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

December 29th, 2016 (08:57 pm)
annoyed

feeling: annoyed

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



-o-

Face took every opportunity to leave after that -- getting food, making bathroom breaks, even obtaining paperwork, of all things -- but he always found a reason to come back early. It was a telling reality that Face had always been something of a flight risk, and more telling that Face had ultimately talked himself into staying.

If Face handled this with the flightiness of a hummingbird, BA took to it with the weight of an anchor. Indeed, the big man sat in the chair by Murdock’s bedside and scowled at anyone who dared entered. He scowled at them harder when they chose to leave. He interrogated visitors -- who came, Hannibal noted, with surprising frequency -- and he stared down some of the nurses until they left in tears.

All in all, it reminded Hannibal of the age old question: could God himself create a boulder too large for God to move?

In other words, had Hannibal created the impossible when he brought BA Baracus onto the team? Had he tipped a boulder into place on his team and left it there with such resounding force that it could smother them all? There was no doubt that when BA made a choice, he sure as hell made a choice, and when Hannibal had ordered him to drive the in Mexico, he had started something he didn’t quite know how to finish.

Moreover, he knew with acuteness that Face would walk out and back in many times before this was over. If BA left, he wouldn’t come back.

BA didn’t need him to point to the door.

He needed to pull with the force of the sun on the earth.

No fear.

And a whole lot of regret.

When BA literally growled at one of the orderlies, Hannibal decided that enough was probably enough.

“It’s not his fault, you know,” Hannibal observed. “He’s just doing his job.”

They were sitting, flanking each side of Murdock’s bed. The late afternoon sunlight was dim, making the entire room feel placid. Face had gone on another pointless errand -- to get Murdock’s favorite jacket, just in case -- and there wasn’t well enough to leave alone anymore.

“Everyone’s just doing their job,” BA said at him with a scathing glance. “It’s a convenient excuse.”

“Or the truth,” Hannibal said.

BA’s face contorted in an even deeper scowl.

Hannibal lifted one hand placatingly. “I’m just saying, if you want to pick a fight, an orderly is not your best place to start.”

Jutting his chin defiantly, BA hardened his resolve. “You volunteering?”

“You do what you have to do, but it won’t help,” Hannibal advised.

“Man, what do you know about it anyway,” BA returned with a tip of his head.

“I know everything about it,” Hannibal said. “Impotence, remember?”

“Yeah, and you were the one who talked me into coming back inside,” BA said.

“And you’re the one who came,” Hannibal said, not even missing a beat. “You have to take responsibility for yourself and the choices you’ve made.”

With a scoff, BA almost smiled, a twisted, sardonic smile. “And what about you?” he asked, the accusation thick in his voice. “Do you take responsibility? Because it was your plan that went south. It was your plan that put us in Russia with no way out. It was your plan that put Murdock in this bed, fighting for his life. Your plan, Hannibal. Not mine.”

His expression was hard; his eyes unyielding.

It hurt, like a punch to the gut.

The hardest he’d ever seen BA throw.

Forcibly, Hannibal squared his shoulders and didn’t flinch. “You’re right.”

Huffing in vindication, BA nodded. “Damn straight I’m right.”

BA thought he’d won this fight.

Hannibal, though, hadn’t conceded it yet.

“So,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You blame me, then.”

It wasn’t a question, not quite, but it still drew surprise from the corporal.

Face contorted, BA shook his head. “What?”

“You blame me,” Hannibal said again, more plaintively. He nodded toward their fallen teammate, unconscious on the bed. “For what happened to Murdock.”

“Well, you said--”

“You can take a swing at me, you know,” Hannibal said.

BA’s incredulity spiked. “What?”

“You said it yourself,” Hannibal told him with a nonchalant shrug. “I’m the only CO you haven’t taken a swing at, and after this, surely I deserve it, don’t I?”

BA growled. “Don’t tempt me, fool.”

“It’s not a temptation,” Hannibal continued, nonplussed. “I’m merely pointing out the facts. If you’re mad and looking for a fight, then I’m your scapegoat. Not the doctors or the nurses or the walls outside. Me.”

Stiffening, BA didn’t say anything.

Hannibal nodded on. “You can hit, and you can rage, and that’s fine,” he said. “If it’ll make you feel better, then do your worst. I’ll take every hit you’ve got and then some.”

The anger on BA’s face faded, and he slumped a bit more. He looked sullenly at Murdock.

Hannibal softened in response. “You have to know your enemy, BA.”

BA worked his jaw, eyes still on Murdock. “The damn Russians didn’t even touch us.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Hannibal prompted. “When we can fight against an external enemy, then all those emotions have somewhere to go. But that’s just a smokescreen, hiding what we’re really fighting against.”

BA cast his gaze sideways. “And that it?”

“Ourselves,” Hannibal told him. “The real enemy, the one that scares us all, is inside us, way down deep where we may never route him out. That’s why you can blame me all you want and it won’t change a thing. Because as mad as you are at me -- at Face, at Murdock, at the whole damn army -- you’re really mad at yourself for letting yourself care in the first place.”

With a long exhale, BA’s massive shoulders steadied, even as the tension clearly dissipated. “I still think the orderlies have bad service,” he muttered, clinging to the shreds of defiance on principle alone. “And you’re sure as hell lucky I don’t hit you. I could lay you out in a bed right next to Murdock, no questions asked.”

The threat of violence had never made Hannibal smile more. “I know it.”

Then, BA’s expression darkened just a bit. “And if he doesn’t wake up, Hannibal; if he doesn’t get better--” He paused, shaking his head. “Then I can’t promise you what I’m going to do.”

At that, Hannibal sobered considerable. “Trust me,” he said, looking at Murdock again. “I know that, too.”

They were all pulling their punches this time around, even if BA didn’t know how truly difficult it was. Because for all that Face and BA might blame him.

Hannibal would blame himself more than any of the rest.

In time, the others might forgive him.

Hannibal wasn’t sure if he’d ever forgive himself.

If Murdock didn’t make it, it would be one hell of a fight, no matter how you looked at it.

A fight, Hannibal knew without a doubt, he’d lose.

“It’s up to Murdock now,” Hannibal reflected dimly, the quiet cacophony filling the void between them. “For all our sakes.”

-o-

It was up to Murdock.

There had been countless missions wherein that fact had been paramount. Sure, they all had integral roles on the team. Hannibal needed Face’s scams, and he needed BA’s mechanical prowess. But there was something particular about extraction, about Murdock’s ability to swoop in and pull them out of the mess they were in that was certainly worth noting. When Murdock was in the air, they were flying with only one, crazy safety net.

Hannibal didn’t exactly take it for granted, either, but it was rather convenient to plan on air support under any and all circumstances. Enemy fire? No problem. Evading radar? Piece of cake. Hot pursuit? Check.

It was easy to question Murdock in every other part of life and duty. They couldn’t trust him to consistently feed or bathe himself; they couldn’t rely on him to sit through a briefing without talking in voices. Murdock talked to people who weren’t there, and used poisonous substances to season his food. They couldn’t trust Murdock to do anything.

Except fly.

Hannibal sighed, rocking back in his chair by Murdock’s bedside.

They’d never seemed so low to the ground, not since he’d first picked Murdock up in Mexico.

Rubbing a hand of his face, Hannibal wondered if that had been his first mistake. There were a lot of ways to crash, after all, and the most worrisome ones for Murdock didn’t happen anywhere near a plane.

Maybe it had been a step too far, pretending like he could play psychiatrist to someone the army had sequestered away. Maybe he hadn’t helped Murdock at all. After all, if not for Hannibal, Murdock wouldn’t be lying in a bed with tubes shoved down his throat.

Wearily, Hannibal looked around. It had been no easy task, getting BA to leave for a bit. Face had pulled out all his best cons to drag BA with him over to the mess. His boys needed to eat, this much was true, but Hannibal had needed a minute alone.

His eyes settled back on Murdock.

With Murdock.

His pilot required more than basic psychology. Hannibal had an easy enough time manipulating BA and Face to go against their worst instincts, but Murdock was another story entirely. Hannibal cajoled the other man to be rational, and sometimes it felt distinctly like he was making light of Murdock’s true ailments for the betterment of the team.

How did he know, after all? Was it right to let Murdock believe he had a dog named Billy? Was it acceptable to let his pilot pretend he was someone else while in the cockpit? Was he doing Murdock any favors when he hid all the anti-freeze when dinnertime rolled around?

He didn’t doubt that Murdock would vehemently say yes to all of those questions, that he would thank Hannibal profusely for getting him out, for letting him fly.

But Murdock was crazy. Could Hannibal honestly trust the man to make a reasonable decision about anything?

Of all of Hannibal’s ambitious plans, this was by far his most audacious.

Maybe Mexico had been the mistake, and Russia was just the long overdue fallout.

Drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, he studied Murdock again. He could still remember how emphatic Murdock had been; how incredibly and horribly lucid. It was easy to pretend Hannibal had made the right decision. They did, after all, get out of Russia.

But what was Hannibal’s measuring stick? Was a successful mission all that counted?

His notion of acceptable losses had changed. His sense of certainty had faded. Hannibal had always been noted for his unorthodox methods, but at what cost? How could he continue to play with lives when he finally understood just what they meant?

Murdock’s mental frailty was easy enough to take in stride most of the time.

The physical reality of it, though.

Hannibal had always known.

But not like this.

The doctors hadn’t even trusted Murdock to live on his own, and here Hannibal was, expecting his pilot to make life and death decisions on a daily basis. Because, why? Because it suited him? For Murdock’s well being? For the overall good of the mission?

That was the worst part of this whole thing. Face would blame him even when he didn’t want to. BA would blame him even when he couldn’t bring himself to act on it.

Murdock, though.

Murdock wouldn’t blame him.

The idea of such absolution almost made it worse.

The simple fact was, he couldn’t fix Murdock. Not here, not ever. Murdock’s physical condition, his mental health -- that was all beyond Hannibal’s scope. Honestly, they all were. Hannibal couldn’t actually make Face be a team player; he couldn’t actually ease BA’s hostility. They all had to do it for themselves.

In this, they were all uncontrolled variables.

Predictable, but only to a certain degree.

Murdock would be safer in Mexico, no doubt.

He wouldn’t be better, though.

None of them would be better.

“You’re cleared to land, Captain,” Hannibal said, his voice rueful in the quiet. “Anytime you’re ready, we’ll be waiting.”

Murdock’s chest rose and fell, his still features unresponsive. That was the thing about Murdock, crazy as he was, when he went up in the air, it was always on Hannibal’s orders.

But coming down.

Well, that was always Murdock’s choice.

He always made the best one for the team, the best one for himself. He could only hope that this time would be no different.

He could only hope.

Hannibal gathered a breath, nodding his head. “We’ll be waiting.”

No more than a heartbeat later, Murdock’s monitor’s beeped.

Hannibal looked up, daring to hope.

The machines beeped again, louder this time, and Hannibal barely had time to register the change when he realized that Murdock wasn’t coming back to him.

No, Murdock was crashing.

Harder and faster than before.

And there was nothing he could do to stop it.

-o-

Frantic, he was out the door, yelling down the hall for help before he knew otherwise. The medical team arrived quickly, and this time, they didn’t have to push Hannibal out of the way. As Murdock’s heartbeat gave out, Hannibal was standing stiff in the doorway, watching while the doctor stood tall and started compressing on Murdock’s chest.

Face and BA weren’t back yet, thank God. Although, if this was it, if Murdock didn’t make it--

Hannibal didn’t finish the thought.

Couldn’t.

The paddles were pressed to the captain’s chest, but this time, there was no effect. The doctor started chest compressions again while another injected something into the IV and a nurse manually squeezed oxygen into his lungs.

Sometimes plans didn’t come together.

Sometimes they fell apart.

The variables, they were uncontrollable. He could plot and plan and manipulate and cajole, but he wasn’t God. Hannibal was just a man, just as much as any of the men in his service. They were all fallible, each and every one of them.

Murdock was shocked again, but the steady tone of his unbeating heart was evidence enough of failure.

Funny, how he’d started something in Mexico.

And he hadn’t even realized it until it ended in Russia.

On the fourth shock, Murdock’s heart started to beat again, and Hannibal tried to tell himself that was enough, that it was okay. That there was enough reason to stay and fight. He’d talked the others into it. He’d consoled Face’s insecurities and placated BA’s rage. He’d even stood fast through Murdock’s eccentricities, but what about him?

What about him?

For the first time in his life, Hannibal didn’t know.

-o-

Hannibal couldn’t stay.

The doctors had stabilized Murdock, but he couldn’t stay to listen to the latest prognosis. He couldn’t stay to listen about the congestion in Murdock’s lungs, about the sluggish movement of oxygen in his body. He couldn’t listen to how his organs were in danger of shutting down, how his brain may have been damaged. He couldn’t listen to how he had to wait and see.

He couldn’t stay to tell Face that his family was falling apart. He couldn’t stay to remind BA that he was even more powerless now than he was before. And he sure as hell couldn’t stay to watch Murdock struggle -- and fail -- to live.

Hannibal couldn’t stay.

He was outside before he knew it, down the back stairs and through one of the service exits, and he made it about five feet from the door before he realized the horrible, painful truth.

He didn’t have a plan.

He didn’t have anything resembling a plan.

No matter what he told Face and BA and Murdock, Hannibal Smith was a man without a plan for the first time in his life. The stunning truth of it made him want to run like Face, to rage like BA, to go absolutely crazy like Murdock. But he couldn’t do those things. That wasn’t who he was.

Turning sharply, Hannibal turned back toward the hospital, but skipped the doors. He faced himself to the building and ducked his head, trying and failing to take a deep breath. He could fill his lungs, but he couldn’t clear his head.

The weight of it all was bearing down on him, so fast and sudden that it nearly took him to his knees. He was holding his boys together with every last bit of energy he had, and he had nothing left. It was ironic, to give everything he had to keep his team together when he was the one falling apart.

His boys, though. They were worth it.

His fingers clenched into fists and he closed his eyes.

No one else could see it, not like he could. It was the team that no one had wanted, comprised of misfits and rejects. Face had been on his way to a court martial, and he’d literally picked BA up on the side of the road. He’d pulled Murdock out of a hospital, for goodness sakes. All of them, overlooked, forgotten, written off.

But Hannibal, he’d seen something in them. Something that didn’t make sense in disciplinary notes and dishonorable discharges or psychiatric profiles. Because those things, they delineated what they could do on their own.

Hannibal had seen, from the very start, what they could do together.

That was the difference, of course. Hannibal had seen they way they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. They were perfect complements, ideal parts of a whole. All Hannibal had to do was give them what they needed, training and encouragement and a job.

Mostly, though, all he had to do was give them a team.

It was easy to think, sometimes that that was only what they needed. As though this were some altruistic project of Hannibal’s, but that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all.

This was what he needed, maybe more than any of the rest.

A place to belong.

That was what made this so damn hard.

He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

That was also what made it so easy.

Because Hannibal had the plans, but the team made them come to life.

The team made him come to life.

In the end, Hannibal didn’t need anything but them.

He looked up, back toward the hospital. He felt as impotent as BA, as cornered as Face, as weak as Murdock. And he didn’t have a plan to fix this.

Countless reasons to leave.

Just one to stay.

Gathering his breath, Hannibal pressed his lips into a fine, thin line. They’d all come a long way since Mexico.

Hannibal even more than the rest.

With that, he went back inside.

-o-

The walk back inside was longer than he remembered. Hannibal wasn’t a young man anymore, and his leadership was not without consequences. He had never been quite fearless in the field, but acknowledging keenly that he was a man with something to lose changed things.

It changed him.

When he made it back to Murdock’s room, he hesitated at the door. Peeking through the glass on the window, he could see Murdock on the bed. The covers were shifted and rumbled, hastily pulled back over his chest, poorly obscuring the leads and monitors. The steady rise and fall of his chest was a marginal consolation, but at this point, Hannibal had to take what he could get.

On either side of Murdock’s bed, Face and BA had each pulled up a chair. Though he’d only been gone for five minutes or so, they must have both reported back to resume their vigil. It wasn’t surprising, to say the least, and honestly, Hannibal found that more reassuring than anything else.

They were fighting, his boys.

Each one of them, in their own way, was fighting as hard as they could, no matter how scared or powerless or weak they were.

Hannibal watched for a moment, the three of them together. So much more than they were apart -- so much better. Hannibal could take credit for a lot of things, but he couldn’t take credit for that.

He smiled, hand on the door, ready to go inside and join them.

For once, he didn’t need a plan.

All he needed was them.

-o-

Most of Hannibal’s plans, they were dramatic. He had a thing for theatricality, because he often felt like if something wasn’t worth doing big, it wasn’t worth doing at all. Subtlety was overrated, as far as he was concerned, and if the plan was going to come together, he always figured it was best to make sure everyone knew it.

This, however, wasn’t one of Hannibal’s plans.

It was like recruiting an undisciplined supply officer that no one else wanted. It was like picking up a dishonorably discharged veteran in the back roads of Mexico. It was like pulling a sectioned pilot out of mental ward.

Little pieces coming together, small pieces in such disparate places, that you didn’t see the big picture until it was staring you, smack in the face.

One day, the doctors pulled back on the medication.

And Face started sitting still.

The next, the doctors reduced the amount of ventilation.

And BA’s fingers relaxed at his sides.

It wasn’t until they pulled the tube, though, and Murdock started breathing on his own that Hannibal started to think maybe this plan might work out okay after all.

-o-

All the same, it was a slow thing. By the time Murdock started showing signs of awareness, Hannibal wasn’t even sure how much time had passed. Honestly, he didn’t even care. His beard was growing in and his uniform smelled rank, but when Murdock opened his eyes, it was all worthwhile.

On the bed, Murdock blinked up, confused as he tried to wet his lips, no doubt finding his throat dried out from the intubation tube. He had lapsed in and out of sleep several times since his fever broke, even mumbled a few incoherent words in the hours since he’d been extubated. The nurses had been worried at first, but Hannibal had assured them that Murdock’s talk of invisible dogs and video games was actually a good sign that he was his normal self.

There was some talk, after all, of brain damage, considering the intensity of his fever and the two times he’d had to be resuscitated. Hannibal knew better than to dismiss the possibility outright, but he’d seen the look in Murdock’s eyes when the passed over his own: crazy as ever.

That didn’t mean it was easy. Face and BA had refused to leave at this point, insisting on being around when Murdock came to entirely. Hannibal had tried to explain, unsuccessfully, that Murdock still had a recovery ahead of him, but they knew better by now. They knew when he was giving orders he didn’t really mean.

After all, he wasn’t going anywhere, either. They were out of Russia, but it wasn’t behind them yet. Not until they were all awake, alert and together.

So when Murdock opened his eyes again -- really opened them, and kept them open -- it was tempting to think it was a good thing.

But Hannibal had to account for more than that.

He had to account for the length of the illness, and the lapses in consciousness. He had to account for the fact that Murdock was in a hospital bed, and while none of them liked hospitals, Murdock almost couldn’t stand them.

Being locked up in a psychiatric ward, Hannibal figured, probably had something to do with that. Sure, Murdock hid it well, but when he was restrained against his will, all his fight or flight reactions kicked in.

Even so, Hannibal barely had enough foresight to take Murdock back the arm, holding him firm and steady as the pilot tried to bolt off the bed the second his awareness came back into focus.

“Whoa, easy,” Hannibal said, as easily as he could. He smiled, making sure Murdock could see his face, even while he didn’t let go. “You’re okay.”

Murdock sucked in a noisy breath -- for all that his lungs had cleared, his breathing still sounded like he was gargling over gravel -- and his eyes were wide and panicked as they flickered from Face to BA to Hannibal once again.

“We’re back on the base,” Hannibal assured him. On his periphery, Face and BA inched forward anxiously. “You passed out when we landed.”

Murdock took another breath, this one a little less uneven than the last. He blinked a few times, and Hannibal could almost see the younger man piecing it all together. “Russia?”

“Far behind us,” Hannibal said, easing his grip a little but not letting go.

“Yeah, thanks to you, buddy,” Face chimed in. “You even got BA to fly.”

BA scowled in his most reassuring way possible. “I shouldn’t have,” he said. “It’s bad enough when you’re crazy, but when you’re sick? I’m the crazy fool this time.”

Murdock visibly relaxed, the tension dissipating beneath Hannibal’s grip. “You haven’t flown with me since Mexico!” he croaked.

His voice sounded terrible, but the enthusiasm in his voice was impossible to miss.

And impossible not to love.

“Well, it’s been a long time since Mexico,” Face said.

BA gave a grunt. “Not long enough.”

At this, Hannibal let back, easing himself back and patting Murdock on the knee instead. Three interminable days in the hospital, a week of the worst mission ever in Russia, all to punctuate what had to be, unequivocally, the best year of his life. “Well,” he said with a bemused tilt to his lips. “I’d say it’s a pretty good start.”

Murdock only half heard him, already taken with other scenarios of personal danger that might make BA fly. Face was being helpful, adding colorful details about each one, while BA objected stridently. The friendly fight grew somewhat raucous, and by the time the hospital staff arrived to check in, Hannibal had already accounted for it with some easy platitudes and an authoritative smile.

He’d have a word with the doctor on his way out, to make sure that Murdock was given proper leeway to avoid exacerbating his mental condition while his physical one improved. He’d talk to the head nurse for a while, too, pointing out how much easier it was to keep a patient like Murdock calm and in one place with the right people around. That would be enough to allow his team to stay together, which was clearly how they belonged.

It might seem like a hard sell, but Hannibal wasn’t worried. Not when anyone could see that his team was better together. And it certainly didn’t take much to see that they were fine, his team.

Standing in the doorway, watching them bicker in the way only they could, it didn’t take anything at all.

It was funny, really. In all of Hannibal’s plans, he could never have fully accounted for that, for the ability of his team to rise above and, more importantly, come together.

He’d set out to plan missions, pull a team together.

In the year since Mexico, his team had turned into a family.

That was one plan he couldn’t take credit for.

That sure as hell didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate it all the same.

-o-

It had been more than a week since Hannibal had had a good night’s sleep, and he wanted nothing more than to find his way back to his barracks, take a hot shower and batten down for the next 12 hours straight.

Unfortunately, it had also been more than a week since he’d reported to Morrison, who had given him explicit orders to check back in the instant he touched down. It was a matter of mutual respect, Hannibal knew, that had prevented Morrison from dragging his ass out of the hospital for a full debriefing.

Mutual respect and the fact that Hannibal had gotten the mission done in a very self-explanatory fashion.

No doubt, Morrison wanted answers.

But he wanted results more.

Even so, that wasn’t why Hannibal reported to Morrison’s office. For all the questions he could answer about Russia, what bothered him were the questions he couldn’t answer. Questions about a plane being shot down; questions about an elite Russian military squadron finding their location less than a day after they left. Questions about why his team had nearly died.

Hannibal was duty bound to answer Morrison’s questions.

But Morrison owed it to Hannibal to answer his.

“Tell me,” Hannibal said, no attempt to salute as he stalked up to his superior officer’s desk. “Tell me what really happened in Russia.”

Morrison gave him a fleeting glance before finishing signing off on a sheet atop his desk. He flipped to another with supreme detachment. “Funny,” he commented ruefully. He actually sounded bemused. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

Hannibal shook his head, refusing to be placated. “Two men -- they died back there. My men? They almost joined them,” he said, the anger in his voice barely held at bay as he gestured widely. “And I don’t even know why.”

“That’s why it’s called need-to-know,” Morrison reminded him, scribbling his name across another sheet. “Because you don’t need to know.”

“Uh uh,” he said, shaking his head again. “That’s not good enough this time.”

At that, Morrison looked up, one eyebrow arched in genuine surprise. “That’s not the way this works, Hannibal,” he said. “You, of all people, know that.”

Hannibal stepped back, taking several wide paces. “You call on me when you need the hardest jobs done, the jobs no one else will take,” he said.

“And you do them because it’s your duty,” Morrison said pointedly. “That’s what your little A-Team is all about.”

“But I can’t do my duty if I can’t account for all the variables,” Hannibal said. “When you decide what I need to know, then I’m at a disadvantage, and it puts me, my team, and your mission at risk.”

Purposefully, Morrison drew himself up a little taller in his seat, finally taking the edge in Hannibal’s voice seriously. “This was never my mission. And do I really need to remind you about the chain of command in the United States Army?” he said. “Your duty is to follow my orders.”

Hannibal stopped, lifting his chin. “My job is to get my men home.”

It wasn’t exactly a fair delineation, but it was suddenly one that mattered to Hannibal. This had always been a job that was more than duty for Hannibal. He’d taken pleasure in the hard missions; he’d taken pride in doing what no one else could. He’d based his reputation on success, and nothing less, but he and Morrison both knew what it was to be in the army.

After all, it had been Hannibal who had dragged Morrison’s ass out of the line of fire, back when they were young and expendable men. They understood what it was to be friends in their line of work.

At this, Morrison’s facades fell, and Hannibal saw the man he knew underneath. Behind the orders and the missions, they had never questioned the balance of their relationship. There’d never been any need.

Until now.

And this wasn’t about the damn surveillance photos. It wasn’t even about the damn plane.

It was about three boys in the hospital that Hannibal had nearly lost.

“And you think it’s not mine?” Morrison asked, incredulous. He shook his head with a disbelieving chuckle. “Do you think I like lying to you? Do you think I take some kind of pleasure sending your men, you -- any man or woman -- in harm’s way?”

Morrison had always been his staunchest ally. He’d given Hannibal as much leeway as he could -- and then some. He was the one who had okayed the mission to Mexico, and he was the one who had ultimately signed off on BA’s reinstatement and Murdock’s change of status.

Hannibal knew this.

But he also knew what it was to be stranded in Russia with a man down and no idea of what he was up against. He knew what it was to hold his team together with fortitude and determination and hope.

Morrison paused, shaking his head with a helpless shrug. “We all do what we have to do for the party line, Hannibal. Whether we like it or not.”

The feeling filled his chest so full it actually hurt. Because he was right. Morrison was right.

That was the job.

That had always been the job.

Always.

Until Russia.

No, until Mexico.

“I count you as a friend,” Hannibal said. “And I’ve always trusted you before. And I want -- I really, sincerely want -- to trust you now.”

“You can, Hannibal,” Morrison said, emphatically now. “You can trust me to tell you everything I can.”

“And if it’s not enough?” Hannibal asked.

Morrison sighed, long and heavy. “Then trust me when I tell you that what you did in Russia, what your men did -- it was more important than you realize.”

“Bullshit--” Hannibal said, before he could stop himself.

“What do you want me to say?” Morrison returned with his voice pitching. “I don’t make these calls, Hannibal. I don’t.”

“But someone has to pay for them,” Hannibal told him.

“And we’ve always honored that sacrifice,” Morrison replied. He shook his head. “Your team, they’re the best, Hannibal. You know that, I know that, and everyone in the damn military knows that. What you’ve managed to do with those boys -- well, there’s been a lot of talk since Mexico. You know what that means.”

It made the A-Team a hot commodity. It gave him leeway, discretion, leveraging power, and more.

And it also made him beholden to the structure that empowered him.

The army gave him every means.

And expected any end.

Throat tight, Hannibal blinked hard. The mission -- the idea of it -- it seemed hollow now. Because success in the field didn’t mean anything if his team didn’t come home. “And you can tell me that it’s worth the risk? Worth the lives of my men?”

Morrison, to his credit, didn’t flinch. You didn’t get to where Morrison was without girth and fortitude. “It has to be,” he said. “For both of our sakes, it has to be.”

It wasn’t the answer Hannibal had come to get.

It was, however, the only answer that Morrison would ever give. Hannibal, he had to account for that. Because for all that Morrison was his friend, he was still his commanding officer. He had a conflict of interest that was inherent to the job, one that Hannibal had never been forced to reconcile until Mexico.

Until Russia.

“Come on,” Morrison said, the tension draining from his voice as he opened the drawer to his desk. “Let’s have a drink.”

“It’s not that simple--”

“Oh, come on,” Morrison said. He chuckled. “Like it’s really so hard? Hannibal, come on. We’re the same, you and me. Fighting men. Until it breaks us, we fight.”

They were the same; rather, they had been. There was a reason Hannibal worked so well for Morrison, and there was a reason Morrison asked for Hannibal’s help more often than not. How many missions had they finished together? How many drinks had they shared in the aftermath?

Hannibal wasn’t a man with many friends.

He had counted on Morrison as one of them.

He couldn’t fault Morrison for following orders.

Not even if he wanted to.

That was the way he’d been up until a year ago. The way he’d been before Russia had made him see everything differently. Morrison, he was a good man. He was a good leader. What Hannibal was looking for, it wasn’t part of his army training. It defied the protocols he’d made his career on.

Morrison wasn’t the one who’d changed, and it said a hell of a lot that he’d let Hannibal storm into his office without so much as a reprimand.

He let out a breath, forcing his stance to loosen. “I’m not sure that’s exactly protocol,” he said, averting his eyes. He pursed his lips a little. “Sir.”

Morrison scoffed, screwing the top of the bottle and reaching for the glasses. “There’s only so much protocol I can stomach,” he said, turning each glass over. “We all have our lines in the sand, Hannibal, and this isn’t one of them.”

He watched, standing stiff as Morrison poured two drinks. He hesitated for a moment when Morrison put one in front of him, and the motions felt forced when he finally reached down to take it.

Behind the desk, Morrison lifted his glass. “There you go,” he said, tipping his head as he smiled just a little. “To getting the job done.”

Hannibal tipped his glass forward. “To doing the job right.”

Morrison didn’t note the difference; Hannibal didn’t explain it. They would find out someday if the difference mattered. They would find out someday if they were friends or two officers in the chain of command. Someday, there’d be no more questions between them, only the answers, whether they liked them or not.

Someday, Hannibal would find his own line in the sand and he’d never cross it, not for anything in this world. Maybe they’d be on the same side.

Maybe not.

Either way, Hannibal drank the glass down in three even gulps, each one burning more than the last.

-o-

It was a long walk back to his bunk.

As he got ready for bed, he tried to remind himself that really, he had nothing to be upset about. Against the odds, he had completed the mission. More than that, he had brought his men home. They were going to be fine.

Moreover, Morrison was happy. His men were in good spirits.

Russia was, by all standard measures, an unmitigated success.

He sank wearily down to the side of his bed and dropped his head into his hands, letting his fingers massage at his temples.

Success didn’t mean the same thing to him, not anymore. It hadn’t for a long time, not since Mexico.

The problem wasn’t Morrison; the problem wasn’t even the system. That much as abundantly clear.

What was less clear and probably more important was that Morrison, the system, the whole damn United States Army -- it wasn’t the solution Hannibal had always counted on. It wasn’t the sole motivation anymore; it wasn’t even the primary motivation.

Because, yes, Hannibal would do just about anything for Morrison, and he trusted the other man emphatically to return the favor.

Except when it came to his team.

That was his line in the sand.

He’d follow questionable orders; he’d take the jobs no one wanted; he’d do favors for Morrison.

But not at the expense of his team.

He couldn’t trust the system, not with his boys.

He couldn’t even trust allies or partnerships, the chain of command. Not even friendships born in the heat of battle.

Not with something as precious to him as them.

Hannibal dropped back to the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

He’d accounted for a lot in his career, but he hadn’t accounted for caring about them this damn much. He’d always set out to change them, make them better men.

But the fact that he’d changed, too? That they’d make him a better man?

Hannibal hadn’t accounted for that at all.

It was, perhaps, the only oversight he could live with in the end.

Closing his eyes, Hannibal finally let himself fall asleep, a smile on his face.

Morning would come early, no doubt.

Tired as he was, Hannibal had to admit, he was looking forward to it.

-o-

Hannibal was up with the sun, and he was dressed and fed and in the hospital when the rest of his team was just coming to. It was worth noting that they had spent the night together.

Noting to himself, that was.

He hardly thought they’d appreciate the observation.

As it was, he had bigger things to worry about.

Not Morrison’s place on the chain of command. Not even the nature of the military’s operations in Russian airspace.

No, this morning he had to worry about his team.

And keeping them from killing one another.

“I told you, I don’t snort,” BA snapped, slinking lower in a chair he had propped up against the wall.

“You snore like a damn hippo with a sinus infection,” Face bemoaned, stretching his arms above his head. “You’re lucky that most of the people on this floor are unconscious.”

“I thought it was sweet,” Murdock added, very, very earnest. He still looked pale, and it was notable that he was only just propped up by his pillows, but the haze of the fever had receded dramatically. “A big, snuggly stuffed hippo.”

BA’s brows knit together so furiously that it was positively amusing. “Hippos are the most dangerous creature in Africa,” he said with a half growl. “They’re not snuggly.”

“But they are, without a doubt, loud,” Face said. Then he paused, cocking his head. “Aren’t they? Aren’t they loud?”

“Louder than a teddy bear,” Murdock told him, as if that were an entirely acceptable answer.

“You’re both as dumb as teddy bears,” BA said. He smacked his dry lips together.

“And you’re as loud as a hippo,” Face returned smugly. “So, I’m not sure--”

“Maybe that’s why you don’t like planes,” Murdock said, somewhat thoughtful. He cleared his garbled throat. “I’ve never had a hippo in my plane before.”

“I don’t like planes because you fly them,” BA told him with a terse nod. He jerked his head toward Hannibal. “It’s your fault; you keep putting his crazy ass in a cockpit.”

Face’s smile widened, and he sat back, trying to fix his unkempt hair. “You do come up with the craziest plans,” he said. “I mean, Russia? Really?”

“It would have been better with a hippo,” Murdock said with a nod.

Hannibal chuckled softly, pulling another chair from the side of the room and sitting down in it, across from Murdock on the bed. BA was by the window; Face was by the door. Four parts, all evenly balanced. “It certainly couldn’t have been worse,” he agreed.

While Murdock seemed fully engrossed in the idea of a hippo on his plane, Face tilted his head toward Hannibal knowingly. “You talk to Morrison?”

It sobered Hannibal. Team dynamics were one thing, but he couldn’t be so flippant as to assume they didn’t understand the subtext. They were good soldiers; they followed orders. But they weren’t stupid.

“I did,” he replied with a nonchalant bob of his head. “He was pleased, to say the least, that we contained the situation.”

BA scoffed loudly. “Pleased? We nearly didn’t make it out.”

“Yeah, and not to mention he sent us in there blind,” Face said.

Murdock coughed into his hand, recovering with a wheeze. “What was the situation anyway?”

“Ah, need-to-know,” Hannibal said, trying to make it sound nonchalant. There was no point in telling them all the questions he’d demanded, or how the only answer he’d gotten was the one he’d already answered for himself. “I’m sure we can piece together enough to figure it out, though.”

“It’s not so much the how,” Face said. “But the why.”

“Why did we nearly get ourselves killed,” BA added with a determined growl.

Murdock frowned at BA. “Are you saying you didn’t enjoy our Russian holiday?”

“You nearly died, fool,” BA replied.

“Uh, yeah,” Face added, a bit more diplomatically. “You probably don’t remember the best parts of our little getaway.”

At that, Murdock actually pouted. “Well, you don’t have to brag about it.”

Hannibal held back a smile. “The full story doesn’t really matter anyway,” he said, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “The results speak for themselves.”

“The results!” BA said. “We almost didn’t come back at all.”

“Almost doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hulahoops.”

“I think you mean hand grenades,” Face said with a quizzical frown.

Murdock shook his head. “Almost in hand grenades means you could almost blow up your enemy,” he said. “Hulahoops have much more leeway.”

“And how do you figure that?” Face asked.

“Have you seen a hulahoop?” Murdock asked. “Have you seen how many people you can fit inside? Almost enough!”

“That point notwithstanding,” Hannibal interjected before BA could launch an even more aggressive verbal volley. “We made the brass happy. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one less thing we have to worry about.”

“Yeah, this time around,” BA said. “But what about next time they send us into the field without enough intel?”

“We’ll account for it,” Hannibal promised them. He turned his eyes from BA to Face before settling on Murdock. “We trust each other, first and foremost. Morrison is on our side as much as he can be, but we put stock in each other first.”

Face sighed, somewhat dramatically. “It’s typical, anyway,” he said with a long suffering shake of his head. “Honestly, Hannibal, you’re the only CO I’ve ever trusted in this place.”

BA chuffed. “Only one I haven’t hit.”

“Oh, and I trust you, too,” Murdock added. “I mean, there’s no one else I’d trust with my dog.”

BA tsked his tongue loudly. “You don’t have a dog.”

Rasping slightly, Murdock nodded with wide eyes. “I do.”

“Murdock,” Face said. “You know how BA feels about Billy.”

“Sure,” Murdock said. “That’s why I don’t trust BA with him. Or you.”

“Wait,” Face said, taken aback. “Why don’t you trust me? I’m great with Billy!”

“You just use him to pick up women,” Murdock told him. “He doesn’t like it.”

Face’s mouth fell open. “I -- that is -- categorically untrue.”

“Especially since the dog ain’t real,” BA interjected staunchly.

“I prefer the term reality impaired,” Murdock told them. “That point notwithstanding, Billy trusts you, Colonel. We all trust you.”

Murdock offered him his most winning smile, which seemed even more earnest than usual inside a hospital room. In fact, they were all looking at him now, each as trusting as the last.

They trusted him.

To get the job done, to get them home.

To keep them together.

They trusted him to lead.

It was a heady thing, and this far after the mission, it was impossible to misplace the swell of adrenaline. It had been silly to go to Morrison for answers, when the only answers he wanted -- the only ones he needed -- were right here.

For all that he made them better, they made him better, too.

For all that Hannibal accounted for all the variables, he could never fully account for the power of his team.

All he could do was do his best to live up to their trust and hope like hell it wasn’t misplaced.

“All that said,” Hannibal said, deftly shifting the conversation. “I think Russia taught us all a few things.”

Face was the first one to scoff outright. “Like never taking a mission in Russia in the first place? Much less a covert one.”

“Or how about never getting on an airplane with you suckers again,” BA said tersely. “By choice or not.”

“No, no, no,” Murdock said, taking a noisy breath. “The lesson is clearly, never leave home without a waterproof suit and the unabridged works of Tolstoy.”

Hannibal shook his head, smiling. “Like how to plan for all the contingencies, even those we can’t see coming.”

Face laughed, scrunching his nose. “Doesn’t that contradict itself? I mean, how do we plan for the things we don’t see coming.”

“He’s right,” BA added. “Not even you can predict everything.”

“And, I mean, to think that you could,” Murdock drawled with a sniffle. “Now that would be insane.”

Hannibal wet his lips, rocking back in his chair. “Yes,” he agreed. “Yes, it would.”

It didn’t matter, though. Because of all the things Hannibal had failed to account for, the only unforgivable one had been to overlook his team. All the contingencies, all the plans, they boiled down to one, singular truth.

Hannibal loved it when a plan came together.

He loved it when his team came together even more.

If Hannibal accounted for that, then everything else would fall into place.

Together, Hannibal thought to himself, grinning at his boys. Face was incredulously preening, and BA was already glowering again while Murdock made a puppet out of his hospital gown.

Because Mexico had been the start of something, and Russia -- well, that was just another step in the road. Where they would end up, Hannibal couldn’t say, even if he was more than ready to find out. The plan, you see, had come together.

Just not the way he expected.

But somehow, even better.