Predictably, it was Murdock who started it.
Face reached out and brushed his fingers across the documents - the seal, the eagle, arrows, olive branch, the embossed words - and sighed. "Best Christmas present ever."
"Face, just because it's December doesn't make these Christmas presents," the pilot objected.
"These ain't presents, anyway," BA growled. "We earned these. And Stockwell didn't want us to have it even then."
Hannibal cut in then, with the ease of long practice, before Face could say something bitter, or bleak, or both. "Well, we have them, and we're off in a couple of days, with Maclean, Virginia, a shadow in the rear view mirror. If that much."
Face relaxed, letting his almost automatic complaint about the general die unspoken. The prospect of LA after a long drive, even if Hannibal would be in the Vette most of the time instead of him, was simply too pleasing to allow him to stay annoyed. But he couldn't let the subject drop. "So they have to be labeled a present?"
"They have to be a present, they have to be for Christmas, and they have to be for you," Murdoch agreed and elaborated. "And they have to be from somebody who cares about you."
"Right," BA agreed. "It gotta be on purpose. Somebody gotta put some thought into it. Or it just something you really like."
Face laughed. "You make getting something you really like sound like a bad thing."
"It ain't a bad thing," BA said with his customary brusqueness. "It just ain't 'the best Christmas present ever'."
Hannibal nodded, leaning back and drawing on his cigar. "Presents are purposeful. Even if they fail, you feel the purpose. And when they don't -"
"Like when I was six," Murdock broke in, brown eyes lit up like a bonfire. "There was a bike under the tree. Not a trike, a bicycle. It was really too big for me, I could barely get the pedals around, I had to stand on them in front of the seat. But when I got really pumping, I was going so fast, so fast - I felt like I was flying. I kept that bike till I was too big for it..." He sighed, then grinned and added, "I rode the hell out of that bike. I think my mom was a little worried I'd hurt myself falling off, but she gave it to me anyway. And I never did."
"Fall off?" Face asked.
"Hurt myself. Fell off all the time at first." He grinned again. "I loved that bike. It gave me wings."
BA nodded, but it was Hannibal who contributed the next story. "My mother worried about mine, too, but let me have it. I was ten." He looked around at them. "You two weren't even born," he said to Face and BA. "1941. The Depression was over. We had just gotten into the war, but it wasn't like you could tell it yet, not like later. Pearl Harbor had sent us reeling, but there weren't men in uniform everywhere - or not anywhere. Women weren't working that much... It was an odd Christmas. My mother's youngest brother - her favorite, and my favorite uncle, too - had been talking against Hitler for months, so he'd joined up but he hadn't shipped out yet, though he wasn't home any more. She was worried about him..." He paused, then continued.
"I had managed to upset everyone by saying, without thinking it through, but I was only ten, that I hoped to get a crack at Hitler myself." Murdock laughed at that, and Hannibal grinned wryly. "Yeah, nobody wanted the war to go on that long, not even me when I did think about it. So, I was in a bit of hot water, and I wasn't sure what was going to be under the tree for me that year. In fact, I was bit worried that maybe there wouldn't be anything.
"But there was. My uncle Johnnie had left a present for me. I know he had to clear it with my parents, I really knew it back then, but I didn't think about it. I just grabbed that .22 with both hands. My dad had taught me to shoot, but my mother wasn't crazy about me in the woods with a gun, especially if other people were out there with guns, too. Yet here it was, my own .22, with my name on the stock -"
"Your oiled blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift you had ever received, or would ever receive," said Murdock, the tone saying he was quoting something, something Face didn't recognize. As so often was the case. "Really, Hannibal?"
"Of course not," Hannibal answered. "Guns are tools, and, Sears Roebuck ads to the contrary, tools aren't anyone's best present. People want tools, like tools, even love them, but they aren't best presents."
"It was the other present, the one from my mother. A string tied to the stock, leading to the kitchen, where it was tied to a red setter."
That made Murdock grin, and Hannibal and BA along with him. "Dogs," said the pilot, "dogs can be best presents. What was its name?"
"Joy. Her name was Joy," Hannibal said. "She had white feet and a splash of white on her face. They don't let them have white anymore, but back then you still saw it, especially on gun dogs, which is what she was. Two years old, fully trained... and my mom's way of saying it was okay for me to go out with the men and hunt."
"You don't like huntin'," BA said, a question hiding in the words.
"No," Hannibal agreed. "But I didn't know that then. And it wasn't just the hunting. It wasn't even just the dog, though I loved her like crazy. It was being a man."
BA nodded, and Face realized, too late, that he was going to tell a story, too. That was too bad. If it was just Murdock, you could turn the conversation easily enough. If Hannibal joined in, it was still possible, though harder. But when BA added his two cents' worth, it was officially a group activity. Now he was going to have to say something. Too bad he didn't know what.
"That important, awright," BA said. "But you wrong about tools."
"Oh?" Hannibal responded.
BA nodded again. "Best present I ever got, I was twelve. There was three, four things under the tree - couple of shirts, a new jacket - and this big box wrapped up real fancy. Was a tool box, a full set of tools. Well, not a set, really, they didn't match at all, but everything you could want. Old tools, mostly, secondhand but that don't matter with good tools, and these were good tools. My daddy musta taken most of a year to get 'em all." He smiled suddenly. "Next day I was fixin' a neighbor boy's bike. Next week, his daddy axed me to look at his old car - and I got it runnin' for him. After that I was set. I could always make my way - got me in the army and all, kept me there too even when some people wanted me out."
Hannibal laughed at that. "The captains you slugged."
"Never hit nobody didn't deserve it," BA said firmly.
"That's true enough. But it doesn't go down well."
The big man shrugged. "Can't help that." His tone said he didn't intend to try. And certainly Hannibal had been through that enough times. Instead of taking it up with BA, he did what Face had been afraid of for the last ten minutes. He looked at him.
"What about you, Face?"
"What about me what?" That feeble attempt to buy time got what he'd figured it would.
"What was your best present ever?" Hannibal asked with exaggerated patience.
"I didn't get a lot of presents when I was a kid," he parried, hoping it sounded sincere. It was true, after all.
"You don't have to have been a kid," said Murdock.
"You all were."
"That was a coincidence," said Murdock.
"Maybe not," said Hannibal,"it might be easier to think of it as the best thing ever when you're young - or looking back on childhood. But it doesn't have to be something you got as a child. Just your best present."
"Nothing," he answered. "I never got any best ever."
Murdock wasn't letting that slide - of course not, when did he ever? "Nothing? Come on, Face, something has to be the best one."
Damnit, Face thought. There was no way he could answer that truthfully. He was never telling anybody about the socks - Murdock hadn't seen the drawer with the five pairs of holiday print socks tucked into the back of it, each pair worn once, no, four worn once and the smiling, flower-covered skulls not worn at all. Frankie had probably bought turkey socks, too, but they hadn't been out here. Goodwill had gotten them, no doubt. He had brought them back to Langley and hidden them away, and they were tucked inside a sweater in his suitcase now... Murdock might find them someday, but Face would never tell him why Frankie had kept buying them. Murdock didn't need to hear it.
In fact, he didn't need to hear anything about Frankie. Face had already told him too much. It only hurt them both...
So Face couldn't even go with the next best, because that was from Frankie, too. Even if he'd ponied up most of the cost himself, it was still Frankie's idea. So, letting a little irritation into his voice he said, "Nothing. All my presents were fine, but nothing was anything worth talking about."
And then he looked at the other two. BA's dark eyes were gentle and worried - how many people ever saw that, he wondered briefly - but Hannibal's were, if anything, worse: narrowed, calculating... Damn. If he didn't watch out, the colonel would be spending the next three weeks planning on how to given him a great present. And that wouldn't do, if only because Hannibal was supposed to be thinking about New Hampshire, and his family, and rebuilding his own life. He must have flinched, because Murdock pounced.
"Yes, you did. Didn't you? C'mon, Face, you can tell us."
"Okay," he said abruptly. The hell with it, if they would push him they'd just have to take what came. "Okay, yes, I did. I got a present exactly like yours, only I just got it this year."
"Like ours?" Hannibal was puzzled. "Ours were all different."
"No, they weren't. They were all something huge. Wings. Manhood. A life's calling." Face said. "Exactly like that. I got freedom."
"Freedom?" Hannibal asked softly.
"The boat?" Murdock guessed. "I thought you -"
Face said, precisely, "Frankie gave me that boat for Christmas last year. He found it and he made the deal for it. When I'm on it, sailing, it's freedom. I could go anywhere... So that's all your criteria, right? A Christmas present, for me, from someone who cared -" His voice got away from him, trembling on that last word, so he stopped talking.
There was a momentary silence, and then it was BA who broke it. "Yeah. That fit. I'm glad you got it, Faceman."
Weirdly, that drained all the anger out of him and brought the worry right back - not about BA, of course, but at least he could look at the big man without falling apart. "Thanks, BA."
"Well..." Hannibal hung on the edge of saying something, God knew what, but then he didn't. Sometimes he seemed to know - well, probably he usually did and it was just sometimes he decided to act on it - when Face just didn't want to hear anything. Later he'd come around to it, sideways, but now he only said, "BA? Let's you and me go into town and bring some pizza or something back for dinner. You said the van needed gas, didn't you?"
"Yeah, Hannibal. It do." He stood up, reaching for the keychain on the table.
Oh, God, no, do not go away and leave me alone with Murdock. At least he didn't say that out loud as the two men headed for the kitchen door. Murdock did speak, though what he said wasn't particularly helpful. "There's a good place for chicken and barbeque down from the Shell station."
"That sound good," BA said, and then they were gone.
Face found himself looking at the stack of pardons on the table, as if he couldn't take his eyes off them. He heard Murdock stand up but didn't look at him, because he didn't know what he could say. He had known Murdock for nineteen years, Frankie for two, and he had just said -- He lost the thought when Murdock sat down next to him on the short couch, crowding him just a little, clearly not trying to keep any distance between them. Face looked up into serious brown eyes and couldn't think of a thing to say. So he just waited till Murdock collected himself and started talking.
"Face, I gotta say this because you don't seem to know it. Or maybe you don't believe it. I don't know which. But you need to, if this is going to work between us. No, let me talk a minute." Murdock took a deep breath. "Frankie doesn't hurt me. He doesn't threaten me. Maybe he would if things were different... I know this is going to sound pretty insenstitive, but... Frankie's not in a position to come back and take you away from me. He's dead. If he was out there, if you two had had a fight and he'd faked his death and run off in Malaysia and could come back with an apology, or ready to hear one depending on how the fight had gone, well, then ... then I'd be worried adbout him. Then I wouldn't want to hear about him. Then it would bother me, thinking you were thinking about him."
"If he did," Face said softly - Murdock's honesty merited some in return, though it might cost - "if he did, I'd leave you for him."
"I know you would," Murdock nodded. "You loved him and he loved you and you were together. You made promises to him, and you'd keep them. But don't you see, hon? It can't happen. Frankie isn't a rival. I'm not threatened by him and how you remember him. You don't have to pretend you don't."
"I mean it, Face. I meant it a couple of weeks ago when I said you'd better not even try to forget him, and I mean it now. Frankie is part of you. I don't want just the other part. I'm greedy. I want all of you."
Face sighed. "That's ..." He couldn't say crazy so he settled for "deeply weird, you know that."
Murdock smiled. "Yeah. Can't help it. Hope you don't mind."
Face felt himself smiling back. "No," he said. "I don't mind it. Not at all." He leaned against Murdock, felt the other man's arm come around him, and relaxed into the warm hold, thinking not about the complicated past or the unpredictable future and definitely not about any of the unknowable parallel universes where that mission in Pontianak had turned out altogether differently, no, thinking just about the present, the right now, right here that was, in fact, right... Those other thoughts would come back, more often than he wanted them to, more often than was comfortable, but they weren't there now. He closed his eyes and said, softly, "This is good. This is a good present."
Murdock chuckled, but what he said showed he'd misunderstood. That was okay, though - even misunderstanding, Murdock was right on target with his response. "This? This isn't a present, Face. It's the present. Our present."
Face sighed without opening his eyes. "That's what I mean."
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