CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

October 14, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 12 Days

"Face, I'd like you to just listen for a minute... "

When hadn't he listened to Hannibal? Maybe not hard enough. Hadn't heard what he'd really been saying. But he'd listen now. Try anyway. It was hard. Had been for a long time. Like back in the caves, with Kyle and Arne. He'd be caught in a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they were talking about. Sometimes he thought he'd been following along and would say something, only to have them look at him like he was from some other planet. Or at that hospital. He'd get physically exhausted just trying to follow what Cleary was saying. Finally he just gave up. Not like with Jenny. Things weren't complicated with her...not completely.

"...out of whack. Badly. We thought you had been killed in a fall, along with Dimitri."

He straightened. Dimitri. The gooks took him. Their prize. Hannibal should've come back for Dimitri at least. He was important. Big time important. But they hadn't come back. Why come back for bodies? But how did Hannibal know there were bodies? Because there weren't any. Dimitri hadn't died...Damn. Sometimes he felt his mind was like a hamster, running on one of those little wheels. Just running and running, and going nowhere. Nowhere, and getting there fast.

"Face, the reason we thought you'd been killed is because that's what Wiley told us when he came back..."

Wiley?

He stood suddenly. What was Hannibal trying to do? Shift the blame to a dead man? Another betrayal? Did he think this one wouldn't matter? Who cares about a dead man, right? Another dead man. Wiley wouldn't do that. He hadn't liked Face, never made any bones about that, but he would never... no. No, Wiley could. He could do something like that. Face hadn't forgotten how Wiley was at Chow's camp, and during the escape. Hadn't forgotten what he'd said on the chopper, after...after Cook went down. Wiley blamed him for that, for...for damn near everything that went wrong. Even when things worked, Wiley had to find something wrong about the way Face had done things, gotten stuff...there was always something wrong with him. Wiley could've done it, then. And that meant Hannibal wasn't...

No. It was Hannibal's call. Hannibal should've made sure. He should have. Instead, he'd listened to Wiley. That time, and how many other times before? How many times had Face believed Hannibal was actually trying to connect, actually believed in Face...all lies. Stupid. Stupid! He'd learned to handle everything as just business, nothing more. So no one could touch him. It was a secure way of living, knowing that no one could catch him unawares.

But Hannibal had. And then he'd destroyed everything.

"...We would have come for you."

That's what I thought, Hannibal. But I was far too trusting, wasn't I? Trust - trust makes you too weak to survive. Especially against betrayal. Betrayal destroyed everything you and I built. Thought we'd built. And yet, it's that same betrayal that made me remember that I am totally on my own. That people only want me for what I can get for them, or until I threaten them in some way - their ego, their control, their security.

Was that it? Was that why Wiley had lied? Because I threatened him in some way? Yeah. Threatened his position with Hannibal. Wiley wanted me out of the way. But Hannibal was the leader. He made the decisions, not Wiley. Hannibal. And he decided to leave me behind. Decided to let me die back there.

But you didn't kill me, Hannibal. Instead you made me stronger. Smarter.

I didn't die.

I survived.

"...But...me and Wiley wouldn't let him."

Was it really true? Or was it just more lies to cover up their guilt? Would BA turn his back on his best friend that easily? Why not? BA was Hannibal's man. He followed him blindly. They all had. But if Wiley had lied...

He looked up at the sky, the dizzying sky. Closed his eyes. God, he was so confused. It was like everything happened in little snippets and they never quite came together in a sensible way. Would it ever change? Would he ever be free of it? Like a huge weight pushing down on his chest, not letting him breathe. Suffocating. Slowly. Constantly. Wanted to be free of all of it, so badly he wanted to scream and hit and kick. Knowing it wouldn't change anything. God, sometimes it seemed the only emotions he could feel anymore were pain and anger. He didn't think there was anything else. It wasn't right. It wasn't right, dammit!

And all because of him...

He looked at this man, the man with Hannibal's eyes glowing at him, and he wanted to run. No. No. No more running. Destroy it. Destroy them. Gouge them out of his face. This wasn't the old Hannibal, the Hannibal that trusted him, that he trusted, that had given him the chance to...he wanted him back. He wanted it all back. There weren't words - like having your insides ripped out. Over and over. That's what Hannibal had done to him. What this man had done to him.

This imposter. This liar. This traitor.

The weight on his chest...pressing harder...and harder. Couldn't breathe. And the buzzing coming faster and faster...couldn't think...

Hannibal's eyes, staring at him.

Not right. None of this was right.

You betrayed me, Hannibal. You betrayed me and destroyed...everything.


*****

The moment Face turned, BA moved a step closer. He knew that stance, that look, remembered seeing it countless times in Nam. Watching the gooks, getting ready to spring the trap, the LT would get so still, so stone cold still, but you could just feel the energy coming out of him. And then, just before Hannibal gave the signal, his eyes would narrow, just a tiny bit, like he was focusing everything on the next few seconds.

He hoped Hannibal remembered.

BA took another step, and Face turned, ever so slightly, looking directly at him now. It took BA by surprise. Face had never looked at him like that before. A warning look. No. That was no warning. That was a threat.

Involuntarily, he stepped back, and Face turned, looking again at Hannibal. BA looked at him as well.

Yeah, Hannibal remembered.


*****

Hannibal was expecting it. Thought he was out of the strike zone. But he never saw it coming. One second those eyes were boring into his; the next he was flat on his back, quite sure his jaw was someplace other than his face. Out of the haze, he saw BA rushing up behind Face. Face twisted to meet him and suddenly the two men were on the ground, Face's arms around BA's neck, legs wrapped around BA's waist.

Shit!

Still feeling the effects of the blow, he rolled to his side before moving to his knees, trying to scramble to his feet, but it was too late. By the time he stood up, Face had rolled BA away and was staring once more at him.

That's when Hannibal knew he was definitely in deep shit.


*****

He didn't really feel the blow on his knuckles. A strange sensation. Almost as if he were standing to one side, watching. Almost. When BA tried to take him down, he could feel the anger, the frustration. Almost overwhelmingly so. Pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs, he felt BA's struggle for air, and then the sudden relaxation. He rolled BA off into a heap at his side and saw Hannibal glaring at him. Heard the threat in his voice. He'd had it with threats.

He'd had it with everything.

Face knew Hannibal didn't really want a fight. Didn't care. This was his fight. All his. Those back-alley fights - just letting off steam. This was the fight he'd been waiting for, wishing for. Wiley - fuck him. Whether their story was true or not, Wiley was dead, out of reach. Smith was here.

And Smith was the one he'd been waiting for, all these years.


*****

Hannibal barely had time to gain his balance. He took one staggering step toward BA. Face was a blur, ramming into him, knocking him to the ground, Hannibal's back scraping across the gravel with the force of the collision. Then he felt the arm across his neck, pressing. Hard. He grabbed it, pushing back desperately, but he had no leverage. Damn. He shoved his hips up and twisted, throwing Face to the side and rolling over with him, his turn now to press. He didn't go for the neck; instead he held Face's arms across his chest, trying only to control him.

"Face, dammit, listen to me! We - "

Suddenly, Hannibal found himself shoved to the side; he pushed away, rolling free and started to his feet. A quick glance over at BA, who was just starting to come around. That's when Face hit him from behind, pulling him backwards and down. This time, Hannibal was at least ready for the choke, and grabbed Face's wrists, shoving them away.

How long they might have wrestled back and forth this way Hannibal had no idea. He was trying determinedly not to cause any real damage - that was the last thing he wanted to do. But the more Hannibal countered Face's attacks, the more determined and vicious they became. Stupidly, the realization only hit him then.

Face really meant to kill him.


*****

He woke up slowly, painfully. His neck hurt like hell, his Adam's apple felt like it had been shoved back to his spine. He opened his eyes, slowly. Very slowly. It seemed to take every muscle in his body, and then he had to close them almost immediately. Little lights - little but brighter than hell - twirling around, dizzying.

Shit.

He lay for another moment, trying to remember what happened. He'd gone after the LT. The LT had slugged the colonel, and BA had tried to stop him.

But then what?

He closed his eyes even tighter. What happened then? Face had turned, and then his arms were around BA's neck. Damn, man. He should've expected that. That skinny little asshole had taken BA down like he was...

Where was Face? More important - where was Hannibal?

He forced his eyes open, didn't look up at the sky and those damn lights. Didn't help much, but it was better. Rolling carefully over to his side, he raised his head and looked around.

He scrambled to his feet then, staggering, determined. It seemed to take a lifetime, his vision sliding from side to side along with his feet. A burst of anger, of energy and he was slamming into Face, knocking him off Hannibal, both of them landing in a heap in the mud and gravel, Face beneath him, struggling, BA holding him down.

That was all he could do.


*****

It took Hannibal a split second to realize the pressure on his chest was gone, along with the arm across his neck. Only one reason for that. He rolled quickly to his knees, and stared straight into Face's eyes.

Panicked eyes.

Pleading eyes.

It took another moment for that to register. Then Hannibal saw BA. On top of Face, holding him down.

Holding him down...

"BA! Get off! It's all right, get off him!"

BA looked up at him, confused. Even in the moonlight, Hannibal could see he wasn't really focusing.

"Get off, BA. It's okay." He gave him a little shove - well, little for someone BA's size. As soon as he was on the ground beside Face, Hannibal turned around to the lieutenant. Face hadn't moved except to hide his head in his arms, his legs pulled up tight to his chest. Hannibal shook his head. Damn.

Seeing that Face wasn't going anywhere, or attacking anyone, he turned his immediate attention to BA.

"You okay, BA?"

BA, now sitting up, resting his weight on one arm, nodded and mumbled something in the affirmative. Although breathing hard, at least he was breathing. Hannibal knew it would take a while yet before he came to completely.

Hannibal moved back over by Face. Head still covered, his whole body was shaking. Hannibal wasn't sure what it was from - adrenalin, cold...fear. Knowing he was taking his life in his hands, he followed his instincts. He wrapped his arms around him, pulling him up, holding him as tightly as he could. Face struggled only for a moment, and then gave up. And Hannibal knew he'd truly given up.

The three men sat in the moonlight, the only sound now the gentle lapping of the water on the shore.


*****

Murdock had been watching the traffic, the people. He hadn't seen this many trucks since leaving Nam. And there was such a variety of people - not only truckers, which seemed to be whole 'nother breed, but the tourists...he wondered why people had to dress so...strangely when on vacation. Then again, it would be something to bear in mind for when he got out.

If he got out.

No. No, that was a definite when. He had to get better now. Couldn't help Face if he were nuts himself.

Speaking of Face, where the hell were those guys? He leaned over to check the clock, and felt the sheaf of papers in his waistband poke him. Hard. He leaned back, looking guiltily through the van's windows. He hadn't dared take the whole folder; Hannibal would've seen that in a minute. So he'd just taken the papers out, and shoved an old newspaper in the folder. Then he'd been afraid the guys would come back before he could hide the papers. Looked like that was a wasted fear. He should get his duffle and hide them in the bottom. Now. Before they did come back.

But what if they suddenly came around the corner now? He glanced back where his duffle lay in the back. Where Face had been using it for a backrest. Would he notice? No, how could he. They'd be flat on the bottom. It would only take a second to reach back and shove them in.

He stared through the windows. No sign of them. Well, why shouldn't he be messing with his own duffle? No crime in that. He had a couple comics in there. Yeah. He was just getting his comics out. Not hiding papers he wasn't supposed to have. Why would they think that, anyway? All Hannibal had to do was open the glove compartment and he'd see the folder right there, still full. Full of the wrong things, but full.

He bit his lip, irresolute, and then climbed quickly into the back. He shoved the papers in, resisting the temptation to start reading. That would be really crazy. He zipped the bag, and plopped down in his seat. Looked out the window.

Nothing.

He sat for a few more minutes, getting more and more nervous. The trucks and the people no longer distracted him.

The guys should've been back by now.


*****

He felt the arms, holding him. Tight. Too tight, but he didn't squirm, didn't try to get away. Not any more. And he wasn't sure why. When BA had been...he couldn't get away. Had to, but BA was too heavy, too determined to...he knew it wasn't that. He knew it, and yet...

He'd looked up, and seen Hannibal, staring at him, and it was just like before. Long before. Before he knew...when he thought Hannibal would...he wanted to call out, beg him to save him. Save him...this time. Wanted to, but couldn't...

And then Hannibal had anyway.

And it made him feel ashamed. Ashamed of his fear. Ashamed of his doubt. Ashamed of everything he was, and he'd just wanted to hide. Hide like he had in the jungle, in the camp...

And then Hannibal had pulled him up and he'd tried to get away. He didn't want to be touched, didn't want to be restrained, controlled...but Hannibal was too strong. They were all too strong. He couldn't fight it. Wasn't sure he wanted to any more. There was something different this time. It felt...good. He felt secure. Protected. Like he didn't have to fight any more. And he didn't want to. Not now. Not right now. Right now all he wanted was to feel safe.

He really was a coward. And he no longer cared.


*****

The van was pulling into the far outskirts of LA. Murdock sat in Hannibal's seat in front; he hadn't wanted to, but the colonel wanted to keep everyone away. He alone sat in back with Face, holding onto him like he would break apart if he let go. Murdock couldn't tell if Face was asleep or not. He never opened his eyes. Even when they'd got him into the van, he'd stumbled in like he was sleepwalking.

Nobody had to tell Murdock something really bad had happened. BA had come slowly up to the van after a real long time, and hadn't wanted to talk at all. Murdock knew for sure something bad had happened when BA motioned him into the driver's seat, and pointed down toward the lake. And Murdock had had to help Hannibal get Face into the van; BA just sat in front, blinking his eyes and massaging his throat. Only when Hannibal and Face were set up in the back did BA move to the driver's seat, and Hannibal had told Murdock to sit up front.

And as the sun had come up, Murdock had looked to the back, and seen the black bruises on Hannibal, and all three had been covered in dried mud and grass stains. But no one had said a word yet; he only knew there had been a fight. A bad one.

He looked ahead, watching the highway peeling toward them. In another couple hours they'd be back at the VA. He'd be back in his world.

And they would head off into theirs.