The really fun thing about being the guy on base people came to to get things was that Face knew the dirty little secrets of most of the men around him.
He knew which guys wanted porn - he knew which ones wanted porn on such a regular basis they couldn't have had money for anything else. He knew which ones needed hash, needed whiskey once a week. He knew which ones cared enough about their families to pay him for arranging calls home.
His team was typical. Hannibal's vice was cigars. He liked quality, and he paid for it. BA was big on packages from home. Face helped him free of charge - well, he accepted payment in cookies instead of money. Mail was easy. Ray wanted whiskey and cigarettes - Face's two biggest sellers. John Piper wanted the magazines. He also wanted rubbers on a fairly regular basis, though no one was sure who he was using them with. One of the team's mysteries, and Pipe was one of those rare soldiers that didn't kiss and tell.
Outside of his team Face handled transactions for most of the grunts on base. Even a couple of the flyboys and a few officers. He could get it all - that was his rep, and Hannibal wouldn't have brought him on if it wasn't true.
Not a lot of requests surprised him after the first month. He learned to tell by the look in a grunt's eye whether they wanted their porn with tits or cocks. He could tell if the fifty bucks he was handed was for a couple gallons of rotgut or a few ounces of the good shit.
He dealt in vice, and he was good at it. Even the little vices - coffee for his team, ice cream when base morale was low. Music from the states, reel-to-reels so they could watch old movies.
Yeah, he had his system down. Nam, life on the base, it wasn't much different than anywhere else. You set up your con, ran your hustle. It was more up front than back home, but otherwise it was the same shit in a different country.
Face was a cockroach. He adapted. He twisted to make life fit him. Even if that life involved fire and bullets and screams, mosquitoes and swampy jungles. Death, dying. Guys waving goodbye to him and coming back with half their arm gone. Not coming back at all.
War was hell. Nothing new under the sun.
He adapted to it. Made himself indispensable, first to the base and then the guys in his rooms, then Hannibal when he was picked up by the new team.
And nothing surprised him. No fetish mags or polka music or special weapons. Nothing even made him blink.
Until the day he was introduced to HM Murdock.
Gibbons, one of his regular customers, came up to Face outside the mess one evening. His arm was slung around the shoulder of a new face - tall, skinny, smiling like he was outside a circus tent and not in the middle of Vietnam.
"Murdock, this is the Face to know. You ask him for what you want, he'll get it faster'n you can blink."
Face nodded humbly at Gibbons, who took off jogging back to his bunk.
And Face was left with the grinning new guy. Pilot, he could see instantly, and he could predict the order. Whiskey and smokes.
"Nice to meet you, Face." The guy's voice was drawling and Southern - Face mentally shifted the order. JD or SoCo, if he had enough money to specify. He spoke faster than a lot of the southern boys Face had met. Stood with weight forward, like he was ready to get into motion again. Adrenaline-crammed flyboy.
But smiles could be rare around there, and Face didn't mind seeing one that actually looked sincere.
"What can I get for you?"
Murdock's eyes shifted around. He leaned in. "Ever heard of a Kenwood EXT?"
Face blinked. "Nope. Doesn't mean I can't get it, of course."
"Good! They run about fifty in the states, so..."
"Hard to get?"
"Not illegal or anything." Murdock answered fast. "Lotta stores got 'em."
"There's a markup, of course."
"Sure." Murdock grinned, bouncing on his toes. "Just tell me how much."
"Hundred." One hundred percent markup was high for him, but whiskey and cigs were easy. Something from a shop in the world would be tricky. "And some time."
"Don't worry, I'll blink real slow."
Face raised his eyebrows, then remembered what Gibbons had said about him and grinned. "You do that. Got the money?"
Murdock pulled out a wallet from his cammies and counted out five bills. "Bleeding me dry here, Facey." Though Face could see with the practiced eye of a salesman that there were a few more bills there. "And listen. I was hoping you could get it here around Christmas."
"That's three months away. I don't work that slow."
Murdock smiled, brilliant and bright. "Could ya? This once?"
Face shrugged, pocketing the bills. "Whatever the man wants."
"Good. And don't mention it to anyone. Or me. I've got a short memory. If I forget about it it'll be like a Christmas present."
Face couldn't hide a laugh. This guy had to be straight off the frigging farm. Young, too. Could've been younger than Face, even, and that was saying something around there.
Murdock threw an arm around his shoulder. "Tell me, Faceguy. How good are you with comic books?"
Face blinked. "I don't get many requests for them, but I know a guy."
"Great! I think we're gonna get along, compadre."
Face wasn't inclined to agree quite yet.
He almost warned Murdock that there was no use making friends until he had a couple months in and found out what person war was going to change him into. A lot of fast friendships dissolved under fire. One of those strange side effects of war.
Still, he shrugged Murdock's arm off more gently than he could have. "We'll see about that." He flashed his cockiest smile - no reason not to show the kid what kind of person he was - and sauntered off.
He could've sworn he heard a chuckle behind him, but decided for his own pride he wouldn't look back and confirm it.
BA, despite appearances, wasn't an easy man to stir. He knew who the enemy was. When it came to other soldiers, to the overheard racial slurs or just the regular abuse, he didn't often react.
Face thought that it was because he'd spent a whole life fighting up until then. Face probably didn't have it as bad - a Catholic orphanage wasn't the Ritz, but it was hardly a cesspool of violence. But he understood how tiring it was being angry all the time.
BA didn't like to argue. He didn't break up fights other grunts were having. Really, he didn't say much to anyone. It wasn't until Face had been on the team a month that he'd even start saying hello.
"Seen a lot of new guys come and go fast," BA explained in his terse style, when Face asked him about it months later. "No use gettin' to know someone when you're just gonna bury 'em in a week."
But Face didn't think that was all there was to it.
People took BA at face value. He was built big and always had been. He wasn't always pissed off, but his tightly held mouth and bulk made him seem that way. He was bald and black and that was enough to make most people form a whole bunch of opinions.
When BA met people they instantly figured he'd be violent, mean. Pick fights. Drink and play hard.
He was none of those things, and living down those expectations was tiring. By the time Face met him, he was tired of even trying. So he stayed quiet, let people think what they thought and he didn't do anything to change their minds one way or the other. The ones who actually tried to get to know him were the only ones he figured deserved to know him.
There was a lot to the gruff Sergeant, and though Face wasn't a sentimental guy he felt privileged to be one of the few people who knew BA as he really was.
Huge scary black man. The sweetest guy Face had ever met.
The second time Face crossed paths with that bizarre cheerful pilot, Murdock, was because of BA.
He'd just gotten in a shipment - a few cases sneaked in by one of the chopper pilots he worked with. He'd been busy most of them day unloading bottles and cartons and getting things where they belonged. There were always extras, but those went fast.
By late afternoon he had enough money in his wallet to make him cheerful. He was on his way to talk the day out with Hannibal - the Colonel knew full well about his extracurricular acquisitions, and as long as Face was fair to the guys and gave a small percentage of his income to the team in the form of a couple of bottles, or a real dinner one night, Hannibal fully supported him.
He understood the importance of doing things under the table sometimes. Greasing wheels, making friends. Drumming up good will. He let Face be as long as he didn't bring in anything illegal or dangerous. Which made Hannibal the best CO he'd had in his brief time serving. A CO who understood the importance of morale over rules was a good guy in Face's book.
So he was off to count the receipts and plan out what treat the team would be getting out of it, when he heard commotion outside the Club.
Commotion outside the Club - commotion anywhere - wasn't a rare thing, and he wouldn't have even looked in that direction if he hadn't heard BA's voice, growling but carrying above the shouts.
"Just don't think it takes five of you to make any kind of point. Unless all five a'yall share one brain between you."
"Stay out of this, Sergeant. You weren't there."
Face wandered over. He wasn't big on fighting, but he was big on being loyal to the few people who had his back. BA was at the top of that list.
"No, I wasn't there. Seems to me since you all made it here alive you shouldn't be holdin' no grudges."
"Grudges, shit. We're fucking tired of these fucking crazy pilots trying to get us killed."
Oh, that old song. Face knew that one - had been on the grunts' side of this one a few times.
Grunts and pilots were oil and water. They didn't mix, but light a match to it and it'd burn all the same.
He saw the tall, lanky form of the pilot who'd asked him about comic books, and was interested despite himself. He made his way to BA, coming up behind the grunts facing him down. He didn't so much as glance at Murdock, half-hiding behind BA's bulk.
"What's going on, guys?" His voice was mild and calm, same as always.
BA grunted. "They think it's okay to jump a guy on his way out the latrine. Five to one, Face. You know how I feel about those kinda odds."
Face nodded, looking to the grunts glowering past BA at Murdock. "He doesn't like those kind of odds," he reported to them, all sympathy.
"Yeah, but now it's three against five. And one of them three's me. I think I'm startin' to feel a little better."
Face sighed to himself, hoping BA would be able to solve this without punches thrown. He was in too good a mood to get hit.
The five men stood, silent. None of them confident enough to act like a leader, Face figured. So he supposed he ought to do it for them.
Luckily he recognized one of his customers in the group. "Alright, Jackson, I know you at least have a couple packs of smokes waiting for you back in your bunks. Fresh off the truck. You'd better claim 'em before one of your pals grabs them."
"Oh, come on. Isn't smoking a few and sitting out in the sunset a better way to spend the next hour than sitting waiting on the doc to come patch you up?" He kept the threat out of his voice. If it sounded like a threat it'd seem like they were backing down. This way it was just a choice made among pals.
Jackson - he was the porn type, but none of those came in that day - hesitated, glancing back at his little gang.
One of the guys on his left spoke up after a tense pause. "We're gonna see you later, flyboy."
"Better make sure I ain't around when you do," BA growled.
The grunts backed off, tossing back a few insults as they moved as a pack towards the barracks.
Face clapped BA on the arm. "You scary bastard."
BA glanced at him. He gave one of those quick grins that still took Face by surprise. But it faded and he looked back at the pilot.
Murdock was watching the backs of the grunts. His eyes took up about half his face.
"So what'd you do to get on their bad side?" Face asked him.
Murdock threw up his hands, turning those owl eyes on Face. "I saved their lives."
Face blinked, but shrugged. "Guess you shouldn't do that again."
Murdock grinned, shaken but apparently recovering some of that cheer he'd had when he first met Face. "Guess not. Jesus. Hey, thanks, big guy. You came up outta nowhere, man. Thought I was a goner."
"Maybe you shoulda been." BA glowered at him.
Murdock blinked, getting a little of that shaken look back in his eyes.
"Damn fool pilots always putting us in danger. Most of you need some sense knocked in ya."
Murdock backed up a step. But then he relaxed again, grinning. "You don't scare me, you big pussycat. That is the sweetest pair of brown eyes I ever did see."
Face stepped in fast. "Hey, Murdock. Come on. I have a few questions about those items you requested from me." He grabbed a skinny arm and led the pilot away.
"Aw, why, Face? I was just getting to know the big guy. He wouldn't've hurt me." Murdock's eyes flashed on Face. "He wouldn't've hurt me, would he?"
"Hard to say with him." Face glanced back. He raised his eyebrows.
Face returned the smile and faced Murdock. "He's a little nuts about pilots, you know."
"Hey, so am I! We could've made friends."
Face shook his head, chuckling. Strange guy, this one, but he kind of liked him. Two weeks in and still as bright-eyed as he had been.
It would all change in a month, but for now it was kind of fun.
"So what did you really do to those guys?"
Murdock glanced back, as if making sure they were gone. "Told you already."
"You saved their lives, and it made them want to kill you?"
Murdock hesitated. "I guess I saved their lives kinda...exuberantly?"
Face decided he didn't want to know what that meant. The way pilots got rotated, he figured the team would end up flying with Murdock at some point.
Face went on with business as usual - interrupted by a few LRRPs in the jungle and one raid on a village up north that involved a lot of screaming and cursing and more of the same.
The stuff of nightmares. Nothing new.
He heard stories spread about the base's new pilot.
There were a couple of schools of thought about Murdock - most thought the guy was nuts, took unnecessary risks. People even muttered that he was really, actually crazy. Then there were a few guys, from a couple of missions in particular, who said they'd breathe easier if they knew Murdock was the one picking them up from a hotspot.
Just as much as his flying abilities, though, guys talked about his brain. There were pretty nasty rumors that he was actually retarded. Everyone - even the few who talked up the guy - said he was spaced out, odd, eccentric in ways different than most of the nutso adrenaline-drugged pilots they had.
Face heard one guy telling his pal at the club that the guy was an 'idiot cervantes'. He just smiled and sipped his beer and enjoyed the irony.
He was sure about one thing regarding Murdock...well, two. One, that the guy was a nutcase about those damned comics. He asked for them the way other guys asked for smokes.
Two, Face was building up a real anticipation about flying with him. Guys like that, who became legends within weeks, were rare. Hannibal Smith had been one. Face, in his way, was another - the pretty-faced teenager who could talk anyone out of anything. Hell, even BA was the stuff of stories, though those were pretty much wrong.
He wanted to know what was true in Murdock's case. He wanted to fly with Murdock, see if he got that jazz in his eyes that Hannibal got. Or if he was just a new kid with a spectacular way of hiding his incompetence.
"Pipe, where the fuck is the transport?"
He didn't curse. Not often. Now was a good time for it, though. Face was panting, hurting. Fucking terrified.
"Hannibal! Three following!" Ray burst into the small clearing they'd all tried to make it to for safety.
Safety was blown, though. Face jumped off the ground, moving quicker than thought. His rifle swept up, aiming past Ray at the trees.
Pipe dropped the radio and grabbed his gun, and Hannibal swore a long, complex curse Face would have written down any other time. The man was a genius when he was fucked.
Three VC - they were always so fucking small, was Face's passing reaction - dove into the clearing. They stopped dead at the sight of the soldiers, but didn't have time to so much as lift their weapons or turn for cover.
A blast of thunder from all around him, from the gun in his own hand, and Face watched the VC fall.
"Where the fuck is BA? Where the fuck is the fucking chopper?"
Pipe grabbed the radio again, and Ray and Face covered him instinctively. "Waiting for volunteers, Colonel. There's two VC bases in the area."
Hannibal cursed again, unintelligible and vehement.
Face steeled himself.
It was the biggest reason why grunts and flyboys never got along. Grunts lived or died on whether a pilot felt like flying. Good basis for resentment.
There were crashing footsteps from his right, and he and Ray swung together, calm, aiming over Pipe's head.
A loud, breathless whistle split the air, and Face felt himself relax just a fraction.
BA dove into the clearing, nearly rolling into Pipe. He caught himself and jumped onto his feet, crouching where he fell, sharp and ready.
No one followed. For a moment there was the sound of panting, the calm of the jungle, and the static from Pipe's radio.
Hannibal strode forward suddenly. "Up, guys. If we're walking we're--"
He cut off instantly.
All eyes went up
Rotors. Too miraculous, must've been one of Charlie's. They split apart, leaving the middle of the small clearing to hug the trees and stay out of sight.
The rotors grew louder, thunder rolling in on top of them. Suddenly, drilling into the thunder, the sharp blast of gunfire. The ping of bullet against metal.
Face crowed, moving to the middle of the clearing. Charlie was shooting at the chopper - meant it was theirs.
Sure enough, a beautiful hunk of green metal came screaming in above them, slicing the air. A head stuck halfway out, surveying the clearing. Too high for Face to see clearly.
But he knew the clearing was too small. He dove for the map, for an emergency LZ close by that the pilot could follow them to.
Nothing. Nothing. Shit.
He turned when BA called, and looked up when the big man pointed that way.
"Jesus!" He dove back to the trees, map crushed to his chest. The guy was landing. The crazy asshole was dropping down.
Trees smacked the chopper from all sides. Splinters and branches rained down on their heads.
Gunfire from the left, closer. Face dropped the map, gripped his rifle.
"Son of a bitch!" Ray's exclamation was strangely muted.
Face watched with the rest of them, incredulous, as the chopper angled and shifted like it was on strings being directed from above. And then it was hovering there, feet off the ground.
Pipe reacted first, grabbing the radio set and diving right into the chopper.
Just as the ping of bullets on metal started blasting again, Face and Ray moved together. Running, jumping. Unable to believe their luck.
BA got on and, of course, didn't look like he thought there was anything lucky about it. Poor man. There wasn't a worse place on earth to fear flying.
Hannibal was last, hauling up his rifle and the map Face had dropped. He climbed on and punched the side of the chopper.
The craft started lifting, as slow and careful as he had come down. A branch, then two, were flung inside as the rotors sliced them off, and one caught Face in the chest. He cursed, threw it out of the chopper.
Grinned like a fucking maniac.
Ping, ping, against the outside of the chopper.
From the front, from the unseen pilot, came a loud, rending howl.
Ray jumped. "Jesus! It's fucking Murdock!"
"Yeah?" Pipe was busy with the radio, but for a moment he glanced towards the front.
"Howling, just like I heard."
"Who gives a shit who it is?" Face felt the moment the chopper was over the trees. It broke free like a bird from a cage, leaping forward and up.
Hannibal was grinning fiercely, his eyes sharp and gleaming.
There was only a moment of peace. A shrill whistle tore into the air, and all smiles dropped.
"Damn it." Pipe dropped the radio and hugged the side of the chopper.
"Strap in, muchachos!" The voice drifted back from the cockpit. Southern. Fucking Murdock, all right. "Gonna get a little insane. Just the way we like it!" Another howl split the air as the chopper dove, sharp, to the left. An explosion boomed behind them. The chopper rocked, but flew on.
Face felt his stomach curl and roll. He shut his eyes and planted his back to the wall of the chopper. More bullets against the side. Another whistle. They must've been flying low, because he could hear those screams, the calls in that strange language.
They were dead. Fucking dead men.
"I want him."
"Oh. Oh, Face. Oh, do I want him. I want him every time we fly out. I want him every time we get picked up."
Face couldn't help but laugh. Three hours later, the jazz was still pumping through his CO's veins. "We don't schedule pilots."
"I could give a flying fuck. I want him, and we're damn sure going to get him."
Face shook his head, but he didn't argue. Truth to tell, he had never known any pilot even willing to attempt what Murdock had done, much less pull it off. The guy had saved their asses.
It had been the worst flight of his life, of course. They'd been under fire most of the way home. Rocking and diving and climbing and spinning. BA puked out the door twice. Ray once.
And from the front came more howls, snatches of songs. When they landed Murdock had waved to them with a smile. Like this was casual shit that happened every day.
Face understood, looking back, why those grunts had been on him that day. It would've been easy to listen to that, to see the huge grin and casual wave on landing, and think that Murdock had been playing some game with their safety.
But Face was smarter than that. He knew how many times they should have died. He knew they survived because the guy was maybe a little nuts, sure, but definitely a genius at the controls.
Yeah, Hannibal wanted him. Face didn't argue.
He'd got his wish - a flight with the guy everyone was scared of.
And he wanted Murdock too.
Hannibal pulled some strings somewhere obnoxiously high; somewhere Face couldn't have reached. The week after their near-death flight he came into the bunks leading Murdock behind him.
The pilot was grinning, hands in his pockets, walking in a long-legged lope. He saw Face and BA. "Hey. Met you guys."
Face jumped off his bunk. He shoved the comic he'd been reading - one of Murdock's new arrivals - under his pillow. "You met all of us, Captain. Saved our skinny asses."
"Yeah, but I met you two for real." His beam went to BA. "How's it going, big guy?"
BA grunted, looking to Hannibal in curiosity.
Hannibal slung an arm around the pilot's shoulder. "Murdock here's gonna be bunking with us. We've got ourselves an understanding with the boys at the chopper pads. This here's the A-Team's pilot."
"What?" BA stood up at that, hands fisting. "Fool that nearly got us killed?"
Murdock turned laughing eyes to Face. "You were right. I really gotta stop saving so many lives. I can't take the hatred."
Face shrugged. "It was kind of a wild ride, Murdock."
"Yep. Just the way I like 'em."
"You're crazy, man. Hannibal, he's crazy."
Hannibal thumped Murdock on the back. "I knew you guys would hit it off. Face, tell him how things are around here. BA, stop scowling and come with me. I have a jeep I need you to look at."
BA moved past Murdock with a growl.
Murdock grinned at him, then turned brown eyes to Face. "Alright, amigo. Tell me how things are."
Face sighed, but the quirk of Murdock's eyebrows made him smile a moment later. "Alright, the speech." He'd done this more than a few times for grunts that lasted a week before they requested easier assignments. Or died. He had it down, short and sweet.
"Hannibal isn't the biggest on discipline. Not the bullshit stuff, the saluting and sirs and that kind of crap." He gestured Murdock along, past the half-barracks of mostly empty bunks: Hannibal was picky about his guys. "Take any of these you want."
"How far away d'you want me?"
Face glanced back at him.
"Anyway. Hannibal's got a couple of hard fast rules. You don't question his orders. Ever. You don't even hesitate. You don't have to salute him when he comes in a room, but you damn well remember when it counts who your CO is. And the second - you never, ever do anything to hurt anyone on your team. We don't operate same as platoons of grunts. We're not even standard for an a-team. We're tight, and we have to trust each other."
Murdock's grin faded a little.
Face raised his eyebrows, waiting.
Murdock just shrugged. "Sounds fair to me. Don't expect I'll be on the ground a lot, though."
"You ever been?"
His eyes grew more hooded. "Couple times."
Face kept going on the short tour, keeping the small talk brief and leaving the pilot to unpack.
He found Hannibal near the depot, half-under a jeep with BA's broad thighs jutting out beside him.
Face cleared his throat.
"Murdock squared away?"
Face blinked. "Should I even ask how you knew it was me?"
"Nobody wears cologne here, Face. Nobody sane."
He rubbed at his chin absently. "Hannibal, seriously. What's up with this guy? Stories say he's nuts."
Hannibal crab-crawled out from under the jeep, sitting up and against the tire. He blinked up at Face, regarding him for a moment. He glanced towards BA's legs. "Alright. Don't add to the rumors about this guy, but I did some research."
Face crouched, squinting into the obnoxious sunlight pouring heat down every minute of the day. "Of course you did." Hell, when Hannibal called him in to talk about signing on, he'd known details of Face's life that even Face forgot.
"He's new to the base, but he isn't new to the war, or flying. He was a Thunderbird."
"That guy?" Face jerked his eyes down to Hannibal.
A quick nod, and Hannibal dug in his pocket for a cigar. "Just out of training when he signed on to come here, but at his age? Says a lot."
"I'm not saying he can't fly. I'm saying he might be nuts."
"He's a pilot. Look, he was in the Birds, and after he landed in country he flew into some heavy shit. There's even a couple of holes in his files. Month-long holes."
Face shook his head. "Come on. Spook missions? Guy acts like he doesn't even know there's a war on."
Hannibal grinned. "Potential outs itself around here. There's a lot going on with Murdock, and we did good to grab him up while we could." He hesitated. Legs crossed in front of him, cigar in his mouth, he could have been any dad outside during a barbeque in the states.
He studied Face. "I don't think he's scared of anything. Grunts think he's nuts because he does crazy things like he did for us. Now, you flew with Murdock same as they did. You think he's a danger? Or you think he's the one you want to know is coming for us?"
Face shrugged. Hannibal expected honesty, and it wasn't hard with him. "I just don't want to think about how many fights we're going to get in defending him from all the guys here who want a piece of him."
BA slid out from under the jeep. The dull black of oil stained his hands and his cheek. He looked at Face, silent and pointed.
Face felt his face heat. Remembering, as BA wanted him to, how many times BA came to his rescue when he was just the pretty boy kid who had an undeserved reputation as a pickpocket.
Hannibal chuckled and got to his feet. He strode to Face, slapped him on the arm. "He's a kid, Face. Few months younger than you, if you'll believe that. Lost his parents. Shouldn't be here. Same as you. Go easy, and remember he's one of us now."
That mention of Murdock losing his parents was artfully designed to get to Face - the perpetual orphan. He didn't think much about it, though, until he was getting ready for shut-eye that night. He found Murdock set up halfway down the barracks, four bunks away from the rest of them.
He went over. "Guess I should have answered you about that, huh? I think you'll be safe sleeping with us."
Murdock looked up from the comic he was reading - one of the first Face had gotten for him, dog-eared and wrinkled already. He grinned. "Nah, don't wanna get those grunt germs."
Face regarded him, eyebrows arched.
Murdock went back to reading.
After a moment, Face turned and left him behind.
Murdock was too hard to figure out, and Face wasn't sure he had enough interest in trying. He liked people he could understand. Sure, most of his team was complicated in their own ways, and he'd had to learn them. But they earned it.
Murdock hadn't yet.
Well. Maybe he saved their lives. Once. But--
He stopped, glancing back.
Murdock sat up, tucking the comic under the thin mattress like it was a dirty magazine or something. He hesitated, not quite looking at Face. "Uh. Look. It ain't you guys. Hell, you went out looking for me, and that makes you better than any other grunts I ever met. But..." He grinned strangely, looking up. "You said we all gotta trust each other here. I don't...I mean. Guys don't trust me. Hell if I know why, but they don't. You saw those guys you had to save me from. I get that. A lot."
Face moved towards him again slowly. A little twitter of guilt hit him when he realized he had been about as ungrateful as Jackson and his gang of bullies. "You're a good pilot," he said carefully.
Murdock's eyes flashed. "I'm the best pilot they're ever gonna see on this base." It was spoken firmly, without much ego in it. Stating fact.
Face wasn't inclined to argue. He was smart enough to pick apart the stories the guys told, and every one of them had in common that the grunts had been fucked until Murdock swooped in where he maybe shouldn't have and got them back alive. The ones who were alive when he got there, anyway.
That meant something.
Shit. It should have meant everything.
Murdock flashed a smile, relaxing again when Face didn't argue with his claim. "I guess I just don't act right most of the time."
"Yeah?" Face snorted. "What's acting right? Getting shit-faced every night and throwing fists, telling made-up stories about girls you banged back home?"
Murdock raised his eyebrows, grinning. "Above that, are you?"
Face shrugged. "I'm a good Catholic boy." He flashed a smile that was all con.
Murdock looked right through it. Face wasn't even sure how he knew, but the eyes on him, wide and innocent though they looked, saw right in to the back of his skull.
But he didn't snort or laugh like the grunts would've. He just grinned that grin. "You're right, though. I ain't good at that." He hesitated, eyes dropping, and his smile softened. "I ain't even here, you know. Most days, I ain't here."
That sounded potentially dangerous. Face leaned against the side of the bunk. "Yeah? Where are you?"
Murdock tugged out that dog-eared comic and held it out. "Here."
Face smiled again. Yeah, he liked the guy. Nothing to do with being an orphan or a Thunderbird or a mental case. There was just something about him that...hell, he almost felt nostalgic listening to Murdock. Like he was younger, back home.
"Back at seventeen hundred, Captain."
"Yessir." Murdock sent them a wave. He was wearing a dark pair of aviators that made his wide grin seem even wider.
They ducked and ran as the wind kicked up around them.
Face glanced back at the chopper as it rose and hovered for a few moments.
Hannibal whistled them all to attention. "Let's move out. Fast and quiet. I want to get us out of here without firing a shot."
"Yeah, no problem." Pipe's voice was wry.
Hannibal held up a hand. His eyes were over their heads. "The hell is he doing?"
Face glanced back. The chopper was still hovering there, thundering its noise and stirring the dirt.
After another few seconds the chopper set out, over the trees and out of sight.
Hannibal's eyes were flashing, and Face knew their brand new pilot was going to hear about that loud, obvious delay.
He turned back to his guys. "Pipe, you and BA take out the--"
The roar of the chopper swung over their heads.
Hannibal glared up. "What the hell is he--"
The chopped dove down, hovering to the same spot he'd dropped them off.
Murdock wasn't grinning anymore. "Get on."
They obeyed instantly, even Hannibal, cramming back onto the chopper without a pause.
You learned fast not to question shit like that.
The chopper swung upwards.
Tense, confused, there was silence in the back. Hannibal shrugged off his pack and moved to the front, his eyes dark.
A familiar whistle sent them all hugging the walls. The whistle vanished, and an instant later fire shot upwards at them, sending the chopper flinging to the side.
Hannibal was thrown back into Pipe. BA was holding fistfuls of webbing so hard his knuckles were pale.
The chopper was dropping, going down in an unnatural way, side first. There was a voice from up front. Face leaned in, closest to the pilot, trying to hear what he was saying.
"...alone or in pairs...a slinkity sound..."
He shut his eyes as the chopper lurched, and ground his teeth to fight the nausea.
"...everyone knows it's slinky..."
He opened his eyes and glowered at the front. What the fuck was going...
He realized after a moment that the chopper had been righted.
"Son of a bitch."
His eyes turned to the voice, to Hannibal, who was still half on top of Pipe and looking down out the door.
Face swallowed and leaned over, looking down.
The place they'd landed was a mass of smoke, of fire.
When it cleared, there would be nothing but flattened trees and scorched ground.
"Jesus." He heard the whisper and realized it was him.
"Everyone got their fingers and toes back there?" Murdock's voice came back cheerfully as the chopper lifted up and roared the way they'd flown in.
"Think so, Captain." Hannibal picked himself up off of Pipe without apology and moved up to the front, sticking his head through to the controls. "What the hell?"
"Snafu, Colonel." Murdock sounded like he was having a ball. "Intel came piping on the radio about Charlie, gave these coordinates. Time I got on to stop 'em, bombs were in the air."
Face swore, loud and fierce and buried under the curses of his team. Fucking intel. Fucking piece of shit intel. There had to be laws about being as fucking incompetent as the guys in intelligence were.
"Took a risk, coming to get us." Hannibal's voice was less tense.
"Nobody gets left behind, Colonel. We'll be home in forty."
Hannibal came back and sat down by Face. His eyes were still dark, simmering.
Someone at base was going to wish they were dead before the day was out. Face let out a breath, still drugged up on adrenaline.
Ray laughed, high pitched and tense as a wire. "Intel'll take this as fucking improvement."
"How the hell you figure that?" Pipe asked through his teeth.
"Because, at least there was a fucking chopper where they said it would be."
There was silence. Face wasn't sure whether to laugh or shoot something, and the team looked like they shared his problem.
From up front, loud, came Murdock's voice. "A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!"
BA shut his eyes, still fisting the webbing. "Man's crazy, Face."
Face nodded agreement. "Yeah. Thank God."
"Everyone knows it's slinky!"
Christmas was the best time of year. Not the most profitable for him - Father Magill was in his head enough to guilt him into lowering his profit margins around the holidays. But the boxes he brought in around Christmas meant more to the grunts than the usual smoke and drink. It meant working all his skills to get some unusual requests - either for the grunts or for their families back home. He rushed a lot of mail, and called in a lot of favors that he ended up tallying up to his side again.
He stayed busy, and that was a good thing.
December 23rd brought him a few boxes, and amid the gifts coming in and the mail from the states - not to mention the inevitable porn, smokes, and drinks - was a package from a little toy shop in the states.
For a moment he thought it must've been a mistake. One of the guys' gifts for his kid sent here on error. But then he remembered where he'd heard the name. Kenwood EXT.
He remembered what Murdock had said about the request - he wanted to forget it was coming, so it would be his very own little Christmas surprise.
An orphan, Hannibal had said. Face supposed that meant no one else would be sending him surprises.
He sure as hell knew how that felt.
So he regarded the box at the end of the day when most everything else had found its way to the grunt it belonged to. With a little of Father Magill in his mind he grabbed up some of the discarded packing from the tent he worked out of. Lot of brown paper wrapping from the magazines and the smokes.
He spent a few minutes taping and wrapping, and in the end had a really shitty-looking present wrapped.
He stood back and looked and was almost ready to dismantle it again, telling himself he was an idiot, but he hesitated.
If anyone in the world would appreciate shitty paper wrapping, it'd be Murdock.
He locked it up in the tent - wasn't Christmas yet, after all - and smiled on the way back to his barracks.
"You gonna sit over there all day?"
Murdock shrugged over his comic book. "Day off. I'm allowed."
Face grinned. "You've got the day off because it's Christmas."
Murdock smiled, reaching up to nudge a growth hanging from the unused top bunk. "I know."
Face leaned in, squinting. Just a bunch of leaves from the floor of the jungle, tied together and hanging up. "Holly or mistletoe?" he asked, used to the pilot enough to put it together.
Murdock sat up with a sudden smile. "It ain't mistletoe unless you want a kiss."
Face blinked, surprised. "You been in country long enough to know that kinda joke isn't exactly safe, pal."
Murdock tilted his head. "What kinda joke?"
Face looked hard at the pilot. "You really are trying to die at the hands of your own side, aren't you?"
Murdock looked taken aback. When he spoke his voice was soft. "You gonna murder me for making a pass, Facey?"
Face looked over his shoulder, even though he knew full well the other guys were out in the mess with everyone else, celebrating the day with the beers and snacks set up for them. "You're one of us. You know better than that."
Murdock relaxed, sitting back again. "Yeah."
"Don't let Pipe hear that kind of shit, though." Tension made Face straighten, made his words sharp.
Murdock nodded a little, obviously taking in that new information.
Face shook his head. "You really must be nuts. The middle of Vietnam, surrounded by these fucking guys, you're gonna joke about that?"
Murdock's mouth tilted in a little smile. He shrugged.
"Stop it." Face dropped any pretense of being a pal giving a warning. "We get in enough arguments over you. Don't go adding something like this to the problem."
Murdock nodded after a moment. His eyes lowered, and his mouth twisted a little.
Face swallowed. Murdock was disappointed somehow.
Jesus, that really had been a pass. Clumsy and blunt, but wasn't that Murdock's style?
He turned, walking fast away from the bed. Idiot was going to get himself killed, and he wanted to take Face with him. Jesus.
Or maybe Murdock was disappointed in Face for another reason.
He shoved the door open hard. Just because Murdock was a big kid who liked everyone and looked at them all with those big, sad eyes when he caught them using slurs or laughing about some gook village they tore apart.
Fuck him anyway. He didn't have to live their lives. He could afford to think everyone was human. Face couldn't. Not if he had to look someone in the eyes and pull a trigger.
Disappointed that Face was homophobic? Well, shit. What did he know about Face's life?
He stopped outside the barracks and drew in a breath. Murdock's 'present'. That was why he went in there in the first place. He wanted to watch him open the box that was waiting down by his bunk.
He whirled, hand going for the pistol in his belt.
Murdock's hands stayed in his pockets. His eyes were steady, still sad.
Face glared. "Good way to get shot. Wait...I mean, i another /i good way to get shot. You're really trying, aren't you?"
Murdock hesitated. He gave a tiny smile, eyes downcast. Like a frigging child. "There's just not a lot of people I can talk to. I wasn't...well, maybe a little I was. But I wasn't, really. Trying anything."
Face let out a breath. Fucking Murdock.
Then again, since when was he homophobic? He'd snuck enough gay porn to enough scared soldiers to not be shocked by it.
"Come on." He grabbed the pilot's arm and swung him around, marching him back into the barracks.
Murdock went without protest, not even tense under his hand.
Face stayed in the doorway. He pointed at the box. "Open it."
In the pause Face nearly cringed at the sloppy, ugly job he'd done. Why bother wrapping it at all?
But Murdock turned to him a moment later, his eyes huge. "Present?"
Murdock let out a shout, as excited as a kid. He tore off down the barracks, stopping at his own bed.
Face blinked, watching him, and felt his stomach clench a little when Murdock pulled a box out of what had looked like a flattened duffel.
Murdock came charging back, beaming, and drove the box into Face's chest. "For you!"
Face hesitated. "Murdock, I didn't actually get you--"
"Open it! And I'll open mine." He dove for the box.
Face sighed, guilt and Father Magill in his head again. He looked down at the little box in his hand and couldn't help a smile. It was wrapped in a page from a comic book.
Murdock crowed suddenly, making him jump. He looked to see Murdock had shredded the wrapping and saw the brightly labeled box underneath. "I forgot!" He grabbed it and lifted. "I gotta set it up!"
"Outside," Face said fast. BA had a quick temper when it came to the pilot. "Behind the barracks, maybe."
"Sure!" Murdock took the door at a run, box clutched to his chest.
Face stayed where he was. He peeled the page off the box carefully, thinking maybe Murdock would like it back, and pried off the lid.
A scrawled note sat on top, and he lifted it and blinked underneath.
It was a little charm, like the ones the guys wore on their helmets out in the jungle. Two masks, frowning and smiling. It was a theatre thing, he remembered.
Brows furrowed, he unfolded the note.
i Since all your world's a stage. /i
Face held up the little charm. Dull and heavy. Pewter maybe, and where the hell did Murdock get that?
He smiled after a moment. Wasn't it the truth? All the world a stage, and his world more than most.
His smile faded. He dropped the comic page and box on his bunk and moved out the door.
Murdock had apparently been too excited to make it to the back. At the side of the barracks he was sitting on the ground, beaming as he arranged pieces out of the box.
Face looked around, frowning. They were pretty much in plain sight.
The thought of going back in before anyone saw him with the nutcase occurred to him, but he clasped his little masks and went to Murdock's side. "Nothing's broken, is it? Long trip."
"I don't think so." Murdock grinned up at him.
Face drew in a breath. Unguarded and beaming, and Face wasn't sure that anyone in his life ever had looked at him with so much happiness.
How the hell could he be seeing it in the middle of Vietnam?
He crouched, lifting a piece of track. "I can't believe you shelled out all that money for a train set. This thing's gonna last about two days, knowing the guys here."
Murdock looked around them, but shrugged. "Two fun days. Look at this!" He thrust a train car up at Face. "You put in water and it puffs out steam!"
Face grinned. "There's not enough steam here for you?"
Murdock looked at him, admonishing. "Not train steam!"
"Yeah, yeah. Sorry." Face sat down on the dirt. "So what do we do?"
Murdock's face seemed to get that much brighter. "We?"
Face returned the grin after a moment. All thoughts of awkward words in the barracks had been forgotten. "Yeah. We."
Face was convinced that once the free Christmas beer ran out and the grunts started drifting towards their own barracks, someone was going to take issue with the train set and Murdock playing with it.
He left Murdock once he had the train up and running, going to the mess and finding BA in the crowd. "Hey. Might need you back at the bunks."
BA didn't drink much, so Face figured the half empty beer in his hand was probably his first or second. He set it down with a scowl. "What's crazy man done now?"
Face hesitated. "Better off you see for yourself."
The crowd was too thin already, and Face hoped for the sake of the holiday that some of the guys who despised Murdock would let him have the day to make an idiot out of himself.
But when they reached the barracks and moved to the side, a group of grunts stood there muttering.
Face cursed and slid his way through to the center.
He stopped, blinking.
Murdock was cross-legged on the ground where Face had left him, grinning, gesturing long arms like an overexcited FNG. "See? And then it actually runs all by itself." He hit the button on the little control box that was wired to the track. The train started moving in a slow circle.
There were chuckles from the crowd, and a few guys crouched down.
"Shit, shoulda got that for my kid."
Face looked around in amused surprise. Red-faced, beer stinking grunts, and most of them had a little light in their eyes. A little like Murdock put in Face.
Like nostalgia, he'd thought once. Like memory. Home.
BA appeared at his side, and they watched the train go around. "What the hell's the crazy man wearing on his head?"
Face laughed. The train set had come with an engineer's hat. Once that was about five sizes too small for Murdock. It was perched, precarious and proud, on his wild hair.
Murdock looked up when he laughed, finding him in the crowd.
Face was almost taken aback by the smile he was greeted with.
The day after Christmas found Murdock sleeping late, and everyone else sleeping off considerable hangovers.
By the time Face staggered up and left the barracks to get a little bit of his own brand of work done, the train tracks outside had been crushed.
He noticed it with a weight in his gut. Crunched into little pieces, every bit of the track. Boot prints in the mud.
He found himself looking around, as though whoever did it would be right there smirking and waiting to get caught.
Fucking grunts, he thought to himself with an anger that surprised him. Couldn't let anyone have anything.
He left the tracks there. Murdock would find them, and maybe it would be a good lesson for him.
When he got back that afternoon before lunch, he found Murdock on his bunk. He was dressed, looking up at the bottom of the bed above him.
The little engineer's cap was on his chest, rising and falling with his breaths.
Face sighed. He glanced at Ray, the only other guy in the barracks, and was met with a shrug and a frown.
"Doesn't seem right," Ray said, quiet enough that it wouldn't carry to Murdock.
Face looked over at Murdock, halfway down the room and on his own. "No," he agreed just as quietly.
"Good." For all his short temper towards the pilot, at least BA considered him one of the team.
Face made his choice then. He strode down the row of bunks to where Murdock lay. "Get up."
"Facey, I'm a--"
Murdock blinked. He stood after a moment, stretching his long body like he'd been lying there for a while.
Face lifted the duffel by his bed and started grabbing at things. First to go in was the little hat, then the uniform and skivvies stowed away so messily.
Face glared back at him.
Murdock didn't say anything else. He stood there, wide-eyed, and watched.
Face didn't zip the bag, just grabbed the handles and hauled. He tromped down the row, and Murdock followed on heavy feet.
Ray watched, eyebrows raised, still in his sprawl on his bunk.
Face dropped the bag on the ground in front of the closest empty bunk to the rest of theirs. Beside his, as it turned out, and that was all the better. "Enough of you hiding out over there like you're not really one of us. This team doesn't do shit like that. When you're in you're in, Murdock."
Murdock looked back at him with surprised, sharp eyes.
Ray laughed. "Jesus, Face, when the hell did you turn into a nice guy?"
"Shut up." Face glowered at Murdock, pointing at the bed. "You wanna sulk, you do it here with the rest of us."
Murdock looked at the bunk.
Then he looked at Face. "I don't know. I'm kind of hungry. Wanna skip the sulk and get some chow?"
"I guess I just don't let myself see a lot of it. I mean..."
Face sat back, palming his bottle and letting Murdock find the words.
The lanky pilot shrugged. He took a swallow of his own lukewarm beer and made that face he always made when he drank. "I see it. I just...like watching a movie, you know? You can make it less real. Walk away from it."
Face grunted. Sounded like a theory that was bound to get Murdock's head kicked in. A pilot admitting he looked at dead grunts like some movie he could turn off?
Murdock sighed, as if reading his thoughts. "I just wanted to fly, Face. That's all I came here for."
"Too bad a war got in your way, huh? All us dying kids interfering in your plans."
Murdock set his bottle down. "Yeah, I guess so." He pushed his chair back, standing. Tense and wound up.
Face grimaced, but stayed where he was. Hell, even the team fought. No big deal.
He looked up.
Murdock leaned in, square palms resting on the table. His eyes were dark. "You grunts think you got the monopoly on war. You think just 'cause I see things from the inside of a chopper I don't see what goes on. You think I get shot at less? You think I've seen less guys burning alive? Think I ain't smelled gangrene and heard men sobbing 'cause they hurt so bad? I know what the war is."
The oddest thing was, he didn't sound mad. He was quieter than normal, but his tone was flat. Not angry, just...speaking facts. No different than when he had told Face he was the best pilot the base would ever see.
"But I don't deal with that stuff too good, so I cram it inside and read my comic books. The war ain't gonna get better or worse from my attitude about it, so I'm gonna stay as happy as I can as long as I can. If nobody understands it, that ain't my problem."
Face let him walk off. He peeled at the label on his bottle with a fingernail. Scraped and scraped.
"Listen to her, Face. She's screaming. Screaming in pain and we're sitting here watching."
Face chuckled. "I think she'll be alright."
Murdock didn't peel his eyes from the sky as the chopper lifted. "She'll prance like a pony for you if you treat her right. You hear that? Idiot thinks he's still driving a dog. Hueys need more. More power. She wants to break loose, you can practically smell it."
"Backseat driver." Face nudged him. "Come on. We've got a few clicks to hump before nightfall."
Murdock sighed, but hiked his gear on his shoulders and turned away from the sky at last. "Don't know why Hannibal thought this was a good idea."
"Team building, Captain. Now stop griping before you threaten Face's place as our top whiner."
"Hey!" They both spoke at once.
Hannibal nodded into the jungle. "Move it, soldiers."
They moved it.
The first few hours went, long and weary and tense, but uneventful. Murdock was sent back to take rear guard with Pipe, and Face had to admit he wished he was the one with the pilot. Not that they had a lot of conversations in the middle of a patrol, but somehow he thought Murdock would make the time go by faster.
The sun was low enough that it couldn't cut through the tops of trees by the time something actually happened.
BA was on point, and he gave a short whistle and dropped out of sight on the road ahead.
They moved fast, hitting the dirt to the sides of the road, waiting for BA to report, or make his move.
Face gripped his weapon. He despised these moments. Staying still meant he could feel the sweat more acutely. He could practically feel where dirt and dust lined his skin. His heart thumped but all he could think about was grime.
The alarm was false, and the hump continued.
They hunkered that night more than halfway to their target. Good time.
Murdock waited until he was down, hunched over cold rations beside Face. "Jesus, my feet."
"Poor flyboy can't hack it?" Face grinned, but kept his voice down.
"Laugh it up, you overblown supply clerk." He grinned back, but there was real pain in his eyes as he stretched his legs out. "How long's it take to get used to this?"
"Too long. You won't get a chance." Face remembered those first few LRRPs. He'd been smart enough to pad his boots with extra socks, but his feet swelled so big it almost wasn't worth missing out on the blisters.
He stretched out to sleep beside Murdock again. Gravitating to the pilot for some reason. He'd been catching himself doing that a lot.
Nights in the jungles were always interesting. He looked up a lot at treetops and stars, and wondered if those boy scout troops he'd never been part of back home had seen this sort of thing on their camping trips.
He thought about strange things in the jungle.
Night had fallen and snores littered their camp when Murdock rolled over onto his stomach and lifted onto his elbows. "I'm never gonna get to sleep here."
Face turned his head to look at him. "So you're gonna stop me?"
"You're not sleeping anyway. You're thinking deep thoughts and sighing all these girly sighs. I can hear ya."
Face smirked, hands lacing under his head. "You haven't heard? I don't think deep thoughts. This head's pretty, okay? It ain't functional."
"Right. What're you thinking about, anyway?"
"I don't know. God."
Murdock laughed, muffling the sound quickly with his hand. "You shallow bastard."
Face shrugged. "Ever since I got in country, one of the priests at the orphanage has been in my head. All that crap he tried to teach us, the stuff I mostly ignored, it comes back at weird times."
Face sighed, but stopped when he caught himself doing it.
He looked over, rolling on his side and shifting to get rocks out of his hip. "You believe in God?"
Murdock looked at him for a moment. "If I answer you, is it gonna lead to reading materials?"
Face smiled. "Left my pamphlets in my other pants. You're safe."
"Good." He shrugged. "I dunno. My grandparents were Baptist. Went every Sunday. I went until I was old enough to say no. Though the music wasn't all bad."
"Yeah." Face missed it, sometimes. Voices soaring up the vaulted ceilings.
"You're not religious, Facey. I mean, I think I'd've noticed."
"I grew up around it. It's part of me. I mean...I cheat and lie and sin my ass off, but..."
"What? You feel guilty about it?"
Face chuckled. "Not really. There're always reasons for it. But. You know. I hear Father Magill. I like hearing him. Makes me feel like I'm not on another planet out here."
"Must be nice." Murdock dropped down onto his belly, sighing. "LA, right?"
"Texas. Brownsville. Picture flat ground and the same weather we got here. But with less rain."
"Yep." Murdock sighed. "Had its advantages, though. Me hablo espanol muy bueno."
Face grinned. "And here I thought muchacho and amigo and those other little names were just you being eccentric."
"I'm not eccentric. M'nuts." His voice was starting to sound slower. His drawl was thicker. "Tell me about LA."
"You're gonna fall asleep."
"So? Like a bedtime story. I'll hear enough."
Face sighed to himself, thinking back. "LA. Right."
Flying around Hannibal's team - and going on the occasional team-building LRRP - didn't take up a lot of Murdock's time. They'd fly an hour out, he'd plan to pick them up one, two days later. That left him with hours to kill. So he flew for other teams, did recon work. Kept himself busy.
One day in particular the team was stuck on base waiting a storm to die out before they flew a mission. Murdock was gone, picking up another team and battling the weather.
When he wasn't back at the time scheduled, Face was told the pilots were most likely landed in the jungle, waiting out the storm.
Face knew better - there'd been wounded men at the pickup. Murdock didn't play around with lives, despite the stories that still went around about him.
Sure enough a chopper came in, weaving and smoking and making dangerous popping sounds as it skittered in the wind. The emergency crews were called and grunts gathered for the floorshow as the chopper made a couple of attempts at landing.
Face was in the front lines watching, hearing Murdock's name being passed around as the only guy who'd be stupid enough to fly in the hunk of broken, cracking metal that was dying over their heads.
The grunts spoke Murdock's name different by then. Still called him crazy, still thought he was dangerous, but there was definite respect there. Murdock had simply brought back too many of them from too many impossible places for them not to have changed their thinking.
Face watched the chopper and wondered if Murdock was about to go out in flames, the way most good legends did.
The chopper landed, though, as he figured it would, and the emergency crew swept to it, extinguishers and powder at the ready. Medics swept aboard, leading out man after man, carrying some without waiting for stretchers. The chopper was a death trap, even on the ground.
Face made his way around the rim of the crowd, trying to catch the pilot's eye, but once the wounded were cleared the chopper took off again.
Men muttered and laughed and used the word 'insane' as the chopper weaved and lurched, belching gas. A blast rocked the tail, sending the chopper diving down.
Words stopped. Breath was held.
A sudden jerk of the nose got the chopper over the wall, so close that the skids scraped concrete in a scream.
Face held his breath, but the chopper was gone. He looked around, spotted a pilot he supplied to. "Where the hell's he going?"
"Outside." Through dark aviators Face couldn't make out the pilot's eyes, but his mouth was tight.
The blast was a rumble over the storm, and smoke came rising from beyond the walls.
"That's why." The pilot's voice was grim. "Crazy fucking bastard."
Face frowned, confused, but looked at the smoke and drew in a harsh breath. The chopper'd been about to blow. Murdock flew it out to get it away from the men.
Which meant it was gone. And Murdock was...
He went running.
Hannibal was close, drawn like half the base by the explosion and the crowd.
Face got out breathless words. "Murdock. Chopper." And pointed at the plume of smoke.
That was all it took. Hannibal charged for the gates, and Face followed and caught up and then led the way.
It made his stomach sour, the sudden hard idea that Murdock had just been in a chopper explosion. Dead. Most likely dead. Just like that.
He wasn't sure how he felt about the guy - there was too much there. Too much bickering along with too many late night talks that lasted hours. Too much strange about him, along with too much that Face was drawn to like a butterfly.
For some reason, the most vivid image of his friend he could draw up as he ran through the gates and led a charge towards the smoke was Murdock on his bunk on a dreary Christmas morning.
"It ain't mistletoe unless you want a kiss."
They hadn't mentioned that day since. Not once. But it was the first thing to rise to Face's mind.
Face, running without thinking, was in front of the group. He looked back once for Hannibal and saw all the grunts coming with them, and he felt something glad in his gut.
Murdock had friends there, finally.
Before he could go charging in, tearing at burning metal and playing the hero, a lanky figure limped out from the trees in front of him.
Murdock's jacket was smoking. He had a long gash down his leg, and a smile on his face that lit through the darkening sky. "Got 'em out."
Face swallowed. "Yeah."
Their eyes met, and Face felt entirely off-guard. He swallowed again, the smoke close enough to itch at his throat.
Murdock wore the same peaceful, genial grin. He closed the space between them.
But before they could say anything else, Hannibal came pounding up behind Face, followed by a dozen grunts.
Murdock blinked in surprise, and tossed off a casual salute. "Colonel. Proud to report that's my first real crash."
Hannibal laughed. "It was a good one, Captain. A real nice one."
Grunts gathered, walking him back to the base with slaps on the back and a lot of noisy recreations of the crash.
There was a cheer when Murdock led his rescue team back in, and only Face was close enough to see the shock in his eyes at the reaction.
Murdock looked around at the crowd who'd watched him dive, and as they hooted and clapped he smiled. Slow and deep and real, that smile.
Face realized right then that seeing Murdock grin was about the best thing about this country and the war.
It was later that same day that he got to see the other side of Murdock. The side that his grins and comics and train sets hid.
He'd been led by his team and followed by an honor guard of jazzed out grunts to the doc's tent, and they'd been ordered away because the noise was disturbing the other patients.
Face and the team was scheduled to fly out a couple hours after Murdock got back, and Hannibal grinned and shrugged and said they had to use another guy to fly them out and back.
Face didn't think much of it, except a reflection on how weird it would be taking off without a howl. But the team got ready, got their gear stowed, and hoofed it to the chopper pad.
An older guy with a grin that looked hard was going through the checklist for take-off. He had nicotine stains on his hands and around his mouth, and a voice that had seen a lot of whiskey. That was a Nam pilot, Face thought to himself wryly.
To think he'd ever had a second thought about scoring Murdock.
They were cramming their gear in back when Face heard his voice, almost unrecognizable for the anger in it.
"What the hell is this?"
He looked out the door of the chopper and saw Murdock limping up. He had changed and washed, and scratches on his face showed red and fiery.
But the surprise was his expression. His eyes were dangerous.
Hannibal jumped off the chopper and headed over. Face hit the ground and hung back.
"Captain. They said you'd be down a couple of days."
Murdock only glanced at the Colonel, and didn't look Face's way. He made his way to the controls. "Get out."
The pilot hung his head out, shouting over the rotors. "What?"
Murdock grabbed his shoulder and hauled.
The pilot stumbled out with a curse and nearly lost his balance. He hit his feet and came at Murdock instantly. "The fuck do you think you're doing?"
Murdock nodded at the guys in the chopper. "That's my team. I fly my team."
"You fucking maniac. None of these fucking teams has pilots on res-"
"Get lost." Murdock moved past him towards the chopper.
The guy grabbed his shoulder, face red.
Murdock whirled, and Face got a full-on view of the fury in his face. "Get your hands off me." Low, that voice. But ice cold.
His face was calm, but his eyes gleamed.
Face just stared, shocked. He'd seen guys come at Murdock with beer bottles, or shout across the galley about the retard and how many guys he'd killed. He'd seen some shit, but not one of those times had Murdock ever gotten mad. A bit quiet and serious, but he never bothered getting pissed.
He was pissed now.
The pilot's hand curled in a fist, but his eyes dropped to the name stitched on Murdock's shirt, and he looked up again.
"You're gonna get your ass handed to you, fucker."
Murdock grinned, tight and wild. "Run and tell daddy, then."
"Fucking maniac." The pilot turned.
Murdock's smile twisted, but he headed for the chopper.
Hannibal, hanging back with Face and watching the confrontation, moved to the front of the chopper. "Captain."
Murdock already had his headset on, double-checking what the other pilot had done. "Sir?"
"Know what you're doing here?"
"Come on, sir. I'm the sanest person on base. Don't you know that?"
Hannibal chuckled and moved away, heading to the rear.
Face followed, scrambling into the chopper. "Hey."
Hannibal held up a hand to stop his comments. "He wants to fly us."
The chopper lifted. From the front, a howl. Maybe a little louder and harsher than normal.
Pipe laughed. "Howling Mad joined us after all?"
Hannibal sat back, grinning. "Just as it should be."
He couldn't stop shaking. Things were too dark, too quiet. BA's snores were even quieter than usual.
And Face couldn't shut his eyes without seeing Pipe.
Too slippery, he told himself. Not his fault. Pipe's blood. Slippery. Couldn't get a grip on him, and then they were overrun.
Couldn't even get his tags. And fuck if Pipe hadn't been already dead before the gunfire blasted behind him.
Damn it. Damn it. He hated this. Hated being on Hannibal's team, where he had to get to know everyone and get to trust everyone, and watch them fall. Hated that there were so few of them, that Pipe's empty bunk was such an obvious, gaping hole.
His fault. Too slippery. Pipe's face had been half gone, but he was looking at Face with one good eye, begging for help. Silent but begging.
He shivered and curled tighter under the blankets. He could still feel it, the sticky slick blood on his hands.
Pipe was two hundred pounds of dead weight. Face was a buck fifty and...he couldn't get a grip.
He twitched, but the voice was too much of a relief to surprise him. He rolled over and saw the gleam of eyes from the next bunk.
He couldn't see Murdock, but he could see his eyes.
He shook his head and curled the covers tighter. It was hot as hell in there, but he couldn't stop shaking.
Murdock shifted, and was suddenly a dark shadow beside his bed. He crouched, and those gleaming eyes were back. "You feel okay?"
Face didn't answer.
A hand appeared on his forehead. It dropped a few seconds later, and Murdock leaned in. He must've sat on the floor, because he could lean in and rest his arms on the mattress and look across at Face. "You were close, huh?"
Face nodded. He was afraid if he opened his mouth to answer his teeth would chatter.
Murdock reached out and laid his hand on Face's covered arm. "You can tell me if you want."
Face shook his head, shutting his eyes hard.
Silence ticked by. BA's deep woofs of breath and Ray's shallow breathing sounded softly around them, away from them.
Murdock didn't say anything. His hand didn't move.
Face opened his eyes again and saw his friend there, looking at him. Worry in his eyes.
Face swallowed. "I can't..." His teeth didn't chatter, but his voice did.
Murdock got up and the cot dipped a moment later as he sat. "Come here."
Face looked up at him.
Murdock smiled and opened his arms. "Come on, you're shivering. Nothing helps that like good ole body heat."
Face hesitated. He felt bloody and dirty and deadly, and he didn't want Murdock near that.
Pipe's voice screamed in his head. Pipe's eye stared through the darkness.
Murdock swallowed. "You're safe, I promise. I didn't bring any mistletoe."
Face shook his head, but didn't correct Murdock's misinterpretation. He sat up slowly, letting the covers fall. He hugged his arms around his chest.
Murdock slid close, folding his arms around Face and pulling him in until Face's back was against his chest.
Face wasn't used to being touched. He didn't know how he'd do with it.
But he sat there, leaning against a living wall that didn't shake. He felt a strong grip around him. Like being buckled tightly into a jeep, or Murdock's chopper.
He shut his eyes and leaned his head back. "I can't get him out of my head."
"I know. I'm sorry." Murdock's voice was soft, a warm puff of breath in his ear.
Face looked out at the darkness, but his eyes were heavy and closed without his permission.
He heard screams in his sleep, but they didn't wake him up.
"You in pain?"
"Are you kidding?"
Face beamed at Murdock.
Murdock beamed back.
"Jesus, save me from fools."
They both turned to BA. "Oh, come on, big guy. You didn't have even a little bit of fun in there?" Murdock stumbled a bit as he walked. He was drinking more these days, every time they went out.
BA pushed at his arm. "Off me, fool. I don't have fun gettin' in fights with Marines."
"That's because you don't know how to live."
BA grumbled under his breath, but his usual harsh protests were nowhere to be found.
Mostly because, though neither Murdock nor Face would mention it or rub it in his face, the fight started in BA's defense.
A bunch of drunk cracker Marines and a few too many nasty slurs thrown in BA's direction. BA was better at ignoring them than Face and Murdock, but after a while his shoulders were tense and he wasn't talking.
When he asked them if they were ready to go, in that quiet voice he got when he was trying not to show something, that's when Face and Murdock acted.
Stood at the same time, headed for the table.
Murdock had called out, the southern boy thick in his voice. "Well, lookee here. I thought I heard me a little bit of home right here in Vietnam, and here it is."
If there was any doubt the Marines were pushing for a fight, it was silenced when they stood, all at once, at their approach.
"What's wrong, boy? Your nigger can't fight his own battles?"
Murdock glanced at Face. He raised his eyebrows.
Face shrugged. He hated fighting, usually. But usually he had less whiskey in him, and wasn't still battling bad dreams about dead friends.
They acted as one, jumping the nearest guy.
Five minutes later - five minutes in a fight felt like an hour - they were thrown out, bruised, grinning like idiots.
Fighting did that. Something about taking a good hit and still coming back strong, hitting back, made Face feel a power he didn't feel every day. Conning people was a different kind of power. Shooting? Very different. This was an honest power. An honest fight, even, in defense of a guy who never hurt anything he didn't have to hurt.
He was with his best pal, Murdock, and his second best pal, BA. He was on top of the world. They had two days of leave, an entire - shitty, granted - city to prowl around in.
He had dreamed of women and real clothes and time apart from everyone and everything that reminded him of war. But once he was there, he wanted his pals close.
BA would turn in early. He didn't handle leave well. Not so far from home.
Murdock would last longer than Face. Face knew he'd be grinning all night.
BA was leading the way, since Face and Murdock were too far gone to pay much attention. Face wasn't surprised to look up after a few minutes to see their hotel ahead.
BA didn't let him get started. "You two be careful. Don't need to be getting into anything you can't get out of."
"That should be easy." Murdock slung an arm around Face's shoulder. "Me and the Face can take on the world."
BA shook his head. "Couple of fools." But he gave them a look before he left, and flashed a small smile.
"Well?" Murdock turned them around so they were facing the street. "Got a whole night, and the whole world. Where we going?"
Face shrugged. "I heard about a place. Pricey, but the girls are clean."
Murdock hesitated, looking at him oddly. "Facey. Far be it for me to bring up things you apparently love to forget, but..."
Face blinked at him. "What?"
"Oh." Face felt his face heat up. Murdock's arm on his shoulder was suddenly heavier. "Right. You're...mistletoe."
Murdock laughed after a moment. "I doubt the Christmas folks ever intended that particular euphemism."
"You don't like girls at all?"
"You really want an honest answer to that? Or you want me to just say yes and go hooker hunting with you?"
Face hesitated, for a moment unsure. Then he shrugged. "Honest."
"Honest? Girls are soft and pretty, and I don't ever know what to do with soft and pretty." He shrugged.
Face tried not to shift away from his arm. Hell of a reminder, after all the nights drinking they'd done, and the times Murdock had come to him at night and warded off bad dreams.
From the look in Murdock's eyes, the bunching of muscles under his hand was easy to interpret. He dropped his arm and backed up. "Forget it. Go whoring. I'm gonna turn in. Big guy's probably right anyway."
Face hesitated for too long.
Murdock's lips thinned, and he turned and went inside.
Face blew out a breath and followed. "Hey. Murdock. Come on. Don't be mad."
"Not mad, muchacho." He glanced back, those sad eyes looking almost sober again. "Just...a lotta time clocked wanting things I can't have."
Face blinked. He blushed. He followed Murdock to the stairs, though. "But...wait."
"Don't over think it, Facey."
"I don't want--"
Murdock turned in the stairwell. The door shut behind Face, leaving them alone. "I never had a friend like you."
Face regarded him, brown eyes and solemn mouth that was usually twisted in such big smiles. Hell if he wanted to hurt Murdock, but...
"I mean it. I like things how they are. Maybe in my head they'd be even better if...but hell. I'm nuts. The stuff in my head don't even make sense half the time."
Face nodded slowly.
Murdock smiled. "So, we're pals, right?"
"Best pals." Face returned the smile sadly.
"Just...I ain't going out whoring with you. You know?"
Face squeezed his arm, mostly to show them both that he wasn't uncomfortable touching Murdock. Just the alcohol, that's what made him pull away before. "Let's go up. We get our asses kicked when BA isn't with us."
Murdock studied him, then grinned. The relief in his eyes was as bright as the bare bulbs overhead.
"This gonna be number five, Captain?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Colonel. I'm only at three, anyway."
Face grit his teeth and shut his eyes, his heart blasting in his chest. They lurched. Dove. Lurched. The guns kept firing, and the whistles kept coming, kept erupting close. Too close.
Never should have gone out. Mission had a stink to it from the start.
Fucking ambush, and not one Murdock could save them from. The ambush had been aimed into the air.
Murdock wasn't singing. He was chirping confidently when Hannibal threw questions at him, but he wasn't singing, and he wasn't howling.
That was bad.
BA was sweating rivers beside Face, gripping the webbing and mumbling something under his breath. Maybe a prayer.
Hannibal lurched when the chopper slid to the right, and he cursed and took a seat away from the controls.
They were going to die.
Face tried to make sure that was clear in his head, even as his stomach rebelled and he wretched his rations on the floor of the chopper.
Dead men. Maybe instantly killed in a fiery eruption would be a good way to go. It'd be better than some he'd seen.
BA's shoulders were heaving.
Dead men. Murdock should've been singing.
"Shit. Shit, shit shit shit shit," came a low mantra from the front. The chopper lurched again, skimming the trees below.
Hannibal and Ray looked across at Face and BA.
Face looked back, and since BA couldn't look he gripped the big man's arm to bring him in.
They were going as a team at least. Going all together as they should.
Face had no one at home to cry for him.
He shut his eyes and dropped his head back. The world shuddered under him, twisted, dove.
"...Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day..."
Face gripped tighter to BA's arm, and spoke with him. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..."
The shuddering stopped.
Hannibal jumped up and moved to the front. "Are...son of a bitch, Murdock."
Face realized after a moment - they weren't shuddering because they weren't moving.
They were down.
They were down?
He looked around, and out the door, and the ground was right there. "How the hell...?"
Ray and BA shot out, falling to the ground and heaving for breath. The solid earth made Ray double over, and he coughed out his rations.
Face had to peel his right hand free of the webbing. He gripped his rifle and climbed out on unsteady legs.
Hannibal jumped out, looking around. "Any idea where the hell we are?"
Face stretched the map out. "I'm recovering from my coronary. You look."
Murdock climbed out from the front.
Face looked past him to the chopper, and he felt dizzy.
There was nothing left of it. The webbing he had gripped was showing through patches of burned and shot holes. The rotors were smoking.
"You're a miracle worker, Murdock."
Murdock looked at Face, his face blank, and then followed his eyes to the chopper. He winced and looked away. "Number four," he said hoarsely.
Hannibal laughed, and the sound was jarring. "That wasn't a crash, Captain. That was the sweetest landing I've ever seen."
"Chopper's done with, though." Murdock's voice was low. Regretful.
Face looked around. "Colonel, Charlie must've seen us go down."
Hannibal got serious fast. "Right. Grab what you can and let's get the hell out of here."
"Figured out where we are?" Ray asked as they went for the gear stashed in the chopper.
"Once we get away from wherever we are, I'll figure out where we are."
Face moved past Murdock, but hesitated and went back. "Hey."
Murdock looked up, pale.
Face shook his head. "You'd better not be sorry you just saved our sorry asses yet again."
Murdock managed a grin.
"Better." Face grinned and went for his gear.
Charlie was close, and they were far from anywhere. But he had faith they'd be okay.
Obviously this was a day for miracles.
It was the smell more than anything. The smell first hit him in the face when they were led past the other cages, and it scratched at his skin every passing second. Trying to get in.
The screams weren't bad. The guys crying and laughing, the shouts in Vietnamese. The guns - guns only the little guys in the black pajamas held. That wasn't bad.
Well. Bad. But not so bad.
It was the stench. Blood and sweat, piss and fear.
Face hated to stink. He could feel it under his pores, and he wanted to scratch it away.
But he held back. They'd been there an entire three days, and no doubt Hannibal already had a plan to get out. Just a matter of staying sane long enough.
The reason it was no problem looked up at him suddenly, wide brown eyes smiling. "You ever watch Captain America?"
"You and your fucking cartoons."
Murdock just grinned. "Naw, it's just. There's a song. Man, that thing's sticking in my head like glue. Won't shake out."
Face sighed and jerked his head when footsteps approached, relaxing as they passed without a comment. He resettled against the bamboo bars at his back.
Murdock folded his long legs in front of him, which meant his calves rested on Face's ankles, but neither of them blinked at it.
Small cages were alarmingly easy to get used to.
"'When Captain America throws his mighty sheeeeeild...' You know how annoying that song is? Man, I'm crazy, but it irritates the shit outta me."
Face laughed, faint and dry.
They both glanced over, two cages past.
Johnson, a pilot who knew Murdock from some place he'd been stationed the year before, kept passing messages along from the few pilots who were in there.
It wasn't many. Charlie hated pilots. Separated them out, usually killed them. Face had heard other horror stories, worse than the shit the guys around him were going through, but for his own piece of mind he mostly ignored them.
He could still remember when Charlie had caught up to them after the crash. Guns out, too many, all sides.
And one had demanded, in broken, high English, "Who pilot? Who pilot?"
Nobody looked at Murdock. Murdock didn't react. They all knew what would happen.
Hannibal told them he died in the crash. No doubt they'd check the wreck sometime and find no body, but Murdock stayed with them.
The other pilots down the line of cages had all stayed quiet, same as Murdock.
Murdock was gripping the cage beside Face, looking out. He was pale, and Face wondered what he'd missed reliving that recent memory. "When?"
"Tom heard about it when he was being questioned. Watch your ass."
Murdock sat back, frowning. He scooted awkwardly back to his spot on the other side of the cage, past the two guys in with them who they mostly ignored.
Face sighed. "Okay?"
Murdock shrugged. "He was a good guy. Was my gunner a few times before I started flying slicks. He should've made it home."
Shit. Someone died.
Nothing new under the sun. He sighed.
Low voices speaking fast in words he didn't understand. Loud, behind him, coming up.
The stench in the air grew rank with the terror of too many men. Face held Murdock's eyes as footsteps approached.
Murdock looked back, his throat working but showing no other signs of weakness.
Their cage opened.
Face shut his eyes. Not me. Not him. Not me. Not him.
He was grabbed by the arm.
"You know a lot about the Bible?"
"Surprises me a little, Facey. I know you were raised by nuns, or something unspeakably horrible like that."
Face shrugged with a smile.
"But you're such a...what?"
Face waited, curious.
Murdock laughed suddenly. "Isn't there some story in the Bible where Jesus gets pissed at some guys in a market? Goes after 'em with, like, blessed hardware?"
Face laughed, then stopped because...Jesus. Ouch.
"That's you. One of those market guys. Trying to make a living, and along comes some guy in a robe. 'Father, please bless the shells in this gun, that they might smite with great force mine enemies.'"
Face smiled. That hurt less.
"I've heard a lot of guys say prayers over their weapons while they're flying out." Murdock curled his hand further up Face's arm, but stopped himself before he touched the burn he knew was there.
Face shut his eyes, leaned against him. Warm wall, humming as Murdock spoke. Arms strong, like being strapped in, high in the air. Above all this ridiculous shit.
"How's he doing, Murdock?"
Hannibal's voice. Too far away. They should've been in one cage. Even though it was too small for the four inside, Face would've managed five if they'd been the five in his team.
"Wanna tell him yourself?"
Face shook his head. He didn't want to speak. He could tell from the searing when he swallowed that he wasn't ready for that yet.
"Holding up, Hannibal." No titles. Not there.
Murdock must've turned away to call out. When he turned back his chin dropped against the top of Face's head. He sighed.
Face squeezed his hand.
He didn't know what they looked like to Maury and Sandler, the other two guys in their cage. Those two had been hurt before, and they didn't cuddle after.
But fuck it. Whatever they thought. Face could have laid there on the ground and moaned. Instead he was up and warm and dry.
He thought about mistletoe every now and then. Looked up occasionally, almost expecting to see dead leaves tied with twine hanging over his head.
Maybe hoping for it.
But he'd been in the cage long enough for stupid thoughts.
For a moment he thought Murdock was talking to someone.
But the low voice kept going, and Face smiled. He mentioned to Murdock once that he thought the Beatles were pretty little conmen just like him. Had to be, to make people react the way they did.
"Don't make it bad." Murdock kept singing. "Take a sad song and make it better."
"Someone shut that maniac up. Tired of his fucking songs."
Face curled in closer to Murdock, smiling.
Murdock sang louder. "Remember to let her in to your heart."
Other voices, some laughing, some hurting, took up the song quietly. "Then you can start to make it better."
Murdock relaxed a little beneath Face.
If there was any noise from the front or back, they'd all shut up faster than shit, and one or two of them, singers or not, would get the shit kicked out of them.
But Face liked to hear it, and other guys must've thought it was worth it, too.
They sang, low but steady. "And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain..."
"I hate the dark."
"Yeah. Nighttime when you can't sleep is the worst feeling in the fucking world."
"Relax, Facey. Keep it down. Gonna tear up your throat."
Face shifted against the bars. "My throat's fine."
"You sound like a bullfrog. One of those fat old bullfrogs who'd pipe up in the evening off the front porch."
"Back in good ole Brownsville, Texas."
"Damn right." Murdock sighed. "You having a bad night? In your head?"
"My head?" Face shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. Aren't they all bad?"
"Just think of better things. Think of old westerns on TV, or tiddly winks, or enchiladas. Hawkman."
Face smiled faintly. "Those are your better things."
"So what're yours? What about that guy, that priest you told me about once? What's he been saying in your head these days?"
Face thought about it.
He shivered suddenly, curling in tighter around himself against the bars.
Face shook his head, swallowing a pain that was shocking in its sharpness. "I don't hear him anymore. I haven't heard him since...Jesus. I think since Pipe." He shut his eyes, breathing deep. "What does that mean? He's not talking anymore. Fucking God, Jesus, the priests. None of them are talking anymore. Even they got the fuck out of Vietnam."
"Hey. Hey. Relax."
A hand curled around Face's arm. He shivered and pulled away.
The hand came back, gripping insistently. "Face."
He winced when Murdock's hand found a deep bruise.
Murdock didn't pull away, though he eased his grip. "Face. Come on, man. It's okay. They're still talking. I promise, they are."
"Well, if they are I can't fucking hear them."
"Just 'cause you're too distracted to listen right now. That's all it is. I know it."
Face knew Murdock was just trying to calm him down. He didn't know why - he was hurting, breathing a little hard. Nothing worth panicking over. Still. He couldn't help looking up at the darkness, at the bars stretched over his head. "You know it, huh?"
"Sure. If there's one thing Gran and Gramps Murdock taught me, it's that God's a loud-mouthed fucker who won't keep quiet just 'cause things stink."
Face tilted his head down to look at Murdock through the dark. "You're gonna burn in hell for calling God a fucker."
Murdock rolled his eyes. "Did He tell you that?"
"Not yet. But He will, soon as I start listening again."
"You pick weird times to go religious on me."
"I do have some pamphlets I think you ought to read."
"Oh, jeez." Murdock dropped back, loosing his grip on Face's arm. Smiling.
Somehow, Face was smiling back.
He came awake when the pressure on his hand started to hurt. He leaned in without looking. "Dream, Murdock. Just a dream."
A low whimper answered him, but the pressure eased.
He sank back, sighing.
"Sorry," came a whisper, shaken and wan. Murdock's hand vanished.
Face's eyes opened. He didn't look around, because he knew everything there was to see. He looked at Murdock. "Okay?"
Murdock looked back at him. They were inches apart, because the cage didn't allow space for sleep.
Face didn't mind.
"Yeah." It wasn't even a good lie, not coming from those terrified eyes in that waver of a voice.
Face reached out, touched his arm. "You have to get some sleep."
"Weren't lying, were you?"
"Lying?" Murdock's voice was thick. His eyes showed his nightmare.
Face met them bravely all the same. "Told me once you didn't handle the shit too well. War and..." He didn't need to finish.
Murdock shut his eyes. "I know you guys."
Face waited, knowing Murdock's thoughts would come out, even slow and stunted and circular.
"Every guy in here. Every time they...I see a guy who laughed at some stupid joke. Last time I went..."
Face found his hand again and held it.
Murdock whispered. "The guy they dragged out...I didn't recognize him. But he saw me as he was going. Heard him say something about trains. He was there, Face. Christmas."
Face smiled a little, thinking about that train. One hundred bucks it'd cost Murdock.
It wasn't the last time Murdock brought some unexpected cheer into a shitty place.
"It ain't the pain, you know. It's them. You." He shifted, wincing when he moved some sensitive spot too fast. "It hasn't even been a month. A month, Face."
Face opened his eyes. His heart thumped, hard and painful. That couldn't possibly be true. "You sure?"
"Been keeping track." Murdock had his eyes shut, squeezed closed like he was trying not to see things.
"Jesus." Face didn't feel like sleeping suddenly. He lay there, though, because he had hours and endless hours to sit up later.
There was a sharp noise from the front of the line. Face jumped, and heard men stirring just as suddenly around him.
Maury. Shit. They were bringing him back late. Face had just figured he was dead, tossed on the pile.
Maury being dragged by three different guys. He was wailing, blubbering, but not in the way most guys blubbered when they came back.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Face's heart stopped. He sat up.
Maury said something. He gave Charlie something. Son of a bitch.
Men in other cages were awake and muttering by then, reaching the same conclusion Face had.
The door opened, and Maury crawled in. There were tears on his cheeks, snot dripping down his chin. "Jesus, I'm sorry. Fuck, I'm so sorry."
Before Face could ask, before anything at all could happen different, the VC who brought Maury in went for Murdock. They said some words back and forth, barking at him to get up.
"Murdock. God. I'm sorry."
Face shut his eyes, gripping the hand he still held.
Not that. Maury couldn't have told them...
He heard it, though. Amid the chatter of the guards. "CIA."
Murdock was dragged without a sound, and Face went along a few inches before Murdock released his hand.
"No." The door shut against Face's outstretched arm, but he just stuck it through the bars and reached. "No! He was lying, you dumb shits! You gook motherfuckers! Get back here! He's nobody, you ignorant fucks."
God, if he could get them to focus on him. Forget Murdock. Please.
Murdock glanced back. Grinned. Nothing of the dream terrors that had woken them up was anywhere on his face.
Face shook his head. "Hey! Listen to me!"
Murdock threw his head back, a head higher than the tallest of his guards, and gave a loud, defiant howl.
The guards jumped, hurried him on, shouting their quick words.
"No! God dammit! Not him!" Face was left reaching out for nothing, with the eyes of wide-awake grunts looking back at him, grim.
He shook his head, shutting his eyes. Murdock was dead.
It entered his head and dropped like a rock to his chest and stomach.
Murdock was dead.
"He told them, Hannibal." He didn't know if his voice carried. He didn't care. "He told them Murdock was a pilot."
There was no answer. The eyes that were on Face moved behind him, even more grim.
Face turned, dropping against the bars. He looked at Maury.
"They knew one of us was. Angel told 'em already." Maury was sobbing openly. "Just wanted it to stop. God, I'm sorry. They said...anything. Just wanted it to stop."
Face looked away. Maury was a dead man. You didn't tell Charlie anything. Not a damned thing. When you did you spit in the faces of every man in those cages. You made all their pain pointless.
Even telling them something small.
But, God. He wanted to scream. It wasn't small. It was Murdock. His team. His best friend. His...fucking mistletoe.
Face sank back to the ground, shut his eyes. Wanted to die. Wanted it to stop.
Three weeks more. Face kept track, since Murdock wasn't there to do it.
Three weeks of maggots, of beetles and breadcrumbs, and hearing absolutely nothing about Murdock. Pain and voices and none of it meant anything.
The camp cook, one of the times he managed to get in there and drop some bread in the cages as he passed - decent men in places like that should've had God talking in his head again - had been humming something that sounded like that irritating western tune Murdock used to sing sometimes. But that was the only hint Face had. And he was half sure he'd been dreaming it.
He was taken out twice more, beaten. He didn't care. He laid awake at night because no one was there to hold him up, to sing him songs. He didn't answer Hannibal, or BA the few times he called over.
What use was it? None of them knew anything. Wherever the pilots were taken, it wasn't a place the grunts went.
Tied up, pushed to their knees, shot. Point blank range. Wasn't that the rumor? The nicest rumor.
Three weeks, and then things exploded around them.
The base was found. It had gotten too big for Charlie to hide, and the Hueys flew in and blew things to shit.
Soldiers came in and gagged. They got the cages opened, led men too tired and hurt to cheer out into the sun.
Clean-faced kids in shining uniforms, Face thought bitterly as he was let out. Sandler let him lean on him. They left Maury in his heap.
When they were out Face let Sandler go on. He found Hannibal, BA, and Ray, and limped painfully to them.
Jesus, they were thin. All of them. Bearded and filthy and they had to have dropped thirty pounds each.
BA came to Face, took his arm and led him up. There was no doubt what they were gathering for.
The team wasn't whole. And this team never left a man behind.
Even if all they found were his tags. Or his jacket. That leather jacket Face got him for his birthday.
He didn't speak as he was led up, but Hannibal's eyes were on him, burning under the excitement. "Lieutenant."
Face nodded. He glanced at Ray, at BA by his side. They'd all survived at least. He'd heard Ray scream now and then. Never BA. Never Hannibal.
He himself screamed. Sometimes he couldn't help it. He would just come back to his body and hear himself making these sounds...
Shit. No time.
"Where...?" Ray looked around at the troops.
Charlie must not have kicked up much fight, because this rescue mission was all rescue and no mission. None of the troops outside the parameters held guns at the ready. They were all busy bringing down choppers and loading up men.
Beautiful. It was. Face knew he'd remember the sights later, and be glad for them.
But now all it meant was that they could search without hiding.
There was a pile of bodies behind a far building. Men decomposed fast in the jungle, and Hannibal called some soldiers over to take on the grisly task of taking the tags from the corpses. With an order. "You find one that says Murdock, you report to me fast."
They looked like the other men being rescued - filthy, tattered, too weak on their feet, too thin to be healthy. But Hannibal hadn't lost the light of command, and when soldiers came up to help them to a chopper, they ran off again under his orders.
The camp was bigger than it had been when they were brought it. Tents had sprung up. There were run down jeeps all up the property.
There were cages out in the sun. Places Face recognized, though he'd never seen them. Places the grunts were taken for punishment. Where he had been taken once. Blindfolded, terrified, he had baked in the heat of the jungle until his skin sizzled and his tongue was so swollen in his mouth he was afraid of choking on it.
He looked at them - plain cages of thin bamboo he could have reached out and snapped if he'd tried. He looked away again.
Ray cleared his throat. His eyes were on the cages, hollow. "They'll find him, Hannibal. Maybe we should..."
No one listened to him.
But no one had any real idea where to look. Hell, Murdock could have been taken away from the camp weeks ago. No one had heard from him. No one saw him. No one picked him out among the distant screams.
He was starting to shake, weak on his feet and terrified to find out his friend's fate.
A grunt, fresh and bright as a daisy, came jogging up and cracked out a salute. "Colonel."
They winced, all four of them, at the title. But nothing happened.
Of course. It was okay. Hannibal could be their colonel again.
Hannibal, of course, got himself together first. "Private."
"You're looking for a guy named Murdock? They got his body." He jerked his hand back towards the cages.
Face shut his eyes. He let the others run ahead. His body. Damn it.
It didn't matter to him that there was no certain place or time when Murdock became the most important person in his life. Didn't make sense, and didn't have to. When Murdock was involved it was best when things were just nonsensical.
All that mattered was he was gone, and it wasn't fair.
If Maury dragged himself out of his depression and decided not to slit his own wrists, Face would kill him.
Near the cages a wall of bamboo had been lifted off the ground. It looked like one of the cages had fallen apart, but Face saw as he approached that it had been covering a hole.
There were a few grunts around it, one holding a chain. Dogtags. Two others were crouched, reaching. Dragging...
He stopped, clenched his fists.
He was a skeleton. Skin wrapped around bare bones. Beard and hair and burnt skin and Jesus fucking Christ.
Face wouldn't have thought he'd have been capable of running up, of seeing it close. But all of the sudden he was there, shoving pretty, clean grunts away and hitting the dirt beside Murdock's body. No shirt for him to grip. No leather jacket. No grin, no howl.
Brown eyes, though. Maybe the heat had shifted his eyelids. Maybe he'd died with his eyes open, facing it down like the contrary maniac he was. However it happened, Face could see slivers of brown between his lashes, and he bowed his head.
From below him came a voice, like the rasp of rice paper. "'S a good crazy t'day, Facey."
Face clenched at Murdock's hand, sorry he had ever let it go. He should have made Charlie pry him off. Should've died with him.
Murdock's hand, rough and bone and thin skin, squeezed back for the barest instant.
That got to him, and a moment later the words he'd heard came through as more than just imagination.
He opened his eyes and looked down, and those eyes were open a fraction more. The cracked lips were smiling, tiny but Face knew it anywhere.
The skeleton was still alive.
"Jesus Christ!" Face jumped up. "Hey! Get over here! Get him in the fucking choppers!"
Urgency coursed like the adrenaline of battle into him, giving him strength he hadn't felt for weeks. He looked up at the mournful eyes of his team. "He's alive. He's still alive."
Hannibal crouched instantly, but BA was shaking his head.
"Ain't no way, Face, just aint."
Hannibal's hand was on Murdock's wrist, tight. He looked over sharply. "Private! Got one hurt bad here! You get him up and on a chopper. And you god damned well find out who took his tags off him without checking for a pulse. He wants them back."
"And his jacket." Face looked down in the hole - fucking tiny, how the hell had they even fit him in there? No room for Murdock, let alone a jacket. "Where's his fucking jacket?"
"Face, we gotta--"
Face snapped his eyes to Ray.
BA spoke fast. "Bet they put it with the shit they stripped off all of us. Behind the General's tent there."
"Get it." Face felt moisture down his cheeks, but paid it no heed. Hell, they'd all shed so many tears it felt like a natural state of being to be crying. "BA..."
BA clapped him on the shoulder, gentle, not strong enough to manage more. "Bet your ass."
He headed off, frail and too small for the big man Face had known so long.
Face didn't watch, though. He stayed, clenching Murdock's hand in his, as help finally came and he was hauled onto one of the medic copters.
Face didn't let go of his hand until the thing was lifting off the ground and he had to duck to avoid the blades.
"Damn it." Face dropped his gear by his bunk. He was almost too tired to shower. But he stank like sweat, and he couldn't stand to stink. Ever.
He grabbed his towel and dragged his feet towards the door. Another mission - easy. They were all easy since the team got back from the hospital in Okinawa. Still a little weak, heads shaved from lice treatments and skin and bones, but they were healthy enough to go back, and they did. The brass wasn't about to say no to getting Smith and his a-team back on the field.
But Murdock was still a country away. No howling on take-off. No songs. No talks at night, or walks to the Club for beer.
No facing down what happened. No one there when Face had nightmares. No one there, no doubt, when Murdock dreamed.
"I'll be back," he mumbled as he headed for the door. He'd feel better after a shower.
Not good. But better.
BA waved his hand from his bunk.
"Don't know how the hell you've got the energy," Ray said, muffled because his face was shoved into his mattress.
Face went outside, scowling at the sunlight. He hated the sun. Hated the rain. Hated the whole country and everything about it.
Except the showers.
He glanced as he moved past the barracks to the ground at the side of the building. Smiled a bit to think of Christmas and train sets, and a stupid hat made for an eight year old, perched so proudly on Murdock's head as he showed the trains off to hard assed grunts who grinned right along with him.
Not dead. Just gone.
"Peck! Hey! Where's your CO?"
He looked over at the grinning, bright and shiny pilot jogging up. He shrugged. "Probably debriefing." Spoken a little flatly, but hell. For some reason every soldier on the base, every one who didn't know what it felt like to get a cane down the back or eat beetles because that's how hungry you were, bugged the hell out of him.
The pilot didn't seem to notice. He was still grinning. "Gotta find him."
Face waved out at the base. "So find him."
The pilot took off jogging. He turned back before he got too far, moving backwards, still grinning that grin. "We just heard at the pads. You guys are getting your pilot back."
Face stopped. "Murdock?"
"The man himself, still Howling Mad." A nod, a bigger grin. "About a week. He's coming down with a new company." He turned and took off running.
Face watched him go.
He started moving again slowly, towel fisted in his hand, and when he reached the latrine he realized he was grinning just as big as that pilot.
Face should have been happy. Instead of one single Murdock, the hospital in Okinawa sent back two. Double the fun.
One of them was the guy who came strolling into the barracks, right up to his bunk like it was any other day. Thin - way, way too thin - but grinning. "Where's the big guy? Hear I owe him a big cuddly hug for gettin' my jacket back."
That was the Murdock who grinned and soaked it in when his team gathered and crowed and treated him like a hero. The one who tackled BA into accepting that hug, and handed out cigars fresh from Japan.
The one who looked at Face with soft eyes when he saw the dead leaves strung over his bunk, and didn't even need Face's stammered explanation that he had missed Christmas.
Except for the sheared hair, the thinness, the scars, it didn't seem like that Murdock had ever seen a bad day in his life, much less got dropped into the ground to rot in a VC hell hole.
That was where the other Murdock came in. He was the one who showed up at night. Who woke them up time and again, screaming and sobbing and fighting. The one Face heard hyperventilating in fear just laying there in the dark.
The one who wouldn't talk to any of them. Not even Face, and Face knew he was selfish to be hurt by that, but there it was.
Murdock Number Two had eyes that didn't focus on anyone, and a voice that rasped like he'd just baked in the cage for a day. That Murdock didn't seem like he had ever smiled in his life.
He showed up almost every night, and sometimes when they flew. The smiling Murdock would climb aboard, give them a chirping takeoff speech, sing a little, howl a little. And then things would go quiet. Especially when the bullets started flying.
Murdock the second never crashed a chopper. He showed up when things got rough, when they flew over hot spots.
He picked them up from LZs, silent, with urgent eyes.
But the happy one would be there when they landed. He'd show up as a suddenly bright voice telling them to strap in for landing, and he'd be there to sling an arm over Face's shoulder and talk about how one day they were all going to be on the front pages back home. Heroes.
Nobody really talked about it, though Face saw the looks, heard the refreshed rumors about the pilot. The word 'crazy' was suddenly an insult again. Grunts laughed about him in the Club and made BA and Ray get into fights again.
Murdock was still the best pilot they had.
Hannibal explained it to Face with a tired shrug. "The war's going to shit, people back home are protesting to hell and back. Nobody cares if a soldier's crazy. He can point a gun and pull a trigger, and make sure it's one of them and not one of us he's shooting. That's good enough to keep him here. Murdock...he's young. He still flies like the laws of physics don't apply to him, and he still gets guys home no matter where he's gotta get them from. No way he's going home. No way any of those shits who laugh about him over beers is going to refuse a ride from HM Murdock, nuts or not."
Which just figured, really. Murdock could still do the things war needed him to do. It was everything else - absolutely everything - that he was struggling with. That, apparently, was fine with command.
Of course Face didn't argue much about it. He got scared sometimes - for Murdock, never of him. But he didn't want Murdock sent home any more than command did.
He just wanted his Murdock back.
Face wasn't sure how Hannibal knew they were losing. Vietnam had always been a big mess that seemed futile. But the next few months saw more and more men dying. It saw things getting more tense around the base.
It hit home with Face that things were truly fucked when the chaos made it even into the barracks of Smith's a-team. When Ray was hit, bad, during a mission gone snafu from, of course, bad intel. He was sent home, nobody was found to replace him.
The team fragmented. Murdock's nightmares didn't ease, not for a night, and the exhaustion that came from being woken up every single night by the sounds of the camp wore them all down. BA snapped at Murdock. Face stopped going to his bunk in the dark.
Hannibal was getting reckless in their missions. BA was getting wound tighter every day.
Face wasn't having any fun anymore.
Maybe not a big complaint in the big scheme of things, but his business was getting picked up by a few new requisitions guys, his evenings with the nurses, or the whores, were growing further apart. He didn't grin anymore, unless he was conning someone.
Nobody was all there anymore. Murdock still got his comic books and told stories and sang songs, but the fun had a desperate edge. They watched with sad eyes now, instead of taking the diversion as something to smile about.
And they didn't talk.
Murdock and Face. When they shared beers things were quiet, or loud and out there. Never those long, intricate talks they used to have, swirling around their childhoods and beliefs and hopes. No more of anything with any substance to it.
He missed it, and he hated the country more and more for taking it away from him. They'd brought back those two Murdocks, and neither of them was the right one.
The words came as a whisper, stark and horrified.
Face looked back, surprised. "What?"
BA was staring at the chopper. His skin was grey-tinged, his eyes wide. "Can't do it."
"Shit." Face went back to him, grabbing his arm. "Not like we're being given a choice here, BA. Come on."
"No." BA didn't move. Face couldn't budge him. "They said there's hotspots on the way. That crazy fool's flying. I can't do this."
"Jesus. What are you gonna do? Refuse and get thrown in the brig? Don't be stupid."
BA turned to him, urgent. "I'm telling you, man, I can't move. I can't even get close."
Face drew a breath, looking back at the chopper. Hannibal wasn't there yet, and Murdock sat at the controls running down his list. This wasn't an issue. Yet.
He faced BA. "Look, I know you hate this. But you have to do it. Easy as that. We've got a mission, and this is actually a war we're right in the middle of. No choice."
BA shook his head. "Talk all you want. I'm thinking the same things, but it ain't making my body move."
Face shifted his pack, thinking fast. Fear wasn't something you could con a person out of. Not when it was real. Not when anything Face could say BA already knew was a lie.
Face turned to Hannibal, shook his head, jogged towards the chopper. Let BA and Hannibal have this out. Face considered them friends - even Hannibal, to a point. But sometimes he had to sit back and play soldier and let the chain of command work.
He tossed his gear on and climbed up, moving to the front. "How you feeling about this flight, anyway?"
Murdock glanced back, grinning, eyes wild. "Me? Feel great, same as always."
Face glanced past him out the shield at Hannibal and BA, standing right where he'd left them.
Murdock followed his eyes. "Something wrong?"
BA and Hannibal approached.
Face sighed. "Nope."
A minute later Murdock peeled off the headset and jumped down. "Something wrong, muchachos?"
Face followed a minute later. Hell, it was down to the four of them. Had to stick together.
BA watched Murdock, his eyes huge. "Not flying with him. I'm not flying, Hannibal."
Face winced. That was command voice. Hannibal didn't use it often.
"We don't leave men behind. Not here, not out there. You get on or we all get thrown in the brig for disobeying orders."
"Come on, big guy. What's wrong with..." Murdock cocked his head, studied BA, and fell silent suddenly.
"I don't care what we have to do. I can't fly. Not that way. Not with him."
Face spoke, sharp enough to surprise everyone. "What's that supposed to mean?"
BA swung his eyes to Face.
Murdock answered. "We're going near the place we got shot down before."
Face almost asked which time. Then he knew. "Shit."
BA swallowed. "We gonna fall again. Same place, same pilot."
"Jesus." Murdock stared at him, pale. "You been blaming me this whole time."
"We're not getting into this right now." Command Voice was still speaking through Hannibal. "We're soldiers, we have a mission. Let's go, Sergeant."
"Sergeant, let's go or I'll damn well coldcock you and drag you on that bird myself."
BA looked at them, one by one. Face winced when those eyes got to him. BA looked like they'd betrayed him. Him, the guy who always had everyone's back. Big, sweet, scary fucking BA.
He looked away. It wasn't like they had a choice.
BA moved slowly, like he was battling himself every inch of the way. He made it to the chopper.
He and Murdock never looked at each other the same way after that.
"You ever heard of a grim?"
Face looked out into the darkness. "Grim?"
"You know. It's all over mythology. Big black dogs. Story changes from place to place, but they're…you know, death dogs."
"Death dogs." Face propped his head up on his hand, looking out at the shadows where Murdock lay.
"You see one, it means you're gonna die. The devil sends them to people whose souls are going his way."
Face sat up, hearing something in Murdock's voice that made his blood go cold. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I've got one."
"Murdock. Make sense."
He heard the sounds of Murdock sitting up. When Murdock spoke, a moment later, that same darkness was in his voice. "I saw him in the camps. When they took me away from you. He ain't as big as you'd think, but he's black. And he goes everywhere. Following. Watching me."
"Are you telling me you're seeing dogs everywhere?" He kept his voice down, though by the sounds of BA's snores he was buried pretty deep under sleep.
"Just one." Murdock's voice shook.
Face stood up, throwing the thin cover to the side. He went the step over to Murdock's bunk and sat down uncertainly. "Murdock."
"I know. Kinda crazy, huh?" Murdock sat against the wall, holding his pillow to his chest. Bright moon and clear skies that night, or else Face wouldn't have been able to see him even so close.
Still, it cast everything in flat pale light that didn't exactly warm his heart. "You being serious here?"
"Yeah." Murdock leaned in, pillow tight in his arms. His eyes were shadowed. "I thought it meant I'd die in the camp. Which, you know, I figured anyway. Then I was in a hospital, and he was sitting right there, watching me. I felt better, but still. Infection, shock, whatever, I could've still died. But I made it back here. And he came with me. He follows me, but I don't die. I mean, what's he waiting on?"
"Maybe he's not a grim," Face suggested, helpless for an answer. Dogs. Jesus.
"He is a little small. But...what else could he be?"
Nobody cared if Murdock was crazy, he reminded himself. Hannibal worried, but not enough to take a pilot from the war. BA was starting to really, actually hate Murdock, unable to separate the man from his job.
Nope. Face was on his own. His best friend, his problem.
But he didn't know how to handle problems. Not real ones.
He thought about the little guidance he'd ever gotten in his life - the nuns, Father Magill. Hannibal.
He spoke slowly. "So back at the orphanage, sometimes I'd go days without sleeping. I mean, this was back when I was really young. I hardly remember it. And the nuns got mad about it, like I was doing it on purpose. But one of them, Sister Mary Morgan, she sat me down one day after I fell asleep in her class. She asked what was wrong. I said I didn't know. Just that at night everything was dark and quiet and there were all those boys in the room with me, and I didn't know them. I was scared. But when she asked what I was scared of, I didn't know."
Murdock didn't speak, just watched him.
Face smiled through the darkness. "She told me to think about it that night, really hard. She said everybody got scared, and a lot of times it didn't make sense. And to fight it, you had to put a name to it. Had to figure out just what it was you were scared of. Because when you know something, you can beat it."
Murdock studied him. "You're saying I gotta put a name to this thing?"
"Yeah. I mean...Murdock. There's no dog here. You know that."
Murdock's eyes shifted, looking to a spot on the floor in a way that gave Face chills. "No dog," he said, voice thin.
"Right." Face cleared his throat. "That means it's something else. And you have to put a name to it so you can figure it out."
Murdock nodded. "Okay."
Face made to stand, but hesitated. He'd stopped coming over every night, when it became apparent a little care wasn't making a dent in Murdock's nightmares. But he still lay there, awake, listening to him scream and twist and sob.
Murdock hesitated. "Sometimes," he said slowly, "all of the sudden I realize I can't remember the last few hours. I'll get stuck on something...like that..." His eyes shifted again. "That dog in my head, or the sound of a chopper coming in. Then I'll blink and we're flying out, or eating, and I don't know where I went."
Face silently said a vehement, sincere prayer for God to damn to hell every fucking VC in Vietnam. "Anybody'd be a little nuts, you know. I mean, going through everything we went through. You especially."
"That ain't an excuse," Murdock said. "Everyone else could handle it. Guys been in camps for a whole lot longer than us came out with all their marbles. I ain't...I never thought I was weak, anyway. I know I never could handle the..." He waved a hand in the direction of the door. The outside. Vietnam itself. "The shit, you know. Not well. But being this bad, for just a few weeks in a hole in the ground..."
Face swallowed. But they were talking about it, and Murdock hadn't before. "They had you there the whole time?"
Murdock nodded. "When I wasn't...you know. With them." He shrugged, looking away with lost, round eyes. "When I dream, it isn't of any of that, though. It's just a lot of images, you know? Quick. Things I can't stop."
Face kept quiet. Murdock talked during those dreams, and what he said sure as hell sounded like he as reliving whole chunks of torture. But if Murdock didn't remember Face sure as hell wasn't going to remind him. "Look. Murdock."
He hesitated. He was too young to talk about this shit. He wasn't a shrink. He was barely old enough to fucking drink.
But he was what Murdock had. For whatever reason, Murdock didn't talk to anyone else. And Face didn't want him to have to, so things were how they were.
He sighed. "You think you're handling this worse than everyone else, but that's bullshit. You know how many guys got section eights and went home? You remember Jackson? First Louie from the Eighteenth? He used to give you hell?"
"He came back from a firefight in some village scared of guns. Imagine that. In the middle of Vietnam, he'd start screaming when he saw a gun. Got shipped back real quick. Look at BA, how we have to practically fight him onto a chopper. And hell. Even the ones who're acting like they don't care are fucked up. I am. I think everyone is. I think we're gonna go home and a lot of these guys are gonna blow their own brains out when they realize they can't handle things."
"Jesus, Facey." Murdock spoke quietly, like he was trying to be more shocked by that idea than he really was.
Face shrugged. "So you came out of the camp with a spotty memory and a new pet. So what? You're still you. Still the best pilot this base has ever seen."
Murdock smiled faintly.
"You're still my best friend." Face's voice had gone stern somewhere in there. "And you're still nuts. I don't see what you're so worried about."
There was a pause. Murdock shifted a bit, easing his death grip on the pillow.
Murdock spoke with that same small smile. "Sometimes I don't know what I'm worried about either." He drew in a breath and whooshed it out. "Man. Think I'd be really nuts without you around, Facey."
"Well. You don't have to worry about that." Face grinned then. His conman grin, cocky and charming, and since they both knew Murdock saw right through that he knew the meaning behind it would be clear. "We're a team. Nobody's splitting us up. Hannibal'd never allow it."
Murdock nodded. "Right. Yeah."
Face looked up, grinned at the long-dead leaves still dangling from the top bunk. "So what was it this year? Mistletoe or holly?"
Murdock shrugged. "I wasn't here, remember? You put it up, so it was your call."
Face hesitated. Murdock was nuts, and Face was more than a little gone, and though he was no shrink he sure as hell knew messing with emotions was a bad idea right then.
But fuck it. Bullets and VC and choppers going down. Life was too short to wait for the right timing.
"So what if I wanted it to be mistletoe?"
Murdock just grinned. "You telling me you let some pretty girl sleep in my bunk while I was gone?"
"That," Face declared with an offended little sniffle, "is not what I meant."
Murdock tilted his head a bit. "So what did you mean?"
Face met his eyes.
Murdock's expression changed sharply. He drew in a breath, his eyes wide with something besides fear. He swallowed so hard Face could hear it. "Wrong time to pull a con, Faceman."
"Am I conning?" Face wasn't worried. Murdock always knew.
"No. Maybe yourself, though, huh? Maybe I can't tell then."
"I'm not conning myself. I'm..." Face shrugged. Had to be honest. Even if he wasn't talking to a guy who was somewhat unstable mentally, he was talking to his best friend. The only person in the world he felt like he wanted to be honest with. "I don't know what I am. I know I keep thinking about mistletoe. And when you were gone...things were dim. I don't want that. I want...something."
"Something?" Murdock sounded clear suddenly, aware and lucid. "You better be more specific than 'something'."
"I would be if I knew. I want a lot." Face sighed. "I can talk any woman in the world into believing I love her. I don't know how to talk about the real thing. And wait. No. I'm not saying love. I mean, you know I love you." Jesus, he was rambling. "You're my best friend. But the idea of being more..."
He smiled. Unsure and on uneven ground, but things were always like that around Murdock. He was starting to like the feeling.
Maybe it was their own personal version of the jazz.
He shook that thought away. Best get things out. "That's a good idea," he finished with a sheepish grin. "Can't say it any better."
"Don't have to." Murdock stared at him.
Face grinned more sincerely. "So? What do you think? Holly or mistletoe?"
Murdock laughed. "You chose already."
The sound of laughter took Face by surprise. It wasn't until he heard it, that very moment, that he realized that no matter which Murdock was with him, he hadn't heard him laugh. Not since the camps. Not until right then.
Murdock lit up suddenly. "I'm gonna name him Billy."
Random, but Face was used to that. "What? Who?"
Murdock nodded to the floor. "The dog. You said put a name to it. So I did."
Face gaped at him, then laughed. "Jesus, Murdock. That's not what I meant."
"You know...I don't think he's black at all. Maybe he's really dark brown. Bet he is. I just have to see him when the sun's out."
Face glanced at the floor, just to be sure, then back at Murdock. He saw the glow in those brown eyes and relaxed. Somehow he'd done right by Murdock. That night, if no other time, he'd done the right things. And made it better, if only a little.
He saw the smile then, the one he'd decided a long time ago was the best thing about Vietnam.
He returned it. "I like it. Billy. Now can we talk about this confession of mine, or you want me to go back to sleep?"
Murdock beamed, reached for him. Took his hand.
"Damn it! Damn it, damn it." Hannibal shoved Face ahead, driving through the brush after him. Bullets smacked overhead, coming from exactly the direction they needed to go to get to the LZ.
Fucking sneaky gooks, coming up on them from ahead. Must have figured out there were only a couple of places on that tree dense hill that a chopper could land.
BA was hurting, useless with his gun hand bloodied and limp. Hannibal was too pissed to think things through, and Face just wanted to get back to the damned base.
Gunfire blasted, voices shouted.
They hugged the trees where they were, panting and waiting.
Then the voices rose and dropped off, and the shooting blasted.
But no bullets came their way.
Face and Hannibal shared a quick glance. What was the chance something spooked the VC patrol into turning away?
"Murdock." Hannibal said it as Face thought it. "I knew the chopper was low enough that he'd see what was happening. Shit."
Face smiled tightly, gripping his gun in one hand, helping BA get up with the other. "You're the one who made sure he stayed trained up for ground fighting."
BA shook his arm off, face pinched. But he hefted his rifle in his left hand and nodded them ahead. "Better go save him from himself."
When they had plowed through the patrol - easy work when they were facing the other way - they met up with their pale and breathless pilot on the other side of the fight.
"Captain. Good of you to join us." Hannibal slapped the radio into his hands, grabbed his rifle to replace the nearly empty one he had. "Let's go!"
Face couldn't help but notice that before Murdock obeyed their CO, he gave a worried look to BA. And a loaded, dark-eyed glance at Face.
Face bared his teeth in a quick grin as he took BA's pack up to let the big man move easier.
Only after Murdock saw that adrenaline-sharpened grin did he obey Hannibal's order.
"BA's out tinkering with the jeeps."
"Yeah. He sure is."
"Hannibal's getting briefed on some insane mission Morrison wants to send us on."
"Means it's just us, huh?"
Murdock, face buried in his comic, didn't notice.
Face rolled his eyes, moving to Murdock's bunk and sitting down heavily.
Murdock jostled over, but kept reading.
"So. Time to ourselves."
"Think we've established that, Facey."
Face growled, tugged the browned and crumbling leaves off Murdock's bunk. He held them over Murdock's head, wagging back and forth. "So?"
Murdock didn't even look. "Hmm?"
He dropped the leaves. They hit the comic pages with a papery crinkle.
Murdock kept reading. "You trying to tell me something?"
"I'm trying to ram it down your throat, Murdock. Come on." Face felt his skin warming. "You know I don't know what the hell I'm doing here."
Murdock looked up, brown eyes lit with amusement. "I've heard enough details from enough nurses to know that sure ain't true."
"But those were girls," Face said, his infinite patience wearing thin.
"So? Does that mean throwing dead plants at them wasn't part of your technique? Because, I gotta say, Face. Sexy."
"Shut up." Face was definitely red by then. He couldn't help it. He'd talked himself into wanting to try something with Murdock, talked Murdock into believing it, and since then...nothing. No time and chance to try anything out. Just a lot of grins and words and...hell, it was the same it always had been.
Which was good, of course. Face liked how things were. But he wanted to get off, too.
Murdock set the comic aside. "Well well well." His eyes scanned Face.
"Look at this. My Faceboy wants to become a Faceman."
He laughed. "Well, why not? We don't get left alone much anymore. Who knows when we'll get another chance?"
"You romantic bastard. In the middle of barracks and everything? When you know Hannibal will be in once he's done with Morrison? And BA will be back grumbling and covered in motor oil?"
"Stop asking questions. I thought you were the crazy one. Why do you care?"
Murdock thought about that. "I don't know. Maybe 'cause you're so cute when you squirm."
Face rolled his eyes, fixing his face into a glare.
But Murdock's hands were on his arms before he could realize the look, and he was being tugged forward.
For a moment they just sat, right on top of each other, no different than a hundred times sitting together in the dark fending off nightmares.
But there was daylight shining in, and lights overhead. And Murdock's eyes were happy, twinkling with the same wide-eyed, kid in a toy shop kind of joy he'd had over a year ago when they first met.
Murdock reached between them, sliding fingers past Face's ear, through the short spikes of his hair. "I miss you being all blond and shaggy."
Face grinned, though the brush of calloused fingertips made him tingle. "I wasn't shaggy. Shaggy's against regs."
Murdock chuckled. "Since when do you care about regs? Since when would anyone on base dare write up one of Hannibal Smith's guys for something like needing a hair cut?"
Face grinned back, reaching out with a nervous hand to touch the fuzz of Murdock's dark hair. "Know what you mean, though. We look like a couple of FNGs."
Murdock's eyes stayed on him, heavy and brown and smiling. "You sure about this whole thing? You know...I'm not really here a lot. I mean...I come and go. It's better now, but..."
Face grinned. "But what? Billy's still around?"
Murdock laughed, nodding behind the bed. "He sleeps over there. I think BA's snoring keeps him up."
"I don't mind Billy. I don't mind you being nuts. If I did, come on. Would we ever have become friends in the first place?"
"Got a point there." Murdock's hand curved down to the back of his neck.
Face held his breath, eyes scanning Murdock's face. His eyes, so lucid and there. His mouth.
A moment later he laughed. "Jesus, I really am acting like some scared virgin. Get over here." He grabbed the back of Murdock's head, pulling him in.
Murdock's laugh was caught by Face's mouth, swallowed down between them.
Rougher than a woman, no surprise there. More forceful. Warmer. Hotter. Nuclear.
Murdock tasted like the chocolate Face had brought in a few days ago for some of the pilots - and shared with his team. And wasn't that appropriate? Murdock had always brought a note of fun, and youth, and carelessness. Chocolate was just right.
Everything was just right.
"There they are now. Cream of the fucking crop. Model fucking soldiers."
Face looked up, too tired to hide the fact that he knew he was being talked about.
BA and Murdock sat, just as slumped and quiet, across from him. BA glanced over his shoulder. Murdock didn't bother.
Face recognized the sergeant who was sneering at them. Pale and thin in that way that said he was at the camps. Their camp? Maybe. His two buddies at the bar hadn't been so lucky judging by their pink cheeks and full heads of hair.
"Smith's a-team. And that's all of 'em, right there."
"Jesus. They sure as shit don't look like much."
Face sighed, looking away. He wondered suddenly what it was about war that made men so fucking profane. He sure as hell used words he'd have never used back in the world, and on a regular basis.
Regular fucking basis.
He smiled to himself dryly.
"The pretty little girl is Peck. Bad Attitude's their pet negro."
The table collectively tensed. Face watched BA's hand squeeze around his glass of milk.
"And of course Murdock the retarded pilot."
Murdock flashed an ironic smirk. "That's a new one." He said it so only they could hear.
Face snorted, and even BA relaxed a little.
They knew something was coming - they were tired, yeah, but no one called them out in public without something going down. It was just a matter of whether this guy kept running his mouth, or whether they left things quietly and Face, Murdock, and BA found them outside.
"I hear Mad Murdock's flying us out tomorrow. Gonna see if he can't get more of us killed."
Murdock's smile vanished. He looked back at them.
The grunts looked right back at him. "Wonder if he don't want to thin out the company even more."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
They ignored the question. The speaker turned to his pals, now that he knew they had their victims' attention. "You guys know how Maury went, don't you?"
Face felt his spine stiffen. His face went cold. "Whatever point you're getting to, you'd better do it away from us."
"That's why. That's exactly fucking why. Because that fucking idiot pilot and his friends fucking tormented him."
Face jumped out of his seat, barely feeling BA's hand latching onto his wrist. "Maury is a traitor."
The grunts tensed.
The club fell deadly silent. The few guys around the bar looked around with sharp eyes. Traitor was a hell of a word to throw around.
But what Maury did deserved it. Face wouldn't ever stop thinking that.
The guy speaking, red-haired and red-faced, stepped forward. His friends stayed close behind him.
If they wanted a showdown, this was one Face had been waiting for.
"How about it, Murdock? You want to finish the job?"
Murdock stood up slowly.
Ginger-hair looked him up and down. "Speak up, fucking retard. Space case. You ain't flying us tomorrow, you hear me? If I gotta put you in the med tent myself, you ain't flying us."
Face scowled. "Shut the hell up, man. We're ready to do this when you're ready to stop singing."
Ginger glowered at him. "He killed a friend of mine, fucker. I don't got to sing anything but that."
Murdock spoke, stepping in front of Face. "Maury's dead, huh? He was a singer too, you know, Facey?"
Face kept his eyes on the grunts. "Yeah, I know. Liked to sing songs to guys in black pajamas."
"Exactly." Murdock's voice was light, pleasant. He might have been showing off a train set. "You know, from what I hear guys around here don't like singers. Way I hear it, Maury's lucky he made it back alive at all."
"You fucking pricks. Maury's dead."
Murdock shrugged. "And I'm alive. But he wanted things to go the other way, huh? So you're here to finish the job. Even though he sang his pretty songs, and if anyone else did that you'd have killed 'em yourselves?"
"Fuck you, Murdock. Maybe if he'd died because of a real soldier we wouldn't care. Maybe if he didn't off himself because of a crazy pilot no one fucking trusts. You ain't worth him, flyboy. You're insane."
Murdock laughed. It had an edge to it, but Face knew it could have a lot more of an edge.
Face wanted more edge. Nobody threw around that kind of talk about Murdock. Nobody.
BA's hand was still on his wrist. He looked over and saw the big guy sitting back down.
BA tugged him back to his chair. "Let crazy man handle himself."
Face glowered at him. "Just because you don't care any..." He stopped, though, because BA's eyebrows were raised and his eyes were shielded.
Face managed to not let his anger at the grunts unleash on BA. He drew in a breath and turned back to see what was happening.
Murdock stood where he was, hands in his pockets, casual. "Maury's songs were pretty ugly, but I think yours are just as bad. Come on, sarge. I'm just chock full of things you could pick at. I play with toys, I sing songs. There's so much to choose from. You can do better than 'insane'."
Face grinned at that, sharp and fierce. Murdock was still his Murdock, still the one who grinned. But he would fight back, the way Murdock fought best.
"You want to kick the shit out of me. That's what's going on here, right?"
"You nutso little prick."
"The mistake you made's starting with words. You shoulda just come over and dumped a beer on my head or something. Now I feel like this is a battle of wits, and I feel like if I took you on it'd be the same as beating up on a three year old."
Face glanced over, noticed the door opening and closing.
The Club had seen its share of fights. Guys usually took off to keep from getting blamed for anything, to keep from having to talk to the MPs. But this time there was a little gathering by the door, and people kept coming.
Obviously this was an issue more than a few grunts knew about.
He glanced at BA, saw his eyes on the door. It might end up them fighting half the base, if these grunts were all pals of Maury.
Face grinned to himself. Let them come.
"The fuck are you talking about, retard?"
Murdock sounded like he was grinning. "I'm calling you a mental toddler, genius."
"Come on, Murdock. Outside, if you wanna go."
"It bothers me that you don't get what I'm saying here." Murdock sighed. "You think I'm going to get so pissed at being called a retard that I let my pals get in trouble beating your sorry ass into the ground?"
There was a stir by the door.
Ginger noticed, straightening when he became aware that they had collected a crowd.
Face sat back, feeling a new, strange confidence. Maury couldn't have that many friends, and those grunts at the door had laughed at what Murdock said.
Murdock glanced back, and Face grinned at the look on his face.
There was the old him, right there. Coming up to take over for the two guys Okinawa had sent back to him.
"Hey, crazy. You think this is a game? A friend of mine, a good soldier, is dead because of you."
Murdock turned back. "Your trouble is you lack imagination. Crazy. Insane. Retard. I mean, come on. Even if we don't take into account your lack of verbal skills, you're coming at me like being crazy is a bad thing. This here's a fundamental flaw in your attack. I mean, I could easily counter with a classical quotation or two about how no soul is exempt from a touch of madness. Aristotle, I think, said that. Heard of him?"
"Could you shut the fuck up and--"
"I could come up a bit. More modern? Mark Twain, maybe. He said people were all mad. Oliver Holmes? Insanity is the logic of an accurate mind over tasked. You understand I'm paraphrasing here."
Face glanced at BA, eyebrows raised, grinning.
BA shrugged, biting back his own smile.
"Here's one you should relate to - drunkenness is voluntary insanity." Murdock gestured at the bar behind, the beer bottles waiting for Ginger and his pals. "You're trying to be more like me? Better keep drinking. Insanity's fun, and you fuckers sure ain't fun yet."
He had the eyes of the crowd on him, and he knew it. For all that Murdock didn't make friends easily, he seemed to like being the center of attention when the ball was in his court to play. "'There is pleasure in being mad which none but madmen know.' That was...well, hell. 17th century somebody. 'I am but mad north-northwest.' Know that one? Should be easy. The same guy wrote that people who witness grief they don't understand will fetter madness in a silken thread. Which means, if you can't figure it out, that you should shut the fuck up about shit you never went through."
Ginger was going red at the ears. He'd lost all forward momentum and Face chuckled to realise he had no idea how it happened. Murdock would've made a good conman.
"How about poetry? 'A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for a king.' That's one of the girls. Dickinson, I think."
Murdock reached back, grabbed his beer, took a swallow. Thoughtful. "I'm running low here. I mean, if this was any kind of real fight you'd jump in with one of those old-timey hellfire quotes about how madness is how God first strikes out at those he's damned. But then I'm not really a religious guy. I wouldn't be that hurt. I'd come back with some Latin, maybe, since we're going old-timey. How about 'nimirum insanus paucis videatur, eo quod maxima pars hominum morbo jactatur eodem.' Of course, you'd just need that translated and you'd be too proud to ask, and things would go downhill fast, I think.
"What about we try a language you might have a shot at? 'Di voi but mac ao ca sa, di voi ma mac ao giay.'" Murdock glanced towards the door. Some of the men were muttering at the perfectly accented Vietnamese. "That's an old saying round these parts. He who keeps company with wolves will learn to howl." The last word twisted into an actual howl, loud and high.
Face laughed, amazed. Some of the guys by the door gave Murdock some high signs for that.
He looked back at his silent opponent. "They got another one I think's appropriate. 'Dung boi rac len ma ngui.' Loosely translated, it means you shouldn't trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. That's good advice, muchacho. And let me give you some more."
He moved in, stopping with a couple of feet between him and the sergeant. "You shouldn't come into bars picking fights with madmen. We never go down the way you think we're going to. We rarely go down at all."
Ginger stepped forward.
Face didn't move until his friends stepped with him. He and BA were out of their seats in a flash.
Ginger saw them. He held up a hand, holding his boys back. His eyes went back to Murdock. "You think this is a game. You think--"
"Maury was a traitor." Murdock spoke low, clipped and serious. "If he wanted them to leave him alone so bad he shoulda lied to 'em the way the rest of us did. Fuck Maury. And fuck you. Every one of us who ever sat in one of those cages and got beat by canes and tied in those fucking rope traps, thrown down holes, left to rot, to fucking die, every one of us deserves better than what he did. It ain't about me. It's about all of us. You'd know that if you weren't a drunk shit looking to pick a fight on someone you thought was a weak target. You come into our club on our base and bring him in with you? You think anyone here gives a shit about what you have to say? I could take you up on it, you know. Offer to meet you outside. But you see those guys at the door? They all know someone been to the camps. They all had friends there. Some of 'em haven't made it back. You think they'll let you walk out? Let you wail on me because your pal spilled his guts and then killed himself because of it?"
Ginger's eyes were flickering, to the door and back to Murdock. Aware of the crowd in a new way.
"Tell you what." Murdock's voice lowered. "You turn around right now. Sit down. Finish your beer. Hell, drink a toast to that friend of yours, who he was before he got his ass caught, anyway. Then turn around and walk out of here. Get yourselves a new pilot tomorrow if you want. But if you ever show up around me mentioning that name again, I'm gonna jump all over your ass until you can't even remember that single-syllable vocabulary of yours. You got me?"
Too low. Too hard. That was the second Murdock, jumping in.
Ginger sensed it, too. He flashed a glare behind him, then at the table where Face and BA sat. He turned. His friends turned with him.
They went to the bar.
Murdock nodded towards the door, a little bow to his crowd.
Grins and thumbs in the air came back, and half the guys there took off outside again. No doubt rushing to tell people about Mad Murdock's scene at the club.
Murdock came back to the table and dropped, grabbing his beer.
Face just stared, waiting.
He drank, then wiped his mouth. The hardness drained away, and it was the old Murdock again. Mischief in his eyes, and a quirk to his mouth.
When he couldn't take it, Face reached over, punched him in the arm. "What the hell was all that?"
Visibly stifling a grin, Murdock shrugged. "'For ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.'"
BA went ahead, still shaking his head and grousing that the crazy man'd done nothing but stir the shit deeper. His tone was softer than usual when talking about Murdock, though.
Face heard that, and thought maybe BA didn't hate their pilot after all. Maybe he blamed him for shit he shouldn't blame him for, but BA was a smart guy. He'd figure out whose fault it all was eventually.
But Face was way too distracted to think about it for long. He headed back across the base by Murdock's side. The night air felt cooler than usual, though that might have been because he wasn't flushed with as much alcohol as usual.
He kept giving sidelong glances to the man walking beside him.
Seemed strange to think about, but he'd never regarded Murdock as a particularly strong person. He never thought of him as weak, but when it came to himself Murdock had always sat back and taken blows rather than get involved in a brawl.
He knew Murdock had a temper. He knew he had pride. He even knew, thanks to tiny hints here and there when he wasn't on his guard, that Murdock was a lot smarter than most people thought.
But that night had caught him off guard. Maybe because since he'd come back from the hospital Murdock had seemed so...unsteady. He'd been those two versions of himself, and neither, even the cold-eyed Murdock who landed in the hot spots and screamed at night, seemed like they could take a hard blow.
The man walking beside him was different. A little of both of those two - closer to the man Face had first met than either of them. Chin up, eyes twinkling. And watching him face down that idiot sergeant and stomp all over him with nothing but his mind - his retard, space case, insane mind...
He laughed suddenly.
Murdock glanced over. "Joke, muchacho?"
Face gripped him by the arm, his chest feeling heated in the cool air. He looked around, saw the brick bulk of the latrine nearby, and headed for it.
Murdock went along, as always, willing to go where Face led. "You gotta take a leak you really only had to say."
Face pushed them past the door in and moved around, skirting to the back of the building. One of the supply closets for the club was attached to the back of the latrine, and Face, being the supply god he was, had the key.
He got the door unlocked, pushed Murdock in, and shut it behind them.
Darkness. But Murdock was warm and his voice was amused. "This was a ploy to get me alone in the dark?"
He was kidding, but Face reached out and gripped his shirt, tugging him in. "Actually, yeah."
"Huh." Amusement was replaced by interest. Murdock stepped in, and they stood pressed together in the narrow aisle of the closet.
"You..." Face slid his hands down, over Murdock's stomach and back up his chest. "You are fucking sexy when you're being a smart ass."
A low chuckle slid the short distance to him. Face just grinned into the dark. He was so awake and aware and relieved that his Murdock was back, he didn't even know what to do first.
Murdock solved that problem for him, his arms coming around and catching Face at the small of the back. Big hands. Long fingers, splaying against his spine. "Too bad I'm not a smart ass more often."
Face shivered happily. "Unless you want us both kicked out of the army, I'd say you'd better not be a smart ass again until the war's over."
"You're talking a big game, Facey. Gonna back it up anytime soon?"
Face was still unsure when it came to being with a guy. He didn't know anymore than he had the first time he kissed Murdock. But that night he had no fear. No doubt, not a shred of self-consciousness. He slid even closer to Murdock, driving his leg between the long shanks of the taller pilot. His hands felt blindly for Murdock's waist and he gripped, fingertips hooked against his waistband. "What'd you have in mind?"
Murdock hissed in a breath. He didn't bother answering.
Somehow in the pitch darkness his mouth managed to come down right on Face's.
Face settled in more than happily. Murdock kissed like he did everything else - unpredictable, enthusiastic. A nibble of Face's lip, a dip of the tongue, eager lips moving to his jaw, to his neck, then back up.
He made out with the restlessness of a teenager, though with a hell of a lot more skill.
Fingers brushed up into Face's cropped hair. Their legs twined together, and when Face felt the odd hardness of an erection pushing against his thigh, he just slid into it. Seized the moment. Got his reward when their bodies lined in just the right way, and heat shot all the way through him.
He groaned, soft and surprised, into Murdock's kiss.
Murdock chuckled, puffs of air against his mouth, and his other hand caught Face at the hip and pulled him in.
Another flaming sizzle. Face broke the kiss to gasp for air, dove back in when he realized he needed those kisses more than that air. Suddenly he was the impatient one. He probed Murdock's mouth, kissed a path down the stubble of chin and jaw. Licked and sucked at his neck.
The blunt edge of a shelf dug into his ass. He grunted, hiked himself up. Threw a leg around Murdock's hip, dragging him closer and closer and closer.
Rough and hectic and not what he was used to. Better than he was used to. Better than he figured a clumsy make-out session in a closet should ever be.
It was right. He knew it. Felt it with every taste, every new sensation. Every sweat-inducing slide of Murdock's erection against his.
He fisted Murdock's shirt and tilted his head back, panting for air as those little shocks of heat caught up with him, rolling over and gathering strength. Little rocks becoming an avalanche.
He could hear Murdock's ragged breath. Felt that warm hand, the one he'd clutched for help so many times, against his back, under his shirt - and when had that happened, and God his skin was hot - stroking up his spine. He arched against it, making little sounds in his throat he didn't recognize.
Murdock's free hand touched his chin, slid up his cheek. "Jesus. Face. You're so..." He cut off with a moan.
A sound Face caused. Face's body. Fuck, it was a heady feeling. He'd made a hundred women scream, and this had those times all beat, no contest.
Murdock's lips found his throat, and Face tilted further back. His hips were moving on their own then, jerky and clumsy. Murdock rolled against him, pushed back, met him jerk for jerk.
When Face felt the wild wave of an eruption coming, he didn't even hesitate. Gave in to it. Heard himself making the same sound over and over - Murdock's name, half-formed and gasped out.
Then it was too much. His eyes slammed shut, his hands seized, and his body pulsed out hard and hot and i hard /i . Braced Murdock to keep on his feet, and his mind shorted out entirely.
When he managed to get a little of himself back, enough to open his eyes and pry his fingernails out of Murdock's shirt, he felt Murdock's slowing breaths against his neck. Felt Murdock shuddering against him.
Felt the dampness in his skivvies, already cooling down.
That would be an issue.
He laughed at that thought. An issue. What was his fixation with being clean compared to what he'd just felt? Not even worth considering, that's what.
After a long moment, Murdock spoke in a breathless murmur. "There you go laughing again. Isn't that what started this whole thing?"
"You complaining?" Face heard the thick waver in his own voice and grinned. He loved it. He loved this. All of it.
Murdock laughed. "Facey...man, I'm doing a lot of things, but complaining ain't one."
The best thing about it - well, besides coming his brains out after how long - was that everything had righted itself. Everything that had been ruined by the camps was repaired. Murdock was better. Face was better.
Better than better.
And he had the feeling, hot and confident and strong, that all they had to do was last a while longer, get through the rest of the idiot war they were stuck in, and things would stay this good.
Maybe even forever.
"Righto, boys. Strap in and get comfortable. We got a long flight ahead."
Face ignored BA, shaking with fear at his right. He looked across at Hannibal. "You realize this is insane."
Hannibal grinned. "It's orders, kid."
"We're going into Hanoi. To rob a bank. Are we special forces or merry men?"
Hannibal laughed, that crackling chuckle of his that they heard so rarely since the camp. "Cutting off VC funds. Come on, Face, this is right up your alley. We're hitting them in the wallets. That's just your style."
"Hey." Face sat back, shaking his head. Still seemed nuts to him, but orders were orders. Anyway, it was different than lurking in jungles, or wearing their feet to nubs on LRRPs. And hell, who didn't want to rob a bank?
"Morrison says if I want to keep being picky about new faces on my team, I can take these unorthodox assignments."
"Still pissed you wouldn't take that idiot private he tried to get rid of?"
"You'd think he'd be smarter than that. Punishing you with unorthodox missions is like punishing a grunt by giving him whiskey."
Face wiped the sweat off his face, grinning as the jeep rolled up. They'd just made it to the base - Murdock hadn't been set to pick them up, so they hoofed it for days in the jungle, loaded down with the money - 10 million piasters. Million. Jesus God, he loved that word.
It hadn't been a fun hike, but now they were set to finish their game of Robin Hood. Robbing the bad guys to give to the good.
Hannibal waved his hand back at BA and Face. "At ease, boys."
The MPs in the jeep unloaded.
Face dropped his pack, groaning as he stretched. Money was one of the best things in the world, but that much was a hell of a lot more heavy and bulky than he'd realized.
He needed a shower, fast, and then a chopper back to their base. Back to his pilot.
"Mind telling me what's going on here?"
He looked up with a jerk at the sound of Hannibal's voice.
The MPs from that jeep were armed. Had their weapons out, pointed towards the three of them.
"Colonel Smith, Lieutenant Peck, Sergeant Baracus. We have orders that you're to be arrested on sight. Take out your weapons and--"
"Excuse me?" Hannibal's voice was hushed.
That was one bad sign. Someone was going to pay hard.
Face wasn't worried, though. Even when Hannibal went along, led them to turn in their weapons and board the jeep. He was pissed, sure, and impatient to get the snafu sorted so he could get back where he belonged.
But he wasn't worried. Arresting them for obeying orders? It'd get cleared up fast. Hannibal would be impressively furious, and there'd be another flurry of rumors for their base to spread around about Smith's wild four-man team.
It'd be fine.
He took a look around, blinking in the sunlight and feeling the unfamiliar dry breeze on his face.
"Move it, Peck."
Shackles clanged as he obeyed, stepping awkwardly down the steps onto the cement of the landing strip.
There was a truck waiting. Big and ugly, fresh-faced MPs lined up around it.
Face paused again, waiting for BA to catch up. Hannibal was last out.
BA clanged and stumbled to him, and they had a moment while the MPs were all focused on the legend himself coming out of the jet.
"You know," BA said quietly, "I had a lot of ideas about what coming home was gonna be like. This wasn't anywhere close."
Face would have patted his arm, but his wrists were weighed down, pinched together, by chains.
So instead he drew in a lungful of American air. Then he headed for the truck before the uptight MPs could order him again.
"Mad Murdock?" Andrews, the MP making rounds that day, was one of the chatty ones. One of the 'who gives a shit if some gooks lost some money' guards who spoke to Hannibal like he was their hero and told them how things were actually going out there.
Face didn't have any patience for them. Used them, sure. Of course. That's what he did. But he usually didn't give much care to what they said. Especially when they listened in on the team's conversations and stuck their noses in.
This time was different. "HM Murdock. You know anything about him?"
"Yessir, Lieutenant. Last I heard they'd dropped the idea of getting him here to testify for ya'll. Guess he's still a little loopy from that crash, 'cause they--"
"Crash?" Face left the bench he'd been sitting at, going to the bars. "What crash?"
"Day after they arrested ya'll. Said he stole a chopper and was headed out towards Saigon to raise some hell, but he got shot down."
"He stole a chopper?" Hannibal, somehow, was grinning.
Face wasn't. "You're sure about that?"
"Yessir. They been keeping updated on him, since he was ya'lls pilot. All I can say for sure is he ain't in any trouble for what ya'll did, and he ain't any help for ya'll either."
BA turned on Hannibal when Andrews sauntered off again. "Why wouldn't they bring him in?" BA asked. "He could tell 'em about the orders."
"He wasn't there when Morrison gave me the orders." Hannibal shrugged. "But he could sure as hell testify that it wasn't our idea. I knew it. This trial is going to be a show. Nothing else."
"BA. The war's done. Everyone knows it, even if no one's making the call yet. There's already too much bad feelings about it. No way we're not going to be made examples of. They're going to sing a song for the papers, lock us up, and throw out the keys."
BA fell silent, shocked.
Hannibal put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. It won't go down that way. No matter what we have to do."
BA nodded dully.
Hannibal's eyes went to Face. "You okay there, kid?"
Face watched them. He shook his head, feeling tight and edgy. "He crashed a chopper, Hannibal. What's that going to do to him? You know how bad he--"
"Would you stop bringing up that crazy fool pilot every damned day?"
"But. The guy said he was still loopy. You don't know--"
"I know he's a world away from here, Face. I know he's still in uniform and he ain't behind bars." BA wheeled, marching to Face. "I get he's your friend, but you gotta open your eyes."
Face frowned, dropping back onto the bench. "I know what's going on, BA. We're fucked. They're going to punish us for Morrison's mistakes. Unless Hannibal can figure out how to get us out. But that doesn't mean I can't worry about..." He stopped, dropping his head back. "God. We're really fucked, aren't we?"
"Yeah, man. That's right. We're the ones in trouble. We're the ones you gotta worry about now."
"Can't believe you guys. I mean, I can't fucking believe it."
"We know, Ray."
"I mean, for God's sake."
"Yeah, Ray. We hear you."
"How the mighty have fucking fallen."
"Ray. Shut up."
Ray just laughed, grinning that same grin Face remembered from the war. His hair was longer, his clothes were civilian, and he used a cane to walk. But Ray was still Ray. He'd been there at the preliminaries, flown all the way from California and voicing his loud opinions about everything until he got kicked out and put on a plane home.
Still Ray. Still one of the team, which meant when they showed up at his place, dirty and pissed off with an entire army looking for them, he took them in without hesitation.
"Couldn't believe those bullshit charges anyway," he'd said, grinning, ushering the three of them in without a bit of surprise that they'd escaped and made it across the country.
His apartment was small, but God knew they had dealt with worse. Hannibal was working out some kind of plan in his brain, and until then they were hiding out.
Ray had a good job with a construction company, and went by the VA at Westwood once a week to get therapy on his leg. Other than that, he hung around and listened to stories about them.
Face would have been glad to see him if his head was together at all. But things had really gone to hell, and in so many ways he couldn't think straight about them all. He was a fugitive - they all were. A criminal. Wanted. Guilty of following orders.
He was alone. Without his best friend, anyway. His grinning, loping bright-eyed sprig of mistletoe.
Running meant no news, no way to find out where Murdock was. Ray could check, but they only told him that Murdock was still in country. No one knew could find out his status.
And Face worried. He worried about Murdock like he'd never worried about anyone but himself. The guy was nuts enough before. Losing his team, crashing another chopper - the crash report had been accurate, but he hadn't been hospitalized, and hadn't that been good news to get sitting in Fort Bragg waiting for a bullshit trial - it would wear on Murdock. And there was no Face there to help.
He'd have nightmares. He'd be put in barracks with the other pilots. They wouldn't know about the mistletoe, or Billy, or his comics.
"Crazy man can handle himself," BA would bark when Face would bring him up. But Face saw the worry in his eyes. Hannibal's, too. Murdock was one of them, and he was on his own. That didn't sit well with any of them.
But they were in no position to do anything about it. Not unless they wanted to turn themselves in, or sneak into Vietnam and track him down.
But even Hannibal wasn't that nuts.
He figured that Face and BA were getting restless, and he worked out a plan to get them out of Ray's apartment and on their own.
"I can get us IDs and apartments, but unless you want to rob another bank we're going to need money somehow." Face didn't really care. Why not rob banks if they were going to be arrested either way?
But Hannibal slapped him on the shoulder and told him not to worry.
And he brought them a skinny guy with a Marine tattoo who wanted to pay money for the three of them to get rid of a punk street gang invading his neighborhood.
Different kind of work than military, but only in small ways. They carried guns and set traps, but Hannibal said no one was to die. And when the smoke cleared, there were grateful families pushing bent twenties into their hands.
Face had wanted to go to the States at the head of parades. Get a job doing...something. Or law school, maybe. Find a beautiful woman who'd swoon at his scars and had a rich daddy.
But that fell to shit.
Fell apart before the bank job, maybe, with Murdock's brown eyes showing up. But Face had never imagined getting home from war to become a different kind of soldier.
Still, it was better than nothing. It was better than jail.
He didn't smile much, and there was this huge empty place he was always aware of.
A street gang in LA turned into a group of roughnecks pushing a family Ray knew out of their land in Nevada. That turned into a job protecting a businessman from death threats.
Things went on, days became weeks and then a couple of months. The war ended. That endless war, over with a whimper. Bunch of self-righteous asses on TV and in the papers talking about how the whole thing was a waste.
Didn't help a guy get less bitter.
He called Ray now and then, hoping to hear news about Murdock. No more war meant soldiers were coming home. But there wasn't anything.
"Guess who's been put in charge of finding us?" Hannibal asked with a grin one day at the end of one of their jobs. "That pissed-off bastard Lynch."
"Colonel Lynch?" Face was impressed despite himself. "Head of Fort Bragg Lynch?"
"Same one. I guess he took our escape personally."
Which added a whole new complication, because Lynch was at Ray's apartment in days, and somehow seemed to know they were staying in LA.
Time passed too slowly, but Face blinked and months of his life were gone. Spent on the run in shitty apartments.
He decided that if this went on longer than a year - and he had to believe it wouldn't - he was going to get his ass back into practice. If he was going to con them homes and backgrounds, he was going to do it in style. Securing a penthouse and a sports car couldn't be harder than getting an apartment and a Cheville.
And he could at least have part of the life he'd wanted for so long.
One day Face realized he hadn't gotten in touch with Ray for a while, and he made the call he'd made a dozen times.
But things were different that day.
"Shit, Face, you guys need a regular phone number! I've been waiting for days to talk to you!"
"What's going on?"
"What do you think?"
He clutched the phone.
Murdock was dreaming again. Every night without fail.
Maybe that was why his dosages had been so high.
Face sat against the headboard, eyes on the ceiling, holding tightly to the shuddering body beside him. He could handle the dreams.
BA and Hannibal could gripe all they wanted, but hospitals weren't right for Murdock. Couldn't be. He belonged with his team, and that's all there ever was to it.
He shushed quietly when Murdock's murmurs started to rise. Maybe cold turkey wasn't the best way to get him off those drugs, but he couldn't have been taking them for long. Sedatives had to feel like poison to someone with Murdock's energy. This was right.
He couldn't get his hands on Murdock's files. Not yet. He and the others were still too fresh on the minds of MPs. Later, maybe, when nobody cared who they were anymore, he could fool the military with a different uniform, a different name.
He'd been pushing it going to the VA, but Lynch himself guarding the door wasn't going to stop him. Not that day. Not after hearing Ray. Section Eight. Permanent resident, mental ward.
Hannibal listened to the news and pulled out a fake beard from God only knew where. Face felt like an idiot talking to the nurses under six inches of bristly horse hair or whatever it was, no one had questioned him.
He'd have done it without the disguises. Worth the risk. No doubt about it.
Murdock's mutterings shut off abruptly.
Face winced and held on. This would go one of two ways.
It went the better way, thankfully. The body in his arms relaxed a little.
Then a voice, low and slurred. "Either that's Facey or the VC like to cuddle."
Face laughed, hollow and quiet. The lucidity never lasted long. "It's me." His grip tightened.
Murdock tilted his head back, looking up crookedly at his face. "Good kind of crazy today."
Face smiled more sincerely. Apparently Murdock was still convinced everything around him was a hallucination. The crazy could go good or bad. Bad was the nightmares.
Good was Face.
He smiled because he remembered that those were the same exact words Murdock spoke to let him know he was alive after being pulled out of a bamboo-covered hole in the ground. It must have been the same then. He must have seen Face down there with him.
The good crazy days.
The simple, striking realization that Murdock survived by picturing scrawny, tow-headed nobody's boy Templeton Peck had made Face latch onto him hard while he drained of the meds.
It made him love Murdock so much he thought maybe he had to be a bit nuts too.
He gathered Murdock's long body closer. "You want to sleep some more?"
"Don't think I have much choice." He already sounded thick.
Face sighed, accepting it. Knowing he might wake up screaming about beetles in his bed or radio waves under his skin. The bad kind of crazy.
Murdock seemed to read his mind. "Sorry, Facey."
"Huh? For what?"
"If I wake up later and I ain't really here. Sorry. I'm trying."
He shut his eyes, let his chin rest on Murdock's hair. "I know, baby."
"Baby?" There was a blunt little chuckle. "Remind me you called me that later, so I can smack you around."
"Face! Shut him up before I do it myself!"
"No! Face, you know I ain't crazy! Billy's always been here. All he wants is some food! Why's that so hard?"
"It's hard because there's no dog here. You always been crazy, Murdock, now you're just..."
"You're crazy. Talking to yourself and playing with dogs that ain't there. Waking us up every night, and thinking you're flying when you're not, and acting like we're still in the jungle. Can't deal with you no more. I can't deal with..."
"Told you not to change the station."
"What you talking about now?"
"When you change the station the reception goes to shit. I told you not to change it. You shouldn't have touched it. Shouldn't have touched anything."
"Face, what is he--"
"Don't! Don't change the station. Don't change the station. Don't change the station."
Behind Murdock, watching, Hannibal spoke. "Face."
And Face knew they'd made the decision without him.
"Not in the mood."
Face glared over at his CO.
Hannibal met his gaze evenly. "You be as pissed off as you want. He belongs in the hospital. He said it himself. The man knows his mind."
"He's part of the team, Hannibal."
"Yeah. Nothing changes that. Give him some time, and who knows? He'll want to leave. You sure as hell know he'll want to fly again. Just give him a little rest."
Face blew out a breath. "He was miserable when I took him back."
"Yeah. Maybe. But he was miserable here too."
Not with me, he wanted to say. To shout. Not with me.
Hannibal's next words kept him quiet, though.
"He was flying CIA missions again."
Face froze. "He told you that?"
Hannibal nodded calmly.
"When? How? I was with him--"
"You were sleeping. I take it he didn't talk to you."
Hannibal stared, brow furrowed.
Face remembered himself. He schooled his expression. He and Murdock were pals. Teammates. Nothing more. Had to stop overreacting.
The con smile rose up and fastened into place. "Guess I'm a little tired. Taking things too seriously. What...what else did he tell you?"
"Spook jobs. Crashes. Things got chaotic in the end." Hannibal shrugged, eyes still driving into him. "What he remembers of it."
"What's that mean?"
"It means he's got a few gaps. More than a few." Hannibal folded his arms over his chest, sitting back. "It means he belongs where he is, and everyone seems to realize it except you."
Face frowned, his eyes skirting away. He didn't answer.
"Eat, lieutenant. We've got a job coming and I need my men in top shape."
When the phone in the cramped hotel room rang that night as he'd insisted, he answered it fast. "Murdock?"
"You got it, Facey."
Wrong tone of voice. Damn it.
Face held the phone close, ignoring Hannibal and BA. "They gave you some pills, huh?"
"Couple. It's okay." He spoke slowly, the drawl more pronounced than usual. "Still mad?"
Face leaned back on the bed, shutting his eyes. "I'll get you out again, when you're ready."
"Might be a little while."
"That's okay. I'll be around."
Murdock's voice was too damned low. Too flat. It was the second side of Murdock coming through. Depressed and without that fiery confidence he'd always had. "Maybe you shouldn't."
Face blinked. He glanced over at BA and Hannibal, but they were nice enough to be glued to the little TV as if they cared what the fuck Lucille Ball was doing. "What? Be around?"
"Dunno how long I'll be. And you...you're out there. Don't wait on me."
"I mean it. It ain't fair for you. And...you know, it's kinda a lot of pressure on me. Ain't like we ever...I mean, even talked about it, really. It's okay. You go work your cons and find some pretty nurses." He laughed then. Hoarse and wrong.
"Come on, Murdock. Don't do that."
"It's okay, Facey. I'm mixed up in the head, and you got too much..." He sighed. "Ain't makin' sense right now. Think I better hang up before the pills really make me loopy."
"You were born loopy," Face said with a small, pained smile. "Call tomorrow. We'll be back in this room." No matter what he had to do to make sure.
There was a pause. "Okay, Facey. Tell Hannibal and the big guy howdy from me."
Face hung up, knowing just by the pause before he answered that Murdock wouldn't call.
He wanted to shout. To throw the phone.
He had such a clear memory of the few moments in his last days in the jungle, those few moments when he knew everything was going to be perfect for the rest of his life.
His ass hiked on a shelf in a supply closet, his lucid, sharp, grinning pilot pressed against him. Panting and laughing and things were supposed to be like that for more than just a few moments.
Things were so far from it now he wanted to cry.
Westwood was a good hospital. But maybe being there felt like being left alone, to live out a life in a six by six room and then die alone.
Maybe Murdock thought that was what was best.
Murdock was a smart guy. But he'd been wrong before.
Face slid through the door, stammering his thanks to the nurse who had led him over. He blinked through round owl glasses at the clipboard he was juggling along with a briefcase, and as the door shut he spoke, still stammering and nasal. "Well. Mr. Murdock, isn't it?"
The door shut, the nurse's shoes squeaked their way down the hall.
Face lowered the clipboard, flashing a grin. "Isn't it?"
Murdock was on his bed, comic book in hand. He had hardly stirred when Face came in. "Whatever, doc."
Face bit back a frown, hearing the medication in his voice. Those doctors needed to find the right dosages before he got pissed off and started making phone calls.
He set his clipboard on the small dresser that was almost the only furnishing in the stark room. "I must say, Mr...ah, Murdock. Right. Mr. Murdock. I don't often get to visit patients as sexy as you."
Murdock mumbled something, then looked up with surprised eyes. "What..."
Face grinned, peeling off his glasses. Still in suit and tie, with hair slicked back, but himself again.
Murdock sat up slowly, mouth twisting in a smile. "Facey! What are you doing here?"
"What do you think? Paying a visit to my best pal." He moved to the bed, plucked the comic from Murdock's hand. "Guess this means the mail works."
"Yeah." Murdock's smile had faded, but his eyes were still bright. Glassy. "That was real nice, sending me those."
"It's almost Christmas." Face set his briefcase down on the mattress near Murdock's feet. "You haven't called."
Murdock's brief happiness flushed out. "I thought..."
"Uh huh. I know you, pal. I know what you thought." Face studied him, soaking in the warm brown eyes, the longer hair. Fuller face. He had gained enough weight back to look human, at least. Medicated or not, he was a really nice sight. "But you're nuts, Murdock. You have to realize that what you think isn't always what's so."
"And you're gonna tell me what's so?"
"You don't have to sound so cynical. I'll have you know I'm certifiably sane."
Murdock sat back, shifting away. His eyes dropped. "Yeah. You're a sane con job, Facey."
Face blinked in surprise. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you wanted to con yourself and me both from the start. You want me to be alright. You always liked me more when I was alright. You never wanted it to matter that I wasn't all there. But it does."
He held up a hand. His eyes were solemn, his face suddenly drawn.
Face didn't care. He studied him anyway, soaked him in. He'd never felt as close to anyone as he did to Murdock. Even before the mistletoe, the kisses in bunks or behind barracks on the base. Before he realized that Murdock used him, his memory, to get him through the camp.
Maybe it started way back with that train set. Or the first insane pickup in a burning hot LZ in the jungle. The first smile, the first laugh.
It didn't matter. All that mattered was that he was where he belonged, with the person he wanted to be with.
He just had to make Murdock realize it.
"Facey. Look at me." Self-deprecating, and Face hated that. It only came with the madness. His Murdock had never thought crazy was a bad thing.
But this Murdock was weighed down, moving slow. Not himself. "I'm locked in a nuthouse and I will be for a long damned time. I'm a worn out flyboy who left half of what little brain he ever had out in the jungle."
Face laughed. "Sure. And I'm a nobody conman who's on the run from the military."
"Naw." Murdock studied him, smiled a little. "You're Face. You're...you can have more. You'll get it, too. I always knew that. Don't matter if you're on the run. You're gonna have it all, Facey. You just gotta realize that's what you want."
"You think I want it all."
"You always did."
Face searched his eyes. "And if I told you all I wanted anymore was you, you'd think it was a con."
"You remember that talk we had once, in the middle of the jungle? When I told you about Father Magill and God?"
Murdock blinked. He shifted until he was sitting up straight with legs curled under him. "Yeah."
"I stopped hearing his voice after Pipe was killed."
Murdock swallowed, but nodded.
Face smiled. "You know when I started hearing him again?"
Murdock's eyes widened. He shook his head. "I didn't know you had."
"Yeah. Day I heard from Ray that you were home, sitting in this hospital waiting for me."
Murdock's eyes dropped.
Face sighed. He grabbed his briefcase and clicked it open. "It's almost Christmas."
"So you said." Murdock sounded far away.
"Brought you something. Some greenery to make the room a bit brighter."
Murdock looked over again, and something in his eyes was smiling. He watched as Face reached into the case and pulled out a fresh, rich green sprig of leaves tied with a red ribbon.
Face held it out.
Murdock took it, and his smile faded. "Holly."
Face met his eyes. "No. Mistletoe."
Murdock tried to look amused. "I ain't that nuts, Facey. I know holly when I--"
"It's your rule. If I put it up I get to pick. And that's mistletoe, Murdock."
Murdock held the sprig of leaves. He looked up, brow furrowed. Searching.
Face smiled, putting all of himself behind his words. Murdock would know it wasn't a con. He always knew. "It's mistletoe. When it's you and me here, always. And not because that's how things really are. I could've brought some real mistletoe. But I want you to know...it doesn't matter if it's leaves from the jungle or real holly or a fake dog or whatever the hell it is. It's mistletoe. My choice, and that's what I choose."
Murdock pulled the leaves close, holding the ribbon in suddenly gentle fingers.
Face leaned in. "Look. You've got to stay here. I know that. And I'm running cons for Hannibal. Fooling the men, seducing the women. Being what he needs me to be. Still your best friend, just like you're mine. We couldn't change that if we wanted to." He reached out, took Murdock's free hand in his. Slid their fingers together. "But the minute you're ready - and there's no pressure, you know. None, 'cause it can take as many years as you want. I 'm not going anywhere. The minute you're ready, you let me know. You say the word, I'm here."
"I..." Murdock swallowed, looking at him with wide, uncertain brown eyes. The old Murdock, young and hopeful. "Why?"
Face grinned. "I don't know. Maybe I'm a little nuts, too. Maybe because my whole life's been a big con, and you're the first honest thing I've had. Does it matter?"
Murdock hesitated. He opened his mouth. Shut it. Looked down at the leaves in his hand.
He laughed suddenly, soft and light. "No. Doesn't matter at all." He freed his hand from Face's, plucked one of the leaves from the sprig. "Here."
Face took it.
"You know. In case...if things ever change, you know. You can give that back. If you don't wanna wait anymore."
Face nodded. He knew how it felt, needing a security line. "Alright. But you realize you're never gonna see this piece of holly again."
Murdock picked up on it, just as Face was hoping he would. He sniffed as if offended. "Holly? What're you, nuts? This is mistletoe."
Face felt himself grin, wide and uncontrollable.
Wide, uncontrollable, Murdock returned it.