Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

AN: Dedicated to Dacia!

Freeport + Chapter 33

"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 started to say 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. It's not a sword."

"He's right," Mako said, approaching on the tail end of Duo's exclamation. 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 I think we'd better work together now. I'll help Chang get ready here; you two try to figure out what happens after the duel, however it goes. Morgenstern won't go down easy 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'll not protect you, and you'll just be giving him something loose to grab. You're right handed. Right?" Mako drew out a roll of wrapping from his back pocket, the kind boxers put on beneath their gloves.

Wufei hesitated.

"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. 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.

Actually, the crowd seemed to have settled down a bit. There were still people shouting here and there in the Esplanade; even from the elevation of the platform, Wufei couldn't tell if the fuss was due to agitators or just undirected brawls. Most of Freeport's citizens were quiet though, that strange, ominous stillness Wufei had noticed before. It was, Wufei suddenly realized, the way people watched duels all over Freeport: with intense concentration that he had once mistaken for bloodlust. Oh, there was indeed some anticipation here; Freeport could be a cruel and violent place, and people adapted to their environment. But more than that...there was a hunger here for a resolution. For a conclusion. They were witnesses. This duel before them was part of the pact that kept Freeport together even when internal strife threatened to tear it apart.

The crowd was not getting impatient, but Wufei had given Morgenstern his word that he would try to expedite things. And Mako knew who he was by now; no point in being coy. 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 a bit like this once 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, turning his face away from the crowd to hide his lip movements.

"It's good advice I'm giving you. Though fuck me if I know why I'm helping a Pig," Mako said lazily, pulling off a length of wrapping band. "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, one of the men Carver had killed, 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 just might let you live, Preventer," Mako said abruptly.

"Either that, or stand in line and I'll get to you when I'm done with him," Wufei murmured, 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," the killer said slowly. "Are there a lot of Pigs like you out there?"

Considering what Wufei was about to do..."No, probably not," he conceded.

"Their loss." Mako measured Carver with a glance. "He's got the weight and the range, but I still 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.

Someone gripped Wufei's shoulder.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Chang," Duo commented, not sounding all that concerned.

"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," Wufei said quickly. His eyes were fixed on Carver, while he traveled through the reaches of his mind towards his centre, detaching himself from the tangles of past and future and moving towards the Now.

"He won't lay a finger on them," Duo said with steely arrogance.

Wufei glanced at his friend. Duo had that hard crooked smile on his face again. He was entering into that frame of mind too; where you soldiered on despite the losses, and you didn't mourn your dead as long as they'd 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 die. 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, 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-"

Duo glanced at him briefly, but at the core his eyes were blind and focused on battle.

"...Have a plan ready for when I finish this, will you?" Wufei said quietly. It wasn't what he'd wanted to say.

Duo stared at him and the hard smile slipped. Maybe those other words hadn't been needed after all.

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.

He'd made a promise, now he had to keep it.

Wufei's mind moved past the noises of the crowd; it faded from his mind.

Carver had stripped out of his shirt and jacket 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. Wufei might be able to disarm him.

Wufei slowly detached his mind from Duo, from his friends, from Freeport's fate. He 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.

Wufei circled. His eyes measured 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 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 feel the edges of his reserves; he didn't have 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, or judgments or 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- analyzed the attack automatically. 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 his back, Wufei had lunged way too low, one hand hitting the ground and helping him tumble and get to his feet again.

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 started 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 a speedy 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 also have realized the extent of Wufei's injuries. Carver stalked forward as if he'd already won, and it was just a matter of wearing Wufei 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 the Preventer's 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 the way he was holding his hook...and that punch- if Wufei had had the opportunity Carver had just had, he'd have kicked, 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 take advantage of 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 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 slammed the weapon down towards Carver's thigh when his opponent whisked 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 was giving Wufei no openings to exploit, and his range was greater. He knew he had the advantage.

Now!

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 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 had been ready, he'd expected it, and his body had been primed to carry through the next move regardless. Through vision full of black splotches, he took another half step forward and he 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 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 in Wufei's arm- then the flesh was ripped at again as Carver, still staggering from the vicious punch, lost his grip on the wooden handle.

Wufei's vision went black.

He was on his knees. A pounding heartbeat and darkness filled his mind.

He'd heard a metallic clang nearby. That would be his enemy's weapon hitting the ground.

Wufei tore himself out of the darkness by sheer strength of will. If he didn't-...

He'd promised.

Wufei blinked. He could suddenly see again. The scene before him was like a snapshot, flat, lifeless and unreal. Carver leaning forward, eyes barely focused, blood gushing from his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue or lip, reaching for the fallen hook on the ground.

In what felt like slow-motion, Wufei struck out with his 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; he must still be reeling from the 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 caught 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, and he was going to walk it to the end. Dead men had eyes like that.

He staggered to one knee, tried to dodge Wufei's next strike, but the two blows to the head had taken too great a toll. He could barely stand.

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 his 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 and gagging. There was a pair of boots 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, was piercing the fading ringing 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 let me do it- 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.

"Maxwell!"

"Get the hell away from us, Mako." A knife sliced down 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! That's still bleeding!"

"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 quiet 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 people have finally figured things out and want answers," Duo replied, carelessly freeing himself from Mako's grasp without even looking around. "Others have decided they're standing by Morgenstern, whatever he's done. And some guys out there are always two seconds and one 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, his gray eyes on the mob.

"Yeah, it could," Duo answered flippantly. 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 went to stand next to Ravachol, who was on the edge of the platform, staring bleakly out into the mob.

Morgenstern was nowhere to be seen; he'd taken his men and probably 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 a whole sector. It looked like the start of a revolution, but with thousands of separate sides. He didn't even know how to begin to defuse this chaotic 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 and Babka, Gilla and a few of the older Makhno citizens, looking 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. But the way I see it, you owe me for that stupid duel you agreed to," Duo said.

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 might need me to watch your back "

"You'd be more a danger to me than anything else," Duo pointed out bluntly, "and in your present shape, you could barely watch yourself. You did your bit. You helped us draw Morgenstern's fangs. Now go to the hospital. It's neutral territory. 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 up him in silence. Babka was next to him, but she was staring at the agitation in the Esplanade with sadness 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, or the duel against Morgenstern's man. 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, slowly 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 service, 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 motility 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 nearly at a run, leaving the nurse to finish knitting the epidermis with the suture gun and bind the wound. The doctor's hurry told Wufei that other casualties were starting to flood 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 had finished his bandage and was checking his bruises and talking about the possibility of a mild concussion, when a Red Band appeared. He didn't talk to Wufei; he dragged the nurse aside and they conferred for a short while.

Ten minutes later, Wufei was herded away from the wards and into the nurse's lounge, and the Red Band took up guard 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 it warmed its water again and again 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. And he waited.

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.

And Duo...

The lounge was comfortable, with a camp bed set up in a curtained corner for interns to 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 was telling him it could be, 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, big maximum. Which was a stupidly low number, considering the population working in a high-risk environment- maybe Freeport had contingency planning.

Wufei was sitting on a sagging couch, his aching arm in a sling. He was trying to meditate, find his focus and be ready for any eventuality, but the pain in his arm 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 then that would be- that would be unimaginable.

In the distance outside the hospital, someone started shouting into a loudspeaker. Wufei stood up - felt 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 he'd arrived near Freeport and Duo had put the collar around his neck and those bloody rules on his back. Chances were, this doctor knew who Wufei was now, or wouldn't really 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 sheer force of 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 still puffy and straining against the stitches, there was blood and fluids seeping onto the bandages. And yes, it hurt; fancy that.

The surgeon drew 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 the no-communication tradition be damned, surely the surgeon could feel it.

The doctor smiled reassuringly as he straightened up. "Freeport is holding together, don't worry. I've not been following the newsnet, 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 beds, but that the doctor still felt that this was pretty good 'considering the circumstances'. That meant this fairly cheerful, harried man could see it getting a hell of a lot worse indeed.

"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 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.

Wufei curled up on the bed, making sure the scalpel he'd automatically palmed during his surgery earlier was within easy reach. He forced himself to shut down and rest. He might need his energy later.

He dozed lightly, waking up 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, it reassured him. 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.

---

He was instantly awake when the door opened.

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, and the uncertainty and stress of the situation were nibbling away at his restraint.

He sat up slowly, eyeing 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 snapped. This man knew he was a Preventer; he knew Duo was a Rat-catcher who'd helped Heero and then Wufei infiltrate Freeport. Elder Braun had called them both in when Josh had been murdered, because he wanted Wufei's policeman expertise. Wufei didn't need to keep up the Blade pretense around him. That Braun was here instead of one of Morgenstern's buddies was a good sign, Wufei hoped.

"Maxwell?" Braun muttered, rubbing 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 twisted and was missing half its buttons, as if someone had grabbed it and wrenched...maybe his presence here wasn't such a good sign after all.

"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 with, we still have a few 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 growled, irrationally irritated that Braun had the same kind of strange cheer 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 were 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 looks like I might be looking at that retirement finally. 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 the resolution that had pushed Braun 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 that Braun hadn't liked him or the necessity of his presence, when they'd met over Josh's body. Whatever those reasons, he 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 own head, and bringing it to bear on Wufei's instead.

Wufei straightened, prepared for anything with the grim resolve with which he'd flown suicide runs in Shenlong, years ago.

"We have a favor to ask of you."

The Preventer blinked. 'Prepared for anything' hadn't quite covered 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." There was a flicker of frustration on Braun's face. It was almost instantly gone, but Wufei had noted it with some surprise. "Some of the people behind this little plot have proudly come forward and declared their support to their leader; they will stand or fall with him. But the others, and I'm sure there are plenty of others, 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 proof."

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 almost 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 selection 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 newsnet 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 the 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 newsnet. It was the easiest and 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?"

"He lost."

Braun took a sip and made a face. Then he took another and continued speaking, without looking at Wufei.

"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'," Braun said with a certain amount of arrogant pride in the system that had just stripped him of his function in Freeport.

"So the riot's over?"

"Not by a long stretch. Well, it's no longer a riot, but there's infighting in some sectors. Some of it is only loosely related to Alan's plot, 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-"

"We aren't."

"I know, but some 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 attention than before. "If something had happened, I'd have probably heard of it. I have my sources where young Maxwell is concerned."

"So...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- 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 repression of a police force that would control us the rest of the time."

"'Without Authority, there could be no worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions'," Wufei whispered, thinking of the framed words on Babka's wall.

That earned him that strange, thoughtful look again. 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 its head, 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 the people of 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 yeah, the favor," Wufei muttered. "I don't get it, what the hell do you think I can do now?"

"Arrest Morgenstern."

Wufei blinked and steadied himself against the frame of the camp 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 most of the other non-combatant citizens. He had a choice, you see. When 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 quite like that. 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 had accepted that he no longer had a battle to fight. "So he had a choice. He could go back to Kropotkin- 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 of the abyss. 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 put our proof 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'd committed most of them, in front of a Preventer Tribunal."

"He chose that?! You have to be joking. He's...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 Council's judgment might have earned him.

"You'll have to ask him. Since that's the favor. The small sloop Euclides is docking at Bay 49 in three hours. She will be bearing a small Preventer taskforce. We would like you to escort Morgenstern aboard and arrest him once he's off of Freeport territory."

Wufei stared.

"It's the best way. And his choice. And it gets both you and him out of the colony, out of danger, 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- then he stopped. He hesitated, head tilting one way then another as if he was arguing with himself. Then 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 at him.

Wufei glanced at the paper 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.

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