by Elizabeth Kent
Hannibal had had a sneaking suspicion Murdock might end up staying at the VA once they took him there to retrieve his things. Face had already mentioned something to Hannibal about some kind of investigation going on over there regarding one of Murdock's doctors. They knew Murdock was reluctant to give up his place there; it had been home for ten years. He'd been more upset about that than about his temporary blindness. When they'd heard him holler, "Home! Home at last!" B.A. and Hannibal had both breathed a sigh of relief, exchanged a smile, and headed back home.
In the van, alone at last, B.A. turned to Hannibal. He had seemed ill at ease all the way over from Hannibal's house to the VA. Finally he said, "I'm sorry about losing it up there, man." Up there in the airliner where he'd kept waking up from what felt like a nightmare to find himself in the air, in a plane with no pilot but Murdock, and him blind, and only Hannibal, with no experience and no pilot's license, to land them safely.
"It's alright, sergeant."
"No, it ain't alright." B.A. knew he'd been less than useless. Even blind and in pain, Murdock had guided them home. Face had remained calm and composed, doing his job efficiently. Smashing B.A. over the back with a dinner tray to try to get him to let go of Hannibal's neck when B.A. panicked. God, he was so ashamed of that. "I could've hurt you. Could've made you crash the plane. Could've killed us all."
"But you didn't, B.A.," Hannibal said soothingly. He reached across and put a comforting hand on B.A.'s arm. "It was never part of the plan for you to go up in that plane. We all know what it does to you, and nobody blames you for it."
"I blame me for it." B.A. studied the pedals on the van's floor, unable to meet Hannibal's eyes.
"You saved my life, B.A." Hannibal said. "There was no way Face or Murdock could have done that from where they were, and I needed Face to hang onto Murdock. You were all I had. If you hadn't been there to grab me, it would have been all over for me."
"I did that?"
"Yeah. Don't you remember?"
B.A. shook his head, still ashamed of his own weakness. "Don't remember nothin' before bein' in the cockpit and findin' out they was tryin' to make us crash."
"You helped Murdock take out the guys that were holding Face and me. When the plane depressurized, you grabbed my hand and kept me inside. If you lost your cool later, nobody blames you. We know what flying does to you. Why do you think we always knock you out when we have to fly?"
"I'm a coward, Hannibal. I was scared. I don't like to be scared."
Hannibal was shocked. Really shocked. He'd seen Face agonize over his own shortcomings. He'd seen Murdock tear himself up over some real or imagined failure. But B.A. was a rock. An angry rock, sometimes, but still a rock. He'd never stopped to think B.A. might spend so much time in guilty self-reflection over his fear of flying. He shook his head.
"We were all scared. Even Murdock."
"You were nervous. I was scared."
"Now, B.A., just because we hide it better doesn't mean we aren't feeling it."
"Don't never seem like it."
Hannibal squeezed B.A.'s shoulder comfortingly. B.A. wore his heart on his sleeve, and when he was upset, you knew about it, but he got over it fast, too. It wasn't like him to obsess over something. Hannibal hadn't realized how little B.A. remembered of what had happened in the plane. But he did know that Murdock and Face reacted just as strongly in their own ways as B.A. did. Murdock's anxieties were channeled through manic personalities and strange behaviors that did not look like fear, but very often were. Face...well, they didn't call him Faceman for nothing. Unless you knew him very well, you didn't see how hard he had to work to keep up the calm, sarcastic faade.
"You know what Face did after we got off the plane, B.A.?"
"Picked up a stewardess, more than likely," B.A. said.
"No, he went in the head and threw up."
B.A. looked up at that. "Face did that?"
"Twice. And Murdock actually asked for a sedative once we got him to the hospital. He asked them to put him out so he could sleep."
"Yeah, I'm sure."
That was news to B.A. In all the years he'd known the others, he'd never known them to crack under pressure. Not even when they were hurt. He was the one who lost his temper, who did any dumb thing he could to avoid being off the ground. Face might be reluctant, and he might whine about what he had to do, but he did it, and he did it well. And for all his fool talk, so did Murdock. B.A. wondered if the colonel understood just how inferior he'd always felt.
Hannibal smiled a little. "You know what Face said to me that night?"
"He said, `You were the one I wanted to be hitting with that dinner tray, Hannibal, not B.A. What the hell were you thinking?'" He had followed that up with something to the effect that it was the most stupid-ass plan Hannibal had ever had, and if they hadn't needed Hannibal to land the plane, Face might just have let B.A. break his damned neck. But he wasn't going to share that little bit of information with B.A. "Face was pretty pissed."
"Did what he had to do, though," B.A. said glumly.
"So did you, B.A. If I didn't think you were a valuable member of this team, do you think I'd bother to drug you and put you on the plane when we had to go somewhere? It'd be easier just to leave you behind. You know that, and so do the others. But we can't do what we do without you."
"No, you didn't freeze. Not when it counted. And B.A., none of the rest of us have to face our biggest fears head on like that as often as you do. If we did, none of us would react any better than you did."
B.A. started the van and they drove in silence to Hannibal's house. Before Hannibal stepped out of the van, he patted B.A.'s shoulder again. "You're a good man, B.A. Stop blaming yourself. It all worked out, and the only reason I was able to pilot that plane at all was because you kept me in it. Remember that, because I will, and so will Face and Murdock."
B.A. smiled faintly, not quite convinced but willing to think about it, and drove away. Hannibal watched him go and wondered again at the surprises his men were always throwing at him. They were all competent, creative, intelligent men, as capable of independent thought and action as they were of teamwork. But none of them was quite whole without the others, and none of them really believed in himself. Perhaps it was the constant stress of watching their own backs and each other's, of knowing that with every job they accepted, not only were their lives at risk, but also the lives of the people they worked for. Any of them would lay down his life for a client or another team member without hesitation; all of them had been wounded at one time or another doing that, but they still felt their failures and weaknesses keenly. Perhaps he needed to do a better job of showing them what they did well, of appreciating their contributions. Of appreciating them as they were, warts and all. The certainly tolerated enough of his flaws and plans-gone-wrong.
Hannibal pulled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked his door. He stepped across the threshold and breathed in the scent of cigar smoke and whiskey that always spoke to him of home. It was a small house, a one-story stucco cottage built in the forties. It had only two bedrooms and one bathroom, but there was a generous yard with a built-in pool, a good-sized kitchen, and a screened porch. There was even a small, seldom-used fireplace in the living room. It was homey, inconspicuous, and all he really needed, and he was as glad to be back to it as Murdock had been to return to his own room. He pulled off his jacket and tossed it over the back of the couch then kicked off his shoes.
He padded to the bedroom and slipped in quietly, sitting on the side of the bed. A gentle breeze wafted in through an open window less than a foot from the edge of the bed, and Face lay in the bed, sound asleep in a pool of sunshine. The breeze stirred the curtains and lifted wisps of Face's hair, but he was too deeply asleep to notice.
Hannibal could detect the faint scent of chlorine that still clung to Face's warm hair. He must have gone for a swim after the others left and then gone to bed. He hadn't had much sleep lately, as busy as he had been with Murdock. Murdock had been off ever since he'd been blinded. The blindness threw him for a loop, as it would have done to any of them. On top of that had been his anxiety over how he was going to make a life for himself on the outside. He hadn't been able to eat or sleep normally, and Face had been up with him every night in the four days since they'd finished the mission. And Face himself had been a wreck, suffering from a migraine that left him tired, cranky, and nauseous, but he'd dutifully tied up the loose ends on the case, taken care of the team's finances, and started looking for something for Murdock.
Face looked pale and drawn. He definitely needed some time off. Hannibal decided to take him somewhere and pamper him for a few days. He had earned it, and Hannibal really owed it to him after nearly getting him killed. Hannibal stripped off his clothes and climbed into bed beside Face, and Face woke slightly then rolled over and settled himself on Hannibal's chest.
"How's the headache?" Hannibal whispered.
"Better," Face murmured. "Just tired now."
Hannibal pulled Face a little closer and rubbed his back as he drifted back to sleep. This last case had taken a lot out of Face and the others, but it had also shaken Hannibal. He'd left things unsaid, undone, between him and Face. Things he had always been reluctant to say, a commitment he'd been reluctant to make, had suddenly risen up before him when he thought they were going to die, filling him with bitter regret. He'd almost said something there on the plane just before B.A. lost it and grabbed him around the neck. "Face, if we crash," he had started. It was as far as he had gotten, but it was further than he'd ever gotten before.
Hannibal had told B.A. that none of the rest of them had to face their biggest fears as regularly as B.A. did, and that was almost true. But Hannibal faced one of his fears every time he put Face on point, every time he sent him into enemy territory to scam something, every time he unlocked the weapons locker and distributed weapons to Face and the others. What if Face died? What if Face died, and it was Hannibal's fault? What if Face died without ever having heard Hannibal speak the words Hannibal knew Face longed to hear, words Hannibal had always felt but never spoken even in their most intimate moments? He'd tried, but for some reason, they always stuck in his throat. Face had said them, still said them even though he never got the response Hannibal knew he wanted.
Even when he was angry, Face still said them and meant them. After he'd finished throwing up in the airport bathroom, he'd laid into Hannibal, who had come in to see how he was doing. He'd told Hannibal what a stupid plan it had been, how close they'd all come to dying, and how tempted he was to get off the plane with another dinner tray so he could smack Hannibal with it himself next time he came up with such as stupid-ass plan. Hannibal had borne the abuse patiently; Face was his second-in-command, his trouble-shooter, and Hannibal always listened to him. Pointing out flaws was part of Face's job, though the assistance was usually more valuable before the case than after it.
Face had turned away after his speech, rinsed his mouth again, then had suddenly thrown himself at Hannibal, holding him tightly and giving him one fierce, hard kiss. "I love you!" he'd said. Then he'd walked out of the bathroom. And that was his lover, not his second-in-command speaking. This was the man whom Hannibal could make moan, scream, writhe underneath him when they made love. He'd been able to give Face all the physical satisfaction he could ask for. But when Face twined his legs around Hannibal's waist and cried, "Ah, God, Hannibal, I love you. I love you," Hannibal could never say it back. He wanted to. He just couldn't.
And that was the worst thing of all. What if Face died without ever in his life having heard those words from someone who really meant them?
To his credit, Face never asked for anything. He never asked how Hannibal felt about him, never assumed Hannibal would continue their relationship, and never assumed that sleeping with Hannibal would change anything about their relationship on the job. He knew his place and kept to it when they worked. The others didn't even know they were lovers. But even when they were alone together, he never asked for words of love or commitment.
But why had Hannibal never said them? Why could he never say them?
He had asked himself that question more than once as Face lay nestled against him in the dark of the night. Sometimes he told himself it was because it wouldn't be fair to the others. That acknowledging the feeling would make him vulnerable to his own fear for Face's safety, that it would cause him to be too cautious with Face and not cautious enough with the others. He might be in love with Face, but he commanded and was responsible for all of them. That meant they all had to share the danger equally, no matter what.
But that wasn't it.
Not saying it didn't mean not feeling it. Against his natural inclination, he had been scrupulous about evenly distributing the most risky assignments. He knew Face would never have had it any other way and had the scars to prove it. The one on his thigh where he'd caught a bullet in Vietnam. The scar on the inside of his left forearm where he'd been lacerated on razor wire, the scar on his knee where he'd gouged out a chunk of it trying to rappel down the face of a cliff under heavy fire from above. The one just above his right hip where a machete-wielding madman had cut him when Face stepped between him and a wounded Hannibal.
Hannibal's fingers glided gently over Face's back and buttocks. He didn't need to see them to picture the scars there, fainter now with time, but once red and raw, the remnants of beatings and torture endured in Vietnam. Endured stoically and without complaint at the tender age of nineteen. Hannibal could never make that up to him. No amount of love or passion could erase that experience. But Face would never accept Hannibal trying to protect him from any more scars or danger. Though only half Hannibal's age, he was still a man, still capable of understanding and accepting the risks inherent in their work.
So that wasn't it.
He'd tried to tell himself that Face didn't really want him to say the words, that Face didn't want that kind of commitment from Hannibal. He certainly never asked. He maintained a separate residence most of the time, never showed up at Hannibal's uninvited, never acted like he expected anything.
Hannibal supposed a lot of that came from Face's childhood where his place anywhere was never assured. Abandoned by his own parents, he'd been taken in by the orphanage where the pecking order changed with each change in staff or with each child taken in or adopted away. He'd never been kept by the few foster families that took him, and he'd had to work his ass off to keep the scholarship that sent him to college then had dropped out after only two years. Until he joined the team, he'd never been sure of his place in any organization. He'd never stayed with anything very long. With few exceptions his interests, passions, and tastes changed without notice. Hell, he couldn't even find one place to live and stay there as both Hannibal and BA had managed to do. So maybe Face didn't want the commitment, and Hannibal was doing him a favor by not acknowledging his feelings.
Hannibal could almost buy that unless he remembered the flash of disappointment that crossed Face's features when he was in the throes of passion, when his defenses were down and he could hide nothing. When he whispered, sometimes shouted, words of love that we're met only by silence or by some clever remark designed to fill up the silence but deflect the topic of conversation. The disappointment and pain were quickly hidden, but Hannibal, who knew Face so well, could see them.
So that wasn't it, either.
Deep down inside where Hannibal kept the part of him that was always honest with himself, Hannibal knew it was a power play. Hannibal was a commander. He was a leader of men. He was used to being on top, in Face's case, both emotionally and physically. He knew that if he said the words, it would put him and Face on an even footing, and that someday, Face could hurt him. Face could walk away, say he'd never meant those words of love, cut out Hannibal's heart. If he never said the words to Face, never gave him what he wanted, Face could never hurt him.
Hannibal knew that was the heart of the matter.
That was it.
His biggest fear.
And he faced it every day.
He could say, "I love you, Face. God, how I love you." And Face, having what he wanted, having power, could kill him.
Not literally, of course, but it would be death all the same if Face walked away from him.
And of course, he'd told himself over and over what a stupid, irrational fear that was. Sure, Face wanted to hear the words. He'd wanted to hear them all his life. But it had never kept him from leaving other places, other people. He'd given up on all of them, left them to follow Hannibal. He'd followed Hannibal into the jungles of Vietnam, into firefights and fist fights, into the very heart of an enemy stronghold, and even, at last, into Hannibal's bed. And more than ten years later, he was still here.
Did Face understand how Hannibal really felt? How sometimes watching Face move about a crowded room working some scam, he could see other people's eyes following Face, admiring his grace and beauty, and be so intensely proud that Face had chosen him over all those others? How his heart contracted in fear every time someone laid a violent hand on Face, every time he saw Face brave a hail of gunfire to cover one of the others? How he nearly cried with relief some nights when Face was safe in his arms, when Hannibal filled Face with his seed and Face fell asleep with words of love on his lips?
No, of course not. Face's whole understanding of himself was built upon the misconception, reinforced through numerous unhappy experiences, that his only value lay in his ability to do something or be something for others, that all his value was...was face value. Nothing deeper, nothing more precious. No inherent value as a human and with no right to expect more. He took what he could get and tried to be happy with it. And for Face, it was enough.
It wasn't power Face wanted. He was a smart man. He was clever and shrewd and just dishonest enough to work his way to the top of any organization. He could have all the power he wanted if he chose to take it. He could use those brains, that beauty and charm, to manipulate and control everyone around him. He could have walked away from the team, from Hannibal, years ago, moved out of the country, and been someone. But he hadn't.
He'd followed Hannibal out of Fort Bragg and around the world, fought and bled beside him, loved him unconditionally.
How stupid had Hannibal been not to realize that it had never been he who had the power in this relationship anyway? It was Face all along. He hadn't exercised it, hadn't taken advantage of it, probably had not even recognized it. He'd given it up, and maybe that made him more powerful than any of them.
And all he wanted in return were three simple words. Words Hannibal had been afraid to say until it was almost too late.
Hannibal roused Face with kisses and caresses, rolled him back into the pool of sunlight and made gentle love to him, still on top, but tenderly, slowly, bringing him gradually to wakefulness and arousal. And when Face finally climaxed, when his legs tightened around Hannibal's waist and his arms tightened around Hannibal's neck and he whispered, "I love you, Hannibal," Hannibal held Face's face between his hands so he could maintain eye contact and said, "I love you, Face."
That wasn't so hard.
He almost laughed at Face's shocked expression. He said it again. "I love you."
And there on his lover's face was a look Hannibal had never seen before. Joy. Real joy, for maybe the first time in his life.
And he was more beautiful to Hannibal than ever.
Hannibal rolled onto his back, pulling Face with him, cradling him close. "Sleep now," he said Face rubbed his cheek against Hannibal's chest and settled down, holding onto Hannibal tightly until his muscles finally relaxed in slumber.
Beside him Hannibal felt himself let go of a tension he hadn't even realized he had been carrying, of a fear that had crippled him for years. He knew he'd just given Face a priceless gift and that giving it in no way diminished his influence, his strength, or his own position as Face's commanding officer.
They'd been easier to say than he thought. Maybe those near-death experiences he always read about really were life-changing events. This one had changed his. He was more grateful now than ever for the gift of Face's love, his trust, his warm body pressed against Hannibal's own. With those words, spoken at long last, he had cemented their relationship. There was no power struggle, no fear, no pain. Just love and joy and trust, the fulfillment, maybe, of Face's dreams and, as it turned out, of his own.
He lifted Face's hand from his shoulder, pressed a kiss to the palm. "I love you, kid. I love you."
It felt good to say. So good.
He settled deeper into the bed and formulated a plan...three days in a secluded beach house, steak and lobster in a private dining room at their favorite restaurant, skinny dipping in the ocean after dark, and many, many words of love.
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