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NC-17 for language and adult themes, including m/m slash (non-graphic). I don't
know if this will warrant the above rating, but I don't want to be accused of
corruption of the young.
Summary: Murdock and Face reflect on their relationship.
for third and fourth season eps: Cup 'A Joe, Hot Styles, Bounty, Mind Games,
Heart of Rock N Roll, Cowboy George and the Sound of Thunder. This is a prequel
to my first F/M fic, "Broken Wing".
Feedback: is mighty tasty.
Disclaimer: The A-Team does not belong to me, though I would build them a special little room if they did, and cook them Kraft dinner whenever they wanted. All characters, alarums, excursions and concepts belong to Stephen J Cannell and Frank Lupo.
It wasn't as though he couldn't stop himself. He just didn't want to.
He'd always been good at reading other people. He could walk down the street and look at a woman passing by, a man waiting for a bus, and know their story. Whether they were going someplace important, whether there would be someone waiting for them when they got there. Whether they were happy or not.
It was one of the reasons he liked being on his own so much at the VA. The stories told there were tough to listen to, especially when they all crowded in on him at once, demanding audience in his brain.
But of all the people he'd met in his life, Face had always been the easiest. From the minute he saw him in country, he understood him completely. To everyone else, Face was a supremely confident con artist; he knew better. And after they became friends, he unconsciously sought to give Face the things he knew the younger man had been missing his whole life: the stability of friendship, the gift of caring, without expecting anything in return.
And touch. Especially touch.
Murdock had always been more physical than other men. Not in the sense of grab-assing in the shower or flicking towels in the locker room, but in a reassuring hand on the shoulder or just an open smile, where many would hesitate to go that far in exposing themselves to ridicule, or worse. Maybe being raised by his grandfather, an unashamedly affectionate man, had influenced him. Maybe he just didn't observe the same signposts as the majority of red-blooded American guys. Whatever the reason, he was never averse to showing his feelings, and luckily he had the kind of disposition that made it acceptable, even in the middle of a war. And when they started calling him crazy, his behaviour was never questioned after that. He supposed that was one of the fringe benefits they didn't tell you about. Insanity meant no more rules to follow; all the signposts were taken down in your honour.
He was pretty sure Face hadn't been held enough as a child, and it was something that nagged at him at odd times, like a persistent toothache. Way back in Nam, when he first ruffled his hair after a mission, the kid had flinched, actually flinched. He held off for a while after that, waiting, watching. It was soon clear that Face kept to himself; his movements, while graceful, were economical, determined not to give anything away for free. So he decided to proceed slowly, convince Face that he was getting a fair exchange.
It had worked. In fact, it worked in a way he'd never expected.
He knew Face had assumed he'd forgotten, figured he'd swept it from his mind along with the thousand or so details about Vietnam that had been expunged from his memory. But he remembered every minute of that week in Saigon, from the depths of shame to the heights of joy. It had honestly never occurred to him before that he was capable of that level of physicality, but if he laid himself bare he had to admit the potential was always there. Still, he'd never been with another man, before or since, and had relationships with precious few women after being committed. It wasn't much of an option where he lived, unless you were up for a quickie in the broom closet, and that wasn't his style.
These days, he could predict when Face would be more or less comfortable with his hands or his gaze on him. Whenever he was feeling particularly vulnerable, the conman would repel all attempts at contact, but in moments when he was more confident, more at ease with himself, he would return the gestures, throwing an arm around the pilot after they had knocked out the bad guys with a well-coordinated attack, sticking his tongue out at him playfully, throwing out a careless comment laced with innuendo. Murdock basked in those moments, feeling like he'd accomplished a difficult task, brought Face out of that carefully constructed shell for a short while, so that he could squint up at the sun, breathe the air, and experience what it was like to live without boundaries.
It was also at those times that Murdock felt most in tune with the world, that he believed there was a future for him that didn't involve white coats and overcooked food. When he tried to define the parameters and practicalities of that future, though, it was still kind of fuzzy. For him, the problem was not enough boundaries. Maybe Face could help him with those. If he could ever decide what it was he needed help getting.
Of course, that presupposed Face was going to be around long enough. The past few months he'd been more restless than usual, like a bottle of Coke that had been left outside in July and then shaken. If the pilot had to take a guess at when it started, he'd have to say it was after his breakup with Rina. Face had been head over heels for her in a way Murdock had never seen, and it had torn him to see Face careen toward the inevitable conclusion to it all. Somewhere deep inside the other man was the desire for a white picket fence life, a yearning for normality that only a person who'd never experienced it could have. He'd idealized it to the point where it was needle-sharp, a painful reminder of a life he wasn't going to attain.
Murdock had his own reminder of that when he met Kelly. He'd tried to make it fit, make himself fit, but he knew it was doomed from the start. He was a sucker for fragile creatures, and she was that, but his life didn't have any tolerance for fragility. The first time she saw him after a rough mission, bruised all up one side from a fight, well, he had to give her points for looking brave, anyway. Trouble was, he'd seen past that look a hundred times on a hundred faces in Nam, and so he had an unfair advantage. Not long after, he had gathered himself into a hard shape, all edges and walls, and ended it before she had a chance to watch pieces of herself disappear. She didn't deserve to have that happen to her, but then none of them had.
And that left him back where he started. Full circle, back to Face.
It hadn't been as much of a consolation prize as he thought it would be. Despite the other man's complaints about his reliability, he and Face set up a lot of nice scams together, and he loved playing off Face, trying to push the envelope by working with him and against him simultaneously. The Darth Vader shit he pulled one time, in the middle of an army compound, yet, was almost enough to crack the conman's composure; he was particularly proud of that bit. In Africa, his God Save the Queen Richard Harris shtick just about sank them both; a real Brit could spot a phony a mile off. But he'd blustered his way through to the other side, and had pulled Face along with him, until they walked out, grinning like fools, with crate after crate of high-quality explosives. For Face, he knew, it was all about the big bang. The end justified the means, no questions asked.
Other times, it wasn't so wonderful, and there were moments when he knew if he followed the path his mind wanted to take, Face would disappear on him. There was just such a moment in the Cup 'A Joe, while he stood there, in an oversize chef's hat, sweating over a huge, hot grill, and came close to forgetting everything he was supposed to be. Face had made a throwaway, smartaleck comment about how Murdock would make someone a good wife, and his throat had closed over. He'd stared at the other man for what seemed like an eternity, and flailed around in the murky water of his brain, finally latching onto the liferaft of paprika to save his sorry ass. After he shooed him out to ask B.A. for the precious spice, a half pound of which he knew was sitting in a jar atop the fridge, he'd taken a couple of minutes to remember how to breathe.
The case with C.J. Mack was particularly--frustrating. He didn't have any other words to describe it. First off, there was the music, bringing him back to places he wasn't interested in revisiting. Then there was the restlessness he felt, inexplicable, as if he'd borrowed that Coke bottle from Face. He knew he was wound up, dancing and gyrating like a frog in a blender, but he couldn't help it. He had to keep moving, it seemed, or the demons would catch up.
He could tell his behaviour annoyed the hell out of Face, though the other man didn't say anything about it until they were alone that afternoon in the mansion Face had scammed. BA and Hannibal were off, and the two of them were holding down the fort and--supposed to be, anyway--enjoying a little down time. He remembered putting the stereo on, loud, and Face moving swiftly to shut it off. Flick of the wrist vicious.
"We're still on alert here, Murdock," he told the pilot, voice deadly calm, from a deep place inside him that didn't often see the light of day. "I'd like to be able to hear if twenty goons decide to come crashing through our front door."
Murdock opened his mouth on a retort, then closed it. "Yeah," he said finally. "I, uh, I think I'll head out to the back. That OK?"
"Of course it's OK. Just keep your piece with you."
"I was gonna get some sun. You gonna come?"
"No." Murdock waited, but there was no elaboration.
"Somethin' wrong?" He was startled at his own tone; the solicitous note that would have accompanied such a question was gone, replaced by anger.
Hell, he was angry. Where had that come from?
Face looked at him then, sky blue gaze flickering over his bare chest, down over his swim trunks to his legs, then jerking away.
The adrenaline that had been building swiftly throughout his body drained from him, leaving Murdock's skin tingling.
"Nothing," Face murmured, suddenly sounding bone tired. "I just--I need an afternoon off, Murdock. Do you understand what I'm saying? I need a couple of hours to regroup."
"Yeah," Murdock acknowledged, knees locked to keep from knocking. He understood Face wasn't saying what he meant. That in itself was nothing new. But he had a strong inkling that something was new between them, just then, and he strained to hear what it was.
Silence. It figured. The one time all the voices had left him, he could really do with some fuckin' noise.
"Me, too," he mumbled. He turned on shaky legs and headed for the pool.
Sometime later, drifting peacefully on the surface of the water, wearing goggles to dull the sun, he sensed movement. Creaking one eyelid open, he watched Face, graceful as a lean jungle cat, walk over to the table beside the pool and take a seat. A coffee table art book was under one arm, and without a glance at Murdock, he flipped it open and began to read.
Apology accepted, he thought, closing the eye again.
And then, despite all his best efforts, Face disappeared anyway.
Face reached the finish line ahead of everyone this time. He'd be damned if he let them bust his balls for that, too.
Hannibal was on another one of his training kicks, claiming, as always, that Face and Murdock were out of shape. Just because B.A. and the Colonel were built for strength rather than agility, they assumed everyone else had to spend two hours a day at the gym. But when Temp tried to convince Hannibal that endurance could have an advantage over brute force, their C.O. merely chomped his cigar and enquired of his lieutenant whether he thought they got challenged to more marathons or fistfights. Face had sighed and picked up the barbells.
He was proud of his showing this time around, though. The 10K run had been a piece of cake, and even the weight training wasn't killing him. He usually preferred to leave the heavy lifting to B.A., but there was a great deal of satisfaction in having your body obey your commands without hesitation or complaint.
It may also been part of Hannibal's plan to use the training to cement them more firmly as a unit, but that was going to be harder to accomplish. The past few months had put strains on all of them. True, they still worked together like a well-oiled machine, but lately it had been feeling like just that--a machine. Hannibal would have to figure out a way to put the heart back into them, and while it too was a muscle, no amount of weightlifting would be able to get it back into shape.
He was still working out the kinks from the run when Hannibal threw yet another curve. "Okay, guys, let's see how you do when it's one on one. Face, you and Murdock give it a shot."
Temp stared at him. "You, ah, want us to fight each other?"
The older man shrugged. "Why not? You're evenly matched; you've got a little more muscle, and Murdock has more reach." He grinned evilly. "I'm kinda curious to see who'll come out on top."
Face turned to Murdock for support, but the pilot remained silent, his brown eyes challenging. Things hadn't been the same between them for weeks, not since Face'd come back from his "pardon" disaster, his tail tucked between his legs. At least Murdock had dropped the Hunkman act, though not until Temp had been treated to a large dose of that disturbingly familiar persona. Was that how Murdock really saw him? Vain, shallow, insincere?
Hell, who was he kidding? It was like looking in a fucking mirror. But it was surprisingly painful to realize his best friend agreed with his own crappy self-image.
"C'mon, fool. What you waitin' for?" B.A.'s growl cut through his reverie.
Murdock's gaze changed to something feral, and Face remembered the rumours of the pilot's involvement with the Company, the guys who put the black in black ops. "What, indeed?" Murdock intoned in a flawless British accent, and then he pounced.
Temp feinted left, but that extra bit of reach was deceptive, and Murdock caught him as he went by, making him stumble. He didn't have time to recover before the other man was on him again. They struggled for a moment, hands and fingers seeking a hold. They both wore shorts and t-shirts, but Murdock had insisted on running barefoot, like his new personal heroine, Zola Budd, so that cut down on his height advantage. As Face shifted his center of gravity to get a better angle of attack, he felt the dull thud of a heel hitting the back of his knee, and his leg buckled.
"Christ!" he swore as he watched the ground get closer. Two could play at that. On the way down, he threw his arms around Murdock's midsection and yanked. Not the most graceful move, but effective; the pilot's bare feet didn't have as much purchase on the earth as his hi-tops would have, and he followed Face to the dirt. They rolled--man, but he was fast, faster than Temp gave him credit for--and Murdock ended up on top.
And everything stopped.
He could make out every detail, from the coating of dust in the pilot's thinning hair, to the rough stubble that shaded his chin. He felt Murdock's warm breath hitting him in the face, and the heavy weight of the knee that pinned his chest, and the strong fingers that manacled his wrists. He looked up, and the other man's dark brown gaze locked with his. The knee on his chest eased, and Murdock smiled, a ghost of those sweet, crazy smiles Face hadn't seen since he left. Hadn't realized he was missing until this moment.
"Got you, muchacho," the pilot intoned softly, in a voice pitched for his ears only. "You're not duckin' out this time."
The corner of Face's mouth twitched. "Thought you preferred tall blondes."v Murdock frowned at the reference, but after a second or two, comprehension dawned, and Temp saw something intangible cross his features. The pilot nodded. "Yeah. That's what I said." There was the slightest emphasis on the last word in the sentence, and Face sucked in a breath.
And then, in front of Hannibal and B.A. and God and everyone, he could feel himself getting hard.
He offered up a silent, blasphemous prayer of thanks that he was wearing denim shorts. Concentrated on his breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, steady, steady. Tried to conjure up an image of the ugliest looking woman he could remember. Murdock continued to stare down at him, and he followed up with another prayer that his friend stay ignorant of what was happening below his waistline.
"Hey, you fightin' or neckin'?"
Temp closed his eyes, wishing for a lightning bolt.
Suddenly, the knee disappeared, and the hands that pinned him down now pulled him skyward. He dug his heels into the earth and rose.
"You win," he managed, heart pounding an uptempo number in his chest.
Murdock looked at his feet, grabbed his baseball cap out of B.A.'s hands and pulled it down on his head.
"I don't know 'bout that," he murmured, to noone in particular, and walked off without a backward glance.
He'd forgotten what it had been like to feel that kind of rage. Almost.
Endless sessions with Richter had made him into a peace-loving citizen, after a fashion. Most times, now, he could get through days, weeks, without the anger creeping up on him and blindsiding him at inopportune moments. Richter encouraged him to claim the anger, own it, and once the sources were recognized, it became easier to dispel. It was all standard stuff, really, typical of a lot of guys who'd been over there, with some of his own special ingredients mixed in. The H.M. Murdock Mad-As-Hell Chili. Get it while it's hot, y'all.
Angry that his mother up and died on him.
Angry that he was stupid enough to volunteer for Nam.
Angry that he survived when better men didn't.
Angry that he'd worked for the Company.
Angry that he hadn't tried to stop some of the things he'd watched them do.
Angry that he let his Team down by getting so damned angry that they had to throw his ass in here.
That was all pretty old, though, and time was a great healer, or so They said. But now he had new stuff to get angry about, and Richter wasn't gonna get his paws on that. No, he'd have to work this shit out by himself. And it wasn't going to be easy.
It had never been a problem before, and he didn't know why it was becoming such a problem now. Lately he'd been distancing himself from Face, slowly, so that when he got around to noticing it, he was startled at how far away he'd gotten. He felt sometimes like his skin had shut down, like it wasn't accepting messages from the outside world. That was always a bad sign. He'd been listless, too, sleeping during the days for hours on end. When Face had sprung him to drag him along on a trip to Arizona, he could barely keep his eyes open the whole way. The other man rattled on about his newest scheme, and Murdock tried to stay with him, but he was just tired, indescribably tired. He was also pretty rotten to Face, and that nagged at him afterward. Whatever Face was doing to him, it wasn't something he was aware of. Murdock had no right to take his messed up head out on his best friend.
Best friend. When he'd been six years old, running through his granddaddy's fields, trying to run so fast he left himself behind, he'd imagined what it would be like to have one. He'd read about it in a book--he could read before he turned four, mamma saw to that--and it sounded like a dream, better than rockets to Mars and castles in the air. And when he finally got one, it wasn't like what he'd expected. He supposed he was going to see his reflection in the other person, but Face was light where he cast shadows, and vice versa. And still, it worked; the first time he saw a picture of the two of them, arms around each other, grinning like they weren't standing smack dab in the middle of hell, he thought, Tom and Huck. No need to guess which was which; Murdock had never been any good at sweet- talking people to paint fences for him.
As the years went on, though, that reflection thing started to happen. Face smiled and laughed more, acted silly, got less scared of walking around without a mask. Murdock became more confident, more comfortable with not knowing what was going to happen next, with bumping up against people and then stepping back to watch the fireworks. They found the ingredients in each other that had been waiting to be discovered all along, as if they'd gravitated to each other by instinct, homing in on the pieces of the other that lay dormant, waiting to be brought to life.
Murdock's mind strayed to Sleeping Beauty. Wakened by a kiss from long years of slumber. He batted the thought away. Angry, don't forget you're angry. Richter said you had to embrace the anger before you could let it go.
Embracing the handsome prince, Sleeping Beauty returned the kiss--
"Shit!" He kicked at the wastebasket, and it responded with a rewarding clatter as it hit the wall. Stupid fucking motel, stupid fucking town, stupid fucking Face with his stupid fucking Boy George--
Shouldn't think that. He seemed like a nice guy, bit too much makeup, maybe, Murdock would've gone a little lighter on the eyeshadow--
And then there were the Lennon Sisters, singing an accompaniment to his mental state. "Three Blind Mice." Perfect. Right now he felt like he could do all their parts at the same time.
The Three Faces of Murdock.
He'd wanted to pull the trigger. Was really, really disappointed when they let Face go. Crackers, his granddaddy had taught him to despise crackers like that. "Ignorance is no excuse, son. Remember that."
How about complicity? He'd never given Murdock an opinion on that one. When you knew, and you stood by, doing nothing. Scared.
Granddaddy probably wouldn't have approved of that, either.
Three blind mice. Three faces.
Not his fault. Remember that.
Face poked his head in the door. "I, ah, got Boy George installed in the other room. It's not exactly what he's used to, but he's taking it well." Murdock watched him take off the cowboy hat, run a hand through his hair. Face looked shitty in hats. " I don't know what the hell we're going to do."
Murdock bit back the rage, schooled his voice to calm. "Well, I guess we better call Hannibal."
"I guess," Face conceded, but he sounded relieved. "Hey, thanks for earlier. For covering my back. I didn't think I was gonna need it."
"It takes one cracker to know another," Murdock muttered.
Face frowned, then nodded. "Yeah. You certainly spoke their language, anyway. You had me scared there."
Murdock barked a laugh, startling the other man. "Scared myself, Faceman."
His friend took a step forward, then another. "You okay?"
Not even close.
"Yeah, sure. Why wouldn't I be? It's just these girls. They're not lettin' up, y'know?"
Face raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh." He reached in his jacket, pulled out a small black book. "I think I've got Hannibal's studio's number in here." Striding over to the phone, he picked up the receiver.
Murdock shuffled to the bed and collapsed. Tired, he was so tired. He dug in his pocket until his fingers closed around the grip of his pistol, and he hefted the gun, inspected it. Popped the clip and ejected the cartridge in the chamber. Stared at the primer end, all shiny and new and sterile. Circles within circles, never ending. Always taking you back to the place you started.
For him, it had started in Saigon that first night, when he lay naked in Face's arms, sobbing his guts out because he was so ashamed and so relieved and so, so grateful--
Face was looking at him from across the room. He opened his mouth to speak, but was distracted by a voice on the other end of the wire. Started talking to the phone instead.
Murdock reloaded the gun, then laid it on the nightstand and shut his eyes. As sleep reached for him, he sensed a presence nearby and looked up to see Face bending over him, concern etched on his features.
"Prince--" Murdock whispered.
"Listen, I know you're wiped out," Face began, "but Hannibal's supposed to call me back as soon as they locate him on the set, so I have to wait here. Would you mind doing a little reconnaissance to find out what those guys are up to?" His hand touched the pilot's shoulder and stayed, the warmth of it seeping into Murdock's skin through the cloth of his t-shirt.
Blinking, he tried to wake up. Too many voices. Which one was he going to listen to? His right hand came up to cover Face's. The other man's eyes widened. Then, after a frozen eternity, he moved to sit on the bed.
"I screwed up big time, didn't I?" he murmured.
"Happens to the best of us."
"And the worst," Face mumbled, his eyes focused on Murdock's hand where it overlaid his own.
The words sliced through his numbed skin, opened up a wellspring of emotion that had been buried for weeks, months. He shook his head, his smile sad and crooked. "Faceman, Faceman. What am I gonna do with you?"
His best friend's gaze moved to his face, his expression guarded yet shockingly vulnerable. "What do you want to do with me?" he asked, smiling back but serious, deadly serious, and Murdock's stomach flipped. His breathing slowed, and the blood thickened in his veins.
Face's free hand reached across him and rested on the mattress, bringing him closer, close enough for Murdock to see the flecks of green in the blue eyes. His own eyes closed, his brain unable to process what was happening before them. His chest anticipated the weight of the other, and he bit his tongue to keep from crying out.
He didn't even hear the sound of the phone until he realized Face was gone.
"Hello?" His back was turned. "Hey, Hannibal, how are you doing?"
Murdock grabbed his pistol and stood. The other man spun around, and the expression on his face, before it was shuttered by his cool, calm mask, was unmistakable.
Looked like granddaddy wouldn't be happy with either one of them.
Murdock nodded once, the voices finally quiet, choice made.
Just be what he needs you to be. Be his friend, his Huck. Help him paint the damn fence and shut up.
Face was still talking when Murdock closed the door behind him.
Face padded into the living room of the beachouse and cursed softly at the sight of the empty couch. Murdock was gone again.
He told himself to calm down; the other man was probably sitting out there on the sand, looking at the waves, just like he'd done the past three mornings. The Hawaiian surf was pretty spectacular, and before Hannibal had stuck B.A. on a cruise ship and headed for an old buddy's place on Maui, he'd told them to take a week off and wait for the fallout from Fulbright's death to settle before they thought about returning to the mainland. Tia was stuck at Pearl, explaining the whole story to the JAG there, while carefully avoiding any mention of her newfound friends. It was a tough break for her, but she would come out of it all right, once the blood tests and other evidence spoke for her. Besides, she'd been used to tough breaks in her short life; at least now, there was hope that things would look up for her. When the military was done with her, Hannibal had promised to take her back to the lower forty-eight, help her find the home they couldn't have themselves.
And in spite of the fact the trip to Vietnam had been a bust for them personally, things were looking up for the Team too. Slowly, so slowly, they'd healed from the rift Face had created when he merrily ego-tripped his way out of their lives six months ago. It had gotten to the point where he felt comfortable with them all again, and they with him, though he couldn't name the date or time when it had finally happened. None of them was much for analyzing their feelings; if something was wrong, it was wrong, and there was no talking your way out of it. But when it was right, when the energy was high and running between the four of them, they could make one hell of a spark. Enough to light up the souls of twenty ordinary men and leave nothing behind but a lot of pairs of charred, smoking boots. As much as he tried to poke holes in Hannibal's rubber dinghy, as much as he wondered what it would be like to live surrounded by a white picket fence, he had to admit there was a fire in his belly that wouldn't be satisfied by a conventional existence.
The question was, what kind of existence would he be satisfied with? And would he be able to recognize it if he found it?
He took a deep breath. So many years, the eddies and currents carrying him so far from where he had originally intended to go. Marriage. Family. A career. A home. Respectability. He snorted a laugh. Instead, he had a new woman every night, a flashy Corvette but no fixed address, a job that could get him killed tomorrow, and his picture plastered on every Post Office wall in the country.
Oh, enough, he thought suddenly, picking up that broken record and smashing it to pieces. Hanoi had been an exercise in self- pity, and it was still holding him in its grip, but now even he was tired of listening to himself whine. In the end, as Trigger would have said, it don't mean nothin'. Just say fuck it and drive on.
His gaze scanned the well-appointed room, which was just starting to fill with early morning sunlight. Somehow, as always, Face and Murdock had ended up together, sharing a small cottage that Temp had managed to scam on short notice. There wasn't another dwelling on this isolated stretch of black, volcanic sand beach, just what he'd been aiming for. The return to Nam had been hard on them, and the first night--well, he wasn't sure which of them had woken up screaming first. The last thing they would've needed were irate neighbours phoning the cops.
Laying over the back of the couch was the grass skirt Murdock had donned last night to keep the wolves at bay. The pilot had bought it at one of the local tourist traps, which would explain the fact that it was made from what appeared to be strips of brightly coloured plastic garbage bags. Smiling, Temp trailed the strands between his fingers. It probably wasn't a coincidence that it had been the first time Face slept soundly since returning to the world. He wondered if Murdock knew how much his jokes and antics, coupled with his giving and open nature, had kept the rest of them sane over the years, held them together.
Held him together.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something in the water, and moved to the window. He squinted at the surf, then opened the door and walked onto the deck for a closer look.
Like an anorexic sea lion, Murdock surged from the ocean, hanging suspended in air for a frozen moment before a wave overtook him and dragged him into its liquid embrace. Face waited, watching, and was soon rewarded with another spectacular breach and flop. He shook his head, grinning. Despite all the forces that might conspire to shackle him, Murdock would always be trying to fly.
Descending the steps to the beach, he savoured the crunch of the pulverized basalt under his feet. He looked down, curled his toes in the spawn of volcanoes. At least he finally got to see Hawaii. He'd actually been here once before, on a leave with Hannibal in '69, but that trip had not been spent sightseeing. As he recalled, he'd spent five and a half of the six days under, over and beside an incredibly imaginative local girl he'd picked up at an antiwar demonstration. The other half a day had been spent convincing her he was a poor lost soul who needed rescuing from the horrors of war, which was not a complete lie. Although he'd joked to Murdock about missing the women, he'd really been searching for this, for the peace and tranquility he'd heard could be found in the quiet places here. Also, for the feeling that the world was recreating itself, birthing new continents and to hell with the consequences.
Murdock washed up on the beach not fifty feet from him. Laughing, spluttering, rolling in the surf. A pair of huge, goofy yellow flippers covered his feet. Temp fought to keep from running to him, decided on a sedate saunter instead.
His friend saw him approach and broke into a big, sweet smile, and Face's breath caught in his throat. Murdock was always giving him gifts, half of them without meaning to. It wasn't fair he rarely got a damn thing in return.
He started breathing again, slow and even. Maybe there was something he could give him now.
"How did you sleep?" he asked, as the pilot blinked up at him. Face's hand reached out, an automatic gesture after years of shared brawls.
"Like a baby, Faceman, like a little bitty baby," he chuckled, accepting the help. Strong fingers closed around Temp's own, and he felt the racing pulse, rabbit-fast. Murdock sprang to his feet, then whirled around, as if to take in the whole landscape at once. "This'z amazing. It keeps gettin' more amazing every day, the more I remember how to breathe and walk an' talk."
"You had better than this when you came here in January," Face ventured, voice casual.
Murdock shook his head. "Nah, it was some swanky hotel on the Big Island with boring ol' white sand and all-you-can-eat Elvis buffets." He kicked off the flippers, then put his hands on his hips and regarded the Pacific. "Not as good as this." His gaze strayed to Face, slid away, back to the ocean. "Not as good as this."
He'd never asked what had happened with her. Usually, he teased Murdock about his rare conquests, but when the other man had returned from his vacation, the gibes he'd made ready had died on his lips. He'd been shocked to realize he didn't want to hear about it. One more silence to pile on top of the others.
The silence roared in his ears. The new ground under him, pushing its way to the surface, lent him strength.
"I, ah, I wanted to apologize for being an asshole."
Murdock cocked his head. "Which time?"
"You--" he spluttered, then calmed at Murdock's mischievous look. "When I got my pardon. The pardon that wasn't."
"You weren't an asshole. You were just--tryin' on a new life, that's all."
Face ran a hand through his hair. "Was I? In some ways, it was the same old life in a new package." He felt Murdock's gaze on him, steady, and started to pace, unable to stay still. "I mean, it began before that, y'know, and when it came, I honestly thought it was the answer to a prayer. I was getting so fed up with everything, and I was starting to not care anymore, and that scared me. Scared me when I imagined how I could make a wrong move someday and get one of you killed."
The words were like a torrent now, helping him sort the thing out in his head as he was carried along by them. "Then I got the pardon, and it was like I couldn't get out of there fast enough. There were a million holes in it, but I didn't see them, didn't care. Deep down, I knew you'd be better off without me. And I thought, now I can go after what I've always wanted. But then I realized I wasn't sure what the hell that was any more..." He trailed off, unsure what to say next.
Murdock regarded him calmly. The brown eyes held no judgment, no pain or recriminations, though Face knew he had hurt him. Only understanding, deep, fathomless, and an emotion he wasn't sure he could recognize and was sure he didn't deserve.
Suddenly he could hear Trigger's voice again, sending him careening through time and space.
Wherever you go, there you are.
He was horrified when tears welled up in his eyes. "Am I always going to be running?" he asked in a whisper that was almost drowned by the surf.
But Murdock heard. "When you wanna stop, you'll stop," he assured him. "In the meantime, I'm not goin' anywhere. Count on that." The quiet passion in that statement overwhelmed him, and he turned away, dashing the moisture from his cheeks with the back of his hand.
They watched the Pacific for long minutes, together and apart.
When Face could speak, he murmured, "Why?" and his friend knew what he was asking.
Temp squeezed his eyes shut when he felt a hand stroke his hair. His nerves sang with the memories of years, a thousand each of looks, smiles, grins, laughs, handshakes, slaps, pats, leans, rubs, hugs. Connections made across the gulf that separated one human being from another. Connections that he'd never planned to make, but was oh, so glad he did.
"Because," the other answered. "Just because."
They continued their vigil over the ocean. Feet sunk in the sharp, warm sand, waiting for new things to be born.
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