"Don't worry, little sister," BA murmured, eyes focused on the wires she was delicately snipping. "I'll get you out of there."
On the screen, Murdock was grinning widely, and anyone who didn't know her would think she was having the time of her life. BA, however, knew her well enough to see the panic hiding behind her grin, and wasn't going to let anyone lay their hands on her. All she needed to do was disconnect those final wires, and the drop down wall which the mafia boss had for some reason decided to put in his living room would come down, separating Murdock from the men after her.
With a final snip, the wall dropped into place, and Murdock could run from the room without being shot in the back. Of course, being Murdock, she didn't leave without sticking her tongue out at the bad guys, but BA just rolled her eyes and went to meet Murdock out in the entrance hall.
When she got there, Murdock jumped at her, leaping into her arms as though never considering for a moment that BA might not catch her. "Didja see that, BA? The hair on that guy was unbelievable! The eighties called, but they don't want that look back, they want it burnt like it should have been then."
BA snickered. Even through the black and white TV screen, the man's hair had been memorable.
Murdock dropped down to stand on her own two feet, beaming up at BA. BA looked at her eyes, but the hint of panic that had been there earlier was now gone, leaving nothing but genuine joy and excitement in its place.
Worry receding, BA looked down, slightly embarrassed at staring into another woman's eyes, when her gaze caught on something.
Murdock's dress was ripped.
"Why's your dress ripped, Murdock?" she growled. In theory, there were many ways Murdock's dress might have been ripped, but in that moment only one came to BA's mind, and it was one she didn't like.
Murdock shrugged, already moving towards the door out of the place. "The straps decided to resign, find their place in a scrap quilt somewhere. They kept arguing with the sleeves about their severance package, and believe me, BA, those sleeves, you never know what they've got hidden."
BA ignored the crazy talk Murdock continued to spout, pulling Murdock to a stop with a firm but gentle hand on her arm. "Someone in there try to rip it off you?"
Murdock flinched. It was only a moment, barely a blip in her ongoing chatter about unions and the tough stance belts took in inter-dress negotiations, but it was enough for BA to know her instincts were spot on. Murdock's clothes were ripped because someone had been trying to take them off her.
It wasn't the first time it had happened, far from it. BA had experienced it herself a few times, but for some reason, it had happened to Murdock far more often. BA didn't know why, but she suspected that the men who tried it thought that no one would believe the woman with mental issues. She already made up characters and talked to people who weren't there, they probably thought, who would believe her over them?
BA would, and did. Face and Hannibal did too. Even when Murdock wasn't sure it had happened, looking small and confused as she questioned her own memory, BA believed her every time, and made sure the perpetrator knew what she'd do if they ever tried it again. When possible, Hannibal generally managed to work into his plan that whoever had tried it had some sort of appropriate punishment, often involving a short but unpleasant stay in the local jail.
At the start, BA had left it to Murdock's discretion whether she wanted Face and Hannibal to know about what happened. Murdock had had enough of her privacy taken away from her in the past, BA figured, and BA didn't want to keep that going. Then she realised, after one disastrous mission that was entirely derailed because the client had been subtly messing with Murdock's pills so she would be off balance enough he could assault her, that if Murdock was left to her own devices, she would never tell.
After that, BA decided privacy could get screwed. She wasn't going to stand for people hurting Murdock just because Murdock couldn't reliably tell it was happening and didn't know BA would believe her no matter what. First thing she did was punch that guy, then she made sure Murdock knew, without a doubt, that if she ever had so much as a bad feeling about a guy, BA would always listen and believe her. It had taken some time and a lot of patience to get through to Murdock that yes, BA meant it, no, she hadn't had her brain taken over by aliens, no, it wasn't a cruel joke (that one had hurt, and Murdock had quickly back-pedalled), and while no, BA did not like being woken up at three a.m., if that was the only time Murdock could talk to her about it, she'd learn to live with it.
Once she'd finally hammered the truth of it into Murdock's head, Murdock had practically melted with relief. She'd fervently offered the same in return, and though BA hadn't thought she'd need it, she'd agreed, thinking that it would at least make Murdock feel better. To her surprise, she'd taken Murdock up on that offer more than once.
The one rule BA had insisted on right from the start was that neither of them would go hiding anything. If they had a bad feeling about a guy, for any reason, they would tell the other. Over time, that developed into a series of subtle signals, but the sentiment remained. Neither of them were facing it alone.
For that reason, BA didn't let go of Murdock's arm, instead interrupting her chatter to ask, "One of them guys get their hands on you?"
"A lot of people try to get their hands on me, O Barackian One, but I am slippery like an eel, or one of those clownfish that duck right away into an anemone when anything scary comes close. Just duck right away, right into those stinging tentacles where they know they'll be safe. Unless the anemone's too far away, of course, then they just gotta swim for it." She started to hum some Disney tune that BA vaguely recalled came from a movie about fish.
BA gently shook her arm. "I ain't getting distracted like that, fool. Was one of those guys tearing your clothes?"
Murdock kept humming, then broke out into song. "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming..."
BA took that as a yes. "Do I need to tell Hannibal?"
"Hannibal's a real good swimmer."
"That's enough of your nonsense!" BA shook Murdock's arm again, this time harder than before. "I'm telling Hannibal and Face. They should know in case one of those guys tries to lay hands on you again." BA knew that Murdock was a trained soldier and could defend herself under most conditions, but most wasn't all. If Hannibal knew that the men had tried to assault Murdock, he'd make sure she wasn't placed in any position where she wouldn't be able to defend herself. No undercover missions for Murdock this time.
Murdock blinked at her. "Predators never attack a clownfish in the anemone. They'll get stung."
BA rolled her eyes. "Let's go, crazy girl. And no more talking about fish, unless you're going to make me some seafood for dinner."
"Eat our fine fishy friends?" Murdock gasped, bounding along in BA's wake as she returned to the van where Hannibal and Face should be waiting. That was, they would be acting there if the plan had worked. It was always an open question if Hannibal's plan would work or if the plan would go completely off the rails, half the time in a way that Hannibal insisted had been part of the plan all along. "The explorers of the depths, who brave the dangers of the deep, struggling to survive in a world full of bigger fish, and you want to eat them? Shame on you, BA!"
Fortunately, Hannibal and Face were waiting at the van, so BA could pass Murdock off to them without having to deal with anymore of her nonsense. "Those fools were trying to mess with Murdock," she said gruffly. "Ripped her dress."
"Oh, not the red one with the ruffles!" Face said with a grimace. "Some people have no taste for clothing."
"They had a taste for Murdock," BA growled. Really, she knew that Face cared about Murdock more than the dress, and he was just making light of things to deal with his worry, but it still struck her the wrong way. The only thing about the dress that mattered was that Murdock was the one wearing it.
Hannibal clapped her on the shoulder, defusing some of her anger. "They won't get another chance at her, Sergeant. We need her up in the sky instead." He turned to Murdock, already grinning widely, and BA just knew she wouldn't like this. "You feel like flying a helicopter, Captain?"
Murdock's return grin was just as wide, eyes dancing with delight. "Always, Colonel!"
"Good. Face has got one waiting for you." He quickly scanned Murdock up and down, and BA saw his eye catch on the same rip that hers had earlier. "Get changed back into your regular clothes first. That dress doesn't look ready to fly."
"Yessir!" She reached for the dress, but BA caught her arm before she could pull it off. As long as BA had known her, Murdock had never had any sense of modesty, and BA didn't know if it was from living in institutions, the army, or if Murdock had always been like that.
"Inside the van, fool." Murdock willingly followed BA into the van, but had already started pulling off the dress by the time BA had retrieved her regular clothes from under the seat.
She grabbed her clothes out of BA's arms, grinning widely at the t-shirt. "I just knew orange was the right choice for today! Faceman, he'd never wear orange like this, but I knew as soon as I woke up today was an orange day, just didn't know why yet." To BA's relief, the following monologue about colours was mostly muffled by Murdock wriggling into her multiple layers of shirts. She only caught the end of it, something about orange and purple being the best colours because they didn't rhyme with anything, which made as much sense as anything else Murdock said.
"Come on, Murdock. Time to go." BA interrupted Murdock's ramble to settle Murdock's favourite red cap on top of her unruly hair, ruffling it as she did so.
Murdock leant into the touch. When BA looked down at her, she said, "My mucus layer needs refreshing."
BA grimaced, quickly pulling her hand away and wiping it on her sleeve. "That's gross, crazy." She pulled open the van door, stepping out quickly before Murdock could try and hug her or something. She didn't actually mind the hugs as much as she pretended to, but that mention of mucus was freaky. She wouldn't put it past Murdock to start licking her or something.
Murdock followed her out, immediately bouncing over to Hannibal. "Ready for duty, sir!"
BA left the two of them to it, going around the back of the van to pull out the guns they'd need for the frontal assault Hannibal was surely planning. With Murdock up in the sky and safely away from any of the bad guys trying anything else with her, BA could concentrate on doing what was necessary to finish this mission and get their client's money back.
Of course the plan never worked that smoothly.
BA paced around the cell they were trapped in, rattling the bars angrily.
"Cheer up, BA," Hannibal grinned irritatingly at her, sitting on the single cot their captors had provided. "Face and Murdock are still out there. They'll have us out soon."
"I don't like this, Hannibal," she said in frustration. "Those guys shouldn't have caught us. They're smarter than you thought."
"They're not smarter, just luckier. If that guard had come back from the bathroom just a minute later, we would have been out of there." He stood up, coming over to stand behind her. She didn't turn around, not ready to be reassured yet. "They'll be fine, BA. Face and Murdock know how to look out for each other."
"That fool's going around talkin' about fish, Hannibal," she complained, worried anger heating her voice. "She can't do any kind of plan if she won't shut up about clownfish."
That wasn't what she was really worried about and she knew it. Murdock was out there somewhere with men who knew her face and had already tried to assault her, and BA could do nothing to protect her. The whole point of the plan was supposed to be to keep Murdock in the air and safe, but now she'd need to come down and work at ground level with no one but Face to cover her. BA trusted Face with her life, but he was in danger as well, and he might not be able to help Murdock if she needed it without blowing his own cover.
"You know, clownfish are a highly protective species. Aggressive, even."
Caught by surprise, this time BA did turn to look at Hannibal. "Man, what are you talking about?"
"Clownfish can be highly aggressive to protect themselves and their families." Hannibal smiled cryptically. "Murdock will be fine." He raised his voice, shouting out to the guard on the other side of the bars. "Hey, you!"
The guard turned around.
"Who do I talk to about the service here? Your room service is lousy and you forgot the chocolates on the pillows." Hannibal shook his head, looking disappointed. "This won't help your TripAdvisor rating."
The guard laughed. "Deal with it. I don't have to listen to a word from you. But," he leered at BA, "I might listen to the little lady."
"There ain't nothing little about this lady," BA growled.
"I'd listen to her." Hannibal grinned widely in that particularly irritating way he pulled off so well. "She could take you down with one hand behind her back."
The guard scoffed. "Whatever you guys are, there's no way I could be taken down by a girl." He pronounced the final word with derision, stretching it out into what was unmistakably an insult.
"Suit yourself." Hannibal shrugged, turning away as though uninterested in the conversation. "Surprised your boss got anywhere with cowards like you, though."
The guard took a few rapid steps towards the bars. "You calling me a coward?" He scrambled at his belt for the keys. "I'm no coward, not like you, hiding behind the girl here. I'll beat her, then I'll beat you too!" Finally his searching fingers found the key, and he opened the door, rushing into the cell.
With a single punch from BA, he was down and out.
Hannibal knelt down and deftly scooped the keys from the guard's hand. "You might not be a coward, but you sure are stupid." He pocketed the keys and gestured BA towards the cell door. "Ladies first."
BA shot him a scowl, but still obeyed. There was no other guard in their room of the little jail, but when she took a careful look through the door, there was another guard leaning against the door to the outside. "There's another guard out there," she whispered back to Hannibal.
Hannibal came to join her at the door, peeking through to see for himself. "Follow my lead," he whispered back, before carefully opening the door and going through it.
The guard didn't look up. He was still facing the door to outside, gun held loosely in his grip, posture relaxed.
Hannibal gestured for BA to take the other side, then snuck halfway around the room before kicking lightly at the edge of one of the desks. The guard manning the entrance swung around, gun coming up to point at Hannibal. "Oops," Hannibal said, straight-faced.
"Thought you were clever, huh, trying to sneak up on me like that?" The guard smirked at Hannibal. "Not all of us are as stupid as Tommy. Now where's the other one?"
"Behind you," Hannibal said sweetly, and the guard looked around just in time to see BA's first flying towards him.
He slumped to the ground. BA stared down at him, but he wasn't getting up.
"Get changed, I'll keep watch," Hannibal ordered sharply. He was already at the door, scanning the outside as he could without opening it further and possibly alerting someone to their position.
BA quickly followed his order, shrugging out of her vest and putting on the guard's thick coat. Her nose wrinkled at the smell. Clearly the guard didn't believe in regular showers.
They switched positions, BA keeping watch while Hannibal disappeared back into the other room to put on the other guard's coat. Neither coat fit very well, Hannibal's too short in the sleeve and BA's not quite meeting across the chest, especially as she refused to take off her gold, but it would have to do. At least at first glance, they should come across as guards, even if a second glance would give the game away.
Hannibal picked up the gun, but quickly discarded it with a grimace. "Empty. I wonder if the men know the boss is handing out empty guns."
"Let's go, Hannibal," BA urged, already standing at the door. She wanted to go find Murdock, make sure nothing had happened to that crazy fool. Until she saw with her own eyes that Murdock was safe, she wasn't going to be bothered about wondering who knew what.
Hannibal following behind he, BA hurried through the outer door, eager to find Murdock and Face, but then their luck ran out. Another guard was waiting on duty outside, and he turned in surprise when BA came out, swiftly followed by Hannibal. "Tommy, your shift doesn't finish..."
The guard's eyes locked on BA, and his face twisted in an ugly scowl. "You! This is all because of you two!" He reached out a hand to grab BA, but BA twisted away, using the momentum of the movement to kick him in the knee. He staggered, but didn't fall. "You'll pay for that." He reached for BA's arm again, but this time, with Hannibal on one side of her and the wall at her back, she didn't have enough room to twist away.
"Don't touch her!" Murdock screamed furiously from the roof of the jail.
The man jolted forwards as the tiny but irate pilot leapt on his back, hitting him over the head with the gun she had in one hand, while the other dug fingernails into his neck hard enough to draw blood. The man toppled forward onto BA, unconscious, and BA pushed him off her, letting his body drop to the ground.
Murdock rolled to her feet, grinning at the two of them. "Colonel."
Hannibal gave her a nod. "Captain. Perimeter secure?"
"Big boss is tied up in his own office, Face's keeping an eye on him. This guy," she prodded the prone body with one sneakered foot, "is the last of the guards."
"Good work." He turned to BA, that irritating grin back on his face. "See, BA, I told you they'd be fine."
Murdock immediately turned to BA as well, her grin somehow even brighter than before. "Were you worried about us, BA? You were, weren't you! You wanted to be out here protecting us with your stinging tentacles, keeping us safe from predators."
"Tentacles?" BA scowled. "I don't have no tentacles, fool. And if I was worried, it's only because you're too crazy to be trusted to look after yourself." She grabbed Murdock in a half hug, subtly checking her for injuries, and finding none. Whatever plan Face and Murdock had cooked up, it must have worked, as Murdock had come out of it with only a few developing bruises and her eyes clear of everything but their usual spark of crazy.
Despite her words, Murdock didn't seem bothered in the slightest, leaning into the hug. "I knew you cared!"
Hannibal scooped up the guard's gun from the ground, frowning at it. "This one's empty as well."
"We noticed that on the way in," Murdock said, still leaning into BA's side. She seemed happy enough like that, and BA wasn't particularly inclined to let go either. "Face has a theory."
"Then let's go find him and he can tell us." Hannibal led the way back to the centre of the compound. BA reluctantly released Murdock from the half hug so they could walk properly, but still kept close to Murdock's side. She'd been more worried about her than she'd care to admit, but seeing Murdock safe and happy at her side was helping that a lot.
When they walked into the boss' office, Face greeted them with a grin. The last of BA's worry ebbed away at the sight. All of them were safe and together, and by the looks of the man at Face's feet, they wouldn't have to worry about these guys again. "Hey, Boss, BA. You found them alright, Murdock?"
"Like a shark after blood, Faceman! 'Specially once the tuna fish pointed the way."
"Murdock said you had a theory about the guns," Hannibal said, straight down to business. BA didn't mind. Sooner this was over, sooner they could get out of here. She was tired of this job.
Letting her concentration drift from Face's explanation of the boss being dumb enough to sell the ammunition and use the money to fund his own private nest egg, she slumped onto the fancy leather sofa on the other side of the room.
Murdock drifted over to her side. "You okay, BA?"
"I'm fine, fool," she grumbled, letting her eyes close. It'd been a long day. "You're the one with somethin' wrong with you."
She felt Murdock plop onto the sofa beside her. "Your tentacles need oxygenating," she said decisively.
"I don't have tentacles," she started, then Murdock started running her fingers through her hair and BA relaxed into it. If that's what Murdock meant by oxygenating her tentacles, BA would go along with it, as long as Murdock shut up and didn't stop.
Fortunately, Murdock didn't stop, just kept running her fingers through BA's hair until BA thought she might just fall asleep. At that point, she reluctantly shook Murdock off, sitting up from where she had slumped while Murdock was stroking her hair. "We've got work to do, crazy," she said, the insult coming out affectionately. "You can't make me sleep now."
"Work's all done, BA," Murdock's voice came softly. "The fisherman have cleared off and the ocean is safe for another day."
BA glanced at her, then over to Face and Hannibal. They were bent over the boss' desk, discussing something, but their body language was relaxed. Whatever they were discussing, it clearly wasn't a danger. Just as importantly, neither of them were looking her way.
Thus assured, she leant back toward Murdock again, closing her eyes. "Alright, you can keep going, but no making me sleep! I still have to drive after this."
She felt Murdock's hair swish against the side of her face in a nod. "No worries, BA, we'll have you all re-oxygenated and ready to keep up the good work of keeping the little fishies safe in no time!"
"You still on about that oxygenating nonsense, fool?"
"That's part of the mutualistic relationship, BA! Clownfish oxygenate their anemones and bring in other fish for them to eat, and in return the anemones keep the clownfish safe and share their food with them. Everyone wins, except the other fish, but we don't really like them. If they'd stop picking on the other fish and trying to eat them up, there wouldn't be a problem."
BA hummed, letting Murdock's rambling drift past her as she focused on the sensation of those small calloused fingers playing gently through her hair.
"Clownfish and anemones can both survive alone, but they're better together. More food, better company, and no aquariums." Murdock's voice dropped down into that lower register BA instinctively knew meant her mind was headed to a bad place. "Clownfish don't do well in aquariums. They're closed in, trapped, no room to breathe and be free and swim the way they're meant to. Locked away in a little room, where they can see the big blue expanse out there but can never touch it..."
"Hey." BA sat up, turning to look Murdock in the eyes. "I won't let no aquarium get you." It sounded crazy, but maybe the best way to get through to Crazy was to talk crazy. Whatever it was, it was enough to draw Murdock back from that far-off place she'd gone in her head and bring her back to something approaching reality.
"Thanks, BA." Murdock grinned at her, that bright, sparkling grin that was just as crazy as her usual grin, but still somehow softer and more heartfelt. If BA was ever going to do something as foolish as categorise Murdock's smiles, this would be her favourite.
"It's alright, little sister. But if you tell anyone I said that, I'm gonna beat you so hard your grandparents will hear it."
Murdock, infuriatingly, didn't look bothered in the least. "Message received, BA. And I love you too."
"Hmph." BA sat back and let Murdock return to stroking her hair, knowing Murdock would hear her lack of denial for exactly what it was.