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Summary: Final story in the Retreat series (Retreat and Haven preceded this) -- It's decision time.
Murdock stood in the doorway, staring out at the late afternoon sun. The days had begun to grow shorter, the summer slowly giving way to autumn. Green still dominated, but through its veil, isolated blushes of red peeked out. And the nights were crisp now, with the occasional warm evening being the exception rather than the rule.
As Murdock watched, a merganser leisurely circled overhead before finally alighting on the smooth surface of the water. The lake was still alive with birds, winter being far enough away not to concern them yet. But like the two men who had called this place home for the past two months, it would soon be time to leave.
He turned his attention to the solitary figure that sat near the lake. More often lately, Face had been spending some time alone each afternoon. He would take a book and make his way to the water's edge, but Murdock rarely saw him read. Face was thinking. It was time to make his decision, one left unspoken since that night by the fire weeks ago. Murdock had never brought the subject of leaving up, the choice being Face's and not his. He knew what Face would ultimately decide; he'd always known, but it was up to Face to make his way to there, when he was ready.
Two months of healing. It had not always been easy.
Now, as he studied Face, Murdock realized that the time away had been good for them both.
The last year had been hard on them, not only with the discovery of what was between them and the adjustments needed in their lives, but the changes that had brought to the team as a whole. None of it had been smooth. Death had hung over them more than once in the past year, as if testing the bond. The only constant had been what they knew they felt for each other, and sometimes that had almost not been enough.
Then the fire. As tragic as it had been, the aftermath and resulting time spent away had been a catharsis in many ways. Not only had Face come to accept what had happened and let go of some of the self-reproach, but they had the time together that had not been possible before. Time to begin to fully understand and work through the events of the last year, and to let go of some of the pain that had lain hidden, and time to simply be together.
Murdock opened the screen door quietly and walked out onto the porch. He sat on the top step, absently waving away a fly that began to circle in front of him. Arms resting on knees, he watched Face. Several mallards lazed in the water in front of him, waiting for the occasional breadcrumb that Face would toss their way. This was another ritual, one that the birds had caught onto quickly.
It was still an hour until sunset, but the afternoon sunlight had softened in readiness for the coming dusk. Murdock closed his eyes, taking in the subtle changes that this time of day brought. The sounds of birds, constant and busy throughout the day, were now dimming, gradually being replaced by the low, sporadic chorus of bullfrogs that hid among the grasses and shallow waters near the shore. There were fewer now than there had been a month ago, and Murdock suspected that, within a few weeks, they would disappear altogether, leaving the lake quiet and still.
As gradually as the bullfrogs' songs overtook that of the birds, the temperature began to cool, the warmth following the sun as it made its way towards the horizon. Now, the faint smell of autumn was clearer. Moist earth and leaves growing damp and old were hinted at in the air stirred by the gentle breeze. Like the changes with the other living things, the trees were readying for the winter. Color only hinted at now would soon change the landscape, overwhelm the greens for a while with the fire colors of fall. The leaves would blaze for a short time before dulling and eventually falling away, leaving only the evergreens to tint the surrounding woods.
Murdock opened his eyes again and returned his attention to Face, watching as he tossed the last of the crumbs to the birds. A ripple of noise arose as they vied for the offered treats, settling again after the last piece disappeared. The mallards stayed for a bit longer, hoping for more, before eventually giving up and gliding off to wherever they spent their evenings.
Face remained where he was, staring out over the lake. He had been there longer than usual today, and Murdock suspected that he had come to a decision. Rising, Murdock picked up a sweatshirt that he had carried out with him. Making his way to Face, he sat down next to him, close, shoulders touching, silently letting him know that he was there and would listen if Face wanted to talk.
For a time, they sat together quietly, each lost to his own thoughts. It was an easy silence, neither feeling the pressure to speak. They watched as the sun slowly dipped lower in the sky, the light paling still more. Eventually, Face spoke softly, almost carefully.
"It's beautiful here."
"It is. I'm glad we came." Murdock put his arm around Face's shoulders.
Face leaned on Murdock, accepting the support offered. Off in the distance, the call of a screech owl, awake after its long day's rest, pierced the air.
"Want to go for a walk before it gets too dark?" Face asked.
Murdock smiled and showed Face the sweatshirt he had brought with him. "Thought you might want to."
"Always the Boy Scout," Face said as he slipped it on.
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays…"
"Uh, Murdock, that's the Postal Service's motto."
"I know, but it sounds so much more dramatic than 'be prepared.'"
Face laughed, and took Murdock's hand as he rose and led the way to one of the nearby trails. Hiking paths and canoe carries wound their way through the woods, some leading to the mountains, while others simply meandered through the woods until reaching various trail heads. Here and there, small circular disks in red, yellow, or blue were inconspicuously nailed to trees, marking the way for hikers following specific paths. They were easy to spot if you were looking for them, but people still became turned around if not careful. Face and Murdock had walked many of these, but tonight they stayed on an unmarked one that wove its way close to the lake, eventually doubling back to the cabin.
The coming dusk was more noticeable once they left the openness of the lake. The cover of the trees darkened the path, and they walked slowly, enjoying the calm that came with the approaching darkness. Pine needles muffled their steps, and except for a few birds busying themselves with the last of their daily activities, the stillness was undisturbed.
As they walked, they continued to hold hands, the solitude of the woods allowing them this small pleasure that was normally not possible. It was one of the things that Murdock knew he would miss most when they eventually left.
They were silent, Murdock content to let Face work up to what he had to say. In their two months here, Face had begun to be more open with Murdock, begun to trust, believing that Murdock would not leave when some dark piece of himself or perceived weakness slipped out. But Murdock knew not to take that still fragile openness for granted. Rushing or crowding Face into talking before he was ready was a sure way to push him away.
"There are fewer ducks on the pond now than there were before."
Murdock gave the hand he held a squeeze. Face was moving closer to what he needed to say. "Must be the geriatric ones have already left for Florida. You know, leisurely flight, land before dark, eat dinner in time for all those senior early bird specials."
Face nearly choked laughing.
"Did I quack you up, Face?"
This time, Face groaned. "That was bad, Murdock, very bad."
"Yes, I suppose it was. But who's worse, the one who said it or the one who laughed?"
They were nearing the end of the trail, the trees thinning a little as the path opened up to the spot where the cabin stood. Some of the darkness receded as they entered the clearing, the colors of sunset more prominent now that they were out from under the cover of the trees. Climbing the stairs to the cabin slowly, Face paused at the top, turning to look out over the lake. Murdock stopped with him, allowing Face to draw him down until they sat together on the top stair.
"Murdock," Face began hesitantly, breaking the silence that stretched between them, "being here, it's the closest I've ever felt to having a home." He kept his eyes fixed on the changing hues in the sky above the lake. Brilliant oranges and reds softening slowly to ambers and pinks. "I'm not sure that I want to go back."
Murdock rubbed the back of Face's hand with his thumb. "I meant what I said before, Face. We can stay. We don't have to go back."
Face nodded. "I know you meant it. It's just, I'm not sure if I want to stay here because it feels right, or because, maybe," there was a pause, "maybe I'm hiding."
As he had done earlier, Murdock put his arm around Face's shoulders. "What do you think you're hiding from?" he guided gently. He could feel more than hear the sigh that Face let out.
"I don't know. Everything, maybe. Responsibility, obligation…" another pause, this time much longer, "life."
For a while, there was no sound. Even the frogs and insects had hushed their chorus, the transition from light to dark bringing a momentary peace to the woods.
"No one gets hurt because of the decisions I make here. And we can be together all the time. No VA, no jobs, no public opinion. I'm not sure that I want to go back to all that." Face ducked his head, hiding his eyes from Murdock. "To being alone."
Murdock held Face a little tighter, and tenderly lifted Face's chin so that their eyes met. He searched the blue eyes. They should be hard, bitter, Murdock thought, with all the bad that has forced itself into Face's life. But they weren't. Right now, those eyes were young and vulnerable, unsure.
"No matter what, darlin', you'll never be alone. And I can't promise that no one will ever get hurt again, but I do know that a lot of people owe their lives to some of the decisions you've made." Murdock stopped for a moment, giving his words a chance to sink in. "But I know it's hard, Face. Real hard. It isn't always nice out there. God knows that if anyone deserves to get away from it all, it's you. Whatever you want to do, you know that I'm with you."
Face held Murdock's gaze for a few seconds longer before turning his eyes away. He stood and moved to lean against the porch rail, looking but not seeing the last vestiges of sunset. "Maybe I'm hoping," he said quietly, his voice barely carrying to where Murdock still sat, "that I won't catch up with myself here."
Murdock knew what Face meant, and his heart ached at both the admission and the impossibility of the hope. He rose and stood behind Face, wrapping his arms around him and holding him securely. Murdock couldn't keep Face's demons at bay, but he could be there to help fight them, and help Face learn to cope with them. "Facey, you can't run from yourself. I've tried that, and look at what it cost me. You spend so much time looking into the dark, that you never see what I do. You're beautiful, baby, you just have to learn to see that."
"Shhh, don't say it. You're not perfect; no one is. But I don't know another person who has been through what you have and still come out of it so willing to see the good in others, to help and give of himself so freely. You think too little of yourself, Face, and I don't like that."
Face's hands covered the ones holding him. It was nearly dark now, and the first of the stars were making an appearance in the sky. Soon, more would join them, a field of shimmering light against a black backdrop.
Murdock felt Face lean into the embrace. That's right, Facey, you think about that, even if you're not ready to believe it. Out loud, Murdock said, "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight… Make a wish, Facey. There's magic in that first star."
Face shook his head. "Don't need to. My most important one has already been answered." He turned, bringing his hand up to caress Murdock's cheek. "I love you." The kiss that followed was tender and slow, meant to convey feelings not easily put into words. "Do you think that the real world can wait for another few days?" Face asked, resting his cheek against Murdock's.
Murdock smiled. Decision made. "I think so, Facey." Keeping one hand around Face's waist, Murdock led him towards the door. "Follow me, my liege, for thy kingdom awaits."
Face followed him through the door of the cabin, stopping at the sight before him. Candles lined the mantle and small end tables in the room, their soft glow adding to the light from the fireplace. A quilt lay before the hearth, wine chilling near two glasses, their crystal glimmering with the reflected light.
"Dinner's still at least another hour away, but I thought we could start celebrating while we waited."
Face turned around to look at Murdock, whose brown eyes shone both with the light from the room and a warmth that came from inside. "What are we celebrating?"
"Your decision. When you kept to yourself so much today, I thought maybe you might be thinking about it."
Face still looked confused. "But how did you know, I didn't even, I mean, which way I would decide?"
Murdock laughed softly at Face's ramblings. "I told you, it didn't matter. I'd be with you whatever you decided. Stay or leave, we're celebrating being together." For the first time, Murdock could see that Face fully believed the words. "I love you, Facey, more than I even know how to tell you. If you're not sure about anything else, be sure of that."
"I know." Face wrapped his arms around Murdock. "I've never thanked you for all of this, Murdock. For bringing me here, for helping me, and for staying with me."
Murdock touched a finger to Face's lips. "No thank yous needed. And you've done the same for me. That's love, honeybun."
Face rolled his eyes. "Honeybun?"
"Yup, and sweetie-pie, sugar, baby cakes, angel face, stud muffin, my one and only."
"You're not going to break out into song, are you?"
"I could," Murdock teased, "unless you can find something better for my mouth to be doing." He batted his eyelashes, puckering his lips at the same time.
Face grinned. "But you said that dinner wouldn't be ready for…"
The rest of the words were lost as Murdock pressed his mouth to Face's. Lips already parted, the kiss deepened quickly, each pressing hard against the other, tongues and lips exploring and tasting until the need for air overtook them.
"Maybe I should add hot lips to that list." Murdock made a show of fanning himself.
"Maybe some wine would cool you down."
"Or maybe," Murdock reached his hands behind Face, "we can find out what other names might apply." He squeezed Face's bottom. "I'm thinking sweet cheeks might be a good one. Mind if I find out?"
Face opened his eyes wide. "What, and besmirch my honor?"
"It's been tarnished already, honey child, unless you've forgotten what you did to me last night."
Murdock laughed when he saw the blush creeping over Face. "I see that you haven't."
He pulled Face closer to him. Light danced softly around the room, patterns of shadow changing with the flickering glow. This was all Murdock needed, and had Face wanted to stay, Murdock would have been content. He let his thumb trace the line of Face's jaw, ending at slightly parted lips. This time, he kissed them lightly, tenderly, before whispering, "Let me show you how much I love you."
With care that belied his need, Murdock ran his hands along Face's sides, drawing both Face's sweatshirt and T-shirt up slowly. Face raised his arms as Murdock slid the shirts off of him. Murdock's mouth captured the space where neck met shoulder, sucking and nibbling gently, moving as the neck arched, exposing itself. Light kisses followed the line of the shoulder, then moved downwards, seeking out a nipple, teasing, drawing it in until he heard Face's breath quicken, felt him sway slightly.
He felt himself harden at Face's response, but ignored it, turning his attention instead to the other nipple as his hands found the button of Face's pants. His mouth worked as his hands unfastened and then unzipped the jeans, then he slowly knelt, pulling the pants down with him, never letting his lips lose contact with Face. They trailed from chest to stomach, stopping only when the met the waistband of the cotton briefs.
Murdock felt Face's hands grasp his shoulders and he glanced up; saw the closed eyes, the lowered head. He smiled to himself, then nipped oh so gently at the growing bulge behind the white fabric. Face jerked, a cry escaping him, and Murdock rose, steadied him, until Face's eyes opened.
"Need to get those shoes off, darlin'."
Face nodded, and Murdock knelt again as Face raised a leg, steadying himself by placing a hand on Murdock's back. What should have been awkward wasn't. Murdock loosened the lace of Face's sneaker slowly, slipping the shoe off and then the pants leg. He ran his hand along Face's foot as he slid the sock off of him, felt the slight tremor the touch caused. The actions were repeated with the other leg, until only one piece of clothing was left.
Murdock's hand teased the fabric, rubbing against it, squeezing slightly, but making no move to remove it.
"Murdock, please…" Face stared down at him, eyes dark, lids heavy.
"Saving the best for last, Facey."
Face reached out then, pulling Murdock to his feet. He pressed him close, letting his hips grind against Murdock's, knowing that Murdock wasn't as calm as he pretended to be. "Care to join me?" Face's was already sliding Murdock's jacket off. He kissed him once, hard, letting his hand run through the fine wisps of brown hair.
"Since you asked so nicely," Murdock said, quickly pulling off his T-shirt. As he undressed, he watched as Face shimmied out of his briefs, and he smiled at the sight. "You're beautiful."
Face rested his hand on Murdock's chest. "So are you. Perfect."
"There's a perfectly good quilt just waiting for us, Facey. Ready?" Murdock raised his eyebrows, his hand teasing Face's erection.
"Quilt, yes," Face gasped, as Murdock squeezed gently.
Murdock took Face's hand, guiding him to the spot in front of the fireplace. He eased Face down, straddling him, stopping to admire Face in the muted light of the room. Both were more than ready, but Murdock still took his time. Reaching back to the couch, he grabbed the throw pillows that lay there; arranging them under Face, Face raising his hips to help. They kissed again, hands rubbing against exposed flesh, soft moans and whispered endearments mingling with the quiet sounds from the nearby fire.
He prepared Face slowly, wanting to draw things out, letting Face watch as he first opened the lube that he had placed nearby and then as he spread it slowly across his fingers. He slid the first finger slowly into Face, adding more until Face's eyes had shut, and his head was rolling slowly back and forth, his body twisting, ready for more.
"Help me, Facey."
Face opened his eyes, taking the offered lube, using as much care in spreading it on Murdock's erection as his lover had taken preparing him, enjoying the gasps and tremors his touch brought. He let Murdock's cock slip slowly through his hand, his finger circling the tip before finally releasing it. "Ready. Now, please."
Murdock did not need to be asked twice. He gripped Face's hips, slid carefully in, trying to do it slowly even as Face thrust his hips forward to meet him. He held on tighter, keeping Face from moving, holding himself inside until he felt Face tighten around him, forcing a groan from him. He began to move, thrusting harder as Face's moans increased. They moved together, their motions fluid. Murdock's hand gripped Face's cock, found the same rhythm.
He felt Face tense, and he slowed, trying to draw the moment out. It could never last long enough. Then Face cried out, and his body jerked, the spasms bringing on Murdock's own orgasm.
Murdock slid out gently, lowering himself to lie next to Face. They held each other, small caresses working to calm one another.
Maybe the real world could wait another week.
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