First Night in Langley
As secure compounds go, this one was awfully nice, Hannibal Smith had to concede.
The sprawling house fell into the 'exclusive executive residence' category. It was a long, low building, situated on top of a slight rise that provided a good view of the approaching roads and surrounding countryside and clear views across fields where horses grazed in the warm, August night. Far enough from the glow of the DC metro area, the Capitol Beltway, and flight paths of National and Dulles to create the illusion of being much more remote than it really was.
Stockwell smiled benignly behind his tinted sunglasses as the limo with Hannibal, Face, B.A., and Frankie rolled up the driveway. It was nearly eleven at night, but he still wore them. The driver opened Stockwell's door, and he stepped out. He gestured toward the entrance. "Gentlemen." He practically purred.
The team stood inside the entrance foyer and looked around. The décor was best described as 'generic expensive.' The sort of furniture found in the lobbies of high-end hotel chains or three-page photo spreads in interior design magazines. Open floor plan, creek stone fireplace with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with volumes no one had ever read, sliding glass doors that opened to a patio and pool area. A large kitchen was to the right of the entrance, opposite the living area. A long corridor led to living quarters.
"I think you'll find your new home quite comfortable," Stockwell said. "There are six bedrooms, each with its own bath, a fully-equipped kitchen - I believe Sgt. Baracus is something of an enthusiastic cook, as are you, Mr. Santana. You'll find a gym with all manner of weights and training machines at the far end of the living quarters. We're on 5 acres here. I am well aware of the training regime you follow, Colonel. I've taken the liberty of installing a basic obstacle course. You can, of course, modify it as needed."
"If you ever get tired of the espionage business, Stockwell, you should go into real estate:" Hannibal said.
Stockwell graced him with a smirk. "We took the liberty of randomly assigning you rooms. You'll find your belongings there. If you prefer to change, that is your prerogative."
"Six bedrooms. But there are only four of us," B.A. noted. "You plannin' on us havin' houseguests?"
"There are always contingencies, Sgt." He gestured to the living room and motioned for them to sit on the pristine couches. Hannibal felt oddly uncomfortable soiling them in his grimy fatigues, a reaction he decided Stockwell wanted, so he stretched out like a cat settling onto a favorite perch. Yep. Stockwell's eyes widened ever so slightly. If he wanted to play a passive-aggressive game, Hannibal was up for it. Annoying the General was going to be fun.
"Let us go over the ground rules of this arrangement, gentlemen," Stockwell was saying. "This is your home when you are not on a mission. You are free to roam the grounds. But do not fool yourself that you are not monitored. I'm sure you've already noticed the guards." Indeed, a burly man in an ill-fitting, off-the-rack suit and toting an automatic rifle stood at attention near the entrance. "The grounds are under surveillance, with cameras, listening devices, ground monitors, and other useful gadgets. If you wish to leave the property, one of my men of the Abel detachment will drive and escort you. You are to have no visitors here without clearance from myself or my assistant, Carla. Any 'interactions' between civilians and yourselves will also need to be approved." He shot a meaningful glare at Face and Frankie.
"Do you really think we're going to cut and run, Stockwell?"
"Let's just say I'm still getting your measure, Colonel."
"We gave you our word."
"Indeed you did. Consider this a probationary period. As we become more comfortable with our working arrangement, the conditions may relax."
"So is this house arrest or protective custody?'
"A little of both," Stockwell gave them his shark-like smile. "Once word gets out that you apparently survived, there will be very heightened interest in seeing you recaptured. This facility makes your detection and apprehension much less likely. It keeps you safe. And having you all close at hand makes my job easier when missions arise, which often occur suddenly. Admit it, this arrangement is much nicer than constantly being on the move, having Lt. Peck constantly finding temporary accommodations, constantly looking over your shoulders and jumping whenever you hear a siren or see someone in any sort of uniform." He sighed with self-satisfaction. "And with that, gentlemen, it has been a very long day for all of us. I suggest you all get some rest. I will give you a week to adjust before I assign any mission." He nodded his head and strolled out the door. The Abel moved to stand guard outside.
Hannibal sighed. "As much as I hate to admit it, he's right. We're all wasted. Let's check out our digs and get some sleep. We can reconnoiter and figure this out in the morning." He watched as his team wearily walked down the hall, opening doors until they found the room assigned to them.
His room, he noted, was apparently the master bedroom. It was expansive, with a king-sized bed, seating area, separate entrance to the patio, and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. His clothing had been collected from his last apartment, trailer, and the team's semi-permanent hideaway beach house. It was freshly laundered and hung in the walk-in closet or placed in the dresser drawers. Even his personal possessions, taken when the team was arrested, were on the dresser. He grunted as he noted that the bathroom was stocked with fresh supplies of his preferred toiletries, right down to the brand of dental floss, and the linens were high-quality. He guessed Face would know the thread count and origin of the fabric.
He pulled back the curtains to look out the glass door. Even for the crazy, unpredictable, adrenaline-fused days of most of their missions, today was mind-blowing. As Murdock noted, there was no 'Stockwell's Team.' They were it. How and why was the general so certain that they would survive their execution? On the other hand, maybe he did have some reserve people who would have moved in if he, Face, and BA had died. That did not do much to raise his comfort level.
He'd expected unmarked government vehicles and personnel would descend on the ranch once the shooting was over and the gun deal was stopped. And they had. What he hadn't expected was the black, windowless panel truck that blocked the road and BA's van as the team tried to leave. Stockwell hadn't given them any orders as to where they were supposed to go after the mission. They'd planned to return to the loading dock where they'd been revived. Hannibal thought Stockwell would be waiting in his limo, no doubt annoyed at being tranquilized by Hannibal, or for one of 'his men' to be there with directions. Instead, three heavy-armed guys in business suits exited the truck and wordlessly motioned the team to get inside.
They obeyed silently. The doors slammed shut, and the truck began to move. It was nearly totally dark inside.
"I don't understand," Frankie said. "What's happening? Where are they taking us?"
"Double crossed again," Face said wearily. "So much for trusting his word."
"What do you mean?" Frankie asked. He was starting to sound frantic. "What's that about keeping his word?"
"When Stockwell told us his deal, Hannibal asked why we should trust him," Face explained. "Stockwell said he was giving his word and that he and Hannibal both had honor." In the dim light, Frankie could see Face shake his head.
"One of them does, but it sure ain't Stockwell," BA grumbled.
"So we're being arrested?"
"No," Murdock said.
"My guess is that we did the job he wanted and now we are liabilities," Hannibal said. The only light in the truck was the faint glow from his cigar. "When we left the ranch, we were on paved roads. Now it's rough."
"Dirt but still a road," Face said.
"Mmm-hmm. But getting rougher."
"What does that mean?" Frankie asked.
"Less used road. Or no road at all," Murdock said.
"There's a lot of government property out here. Private land, too, that's not well-populated or visited. If you wanted to eliminate a liability, all you'd have to do is drive into the hills and dispose of them. Leave their bodies to the coyotes. The chances of anything ever being found are slim to none."
"But he said the government would pay my dad's medical bills…"
"It still might," Murdock said.
"But I wouldn't bet on it," Face sighed.
Frankie sat back against the metal wall of the truck. He'd been excited about working with this legendary team, thrilled that his skill ended a hijacking and rescued the planeload of innocent people. He was glad to help Murdock rescue the others, inordinately proud of the clever plan he and Murdock developed and - well, he'd say executed, but that didn't seem appropriate now. Stockwell would view him as a liability because he knew the truth about the team's fate. He understood now the sense of betrayal the others felt. Serve your country and get royally screwed.
The drove in silence. Frankie touched a button to light up his watch. They'd been driving for over an hour. How far did they have to go to find a suitably remote place to kill them?
The truck slowed. The team grew alert, each one listening intently. The truck was on gravel now and slowing more. The engine stopped. Doors in the cab opened and slammed shut. There were voices coming to the back of the truck.
"Frankie, I'm really sorry you got caught up in this mess," Hannibal said.
The doors flew open. The sudden afternoon sunlight effectively blinded them, preventing any chance they had of trying to overtake their captors. Squinting, they clambered onto the gravel. The guards motioned them to the front of the vehicle.
They were on a large, open field. A small concrete shed was to their left on a narrow gravel driveway. Other than that, there was no sign of anyone ever having been there. The only sound was the wind, blowing strongly enough to kick up dust devils and sway the scrub grass around the shed. The guards took a few steps back, alert to any movement from the team, but too far away for them to try to take on the guards. Hannibal waited for an order from the guards, waited to be told to start marching. He glanced to his right where Face and BA stood impassively. They both looked exhausted, too played out to show any more emotion as they faced the near certainty of another firing squad, this time without hope of escape.
A faint sound carried on the wind. Murdock's head snapped up, listening, listening. It drew nearer. "Jet,
he said. "Sounds like a Gulfstream."
The others could hear it now, coming closer. Hannibal squinted at the land beyond the shed. Was it possible there was a landing strip there?
"Gulfstreams can land on grass or dirt runways, Colonel. One of their charms. Don't need much room, either. Maybe 3,000 feet."
The plane came closer. The men watched as it made a straight-in landing, kicking up enough dust to force them to turn away and shield their eyes. It taxied, turned around, and halted in front of the shed. As the engines spooled down, the door opened. Stockwell stepped down, beaming beatifically at them.
"Ah, gentlemen. I congratulate you on successfully completing your first assignment."
It had been too long a day for Hannibal to put up with any more of Stockwell. "What the hell is this all about, Stockwell? Why were we herded onto that van by armed guards and driven out here?"
"A necessary precaution, Colonel. I apologize for any trepidation it may have caused any of you," he said, glancing down the row of men who glared at him. "I needed to make sure there was no hint of you being spotted or identified. And no hint of you deciding to change the terms of our agreement. As you have noticed, this landing strip is quite removed from any prying eyes." He gestured to the stairs. "Shall we depart?"
"I ain't goin' in no airplane," BA snapped. "I done told you that."
"Indeed," Stockwell said. "I must apologize. Even as we speak, your van is on its way here. You will leave as soon as we take off. Accompanied, of course, by one of 'my' team. It's a 40-hour drive, you know."
"Won't be the first time I've driven coast to coast. And I don't need no babysitter and no one else drivin' my van. I drive the whole way."
"You might get lost or decide to strike out on your own," Stockwell's voice was infuriatingly mellow.
"That'd leave the rest of my team in trouble. I don't do that sort of thing, Stockwell."
"I already assumed that level of loyalty. I'm glad to see it confirmed. As for Captain Murdock, you will go with these gentlemen back to the VA hospital. You will ride in the cab this time, not in the cargo compartment. It is much more comfortable."
"I'd rather stay with the team." He was getting that spacy look in his eyes that showed he was at his limit of staying grounded.
"That won't be possible, I'm afraid. But I will work on arrangements for you to join the rest of your friends soon."
He gestured again to the plane. "It is hot and dusty our here. Might I suggest we go inside to wait for your van? I suspect all of you are quite thirsty and hungry."
Hannibal hesitated. He glanced again at BA and Face. They looked as suspicious as Hannibal felt, but he couldn't see any options. With a nod from him, they moved towards the plane. They settled themselves on the couches in the front cabin.
"Are you still going to take care of my dad?" Frankie blurted.
"Of course," Stockwell assured him. "As long as you meet your end of the deal." The woman they'd seen at the loading dock appeared with a tray holding glasses of water and a large tumbler of milk.
"Carla is my assistant. Not that any of you will ever ride in this plane again but appreciate that she normally does not perform the duties of a flight attendant. However, these are extraordinary circumstances. I was unable to determine if any of you have preferences for refreshment or food, but Sgt. Baracus' love of milk is well-known."
"This ain't no trick, is it?'
"BA," Face sighed. "What are you going to do? They've got hypodermics and chloroform-soaked washrags tucked away, not to mention there are probably a couple of goons in the back of the plane who will happily use blunt force instruments on you and strap you into your seat. And if we do take off while you're conscious, you'll just go catatonic and not remember anything until we land. Why would they need to spike your drink? And you know you're thirsty." He swept his arm to motion Carla to offer the tray. He took it hesitantly.
"Yeah, I am," BA admitted. He emptied the glass in several long swallows. "Man, that's good," he said. "Cold and fresh."
"Only the best for my associates," Stockwell assured him.
As if on cue, BA's eyes rolled, and his head dropped to his chest. Murdock and Frankie quickly strapped him into his seat.
"Well done, Lieutenant," Stockwell said.
"Put it in the 'completed mission' column."
Stockwell ignored the snark in Face's voice. "We should prepare to leave. It's about a 5-hour flight to National Airport and given the traffic on a Monday evening in Washington, it will probably be another hour before we reach your new home. There are reclining seats toward the back of the cabin. I'm sure you are all very tired. Why not relax and get some well-deserved sleep? I apologize that there are not better hygiene facilities on board, so you'll have to wait until we reach Langley before you'll be able to shower and change." Carla stepped to the stairs and motioned. One of the armed guards came into the cabin.
"Captain Murdock, if you are ready to go, we'll have you safely back at the VA hospital in an hour or so."
He was looking shaky. Hannibal wondered if Stockwell understood the fragility of Murdock's contact with reality.
Murdock's expression was full of pleading as he looked at Hannibal and Face. "Do I gotta go with them, Colonel? I really need to stay with you guys."
Hannibal glanced at Face, a barely perceptible movement of eyes, a barely perceptible nod from Face.
"Look, Murdock," Face said, dropping to his knees beside Murdock's chair. "It's only for a couple of days. Stockwell's got to arrange the paperwork and then he'll send a jet for you. Play it right and I'll bet they let you ride the jump seat in the cockpit."
"You think so?"
"Sure. Besides, you've got to get Billy ready for the trip and you can't leave without Mr. Socky. They're both at the hospital. And don't forget your video games and your comic books. Not to mention your t-shirts." In the corner of his eye, Face saw Hannibal whisper something to Carla. She looked at Stockwell and they exchanged their own silent eye-contact conversation.
"God, Face, it's been such a long day." He hung his head as the emotions and exhaustion began to overwhelm him.
"I know." As Face pulled Murdock towards his shoulder, he pulled the Murdock's collar down, giving Carla a clear space to inject the sedative. Murdock slumped against Face in a moment.
Hannibal hoisted Murdock on his shoulders in a fireman's carry and went down the stairs. He deposited him gently into the back of the truck's cabin and closed the door, frowning. He watched as the truck drove away. Face was standing at the top of the stairs, sharing the frown.
"Well then, Colonel, Lieutenant, I suggest you strap in and get ready for takeoff."
The flight was quiet, uneventful. Hannibal appreciated that and sent a silent word of gratitude to whichever cosmic force chose to give him that much of a break. He'd gotten a few hours of sleep, resting but alert for any movement from Stockwell or Carla. It wasn't that he didn't trust them, it was just that he didn't trust them. They taxied to a discrete hangar in the general aviation area where a limo was waiting. Hannibal helped Face manhandle BA into the back of the limo. He grumbled as usual but fell asleep again as they drove into the DC traffic. Frankie slept well and woke as they approached Washington, staring out the window to see as much of the city as he could. Despite his misgivings as to the circumstances of his arrival, he was still excited. National Airport was close to the downtown, and he spotted the Capitol, Pentagon, and White House during the plane's approach along the Potomac River. Face watched impassively as they drove through the congestion of the city to the open lands of Fairfax County. He hadn't said a word since takeoff and Hannibal knew it wasn't because he was sleeping.
Now with his team settled in for the night, Hannibal felt free to examine their surroundings on his own. First, he took that long-postponed shower and shave then pulled on his khakis and a shirt. Even at this hour, the heat and humidity were high, but he still wore his jacket. He noted a box of cigars on the nightstand and took one, sliding another into the pocket of his jacket.
He was surprised to find BA sitting in the darkness of the living room. He'd also cleaned up and was wearing his jumpsuit and overalls.
"You OK, BA?"
"Yeah. Just trying to get my head around it all." His elbows were resting on the arms of the chair, his chin resting on his knuckled hands. "The worst of it is, Hannibal, my momma… She thinks I'm dead. And shot like that. Like an animal. And the Army, well, even if they had killed me, they wouldn't've given her back my body. That bit about bein' buried in Forest Lawn, that's bull. That's just the story Stockwell usin' for his game. Executions… they buried in unmarked graves. Families can't have 'em. I looked it up. Either way, she's got nothin' of me." His voice was thick and strained.
"We'll find a way to let her know, BA. I'll find a way, I promise."
The big man nodded, lost in his thoughts.
Hannibal walked to the sliding doors. Someone was sitting on the low retaining wall around the patio.
Hannibal stepped outside and lit his cigar. Face was still in his fatigues, arms crossed against his stomach, half-doubled over, staring at some mid-point on the ground in front of him.
"You OK, kid?"
He sat next to the silent man. "You need to get some sleep."
"I slept on the plane." Not much more than a whisper.
"The hell you did. I was sitting across from you. You'd doze off and within five minutes, snap awake again. That's not exactly restful slumber."
He replied with a half-hearted shrug. "I'll be all right." He paused as if to say more, then stopped himself.
"C'mon," Hannibal checked his watch. "It's late. Bedtime."
Curiosity overcame whatever else Face was feeling. "Where'd you get your watch?"
"It was on my dresser. Looks like they returned all our personal possessions they took when we were arrested. Yours should be there."
"Not a chance," Face scoffed. "That Rolex is on the wrist of some grunt two-striper. What time is it, anyway?'
"Eleven." Face did a quick mental calculation. "That's eight o'clock Pacific time. Twelve hours ago, I was in front of a firing squad. We've been drugged, revived, took down an arms deal, driven away under guard to what we all thought was a second execution, then packed into Stockwell's jet and flown here." He doubled over further, locking his fingers and wrapping them behind his neck. Hannibal heard his ragged breathing and knew Face was fighting to keep control. He sat quietly while the younger man steadied himself. Exhaustion, fear, hunger, and the emotional letdown after too much, too fast were winning the battle against Face's determination never to be vulnerable.
"Lieutenant," he said after a while. "Not to be too personal, but you are ripe. You need a shower."
"Not a surprise. Hell, Hannibal, I don't even know how long I've been wearing these! They sentenced us, marched us back to our cell, took our uniforms and gave us these. That was how long ago, four days, five? No reason to bother with clean clothes or a shower for condemned men."
"Get cleaned up and into bed. You'll feel better after you get some sleep."
"I can't sleep."
Hannibal waited. Face was trembling, both body and voice.
"Every time I close my eyes, I'm back in front of the firing squad. I keep seeing that blindfold and feeling it being tied on. And I'm standing there thinking 'what if it doesn't work? What if they realize that the bullets are blanks or if the drug doesn't work and they realize we're not dead? They're going to revive us, and this time make sure the guns are loaded with the right bullets. And then when the squad fired and the squib went off, I doubled over and fell, just like Frankie told us to do. And I'm lying there and fading out and I'm wondering if that's because the drug is working or if I was really shot and I'm fading because I'm bleeding out and dying."
Hannibal rested his arm on Face's shoulder. "I was thinking the same thing, kid. I was damned scared, too."
Face shifted back to his arms-across-the stomach position. "This is a lousy deal, Hannibal." He sounded more angry than broken now. Hannibal took that as a good sign. "Stockwell admitted as much, that it's suicide missions, an unspecified number, and he's *sure* he knows the right people to get us pardons…eventually. It's not as though we had any options, but, hell, if you're going to con someone, you make sure your mark thinks they'll get the good end of the deal. That's not going to happen for us." His voice half-broke again. His sigh was deep and bitter.
They sat quietly in the darkness. There was just enough of a breeze to keep the bugs down, a rarity in an August night in Virginia.
"I'll sit with you, if you want," Hannibal said softly. "If it'll help."
He waited. Finally, Face made the smallest of nods. "Ok," Hannibal said. "I'm going to get myself some coffee. You want some? Coffee? Anything else?"
Face shook his head.
"I'll be back in a minute."
BA had fallen asleep on the couch Even the hours asleep from the sedative weren't enough to compensate for the lost sleep of the past week. He stirred as Hannibal moved about the kitchen.
"Just keeping Face company. He's having a rough night."
"Yeah. All that jibber-jabber about last meals and such, you could tell he was just tryin' to convince hisself that it'd all be fine." He sat up and joined Hannibal. He opened the refrigerator and took stock. "They filled this up nice," he said. "I forgot to be hungry with everything else today. Might make myself a sandwich now." He worked while Hannibal waited for the coffee maker to finish its cycle. "You know what was really bad for him?" BA continued, "Face being Catholic and all? Not havin' a real priest to give him them last rites. But I can't imagine any God punishin' anybody for things they never did. And Face ain't done enough bad things for God to get mad at him."
"I agree with you BA, but it's hard to ignore how you were raised."
As BA started in on his sandwich, Hannibal went briefly to his room. When he came out, the coffeemaker was making happy noises and the aroma of freshly brewed java filled the kitchen. Hannibal filled his coffee cup and took a tumbler, filled it with orange juice, then rejoined Face.
"When was the last time you had anything to eat or drink?'
A shrug. "Dunno. I guess when Carla gave us water on the jet."
"Dunno," he repeated. "I haven't been very hungry the last few days. Facing imminent death, especially for a crime you didn't commit, tends to kill one's appetite. You'll excuse the choice of words."
"Here." He held out the tumbler. "Drink this."
Face held up a hand to wave the glass away. "I'm all right."
"Lieutenant, your blood sugar levels are probably in the negative numbers. You're exhausted, dehydrated, filthy dirty, so hungry you don't even realize it, and trying to deal with going through a week-long emotional meat grinder. If you want me to sit with you tonight, you'll drink this, so I don't have to deal with your total collapse."
Face looked at him with bleary eyes. "You didn't spike this, did you?"
"Is this a BA Special?"
"No. it is not."
Face drank the juice and handed the glass back to Hannibal. They sat listening to the soft sounds of the night: crickets, a far-off nicker of a horse, the whisper of an owl. Face felt his eyes drooping. Hannibal steadied his shoulder, waited a moment.
"Sorry, kid," he whispered, then softly called to BA.
The big man came running. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Hannibal said. "Just treated him the way we treat you when you need to fly."
"You drugged him?"
"Well, he needs the sleep." He picked up the younger man in his arms and carried him to his room, gently laying him on his bed. Hannibal untied his boots and put them on the floor.
"Just let him sleep," he told BA.
"No." He undressed Face almost angrily. 'He ain't gonna sleep in that stuff no more. They don't have the right to make him that miserable no more." He took the jacket covered with fake blood and threw it fiercely across the room adding the other clothes until Face was stripped down. "What kind o' people make you fake your own death? So they can cover their tracks and build their careers? First the bank robbery and now this." He unfolded the thin blanked at the bottom of the bed and gently covered Face. He handed Hannibal the fatigues. "Here. There's a dumpster trash can in the garage. Door is by the kitchen. I'd burn 'em, but there ain't no wood for the fireplace. I don't ever want to see a uniform again." He pulled the chair from the desk to beside the bed. "I'm gonna stay with him for a while. I can't sleep no more myself. I keep thinkin' about my momma."
Hannibal stood by the door, holding the fatigues. "BA, I'm sorry. If I'd had any idea how this was going to turn out, I would have taken the rap for the bank robbery, cut a deal to protect you and Face. We wouldn't be here now. You'd be with your mother. Face would have that normal life he keeps dreaming about. I was too naïve. I really believed in the system. It let me down and I let you down. I'm sorry," he said again. He walked away before BA could answer.
BA sat by Face's bed. Part of him agreed with Hannibal, but he knew he'd never have accepted a plea that was dishonest. He'd never agree to let someone else lie to protect him. He knew Face wouldn't agree to it either.
He heard Hannibal moving around his room. The light shining under his door went out. Good. Hannibal needed sleep, too. He found a basin in the kitchen and filled it with warm water from the bathroom. He quietly, gently washed Face, tears rolling down his cheeks. He couldn't help his momma on this awful night, but he could help his friend, his little brother. It was like Vietnam again. Chow called Face his "pretty boy" and would laugh as Face would bargain with Chow to take him and leave Murdock alone. Chow's goons would return Face after a 'session,' cut, bruised, bleeding, and swollen. All BA could do was wash off the worst of the dirt and blood and hold him. Sweet Jesus, the kid was barely 20 then. And he worried that he needed absolution now or then or ever?
"It's gonna be ok, little brother," BA whispered. "BA's right here. I'm gonna take care of you."
He didn't know about this deal with Stockwell. He knew Hannibal had his doubts, too. But he knew that he'd follow the Colonel's lead and never give up his trust of the man. He'd follow Hannibal and do what he could to protect Face and Murdock. BA knew sometimes things just had to play themselves out. That was what was happening now.
"You just sleep, Face," he said softly, smoothing the sheet over his friend. "We'll all be fine. BA's gonna be here. Just sleep. You're safe now. It's gonna' be all right."
He sat in the warm summer darkness, aching, and trying to believe that it was true.