Author's Note: Many MANY thanks to all those who reviewed! You kept my plot bunneh happily fed and working and deserve a bucket-load of tasty cookies (with milk this time ;) ).
Without further ado… here's the last chapter!
Chapter 3: Or Not At All
Face felt heavy and drowsy and warm, and he kind of liked it except for the heat-heavy air around him and the pressure in his chest that he knew would've meant pain if he hadn't been drugged up to the gills. He let himself drift for a while, sleeping off and on until he woke feeling more rested and curious to know what crazy plan had landed him in the medic's tent this time. It was an irritating after-effect of the drugs that he didn't remember what had happened to him. It always seemed to work out this way and sometimes the team, especially Murdock, would take advantage of it, weaving outlandish stories about the "incident" that'd caused his newest injury. He was never quite sure if the stories were real or not because, sometimes, Murdock would tell him the truth just to keep him on his toes. More often than not, when Face guessed on their validity or falsehood, he guessed wrong… to the endless amusement of his teammates.
Face closed his eyes and tried to think back, preparing himself for a bounding, energetic Murdock to burst in with Hannibal and B.A. in tow. He remembered crashing in a chopper. Maybe that was it? No… because he'd spoken with Hannibal after that and something had been wrong…. Someone had been….
Bright blue eyes snapped open, staring at the tent ceiling until it came into focus before scanning the rest of the room. There were other soldiers there, being treated for various superficial injuries. He was in the "walk-in clinic" area of the med-tents then, not the smaller back rooms where the most seriously injured men were watched and cared for night and day. A heavy, dragging weight filled his chest. It was the tent at the other end he needed. The darkened tent reserved for fallen friends and a beer shared with no-one beside a makeshift casket. Face sat up and waited for the world to stop spinning before he got to his feet and moved toward the room. Someone had changed his clothes, probably the doctors. It made sense that they'd want to get him out of the shirt and pants that were stained with blood that wasn't his own. That thought hurt and he shook his head, banishing the painful thoughts and focusing on the physical pain instead. His ribs did hurt, not nearly as much as he'd expected, though, and he felt less dizzy but just as lost and hurt as when he'd woken up the first time with Hannibal at his bedside.
No one stopped him from pushing the flap aside and stepping into the dark tent. Face shuddered despite the heat, wrapping his bare arms around his middle, feeling somehow small and exposed in his tan tee and uniform pants. He wandered down the row of cots, ignored or unquestioned by the nurses cleaning and arranging the men killed when a caravan of their jeeps had been bombed unexpectedly. When he reached the end of the row on the left, he started back, checking the faces on the other side. Face expected to see him eventually, expected but wasn't ready to. Never ready to see his brother's face, pale and still under the soft light.
But Murdock wasn't there.
Confused, Face looked again but his friend wasn't among the stiff bodies lining both walls. A lump rose in his throat. Where had they taken him? They hadn't sent him away already, had they? Not without letting his team say goodbye? Face looked up as a familiar form slipped past the hanging tent flap. He swallowed hard and spoke, his voice hoarse and croaky.
"Where is he? Hannibal, where'd they take him?" The soft blue eyes watching him widened and something in them seemed to break, pushing a rarely seen expression of concern and hurt on the weather-worn Colonel's face. Hannibal held out an arm, beckoning Face closer.
"He's not in here, kid. Come on." Face followed and was grateful for the strength and sturdiness of the arm across his shoulders. Hannibal led him back into the clinic then through to the tent on the other side, the "ER" of sorts in their makeshift hospital. The Colonel stopped beside one of the beds and Face looked up. For a moment, he thought maybe Murdock was dead and they'd just run out of room in the other tent. It'd happened before. But then he saw Murdock's chest rise and fall, heard the gentle, even breaths, saw the other man shift slightly on the old cot and something inside him let go, leaving him shaky and light-headed with relief. Hannibal guided him to a chair, speaking softly so as not to wake the sleeping pilot.
"He's going to be fine, Face. We got him here just in time." The Colonel put a hand on his arm and swore softly. "I'm sorry, kid. I just sent Bosco to get some rest. I didn't… think! I didn't think you'd be up so soon or I would've been there." Face reached out and took Murdock's hand, rubbing a thumb along the bandages that covered the burns on his friend's arm.
"It's okay, Boss," he said automatically, not really thinking. Hannibal's hand on his shoulder drew his attention and Face turned to see a dark, stern look in his commander's eyes.
"It's not 'okay', Face. You should've been brought straight here, not left to think... to think he was gone." Face swallowed down the lump in his throat. "I am sorry, Face." He looked it and all Face could do was nod. He'd have to make sure the older man didn't hang onto this and beat himself up over it. For now though, Face was lucky he wasn't sobbing like a teenage girl dumped right before prom night. He turned back to Murdock and let the gentle rise and fall of his best friend's chest calm him as Hannibal continued.
"The doctor came by already. He said that old Arab did a hell of a job patching up our pilot. We owe him quite a lot." Face nodded, taking in a deep shuddering breath.
"How bad was it?"
Hannibal moved his chair to sit side by side with Face, returning his hand to the younger man's shoulder when he was settled.
"The metal went right between his ribs and nicked his lung. He lost a lot of blood, tore our miracle doctor's stitches and had a bad fever before we even got there. On top of that, he was severely dehydrated." Hannibal sighed, rubbing his eyes wearily. "According to the Doctors, you add all that up and you get a seizure…" The Colonel ran a hand through his silver hair and gave Face a tired, but relieved smile. "That and a few more white hairs." Face let out a breathy chuckle, turning back to Murdock. The pilot's fingers were warm against his, the bandages crisp and clean, the IVs hooked up and administering medication and fluids and there wasn't a trace of blood to be seen. Face breathed a sigh of pure relief and let his head drop to rest against the edge of the cot by Murdock's arm.
Face hadn't prayed in a long, long while, but right then, he was thanking God in every tongue he knew.
When Murdock drifted from a sea of drug-induced sleep back to shore, it was to the sound of Face's voice somewhere to his left.
"I told you, Hannibal, I'm fine. I swear, man, if you don't stop blaming yourself for this, I'm going to have to do something about it." Hannibal's voice came back, also to Murdock's left but more toward his feet, amused but still serious.
"Face, it was a stupid mistake-"
"You got that right." Bosco's voice muttered from Murdock's right.
"- but I'm not about to just forget it! It was my fault you thought what you did, even for so little a time and it was my responsibility to be there when you woke up."
"I'm not a three-year-old, Boss." Face's voice was definitely amused. "And you neglected to mention the fact that you hadn't slept at all since the day Pike brought me back here."
"Closin' your eyes for a minute don't count, Hannibal." Murdock felt a flutter of amusement at Bosco's words. The big guy was the only one who could get away with telling off Hannibal and most of the time it was about sleeping… or lack thereof. The Colonel was usually up late making his intricate plans and Murdock often stayed up with him, preferring the company to lying awake in bed with his good buddy Insomnia.
"I'll have you know I'm very good at catching a few winks here and there. As a matter of fact, I was doing just that when you two came in here."
Murdock could almost see Hannibal crossing his arms in a self-satisfied sort of way and it made the amusement in his chest grow. Way to go, Hannibal! Fight the power! Insomniacs unite! Face's voice spoke again, incredulously.
"You… were sleeping? You really expect us to believe that?"
You'd better believe it, Faceyman. That's Hannibal magic for ya.
"No. But it doesn't need your belief to be the truth." Face laughed and Murdock could feel giggles tickling at his throat.
"You're kidding me, right? Hannibal, you were sitting up! Staring at the door! You nearly gave me a heart-attack walking in here!" Bosco was chuckling now too and Murdock wished he'd been there to see Face's expression when he was suddenly faced with an entirely unexpected Hannibal stare.
"Did I?" Murdock imagined Hannibal's mock-confused shrug. "I'm very sorry, Face. I just don't remember…."
"Okay, now you're just being- Holy sh- Murdock!"
Hands grabbed his shoulders and Murdock realized he was laughing, only the sound his hoarse, disused throat was making sounded far more like a choking asthmatic cat and that thought only made him laugh harder. He opened his eyes, blinking and squinting through tears of mirth to find Face sitting on the edge of the cot, facing him not unlike he had back at the chopper, only this time there was no massive bit of metal in his side and Murdock was thankful for that. But his leg felt wet and that was strange. He frowned, giggles fading to just a chuckle or two between breaths and he blinked again, only just noticing the strong arm holding him upright. Bosco. Huh, he really did care. Murdock snickered and Face's concerned frown deepened. Murdock realized he'd been asked a question, something along the lines of "Are you okay?" He coughed a little, cleared his throat and rasped, "Y-Yeah. Um… Face…?"
"Yeah, what is it, bud?" Murdock couldn't keep a wry smile from tugging at his lips.
"Why… Why's my leg bleedin' beer?" Face stared at him for a second then looked down. An instant later, Murdock was cracking up again because Face had leapt off the bed like a cat sprayed with water and snatched up his now mostly empty beer bottle. Hannibal was chuckling too as Face cursed and shook the drops of beer from his hands, looking down at himself only to find a dark stain right on the seat of his pants.
"Aw, sh- Hannibal!" The Colonel was laughing too hard to speak. Instead, he looked up at the irate Lieutenant innocently. "You were behind me! Why didn't you say 'Hey, Face, your beer's spilling all over everything?"
"Sorry, Face…" Hannibal managed between chuckles. "I did-didn't notice." Face turned an incredulous look on B.A. who was also shaking with laughter.
"M-Must'a been asleep."
The world dissolved into laughter and it went on long enough for a medic to come in and order them to "stop riling up the patient, for crying out loud, he's only just out of surgery!" Naturally, they all faked straight faces until the man was out of earshot. As the laughter died down, Murdock began to feel sleepy again. He knew it was because he was recovering but at the same time, memories were stirring and he remembered a promise he'd made. The other stuff was there too, dark and painful stuff about crashing and bleeding, pain and drowning, but it was the promise that stood out and the promise he hung onto.
Bosco gently lowered him down onto the pillow when he saw the pilot's eyes beginning to droop but Murdock protested, squirming weakly.
"No, I don' wan' t'sleep." A hand patted his leg and Hannibal's voice reached his ears.
"It's alright, Captain. You need your rest."
"I can't." He opened his eyes blearily, sleep already fogging his brain. "I promised." Face swam into view overhead, expression apologetic and understanding.
"It's okay, Murdock. We're past that already. You get some sleep." Murdock didn't have the strength left to nod. He just closed his eyes with a happy sigh, letting sleep take him and resting in the comfort of his friends by his side.
Epilogue: A Promise
A week or so of rest and expert care from the doctors saw Murdock up and moving, if a bit gingerly. He was still confined to the clinic area but he was allowed out of bed which thrilled him no end. Of course, that left it up to the team to keep him occupied because a bored Murdock was by far more dangerous than anything else Face could think of at the moment. Thankfully, he had a cure for boredom tucked under his arm and a soda – caffeine free – to coax the pilot away from his new favorite game: Hug Bosco.
Face entered the tent to find the game already pretty far along. Murdock stood by his cot, arms wrapped around Bosco's middle, pinning the bigger man's arms to his sides. B.A. was stiff as a board and looked to be entering the early stages of resignation. There was little he could do to remove the clingy captain without causing the stitches in Murdock's side to pop and there was no way any of them risked that, no matter how peeved they got. Still, Bosco was looking more and more like a volcano waiting to erupt and Murdock's chuckles and goading wasn't helping matters.
"Come on, big guy. Even you gotta admit this is waaay better n'tinkerin' with machines all day long, right? I mean, just imagine the look on that pretty Private Johnson's face if she walked in here right now!" Bosco looked down at the scruffy-haired pilot, shaking his head warningly with his eyebrows raised in an "I won't be responsible for what happens to you" sort of way.
"Don't do that. I mean it, man. You already rackin' up plenty'a beatin's jus' doin' this."
"Awww, really? You're keepin' track?" Murdock gave B.A. a squeeze, unaware or unconcerned by the fists tightening at the bigger man's sides.
"Yeah, I'm keepin' track. An' if you bring her into this, I'm gonna tie your fool arms around your fool neck!" Murdock looked up and frowned disapprovingly.
"That would hurt."
Barely holding back his chuckles, Face approached, holding up the soda and shaking it enticingly.
"Hey, Romeo, why don't you let Juliet there go and come take a look at what I brought you?" Bosco growled but Face's arrival did the trick and Murdock released his captive, bounding over to sit beside Face on the cot. Face winced, holding out a hand to slow the bundle of human energy.
"Whoa, man! Stitches, remember?" Murdock slowed slightly but couldn't seem to help bouncing in place slightly with excitement.
"Whad'ja bring me, Facey? Huh? Huh? Huh?" Bosco shook his head, gathering up his toolbox and the gadgets he'd been working on and heading for the door. He paused to point a finger at Face.
"You give him sugar, you stay up with him. I ain't goin' through anotha' round of 'Find the Camel Spider', got it?" Face shuddered, remembering the game that'd nearly caused Bosco to discharge his pistol in the tent and had caused Face to make a noise (which he insisted to this day had NOT been a scream) which had labeled him "little-girl-scared" according to the proud "Spider Wrangler" Murdock. Camel spiders were big, nasty, ugly things that, in addition to being half a foot long, could also run fast enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them. Nodding and forcing a smile past his dread, Face suddenly wondered if soda was such a good idea. Still… hyper Murdock wasn't as bad as drunk Murdock who tended to decide clothes were optional and spreading the news essential so soda was still a better option than beer. Face passed the soda over and dumped a pile of comic books and crossword puzzles onto the bunk.
"Thought you could use a little entertainment in here," Face explained as Murdock's eyes widened at the sight of the treasures. "Of course why you'd choose these over some of my magazines I just can't figure." Murdock set his soda aside, snatching up one of the crossword puzzle books and flipping to a random page and smirking at Face.
"Says the guy who dies laughin' re-readin' the ones I've finished."
"Okay, now I know you did some of those on purpose."
"Some've what?" Murdock asked innocently, looking around for a pen.
"Capitalizing every other letter… filling in every answer with made up words… or changing the hints to things like 'Lyrics from Pike's favorite song'?" Face was chuckling just thinking about that one. He seriously doubted Pike had ever even heard the My Little Pony theme song and it was only because of Murdock that Face even knew the thing existed. Thinking of Pike though caused a flare of anger in Face's chest and he fell silent, watching Murdock answer "two down" with "temperspatialcushionsite," cramming multiple letters into a box to make it fit. Something had been nagging at the back of Face's mind for a while now and if there was ever going to be a good time to bring it up… it was now.
"What…" Shoot, this was harder than he'd thought. "What did you mean when… when you said what you did in the jeep?" Murdock paused, mid-nonsense word, and turned a quizzical look on Face.
"When I said what?" Face swallowed hard. The green eyes watching him curiously weren't sharp, terrified and hurting like they had when the words had been spoken but that didn't make it any easier for Face to voice them.
"When-" He cleared his throat awkwardly. "When you said that… that you didn't want to go." Something of that pain and fear flashed in Murdock's eyes and he hesitated, then smiled, wide and fake, before he spoke.
"Nothin'. Maybe it was a quote from some movie. It could'a been anything. Hannibal said I had a bad fever, right?"
"Right." Face nodded, unconvinced. "But there was something… there. Something about the way you said it, man. You meant something else, I know you did." Murdock was tapping the paper with the end of his pen now and fidgeting nervously. He flashed a brief smile at Face, not really meeting his eyes.
"'Somethin' 'there', huh? An' they say I'm the one who's crazy."
"Don't kid around with me, Murdock. Not about this." Face made sure his voice was just stern enough to ward off any further jokes. Apologetic green eyes flicked toward him again before fixing on the pen which was now being turned over and over in the pilot's hands. Face continued, softer this time because although they were the only people in the little clinic right now, that didn't mean someone could still come walking in at any time. "Look… You scared the life out of me back there, okay? I mean…" Face sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair and trying to find the words to describe the situation. He knew there was something deeper behind the words his friend had said back in the jeep. Something beyond just a fear of death but for the life of him, he couldn't find a simple, smooth way to ask. "It's just… We're all afraid to die, Murdock, but… man…."
"I'm not." Murdock's voice was so matter-of-fact that it took Face a minute to realize what he'd just said.
"Dyin's okay, I guess… if it's done right." Murdock was talking softly, still not meeting Face's eyes. Instead, he was carefully folding the corner of the crossword page between two fingers, rubbing his thumb along the crease, and then folding it the other way. "I mean, if you die because you ran into a burnin' building to save some kids, or 'cause you took a bullet for a friend or somethin', then… then that's okay, but…." Murdock closed his eyes, frowning and shaking his head before opening them and starting again. "I'm… I'm not afraid of dyin'… I'm afraid of leavin'."
"Leaving?" The Captain nodded gently. "Leaving where?"
"It's not where…" Murdock swallowed and continued, his voice suddenly sounding thicker. "… it's who." Face stayed quiet, fighting to see the logic behind Murdock's words. The pilot continued, eyes bright and a hint of fear in his voice. "All my life I've been moved from one place to another… when my parents died, when I joined the Army, an' in all those institutions afterward. I never really had a place, y'know?" He looked over at Face and the Lieutenant nodded mutely. Murdock's eyes went back to his lap and he went on. "Until you guys came along in Mexico, I'd never belonged anywhere an'… an' now I do. See, it's… It's not the dyin' part of dyin' I'm scared of it's… the bein' someplace else." Green eyes searched the Lieutenant's face, pleading with him to understand. "Wherever it is that people go wh-when they die, it's not here! An' I belong here, not… not there… right?"
Face didn't consider himself a touchy-feely person when it came to the team. The ladies saw a different side of him but with the guys it was usually just a slap on the back or a playful punch that did the trick and calmed the nerves. Now though, with those watery green eyes staring at him, begging him to say something and have it be the right thing, Face did the only thing he could do. He pulled Murdock into a tight hug, thanking his lucky stars no one else was in the room because after a brief second of surprised shock, Murdock crumpled against him, not really sobbing but shaking and clinging to Face's shirt like a falling man to a cliff.
The shaking slowly faded and Murdock pulled back, sniffling and rubbing at his eyes. Swallowing the lump in his own throat, Face bent to look Murdock in the eye, resting a hand on the back of his friend's neck comfortingly.
"Hey, Murdock?" Face waited until the pilot's eyes met his before he continued. "I know Hannibal hasn't given you 'The Lecture' yet because he usually waits till you're fully recovered to spring it on you." Murdock frowned confusedly and Face shook his head. "Just trust me on that one. But here's a quick summary." Murdock cocked his head questioningly and Face smiled. "We go out together, or not at all. And with the Colonel, that's an order and a promise." A genuine, if hesitant smile spread across Murdock's face and the Lieutenant considered that a sign of victory. Then the lanky pilot chuckled and a hint of mischief flickered in his eyes as he spoke.
"You sure are smart for a little brother, ain't you?"
"Hey! Who said I was the younger brother, huh? You're the one who beelines for the toy aisle at WalMart!"
"Hannibal said, that's who." Face searched Murdock's twinkling eyes for signs of deception.
"… He didn't…" Murdock snickered gleefully and reached out to ruffle Face's hair.
"Don't dis Dad, Facey-wacey." Face did his very, very best to look offended and swatted Murdock's hand away, the chuckles escaping him totally ruining the irritated and mature look he was going for.
"If Hannibal's 'dad', what does that make Bosco?" Murdock paused.
"Our big, muscular, adopted sister mechanic, that's who." Murdock grinned proudly and Face reveled in the few minutes of giddy laughter that image provided. Wiping the tears from his eyes, Face finally managed to speak past his giggles.
"W-We are one messed up family, bud."
"So…" Face retrieved Murdock's fallen pen and passed it over, gesturing to the unfinished crossword in the other man's lap. "What on earth is a 'temperspatialcushionsite' anyway?" Murdock accepted the proffered pen, checked off 'two down' and answered in that matter-of-fact way that always had Face in stitches for days afterward.
"It's a place to take a short nap, of course." Face shook his head, laughter tickling in his chest again.
"How do you come up with these things?"
"Easy, jus' put bits of words together an' make a new one." Face thought for a moment, leaning back on one arm and taking a sip of his soda.
"Give me an example."
"Like… streypaghambles," Murdock offered.
"Ex… tan… simpregrity?"
"Means 'extensive, simple, integrity'." Murdock came back, without missing a beat.
"Cab… nar…. katarxis?"
"I think that one means somethin' rude." Murdock smirked. Face laughed and set his soda aside, folding his arms behind his head and kicking back to think up more nonsense words for his friend to translate. It wasn't long after Murdock translated "Portaswillfillafecetopia" as "Pike's birthplace" that Hannibal walked in to find Face hardly able to breathe and Murdock sitting smugly with his back against the sturdy tent wall and a comic book open on his lap, watching his friend crack up beside him. Hannibal just shook his head and smiled, leaving the two boys to their game and making a mental note to check in on them later in case Face broke a rib laughing.
And if Pike was taken aside on his way back to his tent and emerged from between the walls of tents looking pale as a ghost, Face and Murdock didn't question it. They both knew the destructive power of Bosco's strength and Hannibal's threats, and there was no danger of retaliation to fear. Still… when several camel spiders mysteriously found their way into Pike's bunk a few days later, Face made sure he was there to record the screams because if he'd ever needed proof Murdock was good as new… that was it.
Author's Note: Wooohoooo! Story complete! My eternal gratitude to all my wonderful reviewers! I'm working on a longer A-Team story right now. Still Murdock whumpage but more… intense, I suppose. Not sure when it'll be posted, though… I've gotta get Face and Hannibal to cooperate with narration and get their facts straight before I can start posting. ;P
Until next time, Muchachos!