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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

A-Team fic: A Long Way From Mexico (4/6)

December 29th, 2016 (08:52 pm)
angry

feeling: angry

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



-o-

Dinner was a quiet affair. There was no pomp and circumstance in the meal, and Hannibal fed his men with resolute determination. There was some solace, after all, in knowing they weren’t going to starve to death on Hannibal’s watch.

They would just be arrested and disavowed, wasting their remaining years lost in the Russian prison system.

All the same, Hannibal would do what he could. It was harder than before to get Murdock to eat. Though he wasn’t coherent, he was in and out of consciousness, and his behavior was increasingly combative. That was just like Murdock, to fight when he felt cornered. It was, incidentally, what made him the best damn pilot Hannibal had ever worked with.

It was also what had got him sectioned in the first place.

Because the second you question him, he fights back with all sorts of crazy, and most officers in the army fail to appreciate the nuance of strange voices, imaginary pets and singalongs.

The fact was that Murdock was generally good at following orders when he felt safe, secure and happy.

When he didn’t.

Well, that was when things got tricky.

They had learned to cope with the worst of Murdock’s moods back on base. When they had space and time and resources.

Cooped up on a plane, it wasn’t so easy.

Feeding him took longer than Hannibal would have liked, not because he had something better to do but because of how hard it was on Face and BA.

Every bite he forced Murdock to take, he was losing BA and Face just as fast and just as certain. The sickness of doubt had taken hold, and Hannibal wasn’t sure he could root it out. He wasn’t even sure it could stave it off himself much longer.

What had started in Mexico very well could end in Russia.

“Keep him upright,” Hannibal ordered when they’d managed to get enough bites into Murdock.

“You sure?” Face asked, wringing his hands. “He didn’t eat much.”

“And he’s talking even crazier than usual,” BA muttered.

Hannibal nodded. “And his breathing’s gotten worse,” he confirmed. “All of which are reasons we keep him upright to help him breathe. Keep him cool, too. Hopefully that latest dose of Tylenol will start to kick in again soon.”

“That’s not really going to fix the problem, though,” Face said, hedging just slightly. “Is it?”

The tentative need for confirmation was an indictment of Hannibal’s so-called plan.

From the ground, Murdock made a snuffling noise, breath grating noisily in his throat. “Come on, baby, light my fire,” he sang, the words slurring together as his eyes didn’t open. “Come on, baby, light my fire.”

“It certainly can’t hurt,” Hannibal told them.

“He’s not doing so well, boss,” BA said, dark eyes steady on Hannibal. “What if he doesn’t get better in time?”

“What if he doesn’t get better at all?” Face added.

It would be easy to admit the truth. To tell them that he didn’t have a plan, not one that got them out of Russia alive and in one piece. He probably should, just lay out all the facts so they could make informed decisions about how they wanted to proceed. Hannibal had promised himself many years ago that he would never order someone to their death.

He had to account for the reality of what they did, however. That death, harm, capture was always a possibility.

It had been a hell of a run for the A-Team since Mexico.

But they were a long way from Mexico.

“Just trust the plan, Lieutenant,” Hannibal said with as much audacity as he could muster. “It will come together yet, mark my words.”

Hannibal turned and made his way outside.

If only he knew what the plan was.

-o-

Outside, Hannibal took his time. The perimeter was still clear, and although he didn’t make a sweep of the surrounding woods, there was no evidence of any kind of movement or interference. By all accounts, they were still alone in the Russian wilderness.

He did, however, take his time as he assessed the runway. The ground was still soft with marshy places in the shaded tree cover. But the open ground? After baking in the sun all afternoon, it was firming up faster than Hannibal had dared to hope. The temperature had risen to the low 50s, and with clear blue skies in every direction, Hannibal knew the conditions were perfect for flying.

That should have been it. Clear skies, an open runway, a fully functional plane and a completed mission on the ground: that had been Hannibal’s plan from the beginning.

It would almost be funny, then, just how far from coming together it all was.

It would be funny, that was, if it wasn’t so damn serious.

Sighing, Hannibal wiped his muddy fingers on his pants, looking back toward the plane.

They still had time, Hannibal reminded himself. They had rations, and there wasn’t any chatter on the radio. They still had time to pull this off. The plan could still come together.

But the moment he opened the door to the plane, he saw the expression on Face and BA’s countenance.

Then he heard the voices -- unmistakably Russian -- crackling on the radio.

Just like that, Hannibal was out of time.

-o-

“We have to go, right?” Face asked, almost compulsively. He was fidgety when he was nervous. And given how much he was practically twitching now, it was safe to assume he was more than a little nervous. “I mean, the Russians are coming so we have to go.”

“The plane’s ready,” BA said, but he shook his head. “But I don’t think Murdock’s going to be able to fly it.”

“Well, how hard can it be, right?” Face asked. “Hannibal, you flew on that mission to Morocco a few years back. You handled that just fine.”

“Under direct instruction from an experienced pilot,” Hannibal said. “Not to mention, I took over mid flight and barely landed it in one piece.”

“You just go fast enough and the thing goes up,” Face continued, sounding somewhat desperate. “I mean, it’s better than the Russians.”

“I don’t like flying with Murdock, and he at least has some kind of license,” BA said sharply. “There’s no way I’m flying out of here with someone else in the cockpit.”

That was almost heartwarming to hear BA stand up for Murdock like that.

Except for all obvious points to the contrary.

“Besides, the conditions still aren’t optimal,” Hannibal said. “The runway may be firm enough but only just. Given how short the field is and how much mud we’ll be kicking up, we need someone with skill to do this.”

“Okay,” Face said, clearly rallying his optimism. “So we hike out, right?”

“And torch the plane?” BA asked. “We’d lose everything.”

“Not to mention the smoke would bring the Russians straight to us,” Hannibal said. “Even if we leave everything, we’re still not going to get very far very fast with Murdock.”

“Would he even make it out in the woods?” BA asked. “The rain’s stopped, but it’s not exactly warm outside.”

“All the more reason to get him out of here,” Face argued. “Now.”

BA turned resigned eyes to Hannibal. “Face is right, man,” he said. “Murdock needs a doctor.”

Hannibal wa already shaking his head. “We’ll never get him there on our own, not with any kind of cover in place.”

“So, maybe we let them catch us,” BA said.

“And go to jail? A Russian jail?” Face asked, voice hitching.

“What’s the alternative?” BA pushed back. “We let Murdock die?”

“Condemned to a Russian prison is basically a death sentence,” Face argued. “The army -- they won’t be coming for us. Hell, we’ll be the scapegoats of the whole damn thing. We’ll be left to rot -- Murdock included.”

“We’ve broken out of crazier places before,” BA said. “We can do it again.”

“Have you seen a Russian gulag?” Face asked.

“Have you?” BA challenged.

Hannibal lifted his hand, silencing them both. “I have,” he said. “And none of you want to. Besides, there’s no telling exactly how the Russians will respond if they find us. In the hands of the regular police services, we might have a chance -- albeit, not much of one. If it is the military after us, as I suspect it is, then we’re going to be playing by a whole different set of rules, and there’s no guarantee they’ll treat Murdock fast enough or well enough.”

“Great,” Face said. “So if we leave, Murdock dies, and we end up in gulag. If we stay, Murdock dies, and we end up in a gulag. I’m loving the choices here, I really am.”

“We need a plan, boss man,” BA said with a nod. “We need a plan now.”

Face bobbed his head in agreement, eyes steadfastly on Hannibal.

Sitting there, pinned by their gaze, Hannibal realize the horrible truth.

They didn’t know.

They didn’t know that he didn’t have a contingency to fix this. They didn’t know that his plan had fallen apart and he didn’t know how to put it together. They didn’t know that he didn’t have an escape route. They didn’t know that he’d got them this far just to realize there was no way out.

No, they were looking at him. Smart, trained, capable men. The best of the best. They were looking at him like he had all the answers. Like they would -- they had -- followed him everywhere. They believed in him, wholeheartedly and unabashedly. They had unwavering belief that he could pull this out.

All the words he should have said died in his throat. Painfully, he swallowed them back, and he understood that he was more than a team leader. He was more than a commanding officer. This, after all, was more than a unit. They were more than soldiers.

It was a family.

And Hannibal was the head.

It was one thing to fail the mission. IT was entirely another to fail them.

He nodded, bolstering his resolution.

“They won’t be able to search far at night, and even then, they have to cross some remote terrain to get here,” Hannibal said. “I’d say it’ll be afternoon tomorrow at best by the time they find us.”

“And will they find us?” Face asked, expectant.

“Ask me that in the morning,” Hannibal said. “We’ll rest, recuperate and see where things are.”

“But Murdock--” BA started.

“One more night,” Hannibal said with an air of finality. Face and BA were watching him still, flanking Murdock on either side. “And we’ll know what plan is best in the morning.”

It was all Hannibal could do to keep his gaze steady and not look away.

For his men, he’d come up with a plan.

He had to come up with a plan.

He always came up with a plan.

God help him, he hoped he could come up with a plan.

-o-

He sent the team to bed early, and though they protested vehemently, it was an argument that Hannibal won. It wasn’t hard to guilt them, in the end. He reminded them that they had to be ready to go, whatever the situation may be at dawn. Go or stay, he needed his men in top shape if the plan was going to work.

It was the word plan that got them, because they always followed the plan. Even when it involved the ridiculous and the impossible. He’d once convinced BA to sing karaoke. In French. He’d managed to get Face to hit on a man. A large, hairy man with poor hygiene. Murdock, he’d talked into wearing a dress. Of course, Murdock had ended up liking the dress, so the real feat had been getting him back in regular clothes afterward.

The point was that his team would do anything for him, never balking.

It was ironic, then, that this time Hannibal had nothing for them to do.

There was no plan.

Hannibal could stall, finagle, and postpone. He could justify, explain and validate. But none of it changed the simple fact that Hannibal was walking on a tightrope with his entire time piled on his shoulders. And below? There sure as hell wasn’t a safety net.

Still, it wasn’t like Hannibal hadn’t been here before. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen all of his contingencies go up in smoke in the field. A career like his, he’d survived on the most impressive types of improvisation. He was good at seeing pieces, at arranging variables, at creating order in chaos that no one else could see.

But not this time.

Keeping watch, listening to the muted voices on the radio, Hannibal went over all the variables and came up with nothing.

All the possibilities had a fatal flaw. His contingencies required one of three important factors, and he had assumed in his original conception that the odds of all three failing at once were remote. After all, all he needed was a ready plane, an able-bodied team and a significant head start.

Those had been reasonable assumptions at the time but he could see how woefully they were now. Because he could have improvised with Murdock’s condition if they had had enough time to deal with his illness without the threat of capture. Of course, it would have helped if the military had sufficiently warned him that this would be a hot pursuit.

In fact, that would have changed everything. He would have accounted for the lack of leeway in schedule and built in a faster, more effective escape route. A four-wheeler in the cargo area, maybe. Extra identification papers for alternative passage out of the country. Hell, Hannibal had a few favors he could pull within the Russian military, and he would have made sure he had sufficient contacts in case worst came to worst. Any of those things would have worked nicely -- then.

It was too late for it now.

He turned his attention from the radio -- quieter now that darkness had fallen -- and looked at Murdock again. The fever was raging now, leaving Murdock trembling and sweating in equal turns. The rambling had subsided several hours ago, just soon enough for Face and BA to fall asleep at the other end of the plane. They hadn’t wanted to sleep so far away, but Hannibal had convinced them that it was best for Murdock to have some space.

The truth was, nothing was best for Murdock. The Tylenol was having a minimal effect as his fever creeped toward 105. It was his breathing, though, that was the main concern. The congestion in Murdock’s lungs was pronounced, and the beds of his fingernails were starting to turn dusky -- the first tried and true sign of hypoxia.

Murdock was suffocating, slowly and painfully, right before his eyes.

In some ways, it was probably good that Murdock was no longer lucid. No one should be awake for that kind of fate.

Gently, Hannibal tugged the blankets a little higher on Murdock, tucking them around his shivering pilot. Murdock shuddered, gulping in air while Hannibal smoothed the tepid cloth on his forehead again. These small measures made him feel productive, but they didn’t do much for Murdock.

They didn’t do much for the team, either.

Because Hannibal didn’t have a plan -- not one that worked. For all the things he’d accounted for -- painstakingly, carefully, meticulously -- he hadn’t seen this. He knew it was a responsibility, being in charge of a team, and he took it seriously, he really did. But he didn’t take it as seriously as he could. He didn’t really believe, after all, that things could go wrong. He didn’t believe that Face could fail a scam or that BA could lose a fight. He didn’t believe that Murdock could crash a plane or that he himself could walk into a firefight with no way out.

That was the curse of being too good, good successful. His own success had blinded him to the inevitability of failure.

And it had gotten worse since Mexico. How could it not have gotten worse? With his team, he had accomplished more than he ever imagined. They made him invincible.

No, they made him feel invincible.

There was a different, and an important one at that. Because Hannibal, he was only human. He was fallible and imperfect. What happened, then? What happened when his plans fell apart? What happened if he led them into disaster and there was no way out? What happened if he didn’t account for the things that mattered most?

Because having a team meant having something to lose -- something even more than a job, more than his commission. His boys were fate’s leverage over him, and here he was, suffocating under the weight alongside Murdock.

There was no good option here. They needed Murdock to get out of this one, and Murdock needed them to get him out. Saving the team meant sacrificing the mission. Hannibal knew that compromise was an important part of success, but there were some compromises Hannibal couldn’t make.

Wouldn’t make.

If only he had some way around them.

He fiddled with the radio again, checking the frequencies and listening for several moments to a droning commander in Russian delineating his dinner order. Across the plane, Face muttered something in his sleep and BA snored.

Hannibal had made a name for himself with the impossible. People came to him to get things done that no one else could do -- no one else would even try. He was at his best when the stakes were high.

He succeeded because failure was simply not an option.

Before, he’d believed it.

Now, he knew it was true.

He’d split them up, then. He’d send off Face and BA, but not to come back with help. No, he’d send them to slip out of the country under their false IDs. If the activity was too hot at the checkpoints, they could use their resources and wits to make a temporary residence. They were smart, resourceful, and if they worked together, Hannibal was confident they could make an alternative exit in time.

They might catch some flak for coming back alone and late after a mission completely run amok, but Hannibal had a plan for that, too. One that dovetailed nicely with his aims for Murdock.

There was no way Murdock was going to do well on the run right now, which meant that he needed to get medical attention. The Russian military wasn’t Hannibal’s first choice, but they were, frankly, his only choice. Hannibal knew this meant they would be caught red handed with ample evidence of wrongdoing. There was only one thing he had to leverage this situation to his advantage: himself.

Simply put, he was a high ranking military figure. He knew he was on the wanted list or many countries, Russia among them. His capture would be a coup. And he wasn’t going to just give them himself. He was going to give them a full confession that he acted alone and maliciously. Seeing him cowed would be a media boon, and that was something he knew the Russians would want more than anything else out of this incident.

That much he would give.

In exchange, he would barter for Murdock’s freedom. If he was working alone, Murdock was just a victim. The United States would play along with that much, which would secure Murdock eventual passage back to the United States. It would also probably allow Face and BA to return to active duty with nothing more than a note on their files.

It would, of course, end his career and seal his fate.

He looked at the boys. Face, BA, Murdock.

It still seemed impossible.

But for them, he’d do the impossible.

He’d do anything.

-o-


As dawn approached, Hannibal turned off the radio and stowed his gear. He’d separated the rest over the course of the night, deciding what to send off with Face and BA and creating a pile to burn. He regretted that he couldn’t bring the other men home, but the Russian authorities would clear those to head back into American custody. Hannibal figured he could probably buy their freedom, too.

He would send anything truly important with the others, trusting the top secret documents to Face’s care. The younger man had a reckless streak, but he’d gotten better since Mexico. There was nothing like a baptism by fire to see what you were really made of. He also packed them most of the rations, ensuring they had enough to get them through the long and uncomfortable exodus.

For Murdock, he kept a few rations -- there was no telling exactly how long the Russians would take to get there -- and the medicine as well. The plane would be the biggest loss, but it wasn’t the latest model, and he knew that the Russians had already inspected and dissected this technology before. If they’d been somewhere less developed, he probably would have torched it just to be safe, but given the circumstances, he’d rather give Murdock the comforts of shelter while he could.

That was what this was for, after all. To keep Murdock alive; to keep Face and BA safe. It wasn’t his best plan -- quite the opposite, in fact -- but it was his most important one since Mexico.

Face and BA were still asleep. With first light, he considered waking them, but he didn’t want to disturb their peace. He had no idea when they’d have this chance again -- when any of them would have this chance again.

Wearily, he rubbed a hand over his face. As he rolled his neck, his eyes settled on Murdock.

To his surprise, Murdock’s eyes settled back.

At first, he supposed it was a passing moment of awareness, soon to be lost just like all the rest. But Murdock blinked, furrowing his brow before making an obvious effort to swallow. With a stuttering inhalation, the captain wet his lips and Hannibal realized he was trying to speak.

Reflexively, Hannibal kneeled down, preparing his most disarming smile and whatever words of nonsensical comfort he could offer. Murdock had been in and out of consciousness for the better part of the afternoon yesterday, and while he spoke of many things -- crazy and not -- the only thing he’d been able to understand in return was Hannibal’s insistent promise that everything was -- unequivocally -- going to be okay.

“Hey, Murdock,” Hannibal started, but he stopped himself at the look on his captain’s face.

Because Murdock -- well, he was lucid.

“Hannibal,” he gasped, visibly trembling with effort. “I -- we -- Russia?”

Hannibal wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or concerned. Murdock being of sound mind was probably a step in the right direction, except for the fact that Murdock was never of sound mind.

All the same, none of that changed Hannibal’s approach.

He offered a soothing smile. “Not for much longer, I can tell you that.”

The comfort missed its mark. Murdock’s brow darkened even further with confusion as he labored for air. “But -- the plane -- how?”

The words were short and choppy, broken up by the wheezes escaping his throat. It was nearly a full-body effort for him to breathe at this point, and with his apparent lucidity, the difficulty was starting to bother the younger man.

Hannibal reached down, settling a hand on Murdock’s arm. “You don’t need to worry about the details.”

The next railing breath brought tears to Murdock’s eyes. “But--” he tried again, but he could make the words out this time. The next inhalation choked him and he started to gag.

Just that fast, Hannibal moved his hand, spreading it gently across Murdock’s chest. “Focus, focus,” he coached. “In and out, in and out…”

Murdock obeyed, as he always did. They’d always followed him since Mexico, but none so genuinely as Murdock. He was aware, sometimes, of just how much Murdock felt indebted to him. He’d done a lot for all of his men, and he always would, but he’d helped Murdock in a way the others could completely comprehend. He knew better than the rest just who Murdock had been before this had started. And he knew better than he wanted to what probably would have happened to Murdock if Hannibal hadn’t gotten him out of that hospital in Mexico.

And Murdock trusted him for it. Murdock trusted him, wholly and implicitly and without reservations.

For all the good it had done him.

When his breathing was evened out enough, Murdock physically braced himself and opened his mouth again. “We r-really getting -- getting out of here?”

The words of reassurance were stuck in Hannibal’s throat, and that smile was getting harder and harder to hold. “In a manner of speaking.”

Face flushed with fever, Murdock frowned. “Which -- manner?”

“That’s not for you to worry about,” Hannibal replied, pulling his hand away and sitting back somewhat.

“But--”

“It’s my plan, Captain,” Hannibal returned, a bit sharper this time.

“But--”

Hannibal let out a taut breath. “You know how this works on this team.”

Wide-eyed, Murdock bobbed his head weakly. “I do,” he agreed. “I do know.”

“Good,” Hannibal said resolutely. “Then there’s no need to discuss--”

“Together,” Murdock interjected. The word wavered weakly but it stopped Hannibal dead. “We do it -- t-together.”

It was Hannibal’s turn to frown. “What?”

The concern faded on Murdock’s countenance, settling into something more earnest. “T-that’s how it -- it works,” he said. “We d-do it -- together.”

The reply was vexing because Hannibal wasn’t sure how to respond. It wasn’t that Murdock was right, and it wasn’t that he was wrong. Most of the time, Hannibal could follow Murdock’s train of thought, even when it went the opposite direction one might expect. He’d learned to allow for the eccentricities of Murdock’s mind, working seamlessly to ingratiate them as best he could to reality.

But Hannibal was missing something here. He was missing the point in a way he couldn’t explain.

“Well,” he started in reply. “We’ve got our backs to the wall with this one. Russia, you know.”

Murdock was intent, though. “The rain?”

Hannibal wet his lips, allowing a small shrug. “Cleared.”

“The plane?” Murdock quizzed, still breathing heavily.

“Well, she’s fine,” Hannibal said. “BA gave her a once-over.”

Murdock didn’t miss a beat. “And the runway?”

“I haven’t checked this morning, but it should be dried out enough to get up speed,” Hannibal said. He shook his head. “But really--”

On the ground, Murdock’s face actually brightened. Fever bright and exhausted, the pilot smiled. “So -- we have -- ev-everything -- w-we need.”

Hannibal worked his jaw, letting his teeth grind together. “I told you, let me handle the details.”

“But what d-details, Colonel?” Murdock asked. “W-why are we s-still in Russia?”

“Because you’re in no condition to fly at the moment,” Hannibal told him, the blunt words falling from his lips with more force than he intended. His shoulders slumped. “I’ve come up with a workable alternative, though.”

“W-what alternative?” Murdock asked, the words grating through his congested lungs.

Hannibal didn’t let himself look away. “Those are the details I’ve got covered.”

The others -- they’d believed it. Face and BA had taken his calm reassurances at face value and slept peacefully all night long. But Murdock -- he was too tired, too sick, too crazy to keep his mouth shut. Face and BA knew it, too, but Murdock was the one who was going to say it.

The brightness dissipated as horror set in. “You c-can’t,” Murdock gasped. “You can’t sacrifice the t-team. Not for me.”

“I’m not,” Hannibal told him without hesitation.

“Just you, then,” Murdock said, the words even more halting than before. “We d-don’t want you to be our m-martyr. Be our l-leader.”

This time, Hannibal grinded his teeth together hard enough to hurt. “Captain,” he half-growled.

Murdock was not to be stopped. “I can fly this plane.”

“You’ve been very sick--”

“I can fly this plane,” Murdock repeated with surprising strength and clarity.

“Captain, I hardly think you’re in any position--”

Murdock would not be placated, however. “The plan was -- the plan was always for me t-to fly this plane.”

“And the plan changed,” Hannibal said, unable to let himself back down.

“Not this one,” Murdock said between ragged breaths, shaking his head. “N-not like this.”

Hannibal had faced many things in his career, many enemies, many battles, many near-death situations. And he’d never wavered, never backed down.

But Murdock was breaking him now.

“Murdock,” he said, trying to keep his own voice steady. “Please--”

“No, Colonel,” Murdock said, shaking his head with unrelenting fortitude that outshined the fever in his cheeks. “I t-told you. I-I know how this works.”

Hannibal’s chest tightened, his stomach churning. All the certainty he’d felt only minutes ago was gone, hanging precariously in the balance. This had been hard enough.

Murdock was going to make it damn near impossible.

“Y-you took care of me, all of us,” Murdock drawled, mustering up strength Hannibal didn’t know he had. “Y-you have to l-let us return the favor. Y-you have to.”

“You can’t even sit up on your own,” Hannibal reminded him. “I spent all day yesterday force-feeding you just to keep you alive.”

“But I’m not on m-my own,” Murdock said with a noisy wheeze. “I’ve got you, t-the team.”

To that, Hannibal had nothing to say. In fact, he was nothing short of dumbfounded. All the questions he’d been asking; all the plans he’d been making; and he’d neglected the most obvious, most important point.

They were a team.

Hannibal couldn’t lead without anyone to follow him. This was his responsibility just as much as it was there. If something went wrong, Hannibal would shoulder all the blame, but it wasn’t up to him to do this alone.

That was why they worked so well together. That was why they were successful in the field. Not for any one man -- not even for Hannibal’s plans themselves -- but for all of them.

Together.

Somehow, it was the sanest thing he’d heard all day. All week. All year.

The clarity was faltering, though, and Murdock coughed deeply. His brows knitted together as he tried to speak again. “Mexico--”

Hannibal reached down, trying to ground Murdock with touch again. “This is Russia, Murdock,” he said. “Remember?”

Murdock nodded, lines of pain deepening around his eyes. “I know,” he croaked. “But r-remember Mexico?”

“We took out a corrupt government official and drug dealer,” Hannibal supplied. “But--”

Murdock was shaking his head, though, a smile inexplicably tugging on his lips. “We started as four -- four men,” he said, striving for an emphasis that Hannibal felt more than he heard. “We left as a team.”

Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the looming failure of the mission. Maybe it was the cold, the wet, the Russians -- all of it.

Or maybe it was just that Murdock was right.

“I can do this, Hannibal,” Murdock told him. “I need to do this.”

All the contingencies, all the revisions, all the plans.

None of them compared with the original.

The plan Hannibal had started in Mexico.

Sure as hell wasn’t over in Russia.

He nodded, because that was all he could do. “Okay,” he said. “Then let’s do this.”

-o-

Murdock had convinced him.

Convincing the others, however, would not be so easy.

That was the problem, sometimes, with asking people to do the impossible. They occasionally had the common sense to call you on it.

Of course, it hadn’t been much of a problem. Not since Mexico. Face complained and grandstanded, but he followed Hannibal’s lead. BA threatened and flexed his muscles, but he was compliant when Hannibal needed him. Mexico had been a proving ground for all of them, Hannibal just as much as the rest of them.

As if he needed another reminder of just how far Russia was from Mexico.

“You must be out of your mind,” BA said. “You’re just as crazy as Murdock.”

“Uh, yeah,” Face agreed. “I mean, a whole night of nonstop planning, and this is the best we got?”

Hannibal shrugged as calmly as he could. He had rallied them around breakfast, with steaming cups of coffee. It had helped, he figured, that Murdock was awake and upright.

It didn’t help that he still looked like death warmed over, coughing more than he was managing to drink.

“This was always the plan,” Hannibal reminded them. “I was just waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. The runway, the mission.” He tipped his head at Murdock. “The pilot.”

“He’s still got a fever, Hannibal,” Face said. He held up a placating hand toward Murdock. “Nothing personal, buddy, but if you can’t even walk to the bathroom, then how are you going to fly a plane? Much less under these conditions?”

“If it’s got wings, I can fly it,” Murdock said between heavy gasps.

“Yeah, but will you crash it, too?” BA asked sharply. “I may agree to fly, but there’s no way in hell I’m going up when we might come down the hard way.”

“Well, to be fair, crashing is actually a lot easier than landing,” Murdock croaked, completely unhelpful. “I mean, all the procedures and protocols -- that’s the hard way.”

BA’s looked of angry horror was nearly comically textbook. “Man, I knew I was crazy to ever think about flying with you again.”

“Then, you are free to walk yourself out of Russia, all by yourself,” Hannibal told him in no uncertain terms. “This is the plan we have, and it is the only one that can get us all home and in one piece. Now, I can certainly do it without you if I have to, but our best chance of pulling this off is if we stay together. If we work together.”

He looked at them each, purposefully and slow.

“You all have a choice,” he said, letting the words fall heavily in the still, cool air. “And it’s the same choice I gave each of you in Mexico. The terms and conditions -- they haven’t changed. And my promise to you hasn’t changed either. I will always, to the best of my ability, make sure that we each get home. Even if it goes against orders or risks the mission. All I need from you is promise that you’ll do what needs to be done to make the plan come together.”

To make the team come together.

That was what this was, after all. It was more than a plan. It was a team. Hannibal hadn’t understood that entirely, not back when this started in Mexico. But here, in Russia, the cold make it crystal clear.

“I can fly her,” Murdock told him solemnly. “I may n-need some help s-sitting up a-and st-staying awake, but I can fly her.”

“Well, sitting up, that’s easy,” Face said. “You know I can help you with that.”

“And there’s no way in hell I’m letting you sleep,” BA said tersely. “If I’m going to be awake, you’re going to be awake, no questions asked.”

“And once we get off the ground, I can help with the controls,” Hannibal said. “I know enough to help you keep her in the air.”

“At least there’s no enemy fire to worry about,” Face said, trying to be helpful.

“And there ain’t no holes in the plane for one,” BA agreed.

Sick as he was, Murdock’s face brightened with a smile. “You guys d-don’t even want to know h-how many meds I was on when I flew you out of Mexico.”

“Wait,” Face said. “Medications?”

“Aw, hell, no,” BA said. “I knew that was a mistake.”

“You t-talk about flying high,” Murdock drawled, somehow adding inflection to his strained voice. “N-never been higher th-than that.”

Hannibal chuckled, even though he knew that Murdock wasn’t actually joking. It was probably concerning -- there was a reason most commanding officers in the army were wary of Hannibal’s mission. They knew what the A-Team was on paper: a conman, an angry son of a bitch and a certifiable lunatic. They were more than the sum of their parts, however.

They were more.

“Come on,” he said with a rousing clap of his hands. “We have work to do.”

-o-

When the work was hard, his team was at its best. To be sure, they’d accomplished a lot in their year together as the A-Team. Many of their missions were more dangerous, more hostile, more difficult than this. All the same, Hannibal had never pushed them to their limits quite in this way before.

And they had never responded quite so impressively.

They made short work of the preparation, stowing the rest of the gear safely and double-checking the surrounding area to make sure it was scrubbed of anything that could indication their identity. They had no way of hiding their presence entirely, but Hannibal was hopeful that the muddy conditions would grant them one last favor and make such a mess that definitive identification would be next to impossible.

BA manned the radio, scanning the frequencies to assess the position of Russian troops, while Face helped Murdock with the pre-flight checklist. This was a task that Murdock usually saved for himself with all the flourishes he could think of. He often performed it singing or in rhyme. Once, he’d attempted a mimeographed performance that had been mesmerizing but wholly unhelpful.

This time, Murdock’s approach was as by-the-book as Hannibal had ever seen, responding in small, monosyllabic answers to each of Face’s questions from the sheet. There was no laughter; no humor. More than the fever or the congestion, this concerned Hannibal. When Murdock was sane, that was when he really had a problem on his hands. More than likely, his pilot was giving all the energy he had into just staying alert and upright.

What did that mean for the rest of the flight? What were the odds that Murdock would pass out while they were at cruising altitude? What was the chance that he’d be unable to perform landing procedures? What was the probability that Murdock wouldn’t be able to even complete takeoff?

Good thing Murdock wasn’t doing this alone.

Face cajoled him with every question, poking him and prodding him without making any fuss about it at all. BA grunted, shoving him upright every now and then with a comment that the fool needed to make sure BA had his space. Clearly, Murdock wasn’t the only one giving it everything he had.

As for Hannibal, he slid into the copilot’s seat and strapped himself in.

“Okay,” he said, putting on a headset. “It’s now or never, boys.”

He watched as Murdock took a deep breath, blinking his eyes rapidly as if to clear them before adjusting his fingers purposefully on the yoke of the plane. Face almost flinched, leaning in closer to Murdock in a visible attempt to steady the other man. From the jumpseat, BA scowled. “If you crash this plane, fool--”

Murdock’s weary face split into a grin, a hint of twinkle evident in his fever-stricken eyes. “Then you’ll be too dead to call me on it.”

“You ready to take us up, Captain?” Hannibal asked.

Murdock swallowed, his smile sobering as he looked at Hannibal. “As I’ll ever be.”

Face clapped him on the shoulder. “Take us up, flyboy.”

“Don’t make me regret this, crazy man,” BA threatened.

Hannibal sat back, bracing himself as Murdock brought the plane online, moving it slowly into position at the end of their makeshift runway. Murdock idled for a moment, clearing his throat and breathing in as deep as he could.

Whatever the conditions were of the mission now, Hannibal knew there was no turning back. The question of now or never had only one, inevitable answer: now.

Murdock started the plane forward, face drawn in abject concentration. Behind him, Face gripped the back of Murdock’s seat while BA blanched, closing his eyes while the plane picked up speed, kicking up mud and grass behind them.

Hannibal tightened his fingers into fists and refused to hold his breath.

Now..


-o-

In his military career, Hannibal had been in the air more times than he could count. Despite BA’s persistent fear of flying, it was a necessary mode of transportation, and Hannibal often relied on it for his most intricate and daring plans to work. That was one reason he’d gone out of his way to recruit Murdock: he knew the value of a good, reliable pilot on the team.

Murdock was good and reliable, that much was certain.

He just went about it in the most bizarre ways possible. It had taken some getting used to, dealing with Murdock’s voices and jokes while in the cockpit. His cavalier attitude in the face of impending disaster had been counted by most as a problem; Hannibal had quickly seen it as an asset. That wasn’t to say, however, that he never had his doubts. That first flight in Mexico had been one hell of an exit, and Hannibal had felt his stomach lurch more than once while Murdock pulled a series of ill advised and dangerous maneuvers in the sky.

They’d worked, though.

Murdock had gotten them out.

And Hannibal had never looked at flying the same way again.

In comparison, this flight was nothing. A muddy runway would be a challenge for any other pilot, but Hannibal knew Murdock was more than capable.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Murdock muttered at the controls, accelerating with a sudden push. Out the window, the line of trees grew closer.

“Come on, buddy,” Face said. “Come on, come on, come on.”

Behind them, BA let out a small sound of distressed.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” Murdock coaxed, as if he could the plane faster, faster, and--

Murdock pulled the stick back and Hannibal felt the wheels leave the ground. He was pushed back in his seat by the force while Murdock started a rapid ascent, pulling them up hard and fast over the treeline, bringing the roaring engines farther up into the sky.

The plane shimmied, rattling the cockpit. They lurched, the plane rocking them again while Murdock cleared the trees and veered to the right. It took a long moment before Murdock smoothed their ascent, leveling them off as they climbed higher and came round to their predetermined flight plan, taking them quickly and safely over the least populated regions back into friendly skies.

Visibly, Murdock relaxed in the pilot’s seat, slumping back slightly even with his fingers still wrapped around the control in a vice grip.

“And we’re off!” Face clamored buoyantly. He grinned at Murdock. “I knew you could do it, buddy.”

BA cursed behind them, face still pinched in what looked like agony. “We’re not there yet,” he said with a grunt. “I swear to God, if this plane crashes--”

“Well, the plane’s going to come down one way or another,” Murdock said with a congested garble as the plane shook again, moving higher up into the blue sky. “When you’re lucky, you get to pick how.”

“And when you’re not?” BA asked.

Murdock shrugged. “That’s why you have pilots.”

“And what if your pilot is crazy?” BA half-yelled.

Murdock grinned. “That’s why I have you.”

“Aw, we got this,” Face interjected confidently. Notably, he didn’t relax, though, keeping position as close to Murdock as possible. “No doubts here.”

BA grunted, breathing heavily out through his nose again. He didn’t argue.

Hannibal nodded forward at the flight controls. “Keep her steady, and keep her low,” he instructed. “We want to get out of here without being detected as much as possible.”

“Roger that,” Murdock said, flipping a few switches. It was funny to hear the confirmation without nuance -- nary a Russian accent in range. He seemed to realize it, cocking his head quite seriously. “Unfortunately, our invisibility capabilities were lost in the rain, but I think I can keep her low and steady all the way home.”

The quip, more than anything else, was what Hannibal needed to settle himself back. “Sounds good,” he reported, just a touch chipper “Keep talking, and we’ll fill in the blanks as best we can.”

As best they could.

It’d always been enough, every mission since Mexico.

Despite the odds against them, they were on their way out this time.

All according to plan.

He tried to convince himself that was all that mattered, that the details weren’t relevant. The army wouldn’t think so; they were all ends and means in situations like this. Hannibal wasn’t sure he agreed with that, not anymore. Not like he used to.

But his men were with him. They’d worked together this far; they could work together the rest of the way out. The questions he had to ask; the answer he had to give; there would be time for that when they landed.

Because it was Hannibal’s job to account for everything, and he would after this mission.

He would.

As they pulled farther away, Hannibal looked out the window, watching as the forest disappeared behind them, giving way to even more remote landscape.

Soon, Russia was nothing but a speck on the ground, as far behind them as Mexico.

-o-

Not that it was going to easy.

In Hannibal’s career, relative was more than benignly relative. It was a dynamic reality, one that usually invigorated Hannibal to push his own limits and raise the boundaries of success for everyone.

This time, however, Hannibal knew enough to be scared. This time, there were no more contingencies. If they were detected by Russian air control; if they were pursued by the Russian military; if Murdock couldn’t make it the whole way back.

Hannibal had nothing for that.

This was it.

They were putting it all on the line, high in the air in unfriendly territory.

Naturally, then, it was disconcerting when Murdock’s breathing faltered. Head dipping forward, the tension dissipated from his shoulders and he slumped forward, fingers loosening from the controls.

Hannibal’s stomach lurched, but Face was faster than he was.

“Whoa, buddy,” he said, reaching up to press Murdock’s shoulder back. The pilot’s head fell back, eyes blinking rapidly as he breathed heavily for air that he clearly wasn’t getting. “Got to stay awake at the wheel.”

“Yeah, man,” BA said, voice sharper than before. It would be easy to think he was pissed off, but Hannibal knew better. Concern, more than anything else, made BA angry. “You promised to get me home.”

“Promised -- I’d -- try,” Murdock said, each word falling heavily as he made a visible effort to stay upright.

Face’s grip tightened, steadying him even more. “You telling us there’s a bird you can’t fly?”

Murdock smiled, but it was weaker than before. “Air’s -- so -- thin,” he said, eyes starting to gloss over once more.

“Just an hour or so longer, Captain,” Hannibal interjected. “We’re almost past the hard part.”

To his credit, Murdock tried to obey. He wanted to, that much was plainly obvious. Crazy or not, the man was loyal to a damn fault, and he’d never willingly disobeyed an order Hannibal had given. Even now, he wanted, more than life itself, to follow through.

For once, however, it wasn’t Murdock’s mind that was betraying him.

Instead, his body was stalling, and all the willpower in the world couldn’t push air into Murdock’s congested lungs. The pneumonia was almost without question now, and Hannibal could hear the railing in both lungs over the sounds of the wind whipping the outside of the plane.

“Well, I’m right here, the whole way,” Face said, nudging him gently. He pressed himself a bit tighter against Murdock, as if he could ground him to consciousness with the tactile senses alone.

“We’re at cruising altitude,” Hannibal said. “So we can take it easy until we are cleared to land.”

Murdock tried to speak -- something about flight plans and alternate routes -- but the words were impossible to make out as his head threatened to tip forward again.

“Hey,” BA said, rummaging around in one of the consoles. “Here--”

He produced, much to Hannibal’s surprise, an oxygen canister with a mask.

“Nice thinking, BA,” Hannibal said. He nodded to Face. “Help him strap it on while I watch the controls.”

Face took it, unwinding the tubing and clearing the mask before carefully placing it over Murdock’s shaggy hair. They were all mindful of the controls, and Hannibal glanced surreptitiously between Murdock’s lax grip and the readouts in front of him.

“Make sure you put the levels up,” BA instructed tepidly. “The higher the airflow, the better it’ll work.”

Adjusting it, Face held the canister in his own lap, clapping Murdock’s shoulder again. “See, buddy? We got this.”

“You better believe it,” BA said with what could only be called an affectionate sneer. “Or crashing this plane will be the least of your problems.”

Murdock took a breath, then another. The flow of pure oxygen seemed to help, if only a little. His posture steadied, and his gaze solidified. He nodded, but for once didn’t try to speak.

He didn’t have to.

The thing was, Hannibal didn’t always need contingencies.

All Hannibal needed was his team.

-o-

When they cleared Russian airspace, Hannibal allowed his team a moment of celebration. It certainly was noteworthy, but Hannibal knew that leaving was never the hard part. For all the trials and near-misses in Mexico, getting across the border was never the hardest part.

Figuring out where to go next, however.

Well, that was a plan that even Hannibal Smith could account for completely.

“All right, all right,” Murdock said, voice clouded with the oxygen mask still in place. “This is your...captain speaking. We have now ex-exited Russian airspace and will be m-making our final leg of the journey in fr-friendly skies. Autopilot is engaged for a sm-smooth flight. You are f-free to g-get up and move about the c-cabin while your p-pilot passes out--”

With that scant warning, Murdock’s head dipped forward again, and it was all Face could do to stop him before jarred the controls.

“You know, maybe we skip the nap,” Face suggested.

“If I’m flying conscious, we’re all flying conscious,” BA said with darkening scowl.

Murdock gasped for air, eyes blinking hazily.

“We’re almost there,” Hannibal coached, keeping an eye on the controls. “We’re almost home.”

Murdock blinked at him, looking a little desperate in his imploring.

“The plan’s not done yet, Captain,” Hannibal said, hating himself just a little for adding the inflection. To make it an order was to make it something Murdock would fight tooth and nail to obey. Even when his body was failing him so obviously. “We have to see it through.”

Drawing his brows together, Murdock bobbed his head in a nod. “You do l-love it when a plan comes together,” Murdock drawled at him.

“More than you know, son,” Hannibal said with a emboldened smile. “Far more than you will ever know.”

-o-

Murdock rambled nonsensically most of the way back, and with BA bickering, it was hard to tell sometimes if this mission was so different than all the others. It might be easy to attribute all that to Murdock’s illness and BA’s stress levels, but it was almost reassuring normal.

Hannibal had reason to hope.

Until they finally were within radar range.

Hannibal was fairly confident of their position, but when the communications started to beep back to life, he had it confirmed.

Before he could react, however, Murdock pressed the radio on. “Base, this is….well, an airplane,” he said, frowning for a moment. Then, he started to laugh. “How are you today?”

Murdock was often eccentric in his comms -- singing, using voices, adding embellishments -- but having his fever-stricken pilot establishing contact was probably not a wise decision.

Quickly, Hannibal turned on his own radio. “Base, pardon the interruption,” he said. “We are coming in a little behind schedule and with a few surprises.”

The good news was that they would likely be expected -- if not greatly anticipated. Hannibal didn’t know all the flight delineations like Murdock might in sound (well, sounder) mind, but the plane’s transmissions would be easy enough to decode, and Hannibal could only hope that the weight of their recovery operation would keep any lapses from report.

They did, after all, have bigger things to worry about.

“Copy that,” came the reply from ground control. “Fortunately for you, it’s a slow day. We have everything cleared for you to land on Runway 1.”

That sounded well and good, and Hannibal had taken time to study the flight plan as best he could. That said, he cleared his throat, hedging. “We are requesting medical assistance to meet us on the tarmac.”

“You sustained casualties?” was the reply.

“Uh,” Hannibal said, pausing uncharacteristically. He looked at his boys. Face was all but holding Murdock in place now, BA lingering even closer in the jump seat. “So to speak.”

There was a garble of static. Then, a new voice. “John, this is Morrison. Is everything okay?”

Hearing a familiar voice was something of a comfort. He’d always counted Morrison as one of his friends; a trusted ally.

For all the good it would do him now.

“We have a team member down sick,” Hannibal reported, averting his eyes from Murdock’s sweat slicked face.

“Who is it?” Morrison pressed.

Hannibal cleared his throat and did his best to answer nonchalantly. “Murdock,” he said, watching anxiously while his fevered pilot started pushing buttons and flipping switches for what Hannibal could only assume was preparation for landing.

“Wait,” Morrison said. “Captain Murdock? Your pilot?”

Indignation, disbelief, anger. It was impossible to say which of these emotions was easiest to detect in Morrison’s voice. If Hannibal had to guess, based on experience, it was probably all three.

“That’s an affirmative,” Hannibal said. “Conditions on the ground were worse than we anticipated, which is why we do request immediate medical transport--”

“For the love of -- John,” Morrison said, his composure clearly slipping. “Who’s flying the plane?”

“Well, he’s still at the controls,” Hannibal said, giving the pilot a wary eye while he hummed a song to himself and programmed something indistinguishable into the flight computer.

“But is he up for this?” Morrison asked. “If you need assistance--”

In the pilot’s seat, Murdock fumbled with the landing checklist. As it slipped from his fingers, Face caught it, seamlessly handing it off to BA while he kept his grip steady on the pilot. BA was already turning to the first page, scowling as he found his place to the first item.

“Don’t worry,” Hannibal said, letting a tight smile play on his lips while BA relayed the first direction to Murdock, who sluggishly responded. “I think we’ve got it covered.”

-o-

It wasn’t a perfect landing.

In fact, there were moments that were damn near terrifying. Murdock’s antics in the air had made Hannibal mostly immune to any trepidation in the air, but watching his pilot struggling to breathe while performing routine landing procedures was cause for concern. The plane jolted and jerked more than normal, but Face didn’t flinch once at his side. Even BA, who looked pale and terrified as the airstrip came into view, did back up a single inch during approach.

For his part, Hannibal relayed information as best he could, hoping he could provide enough support to let his men do what they did best. That was his role in all this, after all. He had no particular expertise in aviation or supply or mechanics. But he was damn good at seeing the best in someone and helping them to perform feats they never thought possible.

He had made a career of it, really. More importantly, he’d made a team of it.

Today, though, all he needed was to get this plane on the runway.

And each of his men back home.

So, sure, it wasn’t a perfect landing.

But when Murdock finally powered down the engine, safe and sound back on base, Hannibal knew that perfection was more relative than he sometimes let himself believe. Perfect didn’t have to be without mistakes or flaws. It didn’t have to be without caveats.

All it had to be was his boys, back on solid ground.

Still a team.

Always a team.

How was it, then, that Hannibal could account for everything.

And his team surprised him still.

-o-

For about ten seconds, everything was fine.

Air control sounded relieved; Morrison sounded genuinely emotional. In the cockpit, Face whooped, and he heard BA whisper a litany of fast prayers. Murdock grinned stupidly, disconnecting his oxygen mask.

“See, boys!” he crooned, voice cracking precariously with congestion. “Another successful mission!”

He got to his feet, still smiling broadly. Face and BA were rising after him.

“You got lucky, fool,” BA growled.

“And that’s how a plan comes together,” Face crowed. “Even in Russia.”

A successful mission.

That was what this had been about.

That was what the army was looking for, when the A-Team was called up for service.

But then Murdock staggered, eyes going blank before the color drained out of his already pale face. His knees crumpled, his body slackening so fast that Face and BA barely had time to stop his downward fall.

Hannibal’s stomach fell with him.

He knew in that moment that he was measuring a different kind of success. He knew, without a doubt, that it didn’t matter how many successful missions he planned. If his team didn’t come home, they didn’t count for anything.

Face was swearing, tipping Murdock’s face toward him while BA propped him partway off the ground. “He’s turning blue,” he said, swearing more vehemently. “Hannibal--”

Hannibal didn’t need to be told again.

He didn’t need to be told at all.

Not when his team needed him more than ever.

-o-

Hannibal wasn’t just the man with the plan.

He was a man of action.

He knew how to take charge, get results, make things happen. When he had a mission in play, he was an unstoppable, unrelenting force.

As far as he was concerned, there was no bigger mission than this.

“BA, Face, get him to the door,” he said, sweeping past them and quickly making his way down to the exit. He popped it open, squinting into the late afternoon sun as he disembarked in wide, fast steps.

Morrison was already on the tarmac, coming to meet him along with the landing crew. Hannibal, however, ignored them all. Protocol had its time and place, but that was neither now nor here. Instead, he jogged toward the medical team, waving them toward him.

“We’ve got a man down,” he said, voice loud enough to be heard over the melee on the tarmac. He fell into step besides one of the medics -- one he recognized from previous scuffles. One he trusted. “Started out as a cold, but it’s gotten a lot worse.”

The man kept his pace brisk while Hannibal kept stride. “Fever?”

“High,” Hannibal confirmed with a short nod. “Breathing sounds congested, too. I’m no doctor, but it sounds like his lungs.”

“Well, chest colds--”

“He’s been in and out of consciousness for a day and a half,” Hannibal said, choosing to emphasize the severity of the situation. “Managed to get us home but passed out upon landing.”

“Murdock?” the medic asked, arching an eyebrow.

They were at the plane now, and Hannibal looked up in time to see Face and BA, struggling with the pilot’s dead weight between them.

“Murdock,” Hannibal said.

The medic cursed. “You better get him down here, boys,” he said. “This could get interesting yet.”