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An Echo, A Stain

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Murdock woke up with his mouth tasting of ass and his head pounding like something inside was trying to burst through his skull. Only two things he knew of caused his head to feel like that: one was a head wound and the other was the special ingredient to his taco bean dip. And they had run out of paint thinner last week.

He gingerly opened his eyes and had a moment of panic at the blackness. At least four of his culinary creations caused temporary blindness but he was pretty sure he hadn't cooked any of them since the last time BA threatened to create his own dish using Murdock's intestines. Then he registered the fact that his eyelashes were catching against material of some description which meant a blindfold which... probably didn't meant anything good.

He blinked in the darkness and tried to think past his throbbing head enough to take stock of his situation. The air smelled stale and slightly dank. Underground then, probably a basement. About as far from the sky as you could get. His entire body ached like he'd just gone two rounds with a truck and it felt like he was sprawled on his side with... yep, with his wrists secured behind his back and... oh. And he felt enough of the cold hard floor against his bare skin to guess that he was either buck naked or stripped down to his skivvies. Well then.

With a pained hiss as his muscles protested, Murdock managed to twist enough to rub his face against the floor, trying to catch the blindfold on something rough and drag it away from his eyes.

A few minutes and a bit of stubble rash from getting intimate with the concrete later he found himself blinking in a small pale room. A bare light bulb was the only source of illumination but there really wasn't much to see: stairs leading up to a door on the left and a folding chair resting against the far wall. Kind of a cliché, but he could work with it.

He was also glad to note that he still had his shorts on. Thank you, Underwear Gods.

Murdock's muscles made another round of protests, louder this time, as he flopped around gracelessly until he was able to roll over and sit up with his shoulders against the bare brick wall. His arms screamed behind him, agony laced with patches of worrying numbness that meant he must have been lying here for a while. What the Hell had happened? He tried to find a less painful angle to slump against the wall as he strained to focus and piece together what had led up to waking up in a basement.

They had been working a job. One of these new jobs where they were helping people that the law couldn't or wouldn't help. BA had been the one to suggest it: all gruff and angry on the surface but with his embarrassment and fragile hope shining through like the midday sun behind your eyelids. “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” he had said, looking at Hannibal. “We have to become warriors again it should be for something that mean something.” Hannibal just nodded with that look on his face that meant he was imagining all the new crazy plans he could come up with.

Face had argued against it, of course. They were already fugitives from the military and now BA wanted them to paint a big target on their backs and dance the Hula in front of the police yelling “Look at me! Look at me!” But that was just Face arguing for the sake of arguing and it was clear from the light in his eyes that he was interested. That particular brand of crazy light had been missing since they'd escaped from the back of the prison van and its return had pleased Murdock. He always loved it when Face got a little crazy: made him feel like he was in the right place.

Murdock had loved the idea right from the beginning. He'd wanted to get them costumes and code names but BA vetoed the costumes and Face pointed out that they all had code names already. Which was true, although no one really called Murdock “Howling Mad” anymore, and he had briefly toyed with the idea of trying to convince the guys to call him Nighthawk.

Code names and costumes aside, it was working out pretty well so far. They had helped out lots of people and were even starting to attract media attention, which hadn't been a part of the plan but was pretty fun anyway. Murdock liked to read about himself in the papers and imagine that he'd done those things. Which he had, of course, but it seemed so much more exciting when he was reading about it like he was the Range Rider or something.

Using their skills to really make a difference was incredibly gratifying but Murdock also loved these jobs because they gave him some structure. He didn't deal well without structure: it was what had made him join the army in the first place. And the army had helped... at first, but as well as structure he needed stimulation. He got bored very easily and when he got bored he couldn't keep control over his impulses or quiet the voices that chattered through the cracks in his head. Bad things tended to happen.

Being assigned to Hannibal's team had been the perfect combination of structure and unpredictability. So perfect that some nights he still lay awake, paralysed with the certainty that Face and Hannibal and BA were just figments of his imagination, that he had never really left the hospital. He stared at the ceiling and shook: too afraid to close his eyes and too afraid to leave his bed to go find one of the others and prove to himself that they really existed. Too afraid that he would find nothing but white walls and his own panicked breathing.

It was all a little bit too unlikely, his brain whispered to him in the dark. Like something from a fairytale. The three of them riding in like princes to rescue him from his tower and sweep him away in their flying chariot for magical adventures. Could that really have happened? Could it be real, that moment in the corridor when Hannibal had pinned Murdock with his eyes: cutting through the blur of his medication and the clamour around him. Looking at him, into him, and seeing something worthwhile. Something no one else had ever seen in Murdock before. Could that really have happened?

These thoughts had taken him over at that hospital in Germany after their trial. They'd kept him doped up enough that he wasn't sure where or when he was half of the time. Sometimes he had known that he was back in that Mexican hospital. That he had never left.

It had been the biggest leap of faith of his entire life to open that package from Annabel Smith. Was he still waiting to be rescued from his tower instead of trying to get well and rescuing himself? He hadn't been sure. In the end, what he had been sure of was that if reality meant never seeing the guys again then he didn't want to leave the Matrix. Blue pill every time.

After the guys sprung him from the hospital in Germany there had been no time for anything other than basking in each others' company and clearing their names. And then they had cleared their names and it hadn't made a blind bit of difference and they had been on the run again. And he had worried. Worried that, with the future stretching out in front of him and without the safety net of structure and treatment, he could begin to unravel and lose himself again.

But these jobs were helping. Helping people was helping. It was the downtimes between jobs that he dreaded, but he'd been keeping a lid on it so far. Didn't want to let the guys down.

The job they were on right now was a tough one. A local bigshot called Kilpatrick, who considered himself something of an old style landowner, had hired some muscle from a neighbouring gang to “encourage” the local townspeople to sell him their land dirt cheap so he could lord it over the whole thing. Or turn it into a golf course or a mine or something. Murdock hadn't really been paying attention to that part, he just knew that someone with more money than heart thought it gave them the right to treat other people like shit. So it goes.

So it goes and so it went, but it hadn't been going great for the good guys. Two townspeople had been killed before the team even arrived and another four were hospitalised after Kilpatrick discovered that they had called in outside help. Hannibal had been forced to do some pretty fancy talking to the scared crowd just to convince them not to give in after the arson attack on the local schoolhouse.

There had been one or two skirmishes since then. Face had gotten smacked in the mouth, BA had thrown someone through a window. The usual. And then one of Kilpatrick's goons had gotten off a lucky shot and broken Face's wrist and Hannibal had gotten so mad that he'd blown up Kilpatrick's prize Bentley. It had been kind of awesome actually. Made a pretty fireball.

It did seem to rile Kilpatrick up though when, really, Murdock thought he should have been grateful. Rich asshole with a classic car was definitely a cliché.

Still, getting Kilpatrick pissed enough to spit was apparently all part of the plan. The next step required Face and Murdock doing some surveillance on Kilpatrick's office in town, but they'd been spotted and chased. Murdock remembered dodging bullets and running out into the road and a sudden flash of what looked like a Rolls Royce and then... Holy crap, did the guy hit him with his car?! That was a new one. It would explain why he felt like he had been hit by a car though.

Huh. Kilpatrick must be pretty pissed at damaging another classic car on their account.

There was a sudden noise above his head, key turning in a lock, and the door at the top of the stairs was opening, pulling Murdock out of his thoughts. He settled back to watch as Kilpatrick himself walked down the stairs with two of his larger lackeys in tow.

“Did you hit me with your car?” Murdock asked without any preamble.

Kilpatrick glared down at him. “My 1966 Silver Cloud. You cracked the windshield, dented the hood and damaged the wiring in the headlights. Several hundred dollars worth of repair.”

Murdock nodded sympathetically. “Bummer. You know, your other car looked a bit sturdier. Maybe it would have been okay if you'd hit me with that one. It was just the whole exploding thing that it didn't do too well with.”

Kilpatrick's face went through a complicated series of expressions and several fetching shades of purple before he let out a short bark of a laugh. “Well, Mr... Murdock is it? I do hope I've gotten that right. I would hate to mistake the name of someone I'm going to have killed.”

“Do you have any cars left to run me over with?” Murdock asked in concern. Hopefully, he didn't also collect steamrollers.

He saw Kilpatrick's kick coming a mile off but didn't have room to do much more than twist away so it struck him on the jaw instead of knocking his teeth down his throat. Murdock shook his head to clear his vision, rotating his jaw carefully. Luckily, Kilpatrick kicked like a... well, not like a girl. Murdock had been kicked pretty damn hard by some pretty mean girls in his time. Like a Marine maybe.

When his head stopped ringing enough for him to hear again, Murdock caught the tail end of a heated discussion going on above his head. Well, not so much a discussion really as Kilpatrick giving a bunch of orders and the other two agreeing with his orders from the looks of it. Murdock couldn't make out any actual words but their tones rose and fell in very emphatic and dramatic ways. He only wished he had his hands free so he could conduct them like an orchestra.

Kilpatrick turned back to Murdock and sneered down at him. “Goodbye, Mr Murdock. I would stay and watch you get pummelled for a while before my colleagues shoot you in the head but I have a business to run. I hope you believe in an afterlife as that's the only way you're ever going to see your friends again.”

Murdock peered up at him.“You have something in your nose,” he said seriously. “You know, I'm trying to pay attention to what you're saying, man, but it's very distracting.”

Kilpatrick's left eye twitched and then he turned and walked to the stairs, calling back as he went. “Do whatever it takes to make him talk. Find out where his friends are and burn the building to the ground with them inside. I want this ended tonight.”

When Kilpatrick had gone Murdock eyed the two other men. They both wore workshirts and were packed with muscle but the one on the right held himself like a soldier and he was the one Murdock watched.

The soldier nodded at Murdock's tattoo. “Ranger, huh? Where did you serve?”

“The kitchen, mostly,” Murdock said. He shifted against the wall, trying to relieve the pressure on his shoulders. “I don't suppose you guys'd want to retie my wrists in the front? It's just I get anxious when I can't see my watch. The time always seems to be stuck at six o'clock but I like to check anyway.”

“You're not wearing a watch,” the other guy growled.

“I'm not? What's that ticking then? You hear that?” Murdock squirmed, glancing around. He didn't hear ticking yet but he could make himself if he tried. Crazy really came in handy when you found yourself having to stall for time so that the guys could burst in for a heroic nick of time rescue. It was a real shame that they hadn't gone for the costumes, that would add the right flare to the situation.

“I told you this asshole was a looney toons, Boone.” The guy on the left snorted. “Can I at least smack him around a bit first?”

Boone ignored him and kept his eyes on Murdock, expression thoughtful.

“Come on, it's like a ticking. Like a clock or something. You don't hear that? Tell me you hear that, it's driving me crazy.” Murdock craned his neck, trying to see his arms behind him. “Are you sure it's not my watch? It sounds just like it and it's a very distinctive ticking. Well, less a ticking like tick-tock, tick-tock and more a tock-tock, tock-tock, you know? Tock-tock. Like that.”

“Boone, seriously. I had a cheeseburger at lunch that I need to work off.”

“Oh, are you on the Atkins?” Murdock grinned. “How you finding it? I know a lot of people swear by it but, man, I just love my carbs too much. I mean, I try to keep in shape, you know, so I've tried them all. Whatever Oprah was on I was on, right? In the end though it was Janet Reno's Pretty-And-Petite Bikini-Blast that did it for me. You should give it a go - change your life, man.”

“Do you ever shut up?” he snapped taking a step forward, fists clenched.

“Settle down, Carl,” Boone said. “Go walk it off if you're going to be an ass.”

Carl folded his face up angrily but didn't move, just glared down at Murdock and cracked his knuckles like he was itching to put his hands around the pilot's throat. Murdock saw that look a lot.

He blinked innocently. “Isn't me talking kind of the whole point of this thing here? You're not very good at this are you?”

“Oh, you'll talk,” Boone said offhandedly: a simple statement of fact like he was commenting on the wetness of water or the likelihood of the sun rising in the morning. “Everyone talks. You just have to know how to ask them.”

“Politely?” Murdock ventured. “With s'mores?”

Boone tilted his head and examined Murdock like he was a bug pinned to a board. “You look scrappy. I bet I could pull out every one of your toenails and you'd just spit in my face.”

In the pause that followed that little piece of wonderful Murdock felt his toes twitch with the desire to curl themselves away out of sight. “Well, that and ask you to chip in for my next pedicure.”

Boone smiled slightly. It was not a reassuring sight. “You see, Murdock, you're not the only one to have served. I'm sure you can tell that. A soldier can always tell his own. And while you were mostly serving in the kitchens I was in Iraq getting prisoners to tell me everything they knew. It's not really a talent that I thought I'd get to use so much back in the world but life does have a way of surprising you, doesn't it?”

He crouched down, putting him on a level with Murdock so he could look him right in the eye. His eyes were perfectly nondescript but Murdock found himself frozen like a mouse hypnotised by a snake all the same. He'd seen eyes like that before, just like he'd heard that same quiet patient voice. A voice that would ask you questions so calmly, so reasonably that you could almost forget that it belonged to the man holding a lit blowtorch to the soles of your feet. He hadn't met Boone before but he'd known men like him, oh yes.

Carl shifted his feet somewhere in the distance but neither of them looked away. “The trick of it is knowing just how to ask,” Boone continued, speaking low as if they were the only two people in the universe. “What most people don't realise is that everyone wants to talk. People like talking. I just have to make it so they know it's okay to let themself do so. After a while you become very good at hearing all the things people are telling you before they even open their mouths.”

There seemed to hardly be any air in the room and, although he'd been cold before, now Murdock feels sweat beading at his temples, pricking at his upper lip. There's a door in front of him and behind it the wind whips across the desert, almost masking the low choking and moans from some place he can't see. He doesn't want to go through there, tries to dig his heels in and tells himself to run, but there's blood and sand on his tongue and he can't make his legs work. There's something behind him, something pushing him forward.

“You're Military,” Boone murmured. “A Ranger. At least you were and no one ever really stops being a soldier do they? You've seen combat. Clearly, been interrogated before. You think I don't know Hannibal Smith and his A Team when I see them? Everyone knew about you jokers.”

And just like that Murdock was jerked away from the door and back in this cold basement in Pennsylvania, heart racing. The guys. The guys were out there and they would be coming for him. He had to hold it together, had to stay here so that when they came they would be able to find him.

He cleared his throat and found a grin from somewhere, brittle and sharp on his lips. Boone was a snake all right but Murdock was a mongoose, not a mouse. Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk. I see you with your teeth and your coils. You bite me: I'll bite back.

“Sounds to me like someone's got themselves a case of A Team envy,” he drawled. “You read all that in my interview in this month's Tiger Beat? You get to the part about my favourite popsicle flavour and my top tips for getting your body ready for swimsuit season yet? Something you might like to read, Carl, if you know what I mean and I think you do.”

Carl snarled but Boone's face twitched in something that could be either annoyance or amusement. Or both. Murdock had a tendency to occupy the middle section of that particular Venn Diagram

“There's something not quite right about you isn't there?” Boone said.

“So they tell me.”

“No, something more than just being a wiseass. They always said that Hannibal Smith had a whackjob on his team but I didn't believe it.”

Boone's voice was musing and he reached out suddenly as if to stroke Murdock's hair. Murdock jerked back so fast that he cracked his head against the wall, teeth bared and heart knocking against his ribs. He glared at Boone and Boone smiled back, letting his fingertips fall to Murdock's shoulder, only to snatch them back as Murdock's teeth snapped together.

“Yeah,” Boone said slowly and Murdock didn't like the look on his face at all. “You've got that look in your eye. I've seen that look. That's where you live. That's where we can talk.”

Well shit.

“Shit,” Carl unknowingly echoed Murdock's thought. “Does this mean I don't even get to smack him around a bit? He's really fucking asking for it.”

“What? Oh, no go ahead.” Boone stood up in one fluid movement, so suddenly that it made Murdock feel like he had fallen down a very deep well. “One shot, that's all. We'll need him still able to function.”

Murdock watched Boone's broad back as he climbed the stairs, having to fight the stupid feeling that his protection was leaving with him. As if Boone didn't mean him far greater harm than this slab of pork could do with one punch.

He turned back to Carl who stood over him looking a lot more pleased than he had done. Well, it was good to see a man who enjoyed his work.

“Hey, Carl.” He gave him his most charming grin. A Faceman special. “Now, you look like a guy who appreciates a good joke. Come on, man, let me tell you a joke. If it stinks you can always smack me in the mouth, hey?”

It turned out that Carl wasn't so much one for jokes. He was pretty good at punching though, he had punching down.

When Murdock came back to himself, Carl had gone and he was lying on his side spitting out blood. His whole face throbbed but his jaw wasn't broken. Fucking amateur. He gingerly counted his teeth with his tongue. He couldn't remember how many he'd had to begin with but there seemed to be a lot of them so they were probably still all there. Which was good as his current job didn't have dental. Something to mention to Hannibal.

Now that he was alone, Murdock did his best to assess his current situation. The room he was in looked depressingly secure but it was the only game in town so he slowly and painfully got to his feet and checked anyway. Nothing. Brick wall and concrete, not a gap anywhere, not a loose nail or scrap of metal he could use on his restraints. Even the light bulb was too high for him to be able to reach. It just hung up there over his head like the bright idea he didn't have.

He could reach the door at the top of the steps, but he couldn't pick a lock with his wrists tied behind him and nothing to hand. No help there.

What he needed was a plan. Think think think. What would Hannibal do in this situation?

Murdock screwed his eyes shut. Straightened his back. Imagined himself a lot taller, and a lot greyer and with a cigar fixation. He wanted to be smoking a cigar right now and was pissed that his hands were behind his back so he couldn't. He had to come up with a plan so that none of his boys would die today and so he could have a cigar. He wasn't worried. He always had a plan.

Now.

What was his plan?

Murdock searched his brain. He tried his best, he really did but it was no use. Even when he was pretending to be Hannibal he couldn't think like the Colonel.

Dejected and planless, Murdock did the only thing he could think of and sat down to wait.

It was hard to judge time in there, but he'd had time enough to get really bored with playing I Spy by the time that the door unlocked and footsteps descended. He even got bored of playing I Don't Spy, which was a much better game, but still there were only so many times that you could try to guess whether you didn't spy a walrus, a carpenter or a tea tray in the sky when you were playing by yourself.

It was just Boone this time. And he was holding a gun.

Show time. “Finally! I was starting to get hungry.”

“Up.” Boone gestured with the gun, waiting for Murdock to stagger to his feet. He was clearly not in a chatty mood anymore “Turn around.”

Murdock stayed very still. “I didn't figure you for the squeamish type, hoss.”

“You figured right. Turn around or I'll shoot you in the kneecap.” He aimed the gun casually. “I don't want to have to shoot you because I don't want to have to carry you.”

Murdock did as he was told. He didn't let himself get carried away by the good news that he wasn't going to be executed right this second, especially not when a bag was pulled down over his head and it took everything he had not to lose it completely. He wasn't given time to recover as he was manhandled up the stairs: too disorientated and panicked by the bag and rough hands on him to do any more than stay on his feet and try to keep from having a fully-fledged flashback.

He just about kept his feet under him as he was pushed this way and that, dragged from one room to another. And then he was shoved hard in the back so he fell forwards, arms still trapped behind him so no way to brace himself against the impact or to do anything except wince.

The impact hit him sooner than he'd expected and he could do nothing but lie there for a second, gasping. It took him a second to identify what it was he was lying on and as soon as he realised that it was a bed beneath him he was rolling, was thrashing to get his legs under him and get away. Too slow. Boone was already on him, crouched across Murdock's back and pinning him down with his weight.

Murdock twisted and bucked for all he was worth but Boone just rode out his struggles, hissing and crooning at him like he was trying to soothe a spooked horse. “Easy now. Easy there. Shhhhh.”

The tell tale sting of a needle in Murdock's ass and he shouted, kicking out and fighting in a blind rage, his anger the only thing keeping him on this side of a panic attack.

The weight didn't move from his back and finally Murdock exhausted himself and lay shaking and panting against the mattress. So focused on his fear and the blood pounding hot and red in his temples that it took him a while to notice that something was wrong. Something else.

Boone shifted his weight experimentally. “Are you going to behave now?”

“What... what..?” Murdock gasped, trying to focus.

“What was in that shot I gave you? Yeah, that should be kicking in now. Don't you worry about that.”

His voice was a physical thing rasping at Murdock's skin and he moaned, stomach lurching and the world spinning like he was in free fall.

He barely noticed Boone untying his wrists until the blood began to rush back to them and he screamed, was helpless not to. His arms were on fire, he was burning. Too much too much. He tried to curl in on himself but his wrists were grabbed and stretched above his head and he retched, certain he was going to be sick, acid at the back of his throat.

“You throw up, you're lying in it."

The weight was finally gone from his back but it was all that Murdock could do to lie there, gulping air and desperately trying to get control over his stomach, never mind trying to fight again. He felt hands on his ankles and did manage a weak kick at that but this only earned him a blow to the small of his back that left him choking and writhing as his ankles were secured too, spreading him wide.

An amused sound somewhere above and behind him and his head jerked in response, disorientated.

“How you feeling, Murdock?” Boone again, his tone more suited to greeting a friend at the bar than addressing someone he had just tied face down on a bed. “Hanging in there?”

“Like a... cat. On... a poster,” Murdock heard himself say.

“Good boy. Can I tell you a secret? Concentrate now, you're going to want to hear this. Your friends are already dead. One of our guys spotted them hiding around the back of Mr Kilpatrick's office, near where we found you. They must have been looking for you because they really weren't paying attention. I thought you guys were supposed to be Rangers. It was almost embarrassing how easy it was.”

Murdock's chest froze up. He literally felt his heart clench and refuse to keep beating, his lungs refuse to keep pushing air. There was a high pitched tone in his ears, like the one you get when the signal went bad.

“The black guy almost got away,” Boone continued conversationally. “He would have gotten away except he went back for the pretty boy. They both died quick. Not as quick as the Colonel though: he took one through the left eye at the beginning. Dead before he saw it coming.”

Murdock flinched. He'd been shot in the head once. For weeks afterwards he'd been sure that the shot had killed him and had stumbled around avoiding reflective surfaces because he was terrified of seeing himself faded and the world visible right through him. Sometimes he still wasn't sure that he hadn't died there. Maybe he had. Maybe that was how it happened.

“So really I don't need you to tell me anything anymore. Mr Kilpatrick said I can just shoot you in the head and we'll throw you in the incinerator with your friends. He doesn't care.”

“So why don't you?” Murdock didn't recognise his own voice.

“Oh, I will. Just not yet.”

A hand settled lightly between Murdock's shoulder blades and he snarled, trying to twist away from the touch and then screwing his eyes shut as his stomach lurched at the sudden movement.

“Most of the boys have gone back to Pittsburgh already. Job's done. I thought I'd take another day or two. Have a bit of a vacation first.”

His hand trailed slowly down Murdock's spine. “Yeah, a vacation is just what I need.”

“You're lying,” Murdock choked out. “About my team. They're not dead. You're lying.”

“You want to believe that then you go right ahead. No skin off my nose. See, before, I cared about what you had to say. Now? Now you're just a body to me. A fine body at that. That's good. I do prefer it when they're fine to look at. Be better if you weren't so battered already – I like to work with a clean slate. Can't have everything though, can we?”

Boone's hand swept lower, palming a buttock. “You ever been fucked?”

Murdock went mad at that: kicking and thrashing despite his nausea until it forced him down, clutching at the sheets and fighting to stay conscious as the world pitched and yawed around him.

It wasn't that he hadn't been expecting it, but he'd managed to lock it away where he wouldn't have to think about it. There was already too much clamouring for his attention, buzzing like a hornets nest under his skin, too much rage and fear and grief already there. He wasn't built to hold this much feeling inside him: any moment now he was going to split and tear apart and the full jagged weight of it all would swarm out through the cracks.

“Of course you have,” Boone said to himself. “Everyone knew about Hannibal Smith's team.”

Murdock refused to respond to that but he couldn't keep the angry noise inside.

“Oh yeah, everyone knew. Of course, I figured it was mostly bullshit but the part about keeping the whackjob around just because he was a good fuck always made sense to me.”

“Shut... your fucking... mouth!” Murdock snarled.

“Hey, man, I'm not blaming you. I mean it's not like you could help it. What else were you going to do – say no and let them ship you back to the nearest nuthouse? I'm sure you're not the first guy who's had to grab ankle to stay in this man's army.”

Boone's tone turned confiding. “You must have liked it though, huh? At least some of it. I mean, you're not in the army anymore and you're still hanging around those guys, begging for scraps. The Colonel must have really trained you well. You probably don't know what else to do with yourself, do you, you poor fuck.”

Murdock hadn't known that he was capable of such rage. There was nothing to him but rage now: blood red and blazing, swarming in his head, striving to get free and set the world to burning. He kicked and thrashed, wanting nothing but to get free and stop that filthy lying voice forever. Turn its owner into a red smear on the carpet.

Boone waited until Murdock collapsed retching and shaking. “Save some of your energy there, sweet thing. I'd really like it if you could wiggle like that while I'm inside you. That would make it special for me.”

“I'm going to kill you,” Murdock gasped, spots swimming in and out of his vision. “I'm really... really going to kill you. A lot.”

“Okay, tough guy. You let me know how you get on with that.” Boone squeezed his ass. “Now I'm just going to go get some oil so I can get up on in there. Then you'll feel better. You're not oiled up already by any chance are you?” His hand slipped beneath Murdock's shorts and then there was a finger pressed inside Murdock, testing. He gasped and kicked out furiously at the intrusion.

“Pity. I'd have thought the Colonel would have you ready to go whenever. Maybe he liked to watch you do it to yourself. Stay right there.”

The finger withdrew and Murdock was left shuddering, straining his ears over the violence in his head to hear where Boone had gone. It sounded like he was in another room and Murdock struggled to get himself under control. He had to get out, get away. Get out of these restraints.

He dragged his head against the sheets, trying to pull the bag off his head, much as he'd done with the blindfold. If he could see then he could perhaps work out how to undo his restraints, could at least get some idea of his surroundings. Not feel so fucking helpless. The bag was easier than the blindfold had been and he was soon staring around wildly.

Something was very wrong. Like you don't realise how drunk you are until you try and stand up, it was only when his eyes were free that Murdock saw the way the world was pulsing and tilting around him. He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting nausea, and tried again, cautiously. He could make out his arms stretched in front of him, held with what looked like hospital restraints to the wrought iron headboard. A wall beyond them. The wall seemed to be melting, seemed to be alive.

“Oh, cat's out of the bag.” Boone was suddenly standing there. Fucker was quiet. And fast. “It was mostly for your benefit, didn't want you getting overwhelmed. But I definitely wouldn't mind seeing your face as I work.”

“What...” Murdock panted, dragging his eyes away from the threatening wall, trying to focus on the ditch of his left elbow, the small freckle there. Trying to grasp hold of something solid.

“What did I give you? It doesn't really matter does it? I hear some people take it recreationally – of course they're probably not fucked in the head to start with. It should be interesting anyway.”

The bed tilted as Boone sat down, Murdock screwed his eyes shut, fighting nausea. “'m going. T'be sick.”

“I told you already: you're sick then you're lying in it. I'm not cleaning it up,” Boone said carelessly. “I don't think we need these shorts anymore, do you?” The sound of scissors and the shock of their coolness against Murdock's skin as his shorts were literally cut off him.

Murdock groaned, trying to stay clinging to the surface of the world as it spun around him. He was so nauseous and wretched that he was barely able to kick when the hands returned, one parting his buttocks and then that finger, now slick with oil, entered him again. And now there was a finger in him, a finger moving inside his body and this thought buzzed inside his head, layering over itself like white noise, like static, like a signal that had gotten crossed somewhere, a switch that had tripped when it was too much and was trying to shut the system down.

Outside of it all, a million miles away, he could hear Boone humming and his other hand (the one that wasn't partly inside Murdock oh God) carded through Murdock's hair absently, like a man petting a dog just because it's there.

The finger inside him crooked and stroked, spreading oil and was joined by a second finger, making him stifle a sharp grunt and kick pathetically. He could feel himself being stretched, his muscles accommodating the invasion when they should scream out and refuse. He bit into his lip until his mouth flooded with iron. His anger had washed away under the pull of nausea and in its wake he only felt miserable and disgusting.

It didn't hurt. That was the worst of it. The violation of it made his stomach heave anew and his brain want to go offline but it didn't hurt. It seemed like it should. Seemed like it should hurt when someone was tearing the wings off your soul.

He lay still now, blood in his mouth and feeling every ache on his body. Every impact site and abused muscle. He could go away. He could go away in his head. He hadn't done so for a long time because he wasn't sure he'd be able to come back, but right now that didn't sound bad at all.

"There now,” Boone soothed. Murdock wanted to tear his throat open with his teeth. “That's better, isn't it? That's what you were after. Look at how well you're taking my fingers. How hungrily. Did they pass you around the battalion or did Hannibal keep you for himself? Did he let the other two have a go on you every now and again? That seems like him. Share and share alike, right?”

Murdock let that filth slide right past him and didn't respond. He was looking inwards now. Looking for the runway so he can take off and fly this plane right out of here, take it through twists and turns and barrel rolls so far inside his own head that no one will ever be able to find him. He sees the horizon, beautiful and stretching out in front of him, and starts to rise-

Boone twisted and pressed with his fingers, sending sparks off behind Murdock's balls and dragging him crashing back down into his body. He choked and tried to twist away from that delicious wrongness but Boone pressed again and it made Murdock convulse against his will.

His head swam and for several heady seconds he was certain he was going to vomit and then have to lie in it whilst this twisted fuck went to town on him. This needed to end, just to be over. Make it stop. This had nothing to do with finding the team (not dead not dead not dead) and nothing to do with the job. Just split him wide and fuck him and get it over with or take his fingers out and say it had all been a joke and you'd liked it, faggot. He knew how to deal with those. But this wielding and inflicting pleasure like a scorpion flail, forcing it out of his unwilling body.... He was helpless beneath this.

“You look so good like this, baby,” Boone crooned, a mockery of endearment in his voice.

That pressure again and Murdock couldn't contain the urgent whine that rose in his throat. All of his senses were firing conflicting signals along his synapses: Low voice in his ear like he was with a lover, his skin crawling like he was having a nightmare.

The world was tilting around him and he yearned for instruments under his hands, for a way to control this or at least ride it out without it shaking him apart. He could smell oil and old smoke and the staleness of the bedsheets but overriding that was the stench of his own fear-sweat. The whole world stank of fear.

And suddenly he was back to another time like this. Restrained, afraid, helpless. Someone standing over him that he can't focus on through the fog of whatever shit they had pumped into him that day. Medicine, they called it. He can't see their face but he feels their hands on him and he can't move, can't scream, can't do anything except go away in his head.

Murdock shook, eyes wide, searching for something real. Something that would tell him where he was. His arms stretching in front of him, covered in bruises like they were in the hospital, more tan though. White wall, hospital restraints. Different bed. Still the smell of his own fear colouring everything, something sharp and medical there too – was that real or in his head? When was this?

His breathing became very rapid as he tried to get a hold of himself. Tried to keep from getting unstuck in time and spiralling out. He couldn't tell which Murdock he was, where he was meant to be.

“Hey. Murdock. Murdock, honey.” Boone patted his cheek gently. “I've got something to tell you. You know how I told you that we shot your friends? Well, that wasn't true. I made that up.”

Murdock's heart leapt at that, a thin joyful pain in his chest.

"No, we burnt them instead,” Boone continued in that same gentle voice. “One of those dumb townies decided to be smart and gave them up. She led us right to them. We surrounded the place, set it on fire and shot at your guys whenever they tried to get out the doors and windows. They stopped trying after a while. When the fire had burnt itself out we found them hiding in the basement. They all had scraps of cloth tied around their faces but the smoke got them anyway. They were already piled up together like a bunch of fags so we just squirted lighter fluid on them and torched them. You know that smell, don't you, Murdock?”

Murdock didn't know what to think, what to feel. How many times could they die? He pictured them huddling together, wet rags over their faces but dying anyway. Hannibal sinks to the ground, defeated, unable to look at his boys as he fails to come up with a way out of this. Face and BA sit on either side of him, shoulders press together and nothing needs to be said. There is an empty space beside them as they wait, the shadow of someone missing.

Boone removed his fingers and Murdock was still choking on the smoke in his lungs, feeling too raw and open and wondering if this was how he died. And then there was the tearing of plastic and the stink of latex, chemical like a hospital, and Murdock groaned and kicked but something blunt and slippery was pressing against him and then, horrible, his body was stretching to accommodate it, was allowing it entry with barely any resistance at all. Was allowing this.

"Oh shit,” Boone breathed across the back of his neck. “Oh shit, that's sweet. That's fucking sweet. I knew you'd be sweet like this, knew it first time I saw you. Could tell by looking at you.”

Murdock tried to gather enough breath to tell him to go fuck himself but Boone gave a short sharp thrust that knocked the air from Murdock's lungs, left him gasping, hands clawed and feet scrabbling for purchase but finding none.

Behind him, Boone let out a satisfied groan accompanied by a slow withdrawal and then a smooth deep push that shocked a sob out of Murdock, his eyes tearing furiously and another sob escaped before he could bite at the bloody mess that was his lower lip, give himself some pain to deal with. Some pain to distance himself.

“Did you like that?” Boone breathed. “I think you did. You sound like you did. It's okay to like it: your team are dead but they wouldn't want you to go without. You can moan if you like. Come on, moan for me.”

He adjusted his angle and suddenly he was hitting that spot inside Murdock that felt so horribly good, rubbing against it and making Murdock writhe, clawing at the sheets and panting furiously, dazed with pleasure and nausea and self hatred, trying to escape it but being pinned down, hands on his hips, tilting him up, holding him pierced and open where Boone wanted him.

Murdock screwed his eyes shut. Wish on a star. Wish to be bigger, stronger. To be red in tooth and claw. To be able to tear open anyone who came close and put their hands on him. To be strong enough to not let this happen. To not have this shame, this secret wrongness shining out of him. To not always smell like fresh blood in a world full of sharks.

Blood under his tongue. Blood and sand and he can't breathe, can't raise his head. Don't look, don't look. They're torturing the guy in the next cell again, torturing Hal, whose only crime had been to gaze up at a huge Texan sky as a child and never want anything more. His screams are so loud that they become an electric current that goes right through him, shuddering through his bones and his brain and making it so he'll never be right again.

Don't look, don't look.

Blood and sand and he can't breathe, can't move his legs. The world smells like fear and charred pork and the voice in his ear is so gentle and reasonable, the words lilt and dip and flow together like music. Words are just sounds, see-yai-yaye means nothing anymore, strokes against his ear, across his lips, and leaves him. Agony cuts the lungs from him and he can't breathe, can't even scream anymore.

Fingers in his hair and the voice is so soothing, so patient. It just wants to help, wants to understand. Why won't you answer our questions, Captain? Don't you want to go home? See-yai-yaye, see-yai-yaye is the desert's song but it doesn't understand. This is where he lives now. Murdock can never go home again.

The fingers in his hair clench and jerk his head back into the now and he gasped and Boone was still murmuring behind him. Voice low and filthy, obscene nothings chattering like a nest of weasels up through the cracks. So good. So sweet. Knew you'd love this, I could see it on you. Each word a dirty finger stroking down his spine, painting his shame into his skin where everyone would see. Don't look, don't look.

The grip on his hair relaxed, turned gentle, and then wrenched back so hard that it shocked a strangled noise out of Murdock. His neck screamed at the angle and he choked desperately for air. Boone nuzzled his face against Murdock's cheek, obscene intimacy making Murdock want to recoil but he was being held in place, unable to draw breath, forced to feel the moist push of air against his neck, to hear the words being whispered.

“Your friends didn't burn like I said. That was a lie.”

Boone mouthed at Murdock's jaw, lips rasping against stubble. “We told them that we had you and we were willing to deal. They showed up to meet us in the middle of the road like it was fucking High Noon or something. They had some more fireworks and shit set up like last time, but it didn't make any difference. They came because they thought they could get you back. They let us tie them up, nice and quiet. We said that if they promised not to come back, we would just drive them out of town and ditch them by the side of the road. We told them that's where you were.”

His teeth clamped down, biting so hard that Murdock would have screamed if he'd had the air. His vision closed in as he swam on the verge of passing out: nothing in the world but the ache in his lungs, the pain at his face and the voice in his ear.

“We tied them up and then we took turns hitting them with baseball bats. That big black fellow of yours took forever to fucking die. I was beginning to think we'd never kill that sucker but we did in the end. Looked like a side of tenderised meat once we were through. You know the last thing he said? Last thing he said was asking where you were. Where were you?”

Murdock's vision went black for an instant and when he came back his cheek was against the mattress, gasping for air. The world was blurred and shaking around him and he barely realised it was because he was crying. Jagged little sobs that he couldn't contain as he saw the guys on their knees. BA's face turns towards him and it doesn't look like him anymore. Doesn't look like anything that had ever been alive. This was it then. This was how it happened.

Boone laughed delightedly and licked a long wet stripe up the side of Murdock's face. “Shit, I just knew you were the type to cry during sex. So emotional, baby. So fucking sweet.”

He pulled back and threw all his attention into his thrusts, working towards his climax as Murdock pushed his face into his shoulder and sobbed. The iron headboard rattled against the wall, faster and faster like a clock ticking down to the end of the world.

After Boone had grunted and shuddered deep inside Murdock he withdrew and pulled the condom off, slapping it across Murdock's back. “Don't go anywhere. I'm just going to get something to eat – worked myself up quite an appetite. You've been real good, real sweet, so I might just bring you something too.”

Murdock lay still, breath hitching in little aftershocks and his eyes open but unfocused. Seeing BA's face like that and hearing him ask for Murdock had shorted out something in his head. Something had crossed over, something had cracked, and what was beneath his skin had run out of him like water and left him empty. He was full of nothing but static now, something that buzzed like a disconnected call and pressed up gently against the inside of his skull and behind his eyes. Keeping him too full to allow anything else back in.

It was like flying through clouds as he hung there, suspended deep in the static of his own head. No way to tell up from down, no way to tell what was happening beyond the edges of the static. No way to be seen either. He would be safe here. He could stay here and wait for the guys to find him. He hadn't died with them but he knew that they would have waited. They'd come for him.

He barely twitched as something hard-edged landed on the centre of his back, several somethings that rolled off either from his movement or their own momentum. Boone was standing there, hazy through the static but the edges of him clear as if he'd been outlined in black marker. He had a sandwich in one hand and a straight-edged razor in the other. “I brought you something.”

Murdock felt his heart kick at the sight of the blade, his body reacting to the threat even as his mind stayed serene. Everything that could take place in this room had already happened. He was outside of it, watching it like an old film on a bad television set: something he'd known since childhood that didn't have the power to interest him anymore. He knew how this one ended.

Boone took a large bite out of his sandwich and spoke through it. “Now, I don't have my full kit here so I'm having to improvise, but I think we've got enough to be having some good times. So first on the agenda we've got this.” He waved the razor and then placed it and the sandwich down on Murdock's back so he could collect the items that had settled cold and remote against Murdock's side. He held them up for Murdock to see.

A pair of pliers, a shaker of salt and a cigarette lighter.

Boone turned the items between his fingers, his voice coming across from a great distance but very clear. “With the razor I think I'll just open you up a little. Just to get the juices flowing. After that I'll probably be getting to feeling pretty hot again so I'll use the pliers to pull out every one of your teeth and fuck your throat for a while. That's a good one. After that, well, I guess I'll just burn you some. We'll see how we get on. You can't over plan these things, takes the fun right out of it.”

Murdock felt his heart begin to speed up in the empty cathedral of his chest. He remembered this. He remembered how this went. He'd already lived through it at least once, he shouldn't have to do it again. He shouldn't have to be here when there was all this static inside him, it was supposed to keep him safe. He tried to pull back but there's something hard and splintered at the back of his mouth, forcing his jaw apart, holding him in place. Can't breathe, can't bite down. There's a gentle hand cupping his face, thumbing at the corner of his stretched mouth in obscene counterpoint to the harsh moans above him. He shouldn't have to be here.

He didn't realise that he was pulling at his restraints, the sluggish movements of someone mostly asleep, until Boone laughed and smacked him on the ass. “Oh yeah, keep doing that. I like that.”

The slap was enough to shake Murdock away from that time, enough to break its hold and throw some static up between him and it. Him and then. That time played out on the other side of the static, far enough away that he could only make out soft noises and see shadows moving through the haze. Shadows are like clouds: you can make them be anything you want.

Boone straddled Murdock's hips and stretched along the length of his back to place the pliers and the cigarette lighter on the mattress between Murdock's forearms. Too close to be able to turn them into shadows, they remained a sharply-focused promise of things to come. Things that had already happened.

Boone ghosted his fingertips across Murdock's back, making him shiver. Murdock shouldn't have to feel this, he shouldn't have to be here. He already knew everything that was going to happen, had already seen himself die at this man's hands just as he had died in Iraq and LA and a million and one other places. Little pieces of himself dying all across the world, leading up to this final death when there was so much less of him now than there had once been. He had done this already, he knew how this went. He shouldn't have to feel it again.

“You've had a master working on you, haven't you?” Boone mused and Murdock realised that he was tracing the thin white scars, reading their lines as if they were a Braille written on Murdock's body. “You should feel honoured: craftsmanship like this is rare. Where was this – Iraq? Looks like their work. It probably all looks the same to most people but when you're in the business yourself you learn to tell the difference.”

He pressed lightly at the ridge across Murdock's shoulder blade and, under his touch, the skin split, the flesh tore open again, tore open for the first time and he's pressed up against that door that he doesn't want to go through. He panics and tries to hide but there's a wind whipping across the desert, whipping up the sand and thinning out the static until there are shapes coming out of it. They have been waiting for him.

There are fingers in his hair, petting him, keeping him close as the voice whispers to him. Two voices laid over each other, he can only catch snippets of the softer voice, the desert's voice

(We only want to help you, Captain. Why won't you let us help you?)

but the other voice is perfectly clear. “I'm only sorry I don't have my full kit with me. It would be really something to just follow this blueprint step by step. Mind you, I think we can make a decent start with what we've got. Let me know if I get anything wrong.”

The pressure increased, carving into his back, forcing him up against the door. And he can't close his ears, can't stop Hal from screaming in the next cell, can't stop himself from seeing this. He doesn't want to be here, don't make him be back here. He can't breathe, can't get the blood out of his mouth, can't move as he's pinned there, helpless and open right where they want him.

“Shit, with work like this I bet they got you to say anything they wanted.” That was Boone's voice, not the desert's. He can still tell the difference. “I bet they made you sing for them all right. Hard to imagine you knowing anything worth the effort, but maybe they were an enthusiast like me. You practise on the ones that don't matter. It keeps you sharp. Keeps you at the top of your game for when you meet someone who has something worth hearing.”

The blade twists across Murdock's ribs and he gasps and wrenches away from the door. He pulls in huge lungfuls of air and tries to find something to cling onto. White sheets, his arms in restraints, white wall in front of him. Is he in a hospital? Mexico or Germany? Strapped down and helpless and there's someone in the room with him, someone he can't see, can't focus on through the fog of whatever shit they've pumped into him that day. He can't speak, can't move, can barely feel it as someone punches him under his ribs. Sharp little punch that knocks the air out of him.

That'll teach you to act up, you little shit

He tries to pull back but there's something in his mouth, rubber stink on his tongue, something holding him in place. Can't move, can't bite down, and then someone says Clear and the scream runs through him like electricity. First they do this in Iraq to break him and then the other side (his own side) does it to break him again into something more manageable. Something that will sit quietly in a corner and drool and be no trouble. He isn't going to let them, he isn't going to -

Clear

The scream runs through him and tears out through his back and then it's Boone behind him, Boone's hands on him tearing his scars open for the first time. Tearing him open and holding him where Boone wants him. When Murdock screws his eyes shut he can taste sand in his mouth and hear the desert whispering her lullaby: when he forces them open they fix on the pliers in front of him and he feels his chest tighten, his jaw ache. Something in his mouth and he pushes his tongue against it. Smooth and rubber means the hospital, rough and splintered means Iraq.

Too many voices whispering in his ear, twining around each other like snakes making love, all telling him the same thing in different ways. Boone's voice is the hardest to avoid, it drips into his ear, and burns where it touches. “With the ones who don't know anything you get them to tell you stuff that doesn't matter. Get them to admit to watching their sister get undressed, stealing money from their Gramma – shit like that.” A smirk in his voice. Poisoned honey. “You ever steal from your Gramma, Murdock?”

The words don't mean anything. Words are just sounds, just discordant music stroking at your insides, curling up inside your heart like a worm in an apple, nibbling away at you and never leaving no matter how you try to scratch them out.

Something fell, soft like snow, against Murdock's back and then he was burning, was twisting at the current running through him. Germany, Mexico, Iraq, LA, Pennsylvania. He's in all places, everywhere he's died, all at the same time. Each of them sink their fingers into the flesh of him and pull, tearing him in opposite directions, tearing him apart.

“Come on, Murdock, play along,” Boone murmured. “Did you steal from your Gramma. Yes or no?”

Why won't you answer our questions, Captain?

Murdock can't speak. This happened ten years ago and it happened yesterday and it was still happening. He can't move, can't speak. Can't make a sound.

The blade twisted again, became a hook that caught under his rib and tried to reel him in. He won't go, he won't go. You can't pull him into this room just so you can crack open his chest, scrape out all the secrets there, and then stand over him and watch him gasp his life out as you click your tongue and make notes. He won't go. This place has claimed him, has left its mark on his skin and beneath his skull, made him so he will never be entirely free, but he won't let them have the rest of him. He'll let the hook rip open his chest before he lets them take him back.

Don't you want to go home?

The hook turned over inside him, inside his body where it didn't belong, and then it was gone, leaving him too raw and open and there was a distant sigh, wind across the desert. “Fine, maybe you're right. Maybe we should just skip past this and go straight to the pliers. Boy, you just can't wait to get your mouth wrapped around my cock, can you?”

The pliers came into focus in front of Murdock: bigger than the world, blotting out the sky. Boone's hand reached down into his field of vision and everything was moving very slowly and Murdock knew he had to say something but there's something hard and splintered at the back of his mouth and he can't move his jaw. Can't move. Can only watch, frozen like a jackrabbit in front of a truck, as this happens. He is pinned, helpless. He can't escape something that has already happened, can't stop it from happening.

There's a gentle hand holding his face, thumbing at the corner of his mouth, baring his teeth, and then he hears someone say in a rough voice, “No. I never stole from my Gramma.”

The voice jolted him back, made him startle. He hadn't known that there was anyone else in here, not anyone who could speak out loud, could help him. Boone made a satisfied sound and put the pliers down, clearly he didn't mind someone else answering for Murdock.

There shouldn't have been anyone else there, but the voice was protecting him, was on his side and Murdock let his eyes close. The voices murmured back and forth over his head, distant like they were in another room, he could only make out words if he tried. He didn't try. He could stay here, stay safe and out of time and let the voices deal with whatever was so important. He could stay here and wait for the guys to come for him.

The voices continued and at some point Murdock realised that the owner of the voice that was protecting him and the fingers carding gently through his hair was Hal. The skinny kid in the next cell who had screamed loud enough to crack open the sky before he died. Murdock had failed him all those years ago, had listened to him scream and choke and not been able to help him. And here he was helping Murdock, helping him when he had never helped Hal, and Murdock was so filled with gratitude that he could weep.

I'm sorry he whispered to Hal. Hal didn't need to ask what he was sorry for, just smiled down at Murdock and told him it was all right.

Hal looked unchanged from all those years ago. He'd never had a chance to get old, to get worn out and unclean like Murdock. Hal had died and it had just been Murdock in that cell on his own, nothing between him and the sharp edges of the world. Nothing to do but leave in whatever way he could.

He wasn't paying attention to what Hal and Boone were talking about. It was nothing to do with him anymore and Hal could be trusted. He had never told the guards anything in Iraq and they had killed him for it. Murdock rested his head in Hal's lap, letting the voices wash over him, and feeling almost like a whole person.

He only resurfaced when he heard Boone mention the guys. Boone was talking about the guys and... Stockholm Syndrome. Interesting psychological phenomenon but never something that Murdock had suffered from. Every day of his imprisonment he'd smiled with all his teeth and made life as impossible as he could for those holding him. He'd never stopped trying to escape, never stopped trying to palm his meds. Never made it easy for anyone to clip his wings.

Boone was still talking about the guys, his words dragging Murdock up, pulling him into that other room. “-had you brainwashed. I mean, they're dead now and you still can't let go of them, can you? They had you figured out all right. I bet they got you to believe anything they wanted. What did they say – that you were a part of the team? You were an equal member?”

Don't look, don't look, Hal whispered. His fingertips are cool when he brushes them against Murdock's eyelids and just like that Murdock is able to pull away, to fall deeper inside himself, somewhere safe.

And now he's back with the team, back when they had first taken him out of that hospital in Mexico. Back when they are all new to each other and have yet to learn all the hidden ways in which they aren't fit for the rest of the world. Face scams them a house by the beach and Murdock sits with his face tilted towards the sun and watches himself turn golden like his new friends.

And then one of them puts their hands on him to shake him awake and Murdock wakes up screaming and swinging.

-didn't even try to rescue you, you know that? Probably went back to their base and had a beer. They must be-”

Face says don't worry about it but his eye swells and blackens and then slowly fades over that week while Murdock chews the inside of his mouth until it is pulp. All that week he can't sit still, can't sleep, can only wait for them to say it. That he fucked up. That he is fucked up. They're going to banish him back to the top of his tower with its pale walls and endless tea parties and say they'd made a mistake. They hadn't realised how damaged he was, how much of a burden.

-to say he shared a room with you all that night and never rolled you over a time or two? So what-”

Face finally drags him (metaphorically – none of them touch him again for a long time) to sit down at the dinner table where the three of them are cleaning guns and discussing an upcoming mission. Murdock sits there, practically vibrating with anxiety, but is eventually lulled by their voices, by the smell of smoke and gun oil and the rhythms of them clicking together. When he closes his eyes they sound like an engine purring at twenty thousand feet: all the parts working as one, moving so fast and so high but seeming to glide effortlessly.

-let you have a room of your own while they all shared? You're sweet, but you're not that good a fuck. Hate to say. So what-”

When he stumbles back to his room that night, someone has attached a sliding bolt lock to the inside of his door. It has been longer than he can remember since no one could get into his room unless he let them and he's so full of feeling that he has to wrap his arms around his chest to keep from splitting open. He doesn't know what he did to deserve being seen like this, being known like this and not judged. Not left behind. He draws the bolt and sleeps for eighteen hours straight. If he has dreams he doesn't remember them.

-in a place with at least four bedrooms, facing East. And you already confirmed that there's a basement, probably a garage or somewhere to store that big old van of yours too. When did-”

Murdock felt Hal pulling at him urgently, pulling him up from his memories until he was almost in the room. Hal wanted him to hear this. Murdock frowned and opened his eyes, something about Boone's words striking him as wrong, striking him as dangerous.

And BA was standing there.

BA was too far away for Murdock to be able to see his face, to see if he looked like himself again. He didn't need to be able to see BA's face to feel the anger coming off of him though and then there was the sound of a shot and Boone was swearing, was falling back onto Murdock's legs and away. BA didn't even look at Murdock, just barrelled past and out of frame, a sound coming from him like metal tearing. Like a fissure opening in something so strong you could never imagine it breaking until it happened.

Hannibal and Face swam into view too. Face came close and just stared, looking like he was going to be sick and wiping his mouth against his sleeve compulsively. He still had the cast on his wrist, which seemed wrong to Murdock, but then again Face has always been good at holding onto old hurts. It's something the two of them have in common. Maybe now though they can both shed these things, it would be a relief to not have to carry everything.

There were sounds in the room, far away and unimportant. Grunts and chokes and something cracking open, something yielding to pressure and being rearranged into a new shape. Made into something new. Murdock still couldn't see BA's face but he could hear him making the same furious broken sounds he had done when they had uncovered that child brothel in Basra. Sounds like he wanted to sob and roar all at once.

Face managed to shake himself out of his paralysis and started cutting at the restraints. His eyes were huge and wet but seemed unable to look directly at Murdock now: his gaze skipped across Murdock's jaw, his shoulder, his wrist, like it couldn't find any place safe to land. He looked as close to freaking out as Murdock had ever seen the Faceman and Murdock watched his face with distant curiosity, wondering what Face was so upset about. Everything was fine. The guys had come for him like he'd known they would.

And Murdock was free now, his restraints cut, but he couldn't move. Couldn't bring himself back into his body and stop this from being something he was watching happen from far away. He looked around for Hal, maybe Hal would know how he could come back, but Hal was gone.

Hannibal crouched down, too close, and Murdock wanted to ask him if he'd seen where Hal went but Hannibal was furious, Murdock had never seen him so angry. He looked like the apocalypse in blue jeans, like he could burn down the whole world and still not be satisfied. Murdock couldn't move but he cringed from that anger, didn't understand what was wrong. Maybe Hannibal was looking into him again like he had done in that hospital corridor and this time he didn't like what he saw.

Don't look, don't look.

“Face,” Hannibal said quietly, not looking away from Murdock. “Get a blanket or something. BA... BA. Report, Corporal.”

BA's voice sounded like old machinery reluctantly grinding into life. “I'm here, man. I don't want to be talking right now.”

“I don't need you to talk, I need you to carry Murdock out of here and into the van.”

Something fell across Murdock's back but he didn't move, didn't flinch. He tried to focus on the loose bit of stitching on Hannibal's sleeve, tried to grasp hold of something solid that he could use to keep himself here. If he let his guard down, one of the other times that had laid claim to him would drag him away, drag him back to Iraq or the hospital or Boone with his teeth in Murdock's face. He wouldn't let go, he wouldn't let them take him back.

Then Hannibal was gone and Murdock panicked, set adrift and trying to find something solid to cling to. White sheets, his arms with restraints beside them, white wall in front of him. Is he in a hospital? Is he with Boone? There's someone in the room with him, several someones that he can hear but can't see through the fog of whatever shit they've pumped into him that day and he's spinning out, nothing to catch hold of, nothing to stop him falling.

Suddenly, BA was crouched beside him. His face looked like it had cracked open and been put back together by sheer force of will, but he wasn't bruised, he wasn't hurt. He looked like himself.

His voice was gentle like most people forgot BA could be. “Hey, Murdock. I got to touch you now, man, so I can carry you out to the van and we can go get you fixed up. I'm just going to carry you. I ain't going to hurt you, little brother.”

As if Murdock had ever needed to be told that. As if BA could ever not be safe for Murdock.

It did hurt when BA picked him up but Murdock could forgive him. It wouldn't hurt for much longer, soon he would learn to let go of that. He rested his head against BA's shoulder and curled his fingers around BA's wrist, holding on like that would be enough to keep him there.

He couldn't see Hannibal and Face but he could hear them and he had BA's wrist in his hand, anchoring him. They were talking about things that didn't matter anymore but he liked to hear their voices.

Murdock closed his eyes and listened to the four of them purr at twenty thousand feet.