By: Kracken
Disclaimer:Don't own them and don't make any money off of them.
Warnings:Male/male sex, violence, graphic, language

Princes and Soldiers series + Part 9
The Heart of the Matter

"After the mission," Milliardo said to himself as he watched the men... his men, go over their gear. They were knee deep in supplies and weapons in a large hanger, the mood tense, everyone speaking only to correct or reply to a question. They all wore dark military clothes, the Preventer badge a medal of honor on every sleeve. Duo was standing on a pack, pretending he could fly for a moment as he flapped his arms and jumped off to go to his next project. The men laughed at the antic and Milliardo felt the tension ease a hair. After the mission, I will talk to him about my interest in him, Milliardo thought. Now, they couldn't be distracted, couldn't fraternize, couldn't think of anything but the hard work ahead. Duo had to belong completely to the men.

"Tuck in your hair," Heero said shortly as he passed behind Duo and gave his braid a meaningful yank. Duo grimaced, nodded, and snaked the over three foot length down into the back of his jacket. He reached up under the hem and seemed to secure it somehow. Tucking the end into his belt?

Duo and Heero were wearing climbing gear and they had very light packs compared to the other men. They would be going in first, taking a mountain route to infiltrate the target. Milliardo had mountain experience, but, as the commander of the group, his position would be with operations, coordinating the team. Even if he had been able, he wouldn't have been on the mountain with them. It didn't keep Milliardo from wishing that he could have gone, that he could be there to taste the adrenaline rush they would soon be experiencing as they faced the dangerous heights.

"Ready sir," a man said at Milliardo's elbow.

"Load up," Milliardo replied as he watched Duo bob in and out of the crowd of men with Heero walking patiently at his elbow.

Don't be distracted, Milliardo reminded himself sharply, as the call went out and the men boarded the transport plane with their gear. That little figure of Duo, seeming so slight and out of place among the brawnier, older men, was deceptive, Milliardo knew. The young man was far more capable of coming out of the operation alive then his most veteran officer. It was the other men, Milliardo told himself, that he should be worrying about.

Milliardo entered the communications vehicle and took up his command chair at the center of a bank of machines and monitors. They had special channels, secure against eavesdroppers, and voice and video feeds would be beamed to him as the operation progressed.

"Sir?" the pilot called back.

"Proceed!" Milliardo ordered and braced himself as his transport hurtled off of the tarmac and into the air on a stream of jets. Milliardo felt still healing bones and wounds groan at him, but he ignored them, his hands moving over the controls even before the transport leveled out and took off towards the East.

It was a long ride. Milliardo checked all of his feeds during that time, checking Duo's last and hearing his familiar voice pipe through the earphone, "Two cards, Stanley, and I'll see you five."

"Just keep your damn hands where I can see them, L2 card shark!" Stanley's voice growled back.

"It's all skill, Stanley my man, all skill," Duo soothed.

"Base!" the pilot called and Milliardo found himself switching Duo's voice off with a quick flick of fingers as if he had been caught with his hands in a cookie jar. Milliardo growled at himself and then replied to the pilot, "Land and deploy."

The transport shuddered and engines whined and protested as the vehicle was set down hard and fast. Milliardo didn't move from his position, just turned on outside monitors to watch his men pour out of their transport and begin rolling out supplies. Duo and Heero were already shouldering their packs, a light picking them out starkly in the darkness, as they headed at once into the forest. Duo's hands gesticulated as he grinned and said something to Heero.

Milliardo watched that place where they had disappeared for longer than a minute, before he pulled himself away and began giving orders through his comlink. They were far from the target, getting his men in place there before sunrise, without detection, was a priority. Not being ready when his two Gundam pilots gave their signal of their mission accomplished, was unthinkable.

Chatter was cut down to a minimum as the men deployed. Zechs watched the monitors, checked the blips on his map that told him positions, and ran through the plan over and over again in his head. They were about to stir up a deadly hornet's nest and he wanted as few men stung as possible. Intelligence had told him that, thought the factory was trying to make a new fighting m.s., they hadn't yet reached the implementation stage. A great deal hinged on that intelligence. If it proved to be wrong, and his men were confronted by suits, a well planned operation could quickly turn into a bloodbath.

What was so terrible about peace that these renegades couldn't accept it? Milliardo wondered. He had spent his life in the military. Maybe he had his answer there. He couldn't stop wanting to go into battle. He couldn't bring himself to sit quietly at home and pursue peaceful hobbies. The only real difference between himself and the men he was about to arrest, was that he used his need for action in the service of those who did want to sit quietly and have peaceful jobs. The men he was after wanted control, power, and even chaos to further their need to fight.

An aide placed a hot cup of tea near Milliardo's hand. He muttered a curt `thank you'. The tea grew cold long before he took the time to drink it. The rim was still touching his lips, and he was taking a slow sip, when the rain started pounding on the shell of the transport. Milliardo swallowed hard and put the cup aside, almost letting it fall to the floor as he began trying to contact Heero and Duo as quickly as possible.

"Damn, Heero, what else?!" Duo's voice sounded over the pound of rain.

Milliardo gained a visual, but he couldn't see much. A light flashed crazily, rain poured against the visual, and the scene jolted and jumped oddly.

"Maxwell!" Milliardo demanded. "Report!"

"Sir!" Duo exclaimed and then to Heero, "It's the commander!"

Milliardo's eyes flicked to Heero's visual. The scene was only slightly more stable. In the uncertain light, he caught several glimpses of Duo's distant upturned face being inundated by rain.

"Sir, we made good time," Heero's steady voice informed Milliardo. "The climb wasn't difficult. The rain is hampering us now, though, and our time table will have to be moved back."

"Scrub the operation!" Milliardo barked. "I want you down off of that rock at once. It's madness to make that kind of climb in a downpour."

"Should you tell him or should I?" Duo's voice panted.

"Sir," Heero's voice said, "Duo slipped and I am attempting to pull him to safety. I am finding it difficult to gain enough purchase on the rock for leverage. The rain is making the rocks slick and our visibility is nominal. I rate my chances of success at sixty percent. Less, if I attempt to climb back down to a lower position."

Milliardo felt his heart clench. He looked anxiously from Duo's monitor to Heero's. The twisting and turning visuals made sense now. Duo was swinging at the end of his line and Heero was trying to find a way to hold on while keeping Duo from falling to his death.

"I am deleting your part of the mission and I am sending troops forward into position for attack," Milliardo said. It felt as if someone else were speaking through him, but the military side of him, the commander with lives depending on his quick decisions, didn't think it was strange that he took care of the mission first.

Heero paused, not liking the taste of failure. "Agreed," he said at last and sounded angry. "Permission to join with the forces if the rescue attempt is successful?"

If. Milliardo gripped the edge of the console, fighting with rising alarm. "Yes," he replied tightly, "You have my permission."

"You just made Heero a lot less pissed at me," Duo panted cheerfully. "Now, partner, if you don't mind trying to pull me up again?"

It didn't make sense. Milliardo's mind clicked and he asked. "Are you injured, Maxwell?"

"Yeah," Duo replied reluctantly. "Dislocated my arm and banged my knee damned good. Climbing is out. I can't get a grip on the rock or pull myself up. Stupid rain. It was a breeze until then. We could have been at the target and knocking back beers over their trashed computer system by the time you guys showed up."

Milliardo didn't admit that he had formed several contingency plans in case Heero and Duo didn't make the target. Climbing was chancy at the best of times and Milliardo knew that well. Duo and Heero would have made infiltration quicker and cleaner, but Milliardo had been too experienced to count on it.

Milliardo coordinated his troops, gave orders, and only then allowed himself to return to the life and death struggle on his monitors. "Progress?" he asked.

"None," Duo panted and then to Heero. "I think you're going to have to cut me loose."

"You know that I won't do that," Heero replied.

"This whole dying together plan sucks, Heero!" Duo shouted. "Don't be stupid! Cut me loose and get your ass up this damned rock!"

"The rope is secured," Heero told him. "We won't fall."

"Then just leave me! The commander can have someone pick me up later!" Duo growled.

"Unacceptable," Heero replied. "There are too many chances for something to go wrong."

"You are not sitting here and waiting for the storm to either pick us off this rock or freeze us to death, and you are not going to make both of us die while you try and pull me up, Heero Yuy," Duo's voice shouted over the rain. "I'm cutting myself loose!"

"God dammit, you will not!" Milliardo shouted with the full force of his lungs, his heart jumping to his throat as he stood and slammed hands against the console in panic and helplessness.

Duo snorted. "Like you can stop me, sir? I think I have to disobey this one order."

"You will not!" Milliardo shouted again and everyone in the transport stared, frozen at the uncharacteristic passion and panic in their commander's voice. "You will remain secure where you are and, as soon as the storm clears, I will send a rescue team to your position!"

"No can do!" Duo retorted. "That could take hours... days. Like Heero said, things can happen. I can't take that chance!"

"You will take that chance!" Milliardo thundered and his hands slammed against the console again.

Duo wondered angrily, "Why are you ordering two men to die instead of one? Why should I listen to you?"

"Because...," Milliardo faltered and then he said more strongly, "Because I have something to tell you."

There was silence and then Duo's confused voice asked, "What?"

"I have something to tell you. It's... It's important. You need to hear it." Milliardo swallowed uncomfortably, but he knew he was on the right track. He knew his men. He thought that he knew Duo Maxwell. The man's curiosity would, hopefully, be strong enough to-

"You can't just tell me now?" Duo wondered and it was hard to tell whether he was being sarcastic or amused. "Is it worth risking Heero's life over?"

Heero said, "Whether I live or die is not your decision, Duo, and it doesn't hinge on whether you decide to wait and hear what the commander has to tell you. If you try and cut yourself loose, I will attempt to save you by any means necessary."

The hiss of the rain and the twirling visuals were all that Milliardo was left with for three agonizing minutes, and then Duo said, "Shit! You guys are a pair! Okay! I'll dangle here until we both either fall off this damned mountain or Zechs comes and picks our asses up!" There was another pause and then Milliardo barely caught Duo's last remark, "If we do make it out of here alive, I'm going to knock his and Heero's damned heads together!"

"Noted," Milliardo retorted and then forced himself to ignore Duo's sputter of surprise as he returned to coordinating his troops and the all important mission.

The placement of men was complicated. At first, Milliardo's eyes and ears kept switching between agent movements and the two men in peril, but then his military training took over and he became engrossed in the mission. He had to. Men counted on him and he had to give them his full attention no matter what the pain in the vicinity of his heart was telling him about one man. When he finally gave the order to move in after hours of long preparations, and enemy gunfire began to erupt, Milliardo became completely engaged in the effort to win the battle and keep his men alive.

"Pinned down, corridor nine, section c!" A man shouted over the comlink. Milliardo saw a corridor full of troops in the visual. The men were crouched behind bullet proof shields as they tried to withstand the hail of gunfire aimed at them from further down the corridor.

Milliardo noted the position of his other men and opened his mouth to send backup, but just then there was a familiar voice shouting. Milliardo's head whipped back around to look at the visual just in time to see the braid of Duo Maxwell flipping jauntily in the screen as the man dived over the shields, rolled, came up awkwardly on a bad leg, and then began firing a blast rifle in frantic bursts straight at the enemy troops at close range.

"Whoooohoooo! Take that bad guys!" Duo shouted and he grinned as a return hail of bullets whizzed past every point of his body as he dived and rolled sideways along the floor. As he rolled, Heero Yuy came diving over the barrier as well, his own blast rifle firing into the men ahead of him. Distracted by Duo, and what they thought was a patent suicide attempt, the enemy troops weren't ready for Heero's attack. Milliardo watched in fascination as the young man moved with the fearless speed and grace of a panther as he leapt over Duo and kept on firing.

The other agents shook off their surprise and surged forward, blast shields tossed aside as they began firing as well. The enemy, overwhelmed, surrendered, ran, or died under a hail of bullets. Milliardo blinked, came back to himself, and then began shouting orders as he took control of the situation again.

"Regroup in section E," Milliardo ordered. "Join with Marus's team and clean out corridor eight. No more damned rebel tactics either, do I make myself clear? I want this operation by the book!"

"Yes, sir," the team leader replied dutifully, but said aside to Heero with a relieved laugh. "Glad you could make the party, Yuy!"

"Can't let you guys have all the fun!" Duo retorted as he stiffly stood up with Heero's help.

"Hey, Maxwell! You're injured!" another man said suddenly. "Stay back with the medics and we'll finish mop up."

"If I can limp, I can finish the operation," Duo chuckled. "I bet you crap out after a paper cut, Jack!"

"Keep laughing, Maxwell, but let's see if you can keep up with my ass!"

"I'll keep up with your ass, don't worry, but I didn't know you swung that way, Jack!"

"Shut up, Maxwell! "

The team leader snapped, "We have our orders! Both of you shut up and let's move out!"

"Ready when you are," Duo replied.

"Ready," Heero echoed.

There were murmurs as other men voiced their readiness as well. Milliardo watched the visual move down the corridor to the next section and then he forced his attention back to the other units. How Duo and Heero had managed to get off of the mountain and into the target site was a complete mystery to Milliardo. That they had done it and were still ready to fight was astounding. During the war, he had underestimated the Gundam pilots time and time again. It seemed that he still hadn't learned not to do that.

The enemy forces were quickly overwhelmed. Heero and Duo reached their operations core and shut down all of their systems, effectively making them blind and unable to coordinate against the attack on their installation. Milliardo stayed in his seat until the last resistance was put down and then he was rising stiffly and giving orders to his lieutenants. Once he was sure that everything was being taken care of, only then did he allowed himself to order the operations transport to the target site.

Milliardo paced as the ship was enroute, his eyes and ears trained on one monitor and one comlink now. The visual wasn't moving. Milliardo could periodically see Heero's face and the faces of a few men, but, for the most part, Duo Maxwell was in an empty room and obviously sitting down. He was also uncharacteristically silent.

Milliardo was out of the transport as soon as it set down, the heat of the engine blasting him and throwing his pale hair all about him as he drew his gun and cautiously entered the building with a few of his men as guards. It was still a potentially dangerous situation. I was possible to run into troops hiding from the main force.

Men scrambled to greet him and give him reports. Milliardo listened and rattled off orders as his long legs took him swiftly through the corridors, his men trying to keep pace. When he reached the operations core, he was met by the nervous guns of Heero and the other men in the room. He noticed at once that Heero was soaking wet in a torn jacket and that his face looked worn, bruised, and haggard. Milliardo quickly looked past him and saw Duo seated in a large command chair. The man was slumped over the console, fast asleep, his braid wet and trailing the floor, the end resting in a small puddle of it's own making.

"How is he?" Milliardo demanded as he moved to stand by the chair. Heero turned almost protectively, but then he seemed to make a conscious effort to relax and he holstered his gun and leaned wearily against another console.

"He needs rest," Heero replied . "I put his arm back in the socket, but it will be out of commission for at least a week. His leg is bruised, but not fractured."

Milliardo looked down at the pale, exhausted, and bruised face of Duo. The man's messy brown bangs were plastered to his skin and his clothes were soaked through. There was a bullet hole through the collar of his coat. Milliardo reached out and fingered it, a chill spearing through him as he realized how close that shot had come to Duo's jugular.

"I want a full report," Milliardo said, dazed. "Get him to the medics."

"Yes, sir," Heero replied and then said, "I suppose that Duo will have to wait to hear what you have to say to him."

Milliardo looked at the dark, intense man sharply, thinking he was going to find a harsh judgment in his _expression, perhaps contempt that Milliardo had allowed his personal feelings for Duo to inter into a mission and a potentially deadly situation. Instead, he saw simple curiosity and an understanding there.

"It can wait," Milliardo replied and motioned to several of his men. "See that he gets to the medics," he ordered them, but Heero stepped forward, shouldered them out of the way, and simply picked Duo up into his arms as if he were a child.

As Heero headed for the doorway with his unconscious burden, he glanced aside at Milliardo and said, "Don't wait too long to tell him, sir. He is not a patient person."

[part 8] [part 10] [back to Kracken's fic]