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A-Team fic: A Long Way From Mexico (2/6)

December 29th, 2016 (08:47 pm)
complacent

feeling: complacent

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX



-o-

Hannibal had slept in worse places.

In combat zones; in enemy holding cells. He’d slept standing up, propped up against a tree. He’d slept on a raft, drifting at sea. He’d slept with wild animals bearing down on him, and he’d slept through the frustrated interrogations of his pursuers.

His career, after all, had been colorful to say the least. This jaunt to Russia, as much as he questioned it now, wasn’t even close to the most dangerous or the most uncertain. He’d gone into missions knowing he wasn’t expected to come back. Some people thought him to be fearless, but Hannibal knew fear better than most men. It was that fear -- that real, pressing fear -- that made him an extraordinary planner. It was the keenest understanding of the risks that made him committed to circumventing the worst possible outcomes.

This wasn’t about him, though. He was one variable, and far from the most important one at that. It was this realistic sense of himself and the mission at hand that had always kept him calm and in control. He could always sleep soundly, no matter what the circumstances, because he had accounted for everything else.

To be fair, he’d done everything he could. He’d used the information provided to him by his superiors to the best of his ability. He’d employed all his resources and executed the most thoughtful measures possible.

But that was the flaw of the command structure. When he didn’t exist at its apex, he was vulnerable to his gaps. Need-to-know was a common theme, but Hannibal operated under the assumption that he needed to know everything. He couldn’t be expected to put all the pieces together when he didn’t know the full picture. Hannibal needed to account for the things he couldn’t account for.

Like how damn much he cared about his team.

Face had been such a smart ass when they first met, so abrasively cocky. It had been obvious that his attitude problem was nothing but an attempt to overcompensate for his own terrified need to be accepted, and once Hannibal had learned how to leverage that, Face had been nothing if not a loyal companion.

BA had been a stroke of luck, a literal jewel in the rough. He was smart but he liked to express himself with his hands, and when the army didn’t provide him with a constructive outlet for his emotions, he chose decidedly less constructive ones. Hannibal had given him purpose, put him to use building instead of destroying, and that had made all the difference.

As for Murdock, Hannibal had known from the second he saw the kid’s file that the worst thing in the world for him was to be kept out of a cockpit. He didn’t exist on solid ground, Murdock didn’t, and the only way the world made sense for him was up in the clouds. The trick was to keep him grounded between flights, and therapies and medications sure as hell weren’t the way to make that happen. Hannibal just gave him wings, and Murdock would always soar.

His men; his boys; his team.

A year later, they weren’t expendable. They weren’t even variables. They were the whole damn point. And it was painfully clear to Hannibal that need-to-know would never be enough where his team was concerned. If he was going to get them out safe, he had to account for everything.

Orders and protocol be damned.

So sure, Hannibal had slept in worse locations and he’d been on worse missions.

But that night, he didn’t sleep a wink. He stayed up, watching the labored rise and fall of Murdock’s chest, while Face curled up next to him and BA’s head lolled toward him while rain pounded on the tarps above their heads.

It was, quite possibly, the longest night of Hannibal’s life.

-o-

Hannibal made the morning efficient. Compared to dinner, breakfast was a modest affair, and Hannibal had most of the camp packed up before the three men under his charge even had time to rouse. This was all very intentional, of course. Hannibal needed to make up for their lost time -- and quickly. There was no telling when the weather would change, and the moment it did, he knew their luck would very likely change with it.

That was an ironic thought. As if anything on this mission had actually been lucky so far. Still, Hannibal knew the difference between a little bad luck and when a situation goes FUBAR. Having one so completely, he didn’t want to risk another.

“We’re going to combine the stretchers today,” Hannibal announced, as if this was a novel idea.

BA and Face, who knew Hannibal’s plan in this regard, feigned moderate surprise.

“Any reason, boss?” Face asked, slipping some of Murdock’s gear into his own pack while the pilot was still getting his bearings.

“The conditions are only getting worse,” Hannibal explained reasonably. The best lie was one that was shielded by the truth. “We can’t drag ourselves down any more than we have to. We can still complete the objective with the one.”

BA nodded, helping Murdock into a standing position, mindful of the ragged turn in Murdock’s breathing this morning. “I’ll take first shift at the rear,” he said. “That way I can see if any of you all try something funny to get me in the air at the end of this.”

Face chuckled heartily. “Always glad to feel the love, man.”

Murdock blinked a few times, but it did little to clear his eyes. Hannibal had hoped that a night’s rest would help him get over the worst of the illness, but that had been an idle thought. In the cold and rain, Murdock’s illness had only gotten worse. The pilot hadn’t said more than a few words all morning, and all of them had been unsettlingly sane.

“I can t-take front,” he offered.

Hannibal inwardly grimaced. Of all the times for his pilot to be cognizant. “Negative, Captain,” he said. “I need you on point with me.”

“Come on, Hannibal,” Face whined. If anyone could sell a bit, it was him. His lieutenant could con anyone into anything. It was damn useful, truth be told. It could also be a little terrifying sometimes, to see the ease in which he breathed falsity. If he didn’t know that the younger man’s intentions were so true, he might have to worry about him.

Well, worry about him more.

Hannibal didn’t have Face’s alacrity for swindling people, but he knew how to sell a part when he had to. “I need my pilot rested for the flight out,” he said.

“So, what, then?” Face asked. “You’re saying I’m expendable?”

“Your words,” Hannibal said, cocking his head. He grinned. “My sentiment.”

Face gave him his most tortured looked while BA laughed. “Got you, sucker,” the big man cajoled, reaching for the stretcher. “Better look sharp.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Face grumbled, reaching for the other end. “You guys are just lucky I stick with you. I could be on any other team in any other unit if I wanted to.”

“No one else would put up with you,” BA snarked, adjusting his grip while Face got himself into position, balancing his heavy pack with the stretcher.

“With me?” Face asked, totally incredulous. “I’m the only reasonable one of the bunch. I mean, BA, you talk with your fists. Murdock, well, he’s crazy. And Hannibal? Everyone’s just worried that the old man will finally well and truly flip his shit one of these times.”

Hannibal did his best not to smile, wordlessly making sure Murdock had his gun and supplies secured.

“H-hey,” Murdock protested over his shoulder at the others, making the reasonable impression of a soldier on patrol, even when he wiped his nose with his already wet sleeve. “Technically, the army says I’m eccentric these days. They don’t put c-crazy people at the flight controls.”

“Nah, man,” BA said. “You are definitely crazy. We probably should have left you in that nut house back in Mexico.”

“Th-then you’d all be dead,” Murdock said, half-stifling a wet cough.

“I shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” BA remarked. “Should have just kept driving, taken my van across the border, back home where we both belonged.”

“Another reason why I don’t know why I put up with all of you,” Face said, shaking his head. “Really, I deserve a promotion. Or, you know, at least a raise. Or a medal. I’d settle for a medal.”

Hannibal smirked, double checking the campsite one last time. They’d burned the plane for a reason; there couldn’t be any evidence of an American presence. Besides, if they were pursued, the last thing Hannibal wanted to do was leave a trail.

“See, that’s your problem,” BA said. “You’re vain.”

“Vain? Vain? Who are you, Carly Simon?” Face asked with a chortle of disbelief. “I hardly think--”

“You d-do preen,” Murdock said.

“Well, have you seen my hair?” Face demanded. “Don’t you think a little preening is justified?”

The hair was something Hannibal had no thoughts on. But Face’s ability to distract the team of the dire reality? Was quite laudable. The more he preened, after all, the more he deflected. It was a useful defense mechanism for Face’s own deep-seated insecurities, which was something Hannibal often tried to address with him. But when he used it to defend the rest of the team against the pressing reality -- then Hannibal had every reason to be grateful.

Even when he knew what Face was doing, it sure as hell made him feel better. To see his team talking and joking. During a mission like this one -- it was exactly what they needed to make it through to the end.

“Justify it later,” Hannibal said, giving the team a long look. They were weary, his team. Face, for all his talk, was in no state to preen now. Even BA’s well built form looked more worn than normal. Murdock appeared to be barely standing.

It was a reminder to Hannibal, just how much his team would give him, if he asked. A reminder that they would give him everything if they had to. That responsibility -- more than anything the army could ever think of -- was the thing he never wanted to fail.

“Let’s get out of here first,” he ordered, the words clipped as he fought to keep the emotions at bay. “And when we get out of here, I’ll buy you all enough alcohol to preen for a week.”

They murmured in agreement, and when Hannibal turned back toward the woods, he didn’t have to look back to know they were following him.

-o-

They made it past lunch, which was honestly longer than Hannibal thought they’d make it. It was a balancing act, keeping the pace fast enough to make progress while keeping it slow enough to give Murdock enough leeway to stay with the rest of them. Even accounting for more rests than usual, Murdock spent their entire lunch hour sleeping fitfully and coughing so hard he threw up.

They were still a good two miles out when he went down.

No warning; no preface.

His knees just buckled, and he was face first in the mud before Hannibal could do anything to stop it.

Cursing, he dropped down next to his pilot, picking him up and turning him over while Face and BA hurried forward to see.

Using his sleeve, he wiped away the muck from Murdock’s face, taking care to clear his nose and his mouth as Murdock gaped for oxygen.

“Murdock,” Hannibal said, jostling him. “Captain.”

The terse words were given as an order, if only because Hannibal didn’t know how else to express his fear. From the start, Murdock had always been the one to follow orders best. Hannibal could still remember the first day he met the kid, unhinged in the hospital. Hannibal had seen the crazy in his eyes, and he’d seen it dissipate the moment Hannibal gave him the order and gave Murdock purpose again. Crazy as he was, Murdock didn’t disobey orders when they counted.

Unless he didn’t have any other choice.

“Murdock,” he said again, more sternly this time. “Murdock.”

“Is he…?” Face prodded gently, as if he didn’t want to finish the question.

Hannibal sat back, cradling Murdock a bit more comfortably. “He’s not good,” he replied flatly, tapping the captain’s cheek again. Even under his own numb fingers, Murdock was like ice. “Murdock.”

This time, Murdock roused, muddy eyelids fluttering. His eyes were clouded, though, gaze slipping absently from the trees above and Hannibal’s taut expression.

“Captain,” Hannibal tried again, willing himself to be hopeful. “Do you know where you are?”

“Nowhere, everywhere,” Murdock said, the words running together now, almost too soft to hear over the sound of the rain. “Nowhere man, please listen, you don’t know...don’t know what you’re missing….”

He trailed off, eyes dimming again as he exhaled with a heavy, gurgling breath.

“Captain,” Hannibal said, trying to steel himself. “You need to stay with me.”

Even as he gave the order, he knew it was a lost cause. Murdock was going limp again, and the next inhale nearly choked him. His chest heaved, forehead creasing as his eyes slipped shut again. “Nowhere man, the world -- the world -- is at your...command.”

His eyes flitted away, his body couched frozen on top of Hannibal.

“I know he’s crazy most of the time,” BA said. “But this is pretty bad, even for him.”

“And I thought his sanity was unsettling,” Face added grimly.

Hannibal didn’t quite ignore them, but he also didn’t indulge them. Instead, he pressed his fingers to Murdock’s pulse point before dropping his head to Murdock’s chest. It was hard to hear over the sound of the rain, but he could feel the pilot’s heart, fast and thready, just beneath his ear. Even that couldn’t disguise the grating sound in his lungs as Murdock breathed in and out, in and out.

Sighing, Hannibal sat back again. Murdock didn’t stir any further, and Hannibal shook his head. “I don’t think he’s getting up again,” he confessed. “Frankly, I’m surprised he made it this far.”

“So what are we going to do?” Face asked, nodding out to the rainy terrain. “We’ve still got several miles left to go, and the weather’s not letting up.”

“Well, we do have a stretcher,” BA said with a coarse bob of his head to the burden he and Face were sharing. “I don’t like leaving no man behind, but there’s no way in hell I’m leaving Murdock here -- crazy or not.”

If it came to that, it was a call Hannibal would ultimately make. It wasn’t quite time for a last resort, however.

Not yet.

Carefully, Hannibal maneuvered to his feet, supporting Murdock as he did. “Not necessary,” he said with a grunt, trying to keep his pilot from falling hard back to the mud. “I’ve got him.”

The words were confident, but that was about it. Hannibal believed that most of the time you could convince anyone of anything if you believed it enough yourself. He practiced that, too, and it had been a great asset in his colorful military career.

It didn’t always work, however.

Especially around his team.

Hannibal slipped, almost losing his footing, and holding onto Murdock’s limp weight was no easy task in the driving rain.

“You sure about this?” Face asked, skeptical but not quite calling Hannibal out on his crap. Hannibal was grateful for that, considering the fact that Face had every right to at the moment. Face’s doubts were more than justified. “It’s two miles -- at least. In the rain.”

Trying again, Hannibal braced himself, levering Murdock up and minding his neck. “We do what we have to,” he said with a grunt, pulling Murdock up and over his shoulder. “Some things are non-negotiable.”

Big words; big ideals. And he meant them -- he truly did.

Sometimes belief, though, wasn’t enough.

One step and his footing faltered again, slipping so badly that he nearly went down. As it was, it was all he could do to keep Murdock positioned, and as the extra weight tipped him forward, he had no choice but to fall.

BA and Face were already there, BA catching Murdock and Face steadying Hannibal. It was a group effort to stay out of the mud, and Hannibal was breathing heavy from the exertion by the time it was done.

Except it wasn’t done.

Hell, the hard part hadn’t even started yet.

He looked at the stretcher, and he looked at his boys. He looked at Murdock, getting weaker by the minute. And he looked out at the muddy forest and the oppressive gray skies.

There was a point when sheer determination wasn’t enough.

Hannibal never accounted for that because it’d never been an issue.

This time, though.

His chest tightened, his throat constricting.

He didn’t want to say it; he hated to admit it. I can’t.

Suddenly, Face bent over, pulling the bag off Hannibal’s back. BA was next to him, unslinging the extra ammunition Hannibal had kept close to vest. He might have protested, being manhandled in such a manner, but considering that his hands were full and his ass was numb, he thought better of it, keeping Murdock close.

“Like you said,” Face told him, not a note of recrimination in his voice as he managed a half smirk in the deluge. He strapped Hannibal’s pack around his front, adjusting it with muddy fingers. “We do what we need to do.”

BA nodded gruffly, adding the extra weight to his own. He was already carrying Murdock’s pack, not having to be asked. “Some things are non-negotiable.”

They were a mess, his team. They were disrespectful and had trouble with authority. Some people called them all outright crazy, even if Murdock was the only one who’d been sectioned. But they were good men, good soldiers, good boys. They knew their priorities, and Hannibal was not a sentimental man, but damn it, he loved them.

Nodding tersely, Hannibal steeled his jaw. Getting his footing once again, he pulled Murdock up and over in an easy motion. Pausing, he adjusted the weight on his shoulders, holding Murdock’s limp wrist with one hand and snaking the other around his pilot’s thigh.

Heavy, wet and cold was hard enough. Murdock’s persistence silence was perhaps the heaviest weight of all.

“Okay,” Hannibal said, when he finally felt steady enough. “Let’s head out.”

He led, one foot carefully in front of the other.

His team, to a man, followed.

-o-

They were, quite possibly, the longest two miles of Hannibal’s life.

This was, as most things, not an idle exaggeration. Hannibal had moved faster and under worse conditions. He’d moved farther under direct enemy fire, and once he’d dragged himself five miles through the rainforest on his own broken leg.

But when one of his men were in trouble, then everything changed.

Every step felt like one too many; every inch felt like an insurmountable distance. Every second that it took was a second too long.

After a mile, Hannibal’s back ached, Murdock’s weight settling into his muscles. The cold exacerbated the problem until every foot fall sent cold pain up and down his spine. His fingers were like lead as they held onto Murdock’s icy skin, and he flexed his fingers to feel the diminished thump of Murdock’s pulse on the exposed skin of his wrist.

Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump--

When his footing slipped, he heard BA and Face behind him, keeping the dogged pace between them. Tired and cold as they were, they didn’t stop. For Hannibal, they just kept going.

It was the least Hannibal could do to return the favor.

With two miles down, Hannibal’s own reserves were dwindling. It was hard to feel anything in his deadened extremities, and the sound of his own throbbing heart nearly eclipsed everything else. It echoed in his ears, falling in tandem with the unrelenting rain.

Thump-thump-thump-thump--

Hannibal had every reason to quit.

And just three to keep going.

At this point, he could account for nothing else.

-o-

Then, they were there.

It was just as planned, after all. Hannibal, for all that he’d failed to foresee, had accounted for the distance perfectly, and his sense of direction had been unimpeachable. Though they’d been slower than Hannibal had intended, they hadn’t yet breached any of the mission parameters.

In short, they’d still completed the objective and finished the mission according to plan.

Getting his team inside the plane and out of the rain did feel good -- and wrapping Murdock up in every blanket he could find was something of a relief. But sitting back, Hannibal watched as Face collapsed, eyes closed into one of the seats. BA didn’t even make a quip about flying and slid down to the ground next to Murdock. The pilot was wheezing with every breath now, the worsening state of his breathing startlingly obvious now that they were out of the elements.

Then Hannibal reminded himself that the mission wasn’t over yet. Not with the plane still on the ground and the Russian military close enough to pose a problem.

Not with a runway drowned in mud and a pilot too sick to sit up straight.

It had been easy, in some regards, trekking through the woods. The rain and cold aside, it’d been nothing more than one foot in front of the other.

Now Hannibal had to not only acknowledge their obstacles.

Now he had to overcome them.

His team was counting on him.

It was time for Hannibal to do what he did best.

It was time to make a plan.

-o-

He had to account for everything.

First, and probably least, BA was conscious and any hope of getting him quietly in the air was probably gone now. Trying to coerce a man of BA’s size and girth to do anything he wasn’t inclined to do was difficult, and the last thing Hannibal wanted was a fistfight in a confined space over something as ridiculous and essential as flying.

Second, the rain wasn’t letting up. It was possible that he’d seen Murdock take off in worse conditions, but not by much. Under this type of nonstop rain, takeoff was a significant risk, and Hannibal couldn’t be sure when the benefit would outweigh the cost. Because going down hot over Russia? Was the mess he’d just cleaned up.

Third, the runway didn’t even look viable. They had used an open strip of ground, which Hannibal had meticulously scouted for its exact size and position. Not only was it within walking distance of the original crash site, but it had been in a radar dead zone, making it exceptional hard to detect under Russian watch. That also meant, however, that it was nothing but dirt when Hannibal had picked it. After two days of nonstop rain, it was nothing more than mud. Hannibal was not an aviation expert, but he knew that attaining enough speed with that much mud under the tires would be problematic.

Fourth, the weather had continued to inhibit all communications. He’d accounted on limited comms this far out in Russian territory, but that had been under ideal conditions. Hannibal didn’t need backup often, but he always liked to have a few last resorts when things got sticky. Unfortunately, without comms, none of those last resorts were even possible. They were completely cut off.

Fifth, weather conditions aside, Hannibal wasn’t even sure he had a pilot at this point. Getting Murdock out of the elements was a step in the right direction, but even stripped down to his wet boxers and swaddled in warm blankets, he wasn’t exactly looking at his best. Hannibal’s medical training was strictly for the field, and while he was an adept medic when push came to shove, he was much better at pulling out bullets and stitching up cuts. This? Was beyond his skill set.

In short, they were stuck. They had no way to get out, and Hannibal had no way of knowing of that would change any time soon. The only good news was that if they weren’t getting out, no one else was probably getting in. It was unlikely that the Russian authorities would be able to spot them, much less come after them any time soon. This gave them some time.

His eyes settled on Murdock again.

Time was a relative thing. Time to evade capture was a good place to start, but the mission wasn’t done yet, and every second on the ground was another second Murdock wasn’t getting the medical attention he needed.

He spared a glance at BA and Face. Face had busied himself with checking their inventory -- a mindless task to keep himself distracted, no doubt. BA had taken to drying himself off, changing into a dry shirt while keeping a wary eye over Murdock.

They were anxious, and it was obvious. His team was well trained and good under pressure. They could do anything Hannibal asked of them, not without complaints, of course, but without failure. But staring danger in the face was a lot harder when there wasn’t a damn thing you could do to fight it.

“Okay,” Hannibal announced, bringing Face and BA to attention. “Face, I want to know what rations we have left and how to make the best use of them. We may be stuck here for a bit, so I want to make it as comfortable back here as possible. Blankets, pillows, any heat sources that don’t take fuel from the plane -- they’re all a go.”

Face nodded. “Already on it, boss,” he reported. “We’d planned for a return trip two men heavier, so we’ve actually got quite a bit on hand.”

“Good, and scout out our medical supplies,” Hannibal said with a terse bob of his head. “We can’t make a diagnosis, but I’m willing to try anything we think might help.”

“I can tweak our comms,” BA suggested. “Maybe route something through the plane to see if we can get a message out -- or radar at the very least. We’d have to start up a few systems, but the fuel usage wouldn’t be so bad.”

“And worth it, if we can get any idea when this rain pattern will finally dissipate,” Hannibal said. “We have to watch our frequency, though. We need to keep our location entirely secure.”

“If we’re real lucky, we might even pick up any Russian transmissions in the area,” BA said. “That’d at least give us a heads up if we’ve got company coming.”

“Good thinking, BA,” Hannibal said. “We’re going to have to take turns on patrols. I want to make sure we’ve got a clean perimeter until we’re ready to go wheels up out of here. I can take the first guard, and then we can rotate every two hours.”

Face and BA were watching him, waiting, expectant. They wanted more; they needed more. They wanted to know when they were getting out of here. They wanted to know that it was going to be okay.

They wouldn’t say that, not being the Army Rangers that they were. But they were used to bold, confident plans.

Sitting and waiting it out wasn’t exactly a standard page in Hannibal’s playbook.

“We just have to wait it out, is all,” he said with a nod at his men. “We have no reason to think we’ve been compromised at all.”

“Sure, with the Russians,” Face said. “But Murdock…”

“He’s not looking so hot, Hannibal,” BA told him. “He hasn’t opened his mouth once since we got back.”

“I mean, even if it does stop raining, is Murdock going to be able to get us in the air?” Face said. “Much less all the way out of Russia. I saw that fight plan coming in, man. That’s not autopilot stuff.”

“It’s a moot point for now, Lieutenant,” Hannibal said, reverting to the chain of command to keep things in order. Order wasn’t about control; it was about calm. They all needed to stay calm. “We can keep him dry, warm and hydrated for now. That may be all he needs -- that and a little rest. We have no reason to think he won’t be feeling better by the time we’re ready to take off.”

Face chewed his lip. He cast a glance at BA, who glowered in return. Hedging, Face wet his lips. “If you’re sure,” he ventured cautiously. It wasn’t an outright question of Hannibal’s plans, but it was pretty damn close.

Which was probably why it hurt so bad.

Still, Hannibal had let them down enough on this mission.

He wouldn’t make it worse with indecision.

“That’s my job, kid,” he said, offering his most winning smile.

Grabbing his gear, Hannibal ducked out into the rain, fully trusting that his men would do their jobs.

Hannibal just hoped like hell he had done his.

-o-

Outside it was still cold and rainy, but Hannibal still found it to be a reprieve. The shelter was important for his men, and they needed to stay close to the plane to be ready when the weather finally did clear, but being cooped up inside was an exercise in idleness. And Hannibal was many things, but idle wasn’t one of them.

Worse, being in that plane made him come face to face with the fact that he hadn’t quite closed out this mission. His grand plan, and all its contingencies, wasn’t finished.

It wasn’t that Hannibal wasn’t capable of waiting, because he was. Hannibal was, by all accounts, a very patient man. He understood better than most of his contemporaries that sometimes the best way to win the game was to wait it out. Strategic pauses were paramount for success, and sometimes doing nothing was the best way to do something.

This wasn’t that kind of situation, however. He wasn’t waiting for the perfect time to strike; he was waiting for the first chance of escape. Waiting could be an offensive decision, when it was played correctly. Under the current circumstances, waiting was one step away from failure.

Failure wasn’t something he could afford. Never mind what the Army was concerned about. If they were found on Russian soil, it would be an international incident that would probably result in a complete disavowal of Hannibal’s actions. He was likely to end up in a Russian gulag, rotting away doing menial labor for the rest of his life.

That wasn’t the actual problem for Hannibal, though. He could live with the consequences of his own actions, but his men? He had them cooped up in that plane, waiting on a plan that could fall apart at any moment. It had only been a year since Mexico, and it hadn’t occurred to him just how much they had changed him.

Most of the time, Hannibal focused on changing them. That was why he’d taken them on, after all. He’d seen all the potential that the rest of the world had overlooked, and he’d worked hard -- damn hard -- to bring out the best in his boys.

It was no easy task, to be sure. Face was easily distracted and far too concerned with his own creature comforts. He was immature in his own way, and he needed structure when all he did was push it away. BA was dangerously angry sometimes, and he’d spent so much of his life figuring things out with his fists that he was just as likely to start a fight as he was to end one. BA could be an excellent fighter, but he needed the right cause to fight for before he went and got himself killed for nothing.

And Murdock was well and truly crazy. It had been no easy task getting the army to approve his reinstatement, and there were moments when Hannibal wondered if psychiatric care was well and truly beyond his purview. But for all that Murdock talked crazy and tried to drink poison, he was damn good at what he did. He just needed someone to help him find out what was real.

The team, that was real. The bonds between them, they were real. The power of teamwork, that was the only real thing left in a world that had almost lost all meaning. And every second Hannibal had worked on changing them, they’d been changing him, too.

Because here he was, angsting like an amateur in the Russian woods. The entire Russian military could be tracking him as he paced back and forth in the pouring rain, and what was he doing? What brilliant plan was he concocting to save himself and the mission?

Nothing.

Hannibal was standing stupidly in the rain because he was paralyzed with the fear of reality. The fear that he might lose his team. The fear that he’d taken them on a mission he couldn’t get them back from. The fear that he might lose.

He didn’t have time for fear. He didn’t have time for doubt. Second guessing was for people who came in second. For all the assets his team brought to the table, they brought one unmistakable weakness that Hannibal had neglected to consider.

They made him care. They made him put something else before the mission. They compromised his decision making process; they compromised his certainty.

They compromised him.

He’d never accounted for that. He’d never accounted for the fear, for the weakness, for the irreparable change in priorities. He had never accounted for on a team that would bring out the best in him and the worst in him with every decision he made.

He’d never accounted on them staying this long, on having a permanent, longstanding team.

Continuing his patrol, he ignored the way his eyes burned in the rain, stinging against the cold. He was too well trained, too well disciplined, too well composed for this sort of thing. All he had to do was keep watch and mind the time. He had to look for the opening and hope it wouldn’t be too late.

Because Hannibal could still account for many things on this mission.

But losing his team would never be one of them.

-o-

Two hours went fast.

For all that the weather was miserable and the conditions just getting worse, Hannibal knew that getting back on the plane would probably be a whole lot harder.

So it was entirely to his surprise when he found his team huddled together, drinking hot coffee and sharing a laugh.

All of them.

Hannibal hid his surprise with a critical gaze, quirking an eyebrow while he took a seat close to them.

“Everyone having a good time?” he asked with a wry voice. “Do I need to remind you that we are, for the moment, stranded in Russia?”

“Remind us?” Face said with a snort, rocking against Murdock easily. “Like we could possibly forget.”

“I was going to get some sleep before the next patrol, but this crazy fool woke up,” BA said with a tight nod to Murdock, who was sitting right next to him. “He ain’t shut up.”

Murdock smiled at BA. He was still too pale, but his eyes were clear -- clearer than Hannibal had even dared to hope. Maybe all his brooding was even more self-indulgent than he’d thought.

“Good to see you awake, kid,” Hannibal said with a nod. “How are you feeling?”

Murdock beamed up at him. “Oh, you know, Colonel,” he said, sounding chipper. “Peachy--”

The confidence gave way to a violent gagging sound, and Murdock half convulsed with a racking cough.

Face made a little face, but he didn’t move away. Instead, he rubbed the pilot’s back reassuringly.

Murdock coughed again, clearing his throat with a rattling noise before wincing.

Hannibal forced himself to keep smiling. This was still good news, as far as he was concerned. And his team needed good news more than they needed reality at the moment.

“Rain’s still not letting up, so we have some time to recuperate,” Hannibal explained. He nodded at BA. “You’ll take next shift outside, Corporal. Nothing fancy, but we do need to walk the perimeter. You can spend time under the wings and stay fairly dry.”

“Man,” BA grumbled. “Right when I was starting to feel warm again.”

“Happy patrolling,” Face said. “We’ll stay here, keep your spot warm for you.”

“Enjoy it while you can,” Hannibal said. “You’ll be after him.”

BA laughed. “Right in time for nightfall.”

Face moaned. “And here I was, starting to think this mission might not be so bad after all.”

“Don’t worry, Face,” Murdock said consolingly. “You’ve still got me here.”

With that, he sneezed mightily all over Face.

“Yeah,” Face said, wiping himself clean with a look of disgust. “There is that.”

He’d missed this, their banter. He’d missed them.

“Come on,” he said, jerking his head to the door. “We need to keep on point. This one’s not over.”

BA bundled up, grabbing his gun and moving to the door. Face adjusted the blankets around Murdock, topping off his own cup of coffee.

Hannibal tried to hold onto that surge of optimism, just a little longer, even if he knew how right he was. This mission wasn’t over.

He looked to the rain outside, to his weary team in a plane they couldn’t fly.

This wasn’t even close to over.

-o-

It wasn’t late by any means, but Face closed his eyes for a moment and was out before Hannibal had a chance to order him to lay down. A two-hour nap wouldn’t be enough, but his team was used to operating on less than ideal margins.

Hannibal felt tired himself, but settled down in a blanket of his own across from Murdock, he didn’t dare let himself sleep until things were a bit more resolved.

Besides, it felt damn good to see his pilot awake.

Singing with a British accent, no less.

“I’m Henry the eighth, I am,” Murdock sang. He’d started humming the moment Face closed his eyes, but his Adele voice left something to be desired. He’d done a reasonable approximation of Oasis, but his rendition of oldies from the British Invasion was by far his most authentic. “Henry the eighth I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door--”

Hannibal nodded, grinning in approval. There were times he missed the 60s. To be young and stupid again. “She’s been married seven times before,” he joined in.

Murdock’s face brightened. “Every one was a Henry, wouldn’t have a Willie or a Sam--”

“No Sam!” Hannibal added with a dash of pizzazz that he saved for moments like this. His piloting skills aside, Hannibal often thought Murdock’s ability to lighten a situation was his greatest contribution to a team.

“I’m her eighth old man, I’m--”

The finale was cut off, though. Lost in a cough, then a sneeze, then a prolonged series of both that left the air between them silent.

“You okay, captain?” Hannibal asked, regarding him carefully. Murdock’s cough had been getting worse again, probably because he was awake. It was hard to tell if it was just drainage from his sinuses or something worse building in his chest.

Murdock blinked rapidly a few times, visibly trying to steady himself. He smiled, thin and wavering. “She might need a Henry the ninth at this rate,” he quipped with a self deprecating chuckle.

Hannibal frowned before he could stop himself. “How are you feeling?”

Flitting his hand through the air, Murdock adjusted himself, easing back a little more against the wall behind him. Next to him, Face snuffled in his sleep, smacking his lips together as his head lolled further to the side. “Fine, fine,” Murdock said. He took a raspy breath and nodded. “Nothing a filling Russian meal wouldn’t fix. Some blini, maybe, but I don’t know how to get them so thin, do you? Thin like paper?”

He paused to wheeze, making a small face while he cleared his throat.

Hannibal’s frown deepened. “Well, as delicious as that may sound, I hope to be out of this country before eating too many meals becomes a pressing concern,” he explained.

Murdock mopped up his nose with a nod of agreement. “All the same,” he said. “Another cup of coffee and I’ll be ready for my shift tonight.”

To this, Hannibal could barely hide his surprise. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, of course. His boys were made of tough stuff, and they didn’t like to fail any more than Hannibal did. More importantly, though, they didn’t like to fail him. That was a fact Hannibal could usually use to his favor.

It was a fact he would not indulge here.

He had to know the breaking point of each of his men because he couldn’t trust them to stop before they got there.

“I’m afraid not,” Hannibal replied, managing to sound apologetic. “We need you to rest.”

Predictably, Murdock shook his head. “I’m an equal member on this team, all the way,” he said by way of protest. “The sniffles is no reason to shirk my duty. I mean, they tried to section me off, but I wasn’t going to let a little thing like insanity keep me from doing my job.”

Hannibal offered a fond smile. “You have nothing to prove to us,” he said.

Murdock was shaking his head again, even more vigorously this time. “No, no, no, no,” he said. “I know what you’re doing, Colonel.”

Lifting his brows, Hannibal didn’t even have to feign innocence. “Keeping my men safe?”

“I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid,” Murdock told him earnestly. “You can say it nice as you please, but I know when I’m being benched.”

Shifting forward, Hannibal sighed. “I know you’re not stupid, which is why I also know that you know I’m right,” he said. “Even if you’re getting better, you still need the rest.”

“We all walked through that rain, you all carrying me while we were out,” Murdock said, eyes flashing brightly. Crazy was an apt term for his pilot, but insanity had never robbed him of his pride. It existed differently for someone like Murdock -- who didn’t care if he talked in voices or played with imaginary dogs -- but it existed all the same. Murdock did his duties in his own way, but he always, without fail, did them. “We’re all wet and tired. We all need the rest.”

Hannibal wet his lips patiently. “It was a stroke of bad luck. It could have been any of us.”

For all that Hannibal could be obtuse, manipulative and coy, he could also be completely honest when he had to be. It took some nuance, naturally, to be all four at once.

Murdock’s expression turned petulant. “I can do my job.”

“Your job is to fly us out of here,” Hannibal reminded him. “You’re no good to us if you stand in the rain and get worse. We need you rested and ready the second this weather clears.”

Brows knitted together, Murdock looked a little desperate. “I can do both, Colonel. Honest, I can.”

“My whole plan -- all of it -- relies on you being in that cockpit,” he said seriously, jabbing a finger up the aisle of the plane. “Trust me when I say that all of us -- even BA -- would rather have you rest now so you don’t let us down then.”

Murdock blinked again, eyes huge with the purest trust Hannibal had ever known. For all that Murdock was a brilliant man, he was also like a child -- needy and playful. They all needed affirmation, to a man, on his team, but none of them craved it as openly as Murdock. Murdock didn’t have the same barriers, after all, and when he was honest, the emotion was nothing but raw.

And Murdock trusted Hannibal implicitly. Now just as much as ever. For as much as Murdock wanted to fight, he wanted to make Hannibal proud first and foremost. The was a responsibility Hannibal took seriously.

Seriously didn’t mean what most people thought it did, however. Hannibal believed in results more than methods. Machiavelli wasn’t all right, but he certainly wasn’t all wrong. Emotional manipulation was effective, and he had never been above using it on his team. He was brilliant at it, to be absolutely honest, and it was how he’d always managed to get the best out of his men. He knew how to play to Face’s vanity; he knew how to tease BA’s anger. With Murdock, he often just had to indulge his eccentricities to get the desired result.

He felt no remorse for any of this, because it not only benefitted the mission, but it helped his team as well. They needed the right kind of prodding, on the job and off. Planning a mission went hand in hand with honing each man on his team.

This, though -- this felt a little wrong. None of it was a lie. Hannibal did need Murdock well enough to fly this plane. But he hated to prey on that kind of vulnerability. Maybe it was too fine of a distinction, but Hannibal could feel the difference. Mostly because if Murdock couldn’t come through, Hannibal would have more to worry about than getting out of Russia. Compared to putting his pilot’s shambling self esteem back together, evading Russian capture sounded like a walk in the park.

It was a relief and a kick in the gut when Murdock nodded, letting his gaze drop. He coughed into his shaking fingers, bobbing his head. “Okay,” he agreed, glancing at Hannibal with tired eyes. “For the team.”

The smile on Hannibal’s lips hurt, but he didn’t let it up. “For the team,” he said, forcing air around his constricting throat.

As if there was any other reason for any of it.

-o-

It was just shy of two hours when Hannibal finally set about to rousing Face. Though he would berate the younger man for his laziness often -- because Face was by far the whiniest of their foursome -- he knew that the whole team had earned a reprieve on this one. Although they had shelter now, the last few days had taken a toll. The last thing Hannibal wanted was another man down.

Face, true to form, made it easy to dismiss such worry. He groaned with gusto, flopping toward Murdock and trying to bury his face into the pilot’s shoulder. “Another five minutes, mom,” he said. “Please.”

Hannibal gave him a lighthearted glower. “You got two hours that BA and I didn’t get at all,” he scolded.

“Yes, but I need my beauty sleep more than the rest of you,” Face mumbled at him, still not opening his eyes.

Murdock jarred him slightly while stifling a cough, shrugging his shoulder. “Face is the prettiest one on the team.”

“Thank you, Murdock,” Face said, peeking up at the other man. “Whoever declared you insane in the first place should have their license revoked because clearly you are the sanest man around.”

Hannibal rolled his eyes. “Come on, sleeping beauty,” he cajoled. “Or I’ll have to sic BA on you with a kiss.”

Face grimaced, gently easing himself off of Murdock. “Seriously, Hannibal, is it still raining out?”

Hannibal glanced up at the roof, where the patter of rain had not abated -- not even a little.

Face’s expression turned almost comically devastated. “But I was just starting to get feeling back in my ass!”

“That was me, s-sorry,” Murdock said, sniffling loudly. “Thought it was a pillow.”

As if this actually surprised him, Face looked quizzical.

Murdock nodded, his pale features bathed in earnestness. “Very supple.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Face said, patting him on the shoulder. “I can always count on you to be unsettlingly complimentary.”

“All the same,” Hannibal interjected. “You’ll want to get ready to head out. BA will be back any minute.”

Face’s expression contorted in the sublime petulance. “But Hannibal--”

“We all have to pull our weight, kid,” he said. “Besides, your hair will probably look better after a walk in the rain.”

Lifting his hand to his hair, Face looked concerned. “My hair?”

“You were right about the products,” Murdock said with a noisy exhalation. “I had no idea how much they helped.”

Face’s brow furrowed, half offended and half surprised.

“What can we say,” Hannibal said. “You got a great ass, but lousy hair.”

Face turned disbelieving eyes up at him.

Hannibal gave a gruff chuckle. If Face wanted to argue, there was little he could say to that. Emotional manipulation?

Yes, please and thank you.

-o-

Despite his complaints, Face got ready quickly. He was dressed in extra layers, donning a rain slicker he improvised out of plastic bags. Against all possibilities, he actually made it look good, too.

“Trash bags,” Murdock observed. “I always l-loved trash bags.”

“You know,” Hannibal said. “Walking around like that is going to kill the element of surprise.”

“Yeah, since I’m really worried that people will hear my trash bags in the pouring rain,” Face said in reply. “I like my chances.”

Hannibal gave him a mildly disapproving look, but didn’t argue the point. Face didn’t do things the way Hannibal would do them, but he was smart and had good instincts. He often failed to think things through, which was why he needed Hannibal, but Hannibal had learned that Face thrived with a certain amount of creative leeway.

And really, in this weather, Hannibal couldn’t begrudge him that.

On the ground, Face scooted closer next to Murdock again. It was a small, friendly gesture, one that most people wouldn’t identify as unusual. Hannibal wasn’t most people, though. The way Face leaned in; the way face pressed his arm around Murdock’s back; the way he rocked them both with gentle laughter.

The proximity was designed to be warm, steady and reassuring.

In short, Face was coddling Murdock, so easy and subtle that the captain wasn’t even aware it was happening.

Which was why it was brilliant, of course. Murdock would fight it if he knew he was being babied. That was why he’d tried to fight Hannibal’s orders earlier. If Hannibal was good at emotional manipulation in an overt manner, Face was a damn expert. His tactics were superior in the fact that he could make anyone do anything he wanted -- all while convincing them that they’d had the idea in the first place.

Everyone knew when Hannibal manipulated them.

No one realized Face was doing it until long after it was over -- if ever.

There were times when Hannibal felt he’d assembled more than a team in Mexico; he’d made a family.

“So, do we have a plan yet?” Face asked, breaking into Hannibal’s thoughts. “One that doesn’t involve getting washed away, that is.”

“Still waiting for our opening,” Hannibal advised.

“That doesn’t sound like much of a plan,” Face noted.

“It d-does lack the usual panache,” Murdock added weakly. “Not a lot of jazz.”

“Jazz is inherently improvisational,” Hannibal reminded them. “It’ll come together when it needs to.”

“Until then, I get to walk in the rain,” Face said with feigned enthusiasm.

“Well, if I talk to the Colonel, maybe I could join you,” Murdock said, sitting himself up a little. “Just for a bit--”

Hannibal had his mouth open to argue, but Face was already shaking his head. “Are you kidding?” Face asked him with an incredulous noise. “If I’m going to get wet and muddy, I’m sure as hell going to do it alone. There can be no corroborating witnesses to anything related to the state of my hair.”

Murdock, almost willfully oblivious to Face’s redirection, gave Face’s hair a beseeching look. “I haven’t seen it look so fluffy before.”

“It’s the moisture, man,” Face lamented. “I don’t even have a chance.”

“Well, I--” Murdock started, but his words staggered with a cough he couldn’t hold back, followed by another. By the third, he was hacking, and the entire effort left him visible spent and shaking.

Face squeezed his shoulder again, not even missing a beat. “It chokes me up, too,” he said. “So you rest here, and when you fly us out of here? When you fly us back? The first thing we’re going to do is buy some conditioner.”

Murdock was still wheezing, but he looked up at Face with a shadowy smile. “We’ll buy travel size.”

Face grinned. “Now you’re talking,” he said, looking up at Hannibal. His eyes glinted with meaning. “That sounds like one hell of a plan.”

It was an indictment of sorts, the kind that toed the line of insubordination. Face trusted him -- they all trusted him -- but it was never blind. It was never without rationality or common sense. And this time around, Hannibal couldn’t deny them that much. This plan was hanging together by threads, and the longer they waited, the more clear it would be to all of them that Hannibal didn’t have nearly as much control as he purported having.

“Don’t worry,” Hannibal said, swallowing back his own trepidation. “You do your jobs, and I’ll do mine.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” Face told him with a meaningful look before nudging closer to Murdock again, who responded with a shaky, wet cough.

Hannibal chewed his lip, watching the silent interaction between his boys. Seamless and supporting. All Hannibal could ask for -- and then some. Hannibal’s job was to get them out safe. They’d hike through the rain, brave the Russian cold, handle sudden illnesses in stride. They’d do anything Hannibal asked as long as he did his job.

That was what they were all counting on.

-o-

BA got back without incident, and Hannibal helped him disarm while Face slipped out into the rain. “No signs of nothing out there,” BA reported, sounding angrier than normal. “For a while I thought the rain might clear.”

“Yeah?” Hannibal asked, almost hopeful.

“But then it just picked up again,” BA said. “I never liked Russia much to begin with. After this? I’m really going to hate it.”

Hannibal nodded in commiseration. “Well, I don’t have plans to stay here longer than we have to,” he said. “You sure there was no activity in the woods?”

“You’ve seen our runway,” BA said. “This much rain, this far out -- most of the roads are going to be impassable.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate the determination of the Russian authorities,” Hannibal said. “If they get it in their minds--”

“Then they’re bigger fools than we are,” BA said dourly. He paused, tipping his head toward Murdock. “How’s the crazy man doing?”

Hannibal followed his gaze. The pilot was still awake -- but stubbornly so. He looked exhausted with dark circles beneath his eyes. His pallor was milky white, and his breathing was wet, punctuated by coughs.

“He’s been alert and conscious,” he said, hoping those facts would speak for themselves.

BA was too perceptive for that, though. “Still looks bad, Hannibal,” he said. “I can hear him breathing over here.”

“Yeah, and that cough’s getting worse,” Hannibal agreed. “Now that we’re out of the cold, we’ll have to watch him for a fever.”

“You think it’s the flu?” BA asked.

“Hard to say,” Hannibal told him with a sigh. He turned his attention back to BA. “But he’s not the only one that needs some rest tonight.”

“I’m good,” BA told him.

“None of us are good, Corporal,” Hannibal said. “I need you to take care of yourself.”

With a scowl, BA dumped the last of his gear. “Fine,” he said. “But I’ve got to take care of something else first.”

Hannibal could only watch while BA crossed through the cramped interior of the plane, sitting down next to Murdock with a growl. Murdock brightened immediately, at least as much as he was able, and his greeted BA with a Russian accent.

With his brows knitted together in anger, BA made a threatening gesture, even while he tucked the blankets in around Murdock just a little tighter. It was a gentle touch, one most people assumed a man like BA Baracus was incapable of. They’d never seen him work on an engine, though.

Or with a teammate he cared about.

BA could be trusted with the most precious of cargo.

Everyone thought these boys were lucky Hannibal had taken them in.

Hannibal knew better.

He was the lucky one.

Glancing out the window, he saw the unrelenting rain and hoped like hell that luck wasn’t about to run out.