This work of fiction is owned by the author and may not be reproduced
without the author’s express written permission. The A-Team is owned by
Stephen J. Cannell and Universal Studios. No copyright infringement is
intended. This story was published in Deadly Maneuvers 2, by Sockii Press
in August 1998. The events in this fiction take place after fifth-season.

                             Hostage to Fortune




Face sat at the writing desk and stared at the single page of paper laying
there, willing words to appear on its blank surface. As it stood now, he'd
gotten as far as the date and the opening words -- 'Dear Murdock' -- before
he lost his nerve and couldn't figure out how to continue. And that, he
thought with disgust, is where my brain runs dry, with a screech and a
thump rather than a bang and a whimper. The blond conman wadded the paper
up in a ball and bounced it off the wall to land in the wastebasket, now
overflowing with similar twists of stationary. And all of those began and
ended the same way. Looking over the small guest room in Maggie Sullivan's
house where he was currently situated, Face wasn't even sure why he was
trying to write Murdock. Certainly, his address was the safest and the most
stable, but what good would it do? This is a letter I don't even know how
to write. How do you tell your best friends -- your family -- that you're
dying and there's nothing anyone can do about it?

Face reached to pick up the gold pocketwatch on the desk that Murdock had
given him before, the last time he'd planned to leave and hadn't, despite
his futile attempts. So it was just as well he'd kept it; after all, he had
left eventually. There had simply been nothing else he could do.

The memory of those last days came far too easily to his mind for his
liking, even though he'd done his damndest with alcohol to forget any of it
had ever happened. It had started a few weeks after the shooting at La
Villa Cochina. Who'd have thought that a simple dinner out where Murdock
happened to be working would've metamorphosed into a frantic attempt to
prevent a mob hit? I mean, I should have known something like that would
happen . . . I can't turn my back for a second to relax without the whole
damn world going to hell. But if he'd known then what he knew now, Face
suspected he'd have just died on the floor of the kitchen. At least, it
would have made his life -- or rather, his death -- much easier.

For everyone.

Right on time, Face had shown up for his one-month checkup after being
released from the hospital, and the doctor had asked to see him privately
in his office. That had put his antennae up immediately. They had taken a
lot of blood to sample, he'd rationalized then, but they were probably just
checking the texture of it or something . . . blood counts or something
simple like that. After answering some general health questions, Face had
gotten annoyed. Anyone could see that the doctor wanted to say something
else, something other than what he had said already, but couldn't figure
out how to begin. So, naturally, he'd asked the doctor to stop dancing and
cut to the chase.

Ah, the regret of hindsight.

"Mister Peck . . . have you noticed any unexplained fatigue or weight loss
as of late?"

No, he'd answered, not that he was aware of. Sure, he'd been tired and a
little sore in the joints lately, but he'd explained to the doctor that it
was probably just a busy work schedule. After all, he wasn't a kid anymore,

No, wait, he'd called it a 'killer work schedule'.

Too right by half, as it'd turned out.

Face remembered only the beginning of the doctor's words, and very little
of anything at all of the several days after them, before he'd decided to
leave Virginia. Face didn't recall leaving the doctor's office, didn't
recall driving to any of the stops his wallet proved he'd made, and
certainly didn't recall returning to the country house to lock himself in
his room where he'd gotten as drunk as he could as fast as he could.

All he remembered of those last few days after his world fell apart, those
last few days when he felt like a human being, were eleven words in the
doctor's crisp accent.

"Mister Peck . . . I'm sorry to tell you that you have AIDS . . . ."

                             ***** ****** *****

Depressed and frustrated, Murdock curled himself up into a little ball on
the floor, his hands tight over his ears and his eyes squeezed shut, trying
not to hear the loud argument going on between Hannibal and Stockwell in
the next room. It wasn't as if he needed to hear it; he was pretty sure he
could quote it line and verse back at them by now, as they'd had the same
argument every few days for the past six months.

Six months since Face had been gone. He'd simply packed up a few things and
disappeared in the middle of the night like a wraith. No calls, no letters,
no telegrams, nothing, nada, zero, zip, zilch. Hell, if it told them only
so much as that he was alive and safe, the pilot felt he'd take a message
from the Pony Express at this point, and he'd bet the others would too.

But why in God's name had Face left like that in the first place? Was it
something he'd done, something they'd done? Was it something he or they
hadn't done? Murdock knew that was the topic that was driving Hannibal
crazy -- didn't Face know that he could come to them with anything? Nothing
was so bad, so shameful, so . . . so . . . so terrible that Face would have
to vanish without a word.

All of them apparently had different theories. Hannibal wouldn't discuss
it, but the pilot could tell that -- given the information about Morrison
they'd received and knowing that Face had had several black-market contacts
himself -- the colonel was wondering if Face had had some part in it but
was refusing to consider his own supposition. BA just paced the house and
the grounds, growling under his breath various and sundry threats that
promised a great deal of pain for Face if -- if! -- or when he came back
for putting them through all this worry.

And the Big Guy was worried. Each time the phone rang or a knock sounded at
the door or a car drove up into the yard, BA would jump to look if it was

But it never was.

Frankie had made his views clear from the get-go, that Face had freaked
coming so close to death like that and had cleared out for parts unknown.
Murdock didn't buy it and he knew that neither Hannibal nor BA did either.
Compared to Chao's death camp, that had been a walk in the park.

No, there had to be something else, something they were missing. It wasn't
Frankie's fault he was clueless, that he didn't have the same knowledge of
Face that they did. But, dammit, it all seemed to go back to the shooting
somehow . . . .

                           ****** ******* *******

"I don't give a damn what you think! This Team stays together as a unit!"
With that, Hannibal slammed open the door, hearing a squawk of surprise
from somewhere down toward his left knee. Apparently seeing the fury on his
face, Murdock scrambled out of the way and flopped onto the couch, watching
his commanding officer with a wary eye.

But Hannibal wasn't able to ignore Stockwell's parting words, nor the
smugness in his tone. "It would appear that the Lieutenant doesn't share
your opinion. Does it?"

Grinding his teeth, he waited for General Spook-in-the-Grass to go away so
that they could try again to figure out where Face had gone to ground. It
had been something he'd feared since the three of them had been on the run.
Face's talents were such that he didn't need any of them to be safe; at any
time he could easily have vanished and made a new life for himself
somewhere else, shedding his life and his past as effortlessly as other
people change their clothes.

Now one of his worst fears had happened, and he didn't have the slightest
clue what to do about it.

Damn, the colonel thought, what could be so bad that Face would leave
without an explanation, without even a goodbye? Hannibal shook his head.
They'd all noticed the odd behavior those few days before he left -- it had
been pretty hard to miss. Never one for drinking, Face had nevertheless
come home one day -- already more than half in the bag -- locked himself in
his room, refusing to open it to anyone, even Murdock, and drank until he
threw up and passed out. When BA had finally lost his patience and took the
hinges off the door, they'd all been horrified by what they'd seen. The
normally-not-a-hair-out-of-place Faceman was not only rumpled, he was a
mess and there were empty whiskey bottles littering the floor. When they'd
entered, Face had roused just long enough to shriek gibberish at them and
pitch an empty bottle at Murdock -- who'd barely been able to jump out of
the line of fire before it shattered to pieces on the wall -- before
sobbing on Hannibal's shoulder and passing out.

Speaking of Murdock, he was probably taking this worst of all. He and Face
were practically brothers, as close as any two people could be and not be
in the same skin. Hannibal had been watching the dark-haired pilot closely
and had noted with distress that Murdock had once again begun talking to
his invisible dog.

It was just another sign of how shattered Murdock was by Face's vanishing
act. As Hannibal sat down on the couch next to the nervously shaking man,
he was relieved to hear the unmistakable sound of the General's departure.
Realizing his own -- as well as Murdock's -- need to relax, he stretched
out and pulled the younger man into a comforting hug. Hannibal wasn't
certain, but he thought he heard a whisper of a broken sob in the pilot's
voice. While BA and Frankie settled and got comfortable, Murdock pulled
away and tried to get his emotions under control.

When everyone was ready, Hannibal began to speak, trying to be the calm
everything's-under-control leader he knew his Team needed right now, even
though he himself felt anything but under control. "By now, you all know
that Stockwell isn't going to let us search for Face." Noticing the nods
all around, Hannibal continued. "Which means, that if we do it ourselves,
we're on our own. No backup. No support." More nods, and Hannibal paused.
During their conversation, if one could dignify it by that term, he'd been
careful to pay attention both to what Stockwell said and to how he'd said
it. "Stockwell implied," emphasizing that he had no real proof, "that he
had arranged Face's disappearance . . . as a hostage for our good
behavior." Hearing the shocked gasp from Murdock on his right and the growl
from BA from in front, Hannibal struggled to keep his own bitterness out of
his voice. "Stockwell apparently feels that since he provides everything we
need for our missions, Face isn't really necessary to our completing those

"Completing his agenda, you mean."

Hannibal nodded at Murdock, quietly astonished at the coldness that had
suddenly entered the gentle pilot's voice. "So he arranged for Face to be
moved somewhere else, where he can be kept, so that the rest of us -- that
are useful," making the word Stockwell's rather than his own, "to him --
will keep on being good little soldiers and do what we're told." Another
growl from BA's direction. "So what are we going to do? I can't make this
decision for all of us . . . I don't know how our good friend Stockwell
will react."

Clearly concerned, Frankie waved his hand at Hannibal. "Yo, guys, you mean
he might pull our pardons and leave us hanging?"

"He never really promised them to us in the first place, Frankie," pointed
out Hannibal. "He said he'd arrange it, but didn't say when. For all we
know, he might be planning to string us along indefinitely until we get
wise to it and clear out."

"But can we take that risk?"

"Man, I don't think we have a choice," BA spoke forcefully. "We gotta go
get Face, can't leave him like that."

"Are we sure that Face wants to be found?"

Three pairs of eyes immediately turned on Murdock.

"What are you thinking, Murdock?" Hannibal wondered if his own conflicting
feelings on the matter might be preventing him from seeing some invisible
but crucial piece of the puzzle that Murdock -- for all his emotional
instability -- had grasped.

The pilot squirmed under Hannibal's clear blue gaze. "Well . . ." he began
hesitantly, "maybe Face made some kind of deal with Stockwell on his own .
. . maybe he went willingly because it was in our best interests to do so."

"Face never struck me as the self-sacrificing type, ya know?"

Trying to work out what had been puzzling him, Murdock ignored Frankie's
glib remark and continued speaking. "I . . . don't know . . . exactly. It's
just a feeling . . . . I keep thinking that everything goes back to the
restaurant shooting . . . ."

Hannibal silently considered the other man's thoughts. Murdock was
underestimated far too frequently; it was one of several things he and Face
had in common. With Face, it was his looks, with Murdock, it was his air of
childlike innocence, but both of them were highly intelligent and extremely
perceptive. While it was rare that anything got past either of them, it was
unthinkable that both of them missed it.

And Murdock had a feeling.

Calmly, Hannibal nodded at the lanky pilot. "So, here's what we should do.
We’ll make inquiries to everyone we can think of from the date of the
shooting, while checking out Stockwell's insinuations and the possibility
of Face setting himself up as a martyr. We overlook nothing, check
everything." Reassured by the nods he received -- even the reluctant one
from Frankie -- he made a decision. "We find out what happened, no matter
how long it takes." More nods and the meeting broke up.

Hannibal began quietly working out a plan, deciding where to start, when he
was startled by a throat clearing to his right. He turned and spotted
Murdock still as a statue on his section of the couch. "Something else on
your mind, Captain?"

Murdock looked . . . well, it was hard to describe how he looked . . . like
he was worried and nervous and excited all at the same time. "Colonel, do
you really think we'll find Face?"

Hannibal gripped the other man's shoulder firmly and gave him a comforting
shake. "We'll find him, Murdock. I promise you that." His mind visibly
eased, Murdock nodded, relieved, and hurried upstairs to the room he was

Alone, at last, Hannibal lit a cigar and raised his eyes to the sky. "Where
the hell did you go to, Face," he said quietly, "and why the hell did you

                          ******* ******** *******

Face tried to sleep, but to no avail. He should have known better, as it
had been pretty much the same thing every night for the last six months.
After several hours of tossing and turning and restless thoughts and
fervent prayers to whichever saint it was that looked after fools, he'd
given up and begun reading a mystery novel instead, wrapping himself in a
heavy pink blanket. Pink wasn't his color, but he didn't care; it was warm
and warmth had been at a premium lately.

He'd already guessed that the weight loss he'd suffered had been the cause
of it. Slender to begin with, it was weight he really couldn't afford to
lose, throwing his cheekbones into prominence and creating bruises here and
there. Face tried to keep up some semblance of his appearance because he
knew Maggie expected it of him. But it really didn’t matter that much since
he had no one to impress. The dark circles under his eyes had another

Sleepless nights.

Nights spent wondering what cloud had spat this thunderbolt at his life.
Who had done this to him? When had this happened? He didn't know. He'd
thought about sending his former playmates warnings that they should be
tested . . . but he didn't know how to reach them. In some cases, he
couldn't even remember their last names. True, he had never been that
particular about his lady friends, and now it seemed he was being punished
for it.

After he'd sobered up from his binge and coped with the worst hangover of
his life, trying to figure out what to do next became the mission of
whatever was left of his life. Face couldn't bring himself to tell the
guys. What would they think? And he didn't want their pity. That would have
been worse than their rejection.

Face had left again that evening -- after fending off Murdock's and
Hannibal's not-so-subtle attempts to find out what was bothering him -- and
visited a small cozy restaurant he'd heard well of but never enjoyed. While
puzzling over the dilemma, he'd ordered and eaten a very nice soufflé, even
though he didn't feel much like eating. If he couldn't tell the guys, then
who? Face had had no doubt that eventually he would need some assistance
unless he decided to commit suicide . . . which he still hadn't totally
discounted as an option.

So, the person had to be someone he trusted that much, but someone who
could cope with that much. Not Tawnia -- she was happy with her husband, as
far as the conman knew. He'd have liked to see Amy again, but he'd made
subtle inquiries from time to time to follow her career. Amy wasn't only
too busy but wasn't even in the country, having been promoted to Assistant
Director of the Paris, France office. Face was proud of her -- remembering
Amy as the confident reporter who'd begun as an interloper insinuating
herself into the Team and winding up a full-time member . . . the Team's
surrogate little sister . . . family -- but he'd never say so to her face.
Maybe I should write her a letter, saying everything I could never say in
person . . . a letter to be delivered after I'm gone. I'll have to think
about it further. He didn't even consider the numerous clients the Team had
helped over the years; after all, they were all well off out of this and
deserved to stay that way. The same went for his newly discovered
half-sister . . . and besides, she barely knew him. Why should she take him
in, blood ties or no?

When he'd thought of Maggie Sullivan, it seemed a pretty good idea at
first. Maggie was a doctor in a small town, remote in the California
deserts, and had been helpful numerous times in the past. It was no secret
that Hannibal fancied her and vice versa, but Face didn't want to know how
intimate their relationship had become. He'd only hoped that if their
relationship had ended on a sour note -- and Face suspected it had -- she
wouldn't bear any grudges.

Even if Maggie had been okay with it, how was he to get to California from
Virginia? Face had had neither the van nor the 'vette and, no matter how
much he wanted the company, he wasn't going to ask Murdock to fly him.
Since he guessed the guys would try to find him, Face had tried to consider
ways and means of travel that they wouldn't expect. That meant by sea, by
train, or by bus, and none of those had been especially appealing. Since
speed and safety were important, his choices had been narrowed to by train
or by bus. In the end he'd chosen to travel by train to Sacramento, then by
bus to the closest stop, and to travel under a pseudonym. Face hadn't
exactly expected Stockwell to give him his blessing. Not that he had
planned to tell Stockwell, that is. Face didn't care what Stockwell thought
. . . he was no slouch, probably a Company man, so he'd figure it out soon

Face remembered the surprise in Maggie's voice when he'd called from the
pay phone in the restaurant. He'd called collect, using an old signal name
that would tell Maggie who he was, assuming she remembered the call sign.
Apparently she did because she accepted the call and immediately began
yelling at him. Face had told her simply why he was calling and asked her .
. . no, he'd pleaded with her . . . for help and a place to stay. As it
happened, Maggie was leaving for a week-long seminar in Sacramento the next
day and would be returning to Bad Rock after it ended.

So that was how Face's new life had started. He'd packed a bag full of
clothes and his most personal items and left in the middle of the night,
leaving everything else behind except a note to the Team. Evading the
guards had been simple enough -- God knows he had had enough practice
lately -- and Face had walked to the nearest train station and bought an
one-way ticket to Sacramento. It was lucky he'd had a driver's license
under the signal name as that was the alias he'd used. Nearly a week shut
up in his train compartment, he’d watched the rolling green hills of
Virginia give way to the wheat fields of the Midwest and to the mountains
and familiar deserts of the West. True to her word, Maggie had been waiting
for him at the Sacramento station and had hugged him to death before
bundling him into her taxi and to the hotel where she was staying. They'd
left together the next day for Bad Rock.

For his new home.

Maggie had taken charge of his health immediately, putting him on
medications for illnesses and symptoms he didn't even have yet. She also
hadn't allowed him to become stuck-in-a-rut, making sure he kept busy. Face
wasn't fooled; he recognized the scheduling-structuring technique from one
of Murdock's psychological texts. She had trained him as a lab technician
-- even though he had severe doubts that aa AIDS-infected lab tech would be
allowed to perform the tests with which she entrusted him -- and he was
happy with that. He took care of the animals she'd acquired -- a dog, two
cats, and a horse -- when she was gone on a call or doing errands in town,
and they'd split the household chores evenly.

Although, he admitted freely enough, the cats had been his contribution to
their household. While riding Captain -- the palomino gelding with which a
grateful patient had paid her, as oddly as it sounded -- Face had noticed a
brown paper bag off the side of the road in the gutter. Then he'd noticed
that the bag was moving and mewling. Upon investigating, he'd been
horrified to find five little kittens abandoned and left to die. After
carefully gathering them up in his arms, he'd wheeled Captain and galloped
back to the house as fast as he'd ventured. How dare someone throw away
life like that!, he'd raged, didn't they know how precious it was? Since
then, the two surviving kittens -- Felony, a pale gray and white longhair,
and Miss Demeanor, a dark gray shorthair -- had joined the family.

Still, Face thought, glancing out the window to watch the sun rise,
wheeling its golden chariot across the heavens, it feels as if something is
missing in my life. Shaking his head at another night without sleep, he
could only think of one thing that was missing in his life . . . and it was
the three people he'd couldn't have in his life.

                          ******* ******* *******

Maggie Sullivan, the only doctor in Bad Rock, sipped her coffee at the
breakfast table and watched her houseguest pick at his food in favor of
yesterday's paper. "Face," she said gently, and watched him raise his
startled blue eyes to her, "you have to eat to keep your strength up.
Hungry or not, you have to eat more than that." With an exaggerated sigh,
he began to pick . . . although a little more frequently . . . at his eggs,
toast, and melon. Maggie allowed her eyes to drift over his body, judging
how much weight he'd lost and the state of his health at present. The jeans
and navy tee-shirt he'd been wearing the day they'd met in Sacramento six
months ago now all but hung on his too-lean frame. She knew he wanted to
take care of himself, wanted to try to put on a good show, but she also
knew that it was at least partially an act. He was -- literally -- killing
time, just waiting around trying to stay useful until he took the last
train out to the hereafter.

And they both knew it.

Munching her toast, Maggie remembered the day she received a phone call
that turned her world upside down. It had been a collect call from someone
she didn't recognize -- who the hell was Janus Wellington?, her thought had
been -- and the operator had been just about to disconnect when her brain
found the answer and she'd accepted the call with a shout. God, she'd been
so happy to hear Face . . . so happy just to know that he was alive because
if he was alive than Hannibal was alive . . . that she'd begun asking him
questions and demanding answers.

And then she'd recognized out of her nightmares the tone of his voice. It
had the ring of death to it. Her first thought had been of Hannibal, but
when Face had asked for a favor and then explained why, her overwhelming
wave of relief was quickly followed by a wave of sorrow and shame. The
death toll she'd heard in Face's voice wasn't for Hannibal . . . it was for
himself. Maggie accepted him immediately, but didn't offer any sympathy,
feeling that Face -- like Hannibal -- wouldn't want it. Within a few
minutes, they had worked out a plan to meet in Sacramento and on hanging up
the phone, she'd cried out all her grief before beginning her preparations.
It would be her only chance.

Maggie had fretted throughout the seminar. Although it had been very
interesting and had had good speakers, her mind had continued to worry
about Face the whole time. How advanced was his illness? What if they
missed each other in the station? What the hell was she going to do? When
she'd spotted him standing in the station, more casually dressed than she
could ever remember seeing him, a battered overnight bag hanging off one
shoulder, Maggie couldn't describe the texture of her feelings. Angry,
relieved, worried, delighted, sad -- they all fitted somehow. She'd hidden
her internal conflict by grabbing him up in a bear hug, one that he'd
returned after a couple seconds, and had brought him home to Bad Rock after
the seminar had finished.

She'd set down the rules from the get-go. After submitting to a physical
examination and a treatment plan better described as preventative medicine,
Face was given a firm schedule to keep since having his day structured
should help ward off depression. At least, that was what her colleagues had
said. Face had to continue to feel useful, to feel as if he had a purpose,
even if it was only little jobs he was performing. Maggie recalled her own
astonishment at discovering his facility with mathematics and when he
admitted that, had things gone differently, he had planned on medical
training. That was when she'd begun training him as an assistant, and
transferred responsibility for book-balancing to his shoulders. It was
something of a relief to know that she no longer had to worry when house
calls kept her away from home all day and half the night. Face took care of
the animals, too.

In fact, it had been quite a revelation one day to find Face lovingly
hand-feeding the two kittens shortly after he'd brought them home. She'd
thought he would be gone riding most of the afternoon -- as he was most
afternoons -- but he'd come flying in the door, carrying something in
trembling hands, screaming for her help. At first, she feared he'd been
thrown and injured, but her fear had changed to relief and then to anger
when Face had passed over her little patients and told his story. While she
treated them as best as she was able -- she wasn't a vet, after all --
Maggie had listened as Face poured out his fury and grief and frustration
at the waste of life when life was so precious. Later, after the surviving
kittens were safely snuggled under warm blankets with a wrapped-up alarm
clock, she'd held Face while he wept, cracking the mask he'd worn for three
months. He had cried so long, so hard, finally dissolving to hiccups, his
nimble hands balled into fists and pressed tightly into his eyes like a

The rasp of his chair drawing back drew Maggie back to the present. Seeing
that he was about to leave for his morning tasks, she felt that, again, she
needed to ask the question that haunted her dreams. "Have you finished the

His golden hair a little longer than she guessed he liked, Face shook his
head and sighed. "I can't write the letter, Maggie. I just can't do it."

Maggie knew full well that Face could do anything he damn well wanted to,
especially if Hannibal approved of whatever it was. "They have to know,
Face. Hannibal needs to know. Say goodbye at least, please." Another
negative shake of his head, but she spotted the flicker of terror hidden in
the depths of his sea-toned eyes. Not wanting to drive him away by pushing
too hard, she let the topic go and Face escaped outside to the stable.

The rest of the Team didn't know about his condition, Face had said as much
when they'd got back home. At first, she couldn't believe that he'd just
left without telling them like that, but after he'd briefly explained the
situation they were in, his leaving made a little bit of sense. Or so Face
had repeatedly insisted. Face was so certain that the others would reject
him and make him a pariah; Maggie didn't believe it for a minute but
couldn't make Face see her point of view. Sure, Hannibal had bad points --
boy, did he have bad points -- but intolerance wasn't one of them. Hannibal
stuck by his Team and treated them like his own family. Why should this be
any different?

Her course clear, Maggie found a piece of paper and an envelope and looked
up Murdock's address in her book. Last Christmas, she'd received a weird
card -- typical Murdocklian style, she was sure -- from the pilot, and if
she remembered correctly, it had had a Virginia postmark. Sure enough,
there it was, 3000 North Fourth Avenue, Apartment 42 -- Maggie wondered how
long he'd had to look to find an address like that one -- in Alexandria,
Virginia. I'd better hurry if this is to go out today. Settling herself
back in her chair with a fresh cup of coffee, Maggie finished addressing
the envelope and began to write.

                           ******* ******* ******

Shoulders slumped, head down, Murdock trudged exhausted down the crowded
sidewalk along Blackstone Street. Even though he hadn't slept in a couple
days and not well for six months, he'd asked the Big Guy to drop him off
here -- he needed to walk, needed to think, needed to walk and let the
thinking out of his tired mind. Cold rain poured down from coal-black
skies, plastering his clothes to his body, soaking him to the skin,
chilling him to the bone. All in all, the weather matched his mood

Three days.

Three frustrating days lasting whole lifetimes searching for some miniscule
fragment of a clue that would tell them where Faceman had gone. He guessed
it was sorta like chasing after the Holy Grail, always bobbing annoyingly
above your head right in front of your eyes but you just couldn't grab
hold. Only in this case, what they had to work with bore more resemblance
to those nasty little arcade machines in which the player tried to use a
grappling hook to grab and toss a stuffed toy down a chute. You know, the
machines in which the grappler never worked properly and there was never
enough time for the project.

Murdock had always known that Face was incredibly resourceful -- and for
years had feared the day that Face left them for greener pastures -- but
this vanishing act beat any magician he'd ever seen. There were simply no
clues left behind. Maybe he'd been on the wrong cattle trail during the
meeting, off chasing undomesticated aquatic game fowl, and Spookwell really
had been involved. Maybe Face really had been snatched by goons and held
hostage. Murdock sighed, glanced to the sky, and a bright white bolt
flashed sharply down, a ragged gash on the crying sky.

"One-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus, three --" The growl of the gods rolled
across the air. Watching the sky as he walked, Murdock whistled under his
breath. Any closer and I could barbecue on it.

It bothered him that his emotions were so confused. Logically -- and he'd
been struggling to hold back his terror and it frightened him that the old
fears, the old ways, had come back so easily -- he knew that it was
perfectly all right for him to be confused right now. Murdock tried to
examine what little they knew: Stockwell had implied that he'd taken Face,
and, after a few days of considerable stress, Face had disappeared.
Logically, it made sense -- two plus two equals four. But something still
didn't add up . . . like there was a missing number to the equasion . . .
something hidden from view. His proof? It just didn't feel like the right
answer no matter what his brain said.

The morning after the meeting, the Team -- damn, but it felt strange
referring to 'the Team' and not meaning Face -- had dived right into the
investigation, looking for clues, searching for answers. So far, Murdock
had fought the barely irrestible impulse to wear a deerstalker cap while
detecting. It was tempting, though. Murdock grinned briefly at the look BA
would give him; he'd never admit it to anyone but he missed the
affectionate just-mock-angry nicknames. They'd divided the three main
theories and taken each one in stages, working backward from the time of
the meeting. Since he had had more experience with Company men, the colonel
had checked on the theory that Stockwell had made Face an unwilling
hostage. Murdock had seethed to discover the General's opinion of his best
friend, and hadn't been entirely thrilled with Frankie's comments either.
But again, he firmly reminded himself, Frankie has only known Face for not
even a year while the rest of us have known him since 'Nam. Frankie and BA
had accepted the more difficult theory that Face and Stockwell had somehow
reached some kind of deal. Not unsurprisingly, none of them had made much
progress. After all, their only real sources of information were Stockwell
and Face; one had all the sociability of a starving Komodo Dragon and the
other was missing. Hell, Stockwell hadn't even offered them a mission in
almost a week, so chances were that he knew perfectly well what they were
busy doing.

Murdock had challenged himself with his own pet theory -- not really a good
idea, he knew, since he wasn't exactly objective on this one -- but his
progress hadn't been much better. He'd checked at the restaurant, at the
hospital, and with the doctor who’d operated on Face after the shooting.
The hospital had no records on a Templeton Peck, or any other of Face's
many aliases. It was as if he'd never been here at all . . . or as if a
sweeper team had cleaned up and removed the evidence. Remembering the
nurse's facial expression when he'd rattled off one name after another for
her to check, Murdock wanted to laugh, even tried to laugh, but half a sob
came out instead. Forcing down more terror from the deepest depths of his
soul, Murdock struggled to keep his mind on business as he turned onto his
street. Even the doctor was missing. Actually, according to the head
nurse's rather grudging replies, he was on vacation. A vacation that had
started one week ago. That's way too convenient for my liking. This has
Stockwell written all over it. Real Life is never that coincidental.

Having finally reached his building -- God, how he loved his building, it'd
taken him four months to find an address and an apartment he liked, and
Face had teased him unmercifully about it -- Murdock paused at the mailbox
and debated whether or not to pick up his mail. Peering through the little
window in the front of his itty-bitty mail-cubbyhole, he decided that it
looked awfully full. To be sure, he didn't want another repeat of what had
happened a couple of months ago; he'd not picked up his mail for three
weeks and on doing so had found an empty box containing only a barely
polite note from his mailman. He'd had to go down to the Post Office on
Tenth and suffer through a interminable lecture before he'd gotten his

With a sigh, he worked the little combination lock and pulled out about
three dozen letters. Murdock grimly began to sort through them as he
trudged up the stairs to his fourth-floor apartment. Bill, bill, bill,
Audubon Society, you-may-have-won-one-million-dollars, sure, right, spin
the wheel and buy a clue, a have-you-registered-to-vote-yet flyer, oh
thanks a lot. . . . He unlocked the door to his place and disconnected the
other little surprises secreted there for unwanted intruders. Dropping into
a chair at the kitchen table, the pilot continued to sort through the
letters in sleepy silence until one of them caught his eye, causing him to
leap to his feet so quickly that his chair overturned with a clatter on the
floor behind him.

Maggie . . . you don't suppose . . . .

Murdock tore open the letter with trembling hands and read over its words
as fast as his brain could force the meaning through the haze settling over
his mind. He stuffed the letter, envelope and all, into a plastic baggie,
and stowed it carefully into an inside pocket of his flight jacket. To the
music of thunder and lightning, wind and rain, Murdock locked his apartment
back up, ran back outside into the storm, raised his arms to the sky, threw
back his head, and howled in joy to the heavens.

                          ******* ******* *******

Hannibal sipped wearily at his coffee in the living room and watched the
thunderstorm have its temper tantrum. After dropping Murdock off near his
apartment, BA had come back and gone straight to bed. Frankie had tried to
stay awake but had more or less lost consciousness four hours ago. By now,
Murdock was probably sleeping, or so he hoped. Damn, everyone's sleeping
except me . . . and I can't sleep . . . . In any case, he was fairly sure
that Murdock wasn't sleeping either. That worried him. That worried him a
lot. Out of concern for his friend, Hannibal had continued to surreptiously
watch the pilot, having been dismayed to spot further signs of
deterioration. Murdock was becoming increasingly agitated and Hannibal
feared that if this went on any longer, the younger man would wind up
locked away in the loony bin again. Damn, Face, Hannibal grumbled, why the
hell didn't you realize what this would do to him? He wanted to think that
if Face had left on his own, for whatever reason, that he had had a good
reason for not explaining himself first, for not giving them the chance to
speak, to talk him out of whatever damn fool plan he was working on with

If that was really what was going on . . . and Murdock didn't believe that
was the case. Hannibal trusted the man's instincts, knowing that their
perspicacity had been proven more times and under the worst possible
circumstances to discount them now. The problem was that all their
searching had gotten them exactly nowhere.

So far.

Hannibal had no intentions of giving up on Face. He'd beat the information
out of Stockwell if he had to, pardons or no, but he would have that
information. They would get Face back. If only there were more leads to go
on, to check out, he wouldn't feel so . . . so depressed at this feeling
that all their hard work wasn't going anywhere. Stockwell hadn't so much as
called to gloat so he had had no opportunity to try to needle information
out of him. He'd done his best to get information from the few employees
Stockwell kept around him and some of his own friends from the old days
that could be trusted. Three days and the only thing he'd learned so far
was that Stockwell really was an ex-Company man -- if there was such a
thing -- but what had really gotten his attention was the news that
Stockwell had first belonged to some super-secret spy organization called
U.N.C.L.E. during the sixties. Stockwell -- if that was his real name --
definately had the ability and the contacts to pull off a snatch like this.

BA and Frankie had batted an even zero on their search, finding no
indication that Face had gone willingly. The only thing they'd noticed that
even hinted in this direction was that there was no sign of a struggle, and
Hannibal had trouble imagining Face not even making an attempt at escape
even if held at gunpoint. He would have tried, at least, to leave some kind
of clue. But there was nothing.

Nothing at all.

Murdock's luck had been even worse. The hospital had refused to even
acknowledge they'd ever had Face as a patient and the doctor had vanished,
ostensibly on vacation, but one that began a suspiciously short time before
the Team had become determined to find the truth. Hannibal still couldn't
believe that the hospital had made such a denial; they claimed to find no
records, and after doing a little check of his own, Murdock had confirmed
that none existed. Christ, even the nurses who had later dated Face claimed
that they'd never seen him before. The redhead had even commented that if
she'd ever met such a handsome man, she'd have remembered. Hannibal
chuckled, thinking that he'd always thought Face had a taste for spirited
women. That redhead had had it in spades.

A frantic pounding at the door snapped him upright with a rush of
adrenaline, and Hannibal wheeled around into a defensive position,
wondering if Stockwell was planning another snatch. He was simultaneously
relieved and amazed when Murdock came flying through the door, soaking wet,
splattering water everywhere. Laughing in near hysteria, the lanky pilot
slid to a stop and crashed to the floor, arms and legs akimbo.

"Murdock? What in the --"

"Hannibal," the younger man shouted, his voice full of glee, and for the
first time in six months, Colonel John 'Hannibal' Smith felt a glimmer of

"Wake up Frankie and BA, Captain! Wherever it is, we're going . . . right
now." As Murdock jubilantly ran up the stairs, singing revised verses to
West Side Story, Hannibal pulled out and lit a cigar. Blowing out the
smoke, his vivid blue eyes sparkling, he looked out the window at the
storm, which appeared to be blowing over although -- if he squinted -- he
could glimpse more black clouds on the horizon. "Hang on, Face," he sighed,
"we're coming to the rescue as fast as we can."

                          ******* ******* *******

Hannibal sighed and leaned back in his seat, trying to work out the cricks
in his lower back. It's painfully obvious that this wagon we rented is not
the van . . . and 'painfully' is the right word for it, he thought wryly.
After all, BA's beloved custom van would have been perfect for the long
ride to Bad Rock from Sacramento.

After waking the others, the Team -- damn but it felt wrong to not include
Face in that description -- had followed his hastily-created plan. Scamming
a plane had been fairly simple -- or it had been with Face in charge of
that area -- but this time Hannibal and Murdock had had to run the scam.
This time, for some reason, it almost hadn't worked, and he'd had the
feeling that somehow, when the scam began falling apart, that Face would
have known just what to say to correct the english on the spin of the scam.

But it had worked, anyway, even if there had been some anxious moments.
Murdock had checked on and found flights that matched their path, so they
could follow them straight in to Sacramento by way of Chicago. While BA had
done his best to hang on to his fear of flying, for Face's sake, Hannibal
had brought the tranquilizer just in case. As it had turned out, it had
been a good thing, too. After an hour of listening to their pilot sing and
quote from Shakespeare and talk endlessly about nothing and everything on
the face of the earth, BA had lost it and taken a drug-induced nap.
Hannibal had recognized the catch in Murdock's voice, recognized the inane
chatter for what it was.


It was an emotion Hannibal recognized in his own soul right now. Why had
Face run away -- it must have been something pretty intense -- and why had
he run to Maggie of all people? He pulled out Murdock's letter from his
jacket pocket and allowed himself to read it . . . again. Somewhere in
Maggie’s sweeping handwriting was the answer to this whole mystery. He just
had to find it.

     'Dear Murdock --

     I guess you and the others have been worrying about
     Face for the last six months. Don't. He's here, in
     Bad Rock, at my house. He doesn't know I've written
     this letter, so he won't be expecting you if you show
     up at our doorstep.

     Don't misunderstand, Murdock. He's been trying to
     write you, but he can't get the words out to tell you
     all why he left. I can't tell you why; that's not my
     place. I can tell you that he left ... in part ...
     because he didn't want to become a burden.

     Tell Hannibal and B.A. that I said hello.

     ~~ Maggie'

The letter wasn't much help. It said that Face had left 'because he didn't
want to become a burden' . . . he'd never considered Face a burden. But
maybe Stockwell did, Hannibal thought, considering the General's commments
over the past six months. The note also implied that Maggie didn't want
them to come by her house; no, she'd written 'our doorstep' which meant
that Face was staying there, as if he'd moved in with her. Face and Maggie
together? Hannibal didn't think it was likely, but that was what was
implied. Well, expected or not, wanted or not, they were coming to get the
answers straight from the horse's mouth.

Hannibal wasn't looking forward to his reunion with Maggie. Their
relationship had always been rocky -- hell, most of his relationships
outside of the Team had that in common -- but this had beat all of them in
that department. He was certain that the two of them simply didn't get
along because they were simply too much alike. Two intense personalities
like himself and Maggie were bound to clash and conflict on a regular
basis. And regular it had been since their arguments centered around the
same topic. It had always happened the same way. Hannibal would be visiting
her in Bad Rock for the weekend when a new case would come up and he would
have to drive back to LA. He would want to leave but Maggie would want him
to stay. Inevitably, they would argue bitterly, flinging insults and
heartaches at each other, until he finally grabbed his bag and left,
slamming the door as he went. And, inevitably, he would go back to her and
she would welcome him back into her life. The break had come a couple weeks
before they'd taken Frankie's 'case' -- and Hannibal now occasionally
wondered if that had been why he had rushed into what now, with hindsight,
was so obviously a trap -- and they'd fought again for the last time.

"There's the Bad Rock exit," he heard BA say from his left in the driver's
seat. "Five miles." Five miles, Hannibal thought. He and the Team were
going back to Bad Rock. Hannibal wasn't looking forward to this. Not at

                            ****** ****** ******

Maggie wasn't looking forward to this. Not at all. While she'd realized
when she wrote the letter that Hannibal would probably come charging back
as soon as he knew where Face was, now that the letter was out of her
hands, beyond her ability to retrieve it and tear it to shreds, she
couldn't help but wonder if it had been the right thing to do. She'd
regretted it as soon as the envelope left her fingers and tumbled down into
the outgoing mail slot. Yes, Hannibal and BA and Murdock needed to know
that Face hadn't dropped off the face of the earth. Yes, they deserved to
know that Face was dying, deserved to have the opportunity to say goodbye.
But would Face able to cope with it? If he hadn't been able to give them
the news in a letter, what made her think that giving them the news in
person would be any easier?

Hopefully, they would show up -- and they would show up, she was certain of
it -- while Face was out riding. He'd been gone most of the afternoon, and
was due back any minute. She wanted the others long gone by the time he got
back. She didn't want Face to do anything stupid; he hadn't mentioned it,
but she knew that this illness was damnably hard on his self-esteem. She
also knew that he was saving the idea of suicide as a last resort, so that
if things got so bad and he just couldn't cope, he had a way out of the
pain. Maggie sighed, thinking that maybe Hannibal would read the unwritten
message not to come . . . but she wouldn't bet on it.

It was so damned nerve-wracking, waiting for Smith to show up and turn her
life topsy-turvy again. That was the allure of the Hannibal Paradox, as
she'd thought of it; life with him was marvelous and exciting and a myriad
of new experiences, but the ride flew out of control too often for comfort.
Maggie had admitted to herself that no matter how much fun the super-duper
high-speed roller-coaster with the triple twist was to ride a few times she
wouldn't want to live there. And that was exactly what had been happening.
The trouble was that Hannibal was addicting and she had been a junkie. It'd
taken her two years, maybe longer, to break the habit and now that she was
clean he was going to show right up again.

It just wasn't fair.

Peering into the distance, Maggie could see Face riding across the field,
Captain loping at a nice slow smooth pace. She'd never realized that he
could ride before and wondered how many other talents hid beneath the
pretty exterior, wondered how many of those talents Hannibal even knew
existed. Her eye caught by a metallic gleam, Maggie pressed one hand above
her eyes and squinted at the road turning the corner from the highway exit.
Damn, damn, damn!! So help me, Hannibal Smith . . . . Belatedly, she
realized where Face and Captain were in relation to the oncoming car.
Stunned, Maggie watched as the wagon screeched to a stop, sending dirt
flying, as the big palomino spooked, spinning and rearing, as the horse's
rider, caught by surprise, fought to maintain control of the flighty animal
and failed, crashing to the hard ground to lay unmoving on the earth.

Swearing a blue streak that would make a Marine blush, Maggie grabbed her
bag and ran toward the scene, watching car doors open on the wagon. The
unmistakable forms of BA, Murdock, and Hannibal appeared . . . and a thin
guy she didn't recognize was with them. Maybe that was another reason why
Face left, Maggie thought, as she ran toward them, maybe he felt his
position in the Team was threatened. It sounded likely; she'd never met
anyone with more insecurities than Templeton Peck.

Finally reaching her destination, she ignored Murdock's cheery-but-worried
greeting, pushed Smith and Baracus out of the way where they were kneeling,
their faces tight with concern, and dropped to her knees next to the prone
body. Having noticed that the pilot had grabbed the horse's reins and had
managed to soothe the gelding, Maggie pulled on double gloves, just in
case, and devoted all her attention to her resident patient. No broken
bones, he's got a pulse and he's breathing . . . nasty bruise on his
temple, but no blood . . . the fall probably just knocked the wind out of
him but maybe a concussion too . . . . Satisfied, Maggie rose to her feet
and decided it was time to take control of the situation. "Murdock, could
you do me a favor?"

"Sure, doc. Whatcha need?"

Maggie grinned, against her will and better judgment; Murdock hadn't
changed an iota. "Could you take Captain for a short ride and then bring
him back to the stable in back of my house?" She paused. "Don't worry, Face
is just knocked out, he'll be fine." At least, that's all I can tell you
right now . . . .

The pilot's eyes grew huge. "Captain?" Murdock squealed with glee, and
swung merrily aboard the tall palomino's back. The horse snorted warily at
him but assented, and the two of them jogged off for points unknown.

Shaking her head, she bent down to check Face's breathing again, and glared
up at the remaining three men, who were staring at her as if they'd never
seen her before. "Well? Are you going to help or not?" BA was again
immediately at her side, lifting Face like a child into his arms. After
securing him into the back seat, the group settled into the car and drove
down the street to Maggie's house. The thin man took charge of the car,
while BA -- still carrying Face -- and Hannibal followed Maggie into the
office. She led BA to Face's room and directed him to put his charge on the
bed. After doing so, he left the room . . . no doubt to inform Hannibal
that Face had his own room and had lost a lot of weight. She covered him up
with a blanket and sighed. Here's luck, for both of us, she thought,
caressing his cheek with a finger.

Returning to the living room, Maggie decided that finding Smith standing in
the middle of the room with that look on his face wasn't exactly a good
omen. As soon as he opened his mouth to speak, she held up a hand to stop
him. "Not a word, Hannibal," she said in her best don't-mess-with-me tone,
"not one word."

To her surprise, Hannibal said nothing, but just sank down on the couch,
his eyes flashing with the annoyance he didn't express. When he rubbed one
hand across his face, Maggie realized just how tired he was, just how much
a toll this had taken on him. Deciding she needed to see him privately, she
turned to BA and the other man. "Guys? Can you go see if Murdock is back
yet? I need to speak with Hannibal alone for a few minutes." To his credit,
BA said nothing, just nodded solemnly at her, and left, hurrying the thin
man out in front of him.

When they had gone, Hannibal spoke. "Sorry about that, Maggie. I forgot to
introduce you -- our new guy is Frankie Santana. He joined up . . . oh,
maybe a year ago."

"I'd wondered who he was." She decided that this wasn't the time to bring
up her own thoughts surrounding the new addition to the Team. "Hannibal,
although I expected to see you . . . I hoped you wouldn't come here."

"I know."

"Then why did you --" Annoyed, Maggie shook her head, her dark hair flying
about her face, and struggled to control her temper. "Do you realize what
this might do to Face?"

"Do you realize what not having Face around has done to us?"

Now exasperated, Maggie really didn't want to be having this discussion.
"Face may not have left for a very sensible reason, but he left because he
didn't want any of you involved . . . he didn't want to be in the way . . .

"I don't believe he left because of pride. What else?"

Slamming her fist down on the nearest table, Maggie felt her patience
overload and all her anger came bubbling up to the surface. "Dammit,
Hannibal, I am not going to discuss this with you!!"

He leapt to his feet and stood so close to her that she could smell the
faint scent of those damned cigars, could smell his aftershave, could smell
the faint scent of him underneath it all. "Then let's discuss something
else, shall we? Like why you threw me out on my ear?" Clearly Hannibal's
own patience was gone, but no doubt it had suffered a great deal over the
past several months.

"I did not throw you out!! You left, and I got used to having you gone."
Dammit, the coaster was spinning out of control again.

"I recall your exact words were 'if you leave now, don't come back', and
you don't consider that 'being thrown out'?" His blue eyes flashed like
lightning and, for a moment, she thought she'd been struck from the flutter
in her heart.

"I told you that the past few times, and you always came back. I was almost
glad you were gone --" Maggie felt her voice crack, and fought to control
the tears she felt lurking beneath the surface, fought to hold on to the
powerful anger throbbing through her tormented soul. "-- Because I finally
got used to a nice", breathe, "sane", breathe, "normal life." She looked at
him, seeing the startled gaze in those oh-so-expressive eyes, and smiled
faintly. Her voice dropped to almost a whisper, sadly mourning the death of
her rage. "I almost lost my addiction to the jazz."

Hannibal sighed and gathered her into his arms for a gentle hug. "That's
something you never lose, Mags. The jazz works its way into your blood and
it never goes away."

She sighed and pulled away, changing the subject away from her own
feelings, deciding that they had plenty of time to work out their twisted
relationship, time that Face didn't have. "You're here to talk about Face.
Hannibal, I don't have that right . . . ."

"That's all right, Maggie." Hannibal sat back down in the seat he'd
recently left, and saw the rest of the Team returning to the living room.
BA was shaking his head in mock-disgust at a jubilant Murdock's antics, and
Frankie followed along after, clearly wondering what the hell was going on
here. "That's all right," he repeated, feeling that, for once, things were
going the way they were supposed to go. "We can wait."

                            ****** ****** ******

Face drifted back to consciousness, attempted to move his head in order to
get his right hand up so that he could rub his blurry eyes, and immediately
found the concept of moving to be a bad idea. A very bad idea. If he so
much as shifted position, his whole body trembled and threatened to split
in half, beginning with the steel barb impaled within his lower back. On
the other hand, if he remained still, his head tried to float away on a
wave of pain, never to return, drowning his ability to think.

He wasn't certain exactly what had happened. Captain had been very spooky
that afternoon -- privately he wondered if the grateful patient had given
the animal to Maggie because the horse was such a flake -- and had been
jumping away from rocks on the trail, for God's sake. Riding this horse
wasn't just a job or an adventure, it was an exercise plan. He'd been on
constant alert since they'd set out earlier that afternoon, watching for
potential and imaginary monsters that would gobble up horse and rider. As
they'd gotten closer to home, though, Captain'd calmed down, so he'd
relaxed in the saddle, easy to do when a horse had such a sweet long gait.

Bad move.

He hadn't expected the car to fly around the corner out of nowhere, and he
knew he wasn't dead. At least, Face didn't think he was dead; personally,
he hoped that the afterlife wouldn't hurt quite so damn much. Besides, why
should the afterlife look like his room at Maggie's? That was just too
unlikely, so he preferred to believe that he was alive . . . barely . . .
and in his room at Maggie's. Face assumed that the fact that he was in bed
meant that Captain was safe and sound in his stall. At least, he hoped so;
he'd grown fond of the horse. He'd have to remember to ask. A muzzle
nudging his hip announced Henry's arrival; the basset hound was standing on
his rear legs, balancing his fore quarters on the bed to reach one of his
favorite people. Face tried to move to pet the dog, but groaned at the
resulting throb of pain.

To his relief, Maggie entered and sat on the bed next to him, displacing
Henry to the floor. Face peered up at her hopefully, wondering if she had
some aspirin. Reading his thoughts, she grinned and opened the fist of one
hand to reveal three small tablets. Face sighed and swallowed them dry, a
skill learned in Vietnam.

"Feeling better?"

Face considered the question for a moment. "I guess."

"I hope so," her eyes were serious, flicking between him and the floor,
"because we have company."

Company? He felt a fist wrap around his heart, squeezing the blood out of
it, replacing the warmth with cold ice that spread throughout his veins.
"Oh . . . no . . . ." Face felt himself begin to shake in fear. The Team
had tracked him down, a nightmare out of the back of his mind. What do I do
now? What do I say?

"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to." Maggie's voice was
soft and gentle and encouraging, ensuring that no one else would hear their
conversation. "If you want to talk to them, I'll be right here if you need
me." Face couldn't bring himself to speak, so he just nodded. Better to get
this circus over with as soon as possible, he decided, so they could get on
with their lives and he could get on with his death.

She helped him to his feet, and she led him out into the living room, Henry
following at their heels. Face refused to look at any of them; he knew what
he looked like, he knew what they were thinking. He just settled himself in
the chair, and waited for a cat to find his lap as they always did. He sat
there for several minutes, trying to figure out where to begin. Should he
simply tell them the news and give them the details if they asked, assuming
they stayed around long enough to ask? Or should he start with how he left
and get to why later?

Hannibal cut his self-introspection short. "Face . . . you disappeared six
months ago . . . we've been worried about you." He sounded concerned, but
Face read the unspoken question in his tone: why did you leave and it
better be worth all this trouble. Anxiously twisting the tie on his
windbreaker, Face tried again to put his feelings into words and failed.
Hannibal tried again. "Face, please," he'd never heard that before from
Hannibal, "tell us, whatever it is, why did you leave us?" Face struggled
with the words that wouldn't come, stuck somewhere inbetween his mind and
his throat, wishing someone would pound him on the back and force the
sounds out of his mouth.

"Please?" Face heard the sob in Murdock's voice, heard the pleading tone of
his best friend in the world, heard the suffering of the past six months
that he'd caused without so intending. That broke the barrier, and Face
bent over in his chair, pressing his hands tightly to his face, and cried.

From the feel of the battered leather jacket against his cheek, Murdock
reached him first, swept him up into a hug, and held him while he bawled.
This was so embarassing . . . he wanted to get control back . . . control
of anything . . . . He didn't cry long, just long enough to feel totally
humiliated, so what else was new lately.

But I still don't want to tell them, he thought, wiping his eyes with the
back of his hand. Murdock backed off, dropped to the floor, and leaned
against him, resting his chin on Face's left knee. "I . . . I . . . ." He
swallowed hard and paused, thinking that this was the toughest thing he'd
ever had to do. "I left because . . . I didn't want to be a burden to you .
. . ." Face felt Maggie's movement from behind his chair and guessed she'd
motioned to stop Hannibal's protests. "I left because I'm . . . going to
die." There, he'd said it . . . well, not quite. "I left because I have
AIDS . . . ."

                          ****** ******* *******

Murdock couldn't believe what he'd just heard. He froze, staring blankly up
at Face, willing himself not to believe it, wishing mightily that this was
some really twisted nightmare, hearing in the distance the shattering of a
heart. The sudden movement of his pillow-perch jerked him back to Reality,
and he realized that Face had left the room, having no doubt run back to
his room to have a good cry where no one could see him.

He looked up into Maggie's eyes, and read the truth in them. This was no
bad joke. This wasn't even a rotten nightmare. This was Real. From the
silence in the room, everyone else was having trouble coming to terms with
the news too. He couldn't lose Face, they couldn't lose Face, not now, not
after all the shit they'd been through together. Christ, if they could
survive the death camp, this shouldn't be any different.


But he wasn't an idiot, he'd seen the news articles, he'd read the reports.
But for this to happen to Face? Yes, Face changed girlfriends frequently,
but . . . . Murdock took a deep breath. Don't be stupid, Murdock, Face
needs you. In the background, he heard Hannibal asking questions, but
Murdock didn't care much about the answers; he cared about Face. Nothing
else mattered.

Murdock had noticed the 'don't come' implicit in Maggie's letter and had
wondered then what it meant. He'd thought that Face was just cutting loose
because he was tired of being ordered around by a spook in a jet. After
all, that was partly the reason Face had tried to leave last time. But now,
the invisible message made sense; Maggie had tried to keep them away
because she knew that Face was afraid and ashamed. Murdock knew all about
fear and shame; they'd all drunk deeply of it, thanks to General Chao. This
disease, though, had a different taste to it, one that drove away friends
and family. Murdock didn't want that to happen here.

He'd tried to cover up his fear of what they would find all the way here,
tried to keep his mind occupied with anything and everything else, tried
not to think about what kind of mess with which Face had gotten involved.
He hadn't expected this, though. When he'd realized the figure falling from
the horse was Face, he'd felt so many emotions all at once. Relief that he
was okay, fear that he would be hurt, anger that he'd left in the first
place, and shock at how thin Face had gotten. Shortly after that, Murdock
thought he'd come to the realization that Face was ill . . . and had gotten
angry that he'd left because of that. Of course, he'd thought Face had had
cancer; after all, they'd all been exposed to Agent Orange, had been
exposed numerous times, so that news wouldn't really have been too much of
a shock.

Not as much as this was.


Murdock pulled himself to his feet and walked with unsteady legs into
Face's room to speak to him privately. Pushing open the door, he spotted
Face curled up in a little ball under the window, sobbing brokenly for all
he was worth. At that moment, Murdock wished he could wave a magic wand and
take it all away, make everything the way it was, when they were young and
new and fresh and untouched by war and pain and suffering. When they hadn't
been touched by the sweet smell of approaching death.

He silently crept over to his best friend's side and gently touched his
shoulder. Face turned to him, rumpled, dirty, looking like he'd had his
heart and soul torn out by the roots, tears running down his cheeks.
Murdock thought it was the most beautiful picture he'd ever seen -- Face
was alive . . . sick . . . but alive, and that was all that mattered. He
pulled Face into a hug, which was returned, tentatively at first, but got
stronger as the contact continued. Finally, Face released the bear hug, and
allowed Murdock to hug him again. "Listen up, Faceyguy," he said softly in
all seriousness, "and listen up good. You and me and Hannibal and BA, we're
family. We're a Team and a Team sticks together." Murdock hugged him again,
and was delighted to hear a sniffled weak affirmative response. "Come on,
let's go see what Hannibal says . . . betcha he says the same thing to
you." He scrambled to his feet, helped Face up, and they tottered on shaky
legs and shakier hearts back to the living room.

Hannibal sat there, right where he'd been before, smoking a cigar, and the
others sat gathered around him. They all wore identical looks on their
faces, sort of a determined look like the one Matt Dillon wore when he was
facing down the bad-guys-of-the-week. Spotting that look, Face stopped, his
eyes narrowing in fear and worry, but Murdock would have none of it,
pulling incessantly until he was sitting on the other end of the couch and
Face was in the middle next to the colonel. He squeezed his friend's hand,
trying to reassure him, and felt the hand trembling under his own.

Blowing out smoke, Hannibal turned to Face, his eyes raking over his form,
taking in every iota of information. "We've had a talk while you and
Murdock were settling up in there,” the colonel began, his voice firm.
Murdock wasn't surprised by the roughness of his commanding officer's
voice; he knew that Hannibal loved Face like a son and it was no
coincidence that they often took the father-son or the uncle-nephew
positions in scams they ran together. After all, their relationship was
very much like that, so this was a terrible shock to him.

Hell, this was a terrible shock to all of them.

"I have one thing to say to you, Lieutenant," Hannibal continued, his blue
eyes twinkling. "I do not accept desertion from the members of this Team.
We stick together, through hell, high water --"

"-- And the military police," chuckled Face weakly.

Murdock fought to hold back a laugh. He'd come up with that saying a couple
years ago, well before that travesty of justice the military laughingly
called a 'trial', while the Team was on the run and he was still stuck in
the loony bin. Well . . . stuck there most of the time.

"Exactly, Lieutenant," Hannibal said with a smile and a puff of his cigar.
"Now, the six of us are going to hold a meeting -- maybe we'll contact
Stockwell later -- and we are going to figure out what to do. We will think
of a plan . . . there's always a plan to come together."

Murdock leaned over to his friend, pleased with the Team's response, and
saw that all of them were smiling and crying at the same time. He gripped
the shaking hand of his tired teammate, this man he loved like a brother,
who was his brother in every way except birth, and whispered the words he'd
wanted to say for months. "Welcome back, Face."


Don't forget to feed the Muses!

© 2000