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Madness In The Spring
Summary: It's a Vietnam-era story that tells the story of Face and Murdock's friendship and how it becomes more.
Warnings: Slash (Face/Murdock). Some violence, some angst, but there aren't many gory details. Mention of torture in the POW camp, but it's offscreen.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters, nor making any profit from them.
The really fun thing about being the guy on base people came to to get things was that Face knew the dirty little secrets of most of the men around him.
He knew which guys wanted porn - he knew which ones wanted porn on such a regular basis they couldn't have had money for anything else. He knew which ones needed hash, needed whiskey once a week. He knew which ones cared enough about their families to pay him for arranging calls home.
His team was typical. Hannibal's vice was cigars. He liked quality, and he paid for it. BA was big on packages from home. Face helped him free of charge - well, he accepted payment in cookies instead of money. Mail was easy. Ray wanted whiskey and cigarettes - Face's two biggest sellers. John Piper wanted the magazines. He also wanted rubbers on a fairly regular basis, though no one was sure who he was using them with. One of the team's mysteries, and Pipe was one of those rare soldiers that didn't kiss and tell.
Outside of his team Face handled transactions for most of the grunts on base. Even a couple of the flyboys and a few officers. He could get it all - that was his rep, and Hannibal wouldn't have brought him on if it wasn't true.
Not a lot of requests surprised him after the first month. He learned to tell by the look in a grunt's eye whether they wanted their porn with tits or cocks. He could tell if the fifty bucks he was handed was for a couple gallons of rotgut or a few ounces of the good shit.
He dealt in vice, and he was good at it. Even the little vices - coffee for his team, ice cream when base morale was low. Music from the states, reel-to-reels so they could watch old movies.
Yeah, he had his system down. Nam, life on the base, it wasn't much different than anywhere else. You set up your con, ran your hustle. It was more up front than back home, but otherwise it was the same shit in a different country.
Face was a cockroach. He adapted. He twisted to make life fit him. Even if that life involved fire and bullets and screams, mosquitoes and swampy jungles. Death, dying. Guys waving goodbye to him and coming back with half their arm gone. Not coming back at all.
War was hell. Nothing new under the sun.
He adapted to it. Made himself indispensable, first to the base and then the guys in his rooms, then Hannibal when he was picked up by the new team.
And nothing surprised him. No fetish mags or polka music or special weapons. Nothing even made him blink.
Until the day he was introduced to HM Murdock.
Gibbons, one of his regular customers, came up to Face outside the mess one evening. His arm was slung around the shoulder of a new face - tall, skinny, smiling like he was outside a circus tent and not in the middle of Vietnam.
"Murdock, this is the Face to know. You ask him for what you want, he'll get it faster'n you can blink."
Face nodded humbly at Gibbons, who took off jogging back to his bunk.
And Face was left with the grinning new guy. Pilot, he could see instantly, and he could predict the order. Whiskey and smokes.
"Nice to meet you, Face." The guy's voice was drawling and Southern - Face mentally shifted the order. JD or SoCo, if he had enough money to specify. He spoke faster than a lot of the southern boys Face had met. Stood with weight forward, like he was ready to get into motion again. Adrenaline-crammed flyboy.
But smiles could be rare around there, and Face didn't mind seeing one that actually looked sincere.
"What can I get for you?"
Murdock's eyes shifted around. He leaned in. "Ever heard of a Kenwood EXT?"
Face blinked. "Nope. Doesn't mean I can't get it, of course."
"Good! They run about fifty in the states, so..."
"Hard to get?"
"Not illegal or anything." Murdock answered fast. "Lotta stores got 'em."
"There's a markup, of course."
"Sure." Murdock grinned, bouncing on his toes. "Just tell me how much."
"Hundred." One hundred percent markup was high for him, but whiskey and cigs were easy. Something from a shop in the world would be tricky. "And some time."
"Don't worry, I'll blink real slow."
Face raised his eyebrows, then remembered what Gibbons had said about him and grinned. "You do that. Got the money?"
Murdock pulled out a wallet from his cammies and counted out five bills. "Bleeding me dry here, Facey." Though Face could see with the practiced eye of a salesman that there were a few more bills there. "And listen. I was hoping you could get it here around Christmas."
"That's three months away. I don't work that slow."
Murdock smiled, brilliant and bright. "Could ya? This once?"
Face shrugged, pocketing the bills. "Whatever the man wants."
"Good. And don't mention it to anyone. Or me. I've got a short memory. If I forget about it it'll be like a Christmas present."
Face couldn't hide a laugh. This guy had to be straight off the frigging farm. Young, too. Could've been younger than Face, even, and that was saying something around there.
Murdock threw an arm around his shoulder. "Tell me, Faceguy. How good are you with comic books?"
Face blinked. "I don't get many requests for them, but I know a guy."
"Great! I think we're gonna get along, compadre."
Face wasn't inclined to agree quite yet.
He almost warned Murdock that there was no use making friends until he had a couple months in and found out what person war was going to change him into. A lot of fast friendships dissolved under fire. One of those strange side effects of war.
Still, he shrugged Murdock's arm off more gently than he could have. "We'll see about that." He flashed his cockiest smile - no reason not to show the kid what kind of person he was - and sauntered off.
He could've sworn he heard a chuckle behind him, but decided for his own pride he wouldn't look back and confirm it.
BA, despite appearances, wasn't an easy man to stir. He knew who the enemy was. When it came to other soldiers, to the overheard racial slurs or just the regular abuse, he didn't often react.
Face thought that it was because he'd spent a whole life fighting up until then. Face probably didn't have it as bad - a Catholic orphanage wasn't the Ritz, but it was hardly a cesspool of violence. But he understood how tiring it was being angry all the time.
BA didn't like to argue. He didn't break up fights other grunts were having. Really, he didn't say much to anyone. It wasn't until Face had been on the team a month that he'd even start saying hello.
"Seen a lot of new guys come and go fast," BA explained in his terse style, when Face asked him about it months later. "No use gettin' to know someone when you're just gonna bury 'em in a week."
But Face didn't think that was all there was to it.
People took BA at face value. He was built big and always had been. He wasn't always pissed off, but his tightly held mouth and bulk made him seem that way. He was bald and black and that was enough to make most people form a whole bunch of opinions.
When BA met people they instantly figured he'd be violent, mean. Pick fights. Drink and play hard.
He was none of those things, and living down those expectations was tiring. By the time Face met him, he was tired of even trying. So he stayed quiet, let people think what they thought and he didn't do anything to change their minds one way or the other. The ones who actually tried to get to know him were the only ones he figured deserved to know him.
There was a lot to the gruff Sergeant, and though Face wasn't a sentimental guy he felt privileged to be one of the few people who knew BA as he really was.
Huge scary black man. The sweetest guy Face had ever met.
The second time Face crossed paths with that bizarre cheerful pilot, Murdock, was because of BA.
He'd just gotten in a shipment - a few cases sneaked in by one of the chopper pilots he worked with. He'd been busy most of them day unloading bottles and cartons and getting things where they belonged. There were always extras, but those went fast.
By late afternoon he had enough money in his wallet to make him cheerful. He was on his way to talk the day out with Hannibal - the Colonel knew full well about his extracurricular acquisitions, and as long as Face was fair to the guys and gave a small percentage of his income to the team in the form of a couple of bottles, or a real dinner one night, Hannibal fully supported him.
He understood the importance of doing things under the table sometimes. Greasing wheels, making friends. Drumming up good will. He let Face be as long as he didn't bring in anything illegal or dangerous. Which made Hannibal the best CO he'd had in his brief time serving. A CO who understood the importance of morale over rules was a good guy in Face's book.
So he was off to count the receipts and plan out what treat the team would be getting out of it, when he heard commotion outside the Club.
Commotion outside the Club - commotion anywhere - wasn't a rare thing, and he wouldn't have even looked in that direction if he hadn't heard BA's voice, growling but carrying above the shouts.
"Just don't think it takes five of you to make any kind of point. Unless all five a'yall share one brain between you."
"Stay out of this, Sergeant. You weren't there."
Face wandered over. He wasn't big on fighting, but he was big on being loyal to the few people who had his back. BA was at the top of that list.
"No, I wasn't there. Seems to me since you all made it here alive you shouldn't be holdin' no grudges."
"Grudges, shit. We're fucking tired of these fucking crazy pilots trying to get us killed."
Oh, that old song. Face knew that one - had been on the grunts' side of this one a few times.
Grunts and pilots were oil and water. They didn't mix, but light a match to it and it'd burn all the same.
He saw the tall, lanky form of the pilot who'd asked him about comic books, and was interested despite himself. He made his way to BA, coming up behind the grunts facing him down. He didn't so much as glance at Murdock, half-hiding behind BA's bulk.
"What's going on, guys?" His voice was mild and calm, same as always.
BA grunted. "They think it's okay to jump a guy on his way out the latrine. Five to one, Face. You know how I feel about those kinda odds."
Face nodded, looking to the grunts glowering past BA at Murdock. "He doesn't like those kind of odds," he reported to them, all sympathy.
"Yeah, but now it's three against five. And one of them three's me. I think I'm startin' to feel a little better."
Face sighed to himself, hoping BA would be able to solve this without punches thrown. He was in too good a mood to get hit.
The five men stood, silent. None of them confident enough to act like a leader, Face figured. So he supposed he ought to do it for them.
Luckily he recognized one of his customers in the group. "Alright, Jackson, I know you at least have a couple packs of smokes waiting for you back in your bunks. Fresh off the truck. You'd better claim 'em before one of your pals grabs them."
"Oh, come on. Isn't smoking a few and sitting out in the sunset a better way to spend the next hour than sitting waiting on the doc to come patch you up?" He kept the threat out of his voice. If it sounded like a threat it'd seem like they were backing down. This way it was just a choice made among pals.
Jackson - he was the porn type, but none of those came in that day - hesitated, glancing back at his little gang.
One of the guys on his left spoke up after a tense pause. "We're gonna see you later, flyboy."
"Better make sure I ain't around when you do," BA growled.
The grunts backed off, tossing back a few insults as they moved as a pack towards the barracks.
Face clapped BA on the arm. "You scary bastard."
BA glanced at him. He gave one of those quick grins that still took Face by surprise. But it faded and he looked back at the pilot.
Murdock was watching the backs of the grunts. His eyes took up about half his face.
"So what'd you do to get on their bad side?" Face asked him.
Murdock threw up his hands, turning those owl eyes on Face. "I saved their lives."
Face blinked, but shrugged. "Guess you shouldn't do that again."
Murdock grinned, shaken but apparently recovering some of that cheer he'd had when he first met Face. "Guess not. Jesus. Hey, thanks, big guy. You came up outta nowhere, man. Thought I was a goner."
"Maybe you shoulda been." BA glowered at him.
Murdock blinked, getting a little of that shaken look back in his eyes.
"Damn fool pilots always putting us in danger. Most of you need some sense knocked in ya."
Murdock backed up a step. But then he relaxed again, grinning. "You don't scare me, you big pussycat. That is the sweetest pair of brown eyes I ever did see."
Face stepped in fast. "Hey, Murdock. Come on. I have a few questions about those items you requested from me." He grabbed a skinny arm and led the pilot away.
"Aw, why, Face? I was just getting to know the big guy. He wouldn't've hurt me." Murdock's eyes flashed on Face. "He wouldn't've hurt me, would he?"
"Hard to say with him." Face glanced back. He raised his eyebrows.
Face returned the smile and faced Murdock. "He's a little nuts about pilots, you know."
"Hey, so am I! We could've made friends."
Face shook his head, chuckling. Strange guy, this one, but he kind of liked him. Two weeks in and still as bright-eyed as he had been.
It would all change in a month, but for now it was kind of fun.
"So what did you really do to those guys?"
Murdock glanced back, as if making sure they were gone. "Told you already."
"You saved their lives, and it made them want to kill you?"
Murdock hesitated. "I guess I saved their lives kinda....exuberantly?"
Face decided he didn't want to know what that meant. The way pilots got rotated, he figured the team would end up flying with Murdock at some point.
Face went on with business as usual - interrupted by a few LRRPs in the jungle and one raid on a village up north that involved a lot of screaming and cursing and more of the same.
The stuff of nightmares. Nothing new.
He heard stories spread about the base's new pilot.
There were a couple of schools of thought about Murdock - most thought the guy was nuts, took unnecessary risks. People even muttered that he was really, actually crazy. Then there were a few guys, from a couple of missions in particular, who said they'd breathe easier if they knew Murdock was the one picking them up from a hotspot.
Just as much as his flying abilities, though, guys talked about his brain. There were pretty nasty rumors that he was actually retarded. Everyone - even the few who talked up the guy - said he was spaced out, odd, eccentric in ways different than most of the nutso adrenaline-drugged pilots they had.
Face heard one guy telling his pal at the club that the guy was an 'idiot cervantes'. He just smiled and sipped his beer and enjoyed the irony.
He was sure about one thing regarding Murdock...well, two. One, that the guy was a nutcase about those damned comics. He asked for them the way other guys asked for smokes.
Two, Face was building up a real anticipation about flying with him. Guys like that, who became legends within weeks, were rare. Hannibal Smith had been one. Face, in his way, was another - the pretty-faced teenager who could talk anyone out of anything. Hell, even BA was the stuff of stories, though those were pretty much wrong.
He wanted to know what was true in Murdock’s case. He wanted to fly with Murdock, see if he got that jazz in his eyes that Hannibal got. Or if he was just a new kid with a spectacular way of hiding his incompetence.
"Pipe, where the fuck is the transport?"
He didn't curse. Not often. Now was a good time for it, though. Face was panting, hurting. Fucking terrified.
"Hannibal! Three following!" Ray burst into the small clearing they'd all tried to make it to for safety.
Safety was blown, though. Face jumped off the ground, moving quicker than thought. His rifle swept up, aiming past Ray at the trees.
Pipe dropped the radio and grabbed his gun, and Hannibal swore a long, complex curse Face would have written down any other time. The man was a genius when he was fucked.
Three VC - they were always so fucking small, was Face's passing reaction - dove into the clearing. They stopped dead at the sight of the soldiers, but didn't have time to so much as lift their weapons or turn for cover.
A blast of thunder from all around him, from the gun in his own hand, and Face watched the VC fall.
"Where the fuck is BA? Where the fuck is the fucking chopper?"
Pipe grabbed the radio again, and Ray and Face covered him instinctively. "Waiting for volunteers, Colonel. There's two VC bases in the area."
Hannibal cursed again, unintelligible and vehement.
Face steeled himself.
It was the biggest reason why grunts and flyboys never got along. Grunts lived or died on whether a pilot felt like flying. Good basis for resentment.
There were crashing footsteps from his right, and he and Ray swung together, calm, aiming over Pipe's head.
A loud, breathless whistle split the air, and Face felt himself relax just a fraction.
BA dove into the clearing, nearly rolling into Pipe. He caught himself and jumped onto his feet, crouching where he fell, sharp and ready.
No one followed. For a moment there was the sound of panting, the calm of the jungle, and the static from Pipe's radio.
Hannibal strode forward suddenly. "Up, guys. If we're walking we're--"
He cut off instantly.
All eyes went up
Rotors. Too miraculous, must've been one of Charlie's. They split apart, leaving the middle of the small clearing to hug the trees and stay out of sight.
The rotors grew louder, thunder rolling in on top of them. Suddenly, drilling into the thunder, the sharp blast of gunfire. The ping of bullet against metal.
Face crowed, moving to the middle of the clearing. Charlie was shooting at the chopper - meant it was theirs.
Sure enough, a beautiful hunk of green metal came screaming in above them, slicing the air. A head stuck halfway out, surveying the clearing. Too high for Face to see clearly.
But he knew the clearing was too small. He dove for the map, for an emergency LZ close by that the pilot could follow them to.
Nothing. Nothing. Shit.
He turned when BA called, and looked up when the big man pointed that way.
"Jesus!" He dove back to the trees, map crushed to his chest. The guy was landing. The crazy asshole was dropping down.
Trees smacked the chopper from all sides. Splinters and branches rained down on their heads.
Gunfire from the left, closer. Face dropped the map, gripped his rifle.
"Son of a bitch!" Ray's exclamation was strangely muted.
Face watched with the rest of them, incredulous, as the chopper angled and shifted like it was on strings being directed from above. And then it was hovering there, feet off the ground.
Pipe reacted first, grabbing the radio set and diving right into the chopper.
Just as the ping of bullets on metal started blasting again, Face and Ray moved together. Running, jumping. Unable to believe their luck.
BA got on and, of course, didn't look like he thought there was anything lucky about it. Poor man. There wasn't a worse place on earth to fear flying.
The craft started lifting, as slow and careful as he had come down. A branch, then two, were flung inside as the rotors sliced them off, and one caught Face in the chest. He cursed, threw it out of the chopper.
Grinned like a fucking maniac.
From the front, from the unseen pilot, came a loud, rending howl.
Ray jumped. "Jesus! It's fucking Murdock!"
"Yeah?" Pipe was busy with the radio, but for a moment he glanced towards the front.
"Howling, just like I heard."
"Who gives a shit who it is?" Face felt the moment the chopper was over the trees. It broke free like a bird from a cage, leaping forward and up.
Hannibal was grinning fiercely, his eyes sharp and gleaming.
There was only a moment of peace. A shrill whistle tore into the air, and all smiles dropped.
"Damn it." Pipe dropped the radio and hugged the side of the chopper.
"Strap in, muchachos!" The voice drifted back from the cockpit. Southern. Fucking Murdock, all right. "Gonna get a little insane. Just the way we like it!" Another howl split the air as the chopper dove, sharp, to the left. An explosion boomed behind them. The chopper rocked, but flew on.
Face felt his stomach curl and roll. He shut his eyes and planted his back to the wall of the chopper. More bullets against the side. Another whistle. They must've been flying low, because he could hear those screams, the calls in that strange language.
They were dead. Fucking dead men.
"I want him."
"Oh. Oh, Face. Oh, do I want him. I want him every time we fly out. I want him every time we get picked up."
Face couldn't help but laugh. Three hours later, the jazz was still pumping through his CO's veins. "We don't schedule pilots."
"I could give a flying fuck. I want him, and we're damn sure going to get him."
Face shook his head, but he didn't argue. Truth to tell, he had never known any pilot even willing to attempt what Murdock had done, much less pull it off. The guy had saved their asses.
It had been the worst flight of his life, of course. They'd been under fire most of the way home. Rocking and diving and climbing and spinning. BA puked out the door twice. Ray once.
And from the front came more howls, snatches of songs. When they landed Murdock had waved to them with a smile. Like this was casual shit that happened every day.
Face understood, looking back, why those grunts had been on him that day. It would've been easy to listen to that, to see the huge grin and casual wave on landing, and think that Murdock had been playing some game with their safety.
But Face was smarter than that. He knew how many times they should have died. He knew they survived because the guy was maybe a little nuts, sure, but definitely a genius at the controls.
Yeah, Hannibal wanted him. Face didn't argue.
He'd got his wish - a flight with the guy everyone was scared of.
And he wanted Murdock too.
Hannibal pulled some strings somewhere obnoxiously high; somewhere Face couldn't have reached. The week after their near-death flight he came into the bunks leading Murdock behind him.
The pilot was grinning, hands in his pockets, walking in a long-legged lope. He saw Face and BA. "Hey. Met you guys."
Face jumped off his bunk. He shoved the comic he'd been reading - one of Murdock's new arrivals - under his pillow. "You met all of us, Captain. Saved our skinny asses."
"Yeah, but I met you two for real." His beam went to BA. "How's it going, big guy?"
BA grunted, looking to Hannibal in curiosity.
Hannibal slung an arm around the pilot's shoulder. "Murdock here's gonna be bunking with us. We've got ourselves an understanding with the boys at the chopper pads. This here's the A-Team's pilot."
"What?" BA stood up at that, hands fisting. "Fool that nearly got us killed?"
Murdock turned laughing eyes to Face. "You were right. I really gotta stop saving so many lives. I can't take the hatred."
Face shrugged. "It was kind of a wild ride, Murdock."
"Yep. Just the way I like 'em."
"You're crazy, man. Hannibal, he's crazy."
Hannibal thumped Murdock on the back. "I knew you guys would hit it off. Face, tell him how things are around here. BA, stop scowling and come with me. I have a jeep I need you to look at."
BA moved past Murdock with a growl.
Murdock grinned at him, then turned brown eyes to Face. "Alright, amigo. Tell me how things are."
Face sighed, but the quirk of Murdock's eyebrows made him smile a moment later. "Alright, the speech." He'd done this more than a few times for grunts that lasted a week before they requested easier assignments. Or died. He had it down, short and sweet.
"Hannibal isn't the biggest on discipline. Not the bullshit stuff, the saluting and sirs and that kind of crap." He gestured Murdock along, past the half-barracks of mostly empty bunks: Hannibal was picky about his guys. "Take any of these you want."
"How far away d'you want me?"
Face glanced back at him.
"Anyway. Hannibal's got a couple of hard fast rules. You don't question his orders. Ever. You don't even hesitate. You don't have to salute him when he comes in a room, but you damn well remember when it counts who your CO is. And the second - you never, ever do anything to hurt anyone on your team. We don't operate same as platoons of grunts. We're not even standard for an a-team. We’re tight, and we have to trust each other."
Murdock's grin faded a little.
Face raised his eyebrows, waiting.
Murdock just shrugged. "Sounds fair to me. Don't expect I'll be on the ground a lot, though."
"You ever been?"
His eyes grew more hooded. "Couple times."
Face kept going on the short tour, keeping the small talk brief and leaving the pilot to unpack.
He found Hannibal near the depot, half-under a jeep with BA's broad thighs jutting out beside him.
Face cleared his throat.
"Murdock squared away?"
Face blinked. "Should I even ask how you knew it was me?"
"Nobody wears cologne here, Face. Nobody sane."
He rubbed at his chin absently. "
Face crouched, squinting into the obnoxious sunlight pouring heat down every minute of the day. "Of course you did." Hell, when Hannibal called him in to talk about signing on, he'd known details of Face's life that even Face forgot.
"He's new to the base, but he isn't new to the war, or flying. He was a Thunderbird."
"That guy?" Face jerked
his eyes down to
A quick nod, and
"I'm not saying he can't fly. I'm saying he might be nuts."
"He's a pilot. Look, he was in the Birds, and after he landed in country he flew into some heavy shit. There's even a couple of holes in his files. Month-long holes."
Face shook his head. "Come on. Spook missions? Guy acts like he doesn’t even know there’s a war on."
Hannibal grinned. "Potential outs itself around here. There's a lot going on with Murdock, and we did good to grab him up while we could." He hesitated. Legs crossed in front of him, cigar in his mouth, he could have been any dad outside during a barbeque in the states.
He studied Face. "I don't think he's scared of anything. Grunts think he's nuts because he does crazy things like he did for us. Now, you flew with Murdock same as they did. You think he's a danger? Or you think he's the one you want to know is coming for us?"
Face shrugged. Hannibal expected honesty, and it wasn't hard with him. "I just don't want to think about how many fights we're going to get in defending him from all the guys here who want a piece of him."
BA slid out from under the jeep. The dull black of oil stained his hands and his cheek. He looked at Face, silent and pointed.
Face felt his face heat. Remembering, as BA wanted him to, how many times BA came to his rescue when he was just the pretty boy kid who had an undeserved reputation as a pickpocket.
Hannibal chuckled and got to his feet. He strode to Face, slapped him on the arm. "He's a kid, Face. Few months younger than you, if you'll believe that. Lost his parents. Shouldn't be here. Same as you. Go easy, and remember he's one of us now."
That mention of Murdock losing his parents was artfully designed to get to Face - the perpetual orphan. He didn't think much about it, though, until he was getting ready for shut-eye that night. He found Murdock set up halfway down the barracks, four bunks away from the rest of them.
He went over. "Guess I should have answered you about that, huh? I think you'll be safe sleeping with us."
Murdock looked up from the comic he was reading - one of the first Face had gotten for him, dog-eared and wrinkled already. He grinned. "Nah, don't wanna get those grunt germs."
Face regarded him, eyebrows arched.
Murdock went back to reading.
After a moment, Face turned and left him behind.
Murdock was too hard to figure out, and Face wasn't sure he had enough interest in trying. He liked people he could understand. Sure, most of his team was complicated in their own ways, and he'd had to learn them. But they earned it.
Murdock hadn't yet.
Well. Maybe he saved their lives. Once. But--
He stopped, glancing back.
Murdock sat up, tucking the comic under the thin mattress like it was a dirty magazine or something. He hesitated, not quite looking at Face. "Uh. Look. It ain't you guys. Hell, you went out looking for me, and that makes you better than any other grunts I ever met. But..." He grinned strangely, looking up. "You said we all gotta trust each other here. I don't...I mean. Guys don't trust me. Hell if I know why, but they don't. You saw those guys you had to save me from. I get that. A lot."
Face moved towards him again slowly. A little twitter of guilt hit him when he realized he had been about as ungrateful as Jackson and his gang of bullies. "You're a good pilot," he said carefully.
Murdock's eyes flashed. "I'm the best pilot they're ever gonna see on this base." It was spoken firmly, without much ego in it. Stating fact.
Face wasn't inclined to argue. He was smart enough to pick apart the stories the guys told, and every one of them had in common that the grunts had been fucked until Murdock swooped in where he maybe shouldn't have and got them back alive. The ones who were alive when he got there, anyway.
That meant something.
Shit. It should have meant everything.
Murdock flashed a smile, relaxing again when Face didn't argue with his claim. "I guess I just don't act right most of the time."
"Yeah?" Face snorted. "What's acting right? Getting shit-faced every night and throwing fists, telling made-up stories about girls you banged back home?"
Murdock raised his eyebrows, grinning. "Above that, are you?"
Face shrugged. "I'm a good Catholic boy." He flashed a smile that was all con.
Murdock looked right through it. Face wasn't even sure how he knew, but the eyes on him, wide and innocent though they looked, saw right in to the back of his skull.
But he didn't snort or laugh like the grunts would've. He just grinned that grin. "You're right, though. I ain't good at that." He hesitated, eyes dropping, and his smile softened. "I ain't even here, you know. Most days, I ain't here."
That sounded potentially dangerous. Face leaned against the side of the bunk. "Yeah? Where are you?"
Murdock tugged out that dog-eared comic and held it out. "Here."
Face smiled again. Yeah, he liked the guy. Nothing to do with being an orphan or a Thunderbird or a mental case. There was just something about him that...hell, he almost felt nostalgic listening to Murdock. Like he was younger, back home.
"Back at seventeen hundred, Captain."
"Yessir." Murdock sent them a wave. He was wearing a dark pair of aviators that made his wide grin seem even wider.
They ducked and ran as the wind kicked up around them.
Face glanced back at the chopper as it rose and hovered for a few moments.
Hannibal whistled them all to attention. "Let's move out. Fast and quiet. I want to get us out of here without firing a shot."
"Yeah, no problem." Pipe's voice was wry.
Hannibal held up a hand. His eyes were over their heads. "The hell is he doing?"
Face glanced back. The chopper was still hovering there, thundering its noise and stirring the dirt.
After another few seconds the chopper set out, over the trees and out of sight.
Hannibal's eyes were flashing, and Face knew their brand new pilot was going to hear about that loud, obvious delay.
He turned back to his guys. "Pipe, you and BA take out the--"
The roar of the chopper swung over their heads.
Hannibal glared up. "What the hell is he--"
The chopped dove down, hovering to the same spot he'd dropped them off.
Murdock wasn't grinning anymore. "Get on."
They obeyed instantly, even Hannibal, cramming back onto the chopper without a pause.
You learned fast not to question shit like that.
The chopper swung upwards.
Tense, confused, there was silence in the back. Hannibal shrugged off his pack and moved to the front, his eyes dark.
A familiar whistle sent them all hugging the walls. The whistle vanished, and an instant later fire shot upwards at them, sending the chopper flinging to the side.
Hannibal was thrown back into Pipe. BA was holding fistfuls of webbing so hard his knuckles were pale.
The chopper was dropping, going down in an unnatural way, side first. There was a voice from up front. Face leaned in, closest to the pilot, trying to hear what he was saying.
"...alone or in pairs...a slinkity sound..."
He shut his eyes as the chopper lurched, and ground his teeth to fight the nausea.
"...everyone knows it's slinky..."
He opened his eyes and glowered at the front. What the fuck was going...
He realized after a moment that the chopper had been righted.
"Son of a bitch."
His eyes turned to the voice, to Hannibal, who was still half on top of Pipe and looking down out the door.
Face swallowed and leaned over, looking down.
The place they'd landed was a mass of smoke, of fire.
When it cleared, there would be nothing but flattened trees and scorched ground.
"Jesus." He heard the whisper and realized it was him.
"Everyone got their fingers and toes back there?" Murdock's voice came back cheerfully as the chopper lifted up and roared the way they'd flown in.
"Think so, Captain." Hannibal picked himself up off of Pipe without apology and moved up to the front, sticking his head through to the controls. "What the hell?"
"Snafu, Colonel." Murdock sounded like he was having a ball. "Intel came piping on the radio about Charlie, gave these coordinates. Time I got on to stop 'em, bombs were in the air."
Face swore, loud and fierce and buried under the curses of his team. Fucking intel. Fucking piece of shit intel. There had to be laws about being as fucking incompetent as the guys in intelligence were.
"Took a risk, coming to get
"Nobody gets left behind, Colonel. We'll be home in forty."
Hannibal came back and sat down by Face. His eyes were still dark, simmering.
Someone at base was going to wish they were dead before the day was out. Face let out a breath, still drugged up on adrenaline.
Ray laughed, high pitched and tense as a wire. "Intel'll take this as fucking improvement."
"How the hell you figure that?" Pipe asked through his teeth.
"Because, at least there was a fucking chopper where they said it would be."
There was silence. Face wasn't sure whether to laugh or shoot something, and the team looked like they shared his problem.
From up front, loud, came Murdock's voice. "A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!"
BA shut his eyes, still fisting the webbing. "Man's crazy, Face."
Face nodded agreement. "Yeah. Thank God."
"Everyone knows it's slinky!"
Christmas was the best time of year. Not the most profitable for him - Father Magill was in his head enough to guilt him into lowering his profit margins around the holidays. But the boxes he brought in around Christmas meant more to the grunts than the usual smoke and drink. It meant working all his skills to get some unusual requests - either for the grunts or for their families back home. He rushed a lot of mail, and called in a lot of favors that he ended up tallying up to his side again.
He stayed busy, and that was a good thing.
December 23rd brought him a few boxes, and amid the gifts coming in and the mail from the states - not to mention the inevitable porn, smokes, and drinks - was a package from a little toy shop in the states.
For a moment he thought it must've been a mistake. One of the guys' gifts for his kid sent here on error. But then he remembered where he'd heard the name. Kenwood EXT.
He remembered what Murdock had said about the request - he wanted to forget it was coming, so it would be his very own little Christmas surprise.
An orphan, Hannibal had said. Face supposed that meant no one else would be sending him surprises.
He sure as hell knew how that felt.
So he regarded the box at the end of the day when most
everything else had found its way to the grunt it belonged to. With a little of
Father Magill in his mind he grabbed up some of the discarded packing from the
tent he worked out of.
He spent a few minutes taping and wrapping, and in the end had a really shitty-looking present wrapped.
He stood back and looked and was almost ready to dismantle it again, telling himself he was an idiot, but he hesitated.
If anyone in the world would appreciate shitty paper wrapping, it'd be Murdock.
He locked it up in the tent - wasn't Christmas yet, after all - and smiled on the way back to his barracks.
"You gonna sit over there all day?"
Murdock shrugged over his comic book. "Day off. I'm allowed."
Face grinned. "You've got the day off because it's Christmas."
Murdock smiled, reaching up to nudge a growth hanging from the unused top bunk. "I know."
Face leaned in, squinting. Just a bunch of leaves from the floor of the jungle, tied together and hanging up. "Holly or mistletoe?" he asked, used to the pilot enough to put it together.
Murdock sat up with a sudden smile. "It ain't mistletoe unless you want a kiss."
Face blinked, surprised. “You been in country long enough to know that kinda joke isn’t exactly safe, pal.”
Murdock tilted his head. “What kinda joke?”
Face looked hard at the pilot. "You really are trying to die at the hands of your own side, aren't you?"
Murdock looked taken aback. When he spoke his voice was soft. "You gonna murder me for making a pass, Facey?"
Face looked over his shoulder, even though he knew full well the other guys were out in the mess with everyone else, celebrating the day with the beers and snacks set up for them. "You're one of us. You know better than that."
Murdock relaxed, sitting back again. "Yeah."
"Don't let Pipe hear that kind of shit, though." Tension made Face straighten, made his words sharp.
Murdock nodded a little, obviously taking in that new information.
Face shook his head. "You really must be nuts. The middle of Vietnam, surrounded by these fucking guys, you're gonna joke about that?"
Murdock's mouth tilted in a little smile. He shrugged.
"Stop it." Face dropped any pretense of being a pal giving a warning. "We get in enough arguments over you. Don't go adding something like this to the problem."
Murdock nodded after a moment. His eyes lowered, and his mouth twisted a little.
Face swallowed. Murdock was disappointed somehow.
Jesus, that really had been a pass. Clumsy and blunt, but wasn't that Murdock's style?
He turned, walking fast away from the bed. Idiot was going to get himself killed, and he wanted to take Face with him. Jesus.
Or maybe Murdock was disappointed in Face for another reason.
He shoved the door open hard. Just because Murdock was a big kid who liked everyone and looked at them all with those big, sad eyes when he caught them using slurs or laughing about some gook village they tore apart.
Fuck him anyway. He didn't have to live their lives. He could afford to think everyone was human. Face couldn't. Not if he had to look someone in the eyes and pull a trigger.
Disappointed that Face was homophobic? Well, shit. What did he know about Face's life?
He stopped outside the barracks and drew in a breath. Murdock's 'present'. That was why he went in there in the first place. He wanted to watch him open the box that was waiting down by his bunk.
He whirled, hand going for the pistol in his belt.
Murdock's hands stayed in his pockets. His eyes were steady, still sad.
Face glared. "Good way to get shot. Wait...I mean, <i>another</i> good way to get shot. You're really trying, aren't you?"
Murdock hesitated. He gave a tiny smile, eyes downcast. Like a frigging child. "There's just not a lot of people I can talk to. I wasn't...well, maybe a little I was. But I wasn't, really. Trying anything."
Face let out a breath. Fucking Murdock.
Then again, since when was he homophobic? He'd snuck enough gay porn to enough scared soldiers to not be shocked by it.
"Come on." He grabbed the pilot's arm and swung him around, marching him back into the barracks.
Murdock went without protest, not even tense under his hand.
Face stayed in the doorway. He pointed at the box. "Open it."
In the pause Face nearly cringed at the sloppy, ugly job he'd done. Why bother wrapping it at all?
But Murdock turned to him a moment later, his eyes huge. "Present?"
Murdock let out a shout, as excited as a kid. He tore off down the barracks, stopping at his own bed.
Face blinked, watching him, and felt his stomach clench a little when Murdock pulled a box out of what had looked like a flattened duffel.
Murdock came charging back, beaming, and drove the box into Face's chest. "For you!"
Face hesitated. "Murdock, I didn't actually get you--"
"Open it! And I'll open mine." He dove for the box.
Face sighed, guilt and Father Magill in his head again. He looked down at the little box in his hand and couldn't help a smile. It was wrapped in a page from a comic book.
Murdock crowed suddenly, making him jump. He looked to see Murdock had shredded the wrapping and saw the brightly labeled box underneath. "I forgot!" He grabbed it and lifted. "I gotta set it up!"
"Outside," Face said fast. BA had a quick temper when it came to the pilot. "Behind the barracks, maybe."
"Sure!" Murdock took the door at a run, box clutched to his chest.
Face stayed where he was. He peeled the page off the box carefully, thinking maybe Murdock would like it back, and pried off the lid.
A scrawled note sat on top, and he lifted it and blinked underneath.
It was a little charm, like the ones the guys wore on their helmets out in the jungle. Two masks, frowning and smiling. It was a theatre thing, he remembered.
Brows furrowed, he unfolded the note.
<i>Since all your world's a stage.</i>
Face held up the little charm. Dull and heavy. Pewter maybe, and where the hell did Murdock get that?
He smiled after a moment. Wasn't it the truth? All the world a stage, and his world more than most.
His smile faded. He dropped the comic page and box on his bunk and moved out the door.
Murdock had apparently been too excited to make it to the back. At the side of the barracks he was sitting on the ground, beaming as he arranged pieces out of the box.
Face looked around, frowning. They were pretty much in plain sight.
The thought of going back in before anyone saw him with the nutcase occurred to him, but he clasped his little masks and went to Murdock's side. "Nothing's broken, is it? Long trip."
"I don't think so." Murdock grinned up at him.
Face drew in a breath. Unguarded and beaming, and Face wasn't sure that anyone in his life ever had looked at him with so much happiness.
How the hell could he be seeing it in the middle of Vietnam?
He crouched, lifting a piece of track. "I can't believe you shelled out all that money for a train set. This thing's gonna last about two days, knowing the guys here."
Murdock looked around them, but shrugged. "Two fun days. Look at this!" He thrust a train car up at Face. "You put in water and it puffs out steam!"
Face grinned. "There's not enough steam here for you?"
Murdock looked at him, admonishing. "Not train steam!"
"Yeah, yeah. Sorry." Face sat down on the dirt. "So what do we do?"
Murdock's face seemed to get that much brighter. "We?"
Face returned the grin after a moment. All thoughts of awkward words in the barracks had been forgotten. "Yeah. We."
Face was convinced that once the free Christmas beer ran out and the grunts started drifting towards their own barracks, someone was going to take issue with the train set and Murdock playing with it.
He left Murdock once he had the train up and running, going to the mess and finding BA in the crowd. "Hey. Might need you back at the bunks."
BA didn't drink much, so Face figured the half empty beer in his hand was probably his first or second. He set it down with a scowl. "What's crazy man done now?"
Face hesitated. "Better off you see for yourself."
The crowd was too thin already, and Face hoped for the sake of the holiday that some of the guys who despised Murdock would let him have the day to make an idiot out of himself.
But when they reached the barracks and moved to the side, a group of grunts stood there muttering.
Face cursed and slid his way through to the center.
He stopped, blinking.
Murdock was cross-legged on the ground where Face had left him, grinning, gesturing long arms like an overexcited FNG. "See? And then it actually runs all by itself." He hit the button on the little control box that was wired to the track. The train started moving in a slow circle.
There were chuckles from the crowd, and a few guys crouched down.
"Shit, shoulda got that for my kid."
Face looked around in amused surprise. Red-faced, beer stinking grunts, and most of them had a little light in their eyes. A little like Murdock put in Face.
Like nostalgia, he'd thought once. Like memory. Home.
BA appeared at his side, and they watched the train go around. "What the hell's the crazy man wearing on his head?"
Face laughed. The train set had come with an engineer's hat. Once that was about five sizes too small for Murdock. It was perched, precarious and proud, on his wild hair.
Murdock looked up when he laughed, finding him in the crowd.
Face was almost taken aback by the smile he was greeted with.
The day after Christmas found Murdock sleeping late, and everyone else sleeping off considerable hangovers.
By the time Face staggered up and left the barracks to get a little bit of his own brand of work done, the train tracks outside had been crushed.
He noticed it with a weight in his gut. Crunched into little pieces, every bit of the track. Boot prints in the mud.
He found himself looking around, as though whoever did it would be right there smirking and waiting to get caught.
Fucking grunts, he thought to himself with an anger that surprised him. Couldn't let anyone have anything.
He left the tracks there. Murdock would find them, and maybe it would be a good lesson for him.
When he got back that afternoon before lunch, he found Murdock on his bunk. He was dressed, looking up at the bottom of the bed above him.
The little engineer's cap was on his chest, rising and falling with his breaths.
Face sighed. He glanced at Ray, the only other guy in the barracks, and was met with a shrug and a frown.
"Doesn't seem right," Ray said, quiet enough that it wouldn't carry to Murdock.
Face looked over at Murdock, halfway down the room and on his own. "No," he agreed just as quietly.
"Good." For all his short temper towards the pilot, at least BA considered him one of the team.
Face made his choice then. He strode down the row of bunks to where Murdock lay. "Get up."
"Facey, I'm a--"
Murdock blinked. He stood after a moment, stretching his long body like he'd been lying there for a while.
Face lifted the duffel by his bed and started grabbing at things. First to go in was the little hat, then the uniform and skivvies stowed away so messily.
Face glared back at him.
Murdock didn't say anything else. He stood there, wide-eyed, and watched.
Face didn't zip the bag, just grabbed the handles and hauled. He tromped down the row, and Murdock followed on heavy feet.
Ray watched, eyebrows raised, still in his sprawl on his bunk.
Face dropped the bag on the ground in front of the closest empty bunk to the rest of theirs. Beside his, as it turned out, and that was all the better. "Enough of you hiding out over there like you're not really one of us. This team doesn't do shit like that. When you're in you're in, Murdock."
Murdock looked back at him with surprised, sharp eyes.
Ray laughed. "Jesus, Face, when the hell did you turn into a nice guy?"
"Shut up." Face glowered at Murdock, pointing at the bed. "You wanna sulk, you do it here with the rest of us."
Murdock looked at the bunk.
Then he looked at Face. "I don't know. I'm kind of hungry. Wanna skip the sulk and get some chow?"
"I guess I just don't let myself see a lot of it. I mean..."
Face sat back, palming his bottle and letting Murdock find the words.
The lanky pilot shrugged. He took a swallow of his own lukewarm beer and made that face he always made when he drank. "I see it. I just...like watching a movie, you know? You can make it less real. Walk away from it."
Face grunted. Sounded like a theory that was bound to get Murdock's head kicked in. A pilot admitting he looked at dead grunts like some movie he could turn off?
Murdock sighed, as if reading his thoughts. "I just wanted to fly, Face. That's all I came here for."
"Too bad a war got in your way, huh? All us dying kids interfering in your plans."
Murdock set his bottle down. "Yeah, I guess so." He pushed his chair back, standing. Tense and wound up.
Face grimaced, but stayed where he was. Hell, even the team fought. No big deal.
He looked up.
Murdock leaned in, square palms resting on the table. His eyes were dark. "You grunts think you got the monopoly on war. You think just 'cause I see things from the inside of a chopper I don't see what goes on. You think I get shot at less? You think I've seen less guys burning alive? Think I ain't smelled gangrene and heard men sobbing 'cause they hurt so bad? I know what the war is."
The oddest thing was, he didn't sound mad. He was quieter than normal, but his tone was flat. Not angry, just...speaking facts. No different than when he had told Face he was the best pilot the base would ever see.
"But I don't deal with that stuff too good, so I cram it inside and read my comic books. The war ain't gonna get better or worse from my attitude about it, so I'm gonna stay as happy as I can as long as I can. If nobody understands it, that ain't my problem."
Face let him walk off. He peeled at the label on his bottle with a fingernail. Scraped and scraped.
"Listen to her, Face. She's screaming. Screaming in pain and we're sitting here watching."
Face chuckled. "I think she'll be alright."
Murdock didn't peel his eyes from the sky as the chopper lifted. "She'll prance like a pony for you if you treat her right. You hear that? Idiot thinks he’s still driving a dog. Hueys need more. More power. She wants to break loose, you can practically smell it."
"Backseat driver." Face nudged him. "Come on. We've got a few clicks to hump before nightfall."
Murdock sighed, but hiked his gear on his shoulders and turned away from the sky at last. "Don't know why Hannibal thought this was a good idea."
"Team building, Captain. Now stop griping before you threaten Face's place as our top whiner."
"Hey!" They both spoke at once.
Hannibal nodded into the jungle. "Move it, soldiers."
They moved it.
The first few hours went, long and weary and tense, but uneventful. Murdock was sent back to take rear guard with Pipe, and Face had to admit he wished he was the one with the pilot. Not that they had a lot of conversations in the middle of a patrol, but somehow he thought Murdock would make the time go by faster.
The sun was low enough that it couldn't cut through the tops of trees by the time something actually happened.
BA was on point, and he gave a short whistle and dropped out of sight on the road ahead.
They moved fast, hitting the dirt to the sides of the road, waiting for BA to report, or make his move.
Face gripped his weapon. He despised these moments. Staying still meant he could feel the sweat more acutely. He could practically feel where dirt and dust lined his skin. His heart thumped but all he could think about was grime.
The alarm was false, and the hump continued.
They hunkered that night more than halfway to their target. Good time.
Murdock waited until he was down, hunched over cold rations beside Face. "Jesus, my feet."
"Poor flyboy can't hack it?" Face grinned, but kept his voice down.
"Laugh it up, you overblown supply clerk." He grinned back, but there was real pain in his eyes as he stretched his legs out. "How long's it take to get used to this?"
"Too long. You won't get a chance." Face remembered those first few LRRPs. He'd been smart enough to pad his boots with extra socks, but his feet swelled so big it almost wasn't worth missing out on the blisters.
He stretched out to sleep beside Murdock again. Gravitating to the pilot for some reason. He'd been catching himself doing that a lot.
Nights in the jungles were always interesting. He looked up a lot at treetops and stars, and wondered if those boy scout troops he'd never been part of back home had seen this sort of thing on their camping trips.
He thought about strange things in the jungle.
Night had fallen and snores littered their camp when Murdock rolled over onto his stomach and lifted onto his elbows. "I'm never gonna get to sleep here."
Face turned his head to look at him. "So you're gonna stop me?"
"You're not sleeping anyway. You're thinking deep thoughts and sighing all these girly sighs. I can hear ya."
Face smirked, hands lacing under his head. "You haven't heard? I don't think deep thoughts. This head's pretty, okay? It ain't functional."
"Right. What're you thinking about, anyway?"
"I don't know. God."
Murdock laughed, muffling the sound quickly with his hand. "You shallow bastard."
Face shrugged. "Ever since I got in country, one of the priests at the orphanage has been in my head. All that crap he tried to teach us, the stuff I mostly ignored, it comes back at weird times."
Face sighed, but stopped when he caught himself doing it.
He looked over, rolling on his side and shifting to get rocks out of his hip. "You believe in God?"
Murdock looked at him for a moment. "If I answer you, is it gonna lead to reading materials?"
Face smiled. "Left my pamphlets in my other pants. You're safe."
"Good." He shrugged. "I dunno. My grandparents were Baptist. Went every Sunday. I went until I was old enough to say no. Though the music wasn't all bad."
"Yeah." Face missed it, sometimes. Voices soaring up the vaulted ceilings.
"You're not religious, Facey. I mean, I think I'd've noticed."
"I grew up around it. It's part of me. I mean...I cheat and lie and sin my ass off, but..."
"What? You feel guilty about it?"
Face chuckled. "Not really. There're always reasons for it. But. You know. I hear Father Magill. I like hearing him. Makes me feel like I'm not on another planet out here."
"Must be nice." Murdock dropped down onto his belly, sighing. "LA, right?"
"Texas. Brownsville. Picture flat ground and the same weather we got here. But with less rain."
"Yep." Murdock sighed. "Had its advantages, though. Me hablo espanol muy bueno."
Face grinned. "And here I thought muchacho and amigo and those other little names were just you being eccentric."
"I'm not eccentric. M'nuts." His voice was starting to sound slower. His drawl was thicker. "Tell me about LA."
"You're gonna fall asleep."
"So? Like a bedtime story. I'll hear enough."
Face sighed to himself, thinking back. "LA. Right."
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