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Trial by Water
by Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Summary: The newest Fighting Nighthawk Commando recruit discovers the real meaning of "flying by night." Missing scene from Trial By Fire. Response to the ATSB "Wet, Wetter, Wettest" Challenge.
Warnings: Two naked guys and some swearing in Spanish and English.
Disclaimer: TAT belongs to SJC and Universal, although in this particular instance, I wish I had at least a timeshare on them.
The midnight sky swam with possibility.
Overhead, a veiled half-moon rode the curve of the sky and a handful of stars twinkled through the omnipotent smog. It was a good night for conspiring, and for secrets, and for a good bottle of wine. The kind of night that gave a lot of songwriters a lot of really bad ideas.
Also, it was a night on which Franklin X. Santana was currently so nervous, he thought he might piss his pants.
Not that he'd admit it. And not, he thought, that anyone would notice if he did.
He was just another shadow in a night already teeming with them. The all-black look was stylish. At least that crazy pendejo Murdock had some good ideas.
Wearing all-black and learning a few rules and sharing secret codes was one thing. Sneaking around in the middle of the night a klick outside a military base, on the other hand…it was like looking at a really hot girl from across a crowded room. A feeling of giddy anticipation mixed with sheer terror.
He didn't want to ask again, but the silence was brutal. "Where the hell are we going, anyway?"
Murdock's voice was soft, his drawl like brown sugar. "Patience, son. It's quality number fifty-eight of the Fighting Nighthawk Commandos." He beckoned Frankie to keep following.
"Yeah, well, I'm sure quality number fifty-nine is a strong bladder, because I really gotta take a leak, and…" He stopped. Frowned. Sniffed. "I think I just stepped in dog shit, man."
His commander didn't seem to notice. Or care. That was one thing Frankie had already noticed about Murdock: he only got upset when he, or one of his "boys," was on the line. Otherwise, he was as cool as the underside of a Popsicle and unflappable as a tie-down tarp.
And nuttier than a squirrel's refrigerator.
But now, dog shit on his shoes or not, Frankie was confused. Weren't they supposed to be getting the dirt on Curtis or whoever else to save Murdock's boys? What the hell were they doing sneaking around the suburbs in the middle of the night? His bladder was throbbing now.
"Murdock, chabon, where are we going?" He whispered, putting an edge on the words.
"Son, we're here."
"Here" was an upscale Spanish-style hacienda illuminated by several sets of floodlights, turning it into a ghostly mirage in the blackness. It was surrounded by sets of neatly manicured hedges where, Frankie guessed, the homeowner's dogs liked to play, and shit, during the day. Beyond the wrought-iron fence was a swimming pool, glimmering aquamarine.
Frankie tried to read Murdock's expression. That was difficult even in the daylight and without the added layer of greasepaint. But if he had to guess now, he'd have sworn the crazy bastard was actually excited.
There wasn't much to say. But Frankie tried anyway. "So?"
The slightest shrug of Murdock's shoulders. "So, muchacho, this is it."
"It what?" He shivered. Southern California had her chilly nights, and this was one.
"This," Murdock said, pointing to the painfully blue waters, "is where mere boys are molded into men and scrap metal is forged into steel. This is the line in the sand Crockett and Travis and Houston drew, then said, 'We're gonna defend this piece of Texas with our blood, men.' You find yourself asking whether you're man enough for the hard life of the Nighthawk Commando. First, though, you gotta be initiated."
"Initiated?" Frankie felt his Adam's apple jump like a frog on a hot sidewalk. "Initiated like what, I go up and TP their house? You gotta be pulling my leg, chingon." He shook his head. "I stopped doing that crap when I stopped going trick-or-treating."
If Murdock's expression had been excitement before, it was pure glee now. "First things first. Take it off."
"Take what off?" Frankie put a hand on his knit cap. "This? My shoes? What?"
A smile split the other's face, wicked and gleaming. "Everything, son."
He'd had slight doubts before as to whether the man really was crazy. Those were now officially obliterated. Jesumaria, he was crazier than a shithouse rat. "That water's gotta be freezing! You want me to die of pneumonia? How we gonna save your boys then, huh?"
Murdock had already tugged his turtleneck up over his head, revealing a pale, hairy torso. "A Fighting Nighthawk Commando does not know the meaning of the word 'freezing.' He is impervious to pain and cold and tickling and he never, ever quits." Now, his pants. "You scared or somethin'?"
Of course he was scared. But he couldn't say so. Murdock was crazy. But beneath the many layers of insanity, he really had good intentions. Sort of. Maybe.
"Whatever. I'm sending you any hospital bills I get," Frankie muttered, determined to prove his manhood. This was the part he wished the pretty girl really would show up.
Maybe Murdock had done this to someone else. Maybe he, Frankie Santana, wasn't the first poor idiot he'd dragged out in the middle of the night, persuaded to strip naked, then skinny-dip in some complete stranger's pool just so he could say he was a member of a secret society.
When in Rome…L.A….yeah, yeah…
"So, you take all your friends out here?" he asked like he meant it, peeling away his clothes.
Murdock, if it were possible, was even more inscrutable au naturel. "This is an initiation ritual. For Nighthawk Commandos only. Don't go gabbing to your drinking buddies, or I will surely know." He planted one finger squarely into Frankie's naked chest.
"OK, OK, I was just trying to make conversation." Nervously, Frankie slid his boxers down, wishing he had chosen a pair other than the blue paisley ones that morning. "You want to go first, or should I?"
"Rule number seven…no one ever gets left behind."
"Gotcha." Frankie hesitated. "Anything in there about scaling a wrought-iron fence stark naked?"
"You find a way, soldier. You make a way."
One thing Frankie did notice about time-it always passed slower when the conditions were bad. But this wasn't bad. This was intolerable.
"Geez, Murdock, how much longer, man?" Any more of this, and his skin and lips would be a nice shade of blue to match the waters of the swimming pool. Not to mention the horrendous shrinkage going on.
Beside him, Murdock floated serenely astride a chartreuse-and-pink Sammy the Sea Dragon pool toy. Crazy man looked like one of those self-flagellating Buddhist monks they sometimes showed on TV. Apparently amused, he raised an eyebrow. "Are you telling me you can't take a little chill, son?"
Damn. He had a comeback for everything. And as long as he wasn't complaining about being in the buff in freezing water, Frankie had no right. He shrugged.
"Where I come from, man, if it gets below 70, everybody breaks out their sweaters."
"This is a unique and important Nighthawk rite of passage. You know how many guys your age have had this experience?" Murdock asked, sounding indignant. "Relax."
But Frankie was having a hard time doing that. They really seemed to be up Shit Creek without a paddle here. Stockwell, whom he'd thought was his ace in the hole, had given him the cold shoulder. The trial wasn't going their way at all. If anything was gonna get done, they'd have to be the ones to do it. If they failed, it meant a firing squad, not just for Johnny and his men, but possibly Murdock himself.
And Murdock was acting like it was all a game.
Was this how he looked danger in the eye? Like the way Johnny sometimes got "on the jazz," whatever the hell that meant.
"Shouldn't we be, um, trying to find this guy Quyet or something? Aren't you worried at all about your boys?" Frankie asked, trying to step delicately around his words.
It was a dark night, but Murdock's eyes burned as plainly as two hot coals. "If anything happened to them, I couldn't go on." And just for that moment, he was as serious as a heart attack. "Those guys mean everything to me, soldier. Everything."
This was a side he had seen before. When Murdock had grabbed him and gotten all defensive outside the courtroom. A protective side. A fierce, warrior side. Maybe Stockwell would listen to them. If he was asked the right way. Frankie couldn't imagine anyone saying no to Murdock when he got that look in his eyes.
"So, I got this idea," he volunteered, trying to change the subject and snap Murdock out of the scary/crazy/intense haze at the same time. Cold water was good for one thing, and that was enabling him to think more clearly. "We go…"
"…to the JAG office, where they've probably got a dossier on our friend Col. Quyet," Murdock finished for him. "I just need your help, soldier. I hear you're pretty good with a bit of plastique and a detonator."
Frankie blinked rapidly, shocked at the unexpected compliment. "How'd you know that's what I was gonna say, man?"
Murdock, still astride Sammy, smiled grimly. "I wasn't planning on popping off to the closest Carl's Junior and grabbing a Star Pack when my compadres are in deep."
"So, does that make me a Nighthawk Commando?" Strangely, he felt a swell of pride.
"You've successfully passed your initiation. Don't get too cocky; you're accepted on a probationary basis." They shook wrinkled hands.
His words were a swell of relief after the events and stress of the long previous day. Impulsively, Frankie reached for the basketball floating beside him and flung it in the air.
It hung there for a few seconds, then landed at the side of the pool, where it bounced, bounced, bounced all the way to the sliding glass door at the patio. Immediately, an alarm began to bray.
"I thought you said you disabled that, crazy pendejo!" hollered Frankie. Triumph gave way to panic in his chest as he dogpaddled toward the pool ladder.
"I disabled the perimeter alarm, son, not the house alarm," Murdock panted, swimming hard himself. "Rule number thirty-eight of the Nighthawk Commandos…when a perimeter is secured, don't take any unnecessary risks," he continued, thrusting a finger in Frankie's face.
"I'll file that one under 'Wish I Knew Before.'" They both hastily exited the pool.
Another sound was audible over the wailing alarm. Deep, pissed-sounding barks. From more than one dog.
"You remember how to get outta here?" Frankie felt his heart rate galloping. What would happen if the homeowner, or the dogs, caught him naked in the middle of their garden at three AM? How would he explain that one? Even the legendary Santana Charm wasn't gonna be enough there.
"Naturally," Murdock assured him. The barks were getting closer. No doubt the dogs, which sounded like hellbeasts even from this distance, were close behind.
Where the hell did I leave my clothes? Frankie realized he couldn't remember.
They were stumbling, half-running through the rhododendron bushes now. Under one of his feet, Frankie felt a familiar squish.
"C'mon, soldier, hustle up now," Murdock urged him. He seemed to have remembered where his clothes were. "No time to change, gotta run." He threw something at Frankie, which he recognized as his paisley boxers.
This seemed to be something Murdock had done before. He was running and hopping into his pants at the same time. The only running Frankie ever did was to get drinks for the director of whatever set he was working on at the time, or maybe to impress the girls down at the beach.
Not running for his life, wearing only his undershorts, along with a loco would-be commando from some mad-as-hell homeowner who for all he knew might shoot at him. This was crazy. This was chalado crazy. This was…
Kind of, in a warped way, fun.
Johnny would eat this stuff right up.
So should he.
He found himself a half-step behind Murdock, the dogs' barks receding into the distance. He could see the finish line, and it was so beau…
One of the roots caught his foot, and Frankie sprawled into the dirt. Face-first.
When he could see again, Murdock was holding out a hand.
"Come on. You did good. I'm proud of you."
And he had. They were back on Mariposa Way, safely a block down from the house and its swimming pool and dogs. They were free. Under the sodium-vapor lamp, Frankie whooped. He wasn't cold or exhausted or stressed out right now. He just felt exhilarated.
"That was chabela, man!" He thrust a fist into the air. "I never did anything like that!"
Murdock's cool, inscrutable look was back. "I didn't expect you to pass the second phase of your test, son, but this is a night for surprises."
"That's right," Murdock said, his lips turning up ever so slightly. "Gotta swing by and pick up a new uni for you. I think yours was lost in the line of duty."
The reality came crashing down on Frankie's head like the prop bricks they sometimes used in the movies. He had escaped with only his boxers. The rest of it, including his vest, were probably dog chow by now.
He looked at himself in the side mirror of a Nova. Flushed from his run, his hair much less sleek than usual. But, he had at least one thing going.
"I don't have to worry about greasepaint again, do I?"
Murdock was already walking up Mariposa Way, towards the JAG office below them in the valley. He didn't turn around, but Frankie heard his low drawl anyway.
"That ain't greasepaint, soldier."
And Frankie, his heart sinking, knew.
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