?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

A-Team fic: The Reality of Fantasy (1/2)

December 19th, 2016 (09:34 am)
rushed

feeling: rushed

Title: The Reality of Fantasy

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Beta provided by sockie1000. This is a fill for my counseling prompt for hc_bingo.

Summary: Murdock’s crazy. It’s a conclusion he came to years ago, all on his own. It’s a bit surprising that it took the Army so long to figure it out.



-o-

“Do you know why you’re here, Captain?”

That’s not the first question, but it’s the first one he hears. The first one he listens to. There are a lot of voices -- inside his head and out -- and he’s taken to ignoring them all except this one.

Except hers.

She’s a psychiatrist, of all things. Murdock ignores his superior officer, and he hums loudly while his teammates try to talk to him. He half yells nonsense at everyone else, but not her.

This psychiatrist, she’s a nice sort of person. She’s pretty and professional, all prim and proper. She reminds Murdock of his mother, somehow, in the way her eyes crinkle when she smiles. She doesn’t smile as much as she should, though.

Neither does Murdock’s mother, for that matter. But then, she’s been dead since 1981, so there’s no much to smile about there.

“Captain?”

Murdock comes to attention, looking at her again with some effort. She’s trying to be serious, she is. Because this is a serious situation.

She sighs, looking down to scratch a note onto her pad. “If you’re unwilling to try--”

“No,” Murdock says, quickly now. “That’s not it, really.”

She looks back at him, lips pursed. “Your lack of respect for formal proceedings has been thoroughly documented--”

“It’s not a lack of respect--” Murdock tries to explain.

She raises her eyebrows, expectant.

Murdock feels his cheeks flush. She sounds like his mother, too, scolding him for not picking up his toys again. He’s left the toy soldiers out on the floor, and he’s broken half a dozen when he flies the plane over their little plastic heads. “I just -- sometimes, I get distracted, it’s all,” he drawls apologetically.

She seems to believe him, at least. “That’s also been well documented,” she tells him, a little gentler now. “But if I’m going to help you, then you need to let me.”

He stares at her, wondering if the light brown in her hair is natural or if she dyes it. He wonders how someone so soft and good made it through basic training without breaking. Everybody breaks, though. Everyone breaks in their own way.

Leaning forward now, she offers him a hint of a smile. Just enough to make one or two creases by her eyes. “Do you know why you’re here, Captain Murdock?”

“That’s easy,” he tells her, smiling back because he can’t help himself. He shrugs, because he questions a lot of things, but he doesn’t question this. “I’m crazy.”

-o-

It’s a conclusion he came to years ago, all on his own.

It’s a bit surprising that it took the Army so long to figure it out.

All the same, he still remembers the orders.

It had looked innocuous, written out on a piece of paper. Another form to be shuffled through the military’s files. Light orange with scribbled notes and a forceful signature from his last commanding officer.

Reckless behavior, a disregard for orders, noted evasion of reality: psychiatric evaluation recommended.

Because flying helicopters in the face of enemy fire and navigating planes through restricted airspaces -- that’s normal, healthy behavior.

But questioning those orders? Having a little fun with them? That’s insane?

And they wonder why Murdock has a hard time telling the difference anymore.

-o-

Still, he likes her. They shuffle him through lots of therapy sessions, and it sort of feels like they’re throwing spaghetti at the wall just to see what sticks. Group therapy, psychoanalysis -- none of that seems to do any good, but her sessions…

Well, she’s not like the other doctors, who look at his file more than they look at him. She looks at him, she sees him; she’s human, just like he is.

“This is an evaluation to determine your fitness for duty,” she reminds him during their first session. “This evaluation will be used to decide whether or not you will be cleared to fly again, Captain.”

The answer is entirely professional, but Murdock can’t look at anything except how soft her hair looks. It’s tied back in a tight bun, but that doesn’t change the fact that it looks like she conditions it well. She’d have to with the hard water on this base.

It makes her look out of place, really.

In the best way possible.

“I suggest you do not take this lightly,” she says, giving him a pointed look. She’s trying to look serious, trying so hard that Murdock almost giggles. Her lips purse. “It is your career, after all.”

A career, after all. Murdock joined the military because they had the fastest planes. He’d made the rank of captain before he even understood what it meant. His commanding officers looked at completed missions.

Murdock’s just been chasing the horizon all this time.

“Please,” she says. “You need to tell your side of the story.”

That’s really the last thing Murdock wants to do. And it’s not because he doesn’t like stories, because he loves stories. He lives and breathes them, every second of every day. But he doesn’t like his story. The story of a little boy whose father ran out and whose mother died. Who grew up with a grandmother who smoked like a chimney and served him macaroni and cheese from a box with canned cream corn. None of it was bad, of course, and he’d been as happy as he knew how, but that’s not interesting.

Great aviators flying spy missions; billionaire playboys with private planes; caped superheroes defending the powerless: those are interesting stories.

But he likes her.

He knows if he doesn’t answer, if he evades her questions, they’ll shuffle him off to a different doctor at a different facility.

Besides, she wants to do her job.

Murdock can’t do much, but he can help her with that.

Anything to make her smile.

“Okay,” he says. “Where would you like me to begin?”

She seems a little surprised, but she takes it in stride. She inclines her head. “The beginning, perhaps?”

“Of time?” he asks. “Because I’ve still got questions regarding Adam and Eve and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.”

She smiles, just a little, before she catches herself. “How about the mission,” she suggests.

Murdock draws a breath, sobering. “The mission,” he repeats, slowly nodding. “We’ll start with the mission.”

-o-

It’s supposed to be a 48-hour hold.

That’s what it said, on the little sheet. Murdock may not have the best sense of time with these kind of things -- he keeps time with a plane’s shadow falling from the horizon like a sundial -- but he still knows the difference between a 48-hour hold and a two-week evaluation.

That much he knows.

How he gets from point A to point B, however, is still a blur to him. For what it’s worth, he still remembers waking up in restraints with a strong smell of antiseptic in his nose. He can almost feel the starch in the sheets as the doctor with cold, cold hands tells him to take a deep breath in, if he can.

That much he knows.

Confused, Murdock tries to catch his breath, just enough to fill his lungs and ask, “Did I crash again?”

The doctor glosses over him with disinterested blue eyes as he makes a few notes on the chart. “Oh, you crashed all right, son,” he says. He puts the chart at the end of Murdock’s bed with a false smile plastered over his face. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Do you remember what happened?”

He asks questions like he knows the answer, though.

There’s no point in that, as far as Murdock’s concerned.

That’s the best part of flying, after all. That split second, when the wheels take off the ground, that moment when your stomach flutters and your blood rushes to your head. You don’t know if you’re going to soar or crash.

It’s the reality of crashing that makes soaring so much better.

“Come on, Captain,” the doctor cajoles tiredly. “Tell me what you know about why you’re here.”

That’s not the story Murdock wants to tell.

That’s not the story Murdock wants to remember.

That’s just not the story.

-o-

“The mission was easy, actually,” Murdock tells her with a serious nod. His most serious nod. He’s tempted to use his French accent -- it is, he thinks, one of his most serious accents -- but she asked so nicely. And when she asks questions, it’s like she wants to hear the answers, even if she’s pretty sure she already knows them. “There’s really not much to tell.”

She nods, as if to encourage him. “It was something about humanitarian relief?” she prompts.

She’s got these freckles across the bridge of her nose, and her skin is fair. She probably burns in the sunlight.

“Captain?” she asks, voice wavering in the stillness between them.

“Right, humanitarian aid,” he remembers. “All I had to do was drop of soldiers and, you know, supplies at a newly established outpost operated by local forces.”

“Soldiers,” she notes. “Was it a military base?”

“Not ours, no,” Murdock says. “There were a few security personnel, but it was mostly doctors, nurses -- that sort of thing. A short-term thing until local forces could get the place reestablished. It’d been under enemy controlled for, I don’t know, three years maybe?”

“So it wasn’t a combat mission,” she presumes.

“No, no,” he says, quickly. The French accent wouldn’t have been right; not at all. But something British, perhaps. British is always good. “Not in the slightest. In fact, when I got the orders, I was almost offended, it was so easy.”

This answer seems to intrigue, and it’s hard to tell if his confidence is off putting. It is, sometimes. Other people find it reassuring.

She just seems intrigued. “So easy,” she repeats, thoughtful. “And yet, here you are.”

It’s not malice; it’s not pity.

It’s something else with her.

Something ephemeral and hard to place. Something mystical and impossible to pinpoint.

Something else.

He swallows so hard it hurts in his chest. It’s hard to tell right now, if this is a nightmare or a dream. He could wake up screaming or sleep forever.

That’s reality.

The reality of fiction.

He’d laugh now, but she’s looking at him again, with that way of hers.

You can cheat the facts, but you can’t crazy your way out of an emotion.

You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.

His smile is feeble in return, but he tries.

For her, he tries.

“Yeah,” he agrees, because this isn’t a story he wants to tell after all, not even for her. “Here we are.”

-o-

Really, the hospital’s not so bad. So, the food’s a little lackluster, and sometimes the company leaves a little to be desired, but Murdock’s always been good at making due with what he’s got. He’s adaptable, he is. He doesn’t need the latest accoutrements or lots of bells and whistles to make him happy. That’s the power of imagination, right there.

Really.

Besides, there are decidedly fewer people shooting guns at him here, and that’s probably a good thing. Especially since people like to use really big guns sometimes.

There are still a lot of orders, even if they are different now. Instead of being told how many men to drop off or where to pick up a shipment, he’s told to eat his food and pee in a cup, just to be safe. It’s a little funny the way so many people make rules in the world, as if that’s the answer to everything. It’s not that Murdock doesn’t understand the need for some rules, some of the time, but it’s so presumptuous, he thinks, that human need to create so much order in chaos.

For all that the admitting doctor has cold hands and a boring personality, he’s actually pretty diplomatic, and he lets Murdock curry favors in exchange for compliant behavior when taking his medication and going through his other examinations. Although Murdock sees no value in these -- the examinations are tricks that can’t be passed and the medication makes his tongue fuzzy and his brain like cotton -- he’s already earned an extra pillow and a stash of garbage bags.

The extra pillow is nice for making a place for his dog Billy to sleep, and trash bags -- well, there are infinite possibilities involved with trash bags. All he needs is a leaf blower and an extra chair, and he may have a makeshift helicopter someday very soon.

It’s a little weird, sleeping in a room with the door locked and bars on the windows. To some, this may seem like a prison, but Murdock isn’t worried about it. He thinks of it as a challenge, and after a week, he’s already escaped three different times in three distinctively different ways. Most of the time, he never makes it out of his ward, but once he made it halfway down the staircase, and that’s something that gets the blood pumping, surely.

All of which is to say that it’s not so bad, the hospital. Murdock’s been in worse.

Murdock’s had much, much worse.

Still, for all that the hospital can offer him, there’s one significant drawback.

It’s that he’s got a ground floor room with a great view out the back and clear blue skies far into the distance. It’s close to the airfield, and he watches, morning, noon and night, as the planes come into land, one after another after another.

But no matter how he stares at the horizon, he can’t touch it here.

If that won’t make a man insane, Murdock doesn’t know what will.

-o-

She’s amazing, she really is, but therapy makes his restless. This, as far as he can discern, is not entirely a bad thing. He’s inherently restless in this manner, in the way that he never wants to sit too still for too long when there’s something important at hand.

And there is something important. There is, there is.

He just...can’t quite put his finger on it.

She wets her lips and taps her pen on her paper expectantly.

That’s not the answer she’s looking for.

Murdock smiles sheepishly. “What was the question again?”

She looks vaguely surprised. “I didn’t ask a question.”

At this, Murdock frowns. “You didn’t?

With small movements, she shakes her head. The loose hairs swish lightly around her face.

He has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing.

Mercifully, she decides to let this go. “Maybe start where you left off yesterday.”

“Well, I did,” Murdock tells her. “I mean, isn’t that what waking up is all about?”

“The mission,” she prompts heedlessly.

“There are a lot of missions,” he replies as flippantly as possible.

She narrows her eyes. It’s meant to be intimidating, but it’s not. It’s not even close. But she’s trying so hard, and she’s completely earnest, and when she looks at Murdock, it’s like she sees him, she’s the only one in the whole entire army who actually sees him. Not as a captain or a pilot or even a man. But a person. A human being.

An individual, and individuals matter.

His sheepish grin returns. “Oh,” he says feebly. “That mission.”

She’s got the patience of a saint. “You said it was supposed to be an easy mission,” she recalls. “Did something go wrong during takeoff?”

“No, it was by the book, all of it,” Murdock tells her. “Preflight checks were completely normal. Usually, with the army, you have last minute changes and additions, but this time -- nothing unexpected happened.”

“Did this make you anxious?” she asks, and it’s an insightful sort of question. She’s a thinker, and she’s good with analysis.

All the same, Murdock laughs. “There was nothing to be nervous about,” he answers with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’m a combat pilot. I spend most of my time around guns, tanks and ammunition. Most flight plans include contingencies for getting shot at. This? A humanitarian mission in friendly skies? This was a cake walk.”

Her expression is somewhat bemused by this, and she leans forward intently. Her gaze is piercing, as if she can see beyond his flesh and bones now and right into his heart. “Then what went wrong?” she asks. “Because I’ve seen your file, Captain. You’ve got something of a reputation for getting the job done.”

“Every time, no doubt,” he says, quicker than he should. He can’t help it; he bolsters his chest out. Because Murdock doesn’t take pride in a lot of things, but when it comes to flying, he knows he’s impeccable. “No one has completed more successful missions than me.”

“Success doesn’t make you crazy, though,” she points out.

He hesitates, trying to feign a smile. “I thought you said I wasn’t crazy.”

“I thought you said you were,” she replies.

He swallows anxiously, and no matter how pretty her eyes are, he has to look away this time.

“Tell me, Captain,” she says. “What went wrong?”

There’s an answer to that; no, there are a thousand answers to that. A million. Murdock knows them all, knows them better than he knows the horizon line outside a cockpit window. He knows the infinite possibilities are the problem; that consider all the options are what make you crazy. He knows that sanity is nothing more than the ability to accept reality as a fate.

Murdock knows reality is negotiable, and that sanity is overrated.

Just like he knows that the way things go wrong are nothing more than the way things don’t go right. Murdock’s never resigned himself to failure any more than he’ll resign himself to success, and that’s the problem that got him here.

“Because if you got the mission done, then there’s no reason for you to be here,” she surmises. She waits, biding her time as she bites her lip lightly. “So what went wrong?”

That’s the question, then.

That’s the question she asked when this started.

And it’s been echoing between his ears ever since.

Three words like fixed points on the horizon.

What.

Went.

Wrong?

-o-

When he wakes up in the morning, Dr. Cold Hands is already inside his room. He offers Murdock a polite smile, and looks at him with ice-blue eyes. The banality of his smile is actually a little unsettling, and it doesn’t help when it puts the Dixie cup by his bedside, giving it a good shake first.

“Swallow these with water, don’t chew,” Dr. Cold Hands tells him. “You’ll get another dose of the blue one later today.”

Sitting up a little, Murdock cranes his neck, wrinkling his nose as he looks at the two pills. “What are those? Because I’m sort of picky on candy.”

“Medication,” Dr. Cold Hands says. “One is to help reduce your overall anxiety levels, and we’re experimenting with an anti-psychotic.”

“Because I’m crazy,” Murdock muses, making no effort to pick up the cup.

“Because we’re trying to find the right mix to help you,” he corrects. “Most of the side effects are minor, but we will want to monitor you until we are confident in the dosage.”

Murdock laughs mirthlessly. “In case I what? Go crazy?”

It’s pretty funny -- the nurse at the door stifles a smile -- but Dr. Cold Hands gives him a plaintive look that seems to go over Murdock’s head. “Medication can help you normalize a bit,” he says, shrugging as if it’s of no consequence to him. Which, it probably isn’t, all things considered. “Your behavior has been erratic since we admitted you.”

“Erratic?” Murdock repeats with a scoff. “The other doctor doesn’t think so. She’s not convinced I’m actually crazy.”

The doctor sighs, glancing back at the nurse in search of commiseration. “You can discuss that more during therapy later today.”

“Will she be there?” Murdock asks, sitting up a bit with a surge of hope.

Dr. Cold Hands wrinkles his forehead. “Please, take the medication, Captain Murdock.”

He tilts his head, giving the doctor his most studious look. “Does she want me to?”

“You might be surprised how much it helps,” he says, turning to leave. He nods to the nurse. “Make sure he takes it.”

She smiles in a perfunctory manner and waits until the doctor has closed the door. Gathering a breath, she pressing her hands down the front of her scrubs, taking two strides to the side of his bed to pour him a cup of water. “Come on now,” she cajoles. “You heard the doctor.”

Murdock hears, sure, but that doesn’t mean he’s convinced. People who have power don’t necessarily earn it, and Murdock’s never been impressed by titles or degrees. It’s what you do that counts. It’s the legacy you leave behind that makes a difference. You can be sane, crazy, mean, nice, smart, stupid, attractive, ugly: but if you do more harm than good, well, then that’s all you need.

That’s what Dr. Cold Hands is missing.

That’s what she has without even trying.

In front of him, the nurse holds out the cup. “Here you go.”

Murdock looks at it; he looks at her.

More than that, he looks at the four walls and the lock on the door. He looks at the window with the bars and a horizon so far away that he may never touch it again.

It’s a small price to pay, he thinks. Two pills for the horizon.

That’s what they’ll have you believe, anyway.

Murdock takes the pills.

It’s no wonder he’s crazy.

-o-

“Fifty-six people,” Murdock tells her with his most earnest look. “And then four additional crew members.”

“That seems like a lot,” she says noncommittally.

“The flight wasn’t at capacity, and a few even dropped out at the last minute,” he explains. “I was annoyed, I remember, because I had to recalculated the weight three times before we had the right numbers.”

“Did you get the right numbers?” she asks.

“Of course I did,” he says, a little indignant. “Double checked, and the copilot confirmed. It’s just annoying that we have to do it, but that’s the way the army is. Changing its mind at the last minute. Pulling people on, stuffing others in -- we’re all just interchangeable parts, I think. World domination by numbers.”

She’s not amused.

Why is she never amused?

Murdock is always amused by himself.

“Do you think this is funny?” she says, as if reading his mind.

He makes a face. “No?”

Her lips flatten. “Captain--”

He sighs, rolling his eyes. “I flew in fifty-six passengers and four crew members,” he says, more to the point. “They all arrived safely. I made sure that all the supplies were delivered, and returned on time back to base. That was what my mission was. I did my job.”

She makes a small notation before looking at him again. “Yet, you’re still here.”

“Not my choice,” Murdock relies. “You should ask them about that.”

“Trust me,” she tells him. “I have.”

Murdock bobs his head. “And?”

“And,” she continues. “Now I’m asking you.”

His sigh is more exaggerated this time because that’s a good answer. It’s a really good answer.

How is it that she has answers? How is it that everyone knows the answers and he’s still trying to figure out how to ask the questions?

That’s the stuff, Murdock knows. The stuff that will drive you mad.

Murdock takes an uneasy breath. “No matter what you think about me, no matter what my files said, no matter how I act here and now, I flew that mission perfectly.”

“Then why are you here?”

She’s brings it back to that, she always brings it back to that. She has to; that’s why she’s here.

That’s why Murdock’s here.

Because he can tell the story in fifteen different accents and in the persona of half a dozen famous actors. Because he can reimagine the tale as a spaghetti western or a mobster film or even an epic romance. Because he can whiz bang it all into oblivion, make it the punchline to a joke that no one gets.

But he can’t give her the answer.

Looking straight at her, he’d spill himself open, lay himself bare, but she can’t have that.

Not when he’s pretty sure the answer will destroy whatever’s left of him.

-o-

That’s when the nightmares start.

At least, the bad ones.

Murdock’s always had dreams, some fantastically terrifying in all the best ways. His mind is no simple place, and his subconscious is no more orderly than his ego. He’s always entertained his fellow soldiers at the breakfast table, telling tales of unimaginable exploits.

These nightmares, though, they’re a different breed.

They pull him under and hold him down, pressing his consciousness down until he’s flailing like a man drowning in the bathtub. They encompass him, fill him until he doesn’t know fact from fiction, fiction from fiction from fiction from fiction. Until he loses himself so completely that he’s not sure he ever had himself in the first place.

When he wakes up screaming, it’s not until cold hands grab him and hold him down that he realizes he’s awake.

He’s still fighting as Dr. Cold Hands presses him to the bed, talking to the nurse over his shoulder. “I need that sedative!” he shouts.

It’s the first genuine emotion that Murdock’s seen, and he almost feels guilty when he tries to bite his cold forearm.

Dr. Cold Hands takes this surprisingly in stride. “Must be the medication,” he grunts. “I might want to put him on something different--”

He doesn’t want to fight as much as he needs to, because he still feels the darkness waiting at the edges of his consciousness, and if he goes under again, he’s not sure he’ll ever come out.

Dr. Cold Hands smiles at him. “You need to calm down, Captain,” he coaches. “I promise, we’re taking care of you.”

Even if Murdock is to believe his intentions, he can’t trust his execution of this kind of promise. How can a man like that know what a man like him needs? How can they assume to understand the nightmares? How can they pretend to grasp the darkness that screams at him every time he closes his eyes.

What went wrong?

What -- for all that is good -- went -- for all that is bad -- wrong?

Something sharps nips him in the leg, and it hits him like a rush. He’s swept with hot and cold all at once, and he’s not fighting, and he’s not falling.

He’s floating.

No, Murdock thinks, as the world widens and the horizon becomes a tiny speck in his vision.

He’s flying.

Dr. Cold Hands steps away, but Murdock barely takes notice. It’s likely he’ll crash later; it’s likely he’ll regret this, all of this, more than he can say.

But for now, he’ll soar.

-o-

“Do you remember them?” she asks.

Murdock blinks to attention, startled. He’s almost forgotten where he is. “What?”

“Your dreams,” she says. “Do you remember them?”

He frowns, letting his gaze dart away. He likes looking at her; he doesn’t like talking about the dreams, though.

He can almost hear Dr. Cold Hands, reprimanding him tiredly. Come on, son. Give me something here.

She’s got an unfair advantage, though. She knows what he’s thinking. “Why don’t you want to talk about them? You know they’re just dreams, don’t you?”

“You’ve never met Queen Mab,” Murdock says, in a light British accent.

Her lips tip up. “I have read Romeo and Juliet, though,” she counters. “And despite what you say, I think you know the difference between reality and dreams.”

“There’s a difference between knowing something and believing it,” Murdock says in his regular voice again.

“So you choose to be crazy?” she prods.

“One man’s sanity is another man’s crazy,” he replies with a shrug.

She lets that stand for a moment, letting the silence linger until Murdock twitches.

“Just tell me one part, then,” she suggests diplomatically. She gestures with her pen. “One detail about the dream. Call it a compromise.”


It doesn’t feel like much of a compromise -- he’s giving more than he’s getting -- but she’s just impossible to resist. She’s impossible.

“I’m flying,” he explains, throat feeling tight while his chest aches. “I’m flying so high, higher than I’ve ever flown.”

“I thought you loved to fly,” she says.

“I do, I do,” he says quickly. “But when I’m up there, it’s different this time.”

She nods. “Different how?”

“It’s...off kilter,” he says, struggling for the words. “Off balance somehow.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” she admits, shaking her head.

“It’s like...flying without an altimeter.”

“A what?” she asks.

He sighs, jerking his head back and forth in frustration. “It’s like flying in a world where I can’t navigate right,” he explains. “I look and I look, but there’s no horizon line.”

She is watching him curiously now, and her professionalism slips. “And that’s a nightmare?”

“No up, no down, no right, no wrong,” Murdock says. “You can’t make anything right, no matter what you do. And you know -- you know more than anything -- that sooner rather than later, you’re going to crash.”

“The horizon is your point of reference,” she concludes.

“A point of reference, an anchor, sure,” he says. He bobs his head at her. “It’s sanity.”

“Ah,” she says. “And you lost it?”

That’s the answer, still.

It’s always going to be the answer.

-o-

He can’t help it if he’s lonely.

Murdock always been something of a loner, almost by default. That’s what happens when your momma dies and you are raised in a rural farmhouse that barely has running water. He goes to school, sure, but no one hears the lessons quite like he does, and he’s more fascinated by stray dogs than playground politics.

In this, he’s learned to be his own best friend. At first, it’s a matter of necessity. But there comes a time when he might actually prefer it this way.

Might.

It’s also possible he just hasn’t met the right person yet.

All that aside, he’s lonely now.

Maybe it’s the drugs; maybe it’s the setting; maybe it’s everything that’s happened to him ever since he joined the army. Maybe he’s changed, and he’s been too preoccupied to notice. Maybe it’s him.

Because he’s not that good of company, anymore, and as used as he is to the rest of the world not understanding him, it’s difficult to fail in understanding himself.

Two years ago; two months ago; two weeks ago -- this wouldn’t have been a problem. He’s always talked to himself. It’s a vivid imagination, is what that means. He creates people in his head who are more real to him than anyone he’s met in the real world. He crafts fantasy that is more pleasing than reality because he can.

He’s always known the difference, of course. Reality and fantasy, it’s a matter of perspective. A matter of choice.

“Captain, please, focus on me,” Dr. Cold Hands says. “You need help.”

This is a statement of the obvious, because of course he does. Of course he does.

But the voices, the ones in his head, they aren’t helping this time.

Nothing can help him.

Dr. Cold Hands, to his credit, at least tries in his own way. He visits Murdock on rounds, looking down at him with the chart in his hand. He looks vexed. “I wish you’d talk to me,” he says, and he sounds sincere. But only sincere in that he’s concerned with his job -- not Murdock. “If you don’t give us some better feedback, we’ll have no way to adjust the dosage.”

Dosage is a funny word. It’s also the title of an album from a group called Collective Soul in the 1990s. It makes him think of do-si-dohs and square dancing. Bow to your partner but it’s not enough.

It’s not enough.

Murdock takes a breath and holds it, trying to get his mind to stop. Usually the internal monologue is an entertaining distraction. But anymore, the voices are starting to coalesce, to become one. A pressing, steady chant in his head.

Not enough, not enough, not enough.

Dr. Cold Hands shakes his head in disappointment. “We’ll give it another few days,” he says, lowering his voice just a little as he talks to the nurse. “It can take a week or two for the drugs to take effect, but if he continues to withdraw, please, make note.”

It’s an effort, but it’s not enough. Dr. Cold Hands, the nurse, himself -- none of it’s enough. Murdock doesn’t like to be trouble, but at this point, he’s not sure what else he can be. What else he even is. All those years flying, he’s only looked up.

Going down is the reminder he doesn’t need.

It’s physics, right?

Newton?

It hits Murdock like an apple on the head.

What goes up, must come down.

Murdock gone pretty high in his life.

It’s not enough to keep him from going down, down, down.

It’s not enough.

When he blinks, Dr. Cold Hands is gone and the nurse is on her way out, too.

Instantly, it terrifies him. Because Murdock, he’s used to being alone, but keeping himself company -- that terrifies him suddenly. He’s slipping, and he’s just aware enough to realize that it’s happening.

He’s not sure he’s aware enough to stop it.

The lines are becoming blurred, the point in the distance where the sky meets the horizon is starting to get harder and harder and harder to see, and it’s not enough anymore.

The door closes; it locks.

Murdock’s alone.

And the silence roars.

-o-

“It’s not the same anymore,” he says, picking at his thumbnail. He can’t bring himself to look at her.

“I’m sorry?” she asks.

“These sessions,” he says flatly. “I used to look forward to them, but they’re not the same anymore.”

“Nothing has changed,” she says. “Same room; same doctor.”

He closes his eyes, squeezing them shut, trying to quiet the voices again. Mentally, he screams until his breath runs out.

With a heavy exhale, he opens his eyes again, daring to glance up.

Her look is expectant.

Quickly, he looks away again, skin starting to crawl. “This has been going on forever,” he says, shaking his head. His chest feels tight; his eyes burn.

“You’ve only been here a week,” she replies.

He tries to steady his breathing, shaking his head. “It feels like forever.”

“I know it may feel that way, but you need perspective,” she tells him.

The laugh that comes out of his mouth is rough and bitter. “Oh, perspective I’ve got,” he drawls, looking up at her again. She’s so damn pretty today, hair soft around her eyes, he almost can’t take it. “It’s just not the same as everyone else’s.”

This time, she smiles. “That’s not enough.”

Murdock closes his eyes again.

-o-

He’s hungry but food isn’t enough.

He’s tired but sleep isn’t enough.

He’s restless but pacing the floor isn’t enough.

He’s lonely but therapy isn’t enough.

He sees the horizon outside but it isn’t enough.

Day, night, night, day, what’s the point? The food goes uneaten, and Murdock lays curled up on his side, facing away from the window. He doesn’t open his eyes when the nurse comes in.

There’s no point in trying. If this is reality, then he doesn’t want it.

It’s not enough.

-o-

He hums, as loud as he can. He hums an entire symphony, the complete William Tell Overture. He hums all seven minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He hums through every question he knows she’s asking.

If he can’t hear her, he can’t answer her.

If he doesn’t open his eyes, maybe she’s not real.

Maybe he’s not real.

Maybe nothing’s real.

He hums until his voice is raw and he’s out of breath.

She’s still there, though. Pen tapping on the notepad. “You were saying, Captain?”

It’s not enough.

-o-

Dr. Cold Hands wakes him up with coarse fingertips pressing on the inside of his wrist. When Murdock looks up, Dr. Cold Hands is counting under his breath, one, two, three….

Murdock stares at him until the other man stares back.

“The nurse tells me you haven’t been eating,” he comments, lifting his hand again. He clasps his fingers seriously now.

Murdock just keeps staring, not sure what to say.

“I’ve already ordered a change in medication, but we can’t see how anything is working until you start taking care of yourself,” Dr. Cold Hands explains. “Another day, and we’re going to have to take alternative measures.”

Alternative measures. Murdock’s whole life is an alternative measures. He’s never done things the way he’s supposed to. He’d put his toys in the wrong spot and pack his lunch upside down. He did his homework in code, and did his book reports in iambic pentameter. When he flies, he keeps the horizon line in sight, but everything else is fair game.

He’s always made it work, until now.

“An IV might help, but it’s a stopgap,” Dr. Cold Hands says. “A feeding tube is a last resort, but it’s invasive and uncomfortable.”

Invasive. Everything about the army is invasive. He still hears his commanding officer, barking in his ear. Stand down, Captain. That’s an order.

Uncomfortable. Everything about the army is pretty uncomfortable, too. Once they took the horizon from him, there hasn’t been much else.

Dr. Cold Hands shrugs, almost looking fatalistic. “I’d rather not put you through that,” he says as if it’s an apology. “Especially since, without your help, it probably isn’t enough to save you.”

Murdock looks at him, really looks at him, and wonders if he’s another figment of his imagination. If not for the hands, Murdock may not have been convinced.

But the way the doctor looks at him, as if he sees him, some part of him, some tiny, infinitesimal part -- it’s unnerving.

Murdock feels obliged, somehow, even though he’s the one strung out in a psych ward.

“S’okay, doc,” he says, the words slurring together on his dry, dry tongue. He tries to smile, but he’s the one who’s faking it now. “Nothing ever is.”

-o-

“What’s the point, though?” Murdock asks, voice cracking from disuse and exhaustion. “Why should I even bother?”

She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Because you want to live.”

Murdock makes a garbled sound in the back of his throat. “Do I?”

“Captain, you know better than that,” she says, and this time she’s actually chiding him the way his grandmother used to when he came to the dinner table with dirt caked on his fingers.

“I used to, maybe,” he concedes.

She sighs primly, looking more disappointed in him than before. After a moment, she puts her pad of paper down and leans forward to look at him closer. “If you really wanted to die, you wouldn’t be asking the question,” she explains. “That’s what all of this is about, isn’t it? The questions you’re willing to ask and the ones you’re not?”

This is astute, and unsettlingly so. As much as he’s drawn to her, her ability to disarm him with a single question is almost too much for him sometimes. It’s tempting to let her fade away, to let her voices blend in with the rest, but her eyes are uncompromising and there’s nowhere for him to go.

Wetting his lips, Murdock manages a vague Russian accent -- just because. “It just seems like so much work. All that biting, that chewing, that swallowing,” he rambles weakly. “And then we have to do it all over again the next day.”

She sits back, a small smile playing on her lips. “That’s an apt description of life,” she says.

“Maybe that is the very problem,” he says heavily, letting the v disappear into an over-emphasized w.

Her demeanor is cool and professional again, pulled back like the tight bun in her hair. “If you don’t take care of yourself, someone else will do it for you,” she says. “I know you don’t like the questions sometimes, but I know you hate when someone else gives you the answers even more.”

His Russian reply falls short, and he swallows instead.

She has him; she knows it. “So, unless you want me to file a report about what happened on the mission without your consent over your dead body,” she says, picking up her pad and pen again. “I suggest you open your mouth and swallow.”

-o-

For her, he eats.

Everything tastes like ash, almost choking him when it goes down. He gags and splutters like he’s drinking anti-freeze, but he swallows every bite.

She may not have the answers, but she has more than anyone else.

That’s enough for Murdock.

Somehow, that’s enough.

-o-

She looks genuinely proud when he sees her next.

“That’s good,” she says, sounding truly enthused. “That’s a great step in the right direction.”

Murdock can barely help himself; he blushes. “Well, you did ask so nicely.”

Her smile in return is fond. “If only all the rest were that easy,” she comments. “All the same, you know what this means, don’t you?”

“I get to start going to the common room,” Murdock says. “I’ve heard that Wednesday movie night is nothing to miss.”

“And there’s a whole bunch of books, games,” she tells him, nodding readily. “This is very good progress.”

He nods along brightly -- but hesitates. “It means I have to stay, though,” he hedges, a little nervous. “I mean, I lost track of time a bit, but this was supposed to be a two-week sort of visit, I thought.”

This time, she’s the one who hesitates. Her smile is apologetic, but her expression is unyielding. “The hold was transitioned into a two-week evaluation,” she explains. “However, your behavior has warranted extended concern, and given your refusal to actually talk about the mission, we have no grounds to release you yet.”

“Well, I told you I’m crazy,” he interjects.

“Everyone’s crazy,” she says. “But we have to know if you’re a risk to yourself or others.”

He makes a face. “I am a combat pilot--”

“Who essentially became so depressed that he didn’t feed himself for a week,” she reminds him without apology. “That sort of behavior suggests that there are deeper issues at play.”

Sighing, it’s hard to control the swell of frustration. She’s hard to be mad at, but he doesn’t want to be here. “With all due respect, you can’t fix crazy, ma’am.”

“Maybe not,” she relents. “But there are treatments for depression, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorders, hallucinations, memory loss -- you name it.”

He’s frowning now, chewing on his bottom lip. “You think I have all those things?”

“I think I’d like to find out,” she says. “Which is why I need you to answer my questions.”

The way she words it, it means something. She doesn’t make it about him, which is easy enough to deflect. No, she makes it about her. And that -- well, that’s something else entirely.

It doesn’t quite make sense, the effect she has on him. There’s nothing particular about her; there’s nothing noteworthy that he can pinpoint or explain. It’s not that she’s pretty or smart or doesn’t call him on his crap. It’s something else with her.

She’s something else.

She’s more than a psychiatrist. She’s more than some girl he’s infatuated with. She’s a fulcrum, a tipping point, a fixed object in the swirling mess inside his head. She transcends the hospital; she seeps beyond the boundaries of the four walls around him. He’s connected to her, in ways he can’t even understand.

Sometimes it’s the fact that he can’t run, not from her. That’s not even a physical reality, but an emotional one. She sees him, no matter how well he hides. She knows him, no matter how confused he is about himself sometimes.

It’d be easy if he were just in love with her. It’d be even easier if they could be best friends.

They’re not, though.

She’s got a pad of paper, bright, knowing eyes and a question he can’t bring himself to answer.

“How long, then?” he asks finally, voice hoarse.

“I’m sorry?” she asks back.

“How much longer do I have to stay here?”

Her look is one of disappointment but not surprise. “Four more weeks,” she says. “We’ll make it a six-week evaluation before deciding definitively whether or not to release you or recommend long term treatment.”

“Six weeks,” he repeats.

“Six weeks,” she says again. “And after that, it’s really up to you.”

-o-

Six weeks is a deadline, and Murdock knows this. He also knows how fast time goes when you’re not keeping track of it.

To be clear, he’s not. It’s a little hard to, being locked up in the psych ward. They make routines and patterns, and then wonder why no one has any idea what’s going on at all. No doubt, the people there are probably crazy, but he’s not sure the psych ward is really doing much to fix them, all things considered.

They really want you to be crazy if you’re here. After all, they’re paying for your room and meals and all that stuff; they’d be pretty disappointed if you ended up to be sane after all that.

Not that Murdock is convinced that sanity’s all that great, anyway. He’s been around sane people most of his life, and none of them seem particularly happy. Especially in the army, with all the orders and the regimented lives. Soldiers, they curse and make coarse jokes and complain.

Here, though?

Here, the people are having fun.

Okay, they weren’t all there sometimes, and some of their jokes didn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s been awhile since Murdock heard people laugh for the sake of laughter. It’s been longer still since he’s been around other folks who know how to smile.

There’s Darren, who was a sergeant at one point. He likes to sing songs, and he teaches Murdock a selection of his greatest hits. Murdock returns the favor by teaching him to sing in French, and they practice some Italian opera together with mixed results.

Rob is good at remembering obscure facts about, well, everything. This is very useful, as far as Murdock can tell, and they have long conversations reciting as many random statistics as they can remember. It’s a running contest, and Murdock is almost outdone by Rob’s knowledge of sports history. Murdock has him, though, with classical literature. Needless to say, it’s a close race.

And there’s Grant, who can speak ten languages, including three that no one understands. Malcolm has found 26 near-escape routes, including one down the sewage system that is really quite infamous. Scott is convinced he’s a brigadier general, despite the fact that he washed out as a private, a fact that seems horribly unfair to Murdock, seeing as Scott has the shoulders to pull off that many bars on his collar.

Murdock likes the fact that there’s no judgment here. No one cares that Darren gets violent if he misses a meal, or that Rob has manic mood swings. It doesn’t matter if Grant talks to people who aren’t there or if Malcolm becomes so depressed he can’t get out of bed some mornings. And it’s surely not a problem that Scott has no grasp of reality, because they all understand how fluid reality is and how tenuous the human mind can be.

Murdock’s among equals here; it’s a place where he belongs. He doesn’t have to pretend; he doesn’t have to force himself to fit someone else’s notion of what it means to be human.

It’s hard to say if he’d trade this if they offered him the horizon again.

But then, that’s not on the table.

So Murdock will take what he can get.

PART TWO