Author's Note: Welcome to my fanfic, unfolding in chapter-by-chapter updates, and now nearing completion. Charlie, Mutton, Vivian, Jake, and some of the more incidental players are original characters created by me, and the story is not based on or set in relation to any specific A-Team plot line. I also realize that in all likelihood, the V.A. ward Murdock's in is probably all-male, so suspend your disbelief a little. This is my very first fanfic, so feedback is always welcome!

11/11/08: In response to a fair amount of criticism about the logisitics of my Witness Protection premise, I've revised the story with a slightly different premise. Enjoy!

01/08/09: Reposted Chapter 1, solely because I decided to change the name of Rick's brother.

"Forget it, Jake, I'm not doing this."

Snapping shut the folder she had been reading, Charlotte Burchell tossed it onto her handler's huge mahogany desk, turning a defiant face toward the man seated across from her.

Jake Gains released a long sigh and ran a frustrated hand through his thick, dark hair. "Charlie, do you or do you not want to put away Rick Torres for good?"

Charlie adopted a face that hinted at petulance. "Yes, of course, but-"

"And do you agree," Jake continued, overriding her objection, "that your testimony is critical to accomplishing that goal?"

"Yeah, Jake, you know I do, but how do you expect-"

Again she was cut off. "And the moment you were deemed ineligible for the Witness Protection Program, you and I agreed that we needed to find an alternative," Jake reminded her matter-of-factly.

Charlie jerked forward in her chair. "Jake, I don't need a review of the facts. I know just as well as you do what it is that's at stake here. I have every intention of walking into that courtroom a few months from now, and telling the jury every single, terrifying detail I know about Rick and the rest of those bastards. And I also know I need your protection while I wait for our justice system to get it together and jail these monsters."

Jake leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands together and laying them on his ample stomach. "So then what is the problem here, Charlie? What, you don't trust me to keep you safe?"

Charlotte snatched the file back from Jake's desk and waved it in his face. "You want to keep me safe in a Veteran's Hospital psych ward!" Charlie exploded. "You want to stick me in a nut house so I can be surrounded by lunatics! I bet I have to spend mornings talking about my issues in group therapy circles to a bunch of loonies, and afternoons making pottery ashtrays to express myself!" Charlie's voice rose as images formed in her mind of one worst-case-scenario after another. "I bet the rooms have bars on the windows! I bet I'll need to ask permission to go to the bathroom, for God's sake! Oh my God, do they still use electro-shock therapy? No, Jake," Charlie said, shaking her head, "no! There's got to be somewhere else."

Jake sighed again. "Well, if there is, I don't know where it would be." He had anticipated some resistance here, but Charlotte's outrage was greater than he had expected. "Charlie, look," Jake began in a tone bordering on pleading. "The Attorney General has made its decision, and Rick has made bail. We both know Rick will do whatever it takes to keep your testimony out of the courtroom. The Attorney General may not see the immediate danger here, but I sure as hell do. Lucky for you, I've got a buddy from college who's the intake officer at the V.A. It took some doing, but he agreed to get you admitted on the basis of a lovely little fake case file he helped me pt together for you."

"Yeah, I get your point Jake, but consider this: I know that no matter where I go, I can't communicate with any of my family and friends until my testimony is over and done with. But I also assumed that wherever I went, I would at least have the luxury of forming new relationships to compensate for all the ones I was losing! I mean, we are talking about months here where I won't be able to hold one single reasonable, sane conversation. Months!" she cried, hands gesturing frantically to emphasize her words.

"Well, you're not wrong," Jake conceded. "But it's a sacrifice you're going to have to make, Charlie. I think the V.A. is perfect hideout. First of all, the V.A. policy has always been that job applicants have to submit to a thorough background check, and all patients have to prove they're military, which Rick wasn't. Second of all, they've got cameras all over the place to keep an eye on patients, so Rick can't sneak in without being noticed. I couldn't put you in a more secure environment."

Jake rose from his seat, moving around the desk toward Charlie. He lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I need you to trust me here, Charlie," he said, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. "It's only a few months. A few months of unpleasantness, sure. But on the other side of it is complete freedom. Once you testify, we can put Rick and his brothers away for good, and trust me, they won't be going after anyone from an eight-by-twelve cell. Then you can go back to your normal life. No looking over your shoulder every time you leave your house. No more nightmares about one of those Torres boys getting to you. You put in a few months at the V.A., and once you're done, you can get your life back, paranoia-free and with limitless possibilities to choose from to find happiness." Jake gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Besides Charlie, we would hate to lose our best witness, so you know the plan is foolproof." Jake flashed her a wry grin.

Charlie was silent for a moment, clearly processing Jake's words, weighing them against her own fears.

She let out a long breath, and her defeated slump told Jake she had been convinced. "I don't suppose it would make any difference if I told you I was never in the military," she said dryly.

Jake grinned. "Clearly, you are forgetting your service as a field nurse, Ms. Burchell. In fact, there are those who say your service was invaluable in bringing about several victories for lots of grateful soldiers." Standing, Charlie rolled her eyes and headed for the door to Jake's office. "It's just too bad you've been having all those flashbacks lately," he said, smiling wide as Charlie paused at the door her hand hovering over the knob.

She turned back towards Jake momentarily, her face a mixture of disbelief and exasperation. "I swear to God, if this asylum winds up making me crazy," she said, opening the office door, "I will personally come back here and kick your ass, Jake," she shot back at him as she left the room.

Jake let out a chuckle. "I'm counting on it!" he called out to her retreating form.

*****

H.M. Murdock awoke as he did most mornings, feeling a split-second of bliss before his mind shook off the fog of sleep and the reality of his life came rushing back to him. He let out a groan as he reached his arms above his head and twisted through a full-body stretch before sitting up and swinging his long legs over the edge of the bed. Though sunlight streamed through the window of his modest-sized room in the V.A. psychiatric ward, his surroundings held their usual air of dreary, institutional blandness. The room itself presented varying shades of gray from top to bottom. The walls surrounding Murdock were made of nothing more than cinderblocks and mortar, with a redundant coat of slate gray paint slopped over them; the floors were bleak, cold cement, poured and treated to make them liveable. The room's sparse furnishings were equally unremarkable. A basic, squat dresser with aluminium drawers sat against a wall opposite from the bed, situated below a fairly small oval wall mirror. Across the room, a beat-up desk sat in a poorly-lit corner, accompanied by a cheap folding chair. The only other piece of furniture was a plain, stout night table made of inexpensive fibre board, askew on wobbly legs next to Murdock's bed.

Still, Captain Murdock had made the effort to make the room somewhat less depressing, if for no other reason than to prevent his finicky sanity from tumbling any further into instability. A few posters served to break up the monotony: a roguish Steve McQueen and an exuberant Creedence Clearwater Revival in concert allowed Murdock to bring at least some of the world outside the V.A. into his daily life. A small plastic basketball net suction-cupped over his desk and an arcade style Pacman unit added to the effect.

Rubbing his neck to alleviate a stiffness which had set in as he slept, Murdock finally rose and trudged across his room to his small ensuite bathroom. Twisting the faucet, he splashed cool water over his face and reached for his toothbrush. Murdock was just rinsing the last bit of toothpaste from his mouth when he heard an impatient knock at his door.

"Doc! Hey, Doc! C'mere!" came the voice outside the door.

Recognizing the voice behind the command, Murdock frowned at his own reflection, wishing desperately that he could have at least one cup of coffee before dealing with his fellow patient.

He walked slowly towards his door, the knocking now an uninterrupted steady staccato. He swung the door open.

"Hi, Mutton. Look," Murdock said, a hint of exasperation in his voice, "I keep telling you, I'm not a doctor. It's Murdock. There's a whole other syllable before the doctor part."

"You don't fool me, Doc," Mutton countered. "I know the government sends out secret doctors for surveillance, and they keep track of 'em by throwing the word 'doc' in their names."

"Right," Murdock sighed, knowing from experience how futile it would be to argue with Mutton. Mutton had arrived at the V.A. shortly after Murdock had moved in, and the two men had developed a strong friendship soon after Mutton's arrival.

Short and wiry, Mutton had an almost comical appearance about him. His thick, white hair was permanently frizzy and stuck out at endless crazy angles, causing the man to look like he was wearing a poorly pruned bush as a hat. He moved with a bouncing gait that could only be described as skipping, and seemed determined to wear the loudest colors he could, in the most mismatched manner that he could.

"So what was it you were pounding on my door about, Mutton?" Murdock asked, returning to the subject at hand.

Mutton looked for a moment as though he had forgotten the reason behind his visit, then snapped his fingers when it came back to him. "Oh yeah!" he said. "You've got a new neighbour!"

Murdock looked confused for a moment. "We get new people in here all the time, Mutton. This is why you came by so early?"

"Well, yes…" Mutton began, grinning. "But trust me, you've never had a neighbour like this before."

"Really," Murdock said with a shrewd look. "And why do you figure that is?"

"I'm telling you, Doc, you wanna go introduce yourself. Trust me."

"Well, I guess I kind of have to now – too much curiosity to ignore." Murdock started to leave, but Mutton put a hand up.

"No, wait, Doc. Before you do, you'd better get dressed. And for God's sake, comb your hair."

Murdock cast a glance downward, and realized he was still dressed in his blue and white striped flannel pyjama pants, and indeed, didn't even have a shirt on. "What, I gotta get dolled-up to meet a fellow crazy?"

"Like I said Doc, just trust me. Get dressed, head over, and come see me when the job's done." With that, Mutton smiled mischievously before turning and skipping down the hall, headed back to his own room.

Shrugging to no one, Murdock headed for his dresser and wondered what kind of new patient would get Mutton so worked up.

*****

By the time Murdock took the thirty-second trip to the room adjacent his, he had still not come up with any plausible theory about what kind of neighbour Mutton would find so exciting.

As Murdock approached the room, he saw that the door was slightly ajar. When he reached the room's entrance, he raised a hand to knock, but paused just before his knuckles hit the door as he caught a slight glimpse of the figure within. On an inexplicable impulse, Murdock silently eased the door open instead.

His covert action revealed most of the room to him, but it was the figure on the far side of the room unpacking a box of books that caused a sharp intake of breath.

Murdock found himself staring at a beautiful woman settling in to her new room. Unloading her books into a small bedside bookcase, she had yet to notice Murdock's presence, leaving him free to thoroughly drink her in.

A cascade of auburn hair tumbled to the bottom of her should blades, a natural wave creating sporadic curls throughout. When she turned, Murdock saw that her face had a sun-kissed glow to it. High cheek bones gave her a regal appearance, as did the graceful curve of her neck, but Murdock could not make out her eyes from his current position. He could, however, see a pair of lush, rosy lips, and he instinctively wondered what it might be like to feel those lips beneath his own. Engrossed, his gaze wandered down her form, memorizing the curve of her breasts, the tiny waist, the sensual arc of her hips. She looked to be only slightly shorter than himself, and he gazed appreciatively at the long, slim legs, their shape clearly outlined by her tight denim jeans which flared only once they were halfway down her calves.

Transfixed by the irresistible sight of the creature before him, it took Murdock a moment to register that she had stopped moving and was staring directly at him. Her expression was not a welcoming one.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked crisply.

Murdock's brain seemed to suddenly freeze. Now that she was facing him, he became aware of the fact that he was staring into a pair of beautiful, sapphire blue eyes, rimmed by thick, long, dark lashes. "Um, I- I-," he stammered before giving his head a little shake and recalling the purpose behind his visit. "I wanted to come introduce myself," he said, finding his voice. "I'm your next door neighbour. H.M. Murdock," he said, sticking a hand out towards her for a greeting handshake. The woman did not move towards his outstretched hand, but instead turned back to her box of books and resumed unpacking.

"Duly noted," she said flatly.

Murdock was slightly puzzled by her response, or rather, lack of response. Perhaps she's nervous in a new place, he thought. He cleared his throat. "Well, I just figured I should come say hi, so you know where to go if you, like, need to borrow a cup of sugar, or squish a spider, or, you know, whatever."

"Yeah, I can kill my own spiders, thanks." Her response was cool and detached.

"Huh," Murdock said frowning, mildly surprised that such a beautiful woman would be concealing such an unfriendly attitude. Suddenly, a new thought occurred to him. "Wait, I know I'm in the psych ward, but I'm not a dangerous, or perverted, or creepy kind of crazy," he told her.

"Good to know," she replied with the same cold, dismissive voice.

Murdock finally threw his hands up in defeat. "Fine, fine, I get the message, sorry to have bothered you," he said with a hint of sarcasm lacing his voice. "But would it kill you to at least tell me your name?" he asked. "I mean, I did take the time to come over here and be rejected by you."

The woman finally returned her gaze to Murdock and sighed. "It's Charlie," she said, rushing ahead as she saw his mouth open to ask the usual question about her name. "Short for Charlotte. Charlie."

"Charlie," Murdock repeated with a nod. "Well, Charlie, I've made people a lot colder than you smile, so mark my words, I'll get to you too. Don't try to resist, Charlie," Murdock said with a smile. "Everyone eventually warms to me. I'm irresistible!"

With a final wink, Murdock turned and left Charlie's room, off to Mutton's room to relay the details of the encounter. Had he stayed a few more moments, he would have seen the tiny smile Charlie tried to desperately suppress.

*****

Charlie's first night in the V.A. was not going well. Although she had climbed into bed hours ago, she had quickly found herself staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep though she was exhausted, incapable of turning off the riot in her mind.

What in God's name had happened to her life? How had it all gone so wrong? Thinking back, she could not help but try to identify the moment which had marked the beginning of her slow descent into disaster.

It didn't take a genius to recognize that the flame that lit the fuse was Charlie's mother, though Charlie had been in denial about the matter for years. When Charlie was sixteen, she had awoken to discover that her mother was simply gone. With no goodbye and no warning, the departure had been devastating. Through tear-filled eyes, Charlie's father had told her that her mother had been involved with another man for nearly a year prior to her disappearance, and the purpose of her nocturnal exodus had been to run full force into the arms of this man, to begin a new life without reminders of or ties to her former one.

For a time, Charlotte had absolutely refused to believe her father's explanation. Surely a mother could not abandon her own child in such a cold and calculating manner. Charlie had insisted that she and her father report Charlie's mother to the police as a missing person. As months passed without word, however, Charlie had finally been forced to realize that her mother had in fact abandoned her, and the admission of the truth to herself had been crippling. She left school, holing herself up in her bedroom for days on end, emerging only to use the bathroom before retreating back into her isolation. There had been days where Charlie had done nothing but cry; there had been times when she had screamed with rage into the walls of her empty room. But when Charlie had finally accepted her now bleak reality and emerged from her room to resume her life in the outside world, she had discovered that it was not only her mother who had left, but her father as well.

Physically, Charlie's father was in the same place he had always been: he lived in the same house, he was employed in the same job. Mentally, however, his absence was just as evident as her mother's. He never ate, he barely slept. He sat in his room in the dark for hours on end, unmoving and unspeaking. Any time Charlie made an effort to talk to him, she was met only with silence, or an absent, "hmm." While most people her age grumbled about having to go to school, Charlie embraced her return after a six-month absence, not knowing where else to fulfil her desperate need for human contact.

With a complete absence of love and warmth in her life, it should have been no surprise to anyone then when she clung for dear life to the first boy who paid her any attention. Charlie had met Rick Torres in the coffee shop where she worked part-time at the age of seventeen. While an objective observer would have recognized immediately that he was dangerous and volatile, when Charlie looked at Rick she saw a person who might provide her with the love she so desperately needed.

Once they began dating, it didn't take long for Rick to reveal his true colors. He was controlling and had a hair-trigger temper. The loving words and poetic compliments he had used to draw Charlie to him at the onset of the relationship disappeared almost immediately once they had established their status as a couple. Rick replaced those words and compliments with demeaning, degrading comments, constantly calling Charlie horrible names, ordering her around like a dog, decimating her self-esteem. But Charlie could not fathom going back to her former life to face the isolation and emptiness, and instead, convinced herself that Rick really did love her, and if she only tried harder, everything would be wonderful.

As the relationship progressed, however, Charlie found it increasingly difficult to deny her problems with Rick. He and his three brothers began a drug dealing operation, moving massive quantities of heroin and cocaine on the street. Seduced by the easy money drug dealing brought in, Rick and his brothers began expanding the operation at an alarming rate. They lured teenagers with the promise of money, employing them to do the selling while Rick and his brothers worked behind the scenes, acquiring more and more heroin and cocaine, then hiring more and more teenagers to move it.

Still, Charlie stood by silently, afraid of Rick's reaction should she voice her concern about his "business", and knowing that turning to the police would be akin to signing her own death warrant.

It was a mild Spring evening when the bottom dropped out of Charlie's life.

She and Rick were spending a rare evening alone together, heading to Bellos, a nearby Italian restaurant. Conversation was sparse as they drove, with Rick being uninterested in anything Charlie might have to say, and Charlie afraid she might say the wrong thing and set him off. Charlie remembered that for some reason, in the dead air of the car, she had been wracking her brain, trying to recall what had happened to Ray Liotta's wife at the end of Goodfellas.

Just before they arrived at the restaurant, the suffocating silence had been vanquished by the piercing ring of Rick's car phone. The car had swerved slightly as Rick had fumbled to answer the call. Cursing, he finally brought the receiver to his ear. "Yeah?" he snarled. There was a brief pause, and as he listened, Rick's face slowly contorted with rage. "What?" he barked. "No man, fuck that, man. No, fuck it! You keep that little bitch right there for me, man, I'm on my way." Rick slammed the phone down, and Charlie reflexively grabbed for the door arm to brace herself as Rick stomped on the brakes, which let out a high-pitched squeal as the car began to spin and Rick launched into a reckless u-turn.

"Sorry baby, we gotta make a quick stop."

Though she couldn't put her finger on why, Charlie felt an overwhelming apprehension about this 'stop'. "Can't we do it after dinner?"

Rick rounded on her with a black look. "Did I ask you to bitch and moan? I got something to take care of, and we're doin' it now, so just shut up and let me deal with my business."

Charlie remained catatonic for the duration of the frenzied drive. When Rick finally brought the car to a halt, she was not entirely surprised to find herself at the end of a dark ally. Peering out of the window, Charlie could make out the dim outline of Rick's brother Reggie, and a shorter figure who appeared to be one of the teenage boys who ran Rick's drugs. "Don't move," Rick ordered her, before slamming the car door and moving determinedly towards the other two already in the alley. Through the half-opened driver's side window, Charlie caught snippets of the conversation.

"What you think you can steal from me, bitch?" snarled Rick poking a finger into the boy's chest. "Huh? You think you can sample the merchandise? Or maybe you lifted some shit and tried to make your own money on the side, huh?"

The boy's response was too low for Charlie to hear any specific words, but the boy's voice was certainly trembling and pleading, his hands making frantic gestures in an effort to convince Rick of his innocence.

Charlie suddenly caught a glint off something metal, and realized with terror Rick had pulled a gun, and she watched as he levelled the gun at the boy's head. Before she had processed what was happening, she heard a sharp bang, saw the boy's head jerk back before seemingly exploding, pinkish matter bursting from the back of the boy's head and spattering across the wall behind him. The figure slumped to the ground. Rick calmly returned his gun to the holster beneath his jacket and kicked the boy in a prodding manner to make sure he wouldn't be going anywhere.

Desperate to scream but suddenly forgetting how, Charlie instead opened the passenger side door just wide enough to throw up onto the pavement below before shutting it again, trembling and in shock. Rick returned to the car. With an eerie calm, he glanced over at Charlie and said, "Alright, all set? Man, I am starving!"

Somehow, Charlie had actually gone out to dinner with Rick that night, terrified and stunned, although she had absolutely no memory of doing so.

In fact, it was the middle of the night when Charlie's brain finally processed the reality of what she had seen. Without doubt or hesitation, the moment she reached this clarity, she had run fifteen full blocks at three in the morning to the nearest police station.

Her recounting of what she had seen, as frantic and hysterical as her retelling was, and her immediate agreement to testify to it in court had been necessary and just, as far as she was concerned. The moment Rick had made bail though, the realization that she had put herself in mortal danger had come to pass. This, of course, had resulted in her current living arrangement in a room where she was now finding sleep a futile pursuit.

She found her mind now returning to the man who had introduced himself to her that afternoon as her neighbour. It was not in her nature to be cruel or cold to people, and she hated that she had been forced to adopt such a persona with him. The reality, Charlie realized, was that between now and her trial date, associating with anyone beyond mere pleasantries would endanger lives, and drag people into the perilous threat swirling around her like a contagious disease.

Rubbing her eyes, Charlie resigned herself to the fact that she was about to spend a few very lonely months.

*****

The next morning, Charlie awoke after a restless night's sleep to a world that seemed bent on cheering her up. The sun hung brightly in a cloudless sky, and the temperature was reminiscent of late Spring. Feeling more certain than ever about her need for solitude, she was nevertheless lured outside by the uplifting quality of the day, and decided there was no way she was spending it indoors. She rose and dressed, brushing her teeth, applying a slight touch of makeup, and gathering her hair into a long ponytail, leaving her long tresses to float down her back. She grabbed a book and headed for the garden, stopping briefly by the dining room to grab a huge coffee and a bagel. Once outside, she headed for a mammoth oak tree, and settled under it to read while enjoying her breakfast.

She was roused from her immersion in her book a short while later, her attention drawn by a nearby familiar voice. Looking up, she spotted the neighbour she had met yesterday, who was standing a slight distance away, in animated conversation with a man who had introduced himself to her yesterday as 'Mutton'.

Try as she might to refocus on her book, she was distracted by an overwhelming need to study the man who she had heard nurses refer to simply as 'Murdock'. Tall and slim, he possessed a lean-muscled swimmer's body, which she had always found far more attractive than a thick, bulky, body-builder's physique. The navy blue baseball cap he wore could not conceal his handsome features; his strong, angular jaw line and definitive Roman nose combined with his high cheekbones to create a rather stately appearance. From beneath the hat, Charlie could see wisps of golden-brown hair, curling wistfully near the top of his neck. The hair looked so soft and inviting to Charlie than she had the sudden urge to run her fingers through it.

His trim form was emphasized by a close-fitting retro t-shirt in pale blue, displaying an unfamiliar logo with the word 'dinky' inexplicably splashed across it. The whimsy of the shirt was countered by a supple leather flight jacket that hardly seemed necessary on a day like today. Well-worn khakis hugged his slim hips, pooling around a pair of classic high-top converse sneakers.

As though sensing her appraisal, Murdock suddenly turned to look at her. Charlie felt a split second of panic before quickly darting her eyes back to the book she was now only pretending to read. She glanced up in what she hoped was a covert manner, and caught a brief glimpse of him dismissing Mutton before he turned and headed over to where she was sitting. She tried desperately to appear engrossed in her book.

Within moments, his purposeful stride had carried him across the lawn and into the inviting shade of the tree where Charlie sat. Clearing his throat, he gestured to a spot on the ground next to her. "Is this dirt taken?" he asked with a grin.

Did he have that Texan twang yesterday? Charlie wondered to herself, realizing that she was currently finding the accent undeniably sexy. She tried to sound aloof as she shrugged and said, "knock yourself out," before turning back to her book.

Murdock lowered himself down until he was sitting next to her, leaning his back up against the oak's wide trunk, and stretching long legs out in front of him. A contented sigh escaped his mouth. "So, what are you in for?" he asked genially, turning to look at her.

Charlie became aware of a tingling warmth within herself, and realized she was reacting to his scent, carried towards her on the day's soft breeze. He smelled of cedar and leather, a heady mixture chiselling away her resolve to act distant. "Umm… flashbacks." Not wanting to be a complete liar, she added, "and anxiety."

"'Nam?"

"Uh, yeah. Field nurse."

"Where were you stationed?" he inquired.

She was silent for a minute before replying, "It's not something I like to talk about." She found she could not bring herself to construct lies about her role in a war that he had actually experienced the horrors of. It felt exploitive and dishonourable. Searching for a way to turn the conversation away from herself, she asked, "and you?"

"'Nam, too. I was the best damn chopper pilot there ever was. If it had wings, I could fly it."

Hearing the pride in his voice, Charlie finally turned to look at him, and immediately regretted the decision. She was staring into the warm invitation of his golden-brown eyes, which sparkled with mischief and promise. The long dark lashes around his eyes gave them a quality of infinite depth, but it was the hint of desire she saw within them that brought a flush to her cheeks. With determined effort, she tore her gaze from him. "Actually, I was asking what you're in for."

"Ah. You mean besides cheap room and board?"

Charlie nodded.

"Mostly delusions. I occasionally see things I'm told aren't there. Lately, I haven't seen them much – I think they're stress-induced."

Allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, she asked, "Seeing anything out of the ordinary now?"

Turning his head and full upper body towards her, he caught and held her gaze before saying, "Just an extraordinarily beautiful woman."

Again Charlie felt her cheeks flush, and for a long moment, could not turn away. She found herself strangely desperate to feel his hands on her, his arms around her, his lips upon her. It took every ounce of strength she had to resist acting on her impulsive desires.

She finally turned away and squinted towards the sun. Looking ahead with a steady gaze she asked, "What's Mutton's story?" in a voice she hoped sounded normal.

Murdock sighed, recognizing the brief moment of intimacy had passed. "He's a paranoid Schizophrenic. Convinced the government's got it in for him. I find it easier to play along with him rather than take the time to disabuse him of his theories. Otherwise, he's the nicest guy. He's the kind of guy you'd totally want to meet for a beer and a game of pool on the outside."

"The outside?" Charlie was puzzled.

"Yeah, you know the outside, the rest of the world outside this funny farm." Murdock made a sweeping gesture at their surroundings. "So who'd you leave behind on the outside?" he inquired, hoping what he was really trying to find out wasn't overly obvious. Girl this gorgeous can't be single, he thought.

"Hmm, well, my dad's out there, but we aren't all that close right now." The tinge of sadness in her voice told Murdock there was much more to that situation than she was letting on. "And an older brother I miss already," she continued, a wistful smile turning her lips up at the corners. "But, I figure I should be able to see him soon enough."

"And your mom?"

"Left us." Charlie said in a clipped tone, a cloud drifting across her face immediately.

"Oh, Charlie, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. I was prying." His eyes flashed genuine remorse.

"No, no, don't worry about it, Murdock. You didn't know," she reassured him. It was the first time he had heard her actually say his name, and for some reason hearing it on her lips sent a little thrill down his spine.

"What, uh… what about… is there like a husband, or a boyfriend out there?" Murdock asked, looking everywhere but at her.

Is he actually nervous? Charlie wondered with amusement, and bit her bottom lip to suppress a grin. "Nope, not anymore," she responded casually. "I mean, I was never married, but just before I came here I left a really rotten boyfriend." Charlie's tone became grimmer. "Or to be more accurate, I escaped from a really rotten boyfriend."

Murdock immediately understood the subtext and without thinking, reached out and laid his hand across Charlie's, his eyes gazing probingly into her own. "I'm sorry that happened to you. You strike me as the kind of woman who ought to be worshipped. Whatta moron that guy must've been." Though he had tried to end on a note of mild levity, the sorrow and compassion in his eyes was palpable. His thumb moved absently back and forth across her hand.

For a split-second, Charlie surrendered, and let his comforting words and soothing touch wash over her. Fighting her attraction to Murdock was exhausting. Unwittingly, Rick's image flashed into her mind a moment later, and she withdrew her hand from Murdock's, struck hard by the jolt back to reality. "Um, thanks," she blurted out. She wanted nothing more than to fling herself into his arms and give in to the safety of his concern and sincerity, which was exactly why she knew she had to get away from him immediately. She began to clumsily gather her things.

"You're leaving?" Murdock asked, his confusion and disappointment reflected in his question.

"Yeah, um…" Charlie trailed off and stood. "Yeah, sorry, Murdock, I gotta go take care of some things."

Jumping to his feet, Murdock responded, "Well, wait, you want some help?" His voice was clearly pleading.

"No, no thanks, I'm good," Charlie answered, backing away even as she answered. "I'm sorry, but, uh… thanks for the chat," she called over her shoulder as she turned and hurried towards the main building.

With a frown, Murdock ambled off to look for Mutton. When he had touched her hand, he had been sure he felt a flash of electricity between them, but perhaps it had only been wishful thinking on his part.

*****

It was about an hour after he'd finished dinner when Murdock found himself hurtling the day's newspaper across the room with a grunt of frustration. He had read the same paragraph six times, and yet each time he got to the end of it, he would realize that he didn't have a clue what he'd just read. He finally conceded that there was only one thing his brain was capable of focusing on that night: Charlie.

He had been anticipating seeing her in the dining hall that evening for dinner, but when the time came to eat, there was no trace of Charlie anywhere. On his way back to his own room after dinner, he had moseyed very slowly past her room, but the door had been shut, and he was afraid knocking might make him look a little desperate.

Now that he'd given up on the paper, he reclined in his bed and allowed his mind to do unfettered what it had been trying to do all afternoon: replaying the day's conversation with Charlie over and over again.

Her long legs, her black v-neck t-shirt, the hint of melody in her voice, the incredible strawberry smell of her shampoo, had all been tattooed on his brain. Just the thought of her under that tree with the sunlight caressing her, and the ethereal beauty of those stunning blue eyes he'd looked into was enough to make him consider a cold shower. Every time those eyes had locked with his, Murdock had felt like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.

The desire to feel her in his arms, to draw her body up against his own, to know the taste of her beckoning lips was almost too overwhelming to bear. Murdock could not remember ever having been this enthralled with a woman before.

Of course, it had been some time since Murdock had been granted the luxury of spending more than a fleeting moment with a woman. He supposed he should have anticipated such a consequence when he and three friends had formed the A-Team.

Though Murdock was not wanted by the military for arrest, his three teammates were in fact fugitives, meaning they spent their existence on the run, staying in a place just long enough to help those in need before dashing back to their life on the lam. Once in a rare while, Murdock managed a quick roll in the hay before splitting, but the experience was consistently one of biological need, devoid of any serious emotion. After a time in fact, such encounters had become hollow and depressing; these days, Murdock actively avoided opportunities for such connections more often than not when he was on a job with the Team.

Just the mere thought of Charlie in his bed, though… the mental image alone set Murdock's heart racing and caused him to break out in a sweat. All that golden skin laid bare, her glorious hair tumbling across his pillow…

At that moment, the shrill ring of his phone jolted him from the vivid images beginning to unfold in his head with excruciating detail, and he actually growled an expletive as he reached to answer the rude interruption. "What?" he nearly shouted into the phone.

"Whoa, hey, is that any way to talk to your ol' buddy Face?"

Murdock's irritation dissolved upon hearing the familiar voice. "Sorry, Faceman. I've got some stuff here driving me nuts."

"'Stuff'?" Face queried. "What kinda stuff?"

"Oh, nothing to worry about. What can I do you for?"

"We've got a job," Face said after a brief pause where he considered pressing Murdock for more information on this 'stuff'. "I'll brief you later about it, but I wanted to call and give you a heads up that we're scamming you out tomorrow morning."

"Wow, for once we don't have to leave immediately?"

"That's right."

"Good deal," remarked Murdock. He never got a heads up. "What's the scam this time?"

"I think I'll say I'm army, and your medical records show you survived some made-up disease that everyone else has so far died from, so we want to run some tests on you to develop a vaccine."

Murdock chuckled on his end. "Face, come on, that sounds pretty frigging ridiculous." He could almost see Face bristle on the other end; Face took a lot of pride in his scamming skills.

"Oh, what, you got a better one, Murdock?" Face retorted.

Rolling his eyes, Murdock adopted a tone he hoped sounded genuinely conciliatory. "No, no, you're right, the plan is ingenious."

"Damn right it is," Face grumbled. "So be ready around 10:00 a.m."

"Aye, aye!" Suddenly, Charlie's face popped into Murdock's head. "Hey, how long you figure we'll be gone?"

"Dunno, maybe three or four days? Depends on what we find when we get there. Why, you got some place better to be?"

Murdock resisted the urge to tell Face that these days, the V.A. would be a far better place to be, given the presence of his new neighbour. "Um… nope. See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," echoed Face, and the two men hung up their phones.

Murdock returned to his reclining position on his bed. He knew three or four days away from the woman who he was growing increasingly infatuated with would feel like decades. He vowed to devote everything he had to the mission in order to get it done as fast as humanly possible. He wasn't sure just what he could get going with Charlie, or even if he could at all, but he was damned sure looking forward to coming back to find out.

*****

It was two o'clock in the morning when Charlie was startled out of a deep sleep. For a moment, she had no idea what had woken her. Then she realized she could hear shouting somewhere nearby, and concluded it must have been what roused her. Dressed in a tank top and flannel pyjama pants, she rose and padded across the room to the door, wanting to see if the nearby yelling merited her calling someone for help.

Exiting her room, she looked left then right along the corridor, but saw nothing. She realized the sound was definitely coming from somewhere in close proximity to her, and turned right to follow the sound.

The yelling intensified as she drew closer to Murdock's room, and upon reaching his door, she came to the startling discovery that the sound was originating from his room. She stood on her tiptoes and looked through the tiny Plexiglas window in the door. Murdock was thrashing around in his bed, shouting, but with his eyes closed. She figured he must be having a very intense nightmare. While she knew his agonizing dream was not any sort of mortal threat to him, she found she could not bear to see him twist and scream in terror; he had to be woken.

Dashing first to one end of the corridor, then to the other, Charlie saw no nurse in sight. Indeed, budget cuts had resulted in an appallingly low number of nurses present to supervise the psych ward at night, and even if she could find one, Charlie realized they would likely have more serious situations to deal with than Murdock's nightmare.

Fine, I'll do it myself, Charlie decided and rushed back to Murdock's door. Trying the knob, she was not surprised to find it locked. She raced back to her room, picked up her wallet, and grabbed her bank card.

Back at Murdock's door once more, she shimmied the card between the doorjamb and the lock, wiggling the knob back and forth until she felt the card slip into place, and the door unlock with a click. Thank you, Rick, she thought wryly to herself, appreciative that his sleazebag habits had at least allowed her to learn a valuable skill. She entered, swinging the door shut behind her just in case a nurse did happen by and was unimpressed by her little B & E stunt.

She tossed the card on Murdock's nightstand, and sat on the edge of the bed, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him, gently at first but with increasing force as he failed to wake. "Murdock! Murdock! Wake up!" she commanded in a loud but even voice. "Murdock!"

Still unconscious, Murdock simply continued to yell. "No! We gotta go back for him! We gotta go back! Please, lemme go back!" Clearly, he was stuck in some personal hell back in Vietnam.

Charlie couldn't stand it anymore. She rose and ran to the bathroom. Finding a glass on the edge of the sink, she filled it to the brim with cold water and grabbed a towel.

She returned to her position on the bed and tossed the contents of the glass unceremoniously into Murdock's face. It did the trick.

Murdock's eyes flew open as he sputtered and threw his hands, palms up, over his face. He sat up coughing, barking, "What the hell?! Who did-" He stopped as his eyes focused on the woman in front of him. "Charlie?" he asked in disbelief, rubbing at his eyes as though he thought she too might be just a dream.

"Hi," she said in far softer tone than she had intended. "Sorry, you were having a nightmare, and I couldn't take you screaming anymore."

Murdock realized he must have woken her, and his heart sank a little as he assumed she had only woken him because the noise was wrecking her night's sleep. He took the towel she offered him to dry off a little.

"Sorry I woke you, Charlie," said Murdock, his voice slightly muffled by the towel. "Don't worry, you can go back to sleep, I won't be doing any more hollering."

Charlie frowned. "No, I wasn't- I didn't do it because I couldn't sleep, I did it because you just sounded so tortured, and I wanted to help."

Tossing the towel aside, Murdock grinned. "Ah, I see! So you're my knight in shining armour, are you? Madam, I am forever in your debt." From his seated position, he placed a hand across his stomach and mimicked a formal bow.

Charlie giggled. "I'll let you know when I decide how to call in that debt."

"I think that may be the first time I've seen you smile like that," Murdock mused, a warm light in his eyes. "You're beautiful when you smile."

Charlie blushed to the roots of her hair.

Giving his head a slight shake as though trying to lose the last little bit of fuzziness left by sleep, a sudden thought occurred to Murdock. "Wait, how did you get in here?" he asked.

Charlie nodded towards the bank card on his nightstand, and he followed her gaze.

"You broke in?" he gasped incredulously. "Where did you learn how to do that?"

"In another life," she shrugged. "Another life where I made some really dumb decisions about who I hung around with."

"Well, that's quite a skill," Murdock noted. "Do you think you could use it to break into the kitchen after hours? I bet those nurses horde tons of desserts we never get to eat. Besides, look at me," he quipped, looking down at himself. "I could use a good dessert!"

Charlie did in fact look, and suddenly realized with a start that he was bare-chested. She couldn't help but notice the lightly tanned, firm expanse of his chest, the taught definition of his abdomen, the chiselled musculature in his arms. A patch of springy golden-brown hair grew near the top of his chest, while a trail of hair the same color began just below his belly-button and continued until it disappeared beneath the waistband of his pants. Charlie felt her heart begin to quicken its pace.

Murdock, noting the appraisal, shifted further forward to narrow the distance between them. "I don't suppose you've got any other dessert ideas, do you?" he asked in a husky voice. His eyes had grown dark with desire.

Unable to speak, Charlie gave her head an almost imperceptible shake, finding it impossible to take her eyes from him.

No longer willing to fight his desire, Murdock quickly closed the gap between himself and Charlie, and brought his lips crashing down over hers.

Charlie offered only a moment's hesitation resulting from her surprise, before surrendering herself to him completely. She responded hungrily, clinging to him as the kiss deepened. She felt his tongue gently prod at her lips, and she opened her mouth wider as it dove in and out of her mouth. He tasted of coffee and cinnamon, and Charlie intermittently sucked his tongue before countering with her own. A throbbing heat was rapidly unfurling at the apex of her thighs.

Desperately needing to feel her even closer, Murdock wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his lap. He buried one hand in her luxurious hair and slid the other one up her side, starting at her hip and moving upwards until his hand grazed the side of her breast. She slid her arms around his neck and drew him impossibly nearer. Murdock took his hand from her hair, reaching now with both hands around her waist and behind her, and moving them under her tank top and up the length of her back.

Charlie let out a gasp at the sensation of his hands roving along her bare skin, and felt a searing heat wherever his fingers touched her. From her position on his lap, Charlie could feel the hard ridge of his desire pressing into her, and the knowledge of his want only fanned the flames of her own.

Murdock's exploration of her body continued as his hands glided from her back to her front, each hand seeking out a breast, grazing lightly across both nipples, bringing them to stiffened peaks. His skilful fingers caressed, kneaded, savoured. Tearing his mouth from hers, he began laying a trail of kisses down her neck.

Writhing at the sensations Murdock's intimate touch was creating, Charlie's entire reality dropped out of view. She threw her head back, giving in to the blistering passion she felt. Murdock's name escaped her lips on a moan.

The sound was almost too much for Murdock. With a groan, he began to ease Charlie back, shifting his weight as he lowered the length of her body onto his mattress.

The feeling of Murdock's bed against her back suddenly snapped Charlie back to reality, and she broke from his kiss while pushing against his chest. Her reckless behaviour became immediately apparent to her, and she knew that by allowing herself to act with such thoughtless abandon, she had put Murdock's very life in danger. As he slowly withdrew, Charlie quickly sat bolt upright, clumsily adjusting her shirt to cover herself. Though she knew she shouldn't, Charlie raised her eyes and looked into Murdock's. His eyes mirrored confusion and disappointment. Charlie certainly could not blame him for his reaction.

"Charlie, I'm sorry, I-" Murdock looked completely stunned, and was clearly wracking his brain to figure out what had happened while struggling to bring his breath back to a normal rate. "Did I do something wrong?"

"Oh no, Murdock, no," Charlie blurted, standing. She had to get away from him. She couldn't think clearly in his presence, and did not trust herself to refrain from finishing what they had started if she remained in his room. "I just…" she trailed off, wanting desperately to tell him the truth about why she had to go, to reassure him that it had absolutely nothing to do with him. "I'm sorry," she said, her eyes pleading for understanding. "I just… I can't.. I… I'm sorry Murdock, I can't, I can't do this now," she finished weakly. "I… I'm sorry, I can't" she repeated remorsefully, backing out the door.

As the door shut, Murdock had caught a glimpse of great sadness in her eyes, and wanted to rush to throw his arms around her again, but knew she would only reject it. With slight yelp of anger, he flung his pillow across the room as hard as he could, watching as it bounced off of the glossy face of Steve McQueen before flopping onto the floor. What had just happened? Storming across the room to retrieve the pillow, Murdock could come up with no reasonable response to his own question. He thought with a grimace that this little trip he was leaving for tomorrow now suddenly seemed like a Godsend that could distract him from this situation, which was now thoroughly doing his head in. He tossed and turned for the rest of the night, finding sleep nearly impossible, and wondering if he had simply switched his earlier nightmare for another.