Christmas Over Again

Face dropped his package on the table next to the others. It made three. He flipped the tags on the other two, wondering if the big reindeer-decorated box was for him. Sure, size didn't have much to do with it this year, but that didn't stop you eying the big box... Sadly, it wasn't, and neither was the flat one that looked like a shirt box under the red-and-green paper. Even so, the big one intrigued him, and he was wondering what the odds were that Hannibal or BA would catch him shaking it when the kitchen door opened, intensifying the savory smell of turkey and sound of conversation; he didn't bother to step back when the words stopped and the door swung shut again. "I didn't even pick them up," he said. "Just looking."

"Have patience," Hannibal said, coming to stand next to him.

Face chuckled to himself, knowing Hannibal wanted to pick up the silver-wrapped package he'd just laid down but couldn't now. "This one looks a bit over the limit." He tapped the big box.

Hannibal nodded. "But it's BA, so I trust him not to have gone over. Unlike you," he added, looking over Face's shoulder as the front door opened.

Face turned to see Frankie and Murdock come in, both with packages. Murdock's was a squarish box wrapped in dancing Snoopys and Frankie - the reason Hannibal had spoken, no doubt - was carrying two small boxes wrapped in bright red paper. "I didn't," the Hispanic man said protestingly. "Ten dollars."


"Yes," Frankie said, putting the packages down. "Total."

"All right, then," Hannibal said, satisfaction in his voice. "As soon as BA gets out here, we can begin."

It never paid to wonder too much about presents like those, but still Face was intensely curious. It was probable that he'd never looked forward to opening any present as much as those two small boxes. Sure, they wouldn't be much, not under the circumstances and not compared to what was waiting out on the Shore - he didn't know what that was, of course, and more importantly he had no idea when they would be able to get back out there. Probably not till next year... Those two good kids had promised to keep all the Christmas stuff up along with keeping the yard up and so on. Face thought the kids had some romantic notion they were government agents or diplomats or something - being teenagers, they were less concerned with politics, or law and order, than they were with emotions. Funny thing - sometimes when he and Anne talked, he felt that she knew a lot more about life than he had at her age. Did now, for that matter.

His thoughts were interrupted as BA came in from the kitchen, bearing five glasses of eggnog on a festively red, green, and gold tray. One of the glasses was apart from the others, closer to BA - it would be non-alcoholic, of course. How the big man got through holidays without a lift had always baffled Face; he reached for one of the other glasses, smelling the brandy.

Luck of the draw, Frankie getting him. Of course, they'd given each other something last year, when Hannibal had been in a more traditional mood, but last year they'd barely known each other. He couldn't even remember what he'd... no, wait. That peacock-blue polo shirt, that was it. He couldn't remember what Frankie had given him - probably a gift certificate, safe choice for someone you didn't know and who didn't really like you. Yeah, he remembered now; he'd bought... a sweater, he thought. Maybe... Well, he took a sip of nog, that was last year.

This year would be different. Oh, not today - today was Stingy Santa. Face couldn't remember how many times over the past twenty years they had done it - whenever Hannibal was in whatever mood it was that made him want to. Face hadn't quite nailed it down, and to be honest he didn't really care. In fact, on sober second thought, Stingy Santa was probably tremendous good luck. He'd been really lucky with what had been an almost off-hand purchase last year, but it wouldn't really have mattered if he'd just bought a bookstore gift card himself. This year it would have mattered, even if it was all part of the charade; this year they'd have been looking for meanings in things meant to be given in public. Well... he would have, anyway...

So, yeah. Hannibal's announcing back when they were in godforsaken North Dakota three weeks ago that this was a Stingy Santa year had probably been a very lucky thing. Stingy Santa - only he called it "Skint Santa" - was something Hannibal claimed his parents had come up with during the Depression, thus the name. It meant everybody drew a name and then spent only ten dollars. Face had a feeling Hannibal had refined it, not just upping the price limit, though ten still wasn't much, but also the bit where everyone told what name they'd drawn. Hannibal didn't want gifts in pairs, but surely his parents hadn't wanted their kids knowing who'd bought what for whom. Although, who knew? New England was a foreign country. And really the only bad thing was that you couldn't pretend you hadn't drawn your own name, a trick Face had used more than once in Secret Santas over his life. No, you were stuck with whoever drew you - again, luck of the draw it was Frankie. He'd himself drawn Hannibal, which was easy and meaningless...

He caught himself up and turned to look out the big window, past the blinking tree into the darkness of Christmas night. Meaningless? One of the most important relationships in his life, for more than half his life, and he had just labeled it meaningless? No. No, that wasn't what he'd meant. Stingy Santa for Hannibal was meaningless, or rather choosing something for Hannibal was, because it had been more than half his life. And meaningless wasn't really the right word, it was just that he and Hannibal couldn't be spoiled by picking out a lazy cheap gift. Last year, when Hannibal had been in a more expansive mood, not yet soured on Stockwell and the ongoing situation, and they'd had a normal Christmas (well, normal for them), Face had put some thought into it, bought Hannibal that new three-volume biography of Field Marshal Montgomery. That had been a nice surprise...

This year, though, Hannibal didn't know what he was getting. Frankie had been with him when he'd gone to pick up the present. He'd then made the mistake of telling Frankie what he was doing. "I usually get four $2.50 cigars," he'd said, looking at the boxes. "But I'm feeling kind of, I don't know, expansive or something. I'm thinking of a couple of these handmade ones, what do you think?"

"You're going to give him a mostly empty box of cigars?" Frankie had sounded incredulous.

"No, of course not."

"Well, they don't sell them singly. What are you going to do with the rest? You're not going to smoke them yourself?" Frankie had suddenly gotten a sharp tone in his voice. "You're not going to start smoking again, are you, Face? That was the only good thing that came out of your getting shot in the lungs and spending all that time - "

"Not the only good thing," Face had tried to deflect him, but Frankie wasn't having any of it.

"You're not, are you?"

"No, I'm not going to start smoking again." Nor was he, though he did miss it, the sweet rush from the nicotine, the smell, and the collegial feeling; but he knew that while lighting up a cigar with Hannibal after a mission, something he hadn't done since he was shot - three months, two missions now - was shorthand for something he wanted, it was something he could only get by valuing it over things he now wanted more. He'd tried lightening the mood. "God knows I don't want you nagging, or making those sad puppy eyes at me in silence."

"Besides, it's bad for you."

"Besides ... "

They'd shared a grin before Frankie had returned to the main point."So what are you going to do with the rest of them?"

He'd shrugged, realizing he was losing the argument, if that was indeed what it was. He should have just said 'Yes' to the first question. "Probably give them to him, later," he'd admitted.

Frankie had shaken his head. "Are you really going to give him something for Christmas that you give him all the time for no reason?"

"I have before," Face had been stung despite himself. "He likes them."

Frankie had just raised a skeptical eyebrow. "That isn't the point. But," he'd shrugged in that graceful way he had, "you do whatever you want."

"I will. I do." Face had grabbed a box off the shelf and headed for the register. But although they hadn't said another word about it, the box now rested on the desk in the office and the package he'd just dropped with the others couldn't possibly have contained a cigar. And looking at the reflection in the big window and seeing Hannibal sneak a look at it made him glad he'd decided to reconsider. The cigars were a lazy present. Even though Stingy Santa with Hannibal - or any of them - wasn't meaningless no matter what you gave, half of presents was the surprise. Even when someone else told you who to give, and when, and how much to spend ... He had to laugh to himself. Especially then, he supposed. And wasn't that why he'd kept the present hidden until now? So Hannibal would get maximum surprise from seeing the box?

Well, he also supposed he was overthinking the whole thing. He had a tendency to do that. And to think, and watch, instead of join in. He turned around, and looked at the others. Murdock had a camel and a donkey from the little Nativity set and was making them have a conversation. Face couldn't make out the words, just the tones - nasal alternating with braying - but Frankie was laughing pretty hard. BA was shaking his head, his expression half reluctant amusement and half rueful disapproval - of his own amusement as much as anything, Face figured. Hannibal was watching them all with benevolent approval, sipping at his eggnog and smiling.

Face took another drink from his own glass and watched Murdock amuse Frankie for another moment, wondering at the turns life took. He'd spent so long wanting something he'd known he could never have, and then gotten something he'd never dreamed of, and still sometimes he had no idea how he felt about any of it, especially how much it - they - liked each other. Nor was he sure whether he missed what he'd never had more than he should. He knew that he'd never have gotten it - not only did Murdock not want it, but he himself would never have had the nerve to ask for it. 'No' was too hard to hear...

Frankie had had the nerve. Sometimes over the last few months, maybe even the last half year if he was honest about how long ago he'd noticed this thing beginning, Face had come to a couple of realizations: first, that that nerve had brought him something he'd never dreamed of, a desire that still startled him; and second, that it, and Frankie, deserved to be taken - and treated - seriously. He also knew that he didn't always do that. He wasn't much for New Year's resolutions, but this year he thought he'd try. Oh, nothing massive; just try to spend more time thinking about what he had instead of what he wanted. And even though it wasn't the new year yet, there was no time like the present.

He drained his eggnog and strolled towards the other end of the room. "Is there any more of this?" he held up the glass.

"Man, you drank all that already?"

"Give me a break, BA. It's Christmas."

"You need alcohol to get through Christmas?" BA was scornful, but not, Face was sure, seriously so. It was his role, that was all. They all had roles and they all played them...

"Christmas takes more than a lot of days," Face said.

"Yeah, big guy," Murdock said. "It's a party."

"That what you meant?"

Face paused a moment, and then, "Sure." He shrugged. "Close enough."

BA shook his head, but said, "Of course there more. Any you all ever get by with only one?"

"I'll get it," said Frankie, setting his own glass down and heading for the kitchen.

Everybody turned to watch him, Hannibal with raised eyebrows, Murdock grinning, and BA shaking his head. They all had roles, Frankie too, but Frankie didn't always play the one they expected. Adapting to him had shaken the team up, but now they were shaking down, settling in, finding new rhythms. It was good. Not great, maybe, but good...

Frankie came back out with the carton and began filling the glasses held out to him, Face's first. That was one of the little ways he changed things up; even though Face was closest, and had been the one to ask for it, any of the rest of them would have filled Hannibal's glass first. Hell, Face thought, watching the creamy liquid catch the light as it foamed into his glass, he would have himself. But it wouldn't do to spend time thinking about that now, so he broke the moment by saying, "We about ready, then?" and reaching for one of the small red packages.

"Face!" Murdock slapped his hand and then wagged a finger at him. "You know the colonel goes first."

"Which means I go last," he mock complained.

"Luck of the draw," Hannibal echoed his earlier thought.

"But look - I have two," he said. "I could open one first -"

"No," said Murdock. "Hannibal first. And this is why we don't have two," he said to Frankie, who offered:

"Want me to go wrap 'em together?"

"No!" said Murdock quickly. "Face can open 'em together, when it's his turn. Last. He can wait."

"I usually do," Face agreed.

"Usually?" said Murdock. "Usually you're trying your best to go ahead of everybody else."

"First of all," Face said, a little more sharply than he'd meant to, "what universe do you live in?" And it was still weird to be able to say that, but he softened it with, "And even if I do, why shouldn't I?"

"Yeah," Frankie said, playing peacemaker. "Nobody actually tries to be last."

"Which is why," BA put in, "we have rules. 'Stead of everybody fightin' to be first, we go in turns: Hannibal, then whoever he buy for, then whoever he buy for -"

"And me last," Face said, a tiny trace of pleasure in his voice. At least it was meant to be a tiny trace.

"That's right, lieutenant," Hannibal said. "Luck of the draw. Now, are we ready?"

Face laughed. "Now who's in a hurry?"

"Me, fool," said BA. Of all of them, except maybe Frankie, he liked Stingy Santa least. His family had evidently been very big on Christmas, and after meeting his mother Face could believe it, and understand why this one-present-one-person thing annoyed the big man. BA continued, "So shut up an' sit down. All of you. Half the day done gone already and you squabblin' about who go first. This why we have rules." He glared at them.

"Now, boys," Hannibal said. "Mind your manners. It's Christmas. Good will among men, remember? We may not have snow, but we have cold weather, and eggnog, and a fire, and a tree and carols. And Stockwell didn't even call."

"Well, that's just like him," Murdock grumbled.

"Now, I think of it as his present to us," Hannibal said, grinning.

"Well, it is a nice one," Murdock admitted. "So, everybody has a drink?" Hannibal glanced around the group. "Then everybody take a seat and I'll toss another log on the fire. And then we'll get started." Everybody did. Frankie snagged the chair closest to the kitchen, the one nobody else would have chosen, while BA took one of the La-Z-Boys. Murdock plopped down on the end of the couch closest to the other recliner, the one Hannibal would end up in, and Face settled on the other end, smiling to himself. Hannibal liked it when things went the way he knew they would, however much drama it took to get there. In fact, he liked the drama as much as the denouement. And Face could play this role, he could sink into it like an actor who'd spent his life in one part and knew it so cold, it didn't matter when the show-runner decided to bring in new characters or jazz up the situation, you always knew what to do to make the audience believe you.

Hannibal poked the fire a few more unnecessary times and then sat down. As he did, Murdock jumped up and picked up the red-and-green box, and then blinked in surprise at the tag. Face grinned and took the opportunity to say, "Murdock. You know the colonel goes first." Everybody laughed, but everybody also looked a bit surprised as the pilot then picked up the flat, silver-wrapped package.

Okay. Maybe he'd gotten too comfortable in the role, Face conceded. Phoning it in was never good. "Merry Christmas, Hannibal," he said as Murdock handed over the package.

Hannibal hefted the package - it was light, of course - and then began unwrapping it, carefully, saving the paper and ribbon to reuse; he was a Depression baby, after all. Face did the same thing, though in his case it wasn't national deprivation that had taught him to. Murdock and BA were both rippers, and it made Murdock especially more than a bit (and amusingly so, Face thought) impatient when he had to wait on them. Well, he wouldn't have to today, not them both anyway...

Face found himself holding his breath as Hannibal folded the paper and laid it on the coffee table beside the coil of thin scarlet ribbon (he banished the memory of identical ribbon sliding through long, dark fingers, to be recalled at a better time) and watched as Hannibal took the lid off the shallow box and folded back the green tissue paper covering the framed picture inside.

He'd found the cartoon in a magazine, and bought the frame at a five-and-dime, keeping him well under the spending limit even with the thick mat he'd bought in Georgetown and cut to size himself with his Swiss Army knife. The line drawing showed a small booth beside a road, a drop-bar across the road and a sign reading 'Now Leaving Rome'; two Roman soldiers in the booth, one looking deep into the background where mountains rose and elbowing the other; and in the distance, elephants. Caption: "Uh-oh, here comes trouble."

Hannibal looked at the picture for a moment, and a big grin spread over his face, his eyes lighting up with mischief. Face found himself actually relaxing as he watched the colonel, who looked over at him and said, warmly, "Nice, Face. This is perfect. 'Here comes trouble' - I love it."

"Lemme see, colonel," Murdock said, reaching for the frame. Hannibal relinquished it and leaned back, still grinning. Murdock gave a delighted crow of laughter and handed the picture to BA, who chuckled and held it up so Frankie could see it. Frankie didn't say anything, but he did give Face a thumb's up.

"Faceman, that one perfect picture," BA said approvingly. "'Trouble' is exactly right."

Hannibal took the picture back and laid it on the arm of his La-Z-Boy. "Thanks, Face," he said, seriously. "And now," he picked up the red-and-green box, "here you go, Murdock. Merry Christmas."

"Thanks, Hannibal," Murdock said eagerly, taking the package and ripping off the paper.

"Murdock - "

"C'mon, Hannibal, you never actually do reuse it," the pilot said, crumpling the wrapping and dropping it on the floor. It was a shirt box - an old one, Face noted with amusement - and Murdock pulled off the top and tore through the tissue paper with eager abandon to pull out a tee-shirt. He read the words and broke out laughing.

"What's it say?" Frankie asked.

Murdock was laughing too hard to answer, but he held up the shirt so they could read it. Use the instrument panel, Luke: that's what it's there for! Frankie laughed, too, and Face and BA smiled.

But Face knew his smile, though he kept it lingering while Murdock changed into his new shirt right then and there, wasn't real. Because all of a sudden, the last thing he felt like doing was smiling.

That thumb's up had scared him. What the hell was he doing, letting somebody run his choices again? And worse: letting somebody know they were. It might not be possible not to let them do it, might not ... but you were asking for trouble if you let them see it. Because that was when things got very bad. He should know; he'd done it before. And he'd been walked over and used; though he hadn't thought so at the time, he knew it now. And sure, he'd told her he understood when he met her again, told her he wasn't angry... Well, he wasn't angry at her, angry wasn't the right word. You couldn't be angry at a nun, after all, not for being a nun. You could get angry at a college girl who didn't have the guts to tell her boyfriend she was only taking him out for a spin, see if she might want to change her mind. And if you could buy there were reasons not to tell him - she wouldn't get the real experience, he'd act differently, maybe even manage to talk her into something she'd regret - even if, well, you could sure be angry at her for not even having the courtesy to drop him a postcard after she'd left without a word. Didn't send back his pin. Didn't call. Didn't even leave a note with her roommate. Didn't even send him a Christmas card... So maybe angry was the right word. Even if she was a nun. Yeah. And in no way did he want to go through that again.

He took another drink, forcing himself to pay attention to Murdock's reaching for the Snoopy-covered box. Even though he was feeling uncomfortable and worried, this was Christmas and he needed to be part of what was going on, not stuck inside a worry loop in his head. He had time to decide what he was going to do about this; it didn't have to be solved this minute.

"Here you go, big guy," the pilot said. "Merry Christmas."

"Thanks, Murdock," BA said and tore into the package with the same gusto that Murdock had shown, though he didn't bother to fake-apologize to Hannibal. The box he revealed was a plain white rectangle, and he pulled the lid off it with paper still clinging to the bottom. He smiled delightedly and reached in with a delicate thumb and forefinger to show off a long crimson plume with some cheap red and gold arts-and-craft beads - okay, maybe inexpensive was better - and fringe. It looked impossibly gaudy to Face, but then not as gaudy as some earrings he'd seen BA wear. The big man didn't put them on, like Murdock had put his present on, but then he was already in Christmas garb, golden reindeer in his ears. Face would rather have had the feathers, himself.

BA was genuinely pleased, though. That was clear from his smile and the light in his eyes as he thanked Murdock. The pilot launched into a tale of some bead store on St Paul in Baltimore and some girl who'd shown him how to wrap wire. Face wasn't really paying attention; he was wondering what was in that big box, and wondering about it almost as much as he was wondering what was waiting for him. He had absolutely no memory of what BA had given Frankie last year, when they were still uncertain about him, and he had no idea what he'd be giving him this year, when he'd been more or less accepted. This gift would show how much more - or less - the others had decided to make Frankie part of the team, because BA was the bellwether.

And if he himself was reevaluating ... But that didn't feel like the right word. It didn't feel right at all. But things had been off all day, ever since early morning. He couldn't blame it on a bad night's sleep, since he hadn't gotten any at all - maybe it was the no sleep. Whatever it was, though, he was feeling off-center, like he was looking at the whole world from a skewed perspective. He didn't like it... Everything he'd been thinking was right, it was all right, but it was all wrong somehow, too. He just needed to get through this day and get some time to figure out what precisely his next move should be... And he needed not to show it. When BA finally cut Murdock short - more patient than he'd once been - by putting the lid back on the box and standing up to get his gift, Face was grateful.

BA hefted the big box and it was clearly heavy. "Here, Frankie," he said. "Merry Christmas. An' before anybody say anything," he added, "I got this in Mexico, and I din't pay ten dollars for it."

Mexico... Face remembered Mexico and probably would for the rest of his life. Merida, that hotel, the ruins and the sun rising over the temple... and the peso at twenty-five hundred to one dollar. He grinned to himself; BA had done a lot of shopping, coming back to the hotel with several bags of stuff. He'd said "for Momma" but apparently she wasn't the only person who'd benefit from that exchange rate. He wondered if BA had bought something for all of them, something waiting till next year now, and had to laugh at himself.

Frankie, meanwhile, was ripping the reindeer paper off the box with his usual gusto; he hadn't let the fact that both Face and Hannibal were careful openers slow him down. Watching him, Face again remembered last night, Frankie carefully pulling off silver paper. Last night ... things had been good last night. Just like Mexico. So why now did they seem off-kilter? He blinked that question away until he had some time to deal with it where no one would notice. Or tried to. It was just that things had seemed so good at the temple, and afterward at the hotel and the cruise ship coming back... Later, dammit; pay attention.

The box revealed when the paper came off was made of wood, something light-colored and streaky. Frankie glanced up, puzzled, and then lifted the lid. Inside were a number of small objects wrapped in faded orange newspaper. He reached in and pulled one out, unwrapping it more carefully than he had the box, since whatever it was it was probably fragile and would need to be rewrapped. He then held it up for them all to see: a small wooden ... sheep?

Of course. It wasn't the giveaway a camel would have been, but it had to be a créche. And as Frankie unwrapped two more pieces - another sheep and a donkey - so it proved. A hand-carved, wooden créche, with a little open arch for the stable and the Christmas angel and star on the top of it, three sheep, a donkey, a camel, two shepherds, three kings, and the Holy Family, plain and yet beautiful. Face rubbed his fingertips across the donkey's rough mane and wondered how much a thing like this sold for in LA. BA had done well out of his ten dollars; always forethoughty, the sergeant...

"BA," Frankie finally said. "This is beautiful. I don't know what to say."

"Say 'Thank you'," BA said. "Merry Christmas."

"Thank you," Frankie repeated obediently, tucking the bits back inside. "I mean it. It's gorgeous."

BA nodded, satisfied with himself. He enjoyed giving people things; too bad he had so few occasions to do it, Face mused as he handed back the donkey.

"Very nice, BA," he said, and then rubbed his hands together. But before he could say anything Murdock was talking. "Aren't you going to put it out?"

Face deliberately made his eyes as big as he could. Frankie put the lid on the box and looked up, and then he laughed. "Not now, maybe later. I think Face would explode if he had to wait any longer."

Murdock ducked his head, the cheesy grin saying he'd asked on purpose. Face put on a noble, suffering expression and said, "No, no. Please, go ahead. Take your time."

"We already have one out," Frankie said. "I'll save this one." He stood up and picked up the two small red packages left on the table. "Merry Christmas, Face. Open this one first," he added.

Face did, deliberately ripping the red paper off with no ceremony to find a small white jeweler's box - a used one, it looked like. Face was reminded of the box he'd put Frankie's knife into yesterday... five dollars, he reminded himself. Public. He flipped the lid off and stared.

A cigarette lighter, silver-colored, lay on some cotton batting. On the side was an engraved symbol: a dagger on top of crossed arrows, with a ribbon weaving around them. The lighter was battered, though polished, and the words on the ribbon were hard to read, but he knew what they were. De Oppresso Liber, free from oppression... He took it carefully out of the box, rubbing his thumb across the engraving, and couldn't find anything to say.

Frankie didn't leave him hanging; whether he'd anticipated the silence or not (not, Face hoped) he was more than able to fill one when it arose. "I found that at a yard sale, back just before you got shot. I know you quit smoking, but you can still use it, right? I mean, you still do use one."

"I can still use it," Face said, finding some words at last. "Thanks, Frankie. It's nice."

"What is it?" Murdock asked, leaning over. "Hey, is that-?"

"Yes," Face nodded. "Special Forces."

"At a yard sale?" BA sounded scandalized, which was almost funny.

"Well, now," Hannibal held out his hand and Face dropped the lighter onto his palm, "not everybody understands."

"Sure," Face nodded. "Not everybody thinks their dad's or uncle's -"

"Or grandfather's," Frankie said irrepressibly.

"Watch it, young man," Hannibal said repressively anyway. "You're not that young. Very nice," he added, handing the lighter back to Face, who flicked it, pleased with the flame that sprung out instantly. "So what's in the other one?"

Face had almost forgotten he had another one. He slid the lighter into his shirt pocket under the cashmere sweater, liking the way it felt, solid, real, and picked up the other box.

"You know," Murdock said, "you don't hafta spend all ten dollars."

"I didn't, actually," Frankie said. His tone was just off enough that Face stopped with the lid still on. After a slight pause he held it a little ways out and tilted the lid away from him before taking it off. Not that he thought anything would jump out, but you never knew... Nothing did, so he looked.

He wished something had.

Socks. Not that socks were necessarily bad, but these.. white, blindingly white, with equally brilliant red and green reindeer in a line winding around the legs doing some kind of cha-cha or something. And individual toes, red and green. "I believe you," he said after a moment to Frankie. "Somebody probably paid you to take these."

"Face!" Murdock chided him.

"Thank you, Frankie," he said, realizing that Frankie had managed to camouflage the lighter, and any lingering emotions, pretty damned well. He put the lid back on the box and tied the ribbon around it. "They are certainly the most individual present I've ever received."

"I thought they might amuse you."

Face put the box on the couch and resisted pulling out the lighter and setting it on fire. "They certainly are funny," he agreed.

"Aren't you going to -" Murdock started, but thought better of it. "Let's eat!" he said instead, jumping up.

So they did - turkey and all the trimmings, yams, oysters (Face still wasn't used to that but Murdock had brought them saying "When in Virginia..."), Brussels sprouts, green bean casserole, flaky biscuits and gravy... beer for Hannibal and Murdock and wine for him and Frankie and milk for BA, and cherry and mincemeat pies for dessert. The conversation ranged over Christmases past, reminding Face of the Christmas future he'd outlined for Frankie last night. That was mostly because Frankie was the listener here, too. The old stories were new to him, and that made them new to everyone.

They avoided anything too heavy, of course; nothing from the mid or late 70s, for obvious reasons, and only one from the Team's days in country. But they talked about 1970's blowout on the firebase, with the tree Face had liberated from the Officers' Club to replace the scruffy, Charlie-Brown thing the men had had. And BA told about 1969, before Face had come along, and then Hannibal unwound enough to talk about Korea. And that, of course, led to toasts and a second round of mincemeat, and quieter conversation until the clock on the mantle chimed ten.

"Is that the time?" Murdock jumped up. "Unless I'm staying here - which I doubt - I need to get back to my place."

"You can't drive," said BA.

"No, I don't have a car - Frankie brought me."

"He can't drive either. You both drunk too much."

"There's some truth in that," Murdock admitted. "I have to work in the morning, though."

BA sighed mightily. "Come on, then. I take you; I'm the only only one fit to drive."

"I'm clearing!" Face jumped up and grabbed his plate and the one next to him "You two wash and dry."

"Face - " Hannibal started to object but Face overrode him.

"I called it. You two don't care about your skin, or your cuffs."

Hannibal laughed. "Fine, then. But clearing includes dealing with the leftovers."

"Yeah, and that don't mean pitching them all out, either," BA added. "We got enough here for a lot of meals, and I wanna see it here in the morning."

Face looked at the loaded table and thought about changing his mind, but he didn't want to share a chore. He wanted some time to himself to think about ... well, things. "No problem. You two stay out here till I'm done, though; I don't need you in my way. I'll let you know when I'm through."

Hannibal grinned at him, picking up his beer again. "Sounds like a plan." He stood up and headed for the living room. Face grinned at his retreating back and began stacking plates. Frankie handed him the last one and asked,

"Sure you don't want some help?"

"No. I mean, yes. Cleaning all this up is a two-man job; you're gonna have to hand-wash it all." He was mindful of Hannibal listening, and more than usually grateful for it.

"I could do both," Frankie offered. Face jerked his head towards the living room, and Frankie's eyes widened slightly. "Although I don't suppose you'd help any in return, given your cuffs and all."

"That's why I called clearing in the first place," he said smugly. "You and Hannibal have fun."

Frankie laughed and picked up his wine glass. "Many hands make light work, or something like that."

"Well, if you're not going to help, get away from the table." Face made a shooing motion and Frankie laughed and went out to join Hannibal, who was finding Christmas music on the radio. Face shook his head, not entirely sure what emotion he was feeling, and carried the plates out to the kitchen.

Clearing the table wasn't really that hard. You just carried serving dishes out, dumped the food in them into Tupperware, added anything left over on the stove, and shoved the containers into the refrigerator. The turkey was the only thing at all tricky or time-consuming. He was tempted to deal with that by just wrapping the whole carcass in Saran and sticking it in the fridge, but he wasn't sure how BA would react to that. Though BA's faith in the colonel seemed strong, he wasn't really happy with the current situation, either, and his impatience came out in odd places and odd times, and mostly with Face, or so it seemed. Rather than risk the big man's wrath, he pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and took a sharp knife to the bird, trimming all the meat off the bones, and packing it into neat parcels before storing it away. That finished, he stacked all the plates and other dishes next to the sink, dumped all the silverware into it, stripped the cloth and tossed it in the laundry room, and called it done.

He looked out the window over the sink. Dark and cold again. Well, 10:30 on Christmas night, so... But warm inside the house, or it should be. He remembered how warm it had been last night. Tonight... He turned abruptly from the window and walked away from the cold.

In the living room he nodded at Hannibal and then grabbed his 'loot' and headed upstairs. He tossed the trash - wrapping paper and the socks - into the can and paused, irresolutely. Despite the rubber gloves he could smell turkey; while the others were busy he could grab a quick shower and then turn in, do some serious thinking about the mess he was in. He didn't linger under the hot water as long as he might have; though it felt good on his back, it couldn't wash away his problems. If only it were that easy, he thought as he toweled himself dry. And he couldn't stand there and think for as long as he needed, either; someone was bound to come around. No, best to do his thinking in bed, with a book for camouflage and a glass of wine for inspiration... Wine. He'd left his wine glass on the table.

He made his way carefully down the stairs, walking as quietly as he could. Hannibal and Frankie were still working in the kitchen; he'd been much quicker in the shower than he'd thought, or they were loafing a bit, or both. Whichever, he could grab his glass and get back upstairs without being noticed. As he picked it up, Hannibal's voice drifted out from the kitchen. "You know he's not going to wear those socks."

"I know," Frankie said, his voice slightly muffled; he must have been inside a cabinet because when he spoke again he was clearer. "They weren't a serious present."

"Good," Hannibal said, sounding a bit relieved. "Because he's probably already thrown them away."

Frankie probably shrugged; Face could hear it in his voice. "It was mostly for me, the look on his face when he saw them."

"That was priceless." Hannibal's laugh was unrestrained.

And that stopped Face in his tracks. Not the laugh - what the laugh was about.

His hand shook a little and two drops of wine spilled onto the table. He mopped them up with his pajama sleeve, and then, as Hannibal's footsteps approached, he fled back up the stairs into his room, locking the door behind himself.

He still had a lot of thinking to do, but it was all different now. He had suddenly realized what was wrong with the day, with the way he was looking at the day, at everything. Why everything looked askew was that it was. He was looking at things back-end front. He was in "that relationship" again, of course he was, since as far as he could tell any relationship that lasted more than a week was that relationship. But he wasn't in the same place in it.

He was on the other end. He wasn't the one being walked on. He was the one doing the walking. Or, not quite that, thank God, but he was the one who could do it. Not Frankie.

Frankie didn't have the power.

Frankie had the courage, but he didn't have the power.

And the notion that he could get out from under? Not only wasn't he under, but there was no way out, no acceptable way. It was far too late. He was already in that relationship, okay, which wasn't bad in itself, but the thing was, he had almost done something morally indefensible. He'd almost done the one thing he'd sworn, to God and Father Engarry, that he would never do.

He sank onto the bed, staring at abyss in front of him. Now he knew what he had been doing all day: laying the groundwork to do something morally indefensible. He knew all that stuff he'd just been telling himself was wrong; taking Frankie's advice wasn't bad. The advice had certainly been good, and the giver had nothing but his best interests at heart. The problem was the relationship, the unequalness of it. He'd felt that almost from the beginning, but he'd thought he could make it work. So he'd decided to ignore it. And he'd almost forgotten it. Until today, when he'd been reminded, and hared off in the wrong direction without thinking at all.

He hadn't needed to be told that it was wrong. After all, he'd been in that relationship before - so far over his head that he'd nearly drowned when it ended. There had been some bad years then, and afterward all he'd wanted was relationships that didn't mean anything at all, on either side. He hadn't thought it was possible, but anything else would inevitably cause the kind of pain he couldn't face feeling again, and couldn't bear to think of causing... And then Jill had taught him it was possible, that women weren't that different, that he could have what he wanted.

He'd needed to be told what she told him: that it was possible. And he'd needed more to be told that it was moral. He doubted many priests would agree with Fr. Engarry, so he'd never brought up any details in confessions ... but he'd believed it. And he'd lived by it. Until now.

He'd kidded himself that he'd done the right the thing just by telling Frankie he'd get hurt and accepting his rejection of the idea. After all, he could fall back on saying 'I told you this would happen', couldn't he, because he had told him. He had... But last night had destroyed that theory. Because last night he'd said things that couldn't be taken back, and things that meant things. You can't tell someone you're committed and then dump him. You can't let someone love you - really love you, while you play along - and then say 'sorry, I told you not to'. You just couldn't. And what was "You're with me now" but commitment? What was planning for the future but that? Just the future was commitment.

And he'd said the same thing in Mexico. "You, Franklin. You can trust me. I will never betray you."

He had the power, not Frankie. And he always had. And that meant he had to take the responsibility. And that was what was making him jumpy. He'd known from the beginning what this relationship was, but last night he'd made it overt, unmistakeable; he'd accepted it.

And really, he thought, what was so bad about it? Why was he trying to get out of it? Sure, it wasn't exactly what he wanted, but hadn't he felt the warmth of it? That night in the Watergate, when the words from the aria, Everything around me is dark, but I see no shadow, had seemed so true. And before that, that night in Monte Carlo when Frankie had been so solicitous of him. Hell, that afternoon way before anything had started between them, just driving around in Virginia and Frankie so silent and so, so comforting. That night in Merida he'd known the most important thing was keeping Frankie's certainty that he, Face, Temple, was the kind of man Frankie thought he was. It was worth it. Frankie made it worth it, didn't he?

He'd had this moment of clarity before, he realized. Back in the jungle, standing guard and waiting for Murdock, he'd faced his actions and their consequences: loving Face would get Frankie hurt, eventually. But it didn't have to be that way. He didn't have to let it be that way. He could take responsibility; he could, he grinned wryly to himself in the darkness, do what the army always said and own it. Don't hurt Franklin, he'd told himself in that hot Salvadoran night, and then he'd come back to cold Virginia and let the whole thing slip away in that mix of anger and resentment and half-buried desire that had been his life for longer than he wanted to think about. But he didn't have to live like that.

He didn't have to hurt Franklin. He could let himself be loved.

It wasn't, really, outside the realms of possibility, after all...

He sat there a moment more, remembering the past few months, and then he thought of this evening. Those socks... He got up and found them in the trash bin. He stared at them. Not a serious present.

Nobody had ever given him joke presents. Gag gifts, sure, when everybody else was, but those were different. Nobody had ever known him well enough to joke with him that way.

And that said more about him than them, didn't it?

After another moment he tucked the socks into the back corner of his sock drawer.

And he was tired, sure, but that by itself wasn't enough to explain why he slept so well.

Part Two


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