CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

October 13, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 11 Days

Face had stayed on guard, checking out everyone who came in or out of the room, burying himself back in solitude once assured no intrusions were coming his way. He didn't even try figuring out what their plans were now. He was too busy trying to keep the memories at bay.

Murdock would wander into Face's room, stand at the foot of the bed, waiting for him to look up. He never did, and Murdock would wander back to the other room, where Face could hear voices. Sometimes Murdock and BA, sometimes only the rumble from the television.

Hannibal had been on the other bed, reading through some papers. A quick glance revealed several pill bottles peeking out from the bag beside him. Face had felt a sudden flare of anger. Cleary had tried that, shoving him full of pills, trying to make him 'normal'. So he said. All they did was make the memories come back stronger. As if he needed that.

The day had passed, although he hadn't really noticed. The sun through the window seemed to shift in spurts. Someone would step over to the bed, Hannibal or Murdock. Ask if he was okay. That's how he knew he'd said something out loud. Made him try harder to stay focused. They knew too much already.

Sometime after the sun had disappeared, and the lights were turned on, Hannibal told him they would be leaving in the morning, early, so he should try to sleep. Just like he put those sandwiches on the table, told him he should eat. Face couldn't eat, not when he kept having those waves of nausea. He didn't want to try sleeping; that would leave him wide open to all the thoughts he was fighting.

They didn't understand. How could they? He thought about the drive to LA. He didn't want to go, didn't want to be in the van, or some motel room. Didn't want to be around them. He just wanted to be left alone. Totally alone.

He wanted out.

They'd be going through the mountains. Familiar terrain. He could disappear into those rocks and trees and never be found. Never have to hear the disgust in Hannibal's voice, see the scorn in BA's eyes, or feel Murdock's pity. Never have to talk to them, or anyone else, ever again. Hellish as they'd been at times, he longed for those eight months in the jungle. At least he'd been free. Maybe for the only time in his life.

At some point during the night, he had found it almost impossible to stay awake. He looked over at Hannibal, who was stretched out, snoring lightly. Face knew he'd be awake in a moment if Face had another dream. He slid slowly off the bed, waiting for some sign that the colonel as waking up, and finally made his way carefully to the bathroom, carrying a pillow and blanket. He tried not to, but felt compelled to check the lock twice before he felt comfortable. He left the overhead light on, folded the blanket around him and lay down on the floor.

The next thing he knew, Hannibal was knocking rapidly on the door. He sat up stiffly, a feeling of dread almost immediately filling him.

Time to head to LA.


*****

October 14, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 12 Days

Hannibal woke to BA shaking his shoulder. Roughly. He opened his eyes, squinting up.

"Where's Face?" BA's whisper told him Murdock was still asleep. Good.

"He's in the bathroom. He slept there last night."

BA straightened, glaring at the bathroom door. "What the hell did he do that for?"

"I suppose he wanted some privacy. Or didn't want to wake any of us up."

"He all right?"

"Nothing in there he could hurt himself with." Hannibal sat up, looking at his watch. Five o'clock. He stretched, then climbed out of bed. BA looked at him and he realized he was still fully dressed. He shrugged. "You ready to head out then?"

"Might as well. I'll get Murdock up if you wanna get him out." He headed back to his room, then stopped. "Unless you gonna need help."

"He's not homicidal, BA, so no. I won't need any help."

BA shrugged and left. He could hear him telling Murdock to get his ass out of bed, and Murdock's mumbled response. He smiled and headed for the bathroom. At least those two seemed more themselves today.

He rapped lightly on the door, got no response. He knocked a little louder, a little faster, and heard some shuffling inside. He breathed a sigh of relief, despite what he'd told BA. A moment later he heard the door being unlocked, and he stepped back as it opened. No sense starting the day by scaring the hell out of the guy.

He looked like hell, but then that wasn't unexpected. He hesitated before coming out, and still wouldn't look Hannibal in the eye as he passed. Hannibal pursed his lips; Cleary had said Face wasn't really combative, just extremely self-protective. So, new day, new start.

He walked around and sat on the bed, across from Face. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking uncomfortable but not as tense as he'd been yesterday. Hannibal smiled softly.

"We're going for breakfast before we hit the road, kid. I think you should come with us. Get some fresh air, decent food. What do you say?"

Face glanced up at him, and Hannibal could see the uncertainty. Yeah, kid, your choice. No demands, no orders. Not yet.

Finally, Face nodded. Hannibal looked him over - he didn't look that bad. Getting him into the restaurant would be victory enough; forget a shower and cleanup.

BA and Murdock came in a few minutes later, and for a moment, Hannibal thought Face was going to change his mind. But after that first tension, he followed Murdock out the door, followed closely by Hannibal and BA. Hannibal figured BA had the same thoughts - Face might be going along just in case he could slip away from them.

Hannibal was thinking things were starting to get back into their routine, such as it was. Face ordered what Murdock ordered, ate quietly, keeping an eye on the others, but seemed relatively calm. Murdock wasn't quite up to snuff, but at least he wasn't hyper, which was a blessing. BA seemed to be watching Murdock more and completely ignoring Face, which was worrisome, but again, something that could wait. They'd have a long time to work out that problem.

Things continued smoothly, other than Face taking one last look at the hills before he got into the van. A reminder to Hannibal that they weren't out of the woods yet. All he could hope for is that things stayed calm until they got to LA. After that, everything was up for grabs.


*****

They were moving further into the mountains, trying to skirt the main thoroughfares, but making good time just the same. Hannibal was keeping an eye on Murdock, whom he knew was keeping an eye on Face. So far, all was quiet on both fronts. They made a quick stop for lunch at another small roadside cafe. Again, things went well; if one didn't know better, they would never guess that these were anything but four friends traveling together.

In fact, things were going so smoothly, Hannibal decided they were ready to take the next step. He reached into his pocket, and placed three pills on the table beside Face.

"I'd like you to take these, Face. I got them from Dr Cleary. You remember him? He said they would help you feel better."

Face stared at the pills for a moment, then slowly picked them up. Hannibal wasn't sure if Face was still feeling 'obedient' or if he just didn't care, but Hannibal felt like crowing.

Face held them for a moment, then very calmly dumped the pills in the ashtray, before standing up and walking toward the door.

"Damn..." Murdock slumped in his chair.

Hannibal sighed as BA got up and followed Face. He fished the pills out of the ashtray - nothing like leaving a neon sign for the waitress - and went to pay the bill. Murdock stayed close.

"Think he'll ever take them, Colonel?"

Hannibal grabbed a toothpick and almost sauntered to the door.

"Oh, yeah, Murdock. He'll take them."


*****

Murdock was getting bored. Very bored. He'd been watching Face - surreptitiously, of course - but all he did was stare out the window. Murdock had asked BA to turn on the radio, and just gotten a glare in the mirror. Even Hannibal didn't seem to want to talk. They just kept driving.

And the longer they drove, the closer they got to the VA. And Murdock still hadn't seen that file. After that little scene at the restaurant, Murdock was more sure than ever that they were going to need Richter's advice.

Hannibal might think Face would eventually take those pills, but Murdock didn't. He'd seen that momentary glint in Face's eye when he dropped them in the ashtray. Not like he was angry. More like he thought it was funny. No. That wasn't it, either.

Was he challenging Hannibal?

Murdock looked to the front, thinking about what Hannibal had said after that. Shook his head. Just like Nam. Hannibal had fallen for it.

But that didn't make sense. Face sure hadn't acted like he wanted to challenge anyone yesterday. Or this morning. So why now?

He looked back. Face was still staring out of the window, but something was different. He wasn't just watching the scenery go by. Murdock had seen that look on his face before. Many times. And again, it had been back in Nam. He'd get that same look.

Every time he was planning something.


*****

BA rolled his shoulders, keeping his eye on the road. He wasn't really stiff, just...restive. And he knew Hannibal had noticed. But Hannibal had his way of doing things; sure as hell didn't need - or want - BA's opinion. Not where Face was concerned.

"Care to tell me what's bothering you, BA?"

BA frowned. Damn Hannibal. The voice had been soft, but not so he could pretend not to have heard.

"Nothin."

Hannibal pulled out a cigar, rolling the window down a few inches before lighting it. "Is that the same nothing that has you ignoring Face? Or is it the nothing that has you practically crushing the steering wheel?"

BA deliberately loosened his grip. He hated it when Hannibal noticed the wrong things.

He glanced in the mirror at Face, still in his spot at the rear of the van. Forced himself to keep his voice down. "You shouldn't'a let him get by with dumpin them pills."

Hannibal sighed. "One, it wasn't the place or time for a fight. Two, I may have let him win the battle, but the war is far from over."

"Dammit, Hannibal, quit actin like this is some damn contest! It ain't. You gonna start doin the same dance you did back then, and look what that gotcha both."

The minute he said it, he knew he shouldn't have.

Hannibal tossed the cigar out the window. He took a quick look toward the back before leaning over toward BA. "In case you've forgotten, Sergeant, I wasn't the one who told us Face was dead. That, Sergeant, was your best friend. Remember?"

"And you was the one that took that job in the first place! Only reason you didn't turn it down was cause Face said there was somethin off about it. And you had to prove him wrong!"

"I had no choice!"

"You always got a choice!"

"Guys! Guys!" Murdock leaned forward. "Getting a little loud." He nodded toward the back.

BA looked in the mirror. Face was looking toward the front, but there was no sign he'd heard their actual words. BA gripped the steering wheel, glaring at the road.

Hannibal turned in his seat, back ramrod straight, and Murdock slowly sat back in his seat. BA glanced in the mirror again. Face was looking out the window.

BA knew he should've kept his mouth shut. Couldn't tell Hannibal nothin.

Not where Face was concerned.


*****

Murdock slowly ran the spoon through the mashed potatoes, watching as the gravy slid through the channel he made. Like a river. A muddy, sluggish river, but a river, just the same. He heard Hannibal clear his throat and looked up to see his warning frown. He smiled and scooped up some of the offending potatoes, waving the spoon cheerfully in the air.

"Knock it off, fool."

Ah, the familiar low growl from BA. Hadn't heard from him in at least five minutes. Not since the meatloaf. The man was no fun at all. But then, neither was Hannibal. Maybe they could sit in that van for hours at a time, but he couldn't. Not with all that energy building up. And they wouldn't let him talk. He'd only wanted them to see the things he was seeing, the things hiding in the brush alongside the road. It wasn't as if they were bad things. And some of them were actually real.

Those two just had no imagination.

He looked over at Face. Face had too much imagination. That's why he let the dreams take over. Murdock knew about that. Face hadn't learned how to reign them in yet, pull himself out of the nightmares.

"I can drive for the next stretch if you want, BA. It's what, four, five hours?" Hannibal's voice was almost conciliatory. Not quite. BA was still too uptight to accept that. Hannibal knew BA so well. Murdock smiled.

"Yeah. I can drive it. If everybody'd just keep their mouths shut."

Oh, BA, don't start it up again. Don't need another argument. And he's sitting right there. Not like he can't hear you.

"Everybody's tired, BA. That's why we stopped. Give everybody a break." Uh-oh. Little edgy there, Hannibal. Cool it. Coooool it.

Dark clouds moving in. Stop it, you two. Relax. Relax. BA, you've still got some milk left. Good for settling your stomach, but you can blow bubbles in it, too. Loosen up. Have some fun. I could show you...no, no. Settle down, Murdock. Calm. Calm...

"Yeah. Okay, Hannibal. Okay."

Good. Good. You know he couldn't help it, BA. I didn't like hearing it either, but that's what happens when you dream bad things. It all comes out, like it or not.

Face suddenly stood up and Murdock jumped. Just a little. Watched as Face headed toward the men's room. He still hadn't said anything to anybody. Still wouldn't look anybody in the eye. Murdock sighed. Not your fault, Face. Why won't you believe that?

He looked over at BA and Hannibal. They were watching Face's progress across the room. He walked a little stiffly. All those hours in the van, never moving. Hannibal frowned, and Murdock looked over at Face. He was studying the door to the men's room. Shit. No lock, is there, Face?

Murdock stood up quickly, and walked casually across the room. He wanted to rush over, but he didn't. Face wouldn't like it if he made a scene. Take your own advice, Murdock. Cool it. Calm. Natural. Normal.

"Hey, Face. Just stretching my legs." Yeah, you don't believe it, do you, Face? You can see through everything. "Maybe we can take a walk before we head out again. Get some fresh air. I'll just wait out here for you, okay?"

There's that look. Grateful. Embarrassed. Sad. It's okay, Face. We'll fix it. We will.

That's what we do.


*****

BA watched Face, making sure he was headed for the men's room and not the exit. Just for a moment, he hoped Face would turn. Make a run for the door. Just for a moment.

Long enough.

That bothered him. Not nearly as much as not knowing what he would have done if Face had taken off. He knew he'd have gone after him; Hannibal would expect that. But if it were just BA's choice?

Murdock had gone over there now, talking to him. Like Murdock would be any help.

"You have to take it easy on him, BA. Not only because it just makes things worse for him. It gets to Murdock as well. We don't need two of them going -"

"You're right there, Hannibal. We don't need two of them. Sooner we get Murdock back to the VA, the better."

"And what about Face?"

BA sighed. Looked down at his plate. What about Face? They had to take care of him. They owed him that. They had to try and make it up to him. Make it up for Wiley. Still...

"I can't deal with that shit, Hannibal. Tol you that already. And I still think we gotta find some place for him. Hell, how we gonna help him when he won't even look at us?"

"We have to make him realize it wasn't his fault, that there was nothing he could do. Then..." Hannibal looked away.

"You sure of that, are you?"

"What?"

"That there was nothin he could do? I mean, I'm just sayin. Maybe not the first time, but...maybe he figured it was the only way to stay alive."

"BA..."

"What would you have done, Hannibal?"

The colonel didn't answer. Like BA figured. He wasn't the only one thinking about that.

"I'm gonna go gas up the van. I'll bring it back around when I'm done."

BA got up and strode to the door. Murdock smiled as he passed by.

Damn fool. Like there was anything to smile about.


*****

"What would you have done, Hannibal?"

Hannibal stared, speechless, at BA. What the hell...? Before he could find his voice, BA was up, heading for the door.

Was that what was really bothering BA? Did he really, honestly think Face had any choice?

But then, BA hadn't seen Cleary's files. Didn't know what Face had been like when they found him. In the hospital. That was someone who was living on pure instinct. Not someone who made rational decisions. BA didn't know that.

Hannibal would have to tell him. He'd keep that file to himself, but he could tell BA what he needed to know. No way in hell was he going to go on thinking Face chose that. Whether that would make it easier or harder, Hannibal didn't know. Didn't care. BA wasn't going to use his dislike of Face to turn this around on him.

Time for BA to grow up.

He reached into his pocket for a cigar. Came up empty. He sighed. He'd gone through way too many of those this trip. He'd have to catch up with BA and get one out of the glove compartment. He definitely needed a long, quiet smoke before getting back on the road. He could grab a cigar, come back and have that with a last cup of coffee...He wouldn't be gone but a minute.

He walked past Murdock. Face was still inside, but that didn't worry him. It took time to check every nook and cranny, and then recheck them. Looking for the Bogeyman.

"Back in a minute, Murdock. Holler if..."

Murdock smiled back, nodding.

Right, Murdock. And you're just fine, too.


*****

Murdock leaned against the wall, watching through the window as Hannibal followed the trail of the van toward the gas station next door. See? They knew he was okay now. If they didn't, they wouldn't have left him here with Face, all by his lonesome.

Nice going, Murdock.

He frowned. Looking quickly around the room, he sidled over, putting his ear against the door to the men's room. Jumped back when he heard a bang from inside. Sighed. Face, still checking the stalls. That would be the...third time. Man, he had Murdock beat all hollow when it came to paranoid. Bet he didn't have the menagerie in his head that Murdock did, though.

He leaned back against the wall, deflated. That was not how normal people think. It's not a crazy contest. His lips pursed. He knew how it felt to be paranoid about everything; the first few months at the VA he'd checked every inch of his room every night, every morning. Including the dresser drawers. Especially those.

He looked up as a couple walked past, the woman moving abruptly to the other side of the man. Away from Murdock. Damn. Had he been talking out loud again? Shit. He'd better get his act together. Hannibal was trusting him. Don't screw that up.

Speaking of Hannibal...

Murdock stepped toward the window, looking over at the gas station. Too many big rigs over there. Couldn't see the van at all. He glanced back. He hoped Face was okay, hadn't gone off into the netherworld in there. Maybe he should go in and check...no. No, that wouldn't work. No sirree...

He looked out the window again. A movement to the side caught his eye. Aw. Some lady out there, trying to hang on to her kid and a big bag of groceries. Cute kid, but sure wasn't cooperating. He glanced back at the door, then looked back at the woman. That kid was bound and determined to get away. Too much traffic out there. Way too much.

One more glance at the door. It shouldn't take that long to put a bag of groceries in the car for that lady. That's what a gentleman would do. Face would.

He wouldn't be gone only a minute...