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

AN: Huge thanks to Dawna for beta-ing, and to Tsuki for checking the sparkle factor and her judicious editing tips. This is, of course, still dedicated to Dacia (I may have forgotten to mention that in last chapter but it's a given for the whole fic; she did inspire it after all!)

Freeport + Chapter 3

Welcome to Tijuana
Tekila, sexo y marihuana
Welcome to Tijuana
Con el coyote no hay aduana

Bienvenida a Tijuana
Bienvenida mi suerte
Bienvenida la muerte
Por la Panamericana

(Welcome to Tijuana
Tequila, sex and marijuana
Welcome to Tijuana
With the coyotes (smugglers) there's no customs

Welcome to Tijuana
Welcome, my luck
Welcome to death
By the Panamerican)


- Manu Chao, 'Welcome to Tijuana'
[Whenever possible I will put the translations of non-English songs. Translations are, more often than not, my own. Sorry for any errors. According to my sources, 'coyote' refers to a trans-border smuggler]

+

"Here we go. This shouldn't take long," Duo announced, as he sent acknowledgement to the blockade and followed their docking instructions.

Wufei observed the small space station from the port view. It was an ugly duckling of a space object the size of a small buildings, a bunch of tubes, fuel containers, pods and antenna all lumped together. The blockade consisted of a dozen of these stations in a loose sphere around Freeport space. A Preventer five-man spinnet was docked there already, long, sleek and deadly as a stiletto, a contrast to the bulky, unlovely space station. It was filling up with ammo and oxygen tanks at one of the station's spherical cargo pods before it left for a new patrol around the perimeter. Duo passed by the spinnet carefully, and approached another of the station's berths.

A slight clunk echoed through the hull and into the space inside the clipper as Duo docked against the station's clamp.

"Get your ID ready. And just let me do the talkin', okay?"

"Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing anyway?" Wufei muttered.

"Not as far as Johnny Lawboy is concerned. I meant, our highly respected Preventer forces, of course."

"Of course." Wufei ignored Duo's mocking grin.

There was a further thunk as the station's airlock fastened over Scythe's. Duo bounced up and drifted over to the door, hitting the release.

"Officer Dinkle! What a pleasure!" Wufei could almost hear the smirk in Duo's voice.

There was an answering grunt. Wufei released his harness and drifted over.

The Preventer's badge read Tyrone Dinkle. He grunted a second time as Duo handed him a sheath of papers; the cargo manifest, Wufei supposed. Dinkle went over them quickly, eyes bored and completely unfriendly.

"Who's this?" The man's eyes had flickered towards Wufei even as he turned the manifest's pages. He noted Wufei's collar, and the look on his face, already unpleasant, degenerated into a sneer of something like disgust. "Does he have ID?"

"Yup. Give him your papers." The last was addressed to Wufei. He obediently handed over his usual cover ID he had ready. It showed nothing remarkable and no criminal record that should give him any trouble getting in and out of Freeport.

Dinkle scanned the ID and read the result carefully with an air of barely veiled hostility. He handed it back without looking at Wufei, making sure the latter could take the ID without their hands touching. Charming. Then the officer turned towards the boxes.

"What do you have here, Maxwell?" he asked heavily.

"It's in the cargo manifest, Ty!" Duo's smile was sunny.

Dinkle gave the nearest box a hard kick on the lock, popping it open at the risk of making it unusable for future space flights. A shadow that only Wufei would notice went through Duo's eyes, but his smile stayed open and almost outrageously honest.

"...I know you like your hair, Maxwell, but this is ridiculous," Dinkle said slowly.

Wufei glanced at the open box then did a double take to stare. It was filled with old-fashioned hair rollers, glaringly pink and ridiculous in row upon row of clear plastic bags.

His first instinct as a Preventer would have been to tear right through that lot to see what could possibly be hidden beneath them. He hoped to hell that Duo wasn't actually trying to smuggle anything past the embargo now, when they had an important mission inside Freeport and could not afford to get stuck in jail for a few months to a year!

Dinkle rifled through a few rows, carelessly sending them floating. Duo caught them and waited until the officer had quickly investigated the contents of the box before putting them back and carefully locking it, as if they were delicate instrumentation. Dinkle was already at another box, poking through clothes. Baby clothes, Wufei noted with nothing but dull curiosity, as if he'd run right out of surprise. Another box revealed several smaller boxes of cheap gyros, LED lights and such. A fourth was full of old computer parts, most of which looked trashed.

"The usual then. Apart from the curlers, which are weird even by your standards, Maxwell," the Preventer sniffed. He opened two of the small cartons, shook out the gyros inside carelessly, inspected them briefly and then stuffed them back in their box.

"You got a copy of that manifest?"

"Already downloaded to your station's computer, Ty!"

Dinkle grunted again; it was apparently the level of communication he judged worthy of his visitors. He propelled himself towards the airlock without another glance. Duo didn't look surprised, merely drifted over and shut the lock behind him.

"That's all?!" Wufei stared at the airlock once it was closed.

"Yep, that's what I mostly get. Oh, sometimes they take a ship to dry-dock and take it apart, but that's only happened to me twice in the four years I've been passing by this station with Scythe."

"But that's- that's hardly-"

"They know I'm clean and honest," Duo explained solemnly.

"Maxwell, you've never been caught but Trowa knows what you're up to and so do I!"

That got him the clear-eyed gaze of the innocently injured. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Duo-"

"Anyway, it doesn't matter," Duo smirked, waving a dismissive hand and drifting back to the pilot's seat. "They know they're not likely to catch anything on me. I'll either hide it too well, or, if I have something bulky, I would be taking it through the hide n' seek route."

Wufei knew what he meant by the hide and seek route: the smuggler's highway.

Freeport was surrounded by tiny resource satellites; patches of darkness against the stars, with a few warning lights to ward off incoming traffic, or floodlights bathing on excavation points or access zones. No other colony in space would bother with satellites this size. The price to conduct large-scale mining operations on tiny scattered space dust like this shit would have been prohibitive. Freeport did it though: by employing a lot of manual labour instead of using the automation and huge excavation stations other colonies used. The numerous scattered objects and the space debris produced by mining was a navigation hazard to Preventer ships that patrolled the perimeter. It was also excellent cover for space pirates and smugglers to approach the colony without stopping at the blockade for the required verifications.

Wufei knew that most heavy-duty smugglers would use Freeport's debris field to dodge the blockade, but nonetheless, remembering Dinkle's negligent five-minute check...

"That was still on the limit of dereliction of duty." Wufei automatically rolled the man's serial number and name through his mind, along with a half-formulated promise to have a word with him at one point. Then he gave Duo a sharp glance. "Wait a minute. You could have practically smuggled a mobile suit into Freeport with that laxity! Why did you say you couldn't get my Browning in?!"

"Later, later. Gotta concentrate to get through the debris field," Duo muttered as Scythe broke loose from the docking clamp and scooted towards the multitude of little shining lights that promised instant death if they crashed into any of them. There was a clear path through the field, Wufei knew, but that was reserved for important cargo vessels and commercial freighters only. Small-time flyers like Duo had to sweat their way in.

The space debris and small resource satellites - towed or blasted into Freeport's sphere of influence, for the most part - gave way to a cleared space after about twenty minutes of careful navigation. This was the outer docks, the ship construction area. Wufei actually released his harness to get a better look out of the viewport. He was acting like a tourist, he knew, but his fascination for vessels, particularly the deep-space explorers, won out.

The spaceships were mostly invisible in the eternal night of space; only the areas where people were working were flooded with massive directional beams. The few he could make out with any clarity were cargo vessels, earth-to-moon types. The larger Mars cargoes and the deep-space explorer for the outer planets that ESUN was working on were probably on the other side of the colony, whose massive frame was blocking his view of the stars more and more as they approached.

Wufei faced that darkness like one faced the enemy. Freeport. In his mind he could see the colony as clearly as it was highlighted on Duo's radar scope. It was wheel-shaped, though one of its eight spokes was broken, smashed through by some space debris decades ago. The mass of small resource satellites around it and ships dancing in and about its spoke and axis put it in constant danger of similar accidents. If this worried the colony's inhabitants, it was to be supposed they'd gotten used to it; it gave Wufei, a colonist himself, chills just watching that deadly tango, but he'd have to bloody well get used to it too. The hub of the wheel, its axis of rotation, was brilliantly lit; it was heaving with space traffic, ships docking and leaving constantly. Way more traffic than was safe, Wufei could see at a glance. He shook his head in a mixture of horror and wonder.

The warble of communication made Wufei sit back down and buckle in. Duo exchanged a few words with Freeport's flight control, and requested a dry dock facility. Then he leaned back in his chair and stretched against the harness like a cat.

"There'll be a delay in getting a dry dock. It might take a few minutes, but it's been known to take days. We can leave the Scythe in space dock and go in with suits if that's the case. They should tell us in a few minutes."

"Why so long?" Wufei asked, puzzled.

"Everybody's busy," Duo replied as if that explained everything. "And they need to have someone at customs to check us in."

"Customs? Freeport has customs?" Wufei glanced back over his shoulder as if he could physically see the blockade space station thirty minutes behind their stern. He thought that was customs.

"Hmm, sure we do." Duo rubbed his eyes. He looked as tired as Wufei felt. "Gotta make sure ships don't bring dangerous shit - or people - into the place."

"Do they do a better job than Officer Dinkle?" Wufei asked, a bit sourly. He was still angry with the man. The blockade shouldn't be such a joke! It was there to stop smuggling in and out of Freeport, and to check for criminals and pirates escaping the law to hide there. The contraband it was checking for these days was mainly weapons. Freeport had been declared a lawless zone since before Wufei was born, and stopping the circulation of guns in such an environment was deemed the first step to pacifying it. Except so far, no government had ever gotten to that last step. They just tried to keep the worst of the scum from leaving the colony and the more dangerous contraband from entering.

"Don't knock the boys and girls of the blockade," Duo admonished lazily. "It's a shitty job. If it makes you feel better, they're a damn sight more careful about what comes out of Freeport than what goes in. That means there's only very few people in the 'coming in' section, and most of those are concentrated on the big cargo ships to make sure we're not slipping in Gundanium or suit parts or something. 'Officer Tiny Winkle' is just some poor shmuck who's waiting for his tour of duty to end so he can go back to Earth, feel some gravs under his feet, get drunk and get laid."

"That is no excuse," Wufei commented acidly. "If all prison wardens were so lax, every penitentiary would be a war zone."

That got him a rare old glare.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Freeport was a penitentiary to start with, but that lasted for all of ten years! And that was eighty three years ago! Fuck's sake, we get that all the time. Penitentiary this, prison that, like every guy aboard is still an escaped convict or something. All the prisoners they had there to start with died of old age already! If they were lucky. Not that it matters a shit anymore."

Wufei looked at him archly. Of course it mattered. Wufei's clan had been exiled from the Sino-Asian conglomerate the one-time Chinese Democratic Republic, North Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan sixty nine years ago, and every member still remembered the specifics of their exile down to the last detail, the politicians involved, the patriarchs that had led them to A0206, to a new home where they could live their strength and their ideals in purity and solitude. Origins mattered.

"Its origins matter to Freeport," he pointed out, a bit snidely. "In their case, the fact that they were a penal colony was what gave rise to their dubious status of independence, which they've kept since. Which let them-"

"Dubious independence?! Hey, mate, there's nothing dubious about it! It was even a charter under the Alliance."

Wufei sniffed dismissively. "Maxwell, you know as well as I do that the Alliance used Freeport as a dumping ground for malcontents and problem cases that they didn't have quite the impetus to execute or imprison. The only reason they didn't invade and take over the damn place was that it was easier to cordon off than deal with the consequences of destroying it and then facing homeless Sweeper crews forming seditious groups all over the colonies. One of OZ's officers compared it to a relatively benign cancer that would metastasize if you hacked into it."

Duo's eyes were dangerously narrowed, a cruel and provoking smile twisting his mobile lips. "And you people don't do the same?"

"No, of course not!" Wufei snapped. "The only reason ESUN is keeping away from Freeport and the- the den of criminality there, is because we're a humanitarian government and our analysts have judged that the- the illuminated lunatics in charge there are serious when they said they'd blow the place up rather than surrender to any armed forces! The death toll would-"

"Would look very bad on the six o'clock news, I grant ya. But you sure this decision doesn't have anything to do with the fact that Freeport builds the best motherfucking ships in the whole solar system, including the Mars shuttles? ESUN and the colonies had their fleets completely screwed by the war; they even lost most of their cargo and passenger transports. You sure the fact that the citizens of Freeport are willin' to work forty-eight hours a day to make up for war losses has nothin' to do with ESUN's patience with us?" Duo was looking at him through hooded eyes, as if longing to see his reaction.

"I-"

"After all, if you wanted us to give up and play nice, you could probably stop all the ship orders," Duo added, the edge of a mocking grin on his lips. "That'd put a stranglehold on Freeport and eventually drive all the people out without firing a single bullet. So why don't they do that, hey?"

Wufei had wondered about that himself occasionally, and he hadn't liked the possible answers, so he gave the one that the Preventers adopted and that he'd learned to live with, whenever he thought of the problem at all: "I understand that policy is designed to give Freeport the incentive to turn to honest profit, instead of relying on- on-"

"Smugglers, pirates and thieves, boy, smugglers, pirates and thieves." Duo gave him a wolfish grin that reminded Wufei of the days the man was called Shinigami. "I guess you're right, Chang. We've not changed that much since the old days. We're still all lifers. The old Space Force abandoned the jailbirds eighty odd years ago when space and the colonies made their bid for independence, and everything went FUBAR. Everybody judged that taking care of convicts was the other side's job - so nobody did and the poor bastards were left to eat vacuum. They were given independence on a technicality, so that when they all died and Pen-101 hull-breached and went to hell, neither of the two sides of that conflict would feel too guilty! And that's still the way it is! Well, those convicts survived and so do we-"

Duo interrupted his intense monologue with a look at Wufei that was rather dismissive, weaving his fingers together behind his neck and relaxing against the harness. "Yeah," he continued, "I guess ESUN - and Chang Wufei - are perfectly right. We're a cesspit, a bunch of lifers still scrabblin' for survival at the edge of the void. And you know what? We're still not ready to give up and let the good guys in to lord it over us. And ESUN is perfectly right; we will blow the joint at the first sign of an invasion, since that's the only weapon we have. That's the kind of insane asylum you're heading into. Still feel up to it, Chang?"

Wufei stared at his one-time ally. Duo was stretched back against his harness, hands behind his head and one foot on the console, his face a cheerful smirk. His voice had been mocking. On the surface. Underneath, there'd been that strange pride that Wufei had known during the war - the 'I am Shinigami and the whole world's against me - which is fair enough because I'm after its blood!' type of mentality. The other pilots had been so serious and committed. Duo had laughed and joked and killed like a fiend, with dedication and gusto. Shinigami indeed. He'd had some grasp of the politics behind what the pilots had been trying to achieve, he wasn't a soulless killer. He'd fought for the cause, but he never seemed to take it half as seriously as the actual fighting itself. Maybe that's why he'd been such a good pilot...

He was still the same, except this time, he'd said 'we' and he hadn't meant himself and the other four pilots. And Wufei found that rather worrisome.

This wasn't just a place to live, for Maxwell; it wasn't just a place to hide out and use as a base for his petty smuggling operations. This had become Shinigami's home in a much more fundamental sense. Though Duo was getting paid for this job, which showed that his practical, mercenary side was still healthy, Wufei couldn't help rearranging his informant's loyalties in his mind somewhat.

Carver, Wufei told himself severely. Concentrate on catching Carver. Duo's allegiances mattered no more than the rather dubious circumstances in which Wufei was handed the mission in the first place. Wufei was going to put a killer behind bars.

Duo's home might be Freeport these days, but Wufei had none - certainly not the small, drab temporary apartments the Preventers rented to him wherever he moved to. Wufei's allegiances were, and always had been since the war, to his interpretation of justice, from the small details of stopping criminals, to preventing the greater crime that was war. That was all that mattered to him.



---



After thirty minutes of a rather heavy silence, the comm bleeped. A tired voice echoed out when Duo acknowledged.

//Scythe, we have a dry dock for you. Ring 10, berth 49. Got that?//

Duo made a face.

"Aww, man! That's gonna put me miles from home! Can't I get anything closer? I'm bushed!"

There was a short silence on the other end of the comm. //Scythe, the small creak you're hearing isn't the sound of my joints groaning after a fifteen hour shift with a one hour break and it isn't the sound of the deck coordinator's nerves slowly stretching to a snapping point with the workload and incoming traffic; it's the sound of my tiny violin that's cryin' over the fact you have to haul ass a few hundred meters more than ya want to. Now get the fuck into that cradle or get out. Over.//

"They love me on the flight deck. And getting mad is good for them with the kind of shifts they pull," Duo announced cheerfully as he nosed Scythe forward.

Wufei forbore to comment, not wanting to distract Duo as the pilot edged his way through an intricate ballet of vessels. There were a lot of small ships like Maxwell's - and the Preventer's instinct was to start noting license plates because most of them were probably on someone's wanted list somewhere. There were also slow, awkward cargo freighters, Sweepers bringing supplies into the station. And there were the massive company ships; they were bringing in the raw materials for Freeport's shipbuilding industry. Wufei noted logos on the ships' sides when he could see them; Etoiles Inc - an old Romefeller company, that one - and Marsico, the other shipbuilding giant. Those companies owned the ships and brought the building supplies from all the other colonies which produced them. Freeport - the whole colony was its own corporation, officially - was a contractor who put the ships together, and they could, at present, underbid every other competitor in the solar system, and had done so for the last fifty years.

Hearing what he'd heard from the flight deck control, Wufei wondered that Freeport had enough coordination to hold a shipyard together. A very successful shipyard, too. But at what cost? From the very little he'd heard, a lot of the citizens of Freeport lived in near-slavery to the conglomerate that sent crews out to the shipyards, or mined the resource satellites around the colony for ores and other raw materials. It was...an ugly picture. Almost as ugly as the haven for pirates that was the other side of the one-time penitentiary. As a Preventer and a human being, Wufei had often felt an urge to come and clean this place out - and fuck the shipbuilding industry! They'd just have to cut a bit off the big fat profit margins they were saving for their stockholders, and stop employing what was probably little better than slave labour. The savings they'd make from not having their automated cargo freights disabled and raided by pirates would probably compensate them, once the Freeport buccaneers were out of Space. But like a lot of corrupt and long-living systems, Freeport and the economics that supported it had their own inertia, one that would crush a mere Preventer if he even thought of interfering. Even Une was helpless against it. Hell, even the powerful President Peacecraft and her political system was pretty much part and parcel of the powerful commercial interests that ran ESUN now that the war was over. As for the Preventers, they had too many other hotspots to deal with first. Earth and the colonies had been savaged by war for long decades. Relena's rosy little 'Peace' picture, reflected in the television's screen, was a symbol of what might come to be. Reality, on the other hand, had a lot of catching up to do to get anywhere near it.

One day, though...Wufei stared at the colony spinning before them, berths, pipes and com-antennas bristling out of it. One day, if ESUN held its promises, if the peace Wufei and his friends sacrificed so much for every day, held its promises...if Relena Peacecraft held her promises...then one day ESUN would have the time, money and political impetus to address the Freeport problem, and get the place sanitized.

It was that sort of thing that got Wufei out of bed some mornings. He would put up with the shit if the peace held its promises...

The spinning of the colony was slowing, relative to them, as Duo skilfully matched its velocity with an almost obscene ease. Bastard was still one of the best pilots around, Wufei noted absently, still a bit distracted by his morose line of thought.

Duo spun Scythe so that he was facing a rather small entry into the colony's hull. Wufei finally reacted.

"Wait. We're landing in the colony?"

"Yup, I'm dry docking the ship. My buddy needs some more repairs, and it's easier to do that without a space-suit."

"What about the zero-G docking."

"Oh boy, those are reserved for the cargo freighters, man! A tiny ship like Scythe wouldn't stand a chance to dock there, even if I waited in line for a hundred years!" Duo had given the console a quick pat as he spoke, as if reassuring Scythe that he'd not meant anything derogatory by 'tiny ship'. "Dry dock will waste fuel getting in and out and away from the gravity, I know, but that's better than space walking to repair stuff. Easier for you, too."

"Me?" Wufei asked, startled.

"We'll be dropping by every other day or so to give Scythe its 'repairs'. That's when you can download and send out a transmission to the blockade on narrow beam. A hidden program in their computer picks it up and filters it to Barton and Une. So that they know you're still alive and doing your job. You'll appreciate the fact you don't have to wear a space suit to do it each time."

"Oh." Wufei had asked Trowa exactly how he was supposed to make his report and Trowa had shoved him onto the shuttle with a 'Duo will explain all that'.

Duo's acceleration and curve was starting to give Wufei faint prickles as gravity crept aboard. Scythe eased into the dock and, with a skilful burst of the propulsion that used the mathematically absolute minimum of fuel required, Duo centered himself above the loosely floating cradle and let it magnetically latch on to Scythe's underbelly. The clang resounded through the ship, then the groan as the cradle was hauled in by its cables and fastened to the berthing ring. Gravity was coming back fast, giving Wufei pins and needles. He twitched, clenched his muscles and stretched, getting his mobility and G-legs back as quickly as possible. Duo was doing the same. It was an old habit they'd picked up when they were fifteen and frequently had to fight a few seconds after they'd landed at any one place.

"Right, give it a few minutes for them to flood the dock. Oh, that reminds me." Duo reached back into the loose cloth bag that was now hanging from its handle. "Here. You'll probably want one of these."

Duo fished out what looked like a confectionary packet from the bag. He drew out a thin stick, an actual wooden stick it looked like. He put it between his teeth and started to nibble at it. He held one out to Wufei who looked at it as if Duo had handed him a dead herring.

"What is that?"

"Liquorice stick."

"...I'm going to have to ask 'why'?" Wufei growled, knowing Duo was waiting for it. He knew that small smirk at the corner of the mobile lips. Whatever Duo was nibbling on was giving out a pungent odour, like menthol and cough medicine.

"You'll see," Duo said gnomically. "You'll be grateful for it in a minute."

Wufei took the thing Duo was offering and sniffed it dubiously. It didn't smell as strong as Duo's, probably because you had to bite into it to release the flavour. It looked like wood, though now that he was touching it, he thought it was probably an artificial immitation. From what he could see of the end Duo was sucking on as the pilot turned Scythe's systems off one by one, it was fibrous. You weren't meant to eat it, just chew on it. Wufei didn't have any bad habits - beyond being confrontational and stubborn - and he wasn't about to pick up this disgusting one. He leaned over and slipped the stick into Duo's breast pocket firmly. Duo's eyebrows twitched but he didn't say anything, his hands dancing over the controls.

"All done," Duo announced around the stick in his mouth. "My baby's asleep in his cradle, and the sniffers await! Let's haul."

Wufei followed Duo to the airlock, picking up his knapsack and sword in passing. He hesitated as Duo grabbed one of the boxes in the cabin.

"Here, Wu, take one of the other ones. These are high priority supplies. We'll unload the rest later."

"...There's an urgent need for baby clothes and hair rollers?" Wufei asked dubiously, slipping on his knapsack and wishing he had a strap for his sword.

"The ways of Freeport are mysterious."

Wufei grabbed the box full of clothes and followed Duo, who'd slipped the cloth bag and a duffel over his shoulder and grabbed two of the small space-proof boxes. Duo put them down next to the airlock and hit the release.

The air whistled out of the ship, to Wufei's surprise. That meant the air pressure in the docking area was lower than in Scythe; Freeport must be cheap with their oxygen and pressure-

Wufei gasped and choked, nearly dropping the box to instinctively cover his nose with his sleeve.

"What the-" he couldn't finish the sentence.

The air that had slowly permeated the ship from the dock was- Wufei fought down some panic, he'd assumed for a second there'd been a coolant leak or something in the vicinity. It was harsh, tainted with some kind of chemical. Fighting with that odour was a pervasive organic smell that turned his stomach. The air was very cold compared to the ship's warmth.

"Fierce, heh?" Duo was smirking at him, hands in pockets and leaning against the door seal in a cocky pose. Bastard.

"...I've unwrapped bodies in the morgue. I've had worse," Wufei muttered through clenched teeth. The smell had caught him by surprise, but it was nowhere near as bad as opening the body bag of a five-day swimmer.

"Yeah, but you know how the morgue techs put a drop of eucalyptus essence on their surgical masks before working on the really ripe ones? This is the same." Duo had taken Wufei's discarded stick from his pocket and was twirling it agilely before the Preventer's nose.

Wufei glared at the harmless stick. But seen in that light, he supposed - he reached for it only to have Duo jerk it away.

"Oh, I forgot that-" Duo was frowning a bit uncertainly. "Er, I should probably tell you - never mind, you're turning green."

"I am not turning green!" Wufei snapped. He was getting used to the smell already, once the initial shock was over. Trust Maxwell not to warn him! Duo still had that urge to- to score one over everybody, apparently. It was childish! And stupid!

No, what was really stupid was the way Wufei couldn't resist rising to the challenge most of the time. He fought down the urge to just walk out of the airlock and prove to Maxwell that he could ignore the smell. Duo was chewing on the disgusting stuff, so it was probably expected of people landing in Freeport. Wufei wanted to blend in. Plus, he had the feeling the smell would get nauseating after awhile, and he wanted to be at his best. He grabbed the stick from Duo, who looked surprised and almost ready to snatch it back for a second.

Wufei bit into the piece of confectionary. The flavour was like a kick in the sinuses. Even the smell didn't stand a chance. It did taste a bit like eucalyptus, as well as aniseed and liquorice. It was fresh, if rather overwhelming, and a relief. The taste almost sparkled on his tongue.

The two men carried the boxes down the ramp Scythe had extended and headed along the docking ring. Wufei shifted the box in his arms and shivered, though he felt a bit warmer all of a sudden. Probably just getting used to the temperature.

"The smell's not as bad in the living quarters. Still there, but not as bad. We're not too far from the factories here. Plus, recyc's everywhere. You get used to it."

Wufei followed Duo's monologue as they made their way around the ring. It was dark in the dock, lit only by emergency lighting and a floodlight near the door.

"You'll probably be in Freeport for awhile. If we get insanely lucky you might leave in a couple of weeks. In that case, you might want to avoid taking a drug test right when you get back."

Wufei walked two steps and fetched up into a support pylon as he suddenly realized what Duo had just said. He whipped the stick out of his mouth with the hand gripping his sword. "What?!"

"I said you might want to-"

Wufei surged forward two steps, slamming into Duo, pining him against the dock's wall with his sword-arm across the bastard's chest. "What the fuck is in these things?!"

"Fei!" Duo hissed, eyes leaping towards the door. "Hands off! Customs could be watching!"

With a snarled curse, Wufei let go and took a step back, glancing at the nearly invisible door.

"It's okay for a Blade to be cantankerous, but they rarely assault their Handler, even for a joke," Duo said mildly, shaking himself and shoving away from the wall.

"Sorry," Wufei growled.

"Sorry ain't gonna cut it if you get us killed," Duo pointed out, voice still reasonable. "As for the liquorice, relax. There are very, very small quantities of a couple of boosters in it."

"Boosters?" Wufei asked sharply.

"Caffeine, Lydac and Ravers ".

"Duo, those are illegal! Not the caffeine, I mean, but-"

"It's very small quantities, Wu, they won't make you twitchy or high. Just enough to give you a mild buzz. It's one of Freeport's few pleasures, don't knock it. That reminds me, we don't have cigarettes here; you don't smoke, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"Good," Duo muttered, leading the way once more. "I'd hate to see what you're like during nicotine withdrawal..."

Wufei glared at Duo's back in the near-darkness, then at the stick in his hand. The lingering taste of liquorice was giving way to the smell. He happened to know that Preventers ran checks for that sort of drug...hopefully Trowa could get him an exemption; he'd already bitten into the thing. Wufei growled internally and stuck the stick in his mouth again, following Duo towards the light.

Duo put the boxes down on a little cart. When Wufei had done the same, they went back to get the other three boxes from Scythe's cockpit. They left the boxes in the ship's cargo hold untouched. Then Duo shoved the cart through a hole in the wall, and went to the door. It was a typical dock door, an airlock in case the space doors behind them lost pressure. Duo moved toward them, then glanced back, taking the liquorice stick from his mouth.

"Wufei, I'm telling you now so you don't flip out. This is a small space, and it'll take three minutes for the airlock to open on the other side. Sometimes longer. You want to go in with me, or wait for your own turn?"

"Three minutes? Why?"

Duo gave him a thoughtful look. "You're gonna be asking that a lot, huh? Heero never bothered. With me or after me, Wu? Make up your mind, I'm tired."

Jaws clenched, Wufei followed into the airlock. Why three minutes, when there was air on either side of the door? The boxes had gone through directly through the hole to the other side. Though there was an automatic pressure door over the hole to seal the dock in case of decompression, it had been open when Duo had shoved the cart through; the air flowed freely from one room to another.

Heero probably never did ask that many questions. Heero on a mission had a tendency towards paranoia and single-mindedness. He'd ascertain if something was a threat to his mission, but he preferred to do so by his own means without asking questions. If that meant he didn't get all the details about something non-essential, then so be it. And if he trusted Duo implicitly, then that would be that much less for him to question; he'd just assume Duo knew best. Wufei was trusting Duo with his life, but that didn't stop him from wondering what the hell was going on, and wanting to find out, even if it wasn't necessarily mission-related. He should be concentrating, though. Remember your cover story, he snapped at himself; you're supposed to be this...this sort of robot for Duo.

The airlock space was tight. There were maybe three inches between their bodies, and the bags were an awkward bundle at their sides. Wufei thanked his ancestors that he wasn't claustrophobic.

There was a gentle whistle, like air leaking. Then nothing. Silence, except for Duo's gentle breathing and the chewing sounds he was making on his stick. Wufei tried to relax against the wall.

"These are the sniffers."

Duo's voice was loud in the silence and the enclosed space, making Wufei start. He felt his hip press against Duo's duffel, and their knees touched as Duo shifted.

"What-" Wufei interrupted his question. "I thought you weren't going to explain anything," he whispered, very low.

"I'll explain stuff, but when we got the time. We got three minutes to kill now. You're new in Freeport, Wu. It's normal to have questions." Duo said this loudly, with a subtle stress in his voice. Wufei gathered that it didn't matter if someone overheard; even as far as Wufei's cover story went, he was supposed to be new to the colony. Well...if Duo thought that was best...

"So what are sniffers?" Wufei asked, still in a low voice, not sure if he was supposed to.

"The air in here is being put through a detector. The airlock on the 'in' side will only release if the detectors pick up no traces of gunpowder or dangerous substances. There's also a low-dose X-ray taken of the people inside, on a random basis. To make sure we didn't swallow anything, or have something up-well, you know."

"...Oh. What about the boxes?"

"They'll be searched too."

"Oh. I didn't realise-"

A foot thumped his, and in light of the small red 'locked' signal he saw Duo shake his head, ever so slightly. Wufei swallowed the question and kept his surprise to himself; that they'd just been more thoroughly inspected here than at the blockade.

"Dangerous substances are, of course, drugs - certain drugs, not this candy," Duo added, lifting his stick from his mouth. "Volatile chemicals, and stuff on the list."

Wufei wanted to ask what 'the list' was, but thought he'd better keep all questions to himself. Apparently, the 'Blade' he was impersonating was new to Freeport but should have some limited knowledge of Freeport's rules. Wufei the Preventer didn't have that knowledge, thanks to this bloody last-minute rush-job exile of a mission. He'd better not ask too many questions; he didn't want to trip them up.

The rest of the three minutes crept by in silence. The air in the airlock warmed up a bit from their shared body heat. Wufei wondered how sensitive the trace analysers were; ESUN had developed them, as a way of screening for weapons and explosives, but since you needed to keep the people being checked in an enclosed space for a few minutes, it had been judged impractical, too much of an imposition on the common civilian. Apparently Freeport didn't have the same qualms. But Wufei would never have thought that Freeport would be checking this thoroughly for guns and drugs.

Finally the airlock hissed, opening towards the room.

"Maxwell...I'm almost afraid to ask...why did you bring us hair curlers?" a voice asked dryly.

Wufei looked around as he came out of the airlock. A man was standing on one side of the small room, near their cart of boxes, going through the first one methodically - a lot more carefully than Dinkle had. He was splitting open each plastic bag of curlers and inspecting them carefully. He was middle-aged, dressed a bit like a Sweeper in practical, tough tans and warm jacket. He had shoulder length salt-and-pepper hair, not very well combed, and a long moustache. He was holding up one of the hair rollers critically.

"Hi, Karl. Those are for the labs, same as all those boxes."

"But why-"

"They use the hair curlers to keep their test tubes straight. Those test-tube holders they sell on the outside are stupidly expensive. I bought the curlers for ten creds the whole box, and once wired together they'll work just as well. Once the plastic is stripped they can even go through a light autoclave. Immaculata Corriendes, from the pathology lab, asked me for them."

"Can't someone, I don't know, just build her some test-tube holders? Can't be that hard."

"Probably. You got the time?"

"Does it look like it? Okay, are all these for the path lab?"

"Various labs in the hospital. Just send them there and they'll sort it out. Baby clothes for the nursery too."

"What about the rest?"

"Here's the manifest. It's just general stuff. Quartermaster will figure it out. These boxes are the only ones to be earmarked. Do you have someone who can take them ASAP?"

"The lab ones, yeah."

"I'll take care of the others tomorrow or next day, then."

"That'd be nice."

During the conversation, the man's attention had been split between the box of curlers - he was giving it a very thorough looking through - and Wufei. The latter was being finely scrutinized, from the collar, to his clothes, to his sword.

"He's new," the man said abruptly, looking at Duo. Wufei nearly stiffened at the rudeness of not being addressed directly before he remembered the 'Blade' nonsense. He wasn't supposed to be questioned, according to Duo.

"That's right."

"What about...whathisname? Blue-eyed guy you had before?"

Duo shrugged, looking away. Karl watched him for a second then dived back into the box. "Lemme finish these and then I'll check you guys through. Is...ah, this one...staying?"

"We'll have to see," Duo chuckled. But it wasn't a cheerful laughter. It sounded a bit damp, and his shoulders slumped at the end of a half-hearted shrug. Karl's gaze was sympathetic.

"Hm. Guess you can't know, heh, Duo? Damn, if this guy's new, that means I gotta fill in a load of shit on the system!" Karl blew his moustache away in an annoyed huff.

"Sorry, docker."

"Yeah, yeah." Wufei found himself pinned by another stare, and this time it was ever so slightly hostile. He kept his face completely neutral, since he had the feeling there was a bit of context here, and he was missing it all.

The man checked the curlers, then went through their bags professionally, rifling through their clothes and toiletries, making sure they had no hidden pockets or anything. He even reached over and took Wufei's sword from his hands - Duo put a restraining hand on the Preventer's shoulder as he was about to tear himself and his blade away.

Then Karl took Wufei's fingerprints, and passed a small pocket scanner over his inner wrist, with UV light that lit up his colony tattoo, registering it in a computer system that looked rather antiquated. Wufei wasn't sure why the man bothered with the tattoo. It was an old custom that people had used ever since they went into Space, as soon as babies were born. Since Earth people didn't have any, it wasn't used as an ID system. In fact, he wasn't even sure it was registered anywhere, now that his colony was destroyed.

"Right." The man shoved the keyboard and terminal towards Wufei. "Put your name here - oh, do you know- sorry, Duo, does he know how to write?"

"Ah, yes, he does," Duo replied with a grin.

"Good. Put your name here. Duo will fill in the rest."

Wufei typed in his name - Wu Fei Chang, common enough in the L5 cluster to not be traced to his job - and left the space in front of the keyboard to Duo, who filled in the rest: Duo's name, vessel and Freeport address. There was no requirement for Wufei's address, or any other detail that he could see.

"This is his first time in Freeport?" Karl asked slowly, as he hit a few keys on the system once Duo had finished.

"Yes."

"Has he been a Blackcap long?"

"Nope."

"Oh." Karl frowned deeply at his terminal.

"But I vouch for him," Duo added quietly.

"Good enough for me," Karl answered with a nod, hitting a few more keys. "Welcome to Freeport...Wufei." He wasn't looking at Wufei when he said this, which was good because Wufei had almost been ready to bow in response. He caught the gesture, though. He felt Duo's eyes on him.

"'Kay, I'm gonna go hit the sack. Been up for over thirty-five hours running with nothing more than a quick nap on Scythe. C'mon, Wu. See ya, Karl."

"Be safe, Maxwell," Karl threw over his shoulder without looking up from his keyboard where he was typing.

The door out of 'customs' had just closed behind them when Wufei realized two things.

First, that he'd gotten past immigration procedures that put a lot of ESUN methods to shame...without once showing his identity papers.

Second...he'd made it onto Freeport.

[chap. 2] [chap. 4] [back to Maldoror's fic]