CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

October 15, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 13 Days

They had been driving for some time now; how long exactly, Hannibal didn't know. His arm still rested across Face's shoulders. Lightly, so he wouldn't feel threatened, but there, so he'd know Hannibal was close. That seemed to be important. The few times Hannibal had moved, trying to get comfortable among the duffels and supplies, Face had reacted almost frantically. A few quiet words had calmed him down again, but Hannibal wasn't sure he liked the sudden change from hatred and distrust to this. It still wasn't right.

It still wasn't Face.

The van suddenly began to slow and Hannibal looked up, frowning. Trouble? More trouble? His frown deepened as they rolled to a gentle stop. BA turned around in his seat, looking uncertainly to the back of the van.

"We only a few miles from..." He looked from Hannibal to Face, who so far seemed oblivious to the unexpected stop. Murdock had now turned to the back, also looking at Face, nervous. Hannibal didn't understand at first - too tired, too worn out, he surmised - but then it hit him like a hammer.

How do they pull up in front the VA psych unit without Face jumping to the wrong conclusions? And how would he react to Murdock being there? Would he think it was just a ploy to get him locked up again? Or would he see Murdock as a kindred soul? Hannibal suddenly realized that Face's reaction could be more crucial, perhaps, to Murdock than it was to Face. If Face acted with indifference, after all Murdock had gone through, with the guilt he felt...

Hannibal took a quick glance out the window. There was a small coffee shop across the street, still open.

"Okay, BA. Why don't you and Murdock go get some coffee? Keep an eye out." He knew BA knew that meant watch for MPs as well as trouble in the van. Hopefully, they'd run into neither.

Murdock was less willing to leave, but a look from Hannibal took any arguments out of his mouth. All the same, he kept looking back at the van as the two men crossed the street and disappeared into the diner.

Face had watched them leave, and Hannibal felt his shoulder muscles tense.

"They're just going for coffee, Face. I thought you and I would have a little talk. If that's okay with you." No pressure. His choice. Hannibal knew, regardless of how Face was feeling toward him right now, it was important to still leave him an out.

Face looked straight ahead for a moment, then sighed and nodded. Though encouraged, Hannibal reminded himself to go slow, explain everything simply but thoroughly.

"We're in LA now, Face. In a little while, we're going to be dropping Murdock off where he...lives. Then you and I and BA are going to go to my place for a while. Okay? You're going with us after we drop Murdock off."

Face frowned, obviously puzzled, but nodded.

So far, so good.

"Now, I want you to think back for a minute. You remember how Murdock was back in Nam? You came to me, about the way he was acting. Do you remember that?"

Again, Face nodded.

"Well, you were right, Face. Murdock wasn't doing too well then, and after we...lost you, it got worse. He managed for a few months, but then he had a breakdown. Bad. And he ended up in a VA psych unit here in LA."

Face said nothing, but he sat up straighter. Hannibal waited a moment, feeling his own tension mounting. Hoping to God he was going about this the right way.

"That's where we're dropping him off, before you and I and BA go to my place." Keep reminding him of that. "This one isn't like where you were, Face. Murdock likes it, and he's getting good help there. He's getting better, and one day he'll be able to leave. But right now, that's where he lives. So we're taking him home. That's all." He looked at Face, waiting for a reaction. Nothing. Make it clear. "We are not taking you there, Face. You're staying with BA and me. Only Murdock is going to the hospital. Okay?"

Hannibal waited. He needed to get some kind of response now, had to know which direction they would be taking.

Face was silent for what seemed like hours. When he finally spoke, it took Hannibal by surprise.

"It's nice there?"


*****

Murdock was watching the van through the filthy window of the diner. He'd taken one look at the coffee - as greasy as the window - and pushed the cup aside. BA sat calmly, but Murdock noticed he never stopped stirring his own coffee.

"You think they're okay?"

BA frowned, but his answer was soft. "As okay as they can be, yeah. Hannibal'd let us know otherwise."

"What if he signaled and we missed it?"

"Ain't gonna miss it. Between you and me, no way we're missin nothin."

Murdock sighed, knowing BA was right. He might not have looked like it, but BA had been keeping as keen an eye on that van as Murdock had. That fight back at the truck stop hadn't been forgotten. Not at all.

Murdock looked again through the window, lost in his own thoughts. BA cleared his throat, making him jump.

"You okay with this? Goin back, I mean?"

Murdock sat back, blinking. Since when was BA concerned about Murdock being okay with anything? But BA was staring out the window and Murdock couldn't tell what he was really thinking.

"Uh, yeah, I guess. I mean, I got to, right?"

"Yeah. Can't help that."

"I know." Murdock looked helplessly at the now cold cup of coffee. "I did okay, though, right? I mean..."

BA grimaced, and Murdock was pretty sure he was sorry he'd said anything. "Yeah, you did okay. But you need to go back now. Been long enough."

Maybe too long? Murdock wondered how much BA had noticed. He saw a lot, even if he didn't say anything.

"You think it's going to work, BA? You guys and Face, I mean."

"Dunno. He ain't like you."

Murdock sighed. No, Face was definitely not like Murdock. Murdock would never dream of taking on Hannibal, let alone Hannibal and BA together. And he sure as hell wouldn't come out looking better than they did.

Murdock was unpredictable but in a predictable sort of way. His actions, however wild, fit his moods, and his moods were pretty obvious. Face, on the other hand, was like unexploded ordnance; they never knew if it would just lie there or...

Murdock was difficult; Face was dangerous.

Murdock brought himself back to the present. "What if it doesn't work?"

"You worry about your own problems." The familiar glare was back now. Conversation over.

They sat, uncomfortable now, for several long minutes, and then BA sat up straight. He relaxed slightly, nodding.

"They ready for us now."


*****

"It's nice there?"

Hannibal closed his eyes for a moment before answering. "Yes. Murdock will be fine there, Face. Really." This was good. He hoped, anyway. Face making the connection with Murdock; maybe not worried, exactly, but concerned. Yes. This was good.

"They've helped him? He's getting better?"

"Yes. Slowly, but he is getting better." Hannibal waited for more, but Face was silent. "Would you like to talk to Murdock about it? Before we drop him off?"

Face nodded, still hesitant, and Hannibal, taking care to make the gesture casual, waved a beckoning hand next to the window. Moments later, the side door slid open and two deliberately calm faces stared in.

"Murdock, Face would like to talk to you about the VA. Find out how they treat you there, make sure you're okay. Would you mind?"

Murdock looked surprised, but wary. Hannibal knew the cadence of his voice had alerted him. Tread lightly. If Face thought for a moment Murdock would not be safe at the VA...

Murdock stepped into the van, sitting sideways in his seat, facing the two men. He smiled brightly. BA leaned casually against the doorframe.

"No problem, Face. Ask away."

Face looked up at him, quickly, then looked to the floor, silent.

Murdock frowned, looking up at Hannibal, who just nodded.

This might take some time.


*****

Murdock shifted, trying to get comfortable. Face still hadn't said anything, although he was fiddling with his jacket hem. Murdock knew that maneuver - wanting to think about anything except what you were supposed to be thinking about. He also remembered Richter's method of getting around that - the patience of Job. Face was actually concerned about him; that was a big step, made Murdock feel...privileged. Yeah, he was willing to wait.

"Is it clean there?"

Murdock almost didn't catch it, it was spoken so softly, so suddenly.

"Yeah, real clean." He thought quickly, remembering that other hospital. "They wash the floors two or three times a week, and change the linen every other day, and they have a laundry room, so we can wash clothes whenever we want to." Face frowned at that, and Murdock hurried on. "Or we can put them out, too, in a hamper, and the hospital staff will do it for us." He didn't add that was only for the guys who were still too out of it to take care of themselves. Didn't matter, after all. Face was only feeling his way yet. Asking about the safe things.

"The food?"

"Real good food, Face. And plenty of it. They make the best lasagna..."

Hannibal raised an eyebrow. Okay. Don't get carried away.

"How...how do you spend your time? I mean..."

" Well, there's Group - a bunch of guys sit around talking about...stuff. You know. But they have classes, and crafts."

Face looked at him, quizzically.

"Yeah. Some of it's kinda lame - like teaching us how to meditate. Supposed to help a guy relax, but I always get bored before I can relax. But they have painting. I like that one. Lets you get out the emotions without a lot of yakking, y'know? I painted one one time, all in shades of red, with these huge flames - " Hannibal cleared his throat, frowning. "Uh, well, I mean, it depends on how you're feeling, what you paint, I mean. It's just a way to do it without...messing up."

"What happens if you 'mess up'?" Murdock could swear there was a little tremor in the voice.

Murdock didn't need to see Hannibal's warning look this time. "Usually they just take away a privilege, like you can't see the movie that week. Something like that."

"They show movies?"

"Oh, yeah. Every Wednesday. Usually they're kinda old, but not like real old."

"What if you really mess up? Like...attack one of the orderlies?"

Murdock swallowed, remembering the orderly he'd slugged, but smiled softly at him, remembering also what Face had done. What was a little white lie? "Nobody needs to there, Face. The orderlies are nice. They actually like the patients - well, unless the guy's a real dickhead." There, his conscience was clear now.

"They don't..." The voice faded away and Murdock sighed. Not quite ready to ask it out loud yet, but that was okay.

"The orderlies are nice, like I said, Face. They'll stop and talk to you, ask how you're doing, sit with you if you're not doing too well. And the nurses are like that, too. Sure, they have their bad days, but they never, ever take it out on the patients. I've never seen that, no matter what I...no matter what happens."

Face sat quietly; Murdock could almost see the wheels turning in his head. There was one question he hadn't asked yet. The hardest one. Hannibal looked at Murdock, and it was his turn to frown.

Patience, Hannibal. This isn't over yet.

"What about...the other patients? Do they...are they..."

"It's safe there, Face. They don't let anybody hurt anyone else. I've never felt safer in my life." Another white lie, but that wasn't the point. Face wanted to know Murdock wasn't treated like Face had been, and Murdock would say anything to reassure him.

Face looked at him again, this time...Murdock wasn't sure what that look meant. Almost...eager.

"What about your doctor? Do you like him?"

Murdock didn't hesitate. "Very much, Face. He's great. I mean, I don't always like the questions he asks, but that's just because...well, I have to talk about stuff I don't want to, to get better."

"You have to?"

"Eventually. It's hard, but...easier than being crazy, y'know? In the long run."

"What if you're not...ready to?"

Murdock shrugged. "Then you're not ready to. He seems to know the difference between not ready and not willing. Knows when to push, when to step back." Murdock smiled. "He's good. You'd like him."

More long minutes of silence as Face digested the info. He sighed deeply, looking first, and long, at Murdock, then turning to Hannibal. That bit of tremor was back in his voice.

"I want to go with Murdock."