CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

The motel they found wasn't exactly the Taj Mahal, but it was clean and cheerful, the rooms large and comfortable. It was still only late afternoon, but Face was sleeping on one bed, exhausted by the long day he'd already put in. BA sat close to the television, sound low so as not to disturb Face, although Murdock was doubtful anything short of a nine point earthquake would rouse him. Hannibal was perusing the local newspaper, cigar slowly smoldering away. Murdock had watched Face until he went to sleep, then watched a little television until he got tired of DIY shows, and then had wandered aimlessly about the room. Finally, BA threatened to tie him to a chair if he didn't settle somewhere, and Hannibal put down the paper and suggested the two of them take a walk.

Murdock was glad of an excuse to get out of the room, but he was wishing Hannibal hadn't come along with him. He really wanted to find a phone and call Charlie. But he reasoned that he would at least be able to find out what Hannibal had said or done to calm Face down. Hannibal wasn't volunteering anything, and no one had wanted to ask while there was a chance Face would hear. They were all getting gun-shy about setting him off.

The two men walked casually through the parking lot and out onto the street. The sun was just starting to dip behind the tops of the two- and three-story buildings that lined the main avenue, letting a pleasant coolness fill the air. It was a relief after the heat that had fought with the air conditioning in the motel room. Hannibal nodded silently at a small restaurant that advertised home cooking and take-out. They would stop there on the way back. Home cooking. Sounded great.

They walked for quite some time, taking in the sights, not talking. It was relaxing. Murdock felt not just a twinge of guilt for feeling good, knowing that part of the reason for that feeling was not having Face around. No, he amended that. It was really not having Face's problems staring at him, pounding on him, wearing on him. Constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Was that how it had been for the others, with him? Was that why they were so skittish, those first few times they had broken him out? Waiting, always waiting, for the madness to come out, afraid to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing? And why, as the breakouts became farther and farther apart, they had seemed even more desperate to "do something", to make it seem as if they were really glad to see him. Why they had leaped at his suggestion that he come along on that mission, because it was something... normal? Because it was something they could understand, could deal with? Because it gave them a Murdock they knew?

He thought again of the relief he felt, without Face, without his problems. No, it wasn't that he didn't want Face around. He would always want that. Maybe, just maybe, that's how the team had felt about him...and how they were feeling about Face, now. Maybe he wasn't the only one.

So engrossed was he in his thoughts, Murdock didn't realize Hannibal had come to a stop until he literally walked right into him. Hannibal chuckled indulgently. Apparently he had been well aware of Murdock's preoccupation. They were standing on the edge of a small park - a couple picnic tables, swing set and sand box, requisite baseball field in the distance. At this time of day, the park was nearly deserted. Hannibal sauntered over to the nearest picnic table and sat down, raising an eyebrow at Murdock. Not sure if Hannibal intended to discuss Face or other issues, Murdock hesitated just a moment before settling down opposite him at the table. For several long moments, the silence remained between them.

"I want to know about the airfield, Captain." Hannibal's voice, while soft, still jarred Murdock with its suddenness. He shuddered inwardly. He really did not want to talk about that.

"I, uh,...I just took care of the bad guys, Colonel. That's all."

"Men died, Captain."

Murdock looked down, concentrating on the ant that was trying to haul a crumb of bread across the table.

"Captain..."

"Colonel, I did what I had to. Those goons would have kept coming after him. He never would have been safe. I did what I had to." Murdock looked at Hannibal, eyes pleading, face determined.

Hannibal sighed, looking around the park. "That's it, then? You're alright with it? Everything's just fine and dandy?"

"No, they're not fine or dandy! Geez, Hannibal, what do you think I am? Some kind of machine? Or so totally nuts that killing a bunch of people doesn't bother me? So no, I'm not alright with it. But it had to be done, okay? It had to be. Just like Nam! Just like Nam. I wasn't alright with some of the things I did there, either. I hated it! I hate thinking about it! But there's a lot of shit I hate that I still do. Every time we go out on a mission, I..." Murdock stopped abruptly. He wasn't going to go there.

Hannibal had other ideas. " 'Every time we go out on a mission'...what, Captain?" He stared at Murdock, surprise obvious on his face. "You...hate that?"

"I don't...I just..." Murdock shook his head, defeated. "I want to be with you guys, I love that, Hannibal. I mean, you're my friends, you're my family, man! And I know what you're doing is good. Helping people and all...but..."

"But...?"

"But I don't like shooting at people, and getting shot at, or knowing that you guys could get killed...or...it's just too much like Nam, y'know? Too much..."

Hannibal didn't say anything for a few minutes. Murdock watched the ant, not wanting to look at him, knowing he would see nothing but disappointment.

Unexpectedly, Hannibal chuckled, a mirthless, bitter sound. Murdock looked up, startled.

"Here I've been thinking I had gotten too close to all of you, that I'd made you all too dependent on me. That the problems we've had since the accident were because we were too close, that I had allowed us to become a family, instead of remaining a unit. In reality, I don't even know you."

"Hannibal..."

"No, it's okay, Murdock. I'm glad you told me how you felt. Finally. Or is this a new development?"

"No, I've felt that way for a long time. I'm sorry, Hannibal. I should've told you..."

"Why didn't you? Something about me that made you think you couldn't?"

"Not just you, Colonel. I was afraid none of you would want me around if I didn't help out with the jobs."

Hannibal shook his head, sadly. "That was never the case, Murdock. We all thought going on the missions was helping you. If we had known...well, it wouldn't have made that much difference. We would still have come for you whenever you wanted. We just would have done different things."

"Are you sure, Colonel? 'Cause you-all didn't seem very comfortable with me those first few times."

"Aw, hell, Captain, we just didn't know enough back then. We were afraid we'd say or do something to make things worse. We would've worked it out." Hannibal looked at Murdock, knowing he still wasn't believed. "Murdock, we don't leave anyone behind. Not then, not now. You know that. You are part of this team and always will be. We never wanted anything except what was best for you."

Murdock watched the ant crawl toward the edge of the table. He reached over, letting the little insect drag the crumb onto the palm of his hand and then put his hand down on the ground. The ant, ungrateful wretch, carried his treasure off without a backward glance. Murdock watched for a long minute, not trusting himself. He believed Hannibal. All this time...But did that mean...

"What about Face, Hannibal?"

"Face?" Hannibal looked totally confused. "What do you think we've been doing, Murdock? I'm trying my damndest to keep him with us."

"But maybe that's not what's best for him."

Hannibal bristled. "You think he needs to be out there in the desert with that bunch of hippies? You think he'd be better off with them?"

Murdock looked Hannibal straight in the eye now. "Maybe he would be, Hannibal. Because they don't expect him to be Face."

"He is Face!"

"Not any more, Colonel. You have to accept that. He's just...not."

Hannibal jabbed the cigar on the table top, putting it out with vicious determination. Murdock sighed, thinking maybe this was one revelation too many for now. It was probably a good time to bring up that other subject.

"What did you tell him, back there at the rest stop? How'd you get him calmed down so fast?"

For a minute, Murdock thought Hannibal was still too angry to answer. Finally, the colonel sighed and smiled a little.

"I just kept telling him I wouldn't let that happen again, that we'd protect him, and after he'd seen this doctor, we'd take him home."

Murdock frowned. "That's all?"

"Yeah, that's all."

"That calmed him down?" Murdock stared at Hannibal, and from the too-innocent look on his face, knew there was more to it. And instantly, Murdock knew what it was.

"Did you say 'home', or did you say 'the village'?"

The set to Hannibal's jaw spoke before Hannibal did. "I told him home, Captain, and that's exactly what I meant. We'll take him home with us, where he belongs."

"Hannibal, you know that's not what's he's thinking."

"Right now, I don't care what he's thinking. It worked, didn't it? Got him out of that panic before someone got hurt. I'm fully prepared to deal with any problems when he discovers the truth, Murdock. But I think, in time, he'll understand that we're doing what's best for him."

Murdock just glared at him.

"Listen, Murdock, I know he's not ever going to be the man he used to be. I didn't want to admit it before, but after seeing him back there, and listening to you, I have to face facts. But I'm not going to abandon him to the desert any more than I would abandon you to the VA! We've done the same thing with Face as we apparently did with you - assumed he knew he would always be part of the team, assumed he knew we would eventually work through any and all difficulties. You brought it all home to me with your 'confession', Murdock, and that makes it all the more important to get Face back with us, make sure he knows he's accepted by us, no matter what. He belongs with us, just as much as you do."

With that, Hannibal stood and started walking back in the direction of the motel. Murdock sighed. He and Hannibal had come to an understanding of sorts, he supposed, but there was still a long way to go. He just hoped Face could handle the trip.


*****

He was awake, but he hadn't moved. He didn't want the team to know. Not yet. His friends were talking to him a mile a minute, but he refused to answer them. After a while, they became quiet, left him in peace. He didn't mind them, usually, but right now he hadn't time for their jibber-jabber, as BA would call it. He had to think. Had to push through the last remnants of cotton from the painkillers, past the soreness, the stiffness. Past the physical. He had to think, and think clearly.

Easier said than done. There were so many things running through his mind, so scattered, it was hard to gather them together, sort them out. They kept running into each other, making his head ache. Well, he wasn't a stranger to that feeling. Sometimes it was all he could do to remember what he was supposed to be doing next. Times like that he was glad Charlie was close by.

Charlie. God, he missed Charlie. Charlie didn't know Face, didn't know Alvin, didn't know any of the people he'd been over his lifetime. Charlie only knew Ed, and accepted him. Liked him. Knew when he needed a little help, without making it seem like he was helpless. Because he wasn't helpless. He just got a little lost, now and then. They both knew it, and they both knew how to deal with it, and both of them were okay with that.

He had to push Charlie out of his thoughts for now. The more he thought about his friend, the more he wanted to forget all of this bullshit and leave. And he couldn't do that. He'd promised Hannibal. More important, Hannibal had promised him. As soon as he saw this new doctor, Hannibal was taking him home.

He smiled at that, and immediately felt Petey stirring beside him. He ignored him, still pretending to be asleep. He heard someone moving about in the room, but after a few moments, everyone quieted down again, and he breathed a little easier.

Now he had to think about the other things Hannibal had told him. Which meant thinking about what had happened. He didn't want to; he was ashamed of the way he'd...all he had thought about was getting away. It wasn't all his fault, he was willing to grant himself that much. He was worn down with the constant ache, and painkillers, and traveling for so long. And the boy had taken him by surprise. That poor little kid. So scared. Who could blame him? Seeing a real live monster...it had been as much for that little boy as for himself that he'd wanted to run.

Who was he trying to kid?

He had panicked. He had allowed the same irrational fears that had plagued him in LA to take over. He hadn't allowed that to happen for a long time; sure, he'd come close, on those trips to the city. But he'd overcome it then; he should have this time. He should have. He was stronger than that. Even if Hannibal didn't think so.

Hannibal had kept telling him they would protect him. Protect him. God. He felt two inches tall. The way Hannibal had talked to him, like he was talking to that frightened little kid. What made it worse was that it had worked. That voice, that tone, had gotten through the tumble of emotions racing through him and calmed him down, allowed him to think, at least to some small degree. It had been reassuring, at the time, to hear someone say they would take care of him. It had felt good to be able to let go, feel safe, let someone else make the decisions.

And that scared him.

He'd never felt safe, never in his whole life. Even before, with the team. He'd always known that some where, some time, some one would be able to get to him. The only safety was knowing that he had some control of things, however small. Even Alvin had had some control, had his own sort of safety that way. By hiding behind the shyness. He wouldn't give anyone the chance to hurt him. Templeton Peck, Face, they had even more control, because they weren't real. You can't hurt what doesn't exist, right? And Ed Mordake...that made him the safest of all.

And yet it was never really safe. There was always that fear, behind all the facades, that one day his ticket would be called. That he would get found out. Because he made mistakes, bad decisions, misjudgments. Sometimes, he just let his guard down. And everything he'd pretended to be would be exposed for what it was.

And Ed Mordake...he was all new, all open. There was nothing he could hide behind. Surrounded by strangers, people who only knew Ed, had no preconceptions, would take him for what he was, scars and all, and wouldn't turn away. Ed was just Ed to them. And he knew that eventually he would go to the village itself and let these people see him, and know him, and that they would accept him. As is. And that made Ed Mordake the scariest. And he had reveled in that scariness and cocooned himself in that security.

But then Hannibal had come for him, and offered to take care of him, and protect him, and in his confusion, he had welcomed that. Had wanted that, because then he would never have to be on his guard again, would never have to take chances again. Wouldn't have to worry about making the wrong choices, the wrong decisions. He wouldn't have the responsibility of having his own life any more.

And that had sounded so good after all these years...

And that's why he had to go home. Soon. Before he lost what little of himself he had left.

Before he let Hannibal take it all away.