CHAPTER FIFTY NINE

"Face. S'okay, I'm here."

It didn't seem to be helping. Face still had that look of horrified fascination, looking right through him, seeing God only knew what. No matter how hard they would try to break through to him, the flashbacks would not let him go. Murdock had no idea what he was seeing, but until it played out, there was nothing he could do to help.

Trouble had sifted back into their lives. At least that's how it seemed to Murdock. Slowly pulling apart the idyllic period they had all been enjoying. It had started with the flashbacks seeming to get a little worse each day. Face refused to talk about them. But it was obvious to both Murdock and Hannibal that they were taking a toll, little by little. They had watched in concern as Face's smile got more brittle, more forced; many days he appeared tense or uneasy; he began to have trouble sleeping. And daily, the flashbacks seemed to come more frequently, last longer, were harder for him to move out of.

Today it seemed even worse. He could see Face was trying to break out of it, the attempt to concentrate on reality, to push past whatever images had grabbed him. Sweating, shaking, it was almost as if he were physically pulling himself away from it. The coffee cup he held fell to the floor, shattering. Face relaxed suddenly, would have collapsed completely had not Murdock grabbed him. Hannibal came rushing into the kitchen.

Taking in the scene, Hannibal's shoulders slumped and he stepped over to give Murdock a hand. "Another one?"

"Yeah, worst one yet." He looked closely at Face as they settled him at the kitchen table. "You okay, Face?"

"Yeah." Face mumbled something more and laid his head on his arms, eyes closed. It would take a few minutes to gather himself together again. Always the same.

"Somebody's got to get him talking." Hannibal spoke quietly, not wanting Face to hear. Both Hannibal and Murdock had tried. Over and over. But, as with discussions about overseas, any attempts at getting Face to discuss the flashbacks had so far resulted only in getting him more upset and angry. Something had to be done. He was fighting a losing battle.

"I'll try, Hannibal. Maybe today'll be different."

Hannibal nodded and headed back to whatever he'd been doing. Murdock watched him go. That was the other 'trouble'. Hannibal was getting antsy. Murdock could tell. He didn't neglect Face, by any means, but he spent less and less time with him, more and more time looking at the barn and the land. Murdock found plans he'd sketched for an obstacle course, and for supplies and ordnance storage in the barn. It was obvious to Murdock that Hannibal would start actively looking for clients as soon as he could. The only thing standing between him and the Jazz was Face. And it was starting to wear on him.

Face slowly straightened up. He looked like hell. Worn down. Maybe now would be a good time to talk. When his defenses were down, when he looked like he could use all the help he could get.

"Face, how ya doin'?"

"Okay. I'm okay."

"Well, not really, huh? You took a pretty good hit from that thing."

"I'll be okay."

"Face, why don't you let us help you? You don't have to go through that all by yourself."

"I can handle it."

Murdock took a deep breath. There would probably be a scene, but he needed to break down that wall. Face would never get over this if he wouldn't let them help.

"Face, I'm gonna be real honest with you. I don't think you can handle it by yourself. You're not strong enough yet. And these things just keep beating you down even more."

Murdock had expected an angry retort. Instead, Face got pale and looked at Murdock like he'd just stabbed him in the back.

"You really think I'm too weak to deal with this?"

"Well, no, I mean..." Murdock had stepped into some kind of sinkhole here. He hadn't seen it but he was going down fast. "Not that you're weak, exactly, I mean, it's just that they seem to drain you so bad. And they're getting worse, aren't they? You can't seem to fight them off any more. I mean, it just seems like they're winning the war here, Face. We - Hannibal and I - we just want to help even things out for you." This was not going well. The more Murdock talked, the more defeated Face looked. Great.

"Look, Face, I'm not putting this too well, I know. But, I'm just saying if you would let us know what's going on, what the flashback's are like, then maybe we could help you get rid of them."

"No, you can't help me, Murdock. You or Hannibal. You wouldn't understand. I'll take care of it." Face awkwardly stood and headed out the door, drifting in the direction of the meadow.

Murdock stared after him, not sure if he should follow or not. Consciously reminding himself that Face was still not all that steady on his feet, he followed at a discreet distance.


*****

Face didn't even realize he'd walked to the meadow. It shouldn't have surprised him; it was where he liked to be when he was troubled or upset. It was quiet and peaceful. The perfect balm. He needed it right now. He needed to think.

They didn't think he could do it. They thought he was weak. Not strong enough to handle things. Weak. Thought he had to have help. Couldn't do it by himself. Weak. So he was right, after all.

Hate to say I told you so, bud, but...

Shut up.

Hey, I tried to warn you. I told you I wouldn't interfere, everything was yours now. That's what you wanted, that's what you got. Everything.

I didn't mean...

Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the Marines, bud. You can't handle it. You are weak. I told you that. You can't fight off the pictures, can you? Can't even tell Murdock they aren't flashbacks. Don't have the guts to tell them what they really are. Well, now you've heard from your 'team'. They know you don't have the strength. They know you're weak. You ain't even a real part of the team any more, because you can't handle it.

No, Hannibal said I was a member as long as I liked.

Yeah, and he never lies. Right.

He doesn't. Not to me.

Sure, bud. And I got this bridge in Brooklyn.

Face didn't respond. He stared at a rabbit, grazing amid the clover blossoms. Free. That's what that rabbit was. Totally free. Nothing to think about except the next blossom.

That's what you want, eh, bud? To be free, right?

Yeah...No. I want to be free of those things. Not everything.

No, you want to be free of everything. You know you do. Everything you can't deal with, which is damn near everything. Weak.

No.

Yeah. C'mon, bud. Accept it. You can't function without me. Look what you've done since I took my siesta. Nothing.

That's not true. I'm walking now. I got rid of that chair.

Big whoop. Look folks, walks like a man, talks like a man - got everybody fooled now, huh, bud?

Why do you hate me?

I don't hate you, bud. I hate your weakness. Drives me nuts when I know I could solve your problems if you'd just let me...I can help you, kid. I want to help you.

Face watched the rabbit. It was getting further away, concentrating on the next blossom.

C'mon, kid. I really do care, y'know. I may be a bit harsh with you, but I've got your best interests at heart. It's just frustrating when I know I can make it better for you. For both of us. You just gotta let me.

You hurt people.

Just to keep you safe, kid. Think about it. That's all I've ever done, try to keep you safe.

The rabbit was blissfully munching on the clover, bees floated from flower to flower, a large bird floated overhead; the whole meadow was peaceful. Not a care in the world.

No hurting anyone.

So help me.

Face sighed. They were right. He was weak. He couldn't do it. He couldn't face those images. Not any more. Not without him.

Ok.

You won't be sorry, kid.

The hawk started its dive.


*****

Murdock stood watching his friend. He had wandered - that really was the only word for it - out into the meadow, where he inevitably seemed to go anymore. And then just stood there. From the distance that he stood from him, Murdock could hear the voices and it unnerved him. Hannibal had told him about it, the day Face had gone to confession, after that night of panic. Murdock had heard enough people talking to themselves, having strange conversations, in his years at the VA. It shouldn't have bothered him. But it did. This was Face, his best friend. And though he couldn't hear the actual words, the timbre of those two voices shook him. Face was being bullied, rebuked, having a hard time fighting back. Murdock started moving closer.

Face kept watching something out in the meadow as he - they - talked. Without warning, a hawk barreled down from the sky, hitting something out in the tall grass. A high pitched scream came from the grass; almost immediately the hunter climbed back into the sky, a rabbit still struggling in its talons. Murdock looked away; laws of nature or not, he didn't like things like that. He looked back at Face.

Face was watching the bird haul away its prey. He was grinning.