Author's Note: I don't often publish Slash fics, because I find it very difficult to create something that other people will enjoy. First, there's the knotty problem of who should be sleeping with whom (not that there's any question in my mind!). Then there's the problem of tone—one person's romance is another person's saccharine drivel, while one person's erotica is another person's smut. And that completely ignores the fact that I'm a straight woman who really knows nothing about how two men would conduct a sexual relationship, which means this is all guesswork, anyway.
So, why am I publishing this Slash fic? Because I love Face and Murdock together—whether or not they get as far as the bedroom—and I had a blast writing this. I also think it has some nice team dynamics in it, entirely aside from the slashy bits. I've tried to keep it clean. No acrobatics, anatomy lessons or bodily fluids. Hopefully this will allow non-slash fans to read it without cringing. If not, I'll understand.
Part 1: Somewhere in the South Pacific
Face lounged back in a deck chair, eyes closed, feet buried in the hot sand, soaking in the rays of the sun. He wore nothing but light, linen, drawstring trousers and a pair of sunglasses. In his right hand, he held a glass balanced on the arm of the chair and every now and then, he'd take a sip of its contents. Otherwise, he remained so still and quiet that he might have been asleep.
Murdock stepped out of the shade of the beach bar with a fresh drink in his hand and slogged across the loose sand to approach his friend. Face gave no sign that he heard, but this did not surprise the captain. He circled the seated man and paused for a moment to study him, his own features unusually somber.
At first glance, Face appeared exactly as he should. A man at the peak of his strength and ability, snatching a moment of rest between demanding missions. But to Murdock's knowing eyes, the first glance lied. It was the second glance, and the third that told the truth. They revealed the thinness of his torso beneath the tan, the lines of illness in his face and the exhaustion that seemed to press him into his chair until he deflated under its weight.
The Face Murdock knew so well was never still, never quiet for more than a minute at a stretch, unless he was so drained by injuries that he had no choice. And even then, his natural energy always rebounded before the wounds had fully closed. Doctors across every continent had tried to keep Faceman in a hospital bed long enough to heal. Tried and failed. The last time Murdock had seen him sit calmly and sunbathe like this had been in Iraq, and he'd been quite literally tied to the chair by an IV tube. But even then, he'd been full of jokes and laughter, ready to engage his teammates in any kind of fun that didn't involve actually standing up.
This Faceman, the one lying so passively under the baking sun, was a creature that Murdock barely recognized. He sat for hours at a time without speaking, ate only under extreme duress, and rejected all offers of social contact or recreation. He slept far more than was normal for him, but not peacefully, and gained little rest or strength from it. And worst of all, from Murdock's point of view, the fire and fun had gone out of him.
Murdock watched him now, hoping for some flash of humor or life, but Face didn't move. After a moment of dour contemplation, the pilot started walking again and padded up to his friend.
Face turned his head to orient his hidden gaze on the the other man. A smile quirked one corner of his mouth. "Hey."
"That drink's all warm and watered down. I brought you a fresh one." Without waiting for agreement from Face, he plucked the half-empty glass from between his fingers and settled the new one in its place.
"You about ready for lunch?"
Face gave a nearly undetectable sigh and let his head roll to the side. "I'm not hungry."
"You eat something and I'll put a shot of vodka in that glass with the tonic."
Face almost chuckled, but the effort proved too much for him and the laughter died before it got started. His voice was nearly soundless when he replied, "Tonic water is good."
"C'mon, Face, you gotta move."
"Well, you're gonna get skin cancer, for starters."
"I haven't been out here that long."
"All morning," Murdock retorted. "Since you didn't eat breakfast."
"At least move into the shade."
Face turned to look at him again, his expression thoughtful and unexpectedly soft beneath the weariness. "Don't worry about me so much, buddy."
"I can't help it," Murdock mumbled. Folding himself down onto the sand, he propped his elbows on his knees and gazed mournfully up at his friend. "You almost died."
"I almost die a lot."
"Not like this. You really scared me."
Face studied him for a long moment, then said with a hint of surprise in his voice, "I can see that. But it's over. I didn't die and there's nothing to be scared of, now."
"I can't stop thinking about it." Murdock swallowed painfully and went on in a hollow tone, "I see you in that hospital, with a tube down your throat, not moving, not opening your eyes, not hearing me when I talk to you…"
"I don't remember that part."
"You wouldn't, but I do. Every minute of it. It was hell." Murdock gazed up at him with complete adoration and sincerity in his normally loony eyes. "I can't survive without you, Face. You're the only thing that matters to me. As long as I have you, I'm okay. But if I lose you…" He swallowed again, more painfully, and rasped out, "I'll go crazy. Or die. Either way, it won't matter, because I won't have you to look after anymore."
"Look after?" Face's eyebrows scaled up again, and it looked as if he were about to protest. But then his expression warmed into a real smile and he said, quietly, "I guess that is what you do."
"It's what I live for." Murdock pushed himself to his feet. "And since we agree that it's my job to look after you, can we also agree that you should listen to me?"
"Lunch. And shade."
"I'm not hungry, but I'll go back to the room if it'll make you happy."
"It's a start. Here, lemme give you a hand."
He stooped to clasp Face's arm and hoisted him easily to his feet. If he reflected that his friend was far too light and fragile-seeming, he kept it to himself, and they started up the beach toward the hotel in companionable silence. Murdock stayed protectively at Face's side, ready to catch him if he stumbled, though Face was perfectly capable of managing the short walk on his own. Face said nothing about his tendency to hover and even smiled his thanks when Murdock grabbed his arm to steady him as he staggered slightly on the uneven sand.
Together, they crossed a courtyard lush with palm trees, fountains, flowering bushes and exotic birds. The wildlife and moving water spilled into the hotel lobby, filling the cool space with rustling, splashing and birdsong that followed the two men as they made their way into the elevator. Two minutes later, they stepped into their suite on an upper floor of the hotel.
Face moved directly through the sitting room to the balcony that overlooked the beach and vast expanse of crystal-blue ocean beyond. There, he settled into a lounge chair with a nearly undetectable sigh of relief, tilted his head back, and fell into the identical posture he had assumed down on the beach. In a moment, he was completely inert.
He didn't move or speak again, until Murdock ushered in a waiter to set up lunch on the table at his elbow. Then he cracked open his eyes to give his friend a sour look that Murdock met with supreme unconcern. The waiter sped on his way, the pilot plunked down across the table from Face and began loading up a plate for himself. He made various observations about the quality of the food, warned Face that there would be nothing left if he didn't hurry, and tucked into his meal with relish. Face ignored him, until Murdock finally abandoned the soft sell for a more direct attack.
"Eat something, Face, or I'm gonna have to call Bosco."
That got a response from Face, who once again cast his friend a look from beneath his lashes and murmured, "I'm quaking in my boots."
"You should be."
"What's Bosco going to do?"
"Fly out here and force-feed you."
Face gave a soft grunt of laughter. "Right."
"He will. He told me so. He said you were wasting away to skin and bones, and if I let you starve, he'd make me sorry."
"So you're the one who should be quaking in his boots right now."
"No, 'cause I told 'im, I can't make you eat if you don't want to, and he said maybe I couldn't, but he could, and if you gave me any trouble, I should call 'im."
Face opened his eyes fully and turned his head to contemplate the other man. "You didn't really discuss my eating habits with Bosco."
"I did. And with Hannibal. And with the doctor before we left the hospital. And with that pretty nurse—the one you liked with the pink streak in her hair."
"They're all as worried about you as I am."
"They couldn't possibly be. No sane person could worry as spectacularly as you do."
"If you start eating, I'll stop worrying."
Face sighed and straightened up in his chair. Turning to contemplate the feast laid out for his benefit, he got a distinctly queasy look on his face. "The things I do for your sanity…"
"You're not gonna make me feel guilty for not letting you starve yourself."
"I'm not trying to starve myself. I just…" He looked at the nearest platter with its decorative array of filleted fish and shuddered slightly. "It hurts."
"I know," Murdock's tone was soft with understanding, "but you've gotta eat."
Face shuddered again and picked up a slice of yellow fruit. He regarded it sourly for a moment, then braced himself and took a bite.
"Thank you," Murdock said, still in that soft tone. "The white fish is really mild. Try some of that."
The decision made, Face abandoned all resistance and did as he was told. He let Murdock pick out the dishes that would be least likely to upset his delicate digestion, accepted whatever the pilot put in front of him, and ate without comment or enthusiasm. He was slowly working his way through a slice of bread, more to keep his hands busy and ward off Murdock's attempts to cram more fish and fruit down his throat than because he wanted it, when he suddenly picked up the conversational thread he had dropped down on the beach.
"There is, actually, one thing I remember from the hospital."
"Huh?" Murdock's head came up with a start. "What's that?"
"Waking up with that tube in my throat." He hesitated, staring down at the bread in his hand but clearly not seeing it. "I remember… It hurt like hell. I was desperate to get it out, but I couldn't make them understand. Then I heard you voice, and I knew you'd fix it. I knew you wouldn't leave me there, like that."
He swallowed painfully, then finished in a rough murmur, "You got the tube out, then you held me, sitting up so I could breathe."
Murdock didn't answer for a long moment. He just stared at Face's bent head, wondering what had inspired him to bring this up. Then he murmured, "I didn't think you remembered any of that."
"Only little flashes, but enough." He lifted his head to gaze at Murdock and a slight, reminiscent smile drifted across his face. "I also remember you telling me about our cover. Later, when I was really awake."
"It was a new angle. Hannibal's idea. I had to be sure you wouldn't blow it by slugging me, or something."
"Yeah, blame it on the old man," Face teased gently.
"Well, it worked," Murdock retorted, his face heating with embarrassment. "They let me stay with you."
"And all you had to do was pretend to be my husband."
"That wasn't hard."
"No." Face looked at him directly for another moment, then abruptly dropped his eyes and abandoned his needling tone. "It was nice, having you there all the time, hearing your voice, knowing I wasn't alone."
Face carefully didn't mention the other things Murdock had done to sell their cover and the pilot didn't have the nerve to mention them himself. The caresses. The murmured endearments. The kisses dropped on his forehead and lips. The body stretched out beside his in the bed so he could sleep soundly in the shelter of trusted arms. Murdock had done all of this willingly, happily, sorry only that he had no excuse to continue when they left the hospital. He couldn't tell his best friend that he would gladly lean across the table right now and brush a kiss on his faintly-smiling lips. Or take his drained body in his arms and carry him into his room. Or climb into his bed, take him in his arms, and hold him while he slept.
He would do these things and more. So much more. If only Face knew what he truly felt and returned some small portion of those feelings. But the cover story that had allowed Murdock to live his most cherished dream had been only a means of survival for Face. Another con. Another lie spun to fool a mark. It was over and he could smile about it, tease the pilot a little, chuckle over how they had snuggled up like lovers under the eyes of unsuspecting doctors and nurses. For Face, it was over. For Murdock, it was the beginning of a whole new kind of torture.
Before the pilot could master himself and sort out his current snarl of emotions, Face spoke again, his voice now low and earnest, no trace of humor in it. "I was scared, too, Murdock. I needed you there. I wouldn't've made it through without you."
"You know I'd do anything for you, Face." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
Murdock could tell by the tone of his voice that he hadn't understood the full depth and breadth of that promise, or was not willing to admit that he did. On a sudden, rash impulse, the pilot abandoned the emotional armor that he had built up over a decade and said the first words that came into his head.
"I wasn't pretending." Face's head came up sharply and Murdock met his startled gaze. "At the hospital, when I acted the way I did, it wasn't to sell our cover."
"What do you mean?"
"I did what felt right, what I thought you needed and… and what I wanted to do. That's all." He turned away, breaking the electric connection of their shared gaze, and abruptly pushed back his chair. "I gotta get out of here. I'm going for a swim."
He lurched to his feet and headed for the glass door, ignoring Face's protest and the hand he lifted toward him. He reached the threshold and paused with one hand on the doorjamb. "Will you be okay on your own for a while?" he asked in a muffled voice.
"No." He hunched his shoulders defensively but did not turn to face the other man. "Leave it, buddy. Just… leave it."
With that, Murdock stepped through the door and let the gauzy drape fall closed behind him. He crossed the sitting room, grabbing a room key, a pair of sunglasses and a beach towel on his way, then plowed through the outer door without breaking stride. Down the elevator, across the lobby and through the courtyard he went. He stripped down to his swim trunks as he strode down the beach, dropped all his belongings in a heap on the sand, and hit the water at a run. Then, with one long, smooth dive, he plunged into the lagoon and began to swim.
Flashback: Two months earlier
"Fire in the hole!"
The door blew apart with a satisfying bang and Murdock was through the hole before the debris began to settle. He ignored the men stumbling and swearing in the smoke, leaving them to his teammates, all his attention fixed on the familiar figure on the far side of the room. Hannibal and Bosco would round up the Bad Guys. Murdock's job was to find Faceman before he got himself into some outrageous sort of trouble—the kind of trouble that Face specialized in.
Face sat in a metal chair with a goon looming over him. The goon held a fistful of his hair in one hand and a metal canteen in the other, with the neck of the canteen jammed between His teeth. The explosion had clearly caught him in the middle of forcing its contents down his prisoner's throat, because he was staring back over his shoulder at the chaos of smoke and stumbling men, while Face spluttered and coughed and tried to wrench his head free of the other man's grasp.
"Face!" Murdock shouted.
At his cry, the goon swore, dropped the canteen, and snatched a handgun from his belt. He screwed the barrel into Face's temple and growled, "Not another step!"
Murdock halted, but his attention was all on his teammate, not on the weapon threatening him or the man holding it. "You okay, buddy?"
Face couldn't get enough oxygen to answer him, but he nodded slightly as he gave another harsh, burbling cough.
"You move and I'll blow his brains out!" the goon snarled.
Murdock exchanged an exasperated look with Face. Then, with a casual, almost disdainful gesture, he lifted his rifle and put a bullet through the goon's head. He was moving again before the body hit the floor, sprinting over to where his friend sat and dropping to a crouch in front of him.
"What was that guy trying to do? Drown you?" he asked, as he tugged fruitlessly at the plastic zip-strips that bound Face's ankles to the chair legs.
"Who the hell knows?" Face rasped out, giving one more cough, then sucking in a long, grateful breath. He noticed the pilot wrenching at his bonds and remarked, "Forget it, Murdock, you'd do better trying to chew through those things."
"Hang on, I'll just…"
"Get outta the way, Crazy Fool!" Bosco came loping over to them, a huge Bowie knife in his hand. "Lemme do that!"
Murdock stepped back to let the big corporal work and took a moment to assess Face's condition. HIs friend had lost his footwear, along with most of the buttons on his shirt. His face was decorated with vivid bruises, and he had the beginnings of a spectacular shiner. But his eyes were sparkling with all their usual, manic delight, and his smile was bright enough to blind the unwary. In short, he looked exactly as he always did in such situations, which meant that his faithful wingman could relax.
Bosco hacked through his bonds with ridiculous ease, freeing first his wrists, then each of his ankles. Face rubbed one wrist to get his blood circulating again and said, with a glinting smile, "Thanks, Bosco. What d'ya say we blow this popsicle stand?"
The corporal lifted a little, black box in his free hand and grinned. "I gotcha covered, man. Ready to go up like the Fourth of July."
With that, Bosco hoisted Face to his feet, Murdock tossed him an M4, and the three men headed for the door together. Hannibal met them just inside the room, a canary-fed smile on his face. "Nice to see you in one piece, kid."
"Nice to see you, period," Face retorted.
The team fell into position around their commander, weapons at the ready, and started for the exit. They made it out of the compound without running afoul of any more goons and clambered up a wooded hillside toward the road where they'd left the van. Halfway up the hill, Hannibal halted them with a raised hand and nodded at B.A.
"Do it, Big Man."
B.A. pulled the little detonator from his pocket and waited for his teammates to take cover behind convenient trees. Then he growled, "Fire in the hole!" and pushed the button.
There was a minuscule pause—a breathless moment of stillness—then a deep, bass rumble. The men instinctively ducked, as the ground beneath them trembled and heat washed over them. Face peered around his protective tree trunk, eyes narrowed against the billowing cloud of dust and smoke, to see the crater that had been Coleman's headquarters, now full of rubble and the burning skeletons of vehicles. When the ground stopped moving beneath his feet, he straightened up and stepped out from behind the tree.
"Nice work, Bosco!"
"Thanks, man. Hey, what happened to your boots?"
Face laughed. "It was the damnedest thing! I left 'em outside the door last night for the valet, and he never brought 'em back!"
"I hope you didn't leave him a tip," Hannibal retorted, "but there's no point going back for 'em now."
"We got your duffle in the van," B.A. assured him. "There's boots and socks in there, if you remembered to pack 'em."
"No worries." Face turned to start up the hill again but hesitated, one hand on the tree for support, a slight frown pulling his brows together.
"Face?" Murdock stopped beside him and put a hand on his back. He could feel the effort it cost the other man to draw in a breath. "You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. Just gimme a minute."
"What was in that canteen, anyway?"
Face just shook his head.
"Is there a problem, Captain?" Hannibal called from a dozen yards ahead.
"Something's wrong with Face."
"No, I'm fine." Face pushed himself away from the tree and started up the hill toward his commander. "I just forgot that I don't have gills, for a minute there."
He reached Hannibal and passed him without breaking stride. His teammates—all intimately acquainted with Face's utter disregard for his own skin—knew better than to accept his assurances at face value. But they also knew better than to fret over a few bruises or to force their concern on a man who had no patience with it. So they watched him long enough to be sure that he wasn't about to drop in his tracks, then shrugged off any lingering doubts and got back to the job at hand.
Bosco reached the roadway first, with Hannibal on his heels. They were stripping the camouflage netting from the truck when Murdock stepped through a screen of brush onto level ground and paused to look around.
"He was right behind me," Hannibal said, as he gathered up an armload of netting and greenery. "Maybe he got held up? Stepped on something?"
"Rough ground for bare feet," Bosco agreed.
Murdock peered back down the hillside into the shadows of the trees. The moment his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he spotted his teammate few yards away, clutching a tree trunk for balance and doubled over in pain.
"Face!" The other man glanced up, giving Murdock a clear look at his face, and the pilot felt a jolt of panic go through him. He began running down the hill toward his teammate, calling, "Hang on! I'm coming!"
Face made no answer, just clung to the tree, breathing hard. Murdock was still just out of reach when Face made an ugly gagging sound and vomited. Suddenly to Murdock's horrified eyes, it seemed as if the entire scene was painted with blood. Thick, clotted, an evil red-black—it splattered Face's clothing and feet, the tree, the leaves he stood on, even Murdock's own pant legs. And as the pilot slid to a halt beside him, Face groaned, retched, and sent still more blood spurting from his mouth.
"What the hell's going on, Captain?!" Hannibal shouted from above.
Murdock ignored him and reached to grab his friend. He looped an arm around Face's waist to support him and flinched as he felt yet another violent spasm contract his ribcage.
"Oh, man," the pilot moaned. "Hang on, buddy!"
He was trying to sound reassuring, but Murdock was only a breath away from total panic. Luckily for both of them, Hannibal arrived at that moment and took control of the situation. Ducking under Face's outstretched arm, the colonel broke his grip on the tree and took his weight on his shoulders.
"Get him up!" he snapped at Murdock. "Hurry!"
Murdock pulled Face's other arm across his shoulders and helped Hannibal drag him up the hillside. Bosco met them at the edge of the road. Ignoring the other man's blood-spattered state, he hoisted Face unceremoniously in his massive arms and carried him to the van. Murdock clambered in ahead of Face and took him out of B.A.'s arms.
Face collapsed onto the back seat, his head in Murdock's lap, and gasped, "Jesus, Murdock… what…" Before he could finish that sentence, his diaphragm contracted painfully, sending a gush of blood and poison across both men, the seat and the floor. It was a measure of Bosco's concern that he made no protest at Face befouling his beloved van, just climbed into the driver's seat and fired up the engine, his expression dark with rage and fear.
"Get us to the nearest hospital, Big Guy," Hannibal growled.
They peeled out, sending leaves and gravel spurting from beneath the tires, and headed for the highway. Hannibal spun his seat around to face the men in the back, and the eyes he fixed on his XO were bleak. Murdock hunched over Face, one hand stroking the hair back from his forehead while the other clasped his shoulder and tried to steady him. Face struggled to breathe around the paroxysms that shook him and the blood in his throat, his entire body shaking with the effort.
"Just hang on, kid. We're only a couple of miles out of town. We'll be there soon."
"Nnnngh…" Face gritted his teeth against another spasm and turned his head, looking for Murdock. "Mmm… Murd-nnngh!"
"I'm right here, buddy," Murdock crooned, his hand still petting Face's hair in a vain attempt at comfort, "You're okay. It's gonna be okay."
"C-can't b… b-mmm!" Face's body heaved and blood spurted from his mouth, cutting off his words and painting Murdock's shirt a vivid crimson. Coughing and gasping to clear his throat, Face tried again. "Can't br… breathe…"
Hannibal reacted instantly, grabbing Face's arm and pulling him upright. "Get him up. Clear his mouth."
"Nngh!" Face protested. He sagged forward, over Murdock's supporting arm, and gasped, "Can't… throat. My throat…"
"Oh, Jesus," Murdock whimpered, tears starting in his eyes as Face took a painful, wheezing breath.
"Faster, B.A.!" Hannibal shouted. "Move!"
Bosco pushed his foot to the floor and leaned his hand on the horn, trying to clear the traffic from in front of him. "What's goin' on?" he demanded, shooting one glance at the rearview mirror before fixing his eyes on the road again.
"His throat's closing up," Hannibal ground out.
"What about the blood?" Bosco protested. "Where's all that blood comin' from?"
"Just drive!" Hannibal snapped. He slid out of his seat and landed on his knees beside Face, trying to hold him up while he thrashed and struggled for air.
Murdock still held him, keeping him upright, and Face instinctively reached for him in his panic. He twisted away from Hannibal, falling back against Murdock's supporting arm, and grabbed his jacket in one desperate, blood-smeared fist. His eyes fixed on the pilot's face, wide and glazed with panic, begging for help when he couldn't get enough air to voice his pleas, and dragging a cry of pure agony from Murdock.
"Breathe, Face! Please!" he howled.
Face's lips moved, forming his friend's name, and he managed one more ragged, wheezing, agonized breath, then his chest fell still.
"No! Nooooo! Breathe, Face! You gotta breathe!"
"Shit!" Bosco swore, as he wrenched at the steering wheel to take a corner on two wheels, one hand still leaning on the horn.
"He's not breathing!" Murdock sobbed.
Face was still staring at Murdock, but his eyes were going blank and his lips turning blue. His grip on the pilot's leather jacket went slack, fingers sliding on blood, and his hand dropped to his midriff.
"No! No!" Murdock howled, clutching Face's inert body to his own and rocking in helpless misery. "You gotta breathe, Face! You gotta try!"
"We're here!" Bosco bellowed, cutting through the sound of Murdock's agony and bringing Hannibal up off the floor in a bound.
The colonel had the side door open in a split second and was out on the pavement, shouting, "Help! I need help!"
A swarm of people suddenly descended on the van. Hannibal quickly picked out the doctor in the group and shoved him toward the open door, barking, "In the truck! He isn't breathing! Hurry!"
In seconds, they had Face out of the vehicle and on a gurney, the doctor bending over him, snapping orders that sent his underlings running. Murdock followed him out onto the pavement, then trailed after the gurney as the mob in medical scrubs swept it toward the building. It was like some swirling, blood-spattered nightmare. In all the years he'd spent as a member of the A-Team, pulling Face out of one crisis after another, Murdock had never experienced anything close to this.
Face lay like a dead thing on the gurney, his chest terrifyingly still and his lips blue, while the doctor fired questions at Hannibal until Murdock wanted to scream with frustration. Then, miraculously, they had a tube down Face's throat and oxygen flowing into his body again. His chest was rising and falling rhythmically. The chill, blue, corpse-like color was leaving his face. But just when Murdock should have been able to relax, to a take Face's hand and walk beside him into the hospital, ready to greet him when he opened his eyes and assure him that everything was going to be fine, he abruptly realized that a sturdy figure was blocking his path. He backpedalled and peered around the large nurse to see the doctor escorting Face's stretcher down a wide hallway toward an inner door. And something inside him snapped.
"Get outta my way! Get…" He tried to duck around the other man, calling desperately, "No! Wait! Let me go with him!" The big nurse put a hand on his arm, and he pulled sharply away, howling in distress as the distance between him and his dying friend widened. "Get your hands off me! Where are you taking him?!"
"Calm down, sir. You have to calm d…"
"Get out of my way!"
"I'll have to call Security, if you don't calm down."
Hannibal's hand closed on Murdock's arm, trying to steady him and send a warning at the same time. "You don't need Security. He just wants to stay with Jack."
Murdock had just enough presence of mind to recognize Jack as the name on one of the dozen the fake IDs that Face kept in the van for just such an emergency. Jack Taylor. That's who he was, this time. Murdock had to remember that, even if his brain was melting down and his world was disintegrating.
"You'll all have to wait out here. Only immediate family in the exam area," the nurse objected.
"He is family." The hand on Murdock's arm tightened. "He's Jack's husband."
For a beat, no one reacted. Murdock fought not to betray his surprise, while the nurse looked from him to Hannibal and back again. Then, abruptly, the man nodded and gestured for Murdock to follow him. Shooting a look overflowing with gratitude at the colonel, Murdock bolted down the corridor and disappeared through the inner door.
After the chaos of the ER, the tiny hospital room seemed eerily quiet. A monitor beeped softly. A respirator made a rhythmic, hushing noise. But these muted sounds only seemed to deepen the silence in the room.
Murdock had been sitting on Face's bed, holding his hand and watching him sleep, for more than an hour when the door opened and his teammates slipped into the room. He glanced up briefly at their entrance but said nothing. His eyes followed Hannibal as he moved up to the other side of the bed, reading his distress in the tight, hard expression he wore, then let his gaze drop to his friend's lifeless face again.
"Any sign he's waking up?" Hannibal asked.
Murdock shook his head.
"The doctor won't tell us anything without your permission, so we haven't heard a word since they took him into the ER."
"There isn't much to tell," Murdock replied, still without shifting his eyes from the man in the bed. "They gave him a blood transfusion and pumped his stomach. Now we wait and see if the bleeding stops."
"Do they know what was in that bottle?"
"Had to be some kinda poison," B.A. rumbled from his place at the foot of the bed.
"Or something so caustic that it just stripped out his digestive tract," Murdock replied. "Coulda been battery acid, for all we know."
"What about his breathing?" Hannibal asked.
"Doc says he inhaled as much of the stuff as he swallowed, so his lungs are in the same shape as his stomach."
"Will they heal?
Murdock shrugged and Bosco muttered a curse.
"Don't know much, do they?" he growled.
"Give 'em some time."
"You're takin' this better'n I expected, Crazy Man."
"Am I?" Murdock glanced up at him, giving him a clear look at his eyes. Bosco flinched and Murdock dropped his gaze again. Then he kissed Face's bloodstained knuckles. "I'm doin' what I gotta do for Face."
"You always do, man," Bosco said gently.
"At least they can't make me leave," Murdock whispered, his free hand dropping to Face's head and stroking his hair. "This time, no one can make me leave."
Murdock returned to the suite at dusk, weary and sticky and covered with sand, to find Face asleep. The lieutenant had showered and dressed, then curled up on his bed and dropped off. He looked so young with his features relaxed in sleep, so innocent, and even more agonizingly beautiful than the day Murdock had first seen him and fallen hopelessly in love.
His hair tumbled loose over his forehead, and Murdock allowed himself the small liberty of smoothing it back in a light, loving gesture. Then he turned on his heel and hurried into his own bedroom before the ache in his chest overwhelmed him and he betrayed himself more thoroughly than he already had.
Half an hour later, Murdock padded into Face's room and sat down on the edge of the bed. Face did not appear to have moved since Murdock last saw him. He still lay with his face half buried in the pillow, one hand lying curled by his head, his mouth slightly open and his breathing light. The pilot would gladly have sat there all night, watching him, guarding his rest and soaking up the delight of being this close to him, but he didn't trust himself. Not after what had happened today. So, with an inward sigh, he reached out to shake his shoulder.
Face came awake reluctantly—yet another sign to Murdock's eyes that he was not quite himself. His lashes fluttered and his eyes fixed dazedly on the picture window and vista of ocean beyond. Then, sensing the presence at his back, he turned and peered over his shoulder.
"Hey, buddy," Murdock said.
"Hey." Face gazed at him with a wealth of contradictions in the look. He was still largely asleep, his bright, blue eyes clouded and unfocused. But even in that state, he managed to look worried, guarded, curious and hopeful, all at once. Slowly uncoiling to lie flat on the mattress, he fixed his troubled gaze on his friend and asked, "You okay?"
"Where'd you go?"
"For a swim out to the sandbar." Murdock started to reach for him, to touch his shoulder, but pulled back in time. "Let's go get something to eat. Have a nice meal."
Face did not move, just regarded him sadly. "Are you afraid to be alone with me, Murdock?"
"No." He hesitated, then amended, "Well, maybe a little."
"Are you afraid of what I'll say?"
"I'm more afraid of what I'll say. Or do." Murdock twitched uncomfortably and let his eyes slide away from his friend. "Can we just go out? Relax and have some fun? I can't take this conversation on an empty stomach."
"If that's what you want."
Murdock twitched again, then blurted out, "I want you to stop looking at me like that!"
"Like you're waiting for me to bite you or explode or something!"
"That's not what I'm waiting for." Face abruptly sat up and swung his feet to the floor. "Come on, let's go."
"You're not gonna fight me on this?" Murdock asked as he stood up and backed away from the bed.
"What's the point? You're hungry and you won't let up till I eat something. So let's get it over with."
"You haven't actually eaten any of that, have you?"
Face glanced up from his plate to find Murdock's soft, warm, slightly glassy eyes fixed on him.
They were seated in an open-air restaurant down on the beach, eating to the glow of a thousand tiny Christmas lights and the strains of classic rock covers played by a live band. Barefoot waiters in colorful sarongs wove among the wicker tables, while equally barefooted tourists danced and laughed and clinked their glasses together in endless toasts.
The pilot had polished off most of a rare steak and was working on his second margarita. Face, on the other hand, had eaten virtually nothing and sipped at a glass of water while the ice in his untouched drink melted and turned it an anemic shade of green. His steak was neatly cut into bite-sized pieces, none of which had found their way into his mouth, and his garlic mashed potatoes were sculpted into a mound that looked like it belonged in Close Encounters. He'd tried a piece of broccoli and was already regretting it, as his stomach cramped and churned in protest.
At Murdock's question, he smiled a touch wistfully and shook his head.
"Order something else."
"I don't want anything."
The pilot's eyes gleamed suspiciously and his voice cracked when he said, "What can I do, Face? How can I make this better?"
"You don't have to. Relax, buddy. You wanted to have some fun, so have some fun. What d'you want to do?"
Murdock looked around at all the smiling tourists and said, "Dance."
Face's eyes followed his and narrowed in laughter. "Good luck finding a single woman under the age of eighty."
"I don't want a single woman. I want you." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He flushed a painful red that was mercifully invisible in the dim light but refused to back down. "Dance with me, Face."
Face laughed awkwardly and retorted, "I haven't had enough to drink for that."
"You haven't had anything to drink, but I have, and I want to dance with you."
"You don't have to mean it. Just pretend, like we did in the hospital."
"I thought you weren't pretending." Face's voice was soft but serious, his gaze direct, the challenge in his words clear enough to cut through the alcohol haze clouding Murdock's brain.
"I wasn't," he replied in the same earnest tone Face had used.
"Then, what are you doing?"
The pilot seemed to wilt before his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. Talk to me. What's going on with you?"
"Nothin'. Let's go…"
He looked around helplessly and Face cut in to demand, "Where? Where will you hide from me next?"
"I don't want to hide from you. I want…"
"Come on. We need to talk." Face dropped his napkin in his full plate and pushed back his chair.
"No! Please!" Murdock held out a hand to stop him, then pulled it into his lap and knotted his fingers together. "That's… not a good idea."
"Don't you trust yourself? After all these years?" Face stood up and bent over him to say, quietly, "I trust you, Murdock."
"You wouldn't, if you knew what was going through my mind right now."
"I think I do." He straightened up and started through the tables toward the bare stretch of sand and the moonlit ocean beyond. "And I'm willing to risk it."
Murdock watched him stride out of the restaurant and onto the beach, then he scrambled up to follow. Leaving a handful of bills on the table, he paused long enough to gulp down the last of his drink, before sidling out of the crowded restaurant. He found Faceman standing at the waterline, his bare feet buried in damp sand, his hands shoved into his pockets and his eyes on the diamond-flecked water.
Murdock stepped up beside Face and shoved his hands in his pockets, unconsciously mimicking his posture. After a moment of companionable silence, the pilot said, very softly, "I want to kiss you right now."
"Please don't." Face's tone had no distaste or anger in it, just a touch of sadness.
"I won't. I just thought you should know."
For the first time, they turned their eyes from the oceanscape and looked at each other. "You never wanted me to know before," Face pointed out.
"But you knew, anyway, didn't you?"
"Sort of. Maybe." Face turned his gaze back to the ocean and mused, "I guess I always knew how you felt, but I didn't have to think about it because you kept it to yourself. I could… pretend we were friends."
"We were! We are. That can't ever change, Face, no matter what."
"You're the one who's afraid to be alone with me."
"I'll get over it."
"I'm not sure you will." His piercing, blue gaze found Murdock once again. "Something's changed, and it's not my eating habits. Before this last mission, you would never have said any of this to me."
"I wanted to. Jesus, how I wanted to! But I was afraid I'd ruin everything between us if I opened my fat mouth."
"So, why did you finally do it? Open your fat mouth, I mean?"
"I couldn't help myself. The words just came out before I could stop them, and then I thought… I thought, there's no point in fighting it any longer. I'd let the cat outta the bag, and it wasn't going back in, no matter how hard I pushed…"
"You still haven't told me why," Face murmured.
Murdock shook his head. "I'm not exactly sure. It has something to do with this last mission, with you nearly dying and me finally getting to do all the things I… I wanted so badly…" He ducked his head and looked away, blinking hard to control his sudden, stinging tears. "They didn't just let me touch you like that, they expected it. They looked at me like I was the grieving spouse, desperately hanging onto the person he loved best in all the world, and it wasn't a lie, it was true! I was so scared you were gonna die and leave me. I thought I'd die, too, just so I could stay with you. Then you woke up, and you looked at me, and I saw… I saw…"
"How glad I was to see you."
"Yeah. Something inside me broke when you looked at me like that. The thing that kept all my feelings in check, so you didn't have to deal with them, it just snapped. And for a few weeks, while you were stuck in that hospital and I was playing your husband, everything was perfect."
Face gave a choke of startled laughter and Murdock smiled wryly in answer.
"Not the part about you being so sick. That was awful. But the part where I slept in your bed and held you all night. And the part where I kissed you and called you my baby and stroked your hair to calm you when the pain got too bad to bear. I got to love you, Face, just the way I'd always wanted to, and it was good for you, too. It kept you alive and fighting."
"I know it did."
"So that's how we got here, if it makes any kinda sense."
"It does. The question is, what do we do now?"
"I dunno," Murdock said miserably, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "I know it's on me to fix it, but…"
"It's not all on you," Face interjected softly. "I did my share of damage, and I have as much riding on this as you do."
"That's nice of you to say, but we both know it isn't true."
Face shot him a narrow look. "You think our friendship doesn't matter to me?"
"I think you'd survive without it."
"Would I have survived this last mission without it? Without you?"
Murdock digested that for a moment, then turned thoughtful eyes on his friend. "I know you care about me, Face, and you depend on me when things go south, but it's not the same."
"If you mean that I don't want to take you to bed, that's true. But if you mean that I need you less than you need me, you're wrong. I'd have died a hundred times over the last ten years, without you to pull me through."
"Yeah, because you keep walking in front of bullets. But if nobody was shooting at you, if you didn't need me to stop you from bleeding out and hold your hand till we reached a hospital, what then? If I said I'd had enough, couldn't take the grief anymore, and walked away, what would you do?"
"Tackle you before you got ten feet, pin you down, and beat some sense into you."
Murdock uttered a tearing, watery laugh. "I bet you would."
"And if I walked away? What would you do?"
"I'm dead serious. I give it about a week, then I'd end up in a rubber room or strapped to a bed. But it wouldn't last. I wouldn't last."
Face turned back to stare at the ocean, his expression bleak. After a long moment of silence, he murmured, "I wish you wouldn't talk like that."
"It's the truth. I have to find a way to get that cat back in the bag and fix our friendship, because I can't live without it."
"I don't mind the cat being loose."
"You'd mind plenty if I reached over, right now, and put my arms around you."
Face stiffened slightly, then chuckled and forced himself to relax. "Good point. But I know what the cat looks like, now, so I can keep an eye out for it. Two cat-herds have got to be better than one."
Murdock uttered something caught between a laugh and a sob and groaned, "I love you so much, Face!"
"I love you, too." He looked over at Murdock, his eyes suspiciously bright in the moonlight. "I do. And we'll figure this out."
Murdock nodded heavily.
"I'm going back to the room."
"I'll hang here for a while." At Face's dubious look, he added, cajolingly, "I'll be there, I promise. I just need some fresh air."
"Okay." Face lifted his hand to clasp Murdock's arm but quickly withdrew it when he felt the pilot stiffen under his touch. "See ya, buddy."
Face turned without another word and started up the beach, leaving Murdock staring after him with a stark, terrible longing in his eyes.
Flashback: Two months earlier
Murdock lurched to his feet in surprise before his brain caught up with his muscles. He'd been fast asleep in a chair beside Face's bed, his arms crossed on the mattress and his head buried in them, but an unexpected sound from his unconscious teammate had brought him instantly and completely awake. Now he bent anxiously over his friend, searching for some sign of life.
"Face? Can you hear me?" He tightened his hold on Face's hand, saw his eyes flicker open for a moment, and gave a sob of laughter. "That's it, buddy. C'mon back."
"He wakin' up?" Bosco asked from his post on the other side of the room.
"Yeah." Murdock rested a hand in his friend's head and leaned still closer to say, "C'mon, Face, you can do it."
Face's eyes cracked open again and slid over to find the source of that familiar voice.
Murdock grinned down at him. "Hey."
The respirator tube and lengths of tape concealed Face's expression, while the machinery forced him to breathe in a steady rhythm, but one look in his eyes told Murdock far more than he wanted to know about the torture he was suffering. He blinked once, sending tears sliding from the corners of his eyes, then forced a choked, painful sound from his throat around the tube.
"Shh." Murdock stroked his hair in an attempt at comfort. "You don't have to say anything."
But Face was not calmed by his touch or his words. He twisted his head away, uttered another ugly sound, and reached for the respirator tube taped to his face.
From the other side of the bed, Hannibal caught his hand and pulled it away. "Take it easy, kid. You need that."
"Gnnngh!" Face's gaze tracked back over to Murdock and fixed on him with an intensity that dragged a low moan from his loyal friend.
"Okay, I'll take care of it," Murdock assured him, reaching for the call button and hitting it repeatedly. "I'll get it out, I promise."
"What if…" Bosco began, but Murdock rolled over him.
"He can breathe without it, can't you, buddy? You're awake, you can breathe on your own, and we're all here to help."
"How the hell are we s'posed to help 'im breathe?" Bosco muttered.
Before Murdock had to come up with an answer to this very reasonable question, a nurse came through the door and hesitated for a moment to absorb the scene. Then she moved up to the side of the bed, forcing Hannibal to step back, and bent over her patient.
"Mr. Taylor?" Face glanced over at her, then away, dismissing her while his eyes moved instinctively back to the friend and teammate he trusted to help him in any extremity. "Just relax. The doctor's on his way."
"He wants the tube out," Murdock said.
"That's for Dr. Lucas to decide."
"No, it's for him to decide, and he wants it out!"
"Mr. Murdock, please…"
Face made the dreadful, pleading noise again and reached for the tube. When the nurse pinned his hand down on the mattress, he started to thrash weakly, kicking off his blankets and fighting to free himself.
"No! It's okay, babe, okay… Shh…" Murdock caught his head in both hands and held it still, meeting his eyes and willing him to understand. "Calm down. I'll take care of it."
"I'll have to restrain you, if you don't hold still," the nurse said, triggering a fresh attempt from Face to break free and an angry growl from Bosco.
"Just take the damn tube out, if that's what he wants!" the corporal bellowed.
None of them had noticed the arrival of Dr. Lucas, but at that moment he approached the bed and took control of the situation. Moving the flustered nurse firmly out of the way, he bent over Face and called in a voice pitched to cut through his panic, "Hold still, Mr. Taylor. No one's going to restrain you, but you must hold still."
Face stared up at him, still breathing in that eerily steady rhythm in spite of his obvious distress, and fell still.
"That's better. Now, I gather you want me to take you off the respirator."
Face nodded slightly, then let his pleading gaze cut over to Murdock.
"Do it, Doc," Murdock urged.
"Your lungs have suffered a lot of damage," the doctor said. "If I take you off the respirator now, you may not be able to absorb enough oxygen, or you may stop breathing all together. Do you understand?"
Face just continued to stare at Murdock, asking for his help, so the pilot answered for him. "He understands."
"And you still want me to do it?"
Face nodded again.
"What about you, Mr. Murdock? Do you understand the risks he's taking?"
"Yes. Just do it."
Turning back to Face, Dr. Lucas carefully detached the hose that ran from the respirator machine to the tube in his mouth. As it came free, they all heard Face take a ragged breath, then choke and utter a strangled cry of pain. Again, he reached for the thing blocking his throat, and when the doctor deflected his move, he cried out in frustration.
"Take the damned thing out," Murdock insisted.
The doctor eyed his agitated patient for another endless minute, then finally reached for the tube itself. "This is going to be rough," he cautioned, as he peeled away the tape that held the device in place and took a grip on it. "It will hurt to breathe. Just remember that we can have you back on the respirator in a matter of seconds and don't panic. Okay, take a deep breath… good… Now, blow it out. Nice and smooth… that's it…"
As the long piece of plastic slid out of his throat, Face choked, gagged, and began to cough. Murdock instantly scooped him up in his arms, supporting his torso and tucking his head into his shoulder. Face took another labored breath, sobbed the pilot's name, and collapsed against him, shaking in reaction.
"I've got you, babe. Just breathe. Breathe," Murdock urged.
"Nnngh!" Face coughed again and the air sobbed ominously in his throat, but he kept breathing. And after a moment, he was able to whisper, "Murdock."
"I'm right here. Shhh."
Murdock lost track of what was going on around him, intent only on holding his friend's terrifyingly frail body and feeling the air move in and out of his lungs. He cradled Face's shoulders with one arm and his head in the other hand, supporting, protecting and reassuring him. And when the combined pain and elation were too much to bear, he pressed kisses to Face's forehead and murmured soft words that no one else could hear.
It wasn't until the doctor spoke to him, saying, "Let him down now, Mr. Murdock," that he even remembered there was anyone else in the room.
Turning tear-blurred eyes on the doctor, he shook his head firmly.
"You have to let him down. He needs to lie flat."
"He'll breathe better sitting up."
"But his heart can't take it." At Murdock's startled look, he went on quietly, "His pulse is weak and rapid, and with the damage the poison did to his heart, we can't risk putting it under any more stress. Lay him down."
Murdock shot a pleading glance at Hannibal and saw him nod agreement. "It'll be all right, son. Lay him down."
Now weeping silently, Murdock eased Face's body away from his and lowered it to the mattress again, settling his head gently on the pillow. Face opened his eyes and gazed trustingly up at his friend, even as his chest heaved painfully. Murdock kept his hand against his face, his thumb stroking his cracked, blood-rimmed lips. Oblivious to the many pairs of eyes on him, caring only for the steady gaze of the man looking to him for reassurance, he bent to drop a kiss on Face's forehead, then another on his lips.
"I finally get to do that again," he murmured, smiling into Face's confused eyes. Giving him another kiss, he brought his mouth to his ear and whispered, so that only Face could possibly hear him, "Trust me, buddy. Just go with it."
Face took another labored, visibly painful breath and muttered roughly, "Murdock."
"I'm here." The pilot straightened up and gazed down at him for a moment, love, longing and suffering in every line of his body. "I'm always here."
Face's eyes drifted closed and tears oozed from beneath his lashes, painting streaks through the traces of old blood on his skin. Murdock watched this, aching with the need to comfort him. Then, abruptly, he pulled his feet up onto the mattress, stretched out next to Face, and settled in as close to his body as possible. Face's eyes flicked open again, finding his friend, and he turned his head into the familiar, protective shoulder.
"That's it," Murdock said softly, looping one arm around Face's waist and pulling him a little closer, "I've got you."
Face formed his name soundlessly and closed his eyes against a slow pulse of tears.
Murdock stood in the doorway to Face's room, watching the figure in the bed with dark, troubled eyes. Face was clearly in the grip of a nightmare. He huddled against the mattress, uttering wordless cries, twitching as he tried to ward off some unseen threat with limbs that refused to obey his instructions. Murdock shifted from one foot to the other, visibly aching to go to him but held back by fear of himself and the certainty that he didn't dare to cross that physical barrier. Then he heard Face calling him.
Before he had time to think better of it, he was across the room and beside the bed. From this close, he could see Face shivering in the grip of his dream and hear the breath sobbing in his throat. Protectiveness welled up in him—a deep, unendurable need to shelter his love, to calm him, to chase away his nightmares—and he lifted the sheet to slide into the bed at Face's back.
Gently, so as not to wake him, Murdock looped an arm around Face's waist and drew him into the sheltering curve of his body. Then he propped himself up on one elbow and bent over to whisper in the sleeping man's ear, "Shh, it's all right, baby. You're all right."
Face shuddered and swallowed another cry, his head turning toward the familiar voice but his eyes still closed.
"Shh." Murdock freed his hand to stroke the hair back from his forehead. "I've got you."
Slowly, Face began to relax. His head rolled forward again to bury his face in the pillow, his body went slack, and his breathing slowed. In minutes, he was deeply asleep. Murdock settled his own head onto the pillow behind Face's and looped his arm around him again. Then he closed his eyes.
Murdock had never intended to stay in Face's bed. He knew he had no business there, and as soon as his friend was sleeping quietly, he had to leave. But it felt so good to hold his love in his arms again, to feel him breathing softly, to smell the mingled scents that clung to him and share the warmth of his body, that he couldn't quite bring himself to pull away. He stayed in the bed, telling himself that it was just for one minute, then another, then another, until he lost count of the minutes that had slipped by. Face's body felt natural and achingly familiar against his. Desire lay like hot lead in his guts, but in this peaceful place, he found it somehow easier to bear. He couldn't banish it and didn't really want to, but he could tuck it into a quiet corner of his mind and let it simmer there, where it suffused him with warmth and tenderness without threatening his control. And without realizing it, he fell asleep.
Face drifted slowly up out of a dreamless sleep and opened his eyes. He lay with the sheet thrown back, a soft breeze brushing his bare torso, and his face turned toward the glass door. An impressive array of stars brightened the sky beyond the balcony rail and outlined every object in the room with silver light, but otherwise, the world was dark and secretive. As his mind came slowly into focus, Face took a moment simply to absorb the fact that he was awake and to admire the beauty of the night, then he tried to straighten his legs.
He couldn't move. Something lay directly behind him in the bed, curved close against his body, wrapping him in a warmth that had nothing to do with the tropical night. He twisted away from the unexpected presence, turning to confront it, even as some part of him recognized it. By the time he had disengaged himself from the arm draped around his waist and rolled over, he knew what he would find.
Murdock, sleeping peacefully in his bed.
Face stared at him—bemused by his presence but oddly undisturbed by it—wondering how he'd gotten there and what he ought to do about it. Should he wake him up and demand an explanation? Kick him out of bed, order him back to his own room, and lock the door behind him? Move to the other bedroom himself, leaving Murdock in possession of this one? Or surrender to the little voice in the back of his head that said he was glad to have his friend here, curl up, and go back to sleep beside him?
That little voice was very seductive, but Face was quite sure that he shouldn't be listening to it. He had a dangerous habit of letting the voices in his head make decisions for him, and the consequences were almost always disastrous. That was fine when he was the only one to take the hits, but this time, Murdock was involved. And that meant that, for once, Face had to think.
His best friend was in love with him. He had always known this but had managed to ignore it, until Murdock had dropped it in his lap over lunch and upended the careful balance of their friendship. Now he had to find the balance again, find a way to keep his friend close without hurting or teasing him, find a way to forget what was going on under the surface of Murdock's lighthearted lunacy, or lose the single most important person in his life.
As these thoughts spooled through his head, Face gazed at the other man's sleeping face and felt something stir deep inside him—something he recognized, even as he rejected all awareness of it. His chest grew tight, almost as if his scarred lungs had stopped working again, and the familiar sensation brought another with it… Murdock's arms holding him close… holding him together…
Heat flared up in him. Longing. Desire as hard and demanding as a hook sunk in his vitals. And when he looked at Murdock, he felt as if that hook were pulling him closer to the other man, back into his arms, where he could rest and heal and breathe again.
Face abruptly rolled off the mattress and landed on his feet. He reached the glass door in two strides, stepped through it, and crossed the balcony to the outer railing. There, he braced his hands on the varnished wood and tilted his head back, eyes closed, struggling to contain the flood of sensations boiling so treacherously inside him. He would not look back at the man lying in his bed. He would not answer the pull of that hook in his guts or admit how much it hurt to resist it. He would not give in to the voices.
With a muttered curse, he bent over to press his forehead against the backs of his hands. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" he demanded of no one in particular.
Flashback: One month earlier
He awoke to a now-familiar feeling of contentment. He took a moment to absorb the fact that he lay against another body, his face burrowed into a shoulder, the weight of an arm across his ribcage. Then, with no embarrassment or hesitation, he drew even closer and flung his own arm around the other person's waist. A hand brushed the hair back from his face and clasped his head protectively, and Face relaxed even more into the warmth and reassurance of his friend's presence.
"Hey, Face," a voice whispered from just above his bent head. "How you doing?"
The fact that Murdock had called him by name, not by some endearment, told him that they were alone and had no need to preserve their cover, but neither man moved to draw out of the embrace. Instead, Face tightened his hold on Murdock and grunted into his shoulder, "Mmm."
Murdock chuckled softly, and they were so close that Face felt it in his chest even as he heard it in his ears. "Big day, today, buddy. You get to go home."
Face digested that in silence, wondering just how he felt about it. Of course, he wanted to get away from this hospital. He was sick to death of doctors and nurses and tubes and needles and scratchy sheets and hideous food… He was sick of being sick. But leaving meant more than just walking out the door and back into his rudely interrupted life. It meant giving up everything about Jack Taylor. Everything. Including his loving husband.
Sensing the direction of his thoughts, Murdock responded as he always did and drew him a little closer. In some private corner of his brain, Face knew that he shouldn't allow this, or at the very least shouldn't encourage it, but he couldn't stop himself. Through all these weeks he had relied utterly on Murdock to keep him alive, keep him sane, get him through one day to the next and the next… He needed Murdock, now as much as when he first woke up to find him at his bedside. Some part of him—the damaged, frightened, traumatized part of him—wanted to stay Jack Taylor forever so he never had to do without him.
He knew that he had to let go eventually. He knew that he wasn't Jack Taylor, he was Templeton Peck, and Templeton Peck did not sleep in another man's arms, no matter how trusted a friend that man might be. Templeton Peck didn't need anyone to chase away his nightmares or remind him to eat. Templeton Peck was master of his own life.
But Templeton Peck didn't exist yet, he reminded himself as he closed his eyes and inhaled the familiar scent of Murdock's clothing. Not until they stepped through the doors of the hospital. Until then, he was still Jack Taylor, and this was where he belonged.
By the time Hannibal and Bosco appeared, Face was sitting up in bed, picking half-heartedly at his breakfast. By the time the doctor arrived, he was dressed in his street clothes and wearing a smile that was bright and attractive enough to fool anyone who didn't really know him. Doctor Lucas eyed his thin frame, hollow cheeks and shadowed gaze with evident skepticism but knew that he would lose any argument with his deceptively fragile-seeming patient. So he wisely chose to spare them both the trouble and signed Face's release papers.
Then they were moving down the long, sterile corridor for the last time, headed for the big glass doors and freedom. Face rode in a standard-issue hospital wheelchair, with Bosco pushing it. Hannibal strode ahead of them, relief and new energy crackling in every line of his body. Murdock loped along at Face's side, grinning his manic grin, throwing looks that were half gleeful, half doleful at his teammate. Face knew exactly what was going through his mind. He, like Face, was bracing himself for the moment when they left that building, crossed that line, said goodbye to Jack Taylor, and became the A-Team again.
Hannibal triggered the automatic doors and stood in the wide opening, while B.A. pushed Face's wheelchair past him. Grinning down at his lieutenant with the satisfaction of a cat that had eaten a whole cage full of canaries, he said, "Good to be going home, isn't it, kid?"
Face glanced up at him and smiled faintly, his perfect conman's face betraying nothing. He was Templeton Peck again and back in control. "Sure is."
Face stood beside the bed, staring down at the man sleeping in it. He savored the sight of that familiar face—utterly relaxed, unknowing, smiling in the midst of a happy dream—and this time made no attempt to control his physical reaction. The hook was still there, but now the tug of it in his belly was seductive, enticing, poised right on the edge of pain, and it made him shiver with anticipation.
When the delicious pull became too strong to resist—the pleasure shading into actual pain—he planted a knee on the bed and shifted his weight forward onto it.
The sleeping man stirred, mumbled something, and snorted softly before falling still again.
This time, his lashes fluttered up to reveal sleep-dazed eyes. "Huh?"
"Wake up, crazy fool."
"Hhnngh," he grunted, as he burrowed his face into the pillow for one more moment, then twisted half onto his back and blinked his eyes into focus. His gaze touched Face—half-kneeling on the mattress, naked torso limned in starlight—and he came instantly awake. "Faceman?"
"You were expecting someone else?"
With another throaty grunt, Murdock sat up and scrubbed a hand through his disheveled hair."'M sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep in here."
"You were having a nightmare." He cast his friend a ridiculously shame-faced look and said in a pleading tone, "You called for me. I thought… I thought you'd feel safer with me here, maybe sleep better, so I…"
"It's okay, Murdock."
The hook wrenched at Face again, drawing his other knee up onto the mattress and bringing him a few precious inches closer to the man sitting in his bed, gazing up at him with an irresistible combination of guilt and adoration in his eyes. He was painfully aroused, and his light drawstring trousers did nothing to hide it, but Murdock couldn't see it with his body backlit by the window. Face wasn't sure whether he was relieved or frustrated that the darkness hid his condition so effectively from the other man. He desperately wanted Murdock to touch him, but he was equally frightened of what would surely follow.
"I'm sorry," Murdock muttered again. "I'll clear out… let you sleep…"
The words came out of his mouth before the terrified part of him could stop them, his voice soft and rough-edged with desire, "No. Don't leave."
Murdock lifted his head to stare at his friend. As he absorbed the other man's posture—the obvious heat and subtle offer in it—wonder flared in his eyes. Face didn't dare open his mouth again, but as he looked at Murdock and saw the wild hope transforming his face, his breathing grew ragged and his heart began to stagger in his chest. Then, finally, when Face thought the anticipation crackling between them would drive him screaming mad, Murdock reached for him.
His hands settled at Face's waist, warm against his bare skin, fingers curving naturally around his hips and barely slipping into the top of his pants. Face's breath hitched in surprise. He leaned back against the pull of those gentle, inexorable hands, and looked down to see the pilot's head bend close to his bare midriff.
Lips touched his skin. Face let his breath out on a wordless groan and let his head fall back, his eyes fall closed. Murdock parted his lips and trailed them across his heaving belly to drop a firmer kiss just above his waistband.
"Jesus, Face," he whispered, the movement of his lips making Face's skin shiver and dragging another guttural sound from him. Murdock lifted his head. His eyes shone oddly, almost as if they were full of tears, and his voice was husky when he said, "You said no, before. What's changed?"
Face didn't want to explain himself. He wanted to feel Murdock's hands and mouth on his body, guide them, encourage them, open himself to them in ways that he had never even imagined till now. He wanted to drown in the other man's touch. But he could not say any of this to Murdock, much less make any physical demands on him. All his legendary seductive powers had deserted him, leaving him off balance and uncertain. So he opted instead to simply answer the question.
"I was thinking…"
"That's not like you," Murdock teased gently.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Face retorted, with a smile that forced something very close to a whimper from Murdock.
"I really need to kiss you right now," the pilot groaned.
"What's stopping you?"
Murdock bounced up onto his knees, bringing his face on a level with the other man's, and caught his head between his hands. "Smile at me again."
"Just do it."
Face's eyebrows rose at that, but he offered his companion a crooked, wistful smile. Murdock groaned his approval and leaned in to kiss him. In the instant before their mouths met, he whispered, "You are so beautiful it hurts…"
Face froze, caught between Murdock's hands, held motionless by the touch of his lips, eyes closed to block out the sight of that familiar face so close to his. Their lips clung together for a breathless minute, then Murdock began to move. Slowly, carefully, he tilted his head to bring their mouths more firmly together. He parted his lips. He caressed Face's lips with his tongue, softening them, urging them to open. And Face's last defenses crumbled.
He was still off balance, still uncertain, still afraid of Murdock's hold on him and his own overwhelming desire. But the molten heat in his body and the delicious pulse of electricity between them left no room in him for hesitation. He surrendered to the gentle guidance of Murdock's hands, leaned into the kiss, and slipped his own arms around the other man's waist. It was the pull of Face's arms, not Murdock's, that brought their bodies together at last.
Face choked in surprise when he felt the hard evidence of Murdock's excitement pressed against him. Murdock heard the telltale sound and, as gently as he'd started it, ended the kiss. Still cradling Face's head between his hands, he backed away just enough to allow him to look into the other man's eyes, and he smiled lovingly.
"I'm guessing you've never let another man kiss you like that, before." Face shook his head. Murdock loosened the clasp of one hand to touch his face reverently, tracing his cheekbone with light fingers, then stroking his lips. "I've waited ten years to do it."
Face swallowed the lump in his throat and whispered, "Then why did you stop?"
"Because I need to know, Face. Why now?"
"I was thinking," Face replied, "about the last mission… about everything that happened at the hospital…"
"And?" Murdock prompted gently, when he hesitated.
"And I realized that… I've spent the last month being jealous of Jack Taylor."
Murdock took a beat to absorb that, then smiled in understanding. His hand moved again, touching Face's hair, his mouth, his jaw. Then he said, his voice trembling on the edge of laughter, "Jack Taylor was a figment of your imagination. He had nothing you don't have."
"He had everything. He had you."
"Like I said." The pilot shifted still closer to him, giving him no place to hide and no way to escape the desire burning so fiercely between them. "Nothing you don't have." Then, with a fierce, possessive gesture that had little gentleness in it, Murdock pulled Face's mouth to his again.
It was like nothing Face had ever tasted before. Love, lust, devotion and desperate need all poured into one incandescent kiss. It swept through him like a firestorm and carried him away to some place he had never known existed until Murdock touched him. He felt Murdock's hands clasp his head, guiding him, drawing him ever deeper into the kiss, and he responded without hesitation. He was trapped, helpless, too far gone even to be afraid, and burning happily in the flames of Murdock's lust. His body was moving urgently against the one pressed so hard to it, filled with a familiar, irresistible rhythm, and his breath was coming in harsh sobs, when the pilot pulled away again.
Face gazed wonderingly at him, stunned by the depth of his own need and confused by this sudden interruption. After a beat, he moved to recapture the other man's mouth, but Murdock held him back, his hands gentle but implacable. Face obediently fell still. He had dropped his guard with Murdock, exposed his private longings, placed himself in the pilot's hands. Now he had to trust him.
Murdock took an unsteady breath, clearly fighting his own overwhelming desire, and asked, "What do you want, Face?"
"I don't know."
"That's not good enough. I need to hear you say it."
"I don't know. This is alien territory for me. I don't have the words for it." He stared into Murdock's eyes, willing him to understand, and added, "I only know that I want everything you ever dreamed of giving Jack Taylor."
A smile blossomed across Murdock's face, and he reached down to pluck at the drawstring of Face's trousers. As the knot came open and the fabric slid down to pool around his knees, Face heard Murdock murmur, "I can give you that."
An uncounted time later, Face lay sprawled in the middle of the big bed with Murdock's weight pinning him to the mattress and Murdock's face hovering a handspan above his own. He was completely unstrung—exhausted, elated, sore and satisfied in equal measure—unable to move or speak or think through the molten soup that filled his skull. He could only stare up at the man who had done such extraordinary things to him and wonder where his old friend had been hiding all that love and lust and power for all those years. He could see it now, blazing in his smile and glowing in his eyes, but how had he missed it before? How could he not have recognized who Murdock really was? What he really wanted?
"Hey, beautiful." Murdock shifted his weight up onto his elbows and trailed the backs of his fingertips down Face's cheek in a simple, loving gesture that stood in stark contrast to the contained violence of his earlier demands. "You okay?"
"You look worried."
His features softened into a smile. "No. Just trying to figure out how I could have been so wrong for so long."
Murdock's hand stroked his face again, more seductively, and he leaned down to drop a light kiss on Face's lips. "Wrong about what? Who belonged in your bed?"
Face felt his cheeks flush with irrational embarrassment at that, but he refused to shy away from the other man's knowing gaze. "That, and… you."
"You weren't wrong about me. You thought I was a lunatic, and you were right—a crazy man who's crazy about you."
"You're a hell of a lot more than that," Face said quietly.
"Don't get all gushy on me, or I'll start to worry." He rested his palm against Face's forehead and asked earnestly, "Are you running a fever?"
Face grinned. "No doubt. Why else would I let you in my bed?"
"Well, then, let's hope you don't recover your wits anytime soon." Murdock eyed him for a moment, a doting smile tilting his lips, then he stooped to give him a lingering kiss. Face welcomed him, encouraged him, and lifted his head to cling to his lips for another precious moment when he backed away. Then he gave a little sob of protest when they broke apart.
"Jesus, Murdock." He closed is eyes in a fruitless attempt to shut out the overwhelming presence of the other man. "I didn't know it could feel like this."
"Being Jack Taylor."
The pilot gave a grunt of annoyance and growled, "Forget Jack Taylor. You're not him. You're my own beautiful, impossible Faceman. And all the things I'm doing tonight? The things that make you moan and sigh and cry out and reach for me? I'm doing them to you, not to him. To you. The man I love. The man I want to love, over and over again, till he forgets that anyone else has ever touched him."
"Do you really believe you can do that?"
"I know I can. Look at me, Face."
Face obediently opened his eyes and Murdock fixed him with a bright, compelling gaze. Face's body reacted almost instantly. The flush in his cheeks deepened. His lashes drooped to mask the flare of hunger in his eyes. His mouth opened on a silent plea. And he instinctively lifted his hips to press them against the body on top of his, driven by the hot, hard, familiar ache in his loins to find the only thing that could ease the growing pressure.
"Feel that?" Murdock urged, his eyes full of triumph and his body blazing with a heat that easily matched Face's. "That's you, wanting me. That's you, Face."
"Oh, Jesus…" Face groaned, pressing his head back into the pillow and arching his back as he surrendered to the sensations coursing through him. "What are you doing to me?"
"Loving you." He bent to fasten his mouth to Face's throat, dragging another ragged groan from him, then lifted his head to purr, "Just loving you the way you deserve."
"Please… please don't stop!"
With that final, whispered promise, Murdock took Face in his arms and loved him without stopping. It was Face's heart that stopped, in the end.
The next morning felt surreal to Face. It began when he awoke in Murdock's arms, confused and disoriented to find another man in his bed. He extricated himself and got to his feet without waking his partner, found his pajama pants discarded on the floor, and stepped into them as he headed for the balcony. There, he stood on the same spot where he'd stood last night—remembering and struggling with himself—his eyes turned out toward the expanse of perfect ocean and the clouds piled like silver whipped cream above it. He wasn't struggling, now. He wasn't looking for a way to escape his own desires. But he was dazed and more than a little convinced that none of this was actually happening.
Then Murdock woke up and called to him. He padded back into the room and up to the bed.
He shrugged. "Nothing. Looking at the water."
Murdock's smile widened, and he held out his hand. "Then come here and gimme a kiss."
Face complied, only pausing long enough to shed his clothing before climbing into the bed again.
His vague sense of unreality only intensified as Murdock made love to him—not in the secretive darkness this time, but in the blazing light of a tropical morning. He enjoyed every second of it, even as those seconds stretched out into more than an hour, until he could no longer keep the depth of his enjoyment to himself. Murdock whooped in triumph and teased Face that he was going to bring Hotel Management down on them with a host of complaints, but Face was still only half convinced that any of it was actually happening and couldn't muster enough belief for embarrassment.
Then came breakfast.
They ate out on the balcony. Murdock ordered enough food for six people and Face started eating without stopping to remember that he wasn't hungry, that food hurt him, that he'd pay later with nausea, cramps and blood. The croissants tasted delicious and the coffee was like an old, familiar friend. The weirdness still danced around the edges of his awareness, as if he expected at any moment to see a curtain rise, revealing that this was all an elaborate performance and real life was waiting for him on the other side of the footlights. But the curtain didn't rise and the food sat comfortably in his stomach and his body ached pleasurably from the night's activities.
"I can't believe you're actually eating."
Murdock's voice interrupted his thoughts and brought his gaze up to the man seated across the little table from him. Warm, brown eyes smiled into his, full of sparkling delight. Face smiled in return and felt a flush heat his cheeks.
"I can't believe I'm actually hungry."
"After last night, I should hope so."
Face looked away, now positively blushing, a thing he thought he'd forgotten how to do until last night.
"You are so fucking beautiful," Murdock added, in a low, husky, incredibly seductive voice.
Face's eyes flew to his face again, startled at the intensity and utter sincerity of his words. He'd been called beautiful many times, by both men and women, but never in that tone and never with such utter conviction. When Murdock looked at him that way and said those words, Face finally understood what they meant. He opened his mouth to say something but couldn't come up with a single word that fit the moment.
Murdock grinned, his eyes alight with love and desire. "It's fucking amazing that I get to sit here and look at you… Talk to you…" He was suddenly out of his chair and kneeling on the deck in front of Face. "Touch you…"
His arms slid around Face, pulling him forward in the chair until their bodies met. When Murdock rested his head against Face's chest, Face wrapped his arms around the other man's shoulders and bent his head to inhale the scent of his hair. It made his body ache with longing.
"Are we really going to do this?"
Murdock lifted his head to shoot him a taunting look. "Are you really asking me that? After last night and this morning and… How quickly can you shuck those pants and get back in bed?"
Face chuckled. "As quick as you like. But that's not what I meant."
"Then maybe you'd better explain yourself. Or are we back to those things you don't have the words for?"
"No." Face's smile faded. He gazed down into the pilot's upturned face with an intensity alien to his guarded nature, and reached up to comb his fingers through his hair. "I mean, are we really going to keep doing this."
As the import of his words soaked in, the laughter drained from Murdock's face. He sat back on his heels but kept his hands on Face's thighs, maintaining the physical link between them. Then he said quietly, "Well, that's up to you, isn't it? You know how I feel. How I've always felt."
"So you know I'm never going to walk away from you."
Face hesitated for a moment, then ventured, "What if I walk away? Will you let me go?"
A tremor passed through Murdock's body and his hands tightened on on Face's thighs, as he visibly battled with himself. When he forced his answer out, his voice had gone flat and hard with strain. "I can't stop you."
"I think maybe you can," Face retorted, in a tone of surprising gentleness.
"I'll do whatever you say, like I always have."
Neither man spoke for a long minute, while Murdock stared at Face and Face gazed down at the deck between them. Slowly, the rigidity drained from Murdock's muscles and his expression of harsh control softened into wistfulness. He loosened his fierce grip on Face's legs, letting his hands rest possessively on them.
"What are you afraid of, Face?" he finally asked, his voice as caressing as his hands.
Face just shook his head without meeting his eyes.
"Last night you begged me never to stop. An hour ago, you were having so much fun the whole island heard you. Now you're talking about walking away, so something must've spooked you."
"No." He looked up into Murdock's pleading eyes and summoned a smile. "I just need to know."
"That you have an escape hatch?"
"That if things get sticky… if we have to cool this off…" he paused, hunting for the words, then finished, "Saner heads will prevail."
"You're calling yourself a saner head, now?"
"I'm asking you to help me be sane."
"Come on, Murdock, we both know this is nuts. A fantasy, not real life. Last night I wanted to believe it was real—heck, I still do—but we can't hide out in the dark forever. Or on this island. And what happens to the fantasy when we get on that plane back to L.A.?"
"You're asking the wrong guy, Face. I've been livin' a fantasy so long I don't know the difference anymore."
"Yeah, you do, you just don't want to admit it. You're no crazier than I am."
"That's not setting the bar very high," Murdock teased softly, the twinkle creeping back into his eyes as he gazed steadily at his dejected partner. "Hey." He caught Face by the wrists and drew him out of the chair, pulling him down into his arms. "Lemme give you a little tip about living in your fantasies."
Face landed on his knees and let his body settle against Murdock's. "What's that?"
"It's a hell of a lot of fun, if you just go with it. Forget all that real life, saner heads shit and embrace your inner lunatic."
A smile lifted one corner of Face's mouth and he slipped his arms around Murdock's neck, murmuring, "Or the one right in front of me."
"That works, too. Jesus, Face, you keep lookin' at me like that and this fantasy is gonna get way outta control!"
"Who needs control? Just go with it…" As he breathed out the last word, he leaned in to touch the other man's lips with his.
Murdock responded instantly, pulling Face hard against him and plunging into the offered kiss. He grasped his head in both hands, guiding his movements, giving him no chance to withdraw. But Face was not looking for escape routes. He had known exactly what would happen when he touched the pilot and was more than ready for it. He encouraged Murdock's demanding kiss with all the passion in him and laughed aloud with delight when he broke off to drag them both to their feet.
"What now?" Face asked breathlessly, his arms looped around Murdock's neck and his body moving easily with his.
"You know what." Murdock leaned in to capture Face's lips, and they kissed feverishly as they moved into the hotel bedroom. When their legs bumped the mattress, he once again caught Face's head and pulled it slightly away to mutter, "You don't really want to walk away from this, do you?"
Face chuckled low in his throat and stepped back. His hand dropped to the drawstring of his trousers. "What I really want is to show you just how fast I can shuck these pants."
Under Murdock's admiring eyes, he gave one end of the string a tug and let the fabric slip down to his bare feet.
"God, I love those things!" Murdock growled. Then he grabbed Face, tossed him onto the bed, and pounced.
Part 2: Los Angeles
Hannibal stepped out of the elevator right across from the door to Face's penthouse. He paused to check his phone one more time, before lifting his hand to knock. He'd been calling Face for three days, and while he had no particular reason to worry that his XO didn't answer, he still felt a lurking disquiet. Ever since the incident with the poison, the entire Team was skittish where Face was concerned. Worrying about him had become a habit.
The colonel knocked firmly and waited. Nothing stirred on the other side of the door. He knocked again but didn't wait this time. His hand was already in his pocket, reaching for the spare key he always carried.
Face had been much better since his return from his tropical getaway with Murdock. They had both looked worlds better when they got off the plane, and Hannibal had been congratulating himself on making such a smart call. It wasn't anything as tangible as Face's health that had the colonel on edge, more a subtle sense that things were off-kilter. The feeling had been niggling at him ever since his teammates got home, and Face's refusal to answer his phone only fanned the flame of his worry.
The key slid easily into the lock and turned without making a sound. Hannibal pushed open the door, leaned through it, and paused to look around. The place looked lived in, as if Face had just stepped out of sight a few minutes before, without washing the dishes or picking up the copy of the New York Times scattered over the sofa cushions, but the lights were off and the room empty. Shutting the door quietly behind him, Hannibal moved into the apartment.
He didn't know precisely what he hoped to find in Face's home, because he didn't know precisely what he needed to find. He just knew that things were not quite right and Face wasn't answering his phone, so he padded quietly around, looking for clues.
Face's car keys lying on a table by the door. Murdock's jacket draped over a chair. A familiar, red baseball cap perched rakishly on a lampshade.
Hannibal turned to follow the trail of personal detritus down the hallway. Three shoes dropped in a ragged line. A button-down shirt abandoned on the floor. The fourth shoe lying just inside the open bedroom door next to a crumpled bath towel.
He heard the voices while he was still halfway down the hallway.
"Get them off! Hurry!"
"All in good time…"
"I love these pants!"
"You're killing me!"
He saw a pile of soft fabric hit the floor in the middle of the doorway, then the first voice groaned, "Oh, Jesus!"
Hannibal stared at the discarded clothing, paralyzed, for the space of a heartbeat, then abruptly came back to life. Shutting his ears and averting his eyes, he retreated back down the hallway as quickly as he possibly could without betraying his presence. He left the apartment, rode the elevator down to the parking garage, and climbed into his car, all with his mind kept carefully blank. It wasn't until he was driving purposefully through the endless Los Angeles suburbs, that he allowed himself to think about what he had witnessed. And what he ought to do about it.
Face and Murdock sprawled on the enormous bed, gasping for breath and grinning at each other. When he could get enough oxygen for speech, Face said in a low, roughened tone that betrayed the deep satisfaction behind his playful words, "Those pants are gonna be the death of me."
Murdock laughed and rolled closer to drop a kiss on his lips. "You should never wear anything else. In fact, let's bring 'em on our next mission."
"Are you insane?"
"Course I am, but that's irrelevant."
"I don't dare wear them out of this apartment, much less on a mission."
"But you look so beautiful in them… and out of them…"
"You say things like that around the guys, and we're in serious trouble," Face chided, the gleam in his eyes effectively undermining his warning.
"I won't. Unless you wear the pants…"
Murdock laughed again as he slipped a hand behind Face's head and pulled him close. They kissed hungrily, like lovers who wanted to taste and touch and enjoy every inch of each other before they came up for air. But both men were too drained to take it any farther just yet, and Face made no objection when Murdock broke the long embrace. He settled his head on Murdock's shoulder and let his eyes drift half-closed.
When Murdock's arms tightened around him, he made a contented sound deep in his throat and murmured, "I never want to leave this bed."
"Works for me."
"Let's lock the door and flush our phones down the toilet."
Murdock smiled, then murmured, "That reminds me… I heard someone knocking, before."
Face lifted his head to meet Murdock's gaze. "I didn't hear anything."
"You were busy," he said with a suggestive grin.
"It was probably Hannibal. He's been calling for the last few days."
Murdock raised his eyebrows at that. "You just gonna ignore him?"
"For how long?"
"As long as I possibly can."
"Y'know he isn't gonna like that."
"So, what else is new?" Face retorted. "He never likes anything I do, so I might as well spare myself the ass-chewing."
"Or you could answer the phone."
"And say what? 'Sorry I've been avoiding you, Boss, but Murdock and I were too busy fucking like crazed weasels to answer the phone'?"
"Well," Murdock temporized, "maybe not in those exact words, but we could tell 'im…"
"No!" Face lurched upright and glared down at his startled lover. "We are not going to tell him, Murdock! Absolutely not!"
"Don't you think he's gonna figure it out for himself?"
"Not if we're careful."
Face was wearing a mulish look that Murdock had seen far too often to misinterpret. Face in this mood was thoroughly impossible. There was no dealing with him, no talking to him, and no chance that he'd change his mind. So the pilot merely reached up and drew him back down into his arms. For a long minute, neither man spoke, while Murdock just held Face and let his closeness drive the tension from his muscles. Then, when Face had once more become a warm, pliant armful, he tried again.
"We can't hide from our teammates forever."
"And we can't fool the old man for long."
"We can try."
"Why? C'mon, Face, you know Hannibal would understand…"
"About you, maybe. He lets you get away with anything. If you told him you had a boyfriend, he'd probably just smile and pat you on the back and say, 'Good for you, son.' But if you told him it was me? He'd go ballistic!"
"He'd be surprised, maybe, but…"
"He'd be furious."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Come on, Murdock, everything I do makes him furious!" Face pushed himself up on one elbow and glared down at the other man. "If I breathe without his direct orders, he accuses me of wrecking his plans and endangering the team and being reckless and…"
"Yeah, but isn't he usually right?"
"That's not the point!"
"The point is that Hannibal only gets mad at you when you do stuff you shouldn't."
"Right. Something I shouldn't," Face lifted an ironic eyebrow at him and said, in a soft, bitter voice, "like sleeping with one of my teammates."
Murdock opened his mouth, then closed it again without coming up with anything useful to say. His gaze was wistful and worried, and the hand he lifted to touch the other man's face was infinitely gentle. "You really think he'll try to stop us?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Even if I tell him how happy you make me?"
"He won't believe it. Not if it's me."
"Okay." Once again, the pilot drew him down into the shelter of his arms and began to stroke his back. After a quiet moment, he offered, "If we just got it over with quick, like tearing off a bandaid…"
"Sorry. Sorry. C'mere, beautiful, and do something better with your mouth than frowning at me."
Face willingly complied and was soon lost in a heated kiss. Neither of them mentioned Hannibal's name again.
B.A. answered the door with a scowl on his face that cleared instantly when he saw his commanding officer on the stoop. "Hey, Boss! How you doin'? Come on in."
Hannibal trooped into the house on his heels, noticing that he carried a book in one hand, his finger slipped between the pages to mark his spot, and a beer bottle in the other. He felt a twinge of guilt for interrupting him, but the feeling vanished as quickly as it came. Through the drive over here, his shock had darkened into something that hovered between fear and anger, leaving him sullen, out of sorts, and in need of B.A.'s calming influence. Sometimes, having a teammate who steeped himself in Zen philosophy came in handy.
"Sit down, man. You want a beer?"
Hannibal settled into the offered chair and accepted the beer with a nod of thanks. He took a long swig, then sighed and let some of the tension drain from his shoulders. He'd made the right choice in coming here. "Thanks, Big Man. I needed that."
"What's up with you?" B.A. asked, as he resumed his own seat.
"What makes you think something's up?" Hannibal countered.
"Just that look you got." Hannibal's eyebrows scaled up, and B.A. grinned. "The one that says Faceman pulled some crazy-ass stunt and you gotta clean up his mess."
"Oh." His brows drew back down into a frown. "That one."
"So, what'd he do?"
"What makes you so sure it's Face?" Hannibal asked warily.
"It's always Face. An' you said you were gonna go by his place today, t'see if he knew where Murdock had got to."
"That's right, I said that." Hannibal sighed, downed another swallow of beer, and closed his eyes in a vain attempt to block out the memory that began to play in his head for the umpteenth time.
"Was he there?" B.A. asked.
"They both were," Hannibal replied.
"Okay, then. Problem solved." At Hannibal's grim look, he frowned in concern. "What happened?" Then his voice sharpened, as a new thought occurred to him. "Wait, did you get into it with Face again? C'mon, man, you know what that does to Murdock! Can't you just cut 'im a break for…?"
"We didn't get into it," Hannibal said flatly, cutting him off. "We didn't speak to each other."
"I came at a bad time."
B.A. stared into his stormy, frowning eyes, his own wide with surprise. Then, suddenly, Hannibal saw the mental coin drop and something he could only describe as unholy glee transform the big man's face.
"'Bout damned time," B.A. chuckled. Hannibal just stared at him, aghast, and his chuckle turned to outright laughter. "Why d'you look so surprised? Isn't that why you sent 'em off to a tropical island together?"
Hannibal found his voice again and ground out, "I sent them there to heal."
"Well, this is what healing looks like for those two. I can't believe you didn't know what would happen if you left 'em alone together on that island, man."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this!" Hannibal retorted. "You actually expected them to…"
"End up in bed together? Sure. They been workin' up to it for ten years. How long is one seduction s'posed to take, anyway?"
"This one should never have happened."
"Why? 'Cause Murdock ain't got what it takes to hold Faceman's attention for very long? Maybe not, but my money's on Crazy Man."
"You think Murdock can keep Face in his bed? Honestly? More to the point, you think he belongs there?"
"Don't see why not. Murdock's crazy in love with Face. He'd cut himself up in little pieces to make 'im happy. Why shouldn't he get the chance to try?"
Hannibal's mouth twisted in something that wasn't quite a smile. "Maybe because Face isn't interested in what Murdock has to offer?"
"Face is interested in anything that makes 'im feel good."
"If that were true, he'd have fallen into bed with any of the countless men who've offered over the years. Men a lot more likely to do the job right than Murdock."
"Don't ask me to explain how Face's mind works," B.A. said, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. "The man's as crazy as Murdock and twice as hard to predict."
Hannibal gave a reluctant laugh and slumped wearily back in his chair. "I don't have your Zen outlook on this, Big Man, but you have relieved my mind about one thing. I wasn't looking forward to your reaction when I told you what those two were up to. I'm glad I don't have to peel you down off the ceiling."
B.A. chuckled again, took another drink, and fixed gleaming, affectionate eyes on his commander. "Don't worry 'bout me, man. I'm good."
"You're usually very protective of Murdock. And none too forgiving of Face's 'crazy-ass stunts,' as you call them."
"Murdock's gotta be flyin' high right now. I knew somethin' good happened for him on that trip—saw it when he stepped off the plane—just didn't know what. Well, now I know, and I'm glad. He deserves to get what he wants for once."
"Even if it's Face?"
The corporal's big, blazing grin broke over his face again. "Poor Murdock! Walkin' blind into a minefield would be safer! But Hell, yeah. If he wants the prettiest, scariest, craziest dude on the planet, then he should get 'im."
Murdock came loping out of the kitchen with a soda in his hands and bounded over the back of the sofa to plop down next to Face. The lieutenant was lounging back in a posture of extreme boredom, his eyes on the gorgeous vista of the Pacific Ocean outside the windows, waiting for Hannibal to get to the point. They were all collected in the great room of the A-Team's Malibu safe house on the colonel's orders, and while the general chaos of trying to ride herd on his team was entirely normal, Hannibal imagined he could feel a new current beneath the cheerful noise.
Face and Murdock didn't want to be here. They were only half aware of what their teammates said to them and less than half interested. They didn't touch or exchange so much as a glance, but they might as well have been rolling around on the floor, kissing and tearing at each other's clothes, for all the attention they spared anyone else. Hannibal knew it in his bones and knew that something fundamental to his team had shifted.
Murdock planted his backside on the sofa and took a slurp of his soda, then demanded, "So what's up, Boss Man? We been put on?"
"Not yet. I have a few feelers, but nothing definite."
"Then why are we here?"
"We have a problem." Hannibal looked hard at Face, demanding his attention, until the lieutenant glanced up. "Mostly concerning you, kid."
Face's sleepy eyes were suddenly very much awake. "Me? I'm fine. Or are you gonna nag me about my eating habits again?"
"No, about your phone habits."
"Hmph!" Face snorted derisively, "Gimme a break, Hannibal. I'm not a teenaged girl."
"Then stop acting like one and answer your damned phone."
Face looked decidedly uncomfortable at that. "I did. We're here, aren't we?"
"It took me five days to reach you. Five days, Face! The rest of your team could have been in a Federal prison or dead by the time I got hold of you. Or you could've been dead and we'd still be wondering what the hell happened to you."
Face said nothing to this, just stared at him. Hannibal let his words sink in for a minute, let his XO squirm a little, then went on in a dry, faintly humorous tone, "As it happens, I knew you weren't in trouble, so I let it slide longer than I should have. But you know the rules, kid. And they apply, no matter who your latest flame may be. Both of you," his eyes cut over to Murdock's ludicrously guilty face, "need to stay in touch with your team and answer the phone when one of us calls. No matter what you're doing."
Murdock swallowed audibly and shot a frantic look at Face, who was still staring at Hannibal with a rigid expression that the colonel found hard to interpret. The pilot, getting no help from his friend, turned back to Hannibal and said, plaintively, "What're you sayin', Boss?"
"I already said it. I expect you to follow the rules and respect the team. Whatever else you do is your own business." He smiled fractionally at the captain, wishing privately that Face would say something to break the building tension in the room and calm Murdock's bubbling panic. "On my side, I promise not to call unless I really need something. Respect is a two-way street, and I'll respect your privacy if you respect my position as your commanding officer and the leader of this team. Deal?"
Murdock gave a convulsive nod, just as Face sprang to his feet and demanded, "How did you find out?"
"Does it matter?" Hannibal asked warily.
"It does to me."
"I told 'im," B.A. interjected from his place by the kitchen island.
Face turned to glare at him for a moment, then said, "How did you find out?"
"I'm not as dumb as I look."
Some of the fury drained from Face's body and his fists unclenched. He turned back to Hannibal and said, his voice hard and defiant, "We're not doing anything wrong and we're not going to stop."
"Did I ask you to?"
"You don't ask. You issue orders. And this is one part of my life you don't get to order around."
"I know you, Hannibal, better than either of them." He waved a vague hand at his teammates without shifting his gaze from his commander. "I've let you boss me around, treat me like a child, argue with everything I do for as long as I can remember. I did it because I knew you were the best and you could keep me alive no matter what. But now I've got something in my life that actually matters to me. A reason to be glad that I am still alive. And I'm not giving it up, just because you think you've got the right to control me."
"I'm not trying to control you."
"Not right this minute, no. You're doing your reasonable, helpful, fatherly thing, and you want me to believe that's all there is. But I know you. The first time I say something you don't like or take a step without your permission, you'll start issuing orders again! You'll decide my personal life is messing with the team! Or that I can't be trusted with Murdock's delicate psyche! Or just that I'm not paying enough attention to the sacred words of the Sainted Hannibal Smith! Then you'll forget all about being reasonable and you'll start making demands again! You'll tell me I have to stop… have to…"
He clamped his mouth shut on those words, glared at Hannibal with accusing eyes, then spun on his heel and started for the hallway and the bedrooms beyond. "It's not gonna happen! Not this time!" he shouted, as he vanished down the hallway.
Murdock looked from his friend to his commander, his eyes frantic, and bounded to his feet to follow Face out of the room. B.A. and Hannibal watched him go in silence. They heard the door to the Master Bedroom close with a decided snap.
Hannibal waited for the sound to die away, then looked up at the impassive corporal. "You're my witness that I did not light into Face this time."
"And thank you for the save, by the way. I know you don't like to lie."
"Don't like watchin' Faceman tear your head off, neither, an' that's what he would've done, if he knew."
"That was quite a performance. I didn't know he was sitting on all that anger."
"He's scared, is all. And when Face is scared, which don't happen very often, he gets mad."
"I said I wouldn't interfere."
"Yeah, well…" The corporal gave him a sideways look. "Face ain't exactly stupid. And he ain't exactly wrong about how you get when you're pissed at him."
"No." Hannibal rubbed his face tiredly. "He isn't exactly wrong."
"He'll calm down. He always does. Just give 'im some time." B.A.'s smile widened suggestively as he amended, "Give Crazy Man some time."
Hannibal didn't laugh at this sally, but his expression softened and he looked up at his corporal with real affection. "I'll do that. Are you hungry?"
"Let's go get lunch."
"What about Face an' Murdock?"
"We'll bring enough for them."
In the Master Bedroom, Murdock shut the door and crossed to where Face stood near the picture window. Without a word, he gathered his lover up in his arms and held him tightly. Face wrapped his arms around Murdock's waist and buried his face in his shoulder. Then he just stood there, letting the other man's warmth and love and protectiveness soak into him until the terrible tension drained from his body.
When, after several silent minutes, Murdock felt Face's body melting against his, he guided them both over to the huge bed that dominated the room.
As Murdock lowered him onto the mattress, Face murmured in a small, uncertain voice, "I don't want sex. I just want you."
"I know, baby."
Murdock crawled onto the mattress beside him and gathered him up in his arms once more. Face retreated into his embrace with a tiny sigh of relief. His eyes closed. Murdock's hand petted his hair and his lips moved in a soundless whisper of thanks.
"I love you so much." Murdock dropped a kiss on the top of his head, then resumed his gentle stroking. "I love you, I've got you, and no one's ever gonna take you away from me."
"Don't talk about it, please."
"You need to know it. You need to believe it."
"You're my own darling Faceman. My heart. My life. I'll kill anyone who tries to take you away."
Murdock hesitated for a fraction of a second, then whispered, "Even him."
"Hold me all night."
"I will." Murdock kissed him again, finding his forehead this time. "As long as you want."
They fell quiet, just lying together, listening to each other breathe and being grateful for this time together. Sometime later—it could have been a minute or an hour—a knock sounded on the door. Face stiffened. The pilot lifted his head to glare at the offending door.
"Yeah?" he called.
"We brought lunch," Hannibal's voice replied, sounding determinedly neutral. "Sandwiches. They're on the counter, if you're hungry." Then footsteps retreated down the hallway, leaving them alone once more.
Murdock looked down at Face, seeing only the curve of his cheekbone and jaw from this angle. "You hungry?"
"That's not an answer, babe. You wanna go out there and get some food, or you wanna stay here?"
"I want to stay here forever, but I am hungry."
"Sandwiches sound good."
"Well, come on, then. We gotta do it sometime…"
Face sighed reluctant acceptance and disentangled himself from Murdock's embrace. Sitting up, he swung his feet over the edge of the bed. Then, as Murdock watched with sad, understanding eyes, he visibly braced himself for the coming trial—straightening his shoulders, lifting his head at an arrogant angle, and shoving his hair back from his forehead. When he stood up and headed for the door, anyone might have been forgiven for believing that it was the old Faceman sauntering so confidently across the room. Murdock wasn't fooled, but then, Murdock knew that the old Faceman was gone forever, burned away in the heat of his desire for his scruffy, wild-eyed, lunatic love.
Out in the great room, they found a generous lunch spread out on the kitchen counter. B.A. and Hannibal were seated on the deck in the Summer sunshine, eating sandwiches and talking quietly. They glanced up as the other two men stepped out onto the deck and nodded a greeting, then went back to their conversation. Face and Murdock pulled up chairs to a round, metal table and started to eat.
Face was halfway through a roast beef sandwich and beginning to relax when he felt Murdock's hand rest on his thigh. He stiffened and shot a glare at the man beside him, but Murdock just grinned. His fingers stroked up Face's leg shamelessly. Then, while Face sat, rigid with outrage, he leaned over and dropped a kiss on his lips.
"Reminds me of our island," Murdock said. "Remember? The balcony outside our suite?"
Face just glared more fiercely.
"Eating breakfast in the sunshine?"
"I remember," Face growled.
"I love that balcony."
Face choked on his sandwich and began to cough, prompting Murdock to whack him helpfully on the back. "Will you please shut up, Murdock?" he wheezed, when he could get enough air to speak.
"It just occurred to me that we didn't take any pictures. Two weeks in paradise, and we got nothin' to show for it."
That set Face off coughing again and finally got a rise out Bosco, who rumbled, "Lay off 'im, Crazy Man."
"What?" Murdock demanded, with feigned innocence.
"You ain't foolin' nobody, and you're gonna give Face a stroke, you keep that up."
The pilot grinned happily and took an enormous bite of his sandwich, but his antics had done the trick and lightened the mood among his teammates. When he had successfully swallowed his food and caught his breath, Face shot Bosco a curious look and asked, no hint of constraint in his manner,
"So, how did you figure us out, Big Guy?"
"Murdock gave it away."
"Me?!" Murdock squeaked.
"Yeah. He was too happy. Only one thing make Crazy Man that happy, and it sure ain't no breakfast on the balcony."
Face looked faintly embarrassed at that, but he controlled the urge to bristle defensively or retreat, and even managed a laugh. "We thought we were being so careful…"
"You were. I just happen to know you guys too well. 'Sides, why bother bein' careful around us? We're all family, right?"
"Right." Face shot a narrow look at Hannibal but made no further comment.
"I mean, you wanna waste your time with this fool, that's your business," Bosco went on blithely. "Least when we need you, we only gotta track one of you down."
"Hey, that's true!" Murdock chirped brightly.
"Hm." Face pushed away the rest of his sandwich and shot Murdock a challenging look, half expecting him to protest.
The pilot just grinned at him and dropped the remaining piece of his own sandwich on the plate. Bouncing to his feet, he held out a hand to Face and said, "C'mon down to the beach with me, babe."
Face hesitated for a split second, then took Murdock's hand and got to his feet. If he felt his teammates' eyes on him as he crossed the deck at Murdock's side, he gave no sign of it. And when they reached the sand and Murdock looped an arm around his shoulders, he leaned willingly into his side. Together, they slogged through the loose sand down nearly to the waterline. Then they dropped down to sit, staring out at the water, their bodies touching.
On the deck, Hannibal watched Murdock's arm go around Face again and pull him still closer. He watched the pilot lean over to kiss his companion, and he abruptly got to his feet.
"Let's clean this up and get out of here, B.A. I'll pay a visit to our contact downtown, see if we have any firm offers, then head home."
"Yeah, I got stuff to do at the Children's Center."
They gathered up the remnants of their lunch from the table and disappeared into the house.
Down on the sand, Murdock was watching the retreat of his teammates with one eye. The moment he knew they were alone, he swept Face up in his arms and planted a triumphant kiss on his lips.
"See, that wasn't so bad, telling the old man," he insisted. "You were worried about nothin'."
"Shut up," Face murmured. He leaned in for another kiss, but Murdock wasn't finished basking in his success and refused to be distracted.
"You just don't want to admit you were wrong."
"I don't want to talk about Hannibal. Not when there are so many nicer things to do…"
Succumbing to Face's blandishments, Murdock let himself be drawn into another long, passionate kiss. It lasted until the pilot reached the limit of his self-control and broke off to demand, "Admit you were wrong!"
Face pinned him with narrowed eyes and retorted, "When the old man has gone at least six months without accusing me of corrupting you or destroying our team, I'll consider it."
"That's what I said. Now, shut up and kiss me, you crazy fool."
"Six months!" Murdock crowed, then he caught Face's head in both hands, pulling him into a furious kiss. By the time they came up for air, they were sprawled in the sand, limbs tangled together, bodies moving with a now-familiar urgency. Murdock pulled away very slightly and purred, his voice rich with delight and triumph, his lips brushing Face's as they moved, "I get you for six, whole months."
"Maybe longer, if you play your cards right," Face murmured provocatively.
"Ooh! A challenge!"
Fastening his lips to Face's once more, he slid one hand up beneath the other man's shirt to stroke his bare skin. Face accepted this assault willingly, until he felt Murdock begin to peel his shirt off. Then he caught the pilot's wrist to halt his movement and turned his head to break the long kiss.
"Not here, Murdock."
"What's the matter? Afraid you'll be swept away by the romance of the moment and pledge yourself to me for life?"
"No. I'm afraid of all the places that sand is gonna get."
"Oh, c'mon, how bad can it be?"
"Obviously, you've never had sex in the sand."
"Where's your sense of adventure, Face? Your love of the game? Think of the adrenaline rush…"
Face's eyes twinkled with laughter, but his grip on Murdock's wrist did not loosen. "Are you talking about sex in the sand or a firefight?"
"Does it matter? Both are a blast, as long as it's you an' me together…" He stooped to kiss Face again, but the lieutenant pushed him away and sat up.
"You want me to stick around for more than six months, this is not the way to do it," Face said severely.
Murdock gazed up at him from his place on the sand, recognized the stubborn set of his jaw, and abruptly changed tacks. Bounding to his feet, he held out a hand to pull Face up after him, declaring, "Lucky for me there's a nice, big, sand-free bed in easy range!"
Face laughed and fell into step beside him, still holding his hand in a simple gesture of affection as they started across the sand. They were halfway up the wooden steps that led up to the deck, when Murdock picked up the conversational thread he had dropped in his efforts to seduce his companion.
"Is there any place you haven't had sex, Faceman?" he asked curiously.
Face thought about that for a moment, then offered, "The back of a Humvee."
"Really? Not once?"
"The closest I ever got was leaning up against the side of one in the motor pool. Back at Headhunter."
"Wow. There's actually something I know more about than you!"
Face chuckled. "Sex on a Humvee? How much is there to know?"
"Plenty! Like… How to keep from burning your ass on the bare metal, when it's been parked out in the sun for a couple of hours. Or where to lie so you won't whack yourself on the gun mount. Or even what kinda camouflage netting to use, so the rest of the squad can't see what you're doing."
Face shook his head in disbelief as they crossed the deck and stepped through the open door. "Jesus, Murdock, you didn't!"
"Sure, why not?"
"With a whole squad around, watching?"
"That was half the fun!"
The glass door slid shut on Face's shout of laughter.