Words In The Dark
"Upstairs," said Hannibal, not taking his eyes off the football game. "Sulking about the weather. Or the game, I'm not sure which."
"Ah." Face turned.
"Want to watch?" Hannibal waved his beer in Face's general direction. "Got Coronas."
"Is it," Face asked, knowing the answer, "UCLA or Notre Dame?"
Now Hannibal looked at him, grinning. "No."
"Then, no, thanks." Face headed for the stairs; Hannibal was already back focussed on the television.
BA was in his room, working on his weekly letter to his mother; he had a file box full of them, each sealed and dated. Face, whose curiosity had prompted Sister Teresa to call him the Elephant's Child when he was only eight, had spent the last year fighting the temptation to steam one open. So far, self-preservation had been holding the trump cards. BA glanced up as Face walked past. "You go botherin' that man, cheerful as you get on Christmas, he bite your head off like he did Murdock this mornin'," he said.
There was an undertone in the big man's voice Face didn't bother to try to decipher. He'd known BA eighteen years, almost nineteen, and he still couldn't get very far into the other man's mind. He did know that very little escaped him, though not much prompted him to do anything about it; what BA knew or didn't know he usually kept to himself. "Who says I'm going to bother him?"
BA shook his head. "Thought you was out for the evenin' anyways."
Face shrugged. "Somehow an Abel at the next table puts a damper on my holiday spirit."
BA snorted. "Since when you let an Abel at the next table be at the next table?"
Face shrugged, rubbing his cashmere sweater with his right hand; his left was in his trouser pocket, jingling its contents slightly. When he caught himself doing that, he stopped, but the feel of the fine wool under his fingertips was too good to move that hand. "Since I promised Hannibal I wouldn't go off alone. It worries him. And Frankie wasn't in the mood to go out tonight, as you pointed out. Neither were you," he added.
BA shook his head; his jewelry shifted with a sound more like a rustle than a chime. "You ain't supposed to go out on Christmas Eve."
Face shrugged again. "Not much else to do. Say hi to your mother for me."
BA's smile was automatic and gentle. "I will," he said. "When she finally gets these she be glad to know you thinkin' of her."
"She's a wonderful woman," said Face. "See you in the morning. And, BA: Merry Christmas."
BA smiled again, that amazingly sweet smile. "Merry Christmas, Faceman." He turned back to his letter as Face resumed walking down the hallway.
In his room he took off his jacket and tie and hung them in the closet, transferring the small package from his jacket pocket to the desktop. Then he pulled out a classic Christmas tape and stuck it in the deck and punched the loop button. Bing Crosby began singing "White Christmas"; Face adjusted the volume down and, picking up the tape deck and the package, went out into the hall, shutting the door behind him and leaving the light on. He cat-footed down to Frankie's room and opened the door.
It was dark inside. Face didn't like the dark any more than he liked brightness, much preferring the half-light. Normally Frankie didn't sit in the dark, either, but the light from the hall showed that that was what he was doing: sitting, still dressed, on the bed, his arms around his knees, staring out the window. He turned his head when the door opened but then looked out the window again. Face didn't take it personally; instead, he took it as an invitation and went inside, shutting the door behind him. He put the tape deck down and crossed over to the bed.
"Hannibal said you were up here sulking about the weather," he said, sitting down. "Thought you might appreciate hearing about worse."
"This weather is plenty bad enough, thank you," Frankie said, adding as an afterthought, "I'm not sulking."
No, Face thought, he wasn't. He was hiding, which was what he did when it got to be too much for him. They'd been able to pretend that Frankie was okay that first year because he did this: when he wasn't able to be right there, in-your-face annoying and obnoxious and pretending he thought you wanted him, then he took his pain and fear and rejection away and hid. The problem was, Face had thought Frankie was done hiding from him. "Bad?" he asked provocatively. "This isn't so bad; I've seen a lot worse."
"It hasn't been over ten degrees all week."
"At least it's not snowing."
"It's also not a hurricane. That doesn't make it tolerable."
"You are in a bad mood. Maybe this will cheer you up." Face handed him the silver-papered package he'd picked up in Georgetown. "Merry Christmas, Frankie."
Frankie looked down at the little box. "I thought we were doing this at the house. I mean, I got you something but it's out there"
"I know. So's yours. I mean, your other one. I just saw this today and got it. Go on, open it."
Frankie was, unlike Face, the kind of person who ripped into his presents. Tonight, though, he was careful; he untied the ribbon and eased the paper off the box, folding it and setting it aside before taking the lid off. Pulling off the cotton, he froze, staring.
He was a hard man to buy jewelry for, because he didn't wear any. Even his watch was a plain utilitarian thing on a black leather band. But this had caught Face's eye and he'd bought it on impulse: a small pocket knife sharp enough to strip wires with, ebony-handled with an inlaid sterling and mother-of-pearl star, shining and elegant. Face found himself holding his breath.
"This is beautiful," Frankie said finally. "Thank you, Temple." He took the knife out of the box and opened it, then closed it again and rubbed his thumb over the star. "It's gorgeous."
"Glad you like it."
"I do." He leaned over and laid it carefully on the bedside table. "I don't have anything for you."
"That's all right. Don't worry about it."
Frankie shrugged. Face regarded him as carefully as he could in the dark room. "This weather must really have you down," he said finally. "Better hope we get sent to the Caribbean next."
"Okay, now you're starting to depress me, and I don't mind a bit of cold."
Frankie picked up the ribbon and pulled it through his long fingers. "It's not just the weather."
"Of course not."
Frankie looked up, those dark eyes wide with surprise. "Of course not?"
"Weather doesn't make you miserable, Franklin," he said softly. "Even really really crappy weather, which this isn't. Unfortunately, I'm not psychic enough to be sure what is. Making you miserable, I mean."
Frankie sighed and looked down at the ribbon. He tied the ends together, concentrating on the task in the dimness, and stuck his hands into the loop as if he were going to play cat's cradle with it, but it was much too short and he just aimlessly pulled it on and off his fingers. Face waited, watching, and eventually Frankie asked, "Doesn't Christmas make you miserable at all?"
"No," Face said honestly. "I love Christmas. I love the story and the hope and"
"The holiday," Frankie said, a bit impatiently. "All the 'home for Christmas' stuff," he gestured at the tape deck, "all the holly jolly presents under the tree togetherness. All the family."
Face shrugged. He was a bit surprised but he supposed there was a lot of strain in Frankie's relationship with his family, and Christmas always exacerbated such things. And now there'd be guilt. "Doesn't bother me. I've got no family to be at odds with, after all."
He shrugged again. "When I was eleven I decided that Christmas wasn't going to depress me."
"I decided." He grinned. "Christmas is a party and I'm going whether I'm invited or not. And crashing a party is always more exciting."
Frankie's hands stilled on the ribbon and he looked down at it. Without looking up he said, "And you're with the Team..."
"That's true. And you, Frankie" he waited until those luminous dark eyes were looking at him again "you're with me. So talk to me."
Frankie shrugged, his eyes going back to the ribbon. "I dunno..."
"Is it just Christmas?" Face wished he'd paid more attention last year. "Or is it Christmas here?"
Frankie looked up at him, the ribbon slipping out of his hand to the bedspread. "It's Christmas not in Los Angeles," he said. "I'm sorry, I just..."
"You missing LA?" And then it hit him, very hard. He should have known. "You're missing your family."
"Yeah." Frankie picked up the ribbon again and began drawing it endlessly through his fingers. "Last year was the first time I ever wasn't with family. I miss them, Temple, worse than..." He sighed. "My father's aunt always has everyone, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews..." He blew out another breath. "My dad, till he couldn't, and I always visited him. I can't even call him now."
Face felt like kicking himself, but that wouldn't be productive. Instead he slid over on the bed and wrapped Frankie in his arms, pulling the other man back against him. "It won't last forever. Someday you'll be able to walk right into his room with a pardon and explain the whole thing to him. To all of them."
"You really believe that?"
"I do. I have to. Hannibal says."
"Johnny says a lot of things."
Face laughed mirthlessly. "God, isn't that the truth? But on this I believe him. You gotta trust Hannibal."
"I do. I just..."
"Don't?" Face smiled slightly. "Of course not. How could you? Do you have any idea how long it took me?"
Frankie returned the smile for a moment. "A lot longer, I bet. Except you had to."
Face nodded. "Yes, you're right. I had to... So I spent several years waiting for him to prove me wrong. He never did, though. Trust him: he'll get us through this."
Frankie sighed and relaxed into Face's hold. "I hope so."
"He will. We'll get back to California soon, and it'll all be like a bad dream. A very long, very bad dream, but it'll be over. I promise."
"We'll do it again, you know. I promise."
"What?" Frankie sounded very young.
Face tightened his hold a little. "Do Christmas right. Go out and put a candle on your mom's grave. Go by and see your great-aunt and all your cousins. Call your abuelita in Arizona. Spend the afternoon with your dad. Go to midnight mass and then out to walk on the beach." He closed his eyes; he could almost hear the surf and feel the warm breeze. "Sit out on the patio and open presents under a palm tree with lights on it."
"I want to."
"Me, too," he surprised himself with how much. "We will."
"We will," he repeated, laying his cheek on Frankie's black hair. "Someday. Maybe even next year."
Frankie sighed softly. "God, I hope so."
"And this year?"
"This year we'll get out to the house for the feast of the Kings," Face said, "unless Stockwell comes up with something. Get a little tree, give Anne and Cal something, watch It's a Wonderful Life... And tonight we'll just"
"Be here." Frankie wrapped his arms around Face's.
"Yeah," Face said softly.
So they sat there, Frankie leaning back against Face, his head on Face's shoulder and Face's cheek resting on his hair, listening to Sinatra and Crosby and Clooney, and watched Christmas Eve turn into Christmas Day. Face felt the warmth of Frankie against him, heard his breathing, smelled the spicy scent of him. And it wasn't a perfect Christmas by any means, but for the first time in his life Face didn't have to reach for contentment. It was here.
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