The doorbell rang loudly for the third time, just as Hannibal was on his final shuffling approach along the hallway. Shuffling, not hobbling. And most definitely not limping.
At least, that’s what he tried to tell himself.
“I’m coming, damn it,” he growled under his breath, not wanting to scare any potential carol singers by hollering at them through the door. He’d had two groups come by already that night, one from the local church and one frankly adorable group of kids from the next street over, accompanied by a very bored looking Dad. He wished he could find it in his heart to just ignore the bell, but it was Christmas Eve, after all, and he loved carols.
A fourth short ring, then the cursed bell started to ring continually, as it whoever it was had finally decided to give up on subtlety altogether and simply lean on the button instead.
So probably not carol singers in that case, Hannibal felt, which justified a shout or two. “Wait one damn minute, I’m coming!” he called out, just as the bell cut off and he heard the unexpected sound of a key turning in the lock.
He sped up his shuffling with a pained wince and reached the door just as it swung open, revealing the utterly unexpected figure of one Lieutenant Templeton Peck. Even more unexpected were the full kit bag Face had slung over one shoulder and the armful of bulging canvas bags he was juggling. And the dog, panting contentedly at his feet with pink tongue lolling out.
“Boss!” Face threw his widest grin at Hannibal, eyes lighting up immediately as he froze in the doorway. “There you are! Sorry, I thought maybe you were in bed.”
“It’s only nineteen hundred hours,” Hannibal pointed out with a tiny frown, noticing the way those bright blue eyes flickered down and back up his body, before accepting a couple of the smaller bags as Face thrust them in his direction. “Why on earth would I be in bed?”
Face shrugged, a fairly impressive feat given how loaded down he still was, then kicked Hannibal’s front door gently shut behind himself as the dog settled comfortably on the mat and leaned sideways against his long denim-clad legs.
“Early night, perhaps?” Face offered, sounding a little too falsely cheerful to Hannibal’s knowing and suspicious mind. “Anyway, sorry. I used the old emergency key. You know, the one you gave me for emergencies.”
Hannibal barely resisted the urge to point out that, even if he had been in bed, it was far from an emergency, and instead asked, “What are you even doing here? Shouldn’t you be off living the high life in LA right about now?”
They’d got back from their last mission two days ago, a full – and almost unheard of – two weeks ahead of schedule. Murdock had immediately hopped on a plane to Texas, while BA took off in his van in the direction of Chicago, and Face was meant to be tagging along with a group of single soldiers headed to his own home town for some partying on the beach.
Another shrug from Face as he juggled the remaining bulky bags. “A change of plans,” he offered evasively, but Hannibal shook his head, feeling the first stirrings of annoyance in his gut.
“Face, kid, I told you I’m fine – ”
“I know, boss, I know,” Face cut in immediately. “I’m not here because of you, I promise.”
Hannibal gave the younger man his best Colonel-glare, and Face, to the kid’s credit, barely blinked. The boys all knew how much Hannibal hated anyone fussing over him when he was hurt. He really was fine. Or, at least, he would be fine soon enough, after a quiet Christmas getting drunk by himself and catching up on his towering to-read pile.
He kept right on glaring, waiting for the tell-tale flicker in those bright blue eyes that would give him an excuse to tear a couple of strips off Face, but the flicker never came. Either the kid had finally figured out how to lie to Hannibal – unlikely after more than a decade of working closely together – or there really had been a change of plans.
“So, what happened then?” he asked guardedly, gingerly crossing his arms in front of his chest and widening his stance to block the hall a little more completely.
It might just have been his imagination, but it looked like Face breathed a tiny sigh of relief before answering him. “There wasn’t room for me at the hotel after all. No spare beds.” Well that was definitely a lie: Hannibal knew for a fact that Face had slept in far worse places than the floor of someone else’s hotel room after a heavy night of drinking. Sure enough, at Hannibal’s quirked eyebrow, Face sagged a little. “Okay, so that’s not true. Honestly, Hannibal? I just didn’t fancy it.”
“A week of partying on your home turf?” To his frustration Hannibal was starting to feel a little shaky again and knew he really needed to sit down, but he was damned if he was going to let Face any further into the house without getting something approaching the truth out of him first. “Try again, kid.”
Face actually looked a little hurt, those full lips turning down in a pout that tugged at Hannibal’s heart strings. Damn but the kid was gorgeous. “I’m serious, Hannibal. Y’know, it’s been six months since she… And last Christmas, we were, well…”
Oh. Hannibal suddenly felt like a real jerk. This time last year, Face and Sosa had been together in Hawaii for Christmas, then she’d left him six months later with barely a word of goodbye. He’d thought his lieutenant was finally over the bitch who’d turned down his proposal and crushed his heart, but obviously not. Apparently Face was still wounded, just in a different way from Hannibal.
Anyway, truth be told, Hannibal was far from unhappy to see Face on his doorstep. He was always glad of any time spent alone with the younger man, even if maybe they could never be as close as Hannibal might wish. Perhaps they could lick their wounds together over Christmas, just so long as Face didn’t turn into a mother hen.
“So, can I stay, Hannibal?” Face asked, clearly a little hesitant. “I’d understand if you really did want a quiet Christmas by yourself, but I’ve got food, and a couple of presents, and I even brought the X-box and a whole load of alcohol.”
“And Bucky,” Hannibal pointed out. At the sound of his name, the labradoodle barked once, bounding to his paws and padding over to Hannibal, jumping up to rest his front paws on Hannibal’s knees in a move that nearly knocked him clean off his feet. Tongue hanging out and tail wagging wildly, Hannibal couldn’t help but fuss the dog’s ears fondly. “Exactly why do you have Sergeant Barnes’s dog with you?”
“Well, that’s a long and not-particularly-interesting story involving a problem at the kennels, some non-refundable plane tickets to Ireland, and one huge favour I owed her.”
Face looked so hopeful, and when Bucky chose that moment to start slobbering enthusiastically all over Hannibal’s hand with a little whine, Hannibal finally did what he’d known he was going to do from the moment Face had opened the door to let himself in.
He stepped carefully backwards with a grin, dislodging Bucky who landed back on the floor with another loud and slightly joyous bark before haring off down the hall towards the kitchen. He gestured for Face to go ahead of him. “Come on then, follow the dog. In you go.”
* * *
Face felt almost overwhelming relief as he started unpacking his bags in Hannibal’s small yet impeccably neat kitchen. A part of him had been utterly convinced that Hannibal might actually turn him away, seeing straight through his carefully rehearsed excuses, but once he’d made it inside the front door he’d known he was safe.
Plus, he’d brought his secret weapon: Bucky. The boss loved Bucky.
“You need a hand, kid?” Hannibal called through from the living room.
“No, thanks, I’ll only be a minute. Just putting the chilled stuff away.” Face hadn’t bought too much really, only a few basics and enough for a decent meal for the two of them on Christmas Day, along with the dog’s favourite kibble, of course. “You just keep Bucky out of my way.”
“That’s hardly much of a challenge,” Hannibal pointed out, and Face could hear the smile in his colonel’s voice as he continued. “He’s sitting on my feet, drooling on my knee, and looking like he’s about to fall asleep at any moment.”
“Well, that means he’s not under my feet, at least!” Bucky generally liked to sit on, or lean on, whoever was closest to him at any given point in time. And that was entirely the point of bringing the dog along – plus, he really did owe Rebecca Barnes several huge favours after what she’d done for the team in Kuwait last year.
Face had obviously cracked the delicate art of lying to Hannibal Smith, after fifteen years of only partial success. Or, perhaps it wasn’t quite lying: omission, that might be a better turn of phrase. A little of the truth, a little distraction, and Hannibal never noticed the parts Face left out.
Face felt he’d certainly become a lot better at omission, since Charissa.
“Did you get a turkey?” Hannibal’s curious question startled Face out of his deeper thoughts, and he quickly slid the last of the cold stuff into the fridge, abandoning the empty bags on the side temporarily.
Grabbing a beer, he headed through to join Hannibal in the living room as he answered, “Nah, I grabbed a small joint of beef instead. No turkeys left on Christmas Eve.” And Face knew Hannibal preferred roast beef anyway. Always had done, even at thanksgiving.
He paused in the doorway, bottle in hand, taking in the rare and precious sight of Hannibal Smith at rest. Bucky was indeed sitting right on top of the colonel’s feet, fluffy head tucked neatly under one big hand as he rested on Hannibal’s knee, eyes closed in utter bliss. Hannibal looked close to joining him in the land of slumber.
His own eyes closed loosely, head tipped back into the sofa cushions, Hannibal’s beer bottle was tilted at an alarming angle on his lap. There were no visible bruises, but Face knew something of what injuries lay beneath the loose sweatshirt Hannibal was wearing. It was all just bruising, thankfully, nothing broken or too badly hurt, and they’d all had far worse, but this time had been far too close for Face’s liking.
This time, he could’ve lost Hannibal for good.
Hannibal looked exhausted, with dark shadows beneath his eyes, and he also looked old and in pain, which was so wrong it just made Face’s heart hurt. There was no way he could have enjoyed himself in LA with the guys, not with Hannibal hurting and alone. Especially not with Face’s newly discovered feelings, feelings he’d been trying hard to keep hidden from his colonel for the last couple of months.
Face had always thought Hannibal was brilliant, and undeniably handsome, ever since the first day he’d met the then-Major Smith while Face was still just a baby Ranger. He’d never dared to even dream of anything more than comradeship or perhaps friendship with Hannibal, but then Murdock and BA had joined their close-knit team of two, seven years and nearly seventy missions ago.
The four of them had quickly become so tightly entwined that Face couldn’t even imagine working with anyone else now, but somehow he and Hannibal had become closer still at the same time, especially since the huge mistake that had been his relationship with Charissa. Those dreams he’d never allowed himself previously came frequently now. He wanted Hannibal so badly, maybe even loved him, but Hannibal had never given him any signs that he might think of Face in the same way.
“You just going to stand in the doorway all night, kid?” Hannibal cracked one eye open, managing to throw a perfect ‘Colonel-glare’ even from that strange angle.
Face fought the urge to sigh as he obediently entered the room, plastering a bright smile on his face instead even though Hannibal had closed his eyes again and wouldn’t see him.
Kid. That was the problem: after so many years working together, would Hannibal ever be able to see Face as something more than the troubled eighteen year old who had scammed his way onto the team?
That was a problem for another day, though. Face’s only true goal for the next few days was to look after Hannibal without Hannibal realising he was being looked after. Or, more likely, with Hannibal realising quite quickly what Face was up to, but having such a good Christmas that he would forgive him.
Any attempts to show Hannibal just how much Face was falling for him, if Face ever grew brave enough to even try, would have to wait for another day.
* * *
It had been a good evening, Hannibal felt, relieved and relaxed in equal measure. Face was always genial company, of course, but if the kid had really been feeling depressed over his lost lover then the whole evening could’ve needed far more energy that Hannibal felt he had to spare.
But instead of moping, Face had grabbed his kitbag and slipped away briefly to the small bedroom he always used at Hannibal’s, returning a short time later wearing a loose pair of tartan sleep pants along with an oversized woollen sweater that hung nearly to his knees and bunched up around his wrists. It looked suspiciously like one of BA’s sweaters, actually – Face was taller and had longer arms, but Bosco’s muscles tended to stretch out most clothes quite impressively.
The whole outfit was finished off with a thick pair of bright red socks, and Hannibal couldn’t help feeling the overall effect was really rather charming, and certainly quite fitting for Christmas Eve. He’d felt his eyes drifting over to Face time and again as they’d watched the film. His eyes always seemed to drift to Face in recent months, whatever they were doing and wherever they were.
“Thanks for indulging me, Hannibal.” Face had made himself quite comfortable in the armchair, those long, long legs of his draped over one arm as he’d settled sideways, feet bouncing up and down slightly. “I’m sure you would’ve preferred something more classic, like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Or ‘Die Hard’, maybe.”
Hannibal stretched very carefully where he lay on the sofa with Bucky asleep across his legs, feeling the twinge along his twisted back and across his bruised left hip. The dog whined slightly in his sleep, unhappy at being shifted, though a gentle hand smoothed over soft ears soon settled him back down. “It was a good choice,” Hannibal answered Face quietly, rather than joining in with the teasing tone and pointing out that the fact that ‘Die Hard’ happened to be set at Christmas did not make it a Christmas movie. “Something light-hearted was definitely what we both needed.”
He’d given in to Face’s uncharacteristically tentative suggestion – admittedly without putting up too much of a fight – of opening a couple of bottles of wine and watching ‘Scrooged’. Some of the more slapstick moments of comedy weren’t quite Hannibal’s style, but Bill Murray was always brilliant, and Hannibal had savoured the chance to watch Face watching the movie.
Those beautiful blue eyes had lit up time and again as the kid laughed, a deep, genuine belly laugh so different from what Hannibal thought of as Face’s ‘conman laugh’. Face had looked like a real kid on Christmas Eve, snuggled up in his huge sweater and curled in his chair.
Except Hannibal’s kid wasn’t a kid anymore, and Hannibal was very much aware of that fact. He’d known Face for nearly fifteen years now, since the younger man had been little more than a gangly teenager, and in that time he’d watched Face grow into his height and fill out all that perpetually tanned skin with hard earned muscle. He was handsome, of course, with those gorgeously hypnotic eyes and wavy hair, but more than that, he was a good guy to be around, clever and funny and brilliant and brave.
Hannibal sighed softly, glad that Bucky’s head would hopefully hide the growing tent in his pants. He’d long suspected Face’s interests lay in both men and women, even taking that bitch Sosa out of the picture, but what would a handsome young lieutenant like Templeton Peck ever want with a washed-up old colonel like him? Hannibal hadn’t even been able to make it back home in one piece this time, instead taking an unplanned nosedive down a ravine when flying bullets had loosened the rocks beneath his feet.
Thank goodness Face had been there to take charge of the rest of the team, able to figure out how to haul Hannibal and his blossoming bruises back up and leading the way home in time for Christmas.
Those bruises suddenly throbbed painfully and Hannibal couldn’t stifle his groan as he froze automatically in place, his hand tightening in Bucky’s fur as Face’s gaze snapped over immediately in his direction. If Hannibal felt for a second that the kid was only there with him out of a sense of pity… Face had an overprotective streak a mile wide, which wasn’t a bad quality to have in an XO, but Hannibal knew he would be devastated if Face really did start treating him like a pathetic old man.
Instead of asking if Hannibal was okay, though, Face stretched one arm down to snag the bottle of wine from the floor by his chair, eyes drifting back to the television. “You want another glass, boss? We could stick on another movie, maybe, or catch midnight mass if you like.”
Thrown off-guard a little, Hannibal shook his head carefully. “No more wine for me, Face, but thanks.” It was their third bottle, on top of a beer each, and technically Hannibal knew he shouldn’t be drinking at all with the painkillers he was reluctantly taking. Not that he was taking as many as he should’ve been, of course. “And let’s have some carols for a change. It is Christmas Eve, after all.” He had a sneaky suspicion where Face’s preferences might lie, good Catholic boy that he was at heart.
Sure enough, Face’s smile lit up the room as he flicked a thumb over the remote, and Hannibal felt his heart melt a little bit. The soft sound of a children’s choir singing ‘Hark The Herald Angels’ filled the room, and on Hannibal’s lap Bucky suddenly twitched violently in his sleep before starting to snore, startling a laugh out of both Rangers.
“Wonder if he’s dreaming about chasing Santa and his reindeer?” Face mused, and Hannibal laughed again.
“Could be.” Suddenly struck by a thought, something he’d been wondering about since he’d first met the adorable dog currently pinning him to the sofa, Hannibal asked, “Why’d they call him ‘Bucky’ anyway? What kind of name is Bucky Barnes?”
To his surprise, Face immediately started laughing again, swinging his legs down to the floor to sit up straight and stare over at Hannibal with obvious disbelief on his handsome features. “Seriously, Hannibal? You haven’t heard of the Winter Soldier?” Hannibal had the distinct feeling he was missing something obvious, and Face sobered quickly, perhaps reading something in the way Hannibal shook his head once. “Ask Murdock some time, okay? He’ll fill you in. Though maybe stop the conversation if he starts getting into too much detail about Captain America, and especially if he mentions Stucky.”
“Sure,” Hannibal agreed hesitantly, though the faint smirk still hovering on Face’s lips implied the whole thing might be a conversation Hannibal would live to regret.
“You sure you don’t want something else to drink, boss? Or anything else to eat?”
Face had produced a picnic supper of sorts, including all sorts of delicacies like cold cuts and pickles and fresh bread. Now, Hannibal barely resisted the urge to pat his very full belly, still aware of the bulge in his pants, and shook his head carefully instead. “You’ve stuffed me full, thanks, kid. But don’t let me stop you; I know a growing lad like you needs his food.”
He’d meant it as a joke, but the moment the words left his mouth, Hannibal knew he shouldn’t have said them. Face could be funny about his food at times, as well as surprisingly sensitive about his age. Sure enough, it might have just been the light, but it looked like a faint shadow passed over Face’s eyes.
Before Hannibal could open his mouth to rescind his words, at least in part, Face had pushed up to his feet and leaned over to ruffle Bucky’s head, the dog awakening with a snort. “I might take Bucky outside for one last time, then maybe call it a night. It’s getting late.”
There was something in Face’s voice that Hannibal really didn’t like, and the last thing he’d intended was to ruin the comfortable Christmas Eve they’d shared. “Face,” he started, but the kid was already heading out into the kitchen in his socked feet, whistling to summon Bucky. Hannibal barely managed to stifle a groan as the dog leaped down from his lap eagerly, one paw landing right in a particularly painful area. At least that took care of that damned erection.
“Happy Christmas, Hannibal,” Face called back over his shoulder.
“Happy Christmas, Face,” he replied softly. But Face was already gone, with Bucky close on his heels.
* * *
Christmas Day dawned clear and warm, but neither Face, Hannibal nor Bucky stirred until almost noon. Face was the first to wake, staggering from his bed to find the dog waiting eagerly outside his door, tail thumping the floor, clearly keen for both a belated breakfast and a visit outside to the yard.
As he took care of the dog and brewed a strong cup of coffee for himself, Face couldn’t help feeling secretly glad he’d woken before Hannibal. It was good to have a bit of time to pull himself together after the way they’d ended things on Christmas Eve. It had been such a lovely evening, and he supposed it hadn’t really ended badly, even if it hadn’t been quite what Face would have hoped for.
“Just you and me for a bit, huh, Bucky?” he murmured softly, petting Bucky behind his fluffy ears before turning to face the kitchen with his hands on his hips. “Right. Let’s get this show on the road.”
He’d already planned everything out in his mind, and Face got to work quickly, prepping the veg and getting the rest of the food ready to go straight in the oven later on. He wasn’t much of a gourmet chef, but when he was fifteen he’d spent a couple of months with a foster mom who believed strongly that every man should be able to cook at least a couple of decent meals from scratch. Thanks to her patient tutelage, Face made a mean spaghetti carbonara, and he could also do a passable roast dinner, which had improved massively since Mama B had shared the secret of her incredible roast potatoes.
With everything more or less ready to go, Face turned his attention to setting up in the living room too, then paused for breath, hands on hips again as he surveyed the house. It looked and felt a little more like Christmas now, but there was still no sound of movement from upstairs, so he assumed Hannibal was still sleeping, perhaps not unexpected with the painkillers he knew the boss was taking. There was no rush to get things moving, of course, and so Face turned to Bucky, who’d been easy company while Face worked, following him around patiently and watching him curiously, hoping for treats.
Face was more of a ‘cat man’ than a ‘dog man’, though he appreciated Bucky’s easy-going personality, but – “Fancy a walk?” he asked, feeling a little silly for talking out loud to the dog, but immediately those fluffy ears pricked up in response, Bucky’s tail starting to wag wildly once again. Face couldn’t help but laugh. “Thought so. Let me get changed, and find your leash, then we’ll head out.”
It rapidly turned into a half-walk half-jog, with Bucky having far more energy than Face had expected, and together they covered quite a bit of ground, Face losing himself in his thoughts as they ran on together. It was so good to be at home for Christmas, and Face was home, really, in Hannibal’s cosy little house. Just the two of them.
Last year, Face had been in Hawaii with Charissa, and at the time he’d enjoyed it. With hindsight, though, Face knew there had been warning signs he should’ve spotted, for instance the fact that she’d taken her laptop with her and spent most of Christmas Eve working. It should’ve been a clue as to where her priorities lay, and Face knew in his heart that he was far better off without her in his life.
The Christmas before that they’d all been in the ass-end of nowhere, surrounded by sand and with the barest hint of mountains on the far horizon. Christmas Day itself had been all but forgotten in a haze of endless marching and ration bars, whereas in contrast three years ago the whole team had been in Chicago with Mama B and BA’s huge extended family. That had been great fun and utter chaos at times, but Face had honestly found it a little too much, everything somehow a bit overwhelming for him when he’d craved peace, or even just for it to be the four of them.
Christmas in the Army was a luxury, of course, and he’d known that when he’d signed up. Having any of the holidays off was a luxury he’d never expected, and this was a true luxury this year: just the two of them, and the dog. Face grinned as he turned back onto Hannibal’s street at last, picking up his pace to an easy sprint as Bucky lolloped alongside him with his tongue hanging out, matching him almost step for step as they dashed for home.
He’d absolutely made the right decision, staying here with Hannibal rather than heading for LA. There was nowhere on earth that Face would rather be. And yes, Hannibal’s casual, well-meaning comments last night had stung a little, though Face knew Hannibal hadn’t intended them the way they’d come out. In a way, it helped to know that the boss really did just see him as some still-growing kid. It had been foolish of Face to ever hope for more.
He’d take whatever he could get, selfishly, whether that was friendship, comradeship, a mentor or a brother, even if lover seemed to be completely out of reach.
The upstairs curtains were open when Face and Bucky turned into Hannibal’s driveway, both panting softly as they slowed to a stop. Hannibal was up at last, and Christmas Day proper could finally begin.
* * *
Hannibal had to admit he was pretty impressed, though perhaps Face’s ability to throw a last-minute Christmas shouldn’t have surprised him at all – Face was a genius when it came to procurement and supplies, frequently managing to pull off the seemingly impossible at ten seconds notice in the middle of nowhere. Given one whole day to shop and plan, of course he would somehow manage to turn Hannibal’s little house into a tasteful Christmas grotto.
He’d woken to a quiet and peaceful house, still bruised and aching but feeling much better for a full twelve hours of sleep and a steaming hot shower, eventually stumbling downstairs to find a brief note on the kitchen table from Face saying he’d taken Bucky out for a walk around the block. There were also a whole host of covered pots and pans clearly filled with what promised to be tempting food, though Hannibal resisted the urge to lift any of the lids to sneak a peak, more than content to let Face surprise him.
His living room had gained a small artificial Christmas tree, balancing carefully on top of one of Hannibal’s shorter bookcases, with tasteful white lights twinkling softly over the two neatly wrapped presents sitting beneath, one in the distinctive shape of a particular box which may well contain Hannibal’s favourite cigars.
Hannibal rarely bothered to decorate for Christmas, in fact he’d barely spent more than a handful of Christmases at home since he’d joined the Army. Christmas was a luxury he rarely got to enjoy. Trust Face to find a way to bring Christmas to life again for him, without going completely over the top.
The dinner, the decorations, even the presents… It was a whole lot of effort for Face to go to for someone he saw only as a father figure or a friend, or a colleague. As much as Hannibal didn’t dare hope for more, a small part of him couldn’t help wondering where Face’s true feelings for him might lie.
Somehow, it really did feel like Christmas at last with that little tree in place, though Hannibal hadn’t quite been able to find the words to tell Face just how incredibly grateful he was once the younger man had returned to the house with Bucky in tow. Clearly the planned walk had turned into a run, and both of them had been out of breath, Face glowing slightly from the exertion and Bucky panting happily, so Face had immediately disappeared upstairs for a quick shower. The perfect moment to say ‘thank you’ had been lost.
Christmas dinner had been as wonderful as Hannibal had expected, though Face had shooed him out of the kitchen with a wave of a tea towel whenever he’d tried to help with the preparations. If Hannibal hadn’t known better then he would’ve assumed the kid was still being overprotective of him and his bruises, but Face genuinely seemed to enjoy cooking when he had the chance, and his food had always been far safer to eat than Murdock’s creations. No one had ever got partial paralysis from one of Face’s meals. At least, not yet.
After a couple of hours watching Face work, they’d finally settled in the living room to eat, Hannibal’s messy coffee table miraculously cleared and the lights on the tree twinkling merrily. Bucky sat hopefully on the opposite side of the table, nose level with the heavily-laden plates of food as the two Rangers attacked them with gusto, clearly hopeful for more treats even though he’d been hand-fed titbits of the finest roast beef all afternoon. The original ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was playing on the television, the sound turned down to a low murmur, and it was all somehow perfect.
Plates scraped clean, with not even a scrap left to offer the visibly disappointed dog, and Hannibal was once again completely stuffed. He was also just a little bit tipsy after they’d shared yet another bottle of wine and several beers each. “That was absolutely excellent,” he groaned, subtly undoing the button on his trousers and loosening his belt a couple of notches to let his stomach pooch out a little. “You’ve outdone yourself, Face, truly. Those roast potatoes were perfect, and the beef, just heavenly. Thanks.”
Face shrugged off the compliments as he always did, stretching his arms carefully above his head in a move which pulling his sweater tight, his own normally-firm belly noticeably a little rounded to Hannibal’s attentive eyes. “There’s pudding for later,” Face suggested half-heartedly, and Hannibal’s stomach nearly rebelled at the very idea of it.
“Later, maybe. Much, much later.”
Face huffed a soft laugh at Hannibal’s emphatic words, his blue eyes a little sleepy and contented. They’d not spoken about much of importance while they ate, instead keeping the conversation light and easy. No mention of Sosa and Face’s supposedly broken heart, nor of their last mission and Hannibal’s fading bruises.
“Not the most traditional Christmas, I guess,” Face suddenly said out of nowhere, his eyes fixed steadily on the tree with its twinkling lights, a small smile hovering on his lips. “But this is nice.”
Hannibal found he just couldn’t let that comment go unchallenged. “Nice? It’s better than nice, Face. And besides, what does ‘traditional’ really mean anyway?”
A soft shrug, Face still refusing to look in Hannibal’s direction for some reason. “You know what I mean. ‘Traditional’. Turkey, family. Stockings on Christmas morning. The whole deal.”
“I think every family makes their own traditions.” Hannibal hesitated briefly, always aware of Face’s lack of relatives and not wanting to stir up painful memories for the younger man, but those bright blue eyes flickered briefly in Hannibal’s direction, curious. He continued softly, “For example, my family always made a bigger fuss on Christmas Eve than on the day itself. I had quite a large extended family growing up, and we all lived quite close to each other, so we’d drop in and out of each other’s houses all day long. We’d have a huge buffet and stuff ourselves silly, swap presents, then move on to the next house and do it all over again.”
“Sounds good.” Face’s voice was quiet and thoughtful, but clearly interested. “Did you have any other family traditions?”
Hannibal thought for a moment. “A few, I guess. I’d always go out with my Father to cut down the tree, about a week before Christmas itself. And we’d each get to choose one present to open before bed on Christmas Eve, before we put the stockings out for Father Christmas. Christmas Day would be much quieter, just the three of us, and I’d try to help Mom in the kitchen but just end up making a mess.”
Hannibal found himself smiling at the memories, of happy times with his parents and Christmas Days long past. Across the table from him, Face shifted in his chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles, then recrossing them again. As if sensing the subtle change in mood, Bucky shuffled closer to Face and dropped his head heavily in the kid’s lap as if offering comfort or encouragement, Face’s hand moving automatically to caress the back of the dog’s head.
Hannibal waited patiently, wondering if Face would choose to continue the conversation or change the subject, more than willing to be led by the younger man in this matter. He didn’t realise he was holding his breath until Face spoke again, talented fingers still combing through Bucky’s fur and his voice so quiet Hannibal had to strain to hear him.
“I think you’re right. A few times I was with a family for Christmas itself, and everyone did do things differently. I actually preferred it back at the home. We’d all have a big sit-down dinner on Christmas Eve before services, and then, of course, there would be midnight mass. I was usually in the choir, believe it or not. We’d all walk back to the dorms together in the early hours of Christmas morning, and it was kind of magical, really.”
Hannibal felt touched that Face had shared that much with him. Of course he’d known that Face had grown up in and out of a series of Catholic care homes, but it was nice to hear that there had been happy times for his boy. “I can just picture you as an innocent little choir boy,” he commented with a smile, and Face laughed, his eyes sparkling as he glanced back at Hannibal.
“I was quite the little angel in appearance but, as you can probably imagine, not all that well behaved.” Hannibal watched as Face ran one hand back through his tousled curls, Bucky lifting his head and barking once as the attention shifted away from him. “Would you believe I was actually quite blond until I turned ten, then it started to darken?”
Actually, Hannibal could imagine it all too well – Face’s hair sometimes seemed to change colour depending on the day of the week, appearing almost black in the shadows then turning a warm caramel in bright sunlight. It always looked so soft, even with the amount of styling products Face used when they weren’t in the middle of a desert, and Hannibal longed to run his fingers through it.
But before he could find a way to say any of that, or even decide if he should, Face suddenly frowned. “It’s strange.”
“I can’t imagine doing any of this with Charissa. Hawaii was just the two of us in a hotel room, with room service, but not a real Christmas Day. I just can’t picture her as the traditional sort. This, just the two of us here, in your house, with a little tree and a roast beef dinner? This is a real Christmas. Just you and me.”
And just like that, the warm atmosphere between the two of them seemed to shift into something more, at least to Hannibal’s mind. There was something wonderful and hopeful burning in Face’s fathomless blue eyes as he glanced up at Hannibal from under his long lashes, and Face didn’t actually sound at all heartbroken at the mention of Sosa, just thoughtful, so Hannibal took a deep breath and asked the question he’d been longing to ask all day.
“Why are you really here, Face? With me, I mean?”
* * *
Hannibal’s question landed heavily in the room, for all that the words were softly spoken in that deep voice Face loved so much.
“Does it really matter?” he tried, fixing his gaze on Bucky’s half-closed eyes as he used both hands to fuss behind the dog’s fluffy ears, warm brown eyes staring up at him trustingly. He thought they’d had this conversation already the previous evening, and he’d felt sure Hannibal had bought into his explanations. “I told you already, my plans just got changed, and I didn’t feel like – ”
“Face,” Hannibal cut in gently, then whispered, “Templeton.”
Face’s heart actually skipped a beat. Hannibal so rarely used his given name, and to use it now felt almost like a dirty trick: there was no way that Face could lie to Hannibal now, if there had even been any real chance of slipping the truth past his colonel.
He shrugged, a little awkwardly, feeling his cheeks heat with a blush. “Hannibal, I don’t – ”
“Why are you really here, Templeton? Is it out of pity? You thought your poor old colonel couldn’t cope alone with all his bruises?”
“No!” At Hannibal’s quiet words, Face turned to meet Hannibal’s gaze once again, fully expecting to see steely blue eyes shining with a hint of bitterness, but instead he was surprised to see honest curiosity burning there alongside a hint of something he hardly dared to believe. “Never out of pity, Hannibal. Never with you.”
“Then why, kid?”
“Why did I choose to stay?” Face tried to buy himself some time, his heart racing a little faster now, mentally begging his usually-quick mind to come up with something, anything. Bucky licked his hand, just once, rough tongue somehow warm and encouraging.
Hannibal smiled at him, tiny laughter lines crinkling up the corner of his eyes which nearly stole Face’s breath away. “Yes. Why did you really stay? Something tells me this isn’t about Charissa at all.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Face, please. I’m so glad you came to me, and that you brought Bucky. You’re right, this is a real Christmas, just the two of us, and the dog. I guess I just want to understand. I need to understand.”
“Presents!” Face suddenly blurted, Bucky sliding off his knees to flop on the floor as he sat a little straighter. “We haven’t opened the presents yet!”
Hannibal laughed, deep in his chest, and leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his parted knees. “You bought me a box of my favourite cigars, right? The ones that aren’t strictly legal. And you got a box of your favourite chocolates for yourself, just so you’d have something to open. I’ll have to owe you a real present for the new year, maybe. But stop trying to distract me.” Those beautiful blue eyes were really shining now, that hint of something more present again, as Hannibal asked Face once more, insistently, “Why are you here?”
Damn, Hannibal was good. He was spot on about the presents, of course, which had been the best Face could think of on short notice. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a present or two under the tree.
Hannibal was also right that it wasn’t about Charissa at all, and Face knew in his heart that his growing feelings for Hannibal were really so much more than just a rebound from his ex. He sighed softly, offering the other man a small smile in return. It was Christmas. If he couldn’t say it at Christmas, then when could he?
“Honestly, Hannibal? There’s just nowhere on earth I’d rather be than right by your side.”
It was a gamble, Face knew that much, but his carefully chosen words were also open to interpretation. If Hannibal chose to hear his meaning as ‘just family’ then that would be fine with Face, and of course that would absolutely be how he’d read it. Face knew that Hannibal saw him as some kid brother, or maybe a surrogate son, but never as anything more.
But then, there was that something in his eyes…
Hannibal’s heavy, warm hand suddenly came to rest over Face’s on the coffee table, his gun-calloused palm rough yet soothing against the back of his hand. The touch was familiar and comforting, but as Hannibal stroked his thumb carefully along Face’s index finger, long fingers curling around to rest against his pulse point, the moment slowly became heated and charged.
Face blinked up at Hannibal, surprised to find himself being watched almost nervously.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be either, Face. Nowhere.”
That hint of something more was back in Hannibal’s eyes, and Face dared to turn his hand over, entwining their fingers together tightly. Could Hannibal possibly mean what Face hoped he might?
“Are we on the same page here?” he asked quietly, relieved beyond belief when Hannibal squeezed his hand in return, tugging gently until Face gave in and leaned forwards across the coffee table and the remnants of their Christmas dinner. “Hannibal?”
The moment held, both of them gazing into each other’s eyes, so close together that they were almost breathing the same air. Then Hannibal suddenly smiled, those nerves seeming to disappear as the colonel reached a decision.
“Stop talking, Face.” And then Hannibal’s lips were on his, and Face stopped talking, thinking, and feeling anything at all beyond the absolute tenderness of their very first kiss.
* * *
Hannibal could barely believe he was actually kissing Face. It was a dream, surely. Face’s lips were soft and warm, and he tasted of the herbs from their dinner as well as the fine red wine they’d shared, but all Hannibal could think was that he would surely wake up soon.
He’d felt the ring of utter truth in Face’s softly-spoken words, admitting at last that he truly wanted to be there with Hannibal. It wasn’t about Sosa, and it wasn’t about pity – if Face could dare to take a risk by speaking the truth, then the least Hannibal could do was take a risk himself by reaching out in return.
Christmas day had taken a wonderful turn he hadn’t ever expected, though this was something he had dreamed of for a very long time. And the kiss was so much more than he’d dreamed it could be; tender rather than desperate, and deep rather than hurried.
Hannibal felt he could have kept on kissing Face for hours, but suddenly there was a short bark as Bucky clearly decided he’d been ignored for too long, and a wet nose pushed up insistently under Hannibal’s chin, forcing him to pull back with a stuttered laugh.
Face was laughing too, thankfully, as Bucky practically sprawled over Hannibal’s lap seeking attention. “Okay, Bucky, we get the idea,” Hannibal said, both hands fussing over the dog as Face leaned back into his chair. “Were we ignoring you?”
“And you thought I was the one trying to distract you!” Face shook his head slightly, his gorgeous features alight with happiness. “The perfect moment and the perfect kiss, foiled by a dog!”
Hannibal smiled across at Face, taking in the younger man’s slightly dishevelled look, and his kiss-swollen lips. For all that a part of him wanted to dive straight back in, to take Face straight to his bedroom, even, and to strip them both down to bare skin, there was another part of him that wanted to savour every moment as they took the next steps in their relationship. And as much as he didn’t want to admit it, he was still bruised and achy, and Face was clearly a little overwhelmed.
Maybe Bucky had the right idea after all.
“There’s no rush,” he told Face softly, choosing his words carefully. “We’ve got all the time in the world. Pudding to eat. Presents to open. Then the rest of our lives, if you’ll have me.” He paused, waiting to see how Face would take his words, and to his relief Face nodded immediately with a tender smile.
“I’ll have you if you’ll have me. And you’re right, there’s no rush at all. This is already so much more than I could have wished, Hanni – John.”
Oh, the sound of his given name whispered so tentatively nearly made Hannibal throw away his resolve, but instead he reached over to squeeze Face’s hand once again, clearing his throat. “How about we clear this away and open another bottle of wine?”
Face huffed a laugh. “You mean, how about I clear this away while you sit there and make a fuss over the dog?” He pushed up to his feet, then hesitated before leaning over and pecking a quick kiss to Hannibal’s parted lips. “I’ll get the pudding while I’m up, save us from having to move again later. Sound like a plan?”
“The perfect plan,” Hannibal agreed immediately, as Bucky settled heavier onto his lap and Face lifted their empty plates away, a huge grin on his face. “And the perfect Christmas.”
* * *
It had rapidly grown dark outside, but neither Hannibal nor Face could be bothered to turn on the main lights in the living room. Instead, the twinkling lights from the Christmas tree were all the light they needed, along with the flickering of yet another old black and white movie, not that either man was truly focussed on the television at all.
Face was curled up on the sofa by Hannibal’s side, socked feet tucked up beneath himself and head resting on Hannibal’s strong shoulder, his eyes half-closed and his body relaxed. Hannibal had one arm wrapped tightly around Face’s waist, pulling the younger man as close as he could, savouring the feeling of Face’s soft curls – as soft as he’d always dared to imagine – against his cheek.
On the coffee table lay the remnants of their Christmas puddings, their plates licked almost entirely clean by Bucky when the two men had been momentarily distracted by one of many tender kisses exchanged during the evening. They each had a glass of wine within reach, and Face had his box of chocolates open and already half-eaten in his lap, torn wrapping paper strewn across the floor. Hannibal was puffing merrily on one of the finest cigars known to mankind, and neither of them planned to move for a very long time.
And Bucky? Bucky lay asleep on the floor, feeling that his part in the whole matter was done.