to say the least, especially more than once a day. He had been very surprised when Trowa would cook actual meals for them to share, even if they weren’t elaborate. Often it was something simple like a sandwich with soup or rice and vegetables, but the fact that there was more than one thing involved surprised Duo. It certainly was appreciated, though, and Duo made it a point to try to help with housework once he was able. Trowa never tried to stop him but did keep a very close eye on him to watch for excessive fatigue. If Duo even displayed so much as a slight leg wobble, Trowa had him sitting down with water and something small to eat. Protests were drowned out by a sharp sound and a headshake as the Russian gave him a highly patronly look and kept it on Duo until the man started to obediently eat.

Duo had settled into this way of living with just himself and Trowa, with nothing happening except himself healing and Trowa watching him like a hawk when he wasn’t out briefly buying food. It was comfortable if a bit odd since he wasn’t actually doing anything except minor housework. Surely soon Trowa would want some sort of reimbursement for his hospitality or maybe would want Duo to move along. What Duo wasn’t expecting, however, was the day that the door opened when he and Trowa both were home. Duo jumped slightly in surprise as a slim man with pale gold hair and golden bronze skin entered as if he owned the place. Judging from the perfect fit and high fabric quality of his clothes, he probably did. Fear pooled in Duo’s stomach for himself and Trowa at the thought that his presence might get his new friend in trouble, but the stranger gave Duo a friendly grin before going over to Trowa and hugging his shoulders with a little peck to his cheek.

“Hello, dear. I see you’ve been busy,” the man said to Trowa in a soft and kind voice.

“Yes, though it’s nothing that I can’t handle. It’s been actually quite amusing,” Trowa responded in perfect English, making Duo stare.

“You… you can speak English?!” Duo exclaimed, forgetting about the stranger in his shock. “This whole time? Why didn’t you… why did…?”

Highly amused by Duo’s floundering, Trowa shrugged. “It was far more funny this way. I’m surprised that you know any Russian whatsoever, your accent actually isn’t complete garbage, but watching you flounder trying to communicate… it was priceless. Your sign language is complete garbage, by the way.”

The stranger had a hand over his mouth to try to stifle his laughter as he gently shoved Trowa with his free hand. “Be nice.... This is why you don’t have guests.” Turning to Duo, the man took a breath to calm himself and offered the confused other a smile. “Hello there. I’m Quatre Winner, Trowa’s partner. You are Duo, correct? He’s told me some about you, mostly about the condition he found you in. Are you feeling better?”

It took Duo a moment to find his voice. “Ah… uh, yeah. Yeah I’m doin’ okay. Um… so, yer not like, his landlord or nothin’?”

“No, we own this apartment and have some share in the store underneath it,” Quatre replied with his friendly look still about him.

“Only because you didn’t want to completely buy it from Xander,” Trowa put in quietly with a little eyeroll.

“It’s his, Trowa,” Quatre replied with a slightly sharp tone implying that he didn’t want to speak of it at the moment. Turning back to Duo, he continued. “Trowa said that he found you in the train yard? May I ask what happened?”

“Oh… uh, yeah, sure,” Duo nodded while still being mystified of this change in circumstances. “Well, ta make a long story short, I was fired from my job as a meat packer an’ then evicted, then I caught a train headin’ out of town. I’m guessin’ about a week later I ended up here. I was tryin’ ta escape the yard when my body gave out an’ Trowa found me.”

“A week?” Quatre asked with some worry and alarm. “You didn’t eat for a week? Wait, did you at least have water?”

Duo shook his head. “No. I was gonna get off fer food when it next stopped, but I guess I got the express or something because the next stop was here.”

“Wait… you survived without water for a week?” Quatre asked with some confusion. “I was under the impression that one could only survive for three days without water.”

Trowa made a soft sound in his throat. “It is technically possible to survive for a week, but you will be actively dying. If I hadn’t found Duo when I did, then he would have been dead in probably minutes. I’m guessing that the adrenaline of me moving him through the city gave his heart a few more beats.”

Quatre sighed and settled on a chair. “I’m grateful for that, then. I’m glad that you could save his life.” Trowa merely smiled softly while Duo blushed.

“Oh, c’mon… not like I’m someone important. I’m just an ex-meatpacker who ain’t worth his boots,” Duo protested softly. “Ain’t really got no other skills.”

“You can learn,” Quatre objected. “Besides, all life is precious no matter what one does with it. You could be the lowest worker or an Arch Eminence, your life is still important and relevant.”

Duo could only stare for a few moments. “You… seriously just compared me to an Arch Eminence. Are you clinically insane or what? I kill cows!”

Wincing slightly at that, Quatre still nodded. “You are still valuable. Your worth to the universe isn’t measured by what position you held in life but by who you are.”

“Okay, see, ya lost me. What the heck does the universe care about me an’ my life? It’s jus’ stars an’ emptiness!” Duo was starting to get seriously concerned about this man.

Sighing softly, Quatre ran a hand through his hair. “It’s… more complicated than that, but I feel as though it would be prudent to drop it for now. Have you left the apartment yet?”

“No,” Trowa chimed in for him. “Though I do believe that he can.”

Duo gave him a sour look. “Still can’t frickin’ believe that you can speak English.”

“I can speak many languages,” Trowa answered with a shrug. “But that’s not important. I suggest that tomorrow we have him go outside for a while. The fresh air and seeing New Orleans would surely do him good.”

“I agree,” Quatre nodded. “Do you need anything, Trowa?”

“No, I’m alright. I already have everything I need thanks to you.” The soft look the man gave Quatre made Duo blush slightly and look away. He’d heard of gay people, of course, but Duo couldn’t recall ever actually meeting any. The local church had tried to preach against them as something called a “sin” and say that they were going to hell, but the government was louder than an outdated religion that clung to moral right and wrong. The government said that homosexual couples were fine, so society had to agree. The biggest contributor to the government’s idea likely was that homosexuals couldn’t reproduce. While there wasn’t exactly a ban on children, couples who were able to breed were watched very closely and, if it looked like they were going to have more children than the government liked, say three, then there would be interference. That could range anywhere from a stern warning to vasectomies, hysterectomies, forced abortions (typically followed by one of the other two), and sometimes the child was even taken away. The public belief was that the child was fostered out to another family, but the silent fear was that it was killed.

Sighing softly, Duo reclined back further into the couch. “Okay, so we’re goin’ out tomorrow. Anythin’ I should know about this place, like stuff ta say or things ta do?”

“Be ready to have no personal space,” Trowa advised. “I’ve been talking about you. Oh, you should also expect to be laughed at. I’ve been telling everyone about your sign language.”

“.... I’m never living that down, am I?” Duo asked dryly.

“Not a chance in hell.”

Chapter Text

It was true enough that Duo was the butt of plenty of local jokes once he finally emerged from the apartment, but when he realized that it was all given with good humor, Duo decided that he didn't mind. The people of New Orleans were altogether a pleasant bunch who knew no strangers and welcomed everyone in. Duo, being from far away, was very warmly welcomed into every tavern and restaurant and tempted with free food and drink to tell the patrons and staff about his hometown. Surprised at that, Duo put forward that surely his home couldn't be that much different than here… but then no, it must be. Here was a city of plenty, life pulsing through her wildly without thought of stopping. So Duo would tell them of his home and the struggles it contained. Their primary surprise came at the massive wealth gap, shock resounding through them and stunning them into silence when Duo told them of his starving and dying neighborhood, of the strict water ration and lack of public care or transport. As if to highlight his point, the clang of a streetcar bell filled the otherwise silent room as it passed outside. The people did not know what to think, they who had always been cared for and nurtured. Surely the two cities could not be ruled by the same government, that this man must have been from another country, but no. Duo shared a nation with them and thus a government. So the same officials who said that they should surely live had condemned Duo and half of his city to die, and they had nothing to say to that. There was nothing that they could say.

Another week passed with Duo doing nothing but recovering inside of Trowa's apartment and the young man grew increasingly bored and fidgety. Halfway through the week after, Duo couldn't stand the idleness any longer and he voiced as much to Trowa.

“I have to go find work,” Duo explained when Trowa seemed confused. “I've worked fer five years straight an’ this layin’ around doin’ nothin’ is nice an’ all at first, but now it's hell. There's gotta be something I can do here.”

“Quatre could find you something easily,” Trowa offered, but Duo shook his head.

“I know he could an’ would if you asked, maybe if I did, but I don’ like bein’ in debt to a man. If I'm gonna have a job, then it's gonna be out of my own effort. So, thanks, but tomorrow I'm goin’ out an’ finding a job I can do.”

Trowa shifted in his chair with his full attention on Duo. “That is admirable,” he admitted, “And just what is it that you intend to do for a living?”

“Well, all I know how ta do is beefpackin’ an’ the like, so I would go towards a slaughterhouse.”

“Mm, there is one to the north of here, about a mile and a half up the river. It is one of many, but that one is the largest and may be your best bet.”

Duo grinned widely, truly thrilled at this new information.

“That's great!” His exclamation was joyful and showed his raised spirits. “That ain't a hard walk at all compared to my old job. Thanks, Trowa!”

The other just grinned at him, amused at Duo's insistence to work instead of choosing to languish in the sudden luxury he had found himself. Well, that was likely a reflection on Duo's self-sufficient character and Trowa found it honest and admirable.

 

The next day, the sun found Duo already at the edge of the city, following the river upstream where Trowa said that the plant would be. It wasn't too long until he saw road signs for the plant and, after that, the towering smokestacks that were hidden from the city by the trees. Duo approached the gate where a guard came out to meet him suspiciously.

“Hold it, buddy,” the guard began with an upheld hand. “There's no visitors here so you'd best turn right around now and get on.”

Grinning widely, Duo offered his counterpoint, “Not here ta waste time, sir, but lookin’ to work! I know slaughterhouse work an’ can do it real well.”

This was met with deeper suspicion from the other. “You expect me to believe that? No one who works here wants to be here and would change jobs in a heartbeat. How do you explain wanting to do it?”

“Like I said,” Duo answered with a shrug, “I know how ta do it and I need a job. I'd rather do something I know how ta do instead of tolling at lower pay ta learn somethin’ else. So, yer bosses hirin’?”

The guard stared at Duo severely for several moments before snorting. “You stay right where you are, pal, and I'll go call them. You move and I'll kick your ass out of here so hard, you'll taste your shit.” He frowned when his threat was met with an idle shrug instead of the fearful cowering he expected and went to call the security office to ask what he should do with this roustabout. He described Duo physically to the men and grinned at their laughter, agreeing that it might well be amusing to see him torn down to pieces in no time. Better that than to have him continue to return daily asking for work like transients would. So the man returned to Duo with instructions to return the next morning at five AM exactly and watched with skeptical amusement as Duo cheered and skipped off back to New Orleans.

Chapter Text

Duo showed up when he was told, dressed in the most rugged clothes that he could find but still prepared to change into clothes provided by the company. Fog rolled in from the nearby river and cast everything in an eerie glow and shadow that wore even on Duo’s boisterous mood. The world was foreboding in that light, seeming to give him a warning instead of the courageous optimism that he’d come with. Duo took to shifting from side to side while waiting for the gates to open. As the time grew on, more men gathered around him, all looking more ragged than he and smelling as though they’d never showered in their lives. Duo was glad to no longer be one of them thanks to Trowa.

Five o’clock came with a shrill and loud whistle that made Duo jump and the hobos around him look hopeful, slicking down their hair and trying not to look like the garbage that they smelled of. The guard from the previous day came out and inspected them with utter disdain in his eyes until he got to Duo. Surprise flitted across his face before he snorted and spoke.

“So, you actually came, didja?”

“Yessir, like I said, I wanna work.” Duo’s reply was earnest and true, his eyes even as they met the guard’s.

“Well, shit, guess I can’t send you packing, too. Come on, you. Get in.” He gestured his head towards the gates where Duo eagerly trotted with his bright grin back in place. He was shown to the lockers, assigned one for himself, and before he could get a good look at it, he had coveralls, boots, gloves, helmet, and goggles thrown at him in rapid succession. Emerging from the pile, he gave the gloves, helmet, and goggles surprised looks.

“What, you ain't never seen 'em before?” The guard snorted with derision.

“Ain't that, sir. Just my old house didn’ give us this much protection,” Duo explained even as he got dressed. “Awful nice of this plant.”

The guard merely rolled his eyes as Duo dressed and put his things away. When the other was ready, he gestured with his head.

“C'mon, then. Boss got you on the bull bed. Ain't a problem, is it?” The question sounded teasing on the surface, but Duo heard the threat underneath and rose to meet it.

“Ain't a bull alive that ever scared me,” he replied with his head high. “End of the day, they're all dinner.”

“Big talk. We'll see how you do with Superintendent Merquise watching.” With that warning, the guard started walking. Duo quickly caught up with a bit of confusion.

“Superintendent? Like, the Big Boss?”

“Exactly the Big Boss,” the guard nodded. Kid maybe wasn't so dumb after all. “He don't come often, but he happened to today. You screw up and he sees you, you might have to leave Louisiana to find a new job. He will fuck your life right up.” He paused a moment and walked in silence to let that sink in. Since he was starting to kind of like Duo (the boy was plucky, spunky, and optimistic), he added on, “Then again, if he likes you, you might just find yourself in a real good position. Don't count on it, though. Just go do your job that you claim to know how to do.”

Feeling both warned and reassured, Duo nodded with his chest out. “I hear ya, sir. I'm ready.”

“Bet you are, kid. Here's the beef section. I'll turn you loose to your supervisor and it's on you from here on.”

The room they opened up to was blindingly white, from the workers’ uniforms to the walls, floor, ceiling, and machinery. In fact, the only bits that weren't that pristine color were the flesh of the workers and animals, as well as the blood all over the floor and machines. Duo had just enough time to note how automated and bloody fast everything here was compared to his old job before another man was being called over and Duo was handed into his care.

“Foreman Quinze, and you'd best remember it,” was the greeting that Duo received. “Ever done this before, boy?”

“Yessir.”

“Where, how long, why are you here?” Succinct barely described this man.

“North New York, five years, they laid me off, sir.”

Quinze’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Exactly why were you fired?”

“Had a shoulder injury a few years ago, sir. Doesn't interfere with my work, but they said they were letting go of folks who were hurt.”

“Shoulder? You'll never last here.” Quinze gave a dismissive gesture and started to turn. Anger swelled up inside of Duo at the casual dismissal.

“With all due respect, sir,” he called after the man, “I can perform just as good as any of yer boys here. Give me one day and I'll show you. After that, we can talk more about workin’ here.”

Quinze had turned to give Duo an offended look of incredulity. How dare this impish brat speak to him that way! Furious, he approached Duo swiftly while drawing out the crop he used on slower workers and raised his arm to strike the boy down.

“That's quite enough,” interrupted a voice as deep as the night but smooth as silk. Duo turned his head just enough to see who it was while keeping an eye on Quinze and he was admittedly floored. Eyes the color of ice with the intensity of fire gazed at the scene, partially at Duo, but most of the man's attention was on Quinze. Hair that resembled starlight fell straight a few inches past his shoulders where it was cut straight in an even line. His facial features could rival a king in their regality, as could the rest of his posture. This had to be the Big Boss Merquise.

“A-ah, Mister Merquise!” Quinze stammered with the largest and fakest smile Duo had ever seen. “An honor to have you here, sir. Apologies for this urchin’s behavior, I was just seeing it out.”

“Interesting, because it looks to me like he works here,” Merquise replied with a slight raise to his eyebrow. “He wears our uniform, yes?”

“Yes, sir, of course, sir, but he hasn't done a bit of paperwork. Besides, Mister Merquise, he's got an injury. He was wounded in another slaughterhouse, so he'll be useless here.”

Before Quinze could say anything else, and he clearly wanted to, the superintendent turned to Duo. “What is your name?”

“Duo Maxwell, sir.”

“And where are you from?”

“New York, sir.”

“You have an injury?”

“Yes, sir, hog pulled my shoulder few years ago but it's healed.”

“Does it trouble you?”

“Rarely, sir, mostly with weather or after a long shift.”

“Could you do bull slaughter right now if I told you to?”

Duo couldn't help the wide grin. “Absolutely, sir!”

“For ten hours?”

“Yes, sir.” Duo’s affirmation was solid and without question. He knew that his shoulder would have complaints, but at the moment he didn’t care. He needed this job.

Zechs stared at him a moment, cool eyes roaming his body slowly before he began to pace about the boy. “You look young and without much strength, yet you don’t sound like a liar. Very well, Maxwell, you will work for my company in bull slaughter. You will answer to Foreman Otto-”

“Sir!” Quinze interrupted indignantly. “That’s MY department, not-”

The look Zechs gave him made Duo’s stomach turn cold despite the fact that he wasn’t the recipient. “Otto is a foreman just as you are, and he will do as I say. Mr Maxwell is to report to Otto and that is my final word. You are not his boss.” Turning back to Duo, Zechs obliged him with a small smile. “Welcome to Peacecraft Packing, Duo. Follow me to your post.”

From there, Duo was escorted through the facility, shown the different rooms where cattle, sheep, and pigs were slaughtered. He was also shown a special area where ducks were contained to make what was called foie gras and Duo couldn’t help but wonder at the positions of the ducks there, looking strung-up by their necks with a funnel down their throats. He didn’t have much time to wonder about the event before he was ushered off. Soon enough, he was down on the killing floor where meat and hands whizzed by in a blur. Duo was astounded that no one lost a limb or even lacerated themselves, but his attention was quickly drawn to a tall and lanky man whom Zechs was fast approaching.

“Otto,” Zechs greeted in a friendly voice. “I have new meat for you. Well, not so new, but.”

Grinning at the joke, Otto looked Duo over. “Kind of scrawny, isn’t he?”

“Says he’s been in the business for five years,” Zechs retorted with a little shrug. I want him on your line. Work him like the others and report to me. If he’s good, we keep him. Oh, and watch for Quinze. He’s already tied to make his mark on the boy.”

“Quinze knows where I’ll shove it.” A derisive snort assured Duo that everyone shared an opinion on Quinze. “Alright, new blood, let’s get you on my line.” Otto escorted Duo down the fast-moving machinery of man and metal, looking for a place to put him. “Your old line this fast?”

“No sir,” Duo answered honestly. “Kept it a bit slower to account for the bigger hands of the Eastern Europeans.”

“Ahh, one of those plants,” Otto nodded. “Older-style plants still like to use imported muscle from places like that, Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia if they’re lucky. We’ve found out that blacks and Mexicans, especially Mexicans, will do the job twice as fast for twice as less money. Don’t need to teach them much English, the Mexicans, and the blacks, well, you point them at an animal, say ‘kill’, and that animal is on someone’s plate tomorrow all nice and dressed. We don’t typically hire a lot of white folks like us because we know what we’re worth, what our rights are. So with you, I’m going to start you on the killing floor. You’ll be making $12.03 an hour and your shifts will run 10-12 hours, maybe more if we need you, less if we don’t. Got that?”

“Yessir,” Duo nodded, excited to finally have a job. “Just fine with me, sir.”

“Curious, now that we’ve established your wage, how much did you make previously?”

Embarrassed now, Duo shuffled a boot once before answering. “Made about $10 a day, sir.”

Otto actually stopped in his tracks and stared at Duo. “You did not just say a day.”

“I did, sir. From what I’ve seen, Mr Otto, New Orleans is a hell of a lot better a place than New York.”

“Clearly.” Otto sighed. “Well, welcome to New Orleans. Let’s just hope that the nightlife here doesn’t interfere with your work. Zechs vouched for you personally and that’s not something to just brush off, if you understand me.”

“I gathered as much, sir,” Duo nodded gravely. “Mr. Merquise seems like a real by-the-book guy.”

“He takes care of his men so long as they do their job,” Otto corrected with a stern look. “If you do what you’re told to do, then you won’t have a damn problem out of him. If I see you doing well here as a slaughterer, then I might put in a word for you to go to trimming. Bit of a wage cut, but it’s better work.”

“With respect, sir,” Duo chimed in, “I don’t want ‘better’ work. I wanna be doin’ whatever have to ta make as much money as possible. If that’s a hard job, then okay.”

Otto watched him for a moment, thinking. “Okay, I’ll note that. You get on here, see how you do. Talk to your neighbors, the ones that speak english, and they’ll help you fit in.”

“Yessir. Thank you Mr Otto.”

Otto had to smirk. “Don’t thank me just yet, kid.”