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Protection

Protection

Author: emmastark
Rated: R -Language, injured character, brief (non-explicit) discussion of adult sexuality, memories of war.

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Stephen J. Cannell and Universal.

Warning: Language, injured character, brief (non-explicit) discussion of adult sexuality, memories of war.

Comments: Please
Summary: The year is 1976. The subject -- taking care of the people we care about isn’t always easy.

Copyright 2001

 

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PROTECTION

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~The First Variation~

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Face lay bleeding. Cheek pressed into the dirt. Back slick and bright and red. He made no sound. His eyes were open.

BA reached his left arm around Garfield’s throat. Grabbed his knife hand and slammed it hard against the side of the van. The knife fell in the dirt and Garfield’s scream was cut off, suddenly, as BA slammed his body against the van’s black door. Again. And again.

Hannibal grabbed him by his shirt, pulled at him. He let Garfield’s body drop, kicked away the knife, turned.

Murdock knelt in the dirt, hands pressing into Face’s back, hands and wrists and shirt painted with Face’s blood.

BA stared at them.

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BA lifted the barbell. Counted to five. Lowered it back down to his chest.

Lift the barbell. Hold. Lower it down.

Usually, working out cleared his mind. Helped him focus. But today (still) all he could see was blood spilling over Face’s back.

Lift. Hold. Lower.

Too late. He’d been too late.

He’d seen the knife go in. But he’d been too far away to stop Garfield. He’d watched the knife go in, watched Face fall forward into the dirt.

He’d grabbed Garfield (hurt Garfield). But he’d been too late to keep his little brother from harm.

Lift. Hold. Lower.

He could feel the sweat, now. Feel his muscles straining against the weight.

He’d carried Face to the van. Face’s skin had been slick with blood, and Murdock had screamed at him when Face nearly slipped from his arms.

Lift. Hold. Lower.

He’d driven fast, but careful. Eyes on the road. Listening to the words behind, Hannibal’s terse commands, Murdock murmuring indistinguishable comfort.

Set down the barbell. Switch to the heavy bag. Bare-fisted.

Left-right-LEFT. Right-left-RIGHT.

Eight years old. He’d been eight years old when his father disappeared for the last time.

Hadn’t known it was the last time then.

Mama never hated him. As steadfast in her not-hating as she was in everything else. He was hard to hate, anyhow. Funny and a good storyteller. Gentle. A big man, real big, but gentle.

Just not too good at stickin’ around.

He had a lot more of his Daddy than the fool had of his Ma. Three years is a lot more memory.

He remembered Mama and Daddy dancing on New Year’s Eve. All dressed up only for each other. Low music and midnight on the radio.

He remembered watching his Daddy fix sinks. Which he did when he wasn’t doing something else. Head and shoulders (broad shoulders) gone underneath a kitchen cabinet, hands reaching out for tools. Pipe wrench. Cloth. Oil. Allen wrench.

He remembered his father’s fists. Raised. Ready. One man on the ground against three others. Daddy wading in. Walking home, they’d been quiet, just walking along together. Down 81st and Silverado Street and Washington Avenue. Then Daddy had said one thing. "Big folks... and you gonna be a big man, just like your Daddy... big folks take care o’ people. That’s what we here for, much as anythin’ else. Ain’t nuthin’ more ugly than a big man who bullies folks, Scooter. And ain’t nuthin’ sorrier than a big man who stands by, lettin’ folks get hurt. You ‘member that, now."

Right-LEFT. Left-RIGHT.

Right-LEFT. Left-RIGHT.

Murdock had got a little lost, after everything. He still got lost, sometimes. At the doctor’s place, BA had taken him in the bathroom to try and get some of the blood off. Half-dragged him.

He got caught, though, by his own face in the mirror.

Ain’t nuthin’ sorrier than a big man who stands by, lettin’ folks get hurt.

He wanted to smash that face in the mirror, break it into pieces. He wanted to.

"Big guy?"

BA half-turned. Murdock had sunk down onto the toilet seat in the small bathroom and was looking at his hands.

"Big guy, we got blood here, we got all kinds of blood, here," Murdock said. His voice was quiet, but kind of sing-song crazy sounding. "We bleedin’?"

BA looked at himself in the mirror. Blood on his hands, too. A swipe of it on his cheek like indian paint.

Taking care was more than fists and he put his fists down.

"We all right, fool."

He turned on the water and made it warm. Grabbed up the fool and held his hands under the tap. Brown hands and white hands and red washing down and away.

Left-RIGHT. Right-LEFT.

Left-RIGHT. Right-LEFT.

Everybody failed sometimes. That’s a terrible thing to know, but he knew it. And you can’t change what’s been.

But you can make yourself ready for the next time.

Right-LEFT. Left-RIGHT.

You can make yourself ready for the next time.

Right-LEFT. Left-RIGHT.

And you can stay.

 

 

 

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~The Second Variation~

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Face lay bleeding. Cheek pressed into the dirt. Back slick and bright and red. He made no sound. His eyes were open.

Murdock dropped to his knees and pressed his hands against the wound, flat and hard against Face’s back.

Blood ran through his fingers.

He saw BA grab Garfield with part of himself and with part of himself he saw Hannibal pull BA away. With part of himself he saw Face’s eyes (blue eyes) staring out and with part of himself he saw blood, mixing with the dust beneath his knees, making itself into a thick, dark paste.

Too many parts.

Too many pieces.

Hannibal got down on his knees, then, and BA, beside him like praying. Hannibal shoved his hands away and replaced them with his shirt, soaking up the blood, trying to soak up the blood. BA picked Face up in his arms.

Murdock stared at them.

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Murdock lifted the book off the shelf. "The Doors of Perception." He put it back. The next was "Man’s Search for Meaning." Then "The Fall."

"Hey, Doc," he said. "You got anything on, like, psychology here?"

"Next shelf."

He moved a little to the left. "The Theory of Psychoanalysis." "Clinical Studies in Psychiatry." "Trauma and Recovery."

"You read all these, Doc?"

"All except the green one. It was boring."

Murdock let his fingers run over the bindings of the books on Richter’s shelves. Hundreds of books. A whole wall of books.

"Would you like to tell me what happened?" Richter asked.

"Have you done a background check on Lovett?"

"Lovett the laundry room orderly?"

"So you’ve seen it, too? I’m pretty sure he was behind the whole thing."

Richter looked at him for a long moment. "Your hands are shaking."

Murdock looked at his hands.

Yup.

Shaking.

And covered in Face’s blood.

"If you think about it, Doc, the laundry’s got to be where they’re getting in. It’s the soap, see..."

"Who are you protecting, Murdock?"

Murdock laughed. Loudly. Grimly. "Nobody, Doc. Nobody at all."

That wasn’t entirely true, though, was it?

Murdock painted his name in blood on the window.

Who are you protecting?

He’d held Face down in the back of the van. Laid across Face’s back and shoulders, braced his feet against the other seat and held Face down. BA was trying to drive careful, but every turn pulled at them.

"Hold him steady, goddamn it," Hannibal said.

"Shh," Murdock said. His head was very close to Face’s and he talked soft. When you were hurt bad, sometimes it was like you were an animal or someone from a strange country and you didn’t get actual words, but you could get the comfort of someone else talking if they were gentle. "Shh. It’s okay, muchacho, you just take it easy, now. Gonna get you fixed up. We gotcha, now, we’re all together, now, you just hold on, we got you..."

He braced Face against the seat with his body and one arm, used his other hand to brush the hair out of Face’s eyes. Blue eyes.

Focus. Had to focus.

There was blood in Face’s hair. Running up between their bodies and into Face’s hair.

Dr. Richter stood up. Walked over. Stood behind him. Stared out the window.

If he saw the blood, he gave no sign.

"There comes a time, Murdock, when you have to decide whether or not you want to get better. I can’t help you, and you can’t help yourself, if you keep pushing the truth down inside."

The glass was cold. The "M" dripped a little, and Murdock reached out and put his finger on the drip. It split into two parts and kept falling down the window pane.

He’d held Face down in the van, but time fractured a little and then he was in the bathroom with BA and the big guy was holding his hands under warm water. Blood ran down.

BA soaped his hands with LAVA soap, green and rough, then ran them up and down Murdock’s arms. Rinsed them off. Frowned.

"Take yo’ shirt off, fool."

He pulled the t-shirt over his head. When he pulled the t-shirt over his head, he got blood on his face. Face’s blood. On his face. He could taste it on his lips.

Crazy has its uses. Back in Vietnam, he’d felt like Merlin, sometimes, conjuring up what he needed. Don’t feel up to walking one more step? Here, have a dog. Walk him for awhile. Can’t bear to watch what they’re doing to that guy out in front of the cages this afternoon? Look at this instead. Silver stars and moonlight over Texas.

Crazy had helped him make it through. Oh, yeah. He was in pieces, maybe, but some of those pieces were still him.

Crazy had its uses. Crazy’d helped when there was nothing else to hold onto except the stuff in your head, the barriers you could build in your brain. Like training wheels, keeping you upright when you couldn’t stand up by yourself.

But nobody uses training wheels forever.

If it was just him, he might let crazy take over. Ride it all the way down. The purple wobblies weren’t perfect, but hey, they beat cheap Monet prints on the walls any day, right?

But it wasn’t just him.

He hadn’t ever actually had training wheels. He’d had Grandma, red-faced, running alongside his little blue bicycle on the driveway, shouting, "Keep pedaling, HM! Keep pedaling!" and then letting go.

And what a rush of fear and flight that had been. Soaring, riding, gliding, smooth, straight, fast.

And falling. Of course, falling. Skinned knees and scraped elbows and wrists raw from rusty shackles and backs bloody from when they beat him... Hannibal? No, Face... a knife?

Falling is so goddamn easy.

Been falling for a long time.

It was like the cartoons. That’s what it was like.

There were always cliffs and people were always going over. Sometimes there was a branch sticking out and the people grabbed onto that, but sometimes they just fell and fell and fell and crashed and the birds flew around their head and they held up a sign that said "OUCH." And everything kept going and nobody ever died and then there was a commercial for Mrs. Butterworth’s real maple syrup.

He hadn’t seen the knife go in. Just turned his head and Face was falling forward into the dirt. And the blood washed down his back like water.

No blood in cartoons. Never ever.

"Better get somebody to come wash your windows, Doc."

"What do you see, Murdock?"

There comes a time when you have to decide whether or not you want to get better.

"You got a hefty layer of dust going, here. It’s not bad now, but these things just get worse if you don’t deal with ‘em, you know?"

All the loonies in the VA didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count the reasons why to stay crazy. But there were three reasons why to grab onto that little branch that stuck out and try to claw his way back up the cliff.

Three very important reasons.

They’d all protected each other in Vietnam. As much as they could, they’d all protected each other.

Face, hurtling into him, grabbing onto him, rolling them both down and away as the grenade screamed bright blackness above them.

BA baiting the guards, "bu cac toi" and "do mau my" in his awkward, stilted black Chicago Vietnamese, putting his own body between Face and Hannibal and Murdock and the ones who hurt.

Hannibal grinning around a cigar (unlit), moving straight into the enemy position, M-16 easy in his hands, first in and fuck the regulations, fire all around them, taking care of his boys.

He’d done it, too. Put his fists up when Face was down, hauled one half of BA through eight klicks of jungle, covered Hannibal for too long from an untenable position, listening to the thwew, thwew and pop, pop, pop of enemy fire right overhead, the tink as a bullet ricocheted off his helmet. Hauled them all out of the green with a fast slick when nobody else would go in. Because they were everything to him. They were everything.

During the war, anything that wasn’t part of the war ceased to exist, somehow. It was out there, somewhere, but it wasn’t real the way this was real.

Three men had become everything to him during the war, everything important, everything worth laying yourself down for and really, even now, the war wasn’t over. And not only in his head, either.

They were still running. They were still fighting.

They were still everything that mattered. They still needed him.

Face’s blood tasted like slick salt on his lips. Red fear.

They were worth everything to him. Everything, but it was still hard.

BA grabbed onto his shoulder with one hand, wiped his face with a rough white towel. Blood got on the towel.

Face cried out. They were far away, but they could hear and they paused, listening. Face cried out and they were far away.

Choose. There comes a time when you have to choose.

The deep-voiced clock on the mantle struck four and Richter was still talking when Murdock walked out. If Richter saw the book ("Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Assessment and Treatment," thick, but not green) that Murdock had slid beneath his shirt, he gave no sign.

 

 

 

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~The Third Variation~

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Face lay bleeding. Cheek pressed into the dirt. Back slick and bright and red. He made no sound. His eyes were open.

Everything tilted.

His eyes were open, but everything had tilted.

Legs approached, and shoes. Tennis shoes. Black, worn, high-top tennis shoes.

He tried to turn on his side, but hands pressed down on him. Murdock’s hands pressed down on him. Hands pressed down on him. He could smell the dirt.

Murdock’s hands raised up and BA’s hands slid under him. BA held him in his arms. BA picked him up and held him in his arms. BA’s skin felt very warm.

The sky was very blue. There were no clouds. The van was black against the sky.

Face’s eyes were open. He wasn’t looking, but his eyes were open and he saw Hannibal moving forward and Murdock screaming at BA. He couldn’t hear and he wasn’t looking, but he saw. Murdock’s hands and wrists and shirt were red and slick with blood.

Everything tilted.

BA held him in his arms.

Murdock and Hannibal moved forward.

Face stared at them.

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Face lifted the curtain and looked out into the dark.

He hadn’t seen the knife.

He remembered how it felt when it went in. Slick piercing, and so sudden. Like walking on the carpet, barefoot, and stepping on a needle.

Just a little deeper.

It bothered him, that he hadn’t seen the knife. He kept wondering what kind of knife it had been. A bowie knife? A pocket knife? A hunting knife with polished edges and a carved bone handle?

He pictured each one in his mind, clutched in a disembodied hand, easing into his back in one smooth movement. The variations kept running through his head. He couldn’t quite connect them with the pain, the piercing, but he could see how it must have gone.

He took a deep breath and tried to push the knife, the piercing, down into one of the boxes in his mind. But taking a deep breath wasn’t a good idea. He leaned against the cold, damp window pane and panted shallowly for a moment.

He’d tried to push the pain down into one of the boxes in his mind, but it was very sharp and it kept breaking through.

He’d seen their faces.

BA. Murdock. Hannibal.

The first time he’d been hurt bad, when he was with them, they’d looked just the same. Angry and terrible, like avenging angels. He’d pulled away a little, but then Murdock had bent close, brushed the hair out of his eyes with careful, gentle fingers. Looking like Murdock again.

"Not mad at you, muchacho," Murdock had said softly. "Them, not you."

"Looked like... angels," he’d answered, and Murdock had grinned.

"You got a concussion in your head? What kind of angels would ever look like us, Faceman?"

The sky was full of stars. The cold window felt good against his cheek. The darkness soothed.

There’d been a moment in the van, cheek pressed against the seat (he could smell the vinyl) when everything had threatened to overwhelm. Pain and panic, moving up into his throat like screaming, like retching screams. Pain, and hands holding him down. But Hannibal had shouted, then. (It was the only thing he remembered hearing.) "Hold it steady, goddamn it!"

He’d pulled himself together. He’d decided a long time before to listen to that voice and he pulled himself together.

Hold it steady.

What the others didn’t understand was that you couldn’t really protect anybody. There’d been guilt mixed with the anger in their faces. Maybe his face had it too, when it was one of them hurt. Maybe that was just automatic, how you felt. But it was wrong.

You couldn’t really protect anybody.

You couldn’t even protect yourself.

He’d tried to explain that to Murdock in the camps. That it wasn’t a matter of protection. You just had to take it. Take it, then put it away in a box inside. Everybody had boxes inside, with padlocks so you could lock them closed. Murdock had held him and listened to him, but he hadn’t seemed to understand.

The pain was sharp. Shouldn’t have gone out. Didn’t dare take one of the pills Dr. Chen had given him, not here. Not away from the guys.

But he’d had to get away from the guys.

There’d been times when he felt like he couldn’t take it any more.

(Hold it steady, goddamn it.)

He’d been through some pretty bad shit. (Small, battered, carefully labeled boxes. Padlocks and keys.) Pretty bad shit. But some of the worst times hadn’t been his own bad times.

He kept thinking about the camps. Now wasn’t anything like then, but they were on his mind. He kept coming back to them.

For the fifth time in five days, they’d come for Murdock.

Murdock had found a grin somewhere, but he couldn’t make it to his feet.

Hannibal had gotten into it with a guard and the guards had hauled him out of the cage. Told him to fight for Murdock, if he thought Murdock was so important.

He’d fought. Face had made himself watch. Hannibal gave everything, but they had made sure that that wouldn’t be enough.

He’d laid there, later, with Hannibal’s head in his lap, trying to figure out what to say. What the hell do you say?

What the hell do you say?

Hannibal had flinched, and then his eyes had fluttered as he woke. Like his body was still fighting. But his eyes (pale blue eyes), when they opened, knew that he had lost.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

What the hell do you say?

"Why did you volunteer for Special Forces, Lieutenant?" Hannibal asked quietly.

Face ran the scrap of cloth over the corner of Hannibal’s mouth, wiping the blood from the place where his lip had split. "I look great in a beret, sir," he said.

There was a long pause, then. Only breathing.

"They took him," Hannibal said.

He couldn’t lie. And in the end, he didn’t even have to answer. Hannibal turned his head away and they stayed there, in the dark. Awake ‘til morning. Awake ‘til they found out, one way or another. Awake ‘til they brought Murdock back to them again.

They’d gotten under his defenses, somehow. BA. Murdock. Hannibal. Around. He’d kept the keys carefully, the keys to his boxes, but they’d pushed beyond that somehow. They’d contained him.

BA had held him in his arms. Only for a moment, and then they were moving. Then BA laid him carefully on the seat of the van.

They seemed to think he was worth protecting.

He did what he could to keep them safe. Preparation. Supplies. Poking holes in Hannibal’s plans, playing devil’s advocate.

Worrying.

When it had just been himself, it had been easier to accept that you can’t keep people safe, that it was not a safe world.

The others thought you could. That you could keep the ones you cared about from harm. If you worked hard enough, fought hard enough. Even with everything they’d seen. But he didn’t believe in it. Like Santa Claus and happily ever after, he couldn’t make himself believe.

Maybe they didn’t believe it either, not really. But they kept fighting, anyhow. Not giving up. On each other. On him.

There were times when he wouldn’t have chosen to go on, if it had just been himself. Hard to say that, kind of. Now. Clean. Well. Not hungry. Not hurt. (Much. He smiled to himself.) No lice, no screaming.

But there ~had~ been times, and it had been them he went on for. Because (although he hadn’t asked for it) they had contained him. He was part of them, and it hurt them when he hurt and it would hurt them if he went away. He could read it in their eyes.

He didn’t know what that meant, really. That they hurt when he hurt. He didn’t have that much experience with human relations.

Someone stirred in the bed behind him.

He’d had to get away from the guys for awhile. He was paying for it now. He felt dizzy, and the pain in his back was making his mouth dry.

It really wasn’t safe for them to care about him. It wasn’t a safe world.

He’d come to, in the doctor’s house, crying out.

Overwhelming pain.

He pressed his mouth into the pillow and felt hands, warm familiar hands on him. Across his shoulders, holding him still and on the back of his neck for comfort.

Hannibal’s hands.

He could feel the distinctive pull as the doctor stitched him back together. Blood ran down, into his left arm.

BA and Murdock appeared in the doorway. Murdock had lost his Mighty Mouse t-shirt somewhere and looked kind of lost and vulnerable without it. But it was BA who turned away, mouth twisting with the sort of emotion that men choose not to show. When they can help it.

Face turned when the light went on behind him. The woman had fallen asleep after, and now looked kind of rumpled and mussed and sleepy.

Moving hadn’t been such a great idea (much less sex), and he’d hurt too bad to sleep after. It was worse now.

But everything had seemed so complicated and overwhelming, for a while there. He couldn’t breathe. As if the choice that he’d made long ago (in a prison camp in Vietnam) needed to be made again, and was no less difficult.

Protect and allow yourself to be protected. Care and let yourself be cared for. Love...

He didn’t know what that meant, really. More than cheesy songs on the radio.

Strange that in his whole life, the only ones who’d ever tried to help him understand were a bunch of guys.

What kind of angels would ever look like us, Faceman?

They wouldn’t win against the tide of a cruel universe. But they wouldn’t stop fighting. For each other.

He chose again with blind faith and hope more than understanding. But maybe that was enough. Was that enough?

Sally batted her eyelashes at him.

Cindy.

She smiled. "Since you’re already... um... ‘up’... you want to play, cowboy?"

She waved something around in the air for emphasis. A small silver packet.

Face grinned through the pain.

Protection.

"I got a better idea, Cindy. Have you ever driven a corvette?"

Cindy’s eyes got wide. "Really? Do you mean it?"

Face nodded. Reached carefully for his shirt and slipped it on over his shoulders. Paused. Leaned against the wall for a moment.

Cindy padded across the carpet and stood beside him. Then reached over and buttoned up his shirt. "You don’t look so good, honey," she said.

"I’m okay," he said. "It’s just... time for me to go home."

 

 

 

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~The Fourth Variation~

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Face lay bleeding. Cheek pressed into the dirt. Back slick and bright and red. He made no sound. His eyes were open.

Hannibal saw everything.

As he ran, he saw Garfield, fingers closed around the hilt, pulling the knife out. He saw Face fall forward, blood streaming down his back like water. He saw BA grab Garfield from behind, smashing his knife hand, then his whole body against the side of the van. He saw Murdock drop down beside Face and press his palm against the wound.

He pulled off his shirt as he ran. Pulled BA away from Garfield. Dropped down to his knees beside Murdock (the ground was hard) and shoved Murdock’s hands away. Pressed the shirt against Face’s back.

BA knelt beside him and they shifted again, moving. Moving. Murdock drew back. BA scooped Face up into his arms.

Hannibal stared at them.

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Hannibal lifted the glass to his lips. Took in the harsh scent of whiskey, then drank it down. Rested the empty glass on the arm of the chair.

The room was dark, lit only by flames, flickering in the fireplace.

He was waiting for Face.

Shouldn’t be waiting for Face. It was probably exactly the wrong thing to do. But contrary to popular theory, he didn’t always know what was right.

When Face was hurt, then later, in the van, and at the doctor’s house, he’d moved fast. Effectively. Efficiently. He’d made plans and followed through on them while Face’s blood soaked through the bunched up shirt and trickled through his fingers. Issued orders while Face’s blood soaked into his clothes, making them sticky and stiff and dark.

But after was harder than during.

During, you acted. After, you had time to think.

Shouldn’t be waiting for Face. Not his father, after all.

He’d felt ancient when he first met them. First found them, in Vietnam. One war under his belt and this one looking to be another pisser. They’d looked like boys, bright and cocky or pale and scared shitless, depending on which second you turned their way. That hadn’t lasted, of course. Vietnam was an old country. You got old just being there.

He wasn’t their father. And they weren’t in the army anymore, not really. He commanded them only as long as they chose to follow him.

He set his drink on the table. Took a cigar out of the box.

They were more for thinking than anything. He liked the taste and smell. The feeling, both the rush of hot smoke in his lungs and the ennervated calm that ran through his veins after.

That’s what the jazz is like. A really good cigar.

He bit off the tip and laid it on the table. Picked up a book of matches.

Cigars were also something to do with your hands, when your mind was working. When your mind wouldn’t stop working.

It was past one in the morning.

They’d shoved their way into the doctor’s house. Hannibal first, then BA carrying Face, then Murdock. The doctor was wearing an old pair of running shorts and a man’s faded flannel shirt. She’d been sleeping and her gray-black hair was rumpled.

He’d trusted her the minute she put her hands on Face’s bloody back.

There’d been a lot of blood.

He tore a match out of the book, then turned the flap over backwards. Put the head of the match on the black strip and pressed it between the strip and the flap. Drew it through. The flame caught, guttered, then steadied.

A lot of blood.

He put the flame to the tip of the cigar and drew on it.

He’d sent Murdock off with BA, told him to clean Murdock up a little. Neither of them were looking too good. Both covered in blood. Him too, of course. All of them.

The cops had a special kind of light, now. He’d read about it in a magazine. ‘NRA Quarterly,’ or maybe ‘Guns and Ammo.’ You shined the light on a crime scene, and even if the person had washed the blood away, scrubbed the place clean, you could still see traces of it everywhere.

Norton’s Creek was a small town. Dr. Chen had her office in the back rooms of her house, an old garage and laundry room converted into examination room and storage area.

BA had laid Face down on the table.

The doctor’s hands hadn’t left Face’s back. She pressed down hard. He could see the white of her knuckles, until they too were stained with blood.

"Second drawer," she snapped at him. "Four towels, two compress bandages."

He moved. Ordered BA and Murdock away even as he took her orders.

"Set them there. Wipe him down with one towel, then wet another in the sink and wash his back off."

He’d done it. Moving around her hands, which were set like anchors against Face’s skin. Then watched as she replaced his bloody shirt with the compress bandages, maintaining pressure on the wound. Strong fingers of her right hand probing Face’s back, feeling for answers. How bad was it? Searching for the truth.

The truth.

The truth was that they were his men. His.

Since he’d met them (found them) in Vietnam, they’d been his men. Like they were meant to come together (though he never would believe in fate). Somehow, they’d all been crazy in the same way. And strong. Strong, but needing what the others had to offer.

Together, they’d become more than they were apart.

As a team, they’d become a legend. In country and in the three years since they’d been out. They’d taken the risks and got the glory for it.

They’d taken the risks and paid the price for it.

He breathed in smoke and held it in his lungs. Felt its warmth inside him. Breathed out slowly. Steadily.

Acceptable losses.

Military parlance offered a euphemism for everything you didn’t want to ever happen. Defeat, retreat. Capture, torture. Injury. Death. A euphemism and a tally card. Acceptable meant that we’d won despite whatever it was. A dozen men killed. Twelve hundred. Acceptable if the objective was taken.

He was a soldier.

For twenty years he’d struggled with and against that system. And in that time, through the process of commanding men, taking them into battle, testing them against the enemy (against themselves, courage set against their fear), losing some, fighting hard for the ones he kept, he’d learned that there were no such thing as acceptable losses.

No such thing.

Every loss was a personal defeat. Every battle they fought, he fought by their side. Every wound cut into his own heart.

"You didn’t seem too surprised, having us show up on your doorstep," he’d said to Dr. Chen.

He was pressing on Face’s back, now. Hard. Hands over the compress bandage. She was setting up an IV. His eyes followed her as she moved quickly and efficiently around the small room. She opened the door to a small refrigerator which contained vials of medication, bags of blood, and three cans of Diet Pepsi. She took out one of the bags of blood, checked the tag, hung it on the hook above the examination table. Glanced up at him. "Some people get girl scouts and Avon ladies. I get fugitives from justice who bleed all over my carpet," she said dryly. She slid a needle into Face’s arm. Attached the drip line and opened it up. Dark red blood coursed down the tiny tubing.

The local anesthetic had had some time to work. She threaded a curved needle with black thread.

"Hold him."

She replaced his hand with hers on the bandage. Lifted the edge carefully.

It oozed a little, but nothing like the wash of blood from before. Face’s skin looked very pale, almost translucent in the bright white light. Like the blood had all run out of him.

He put one hand on Face’s shoulder, the other on the back of his neck. Face’s skin was cool and sweaty at the same time. Shock. Blue eyes staring out, glassy and distant.

When the doctor slipped the needle in, Face cried out.

Smoke drifted on invisible currents of air, lifting through the dark. Heat rising.

Murdock had said one time that Face told him the faint scent of a good cigar made him feel like he was home. Wherever they were.

He had been their commanding officer in Vietnam.

Wars didn’t end. He’d learned that. Three in his lifetime, two he attended himself, front row seats and join right in when the chorus sings.

Wars didn’t end until everyone who had been there was dead.

Wars stayed in your mind, courts of culpability that never went out of session.

After was harder than during.

The body understands a crisis, fight and flight hardwired into you so strong you don’t have to think or feel.

War was like that. Shit thrown at you so fast and hard. Fighting, even when it was your own boredom and complacency you battled against. The brass, the weather. The enemy. Yourself. Fighting.

Even in the camps, every moment had been a battle. Keep going. Make yourself keep going. Make the boys keep going. Politics, paid in blood. (Weren’t politics always paid for in blood? Somebody’s blood, somewhere....) He’d pitted himself against hunger and lice, rage and despair. Chao. Sadistic, nameless guards, and others who were just boys themselves, doing what they thought they had to do. He’d fought against the urge to curl up and shut off, and won that battle. He’d been responsible.

He’d been responsible.

While they were there, trapped in cages, starving, he’d been strong. Strong. They’d all been strong, hell with Charlie, he couldn’t touch them. He could touch them, but he couldn’t break them. He could hurt them, but he couldn’t destroy them. They refused to be destroyed.

When the only enemy left was memory, they’d all fallen apart a little. Murdock, sure. But all of them, in their own ways. All of them.

BA had always been the angry one. First time he saw him, he was throwing somebody through a window. But after the camps, it was his own anger he couldn’t control.

The first month they were back, he’d been in the hospital. Four beds together, because they refused to be apart. The second month they were back, he’d knocked out seven men in four different bar fights. And woke up one night back in the hospital again, blue eyes and brown staring over at him. Eyes so large in their gaunt faces.

He’d stayed awake all night, that night. Listening in the half-dark to boys, his boys, and others, snoring and sniffling and moaning and whispering in their sleep.

Watching over them.

He hadn’t made the war or the camps. He hadn’t done anything wrong that had gotten them captured.

But he was responsible.

He’d watched them being taken away and he’d watched them being hurt. Tended ravaged bodies. Held them in the night, under the guise of sharing warmth. Listened to them cry out when they couldn’t hold it back.

The night pressed in. Cigar to lips. Draw in warmth. Tip glowing red in the darkness.

BA and Murdock had come to the door when they heard Face cry out. Murdock’s eyes large and nervous, flickering. BA turned away when the doctor drew the needle through the skin on Face’s back.

Face had woken, from whatever place he’d been, when the needle went in. Scrabbled with one hand, until he’d found Hannibal’s hand. Grabbed on and held tight.

Murdock was sitting on the stairs, now. Waiting for Face. And BA was at the window upstairs.

A very small and silent vigil.

Face still wasn’t home.

When dawn came, during that other vigil, he’d wept. Drawn the blanket over his head and cried for all of them, and his own helplessness. His own failure to protect what he had come to find so dear. His boys. His men. Wished there was someone he could confess to, besides a whiskey bottle and the rising sun, and someone to give him absolution.

The darkness smelled like whiskey, smoke and memory.

Home?

Home was where the four of them were, together and safe.

He heard the crunch of gravel before he heard the low murmur of the car engine.

He leaned back into the chair in a disinterested pose. A little hard to carry off at two in the morning, but if anybody could do it...

BA and Murdock made no sound from their self-appointed sentry posts. Waiting. To see what he’d do. They’d all been... tense since it happened. Uneasy, as if something else besides Face’s back had been torn that day.

When the door didn’t open, and didn’t open, he got up. Looked out.

The corvette was there. Dark. Silent.

Face was sitting inside it.

He went out.

There was no moon, but a streetlight glared down on the car.

He went over to the driver’s side. Opened the door.

Face ran one hand through his hair, then looked up sheepishly. "I... uh... maybe overdid it a bit." He gestured toward the house. "Wasn’t sure I could..."

Hannibal reached into the car and took hold of Face, hands under his arms. Pulled.

Face sagged, halfway out of the car and halfway in. Made a small sound in the back of his throat.

"Sorry," Hannibal said.

Face glanced up at him. Smiled. "It’s okay," he said. "It’s okay."

BA and Murdock burst out of the house, then. Gathered Face up and took him inside, BA growling and Murdock scolding as they went.

Hannibal followed, slowly.

Face had been talking about that moment. Or maybe about himself.

It’s okay.

Maybe about the whole Garfield thing.

Maybe about everything.

Okay.

Face’s words had felt like absolution, and maybe there was something there, something about forgiving each other what they couldn’t forgive themselves.

Something about being there for each other always. Even if they couldn’t always keep each other safe.

Something about being there.

Hannibal went inside.

*^*^*^*^*^**^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

~fin~

Macbeth

I am one, my liege,

Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world

Have so incensed that I am reckless what

I do to spite the world.

Ibid.

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Sc. 3.


Protection by emmastark

 

 


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