“You sure about this, Hannibal?” Face was looking edgy which was an expression he wore often these days and Hannibal was doing his best to look laid back and chilled out which was hard when his stomach was busy with its nervous flips and rolls.
“Of course, kid, no problem.”
Face looked from Hannibal and his plastered-on grin to Sophia who was currently using the spindles of the staircase to pull herself backwards up the stairs. “What about you, Soph? You happy if Hannibal takes you to school?”
Sophia froze and her head flipped up so that she could stare her father in the eye. “School? Am I starting school? You said I had to wait until I was five to go to school.”
“Pre-K,” Face clarified through gritted teeth. “Just like every other day. You happy with Hannibal taking you to Pre-K?”
“Sure,” Sophia had lost interest already and went back to pulling herself up the stairs.
“See?” Hannibal’s cheeks were aching with the effort of grinning so much. “You get off. Do your stuff, we’ll be just fine.”
Face seemed to think it over again, blowing out a long breath as he looked at Jonathan in the stroller busily sucking his own toes before checking underneath to see that all the requisite supplies were packed.
“You’ve got everything you need,” Hannibal reassured him.
“Then I’ll call you,” Hannibal let out his own breath and pulled Face close to him meaning that he could whisper in his ear and hold him tightly all at the same time. “This will be okay, baby. She’ll be okay – you heard her. You have to do this, you have to make the break, for you and her. You know this.”
Face did know, he’d agonised plenty over how dependent Sophia had been on him – and on how dependent he’d been on her. But things were different now, they no longer only had each other, there was a huge family of support around them and, while Sophia seemed to be watching her world open up with cautious excitement, Face remained taut and worried. Hannibal felt him nod, felt the resolve wash through him and then Face stepped back, all business, walking up to the side of the staircase so that he was nose to nose with Sophia and peeped at her through the spindles. “I’ll see you later then, beautiful.”
“I’ll be there to pick you up.”
“Do I get a kiss?”
This time Sophia just giggled and pressed her cheeks against the spindles so that her mouth pushed through. Hannibal noted Face’s answering laugh with relief and watched as he raised himself up onto his tiptoes and pressed a kiss to her waiting lips.
“Have a great time.”
Sophia didn’t answer again but she did watch him go, watched him manoeuvre the stroller through the doorway and check Jonathan was strapped in securely before he set off at a gentle run down the path, Hannibal admiring the way he hadn’t lost his easy grace – and barely noticing the clinging effect of the running shorts around his butt. Within a minute both he and Jonathan were around the corner and out of sight and Hannibal closed the door to find Sophia had twisted around on the stairs and was now laid with her feet near the top, her dark eyes upside-down-scrutinising Hannibal carefully and the nervous twisting of his stomach started up again as he wondered if she’d changed her mind already. He took a deep breath, “You ready for ice-cream, then?” and watched as her pensive stare turned into a huge grin and she cheered even as she scrambled up onto her feet.
“Why is it called Rocky Road?”
“To be honest, sweetheart, I don’t know.”
“Does it have rocks in in?”
Sophia wrinkled her nose and poked about in her sundae glass. “Does it have roads in it?”
“So why is it called Rocky Road?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Is this a rock?” Sophia brandished her spoon Hannibal's way across the table, waving a marshmallow chunk under his nose.
“No – it’s a marshmallow.”
She popped it into her mouth and chewed carefully. “It doesn’t taste like a rock.”
Hannibal laughed, “And how often do you eat rocks?”
“All the time. Jonathan loves them.”
Making a mental note to mention that to Face, Hannibal watched her dig around once more and then produce a chocolate chip. “I found a rock,” she announced triumphantly.
Hannibal raised an eyelid at her, “It’s a chocolate chip,” but Sophia shook her head in a disgusted manner.
“You don’t get chocolate chips, silly,” she admonished. “Chips are made from potatoes and they are really, really bad for you. Everyone knows that.”
There was nothing that Hannibal could think of to say to that, but he did look at his watch, tapping it hard to make sure it was still working – surely it wasn’t only 0920????
Face ran alongside the river, finding it easier than he’d imagined, both to run again after so long and to leave Sophia in someone else’s care for the day. He knew that the day was coming when he’d have to leave her every day, his reinstatement was going through and before he knew it, he’d be back in the grind. The money would be good, there was no doubting that, but leaving the kids for missions… his stomach just knotted at the very thought of it.
They would be alright though, there was no doubt in his mind about that. Adele was currently in the process of decorating both her spare bedrooms for the kids when they came to stay. Hannibal had paid, for which Face felt dreadful but until he started getting a salary again, he was literally living off nothing. A kept man, he mused to himself as he ran, how much would David Sosa love to hear that one?
It was a beautiful day and Face leaned over to look inside the stroller and smiled to see Jonathan fast asleep in his seat. He pulled up under the shade of a tree and started fussing with the hood and the sun shade – he hadn’t put any sun screen on either of the children this morning as it hadn’t been sunny when he’d left, he’d have to text Hannibal later and remind him to put some on Sophia before they left for Pre-K.
Jonathan was such a happy baby – so different from the sickly and fretful soul that Sophia had been at the same age. He was pink too, Face had never appreciated that babies could be so pink, so warm, so smiley – it just showed the value of a properly working heart, he supposed. He was also so much more confident than his sister as well, even at this early age Face could tell that, and he was gorgeous, placid and smiley, his hair growing into little fair curls, what a heart-breaker he was going to be. Even now, asleep in the running-stroller that Hannibal had got them, Face could see he’d drawn some appreciative stares from a group of young women further down the river-side path who were sipping sodas at a picnic table and looking over with interest.
Face stood up and straightened his shorts, flashing a smile at them and then promptly flushing as he realised that it hadn’t been Jonathan they’d been staring at all…
“Hi,” one of the women caught his eye and returned his smile. “Cute baby.”
“What’s he called?”
There were four ‘Aws’ sounding at that and Face found himself ridiculously pleased that they appreciated his choice.
“You just moved here?” It was a bold move and the interest was flattering after all of Face’s time out of circulation.
“Neat,” this was still the first speaker, the others all trying not to get caught in checking out Face’s legs or biceps or chest in his tight running vest. “Maybe we’ll see you around?”
Face felt his grin widen as he started running once more, “Maybe,” and as he left he just knew that they were all staring at his butt. It was a good start to the day and it was still only 0920.
“Is it a big?” Sophia was perched on a low wall as Hannibal knelt in front of her examining the tear in her leggings and the scrape on her knee.
“Mmm, not really. It’s okay.”
Sophia leaned forward and looked for herself, sniffing in a shuddering breath as she saw the damage for herself. “They’re spoiled.”
“They’ll be okay.”
Her bottom lip stated to trembled and her chin crumbled as she turned wide, wet eyes Hannibal’s way. “But I love them.”
Hannibal frowned, “They’ll be fine. Momma will fix them for you.” As far as he was concerned, they were just purple leggings, and he was sure she had about five pairs.
“Momma’s not here.” She wasn’t, she’d taken advantage of the fact that Face still wasn’t working to have a few days up in Chicago with family; Hannibal never thought he’d miss her so much. Especially when two, fat tears spilt out of Sophia’s eyes and rolled afresh down her tear-stained cheeks. “I want my daddy. Daddy can fix them.”
“Okay,” Hannibal rose to his feet, an uncomfortable sense of panic squirming inside him at Sophia’s tragic expression and the way that the situation was rapidly spinning out of his control. “It’s okay. I’ll fix them.”
Sophia stared at him, the disbelief in her expression as plain as if it had been Sosa herself standing there, weighing up both him and his sewing skills. “You can sew?”
“Of course.” He’d sewn badges on his uniform, buttons in place and stitched plenty of wounds over the years – surely mending a little tear would be no problem at all?
“I love them,” Sophia repeated and Hannibal wasn’t sure if that was her permission or a threat lest he ruin them. Either way he forced his smile to be a little wider, a little brighter and reached down to scoop her up and sit her on his shoulders.
“Okay then, let’s go find a shop that sells thread.”
It took almost an hour to get sorted, first to find the shop, then to actually choose the thread and finally to do the stitching whilst Sophia insisted on keeping the leggings on her legs.
They both considered the finished article, Hannibal in hope, Sophia in a careful critique and finally the verdict was announced.
“It’s pretty. It sparkles. Like diamonds.”
The relief was huge and it washed away the cold sweat of dread that Hannibal had suffered the entire time he was fixing the tiny tear with his huge hands, a cheap needle and that delicate and precious skin underneath. “That’s because you chose that sparkly thread.”
“Now I love them even more.”
That was praise indeed. There was no time for Hannibal to bask in his victory though. He glanced at his watch and packed away their haberdashery supplies. “It’s almost time for Pre-K, how about we buy a picnic and sit and watch the ducks whilst we eat?”
“Yey!” Sophia cheered and was instantly on the move once more, scrambling off the bench and running back the way they’d come and Hannibal followed in her wake, hoping beyond hope that she wouldn’t fall again. How could it only be 1130 hours?
Face checked that the door of the Day Care was shut tight behind him and made his way, purposefully, towards the main admin block on the base. That had been far easier than he had anticipated, Jonathan had been charmed by the attentive staff, intrigued by the huge variety of bright and attractive toys and, finally, won over by the slices of peeled banana that had been placed in front of him as Face signed some forms and prepared to leave. Typical man, really, he conceded.
It was only for an hour, anyway. Face had errands to run, meetings to make, on base and he hadn’t wanted to overload Hannibal by asking him to watch Sophia and Jonathan for such a long time. He needn’t have worried, Jonathan was a sunny and resilient child – so different from Sophia – and it looked like he would actually enjoy himself whilst Face was busy.
The lobby of the admin block was bright and new, filled with glass and chrome, smart uniforms and impressive framed photos on the wall. Face nodded at the clerk on duty and showed his letter before slipping into the wash rooms to freshen up and change after his run.
The nerves were really starting to kick in at this point and, for about the millionth time since he’d made the decision to restart his army career, Face wondered if he were doing the right thing. He needed the money, yes, that was absolutely true as he couldn’t possibly live with himself if Hannibal kept him for any longer than was absolutely necessary. He also needed to prove to the Sosas that he wasn’t a dead-beat, lost cause who was incapable of bringing up their daughter’s children. More than any of that though, far more, was the fact that he had to do something for himself, prove to himself that he wasn’t a dead-beat, lost cause.
The thing was though, he was still so far from sure that him joining up was the best thing for Sophia and Jonathan. Yes, there was the money to consider and it would be good enough to keep them all comfortable, but they’d already lost their mom to active service, was it really fair of Face to put himself in harm’s way? Was it really fair of him to leave them for weeks or months at a time with Momma and then risk them being left as orphans? He who had grown up in just such a manner and knew the damage it had done him? He didn’t really think that it was okay.
But then, what else could he do? He was skilled at nothing, equipped for nothing, qualified for nothing – except soldiering. And here he had a family; Hannibal, BA, Murdock, Momma… his children already had far more than he’d ever had. The army too, the social care was exceptional and Face would always be supported, his children would be supported, they would have opportunities, care systems it would be good.
Just as long as he didn’t get himself killed on them.
He stepped out of the cubicle he’d been changing in and looked at himself in the mirror, brushing back his hair with an unsteady hand and straightening his tie. There was no real choice. He had no choice. Hannibal said it would be okay and he really just had to trust in that – trusting Hannibal was one thing he was good at, when he let himself.
Taking a deep breath, Face glanced at his watch. 1130 hours. Showtime.
“She’s not like this when her dad brings her…”
Hannibal wasn’t sure if there was an attack in that, hidden or otherwise, but he was too busy trying to listen to what the Pre-K teacher was saying whilst Sophia clung to him with unnatural, super-human strength and bawled loudly in his ear.
“Right.” What else could he say?
“Will you be bringing her every day from now on?”
“No.” Hannibal wasn’t sure if that was a, ‘Good’ he heard in response but it was difficult as Sophia had moved her head slightly and angled her vocal protest right down his ear canal. “Does this happen often?” he was almost shouting to make himself heard, “With other children, I mean?” He doubted it, the other children he could see were playing happily, even if some of them kept looking his way, their serious little faces creased in what he imagined was infant disapproval.
The teacher shrugged though. “It happens. Just one of those things.”
“So – what would you normally do? How would you handle it?”
“Well,” the teacher watched him carefully. “We can take her from you if you want? You might find that quite upsetting but we find that the children will then settle quite quickly once the carer has gone.”
Hannibal was considering it but it seemed that Sophia wasn’t. Despite him assuming that she couldn’t hear anything over the sound of her own wailing, she let out a dramatic little squeal in response to the teacher’s words and clung even harder to Hannibal, squeezing her arms and legs around him and pleading, “Don’t go, Hannibal… pleeeeeeeease!”
Feeling his cheeks flush in embarrassment, Hannibal shook his head at the teacher. Facing down an angry enemy intent on killing him he could do, peeling a sobbing Sophia off him and handing her to the teacher, he absolutely couldn’t. “Another idea?”
The teacher shrugged. “You’re welcome to stay a while if you like, see if she settles and starts to play.”
That sounded much better, there was hope in that and Hannibal allowed himself to be guided inside, through the safety barrier and over to the ‘Home Corner’ where he was assured that Sophia liked to host tea parties for the staff and other children. Lowering himself onto a tiny chair in front of an equally tiny table set with a tiny tea service and attended by a smiling, chubby cheeked, angelic-looking boy, whilst Sophia stubbornly clung to him, Hannibal managed to grab a glimpse of his watch – 1310 hours, he couldn’t believe it was that already. Well, at least he had a good couple of hours to settle her before Face came to pick her up.
Face stared at his reflection in the mirror and wasn’t actually sure how he felt; so much had happened to him in the time since he’d last worn this uniform – barely forty-eight months but an entire life’s worth of experiences.
He’d become a father, then a husband, a carer for a very sick child and estranged from his team of brothers. A father again, a betrayed spouse, a widower, then Hannibal's lover, Murdock’s best friend, BA’s brother, Adele’s son and now – a Ranger again. It was over whelming, emotional but somehow – now – it just felt right.
“Looking good, sir.” The corporal who’d been helping him amass his kit had caught him staring but Face could tell that there was nothing ingenuine in the comment. He straightened and turned away, already feeling at home in his starchy, new ACUs.
“Bean,” Face nodded a friendly greeting as he started loading all his gear into the shiny new kit bag, not even bothering to mention that the ‘sir’ wasn’t required since he hadn’t actually started back yet.
“You really a sniper then, sir? Last time you were a Ranger?”
Face glanced up with a handful of standard olive socks in his hands he had no intention of ever wearing and caught the barely supressed eagerness in the kid’s face – he made Face feel so very, very old. “Marksman,” he corrected easily as he stuffed the socks out of sight. “When you work in a team you’re a marksman, really.”
“Right. Course. And you were on Colonel Smith’s team, weren’t you?”
“And that’s where you’re going back to?”
“Absolutely.” There would have been no way on earth that Face would have even considered re-enlisting otherwise.
“I heard a story,” Bean edged closer and Face looked up, wondering which one he was going to ask about. “Of a shot you made in Afghanistan. Two miles. Over the brow of a hill.”
Face laughed and zipped up his bag. “You can’t shoot over the brow of a hill. Bullets only go in straight lines you know.”
“But you made the shot?”
Face’s expression sobered. This always made him uncomfortable – enemy or not – it was still a life he had taken. “I did.”
“I heard it was blowing.”
“It was like fucking tornado alley,” Face shouldered his gear, eager to get off but Bean blocked him and threw an impeccable salute his way.
“It’s been an honour to meet you sir, you were my inspiration when I was in Ranger school, everyone talks of you there. I’m gonna be a sn- marksman one day too. For my unit. I’m glad you’re back.”
Face was frozen to the spot, his throat oddly tight but he returned the salute, a gesture he hadn’t done in four years and clapped Bean on the shoulder as he moved past. Strangely enough, he was glad he was back too. He glanced at his watch, 1310, he was going to have to hustle if he wanted to go and see the General before he had to collect Jonathan from the Day Care.
“Do you want tea?” Sophia offered in a prim little voice, “Or beer?”
“Tea,” Hannibal lied and Sophia beamed at him as she poured ‘tea’ from the chipped and flowery tea pot.
“Your feet are big.” This was Otto, the curly haired, angel-faced demon who was also a close friend, or perhaps stalker, of Sophia and was joining them for tea and invisible cake.
Hannibal glanced down and self-consciously tried to shuffle his boots under the tiny table. “Thank you,” he wasn’t sure what else to say.
“I’d hate big feet like that. They make you trip up.”
Hannibal decided to let that go and instead turned Sophia’s way as she offered, “Fairy cake or cup cake?”
Staring at the empty plate, Hannibal really wasn’t sure what the difference between the two was but them remembered that neither of them existed and so it really didn’t matter. He shifted his numb behind on the tiny chair and looked her in the eye. “Actually, I thought I might get off for a bit now,” instantly Sophia’s eyes filled with tears and her lip started wobbling again and Hannibal caved in. “But I could have a cake first,” she beamed at him. “Are they chocolate?”
“Oh. Well, I’ll have one anyway.”
“What one do you want?”
“Either is fine.”
“You have to pick,” Otto again and Hannibal found that he was really starting to dislike him.
“Cupcake,” Hannibal decided, smiling stiffly at Sophia.
“There’s none left,” Sophia told him sadly and Hannibal blinked at her and then craned his neck to look at the clock. 1430 – how could it only be 1430? Had the damn thing stopped? Turning back to his tea guests, just as Otto’s finger slid right up his nose for a good poke around, and keeping his smile firmly in place, Hannibal lifted his cup and had a sip of his non-existent tea.
Face rang the bell at the Day Care at 1430 precisely and sighed in relief at the way his day had run so nicely to plan; he’d made all his appointments and had even had the time to cart his kit home before having to call and get the kids. It had been surprising to find the house empty when he’d arrived back, he’d imagined that Hannibal would have gone home after dropping Sophia at Pre-K but conceded that maybe the boss had gone for a nice cool beer on his hard-earned day off. That or maybe he’d called in on Murdock and BA, chilled in their yard a little. Either one would be good for him, he’d been working so hard recently, but Face really hoped he’d be around later that night, it would be good to have some one on one time after the kids had gone to bed, and Face’s groin warmed a little at the prospect.
The Day Care door opening banished any other dirty thoughts he might have been about to have back to the furthest reaches of his mind and he smiled at the care worker who’d greeted him. “Hi. I’ve come for-”
“Jonathan, yeah, I know. Come on in, he’s just having a nap.” She beamed at him and stepped back so that he could squeeze by and he stooped under her arm and into the quiet buzz that was the Day Care lobby. “I’m Janey,” Janey’s smile widened. “And here, I’ll let you into the baby room, he’s been an absolute doll, by the way.”
Face blinked slightly, no one had ever called Jonathan that before, but then he’d never really mixed with anyone out of Face’s closest circle of support before either. “Okay,” he wasn’t really sure what to say, “thanks.”
The baby room was quiet and calm, a couple of babies on the floor, one in an activity ring and one under a baby gym and then there was a neat little row of baby carriers and strollers against the wall, each with a sleeping occupant. Face nodded at Stacy, who had taken Jonathan from him and crept forward, his heart skipping, like it always did when he saw either one of his kids after a break of any length. The carers had fully reclined the stroller and Jonathan was asleep on his front, both knees curled up underneath him, fair curls damp with sweat, one chubby hand curled around his empty bottle, cheeks a healthy flush, one pressed into the under sheet and an attractive wet patch spreading out from his gaping mouth. Face smiled – he was his dad’s boy.
Aware of Stacy behind him, he tore his gaze from his son. “He been okay?”
“He’s been absolutely wonderful, what a charmer! He’s done nothing but smile. And eat. Oh – he’s had some ice cream as well, helped himself to Felicity’s before we could stop him.”
Face frowned a little, “Oh. Sorry about that.” He wasn’t sure that Felicity would think him charming if he stole her ice-cream.
“It’s fine,” Stacy was still smiling at him. “He’s just too gorgeous.”
It was all starting to get a bit much for Face and so he reached in and levered the brake off the stroller, checking that all of Jonathan’s belongings were there before carefully wheeling it backwards.
“Did you pay when you dropped him off?” Stacy seemed hard to shake, though and Face offered her one of his best smiles.
“Oh,” she seemed a little disappointed at that. “You want to book him in again? While you’re here? Is it next week you start back?”
Face was a little taken aback at that; he’d never mentioned his work plans when he’d booked Jonathan in and the surprise on his face must have shown as Stacy had the good grace to look a little flushed herself. “Oh – sorry, it’s just my boy-friend, Bray, he’s a Ranger too and he told me you were starting and I…” she shrugged once more and widened her smile.
Face had forgotten about this side of base-life and for a minute his stomach tightened as he imagined the gossip that must have flown around when word of Sosa cheating on him with a fellow Ranger got out. Ruthlessly, he shoved that thought from his mind and forced himself to smile back at her. That part of his life was over now, this was his fresh start and he wasn’t about to let old ghosts ruin it for him. “Ah, I have a nanny thanks, family member, you know?” Momma B was exactly that. “And she’s gonna be having the kids for me really. She’s just out of town right now.” He felt bad at the way that Stacy’s face fell at the news, but she wasn’t down for long.
“Oh, okay. Well, you know where we are if you ever need us.”
Assuring her that he did and running the gauntlet of three different members of staff who came to tell him how gorgeous his sleeping baby was, Face finally made it out into the sunshine and glanced at his watch as he set off for the Pre-K. It was perfect timing, he even had the chance to call in and buy a few groceries on his way there.
It was busy when he got to the little collection point at the Pre-K and, not knowing any of the other parents well enough to chat to, found a place in the shade of a tree and leaned on the handles of the stroller, alternating between watching Jonathan sleep and watching the doors, willing them to open and restore his daughter to him. He didn’t have to wait long, within minutes, the brightly coloured doors swung open and the teacher stood there, holding the hand of the first eager little boy in the line.
Sophia was fourth and Face watched, as her dark eyes, so much like her mother’s, scanned the ranks of assembled adults, her anxious expression morphing into one of sheer delight as her gaze locked with Face’s. He forced himself to stand still but couldn’t stop the huge grin from cracking open as she ran to him, or resist picking her up, feeling the tight little knot of anxiety he’d lived with the last few hours melt away into nothing.
“Yes.” She squeezed him tightly and he noticed the sparkly stitching on her leggings, choosing to ask about that at a later time.
“You have fun at school?”
“Pre-K,” Sophia reminded him with an eye-roll.
“Yes!” she was scrabbling to get down and he set her on the grass. “We had tea-parties. It was such fun but Hannibal only wanted coffee and he wanted chocolate cakes but we didn’t have any so Otto went outside into the garden and-”
“Hannibal?” Face was so shocked he couldn’t help cutting her off in mid-sentence.
“Hey, kid,” Face looked up and there was the man himself, his clothes rumpled and spotted in mud and what looked like pink paint, his entire demeanour screaming of total exhaustion, a sheaf of what appeared to be modern artworks clutched in his hand and Face straightened up, holding onto Sophia’s hand as she discovered the grocery bags under the stroller and started poking about, hopefully, inside them.
“I thought you were just dropping her off?”
Hannibal shrugged. “I was going to.”
They shared a look for a moment until Face decided that that was a story for another time and, deftly swapping the multi-pack of chips that Sophia had liberated from the grocery pack for a banana, beckoned with his chin as he swung the stroller around. “Come on you two Pre-K kids, let’s get you home.”
Hannibal didn’t answer although Sophia giggled hysterically and they set off for home, Face marvelling at the number of three year olds who smiled and waved Hannibal's way as they went.
Hannibal had cooked sausages and burgers on the outdoor grill whilst Face sorted baths and bed clothes and the four of them sat on the back porch in the balmy evening air eating salad and meat and chatting about nothing in particular. After that, Sophia was allowed a little TV time whilst Face put Jonathan to bed and, as soon as he was settled, it was her turn to go up. Hannibal watched her cuddling in to Face as he carried her up and felt a little twinge of guilt at the way he’d been watching the clock for the last few hours, willing the minutes to tick down until it was time for him to have a little of Face’s attention himself.
He wandered back into the kitchen and started emptying the dishwasher and wiping everything down when suddenly he stopped, eyes flicking to the baby monitor that was relaying sounds from Jonathan’s bedroom down to him. He wasn’t sure what he’d heard. It wasn’t a cry, and Jonathan was such a content baby he hardly cried anyway, but it had definitely been a noise, an unusual noise, and Hannibal paused for a moment, dish-cloth in hand, before giving in and heading for the stairs.
He crept past Sophia’s room, hearing Face’s low murmurs coming from inside, and stopped outside Jonathan’s, pressing his ear to the wood and waiting. There was nothing – for long moments there was nothing and he was just about to give up and go downstairs when he heard it again and his stomach twisted in concern – was it choking? Was that what he’d heard? It was certainly a choking type sound, or, he opened the door quickly, retching maybe.
The smell was like a solid wall that hit Hannibal as soon as he poked his head in and Jonathan was sitting in the middle of the cot looking at him and smiling in greeting before he was sick once more, a plume of projectile vomit that flew through the bars of the cot, some of it splattering Hannibal's legs even as the rest of it further plastered the wooden floor, the blue castle-shaped rug and the duck-egg walls. That was the noise, but this time the force of the vomiting toppled Jonathan backwards and he hit his head on the bars of the cot, a wail coming from his lips even as Hannibal scooped him up, vomit and all. He knew that Face was trying to settle Sophia, also knew how easily unsettled she was at the moment and how she’d be up all-night crying if she knew her brother was ill. The vomit was a disgusting mix of sausage and lettuce with a bit of bread and what could have been ice-cream in there too and now they were both equally covered in it.
Jonathan wasn’t crying though, which was a relief and Hannibal had to remind himself of that fact even as the baby heaved and vomited once more, this time even managing to get it down the front of Hannibal’s t-shirt and his own stomach heaved at the feel of the slimy warmth running down his chest.
Carefully, Face extracted himself, backwards from Sophia’s room and stood on the landing, hardly daring to breathe as he listened, intently, to see if he’d managed to get out without waking her. She’d been hard to settle, she usually went off much easier than that and he conceded that it was probably the change in routine that had caused it. It was unavoidable though.
For so many months – years even – Face and Sophia had been a pair, often they had been all the other one had. Charissa had found it so very hard to deal with Sophia’s illness, to cope with the icy dread, the needles, the crying, the drugs, sleepless nights, so many medical professionals… It hadn’t been a part of her skillset and that had been understandable to Face. So, she’d gone out to work and earned their keep and Face had lived and breathed Sophia and her condition, had spent more nights in the hospital than at home and had forged a bond with his daughter that, on both sides, was as strong as iron.
He’d understood Charissa, but in a way, he’d also not minded, not in the slightest bit. Sophia was a wonder to him, she was related to him, his own flesh and blood, the first real, true family that he’d even known and she was the most precious thing in the world to him, far more precious than Charissa and that was a fact that they both knew.
But – times had moved on, Sophia was doing well and her damaged heart was plumbed in as efficiently as it ever would be, and Face now had Jonathan to consider, and Hannibal. He also had to go to work – for his own sanity – and it was time that his and Sophia’s exclusive club of two widened just a little bit, just enough to let their whole family inside. He understood that, welcomed it, but it wasn’t always easy – for either of them.
There was no sound from the little room and Face let out a soft breath of relief before turning his attention to Jonathan’s door.
He’d heard plenty of to-ing and fro-ing whilst he’d been listening to the details of Sophia’s day and smoothing her dark hair back from her face. He’d heard Hannibal's feet in Jonathan’s room, the bathroom, the linen cupboard, up and down the stairs. Heard the boss’ deep voice as it talked to the baby, heard the taps on in the bathroom, heard the door to the utility opening and closing, but he’d not heard enough to work out what had been going on. Fortunately, it had all escaped Sophia’s notice.
Slowly, slowly, he depressed the door handle and risked a peek into the room. Jonathan was in his cot, laid on his back like a starfish, arms and legs spread, his tiny mouth just open the smallest bit, just enough to form a little ‘o’ he huffed sleepy breath in and out through. Face smiled, even as his eyes took in the fact that his son was wearing nothing but a diaper and that his cot sheets had been replaced by a selection of mismatched towels. There was a smell in the room as well, hard to place but maybe… floral disinfectant, laced with a thread of – his nose wrinkled – vomit; smelt like Felicity had had her revenge.
Hannibal had dealt with it though and Face’s heart swelled with love and gratitude as he’d withdrawn from the silent room and headed downstairs to find the man in question. The family room was empty though, Nick Jr still playing just as Sophia had left it. There was no one in the kitchen either, the pots were still stacked in the dishwasher, the left-over sausages still waiting to be wrapped and the garden was empty too. Face frowned but set about tidying the kitchen and putting everything away before heading back upstairs and wondering if the boss was in the shower. The bathroom was empty, damp towels everywhere, a definite smell of baby bath and enough water on the floor to keep a duck happy, but no sign of Hannibal. Face was getting worried now and went to the window on the landing to see if the SUV had gone but it was parked on the driveway, still and silent in the approaching dusk.
Frowning, there was only one more place to look and, silently, Face pushed open the door of the bedroom that he and Hannibal had been sharing for all the wonderful weeks since he and the kids had moved in. The sight that met him made his heart skip yet again. There was Hannibal, dressed only in his boxer briefs, spread out on his back on the bed in a reasonable imitation of Jonathan. He too was fast asleep, he too was huffing breath in and out through his mouth although he was making a bit more noise about it than Jonathan had been.
Face’s eyes drifted to the clock on the nightstand – it was 20.38 and a slow smile spread over his face. Face had had a good day, he’d made progress in getting back to work, reassured himself that the kids would cope without him around all the time and enjoyed a little bit of time to himself. The kids had had a good day too, even if Face still wasn’t entirely sure what had gone on at Pre-K or in Jonathan’s bedroom whilst he’d been with Sophia but Hannibal, it seemed, maybe hadn’t. For a moment, everything wavered, the unhelpful little voice in Face’s head questioned why on earth a man like Hannibal would want to spend his days socialising with three year olds or being vomited on by a baby, but then he remembered all the times that they’d laid in bed, this bed, and Hannibal had held him and stroked him and thanked him for sharing his life – and his children – with an old man who’d never thought he’d be as lucky as to get a chance at having a family of his own.
For a minute more, Face watched and loved everything about the man on the bed and then he withdrew again. Downstairs, the TV was still on, the doors needed locking and Face needed a shower. After that though, he’d maybe see about waking Hannibal up – he’d get a crick in his neck if he slept all night like that – and Face’s grin grew wider and his shorts a little tighter with every plan for rousing his man that he came up with.