Like A Thunderbolt, He Falls
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
...He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Face didn't say a word all the way back from Malaysia. He wasn't tuned out, precisely; if you spoke to him, he heard you. He'd even do what you told him to, or at least he mostly did. But he didn't talk. And that was worrying, because Face usually used words to hide behind, to keep things away and his image up. But now, he wasn't talking. He just sat, unmoving, staring through the windshield into some place nobody else could see, let alone get to.
Face had come up into the cockpit and sat in the copilot's seat hours ago now. He'd ignored Hannibal's order to "get back here, lieutenant; we're not done yet," and Murdock guessed Hannibal hadn't really expected otherwise, since he'd let the younger man do it. Face hadn't said anything, but after a couple of hours he'd managed a smile. Not a good one; on his best days he'd have scorned it.
Of course, it wasn't one of his best days.
Hell, Murdock thought, glancing covertly at his best friend. It wasn't one of anybody's best days. It never was when you lost someone.
Even BA, who'd taken a long time to get to where he actually accepted having Frankie around, was more short-tempered than usual. Tranking him for the flight had been a pleasure, though Face hadn't seemed to care if they flew the lovely little corporate jet Stockwell had sent, or took a banana boat back to California and then a Greyhound to Virginia. Hannibal and Murdock had had to do it, and if BA hadn't been, in his own way, grieving, they probably couldn't have, alone.
So now Murdock was flying across the Pacific, that big empty stretch between Midway and the US, with a silent shadow in the copilot's seat, and Hannibal was in the back, with a no more silent, unconscious BA. And Hannibal had to be feeling very bad about it. After all, it had been his plan, and Frankie had done just what he was supposed to... Plus, of course, Hannibal had known Frankie a lot longer than the rest of them had. You could even argue that it was his fault Stockwell had picked the young FX man for his gamepiece in the first place. Frankie had always been in over his head.
Murdock was glad for the demands piloting was making on him. His own feelings weren't sorting themselves out easily. He'd liked Frankie, almost from the first. Sure, he'd been pissed off when they'd found out Frankie was Stockwell's man, but he couldn't help that, and he'd busted his butt to help Murdock spring the guys. And he joined in Murdock's games, like no one else ever had. Even Face, who'd always taken him seriously, always acted as though Murdock was what he said, even to petting Billy the invisible dog, hadn't made up names for himself and played along...
Of course, most of the time Face had known him it hadn't been games. And playing along would have been the wrong thing to do. Face knew...
Murdock shot another covert glance at the blond man. It probably wasn't necessary, but just because Face looked like he was lost in another world didn't mean that the part of him that was always on guard wasn't paying attention. Murdock didn't want Face getting up and walking away from him, too. He wanted Face staying right where he was, so Murdock could take care of him when they got home.
Face looked tired and in pain. Neither was something he generally let anyone see. Murdock knew it was a measure of Face's trust in him that he wasn't working to look normal. And that made him feel good, maybe too good considering.
Smoke drifted through the rooms. Burning papers, secrets going up in flames, lives released to freedom as the winds scattered the smoke and ashes. Hannibal tossed the documents they were supposed to bring back to Stockwell on the fire and watched as they burned.
BA grunted in satisfaction. "Guess we was too late to stop it?" he said.
"It would seem so," Hannibal nodded, a smile playing on his lips. "Whatever that boy was into, Stockwell will just have to be satisfied that no one else can use him. I do love it"
"Where's Frankie?" Face interrupted, his rifle resting on his shoulder as he scanned the large room and moved to the door to look into the next one. "Frankie?"
"Where that fool be?" asked BA.
Murdock crossed over to look out into the garden through which Frankie was supposed to come. "Frankie?" he called and then saw the two bodies crumpled under the Buddha. "Hannibal," he said urgently.
"Frankie?" Face vaulted through the window, an involuntary sound of pain escaping him as he dropped onto the ground six feet below. He didn't break stride, though.
The others came, less precipitately, through the door. When they got to the statue, Face was kneeling on the ground, his rifle discarded beside him, his hand on Frankie's bloody throat, feeling for breath, a pulse, life...
They hadn't lost a team member in what? Fifteen years? Sixteen? 'Nam, anyway. All those years on their own, they'd created a team that was truly greater than the sum of its admittedly eccentric parts. They'd known each other so well, strengths and weaknesses, they could go into any situation, no time to prepare, and know what each was going to do. That virtually psychic bond had served them well, never let them down. Like one of BA's beloved engines, well tuned and purring, the A Team had not only negotiated life's curves, but flown them.
Frankie had unbalanced them. There was no doubt of that. Given time enough, they could probably have learned to work that easily with him, maybe even turned out better for having him and his skills. But they hadn't had that time. Stockwell hadn't given it to them... Fate hadn't.
So now they had lost someone, and they were all thinking at least it was Frankie, and feeling very bad for thinking it.
Except for Face. Murdock wasn't sure what he was thinking, but he was pretty damned sure that wasn't it. Though whatever it was didn't seem to be making him feel any better. Why'd it have to be Frankie? was more like it. And maybe a Why wasn't it...
Murdock shook his head and then reached out and tapped a dial in case Face had noticed. He didn't want to go there, didn't want to follow that line of speculation anywhere at all. But he couldn't help remembering three weeks ago, when they'd come back from Comodoro Rivadavia. Face had been pissed as hell about the Little Sisters of Mercy, how they'd lost so much and Stockwell wouldn't lift a finger, or let them lift one, to help. He'd damn near punched the general, and BA had had to manhandle him out of Stockwell's office...
"Lieutenant, do you have any idea how hard I had to work to keep Stockwell from not counting this as one of our official missions?" Hannibal demanded as soon as they got inside the house.
"No, and I can't say I give a rat's ass, either, Colonel," Face responded. "We should have done something there and you know it."
"You're probably right, but you're forgetting that we aren't free agents any more."
"Yeah, well that makes me feel so much better about it all. Where exactly is the line and when did we waltz across it?"
"That's enough," Hannibal pointed a black-gloved finger at Face. "You need to learn to keep your emotions under control"
"That's a lesson I don't fuckin' want to learn." The blond slammed the door behind him as he stalked out into the garden.
"He right, Hannibal," BA said.
"So am I."
"Yeah," the black man admitted. "What we gonna do for supper? You want pizza?"
"Is somebody going to go talk to him?" Frankie, his thin, dark face worried, looked from Hannibal to Murdock.
"No," Hannibal said. "When Face gets like this, it's best to just leave him alone. He'll cool off and calm down, and then you can talk to him. Right now, it's a waste of time even to try. Pizza sounds good, BA. Murdock, you staying?"
Murdock nodded, watching Frankie shift his weight nervously. Then the younger man said, "I'm gonna go find him."
"When he bites your head off, don't say you weren't warned," Hannibal said.
BA shrugged; he probably wouldn't mind if Face did. He'd viewed the growing closeness between the two with disapproval, though in the last half-year or so he'd seemed to be more reconciled to it. Innately conservative, he hated anything that threatened the way things were, the way they worked well. He picked up the phone and dialed.
Murdock listened while he ordered pizza, half of one with anchovies for Face, and then made up his mind. "I'm gonna go bring Frankie back," he said. "Maybe I can find him before he finds Faceman."
"A good idea, Captain," Hannibal acknowledged.
Face was sitting about where Murdock had thought he'd be, on the garden wall looking out into the night. But the pilot was way too late to stop Frankie from finding him; the Hispanic man was sitting next to Face, talking softly. Murdock couldn't hear him, but Face was listening. And not biting. Murdock shrugged, though he couldn't help feeling a bit hurt that Face would take from the newcomer what he wouldn't take from him. Them.
And then Frankie reached out and put his hand on Face's cheek, gently, like a lover. And Face reached up and covered it with his own. And then they leaned in towards each other and kissed.
Murdock had not wanted to watch, but he had not been able to look away. The gibbous moon had silvered Face's torso when Frankie had pulled his shirt off, tousling that pale hair. A moment later and Face had desperately bared Frankie's body for his hands and mouth, and they had moved off the wall to the grass behind it, away from Murdock's view.
"Frankie decided to take a walk," he said when he went back inside.
Murdock still didn't know how he felt about that secret. Or guessing that when Face and Frankie took off on one of their weekendsslipping past Stockwell's goons with contemptuous ease and disappearing for two or three daysthey weren't just slipping the leash and hunting women. They were... they were with each other. He hadn't told Hannibal though he probably should have. He wasn't sure what the colonel's reaction would be. How could he be? He wasn't sure what his own was.
Hannibal had come down just on this side of amused the first time Face and Frankie had run off. They'd said they were driving to McLean to see a movie, but Face had lost their tail and not gone to McLean at all. He'd checked in with Hannibal by phone, saying they would be back Monday night, and call in just in case, and Hannibal had infuriated Stockwell by refusing to try to trace the calls.
"Peck's being irresponsible," Stockwell had said.
"That's what he does," Hannibal had said. "Being cooped up like a canary in a cage doesn't suit hawks, you know, General. If he doesn't get a little room to run, if you don't mind my mixing my metaphors, one of these fine days he won't come back at all. You know, he's young enough another ten years on the run doesn't bother him the way it does me and the sergeant. So I'm inclined to give him this little vacation."
But what Hannibal would say if he knew that Frankie had gotten to Face like this... like that. Because now Frankie was dead, and Face was sitting there wrapped in a grieving silence that Murdock didn't know how to help.
On the ground in Portland, Murdock stood, legs crossed and back against the partition, and waited until BA had finished his tirade. It was much shorter and much less vehement than usual; Frankie's body, left behind in Pontianak, was as much with them as if it had been strapped into one of the seats. "But I ain't flyin' to Virginia," he finished.
"No need," Hannibal said. "We can take the train. Let Stockwell figure out how to get this jet back." He stood up. "He gave us a house to use. Let's get over there."
"Colonel," Murdock finally spoke, straightening. "Why don't you and BA go over to Amtrak, check out schedules and whatever? I'll take Faceman to the house and see if I can get him to get some sleep."
"Do you think you can?" Hannibal asked; Face hadn't slept in three days, as far as any of them knew.
"I'll drug him if I have to," Murdock said grimly. "But it'll be better if he doesn't think we're ganging up on him."
Hannibal nodded. He looked tired, too, and much older than his fifty-odd years. "Don't let him out of your sight, Captain," he said. "I'm worried about him."
"I won't," said Murdock.
And, "Me, too," said BA. "Don't seem like Faceman, somehow."
"He liked Frankie," Murdock said. It sounded so inadequate, considering, but he didn't think now was the time to give away Face's secret. That time might come, especially if Face didn't snap out of this daze after some sleep... Though 'daze' wasn't the right word for it, really; he knew what was happening, he just didn't seem to care.
And that was the scariest part of it. Face always cared about being alive. He always had. He'd come through a lot of crap in his life because of it.
Brought others through it, too.
"Let me alone," Murdock pulled loose from Face's hand and stared out over the Pacific. The drop-off was a hundred feet or so, sheer bluff-edge down to the rocky beach. High enough... He rose up on his toes on the rock wall and leaned a little bit forward.
"Come on, Murdock, you're scaring me now," the blond man said. "It's not nice to scare Face like this."
Murdock considered that. Was Face scared? He probably was, even though he didn't sound like it. Or look like it, probably, if Murdock had been able to take his eyes off the setting sun and look. Murdock could count the number of times he'd seen Face actually look scared on the fingers of one hand and have a couple left over, and all of them had been when he was a green little butterbar, incountry... he'd learned to hide it, but nobody wasn't scared there. But why would he be scared now? He wasn't on the wall.
"It's okay, Faceman," he said after a moment. "I'm not scared. Not now."
"That's an illusion," Face said seriously.
Murdock laughed. "No, it's real. It's always really real, Face, that's the problem. Don't you see that? Right now I'm not scared... right now it's good."
"It won't stay that way." He sounded like he knew.
Murdock knew, too. "That's why I'm here," he pointed out.
"Come on down, Murdock. Before you lose your balance."
"Oh, I'm not gonna lose my balance," he said, almost crooning. "I am on top of it, Face. I know what I'm doing. If I go off, when I go off, I'll mean to."
There was a silence, and then, "What do you see out there, Murdock?"
"Freedom. Nothing. The sky... What do you see?" He was genuinely curious. Could Face see that blinding, spectacular beauty for what it was?
"China," was the unexpected response.
"China? Which of us is crazy?"
"You are," Face said softly. "That's why you have to go back. You know that."
"I don't wanna. I wanna fly away."
"You can't fly, Murdock. You forgot your airplane."
"I want to, Face..." And he did, more than almost anything. But something was pulling at him. "How can you see China? Japan and Korea are in the way."
"We're south of the P'ai Tou Shan, and those Japanese mountains are nothing up by Yamagata. I know you want to, Murdock. Please, remember why you can't."
Murdock wrapped his arms around himself. "It's cold there."
"It's colder out there," Face said softly. "And lonely."
"It's lonely everywhere."
"It doesn't have to be. Murdock, please, come down and come with me."
"I don't wanna go where you're gonna take me, Face. I don't wanna."
"We don't have to go there today."
Murdock hesitated. The light and the air and the water called, but... "Face?"
"Face, hold me. Make me warm. Make me safe. Keep me here."
Face didn't hesitate; he never had; Murdock knew he never would. It was why he could ask. "Come down, then," he said, reaching out and taking hold of Murdock's bomber jacket sleeve. Murdock almost fell into his hold, trembling. The younger man wrapped his arms around him and slid down the wall to sit on the ground, pulling Murdock into a comprehensive embrace of arms and legs and spirit. He pressed the pilot's head against his own heart, rubbing his other hand up and down his back. "It's going to be all right," he said softly. "It'll be all right some day. It will. You'll see, Murdock. You'll be glad you came back."
Murdock wished he could hold Face like that and drive away his demons, if only for a little while. He knew he'd never have made it, no matter how good the therapy was, if he hadn't had the team waiting. If Face hadn't kept coming to see him, to remind him what was waiting when he finally got through the demon-haunted nightland he'd been trapped in for so long. Face had been the golden light he'd chased... and if sometimes he'd fled Face, unable to tell if he was actually the man or some evil phantasm disguised as him, come to torment him with his own weaknesses, Face, the real Face, had always come and found him.
But now he couldn't return the favor. Even if Face had wanted it from him, he didn't know how. He didn't have Face's strength.
"No," he said. "Just kind of tired myself. Plus, Face is hurting worse than I..." The sentence trailed off as he realized he didn't know how to finish it.
"Yeah," Hannibal nodded. "I didn't think they were that close, either."
"Face don't have anybody but us," BA said. "Hurts him to lose anyone."
Hannibal nodded. "That's true. Well, the sooner you get him to bed, the better. Come on, BA. We won't pick up tickets today, but we can look at the schedule and give you some time alone."
Murdock watched them walk across the tarmac. Then he ducked into the cockpit. It was too bad they had to leave this nifty little jet... hell, just because BA wouldn't fly didn't mean he and Face couldn't fly to Virginia. They could spend a few days here, let Face recover some, and get to the East Coast before Amtrak could deliver the other two. He'd suggest it to Hannibal. "Face?" he said.
He didn't get an answer, but the younger man looked up at him. The raw misery in those blue eyes grabbed at Murdock's heart. "Come on, Face," he said softly. "Let's get away from here."
After a long moment, Face nodded and stood up. He followed Murdock like he didn't particularly care where they were going. Murdock gave Stockwell's cover account for the jet's maintenance and refueling, and then decided to take a cab instead of mess with a rental car. He bundled Face into the taxi and gave the driver the address and sat in silence for the ride. He and Face could be quiet together, but this was different... He didn't like it.
He aimed Face at the house and paid off the cabbie, glaring the man's grin off his face. Unlocking the door, he decided to come straight to the point.
"Okay, Face, enough is enough," he said. "Time to take care of yourself for a change."
Face looked at him, blinking in mild surprise.
"Come on," he said, pulling the blond to the nearest bedroom. "Get undressed and get into bed."
Shock flared across the blue eyes.
"Not that," Murdock said, pushing down whatever emotion it was was roiling inside him at the thought. "Sleep. You remember sleep?"
Face shook his head. It wasn't clear what he was negating. Maybe everything.
"Don't worry," Murdock said. "I'm gonna be here. You get in bed, I'll be right back." He ducked across the hall and returned with a glass of water. Face had done what he was told; his jeans, shirt, and shoes lay where he'd dropped them, very unlike his usual neat self. Murdock suppressed a sigh; it was progress. He tried not to look at the body displayed before him, clad only in briefs. "Take this," he said, holding out the pill and the glass.
"What's this?" Face's voice was oddly hoarse, considering how long it had been since he'd used it.
"You need to get your strength back," Murdock said matter-of-factly, "and that means you have to sleep. Think you will without it?"
For answer, Face swallowed the pill.
"Attaboy. Now, into bed."
Face obeyed, lying down and closing his eyes. After a moment he said softly, "Murdock?"
"I said I would, and I will. Don't worry." Murdock hesitated a moment, then said a silent hell with it and sat down on the edge of the bed. Face's hand reached out and Murdock took it.
"Murdock, we got to do things." He didn't open his eyes, but apparently now that he'd started talking he didn't see any reason to stop again. Murdock half wished he hadn't given him the pill so soon.
"What do we have to do, Face?"
"We have to make sure Stockwell doesn't renege on his promise to take care of Mr. Santana. It's the kind of thing that bastard would do..."
"We will," Murdock said. "Don't worry. Hannibal won't let it happen."
Face sighed. When he spoke again, his voice was already slurred. No food for three days, Murdock remembered, as well as no sleep... he was going down fast and hard. "Mur'ock?"
"We gotta go... to Miami."
"'Rizona. Frankie's abuelita... have to see her."
What was that? Grandmother, he thought. "Sure, Face," he said, "we'll go." He didn't think Hannibal would approve; he knew Stockwell wouldn't.
"Got to see her," Face repeated.
And Murdock repeated his assurance. "We'll go. We will." He didn't think it was such a good idea himself, though for a different reason. He wasn't at all sure an old Catholic Hispanic lady was going to want to meet her grandson's lover. Maybe he could talk Face out of mentioning that, if he was thinking about it. Just explaining how they knew Frankie was dead was going to be hard enough. But he could hear it in Face's voice, tired and slurred and faint though it was: this was non-negotiable.
"I know," Murdock said. "And you loved him."
Didn't? "Didn't?" Murdock asked incredulously. "Didn't? You didn't? What the hell..?"
But Face was gone, lost in a drug-induced oblivion from which he wasn't going to be roused. And Murdock was left speechless, frustrated, staring at him.
When Hannibal and BA pulled into the driveway in a rental car, Murdock was in the kitchen. "Didn't?" he said, throwing a pan into the sink and turning on the water with a little more force than necessary. "Didn't? You didn't love him? Face, how could you? You're not that big a slut, are you? You can't be... Didn't? Then what's this self-immolation act? Didn't?" He shut up as the door opened but not, apparently fast enough.
"Problem, Captain? Where's Face?"
"He's asleep. No problems, Hannibal, he went down as meek as a lamb..."
"You look just a bit upset, Murdock. What's up?"
Murdock sighed. "Face is worried about Stockwell," he said. "Worried about Frankie's dad."
"He better not think about not payin' for that no more," said BA with palpable menace. "Frankie done everything he was told. He earned that. Ain't that right, Hannibal?"
"Yes, it is," said Hannibal; the menace in his tone was considerably silkier but no less deadly. "I'll reassure Face on that topiche's found his tongue again?"
"Yeah, he did, while he was driftin' off."
"Good," Hannibal said with satisfaction. "A silent Face is a worrisome thing. But
Frankie's father's long-term health-care isn't enough to explain the flying kitchen equipment." He hiked an eyebrow.
"Oh, you saw that?" Murdock said, buying a little time.
"Yes. What else is Face worried about? Is he blaming himself?"
"Ain't his fault," BA put in decisively.
"No," Hannibal nodded. "That wouldn't stop him, though. Is he?"
"It didn't come up," Murdock said. "He wants to go to Arizona."
"Arizona? What he want to go to Arizona for?"
Murdock sighed. He'd given it some thought and he doubted they could talk Face out of it. Hannibal could try if he wanted. "Frankie's grandmother lives there. He wants to see her."
"That's not a good idea."
"You're telling me, Hannibal? But he wants to."
"It's not exactly on the way. And what if the government has people there?"
"I don't think he cares. About either. But we could fly, Hannibal"
"I ain't flyin'," said BA with a growl. "An' that'll add a week to the trip. More. If the train even goes where she lives."
"She lives in Miami, which is about sixty miles from Phoenix. No problem, Hannibal: we take the jet to Scottsdale, rent a car for the afternoon, and then fly on to the East Coast. And," he added before BA could speak again, "you and BA go ahead and take the train, and that way Face and me won't be any longer getting back than you two."
"I'm not so sure that's a good idea," Hannibal said.
Murdock shrugged. "You didn't hear him. He's gonna go. This way, at least somebody'll be with him."
Hannibal shook his head. "I'll talk to him about it. But if he won't change his mind, I like your idea. Stick with him, Murdock."
BA asked, "Just what that fool planning on saying to Frankie's nana, anyway? 'I was with your grandson in Malaysia on a secret mission for the guvmint, but they won't even admit he dead, let alone he work for them.' That ain't no good."
Murdock shrugged, looking at the water to see if it was boiling yet. "I don't know. I don't know if he knows. All I know is, he's going to go."
Hannibal pointed at him. "You watch what he says, Murdock. Our going back to jail won't get that old lady her grandson back."
Murdock nodded again.
So three days later Murdock sat beside Face as they drove along a long, mostly empty, rough, unmaintained, two-lane road east from Scottsdale... much too fast. Face had rented a convertible at the airport, and the top was down, the wind blowing through his tawny hair and threatening to steal Murdock's hat. At least it was fall, and not a hundred and ten.
Face wasn't talking much, and his eyes were hidden behind mirrored shades, but he'd gotten more like himself since he'd woken up. Murdock hadn't figured out how to ask him right out whether he was going to say anything personal, and Face hadn't seemed to remember saying that he didn't love Frankie, so although that lay between them like the elephant in the living room, it was an elephant only Murdock could see.
Just like old times, he thought suddenly, thinking of Billy. But Face had always acted as if Billy were perfectly real, just invisible. He wedged his back into the corner between the seat and the door as if getting more room for his longer, lanky legs, and looked at Face and really wished he hadn't seen him and Frankie in the garden that night.
Face glanced at him. Despite the sunglasses, Murdock could read the expression clearly: You okay? Everything all right? He grinned at his friend and stretched his arms. Face quirked his lips in a slight smile and turned his attention back to the road, reassured.
It had been that way between them almost since the beginning, Murdock reflected, seeing Face returning to his usual role, care-giver not -getter. Probably not more than six whole months of their relationship had been the other way around. Face grounded him, chased away his demons, and was in general there for him. It made it hard. How many years before he'd even heard the term 'transference'? How many more before he understood what was going on...
It was dark. The night was close and hot and the air was thick, and just beyond his vision things were moving. No, dancing. Laughing just outside of what people could hear, but he could hear them. They were coming for him. The team was hiding off the path, but demons don't need paths. And they see in the dark. And Hannibal thought they were ordinary VC... they would take him again and... he was trying to stay quiet, because he knew, somewhere inside himself, that things weren't as he thought they were, but he whimpered. He couldn't help it.
"Murdock, be quiet," Hannibal snapped.
He was trying, he really was, but the fear was like something from outside, not under his control at all. He whimpered again, more loudly.
"BA," Hannibal said.
"Hey, no," Peck said. "I'll keep him quiet... we may need him to fly us out, Colonel."
"Try," Hannibal agreed.
And then the lieutenant was next to him, touching his shoulder soothingly. "Hey, Murdock," he said quietly, "it's okay. Nothing's here."
"Yes they are," Murdock insisted, wishing he didn't think so. "Right out there."
Peck snuggled up beside him. "Nothing can get you, Murdock. Trust me. Do you trust me?"
Murdock hesitated. It wasn't lack of trust, but how could a kid like this stop what was out there? Peck caught his chin in his hand and pulled his head around so that Murdock was looking right into the kid's blue eyes. He was startled at the fire there.
"Get him quiet, Lieutenant, and keep him that way."
Peck pulled Murdock up close to his body, wrapping his legs around Murdock's hips and his arms around Murdock's back. "Nothing can get you. You have to be quiet, and I'll keep everything away. Deal?"
Murdock nodded once, convulsively. Peck pulled him tight, his throat against Murdock's ear, and a small almost purring sound, not audible a foot away, came from him. Murdock tightened his hold and felt the demons falling back. He knew he'd always be safe within the kid's arms. The kid was tough and he wouldn't let anything get to him. Ever...
Murdock sighed to himself. It had taken him almost fourteen years to sort out his feelings for Face, to learn to be best friends again, and then, after nearly a year on a nice even keel, nothing popping up to disturb him, he'd run across Face and Frankie in the garden and everything shifted. Now, once again, he had no idea what was going on inside him. Life just wasn't fair sometimes.
The back road, which they were taking on general principles, had been described to them as "guaranteed to whack out the alignment on a wussy car". Face had grinned at the gal at the gas station and said, "It's not my car." Now, as the convertible began jolting up the short scrubby mountains in a way that probably meant it would need realignment, Murdock suddenly laughed. Face took his eyes off the road for a moment and grinned at him, changing gears and attacking the mountain with a little extra glee. Murdock laughed again. What had Dr. Richter always said? If you want fair, you're in the wrong universe. And this is the only one I know of, so.... And life wasn't fair. After all, what was fair about a life that had Face in it to begin with? What was fair about a skinny, balding, mentally unstable guy like him having Face for a best friend? Nothing... not a damn thing. Rejoice in the general unfairness of the universe, he reminded himself.
He sat back in the seat and enjoyed the scenery. He didn't think of Arizona as having lakes, but they passed four or five on the way. The road was a mess, twenty-five miles of dirt, but Face was enjoying himself. As long as they didn't break an axle... Murdock didn't feel like hiking to Miami. A hawk floated in the sky, sailing the wind, and Murdock watched him for a while. It felt good to be in equilibrium again. He didn't know how long it would last, probably just till they met Frankie's grandmother, but for the moment, life was good once more.
They found the house with no problems. It was on the outskirts of the townmost of the town was outskirtsand it had a stretch of rocky, wild garden out behind it. Face pulled up in front and sat there, looking at the little house from behind his shades.
"Hey, Faceman. We don't have to go in," Murdock said gently.
"Yes, we do," Face replied. "At least, I do." He climbed out of the convertible. Murdock followed. Face took a deep breath, pulled off his sunglasses, and rang the doorbell.
The woman who opened it looked about ninety. She was tiny and rail-thin, with large black eyes and hair with just enough color in the grey to show it had been black, too. Her skin was the same copper as Frankie's had been, though otherwise there was no real resemblance. "Yes?" she asked.
"Senora Yazzie?" Face asked.
"Yes," she replied, measuring them.
Face, almost unconsciously, was being trustworthy and charming. "You don't know us, but we've come a long way to talk with you."
"I'm not selling my land," she said, then paused. "But you aren't trying to buy, are you?" She flicked her eyes at Murdock then back to Face. "Come in. What can I do for you boys?"
Face followed her inside and Murdock brought up the rear, shutting the door. "Sit," she said, pointing at the couch and perching on a chair. "Now, tell me why you're here."
"Senora Yazzie," Face said, "we knew your grandson."
"Which one... Ah. Frankie," she said. "You are Frankie's friends."
Face nodded. "We were. I'm so sorry to have to tell you this"
"He has passed?" she said.
"Yes, ma'am," Face said. "He died a week ago, almost. I'm sorry, I can't tell you any details. But I thought you should know."
She nodded. "You're Temple, aren't you?"
Face blinked startled eyes at her. Murdock felt his jaw drop. "Ma'am?" Face said.
"He wrote me, a few times, after he left Los Angeles," she said, putting a hard G in the word. "He told me he was not supposed to, and all the letters had different postmarks, sometimes foreign cities. He never told me anything about what he was doing, but he told me about his friends. John, and BA, and Murdock," she looked at him, and then back at Face, "and Temple. I think he was doing something a little illegal, for his father. Not so very illegal, because he was a good boy. But a little bit."
"It was a little bit," said Face. "But it was for a good cause. He was a good man."
She rose and patted him gently on the shoulder. "He was very fond of you. Of both of you," she added. "I will bring some tea."
When she came back she brought not only tea, but some cake. And when Face asked about Frankie as a boy, revealing that he'd spent several years here when his father's illness was starting to take hold, something Murdock hadn't known, she produced a photo album. She and Face sat on the couch and looked at it, Murdock taking her chair and listening to the stories. After a while he decided that he wasn't mistaking the undertone in her voice: she knew about Frankie and Face. It would be easier for them to talk if he wasn't there, and Face wasn't likely to tell her anything she didn't already know, so Murdock asked if he could look at her garden.
She nodded and smiled, and he went outside. After about twenty minutes, while he was watching some little birds flitting around in the bushes, he caught sight of Face coming outside. The blond man walked to the far end of the garden, the set of his shoulders telling Murdock he wanted to be left alone for a few minutes. Murdock blinked at him, and then went back inside.
Mrs. Yazzie was in the kitchen. He walked in to join her. "I'm really very sorry about your grandson," he said.
She nodded and looked at him, hard. "Your friend is very upset."
"He was close to... your grandson," he said, remembering that she hadn't said Frankie's name since they'd told her he was dead. Face had, but she hadn't.
"He loved him," she said simply, her eyes fixed on his face. And then, as Murdock swallowed and tried to think of the right thing to say, she added, "My grandson loved Temple, I mean. And now, you and I, I think we need to talk about the living."
Murdock shook his head. "What do you mean? Ma'am?"
"Come," she said, gesturing for him to sit at the table. She joined him and said, "It was me he came to, when he was sixteen and his body reacted to handsome young cowboys riding past on horses, or in the backs of trucks. I know what he was like. I told him, it was of God as all things good, and love is good, are from God, but he had to be careful who he told it to. He wasn't always as careful as he could have been, I think, in Los Angeles, but he learned that his old grandmother knew better... He wrote to me that Temple was shot by some men who were trying to rob a restaurant where he and Temple were eating, and that was when he knew he was in love."
Murdock remembered that. He'd never forget it as long as he lived. Face's life's blood running out onto the kitchen floor and Frankie and he both trying their damnedest to get the upper hand on the men, who were not there to rob the place but to assassinate the attorney general, who had a reservation. Time running out like Face's life... God, how he'd wished for BA or Hannibal instead of Frankie, someone whose moves he didn't know, who didn't know him... Frankie had been almost frantic, he remembered. So that was when it started...
"But I think he was wrong," she was saying.
"Excuse me?" Murdock said. Had Face told her... why would he do that? And it couldn't be true, anyway. Face hadn't gone into that tailspin over a casual bed-partner...
"My grandson said, in his letters, that Temple didn't love him. He hoped that in time that would change, that he loved Temple so much. But Temple, he said, loved someone else, and he was a second choice because the first choice wasn't interested. He didn't mind that, being second choice, as long he was chosen. But I think he was wrong. Wasn't he?"
Murdock stared at her. "What do you mean?"
She reached out and patted his hand. "I'm blunt. It's my right, I'm ninety-four. I've earned it. You love him. He's in pain." She took hold of his hand and shook it. "Fix it."
"Mrs. Yazzie," he started.
"Fix it," she repeated. "I don't know how men do these things, but you and he, my grandson said, are very close. You will have to talk to him, find out why he is in such pain, and take it away. That is what love is for, isn't it?" She stood up. "I'm very grateful to you that you came to tell me about my grandson. Now I will not be waiting for his letters and worrying about him. He's at rest. The living need us now. Go on."
Murdock found himself standing looking out the window in the back door. Face was standing out by the fence in the midafternoon sun. He might welcome somebody now, but Murdock doubted he was ready for... what? A declaration of love? Murdock wasn't even sure he was ready to make one. Just go let him know he's not alone. Like he'd do for you. Worry about the rest of it later.
He reached to open the door and his eye was caught by a Stetson hanging on the wall. "Mrs. Yazzie," he said, "may I? For Temple?" The name sounded odd to him; Face was, well, Face. Or Templeton in full to the rest of the world...
"Of course," she said.
"You take care of yourself," he said, picked up the hat, and walked outside.
"What's this?" Face asked with mock irritation when Murdock plopped the hat on his head.
"Don't even make me explain to Hannibal how you got sunstroke," Murdock said. They stood in silence for a few minutes. "Whacha lookin' at, Facey?"
Face sighed. "There's a rabbit."
Murdock found the small creature out in the scrub. "Yup," he nodded.
"And there's a hawk up there."
Murdock looked up. When he looked back down he spotted another flicker of movement. "There's two rabbits, Face," he said. "One of 'em's gonna die, and one of 'em's not. But it won't be his fault, which one the hawk picks."
Face looked at him, his eyes as desolate as Murdock had ever seen them.
"The hawk comes down like lighting," Murdock said. "It's an act of God. The living don't bear the blame. That's true," he heard himself adding, "whether the hawk is Death, or Love."
Face regarded him for a long time. A piercing scream jerked both their heads around and they saw the hawk rising back into the sky, its wings laboring to carry it and the rabbit dangling from its talons.
"Like a thunderbolt he falls," Face murmured.
Murdock put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Let's go," he said softly. "I don't want to be on that road in the dark."
Face watched the hawk for another moment, then looked for the other rabbit but couldn't find it. After a few minutes he nodded. "Okay," he said. "Come on."
Back in Virginia Face flashed one of his best grins and convinced Hannibal that all he'd needed was some rest. Not quite that easily, of course, but the colonel wanted to believe it, so he wasn't as hard to convince as he might have been. He'd been annoyed that Frankie had written letters to his grandmother"What did you expect, Hannibal?" BA had growled at him. "Fool wasn't trained right. Never did understand need to know."but had accepted it because it meant Face hadn't anything to tell her she didn't already know. Face had turned in early that night, and Hannibal had grilled Murdock, who'd decided to back anything Face said.
He'd also decided to hang around as much as possible. It was easy, as he was between jobs at the moment, on account of going to Malaysia. Hannibal and BA didn't mind him being around. Face spent two days avoiding him and then gave it up. There was still a tension between them that hadn't been there before, but since Face didn't seem inclined to pursue it, Murdock had time to think.
So Frankie had thought Face was in love with Murdock, not him? That can't have been much fun for him, even if he had Face in his bed... Now that was a thought. He'd gotten over having those thoughts, or at least admitting he was having them, years ago. Now, all at once, it was as though he was suddenly licensed to have them. First, realizing that Face was open to it and then being told that Face loved him... and all of it pivoting on Frankie's death.
Which made it really hard to deal with it. Because it was like being glad that Frankie was dead. And he wasn't. Or didn't want to be, at least.
And it was pretty clear that Face wasn't. Even if he'd meant what he'd said about not loving him, he'd been fond of him. If not more. Because Face wasn't really that casual. Oh, god knew, he slept around. He found it very easy to ask and very hard to say no, because he found it impossible to be alone. But he didn't have long-term relationships, except with the team. He'd only once or twice ever even thought about being with a woman for more than a few dates, and then, both times, he'd been thinking forever. He was a forever kind of guy.
Murdock blinked at that, looking at the blond where he was sitting on the couch watching an old movie. That sounded so unlikely, but it was true. Face was a forever kind of guy. When there was no chance of it, he didn't look for it, but it was what he wanted. If Frankie had offered him that, being fond of him would have been enough for Face. He'd have... he'd have made do. Like he had most of his life.
Now Murdock felt himself getting angry. Not at Frankie, no; Frankie had loved Face, done his best to make him happy. A little at Face, maybe, for settling, but more at Fate or Life or God for teaching Face he had to settle.
And a lot at himself, for not understanding soon enough.
But, as Dr. Richter had taught him, that was the past. The past is a lesson but it's not a choice. Don't try to remake it, Murdock. Focus on the future.
He turned that idea over in his mind, and realized he'd come to the answer about his own feelings. It wasn't transference and it wasn't friendly and it very definitely wasn't fraternal. He wanted Face. He wanted to take the misery out of his eyes and make them laugh again. He wanted to hold him and make him feel safe and wanted, the way he'd always made Murdock feel. He wanted... forever. With Face.
Now, he just had to make Face believe it.
Murdock got up and walked over to Face. Hannibal and BA had gone to the range; Face had begged off. Hannibal had given him a little grief about it, but had finally said, "Next time, Lieutenant, you are coming. And you'd damned well better shoot perfect."
Face looked up at him. "What's up, Murdock?"
"Haven't you seen this about a dozen times already?"
Face shrugged. "Something like that."
"Let's go see something new, Face."
"Come on, Faaace," Murdock whined. "I'm bored."
"You can leave any time you want," Face pointed out.
"Aw, Face," Murdock said. "You don't want me around? Don't you love me no more?"
Face flinched, though you'd have to know him as well as Murdock to see it. Almost on top of it he sighed. "Don't be an idiot," he said. "Okay. What movie do you want to see?"
Murdock shrugged, feeling a twinge of remorse but forging ahead anyway. "I don't care. Anything."
"Then sit down and watch this," said Face.
"Anything new," he clarified. "Anything not in this house. Anything," he waved his arms, "out there."
Face sighed. Then he got to his feet. "Okay, okay," he said. "Come on."
"Hey," said Murdock once they were in the car. "I've got an idea... Let's go where you and Frankie used to."
Face turned and looked at him. Murdock held his eyes steadily. Face swallowed and started the car. "That might not be such a good idea," he said.
"Why not?" Murdock asked, seriously. "You guys didn't go up to Baltimore and hang out on the Block, did you?"
Face shook his head. "No... as a matter of fact, we went to the Eastern Shore."
"Cool," said Murdock. "Never been there."
Face stared ahead for a while. "You sure you want to go there?"
Murdock experienced a moment of doubt. Maybe he was pushing. But then again...
"Okay," Face said, taking his silence for consent. "But it's not easy to get there. And we have to buy beer. I'm not going without beer."
"Beer's good," said Murdock, hoping Face wasn't going to get drunk. Of course, just on beer it wouldn't be too bad.
Face put the car in gear.
Not easy turned out to mean the method that Face used to shake Stockwell's tail.
A combination of driving way too fast and swapping off cars, twice, and they'd shaken any pursuit they might have had. Murdock found it hard to believe that Face had bought an old Chevy pick-up, but he had the keys to it, and the cassettes in the case were his kind of music.
The radio came on when Face started the engine. "love you forever, forever and ever, amen. As long as old men sit and talk about the weather, as long as old women sit and talk about old men. If you're wondering how long" Murdock reached over and turned it off.
"I told him not to do that," Face said finally. He reached out and pushed a button and then turned the radio back on, and this time it was Frankie Valli, not Randy Travis. Carefully he put the truck in gear and pulled out of the garage where it had been parked.
Murdock sat back and let him drive.
They got on 50 and headed across the Bay Bridge. Murdock couldn't contain his glee at that, but by then Face was ready to respond again, so it worked out. Across the bridge Face turned south and drove, occasionally pointing out landmarks. It was a good four hours, all told, before they got to the turnoff back towards the Shore. A teenaged girl on a bike waved at them. "Hey, Mr. Hard, you back? Been a wole... Who's at?"
"Hey, Anne," Face said. "Mr. Rivera won't be up any more; this is Mr. Thomas, he's bought the other half."
"At's too bade," she said. "He's a noce man."
"Yes, he is. Tell your daddy we're here, would you? We might take the boat out tomorrow."
"S'pized be a good day ford morra," she said, "an' I will."
Face waved again and headed down the road.
"What the hell did she say?"
"It's supposed to be good day for it tomorrow," Face grinned. "Some accent, huh? And hers isn't even that bad. You should hear her father." He laughed and added, "My name's Howard, by the way."
But he stopped smiling when he parked the truck by the small house. The view across the Chesapeake was spectacular. Without saying a word, Face got out of the truck and grabbed one of the twelve-packs from the back and walked down to sit on the dock. Murdock picked up the box of take-out Roy's chicken and followed him more slowly; by the time he got there, Face had a beer half finished.
"You should go slow," Murdock said casually. "You haven't eaten yet." He offered the box.
Face stared at it, then shrugged and took a leg. "Look at that sunset," he said. "You know the nice thing about the Eastern Shore? The sun sets over the water... you can think you're back in California."
"This doesn't look like California," Murdock said, looking around at the wetlands and the trees.
"Picky, picky." Face drank some more beer.
Murdock sighed to himself. What did you expect? Talk to him.
"I'm really sorry about Frankie."
Face went all still for a moment, then finished the bottle and set it down in the case. "We're all sorry about him," he said.
"I know. But, Face... I know."
Face sighed, and then, suddenly, he was trembling all over. Without conscious thought Murdock reached for him, pulling him into his arms. Face came willingly, holding to Murdock's shirt under his jacket and resting his forehead on Murdock's shoulder.
"Must be hell to lose someone you love," Murdock said. "I've been so lucky so far." He rubbed his hand on Face's back.
Face said something, too softly for Murdock to hear.
"What was that, Face?"
"I didn't. I didn't love him. I just used him..."
"Face," Murdock reproved him. "You know that's not true."
"He loved me, but I didn't love him."
"It's all right."
"No, it's not." Face pulled away. "I was so glad, just for a moment, that it wasn't... He loved me. What kind of man thinks like that?"
"It's all right, Facey," Murdock pulled him back and tightened his hold. "It's all right. It's not your fault he's dead, you didn't even wish it before it happened. It's just survivor guilt, Face, take my word for it. I know. I know... A little odd, maybe, but hey, why not odd?"
"Murdock... oh god," Face collapsed against him, and cried for the first time. Two weeks' worth of tears came, wracking sobs that shook Murdock's body, too, as he held on.
He rubbed Face's back, his other in the tawny hair. "It's okay, Face," he said. "It's okay. I love you and I'm not letting you get lost. I've got you..."
"Don't let go," Face said.
And the sun fell into the Bay while they sat there, and the darkness came up around them. But Murdock wasn't afraid of the dark any more; Face had shown him the way out. And he remembered it, even if, just at the moment, Face didn't.
And the talons were sharp, but the wounds would heal.
Murdock rested his head on Face's, and waited. He had all their lives.
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