Disclaimer:I don't own them and I don't make any money off of this.
Warning:Male/male sex, graphic, language, violence.
Even with all the heaters revved up, it was still freezing. Duo slept fitfully, and when he awoke, he felt even more exhausted. The others were already up and re-packing their bedrolls and supplies. Milliardo was tossing meal packs around, protein bars and drinks that were treated to prevent them from freezing. He put Duo's meal by his knee as Duo sat up and huddled in his parka. Duo glared at him as he took them, trying to show that he wasn't weak, that the fever was an annoyance, but not debilitating.
"I told you to stay away from Mary's kid," Sally said off handedly as she crouched by Duo's side and checked him with her scanner. "He had a ten on the flu meter."
Duo recalled the brief meeting a few days ago. The woman had passed him in a hallway. She had introduced her sniffling son and Duo had bent over and said 'hi'. That was when the child had sneezed in his face. Duo grimaced at the memory. "I checked out ," he complained, referring to their physical.
"For regular physical levels," Sally replied as she put her meter away. "Not for kiddie viruses. I just pinged my report to HQ, by the way, so they are aware of the situation."
"Bi-", Duo began, but then cut that off with an effort. Sally frowned, realizing what he had been about to say. He ducked his head. "Yeah, okay," he amended She was only doing her job, making sure they that had every chance to get through the mission alive. "I feel all right," he added. "A little feverish, but not like it's really affecting me."
"The terrain up ahead is very rough," Heero said as he crouched by them. "It's a hard journey for a healthy man. It was difficult for me." Which was saying a great deal, considering Heero's strength. "I don't think I should become First, if you decide against continuing in command," he added, "Milliardo is the better choice."
Duo grunted. "He's not the most experienced in this kind of operation," Duo replied. "You are."
Heero looked uncomfortable. "I am not a leader."
"You'll follow my orders," Duo reprimanded him as he forced himself to stand. He looked down at Heero, saw concern in his expression and a mixture of something else, a knowledge of his own short comings where his training was concerned. "When we get back," Duo told him. "We're going to work on your command skills, got that? I won't have weak link like that in my outfit."
Heero nodded, but then he was standing as well and facing Duo in a way that was all soldier. "Are you saying that I should take command, even thought I'm not-"
Duo sighed and rubbed at his aching forehead, wanting to hit Heero over his single minded, thick skulled, head. He throttled the impulse and said, "Being a leader, Heero, is all about making decisions, but it's also about allowing your team to do what they do best. You don't try to do it all. You know the terrain, the facility, the techniques for infiltration and extraction. Wu Fei knows how to hack you in and keep an ear on our target's movements. Milliardo is a great tactician and weapons man. Sally will keep your men in one piece and she's a crack shot. You utilize everyone."
Heero nodded a bit more confidently and Duo felt a pang of uneasiness. Heero liked being in soldier mode and liked to implement his, 'Whatever it takes to carry out orders.', strategy. They couldn't afford that kind of thinking, though.
"Orders?" Sally wondered, trying to break the mood and remind Duo that now wasn't the time to give Heero's lessons..
"Weather?" Duo snapped at Wu Fei, angry at himself and Heero for wasting time.
Wu Fei was already checking his readouts, standing near the entrance to get a better signal. He looked concerned. "There's still some potential out there, but the weather is clear, for now." He peeked through the barrier they had set up and blinked. "Shovels are in order, I think. We've been snowed in."
"Shit!" Duo swore. "Risk the burners. We can't waste time."
There was a definite danger in that. The things overloaded easily. If they ran into trouble, if the weather turned severe, then they would be left without their primary heat source. It was one of the risks they had to take, though, Duo decided grimly. Time was too precious.
Milliardo placed the cells and turned them up to full. Shouldering their packs, they zipped up their parkas, and slowly, but steadily, moved through a wall of snow. By the time they reached a clear area, two of their heat sources had died.
The wind was up, but the snow had stopped falling. Duo shoved his hands into his pockets and hunkered down into his collar as he barked at Wu Fei, "Chatter?"
"None!" Wu Fei reported as he gathered up his perimeter alarms and packed them.
"Position?" Duo asked as Wu Fei took point with him.
Wu Fei checked his satellite. " On course. Our next cache is... eleven hours... maybe... if the weather holds."
"And?" Duo prompted, "Worse case?"
"We'll have the storm come down on us without shelter on the ice shelf two clicks away from here," Heero interjected. "If we can get past that, there's trees to break the wind and some higher rock formations that might give us cover."
"Might," Duo muttered sourly. "Move out, everyone!" He began walking and everyone fell in behind. Duo didn't let Wu Fei forget his question. "Report, Fei?"
Wu Fei mulled over his readings as they walked and then he admitted defeat. "Hard to tell. A system is gathering strength, but, if the wind keeps up, it may move past us before it dumps its load."
Duo relented, knowing how hard that admission had cost Wu Fei. The man hated not being able to do his job properly. "Good job," Duo grunted. "Since a warning isn't in the cards, keep your attention on the communication lines."
"Peacecraft?" Duo called back.
"Sir?" the man shouted back from his rear position.
"Our larger shoulder launchers are at the next cache," Duo reminded him unnecessarily. "Think you can carry them in worse weather than this? If not, we'll keep to our lighter weapons."
"I'm capable," Milliardo replied. "We need those rifles."
That was true, but they didn't need to die getting them to their target, Duo thought. He rubbed at his aching forehead. Go away, he willed the pain and the fever. Not now. Not when they are counting on me.
They reached the ice and found it covered in snow and deceptively flat. The clouds were gathering and the sunlight was forcing its way sporadically through them.
"Heero?" Duo called out and the man came up on his right side. "Talk to me."
Heero was frowning. "It's not flat," he warned. "It's a chunk of glacier."
"Which means we could take a wrong step and fall to China," Duo swore. "Mill!" Milliardo came forward. "Get you your proximity targeter," Duo ordered. When Milliardo began to clip it onto a rifle, Duo shook his head. "No. We need it to take readings. The beam will pass through the snow and tell us where the ice and the rock are."
Milliardo grunted in surprise at the idea and then nodded. "It should work... in theory."
"Fei, get the chart up," Duo ordered. "It's almost impossible to map a moving sheet of ice, but it should give us some heads up to potential danger."
Wu Fei nodded and said under his breath, as he called up the map on his instruments, "Technically, China is on our right."
Duo looked sour. "Okay, Australia."
Sally snorted, "Don't become a geography teacher, Commander."
"Laughing at your C.O. is insubordination, I'm sure of it," Duo retorted. He tried to ease the weight of his pack on his shoulders and then ordered, "All right Fei, Mill, show us the way."
The snow crumbled and crunched under their feet. It wasn't hard packed, it was crusty. They put on snow shoes to keep from sinking deep, but the ground underneath was uneven and there was a danger of twisting and falling.
"Large crevice... I think... Nothing's pinging back in that area," Milliardo warned.
Panting and flushed, Duo tried to focus on the small screen in Wu Fei's hands. "There, " he pointed out. "Bottomless pit number one. There's five more before we get across. Good job, Peacecraft."
Milliardo smiled, but he didn't take his eyes off his screen. He swept the area repeatedly. "There," he finally decided and pointed to their left. "There's a large area of solid formation."
"Yes," Wu Fei agreed, but he sounded unsure.
Heero looked ahead of them, consulting some map in his head.
"Heero?" Duo asked. "Final say?"
"It has changed," Heero replied and then looked at Duo with troubled eyes. "Nothing is a hundred percent." His eyes swept Duo up and down, but he didn't comment on Duo's very pale face. He knew they couldn't stop now, not for anyone. "There was a shelf of ice that ran diagonally from this point. It ran over the crevice. It will save us time if it's still there and we can find it."
" 'Fat chance percentage', Fei?" Duo demanded.
"Eighty percent," Wu Fei replied without missing a beat, his face grim.
Duo mulled and then pulled Milliardo up close to him, "Scan every inch. We're going to try to find Heero's ice bridge."
Sally was frowning and her scanner was out. "Duo," she warned.
"It's perfectly reasonable," Heero told her, supporting Duo. "Going around would take us far out of our way and increase our chances of being caught in the storm."
Sally looked skeptical. "You are both risk takers. I'd like a more level headed opinion."
"Then you have one," Milliardo spoke up. "I find it reasonable as well."
"Like I said," Sally grumbled as she put away her instrument, "level headed. I'm afraid there isn't anyone like that in this bunch."
"No more argument," Duo snapped as he dug his frozen hands into his pockets. "Move out."
They went slowly, following Wu Fei and Milliardo. They found Heero's ice bridge, but knowing its width and length was a serious problem. They could all imagine the deep crevice they were traversing and their tenuous safety. One miscalculation, and they were going to fall to their deaths.
Adrenalin alone was keeping Duo on his feet. It made his ears ring and his heart beat painfully. He trusted his men and their expertise, but it was all he could do not to yank the instruments out of their hands and double check every reading they took. His responsibility. His call. He didn't want to be wrong. It was one of those moments that had gained him the title of commander, his ability to let it go and to rely on others. Delegating duties, confidence in his people, and the ability to coordinate a group. Everyone had been surprised when Duo had displayed all of those skills. Their image of the hot dogging, joking, idiot pilot of Deathscythe had been a handicap, until they had seen his abilities for themselves.
It happened all at once. Out of the corner of his eye, Duo saw one of Sally's long braids swing. It was his first clue that she was off balance and going down. He grabbed out and swung her around, using his weight as the pivot to get her to safety. That, unfortunately, left him in the danger zone. When he released her heavier weight, the thin crust of ice over darkness, broke under his staggering feet.
"Shit!" Duo shouted, but then grunted as a vice clamped around his wrist and brought him up short. He looked up, swinging wildly over nothingness, blasted by a shrieking cold wind coming from the depths, and saw Heero's face above him.
"Duo!" Heero choked out and looked frightened. Frightened? Duo gaped at him. What the hell? "Duo! Hold on to me! The others have me braced!"
Duo reached up and gripped Heero's free hand. Hanging like trapieze artists, the others began to pull them to safety. It was dangerous. Duo was pelted by crumbling ice and small stones. They nicked and bruised his face. He imagined the entire lip crumbling and all of them falling to their deaths.
A pelting flurry of snow began to fall from the dark sky. They were out of time. Duo gritted his teeth and used all of his strength to literally climb up Heero. A large chunk of stone came loose and fell like a cannon ball straight through the space where his head had been moment before. Heero grabbed at Duo's coat and pulled hard, hauling Duo the rest of the way in one powerful move that shook things from Duo's pockets and ripped the coat along the collar. A knife, a compass, and a bottle of stimulants took the long drop into nothingness.
They all fell into a heap, each gripping the other as if they were afraid to let go. Duo found himself sprawled on top of Heero and the man was holding him tight with both arms. There was a moment where that felt good, and Duo longed to stay there, but he was pushing away in the next instant, forcing his body to move as he wiped at his aching and cut face.
"Get the hell up!" Duo shouted. "We have to run for it!"
Run for it was a loose term for what they could manage under the conditions. Gathering themselves back together, and shouldering their gear, they bowed their heads down against the snow and huddled behind Milliardo and Wu Fei as they tried to get quickly across the ice.
"Thanks," Sally said to Duo as she rubbed elbows with him in their determined huddle. Her arm went around him then and Duo realize that she had scanned him and knew how much the fall had taken away from his strength. He wanted to shake off her help, but he knew that he needed it. "I thought Heero was going to die when he saw you fall," Sally said almost in his ear and Duo turned his head to see her fierce, knowing grin.
Duo didn't reply. He needed his breath for walking and he wasn't sure what to say in return. Heero's frightened expression had convinced him of something that he hadn't been willing to believe in. He still wasn't sure, even with Sally's comment. He thrust it aside in the next moment. Thinking about distracting things like that could get them all killed.
Visibility dropped almost to zero. They were relying completely on instruments, then, and Wu Fei's skill in that area was showing. They made it off of the ice and into a forest, frozen to the bone, but alive. It would have been good to stop, to rest bodies and minds stretched to the limit, but Duo knew that they couldn't afford to do it. They had to reach the next cache. He checked his watch and calculated.
"Keep moving!" Duo ordered, and felt cruel, but no on argued. They knew that stopping, when the snow had a potential to block every route, would find them short on supplies and without a way to get more.
After hours of hellish progress, they passed the cache, backtracked, and passed it again. Wu Fei was swearing, almost sounding as if he were ready to weep, but Duo knew him better than that. It was only the stress and the weariness.
"Chang!" Duo shouted angrily. "Get it right!"
"The storm!" Wu Fei shouted back. "It's interfering with the signal."
"Guesstimate!" Duo ordered. "Stop relying on your satellite and use your head!"
Wu Fei looked frustrated as he used his body to shield his map and to try to determine where someone would put a cache. Suddenly, he took hold of Duo's arm and tugged him to their right. Holding onto each other, they all struggled towards his best guess.
They encountered a wall of rock that shot straight up towards the raging sky and the tops of the evergreen trees. Wu Fei followed it around until the wind and the snow were suddenly blocked. A natural wall, it meandered in a crooked line to the north, jagged and forbidding under their hands.
He was wrong, Duo thought in anguish, but something deeper shrugged that off. Not Wu Fei, he corrected himself and he trusted and let them man lead them further away from their coarse.
"Here," Wu Fei said and was gone.
Duo blinked snow from his eyes, incredulous, and then a gloved hand reached out and pulled him into a low cave. The door was narrow and went on for five feet before it opened out.
"About time," a strange voice complained.
Duo's gun was out and nosing for a target as his other hand lit a glow stick. A powerful looking man with spiked, dark hair, was glaring back at him.
"Stand down, agent," the man said quickly, but he had a gun too, trained at Wu Fei. He was lowering it in the next instant and holding out a hand. "Commander Maxwell, I believe?" he asked, shaking Duo's gloved hand awkwardly as they others came in cautiously. Heero's gun was up and trained over Duo's shoulder at the man, but then he grunted and holstered it.
"Smirkowski?" Heero grunted. "Why are you still here?"
"Too hot for lift off," Smirkowski replied. "My jumpship is buried under ice and snow and I was told to stash myself until the operation was concluded."
Heat units were arranged and making the small cave a warm nest. Everyone sprawled, shrugging off their packs wearily, crusted in snow and more than half frozen.
Duo pulled off his gloves with his teeth, as he eyed Smirkowski and decided that he had never seen the man before. "How did you know who I was?" he asked wearily as he sat down with his team.
The man grunted and looked embarrassed. He dug through a pocket and opened up a folded fax paper. He showed it to Duo. It had a rough copy of Duo's Preventer file photo and the hated declaration of interest underneath.
"You're cute," the man said apologetically, as he nervously rubbed the back of his neck with a large hand, "but you're a bit young for me."
Sally snickered and then laughed outright.
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On to Chapter six
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