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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

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

December 19th, 2016 (09:36 am)
gloomy

feeling: gloomy

Continued from PART ONE



-o-

“Is it hot in here?” Murdock asks, jiggling his knee. He crosses, then uncrosses his legs. He crosses them again. “It’s hot in here.”

She raises her eyebrows, plainly skeptical. “Have you mentioned this to your doctor? It could be a side-effect of the medication.”

“But don’t you count?” Murdock asks, fidgeting again. “It seems like you count.”

She makes a notation on her sheet.

Murdock half-bounces in his chair. Fleetingly, he thinks it could be a bucking bronco, for all the height he’s getting.

“All the same,” she says, rather definitively as she looks at him again. “You know why I’m here.”

“Because you like me?” Murdock says, beaming at her hopefully.

She smiles -- almost. “You have a question you need to answer.”

Murdock groans, making a face. “Questions, questions, questions!” he says, throwing his hands up in the air. “You think you want the truth?”

Presumptively, she nods.

“You can’t handle the truth!” Murdock explodes, using his best Jack Nicholson voice.

Disappointingly, she is not impressed. “You could tell me about the plane, maybe,” she suggests.

“It had wings, a pair of engines, and boy, oh, boy, she flew,” Murdock tells her, waggling his eyebrows at her suggestively.

Suggestive of what, he’s not certain.

But when it comes to flying, there’s nothing more than could possibly turn him on.

He misses it, more than anything else, he misses it. That feeling, the lift -- it ain’t just for the wings, no way, no how. It’s for the soul--


“Captain?” she asks, protruding into his thoughts.

He grins, sheepish. “Do you like the fly?”

“Excuse me?” she asks.

“Flying?” he says again. “Do you enjoy it?”

She shrugs. “Not necessarily,” she says. “It’s a necessary way to travel, sometimes, but I can’t say I look forward to it.”

“Oh, I’m not talking about the practicality of it,” he muses, shaking his head. “No, no, no. I’m talking about the emotion of it. About the sensation. About leaving the solid ground and taking off. And sure, you can know the physics and the math behind it, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s like when you leave behind the one thing that everyone else takes for granted. I mean, have you ever thought about it? Really thought about it? Soaring through the air in nothing more than a tin can with wings?”

“Well, now I’ll think about it,” she admonishes lightly.

He sits forward, wiggling his toes as he motions through the air. “People think it’s like sanity, standing on the ground with both feet, and I don’t know, maybe it is, maybe they’re right,” he says, all but rambling now. “But taking off, letting go, reaching for the horizon -- that’s freedom. That’s possibility. That’s everything.”

She is studying him, assessing him. Finally, she presses her lips together with a long, slow nod. “And yet, here you are. Do you really want that mission to be your last chance at freedom?”

The question breaks him.

His smile falls; his fidgeting stills.

He’s crashed a lot of times in his life, but never quite like this.

His chest is tight; his breathing strained.

Looking down, his eyes burn. Both feet are planted on the ground.

“Captain?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” he replies vacantly. His heart is pounding inside his hollow chest as he looks at her again. She’s just as beautiful as before, but there’s something unsettlingly calculated about her. If this is a fight, he thinks she may win yet. He offers up a feeble smile. “Isn’t that for you to figure out?”

-o-

There’s no time, though, not for melancholy.

That’s not exactly true.

There’s too much time, all there is is time, and melancholy just isn’t interesting enough to fill it all. He tries, of course. Sometimes he stares out the window until he thinks maybe he can fly, and then he counts ceiling tiles in desperation while he waits for his mind to stop working.

When it doesn’t, he paces.

When that fails, he sings. He starts with the collected works of Oasis and moves on to every Beatles song ever. He throws in a few from Paul McCartney and Wings, just because.

He recites movies -- literally, in their entirety -- and then formulates fictional situations where his favorite literary characters meet. Boo Radley and Richard Sharpe. Yossarian and Nick Adams.

All that before lunch.

He’s bored, you see.

He’s really, really bored.

If he wasn’t insane coming in, he’s pretty sure he will be if he doesn’t get out soon.

-o-

“This place isn’t so bad,” Murdock tells her, making finger puppets with the lamp on the wall.

She’s still dressed professionally, and her hair is always back the same way. He wonders what she’d look like with it down, but he’ll never know.

“So you like it here?” she asks.

Murdock shrugs. “They do encourage more creativity here,” he says, making a bunny hop across the wall.

She does not acknowledge it. “But the army lets you fly.”

“Well, there is that,” Murdock agrees, while the bunny is attacked by a crocodile.

“You’re becoming complacent,” she observes.


“What?” he asks. “Me?”

“You’re starting to accept it here,” she says.

He lets his hands drop. “I got to do something,” he says. “Or all this sitting around will get to me, I swear it will.”

“Well, there is a better way,” she reminds him.

He crumples his face, half flopping back down. “I know, I know,” he mutters. “Answer your questions.”

“It’s not unreasonable,” she says.

Huffing, he studies the ceiling again. It’s still 10 tiles across. He’s counted. About three dozen times.

“And you don’t belong here,” she continues.

At that, he sits up. “And how do you figure that?”

“And how do I not?” she returns. “Your lack of testimony means I have nothing to work with. Your assumption is that you’re crazy, but the assumption that you’re sane is just as valid based on the total lack of corroborating evidence.”

He furrows his brow, considering that. It’s reasonable.

Very reasonable.

“Well,” he says, a touch defensive. “I’m adaptable.”

“That’s an understatement,” she says, tipping her head to one side. “I have read your file, you know.”

“Ah,” Murdock says. “That must be some entertaining reading.”

“Not without some controversy, though,” she points out. “Not everyone appreciates your take on life.”

“There’s no accounting for taste--”

“The only thing they can agree on is that you’re one hell of a pilot,” she says. “All the notes, complaints -- you name it -- and you’re still the most requested pilot on active duty.”

He can’t help it if he feels proud about this. Murdock, he’s not a vain person, not by any particular standard, and he’s not exactly boastful.

But he can fly.

He can fly well.

And he’s been on too many missions deemed impossible to pretend otherwise.

That’s what it’s about, after all.

It’s about flying where no one else can.

“Your peers, though,” she says. “Did they respect you?”

“At first, maybe not,” he says. “But after they spend some time in the air with me, then they understand. That’s what you and me, what we have to do. Spend some time in the air. Then you’ll see. Then you’ll get it. Then you’ll know why the questions don’t matter. Why it’s always going to be about the horizon.”

She smiles faintly. “And the soldiers you’ve lost?” she asks. “And the people you’ve killed?”

He stops, the glow fading from his cheeks.

“Do they matter, Captain?” she presses.

That’s a question that he can’t answer. Not one he won’t answer, but one he can’t answer. Because how do you explain it? Can you quantify a life? Can you qualitatively assess it? Can you put a perfunctory value on it, just because?

And even if you could, what gives you the right? Who gets to say? Who has the power to decide?

It’s not him.

God help him, it’s not him.

Because people die, they slip away. They disappear and diminish. The explode, they burn, and all Murdock can do is fly, fly away.

He looks at her, barely holding his ground. “You,” he says, voice shaking as he blinks his eyes. “You, of all people, should know.”

-o-

He can’t stay here.

If they won’t let him out, he’ll find his own way. He’ll make it.

He tries every method he’s already thought of -- and then comes up with some more. He improvises, relying on contraptions, trickery and everything in between. He fakes his death; he smuggles himself out in a clothes hamper. He makes a cold run for it and once he makes it all the way to the roof before they drag him back again.

The energy inside him, it can’t be contained. He feels it pulsing, and his mind skips along to the frantic beat of his heart. If he stops, he’ll think about it. If he stops, he’ll think about everything.

If he stops, he might answer the question.

The question, the question, the question.

Mania is the word Dr. Cold Hand uses. Paranoid delusions, possibly.

Survival is the only thing Murdock can think of.

-o-

Murdock keeps his eyes closed.

“Your behavior is unacceptable.”

She sounds mad, but not quite. Disappointed, more. So very, very disappointed.

“Do you think you’re in here for fun? Do you think we enjoy keeping you here?”

There’s an edge to her voice, sharper than glass. He wishes it were; he’d rather be bleeding. They can fix that, they can. Stitches and bandages, done and done. Instead, he’s leaking sanity, seeping parts of himself all over the place and no one knows how to stop it.

“Do you think that you’re the only one who needs this? Do you ever think about the men and women in here with you? How they don’t have a choice, and how you do? All you have to do is answer one simple question.”

She’s unrelenting now, pushing, pushing, pushing. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to hold his breath. He thinks about the laugh lines around her eyes; the stray hairs that fall from her pulled back hair.

“No one can help you, not even me, unless you help yourself.”

He exhales through gritted teeth and feels his eyes burn. He’s losing it now; he’s losing everything.

“Answer the question, Captain.”

She’s asked, she’s cajoled, she’s coaxed, but this one, this one’s an order.

It’s funny, how it all comes back to that. Murdock joined the army, so maybe this isn’t a surprise. He’s always relied on the structure to keep himself going, just like everyone else. And no one likes an order, but there’s always a bigger picture, a larger story.

He just doesn’t know what it is, anymore.

He doesn’t know who he is in it.

Murdock doesn’t know.

“What happened on the mission?”

He shakes his head, humming to himself.

“Why are you here?”

Why, why, why, why, why.

He laughs, feeling hysterical. “I’m crazy,” he finally replies. “I’m crazy.”

He says it, again and again, over the sound of her voice until he’s yelling it, louder than her, louder than anything, loud enough to make sure the whole world knows.

That’s not how the story ends, Murdock decides as someone calls for security.

That’s how it begins.

-o-

After that, Murdock figures, what the hell?

The thing with crazy is that people expect crazy. It’s not about being weird or strange or eccentric. It’s not about having quirks or marching to the beat of a different drum.

It’s about being crazy.

Now, for the record, Murdock’s always been crazy, but he’s been good at hiding that fact. He’s learned how to play it off for comedic timing, and how to let his eccentricities make him the class clown and not the mentally incompetent pariah.

But now?

In absence of a military structure, Murdock’s got very little to prove. If he’s going to be crazy, then he’s going to be crazy.

To start, he sings a lot.

He sang a lot before, but not like this. He sings his answers in group therapy; he performs operatic scales at the top of his lungs during rounds. Sometimes, he organizes entire show choir productions during free time, complete with costumes and dance moves.

When he’s not singing, he’s usually acting. He assumes a different persona every day, and follows it faithfully. He adopts accents and accessorizes with the limited resources available to him. No top hat? A lamp shade will do. In want of a nun’s habit, he steals a pillow case instead.

Some people don’t even realize he’s doing it, which is always sort of amusing to him. Other recognize the act and join in. Dr. Cold Hands tolerates such behavior as long as he continues to eat, sleep and participate as part of the group.

The thing is, Murdock is the group now. He’s the most popular guy, and he attracts all the attention. Everyone flocks to him, and even the nurses start to shake their heads fondly when he performs Shakespeare on a makeshift stage.

For the first time in his life, Murdock can be anyone. He can be a superhero; he can be a brigadier general. He can be a movie star, a stage actor; hell, he can be Bill Shakespeare himself. He’s Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Pink.

He’s everything but a pilot.

Trying to convince himself that he’s okay with that -- well, that’s the craziest bit of all.

-o-

“The mission was on a Friday, wasn’t it?” she asks.

“Was it?” he returns.

“Good weather conditions,” she adds.

“Unlimited visibility,” Murdock confirms.

“And you left and came back with no problems,” she leads.

He nods astutely. “No problems at all.”

Something glints in her eyes. “But something went wrong.”

Murdock sighs loudly, in absolute frustration. “The mission was fine.”

“Then why won’t you talk about it?”

“Because there’s nothing to tell,” he says with a wide gesture. “I went up, I went down. I dropped everyone off. The end.”

She is unmoved. “That’s not the end, though, is it?” she wonders. “What happened after the mission?”

Murdock stops, his breath catching.

What happens next?

That’s a question he’s never dealt with, not once in his life. Not since his mother died and his father left, and he realized that there was never any guarantee, no way to predict the future. The moment, that’s what matters. The here and now, that’s what he embraced.

For Murdock, there’s no long term consequences. He doesn’t think about the meathead who will take a swing at him for stealing socks. He doesn’t think about the officer who will leave him a disciplinary note for talking in an accent during a formal debriefing. And he certainly never thinks about the danger of enemy fire when flying a mission because Murdock doesn’t care what happens next, never has, never needed to.

Until.

“Captain?”

His eyes widen as he inhales sharply, gaze fixed on her.

Until.

He swallows hard. “I ended up here,” he tries to quip. “Remember?”

“It’s not that easy,” she says.

This time, he laughs, twisted and rueful. “You think this is easy?”

“No,” she says. “But I also don’t know why you insist on making it so hard.”

He looks at her with the severe hair and the lines that won’t crinkle yet around her eyes. He looks at her like she’s a fixed point on the horizon line that he hasn’t reached yet.

“Please,” she says. “Do you want me to help you or not?”

“I thought you already were,” Murdock says.

She flattens her lips. “I suppose that depends on your point of view.”

-o-

He’s been so preoccupied with fantasy that reality takes him very much by surprise. In fact, when he sees Private Walters in the common room, he thinks it must be another hallucination. But when Walters shakes his hand and slaps him on the back, Murdock is faced with the undeniable truth.

“But...how did you get here?” Murdock asks, half gaping at the other man.

Walters is younger than he is, and taller, too. He’s lanky and sings very, very badly.

The singing thing, that’s not relevant.

It is probably Walters’ most defining characteristic, though, as far as Murdock is concerned.

“Man, we’ve been trying to get in here for weeks,” Walters tells him. “Everyone thinks it was a raw deal, what they did to you. I mean, a reprimand, okay, but this?”

Walters gestures around him.

Murdock glances around, too. “Well, it’s not so bad,” he tries to say.

“No one thinks you need to be fixed, not really,” Walters tells him. He steps forward, lowering his voice. “You ask me, they were just pissed off that you had the balls to call them on their crap.”

“They do tend to look down on disobeying orders,” Murdock replies.

Walters scoffs. “We need more pilots like you, not less,” he says. “Crazy enough to get the damn job done.”

He means it. Walters is being sincere, as sincere as anyone can be. He’s come all this way, and he’s telling Murdock the truth.

Or his version of it.

The truth is a funny thing like that. It means different things to different people. Truth may not be variable, but its interpretation is.

That sounds like a song.

Someone should pitch the lyrics to Bono.

Not that it changes, anything.

There is still truth.

And there is still falsity.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t, though.”

Walters stops with a frown. “What?”

“I didn’t get the job done,” he says. “Crazy or not, I didn’t do it.”

Walters’ expression breaks, just a little. “You did what you could,” he says. “More than any of the rest of us.”

It’s tempting to believe it, to pick and choose the facts to build your own reality. Frankly, that’s why Murdock prefers fantasy. The make-believe is honest, in its own way. It’s a commitment to a worldview with no pretenses. Too often, when it comes to reality, you have to fabricate the truth to make it fit into the context presented before you.

If it served some greater good, maybe.

Maybe.

Murdock smiles and swallows back the emotion as he steps away from Walters. “It wasn’t enough.”

That’s it, though. That’s really all there is. Crazy, sane, everything in between. Reality, fantasy, and whatever else you call it. That’s what it all boils down, too. That’s why his commanding officer wrote him a psychiatric note. That’s why Dr. Cold Hands keeps feeding him pills everyday. That’s why she won’t leave him alone.

That’s why Murdock won’t answer the question.

Because the why’s don’t matter, not in the end.

Not when the simple fact eclipses everything, everything, everything else.

The answer leaves Walters silent, shocked.

When Murdock finally turns to leave, Walters doesn’t stop him.

He couldn’t, no even if he wanted to.

-o-

He hears the inevitable from her.

“Indefinitely?” he asks, aghast. His heart is thumping hard against the chest, begging for denial. “What does that mean, indefinitely?”

“I’ve seen your intelligence testing,” she replies coolly. “Your vocabulary is not a problem.”

It hurts. Like a bullet in the heart, it hurts. “Just like that? You’re going to lock me up and throw away the key?”

Her expression is impassive. “It’s not permanent,” she says. “Evaluation will be ongoing, and all progress will be noted and used to reassess your diagnosis as necessary.”

“What diagnosis?” he returns hotly. “You’re the one who doesn’t think I’m crazy?”

“You still suffer from pronounced PTSD,” she explains. “And there’s enough evidence to suggest a bipolar disorder with manic sessions, which sometimes manifest with paranoid delusions and intermittent memory loss.”

It’s a second shot to his gut, and he feels it suck the air right out of his lungs. “You don’t know that.”

“You’re probably right,” she says with a shrug. “But you won’t tell me what happened.”

He groans, fisting his hands into his hair. “But that’s not what makes you crazy.”

“And how am I supposed to know?”

Eyes open, he implores her desperately. “Because you, of all people, should understand,” he says. “You should know that it’s not about what happened on the mission.”

She’s judging him, waiting on him to tell her more. This is only partially a ploy, and a damn good one. It’s a trap that Murdock has no choice but to walk into. That’s the nature of the army; that’s the nature of following orders.

Insanity is nothing more than doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

She taps the back of her pen on her writing pad. “There was an enemy offensive--”

“A massacre,” Murdock corrects her, and this time his eyes are cold.

“The facility was overrun; most of the senior staff was executed,” she continues. “Local forces were no match, and the supplies were burned.”

“It was torched, all of it,” he says. “Food, medicine, construction materials. Things the local population had been needing for years, and it was gone within 24 hours.”

“And you -- you tried to go back,” she says, nodding her head at him. “You were given a direct order not to--”

It’s more than he’s said, more than he’s intended to say, and he’s known how much she knows, but it’s still hard to hear from her.

It doesn’t seem right, someone having access to all the secrets in your head.

Someone with a direct line to your soul.

Worse, to have that someone use it against you when you have no other defense.

His throat tightens, and he’s starting to shake. “The order was a death sentence. When the enemy took over, they weren’t going to leave any survivors, not for long, anyway. We stocked that facility; we helped build it. We staffed it with bright, eager, ready people. And then when the whole thing fell apart, we weren’t going back. We’d been there just three days earlier, and we had already washed our hands of it.”

“Because a second mission was suicide,” she counters. “There was no ground intelligence to say what was friendly and what wasn’t, and the US military didn’t even have jurisdiction. It would have been an international incident with no positive outcome. Not to mention the fact it ruined your career.”

“I had to go back,” Murdock says, emphatically now. Everything is trembling now, running down the length of his spine.

“Your mission was done,” she says calmly. “They weren’t your responsibility.”

Responsibility is a big word, and it’s a meaningless one, too. No one cares about responsibility in the army, because the buck goes all the way up the line. And that’s a necessary evil sometimes, because the good can justify the means. But it has to be good.

It has to be right.

Otherwise, what the hell is he fighting for?

What good is the horizon if there’s no solid ground to land on?

It’s more than yes, sirs, and Murdock can’t apologize for that. He won’t.

Even if they lock him up forever, he can’t.

“Do you know what it’s like?” he says. “To drop people off and never see them come back. To make a run and be the only person who comes back alive?”

“This wasn’t a combat mission, Captain,” she reminds him.

“Exactly. It was a whole group of people, just like you. Working in the system to make things better, working in the system to make things right,” he says, sitting forward and staring her down now. Her pretty eyes, the freckles on her nose, the tight pull of her hair against her pale forehead. “Which is why they deserved someone to go back for them.”

“They knew the risks,” she says. “A newly established base in an area once strongly controlled by the enemy. Continued conflict was likely.”

“And yet we didn’t even have a damn contingency,” Murdock seethes. He scoffs, laughing in utter disbelief. “They were defenseless, and I had a way to help them. Because I’m not smart, and I’m not particularly brave. I’m not the best soldier or a brilliant leader, but I can fly a plane. And suddenly I’m the crazy one? Because I tried?”

“The chain of command--”

“Only works if you have a good man to follow,” he says. “A man with a plan, a team you trust.”

“And you think you get to decide it?” she wonders pointedly. “That’s why you stole a plane and tried to go back?”

He sits back, deflated now. She’s gutted him, let him bleed dry. He shakes his head. “I’m a pilot,” he says. “All my solutions involve flying.”

“That’s not good enough,” she says. “That doesn’t explain why you defied a direct order and stole a plane to go back.”

He smiles weakly, crossing his fingers across his belly. “I already told you,” he says. “I’m crazy.”

“Careful,” she warns. “Because pretty soon, everyone will believe you.”

“Like you?” he asks.

“Worse,” she says, closing the notepad on her lap. “Someday you’ll believe it yourself.”

-o-

That’s it, then.

He’s crazy.

And they don’t let crazy men behind the controls of an airplane. Not even a small one. Even helicopters are out of the question. At this point, Murdock will be lucky if they ever let him out long enough to fly a kite.

That’s the conundrum of it all. Murdock’s too crazy to fly, but not being able to fly makes him crazy. It’s a no-win situation, and Murdock’s losing with every turn.

There’s no fun in that.

There’s no anything.

He takes the pills; he eats his food; he goes to his counseling sessions.

That’s it.

That’s all.

At night, he stares at the ceiling, afraid to sleep. The nightmares are back now, worse than before. During the day, he closes his eyes and tries not to look out the window.

He doesn’t want to see reality any more than he wants his fantasy.

Murdock doesn’t want anything at all.

-o-

“Captain,” she says. “You can’t ignore me forever.”

He keeps his eyes closed and hums under his breath.

“You’re stuck here with me, so you may as well acknowledge my presence.”

He lets the tune lilt, haphazard and off-key. He can hit the notes, but he doesn’t want to.

“All you have to do is tell me why,” she persists, and her voice sounds strained and tired. Unrelenting, all the same. “Tell me why you refused to let this mission go.”

She says it like it’s that simple, like that’s really all she wants. Nothing is ever that simple, though, and everyone takes and takes and takes until there’s nothing left to give. She can see who he is, which is why he loves her the way he does, but that doesn’t mean he can trust her.

Anymore than he can trust himself.

If she’s a fixed point on the horizon, if she’s his due north, then what the hell. He’ll go south. He’ll go east or west or in concentric circles for all that it matters. Because if Murdock can’t go up, then this time, he’ll go down.

As far as it takes him.

And then some.

-o-

He can’t stop it, though.

The dreams.

Always the dreams.

Dreams of flying, soaring, dipping and weaving. He dreams of puffy white clouds and clear blue skies. He dreams of ailerons and flaps, rotors and yokes.

The nightmare is that none of it is real.

-o-

“Please,” she begs. “Talk to me. At least look at me.”

He wants to; he really does. She sounds so sincere, she does. She sounds so real.

But if he’s given up all the rest.

He has to give her up, too.

-o-

Sometimes, he sneaks out to the roof. It’s the least restricted exit, if only because it’s not an exit at all. Going up is easy enough, but it’s a long, hard fall back down.

Still, Murdock’s tempted.

He sits, just beyond the ledge, and remembers what it felt like. He remembers the thrust beneath his wings, and the forward momentum that provided lift. And really, Murdock’s always flown impossible things. He’s flown helicopters salvaged from the junk heap, and he’s flown planes riddle with enough bullets to look like Swiss cheese.

Sure, they crash sometimes, but not Murdock.

No, he comes out unscathed. Whole.

He’s damn near invincible.

Inching his way to the edge, a tingle shoots up his spine as he looks down.

Invincible.

He closes his eyes and longs for the dream.

Invincible.

-o-

“You’re not helping yourself,” she insists. “You know you’re not.”

His mind shuffles through his repertoire; something classical today. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.

Fur Elise dances through his brain.

“Captain, if you give up now, if you stop trying--”

Solfeggietto climbs and falls in his mind, the notes trilling faster and faster and faster.

He can’t hear what she says next.

He’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to anyway.

-o-

Standing on the edge, he’s hinged. It’s a tipping point of sorts, between reality and fantasy. He can be crazy, or he can be sane, but if it’s a choice he gets to make, he’s not sure which is which. All the options sort of feel like suicide.

Maybe he’ll trust the wind; maybe he’ll trust his instincts.

Maybe reality is overrated; maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

Maybe he wants the fantasy, maybe it’s all that matters.

Maybe all he needs is the horizon.

Maybe he’ll touch it, one way or another.

But he never gets the chance.

Something hard and warm grabs him, fingers locked around his arms as he’s forcibly hauled back. He hits the ground, grunting in surprise as his elbows scrape on the cement, and he blinks, startled. In an instant, he recognizes the orderlies above him, and the nurses, too. Dr. Cold Hands takes his cheek in his hand and looks at him with surprising clarity.

He inhales sharply, and it’s like he’s coming up for air for the first time in forever. The swiftness of the sensation is acute and overwhelming, and Murdock realizes in the bright sunlight that he’s trembling, like he’s woken up from a bad dream.

He’s awake.

He’s alive.

“Captain Murdock, what are you thinking?” the doctor pants, and it actually sounds like a request, steeped in an emotion Murdock doesn’t expect.

That’s when Murdock realizes that this is the first time he’s seen the other man. Sure, he’s looked at him before, but this is the first time he’s well and truly seen him. Not as a doctor or as a figment of his imagination, but as a person. He’s never taken the time before; maybe he’s never had the presence of mind.

But there he is, Dr. Cold Hands. A little bland, yes. A banal disposition, sure. But he’s smart if understated, and he cares with the utmost of professionalism. He doesn’t understand Murdock, but he’s trying the only way he knows how.

He’s trying.

No one can ask more than that.

Certainly not someone like Murdock.

It’s funny: his hands are warmer than Murdock remembers.

Dr. Cold Hands sags a little bit with a sigh of genuine relief. “You scared us,” he admits. “When I got up here, when I saw you on that ledge. I thought…”

Murdock looks to the ledge and the sky beyond. He can’t see the horizon from this vantage point, still forcibly restrained on the ground.

“Please,” Dr. Cold Hands says. “I want to help you, we all do, but you’ve barely acknowledged that I’m even there. You won’t talk to me or any of the other medical staff.”

The doctor pauses, shaking his head. Beyond the professional demeanor, there's something else there. Something Murdock thinks maybe he missed, maybe he underestimated, something he just didn't see. He's forgotten, somehow, between all the delusions, that some things are real.

They aren’t always the things you expect, either.

“Who are you even talking to all the time?” the doctor asks, sounding exhausted, desperate, human. “In your room, whether you’re alone or not. Who are you trying to talk to?”

At this, Murdock blinks.

The question, it doesn’t make sense.

It’s obvious who’s he’s talking to.

The answer just isn’t what he thought it was two minutes ago.

The answer is, invariably, no one at all.

-o-

He still sees her, though. Standing at the edge of his bed after he’s been sedated and restrained for his own safety. This all keeps him here, where he’s supposed to be.

It does nothing to keep her out, though.

She’s staring at him, and, for once, she actually smiles. “I thought you were ignoring me.”

Miserably, he swallows. There’s no point in closing his eyes this time. “Would it help if I said it was me, not you?”

Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t smile. “I admit, I’m a little hurt, Captain,” she says. “I thought we got along very well.”

He chuckles, dry and bitter. It feels like paper in his throat. That’s not an equivocation. “You probably would,” he murmurs, letting his eyes drift to the window. He can’t decide if it’s a blessing or a curse that it’s open to the afternoon outside. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

It’s a stupid kind of question, because yes, stupid questions do exist. They exist for moments such as these. Because here Murdock is, locked up in a psych ward and restrained for his own safety, and he’s talking to a woman who’s not even there.

“Yes,” she replies, since of course this can get worse. “But not in the way you think you are.”

“I didn’t realize there was more than one way,” Murdock says lightly.

“Don’t be obtuse,” she says. “PTSD; bipolar disorder; depression -- those are all very different conditions, and they all manifest differently with distinct treatment options.”

He smiles faintly. “I always thought it’s crazy is as crazy does.”

“They’re all very treatable,” she says. “Insanity isn’t even a diagnosis we use. It’s more like a symptom we can treat. Therapy, counseling, behavior training, medication--”

He’s already shaking his head. “You need to say it, though,” he says. “I am crazy.”

“I already told you,” she returns with exasperation. “Being bipolar, having PTSD -- those things don’t make you crazy.”

“Then why are you keeping me here?” he asks. “Why are you keeping me locked up?”

“Because you won’t help yourself, because you decided you’re crazy,” she tells him flatly. “Murdock, what you went through -- what you’ve been through on every mission since joining the army -- it’s enough to challenge the sanity of any man. That’s what combat does, and anyone who makes a life of it has to be crazy or they’d be dead. But until you learn to accept that and deal with it, you’re never going to learn to control it. You’ll only get worse until it’s not a choice you get to make anymore.”

He studies her again, as if for the first time. Those pretty eyes; the curls in the loose hair around her face. Pale skin, freckles on the nose. Like a picture, preserved by time.

He remembers her.

He can’t forget her.

There’s a difference.

Gritting his teeth together, he can’t tear his eyes away. “I just want to fly,” he says, voice shaking. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“I know,” she says. “But you have to be sure that you won’t let yourself crash.”

“If you don’t let me out, I really will be crazy, you know,” he says. “It won’t take much.”

She tilts her head. “Then you better make your choice fast, because I’m the last glimpse of the horizon that you’re going to see for a very, very long time.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that.

What can he possibly tell her? Of all people?

There’s a reason it’s her.

There’s a reason Murdock chooses her above everything else.

There’s a reason.

He looks down, studying the restraints on his wrists. This would be easy; this should be easy. Sometimes he’s not even sure why it’s not.

Except for the fact that Murdock knows how to go up, always has and probably always will.

And this time he doesn’t know how to get back down.

“You should go,” he says finally, voice no more than a whisper. “I think you should go.”

When he looks back up, she’s already gone.

-o-

After another 24 hours, the doctor lets him out of the restraints. Dr. Taylor -- that’s his name, Murdock coaches himself to remember -- is gentle about it and takes the time to explain all the medications and why Murdock needs to take them. He gets the feeling the doctor has had to do this already, more than once.

“I understand, I do,” Murdock promises him.

“As I’ve told you before, this is all to help you get better,” Dr. Taylor says, pushing his glasses back on his nose. “That’s what we all want here.”

“I know, I know,” Murdock says, nodding. He smiles, apologetic. “But, what if some things can’t be fixed?”

Dr. Taylor looks at him, offering a small smile. It doesn’t reach his eyes, but then, why would it? He can’t see Murdock because Murdock hasn’t been letting him, and he can’t hold blame on a man for being real.

Even if he’d like to.

“Look,” Dr. Taylor says with a sigh. “You flew planes, right?”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Murdock drawls.

“And if something goes wrong mid-flight, you don’t let it crash, do you?”

Murdock chuckles. “Let is something of a strong word--”

Dr. Taylor nods. “You troubleshoot, you look for solutions. You run the checklists, you go back to your training,” he continues. “You do everything you can to identify the problem and come up with workable solutions to get back on the ground safely again.”

Murdock regards him carefully now. “I suppose.”

“That’s all this is,” Dr. Taylor explains. He gestures to the medication, sitting in a Dixie cup at Murdock’s bedside. “We’re troubleshooting. I’m running checklists, trying to identify the problem. It may take some work, but I like to think we can keep you from crashing,”

Murdock lets out a breath, and he knows now that perception is no more dependable than reality. It’s a choice you make, to see what you want. People, situations, truth: they are all what you make it, what you want them to be. It’s not an easy thing to break that.

It’s not an easy thing at all. But it’s all Murdock has for now. “You sure about that, doc?”

Dr. Taylor shrugs. “Are you sure you can land every time you go up in a plane?”

“In the army?” he asks. “Not really part of the job description.”

“But that’s never stopped you from going up,” Dr. Taylor says. He pats Murdock on the leg, getting up. He smiles, and this time, for the first time, it actually does reach his eyes. “I think you know what I mean.”

Murdock watches him go, and he knows, he does.

He really, really does.

-o-

It takes a few more days before he’s taken off suicide watch, and while Murdock balks slightly at the notion, he can’t exactly fault the staff this time around. Whatever Murdock’s assessment of the orders that put him here, he admits that standing on the roof, wanting to fly is probably reason to suspect his sanity.

Murdock’s always walked a thin line, balancing the eccentric notions in his head with the cold hard truth of reality. He knows it shouldn’t be that much of a juxtaposition, but the fact that it is makes his decision to forget all the more telling. Because up there, on that roof, Murdock hadn’t been sure.

Granted, he may never know the difference again, not really, not until they put him in a plane and let him fly again. But, as it turns out, that’s not going to happen until they can be confident that he knows the difference between reality and fantasy.

That is what they call a catch-22.

Murdock tries to take comfort in being Yossarian.

If Snowden tells him that man is meat, then she is the opposite. Man isn’t matter; man is ephemeral. Man is emotional, intellectual, spiritual. Man is more than a series of events; man is even more than simple reality suggests.

That’s the lesson she’s trying to teach him, that’s the lesson.

Even if Murdock doesn’t seem to want to learn it much.

-o-

She was never his doctor.

She was a doctor, as best Murdock could tell, but honestly, Murdock had never known her specialty. She’d probably told him, for all that he could remember, but all he had known -- all that had mattered -- was that she wanted a ride on his plane.

Want was something of an understatement. As professional and collected as she’d been -- in uniform with her little pins all in a row, and her head pulled back as per regulations -- she’d still come to him begging.

It wasn’t always clear, why she’d come to him. He was, after all, just the pilot. He had a job, same as everyone else. He had his orders, and he sure as hell wasn’t in charge of the manifest.

That didn’t mean that he wasn’t aware of it, however.

In fact, he’d been keenly aware of it, trying to adjust the preflight calculations to account for several last minute alterations to the passenger list.

In that sense, her offer to fill an empty seat had been tempting.

But watching her lobby like she was, so earnest and genuine, was something to behold.

“I have orders to come in a week,” she had pleaded with Murdock, showing him the actual paperwork. “They one me to wait one week and do nothing around here. I know Dr. Loggia got reassigned at the last minute, and Dr. Boone got leave to go visit is mother, so you have the space.”

“Sure,” Murdock had drawled, rocking back on his heels and stuffing his hands in his pockets. Some people found his aw-shucks demeanor unsettling when they were about to fly into a combat zone, but she didn’t even flinch. “But I also have my orders.”

“I’ll take all the blame, if there is any,” she said. “And honestly, they’re so understaffed over there that they’ll be glad to see me. Trust me, we’re doing everyone a favor.”

She said it like that, like it was a secret between the two of them. And she’d had a point, of course. The army liked it when people followed orders, but they could be surprisingly accommodating to disobedience when it suited the greater good. And Murdock, he was just a pilot. All he had to do was fly in, fly out. As long as everyone got there in one piece, his job was done.

He smiles, almost despite himself. This one, she was something else. This one, she was something. “Oh, why not,” he said, shrugging. Seeing as she wasn’t likely to explode or try to take over his plane, she wouldn’t disrupt his flight at all.

Her face brightened. “Thank you!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together slightly. She was beaming now, like an actual sunbeam. “I knew I picked the right pilot for the job.”

“Wait,” Murdock said, pausing as he cocked his head. “The right pilot?”

“Sure,” she said, and she wasn’t shy or demure. She was cocky as hell. “I almost tried to talk to Captain Lazenby with the flight out later tonight, but when I saw your file, I knew you were my man.”

Murdock scoffed, mouth falling open in surprise and admiration. “You looked at my file?”

She blushed, the pink suffused around the freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her hair was worn back tight, but she tucked the stray strands around her ears. “Medical privileges,” she said. Then she winked, lowering her voice. “Don’t tell.”

With a short cackle, Murdock was grinning now. “I like you; you’re not like most doctors.”

Her eyes were gleaming right back. “And you’re not like most pilots,” she told him. She squared her shoulders, tossing her ponytail behind her uniform “This could be the start of something.”

“Well, first things first,” he said, voice schooled with confidence of his own. “The flight.”

“That’s right, Captain Murdock,” she agreed with a resolute nod. “First, the flight.”

Her smile widened so far it nearly split her face, and the laugh lines crinkled around her eyes.

Obfuscating orders never felt so good.

-o-

He’d been whistling when he landed, signing off on his post-flight checklist by reciting the last half of Fight Club, when he was called into his commanding officer’s presence.

Mad as hell was an understatement, and Murdock had started to worry that maybe his little last minute addition to the flight roster hadn’t gone over as well as he’d hoped. But there’d been no reprimand.

Just a bulletin off the wire, about a bombing offensive.

“Wait,” Murdock had said. “But we just made a run there.”

“You must have missed it by minutes,” his commanding officer said. “If you hadn’t flown to the secondary site to drop off more supplies, you probably would have been called in for air support.”

Murdock shook his head. “But I just dropped them off.”

“I know,” the officer said grimly. “A waste of good supplies.”

“But the doctors -- the aid workers--”

“Casualty reports are still sketchy,” the officer said. “But the losses look to be catastrophic.”

Murdock was out of his chair. “I’m ready for whatever rescue mission you have planned, sir.”

He stood at ready, and saluted for good measure.

He could be a good little soldier, when he wanted to be.

When it mattered.

“You misunderstand me, son,” the officer said. “We have no jurisdiction--”

“But we were just there--”

“And frankly, sending anyone back there right now is nothing short of suicide--”

“But our people--”

“And a waste of manpower and resources--”

Murdock drew a sharp, hot breath. “Then, with respect, sir,” he said. “Why am I here?”

“We need your statement to pass this off,” the officer explained. “You were our last man in and out, so we need your statement to officially pass off control to our counterparts on the ground. I realize you don’t have much to contribute, but--”

“But we need to go back,” Murdock said. “Our people--”

The officer narrowed his eyes, as if seeing Murdock for the first time. “I’m giving you an order, Captain.”

Murdock puffed up his chest. “We have the power and resources to help,” he pleaded. “Just let me fly back--”

Murdock knew the answer before the order was given.

He also knew, without a doubt, that he had to try anyway.

It turned out, however, that bending the rules in the line of duty was one thing.

Outright subordination was another.

Murdock didn’t remember throwing the first punch at his superior officer.

He didn’t remember the MP’s being called in.

He didn’t remember his own hysterical screams as he kicked and fought and bucked.

He didn’t even remember her name.

All he remembered was her smile as her eyes met his.

The right pilot.

The right doctor.

The wrong flight.

And Murdock forgot everything else, reality included.

-o-

Murdock goes to therapy; he takes his pills. He tries -- he does, he really does -- to get better, but it’s all starting to blur together. Reality, fantasy, it’s not that he doesn’t know the difference, most of the time. It’s that he doesn’t know how to care.

He still talks to people who aren’t there, and he sure loves Billy, even though he’s pretty sure the thing is make-believe. And he likes talking in voices and pretending he’s someone else. It’s a mental ward. What else is he supposed to do?

And he keeps trying to get out, because everyone needs a challenge in a place like this, and it’s not so much that Murdock wants to go as it is the fact that he simply doesn’t want to stay.

Dr. Taylor is nice about it, but he’s not pleased with Murdock lack of progress. When the good doctor gets discouraged, Murdock assures him that he’s not the same as when he came in. That there’s one thing different, one thing that will always be different.

Murdock will pretend he’s a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. He’ll put on a performance and sing like he’s Mick Jagger.

But he doesn’t talk to her, not ever again.

“Why her?” Dr. Taylor asks in their one-on-one. “What’s special about her?”

Murdock shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“There has to be something,” Dr. Taylor says.

Murdock chews his lip, considering.

He doesn’t know why.

He didn’t know then, and he doesn’t know now.

Why her?

Because she’s gone now, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Reality isn’t about making sense; no, reality’s a crapshoot. Reality is a series of mismatched moments that string together to create a story no one probably wants to hear.

Reality is Murdock flying planes where they shouldn’t go, and dropping off more men than he picks up. Reality is dodging gunfire and evading anti-aircraft missiles. Reality is losing copilots and flying with a cracked windshield. Reality is flying where no one else will go, because it’s all for the best.

She broke reality, that one. She didn’t die for the greater good, and Murdock doesn’t know how to fix that. It doesn’t matter how dangerous or how risky it is, some things need to be done. Some things are worth risking everything.

He wonders if it’s worth losing everything, too.

Sitting in a mental ward, he hopes so.

“Because,” Murdock says finally. “After flying, she’s the thing that feels the most real to me, more than anything else here. More than you.”

“But you know she’s imaginary,” Dr. Taylor says.

“I know I can’t save her,” Murdock corrects, somewhat thoughtful. “No more than she can save me.”

Turning his head, he looks longingly out the window. Someone will understand, someday. His commanding officer didn’t even try. Dr. Taylor might want to, but he doesn’t know how. You can’t sort reality from fantasy, like it’s all things created equal. Sanity isn’t the same thing as capability, and it’s the idleness that will kill Murdock, one way or another.

Someone will understand. Someday.

Murdock has to believe that.

Maybe it’s crazy, but then, so is Murdock.

Until then, Murdock will keep looking for the horizon no matter how far away it is.