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Logic and Proportion

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It was subtle at first. A slight narrowing of the eyes when their new client first heard Murdock speak. A curl of the top lip and his eyes flicking from Murdock’s battered baseball cap to his What the Frak tee shirt and down to his unlaced Chucks. Nothing to get excited about. Nothing worth noticing.

After that, it was the way he interrupted Murdock's report to say “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t think I understood any of that. Perhaps if you spoke more slowly? I’m just not used to an accent as… colourful as yours.”

And then it was the way he said “Well, fancy that” when Murdock obligingly slid his accent over into a pretty fair imitation of the client’s own arch tones. Like Murdock were a dog that had just performed a mildly amusing trick. Walked on its hind legs and barked perhaps.

So when he walked into the team’s kitchen ten minutes ago and felt the need to ask Murdock whether the Green Lantern he was thumbing through had enough pictures… Well, it was safe to say that Murdock had a pretty good idea which way the wind was blowing here.

It was nothing new. Nothing Murdock hadn’t encountered before. The guys thought that he could be kind of oblivious, and they weren’t exactly wrong, but he was pretty used to this kind of thing by now and his radar could spot it from a mile off. It wasn’t even a surprise anymore, especially not from guys like Jonathan Wingfield.

Their new client was one of those lazy-voiced, shark-eyed young men who seemed perpetually dissatisfied with their lot. Even when, in Wingfield’s case, their lot happened to be family money and a name that traced back to The Mayflower. Not to mention their own multinational company, built on that family name and with that family money, by the time they were thirty five.

Murdock had met a lot of Wingfields in his time: the Military was full of them. Those boys loved nothing more than physical proof of their own superiority and a bit of shiny metal on the shoulder went nicely with the Lexus in the garage and the trophy wife in the bedroom.

Something about Murdock tended to rub guys like Wingfield the wrong way, always had done, so he was long past the point in his life where he felt like he needed to prove himself, prove them wrong. Long past the point where he’d let it worm its way under his skin and have any kind of effect on him. Or so he’d thought.

Normally, he could shrug it off. No big deal. Flip the station, change the channel, slide his frequency from shortwave to longwave and pick up something with a better beat. Something he could dance to.

Or, when the message was coming through just a little too loud and clear and in his face for him to tune out, he could settle back inside his skin and let the crazy out to play. Widen his grin, bare his teeth, and let today’s unlucky caller know that here there be monsters and they should back the fuck off if they didn’t want to find themselves short a limb or two.

Carving out a kind of Crazy-Man’s Land around himself with plenty of accents and barbed wire and gently-smiling crocodiles was usually enough to do it. Enough to keep him the happy, well-adjusted version of himself that he liked to be around the guys. Enough to keep him safe.

Usually, that was enough, but something was wrong here.

Wingfield wasn’t saying or doing anything that Murdock hadn’t heard a thousand times before. It was nothing new. And maybe that was the problem: it all felt far too familiar this time.

This time, a roll of Wingfield’s eyes and Murdock is back to being the weird kid that even the teachers laugh at. A snide word and Murdock is back at his first day of Flight school, where he’s younger than everyone else by a good two years and so nervous that he babbles on about the Power Rangers for twenty minutes because he doesn’t know enough to know that he shouldn’t.

Eventually, a guy who looks like a Kennedy interrupts Murdock to ask if he’s there because of Affirmative Action. If Murdock’s there so the Airforce can point to him as proof that they didn’t exclude rednecks from the programme. Everyone laughs and Murdock feels himself go cold and he can’t think of a single word to say.

He still felt like he couldn’t think of a word to say. Something about Wingfield and about this job made Murdock hyper-aware of his own frayed edges and the parts of himself that weren’t quite right. Made him want to pull his cap down and turn up the collar of his jacket and just hole up somewhere and wait this one out.

That wasn’t really an option here though. The past few months had been a parade of jobs that seemed simple enough on first glance but turned real ugly real quick and they all had war wounds to show for it. Murdock’s stitches had only come out last week and BA still couldn’t drive on that knee. They weren’t in great shape and the money was drying up fast.

So, really, Wingfield’s job seemed like a gift from the gods: a bit of industrial espionage, a leak in security, corporate greed. The sort of job where Face would get to put on his best suit, Hannibal would get to make some rich asshole look like a fool and BA would get to use his electrical and computing skills rather than his muscle and so could stay off his knee and give it time to heal. It’d probably be less than a fortnight’s work and then a fat cheque with a minimum amount of dodging bullets. Pretty sweet really.

On the whole, Murdock really preferred the kind of jobs where they got to make a difference, got to help people who had been dealt a bad hand and couldn’t see another way out. The kind of jobs where there were hugs and thank yous and sometimes homemade cookies or sandwiches for the road. He wasn’t so much into helping the Wingfields of the world get even richer, but a job was a job and money was money. Besides, this one was Face’s show and Murdock wasn’t going to ruin it for him.

Wingfield had been Face’s find. A friend of a friend of a business connection and Murdock found himself zoning out whenever Face tried to explain it to him. The important thing was that it was a relatively simple job and Face was getting to take the lead on this one while Hannibal sat back and tried not to look too much like a proud parent.

It was good to see Face fired up again, good to see that look back in his eyes. Face hadn’t taken charge of a mission since that bleak morning in LA when the Army had decided that their lives weren’t worth a bit of extra paperwork. Something had gone out in Face after that and he’d left all subsequent planning to Hannibal.

Out of the four of them, Murdock thought that Face had been hit the hardest by the Army’s final betrayal. Even after the trial and the reveal of Morrison and everything that went with it he’d still believed in the system, still believed that if he only played the game well enough he’d be let back into the club. He’d still had faith.

Murdock’s faith in the Army had run out right around the time those doctors in Germany decided that they didn’t really need Murdock’s consent to strap him down and shoot electrical current through his brain. Things had gotten pretty vague for a while there. Snow had fallen so thick and so heavy and had buried Murdock so deep that he couldn’t feel the cold anymore. Couldn’t feel much of anything.

What had brought him back, made him claw his way up through the smothering layers of static and whiteness, was the feeling that there was something important he needed to do. Something important to do with Face. He couldn’t always remember what that something important was, but it was enough to focus him. Enough to make him remember that he needed to stay on the surface where his team would be able to find him if they came back for him.

When the guys burst through that wall, cracked open that shell, Murdock had been ready and waiting to spread his wings. Then there was flying and falling and talk of reinstatement and Murdock had let it carry him along, not telling the guys that he’d already made a promise to himself that he was done. He’d done his time, paid his dues, and he wasn’t about to give the Army another chance to screw him over and ship him off to an even more distant country to do even more ridiculous Cuckoo’s Nest shit to him.

Because maybe strike three was the one where they got serious. Maybe strike three was the one where they took you from your bed at night and came in through your eye sockets to kindly and gently slice away all the parts of you that were broken and messy and didn’t fit into what they had decided you should be. Maybe strike three was the one where you never came back.

And maybe not: stranger things have happened. But Murdock had lived long enough and ugly enough to know that his luck was generally for shit, so he had kept one eye on the skies just in case. Kept an eye out for snow clouds.

But it turned out that two bullets felt an awful lot like several hundred watts when you applied both to the brain and he was still trying to claw his way free when the sky had fallen and things went straight to Hell.

They’d escaped. Things had been vague again, but Murdock remembered that much.

Remembered that key between Face’s teeth and BA holding him up as they ran and that first night when the four of them had huddled together in a stolen car and Murdock’s head had been full to bursting with cordite and gunfire and scattershot afterimages from someone else’s life whenever he closed his eyes. Someone from an earlier time who knew the taste of ginseng in soft white bread and knew how it felt to spend years curled up inside a cold white shell like a forgotten secret and wasn’t him.

He remembered that night spent staring into the darkness with a stranger inside his head and Face’s fingers ice cold and trembling where they were tucked inside his collar. And Murdock had wanted to say something: wanted to tell Face that this wasn’t his fault, that it wasn’t because his plan hadn’t been good enough. But he had been afraid of whose voice he would hear if he opened his mouth. Afraid of what they might say. So he had just lain there all night listening to the four of them breathe with Face’s fingers pressed against his pulse.

And then there was a blur of running and hotel rooms and time becoming very fluid. Days running into weeks into months and then back into days again, travelling in circles so that Murdock found himself remembering things that hadn’t happened yet. His mind had played tricks on him and for a while there it had felt a lot like the end of the world.

And then he’d woken up one day and it had been that part after the end of the world. The part they didn’t really show you in movies: the part where you sort of picked yourself up and took a look around you and just put one foot in front of the other and got on with your new life. Sometimes Murdock thought he even liked this part better than what had come before.

Because, okay, there were lean months with no jobs and nothing to do but grate on each other’s nerves. And early-morning evacuations down fire escapes when the Military came to call - so often in those first few months that even Face had given up sleeping naked - and the guys never getting to see their families, and shitty hotel coffee, and endless nights of driving in shifts and talking in low cracked voices just to stay awake and not disturb the snores from the back seat.

But there was also that community centre they had saved from going under, and the look on BA’s face when one of the younger kids had written PITY and FOOL on her knuckles with a black sharpie. And that old Korean man who spoke no English but had wept with gratitude when they ran off the gang that tried setting fire to his restaurant with his family inside. And there was also no twice-yearly psyche evaluation. No need for the guys to coach him and then stand between him and the MPs when Murdock screwed things up anyway. No need for Hannibal to pull every string at his disposal while Murdock shook with fear and shame.

And there was that something important that Murdock had kept cradled against his chest those six months in Germany. That something important he had needed to tell Face, a fragile light to keep Murdock from just lying down and going out like a candle. That something important that it turned out he didn’t need to tell Face after all because Face got there first and had been carrying his own hidden light all this time.

That was sort of new and sort of exactly how things had been all along but better. A lot better, really. Better than anything Murdock had ever had in his life before and something he couldn’t see having happened if they were still in the Military. Something that made all of this worth it, at least for Murdock.

So life after the end of the world was treating Murdock pretty well. All he’d ever really had in his life was flying and the guys and he didn’t so much care where they ended up as long as there was plenty of sky and the four of them together. This thing with Wingfield was nothing really, just a blemish on the horizon that barely interfered with flight conditions at all.

Murdock lifted his eyes to scan the sky. Yeah, it was a perfect day for flying really: wide and blue and nothing but a few scud clouds up there, nothing that wouldn’t pass. It had been weeks since Murdock flew anything and on days like this his chest ached with the need to be ten thousand feet above it all. Face hadn’t mentioned anything about the plan involving flying, but surely he would understand that a day like today was just made for flying.

He was so caught up in the idea of being up there that it was only when Face tapped him on the arm that he fell back to earth. Fell back to earth and realised that he was still sitting at the kitchen table with Wingfield and the guys, still in the middle of the meeting, and Face was looking at him with concern.

“You with us, buddy?” Face asked. “I kind of need you to focus for a minute while we go through this.”

Murdock saw the way that Wingfield’s lip curled at that but ignored him in favour of Face. “Is there going to be air support on this one?”

He remembered, too late, that Face probably hadn’t been listening to the conversation going on in Murdock’s head, but Face just blinked and shook his head slowly. “Not this time. Sorry. Next time, okay?”

Murdock sighed and looked down at his hands on the table. His hands and the deck of cards his hands were shuffling absently without his even being aware of it. “Flying yesterday and flying tomorrow but never flying today.”

Face’s hand was still on his arm and it gave him a squeeze as Face looked genuinely contrite. “Next time. I promise.”

Murdock nodded and kept his eyes on the cards until Face moved his hand.

“So, we’re all agreed,” Face said. Apparently, Murdock had agreed to something without being aware of it. He hated it when that happened. “We need to know whether Koningin is behind what’s going on in her own company or if her CEO, Redman, is acting alone. If it’s just Redman then maybe Koningin will be interested to know exactly where all these new ideas are coming from. She could be useful.”

“You mean she could be useful to you,” BA smirked and then immediately seemed to realise what he’d said and shot an apologetic grimace at Murdock. It was kind of cute how he and Hannibal still didn’t quite know how to act around him when it came time to send Face in for a charm offensive.

“I don’t know, Face,” Hannibal cut in from where he was leaning against the kitchen work surface. He tended to do his best thinking on his feet and even though this was technically Face’s plan it was a hard habit to break. “This woman is the head of a multinational multimillion dollar company. She’s been on the cover of Forbes Magazine three times in the past decade. You may be a little out of your league.”

“Hannibal, you wound me,” Face said, although he didn’t look particularly wounded. “There’s no such thing as out of my league. But that’s not the plan. Not yet anyway. First I want to get an idea of where she stands on the issue of stealing technology from rival companies. And, since we don’t have time for BA to try and work around that charming device of hers that stops us putting a tap on her phone, we’re going to have to go old school on this one and plant a bug in her office.”

BA muttered something under his breath about this being more Stone Age than old school, obviously still sore about his failure to bypass the phone system. Murdock fanned the cards in his hands and invited BA to pick one to make him feel better. BA just looked at him and Face shot them a grin before continuing. “Now, thanks to yesterday’s bit of business at the golf course, she’s already met Hannibal and BA so that’s you guys out.”

“Not necessarily,” Hannibal rubbed at his jaw and looked thoughtful as Murdock folded the deck up again. “As you all know, I’ve been doing some work with prosthetics lately and this might be the ideal time to test them out. I’m almost certain that I could disguise myself so that Koningin wouldn’t even recognise me.”

“Disguise? What are you talking about, man,” BA snorted. “You’re six five with grey hair and a broken nose. And you just took five hundred dollars off her CEO in a golf game right in front of her. I don’t think she’s going to forget your face.”

“Six four. And the rest can easily be camouflaged, BA,” Hannibal had that slightly aggrieved look he tended to get when one of them didn’t immediately see the inherent genius in one of his plans.

BA still looked sceptical, but Murdock had helped Hannibal out with his awesomely creepy prosthetics on a few recent nights when his chronic insomnia had coincided with the boss’s erratic sleeping patterns. Hannibal refused to allow any of his hours to be spent unproductively, no matter how early in the morning they were, so the two of them had spent some serious time at various kitchen tables sipping weak tea and trying to get the texture of latex skin just right. They’d gotten pretty good: they might even fool Koningin if she didn’t look too close.

But on the other hand: they might not. The boss did tend to leave an impression on people and he must be having a harder time playing second banana on this job than Murdock had thought if he was seriously thinking about opening up his own personal Weta Workshop for a simple bugging.

“I can do it,” Murdock shrugged, splitting the deck of cards and turning the two halves over. Two of Clubs and Five of Spades. Lucky seven black. “I was in the van the whole time so she hasn’t seen my face. Besides, that office of hers has got to be a good thousand feet up, which makes it yours truly’s area of expertise. Been a while since I piloted a skyscraper so I might be a bit rusty but I’m young, keen and raring to go.”

“Actually, I might need to keep you back for now, Murdock,” Face looked torn. “I was thinking two of us will work better than one when I set up a meet with Koningin so I’ll need you to come in then as my business partner. I don’t want her to get a good look at you just yet.”

Murdock waved that off and reassembled the deck with something that was meant to be a riffle shuffle but didn’t quite stick the landing. “That’s no problem, man. Just put me in a headdress, a cowboy hat or a construction helmet and a set of overalls and we’re golden. I mean, I’m just going in as the hired help, right? No staying for crumpets and tea. Besides, I’m not six four and I’m kind of generic so I don’t suppose I’ll even be a blip on Her Majesty’s radar.”

That seemed to flip some switch that started everyone off all talking at once. Words and words falling on top of each other like a freak storm blowing in, so sudden that Murdock could only catch Face's indignant "you're not generic" before something from Wingfield set off a flurry falling faster and thicker and drowning everything else out.

Whiteness was creeping in at the edges of his sight now, slowly bleaching out all the colour, and he made himself look away before he had to watch the bluest blue he'd ever seen grow dim and change and become something else.

He looked down and there were blotches of red and black against the stark whiteness. Something that resisted the frost. Kings and Queens and Sixes and Nines that he could hold between his hands, that he could gather himself around like a campfire and let it chase warmth back up through his arms and out into the room beyond. Something to keep the cold at bay.

Murdock breathed in and out and took a card from the top of the deck. Nine of Hearts. Nine lives. A cat with nine lives. Getting the guys to agree on anything off a battlefield was a lot like herding cats.

He peeled off another card but it was plucked out of his hand before he could lay it down on the table beside the first.

BA turned the card between his fingers and gave Murdock that careful look he didn’t give anyone else. “What are you doing with these cards, fool? You know that half of them are missing, right?”

It was actually closer to a third, but Murdock wasn’t going to argue semantics. He’s always found it easy to smile when it came to BA and the action helped chase away some of the lingering chill. “Now, Bosco, you wouldn’t be trying to say that I’m not playing with a full deck here, would you?”

“I’ve been saying that for years,” BA grunted, running his thumbnail along the Scotch tape that held the card in his hand together. It wasn’t the only card that showed signs of amateur repair. “There’s a real deck of cards in the other room. I don’t know why you’re messing with these nasty ass ones.”

“Aw, I like these ones. These cards are special,” Murdock kept his eyes on the card almost swallowed up between BA’s clever mechanic’s fingers. He’d only had the cards a few days but he’d known there was something different about them as soon as he’d laid eyes on them. Something different and special that had drawn him in and made him slide the tatty deck into his jacket pocket despite Face’s protests. “We can use these cards to see the future. I could tell you your future, Bosco. Tell you what’s in the cards for you.”

“You couldn’t play a game of Go Fish with these cards, man, let alone tell me anything.”

“Oh God, are those the cards you found at the bus station last week?” Face abandoned his conversation with Hannibal and Wingfield to interject, a frown appearing between his eyebrows. It was a pretty similar look to the one he’d had that time Murdock had wanted to keep the bat that had gotten trapped inside their old apartment. It was the look that meant Face was thinking boring thoughts about hygiene and rabies and unimportant stuff like that.

“These are the cards Providence left for us at the bus station last week,” Murdock corrected him. “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. These cards are going to help us out. You’ll see. Lady Luck is going to be shining down on us now that I have these cards to let us know what’s coming up in our future.”

Filled with conviction, Murdock snatched the card back from BA and turned it over. King of Hearts: well, that was BA all right. Maybe if Murdock had found these cards earlier he could have been able to stop BA’s knee from getting hurt. Maybe he could have seen the Scotch tape holding it together and seen what was coming.

He placed the King of Hearts down next to the Nine and frowned at them. A cat may look at a King. King of the Cats. Do cats eat bats? Bruce would have known if Face had let Murdock keep him. He might also have known who would be King now that Tim Toldrum was dead, because Murdock had no clue.

BA shook his head and pushed back from the table. “There’s going to be pain in your future if you don’t keep those cards away from me. I’m in no mood for your fool games today.”

Murdock opened his mouth to say that BA wouldn’t be so cranky if he’d just take the painkillers that Face had scammed for him, but Wingfield’s voice rose up and then fell down over Murdock like a cloth in a Magician’s trick.

“There really isn’t any need to send him in, you know.”

Now you see me, now you don’t.

And it’s high school. It’s high school and he’s talking to someone and they just look right through him and walk off like he isn’t even there. And it happens again and again and he sits in class with his fingers tucked inside his sleeves and wonders why he’s the only one who can see the layer of snow covering the entire football pitch. Why he’s never before noticed how cold July can be in Texas.

Murdock tried to tuck his fingers inside his sleeves, but the cards caught against his jacket as Wingfield continued dispassionately.

“Surely, it would be more prudent if I simply set up a meeting with Ms Koningin and placed a microphone in her office when I leave. That would be far less likely to arouse suspicion, don’t you think?”

Murdock glanced from Wingfield to Face. The corner of Face’s mouth twitched at the word “arouse” like the twelve year old he was, but it looked like he was considering what Wingfield had to say.

Which: of course he was. Of course he was. Wingfield was exactly the type of well-bred, well-dressed, sleek and shiny individual that Face had always not-so-secretly wanted to be. His was the life that Face had been scratching on the outside of in the hope of one day being granted entrance. He was a friend of a friend of a business connection and he could open a lot of doors for Face.

Murdock looked back at Wingfield and saw that same knowledge on his face. The knowledge that, out of everyone in this room, he and Face had the most in common, the most to offer one another. That languid certainty that Face understood that too and would listen to whatever Wingfield had to say. Would listen to him and then nod and smile a shark’s smile with big white teeth and silver dollar eyes and agree with whatever Wingfield said, just like everyone else did, of course he would.

Of course he would.

“I can do it,” Murdock blurted out without meaning to. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, thin and muffled like there was something over his mouth, making it hard to breathe let alone speak. Everything was starting to look pale and distant and he couldn’t seem to find the words for what he wanted to say, but he focussed all of his attention on the brightest spot in the room and tried anyway. Even the wrong words could be thrown out like a lifeline to the right ears. “Face, I can do it.”

“I know you can, buddy,” Face looked slightly confused, but his voice came out low and warm. It was the tone he used when he didn’t understand where Murdock was at but was instinctively trying to smooth down his rough edges and bring him back all the same. “You want to do it? Hey, not a problem: it’s yours. I’m just sorry it’s the closest we can get to flying for you right now.”

As simple as that. And Murdock inhaled carefully and let the air out again, keeping his eyes on that single bright light and letting it breathe colour and shade back into the room. There was still concern in Face’s eyes but they were blue not silver and they crinkled at the corners when Murdock collected himself enough to slant a quick grin his way. And that was better. That was enough to hold onto.

Of course Wingfield wasn’t done yet.

“Is that really wise? I mean he’s… Sorry, did you say you’re a pilot?”

Pressure again. Soft and white and pushing gently but irresistibly against Murdock’s shoulders, the top of his head, trying to bear him down to the ground, trying to make him small. Cold breath on the back of his neck and whisper in his ear that what he had mistaken for pressure was only gravity. Only gravity showing him his place. You don’t think you can fight gravity do you, Murdock?

Did you say you’re a pilot?

Murdock bared his teeth at Wingfield. A police artist’s sketch of a smile. “That’s right, man, I’m the pilot. Me and gravity gyre and gimble in the wabe on a regular basis. He fights dirty, but I’m a hair-puller so it works out pretty even.”

Face laughed off to the side and Murdock felt himself leaning into it like a flower reaching towards the sun. Wingfield blinked and his eyes narrowed slightly. “What exactly do you fly?”

The cards felt solid and blood warm as he replaced the Nine and the King and let them flow through his fingers like water, like melting snow. It was still an effort to hold his head up, but damned if he’d let that show. You could fight gravity, alright, but it was a patient fucker and would be on you the moment you let your guard down.

“Oh, you know,” Murdock peeled a card off the deck and looked Wingfield in the eye as carelessly as one could stare down a shark. Beware the jaws that bite. “You name it. Planes, trains, automobiles. The odd chopper… I’m hoping to get another shot at a tank one of these days.”

BA muttered something under his breath and Wingfield nodded slowly as if confirming something. “I see. A bit of a jack of all trades.”

“Not really,” Murdock turned the card over and his chest froze up when he saw it was the Jack of Spades. Was that what he was? Was that him? “Maybe...”

“More like a Renaissance man, Captain,” Hannibal was wearing half of a smile but his eyes were unreadable when Murdock looked at him in surprise.

“A Renaissance man,” Face echoed, looking tickled. “Yeah, I like that. Well put, Hannibal.”

“Oh, man, don’t encourage him. Don’t ever encourage him,” BA rolled his eyes. “Are we done here? Mr Renaissance here is going to plant a bug then I’ll need to put one together first. How small were you thinking?”

“How small can you give me?”

BA shrugged. “I can put together something around the size of a quarter in a couple hours. You want anything smaller than that it’s going to be tomorrow.”

Face considered it while Hannibal and BA weighed in and Wingfield excused himself. There was an irritated twist to his lips and an edge to his voice that spoke of a man not used to being ignored but Murdock kept his eyes on the Jack of Spades and didn’t watch him leave. There was going to be trouble there, he didn’t need the cards to tell him that. That Jack though… was it a message? He couldn’t quite work it out.

Murdock examined the card for a moment longer before sliding it back into the deck with the others and then taking them through a Hindu shuffle. He split them for a riffle shuffle and then peeled a card off the deck and laid it down on the table.

Jack of Spades.

Huh. Definitely a message then, but what did it mean?

Murdock placed the rest of the deck down on the table so that he could hold the card between two pinched fingers and thumbs and examine it closely. It looked like a perfectly normal card. A bit weathered, sure, but no real damage. No Scotch tape or torn corners. No scribbles or facial hair drawn on with a ball point pen. It didn’t smell any different. Didn’t taste any-

“Oh my God, Murdock, get that out of your mouth!”

Didn’t taste any different than you’d expect from a card that he found at a bus station. Murdock wiped his tongue on his shirt tail and glanced up at Face, wincing at his appalled expression. “What?”

BA shook his head. “Oh, man, that is nasty. That is so nasty. You crazy ass fool. I’m glad I’m not the one has to kiss you.”

Face was still just staring at him and Murdock stared back defensively. “What?”

“Oh, come on, BA,” Hannibal said wryly, taking out a cigar. “It’s not like that’s the worst thing we’ve ever caught Murdock putting in his mouth.”

One day Murdock would learn how Hannibal always got the best lines. It had to be because he was the boss.

It was enough to make BA throw his hands up and declare that he was leaving this conversation and this room right now though and Hannibal followed him, still smirking. That just left Face who seemed unsure whether he wanted to laugh or reach for the nearest Hazmat suit.

“I was going to brush my teeth,” Murdock reassured him.

“With Clorox?”

Murdock considered it and shrugged. “If you like. I think I saw some in the cupboard earlier when I was making lunch.”

“Oh God,” Face put his head down on the table and folded his arms over it. “No, please don’t. Please don’t brush your teeth with Clorox.”

After a while he raised his head again. “Okay, I’ve got to know: why were you licking that card? Seriously.”

“Seriously?” Murdock held the offending card up so that Face could see it. “The Jack of Spades is stalking me and I wanted to see if he tasted funny. Like sulphur or something.”

Face looked from Murdock’s face to the card and then back again. “You think your deck of cards is possessed by demons?”

“Not all of them, just the Jack of Spades,” Murdock reassured him, placing the card down on the table and tapping it with his index finger. “But I checked and it doesn’t taste like sulphur so I don’t think that’s it.”

“Well, that’s a relief. What does it taste like?”

Murdock made a face. “Kind of like a bus station.”

“Yeah, I thought it might.”

There was quiet for a moment and then Face reached out to place one of his large warm hands across the back of Murdock’s neck and Murdock found himself leaning into the touch like he’d leaned into the laughter earlier, unable to stop the sigh that seemed to come from his boots.

“Are you okay?” Face asked. Murdock couldn’t remember him moving, but he was now close enough that Murdock could feel the hushed breath behind his question. “You’ve been kind of… off lately. A little more than usual. I mean, there’s this thing with the cards. That’s new. And then that business with Koningin’s office. It’s not like you to really care about that side of things. Planting microphones. Is this job really that boring?”

Something about his tone, some tiny uncertain thread, reminded Murdock that this one was Face’s job. Face’s first job since LA and he had been the one to find the client, run the background checks, negotiate the price, and come up with a plan in between the million and one other things he did for the team on a daily basis. Including taking care of Murdock and his cavalcade of psychoses. The least Murdock could do here was return the favour a little and not add to Face’s problems.

Besides, what could he say? That he didn’t like this job because the client was kind of a jerk? Yeah, that wasn’t pathetic or anything. Grow up, Murdock.

“It’s nothing,” Murdock rested his face against Face’s shoulder, rubbing his cheek against the nubby material of his shirt. “I’m okay. I just… I just need to do something. You know? Something useful. The ants are on the march again. That’s all.”

“Yeah?” He watched Face’s throat move as he spoke, the rough patch beneath Face’s chin that he always missed when he shaved in a hurry. “Because it’s been a while since you went flying?”

Murdock thought about it. “Maybe?” It seemed about as likely as anything else he could have come up with

“Okay,” Face said, his fingertips rubbing slow circles against Murdock’s neck. “Well, how about you and me go find ourselves something to fly as soon as this job’s over? Something with some guts behind it. Maybe hit up a military base. There’s nothing says we only get to fly when it’s for a job, right?”

Murdock couldn't do anything except keep his eyes on the jumping pulse in Face’s throat for a moment there. Thinking about a cold car and colder fingers and this time it was his chest that felt full to bursting.

And he couldn’t find the words again, but, finally, he managed to croak out “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Face said, a smile in his voice. “Now will you please go and brush your teeth?”

Well, it only seemed fair. 


***


The dream had been the same for as long as Face could remember.

The details changed. Shades and settings and other little touches adjusted to match the surroundings in his waking life. People changed. Places changed. Still, beneath the cosmetic differences the dream was always the same. In his dream Face wakes up and he is alone.

He didn’t need a degree in psychology to work out what the dream meant: in terms of complexity it wasn’t exactly Ulysses. All of Face’s life he’s spent his nights dreaming about being left behind and his days making sure that no one (except his parents and Mark and Selina and Charisa and-) ever got the chance to leave him. He knew this about himself.

He didn’t have the dream every night: sometimes months would pass with his dreams full of nothing but the usual parade of sex and surrealism and he could almost tell himself that he’d forgotten the dream altogether. That he was over it.

Still. No matter how much time had passed since he’d had the dream, there was always a moment after Face opened his eyes to an empty bed where he couldn’t tell whether he was awake or not. Whether he was dreaming about being left or if he’d been left for real. It was kind of a head fuck at that time of the morning.

Even waking up next to a stranger was better than waking up alone. Which… Well. It wasn’t the only reason he had taken so many people to bed with him over the years, but it probably had a lot to do with why he didn’t kick them out again as soon as he’d finished. Why he’d at least waited until after his morning shower.

God, he was glad those days were over.

One of the many ways in which his life now wasn’t perfect but was definitely better was that he got to fall asleep each night with Murdock curled around him and wake up pretty much the same way. It was something that he hadn’t known how much he needed until it became a part of his daily life and now he couldn’t imagine living without it.

Most mornings Face would wake up to Murdock’s sleep-murmuring against the nape of his neck, raising the hairs there and driving him wild before either of them were even awake. Or sometimes Murdock would already be awake and would pull Face up into consciousness in whatever way best suited his mood. Which could mean excellent early morning blowjobs, or could just as easily mean Face waking up with his hand in a bowl of warm water. Life was never dull.

Logically, he knew that there must be a period of time during most nights when Murdock wasn’t in bed with him: Murdock didn’t sleep well as a rule and he was too twitchy and easily bored to lie still for long. He almost always found his way back to bed before Face opened his eyes though.

So when Face did wake up to an empty bed these days it was a bit of a jolt. Usually, all it meant was that Murdock had gotten so wrapped up in whatever he’d found to amuse himself (crosswords, video games, Spanish telenovelas…) that the rest of the world had ceased to exist for him. Either that or something had woken Face in the middle of the night.

Face lay still for a moment. Judging by how dark it was outside, he guessed that the time was probably on the shy side of three in the morning. He couldn’t hear anything that might have woken him: just BA’s snores coming through the adjoining wall and the lazy hum of distant traffic. Nothing that shouldn’t be there.

Normally, in this situation Face would roll over and go back to sleep but instead he sat up and rubbed a hand across his face.

There were a million and one reasons why Murdock wouldn’t be in bed at three am and most of them were pretty harmless. He didn’t even tend to leave the apartment when he woke up in the middle of the night anymore. It wasn’t like the early days when he’d appear for breakfast with bruises on his throat or a split lip and then regale the table with an epic tale of dragon slaying when questioned.

There had always been something sleepy and sated about Murdock on those mornings after. Something that had made him a little hard to look at directly, forcing Face to watch him from beneath lowered lashes and not let himself think about what might have put that quiet light in Murdock’s eyes.

He also hadn’t let himself think about why he’d quickly made it his business to make sure that Murdock was never without a video game or a puzzle to occupy him on those nights when insomnia took hold. It was Face’s job to get the team what they needed, and that included the new guy. That’s all it was.

Christ, he’d been an idiot back then. He kind of wished he could go back and smack his younger self around the back of the head and make him just look at what was in front of him. And maybe tell himself not to grow that goatee back in ‘03 while he was at it.

Anyway, those days were long behind them now so it was probably safe to assume that Murdock wasn’t out busting heads in some fight club or picking up strangers in men’s rooms. He might have gone out for a walk, of course, or maybe gone to get a Slurpee and some nachos from the 7-Eleven down the block, but most likely he was in the next room playing Resident Evil or re-reading his new batch of comics.

Or sitting in the dark playing cards with himself.

This whole business with that deck of cards worried Face. Not because of the cards themselves (although the thought of where they might have been and what they might have touched made his skin crawl) but because they were a symptom of something else. Something new.

Face wasn’t quite sure when this new behaviour had started, but a few weeks ago Murdock had been obsessed with a broken watch that he’d found somewhere, and before then it had been a Magic-8 Ball. He had become fixated on these objects to the point of driving the rest of them crazy and then, just as suddenly, he’d lost interest and discarded them.

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, third time is enemy action. Face had learned by now to pay very close attention to any signs that the enemies in Murdock’s head might be beginning a new campaign. It wasn’t something they could ever afford to be complacent about.

Face pulled back the covers and hunted around for his robe. There was a pleasant chill in the air that probably meant that Hannibal had been the last one to turn in. Whenever the four of them shared an apartment there was always a struggle over the apartment’s temperature. Face and Hannibal liked it kept cool: Murdock and BA preferred it warm.

Between themselves, Face and Murdock had compromised with a complicated system of bribery and sexual favours as well as learning to appreciate the benefits of both climates (too warm meant Face walking around shirtless, which led to Murdock pouncing on him: too cold meant a lot of sharing body heat) and as long as Face didn’t wake up too warm and Murdock didn’t have to play video games while he was shivering it worked out pretty well.

Obviously, that arrangement wasn’t going to work once the whole team got involved though. And since there seemed to be no obvious way around the stalemate, they ended up handling the issue like any other self-respecting group of grown men: by pretending to agree and then adjusting the thermostat as soon as each other’s backs were turned. One of the many reasons Face tried to get them all separate places whenever it was possible and was really looking forward to a time when they could afford to have their own space a bit more.

When Face slipped into the hallway he could immediately see a weak light coming from the kitchen and headed in that direction. He was relieved to find Hannibal and Murdock sat at the cheap Formica table nursing mugs of what smelled like cold tea and talking quietly to each other as they worked on what was obviously Hannibal’s disguise kit.

Murdock was perched on the edge of his chair with his feet tucked beneath him as he absently laid cards down on the table. He was wearing one of Face’s hoodies over his usual tank and pajama pants and Face could only see his face in profile but he looked tired and cold, frowning slightly and his hands tucked into his sleeves so that only his fingertips were free to move the cards.

Hannibal looked tired too. The kind of tired that meant Face couldn’t ignore the lines and the shadows that hadn’t been there a year ago. Couldn’t help but think that if that was what being on the run had done to Hannibal (who was practically indestructible) then God only knew what toll it was having on the rest of them.

“What do you think about adding more of the curing agent?” Hannibal was asking, voice little more than a rumble in his throat. “The balance could be off. That could be why it’s not taking the powder like it should.”

Murdock looked like he was giving it thought. “I don’t know, bossman, something’s telling me the mix is fine. I still think it’s the oven, you know? You saw what it did to my casserole, right? Might as well have used an Easy-Bake.”

Hannibal made a non-committal sound and turned back to sewing fake hair onto a scrap of latex. He should have looked ridiculous with a needle and thread in his hand (Face definitely would) but he somehow managed to make even that seem like a manly pursuit. Life was decidedly unfair.

“Ha! In your face, space coyote,” Murdock crowed softly, moving cards from one pile to another.

It looked like he was playing some bastardised kind of Solitaire, which couldn’t be easy considering how many cards that shitty deck was missing. It would probably be slightly easier if Murdock hadn’t insisted on handing out a significant number as “business cards” when the two of them had scammed their way into the department of records earlier in the day. Sometimes Face could cheerfully strangle Murdock.

Luckily, he had seemed to save the worst of his weirdness for when Face was there to bail him out and yesterday’s solo mission to plant that bug in Koningin’s office had gone off without a hitch. Nothing useful had come out of it yet, but BA was monitoring the situation and, apart from anything else, it had eased something in Face to see how Murdock had been able to put aside whatever was going on with him and focus on the job. That was generally a good sign.

“Pull up a chair, lieutenant?” Hannibal’s voice broke into Face’s thoughts.

Face blinked as Hannibal gestured at the remaining chairs without so much as glancing in Face’s direction. It was kind of creepy how he could do that.

Murdock twisted in his chair to smile at Face. He looked mussed and sleepy and suddenly Face wanted nothing more than to get him back into bed and muss him up some more. Sometimes it was just that easy with him.

“Hey,” Murdock said. “Sorry. Did we wake you?”

“Nah,” Face leaned his hip against the door frame. “You coming back to bed?”

He didn’t need to look at Hannibal to imagine the smirk that would be there. Sometimes Face kind of wished that Hannibal was just slightly less cool about him and Murdock. That he’d done more than quietly freak out for a week and then shrug his shoulders and decide to treat the whole thing as if it were a plan he’d set in motion with the sole intention of being able to give Face shit about it for the rest of his life.
 
As if any of them ever needed more ammunition to give Face shit.

Murdock tilted his head to the side and his eyes widened a little at Face’s expression. “Oh. Um. Yeah, okay.”

“Night, boys,” Hannibal said, sounding far too amused.

Once they were inside the room they shared, where it was quiet and lit only by the cool moonlight spilling in through the window, Murdock let Face pull him down onto the bed and then roll them over so that Murdock was on top, snorting against Face’s neck as they came close to rolling clean off the bed, which was only a double and not a King like they were used to.

When Face tugged at the hem of Murdock’s hoodie, Murdock shivered and made a displeased sound. “Too cold too cold.”

“Let me warm you up then, baby,” Face said in his best sleazy voice to make Murdock laugh as he pulled Murdock’s hoodie up over his head and rolled them around until he had Murdock pinned beneath him and the covers draped over them both. The two of them cocooned in a dark world where there was nothing but their skin and their breath and this was something he would never get enough of.

Never get enough of the way Murdock’s body fit against his own and how Murdock moved beneath him, with him, and how this was just another of the ways in which the two of them spoke the same language. How they could fall into this and find that perfect rhythm, those perfect places on each other that lit up at the lightest touch, and how his name broke apart on Murdock’s lips when he used his teeth just a little.

And how, despite all that, Murdock could lie beside him afterwards, all silver and shadow, and trace his fingertips down Face’s cheek as if he still couldn’t quite believe that this was something he could have. How Face got to kiss him and take that soft look down with him into sleep.

The next day, Face woke up sweating and feeling like there was a sumo wrestler sitting on his chest. He was going to put a fucking lock on that thermostat.

Murdock was plastered along his side, breathing heavily and twitching like a dog dreaming about chasing rabbits. He hadn’t yet begun to mumble the nonsense sounds that signalled he was making his way up from the depths of sleep so Face untangled himself carefully before getting out of bed. He didn’t know how much sleep Murdock had gotten last night before he got up to sit with Hannibal. Probably not enough anyway.

Face pulled on a shirt and some sweats. As long as he was up and morning sex seemed off the table, he might as well go for a run.

BA was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. He smirked at the sour look Face shot him on his way out the door and Face was pettily glad that no one else was up and BA had to make his own coffee. Drinking that shit was far worse than anything Face could have devised as payback for waking up to the apartment being hotter than Satan’s steam room.

The air was fresh outside and Face began to feel better as he fell into that familiar rhythm and headed towards downtown. Running had always worked kind of like meditation for Face. When he ran he could just put his body on autopilot and find a quiet space inside his mind where he could untangle all the various threads that he was responsible for. Transportation, medication, accommodation, finances, forging identities, forging medical insurance, keeping Hannibal in cigars, keeping BA from killing Murdock, Murdock

It was what he did, it wasn’t a burden (especially not Murdock, never a burden no matter what) but it did sometimes make it hard to find space to really consider new shit. New shit like this job and Wingfield and Koningin and the meeting he and Murdock had with Koningin this afternoon.

Running helped Face to let all the rest of that stuff go and concentrate only on what lay ahead. What he had to do. He just put one foot in front of the other and followed the steps. First: IDs, Second: paperwork, Third: car dealership…

By the time Face had done his circuit and was cooling down on the last block, things were falling into place. He knew what he needed to do before the meeting and what he needed to say while he was there. There were a few details he might ask Hannibal’s advice on, but Face was feeling confident. He’d forgotten how it felt to shape a plan in its entirety. It was a Hell of a rush.

Hannibal had joined BA at the kitchen table when Face returned. There was a fresh pot of coffee and a pile of slightly burnt toast on the table, which tended to be about as creative as breakfast got on the mornings that Murdock didn’t cook.

“Murdock not up yet?” Face asked, helping himself to a slice of toast (non-carb day be damned) on his way to the fridge for a bottle of water.

“Haven’t seen the fool,” BA said without looking up. He had a screwdriver in one hand and something that looked like the result of an unholy union between a waffle iron and an umbrella wedged between his knees. Face fully expected that one day he would find BA creating a nuclear reactor at the dinner table. It was only a matter of time.

Hannibal flicked the newspaper irritably. His hair was damp at the edges and he didn’t look like he’d gotten much sleep, which always made him a little ray of sunshine in the morning. “You boys are starting to get sloppy. I’m thinking of having you all do a week of intensive training after this job is over to get you back into shape.”

Face just rolled his eyes and left BA to argue that one. He dialled the thermostat down again and went to check on Murdock before hitting the shower. Murdock was still asleep but his fingers were twitching and he was mumbling to himself so he’d probably be awake soon.

There was barely enough hot water left for Face to exfoliate properly but he did the best he could, cursing when he saw his new tub of moisturiser was nearly empty. It was a sad day when you couldn’t trust a group of Rangers to not steal your beauty products when you left them out. It was like living in a fucking sorority house sometimes.

Murdock was awake when Face made his way back into the bedroom, though only barely. He was sitting hunched in the middle of the bed with the covers swaddled around him and a slight frown on his face as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was.

“Hey,” Face bent down for a kiss and then stowed his moisturiser in a drawer, pulling a couple of tee shirts over it just to be safe. “You sleep okay?”

“Yes?” Murdock blinked, eyes catching at Face and then sliding off again. He looked like he could quite happily roll over and sleep for another few hours. “Was I… was I dreaming?”

“I don’t know. What were you dreaming about?”

Murdock’s frown deepened and he rubbed at his eye. “Snow?” he said at last, accent lilting up at the end like it was a question. “It was snowing, wasn’t it? I didn’t dream that, I think.”

Face smiled, relieved that it was something innocuous, and pulled on a clean shirt and jeans. “Nah, that was just you, buddy. Just a dream. We’re too far south for snow this time of year. You going to come get some breakfast?”

“I don’t know,” Murdock said, drawing the covers a little tighter under his chin. “Will it mean getting out of bed?”

That wasn’t like him. Face hoped he wasn’t coming down with a cold or something. “Can you eat breakfast in bed without getting food on the sheets?”

Murdock considered that very seriously. “Yes?”

He was lying, but Face went to fetch him some cereal anyway. Fuck getting sloppy or out of shape or whatever: sometimes a guy just needed to ease into the day and there was no harm in that. His expression probably said as much because Hannibal just glanced at him and then turned back to his newspaper with only a disapproving grunt when he saw Face pouring Cheerios in a bowl.

BA couldn’t resist though. “Damn, Faceman. You not going to take in a glass of OJ and some flowers too? How come you never bring me breakfast in bed, huh?”

“Because you never put out, Bosco,” Face shot back over his shoulder and took the cereal through to their room, grabbing a protein shake for himself.

Murdock still seemed a little vague and unfocussed but he smiled once he saw that Face had put chocolate milk on his Cheerios and settled back against Face’s chest when Face climbed into the bed behind him.

Face finished his shake and then wrapped both arms around Murdock, hooking his chin over Murdock’s shoulder. He hadn’t really eaten much of his Cheerios. “I make them wrong?”

“Hmm? Oh. No, they’re great,” Murdock listlessly ate another spoonful as if to demonstrate how great he found them. “I’m not all that hungry, I guess.”

“You’re not getting sick are you?” Face pressed the back of his hand against Murdock’s forehead. “You remember we’ve got that meeting with Koningin this afternoon?”

“We do?” Murdock sounded surprised. “Didn’t we do that already?”

“Nope. This afternoon.”

The bowl of Cheerios sloshed around dangerously as Murdock rubbed both hands against his eyes. “Are you sure? I can remember it real clear. It was all cold and white and you were talking backwards so that I couldn’t understand you, and she had on this red suit and she kept whispering in my ear whenever I tried to say something. You don’t remember that?”

Face rescued the Cheerios, setting them on the nightstand. “That was another dream, bud. We haven’t had the meeting yet.”

Murdock hummed uncertainly. “But I can remember it.”

The telephone started ringing in the other room but Face ignored that and made Murdock turn around so he could see his eyes. Murdock looked tense and a little confused, but not upset. Not bad. “Do you want to sit this meeting out? I can do it on my own if you’re not feeling good.”

That seemed to spark something in Murdock’s eyes. “No, I can do it,” he said, sounding definite. “I’ll be okay. I think I’m still half asleep, you know? Haven’t quite dug my way up to the surface yet. I’ll be okay though. I can do it, Face.”

There was that look on his face again. The look he’d had when he said he wanted to plant that microphone in Koningin’s office. Like it was somehow important that he do these things. Face didn’t think he’d seen that look since the early days when Murdock had been fresh out of the psyche ward and absolutely determined to prove that he belonged on the team. Determined to not get sent back.

Face opened his mouth, not certain what he was going to say, when BA banged on their door. “Face! Phone.”

“Come in!” Face yelled, not looking away from Murdock. Murdock snickered when BA yelled back “Fool, I ain’t your slave! Get it your own damn self.”

Face rolled his eyes and got up to answer the door. BA was standing there, leaning against the wall and looking pissed. “Need I remind you: I’m the one with the busted knee here.”

“And you’d probably be less cranky if you’d take those pills I got you for it.” Face took the phone. “I went to a lot of trouble to get those for you, you know. Least you could do is take them.”

“Lot of trouble?” BA snorted. “Man, you just scammed them from that nurse with the lazy eye, same as that piece of shit knee brace that don’t even fit.”

Murdock piped up from the room behind Face. He still sounded a bit subdued, but his voice was a pretty close approximation of the one he used when he was feeling particularly suicidal and couldn’t resist pulling the tiger’s tail. “You should listen to the Faceman, Bosco. Those are some pretty sweet pills he’s scored for you. And, as the team’s resident medical expert, I should know.”

“Being crazy isn’t the same as being a medical expert, fool. I take those pills I’m going to end up crazy as you. They’ll make me start talking to the toaster like you do and I don’t need that.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Murdock drawled, voice low and lazy. “Once you get past the toaster’s bread-fixation, he’s a pretty good conversationalist. Just keep him off politics and I think you two’d get on famously.”

Guys,” Face said. They could go on like this for hours if you let them.

BA left, still grumbling, and Face shut the door and walked back to the bed, putting the phone against his ear. “Hello? Oh, Wingfield. How’s it going, man?”

Murdock tried to slip off the bed but Face caught hold of him with his free hand and pulled him in, settling back against the headboard with Murdock against his chest. Murdock huffed irritably but settled down when Face wrapped an arm around his waist.

“I’m fine, Temp,” Wingfield said in his ear. “Things are going well this end. Did you still want a lift to the car dealership this morning?”

Face checked his watch. “It’s going to have to be lunchtime now. Around one work for you?”

“That’s fine, although I still don’t see why you can’t just borrow one of my cars for your meeting with Koningin. It’s not as if they’re going to check.”

“Always assume your enemy is at least as smart as you are,” Face told him. It wasn’t exactly Patton, but Wingfield wasn’t military so he probably couldn’t tell the difference. “Besides, we’re only borrowing the car so it’s not going to cost us anything. Relax. Murdock and I need to make our entrance in style.”

Murdock shifted against his chest and Face saw that he had his cards out again. Where the Hell had they come from? His pajama pants didn’t have pockets and he wasn’t in arm’s reach of the nightstand. It was bad enough Murdock seemed to think the bed was an acceptable place to store yoyos and comics and his side arm (okay, that had just been the once and it hadn’t been loaded, but still: no) but those disgusting cards were where Face drew the line.

“You’re still taking him in with you?” Wingfield was asking when Face turned his attention back to the phone. “It doesn’t really need two of you, does it?”

“Not really,” Face allowed, “but I just really like to see Murdock in a suit every now and again.”

Murdock twitched at that and Face dropped a kiss on the nape of his neck. He wasn’t kidding: Murdock looked fucking hot in a suit.

“I really think it’d be better if you did it by yourself,” Wingfield said. “He’s just a pilot, isn’t he? It’s not exactly his… area of expertise.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” Face slipped his hand up beneath Murdock’s tank, gently ran his thumb down the sharp line of his hip. If he didn’t know better he’d think Murdock was the one stealing his moisturiser.

Murdock shivered against him. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you at one outside the front. We’ll grab some lunch while we’re at it, okay? Great.”

Whatever Wingfield might have said to that was cut off as Face hung up and turned his full attention to Murdock. That shiver had stirred his interest but it switched to concern when he saw how Murdock was just sitting quietly with his head down and his cards in his hands. Not shuffling them anymore, just holding them and slowly rubbing his thumb against the upturned Queen of Hearts like he wasn’t aware he was doing it.

“Hey,” Face said carefully, moving around in front of Murdock when there was no immediate response, trying to see his eyes. “Murdock, hey, man. What’s going on in that head of yours, huh? Where are you at?”

“I’m here,” Murdock said after a slight delay, lifting his head to blink at Face. “I’m here, Face. You can still see me, right?”

Face looked at him closely. Murdock just looked tired, really. A little vague, yes, a little disconnected, but no more so than he tended to get when he hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Sometimes this disconnection was a sign that he was headed for a bad patch, but that was something Face could only ever see in hindsight. There was no way for him to tell the difference in the moment.

He should be able to tell. All these years watching Murdock and trying to get as far under his skin as possible and it still usually came down to Face feeling like he was blundering in the dark. He should be better at this by now. Face has spent his whole life looking at people and knowing exactly what it was they needed. Why couldn’t he do that in the one place it really mattered?

“Yeah, I can still see you,” he said, reaching out slowly to mould his palm to Murdock’s jaw. Murdock pushed into the touch and something eased in Face at the simple contact. “Your head’s not here though is it, buddy? Maybe you should try get some more sleep. What do you think?”

Murdock shivered again and rubbed at his bare arm absently. “Nah, I’m awake now. I’m here. I don’t want to lie down again. I just need to walk it off, get the circulation going, you know? Warm up a bit. We need to… There are things we need to do before the meeting, right?”

“You still sure you want to go? I can meet Koningin by myself if you don’t think you can manage it. It’s fine. We don’t both need to go; it’s not really a two man job.”

Something shifted in Murdock’s face at that. “I can do it.”

“Okay, man, if you’re sure. Take it easy until then, yeah?” Face said, feeling like he was missing something. Hell, maybe Murdock wasn’t the only one who was tired. “Stick with BA. He could use some company listening in to that microphone. Try not to kill each other.”

Spending some time with BA was probably just what Murdock needed. They bickered like an old married couple, but BA had always been the best at pulling Murdock out of his own head and back to reality. Face couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of it sometimes, but mostly he was just deeply grateful.

“Okay.” Murdock nodded, visibly glad of being given something to do. He was already beginning to look a bit sharper, a bit more like himself. “What are you going to do?”

Face checked his watch. “IDs, paperwork, lunch, car dealership. In that order. Actually, I was supposed to meet Wingfield this morning and he still seems to be free so I’ll see if he wants to meet earlier than one. He might have some fresh ideas about the meeting with Koningin and I wouldn’t mind the company.”

He stood up and rescued the phone from the bed, mind already flicking through the steps that lay in front of him. “I’ll be back before two, okay? Don’t push yourself: if you get tired just go back to bed. We can manage without you, I promise.”

Murdock just nodded slowly. He looked like he was thinking about what Face had just said, so Face pressed a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth and left him to it.


***


There was only so long that Murdock could listen to rich people talk about mergers and synergy before it all started to blur and fade around the edges and he needed to head for the high ground.

Not as high as he would like. Not ten thousand feet up there where the air was clear, up where he belonged, but as close to the sky as he could get right now. Just close enough to take the worst of the chill off and keep his head above the surface.

He’d been a lot closer when he’d planted that bug in Koningin’s office, of course. He’d gotten to put on a costume and practise his Polish and ride the service elevator all the way up to where there were floor to ceiling windows that he could press his fingertips against and watch the world spread out beneath him.

It should have felt like falling in love again, but it had tasted metallic on his tongue. Altitude without propulsion, without motion, without control. A thousand feet up like a bird in a steel and glass cage. Like a crow nailed to a fence as a warning to anyone else who might think that they could fight gravity and win. This is what happens to you. This is the price you pay.

He’d planted the bug and left the Jack of Spades behind as a calling card: not only was it the proper etiquette when one wished to pay a lady a visit, but it was also a relief to not have to watch it turn up again and again in the shuffle. He knew the guys wouldn’t approve though and might not even be appeased when he told them that he’d slipped the card under the nameplate on Koningin’s desk instead of leaving it out in plain sight like he’d wanted. Best to just keep the whole thing to himself.

He’d be back up there in his cage swinging in the wind soon enough; this time in a monkey suit with a fake name and a faker smile as he watched Face charm Koningin into submission. For the moment, however, there was nothing between him and the beautiful big and blue but some clouds rolling in from the north.

There was something unsettling about those clouds though. Flight conditions were still good, he was all cleared for takeoff, all systems go, but those clouds looked like trouble. Looked like a cold front might be coming in real soon. He’d need to keep a close eye out for that.

“What are you doing up there, fool?”

Murdock rolled over onto his belly and peered down at BA from the roof of his van. “I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M. Meteorology. Mediocris. Mammatus. Pull up a van and join me.”

That didn’t really go over too well with the big guy, but they managed to negotiate a truce wherein Murdock would get down from the roof in exchange for the immediate release of the hostages, alive and unharmed. Murdock tried to push for some reparations to make up for the emotional damage suffered, but BA’s counteroffer was a far more immediate and painful type of damage if Murdock didn’t get down and stop messing up his paintwork right now. That ended the negotiations on a pretty conclusive note.

“You ask me to pick a card one more time and I’m going to turn these cards into confetti and scatter them over your grave,” BA warned him, handing the deck over.

Even the cards could become something else; could become something cold and white that would fall from the sky and cover Murdock’s body. That was worrying. Murdock didn’t want to see that happen so he grudgingly slipped them into his pocket. It was almost like BA didn’t care about Murdock perfecting his card tricks.

It seemed slightly warmer in the van now that he had his cards back, but Murdock still felt himself shiver and pulled his fingers up into his sleeves. BA glanced at Murdock from where he was soldering connections on a device that looked like it might conceivably rise up and overthrow its human overlords someday. “You’d better not be sick. You’d better not make me sick.”

“I’m not sick,” Murdock protested. BA had one earbud in and was just wearing a sleeveless shirt. He looked like he was giving out heat like a banked fire and Murdock was tempted to move a bit closer, maybe hold his hands up to BA’s forearm, but BA seemed to see that impulse on Murdock’s face and narrowed his eyes warningly so Murdock just sighed and pulled his knees up to his chest.

“Get your shoes off my seats, fool,” BA told him. “What’s wrong with you?”

Murdock slipped his sneakers off and then pulled his knees up again. BA frowned but just said. “You’d better have changed your socks recently.”

That would normally be Murdock’s cue to launch into a riff about socks or sock puppets or something that would set BA off and take them into one of those arguments that flared up between them and went round and round until it had worn the sharp edges off of them both and left them humming and easy. Murdock could even kind of see what it was he would normally say now, could see the shape of it, but it felt just out of reach. Just a little too vague and distant for him to get a hold of.

BA’s frown deepened when a lopsided smile was Murdock’s only response. “You sure you ain’t sick?”

“I ain’t sick,” Murdock promised, resting his chin on his knees. “You sound like Face.”

“Yeah?” BA swapped his soldering iron for a set of miniature pliers and went back to work on his doomsday device. “Where is Face anyway?”

Murdock waved a hand around vaguely. “IDs, paperwork, lunch, car dealership. In that order. You know. All that stuff that needs doing before the meeting.”

“Uh huh. He take anyone with him?”

Something in BA’s tone, as well as the fact that they both knew Hannibal was on stake out at the Golf Course, made Murdock give him a sharp look. Because who else was there? BA didn’t look up from his work though so Murdock tried on an offhand shrug. “Just Wingfield.”

Why had Face taken Wingfield? He wanted Wingfield’s company and his advice and someone to take him to the car dealership in a fancy car and someone to eat lunch with and… And what? Someone he could talk to about investments and business plans and the stock market without them zoning out? Someone who knew what synergy was? Someone who was more like himself?

We can manage without you, I promise

And it’s Joel in high school and it’s Kam in college and it’s Sanderson in flight school and it’s everyone else who makes Murdock believe that they see him, really see him, see something in him that no one else can see. That it’s safe.

And then one day Murdock says something or does something that gives him away and suddenly it’s not safe anymore. Suddenly, it’s him turning pale and translucent again and Joel and Kam and Sanderson and all those other boys with regulation haircuts and broken porchlights start to look through him again, just like everyone else does. And usually they’re looking through Murdock and into a mirror, into someone more like themselves, into a light that’s shining straight through Murdock and never touching him.

What would a mirror look like for Face? What would he see shining through this pale and insubstantial thing that Murdock is becoming?

Probably someone who gets manicures and owns more than one jacket and knows the difference between mousse and styling gel. Probably someone who doesn’t hold Waterloo re-enactments in the tub or forget to eat for days at a time or start shaking uncontrollably whenever they hear Frank Sinatra.

Probably someone who doesn’t get caught inside their own head and almost break Face’s arm because, for a second there, Face hadn’t looked like himself and it had suddenly stopped being safe. Probably someone who was less of a fuck up. Less of a burden. Someone who doesn’t-

“Murdock!”

And that was BA’s hand on his arm, BA’s voice that he was slowly coming to realise he’d been hearing for a while; no way of telling how long, but BA looked worried.

“Face isn’t like that,” Murdock said forcefully. He had to make sure BA understood. “He isn’t anything like that. He doesn’t think that way.”

BA didn’t move his hand, didn’t let go, he just held Murdock’s eyes and nodded slowly. “Okay, man. I hear you. Face ain’t like that.”

Murdock nodded back, weak with relief that BA got it. He fumbled at his jacket pocket until he could grasp his cards between numb fingers, almost dropping them as he tried to take them through a Hindu shuffle. His hands were shaking but they gradually steadied as he let himself fall into the rhythm of the cards, let it smooth him down and steady his breathing.

BA’s hand was still on his arm and after a while Murdock looked up at BA uncertainly.

BA was watching him, serious and thoughtful. “You know,” he began carefully, “there’s a lot goes on that you guys don’t see. You know that? A lot that goes on with me and other people – clients, military, random assholes, that you guys just don’t get. You know that?”

Murdock frowned slightly, not getting it.

There was a flicker of impatience around BA’s mouth, just a twitch before it straightened out and he tried again, voice still careful but with more weight behind it this time. “You guys don’t see it because you’re white.”

Oh. Murdock was paying attention now.

BA licked his lips. Glanced away and then back. “Now, I don’t blame you guys. You’re all good guys and ain’t none of you got any of that in you, okay? I ain’t saying that. But there’s things go on that you just can’t see because you’re white and you’ve never had it directed at you. Never had it directed at you or your Momma or your sister or whoever in your family you’re supposed to look out for. Never have and never will. That’s just how it is.”

“Does it happen a lot?” Murdock asked quietly.

A flash of that impatience again as BA shrugged. “What’s ‘a lot’? It happens. Been happening to me my whole life and don’t suppose it’ll stop any time soon. That ain’t the point. Point is that you guys can’t see it, can’t know it’s going on even when it’s right in front of you, because you don’t know what it looks like. Don’t know what to look for. You get it?”

“Okay,” Murdock said.

“Only sometimes something like that’ll happen and I’ll see one of you get this expression like you can’t tell what it is you’re looking at, but you know it’s there all the same. You know? Like something’s hit a tripwire with you but you don’t know what it is. That make sense?”

“Yeah. That makes sense.

“Okay. So I was thinking about that and then I was thinking about how maybe it was kind of the same with you. That things could be going on, maybe right in front of us, that the three of us can’t see because we don’t know what to look for.”

Murdock’s mouth went dry and he heard a distinct click when he swallowed. He became very aware of his heart beating, his pulse quickening, the hand that seemed to have wrapped itself tight around his chest and was making it hard to draw in enough air.

BA looked at him closely and nodded at whatever was showing on his face. “Just because we don’t know what we’re looking at, doesn’t mean it hasn’t hit a tripwire. Doesn’t mean we can’t see something is going on.”

“What do you see?” Murdock croaked.

“I see enough.” BA finally moved his hand from Murdock's arm and although Murdock had barely been able to feel it at the time now it was gone he felt too light, like a balloon that had lost its tether and might just drift away. “Sounds like Face sees it too, he just don’t know what he’s looking at and he’s got this job weighing on him so he ain’t got time to think it over properly. He’d see it if you pointed it out to him.”

“Like we’d see it if you pointed it out to us?” His voice sounded strange and distant and barely loud enough to get past the blood pounding in his ears, but he saw BA take it in.

Take it in and narrow his eyes again, another warning, but all BA said was, “It ain’t the same and you know it, fool.”

It was on the tip of Murdock’s tongue to ask if it wasn’t the same because Murdock was crazy and needed taking care of, but that was just fighting for the sake of fighting and he didn’t have it in him right now. He knew why it wasn’t the same.

“He don’t need to see anything,” Murdock said instead, looking away, looking down at his cards and trying to take in slow deep breaths. “There’s nothing. It’s nothing. There’s nothing for him to see, okay?”

“Uh huh.” BA sat back. “You say so.”

He didn’t sound even halfway convinced and it looked like he might perhaps try and argue the point a little further, like he was auditioning to become the Deanna Troi of the A Team, and Murdock was just too tired for all this shit. Too tired to listen to what BA was trying to tell him and too tired to make him stop. He was beginning to rethink his decision to come down from the roof.

Which meant it was a pretty huge relief when Face chose that moment to pull up in a silver Lexus.

“Can I deliver or can I deliver?” Face got out the driver’s side, grinning so wide and so beautiful that for a moment Murdock forgot everything else and could only grin back. “Look at this baby! Didn’t I say we were going to arrive in style, huh?”

There was nothing that could turn BA’s head quicker than a fast car and he was out of the van and examining the Lexus before Murdock had even set foot on the parking lot. Maybe his knee really was on the mend. Face sauntered over to Murdock, still grinning and all lit up inside with pleasure at his own awesomeness, shining so bright that Murdock couldn’t look away.

When Face reached Murdock he pulled him in for a brief crushing hug before letting him go, but keeping an arm slung around Murdock’s shoulders so he couldn’t go too far. It was the kind of touch that could look just playful if you weren’t close enough to hear how husky Face’s voice was as he whispered in Murdock’s ear, “Come on, gorgeous, did your man do good or what?”

It wasn’t news that Face got off on a con gone well, but the rapid fire endearment and physical contact was a little disorientating and Murdock had to fumble for a moment to drag up the appropriate response. “She’s a beauty, Face.”

Face’s grin widened and he bounced on the balls of his feet for a moment, rattling Murdock along in his wake. Murdock still felt like he was half a step behind what was going on, but he thought he was maybe beginning to catch up now; he was starting to feel the warmth spreading out from Face’s arm across his shoulder, spreading through Murdock’s chest and loosening the tightness there.

“She’s a beauty,” Murdock said again. He couldn’t really get too excited about a machine that didn’t leave the ground, but it was a good-looking car and nothing that made Face this happy could be a bad thing. He even stopped himself from instinctively bristling at Face talking to him like he was the girlfriend in a low budget Mobster picture, and just concentrated on reaching out to meet Face where he was. “Which con did you use?”

“The Fairview,” Face said, bouncing on his toes again. “I’ve been working on it and wanting to try it out for a while now, you know? There are still a few rough edges that I need to finesse, but it worked like a charm. There was this sweet little Corvette that I almost went with though: a real princess of a car. We should take her for a test drive when we return the Lexus.”

Murdock grinned and was just about to slip his arm around Face’s waist when the Lexus’s passenger door opened and Wingfield stepped out, smoothing down his pants. Murdock felt his entire body draw itself in, go cold and tight again. He hadn’t even seen Wingfield sitting there.

“Face, you’ve got to take me with you on one of these cons some time, man.” BA was leaning against the car, checking the suspension. “Tell me you’re going to hold on to her at least long enough so’s I can get to drive her.”

“Sorry, Bosco,” Face said, squeezing Murdock’s shoulder and shooting him a glance. “She’s just out for the day. Besides, we wouldn’t want to make your girl jealous would we?”

Wingfield left the car and walked around to where Face and Murdock were standing. “I still don’t know how you did it, Temp, but it was very impressive,” he said. “I could definitely use someone like you in Wingfield Industries.”

The hand that had crept back around Murdock’s ribcage gave a sharp squeeze at that but Face just laughed. “That’s very flattering, Wingfield, but I don’t think you could afford me; not on a full-time basis anyway. Maybe we could work something out for a couple of workshops…”

Murdock must have made an involuntary start or sound at that because Face looked at him with concern. “Are you okay? You still feeling a bit spacey?”

“Sure,” Murdock said, trying to stand very still and not just press into Face’s side to try and recapture that warmth he had felt a moment ago. If he did that then he really might as well go for broke and change his name to Trixie and demand his man bring him home some diamonds and a fur coat to go with the car. “I’m fine.”

Wingfield’s lip had curled at ‘spacey’. “Is he unwell? If he isn’t feeling well then perhaps he should stay at the apartment. The meeting with Koningin might be a bit too much to deal with.”

“I’m fine,” Murdock repeated before Face could answer for him. “It’s just a bit cold out here, that’s all.”

“Okay.” Face gave him a final squeeze and then let him go. “Well, let’s head up then: everything’s taken care of out here. All we have to do now is suit up and we’re good to go.”

“Do you have a suit?” Wingfield looked Murdock over from his cap to his jacket and down to his… Oh yeah, Murdock had forgotten to put his shoes back on. “A good suit?”

“Just the one,” Murdock did his best to mimic Wingfield’s dismissive tone and curled his socked toes against the parking lot asphalt. It just figured that today would be the day he was wearing his Super Mario socks with the holes in the toe.

“But it’s a good one.” Face winked at Murdock as BA joined them, obviously reluctant to leave the Lexus. “Hey, Bosco, we’re heading up to the apartment if you can spare Murdock.”

BA grunted. “Take him. You need a ride back, man?”

Wingfield looked taken aback at being so obviously dismissed but then pulled out his cell phone. “Don’t trouble yourself. We don’t want you injuring your knee any further, do we? I’ll have my driver pick me up.”

“I appreciate it,” Face said. “Sorry to kind of ditch you like this, man. I’d drop you back but I really need to… help Murdock with his suit.”

“Of course.” Wingfield pressed speed dial and held the phone up to his ear. “We can’t have the team mascot not looking his best for the big game, can we?”

A confused line appeared between Face’s eyebrows at that and he opened his mouth to say something but Murdock spoke quickly. “Face, I think I lost my cufflinks. I don’t need them though, right? I can just use a bit of tape can’t I?”

Which distracted Face enough to let Wingfield call his driver and Murdock retrieve his shoes and then get him and Face up to the apartment with Face still lecturing him on exactly why it was important that he wear cufflinks. Murdock was almost sorry he hadn’t just told Face he needed to pee.

Murdock hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he only had one suit; just like Face hadn’t been kidding when he’d said it was a good one. Around six months ago they’d taken a job that had involved Murdock posing as heir to the largest distributor of Swiss-made watches in North America and Face had insisted that Murdock needed a handmade suit in order to play the role convincingly. It was far more money for a jacket and a pair of pants than Murdock could wrap his head around, but he wasn’t about to tell Face what he could or couldn’t spend his money on.

Face really seemed to like the whole rigmarole that went along with the suit, all the coordinating ties and shoes and shirts and cufflinks and colognes and it all made Murdock’s head hurt if he tried to make sense of it. He could just about grasp remembering to put on underwear in the morning: if he had to deal with all that other stuff he might just give up and stay in bed.

Instead of paying attention to what Face was talking about or the shirts and ties he kept pulling out and holding up against Murdock in various combinations, Murdock watched Face.

Sometimes Murdock forgot just how handsome Face was. Like, literally forgot, and if someone asked him to describe Face he’d say stuff like smart and kind and has no tolerance for spirits and secretly loves romantic comedies but will claim he only watches them for research into the female mind. Stuff like that. And then Face will look at Murdock like that or the light will catch him in a certain way and Murdock will get tripped up because oh he’d forgotten that Face was handsome as well as everything else.

He never had moments like that when Face was dressed in a suit though. Face in a suit was handsome, of course, but there was something cold and distant about him too. Something that made Murdock almost afraid to touch him, as if he might reach out and it wouldn’t be his Face in there after all. As if the suit would be what was on the inside as well as the outside until you couldn’t tell the difference.

It made him wonder what it was that Face liked about seeing Murdock in a suit.

“Put this on.” Face handed him a light green shirt and stood back, head at a critical angle.

Feeling more than a little foolish, Murdock changed into the suit pants and shirt while Face watched. He had to take off his jacket, a plaid shirt, and two tee shirts before he could slip the shirt on and even with all those layers he had felt cold before, but there was something about the way Face was looking at him now and smoothing him down with fleeting little touches along his chest and arm that was beginning to warm him up again from the inside out.

“There.” Face nodded, eyes dark. “That’s good. Now you just need the tie…”

He put his hands on Murdock’s hips, the lightest touch, and Murdock let himself be turned around so that Face could crowd in against his back and loop his arms over Murdock’s shoulders to tie Murdock’s tie for him. Murdock should probably have learned how to tie a tie properly at this point in his life, but it’s always been something he just couldn’t get right no matter how many times he chased that stupid rabbit over the log and under the log and down the rabbit hole.

Truthfully, there hadn’t been much of an incentive to learn as not knowing how to tie a tie has always meant Face standing close behind him, over him, like this with his large hands working in front of Murdock and his warm breath on the side of Murdock’s face. Even before they were together Face would do this for him and Murdock had never thought to ask why he didn’t just tie Murdock’s tie around his own neck and then pass it over.

After the tie, Face combed Murdock’s hair back away from his face and put in some of that gel or mousse or whatever that he liked. Murdock closed his eyes with Face’s fingers in his hair and tried not to purr.

“There.” Face stepped back and Murdock opened his eyes at the loss of contact.

Face was giving him that look again so Murdock looked down at himself. Some dark grey pants and a jacket, a green shirt and a blue and grey tie, nothing he recognised, nothing that was him. He turned to the mirror quickly, needing to be sure, and was relieved to see that he was still himself. He didn’t think there was enough of him to be more than one person right now.

Face stepped up close behind him again, looking at him in the mirror. “God, I want to get that suit off you again,” he said tightly, hands settling on Murdock’s hips.

Murdock felt himself flush and because of the mirror he couldn’t help but see colour spreading across his cheeks. He looked at Face in the mirror and then at himself again, trying to see whatever it was that Face could see. Murdock couldn’t see anything there except himself, barely himself at that. Mostly, he could just see Face shining behind him, shining through him in some places, and reflected back in the mirror.

“Yeah?” he said shakily, watching the flush across his cheeks fading, watching it take the other colours with it.

“Oh yeah,” Face replied, turning him around and that was better. Better if he didn’t have to watch. “Are we a pair of GQ Motherfuckers or what?”

That startled a laugh out of Murdock which turned into a different shudder of breath as Face leaned in for a kiss. And, oh, that was better that was Face’s mouth slick and hot and just melting past anything else that might have been dredged up in Murdock’s fucked up brain. Melting him open with a hand pressed at the base of his spine and another at the back of his neck and he couldn’t do anything but surge back against Face, into him, clutching at his face, his shoulders, just trying to get him closer.

And Face was an incredible kisser, that had never been a surprise, and he knew exactly how hard to bite on Murdock’s lip to short circuit Murdock’s brain and render him oblivious to anything else that might be going on.

Face knew him really well: but Murdock knew Face better.

So when Face ended the kiss and stepped back with a sly grin Murdock didn’t wait to catch his breath before he checked his pants pocket. “Okay,” he gasped. “Hand them over.”

Face didn’t even pretend ignorance. “Come on, man. Just this once can’t you leave them behind? You’re not going to need them and they ruin the line of the suit.”

“They do not.” Murdock held his palm up expectantly. “I’m just going to keep them in my pocket, okay? I won’t take them out. Give them back.”

A stubborn look crossed Face’s face but Murdock wasn’t playing. “Seriously, Face. Give them back.”

Face sighed and took the cards out of his pocket. “Okay, fine. Just… just keep them in your pocket, okay? Please? This meeting’s important and we don’t want to mess things up. You start asking Koningin to pick a card and we can pretty much say goodbye to our fee.”

He slapped the cards into Murdock’s palm. “I don’t understand what it is with you and these cards, man. What is it about them? I mean… I’ve seen you fixate on stuff before, but this seems different. It seems like it’s getting worse.”

Murdock pocketed the cards, feeling them settle warm and tingling against his thigh. “‘Worse’ means you think it’s bad. It’s not bad, okay? It just… it just makes things easier. It’s a good thing.”

There probably wasn’t anything he could say right now to convince Face of that but Murdock made another effort. “I’m more here when I’ve got the cards. I don’t… I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s something special about these cards and I need to hang onto them for now, okay? Just for now.”

Face sighed and ran his hand back over his hair. For the first time, Murdock saw how tired he must be. “Okay. I… I just want for you to be okay, you know? That’s all.”

“I know,” Murdock said. “I’m okay. Face. I’m okay.”

Face just nodded and went to rifle through the bag he’d dumped on the bed. Conversation clearly over. “Okay, IDs and paperwork. We shouldn’t need most of this, but it’s always good to cover all your bases.”

Murdock took the driving license Face handed him and examined it. He could play along if that was what Face needed. “We’re using the same names as last time?”

“Sure.” Face shrugged, a small smile breaking through, making Murdock smile in return. “They worked out fine and there’s nothing connected to either of them so we might as well reuse them.” He checked his watch. “We should probably head out. Traffic’s a little unpredictable around this time.”

The traffic turned out to be heavier than expected, but they still arrived in plenty of time and were soon heading up to Koningin’s office. This elevator was a lot nicer than the one Murdock had used last time, but the higher they climbed the heavier his deck of cards seemed to get. He took them out of his pocket to make sure they hadn’t turned into anything else but quickly re-pocketed them under Face’s scrutiny.

The cards didn’t grow any lighter and between that and the sudden wave of déjà vu that hit Murdock as soon as he stepped into Koningin’s office, Murdock barely registered Face shaking Koningin’s hand and introducing them as Theo Carter and Marcus O’Hare.

Murdock shook hands with Koningin and smiled on cue at something clever from Face and then let himself drift wide of the conversation and the one-sided flirting as he tried to work out what it was that he was remembering.

It wasn’t the office: Murdock was pretty sure that was less ‘déjà vu’ and more ‘remembering somewhere he’d been a couple of days ago’. Or it wasn’t just the office, but something about being here with Face on his left speaking his conman’s speak and Koningin wearing red and… whispering something. Whispering something in Murdock’s ear. If he could just stop these cards from digging into his leg he might be able to remember what it was she had been saying.

“Do you have anything to add, Mr Carter?”

Murdock blinked, realising that Koningin was talking to him. Her expression was frosty and singularly unimpressed with whatever Face had been saying, one eyebrow arched like a sword waiting to fall and sever this waste of her time.

Koningin’s eyes dropped to Murdock’s lap and he followed her gaze to his hands and the deck of cards he had taken from his pocket and was shuffling without even being aware of it. He looked at the cards and just like that it all clicked into place. He knew what she’d been saying. He knew what he was supposed to do.

Distantly, he could hear Face starting to try and talk their way out of this screw up, but there wasn’t any time to explain it to him right now. He just hoped Face would realise that Murdock knew what he was doing here, that he’d known what he was doing all along.

Murdock fanned the cards in his hand and smiled wide as he held them out to a surprised Koningin.

“Pick a card,” he said.


***


There was a knack to building a house of cards.

You need a flat surface, like a kitchen table, and you need steady hands, of course, but the mistake most people make is in thinking that those two things are enough. They miss the crucial third piece of the equation, which is making sure that you only put together cards that complemented each other.

Kings will fight, so you can never put two together; never mix Hearts and Diamonds or Sixes and Sevens or Sixes and Nines; and never try and build a foundation using Clubs because that was just asking for trouble. There were a lot of rules, really, which made it a complicated business requiring a great deal of patience and concentration, as well as being prepared to constantly ward off anyone who so much as looked at the kitchen table.

Murdock had built a pretty stable base of four inverted Vs with cards laid flat to link each to the next. The next stage was the tricky one but, luckily, he was good enough at multitasking that he could devote most of his attention to the cards and, at the same time listen to Face telling Hannibal and Wingfield how their meeting with Koningin had gone.

“Explain it to me once more, kid,” Hannibal was saying in a strained voice. Murdock wasn’t sure why they were still talking about this and hadn’t already moved on to Hannibal explaining exactly how he’d convinced BA to finally take his pain medication and have a lie down. That was the real mystery here.

“It turns out Koningin… likes… card tricks,” Face said for the third time. Ever since the meeting he’d been caught somewhere between stunned and giddy, which wasn’t really helping him to get his point across. “Likes cards in general. Collects them, even. She took a whole bunch of them out of her safe to show Murdock. You should have seen it, boss: it was crazy.”

“I swapped my Jack of Spades for her Queen of Diamonds,” Murdock supplied, holding up his new card. “She likes swapping cards with people. She’s building a new deck made up entirely of cards she’s swapped with other enthusiasts. That’s something, huh? It’s like the United Nations.”

“Oh, yeah!” Face turned back to Hannibal. “Murdock did this amazing card trick. I mean… it didn’t really work, but it was still incredible. He got Koningin to pick a card from the deck and then put it back and then he made it appear underneath the nameplate on her desk. I mean, it was the wrong card, but still! How did you do that anyway?”

Murdock shrugged modestly. “Professional secret.”

“Did you know about this thing with the cards?” Hannibal asked Wingfield.

Wingfield had kept mostly silent until now, which had helped Murdock to mostly ignore him. There was a definite cold pocket in that section of the kitchen, but as long as Murdock consigned Wingfield to the corner of his vision and kept the cards close, he didn’t feel it too bad. Didn’t feel it so bad that it stopped him from piling the cards up.

“How could I know about it?” Wingfield said in a petulant tone, seeming personally aggrieved at their good fortune. “How could anyone know about it? She’s never mentioned it in any of her interviews or public appearances.”

“Murdock knew about it,” Face said with such obvious pride that Murdock had to duck his head and bite his lip.

“Well, he must have… he must have seen something when he was in her office before,” Wingfield seized on the possibility, looking relieved to be able to explain it to himself. “Some cards or books on cards or something similar, correct? That has to be it.”

There was a pause in which Murdock was presumably supposed to respond to that, but instead he just kept his eyes on the Queen of Diamonds in his hand. What would go well with Her Majesty? An Ace perhaps? Or another Jack?

“Is that how you knew, Murdock?” Hannibal asked eventually, voice gentle.

Murdock shook his head slowly without raising it and then glanced up at the Colonel. “No, sir. The cards told me.”

Wingfield made an incredulous noise that made Murdock look down again, pushing loose cards around with a finger, looking for something that would work. “Well, it was kind of the cards and Koningin herself, you know? She’d been saying something to me the last time we had that meeting, but it weren’t till I had the cards out that it all made sense and I realised what it was she’d been trying to tell me.”

“The… last time you had that meeting?” Hannibal turned to Face for help.

“That was actually a dream,” Face said. “Remember, Murdock? That never actually happened.”

Always focussing on the things that didn’t matter. Murdock shrugged, bored with the topic, and picked up the Ace of Spades. That was a fine match, wouldn’t you agree, Mr Bingley? “Well, either the cards told me or Koningin told me in a dream. Take your pick, man.”

“Okay,” Hannibal was clearly on the same page as Murdock and had decided to push past that whole issue and cut to the chase. “So Koningin collects cards: where does that leave us? Did you find out if she knows about her company stealing tech from Wingfield Industries?

“Uh, not exactly,” Face admitted, deflating slightly. “She and Murdock kind of got into a thing about cards so there wasn’t really any way I could bring it up. But, I did get the combination to her safe and, as first meetings go, I’d call it a success. We wanted to feel her out a bit and get her on our side and I think it’s safe to say we did that. I want to set up another meeting with just her and Murdock this time – I think that’s the way to play this.”

Wingfield made that noise again, eyebrows making a serious attempt to merge into his hairline. “You’re serious? Perhaps you didn’t hear him say that he got his information from either a dream or a deck of playing cards?”

“She swapped cards with Murdock and asked him to call her Blanche,” Face said as if that settled it. “Let me add that this was not long after she tore me a new one for not putting the correct stress on the ‘g’ in ‘Koningin’. We’d stayed any longer I think she’d have either offered to adopt Murdock or… well. Something a little less family-friendly, shall we say.”

“She’s a real nice lady, boss,” Murdock chipped in, rifling through the deck for a couple of cards that would make good neighbours for the Ace and the Queen. A couple of Hearts, perhaps. “I don’t think she’s involved in any of this. I think it’s all Redman.”

“Oh, what would you know?” Wingfield snapped, making the deck jump in Murdock’s hand and send a few cards falling to the floor.

“Hey!” Face protested.

“No, Temp.” Wingfield made an abortive gesture, anger and frustration leaking out of him every which way. “This is serious. This has the potential to cost my company - cost me - billions of dollars in lost revenue. Do you understand that? And you want to entrust this matter to him? To some... some hillbilly retard who thinks he’s a pilot that you’ve stuck in a thousand dollar suit as if that doesn’t make it all the more obvious what he really is. That's your plan?”

There were three cards on the floor and two of them had fallen face up and one had fallen face down and the two that were face up were the Nine of Hearts and the Three of Clubs and the card that had fallen face down was the King of Hearts and Murdock knew that because he recognised the Scotch tape holding it together and remembered BA running his nail along that tape and then handing the card back to Murdock.

That was what Murdock was looking at and thinking about. Nothing else could get through.

Or nothing else was meant to be able to get through, which was why it came as a surprise to hear Face’s voice cut right through all of that like it wasn’t even there.

“What did you say?”

It had been years since Murdock heard that tone of voice from Face and his head jerked up automatically. “Face, hey, it’s okay-”

“No, Murdock.” Face didn’t even look at him, didn’t look away from Wingfield. “What did you just say?”

Wingfield looked surprised and there was half a smile forming on his face, like he thought it was funny. Like he couldn’t see exactly how not funny Face found this written in every tensed line of his body. “What? Are you going to tell me that I’m wrong? He’s talking to a deck of cards.”

Murdock glanced from Wingfield to Face and then across to Hannibal, hoping that he was going to intervene and stop this before it all got out of hand. That he was going to step in and put an end to this like he did every time Face overreacted and flew off the handle and did something without thinking it through.

But Hannibal wasn’t making any move to stop Face. Instead he was just leaning back against the work surface and watching Face with calm interest. No help at all.

Murdock tried again. “Face, it doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me.” Face still wasn’t looking away from Wingfield. “What the Hell makes you think you get to speak about him like that? What’s your problem, man?”

“I haven’t got a problem with you, Temp.” Wingfield still hadn’t lost the smile. It was like watching the beginning of a car crash in slow motion and knowing that there was nothing you could do to stop it. “What I do have a problem with is you treating this job like... like it’s the Special Olympics and it doesn’t matter who wins as long as everyone gets to take part. This is my company’s future on the line here. This isn’t a joke.”

Face let out a sound of disbelief, not a million miles from the one Wingfield had made earlier. “Yeah, you may want to not shit-talk the Special Olympics while you're at it. You'd be surprised how many of their athletes used to be soldiers.”

“Sorry.” Wingfield rolled his eyes to show how sincerely he meant that. “No offense intended. You know that I respect you and what you have done so far. I do. But this is far too important to trust to this freakshow. You have to see that.”

That made Face flinch, something Murdock didn't understand in his expression. “Shut the Hell up.”

“Oh, come on.”

“No, you come on.” Face’s hands were curled into fists and held tight by his hips and Murdock can’t stop this and he can’t look away. “This man is a Ranger – do you even know what that means? Do you even know what it takes to be able to call yourself a Ranger? It means while you were sipping Mai Tais and having your nails buffed on your corporate jet he was fighting for his country.”

“Oh, God.” Wingfield rolled his eyes again. He’d get stuck that way if the wind changed. “Please spare me the soldier spiel, okay? I mean, I’m sure that’s commendable and everything, but I don’t see how being a chopper jockey changes-”

“Murdock was top of his class at Flight School,” Face’s voice rose over Wingfield, drowning him out. “And to even get to Flight School you need a college degree – which he got a full two years before everyone else. He’s probably the smartest person you’ll ever meet, you piece of shit. You know nothing about him.”

Murdock felt his throat closing up, felt himself starting to shake. He hadn’t known that Face knew about all of that – although, of course he did: Face made it his business to know everything about everyone. He could have told Face that it wouldn’t make any difference though. Murdock had thought it might, at one time. He remembered that first day of Flight School and everyone laughing and he remembered thinking Just you wait until we get in the air. Just you wait until you see how I can make that baby purr, then you’ll see that I belong here.

It didn’t work like that though. Not in real life. Being the best pilot there didn’t stop him from getting called Forrest Gump, it didn't stop the whispered words that were always just out of earshot but scratched themselves deep into the soft parts of him all the same. All that being the best at something ever got you was a big target painted on your back and two dozen guys standing behind you waiting for you to fail.

And, sure enough, Wingfield looked about as sceptical and unimpressed as Murdock had known he would. “Look, I know he’s your pal and you’re only sticking up for him, but-”

“Try partner,” Face said tightly.

Wingfield and Murdock’s eyes met at that. Wingfield looked about as shocked as Murdock felt. “Partner as in...”

“Partner as in partner.” Face didn't back down. “You know what I mean.”

He moved to stand beside Murdock, putting a hand on Murdock’s shoulder and it was the only thing keeping Murdock from just drifting away, just floating out of the room and gone. Even through the stupid shirt and suit jacket Murdock was wearing he could feel the warmth of it, the sure solid weight.

Wingfield laughed. It wasn’t a nice sound. “Well, I didn’t see that coming. It that how this A Team business works then? Are you all queers?”

“What if we are?” And now Hannibal finally chose to weigh in. He wasn’t saying any of the things he was supposed to be saying though, wasn’t telling Face to calm down, wasn’t trying to defuse this situation. Just sticking his spoon in to stir the pot even further, his expression full of that mild curiosity he saved for those occasions when confronted with the very basest and most epically stupid of human endeavours.

This was all going too fast for Murdock to process. He just wished that BA was here: there was no way he'd believe Murdock hadn't made the whole thing up when Murdock told him about it later.

Another laugh from Wingfield. Which just went to prove that ‘epically stupid’ was bang on the money because you do not laugh at the boss and live to play the piano again. “Wow. When you said you had been thrown out of the Army you didn’t say it was because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That does put a different spin on the legend.”

Face drew himself up and glared down on Wingfield from his full height. “You’re going to want to leave this room right now, man. And I mean right this very second, otherwise I’m going to stop being so polite and restrained and start kicking your ass. The job’s done. We’ll only take what you owe us for the week.”

“What? Oh, come on…” Wingfield looked incredulous. It was as if he hadn’t been standing in this same room these past five minutes.

“Face, man,” Murdock somehow found his voice, scratchy as it was, and tried to reason with him. “Come on, you don't need to do that. It's fine.”

And that made Face finally look at him for the first time since this started and he looked about as incredulous as Wingfield did. Face’s hand felt very heavy on Murdock’s shoulder, pressing him down, and Murdock felt his throat drying up, his words deserting him. He managed another “It doesn’t matter” before falling silent again.

“Don't you think you're overreacting?” Wingfield said. “Throwing away a job and my friendship for the sake of a few less than tactful words? Just because you’re fucking him, it doesn’t mean-”

Face moved fast, but Murdock has always been that bit faster and he was on his feet before he’d even thought about it, standing in front of Face with his hands on Face’s shoulders, not letting it go down like this. “Face, man. Enough. It's not worth it.”

“It’s not worth it?!” For a moment Murdock wasn’t sure that Face wasn’t going to take a swing at him for that, he looked like he wanted to, but Murdock didn’t let up a single step. Face might have about three inches and thirty pounds on him, but Murdock tangled with BA’s temper on a daily basis. It took a lot to intimidate him.

Face didn’t hit him though, just glared past him and yelled after a presumably-fleeing Wingfield “And it’s a two thousand dollar suit, you ignorant prick!”

When Murdock glanced behind him there was only Hannibal left, watching the pair of them with an unreadable expression on his face. He nodded once and then left the same way that Wingfield had

And then it was just Face and Murdock and Murdock finally let go of Face and stepped back.

“I don’t get you sometimes, Murdock,” Face said, eyes still hot with anger. “He was way out of line.”

Murdock tried to laugh but it came out as all breath and no humour. “So? What- you think any of that was new to me? You think I haven’t been hearing that kind of thing my entire life? It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me!” Face’s voice rose, not quite a shout but heading there. “And it should matter to you too.”

This was probably the part where Murdock was supposed to get angry or upset or something. He couldn’t find any of that though, could only close his eyes and quietly say, “You don’t get to tell me whether shit like that should matter to me or not. That’s not up to you.”

When he glanced back at Face Face was watching him with the beginnings of realisation in his eyes. “You weren’t surprised. When he called you that you weren’t surprised. What else has he been saying?”

“Face, please,” Murdock sighed. “Please can we stop talking about this? It’s just words. It doesn’t mean anything. The only thing it means is we’re probably going to have the Military called on us now.”

“What, was I supposed to do nothing? Say nothing? Murdock, he called you a-”

Murdock clapped his hand over Face’s mouth, surprising them both. “Don’t you say it.”

Face looked at him for a moment and then took Murdock’s hand from his face, holding on to it. “If it’s just words and doesn’t mean anything then what does it matter if I say it too?” he asked with a hint of a challenge in his voice.

“Because,” Murdock’s voice wavered humiliatingly and he had to stop a moment and bite deep into the side of his cheek before he could continue. “Because you’re supposed to be different, Face. You’re not supposed to be like everyone else.”

They stared at each other until Murdock’s vision started to double and he had to look away, had to grab hold of something. His eyes flicked towards the table, towards the house of cards he had been building there, but he must have knocked against something when he got up to stand in front of Face because there was nothing there now. Nothing but a layer of snow covering the table and spilling over onto the floor.


***


You're supposed to be different, Face. You’re not supposed to be like everyone else

Face’s lips still tingled from the impact of Murdock’s palm but Face barely noticed, all his attention on Murdock and the way his eyes had skittered off to the side and were fixed on something no one else could see.

“Murdock-” Face began, not knowing what he was going to say.

“The things you say to me are meant to matter.” Murdock’s eyes twitched back towards Face, looking right through him, barely in this room. “They’re meant to be something I can trust.”

The corner of his mouth curled up slightly. It wasn’t a smile. “They’re meant to be safe.”

Murdock's eyes were wet, the lashes dark and spiked, and he looked so raw and lost and painfully young in that moment that Face’s chest ached with the desire to just curl himself around Murdock and keep him safe, keep the world at bay. As if that would solve anything (as if Murdock would ever allow that) as if the world wouldn’t be there waiting when they came up for air.

Instead he reached out as slowly and unthreateningly as he could, laying his free hand against the side of Murdock’s face. “Hey,” he said, feeling helpless and inadequate in the face of this, trying anyway. “Murdock. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean that. I would never… you know I’ve never thought that about you. Not once. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Murdock said on an exhale, still looking through Face but slowly coming back, his eyes gradually becoming more focussed. “I know that.”

Relief unspooled through Face and he stroked his thumb across Murdock’s cheekbone, trying to bring him all the way back as Face spoke softly. “What’s going on with you, huh? Are you… There’s been something going on with you and Wingfield hasn’t there?”

Murdock’s eyes sharpened, focussed fully on Face, but he didn’t answer.

“Something…” Face tried again, voice still low, the tips of his fingers stroking just past Murdock’s hairline. “Something he’s been saying. I mean… you weren’t surprised right now when he started saying all that stuff, were you? You already knew.”

There was a flicker of something in Murdock’s expression at that, but he just reached up to mirror Face’s earlier gesture and took Face’s hand away from his face. He twined his fingers around Face’s and twisted his mouth up. “There were spoilers. It doesn’t matter.”

“It might matter.” Face glanced down at their joined hands. Like they were a couple of kids about to play Ring Around the Rosie. “It kind of seems like it might matter a lot. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Murdock shrugged and Face tightened his grip on Murdock’s hands. “Murdock. You should have told me, I could have-”

“You could have…?” Murdock just looked at him. “What, Face? You could have what? Told him to play nice? Beaten him up for me? I mean, that’s very butch of you, but it don’t exactly prove anything except you thinking that maybe he’s right. That I can’t be trusted to handle things on my lonesome.”

Murdock,” Face managed to force out past the thickness rising in his throat. “That’s not…”

The corner of Murdock’s mouth curled in that not-smile again, a little teeth in it this time. “You think I couldn’t kick his ass with both hands tied behind my back? You think I couldn’t do that without even breaking a sweat? Come on.”

“Then why didn’t you?” And that was it really. That was what Face really wanted to know. He’s seen Murdock take on guys twice his size without even checking for back up, seen him talk circles around superior officers (and doctors and anyone else who needed a refresher course in exactly why they ought to keep their clipboards away from Hannibal Smith’s team) and take care of business in a million and one other ways. What made this different? What had happened here?

Murdock shrugged again, looking down at their hands. “Why don’t you kick the ass of every guy who calls you pretty boy? I know you don’t like it but you never do nothing about it.”

“That… that’s completely different.” Face frowned at the sudden left turn the conversation had taken.

“Oh, I’m sure.” There was tension building across Murdock’s shoulders, his fingers starting to twitch against Face’s. “Things are always different never the same when it comes to me. I’m a special case.”

“Me getting called pretty isn’t the same as you getting called… that word you don’t want me to say,” Face said, feeling like he was missing something important here. “Shit, Murdock, I am pretty, you know? In a totally masculine way, of course – like Greek sculpture but, you know… hung. I can’t get too bent out of shape over that shit when I go by ‘Face’, can I? What’s that going to prove?”

“Yeah, well,” Murdock said quietly without looking up. “I’m Howling Mad, aren’t I? I can’t get too bent out of shape when people join the dots.”

Face shook his head. “It’s not the same.”

Murdock hummed at that. “It might be the same. It kind of seems like it might be the same… a lot.”

“Why would you say that?” Face tried to meet his eyes but Murdock was too quick for that. “Because of Wingfield? Because of some homophobic prick who can’t tell his Dolce and Gabbana from his J. Press? Why do you care what he thinks?”

“It’s not him,” Murdock said. “Not just him. I’ve been hearing the same words and seeing the same sideways looks all my life. I never have been right – you know that, Face? Wasn’t some big thing happened to me and made me crazy. It’s been there all my life, just waiting for an excuse to come out.”

It was on the tip of Face’s tongue to say that Murdock’s medical records said different (said lots of things that chase themselves round and around the back of Face’s head some nights when Murdock flinches from him or gets a certain look in his eye) but Murdock didn’t know that Face had read those so he kept quiet.

“Been hearing the same thing my whole life.” Murdock’s eyes were off to the side and his accent had thickened a little, his words seeming to curl back in on themselves instead of skipping up at the edges like they normally did. Face wondered what it was he saw. “You hear the same thing enough times, you start to realise that the common factor ain’t assholes or bigots. Or Yankees. Common factor is you. I mean, what’re the odds that every one of those people is wrong, huh? Don’t seem very likely.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Face said gently. “Seems pretty likely to me. My home town elected a Terminator for its Governor. Twice. You think the common factor there was him being the best candidate or all those people being morons who’d have voted for a parakeet if it’d been on tv?”

That got a laugh out of Murdock, like it was meant to, his startled eyes looking up at Face and a slight smile pulling at his lips despite himself. “Like you weren’t planning to vote for him too. Only thing stopped you was us getting stuck in Costa Rica.”

“Well, yeah. He’s a Terminator. That doesn’t mean I thought he’d win.”

Murdock shook his head. “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

He still looked a little distant so Face poked him in the stomach with one of their joined sets of hands. “Hey. Howling Mad. You’re just crazy, okay? Just crazy. Crazy’s not the same as… as stupid or wrong or any of the rest of that shit. Hell, half the time I don’t even think you’re crazier than the rest of us and we do okay, don’t we? Nothing wrong with being crazy. It’s probably a bonus in our line of work.”

Murdock’s eyes ticked across his face, looking for something. Face let him look, waited for him to relax and then nudged him again. “Hey. You’re my kind of crazy, okay? Forget Wingfield and the rest of those pricks. Fuck ‘em. We’re never going to need a job bad enough to deal with that kind of shit.”

“We’re not going to get our money, you know,” Murdock said, frowning as if that had just occurred to him. “And he’s probably calling the Military Police right now.”

“He’s probably getting his ass kicked by Hannibal right now,” Face snorted. He’d seen that look in Hannibal’s eyes enough times to know what it meant. “He’ll pay us what he owes us, don’t you worry about that.”

“Oh.” Murdock looked surprised, like he honestly hadn’t seen how angry Hannibal had been. Or hadn’t realised the anger was on his behalf. “Okay.”

There was that frown again, Murdock thinking too hard, so Face untangled one of his hands and pushed fingers through Murdock’s hair, feeling the slight coarseness from the pomade. It had only been a couple of hours since Face had coaxed Murdock into his suit and styled his hair and Murdock was already looking slightly frayed around the edges, his cuffs creased, strands of hair falling down across his forehead. It made him look even better than the starched crispness – more like himself.

Murdock hummed at the contact, eyes going half-lidded and pushing into Face’s hand until Face scrunched his fingers at the back of Murdock’s head like he knew Murdock liked. Murdock watched Face through slitted eyes for a moment before looking off to the side. “You called me your partner,” he said quietly.

“Oh,” Face said, carding his fingers from the nape of Murdock’s neck to his crown. “Well, yeah. That’s what you are, isn’t it? That’s what we are?”

Murdock made a non-committal noise and didn’t stop looking at whatever he found so fascinating over by the fridge. Face tried to read his expression. “Is… is that not okay? I know we never talked about it, but I figured ‘boyfriend’ sounds kind of dumb when you’re in your thirties and ‘lover’ has always skeeved me out and made me think of acid wash denim and, I mean, what else is there?”

Face didn’t say that he’d always secretly thought ‘partner’ sounded kind of cool and kind of absolutely perfect for him and Murdock (partners in crime, partners in scams) and had thought that long before they’d ever kissed. Partners just sounded so much cooler than any of the alternatives. Like they were gunslingers or starring in a buddy cop show or something.

He was never going to tell Murdock about the thought process behind his choice though. Not while they were both sober anyway.

“You never said,” Murdock said in that same quiet voice. “Before. You’ve never said that before.”

“Oh.” Face’s hand went still against Murdock’s scalp. Flattened out. “I didn’t think I had to.”

In the silence that followed, Face felt very conscious of his hand laid against Murdock’s head like some sort of bizarre benediction and slowly took it back, stomach turning over. “Is that not okay?” he asked again, voice sounding oddly low in his ears. “Is that… is that too heavy for you? I mean. I just thought…”

“No, it’s…” Murdock finally looked at him, eyes wide and completely there like he sometimes was. Like he hadn’t been lately. “It’s okay. It’s good. Partners is good. I just didn’t know.”

“How could you not know?” Face asked, pinned by that look, genuinely confused. “Murdock, I show you all the time. I touch you all the time. I’m not… No one’s ever accused me of being subtle, you know?”

“You never said.” Murdock gestured with the hand Face was still holding on to. “I’m crazy, remember? Sanity-challenged. I can’t… I can’t trust things that aren’t laid out for me, Face. You know that. I read things wrong and things get all twisted and lost and then I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what it is you’re seeing. I just…I sometimes need you to tell me that it’s real. That it’s… safe.”

“You feel this?” Face stroked his knuckles down Murdock’s cheek “You feel this?” thumbed his lower lip, palmed the back of his neck. “You feel this, Murdock? This is real. This is safe.”

Murdock drew in a shuddery breath as Face stroked fingertips along the soft skin at the side of his neck, arching to allow Face better access while still keeping his wide eyes on Face’s. “Yes, Face. Yes.”

“This is me saying it,” Face said, freeing his other hand so he could cup both around Murdock’s neck, thumbs stroking the sides of his jaw. “This has always been me saying it. This is how I’m always going to be saying it to you, every time I touch you. But I guess I can say it out loud until you learn to hear me that way. Okay?”

Murdock nodded between his hands, eyes dark and mouth slightly open and Face leaned in to kiss him, moaning as he felt Murdock surge forward to meet him, clutching at Face’s back.

And that was all it took for Face. He ran one hand down Murdock’s spine, a question, and Murdock mumbled something against his mouth, hands pulling the back of Face’s shirt out from his pants, and that was as clear a green light as you could get really.

Face got them into their room and the door closed behind them, not easy with Murdock right there and looking so good and working his callused hands up under Face’s shirt. And Face was so hungry for Murdock, always is, but they were wearing over five thousand dollars’ worth of fine European tailoring between them so he forced himself to go slow, to be careful.

Cufflinks first, then the tie. Murdock twitched in place, but he was even more worried about damaging his suit than Face was (probably because he knew that it would mean getting measured for another one) so he just twisted his face impatiently and let Face undress him.

Murdock looked so good in a suit, but looked even better when you took the suit off. Slowly. Careful with each button, each slide of material. Perhaps the best thing about Murdock in a suit was the way it forced Face to be careful, to go slow when taking it off of him, to appreciate each step. Most of the time Face was just so eager to get his hands on Murdock that he couldn’t help himself from rushing, couldn’t savour undressing Murdock like he wanted to, like Murdock deserved.

That jittery energy died down in Murdock, went smooth and gleaming, as Face slipped Murdock’s shirt off his shoulders, leaning in to kiss his collarbone and say quietly, “This is real.”

Another kiss to the round of his shoulder when his undershirt was gone. “This is safe.”

Oh,” Murdock said, lips parted and eyes fierce and soft at the same time.

Face unfastened Murdock’s belt, pushed him gently down onto the bed and slid his pants and shorts down over his raised hips and the long length of his legs. Face draped the pants over the back of a chair with the jacket and started to take off his own clothes far more quickly than he had Murdock’s.

It might be interesting to play like that some time. Him in a suit and Murdock naked. Or the other way around. Something for another time.

Murdock had kicked his shoes and socks off and was lying in the middle of the bed, raised on his elbows and watching Face undress. Normally, he’d be cracking a joke or wrestling Face down onto the bed beneath him (both of them always in a hurry, too many years wasted already) but this time he just lay still; eyes half-lidded and quietly serious as he waited for Face.

The look in Murdock’s eyes made Face’s fingers slow down over his buttons. Not to a deliberate tease as he sometimes would, but just… not rushing. Letting Murdock look. Letting himself know that Murdock wasn’t going anywhere.

The last of his clothes gone, Face joined Murdock on the bed. Crawled right on top of him so he could press his mouth against Murdock’s, press the full length of his body against Murdock’s and let his weight bear them down into the mattress.

Murdock was all smooth skin and corded muscle beneath him, mouth sweet and hungry and letting a whine escape as Face kissed down his throat, bit lightly at his collarbone, his navel, the sharp line of hip, dragging fingers against Murdock’s sides on the way down, seeking out every place that sets sparks off beneath Murdock’s skin and makes him moan.

“This is real,” Face whispered against Murdock’s skin. Too quiet to reach Murdock’s ears. Certain that Murdock heard him all the same.

The fingers Murdock threaded through Face’s hair tightened convulsively when Face took him in his mouth, making Face moan and Murdock buck upwards into the vibration.

And Face could do this forever. Have Murdock spread out beneath him, heavy on his tongue and hips undulating beneath his hands, the rich earthy scent of him filling Face’s lungs. All he could do was moan and try to take Murdock deeper, to get more.

But then Murdock was fumbling at his shoulder, was pushing that bottle from the nightstand into his hand and, okay, yeah, they could definitely do that too.

Barely twelve hours since they last did this and Murdock took two fingers easily, groaning deep in his throat and pulling Face back up the bed and on top of him. Murdock had never needed much preparation for this even in the beginning, had always pushed back against Face too soon, always so ready to let Face inside. So tight that sometimes Face was sure it had to hurt but Murdock just took it, loved it, bucked upwards for more.

Face rolled them onto their sides (Murdock growling impatiently) and hitched Murdock’s leg high on his hip before pressing his slick fingers back inside, spreading and stroking deep.

Murdock convulsed, fingers scrabbling against Face’s arm. “Face.”

“I love doing this to you,” Face said seriously. Because maybe Murdock didn’t know that. Maybe that was another thing that had gotten lost in the translation. “You’re so fucking hot like this, Murdock, I can’t even tell you. I love seeing you like this.”

That provoked a complicated series of expressions across Murdock’s face: the instinctual cringe at any compliment that wasn’t to do with flying, something that looked like exasperation and the return of that soft-edged fierceness in there along with a number of other things Face couldn’t identify before Murdock surged forwards, fucking quick and strong and suddenly Face was flat on his back with Murdock straddling him.

Murdock gripped tight with his thighs and leaned in to breathe in Face’s ear. “Face, man, I say this with love, but I think we’re done with the ‘tell’ portion of today’s programme. Unless what you really want is to hear me beg? Please, Face. Please please pretty please with sugar on top and extra sprinkles and cough syrup and-”

The needy whine Murdock put into his voice and the way it tumbled apart into laughter as Face rolled Murdock under him made Face laugh too, helpless not to. Made him laugh and press his mouth to Murdock’s throat to feel those clear bright sounds from the inside, feel them change into moans as he used his teeth.

Murdock was still moaning as Face pulled his legs up, stroking one slick hand over his own cock and leaning in to nip along Murdock’s jawline to his ear.

“Hey, Murdock,” Face whispered. “Are you listening?”

Face didn’t give him a chance to answer, just pushed inside with one smooth motion and Murdock pushed up to meet him, open and wanting and hearing him perfectly.

It stayed slow, stayed easy. That familiar rhythm like a shared heartbeat, rocking into Murdock’s body, Murdock tight and flushed and impossibly gorgeous beneath him, scraping his blunt nails down Face’s back, holding on tight.

And then, like a heartbeat, the rhythm built, quickened. Murdock’s hands on Face’s ass, that angle that makes Murdock curse and whine high in his throat, the way Murdock’s eyes widen as if astonished at his own pleasure each time, the concentration between his eyebrows as he chases that pleasure down like he’s afraid it’ll vanish if he doesn’t.

Murdock hitched his legs up higher on Face’s hips and Face got his arm underneath one, bringing it up over his shoulder and making them both cry out at the new angle.

Deeper now, heartbeat pounding in Face’s ears as he thrust forward, Murdock’s legs a vice around him, Murdock’s head thrown back, baring the long line of throat that Face couldn’t resist tasting. Salt and slick and vibrating against his lips as Murdock gasped with every thrust, different vibration as Murdock choked out Face’s name when Face reached down between them to start fisting Murdock’s cock to match that faster rhythm.

And then Murdock was coming, was clenching in a stutter around Face, was spilling into his hand and crying out breathlessly, was fucking beautiful in that moment and shining so bright that Face could see him like an afterimage on the insides of his eyelids when he pressed his forehead into Murdock's shoulder and pushed forwards with his entire body and was coming too.

Face stayed where he was (Murdock carding gentle fingers through his hair and quietly humming to himself) as the last of the tremors left him and his breathing evened out. It was only when Murdock began to shift beneath his weight that Face reluctantly moved.

Only going far enough to pull out and then collapse beside Murdock. Stretching out on his belly with a single luxuriant push of his spent cock against the sheets and then laying his cheek on his crossed arms and watching Murdock from beneath his lashes.

Murdock had rolled onto his side as soon as Face moved and now he reached out to trail fingers down Face’s spine, barely touching, sending shivers in his wake. He didn’t meet Face’s eyes but he was smiling, just slightly, in one of his rare calm states where he could bask in the attention instead of it making him twitchy.

And it was still early, not even dinner time yet, but Face felt like he could quite happily fall asleep where he was. Just lie here with Murdock close beside him and drift off.

He can’t, of course. They’ve just lost their job and Wingfield was precisely the kind of vindictive asshole to call the Military on them, even (especially) after Hannibal’s little heart-to-heart, which meant they needed to be out of the city within the hour. Out of the state by nightfall.

Take the Lexus with them or leave it behind? It was too conspicuous to keep (as if BA’s van was any better) but if they moved fast enough they could maybe use it to get another car from a different dealership, then a hotel suite or-

He was pulled out of his thoughts by Murdock flicking him between the eyes with his middle finger. It kind of hurt, but his voice was gentle. “Stop it.”

“But-”

“Nope.” Murdock was unswayed by his protest. “No thinking, no planning, no scamming or scheming. Just… lie there and be preternaturally handsome for a while. Be still like vegetables. Lay like broccoli.”

Face let out a sound that was more laugh than sigh. He would deny recognising that quote with his dying breath. “Murdock…”

Murdock smoothed two cool fingers over the spot he’d flicked, taking the sting out of it. “Boss’s got it all under control; he’ll tell us if he ain’t. Until then - take a load off, Faceman. Enjoy some afterglow with me.”

And Face should have told him no. Should have gotten up and gotten dressed and found out what it was he needed to do next. Should have spoken to Hannibal, woken BA, started making phone calls. Started making plans.

But instead he closed his eyes and let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. The sun moving across the sky and Murdock at his side, tracing fingertips across his back, writing stories on his skin.