The Price of Survival

An unknown location—

Face awoke to suffocating heat and darkness. He was jammed in a tight space, his arms pinned close to his body and his knees drawn up to his chest. Rough wood pressed against his back, shoulders and legs, telling him that he was in some kind of crate, but the blackness that shrouded his eyes and ears was different. Fabric. Heavy and musty, blocking out all light and an uncomfortable amount of oxygen.

His head felt as if it were full of glue and every inch of him hurt. He wanted desperately to move, but his tiny prison gave him no room even to change the position of his knees. When he tried to pull an arm forward, he discovered that his wrists where tightly bound at the small of his back and jammed between his body and the crate. Another man might have panicked. Face just forced himself to breathe evenly and relax, controlling the flow of adrenaline in his blood and giving himself time to think.

Except that he couldn't think properly. His thoughts limped uselessly around in his skull, while a deep, throbbing, mechanical noise filled the darkness and seemed to penetrate his very bones, hypnotizing him with its steady thrum. Only after long minutes did he recognize it as the sound of an engine. He was in some kind of vehicle a big, powerful one, to judge by the sounds it made. An airplane? A truck? Hannibal would know, or Murdock… Anyone with a functioning brain could figure it out, but his refused to function, and the steady vibration of the floor beneath him was lulling him to sleep. It was too much to resist… the chance to escape the pain in his body and the voice that whispered in the back of his mind that he was in trouble. Very, very big trouble. He slipped into the waiting darkness with barely a struggle.

Sometime later—

When he staggered back to consciousness a second time, he was still in the crate, still hooded and bound, but the world had stopped rumbling and vibrating around him. Some hours had passed, he deduced. His head was clearer but felt as if it had a railroad spike driven through it. He was perishing with thirst and the pain in his limbs had blossomed into full-blown agony.

Now that his brain was back online, it took Face only a few moments to recognize the effects of drugs in his system. So his captors, whoever they were, had drugged him to keep him quiet through a long trip. A very long trip, if the state of his body was any indication. They had reached a stopping point, if not the end of the journey, and with any luck, they'd remember to give him a drink of water before he died of dehydration.

Voices filtered through his hood, their words too blurred to understand, and feet clanged on the metal floor beneath his crate. A shout, some laughter, and the crate abruptly moved to the accompaniment of screeching metal. Face stifled a groan as he was suddenly lifted and swung sideways, jarring his abused limbs painfully. Then the crate began to dip and swing as a group of chattering men carried it away from the vehicle.

Please stop, please stop, Face repeated silently, while his empty stomach heaved and his head threatened to split open like a rotten melon.

Finally, they passed some barrier into a cooler space and dropped the crate. The sickening movement ceased and Face gasped in relief.

More chatter he couldn't understand followed, more laughter, more silent pleas for them to hurry spooling through his head. Then he heard a squeak of metal on wood, a crunching noise, and the voices were suddenly much clearer as the top of his crate vanished. He squirmed uselessly, kicking at the side of the crate, and a voice just above him laughed derisively.

Another voice spoke, giving an order, and Face frowned to himself as he tried to identify the language. It was familiar to him, one he should understand, but recognition eluded him for the moment. The men following the order began tugging at the crate again, making that teeth-grinding squeak, and the wall of wood at Face's back suddenly gave way.

He tried to roll out of the crate, but his legs wouldn't move. He was helpless, trapped, with freedom just inches away, until one of his captors kicked at the unsupported end of the crate and it popped out. His body unknotted, even as he gasped and his eyes filled with tears of pain. The men around him were chattering and congratulating themselves, while the one in charge snapped more orders that Face dimly felt he ought to understand but couldn't.

Hands grabbed him, pulling him away from the remains of the crate and dragging him into a sitting position. Someone tugged off his hood and he drew in a sobbing breath of clear air. He glimpsed a shadowed interior and a number of blurred figures before he instinctively screwed his eyes shut against the light. A hand fastened in his hair, pulling his head back, and another hand shoved the neck of a bottle between his teeth. He didn't fight them. He was too thirsty to care what they were pouring down his throat, as long as it was liquid. When it turned out to be water, he almost wept with gratitude.

He slitted open his eyelids and looked up at the man holding the bottle. His dazed, watering blue eyes met hard, black ones. Then the man snarled a curse, wrenched at his hair, and flung him away. Face just slumped onto his side and lay still, blinking to adjust his vision, and listening to the conversation flying around him.

They were speaking Farsi. He recognized it now, though he could understand only one or two words out of every ten. If he had to guess, he'd say they were Iranian, but he couldn't swear to it, and their clothing gave no clue to their nationality. It was a jumbled mess of Western combat gear, desert camouflage and robes from various tribes. One man wore a grunt's olive drab shirt under a striped burnoose.

As he listened and tried to unravel what they were saying, he let his eyes stray around his new prison. It appeared to be an empty warehouse abig, echoing, metal building with a concrete floor and a line of very dirty windows high up by the roof. He could see nothing in it but the remains of his shipping crate and a few piles of lumber against one wall. The main shipping door was rolled up, letting heat and sunlight pour in, and giving him a glimpse of what lay outside.

A bare, dry, hot expanse of dirt stretched away from the door, with a haze of dust standing above it. More buildings blocked his view to either side, all of them shabby industrial relics. Directly ahead stood the nondescript truck that had brought him here, its back still open, its blank white sides smeared with dirt and pocked with rust. Above and beyond it, he saw a ragged bluff of crumbling stone with dirty-looking scrub clinging to its top.

None of this told Face exactly where he was but it was enough to make one thing perfectly clear—he was not in Los Angeles anymore. Between the terrain, the heat, the language and appearance of his captors, and the length of time he'd been drugged into unconsciousness, he guessed that he must be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. A very long way from home.

Another man came into the warehouse. This one wore a U.S. Army uniform with its patches and insignia removed and carried an M4 propped on his shoulder. A headscarf covered his hair and dark glasses hid his eyes, but there was no mistaking his origins, especially when he opened his mouth to growl an order at his flunkies in Farsi.

In response, two of them dragged Face over to the wall and sat him against the corrugated metal. A medieval-looking iron collar lay on the floor, anchored to a ring set in the concrete by a length of rusted chain. One of them fitted this around Face's neck and fastened it with an equally ancient padlock. The man with the water bottle approached and crouched in front of him. Face eyed him warily, but when he lifted the bottle in a silent offer, he didn't hesitate to nod acceptance.

Much to his relief, the man let him drain the bottle. Then he rose to his feet, dropped a hunk of dry bread on the floor, and sauntered away. The entire mob of them trailed out of the warehouse on the heels of their commander, rolling down the door behind them and leaving Face in darkness.

He was alone, still bound, and not quite hungry enough to eat from the floor without the use of his hands. So there was literally nothing he could do but wait. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the warm metal of the wall and waited for his captors to make another move or for his headache to pass. He had a feeling it was going to be a long wait.

Los Angeles—

Hannibal lowered the phone and stared at it, his expression thoughtful. He had been trying to reach Face all morning with no success, and while he had no particular reason to be upset with his XO for refusing to answer the phone, he was still vaguely irritated. Or was he uneasy? Either way, he was now quite determined to track down the elusive lieutenant, even if it meant breaking in on a highly personal moment.

Flipping screens with deft strokes, he found another familiar number and hit the call button. The line opened on the second ring.

"Hey, Boss Man," Murdock said cheerfully. "What's up?"

"I'm looking for Face. Have you heard from him?"

"Not for a couple of days." The captain sounded perfectly innocent and utterly sincere, which could mean that he had no idea where Face was or that he was hiding the other man in his basement while they plotted the downfall of Western Civilization. It was impossible to tell with those two. "Why? Somethin' wrong?"

"No, I just wanted to check in. You know how Face gets when he has too much time on his hands."

Murdock chuckled. "Yeah. Well, I called him… uhmmm… I guess it was Tuesday. I asked if he wanted to grab some burgers and hang out at the beach, but he said he had a better offer."

"We both know what that means."

Hannibal paused, then they chorussed together, "A woman!"

"So he won't thank you for interrupting him," Murdock added.

"Tuesday was three days ago, Murdock. Even Face wouldn't go off the grid for that long. Not without telling me."

"Maybe the lady has a lot of stamina!"


"Hey, Boss," the captain sounded suddenly worried, telling Hannibal that he really did not know where Face was holed up, "you think he's in trouble?"

"What do you think?"

Murdock hesitated, and Hannibal could almost hear the gears turning in his head as he tried to decide how to respond. Murdock was deeply, furiously loyal to his best friend and would die a hideous death before he betrayed him to Hannibal's wrath. But he also knew that Face was a danger magnet. And when danger came looking for Face, only luck and Hannibal Smith could get him out of it in one piece.

Finally, Murdock said, "Lemme call him. Maybe he'll pick up for me."

"Do that. If you reach him, tell him I want to speak to him—not to chew him out or send him on a job. Just to check in."


The line went dead and Hannibal strolled back toward the window to watch the breakers sliding up the sand and tell himself that he was being paranoid. After all, what kind of trouble could his lieutenant get into on the streets of L.A.? He was a grown man and perfectly capable of taking care of himself…

The phone buzzed for his attention and Hannibal knew without looking that it wasn't Face. Murdock could not possibly have reached him and conveyed Hannibal's message that quickly. He glanced at the screen, saw Murdock's number, and opened the line.

"He didn't pick up," Murdock said without preamble. "I'm gonna call Bosco and ask him to drive me over to Face's penthouse. Have a look around. Maybe the lady wore him out and he's sleeping it off."

"Maybe," Hannibal said, knowing in his gut that it wasn't true. "I'll meet you there."

"See ya, Boss."

Elsewhere in Los Angeles—

Half an hour later, Hannibal stood in the living room of Face's penthouse condo, watching Murdock and B.A. rifle it. The place didn't actually belong to Face—he was occupying it as a favor to the owner, who'd gone to Singapore on business—so they could ignore most of its contents. But they all knew their teammate well enough to recognize the bits and pieces of his life scattered among those of a stranger's, and they knew where to look for clues to his whereabouts.

They found very little. Face's phone, wallet and car keys were gone. His clothes still hung in the closet and filled the dresser in the Master Bedroom. The bed was neatly made, but there was no way to tell when it had last been slept in. The toothbrush standing in a cup on the bathroom counter was dry, as were the towel and washrag hanging on the rack by the shower. The entire place was neat, clean and in perfect order.

Hannibal moved around the living room, scanning walls and furniture with a sharp eye. He found an iPad lying on the coffee table and switched it on. When the lock screen popped up, he tried entering a couple of Face's usual pass codes, the ones he used for the team's devices. The third one worked, and he found himself looking at Google Maps. It showed a section of Westwood.

"What would Face be doing in Westwood?" he called to the men in the bedroom.

Murdock stuck his head through the door, blinked at him, and offered, "Restaurants? Movie theaters?"

"The VA hospital?" B.A. added.

Murdock rolled his eyes. "Oh, that's likely."

"Maybe he's cruisin' campus for co-eds."

"Even less likely," Hannibal said with a chuckle. "Besides, he doesn't need a map for that. UCLA is hard to miss. No, he was looking at a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard and points south."

Murdock was beside him now, frowning at the map and reaching under his red baseball cap to scratch his head. "Hey, has he got that 'find my iPhone' thing turned on?"

"Let's see."

Hannibal tapped his way into the appropriate app and found the right screen. Another few taps, and he found himself once more looking at a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, but this time zoomed in close on a single block. A green marker blinked steadily at them. It was not moving.

Hannibal glanced up to meet Murdock's frowning gaze. The very normalcy of the room had infected them strangely, filling them with worry, and all three teammates now tacitly assumed that Face was in trouble. The beacon on the iPad screen only seemed to underscore that certainty.

With a decisive flick of his wrist, Hannibal snapped the pad closed and broke the stasis that held them all. "Right. Let's go get him. B.A., you're driving."


Wilshire Boulevard was bustling at this time of day—as it was at every time of day—and the three men strolled along the sidewalk to the unending roar of traffic. The van was parked on a side street, it being impossible to do recon from a moving vehicle in this environment. Hannibal had the iPad out and was watching its screen.

As they approached an intersection with a smaller street, he raised his head and said, "This is it."

All three men halted and looked around. They stood a few feet from the southeast corner of the intersection, facing west. A multi-level parking structure towered above them on the left. Across the side street was an office building made of shining, black-flecked granite and smoked glass. To its south was an Italian restaurant. Across Wilshire to the north, Westwood Village began in all its eclectic, over-priced hipness.

"D'you figure he went into the Village?" Murdock asked, his voice small and worried.

"If he did, his phone didn't go with him."

B.A. nodded up at the parking structure. "He could've parked there and left 'is phone in the car."

"That makes more sense," Hannibal agreed, "though why would he leave the phone?"

"Got distracted? More interested in his date than his phone?"

A fleeting, perfunctory smile crossed Hannibal's face then disappeared. He scanned the sidewalk, up and down, with intent eyes.

"You don't think Faceman is hangin' with some lady," B.A. rumbled softly.

"Do you? Do any of us? If we did, we wouldn't be here." He started along the sidewalk toward a city trash bin that stood in the entry to the parking garage. "You two check the bushes along the wall there. If you don't find anything, try inside, along the front of that first line of cars. They may have just dropped it over the wall, hoping no one would see it."

He didn't say who 'they' were. He didn't have to. Murdock and B.A. moved instantly to obey his orders, while Hannibal strode up to the bin. He pried off the metal lid and stood it to one side, then lifted out the plastic bag. A quick check of the empty stone cylinder that held it told him that the phone had not been slipped under the liner, so he spread open the top of the bag and began pulling out wads of paper and discarded Starbuck's cups.

Less than a minute later, he pulled a plain, black iPhone from the depths of the bag and stared down at it, his guts in knots. Of course, it could be anyone's phone. They all looked the same, and Westwood was full of students with too much money and no respect for their belongings. But he knew—he knew—that this phone did not belong to some careless college student.

With barely a moment's hesitation to brace himself, he hit the power button and watched the phone boot up. The lock screen opened. Hannibal typed in the same pass code that had opened the pad, and the phone obligingly responded. He found himself looking at a picture of B.A. and Murdock standing by the van, grinning. Something about that picture—about the fact that the people Face wanted to see every time he turned on his phone were his teammates, not his family or his girlfriend or his dog—made the colonel feel unaccountably sad.

"I found it!" he called, bringing the other two men running.

"In the trashcan?" Murdock panted, as he lurched to a stop at Hannibal's shoulder.

"Yeah. Empty the bag. See if there's anything else of his."

B.A. grabbed the bag and upended it, shaking all the trash out onto the concrete floor, then put it back in the bin and anchored the opening over its edge. While he and Murdock began sorting the trash, putting what they had already checked back into the bin, Hannibal flicked through the phone for clues.

He had just pulled up Face's calendar and scrolled back three days to Tuesday, when Murdock cried, "I got his wallet!"

"And his car keys," B.A. added.

"D'you want us to sort all the paper?" Murdock asked.

"No." Hannibal stared down at the last entry on the calendar, his face grim. "I know where he went."

Both men crowded around him, peering over his shoulder. They read the text on the little screen then, as one, twisted around to stare at the restaurant across the street.

The restaurant—

The maitre'd eyed the three men confronting him with a wariness tinged with curiosity. He was a lean, chiseled specimen, too old for a student but just the right type for a struggling actor or model. He obviously needed this job to pay for groceries and didn't want to get into trouble for talking out of turn. But he was also bored, which made any break in routine welcome, and he was unwilling to risk life and limb by saying no to a man the size of B.A.

"I was working Tuesday's lunch shift," he said, licking his lips nervously. "Eleven to four."

Hannibal lifted his own phone to show the man a picture of Face. "Did you see this man? He would have arrived around one, probably with a woman."

His eyes jumped from the phone to Hannibal to B.A. and he licked his lips again. "Who are you guys? Cops?"

"Just answer the question, man," B.A. growled.

"I'm not supposed to answer questions about our guests unless…"

"Answer it."

This time, there could be no mistaking the threat in the big man's voice or in the way he flexed his powerful muscles beneath the thin t-shirt he wore.

"I… yeah. He was here. Came in with a lady."

"You seem awfully sure," Hannibal said, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Are you just telling me what I want to hear or do you really remember him?"

"I remember! He's… y'know… kinda hard to miss. And his date!" The young man whistled. "Like, six feet tall, gorgeous, supermodel type with legs for days."

"Is that all you remember about them?"

"Well, no." He looked uncertain again, as if they'd asked about something uncomfortable. "It was weird…"

"Weird how?"

"The way he left."

All three men unconsciously took a step closer to the nervous maitre'd.

"How did he leave?" Hannibal demanded.

"He just left. Disappeared. We had to call the lady a cab, 'cause he…"

"He left without his date?"

"That's what I'm saying. She was really pis… uh, sorry. Upset. She thought he'd stuck her with the tab, but he didn't. He paid for lunch, left a fat tip, then went to get the car. That's what he said, anyway. Only he never came back."

Hannibal took a deep breath to calm his racing pulse and asked, "Did you see them during lunch? Were they arguing? Acting strange? Anything that might explain why he didn't come back for her?"

"No, man. I didn't see them, I was out here at the desk the whole time, but we all talked about it in the kitchen after she was gone. Kinda compared notes, 'cause it was so weird. I mean, we've had people run out on their checks, dump their dates, break up with their wives over the tiramisu… you name it, we've seen it. But this guy," he nodded toward the phone and the picture still displayed on it, "didn't do any of that stuff. He was polite to the staff and all charming to his date. The busboy said he just told her to finish her coffee while he got the car. He'd be right back."

"And then what happened?"

"Nothing. He walked out the door."

"Did you see which way he went?"

"I think he headed for the light. If he wanted to park around here, it would have to be in that garage across the street."

"Okay." Hannibal stared at the phone for a minute, thinking hard, then shoved it in his pocket. "That's all you can remember?"

The maitre'd shrugged. "Is he a friend of yours?"

"Yes, and he's missing."

"Sorry, man. He was cool. A gentleman. Know what I mean?"

"I do."

"When they walked up to the door, I thought, this one's gonna be trouble. Rich, good looking guy in a tailored suit with a supermodel on his arm… he's bound to be a bastard, y'know? But he was a real gentleman."

"He always is. Thank you for your help."

Hannibal led the others away, toward the stoplight at the corner, saying nothing until Murdock demanded, "What next, Boss?"

"Find his car. It'll be in the garage."

"How's that gonna help us?"

Hannibal stopped at the corner and pressed the button on the light pole. "It'll prove that he never made it that far."

"We already know that," B.A. pointed out. "We found his car keys."

"Just do it!" Hannibal hissed, as he started across the street. "Get the van. It'll be faster to cruise the garage than to walk it. Is Face still driving the Maserati?"


"Good. There shouldn't be too many of those in a city parking structure, even in Westwood."

They found the Maserati parked on an upper level of the garage. It had a ticket on the windshield, warning that it would be towed if not moved in the next two days, but was otherwise undisturbed. At Hannibal's instructions, B.A. and Murdock stripped it of every sign of their teammate, while Hannibal wiped down every surface that Face might have touched on the inside and out. It took them several minutes to finish and none of them said a word until they were back in the van and cruising Wilshire toward the freeway.

"So they grabbed him somewhere between the restaurant and the parking garage," B.A. said, his eyes skating briefly over to Hannibal before they fixed on the traffic again.

"Or in the garage itself."

"Why dump the phone at the entrance, if they were three levels up? Had to be on the entry level, at least."

"In the stairwell," Murdock cut in. "It's out of sight, with limited room for him to move. Perfect place for an ambush."

"What if he took the elevator?" B.A. asked.

"There was no elevator at the entrance closest to the restaurant," Hannibal said. "Murdock's probably right."

"So now what? D'you figure they have security cameras in those stairwells?"

Hannibal reached into the back seat and retrieved the computer bag that lay on the seat. "They had plenty around the building. I didn't check the stairwell, but there was one right by the door. Head for the safe house, B.A.," he said as he unzipped the bag and pulled out the laptop. "This may take a while."


By the time B.A. pulled into the driveway of the A-Team's Malibu beach house and cut the engine, Hannibal had been working for nearly an hour and wore a scowl of frustration. The three men piled out of the car and trailed into the house, Hannibal bringing up the rear with the laptop open in his hands. He went straight to the counter that separated the kitchen from the Great Room, ignoring the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean outside the windows, and pulled up a stool.

"Start prepping the gear for a mission. I want to be ready to roll the minute we have enough information."

"When's that gonna be, Boss?" Murdock demanded.

"Shut up an' let 'im work, crazy fool," B.A. retorted.

Hannibal said absently, his eyes on the screen, "This is usually Face's job. It's not as easy as it looks."

"I can do it…" Murdock started to reach for the computer but B.A. smacked his hand away.

"Both of you get to work. I'll let you know when I find something."

They reluctantly obeyed, leaving Hannibal alone with the computer and the task he had set himself.

Hours dragged by. The sun slipped down toward the horizon until it blared through the windows and B.A. shut all the blinds. Hannibal plugged in the laptop to recharge the battery but did not shift from his seat or take his eyes off the screen. Finally, as Murdock was heading into the kitchen to contemplate dinner, he passed Hannibal's seat and noticed the video playing on the computer screen.

He gave a whoop of triumph that brought B.A. hurrying over and exclaimed, "You got it!"

"I've found the right camera," Hannibal said, "but the files aren't dated. I have to open them to read the stamp."

He closed the current file and opened another. A fish-eye view of the entrance and door marked 'Stairs' came up. As the video played, a date and time stamp appeared in the lower right corner. Hannibal's mouth tightened with annoyance as he close the file and scanned down the list to choose another.

"That's it!" Murdock crowed, as he caught sight of the date. "Scroll ahead!"

Hannibal bit back a snide retort and dragged the playhead forward. The numbers reset, showing 13:12:26. "Okay. Face went into the restaurant at one, so let's say they take an hour to eat…" He scrolled a little forward, then hit Play and Fast Forward. The video began to run in a jerky, sped-up manner. People trotted through the entry, looking like characters in a Keystone Cops movie, while cars zipped in and out of the driveway just visible on the left.

It was Murdock who noticed the van first. It was parked in the handicapped space just inside the entrance, which was not, in itself, surprising, but it had no Disabled placard or plates showing, no logos on it's flat, white panel, and at least two people sitting inside it. The people barely moved as the minutes sped by until suddenly, at 2:15, the doors popped open and four black-clad figures climbed out.

Hannibal watched, his teeth clenched in grim anticipation, as two men slipped into the stairwell, pulling the door closed behind them, and two others vanished into the shadows to either side of the sunlit entrance. A few seconds later, he saw another figure come sauntering into the frame, utterly recognizable even at this low resolution. It was Face, just as the maitre'd had described him, wearing an immaculate Italian suit and a pair of RayBans. He moved with relaxed confidence, completely at ease and totally unaware of the threat awaiting him in the shadows.

Under the distorting eye of the camera, his teammates saw him pull the stairwell door open and step inside. Seconds passed. Something hit the door hard enough to push it partly open before it slammed again. The two men lurking outside ran for the door and reached it just in time to meet their companions as they came out, carrying Face's limp body between them. He showed no sign of life as they tossed him into the van and climbed in after him. The van backed up to pull out of the space, and Hannibal tapped the screen to freeze the picture with the license plate clearly visible.

"This is where we start."

Somewhere a long way from Los Angeles—

Face sat quietly in the rear of the truck, flanked by guards, listening to the voices that drifted back to him and savoring the warmth of the sun pouring into the chill, metal box of his latest prison. He was barefoot, in his shirtsleeves, his hands still bound and the black hood once more covering his head. It was not an ideal situation by any measure. But after a night on the road, shivering in the back of the truck, he appreciated a few minutes of peace to relax, center himself, and soak up the warmth of the desert sun before he had to face whatever came next.

Footsteps crunched on rough, gravelly dirt and new voices reached him. Voices speaking Arabic. Face felt a hot surge of relief as he realized that he would no longer be so isolated and helpless. If he could understand what his captors wanted, he'd be one step closer to freedom.

"You're late," one voice said coldly. "You promised delivery nearly two weeks ago."

"It took longer than expected. I warned you…" a second voice said, only to be cut off by the first.

"I'm paying you for timely delivery."

"You're paying for specialized merchandise. How and when I provide it is not for you to say."

Face was sure that the second voice belonged to one of his Iranian kidnappers—the one with the M4. He spoke Arabic well but with a marked accent. The owner of the first voice was a native Arabic speaker—a Saudi to judge by his dialect—well educated, cultured, used to commanding instant obedience.

"Have you got it?" the Saudi demanded.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"Show me."

The Iranian gave a piercing whistle. In response, Face's two guards grabbed his arms and dragged him unceremoniously out of the truck. His feet landed on warm dirt full of sharp-edged rocks. He staggered slightly, shying away from the feel of it, until he caught his balance and fell into step between the guards. Together, they covered a dozen yards or more, moving in and out of the shadows cast by buildings or vehicles, and came to a halt in a wide open, sun drenched space. Face planted his feet and waited, his heart beating a trifle faster than usual, but no other sign of stress to betray him.

Feet crunched closer to him. The Iranian barked an order in Farsi, and one of the guards tore Face's shirt open, pulling it down to hang around his bound wrists.

"You see," the Iranian said, "exactly as you ordered."

A hand caught his elbow, forcing him to turn his shoulder toward the voice, and fingertips brushed his Rangers tattoo. He shivered instinctively at the touch, sensing the threat in it in spite of its seeming gentleness.

"You found a soldier, but is it the right one?"

The Iranian snapped another order and the guard plucked the hood from Face's head. He sucked in a deep, grateful breath of free air and squinted against the sudden blaze of sunlight. He could hear the Arab's feet crunching and feel the other man's presence just in front of him, too close for comfort, but he could see only a looming shadow through his narrowed, watering eyes.

"It's the right one," the Iranian insisted. "In prime condition. Undamaged."

"You know the penalty if you're lying to me."

"Would I waste your time or mine with bad merchandise?"

A hand touched Face's chin, tilting his head up slightly, and he opened his eyes wider to get a better look at this new threat. It was a man in his late forties, trim, handsome, perfectly groomed, only just beginning to show his age in the creases around his eyes. He wore a tailored suit in the European style, with a traditional snow-white ghutra covering his hair, and carried a riding crop in one hand. The entire effect, coupled with the faint smile on his lips and the gleam in his eyes, was distinctly ominous.

Face recognized the type instantly and felt a surge of adrenaline burn through him. If he was reading the situation right, this elegant Arab was buying him—he could only assume for what purpose—and the chances that he could get himself out of this before things got ugly were vanishingly small. But Face had beaten the odds more times than he could count and he had no intention of breaking his winning streak now.

Before Face could catch his eye to challenge him, the Saudi let go of his arm, stepped back and turned to the Iranian. "You can go. I'll wire you payment when I'm satisfied."

"Not a chance! This one's much too valuable. If you want him, you pay now."

"It's precisely because he's so valuable that I will not pay until I'm satisfied with the merchandise."

"Do you know what it cost me to get him?!"

"Your fee will more than cover the expense."

"Not if you damage him! I know how you operate, and by the time you're satisfied with the merchandise, it won't be good for anything but fertilizer! I could lose a fortune on this deal!"

"You know I'll pay for damages," the Saudi said dismissively.

"As long as you understand what that means."

"Have I ever cheated you?" The two men stared at each other for a long, burning minute, then the Saudi went on in his arrogant way, "I value our business relationship and I'm willing to pay for top quality goods. If you've delivered what you promised, we'll have no problem."

The Iranian nodded curtly and turned to shout orders at his men. "I expect to have the money in my account by the time I reach the city," he growled at the Saudi.

"You will certainly hear from me by then."

With another nod, he strode away, taking his men with him. Face watched the Iranians go with mixed emotions. He didn't appreciate their treatment of him, but he strongly suspected that they would turn out to be the lesser of two evils. His last vestige of protection was about to disappear over the horizon.

Up to now, Face had been solely focused on the bizarre transaction taking place and had paid no attention to his surroundings, but now, while the Saudi waited in calm silence for the Iranian's to leave, he had a minute to look around him.

He stood in an open patch of ground surrounded by vehicles and a few buildings. The half dozen vehicles ranged from modern SUVs to a vintage World War II troop carrier with an olive drab canvas cover arched over the bed. The buildings had no distinguishable characteristics at all. They seemed more a part of the dun-colored landscape than anything man-made. The only odd touch was a cellphone tower standing next to one of them. When he lifted his eyes to gaze beyond the buildings, he saw that they lay on the outskirts of a small town—not quite out in the wilderness but only a few steps from it.

The men who now held him captive were of a different sort than the ragged band of kidnappers and traffickers who had brought him here. They were all well fed and heavily muscled, dressed in Western-style clothes that resembled uniforms but with traditional Arabic head gear. All of them wore heavy boots—for kicking and stomping, Face guessed—and carried military-grade weapons. Their Saudi leader was the one exception, choosing an expensive suit and Italian leather shoes over a paramilitary uniform. Studying his manner and his absolute authority, Face guessed that he was a tribal sheikh at the very least—a man who held total sway over his patch of sand and the people who lived in it—or possibly a member of the vast Saudi royal family. Either way, he was used to getting what he wanted and rich enough to pay for it.

The Iranians piled into their vehicles and pulled out, headed toward town. As the dust of their departure settled, a handful of Saudi guards surrounded Face, creating a wall of large, uniformed bodies between him and freedom and giving their leader room to approach. Face stood at his ease, poised but not tense, and summoned the confident courage that had served him so well through so many encounters like this one. He was ready for anything.

The Saudi paced around him, sweeping him from head to toe with cold, calculating, black eyes. They rested longest on his face and a gloating smile tilted the fine, bearded lips.

"Lieutenant Templeton Peck." Lifting his riding crop, he caressed Face's cheek and jaw with the leather flap at the tip. "Photographs don't do you justice."

Face held his gaze without flinching and smirked derisively as the crop trailed across his mouth. "What do you use that little thing for? Flogging your camels?"

"You'll find out." They stared at each other for another handful of seconds, weighing each other up. Then the Saudi murmured, his tone bemused, "You're not afraid?"

"I'm not good at fear."

"I can teach you."

Face's smirk widened into an incandescent grin. "You can try."

Delight flared, hot and dangerous, in the Saudi's face. "It will be my pleasure."

Face laughed openly at that, taunting his captor in spite of the warning signals blaring in his head. "You'll have better luck with your camels!"

Without warning, the Saudi lashed out with his crop, slashing it across Face's cheek. It tore the skin like cheap paper, exposing the white of bone for a split second before blood filled the cut and trailed down his face. The lieutenant flinched instinctively away from the brutal lash but made no sound or move to defend himself. The Saudi struck again and again, until Face's cheek was sheeted with blood and his lower lip split open.

When his attacker lowered the weapon to study its effect, Face laughed again and chided, "Careful, you haven't paid for the merchandise yet."

"I'm not satisfied that it's genuine."

With a furious gesture, the Saudi sent his goons hopping. Two of them grabbed Face by his bound arms and half-pushed, half-dragged him over to the rear of the vintage truck. He barely had time to register what was happening and to regret—not for the first time—his unruly tongue, when they slammed him face down over the edge of the lowered tailgate. One man pinned him in place with a hand on the back of his neck, while the other tore off what remained of his clothing. Footsteps crunched in the dirt behind him. He took a deep, calming breath and ordered himself not to react. Not to make a sound. No matter what.

Face had known what was coming the instant he laid eyes on his Saudi buyer. He'd seen that kind of lust and fury in the eyes of captors and torturers before, though he'd always managed to get away before the worst happened. But not this time. Hannibal wasn't coming to save him—no one was—and his only choice was to survive it with his sanity and his dignity intact. It was only pain, after all. Pain and humiliation. And what were they in the grand scheme of things? Nothing… nothing at all…

At the first, hideous, agonizing assault, his control slipped and he uttered a gasp of pain. Then he bit down hard on the inside of his mouth to stifle the next cry and turned his face into the rough boards that lined the tailgate, screwing his eyes shut. He couldn't control his muscles as well as his voice. His body shuddered in pain and revulsion, while his arms jerked fruitlessly against the ropes that bound him. Blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. But still he repeated to himself, in a steady, calming litany, It's only pain. It's only pain.

A hand fastened brutally in his hair and dragged his head back. A low, furious voice hissed in his ear, "I will not be ignored."

The hand slammed his head down with startling strength, crushing the left side of his face into the truck bed. He grunted in pain and dark spots swam before his eyes. Again and again the cruel hand pounded his face against the unyielding wood and metal, until his head exploded with pain and his mind slipped toward unconsciousness.

He must have passed out, because the next thing he knew, a bucket of water struck him full in the face. Spluttering and coughing, he opened his eyes to find himself lying on the ground, soaking wet, with a thicket of legs surrounding him. He squinted up at the nearest figure, recognizing the Saudi by his tailored suit, then turned to spit a mouthful of blood into the puddle by his head.

The Saudi was tapping his riding crop against his leg in annoyance, but at this sign of life from Face, he nodded in satisfaction and snapped at one of his men in Arabic, "Wire the money. And you," he turned on another, "make sure the coals are hot. We need to move out within the hour."

Two men trotted off, while two more hoisted Face to his feet by his bound arms. The Saudi stepped up close to him and once more caressed his cheek with the end of his crop. "Are you still so sure of yourself?" he asked, in English.

Face shrugged. He would have liked to give this sadistic bastard one of his most insolent grins, but every nerve in his face was on fire and he didn't think he could pull off a passable grin in this condition. "It's only pain."

The Saudi laughed softly and delightedly. Switching back to Arabic, he ordered, "Take him to the shed."

The two men who still held Face's arms now marched him toward the nearest building. They did not go inside, but around to the back where a thatched lean-to clung to one sandstone wall. A 50-gallon oil drum stood in the shade of the thatch, full of white-hot coals that smoked and spat ominously. A long, iron pole stuck out of the drum with a wooden grip at the end of it. Face eyed it dubiously as his guards forced him to his knees in the patch of bare dirt just outside the lean-to.

His captor followed them at a leisurely pace, pulling on a pair of elegant, leather gloves as he came. He strolled past Face and up to the oil drum, where he bent over it to examine the contents. With the graceful, precise movements of a man who knew how to savor a moment, he grasped the handle and drew a brand out of the coals.

Face crouched in the dirt, one man holding his arms while another clamped a hand on his neck to keep his head down, and watched the glowing tip of the brand dance before his eyes as the Saudi strolled toward him. He reminded himself that it was only pain, that he would survive this as he had survived what came before it, that no amount of pain could break him. Then searing-hot metal touched him, sinking into the flesh of his left thigh, cooking skin and muscle and filling his head with the stench of burning meat, and he screamed.

He couldn't help himself. The pain was too much to bear in silence, even for him. It ignited his nerve endings, overwhelmed his senses and sent his brain reeling. And it tore a terrible, ragged scream from his throat that never seemed to end. Paralyzed by the hideous, unimaginable pain, he crumpled forward until his forehead touched the dirt, and sucked in a sobbing breath only to have it splinter into another guttural scream.

As suddenly as it had come, the brand withdrew. Face heard it thunk into the dirt beside him but did not react. He still could not move, could not command the use of his limbs or stop the convulsive trembling that gripped him. So he stayed where he was—huddled on his knees, with his forehead resting on the ground and his hands tied at the small of his back—breathing in great, heaving gasps and waiting for his mind and body to realize that he was still alive.

A pair of hands—all too familiar, now—caught his shoulders and pulled him upright. He opened bleared, tear-clogged eyes to find the Saudi crouched in front of him, watching him enigmatically. In a gesture of obscene gentleness, the other man rested one hand against his slashed, bloodied cheek and asked softly,

"Is it still only pain?"

It cost Face an effort to speak, with his throat raw from screaming and his mouth full of blood, but he forced the words out. In another life, he would have said them with a sneer and a baiting laugh, but now they came out in a rough whisper. "Strictly an amateur."

"Oh?" One black brow rose in amusement. "Been sodomized by experts, have you?"

"You lack imagination," Face replied. "And finesse."

That seemed to genuinely irritate the Saudi, and he snapped, "We'll see about that!"

Drawing courage from his success in goading his opponent, Face continued in a stronger voice, "On my last mission in Afghanistan, I was captured and spent two days in the hideout of a Taliban chieftain. Now, there was a guy who understood torture."

His temper quickly back under control, the Saudi rose to his feet and stood looking down at his prisoner, a half-smile on his face. "Torture isn't just about causing pain. It's also about receiving pleasure."

"I noticed that." Face regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then added, "You were the kind of kid who smashed all his toys for fun, weren't you?"

"Only after I'd had my money's worth from them, as you will learn firsthand." He turned to leave, tossing over his shoulder, "And I always enjoyed the smashing as much as the having."

"I'll bet you did," Face muttered, as his attendant goons dragged him to his feet and hustled him toward the ancient truck.

Back in L.A.—

"I've got the information you requested." Sosa's voice had its usual hard edge, but it had something else in it, too. A note of smug triumph.

Hannibal's pulse quickened. "The van?" he demanded, trying to keep the rising excitement out of his voice.

"It turned up at the Van Nuys Airport."

"Shit! That's the busiest airport in the whole country. We'll never trace them from there."

"Relax, Smith." The smugness was blatant now. "I'm not a complete idiot. The truck was rented by a company in Dubai called Desert Treasures, Incorporated. Cute, huh?"

"Not really. Who are they?"

"I couldn't tell you that. In fact, as far as I can tell, they were created solely for the purpose of flying the contents of one vehicle out of Los Angeles."

"Shit," Hannibal said again. "Flying it to where?"

"Rabat." She waited for him to comment, but he was silent, turning over this news in his head and trying to find the pattern that would explain what had happened to his missing XO. When he didn't speak, she went on, "Not directly, of course. They leased a small cargo plane that doesn't have the range to fly from L.A. to the Med in one hop. But I called in some favors from Homeland Security and the boys in Langley, and I tracked them across the U.S. and Europe. They landed at Rabat-Salé about forty-eight hours ago, cleared their cargo through customs, and disappeared. The plane is still on the tarmac."

"What was the cargo?" Hannibal made himself ask, though his teeth were clenched so tightly that he had trouble getting it out.

"It says 'collectibles', whatever the hell that means."

I know what it means, Hannibal thought, but he didn't share it with Sosa. Instead, he cleared his throat and said, "Thank you for your help, Captain. We owe you one."

"You owe me a damned sight more than one, Smith!"

"Fair enough. You know how to reach us."

"Wait," she said, before he could hang up. "Why didn't Face come to me with this? More to the point, why didn't he do it himself? This stuff is pretty routine for him."

"He's busy. Working other angles on the job. And you said yourself, this was a tricky one. You had to call in favors from the Company to sort it all out."

She hesitated, then said, "Let me talk to him."

"He's not here. But I'll have him call you when the op is over." He forced a hint of his usual dry humor into his voice and quipped, "He'll be happy to work off some of our debt."

If she heard the false note in his voice, she didn't call him on it. She merely remarked dryly, "You're all charm, Smith. Stay in touch." Then the line went dead.

Hannibal lowered his phone and turned his eyes on the two men watching him so intently. "Rabat. We'll need a plane."

Murdock's face twitched with distress and his voice scaled up in alarm. "How're we gonna get a plane without Faceman?"

"You'll manage. You were trained by the best, remember?"

"What about passports? And visas? And how're we gonna find him in Morocco?!"

"It's just a sandbox."

"That's one big, damn sandbox," B.A. pointed out somberly.

"And Face is lost in it!" Murdock wailed.

Taking another, closer look at the pilot, Hannibal recognized the frantic gleam in his eyes and the panic bubbling just under the surface. He'd seen it often enough before, but only for those brief minutes or hours when they knew that Face was in some mortal peril but had not yet rescued him from it. This time, rescue was a long way off. Maybe impossible. And the strain of trying to focus, to function, to plan and to act while consumed with fear for his friend was tearing Murdock apart.

Hannibal understood all too well what was happening to him. He'd always known that the very bond that made Face and Murdock such a superlative team might turn on them in the end. Murdock needed Face the way a planet needed its sun—without him, he was only one heartbeat away from spinning out into empty space. Except that Face was more than just a sun. He was a supernova, constantly threatening to destroy itself, and Murdock would be the first satellite consumed by the flames when he finally blew.

All this flashed through Hannibal's mind in the split second it took him to reach out and clasp Murdock's shoulder with one firm hand. His voice was calm and confident, full of a certainty he was a long way from feeling when he said, "We'll find him, son. We'll find him and bring him home."

"How?" Murdock asked plaintively.

"I don't know yet, but I'll have a plan by the time we hit dirt in Morocco."

"You always do," B.A. rumbled, telling Hannibal that he, too, had read Murdock's state of mind and was doing his part to steady him. "Just tell us where to start, Boss."

Hannibal gave him a grateful smile and squeezed Murdock's shoulder. "We start with a plane."

It was a measure of how worried B.A. was that he made no protest at this, merely nodded and headed for the door. "I'm drivin'. You're gettin' the tranquilizers ready."

"Yes," his smile widened into a gleaming grin, "I am."

Somewhere in Morocco—

He was living in Hell. He'd been here before and survived, but this time, he couldn't see a way out. This didn't frighten him, because Face didn't honestly understand fear. It was not an emotion he'd ever experienced. But he was skating perilously close to another unfamiliar emotion—defeat.

He lay in the back of the antique truck, on the road once more, unbound and apparently at liberty. But three soldiers rode with him, two of them seated with their backs to the tailgate, and all of them heavily armed. In his current condition, with no clothing, no weapons, and no place to go should he make it out of the truck alive, he didn't see any advantage in trying to overpower them. So he lay quietly on the jolting, rumbling surface of the truck bed and tried not to think.

His life had taken on an inexorable, brutal pattern. He lay in the truck for countless hours—eating, drinking and sleeping there—while the Saudi's convoy trundled through the desert, going from one bleak camp to the next. They never stayed in one place for long, but the Saudi made the most of what time he had, devoting every minute they were not moving to the task of teaching Face about fear. The lessons were bloody, brutal and degrading. The climax was always the same and the pain never stopped.

Face bore it in grim, stubborn silence, refusing to accept it as anything more than just another kind of torture. He knew from long experience that pain would not kill him and humiliation was all in how you looked at it. But he also knew that he was running out of time. The Saudi would kill him somehow—damage him so badly that he bled out, let one of his goons beat him to death, or simply put a bullet in his head to prevent his friends from rescuing him—and Face found it increasingly difficult to care. He knew that his team was coming for him, but he also knew that he would not survive to see them again. That was all right because it would mean he was out of this Hell, even if he ended up in another one, as the nuns at the orphanage had always warned him that he would. He just wanted it to stop.

The site of the sale—

The little man crouched in the dust at Hannibal's feet, looking more like some kind of desert insect than a human being. He was dressed in a ragged collection of mismatched cloth, with a stained and fraying scarf twisted into a turban around his bald head. Most of his teeth were gone, which allowed his face to collapse and made him look much older than he probably was. His skin was so tanned by the sun that, like the buildings around them, he appeared to have sprouted up out of the landscape.

When B.A. approached him, he cowered away, scuttling on hands and feet together, until he fetched up against Murdock's shins. A mumbled stream of Arabic dribbled out of his mouth that none of them could translate and the captain shoved him none too gently back toward Hannibal.

"I found 'im in that building over there." B.A. pointed to a low, sandstone structure to his left. "Looks like he's living in there. And he's not alone."

Hannibal looked around at the bare space and huddle of crude buildings. They had tracked Face's kidnappers from Rabat-Salé airport to an industrial park on the outskirts of the city to this deserted place, but here the trail seemed to end. The truck that had taken Face from the airport was back in Rabat, sitting empty on a lot owned by a local shipping company, with no record of who had last used it. All they knew for certain was that the truck had come here, and when it returned to Rabat, Face was not in it. But he wasn't here, either, which left them with nothing.

The colonel's keen, frowning eyes dropped to the cowering figure in front of him. He did not for a moment believe that this old man had anything to do with Face's disappearance, but he was so angry and so worried that he didn't have any room left in him for compassion. He needed answers and he would use violence to get them, if necessary.

Summoning up what little Arabic he knew, he said, "Talk to me."

The man looked up at him, then over at B.A., and mumbled something through his folded lips.

"Home?" Hannibal asked, gesturing toward the building where B.A. had found him. "That is home?"

This seemed to frighten the man, and he started jabbering in alarm, waving his stick-thin arms about. Hannibal caught a few words and came to the conclusion that the man was afraid to be found here, afraid that Hannibal would turn him in to some authority and get him thrown off the property.

"No trouble," Hannibal assured him, "no trouble. You live here?"

Slowly, warily, the man nodded.


The wariness turned to open fear again, and another stream of Arabic flowed over the frustrated listeners.

"Damn!" Hannibal muttered. Then, turning to Murdock, he said, "Search the buildings and surrounding areas again. See if you can find…"

A gesture from Murdock cut him off and made him spin around to see another stick-figure creeping toward him. It froze when Hannibal's gaze touched it, and he had a moment to absorb what he saw. This one was a young boy, not quite in his teens, with the same ragged clothing as the old man, but with all his teeth and a full head of filthy black hair that hung around his shoulders. He gazed at Hannibal with large, dark, cautious eyes, his expression blank and his body completely still, until Murdock suddenly broke the tense silence.

"D'you see what he's wearing?"

Hannibal looked again at the boy's clothing, wondering what had caught Murdock's attention, and abruptly realized that he was wearing a tailored dress shirt. One sleeve and the shirttail were badly charred, the expensive fabric was smudged with dirt, but it was still quite recognizable.

Under their massed gazes, the boy tugged at the remaining cuff that hung well down over his thin hand. "I found it."

The three men exchanged a startled look. The boy had spoken English.

Hannibal took a moment to calm his suddenly racing pulse, then he asked in his most pleasant and unthreatening tone, "Where did you find it?"

The boy pointed toward the main building. "They tried to burn it."

"Who did?" The boy shrugged. "Did you see them?"

"No." He pointed to the old man and added, "He did."

The colonel let out his breath in a sigh of relief, smiled at the boy, and motioned for him to come closer. "Please, we won't hurt you. Any of you. We just need to know what happened here."

As the boy shuffled cautiously toward them, Murdock eyed the shirt and muttered to Hannibal, "I'll bet you anything that's Face's."

Hannibal just nodded and dropped to a crouch to bring himself down to the boy's level. He held out his hand, palm open, and waved him still closer, but he didn't venture to touch him. The boy sidled up beside the old man and struck a defiant pose.

"I did not steal the shirt."

"I know you didn't," Hannibal replied, "but we need to find the people who did. You say you didn't see them?"

The boy shook his head and clutched his arms into his sides to protect his valuable new garment from the strangers surrounding him.

"Do you live here?"

He nodded.

"Just the two of you?" When the boy did not answer, Hannibal assured him, as he had the old man, "We don't want to make trouble for you. We just need to find the man who wore that shirt. Will you help us?"

The boy pondered his words, examining them for any concealed threat, and said, "We live here. Three families. In that house." He pointed toward the building where B.A. had first found the old man. "No one knows we are here. When they come, we hide in the mine."

"There's a mine?"

The boy nodded again and gestured toward the desert beyond the buildings.

"The day you found that shirt, you hid in the mine?" That earned another nod. "But this man did not?"

"He cannot climb the ladders. He hides in the shed behind the big house."

"Did he see what happened to the man who wore that shirt?"

The boy regarded Hannibal solemnly for a moment, then turned to the old man and began chattering to him in Arabic. The team listened impatiently, until the boy addressed them again in his terse English.

"Trucks came from the west with many men. They went into the big house and waited."

Hannibal held up a hand to silence him and turned to B.A. "Search that building again for any sign of them. Anything they might have left behind."

B.A. nodded and headed for the building at a trot. Hannibal turned back to the boy. "So they waited in the big house. Then what?"

"Other men came from the city. They talked here. Outside."

"And the man with the shirt?" Hannibal prompted.

The boy conferred with his elder, then said, "He came in a truck from the city. He wore… black cloth on his head. Over his face."

"A hood?" Murdock offered.

"Yes, a hood. His hands were tied like this." He crossed his wrists behind his back.

"So he was their prisoner," Hannibal prompted.

The boy bobbed his head.

"What happened to him?"

The old man mumbled to the boy for a longer stretch, leaving Hannibal and Murdock in suspense. Finally, the boy picked up the story.

"The men from the city brought him. They gave him to the others, then they left. The others put him in their truck and went that way." He waved toward the dirt road that trailed off into the desert to the west.

Hannibal felt a lump of disappointment form in his throat, but he swallowed it ruthlessly and turned his attention to the big corporal who came jogging up to him, a long roll of paper in one hand. B.A. shot a frowning look at the two Arabs, then held out the roll to Hannibal.

"That building must've been the office when the mine was workin'. Now it's full of junk and empty file cabinets. But I found that tacked to the wall."

Hannibal unrolled the paper, handing one corner to Murdock, to find a large-scale map of the region. He quickly identified their location at the northern edge of an area marked with cross-hatching. A series of dots in and around the cross-hatched area were connected by a single, meandering road.

"I figured those are other mines," B.A. said, pointing to one of the dots.

"And this," Hannibal traced the road that ran west from their dot to the next, "is where they took Face. If the other mines have been shut down, like this one, they'd be the perfect place to hide out here! Good work, Corporal!"

Turning back to the boy with renewed hope, Hannibal urged, "Can he tell us anything about these others? Who they were, what they looked like, what kind of truck they had? Anything?"

"They were Arabs but not from here," the boy said, after another murmured conference. "They looked like soldiers. But they acted like…" He said an Arabic word none of them understood, then tried again in English. "Dogs but worse."

"What did they do?!" Murdock demanded, his voice edged with pain.

"He will not say. Only that they put the prisoner in an old truck, very old, from the Desert War."

"Did he see the prisoner's face?" Hannibal ground out.

The boy spoke to the old man and earned a quick, affirmative bob of his head.

Hannibal pulled his phone from his pocket and flicked through the screens to find a picture of Face. Turning it to show the old Arab, he asked, "Is that him?"

The old man stared beadily at the picture for a moment, then glanced up at Hannibal, something unreadable but disturbing in his eyes, and nodded.

"This was the man wearing that shirt?" He pointed to the boy.

Again, the old man bobbed his head on its spindly neck.

"And they tried to burn it?"

The old man spoke, and the boy translated. "They burned everything."

Another mining camp—

The truck rumbled to a stop and stood idling in a cloud of pale, brown dust. Face didn't move until one of the guards nudged him with a booted toe and said, in Arabic, "Come on, get up."

None of the goons spoke English and they had not figured out that Face spoke Arabic. He listened to their candid conversations, collecting intel on his captors that he would not have the chance to share with his teammates, and pretending that he did not understand.

A second guard stirred uncomfortably and interjected, "Leave him. Let him sleep for now."

Face cracked open his eyes to see who had spoken. It was one of his regular guards, a basically decent young man who followed orders without complaint but who clearly took no pleasure in doing it. He was gazing down at his prisoner now, frowning. When he spoke again, he sounded distinctly unhappy.

"How much longer, do you think?"

The first guard shrugged. "A day. Two at the most. He's about had it."

Face let his eyes drift closed again, feigning unconsciousness. He had noticed that none of the goons, even the most crass and brutal of them, ever made a direct reference to their leader's proclivities. They all watched him perform heinous acts that were forbidden by civil and religious law, and some of them helped, but they never said a word to betray that they knew what he was doing to his prisoner. As a result, most of them treated Face as if he were invisible. Only in moments like this, when they chatted among themselves, would they drop sideways comments that revealed any awareness on their part.

"I'm surprised it's taken this long," the first guard added casually. "I thought this one wouldn't last more than a day."

The second man shifted uncomfortably, his weapon scraping against the rough wood of the truck bed. "Don't." Face sneaked another glance at him to read his expression. He was staring glumly down at his prisoner. "Don't make jokes about it."

"Who's joking?"

"Hsst!" the third guard cut in. When the others glanced at him, he twitched his head toward the loose canvas behind him and the visible slice of their latest camp. "He's coming."

Face closed his eyes and struggled to keep his breathing light and even, in spite of the adrenaline pumping through his system. He had learned a number of uncomfortable things from that brief exchange, but one thing gave him a perverse satisfaction, even if he could see no use for it right now. He had an ally among his captors. Lying there, waiting passively for Nemesis to pounce on him, he reflected that it would be nice to have one person around who would be sorry when he died, even if that person was holding him down while the others finished him off.

"Where is my beauty? Get him out!"

He had no time to ponder this further. Nemesis was upon him. Implacable hands grabbed him and dragged him upright. They pushed him out through the canvas so that he half-jumped, half-fell off the end of the tailgate and staggered to catch his balance. Before he had his feet fully under him or his eyes had adjusted to the light, a pair of disgustingly familiar hands caught his head and tilted his face up into the blazing sunlight. His eyes filled with white spots and he shut them tight against the glare.

The Saudi chuckled and lifted one hand to stroke his left cheek. It was a bloody ruin, swollen and blackened, the flesh over his cheekbone crushed and torn from being pounded into the wood liner of the truck bed, but it was revulsion, not pain, that made Face flinch at his touch.

"Not so beautiful now, are you?"

Face tried to dredge up a suitably witty comeback from the recesses of his brain, but before he could, the Saudi silenced him with a kiss. He kept his eyes shut and his teeth clenched, fighting to hold down his rising gorge, until he felt the metal of the tailgate dig into his back and the Saudi's body press against his. In that instant, he heard the guard's voice saying He's about had it, and a sudden flare of incandescent rage consumed him. One moment, he was an exhausted, defeated man waiting to die. In the next, he was a wild creature, cornered and fighting or his life.

He acted without thinking, sinking his teeth into the Saudi's lip and slamming his knee into his groin in the same instant. As the Saudi doubled up in pain, Face snatched the riding crop from his wrist, snapping the leather loop that held it without apparent effort. The guards were totally unprepared and had only just registered that something was wrong when Face struck his tormenter across the face with the crop, opening a red slash from his ear to his mouth. The Saudi was down on his knees, gasping for breath, his face bleeding from multiple wounds when his prisoner struck again, laying his cheek open to the bone.

The guards hit him from two sides, struggling to grab his arms and subdue him, but Face would have none of it. He dropped one man with a single blow, took another in the midriff with a kick, then turned his attention on the Saudi again long enough to strike him with the whip two or three more times. More guards came running, and his usual escort had piled out of the truck by this time. Face knew that he was outnumbered and doomed to failure, but for the first time in endless, hideous days, he felt like himself and he didn't honestly care how this fight ended, so long as he got back just a little of his own first.

His opponents knew without being told that they must not seriously injure the prisoner, no matter how many of them he incapacitated. This gave Face a slight edge, since he had no such compunction and would gladly rip the head off anyone who held still long enough. He grabbed arms and wrenched them half out of their sockets, slammed his fists into jaws and snapped knees with his heels, all the time reveling in the feel of bones breaking at his command. None of these men had ever encountered an enraged Army Ranger with nothing to lose and they had no clue how to deal with him. Even the threat of death only seemed to energize him. When one of the goons jammed a rifle barrel under his chin and ordered him to freeze or die, he laughed, slapped the gun aside and drove its stock into the man's face to explode his nose in a fountain of blood.

Finally, the sheer weight of numbers undid him. The goons started falling on him, first knocking him off his feet, then pinning him to the ground so he could not strike at them. They buried him under a dog pile that gradually sorted itself into six men who restrained his limbs and torso by sitting on him. Two more, furious and embarrassed at having been so soundly beaten by a naked, half-dead, unarmed man, began swearing and kicking him in the ribs, stomach and legs with booted feet. Face, still warmed by the heat of battle, just laughed at them and snarled a few curses in Arabic that made them kick all the harder.

One of them had moved to his head and was trying to batter in his skull when the Saudi finally staggered to his feet and pushed into the crowd.

"Stop!" he bellowed, causing the guard to freeze with his foot drawn back ludicrously. "Leave him to me!"

All the men except the four holding Face's arms and legs drew back. The Saudi motioned for them to get him up, and they pulled him to his knees, how confining his wrists behind his back and leaning heavily on his shoulders. Face glanced around him at the injured goons groaning in the dust, then fixed his tormentor with bright, triumphant eyes and waited for retribution to strike. He knew it would be bloody. Maybe final. It didn't matter. He would die content with the image of the Saudi's slashed face, torn lip and blood-soaked beard before his eyes.

The Saudi knelt in front of Face, smiling a strange, fierce smile and nursing his mangled lip with delicate fingertips. "Do you feel better?" he asked in his cultured English.

Face grinned. "Much!"

"I can see that." He lifted his free hand to stroke Face's cheek, and the lieutenant twitched his head away contemptuously. "You think you've accomplished something. Defied me. Proved yourself, somehow…"

"Nothing that complicated. I just enjoyed kicking your balls up into your throat."

The Saudi's smile hardened. "You are quite outrageously beautiful, and I've enjoyed trying to educate you, but it seems I failed."

Face shrugged in spite of the heavy hands pressing down on his shoulders. "So kill me already. We both know that's what you're going to do and your idea of fun gets old pretty damned fast. I'm bored."

"Are you? Pity. I'm not."

The Saudi lifted his hands to clasp Face's head again, his fingers buried in his hair and his thumbs resting on his cheekbones. Slowly, tauntingly, he leaned in to force another kiss on his prisoner. Face breathed a snort of disgust through his nose and sat, unmoving, radiating nothing but annoyed acceptance and waiting for the Saudi to finish. But the Saudi had other ideas.

He titled Face's head to one side, allowing him to bring their mouths more tightly together, then he slid his thumbs up to press against his eyes. Startled by the touch, Face opened his mouth to protest and the Saudi immediately thrust his tongue between his teeth. Face tried to withdraw, to twist his head away, to free his hands, but he could not. And still the thumbs pressed on his eyes, harder and harder, until he grunted in pain and bit furiously at the other man. The Saudi broke the kiss but did not shift his hold or ease his grip.

"I'm not going to kill you," he hissed, his breath hot on Face's mouth. "But I am going to teach you something."

He pulled Face abruptly into another kiss and, with the same gesture, plunged his thumbs into his eyes. Blood and gore spurted grotesquely over both men, painting their faces a matching black-red and running down the Saudi's arms to stain his white sleeves. Face went rigid with shock, forgetting even to breathe in the first horrifying moment. Then, with his next breath, he uttered a terrible, agonized cry that was half-smothered by his attacker's foul kiss. He tried again to wrench his head away, and this time, the Saudi let him go.

The guards, as stunned as Face by what their leader had done, had backed away to distance themselves from the horror. No one held Face or tried to keep him upright. They simply stared, dumbfounded, as he sank to the ground and lay there, shivering convulsively and breathing in ragged sobs.

The Saudi, too, watched him, but his expression was intent, fascinated, even gloating, and his hands shook slightly with excitement as he wiped them on a snowy white handkerchief. When he was moderately clean, he tossed aside the livid scrap of fabric and rose to his feet.

"Get him up."

The guards moved silently to obey, none of them looking at either their leader or their captive. Face made no attempt to walk, forcing them to drag him a dozen feet to the truck and toss him over the tailgate. He was conscious, though he gave no sign of it, and he knew exactly what was coming. Or he thought he did.

The Saudi moved up behind him, fairly crackling with energy and anticipation, but instead of finishing his gruesome lesson in his usual style, he stepped up to the truck on Face's right. Holding out a hand to the nearest guard, he said, "Knife."

The man scrambled to produce a wicked Bowie knife that he offered to the Saudi hilt first. The Saudi took it.

"Hold him."

The two nearest guards obediently pinned Face's shoulders to the tailgate. The Saudi, his expression fierce and exultant, caught Face's right arm by the wrist, stretched it above his head, and spread the hand flat on the truck bed. Then, with one vicious blow, he drove the knife through his hand and into the wood until it struck metal.

Face jerked in reaction, instinctively trying to pull his hand away, but he made no sound. Not when the Saudi nailed his hand to the floor, not when he cut his back open with the riding crop, not when he purred foul, cloying, possessive obscenities in his ear as he violated him brutally and repeatedly. He simply lay in a spreading pool of his own blood and accepted whatever he was given, knowing that he was finally beaten. He had learned how to fear.

The truck—

Nasser slid over to where the prisoner lay on the thrumming, bouncing floor of the truck. The sky to the East was just beginning to brighten and he could see the injured man's face for the first time in hours. It was impossible to tell if he was awake, but the guard knew he must be thirsty. After all these hours and all the blood he'd lost, he must need water pretty desperately.

Unclipping the canteen from his belt, he unscrewed the top. Then he carefully lifted the prisoner's head and tilted the canteen to his lips.

"What are you doing?" Saif demanded.

"Just giving him some water."

"Are you insane? Don't touch him."

"He'll die if I don't."

"So what?"

"So we can't let him die."

"I can!" Saif was not a bad guy, Nasser knew, just so afraid of the sheikh that he couldn't take a piss without permission.

"The boss won't like it," he said, knowing he was playing on the other man's fears for his own ends but fairly sure that he was right. The sheikh would skin them all alive and stake their flayed bodies out for the buzzards to eat, if they let his pet die of dehydration.

Kamal spoke up from the darkness at the front of the bed, growling with the authority of a seasoned veteran, "Do it."

Concealing his smile of triumph, Nasser bent over the prisoner once more and slid a gentle hand behind his head to lift it. The man was awake and drank the offered water gratefully. When he lifted his shattered right hand to hold the canteen, Nasser murmured, "I got it," in Arabic.

"You speak any English?" Kamal asked.

"No. But he understands." The old timer snorted derisively and Nasser insisted, "He speaks Arabic. Don't you?"

The prisoner did not answer but Nasser wasn't daunted for a moment. The others might see how the boss treated him and assume that he was no more than a pretty toy, but Nasser had seen him fight. He had seen him watching everything, hearing everything. And he had caught his very few mistakes, when he obeyed an order or responded to a remark that he should not have understood. Even the boss hadn't figured it out. But Nasser knew that this too-pretty stranger was smarter and more dangerous than any of them realized. And he understood every word they said.

"It's all right," he said to the silent prisoner, "you don't have to say anything. Here. Have another drink." He offered the canteen again and the prisoner drank until it was nearly empty.

As he lowered the canteen and carefully settled the prisoner's head back on the floor, he murmured, "I'd help you, if I could. I'm sorry about this."

"Shut up, you idiot," Kamal snarled, "and get back to your post."

Nasser obeyed, privately wishing that he had the nerve to ignore the veteran and stay with the prisoner. He was sure, given time, that he could convince the prisoner to trust him and speak to him. Then maybe he'd learn something about this American who so fascinated and frightened their leader.

Most of the whispers among the men said that it was his friends who frightened the sheikh—shadow-soldiers of awesome reputation and seemingly supernatural ability—and Nasser believed that, to a point. Why else would he drag his private army on an endless, pointless trek through the Moroccan desert, so far from home, if not to hide from these deadly hunters? But it wasn't just the hunters who frightened him. It was the man himself. Nasser could see it, even if old-timers like Kamal couldn't.

Nasser didn't like to think about what his leader was. He was dedicated to the service of this rich, powerful, fearsome man and had no choice but to obey him. But the sheikh's secret lusts and perversions disgusted him. He would never understand how a man could find pain or blood attractive. A pretty face, maybe, even a male one. But a battered, bloodied, brutalized one? Why destroy what you found beautiful? It made no sense.

Whether or not he understood, Nasser had to watch it happen time and time again. He didn't let himself remember how many men, of varying ages and nationalities, had fallen victim to the sheikh's lust for pain and blood. Not all were dead. Some had been sold along to new owners and disappeared from Nasser's limited world. He hoped they had survived, maybe even found a way out of bondage. But this one…

This one would die. He could see no way around it. Even if the prisoner had the physical strength to withstand what the sheikh did to him, as had seemed likely until today's horrific performance, the sheikh would never let him survive to be rescued by his friends. And after today, Nasser suspected that the sheikh would kill him, whether or not anyone came looking for him. He was simply having too much fun torturing his prisoner and seemed incapable of restraint.

Why? Nasser wondered. Was it that he was so much more beautiful than any of the others? Smarter? Braver? More dangerous? If the prisoner had broken and begged for mercy, would the sheikh have gone easier on him? It was pointless to speculate on that, since this man was clearly incapable of begging for anything, even when the sheikh gouged his eyes out and nailed his hand to the floor with a knife before…

The young man's mind skated quickly away from that image. The sheikh's rage that afternoon had appalled and terrified him. A rage that turned to lust that demanded blood… It was too sick and hideous to contemplate.

As he sat there in the rumbling truck, headed to yet another desert hideaway and yet another bloody, violent, unbearable scene of torture, Nasser examined his own feelings and wondered how many of the other soldiers agreed with him. He could be entirely alone in his disgust. On the other hand, any or all of the others could feel the same way. He had no way of finding out, since they were all as frightened of the sheikh and as bound by their oaths of obedience as he was. Unfortunately for their prisoner, not one of them would step forward to stop this atrocity and challenge their leader. Not even Nasser.

They stopped a few hours later, parking in a cloud of dust raised by their own tires and the engine sputtering out. The cab doors opened and boots crunched on the rocky dirt. A fist banged on the side panel of the bed. In response, Kamal scrambled out of the truck and dropped the tailgate, Saif following immediately behind him. Nasser came more slowly, crouching on the tailgate to look around.

They were parked at the back of a wide, bare patch of rocky dirt partially ringed by bluffs. A shack with a modern satellite dish mounted on the roof stood at the back of the yard, the only semi-permanent object in the camp. The other trucks were dotted around, with men climbing stiffly out of them. The sheikh climbed out of the cab of the newest vehiclean American SUV that carried his elite guard, most of whom were now sporting bandages or splints. The sheikh looked around, showing Nasser his cut, bruised, swollen face. He no longer looked enraged or excited by his skirmish with the prisoner, only grim and sore. When he spoke, his words were slurred by the damage to his mouth and he barely moved his jaw.

"Fuel up! We move in three hours!"

Some men scrambled for the fuel drums stacked near the shed. Others headed for the shed and the latrines behind it. One climbed out of the SUV and opened its rear door to pull out a case of water bottles, drawing thirsty soldiers like flies to a corpse.

The sheikh eyed them coldly for a moment, then turned his steps inexorably toward the old truck. Nasser pulled back behind the hanging canvas, knowing he would be required to produce the prisoner in another minute.

Crouching over the still figure, he whispered, "He's coming. I'm sorry, but I have to do this."

The prisoner stirred very slightly, then turned his head to orient his savaged features on the young guard. He still said nothing to reveal himself, but Nasser was absolutely sure he understood. Catching his upper arm in one hand, the young guard dragged his prisoner into a sitting position and steadied him until he caught his balance.

"Come on."

But neither man had time to move. The sheikh suddenly loomed up in the opening and reached in to grab the prisoner's ankle. One of his elite guard stepped up beside him, grabbing the same ankle and the prisoner's right wrist, and together, they heaved him unceremoniously out of the truck.

Nasser scrambled out after him just in time to see him hit the ground and crumple up at the sheikh's feet. He looked much worse in the daylight bruised, cut, crusted with blood and gore, barely a visible inch of him that was not injured in some wayand he gave no sign that he realized where he was or what was happening. He simply lay in a crumpled heap on the ground until the sheikh fastened one hand in his hair and dragged him to his feet.

The guards didn't help. They kept their hands on their weapons, nervous after the last time the sheikh had approached his prisoner, but they stepped back and did not interfere. So it was only the sheikh's strength and the sheikh's grip on a fistful of hair that got him up. His legs immediately started to fold, and the sheikh pushed him against the tailgate to keep him upright. He sagged against it, propping one elbow on the lowered platform, and threatened to collapse again.

At that moment, they heard a shout from the shack, and a man in the uniform of the household staff came running out. He trotted up to the sheikh, waving a slip of paper. The sheikh swore under his breath and let the prisoner slump back to the ground as he turned to meet the newcomer.

"From Checkpoint Three, Sir! Urgent!"

The sheikh snatched the paper from his outstretched hand and scanned it rapidly. His swollen lips twisted into a snarl of rage and he spun around to shout at the scattered men, "Emergency evacuation! Strip the camp, break down the communications gear and get the vehicles fueled! We pull out in ten minutes! Move!"

Men who had been trotting and sauntering about suddenly began to run. They understood what as happening, even if the sheikh didn't say it aloud, and their hurry was edged with panic. They had passed a checkpoint. They were coming. The hunter's had picked up their trail.

Nasser did not run, but stood with Kamal, Saif and three of the elite guard, awaiting instructions. He watched the sheikh as he turned back to the man crumpled at his feet, wondering which urge would win out this time—the one to hang onto his prisoner at all costs or the one to save his own skin, cut his losses, and run.

A look of savage fury contorted his features, and he lashed out, kicking the prisoner in the stomach. He struck again and again, seeming overcome with rage, battering his prisoner in the stomach, ribs and back, while his men just watched him in wary silence. Only when the toe of his shoe was splattered with blood and the prisoner was breathing in wheezing gasps did he stop. He leaned heavily against the truck, breathing hard, wearing the intent expression that usually ended in some foul act of violence and degradation, but he had finally run out of time and could not carry this scene to completion.

Whirling on the nearest guard, he held out a hand and snapped, "Your keffiyeh!" The guard blinked at him, startled. "Give it to me!" he snarled.

The man obediently removed the cord that held his headscarf, unlooped the fabric and held it out to him.

The sheikh snatched it and gestured to the prisoner's limp form. "Hold him. If he twitches, I'll cut your balls off!"

The guards scrambled to obey, now thoroughly confused and terrified by their leader's fury, not understanding that it was thwarted lust and disappointment that fueled it. Nasser opted to hold the prisoner's right arm, as much so he could prevent the others from further mangling his injured hand than because he thought the man would fight back. He crouched on the ground, his knee resting lightly on the prisoner's upper arm, clutching his forearm with both hands and surreptitiously keeping his bloodied, shattered palm out of the dirt.

The sheikh once again grabbed a fistful of the prisoner's hair, but this time only to lift his head a few inches. Then he whipped the scarf around his head and face, wrapping it thickly over his ruined eyes, nose and mouth. He was wearing a feral grin, as he twisted it around his neck and fashioned a knot to hold it. Finally, he rose to his feet and stepped disdainfully away from the body.

Nasser's eyes flicked from the sheikh's ugly expression to the prisoner. He could no longer see his face, but he could see how his chest labored as he struggled to breathe and he could hear the painful choking, gasping noises he made. The sheikh heard them too and laughed.

"That should send the right message."

Swallowing the sickness in his throat, Nasser managed to hold his voice level and ask, "What do you want me to do with him, Sir?"

The sheikh glanced around, thinking, then waved at the old truck. "Put him in the truck. You," he pointed to Saif, "strip the cab. We'll leave it here."

Saif nodded and headed for the front of the truck. Nasser stooped to hoist the prisoner's body over his shoulder and sling it into the truck. He kept his movements casual, disdainful, almost lazy, until the sheikh and his remaining entourage turned to leave. Even then, he didn't hurry, afraid that Kamal would be watching, but the veteran soldier did not even glance in his direction.

The moment he knew they were gone, he leapt up onto the truck bed and dragged the prisoner behind the hanging canvas. With shaking hands, he tugged loose the knot and began unwinding the scarf, muttering under his breath,

"I've got it… I'm coming… don't stop fighting now…"

The thick coils covering the other man's mouth fell loose, and he took a deep, shaking breath that turned into a cough. Blood spurted from his mouth and down his chin.

"Just breathe for a minute," Nasser whispered. "I have to wrap you up again, in case he checks on you, but I'll leave it as loose as I can." He did not disturb the folds of fabric covering the man's eyes, not wanting to see the damage up close in the light of day, but he carefully shifted the layers over his nose to help him breath more easily.

Another cough shook the prisoner, and he twisted onto his side to huddle against the rough boards. His right hand lay by his head, the grotesque wound that pierced it showing black and crimson in the dim light. Nasser clasped his wrist, carefully not touching the hand, and said, "I'm sorry. I can only give you a minute…"

The man coughed again, cutting him off, then gagged and spewed still more blood over the wood beneath his head.

"Your friends are coming," Nasser whispered, still holding his wrist as if the touch of a stranger could somehow comfort him. "I don't know how far behind they are but I don't think…"

Before he could finish this thought, the prisoner spoke, choking out his words around the blood that clogged his throat. His voice was low and rough, almost soundless, his diction slurred by the cuts and swelling in his mouth, but his Arabic was flawless.

"Please…. tell Murdock… tell him I tried…"

Nasser jumped as if shocked at the first word, then bent over him anxiously, straining to hear. "I don't understand. Who is Murdock?" he asked, forming the English name awkwardly. "Where will I find him?"

"Tell him… for me," the prisoner said in that same voiceless whisper.

Nasser swallowed the sudden lump of fear in his throat. He didn't know for certain, but he could only guess that this Murdock was one of the men pursuing them—one of the men who would surely kill them all when they found out what they'd done.

"Does… does he speak Arabic?" Nasser whispered.

"Nngh. English."

"Then how…? He won't understand. He'll kill me before I can make him understand."

"English. Speak… English."

Once again, Nasser had to swallow the fear in his throat before he could reply, "Tell me what to say."

The same camp, sometime later—

The truck came over the bluff at full speed, catching air for a few seconds before landing in a plume of dust and a spray of gravel. It slewed sideways down the incline and took off at a ninety-degree angle the instant the tires bit. One man hung out the side door with a military-grade assault rifle held expertly in his hands. The rear doors flew open to expose a second armed man sprawled on the floor of the cargo space, his weapon sweeping the camp as the truck circled its perimeter.

The truck came to a stop in the middle of the bare expanse, idling, and the dust slowly settled. Nothing moved.

From his vantage point at the passenger door, Hannibal swept the camp with narrowed, piercing eyes. It was no more than a flat space among the rugged, sand-colored bluffs. A shack stood at its far edge and a battered, World War II vintage truck was parked a dozen yards away from it. A few old metal drums lay behind the truck, the gutted remains of a fuel dump, and scraps of random trash blew fitfully about in the desert breeze. It was a lonesome, depressing place, and Hannibal could tell at a glance that it was deserted.

Rage and frustration clenched at his stomach. He climbed down from the truck and stood in the open door, glaring at the emptiness as if the very desert were to blame for his disappointment.

"They're gone," B.A. rumbled from the driver's seat. "We missed 'em again."

"Sweep the ground," Hannibal ordered curtly.

B.A. and Murdock obediently hopped out of the vehicle and joined him beside it, clutching their weapons and shooting dark, suspicious looks around them.

"B.A. take the perimeter, Murdock the truck and fuel dump. Look for any signs of when they left or where they went."

Murdock nodded and started for the truck. He had no illusions about what he would find—precisely nothing, he was sure—but he was grateful for something to do. They were all angry, frustrated, afraid, and the hours sitting in the truck with nothing to do but watch the miles of desert creep by only made it worse.

They were losing Face in this vast emptiness. Losing him, letting him down, letting him die…

Murdock clamped down on that thought and quickened his pace, crossing the camp at a trot. As he went, he made note of the tire tracks still visible in the dirt. They had at least three other vehicles, probably more, plenty to haul away their prisoner, his guards and anyone else involved in this atrocity. But who? And why? It wasn't for ransom or leverage or payback. No one had contacted Hannibal to tell him why they had taken his XO. No demands, no threats, no plots slowly revealed. Just four men on a Los Angeles street, grabbing Face, throwing him in a van and… he was gone.

As he reached the old truck, Murdock shook his head to dispel his grim thoughts and forced himself to focus on the present. He had to trust the Old Man. Follow orders. Stay frosty. Above everything, he had to hope or he'd lose his mind for good and all. He couldn't believe that they'd actually lose Face, that he'd disappear or die, that he'd leave his best friend and wingman to fight alone. The thought was simply unbearable. Life without Faceman in it was… well, he couldn't go there and stay sane, so he wouldn't.

Cautiously, all his antennae tuned for trouble, Murdock crept to the cab of the truck and glanced in. Empty. He reversed direction and headed for the tailgate, crouching to stay below sight lines, just in case someone was lurking in the bed. A flap of musty, olive drab canvas hung down from the arched metal frame, flapping against the tailgate in a desultory fashion. He used the muzzle of his rifle to lift it, then craned his neck to peer in.

In the next heartbeat, he had his weapon slung and was fumbling for the catch to lower the gate.

"I've got a body!" he called sharply into his comm.

Hannibal's voice sounded in his ear. "Where?"

"Truck bed!"

The tailgate dropped and Murdock leapt easily onto it. He paused long enough to flip one corner of the hanging canvas up over the frame to let in some light, then he crawled into the truck bed.

A man lay there, naked, his skin heavily streaked with blood that showed black in the shadows. He was half-curled on his left side, with his right hand resting beside his head, the hand crusted with blood and the fingers twisted oddly. His head was wrapped tightly in a scarf, and blood stained the patterned fabric a dull burgundy.

Murdock took in these gruesome details at a glance and felt his gorge rise. They were too late for this one. Then his eyes fell on the man's right arm, clearly visible in a swath of light from the lifted canvas, and resignation blossomed into screaming panic.

"Hannibal! Bosco! I need you!"

Even as he shouted into the microphone at his throat, he was scrambling around to reach the dead man's head. He lifted it gently and tugged at the fabric, hunting for an end or a knot. It came loose and he began unwinding it, all the time babbling frantically,

"No, no, no, no, don't do this to me! No, no, you can't, you can't…"

A shadow loomed up, blocking what light came through the canvas, and Hannibal's voice reached him.

"What's the problem, Captain?"

"It's him! It's Face! Oh, Jesus, don't do this to me!" The layers of fabric peeled away, showing more blood, dark and wet, soaking the folds. "I need some light!"

Hannibal swore vividly and strode around to the side of the truck. A moment later, a knife blade bit into the canvas, splitting it from top to bottom. Hannibal tossed each edge up over the frame, and sunlight poured into the truck, over the body lying inside it.

"Jesus!" Hannibal swore again, as he clambered up to sit astride the metal bulkhead. "Are you sure it's him?"

"The tattoo!" Murdock wailed, "look at the tattoo!"

Hannibal looked and saw the familiar shape of an Army Rangers tattoo beneath the blood on the man's arm. With cold, furious eyes, he raked the body, now easily recognizing his friend and lieutenant, even with his features covered.

B.A. stood at the tailgate, his weapon hanging limply from numb fingers and his eyes glued to his teammate. "Is he dead?" he asked, in a soft, rough voice that made Hannibal's throat close up tight.

At that moment, Murdock tugged the last loop of fabric away from Face's head, and the bloodied corpse lying so still in front of them was suddenly transformed as Face sucked in a ragged, gasping, grateful breath.

"Face!" Murdock shouted joyfully, as B.A. made a choking noise, slapped a hand over his mouth to stifle it, and began to cry.

"B.A., find something to cover him. And get the med kit," Hannibal said.

The corporal nodded and turned away without speaking. Hannibal could see tears streaking his face, but he didn't know if they were tears of relief or horror. He wasn't sure which emotion was foremost in his own mind, either, considering the state of his lieutenant and the likelihood that he wouldn't survive long enough to reach a hospital.

Murdock lifted and turned Face's shoulders to support him, clasping his head with his free hand. "Faceman? It's me. It's Murdock. Talk to me, buddy."

Face just lay there, struggling to breathe, seeming unaware of his friends. His eyes were closed, his lashes thick with blood and gore, his cheeks striped with more blood that ran like tears from beneath his eyelids. When Murdock stroked his face in a gentle, comforting gesture, he only succeeded in wiping a sticky, crimson trail of blood into his hair.

"Face? Please…"

Hannibal uncapped his canteen and handed it to Murdock. "Give him some of this."

"Yeah." Murdock lifted Face's head and tilted the canteen to his split, bloodied lips. "Here ya go, Face. Have a drink."

The first mouthful of water just slopped against his mouth and ran down his chin, but Face accepted the second gratefully. The water seemed to revive him. He tried to lift his head and reached for the canteen, his fingers slipping uselessly across the metal and smearing it with blood.

"I've got it," Murdock chided softly. "You c'n have as much as you want. That's it."

He let Face drink until the injured man's head fell back limply against his supporting arm, then he handed the canteen back to Hannibal and cradled Face's head against his shoulder, crooning, "Okay, it's okay, I gotcha buddy."

"M- Murdock," Face mumbled.

"Yeah." The captain lifted tear-bright eyes to his commander's face and grinned in triumph. "That's right. We're gonna get you outta here, Face. Everything's gonna be okay."

B.A. returned at that moment, clutching a length of fabric in one hand and an olive-drab bag in the other. He held out the fabric to Hannibal, murmuring, "Found this in the shack. We got clothes in the truck, but I thought maybe we should clean 'im up first."

"Thanks, Big Man."

Hannibal unrolled the bundle in his hands to find a traditional robe made of much the same kind of fabric as the head scarf that had nearly smothered Face. He spread it carefully over Face's body, trying not to notice how the lieutenant flinched away from his touch or how quickly the cloth darkened with blood from his many raw, ugly wounds. As he twitched the makeshift blanket into place, he spotted a particularly nasty wound on Face's left thigh—one that had been hidden, crushed into the rough wood of the truck bed, until he rolled over—and he bent to examine it.

"What is that?" B.A. asked in a harsh whisper.

"A brand," Hannibal said. He had to clamp his lips tightly together the moment the words were out of his mouth to control the urge to vomit.

"They branded him?" Hannibal flashed a swift, furious signal at him, and he obediently dropped his voice to a hiss. "What the hell is goin' on, Boss Man?"

Hannibal just shook his head and dropped the edge of the cloth to hide the wound. "We need to clear out of here, boys, before the hostiles return."

Face stirred and, to everyone's surprise, answered him. "They're gone." He choked, then coughed up a mouthful of dark blood that bubbled from between his lips and trickled down his chin. Murdock uttered an incoherent cry of protest and tried to wipe it away with his sleeve, but Face ignored him. His throat now clear enough for speech, he added, "Knew you were coming."

"So they bugged out and left you here? Why?"

Face made a noise in his throat that, under other circumstances, might have been a chuckle. "Guess he… figured he got his money's worth."

Hannibal instantly noticed the change from 'they' to 'he' and felt horror crawl down his spine like dead fingers. "Face, did that son of a bitch buy you?"

"Mm." Face shut his mouth and turned slightly into Murdock's shoulder, prompting the pilot to cradle his head protectively again and shoot a warning glare at his commanding officer.

"All right, kid. We'll get you some help as fast as we can. Murdock will stay with you till we're ready for dust off."

As he clambered down from the truck bed, B.A. met him and caught his arm in a grip made brutal by rage. "So this is some kinda human trafficking deal?" he whispered fiercely. "They bought Faceman like he was a piece of meat?"

"Looks that way."

"Why would they do somethin' like that?"

"Take a good guess."

"Jesus Christ. You gotta be wrong, man. They can't've…"

"You guys nngh… don't have to whisper," Face murmured into Murdock's shoulder. "'S not like I… don't know."

"Face." Hannibal climbed back into the truck and crouched at his lieutenant's shoulder, bending close so he could watch the other man's expression as he spoke. "How much do you remember?"

"All of it."

"Kid," he reached over to stroke Face's hair back from his forehead, his gaze dwelling on the bloody ruin of his eyes. Tears brightened his own. "You said they knew we were coming. Does that mean, they knew we were coming? The A-Team? Or just help of some kind."


"So they know who you are."


"And they knew when they took you? When they…" he stumbled over the word, then forced it out, "sold you?"

"I was a… ss-nngh special order." He swallowed and added in a fading whisper, "Cost extra."

Hannibal's hand rested on his head for a moment, as he fought the urge to scream and swear and howl threats at enemies who could not hear them. Then he gave Face's hair one last stroke and said, with a commendable attempt at control, "Okay, kid. You just rest easy. Murdock'll be right here if you need him."

With that, he hopped down from the truck once more and started for their own vehicle at a trot. B.A. fell into step beside him.

"Let's move, Corporal. We've got to find a hospital fast or all of this will be for nothing."

"How is he still breathin'?" B.A. asked quietly. They reached the truck and he paused, looking back at the vehicle where his friend lay, his expression bleak. "The shape he's in, he shoulda been dead days ago."

"Yeah, but you know Face. It would take a direct hit from a nuclear warhead to kill him. And even that probably wouldn't do it." Hannibal slapped him on one massive shoulder and added, "Don't question it, Big Man. Just be grateful."

"We're still gonna get 'em, aren't we? Once we make sure Faceman is okay? We're gonna get the bastards who did this and make 'em pay?"

Hannibal's expression turned instantly cold and fierce. "Count on it."


Hannibal sat in the quaint, luxurious terrace restaurant, leaning across the table to speak privately to his companion, completely ignoring the spectacular view of the harbor that spread out below them. The other man wore a pale linen suit and dark glasses, looking more like an extra in a '40s movie than what he was—a British Secret Service Agent and expert in the seamier side of politics in the Muslim world. Hannibal had known Agent Cartwright for years, ever since he and Face had helped MI6 bring down a Hungarian gangster back in the early 2000s. Before the A-Team had existed, when Face was a young officer fresh out of Special Forces training and Hannibal's most brilliant, dangerous, unpredictable project.

That had been Cartwright's first solo assignment, and he had the Rangers to thank for its success, a fact which he never forgot. In the years that followed, as he cemented his reputation with MI6 and dug into his preferred hunting ground in the Middle East, he placed his intel and resources at Hannibal's disposal without hesitation. And he knew that the A-Team would come to his aid at a moment's notice, if he asked. He had long since repaid any debt he owed to Hannibal and Face, but their working relationship had long since transcended mere debt. They were friends, bound by respect and a common purpose.

That didn't change when the A-Team was arrested, convicted, and forced into a fugitive existence. Cartwright might shake his head over the idiocy of the American Military Mind, but he never doubted their innocence or that they would continue to fight the good fight. And when Hannibal Smith called him on his private cell phone, asking for a sub rosa meeting in North Africa, he didn't think twice. His friends needed his help, and he was only too willing to give it.

He was already in Gibraltar for a mission briefing, so it was short hop from there to Tangier and the train to Casablanca. He reached the hotel less than twelve hours after Hannibal's call. Now he sat across the little, glass-topped table from Smith, thinking privately that he had never seen the colonel looking worse—rumpled, unshaven, exhausted and fairly seething with tension. But he kept his thoughts to himself, sipped his drink, and asked pleasantly,

"What can I do for you, Hannibal?"

"I need to pick your brain. How much do you know about human trafficking in the Middle East?"

"Plenty, but you'll have to be more specific. Are we talking about child soldiers from Africa? Prostitutes and sex slaves from Eastern Europe? What?"

"Specialty market. For high-end buyers only."

Cartwright's brows rose. "One-offs?" Hannibal nodded. "Country of origin?"

"Whatever the buyer wants. Like I said, it's very specialized." He looked down at his drink, avoiding Cartwright's steady gaze, and said, "The way I understand the operation, the buyer puts in a request and the supplier fills it for him. The riskier the job, the higher the price."

"So, just to be clear, we're not talking about choosing from a stable of starving Ukrainian girls."

"We are not."

"We're talking about snatching someone—virtually anyone—from the street in virtually any city and selling that person to a buyer in the Middle East?"

"That's right. The buyer I'm looking for is a Saudi. Stinking rich, influential, probably a tribal sheikh with unlimited resources and willing to lay out a fortune to keep his sexual practices a secret."

"Whew." He sat back and eyed the other man thoughtfully. "Hannibal, how did you get involved in this?"

"A client."

"A client?" Cartwright echoed, his brows scaling up again.

"If there's anyone who knows what those bastards get up to when no one's looking, it's you," Hannibal insisted, ignoring the disbelief in his tone. "Do you know of anyone who fits the profile?"

"Maybe," Cartwright offered cautiously, "but I need more to go on. You're sure he's Saudi?"


"How do you know?"

"The client identified him."

"And you trust that identification."



"You just have to take my word for it, Ian! The man's a Saudi!"

"All right. What about the suppliers?"

"They spoke Farsi. Probably Iranian."

"Your client recognized the dialect?" Hannibal nodded grimly. "And the person they targeted?"

"American. Caucasian."

"Male or female?"


"Any indication why they chose him? Were they looking for a type or…"

"No. They wanted him, specifically. By name."

Cartwright regarded him in silence for a moment, digesting that, then said, "I take it that he's… a public figure. Visible. Attractive."

"The bastard could have seen him anywhere… the internet, television, news sources…"

"Hannibal." Certainty made his voice soft and rough. "What happened?"

The colonel fixed dark, furious eyes on him and said nothing.

"Tell me. You can trust me."

"It's because I trust you that I'm asking you for help."

"Trust me with the truth." He paused, waiting, unable to say the name that hung so heavily between them. Then he murmured, "You know I'll help any way I can. Is he… you spoke to him, so he's alive?"

Hannibal nodded. "We got there just in time."

"That's something, anyway."

"Precious little, considering what they did to him."

"God help me, I'm sorry." He almost touched Hannibal's arm in a gesture of comfort but thought better of it at the last moment and wrapped both hands around his glass to steady them. "Tell me what happened."

Hannibal took another moment to grapple with his anger and his reluctance to expose one of his boys to an outsider, even a trusted outsider. Then he said flatly, "They grabbed him off the street in Los Angeles. We were between jobs, so we didn't even think to look for him for three days. By then he was already here."

"Did he… witness the transaction?"

"Yes. They spoke Arabic, so he understood every word."

"He would." Cartwright let his breath out slowly, fighting nausea, then asked, "Is he absolutely certain they knew who he was and what kind of risk they were taking in kidnapping a member of the A-Team?"

"They knew. The suppliers assumed I'd be right behind them and made only a token effort to cover the their tracks."

"And the buyer was willing to take possession under those conditions?"

"He considered it a… short term, high yield investment."

"Bloody Hell."

Hannibal's cheek twitched as if he wanted to smile at that but couldn't quite manage it. "He kept moving, stayed in the backcountry, sent out flank guards and spotters, but he knew he couldn't outrun us for long. When we got too close, he cut his losses and bugged out."

"And he just left…" Cartwright found that he still couldn't say the name out loud. "…left him for dead?"

"Yeah. The buyer thought he'd disposed of the evidence, but like so many before him, he didn't realize who he was dealing with."

"The single most stubborn human being in the known universe?" Cartwright offered, one corner of his mouth lifting in a reminiscent smile.

"Exactly. Far too stubborn to die, just because some sadistic bastard with a branding iron tells him to."

Cartwright's face went blank and white. "A branding iron?!"

"Forget I said that." When the Brit just stared at him in shock, Hannibal insisted, "Really. Forget it."

"I can't. Hannibal, how long did it take you to find him?"

"Six days."

"Holy Christ." He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to get his expression under control and dispel the sick horror that clogged his brain. "He actually survived for six days?"

"They weren't trying to kill him through most of it."

"Even so. I knew he was indestructible, but that's…"

"We need to stay on point, here, Ian. Let's find these animals before they target another victim, some unsuspecting civilian who doesn't have a Special Forces unit watching his six."

"You're right, of course. I'll search my files and send you a short list of possibles."

"Thank you. And the suppliers?"

"That may be more difficult, but I'll reach out to my sources and see what I can find."

"We might also be able to squeeze a name out of the buyer, once we have him."

"I'll be delighted to assist you with your squeezing."

Hannibal did finally manage to produce a smile at that. Downing the last of his drink, he prepared to shove back his chair, but Cartwright halted him with an outstretched hand.


The colonel shot him a wary look, as if he knew what was coming—which was distinctly possible, Cartwright reflected.

"Where is he?"


"In what condition?"


"Is that all you're going to tell me?"

"That's all you need to know. All that matters."

"Not to me. Tell me where he is, Hannibal. Unless you think he won't want to see me?"

"I don't honestly think he'll notice, one way or the other."

"It's as bad as that?"

"Six days," Hannibal reminded him softly, "and they left him for dead. Anyone else would be in a body bag."

"Let me see him. Please."

"If that's what you want. But don't say I didn't warn you."

A hospital in Casablanca—

An hour later, Agent Cartwright stood on the hospital ward, his back to a white curtain that isolated this little cubicle from the rest of the room, staring down at the still figure in the bed and wondering what in God's name he had hoped to accomplish by coming here. He had wanted so desperately to help—to do something more tangible than searching his files for sadistic torturers and sexual predators—but he realized the instant he looked at Face that he could do precisely nothing to help him. He didn't even know what to say.

If he had not known that it was Face lying in that bed, he would not have recognized his comrade in arms. Both eyes and half of his face were covered in thick, bloodstained bandages, while the visible half was black with bruises, swollen, and slashed with cuts held closed by stitches and tape. His torso was in the same condition, with hideous bruises spreading from beneath the dressings on his midriff and ribs, and the raw, livid ends of whip cuts curling around his ribcage, hinting at far worse on his back. His right hand lay beside him on a pillow, strapped into a splint and swathed in bandages.

And that was just what Cartwright could see. He didn't let himself think about the wounds he couldn't see or which of those bandages concealed the work of the branding iron. He felt overwhelmed with pity and rage—emotions entirely alien to his professional, detached nature—and knew an irrational impulse to hurt someone.

Embarrassed by his own reaction, he glanced away from the man in the bed to find Murdock staring intently at him. The pilot sat to Face's left, holding his undamaged hand tightly in both of his own. The eyes he fixed on Cartwright were doleful and unnervingly sane.

"I'm sorry," Cartwright said awkwardly, "I didn't mean to intrude. I just…"

"It's okay. Hannibal said you might show up."

Face stirred slightly, the first sign of life he'd given since Cartwright had stepped through the curtain, and turned toward Murdock's voice. His cracked, bloodied lips formed a word or two, but no sound came from them.

Murdock freed one hand to stroke his hair. His voice, when he addressed his injured friend, was a perfect blend of warmth and affection with no hint of the fear or pain he must be feeling in it. "He's not back yet, buddy, but you got another visitor."

Cartwright moved up to where an empty chair stood to Face's right and said, with an attempt at humor, "It's your old friend Double-O Seven."

Murdock chuckled at his use of the playful nickname, while Face took a careful breath and whispered, "Ian."

Cartwright smiled and opened his mouth to respond, but no sooner had Face got the single word out than a cough shook him and dark blood bubbled ominously from between his lips. Murdock snatched a stained cloth from the bedside table—one obviously used for this same purpose before—and wiped away the blood, murmuring, "Take it easy. Just breathe."

Face tried to obey, but another cough jarred his broken ribs and punctured lung, forcing a grunt of pain from him that he tried unsuccessfully to smother. Cartwright watched, frowning, unwilling to leave Murdock to cope with his gravely injured teammate alone but having no idea what to do. Face managed to draw in a breath without coughing, and Murdock put aside the cloth to clasp his head again. Face visibly relaxed at his touch, the tension draining out of him, and tilted his head slightly to rest more securely against Murdock's open palm.

Cartwright bent over to clasp Face's forearm, just above the splint, and said quietly, "Face? I can see you're in good hands and I'm just underfoot, so I'll be off now. But if there's anything you need, anything at all, don't hesitate to ask. Hannibal knows how to reach me."

He straightened up, turning for the open curtain at the foot of the bed, but Face lifted his hand to stop him, uttering a small, wordless protest.

He halted. "Is something wrong?"

Face let his injured hand drop back onto the pillow, swallowed the blood in his throat, and rasped out, "Don't go."

"You want me to stay?"


Cartwright took this as an affirmative and folded himself into the waiting chair. "You should rest. Not try to talk."

Ignoring this piece of unsolicited advice, Face lifted and resettled his head to turn his bandaged gaze toward the agent. Then he took another cautious breath and said in a voiceless whisper, "He told you."

"He didn't have to. I knew the instant he said that his 'client' had identified a Saudi sheikh and a pack of Iranian jackals by their dialects. Only one man I know could do that. Face…" He gazed doubtfully at his friend for a moment, wondering what was going on behind the brutalized mask that so effectively hid his thoughts, then ventured, "Are you upset that I know?"


He reached out to clasp Face's arm again. "You know that you can trust me."

"You'll… get them?"

"I will. You have my word."

He let his promise hang between them, privately reflecting that any hopes he had cherished of pumping Face for information to speed his search had vanished the instant he laid eyes on him. No amount of professional detachment would allow him to ask his friend what had happened during his captivity or how to identify the man who had tortured, blinded and raped him. That was a line he simply could not cross. He would have to rely on Hannibal's information, and Face would have to believe that it was enough.

"Hannibal briefed me thoroughly," he said, at his most dry and professional. "I can think of four or five men off the top of my head who fit the profile—wealthy, educated, known to engage in trafficking and with a history of…" He broke off abruptly, seeing that uncrossable line loom up in front of him.

Murdock came to the rescue by interjecting, "I got somethin' that might narrow down your search."

"What sort of thing?"

"I'll show you later." His glance cut over to his teammate's face then away. "Outside."

Face abruptly tightened his grip on Murdock's hand and murmured, "Show him."

"It can wait."

"No. 'S okay."

Shooting Face a frowning glance, Murdock pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket. He let go of Face's hand with a muttered apology, then began thumbing rapidly through the screens. When he found what he wanted, he reached across the bed to offer Cartwright the phone.

The agent looked down at it, baffled, and felt his gorge rise in protest. There on the tiny screen was a photograph of a ragged, inflamed burn, a brand in the shape of an Arabic character. The flesh around it was angry and swollen, seeping blood and fluid from its torn edges, and the wound itself had not yet begun to heal, but Cartwright had no difficulty identifying the familiar shape. What he could not identify was its significance.

"It's a letter," he said, casting a wary look at Face. "An S in Arabic script."

"Does it mean anything to you?"

"No. I'm sorry."

"I thought maybe you'd seen it before. A religious reference or a symbol used by some territorial gang."

Cartwright opened his mouth to ask a question then thought better of it and swallowed his words. He was treading perilously close to that forbidden line again, and while the answer to his question might prove helpful, he didn't think he had the intestinal fortitude to ask it.

Face took the matter out of his hands by asking, in his empty whisper, "What?"

"Nothing. You don't have to do this, Face."

"What?" he repeated, his lips forming the word soundlessly.

Cartwright sighed and braced himself. "Who branded you? The suppliers? Or the buyer?"

It took him a moment to answer, but Cartwright sensed that his hesitation was caused more by a lack of oxygen than by unwillingness to reveal this gruesome detail.

"Buyer," he finally said. "His… mark."

"Jesus," Murdock muttered under his breath."

"He told you that?" Cartwright prompted.


"Thank you. That will get us much closer to identifying him."

"You'll know. When you f… find…"

"I'll know? How will I know?"

"Cuts." Face lifted his right hand to brush his left cheek and throat with splinted fingers. "Here. Still fresh."

"He has fresh cuts on his face?"

Face nodded fractionally and whispered, "Hit him."

"You hit him?" Cartwright almost laughed aloud, feeling a surge of hot, fierce satisfaction at the thought of Face lashing back at his captor, but then his eyes fell on Murdock and his triumph died.

All the blood had drained from the pilot's cheeks, and his voice was small and edged with tears when he asked, "Is that why he branded you, Faceman?"

"Nngh. No." Face lifted his free hand once more and touched the bandage over his eyes. "This."

"Oh, Jesus," Murdock moaned, tears now starting in his eyes. He clutched Face's hand to his own chest and began to rock back and forth in the chair, as if he could no longer contain his agony and remorse. "I'm gonna kill the bastard, Face! I'm gonna rip his heart out!"

"I'll hold him down for you," Cartwright said through clenched teeth.

Face abruptly began to cough again, jarring both men out of their anger. He struggled to breathe evenly and swallow the paroxysms, but they shook him in spite of his best efforts, finally forcing a low, ragged cry of pain from him. In the next breath, blood gushed from his mouth to run down his chin.

Murdock gave an echoing cry as he lurched out of his chair to bend over his friend. "Breathe, Face! C'mon, breathe!"

"Mm-mm… Nngh!"

Murdock recognized his own name in this choked utterance, and a plea for help. He promptly sat down on the edge of the mattress, slid one arm behind Face's shoulders and lifted him away from the pillow to support him against his own shoulder. He made no move to wipe away the blood this time, choosing instead to cradle Face's head with his free hand, bending close to whisper words of comfort and reassurance into the other man's blood-stiffened hair.

"Easy now, shh-hhh, I've got you. You're okay, Face. I'm here. I've got you."

Cartwright was on his feet, watching this in appalled silence. As Face coughed another mouthful of blood onto Murdock's shirt, he headed for the opening in the curtain, saying, "I'll get the doctor."

Murdock just nodded and continued to murmur reassurances to his friend. "Help is on the way, buddy. Hang onto me and we'll make it. You and me together. Shh. Breathe now…"

Cartwright stepped onto the ward to find B.A. Baracus hovering just outside the cubicle. He met Cartwright with a glare that would have daunted a man who didn't know him so well and didn't recognize his apparent fury as fear.

"Where can I find a doctor?" Cartwright asked.

"I sent a nurse for 'im."

Some of the tension drained from the agent's body as he realized that help was on the way, and he took a moment to study the corporal. Like Smith and Murdock, he looked as if he'd been stretched on a rack for the last week, his features furrowed with exhaustion and worry, his eyes heavy, and his powerful shoulders drooping in what could only be termed defeat. And yet again, Cartwright found he had no words of consolation to offer in this extremity.

Baracus took the problem out of his hands by asking, "How's he doin'? Besides coughin' up blood, I mean."

"Well… he gave me some useful information."

"Enough to find that Saudi bastard?"


B.A. nodded and fell silent, his dark eyes dwelling helplessly on the white barrier that separated him from his friends. The doctor, a harried young man in a spotless lab coat, came bustling up and shot them a sideways look before disappearing through the curtain. Cartwright listened to him exchange a few terse words with Murdock, then stepped a little farther away to distance himself from what was a deeply private crisis that didn't involve him.

Baracus followed, still watching the curtain nervously.

"Why don't you go in? Hear what the doctor has to say?" Cartwright suggested.

"Naw, man, I can't." He looked determinedly away and set his features in rigid lines of control. "They'll start lookin' under bandages and talkin' about drainage and infection and whatever. I ain't got the stomach for that kinda stuff, not like Crazy Man. And it won't do Faceman no good to have me pukin' my guts out in front of 'im."

Cartwright smiled at that. "Still prefer Gandhi to Hippocrates, I see."

"Who's Hippocrates? The dude who invented doctors?"

"You could say that."

"Hmph. Murdock can have 'im."

That drew another smile from Cartwright, but he was out of small talk and too absorbed with his own worries to exert himself. Both men stood quietly, gazing at the curtain and pretending they couldn't hear the voices filtering through it, for a few long, tense minutes.

Finally, the doctor came out, nodded to B.A., and strode off down the ward. The curtain remained closed, muffling the low sound of Murdock's voice as he spoke to his injured teammate. Cartwright was debating with himself as to whether or not he should disturb the two men again, when B.A. broke the heavy silence.

"Murdock's scared."

Cartwright glanced over at him, startled. "You all are. With good reason."

"Yeah, but it's Murdock bein' scared that has me worried."

Cartwright took a moment to unravel that tortured logic, then asked, "Is he afraid that Face will die?"

B.A. shook his head. "I dunno. He won't talk to me. But I ain't never seen him like this."

"Face has never been hurt like this."

"No." Tears gleamed openly in the big corporal's eyes. "You gotta find that Saudi bastard, man. You can't let 'im get away with this."

"He won't."

"Nobody hurts my friends like this an' gets away with it."

"He won't. I give you my word.""

B.A. nodded curtly. "You find 'im an' I'll do the rest."

A villa somewhere in Morocco—

Nearly a dozen men knelt in the courtyard in a ragged line, hands up and eyes on the ground. They all wore the uniform of the sheikh's personal army, but they bore little resemblance to a military organization now. Many were injured. Most were frightened. Only a few of the oldest, most hardened veterans managed to mask their superstitious fear with stiff pride. The reputation of the A-Team had only grown in those days when the sheikh and his men wandered through the desert, always looking over their shoulders for the inevitable attack. By the time the Americans found them, fear had done half the job for them.

Murdock strode down the line, studying each man intently, wondering which of these dirty, bruised, defeated men had stood by in silence while their sheikh tortured and brutalized an innocent man. And which had helped. He swore to himself that he'd find out. If any of these men had laid a hand on Face, he would pay with interest.

Bosco came out of the back garden, herding three more men in front of him. At the same moment, two of Cartwright's operatives came out of the main house with fistfuls of zip-ties to bind their prisoners. They started at one end of the line, dragging each man's hands down and cinching them together, while Bosco ordered his captives to kneel at the other end of the line. The newest arrivals were much like the others, except that one of them seemed more agitated than defeated. He took his place in line, but he was looking around, hunting for something. And when Bosco prodded him with his weapon to quiet him, he threw his hands up over his head and shouted wildly,

"Murdock! Murdock!"

Bosco and Murdock exchanged a startled look, then the pilot sprinted over to where the man knelt.

"Murdock!" he cried again, now holding out his hands toward the man who answered to that name.

"I'm Murdock." The captain's pleasantly loony face was unnaturally hard and suspicious, his voice lashing the prisoner like a whip. "What d'you want with me?"

The Arab answered as quickly as he could, stumbling over the unfamiliar English words that sounded so strange coming out of his mouth, "Face said he is sorry. He tried to wait for you but he could not. He said to tell you… urgh!"

Bosco's hand closing on his throat turned his words to a gurgle. Murdock watched, frozen with shock, as Bosco lifted the terrified prisoner and shook him like a rag doll.

"What in Hell you talkin' about?! You don't say nothin' 'bout Faceman!"

The man clawed at Bosco's hands, his mouth gaping open in the effort to breathe, while his feet scuffed helplessly at the gravel of the walkway. Murdock just stared for another beat, until the man's eyes rolled up in his head, then he abruptly came unglued.

Reaching to pull the smaller man from Bosco's grasp, he shouted, "No! Wait! Wait!"

Bosco abruptly let the man go and turned to bellow at the nearest MI6 operative, "Watch these suckers!"

The agent nodded and swung his rifle down from his shoulder. Bosco then grabbed both Murdock and the prisoner and hauled them off to one corner of the courtyard. Confronted with Bosco's glowering face, the Arab immediately started babbling in his rote English.

"Face said he is sorry. He tried to w…"

"Shut up, man! Don't say that again!" Bosco growled.

The Arab stared at him, confused, then turned to Murdock when the pilot asked, "Do you speak English? English?"

He promptly started babbling in Arabic. Murdock spoke only a few words of Arabic, most of those rude, so he waved the prisoner to silence and took a moment to study him. He was young, not yet thirty by the look of him, medium height, stocky, bearded, with big dark eyes that were currently full of confusion and fear.

"What's your name?" Murdock asked. When the man just shook his head, he dug around in his memory for the right word in Arabic and tried again. "Name?"

"Ah!" A smile of relief blossomed over his face, making him look quite pleasant and likable. "Nasser!"


Carried away by his relief, Nasser began to spew rapid-fire Arabic that left Murdock shaking his head. He once again dredged up a word or two and said, "Stop. No talking."

Nasser obeyed but continued to follow him with eager, hopeful eyes as Murdock turned to Bosco.

"We need a translator."

"What for? You figure this guy can tell us anything useful?"

"Maybe. Maybe I just want to know why Face chose him to deliver a message."

"A message we don't need, Crazy Man. We got Face. He's safe. An' I don't trust this guy."

"Face did."

"Huh. You sure about that?"

"Well, I'm gonna find out before I let you choke the life outta him. So I need a translator."

He looked around and spotted Cartwright coming out of the villa with Hannibal. Both men looked grimly satisfied with the day's work. When Murdock waved them over, they changed trajectories, leaving the kneeling prisoners and heading for the men standing by the outer wall.

"What's up, Cap'n?" Hannibal asked as they approached.

"I need Double-O Seven. You speak Arabic, don't you?"

"I do," Cartwright said with a nod.

"Good. You can talk to this guy. He gave me a message from Faceman, but it's the only English he knows, so I can't find out how he learned it."

"I see." Turning to Nasser, he said in Arabic, "My name is Cartwright. Who are you?"

"Nasser. My name is Nasser. Please tell me what they want! I don't understand!"

"They want to know why their friend entrusted you with a message for them."

"Ah! He told me to find Murdock and say these words to him, but…" His dark, frightened eyes flicked to Bosco, then away. "It made the other one angry. He didn't let me finish."

"Face taught you the message?" He did not translate the name into Arabic, and at the sound of an English word he recognized, Nasser's face lit in relief.

"Face! Yes!"

"Why did he choose you?"

"I spoke to him. I knew he understood, though he never spoke our language, and I… I wanted to help. I tried. I gave him water and loosened the scarf so he would not suffocate. Then he asked me to find Murdock. So I learned the English words and brought the message." His kind face darkened with regret. "I'm sorry I couldn't say everything Face asked me to say. And I'm sorry I didn't do more."

The pilot looked from one man to the other, trying to follow the conversation and frowning in frustration, while Cartwright fixed the Arab with thoughtful eyes and mused, "You did enough. You saved his life."

The dark eyes widened and turned toward Murdock. "He's alive?!"

"What's he saying?" Murdock demanded.

Cartwright ignored the pilot's interruption and said to Nasser, "He's alive and back with his friends, thanks to you."

"I am glad! I am! I know I am condemned for betraying my sheikh but I… I could not…"

"Your sheikh is going to be punished for what he's done. You can escape his fate by helping us, now."

"Help you how?"

"Tell us everything you know about his… recreational activities." Nasser swallowed audibly and a look of dread crept into his eyes. "Is this the first time he's purchased another human being?"

"No. He has done it many times." The young man swallowed again and ventured, "Will you find the… the men who came before? The ones who lived?"

"We will certainly try."

"We were never told their names or where they were sent, but maybe you can find them with the videos."

"Videos?" Cartwright went completely still, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on the other man, full of disbelief, disgust and the first dawning of an idea. "Did you say, videos?"

Later at the villa—

The villa had the elegant grace of the Colonial era, decorated with a blend of European and traditional Moroccan artifacts. A beautiful mahogany desk dominated the library full of leather-bound books, weighted down with ceramic lamps painted in vivid colors. The laptop standing open on the leather blotter looked decidedly out of place, as did the collection of weapons and electronic gadgets scattered around it, but none of the men present were in the mood to notice.

Cartwright sat in a wingback chair, frowning as he clicked through screens on the laptop and tried to get through the sheikh's security measures. Murdock leaned over his shoulder to offer advice, while B.A. and Hannibal sorted the pile of gear and Nasser perched nervously on the seat of a French Colonial sofa.

"There was always a camera," he said in Arabic.

Cartwright translated his words for the others before asking, "Handheld or a body cam?"

"One man held a camera, the kind with the screen that flips out. I do not know if others had what you call a body cam."

"Were you ever ordered to hold a camera?" Cartwright asked, shooting him a narrow look.

Nasser shook his head furiously. "Only the elite guard. I am just a soldier."

The agent's hands fell still as he focused all his attention on the young Arab. The others were equally absorbed in the conversation, though they had to wait for Cartwright to translate each statement and to relay their own questions.

"Nasser, how long have you been in the sheikh's army?"

"Six years, since I came of age."

"And in that time, how many men has he bought?"

He thought about that for a moment, then said very quietly, "Nine, counting…"

"Do you remember them all?"

"Yes. Very well."

"Were they all Westerners? Americans?"

"Not all Americans, but they were not Muslim. He would not dare to… he liked…"

Cartwright's expression was almost kind as he said, "You're safe with us, Nasser. You can tell the truth."

Nasser squared his shoulders and tried again. "He liked pale skin. Light hair and eyes. Some, I think, came from Scandinavia."

"Face isn't blond," Murdock pointed out.

Nasser listened to the translation of this, then shook his head. "Not blond, but quite beautiful. I heard the sheikh say that he was the most beautiful man he'd ever seen, that he would pay any price to have…" He broke off abruptly, remembering almost too late that he was talking about a friend and teammate.

Hannibal took a moment to tamp down the surge of anger he felt at these words and said with forced calm, "He's going to pay a hell of a lot more than he expected."

"Nasser," Cartwright said, recalling the Arab's attention, "what can you tell us about the other men? How many are still alive?"

"Three died while he… while we held them. The others were alive when they left, but I don't know where they went. Another guard said one was sold to a man in Egypt, to be a servant in his house in Giza, but I don't know if this was true. The guard is a braggart who pretends to know more than he really does."

"Were they all special orders? Men the sheikh had seen and wanted to buy?"

"Not all, I think. Once, I remember, there were three or four to choose from and he picked the one he wanted. Your friend, Face, was special in many ways. He cost more than the others because it was so dangerous to get him, and the sheikh was afraid of him."

"Of Face?" Hannibal demanded, when he heard this.

Nasser nodded. "And of you. He took us out into the desert to hide from you."

"We knew that much. But you're saying this was unusual? He didn't take all his purchases on the road?"

"No. This was the first time. This was… he was very hard on Face. I have seen him kill men before, but they were frightened and weak. Face was not frightened. And even at the end, when other men would have begged for mercy, he fought so hard that it took eight men to restrain him."

"That sounds like the Face I know."

"Watching Face fight him, I felt shame. Shame for what my sheikh did and what I allowed him to do. I never thought it right, but I never stepped in to help those men. Now I want to make sure the sheikh is punished. And I want to find the other men he enslaved and free them, if I can."

"Those videos would be a tremendous help," Cartwright interjected. "We need to find them."

"He has to have them somewhere," Murdock said. "There's no way he'd record that stuff, then just delete the files."

"That doesn't mean they're on this computer."

"The recordings of Face must be on there," Hannibal growled, his expression hard with distress. "He hasn't had a chance to put them anywhere else."

Murdock eyes jerked up to fix on him and widened in horror. "We're deleting those!"

Hannibal and Cartwright exchanged a grim look before the colonel spoke. He tried to keep his voice calm and reassuring, but his words destroyed the effect. "We can't do that, son. We need some physical evidence of what the sheikh did, and right now, those recordings are our best bet."

"No, man," B.A. rumbled.

"Would you rather have Face stand up and tell a court what happened?"

"We don't need no evidence 'cause there ain't gonna be no trial! Just give me five minutes alone with the filthy bastard!"

"Why? So you can kill him?"


"Cartwright's plan is a better one. It gets justice for Face, without turning any of us into assassins."

"What plan?" Murdock demanded.

"Let Sharia law take care of him," Cartwright said, silencing the team's protest in a snap. "Saudi Arabia is totally dominated by Sharia law. Even the King is compelled to follow it. And Sharia law takes a very dim view of sodomy."

The others took a moment to digest this, then B.A. asked harshly, "Will they execute the fucker?"

"Probably. If we produce enough evidence that he can't talk or buy his way out of it."

"And you're sayin' that the recordings of Face are the evidence we need."

"Part of it, yes. We really need all the recordings, along with testimony from the soldiers who witnessed his acts and a financial trail proving that he purchased these men for immoral purposes."

"The human trafficking and torture and murder don't count?" Murdock asked sourly.

"They count, but it's his sexual practices that will seal his fate."

"If we find the other recordings, could we keep Face out of it?"


"Then let's damned well find 'em!" the pilot snarled, his eyes hard and suspiciously bright.

At that moment, the door opened to admit one of Cartwright's operatives. He carried an armload of equipment that he dumped unceremoniously on the desk. "This was in his private suite, Sir."

"Thank you, Davies."

The agent nodded and left. B.A. began scrabbling through the fresh pile and, within seconds, held up a compact digital camera in triumph.

"Got it, man!"

The others, with the notable exception of Nasser, all crowded round as he flipped out the little view screen and powered up the camera. His big fingers moved delicately over the tiny buttons, pulling up a list of files and choosing the most recent. The file opened, the video began to play, and B.A. promptly snapped the camera closed.

Shoving it into Hannibal's hands, he growled, "I can't watch that." Then he stomped away to the far side of the room.

Nasser watched him go from his place, huddled on the elegant sofa, and said something in Arabic.

"Sorry, man. I don't know what you're sayin'."

"He apologized," Cartwright said absently, glancing up very briefly from the camera Hannibal now held, "for not stopping it."

"Yeah." B.A. rubbed a massive hand over his face, struggling for control. "Everybody's sorry, but none of us stopped it."

Murdock had also withdrawn from the horrors playing out on the tiny screen and now drew close to his teammate for reassurance and companionship. "Face knows we tried. That's why he sent the message with Nasser. He didn't want us to feel guilty."

"He didn't want you drivin' yourself any crazier."

"Cuz he's my best friend."

"Cuz he loves you, man, an' he'd never wanna hurt you. Even by dyin'."

Murdock looked away but not before B.A. saw the tears running steadily down his cheeks. "I gotta get outta here. How much longer before we blow this joint, Boss?"

"Only a couple of hours. I want to help Cartwright get things cleaned up and talk to the Saudi. Now that we have this," he lifted the camera, which he had once again shut off, "we have some leverage. I want the names of his suppliers."

"I want to get back to the hospital!"

"Soon, Captain."

"Let's go, Bosco," Murdock said, tugging on B.A.'s arm to lead him out the door. "I need to talk to Face."

"Yeah." B.A. followed him out of the study and along the wide entry hall toward the outer door.

Outside, they found that the Secret Service operatives had cleared the courtyard. It was, once again, a quiet and gracious monument to another ageif one ignored the bullet holes in the garden walls, the boot prints in the flowerbeds, and the arsenal of weapons stacked against the wall of the main house. Murdock paid no attention to any of this. He headed down one flagged path toward a manicured hedge and a spreading tree, fishing in his pocket for the burner phone as he went.

Cartwright had given him this phone so he could contact the detail assigned to protect Face. He'd resisted the urge to use it up to now, sure that the agents on duty would contact him if anything was amiss and too busy himself to indulge in pointless worry. But the firefight was over, the bad guys in custody, and he could let his psyche off its leash.

Stopping under the tree, he hit the call button and propped his shoulder against the massive trunk while the phone rang.

The hospital—

Agent Hadida sat quietly in the tiny, curtained cubicle, flipping through a magazine with every outward sign of boredom but with her senses finely tuned for trouble. She had been chosen for this duty because she had medical training that would let her pass for a nurse, and she knew better than her colleagues what kind of people they were dealing with on this assignment. The condition of the patient she protected told her that and kept her from growing complacent. The gun tucked in the pocket of her tunic and the shiv in a sheath on her forearm attested to her readiness.

She had been sitting for several hours with nothing to disturb her beyond the periodic visits of real medical professionals when the phone that lay on the bedside table lit up. She glanced at the incoming number out of habit, but only a handful of people even knew this phone existed, much less knew the number. It was one of the other burners calling.

Rising silently from her chair, she cast a glance at the man in the bed before picking up the phone and stepping through the curtain. He might have been asleep; it was impossible to tell and he rarely moved even when awake. Either way, she didn't want to disturb him more than necessary. Halting just outside the curtain and holding it open with one hand so she could keep a sharp eye on her patient, she thumbed open the line and said,


"Hey. It's me."

She recognized the voice instantly, though she had known before he spoke who it was. Cartwright had warned her that Captain Murdock would be checking on his friend, probably often. "Code in, please," she said, keeping her voice low.


She recognized the word immediately as the 'all safe' code for the A-Team's resident Road Runner fan.

"Response, Acme," she said, telling him that all was safe on her end, too.

"How is he?" Murdock asked.

"Quiet. And you?"

"We're just mopping up. Should be back tonight."

"I'll tell him."

"I'd like to tell him myself. Is he awake?"

"I don't know." She peered at her patient, frowning slightly, then gave a mental shrug and stepped back into the cubicle. "Just a moment."

Muting the phone, she moved up beside the bed and bent over the man lying so still in it. "Lieutenant Peck?" She rested her free hand on his shoulder. "Are you awake?"

He turned his head slightly in her direction, telling her that he was listening.

"Captain Murdock wants to talk to you."

That got far more of a response. He actually lifted his head and reached toward her with his shattered, splinted hand. She caught his wrist and forced his arm back down on the bed, murmuring, "I'll hold the phone. Just relax." Switching the mute off and the speaker on, she said, "All right, Captain, go ahead," and held the phone close to the lieutenant's head.

"Face?" Murdock called eagerly, "Can you hear me?"

"Murdock." He tried again to find the phone, this time with his functional left hand, and the agent obligingly placed it in his fingers. "Murdock?"

"I'm right here, buddy."

He seemed to collapse with relief at the sound of his friend's voice. He let the phone drop to rest on his chest and Hadida poised herself to snatch it if he let go, but he didn't. "Is everybody okay?"

"Course we are. You want to talk to Bosco, too? He's right here."


"Hey, Faceman," a deep, comforting voice rumbled from the phone. "How you doin', little brother?"

He made a noncommittal noise in his throat that didn't fool anyone.

"We got a couple more things to do here, then we'll hit the road. You just gotta hang in there, man. We're on our way."


Murdock chimed in, sounding determinedly cheerful. "What's wrong, Face? Ain't that lady spy bein' nice to you? I thought you'd like havin' Mata Hari as a bodyguard."

Face ignored this sally and said, his voice rough with an emotion his battered features could not reflect, "Come back. Please. I need you."

"I'm coming, I promise. Like Bosco said, you just gotta hang in there."

Face made another wordless sound in his throat, and Hadida could hear the tears in Murdock's voice when he answered. "I'm always right here, buddy, right on the other end of the phone. You need to hear my voice, you just tell Mata Hari. She'll call me."

"I will," Hadida interjected.

"Hear that? Told you she'd take care of you."


"Yeah?" When Face did not answer at once, Murdock urged, "What is it, buddy? Tell me."

"When will you…?"

"When will we be back? Tonight."

"I… don't know when that is."

Now she could tell that he was crying, though the tears that clogged his throat could not touch his ruined, bandaged eyes. She made an abrupt decision and lifted the phone from Face's nerveless fingers.

"That's enough for now, Captain," she said quietly, but firmly. "The sooner you take care of business and get back here, the better."

"No! Face? Where are you?"

"Lieutenant Peck needs to rest."

Even as she said this, Face reached for the phone and said, "Murdock!"

"You let me talk to him!" Murdock shouted, clearly in as much distress as his friend. "Give the phone back, right now! Face?!"

Hadida sighed and lowered the phone to where Face could hear it again.

"Are you there? Can you hear me?"


"Okay. Okay." The pilot took a beat to master himself and steady his voice, then he went on urgently, "You hang on, buddy, and I'll be there soon. Just hang on. And if you need to talk to me, you tell that woman to dial the phone! Got it?" He paused to swallow noisily, then added in a half-pleading whisper, "It's gonna be okay, Face. Don't be scared."

Back at the villa—

The line went dead. Murdock bowed his head until it rested against the tree trunk and let the hot, agonizing tears come. They spilled out of his eyes and burned tracks down his face, while wracking sobs shook him. Bosco stood close behind him, one hand on his heaving back. The big corporal said nothing, just radiated sympathy and calm, until Murdock finally managed to swallow his sobs and break the silence.

"Jesus, Bosco, how are we gonna fix this?"

B.A. squeezed his shoulder in a gesture of companionship, but his words were less reassuring. "I don't think we can, Crazy Man."

Straightening up, Murdock turned red, swollen eyes on him and demanded, "Did you hear how scared he sounded? Did you hear it? Face has never been scared of anything in his life!"

"He ain't never had nothin' like this happen to him, neither."

"I can't stand it! I gotta do something… gotta find a way… I can't listen to him like that… Oh, geez, Bosco!" He doubled up in pain, fresh tears coursing down his cheeks. "What can I do?!"

"First thing you gotta do is get your head together. You flip out on us now, you won't be able to help Faceman and he'll really be in trouble. He needs you, man. You heard 'im. You're the only one who can keep him from bein' scared, so you gotta hold it together."

"I'm crazy!" Murdock wailed miserably. "I can't do it!"

"Yes, you can," B.A. stated flatly, brooking no argument.

"You don't know that… you don't know…"

"I know you love Faceman more'n you love bein' crazy." Murdock looked up, startled into silence, and B.A. went on reasonably, "You love Faceman more'n anything. You'd never let 'im down or let 'im be afraid. Hell, Murdock, he's the only person you'd ever get sane for."

Murdock gave a sudden, soggy laugh that brought an answering grin to B.A.'s face.

"Told ya you could do it."

"B.A.'s right, as usual." They both turned to find Hannibal standing a few feet away with Cartwright at his shoulder. "I've changed my mind. Sounds to me like both you and Face have had enough alone time, so I'll leave the sheikh to Ian and get you boys back to Casablanca."

Murdock gave a sob of relief and turned shining eyes on his commander. "Really?"

"MI6 doesn't need our help with this one. Let's rock 'n' roll."

Murdock's face was instantly transformed by a beatific grin. "Thanks, Boss!"

The hospital—

"Face! Faceman!"

Murdock plowed through the curtain at full speed and threw himself at the bed. He fetched up perched on the edge of the mattress, one leg folded beneath him, and bent over his injured friend. "Are you with me, buddy? Hey, Faceman…"

Hannibal and B.A. hung back by the curtain to give him room. A woman stood beside the bed to Face's right, holding a pistol in expert hands. As she recognized the newcomers, she lowered the weapon and tucked it into her pocket. Then, with a nod to the colonel, she slipped through the curtain that he held open for her.

Face was groggy with medication and slow to recognize Murdock's voice. He muttered something and lifted one hand to ward him off. Murdock caught his head between his hands and leaned down to bring his familiar voice closer.

"It's okay, it's me. Murdock."

"Mm… Murdock?" Face's fingers brushed his jacket then closed on a fistful of worn leather. Something perilously close to a smile tilted his lips. "Murdock. You're here."

"Just like I promised." The pilot stroked his hair in a fierce, protective gesture, then gave a little sob and leaned over to plant a kiss on his forehead just above the bandage that covered his eyes. "It's over, buddy," he murmured tearfully. "It's all over. We did it."

"You got him?"

"We got all of them."

Face took a gasping breath and his shoulders began to shake with dry sobs. Murdock slid a hand behind his neck to lift him, pulling him upright and supporting him against his own chest. He tucked Face's head under his chin, looped an arm around his shoulders, and began to rock in a soothing rhythm, murmuring steadily, "Shh, it's okay. Okay. I've got you. Just hang onto me and everything'll be okay. Shh-shh…"

Hannibal watched this in silence until he saw that Face was beginning to calm. Then he stepped up to the far side of the bed and sat on the mattress to study his lieutenant more closely. As the tension drained out of Face and his tearless weeping eased, he turned his head, settling more comfortably against his friend's shoulder and giving Hannibal a clear view of his battered features.

He looked terrible, the colonel had to admit to himself, as if he had deteriorated over the last few days, instead of healing. The vivid bruises had yellowed slightly and the cuts begun to close, but his breathing was labored, his face lined with pain and exhaustion, his manner confused, his movements weak and clumsy. In that moment, as he huddled in the protective circle of Murdock's arms, some barrier in him dropped and Hannibal caught a glimpse in his face of the horror he had endured alone in this strange place, waiting for his friends to return.

Only Face could have survived it. Only Face could have held onto his sanity as he lay here—blind, helpless, terrified, cut off from everything safe or familiar—reliving the torture and degradation he had suffered and wondering when it would start again. But even Face had a breaking point. And it appalled Hannibal to think that he had helped to push him past that point by taking away his team when he needed them the most.

He reached out to touch his friend, speaking first in a low, soothing voice so he wouldn't startle him.

"Hey, kid. How's it goin'?"

His open palm rested against Face's unbandaged cheek. Face flinched, withdrawing from the touch, and the breath caught in his throat. Hannibal dropped his hand to his shoulder and felt the muscles stiffen beneath his fingers.

"Take it easy. It's just me."

Face said nothing, but his breathing evened out and his shoulder relaxed fractionally as he recognized the presence beside him as a friendly one. Hannibal tightened his clasp on his shoulder, kneading some of the tension out of it.

He tried to inject some humor into his voice when he said, "They must've drugged you to the gills, if you don't know your own team."

"Mm. Hannibal." Face mumbled into Murdock's shirt.

"That's right."

"'S Bosco here?"

"Course I am, Faceman," B.A. rumbled from his place at the foot of the bed.

Hannibal felt the muscles under his hand unclench another notch.

"We're all here, kid, right where we're supposed to be." The colonel paused, fighting down his own emotions and summoning his dry tone again before he went on. "So how'd you get on with the lovely Agent Hadida? Has she managed to resist your charm so far? Or has she already quit the Secret Service to sign on as your personal nurse and bodyguard?"

Face didn't seem to hear him. He lay very still against Murdock's chest, his left arm circling the pilot's waist so that his hand rested against his back, while his splinted right hand lay on the pilot's bent knee. His entire body seemed to have gone slack and nerveless with relief. For the moment, he didn't even have the strength to be afraid.

Murdock lifted a hand to cradle his head and tilted his own head to rest his cheek on the other man's hair. "D'you want to lie down and go to sleep, Faceman?"

"Nnngh." Face's fingers clutched spasmodically at his jacket then went limp again.

"I'm not goin' anywhere, buddy. None of us are. It's safe to rest, if that's what you need. We'll still be here when you wake up."

"Nngh… no."

"Okay." Murdock just held him for a minute, his eyes closed, then asked softly, "What can I do?"

"Talk. Tell me wh-mmm!"

"You need something for the pain?"


"Okay, okay."

"Do you want to hear about the mission?" Hannibal asked.


"There's not much to tell. Ian gave us the name and location of the Saudi buyer. He was holed up in a fancy estate down the Atlantic coast, waiting for the wounds on his face to heal." Hannibal hesitated, weighing the advisability of too much candor, then went on, "It was the tooth marks that worried him. Bruises and cuts he could explain, but not bite marks on his mouth. So he opted to stay in Morocco and avoid anyone who might recognize him until they healed.

"He still had his private army with him, but Ian brought in a team from Rabat as back up. Turns out, we could have taken them alone. They'd been running from us for so long, seeing A-Team bogeymen behind every sand dune, that they were ready to fold at the first shot.

"So we took the villa, grabbed the sheikh, and rounded up his army. You really did a number on his face, kid. Looked like he'd been through a meat grinder."

"Is he dead?" Face asked in a soundless whisper.

"Not yet. Ian's got him. He's squeezing him for a line on his suppliers—the Iranians. Once he has that, he'll turn him over to the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia."

Face said nothing to this and Hannibal accepted his silence gratefully. He didn't want to explain what they would have to do if the Saudi religious authorities did not punish the sheikh for his crimes. He didn't want to think about it himself, much less burden his lieutenant with it. So he changed the subject and hoped that Face was too drugged and groggy to notice.

"We met your friend Nasser."

Face turned his head slightly, as if looking for his commander in the darkness, and frowned. "Who?"

"The soldier you sent with a message for me," Murdock supplied.

"You didn't hurt him…"

"Course not. Bosco scared 'im a little, but that's all."

"Mm." Face settled back into his previous position and uttered a small sigh of relief when Murdock clasped his head again. "He saved my life."

"I know."

"Don't worry, we'll look after him. Ian's got a plan to get him out of the Middle East and settle him where he'll be safe." Hannibal touched his bruised cheek again, and this time, Face did not flinch. "Kid, you really need to rest. It doesn't look like you slept the whole time we were gone."

"Nngh-no. Don't like the quiet…"

"We'll stay here with you, if that will help, but you've got to sleep."


"Just lie down and try. Murdock, let him down."

The captain moved to obey, but Face clutched at his jacket with fingers made strong by panic, and he tightened his hold again. "It's gonna be okay, Faceman. I'm not goin' anywhere."

"I can't… breathe. Can't…"

"Yes, you can. You're just scared, and that's okay, but I'm right here. We all are. Come on, lie back."

Slowly, to the accompaniment of constant reassurance, Murdock coaxed him into lying back against the stack of pillows. Face lay rigid with fear, his chest rising and falling much too quickly, with his left hand still clutching Murdock's jacket in a death grip. Murdock watched him for a moment, his own features taught with strain, then abruptly swung his legs up onto the bed and stretched out next to his friend. Gathering Face up in his arms, he tucked his head under his chin once more and settled his weight against his chest. Face took a deep, gasping breath and let it out on a sob, his body collapsing as the fear and tension left him.

"That's it. I gotcha, buddy. You sleep now."

Face mumbled something none of them could translate, burrowed a little deeper into his friend's protective embrace, and fell still.


A hoarse, guttural cry cut the air and brought the two men to their feet in alarm. Hannibal dropped his newspaper and stepped toward the door but halted when another voice, low and soothing, followed the first.

"Okay… it's okay… Shh-hhh…"

He exchanged a look with B.A. and both turned back to their seats, but neither picked up their abandoned reading material. They sat in tense silence, waiting for some clue as to what was passing in the other room. What they heard did not ease their tension, but it kept them in their places, sure that they could do nothing to help.

In the master bedroom, Murdock knelt on the bed, holding Face's body tightly to his own, pinning his arms to his sides and restraining his frantic thrashing. Only Face's weakened condition allowed him to do it. In his normal state, he would have broken free in a second and knocked his friend across the room with one blow. But injury, illness and exhaustion had sapped his strength.

Murdock held him fast and continued to make soothing noises until his struggles ceased and his ragged cries turned to harsh, sobbing breaths. The body in his arms did not go limp, but remained rigid with strain and ready to tear free of his hold at the first sign of relenting.

Bending close to him, Murdock murmured reassuringly, "You're awake now. You're safe."

Face did not answer. With every breath he uttered a low, pained, broken sound that seemed to shake his entire body.

"Easy, now, take it easy. It's over. Easy…"

Face's muscles slowly unclenched. His shoulders sagged forward and his head drooped until it rested on Murdock's thigh. His breathing quieted. And finally Murdock loosened his hold on his friend to let him settle onto the mattress.

Face lay with his back to his friend and his face buried in the pillow. When the pilot laid a hand on his shoulder, he flinched.

"D'you want to talk about it, buddy?" Murdock asked.

Face grunted a negative. Murdock gazed down at his profile silhouetted against the white pillow, his own face drawn with pain and grief, for a long moment. Then he crawled under the covers and stretched out behind Face. When he curved his body up behind the other man's and looped an arm around his waist, Face shuddered and tried to pull away, but Murdock held him still.

"It's okay, it's just me. I've got your back."

Face fought him for another few seconds then, abruptly, surrendered. As Murdock snugged their bodies more comfortably together, he relaxed and drew closer to the familiar presence. And all the while Murdock kept up his soothing murmur, draining the tension from his friend's muscles and lulling him to sleep.

"Shhhh… It's just me. Just crazy, ol' Murdock, watching your back like always. You're safe now, Faceman… safe with me… You sleep, now. Sleep… Shh…"

Hannibal listened to the sounds coming from the bedroom until they were smothered in a sleeping quiet. Then he laid aside his newspaper and rose to his feet to prowl the room in restless thought. B.A. watched from the corners of his eyes but said nothing. None of the A-Team said much, these days. Finding a topic of conversation was like strolling through a minefield and they rarely had the energy for it.

As he circled the room with his long, loping strides, Hannibal fingered the little piece of silicon and plastic that lay in his pocket and wrestled with the temptation to use it. Cartwright had given him the thumb drive before they left Casablanca, assuring him that he didn't need the files it contained as evidence and that it was Hannibal's to do with as he saw fit. His first impulse had been to shove it down the garbage disposal the moment they set foot in the safe house again. But something had stopped him—a nagging suspicion that he would regret destroying it—so he had left it in his pocket and said nothing to his men about it.

It was still there, still taunting him with horror and possibilities, and with every day that passed in hunted silence, every night that Face awoke screaming from nightmare after nightmare, every meal that no one ate, every time that Murdock gritted his teeth to control his tears after Face rejected his help yet again, Hannibal became more and more sure that it held the answer. It offered knowledge, after all—the full secret of what had happened to Face during those six days of captivity—and knowledge was power. He had been ignorant for too long, frustrated, powerless to help his men. And Hannibal Smith did not take kindly to being powerless.

B.A. abruptly tossed aside his book and got to his feet. "I'm gonna rack out, man. See if I can catch some Z's before…" He broke off and twitched his head toward the hallway and bedroom where Face slept.

Hannibal just nodded understanding and continued to pace. He didn't have to ask what B.A. meant. None of them got more than an hour or two of unbroken rest these days, snatching what sleep they could in the brief periods of quiet between Face's nightmares. It was only sensible of B.A. to take advantage of this lull. Hannibal ought to join him, but he was too absorbed with his internal struggle to entertain the notion of sleep.

As the corporal disappeared into the dark hallway, Hannibal completed a circuit of the room and found himself standing at the kitchen counter. A laptop lay on it. The colonel stared at it, clutching the thumb drive in his pocket so tightly that his knuckles whitened. Then, with a jerky, clumsy gesture that betrayed his reluctance, he opened the laptop and turned it on. The screen flickered to life. He stared at it for a long minute, summoning his courage, then jammed the thumb drive into the port with unnecessary force.

He had to do this, he told himself. He had no choice. Hesitation would not help any of them, now.

The decision made, he quickly opened the folder on the portable drive. It contained a neat list of files, each labeled "Peck" with a number and a date stamp. Furiously squashing down his doubts, he clicked on the first file and watched the video screen come up. Another click, and it began to play.

It was every bit as hideous as he had feared and more. Much more. He found that he couldn't bear to watch any given scene for long. He skipped from point to point, listening to the sheikh's vile banter and Face's fierce bravado, witnessing the moments of extreme brutality that had left such vivid and enduring traces on his friend's body. He saw Face being branded. He saw his back being flayed raw with a whip and his face being pounded bloody on the tailgate of the truck. He saw Face fight back at last, lashing out at his tormentor, and he wanted to cheer aloud until he realized what revenge the sheikh was about to take.

He was bracing himself, watching the sheikh lean in for a kiss and preparing for the worst, when a hand reached over his shoulder and slammed the laptop shut.

"What the hell are you doing?!"

He spun around to find Murdock standing behind him, his body hunched as if for a fight, his fists clenched, and his tear-bright eyes blazing with fury.

"How did you get those?!" Murdock hissed. "Ian was supposed to erase them! He promised to erase them!"

"Take it easy, Murdock."

"Don't tell me to take it easy! Don't…" He gritted his teeth, fighting his mounting rage and struggling for some semblance of control. "Where'd you get them? From Ian?"

"Where else? He didn't need them for evidence, so he turned them over to me."

"And you decided to watch them?! Jesus, Hannibal, what's wrong with you?!"

"Hey!" B.A. appeared in the doorway, looking rumpled and bleary and thoroughly annoyed. "What're you guys shoutin' about? You wanna wake up Faceman?"

"Face! Oh God, oh God," Murdock groaned, reaching for the laptop, "He can't know! Gimme that…"

"Stand down, soldier!" Hannibal snapped, bringing instant, if unwilling obedience from the pilot. Then he added more quietly, "Trust me. Face won't know anything about it."

"Won't know 'bout what? What's goin' on?" B.A. asked as he joined them at the counter. He still looked half asleep and none too happy about being awakened by their noise.

Hannibal didn't relish answering that question but knew he had to before Murdock did. He deeply regretted that his teammates had found out about the videos and was a fair way toward regretting that he'd ever looked at them himself. At the same time, he was annoyed by their insubordination and running out of patience. It was usually Face who led the mutinies in this group. He wasn't used to meeting open resistance from the others.

"I'm doing some research," he said evasively.

"Research?" Murdock screeched. "Is that what you call it? He's got those damned videos! The ones of Face and the sheikh! And he's watching them!"

B.A. looked stunned. "The videos? I thought… Cartwright was gonna… Oh, geez…" Even as he fumbled for words, outrage boiled up in him to drive out his shock and disbelief, and his voice grew louder with every word. "Jesus, Hannibal! Are you tellin' me that you sat there and watched that bastard do those things to Faceman?! Why would you do somethin' like that?! How could you look at that shit?!"

"What other choice do I have?!" Hannibal demanded, finally goaded into anger by his teammates' hostility. "Face is getting worse every day, and he's destroying all of us in the process! Do you want to lose him? Do you want to lose our team? Because that's what's going to happen, if we just sit here and watch!"

"And you watchin' that," B.A. gestured angrily toward the computer, "is gonna help?"

"Maybe." Doubt surged up in him again at the memory of what he'd seen, but he clung to his original hope and insisted, "Maybe if I know what really happened, I can figure out how to undo some of the damage."

"That ain't gonna undo anything, Hannibal. It's just gonna make it worse!"

"It can't get any worse."

"No?" Murdock cut in furiously. "Just wait till Face finds out you betrayed him and see how much worse it gets! 'Cause that's what you're doing by watching those videos. Betraying him!"

"Don't, Crazy Man…" B.A. cautioned, but Murdock was beyond hearing and beyond caring how he wounded his commander.

"Isn't it enough that he had to live it?! Does he have to share it with us, too?! Does he have to know that we all sat there and watched it happen, over and over again?! You might as well have…"

"Shut up, Murdock!" B.A. snapped with sudden, unexpected force.

Murdock's eyes flew to him, his mouth open to spew another torrent of angry words, then he noticed that B.A. was not looking at him, but past him, toward the hallway. The pilot spun around to follow his gaze and saw Face standing in the doorway.

"Oh, Jesus!" he gasped. "No!"

Face stood transfixed, one hand on the wall to his left for balance, the other pressed hard to his midriff as if he could physically hold down his rising panic, and stared at Murdock with his bandaged gaze. As Murdock's agonized cry fell into silence, none of the others dared to move. They were all paralyzed by shock at what they'd done, until Face spoke in a choked voice.


"No, man, don't…" B.A. began, but Face cut across him, speaking directly to Murdock, the person he absolutely trusted to tell him the truth, no matter what the cost.

"You have videos?"

Murdock made a visible effort to force the words out of his mouth. "The sheikh recorded everything. We found the camera at the villa where we finally cornered him, and Cartwright…"

"That's enough, Murdock," Hannibal growled, already half out of his chair, his eyes glued to Face.

"You saw them?" The lieutenant was doubled over, clutching the wall to stay upright, his face a sickly, greenish-white. "All of you?"

"No!" Murdock protested, at the same moment that B.A. swore, "Hell no!"

But Face didn't hear. No sooner was the question out of his mouth than he uttered a wrenching cry and vomited on the floor. Hannibal leapt to his feet and started across the room, Murdock and B.A. on his heels, as Face's legs gave out and he dropped to his knees, still retching painfully.

"Hang on, kid!"

"Oh, Jesus," Face gasped between paroxysms, "you saw it… you…"

Hannibal reached him first and crouched beside him to catch his shoulders. "It's okay, I've got you."

At his touch, Face jerked away, falling hard against the wall.

"Let me, Boss," Murdock snapped, almost shoving Hannibal out of the way to reach Face. "It's me, Face. It's just me."

"Murdock!" Face sobbed. "You didn't… Please… tell me you d…"

Hannibal backed away as Murdock squatted in front of Face and caught his head between his hands, insisting, "No, never. I swear to you, Face, I never would."

Face slipped out of his clasp, crumpling over sideways toward the floor, his stomach still heaving though there was nothing left in it to bring up. Murdock caught him before he hit the ground and wrapped both arms around his ribcage to support him.

When he could find enough air to speak again, Face asked in a ragged whisper, "Bosco?"

"He wouldn't either," Murdock assured him. "Come on, buddy, breathe."

Face struggled to obey him, managing one breath, then another before he gave a final, agonizing retch, and abruptly collapsed in Murdock's arms.

"Shh," Murdock crooned, "that's it. Lie still now."

"Mmm… Murdock, please…" Face whispered brokenly between shuddering breaths, "get… get rid of…"

"I will. I promise. Don't worry about it."

"Way ahead of you, little brother," B.A. rumbled. He stood looming over the group of men on the floor, one massive hand outstretched with a small device lying on his palm. "I got the thumb drive with the videos right here. You just tell me what to do with it."

"Give it t-nngh!"

"Shh." Murdock fumbled for his handkerchief to wipe Face's mouth, then he lifted his nerveless, shuddering friend up to rest against his chest. "I'll take care of it. "

"Give it… to me," Face insisted in a rough, almost voiceless whisper.

B.A. caught the hand he held out and placed the thumb drive squarely in his palm. Then he closed Face's fingers around it and rumbled, "It's yours, Faceman. You decide what happens to it. I don't even wanna know."

Face took a ragged, sobbing breath and muttered, "Thank you."

"Let's get you back to bed, Face," Murdock said, as he got to his feet and pulled Face up with him. "Bosco'll clean this up. Won't you, Big Guy?" he asked, shooting B.A. a pleading look.

"You bet. Need any help?"

"Nah. I got this. C'mon, buddy."

Together, Murdock and Face moved down the hallway and disappeared into the Master Bedroom without once speaking to, or even glancing toward, Hannibal. The colonel stood up but didn't leave his place in the doorway. He watched B.A. stride into the kitchen to get a mop and bucket, and he lifted a hand in an abortive offer of help, but the corporal ignored him. It seemed, for the moment at least, that his men wanted nothing to do with him. When B.A. returned with his cleaning tools and began wiping up the mess Face had made, still without acknowledging his presence, Hannibal gave up and retreated.

Slipping quietly past the kneeling corporal, he went into his own bedroom and shut the door. He didn't bother to turn on the light, just stretched out on the bed, fully clothed, and stared at the dark ceiling. The house was eerily quiet, except for the occasional clunk or bang from B.A., and Hannibal entertained the melancholy hope that Face's outburst had exhausted him to the point where he might actually sleep. But that was the only possible silver lining he could find in this debacle.

He had acted with only the purest motives. He wanted to help Face, that was all, and his boys knew that. Or they would, when they calmed down enough to think about it. But he had never intended for Face to find out that the videos existed, much less that his commanding officer had actually watched them, and he could not even begin to calculate the damage that revelation had done. To Face. To his trust in his friend and commander. To Murdock, who felt every blow that Face suffered more acutely than Face did himself.

Hannibal hated to let things stand as they were for a whole night, to give the hurt time to fester, but he couldn't drag Face into another scene after what had just happened. Face needed to rest, Murdock needed to cool down, and B.A. needed to meditate—or whatever it was he did to keep himself centered these days. And Hannibal… Hannibal needed just one of them to look him in the face, speak to him, treat him like their trusted Boss for a moment. But he wasn't going to have that tonight, so he would just have to wait and see what the morning brought.

Malibu, the next morning—

Murdock was up and cooking when Hannibal came out of his room the next morning. The colonel had not fallen asleep until dawn and awoke a few hours later to the smell of coffee brewing and bacon frying. He took a long, hot shower to clear the cobwebs from his brain in preparation for a difficult day ahead. Then he ambled out into the great room and paused, as he always did, to appreciate the view.

They called this their safe house, because their ownership of it was hidden beneath impenetrable layers of legal camouflage and no one outside the team knew it existed. But in reality it was a staggeringly expensive house perched on a low bluff above a stretch of private beach in one of the most exclusive enclaves along the Southern California coast. Hannibal had never asked how Face had acquired it or what he had paid for it. He didn't dare. All that mattered was that they owned it, free and clear, and it was perfectly concealed from prying eyes of every kind.

This morning, the Pacific Ocean was putting on a glorious show to lift his spirits. Floating clouds, silver-white waves, graceful seabirds racing their shadows across the water. Paradise.

Face sat on the deck in a patch of sunshine, lounging back in his chair, his head turned as if he were gazing out to sea. He was dressed in light cotton trousers and a button-down shirt hanging loose over them, the sleeves rolled up, his feet bare. He looked so relaxed and content, so like the man Hannibal had known all these years, that for a moment, the colonel forgot about the wounds hidden beneath his clothing. Then Face turned his head, giving Hannibal a clear view of the gauze taped over his eyes, and every hideous thing that had happened over the last month and the last night came crashing back on him. He turned back into the room, his shoulders drooping.

Murdock met him at the counter with a plate of eggs and bacon. He set it down and murmured, "Hey, Boss Man."

Hannibal pulled out a barstool and sat. "Murdock." The captain's greeting was subdued, by any standard, but Hannibal accepted it as a peace offering and pretended not to notice. He dug into his meal and was halfway through it before Murdock spoke again.

"Bosco's working on the van. Said it needs an oil change."

Hannibal nodded, then his gaze cut over to the picture window and the deck beyond. "How's Face?"

Anger flashed briefly in Murdock's eyes as he shot Hannibal a look from beneath his lashes, but he quelled it and answered neutrally, "He needs coffee."

Hannibal opted to let that slide and addressed his plate again. Murdock filled a large mug from the contents of a pot steaming in the coffee maker, poured a generous helping of half and half into it, and headed for the glass door. Hannibal watched him cross the deck and crouch beside Face's chair. He couldn't hear what they said from this distance, but he saw Murdock place the coffee mug in Face's hand and exchange a few more words with him before rising to his feet and crossing the deck again. Back inside with the door shut, Murdock returned to his place in the kitchen and poured a second cup of coffee that he slid across the counter to stand beside Hannibal's plate.

"Thanks." Hannibal chewed and swallowed another bite, then abruptly lowered his fork and confronted his teammate. "So what's the plan, Murdock? Are we going to pretend that last night didn't happen?"

Murdock wiped at the counter with a grubby dishtowel, stubbornly refusing to meet the colonel's eyes. "Maybe we should."

"Why? So you can stay angry?"

"I'll get over it." Murdock folded the towel very precisely, laid it on the counter and adjusted its position, all the time staring intently at his hands. "Eventually. But I'm not the one you gotta worry about."

Hannibal cocked his head and asked, his tone frankly skeptical, "You think Face won't?"

That finally forced an unguarded response from Murdock. He lifted his eyes to Hannibal's and demanded, hotly, "Would that surprise you?"

"Face never stays mad at me for long."

"You really think this is like all those times you yelled at him for messing up your plans or seducing the wrong girl? You think he's just gonna shrug it off?"

A little voice in the back of Hannibal's head warned him that Murdock was probably right, that he had seriously misjudged the situation and Face's reaction, but that only made him more annoyed and defensive. "You may find this hard to believe," he snapped, "but I actually know Face as well as you do. Maybe better!"

"If that were true, you'd never have done what you did!"

"I didn't do it to hurt Face and he'll figure that out, when he's had some time to think about it."

"You must be pretty damned sure of that to gamble the survival of our team on it."

"Like I said, I know Face. We were friends long before you and B.A. joined the team. We've fought countless battles together and we've always come out the other side. Together. If there's one thing in this world I'm sure of, it's that Face will always have my back and I'll always have his." He paused for a moment, letting that sink in, then said with utter conviction, "Face knows I love him like a son and will always fight for him, no matter the cost. He trusts me with his life."

"Yeah." Murdock turned away again, reaching for a spatula. "'Cept the man he trusted with his life just tore his guts out in front of everyone that matters to him."

Hannibal winced at that. "Isn't that a little over-dramatic?"

Murdock shot him another veiled glance, this time making no effort to hide the anger and resentment in it. "No."

"You think he can't forgive me?"

"Doesn't matter what I think, does it?"

Before Hannibal could respond to this, they both heard the trill of a cell phone ringing from somewhere in the room. Hannibal climbed off his stool and followed the sound over to the low table that stood between two armchairs. It was Face's cell phone, and the number it displayed was the burner phone they used to contact Sosa. He sighed as he lifted it to his ear.

"Good morning, Sosa."

"Smith?" She sounded belligerent, as always, but with a trace of concern behind it. "Why are you answering Face's phone?"

"Because it was ringing," he said reasonably. "What can I do for you, Captain?"

"Let me talk to Face."

"He isn't here."

"That's what you said the last time," she shot back, her voice rising in frustration, "and that was weeks ago! You said he was 'working other angles'…"

Hannibal forced himself to chuckle and was privately amazed at how natural it sounded. "You know Face. He's always working some kind of angle. Relax, Sosa, he's just taking some time off."

"Where?" she demanded suspiciously. "Doing what?"

"Whatever it is Face does when no one's looking. I prefer not to ask."

"Without his phone?" she asked, something that Hannibal could only assume was jealousy creeping into her tone.

"I'm not his mother," Hannibal retorted. "I don't keep tabs on where he goes or who he talks to when he's off the clock."

"When is he due back?"

"Whenever we get another job. But I'll tell him you called when he checks in. And remind him to take his phone with him next time."

She was silent for a moment, clearly struggling and failing to come up with a suitable, crushing response. Finally, she said, "You'll be hearing from me again."

"I'm counting on it."

"I mean it, Smith. I'm going to talk to Face, even if I have to fly out to Los Angeles to do it. You tell him that when he checks in. And don't think you're fooling me for one minute. I know there's something funny going on, here, and I intend to get to the bottom of it."

"Always a pleasure to chat with you, Captain," Hannibal said, putting all the dry humor he possessed into his voice. "Enjoy your day."

He cut the line and stood staring, first at the phone, then at the man sitting out on the deck. After a long minute of thought, his features hardened with determination. Slipping the phone into his pocket, he opened the glass door and stepped through it before Murdock could offer a protest.

Face must have heard the door open and close. He must have heard the tread of Hannibal's feet on the deck. But he gave no sign if it until Hannibal stopped beside his chair and touched his arm. Then he shivered slightly, as if a cold breeze had brushed his skin, and pulled his arm into his side.

"How's it going, kid?"

Face said nothing, his bandaged gaze fixed steadily on the vista of an ocean he couldn't see. Hannibal glanced around to find the nearest deck chair and pulled it over to stand in front of Face's chair. Then he folded himself into it and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. He watched Face from this vantage point, wondering how long he could maintain this stony silence, but after a minute or two, decided that he didn't want to find out. A silent, defensive, withdrawn Face was unsettling. Like a sane Murdock or a singing Bosco. It was unnatural. He had to break the silence, if not the other man's defenses.

"I just got off the phone with El Diablo," he said. That earned him no response, so he added, "She's on a mission to find you. I gathered she thinks you're off in some Tropical resort, seducing all the local beauties, and she doesn't approve."

Still Face said nothing, and Hannibal sharpened his tone. "Face, you're going to have to speak to her eventually."


"Because if you don't, she'll hop on a plane and come looking for you. Besides, you owe her that much."

The lieutenant finally turned to orient on Hannibal's voice, a scowl darkening his features. "I owe her?"

"She saved your life."

"She knows?" Fear blossomed, cold and vicious, behind the anger. "You told her?!"

"What?" Hannibal asked, stunned into stupidity by the stark pain in his voice.

"Ian knows. Agent Hadida. The team from MI6. The Saudi religious authorities… Hell, half the population of North Africa must know by now! Why not Charissa?!"

"Face, I didn't…"

"You don't need me to talk to her. You can just show her the videos! That'll explain everything!"

"That's enough!" Face shut his mouth with a snap, so conditioned to obey orders that he couldn't help but respond to that tone, and Hannibal followed up quickly on his advantage. "You know perfectly well that I would never tell Charissa Sosa anything without your permission. You know this, Face."

Face turned his head away without answering. Every line of his body was rigid with strain, and Hannibal got the distinct impression that he was trying to crawl through the back of his chair to escape without actually moving a muscle.

"I had to call her. I needed her help to trace your kidnappers," Hannibal went on in his most reasonable tone. "I told her it was for our latest mission, but she knew something was up. She wanted to know why I was asking, instead of you. In the end, I spun a story about you being busy with the mission and promised I'd have you call her when it was over.

"This was before we knew what had happened to you, Face. I had no idea what was going on or what we'd find when we finally tracked you down. All I knew was that one of my boys was missing, and Sosa could help us find him, so I said whatever I had to say to get her on board."

He waited for Face to offer some comment. When the other man remained stubbornly silent, he reached over to place a hand on his knee. Face did not flinch or pull away, but Hannibal could feel him vibrating with tension. Like a trapped animal, Hannibal reflected grimly. He dropped his voice to a calm, soothing murmur and threw every ounce of sincerity he possessed into it.

"I did not tell Charissa Sosa what happened to you in Morocco. I would never betray you that wayto her or to anyone."

Face twitched at that, wanting to respond but unable to trust himself to speak.

"But the truth is that we'd never have found you without her. So you owe her your life, Face, even if she doesn't know it." Hannibal squeezed his knee, then let go and sat back, giving him some breathing space. "What you do with El Diablo is your business, but I'm here to tell you that the lady is not going away without a fight."

He stood up and pushed back his chair, trying not to notice how Face's entire body reacted to the noise, shying away from it as if from an open flame. "Keep that in mind, whatever you decide."

With that, he strode back into the house and closed the door behind him.

A pier in Malibu—

It was a beautiful, crystalline day on the Southern California coast. Autumn winds had blown the smog out to sea, and the chill in the air had dissuaded all but the hardiest surfers and joggers, leaving this isolated beach largely deserted. Charissa Sosa felt out of place in her severe, black overcoat, but she was glad of its warmth as she strode along the pier toward a small cafe and its scattering of outdoor tables. Even from a distance, she could recognize the two men seated together at one table. She felt a small spurt of annoyance that Face had brought Murdock with him to what should have been a private meeting, but she swallowed the emotion and pasted a smile on her face as she approached.

Murdock glanced up when her shadow fell across them, then got to his feet. "Hey, Cap'n Sosa."


At the sound of her voice, Face finally reacted. He lifted his head and looked at her from behind a pair of black RayBans, no sign of welcome in his face. "Hello, Charissa."

His utterly mundane and utterly emotionless greeting struck her as wrong. She'd never known Face to be unmoved by her presence. Whether he felt delight, desire, resentment, regret, it didn't matter. He always felt something. But today, he just sat there, his expression blank and his eyes hidden, his hands clasped loosely around the cup of coffee that sat on the table in front of him. He didn't stand up to take her hand or kiss her cheek. He didn't even smile. It was eerie.

Murdock glanced between his teammate and Charissa, then shuffled out from between the bench and table. "I'm goin' for a walk. Want anything before I go, Cap'n?"

She shook her head, her eyes still on Face, trying unsuccessfully to pierce the mask he wore.

"'Kay. I'll just…" He gestured vaguely toward the landward end of the pier. "See ya, buddy." Then he loped off, leaving Charissa alone with Face.

"May I sit down?" she asked, a hint of irritation creeping into her voice.

Face nodded towards Murdock's empty place and Charissa slid onto the bench. From this perspective, she could see his face clearly for the first time and she realized, with a start, that it was decorated with fresh scars. A fat, ragged, silver trail curved over his left cheekbone, while thin slashes cut across his right cheek and another scar thickened his lower lip. They were all healing, fading, becoming just another part of his staggering, rakish beauty, but they were still new enough to look shocking to her eyes. She wanted desperately to touch him, to caress the wicked scar on his cheek and ask him how it had happened. But his closed-off expression and distant manner held her still and silent.

For a long moment, they simply stared at each other. Then Face lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee, breaking the weird stasis that held them.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Charissa asked.

Face lowered his cup and clasped both hands around it again. "You're the one who insisted we meet." His voice sounded exactly the way she remembered, except for the lack of emotion in it, and it sent a familiar thrill of attraction down Charissa's spine. "What do you want to talk about?"

"We've never had a problem coming up with topics of conversation before," she pointed out.

He shrugged slightly and his invisible gaze drifted away from her face. "We live different lives now."

"All right," she said briskly, struggling to establish a normal tone, "How about this last mission? I helped you guys trace your targets to North Africa, so I'm entitled to…"

"No," he said flatly, cutting her off. "We're grateful for your help—more than you know—but I'm not going to talk about it."

She cocked her head, frowning. "Face, what the hell is going on with you?!"

"Nothing. I agreed to meet you because you swore you wouldn't back off until I did. So here I am." He lifted and spread his hands, presenting himself for her inspection. "Alive and in person." Then he leaned forward, propped his forearms on the table and circled his cup with his fingers, physically and mentally closing himself off from her once again. "You can go back to DC now."

"I won't. Not till I understand what's happened to us."

"There is no 'us'."

"Face." She reached over to clasp his arm and felt him jump at her touch. He did not actively pull away, but his muscles went rigid. "Talk to me. We're friends, aren't we, even if we're not lovers anymore? Why won't you talk to me?"

On a sudden, uncontrollable impulse, she lifted her hand from his arm to his face and brushed a fingertip across his scarred lip.

He reacted instantly and violently, jerking his head away and lifting his right hand to fend her off. His forearm struck hers, knocking her hand aside, then she felt his hand fasten around her wrist. Except that it didn't exactly. Only his thumb and two outer fingers moved, giving him an odd, lopsided grip. She glanced down at his hand and saw yet another fresh scar cutting across the back of it, this one thick and ugly and horrifying, as if a wide blade had been driven through it. How could she not have seen it before, she wondered, as she stared aghast at his half-crippled hand and useless fingers? How could she not have seen how damaged he was?

She did not pull away from his uneven clasp, but covered his hand with her own and murmured, "Face, what's happened to you? Please, tell me."

He detached himself from her and tucked his hands down under the edge of the table where she could neither see nor touch them. His expression had gone rigid and cold, but it no longer fooled her. She and Face had never managed to be on the same page at the same time, but for all their miscommunication, she knew him better than most and she knew open wounds when she saw them. He was not cold or angry. He was suffering. In pain. And being Face, he could not bear to have his wounds touched.

"It was the mission, wasn't it? I knew something was off when Smith called me." Her voice began to scale up in outrage. "He sent you into the Hot Zone alone again, didn't he?! He always does, and you always pay for it! Why does it always have to be you, Face? Why are you always the one who…"

"It wasn't Hannibal!" His voice cracked hard, cutting off her tirade. "He didn't send me anywhere! And I told you, I won't discuss the mission."

"You always defend him. His Holiness Hannibal Smith! But if he cared about you half as much as you care about him, he'd never make you do these things!"

"He's the one who told me I had to come today," Face snapped. "You should be thanking him."

"Smith? Smith told you to come?"

"He told me I owed you a face-to-face."

"Why?" she demanded, mystified.

"Because you helped us with the mission. Because without you… he never would have traced that plane to Rabat."


"And I'd be dead."

She just sat and stared at him for a handful of seconds. Then she asked, "What was on that plane?"


"You were the cargo?" He nodded. "Where were they taking you? And why?"

"That you definitely don't need to know."


"Stop, Charissa. Please. I came here today because Hannibal convinced me that I should, and because I was tired of ducking your phone calls. I came to prove to you that I'm alive and well and to thank you for what you did. So, thank you. I mean it. I owe you my life, and I won't forget it. But now we're done."

"I can't let it go there. I can't. I still care about you… still love you, if you have to know! And I won't just let you walk away without an explanation!"

"You can still reach the others, if you want them. They may even ask for your help again."

"That's not good enough!"

"It's all you're going to get."

Her face hardened stubbornly and she snapped, "If you won't tell me, I'll find out for myself!"

"Stay out of it!" he hissed, his voice harsh with mingled fury and pleading, his face white and wild. "You say you care about me? Then do as I ask and stay the hell out of it!"

She gaped at him for a shocked moment, then suddenly reached toward him again and demanded, "Take those glasses off!"

Face lurched to his feet, thwarting her attempt to grab his glasses, but did not move from his place. Charissa bounded up after him. She was filled with a deep, compelling need to look him in the eyes while he banished her, rejected her, exiled her from his life forever.

"If you're going to tell me that you never want to see me again, the least you can do is look at me while you do it. Take them off, Face!"

He shied away as she stretched out her hand again, but blocked in by the bench, he had nowhere to go. She grabbed the glasses by one earpiece and twitched them away from his face. Then froze in shock and disgust, because the eyes looking back at her were not the familiar incandescent blue she knew and loved so well, but blank, shining, featureless white. His eyes were gone.

"Oh, God," she gasped, her free hand coming up to cover her mouth.

Face stared at her for a moment with his empty ceramic eyes, then he held out his hand for the glasses. She laid them across his palm and he settled them back in place without saying a word. His eyes hidden once again, he sat down and clasped his hands around his coffee cup while Charissa remained on her feet, staring helplessly down at him, completely unstrung by disbelief and horror.

"Go away, Charissa," he said flatly, "and keep your nose out of my business. That includes the mission."

"Face, please…" she began, only to have him cut her off.


"You won't tell me what happened?"


"But… what about your eyes? They aren't going to stay… I mean…"

"They'll add the decorative part later. I'm told they'll look just like the real thing, when it's all done." He sounded utterly unconcerned, as if he were discussing a shrub that needed pruning.

"You don't have to push me away," she pleaded in a half-whisper. "Just because you can't see and you've got some new scars…"

He lifted his head to fix her with his dark lenses. "Good bye."

At that moment, Murdock came jogging up, telling Charissa that he had been close enough to watch—if not to hear—all the time, waiting for some sign that the meeting was over. Of course Murdock would be here, standing guard over Face, keeping him safe from any threat, even the threat of her. He gave her a neutral look, neither defensive nor accusing, then turned his attention to Face.

"Ready to go, buddy?"

"Yeah." Face rose to his feet again and Murdock stepped in close to him. He rested a hand on Murdock's shoulder, preparing to leave, but paused to look at her once more. "I am grateful, Charissa, and not just for this last mission. Thank you. Take care of yourself."

She stood in numb silence as Murdock guided him around the bench. She expected them to stride off down the pier, but to her surprise, Murdock hesitated beside her. He lifted his eyes to her face and reached out to clasp her arm in farewell, and in that moment Charissa realized that she was not the only one suffering for Face. Poor Murdock was in a living Hell.

"Be well, Cap'n."

"You, too, Murdock," she murmured.

Then the two men turned and walked away.

Back at the house—

Face returned to the beach house in a somber mood that turned increasingly grim as the day progressed. Hannibal had clung to the hope that a meeting with Sosa might signal a breakthrough for Face, or at least a thawing in his attitude toward his commander. But one glance at his friend's expression dashed that hope for good. Whatever had passed between Face and his former flame had not improved his outlook on life or reconciled him to Hannibal's actions.

By dinner time, Hannibal's mood was as black as Face's and he did not relish the idea of sitting down to eat with his teammates. He watched Murdock serving up his latest culinary masterpiece, thinking that it was a shame no one would actually enjoy it. Then he sat down and stared at his own plate with a stomach that felt like it was full of lead. B.A. started eating. Murdock slid food around his plate with his fork. Face just sat with a frozen look on his face, his hands resting on the napkin in his lap, making no move toward his food.

Hannibal decided that B.A. had the right idea and scooped up a forkful of the colorful mess on his plate. It was good, but then, Murdock's food was always good. The trick was not to investigate too closely what was in it. He chewed and swallowed, then turned a half-smile on the pilot.

"Nice, Murdock. What'd you use for flavor in this one, battery acid?"

Murdock tried to return his smile, but it came out as a convulsive twitch. The colonel gave an inward sigh and waded into the conversational fray again.

"What happened with El Diablo this morning?"

"Nothin'," Murdock mumbled in reply.

"Must've been something to darken Face's sunny mood so completely," Hannibal retorted, the sour words out of his mouth before he had time to think.

Face's head snapped up and he turned his hidden gaze on his commander. "Sorry if I'm raining on your parade."

Hannibal sighed again, this time out loud, and tried to smooth the feathers ruffled by his own clumsiness. "No, I'm sorry. I thought being out of the house and talking to an old friend would cheer you up, but obviously I was wrong."

"Don't be ridiculous." Face turned away again, tacitly dismissing his commander and his commander's concern in one cold gesture. "Hannibal Smith is never wrong."

Hannibal's mouth tightened in anger and it took him a moment to master himself before he could speak again. He recognized that he had brought the attack on himself by his flash of temper, but at the same time, he fairly itched to knock Face's head against the wall for daring to speak to his commander in that way. Face had rebelled against his authority before, challenged his decisions, taken exception to his criticism, kicked against the traces in any number of ways. But he'd never frozen him out or refused even to speak to him. It was unprecedented. It was intolerable. And, if Hannibal were willing to admit the truth, it was exactly what Murdock had warned him would happen.

"Talk to me, kid," he said when he could keep his voice even. "You're even more angry with me than usual, so I must have done something I don't know about. Or is it that Sosa did something and it's my fault? Is that it?" He knew, even as the words came out of his mouth, that he'd once again chosen the wrong tone, that he'd let his bitterness and frustration with Face's behavior show. He knew he wasn't going to like what he heard. But at least it was out there and Face couldn't very well ignore it.

"She did exactly what she always does," Face ground out through clenched teeth, "exactly what I told you she'd do. But you didn't believe me, did you? No, poor, stupid, damaged Face doesn't really know what he wants or needs anymore, so you have to run his life for him. Choose his friends. Send him out to play. So what if he doesn't like it? He'll get over it, because Hannibal always knows best!"

Once again, Hannibal fought for calm and control. Once again, he tried to breach the wall of Face's anger and resentment and, once again, bungled it. Turning to Murdock, he demanded, "What happened today?"

"Don't ask him," Face snarled. "If you want to know what happened to me, ask me!"

"All right," Hannibal's voice seethed with barely-restrained frustration, "I'll ask you. What did Sosa do that has you so furious?"

"She took my glasses off."

This bald statement dropped like a boulder on the table and lay between the four men, suspending all movement and speech until Hannibal collected himself and said, with a nonchalance that was not entirely false,

"So she knows you lost your sight. Okay. Did you expect to keep it a secret forever?"

"I expected it to be my business. Not hers, not yours, mine! But I guess I'm not entitled to that anymore, either!"

"Face, you're blind. It's a fact. Once you leave this house, you won't be able to hide it." He could almost hear Face grinding his teeth but he kept going, figuring—rightly or wrongly—that it was too late to turn back now. "So save yourself and the rest of us a lot of grief, and get used to it."

"How do you suggest I do that?" Face asked with deceptive sweetness.

"You could start by taking off those glasses. You don't need them here."

Face just stared at him for a moment, then he pulled his lips back in a grimace of pain and tore the glasses off his face. His blank, ceramic eyes stared defiantly at Hannibal. "Right! There you go! Because you all want to look at this while you eat!"

"Face, please…" Murdock began.

Face cut him off by hurling his glasses toward the wall and pushing his chair back from the table with a loud thunk. He flung his napkin into his untouched plate and lurched to his feet.

"I'm not hungry."

He turned to leave but walked directly into an armchair, drawing a cry of alarm from Murdock, who scrambled to get to his feet and around the table.

"Hang on, buddy, I'll…"

"I don't need a fucking nursemaid!" Face snarled. As Murdock sank back into his chair, looking as if his friend had just whacked him with a two-by-four, Face located the glass door, flung it open, and disappeared into the gathering dusk.

No one spoke for a long, agonizing minute. Then B.A., who had been frozen in place with his fork halfway to his mouth, slowly lowered his hand and turned troubled eyes on Murdock.

"He'll be back, Crazy Man, and he'll be sorry for what he said."

Murdock stared at his plate, his face blank and white with agony, while Hannibal looked from one of his men to the other, his own anger quickly coming to a boil. When he heard a whimper of pain rise in Murdock's throat, Hannibal slammed back his own chair and rose to his feet.

"I've had enough of this."

"You started it!" Murdock shouted.

"Fine." Hannibal strode over to the glass door, reaching to open it. "Then I'll put a stop to it."

"No, Boss, leave 'im…"

But Hannibal was gone, out the door, sliding it closed behind him.

He paused on the deck to take stock of his surroundings. The sun had set, but its light still filled the sky with a soft, orange glow and painted the shore with purple shadows. In another ten minutes, it would be full dark, but for the moment there was enough light for Hannibal to see his teammate. Face was on the beach, halfway between the bluff and the waterline, kneeling in the sand and staring at the fading sunset. Hannibal gave himself a minute or two to breathe the damp, ocean-scented air and cool his temper. Then he paced across the deck and down the steps to the sand.

As usual, Face ignored the sounds of his progress, but this time, Hannibal was not fooled into thinking that he was indifferent or unaware. Every nerve-ending seemed tuned to Hannibal's approach, his thinly-clad shoulders quivering with tension and the fingers of his functional hand gripping his thigh so hard that they visibly dug into the muscle. Hannibal racked his brain for the right words to begin—words that would not plunge them straight back into a pitched battle—but for the first time in weeks, Face spoke before he could.

"Go away, Hannibal. I don't want to fight anymore."

"Neither do I." He moved up beside Face and folded himself down onto the sand.

It was chilly out and would soon be cold. Neither man had a jacket, and Face was dressed in his usual light, cotton clothing that offered no protection from the Autumn night. Hannibal briefly regretted that he had not gone back for a coat or blanket before committing himself to a conversation on the beach, but he knew he couldn't back out now.

"I just want to talk," he said. "You and me, like the old friends we are. Can we do that?"

"I don't know."

"I'm trying, here, kid. Give me something."

Face offered no answer to this and Hannibal turned to look at his rigid profile, tinted orange and purple by the sunset. He felt a twinge of sympathetic pain at what he saw in the other man's face and felt a little more of his righteous anger slip away.

"Was Murdock right? Are you never going to forgive me for looking at those damned videos?"

Face's shoulders hunched slightly, as if shielding himself from a threatened blow, and he murmured, "I don't know."

"I'm sorry, Face. I…"

"Sorry?" His head snapped around to fix Hannibal with his eerie, white gaze. "You're sorry? You keep saying that, but sorry for what?!"

Hannibal blinked at him, taken aback by his sudden intensity, at a momentary loss for words.

"You can't mean that you're sorry for watching the videos, since you still believe that was for my benefit. Are you sorry that I found out? Is that it? Or could it be that you're sorry I was humiliated in front of a woman I used to love?!"


"No, wait… that wasn't a humiliation, that was a lesson in accepting reality! I guess knowing that Ian watched the videos, too, and showed them to the Sharia court so they could list out all the crimes the sheikh committed in graphic detail isn't humiliating, either! Or it wouldn't be, if I'd just man up and get over myself! So tell me, Hannibal, what are you sorry for?! Please! I need to know!"

Hannibal met his blank eyes with treacherous tears starting in his own and said roughly, "I'm sorry you're in so much pain. And I'm sorry if I made it worse."


"I only wanted to help, Face…"

"That's another thing you keep saying! But how in Hell could you think it would help me to watch those recordings?!"

"Do you really want to know? Or do you just want another excuse to shout at me?" he asked, feeling his temper rise again.

Face gritted his teeth and looked away, telling Hannibal that he, too, was making a real effort to control his temper and actually communicate with his commander but that he, too, was losing the battle.

"I thought that if I knew exactly what had happened, how the sheikh had broken you down and made you so afraid, that maybe I could find a way to help you. That's all there was to it."

"All… all there was to…" Something about the way he gasped for breath and sobbed out his words told Hannibal that he was crying, though he had no tears to shed. "You took away the last… last thing I had and you say… that's all there is to it!"

"What do you mean by the last thing you had?" He put a hand on Face's back, feeling it heave with fresh sobs, and frowned in frustration at his own lack of understanding. "Tell me, Face. Explain to me why this is so hard for you."

Face reared back, throwing off his hand, and stared blindly up at the stars just beginning to appear. He made a tearing sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "You really need me to explain it?"

"Yes, because this doesn't make any sense! I get that it was a shock to find out there were recordings of the… assaults. I get that you didn't want me to see them. But it's not like we didn't know what the sheikh had done or that we'd think any less of you for it. Christ, Face, we're just grateful that you survived! But instead of letting me help, you're so angry that you can't even speak to me anymore, so obviously, I'm missing something. You wouldn't end our friendship after all these years, destroy our team, destroy yourself, just because I injured your pride! There has to be more to it."

Face kept his head tilted up, toward the stars, but he closed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice dripped with an agony so immediate and intense that Hannibal was grateful for the shadows that hid his features. He didn't think he could bear to listen to that voice and see the same torture reflected in his familiar face.

"You're killing me, Hannibal! I can't do this! I thought I could… thought I could survive, but that was before…"

"Before what?" Hannibal asked in a hunted whisper. "Before I saw it?"

"Before I had to do it in front of you!"

"But Face, you didn't…"

"Nnngh! Stop!" He clutched at his head with both hands and crumpled forward until his forehead rested on sand. "Stop telling me what I'm supposed to feel! He told me I had to feel afraid, and when I refused, he gouged my eyes out!"


"Is that what you're going to do?! Torture me till I give you what you want?! Then just fucking kill me and get it over with! Because I can't stand anymore of this!"

"No. Christ, no, Face, let me help you. Please!"

"You can't! You took away the only thing that was keeping me sane, the only thing that let me keep breathing! I've got nothing, now, and I don't know what to do! I don't know what to do!"

Hannibal reached for him at last, unable to withstand the need to touch him, to comfort him. Slipping one arm around his waist, he pulled the other man toward him. Face, still crouched in a defensive huddle on the sand, crumpled over sideways, fetching up with his head on Hannibal's leg and his shoulders in the circle of Hannibal's arms.

Tightening his hold to draw his friend closer to the warmth and protection of his own body, Hannibal clasped his head and bent down to murmur, "I'm sorry, Face. I didn't realize what I was doing."

"I was so grateful you weren't there… so grateful I was going to die before you saw…"

"I'm grateful you didn't."

"I told myself it didn't matter what he did because I was the only one who knew… the only one who had to bear it. It was only pain…"

"You were right. It is only pain. And you survived it. You hung on for me, for Murdock… Think about Murdock! How much he loves you and how destroyed he would be, if he lost you now, after all of this!"

"Oh, God!" Face groaned, his shoulders once more shaking with tearless sobs. "If he sees it, I'll…"

"He didn't and he won't. Shh." He pulled Face's head more tightly against his midriff and began to rock unconsciously. "God, I'm sorry, Face… so sorry…"

The beach—

Face refused to return to the house that night. Hannibal brought him a sleeping bag and a pillow, choosing a military parka for himself, then settled down on the sand to keep watch. Face burrowed into the sleeping bag as if into a cocoon and slept like a dead thing, barely moving, until the sky to the east was growing light. Then he woke and sat up, hunched into the warmth of his down wrapping with only his head sticking out, and gazed out to sea with his blind, white eyes.

Hannibal had fallen asleep himself, somewhere in the darkest hours of the night, but he awoke when Face stirred. So the two men sat together in a still, almost companionable silence to wait for morning. The growling of Hannibal's stomach eventually disturbed the peaceful scene.

Shooting Face a sideways glance, he asked as neutrally as possible, "Ready to go inside, kid?"

Face nodded and extricated himself from the sleeping bag, while Hannibal wisely hung back, offering no help or advice. When his lieutenant had the sleeping bag over one arm and the pillow tucked under the other, he stepped up close to him and said, a little awkwardly, "I'll navigate, if that's okay."

Face slipped his left hand through Hannibal's elbow and waited for the colonel to start walking.

Murdock met them at the door as they came into the house, looking, to Hannibal's knowledgable eye, as if he had not slept at all. His hair stood up in agitated clumps, his clothes were rumpled and ripe, and his eyes gazed warily out of deep purple shadows. The colonel felt a moment's guilt at having left him to suffer alone through the night but shrugged it off in the next breath. Last night had been about salvaging his friendship with Face. That was his first priority. Face could get Murdock back on track easily enough, now that he was functioning again.

It was all very complicated and exhausting, and he was much too hungry to think about team dynamics now. He glanced around the kitchen and saw no signs of breakfast in the making—another clue that Murdock was not firing on all cylinders this morning.

The pilot caught the direction of his look and mumbled, "I'm workin' on it."

"Never mind. I can feed myself after I grab a shower."

He carefully detached his arm from Face's clasp and took the bedding from him, leaving him standing a bit forlornly just inside the glass door. Murdock took the hint, as Hannibal had known he would, and swooped in to claim Face's attention while the colonel made himself scarce.

"Want some breakfast, buddy?" Murdock asked hopefully. Face nodded, and Murdock caught his arm to pilot him over to the counter. Planting his friend on a bar stool, he said, "You sit, I'll cook."

But in spite of his offer, Murdock didn't go round the counter into the kitchen. He lurked by Face's seat, watching Hannibal vanish down the hallway and listening for the sound of the bathroom door closing. When he was sure they were alone, he turned back to Face and asked,

"How're you doin', Face?"


"Really? You and Hannibal didn't get into it again?"

"No. Sort of. But it's okay."

"So you worked it out. You're gonna forgive him."

"Maybe." Face thought for a minute, then added cautiously, "I'm going to try."

"That's good. I'm glad. I didn't think you would but… I'm glad."

Face cocked his head and fixed his unnerving, white gaze on his friend. "You get it, don't you? Why I can't just… let it go?"

Murdock's eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Course I do!"

"Hannibal doesn't." His eyes slid away. "Didn't. I think he does, now. At least he said he was sorry and meant it this time."

"Aw, Faceman." He rested a hand on Face's shoulder, then lifted it to clasp his head, his palm against the other man's scarred cheek. Face turned his empty eyes back to him, waiting. "He didn't mean to hurt you like that. I really believe it. Not at first—at first I was ready to tear his head off I was so mad—but then I thought about it and I knew he didn't mean it. He just has a hard time admitting when he's wrong."

Face didn't answer, but he turned his head ever so slightly to rest against Murdock's hand and let his eyes drift halfway closed. The pilot smiled. Then Face spoke and his words wiped the smile from his friend's face.

"Tell me again, Murdock. Tell me you didn't see it."

"I didn't! I swear!"

"Because… if you did…"

"No, never!" He reached out with his other hand, gathering Face into a crushing hug.

"I'd lose my mind."

"I know!" Face's arms fastened around Murdock's waist, and he burrowed his face into the pilot's shoulder. Murdock held him with all his strength, his chin resting on Face's head and his eyes clenched shut against his tears. "I know it. That's why I didn't look. But I have to say one thing, Face…"

He felt Face stiffen in alarm and shifted one hand to stroke his hair, murmuring, "No, don't be scared. I just have to say that, if you ever changed your mind, if you needed me to watch those videos, I'd do it. Even if it drove me totally batshit and I ended up in a rubber room, I wouldn't care. I'd do it in a heartbeat, for you."

Face shuddered and tightened his hold on Murdock. The pilot chuckled a bit soggily and went on, "Okay, you don't want me in the loony bin. How 'bout if I get sane?"


"Bosco says I love you more'n I love being crazy and that you're the only person I'd get sane for. I reckon he's right, 'cause I love you more'n anyone on this earth. And I'd do anything for you, Face. Anything. Understand?"

Face lifted his head and Murdock caught it between his hands, tilting his face so he could look directly into it. His thumb caressed the wicked scar on Face's left cheek, then moved to stroke the smaller scar on his lip. "All you ever have to do is ask."

Face quirked an infinitesimal smile at him and asked, his voice soft and wheedling, "Would you make me breakfast?"

Murdock chuckled and pulled him into a fierce hug. "I'll make you a feast fit for a king."


With that, Murdock released him and moved around the counter, whistling. In another minute, the smell of frying bacon filled the room.