CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

October 14, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 12 Days

He'd awakened to BA's angry warning.

"Shut him up, Hannibal. I mean it!"

"He's awake, BA." Murdock's voice was tense, almost as angry as BA's.

Face forced himself to stay awake after that. He'd tried, very hard, not to react to what was going on around him. Not in the van, not here. He knew something was going on between BA and Hannibal, and he'd had a pretty good idea what it was, but it had been that exchange in the van that confirmed it. And with BA's last comment, Face had to get away. Because he knew BA was only saying what the others were thinking.

Now, standing in the men's room, back against the door, he tried to relax, tried to stop that buzzing from taking over again. He should get out. Now. Before...

Before what?

He paced across the floor, hesitating at the stalls. Six of them. Doors closed. They were empty. He knew that. Stepped past the first one. Swung back, slamming the door open.

See? Empty.

He went down the row, shoving every door wide open. All empty.

He was alone.

That's what he wanted. That's all he'd wanted.

He went back toward the door, the buzzing persistent in his head. Fought it down. Not now. Not here.

Murdock was out there. Guarding the door. Guarding it. Like Face needed protection. He didn't need that. He could take care of himself. Look what he'd survived. He didn't need them. He didn't need anyone.

He looked across the room. One window, high up. He could reach that. He could slip out, take off, never have to see any of them again. He started walking toward it, felt the excitement. On his own again. No one belittling him. No one looking down at him.

He stopped by the first stall. He'd already checked them. They were empty. He was sure of that. Sure of it.

The echo of the banging doors faded away as he stopped in front of the window. He could reach that. Be free. Free of them.

But he didn't climb up to the window. He didn't race off into the darkness. He stood for another moment, staring at nothing. His head was a mass of swirling pictures - pictures from Nam, before the robbery, before Chow's camp. Before it all went wrong.

And just as suddenly, it was all gone. The pictures. The thoughts. The buzzing. The energy that went with it. All gone. He rubbed his hands over his face, hard. What the hell was the matter with him? Everything was so complicated now. They were out there, waiting for him. Why? Why? If only he understood...so much he didn't understand. So much confusion. Too many questions, decisions, feelings...he felt he really was going mad at times.

He stared at the door for a long moment. Enough. Enough. No more thinking. He'd do what he needed to, when he needed to. That's all he could do now. He took a long shuddering breath, and opened the door.

Murdock wasn't there.

Face frowned, stepped out into the restaurant. Their table was empty, the waitress clearing off the dishes, and no one waiting by the door. He stepped outside. Looked quickly in all directions. A couple of hunters talking by their pickup, a woman standing by her car, trucks pulling in and out of the station.

No Murdock. No BA. No Hannibal.

The van was gone.

Face's breath left him. He stepped to the side, still looking, more frantically now. He moved down the sidewalk, along the front of the restaurant, away from the lights, the trucks, the people. Moving without even realizing he was. Bumped into a corner, stepped out on the blacktop, still looking.

He kept moving. Had to keep moving.


*****

There were two things that Murdock had never really gotten the hang of - females for one. Well, mothers, anyway. Children were the other. Probably because he didn't have that much experience with either. When he'd rushed out to help the mother, he had no idea that she would see his arrival as anything other than the help she so badly needed. Nor did he have any clue that children were so aggressive.

The first thing the woman did when he came bouncing up to the car was step back and drop her grocery bag. Still stepping back, pulling roughly on her son, she brought up her key chain - with attached pepper spray. Murdock immediately stepped back, hands in the air.

"Whoa! Whoa! Just here to help, lady! No harm, no foul! Honest injun!"

It took a moment before the woman lowered the pepper spray, but she still grasped the kid's hand tightly. He squirmed, trying to get loose.

Murdock grinned and knelt down in front of him. "Hey, buddy. You don't want to go running around here. Too many big trucks."

For his efforts, Murdock received a well-placed and hefty blow to the nose.

Her bag of groceries already laying in ruins on the ground, the woman swept up her son and quickly placed him in the car, all the while keeping a wary eye on Murdock. He sat on the ground, gingerly feeling his bruised nose, thankful there was only a small trickle of blood. Once the little monster was in the car, Murdock scrambled up and began picking up the scattered remains of the woman's groceries.

"Please, just leave me alone! I can manage!" The woman was grabbing items from him as quickly as he picked them up.

"I'm just trying to help, lady."

"I don't need your help! Now please! Leave me alone!" She tossed the remainder of her groceries, along with the torn bag, in the back seat and slammed the door. She gave him one last glare and plopped herself in the driver's seat. The car backed away so quickly the fender nearly took Murdock's leg with it. He jumped back just in time, and stared, forlornly, as the taillights disappeared into the night.

Shaking his head, he turned and moved back to the restaurant. He frowned, cocking his head to one side. Damn. That looked like Face.

No. That was Face.

Hurrying off toward the gas station...


*****

Hannibal finally found the van on the far row of gas pumps. BA looked up from under the hood, dip stick in hand, concern immediately on his face.

"Problem?"

"No, just needed a cigar." Hannibal smiled, trying to hide the feeling he'd been gone too long. No point in getting BA riled up again.

"You left those two alone so you could get a damn cigar?" He slid the oil stick back in place and slammed the hood down.

"I only planned on being gone a minute or two. I didn't realize you'd be parked in Zanzibar."

BA shook his head, climbing into the van. "Well, get in and let's get back before one of em screws up."

Hannibal frowned but climbed in. "We get back to LA, I think you and I need to have a talk, BA. Just get some ground rules straight."

"I already give you my ground rules, Hannibal."

"Okay..." Hannibal waited while BA maneuvered a little too quickly between the semis, "let's say we need to come to an understanding. And then we'll make some new ground rules."

BA shot a glare at Hannibal, but said nothing. Moments later they parked in front of the restaurant. Hannibal quickly opened the glove box, feeling that he definitely needed that cigar now, but BA was staring through the restaurant's windows.

"Hannibal - where are they?"


*****

Shit! Shit! Shit!

Murdock ran along the sidewalk, trying to keep Face in sight. He'd had a good head start, and was walking fast. Real fast. Murdock nearly panicked when Face started across the parking lot, seemingly ignoring the trucks lumbering past him.

Not good, not good. Hannibal's gonna kill me for sure...

Murdock lost sight of him as he made his own way through the traffic. He stopped on the other side, breathing hard, frantically looking in every direction. Why the hell had he gone out to help that woman anyway? Not thinking straight. Not thinking. But he knew damn well what Face was thinking.

He caught a movement, off to his left. Yeah, that was Face. Heading for the lake now. He started running. Why the hell did they have to stop at the only lake within a thousand miles, anyway?

Hannibal's gonna kill me.

He moved off the blacktop, his feet sliding on gravel. Face hadn't slowed down one bit. Murdock caught his balance and sped up. Had to catch up before he reached the water. Didn't know what Face had planned, but Murdock had to catch him before he did whatever it was he planned. Had to. This was all his fault. Damn. All his fault.

Murdock damn near cried when Face stopped within a few feet of the water. Just stopped. Murdock slowed to a fast walk, then slowed down to a casual stroll as he came up closer.

"Hey, Face. Decided to go for that walk without me?"

Face kept staring at the water. In the moonlight, Murdock could see his jaw, clenched tight. Had to hurt.

"Uh, Face, sorry I wasn't there when you came out. There was this lady out in the parking lot, and she needed some help, so I just...I just stepped out quick to help her out, y'know?"

Silence.

"Look, Face, I'm sorry. I know what it must've looked like. But I wouldn't leave you, man. I wouldn't."

Face finally turned and looked at him. Right at him.

"Why not?"

Murdock blinked. Oh, boy. He should've expected that. Now he had to tell him.

"Because I did once before. I was the pilot who picked up Sergeant Arnhold in Laos." Even in the moonlight, Murdock could see Face go pale. He hurried on; best to get it all out in the open. "The locals went back into the jungle looking for you and Kyle. They found Kyle, but Arne thought it was you. He wanted to go back for the...body, but I decided it was too dangerous. And I didn't find out until the next day, back at base, that you were there at all. If I had known...no, no, I should've just gone back for the body. And then Arne would've realized...and then we coulda sent somebody to look for you and...and dammit, Face, I'm sorry. Ever since I found out...it's just...I can't...I'm just...I'm sorry, Face. I'm sorry. But see, that's why you know it won't ever happen again. I won't let it happen again. Ever."

Face had turned back to the water. Staring out at it.

"Face?" Murdock licked his lips; they felt like sandpaper. "Face, I really, really am sorry."

Face looked at him one more time. Again, right at him.

"You think I give a flying fuck, Murdock? You think 'sorry' makes it all right? Fuck you!" Face turned and started striding away. He stopped, shouting over his shoulder. "You're just the last nail in the coffin that Smith built, Captain. He's the reason I was there in the first place. Where's his fucking apology?"

Murdock watched, stricken, as Face disappeared into the darkness.


*****

BA was out of the van almost as fast as Hannibal, hurrying right behind him into the restaurant. Hannibal nodded toward the men's room, and BA turned immediately to check it out. Hannibal made for the waitress at the counter. She looked up, a bit surprised, but smiled.

"Hi there! I thought you-all had left already."

Hannibal smiled back. "A little mix-up. You didn't happen to see our friends leave, did you?"

"Yeah, at least the tall guy. He took off a few minutes after you left. Kinda sudden-like."

"And the other man?"

She shook her head. "No, I didn't see him."

BA came up just then, shaking his head. Nodding his head in thanks at the waitress, Hannibal led the way back outside.

"Okay, she said Murdock left very suddenly just after I did. She didn't see Face, so I have a feeling..."

"Face got away from him. Damn." BA shook his head, looking around the truck stop. Too many people, trucks, cars.

Hannibal headed immediately for a group of hunters standing around a pickup. He described first Murdock, then Face. They'd seen Murdock heading for the gas station. One of them thought he'd seen Face, but hadn't really paid attention. Hannibal moved on, stopping a couple just outside the gas station. They hadn't seen Murdock, but had seen Face heading away from the station, toward the lake.

BA sighed, looking at Hannibal. "Split up?"

Hannibal didn't answer right away. He had to think. And fast. Splitting up would be the logical choice, but then again...

Murdock had been getting more and more freaky, but hadn't gone overboard. Not yet. Hannibal didn't know how Face had gotten away from him, but at least Murdock had apparently had presence of mind to follow. Even if he lost track of Face, Hannibal figured Murdock would just go back to the restaurant and wait for the others. One benefit of Murdock being off kilter - if things started getting beyond his control, he'd usually head for safe territory instead of getting himself more confused.

Usually.

It was more important to find Face. Hannibal had no idea what that guy was thinking, or even if he was thinking; he could be running purely on instinct. The need to get away from them, the situation, his own screwed up thoughts...anything. And if that was his mindset, anybody who got in his way could end up with major damage.

He glanced at BA. Major damage was also the reason he didn't want BA working alone. The combination of an out-of-control Face and a resentful BA could destroy any chance those two had of reconciling. More importantly, it could push Face so far away from all of them that Cleary's solution would be the only option left. Ironically, Hannibal did want BA close at hand when they found Face, just in case Hannibal couldn't talk him down. It wasn't an alternative he wanted to think about, and he was quite sure it wouldn't be necessary - but no way in hell was he letting Face go. Not now.

"Hannibal? We gonna split up or what?"

"Or what, BA. We look for Face first. Murdock will find us."

BA shook his head, but Hannibal ignored him. He started walking in the direction Face had gone. Fast. Hannibal wasn't forgetting about that damn lake.


*****

How far Face walked, he had no idea. Had no idea where he was walking. He only knew that he couldn't stop. Had to get away from Murdock, from Hannibal, from everyone. Had to. Otherwise...

He couldn't get away from those thoughts. Those words. Arne. Murdock had been so close... All those months with Harry...in the jungle...all those months...If only he'd...

No. It wasn't Murdock's fault. Much as he'd like to blame him. Much as he'd like to hate him for it. Murdock didn't know.

Hannibal did.

Hannibal was the one who left him. Left him trapped, surrounded by gooks. Thought he'd be killed. Surprise, Colonel. Didn't die. Not then. Not the way you planned.

Face thought about the last couple of days. The looks. The words. Bringing it all back. Making him feel like something...dirty. Like he hadn't tried. They didn't know! He'd done what he could. He had.

It was their doing. They were the ones that put him in that hellhole, that stole...everything. They walked away. The heroes. The great Colonel Smith and his legendary team.

How dare they? How dare they!

He came to a sudden stop. Dizzy. Couldn't catch his breath. His head was reeling with pictures, his body could feel every cut, every blow...everything. God, he'd done what he could. He'd tried.

Not hard enough.

He closed his eyes, dropping to his knees in the mud by the shore. Just like the mud in the rice paddies...on that riverbank...

Not hard enough...

He just wanted to forget it. Forget it all! Why wouldn't they let him? Why wouldn't everyone just leave him alone?

Just leave him the hell alone...


*****

Murdock stumbled again. He had to pay attention to where he was walking. Not that he thought it really mattered. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knew he had to find Hannibal.

But he wasn't really sure that mattered, either.

Face didn't want them. That was obvious. Not only did he not want them - he hated them. And Murdock could understand that as well. They'd earned his hatred.

At least, Murdock had.

He should've gone back for the body. He shoulda shoulda shoulda...

He stumbled yet again, bumping into someone, felt them grab his arm. Great. He didn't need to fight some drunk now.

"Sorry, sorry..."

"Murdock!"

He looked up, startled.

"Hannibal!"

"Are you all right? Have you seen Face?"

Murdock looked down. "I'm okay, but Face..."

"What happened? Where is he?"

"I just left for a minute, Colonel. I swear. There was this lady out in the -"

"Never mind that. Where's Face?"

"He took off that way." Murdock pointed off into the darkness. "I told him about Arne, and not going back for the body, and he just...got all cold and..."

"Okay, okay. We'll find him. You go on back to the restaurant, wait in the van."

"But, Hannibal..."

"Just do it, Murdock." Hannibal and BA started off at a trot.

"Colonel, wait!"

"What is it, Murdock?"

Murdock gulped at the tone of voice. "He's...he's really pissed off at you, Hannibal. He blames you for...for everything. He's really, really mad."

Hannibal pursed his lips. "I figured that, Murdock. Don't worry. We'll handle it."

Murdock watched as the two men ran off toward the lake. He didn't like the look on either of their faces. Somebody was going to get hurt. He just knew it.

And now he'd been shut out. Hannibal and BA were just going to make matters worse. They didn't know how to handle someone like Face. Hell, Murdock had seen guys like that at the VA, and he didn't know what to do.

He slowly headed back to the van, hands in pockets, head down. There had to be something he could do. There had to be.

He never should've gone looking for Kyle. Never, never, never. Face may have been in trouble, but he had friends that would've helped him out. Now, he'd been taken away from them, and shoved in with guys he hated. Guys who would make him remember and live with what had happened, instead of just letting him be.

Murdock kicked angrily at a stone, sending it skittering across the blacktop. It was all his fault. He should've just let things be.

He finally reached the van, and climbed into the back seat. He left the side door open, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in. He put his head back, closing his eyes. For the first time since starting this quest of his, he really, seriously, wished he were back in his familiar room at the VA. He longed for the routine, the sameness. For people who could help him when he needed it, and left him alone when he didn't.

He wanted to go home.

A truck rumbled past, and he looked up, frowning. Had he fallen asleep? What time was it? He leaned over toward the front seat, trying to see the clock in the glare of the street light.

Nope. In fact, less than two hours had passed since they stopped here to begin with. He shook his head. Why did it seem like forever?

He started to sit back in his seat when he caught a glimpse of the glove box. Hannibal must've forgotten to shut it tight when he got his cigars. He reached over, pushing the door, but it wouldn't close. Grimacing, he climbed into Hannibal's seat and reached in to shove aside whatever was in the way.

And then he saw it.


*****

BA saw him first. Kneeling on the ground at the water's edge. Hannibal motioned for BA to stay back, while he moved up slowly, making just enough noise so Face would know someone was coming.

It didn't seem to matter. He never moved.

Hannibal stopped a few feet away. He didn't know if Face was still angry, or if he'd slipped back into his safety zone, but Hannibal wasn't taking any chances.

"Face?"

A quick glance, no more. Hannibal sighed. Better than nothing. Just the same, he maintained his distance. What he had to say was bound to generate a reaction, and not a pleasant one.

"Face, I'd like you to just listen for a minute. Because I think there are some things you need to know before we can move on. So will you hear me out?"

Nothing. Hannibal waited.

Okay. He didn't say no.

"Face, after the robbery, when Dimitri took off, things got...out of whack. Badly. We thought you had been killed in a fall, along with Dimitri."

Face straightened, but remained silent. Hannibal glanced up at BA, but couldn't see his expression. This was going to be painful for all of them.

"Face, the reason we thought you'd been killed is because that's what Wiley told us when he came back. He said he saw you and Dimitri at the bottom of a cliff. Dead. With the PL coming in, we had no choice. So we left."

Face stood up suddenly, still staring out at the water, still silent. Hannibal stayed where he was.

"I give you my word, Face. If I had any idea that you were still alive, I never would have left. We would have found you, one way or another. We would have come for you."

"It's true, Face." BA stepped closer, voice soft, but firm. "Hannibal wanted to go back and make sure, even when the hills were crawling with gooks. But...me and Wiley wouldn't let him."

Face's head tilted back, and Hannibal could see his eyes were closed.

Then they snapped open. And he turned.