by Elizabeth Kent
Hannibal set the piping hot dish on the dining room table between the leftover cranberry sauce and the remains of three different pies then stood back to survey his domain before calling everyone to the table. The arched doorway into the livingroom framed BA's bulk settled in an easy chair. A football game was on, but the volume was turned too low to hear from the dining room. BA's attention was only partly on the game, anyway. For the most part his eyes were on the baby he held in his arms. With the backs of his fingers, he gently stroked his daughter's dusky skin, smoothing over her cheek and up through the long curls that framed her heart-shaped face. Her mother's face.
Across the room, BA's wife sat on the window seat between Face and Murdock, the three of them focused on the scrapbook open on her lap. "This is Mom and Dad with me on my eighth birthday," she said.
"Hey, ponies!" Murdock said. "Now I'm jealous."
"Well, it was a big bash," she said. "Ponies, clowns, a magician, a trunk of dress-up clothes for all the girls at the sleepover. Everything a little girl could want." She sighed and closed the book. "And I would have traded it all for him to still be there when I woke up the next morning."
"I know the feeling, Ellen," Face said. He put his arm around her shoulder. "Believe me."
She smiled, and Hannibal's breath caught in his thoat. It still took him by surprise, sometimes, her resemblance to Face. The hair, the smile, the similarities in their gestures...if he hadn't known better, he'd have thought they'd known each other all their lives. You'd never guess they'd known each other less than two years. Two eventful years.
Hannibal hadn't liked her much at the beginning, though he understood her reluctance to be reunited with her long-absent father, especially when it put her life in danger. Especially since he'd abandoned her and her mother, left them behind without a word or even two dimes to rub together. She was...brittle. She breathed out anger and bitterness and hurt with every breath. And that first Thanksgiving, when Hannibal had thought the mission was accomplished and they could finally have their holiday meal, when Face (breathing out his own anger, bitterness, and hurt) had brought her home and introduced her not just as A.J. Bancroft's daughter, but as his own half-sister, well, he'd been less than thrilled. Frankie, knowing when it was a good idea to make himself scarce, had immediately and wisely decided to skip dinner and go out on a date that night. The best you could say for that Thanksgiving meal was that it was a meal.
Face and Murdock had been walking on eggshells around each other, still working out the fight they'd had over Murdock keeping A.J.'s secret (and that hadn't been an easy tale for Hannibal to listen to, either, and to know what had been going on right there under his nose while he thought he'd had everything pretty much under control). Face had been politely determined to make Ellen part of the family even though she was still a stranger to him. It hadn't helped that they'd sprung all this on him while he was trying to pull together the holiday meal, maybe thinking that if his hands were busy, he wouldn't have too much time to think about how they'd kept important information from him in the middle of a mission. And more importantly, about how they'd kept information from him that Stockwell already had. He didn't like it when Stockwell was better-informed than he was. Didn't like it at all.
"She's my sister," Face had announced. "Turns out A.J. Bancroft was my father, too. I invited Ellen to come for Thanksgiving dinner. I've invited her for Christmas, too."
BA had just shrugged and peeled some more potatoes. "You like mashed potatoes, Ellen?" he'd asked. "I'm makin' my momma's recipe."
Ellen had drifted to his side and picked up a paring knife, cutting the eyes out of the spuds as BA peeled them. It had been BA who'd kept the conversation going during dinner, peppering Ellen with questions about her childhood, telling her stories about Face (and not the worst ones, either, but the ones that made him look good), and never letting on that Murdock and Face were more than best friends, just in case it mattered to her. Nobody had been willing to trust her with that information just yet, and besides, that was Face's story to tell, not theirs. And besides that, at that point, neither BA nor Hannibal was sure that Face and Murdock were still a couple.
Ellen had been polite, if distant, and Hannibal had been too caught up in Face's trauma over A.J. and his own anger at Stockwell to notice that Ellen had pretty much stuck by BA the rest of the evening. While Face and Murdock were sentenced to KP after dinner (because even in his anger, Hannibal was aware enough to see that they needed to have to stand right next to each other at the sink and work things out) Ellen had walked the grounds with BA, getting acquainted with the Abels and learning whatever it was safe for her to learn about their little family. Her new family.
He had realized that of them all, BA was the most comfortable with Ellen, at least until Face had worked out his own demons, but, well, he hadn't seen this coming. BA was such a...a professional virgin...that it had never occurred to Hannibal that he might see Ellen as something more than a new sister. Or that she might see something different in BA than she saw in Face. BA hadn't pursued her, not immediately, but he'd been attentive and sweet whenver she was around. And Face had made sure she was around as often as possible. And yeah, Hannibal had been jealous. He wasn't too proud to admit it. Face kept calling her his sister. His family. And all this time, Hannibal had thought he'd given Face a family. Hadn't he? He'd done all he could through the years to make sure the guys got real holiday meals, that they didn't work on Christmas if it wasn't absolutely necessary, that he remembered their birthdays. That they learned how to be men, not just the boys they'd been (brave, talented, smart, angry, betrayed boys) when they'd gone on the run. That they knew they were as good as any other man, no matter what their government said about them. He hadn't let Face and Murdock's admission of their not-brotherly-love make a difference to him. Why did Face need more family? But he'd squashed that unkind thought almost as soon as he'd had it. Face wanted (and needed) all the family he could get. He'd never had anything even like a sister before, and now here one was, in the flesh, sharing half his genetic makeup. Hannibal couldn't turn her out anymore than he'd turned out Frankie. When BA ran to the drugstore that December to get a Christmas stocking for Frankie and also came back with somethink pink and frilly with Ellen's name written on it in gold glitter, he hadn't really thought much about it. Everyone had to have a stocking. It was a Smith family tradition. So he'd allowed it to hang up there on the fireplace, conveniently placed between Face's stocking and BA's, and when Stockwell's sharp eyes had noted it, Hannibal had just shrugged. And he hadn't stopped to wonder who had bought all the little indulgences that were stuffed in her stocking on Christmas morning, either. He'd assumed it was Face. It wasn't until months later that Face had told him he'd only had time to buy a few stocking stuffers before he'd been shot at the Villa Cucina and that it was BA who'd finished up the shopping.
He didn't blame himself too much for not noticing all that. He'd had his hands full trying to take care of Face, who'd been released from the hospital much too soon. What a hell of a mess that had all been. Even Face's assurances that it wasn't Murdock's fault didn't make Murdock feel any better, not with Face too weak to even get off the couch to go take a leak without help. Murdock wouldn't leave Face's side except to go to work (because Stockwell still required him to hold down a job), so Hannibal had spent a considerable amount of time trying to reason with Murdock (always a losing proposition) and nurse Face back to health.
Frankie had surprised them all by being the one to orchestrate the Christmas celebration that year, with Face bedridden and Murdock hovering (in the way, actually) and Stockwell's minions nowhere to be found when help was needed. Frankie had put up the tree, hung the outside lights, draped tinsel on everything that didn't move, and stocked up enough eggnog for an army. Ellen had taken some vacation time and spent hours at Face's bedside, reading to him, talking politics and Catholic schools when he could stay awake long enough to listen, then making herself useful in other ways while Face napped. It hadn't occurred to Hannibal that while Ellen was in the kitchen baking cookies and pies, planning Christmas dinner, and making shopping lists, that BA was in there, too. He chalked it up to too much stress that he didn't notice how close they sat to each other while they looked at the cookbooks or how much BA smiled whenever Ellen was in the room. It wasn't till he walked in and caught them kissing...actually kissing...under the mistletoe that he figured out what was going on. He was almost afraid to let them tell Face in case the shock caused a relapse, but as it turned out, Face hadn't been all that shocked after all. Turned out that all that time lying on the couch with nothing else to do gave Face time to notice all kinds of interesting things.
It gave him time to come to terms with some things, too, Hannibal suspected, because it was about this time that the last of Face's anger drained away, and for the first time since their capture, Hannibal saw a little of the old, resilient Face emerge. The tension that had hovered between him and Murdock since Thanksgiving disappeared as well, and the change was such a welcome relief to Murdock that he almost cried when Face actually reached for him and held him close. It was a relief to Hannibal, too, because that was something he couldn't fix no matter how much chicken soup he spooned into Face. All he'd wanted was for his men to be healthy and happy by Christmas, and really, was that too much to ask after all they'd been through in the previous year?
Christmas had been subdued, but not anything like the Thanksgiving from Hell had been. Face had been well enough to sit up and join in the festivities, and if Ellen had thought anything of it when she saw Murdock slip an arm around Face's shoulders and kiss him on the cheek, she didn't say anything. If she was as smart as her brother, she'd probably already figured it out, anyway. Even Frankie hadn't made himself scarce like he usually did. For a Christmas in a gilded cage, it wasn't too bad.
They'd done a few more high-profile cases for Stockwell, and by then rumors were starting to spread around DC that certain dead mercenaries might not be actually dead, and Stockwell finally decided they'd outlived their usefulness and gave them their pardons. Hannibal wondered briefly who had started those rumors, and whether it was a curious and grateful Attorney General who was still trying to find out who'd saved him, or a young woman impatient to get her lover out of the government's clutches. In the end, though, he decided he didn't want to know as long as the result was their pardons and their freedom. Suddenly, one day in June, they had both, as well as plane tickets back to LA.
There had followed a three-month vacation while they did the talk show circuit, reunited with their friends and families, and planned their futures. BA took Ellen to meet his mother in Chicago, and after a month's stay, he brought Ellen back wearing a large diamond ring. Hannibal had had offers to teach at West Point but was more interested in parlaying his fame into movie roles that didn't require a rubber suit. Face had, oddly enough, been the only one of them who had contemplated returning to the military. Luckily, they had talked him out of it. He'd gone to work for a Catholic charity organization instead, and as there was nobody better at getting things from the people who had them to the people who needed them, he'd been welcomed with open arms. Murdock surprised them all by publishing a well-received children's book about unlikely superheroes, something he'd been working on for years, and he split his time between going on book tours and being Face's house husband. Frankie went back to special effects in Hollywood and was reunited with his elderly father. BA opened his own handyman business and was doing so well he even had a couple of other guys working for him. He took two afternoons off a week to volunteer at the day care center, mentoring the kids there while he fixed the many broken things in and around the building. Ellen kept the books for his business and started her own small ad agency on the side. None of them really hurt for funds; the team had saved oodles of money in the past ten years and still owned shares in any number of thriving businesses they'd saved. Face had invested their funds well, for the most part (with the notable exception of the Cowboy George fiasco) so they were even able to help Frankie set up his dad in a really nice care facility and buy Mama Baracus a condo to live in part of the year so she could be close to her family. For the most part, they had left their mercenary days behind. There was still the occasional injustice they stumbled onto and had to right...just had to! But they were law-abiding citizens, more or less, now, with nine-to-five jobs.
Their new careers could have drawn them away from each other. In a city the size of LA, you can avoid seeing other people for years at a time. But that was the one part of their old lives none of them could give up. The little core of their family...he and BA and Face and Murdock...had been together too long, been through too much, to walk away from each other. Even when Face had tried that back at Langley, he hadn't been able to follow through. They saw each other at least a couple of times a week and spent every holiday together because that is just what families do. Over the years they'd widened the circle of their family to include BA's mother, Frankie and his dad, Amy (just back from Jakarta and with an A-Team tell-all book in the works), Tawnia and her husband, and Ellen. And now, the most welcome of them all, little Bethany Ann Baracus, born on Face's birthday (or the day they'd always celebrated as his birthday) and christened in the same little christening dress her grandmother and her great grandmother had worn. Blessed with and by the strangest (or, as Murdock said, the most diverse) collection of relatives a baby had ever known, and as welcome and well-loved as a child could ever be. A family that was rich in all the ways a family needed to be.
He clapped his hands, making the baby startle awake and earning him a good-natured glare from BA. "Dinner's ready!" he announced.
"Turkey?" Frankie asked, pushing his father's wheelchair to the table.
"What's left of it," Hannibal said. "Re-imagined as a casserole."
"Works for me," Frankie said. "I love leftovers."
"Me, too," Hannibal said, patting Frankie's shoulder as he went by and letting his eyes sweep over the rest of his family. "Me, too."
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