Grief is an odd kind of thing: it hits different people in different ways and not always at the same time. It’s not always tears and despair, either; sometimes it’s anger and confusion and wanting to kill something, and sometimes it’s numbness spreading through your very bones.
“Where’s Faceman?” BA asks, barely glancing up as Hannibal jogs to the van where he’s pushing a semi-clean piece of cloth against the heavily bleeding gash in Murdock’s forehead.
“Murdock, can you handle the ride back to the warehouse?” Hannibal asks, smearing soot and sweat across his face as he rubs a hand over it, and Murdock’s eyes are unfocussed as he nods. “Good. BA, let’s move.”
“What about Face, boss?” BA asks, and something in the way he says it suggests that he already knows the answer, and wishes he didn’t.
Hannibal ignores him again and throws his rifle into the back of the van, moving to help Murdock get inside when BA blocks his way and gets up in his face like he’s only ever done once or twice before, when things were getting completely out of hand.
“I asked you a question, man,” he says, trying to cover up the undercurrent of fear in his voice by making himself sound more threatening and forceful.
“Move it, BA,” Hannibal says and tries to push past him and all it gets him is a big fist clenched in his singed shirt.
“Where is he?” BA snarls, and there’s a brief stare contest between the two of them: all clenching jaws and flaring nostrils and so, so much anger in their eyes.
“He didn’t make it,” Hannibal hears himself saying, and the hand in his shirtfront goes utterly limp. “Now move it, Corporal, before we get our asses blown up as well.”
His words are harsher than he intended, and so is his tone of voice, and it’s all somehow happening from very far away and to somebody else, and he doesn’t understand what this person is thinking or feeling or saying, or why.
“Oh, no,” Murdock says from the sidelines, eyes crossing dangerously as he grabs for Hannibal’s arm, “I think he forgot to tell you.”
But what it is that Face should have told him Hannibal never finds out as Murdock chooses to pass out on them at that precise moment. Whether it’s from his injury or the news, or maybe a combination of the two, Hannibal doesn’t know, but he’s vaguely jealous of Murdock’s unconsciousness. They haul him into the van and BA swears viciously as they can hear sirens starting up in the distance; the explosion was much bigger than they’d thought it would be.
Sitting in the back of the van with Murdock’s head in his lap, trying to keep him from being jostled around too much, with BA avoiding his eye in the rear-view mirror and Face’s jacket crammed under him from where the kid left it, he has far too much time alone with his thoughts, and his memories.
“You can’t keep doing this, kid,” Hannibal grinds out, jaw clenched in an effort to keep from shouting as he closes his office door behind them.
“The fuck I can,” Face snaps, all terribly short hair and blue, blue eyes. “Why the fuck do you even care?”
“Because it’s on my fucking head if you keep screwing up,” Hannibal roars, getting nothing more than a narrowing of the eyes out of the kid.
“Why bother, then?” Face asks, voice low and harsh, “Why even bother with me if I’m such a fuck-up? Just get me transferred the fuck out of your unit and be done with it.”
Hannibal slams him into the wall then, hand tight around Face’s throat, and at least that gets him a reaction: fear.
“I want you to be very clear on one thing, lieutenant,” Hannibal growls, feeling the kid’s panicked breath against his face and his hammering pulse against his palm, desperate fingers trying to pry that hand away from his throat. “I didn’t take you in because I had to, or because your former CO wanted to get rid of you.”
“Major,” Face gasps, short fingernails clawing painful crescent moons into Hannibal’s wrist.
“I took you in,” Hannibal snarls, tightening his hand until Face can’t draw breath at all anymore, “because you are out of control and too brilliant for your own good and I wanted you to become who you could have been without all the bullshit. I fucking requested your transfer myself.”
He lets go then, and Face slides down the wall a little, coughing and gasping and rubbing at his neck.
“You, you requested my transfer to your unit?” Face rasps, eyes watering. “Why?”
“Because I thought you could be extraordinary with the right guidance,” Hannibal says, taking a cigar from his desk and lighting it, feeling himself relax on the first inhale. “I still do.”
“You do?” Face asks, and it sounds so terribly hopeful, so much like he actually needs Hannibal to, that the major’s face softens.
“Yeah, kid,” he says, quieter now, and less angry.
There’s a moment of silence, when an awed look comes across Face’s features and almost immediately transforms into shame, and then he whispers, “I’m sorry I fucked up. I’m sorry I disappointed you.”
“I know,” Hannibal says and goes to him, rubbing the back of Face’s neck as he swallows compulsively, looking anywhere but at Hannibal. “I know,” he repeats, and Face sags against him a little.
“So that’s it then?” he asks, and the smile he forces is painful to look at.
“No, kid,” Hannibal says and slides his hand down to squeeze Face’s shoulder. “I don’t give up on people just because they make mistakes.”
“How do you know I won’t disappoint you again?” Face asks, and his eyes are red-rimmed when he looks at Hannibal. “How do you know I won’t fuck up again?”
“Oh, I know you will,” Hannibal answers, and his smile isn’t a nice one, but it isn’t unkind. “But I know you won’t try to mess up, and that’s all that matters.”
Looking back now, Hannibal realizes there’s a moment there; a moment of vast possibility, a chance to change the entire course of their future, and he’s not taking it.
“Come on, boss,” BA says, and Hannibal helps him get Murdock out of the van and into the abandoned warehouse they’ve been occupying.
Once they’ve gotten Murdock settled on his cot Hannibal gets the first aid kit, and his hands are steady as he cleans the wound and injects a local anaesthetic and closes the flaps of skin with two stitches. It isn’t until he’s done and wiping blood-smeared hands on a towel that it occurs to him that this is usually Face’s job, his stitches neater than any of theirs.
“How bad is it?” BA asks, frowning at Murdock’s unconscious face.
“Oh God,” Face gasps, dropping to his knees next to him in the dirt, looking completely horrified at having this happen on his first mission with Hannibal. “How bad is it, boss?”
“I’ve had worse,” Hannibal manages to say, feeling Face’s hand tentatively press against his own on his thigh, and he looks down to see blood welling up in the spaces between their fingers.
“Fuck, shit, I’m so sorry,” Face whispers, eyes wide and so very frightened as he looks at Hannibal.
“It’s not your fault kid,” Hannibal says, squeezing Face’s arm and leaving a wet, red handprint on the sleeve of his jacket.
“What, what do we do now, Hannibal?” he asks, like he never went through any of the medical training, like he really and honestly doesn’t know it.
“Here,” Hannibal fumbles for his knife and hands it over to Face, “we gotta take a look first.”
“Motherfucker,” Face groans, blood flowing freely now that the combined pressure of their hands is gone.
Hannibal lets his head fall back against the boulder they’ve taken refuge behind, its shadow providing no relief from the heat of the desert sun. “It’s okay,” he whispers as Face cuts the leg of his pants open; the world is starting to swim before his eyes, and he’s not sure whether it’s the heat or not. “It’s okay.”
“No,” Face says, roughly shaking his shoulders, “No, you keep your eyes the fuck open, boss.”
It’s an effort to keep them from sliding shut again, but Face is pleading with him, a hot, sticky hand on his cheek, the other pushing a bit of torn off, bunched up fabric against his thigh.
“Okay,” he says, the words coming slow and with difficulty, “let’s take a look.”
It’s worse than he thought it would be, but nowhere near as bad as it could be; just a graze, but more than a scrape, a deep gouge carved into his flesh along the side of his thigh, perhaps an inch long, sand and dirt already ground in.
“Okay, that’s not so bad,” Hannibal says, pressing the cloth against it again and grimacing. “Give me my gun, kid.”
Face’s eyes widen so much that Hannibal actually has to laugh.
“Or you can just give me a bullet,” he says, his smile stretching the dry skin of his cheeks uncomfortably, “the gun is entirely optional.”
Face frowns, and hands over a single bullet, which Hannibal carefully pries open with his knife, hands shaking just a little. “What are you doing?” he asks eventually, sitting back on his haunches and wiping his sweaty face on his shoulder.
“Ancient trick, kid,” Hannibal says, tapping the gunpowder out into the wound, “for when you don’t have the means to take proper care of a wound, or when you need to close it fast before it gets infected or you bleed out.”
“Fuck, you’re not seriously doing what I think you’re doing?” Face says, and looks frightened as Hannibal offers him a teeth-baring grin.
“Shit, I’m out of matches,” he groans when a quick inventory of his pockets turns up empty.
“Wait, I got some,” Face says, producing them from the inside of his jacket with a timid little smile. “I thought you might need them at some point, although I was thinking more along the lines of nicotine cravings.”
Hannibal laughs weakly and reaches for Face’s hand that’s holding the match, squeezing it as he says, “I’m glad I’ve got you, Face.”
It might be the blood that’s still seeping into the gritty ground beneath him, or maybe it’s the blazing sunlight playing tricks on him, but just for a second everything goes very still and very quiet and the kid just looks at him, face softening in a way that makes him look as young as he really is.
And that’s another one of those moments, the ones where something could have happened, where it was entirely possible to change things, different roads and worlds and lives trapped in the space between them; and Face just strikes the match.
BA doesn’t say anything and Hannibal rubs a hand over his face and turns to walk away, desperate for a cigar.
“We shouldn’t have left him behind, Hannibal,” BA tells his retreating back, anger returning to his voice.
“We had to,” Hannibal says, turning back to face BA.
“That ain’t make it right,” he says, and there’s so much fury and so much pain in his words that Hannibal feels a little sick. The big guy is used to protecting them, and the bitter realisation that he can’t always be there to do that is hitting him hard.
“He was in the building when the charges went off,” Hannibal says, and he’s a little horrified at how calm he is about all of this. “We were too far away to get him out before the explosion. If the fire didn’t get him, the tons of concrete he’s buried under sure as hell did. There was nothing we could have done and no point in going back.”
“We shouldn’t have left him behind,” BA repeats, and there’s disappointment there.
That’s new, Hannibal thinks detachedly, and leaves him alone with Murdock.
The night air is cool on his skin, still slick with sweat and soot and blood, and he quickly starts shivering, and that makes it difficult to light his cigar.
“Need a hand with that?” Face asks, and Hannibal looks up to find him leaning against the brick wall gesturing with a lighter.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in there, getting spectacularly drunk and charming the panties off unsuspecting young women?” Hannibal asks, getting a sloppy grin and the scratching of a scruffy jaw in response.
“Meh,” Face rolls his shoulders against the wall in what Hannibal interprets as a shrug. “I didn’t get the promotion anyway. Besides, I’m not really in the mood.”
“Templeton Peck not in the mood for free booze and women,” Hannibal says, grinning around the cigar, “what is the world coming to.”
Face laughs a little, but there’s something slightly awkward about it, something a bit off.
“You alright, kid?” Hannibal asks, and Face nods slowly.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he sighs, and holds the lighter up again, “You still want that light, colonel?”
“Yeah, thanks,” he says, stepping in to take the lighter, but instead Face flicks it and huddles closer, palm cupped around the flickering flame.
Their eyes meet over the lighter and Hannibal marvels at how much the kid’s changed in the past years, so much older now and still so very young, and there’s all the possibilities of the universe crammed into that tiny stretch of time; and then the lighter goes out and Hannibal exhales a plume of smoke into the kid’s face.
“Maybe I should go in there after all,” Face whispers, and he’s standing far too near, and so they both take a step back as Hannibal nods.
“That’s good,” he says, and he can’t for the life of him arrange his face into a smile. “Try to keep him awake, he probably shouldn’t sleep until we’re sure it’s nothing serious.”
“What do you want me to say when he asks about Face?”
“Tell him the truth,” Hannibal says without hesitation, and his voice still sounds like someone else’s; someone who’s perfectly calm and unaffected.
BA goes back inside, and after chewing on his unlit cigar for another moment Hannibal follows him.
In some strange way this single moment, just this morning, seems more important than all the rest combined, seems different, somehow.
They’re standing a few feet apart, Hannibal still braced on the table and Face leaning towards him ever so slightly. There’s an abandoned cup of cold coffee sitting next to Hannibal’s left hand; a bit of it spilled over the side as it was set down too quickly, leaving a small stain on the corner of a map and making the paper curl upwards.
Face’s hands are shoved deep into his pockets, and his whole body communicates nothing but tension: it’s in his forehead, and the set of his brows, in the way he’s chewed his lip raw, and the angle of his jaw. The sunlight slanting through the smeared windows hits Face from the side and above, dust motes dancing around his head like a strange halo, and it highlights the deep worry lines between his eyebrows and the blonde in his stubble.
A few stray crumbs of toast still cling to Face’s jacket, and his eyes are bluer than Hannibal remembers ever seeing them.
Examining that snapshot of his memory, that single moment frozen in his mind, Hannibal knows that this, somehow, is the turning point, the single instant that could have changed everything.
And his watch beeps and he says, “That’s our cue, boys”, and it slips through his fingers like sand.
“I did?” Murdock asks, arms wrapping around his pulled up legs, and he looks exhausted and painfully wide awake. “I don’t remember.”
“What do you mean you don’t remember?” Hannibal asks with a frown, and BA has his head buried in his hands.
“Most head injuries come with a free helping of amnesia,” Murdock says, voice quiet and calm and sane, fingers ghosting over the rim of that old cup of coffee.
“But you’ll remember, right?” he presses, and Murdock shrugs vaguely and dips his forefinger into the cold coffee. “I need you to remember, Murdock,” Hannibal says, and both of them look up as his voice finally, finally cracks.
“Oh, Hannibal,” Murdock whispers, offering his open palm to him from across the table, and BA squeezes Murdock’s knee with a big, big hand.
“I need you to remember,” Hannibal says again, and his throat hurts so much the words come out choked and quivering. “Please, I just need to know…”
He sits down heavily and hides his face in his palm as the first tears escape, and for a long while there’s nothing except his own ragged breaths and Murdock’s sticky hand in his.
“Holy shit, you guys are the worst fucking rescue team in history,” Face says, grinning broadly as he kicks the door shut behind himself; his smile flickers and dies when he sees their expressions. “What’s going on?”
His clothes are singed and blackened with soot and he’s covered in dust, face grimy and crusted here and there with blood, and Murdock’s up and out of his chair and skidding right across the room into Face’s arms before the other two have so much as breathed.
“Face!” he squeals, squeezing him so tightly it’s got to be painful, but Face is too busy staring at them in wide-eyed confusion to even wince. “You’re alive!”
“Yeah, buddy,” Face says with a bewildered laugh, wrapping his own arms around Murdock and letting the pilot cling to him. “Why…”
It’s only then that he really takes in the scene before him: Murdock’s manic glee, BA’s relief and reluctant smile, Hannibal’s tear-streaked face that seems to have gotten stuck on an expression somewhere between shock and disbelief.
“We thought you were dead, man,” BA says unnecessarily and walks over to squeeze his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Face can only nod and swallow and prod Murdock who seems intent on sticking to his front. “Uh, Murdock,” Face says, gently peeling him off with a little help from BA. “You, uh, you didn’t by any chance forget to mention that the backup plan involved me faking my death, did you?”
“Oh!” Murdock clicks his fingers and turns to Hannibal, “That’s what Face meant to tell you: the backup plan in—“
“I thought you were dead,” Hannibal says, and his voice low and tightly-controlled and the way his expression isn’t changing is starting to unsettle Face.
“Uh, surprise?” Face laughs nervously, and they all flinch when Hannibal gets up and kicks the table so hard it hits the opposite wall with a crash, maps and toy soldiers scattering around them.
“I thought you were dead, for fuck’s sake,” he yells and gets into Face’s personal space, grabs him by the front of his shirt and shakes him, and he smells like dynamite and smoke and there’s cold coffee all over the floor.
“Jesus, boss,” Face gasps, grabbing onto Hannibal’s arms for support, “I’m sorry, alright!”
“You’re sorry?” Hannibal asks incredulously, and BA and Murdock aren’t sure if they should intervene or not. “I thought you were dead.”
And something shifts in Hannibal, then, and all the anger drains out of him, face softening and hands sliding up to frame Face’s head between his palms.
“I thought you were dead,” he says again, and it’s quiet and hoarse this time, tracing the contours of the kid’s face with the pads of his fingers; cheekbones, nose, jaw, bruise on his chin, cut above his eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, boss,” Face whispers and his eyes are wide, and for the first time Hannibal recognizes the moment for what it is as it’s happening: possibility.
The kiss is sudden and inevitable, and it feels like déjà vu, like they’ve always been doing it, and like they always will be. It’s sooty-slick and gritty with concrete dust, slow and rolling and tasting vaguely like blood. From somewhere far away Murdock whoops and BA grumbles something, and as Face’s arms wrap so tightly around him that Hannibal fears his ribs will crack, none of it matters anymore.
It’s like they always did this, right now, in this exact moment, and all the opportunities they missed and all the time they wasted just evaporates, because they always had now.