Beyond The Thunder
It does not take sharp eyes to see the sun and the moon, nor does it take sharp ears to hear the thunderclap.
Wisdom is not obvious. You must see the subtle and notice the hidden to be victorious.
--Sun Tzu, The Art of War
And wasn't this just exactly how he'd expected it to end? Face thought bitterly.
Though actually nobody was dead. Yet.
At least, he thought as he heard Tia's high voice saying something to Hannibal up in the cockpit, nobody who mattered. Fulbright had never been anything but trouble, and a deathbed conversion didn't impress him much. And wasn't it just like him to die before he accomplished anything but sticking them with his problems and not helping with their own.
Murdock shifted slightly under his hand. Face focussed on the pilot, who was sleeping the sleep of the drugged; he laid the back of his hand on Murdock's forehead. The fever didn't seem any worse. Face listened to Murdock's labored breathing and Tia's voice. Not helping? Fuck that, he thought savagely; true to form, Fulbright had made their problems a lot worse.
And not just by dying, though that was bad enough. If the army started chasing them for his murder... Face shrugged that off; it was beyond his control. Beyond anyone's control. Fulbright was buried in Vietnam, where he belonged, but things buried didn't stay buried. You thought you left the past behind you but it wasn't a place you passed through on your way to the future; it was always there, following you like one of those skinny yellow Asian dogs even if you don't pay any attention to it, and God help you if you did. Even if you put a bullet in its mangy head another one just like it popped up--
Christ. He shook his head and covered his face with his hands for a moment, then looked around, glad no one was there to see him. BA dozing in his seat was the only other one here--Hannibal hadn't, Face imagined, given him any chance to wonder about how badly Murdock was hurt or who'd be flying the plane. An angry, panicked BA could do a lot of damage before he went all catatonic on you.
Face ran a hand through his hair. That country. That damned country. There had never been a chance this would go right. He understood why Hannibal had wanted to do it--if they had been able to prove themselves innocent then it would have been worth it. Worth anything. He looked down at Murdock, pale and sweating under the jackets Hannibal had covered him with.
Worth almost anything.
Murdock shouldn't have come. Shouldn't any of them come, as far as that went, but Murdock certainly. He'd been fey the whole time, losing his craziness bit by bit, until he was as sane as Face had ever seen him, but grim and driven... But that was the point, wasn't it? As sane as Face had ever seen him wasn't all that sane. Back then Murdock had already been, if not broken, ready to break, a spiderweb of cracks all over him. And maybe Murdock had the kind of personality that shattered easily, but no one shattered unless he was under stress.
That damned country... Face stroked Murdock's hair, brushing the damp strands back over the pilot's head. If he never came back here it would be too soon. If not too late. Murdock shouldn't have come this time. Maybe they wouldn't have been able to get here themselves without him, but as it turned out that would have been the best for all of them, wouldn't it?
Tia laughed at something Hannibal had said. Face glared in that general direction, but he knew it was probably a good sign. If the colonel had thought Murdock was dying, he'd still be here. He wasn't flying the plane, of course, he was just giving Face some time alone with Murdock. He'd said he was going to listen to the radio, but there wasn't much they could do even if someone called them...
Not that Face knew what Hannibal was planning to do anyway. They hadn't had a chance to talk yet, unless you counted, "Get this plane off the ground now, lieutenant," talking. Which Face didn't. That was just step one in a plan Face hadn't had time to question until now. Not with Murdock in the next chair, bleeding and insisting that Face needed to handle the takeoff even while he was repeating that there was nothing to worry about, either about his wound or the plane.
Murdock had always said planes flew themselves. It's just physics, he'd say whenever he wandered out of the cockpit, they're built to fly, they don't fall out of the sky as long as they've got fuel enough to go fast enough. Face hoped he was right about that. He'd been right about taking off, anyway; it's physics, he'd said again, his voice weakening with every word. It's a law of nature. You can do this, Faceman. She's a sweet little spy, very responsive, she wants to fly. Just drive fast...
In a wierd way, the fact that some of the gauges were blank didn't bother Face. Most of the ones that were labelled he didn't understand: there was speed, and altitude, and gas, and a lot of others that he just ignored. A handful that he couldn't read was nothing. A few hair-raising moments had ensued after they were off the ground, when Murdock had finally let go of consciousness and slid gently onto the floor. Face had known there was a bit more to it than they'd achieved yet, they were still climbing and he didn't know how high they had to get--thirty thousand? forty? Whatever, it wouldn't help anyone if he smeared them all over the Vietnamese landscape.
Plus, he just so wasn't going to die in this rathole country.
None of them were.
Hannibal had pulled Murdock's limp body into the cabin while Face muscled the airplane upwards. It had always looked easier when Murdock did it but Face was grateful for something to occupy him. It wasn't that he didn't like blood, though he didn't, or that he didn't like to watch Hannibal dig bullets out of people, though he didn't, especially if it was him... He just really, really didn't want to watch Hannibal dig a bullet out of Murdock.
Didn't want to remember Murdock predicting he wouldn't live long enough to reach the States.
Murdock was a pilot, and a lunatic; he wasn't a doctor. Hannibal knew more about it. Face reached out and pulled the jacket down to look at the bandages--at least the plane had had a fully stocked first aid kit. No red. Hannibal had managed to stop the bleeding, anyway. Maybe Murdock would wake up in time to get this plane on the ground somewhere. In one piece.
Taking off is easy, and planes fly themselves. It's all physics, all laws of nature. Landings, though: landings were different. Law of nature... something weighing thousands of pounds going very fast collides with the earth with a rather predictable result. Landing an airplane was unnatural. What was it they said? If you could walk away from it it was a good landing. Face knew that he couldn't land the plane. They needed Murdock for that.
And if they didn't have him, Face wasn't at all sure what Hannibal was planning. For that matter, Face thought, leaning back against the wall, they needed Murdock to get them someplace to land. Planes might stay in the air on their own, but autopilots didn't read maps and chart courses. He sighed. He'd better go talk to Hannibal.
"He looks better." Tia had snuck up on him, standing in the aisle and looking down at them.
Face looked up into her eyes and it was like looking into a black mirror. He rose to his feet, surprised at how strongly he wished they'd left her behind. He hadn't given it much thought until now, just a vague feeling of irritation at listening to her, but now the vagueness crystallized into a razor-sharp intuition.
"He's a nice man, I think," she said. Before he could answer her, she'd come closer and dropped gracefully to sit next to the pilot, on the other side from Face. She smoothed the jacket over his good shoulder and smiled up at Face. "The colonel wants to talk to you. I'll watch over him." She cut that obsidian gaze over towards BA and added, "Over them both."
And now he wasn't just worried about the bullet hole in his best friend. That sharp-edged intuition prompted him to say, "He is a nice man, Murdock. His girlfriend will kill us when she finds out what happened to him. If he doesn't make it--" he shrugged fluidly. "She'll probably turn us in."
He chose to pretend she didn't know the word. "Kelly. She's a vet, an animal doctor. They're very fond of each other." If he had to, he'd explain the VA to her, but not unless he had to.
"That's nice. I'm glad."
He didn't answer, just nodded and headed toward the cockpit. Hannibal was leaning back in the captain's seat, looking out the windshield, or whatever you called it in an airplane. He was smoking, his cigar down to a stub. Automatically, as he sat down, Face pulled another out of his jacket and handed it Hannibal, who thanked him with a raised eyebrow and a smile. Face would have lit up himself, but he only had one left, so he just settled back and waited while Hannibal got the new cigar going.
"How is he, lieutenant?" Hannibal asked finally.
Face shrugged. "He's resting. The bleeding's stopped. Assuming we can get him back down on solid ground, he'll probably make it... Hannibal, I can't land this thing."
"Glad you realize it."
"So what's the plan?"
"We hope for Murdock to wake up," Hannibal said. "I went easy on the morphine. If he doesn't--"
"If he doesn't?"
Hannibal actually grinned. Face wasn't fooled; the colonel wasn't enjoying the situation, but it was the kind of thing that he thrived on. The worse things got, the crazier the only way out, the tighter the Jazz got hold of him. And when he was on the Jazz, he was happy. So happy that it was scary, sometimes, but usually what it did was raise your own spirits to see it. Somehow, Hannibal's sheer joie de vivre convinced you that he was actually on the right track, that he'd get himself out of whatever jam he was in, and you along with him. Face grinned back, not exactly forgetting Murdock's bullet, the plane's lack of a pilot, and Tia's disquieting eyes, but willing, at least for the moment, to believe that it would all work out.
"If he doesn't," Hannibal said, puffing, "we jump."
The moment was over. "Jump? Did I hear that right? You mean, out of the plane jump?"
Hannibal's grin hadn't faded a bit. "I checked. There are plenty of parachutes. One of us can take BA and the other Murdock."
"You've lost your mind," Face said. "Jump with two unconscious men, one of them hurt? And what do we do with the plane while we're at it? Let it crash?"
"Well, why not?" Hannibal asked. "Into the ocean, of course."
"Face, we can't let it crash into the land." Hannibal sounded perfectly reasonable.
"Whoever actually owns it won't be very happy about that."
"They already aren't happy. If they get it back, it'll be an unexpected piece of good news, but it won't make them forget they lost it in the first place," Hannibal said. "I'm sorry for their loss, but without Murdock we're not landing this thing, and they won't get any use out of it if we crash and burn, will they?"
Face laughed; he couldn't help it. "I wasn't suggesting we actually crash and burn, Hannibal."
"Glad to hear it." Hannibal pointed at him with the cigar. "You had me worried for a minute."
"I had you worried? I had you worried?"
Normally Face would have listed them. Today he didn't. Hannibal would dealt with them all, waving his Cuban (Vietnam traded with Castro, of course) magic wand and turning each complaint to smoke. The ritual of complaint and dismissal was one that Face usually found soothing. Even when he didn't believe in it--maybe especially when he didn't--Hannibal's confidence was reassuring. But today he knew he wouldn't be able to stop with the problems Hannibal could actually talk away.; today they cut too near the bone and at the same time lay too close to the surface. It would be a while before he felt like talking about most of it; it would be never before he talked about some of it. And until he got all of it sorted out, he didn't want to talk about any of it.
Except that Hannibal would expect something. Face shrugged. "No more than usual. I can't quite believe you're serious about bailing out of this plane with two unconscious men."
"It worked before."
"So you keep telling me."
Hannibal's grin lit the cockpit. "You're alive, aren't you?"
"For the moment," Face groused.
Hannibal puffed contentedly. "Look, Face: we couldn't have stayed where we were."
"I'll grant you that much."
"We might stumble across an airfield, but short of a Movie of the Week intervention we aren't going to be able to land this thing. And even if we got that kind of help, we wouldn't like the denouement ."
"I have to give you that, too."
"So, unless you can come up with a better idea, unless Murdock recovers enough to bring us down--"
"We jump," Face said resignedly.
"We jump." Hannibal stuck the cigar between his teeth and grinned piratically.
"What about Tia?"
"She can jump."
"She know how to?"
"I can learn."
They turned to see her standing in the doorway.
"Murdock?" Face stood up.
"He's still sleeping. A little restless, so I thought--" she shrugged. She was looking at Hannibal.
"Check on him, lieutenant, and then get some sleep. Fast as this plane is, it's still a long ways to go. We'll both need sleep before the end."
Face pushed past her, noting that there seemed a little less room to do so than he'd have thought. Normally he'd have enjoyed it, even under such dicey circumstances, even given the way she had started making the razor-trimmed hair on the back of his neck stand up, but today he had other things on his mind. He shouldered his way through and walked past the still dozing BA to where Murdock lay in the aisle.
The pilot had been moving in his unconscious state; he now lay on his side. Face knelt beside him and checked his temperature. Under his fingers Murdock's skin didn't feel any warmer, though warm enough. He curled his fingers under and rubbed the back of his hand along Murdock's cheek. "Listen to me. You're going to be okay, Murdock."
"Face?" Murdock's voice was so weak Face almost couldn't hear him. His hand reached out, and Face immediately took hold of it. Murdock tried to grip, but his hold was weak; Face tightened his own.
"Can't be hell, then. Hurts too much for heaven, though." Murdock's laugh turned into a cough.
"You're still alive, Murdock. And you're staying that way, you hear?"
"Told you--" Murdock coughed again, but his voice was stronger.
"Be quiet. You need to rest."
"Been resting. Told you you could fly her." He paused and tried to sit up, but let Face push him flat again without complaining, only to catch Face's hand once more. "Don't go."
Murdock sighed. "Good..." He closed his eyes. After a few moments, during which Face thought he'd fallen asleep again, he said, "Don't be feeling guilty, Face."
"Be quiet." He didn't feel glib enough to lie and get away with it, and Murdock was capable of carrying on more than he needed to, and more than Face wanted to listen to even if Murdock had been healthy. He reached over and smoothed Murdock's hair back with his other hand. "We need you to rest."
Murdock didn't move; his breathing had a little hitch but was otherwise even, and Face decided he was sleeping. Or unconscious. He took a deep breath and settled down beside the pilot, his back against the wall. He did feel guilty, guiltier than he really should have given the circumstances. He leaned back,thinking about that. Murdock had been shot before, sometimes even directly due to some screwup on Face's part, damn Hannibal's 'circumstances beyond your control, lieutenant'. This time... it really wasn't his fault. So why did he feel so guilty?
He thought about that. He needed to understand what was happening. Was it just that godforsaken country? The minute he'd heard its name--the second--he'd gone all tense inside and he hadn't relaxed yet. That was trying. In fact, it was wearing him out. Take a deep breath, Templeton, he told himself, relax, and take a long hard look beyond the obvious.
It had been a long time since he'd thought that. Vietnam, of course... He hadn't ever cracked, let alone snapped, but there for a while he'd been tied in knots so tight he'd felt like he couldn't breathe. Jumping at every little thing, angry all the time... It was the Team's early days, they hardly were yet, which had meant that it had been months before he'd felt Hannibal's eyes resting on him too long. With the savage shock of Murdock's disintegration on his mind--at that time Face hadn't even been sure if Murdock knew when he visited that he was really there, or even where he was himself, or who--Face had feared a psychiatric professional like he'd never feared anything, even in the camp. But he'd known he was going to have to convince Hannibal he was talking to someone.
Enter Father Engarry.
Not Father Maghill; there was no way in hell he could risk losing that relationship. Father would still love him, more than likely, but with pity, and Face couldn't bear to be pitied by Father. So he'd walked into a little church that outshone its rundown neighborhood, and struck pure gold.
Father Engarry had listened, and he'd talked, asking questions honed by his experiences in his native Hungary. He'd never asked anything about Face's identity, and very slowly Face had told him everything, including the confusion and the panic. Help me, he'd said; I don't understand. I can't...
Look at what happened, Father Engarry had said, and then look deeper. Look beyond the obvious.
Father, you can't ignore the obvious. I mean, it's there--that's why it's obvious, for Christ's sake. Because it's there.
Of course this is so, Templeton. I do not say, ignore the obvious. Look at it, look at it by all means. But when it is not enough, when it does not answer your questions, then you must look further, deeper, beyond the obvious. Look at the darkness, look at it and listen...
And finally he had, had looked beyond the pain into the darkness and found there the warmth of a body pressed against his, and the sound of a ragged whimpering breath and a heartbeat racing in the blackness. And his own words: "Nothing can get you. I'll keep everything away."
And once he'd accepted that he couldn't have kept the madness away, that the world was filled with things he couldn't keep away, from either of them, he'd understood one thing more: he couldn't keep love away.
Not me, he'd insisted at first. Not me. Not him. But like Plato's philosopher-king, once he'd seen the truth that moved in the darkness and cast the shadows, he could not deny it. He loved Murdock, and he probably had for a long time.
Not that there was one damned thing that he could do about it, not with Murdock as broken as he was.
And so, having looked at it and listened to it, he'd locked it away again, deep inside, never to be looked at again.
Not, he acknowledged wryly, that he'd managed that. Not even close. But he'd never laid it on Murdock, never taken advantage of the other man's need, only met it. Only kept his promise to the best of his ability.
Until now. Until Fulbright had brought them here again, and Murdock had been hurt, again. And Face looked into the darkness, beyond the obvious, and faced truth, again: the fear that he'd lose Murdock to the madness... again. Lose all that they had gained in the past six years. Go all the way back to bottom of the pit, the darkest and deepest recesses of the cave.
He sighed. If it happened, it happened. He couldn't stop it, but he could deal with it. And he would hold onto Murdock as tightly as conscience permitted... again.
He stroked the sleeping pilot's hair once more. If Tia hadn't been there, he'd have pulled Murdock's head into his lap, physical contact always reassured the other man...
Look beyond the obvious. Listen to the sound inside the silence.
Was he scapegoating her? Was it because her father had done this to them, to Murdock? Was it because her black eyes conjured up memories he'd thought long since put down?
No. It wasn't.
He knew those eyes because he'd seen them in the mirror on too many mornings. Hannibal might believe the fairy story ending, but Face knew: when you grew up unwanted and ignored and not even a person, you grew up a self-centered, cold-blooded user. They couldn't trust her, they didn't have the luxury of the time it would take to change her, and they didn't really even want to. Oh, Hannibal thought he did, but Face figured it wouldn't take long before her little match girl charm wore thin and Hannibal's guilt thinner and it all fell apart.
Besides, with the clear sight that came from being in the dark beyond, Face knew he didn't want Hannibal to succeed. Like a cat, Tia would land on her feet, but not in Face's house, not if he had anything to say about it. She was self-centered? As they'd said back at the orphanage, it takes one to know one.
He closed his eyes, figures floating in the red darkness behind his eyelids. Clothes. A plane ticket to, say, Manhattan. A Social Security card and driver's license. A cash payment... Unless he'd misread her badly, Tia would gladly swap life on the run with a paternalistic authority figure for that.
Hannibal trusted him with their money. He'd never have to know.
As Face drifted into sleep, one last thought surfaced from beyond the obvious, dark and obscure but beyond understanding true:
Hannibal would probably never even ask why.
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