Los Angeles, California

Murdock was worried. Willow hadn't come out of his room at all. Every time he would crack the door to check on the teenager, he would see him sitting stiffly on the bed, staring off into space. It was the same position he had maintained for the past two days. He hadn't moved a muscle. He wouldn't eat, and as far as Murdock could tell, he hadn't even taken a drink from the glass of water he had left for him on the nightstand. He knew that if something didn't change very soon, he'd have no choice but to take the kid to a hospital, and he really didn't want to do that. The trauma of answering impossible questions and possible police involvement would be no help at all.

The kid was traumatized by the horror of all that had transpired during the last few weeks, and he wasn't sure he would ever be able to pull him back over the edge. But Murdock knew how badly insanity hurt... and he was damned if he was going to let Willow slip into that abyss if he could help it...

He decided to give it one last attempt. He stepped into the room. He spoke softly. "Hey, Willow, can I talk to you for a minute?"

The boy said nothing, so Murdock decided to take that for assent. He grabbed the chair from next to the desk, turned it so he could rest his forearms across the back of the chair. He was careful not to stare at Willow. He already knew the boy hated to be stared at or touched. After all he had suffered, Murdock couldn't blame him.

"It's almost Christmas. I'd like to decorate the house a little. Maybe get a tree, do some Christmas shopping. What do you think of the idea?"

He really didn't think the boy would answer, and he wasn't surprised when he never even turned his head. The doctor Murdock had been consulting with had assured him that eventually Willow should be fine physically, but that his mental wellbeing might be a whole other story. H. M. was determined that he would do everything he could to give the boy as normal a homelife as he could... to be there to let the kid know that life could go on.

Finally, just as Murdock was ready to give up and leave the room, Willow spoke. "I don't like Christmas very much. I used to, when I was little. But now, not so much... got tired of bein' the gift of honor if ya know what I mean."

H. M. heart hurt at those words and he was almost afraid to ask, but he wanted the boy to keep talking, so he asked anyway. "You wanna talk about it?"

Willow smirked. "Not particularly. I doubt you could ever understand. Being a boy toy on the Boulevard ain't exactly conducive to making great holiday memories. Especially at some of the parties you don't read about in People magazine." For the first time Willow looked directly at H. M. and his stare was full of bitterness and challenge. "It's even more awesome when you call home and get told that it's your own fault for choosing to run away in the first place."

H. M. stared blankly at the boy for a moment, trying to process what he had just heard. "You called home? Trying to get help?"

Willow nodded. "Yeah, last year... after I got hurt pretty badly. I stayed out of sight for a while, trying to stay under the radar, hiding from... well, anyway I hid out till I could work again. I got real short of money, but I didn't want to go back, so I made the stupid mistake of calling my old man. He hung up on me." He hung his head and shrugged his thin shoulders. "That's the last time I ever tried to ask for help. I s'pose you can understand why I kept walking away from you when you showed up down there."

Murdock nodded. Of all the kids Murdock had helped to get off the streets, Willow had been his toughest challenge. It had taken over six months before the teen would even speak to him, and it was only when Murdock had been tipped off that something had gone wrong and that Willow had been found unconscious in an alley by some of his friends that Murdock was able to get him off the streets at all. That had been three weeks ago, and Willow had still never said a single word as to who had attacked him, or what exactly had happened.

Two weeks under Maggie Sullivan's expert care had saved his life, but Murdock knew there were deeper wounds that medication could never reach. And that is why he came to a decision. He looked at the boy. "Willow, you know, you and I have some things in common. More than you might think."

Willow raised a skeptical eyebrow but said nothing. Encouraged that the boy had relaxed his stance and was now leaning back against the headboard, Murdock continued with his story. It was not a pleasant one, but he felt that if anyone could understand, it would be Willow. And if it helped him to heal, then the telling would be worth it.

"See, you know I was in Vietnam. I told you guys that, and that I was a pilot. What you may not know is that I was a prisoner over there. I was a guest of the Viet Cong a couple of times. Well, for some reason, the Cong had a special hatred for pilots. We were special targets. They figured we had done more damage than regular grunts, I guess. Which, I suppose might be true, from their point of view, I don't know. Anyway, it was bad, Willow. Real bad."

He stole a glance at the boy to see how he was reacting. The boy's hazel eyes were riveted on him, and he was watching him, not moving, but simply taking in everything the pilot was saying. His expression was unreadable.

"I went through hell on Earth, for a long time, because I wouldn't tell them anything. They did unspeakable things, and they were damned creative. They tried everything they could think of... and sometimes the worst part of it was what they said... or what they didn't say. They tried to get me to sign false confessions, and they threatened harm to my friends if I didn't agree. Using your friends and teammates against you was one of their favorite tactics. They knew that all we had was each other. That we really did think of each other as brothers. "

Murdock paused and shut his eyes as the memories of those horrible years threatened to overwhelm him. He fought to control his breathing. This was supposed to be about Willow, not about him. He was startled when he felt a hand gently close around his arm. He opened his eyes to find that Willow had quietly gotten off the bed and was now kneeling next to him. Hazel eyes, rimmed with unshed tears, were staring up at him. They stayed that way for a long time, neither one feeling the need to move.

Finally, Willow stood and went back to the bed and sat down, facing the man who had taken him in, rescuing him when no one else wanted him... when no one else would be bothered. He noticed for the first time how haggard Murdock looked. The man could not have been getting much sleep, and he knew the pilot never ate much anyway. But lately, he was pretty sure worry would have killed what little appetite he normally had. And so Willow came to a decision. He was not going to waste the second chance he had been given. He had no idea what would happen after he got well, but he was not going to let anyone else down.

He smiled slightly and looked the veteran. Willow straightened his posture. "So, you wanna go Christmas shopping? Seriously? I know some pretty good places... Can we get a real tree? I like them better than fake ones."

Murdock smiled back. "I always get a real tree kid. Not sure about baking cookies though... my landlord kinda got mad last year after I set the kitchen on fire... but look, grab your jacket, we'll talk about it."

~The End~