If Only
by lamardeuse







Rating: NC-17

Pairing: Face/Murdock

Author's Note: Lyrics to "Swingin' on a Star" by Van Heusen and Burke and "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix used without permission.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Thanks to the wonderful people at The Cascade Hospital, who provided most of the medical jargon for this story.  Any errors are mine.

Warnings (highlight to view):  explicit sex, graphic descriptions of characters suffering from PTSD (war-related), violence, death (minor characters)

















May 16, 1978



Templeton Peck stared into his glass of scotch and wondered what the hell he was going to do now.

He tried to concentrate on the amber liquid, and on making himself as invisible as possible. The bar was seedy enough that his fellow members at the Beverly Bay Country Club would be appalled to know he was gracing one of its stools tonight.  When he'd gotten in the Buick three hours ago and started driving, he'd had no idea of his destination.  After a while, he'd noticed he was barreling along the coast highway, and that his tank was almost empty.  He'd turned off at the next town, bought some gas and stretched his legs.  It was past seven, and the shadows were lengthening, anticipating a glorious Pacific sunset.  If he turned around right now, he'd be back at a decent hour.  Leslie would be—

He shook his head to clear it.  Leslie wasn't there.  Of course she wasn't there.  That's why he'd been driving the damn car for three hours.

Leslie had gone away for the weekend; she wouldn't tell him where.  She'd called him at the hospital, at the end of his shift.  His last shift of residency.  On Monday, he was joining one of the more prestigious clinics in Pasadena, where he would spend his career performing surgery on the rich and the influential.  It was the culmination of everything he'd ever worked for, fought for.

He raised the glass to his lips and winced at the flavour of the whiskey.  When he'd asked for a single malt, the guy had stared at him as though he'd spoken Martian.  This stuff had to be straight out of a Kentucky still.  

Taking a deep breath, he downed it in one gulp.

It wasn't supposed to work out this way.  He had a plan, and the plan had been going smoothly for the past ten years, just the way he liked it.  Control was the key to everything he'd become.  If he gave it up now—

But he hadn't counted on the fact that Leslie wouldn't go along with the plan any more.  And that he would be sitting on a bar stool in a seedy bar in a seedy coastal town, dreading the Monday to come and all the Mondays after.

He looked up at the sound of the door opening.  A shaft of angry, blood-red light stabbed into the bar, and a man followed it in.
 
Peck's gaze tried to stay impartial, clinical.  About six foot one, about his age, maybe a little older, with dark hair just starting to thin.  A nicely proportioned face, with a strong nose and not too generous mouth.  He was lean to the point of being rangy, his long limbs graceful.  He turned toward the back of the bar first, and Temp noticed a striking design on his leather jacket, an intricately painted tiger's head with some lettering above it.  His wide brown eyes scanned the room, not with aggression but something very close to it.  When his gaze settled on Templeton, the doctor was surprised to feel his pulse jump.

The man stuck out his lower lip for a moment, his eyes never leaving Peck.  Temp stared back with what he hoped was a matching intensity, then returned to his senses in a rush of self-recognition.  What the hell was he doing?

He signalled the bartender.  "Another one," he growled, suddenly angry.  Turning back to the bar, he focused on his empty glass.  

He watched the stranger out of the corner of his eye as he ambled over to the counter and took the second stool on Temp's right.  Determination suffused his body; it had served him well in the past, and would again.  Just because his carefully constructed life was coming crashing down around his ears was no excuse to—

"You come here often?"

Peck closed his eyes briefly.  Stupid, he told himself, stupid, stupid.  Then he turned his head to fall into that brown gaze again.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Bingo.

Maybe, thought Murdock, there'd be something worth looking at in this one horse town after all.  He and the guys had parted ways at the local diner; another lengthy cat-and-mouse session with the MPs had left him feeling restless and volatile, and bugging BA while he tried to stuff a hamburger in his face wasn't going to be enough to dispel it.  

No, what he needed, the big guy definitely wasn't interested in providing.  He smiled inwardly, where the beautiful specimen sitting to his left wouldn't see it.  It had been a while since he'd indulged in one of his favourite ground-based pastimes.  Gay bars weren't his scene, and the fella he'd met at the rap session at the VA had taken a job in New Jersey a couple of months ago.  There was a jazzy feel to messing with one of these ‘straight' guys, he mused, the ones who'd convinced themselves they were made for the white picket fence life.  And ruffling feathers was another of his favourite pastimes.  

He'd seen a lot of variations of that in ‘Nam; the adrenaline rush got ‘em every time, and they were hooked.  Everything had been intensified, amplified there, and there could be no hiding from what you really were.  Back in the World, though, things were easier to cover up, and camouflage was more effective.  

One look at this guy, though, and Murdock could tell he'd been stripped bare.  He could sympathize with that, having spent several years living exposed to the elements himself.  The day the doctors had released him last December had been like autorotating a dead slick; until that blade caught again, you were helpless, watching the Earth rise up to clobber you.  But with Hannibal and BA's help, he'd slowly remembered how to live and breathe and exist on land.  The man beside him had the same look on his face that the pilot had seen in the mirror last Christmas.  Only Murdock didn't think there was anybody covering his back or walking point for him.

Despite his sympathy, though, he couldn't help the smartass question that escaped his lips.  After all, the best way to a man's heart is to piss him off.

"You come here often?"

The guy closed his eyes for a second, then looked up at Murdock.  

Jesus, he thought, inadequately.

"No," the man replied. "And I'm not here now."

Murdock flashed a grin.  "What a coincidence.  Neither am I."

The guy sighed, and Murdock took a second to study him again.  The hair was impeccably styled, maybe a little out of place, as though he'd been running his hands through it.  The suit was too much; who wore a three-piece suit on a Saturday night?  He certainly was from out of town, maybe even LA, because he had more class than this whole place put together.  Some kind of professional, obviously; so why was he wound up?  A stock deal gone bad?  A patient suing him for a messed-up nose job?

And why did Murdock keep trying to get inside this guy's head when all he wanted was a way inside his pants?

"Look," the professional was saying, his voice low, "I, ah, I just came in for a drink."  There was a note of pleading in the words, and something in Murdock's gut twisted.  How pathetic was he, trying to pick at this poor bastard like some kind of horny vulture?

"Yeah," he muttered.  "So did I."  Nodding to the bartender, he ordered a Bud.  When it came, he chugged about a third of it before setting it down.

They both turned to each other in the same instant.

"Sorry, I—"

"Listen, I didn't—"

They trailed off, stared, then cracked up.  Murdock liked the guy's laugh; it revealed him to be younger than the suit implied.  "Listen, why don't I rewind the tape here?"  He stuck out his hand.  "H.M. Murdock."

The guy hesitated for only a split second.  "Templeton Peck."

"Doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief?"

He looked a little sheepish, and that made him appear younger still.  "Doctor.  I start in private practice Monday."

"Well, hell, that's somethin' to celebrate."  He held up his glass.  "To Doctor Templeton Peck."

The kid—he had to be about thirty, but somehow he had been transformed—looked away, then back, then raised his glass.  "Yeah.  To Doctor Templeton Peck.  Long may he wave."  Murdock clinked his stein with the shot glass, lightly.

"You gettin' drunk to celebrate?"

Peck shook his head.  "I'm not getting drunk.  I have to drive back to Los Angeles tonight."

"When you get here?"

He studied his watch.  "Thirty-three minutes ago."

"The town that exciting, huh?"  The bartender narrowed his eyes, but Murdock ignored him.  "Why did you come, then?"

Peck raised his eyes to him then, and the look in them was raw, bleeding.

"Fate," the kid told him.

Murdock remembered to breathe after about a minute.  "Let's get drunk," he said.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"She wants a baby."

Murdock's warm brown gaze, unsettling and comforting at the same time, didn't waver.  He took another swig from the bottle of whiskey he'd bought off of the bartender, then passed it back to Peck.  Temp had noticed the other man wasn't drinking as much as he pretended to be, but he was way past caring why.

A momentary flash of panic burst behind his eyeballs.  You know why, idiot. He wants to have his wicked way with you. Get you drunk and fuck your brains out.

He met Murdock's gaze again.  No.  He couldn't say why, but no.  Peck had always been an excellent judge of character, from the time he'd been in the orphanage until now, when understanding what made people tick mentally as well as physically made him a better doctor than most.  He'd only known this man for a couple of hours, most of which had been spent talking about himself, but he was certain Murdock would never hurt him.

He almost laughed at the corny thought.  Never was a damned long time.  Never say never.

"I take it the feeling isn't mutual."

"No, I want kids.  Eventually."  It was the answer he'd given for a long time now, like a prerecorded message on an answering machine.  His gaze wandered over the room, seeking distractions.  His gaze wandered over the room, seeking distractions.  The motel room he'd rented for the night was serviceable, clean at least.  The bedside lamp lent an orangish glow to the room, its weak bulb hiding a multitude of decorating sins.  The tall man sat folded in one of them, a purple chair which resembled a sagging, oversized plum.  Murdock had stopped in at the diner across the street on their way here, engaging in a brief exchange with two men, one silver-haired, handsome, hawklike, the other huge, black and fierce.  Together, they looked like members of an odd tribe, different but similar.  And for an even odder moment, he yearned to be one of them.

"What did you tell her when you married her?"

Peck was brought up short by that.  He wasn't the only one in the room who knew people.  "I told her we'd have kids when I finished my residency."

"Which finished yesterday."

"Yeah."  He ran a hand through his hair.  He'd never talked to anyone about this, not even his priest.  "I, ah, well, like I told you, we're practicing Catholics.  Leslie is, especially.  When I convinced her to go on the Pill, well, it doesn't seem like a big deal to most people, but..."  He trailed off, the weight of his guilt heavy on his lungs.

Murdock's voice was soft.  "I understand."

"She did it for me, for us, because we couldn't afford a baby, at least I thought we couldn't, but I knew it took something out of her to do it.  She got even further away after that."  He took another drink, shook his head.  "That was one of the things I loved about her, y'know?  That air of mystery, the sense that she was keeping a secret.  But after we got married, I realized it wasn't something she was ever going to tell me, because it was something she was missing."  He took a deep breath, let it out. "Something I wasn't going to be able to give her."

He looked over at Murdock, who was staring at the lamp, his pupils shrunk to small points.  "Everybody's missing pieces, Doc.  We just hafta find the path that leads to 'em, then bend
down and pick 'em up, like pennies in the parking lot."

Peck snorted.  "That simple, huh?"

Murdock speared him with a look.  "No.  It isn't."

Temp inspected the bottle—about halfway there—and tipped it to his lips for a particularly long swallow.  "The, ah, the thing is, I spent the last ten years telling myself I wanted the home, the wife, the kids, the job, the country club, the Mercedes, all of it."  He shook his head.  "Ten years?  Hell, longer than that.  I remember when I was a kid, maybe seven or eight, they took us to movies with rich, beautiful people who lived in big houses and smiled all the time, and I thought, this is where I was supposed to end up.  Not stacked like a fucking sardine in a room with nineteen other kids who cry in their sleep.  And now that it's all within reach, I don't even know if I want it any more."

Murdock didn't comment, and Peck snorted.  The booze was starting to suffuse his limbs with a pleasant numbness.  "It's a big joke, y'know?  The guys from my graduating class who work the ER with me, they all joke about it.   They laugh about the gunshot wounds, the knife wounds, the babies born addicted to heroin, the old men who come in with food poisoning from eating out of a dumpster.  I suppose it's a way to get through it.  They're falling over each other to get out of the place, start their cushy practices.  I should be too.  So how come I'm not?  How come I hate the thought of leaving?"

The other man's eyes sparked.  "I know somebody who's got a theory 'bout that.  Maybe I'll tell it to you sometime."

"Where'd you get that jacket?" Temp asked, annoyed to hear his voice pitched barely above a whisper.

"This?"  Murdock lifted it off the dresser where he'd dropped it. He tossed it to Peck, who put down the bottle just in time and caught it awkwardly.

Temp turned it over in his hands.  The leather was worn, cracking in a couple of places.  He trailed his fingers over the tiger's head.  "Danang," he breathed, as though the word had the power to conjure.  "Vietnam."  He lifted his head, understanding.  "That's where you three are from."  Stupid.  Of course they weren't from Vietnam.  "I mean—"

"I know.  You're right, though.  We're from there, in more ways than one."

"I never went."  Stupid again.

Murdock shrugged.  "Lots of people didn't.  You're better off."

"I thought about going over, once.  As a medic.  But I told myself...."  He trailed off.  "I can't remember, now.  Something selfish, I suppose."

"You Catholics like to beat yourselves up, don't ya?"  He reached for the bottle, snagging it from the table.  Peck watched his long fingers wrap around the clear glass.

"Self-flagellation will get you a sure ticket to Heaven," Temp opined. Yup, he was drunk, all right.  He loosened his tie and slid it off, then started unbuttoning his vest.

"You gettin' ready for bed?"  The question was casual, but something in the way he spoke the word 'bed' send a thrill down the back of Temp's neck.  He didn't answer, just kept undoing buttons.  There were a lot of them.

He felt—dangerous.  He hadn't felt dangerous since he was sixteen and beat the crap out of the orphanage's biggest bully. The kids had cheered him on; he had been a fucking hero.

Last week, he'd brought a seven-year old back to life after she'd been caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad.  Her mother had hugged him until he'd started crying, too.

"Are you a hero?" Peck demanded.

The brown gaze warmed him from head to toe, exposing him, understanding him, scaring the hell out of him.   "That's what they told me," Murdock replied, finally.

"Do you believe it?"

The other man stood, unfolding himself from the chair, and crossed the few feet to where Peck sat cross-legged on the bed.  The lamp's light spilled upwards, casting his features into sharp relief.

Slowly, slowly, he descended, knees bending, until they were eye to eye.  His long-fingered hands rested on the edge of the mattress, inches from Temp's legs.  A muscle in Peck's thigh twitched.

"I need to know if you believe it," murmured Temp, urgently.

"Why?"

The last button came free and Peck leaned sideways, falling into warmth.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Oh.

He'd imagined kissing him would be good.  But the gap between imagination and reality was as wide as the Grand Canyon.

The first touch of his lips was a tentative pressure that increased slowly, then abruptly disappeared.  Murdock figured that was it, experiment finished, because it was pretty damn clear this altar boy had never had another woman besides his wife, let alone—

And then strong hands cupped his face and the mouth returned to devour him alive.

Peck kissed like an angel, his lips brushing, gliding, tugging, suckling in a perfect, maddening rhythm, and then the tip of his tongue pleaded for entry, and Murdock was lost.  Their mouths opened together, on a shared groan, and the pilot plunged his hands into the soft blond hair he'd been dying to touch for hours.  His fingers spread across the back of Peck's skull, exerting the lightest pressure, not to trap him, only to envelop him.

The good doctor's hands moved to his chest, then descended toward his waistband, grabbing fistfuls of t-shirt and pulling upwards in a jerky motion.  Murdock felt cool air caress his belly, then warm fingers.

Warm, trembling fingers.

"Whoa, muchacho," murmured Murdock, disentangling himself with great difficulty.  Peck's arms dropped bonelessly and he sat there, eyes closed, hair mussed, lips swollen and red.  It would've been Murdock's wildest erotic fantasy, except for the fact the kid was shaking, terrified out of his socks.

"I thought y-you—" he stammered, eyes still screwed shut.

"Oh, hell yeah," Murdock agreed fervently.  "I do.  Somethin' awful.  But this is wrong, wrong, wrong."

The eyes, blue as the water at Cam Ranh Bay, opened to study him.  The fear was there, along with barely admitted desire, and desperation, and loneliness.

"I know it's wrong," he growled.  "But who cares?  You're here, I'm here, I'm going to hell anyway."

"So you might as well fuck the skinny guy, add sodomy to your list of big-ass sins?  Thanks a whole lot," Murdock laughed.  "You won't get a lot of action with that line, I'm tellin' you right now."

"I'm sorry," Peck whispered, his face suddenly crumpling.  Murdock watched, startled, as the other man broke down in front of him, his whole body shuddering while silent tears tracked their way down his cheeks.

Shit, thought Murdock.  Always did have a soft spot for strays.  Must be some kinda radar I have, sniffs ‘em out.

"Shove over," he muttered, perching on the edge of the bed and bumping Peck with his hip.

"I don't need—" the other man began, his limbs stiffening, though he complied with the order.

"Like hell," Murdock returned, throwing an arm around the other man's shoulders.  "I was six and a half years in a VA psych ward, Doc.  I know the signs.  Shut up."

It took a few minutes, but Peck relaxed against him, his head finally resting on his shoulder.  Gradually, his breathing became more even.  Murdock reached up to stroke his hair.

"I am sorry, you know," Peck told him after a while.  "This isn't anything like what you wanted."

"Yeah, well, this ain't half bad," Murdock mused.  "I mean, meeting the most beautiful guy you've ever laid eyes on, gettin' yourself invited back to his hotel room, then drinkin' whiskey nastier'n cat piss, hearin' about his perfect, beautiful wife and having him cry all over your t-shirt.  I'm comin' to this town for all my vacations."

Peck barked a laugh.  "You're crazy."

"That's not what the paper says.  But you ‘n me ‘n BA, we know different, don't we?"

The other man sat up self-consciously, wiping at his eyes.  Murdock watched him try to put the mask back in place.  He was good at hiding, and soon the fact he'd slipped up in front of a complete stranger would rankle.

"I should get goin'."  He swung his legs off the mattress and stood.  Peck followed him, joining him on the same side of the bed.  Stepped close so that they were toe to toe, chests barely a heartbeat apart. Murdock absorbed his warmth, his breathing shallow.

"You don't have to," Peck told him, confident, meeting his gaze.

The pit of Murdock's stomach gave way.  It was the last thing he'd been expecting to hear.  This guy had guts, and he liked the edge more than he wanted to admit, to himself or anyone.  Murdock could teach him to love the edge.

Slowly, he reached up to trace a finger along that flawless jawline.

Peck closed his eyes.

"Yeah," Murdock replied, "I do."

Peck's eyes snapped open.

"Go make up with your perfect, beautiful wife.  She'd have to be crazier'n I am not to take you back."

The clear blue eyes searched his face for a long moment.  Then Peck nodded, slowly, and stepped back, and Murdock felt the loss of something he'd never have.  The doc bent down, then picked the leather jacket up off the mattress and handed it over.

"Thanks for answering my questions," he said, when Murdock took it from him.

"Which ones were those?"

"I asked whether you were a hero, and if you believed you were one."

"And?"

"You don't believe it."

"Bingo."  Murdock slipped on the jacket.  Nights were cool along the coast.  He smiled, turned to go, but was stopped by a hand on his arm.

God.  Didn't he know that the longer he stayed, the harder it was to leave?

Yeah.  He probably did.

"Well, you're wrong," Peck murmured, leaning in close.  "Because you were mine, tonight."

"Oh, Christ," Murdock moaned, pulling the other man in for a hard, bruising kiss.   His hands roamed of their own volition, memorizing planes and angles and soft, soft blond hair.

Ten seconds later, he was outside, breathing heavily in the cold, salty night.  He started walking, and didn't look back.











November 16, 1978


"No!  Don't take him!  Don't take him!"

Rudy Kowalchuk filled his arms with the screaming woman, holding her up, holding her back.  

He hated doing that.  He wanted to turn her loose like a Fury on the animals who descended on the village.  But then there would be even more people dead.

The bastard in front of them laid a possessive hand on little Antonio's shoulder.  "You have raised him well, Señora," he crooned in silken Spanish.  "He is strong.  He will make good money for your family in the mine."

"You have enough of our children already," one of the old men shouted from the crowd.  Rudy cast a glance at him.  Ten years of bloodshed had destroyed a generation of  young men.  It was a village of widows, children and the elderly, like a hundred other villages in these mountains.  The people were battered by pain and loss, but still, some of them had fight left in them.  

Some of them, but not nearly as many as they needed.  He looked over at Ortega, who stood in the doorway of his shack, observing the proceedings, but not participating.  Stood there like a spectre, haunting them all with the reminders of broken promises for a better future.  The Communists, the military, everyone had failed these people, drawn their brothers and husbands and sons into wars that hadn't led anywhere but to another grave.  He couldn't blame people like Ortega for giving up.  For wanting to be left alone to exist for as long as they could.

But was that living?  The woman trembling with rage in his arms didn't think so.

And then the chief python stepped forward.  Ramirez.  His malevolent gaze slithered over the villagers, and gradually silence descended.   His close ties to the current regime's secret police earned him a respect which barely managed to cover the seething hatred of the villagers.

"Our operation is expanding," he told them.  "This will mean jobs for San Pedro.  Food on your tables."

"But at what cost?" the old man returned.  He flung a withered arm in the direction of the community centre.  "There are a dozen of our boys with broken bones and worse, lying in beds, with no one to treat them.  And last week Ramòn—"

There was a sob from Ramòn's mother, standing a few feet away.   The woman Rudy was holding shrugged him off and went to console her.  

Lady of our Consolation, Rudy thought.  He'd seen three years of this.  Memories came flooding back; almost completely submerged in a rice paddy, watching the women screaming over their dead kids lying in the road.  They could scream for hours.  

They were still screaming.

"And what about you, Saint Gringo?"  Ramirez drawled, coming closer.

Rudy remembered twisting the neck of a guy who got too close.  

"Do you want to fight me too?"

Rudy said nothing.  Just smiled, slowly letting it build, the way he'd seen a man do many years ago.  A smile that said, you are about to be in the shit.  But you'll never see it coming.

Not until your nose is right in it.











November 20, 1978


"Come on, come on!" he growled through gritted teeth as the bird descended.

One skid, then the other hit the roof, gentle but fast.  He ran toward the chopper, ducking down to avoid the deadly swish of the rotors.   

Had they made it in time?

The door opened and one of the paramedics jumped to the ground, turning swiftly to his charge.  Templeton Peck reached him an instant later.  He bent over, studying the unmoving form on the stretcher.

"We've got her stabilized!" yelled the other man.  "But we need to get her into OR, NOW!"  Moving as a team, he and Peck pulled the stretcher out, then held it as the other medic secured the wheel assembly that unfolded from the bottom.  They headed for the rooftop door and the elevator which would take them directly to Emergency.

Temp looked down at the girl—woman—whose life was now in his hands.  She had been stabbed repeatedly in the face and torso by her husband.  She had lost a great deal of blood.  
She no longer resembled a human being.

He checked her vitals as they descended.  Wondered, for a split second, if she had been pretty.  If she would ever be pretty again.

If anything like that even mattered anymore.

The doors opened, and the doctor sped toward the OR, issuing orders as he went.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock both hated and loved it when Hannibal was right.

Today, though, it was mainly hate.  "You know I'm right, Captain," he'd said, in the Tone of Command.  And he was.  But Murdock still hated it.

Okay, it wouldn't be all bad.  He'd get to see that beautiful kid again.  But he didn't want to admit he'd been thinking about him all these months, like a puppy, standing outside in the rain, yearning for the warm fireplace he could see through the window.  Peck had been that, all right, and Murdock was at a loss to explain why a man he knew for a handful of hours should feel so very much like home.  

The hell you don't, he told himself.  You spent such a long time gettin' yourself taken care of, it felt good to be on the givin' end for a change.  Made you feel like you got a connection to somethin'.

Not that he didn't have connections; the guys had kept him alive, literally, when he didn't care one way or the other.  BA showed it in his usual gruff way, Hannibal was more open about it, but he knew they both cared about him, would lay their lives on the line for him.  And it wasn't one-sided; he'd do the same for them, anytime, anywhere.  Had even told the shrinks all the crap they wanted to hear because he knew they needed him more on the outside than on the inside.  After all, there were only two of ‘em, and a fella who could pretend to be just about anybody came in handy.  Sure, there were times he wondered if that had been the smartest thing to do, but it was the right thing.  End of story.  Only guys who'd been through a war or something similar could pass judgment on their choices, made through the years, under all kinds of circumstances, good, bad and ugly.

He didn't like the choice he'd made five minutes ago, though, and he figured he was qualified to criticize himself.  When Hannibal had told them about the latest job, he should've kept his mouth shut.  But there were kids.  And they needed a doctor.  They knew a couple of good ones, vets, but they were either on jobs just as urgent or, well, Dutch had been diagnosed with leukemia last month.  Agent Orange?  Naw, hell, ain't no such thing.

So when Hannibal had asked if anybody knew of a doctor who might be willing to go to Central America, Murdock had felt his hand go up like the brown-nosed teacher's pet.

"How do you know we can trust him?"  Hannibal had asked.

A fair question, but one he had no way of answering.  "I—I don't.  But he's a surgeon, and a good one.  He works the emergency at City of Angels."  

Okay, so maybe he'd checked up on him.  To see how he was making out.  Didn't mean anything.

"How long have you known him?"

"I met him a few months ago."

Hannibal's eyes narrowed, and Murdock squirmed.  "When?"

"Uh, back during the Bakersfield job."

BA's brows knit.  "Didn't meet no doctors on the Bakersfield job, fool."

Murdock began counting backwards from one hundred.  He didn't even make it to ninety-seven.

"Well, you and I didn't, BA," Hannibal chimed in archly.

There was another beat.  "Oh, man."  BA sighed heavily.  "Jus' because you had him bent over a chair, don't mean we can trust him with our lives, crazyman."

"It wasn't like that!" Murdock exploded, surprised to find himself on his feet, looming over the big man.  "Nothin'—oh, Christ.  You don' wanna know, and it ain't none of your business anyway."

I asked whether you were a hero, and if you believed you were one.

He shook his head forcefully, to clear the image.  "Look, forget it, just forget it.  It wouldn't be right, anyway, to ask him."

A heavy hand came down on his shoulder.  "Murdock."

He turned away from angry brown eyes to face understanding blue ones.

"Go with your gut on this one.  What's it telling you?"

Murdock took a deep breath, let it out. "That's not it.  I should never have—the thing is, I just remembered, he figures he owes me.  Don't ask me why; it isn't important.  But this is some dangerous shit, Colonel.  And I don't want to be responsible for anybody bein' where they aren't supposed to be."

"Why did you come, then?"

Peck raised his eyes to him then, and the look in them was raw, bleeding.

"Fate," the kid told him.—

"That's all right, then," Hannibal replied.  "Because the responsibility's just been taken out of your hands."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


When he let himself into his apartment, he didn't even bother turning on the lights.

It wasn't the most luxurious one he could afford, but it had a damned nice view, twenty stories above the street.  Despite the fact that the job at City of Angels wasn't nearly as well-paid as the one he would have had in private practice, the salary was still more than enough for one person to live in comfort. Leslie had refused to let him support her when she left, even though he argued that he made more money than she did as a social worker.  She'd never cared about money, and he'd always thought he'd never have enough.  Slowly, so slowly he didn't realize it was happening, she'd taught him to care more about what he couldn't see, and touch, and wrap his fingers around.  He was grateful to her for that; he was grateful for all the things he'd learned by listening to her pure, straightforward wisdom.

The last thing she'd told him was to follow his heart.  And he had listened to that too.

Kicking off his shoes, he padded over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the bay.  Well, there were a few buildings in the way of a really good view of the water, but technically it was a water view.  There, between those two towers, gleaming in the city's artificial glow, there, right there. A sliver of what might be the Pacific.

He smiled to himself.  There you go, caring about those things you can't see.

Tired muscles creaked as he walked over to the couch and collapsed, full length.  He'd been negligent; it had been a week since he'd last been to Gold's.  He was just so tired at the end of these long nights, but that was no excuse.  The runs before his shift weren't enough.  He was going to be thirty-one next month; he couldn't keep taking his body for granted.

He reached behind his head, fingers closing around the small wooden box on the end table.  Lifting it, he opened the lid and took out a Corona.  It was a filthy habit; as a doctor, he should have been ashamed of himself.  But a good cigar every once in a while was a necessity, calming him in a way nothing else ever did.   He cast a glance at the coffee table, looking for—

The lighter kissed the dark air, igniting a foot from his nose.

"Lookin' for this?"

"Jszush!"  Peck exclaimed around the cigar, as he tried to scramble backwards over the arm of the sofa.

White light flooded the room, and Temp squinted.  "What the—"

"Hannibal, you always gotta get dramatic."  He jerked toward the sound of a gruff voice from the corner, which seemed to be owned by a large black man who enjoyed wearing large amounts of gold.  Swivelling back toward his assailant, he beheld a silver-haired, hawklike, handsome man, grinning around a now-lit Corona.

"Hope you don't mind.  I was out," he said, around the cigar.  "I'll pay you back sometime."

Temp vaulted off the couch and stood there, mute, while his stockinged feet sank into the deep pile.  He took out the cigar, crushed it in his fist to steady himself.  Finally, he croaked, "You—I remember you."  His brain was misfiring.  Where, where, where?

He spun toward the other corner, where a tall, lanky figure was emerging from the shadows of his kitchen.

Murdock.

His breathing started to even out.  Pulse rate slowed.

"Hi, muchacho," smiled the other man, his eyes concerned.  At least he thought they looked concerned.  

Focus.  Focus.

"Sorry to scare you," the silver-haired man drawled, sounding not the least bit sorry, "but we can't exactly walk up to people in broad daylight and start chatting."

He raised his eyebrows, trying to appear nonchalant.  This was a difficult look to achieve while holding a mangled Corona in your hand.  "No, I don't suppose you can.  You are wanted by the Army, aren't you?"

The older man flicked a glance at Murdock, who gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.

"You're the A-Team."

"I'm Hannibal Smith, and this is BA Baracus," the man offered.  He didn't bother to introduce Murdock.  For an instant, he wondered how much they knew.

What was there to know?  His one brief foray into the world of forbidden lust had been a disaster from start to finish.  He'd cried all over the poor man.  Had they laughed about that afterward, with crude comments and jokes?

He met the warm brown gaze.  He'd thought it held concern, but that wasn't all there was in it. There was an apology, and a veiled, cautious kind of happiness, and...

Oh.

No.  They hadn't laughed about it.

Temp extended his hand.  "Templeton Peck."  Strong fingers closed around his; the handshake was firm without being bruising, not out to prove anything.  The other man didn't step forward, so Peck nodded to him.  "What can I do for you gentlemen?"

"I don't know how much you know about the kinds of jobs we do," Smith began.

"There was an editorial in the Times a few weeks ago, criticizing vigilantes.  It named you in passing."  He smiled.  "I remember the volume of mail they received was—impressive."

"We love to hear from our fans," Murdock intoned, in a mock upper-crust accent.

"One letter stuck in my head."  Hell, he'd cut it out and stuck it in a drawer in his desk, but they didn't need to know that.  "A woman wrote about how you'd saved her son from a gang preying on local kids, shipping them to other cities to work as drug dealers and prostitutes.  She said she owed you her life."

"A lot of people could say the same about you," Smith returned.  

"That's my job," Peck answered.

"Yeah.  Beats gall bladder surgery on rich, blue-haired ladies, doesn't it?  Or did you take the job in ER because you love hospital cafeteria food?"

Temp's eyes narrowed.  "Cut to the chase."

"We need a doctor," the older man told him.  "An old Greenie buddy of ours has gotten himself in a little trouble down in Central America, and we need to go give him a hand."  Smith paused, blew smoke.  "He'd been working down there with the local folks—he became a missionary after he left the service—and he was doing fine, until one of the slimeballs who calls himself a businessman decided to recruit some of the village children to work for him."

"Why do you need a doctor for that?"

"Because the kids are dyin'."  Temp sucked in a breath at Murdock's soft words.  "He's set up a mine, carved into the side of the mountain, and he's got ‘em workin' for him.  Pays ‘em slave wages and doesn't bother with safety standards, but the villagers don' wanna cross him because he's got the backing of the government."

"The kids are gettin' hurt in the mine, and they ain't enough doctors in that part of the country to treat ‘em," Baracus rumbled.  "Things is gettin' bad.  One of the little fellas died las' week, ‘cuz they couldn't get him down the mountain to the hospital fast enough, an' Rudy called us."

Peck shook his head, confused.  "This sounds like a long-term problem.  I don't understand; how long are you expecting to be down there?"

Smith shrugged.  "A week, two, tops."

"But those children will need medical care as long as the mine stays open."

The silver-haired man grinned.  "Like I said, a week, two tops."  He took a puff on the Corona, let it out.  "Listen, Doc, you don't need to worry about the particulars.  But that mine, and that mine owner, are going to meet with an accident while we're down there, and it won't be working again anytime soon."

"An' neither will he!" seconded Baracus.

"But there are also some kids down there who need the services of a good doctor, yesterday.  I'm not going to play the violin for you, but it's pretty desperate, and Murdock figures you're the man for the job."  He paused, his ice-blue gaze making Peck feel exposed.  "And that's good enough for me.

"But I'm not going to lie to you, either.  This isn't going to be a walk in the park.  These guys mean business, and people could get caught in the crossfire, though we're going to do our damndest to prevent that from happening.  And if it were ever learned you were associated with us, it could have serious repercussions for you, both professionally and personally."

Peck wanted to laugh at that last.  Personal repercussions.  He'd had nothing but personal repercussions in the last few months.  It wasn't as though a couple of kisses shared with another man in a crappy hotel room had destroyed his marriage, but they had been the final nails in its coffin.  He couldn't keep on pretending that he was happy with the way things were.  And when he and Leslie finally sat down together and talked, he found out that neither could she.

He told himself it was better for both of them.  But it still felt like failure.  A huge, ugly failure, when he'd turned his back on failure a long, long time ago.

Murdock was watching him, he could feel it.  He looked at each of them in turn, remembered the night he'd seen them in the diner.  He could tell right then that they weren't ordinary acquaintances or friends.  And Green Berets; even this long after the end of the war, the words were still ones to conjure by.  Men who would die for one another without a moment's hesitation.  Each one of them belonging to the other, owning each other's lives, and being owned in turn.  He'd never belonged to anyone like that, not even his wife.  He'd always held some part of himself back, just as she had.

He met Murdock's gaze, searching for something he didn't know how to find.  And then he heard himself speak.

"I'll do it."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock hefted another crate of explosives off the tarmac and thought, if I survive this, I can survive anything.  

He walked past Peck as he bent over a similar crate, the material of his jeans stretching tight across his ass.  

There was only so much nobility a guy could exhibit.  So he looked.

The doc had shown up at the crack of dawn this morning, fresh as the proverbial daisy, and with enough medical supplies to choke a horse.  No one had bothered to ask how he'd managed to get his hands on so much with so little notice.  When all the stuff had been unloaded from his car, Hannibal, standing in the middle of it all, had nodded, twice, and said, "Nice."  The kid had beamed like a lighthouse.

He'd fallen in with them effortlessly; a man who was used to putting on masks could assume any identity he wanted.  What interested Murdock was why he wanted this particular identity.  And if he took it on, would he hate himself for it?

A shaft of pain lanced through his skull.  Too much heavy thinkin', too early in the morning.  Concentrate on the view.

Peck had shed the three-piece suit in favour of a faded jean jacket and a t-shirt that looked painted on.  In the unseasonably warm air, he'd removed the jacket early on, and once again Murdock found that reality exceeded imagination.  The pilot nearly groaned as he observed the play of lean muscle under the sinfully thin cloth.  This guy worked out, and how.  Not just aerobically, prancing along the beach like the other rich boys, but with weights, enough to give him power without excess bulk.  Something in his life had convinced him he needed that.

Or maybe he was put on this earth to torture me, he told himself.  Ever think of that?

He sighed, climbed the steps and maneuvered the crate into the plane.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock wasn't happy he was coming on this trip.

That much was obvious.  He'd barely spoken two words to him since Temp had shown up at the airstrip.   But he was definitely not indifferent to his presence, as the covert glances the other man sent him proved.  Brief glances, but ones that heated his skin where they alighted.  Peck wasn't entirely sure why he'd worn these clothes today; he'd debated over it for several minutes before packing a small bag with essentials.  What did one wear to a small Central American dictatorship in November?  Could you waive the rule about no whites after Labour Day?  He finally opted for denim, figuring it would withstand wear and tear better than polyester or wool.  But the shirt was not so easily explained.  He supposed, if he wanted to be honest with himself, that it had been chosen to show them he was up to the job.

Unfortunately, he had no idea if this were true.

He lifted the crate with ease, pleased with his body's response; so far, he was doing his share, keeping up with men in top physical condition.  He hoped he'd be able to do the same in the mountainous jungles which lay ahead.   When he reached the door of the aircraft, Baracus plucked the crate from his hands as though it were made of tissue paper.  Temp clambered up the short steps, ducking his head as he went and trying not to laugh out loud at his own arrogance.  

The aircraft was a twin-engine prop, about twenty years old, but in good condition.  He'd only realized shortly after arriving that Murdock would be their pilot.  The tall, long-limbed man was crawling over the airframe when he pulled up, disappearing inside the wells of the landing gear, inspecting the cowlings and air intakes, climbing onto the wings.  It occurred to Temp that while Murdock was now privy to some of his deepest, darkest secrets, Peck knew next to nothing about him.  He'd mentioned being in a psych ward, he assumed as a result of his time in Vietnam.   It wouldn't be right to ask either of the others about it.  Doubtless they were living with their own demons.

Once the cargo was secured, Smith moved to pull up the stairs and secure the cabin door.  He took a seat across from Baracus, which left Temp no choice but to sit beside the huge man.

Murdock poked his head through the cockpit doorway.  "Five minutes, guys.  Then she's hittin' the big blue."  He cast an eye at Baracus.  "You OK, man?"

"Why wouln' I be?" snapped the other.

"Sure, sure, big fella."  Murdock disappeared directly after the softly-voiced comment, leaving the three men in silence.

Trying not to turn his head, Peck eased his eyes over slowly.  The first thing he noticed were Baracus' large brown hands, which were gripping his own knees so hard he thought the patellae might break.  Temp didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.

"How much sleep you get in the last thirty-six hours?" asked Smith.

Temp looked up, belatedly realizing he was the one being addressed.  "Uh, not much.  A couple of hours."  Truth be told, he'd been on his feet since they left his apartment the night before last, making arrangements for a replacement, and using some of his more disreputable talents to secure the supplies he'd brought with him this morning.  He'd also spent a considerable amount of time vibrating from a constant adrenaline high, but Smith didn't need to know that.

"Uh hunh," Smith drawled.  "Well, get a few hours' worth now.  We'll be refueling in Mazatlán, and  I'll wake you then.  I want to go through a few procedures with you."

Procedures.  Dear God.  Did the man really think he'd be able to sleep now?   "Sure."  He tilted back the seat and closed his eyes, trying to imagine himself in his bed and not on a small plane about to begin the craziest chapter of his life.

Murdock's voice, smooth as silk, interrupted his thoughts as it was carried to them via intercom.  "Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin our preflight routine.  Please ensure that your seatbelts are securely fastened, and that all stewardesses have been returned to their upright positions."  The powerful engines uttered a harsh thunk-and-whine as they turned over, and then unleashed a full-throated roar.  

He didn't know he'd dozed off until he awoke with a start when the ground dropped out from under him.  Momentarily disoriented, he squinted out the window of the plane to see America receding beneath him.  For a chilling instant, he wondered if he'd ever see it again.  Is that what they'd wondered, he mused, when they'd boarded the airliner for Southeast Asia?

He jumped when a joyous yell rent the air.   Beside him, Baracus huffed.  

"Crazyman's back in the sky," he muttered, and then Temp felt the darkness reach up to claim him once more.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Warm hands, warm heart.

That's what Sister Agnes had told him, when his class had gone on a field trip to Big Sur and he'd gotten to see snow for the first time.  He'd come in from making snowballs, the wool mittens soaked through from hours of scooping and shaping, and she'd plucked them off, afraid he'd been frostbitten.

"Sister, I'm fine," he'd chirped, voice reed-thin.  How old had he been?  Seven?  Eight?  He'd squeezed her fingers when she tried to inspect his hands for signs of the dreaded blueness.  "See, they're not even cold."

She'd said it then, and he'd been confused, because he'd read somewhere that the saying was different.  She'd answered that she meant he had been given a special gift.  Those hands would be used to heal, she smiled down at him, to heal the lame and the sick.

Right now, those hands were holding a rifle.

"This is a Ruger Mini-14," Smith informed him.  "It's one of the weapons in our arsenal, and we each carry one.  I'm just going to issue you a shotgun, because I know you don't have a lot of experience.  I'll go over that next.  But you should know how to use this one as well, in case one of us is unable to use ours."

"In other words, if one of you is shot."

Smith shook his head, chomped on his unlit cigar.  "Nah.  I mean if one of us is dead.  We can still fire it if we're shot."

Temp wrapped his hands cautiously around the weapon.  It chilled his skin.  "Are you expecting me to use one of these on another person?"

"I'm expecting you to do whatever you have to do to defend yourself, and the kids in your charge.  Because you have to understand, right now, that at some point you may be the only thing standing between them and some bastard who wants to hurt them.  When this is all over, a few of them, and their parents, are planning to testify to what's happened up on that mountain.  If Ramirez finds out about that beforehand, their lives are going to be in danger."  He pinned Peck with a gaze of steel.  "You took an oath.  I know that.  You have to choose between a rock and a hard place."

He took a breath, let it out.  "I'm going to need a few minutes to think about this."

"Sure, kid," Smith agreed amiably, patting his knee.  "Take all the time you need."  He rose from the chair and went out to join Murdock on the runway.

From the tail of the plane, Baracus emerged, having finished his task of checking on the cargo.  He moved to follow his commander, but before he could leave, Temp spoke his name.

"Yeah?"  Baracus asked, turning toward him.

"Can I, ah, talk to you for a second?"  He wasn't sure what the hell he was doing, but he knew he had to do something.  The rifle sat in his lap like a stone.

"I s'pose," the big man grunted, taking the chair opposite Peck.

Temp took a moment to marshal his thoughts.  "Listen, I don't mean to pry.  Just remember that I'm a doctor, and as such it's my job to..."  He trailed off, shook his head.  "Is there anything I can do for you?" he finally asked.  Please, he pleaded silently.  Let me do something I know how to do.

"What you gonna do for me?" Baracus demanded.

"I have sedatives.  They might make things easier."

Powerful jaw muscles clenched.  "Murdock tell you?"

No.  Your fear of flying was as difficult to miss as an H-bomb going off inside the cabin.  "I—can't say.  Confidentiality, you know."

Baracus nodded slowly.  His gaze strayed to the rifle.  "Hannibal been givin' you lessons, huh?"

"Not yet."

"Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do," the other man opined.  "You know what I'm sayin'?"

Wonderful, Peck sighed inwardly.  Philosophy 101.  "Yeah.  That's one way to look at it."

"Ain't no other way to look at it," he snapped.  "You think it's all ‘bout fancy ideals an' pieces of paper wit' yo' name on it.  Well, it ain't.  It's about livin' in this world in a way that lets you hold yo' head up.  That lets you do what's right by other folks, ‘cuz when it's all said an' done that's the only thing worth gettin' up for."  

Temp stared at the huge man, nearly forgetting to breathe.

"Crazyman's still crazy," Baracus continued.  "You wouldn't know it to look at him, on account of he's hidin' it pretty good.  He knew he wasn't ready to leave the hospital, but he did, ‘cuz he knew we needed him on the outside.  Nobody asked him, nobody talked to him ‘bout it.  But he also knew if we didn't have his help, one of us was gonna end up dead soon enough."  His gaze swept over the cabin as it might over the walls of a prison cell.  "So I get on the plane, even though I wanna jump out the side soon's the engines start up.  ‘Cuz he's doin' for us.  An' now I gotta do for us.  Simple as that."

"How?"  Peck demanded, suddenly angry, with Baracus, with all of them, with himself.  "How do you all make it so damned simple?"

"‘Cuz it is," Baracus growled, lifting himself from the seat and leaving Temp to his own churning thoughts.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"We may have to leave him here."

Murdock turned away from the guys refueling the plane to face his CO.  "Strand him in Mexico?"

"In Mazatlán, Captain; stranding doesn't get much nicer than this.  We can pick him up on the way back."  He chewed on the end of his cigar, probably annoyed he couldn't light up with all the av gas around.  "He looks like he needs a vacation anyway."

"He wants to go," Murdock countered.  Wait a minute.  This was what he'd been wanting to hear.  Wasn't it?

"He's in love with the idea of going, but the reality is starting to kick him right in the ass.  And he doesn't like it."

BA chose that moment to join the conversation.  "Hannibal gave him a gun, tol' him he'd have to use it."

"I told him he might have to use it," corrected Hannibal.

"Tha's too much, too soon," BA persisted.

"Tough," Hannibal said, his voice low.  He chewed some more.  "We don't have the luxury of time on this one.  Our medics weren't conscientious objectors, they were combat-trained Greenies.  I won't take anybody into a situation like this when he won't even defend himself.  That's not fair to us or to him."

"Hannibal's right."  Both men turned toward Murdock.  "He's right, an' you know it.  This isn't for everybody, this life we made."  He chuckled a little, but there was no mirth in it.  "You wanna play, you gotta pay, hunh?"

All three of them got quiet together.  Stared at the guys pumping gas.

"I'm gettin' somethin' to eat," BA said.  "You hungry?" he asked Murdock.

"Yeah.  There's a place down the road I heard serves bee-youtiful tortillas.  Let's go, big guy."

"You comin', Hannibal?"

"Bring me back something.  I want to keep an eye on the plane."

"I'll have two tortillas with extra cheese."  

Murdock's heart jump-started at the sound of Peck's voice.  He looked up to meet eyes sparking blue flame.  Jesus.  Didn't he know there was gas around?

The Mini was slung over his shoulder.  Slowly, he brought it around his body, and held it out to Hannibal.  "I'm ready," he stated.

"OK, kid," Hannibal nodded.

Murdock and BA headed off to the restaurant, walking with a matched, even rhythm.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Temp started sweating from the moment he stepped off the aircraft.  Mazatlán had been hot, but at least it had been dry, like walking around inside a furnace.  The air in the coastal town where they landed was dripping with humidity, even though the light was starting to fade as the sun set over the water.  The shorts he'd changed into lost the pleat in them within minutes.  So much for style, he mused, wondering why the hell he'd ever thought shorts needed to be ironed in the first place.  His life as an up-and-coming surgeon with a wardrobe and a country club membership seemed a million miles away.

"Okay," Smith began, blue eyes taking in the terrain, "we need a truck.  Murdock, what do you say?"

He bowed to his CO.  "It would be a pleasure, sahib."  

To Peck's surprise, the Colonel nodded at him.  "Take the doc with you.  He might come in handy, seeing as how he speaks Spanish."  Temp felt heat rise in his cheeks; he'd mentioned his ability to Smith in passing, but now it sounded like shameless self-promotion.

The tall pilot's gaze swung toward him.  "He does, hunh?  Man of many talents."  Before Peck could think too much about the meaning behind that statement, he realized Murdock had started off without him.  He had to jog to catch up with his long strides.

"Murdock," he murmured, when he had finally reached him.  The other did not look at him, though he slowed his pace. "What's going on?"

"Well, see, this is San Pedro City , the capital city of San Pedro— "

"I know where we are," interrupted Temp, impatient.  "I wanted to know what's going on with you."

"Me?  There's lots goin' on with me, doc.  Always lots goin' on in my head.  But if I spent all night tellin' you about it, Hannibal wouldn't get his truck."  His legs continued to eat up the dusty road.

"Look, just—" Peck made a move to touch him, but jerked his hand away before it connected.  "I know you think I shouldn't have come.  But why?"

Murdock only shook his head.  "Uh-uh.  You're a sawbones, not a shrink."  He rounded on him, his face suddenly twisted into a parody of a movie gangster's.  "You dirty rat! You'll never make me talk! " he snarled, Cagney-like.

"Okay, okay," Temp relented, momentarily taken aback.

"Naw, c'mon, that was too easy.  You're supposed to shine the bare light bulb in my face, ‘til I see spots in front of m'eyes.  How'm I ever gonna get fried at Sing Sing if you back down so easy?"

"Sorry.  I wasn't aware of your ultimate goal.  I'll start heating up the chair right away."

Murdock slowed down a bit more.  Cocked an eyebrow at him.  "I don't think you should've come because this isn't the life you're supposed to have."

Temp thought about that for a moment.  "Did you get the life you were supposed to have?"

The other man barked a laugh.  "Well, I guess I did.  Always wanted to fly everything that had wings, and a few things that didn't.   It's not too many lives let you do that, and I've got my wish, just about."  He met Peck's gaze.  "And my life ain't over yet.  Maybe I'll fly the Goodyear Blimp one of these days."

"Is that all you need?  Something to fly?"

Temp sucked in a breath.  Why in God's name had he asked that question?

Because he wanted to know.

"No, muchacho, that isn't all I need," Murdock answered, in a quiet, steady voice.  "But it's all I'm ever likely to get."  His strides lengthened again.  "Let's go get that truck, huh?"


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"Why, looky, looky, what have we here?"

"What it looks like," Peck intoned primly, "is a junk pile."

Murdock grinned.   They stood before a lot crammed with all makes and models of cars, trucks and buses, most of them missing an important part, like a set of tires or an engine.  "Raw potential, just waitin' to be put in motion."  He started forward, aiming for what seemed like the proprietor's office, but was stopped by a hand on his arm.

He fought to keep from closing his eyes and savouring the sensation.  

"I want to try it," Peck told him, voice edgy but determined.

Murdock was taken aback by that.  "What you know ‘bout scammin' stuff?" he demanded.

The look in the doc's eyes was wicked, and Murdock's pulse tripped over itself.  "How the hell do you think I got through medical school?  I had a scholarship, worked two jobs, and it still wasn't enough.  So I decided to go into business with a buddy of mine from the orphanage.  Stinky O'Hara had some fine little scams going on campus, and he cut me in on his action until I could branch out on my own."

Murdock stared at him.  "Stinky O'Hara?"

"His real name was Seamus.  Can you blame him?"  breezed the other man.  He waved a hand.  "Anyway, it was nothing illegal.  We just bent the college rules about parties.  All right, we broke them.  The betting pool was questionable.  But everybody knew what they were doing.  These people were adults, after all."  His eyes twinkled.  "And college kids with money from Mom and Dad burning a hole in their pockets will bet on anything, from the colour of the new football uniforms to the size of the quarterback's dick."

The pilot checked to see if he was still standing.  He'd built this guy up in his mind as some sort of pure, virginal white knight, without really knowing anything about him.  Now it was beginning to sound like his armor was in serious need of a polish.  "What are you sayin'?"

"I'm just trying to present my credentials.  I'm a bit rusty, but then I imagine the piece of shit truck we'll end up with will beat me on that score."

Murdock's mouth opened.  Closed.  Opened again.

"Okay.  Knock yourself out."  He made a grand gesture with one hand, and Peck stepped in front of him.  

Damn.  The shorts were worse than the jeans.   Even his fucking calves were beautiful.

Man of many talents, indeed.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"Are you in charge here?" Temp roared, in loud Spanish.  An instant later, the door he'd thrust open hit the wall with a loud bang, and the combined assault nearly jerked the man behind the desk completely out of his chair.

"I am the owner of this business," grumbled the pudgy, sweaty specimen, his eyes deeply embedded in fatty deposits.  "What do you want?"

"What do I want?  What do I want?"  blustered Peck.  "Do you mean to tell me you don't know who I am?"

"No," snarled the mound of flesh.

"The company must have called."

"What company?"

"Are you saying the company didn't call?"

"What company?"

"Ohh, Christ!" Temp exclaimed, turning to Murdock.  "The company didn't call!"

"WHAT COMPANY?!"

Peck swivelled slowly around again to face the junkyard owner.  "The company," he began, drawing himself up to his full height, "that is going to put San Pedro on the map!"  He sucked in a breath.  "The company that is going to make you and the seventy-five members of your immediate family rich beyond your wildest dreams of avarice.  The company that is going to transform San Pedro into a land flowing with milk and honey!"  He leaned forward suddenly, his palms flat on the desk, and the porcine man tilted backward dangerously in his chair.  

"Would you like to know the name of the company?" Peck enquired sweetly.

"I—"

"The name of the company," he boomed, pausing for dramatic emphasis, "is Club Med!"

"But—"

"I can see it now," he bulled on, his arm sweeping the room.  "A grand central structure with cathedral ceilings, ballrooms, games rooms, conference rooms, fitness rooms—"

"—jungle rooms," interjected Murdock.

Temp stumbled at the other man's words, delivered in perfectly accented Spanish, but recovered swiftly.  "A luxury hotel, overlooking the blue waters of the tropical Pacific.  And on the beach itself, four—no, five!  Five dozen exclusive cottages, with air conditioning, whirlpool tubs, magic fingers!  A paradise for the weary American, tired of the rat race.  And for the people of San Pedro...."  He trailed off, locking gazes with the now actively sweating proprietor.

"Yes?" the man prompted, timidly.

Temp slapped the desk with his palm, and the owner's jowls jiggled spasmodically.  "Only the finest that America has to offer!  A chicken in every pot, a flush toilet in every hacienda!"  He grinned his most winning grin, the one that no nurse could resist.  "Television," he breathed.

"But what can I offer you?"  the proprietor asked.  "I have nothing here for a hotel."

"My friend," Peck beamed, "you have more than you can imagine.  We at Club Med are prepared to let you in on the ground floor.  The ground floor.  You are an entrepeneur who has vision; everyone I've talked to says so.  And we will be needing men of vision.  I can see you providing all our transportation needs in this great undertaking.  I trust you can supply us with equipment?"  

"I—"

"I know you can.  I have no doubt in my mind.  The first groundbreaking should be in about three months; that'll give you ample time to get ready.  The company will be sending a list of their requirements within the next couple of weeks.  But for now, I've only brought a small survey team, and I'll just be needing a truck.  Your best, preferably..."  He cocked an eyebrow at Murdock.  

"One ton," the pilot offered.

"At least," he sniffed.  "I apologize that our lines of communication got crossed.  Do you have anything ready for us to drive off the lot?"

"Yes, I think I—"

"Wonderful!  Didn't I tell you this man was a team player?"  He smiled at Murdock, then stepped around the desk to shake the owner's chubby hand.  "The company will be sending you a cheque tomorrow, wired from our Los Angeles headquarters.  Thank you so much.  You won't regret this."  Still holding onto his hand, he pulled the other man to his feet.

"I will bring the truck around for you," he murmured, looking more than a little dazed.

When the owner had disappeared out the door and thumped down the wooden steps, Peck swung toward Murdock.

"Okay?"  he asked urgently.

Murdock's gaze bored into him for a long moment, while Temp held his breath.

The pilot broke into a wide grin.  Started chuckling, low and easy.

Temp liked that sound, and liked that he was the one who had made it happen.

"Yeah," Murdock told him, brown eyes appreciative.  "You're way past okay, muchacho."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock lay in the back of the truck as it slowly ground its way up the mountain.  Rudy had provided them with a flawless map; one of the perks of doing a job for a Greenie was that you weren't gonna get lost.  A few feet away, stretched out between crates of equipment, Peck was sleeping the sleep of the just.

Who was this masked man?  He was, Murdock was beginning to realize, a complicated mix of pure innocence and tarnished experience that confused and irritated him.  

That same mix also excited the hell out of him.  That bit of business in the junkyard had been a sweet, beautiful piece of jazz.  The pilot had watched the blue eyes dance with barely veiled mischief and for an insane, spine-tingling second had imagined those same eyes hovering over him, while his surgeon's hands roamed....shit.  

Just how long was he going to keep doing this to himself?  The guy was most definitely Not That Way.  And even if he was, Murdock would hate himself afterward, because the kid was convinced such—ah, activity—earned you a one-way ticket to the fiery pit.  Just because the pilot had no use for religion didn't mean he couldn't understand where Peck was coming from.  If you did some of the things they'd got up to over the years, you were on a first-name basis with guilt.  It wasn't something he would wish on his worst enemy.

Some of the things....the time he'd been out with them in the jungle, when the slick had crash- landed, and suddenly the trees had started spitting fire at them.  The radioman, standing beside him, took it first, and a shower of gore had splattered the left side of Murdock's flight suit, his face, his fucking fancy sunglasses.  He was a pilot, not a grunt, and he'd never been in an honest- to-God firefight.  He grabbed the Swedish K off the other guy as he fell and began squeezing off sloppy bursts at the places he thought the bullets were coming from.  There was no time to think until later, when they'd got back to base and he'd wiped his face and his sunglasses and burned his flight suit and wondered, how come he's not the one wiping me off of him?

Then there was the time he'd stood there watching while some of the so-called Intelligence officers he flew around for the Company interrogated a prisoner, a chu hoi who'd turned out to be working for the VC.  She looked like an adult at first glance—everybody looked older here—but on closer inspection she was a kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen.  He'd stood there, watching, as one of the guys cut her, in places that would hurt, but not kill, not right away, and she bit her lip to keep from screaming.  He'd stood there, watching, because he couldn't believe it was happening.  It had to be a sick movie, playing out at twenty-four frames a second in front of his eyes.  It wasn't real.

When she finally let go the scream, he came to his senses.  But by then it was too late.

He felt himself twitch, as if to shake away the memories, but they continued to hold onto him, like a python who'd just found his next meal.  Shit, he thought, I must've fallen asleep again.  Gotta quit doin' that.  Had he taken his little blue pill today?  His mind tried to claw its way up into light.  Naw, it answered, you ran out last month, remember?  You ain't likely to be gettin' any more of the good stuff, either, not now that your name's been in the papers...

The scream repeated, kept repeating, over and over in his head, getting quiet, then rising in volume again, until it drowned out the world.....

"Murdock!"  

"Murdock!"  Hands gripped his shoulders.  Strong hands, warm hands.

He opened his eyes, but it didn't make much difference in the pitch dark.  "I'm awake," he told Peck, not surprised to find his voice was hoarse.

"You were yelling something.  I couldn't make it out."

"That's ‘cuz it was in Vietnamese," Murdock muttered.  "Welcome to my head."  He pushed himself to a sitting position, uttering a soft curse as his left arm collided with a crate.

The doc's hand still rested on his shoulder, and he welcomed the connection to the here and now.  "Want me to sit up with you for a while?" Peck asked.

"Sure."  Murdock shifted to allow the other man to sit beside him.  He felt something brush his legs, then Peck settled himself.  The hand disappeared.

"You get those flashbacks often?"

"Professional interest, or personal?" Murdock heard himself snap.  He closed his eyes.  Not his fault, not his fault.

"Sorry."

"Don't be.  I'm always kinda fucked up after one, don't pay no attention to me."  He took a breath, let it out.  "They were startin' to fade away pretty good, there, but lately they've been comin' back."

"You're not getting the care they would have given you at the VA hospital," Peck told him.  Murdock turned toward him.  "BA," the doc added, by way of explanation.

"Hmm.  You should have been one ‘a them Father Confessors," the pilot mused.  "Yeah, well, the main ‘care' they were givin' me was drugs, and those kinda took the edge off, y'know?  I been meanin' to find another supply, but we've been busy lately."  Then his mouth formed the question before his brain could censor it.  "You always been able to do that?  Have people do anything you want, tell you everything you want?"

There was a moment while Peck absorbed the change of subject.  "Since I knew I could.  Yeah."  He paused again.  "It came in handy over the years."

Murdock remembered his mention of an orphanage.  "Did it get you adopted?"

"Nope," Peck answered crisply, and Murdock knew he'd hit a nerve.  As for him, he was nothing but nerve endings at this moment.

"Well.  Parents ain't all they're cracked up to be.  I never met my daddy, either."  He chuckled.  "And look how good I turned out!"

"I think," Peck murmured, voice barely audible over the low roar of the truck engine, "you turned out great."

He was close.  God, he was close, Murdock could tell, could feel the breath on his face.  Right now, brain fried six ways from Sunday, he didn't give a damn if it was pity, or hero worship, or plain ol' fashioned lust the other man was feeling.  He was ready to take whatever he could get.

His hand reached out, making contact with a solid chest, and the t-shirt he'd wanted to strip off him since dawn.  He slid his fingers up, up, until they gripped the back of Peck's head, and drew him forward, gently but insistently.  The other man made a small noise in the back of his throat, and then their lips met, pressing together.

Home, Murdock thought, before his conscious mind gave up altogether.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


I think you turned out great.

He had graduated at the top of his class in med school, and this was the best he could come up with?  There was some switch inside him, one that shut down his not inconsiderable intellect whenever Murdock got within a couple of feet of him.  That was the only explana—

Oh.  Oh Mary, Mother of God.

He hadn't wanted to face the fact that kissing the tall, lanky pilot all those months ago had been a pleasurable experience.  When the memory did flit across his mind, he'd chalked it up to the desperation of the night, the intense loneliness he'd been feeling.  However, he wasn't feeling particularly lonely right now.  And he certainly wasn't all that desperate.  

But when Murdock kissed him this time, it felt—good.  More than good.  Right.

He felt a moan vibrate against his lips, and parted them slightly.  Despite the invitation—God, it was an invitation, wasn't it—Murdock's tongue traced his upper lip, but refused to go further.  That tentative touch moved him, shook him to his core.  This gentle man was holding himself back, trying not to impose his desires on Temp.  Letting him make the decision.

It wasn't a decision he wanted to make.  If Murdock would just take him, hard and fast, Temp could say later that it wasn't what he had really wanted.  

Not that God would buy that.  Because in his religion, intent was as bad as actual commission.  If you thought it, it was as though you had actually done it.  In for a penny, in for a pound, you might say.

Who did he think he was kidding?

His arms moved to encircle the other man's torso, pulling him closer, until their chests touched.  

He'd thought about that.

His head angled to the right and his tongue plunged forcefully into the depths of Murdock's mouth.

He'd thought about that, too.

It was different, so different, the hardness of the other body as it strained against his own, the roughness of the beard as it abraded his lips.  Murdock threw his arms around him in turn, hands gliding down his back, lifting his t-shirt.  Temp groaned as the pads of Murdock's fingers pressed into his bared skin.

The next thing Peck knew, he was pushing against the other man, and they were falling sideways, mouths still joined.

"Ow!"

"What is it?" Temp asked, concerned.

"Nothin'.  Hit another of these damn crates."  He felt Murdock shift a little, and Temp bracketed him with his arms, palms on the cool wooden floor.  Looked down at someone he couldn't see, barely knew, but was astonished to realize he'd already committed to memory.

"I—" I love your eyes.  Oh, don't say that out loud.

"I know," Murdock told him, mistaking his hesitation for something else, and Temp felt a hand come up to caress his cheek.  "I know you can't."

Slowly and with intent, Peck turned his head and sucked one of Murdock's fingers into his mouth.

"Jesus," breathed the pilot.

"Don't close your eyes," Temp ordered, knowing he just had.

"What does it matter?  I can't see you."

"It matters," he insisted, lowering himself until he could kiss Murdock again.  

Temp felt the moment when the other man gave in, because suddenly his mouth was wild, plundering, pillaging, and his hands were no longer content with feather-light caresses.  The pilot's long fingers gripped his ass through the cotton of his shorts, and Peck cried out in the darkness.  

And then the truck shuddered, and there was the sound of gears grinding, and Temp felt the vehicle slow.

He pressed his forehead to Murdock's, trying to calm his breathing.

The other man expelled a mirthless laugh.  "If I was a believer, this would be a sure sign.  It couldn't be any clearer than a goddamned stone tablet."

Temp moved off Murdock, pulling the other man up as he went.  "And what would it say?" he muttered, feeling frustrated and drained and suddenly confused, as though he'd been heading along a straight, unbroken path and had come to an unforseen crossroads.

Strong hands rose to hold Temp's face.  His swollen lips felt a soft, infinitely gentle touch, and he closed his eyes.

"It would say, ‘Take this tablet with a glass of water and call me in the morning,'" Murdock murmured.  "How the hell would I know?  The Head Honcho and I parted ways a long time ago.  But that's not the road you want to follow down."

"You're sure about that, are you?" Peck whispered, leaning forward.

"No," Murdock groaned, mouth colliding with Temp's again.  "And if you keep letting me kiss you, I'll be even less sure.  Don't tempt me, doc.  I'm no hero in a white hat."

Before Temp could answer that, the truck came to a complete stop, and Murdock released him.  He sat there, unmoving, until BA and Hannibal opened the back doors and let them out.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


The makeshift clinic was overflowing with children.  Murdock, unloading boxes from the truck, watched as Peck walked up and down the rows of cots, stopping to inspect a wound, feel a forehead, listen to a heartbeat.  He watched him storing it all away in his mind, performing triage, probably checking who needed what against the mental list of supplies he'd brought.

Murdock hoped it was going to be enough.  It had seemed like enough when they were putting it on the plane back in California, but now he wasn't so sure.

Hannibal laid another box on the table beside Murdock's.  "As soon as we've got everything securely stowed, we're going to hit the sack for a couple of hours.  We've got a long strategy session ahead of us."

Rudy Kowalchuk stepped up behind them.  Half a head taller than even Murdock, he clapped each of them on a shoulder.  "I'm so grateful you came," he told them, sincerely.  

"Yeah, well, don't thank us yet, man," BA grunted, laying a huge crate down next to them.  "We got a lot to do."

"Still as optimistic as ever, eh, BA?" Rudy chuckled.  He cocked a bushy eyebrow at Peck, who had paused over a child with a broken leg.  "Where'd you get him?"

"Murdock met him a while back," Hannibal told him.  

"He ex-military?"

"Nope.  Why?"  the pilot asked.

"This doesn't faze him," he answered, indicating the ward.

"He works in an ER in Los Angeles."  And he's good at camouflage, Murdock added silently.

Rudy nodded.  "That would explain it."  He took a breath.  "I don't know, though.  We've all seen some shit, and I thought nothing would get me anymore, y'know?  But..."  He trailed off, and when he spoke again, his deep voice was rough.  "Well.  I swore when I got back to the World I'd never hurt another living soul again.  But I know these guys need to be hurt.  And what's worse, I want to hurt them."

"We'll concentrate on the hurting, Rudy," Hannibal said softly, laying a hand on his old friend's arm.  "You and the doc over there can concentrate on the healing."

He shook his head.  "You can't separate them that easily.  You know that."  Hannibal didn't reply.  They all looked on as Peck used one of the bandages he'd brought to apply a fresh dressing to a wound.  The kid, about twelve and skinny as a rail, shifted in his sleep but didn't wake.  When he was done, the doc stood there for a moment, then brushed a stray lock of hair from the child's brow.

"Does he know what's coming?" Rudy asked.

"Did we?" BA returned.

They moved together, heading back to the truck for more boxes.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


At a certain point in his life, he'd decided to follow all the rules.  It wasn't the result of an epiphany, but came upon him slowly, inexorably, until he couldn't imagine thinking any other way.  If you wanted the kind of life he aspired to, you had to follow the rules.  Know the right people, say the right things, use the right fork.

And so he'd been the model student in med school, learning everything and spitting it all back out again verbatim, down to the bit about clinical detachment.  Doctors had to remain aloof from their patients, maintain that professional distance, or they couldn't have the credibility they needed.  No one would trust you with their life if you walked around on two legs, feet touching the ground.  You had to be better than they were, more than human.   

Of course, he'd known from the start that was bullshit.  If you bought into it, the creature you became was not more than human, he was less.  A childhood in the orphanage had taught him about detachment, and what it did to you.  He'd needed it in order to survive the hurts and disappointments, not to mention the hurts and disappointments of all the other kids.  But what you ended up with wasn't a complete person.  Ask Leslie; she'd never say it, but she knew she'd been shortchanged.

He was a damn good doctor, but he wasn't human.  

Right now, though, he sure as hell felt human.  His muscles ached from all the activity of the last twenty-four hours, and his brain was a foggy mess.  The children had been more than he'd been expecting, both in number and in the extent of their injuries.  Fractures, mostly, but there were one or two that had probably sustained internal injuries and might need surgery, soon.  He'd know within a few hours, though he certainly missed all of his fancy electronic monitors.  The only monitors were him and a rotund force of Nature named Rosa who'd received some first aid training around the time of World War II.  She'd arrived on the ward just before dawn to take over from Rudy, and had promptly given him the once-over.  He still wasn't sure if he'd passed inspection.

Stretching his arms over his head, he ambled to the door which led to the community centre's main meeting hall.  The centre, built by Rudy and the local residents, was the focal point of the village, housing the school, the clinic, and the meeting hall.  It was also home to the only power source, a gasoline generator, which provided electricity for the dimly glowing overhead lights.  Beneath one which flickered intermittently, four men stood, planning an attack.

"This is the only road up?"  Hannibal was asking.  He was pointing to a spot on the large map that had been set up on one wall.

"Yup," Rudy acknowledged.  "We don't have any other way to get to the mine that doesn't involve dense jungle."  

"We jus' looove jungle," cooed Murdock.  "Don't we, guys?"  His eyes caught sight of Peck, standing in the doorway, and he smiled.  An annoying fluttering sensation arose in the pit of Temp's stomach.  The other men followed the line of Murdock's gaze.

"Thought you were getting some sleep," the Colonel remarked.

"There are a couple of kids who have to be watched," he told them.  "I think they might require abdominal surgery."

"You have everything you need?" Smith asked.

"I wish I had the OR at City of Angels," Peck drawled.  "But yeah, I've got nearly everything I need."  He turned to Rudy.  "The one thing I'm missing is a surgical assistant.  Does anyone else in the village have medical training?"

"Just Rosa.  And us," Rudy answered, nodding at the other men.  "But ours is pretty basic.  Enough to keep ‘em alive until the dustoff gets there, that's about it."

He ran a hand through his hair.  "Okay.  That's not great.  My Spanish is pretty good, but I don't think I can translate the names of all the instruments, and I don't know if she'd recognize them even if I could.  None of you has any OR training?"  Blank stares answered his question.  "Then any of you blessed with a photographic memory?"

Slowly, all heads turned to Murdock, who turned slightly pale.

"Awwwww, shit," he groaned, eyes closing in pain.

Hannibal sighed, then nodded at Peck.  "Guess we'll have to do this reconnaissance without you, Captain."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"Cross action retractor."

"That one."

"Metzenbaum scissors."

"Those."

"Size 20 scalpel."

"Here."  Murdock pointed with confidence.

Temp nodded, impressed.  The pilot had memorized the contents of the entire tray, backwards and forwards, in half an hour.  "Congratulations.  You just qualified as my assistant."

Murdock flexed his hands nervously before dropping them to his sides.  "So I gotta give you everything you ask for, and count what you use, sponges ‘n needles ‘n stuff, so that we can make sure it all comes out again.  What else?"

"I might need you to do some irrigation, since Rosa will be on the anaesthetic."  He felt a momentary jolt of panic, not for the first time, and tamped it down viciously.  Back in LA he'd have at least six people with him in the OR for a major surgical procedure.  He was standing in the middle of the mayor's office, which had been cleared of its desk so that a table could be placed there for examinations.  At City of Angels, there were spacious, completely sterile operating rooms with the latest equipment.  There were heart monitors, BP monitors, an electrocautery unit, an autoclave, with everything prepared for him before he walked in, taking the stage in his starring role as God's gift to medicine.  Here, he'd have to put the Duraprep and the sterile drapes on by himself, and the instruments would be immersed in boiling water and then alcohol.  He'd have to get in and out fast, because if the kid needed to be intubated, he was out of luck.  Hell, Peck had only brought enough general anaesthetic for a couple of such operations; he prayed this would be the only one he'd have to do.

"Irrigation?"  Was that a twinge of alarm in Murdock's voice?

"Yeah.  It's—never mind, I don't have any medical textbooks on me right now.  You'll have to learn on the job."

"Jesus."

"Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah.  I've seen worse.  Not kids, though."  His eyes became distant, seeing something Peck couldn't.  "Well.  Not kids anybody wanted to save."

"I wouldn't have—" He stopped himself.  Wouldn't have subjected him to this if he'd had a choice?  That made it sound like he believed Murdock to be weak, not as capable as the next person.  And he didn't.

"Wouldn't have picked the crazy guy?"  Murdock smiled crookedly.

Temp locked gazes with him.  "I don't think you're crazy, Murdock."

The other man stared back at him for several long seconds, and Peck felt as though he had arrived at another unexpected fork in the road.  Only the choice of direction wasn't up to him.  He hated that feeling of helplessness.  He was not accustomed to trusting another person with his destination.

Murdock shook his head.  "Maybe you should.  It'd be a lot easier."

"For who?" Temp asked, deliberately keeping his voice low and controlled.  "Me?  Or you?"

The pilot blinked at him.  

"I'm going to check on Antonio and Juan," Peck murmured, turning on his heel and leaving the room.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


The examination of the boys confirmed what he'd already suspected.  Juan was going to be fine, or as fine as you could be with two bruised ribs and a broken collarbone.  Peck breathed a sigh of relief, because Juan was the one he'd been worried about; pulmonary surgery was way beyond his capacity with this setup, and so he'd have to have left his other charges, including Antonio, to barrel down the mountain in the truck, and hope they got to the San Pedro City hospital in time.  

Antonio, however, was another matter, and it was now apparent that he'd have to operate on the ten-year-old.  The symptoms were consistent with a duodenal hematoma, from the constipation to the location of the pain.  Peck would have to do a laparotomy, find the bleeder or bleeders quickly, and close.  Nothing fancy.  But he was confident he could do the procedure under even these adverse conditions, and confident that the child would recover completely.  

If nothing went wrong.

"Hey."

Peck glanced up at the stage whisper to see Rudy poking his head in the doorway.  At least he thought it was Rudy.  The huge Pole's wide, flat face was almost unrecognizable under jaggedly striped green and brown camo paint.  

The big man fascinated Peck.  His cool gray eyes concealed a dark, painful history, but at the same time were completely open to the world around him.  Temp saw it in the way he spoke with the children on the ward, interacted with their parents.  Smith told him Kowalchuk had been a rifleman in Vietnam, one of the best snipers he'd ever seen, and Peck's imagination filled in the blanks.  There was nothing detached about being a sniper; that scope allowed you to see your target, as though he were standing right in front of you.  Was Rudy's work as a missionary a way for him to make up for the lives he'd ended, to redress the balance?

A yearning for a peaceful life may have brought him here, but he certainly looked ready to defend it at all costs.  Peck walked over to him, and Rudy nodded in Antonio's direction.  "How is he?"

Temp stepped past him into the hallway, shut the door behind them and shook his head.  "He's going to need that surgery.  I just sent Rosa to fetch his parents."

"It's just his mother.  His dad died a few years back in the guerilla uprising."  Peck didn't bother to ask which side he'd been on.  "A lot of the kids here have lost the men in their families.  This is the way they help support their younger brothers and sisters."

"Until the younger ones can go out and get themselves killed in some new, improved way," Temp growled.  He could feel Rudy's eyes on him but the other man said nothing.

"How's Murdock working out?" Rudy asked him.

"Fine."  Temp brightened a little.  "Wonderful, actually.  He has an amazing capacity to absorb new information."

"He won't let you down," Kowalchuk said reassuringly.

Peck speared the large man with a withering look.  "Goddammit," he exploded, quietly, "why is everyone, including Murdock himself, determined to remind me he's supposed to be crazy?"

"Because we're all crazy," snapped Rudy, with just as much quiet intensity.  "You don't know  what we saw over there.  What we did over there.  He wasn't on the ground as much as we were, but he felt it ten times more than any of us.  I saw lots of guys lose it, most of them all at once, but he— he went slow.  It was as if he wanted to prove to himself he could do it."

"Do what?"

"Hell, I don't know.  Be a man?"  He chuckled.  "Whatever the fuck that means."

"If he's not a man," Peck heard himself say, "then none of us deserves the title."

Rudy studied him.  "Good luck, doc," he told him, finally, holding out his hand.

Temp took it.  "You too."  He followed the big Pole out into the early morning air, where two men stood in tiger striped fatigues and painted faces, rifles slung over their shoulders.  Hannibal and BA nodded to him, and then they were off, moving like wild things, until they disappeared at the place where the village met the jungle.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


—He's so little, so little, look at those skinny little arms, how's he gonna find a place to put a needle—

—OK, concentrate, scissors, sure, scalpel, gotcha, don't fuck up, don't fuck up—

—Blood, you knew there'd be blood, you've seen blood before—

—they cut into her like she was a piece of meat—

—concentrate—

—piece of meat, not even alive, but she was—

—until—

—concentrate, damn you—

—until she screamed—

—stay alive, just stay alive, boy—

—That's it, concentrate on him, he's gonna make it, look at the doc there, you don't see him sweatin'—

—well, maybe a little—

—you can help him, here and now, nothin' you can do's gonna bring her back—

—Irrigation?  Right, fine, show me—

—but I wish I could bring her back, every fucking night of my life—

—Yeah.  No problem.—


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock knew he was going to need those cigarettes sometime on this trip.

He'd kicked the habit five years ago, when he'd seen his future in the faces of those old, demented WWI vets from the geriatric ward, coughing their lungs up even as they tried to shove another coffin nail in between their shrivelled lips.  Not that he still didn't crave the nicotine, especially right after the Team had blasted its way out of a tight spot, but he was usually able to resist temptation.

He fished around for the pack he'd stuffed in his pocket earlier, dug out a cigarette, and raised it to his mouth.  He was proud to note that his hands were rock-steady; all that therapy must've paid off.

Or maybe he was going to blow to bits later, all at once, pieces scattering over the floor.  He smiled mirthlessly and struck a match.  Drawing the evening air into his lungs to induce the tobacco to catch, he welcomed the refreshing bite of smoke that followed it down.

"Those things'll be the death of you," a voice drawled, and Murdock turned to watch Peck take a fat cigar from the breast pocket of his scrubs.  The pilot held up the matches, and the other man nodded.  He tossed them over.

"Thanks," the doc murmured, catching them effortlessly.  He too lit up, sighing as he exhaled his first drag, then passed the matches back to Murdock.  For a long, peaceful minute, they stood together, watching the village children run around the playground beside the community centre.

Murdock savoured the silence, knowing it wouldn't last, because silences always got filled with stupid, meaningless conversation; he was waiting for a tossed-off line like "Great job in there" or "Nice night" to ruin the stillness of the air.  But Peck didn't offer any clichés, just kept standing and puffing.

The pilot threw down the half-finished cigarette, stubbing it out with the toe of his sneaker.  Closing  his eyes and leaning back against the corrugated metal wall, he felt the nicotine begin to race through his bloodstream.  

"I'm going to get some rest," he heard Peck say after a time.  "Rosa's orders."

Murdock opened his eyes.  "Rosa?"

"I'm not messing with her.  Rudy said she was dangerous, and I believe it."

Murdock shook his head, chuckled in spite of himself.

"You, ah, planning on sleeping?" Peck asked, tone casual.

Murdock looked at him sharply.   How the hell was he going to sleep, with Hannibal and BA gone for at least another half a day and nothing but air between him and this beautiful, complicated, frustrating—

"I, ah, I'm gonna stay up awhile longer.  When the guys come back, they'll be sleeping during the day and doing ops at night.  I gotta get set to their pattern, y'know?"

Bullshit, that was complete and total bovine manure; he'd flown them all down here, nonstop, and could easily sack out for eighteen hours.  Maybe after the kid was asleep.  He could trust himself not to jump Peck's bones if he was unconscious; after all, that would be terribly unsportsmanlike, old man.

"Yeah," the doc muttered, obviously catching the scent.  "Well, I'll see you later."

"Sure, muchacho.  Don' let the bed bugs bite."

After Peck had disappeared around the corner, Murdock pulled out another cigarette and lit up.  Maybe if he inhaled the whole pack, he'd still be awake when the guys returned.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


He looked like an angel.  

Murdock didn't believe in angels, but now he had his doubts, because this creature lying curled up on the worn-out army cot sure fit the description.  His tanned limbs were perfectly proportioned, his lashes were longer than any man's had a right to be, his golden-brown hair spilled over his forehead as though he'd been readjusting his halo.  Did they need to adjust those, or did they float at a preset distance?  What if the batteries ran down?

But at the same time, Murdock knew that despite outward appearances, this man was anything but an angel.   That fact scared him more, because as long as he could put him up on a pedestal, he could keep things organized in his brain; he's up there, you're down here.  It got all cloudy and hard to figure when he thought of him as a human being, a man with emotions and uncertainties and a mouth that could—

Oh, hell, he told himself.  That's what a chain-smoked pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes does to you; winds you up like one of those rubber band boats you used to play with on grandaddy's pond.  Just go to sleep, or pretend to, take your big ol' feet and walk over to the other cot.  

Come on.

You remember walkin'. Simplest thing in the world.

He finally made himself turn, but spun back abruptly at a soft groan from the other man.  Rooted to the spot, he could not force his body to move, only to witness.  Peck was still wearing the shorts, but had removed his t-shirt, and the pilot shamelessly drank in the sight of lean pectoral muscles delineated by a light dusting of short, springy chest hair.  As he watched, the left one twitched, as if his heart were threatening to leap from his body.  

Suddenly, Peck's legs stiffened spasmodically, straightening, then relaxing, as though he'd been electroshocked.  Incomprehensible sounds came from his throat, ending in a laugh that chilled Murdock's blood.  He moaned again, then flung one arm up, as if to ward off a blow.

"Get away," he growled, from between gritted teeth.  "Get—away."

Galvanized into action by Peck's obvious distress, Murdock finally moved, crouching beside the cot.  He reached up to stroke the man's forehead, his fingertips dampened by the sweat pouring off him.  The doctor's breathing evened out, his expression eased, and then—

—Murdock found himself knocked flat on his ass.

"Oh, God," breathed Peck, and through the haze of stars Murdock could see he was now fully awake, "Oh God.  What did I—"

"That's a hell of a right hook you got there, doc," Murdock told him, touching his jaw and wincing as he located the tender spot.

"I can explain," Peck murmured fervently, sitting up.

But Murdock was in no mood for confessions; the punch, combined with the poisonous soup of stimulants transferred by the cigarette smoke, had left him feeling jittery and drained.  "That's okay.  You were havin' a nightmare, s'all, and—"

"I want to explain." Temp's blue gaze speared Murdock, and the pilot sat transfixed.  "It's important."

Peck swung his legs over the edge of the cot and faced the pilot.  "I, ah, I was dreaming about— something that happened to me a long time ago, in the orphanage.  You see,  when I was about fourteen, there was another boy who got transferred from San Francisco.  He was older, and he was big, a hell of a lot stronger than I was.   He wanted somebody to bully, and I was an easy target, until I got fed up and started working out in the school gym."  He smiled evilly.  "Within about a year, I stopped having any trouble, from anybody.  I was in control, and I never gave it up again.  Not even with Leslie."

Murdock stared at him, listening intently.  Peck took a deep breath and continued.

"I've been thinking these last few months about how I became the person I am.  A broken marriage is a golden opportunity for some serious soul-searching, believe me.  And I came to realize just how much the orphanage shaped who and what I am.  In a strange way, I'm grateful, because situations like what happened with that bully made me hate feeling helpless and weak, and fight to keep from feeling it again.  I don't think I could have become a doctor without that attitude.

"But it's a double-edged sword, y'know."  He chuckled, but there was no humour in it.  "I mean, once you've got that control, it's damned hard to let it go, even if everything in you is screaming for you to do it."  He sighed, as if he'd suddenly run out of steam.

Murdock gathered himself and staggered to his feet.  His knees felt like they were made of chewed out chewing gum.  "Why are you tellin' me this?"  he asked.   

Slowly, the other man rose to stand in front of him.  Murdock tried to keep his gaze from straying over the tanned shoulders and chest.  "I guess it's a roundabout way of saying this isn't all that easy for me, either.  I, ah, I didn't expect—" Peck trailed off.

"Didn't expect whut?"

Temp opened his mouth to speak, closed it, then finally shook his head.  "You," he murmured.

The pilot felt as though another blow had been delivered, only this time it was a knockout punch.  When Peck spoke again, his voice sounded far away.

"I wasn't expecting to feel anything.  To want—anything.  It—they always told us it was—" He looked away for a moment.  "Well.  That has nothing to do with it."

"It does, though," Murdock replied.  He had an odd sensation of drowning, and fought for air.  "The Church—that's important to you.  You can't—"

"It's not just the Church, Murdock, it's me."  Peck reached up to touch his cheek briefly, and the pilot sucked in a breath at the contact.   "The one thing I've held onto, as long as I knew how, was my control.  I'm afraid I'll lose that control with you."

Murdock watched as the other man got closer.  Felt a strong hand close over his and guide it....

"But God help me," whispered Peck as he pressed Murdock's fingers against the front of his shorts, "how I want to."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


He must still be dreaming.

It was the only explanation.  How else would he have summoned the courage to do this, to stand right in front of Murdock and tell him how he felt?  And now he was practically begging for his touch, pressing the other man's hand against him like a horny teenager.  He'd never been so shamelessly wanton with another person in his life.

Something about the man brought it out of him; it had a great deal to do with attraction, an attraction he was only now starting to admit to himself.  But it also had a lot to do with trust.  Since that first night, when Murdock had refused to take advantage of his vulnerable state, Peck understood he had finally met someone he could trust.  Temp knew he didn't have to exist within the prison created by his fears when he was with this man.  He could be less than perfect and it wouldn't matter.  Before that, he'd only allowed himself such luxury in the privacy of his own head.

He wished he could have had that with Leslie, but she had built her own walls, and neither one of them was interested in tearing down such neat, perfect structures.  Murdock, however, lived completely without boundaries; he was, to put it bluntly, a mess.  But he was a glorious, feeling, human mess, and he was making Temp human again, recreating him in his own image without even meaning to.

During the operation, he'd darted glances now and then at the pilot, checking to see how he was holding up.  Despite his belief that Murdock would come through with flying colours, Peck nonetheless felt guilty for putting him in the situation in the first place.  Once, the two of them had looked at one another at the same moment, and Temp had seen such a riot of pain and hope and anger and determination in the man's fathomless brown eyes that it had stopped his breathing.  Peck understood, then, how much this was costing him, and admired him all the more for it.

And, to be perfectly honest, he'd fallen for him a little more, too.

Those eyes were locked with his now, trying to burn their way into his soul.  He felt another pang of fear, but fought his own instincts to close up.  Deliberately, he reached up to trace the other man's lips with his fingers, abandoning his hold on Murdock's hand in the process.  This was it, he thought.  Had he fallen alone, with no one to catch him?

The hand stayed.

Then it began to move, tracing the outline of Peck's growing erection.

Temp willed his eyes to stay open.

Soft, he thought as his fingertips brushed lightly, his lips are so soft.  I don't know what I expected; men aren't so different from—

Murdock squeezed gently, and when Temp gasped, the pilot closed the distance between them and kissed him, deep and hard and hot.

In a heartbeat, they were tangled together, and Temp couldn't tell what his own hands were doing, because he was so astonished by the sensations wrought by Murdock's.  The pilot knew just the right pressure to exert to elicit intense, searing pleasure.  Long, talented fingers stroked over his hips, between his thighs, and Temp was reduced to a mass of overloaded neurons.

Then Murdock bent his head and lapped at one of Peck's nipples, and Temp nearly screamed in surprise.

"Easy, muchacho, easy," Murdock chuckled, blowing gently on the wet spot he'd created and causing Temp to bite down on his own tongue so forcefully he almost drew blood.  

He heard a whimpering sound and realized with a start that it was coming from his own throat.

Murdock's tongue answered his unspoken plea, returning to bathe first one nipple, then the other, with a rhythmic, rough heat.

He didn't even know Murdock had removed the rest of his clothing until Peck felt warm fingers close around him.  "Please," he moaned then, and Murdock raised his head so that Temp could kiss him again.

Murdock released him abruptly after a long moment, and Temp groaned in frustration when the other stepped back, out of his arms.  The pilot's gaze swept over him like a caress, and Peck shivered despite the jungle heat.

"You are more beautiful than I dreamed," Murdock told him, voice hoarse with want.

Temp had never been comfortable with other people's scrutiny, but he loved being the object of that deep brown gaze.  It made him feel dangerous, desired, reckless.  "You dreamed about me?" he rasped.  Murdock only nodded.   Peck watched him back, saw his chest rising and falling quickly, saw the hard evidence of the pilot's arousal, and knew he was the cause, and felt a strange sense of pride.

He regained a hazy awareness of his own limbs then, and stepped forward, out of the pool of clothing at his feet, so that he could reach for the button on Murdock's trousers, but the pilot pushed his hands away.

"No," he told Peck firmly, planting a brief kiss on his lips.  "This is for you.  All for you, the first time."

The first time.  Oh.  God.  He didn't know if he'd survive this one, but if he did—

Murdock groaned when Temp pulled him close and trailed his hands over the curves of his ass.  "You're not helping.  Siddown."

Temp felt himself being pushed backward.  He sat down on the rickety old cot, the homespun blanket rough against his bare skin.  The other man knelt before him, his eyes watching Peck's face.  Was he looking for a sign of hesitation, of uncertainty?  

Calling on his last shreds of courage, Temp smiled down at him and parted his legs.

A few seconds passed, seconds that felt to Temp like an eternity, and then Murdock smiled back, brown eyes dancing with mischief.  "You're gonna lose control, all right," he promised, and Peck nearly came right there.  The pilot leaned forward, his face hovering closer and closer to Temp's straining erection, until his tongue could touch the tip.

Temp cried out.

"Shhh," Murdock soothed, stroking the inside of Peck's thighs, planting tiny kisses that were anything but soothing all along Temp's length.  When he reached the base, his tongue began working its way back up, ending its journey just before it got to the head.

Temp's hips jerked upward.  "Please," he whispered, shocked at the level of his own need.

Murdock's answer was to circle the base of him with one hand, then surround the head with his lips and suck, hard.

"Oh!" exclaimed Temp, his whole being suddenly focusing to a pinpoint, collapsing in on itself, spiralling inward.  He was aware of nothing beyond the sweet heat, the mind-numbing friction, the mounting pressure.  Then he was falling, falling, and Murdock was there, holding him in strong, safe arms.

When he returned to himself, they were cocooned together on the floor, on top of the blanket.  Temp couldn't remember how he'd ended up there.  He shifted experimentally, and felt Murdock's still-clothed erection against his backside.

"Do me a favour," muttered Murdock.  "Don't."

Peck rolled over to face him, traced the line of his eyebrows, cheeks, nose, lips.  "What if I said I wanted you to?"

"I wouldn't believe you," the pilot answered.

Temp was taken aback by the flat statement.  "Why would you say that?" he demanded.

Murdock kissed him then, and Peck could taste himself in the other man's mouth.  "This ain't a tennis game at the country club:  I serve, you volley.  I gotta be sure you know what you're doin'."  

"I'm sure," insisted Temp.

"No, you're not," Murdock returned, maddeningly.  "You just got finished tellin' me how scared you were of losin' hold of yourself, ‘cuz you've always had ahold of yourself.  Well, I got a hold of myself for the first time in a long time, and I want to keep it that way even more than you do."  He kissed Temp again, longer this time.  "Thing is, if I ever find myself inside your beautiful body, I won't ever want to leave.  I know that like I know my own name."

Temp gasped, unable to speak.

"So if I don't want to take a chance on losin' the few marbles I've managed to collect, muchacho," the pilot murmured, smiling sadly, "I'd better be one-hundred percent affirm you're not gonna change your mind anytime soon."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


The mountain stream poured over a rock ledge and fell twenty feet to a small, perfectly round pool, its surface black and shining in the night.  Around it, the majestic jungle trees rose to form a canopy over the mossy glade.  Murdock admired the beauty of the scene for all of five seconds before dropping onto his belly and dunking his head in the cool water.  He came up singing.

"A fish won't do anything but swim in a brook
He can't write his name or read a book
To fool the people is his only thought
And though he's slippery he still gets caught
But if that sort of life is what you wish
You could grow up to be a fish

Or would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar?
And be better off than you—"

"Shut up, fool!"

"Now come on, big guy," Murdock wheedled, in his best Bing Crosby voice, "you know y'all love that song.  An' that's your favourite verse, too."  He pushed himself to his feet and ran a hand over his drenched hair.

"Not true," Rudy objected.  "His favourite's the one about the mule."

"You too!" growled BA.  He was particularly cranky tonight.  Murdock knew it wouldn't take long for him to get sentimental over the village kids, and when he got sentimental, he got cranky right along with it, to balance it.

"Then how ‘bout a little Otis Redding?" he persisted.  There was no response.  Murdock pushed past Hannibal and Kowalchuk, dancing just beyond BA's reach.  "Aretha Franklin?  Want a little R-E-S-P- E-C-T?  I could make it a duet for ya—"

"Man, you are worse than a jumpin' bean," Rudy laughed.  "What's up with you?"

"Ain't up no more," growled BA under his breath.

"Whussat supposed to mean?" Murdock demanded, some of the spring leaving his step.

BA halted his climb up the mountain.  "It's supposed to mean, don' mess with me, Murdock.  I ain't in the mood."

"Cool it, Captain," Hannibal told him, and the pilot sighed, pushed his rifle sling further up on his shoulder.  The four of them resumed their march.

"How you want this to go down when we get there?" Rudy asked after a few minutes.

The Colonel grunted.  "I know how I want it to go down, but I'm not crazy about having those kids there."

"Like I said, the crew is pretty minimal at this time of night.  The last shift goes off at midnight, so we can wait for them, and then there'll just be surface security goons.  Ramirez hasn't moved to twenty-four hour operations yet; he can't get enough guys he trusts to run things around the clock."

"I'm glad to hear slimeballs are in short supply in this part of the world," Murdock drawled.

"I still want to make absolutely sure there's no one left in that mine when we blow it," Hannibal persisted.  "How long do you think it's gonna take for us to do a search?"

Rudy rubbed the back of his neck.  "How many of us are going to be doing it?"

"I want two down and two on the surface."

"Jeez.  Judging by the information from the kids..."  He pondered.  "An hour, tops."

Hannibal shook his head.  "That's too long, but if it means a thorough search, I suppose we'll have to improvise."

BA huffed.  "Ain' never done a job, you weren't crazy for that improvisin'."

Murdock could tell Hannibal was grinning, even in the almost-dark of the moonlit jungle.  "When we get there, BA, you and Rudy prepare the explosives.  Then Rudy and Murdock will go down, while you and I take care of security.  Once they're sure the mine is cleared, it's adios to Ramirez' little tribute to the Third Reich."

"What about Ramirez?" Rudy questioned, and there was something in the way he said the man's name that chilled even Murdock.

"One thing at a time.  We'll settle his hash soon enough.  That truck over there"—he pointed to a 4x4 over by the main office—"will get us to his hacienda in no time."

BA shook his head.  "I don't like leavin' the village undefended.  They nothin' but old men and women with kids there."

"We passed around a few weapons to those who knew how to use them," Hannibal reminded him.

And passed out a shotgun to a guy who didn't, thought Murdock.  "What if Ramirez comes after them?" the pilot heard himself ask.  He had a strange, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach, one he didn't quite recognize.

"His compound is too far from the mine for him to hear the explosions.  The only way he'd find out is if someone escaped to warn him."  Murdock could feel Hannibal's cool blue gaze on him.  "Is anyone going to escape, BA?"

"No way!"

"There.  Satisfied?" the Colonel smiled.

No, Murdock thought.  Though I haven't got a clue why the hell I'm not.

"Sure am," Murdock smiled back.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Ortega was tired.  Tired and angry.

It had been so many years that he'd forgotten all that he'd been angry about.  It had been so many years that he'd forgotten the faces of his sons, lost to revolutions that never were.  He'd forgotten the laughter of his wife, laughter that had died with his sons.  Not long after, her body had followed her spirit.

He was fifty....four?  Fifty-five?  Old.  The face in the piece of broken mirror over his washstand was unrecognizable.  Who was that?  Did it matter, when there was no one else to speak your name?

The children shunned him, called him the devil's grandfather, and he supposed the name was more fitting than his own.  The other old men—there were a few—they kept to themselves, mostly, lost in their own private purgatories of defeat and memories.  Nodded to each other in the marketplace on Saturdays, and outside the church on Sundays, but that was all.

He lived by his carving, sold to the village co-operative that the big gringo started with the women.  The priest-who-was-not-a-priest praised his skill and artistry, but the words pounded against him and slid off, like the rain on a metal roof.  Did he not know a man who begged for work from women was no longer a man?   Did he not know that years ago, Ortega had faded into an in-between world where nothing mattered, not even definitions of manhood?

But now, for the first time in an age, he had something new to anger him, and it brought him back into the world of the living like a vengeful, powerful phoenix.  He stretched his wings, and could feel the heat rise in them, sweeping over the land, scorching everything in their path.

These gringos thought they could walk into this place like the old gods, restore the balance of life and death.  He had laughed at that when he'd first thought about it, actually laughed, and the sound had been dry, like long fallen wood snapping underfoot.  They thought there were things such as ‘fairness' and ‘justice' and ‘right', tangible, like an orange or a piece of bread.  But they were wrong; those were dreams, worse even than ‘faith' and ‘hope', for they promised redress in this life, at this time.  And Ortega no longer believed in the promises of his own God, so why should he trust in the promises of Americans?

The doctor they had brought walked out of the community centre then, and was immediately intercepted by one of the children, a girl who spoke to him, fast and excited.  He bent at the knees to talk to her, and he smiled, a smile like Jesus in the stained glass window of the church.  She cried out and wrapped her thin arms around him, and he hugged her back.

He brought the dead back to life, Ortega thought, performed a miracle, and she was going to grow up believing miracles dropped from the sky like rain.   What would she do—what would they all do— when the miracles dried up and death returned to claim its due?

No.  Only Ortega knew how dangerous this was.  And this man was the most dangerous of them all.

Burning with newly awakened rage, he rose stiffly from his chair.  He knew what had to be done.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"He's not here!"

Rudy's shout made the guys sitting on the floor look up.  Murdock twitched the Ruger at one of them.  Their collective attention shifted back from the voice to the man standing in front of them as they squatted, trussed like Christmas turkeys, in the grand hall of Ramirez's palatial mansion.

"Where's your boss, amigo?" he demanded in Spanish.  

He'd deliberately picked the most weaselly-looking one, but the greaseball obviously was more afraid of Ramirez than he was of the .223 pointed at his head.  "I don't know," he answered sullenly.  The ones to the sides of him began to edge away from their compadre,

"Sure you do," Murdock returned, tipping up the weasel's chin with the end of the barrel.  "You don't want to end up splattered all over his nice marble floor, do ya?  It's a real bitch cleaning blood out of the cracks."

"If you do it now, it will save Ramirez doing it later," grinned the man to his left.  He was a beefy character with a neck deficiency.  Murdock had tied the knots extra tight on that one.

"What do you mean, he's not there?" hollered Hannibal, standing at the foot of the wide, curved staircase.  One foot was propped on the second step, and it now began to tap impatiently.

BA's head poked out from around the corner at the top of the stairs.  "He long gone, Hannibal, and that ain't all.  He got hisself a fancy gun case up here, an' it's lyin' open.  Shells scattered all over the place, too."

Hannibal swore under his breath and Murdock got very, very unhappy, because when Hannibal swore like that, it meant the jazz might not be enough.

Please, he thought, though he wasn't sure who he was pleading with, let the jazz be enough this time.

Moving as one, the four of them raced for the truck.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Temp undid the BP cuff, releasing Antonio's arm and laying it with care on the bed beside him.  The kid was tough, that was certain; he'd pulled through the meatball surgery and was recovering with surprising speed.  Peck sent up a silent prayer that his strength wouldn't be tested again anytime soon.

And what about his own strength?  Where had it gone in the last few hours?  He felt like a new bride, married to a GI on a weekend pass, who'd just said good-bye to her husband at the gangplank of his troop ship, and stood there on the dock waving a fucking handkerchief and dabbing bravely at her eyes.  Was this what it was like to be—attached—to someone with a dangerous job?  Was this—this terrible waiting, waiting for something he didn't even understand—was this going to be a part of him now?

And why was he asking himself so many questions?  One blow job should not be cause for this level of anxiety.  It had been nice.  Great.  Okay, earth-shattering.  Universe-tilting.  But it didn't mean he had to pine away for Murdock every time he disappeared into a trackless jungle with a rifle and thirty pounds of explosives.  It didn't mean he had to stand here watching his palms sweat, worried the pilot was going to be hurt in some way Peck couldn't fix.  It didn't mean he was going to have a huge, gaping hole ripped in him if Murdock didn't come back.  

He closed his eyes as the unexpected pain startled him.  

Well, so much for that lie, he mused, marvelling at the sudden appearance of a small, distinct hole somewhere in the region of his heart.   Diagnosis, Doctor?

He closed his eyes again, picturing Murdock's warm brown eyes, his open, sweet grin, hearing his soft, honey drawl, imagining his strong, wiry body...  

Diagnosis?

You're going straight to Hell.

Do not pass Go.

Do not collect $200.

But the hole had disappeared.  

Temp grinned at himself, at the whole damn crazy world, shook his head.  I never would have believed it, he thought.  Just like that.

"Doctor?"

He spun around, surprised by the sound of the soft voice behind him.  "Yes?  Ah, how can I help you?" he asked in Spanish, a little guilty at being caught mooning like a pimply-faced adolescent.  

"I wanted to come and see how the boy was doing."  Temp looked the man before him up and down.  He was perhaps sixty, though hard living could have made a younger man seem older.  His shoulders were slightly stooped, and he wore a misshapen, dirty cotton shirt and pants that had faded with age.  His eyes avoided Peck, but when they lighted on Antonio the doctor caught a flash of something smoldering and feral.  His pulse jumped.

"Are you related to Antonio?" Keep him talking, he heard something inside him say.  Make him look at you, focus on you.  

But the man remained riveted to the small form lying helpless on the bed.  "We are all related, in some way, Doctor.  Our people have been living on this mountain for centuries.  They were here before us, and they will be here when you and I are dust."

"That's true," Temp agreed.  "The people will survive, won't they?"  At this, the old man's gaze swung toward him.  The impact of it on Temp's skin seemed out of proportion to the strength of the frail shell containing it.  "With or without our help," he added.  Shit, he thought.  Where was Rosa?  That's right, she had gone home to make breakfast for her family.  She wouldn't be back for—

The man assessed Peck.  "Sometimes," he answered, and Temp noted insanely that his voice was like dry leaves, "we must do what we can to restore the balance."  He turned away, then, and took a step toward Antonio.

"What makes you think things are out of balance?" Peck asked, deliberately keeping his tone low and soothing.  What had he done with the shotgun?  He forced his eyes away from the man so that they could scan the room.  There, over there, in the corner.  How far?  Twenty feet, twenty-five?  Dully, Peck noted that he was closer to Antonio than Temp was to the gun.  And what would be the point?  He wouldn't be able to use it, and he had a sinking feeling that threatening the old man with it wouldn't be enough to stop him.

The man had halted, but was still eyeing the boy intently.   "Miracles do not happen on this mountain," he murmured, more to himself than in answer to the question.

"Well, that may be true," Temp breezed, shifting gears.  He moved forward, putting himself between the old man and Antonio's bed.  He locked gazes with the other, stared straight at him, determined to force his attention away from the boy.  "But we can try to live the way He would want us to."

"How can you say—" the man growled, his rage finally seeping through his placid exterior.  He stopped abruptly when he caught sight of something.  His dark, withered hand rose, pointed at Temp's open collar.  "You wear the Crucifix."

Eyes never leaving the other, Temp touched the small gold cross hanging around his neck.  Leslie had given it to him.  He hoped the faith behind it would be enough to protect all of them.  "That's right.  I'm a Catholic."  He paused.  "Like you."

"LIAR!"

Temp's mind raced along several paths at once, weighing options, calculating distances.   The old man—not so old, judging by how quickly he moved—stepped toward him, at the same time reaching in his pocket for—

it's a knife, shit, focus, which way is he going to go—

Temp kept his eyes focused on his face rather than the knife, still trying to make a connection, but there was nothing there that he could latch on to.  The man's eyes were cold fire, reflecting but not absorbing light.  Seeing nothing but the world he had made in his own head.

Calling on knowledge he hadn't used since his youth, Peck determined that he would wait for him to strike, then move his arm into position.  Hope the old man made a stabbing rather than a slashing motion, so that the knife would stick, and he could disarm him that way.  Quickly, he wrapped the BP cuff around his right wrist, the most vulnerable place.

"Now, Ortega," a voice drawled from the doorway to Temp's left, "I do not think I want you to do that just yet."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"There's three guys outside the centre, Hannibal," Rudy announced.  In the faint dawn light, they could just make out the outlines of shapes and people, see the wisps of smoke curling from cooking fires.  But Murdock only had eyes for one person, a person he knew was inside the building a hundred feet from their position.  A chant began within the confines of his head, tugging at the edges of his fragile sanity, unraveling the threads.

Alive.

Wounded.

Dead.

Alive.

Wounded—

"His prize goons, I suspect," Hannibal observed.  "Let me have a look."  Rudy handed over the binoculars, and the Colonel raised them to his eyes.  After a moment, he lowered them.  "And Ramirez?"

"Inside by now, I imagine," Rudy answered.

"We need a diversion," Hannibal informed them.  "But we gotta be careful.  It can't be anything that'll draw fire.  Too easy for the townsfolk to get shot up."

"I'll go," Rudy said immediately.

"Wait," the Colonel murmured, and even in the dimness Murdock could see the wheels turning.  "Where's Rosa's place?"

"About four houses that way," Rudy told him, indicating a direction away from the centre.  "But why do you need to know that?"

"Because we gotta get you and Murdock cleaned up, fast," Hannibal smiled.  "Come on."  

Willing his legs to move, Murdock turned away and followed them.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"You promised me this one!" shrieked Ortega.  The old man was shaking now, emotions suppressed for God knew how long pouring out of him.  "I told you about the other gringos, informed you of their plans so that you could kill them.  I get this one and the boy."

Jesus Mary and Joseph—

"But you gave me the information a little late, old man."  Ramirez' smile was thin, dangerous.  "By the time I reached the mine, it was wrecked beyond repair.  My equipment, everything destroyed.  And the gringos were gone."

Thank God—

"You will defeat them eventually," Ortega dismissed Ramirez with a wave of his hand.  "Let me make an example of this one for you.  I will show you how it is done."

"Not yet.  I need to ask him some questions.  And I may require him as a hostage.  For that, he must remain alive—for now."

"Noooo!" Ortega wailed, the sound piercing.  "You will not stand in the way of justice!"  He took a step toward Temp, who raised his arm instinctively—

—just in time to ward off the spray of blood that spattered his face when Ramirez shot a neat hole in the old man's temple.

Ortega's head snapped sideways with the force of the blast, then he crumpled.  Temp stood stunned for a moment, but turned swiftly when he heard a wail come from behind him.  Antonio.  The boy probably hadn't seen the shooting; the sound of the gunshot had startled him from his sound sleep.  He didn't dare look around at the other kids, some of whom were doubtless awake, but who were staying mercifully quiet.  He had to stay focused.

"Shut him up, or I will," Ramirez hissed.

Temp leaned down and spoke quietly in Spanish, uttering soothing words he imagined a mother might say, words that meant nothing and everything, stroking his forehead and calming him, until Antonio's breathing evened and slowed.  He offered a prayer of thanks when the boy closed his eyes.

He looked up then, and the contrast between this man and poor, deluded Ortega was obvious.  

Ortega had been a man once.  

Temp suppressed an ironic smile.  He wasn't the one standing on the dock, waving the hanky.  Murdock was.

And his GI wasn't coming home from the war.

"Not here," he told Ramirez.  "I will do whatever you want, but we have to move to another room."

A malevolent smile spread over Ramirez' features.  "Who am I to deny the martyr the site of his own martyrdom?" he chuckled.  He waved the gun at the door to the clinic.  "Lead on, Doctor."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"Shit.  The ward is dark.  It was lit up before.  That'll make it harder to find Ramirez once we get in."

Murdock stood beside Rudy, trying to keep from screaming.  Was anything else going to go wrong?  The clothes they'd borrowed from Rosa's sons were too small.  He pulled at the sleeve of the shirt, found a thread that was coming loose, twirled it between his fingers.  Clockwise.  Counterclockwise.  They'd all heard the gunshot about five minutes ago.  Every one of his nerve endings had lit up like a Christmas tree, and they were still buzzing, making the soles of his feet ache when he walked.

"He's probably got the doc in another room," Rudy speculated.  The pilot noted he didn't sound completely convinced.  "The office, maybe."

Murdock forced his brain to assemble itself.  The office was in the back.  There was one small window, high up.  "Do you think he'll see BA and Hannibal?"

"In this light?  I don't think so.  They'll stay out of sight anyway."

Rudy lowered the binoculars, laid them on the ground.  In the still morning air, the pilot heard it:  the soft quacking where no self-respecting duck would be caught dead.

Caught.  Dead.

Stay together, just a little longer.  He deserves that.

"That's our cue.  Let's go."

The two of them staggered around the corner, in plain sight of the goons in front of the centre.  But then, that had been Hannibal's plan.  Scrub off the camo paint, borrow some clothes meant for someone a head shorter, gargle with Rosa's rubbing alcohol for that touch of versimilitude, and launch two six-foot-plus gringos at the bad guys, hoping they'll be taken for locals.

Fat fucking chance.  

The biggest of the three, who wasn't much bigger than half of Rudy, spotted them first.  He snapped to attention and shouted at them.

Rudy started singing.  Murdock recognized the tune as a questionable Mexican drinking song he'd heard one time in Tijuana.  Something about Pancho Villa, two pounds of refried beans, and a goat.  He wasn't focused on the lyrics, because he was too busy trying not to get himself shot.

Not that it mattered if—

Stay.  Together.

"Querida!" Murdock yelled, eyeing the ‘big' one with what he hoped would pass for drunken lust.  "You are as beautiful in the dawn as you were last night, under the stars."  He took a few steps forward, pretending to trip over his own feet.  The guy raised his rifle halfway.  Murdock made a rude motion with his hips.  "And under me."

Rudy elbowed him.  "Thas' not Maria!" he slurred.

"Consuela!"   

"Whatever!" Rudy shouted.  "Thas' a man.  Can't you see that?"

Murdock squinted at the goon.  "Mother of God!  You're right!"  He stumbled forward a little more, but the weapon didn't move this time.  Ten feet.  Almost there.  "What an ugly son of a whore."

Half-pint growled.  "Get out of here, you drunken curs.  If you still have sense to know what's good for you, you'll go home and sleep it off."  He gestured with the rifle.  "Now."

"Hey!  He's got a gun!"

"I's very shiny.  I like it."  Rudy giggled.

"Bet he wouldn' be so big without it," Murdock giggled back.  He whispered in Rudy's ear, then held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart to indicate a certain measurement.  The two of them collapsed in fits of laughter.  Staggered a little closer.  Six feet, five.

The goon roared, dropped the rifle, and launched himself at Murdock.

I'll be damned, Murdock thought, just before the wind was knocked out of him.  Hannibal is either the most brilliant strategist of all time, or he's got a dozen rabbit's feet jammed up his ass.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"Do you honestly expect me to believe that?"

Temp folded his arms, his face arranged in the most pleasing, easy, nonchalant mask he could put together on short notice.  He was good at this, he reminded himself.  Granted, he'd never played for these kind of stakes, but the scam at the junkyard had given him confidence.  In truth, he lived by masks.  Everyone was fooled, from his fellow patrons at the Beverly Bay who thought he was one of them to the patients who were able to sleep soundly and heal when his reassuring expression convinced them everything was going to be all right.

Dangerous, to try this, though, with Ramirez.  But there was no other way.  He had to buy the other men time, time to complete whatever they needed to do.

"Believe what you want," he answered.  "I had no choice but to go with them.  You have heard of the Vietnam War?  They were members of our equivalent to the Viet Cong, elite guerilla troops.  Ruthless, merciless.  When they threatened my life, I believed them."

Ramirez arched an eyebrow.  "But if they are such cold-blooded killers, why did they want to bring a doctor to care for children?"

Peck barked a laugh, and the other man twitched, startled.  "To protect Kowalchuk's investment?  How the hell should I know?  The people of this village are more valuable to him alive than dead, I know that much.  Why he wants them that way...well, they didn't let me into their confidence.  But since I'm now sure they plan to kill me, they didn't always censor their conversations around me, either."

"You heard something," Ramirez speculated.

Slowly, slowly.  Let him come to you, that's it.  "I might have."

The dark, small eyes narrowed.  "What do you want?"

Temp smiled thinly.  "What the hell do you think I want?  Why should I tell you anything when I'm just as dead with you as I am with them?"  He paused, trying to balance the mix of false desperation and cockiness in his tone.  "I could care less about you, your mine, your whole fucking country.  These kids—of course, I want to help them—but the sad fact is, they were dying before I got here.  They'll be dying after I leave.  What difference does it make?  I want to get back to my practice and my penthouse and forget this whole nightmare ever happened."

Ramirez waved the gun impatiently.  "And so?"

"I'll talk.  I don't owe them any loyalty.  But I want a guarantee of safe passage out of this hole."

"And how do you know you can trust me?" Ramirez' lips curved into something that might have been a smile on a human being.

"Oh, I don't," Temp smiled back, sweetly.  "But if that letter I wrote the other day reaches its destination, I imagine my father's lawyer can be trusted to bring Dad's money, and the whole US State Department, down to this rat-infested place should I turn up missing."  He paused for effect.  "You haven't heard of my father, I take it.  Senator Peck of Maryland?"

Shit.  That was laying it on a little thick.  Too late now, he admonished himself.  Just keep on going.

"I don't suppose your friends in the government will be very happy about the scrutiny.  Of course, the letter may never get to the States.  It's a risk....for both of us."  He stood there, keeping his face neutral.  

They stared at one another.  Peck held his ground, let the mask take over, while inside his head thoughts and emotions raced, quicksilver.  

He could beat this son of a bitch.

He would.

He wouldn't let his life end before he'd had a chance to tell Murdock—

Ramirez opened his mouth to speak.

And suddenly, the metal roof over their heads erupted in a cacophony of sound.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


The rain arrived right on schedule.

On the other side of the community centre, BA had turned on the pump connected to the underground spring which served the town's water needs.  Rudy had helped to dig the well right after he arrived here in ‘74, and now it was used to provide safe, potable water for all who wanted it.  It had also been a big help at a couple of house fires, where the whole town had come together to form a bucket brigade.

Right now, the pump was connected to a fire hose that BA was using to spray a mock downpour onto the building's roof.  Hannibal had figured the noise from the water hitting the corrugated tin would cover up the sounds of activity.  Activity such as the one Murdock was engaged in now.

He landed a solid punch on the little goon's jaw just as Hannibal himself rounded the corner of the building.  Together, he and Rudy tackled the other two guys, and within seconds were rolling around in the mud like a couple of Swedish lady wrestlers.  Murdock tried to gain a footing so that he could lever himself over the other man, but his foot slipped and he went down again with a curse.  Hannibal hadn't factored this into his plan.

"Now I've got you!" crowed Half-Pint, as he jumped on the pilot again.  The air whooshed out of Murdock's lungs and he sucked in water.  Coughing and spluttering, he warded off another blow, and then suddenly the weight of the other man was gone.

"Let me go!" the man screamed, arms and legs flailing, as Rudy picked him up bodily by the waistband and the neck of his t-shirt.  His cries turned abruptly to wretched hacking noises when the front of the collar bit into his windpipe.

"For Chrissake," Murdock hollered at the huge Pole, "don't let him puke on me!"

"Wouldn't dream of it," Rudy answered mildly, swinging the goon around like a drowned cat and letting go.  The little guy let out a high-pitched shriek, then hit the mud face first with an impressive splat.

Murdock pushed himself cautiously to his feet and surveyed the scene.  The other two men had been similarly dispatched, and Hannibal was nodding in satisfaction.  "Okay," he began, flattening himself against the side of the building and tugging his 9 mm from its holster, "let's quit wasting our energy on the circus clowns.  It's time for the high-wire act."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


"It is only the rain," Ramirez told him mildly.  He pointed to the office's tiny window, and Temp looked up to see the drops sheeting over the glass.  "These downpours arrive suddenly."

Temp had been afraid the relief he'd felt at the commotion had shown on his face, but if it had, Ramirez hadn't picked up on it.  For an instant, he'd thought the noise meant the cavalry was coming, but how could it be?  Murdock and the others couldn't have gotten here that fast.  

Peck made an impatient sound.  "Just another thing to hate about this whole damned place," he growled, returning to character, shooting an angry glance at the heavens.

"Do not worry, amigo.  You will soon be back in your beloved penthouse."  Temp's eyes locked with cold brown ones.  "Yes.  I will agree to your terms."

He hadn't expected it to go this well, though he was under no illusions the weasel was telling the truth.  "All right, then," he smiled.  "What do you want to know?"  Inside, his stomach lurched unpleasantly.  He hoped like hell that Ramirez had many, many questions.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock could hear voices inside the office.  Couldn't tell who it was because of the noise over his head, but they were both men, and they were speaking in Spanish.  The door was solid and thick, and there was no other point of entry to the room except for the window, which was inaccessible without a ladder.  They didn't have time to get one.  

Think, dammit, think, he's still alive in there, you know he is, don't screw this up—

Rudy tapped him on the shoulder and motioned him to follow.   He reluctantly retraced his steps down the hall to the ward.  

In the darkness, he could make out Hannibal squatting beside a small, crumpled form on the floor.  As they entered, he looked up.  "He must've been the one who got hit when we heard the shot."

"One of the kids?" Murdock asked, holding his breath.

"No.  An older guy."  

Rudy bent down beside him, turned the body slightly so that the light from the hall fell on the face.  After a moment, he sighed.  "Ortega," he whispered.  "He lost everyone who ever mattered to him.  He didn't know any of the children here.  Why would he have been visiting the hospital?"

Hannibal raised his hand, and Murdock saw a flash of something metallic.  A knife.  "I don't know. But five'll get you ten he was the one who tipped off Ramirez."

"Señor Kowalchuk," a reedy voice called, and the big Pole sprung to his feet.  Antonio lay in the semidarkness, his eyes huge in his thin face.  "He went with the bad man," he told him, in rapid Spanish.  "Doctor Peck.  I pretended to be asleep, but I wasn't.  I knew you would come."

"It's all right, Antonio," Rudy whispered, laying a hand on his shoulder as the boy tried to haul himself up.  "We know where he is."

"But will you be able to get him out safely?" he demanded, voice suddenly stronger.  Murdock was impressed.  The kids around here grew up fast, too fast.

"What's he saying?" Hannibal asked, and Rudy translated swiftly.  Then:  "What has he got in mind?"

"I will call to him, and you will get the bad man as he comes out."

Rudy translated again.  Hannibal shook his head.  "Too risky.   I want to take this guy down before he gets another chance at the kids in the ward."

"Then carry me out into the hall so that I can call him from there," the boy ground out, between clenched teeth.  "He saved my life.  I will not be able to hold my head up if I do nothing for him."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


The rain slowed, then stopped.  Temp's heart leapt again.  Did rainstorms last for only ten minutes here?

Apparently, Ramirez didn't think so.  He paused in his questioning, and regarded the ceiling with suspicion.  

"Doctor Peck!"

The voice was barely audible through the door, but he could tell it was Antonio.

"Doctor Peck!"  Louder now.

"It's, ah, one of my patients."

"As you said, Doctor," Ramirez smirked, throwing his own bullshit back in his face, "they were dying before you left, and they will continue to die after you leave."

"But while I'm here," Temp persisted, shoving down his rage and disgust, "I have an oath to uphold."  He adopted a pretentious, holier-than-thou tone he'd heard a few of his colleagues use.  "After all, even though I am a plastic surgeon, I am, first and foremost, a healer."

The snake stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing.  "I am sure you ‘healed' many noses and wrinkles, noble Doctor," he chuckled.  "Very well.  Indulge yourself, for this one last time."  Peck pinned him with a look, and he held up his free hand, feigning innocence.  "Your last time in my country, I mean."

Temp turned and started for the door, waiting for the bullet.  Would he even hear the shot?  How did that work, usually, in the movies?

He tried not to gasp when he felt the gun barrel prod him in the back.  "You will also indulge me, will you not?  Allow me to watch the great healer in action?"

"Sure," Peck breezed.  His hand reached for the knob and pulled the door open.  It swung inwards, and he stepped into the hallway.

"Doctor Peck!" Antonio's voice rose again.  

His heart stopped cold.

The ward was on his left, the meeting room on his right.  

The sound had come from the right.

"I'm coming, Antonio!" he called, just as Ramirez stepped into the hall behind him.  Please, Antonio, he begged silently, stay quiet now, just stay quiet, or he'll come for you—

And then everything happened at once.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Murdock found that Hendrix was great for timing.

The wall of sound blocked out all thought and emotion and focused him on his task.  He lowered the needle on his mental record and the song blasted through his brain.  Guitar, bass and drums pounded in unison.

One, two, three, four—

And BANG!  Right on cue, Hannibal pulled open the back door to the meeting room, and it slammed against the wall, hard, just as the doc and Ramirez went past.  In the plan, this would make the slimeball turn—

One, two, three, four—

And then, Murdock would pull open the door at the other end of the hallway, and yank Temp inside, out of the line of fire, as Hannibal drew down on the guy.  Risky as hell for the Colonel, but it couldn't be helped.

One-two—

He pulled the door open.  Darted a look into the hall—

Purple haze
All in my brain—

—And saw it all going to hell.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


At the loud bang, Temp twitched.    Maybe you heard the shot after all.

When he didn't feel any pain, his mind reeled, changed direction.  That wasn't a gunshot, what—

The pressure against his back disappeared.

"Drop it!  Now!"  Smith's voice, behind him.

A door opened in front of him, and he caught a flash of a face—

Oh, thank God you're all right, thank—

Then there was an animal roar, and he realized something was going horribly wrong.  Ramirez wasn't playing his part.  His free hand reached for Temp, and in slow motion, Peck watched the hand holding the gun swing toward him.

He knew that in another couple of seconds, he'd be as good as dead.

He wanted to look at Murdock one more time, but it was either that or—


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky—

Murdock's brain didn't have time to even formulate another plan.  He was in the middle of contemplating a dive for Ramirez' legs—

—when the doc's hand came down in a chopping motion on Ramirez' gun hand—

—sending the piece clattering to the floor—

—and Peck's elbow drove back into the guy's midsection, doubling him over.  He spun, lightning- fast, and brought his knee up to meet the bastard's jaw as it came down.  There was a satisfying cracking sound, and then Ramirez hit the floor with a groan.

Holy.  Shit.

There was a moment of silence, and then Hannibal started chuckling, low and slow.

"Nice, kid," he grinned.  "Real nice."  He turned toward the door from which Murdock had emerged.  "All clear, Rudy."

After a moment, the big Pole stepped out with Antonio cradled in his arms.  The doc went to him instantly, his hands moving over the child's body.  When he seemed satisfied with what he found, he took the boy's hand and met his eyes.

"Thank you," Peck told him, simply.  

Antonio nodded, once, and smiled.  Temp released his hand after a final squeeze, and Rudy carried him back to his bed.

Hannibal reached into his pocket for his cigar, frowning as he held up the soggy, muddy object.  "Well.  That's my own fault, isn't it?"

"Have one of mine," Peck offered, passing him a dry one.

"Thanks."

Jesus, Murdock thought, as the two of them lit up calmly and started puffing.  I've just had every drop of blood drained out of my body, and he's gonna stand there, cool as a cucumber, like nothing—

Then Temp's gaze locked with Murdock's, and the pilot could see a hundred emotions in those blue, blue eyes.  Raw.  Open.  Honest.

And in the moment before he closed his own eyes against the intensity of it, Murdock knew what it would be like to be with him.  Every heartbeat, every move, every caress, every kiss.  The slow, sure glide as they possessed each other.  It was beautiful.  Incredible.

Terrifying.

The pilot drew a shuddering breath, turned on his heel, and went to help BA with the goons outside.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Temp stood at the edge of the trees and watched him.

Murdock sat half submerged in the water, his eyes tightly shut, his hands spread out, fingers splayed over the pool's still, even surface.   At this distance, Temp could just make out the sheen of moisture on his shoulders and on his face, which was upturned as if to catch the last rays of dying sunlight clawing through the foliage.  

They'd spent the morning cleaning up, Temp in the clinic and the others with Ramirez and his minions.   At some point, Rosa showed up and shooed him out, and he'd staggered to his cot, barely making it before sleep claimed him.  He hadn't known how exhausted he was, but of course he'd been running on adrenaline since he'd arrived here.  They all had.  That was why it was no surprise that when he awoke a few hours later, BA and Hannibal were sacked out across the room, dead to the world.

He exited the cabin and found Rudy sitting outside, talking with a couple of the older village men.  They looked up when he emerged, and the conversation stopped.  Temp stretched and yawned.  "What's up?" he asked in Spanish, in deference to the others.

"Not much," Rudy replied.  "Hashing out the speech for the government officials when they come.  We've almost figured out a way to make this look like a big accident."

Temp couldn't help laughing at that.  An accident.  Some accidents were "happy".  Some were train wrecks.  Maybe this was the first happy train wreck.

Maybe he was still sleeping.  "Where's Murdock?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

He failed miserably.  Rudy arched an eyebrow at him, and he felt colour rise in his cheeks.  "I think he went up to the waterfall."  At Peck's quizzical expression, he pointed.  "It's about a half a klick from town, straight up the mountain.  We passed it on our way to the mine."  He pinned Temp with a look.  "They say the water has healing powers."

"Does it wash away your sins, too?" Peck smiled, only half joking.

One of the men, whose answering grin was missing a couple of teeth, leaned forward conspiratorially.  "Yeah," he replied.  "But only if you use soap."

The old men's laughter echoed in his ears as he watched Murdock now.  He didn't look as though he'd achieved metamorphosis, miraculously cleansed of the scars that life had inflicted on him.  If Temp had his way, he'd wish that for him, even though he had a deep, incontrovertible suspicion that he loved everything about this man, and would take it all, bruises, dents, scratches and scars, in a heartbeat.

Temp had thought he would fight it more, that he wouldn't be able to give up that control, the foundation of his life, even if he wanted to.  But somewhere along the line, in the truck or in Murdock's arms or the first time he'd looked into those eyes, he'd quietly, unceremoniously fallen apart.  The falling apart had been astonishingly easy; once you accepted that your whole existence had gone the way of Alice down the rabbit hole, the talking playing cards seemed normal.  Maybe he found it so easy because this was....

He couldn't help smiling as Murdock slowly sank beneath the surface, his hands the only part of him remaining visible.  As he watched, they formed into little Loch Ness Monster heads and began gliding through the water like synchronized figments of the imagination.  He smiled even wider at the feeling that came over him, the simple joy that crept up and smacked him like a playful six-year-old whenever he tried to look at his motivations too closely.

Whatever it was, he was being carried along by it, helpless to resist.  Or maybe, he had finally found something—someone—who made it safe to fall.

Murdock would be there.

Wait a minute.

Murdock wasn't there.  Temp shook his head, stared at the water.

His hands had disappeared.

Without realizing he was doing it, Peck kicked off his sneakers, peeled off his t-shirt, and ran to the water's edge.  Finding nothing but blackness, he gathered himself and dove.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Tarnation, as granddaddy would say.  They were right.  It really worked.

Cool water surrounded him, invading every pore. The pool was surprisingly deep in the middle, and as he touched the bottom with his toes, everything went quiet.  

He could have wept, if there had been any room for tears.

For a moment, for an eon, he relished the silence.  The screams, the hoarse cries, the voices long dead, they usually all competed for his attention.  Most of the time he could keep them at bay, but they were always there, in the background, the constant pressure of unspeakable memories.  

If he surfaced, they'd come back.

He thought about it.  Opened his eyes in the cool darkness.  This might not be a bad place to spend eternity.  You'd stay clean.  Get a little waterlogged, maybe.  He always hated it when his fingers and toes pruned up.  But he could put up with that.

Then an image washed over him, and it was as clear as if it were happening all over again. The expression on Temp's face as he came had been like nothing Murdock had ever seen; he'd witnessed surprise before, sure, and the pleasure, that wasn't new.  But he hadn't been expecting the relief, as though Temp had been dragging a mountain behind him and Murdock had just cut the rope.  As though Murdock was the answer to a question he'd been carrying around in his head his whole life.

He'd never been that important to anybody before.  It scared the shit out of him.

But it scared him even more to think he'd never get another chance to see that face.  

Hell, he thought.  Who wants to be clean anyway?

His feet pushed against the bottom, but as he began to rise, something slammed into him, sending him reeling.  Then hands were gripping his, dragging him upward, into the light and heat.  He broached the surface, spluttering and coughing.

"I'm OK!" he hacked, as Peck pulled him toward the bank.  His feet touched a rocky ledge, and he stood.

The other man turned toward him then, and his eyes spat fire and fear.  "What were you thinking?" he shouted.  "What—God, I—" Murdock watched as it hit him, watched as the adrenaline left him and he started shaking, a little.

For him.  For him.

"It's all right, muchacho," he grinned, to cover the emotion.  "I already decided not to kill myself.  Nice of you to be my hero, though."

Temp stared at him for a long moment.  "How can you joke about it like that?"

"Because there's nothin' else to do," Murdock sighed.  "Look, this is me, this is the way I work.  It's not the first time I've thought about it, and it won't be the last.  Creeps up on me, and then wham, y'know?"

"I can get you the meds you need," blurted the kid.  "Whatever you need."  His hair was slicked back against his skull, and a tiny gold crucifix glinted just below his collarbone.  He was even better wet.

Murdock shook his head.  "It ain't gonna fix me, not the way you want me to be fixed."

Temp reached out, fingers connecting with the pilot's jaw, the contact soft and hot and tender.  "I don't want to fix you.  You're—" He trailed off, and Murdock stared into his eyes.  Blue like the water of Cam Ranh Bay, he'd thought once, but they were bluer than that, all the oceans of the world rolled into one, every place he'd want to call home, everything he could ever—  

"You're everything I've ever needed," Temp breathed.

Murdock's heart leapt skyward, but he was right there with a baseball bat, slamming it down again.  No.  It didn't happen this way.  "Even if that was true, darlin'," he murmured, placing his hand gently over the other man's and drawing it away from his face, "I'm also a ton of stuff you don't need."  He laughed.  "Hell, I'm a ton of stuff I don't need.  But if I could take a knife and cut it all out of me, I wouldn't.  The things I saw, the things I did, the things I didn't do and should've—that's all me, whether I like it or not."

Peck said nothing, just kept staring, and Murdock started to feel jittery.  "I'm tryin' to do the right thing, here.  Thing is, I'm sorta used to not being responsible for anybody but me.  It's—it's probably better all round."

"You're responsible for Hannibal and BA," Temp pointed out.

"We watch each other's backs," Murdock acknowledged.  "But that's different."

"How?"

I'm not in love with them, Murdock thought.  Aloud, he answered, "They've been through the same kinda fire.  In their own ways, they're fucked up as much as I am.  We know what to expect, and if we die tomorrow—well, we've already cheated the odds a hundred times, so it's not somethin' we worry about."

When the other man finally spoke, his voice was rough.  "I think I get it.  I haven't been through what you have, so I can't really understand you.  What I'm feeling—it's not real, is that it?  Just because I haven't faced death?"

"That's not what I—"

"Let me tell you something," Temp interrupted, his manner deceptively calm.  "I faced death this morning.  I knew it might happen on this trip, and I didn't know how I'd respond, what I'd do, whether I'd do the right thing at the right time.  I thought that if I lived through it, it would change me somehow, make me over into something new.  I guess deep down, I also wondered if it would make me worthy of you."

Now it was Murdock's turn to stare.

"But you know what?" Peck continued.  "It didn't transform me.  I'm the same person I was.  After it happened, I was still a man.  I still love that I can save people's lives, and hate that I couldn't be what Leslie wanted me to be, and wish that I could turn back the clock ten years.  Because if I'd known you were there, I would have gone."

Jesus.  Jesus.  "Don't say that," he snapped.  "You don't—"

"I don't know what I'm talking about?" Temp snapped back.  "Bullshit, Murdock.  Even if I never went to Vietnam, I've seen enough of hell to know what I'm saying.  You just don't think you could be worth going through hell."

Suddenly Murdock's eyes clouded.  He blinked, tried to breathe.

"You want to hear the truth?" Peck smiled.  "I know you.  I know you because we're alike in that way.  Even though we've got different reasons for believing it, deep down, we don't think we deserve to be happy."  He closed the distance between them, and laid a palm over Murdock's rapidly beating heart.  "The truth is, Murdock, I deserve you.  I never thought I'd say that of something as good as you are, because I spent so many years denying myself, denying that I needed what everyone else did."

"And what does everyone else need?"  Murdock whispered, not trusting his voice.  "I always wondered."

"They need to know they're wanted."  Peck leaned forward, and Murdock closed his eyes at the feathery touch of lips along his jawline.  "They need to know they're safe."  The lips moved to his cheekbone, over his eyelids.  "They need to know they're loved."

Murdock's eyes snapped open.

"I deserve that, Murdock," Temp told him fiercely.  "And if it takes me the rest of my life, God help me, I'll convince you that you deserve it, too."

Then Temp kissed him, and it was like drowning all over again.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


At first, he was sure he'd lost.

Murdock's lips were cold from the water, and unresponsive.  Temp kept the pressure firm but light as he arrowed his fingers along the strong line of the pilot's jaw.  He tried to be patient, but it was as though time had slowed to a glacial pace, and every tick of the clock was an eternity.  There was no doubt in his mind that their relationship was destined to begin—or end— in this pool in the middle of the jungle.  And whether he liked it or not, the decision was now completely out of his hands.  

Despite his kindness and compassion, his zest for life and his heroic nature, Murdock was a man who had decided to freeze large chunks of his heart to protect himself and others around him.  His past experiences must have proven to him that there was no alternative, and Temp didn't know if their mutual attraction was enough to change his mind.  So he had all but admitted he'd fallen for Murdock in his little speech, and at this moment he was wondering if it had been too much, too soon.  Would the pilot run from the knowledge, in a misguided attempt to save himself and Temp?

Peck nearly chuckled into Murdock's mouth at that one.  Save me.  SOS.  He'd been on the edge of self-destruction all those months ago, when Murdock had first sauntered into his life.  His distress had been as obvious as a flare, and the pilot had responded, listening to him, comforting him, making him feel secure in a way he'd never experienced before.  And now Temp had a chance to repay the favour, to let Murdock know that he could fall apart without scaring Peck away.  But how did you do that?  How could you reverse years of disappointments and pain with a snap of your fingers?

Temp broke the kiss then and looked deeply into the dark eyes.  He didn't speak, just gazed at him, trying to convey everything he couldn't put into words.  

Believe me, he pleaded silently.

I don't know what this is yet.  But I do know it's too important to give up.

Don't give up.

The other man stared back, his eyes revealing fear, confusion, and maybe a small, fragile portion of hope.

And then, slowly, so slowly Temp couldn't believe it was happening, Murdock started to thaw.

The first thing he felt was the almost imperceptible touch of Murdock's hands at his waist.  Then, fingers spread across his back and feathered over his skin, making him shiver.  Finally, the pilot's head angled to the right, and he drew Temp forward for a sweet kiss that brought a lump to Peck's throat.

When they parted again, Murdock rested his forehead against the other man's.  "You mean that?" he breathed, still unsure.  "Tell me now if you don't.  It's OK if you don't—"

"I mean it.  I've never meant anything so much in my life."

"This isn't gonna be easy.  I'm not—easy."

"To me you are," Temp smiled, his emotions choking him.  "Please, God, Murdock, I need—"

And then they were in each other's arms, and Murdock was kissing him as if his life depended on it.  Peck felt the desperation, and the hunger, and the wild joy pour out of him like the water that surrounded them, and he gave back equal measures of each.  

Temp's hands relished the alternating sensations of rough hair and smooth skin as they devoured Murdock.  They trailed over his arms and chest, gripped his firm buttocks, then moved forward to caress him intimately.  When they reached their destination, Murdock gasped into his mouth, and Peck grinned.

"This time it's for both of us," Temp promised, his fingers stroking hardening flesh, and the other man groaned his assent.

After a prolonged moment, Temp broke his hold on the pilot to strip off his own shorts.  Murdock pulled him close, and they sighed together at the contact, both of them finally freed of all physical barriers.  The unseen barriers would take longer to fall.  But for now, this was a promising start.  Peck disentangled himself from Murdock for a second to cast a glance around the pond.  Soon, he found what he was looking for.

"C'mere," he murmured, taking Murdock by the arms and maneuvering him backward and to the left.

The other man cast a nervous glance behind him.  "Whut—"

"There's a big rock over here, a couple of feet under the water," Temp explained.

"And this is a good thing because?" Murdock prompted, his lids heavy with arousal.  He reached out to grasp Temp's erection, but was fended off.

"Not so fast," Peck chuckled, pushing him back another step.  "And now—sit down."

"On the rock?"

Temp smiled wickedly.  "It'll be worth it."  

Murdock's eyes blazed, and he complied, sinking into the water up to his collarbone.  Temp gazed down at him, and time slowed again.   Thirty years of living, and he'd never wanted to do this.  He'd never felt this fierce need to be owned, and to own in turn.  Never trusted anyone enough to give in to that kind of possession.  But he was burning with the need for it now.  

He moved toward Murdock, letting the water buoy him as he settled himself astride the other man's lean hips.  He kissed him again, deeply, giving him his tongue, the inside of his mouth, his soul.  Then he lifted himself up and took Murdock's cock in his right hand.

The brown eyes registered surprise.  "Wait a minute, muchacho.  You need to—"

"Already did," interrupted Temp, his thighs shaking as he contemplated what he was about to do.

Murdock stared at him.  "When?"

Temp felt a blush rise to his cheeks, remembering his earlier preparations in the tiny bathroom.  "Back at the centre, after I found out where you were.  I figured we'd have a chance to be alone up here."

Before Temp realized what was happening, he gasped at the sensation of Murdock's skillful fingers exploring the crease between his buttocks.  Then one of the fingers pushed in, and he whimpered.

"Jesus," Murdock breathed.  "You are ready for me."  The look in his eyes was one of such astonished gratitude that Peck's heart stumbled in his chest.

"I've been ready since I met you," growled Temp.  Forcing any remaining doubts from his mind once and for all, he positioned Murdock at his own entrance and slid down onto him in one smooth motion.

Oh.  God.

He'd been expecting it to be strange, even unpleasant at first, but this—this terrible fullness was too much.  Was this how women felt the first time, as though they were bursting?  He pushed up with his legs, gliding Murdock's rigid shaft nearly all the way out.  Closing his eyes, he forced himself back down again, driving Murdock in all the way to the hilt.

And then he screamed.

The pilot grinned.  Reaching up, he bracketed Temp's face with his palms and leaned in to capture his unresisting mouth.  "You like that, baby?"

Temp could barely focus.  He remained mute, too stunned to even nod.

"Bet they didn't tell you in med school how good your prostate felt, did they?"

Peck's answer was to raise himself up and slam himself down once more.  He turned his head to suck one of Murdock's fingers into his mouth, and gave it a long, hard pull.

"Oh, Christ, what you do to me," Murdock gasped.

Temp released Murdock's finger and leaned forward to run his tongue up the pilot's neck.  When he reached an earlobe, he bit down on it gently, savouring the moan from the other man.  

Experimentally, he stilled his movements so that he could concentrate on his body.  The feeling of fullness was still there, but it was less alien.  Then he heard the other man make a noise of frustration, and some devil in him spoke.

"Want to know something?" he whispered into Murdock's ear.  

The pilot's ragged breathing was answer enough.

The words that emerged from his own mouth shocked him.  "I never want you to leave, either."  

Murdock's desperate cry nearly sent him over the edge.  He felt fingers dig into his ass, lifting him up, then shifting to his hips to shove him down again.

"Please," the other man begged, all control gone.  

Temp pulled back to gaze into those brown eyes.  His fingertips traced the contours of Murdock's features, and he smiled.  

"Thank you," he said, simply.  

Then he began to move.

Aided by the water and Murdock's hands, Temp's rhythm slowly increased in pace and intensity, until they were both sobbing into each other's mouths.  His whole world was reduced to this moment and this place, the solid, rough rock under his knees, the cool, healing water lapping at his chest and arms, the man buried deep within him, owning him a little more with each sweet thrust.  The sound of the waterfall behind them echoed in his ears as he drew nearer to the most shattering orgasm he'd ever experienced.  Then Murdock's warm, strong fingers wrapped around him, and he was lost.  

And found.











January 1, 1979


Temp stood in the middle of the room and tried to lose himself in the laughter and noise of the crowd.

Abby Stein's parties were legendary at City of Angels, and he was going to miss them.   This one had lasted most of yesterday, and would continue well into the daylight hours, so that staff pulling the holiday could stagger in after their shifts.  Tomorrow she'd start working full- time at the East LA clinic she'd started with a handful of friends a few years ago.  They'd finally received the funding they needed to make it into a full-service facility, and now the members of the community would have access to low-cost health care.

It was her dream, and she was living it.  He was happy for her.  

Someone blew a plastic party horn right beside his left ear, interrupting his thoughts.  Probably just as well, he mused.

"Hey, Miracle Man!" He turned at the touch of a hand on his arm.  Abby stood there, copper hair blazing, green eyes sparkling with amusement and champagne.  "Why so glum?"

"I'm not—glum."  Temp hated that nickname, and she knew it.  He'd acquired it last week when he'd delivered a baby on Christmas Eve.  The mother had been in bad shape; she'd never been in for so much as a checkup all through her pregnancy, and the fetus was underdeveloped due to her poor nutrition and reduced blood flow in the umbilical cord.  This last was a direct result of the cord being wrapped twice around the baby's neck and knotted, a fact which had nearly ended the baby's life.  Both were now recovering nicely, but he wished the mother hadn't called him that in front of Abby, of all people.  It had spread through the ER like wildfire.

Abby leaned in close so that she could be heard above the din.  "Like hell, gorgeous.  C'mon."  She took him by the same arm and began dragging him through the mass of people crammed into her apartment.

Since he didn't feel like yelling, he followed.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Abby offered him a cigarette, but he shook his head.  She lit up, took a long drag and blew smoke into the cool LA night.

Temp folded himself over the balcony railing and studied the spiderweb of street lights stretched out below them.  Found himself wondering if Murdock was out there.  Got mad at himself for wondering.  "I thought Dora was getting you to give those up."

"Yeah, well, it's my New Year's resolution."

"When does New Year's officially start?"

She held up her pack of Lucky Strikes.  "After this is gone.  I think I can make it last about six months."

Temp chuckled.  The two of them stood for a couple of minutes, enjoying the stillness.  The blare of the music and conversation inside was muted by the heavy glass doors.

"You served in Vietnam," Temp blurted, the words emerging without his consent.

Abby looked at him.  "Dora and I both did."

"How long were you there?"

"Two years."

Temp drew in a breath.  "I—ah, I met someone.  Someone who was there."

"A nurse?"

Temp shook his head.  "A—a pilot."

There was a pause.  Abby took another puff.  "Does he have anything to do with your obviously listless nature of late?"

"I suppose so."  He gestured, frustration building.  "This is—damn, it's so complicated."

Now it was her turn to chuckle.  "It always is.  Was he the reason your marriage—?"

"No.  Not directly, at any rate.  It was falling apart long before that."

"Well, at least you don't have that baggage to contend with."  Her eyes stared out into the blackness.  "My daughter is going to be seven in February.  I get to see her on special occasions, and for scheduled visits.  As long as they're supervised, of course.  There is the potential for corruption, you see."

He stared at her.  "I didn't know it was like that."

"Yeah, well, it's not something I get into with my coworkers.  True Confessions of a Lesbian."  She stubbed out her first cigarette and shook another one from the pack.  "But we're not officially coworkers any more, so I don't honestly give a rat's ass."  Her gaze swung toward him, pinning him.  "You could be letting yourself in for a whole lot of trouble."

He barked a laugh.  "I'm already in trouble, Abby."

"That bad, huh?"

He nodded.  "There's more to it than that.  He's—he leads a very dangerous life.  It's not like we can settle down in a little cottage built for two.  And even if he could, I don't know if he'd want to."

"You don't know if he'd want to with anyone, or just with you?"  

Temp sucked in air, unsure of what to say.

"Jesus, Temp," Abby sighed.  "It's never ceased to amaze me, the way someone as talented—not to mention delicious—as you are could have any doubts in that department.  But then, it's a disease that strikes at random, isn't it?"

"Not at random," Temp smiled faintly.  "There's a long incubation period.  And there are certain factors that promote its growth."

Abby shifted a little so that she could lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  "It can be cured, you know."

He looked at her.  "Yeah?  Do you recommend the treatment?"

Abby nodded.  "It cured me.  Dora—" She trailed off, paused to collect herself.  "She saved me.  Simple as that."

Temp stared at her.  It was as though the pieces of the puzzle had suddenly assembled themselves in his brain.  "What if you both need to be saved?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," Temp grinned, "I'm tired of waiting on the dock."  He kissed Abby on the cheek and gave her a brief, crushing hug.  "Thanks."  He spun toward the balcony doors and pulled them open, letting a pounding disco rhythm escape into the night.  

Abby laughed at his receding form.  "Anytime, Doctor Peck."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.

Murdock stood in the darkness of the high-rise apartment, watching the night play out past the floor-to-ceiling windows.  The sky was still dark from this angle, but in the east he knew the first inklings of dawn would soon be pushing their way over the hills.

He was probably out there somewhere, having the time of his life.  

Murdock rubbed at his eyes.  Fourteen hours on the road, running from Lynch.  BA sour the whole way because it was the holidays and he wouldn't get to see his mama again.  Hannibal restless because he'd landed a part in a horror movie and didn't want to be late for the first day of shooting.  He was the star, some rubber-coated dude called the Aquamonster or the Mudsucker or whatever.

And Murdock?  He was sour, and restless, and frustrated, depressed, angry, you name it.  Most of that was directed right at himself, especially the anger.  He could've called.  He could've even figured out a way to see him, hot as things were.  They'd lost the MPs again, and the trail was definitely cool enough that he wasn't risking his neck or Temp's safety by coming here.  

But he knew when he jimmied the lock to this place that he was risking a lot more than freedom or safety.  He was risking himself, all of it, the whole enchilada.

That was why he hadn't made more of an effort to show up.

But the days had passed, and it hadn't gotten any easier.  Days turned into weeks, and Murdock could still close his eyes and remember what it felt like to explode deep inside him.  Then Christmas came. They were in Memphis, and as he'd walked by a travel agent's shop, he'd suddenly been brought up short.   In the window was a huge, gaudy ad for Club Med, with a picture of a happy couple strolling down the beach.  He'd been horrified to find himself blinking back tears.

He was a fucking basket case.  

Questions and arguments chased each other endlessly in his brain.  Was he trying to protect himself or Temp?  Both, he supposed; was that such a bad thing?  Not exactly, but did he have the right to tell another person how to live his life?  Of course not, but that wasn't what he was trying to do.  Was it?  

He shook his head violently.  This had been a mistake, stupider'n jumping without a parachute.  He still didn't have the first idea of what he wanted to say.  Of what he wanted to do.

Murdock willed his feet to move.  

He had almost reached the door when he heard the locks turning.  

He stood there in the dark, frozen in place.   The last lock clicked and the door swung wide.

"Jesus!"  Temp's hand went to his chest as his eyes registered the other man's presence right in front of him.

"‘S just me, muchacho," the pilot soothed.  "Sorry to do that to you again."

"You're here," Temp breathed.  Slowly, he reached behind him to close the door, then switched on the lights.  Murdock squinted against the sudden brightness.

Then, to his surprise, the doc burst out laughing.

"Whut?"

Temp shook his head, held up a hand.  "I, ah, it's just that every time I decide I'm going to be a hero, you always pop up and remind me you don't need one."

"I wouldn't say that," Murdock murmured under his breath.

Peck studied him, clear blue gaze unsettling.  "I was going to jump in the shower and then spend the day looking for you.  If I didn't find you today, I was going to keep looking tomorrow."

"What if you didn't find me tomorrow?" the pilot asked, annoyed to hear his voice tremble slightly.

"As long as it took," Temp told him.  "I didn't want to wait any more."

Questions and arguments.  "You might have to wait sometimes.  There might not be a way ‘round it."

"I know."  Peck stepped closer, eyes watching Murdock as if he was going to spook and run any second.  Fat chance of that, with Temp blocking the way out.  Would've been tempting otherwise.

"And then if we're caught, or even if we're not, they might get to you."  Murdock stuffed his hands in his pockets.  "Follow you.  Harass you.  Maybe even try ‘n ruin your career.  It's a pretty big risk for you to take."

"It's worth it.  You're worth it."  He took another step, and Murdock could feel his heat.  "Have you got anything else you want to say?"

"Plenty," the pilot sighed.  "But I can't think of anythin' right now."

"Good."  Peck's arms went around him and pulled him into a bruising kiss.  

Murdock's knees actually weakened.  He didn't know that could happen.

Temp broke the kiss with obvious reluctance, then pressed his cheek against Murdock's.  "God, I missed you," he whispered.  

Against his better judgment, the pilot felt his own arms come up to hug the other man.  "Me too, darlin'," he admitted.

The doc loosened his hold enough to look into Murdock's eyes.  "There are a hundred reasons why this isn't a good idea, and I'm sure you've thought of them all.  We could talk about them until we're blue in the face, or we could take them as they come and deal with them."

Temp touched his lips to the other man's gently.  "I can tell you I meant what I said in San Pedro, that I'm not going to give up on this, but in the end it's all just words.  The only way you'll know for sure is if I actually stick around.  But in order for me to do that, you'll have to be here too."  He smiled fondly, fingers reaching up to brush back a stray lock of Murdock's long hair.  "Think you can stick around for a while?"

Murdock opened his mouth on an objection, closed it again.  You want to live forever, flyboy?  

Then jump.

"I think I can," he said finally, heart beating triple time.  "Yeah."


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*


Temp awoke from a sound sleep just as the sun was descending into the Pacific.  Orange light flooded his bedroom, bathing the walls, the furniture, and the man gently snoring beside him in a warm, honeyed glow.

He was still here.

Moving slowly so as not to wake him, Temp pushed himself to a sitting position.   He hadn't had the chance before to study Murdock like this, and he took full advantage of it now.  He was rangy, just this side of skinny, with dark, coarse hair matting his chest and abdomen.  His neck was long and elegant—a contradiction on an otherwise wholly masculine frame—and curved out into nicely proportioned shoulders.  Temp's gaze strayed lower, and he suppressed a shiver at the memory of that morning.

While he watched, Murdock stirred.  One arm flung out, landing squarely on Peck's stomach.  

The pilot's eyes flew open.

Temp smiled.  "Hey, sleepyhead."

It took a moment for Murdock to become fully aware of his surroundings.  When he did, his hand began to move,  fingers tracing feathery patterns across Temp's chest.

Peck couldn't hold back the shiver this time.

"C'mere, baby," Murdock wheedled, pulling at Temp's arm now.  "Cuddle up with me."  He maneuvered the other man until they were spooned together, the pilot plastered up against Peck's back.  His left arm draped over Temp possessively, and he sighed like a contented cat.

Temp laughed.

"Whut's so funny?"  He tried to sound put out, but Temp could hear the grin in Murdock's voice.

"I'm just thinking back to the night we met.  You seemed so dangerous when you walked into that bar."

"My hands are lethal weapons."  He tweaked one of Temp's nipples to prove his point.

"And at first, anyway, I thought that you were going to try to take advantage of me."

"I prey on the drunk and the beautiful."

Temp grabbed Murdock's hand and bit one of the fingers playfully, then kissed it.  "Shut up.  I was going to say that it didn't take me long to change my mind.  Something told me I could trust you."

There was a pause then.  Temp listened to the sounds of their breathing.

"I trust you too, you know," Murdock murmured.  "I just don' trust myself."

Temp pressed his lips to the other man's palm.  "You don't have to.  Not yet."

Murdock squeezed him tight, kissed the skin over the vertebra at the base of Temp's neck.  "Happy New Year," he whispered.

"Happy New Year, Murdock," Temp agreed.

They fell asleep again, safe in each others' arms.




End





Acknowledgments: Thanks to the wonderfully supportive people at the A-Slash and VA, who gave me many warm fuzzies to help this thing along.  And thanks to Jim, who is very kind to read and give feedback despite being squicked by slash (for him, I cut out the romance!), and whose help with military details is invaluable.  I also appreciate the insights of the A-Team Story Board members, who have made great  suggestions to help me tighten this up.



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