CHAPTER FIFTY NINE

"Think she's gonna report us?"

Hannibal looked over at BA. "BA, after what I told her, and then seeing you, looming over her like that?"

"I didn't 'loom', Hannibal. I just stood there."

"Exactly."

BA shook his head. Sometimes Hannibal was...well, Hannibal. Too cocky by half. But he had to admit, the little lady had looked, well, scared. He hadn't thought she could see him that good. He had to chuckle though, softly. She had taken off pretty fast.

Hannibal heard him, and joined in. For a moment, they were back in the times when a plan went down well, and they could bask in the fun of it.

It didn't take long for the levity to drain away. They watched the village from the van, parked to the side of Charlie's cabin. It was dark, and quiet at this end of the valley. Too dark and too quiet for the men, still keyed up from the day's activities. Hannibal idly reached over and fiddled with the radio, but the few stations that came in without a deluge of static were not to either man's liking. Sighing, he switched it off, and pulled out a cigar. He sat, without lighting it, staring ahead of him. BA kept glancing over, knowing it was a bad sign when Hannibal didn't light up. Finally, he couldn't take the silence.

"Okay, Hannibal. What's goin on?"

Hannibal actually looked surprised. "Nothing, BA. We're sitting here in the middle of the desert, waiting for Charlie and Face, or Ed, or whoever the hell he is now."

"Hannibal..."

Hannibal shook his head. "I'm not angry with him, BA. I'm more angry with Charlie than anyone. Hell, I'm not even that angry with Charlie." Hannibal finally lit the cigar, puffed on it slowly. "We've lost him, BA. I tried everything, and nothing worked. And I don't know if I can handle that."

BA looked over, his turn to be surprised. "We ain't lost him, Hannibal. Not really. He's just learnin to be hisself now. And we gotta let him. We do that, and we ain't lost him."

"He's not Face now, BA. He's not Templeton Peck. He's not anyone we know. Anyone we thought we knew."

BA sighed. He was having a real hard time understanding why Hannibal still didn't get it. "Man, we do know him. Maybe not Ed, but we know the man. Look. What did he do for Charlie, and the village? Went after those goons that wanted the uranium. Right? He didn't back off from doin what was right, did he?"

"No..."

"Look how he went after those guys that killed Ray, and put hisself on the line with that gambling ring, and look at the chance he took getting those medical supplies for Murdock when he got shot. He always made out like he had no choice, but we know that ain't true. Don't ya see, Hannibal? Face wouldn't back away, and neither did Ed. Because that's the kind of man he is, no matter what his name is. He may not realize it, but he ain't really changed. Not deep down. The only thing that's really changed is all that flash is gone. And it ain't like we cared so much about that part of him, anyway, right?"

"Well, I have to admit, that 'flash' did get kind of old, sometimes. But I see your point." Hannibal sighed. "But how do we get him to see it? Will he even let us try? And...damn it, BA, I want him to be happy, I want him to be safe, but I also know what that means for the team. And then there's Murdock..."

"Yeah, Murdock. He ain't takin things too good, either. I thought he'd be the one who wanted Ed to be happy more than any of us, but...I don't know. It's like, the further Ed got from Face, the more Murdock wanted Face back. And before that, he just wanted Face to be happy."

"I think that's the whole problem, BA. We all wanted Face to be happy. We couldn't have cared less about Ed. You seem to have come to terms with it; I'm trying to. But Murdock...I don't think he'd really thought it through. He's suddenly realizing he might be losing his best friend."

"And don't forget, Decker knows for sure he's with us now. He's gotta be thinkin bout that."

"Yeah, that's another problem. I don't know, BA. He can't go back to the VA now, but what the hell are we supposed to do with him? What about his meds? What if he goes into another episode?" Hannibal shook his head, closing his eyes. None of this was supposed to be happening...

"We'll figger somethin out, Hannibal." BA's voice held complete confidence.

In his head, it was a different story.


*****

Murdock pulled up to the ridge, and waited for a moment, looking down at the village. Lights were on in the houses below, and a few of the shops, where artisans still worked on their latest creations. Without the harsh light of the desert sun, it seemed almost pastoral.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Nick was also looking down on the village, smiling softly. "It really is a privilege to be able to live here, Murdock. When I first arrived, after Nam, I had to tell Charlie why I wanted to stay. And then he had to tell the council."

Murdock jerked out of his reverie. "The...council?"

Nick nodded solemnly. "They have the final say on whether or not anyone stays." He looked earnestly at Murdock. "I shouldn't tell you this, and you can't say anything to anyone. It could get me thrown out. Or worse."

Murdock nodded, suddenly very worried. The restful feeling he'd had a few moments ago was quickly being replaced by visions of cults with passive members and charismatic leaders.

"Charlie brings all the candidates he likes to the council. If they agree with him, we get a new resident. But, if they don't..."

"What?"

Nick turned toward Murdock, lowering his voice. Murdock leaned in, intense.

"They're burned at the stake!"

Murdock sat straight up, glaring at Nick, who was laughing out loud.

"That wasn't funny, Nick!"

"No, and neither was the bus driver or the Marines. So now we're even!"

Murdock stayed mad for a minute longer, before ruefully admitting he'd had it coming. Nick might have seemed a stiff shirt, but he definitely had a nasty sense of humor. Murdock let Nick calm down a little before getting serious.

"You know, when we first got here, you did say that Charlie basically decided who got to live here. Has he ever turned anyone away?"

"Yeah, a few. Most of them were...well, not looking for peace, as much as 'a piece', if you get my meaning."

"I can understand that, but, well..." Murdock wasn't sure how to ask this, not without sounding somehow disloyal, "everyone here seems to contribute in some way, so...why Face? I mean, Ed? I mean, he had nothing to offer, right? You said yourself he was practically a basket case. So why take him in?"

"Because this is a healing place first and foremost, Murdock." Nick spoke softly, once again looking down at his home. "People come here to heal, physically, mentally, emotionally. To decide what they want when the pain is gone. A lot of people stay, and then they do whatever they can to help out. But just as many leave after they've come to terms with whatever it was they were fighting.

"I chose to stay, because I didn't feel like I fit in out there any more. I think Ed will stay for the same reason. Even if he does choose to leave, it's going to take some time. He still doesn't feel totally safe here. The day he gives up his trailer and moves into the village itself, then the real healing will begin." Nick sighed. "Maybe we were wrong, Murdock, letting him stay out there by himself. But Charlie was afraid he'd leave if we pushed too hard, and God knows what would have happened to him then."

"Maybe he would've come back to us." Murdock tried to keep from sounding accusing, but it was there, just the same.

"No, he wouldn't have, Murdock. Charlie tried to talk him into going back to his friends, early on. Even before Charlie had any idea who you guys really were."

"He did? He never said..."

"No reason to. Ed refused. End of story."

Murdock sighed. For a few moments, neither man said anything, both contemplating the lights below.

"What happens now, Nick?"

"I think it's pretty obvious Ed can't make it out there any more. No offense to you guys, but I don't think he had a chance from the start. He needed to make sense of what happened, find some way to rationalize fate, I guess. I know you guys had the best intentions, but you didn't let him do that. You wanted him to just pick himself up and move on. People just can't do that. They have to mourn. He wasn't allowed to."

"So this is all our fault?"

"No. You were just part of the equation. I think there are things Ed has to deal with that have nothing to do with the team." Clearly uncomfortable, Nick straightened. "We'd better head on down to Charlie's, see what's up."

Murdock nodded, unwilling to let the subject go, but realizing Nick had said all he was going to. What happened after this was out of their hands.


*****

Charlie was standing at the window, swaying with the train, staring outside, trying to think. He'd already spoken with the conductor, to no avail. They weren't allowed to dispense medications. They could provide ice packs, but otherwise, Charlie and Ed were on their own until they arrived in Needles.

He looked at his watch. Only three more hours.

A moan from the bed brought Charlie's attention back to Ed. He knelt on the floor beside him, careful not to touch the bed and further disturb him. He checked the ice pack, and quickly pulled a fresh one from the cooler provided by the conductor. Ed shivered as Charlie placed the new one on the back of his neck; they seemed to help. Not much, but it was better than nothing.

Charlie could deal with the headaches. He'd helped Ed through them before. But it was the other...the mumblings, the desperation in Ed's voice as he spoke to unseen people, answered unheard voices. The words were slurred, low; Charlie couldn't make them out. He'd tried talking to Ed, tried to calm him down, but it hadn't done any good. If anything, it had made him more agitated, so Charlie gave up. Whatever hell Ed was going through, he was going it alone.

An hour later, Charlie thought Ed was getting better. He stopped talking, actually opened his eyes and looked blankly at Charlie.

"Ed?" Charlie kept his voice to a whisper.

"Charlie." Ed's voice was flat, barely audible.

"We're almost there, Ed. We'll soon be in Needles, and then it won't be long before we're home."

Ed closed his eye. "Doesn't matter now."

"What do you mean, Ed? That's what you wanted, wasn't it? To come home?"

Ed looked at Charlie, and his good eye was dull. "He was right, Charlie."

"Who was right, Ed?"

"BA."

"About what?"

Ed refused to say anything more. Charlie waited until he'd drifted off to sleep, and went in search of the conductor. It took some finagling, but when Charlie returned, a radio message was being relayed through channels, and by the time the train pulled into Needles, Dr. Feist would be waiting for them.