A Slice of Star-Crossed Pie

by Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2011

Disclaimer: TAT belongs to Cannell/Lupo and Universal. Not for profit on my part, just for fun.

Dedicated: Once again, to A. You gave me the idea.

xxx

Red Mars. Huge, glowing Jupiter and its giant moons. Elusive little Mercury. Halley's Comet, a special, once-every-86 years treat just last year. The moon, its best face always forward.

Murdock had now seen them all up close through the little telescope he'd bought at the church rummage sale. Each body held its own secrets, but more importantly, each followed a distinct, predictable pattern in the sky. Almost fifteen years at the VA, and before that, the life of an active-duty soldier, had imbued in him an intense need for routine. It was something he rarely mentioned. He'd spent the last fifteen years making fun of Face for wanting to settle down, wanting stability, and now…

He sighed deeply. Fate was never without a sense of humor. Face had all the stability he wanted. Of course, his best friend was also a de facto prisoner. He was the one on the outside, with a (sort of) steady job and his own place. The swinging bachelor life Face used to enjoy.

It was hard not to laugh. His "pad" was six hundred square feet of a crumbling old Victorian. His fancy ride was an El Camino with more duct tape than chrome on its bumper. His faithful companion was no longer Billy, but a hamster who spent most of his time sleeping. And the only female company he'd entertained in the two months he'd called Baltimore Drive home had been the gentle, sixtyish widow from #4 who'd come by to give him a rock-hard fruitcake to welcome him to the neighborhood. He'd been using the gift as a doorstop.

No wonder he spent so many of his evenings looking at Venus through the telescope. Now there was a beautiful girl who never let a guy down. She always waited patiently for him at dawn or after sunset, glittering like a flawless diamond. Depending on the time of year, of course.

She is the perfect woman. If I ever had time to look.

The truth was, he felt exhausted. More exhausted than he had any right to be, though his fortieth birthday was coming right up. It wasn't just the cracked rib and the deep bruises from that little jaunt down to Santa Sofia to snatch the ambassador's wife from the guerrillas…Murdock was used to all the minor injuries by now…it was the nine to five stuff. They called them "jobs" for a reason.

And by now, he was starting to count them the way he used to paint VC stars on his week it was cleaning stalls and tack at the stables that ran horse-drawn tours in downtown DC. Last week it had been keeping statistics at high school basketball games, and before that…

Murdock realized he had already forgotten. It just wasn't worth remembering. He continued to polish the lenses. Tonight was the first night of the annual Leonid meteor shower. There was something to remember, not some lousy gig that paid barely enough for him to keep the lights on.

He considered picking up the phone and calling Face. Then, he remembered the fact that Stockwell would surely be listening, and threw out the idea. So many things were different here in northern Virginia. The General and his Ables were everywhere. Murdock, on the second night in his new apartment, had even dissembled the living room chandelier just to make sure it was clean. That was one of the oldest Agency tricks in the book. His old CIA instincts still told him he was being watched.

His instincts also knew for sure was that when he was outside, under the dome of the night sky, it just felt right. No peeling wallpaper or funny cabbage smells from upstairs or claustrophobia aboard Empress One. Just him and his beautiful evening star.

The guys had yet to visit him here. Stockwell didn't allow that. It would have been pointless aside from their company. The little flat was still depressingly bare, though he'd also found some functional furniture, and an old Beatles concert poster, at the same sale where he'd bought the telescope.

It's a lot like the VA. Just a little bigger, and there's no bars on the windows or guys in white coats trying to stop me from leaving.

A lot of times, while looking up into the infinite sea of the universe, Murdock wondered whether the board's decision to release him had been the right one. It was a question he still couldn't answer. But, the people who hired him seemed all right with him. At least for a week or two. Then, they usually let him go. No hard feelings.

A vehicle drove by outside. Murdock, looking up at the sound, thought it might be one of those stupid Crown Vics the Ables drove. Thinking they looked so normal in those things. But it was only the mailman.

He wanted to smack his own forehead. It had to have been a week since he checked his mail. Face would have found a way to smuggle out a letter by now, surely.

Cradling the telescope, he left the apartment for the house's foyer, which served as a combination mud room, post office, and depository for lost items. It was also a favorite spot for Moses, the irritable grey tabby belonging to Mrs. Edmundsen, she of the doorstop fruitcakes. Murdock tiptoed by the cat, who thankfully didn't wake. From where he stood, he could tell his mailbox was all but crammed full.

With a click of the key, mail spilled onto the floor. No sign of a letter from Face. Murdock felt his heart racing as he flipped through the contents. Mostly junk mail; the type addressed to "Current Resident." A forwarded official-looking letter from the VA. A flyer for the Chinese take-out place three blocks over. Nothing important.

"Oh, wow! Is that a microscope?"

In his surprise, Murdock almost dropped the instrument. A blonde woman he'd never seen before was standing at the foot of the staircase that led to #3 and #4. She wore a cream-colored waitress' uniform, a sweet-smelling perfume, and a warm smile.

"Um, telescope," he muttered, bending to pick up the few stray items he'd missed. "There's a big meteor shower tonight."

"Let me help you, honey," she said, hurrying over. "You've got quite an armful there." Her voice was friendly, and Murdock couldn't help notice that her hair smelled nice. As they both stood at the same time, they nearly bumped foreheads, and he looked into her eyes.

There wasn't a whole lot going on behind them. But she was pretty enough. And she had long lashes. Long lashes. Oh, great.

"You must be the guy from #2, huh?"

He nodded, wondering if he were blushing slightly, the way he sometimes did around girls after all these years.

"I'm Erica. Glad to see somebody besides nutty Mrs. Edmundsen lives here. You know, she brought me a fruitcake the other day? As a housewarming gift. You could honestly break windows with that thing, not like the cherry pies we make down at the coffee shop…those are incredible…"

Murdock could tell she was just one of those gals who loved to talk the way pigeons loved to crap on freshly washed cars. She kept going on and on as he politely nodded and smiled at all the right moments: she'd moved recently from Richmond to help take care of her aunt, hated DC traffic, worked at a coffee shop that catered mostly to working people and cops.

"Where are my manners?" She'd been in the middle of telling him about her balky Chevy Nova when she stopped and looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. "I didn't even get your name."

He in turn took a moment to study her. She was pretty enough…not like Venus…but easy on the eyes. Unlike all the female Ables he'd seen, her body language was warm and inviting. No five-course gourmet meal. More like macaroni and cheese chased with hot coffee. Satisfying in its own way.

"Um, Murdock. H.M., if you prefer," he said, balancing the telescope and offering her his hand, which she vigorously shook.

"Pleasure's all mine, H.M." Erica smiled.

If she were an Able, a possibility he'd immediately considered but quickly dismissed, they were lowering their standards. And Stockwell would never do that.

"So, what line of work are you in?" She gestured to his arms, offering to take the huge wad of mail from him.

"Oh." It was the one question he didn't want to answer. As he moved back towards his door, Erica followed at his heels, beaming. "I'm, um, in customer service." Now he really felt the flush in his cheeks.

"That's great! I am, too, if you call slinging hash customer service," she told him. "You know…if you're ever down on Pierce Street, and you're in the mood for some of that cherry pie…"

His head spun. He'd known this woman for less than five minutes, and she was asking him out. It was against the rules…Stockwell's, not to mention his own. He wasn't even in the market. Work was erratic and stressful. He wasn't the right type for her, and she certainly wasn't the right type for him.

"H.M.? Are you all right, hon? You look a little pale."

There was no way to check his reflection, but he felt a little pale. The way he used to feel almost twenty-five years ago when he'd taken the trainer up for the first time and was terrified he'd accidentally turn it into a ball of flaming debris.

"No. I mean, I do like cherry pie," he said weakly, setting the telescope down. "Almost as much as I like milkshakes."

"Well, the Puppy Platter has milkshakes, too. Nice, thick ones. They're great with the burgers."

It had been so long, at least a year or so, since he'd engaged in hardcore flirting. At least since Jodi. He was well out of practice. Next time he met up with the guys, he'd have to ask Face for a refresher course.

In situations like these, it was always Hannibal's voice he imagined. This was no exception. A strange little maxim of the Colonel's played in Murdock's head: A grenade in the hand is worth two in the car.

I never really understood that one. But I'll give it a shot anyway.

"That would be great. I mean, the pie," he said.

Erica's whole face lit up, like a newly born star. "Feel free to stop by anytime. And if you do, be sure to tell me ahead of time, OK? I always like to cook up something special if I know I have a special guest coming."

"I'd like that." That part, at least, was sincere. I'm tired of cooking Swanson TV dinners and Campbell's soup every night.

"Um, see you around, then, H.M?" She turned to leave. "I have to get ready for work, but don't be such a stranger. It's hard having Mrs. Edmundsen as a neighbor. "

"I'll see you." He smiled, held her gaze for just a moment, and closed the door.

Did I just agree to go out with her? Or did I run her off? Dammit, I'm so tired. My brain isn't working right. Maybe the docs were wrong about me after all. Or maybe, he thought, I just need a good night's sleep. I can't go on a date if I'm walking around like a zombie.

Sleep would have to wait, though. He wasn't going to miss the Leonids. As he grabbed the half-empty, cold mug of coffee from that morning and sipped, he absently began to flip through the week's worth of junk mail. In between a supermarket flyer and a Publisher's Clearinghouse envelope, something caught his eye. A postcard, depicting Earth as seen from space, with the caption "Wish You Were Here." Murdock flipped it over and began to read:

Hey, Murdock,

We all miss having you around. The silence is a killer. I've even heard B.A. say "I miss the crazy fool," and you know what that means coming from him. I think I may be able to get some of those Ed Wood movies you wanted for next week. How's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" sound? I'm sure we'll see each other soon. Take care of those cracked ribs so you can laugh the way you always do. Hannibal and B.A. send their best.

~Face

PS. Might want to get rid of this, just in case. You know how Stockwell can be.

Murdock realized he was grinning for the first time in ages. He put the postcard under the ice tray in his freezer, then drank the last of the cold coffee. His solar system was small, and lonely, and often eerily quiet. But he was not its sole inhabitant. Sometimes, he just had to be reminded.

Dusk had fallen outside. The meteors would put on a show tonight, and, tired or not, he was not going to miss it.

Not every star could be as bright as Venus. But then, she really was one of a kind.

Fini