Genre: Action, investigations, my usual strange humour, tiny touch of angst, some weird politics and a bit o' romance (yes, I still know how to write those - just don't expect anything majorly fluffy)
Rated: NC17 - for language, violence, sexual content
Archived: http://www.raygunworks.net and GWAddiction under the pen-name Maldoror
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Spoilers: Some, for series and episode zero.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. The very idea is laughable. See? This is me laughing. Ha ha. The songs/quotes used in the chapter heads don't belong to me either.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Dacia!
Huge thanks for all the reviews!! I'm sorry, I've been unable to answer a few of them, as I've been majorly busy, and all my spare time has been spent working on this and another fic. I'll try to get to them, because they really encouraged me when this chapter was sticking a bit :P
This is the new sound
Just like the old sound
Just like the noose wound
Over the new ground
---Rage against the machine
Freeport by Maldoror
Ravachol made his way through the crowd towards the ramp up to the platform; Mako walked a step before him and strong-armed out of the way anyone who didn't clear the path fast enough at the sight of him. Mako was a walking sense of menace, but the ex-rebel behind him moved slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, a sharp contrast to the panic that had been growing around him.
"Shit," Wufei heard Ferret mutter behind him. "He showed up... he musta still had some eyes and ears in our sector- didn't we get rid of them?"
"I don't think we had the time," somebody else whispered.
Wufei twisted a bit on himself. Carver was still holding him with a steely grip around the length of cable pinioning Wufei's hands behind his back, but the Preventer could move his head far enough to glance at Duo. But Duo didn't look like he understood any of this either.
Ravachol's slow, unhurried walk seemed to capture the attention much more than any shouting could have. People fell back from his approach; they stopped yelling and stared. The voice of the crowd was still angry and borderline hysterical, people shouting in the distance, but now there was a note of bemusement, and questions being hissed back and forth.
There were a dozen people following Ravachol, intimidating any Kropotkin citizen who looked askance at them; they were dressed and armed like pirates and smugglers. Wufei recognized a couple of faces from Wanted posters. The rough escort stopped at the foot of the ramp, obeying Ravachol's curt gesture to stay behind. The drug-lord started up the ramp, followed only by Mako, and found his way blocked by two Breakers.
"Move," Ravachol said quietly. "Or I will kill you."
The two men looked at Ravachol's ruined body in disbelief, then they took a second, more cautious look at Mako, a silent promise of swift death behind his friend.
But in the end, it was Ravachol's slow, relentless advance that seemed to defeat them. He was moving forward as if they were completely inconsequential and he had already forgotten about them. They fell back, looking to Morgenstern for instructions.
"Frank... " Morgenstern said softly, a regretful note in his voice.
Ravachol stopped ten feet away from the financier. He had his ruined hands sunk deep in his pockets, and now that he was closer, Wufei realized his face was set and grim and his eyes burning with anger.
"Frank," Morgenstern said, more loudly this time. "This is Kropotkin business. We found-"
"I'd say, the way you were heading, it's going to be everybody's business pretty fucking soon," Ravachol snapped. "You do remember I live in Freeport too, right?"
"We found this spy here. In our sector. We have to decide first what we're going-"
"Yeah, but when I hear the words 'invasion' and 'attack', I got the right to feel a bit worried." Ravachol's smile could have been borrowed from a skull.
He drew a breath to add something else, but there was a sudden scuffle and a crunch at the back of the wide platform. Carver, who was still holding Wufei, half-turned and tensed, as if he wanted to intervene in something that was happening behind them. Wufei twisted against the hold pinning his arms back; his shoulders twinged at the joints and the cable serving as crude cuffs bit into his skin, but he was able to see what had happened.
At the back of the platform, three men were flat on their backs or on their knees, obviously the victims of a short but brutal fight. There was a projector on the ground, and Duo's booted foot was firmly planted through the plastic casing. The gigantic picture of Preventer Agent Chang looming over the crowd was gone.
"Oops, I think I broke something," Duo said, a manic grin on his face and a lethal, calculating light in his eyes. "Don't worry. I'm a mechanic. I'll fix it for you. Eventually."
"It's too late, Maxwell," Morgenstern said, with a hard glare at the fallen men for their carelessness. He might say it was too late, but that was a huge psychological advantage that Duo had just removed from the game.
"Too late? Too late for what?" Ravachol asked, with a parody of innocent curiosity.
Morgenstern turned back towards the ex-rebel.
"What are you doing, Frank?" he asked softly.
"What are you doing, Mister Morgenstern?" Ravachol ground out.
Questions and a low confused mumble pervaded the crowd, now that the picture was gone. Their attention was fixed on the men on the platform. But there was still an ugly tension in the air; the whole assembly was on the knife-edge of something truly brutal and dangerous, something Wufei had seen on colony after colony this past year, and had never wanted to see in Freeport.
Duo shoved past a few Breakers and headed back toward Wufei. He looked like he wanted to say something, now that the crowd had quieted down a notch, but Ravachol caught his attention with a curt gesture. The two men stared at each other and then Duo stepped reluctantly back to Wufei's side and stayed silent. Wufei himself couldn't think of a single thing to say that wouldn't damn them all at this point, so he stayed put in Carver's increasingly painful hold.
Ravachol moved up to the guardrail and stared out at the crowd.
"Can you all hear me?" he asked. He'd spoken quietly, relying on the acoustics of the Esplanade to carry his voice; it forced the people at the far edges of the plaza to shut up and listen instead of shouting questions and getting excited.
To one side, Morgenstern's whip-thin agitator had moved forward to protest, waving his bullhorn like a cudgel. But before he could get more than one word out, Mako stepped up to him casually and murmured in his ear. Wufei couldn't read Mako's lips from that angle, but the threat must have been good, because the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser shut his trap and went as white as a sheet. Ferret also looked like he was going to heckle Ravachol, but there was a short, sharp metallic 'snick' nearby. Ferret's eyes flinched towards Duo, who was only three feet away from him, then his gaze dropped to Duo's right hand, where Wufei was ready to bet a switchblade had magically appeared. Ferret shut up as well.
The other Breakers looked at Morgenstern. They outnumbered the intruders on the platform, but they were probably smart enough to realize that starting a brawl would not further their goals. Morgenstern made a small 'stay where you are' gesture and walked up to Ravachol's other side with all appearances of being perfectly calm.
"Go ahead, Frank. What can you possibly say that can make this look any better? Are you going to deny we have a Preventer infiltrating our colony? I gave you all the proof." Morgenstern's voice had shifted ever so subtly, and he was talking to the crowd again, even as he addressed Ravachol. "I'd love to discuss this at length, Ravachol, but we don't have the time. There must be others; they wouldn't send just one man here. They'll warn the authorities on the blockade. We all know that Preventer ships have been slowly gathering near Freeport recently. They're preparing something-"
"I wasn't about to deny anything." Ravachol was only talking to the people in front of him, ignoring Morgenstern. "This guy's name is Chang Wufei, and he joined the Preventers right after the war, when he was sixteen."
Morgenstern's eyes widened and he fell silent, obviously caught short by the admission. Duo was the one to hiss a protest and come charging around Wufei and Carver. He grabbed Ravachol by the arm-
"So what?" Ravachol asked loudly, not attempting to shake Duo off.
People were staring at him and whispering.
"Yeah, you heard right, this man was a Preventer," Ravachol continued, his voice rising in volume. "And so what? I was a war hero, and now I'm a drug dealer. Mako was an OZ black ops, and now he's my best friend. Maxwell here was a Gundam Pilot, and now he's a mechanic. Morgenstern was the governor of a colony, and now he serves one, and his own interests as well. I'd look carefully at the people he has around him today. Tell me you're not somewhat surprised at the company he keeps. Not the kind of bruisers you'd expect Alan Morgenstern to hang around with."
Morgenstern looked completely unconcerned at the veiled accusation, and the crowd didn't seem to catch on either; the tension was too high to worry about details.
Ravachol didn't press the point; it would hopefully make the less panicky think and that was something. He merely finished by waving at Wufei.
"And to finish the list, this man was a Preventer. And now he's Maxwell's Blade, and one more refugee in Freeport."
"What?!" Morgenstern shouted, losing his fine-tuned control for the first time since Wufei had known him. "Are you claiming-"
"I have my sources too, Mister Morgenstern." Ravachol's voice could have etched glass. "While you were creating a panic, I checked my facts. I have my connections; a few well-bribed Pigs who'll rubber-stamp my cargo. They ran a quick check for me. This guy is no longer on the Preventer payroll. In fact, he's wanted for questioning by the fuckers in High Command and he has a few charges hanging over his head. Apparently that rich fat cat who governs L2 wants to nail Chang's hide to a wall. Now tell me that doesn't make you like the kid, just a little bit!"
Some people nearby laughed; a short, breathless sound close to hysteria. Others stared at Wufei, hostile but puzzled. Wufei, bruised, bloodied, his shirt ripped open, knew he made one hell of a less threatening picture than he had when his Preventer ID had been displayed across an entire building.
He wondered if Ravachol was lying about him being wanted for questioning. Ravachol could be lying; by the time his claim was proved or disproved, Morgenstern would have lost the element of surprise. But then again, it was quite possible that what Ravachol had said was simply the truth, and Une's shield over Wufei had collapsed. Or she'd finally tossed him to the dogs as more a liability than an asset. Thank God, Wufei decided.
"I don't believe you!" Morgenstern shouted. "You're lying to-"
"To what?!" Ravachol laughed in his face. He drew his ruined hands from his pockets and shoved them in Morgenstern's direction. "You honestly think I'd be the one to defend a Preventer? Me?!"
It was like a game of strategy between the two powerful men, and Ravachol had just scored another point. People knew Frank Ravachol. He wasn't popular in Freeport, particularly in Kropotkin; he wasn't the good citizen that Morgenstern was; but nobody here was about to believe that Ravachol, anarchist war hero, one-time rebel, drug-runner and smuggler, would ever be a pawn of the Preventers.
Morgenstern didn't answer - there wasn't much he could say to that - but his own voice wasn't his only weapon. Wufei understood how Morgenstern operated now. This was the man who'd sown the seeds of violence and riots in dozens of colonies. Wufei glanced at the crowd with the practiced eye of a Preventer, and spotted small knots of anger and seething panic; there would be one of Morgenstern's agitators at the center of each of those spots, infecting the crowd around them with panic, which was so much easier to spread than the voice of reason. The very confusion on the platform wasn't helping.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't ask questions," Ravachol continued, shouting now to be heard over the growing noise in the Esplanade. "But let's not burn down the colony to ask them. I don't care what this guy was doing in the past; he's been here for months now, and working and living amongst us like a Blade and nothing more. You already know Duo Maxwell, and he'll vouch for Chang. I brought a few other character witnesses as well. Maybe you should all calm down and listen to them."
Character witnesses... ?
Wufei followed the direction of Ravachol's gesture and felt his heart lurch in his chest.
Babka was right up near the front of the mob, pushing Gilla's wheelchair. There was also Kolia, Nathan, Maria Konstantina, a Red Band Wufei knew by sight... all from Makhno. Wufei knew these people, even though he'd never spoken a word to them. He'd worked alongside them, he'd helped them repair the colony's infrastructure, he'd listened to them talk about their lives.
A few of them were looking at Wufei strangely, and Wufei hoped they'd arrived after that picture of him was destroyed. Some of them might believe he was a Preventer. They didn't know him all that well. But then again...
"It's absolutely ridiculous!" Babka's cultured tones were reaching Wufei across the gap to the platform. She used to be a teacher; she could get her voice to carry, and she was hectoring the knot of Kropotkin citizens around her as if they were naughty schoolchildren. "I'm sure I don't know what Mr. Morgenstern is talking about, but it's obviously a mistake. I was under Alliance control for decades, I know what they're like! Wufei is a polite young man, he has a great heart, and he'd never betray Duo - I know that for a fact - and if you believe Duo Maxwell would work for the Authority, you-"
...But then again, Wufei reminded himself, these people had a very narrow view of what a Preventer was; another OZ in jackboots, harbingers of a police state and repression. Wufei's silent investigation, the care he'd taken to blend in, his relationship with Duo... that probably didn't match up to what they imagined an instrument of tyranny would be like.
"Of course, Duo Maxwell can vouch for him," Babka twittered (loudly). "They're- how should I put it- quite close. Quite close. I should know, I am their neighbor, and oh dear, our walls are certainly quite thin, if you see what I mean."
Wufei was busy judging the crowd's agitation, the impact of the various moves by Ravachol and Morgenstern; if there were any opportunity to act, he would have to grab it. But, in the very unlikely chance he survived this day, Wufei knew that he was going to remember what Babka had just said. And he was going to be so very, very embarrassed...
Gilla was staring at him. The old man saw a lot, and Wufei could feel the gaze carving into him. But finally Gilla's deep voice chimed in a counterpoint to Babka's words. "He's been here for months, and he's done nothing suspicious or been anything but Maxwell's Blade as far as I could see. That's all I have to say on the matter."
"I wish you hadn't brought them, Rav."
It was Duo who'd spoken softly. He was still standing next to Ravachol. "If this gets ugly, they'll get hurt."
"If this gets ugly, the whole place is going down in flames. They'll be just as screwed," Rav said callously. "I would have rounded up more, but I didn't have much time. I'm surprised I found that many to stand up for your... Blade, and who'd come all the way to Kro just because the two of you were in trouble."
He added something in a harsh, suddenly hostile whisper. Wufei was a few feet away, but he caught a few words. It sounded like acid compliments on Duo's successful insertion of a Preventer like Wufei into Freeport's life and heart.
Duo's face didn't change. He just shrugged. "If that's the way you want to see it," was all he said. He was looking at the gathered Makhno citizens with eyes full of worry, affection and pride.
Wufei didn't particularly care what Ravachol thought of him either. It wasn't as if they'd ever get along. Wufei was watching Morgenstern; he was the real enemy here.
Morgenstern had stepped away and was talking to a few people; one of them was the woman, Sandra. Wufei hoped that didn't mean they'd caught Fred. Duo would surely have left the Troll somewhere safe.
The financier said a few words, and Sandra and the others dispersed with quick nods. Wufei tensed against Carver's hold, testing it. Morgenstern was not a man you could safely underestimate. Ravachol's interference was a serious blow, but Wufei felt sure the financier was already preparing the counteroffensive.
Morgenstern approached the railing. The movement of the crowd beyond was one of utter confusion, which was almost as dangerous as terror and rioting. Ravachol and Duo both stared appraisingly at the man, but he seemed to have dismissed them; he was only addressing the citizens of his sector.
"My friends. I would like to discuss this at length. But it takes one hour for a Preventer fleet to get here from their position around the embargo, and we have no more time."
A nervous hush fell over the crowd. The leathery-thin agitator had approached Morgenstern with the bullhorn, but the financier waved him away.
"Yes, what I am suggesting is extreme. But this is not the first time in our history that this has had to happen. This is Freeport; it belongs to each of us, not to any higher authority. We have granted certain powers to chosen Elders among us; respected people. Dedicated people. I do not think they are all to blame, but for the Preventers to have infiltrated Freeport, there must be some in the lot that have betrayed us."
The word 'betrayed' caused a ripple to run around the crowd. The nearest faces were frightened and grim.
"I am not coming to you on a spontaneous whim. I know - personally - how Authority acts and how they take over. For years, I have been watching the developments in ESUN, and I can see them moving against us. The war didn't touch us; but this so-called Peace, which put that Earther Peacecraft in charge of Space, will harm us just as surely. They will not attack us openly; they are not as blatant as OZ. But they will eat away at us little by little. They hike the prices of basic necessities, they collapse the shipping industry, they harass Sweepers as much as they do the pirates and smugglers... they are very slowly strangling us.
"To oppose this slow death, I have created a group here. A citizen's watch, if you will."
Ravachol snorted. It was a hard, sardonic sound.
"Because I feared that the lure of this 'Peace' might have beguiled some on this colony, I have kept my efforts a secret. It was not my choice; it is the only weapon against the kind of insidious enemy we face. Now, I have to ask you to trust me, and to trust my friends; our knowledge is sound. I can look at you all and tell you... we have been compromised." Morgenstern's voice rose without effort. "We have been betrayed. The enemy is at our gates!"
Wufei felt the urge to shake his head. They were... just words. But this man could craft them masterfully. What he was saying was no different than the speeches of a hundred demagogues before him. But he had charisma, certainty... faith, even. He probably thought he was doing the right thing. This man is like Treize, Wufei thought. The words are worn and threadbare; but they can still move mountains, or crush us all.
"You know why they are trying to do this. Why they have sent spies and saboteurs to Freeport. Why they want to destroy us - or even better, watch us destroy ourselves and then come to 'save' us, like the Alliance did before them. Peacekeepers!"
A dull rumble of hate echoed his words. Many people here - like Gilla, like Morgenstern, like thousands of others - had escaped to Freeport when the so-called peacekeeping forces of the Alliance had invaded their colonies after Heero Yuy's assassination.
"They want to destroy us because we are the seeds of resistance to their Authority, just as we resisted the Alliance before them. We are the light of Freedom in space. And we know what their Earther Peace is worth!" Morgenstern's voice had become rich, powerful, and with a gilded edge of a long-seated hatred. "Why do you think, three years into this so-called Peace, that there are riots and unrest in every colony? Why? They're slowly tightening their grip. They're no better than the Alliance. No better than OZ. They've ruthlessly crushed people who were simply demanding the right to choose. To choose what? Anarchy! Anarchy over their pretended Democracy, that feeds the rich and starves the poor and keeps the status quo. The fire of Anarchy is being lit in every corner of Space, and they know that that's because we - us, here, in Freeport - have shown others it can be done!"
Anarchy? Was that Morgenstern's aim all along? Wufei glanced at Ravachol. That had been the drug-dealer's goal too, before the end of the war. Had he known this was what the Breakers were after? Assuming it wasn't all a lie...
The crowd had gone oddly silent, to Wufei's surprise. He'd stopped or managed a dozen riots in his career, but he'd never seen this before. He'd expected them to be screaming and chanting along with Morgenstern. The agitators in the crowd were trying to rouse such a response; Wufei could hear them distinctly now. But the citizens of Freeport just listened. Wufei hoped this meant they were thinking, too, but he wasn't so sure. There was something hungry and frightening about this silence, more frightening than a screaming, raging mob which could be stopped with tear gas and a few shots in the air. This was the silence before an avalanche. When this silence broke, the resulting thunder would be heard throughout Freeport, and the rest of ESUN as well.
Wufei knew what the results could be. A riot turned revolution was ugly beyond words. And there was a pent-up power and frustration in Freeport that made it truly frightening. Even with a full troop of Preventers, counter-agitators and riot-police, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop this without doing a lot of damage, and of course, he had none of these; not here. Because Wufei knew the Preventers, his colleagues; he knew Relena, Une, Trowa. Despite what Morgenstern was saying, this was not the way they operated. They might send Wufei to do the dirty work, but they did not crush indiscriminately. The Preventer fleet Morgenstern was bringing up like a bogeyman was not on its way to subdue Freeport. There was nothing to stop Morgenstern, if he managed to spark a riot here.
"We can not afford to hesitate! Now is the time for extreme measures! Now is the time to go to the wall to defend our freedom! We will not cause needless harm or damage. We don't need to. We only want to make sure that there are people we can trust at the colony's defense grid and access points when the soldiers attack. If we can hold them off, the other industrial colonies in L2 will come to our support. Many of them are ready to rebel; once they do this, the Earther's scattered forces will not be able to hold them all down. Now is the time to act! Or we will die. Now is the time to insure our Freeport survives forever, and spreads its freedom to all of Space. Now is the time to-"
The crowd's very silence insured that Duo's bitter, cold words echoed throughout the Esplanade, chasing away the triumph of Morgenstern's declarations.
From the way the man paused, Wufei felt sure Morgenstern had been ready for some intervention from either Duo or Ravachol, and had been ready to shoot them down. It would be so easy. In this deadly silence, the words 'traitor' and 'sell-out' could kill as surely as a bullet. But Morgenstern didn't know what Duo had meant by that, and so he hesitated, not sure how to counter those two words.
Duo didn't look at the crowd when he continued. His head was down; he was staring at the ground. Morgenstern had the charisma of tyrants and heroes. But Duo had something else; harder to define. It wasn't bright and elevating; it was sinister and frightening, but it didn't need to wave a flag to command attention. Maybe it was the darkness of a thousand deaths looking over his twenty-year-old shoulders.
"AC 187. A group of rebels came up with the same line of fucking bullshit. They hid out in a church. A church held by a gentle, compassionate man called Father Maxwell. He was a pacifist who didn't hold with any kind of riots or violence. You all know what happened next. A priest, a kind nun, two seminary students and nine orphans of all ages, as well as a bunch of rebels. Burned and blasted and slaughtered where they stood. There was only one survivor, and you're looking at him."
Maxwell Church... Chang, you're an idiot, Wufei thought, painfully closing his eyes. Dammit Duo... why didn't you tell us... why didn't you tell me?
But had he ever told Duo about Meiran, Treize, his colony's fate? They never talked about things like that. During the war, they'd accepted that each of the five of them had had their reasons, their injuries, but they'd never talked about them. They hadn't counted on each other for comfort; they'd counted on each other to act.
Duo finally looked up, straight at Morgenstern. His eyes were those of the child-killer who had once piloted Deathscythe.
"I know where you're leading us, Morgenstern. I know because I've already been there. I'm telling you here and now. You want to take Freeport down this road, you're doing it over my dead body."
"An excellent notion!" Ravachol suddenly shouted, clapping his ruined hands together in a parody of enthusiasm. "We're talking and talking- well, Morgenstern wants us to march on Lao Tzu and take over, apparently, but either way, we're not sorting this out the Freeport way. I know Kropotkin's a bit more civilized than my sector, but they have the same traditions. Time to put your life where your mouth is, gentlemen. Or we'll never resolve this."
"We don't have time for that!" Morgenstern snapped at him, though he was still speaking for the crowd. "Are you insane?! The warships could be within-"
"Yeah, funny that. I don't hear any sirens. You sure this supposed fleet is on its way?"
"It is, and by the time their cannons persuade you, Ravachol, it will be too damn late for all of us!"
"Well then hurry up and get this over with."
"Why should I-"
"Because if you have your way, a lot of people will die today, so we might as well start right now!"
Ravachol's deep, broken voice cracked like a gavel across the Esplanade.
"I saw ships invade my own colony, Morgenstern; so did you. Did that stop either of us from fighting back? I'll tell you when it's too late. It's too late when men like you wave a flag in front of our face and make us forget what we're fighting for. As you said, this is Freeport! We're individuals, not fucking sheep! If this is the war that's upon us, let's start it right here, right now!"
He took one step towards Morgenstern, who unconsciously backed away. Behind Wufei, Carver tensed murderously; nobody else moved.
"You have a choice!" Ravachol's yellow face was flushed with anger, turning his sallow cheeks into a strange brick-like color. "I have friends at Kro's main hatch, and they believe in what I say, and you have your men-" the word was spat out like an insult "-all around and talking riot in the crowd- you want a war, you can have it! I'll fight you, Morgenstern, and if the Preventers come, I'll fight them too! I don't form alliances of convenience against a common enemy any more! I'll fight like a soldier or I'll fight like a cornered rat, but I'll not let you or anyone lead me blindly to the slaughterhouse! Your choice! You want a war - right here, in your sector, with all these people - your people - in the middle? Or do you want a slightly more civilized duel to decide this."
The silence was thick and sticky with worried murmurs in the crowd. But not that much panic. The attention of the people was sharp and centered on the platform.
"If your Blade wins - and I know he's your Blade, Morgenstern, I checked the registration; very clever piece of paperwork there. I didn't think you could make anyone disappear that well in Freeport, and trust me, I have been looking for him. So, if your Blade wins, I'll let you have your way, and so will Maxwell. There, like that you have something to gain as well."
"If he wins, I won't be in any state to object," Duo drawled. He was cleaning his thumbnail with his flickblade.
Ravachol's eyes flickered towards Duo. "No, to be fair, it should be Blade against Blade. After all-"
"No!" Duo shouted, spinning on Ravachol.
"After all, Chang is the cause of all this-"
"I said no!"
Ravachol continued talking, despite Duo savagely grabbing the front of his coat. "He's the cause of all this mess, and he's your Blade, so-"
Wufei didn't listen to the arguments. He craned his neck until he could look up at Carver behind him.
"Hey, you," he said quietly.
Carver twitched and stared down at him in surprise.
"It's in your side's best interest to finish this quickly. So let's do this. You and I have something to settle."
Carver stared down at him for a few long seconds, and a dark temptation colored his eyes. But then his gaze lifted towards Morgenstern, looking for instructions. It was the sort of look a dog gave his master.
Morgenstern had approached Carver and Wufei, his attention half on Ravachol and Duo's argument, as if hoping the coalition against him would disintegrate on its own.
"You're probably don't care, Preventer," he said without glancing at Wufei, "but there is a rule in Freeport that says a Blade is only supposed to talk to his Handler."
"In Freeport, they're called traditions," Wufei answered softly. "But that's not the point. You know what Duo is to me. If there's a tradition -or a rule or even a law carved into the celestial throne - that says I have to stand by and let your zombie kill someone important to me, than I will challenge that tradition with everything I have."
Morgenstern glanced at him in surprise. He measured Wufei with a long, calculating look, then Carver behind him.
"Let me go," Wufei said, still speaking quietly. And dammit, but it did go against the grain to talk to anyone but Duo. He'd been in Freeport too long... But what he'd told Morgenstern was the truth. As much as he respected Freeport's traditions, he wasn't about to let Duo fight a battle that should rightfully be his. "Let me go, Morgenstern, and you have my word that I will talk Duo into this and get this duel started quickly."
"It'll take a few minutes to go get the weapons," Morgenstern said, with a gesture of ill-humor. "You have that much time. Otherwise I'm calling Ravachol's bluff, and I'll make sure those people who came out to stand up for you are the first to die in the fighting."
Wufei took a deep breath - but he swallowed his words and his anger, and merely nodded. "I'll use my sword, if your people bring it to me; your dog can use his machete if he wants."
Morgenstern chuckled; a humorless bubble of laughter that caused both Duo and Ravachol to pause their argument and glance over at the Breaker suspiciously.
"Sword?! My my, Preventer, you are refreshingly brave and straightforward, but you have no idea where you've landed. We have our own way of doing things in Kropotkin. We have our way of doing things in Freeport, and despite your pretty little speech, you do not know us or our traditions. Go then, Chang, and I have your word you and Duo won't waste any more of my time. Al, go get... you know what, for the duel." He laughed again, and Ferret joined in, a sick little giggle of anticipation.
Wufei didn't bother to think too much; he'd figure out what was so funny later. He didn't even glance at Carver who'd released his arms from the cable. Wufei headed towards Duo as soon as he could move, rubbing his sore arms to get the circulation back.
"Wufei!" Duo grabbed his arm and thrust Wufei behind him as if he could defend him against everybody on the platform. The switchblade drew a shining, dangerous line between the two young men and Ravachol and Mako, Morgenstern and Carver.
"Duo, you're going to have to let me do this," Wufei started.
"No!" Duo shoved him back further, eyes still intent on his enemies. "You don't know what- this is Kro, they got this sick custom here! And you're injured-"
"02. Look at me."
Duo's breath was coming fast and hard. He was still staring straight ahead. But in his hand, the knife slowly sunk down to his side.
Wufei reached out and turned Duo's face towards him with a gentle touch on his cheek.
"I'm a bit bruised, but I feel better than I have for years."
The big blue eyes blinked at him in surprise. Wufei smiled, completely honest and openly for what felt like the first time in his life.
"I am fighting for Justice, and I'm doing it my way. I'm fighting for a colony I can actually save this time, unlike my own home. I am fighting for the law, and also for strong traditions. And I'm fighting for you. I'm a warrior. It can't get much better than this. Let me go, Duo. And don't worry. I've fought him before; I can take him."
Duo's lips moved, shaping themselves around an objection he didn't vocalize.
"Let me do my job, Pilot," Wufei whispered, leaning his forehead against Duo's, "and you do yours. We can protest and rail, but in the end, we do what we believe is right. It's who we are. You have something greater than me to fight for, too."
"If you die, Freeport can burn and I won't give a fuck," Duo said, in a dead tone of voice.
"You don't mean that," Wufei said gently.
"... No. But I almost wish I did. Why does it always have to be for the greater good? Why can't it just be for us? Just this once... "
"If you need that rationale, then remember that we'll neither of us get through this crowd without getting lynched if nothing dramatic happens in the next few minutes."
A smile like a dead man's rictus crossed Duo's face. Then he turned towards Morgenstern. "Fine," he barked, over the grumbling noise of the increasingly restless crowd. "You have your duel. My man will make mincemeat out of your rabid dog."
"In a few minutes," Morgenstern said, glancing up from a tight knot of his people.
"He's plotting something," Wufei muttered. "He's good at turning our moves against us."
"Well, in this instance he won't have to try very hard," Ravachol commented. "I'm on the ropes; if this fails, we're all screwed"
The ex-rebel had wandered up to them. He was looking at Morgenstern with fatalism in his jaundiced eyes. Then he met Duo's hostile gaze with an unrepentant smirk.
Wufei, on his part, was thinking that Morgenstern was not the only strategist here. Ravachol had suggested the duel as a means to break Morgenstern's deadly momentum. That was now done. He'd 'volunteered' Wufei to spare Duo, out of some lingering sense of respect and friendship for Deathscythe's pilot; but also because he was expecting Carver to kill Wufei in this duel. In fact, Ravachol was probably counting on it. Even if the whole Breaker plot came to light, Ravachol would still be left with the very embarrassing fact of Chang Wufei, Preventer, being on board Freeport, and with Ravachol's knowledge. A dead Preventer was less of an embarrassment than a live one being interrogated by the Lao Tzu Elders.
"Now I get it... " Duo said softly.
For a moment, Wufei thought Duo had jumped to the same conclusion. But his lover was not glaring murder at Ravachol; he was staring at a spot in the crowd around the platform. Wufei followed his gaze. Duo was staring at the knot of Ravachol's supporters that had been left at the foot of the ramp.
"That's Marta Bernstein," Duo said, anger in his words.
Wufei, startled, looked more closely at the group of people. Among the big bruisers, pirates and smugglers, a small woman stood staring up at them. She wasn't ravaged with shock this time, so he hadn't recognized her immediately, but this was the woman who'd been Joshua Brindlow's common law partner. Joshua, the man Carver had murdered not four blocks from here.
"Now I get it... " Duo looked at Ravachol with a cruel smile. "Joshua. He was one of your guys, wasn't he."
Wufei was a good observer by nature; he caught the minutest flinch from Ravachol. Duo would have picked it up too.
"Is that how you got mixed up in all this? I've been wondering since you popped up earlier. What happened? Why did Carver kill Josh?"
"The big fuck with the dead eyes over there."
"Is that his name?" Ravachol looked at Carver with undisguised hostility and disgust. Carver, listening to Morgenstern, glanced up, caught the gaze and turned away without the slightest response.
"A nickname, but suits him down to the ground," Duo drawled. "So, what happened? Were you trying to find out more about Morgenstern? You have eyes and ears in every anarchist cell in Space, Rav. You knew about the Breakers- Morgenstern's little plot against the colonies. Didn't you?"
"Many would say it's Morgenstern's little plot for the colonies," Ravachol said in a slightly bemused voice, as if he was suddenly wondering what he was doing on the wrong side of a rebellion.
"Oh, don't give me that shit."
"I used to believe in that shit... " The sunken eyes turned inwards. "But now... I guess I was just curious. I didn't hear that much about these... Breakers, as you call them. But some things made me wonder what was going on out there. A few of my men were called upon to run some funny cargo. It looked like the kind of mess brewing that might be bad for my business. And I didn't like the way Freeport looked to get dragged into something dangerous, without the approval of its citizens. But mainly... I was just curious."
Curious? Or had the one-time rebel been concerned for the colonies he'd defended so fiercely during the war? Wufei thought that even Ravachol might not fully understand the motives that had pushed him out of his bitter apathy.
"And then your little friend came onboard." Ravachol favored Wufei with an ugly look. "I'd had my suspicions of Heero for quite awhile. But this guy? He stinks of the Law. I was able to track down his records, though it took me awhile. So I knew the Pigs were after somebody on Freeport. From the questions you asked, and from what I knew of Chang, and of outside, I was able to put it together. I figured out who you were looking for; this 'Carver' of yours came in on one of my ships. Nobody knew who the fuck he was, but some powerful people vouched for him, and that was weird too. I decided to find out if there was enough shit here for the Pigs to start rooting around seriously. It might have compromised my own deals."
"So you managed to dig up Carver's tracks and have him followed," Duo guessed, his voice acrid. "But not by one of your guys; that could have vexed those 'powerful people' who vouched for Carver. You needed someone unconnected to your business, someone they might not link to you if he was spotted. Did you pay Josh-"
"Josh was a friend of mine," Ravachol said in a dangerous voice. "From one of my earliest cells, during the war. I would not have put him in harm's way if I thought-"
"If you'd realized what a piece of work you'd set him to following. Yeah, Josh didn't stand a fucking chance. Carver spotted his tail and killed him," Duo continued. "So you decided to really find out what was going on. And you and your smugglers were the group the Breakers were afraid of; you have a lot more means than I do, and you knew some of his men, for having smuggled them around. For fuck's sake, Rav! Why did you warn us off like that! Why didn't you ask me to help instead?!"
Ravachol slowly looked at Wufei. "I told you before; I don't like the company you keep."
"Don't you think this was a bit more important than-"
Ravachol's ruined hands were clasped together like dead spiders, and he smirked down at them. "I know all too well that an alliance can be broken, and that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend."
Mako leaned in and tapped both his friend and Duo on the shoulder, interrupting the vicious staring match between them. "Guys? Morgenstern's got it ready for the duel."
Damn, that reminded Wufei of something. He tugged urgently at Duo's sleeve. "Duo, I lost my sword. I think it's back in the maintenance tunnel. Can we send someone to fetch it?"
Duo winced and looked at Wufei with pain in his eyes. "Wu... you don't get it. Kro has... er... "
"Kropotkin has a tradition," Ravachol declared, with a cruel and hungry smile as he glanced at a Breaker who'd come running up to Morgenstern. "It's refreshingly barbaric for such a proper, civilized sector. But in a way, that's its purpose. It insures that very few people fight duels in Kropotkin, and if they do, they fucking well mean it. Duels here are no joke. I think the last one was over four years ago. It wasn't pretty. Both fighters died in the end, didn't they, Mako?"
"I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised," Mako said lazily, his calculating eyes on the weapons the Breaker had presented to Morgenstern for inspection.
Duo's hand had closed on Wufei's wrist like a clamp, as if he wanted to try to drag Wufei behind him again. Wufei barely noticed. He was staring in dawning comprehension at the two apparently incongruous objects the Breaker was holding.
A couple of long-handled meat hooks.
End Part 32
On to Chapter thirty-three
Back to Chapter thirty-one