It's like a cold wind suddenly rushes right through me as I watch Carrie Hicks leave the kitchen and join the others back in the lounge. When it comes like this it catches me off guard and these are the times that are hardest to guard against. I'm so careful most the time, making sure my barriers are up, my defences are strong, that nothing anyone says, anything I see will get to me. But coming in here, seeing Carrie Hicks in her kitchen with her soup and her pots and the pictures of Robbie on the wall... well, it just hits me in the gut.
I'm staring after her when I realise that my vision is blurred, my throat is tight and even my damn hands are shaking. There's a kitchen chair behind me and I sit down, face in my hands, breathing deeply and trying to get a handle on myself, but it's not that easy.
I don't think about it, ever, if I can help it. I mean, do you blame me? It's not that pleasant to dwell on, left on the steps of a church in the middle of the night. Not as a tiny baby, victim of an unwanted pregnancy, unmarried parents, kids having kids. Oh, no, not that for me. No, I was five years old. My parents knew me, had had five years of getting to know me, five years when they fed me, clothed me, probably tucked me into bed at night, hell, I don't know. Five years to decide that they'd had enough, didn't love me, didn't want me and needed to just give me away.
Not much of an ego boost that.
But now, when Carrie's comments about cookies have ripped huge holes in my carefully constructed walls, it's the only thought in my head. Those most dangerous of words, 'what if?'
What if I hadn't been so unnaturally abhorrent to my parents? What if, instead of deciding to throw me out on the streets, they did what parents are supposed to do and loved me? Supported me? What if they had been there for me when Leslie disappeared? Would I have even joined up? Walked into the hell on earth that was Vietnam? And what if I did? Would my mom have sent me cookies?
Who knows? I certainly won't, not now. And it's like in my head there is suddenly another me, except this one never went to war, never ended up a POW, never finished off spending his life on the run. He's standing in a kitchen, leaning against the counter and chatting while a woman, older, but with the same eyes, the same smile, takes a tray of cookies out of the oven and turns to look at him. I can feel the stupid burn of my traitorous eyes and grind the heels of my hands into them to try to beat them into submission, but they aren't cooperating.
Back in the kitchen, the scar free version of me is looking into that face that looks so much like his and smiling as he reaches out for one of the freshly baked cookies. "Fucking stupid cookies..." I hear myself mutter. The woman spots his hand reaching out and smiles at him, the same smile he sees in the mirror every day, then she gently puts a hand on his arm and says-
My head shoots up automatically, eighteen years of obeying that voice without question too strong to suppress and the surprise on Hannibal's face horrifies me.
No, I don't want this, not now, not ever. I've never wanted sympathy from the team. Pity? No. We all have our crosses to bear; we've all lost things, given them up. Me less than the others really, I never had anything much to lose.
I'm on my feet in a second, wiping my eyes on the sleeve of my jacket, walls stacking back up, mask sliding firmly into place, trademark grin sparking up but I can see Hannibal isn't fooled. Damn him, he rarely is.
"Colonel?" I hope he gets the hint. This is nothing. Nothing I want to talk about, nothing I need to remember.
He does. Thank God.
"We were discussing finances," he glances over his shoulder and lowers his voice, "I think you were right, Face, they don't have the money for this, I can't let them sell their farm..."
"Then we do it for free," I can hear the roughness to my voice, I know he can as well and he just looks at me, the cogs visibly turning in his head, a frown creasing his forehead and I'm furious with myself. How could I have let this happen? I've been sloppy. Not good Face. Thoughts like this only surface in dreams, nightmares, that's the deal, that's the way it's always been. Now you've made yourself look vulnerable, weak. Not good.
"C.O.D." I clarify, persona now firmly back in place, "Let's go tell them the good news."
Hannibal steps aside to let me pass and I walk back into the lounge, leaving that other version of me in the kitchen playing happy families with his damn cookies. They looked burnt to me anyway.
We're back at the rented apartment we've been using making last minute arrangements for the morning. Hannibal keeps shooting me these furtive little looks which I'm doing my damn best to ignore. He's always on at me to talk about things that bother me, open up, get it off my chest; he doesn't get that that just doesn't work for me. Dragging things out, examining all the shit I've been through again? Putting all that pain under a microscope? No thanks, living through it once was bad enough. Denial is a much better option. He says that's why I still have nightmares, because I don't let it all out. Hell, no one's perfect.
There's a sticky minute when I walk into the kitchen to get a slice of pizza and they all freeze. Hannibal is good, within a second he's moving fluidly again, talking to Murdock about the plan, about the role he needs to play. But the others? Not so smooth.
BA's got that pissed off look on his face, where his forehead almost disappears into creases, while Murdock just looks like he's gonna cry. And now he keeps touching my arm every time he walks by and it's really starting to get to me, so I do what I do best and disappear. Not completely you understand, my parents were the experts in that, no, just for a bit. The shower this time. The guys always rib me about how long I spend in the shower, keep going on about how vain I am. They don't get it though; it's not a beauty routine, its survival.
I step out and it's no better. The Perfect Peter version of me is still floating around with his damn smiling mother and his chocolate chip cookies. Jesus, my mind is so fucked right now that the second open the bathroom door, I can even smell the stupid things. Watch out HM, I think we are gonna end up as roomies...
I trudge down the stairs, mind on other things and freeze as I get to the kitchen door, my mind struggling to take it all in. It's BA I see first, wearing an apron, I mean, an apron? And he's holding a bowl and a spoon which he puts down on the kitchen table. "It's my grandmother's recipe, man..." his voice is rough, "Made it maself."
I look into the bowl and feel my eyes prickle again. Chicken soup.
The ping of the cooker's alarm draws my attention from the steaming bowl on the table and Murdock grabs the oven gloves before bending down to pull out a tray which he turns and offers up to me, "Cookies..." he says, his voice a little shaky and uncertain, "I made 'em for you, Facey..."
My throat closes and for the second time in one day I slump down into a kitchen chair, my hands shaking again and my heart pounding. What the fuck is wrong with me today?
"Kid," Hannibal's hand is on my shoulder, but I can't look at him, I need to keep my walls up, they're crumbling, I can feel them, and I need to keep them up. "We can't be everything you've never had... but... we can be here for you now, whenever you need us."
And the walls all collapse around me.
With a stupid, embarrassing sob, I sink my face down into one hand and cry. I don't even know who I'm crying for, the little boy that no one wanted? The teenager baptised into war in the most horrific ways possible? The man betrayed by his home, his government, his country? Who knows? Who even cares?
All I know is that maybe Hannibal was right. Maybe I do need to do this once in a while. And my team? Well, I don't know what I ever did to deserve them... but who needs phantom families when I've got the real thing, right here?