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Murdock scared Face in a way that nothing in the war really could.
He understood the emotions he experienced when they were in the shit. When a bullet nicked his shoulder. Panic and blood seemed to move together like brothers. He understood anger at having a buddy killed. The tears that inevitably came the first time he witnessed someone's leg blown clear off, while the guy lay in the grass, asking if he was hit 'cause his leg hurt so bad.
What he didn't get was this guy who flew like nobody's business, and whose talent seemed to be fueled by reckless anger.
They would walk down to the bar after a really hot mission, a quick in-and-out that Murdock always seemed willing to shuttle them to, and could be counted on to bring them out of even in the worst conditions. Face would watch him slouch along, hands deep in the pockets of his fatigues and a non-reg cap pulled down over his eyes. Cigarette burning limply from the corner of his mouth. He would mumble to himself. And Face would say nothing for once, because no matter how many missions he'd worked with the pilot, he just didn't know what to say to Murdock.
The guy had to be crazy. Into the officer's club, grunts nursing their sixth beer, or another double whatever. Arguing who'd really gotten Charlie today, really fucked him up. Face always ordered their drinks, knew who to ask for the good stuff, while Murdock leaned over a table in the corner, back to the wall, chain-smoking. Watching whoever caught his eye that day from under the cap, so you couldn't see his eyes. And after a couple drinks of his own, Murdock would get up and saunter to the bar, slide onto a barstool between two of them, glance at one, then the other, and say "Y'all just a couple-a dumb mother-fuckers, aren't ya?"
Each time, Face just couldn't bring himself to let the guy get the shit beat out of him, even if he deserved it. Murdock was tall, had quick hands. But he was no match for a mad-drunk Marine that outweighed him by fifty pounds. Flyers and grunts never really got along, but Murdock loved to prove there was a reason for the enmity. Afterwards he'd laugh and laugh, even while a medic stitched a cut over his eye. Face would shake his head, and wonder why he kept joining him, when the results were always the same.
In the air, Murdock belted out baritone solos while cruising at 3000 feet, could slide that bird right in under flowers of blooming enemy fire, grinning all the way, giving them the thumbs-up that brief split-second he touched the ground as they tumbled out. Face saw the joy in his eyes when the turbines whined into roaring life. Saw the love Murdock held for his slick, had even asked B.A. to tune it past regulation, so he could execute really dicey take-offs without getting tangled up in brush and canopy. It was a rare thing, to see love in-country, love that didn't involve the exchange of money at the end of it. Face guessed that was one reason he kept the pilot out of trouble.
Then there was that mission that went sour. B.A. had to leave the gunner behind as they fled into the jungle, sat there sobbing with rage while Murdock silently pulled the kid's tags up over his head. He lay peacefully, propped against a tree, his hands folded neatly over his stomach, right below the gaping wound that had opened his chest and let the life out. The slick was smoking ruins not a hundred yards behind them, sizzling in the rain that started as they drew deeper in. They weren't even that far from the base. Just six miles down, follow the river, emerged exhausted and stumbling into a full-out downpour, surprising the sentries.
Murdock stood tight-lipped and pale as Hannibal related their failure to the CO. Hannibal and the CO did not see eye-to-eye. In the middle of the argument, Murdock walked out, ignoring the CO's query. Face made a quick decision, and followed him.
He couldn't keep up with the long-legged strides, and soon gave up, content to follow him back to their bunker. He descended into earthy darkness, found Murdock by the orange glow of his cigarette. Face felt his way to his own cot, switched the camp lantern up. Murdock didn't even blink. Face sat on his bunk, hands clasped nervously in his lap. He wished he could take up smoking too, something to occupy him. Murdock stared past him. Face recognized black rage in his eyes, violence just held at bay. He spoke carefully, wondering what the hell he thought he was doing playing with fire like this.
"You know, I don't think Hannibal's going to be very happy with you, walking out like that on the CO." He flinched when the eyes turned on him.
"You know why I wear this cap?" Face looked down at the blue canvas twisted in the pilot's bloodless hands. "Cuz Richie told me it would bring me luck, ya know, up there."
"Murdock - " Face began softly.
"All I wanted to do was fly." Murdock lit another cigarette, flicked the spent one across the dirt room. "I came here, and I thought, I really thought I could save them all, ya know? I'd swoop in like Superman, faster than a speedin' bullet, me 'n my wings, my slick and me, we'd make a difference. But everything's so fuckin' complicated here. Some of 'em really deserve a bullet in the brain, ya ask me. All those grunts, they hate us, you know? They don't _want_ us to save them, they wanna be the indestructible ones. All we do is remind them they can die."
"That's not your fault."
Murdock barked a laugh. "You sayin' it don't make it any easier, Faceman. And I know," he paused, looked down at the tags swinging with his own around his neck, his voice cracking, "I mean, Richie is one of us. I gave him my protective shield. So how come he went and died on me? How come I shuttle these fuckers around every goddamn day, get no word of thanks, but Richie, he covers my ass up there, and he gets offed?" He threw the cap hard, and it landed on the dirt floor under B.A.'s cot. Face saw his hands shaking as he reached behind him, pulled a flask out from under the pillow. "Heh. Richie hated opera, ya know? I always liked to drive him crazy singin' real loud, so he could hear me over the engine. Shoot, all he wanted to hear was the Stones. I like the Stones, Faceman. I do."
"I know." Face watched the anger drain out of Murdock, the dark eyes empty of anything except raw pain. He took a long drink from the flask, offered it to Face. Face resisted the urge to draw away, took it gently from the trembling fingers. Feeling foolish and out of his depth, he hesitated, then took the hand briefly, squeezed it before focusing his attention on unscrewing the flask cap, tossing back liquor that burned its way down to his stomach, purged the damp and cold out of him. Words were jumbling around in his head, and he wondered if he had the right to say them out loud. He wasn't very good with truth, but Murdock was a special case. He understood things that others didn't.
"You're mad for the same reasons that the grunts are. You're not invincible. You wanted to protect Richie, and you couldn't. The guys on the ground, they want to fly themselves out of the jungle, but they can't. They have to be proud of other things, things no one should have to take to heart, like killing another man, and being good at it. It all goes around and around."
Murdock said nothing for a long while, but Face could tell he was taking it in. His eyes flickered with interest, that flat empty pain filled with something of worth. Face felt absurdly proud. He'd said something straight out, no double-talk, and made a difference. Then the pilot grinned.
"How'd you get so smart so young?"
"I'm older than you are, flyboy."
"Hah. Tell me another one."
They traded friendly insults along with the flask until Hannibal appeared, B.A.'s form shadowing the entryway behind him. He glanced from one to the other, eyebrow raised.
"Nicely sloshed, I see."
Murdock stood, saluted sloppily. "Colonel. May I respectfully offer you a draught of this fine - eh, this swill they like to call liquor around here?"
Hannibal held up his hand. "Regretfully, I must decline. The CO's given us another mission. We start out day after next. Here's what we need." He handed Face a list in his trademark chicken scratches, then turned to a sobered Murdock. "We need someone to get us in and out. Feel up to it?"
"You can count on me, Colonel. Just say when and where."
"Perfect. And Murdock, I'm sorry about Richie."
Murdock held the tags at his chest briefly, that crooked smile on, locked eyes with Face. "Yeah. Me too."
Face got up, retrieved the cap. Dusted it off and handed it to Murdock. It went back on the pilot's head where it belonged.
Murdock dropped them straight down into an unmapped clearing, rotors chewing up canopy as they descended. Hannibal and B.A. rolled out, gave him thumbs-up, and disappeared into the green.
Face hopped down, paused to share a smile with the pilot. Murdock reached out, closed something into his hands, saluted rakishly. Face slid into the jungle before looking at the memento. He shook his head, smiling. The last time he'd seen a Superman pin, he'd been about thirteen.
He strung it on with his tags before moving out.
~ end ~
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