"What's the fool doing now?" The porch swing creaked under B.A. as he eased onto it, but held up okay. That hadn't been true of a number of other things in the old farmhouse Face had scammed for them, so he gave it a minute before he settled in completely.
"Not sure." Sprawled in the recliner next to the door, Face was working through a six-pack and watching Murdock clamber over the hay bales in the barn. It had gotten just hot enough to go without a shirt, but Face was keeping to the shade. He claimed that the sling immobilising his left shoulder would ruin his tan. "He's either talking to his hat, or he's talking to something under his hat. Or," he added after a contemplative pause, "he's talking to his imaginary friend who is wearing his hat. It's kind of hard to tell from here."
Or something completely different that neither Face nor B.A. could have thought up if they'd devoted their entire lives to irrationality. "Is it me, or is he crazier than he used to be?"
"Mmmm..." It seemed to take Face a moment to decide how much to say. They'd all spent so many years putting the best front on Murdock's erratic behaviour that none of them, Face especially, offered an opinion on it without first weighing up the potential damage. "I think he's just happy he doesn't have to deal with psych evals every six months."
If this had been two months ago, B.A. would have commented that that was a bad habit to get into, but Murdock wouldn't have been talking to an invisible whatever wearing his hat back then either. They'd all been in denial for the first little while. Now, however... "How long were you in, Faceman?" he asked, though he already pretty much knew the answer.
"Three years in the actual Army. Nine with Hannibal."
"Right. 'Bout the same for me." Scuffing at the peeling paint on the deck set the swing rocking gently. B.A. let it, focusing on Murdock in the barn.
"You don't want back in, do you?" Face asked suddenly. "Even if we clear our names, you won't go back."
"I don't know, man." B.A. turned to meet Face's wide-eyed stare. He was sitting up now, trying to twist around to look at B.A. without pulling anything in his shoulder. "I mean, I want to be free and legal again. I want to visit Mama at Christmas and have my own name. And don't get me wrong, you guys are my brothers. I love you, and what we're doing now means something, but the Army..." The swing creaked under him, and he shifted back toward the middle a bit. When he let go of the chain, the links left an imprint on his palm. "Three strikes and you're out."
"The old man's not going to like that," Face said, obviously thinking, as B.A. was, that this would be a really bad time for Hannibal to be listening in. However, B.A. felt ninety-seven percent sure that the colonel was still secure in the back bedroom, dosed out of his skull on painkillers.
"No, he's not." But then Hannibal had only been screwed over twice, that B.A. knew of, as opposed to three times for him, and only-God-knew-how-many for Murdock. "But I'm done, Face. Uncle Sam got twenty years of my life, and he ain't getting any more."
"That's going to be a fun... Hey, twenty? I thought you said..."
B.A. stood abruptly and started down the stairs to the yard. Time to see what that crazy-ass fool was up to. "Whatever. You know what I mean."
"You know, I don't think I do," Face grumbled, but he slumped back into the recliner instead of following.
"There is no way in hell I'm going undercover on this one." Stamping his foot would have made Face seem more immature, but only slightly.
B.A.'s eyes slid over to Murdock who signed the number fifteen behind Face's back. There'd been that time in Syria when they'd spent three weeks in a hole in the sand without running water, and Murdock had got so bored he'd ranked Faceman's bitching on a scale of minus four to twenty three. "Oh, I dunno, Templeton." Laying on the Texan accent and pitching his voice up a notch, Murdock sidled up and put an arm around Face's good shoulder. "One of those scarves of yours, borrow some of Amy's eye-liner..."
Shrugging violently, Face shook him off and ducked away. "Not. Doing. It!"
Hannibal was leaning against the door-frame, arms folded, smirking around his cigar and clearly intending to let this one play out. The tiny kitchen didn't leave a lot of room to stay out of the way, but B.A. managed to wedge himself between the fridge and the counters. He didn't want to touch any of this.
"Come on, muchacho. It'll be just like that time in Cairo with--"
"Which you promised you would never mention again."
"--all the purple umph." Whatever he'd been about to say next was lost when Face wrapped his arm around Murdock's neck, slamming a hand over his mouth.
"Those were the worst three days of my life." That was a number seventeen whine right there. Face had to struggle to hold on, grimacing through an elbow to the ribs and finally letting go suddenly, jerking his hand away. "Jesus, Murdock! Biting's for sissies."
Murdock slumped on the linoleum, and, thank God, let that one lie where it fell. Instead, he said something worse. "Well, I'm supposed to be in the air, so if you're not doing it, I guess we'll have to send B.A. in."
"Yeah, right," Face scoffed at the same moment as Hannibal snorted in amusement. With a conscious effort, B.A. stopped grinding his teeth.
"As it so happens, gentlemen," Hannibal broke in, apparently having decided that the show was over, or that this nonsense had taken up enough of his time, "no-one's going to have to infiltrate the backrooms of the White Swallow. New plan."
Face glared at him as if to ask why he hadn't said anything before. Shrugging minutely, Hannibal indicated that either he'd thought it was funny or he wanted to see if Face would go undercover in a gay bar. He ignored further glares and some pouting, and explained what they were going to do now.
Things hit their familiar pace after that; Hannibal's plan shouldn't, and probably wouldn't, work; Face probably would be able to scam the beauty salon out from under the owner. B.A. wasn't sure why they had to have a helicopter in all this, but he did feel sure that he was going to end up in it at some point. And no, he tried to explain, you really couldn't do that with a steamroller, no matter what you welded to it.
It should have felt as normal as his dysfunctional adopted family ever got. Hell, he should feel pleased that the rest of his team found the idea of him in a gay bar inherently ridiculous. That had been the image he'd given up so much to build, from the day he almost simultaneously figured out he was very much not into girls and that he wanted to be an Army Ranger more than anything in the world.
Cursing under his breath, B.A. decided he was really looking forward to the part of the plan where he got to blow shit up.
They were burning through a lot of those disposable pay-as-you-go cellphones. Which was fine for the four of them, but Hannibal also had Captain Sosa, Doc Sullivan, Amy and his mama on the same system and remembering eight numbers that changed at least once a week was starting to give B.A. a headache.
Out here in the desert he'd had to climb halfway up a cliff to get any kind of reception. He found a ledge about a hundred feet up, with a good view of the truck and their camp, and a whole two bars' signal strength. The sun hadn't come around this far yet, and he leaned back into the rock wall, letting the red stone cool his back. Then he punched in his mama's number.
"Are you hurt?" she demanded before he could even say hello.
"We're all okay, Mama." More or less, he thought, but she knew better than to accept an unqualified "fine" from him anyway. "I guess we made the news again, huh?"
She laughed, and B.A. felt that same pang of homesickness he always did. "You're international this time, Scooter."
B.A. rubbed a hand over his Mohawk. "It probably looked a lot worse than it was," he lied.
"Mm-hmm. I've certainly always found that fireballs look smaller on shaky phone camera footage than they do in real life."
There wasn't really much B.A. could say to that, so he asked, "How you doing, Mama?"
"Oh, I'm fine, Scooter. Same old story: too much work and not enough hours in the day to do it all in. Still, keeps my mind off things." Like her son the federal fugitive. "How're the boys?"
"Still driving me nuts." He looked down, watching them move about the camp. Face had got his sling off and was stretched out on the gravel, while Murdock made shadow puppets on his chest. He couldn't see more than a pair of boots sticking out of Hannibal's tent, but B.A. had left him curled up with a cigar and a horror novel. "We're uh... we're lying low for a bit." Until Murdock's burns healed and/or Hannibal got too bored to sit still, whichever happened first.
His mama sighed. "That's probably best." She didn't say that she wished they would spend more time lying low and less time making the evening news, but he knew that she did.
The conversation paused while he tried to figure out how to say "I miss you so much it drives me crazy" without sounding desperate and needy, and she was probably trying to tell him how much she worried without sounding like she was blaming him for this mess. He kicked a rock off the ledge and watched it bounce all the way down before he said, "Mama?"
"I'm still here, Scooter."
"I'm thinking about telling them." He didn't need to say what.
B.A. could feel his heart rate pick up for every moment that silence stretched out. She's fine with it, he told himself. She's always been fine with it. They'd never talked about it. Hell, he'd never even actually officially come out. She'd just always known, and he'd known she'd known, and it had been fine. Only... He swallowed, trying to get some moisture back in his mouth.
"I love you, Bosco," she told him at last, and he sank back against the cliff, almost choking on the relief. "And those boys of yours love you too. I know they do, and they're good men, even that smarmy one who's always smiling."
She made that little "tch" sound with her tongue, the one she made when someone she'd voted for fell into some scandal, or when B.A.'s grades had blatantly not been what they might have. "Sometimes being a good man isn't enough. And..." Pausing, she took a deep breath, then said, "And it would break my heart if I had to think of you out there all on your own."
It was the same thing B.A. was afraid of, worse than the life he'd been looking at nine years ago, before Hannibal Smith had shot him in the arm and saved his career. "I know, Mama, but I don't know if I can lie much longer. I have to tell so many now."
"I know, Scooter. I wish I could help."
B.A. swallowed again, and not because of fear this time. He squeezed his eyes shut. "You are helping, Mama."
"Am I at least going to get a son-in-law out of all this?"
She was doing her best to make fun, so he did his best to laugh; they both worked about as well. "No such luck, sorry." Not while he's still on the run. "It's just..." There was no way to put that pull in his heart into words other than, "It's time."
"Be careful, Scooter. It's all I ask."
If they talked much longer, one of them was going to cry, so he said, "I'll try, Mama. I love you," and "bye," and snapped the phone closed before she could say more than she loved him back.
"Are we meeting at the house?" B.A. asked as he slid into the passenger seat of the cherry-red Corvette.
Face didn't quite leave rubber on the road as he peeled away from the public library, but it was a near thing. "Yeah. Hannibal and Murdock are already there." He shot a sideways glance at B.A. while weaving to the front of the traffic before a light. "And we have Internet access, so you didn't need to go to the library."
"I was looking for a book."
"Oh." After a few lane changes of considering the possible implications of that, Face asked, "Did you find it?"
"Nope." Which had probably been because they were in Salt Lake City and the queer studies section was pretty much all about the Bible and testimonials on how to "cure" homosexuality. It had been a last-ditch attempt really, because even in San Francisco he probably wouldn't have found The African-American Federal Fugitive's Guide to Coming Out to His White Army Ranger Buddies. He fleetingly considered telling Face that was what he'd been looking for, but that would have been a completely chicken-shit way to do this thing.
Glancing over his shoulder, Face leaned back and slid over to the left for a U-turn. "You wanna go back to that Barnes and Noble downtown?"
"No." B.A. frowned at Face, trying to figure out why he was being helpful all of a sudden. Not that he never was, but this felt different, like he was treading on eggshells. "It's cool."
B.A. let that sit as they hit one of the main corridors out of town, watching the cars fall past while Face wound around them, and wishing he was driving. It wasn't until they slid onto an off-ramp that he realised that they'd ended up pretty much in the middle of the industrial zone south of the airport. "What the hell kind of place did you scam us, Faceman?"
"Somewhere totally sweet and also not near here." That right there had to be the least convincing smile B.A. had ever seen. He hoped to God Face hadn't tried to con anyone today, because he looked like someone had just murdered his puppy. Fortunately, he only tried to maintain it for a moment before sliding on a worried frown.
Gravel spun out from under the tires as they swerved into an empty parking lot behind a boarded-up warehouse, and the seatbelts engaged as Face slammed the 'Vette into park. "What the fuck is going on?" B.A. demanded.
Face released his belt and turned to look at B.A. full on. "I need to talk to you, away from the guys."
Something twisted inside B.A.'s gut, and the first thought that flashed through his mind was, He knows. But he couldn't, could he? No, of course Face could. They pried into other people's secrets for a living. "Okay," he said, trying not to give anything away in his tone. "We're talking."
"Right." He ran a hand through his hair, which, rather than slicking it back, broke up whatever gunk he'd put in it and made it stand up every which way. "I know you've been working up to talking to Hannibal for the last couple of weeks." When B.A. didn't say anything, he pressed on. "I mean, like you said back at the farm. I-- what?"
B.A. realised his mouth was hanging open and closed it. "Sorry, man. I thought--" He shook his head. "Never mind."
"I thought that's why you were holed up in that damned library all morning: you were manning up to tell him you were done with the Army."
"Not exactly." A laugh slipped out of B.A., and once he started, he couldn't stop.
Face gaped at him. "What?"
He had to bite the inside of his lip until he tasted blood to control himself. "Never mind, man. What were you saying about Hannibal?"
"Oh, um..." Shaking his head, Face realigned his thoughts, and explained, "I was going to say it was a bad day to have that talk. Murdock beat you to it right after we got to the house, and Hannibal didn't take it that great."
It wasn't too hard for B.A. to picture that conversation. "Anybody hurt?"
"No. I didn't need to pull them off each other or anything, but there was a lot of yelling, and now they're just..." unable to come up with a word, Face turned the key, and the 'Vette purred back to life.
Snorting, Face put the convertible into gear and started back the way they'd come. "Something like that. So look, I need you to help with damage control."
That B.A. could do. "What side do you want to be on?"
"Well..." Face started, and they discussed strategy all the way back to the suburbs.
As the pulled up the drive of a white stucco house -- that looked the same as every other white stucco house in the last mile -- B.A. braced for a new turn on an old familiar fight. He'd helped work through a hundred spats between his boys over the years, and had just as many sit-down talks from Hannibal or Murdock trying to sort him out.
He and Face would smooth things over, and get everyone talking, fighting alongside each other again. Then, when the right time came, he would stir up some trouble of his own.