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Salvation

Authors:  Quentillian & Nora

 

Chapter Sixteen

"Right, are we done?" Face asked the Staff Sergeant that had been interviewing him. He'd been there for over a week and he still wasn't free. So much for land of the free. It was an unamused wave of the guy's hand that finally released Face from more bullshit paperwork. He didn't wait an extra second to get out of there.

Lighting up a cigarette as he walked, Face kept his focus on only a few things. He was almost free of this mess. The military could fuck off. Hannibal, in his infinite wisdom of knowing exactly what was right for Face had somehow enrolled him in USC, and there was a tree near enough to the fence at the back of the base he could use to get over to the other side of and off of military property.

It didn't take long. Jamison had shown him a few days back and it had probably saved Face's sanity. Glancing around the area to make sure nobody was around to see him, Face jumped up and grabbed the branch, pulling himself up the tree and across the limb so that he could drop down on the other side of the fence. It wasn't a far drop and it was only a few feet until there was cover. He couldn't help but scope out the nearest cover or the best line of attack and it made him feel jittery and on edge for no real reason. Something that Face hadn't ever thought he'd miss, but every time he wound up in an open field he couldn't help but feel the hair on the back of his arms stand up and miss the feel of solid metal where his weapons should have been.

That was another nice touch. Face hadn't known what the hell had gotten boxed up and shipped his way, but it was SOP for the discharge personnel to go through everything and make sure military weapons stayed military property as they sadly resigned you from their list of inventory. It had taken some work, especially when he didn't have much of anything to work with, but in the end, Face had managed to hang on to a handgun. A 1911 he'd won of a kid from Des Moines in a card game. He'd hid the gun in a bus locker off base to be retrieved the second he was out of this pit.

Crouching down, Face shoved the bushes around until he found the plastic garbage bag he'd stashed there a few days ago. His mouth was watering for the harsh burn of gin already. Finally settling in with his back against the tree, Face opened the bottle up and drank as much as he could tolerate before the burn caught up with him.

What the hell? Hannibal discharges him out of Vietnam, dropping him like a bad habit and then he's enrolled Face in college? Did Hannibal even know him? Stupid question. If the fuck knew him at all, Face wouldn't be here. Maybe he wouldn't have ever made the team to start. Face cut those thoughts off. It didn't fucking matter anymore. Hannibal did what he wanted and everyone towed the fucking line. Fucking hypocrite. In the end, after all the speeches and blood and sweat and hard learned lessons, the only thing mattered was Hannibal's plan. Nothing else was worth the time and energy spent to sort it all out. Nope.

Fuck that.

All Face had to do was get through the last of his military career bullshit and slam book on this part of his life closed. Once and for all. Get out and get away from here and be done with it.

Pulling a joint out of the cigarette case, Face rolled it between his fingers. The deep warmth of the alcohol was way too slowly seeping through him. Not enough to dull the edges, not by a long shot, but enough to let him box up all of the fucked up shit in his head away and blaze up the joint. His hands were shaking with want as he pulled a long, deep drag into his lungs, holding it there letting the burn and the urge to cough pass. The dirty earthy taste, the sting of unfiltered smoke, the smell; it was all part of what he needed. Face held it in as long as he could, unhappy with having to let it go, but ready for the next hit.

He didn't fucking care. Face had survived before he'd met Smith and he could do it again. Fuck it. Face had some booze and some herb, he didn't need Hannibal and his bullshit team and brotherhood crap. All that sort of shit did was get you thinking you owed somebody. It was a way to trick you into believing you should risk your life for some made up purpose. He'd been an idiot to buy into that shit. But that was done. He didn't need it and more importantly, he knew what the fuck it was.

Taking another deep, beautiful toke, Face tossed his lighter back in the bag. See that was it. That was the key. It was listening to your gut. He'd learned that in the orphanage and Vietnam had driven it home. Trust that feeling. He'd known being part of "the Team" was too good to be true. He should have listened, but no, Face broke his own Goddamned rules and started to believe the lies. That was something he was over now. Grabbing the bottle he gave a little salute: To Lieutenant Colonel John Hannibal Smith; a better liar than me.

So what? Face had booze and weed and soon enough he'd have a nice, warm, soft woman to get lost in. Those were the things he wanted and needed now. Things that made him feel good and not think. Things that turned off his mind and made the twisted pretzel shaped nightmares go away. Fine. He liked feeling good in the right here right now. The past was fucked and the future was a joke. Him and Murdock had figured that out long ago.

Even with a nice buzz going, Face could feel his chest tighten. Bullshit. He wasn't going there. He wasn't fighting his way through the past. He was going to get fucking high enough to stay right in the present and let the world fade to the sidelines and so he could finally fucking breath again.

Why the hell couldn't people just let him be? Even when he was young it was the same shit. How many fucking times had Mother Superior busted him for sneaking off? What the hell was so wrong with wanting to watch the sunrise over the Pacific, alone? All he'd wanted to do was get away from it all and relax with his feet in the sand. And it had bought him endless lines and Hail fucking Mary's. Fucking penguin. Just like Hannibal. Acting like they knew Face, pretending to give a shit. Yeah, until it was too fucking inconvenient, until he was too much work. Assholes. At least this time he was sent to LA and not to Western Outreach Home for Youth. Fancy name for the damned kiddie prison Sister sent him to.

We love and care for Templeton, but we cannot control him. His actions are increasingly risky. I fear for his safety and the safety of the other children. At this time, I am forced to concede that Sacred Heart Orphanage is not currently the appropriate placement for Templeton.

Face had been sentenced to six months at the youth home. He'd been a skinny kid, in no way, shape, or form prepared for what you learned in a place like that. It was a training ground for kids who beat, stole, and destroyed. Hopeless and headed for fifteen to life, they didn't have anything to lose.

He shouldn't have been there.

He wasn't like them. All Face had done was shoplift some booze and go for a joyride in a stolen car a few times. That didn't come close to what kids like Fat Eddie and Crazy Bill did. He... no, fuck that. He wasn't supposed to be thinking about this shit! The buzz wasn't doing its Goddamned job.

Face turned his attention back to the joint, determined to get to that warm, distant place where stupid shit like his past didn't matter. With vicious precision, he finished the joint and downed a few more long swallows of gin. It was just a damn tease. He needed more, he needed better. There had to be someone who could get him some nice fat sticky buds. Fuck given a little time he could grow his own. But why bother? This was California, home of the free love, sex, drugs and rock and roll revolution, right? There was bound to be some good shit out there somewhere.

Taking one last pull from the bottle, Face put the cap back on and tossed everything back into the trash bag. Yeah he was feeling it a little now. He could fucking stroll out of here and back to his bunk and sleep. Fuck Hannibal and the nuns and the team and the youth camp and Vietnam. Face had a plan of his own. Hannibal got him all set for college and really now, was there a better place for free love and drugs? Who knows maybe he could even find himself a nice, rich co-ed. Hands in his pocket Face headed back to the barracks with a new and better future being built in his head.

XXXXX

Sweat rolling down his forehead and blood dripping off his fingertips, Murdock tried like hell to reason with his injured baby. Sometimes choppers, like women, could be finicky, more so if you flew them into a trap and got them all shot up. Sure, she had a reason to be pissy, but right now Murdock had to work his magic because quitting wasn't an option. Not just because quitting in this case would entail plummeting out of the air and forming a Huey shaped crater in the earth ala Wile E. Coyote. No, right now quitting couldn't happen because the men in his chopper were hurt and dying and they needed him to get them to base. It was their only hope.

Ignoring the sting of sweat in his eyes and the burn of the shrapnel in his arm, Murdock made the call to Covey for the all clear to land. Damn it. They'd all been right, the mission was screwed from the start. All the intel was crap. There were no POW's. There was an ambush just waiting for the team to walk into. If it hadn't been for Hannibal and Spider, no one would have made it out. As it was, it was only pure luck that had Murdock picking up the coded blast of S.O.S. on the frequency Hannibal always used.

Murdock had left the base in Thailand with his tail numbers covered, gotta love CIA bullshit, and found the team under heavy fire in deep jungle. Using the main rotor like a buzz saw, Murdock had managed to get to the team. Or what was left of them. He'd watched in silence as they'd run and stumbled through the elephant grass, taking fire and bleeding. There wasn't enough people in the chopper when he got the go signal. They'd lost men. Not Hannibal, Cruiser, or BA, but others. Only one of the Montagnards made it back, and Spider hadn't. BA had been carrying Trace over his shoulder, the big guy was covered in blood. Most of the blood seemed to be from Trace's missing leg. Damn it. No one else was going to die. No one else in his damn chopper was going home in a bag. Not while he was in charge.

Taking her low, Murdock called to Covey again. If they didn't answer quick he wasn't going to need permission to land, he was going to crash. He was out of time. There was no fuel left and most of the instruments and tools he needed to fly his chopper were shot, lost, or damaged. He needed the base. He had to make the landing pad where doctors and medicine and equipment were. Come on baby girl, I know you're hurtin' but I need you to make the last push. We've gotta get to base. Through the static in his headset came the cleared to land call. It was angel song and the sight of the landing pad was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

Thumbing his mike on, Murdock called out, "Hang on! This is gonna be quick and dirty!" He wasn't wrong. His girl stalled inches from the ground and dropped them hard, it was the least he deserved. He wanted to shout for joy. They'd made it to base!

It wasn't until the dust had cleared and he'd made sure nothing was going to blow up or catch fire or otherwise kill them all, that he noticed no one was scrambling out of the chopper. What the hell? They were at base, they need the corpsmen and doctors, They should be running and getting the injured to the help they needed. Nobody was moving. Oh hell no! Murdock hadn't broken the laws of physics and lost a few of his lives for everyone to sit around and bleed out in his damn chopper.

Bullshit!

Murdock was out of his seat and running, staying low, just in case the wind kicked up and the rotors pitched downwards. It wasn't until he was at the open side door that he stopped dead.

Jarvis had one hand on his weapon and Trace's head in his lap. "No! No one leaves! This is fucking bullshit!" Jarvis was yelling at Cruiser. "He's not fucking dead! Do your job, Stone!" Trace, was too still, there was too much blood, covering Cruiser and BA and pooling at Jarvis's feet. "He's not dead!"

"The fuck he isn't. You think I'm wrong, find a fucking pulse." Cruiser was holding his hands halfway up, still on his knees in the chopper where he'd been working on the Montagnard.

"No!' Murdock barely recognized the shout as his own. "No! We made it to base God damn it!" Throwing his helmet to the ground, Murdock was in the chopper, reaching for Trace. This was not happening. Trace wasn't gonna die in his buddies arms. "You ain't dying! No way!" Before Murdock could to get his hands on Trace and convince him he was still alive, Cruiser grabbed his wrists and shoved him back.

"Guy's fucking dead. Leave it alone."

"No! We got here!" Murdock's eyes locked with Cruiser. He had to get Cruiser to understand. "We made it to base! Nobody else is gonna lose a friend. We made it back!"

Cruiser wasn't having any of it. He just sat there shaking his head, eyes not wavering in the least. There was no give, no glimmer of hope, no matter how hard Murdock had searched. He was too late. All they'd risked, everything he had done and it wasn't enough.

Suddenly everything was locking down, tightening, drowning the world out, so much so he had to force the words out of his dry throat. "I went as fast as I could."

"The guy got his leg blown off." Cruiser's voice was oddly quiet. "He's got a pneumothorax and probably internal bleeding. There was never a fast enough."

Never a fast enough. Oh shit. Tears, were sliding down Murdock's cheeks and dropping to the deck, mixing with the blood. Making it to base hadn't mattered for Trace. None of it had mattered. More men dead, more waste, more pain, more nightmares and nothing he could do about any of it and nothing would ever be able to explain that or make it go away. Jarvis was a racist bastard, but he was a damn good soldier and he was one of them. He'd signed up and done the job just like the rest of them, not for glory, but for each other. And nothing any of them did could save Trace or Spider or every other kid who'd cried and bled and died in the back of his chopper.

Cruiser's hands still locked around his wrist, Murdock turned his eyes to Jarvis. The gun was still pointed at them, but it barely registered. "I'm sorry." Cruiser's grip eased up on Murdock's wrists, a hand going to the side of his head, letting Murdock know that it was all done.

Closing his eyes just for a second, he blocked out everything but the feel of Cruiser's hand. It was real, Murdock needed to focus. "We all tried." Murdock opened his eyes when he said it and looked at Cruiser first and then BA, then Jarvis and Hannibal. All of them had tried, all of them were grieving, none of them were alone. Down to the last man. Jarvis looked up at Murdock, tears running in rivers down his muddy and bloody face and slowly lowering his gun. Hannibal was right there, moving faster than Murdock could follow.

"BA will make sure Trace is taken care of, I promise." Hannibal's voice was rock solid, assured and soothing in the chaos. "Let's get you to medical." Jarvis took one long last look at his best friend in the world and then turned back to Hannibal and nodded. Not a yes nod, but an understanding, respect, acknowledgment. It was done, the crisis of the moment over and Hannibal was leading the walking wounded to the MASH tent.

Cruiser dropped his hand and Murdock turned, sitting down in the open door of his baby. He was sore and tired and he'd need to be ready to do it all again. But not now. Right now he was watching the men move. Either walking away or being helped. Murdock was going to have to wash the blood out of his chopper. Again. Fuck. He'd made it to base.

Cruiser sat down on edge of the Huey next to him, watching as the base MASH unit swarmed the team. "Your arm's fucked up."

Tic, tic, little droplets of red from his arm splashed in the dirt. They were all bleeding, just some of the blood you couldn't see. That sounded crazy, he knew that. He was crazy and getting crazier. Shit. Murdock was going to answer Cruiser, he really was. But the world was flipping sideways and his vision was turning black at the edges. He knew he was going to pass out. Too little sleep too much blood loss and adrenaline and heart ache. Too much all at once. The last thing Murdock remembered thinking was how much he missed Face.

Face would understand.

XXXXX

Cruiser's stomach finally recoiled on him. The tension and knots all tied up with adrenaline and forced control until they hit each other like a riptide and sent a wave of nausea crashing through him strong enough to double him over. On his hands and knees in the dirt, Cruiser's fingers dug deeper into the mud and rocks as his eyes watered and the stomach acid burned his throat. Mouth watering against the bile, he clamped his eyes closed.

It was too much. They'd been fucked from the very beginning. Face had always been good at getting his hands on his own intel. Real intel that had never made it to the books. The team hadn't had a false step into enemy territory in almost a year because of him and now? First mission out and it had all been a double cross from the beginning. There had never been any POWs to snatch. It had been an ambush from the beginning. After the grenade had gone off and the firefight had started there hadn't been anything Cruiser could do to save the Montagnard brothers. Shrapnel had torn them through and through, ribbons of flesh and organs strews across the Elephant Grass, shouting and screaming for help from the others. He'd saved two. BA had hauled Trace out of there for three miles in the jungle. It was two hours of stop and go firefights. Hushed voices, muffled screams as Cruiser had buried his hand in Trace's leg to try to tie off his femoral artery. It had bought them time and that was all he had.

Out of morphine shots and out of time, the whomp! whomp! whomp! of Murdock's chopper and the deafening way it what chopped through the canopy of the forest to get to them was the sweetest thing Cruiser had ever heard. They had barely managed to get everyone on board, Murdock hanging in there even after the gunfire had erupted again. Cruiser's work hadn't ended with a narrow escape. No, Trace was bleeding out, the clamp on the artery only doing so much good. But when your entire leg was blown open like a fish that had been gutted, there was no amount of tourniquets and clamps that could keep you from bleeding out on the jungle floor.

BA had carried that guy on his back for two fucking hours to have him die five minutes away from the goddamned mash tent. Cruiser's hands buried in his leg, not being able to work fast enough. Goddamned mother fucker had died despite it all.

And there hadn't been a damned thing Cruiser could do to stop it. Except move on and deal with the Montagnard. A sucking chest wound from some shrapnel that had managed to puncture the guy's lung. Another thing that Cruiser could only do so much to treat. An occlusive dressing to let the air out and not in and some pain medication. At least he had a chance. He had still been alive when they had landed. When Jarvis had pulled his gun and when Murdock was busy screaming at a corpse.

Cruiser was still covered in too much blood that didn't belong to him and tissue that had sloughed off. It was all too much. Now on his hands and knees in the mud, there were no more places to direct the adrenaline and the urge to survive in the midst of death and chaos. What was left was simply that; left overs. Cruiser gave himself a moment, breath heavy in his ears, pounding heartbeat in his chest, he spit the bile and saliva out again.

Out of nowhere there was a set of combat boots and a hand out next to him. It took Cruiser a second, but when he finally managed to follow the muddy fatigues Cruiser found himself looking up at Hannibal. Giving just a fraction of a nod, Cruiser concentrated on breathing. Deep breath in, hold it, slowly exhale, and repeat; settle his nerves down. He knew the drill, he'd been through it before. It was just another day in Vietnam. Just another fucked up day. Finally he reached up, taking Hannibal's hand and pulled himself to his feet.

Hannibal's free hand clamped down on Cruiser's shoulder, holding Cruiser up for a moment while he got his feet under him again. Fuck him. Eyes still bleary, he blinked them clear letting Hannibal move him over to some tires that had been cast off somewhere along the lines. He didn't think. Didn't need to and before he knew it, he had a lit cigarette in his hand and was pulling in the nicotine like a lifeline that his frayed nerves were clawing to get back at. That calm hitting his lungs in the form of hot smoke and rushing through him, like a strong current guiding him down the stream of fucked up beyond all belief back into the land of the living. "What's the score?"

Rolling his cigar in his mouth, Hannibal crossed his arms. "Three Montagnards, Spider, Trace, and the confirmed death of all of the men we went looking for."

Of course. When they'd finally found the last known whereabouts of the POWs it hadn't taken a lot to figure it out. It was a chopper crash from three weeks ago. Whatever had been left of the crew had been easy to pick off from the ground. Spider and Hannibal had gone in to get the dog tags though. Confirm death and have an answer to send the families. And it had all gone to shit. "They were waiting for us."

"Yup, it was a set up from jump." Taking a puff of his cigar, Hannibal looked at the smoke for a moment. "How are the others doing?"

"Rengao took some shrapnel to the lung." Cruiser spent most of his time on the ground trying to patch him up. Finally he'd had to dope the kid up enough to make him stop struggling so he could get the shirt off and see the extent of what he'd been dealing with. In the end it was an old trick that had maybe saved his life. Wrapping saran wrap around his whole chest, recreating that vacuum the lungs needed to work. It meant it trapped air inside the chest cavity too, but a catheter stabbed into the whole mess created a one way valve that he could control. "He'll need surgery, but he's got a chance. Otherwise it's just your walking wounded. Murdock's arm probably took the worse of it. He'll need surgery."

From the way Hannibal's eyes narrowed, Cruiser knew Murdock's injury was news to Hannibal. "How bad?"

"I don't know. Not critical. He's in surgery right now. We'll know more in a few hours but it could go either way." If it was bad Murdock would get shipped out to Japan or stateside for further surgeries and rehab. If not, it would just ground him until he could fly again. Either way Murdock was fucked. Taking another inhale of hot nicotine, Cruiser let it all wash over him. There wasn't anything he could do about it. The Montagnard kid had a chance and that's all he could take away from the whole miserable thing. The rest were dead and gone. Nameless faces to add to the pile. There were hundreds of them now. The guy that took a bullet through the throat and drowned on his own blood. Cruiser had been fucked that time too. Even if he'd managed to stop the bleeding from the carotid arteries, that meant no blood would be getting to the guy's brain. So instead he'd gotten to helplessly watch as the guy had bled out, spitting and spluttering blood, fighting for air he couldn't get, eyes wide with the fear of impending death. His grip on Cruiser's fatigues getting weaker by the second, until he was nothing more than a corpse on Cruiser's lap.

No. Cruiser didn't think about him or any of the others. He couldn't. Instead he focused on the feeling of the cigarette between his lips and the taste of nicotine, and the feel of the hot muggy air. And shut the rest down. "What's next man? Team's thrashed."

"We take care of what's left of us and we go from there." Hannibal wasn't done. "You did good." Hand on the back of shoulder, Hannibal gave him a firm squeeze. "Thanks."

XXXXX

Life was good. Face had made it to LA to become Joe College and everything was falling into place. He'd met Duncan on his first day of class and had been crashing at his place ever since, with a few other guys until he got his own place lined up. Duncan Wentworth III was one of the privileged few; parents with too much money, a trust fund, and the promise of running the family business as soon as he got his degree. The guy had a three bedroom rental house just off campus and so far it had been nothing but loud music, cold beer, bags of weed and girls. Face smiled to himself, all safe and warm in the relaxing aftermath of some primo hash. That was something else Duncan had turned Face on to. Weed was nice, but hash upped the buzz. The guy knew how to get high enough to fly. Yeah, there was something to be said for college life after all.

Walking in a group with Duncan and a few others Face made his way across campus. He was on his way to the registrar's office to drop his Philosophy class. Eight am was just too early for stateside living. Face grinned at that. Hell yeah, college had way better hours then the Army. Besides the class was a real downer. All these rich kids wanting to discuss the meaning of life. Stupid. The point of life was to relax and have fun. Light up, toke up, and chill out.

Things could work out at school, he just needed less class time and more high time. It was either that or he found someplace else to grow roots for a bit. Not that he really cared where he landed, but right now, for the moment, the group he was in with were just as good as anyone else.

Heading up the steps, everyone was laughing and Face couldn't quite figure out why. But that was what made the weed great anyway. It didn't matter why it was funny, just that it was and that made him laugh and feel good.

And they really did have a good hookup on the bud.

Still buzzing high, his foot got caught on the step. Not able to catch himself he half stumbled into Chris and Chris into Thomas and Thomas into others until they were all weaving and bobbing, trying to catch each other and not fall. Face mostly failed at staying upright. his fingers made contact with the steps before he pushed himself back up to his feet. Special forces, hell yeah. Face was laughing, hand grabbing out and catching a fistful of jacket as his buddy almost fell backwards. Face couldn't keep the stupid smile off his lips. "Gotta watch it man."

"Dude." Chris wasn't that bright sober and he was amusingly idiotic when high. Face was about to tell him that when he turned and bam, walked right into a girl who swear to God hadn't been there before.

The girl knelt down on the steps in the midst of all of them trying to gather her books and not get stepped on. Face watched her for just a fraction longer than he should have. Full length skirt, long brown hair held back with a headband, and a very nice and proper button up blouse. Kneeling down, he reached over for her statistics book. "Let me give you a hand."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't even see you." She paused in her attempts to gather her papers and books to look at him, eyes wide with concern. "Are you okay?"

He couldn't help but smile. She was really worried that she'd hurt him. Nodding his head just a fraction, his hair fell into his eyes. "I think I'll survive." He picked up one of her books, not quite handing to over to her, seeing what she would do when invited closer. She had a good mix of texts. Statistics, English Composition, and wouldn't you know it, Theology of Creation. "That's quite the course load."

"I know, but there's just so many interesting things to learn about." She was all but glowing with excitement at the idea of learning. She glanced at him, then the book he still held before carefully taking it. "Every time I go to class I just can't wait to find something new."

"You know you don't have to go to class for that experience." Reaching over he grabbed the last of her books, Wuthering Heights. Flipping the cover over to her, he held up the period piece heroic male and damsel in distress. "Lots of new experiences to learn about?"

"That's a love story. Romance always shows you something new." Her cheeks flushed and her eyes dropped to the cement like she was embarrassed. "I mean, well you know that's what people say."

Face couldn't help but watch her more closely. It fit the entire entourage. Something about the innocence of it all had him smiling lazily at her. Genuinely too. There didn't seem to be a worldly or jaded bone in her body. "What do they say about what people do?"

She looked up at him. Not coy, not with artifice, but with open interest. "Well I don't know. I've never met people who "do"."

His eyes didn't leave hers. He was watching her with more interest than he really should have been but he couldn't help it. There was something so distinctly novice about her that he felt almost drawn to her. "Doing is always more fun."

Picking up the last of her books and clutching it to her chest, she didn't meet his look, not at first. Just when he was sure he'd lost her interest, her chin shot up and she was looking at him with something close to wonder. "How?"

His smile brightened, reaching his eyes at the unadulterated fascination with the idea of experience. That's what it was all about anyway, right? Finding the experience that made the world pleasant. Between the Valium the hash, and now this beautiful young lady, how could he not feel good? "What's your name?"

A deep flush spread across her cheeks. "Oh! I forgot my manners! My name's Leslie Becktall." She held out her free hand for towards Face.

He took it, resting his other arm on his knee. "Tem. Peck." Brushing his thumb along the back of her hand just a bit, he was pleasantly surprised with the way her breath caught in her chest and made her gasp just the slightest. "It's a pleasure to meet you Leslie Becktall."

Voice still airy, she forced herself to respond. "It's been very fun meeting you." She was done. There was no reason or need to linger, but she was using the time to watch him and think.

"How would you like to share the experience of coffee?" He knew what her answer would be. But if Leslie Becktall was as inexperienced as first impressions had lead him to believe, she needed an invitation, not an expectation. She'd had too many of those already.

In the midst of staring at him, trying to figure him out, she froze, stunned and silent. A second later she recovered, lighting up the world with the prettiest smile anyone had ever given him. "I think that sounds nice."

 

Chapter Seventeen

BA pulled back his upper lip and let out a low snarl. It was a warning; he was the predator and his prey was in more trouble than they knew. He waited; calm and patient until they made their move, darting out towards him. Muscles bunching without thought, just memory, he sprang, pouncing, swooping the intruders up and over his head with a victorious growl.

It was drowned out by squeals and laughter from the children around him. BA gave up playing the tough guy and chuckled along with them. Setting the boy down, BA was promptly overrun by several more village children. All laughing and looking at him with open wonder and curiosity. They had no problem staring and asking questions and begging for candy and money and to play. Going to local villages on goodwill missions was BA's favorite job.

Today's mission was pretty straight forward. Spend some time with the locals and vaccinate the kids. The last part was Cruiser's job. Dude was borderline antisocial if you listened to his jive, but get him near a kid and he was like a saint. Cruiser was as tough and hardcore as the rest of them, but he had to believe he didn't care. If the man admitted to caring then he'd have to deal with all they'd seen and done. He couldn't. Hell no sane person could. So he walked around fighting anything bigger and badder than him and getting his knocked off. BA let him and backed him up when needed. They were team and Cruiser, even though he would deny it till he died, was one of the good ones.

A tug on his sleeve brought him back to reality. One of the little girls was asking him a question. She didn't speak English and his interpreter was working with Cruiser and the village elder to get the okay to vaccinate the children. BA let his smile do the talking. If Murdock was here, he could've talked to her, the fool spoke Vietnamese like a native. That was a secret. Last thing any of them wanted was the CIA taking him out for their own games. But when they did these friendly visits, Murdock was always the first one to yell: "Oh, oh, pick me!" Made sense cause he had a lot in common with eight year olds. Even after what ever happened in that village with Murdock and Face, he still all but skipped his way off to see the locals.

At least he had.

When Face left, Murdock had changed. No. That was a lie. It wasn't a change it was the hidden parts of Murdock poking out through the holes in his cover. On the outside he was mister happy. Always up for fun and a good time. But it was too much, it had a desperate edge to it. Like his life depended on staying up because the down was too bad, too ugly to let loose. Thing was Murdock was one of the angriest men he'd ever met. BA had grown up in some of the baddest parts of Chicago, he'd learned the art of street survival before he learned to tie his shoes. He knew a dangerous man when he saw one. Murdock was one. More so because the scrawny bastard worked so hard at keeping it all caged up. Now that Face was gone it was getting harder and harder for Murdock to hold the bits together.

Before Murdock got shot, he at least had flying. In fact, it was about all he did. He would smoke and drink gallons of coffee and fly every second he could and then some. He was still having nightmares that had him waking up screaming, but he would have a place to go think about something else. BA was pretty certain that's why Murdock was such a good pilot. It took every ounce of concentration and skill to fly a chopper. It took everything the dude had, including the crazy bits, to keep the flying metal coffin in the air. It was the only place he didn't have to work on being normal. And now, when he needed that break more than ever, it was gone. Every second he wasn't flying had him wound tighter and edgier. There was more nightmares, more flinches, and twitches, and laughter at nothing. If he didn't find something fast, he was going to explode.

BA spotted Cruiser walking back over to him with their translator and the Elder by his side. It was almost odd to see Cruiser relaxed, but right down to the open fatigue shirt, he was more at ease than BA usually ever saw him at base. A three year old being carried over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, he didn't make it much further before a young girl in a tattered dress ran over to him and grabbed his leg like it was the greatest ride she'd ever been on. Cruiser just flipped the boy off of his shoulder, carrying him like a forgotten basketball instead as he trudged the rest of the way over to BA with children attached to him like barnacles on a ship. "I see you're hard at work."

"You get the okay?" Usually it was Face and Murdock that did the talking. The thing was the local villages operated old school. Like a couple hundred years old. These cats still worried about evil spirits and after centuries of getting caught in the middle of bigger wars, they'd learn not to trust. Face had the gift. The yellow hair and angel face combined with open and honest expression and puppy eyes from Murdock usually beat down any defense the elders had. This time it was all up to Cruiser and an interpreter they'd never met before.

"Yeah, we're all set." Whether he was aware of it or not, Cruiser's hand was on top of the little girls head as she grabbed at his belt and tried to climb up him. "Those chocolate bars you packed seemed to do the trick." Suddenly she was up in his arm, making a swipe at the little boy still dangling like a tree ornament.

"Everyone loves chocolate." BA made sure not to crack a smile as he watched the girl. She was a fighter. Good. In a place like this you needed some fire. "Where we gonna set up?"

Cruiser just chuckled, shaking his head and bobbing the girl up and down so she couldn't tug on the boy's hair. "Next to the elder's hut. They're setting it up now." He looked from the boy to the girl and back to BA. "I think I've got my first two victims."

"You stab em and I grab em?" It was a tried and true system. Cruiser would move fast, most of the kids would have the vaccines before they ever saw the needle. Dude had a way with kids, a way he was lacking with grown ups. As soon as he was done BA would step in, give a bandage, a candy bar, sometimes a hug and get them back to playing, almost before the pain of the shot registered.

Cruiser just nodded, turning quickly, causing the kids' heads to spin and started off in the direction of the elder's hut.

It was quick work, in no time they were done, left to spend a few hours being swarmed by kids who were determined to treat them like a jungle gym. It was a good day. All out of candy and change, BA and Cruiser headed back to the jeep. "When we gotta come back and check on em'?"

"Tomorrow, next day at the latest." Cruiser gave him a shrug. He wasn't worried about their systems having a bad reaction to the vaccines, but BA already knew that. If he had been he wouldn't have given the vaccines. "I need to put a cast on one of the little boys arm's. Seems gravity and trees have the same relationship no matter where you are on the globe."

"Trees are magnets for kids." No more than two days meant BA had to find some more candy. Without Face around that was harder to do and it was gonna cost a lot more. Murdock would know who to talk to, but finding him would be hard. Man was like a ghost, haunting and being haunted all at once. Maybe Hannibal would be able to help.

XXXXX

It was total darkness; deep, thick darkness. Smothering and heavy. No stars, no distant city lights, no bustle. Just him and the labored sound of his breathing. And the fear that he wasn't alone.

Something was in the dark with him.

He could sense it; the fine hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he felt the whisper of air brush against him as something slid past. No! He spun.

Where the hell was he? There was nothing but total darkness.

Something rattled behind him. Attack! Never let the unknown have your back. Stupid.

Danger!

Skin prickling with fear and adrenaline, ready to fight. His body jerked back. He couldn't move. Heart slamming against his chest, trying to push back against the swell of panic, he tried harder. He had to get out; leave, run, fight. Something.

Forget fighting.

Something in him knew this place and it had his blood turning to ice as he felt the ties around his wrists and something hard and solid under him. It was dejavu, but wrong. No. No, no, no. He needed out! Like a wounded animal in a trap, he pulled till he bled, skin tearing, muscles strained, broken bones were nothing compared to the monster in the dark.

Deep breath. This couldn't be real. It couldn't. Blinking against the darkness just to make sure his eyes were really open, he fought harder. Eyes open; dark. Eyes closed; dark. Eyes open; screaming bright light beating him back and making him cringe.

The world flashed and dipped and reformed...oh God. No, no, no. Not again.

Ivan.

Face screamed. Blood curdling and raw.

"Relax. You're all alone. No one will hear or care about your screams. It's just you and me and them."

Jerking his head away from the too gentle, too real voice, Face's eyes unwittingly followed Ivan's. Them. Snakes. Coiled and hissing, ready to destroy. Too terrified to scream, Face felt the ropes at his wrists slither. Cold fear trapping any noise inside him. Two large serpents, looked at him , uncaring as they slipped into the corners of his vision. He wasn't in a room with Ivan anymore. Before he could take a breath of relief he heard that Goddamned laugh.

No. Not here. Not her...not them.

No!

The air was gone from his lungs. It couldn't be. Panic hit him dead in the chest, threatening to knock him over. He was in a mud hut, filled with cackling and laughter from the devil himself. It was echoing off the walls. Egging him on.

Pleading eyes of a little girl, her mother's lifeless body, her sister's screams. No! He was screaming, trying to run, trying to get away. Not again. He couldn't do this! Thunder echoing around him, drowning out his racing heart, but not the cries. The serpents were rising up out of the mud and tears.

"Do it, Face!"

"Don't be a fucking pussy!"

Run! He needed to run. But he was rooted to the spot. Snakes around his boots, wrapping tighter and stronger. Keeping him trapped in hell. Watching in horror as the girls' eyes became a flat, matte black and their cheeks sank in, their olive skin decomposing.

The hissing became louder, deafening and thunderous. It was all around him, like it was inside of him like a living, breathing disease taking over. Mixed with the laughing. Hissing and braying laughing. Laughing. Face raked his fingers over his eyes and ears, trying to drown it all out and make it go away.

"Stop! Please stop! I'm so sorry!" He couldn't hear his shouts over the snakes and cackling. It drowned out his words.

None of what he said or did mattered.

The serpents arched up like an angry cobras, only they weren't. They were all black and brown and smooth and shiny like nothing he'd ever seen before. It wasn't over. He froze. Staring. Watching in a horrified trance.

Snakes twisting and wrapping around a pair of hands until they were limp and hanging there. No longer living and squirming. No longer snakes. Instead, bits of human flesh and bowel.

Face forced his eyes up to find Murdock's horror struck face, covered in blood that wasn't his. The spoils of a slaughter at the hands of a madman around them. The blood and guts and snakes draped through Murdock's fingers sprung to life again. Face could see it in the edges of his vision. He couldn't look away from Murdock.

Not even when the snakes multiplied, tens becoming hundreds and thousands until they were surrounded and the world was black serpents wrapping around them. Face could feel them circling up him, getting tighter around him until all that was left was his eyes, slowly becoming crushed under them; becoming one of them.

A scream that sounded like God was tearing out a soul from a living body had Face slamming upright, launching himself sideways and rolling until his back hit a wall.

He was on solid ground, the scream was him. The dim white walls of Diz's place coming into focus. UCLA. School. It came back in a rush that had him letting out a shaky breath and sagging into the floor. Sheets tangled around him from the bed, the energy rushing out of his muscles, leaving him limp on the floor. Looking up he saw the bong and a bottle of pills on the dresser.

Oh thank God.

XXXXX

Hannibal took a long pull from his cigar. It was one of the last ones from his good stash that Face had stockpiled for him. It had taken Hannibal a month and a half to burn through them. In the grand scheme of things six weeks wasn't that long. But in Vietnam, it was a life time. They'd barely survived a failed mission and Murdock had gotten through surgery to fix his arm. But he was grounded until it healed and that could take months. The more time that passed the more obvious it became that Murdock was not surviving anymore. Thinner and more gaunt were just a few of the more noticeable problems. The nightmares that had been waking the team were just one more small clue as to how poorly the pilot was coping.

Murdock was up before any of them and bedded down after them. Mostly so his screams wouldn't wake them. He couldn't fly. He was the walking wounded. Up till this point Hannibal had kept his distance, letting Murdock deal with the loss of Face and being grounded the way he wanted. But things were settling down. Mifflin was leaving them alone, Cruiser and BA had stayed busy and out of Mifflin's sight, and their stateside rotation was coming up. Hannibal needed to know for certain where things sat with Murdock. However, first, he had to find him. Looking up at the shipping container Hannibal grabbed the ladder rung and started up it. Face and Murdock had never made keeping track of them easy. When it came down to it, that was one of things he had enjoyed the most about those two.

Lo and behold, there he was, lying flat on his back with a smoke between his lips as he looked up at the sky and watched a chopper from C Company heading out for points unknown. Hannibal made sure to make enough noise walking over to his pilot to be noticed and sat down next to him. "Lieutenant."

Murdock didn't bother with things like getting up or looking at him. Eyes still fixed to the sky he used his good arm to point his cigarette at the chopper. "She's flying heavy." Hannibal had been around enough to know that meant loaded with people. "How do you think she'll come back?"

"Lighter." It was just a fact. C Company was going out for a demolition of a bridge deep in enemy territory. They would take heavy fire for the greater good of the cause. It was war and this was a general's war. Men in suits back in the safety of the states making life and death decision for the boys on foreign soil to be lost to. His duty as a commanding officer weighed heavily with that responsibility.

Murdock's head slowly rolled to the side, stopping when he was looking at Hannibal. "Even when they come back empty, they're still heavy."

"It's a weight we all carry." The guilt of having survived one more day when your brother hadn't. They all carried those ghosts.

"They clipped my wings Hannibal, till I get them back, I got nothing to carry anymore." He was smiling, but not. It was a parody of a smile. More like what someone who had never seen a smile thought it should look like.

"That weight never goes away. Just the ability to prevent it from drowning us." Hannibal didn't press it further, watching Murdock closely, seeing how he would take it.

"Oh I ain't gonna drown, Hannibal." Murdock took a deep drag smile still hanging on. "I'm floating. All I have to do is just sit back and let it happen."

"What are you floating on?"

"I don't know. It all keeps getting further away." He was back to looking at the sky like he was waiting for something.

"Are you going to know when it gets too far away?" Hannibal knew Murdock. He did. Right now he needed to know if Murdock could tell how far gone he was. If he had any idea of when it was too late or if he was going to need Hannibal to make that call for him. If Hannibal had to he would, but he dreaded that day in a way that shook him to the core.

"You ever dream about them? The ones you couldn't save?' Eyes on the sky, hidden behind his aviators, Murdock's voice was calm. Too calm for the manic behind them.

"Sometimes." It was a fact he didn't like to dwell on. Most of the time he was so exhausted by the time he wound up hitting his rack that he slept dead through. But every once in a while the dreams crept in anyway.

"I dream about them all the time. Ones I knew, ones I didn't. Trace and a little girl and people without names and bits." Murdock took one last, long, deep, drag and flicked the butt away. "I even wrote Face about it."

That surprised Hannibal. It shouldn't have, but it did anyway. "You hear back?"

"No. Face is dead. Dead people can't write." Murdock was looking at him, his weird little smile gone.

It was not often that Hannibal found himself at a loss for words. "Face is . . . ."

"I got it wrong, didn't I?" Murdock sat up, pulling his knees to his chest and dropping his head on them for a second. "I dreamt about Face and Trace last night. We all had a long talk about a rematch in football." Murdock lifted his head up, arms still draped over his knees, the little smile sad and distant. "But I wasn't dreaming Hannibal, I was wide awake and talking to ghosts."

"That's a problem, Murdock." He hated saying it, but Murdock had earned the truth.

"It's okay Hannibal." With sudden, sharp, Marine precision Murdock stood up and snapped to attention. "Lieutenant Murdock, HM, regrets to inform you he is no longer safe to fly. Permission to seek personal leave."

Hannibal pushed himself up. Slow and deliberate; meeting the military form with his own commanding one. "Explain your plans for personal leave, Lieutenant."

"I'm going to seek out Sergeant Peck and find my wings again. Sir."

Hannibal watched him, stunned. Tears were streaking down Murdock's cheeks from behind his aviators. It was a weighted decision. Murdock had just pulled his own ripcord; giving up his wings in hopes of finding his sanity and getting them back. He'd done it so Hannibal didn't have to. "Permission granted." It was solemn and...something else, something too deep to define. "On the contingency you keep me informed, you find a way to contact me if you need to." Hand going to Murdock's boney shoulder he added, "I'm not losing you, Lieutenant."

"I'll hold on, and I'll find Face. " Murdock was tense and tight under his hand. "You're the only family we got Hannibal. I won't forget and I won't let you down, Sir."

Hannibal snapped off a salute, releasing Murdock from the military world for perhaps the last time. "You've never let me down. I'm damn proud of you, Murdock."

Something moved through the pilot. Hannibal could feel it under his hand and see it in the man. Straighter and more focused, Murdock snapped off a perfect salute and then pulled Hannibal into a tight hug. Before Hannibal could react, Murdock let go. He had a goal, a mission, something to work towards. "It's been an honor." With that Murdock was leaving, sliding down the ladder and running across the compound, entirely focused and broken.

XXXXX

Face was still dripping sweat and breathing hard, eyes clamped closed against the reality that sobriety had brought him when Diz's voice cut through the fog in his head. Diz was a buddy of Duncan's and somehow owned the house he'd been flopping in. Face hadn't bothered asking questions. He just knew that if he wanted to get high, the supply was never ending with Diz. He'd swung by after he'd had dinner with Leslie. They had talked about going for a walk, but he'd could feel edges of reality creeping in on him and getting too close, so he'd cut it short and said his goodbyes for the night with a promise to make it up to her and a kiss on the cheek.

"Woah man, you sound all kinds of uptight." Diz wasn't exactly a genius.

Face forced his eyes open, pushing a breath out through pursed lips as he pulled himself back together. "Yeah I know it. Sorry man, I know you got a party going."

"Don't be sorry bro. But if you want to chill, I got some good shit." Diz's voice took on some reverence. "Fix up all that ails you."

"Yeah?" Face didn't hide his interest. A few hours ago he'd been floating high on pills and hash and he'd woken up in a nightmare. Obviously it wasn't working as well as it should have been anymore. Pushing himself up, Face grabbed his shirt, slipping it on and covering up his dogtags before Diz focused enough to realize they were there.

"Yeah, you ride the dragon and all this shit just, poof. Disappears." Somewhere in his talk, Diz had pulled out a loaded syringe.

Looking at the syringe, Face could still feel his heart pounding in his chest, the adrenaline making his hands shake from the memories that had been unburied. They'd only come back, stronger and more real. The last few weeks it had been all he could do to keep them at bay and try to get a few hours sleep between the nightmares and the memories and lows.

"I got this from Bones. Nobody in all of Cali-fuckinging-fornia has shit as good as this." Diz twirled the syringe between his fingers and grinned. "Swear to God, a little sting in the arm and then you'll be alright jack."

"What the hell, right?" A dry laugh escaped him. He'd either get bent and away from his ghosts or he didn't. No harm no foul.

"Right on man." Diz handed him a belt. "Here, get that on. See the thing is you can use it a lot of different ways, but trust me, nothing is as good as shooting it up. Bam! Baby, instant fucking high."

Face sat down on the bed, pushing the sleeve of his shirt up and slipping his arm through the belt, tightening it down and pumping his fist a few times to help his veins pop. By the time he was done Diz was lining up a vein. "How much you got there?"

"Just a taste. All for free." Before he could ask anything else Face felt the sting and the burn and then warmth tingling its way up his arm, hitting his brain full on, whiting everything out and bringing it back with soft edges. "Just breath, Killer. Let the heroin do the rest."

He could feel his grip relaxing on the belt, it loosening around his arm and every muscle in his body relaxing into a nice foggy blanket. It was like he'd finally come home to open and welcoming arms. It was nothing and that was everything. Sagging against the mattress, Face did exactly what Diz had instructed and let the world go as the smack pushed the nightmares and shadows back to the controllable recess of his mind.

Heroin. He'd found his salvation.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Cruiser's grip tightened on the jeep's rollbar as they hit another pothole and rounded the corner. They were headed back to the village, to make sure nobody was having an adverse reaction to the vaccines. It was like the opposite of the blankets with the Indians and Small Pox. One of the few things that Cruiser did that didn't take place under heavy gunfire or for political reasons. Fact was, these parts of the world hadn't been exposed to most of the diseases that the G.I.'s carried. Even if they weren't oozing bacteria, they all carried it and the villagers had no protection from it.

Cruiser had made several of these runs over the years. It was never easy. Finding the village, making sure to not get shot on the way in, getting permission from the elder, and then getting his hands on enough vaccines. It was all leg work that he would normally hate, but the fact of the matter was, it gave these kids one less thing to fall victim to. One less fight they had to battle out when they should just fucking be enjoying playing in the mud.

"You wanna drive it more like a Tonka Truck?" Cruiser shot. BA may be the best driver around, but this ride fucking sucked and it was an hour in country. It was a good thing they weren't hauling around explosives.

"You wanna stop cryin'? We almost there."

"There's the whole trip back. I'll work on my material." BA didn't break a smile but Nygen laughed. At least today they had an interpreter they'd used before and who wasn't an asshole. The guy's laugh had barely died down when BA pulled the jeep over and shut it off. Instead of getting out and moving, like they had work to do, he just sat there, eyes narrowing at the air. Judging by the scowl something had him on edge.

Cruiser's ears automatically perked, on edge and feeling out whatever had BA's spidey sense tingly. He didn't need to ask, BA would tell him when he pinpointed it himself. Glancing back at Nygen, he was looking around too.

The jungle was silent. No monkeys screaming, no birds squawking, nothing. The jungle was a noisy fucking place. Unless something was wrong, then it was dead silent. BA nodded to Cruiser, confirming that they were both aware, without saying a word. M16s at the ready, they made their way slowly and silently through the jungle and back towards the village. The closer they got the more deafening the silence was. No adults working in the forest, no kids running around playing. The hairs on the back of Cruiser's neck were standing up with frigid awareness.

BA was working the flank when a scream pierced the silence. Young, high pitched, blood curdling, and heart stopping. Cruiser froze, honing in on where it came from as a flock of birds took off, shaking the leaves of the trees. Behind the elder's hut at the far end of the village. He didn't need to say anything, BA was already working his way there. It was anything but stealth. Cruiser could heard sobbing. Still too far off to be loud, but it was getting louder and more . . . it wasn't just one person crying. Warning bells were going off, alarming in his head. None of this was adding up.

Nguyen and BA flanked the hut, thin walls made of jungle material and a dirt floor. It was the epitome of bare minimum, just a bit larger than the rest of the village. The thin door made of straw and mud and twine and sat at an awkward angle. BA went around the left, Cruiser the right.

He almost stopped mid step. There was blood everywhere; on the grass and trees and on the people huddled together, some crying softly. Bright red arterial spray marks, deeper venous splatter, all sorts, everywhere. In the middle of the clearing an old man stood, holding the little girl who had climbed up Cruiser, bold as brass. In his other hand was a machete. On the ground was the little girl's arm.

Cruiser's blood ran cold. BA was yelling, weapon pointed at the man and Nguyen was translating, rapid fire, all while Cruiser's brain put the scene into focus. On the other side of the clearing, crammed together with a few women was about a dozen of the kids from yesterday, all missing arms, most of them bleeding. One of the women was packing the remaining stump in mud, trying to stop the red tide.

His weapon slipped from his hand, dropping into the mud. Cruiser was moving, running at the motherfucker as hard and fast and complete as he could with unbridled hate and anger snapping off his chains. The rest of the village slipped into the background as he slammed into the guy, machete dropping from his hand. Cruiser didn't care, he just reacted on a primal level, taking away the thing that had just amputated fucking dozens of children's arms. Fucking hell, he didn't even know what to do with that.

Cruiser was mid swing when a hard yank on his shirt suddenly lifted him up off the old fucker and sent him stumbling backwards. Cruiser growled, trying to push through BA. What the hell was the matter with him? BA's stupid fucking huge arms were holding him back from tearing the old fucker to pieces.

"Save the kids, I got this guy."

Cruiser stopped, teeth grinding as his eyes blazed angry, cold, black hearted hate at the old man. "Get him out of here."

BA didn't argue. Pointing the weapon at the old fuck, BA jerked his head in the direction of the hut. Nguyen said something and like a sick herd of stupid fucking cows, the men and women that had sat back and watched the sick fuck mutilate and maim their kids, followed the elder into the hut.

Cruiser just stood there looking around for a moment. Letting the scene wash over him. There was blood everywhere, crying and screaming and tiny, perfect, little arms in a pile. Kneeling down next to the little girl he'd been throwing around yesterday, Cruiser put his hand on her tear streaked cheek. She didn't speak a word of English, but after a second she opened her eyes, big and deep brown, scared and in pain. His thumb brushed away the tears. He was going to make this okay.

Free hand going to the stump that was left of her arm, he squeezed it, finding the brachial artery and trying his best to occlude it. "Nguyen I need help."

The rest of it was all a blur of frustration, waste, and anger. Even when they were flooded with the backup BA must have called in, Cruiser's head couldn't take it all in. Covered in innocent blood, it was all He could do to block it out and just focus on the limb and not the kid. Traumatic amputations being packed with mud to control the bleeding. Cruiser couldn't even begin wrap his head around the absolute stupidity of it all and he didn't have time to. Everything was made harder by the little girl grabbing him with her good arm and refusing to let go.

Fuck. Him.

XXXXX

Face slammed the drawer of the dresser closed and continued looking, tossing a stack of unopened mail onto the bed in front of Leslie. When had she even gotten here? Did they have plans? He couldn't remember. Instead he continued to riffle through what little possessions he had. There had to be something here.

"What are you looking for, Templeton?" Her voice was quiet and patient and a direct reflection of everything he wasn't feeling right now.

"My watch." He'd had a Longines watch. It would be perfect to see about getting some collateral out of for some product. Fucking banks closed at three and he hadn't been up in time to make it there. Diz always had smack on hand but he wasn't about to share unless it was worth his time.

"You told me someone stole it last week."

Face stopped his search, looking up at her. "I… oh… fuck that's right." Taking a deep breath he pursed his lips against his breath as he slowly exhaled. He needed something else then. Not bothering to cover the miss-stepped lie, he moved a pile of rumpled clothes out of his way.

"Templeton, sweetie. Are you okay? You seem... off."

"I'm fine." He was anything but fine. He could feel his skin starting to crawl the closer he got to sober and those harsh edges of reality were creeping in on him. He'd be fine if he could find something worth anything in this stupid room. Then he'd be right as rain. But until that happened he was very definitely not fine. "I just needed to get to the bank today but that didn't happen."

"So what does that mean?" Leslie was watching him from her perch on the window sill in front of the bed. So fucking perfect, so untouched and precious.

Resisting the urge to go through the dresser again, Face forced his attention to Leslie for the moment and shoved his hands in his pockets so the urge to move and get away from himself could be contained. He knew there was nothing in the dresser left. He'd checked already. A few times. "I need some cash and the bank is closed." Taking a step across the room to the bed, Face moved the mail again out of the way and sat down in front of her. There had to be something in this room. Had to be. Or he was going to die. But he couldn't spot anything and try as he might he couldn't wrack his brain enough to turn something up. He was going to have to figure something else out.

"I don't have anything for you. I'm sorry. But maybe your friends can help?"

His skin was crawling again, making his fingers twitch inside his pockets and legs bounce. Finally he pulled his hands out of his pockets and clenched and unclenched his fists. No cash in sight, he needed to think damn it. Elbows on his knees, he ran his hands through his hair, scrubbing at his scalp a bit to distract him away from the growing urgency running through his veins. "Yeah, maybe." He agreed, but he knew the answer. "I should go talk to Diz, see if he can help me out." Looking back up at her he had to ask. "You don't have a few bucks you can front me? I'll pay you back tomorrow. Promise."

"No... I don't… I'm sorry but I'm out of cash until my parents send me my living expenses check." Leslie's hands worried over her necklace. "Have you, you know, maybe talked to your friends?"

"No I haven't yet. But they're not really the lending type." Fuck he needed to do something. But the ropes around his wrists were getting tight. And he wasn't going to get anywhere in this room.

"But this one guy keeps writing you. I think he really cares..."

Oh, that friend. Face scoffed at the whole idea. He'd left that life with a nice invitation to not return. He'd gotten the message loud and clear, he didn't need to hear it again. "He doesn't give a shit. Besides, what's he going to do tonight, Western Union me some money?"

"He's written every day."

"He's nobody. It doesn't matter." Face pushed himself up off the bed. He could feel the anger starting to dump into him, mixed with his need for smack and making that want all the stronger.

"He's not nobody. He's your friend."

"He's not my friend!" He couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. "He's some fucking nutjob from a different life who somehow tracked my address down."

"But Templeton, what are you?"

"What's it matter? Nobody fucking cares."

Leslie looked stunned, like he'd killed her puppy or told her Santa Claus wasn't real. "Thats not true! I care. Your friend cares. God cares."

"The hell he does!" Face spun back around towards her, but that pain expression like he'd just broke her heart stopped him from continuing. She was so opposite from him. So pure and innocent and everything he wasn't. "Sorry. I just… God and I haven't been on speaking terms for a long time."

Her hand was soft and gentle against his cheek. "I care Templeton, and I'm worried about you."

He didn't look at her, instead nuzzling just a bit into her hand. She was so fucking sweet it pained him. She deserved so much more than he'd ever be. "There's nothing to worry about. I swear."

"You're a good man." She was smiling at him like he was something precious and special.

He shook his head as he spoke, "I am anything but." He'd never been good. Not good enough for the Sisters or Fathers or counselors and mentors. He'd been stupid for ever thinking that had changed.

"You're perfect to me."

"Don't." He couldn't take that. "I'm so fucking broken." Leslie had no idea how deep his cracks ran. How could she? She lived in a perfect little world where God was good and answered prayers and things like dead kids and broken dreams didn't exist. How could she know what it was like to live in a world where nightmares wouldn't leave you alone even in the daylight?

"You're beautiful Templeton."

"I just wish the world could be as beautiful as you Leslie." Closing his eyes he pushed all of it away. The hurt and want, the close touch and thoughts of something better. All where it couldn't crush him. He'd found his answer. One that wanted nothing and in turn made all his nightmares and worries fade to black. It was peace one hit at a time. It would never let him down.

"Stay with me." She whispered.

Face knew that look, he'd seen it a million times before. Want. But this time there was more innocence and love and need, for him on a deep soul baring level that had his stomach turning with his own want.

"I need to go find Diz. I'm sorry, I'll be back as soon as I can."

Leslie's hand fell to her side and before she could look away and study the floor, he saw it. Hurt, rejection, shame. Everything she shouldn't feel all because she was naive enough to believe in him. "Alright."

Leaning down, he brushed his lips on hers, pulling her into a tender kiss full of promise and everything she deserved. Before she could open her mouth to his and explore further, he let it close, pulling back just out of reach. "I promise." Taking a step back, he gave her the most charming smile he could as he turned towards the door. He needed to go find some poor schmuck's unlocked car before he found Diz. He could feel his mouth watering in the anticipation of that needle biting into his vein and the harsh edges of reality softening the moment that plunger was pushed. God he wanted that, craved that feeling so bad it made his whole fucking body hurt.

XXXXX

Hannibal Smith lived a life of action. For the first time in a long time he found himself wishing for a little less action. The POW mission, losing Face, Murdock trying to hold together the pieces, and now the cluster fuck that had left eleven Vietnamese kids with one damn arm. He'd only seen the aftermath. BA and Cruiser had the front row seats. No matter how rock steady those boys were, you couldn't see something that brutal and not be shook. After the clean up and debriefing, Hannibal had the gone to deal with Mifflin, who for once was pissed off at someone other than Hannibal and his men.

While Hannibal and Mifflin investigated what happened, BA and Cruiser had disappeared. A trip to the Motor pool should have taken him to BA, but not this time. Hannibal trudged through the mud and back to the team room in hopes of finding one of them. Even the shit of his day hadn't prepared him for what he found.

It wasn't Cruiser sitting with a open bottle of Tequila that stopped him dead in his tracks. That was expected. It was BA saying clear as day, "Pour me a double."

Cruiser just tossed him an unopened bottle from his foot locker and took a long pull off of his own fifth. "That's as much pouring as I do, man."

Cruiser looked like shit. He'd managed a shower and that was it. When they had come back into the base, he'd been covered in blood with a little girl no more than five years old clinging to him like they were surgically attached. He didn't know how they had gotten that little girl to let go of him, but if he knew his man, the bottle of tequila was treating that particularly fresh wound too.

BA at least bothered to use a cup; a beat up metal tumbler from the mess hall. Without a word the man poured a triple instead of a double and tossed it back without a flinch. For a teetotaler, he sure knew how to drink crappy booze.

Like Cruiser, BA looked like shit. Cruiser looked spun out, BA looked dead. Not angry, not upset, not even real. They had eleven kids who'd made it so far. Three had died. BA and Cruiser had seen those kids alive and laughing and then murdered by ignorance.

Hannibal didn't bother asking how they were doing. It blew all the way around. The only glimmer of good news was Murdock wasn't here to see this. He'd been sent to Saigon to get his discharge paperwork set.

Lighting up a sub-par cigar, Hannibal leaned against the wall. "Turns out the interpreter didn't speak the dialect."

"The fuck he doesn't!" Cruiser hurled the bottle at the wall hard enough that a spray of shattered glass and booze barely missed catching Hannibal. "Motherfucker." Cruiser shook his head refusing the explanation that Hannibal had just given. Was that the first or second fifth he'd had? Spinning around, Cruiser closed the gap between them.

"They found his body outside the gate." Hannibal's statement stopped Cruiser dead in his tracks. The body was a message to the Army. It was proof that the others wouldn't put up with this and warning to other hopeful interpreters lured in by quick money. It also meant Cruiser had no way to make things right. No place for all of that anger and aggression and sorrow to go. He was left twisting in the wind.

"Why?" One word, one question from BA had Hannibal's focus shifting.

"The elder thought the kids had been injected with poison that would steal their souls. He decided cutting off their arms was the only hope." There would be no changing the Elder's mind. The fact that outsiders intervened and age old beliefs meant none of those kids would be safe in that village again. That, however, was trouble for another day.

BA took another large drink

Cruiser's jaw was clenched and for once his eyes told Hannibal nothing. "We told them. It was just fucking vaccines!" Muscles tense and hands clenched into tight fists, Hannibal shifted his weight just in case there was a swing coming his way.

"The interpreter fucked up and the Elder..." Hannibal shook his head. "How the hell do you even explain that? It was a waste and pointless."

"It's not a waste! They're fucking dead and crippled because of some superstitious old fuck!" Cruiser was teetering on an edge. "They had their fucking arms hacked off for no Goddamned reason!" He was searching Hannibal for something, but there was nothing Hannibal could give to make it right or to make it make sense.

"Daniel, I don't have any answers." Hannibal made sure all the sorrow, and pain, and futility showed in his eyes. There was a time to be a leader and a time to be human, this was both. "You saved them, they have a chance now. It's all we get." He put his hand on Cruiser's tense shoulder, hoping it would be enough to anchor the man.

Cruiser shook his head, refusing the reasoning. "It's not enough. What the hell are we even here for if we can't even get the locals to trust us?"

"We're here 'cause we soldiers and they told us to be here." BA's answer was a hard fact.

Cruiser looked over at BA with flat eyes that somehow burned with hatred. "I don't do shit just because they tell me to."

"Yeah, you do."

"The fuck I do." Cruiser pushed Hannibal's hand off of him and focused on BA.

"Lie to yourself, fool. Don't lie to me." Pushing himself up and out of the chair, BA was sending an invitation to fight. But it wasn't his anger or aggression that held Hannibal's attention. Anger and aggression was baseline for for BA. It was something about the half second look BA shot Hannibal that had him holding back and watching instead of intervening.

"We all just someone's puppet."

Cruiser swung. It was a wide haymaker and just another sign of how drunk and out of sorts he was. "Fuck you!"

Hannibal relaxed back against the wall and watched as Cruiser took one swing after the other on BA. Not many landed, occasionally BA would growl and take a shot at Cruiser, just enough to keep the medic engaged. This wasn't a brawl; he'd seen those two go rounds before and it was always bloody and brutal. This was BA giving Cruiser a place to vent. How astute his mostly silent mechanic was never ceased to amaze Hannibal. It hadn't been five minutes of traded insults and jabs before Cruiser finally hit the wrong nerve on BA. Calling him an ape was always a bad idea.

BA let him have it for real, and it was over. Cruiser fell to the ground in an untidy heap. Nobody ever got back up from BA's right hook, and all things considered, Cruiser had earned every bit of it.

Shaking his head, BA picked Cruiser up off the floor. Hannibal helped drop the medic onto his bed to sleep it off. Hannibal watched as BA did a quick check of Cruiser's pulse and wordlessly returned to his spot and his bottle.

"What was that about?" Hannibal knew, but he wanted to hear it from BA's side.

"He needed me to take the punches for him." Simple as that. BA watched the glass for a second before locking his eyes on Hannibal. "It was real bad, Hannibal"

Hannibal nodded. He'd seen them come back to the base. A truckload of kids and everyone of them on the wrong side of that machete. Tourniquets on the stumps that had been their arms. Their screams of pain had finally died down to whimpers, thanks to a combination of exhaustion and pain medication. It was all Cruiser could do. He'd gone to the mash tent with them, stayed until he'd finally been booted out. And then there had been nothing for him to do and no place to go.

BA had finally given him a place to direct all that hurt and anger, and a way to walk away from it. "I can only imagine, BA." There were things that Hannibal would never be able to truly fathom seeing; this was one of them. "How are you doing with it?"

"Bad." The fifth of booze was almost gone.

Hannibal moved an old milk crate over to BA and took a seat next to his last standing man. "It means you're still human, BA." As gruff as his men were, the fact that this was shaking them meant that they were still fit for the battlefield.

"Only you and my Momma ever thought I was real."

"My Uncle always told me the hardest thing in life was remembering how to be real." Hannibal had been a kid when his Uncle got back from fighting the Japanese in World War Two. He'd been fascinated by everything his Uncle had to say about his adventures in the Pacific. When he'd asked what the hardest thing about the war had been, he hadn't understood the answer. Not until he'd lived it.

Looking at BA for a long silent moment Hannibal watched the man take another pull off the bottle. He'd never seen BA drink before. It was another sign that they needed a break before every last one of them broke. "This wasn't your fault, BA. Not yours or Cruiser's or even the military's this time around. I'm sorry it happened."

BA nodded. For a few moments there was silence. That was his way. If he said yes then he got it, if not he let you know. Pouring another drink, BA just stared at it. He was going to say something. Hannibal had come to learn to let the man take his time. He didn't say much, but when he did it was worth the wait.

"I grew up a black boy in a white man's world. Lots of people treated me like an animal. Momma kept my head on straight about that. Then I get drafted and meet this crazy white dude who treats me like I'm the same as everyone. Next thing I know I'm surrounded by crazy white dudes and they all act like that, and we doing shit and pulling off things that no one else in the world could." When BA looked up from his drink there was a flash of a smile offsetting the fact his eyes were red. "I miss them Hannibal. I always knew Face and the Fool needed us, turns out I need them too."

"That's why it was such a good team." There was no point in pretending like they'd get it back, like somehow Face and Murdock and Ray would all wind up back under Hannibal's command and it would be like old times. There was a chance Murdock would make it back, but it would never be the same. How could it?

"We need to get them back Hannibal."

"I don't know if we can anymore." Self doubt had never been something that Hannibal was accustomed to, but there was no denying that sending Face home had been like pulling that proverbial loose thread.

"Ain't nobody better at trying then us."

Hannibal's hand went to BA's massive shoulder. Letting the man know in a way that words couldn't convey, that he understood exactly how deep that need was. "You have my word I'm going to do everything I can to make us whole again."

"I know you will." There was fierce belief behind that. There was no room for doubt. The tears rolling down BA's cheeks just added to the determination. Pushing himself to his feet, BA stood just as quick, and Hannibal pulled him into a hug. There was nothing more to say. Kids getting maimed because Murdock wasn't there to interpret and Face wasn't around to ensure good politics was beyond the capability of words or human wisdom. It was surreal and there was no answer. It was a weight that Hannibal would shoulder for the rest of his life. It was the duty and price of leading his men.

 

TBC

 


Salvation by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 1 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 2 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 3 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 4 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 5 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 6 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 7 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 8 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 9 by Quentillian & Nora
Salvation 10 by Quentillian & Nora

 

 


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