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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

A-Team fic: A Long Way From Mexico (1/6)

December 29th, 2016 (08:46 pm)
aggravated

feeling: aggravated

Title: A Long Way From Mexico

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: This fits my hospital stay square for hc_bingo. Partial beta provided by sockie1000. This is written in movie verse with heavy inspiration from the show.

Summary: The plan came together, just not the way Hannibal expected.

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



-o-

Hannibal accounted for everything.

He’d arranged for the plane, which would be flown in to a remote airstrip without official clearance. He’d made sure to have a sedative for BA, and he’d picked a course that gave Murdock the flexibility he needed to fly them in without being detected by local air traffic control. He’d had the necessary tactical gear with enough ammunition to keep them well stocked, even in the unlikely event that they confronted hostile fire. He’d had three changes of clothes for each of them, bug repellant, camping gear and the best GPS tracker possible to make sure that navigation was safe even so far off the beaten track.

And, of course, he’d made sure that they had ample time to get in and get out, rescuing the crew of a downed army chopper from the remote reaches of the Russian wilderness before there was a possibility of starting an international incident. He had enough provisions for a week, but the plan was only slated to last two days, tops.

Simple in and out, the rescue mission that army needed but didn’t have the authority to commission. All in all, Hannibal had planned harder missions. This one wasn’t even supposed to make his team break a sweat.

That was the thing with plans, though.

They didn’t always come together the way Hannibal expected.

-o-

The first problem was the rain.

The forecast had predicted some precipitation amid cloudy skies, but within two hours of landing, before even establishing their perimeter and securing the plan, the steady rain had turned into a deluge.

The second problem was the drug they’d used on BA. While it had been effective -- BA hadn’t made a sound since they loaded him unconscious into the bird -- the dosage proved stronger than they’d counted on, and he slept through landing with no signs of waking. By the time they were ready to set out on the trail, their bulkiest member was still out cold.

Therein came a combination of problems one and two. Time was important in this mission -- unsanctioned time in Russia was not exactly good for them or the army -- and they could wait around to see how long it would take for BA to wake up without compromising Hannibal’s timeline and potentially delaying what he still hoped might be a rescue mission.

While they had hauled BA more than once -- and Hannibal had a stretcher in place for just this purpose -- the pouring rain didn’t exactly make it any easier. Keeping BA covered from the elements was only part of the trick. Trying to navigate through the slick and muddy ground with a stretcher of BA’s deadweight was cumbersome, to say the least. The last thing Hannibal needed was to drop their corporal. BA was going to be angry enough as it was without waking up caked in mud.

The third problem was that it was cold. Hannibal had packed warm, but with temperatures in the low 40s, the rain was bone chilling, and Hannibal had to keep flexing his hands on his gun while they walked just to keep his circulation going. Granted, they’d been through worse, but Hannibal hardly found such comparisons useful. All that matter right now was this plan and its sundry complications.

In the grand scheme of things, he had to concede that three problems was still doable. These were inconveniences, nothing more. It would make his team uncomfortable, but discomfort could be a powerful motivator.

Three problems: one solution.

Get the job done.

No matter what.

-o-

Of course, there was a fourth problem. It was one that Hannibal didn’t put much stock in because he didn’t see it as an actual impediment to success. It was, however, annoying.

“A two day hike,” Face said. “Just a little two day hike.”

Hannibal refused to reply, keeping his focus on the washed out trail ahead of them.

“It’s just two days, he says,” Face continued. “Two days, unsanctioned. In Russia.”

“To be fair, it’s not like we were going to get sanctioned,” Murdock chimed in over the sound of the rain. He used his best Russian accent. “Colder than the Cold War itself.”

“Exactly!” Face said, grunting as he adjusted the grip on BA’s stretcher. “It’s not just that it’s Russia, it’s not just that it’s unsanctioned, it’s that it’s raining nonstop.”

“It’s not so bad,” Murdock countered, his accent even deeper now. “Not if you have Russian constitution, yes, cowboy?”

“There shouldn’t be any need for a Russian constitution if we weren’t hiking for two days in the rain in Russia!” Face exclaimed, the edge in his voice directed unmistakable at Hannibal.

“What, and you think we should leave two men down?” Hannibal said.

“The only reason Morrison let us come was to cover his own ass for sending them in in the first place,” Face retorted.

Hannibal stopped short, turning on Face. “No matter the case, there are two men out here, and we don’t know if they’re dead or alive,” he said. “But we owe it to them to find out.”

“These American ideals of loyalty,” Murdock drawled thickly. “It is quaint.”

“Oh, don’t paint me as disloyal, no, no no,” Face said. “I’ve followed you everywhere, boss. Everywhere.”

“And I’ve always gotten you out,” Hannibal half growled back. “Even when you were the one doing something stupid.”

“Hey, I’m just saying, as far as plans go, this one leaves something to be desired,” Face said. “I mean, how is our progress anyway? And has anyone gotten a signal in this place?”

Hannibal’s jaw tightened. Both answers were negative, and Face knew that. Hell, Face knew everything. He knew that Hannibal’s plan was more than a little waterlogged. At this rate, it was being drowned right in front of him and there was nothing he could do but slog his way through.

Still, it wasn’t outside the bounds of contingencies. Slower progress made the margins shorter, but that was why margins existed. Besides, while Face focused on the problems, Hannibal was keyed in on solutions. It was a necessary difference that Hannibal had mastered a long time ago.

“Those are comfort, Lieutenant,” Hannibal reminded him. “Focus on the objective.”

“I would, really,” Face said. “But I can’t feel my fingers anymore. But at this point, I really don’t know if that’s the ice cold rain or the weight of carrying a stretcher through the mud. Do you know how much this guy weighs?”

Murdock coughed, rattling the stretcher. “He is a beast of a man,” he croaked. “He is.”

Almost on cue, BA stirred. They only had a split second before he jolted, pushing himself upright and knocking the rain slicker draped over his front and nearly tipping the stretcher over. Face slipped with the movement, jarring BA on his hands and knees to the ground. Behind them, Murdock also lost his footing, slipping hard on his backside, splashing a thick glop of mud all over himself.

Face flicked mud off himself with a wet splat, and Murdock lifted his arms up, dripping with mud, coughing again. BA sat back, squinting through the rain with something akin to rage.

“What the--” BA said. “Where the hell are we?”

“If it helps,” Face told him in commiseration. “We’re not in the plane anymore.”

Murdock got shakily to his feet, clearing his throat into his mud covered elbow. “And I didn’t even crash it!”

“Then why am I wet?” BA demanded. “And covered with mud!”

Face jerked his head toward Hannibal. “You can ask our fearless leader.”

“It is part of brilliant plan, yes,” Murdock said, voice thick and Russian again.

BA turned a murderous gaze at Hannibal.

Fortunately, Hannibal was already numb.

From Face’s complaining, Murdock’s antics or the rain, he wasn’t sure.

“Yeah, well,” he muttered crossly, adjusting his grip on his gun as he turned back around toward the trail. “Welcome to the party.”

-o-

In Hannibal’s estimation, things were actually going fairly well. Despite the weather, they were making good time, especially now that BA was on his feet again. The rain, though cold and consistent, had lessened from a deluge, giving them better visibility and improved mobility. The trail was still easy enough to make out, which was a pleasant surprise with the amount of water threatening to disguise it completely.

All in all, they would lose a few hours and be uncomfortable, but the mission wa shaping up more or less the way Hannibal had accounted for.

Not that you would guess, listening to his team.

“I’m not sure what’s worse,” Face said, far too loudly. “The mud in my unmentionables or the way this rain is destroying my hair.”

“Man, your unmentionables are never a concern of mine,” BA snapped. “But this ain’t no place for a walk in the woods. We have no visibility and no way to track threats. We’re too damn vulnerable out here. We’d be better off in a damn plane.”

“Ah! Could it be?” Murdock said, bounding forward with a splash of excitement, his Russian accent faltering only slightly as he coughed. “You have seen the light! Finally, you understand the power of flight!”

“Don’t go getting any ideas,” BA warned him. “I never said we should take the plane off the ground. I still think flying with you is suicide.”

“You are wery, wery wrong, comrade,” Murdock told him with an over the top inflection. He sneezed dramatically, spraying mud everywhere. “I am a wirtuoso in the air. I fly wery, wery straight!”

“Nothing you do is straight, fool,” BA said, glaring at him through the rain. “So you better shut your mouth before I knock you on your ass.”

Murdock shied away a little, falling back a few paces to rear guard once again

“Hey, the good news is, you wouldn’t feel a thing, Murdock,” Face called back. “Assuming your unmentionables are as numb as mine.”

Hannibal gritted his teeth and forced himself forward, trying to numb his ears to their complaints. This was, quite possibly, the worst mission to go fairly well he’d ever been on.

-o-

Between Face’s complaints, BA’s threats and Murdock’s increasingly bad accent, it was Hannibal who finally called the hike off for the day. It was a little sooner than he’d hoped, but there was a fifth consideration he had to keep in mind.

Mostly, if he didn’t pull a plug on their hike, he was going to pull on a plug on his team.

“All right,” he said, nodding to a relatively protected opening in the trees. “We’ll make camp here.”

The boys stopped, taking in his chosen location.

Face laughed. “What, here?” he said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“This is basically a swamp,” BA commented. “Ground won’t even be hard enough to set up a tent.”

“Well, there isn’t anything like sleeping under the stars,” Murdock said, tipping his head back to look up. “If it weren’t raining so much.”

“Uh, yeah,” Face said. “Boss, there’s no way we’re going to get any sleep here.”

Hannibal slung his bag on the ground. “You think you can find a better spot? I completed a geological survey before we took off -- there are no caves in the area except near the river.”

“River would be a disaster,” BA said. “It would flood us out.”

“Exactly,” Hannibal said.

“But it’s pouring rain,” Face pointed out, as if that made some kind of difference.

“There’s enough of a canopy to lessen the worst of it,” Hannibal replied.

“But we can’t even make a fire,” Face said with growing agitation. “The temperatures are just going to drop, Hannibal.”

“And this rain isn’t letting up any time soon,” BA agreed.

“I don’t know,” Murdock said, traipsing through the mud to the base of one of the larger trees. “It’s kind of quaint. Snuggle up with the trees, just like a squirrel or a woodpecker.” He flashed a wide grin. “You all know how much I like nuts.”

BA scowled. “You’re the only nut around here.”

“But we do like you, if it helps,” Face said to Murdock, who nodded and sneezed congenially in reply. “Seriously, Hannibal. How are we going to camp here?”

Hannibal started extricating his tent from his gear. “You’re Army Rangers,” he muttered over the rain. “Improvise.”

“But you’re the colonel,” Face said, pleading a little bit now. “You came up with this plan.”

Efficiently, Hannibal unfurled the waterproof material and rolled his shoulders. “What can I say, kid,” he said, ignoring Face’s incredulous expression. “I’m learning how to delegate.”


-o-

To be fair, it was a miserable place to camp. The shelter was minimal and the ground was mush. The temperature was dropping, turning the rain into heavy slush that felt like daggers every time it hit. There was no way to start a fire -- Hannibal couldn’t even get a light for a cigar. BA was grumpy, itching for something to hit, and Face was whiny. Murdock seemed least bothered by the rain in spirit, but his cough was starting to solidify as a growing factor for Hannibal to keep in mind.

To be more fair, his team was up for the challenge. Within ten minutes, camp was set up, arranged with tarps over a small area. Rocks were arranged for seats, and one last tarp was laid out over the driest bit of ground they could find, right up next to Murdock’s nut tree. They put two sleeping bags down, keeping them as dry as possible, to rotate in shifts throughout the night. The provisions were cold be effective in their purpose, and soon the four of them were huddled beneath their shelter, making the best of a trying situation.

That was his team, always making the most of what they had. And the less they had, the more they seemed to make of it.

“You know, next time,” Face said, taking a bite of his dinner with a miserable expression. “Let me get the food. I have a few inroads with a couple of guys in the mess, and I’m not saying this is terrible, but imagine: filet mignon and roasted potatoes.”

“Oooh,” Murdock said. “Or, maybe, something with borsch. I know this recipe -- it is wery, wery delicious, yes.”

“Fool, we ain’t got no fire,” BA said, taking a hearty bite out of what appeared to be beef jerky. “We couldn’t cook no borsch, even if we had the ingredients.”

“I know other ways to make it hot,” Murdock said, teeth chattering a little. “The right spices, a few special ingredients--”

“Buddy, what did we tell you about the bleach?” Face asked.

Murdock opened his mouth in indignation. “I would never--”

“Battery acid, too,” BA told him sharply. “That’s not the kind of heat any of us need.”

Murdock looked crestfallen.

Hannibal took a drink from his canteen. “We didn’t have the room for any extras on this one,” he said with a sympathetic look at Murdock. He narrowed his gaze as he looked at Face “Special ingredients or otherwise.”

Face swallowed another bite of his own food. “Hey, you can’t blame me for trying to make this more comfortable.”

“This is a pretty miserable mission,” BA agreed. “Unsanctioned in Russia in the freezing rain.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Murdock cajoled, voice decidedly Russian again. “We have each other, comrades. The stout heart of friendship is warming than any fire, burning bright in the chest--”

He cut off, the words garbled with a cough. But before it passed like the others before it, Murdock coughed again, harder this time, until the pilot was left breathless and shaken.

Hannibal frowned, but before he could intercede, Face inched toward Murdock. “Do you know any Russian songs, maybe?” he asked, pressing his arm against the pilot without being asked.

Murdock, still pale and now shivering visibly, tilted his head. “Maybe from the Cold War era--”

“No, no,” Face said. “The Cold War? Really?”

“We Russians have hearty constitutions,” Murdock said, voice quavering with the cold. He sniffled loudly. “Wery hearty.”

“But you’re not Russian,” BA grumbled at him, pausing to dig in his pack. “Here.”

He produced a blanket, small but surprisingly dry.

“I’ll give you this if you shut up,” BA told Murdock.

Murdock shook his head with another miserable sniffle. “I don’t know if I can promise that--”

“I’ll give you this if you shut up a little,” BA amended, forcibly throwing the blanket over Murdock’s shoulders. “I can hear your damn teeth all the way over here.”

Murdock accepted the blanket, pulling it a little tighter. “It may be cold outside,” he drawled quietly. “But we’ve got the warmth of friendship tonight, boys.”

“Ah, shut up,” BA said, but he made no move to take the blanket, sitting back instead to finish his jerky.

“I don’t know, BA,” Face said, rocking against Murdock. “I think he’s right about this one.”

“I’m going to throw both of you out in the rain,” BA told them with a glower.

Face grinned. “What was that Russian song you knew, Murdock?” he asked. “Does it have a good beat?”

“The best, the best!” Murdock said with growing enthusiasm. “Maybe we can harmonize--”

Hannibal chuckled to himself as BA threatened to inflict bodily harm again. Hannibal had to make plans for the big things, but the little things -- the give and take within the team -- that was always taken care of. Because as much as Hannibal could count on Face to complain, BA to threaten violence and Murdock to talk crazy, he could count on them to get the job done even more. That was just the nature of his team.

The quality of his boys.

As Murdock and Face crooned together with BA fuming, Hannibal had to agree the night felt that much warmer all of a sudden.

This mission might not be a disaster after all.

-o-

Morning was measured in shades of gray. The rain had remained steady all night, and even though Hannibal had taken his turns in the semi-dry bunk, he hadn’t slept very well. This was, of course, common for him. Hannibal couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a good night’s sleep. The trouble with a mind like his was that it never turned off. It was not uncommon to wake up at 2:30 AM with a brilliant idea.

Even so, sleep was a necessity, and Hannibal would always lead by example as far as his men were concerned. He was quite aware from experience that if he tried to forgo sleep, the boys would try to do the same. This was workable under duress, but a lack of sleep only heightened his team’s less than desirable traits. As if he needed Face to be more reckless or BA to be more violent. It was harder to tell where Murdock was concerned, but he’d seen the pilot in full on manic mode, and it wasn’t pretty.

As it was, Hannibal didn’t necessarily feel rested, but he did feel ready to face the day -- despite the many challenges he knew it would hold. He found BA on guard duty with Murdock in secondary position, humming to himself while he studied the various rations Hannibal had packed.

“Captain,” Hannibal said, settling himself down on a rock next to the pilot, ducked down low under their tarped haven.

“Colonel,” Murdock replied, muttering something to himself. His voice sounded more nasally than usual, but with the wet, cold conditions, a little congestion was probably inevitable.

“Everything all right?” Hannibal asked, assessing his pilot’s agitation.

“All right? Look at these rations here,” he said, pointing at them in disdain. “How am I supposed to make something out of these?”

“I thought we discussed that we had no choice but to limit our ingredients,” Hannibal replied. There was no doubt Murdock remembered the conversation. There was serious doubt as to whether he would choose to believe it or not. “We don’t need borsch.”

“I know,” Murdock said, sounding vaguely miserable. He cleared his throat wetly. “But creamed corned? Meat loaf? Face has a refined palette, and the only way BA puts up with anything is if we feed him well. This stuff -- it’s not breakfast food.”

“Ah,” Hannibal said. “I believed I neglected those details while prepping this mission.”

Murdock furrowed his brows together, looking up at Hannibal in dismay. “But you plan for everything!”

“I account for everything,” Hannibal agreed. He lifted a knowing finger, pointing it at Murdock. “But I trust you boys to work your magic with it.”

Murdock sighed, positively glum. “I suppose I can make do,” he said. He swallowed with a wince, sniffling. He opened the first container into one of the bowls Hannibal had packed. As he reached for the canteen, Hannibal noticed the way his hands shook.

It was a small thing, but Hannibal frowned, looking at Murdock more critically this time. In the gray light, it was hard to gauge his complexion, but his forehead looked wet even though his hair was dry. He sniffled again, and when he breathed, Hannibal could hear the faintest hints of a wheeze.

Without asking, Hannibal reached up, pressing a hand to Murdock’s forehead. The pilot yelped, pulling away.

He wasn’t fast enough.

“Captain,” he said, a bit stern this time. “Are you feeling well?”

“Colonel, I never feel well,” Murdock said. “I thought that was common knowledge.”

Hannibal would not be assauged so easily. “If you’re sick--”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Murdock said, continuing on with his breakfast preparations. “Ze Russian girth iz made for such conditions.”


Hannibal sharpened his gaze knowingly. Murdock used voices to deflect in situations where he felt uncomfortable. “Captain--”

Murdock sighed once more, looking at Hannibal straight in the eyes. “Just a little bit of a cold, that’s all,” he said, in his normal southern twang. “Nothing we haven’t worked through before.”

It was a very reasonable answer, which was why it was probably so disconcerting. Murdock’s penchant for the insane made his clarity all the more startling. This was, Hannibal knew, reason for some concern. Murdock was only sane when the rest of the world was insane, which didn’t make him feel particularly secure about the mission at hand.

That said, the options were limited. Behind Russian lines on an unsanctioned rescue mission, they didn’t have an easy out or any access to medical care. Not that there were any indications they needed it. Illness was a logical outcome, based on current conditions. Hannibal should have accounted for that more plainly.

Besides, Murdock was alert and active, giving no indication that he was incapable of complying with his duties. In short, Hannibal had taken them all this far.

There was no choice but to see it through.

That was the mission as Hannibal had accounted for it.

Hannibal let out a long breath. “Spaghetti.”

“Excuse me?” Murdock asked, blinking wide eyes.

Hannibal nodded to the rations. “I’ll take the spaghetti,” he said, letting his lips quirk up into a wry smile.

Slowly, Murdock grinned back. “That is an excellent choice, sir,” he said, fully Russian again. “Freeze dried noodles -- zey are wery delectable at this time of year.”

Hannibal clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man,” he said. “I’ll leave breakfast to you and get the others ready.”

-o-

By the time he got Face up and rounded up BA from watch, Murdock had their rations ready. Given that these were rations, this might have seemed unnoteworthy, but the captain had taken time to serve it on a makeshift table made out of two backups lying back up. Four tin plates were arranged with four distinct meals.

“Breakfast is served!” he called out, shifting himself around without hitting his head on the low-slung tarp over their camp. “Hannibal’s called spaghetti, and I’m partial to the alfredo, but if I could be talked into the meatloaf because nothing says breakfast like fat-ladened beef.”

“Ah,” Face said, making a face. “Such options.”

BA grunted, sitting himself down across from Murdock. “Did you make these?”

Murdock smiled broadly, waving his fingers in the air. “With my own two hands,” he said before sneezing mightily. He mopped up his nose with his sleeve. “All other bodily fluids are extra.”

Face looked even more disconcerted as he sat down, poking at his dish -- some type of curried rice. “Are you sure you’re up to cooking there, buddy?”

“Normally I adhere to the best standards of hygiene while cooking,” Murdock pledged in an overly grandiose fashion. “But this doesn’t require any effort, boys. Besides, you’re not scared of the common cold, are you?”

“Yes, actually, I am,” Face said, picking up his bowl and poking at it with his fork.

“I’m just glad your crazy isn’t contagious,” BA said, taking a large bite of meatloaf.

Hannibal repositioned himself, picking up his spaghetti. “It’ll do just fine,” he said. “We need to eat up if we’re going to have enough to get us through this last leg today.”

Face took a bite, swallowing with a grimace of disdain. “We still on schedule?”

“A little slower than I’d hoped,” Hannibal admitted, pulling out his waterproof map and laying it over the table. He pointed to a location. “We’re here.”

Face squinted, poking at another location. “Crash site is here, right?” he said, gauging the distance. “That’s what -- half a day?”

“Under good conditions,” BA said. “By foot in this rain? That’s not going to be that easy.”

Hannibal nodded in agreement. “Conditions are going to be even worse today,” he said. “The rain has been steady all night, and given the sky outside, we’re in for another day of rain ahead.”

Face shook his head. “I still can’t get anything on comms.”

“Gray-out conditions will give us the time we need, though,” Murdock pointed out. “If we can’t contact anyone out there, no one out there will be able to look inside where we are.”

“It does minimize the likelihood that we’ll run into trouble,” Hannibal said. “Being that this is Russia, we could count that in our favor.”

“Except for the nonstop rain,” Face said. “Seriously, Hannibal. It’s going to be a swamp out there.”

“It’s a swamp in every direction,” Hannibal said. “Going back would be just as hard as going through.”

“What are the odds the crew is still alive on that bird?” BA asked.

“This is remote territory,” Murdock said. “Going down here, with the trees -- odds don’t run in your favor.”

“For now, we have to assume the best,” Hannibal said. He gave a grim nod. “And prepare for the worst.”

“Awesome,” Face said, taking a swig of his canteen. “I got to say, between the motivational speech and stellar breakfast, I am so looking forward to a walk in the pouring rain today.”

“All complaints about the cooking should be directed at your cruise director,” Murdock said, holding up a hand defensively. “I did not have my usual assortment of spices to play with.”

“Another reason this meatloaf doesn’t taste so bad,” BA said. “I know you couldn’t have poisoned it with your secret sauce or whatever.”

“My secret sauce is a delicacy,” Murdock said.

Hannibal grinned to himself, hiding his smile around another bite of bland spaghetti.

“I suppose a little battery acid in the gut might warm things up a bit,” Face offered. “But really, I prefer something with more refinement.”

“Could use some ketchup,” BA said.

Face frowned. “Yeah, no.”

Hannibal chortled shortly, patting Face on the shoulder. “Eat up,” he recommended. “We pack camp in five minutes.”

With a moan, Face took another bite. Murdock offered up a haphazard salute with his fork as BA doubled down on his meatloaf. They weren’t in top form on this one, but their behavior was within acceptable margins for the mission’s parameters.

In fact, as far as Hannibal could account, everything was operating within the margin for error. There was a reason, after all, that he planned for contingencies -- very often, he needed them. Most of the time, those contingencies were not as wet, but if this job was easy, they wouldn’t have needed his team to do it.

In short, all things were accounted for.

Hannibal’s plan, for better or worse, was coming together just fine.

-o-

Progress had been slow yesterday.

It was even worse today.

Calling it a swamp would have been a generous description. After more than a day of rain, the ground was mushy, clinging to their boots and threatening to suck them down. This was exacerbated by the temperature, which didn’t seem to have raised significantly in the gray of daylight.

“Ugh,” Face complained, sloshing his way forward. “I’m never going to complain about a mission in a tropical climate again. I mean, where the hell is Mexico when you need it?”

“Probably still south of Texas,” Murdock offered helpfully.

“I seem to recall you complained just as much the last time we were in Mexico,” Hannibal pointed out, balancing on a tree to dislodge his foot from a particularly muddy patch.

“Well, that was probably because I was set on fire,” Face reminded him. He nodded toward Murdock. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

Murdock grinned. “I just used the flame,” he said. “You supplied the gasoline.”

“You also destroyed my van,” BA said. “Don’t think I haven’t forgotten that.”

“But I found it for you afterward, didn’t I?” Murdock asked, voice pleading just a little.

“Yeah, in a junkyard!” BA said. “I have to rebuild her from scratch, which I can’t do when we’re flying all over the world!”

“See!” Face said. “You miss Mexico, too!”

Mexico had been just over a year ago. He never would have guessed, all planning aside, that he would have come out of that mission with more than a felled drug lord in government clothing. Instead, he’d come back with a full-fledged team.

His superiors had been perplexed, to say the least, and he’d had to fight to get both Murdock and BA reinstated. Face had endured this process with as much grace as was typical of him, which was to say he bitched and moaned the entire time. Murdock was too crazy; BA was too angry. And what the hell did Hannibal have against women anyway?

Nothing, and Hannibal had worked with more than his share of competent females in the armed services and beyond, but Face had never needed another woman to chase after. He had needed a team to work with just as much as Murdock and BA.

The one thing he hadn’t accounted for, naturally, was how much he had needed it, too.

Hell, sometimes even he missed Mexico.

Not that he was going to tell them that.

“Mexico’s the past,” he said, sloshing through another step.

“And what?” Face said. “Russia’s the future? Because, if so, I might have to pass.”

“It’s a stepping stone,” Hannibal said through gritted teeth. “Who knows where we’ll end up?”

Face sighed in his most melodramatic fashion, and BA grunted, shoving him forward another step in the mud while Murdock started whistling to himself.

“I-I-I-I’m not your stepping stone,” he crooned. “Not your stepping stone!”

At this point, Hannibal would take it.

And counted himself lucky.

-o-

His luck, however, was a very fickle thing, and when it ran out, it ran out fast.

The rain didn’t let up -- not even a little -- and the canopy thinned on and off, leaving them more exposed to the elements. Murdock’s cold was sounding worse, and Face’s complaints were starting to seem justified. Even BA was slowing down in the cold, Russian rain.

Then he found the first piece of debris.

It was small, a piece of twisted metal, warped almost beyond recognition. This far north, there wasn’t a lot of evidence of human intervention, making it stand out to Hannibal among the muddy foliage.

“Murdock, BA,” he called, bringing the others to a halt. “What do you make of this?”

Murdock was the pilot, and he knew planes better than anyone Hannibal had ever met, but BA had the nuts and bolts knowledge of engineering on his side. Between the two of them, he hoped he could make a positive identification, even on a scrap this small.

His team huddled around him, and BA took the piece, turning it over in his hands. “Looks like part of a wing,” he mused. “But it’s been pretty badly damaged.”

“Is it ours?” Hannibal asked.

“What, there are other abandoned wrecks in the middle of nowhere?” Face asked, rubbing his hands together in the cold.

“This far north, you might be surprised,” Hannibal said. “No one to report it; no one to claim it.”

Murdock took the piece next, hastily wiping at his running nose. “Oh, feel that?” he said. “That’s American military, all right.”

BA scowled at him. “It feels like a hunk of metal.”

Murdock shook his head, holding the piece out in front of him as though it were enchanted. “Look at it,” he said, putting his hands out to his sides. He made like he was flying. “You can feel it, how it carries itself. If you can’t feel every part of your plane humming through your body, you got no business taking her off the ground.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” BA snapped.

“That,” Murdock said, tossing it back at Hannibal. “And it has an Army identification number printed on the inside.”

Hannibal flipped it, looking at the line of fine print.

“Every part is marked,” Murdock said. “Somewhat less romantic but a lot more practical.”

Grimly, Hannibal nodded, looking throughout the forest again. “Any idea how this part ended up all by itself?”

“Well, the wings, they’re a little temperamental,” Murdock said. “The like to go their own way at the first sign of trouble.”

“But this isn’t a whole wing,” BA noted. “And it’s a small part.”

“Maybe it broke off in the trees?” Face asked.

“There’s nothing else here, though,” BA said.

“Because wings are anti-social, I’m telling you,” Murdock insisted. “This little baby, she probably broke off mid-air.”

“But it’s badly damaged, isn’t it?” Face asked. “What could cause a plane to break up like that?”

“Oh, you know,” Murdock mused. “Rapid decompression. Massive mechanical failure. Explosions.”

Murdock made his point by mimicking an explosion with his hands.

“Could it have been an ammunition accident?” Face wondered.

“Unlikely,” BA said. “That’d be one hell of an epic accident.”

“Mechanical failure is actually very rare, especially on military birds,” Murdock said.

Face frowned somewhat. “What about ground to air missiles?”

“Russia hasn’t claimed any responsibility for that,” Hannibal said. “Most of the time, they’d be all over the news, talking about an invasion of their airspace.”

“You know, it’s like the old saying,” Murdock mused. “If a plane crashes in the woods and no one is there to see it, did the plane really crash at all?”

Hannibal nodded, for once totally understanding his pilot’s train of thought. “They don’t have confirmation of what they shot down,” he said. “They don’t want to cause any problems until they can positively identify the aircraft and start pointing fingers appropriately.”

“An American military aircraft this far into Russian airspace?” Face said with a tilt of his head. “That’s one hell of a finger to point.”

“And they’re not all wrong, either,” BA said. “What was an American plane doing out this far anyway?”

Hannibal sighed, lifting up his hat to scrub his hand through his hair. “That was need to know,” he said.

Face snorted. “So, wait,” he said. “We’re on a need to know mission, cleaning up after another need to know mission.”

Hannibal couldn’t deny it.

“Ah, hell, no,” BA said.

“All this, and the Russians may have been totally right,” Murdock objected, coughing into his hand. “If something goes cruising by unannounced in their airspace, don’t they have the right to shoot it down?”

Hannibal ran a mental calculation, measuring the rough estimate of the closest Russian military base and finding himself at something at a loss. It was out of range from the area, but he had to accept a margin of error in his own knowledge of Russian bases. Given what he knew, Russian military intervention seemed likely, and if they were close enough to shoot the plane down, they were close enough to move in -- much sooner than Hannibal had anticipated.

He glanced at his watch, references his map again.

“Come on,” he said, handing the part off to Face. “Collect anything you can carry.”

He nodded seriously to his team before starting to walk.

“We need to move.”

-o-

The debris field was massive. By the time they found the nose of the plane, they had gathered as much as they could carry -- and left even more behind. All that notwithstanding, Hannibal had one focus as he approached the cockpit. There was still one thing that could make this worth the monumental effort.

One glance, and Hannibal knew better. He’d never been one for blind optimism, and the idea that anyone had survived had been small to start with. Once they’d deduced that the plane was probably brought down by ground to air fire, the odds had dropped nearly to zero.

All the same, it felt like a punch in the gut to see both pilots still strapped in, bodies stiff and discolored.

He allowed himself a moment of silence, a benediction for the lives lost.

A benediction for the plan that had accounted for this from the beginning.

If this had been his team, if those had been his men, he would never leave them here. It was time to take those boys home, just not the way he’d hoped.

“Come on,” he called to the others. “We’ve got work to do.”

-o-

It wasn’t their most complicated work, but the driving rain had taken its toll on his men. Extricating the pilots was cumbersome and unfortunate, and no matter how hard Hannibal tried to bear most of that weight on his own, there was no way he could do it without help. Once they had secured the bodies in tarps, they set about piling the wreckage more centrally, gathering as much of the debris as possible into a pile.

Given the debris field, this was no easy task. Moving through the rain had been hard enough, but lugging around parts of the plane made it exponentially worse. By the time they were done, Hannibal was even further behind schedule, pushing the limits of what he’d accounted for in the first place.

The team worked wordlessly, BA taking most of the heaviest pieces and Face making sure that Murdock didn’t overextend himself when he coughed and sneezed. Hannibal set to arranging the debris, searching for enough fuel to douse the interior of the cockpit and any other part of the plane that wasn’t already soaked with water.

When the task was done, Hannibal lit a cigar and took a long, hard smoke. The boys stood alongside him, watching quietly as he took the lit portion and flicked it inside. The flame took immediately, consuming the interior of the plane in a wink. Hannibal drew back, taking the team with him a safe distance while the fire reached the fuel tanks.

For a moment, Hannibal worried there was too much rain to make it ignite, but several moments later, there was a loud bang, which rocked them backward and a fireball erupted up into the gray pitched sky.

It was blazing now, quickly charring the remains of the plane, taking everything of value with it. There was little risk that the fire would spread with the rain, but Hannibal had to make sure the wreckage was burned beyond definitive identification. He had to see this through to the end.

Even from a safe distance, the heat was palpable, rolling off the fire in waves. Hannibal could feel it, seeping down to his icy bones.

Shoulder to shoulder with his men, he still shivered, a long, shuddering movement up and down his spine. No matter how hot the fire burned, it would never be enough to warm him.

It wasn’t even close to enough.

-o-

The hike out had been bad.

It didn’t even compare to the walk back.

His team hadn’t been particularly excited to start this mission. They were even less eager to finish it under the present conditions. They all understood, of course, that success had many interpretations in the field, and Hannibal had trained them well to understand that they couldn’t win everything.

Burning the wreckage had clearly been the military’s main goal, Hannibal was sure of that now. It had been framed as a rescue mission, but it was probable that such optimism had been intended as motivation. There was no doubt that the army had already deduced as much as Hannibal had, that enemy fire took down the plane.

More than that, the army probably knew why. That was a critical piece of information that Hannibal could not account for, and it left his team vulnerable.

And here they were.

Slowed down by the rain and cold. Soaked through and exhausted. With an extra burden that was never easy to carry.

They had to sacrifice safety for efficiency. Hannibal considered piling both bodies onto a single stretcher to give the boys turns at rest, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not when those two pilots had already suffered enough. Unfortunately, that meant that none of them had their hands free, and there was no one to keep watch. If something was out there, his team had no way of defending itself.

Worse, his team knew this. They were fully aware of what Hannibal was asking them to do, and not one of them voice an objection.

To think, Hannibal missed Face’s complaints and BA’s threats. He even missed Murdock’s nonsensical ramblings.

He wanted to think that the worst was probably over now. That cold and tired, they just had to get back and all would be well.

Hannibal wasn’t naive, though.

He looked back at his men, each struggling through in the mud.

Hannibal just wasn’t sure how much bad luck he had accounted for in this mission.

-o-

By nightfall, the men were lagging. Their pace had slowed, and they were each covered with mud up to their waists. Face looked harried, mud smudged over his face as he breathed heavily through his open mouth. BA’s expression was set rigidly, his entire posture stiff as he clutched his end of the stretcher so tight that his knuckles were white.

Murdock, against what seemed possible, looked even worse. He was visibly shivering, the color having drained entirely from his face. His eyes were glassy, and more often than not, Hannibal caught him staring vacantly as he trudged along, struggling to keep his footing. More than once he faltered, and BA didn’t reprimand him once, despite almost bringing him down with him.

Whether BA was sympathetic to Murdock’s clearly worsening condition or just too tired himself to comment, Hannibal couldn’t be sure. Honestly, it was probably both -- and neither was good.

By the time Murdock really did lose his footing, Hannibal knew he’d already pushed them hard enough.

“Whoa,” Face said, trying to reach out to catch Murdock.

“Hey, man--” BA protested, trying to compensate.

There wasn’t enough time, though. Face was too slow; BA was too far away.

Murdock feet had refused to cooperate, and when his knees hit the mud, he slipped. He tried to hold on, which only made things worse. As he struggled to compensate for the shifting weight of the stretcher, his balance got even worse and he tipped all the way to the side, drenching himself in mud up to his shoulder. The stretcher tumbled after him, spilling its burden into the mud after him.

On the other end of the stretcher, BA got a face full of mud. Face, for his trouble, slipped as well, landing hard on his back and sending another spray of mud into the growing cold.

Hannibal was the last man standing, looking at his three mud-covered men. Face panted, trying and failing to wipe the mud off his face. BA grunted, flicking mud from his arms in fast, angry motions. Murdock blinked dully, too tired to even try standing up on his own.

“Okay,” Hannibal said, putting his end of the stretcher down gently on the ground. “We’ll camp here for the night.”

-o-

Setting up was no easy task. Not only was the ground even soggier than the night before, but their gear was soaked. No matter how carefully Hannibal positioned the tarps, it was impossible to create a secure area. Still, Hannibal told himself as he tied off another end of tarp to a tree, the shelter would be better than nothing.

Under the cover, the other three started to unpack. BA stored their ammunition, doing his best to keep it dry, while Face tried to arrange four semi-clean rocks in the center. None of their blankets were dry by this point, and Murdock tried to go through the remainder of their rations to prepare an evening meal.

Tried was the operative word. Hannibal’s own fingers were numb from exposure, but Murdock’s were shaking so bad that he could barely maneuver a zipper. When he dropped the backpack, Face picked it up seamlessly, shifting closer to Murdock.

“You know what?” Face said, finishing the job for Murdock. “I think it’s my turn to cook.”

BA came up on the other side, sitting down as close as possible to Murdock. “Nah, you all are crazy,” he said. “If anything, it’s my turn. I’m sick of being stuck with whatever you guys feed me.”

“Aw, BA,” Murdock said between chattering teeth. “You lo-love my co-cooking.”

“Your cooking, sure,” Face said. He waved a ration pack at him. “US Army rations? Not so much.”

“It’s all in the -- in the presentation,” Murdock said, words slurring together just a little. “That and a little spe-special sauce.”

“Well, fortunately for us, buddy, there was no room for antifreeze in the gear,” Face told him, patting his shoulder reassuringly.

“Oh, don’t be so sure,” Murdock said, lips twitching upward as his eyes glinted. “I never leave ho-home without it.”

“Another reason I’m cooking,” BA said with a grunt.

Hannibal tied off another end of the tarp before ducking under it and making his way toward the boys. It was remarkable, really, how easily they all did their jobs. Not just the mission -- because any soldier could finish a mission. But the real job -- the one that mattered -- was taking care of each other. No one had to order them to do that; they just knew how. They knew how to meet each other’s needs without making it seem like they were doing any work at all.

It didn’t take any kind of special reasoning to figure out what was happening. Sick as he was, Murdock’s condition was going to get progressively worse -- and fast. He was in no position to make dinner, and Face and BA would not only make sure that he didn’t make the effort, but that he didn’t feel like he was letting them down.

They’d come a long way, his team. He could still remember the gunshot in BA’s van, and the near fistfight he’d had to break up in the VA. Not to mention the chopper ride that nearly dumped BA to the ground and brought his team together.

Most commanding officers picked men who excelled on their own. Hannibal had always preferred those who had something to prove -- not to the army, necessarily, but to themselves. He liked to see the potential in soldiers.

In the past, he’d had some disappointments.

A year after Mexico, his A-Team was by far his greatest success.

That was all the more reason he wished they weren’t here. Hannibal accounted for everything not just to get the job done, but to bring his team back safe.

Needless to say, there were many reasons this mission made him feel ice cold.

“Quiet, all of you,” Hannibal said, keeping his voice as light as possible. He picked up some of the rations. “I’m cooking tonight.”

The give and take was the easy part, and it always had been. It had been what made them strong, even in the face of incredible adversity. It had been what made them all keep going, even when they wanted to quit.

On this mission, Hannibal knew he had taken enough.

Now it was time to give.

“So shut up and hunker down,” he said, opening the first packet. “We’re going to feast tonight.”

-o-

Calling it a feast was an exaggeration, but that didn’t mean that Hannibal didn’t pull out all the stops. Pragmatic as he could be sometimes, Hannibal was also one who didn’t believe in understatement. The meals were served with panache -- as much as one could muster in the Russian wilderness in the driving rain with near freezing temperatures -- and Hannibal even broke out the dessert packs he’d been holding back.

“Strawberry cheesecake?” Face asked, squinting at the label. “Really? I was thinking rhubarb pie.”

“It doesn’t even have the consistency of pie,” BA said crossly, devouring another bite of his so-call molten lava cake.

“Yes, but it doesn’t have the consistency of anything,” Face commented ruefully, even as he took another bite. “How about yours, Murdock? Peaches and cream?”

“Peach-peachy,” Murdock chattered, taking a small bite of his. He blinked his eyes blearily, and forced a small half smile.

Hannibal tried not to dwell on that. The captain hadn’t eaten much for dinner, either. Murdock wasn’t a picky eater -- this was a man who liked to ingest poisonous substances, after all -- so his lack of appetite was telling.

Still, he was making an effort, and Hannibal could see it. More than that, he knew Murdock was making it for him.

“Well, you can still try mine,” Hannibal offered, waving a brick-like item in the air. “Chocolate chip cookies.”

Face laughed, and the sound was warm against the cold backdrop of the constant rain. “Just like Mom used to make.”

“But-but, Face,” Murdock said, looking truly vexed. “I thought you grew up in an-an orphanage.”

Face winked at him. “My point exactly.”

“Anyone’s mama, my ass,” BA said, reaching over and snatching the cookie from Hannibal.
“I just want to get some food in my belly before I freeze to death.”

“I don’t know,” Hannibal said, nodding up toward the tarp. “It must be hovering right above freezing.”

“My hair isn’t quite full of icicles,” Face mused with a wicked grin. “Yet.”

Murdock sneezed, his entire body rattling with the exertion. “I wish we were on a plane right ‘bout now,” he drawled heavily, drawing his shoulders up closer to his ears as he closed his eyes. “Slipping through the air, above the rain, looking down at a sea of black with the heat -- the heat b-blasting.”

“Amen,” Face said, inching closer to him again, nudging him awake -- not for the first time since they made camp. “Preaching to the choir, buddy.”

“Compared to this?” BA said, taking a drink from his canteen. “That actually doesn’t sound so bad for once.”

Murdock brightened. “R-really? You’d fly with me?”

“Hell, no!” BA said. “But I would sit in a plane with you. With the heater going. On the ground.”


“Aw, BA,” Murdock said, perking up a little. “What a waste of perfectly good w-wings.”

“Only wings I need are chicken wings,” BA said. He looked at Hannibal, half glaring, half hopeful. “I don’t suppose we have any of those?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Hannibal said. He flipped through a few of the other ration packs. “I do have a pot pie, however.”

“That sounds horrific,” Face said.

“Pot pies are notoriously difficult to do right,” Murdock agreed, snuffling with a yawn.

“What the hell ever, man,” BA said. “It all tastes the same anyway. Hit me!”

Hannibal laughed but complied, too eager to appease his men for the night. They’d earned it, as far as he was concerned. And not just for this mission -- for all of the missions since Mexico. For all they’d done and all they’d been through, here they were. Laughing and talking, like everything was fine. They were resilient, his team. It was damn easy to imagine that everything would always be okay.

Okay, though, wasn’t an operational term. Okay wasn’t a technical delineation. Hannibal didn’t make plans based on okay.

No matter what Hannibal did to hide it, this mission was still a risk he wished he’d never taken in the first place. They were far behind schedule, and the longer they stayed in Russian territory, the more likely it was that their covert mission wouldn’t stay covert. Whatever the original mission parameters had been that brought down the first plane, Hannibal’s rescue mission certainly fell into the same paradigm -- only he didn’t have the full spread of information to work off of.

It was entirely plausible -- if not outright likely -- that the Russians would be just as eager to comb this area. In fact, Hannibal was a little surprised that they hadn’t. If they had the tracking equipment to shoot down the first plane, they would certainly have a good guess as to where it crashed, which meant that it was only a matter of time. The only reason his team had had the upper hand was the homing beacon frequency and the very bad weather.

While the weather protected them from the Russians, it was a growing concern. Face and BA were keeping up appearances, but they were badly fatigued by this mission. Hypothermia, even with a slow onset, was a danger he didn’t want to consider. Murdock already had enough to worry about. His cough was worsening, and his shivering was the only source of heat within miles.

In short, they were far too vulnerable, and Hannibal had fewer contingencies with every passing minute. He was used to operating on a razor-thin margin of error and coming out on the other side.

When things weren’t going his way, though.

He gritted his teeth and tried not to let it show.

“He’s not doing so great,” Face said, disturbing his thoughts -- and somehow reading them all at the same time.

Hannibal looked up, watching as Face rearranged Murdock more gently against the nearby tree. The pilot had drifted off to sleep, still trembling. Face took the half eaten peaches and cream, setting it down on the tarp nearby.

“His breathing’s not sounding too good,” Face continued, lifting a spare tarp to wrap it around Murdock.

“He’s not talking right either,” BA said with a shake of his head. “Never thought I’d miss his crazy talk.”

“The cold, wet conditions are working against us,” Hannibal said. “He needs to be warm and dry.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Face said, settling back down on his rock with a worried glance at Murdock. “I’m not sure he’s going to make it tomorrow.”

Frankly, Hannibal was a little surprise Murdock had made it this far. Murdock’s illness was leaving him especially susceptible to the cold, but Face and BA were going to be risking hypothermia if they dragged out their time in the woods much longer.

“We’ll pick up some of the slack tomorrow,” Hannibal said. “We can lose one of the stretchers and give Murdock a guard position. We can take turns keeping him upright.”

“Even so,” Face said. “Are we actually going to make it back in another day?”

“Better yet,” BA said. “Is this rain ever going to stop?”

Hannibal shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied, more curt than he intended. He wasn’t mad -- not at them. But there was no room in his plan for failure. “We do what we have to do.”

Face and BA looked at Murdock, sleeping slack-jawed against the tree while the rain pelted the tarps above.

Letting out a long breath, Face rubbed his hands against his arms. “I hope you’re right about this, Hannibal,” he said.

Hannibal took a short drink, swallowing it hard against the lump in his throat. “Me, too.”