What Better Time To Remember?

Disclaimer: I do not own The A Team movie or television series or any of the delightful characters found on The A Team.

Face pushed himself from the kitchen table and groaned contentedly. "Anyone else feel like parking themselves on the sofa and taking a long nap? Because if no one else does, I think I will."

God, I hope nobody claims that couch before I do! I'm not joking about how full I am.

Hannibal scraped his chair back and extracted a cigar from his shirt pocket. Raising his eyebrows at the Lieutenant, he smiled when Face removed his lighter from his pants pocket and lit the tip for the older man. "Thanks, Face." He took in a puff and blew it out slowly, sighing as he did. "A good cigar should always cap off a perfect meal. I do believe our cook outdid himself this year. Murdock, you deserve either a medal of honor or a round of applause for this spread."

Face had to agree. He peeked at his friend and saw the twinkle in Murdock's eyes and slight blush in his cheeks.

Way to go, buddy. You deserve all that praise. I know exactly how much trouble you went to. Sending a letter to B. A.'s mother and buying all that food, then cooking yesterday and today. You haven't relaxed for two full days. And I wonder how much sleep you've gotten.

"Yeah, buddy, you really did outdo yourself." The Lieutenant echoed Hannibal's sentiments.

The pilot's face lit up with a lopsided grin as he removed dirty plates and silverware from the table.

He paused when he got to B. A. and eyed him with mischievous uncertainty. "Ya gonna have fourths, Big Guy? Or are ya gonna save room for pie? Christmas Eve comes but once a year 'n' I can' guarantee a feast like this every time you guys break me outta th' VA."

The Sergeant speared another slice of ham from the roasting pan in the center of the table. "Hafta say ya did good, fool. It's almost like Momma used ta make. But no one can outdo Momma an' the spread she'd put out on Christmas Day."

He was so focused on drizzling warmed homemade raisin glaze on his ham that he didn't notice the Captain's grin fade away in disappointment. Both Face and Hannibal did.

It was a crestfallen look quickly hidden as the pilot turned away with a short stack of serving dishes and dirty plates. Walking briskly to the sink, he unbuttoned the cuffs of his red plaid flannel shirt and rolled up his sleeves with quick jerking movements. In a strained low voice he said, "I was kinda hopin' I made it seem a bit more like home t' ya, Big Guy. I knew ya miss bein' there 'n' spendin' th' holiday with 'er."

Hannibal shot B. A. a warning glance, one that went unheeded because the big man was still forking food into his mouth.

Face surveyed the unaware Sergeant, his frowning CO and the dejected man at the sink. All he could see of Murdock to know his mood was the slumped shoulders and bowed head.

Guess I'd better go and do some damage control. B. A. meant nothing by what he said.

"You aren't going to do those dishes all alone, are you? I'll help you if you give me about a half hour to digest my food." The Lieutenant moved over to the sink and clapped a hand on Murdock's back. "What about it, buddy?"

"That's alright, Faceman. Best t' get 'em b'fore the food hardens on 'em." In a subdued tone, he muttered, "Momma sent me recipes t' all o' B. A.'s fav'rites. I know I didn't miss any ingredients."

Face whispered back, "Do you see him slowing down or pushing any of it to the side? I think you did just fine. Don't worry about it."

"I get that. I was hopin' I made his Christmas better." Murdock meditatively swiped the dishrag across a plate, rinsed and placed the plate in the dish drainer. "But I guess that's th' best I'll ever get from 'im."

Face glanced back at the Colonel and shook his head but not so the pilot at the sink would notice.

Just when Face thought the older man didn't understand his cue, the Colonel coughed gently and spoke. "I think we're all a little too full to do a lot of KP duty." Hannibal let his gaze wander to the lighted Christmas tree set up in the corner of the living room of the beach house. "Hey, Captain. Why don't you let those dishes soak for a while and we'll open some of those presents?"

The Lieutenant gave him a well-hidden thumb's-up. If anything would help Murdock forget B. A.'s unintended criticism, opening gifts would.

Turning from the sink, Murdock glanced toward the tree and smiled. "Ya mean it, Colonel? We don' hafta wait 'til Christmas mornin' like my Gramma 'n' Grampa made me wait?"

Hannibal nodded solemnly. "Lead the way, Captain. We won't open all of them. Maybe one or two apiece and leave the rest for tomorrow."

The pilot quickly dried his hands on a towel and hurried over to the tree. Hannibal and Face followed, Hannibal finding a seat in one of the armchairs and Face gratefully sinking onto the plush couch. By the time B. A. made his way to the other armchair with half of a plate of food, Murdock was on hands and knees, digging around under the tree, pushing brightly colored clumsily wrapped packages aside, looking for something.

"I have one gift for each o' you I'd kinda like ya t' open t'night. If that's okay." He backed out carefully from under the low branches, three four-inch-square wrapped boxes in his hands. Handing one gift to each of his friends, he perched on the arm of the sofa and eagerly waited.

"What about grabbing one of your gifts from under there so we can all unwrap them together?" Hannibal gestured toward the remaining presents.

"No, no. I put a lotta thought into these 'n' I jus' wanna watch when ya open them. Please?" Murdock bounced his knees up and down impatiently. Face noticed his friend tucked his hands under his legs. That was a bad sign and reminded the con man to ask if Murdock had remembered to take his anti-anxiety meds lately.

Maybe that's where he got all of the energy to cook all that food. When he gets too excited, there's more likelihood he'll get under B. A.'s skin. Not a good thing.

None of them ever mentioned the pharmacy of pills Murdock took to regulate his behavior. He knew which he needed and which of them he only pretended to take while under his doctors' care. The pilot had shown and explained them all to Hannibal and Face once so they would know. There was a list and schedule in his duffel bag if any of them needed it.

But Christmas brings out the kid in my buddy and maybe that's all it is. B. A. has yet to get so irritated that he hangs Murdock on the top of the Christmas tree.

Face shrugged and started to tear away the shiny bright blue paper.

"In my family, we always had to guess what was in the box before we opened it. Of course, that was when I was a kid. No guess, no gift. That was the rule." Hannibal gently shook the small package, holding it close to his ear. "Let me see. It sounds like it slides back and forth in there but it isn't very heavy. It can't be a cigar. The box is too small, even for a cigarillo."

"Nope." Murdock's smile widened. "Now you, Faceman. Try 'n' guess."

All of the talk of family traditions made the Lieutenant somewhat uncomfortable. What Christmas tradition did he have to remember? He shifted the box in his fingers, reflecting on the thought. Looking up, he noted Murdock watching him, a hint of understanding in his expression.

Alright already. I'll play along just for you, buddy.

Face took Hannibal's lead. Part of the wrapping paper was already torn away and as he shook the box, he spotted the word 'silver' on the brown pasteboard.

Cufflinks, maybe? A tie pin? It's obviously some kind of clothing accessory. I won't spoil it for the other guys but if we all have the same gift, I'm afraid it'll be wasted on B. A.

He gave Murdock his most quizzical look. "I don't know. Is it Miss December? Or maybe her sister?"

The pilot smirked. "Tried t' get her but she ain' as flexible as she looks in those Playboy photo shoots. Wouldn' fit in th' box. Ya wanna try 'gain?"

Face waved his hand and glanced toward the Sergeant. "I'll pass. Let B. A. guess."

From the expression on B. A.'s face, the con man could tell the guessing game didn't appeal to him.

Why don't you just once humor Murdock? Stop being such an angry mudsucker.

One look from Hannibal and the big mechanic's low growl stopped. "Well, it ain' a socket wrench ta replace the one ya used ta stir paint with so I give up."

This time the Sergeant's comment didn't remove Murdock's smile. "Good try but it ain' what's in this box. Maybe it's in one o' th' others?" He paused and said more seriously, "'N' I thought that was somethin' ya wasn't holdin' 'gainst me anymore. I reached for th' first thing I could find when we were paintin' th' garage. 'N' if ya r'member, I tried t' clean it up."

B. A. snorted but averted his gaze to the gift in his hands to avoid the other man's hurt expression.

The Lieutenant took in a calming breath. He wished the others would do the same.

"Hey guys, we should open these gifts before we all get as gray as Hannibal." Face glanced at the Colonel to see if he had taken offense.

The older man chuckled. "This kind of gray comes from keeping you boys out of trouble. But you're right, kid. We shouldn't keep Murdock waiting any longer. Let's see what you got us, Captain."

The only sound in the next few seconds was that of wrapping paper being torn and boxes being opened.

Face was the first to open his gift. Reaching into the box and pushing aside fluffy white batting, he pulled out a smaller velvety dark blue box.

I thought so. It's got to be cuff links or a tie clasp.

He peeked up at Murdock. The pilot's expression wasn't what Face expected. Instead of gleeful anticipation he caught a hint of sadness in the brown eyes that watched him.

Opening the jeweler's box, he frowned down at a single thin silver rectangular plate on a chain.

A dog tag? What the hell?

Hannibal finished reading a small folded piece of paper tucked inside the larger box and set it aside. Face noticed the Colonel's smile had faded away. Carefully lifting the chain out of the box, Hannibal examined both sides of the silver plate before hanging it around his neck and tucking it into the front of his shirt. He slowly nodded his approval as he caught Murdock's unreadable gaze. "I understand and I will, Captain."

Face peered over at B. A. to find the black man staring at an identical piece of paper in one hand and gripping a gold-plated version of the dog tag and chain in his other. Without a word the Sergeant placed the paper back in the box, unclasped the chain and reattached it around his neck on top of the other gold he wore.

Getting to his feet, he lumbered over to where the pilot perched and held out his hand. "I promise too, man." Gripping Murdock's hand in his own, he repeated himself. "I promise."

He pulled the pilot up into a bear hug, one that caught both Face and Murdock by surprise. Just as quickly B. A. released him and returned to the chair to read the piece of paper to himself again.

Without lifting the chain out of the box, Face turned the dog tag over to read the engraving on the other side.

He felt a sudden flush in his cheeks as he read the inscription out loud. "First Lieutenant Charles A. Heller, POW." Turning it over again, he read, "We will remember."

Face dropped the box with its contents like it burned his hands to hold it. He tried to form words to express the combined shock, anger and shame he felt course through his body but found himself speechless.

What was Murdock thinking?

He abruptly stood. Leaving the box on the floor beside the sofa he walked out of the room and toward the doors that led to the beach house deck and fresh air. He knew his friends stared at him as he did. Clumsily sliding the door shut behind him, he tried to organize his thoughts but all he could think about was the last time he saw Chuck Heller.

The evening breeze off the ocean hit him and cleared his mind for a few seconds. It was long enough for him to make his way down the steps to the sandy beach below. Once there, he staggered down the shoreline until his memories forced him to his knees.

Too bad I didn't grab that bottle of wine as I was leaving. I could have used that about now to forget. Damn Murdock and his sentimentality! As if I needed to be reminded.

He rolled over to sit on the sand, his knees bent, his arms folded on top of them, his forehead cushioned on his arms.

It had been a long time since he thought about Chuck Heller. Hell, he didn't realize any of them still remembered him.

We should have. He was the only reason I wasn't recaptured by the NVA. Murdock remembered but then again he remembers too much about that war.

"Damn him!"

He raised his head to look out across the waters. The moon's reflection was an undulating light stream on the gently rippling waves.

How far from here is the camp where Chuck might still be held? Or did he die over there from torture and starvation?

With those thoughts came another that through years of practice he learned to push to the deepest area of his mind.

It should have been me.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a blurred figure walking toward him from the direction of the beach house.

I didn't go far enough. I was too easy to find.

Squinting at the man slowly trudging through the dunes, Face figured Hannibal had sent Murdock to talk to him. The Colonel was good at delegating responsibility.

Wasn't that what got Heller recaptured? Giving me a job I couldn't handle?

Whoever it was, he was about four yards away by now. Swiping a sleeve over his watery eyes, the con man turned his face away to scan the beach.

Why couldn't they leave me alone and let me deal with it?

"Mind if I sit?" The voice was accompanied by the soft thunk of something dropping on the sand beside him. Curious, he looked to find one of the unopened wine bottles and the Colonel settling in.

For several minutes neither man spoke. Hannibal stared out across the ocean, seeming content to wait for Face to say the first words.

It was damn uncomfortable knowing you were expected to give an account of your actions. Especially when you didn't quite know how to explain away your actions.

Finally the Colonel picked up the bottle and fished in his pocket for something to pull the cork. Once opened, he tipped some of the contents into his mouth and swallowed, then offered the bottle to the Lieutenant.

"Want some?"

Face gripped the neck and took several gulps before handing it back. Returning his gaze to the sea, he stared morosely at the water.

They passed the bottle silently between them until it was empty. Face sighed.

"You remembered Heller. B. A. remembered Heller. It's obvious Murdock has never forgotten him." The con man twisted his head to glare at Hannibal. "And when I came back, all I wanted to do was forget."

Hannibal reached to his side and sifted a handful of sand through his fingers. "You found out it isn't so easy."

"I did fine until Murdock gave us those dog tags. I managed." He almost spat the words out. If he said it with enough ferocity he might believe it.

"Obviously not. You took the entire blame for Chuck Heller and what became of him and kept blaming yourself. But I seem to remember Captain Wilson saying you didn't have much of a choice."

The Lieutenant shook his head angrily. "You gave me a job to do, a life or death responsibility, and I failed. If I had been more careful when I was on point and not gashed my side open on that punji stick, I would have been able to locate some friendlies and get both Heller and Wilson to safety somewhere. I wouldn't have failed." The con man absently tipped the bottle of wine upside down and then furiously jammed the neck several inches into the sand.

"And if you remember correctly, we all had a part in what happened. Like Murdock said, if he hadn't crashed the chopper to begin with . . . " Face cast a sharp look at Hannibal, wondering if the Colonel meant that or not. Hannibal continued. "If Murdock hadn't provoked the guards back at the camp and gotten his knee injured . . . if Wilson hadn't gotten dysentery as bad as he did . . . if I hadn't decided to split the group up and stay behind with B. A. to take care of Murdock's infected knee . . . "

"That's a lot of if's, Colonel. It isn't right to blame Murdock or Wilson for what happened to them and you were doing what you had to so all of us had a chance to get to freedom." Face's mouth was suddenly dry. He swallowed and ran a hand through his hair.

"I made a stupid mistake, the kind a green soldier would make, and Heller paid for it. I should have watched my footing." He absently touched his side where the scar from the punji stick gash remained. "The fact is while Wilson and I hid in that rice paddy drainage trench, Heller went out to do some recon of the perimeter . . . my job . . . and got caught."

Face barely remembered peeking over the edge of the ditch and seeing the NVA soldiers beat and then march Heller away, his wrists bound behind his back. He was delirious from the infected gash in his side but a sight like that cut through the delirium and etched itself in his mind. The memory haunted both his dreams and his waking hours until he learned how to bury it.

And it was buried . . . until tonight.

"Murdock meant no harm in what he gave us. He didn't know you were still carrying around all that guilt. When you dropped the box and rushed out, he realized. He's already making plans to get you something else and maybe track down Heller's parents or sister and send the dog tag to them." As the Colonel finished what he was saying, Face felt his intense gaze on him.

The con man shook his head and waved his hand in dismissal. "He doesn't have to do that. I should remember Heller and the sacrifice he made to protect Wilson and me. I don't know if I can bring myself to wear it but I will keep it and remember." He glanced up the beach at the distant softly glowing lights of the Christmas tree in the window of the beach house. Clearing his throat, he added, "I suppose we should get back. I don't want to ruin any more of Murdock's Christmas spirit by making him wallow in guilt."

Before he could move, the Colonel spoke again. "If it's any comfort to you, I happen to know Chuck Heller isn't dead."

Hannibal said the words so quietly, Face wasn't sure he heard him correctly.

"I . . . I don't understand. I was there. Those soldiers got him. They weren't known for treating recaptured POWs any nicer." Face ran a hand over his head in frustration. "There's no way he could have survived a second stay in a POW camp."

"But he did. He was released in one of those good faith moves the NVA did for propaganda purposes. They sent him home."

Face turned toward his CO in disbelief. What Hannibal said didn't make sense. "Why didn't you tell me?" His thoughts turned to the silver dog tag and the engraved 'POW' on it. "Murdock still thinks Heller is over there in a prison camp. Why didn't you tell him?"

Hannibal's eyes turned hard. His jaw muscles twitched as he clenched his teeth. "Command decision, Lieutenant." He pulled the wine bottle from the sand before speaking again. Examining it, rolling it around in his hands, he murmured, "Do you remember what Murdock was like when we finally found him? After we escaped Fort Bragg and tracked him to the VA hospital?"

Face shuddered. If they found him a few months later, there would not have been anything but a shell of a man to find. It had taken several risky visits before Murdock recognized any of them or believed they were real and not a figment of his psychoses.

Hell, he was almost catatonic when I paid my first visit to him in disguise. I remember he didn't speak the entire time. Just kept staring at me so vacantly I wasn't sure there was a spark of awareness in him at all.

The Colonel's voice turned husky with emotion. "Heller was worse. He returned from Nam but not all of him returned. I had my sources find out for me if there was anything any of us could do for him. There was nothing to be done, nothing that the docs aren't doing already."

"But why not tell Murdock or me?" Face stood, suddenly wanting to move, to let out the frustration he was feeling at his CO's secrecy.

"Think about it, Lieutenant. What would Murdock's immediate reaction be?" Without waiting for a reply, he pressed on. "I'll tell you. He would want to have Heller transferred to Los Angeles to the hospital ward he was in or he would want to go to see him, to see if he could help Heller like he was helped. And what about you? Wouldn't you blame yourself for his condition?"

Face decided to ignore the last two questions.

How would I answer them anyway?

"But wouldn't a visit from someone who knew what it was like over there in the camps, who knew him, who shared a similar experience, bring him through it?"

"There's some wounds that can't be healed that way. Murdock wouldn't be able to help," Hannibal firmly concluded. "And neither can you."

"How do you know?" Face couldn't let it go. He tightened his hands into fists and glared down at the man sitting on the sand.

"Because, kid, Heller has parents and a sister and not even seeing them again has touched the surface of what he needs." Hannibal got to his feet with a slight grunt. "They're slowly making progress with him but it's taking longer than it did with Murdock. I can't begin to know what that second imprisonment was like for him if it's taken this much treatment."

Face peered at the distant beach house and asked, "Are you ever going to tell him?"

"Not unless Heller makes significant progress so a visit would help rather than hinder his recovery." The Colonel sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "You can't make amends to Heller by trying to singlehandedly restore him to his pre-war mental state. You can't be his savior. The best we can do is remember him for the sacrifice he made and hope someday everything Chuck Heller once was, is once again."

"I'm not trying to 'make amends' or be his savior." He denied Hannibal's words but in his heart he wasn't so sure. He felt his temper rise at the scrutinizing look the Colonel gave him.

"When the time is right, we'll pay Heller a visit . . . and I'll explain to Murdock what I just explained to you. Until then, Murdock is not to know about Heller." The older man began to trudge back along the beach.

Face had to move quickly to catch up. "It's ironic, isn't it?"

"What is?" Hannibal asked in a way that seemed to say he already knew what the Lieutenant meant.

"Chuck Heller really isn't a free man. He's trapped in his mind, in those memories." The con man reflected for a few seconds as they kept pace with each other. "He's still a POW just like Murdock was after we escaped Ferret and the other guards on the trail to the Cambodian border. Their prison is their own minds and memories."

"We aren't free either, kid. Not as long as we're wanted for the Hanoi bank job." They had reached the steps to the beach house deck. As Hannibal climbed the stairs, Face hesitated.

"Will any of us ever be free of that war?" He hadn't expected an answer. When he didn't hear another word from Hannibal, he slowly walked up the steps and into the beach house living room. He had an apology and a promise to give.