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EXCELSIS DEI

Excelsis Dei

by Nicole Wilson

 

Rating: R

Summary: Three wise men get some unexpected night visitors.

Comments: Yes

Warnings: Language, violence, adult themes, slash inferred F/M

Disclaimer: The team belongs to Stephen J. Cannell and Universal, of course. The denizens of Firebase Bethlehem all belong to me. No copyright infringement intended. Written purely for the hell of it; no money made here.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Vietnam veterans John, Richard, and Wayne for putting up with some very nosey questions. Beta credit goes to the indomitable Cath, with additional comments from Glenda.

Dedication: For Snowy, in belated recognition of the excellent Face fic she gifted to me more than a year ago; and for Cath and emma, whose Vietnam stories helped inspire this one.

Nicole Wilson, 2003

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chapter One

 

Firebase Bethlehem

Twenty-five clicks southwest of Pleiku

 

Christmas Eve

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

It was Dixon who saw them first.

 

Only two weeks in country and most of Holt's men already called him Deadeye. Right after he picked that Cong sniper out of the trees at two hundred yards. Two lengths of a football field--- the other FNGs were still shaking their heads.

 

'Ah, hell! Let 'em have their hero.' Sergeant Holt figured the poor bastards had the fuckin' life span of mayflies anyway. Just more fodder for those little sneaker-wearing devils coming in on the slicks every week. Last Tuesday he even found a dead gook wearing some beat-up Chuck Taylors. There was something almost obscene about that, something un-American.

 

He scrubbed his tired face. At least this Dixon might stick around for a while. Maybe long enough to really earn him that nickname.

 

"Four's clear," said the man in question.

 

"Ain't nothing but good vibes comin' from quadrant two either, man." Basingstoke flicked a non-regulation ponytail over his shoulder. "Oh-one-hundred hours in the AM and all's mellow yellow."

 

The chair squeaked as Holt leaned forward, giving the end of that limp, blond hair a yank. "Toke."

 

"Hey, man--- like ouch!"

 

Dixon hid a smile.

 

"O.K., O.K., Sarge." Toke swung his rifle one-eighty. Began another sweep of quadrant one with the scope. "Sorry."

 

Satisfied, Holt sat back. The rusted springs let out an even louder squeal, carrying all too loudly in the still jungle air.

 

Two guards on the front gate looked up. "Ya alright up there, Dirty Harry?" one of them called out.

 

Holt squinted at them over the railing, his own nickname personified. "Yeah, yeah," he said, waving them off. "One o'clock and all's well, you guys."

 

With an almost simultaneous nod, they resumed their patrol.

 

"Gotta fix this sucker," he muttered, settling more carefully in his chair.

 

The moon picked out a gleam in Dixon's eyes.

 

"Somethin' funny, Deadeye." Holt was in no mood. "Somethin' you wanna share with the rest of the class?"

 

Toke snickered.

 

"Nope," Dixon said.

 

The three were silent for moment.

 

"Ya know." If there was such a thing as an Iowa drawl, Holt was trying for it. "'Deadeye' don't really suit ya--- big city boy like yourself."

 

Private Dixon shot a glance over his shoulder. This time the eyes were hard. "Yeah," he said. "I know."

 

Fuckin' redneck.

 

Unaware he'd been jammed round peg into a square pigeonhole, Sergeant Holt leaned further back in the chair. Resumed the near watch, naked eye to other men's scopes--- front gate to the compound to the perimeter. A job where--- rusted or not--- a swivel chair came in real handy. One lifted from Colonel Morrison's office no less. Sitting in it, Holt sometimes felt like a captain on his bridge. Master of the crow's nest, master of all he surveyed.

 

Both men turned as Holt let out a decided snort.

 

"Shhhh!"

 

Christ, that Dixon sounded like a fuckin' librarian! "Yeah, yeah," he snapped, more pissed off at himself than anyone else.

 

They all went back to work.

 

'Yeah, Bethlehem,' Holt thought. 'That's my kingdom all right.' Coupla acres of dust, barbed wire, and corrugated metal. Hooches, mess hall, headquarters--- fuckin' hot boxes during the day. Got hot enough to bake you whole. The constant tattoo of rain during monsoon season reminding him why all those ancient Chinese needed was a few drops of water to torture their victims. Heard the fuckin' V.C. used it too, some bastard named Chao. Heard the Cong rigged up some compound deep in the jungle, for "special" prisoners. Read officers, ex--- and maybe not so ex--- CIA. Not that anyone was really sure. No intell--- no escapes from that prison camp, far as he knew.

 

Poor bastards. Poor fuckin' mayfly bastards!

 

"Three--- all clear," Dixon said.

 

"Thanks." He squinted again. "Wanna run the perimeter again for me, case I missed something? You got better eyes than mine."

 

The sharpshooter nodded.

 

'Most of 'em never did figure out that steely-eyed look was more due to near-sightedness than rank intimidation.' Holt permitted himself a tiny smile.

 

Just too fuckin' vain to wear his glasses. Made him look like a fuckin' librarian!

 

"Clear on two, Sarge," said Toke.

 

"Right."

 

Well, least he got ol' Deadeye for a Christmas present--- that was something. Kid turned out to be a ringer. Drafted on graduation day from the Police Academy back in Detroit, already assigned to SWAT duty. Fuckin' piece a bad luck--- for him.

 

With a sigh, Holt leaned forward, folding both muscular arms on the railing.

 

'Just two guards on tonight,' he thought, moodily watching them pace the front gate. Skeleton as it was safe to make it--- put another two out walking the line. Everybody else was in the mess hall. Chugging down that vicious batch of eggnog Santino "Betty" Crocker mixed up. Dried milk, dried eggs--- stuff tasted like crap but with enough pure-dee grain alcohol to take the hide off--- sure wished he coulda risked more than one cup--- just to take the edge off---

 

Visions of a silk-smooth thigh invaded, messed around with his concentration.

 

'C'mon, man!' he told himself. Front gate to compound to perimeter. 'This ain't the time. Ain't never gonna be the time, you don't keep sharp.'

 

Covered by even smoother swathe of green silk. Belt cinched tightly around her small waist, vee of that robe falling open, framing her beautiful---

 

'Oh, God--- Sarah!' Holt let out another, much more heartfelt release of air.

 

Only release he was likely to get this Christmas.

 

Feeling both men's eyes on him, the sergeant looked up. "You married?" he asked Dixon abruptly.

 

"Don't believe in all that shit," Toke answered for him.

 

Holt already knew the private claimed to be 'married' to ten different women at that ashram back in Haight.

 

"Yeah, yeah, Tokey." He chuckled. "Just you and all them harem girls. I'm talkin' to the FNG--- ya mind?"

 

Dixon turned. Gave the sergeant a considered look. "I've got a wife back in Detroit," he offered slowly. "A little girl, Elizabeth--- we call her Betsy for short."

 

"Yeah?" Sergeant Holt's grin got wider. "Me too. My wife Sarah's living with her parents for the duration--- on their dairy farm 'bout fifty miles outside of Ames."

 

"Where the potatoes grow?"

 

"Nah, that's Idaho, son! I'm talkin' Iowa. We're all about corn, cows--- shit like that."

 

Dixon's mouth quirked. "Must get pretty deep, all those cows eatin' all that corn."

 

Toke caught his laugh just in time. "That's a good one," he choked.

 

"Hey!" The sergeant's brown eyes gleamed. "How you think that corn got as high as an elephant's eye?"

 

"Now, even I know that's Oklahoma." The smile was full out now. "So, there's your wife, her parents and all those cows--- "

 

"And my little girl." Holt's voice grew softer, gentler. "Small Sarah. Turned six just last August."

 

"Our Betsy is six too." Another proud father, "Be seven on the first of March. Kid's just crazy for Barbie dolls--- houses, sports cars--- don't know what all. Right before I left home she was begging for this little souped-up 'vette."

The sergeant raised both eyebrows. "Barbie's got a need for speed?"

 

Basingstoke snorted.

 

One brow rose even further. "Toke--- "

 

The private shrugged, his ponytail swaying as he continued the motion. A rolling wave as he eased one stiff shoulder after another. "I'm not sayin' nothing, Sarge."

 

"Yeah," Dixon told them, sadly. "I managed to grab the last one over at Kiddie City. Hid it in the bedroom closet before I left. A big red bow, probably already under the tree by now."

 

"Sarah Junior's got a thing for Barbies too." Holt smiled. "She likes dressing them up, clotheshorse just like her mom. Got her one of them Malibu jobs--- bikinis, beach dresses. Shipped right from Los Angeles to Iowa last month."

 

"What kinda connection you got in L.A.?" said Toke. "Maybe him and me could do a little business."

 

"No time soon, Tokeman." Holt looked pained. "Lieutenant Peck set it up. Back in July, right before he and his team got--- well--- anyway--- Peck knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy. He also picked up a silk dressing gown. Forest green shot through with these tiny golden threads. Sold it to me for cost when he found out it was a Christmas present for my wife." He sighed. "Nice kid."

 

Basingstoke thought for a minute. "Oh, yeah," he said, as remaining brain cells kicked in to gear. "I remember him--- Maui Wowie. That was some good shit!"

 

The sergeant's eyes narrowed. "Now, don't be tellin' me Lieutenant Peck was running drugs. He might have been one helluva conman--- " Holt dragged himself out of the past tense. "Still is, wherever the fuck--- "

 

"Pot ain't no drugs, man! Anyway, this was just a few ounces--- purely recreational. Payback for a little work detail way back--- well, before I was assigned to this blistering boil on the butt called--- "

 

"Bethlehem?" Holt, who agreed entirely, finished for him.

 

"Yeah." Toke nodded. "Like they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Me and a few other guys decided to help the penguins--- I mean, sisters--- dig a latrine over at this orphanage near Bien Hoa. It was the lieutenant's baby, I found out later." A shrug; "Got a thing for orphanages or something. Anyway, Peck snagged a list of all our names from the Head Nun--- Sister Vincent. Each one of us ended up getting a little something in our stocking, a little something in return. Weird, huh? A guy I never even met. In my case--- " He looked unconvincingly angelic. "Guess my reputation--- "

 

"Certainly what I'd get ya for Christmas," said Holt.

 

The look turned hopeful.

 

His sergeant only smiled.

 

"And it wasn't Peck that dropped it off neither. It was that pilot friend of his--- fuck buddy. Short hop that turned into an overnight when I offered to share." Basingstoke grinned. "Got him too stoned to get off the ground."

 

"Fuck what?" Holt gave him the full Dirty Harry stare. "Think you better get your facts straight before--- "

 

"Hey, said so himself!" Toke swung the rifle off his shoulder. "Told ya he was stoned. Anyway, I heard the kid looked like a movie star. Only makes sense--- "

 

"Looks!" Holt said, exasperated. "Looks like a movie star don't mean he takes it up the ass!"

 

Dixon just shook his head, wondering how this conversation had gotten from Barbie dolls to something as far from--- well, maybe something else had gotten into that eggnog, besides nog. Maybe Toke---

 

Then he saw it, right next to that clump of trees--- a flash of white.

 

Dixon raised his hand to the scope. "Think I got something, Sergeant."

 

"Just tellin' ya what I heard," Toke was saying. "Don't kill the messenger, tough guy. It's not my fault--- "

 

"Shut up!" Holt was suddenly all business. He peered into the jungle, not seeing much with naked near-sighted eyes. "What is it, Dixon?"

 

"Somethin' white, maybe three hundred yards back from the perimeter--- ten o'clock. Moonlight musta picked it out." He paused. "Don't see it now."

 

Holt sent a swift glance upward. The sky was clear, for a change, monsoon season over more than a month past. A deep blue inverted bowl, full moon on the rise with just a handful of stars. Yeah, all that was missing was one star--- tactical advantage Bethlehem.

 

Some gooks were gonna die tonight.

 

"Probably them fuckin' tennis shoes," he said.

 

"Nah." Basingstoke had swung his own M16 in the same direction. "I see it now. Looks bigger than bread box." He readjusted the focus. "Now, that's strange! Didn't think the Cong sent old men into combat."

 

"What?" Holt sat up.

 

"Got me a gook with white hair."

 

"That ain't no gook," Dixon said. "Too damn tall. He must be over six feet."

 

'French?' Holt wondered. He knew there were still a few out there, collaborators--- Mercs. Couldn't be one of our guys. The good ol' U.S. of A. don't send old guys into combat either. All our old guys ride a desk--- like Colonel Morrison.

 

Maybe because he and Toke had just been arguing about them, or maybe because of those Christmas presents in July. Lieutenant Peck didn't have to do all that. Go to all that trouble for a non-com--- a man he barely knew. Include Holt's family on that list of his, always checkin' it twice. Peck always had more than enough crap to scavenge for his team. For that crazy bird colonel missing five months now. Just like---

 

Basingstoke stretched a hand out to the left. "Want me to fire up the lights, Sarge? Take us a better look."

 

"Christ, no!" The chair squeaked sharply. "Shit!"

 

All three men held their breath.

 

"Gotta fuckin' get that fixed," Holt finally whispered.

 

Dixon returned to the scope. "Lost him," he said.

 

"Fuck!" the sergeant hissed. "Get away from that switch, Toke. Lemme think."

 

"Better think fast, Sergeant," Dixon said. "Our white-haired gentleman is back, eleven o'clock."

 

"I got him," Tokey confirmed. "Definitely ain't V.C.--- round eyes." A longer, more ruminative pause; "Also, he ain't alone. Seems to be talking to someone next to him. His buddy is smaller--- still half in the shadows. Ya see him, Deadeye?"

 

Dixon winced. Holt was right. Deadeye just didn't seem to fit--- not for a city boy like him.

 

"Yeah," he said, pulling the second man into focus.

 

"I don't get it, Sarge." Private Basingstoke seemed more puzzled than usual. "If they're friendlies, why not just come a knockin' on our door?"

 

Holt snorted. "Could be that mess of barbed wire, Toke, ya think? We don't exactly put the welcome mat out at night. All our lights turned down low. How can the colonel even be sure we're Americans? Plenty of firebases been run over by the V.C."

 

"Colonel? You know this guy, Harry?"

 

"Could be." He squinted into the darkness. "Yeah, could be. Heard of him, anyway. What's that fancy infra-red scope tell us, SWAT man?"

 

Another wince. Thomas Dixon III, late of Detroit, wasn't crazy about this nickname either. Still, it was better than 'hey, you!' Better than some of the things he'd been called in his life.

 

"Got me a tall guy, Sarge. White hair, light colored eyes--- or at least not brown--- definitely not V.C. He's got several others with him, still back in the trees--- two, maybe three. The man right next to him--- he's leaning on this colonel of yours. Looks injured--- maybe sick--- gonna try to get his face more clearly."

 

The other two waited.

 

Finally, Dixon cleared his throat. "Poor kid--- someone's been working him over but good. All banged up--- and real skinny. Though not bad lookin' for all that." He sent a glance over his shoulder. "Shoulda been in pictures."

 

"Gimme that rifle!"

 

Dixon handed it over.

 

"One-clock?" Holt lifted the scope to one eye. Closed the other.

 

"Yeah, over by that dead tree." He pointed. "Ya see him?"

 

"Yeah--- " The sergeant sounded dubious. "Almost."

 

"Looks like a movie star alright," said Toke. "Well, maybe one on the skids. Ah'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!"

 

Dixon shook his head. This crazy dude was gonna take some getting used to.

 

Holt brought his scope abruptly into focus. "Tokey, get on that radio. I want Morrison's office now!"

 

"Now, Sergeant?" Basingstoke looked nervous. "You want me to wake up a fuckin' bird colonel?"

 

"Hell, yeah--- wake him up! Tell him it's about another colonel, Morrison's fair-haired--- " He let out a harsh breath. "Oh, Faceman--- don't look so pretty anymore."

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Holt gave the rifle back to Dixon. "Never mind, Toke. I'll fuckin' call him myself."

 

Dixon returned to his post, watching as the mysterious colonel half-carried half-dragged the equally mysterious Lieutenant Peck out from behind a tree.

 

That pompous exec of Morrison's came on the line. "Yeah," said Holt, already angling the receiver away from his ear. "Yeah, Captain--- "

 

Man could talk the hind end off--- well, hell--- another one of himself.

 

"Yes, sir--- I know. Colonel Morrison doesn't want to be disturbed." Probably after gettin' crocked on something a whole lot smoother than Betty's eggnog. "Channels for these things--- yeah, I know--- the chain of command."

 

"Which is only as strong as its weakest link," the FNG quietly observed.

 

Holt grinned. Looked like they had themselves another philosopher. Just wasn't the same since 'Einstein' McDaniels bought it last August.

 

"Yeah, fuckin' Peter Principle." The sergeant cupped one hand over the phone. Used the other to pinch his fingers together, making a point. "All that extra brass on the shoulders makin' up for the teeny-weeny thing between--- " It was a philosopher's point, how many Christmas angels could dance on the head of a---

 

"You stick me with Deadeye," Dixon said. "And you damn well know what they're gonna do with the rest of my name."

 

He returned to his watch.

 

Toke let out a sound, halfway between a laugh and a snort. "Oh, you guys!"

 

"And we got two more guys." Dixon angled his rifle slightly to the left. "Right behind the colonel. Ya see 'em, Toke?"

 

His teammate duplicated the move. "Yeah. Too dark to see much, they're both tall--- seem to be carrying something." He looked again. "Nah, make that someone. It's hard to see--- looks like a third man."

 

Holt put the receiver to his ear. Listened for a moment. Apparently, the exec's monologue had continued unbroken.

 

"Captain Bryant!" Another listen, then he tried again. "Excuse me, sir!" This said with just enough emphasis on the man's title to make it count. Barely skirting disrespect, and no one knew better than a six-chevron lifer how to tread that fine line. "Colonel Morrison might like to know we've got another colonel about two hundred yards outside the Bethlehem perimeter. It appears to be Colonel Smith--- yes sir. Also, Lieutenant Peck and at least three others--- enemy in the immediate vicinity is unknown. Please advise." He frowned. "Yeah, sure I'm sure!" Holt's concern for those men outside the fence pushed him over that line. "I know the lieutenant personally. Ain't too hard to guess who the other guy is. Got any other missing bird colonel with white hair?"

 

It was a mistake.

 

There was an explosion of profanity from Bryant, loud enough to be heard by the men standing nearby.

 

"Ya better back off, Harry," Basingstoke said. "Got kinda got used to you as N.C.O." He let out a mournful sound suitable for either funeral or demotion. "Sure will miss you when you're gone."

 

"Like I keep missing that bong you got stashed in the officers' mess." Evan Holt harbored no illusions about Toke.

 

The blond man gave him a startled look.

 

"They aren't gonna last fifteen minutes out there," said Dixon, more to the point. "Don't see any Cong now but--- "

 

"Yeah, yeah, Dix," Holt muttered. "I'm workin' on it."

 

"I'm sorry, sir," he said to the captain, rankly apologetic, rankly insincere--- well, maybe just rank. This kinda stuff just turned his gut. "Yes, you're absolutely right, sir. It would be suicidal to wake Colonel Morrison at this hour. But I'm sure he'd--- " A brief, unnoticed squeak as Holt straightened in his chair. "Yes, sir! Sorry to disturb you, sir." The phone had obviously changed hands.

 

"He's good at this," Toke assured his fellow private. "Guys like Bryant, that Klingon we got for new base commander, just come and go. Holt's the real boss--- and don't let any of us forget it."

 

"A conman?"

 

"Nah, Holt just knows his job--- and does it good. Tries to get us grunts what we need--- no matter what he's got to do to get it." Basingstoke hooked his thumb toward the jungle. "Now, that not-so-pretty boy--- there's a conman. Almost legendary." Toke grinned. "Unless Peck made all those legends up himself. In fact, he might be one of the reasons those guys are still alive--- and Colonel Smith's the other. Hell, the stories I've heard about him!" The grin widened. "Well, ya can't believe everything ya hear."

 

"Yes, sir," Holt was saying into the phone. "It's the A-Team all right, at least two of them. Yes, I'm sure." He listened for a moment. "No, sir. I don't know how they did it. Guess you'll have to ask Colonel Smith that when you see him."

 

Holt rolled his eyes at the others. This was taking far too long.

 

A cocktail hour chuckle; "Yes, sir. Havanas, I'll tell him. MedEVAC out of Pleiku? Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Don't worry. I'll bring 'em home." He hung up.

 

The sharpshooters looked at him expectantly.

 

"O.K., Gentlemen!" Holt stood up, the chair for once blessedly silent behind him. He turned a moment, giving it a surprised look.

 

"So what can we do you for, Sergeant?" For once in his hippie-dippy life, Toke was all business.

 

"Gimme your rifle." Holt waited as Tokey disentangled the strap from his long hair. "Full quadrant sweep," he ordered Dixon. "Far ground only. I'll take the compound and the perimeter. Remember, those little buggers like the low branches, sometimes drop right outta the trees. Or they could be patrolling the jungle floor, so look sharp."

 

"Right."

 

Basingstoke handed the sergeant his M16.

 

"Toke, get down to the front gate. Tell them to unhook that fuckin' wire. I want those guys ready to snap open and closed like a turtlehead when the time comes. Grab whatever warm bodies you can find to help." Holt paused. "Oh, yeah--- and warn everybody I'm gonna switch on the P.A. Not to fire up those kliegs; everything but the porch light off for now."

 

The other man nodded.

 

"Then I want you to wake up the Klingon, don't care how drunk he is. He starts bitchin', tell him it's from headquarters. Then get the fuck back up here. I need your eyes."

 

"Right, Sergeant." Basingstoke skimmed down the bamboo ladder using only the sides. Jumping the last five feet, he took off across the yard.

 

"Why the P.A. system?" Dixon said, as they both raised the guns. "Radio out?"

 

"We don't got walkie-talkies." Holt let out a disgusted snort. The two soldiers swung their weapons in opposite directions, beginning the sweep. "That new louie shipped them out for rehaul on the last chopper. While I was catching me a little sack time."

 

"All of them!?"

 

"Every blessed one." Holt sounded pretty amazed himself. "Don't know where they find these guys." He shot a glance at the private. "Obviously not the same place they found you."

 

A faint smile was Holt's only indication Dixon even heard the compliment. "Quadrant one clear," he said. "Starting on two."

 

"Tomorrow, I'm gonna need to work out some kinda system---whistles--- maybe bird calls. Get some of these cowboys to make like Indians for a change." Holt finished his check of the foreground. Watched his perimeter guards still walking the line, unaware of all the excitement breaking out over at the front gate. Then angled his scope back towards the men still moving doggedly through the brush.

 

"O.K, Dix. Whatcha got?"

 

"Two clear a hundred yards back."

 

Holt lowered his rifle. Then reaching toward a console behind him, he flipped a switch. There was a god-awful-chalk-on-the-blackboard squeal.

 

Both men winced.

 

"Shut the fuck up!" came a sleepy voice from one of the hooches below. "Two o'clock in the fuckin' morning! Fuckin' Christmas Eve, for Christ's sake!"

 

"Yeah, Dix," Holt sighed. "Don't tell me."

 

This time the smile was broader. "Same fix-it shop as the walkie-talkies, Sarge? As Colonel Morrison's chair?"

 

"Guess ya already know you're a smart-ass." The sergeant smiled back. "No offense."

 

"None taken." Dixon was surprised that he meant it.

 

"Think we musta spooked 'em," Holt said. "Can't see a thing now."

 

The younger man moved his own scope over to take a look.

 

"Nah, Dix, I got it covered. Just give me that long shot, Mr. DeMille--- quadrants three and four."

 

"Right."

 

Holt depressed the send button again. The speakers hummed into life.

 

"Break a leg, Sarge. Three shows all clear--- on four."

 

"Thanks." Holt cleared his throat, an amplified big bear rumble.

 

"Colonel Smith." His voice echoed throughout the compound. "Sergeant Evan Holt here. We've never met, but I know your exec." A pause; "Hey, Lieutenant! Still waitin' ta hear how my wife likes that slinky number you got her for Christmas."

 

He let up on the switch.

 

Dixon raised an eyebrow. "Five months in the jungle, and you think Peck's gonna fuckin' remember what he scammed the month before that? Even I know they mess with your head in those gook camps. This ain't no Jeopardy Tournament of Champions!" Still, rankly curious, he angled his rifle downward. Made a sweep of the near ground.

 

Holt just smiled. Began whistling a very familiar tune under his breath as he waited.

 

A head poked over the edge of the crow's nest. "We're all set, Sarge. Crocker and Dishpan were still in the mess hall, havin' a cup a joe. Shoulda known they was too smart to drink their own poison." The rest of Toke's lanky body followed him up. "Also I corralled South Philly Fabian and that new guy Corleone. Think maybe we should start callin' him 'Godfather' or something. Seems they got religion all of a sudden and teetotalled last night. They was tryin' to talk Betty into making seven different fish dishes out of a can of tuna." It was hard to tell which Toke found more mystifying. "I sent two of 'em to the front gate; the others are on perimeter."

 

"Damn, it worked!" Private Dixon looked up from his scope. "Both of 'em out of the trees now. Your boy's got some memory."

 

"He ain't my boy, ya hear Basingstoke tell it." Holt handed over the M16. "Here, Tokey--- make yourself useful."

 

"Hey, like I said, it was the pilot." Toke scratched his head lightly with the bayonet. "Christ, what was that guy's name again?" He hoisted the gun to his shoulder. "We was so fuckin' stoned! And--- well--- maybe he didn't actually say anything about him and the lieutenant--- not in so many words."

 

"Didn't think so," muttered the sergeant.

 

"I just figured it out on my own, O.K.? The way he talked about Peck, the look on his face." One more Tokeish fish story shrunk back to size. "Hell, mostly we talked about UFOs--- crop circles, little green men, that kinda shit. 'Course I bogarted most of the Wowie that night, so maybe I got it wrong." A frustrated sigh; "Man, why do I always remember faces--- but just fuck-all with names?"

 

The other two exchanged a grin.

 

Figuring he'd waited long enough, Holt switched the P.A. back on. "Olley, olley, oxen free," he called out softly. Glanced over at his men for confirmation. "Our scopes show all clear, Colonel."

 

Then gunfire--- six shots in rapid succession--- one striking the bamboo railing where Holt rested his hand.

 

"Christ!" he said, hunkering down. "V.C. making me out a liar."

 

Dixon swung his M16 toward the enemy. "Sniper at four o'clock," he said, shaken but not stirred. "Just took my eyes off the trees for a second, I swear."

 

"All it takes." Holt reached for the mike. "Hold position!"

 

The men on the ground all looked up. Fortunately, the moon was bright enough for the sergeant to see each acknowledge his order. Unfortunately, it also caught Crocker surreptitiously scratching his fat ass.

 

"Sorry, Sarge." Dixon felt real bad. Figured to make up for it the only way an ex-SWAT man could. He squeezed off two rounds. A harsh cry followed, clump of bushes a hundred yards from the main gate rattling in several violent throes.

 

"I got him," he said.

 

"Don't mean nothing, Dix." Toke was the voice of experience here. "It's like them cock-a-roaches. See one, ya got a dozen more hidin' inside the wall."

 

"Good thing we got ourselves a roach expert." The sergeant pinched two fingers together. Mimed taking a drag. "Plus an Orkin man on loan from Detroit."

 

Each sharpshooter acknowledged the compliment in his own way.

 

"Yeah," Toke said solemnly. "I hid those roach clips in a different place than the bong."

 

Dixon grinned. "Olley, olley, oxen free?" he suggested.

 

"Got me a pair of smart-asses," Holt told them without rancor.

 

Then he got to his feet. "O.K., guys. Dix, I want you to take the tree line. Toke, see if you can find me Smith's team. Don't want to get 'em scragged outside our front door. It ain't neighborly. Besides, Colonel Morrison'll have my balls for breakfast."

 

"On toast," Dixon said.

 

Private Basingstoke let out a snort.

 

"Don't get rattled real easy, do ya, Dix?" Holt did his Eastwood squint. "That was a real good save just now."

 

"Fuckin' zen," Toke agreed.

 

"Think I'm gonna call you 'Spock.' Hell, we already got us a Klingon."

 

"Yeah, but we don't like him much. Do we, Sarge?"

 

"Don't matter, Toke." It was the voice of doom. "That little louie won't be here long."

 

Both sharpshooters glanced up from their scopes. Tokey gave Dixon a knowing look.

 

"Yeah, works for me, Sarge. Think FNG First Class Dixon's got that whole Vulcan thing goin' on." Basingstoke's off eye slid closed. "Those guys are still out there. One o'clock, maybe ninety yards back."

 

'Spock?' Now here was a name Dixon could live with. His pleasure was muted but real. Yeah, he liked it quite a lot. Better than Deadeye, better than Dix---helluva lot better than 'hey, you!' But with one minor change.

 

"They call me Mr. Spock," he told them, deadpan.

 

Both Toke and the sergeant laughed.

 

"Long as I don't got to play that redneck sheriff," Holt said. "I ain't like that."

 

"No, Sarge." Dixon's voice was quiet. "I don't believe you are." Then his grip tightened on the rifle. "Gook patrol three hundred yards back and closing."

 

"Shit! It must have been the sniper fire. Stay on 'em."

 

Holt turned to the other sharpshooter. "Toke, what you got?"

 

"Everybody comin' out of the trees now. I got me a big motherfucker at one o'clock. Right behind Smith and the lieutenant. Something in his arms, can't tell--- " Then Toke let out a sigh. "Oh man, and you thought Peck looked bad!"

 

The sergeant frowned. "That it?"

 

"Except for a tall, white dude on rear guard," Dixon said.

 

"Thought I told to you to stay on those fuckin' gooks!"

 

"I am." The newly minted Spock took no offence. "Got 'em both in my sights. Like I said--- closing."

 

"Ol' colonel must hear 'em too," observed Toke. "Those guys are really bookin' now, A-Team on the move! Tryin' to make a run for it. Only the poor bastards can't run."

 

Holt made a frustrated sound. "Where's that louie?"

 

"Cheech was havin' a little trouble waking him up." Basingstoke shrugged. "Too much of that egg nog, I guess."

 

"O.K." Holt thought a moment. "We'll go ahead on my say so. What the fuck, I'm already on the menu anyway."

 

"Balls en brochette," Dixon said, readjusting his scope.

 

Both Holt's fists gripped the railing. "Alright, Gentlemen. It looks like these guys are headed for the front gate. If there's one thing I heard about Smith--- well, that's just got to be the plan. And he outranks every damn one of us in here."

 

""Cept that guy on the phone," Toke said, just trying to be helpful.

 

"Shut up, Tokey." Holt sighed. "Gonna take a chance. It's what the colonel would do."

 

The private cleared his throat.

 

"The one out there, Toke! Combat bird colonel, not some fuckin' desk jockey--- "

 

"Hey, man. I was just gonna say--- don't need no scope to see 'em now."

 

Holt squinted again, looking every inch his nickname. Watched as several figures moved out of the trees. The two largest half-carried half-dragged something between them, rags and bones belonging to a man. Peck was leaning heavily on the colonel.

 

Another shot rang out, making impact in the dust at Peck's feet. The largest of them flinched--- a slender, almost skeletal arm slipping from around his neck. He reached over, grabbing the tattered shirt. Yanked his burden back into place. Smith and the lieutenant never even noticed; both their heads bowed. Just kept on going.

 

Lock step.

 

Together.

 

Peck and the colonel, that big motherfucker and the dude on rear guard--- shoeless feet of the man who hung between them marking two lines in the dust.

 

Kept comin' on.

 

Almost beyond caring, perhaps trying not to care too much. Not now, not when their goal was so close.

 

The large man shifted again, his buddy's head lolling back on a still muscular shoulder. Pale, slender throat exposed--- lamb for the slaughter.

 

"Captain Murdock!" Basingstoke both shaken and stirred. "I remember him now. Christ, Sarge, why the fuck did they--- Man, one of the nicest guys I ever--- "

 

Holt just shook his head. "All them chopper pilots. Not like us grunts on the ground, Toke. See too damn much up there. Know too much. Dangerous to know too much."

 

"Yeah," the other man acknowledged, very low.

 

Dixon shifted his rifle. "Gooks on the move double-time. One o'clock, fifty yards and closing."

 

"Return fire!" Holt shouted, yanking the 9mm from his holster. With the other hand, he depressed the switch. "One o'clock, you guys!" His voice echoed and reechoed. "Fire--- fire!"

 

Gunshots erupted all around them, from their own weapons, other parts of the compound, the front gate. Tracer bullets whined in the still air, fireflies in the night. Down on the jungle floor, lockstep became a hobble as all four made for the half-open barbed wire. For the first time, Holt heard their voices. There was a hoarse shout--- hard to tell if it came from Smith or Peck.

 

"Murdock! Ya got him?"

 

"Yeah," came a deep growl. "Hold on, Ray. Jus' hold on."

 

"Keep the faith, brother," Dixon urged him, almost at a whisper. "Ya gonna make it. Just hold on." He released two more shots in succession. "Got the V.C. on point, Sarge. The others are falling back."

 

Holt nodded. "Roll it on out!" he shouted over the P.A.

 

"Sarge, ya mind if I--- "

 

"Go on, Toke. Do 'em good to see another friendly face."

 

The younger man nodded. Slinging the M16 over his shoulder, he was up and out of the crow's nest in seconds, joining the half dozen scrambling for the front gate. They tugged the barbed wire and corrugated tin open with a protesting squeal.

 

"Man, gotta get that--- "

 

"Yeah, I know." Dixon made one more pass over the tree line. "Try some of that greasy kid stuff, Sarge. Just a little dab'll do ya."

 

"Smart-ass!" It was a half-assed, wholly affectionate insult. "Well, time to go collect up Morrison's chickens before they hatch." Holt went over to the ladder. "Guess that'll be eggs on the menu come morning--- en brochette."

 

"Nah, make mine Benedict," Dixon said, settling his rifle back into place. "Go on, Sarge. I'll keep watch."

 

"I never thought otherwise, my Vulcan friend." Holt was already sliding down the ladder.

 

Dixon tracked him across the yard and through the front gate. Watched Holt jog those last few steps, one arm outstretched. Pass it around Lieutenant Peck's waist, hoisting the smaller man upward between him and colonel.

 

"Yeah, could be the start of a beautiful friendship," he said to himself.

 

"Where's that fuckin' louie!?" the sergeant called out.

 

Private Dixon smiled.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

First thing Sergeant Holt noticed was the smell.

 

Tucked a ragged arm over his shoulder. 'Man, and this kid was too skinny already!'

He recalled the particulars of their very last deal. It was an abortive pact, the lieutenant captured before negotiations were complete. Cigarettes for Bethlehem, two cartons an hour--- Peck wanted to know how the sergeant bulked up.

 

Holt glanced at the huge black man behind him. Maybe Peck needed to take it outside the team. Tired of bein' the ninety-nine pound weakling, getting sand kicked in his face. No matter how good lookin'---

 

Then he frowned. Maybe that's why him and Murdock looked so much worse than the others. Maybe Toke guessed right. Maybe them gooks figured it out too. 'Ah, Jesus--- the poor kid!'

 

"Where's that fuckin' louie!?" Holt shouted. It came out rougher than he meant it.

 

The man beside him flinched.

 

"No, not you, Lieutenant." This time he tried it more softly, used his small Sarah's bedtime voice. "Just looking for my little pipsqueak of a C.O. So wet behind the ears, think he musta swum over from the States." Then to Holt's surprise, he caught a faint grin.

 

"Dirty Harry," spoken softer yet. "Forest green raw silk, size eight. Shot though with those little--- " Face thought for a moment, harder than the moment deserved. "Those little gold threads, what were they called?"

 

"How the fuck would I know, Lieutenant?" The sergeant laughed. "Do I look like fuckin' Coco Chanel?"

 

"Brocade," came a voice from beside them. "You called it silk brocade, Face." For God knows Hannibal heard the details often enough. Lists of deals in progress, deals made. Boring as hell to listen to, but vital. Essential. Anything the lieutenant wanted to try--- Hannibal was O.K. with it--- anything.

 

Their rescuer glanced from one to the other, bemused.

 

"We could use a little more help here, Sergeant." It was a gentle reminder.

 

Holt looked up.

 

The whole damn patrol was just standing there, watching Colonel Smith's team straggle through the gate. Doin' fuck-all to help. Christ-on-a-crutch, sure they smelled bad! Who wouldn't after five months in the jungle? Could have been any one of them stinking up the place, just the luck of the draw. It was just plain embarrassing is what it was---

 

"McGinty!" he shouted. "Ruiz!"

 

The lieutenant winced again.

 

"Sorry." Then at a stage whisper, "Get the fuck over here!"

 

Sergeant Holt turned to the older man. "We got MedEVAC on route, Colonel."

 

Hannibal gave him a tired nod.

 

The two PFCs came forward to help; clean, mostly pressed khaki pressed against almost unrecognizable versions of the same. McGinty shrugged his shoulder under the colonel's arm, a support immediately accepted. But Private Ruiz had a little more trouble with his charges. Though one of them sent him a grateful look, the ripped patch on his fatigues said 'Brenner,' the black dude just growled. Held on to that scarecrow of his even tighter.

 

"Ah'll do it myself!" he said--- and he meant it.

 

"Oookay," said Ruiz. For even half starved, this motherfucker was big! Dude could easily pound him into ground, one hand still tied--- well, wrapped around his buddy. And Hey-Zeus mama didn't raise no fool!

 

He eased around the far side, gingerly taking Brenner's arm.

 

Half a dozen guys all helped drag the gate even wider, allowing the others to enter three and four abreast. The barbed wire gouging an even deeper groove in the dust as they then pulled it closed.

 

Holt gently nudged Peck in the direction of the chopper pad, and the rest of his team followed. Bethlehem soldiers pacing with them as they paced that last two hundred feet, last leg of very long journey.

 

Smith finally called a halt in front of the utility shed, their only cover from nearby sniper fire. It was the best tactical position considering, one Holt would have chosen himself.

 

They all stopped, former POWs swaying a bit in the forward momentum.

 

'Damn those new infra-red scope are good!' Holt thought. 'The ol' colonel does have blue eyes.' Bleached pale by exhaustion, blood-shot the only bright thing about them. Steady eyes. Marked with a fierce intelligence, an even fiercer spirit. The eyes of a man shaken but not stirred.

 

Which made Holt wonder if the other stories he'd heard about Smith weren't true. Not just some tall tales woven together from equal parts fear, loneliness--- substances that weren't legal back home. Made him wonder if for the first time in his relatively ordinary life--- punctuated by the last eighteen months of hell--- he wasn't face to face with the real thing.

 

A legend.

 

Holt watched as the colonel make a quick assessment of his team. Then reach a decision. This was where their journey ended.

 

"Stand down," he said.

 

With a single tired sigh, they all obeyed him.

 

Colonel Smith tried to remain standing, at least for a moment. The last man to follow his own order, captain the sinking ship. But Peck was sinking faster, giving in to entropy, gravity, the siren song of solid ground. He pulled his commander down with him, both landing in a tangled heap at the master sergeant's side.

 

The guys holding Captain Murdock were even less in sync. Brenner released the pilot as he folded to the ground, his more stubborn teammate still hanging on. Sending Murdock off balance so he fell onto his knees in the dirt, landing hard.

 

Ginty and Ruiz exchanged a nervous look.

 

'Fuck!' Zeus thought. 'I dropped him.' And an officer by the smell of it--- anybody who smelled that bad just had to be an officer. Holt was gonna be pissed.

 

"O.K. if we go now?" He looked like a puppy wanting to slip the leash.

 

Holt gave them each his spaghetti western squint.

 

Man, oh man, they could hardly see his eyes! Ol' sergeant was real pissed.

 

"Go!" he said--- fuckin' embarrassment. "Get back on the front gate."

 

The two grunts were already rising to their feet.

 

"Ginty!" Holt called after them. "First, see you can find me that idiot of a C.O."

 

"Right, Sarge," a voice echoed back.

 

"Ya O.K.?" B.A. asked Murdock.

 

The pilot stayed where he had landed, still on his knees. Gave no sign of having heard at all.

 

Not that B.A. really expected an answer. The Fool hadn't spoken a word in more than two weeks. Not unless you counted a few half-jointed phrases of nightmare. Sleeping and waking, it was all the same to Murdock now.

 

Not a word since that bastard Nhut decided to 'share' Face with the other guards. In full view of the cages that time--- took him--- took him and Ray both to hold Murdock down. Lin sneakin' Hannibal that key in some stale bread the very same night. It was manna from heaven, just in time for Israelites.

 

B.A.'s hand curled into a fist. 'But just a little too late for Murdock--- and for Face.'

 

"Ya O.K.!?" he said again, voice harsh in the night air.

 

Murdock said nothing.

 

God, it was just so strange! All those months of useless, foolish chatter--- useless as listening to all those Faceman conman deals. Anything--- Hannibal told him--- anything--- Hannibal's orders--- let them do or say anything to keep themselves sane. No matter how annoying, no matter how he longed for just a few precious minutes of silence. Not that B.A. wouldn't have done it anyway, but it was hard--- very hard. Hannibal ordering--- no--- asking him to hold his temper; rein it in tight. With Murdock, with those fucking guards--- no matter what. Hardest thing he'd ever done. When all he really wanted---

 

'All he needed was to--- just once, Hannibal--- just once.' B.A.'s nails dug hard into his palm.

 

Basingstoke jogged over from the front gate. Passed by McGinty and Ruiz, three ships passing in the night. His face was flushed from exertion; ponytail draped carelessly over one shoulder. "Hey!" He spotted the man he was looking for. "Remember me, Captain?"

 

Still nothing.

 

Toke sent a quick glance at his sergeant.

 

Holt shrugged. No help there.

 

The younger man went down on one knee. "C'mon, Captain, you remember! Did us some primo Hawaiian shit a few months back. That time you dropped off a package for the lieutenant. Talked about life, love." He looked over at Peck. "Meaning of the universe--- " Toke trailed off.

 

'Man, this dude was good-lookin'--- no lie! Even all beat up, his face ravaged by hunger and who knew what else. Had them big blue eyes--- blue but not quite blue.' He struggled for the image.

 

Like the bay out at Fisherman's Wharf, after they drop chum in the water. When it churns up all green-blue, a flash of silver scales just beneath the surface. Man, oh man! No wonder Murdock talked about him the way he did, in that voice warmed by Hawaiian weed and Texas honey. For even though the chopper pilot never really said nothing about them--- and what they were--- yet somehow Toke had known.

 

And he could see why now.

 

"Private Basingstoke." Holt was trying to get his attention. "Tokey!"

 

"Yeah." He stared openly at Peck. "What?"

 

Then the lieutenant smiled. Amused--- knowing, with just a hint of relief at this blatant confirmation. That he still had it, even looking like this. His first real smile in weeks, not something manufactured to get what they wanted out of the guards. Keep the guards from getting what they wanted out of him--- an often futile effort.

 

It was a real smile.

 

Toke's mouth fell half open. 'Christ, get me ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!'

 

"Keep going," Face told him. "You're doing fine."

 

"Oh--- yeah--- right." He turned back to the captain.

 

Murdock's head was bowed, that big black guard dog of his glaring over one shoulder.

 

Toke swallowed. "Ya remember that night," he said. "Under all those stars. Never did figure how that night snuck in--- plunk in the middle of monsoon season. How we talked about their names, constellations, galaxies--- you knew all about that kinda shit." He ducked lower. "They teach you that in pilot school, Captain? All them stars, crop circles, what happened to those little green men back in '47?"

 

The guard dog snorted.

 

"Gray."

 

Sergeant Holt felt both men tense beside him. Peck leaned forward.

 

"Murdock." B.A.'s voice was so gentle he didn't really sound like himself. "Feelin' a little--- "

 

"Yeah, they was gray," Toke said, with a nod. "I forgot. Little gray guys crashed here by mistake. Maybe they was dead already, maybe not. Maybe the Army took him off, started doin' experiments or some shit to him. Hurt 'em--- "

 

Murdock looked up.

 

"Real bad." Toke's face crumpled. "Aw, Captain."

 

"More bogies four o'clock!" Dixon shouted from the crow's nest. "Could use a little help up here, Sarge."

 

"Right," Holt shouted back. Then much more softly--- small Sarah soft, "Toke?"

 

But the sharpshooter didn't seem to hear him. He was staring at Murdock, transfixed.

 

These were not like the lieutenant's eyes at all, very dark and almost--- but not quite--- empty. Not like the eyes of that laughing, irreverent charmer Toke had met six months ago. Nothing in nature, at least nothing he'd ever seen, compared to this. The eyes of a man stretched thin--- then thinner--- finally to a point of single-celled singularity. Stretched to nothing--- less than nothing--- a vacuum rush to suck the unwary soul in.

 

In spite of himself, Basingstoke shivered. Then turned his head, giving Lieutenant Peck a sympathetic, helpless look.

 

The lieutenant smiled again--- a different sort of smile. It was just as real as the first, maybe more so. In thanks for the effort, however futile.

 

He was dismissed.

 

"C'mon, Tokey." Holt jerked his head upward. "Spock might be zen, but he's only two weeks in country. Needs an old head to back him up."

 

"Yeah--- O.K., Sarge. I'm on it." Toke got to his feet. Then from some musty military corner of his brain, the notion he was forgetting something. He raised a hand upward. Sketched a salute.

 

The career N.C.O. winced. 'Sloppy, Mister, sloppy!' But at least Basingstoke tried. That had to count for something.

 

"Captain Brenner?" The tall dude's name and insignia were still readable, unlike the others.

 

"Private," the other man acknowledged. His voice was calm--- or just very, very tired.

 

"Lieutenant Peck, Colonel Smith." The salute firmed up. "It was an honor, sirs."

 

Still leaning on the sergeant, Peck nodded.

 

The colonel raised a wavering arm. Produced a surprisingly military effort.

 

Then Toke looked down.

 

Murdock was once again staring at the ground, both hands pressed flat in front of him.

 

"Captain Murdock, suh," he said, unconsciously imitating the other man's soft twang. "Hope you'll be feelin' better real soon."

 

"Gonna be fine--- jus' fine," B.A. answered for him.

 

Finally, Basingstoke worked up the courage to meet a third pair of eyes, pit bull fierce. Filled with an anger that had no safe focus--- no real place to go. Not directed at him, thank his Hare Krishna god. But at an enemy that was now, perhaps forever, beyond the sergeant's reach. Which galled the big man, with a bitterness that ate his gut--- ate his soul.

 

Somehow Toke knew this too.

 

"Baracus--- and I ain't no officer!" This said with pride.

 

The Tokeman grinned. "Me neither." His salute disintegrated, as half-heartedly as it was born. Then the private slung the rifle off his shoulder. Leaned on it, curling one hand around the stock, flower power minuteman at the ready.

 

He heard a grunt, not disapproving. Then came his reply--- low--- bitter as gall. "Baracus, Bosco; First Sergeant."

 

For as they both knew, the code of conduct requires only name, rank and serial number. As if somehow the denizens of Bethlehem had also become his enemy. Men whose only real crime was luck--- the luck of the draw.

 

"3297--- "

 

A more tremulous voice echoed him. Not whispered, but nonetheless sounding as if it came from a great distance. From the farthest reaches of Reticulan space, where "I Love Lucy" signals mixed with detritus of the same frigid war. The suffering of prisoners broadcast for the suffrage of their captors, kinescopic testament to the communist way.

 

"Murdock, H.M." A pause to quell panic that threatened to steal the rest; "Captain." Get it out--- it's all those bastards need to know. "Serial number 13--- " It's all I can tell them--- no matter what they do to Face. "4819--- " No matter what--- I can't stop it. Nothing I can do--- can't stop it--- can't stop the screaming--- "55." No air--- no air left to scream. I can't---

 

Murdock's head bent lower, almost touching the ground, his chest heaving with the effort of each breath. No air--- no balm in Gilead to heal this weary, unwary soul.

 

"Stop it!" Face almost shouted, as the two men finished together. But the effort was too much; he coughed deeply. Paused for breath. Then a paroxysm of coughing, even as he struggled out of Sergeant Holt's arms.

 

"Face, I can't breathe!"

 

Basingstoke and his sergeant exchanged a look.

 

"Get Dixon to radio those air jockeys," Holt said. "Tell 'em I said to haul ass!"

 

"Right, Sarge!"

 

The private took off at a ground-eating run.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Sergeant Holt stared at the colonel. Gave his living legend a steady, questioning look--- awaiting orders. Gifted Hannibal Smith with his respect, his trust--- not easily won.

 

Just another burden to be borne, the pale eyes closed a moment. Opened. Then the order came.

 

"Let him go, son."

 

Surprised, Evan Holt released his grip on the lieutenant's arms. Rocked back, freeing the space between Templeton Peck and his---

 

"It's O.K., Murdock." Face dragged himself over to the pilot, still coughing heavily. Trying to get there before the adrenaline rush subsided, before his body realized what a stupid thing the rest of him was doing. To his lodestone drawn--- body, mind and soul--- one of the triumvirate in disagreement with the rest.

 

"I can't--- "

 

"Breathe!" Face commanded his superior officer. "You can do it." Another deep cough; "Just breathe."

 

"'m sorry, Face," B.A. said, truly surprised at what his anger had wrought. He always was. "Didn't mean ta get him all riled--- "

 

"It's O.K." Face waved him off. "Or it's gonna be in a minute." He slipped his arm under the ragged shirt. "Right, Murdock?"

 

"Yeah--- Face--- " Two more golden words from the once mute; "In--- a minute." His reply was still breathless, but taken on a full breath. As both hands, once slender--- now skeletal--- clutched at the ground in front of him. Gathered up a top layer of dust, fistfuls of new-scythed grass, deep underlying moisture from the jungle floor.

 

'One thing about that Klingon,' Holt thought. 'Sure was good at keepin' the chopper pad nice and neat. You could tee up on this grass.' He watched the pilot add bits of dried twig, the white paper from one of them Baby Ruth bars Ginty was always jonesin' after. Shook his head. 'Just saved some poor grunt from catching hell over that wrapper.'

 

Watched as an arm went around and under the rags covering Captain Murdock's body. Caught the glimpse of a hand through what was left of his jacket, a pale flash of skin under surface sun-brown and grime. The stripes of rank on his back, not bars on an officer's shoulder or chevrons on a non-com's sleeve. Stripes that were hard earned, hard won. Worn like all things of great importance, out of plain sight. Like the crucifix under Fabian's cammie, the tattoo of "Mom" on Zeus's right arm, his own love for Sarah etched deeply---

 

Holt blinked, then blinked again. Put a hand up to the bridge of his nose. Pinched it hard.

 

Stripes Lieutenant Peck also carried by the look of him. How else to explain the condition of these men? The fact that two of them looked so much worse than the others; Baracus exhibiting that peculiar mixture of anger and guilt. The same undeniable tone Holt heard in his wife's voice, that morning she caught small Sarah playing near the interstate at the edge of their farm. Knew that somehow these two officers had taken something intended for the others--- for one another. A gift forced on them by the Cong. Re-gifted to the commander, father figure, best friend, care-giver, teammate--- lover.

 

"It's dirt!" Murdock said, in a voice filled with wonder.

 

This salient observation was the best he could come up with at the moment. What was left of a man once Thunderbird, captain in the U. S. Air Force--- captain of the clouds. Grounded for far too long. All that once defined him stripped away. Like a skin that no longer fit, taken off strip by strip by whip and cane. Left in a coiled heap on the bamboo floor of his cage. Leaving only the bare essentials of what he was, what defined him, who he loved---

 

"It's dirt, Face!" Wondrous rediscovery in a world made new, made clean--- made whole.

 

"Yeah," the lieutenant said, very low.

 

Holt thought, if anything, Peck sounded even more exhausted. The marrow sucked from his bones.

 

"It's just dirt, Murdock." A sigh. "You wanna play with it--- go ahead."

 

"No!" He yanked away from the comforting hand. Adrenaline rush of the misunderstood rocked him forward. "No, Face! Ya just don't get it, do ya?"

 

"Dirt is dirt, Fool!" Baracus growled, the look on this face plain.

 

Better silence than this.

 

Rock forward. It was a movement too sudden for Face to counterbalance. The lieutenant pitched at an angle too, sending Holt scrambling from his place on the ground.

 

"I gotcha, Peck."

 

A muscular arm snaked around him--- the size of B.A. well rested, well fed.

 

Holt pulled Face upright gently.

 

"Ninety-nine pound weakling," the conman said, with a faint deprecating smile.

 

"Nah, Lieutenant." For some damn reason, Holt choked up again. Must be the dust--- dust gets fuckin' everywhere. He turned, spat behind him. "Nah!"

 

"Yeah." Then even that smile faded. "Oh, yeah."

 

"Take it easy now, Captain." It was another phrase threadbare--- worn.

 

"No, Hannibal." All of them could hear the half-sob. "No, you just don't understand!"

 

Holt felt Peck turn in the circle of his arms. Glance back at the colonel.

 

The two men exchanged a look.

 

"Face'll be alright." He felt the tug of a large hand on his jacket.

 

Surprised, Holt swung toward the others.

 

The eyes were bulldog steady, tenacious--- territorial.

 

"You can let the lieutenant go now," Brenner told him. It was unmistakably an order.

 

Even more surprised--- and surprising to himself--- more than a little hurt, Sergeant Holt gently pulled back, pulled away. Hunkered down on the ground next to Smith.

 

Face didn't even notice. "Colonel, when we get to the hospital, I want to stay with Murdock." It was half request, half statement of fact. "He needs--- "

 

"Nah, kid--- " Hannibal was already shaking his head.

 

"Klingon incoming, Sarge," crackled the P.A. "Doc McCoy five clicks out."

 

The sergeant let out a snort, managing to sound both irritated and relieved. Which just about covered it, considering. "I radioed Pleiku more than thirty minutes ago, Colonel. The MedEVAC choppers should be here any time now."

 

"Thanks," Hannibal said. "I--- "

 

Then abruptly the first portion of this message became clear as Holt's tenderfoot rounded the mess tent, several grunts trailing behind him.

 

Holt glanced up. Then over at the colonel, only to catch a gleam of humor in those tired blue eyes. Not that he was foolish enough to venture a smile of his own. Evan Holt's mama didn't raise no fool.

 

In a vain attempt to look older and perhaps by extension--- earn their respect, Tertius Berkhof III had spent the last few weeks trying to sprout facial hair. But all the wispy result over his upper lip earned him was a nickname.

 

"What the fuck's going on here?" Holt's C.O. took in Colonel Smith and others. "Who the hell are these guys? Why didn't somebody wake me up?"

 

The other men clustered around, sensing potential entertainment value in this. Ranked somewhere between a replay of the Steelers game on Armed Forces Radio and Corleone's new poster of Raquel Welch.

 

Sergeant Holt sent his hero an apologetic look. 'Christ, this kid was a fuckin' embarrassment!'

 

"Private Marin tried--- " he began.

 

"Sending Basingstoke's pothead buddy don't fucking count!" The young lieutenant clutched both sides of his head, unsure for a moment whether he was gonna keel over, or just puke up his guts.

 

Everyone but Holt and the men on the ground took a step back, just in case.

 

"Christ, my head hurts! Crocker, I'm gonna have your balls for breakfast." The kid looked a little green at the thought. "Just what the fuck was in that eggnog?"

 

"But don't you get it!?" Murdock's voice was just as strident. He glanced up at the others, tracks from the corners of his dark eyes washing his face clean--- tracks in the dirt. "Don't you understand?"

 

The louie's eyes widened. "Hey, this guy nuts or something?" He rubbed his forehead tenderly. "C'mon, Harry. What the fuck's going on?"

 

"C'mon, Fool." Soothing, tender--- ineffectual. "Calm down."

 

"But you don't understand, B.A." Murdock crumpled the Baby Ruth wrapper. "This is our dirt. Good old American Firebase whatever-the-fuck-this is dirt!"

 

"Bethlehem, Captain Murdock," Holt supplied.

 

The pilot made a half turn behind him. Wobbled, both Face and B.A. making a simultaneous grab for his jacket. What was left of it ripped down the middle, sending Murdock down on one elbow, still clutching two fistfuls of crap from the yard. "Don't I know you?" he asked Holt.

 

"Bethlehem," Face said, vindicated.

 

He and B.A. exchanged a tiny smile.

 

Then the sergeant reached forward, fishing something from what was left of Face's shirt. The crucifix he carved with a contraband penknife. Carved after Face had sold the other. The tiny gold talisman gifted from Father Magill, sending him off to a war. Sold to the highest bidder among their guards. Sold to protect them--- as he later sold himself.

 

"C'mon! Will someone just tell me--- " begged the infant C.O.

 

"Chopper," Murdock said, wiping his eyes.

 

B.A. curled his dark fist around the darker cross, wood worn smooth sweat-stained dark. "Bethlehem, Face." He tugged on the frayed string around his teammate's neck. "On Christmas Eve." Tugged so the other man could feel it. "Don't need much more than that."

 

"Sometimes it's all you get," Face answered sadly.

 

"Yeah." B.A. said, enfolding him in his arms. "But it's enough."

 

"Enough." Face looked up. The trees around them started waving in artificial breeze. "So it's finally over?"

 

"Yeah, Faceman." B.A. patted him on the back, a parting touch. Brisk, but comforting--- not unlike the man who sent him off to war. "All over now."

 

"Coupla Hueys." Berkhof's aching head tilted back, almost toppling him over. He let out a groan. "You radioed for MedEVAC, Sergeant? Without my approval?"

 

"Nope, it's a Frog." Murdock was watching the sky--- the only thing in his universe unchanged. "CH-46. Single craft, double rotors."

 

Berkhof frowned. This dark-eyed Section Eight was getting fiercely on his nerves. Offending his nostrils, unsettling his stomach--- as were they all.

 

"I got approval," Holt said.

 

"From whom?" The lieutenant 's WASP heritage was showing. "From that corporal in the radio room over at Pleiku?"

 

"Nah." Sergeant Holt grinned. "Morrison."

 

"What!?" He groaned again. "You woke up Colonel Morrison? Over a bunch of jungle rats?"

 

The bystanders all took another pace back; some directing uneasy glances over at the colonel. Apparently, Zeus's word from on high had spread.

 

Holt's grin disappeared. "Excuse me, sir!" Took years of practice to get that level of sarcasm just right. He considered it an art. "May I introduce Colonel John 'Hannibal' Smith?" His eyes grew narrower on each word. "Surely you've heard of him--- and the other members of his A-Team?" A pause; "They're back."

 

Burkhofer swallowed. Only three months Nam-side and even he knew about Smith. Just called a bird colonel a jungle rat? Man, his ass was---

 

"Yup, you sure look familiar," said Murdock. He gave the sergeant a faint, but charming grin.

 

"And this nut is their chopper pilot." Holt was savoring the moment. "Captain H.M. Murdock. Yet another officer who outranks you, Lieutenant--- in more ways than one."

 

"Only as a condiment," Murdock advised him solemnly. "Never the main course."

 

Hannibal elected to say nothing. Pitied the poor Westmoreland-wannabe; kid in deep enough shit as it was.

 

The little louie clapped both hands over his mouth. Took off at a staggering run across the yard. A race to the mess tent to see which he lost first, his wondrous ninety-day rank--- or all that eggnog.

 

Face was staring at Murdock. Like he couldn't make up his mind whether to smile or frown.

 

So Hannibal made it up for him. Grinned at the captain. "So, guess this means you're feelin' better?" he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

 

"Yeah." Murdock opened up a fist. A crosswind picked out a tuft of scarecrow grass. Sent it tumbling across the yard.

 

Above them the P.A. hummed into life. "Looks like those gooks spotted the chopper," said Dixon. "They're falling back. It's all clear, Sarge."

 

Right on cue, a Boeing-Vertol swung over the tree line. Its searchlights angled forward, filling the compound with brilliant light.

 

"Looks like we'll be out of your way in a minute," Hannibal said. "I want to thank you for the hospitality, Sergeant Holt. We owe you one." He held out his hand.

 

Holt looked down at it, flustered. "No, sir! It should be me--- I mean--- it wasn't anything---I mean--- anytime." The big man flushed. "Oh, hell--- I don't know what I mean." Took it in a firm grip.

 

"Anything--- anytime. I know you took a big chance opening that gate, above and beyond."

 

Holt couldn't help himself. "You took a big chance too, Colonel."

 

"Yeah." The older man smiled. "It's sort of my M.O."

 

"It's the Jazz," said Baracus, as if that explained it all.

 

It didn't.

 

"Yeah, there's nothing like war to play hell with the code of conduct," Hannibal said. "Just name, rank and serial number don't cut it. Takes something more. You keep that Oklahoma, Idaho--- "

 

"Iowa." Now, how in the hell did Smith know that?

 

"I'm from fifty miles outside Lansing myself--- a small farm. We grew wheat, a little corn."

 

"Dairy." Sergeant Holt smiled, remembering the Vulcan sharpshooter's opinion of all those cows.

 

"Well, it's a big jungle out there. It was just lucky we stumbled on Bethlehem, got ourselves rescued by a farm boy like you."

 

B.A. and Face exchanged a glance.

 

"I had help." Holt thought of the city boy, California boy in the crow's nest overhead. "Had me a good team."

 

"Yeah," agreed Hannibal. "That helps--- helps a lot."

 

"Well." The sergeant raked a hand through his thinning hair. "Just want to wish you all--- Oh, man, I almost forgot! There's a message for you, Colonel. From Colonel Morrison. Asked me to mention something about--- Havanas."

 

"Yeah?" This single word seemed to revitalize him as nothing else could.

 

"Yeah, the Cadillac of cigars!" proclaimed Holt. This from a man who'd only smoked one in his life--- and at his own wedding. "Rolled between the thighs of virgins." He grinned. "Or so they say."

 

"So they say." The colonel grinned back. "They say a lot of things, Sergeant--- maybe this one's even true. Anyway, sure would be interesting finding out." Plainly this was a man who needed something more than sleep, a good meal and a shower. He also needed--- a cigar.

 

"Nah, my wife would kill me." Holt let out a sigh. "Sure wish I could see her all decked out--- "

 

"You're a lucky man," the colonel said--- and he meant it.

 

"For as long as it holds." Holt resisted the urge to spit again, this time over his left shoulder. "Long as it holds. Figure I could say the same about all of you."

 

Hannibal looked around at his men--- his team. Paused at each well-known, well-loved face. Exhausted, ragged--- maybe in Murdock's case damaged beyond repair--- but they were alive. Undeniably, emphatically alive--- and that was something, maybe the only thing. Call it karma, Jazz, even the talisman Face wore around his neck. There had to be more to it than luck, more than just the luck of the draw.

 

The P.A. crackled again. One of the lookouts had obviously placed it next to the radio. "Bethlehem, this is Captain Gabriel, 17th EVAC. What's your situation--- over?"

 

"Archangel," Murdock said, looking up.

 

"Five for transport," came Toke's voice from the ground. "Hey, it's the A-Team, Gabe. Colonel John 'Hannibal' Smith--- fuckin' A! Down here, big as life--- can ya believe that?"

 

"God damn it, Toke!" Holt yelled up at the crow's nest. "Dontcha think those Cong sprechenzee just little English? Get the fuck off that P.A.!"

 

"Yeah." Captain Murdock narrowed his eyes, a persona in the making. "I know ya alright, and I'm asking ya--- "

 

Holt gave him a strange look. Half-amused, half-spooked.

 

A reaction Murdock would get a lot from here on, from those who didn't understand him. Those who refused to understand--- the more fool them.

 

But at least Holt made an effort. "No," he said gently. "We've never met, Captain, remember? I did a few deals with Lieutenant Peck, but it was Tokey who--- "

 

"Sorry, Sarge." It was an apology from above. Then a rustle, Private Dixon's aggrieved voice rising in the night air. "Toke, you got that wire wrapped around my foot!"

 

Technical difficulties still unresolved--- another transmission filled the compound.

 

"Hey, Mike!" Gabriel was obviously talking to his co-pilot. "Ya hear that? It's the A-team plus one fuckin' fucked-up--- hey, ya down there, H.M.?"

 

Murdock looked puzzled. "I don't know," he said, giving the question more existential weight that it deserved. Would they know him, these old drinkin' buddies? Recognize him inside his new skin?

 

He glanced at Face for confirmation. "Am I down here?" Murdock asked, his voice trembling only slightly. "Am I, Face?"

 

"Oh, yes," came his answer. "I think you are--- now."

 

Then Face slid closer, just to see if it was true. Felt it almost immediately in the tremor of muscles under his touch, the way Murdock finally met his eyes head on. Heard it in what wasn't said, at least not in words--- the pilot's gentle song.

 

'Love me tender. Make me real,' his skin seemed to sing. Body electric, body somehow growing whole. Changed by all that's gone before--- but just as beautiful, just as wondrous as the old. 'Love me as I love you. Love me skin horse real.'

 

Bethlehem.

 

Christmas Eve.

 

Much longed-for lover returned.

 

All changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

 

"Yes, you're really here," Face said--- and he meant it.

 

He draped an arm across Murdock's shoulders, outlining the sharp scapular angle, bone against bone. Reveled in that returning current. Felt it leap again. Arc into his finger, his hand--- race unerringly into the center of what he was, what made him whole.

 

Face tapped the remaining fist. "You can let go now, Murdock. It's time to go home."

 

"Let go?" Dark eyes at once naive with wonder, wise beyond the limits of a lifetime. The limits of a body he called home. "O.K., Facey," he said.

 

At that Murdock released the remaining bits of grass and brush. Leaving his hands now empty---or almost empty. Carefully flattened the Baby Ruth wrapper on his knee, smoothing it white paper side up. His skeletal fingers once slender--- still clever--- giving it a quick fold upward at each end. Making it aerodynamically sound.

 

Then came a rustle of static, wolf-weird noise from the chopper overhead. Something part howl, part yippee-ki-yi-yea--- Range Rider a ridin' the range.

 

"Nah, Mike!" said a laughing radio voice. "Know ya can't fuckin' get it right! Wait for Murdock; wait for the real thing--- "

 

Their voices cut off as Toke finally located the switch.

 

"Lin Duk Coo," said Ray.

 

Purveyor of bread, manna from heaven--- the one they left behind.

 

"He never could get it--- " The tall man sighed. "Sure hope he's gonna be alright."

 

Hannibal fumbled in his jacket. Withdrew a key. "Here, you take this--- souvenir. Lin would've wanted you to have it. Always did like you best."

 

"Liked Murdock best, Colonel." Brenner smiled. "And you know it--- but thanks anyway." He tucked it away for safekeeping. "Thanks a lot."

 

"Hey, Face. They're almost here!" A single bounce, excited as a child on Christmas morning. Then the inevitable gasp that followed, too much for the body that held the soul.

 

"Take it easy," Face said. "Easy now." He stroked Murdock's shoulder, feeling the thrum of power. Made new, but not quite whole. Heard Murdock's music in the steady thrum of chopper blades over their heads.

 

The pilot gave him a distracted smile. Then turned to Sergeant Holt, his eyes narrowing against the light, against the rising dust around them. "So you gotta ask yourself one question," he said, persona rushing in where even angels--- "Do I feel lucky?"

 

Holt laughed aloud. Captain Murdock was really good at voices--- no lie! His own nickname come to life, right here in the fuckin' jungle.

 

"Well, do ya, punk?" It was a voice full of silky menace, forty-four-magnum threat.

 

"Man, you oughta be in pictures!"

 

Murdock suddenly grinned, all trace of 'Harry' gone. "Nah." His hand went up, a quick ruffle of very dirty blond hair. "This tough guy--- not me."

 

"Cut it out!" Face said, sounding only half annoyed.

 

"Tough guy." Murdock's voice was in his ear. Just barely heard over the Archangel, passage of wings around the men on the ground.

 

"Ya oughta shine as brightly," he sang, only half-teasing. Two fingers lifted up, the graceful rustle-ruffle of white paper against Face's hair. "As Jupiter or Mars." Quick launching into a maelstrom of lift and drag, his intrepid little craft following the swirl upwards--- up into the light. Murdock leaned closer. "My star of stars."

 

"Captain?" Holt was almost shouting over the noise. "Lieutenant Peck?" Even though the sergeant was pretty sure he was interrupting something. That Toke was pretty much on the money as to what it was. Because, after all, it might be the last time he'd ever see them. Ya never know.

 

He reached for Murdock's hand. Shook it. Then the lieutenant beside him, his fellow sergeant and Ray Brenner sitting close behind. Each man gladly shaking back--- a thank you and a goodbye.

 

"Hopin' just a little will rub off," he called out. Then Holt turned his head, exchanging a tired grin with the colonel. Maybe just a little extra was all he needed. Get him home to those wheat fields, paint-peeled barn, interstate humming in the distance--- to his Sarah. "'Cause you're the goddamn luckiest guys I know."

 

"More than just luck," Face said, as the chopper touched down.

 

It was a true dust-off--- the leaves, brush, all dancing in the night air.

 

Then came a weird sound from the man beside him, tentative but undeniable. Part wolf, part hacking cough--- dust wasn't doing the Range Rider any too good. Fuckin' fucked-up cowboy yippee-ki-yea howl.

 

It was the real thing.

 

"Thank you," Face whispered--- no voice, no heart to say anything more. "Thank you."

 

"Hey, it's gonna be alright." It was the miracle voice of his lover, Hawaiian warm and Texas sweet. "Gonna be alright, baby. We're goin' home."

 

He buried his face in Murdock's neck.

 

 

FINI

 

 

"Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground. Yet man is born unto trouble. As the sparks fly upwards."

 

-Job 5:7 (King James Version)

 

 

Nicole Wilson, 2003

 

 

 


Excelsis Dei by Nicole Wilson

 

 


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