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"I know that the sunset empire shudders and shakes
I know there's a floodgate and a raging river
I say see the silence of the ribbons of iron and steel
I say hear the punch drunk buddle drive hammer and wheel
Sometimes you're beaten to the call
Sometimes you're taken to the wall
But you don't give in"
---Midnight Oil, Sometimes
Mako sauntered over to the Breaker carrying the meat hooks. He chose one of the crude weapons and swished it around carelessly by the handle. Wufei's eyes stayed fixed on the vagaries of the ugly bent hook. He barely noted how the Breaker handed the second weapon to Carver.
"Wufei, this is nuts," Duo hissed at him, his eyes on Carver as the larger man tested the sharp end with his thumb. "You have to let me do this. You got beaten up not two hours ago, and you've never fought with a hook before-"
"Have you?" Wufei asked without tearing his eyes away from the instrument in Mako's hand.
"I've fought with lots of different weapons," Duo said evasively.
"That would be a 'no' then. I've trained with short sticks and wooden sabers-"
"That won't be anything like it!" Duo snapped. "This isn't something you find in a dojo, Chang."
"He's right," said Mako, heading back to them. He tossed the hook at Wufei when he was four feet away. "This thing has no fucking balance at all."
Wufei caught the long piece of metal, bent into a sharpened hook at one end, and had to agree. It wasn't quite as heavy as he'd thought it'd be, but the weight was all in the u-bend at the end.
"Be smart, Duo," Mako added, as Duo started to protest again. "With your fingers, you can't hold the grip firm. You wouldn't stand a chance; not against that big ape. You and Rav have your differences, but now we gotta work together. I'll help Chang get ready here, you two try to figure out what happens after the duel, however it goes. Morgenstern isn't going to roll over and play dead even if Chang wins."
Duo grumbled, but let Mako shoo him off to one side of the platform where Ravachol and a Red Band were talking in low voices.
"Take off your shirt. It won't protect you, and you'll just be giving him something loose to grab. You're right handed, right?" Mako drew out a roll of tape from his back pocket, the kind boxers put on to protect their knuckles beneath their gloves.
"Just can the act, Chang. I know you're no Blade. If you want to keep up the rigmarole, I can ask Duo to give you permission to talk to me due to an emergency, but let's not do that and say we did. If we wait too long, your public will get restless," Mako added with a toothy smirk.
A lot of people were indeed watching the preparations on the platform with the kind of anticipation that had triggered a lot of self-righteous condemnation in Wufei when he'd first arrived. Now he understood it better. Vicarious thrills had its share, true; Freeport could be a cruel and violent place, and people adapted to their environment. But it was more than that. This bloodshed would be a resolution, a conclusion. These people were witnesses, this duel was part of a pact that kept Freeport together even when internal strife threatened to tear it apart. It wouldn't do to delay that. Besides, Wufei had given Morgenstern his word that he would try to expedite things, and Mako knew who he was by now, there was no point in being coy and keeping up the charade. Wufei nodded tersely and gripped the meat hook's handle in his right hand. The metal was screwed into a large wooden grip that didn't fit his fingers too well. Butchers probably had bigger hands than he did. He lowered his arm; the hook ended at the ankle. About the size of a short Jian, and Wufei had trained with that sort of blade.
"Don't think of it as a sword," Mako said, as if reading his mind. "I've fought with a tool like this before. I'd show you the scar, but I'd have to strip and the audience ain't here for that kinda show."
"I'm glad you're finding this amusing," Wufei muttered, face away from the crowd.
"It's good advice I'm giving you, though fuck me if I know why I'm helping a Pig," Mako said, pulling off a length of wrapping tape. "Don't try to use the sharp end. If you snag him somewhere non-vital, you won't get the hook out again before he can kill you. You have to use it to break bones; that's the trick. Use it like a badass cudgel, and don't worry about the hook until he's down and ready for the kill."
Mako roughly taped Wufei's fingers over the grip of the meat hook and tying it at the palm, making sure he'd keep his hold on the weapon. Then he grabbed Wufei's other hand and wrapped up his knuckles and wrist as well. Wufei almost asked Mako why he was helping him, but Mako's attention was only partly on what he was doing. Wufei followed the man's gaze to where it rested on Carver. There was a cold, calculating anger in Mako's grey eyes that the lazy smirk couldn't quite hide. Wufei remembered that Joshua Brindlow had been a friend of Ravachol's. Maybe Mako had known him too. Even if he hadn't, in Freeport, your friends and the friends of your friends were as vital as the air you breathed.
The pale grey eyes left Carver and fastened on Wufei's arms, assessing, before they rested on his features.
"Kill him for me and I might just let you live, Preventer."
"Or stand in line and I'll get to you when I'm done with him," said Wufei, resting the weight of the metal hook against his shoulder.
Months ago, when he'd first set eyes on Mako, Wufei had been distantly interested in the man's mouth. He'd been correct in his assessment back then: Mako really did look exceptional when he smiled.
"It's been awhile since I was outside," Mako said slowly. "Are there a lot of Pigs like you out there?"
Considering what Wufei was about to do..."No, probably not," he conceded. "And technically I'm not one of them anymore."
"Their loss." Mako measured Carver with a glance. "He's got the weight and the range, but I think you got your chances. Kill him. Okay, Chang's ready here!"
A space had cleared itself in the centre of the stage; people had moved to the sides, or gone down the ramp to join the crowds at the edge of the huge pit over which the platform was hanging. Carver and Morgenstern were standing to one side. The financier was talking to his Blade in a low voice. Carver was nodding in response to the last-minute orders. They glanced up at Mako's signal. Carver's brown eyes fastened on Wufei.
A hand gripped Wufei's shoulder. "I hope you know what you're doing, Chang," Duo commented.
"Get Babka and the others out of here if you can. Morgenstern said he'd make sure they were in the frontline if things blew up."
"He won't lay a finger on them," was the steely answer.
Wufei glanced at his friend. Duo had a hard crooked smile on his face. He was getting battle ready too, diving into the warrior's mindset where you soldiered on despite the losses, and you didn't mourn your dead as long as they managed to take enough of the enemy with them. It was necessary; it was what was called for. But...
Always for the greater good....Never for us...
Wufei knew that his job now was to take down Carver whatever the cost to himself. It would be a blow against Morgenstern, it would protect Freeport, it would give Duo a chance. Three good reasons to die. But Wufei suddenly decided he wasn't going to. He'd take Carver down, yes, but he was damned if he was going to do so at that price. Duo had lost a lot in his life. Wufei didn't want to become one more cross for Duo to bear. His lover didn't deserve that. Duo had trusted him, had taken him in. Even when he'd learned how much Wufei had lied to him, Duo had accepted that and the necessities of Wufei's job. He'd seen beyond it, in a way Wufei sometimes struggled to. Remembering the way Duo had reached out to him, the respect he offered Wufei and the work they'd done together, Wufei could almost let himself believe he deserved to live for his own sake as well as Duo's.
Duo glanced his way. "Yeah?"
"...Have a plan ready for when I finish this, will you?" Wufei said. Because what he really wanted to say was too long, complicated and personal for the minute he had left before a public duel. He'd be hard put to put his thoughts and feelings into words at the best of times.
The hard smile wavered. Maybe those other words didn't need saying out loud after all, not between the two of them.
His lover looked away. "Just get back in one piece and I'll let you in on it," Duo muttered quickly, as if he was trying to get that said and done before Fate realized they were making promises to each other and decided on one last universal irony.
Wufei nodded. It was as good as a vow.
He walked towards the centre of the platform. Carver was already there. Wufei didn't pay heed to the sound of feet hastily backing away from the improvised arena. His mind moved past the noises of the crowd, it faded from his mind as he focused. He'd made a promise, now he had to keep it.
Carver had stripped out of his shirt and coat as well. Scars pockmarked the Space-pale skin. A bullet impact, a few ragged tears from a blade. Carver was holding the meat hook as if it were weightless, but without the benefit of having it strapped to his fingers. This might give Wufei a chance to disarm him.
Wufei slowly detached his mind from Duo, from his friends, from Freeport's fate, and stared into Carver's eyes. They were frighteningly steady and sure. Carver had moved into the warrior's headspace faster than Wufei had. Maybe he never really left it.
Wufei wasn't surprised by the sudden attack when it came. It had been in Carver's eyes all along. He fell back and sideways, evading the charge. Carver wasn't swinging the hook; it was held out like a hand ready to grasp. He was probing.
Carvel fell back, though not all the way. Wufei circled him, measuring the other man. Memories of Carver's victims passed fleetingly through Wufei's mind. He forced himself to distance himself from them. He could not afford anger or indignation, not if he wanted justice for those dead.
The platform faded from Wufei's senses; only the essence of its boundaries remained, the space he had to work with. The crude instrument in his hand was starting to feel familiar beneath his fingers. It didn't matter that it had no balance, that it couldn't cut, that it was barbaric and brutal. It was becoming a part of him. So, in a way, was Carver.
The big man moved like a tiger, muscles rippling as he sprang forward at a tangent. Wufei was ready. He swung out, a short sharp jab with the shaft of the hook, aiming at Carver's elbow.
Carver dodged the blows. Wufei spun around on one foot and struck down at Carver's knee with his heel.
The blow didn't connect, Wufei's timing and speed were slightly off, and his opponent was fast. Carver backed off a step, then he hammered down with his hook, aiming the sharp point at Wufei's head.
Wufei dodged sideways. The metal almost brushed his bare shoulder, the swish of its passage leaving a cold trail on his bare skin.
Both fighters broke and started circling again, measuring each other once more with the aid of this new knowledge they'd gained.
The blood was pounding at the back of Wufei's head where he'd been hit earlier, and his bruises and the small burn on his neck were flaring under the cold air of Kropotkin. He could measure how much stamina he had left; it would not give him the luxury of dragging this fight out. But he didn't let that knowledge panic him as he slowly focused fully on his opponent.
He stared into the flat, brown eyes and thought: we are quite alike, you and I.
It was a difficult admission, but in this void created by his concentration there was no room for self-delusion.
There was a lot of loss and anger behind those eyes. It wasn't directed at anyone still living. It had formed like a cyst around Carver's soul. Carver had given over his future, his choices, his existence to another; to a man who could still look into the future and make plans. Carver no longer made plans. He no longer judged or took decisions. He merely performed the duties that his master gave him. It wasn't cowardice; he'd chosen his path, and he would walk it to the bitter end, because that was his choice.
We could have been even more alike...but in the end, I chose differently.
Wufei was no longer looking at Carver with hate, disgust or even pity. They'd both chosen the road that had taken them here; they both wore a collar, like most men did in the end. Now Wufei had a promise to keep, and Carver had orders. The real battle started here.
It would have to be short. The longer it lasted, the worst Wufei's chances, as his injuries started to drag him down.
Carver attacked again. He darted in from Wufei's right, the hook trailing behind him, wound back and aimed at Wufei. The Preventer took three steps to the side, taking some of the deadly arc out of that potential swing, his own instrument at the ready for a parry.
His opponent's hook shot out at knee level, to knock Wufei's legs out from under him. Wufei leapt back. Carver's blows were still probing, looking for an opening, but at the same time he was forcing Wufei back towards the guardrail of the hanging platform, towards the empty space and the abysmal plunge into the under-level of Kropotkin. He'd already reduced Wufei's range and space by a dozen square feet.
Wufei weaved back a couple of steps, voluntarily boxing himself in a bit more...then he plunged forward. Carver's weapon scythed out, tried to catch him, but it whistled above Wufei's back. Wufei had lunged very low, taking advantage of their height difference, one hand hitting the ground and helping him tumble and get to his feet again before Carver could adjust his strike.
If he'd been in better shape, the move might have given him a short shot at Carver's back. But it took him a precious second or two to catch his balance, and Carver was amazingly fast for someone that big. Wufei was back on the defensive, but with over half the hanging platform behind him now.
Carver grimly began herding him towards the distant guardrail again. And why not? It was a good strategy. He'd either wing Wufei with one of his long, vicious swings, or he'd corner the Preventer, or he'd simply wear him out. In any event, Carver was going to win.
Wufei let himself stagger a bit, a tempting target...When Carver swung at him, Wufei grabbed the bent end of his own hook in his free hand and parried. He took the blow of Carver's weapon against the shaft of his own, bracing both arms against the shock. Carver's eyes widened. Wufei jerked down with his hook, snagging the shaft of Carver's weapon with the U of his own and pulling away, trying to rip it from Carver's grasp.
Then he barely dodged a massive punch to the gut.
Carver leaned forward and shoved his weapon against Wufei's. Wufei went flying straight back. With an instinctive flick of the wrist, he managed to disengage their hooks even as he stumbled, or he'd have been brought up short by the grip strapped to his hand, and then he'd have been at Carver's mercy.
He hit the deck hard, and rolled to his feet with more difficulty this time. His head was spinning. Cold prickles ran down his spine. If that punch had connected...Damn it, that freak was fast.
Carver moved forward at a prudent pace, he'd obviously reevaluated Wufei's skill and speed yet again. But he must have also realized the extent of Wufei's injuries. Now it was just a matter of wearing the Preventer down until Carver could finish him off.
Wufei took a few steps back. He knew Carver's advance was pushing him into a corner again, but he needed time, just a few seconds...It was the way Carver had used the hook for the two blows he'd aimed at Wufei, that was what had caught his attention and sent his warrior's instincts racing to formulate a strategy.
Carver's grip was like steel. Wufei would not get that hook from him without weakening him first. The man's greater reach was like an impenetrable wall around him. But that punch, and the way he held his hook, were revealing. If Wufei had had the opportunity Carver had just had, he'd have kicked rather than punched, and broken Carver's knee. Carver was not trained as fully in the martial arts, and it looked like he'd only used a machete before, never a staff or tonfa. Carver was concentrating on what he thought was the killing part of the long metal hook: the bent metal end. Wufei's use of his weapon had caught Carver by surprise (though damn had he ever recovered fast...)
The thoughts and conclusions darted through Wufei's mind in a couple of seconds, more impressions than actual formulated analysis. He had a plan now. It was a gamble, and a dangerous one, but Carver was as good as Wufei remembered; the greater gamble would be to continue probing that strong defense, dodging those vicious blows and waiting for an opening that might not occur before Wufei was too weak to capitalize on it.
Wufei went from edging backwards to a full-swinging attack in a fraction of a second. Carver's eyes widened in surprise, but his well-trained body was already falling into a parry-attack stance.
Wufei pressed. Speed was the key here, he could not allow Carver time to think, only react. He hammered at Carver's wrist with the shaft of his hook, then whisked the weapon around and slammed it down towards Carver's thigh when his opponent jerked his arm out of the way.
Wufei dodged one counterstrike and attacked again, staying on the balls of his feet-
Carver grunted and threw a sideways swipe with the hook, right to left, just to get Wufei to step back and fall into the defensive again. The gesture was confident; he knew there'd be no openings for Wufei to exploit, as Carver's range was greater. He knew he had the advantage.
Instead of falling back, Wufei braced himself and threw up his left arm in a parry.
In that sliver of a moment, he actually saw Carver's eyes widen with anticipated victory.
The sharp end of the metal hook slammed into the flesh of Wufei's upper left arm. It hurt more than he thought it would, pulsing agony as the muscle tetanized around the intruding spoke of metal. But Wufei was ready, he'd expected it, and his body had been primed to carry through the next move regardless. Through vision filling with black splotches, he took another half step forward and punched Carver right in the jaw with the heel of his right hand.
The skill he'd acquired from his lifelong training gave the blow a deadly accuracy; the weight of the unused meat hook in his hand added venom. Carver's head snapped back with a sharp crack.
Wufei immediately slammed his hook into Carver's wrist on the downswing of his punch. It connected with a meaty thud. Carver's hook jerked in the muscles of Wufei's arm- pain! - then the flesh was ripped again as Carver, still staggering from the vicious punch, lost his grip on the wooden handle.
Agony hit Wufei like 10Gs of acceleration and his vision went black.
He was on his knees. A pounding heartbeat and darkness filled his mind.
A metallic clang nearby, sound dopplered by layers of shock. That'd be his enemy's weapon hitting the ground...Wufei tore himself out of the darkness by sheer strength of will. If he didn't-...if he-
Air rasped in his lungs. Wufei blinked. He could suddenly see again.
The scene before him was like a snapshot, flat, lifeless and unreal. Carver was leaning forward, eyes barely focused, blood gushing from his mouth where his teeth had scored his tongue. He was reaching for the fallen hook on the ground.
In what felt like slow-motion, Wufei struck out with his own hook, batting Carver's arm away. Then he swung up with his weapon and caught Carver full on the chest. It wasn't much of a blow - Wufei was still in shock - but it knocked Carver back. The bigger man landed back down on the ground with a thump, still reeling from the initial punch.
Wufei could see more clearly now, but it still felt like someone else getting to his feet, someone else turning towards the hook on the ground and kicking it as hard as he could. It skittered away, out of reach. Wufei turned without watching where it ended up. His weapon was already swinging.
Carver had scrambled to his knees. He saw it coming. He moved his head out of the way, but he was still dazed enough where he couldn't avoid the entire blow. It struck him on the shoulder, felling him to the ground again.
Wufei swung the hook underhand and upwards. He didn't even know which way the point was anymore, but he wasn't aiming to use the sharp part. The shaft of the hook socked Carver under the chin as his head sagged forward. It hurled him backwards, his skull snapping back.
Wufei swayed. He couldn't use his left arm; his entire left side was dead, distantly hot and throbbing. But the fight was over now. Just a few more seconds, and he could bind the injury.
Carver knew it was over too, but no fear stained the brown eyes. They'd gone completely flat, barely human in the bloodstained, bruised face. His gaze was fixed and staring, as if he could only see one path before him, the one he'd chosen to the end. Dead men had eyes like that.
He staggered to one knee and tried to dodge Wufei's next strike, but the two blows to the head had taken too great a toll. He couldn't stay upright.
Wufei hit him hard on the shoulder again. Heard/felt something give under the metal.
Carver fell back, rolled onto the uninjured side, tried to get out of range. He was heading circuitously towards his weapon, which had slid to a halt near the edge of the platform. There was no hope in that action, it was nothing but an automatic attempt, like choreographed steps in a mock battle whose outcome was already decided.
Wufei followed him, ignoring the sensations in his body, the growing weight of the hook in his hand. He let Carver go for the weapon at a scurrying crawl because he knew what he'd do then, and it was as good an ending as any.
Someone was shouting off to the right...Shadows flickered around him, but they stayed out of his mental battle space, so he didn't track them too closely. All his attention was on Carver, who was trying to close his fingers around the handle of his weapon. Wufei had broken the man's clavicle and maybe his wrist as well.
Carver used his left hand, and, with an effort that forced admiration, rose to his feet. He had to know what was coming...but then again, it was an easy way out for him as well.
Wufei spun around on his left leg and kicked Carver high up on the chest, hurling him backward. Carver's hips hit the guardrail of the platform behind him, but the force Wufei had applied was too great and aimed too high. The metal barrier couldn't stop Carver from pitching out over it and into the void.
Wufei walked to the railing, automatically making sure. Carver could have grabbed a handhold. He saw only darkness leading down into the under-level below Kropotkin. Far below, among the storage tanks and crates, would be the broken body of a Blade whose name Wufei had never actually learned.
Good. Carver might not have deserved the small compassion of a relatively quick death; maybe getting slowly ripped apart with a meat hook was some form of justice for his victims. It wasn't Wufei's justice, though.
He glanced at his left arm for the first time since Carver's hook had dealt its damage. Looked ugly. The puncture wound itself wouldn't have been too bad compared to other injuries in Wufei's violent past, but the blows and tugs had ripped the hole bigger and chewed up the triceps. It was bleeding like hell, but not enough to kill him. Probably. A couple of days in a regen unit and a few weeks of rest and reeducation and-
Wufei was on his knees, gagging. A pair of boots appeared in his graying field of vision. They were familiar. Just the sight of them made the pain a bit more bearable.
...kept my promise, Duo...
Then his arm hurt a whole hell of a lot as hands that could be a mite gentler applied pressure and dealt with the small hemorrhage.
Duo's voice, one long agitated diatribe, pierced the fading tinnitus in Wufei's ears. "Fuck what a stupid stunt I can't believe you'd do that you could have taken him without doing that or you could have fucking well let me fight him instead, what a fucking mess, if you bleed out on me-"
"I won't," Wufei sighed. His whole left side was an aching throb, but his head was clearing again.
"Get the hell away from us, Mako." A knife sliced through the wrapping on Wufei's right hand, freeing him from the hook. The metal slipped through his limp fingers and hit the platform with a ringing thud.
"Maxwell! The situation-"
"You're going to be fine," Duo said, inspecting the dressing he'd improvised from Wufei's ripped-up shirt and boxing tape. "It's not bleeding enough to kill you, anyway. No, stay down-"
Wufei slowly got to his feet. "I'm okay."
"You won't be for long, idiot. That's still bleeding. Jesus, won't you-"
"Maxwell!" Mako jerked Duo around by the shoulder. "Rav needs you!"
Wufei had thought it was his heartbeat ringing savagely in his ears, as shock, stress and adrenaline finally had their way with him. But it wasn't. As if Carver's death had been a catalyst, the intently single-minded crowd had erupted into small knots of fighting. People shouted, some screamed. There was a concerted movement away, but there were also tides of people flowing into the Esplanade to join in the fray, hampering escape. It didn't look like a riot; the violence was too scattered, turned inwards on itself instead of on a figure of authority. But it didn't look pretty.
"What's going on?" Wufei croaked.
"Some guys have finally figured things out and want answers," Duo replied, carelessly freeing himself from Mako's grasp without even looking around. "Others will always stand by Morgenstern, whatever he's done. And some bruisers out there are always two seconds and a punch away from blowing a fuse anyway. At least they're not heading straight to Lao Tzu with Morgenstern at the helm."
"It could still go that way," Mako said tightly, eyeing the mob.
"Yeah, it could," Duo answered, curt and uncaring. He slipped Wufei's uninjured arm over his shoulder and walked away from Rav's henchman as if that was all he cared to discuss. Mako muttered something and rejoined Ravachol, who was on the edge of the platform, staring bleakly out into the crowd.
Morgenstern was nowhere to be seen; he'd taken his men and dispersed into the huddle of Kropotkin citizens, fanning the flames where he could. Wufei wondered distractedly what Morgenstern had felt when his Blade had taken that plunge.
"Duo...we have to..." Wufei looked at the crowd's movements helplessly. This wasn't a riot. This wasn't something a Preventer had ever seen before. It looked like a barroom brawl, spread over the size of a sector. It looked like the start of a revolution, but with a thousand separate sides. He didn't even know how to begin to defuse this situation.
Then Duo was taking him down the ramp and he could no longer see the boiling crowd, only a group of Rav's men surrounding Babka, Gilla and a few of the older Makhno citizens, all tense and worried. The younger ones who'd shown up to defend Wufei were no longer present. Either they'd made it out on their own with the wave of other escapees who didn't feel up to this fight, or else they'd chosen a side and joined in.
"Wufei, you're gonna be pissing mad at me for this," Duo said. "Though the way I see it, you owe me for that stupid duel you agreed to."
Wufei glanced at him in confusion. "Huh?"
For answer, Duo propped him up against Gilla's chair. "I want you to go to the clinic with Babka, Gilla and anybody else who'll come."
"I'm okay," Wufei said. He felt a bit light-headed, and the pain was nibbling away at whatever reserves he still had, but- "I'll stay with you. You need me to watch your back."
"You'd be more a danger to me than anything else," Duo pointed out bluntly, "and in your current shape, you can barely watch yourself. You did your bit. You helped us draw Morgenstern's fangs. Now go to the hospital. It's neutral ground, nobody will harm you there. I can't be worryin' about both of us. Here." A knife was pressed into the fingers of Wufei's right hand. "Make sure the others are okay on the way over."
Clever, putting an obligation like that on Wufei. The Preventer glanced around him. Gilla was looking at him in silence. Babka was next to him, but she was staring at the agitation in the Esplanade with distress and pain in her old eyes.
"Damn it," Wufei muttered, but he knew his lover had a point. If he went with Duo, somebody was bound to remember that Preventer picture. He'd be a lightning rod. Better make a getaway now while things were too volatile for anybody to think.
"I'll be fine," Duo said, sensing he'd won the argument. He made sure Wufei was leaning against Gilla's chair. "I know my way around, and Rav's gonna need a hand with this mess."
Wufei nodded, and closed his eyes tight as he felt a wave of nausea shake him. He was still dazed and dizzy. When he opened his eyes again, Duo was already gone; just like that, before Wufei could tell him anything more, or caution him, or threaten him with a thorough ass-kicking if he got himself hurt.
Wufei found himself numbly pushing a silent Gilla, though maybe it was Gilla who was moving his chair with his strong arms grasping the wheels and Wufei clinging to it to avoid falling over. Babka's hand was on the chair's other handle. Some of their friends were behind them and others up ahead, making their way through the incoming crowd, skirting the heart of the agitation.
Marta Bernstein was with them. Wufei stared at her dully, his mind still too confused to fully analyze her presence here. He'd thought she'd join with Rav's men and fight. She was holding a thick cudgel, but it dangled from her fingers. She was crying; one tear trickled down her face set in an unreadable mask, then, a minute later, another one. She didn't speak to him while their small group navigated through the growing mob, or in the echoing hallways outside of Kropotkin, or during the long trip through a disturbed Freeport to the hospital complex. Nobody said anything, except for Babka. She stood on the shuttle platform (before they realized that somebody had cut the power in the tunnel, and they'd have to make their way on foot) and said: "I'm glad you're okay, Wufei."
Freeport didn't have a regen unit, to Wufei's absolute lack of surprise. He made do with analgesics, a local anesthetic and micro-suture repairs to the muscle by a harried surgeon. Wufei knew that with that kind of fix for this injury, he would lose mobility in the arm unless he had corrective surgery on the Outside. But that was so far in the future, it could have been another age and another universe. Wufei had more immediate concerns.
The surgeon left at a trot, leaving the nurse to finish stitching the epidermis and bind the wound. The doctor's hurry told Wufei that other casualties were flooding into the clinic. Despite Duo's assurance that he'd 'done his bit', Wufei's sense of failure was eating away at him.
The nurse finished his bandage, checked his bruises and was talking about mild concussion when a Red Band appeared. He had nothing to say to Wufei; he dragged the nurse aside and they conferred for a short while. Ten minutes later, Wufei was led out of the wards and into the nurse's lounge, and the Red Band took up guard duty in front of the door. It wasn't clear if he was there to stop Wufei from leaving or to protect him from potential reprisals. Possibly both.
The coffee machine in the corner hummed as the minutes, then the hours, passed. Wufei stared at it blindly as he tried to organize his thoughts, come up with possible plans, and accept the failures that had brought him here.
At least he'd done something right: he'd made sure his friends from Makhno had made it to the clinic with him. He'd seen Babka before the Red Band took him away; she was in a large room - once a ward, now getting set up as triage - and working at setting out sheets and supplies on a long table. She hadn't seen him. She'd looked alright, and he was ready to bet she was going to stay here and help the staff with the wounded until the crisis was over. Assuming it was going to end any time soon. He hadn't seen Gilla, or Marta, or Dannie, or any of the others who'd come with them to the clinic. He hoped they'd stayed somewhere around the compound or sector. He wasn't sure how safe Makhno would be for them right now.
No sign of Duo.
The lounge was comfortable, with a camp bed set up in a curtained corner for nurses and interns to grab a rest, but Wufei would have preferred to wait in triage, to see if someone was bringing in his lover at any point. The doctors here wouldn't even know to warn him if Duo was brought in, and Wufei couldn't inform them, that wouldn't be safe for Duo. So he waited.
The coffee machine muttered, warming up more water that no one was using. No nurse came in for its produce. Maybe they had another lounge, and they'd been told this one was off-limits by the Red Band guarding the door. Or maybe the flood of casualties was as bad as Wufei's pessimism suggested, and the nurses didn't have the time for coffee. There were eighty thousand people living in Freeport. This hospital had room for three thousand maximum, which was a stupidly low number, considering the population working in a high-risk environment. Maybe Freeport had contingency planning...
Wufei tried to meditate, sitting on the sagging couch with his wounded arm in a sling. He sought his focus, clearing his mind to react to any eventuality, but the pain of his injury and the dull throbbing in his abused body and sore head were distracting. He couldn't manage more than a light dazed state of trance. He felt so useless.
He could probably break out of here. However damaged he was, that Red Band would not be able to stop him, and everybody else was too busy by the sound of it. But if he left, he'd get himself killed, or assuming he was amazingly lucky and found Duo in the chaos, he'd get Duo killed, and that would be- that would be unthinkable.
In the distance outside the hospital, someone started shouting into a loudspeaker. Wufei got to his feet where he wobbled, momentarily light-headed. He went closer to a vent in one side of the windowless room, but he couldn't make out the words. Someone ran past the door to the lounge, but people had been running past it for the last three hours he'd been here, that was nothing new.
Ten minutes later, his surgeon showed up again. The man looked strained, but he was not yet panicking about the state of his colony as far as Wufei could tell.
"You're up? Didn't somebody tell you that you could use the bed?"
Wufei didn't glance at the bed the surgeon was gesturing at. He stared at the man with the most frustration he'd felt since Duo had put the collar around his neck along with all its restrictions. Chances were, this doctor knew who Wufei was now, and even if he didn't, he might not actually care if a Blade grabbed him by the shoulders and asked him what the hell was going on outside. But discipline was something bred into Wufei's bones, and there was always the fear that betraying himself to the wrong person could harm Duo. He stayed silent by an exertion of sheer will that left him swaying slightly.
"Good god, sit, sit," the surgeon muttered, shoving Wufei back into the sagging settee. "Here, let me look at this. Hmm...no abnormal swelling. I bet it hurts though. "
Wufei glanced at the wound the surgeon had revealed. He had massive black and blue splotches spreading from shoulder to elbow, the wound was puffy and straining against the stitches, blood and fluids had seeped into the bandages. And yes, it hurt, fancy that.
The surgeon taped the dressing back on. "We'll have a nurse change this in a couple of hours. Or more. Sorry, we're a bit busy."
Wufei gave him a Look. The air was about to sizzle with his frustration, and no-communication tradition be damned but surely the surgeon could feel it.
The doctor gestured reassuringly. "Freeport is holding together, don't worry. I've not been following the news-net, but as far as I can tell, things are going fairly well considering the circumstances. We've not run out of beds yet. I have to go."
The surgeon quickly washed his hands in the lounge sink. Wufei stared at his back, chilled not only by the fact that Freeport had already seen thousands of casualties, enough to threaten to fill up the hospital's wards, but that the doctor still felt that this was pretty good 'considering the circumstances'.
"The nurse will give you a second shot of immuno-boosters when she changes the dressing, as well as something for the pain. Please lie down now. If you collapse, that just gives us more work," the doctor pointed out, already half out the door. "I'm surprised you're still standing. Don't worry, I've been assured by the Elder of our sector himself that you're safe here and that you won't be taken anywhere against your will, so relax, okay?"
Wufei didn't say anything, but he signaled his understanding and acceptance of the reassurance by going to sit down on the bed. He'd noted, through the open door behind the doctor, that two more Red Bands had rejoined the first. What that meant...he no longer knew.
The doctor had a point, though. Wufei curled up on the bed, making sure the scalpel he'd reflexively palmed during his surgery earlier was within easy reach. Then he forced himself to shut down and rest. He might need his energy later.
He dozed lightly, waking at each sound of footsteps in the hall. A nurse came in to change his dressing and give him a couple of shots, but she said nothing and didn't even look him in the eye. When she left, Wufei went back to sleep with the mental discipline he'd cultivated most of his life and particularly during the war. This was starting to feel like those times all over again.
In a strange way, that association of ideas reassured him. He and Duo had survived one war already, it would take more than a riot and an anarchist conspiracy to bring down Shinigami. Wufei had to use patience as a weapon and wait until he could act, as he had in the Lunar Base prison.
Wufei fell asleep and dreamt of death and war.
The door opened, waking him instantly. It had been over fifteen hours since Carver had taken that final plunge to his death. Wufei felt a bit better physically, though his wounds were aching worse now.
He swung his feet off the bed, eyes on the newcomer. It hadn't been the man he was waiting for, the one he desperately wanted to see, but it wasn't an execution squad either. It was Elder Braun.
"Is Duo alright?" Wufei asked the instant he was sure Braun was alone.
"Maxwell?" Braun rubbed his eyes. "Don't know, to tell you the truth. Probably. He has a knack for survival."
Wufei took in Braun's appearance: unshaven, pale with exhaustion, eyes reddened, looking even older than when Wufei had first seen him. The jacket he was wearing was rumpled and missing half its buttons, as if someone had grabbed it and wrenched.
"How bad is it?" Wufei asked.
"Not as bad as it could have been," Braun answered, blinking at Wufei. The neon of the nurse's lounge seemed to be bothering him. "It's not over yet, we still have wounded coming in. So far we've accounted for two hundred dead, give or take, and I didn't see the latest reports on the injured. But the worst hasn't happened, so we're all good."
"You must have thousands of casualties already, what the hell do you people consider worse than that?" Wufei asked, irrationally irritated that Braun had the same kind of strange composure as the doctor, and also that he'd not had any news on Duo.
"Worse? Let me see: Elders being involved, high-jacking the council and spreading the unrest. Someone getting hold of the self-destruct codes and using that as leverage. Sabotage of the Command Centre or Air Control. Kamikaze strike by a ship into the colony- oh, I'm sorry, Agent Chang, didn't you realize how close to the edge we are here in Freeport?" the Elder added sardonically as Wufei stared at him in horror.
"But-but what are you doing?!"
"Me personally? Nothing. A lot of things have come to light in the last few hours. As a consequence, I have one last duty left to perform and then I've been relieved of my function as Elder," Braun said pleasantly. "It seems I'm looking at that long-postponed retirement at last. I will present the facts and the reasons for my actions to the citizens of my sector in a few days, when things are a bit less noisy, and they will decide if they still trust me as their representative or if they'd rather kick me out."
"I'm sorry," Wufei muttered.
Braun sniffed as if Wufei's apology insulted him and the resolution that had pushed him to take the risk of giving Duo his support in the first place. Braun must have had a powerful reason to let a Preventer on board, because it had been obvious to Wufei when they'd met over Brindlow's body that Braun hadn't liked him or the necessity of his presence. Whatever those reasons, the Elder was apparently willing to stand by them and face his people's judgment without having a Preventer worry about him.
"The last duty concerns you," Braun said abruptly, dismissing the cloud hanging over his head and bringing it to bear on Wufei's instead.
Wufei waited with the grim resolve with which he'd flown suicide runs in Shenlong, ready for anything.
"We have a favor to ask of you."
Anything but that...
"Favor? From me? What...do you need my help identifying Breakers- Morgenstern's people? I've seen many of them, I could-"
"Oh no, Agent Chang. We don't do things quite like that here." Braun spoke sardonically but Wufei detected an undertone of frustration the Elder was trying to keep to himself. "Some of the people behind this little plot have proudly come forward and declared their support for their leader; they will stand or fall with him. But the others, and I'm sure there are plenty, have stayed in the shadows until they see which way the wind is blowing. If they're smart and have friends who still believe in them, chances are we'll never know who they were. I don't mind for those who were merely misguided. But for those who committed crimes against Freeport...Unfortunately, there's no mechanism here to prove such a crime, to bring them to account for their acts. They can disappear, or continue to live freely in their sector as long as they still have their credibility, and there's little I can do about it without solid proof. I'm too old to unearth clues or fight duels, and I've got my own problems."
Braun wandered over to the coffee machine and grabbed one of the nurse's mugs. Finding it clean enough, he hit the button and sighed at the liquid splashed against glass.
"There's still fighting in Kropotkin; it's been worse there, as you might expect. I would never have thought it of Alan. Never. I've known the man for over fifteen years, and I might not have liked him a lot, but I would have trusted him with all our lives. He'd have had my vote for Elder if we'd held that election three days ago. Maybe it is time I retired..."
"So the situation is resolving itself?" Wufei asked, startled; Braun made it sound as if the worst was already over, and now there were only loose ends to tie.
"Yes and no. After Ravachol and Maxwell managed to block an outright revolution, Morgenstern tried one last gamble. He walked into the Council of his own free will and asked to be heard over a general news-net broadcast, to ask Freeport to decide if they would support him."
"You allowed this?"
"Yes, of course. Until he's been proven to have committed a crime against our community, he's a free man; he could do what he wanted. As an important member of his sector who was ready to report a serious problem, with friends behind him and vouching for him, he had the right to access our systems. The Council of Elders approved his request to have his plea broadcast to the colony's news-net. It was the fastest way of getting all the facts out to everyone and put a momentary halt to the unrest," Braun added, when Wufei stared at him completely flummoxed. "He- I'm sorry, did you want some coffee?"
"No," Wufei snapped. "What happened?"
Braun took a sip and made a face. "Blah, what kind of filter did they use, a Sweeper's old sock...? Yes, Alan gave quite the speech. He made a good case, but in the end, the people voted against him. Every-"
"You had time to organize a vote?! In the middle of a riot?"
"Easiest way to end said riot," Braun pointed out. "And the mechanics for a colony-wide referendum are already in place in every sector, linked to the Lao Tzu computer, and can be used within the hour."
"Of course," Wufei muttered, rubbing his temples with his good hand.
"Yes, 'of course'," said Braun with a certain amount of arrogant pride in the system that had just stripped him of his functions.
"So the riot's over?"
"Not by a long stretch. It's no longer a riot per se, but there's infighting in some sectors. It's only loosely related to Alan's plot now, and is more about fundamental beliefs in Anarchy and what it means. Some of it is just brawling and settling of old scores while the attention of the colony is elsewhere. There's fighting, but apart from the odd duel, there are no longer many fatalities...Besides, there's funny rumors running around that's dampening the unrest. Rumors that the Preventers are about to send in a peace-keeping force-"
"I know, but a lot of citizens are gearing up to defend the colony instead of wasting their time arguing ideology. Another rumor is that anyone who supports Morgenstern will garner the enmity of the Trolls, and I'm afraid that threat was a lot more effective than anything you people might do."
Wufei laughed briefly, a tattered sound, and then he frowned. "Is Fred alright?"
Braun paused with his cup halfway to his lips. "Who?"
"A Troll- ...someone who was with me and Duo. He was injured; we were trying to get him out of the under-level when I was caught. Never mind, you probably wouldn't know. You really haven't heard anything about Duo?"
"No, sorry. But that's good news." Braun's voice had gathered a thin layer of sympathy; he was looking at Wufei with a bit more consideration than before. "If something had happened, I'd have probably heard of it. I have my sources where young Maxwell is concerned."
That wasn't much of a reassurance.
"So," Wufei said after a few seconds of silence in which his wounds and his worries ached at him, "the citizens voted Morgenstern down..."
"Yes. In the end, they had a choice. Morgenstern tried to convince them that it was their duty to spread Anarchy across space, for their own safety and for the liberation of the oppressed everywhere, etc, yes, I can see you know the kind of speech. Many who live here believe deeply in our way of life, Agent Chang. Although right now we're seeing the ugly side of it, we're also seeing the inbuilt mechanisms of self-control that is stopping this from turning into out-and-out madness, without having to bear the continual presence of a police force that could become an instrument of repression at any time."
"'Without Authority, there could be no worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions'," Wufei muttered, thinking of the framed words on Babka's wall.
That earned him another considering look. Then Braun seemed to dismiss a question he was about to ask and took a sip of coffee.
"Morgenstern really believed he could win this; he really believed there were enough people ready to help him spread anarchy throughout the solar system, especially when he waved the fear of a Preventer strike around. But in the end, the majority voted, at seventy-one-percent with a ninety-three percent turnout of citizens, to not form a Freedom Committee with Morgenstern at the helm, and to leave whatever control Freeport can be said to have in the hands of the Elders. You can see this result in one of two ways, Agent Chang. Either Freeport has the wisdom to realize that true Anarchy cannot be brought about by tricks, by violence, by imposing it on other colonies unless they strive for it themselves...or that in the end, Freeport cares only about Freeport, and the rest of you lot can go to hell as far as we're concerned; if you want to live under a tyrannical regime, that's your choice."
Wufei laughed again. It was a brittle sound and it hurt his head.
"You don't look too well," Braun commented. "I hope you can walk."
"Ah yes, the favor," Wufei said. "I don't get it, what the hell do you think I can do now?"
Wufei blinked and steadied himself against the frame of the bed he was sitting on. "I...I beg your pardon?"
"It was his choice." Braun shrugged. It obviously would not have been his own. "I'm sorry, I've confused you. I forgot you haven't been hanging off our news channels like we have. He had a choice, you see, once he was voted down. I mean, he'd virtually broadcast over the entire colony that he'd conspired to pull us all into an ideological war, even though he didn't put it in quite those terms. We don't have any laws and rules, Chang, but-"
"Traditions," Wufei muttered dazedly, wondering if the nurse might come in soon with another one of those shots.
"-but something like that is still considered a no-no." Braun had the caustic levity of someone who'd accepted that he no longer had a battle to fight. "So he had a choice. He could go back to Kropotkin, or- oh yes, we'd have let him. Don't look so surprised. We don't have the right to arrest and hold people against their will; not unless we have proof they've committed a crime against the colony, and the mechanism to gather and present that proof are rusty or nonexistent. Most things are settled at the sector level, and by popular decision. So yes, he could have walked out of Lao-Tzu. Once back on his home turf, he could have started a sector-wide riot, until someone cut his throat or the colony tipped off the edge. I'm glad to say he did not choose that path; I had not misjudged him that badly. Another choice would have been to present himself for the council's judgment. We would have convoked him there sooner or later anyway, as soon as we managed to get the facts, put a case together and present it to the colony. That would end in exile or getting spaced. Or he could choose the final option. To answer for his crimes Outside, where he committed most of them, in front of a Preventer Tribunal."
"He chose that? You have to be joking. He's an anarchist, he has no respect for our institutions. Why did he-..." Wufei had met Morgenstern, and he felt sure that that man was not afraid of death the Elder Council's judgment might have earned him.
"You'll have the opportunity to ask him, since that's the favor. The sloop Euclid is docking at Bay 49 in three hours. There's a small Preventer taskforce aboard. We would like you to escort Morgenstern aboard and arrest him once he's out of Freeport territory."
"It's the best way. And his choice. Besides, it gets both you and him out of the colony, out of danger and out of ways of reprisal and more agitation. The rest...the rest of this is Freeport's business, Agent. Not yours. Please be ready to leave in two hours."
Braun put down his cup and turned...but then he stopped. He hesitated, head tilting one way then another as if arguing with himself. Finally he fished around in his pocket and produced a pen. He grabbed a medical notepad from the counter near the door, tore off a sheet and scribbled something on the back. He walked over to Wufei and handed it to him without looking him in the eye.
Wufei glanced over the words and frowned. "I don't understand-"
Braun was already at the door. "It's a formality. A tradition, if you will. Keep it. Put it in your Preventer office and frame it. It'll be a conversation piece. I guess you can even say you've earned it. Yes, I guess you have."
There were still three Red Bands outside, but Braun appeared not to notice them. "I think I'll go see if they need help in the hospital cafeteria now, what with the influx of patients. I'm not needed anywhere else, my sector is fairly peaceful and in good hands. Besides, I used to work in the galley of a Sweeper frigate. Granted, that was forty years ago, but I bet I can still make better coffee than that. Good luck, Agent Chang. Thank you for the favor."
Wufei looked at the closed door in silence, then at the piece of paper. It was a suitably odd end to his time in Freeport.
He was leaving Freeport. He was leaving Duo, and he didn't even know if his lover was dead or alive. It was over. And all he had to show for it was a prisoner he'd done little to capture himself and a scribble on the back of a torn-off medical prescription.
Wufei folded the piece of paper up and put it in his pocket. It never occurred to him to throw it away, even though Braun might have meant it as a joke.
End Part 33
It's odd, but this last part of this chapter is one of my favorite parts of FP, perhaps because I was struggling so hard to wrap up the 'Morgenstern' section of the fic, stumbled upon the idea of writing this scene this way, and it wrote itself in exactly the way and tone I had in mind and more. I love that when it happens...