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Freeport

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" ...False security has lulled the madness of this world into a slumber. Wake up! An eye is upon you, staring straight down and keenly through, seeing all that you are and everything that you can never be. Yes, an eye is upon you, an eye ready to blink.

So face forward, with arms wide open and mind reeling. Your future has arrived... are you ready to go?"

--- Powerman 5000

 

 

Chang Wufei was quite prepared to admit that he lacked diplomacy.

His friends would regretfully agree with him on this. They each had their own brand of the skill when faced with non-violent confrontation. Sally would cheerfully talk her opponents around, Trowa would reason them into a corner, Quatre would listen and discuss fairly, Heero would-...no, Heero was as devoid of diplomacy as Wufei, but people tended not to argue with him so it didn't stand out as much.

Wufei wondered how his colleagues would handle this upcoming reunion.

He hadn't seen Duo since they were both fifteen-year old terrorists. These would be the first words Wufei had spoken to his one-time ally since they'd said a casual 'Good luck' on MO2 five years ago and gone their separate ways, Wufei turning eventually to the Preventers and Duo disappearing into the worst den of sin in the solar system.

In those circumstances, 'Hi Duo' seemed...insufficient.

The alternative was, 'Maxwell, I'm here on a mission. You will help me or I'll make sure Trowa stops ignoring the petty smuggling operation you run on the side.'

His memories of Duo were distant now. A fiend in a cockpit who enjoyed fighting way too much, an L2 spacer street rat turned war hero under the odd set of circumstances only a civil war could conjure. Wufei had not been particularly surprised to hear that Maxwell had not settled down much in this new peace they enjoyed. No, not surprised at all. But Wufei did remember Duo Maxwell well enough to know that option number two - 'help me or else' - would result in absolutely zero cooperation and a punch in the jaw. Better stick to 'Hi Duo', even if it sounded disingenuous.

“Don´t blame me if he kicks you out the door. He hates surprises,” Hilde Shreibeker muttered for the third time. Wufei pretended to ignore her once more, but inwardly he was beginning to wonder if Duo would even let him get the 'Hi' out.

The television was on in the background. There was a lit screen everywhere he went these days, people watching it like cows chewing cud. Even the Schreibeker woman was looking at it frequently, as if she needed its bright presence to counter the Preventer's sombre aura. Some slice-of-life garbage was on; a competition between three villages to make the best float for the New Year's peace march. Shreibeker watched these people she would never meet build a useless contraption she would never see and that would not improve her life in any capacity as if she had nothing better to do with her time which, considering the piles of junk outside the window, could not possibly be the case.

Wufei glanced at his watch. Two hours and counting spent waiting in this room. He wished they had another RV point for Duo than Schreibeker's house.

The documentary ended. Wufei didn't catch which village won the competition and only knew it was finished when Hilde switched to the news broadcast. The headline was President Relena Peacecraft - no great surprise there - opening the latest Peace Park. Somewhere in Europe, Wufei noted; not, say, in the racketeer's paradise of Taiwan, the bombed out warzone around Seattle or on L2.

The ESUN Economic section of the journal elaborated on the employment rate, holding strong and showing another 0.5% increase this month. Wufei stared stonily at the anchorwoman's earrings, swinging like a hypnotist's pendulum. He knew those figures did not include the statistics for regions below the Economic Disaster Line, colonies in transition governments and ex-soldiers still being 'retrained' under the Rehabilitation Act.

The L2 riots were briefly mentioned after ten minutes of news, right after the report about Prince Milliardo's latest Mars project and six pieces of advertisement. The Perfect Woman featured in one of the ads had honey-blond hair and big vacuous eyes. An echo, if not a downright copy, of Relena but without any of her surprisingly strong will and determination. As if the TV execs wanted to water down her image, make her harmless and easily consumable along with the latest brand of cereal or dish soap. But maybe that was his cynicism talking. Watching too much television tended to leave Wufei 'a bit keyed up', according to Trowa's dry observation.

"I'll just go see what my guys are doing out there with that scrap," Hilde said in a tight voice and nearly ran out the door. Wufei realized he'd been scowling at the screen. The same advertisement ran again right on cue. The woman didn't look that much like Relena on second viewing, but it was still annoying.

He took advantage of Schreibeker's absence to switch the TV off, his sanity being more important in his eyes than a minor breach of propriety. He took up her post at the window, standing out of habit in the angle where he couldn't be seen and shot at from outside. Hilde lived on the edge of her scrap yard. A business she'd started up during the war as a front for Duo's terrorist activities, but apparently the woman had taken to trash and kept it thriving during peacetime. It took all sorts.

Speaking of which...

Wufei's one-time ally wasn't being particularly careful, beyond the fact he'd snuck in through the back door where he couldn't be seen from the yard. Wufei heard a faint 'Yo, Hil? You there?' and footsteps heading his way. He had three seconds to turn around and face the door before it opened. Not enough time to decide just how he was going to re-introduce himself.

"Heero, bud, you-...you've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Maxwell."

That worked too. No friendly greeting would have made this any easier.

Duo Maxwell. Same heart-shaped face, same braid. Dressed in the khaki and tan work clothes of a scrap-dealing Sweeper. Wufei felt a touch of surprise at the absence of signature black other than a pair of tight leather gloves. No visible weapons, but he carried himself like he was armed. He hadn't changed all that much.

As Duo took a few steps into the room, Wufei realized belatedly that Duo was no taller than he was, maybe even a hair shorter. The way he held himself, it was not immediately apparent. Eyes of that unusual shade of blue that Wufei remembered were fixed on him. Duo wasn't smiling.

"Chang Wufei, and all by your lonesome. Tell me Heero's hiding behind the couch ready to jump out shouting 'Surprise!'"

"Do you think that's likely?"

"No, but that's the best outcome at this point."

Wufei had been expecting some hostility. Heero had warned him that Duo would probably be negative from the get-go. It was true, Duo did not like surprises, not unless he was the perpetrator and the surprises were the kind that went boom.

"I know you were expecting Heero for this mission." Wufei made a stab at placating. It came out stiff. He didn't like the way Duo was treating him like the punch line of a joke that wasn't particularly funny. "But Yuy can't make it this time."

"He better be on his deathbed," Duo growled.

"Not quite."

The nature of the tension changed as Duo's eyes widened and his mouth turned down at the corners. With those two words Wufei was no longer an intruder and possible problem; he was one of five people - closer than friends through no particular desire of their own, but linked nonetheless - who was potentially here to give Duo a piece of very bad news.

"Just how bad?" Duo asked.

"He'll be okay," Wufei answered briskly. "He should be out of the hospital in a couple more days."

Duo relaxed a bit and rubbed his chin. "Damn, Chang, you scared me there. I thought the Suicide King had finally managed to get his ticket punched."

"It certainly looked like he was trying." Wufei’s own anger at his partner's recklessness was still simmering. They could have both been killed.

"What happened? Did he lose a barehanded fight with a Leo?"

"We were on L2 X953. Have you heard about the riots?"

The expressive eyebrows mocked him. "I live in Freeport, not under a rock."

"The fool jumped from a ten-foot wall right into a knot of rioters - in his Preventer uniform, of course - because he thought he saw some kid being crushed in the press."

"Yeah, sounds like something Heero would do." Duo's gaze drifted as if he was looking back at some memory replaying over Wufei's shoulder.

"Someone got him in the head with a brick. Concussion, hairline fracture, but no lasting damage."

"No, the head was never Heero's weak spot," Duo snickered.

"Then some rioter winged him with a baseball bat. Broke his upper arm."

"And where were you all this time?"

"Cold-cocking the bastard who was aiming at Yuy's back with a shotgun," Wufei bit out.

"Oh, so you jumped down from the wall too." Duo smirked. He didn't look surprised. "What about the kid?"

"Picked herself up, called Heero a 'fucking pig', tried to steal his gun and ran off when I glared at her."

Duo snickered. "Sounds like L2 hasn't changed that much. So he's got concussion."

"And a broken arm."

"Did he try to set the bone himself?"

"No, he waited for the paramedics this time."

"Oh? He's mellowed in his old age."

"I insisted."

"Ahhh."

Some of the initial tension crept back, but the past and the friends that connected them had defused it. That connection would stop Duo from perfunctorily kicking Wufei out the door. It wouldn't stop him from staying 'no' to the mission, though.

"Here." Wufei went back to the couch where he'd left his folder and slipped out the photograph and ID. "Know this man?"

Duo approached on a tangent, holding out his hand. He glanced at the pic for one second and tipped it back to Wufei, holding it carelessly between two fingers. "Nope, never seen him."

Wufei wouldn't have expected him to say 'yes' if the man was his worst enemy, not without some good reason first. "We've code-named him Carver. I want you to take me to Freeport and help me find him."

"Yeah, I was afraid you were gonna say that," Duo said drolly, lacing his hands behind his head in a sort of relaxed shrug of dismissal.

Wufei managed to ignore the tone, but his limited store of patience was already wearing thin. "Let me give you his outline and why we need him.”

"Sure, why not." The shrug was still in place as Maxwell wandered towards the window. "Make it good."

"He's a hitman."

Duo snorted. "Make it better."

"Nine victims known to date. Three of those were children," Wufei said, playing what he hoped was his trump card.

Nothing in Duo's stance changed except that his gaze twitched from Wufei to the window, but Wufei felt that he'd managed to engage a bit more of Duo's attention.

"I find it hard to believe a hitman would take out kids. Unless they were witnesses?" Duo asked. His head was slightly cocked, waiting for the answer.

"We don't know for sure, but two of the victims were killed in their family home along with their parents, even though the children were hiding in their room. Seven and five years of age. The third was twelve, butchered along with his mother while walking home from school."

Wufei slipped crime-scene photographs from the folder and held them out like a baited hook. It went against his instincts to share this much, but Heero had carefully coached him from his hospital bed on what to do and say before Wufei had left to catch his shuttle. Heero had been most insistent; it was crucial that Wufei involve Duo in the details of the crime as much as possible, particularly the bit about the kids. Duo would not take Wufei to Freeport just because they were one-time allies and somewhat connected, or because Wufei could throw Maxwell's ass in jail for a couple of years if he didn't.

Duo's gaze flickered towards the photographs, but he didn't come any closer to examine them, sticking by the window with his hands sunk into the pockets of his Sweeper jacket.

"What makes you think he's in Freeport?"

"We have evidence," Wufei replied shortly. Then he frowned. He'd forgotten something..."Oh, Heero asked me to tell you that he uses some kind of cutting weapon, not a gun." For some reason his friend had been very insistent he mention that.

"A flick blade or something?" Duo sounded incurious. He'd taken up the same position at the window as Wufei had previously, to one side out of sight.

"No, a lot bigger. More like a machete. We don't call him Carver for nothing." Wufei glanced in distaste at the top crime scene photograph before putting them away.

"...Really?"

Wufei looked up. Duo hadn't moved, but his eyes were no longer focused on the scrap yard outside. After a few seconds of silence, he shrugged.

"Sounds like a real bastard. So what's your angle?"

"Angle?"

"Yeah. You and Heero only deal with the highly-flammable political stuff. I grant ya, I wouldn't want this guy dating my sister, but why are the Preventers so keen to nab him that Trowa'll risk sending one of his 'Specials' to Freeport? He's just a hitman."

Wufei kept his eyes on the folder in his hand. He hadn't thought Duo would pick up on that detail, or question him on it. "Most of Carver's known contractors to date have been radical organizations. He's been put in the Class A category because of the information he might have on their networks."

"Sounds a bit slim to me." Duo sounded puzzled and rightfully so. Carver had made it into Class A by only the barest of margins, and there were many other terrorists of greater importance out there.

But Wufei didn't care. This was the case Trowa had given him and the reasons involved were none of Duo's business. This was now Wufei's mission. And for Wufei, a total of nine murders was never going to be something he would think of as negligible.

"I've been asked to retrieve him. Trowa wants you to help me locate him in Freeport. Are you going to be difficult about this?"

He could hear the anger in his voice. That was stupid. It wasn't directed at Duo and he shouldn't antagonize the man needlessly. He'd let Maxwell refuse to take him to Freeport. Then he'd get mad at him.

"Look, Chang, I'd love to oblige - after hauling my hump all the way out here and everything - but you'd not last three minutes in Freeport." Duo leaned against the wall next to the window and gave him a once-over that ended with a bemused shake of the head at the very thought.

"You've taken Heero there and helped him with his missions on four occasions. He's spent nearly two months there at one time. He managed."

"Yeah, but that was Heero. No offence."

Considerable offence taken. Heero was probably the best fighter the human race had produced to date, a one-man army, a soldier to the tip of his deadly fingers, but he was crap at undercover work and Wufei knew it.

"Well Heero can't make it," he ground out. "He's going to be stuck in a cast for at least a couple of weeks and on sick leave for as long as Barton can keep him tied to the bed. And then he has some other matters to deal with." More important cases, and the twice-yearly New Threat To Relena was already over-due; Heero would not want to bury himself in Freeport for a few weeks at this juncture in case he missed it. For some reason every revolutionary organisation seemed persuaded that bumping her off would usher in a new era of something or other. She acted a little like a lightning rod as a consequence. Wufei thought this was actually a fairly good use for her, but none of his colleagues seemed to share his opinion.

"You can't take Heero's place. It just won't work. You and Freeport?" Duo gave out a short bark of laughter as if the very concept was a joke.

"Why not?"

"Why not?" Duo's reaction put that question on par with ‘why is space a vacuum’. "Because you'd have to blend into Freeport and follow the code, Chang. You'd have to shut up and behave and do everything I say at the drop of a hat if you even want to stand a ghost of a chance-"

"If that's what it takes.”

Duo stopped grinning and examined Wufei as if measuring the extent of the determination behind those curt words.

Wufei held the folder up. "I. Want. Carver. You know me, Maxwell. We fought side by side in pretty desperate circumstances. Did you ever know me to not do what it takes to bring about justice?"

Duo didn't answer right away. Maybe he'd remembered how Wufei had let himself get captured, chained and nearly executed just to get Nataku repaired, and the way he'd continued examining Altron's specs while their air was running out. Wufei had never let even impending death get in the way of his goals.

"I know you're committed, Chang, but that's not enough to wing it in Freeport. You're going to get yourself killed. More importantly,” Duo grumbled, “you're going to get me killed."

"Barton has authorized me to offer you ten percent more than your usual fee," Wufei said, trying to hide his distaste.

"He'd have to pay me a hell of a lot more than that to get me to commit suicide, yanno. I happen to believe that my life ain't cheap."

It seems it's still up for sale though, Wufei nearly said, but kept it to himself. Getting snippy wouldn't help, and who was he to talk? At least Maxwell was smart enough to put a consequential price on his life. Five years after the war Wufei was still throwing his away on a regular basis for free, or to be more precise for a yearly salary that made his banker cry into her mocha latte.

"Twenty percent," Duo stated, but he didn't seem to be fully into the negotiation. His eyes kept drifting towards the powder-pink folder Wufei was holding. Interesting, and more in keeping with the Duo Maxwell that Wufei remembered. Never one to resist a challenge or the opportunity to do something dangerous and violent for some good cause or other.

Wufei held the folder up, waving it temptingly. "Ten percent and the knowledge that this guy will end up in jail and never date your sister." Or kill any more children.

"Eighteen percent. I don't have a sister." But at this point Duo had already agreed. The money was merely a way of letting Wufei know how displeased the smuggler was about the circumstances.

"Twelve. ESUN has emergencies left, right and centre, we don't want to throw money away."

"Fifteen. Times are hard for everybody, Chang. And I'll be doing all the work..."

The last wasn't even a mutter, more a movement of the lips, but Wufei caught it nonetheless.

"Fifteen, and you'll get me aboard Freeport and assist me in apprehending Carver?" he asked suspiciously.

"Fifteen and I'll make sure you guys arrest him next time he leaves the colony. Tro won't give me a single cred until then anyway," Duo pointed out.

'I'll make sure'? Wufei opened his mouth to protest, but remembered Trowa's hasty last words before he shoved Wufei onto the shuttle: "Be aware Duo might try to park you into a corner and go find Carver himself. That's not an acceptable risk. Duo is an important resource; he's our entry into Freeport. Don't endanger him or allow him to endanger himself. But," here Trowa had smiled sardonically, "he's not going to like it, so make sure you get him at least halfway to Freeport before being your usual stubborn and confrontational self. Got it?"

"Fifteen percent," Wufei agreed, glowering at the folder.

"Done. I'll spend the bonus on a shrink; I need to get my head examined," Duo muttered, heading towards the hallway leading towards the back of the house. "Come on, let's get you dressed."

"Dressed?" Wufei fumbled the bag he was picking up. He was wearing his usual clothes when he wanted to go incognito into some slum or other.

"Yeah, we don't want you to stand out. Jeans will, in Freeport. And you've worn that jacket with your shoulder holster too much, there's a bit o' bulge at the seam."

Wufei kept his gaze on Duo's back and resisted the temptation to glance down at himself and check. Damn, who was the investigator here?

"S'okay," Duo tossed over his shoulder, "Heero leaves his Freeport clothes here when he's done with a mission."

"Heero's clothes?" Wufei hadn't been sure what to expect once Duo had agreed. Ever since he'd been given the mission he'd been busy reading up on Carver, remembering the little he knew about Freeport and thinking up various threats to get Duo to take him there. He'd not thought much beyond that, he'd just assumed they'd be off the minute Duo had agreed to be his Freeport stoolie. Getting dressed in his best friend's clothes in some strange woman's house had not been part of his mission planning.

"Yeah, Heero's not fond of them, inasmuch as that guy has any preferences at all. He wears them in Freeport out of necessity and leaves 'em here, ready for the next mission." Duo opened a door that led to a sparsely furnished guest bedroom. The air smelled stale. Dead flies decorated the windowsill and scrap yard grime slowly climbed the glass panes on the outside. "You two are 'bout the same build, they should fit you."

"I'm wider in the shoulders than Yuy, and narrower in the waist," Wufei objected without thinking.

Duo had thrown open a closet to the slight smell of mothballs. He'd stuck his head in, but withdrew it to look at Wufei quizzically. "You know this for a fact?"

"We're partners on most of our missions, we frequently get our jackets mixed up."

"That explains the shoulders, but I'm dying to hear how you know about the waist," Duo leered. He was sorting through hangers, but his eyes were on Wufei.

Wufei unclenched his teeth enough to say, "We got our sports bags mixed up once. At the gym." He was being baited.

"Huh-huh. Okay, Mr-not-so-wide-in-the-waist, try these on for size."

Wufei looked at the garments tossed carelessly on the bed. "I've got similar clothes in my bag."

"You have a pair of leather pants? I wouldn't have thought you the type. At all. Unless these are threads you keep in a suitcase in a closet with 'undercover' taped to the handle."

Which hit pretty close to the mark, but Wufei wasn't going to give him the pleasure of admitting it. "I'll get my own clothes out and-"

"Allow me." Duo pounced onto his duffel and dumped it on the bed.

"Maxwell-" But the zip had already flown open, and Wufei had promised Trowa he'd try to cooperate.

"Let me see." Duo's quick fingers rifled through the clothes. Strangely enough he was peering at labels and hems as well as the clothes themselves. "T-shirts...bought by the dozen at the same shop Heero gets his, you guys are so predictable. These are okay, they're cheap and they're everywhere, even in Freeport."

Wufei looked up from the pile of his t-shirts dumped on the thin bedcover. Heero's last mission on Freeport had been ten months ago, he was surprised Duo remembered his t-shirt brand.

"Jeans, though, no. Not practical or warm enough, nobody wears 'em on Freeport."

Warm enough?

"Same for the leathers. Nice pair by the way. But you've not worn them enough and it shows. They're also more expensive than your cover story explains, and you'd freeze your tail off. Oh, and this definitely stays here." The last was said as Duo reached into the bag and pulled out Wufei's spare Browning.

"Can't you smuggle it in past the blockade?" Wufei queried, voice heavy with irony.

"The blockade ain't the problem and no, you don't bring guns into Freeport." Duo put the Browning on the bedside table and started packing the rejected clothes back in Wufei's bag. "Did you happen to bring a sword?"

Wufei had his mouth open to challenge Duo's assertion that a clever smuggler such as Maxwell couldn't get a small Browning past customs. It stayed open for a bit. "...A sword?"

"Yeah. You had one during the war, didja keep it?"

Of course he'd kept it. And what's more he took it with him wherever he went to train his forms in his spare time. At least that's what he told people it was for, and the three friends who knew about its sentimental value just nodded and said 'sure'.

"I left it at the shuttleport, in their business safe. It's valuable, to me at least. I don't want it stolen. Why-"

"I give it the same odds of getting stolen at the shuttleport as it does in Freeport. This is L2 after all. No matter, here." Duo reached into the cupboard and pulled out a short sword in a plain black scabbard. He tossed it at Wufei who caught it and unsheathed it with a practiced movement.

"Wakizashi," he said, tilting the blade to the grey light from the grimy window. "Heero's?"

"Kinda. I got it for him, but he leaves it here with the rest of his Freeport stuff. You can use that. At least you know how to use a blade, that's a plus."

"You mean..." The full import of the conversation was dawning on Wufei. "You mean I might actually have to use a sword on Freeport?"

"Yup. Well, no, hopefully not, but if we get into a fight-"

"People fight with swords?!"

Duo looked at him steadily, eyes searching. "Wufei...just how much do you know about Freeport?"

Wufei let his wrist go soft, feeling the sword's balance. "Not much," he admitted shortly. "I was only handed this mission yesterday. I didn't have much time to prepare for it. I heard of the weapons ban the blockade imposes, of course. It was there even during the Alliance. I assumed people violated it all the time, though." Smugglers such as Duo, for example. "But I should hope, if you are going to have me fight with a sword, that the opposition will not be armed with a gun?"

"Nope, no guns."

"If that's the case..." Wufei lifted the sword's tip, then flipped the cutting edge to one side in a quick, deadly swipe. "If that's the case, we'll take a detour by the shuttleport's offices to get my sword before we leave. This one is not all that good." He´d just take his sword everywhere with him and not lose sight of it for a minute.

"Well sor-reee it's not up to your standards, Chang. It was the best I could find. Heero never complained."

"That's because Heero doesn't cut with a sword, he bludgeons," Wufei sniffed. "Even his foil technique relies mainly on his unnatural speed and strength. If you gave Heero a crowbar, he'd manage just as well."

Duo's eyebrows twitched up as he smiled archly. "Huh. You ever wonder what Heero says about you?"

"I know what he says about me, he says it to my face and I return the favor."

"You two share such a beautiful friendship." But the irony sounded put on, as if Duo was perfectly aware of the real depths of the two Preventers' comradeship when all but two of their co-workers thought Wufei and Heero got along about as well as fire and ice. Wufei sheathed the sword and looked at Duo obliquely while the latter fished a few more things from the cupboard. Just what had Heero told Maxwell? How close were these two?

Wufei put the sword in a corner, imagining Heero's hands on the hilt. He and Heero had a lot of unspoken rules to their friendship, one of which was they didn't meddle in each other's relationships. So Wufei wasn't sure how close Heero and Duo were. One of the best Preventers in the force paired with a conman and a smuggler? You could make several cheap and cheesy movies out of that one. It seemed farfetched to say the least, but Wufei couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't the reason Heero had agreed to dive time and again back into Freeport, or take Duo with him as an 'advisor' when cornering some gun runners in the Inner Satellites. There had always appeared to be some connection between the two during the war, the kind that could have grown into more, assuming Duo swung that way...well, none of Wufei's business.

"If you'd rather use your own slicer, we can pick it up before we head to Freeport. Though you won't have to fight," Duo added, seeming very sure of that fact. Wufei just nodded tightly and said nothing as he watched the smuggler add a pair of utilitarian grey boxers to the clothes he'd selected. Wonderful. He wasn't sure how close Yuy and Maxwell were, but having Duo choose his underwear was already more intimate than Wufei wanted to get.

Duo gave him and then the clothes a pointed look. Wufei looked back, waiting. Duo turned away, but it was only to move as far as the cupboard and lean against it, arms crossed over his chest, eyes on Wufei and a smirk hanging around the corner of his mouth like a thrown gauntlet. Great, looked like Maxwell hadn't grown up one bit. Very well. If Duo wanted to look, then let him get an eyeful.

No hiss or exclamation when Wufei stripped off his shirt, but as he pulled his head free of the cloth he saw Duo's gaze had fixed itself on the scars. The smirk had disappeared. Wufei was unbuckling his pants before Duo spoke.

"Do I even want to see the other guy?"

"The other guy is dead." He did not need to ask what Duo was referring to.

"Of course. What did he use, a flame-thrower?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Napalm."

Wufei stopped stripping to run an impartial hand down the planes of his chest. To all appearances, a careless God had flayed off long stretches of skin from Wufei's left side and upper arm, replacing it with a smooth, hairless simulacrum. Whorls and dips like divine fingerprints were visible at the edges where He'd tamped it down onto Wufei's body. Scarred remains of a nipple drew a faint brown line against the paler skin.

"Napalm." Duo's gaze was clinical as it went over the burns with the eyes of a soldier. "Then you were bloody lucky, Chang."

"No, I was careless. I didn't dive away fast enough and got splashed. Fortunately for me, Heero was present."

"Heero- ah, right, so that's where he got those burns on his palms and forearms."

"He didn't tell you?" Wufei tried to fit that piece of information into his Yuy-Maxwell theory, ignoring by force of habit the prickle of deadened nerves his hand brushed as he slid down his pants. The damage dribbled down his left hip in the savage pink keloid scarring of a second-degree burn. Not as bad as the left side of his chest where the epidermis had been completely scorched away in places. The lighter burns on his side and arm had hurt, agony like a blunt saw taking him apart where the nerves had been attacked; he'd barely felt a thing where they'd been killed outright by the handful of chemical on his chest, spread across the skin as he desperately rolled to put out the fire. The smell...it still gave him nightmares, the smell of his own flesh cooking.

Heero had tried to help. Wufei remembered cursing him like a madman. It'd felt like his friend was ripping Wufei's skin off with his fingernails. Heero´s matching second degree burns on hands and arms were a silent reproof of Wufei´s carelessness. Yuy had risked his limbs to wipe the sticky, burning jelly off of his partner´s body before smothering him in a fire blanket. It had taken some time to come to terms with that debt. A few months, until it was his turn to save Heero's life again. Trowa made a point of keeping a running score in the wry hope they'd eventually remember he couldn't afford to lose either of them.

"No, Heero never did tell me where he got those scars. Just showed up with them on one of our undercover gigs few years ago. I bugged him of course, so he said he'd been in an accident, but he never gave me any details." Duo shrugged. The movement shoved him away from the dresser. He walked slowly towards Wufei, examining the burns with nothing more apparent than slight curiosity. "Nice grafts. Very nice."

Wufei glanced down. He'd not thought of them as being nice or otherwise. He'd refused the cosmetic surgery that would have reduced the appearance of scarring. None of the damage impaired his movements - he'd been lucky with that, too - and he'd already wasted two months of his time in and out of hospital, he wasn't going to waste more over something as trivial as appearances.

He slipped down his briefs, tossed them into his pile of clothes and went to pick up the boxers Duo had laid out.

"Must have hurt like a bitch." The casual sympathy changed to a leer when Duo added, "But I see the Chang family jewels didn't come to any harm."

Wufei gave him the look he normally reserved for rats, bureaucrats and other vermin, but he didn't hurry his movements to draw on the boxers. This whole thing, watching him undress, the jab...Duo was trying to fluster him, press him, gain some sort of advantage over him. Wufei didn't know why, or if there was even a reason, but he was damned if he was going to let it happen.

"When did this go down?" Duo asked, settling back against the dresser. His eyes were going over the rest of Wufei's body, maybe checking for other injuries he'd not heard about. He must have noticed the stitches on Wufei's back, the bruises, the obvious impact of a bullet against a flak jacket on his belly, all recent. He made no comment.

"Three years ago. Nearly two years after the Last War."

"Note the irony. Are there a lotta lunatics totting napalm around out there?"

"Less," was all Wufei said. Duo's status was that of an informant and strictly no security level as far as Wufei was concerned. He slipped on the pants. The leather was coarser than his own, tougher and quilted inside; very warm and quite comfortable, though predictably enough a bit too large at the waist. He cinched in the belt and judged them acceptable. The leather didn't creak as he moved. They were well-worn.

The long-sleeved t-shirt was also warm, though the cloth was rough and cheap, a rasp against his skin and a distant prickle against the scarring. Wufei moved his arms and shoulders around, trying to tame the feeling and get the fibers settled down against his skin. He looked up to find the jacket held out to him. Duo's pinkies were standing straight out, the parody of a refined gesture a contrast to the bulky jacket that looked like something a less reputable biker would wear. Wufei slipped his arms through the sleeves without bothering to comment. Duo settled it over his shoulders with a couple of pats. It was surprisingly heavy and also well worn, some kind of tough polyester ribbed with rubber edges at shoulders and elbows. Wufei relaxed his arms and then his fist shot out, giving the air a couple of punches. It wasn't too tight over the shoulders, not enough to hamper his movements anyway.

"Not too bad," he grumbled.

"Hmmm." Duo was back at the bed, stuffing Wufei's t-shirts and other articles of clothing from the cupboard into a stained and beaten knapsack. Wufei caught a swift glance from beneath the thick bangs. The gaze was gauging. It occurred to Wufei that Duo's baiting might have been to goad him into a reaction that would prove he couldn't shut up and take a small piece of humiliation. The Preventer felt a flash of annoyance, but he kept it from showing. The last time he saw you, you were a child, he reminded himself; a fifteen-year-old warrior with too much pride and arrogance.

Wufei had kept the pride and the arrogance, but now they were founded on his true self; they came from knowing he was doing something essential, that he was protecting what he'd killed for in the past. He did what had to be done, said what had to be said, however much that inconvenienced some people or himself for that matter. If Duo didn't realize that, then that space-jockey didn't remember Wufei all that well either.