Face straightened up gingerly and reached out to flush the toilet, wincing as he watched the remains of his semi-digested lunch flush out of sight. Even though it was now undeniably empty, his stomach still bucked and roiled, but now his forehead thumped in time with his pulse, his throat was burnt red raw and his clammy hands were shaking as he gripped them tightly at his sides. Slowly, he let himself out of the cubicle and went to the sink, turning the faucet on full and splashing some of the tepid water onto his face, hoping that it would make him feel maybe a tiny bit better, when it didn’t, he just let out a long breath and let his back rest on the smooth tiled wall, closing his eyes and trying to breathe through the churning in his gut.
For a moment he thought of blaming the chicken Panini he’d had for lunch at the diner they’d stopped at earlier in the day, but deep down he knew it wasn’t that at all – even though he was still struggling to pinpoint the exact cause of his recent intimate appointment with the toilet bowl.
It wasn’t like he couldn’t think what could be stressing him out so much that he’d lose his lunch; it was more like there were so many reasons that it was hard to choose just one. Maybe it was hauling his kids right across country, again, to start a new life, again, away from everything they knew, again. Maybe it was returning to the army after such a long break, wondering if he was now too old, too unfit, too jaded to even consider being able to do what he did before. Maybe it was facing everyone again, looking at their faces and knowing they knew all about his failed marriage, Charissa’s infidelity. Maybe it was the thought of running into Lt. Lopez himself one day, knowing that the last time he’d seen him he’d been taking his wife, doggy style, in his own bed while he just stood in the doorway of the bedroom with their ill children in his arms. Maybe it was the thought of seeing BA and Murdock after all this silence, all this unpleasantness, wondering how that was going to go, how on earth they could pick up their friendship once more. Maybe it was the thought of having to go away on missions, leaving his kids behind, wondering if he would even come back or if he was committing them to life as orphans, the one thing he swore he would never do to his own children. Maybe it was this relationship he’d started up with Hannibal, this wonderful, warm, loving, terrifying, confusing relationship he’d allowed himself to fall into – wondering if he was only sentencing them both to heartbreak and upset that neither of them deserved...
He shook his head, trying to banish the entire whirlwind of doubt out of his head for now, and concentrate instead on just getting through it. He was committed now after all, there was no turning back, not at this stage, not until he’d at least given things a try. With a long sigh he opened his eyes and prepared to haul himself back out and to the car. Hannibal would be wondering where he was, he was confused enough when Face, who’d been at the wheel of this current leg of their journey back to base, suddenly swung into the parking lot of this 7-Eleven and bolted for the rest room, his hand clamped tightly over his mouth. But of course he couldn’t do anything, couldn’t follow, as he had the kids with him, the kids who already must be confused beyond all previous experience of confusion, which in their lives was pretty vast.
He still didn’t move though, couldn’t quite bring his feet to walk to the door or his hand to reach for the door handle and so stood; enjoying the solitude and trying to haul all the pieces of his battered psyche back together. He couldn’t fool himself into thinking that Hannibal hadn’t realised how cold his feet were getting the closer they got to Benning; he knew that was exactly why the Colonel had suggested they drive across country rather than fly, give Face a little time to adjust to the changes that had arrived so quickly. But unfortunately it hadn’t happened like that.
They’d only driven a maximum of four hours each day, Hannibal had suggested that himself so that the kids didn’t get fractious with all the enforced sitting. He’d also planned a route, with Sophia’s help Face remembered, which included a visit at the end of everyday’s drive; a petting zoo, an adventure pool, an aquarium, a discovery museum. Something for Sophia to look forward to, something to bribe her with, he’d explained and Face had agreed, too over wrought with everything to even think of objecting.
So that’s what they had done every day so far. Arrived at their planned destination early afternoon, then loaded up the baby buggy and set out to visit the latest family attraction. The four of them. As a family.
At first it had completely weirded Face out. He’d spent all his time looking around him, wondering who was watching them, wondering if they could guess what he and Hannibal had done the night before in his bedroom in Nebraska, wondering if someone was going to cause a scene, ruin this tiny little moment of peace for him. But nothing happened. Even though he worried himself so hard that he missed most of his children’s delight at the pigs they were allowed to stroke, the goats that butted their hands looking for treats, the fluffy rabbit that jumped into Sophia’s lap, the lambs that suckled so hard from their bottles that Hannibal had to help Sophia to hold hers, missed it all until they were back in the car, both the kids asleep, one clutching a fluffy lamb, one a bright red tractor, and Hannibal’s hand landed on his thigh with a gentle, “There now, that wasn’t so bad for a first time now was it?” and Face had flushed with embarrassment that he’d been so damn transparent.
After that he’d forced himself to be a bit more laid back about the whole thing. When he looked around him at the cafe in the Aquarium the next day, he’d struggled to count more than a handful of ‘traditional’ visiting families. There were lone parents, and grandparents and a few same sex visitors with their families and he had no idea if any of them were friends or lovers or twins or arch enemies trying to bury the hatchet. It made him realise that no one knew anything about him or Hannibal here either, and even if they did, he should stop caring so much about it and concentrate on giving his kids a good time.
So, that’s what he did. He held Sophia up so that she could hand feed the baby rays in the touch-pool, he crawled into the observation bubble with Jack so that he could see the tropical fish close up, he queued with Sophia for half an hour so she could get her picture taken with a sea lion, and rode on the Dizzy Dolphin train with Jack four times, amazed every time at how much it made his tiny son laugh. And then, when he was sure that the children were asleep in their shared motel room, and he and Hannibal were allowing themselves just a few minutes of holding each other in bed, he realised that he’d loved it, loved every minute of their unconventional family trip out.
He’d told Hannibal that, whispered it as he felt those beautiful big hands smoothing over his bare back, and Hannibal had laughed, a wonderful warm chuckle that had warmed Face’s heart and gave him hope that maybe this wasn’t going to be just another disastrous chapter in the life and loves of Templeton Peck.
But as the days passed, he began to fret more and more until, less than half an hour from their eventual destination, here he was, hiding in the rest room of a convenience store. With a final sigh, he let the embarrassment of that realisation fuel his motivation, and pushed off the wall, determined to see this through – whatever challenges may lie ahead of him.
He spotted Hannibal and the kids as soon as he turned the corner from the rest room. They were sitting on a picnic bench just outside the store, Hannibal and Sophia side by side, Jack perched on the table between Hannibal’s arms, his chubby legs swinging just above the boss’ lap. Face couldn’t help but smile as he saw them, every time he caught Hannibal like this, so relaxed, so completely at ease with such young children, his young children, he knew his love for the other man just trebled. As he got closer he could see that they were eating something, helping themselves from a green box set down next to Jack and as Face came closer, he laughed as he saw what it was.
“Strawberries!” Sophia announced as she spotted him approaching, “Hannibal bought us strawberries, daddy!”
Even if Face hadn’t seen the pot, or heard Sophia’s deafening announcement, the sight of mashed up strawberry all over her face, and Jack’s face as well for that matter, would probably have tipped him off.
“I can see,” he told her, sliding onto the bench directly opposite her, unable to stop the smile that bloomed over his face. “Were they for eating or wearing, then?”
Frowning, Sophia weighed him up. “Eating,” she eventually announced, knowing he was teasing but not quite knowing how just yet. “And we saved some for you.”
Face winced as his stomach rolled once more and he shook his head at her. “I’m fine thanks, sweetheart; you and Jack just enjoy them.”
Sophia’s head cocked and her eyes narrowed. “Jonathan,” she told him firmly. “His proper name is Jonathan – don’t call him Jack anymore, you’ll confuse him!”
At that she reached out for another strawberry, missing Hannibal’s quickly stifled snort of amusement and Face’s indulgent smile. Yes – they had decided to stop calling him Jack, Hannibal had suggested it over breakfast that first morning, told Face that if he didn’t want the kid called something he wasn’t, then he’d have to make the change now, before Jack was too old to cope. Face had wavered for a moment, but then remembered that he and Charissa had chosen that name together, snuggled up in bed one night, not long after they’d found out their ‘bump’ was going to be a boy. It made Face remember that their relationship had been made up of more than fights and arguments and suddenly he felt disloyal to her memory; even though she had never objected to her father’s suggestion of shortening ‘Jonathan’ to ‘Jack’, he felt that it was wrong to call her son by a name other than the one she herself had helped to choose.
He’d explained it all to Sophia as they packed her clothes and toys into a holdall in the bedroom and Sophia had simply nodded, surprising him yet again with the ease in which she accepted all of these changes, and since that moment, she hadn’t slipped up once, remembering to call him, ‘Jonathan’ with an ease that Face could only envy.
“Of course,” Face muttered even though she was too busy pulling the stalk out of her strawberry to hear him. He scrubbed at his face, trying to dislodge the stubborn headache behind his eyes and stopped at the feeling of a foot rubbing gently at the back of his calf. He looked up; straight into Hannibal’s concerned blue eyes.
“You okay, kid?” came the soft question, as he handed Jonathan a strawberry he’d already hulled.
Face forced out a smile. “I’m fine, boss,” he replied with as much confidence as he could muster. “Just a little nervous I guess.”
“There’s a motel over there,” Hannibal said, his head nodding to the left. “Why don’t we get a room? Then we can set off-”
“No, it’s fine, Hannibal,” Face interrupted. “I can do this. I want to do this.”
For a second it looked as if Hannibal was going to say something else, but instead he just nodded and slipped a water bottle Face’s way before handing Jonathan another strawberry.
The last thirty minutes of the drive were some of the fastest of Face’s life. He tried to spin them out as long as possible, but before he knew it, he had followed Hannibal’s quietly spoken directions as far as they could go and he was pulling up in front of a homely looking double fronted house on a quiet tree-lined road.
“Well, kid,” Hannibal said, clearing his throat awkwardly, “this is it.”
Face, whose white knuckled hands were still latched onto the steering wheel, leaned forward a little for a better look, but didn’t speak. Sophia meanwhile, who had been asking every minute and half for the last twenty if they were there yet, strained forward against the straps of her car seat and pressed her nose against the glass.
“Is that your house, Hannibal?” she asked excitedly. “The white one? With all the flowers?”
Hannibal tore his eyes from Face’s taught features. “It is,” he answered, forcing a smile for her.
“Ohh!” she clasped her hands together and smiled at him. “I love it! It’s like the one that Princess Tiffany lives in in my head!”
That brought a smile to the face of both the men in the car, even if one was slightly more strained than the other.
“Which is my bedroom? Do I get a window?”
Face shook his head as he popped his seat belt and opened his door. “Really, Soph?” he asked as he swung the rear door open to get Jonathan. “You make it sound like I’ve kept you in a cupboard all these years.”
“No, Silly!” she giggled, squirming out of her seat as soon as Hannibal unclipped her harness. “That’s Harry Potter!”
Face shook his head in mock exasperation and straightened up with Jonathan’s car seat over his arm, stopping dead at the sight of his daughter and his lover standing at the gate of his new home, hand in hand, waiting for him. Tears sprung to his eyes at the unexpected lift his life had experienced in the last week, and found himself smiling back, knowing that he had to keep it all together here, that he couldn’t let a gift as precious as the one he’d been given slip away through his fingers.
He locked the car and made his way around the trunk, smile widening at the way Sophia bounced hyperactively on the end of Hannibal’s arm in her eagerness to be inside.
“Okay?” Hannibal asked him quietly as they turned to walk up the path and Face nodded, maybe not feeling it just yet, but knowing that he could, in this house he could.
“It looks great,” he said hoarsely and Hannibal nodded, content with that for the meantime.
Sophia chattered excitedly the whole way up the path, asking Hannibal if he’d planted that tree, those flowers, made that bench, that bird table, and not seeming at all put off with all his negative answers.
And then they were there, and Hannibal bent to scoop her up, sitting her on his hip as he leaned over to open the unlocked door and Face followed him in, grinding to a halt on the door mat and wondering why on earth he was even half way surprised at what greeted him.
The hallway was a riot of colour; banners, balloons, streamers and flowers were vying for place on every wall and surface, there was a distinct smell of fresh linen and home cooking about the place and the whole thing smacked of just one person – Murdock.
Then the door to on the right of them opened and Face tensed, but it wasn’t Murdock who stepped through to greet them, but BA. For a second no one spoke, Sophia had snaked both her arms around Hannibal’s neck and turned her face partly into his cheek so that she could watch the newcomer with one huge Sosa-coloured eye, while Jonathan was staring at the bobbing balloons in silent awe. Hannibal opened his mouth to say something to BA but stopped when he saw the way that his corporal was looking at Face, the way that Face, looking very much the deer in the headlights, was staring back, and he suddenly wondered if all of this was such a good idea.
The quiet, however, was deafening and even Sophia was uncharacteristically silent as she pressed herself closer into Hannibal, staring at BA as he stared at her dad. BA lifted a hand and in a rare gesture of uncertainty, ran it through his close cropped hair, looking like he was going to make a move towards Face and then stopping again, his expression a perfect picture of awkwardness. He cleared his throat. “Hey man,” he eventually croaked out. “It’s good to see you.”
Face nodded, his own expression tight and drawn. “And you,” he replied stiffly. “I hope you don’t mind that-” but the rest of his sentence was cut off as BA finally moved, abandoning this rather formal dance they were engaged in and quickly closing the distance between them, grabbing onto Face as he retreated a little in surprise and pulling him in into a fierce and very rare Baracan hug.
“Shit, brother,” Hannibal heard him murmur as Face’s free hand cautiously crept up to wind around his broad shoulders, “we all missed you, you know.”
That brought a lump to the colonel’s throat and he took a step in, gently taking Jonathan’s carrier from Face, allowing him to bring up his other arm as well and hang on tightly to his team mate, dropping his head to hide his suddenly bright eyes in BA’s sleeveless t-shirt.
“Missed you too, big guy,” came the murmured response as the tight bands around Face’s stomach slackened just a little.
Hannibal stepped back, letting them have a little space, and felt a hand on his arm. He turned slightly, feeling the way that Sophia was clinging more tightly with every second and found himself looking straight into the smiling face of BA’s mom.
“Adele,” he greeted her, so pleased she was here. “Let me introduce you to Jonathan,” he lifted the car seat up a little higher, “and Sophia,” then twisted his hip around to bring Sophia closer to the door, feeling her press herself even tighter against him.
“Well, hello sugar!” Adele Baracus greeted her warmly. “I have been so looking forward to you coming today!” Sophia blinked silently at her. “I’ve been busy in the kitchen baking some cupcakes, and I’ve just not had the time to finish them off. You know anyone who could put all the little pink sprinkles on for me?”
A thick silence greeted her words as she kept her eyes on Sophia, smiling broadly. By the door, Face and BA pulled apart, each a little embarrassed at their overt display of emotion, and watching with baited breath as Sophia stared in silence at the lady still smiling at her.
Just as the stillness was getting too much, just as Face’s need to go and hold his daughter and reassure her was becoming overwhelming, Sophia lifted her head a fraction away from Hannibal’s cheek. “I’m good at sprinkles,” she whispered in a tiny voice and Adele’s smile blossomed even wider.
“You are? Oh, honey, you just what I’ve been prayin’ for then! You gonna show me how to do it?” Sophia nodded not relinquishing her grasp on Hannibal’s neck, and Adele was off with a, “Follow me,” thrown over her shoulder, and with a quick glance at Face, Hannibal winked and followed her out.
The door swung shut behind them and Face’s eyes twitched back onto BA who was watching him with an inscrutable expression on his face.
“We have missed you,” he said quietly and Face had to blink away the sudden blurriness in his eyes. “Aint been the same without you, Faceman.”
“Yeah,” Face admitted hoarsely. “It’s good to see you Bosco.”
BA frowned at the roughness of Face’s voice and turned away, studying a vase of flowers rather than his friend as he spoke. “She’s lookin’ real good there, you been taking good care of her?”
“Of course,” Face replied, unable to keep all of the bite out of his voice and BA sighed, scrubbing a hand over his eyes.
“Look, Face...” he started, fingering a petal thoughtfully, “I aint no good at this heart to heart stuff you know.”
“BA, please,” Face started, “we don’t need to do this, there’s no need for you to-”
“Yes there is,” BA interrupted, forcing himself to find Face’s blue gaze again. “We was wrong in what we did, it was way outta order. We’re sorry,” he shook his head, “hell, no man, I’m sorry, alright?”
Face flushed and nodded, suddenly not wanting to go over all of this again with BA. “I know big guy, don’t sweat it. It’s not like I didn’t screw up more than anyone here.”
BA frowned at that. “You? No, Face it was-”
“Look,” Face cut him short with a bright smile and a hand on his arm. “We’re cool BA, it’s all cool. I just need to get the kids’ things from the car, okay?”he took a step towards the door. “Don’t worry about anything big guy, I got this covered now.”
“Face...” BA started again, making to follow him, but Face was too quick.
“I got this,” he repeated. “Just going to the car,” then he turned and fled.
He was never going anywhere, he knew that, the reasons for his entire existence, all three of them, were in that house, he just needed a bit of space, needed some air before the churning in his gut became unbearable and had him retching all over the polished parquet floor in Hannibal’s hallway.
Within thirty seconds he was leaning into the open trunk of his car, one hand on the tailgate above his head, steadying himself as he sucked slow and steady lungfuls of air into his chest. How long he stood there for was anyone’s guess, but before he’d had chance to properly haul himself back together he heard footsteps coming quickly down the path and he sighed, not wanting to see the look of worry in Hannibal’s eyes when he realised that Face was only out here hiding from the rest of his team.
With a huge effort, he turned to greet his visitor, but instead of seeing Hannibal’s worry filled frown, all he had chance to make out was an unruly mop of chestnut hair, before a solid body hit him head on in a bear hug and propelled him forcibly into the wing of the car. “Murdock!” he gasped out as the air left his body in a rush.
“Ohmygod, Face!” Murdock breathed against his ear, his whole body quivering with tension. “Please don’t go, please don’t, give us a chance to make it up to you, yes? Please? Will you?”
“Murdock!” Face gasped again, trying without success to shove the rangy pilot off him.
“I know we ballsed up here buddy,” he whispered frantically, “but I dunno if I can stand it without you again, not when I thought you were coming back! Not when Hannibal said you were gonna give us another chance, not when I been so excited about you bein’ here again and with your babies as well, Face! Oh, I missed Sophia so much ...” he stopped as a sob tore up his throat and suddenly Face found that he was no longer trying to free himself from Murdock’s iron like grip, but was holding on instead, sinking his fingers into the old familiar leather jacket, smelling the sharp spice of his deodorant.
“HM...” he tried around the lump in his throat.
“I’m so sorry, Face! God! I’m so sorry we weren’t there for you! I know I shoulda stayed in touch after the wedding, shoulda ignored the fact that El Diablo couldn’t stand me, shoulda kept seein’ you even if you never wanted to see me-”
“-but I never, ‘cause I’m a stupid big old coward, and ‘cause of that, ‘cause of me not doin’ things right, look at what happened to you-”
“Murdock!” Face was back to pushing the pilot away again now, could hear the direction that the nervous, anxious rambling was going in and wanted to stop him before he managed to get into a full flow anxiety attack.
“An’ I know that you aint gonna wanna be friends with me no more, Face, an’ I understand that, but don’t go, don’t, cause I love you, you know? Not like Hannibal loves you, not like that but I do an’ I don’t think I could stand it if you went jus’ ‘cause of me been such a klutzy-pat an’ all an’ I-”
“Murdock!!!” Face was struggling to understand him now between the sobs and the emotional thickening of his accent and from somewhere, some desperate reserve, managed to dredge up enough strength to finally shove him away.
It was at this point, once he’d finally managed to get some fading daylight in between him and the pilot that he noticed it wasn’t just Murdock’s cheeks that were streaked in tears. “Murdock,” he repeated, forcing some calm into his voice and his veins and Murdock’s wild eyes flicked up at him, the chest under the lurid Hawaiian print shirt noticeably heaving. “Murdock...” he tried again, rubbing a hand over his mouth before wiping away some of the dampness on his cheeks and wondering what the hell he was supposed to say here.
That wasn’t his voice though that rang out through the still evening, and they both turned to see BA jogging down the path towards them, while Hannibal, with Sophia still clinging to him like a baby lemur, and Adele Baracus with a squirming Jonathan in her arms, were stood watching them all from the doorway of the house.
Face instantly pushed himself off the side of the car, scrubbing the remaining wet from his face and praying that Hannibal would keep the kids away from this scene for now.
“Murdock! You crazy fool!” BA hissed arriving at the edge of the sidewalk and instantly sizing the situation up. “What did I tell you ‘bout givin’ Face some room here, man?” His words were harsh, but to Face’s practised eyes, the concern behind them was very clear and very genuine.
“He was leavin’, Bosco!” Murdock replied plaintively and Face was relieved to note that most of the panic had gone from his tone.
“I wasn’t,” he quickly put in, “I was getting the bags from the car.”
For a second there was silence. Murdock flushed a little as his eyes landed on all the bags still piled in the trunk of Face’s SUV and BA waited for that little realisation to land, then they all spoke at once.
“I told you to let him get in before you started your crazy jabber on him!”
“I’m not leaving guys; I only just got here...”
“I just wanted to make it all right again!”
They stopped and silence fell again. Face sank onto the fender, rubbing at his sore eyes with both palms and BA’s sigh could probably be heard right down the road.
“Come on, fool,” BA eventually said in the soothing tones that only Murdock ever got. “Let’s go back in the house and let Faceman have some space here. You scaring them babies with all your ranting.” Face glanced up at the house at BA’s words, but the four remaining occupants had gone back inside now and he was glad, glad that Hannibal understood that the kids were his priority, that whatever dramas he was involved in he could cope with on his own, how he needed his children keeping happy and calm.
“I’m sorry Face,” Murdock mumbled and Face sat staring across the road into nothing as he vaguely registered two sets of footsteps walking away from him.
Hannibal was torn. On the one hand he had a nervy and anxious Sophia still riding on his hip and almost cutting off his circulation with the tightness of her fingers on his neck, but on the other he had Face, outside on his own, hurting, confused and anxious. He wanted to go to his boy so much, to hold him and soothe him and try and make it all better like he’d sworn he would, but just like at the 7-Eleven he couldn’t because as much as Face needed him, right now Sophia needed him more. Thank God that Jonathan at least was settled, currently giggling away as Adele blew raspberries on his belly.
“Where’s daddy?” Sophia asked, her voice a tiny little whisper in Hannibal’s ear.
“Getting the bags from the car,” he answered with as much conviction as he could manage. “You don’t want Mr. Bunny out there on his own for too long now do you?”
Sophia didn’t answer and Hannibal was starting to feel out of his depth as he could sense her anxiety growing rather than lessening with every minute Face was away from her. He glanced at Adele and the concern must have been clear in his eyes as she smiled at him and swung Jonathan into a shiny, brand new high chair that was standing in the corner of the room. Jonathan, however, was less than impressed at the end of the game and Hannibal’s heart started to beat in a desperate tattoo when he saw the tell-tale crumpling of his face and knew that tears were just seconds away.
Adele, however, was prepared. Within a second she was back with a set of plastic measuring spoons linked together with a ring and Jonathan was instantly entranced. Even the constant banging and rattling as he alternated between sucking on them and clattering them down on the tray of the high chair was a welcome change to the strained silence of before.
“So,” Adele said brightly turning to Hannibal and Sophia, “where’s my helpers then?”
Neither one spoke, but undeterred, she pushed on. “If you wanna help when Momma’s cookin’, you need to cover up, keep them pretty clothes clean. Let me get some aprons out here,” she bent down to a drawer and straightened up again, smiling at Sophia while she sorted out all the brightly coloured material in her hands. “Here’s mine,” she said, flapping out a bright floral apron and sliding it on over her curls, “and here’s one for you,” she held up a large black and white checked apron to Sophia, “and one for Hannibal,” and this time it was a tiny lilac apron covered in pink and yellow stars.
For a second, the silence fell again and Hannibal felt his heart hammering against his chest. But Adele kept up her poker expression and suddenly there was a shake in his arms and then a little giggle burst from Sophia’s lips. “No!” she said sounding much more like herself and reaching out to point with one finger. “That’s mine! It won’t fit Hannibal!” She giggled again and both Hannibal and Adele found themselves laughing too, the sound too infectious to ignore; even Jonathan who had no idea why he was laughing, joined in, showing off his solitary tooth giggling at his sister as she laughed out loud at Hannibal’s attempts to get the lilac apron on over his head.
The still of the evening was calming and slowly, with the comforting ‘putting’ sounds of the garden sprinklers starting up, the occasional dog barking and smell of barbeques drifting in the air, Face let his heartbeat settle back into a normal rhythm.
He hadn’t expected that from Murdock, and coming from a man who always tried to expect the unexpected from the pilot, that was saying something. But thinking about it now, of course that would be the way that Murdock would have processed all of this, brought it all onto his own shoulders, blamed himself for every mess that Face had fallen into, tortured himself and his already precarious grip on normality that it was all his doing. It just went to prove to Face how deeply they were all in this, and as much as it saddened him, every time he caught Hannibal looking sideways at him with that concern in his eyes, the awkward attempts at friendship from BA, the tears and the ranting from Murdock, in a way it also bolstered him, made him feel that there was a reason, a win just out there waiting for him to find it.
All these years he’d imagined himself forsaken by his team, abandoned by the only real friends he’d ever had, but now, as much as their pain was his pain too, he was relieved beyond all reasoning to find that they hadn’t just forgotten about him and moved on – that they too had been tortured by this bad feeling and separation. And then it hit him. He realised with a start what the only course of action here was, who the only person who could sort out this whole mess actually was.
He filled his lungs with the subtle smell of family contentment and held it there, bolstering his nerve, before letting it all out and pushing up from the fender, slamming the tail gate shut behind him and heading back to the house.
The door to the family room swung inwards, and everyone who was grouped inside stopped dead in their conversation and turned their heads as Face stepped inside. Sophia, much happier since Adele had let her cover the cupcakes in illegal amounts of pink sprinkles, looked up from the bricks she and Jonathan were playing with on the carpet and smiled at him, but quickly turned back to her game when her brother started showing a little too much interest in the tower she’d just built.
Face looked around him, at the four people standing grouped in front of the fire and the table set for seven at the far end of the room. Then he noticed that BA had his jacket on and Adele had her handbag under her arm and Murdock was jangling a set of car keys with a thoroughly miserable expression on his face and he instantly stepped forward. “You don’t have to go ‘cause of me,” he said, hearing the almost desperate tone to his voice himself.
“Oh, it’s okay sugar,” Adele said brightly. “It was a stupid idea for us to be here when you came back like this. You all tired and hungry and want to get sorted and we’re all here gettin’ in your way! I shoulda left the dinner in the oven for you and we shoulda let you have a night on your own first.”
Face shook his head, but his usually verbose mouth failed him completely. He saw the set to BA’s jaw, knew that they were going to leave at any moment and knew that that would widen this chasm they were already in until it reached terrifying proportions. So with a mouth that was still refusing to cooperate, he did the only thing he could think of and ate up the rest of the space between him and Murdock, folding the pilot into a hug and holding on tight.
To his utmost relief, Murdock didn’t wait a beat, just threw his arms around Face’s shoulders and buried his face in his friend’s neck, whispering, “Sorry, so sorry, buddy!” over and over again.
Face pulled back, framing Murdock’s tragic face in his own and stared right into his wild eyes. “I’m not having this, Murdock,” he said sternly, “I’m just not!” Murdock blinked at him. “This mess is just as much my fault as anyone’s, more mine if truth be told, and I’m not gonna let all of this... hurt get in the way of us making it right again!” Still Murdock just stared and Face forced his voice into a gentler pitch. “I came here for a fresh start, buddy,” he whispered. “I don’t want to go over and over and over all the things we did wrong and haul it right out there into the open again.”
“But I am sorry I never did things right, Face...” Murdock whispered to him.
“I know you are. You are, I am, Bosco is, Hannibal is. We all are, bud, I know that... I just can’t stand going over it all again with you!” He choked to a halt at that moment and Murdock yanked him close again even as Hannibal drew a step nearer, knowing that Face needed to get this sorted his way, but feeling the need to support him through it all anyway.
BA however had no such restraint. Within seconds of Murdock pulling Face down into his shoulder and the sounds of muted sniffing coming from one or both of them, the big guy was striding across the carpet, sliding one arm over Murdock’s shoulders, one arm over Face’s and tugging both their heads until they were tucked under his chin.
“Crazy damn fools,” he muttered, the gruffness of his voice hiding the emotion that was bubbling out of him. “Pair o’ you always did talk too damn much anyway!”
Hannibal smiled at that, the brightness of his eyes not lost on Adele who promptly elbowed him in the ribs and gestured over at his boys who were bundled together in a knot of arms and heads in the centre of the room. He shook his head, trying desperately to hang on to his colonel persona, but then she frowned at him and he understood why BA had once described his momma as scarier than any foe he’d met while in-country. With a sheepish grin, he sidled over to them and added his arms to the pile, in between Murdock and Face, his nose tipped into the familiar and comforting smell of his second’s hair, his damp eyes crinkled in joy and relief as they met BA’s across the two other bent heads.
Adele chuckled to herself and wiped away an errant tear that escaped out onto her cheek, before turning to check on the children and finding Sophia sat back on her haunches watching the men with a furrowed brow, totally oblivious to the fact that Jonathan had knocked down the turret of her princess castle.
“You okay sweetie?” Adele asked her gently, and Sophia’s dark eyes flicked her way.
“Are they fighting?” she asked, a mixture of confusion and annoyance in her features.
Adele chuckled, “No dearie, they’re not, they’re huggin’!”
“Right,” Sophia answered turning to snatch a brick from her brother, “that’s good then, because if that’s fighting, they’re not very good at it.”
Adele laughed at that, and beamed when she heard the sound echoed four times over from deep within the huddle of men in front of her.
Face let out a long sigh and leaned back in his seat, trying to surreptitiously adjust the waist band of his shorts to make more room for his distended stomach. Across the table from him, Hannibal let out a quiet chuckle, noticing everything. “Shouldn’t have had two helpings of pie there kid, should you?” he asked, the amusement clear in his voice.
Letting out a rueful laugh, Face gave up trying to get comfortable and just popped the button on the waistband instead. “Very funny,” he remarked dryly, “I didn’t see you turning seconds down either.”
They were sat alone at the dining table at the back of Hannibal’s house, looking out at the neat little rectangle of yard with the bright shiny swing in pride of place on the grass. The devastated remains of dinner were still spread all over the table, although Adele Baracus kept popping back and forth from the kitchen to tidy up, refusing all offers of help and telling them to enjoy it, as she was only clearing up this once as a welcome home gift.
“No,” Hannibal admitted looking at the left over cherry pie as if it had forced itself down his throat, “but I didn’t have six scoops of ice cream either...”
“You were counting?” Face asked, laughing again but stopping and looking up at the ceiling as a thud, quickly followed by raucous three year old laughter sounded above them.
“What is going on up there?” Hannibal wondered, eyes following Face’s as the light swung gently on the end of its flex.
“Well as long as all I can hear is laughing and not crying I’m not that bothered,” Face replied, dropping his gaze and taking in another mouthful of beer. “I’d have put money on one of them being in tears by now.”
Hannibal laughed and watched as Face lay back in his seat with his eyes closed. He was looking so much more relaxed now, and the sight filled Hannibal’s stomach with a warmth that was nothing to do with the huge feast that Adele had prepared for them. BA and Murdock had disappeared with Sophia and Jonathan almost half an hour ago now, promising to show Sophia the upstairs of the house and her own bedroom, which did, in fact, have a window. Hannibal had been relieved but more than a little surprised when she had agreed so easily to go upstairs with her new friends, but then kids always liked both BA and Murdock, they seemed to sense a kindred spirit in them both.
“It’s going to be okay, kid...” the words were out of his mouth without thought and he instantly regretted them, the last thing he wanted to do in all of this was to belittle Face’s very real concerns, but as he waited with baited breath, he realised that he needn’t have worried; Face opened his eyes and instantly cracked a tired but happy smile.
“I know,” he answered quietly and his eyes zeroed right in on Hannibal’s across the table. “Thank you.”
Hannibal flushed, “You have nothing to thank me for,” he answered gruffly and Face’s smile widened at his discomfort.
“No? Just saving my life, boss? Because you know you did.”
Hannibal shook his head but was spared from answering by the sound of thundering footsteps and Sophia’s delighted shrieks approaching down the hallway. The door suddenly burst open and Murdock and Sophia spilt into the room, both laughing and instantly throwing themselves under the dining table.
“Hide us! Hide us, daddy!” Sophia shrieked as they scrambled through the chairs just as a second set of footsteps arrived and BA appeared in the doorway holding a bemused looking Jonathan, his once dark green sleeveless top now dusted in a coating of sweet smelling baby powder. With the giggling and the frantic shushing coming from beneath the table cloth, there was no doubt at all as to where BA’s prey had gone, but he made a show of parading around the outside of the room, asking Jonathan in a loud and overly dramatic voice if he knew where his sister was hiding before ducking out and into the kitchen. Sophia, seemingly disappointed at not being discovered however, was right behind him, scrambling out from beneath Face’s chair and bursting through the door with Murdock hot on her tail.
The door slowly swung back into its frame, but not tightly enough to silence Adele’s indignant shrieks, BA’s roars, Murdock’s yelps or the laughter coming from Jonathan and Sophia.
Back in the relative sanity of the dining room, the two men at the table let their eyes meet and shared a heartfelt smile.
Hannibal was right – this was all going to be just fine.