Art for "This is What Mardis Gras is for, Boss"
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hao_lin
The immensely talented JohhnyWalkerBlu is writing a wonderful, amazing fic involving period dress and Hannibal taking on the character of Wellington for his boy. Highly recommended. Find it here:

http://ateam-prompts.livejournal.com/11355.html?thread=8385371#t8385371

The imagery is so beautiful that I was inspired to make this. Thanks JWB!

Team Building
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hao_lin
Title: Team Building
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: HBAMF (implied)
Warnings: Shameless self insertion
Summary: The team signs up for some team building exercises at a small camp.

---

Bus! The voice in my head shouted when I heard the motor. I immediately corrected myself. This wan’t a group of school kids pulling in for a week of fun and games. The vehicle sounded big, but certainly not a cheese wagon. Remembering to lock the office, I was the only one in on the Saturday, I walked to the parking lot and waited.

And it was a big vehicle. Big and distinctive. I nodded appreciatively at the custom paint. Retro. In a modern cool kind of way. Nice.

I reviewed what I was told about this group. Four men. Some kind of small company, service or product unknown. They had booked one day of team building. No limiting medical conditions. Not much else. Our usual work was with kids, but it wasn’t uncommon for business groups to book. Especially small ones. Its a small camp, nothing flashy. Affordable.

The first guy bounced out. Really. Like Tigger. It was hard to get any real focus, just an impression of gaudy shirt and wild hair. He was immediately followed by sleek and handsome. I blinked. Gorgeous actually. Broad shoulders tapering down to narrow hips, blue eyes, wavy hair. A thin slice of belly showed under his hem when he stretched. I swallowed and reminded myself to be professional. Didn’t get much time to recover though when the passenger door opened and really tall guy climbed out. Muscular, but more lean and rangy than buff. No lack of power though, he moved with a sense of controlled strength. My mouth went dry watching a big hand reach out and slap the dark shoulder of the driver. How did I not notice him getting out of the van? There was so much to notice. Guns to die for.

“Hah, ahem, Hi! Welcome to camp.” I smiled and held out my hand. The tall one took it. The leader then. I held his grey gaze while my hand was engulfed and pumped firmly.

“Thanks. Good to be here. You must be Ms Lin?”

“Thats right, but call me…”

“Oooh, do you have a camp name? Like Meat Balls? I love Bill Murray. So are you like Radar, or Booger or…”

“Its Mully.”

They all stared at me. The jumpy one cocked his head like a dog.

“Its short for Mulligan. I redo things until I like them.”

“Like golf strokes?”

“More like policies and procedures.”

“Not a golfer then?”

“Afraid not, out of my pay scale.”

“Well, I’m Hannibal, this is BA,” my hand was engulfed again, but gently by the big driver, “Murdock,” bouncy guy smiled shyly from under his bangs shook quickly, “and Face.” My hand was kissed as he murmured enchante. From anybody else it would have seemed hokey, but I had to repress a shiver. The suaveness of it all was kind of ruined when he hollered at Murdock for pinching him

“We kind of have camp names too.” Hannibal sighed and grimaced at the two men having a pinching fight beside him.

“Didn’t get them from playing at no camp.” The mohawked man, BA, mumbled to himself.

I couldn’t decide if this was going to be just like leading a group of ten year old boys, or drastically different.

---

“Do you need to use the washroom? The toilets are over there. I put on some coffee in the kitchen if you want it.” I gestured, indicating directions. Getting started was always the hard part.

“I gotta go Bossman.” And Murdock skipped off . Face smiled sweetly my way. My knees buckled a bit.

“I could go for that coffee. You wouldn’t happen to have any milk in that kitchen would you?”

“I’m sure I can find some.”

“And, is there a smoking area available?”

“Well, this is a kids camp, we’re not really supposed to…”

“But there aren’t any kids here right now?” I shook my head, “And actually nobody at all to notice?” I nodded. He stepped closer and I could feel the magnetic pull of that perfect body. I couldn’t shake the memory of a touchable crescent of belly. Tanned, tanned all the way down into the waist of those artfully faded jeans. I turned my mind from wondering exactly how far down that tan went.

“Well, as long as there’s not butts left behind…” I realized I was speaking only after the words were already said.

He extended a hand and flicked a lighter without missing a beat in the conversation. 

“Thanks hon, he gets real grouchy when he can’t get his fix. Hard to focus on team building when that happens.”

“Of course.” I shook my head trying to clear the confusion of arousal and indignation. What had I just agreed to? And why?

“Okay big guy, lets get some beverages before we start.” Face slapped BA on the shoulder and walked toward the kitchen. I followed, totally not checking out their asses. Not on purpose anyway.

BA accepted a glass of milk. Face sipped his coffee once before pouring it down the drain. He tried to be subtle, but I saw. Soon enough everybody had taken in or released enough fluids to be happy. Standing on the playing field I found myself the awkward fifth wheel.

---

“Obviously we can skip the name games. You guys have been working together for a while?”

“Over fifteen years.” Hannibal said.

“Well, we’ll start with something fun, to loosen up.” I led the group to a double line of pylons and pulled out two blindfolds. “You’re going to break into partners and be on opposing teams. Each team will have one bopper and one leader. The bopper is blindfolded. Its up to the leader to guide the bopper with his voice only to the pool noodle. Then first bopper to hit the opposing team’s bopper wins.” A hint of a smile played on BA’s lips when I said ‘hit’.

The game is usually played with a bigger group, but it still seemed like a good choice. Competition was always a good motivator with guys and things could get a bit silly. All the better for breaking down inhibitions.

“So, Murdock and BA, you two can be a team, Hannibal and Face you two be a team.” I guided them tho the lines of pylons that formed a corridor. The boppers could travel down the corridor, but the leaders needed to stay to the sides. Taking out a blindfold I reached to wrap it around Murdock’s head.

He grabbed my wrist in a sudden quick motion and twisted his body to face me. I froze, arm twisted to just the edge of being painful.

“Ah, sorry there Mully, but y’all caught me a bit by surprise.”

Before I could apologize BA was prying Murdock’s fingers off my wrist. “I’ll go first.” he grunted. Murdock shuffled off to the side.

“Sure thing.” I wrapped and tied the blindfold, absently wished everybody that I blindfolded had such a convenient hair cut. Hannibal had already blindfolded Face and moved to his side of the pylons.

“Now, Hannibal, your team needs to use the green noodle, and Murdock, your team will use the blue noodle.” I dropped the noodles twenty yards of so away. “But before they can pick up the noodles, each bopper must do what I demonstrate now.”

“Thats not fair. You didn’t say anything about doing stuff. You’re going to make me do something silly.”

“Shut-up kid.”

My head snapped up instantly. “I’m sorry, there can’t be any put-downs like that here. Only supportive comments.”

“He’s being a princess.”

“And gender stereo-typing isn’t welcome either.” A snorted laugh made me turn. Murdock covered his mouth, BA avoided my eyes. Damn, they’re laughing at me. I could feel my face flushing red. Working with adults was such a bitch, children were so much easier to intimidate.

“All right. I’ll amend my comments. Can we get to the hitting part now?” Hannibal asked.

He did look contrite. Its not like I don’t know a joke when I hear it. And it would be easy to give in and let them joke around. But that would lead to more negative comments and using ridicule to defend against vulnerability. And, well, vulnerability was part of the process.

“Okay. Before the bopper can pick up the noodle, he must do the following.” I walked the length of the pylon corridor, stopped halfway and picked up a rubber chicken. I waved it three times around above my head, dropped it, circled a pylon and then walked to the noodle. “After that, he can pick up the noodle.”

“You better steer me right crazy.” I nearly stopped the whole thing again at that, but nobody seemed to even notice the insult. We were at risk of stalling out already and had to build up some momentum so I decided to ignore it and yelled. “Go!”
---
“Straight ten paces!”

“Run Face, now stop”

“Pick it up!”

“What?”

“At your feet!”

“The chicken BA, not the cone.”

“Around your head three times kid. Faster.”

“Now do a little dance BA, shake your hips a bit.”

“How come Hannibal isn’t telling Face to dance?”

“To your right kid…other right!”

“Make a circle BA, around like dosey-doe.”

“Reach down and find the pylon, now go around it.”

“Why didn’t you say that Murdock?”

“Straight, straight!”

“Grab the noodle!”

“Swing!!”

SMACK, SMACK, SMACK, SMACK….

It went on for a full two minutes before my shouting could be heard over the yelling. I hadn’t realized it was possible to raise a bruise with a pool noodle. I was about to apologize for letting them hurt each other when I looked over at Hannibal. He was bent double hands on his knees wheezing. With laughter. Murdock had fallen to the grass and was gasping into the ground. Even the combatants were laughing, reaching out blindly for each other and leaning. My heart started to settle to something like a normal rhythm. This was good?

I collected the blindfolds from the two men and looked around.

Hannibal eyed Murdock nervously. I flicked my gaze between the two men. Why was the bigger man with longer reach looking uncomfortable? Murdock smiled a little half grin that crinkled his eyes up. It would have been adorable, if he didn’t look so feral.

Hannibal blindfolded Murdock, whispering something in his ear. Then he leaned down and let me twist the bit of fabric around his head.

“What do they need to do?” BA asked, examining the course carefully.

“Make it something really good.” Face prompted.

I sighed, pausing to think. It had to be trickier than before, now that they were onto the system. But it couldn’t really be sillier or else the men might feel targeted. I walked the length of the corridor again, weaving through pylons and stopping at the last one. I put it on my head like a hat and spun around three times. Then I gestured for silence and picked up the noodles moving them back down the corridor to the starting line and throwing them well behind the boppers.

“GO!”

I covered my ears against the noise immediately. Nobody bothered with silly dances this time. Face’s instructions were enthusiastic, but not as accurate as Hannibal’s had been. The older man was responsive though, and seemed to understand even the most garbled instructions. But Murdock was like a guided missile. BA shouted measurements and directions and what sounded like grid coordinates in an even clear voice. Murdock sprinted the entire course and spun madly with the pylon. He staggered for a moment after, but quickly oriented himself and dashed for the noodle.

“Boss, he’s gonna beat you! Coming to your right, time to sweep the floor.”

I watched in horror as Hannibal dropped and slid across the grass throwing his legs out wide, right in the path of Murdock. Everything slowed, I cringed in anticipation of the coming face-plant.

“Jump fool!” BA’s voice reverberated, made deeper by the slowing of time.

Without hesitation Murdock leapt impossibly high in the air clearing Hannibal completely. He was about to make a perfect three point landing when an arm waved up from the ground in a blind grasping search. Making contact, Hannibal’s hand clamped around Murdock’s ankle. Murdock crashed to ground, Hannibal rose and cocked his head in question.

“Two side steps to your right Hannibal, then straight ahead.” Face called out. Hannibal nodded and followed instructions exactly, dragging a struggling Murdock along with him.

I remembered to close my mouth at that point. What the hell was happening? Stupid grown men, you think they would know better. With students ‘hands off’ had always been an understood rule. I shook my head in despair waiting for the protests and complaints. But nobody called foul. Murdock twisted madly, yelling in another language. How was it that you can always tell that its swear words even when you can’t understand whats being said? BA scolded from the sideline and Face cackled, but they all seemed to accept tripping, grabbing and dragging as fair play.

Murdock finally managed to squirm free, but Hannibal had gotten to his pylon already and whirled like a dervish. After that it was a flat out sprint to the noodles. Hannibal showed absolutely no effects of spinning and made a straight line. Murdock was quicker and pulled ahead by, well, a head. Sensing his defeat, Hannibal dove for his noodle, Murdock grabbed his and swung madly, missing the other man’s face by a fraction of an inch. Prompted by BA’s cry of “Lower crazy!”, he swung down, like someone killing a snake.

Hannibal swung up at the same time and the noodles met with a loud thwack. Bits of colourful foam flew. They fenced, Hannibal seeming to sense where his opponent was striking. Finally Murdock pressed his advantage and knelt on Hannibal’s chest whacking him about the legs and belly crowing in victory.

Huffing heavily, both men lifted their blindfolds and grinned at each other. Murdock gave the taller man a hand up. Clasping his hands together, Murdock bowed formally, bending at the waist. Hannibal followed suit with sincere gravitas.

“Is, um, is everybody okay?” I asked.

Murdock patted me on the shoulder, waving his weapon in the air.

“Sorry about your noodle’s Mully, we kinda shredded them.”

“Don’t worry about the noodles, are you okay?”

Murdock waved his hand dismissively and turned to fist bump BA.

“Hannibal, why did you let go?” Face teased slapping Hannibal’s back.

“He’s like a greased pig!”

“You can grease my pork any day Hannibal!”

I blinked. Several times. Greasy, slick, naked…

“Ahem.”

ummm… what? Where were we? Ah yes, being professional.

Face was holding out a folded bill. “For the noodles.” He explained. I nodded and pocketed the money. The men looked at me expectantly.

“If by some miracle nobody is hurt, maybe we should move on to something else?”

I needed to get them away from any activity involving noodles or competition as fast as possible. Before someone decided they needed a tie breaker. “Something involving cooperation maybe.” I led the group to a shady patch of grass and had them settle in a square. Beside each man I placed an empty bowl. Into the centre I put a tub full of marbles.

“The objective is to get as many marbles into your bowl as possible.”

“Aint no cooperations there.” That little grin played at the corners of BA’s lips again.

“The caveat is that you can only use the spoon I give you.” I handed each man a spool that had been attached to a four foot piece of dowel. “You cannot take the spoon off the stick, you cannot move your bowl nor the tub of marbles and you cannot move from where you are seated.” Rules delivered, I walked away.

BA immediately scooped a marble with his spoon and stretched his arm out as far as possible and twisted his wrist to bring the spoon to his bowl. He shifted his grip, leaned and turned, but there was no way he could manoeuvre the long handled spoon to his own bowl. He muttered darkly under his breath.

Face and Murdock meanwhile were trying to pick each other’s noses with the spoons. It was quickly turning into another fencing match.

“And no hitting!” I blurted with images of a lost eye rolling through my head. Both men ducked their heads sheepishly.

BA had resorted to tossing marbles into the air trying to lob them toward his bowl. He managed to hit himself several times, which was quite impressive because it is a difficult task. He was getting closer than anyone I had even seen, but couldn’t manage to land one in his bowl.

Hearing giggles I growled, “Face, Murdock…” I didn’t need to see them to know that they were batting each other with the spoons again. I did, however, turn when I heard the tink of glass hitting ceramic. There was one marble in BA’s bowl.

Hannibal smirked.

BA smiled and chuffed, “Looks like I win.” He crossed his arms. Hannibal narrowed his eyes. He lifted his spoon again and scooped a marble, then stretched (a bit) to drop it into Face’s bowl. He repeated for Murdock. Everybody had one marble except him.

“Looks like we win and Hannibal looses.” Face crowed.

Tink.

Murdock moved his spoon away from Hannibal’s bowl. One all.

Hannibal nodded and placed a marble in Murdock’s bowl. This is better. They were starting to understand. Helping others is helping yourself. Reciprocity, giving and receiving.

Tink. Tink.

Murdock and BA put marbles in each other’s bowls. Two all.

Tink… Tink… Tink-tink-tink-tink tinktinktinktink…

They caught on fast, no doubt. The spoons moved in surprising concert. I watched the blur of metal and aggies in the middle of the square. Bowls were filling and tub emptying. Not a dropped marble to be seen.

As quickly as it began, the spooning ended. A quick tally showed me four equal piles of marbles in four bowls. One marble left in the tub.

Damn.

I always count the marbles, always make sure there is a way for the game to end fairly. Damn extra marble, it blows the whole thing. I scanned the ground to see if there were marbles that had been dropped and forgotten.

CRASH…tinkle. I jumped at the sound of broken glass.

Murdock looked sheepish. His long handled spoon was poised in the air, pointing over his shoulder. Follow-through position after a catapult procedure. No more problem marble.

“We’ll pay for that.” Hannibal sighed. BA rolled his eyes. Face reached for his wallet. Again.

I waved my hand at the offer of cash.

“Why don’t we just run a tab?” I suggested.

Face replaced the wallet and diligently noted the broken lightbulb in a small notebook.

I smiled and the anxious expressions. “Its unconventional, but I like the way you think Murdock.” Expressions changed to surprise. “What was the point of this exercise?”

“Encouraging good spoon dexterity?” Face joked. I shook my head.

“Making people forge alliances.”

“Closer.” I commended BA. But he was still thinking in an win-lose paradigm.

“Reciprocity.” Hannibal said, looking at me closely from the corner of his eye.

“Partly.”

“Being dependent.” Murdock ventured. He looked around the circle cautiously. I nodded, encouraging. He took a breath. “You’re dependent on others in the game. You can’t help yourself.”

“Except by helping them first.” BA said nodding.

“It can turn into a battle of alliances. Pairs of people taking on the others competitively, even stealing from their bowls. I think its interesting that in the end, you all ended up with the same number of marbles.”

I watched their eyes flick from bowl to bowl.

“And the extra marble?” Hannibal questioned. He thought I had set them up.

“A mistake actually, I miscounted. But Murdock overcame that.” They squirmed on the ground. Nobody would even meet the eyes of another. I mentally shook my head as the momentum of the group started to nose dive. Time for something more physical then.

“Okay, everybody up. I think you’re ready for the big kid activities.” I led the group to the nearest picnic table. “Before we begin, I want to review spotting position.”

“Spotting?” Face furrowed.

“Supporting your teammates to prevent injury during a higher risk activity.” He nodded. “Okay, I want you all to stand as if you were going to fight someonnnnnah…”

I stepped back instinctively. There was a wall of loose fists and grim expressions facing me. There was none of the self-conscious joking I usually see from the participants. Each man was deadly serious. Deadly. Serious.

“Good, good, you seem to understand this. Now, open your hands.” They complied, expressions opening at the same time. I breathed a little easier. “This is spotting position, you have a wide base, your hands are ready to support a falling teammate. Sometimes you will need to hold your hands flat,” I demonstrated with my hands out as if cradling a baby, “to support someone in a horizontal position.”

The men all nodded. I pointed to the picnic table. “Someone will stand on the bench and fall backward into the arms of the others. You must communicate clearly by asking “Ready to catch” the catchers respond “Ready.” then you say “Falling” and only then let yourself fall back.”

“Oh, oh, oh, can I go first!” Murdock waved his hand in the air. I repressed a smirk.

“Sure, just wait while I get the team ready.” I arranged their arms overlapping in a zipper pattern. I joined the group to make it enough people. Four catchers was the bare minimum, but something suggested to me that these men could manage catching more weight than the average student.

They all immediately took the correct position without being prompted, legs one in front of the other, shoulder width apart, arms out. Murdock climbed onto the bench and turned his back.

“Ready to catch?”

“Ready fool.” “Ready.” “Good to go buddy.”

“Falling.” And he did, without hesitation. The catchers held with little effort.

“Feet first!” I reminded them as they lowered the man and stood him up.

“That was fun guys.” He gushed and skipped around to the side. “You go next BA!”

BA crossed his arms and scowled. He didn’t say anything with his voice, but everything else about him communicated ‘no’ very clearly. Until his sweeping gaze met Hannibal’s. Grey and brown met in unblinking struggle for several breaths. Neither man moved a muscle. They wrestled more intensely than any one of them had physically battled in the great noodle war.

“I’ve fallen from three stories with nobody to catch me. This is silly.” BA growled.

“Lets kick it up a notch then BA, what do you think?” Hannibal patted the top of the picnic table.

The big man blinked with slow disdain.

I jerked my attention away from the two men when I heard the thunk of wood on wood.

“Two tables BA.” Murdock crowed after he and Face settled the second picnic table on top of the first. The table top was at my shoulder. He turned, looked over and sneered. With shocking speed a third table was added. I looked up and panicked.

“This is not actually, technically, allowed. Seriously, its in the policies and procedures.” I protested, visions of spinals and ambulances filling my mind.

Hannibal walked to my side and leaned down. Damn he was tall. “We can manage it, and I think it would be an important step.”

I looked from the table tower to Hannibal’s confident expression and back several times. He nodded confidently. “Yessir.” I responded. Did I just say that out loud? Sir???

Hannibal jerked his chin toward the tower and BA climbed the table seats like a giant’s ladder. I had never seen a reluctant participant persuaded to fall by increasing the risk. These men were unlike any corporate lackeys I had ever met.

“Ready.” BA grunted. We scrambled into position. He didn’t wait for our response and huffed “Falling.” tilting back at the same time. It was that moment that I really contemplated the figure of this unusual man. He was thick and solid beyond anyone I had ever worked with. Images of oxen and Clydesdales and rhinoceroses passed before my eyes. He wasn’t puffed up, just very, very solid. And hard. And heavy. And plummeting like a stone toward the ground.

I turned my head to the side and closed my eyes, arms held out more for the look of it than any conviction I could make a difference.

A quiet huff informed me that he had been caught. I opened my eyes a slit and peeked out.

“Christ Boscoe, have you put on weight?” “Was it like flying? I’m so jealous you got to use three tables!” “Thank-you Corporal.”

Corporal? A military title, but spoken so gently. Something twitched in me, pulling a resonant chord that I felt in my chest.

“Face is next! Face is next!”

Without hesitation Face, then Hannibal, then Murdock because he insisted on trying from that ridiculous, completely unsafe height, all climbed and fell. Nobody was dropped. I offered up a prayer of thanks and turned to walk away.

“Your turn Mully.”

I stopped in mid-step. Sure, I’ve done all the things that I ask of the participants. It was part of my philosophy, never asking others to do something I’m not willing to try. But this was completely out of the usual range. And I hadn’t asked, it was Face and Murdock that build the tower of inevitable spinal injury and Hannibal that had initiated the whole ‘kick it up a notch’ mentality.

If any of those men had said it, I would have laughed it off. But it was BA. He had scowled through the whole process. First he had seemed to feel singled out, then resentful that everybody else went without fuss. His even tone was a test, not a joke.

“That won’t be necessary BA.” Hannibal’s voice was calm and placating. He was defending me against the challenge, protecting me from having to back out from fear.

Hell I needed protecting.

“Okay.” I said and started climbing.

Getting up was easy. I was looking up, didn’t realize just how high the table top was. When I stood on the edge though, there was no ignoring it. BA had missed a spot on his last shave, I could see a patch of stubble.

“OK up there darling?”

My mouth was dry, but I nodded. Turning my back to the group I set my heels on the edge of the wood. I did the mental math. There was over half a ton of muscle waiting to catch me.

“Ready to catch.” I croaked.

No jokes this time, a reassuring chorus of readies.

“Falling.”

And I was. Then, not.

I was suspended. Gently.

Like the best five star hotel bed ever. Better. I sighed.

“Comfy?” I could hear Face smirk.

“Feet first lads.”

And I was stood up. A little flushed, but I tugged my shirt down and cleared my throat. Still professional. I hoped.

“Well, physical trust doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge for you then.”

“We have some experience with it, yes.” Hannibal clapped a hand on my shoulder. I staggered.

“Lets try something a little different then.” I led the group into the woods, to a rope swing. At one side was an empty cooking pot. At the other side was a bin full of vegetables. Ropes defined a space in between. “We’re going to make soup.”

“What kind of soup?”

I tossed a smooth rock into the pot. It clanged sharply. “Stone soup.”

“Not even crazy can make a stone taste good.”

“Oh no, stone soup is always the best soup.” I countered.

“High in minerals I’m sure.” Face said.

“Well, it is better if people add a little something.”

“We don’t have nothing to make soup with.” BA shook his head.

“I’m going to let you use those vegetables. You can each swing over on the rope and choose a vegetable. But, you can only bring it back if one of your teammates names the vegetable. Not its vegetable name, this is all about symbols. The vegetable you bring back is going to represent something that you contribute to your team. Something that makes it successful. You’ve proved in all the activities up to now that you are a very successful team, now I want you to give some thought to why.”

BA flexed his fist. I heard knuckles crack. “And that something, it cannot be a physical characteristic. It must be a behaviour or a character trait. You can each name one trait for each teammate. The more vegetables, the better the soup.”

I backed away to watch. The men shuffled. Murdock stuck his hands into his pockets. BA crossed his arms again. Face pouted. They all looked at Hannibal. I leaned against a tree. I could wait.

It amazed me. These men were willing to plummet from eight feet in the air into each other’s arms. But not a one was willing to say out loud what they admired in each other. They were more scared of talking about feelings than risking death.

Hannibal’s shoulders looked like they were going to merge into his ears. My neck hurt looking at how tense he was. I contemplated sitting. Just to send the message that I was willing to wait all day.

“Hannibal is a good leader.” Face gestured broadly in Hannibal’s general direction. “He can go get some vegetable to represent leadership.”

Hannibal sighed and gripped the rope.

I raised a hand. They stopped. I allowed myself exactly one second of self congratulation before speaking, “Leadership is too general. I want you to name something specific that makes him a good leader.”

I almost withered when Face squinted in anger at me. 

“Henhsrspct.”

“I’m sorry Murdock, I didn’t catch all of that.” Or any of it really. He was mumbling into his chest.

“He has respect. For me. For all of us. But, nobody treated me with the kinda respect he does.” Something passed between them, an acknowledgement of a shared experience. “And he does it for everybody. For all of us, but for everybody we meet too. Sometimes we work with people who are, kinda hard up, having difficulties and he never talks down and he always listens.”

I nodded remembering that he addressed me as Ms Lin when we first met. The corporate guys, they often treated me like the hired help, but Hannibal had spoken to me like an equal from the start.

I watched him grab the rope and swing over with easy grace. He chose a potato, swung back and placed it in the pot.

The tension eased a bit. First time is the hardest. Face smiled at Murdock (lucky guy) and stepped toward him.

“Murdock has the best sense of humour.” Face slung an arm over Murdock’s shoulder and gestured with his other hand. “He can lighten the mood anytime. And we’ve been in some rough situations when we could’ve just given up. When I had given up. But he made me laugh and that made it possible to go on. And he does it without hurting anybody, its not mean humour. Its just, good.”

“Except maybe for el Diablo.”

“Yeah, but she really deserves it.”

And they were giggling, making some kind of harmony together. Hannibal smiled and even BA seemed to be scowling less.

Murdock hollered like Tarzan as he swung over and brought back a deformed carrot.

“BA is dependable.” Face punched BA on the shoulder. “That sounds boring, but if you knew all the crazy stuff that we do, its really amazing. I mean, we all get caught up in our own stuff, screwing around with ideas or women or crazy, but Bosco is always thinking about the team and doing what needs to be done. There’s not much that we can depend on these days, so knowing that he’s there, steady like. Its kind of a really big deal.”

BA stood still for a couple of heart beats. Long enough that I started to panic thinking that this whole thing was too much for him to handle. His stoic denial of feelings would kick in and, that big, stubborn BA was going to just bail. Instead he turned on a heel and marched across to the tub of vegetables. He grabbed an onion, marched back and threw it into the pot.

Murdock threw his arms around BA’s shoulders. I noted that his hands didn’t meet at the back.

“Ahhhh, BA, you know that onions are my favourite.”

“Shut up crazy.” BA said.

Sweetly.

“Face is intelligent.”

The man in question snorted when Hannibal said that. “Shut-up kid.” Hannibal replied, and the tenderness in that phrase completely derailed my automatic response. Hannibal continued, “He is always thinking. Some people would say scheming, or plotting. But there is no denying that his remarkable brain is working all the time. And he’s damn good at it. Good ideas. Good details. Good vision.”

Face chose a stalk of celery.

A warm, full sense of satisfaction filled my chest. Everybody had been addressed. They had taken the exercise seriously and spoken with thought and care. I walked over to the pot, ready to go into my team as stone soup analogy by way of wrap up. The guys had done well, overcome some real inhibitions and I congratulated myself on a good day.

But the group didn’t seem to think they were done quite yet.

“Murdock is smart too.”

I looked up at BA. He kicked at the wood chips with a steel clad toe. But, his voice was clear. “He’s creative, thinks outside the box. Sometimes so far outside the box he’s in outer space, but he knows all about nearly everything. That deserves respect.”

BA was breathing hard. Murdock eyed him carefully and kind of edged around on his way to the tub. He picked out a tomato and put it in the pot. He didn’t hug him like before though, just crossed the circle and stood next to the big man.

“Face is caring. You’re a bit of a mother hen on occasion kid, but we all need that sometimes.” Face added a handful of pea pods.

“Hannibal is protective. You’re security in size thirteen boots boss.” Green beans.

“BA is patient. I take advantage of that a lot.”

“I shout threats at you all the time.”

“Yeah, but you hardly ever follow through.” Murdock grinned.

Everybody had abandoned the pretence of swinging, but they continued to carry vegetables over. When BA returned from fetching a head of broccoli he bumped shoulders with Murdock before standing still.

I moved my gaze between the four of them. They had started out more restrained and reticent than any other group I’d worked with. But they finished with some of the most sincere and heart felt communication I had ever heard.

“And, boss, you’re… well when we… I mean,” Face was looking at Hannibal, standing close. Hannibal had a hand around Face’s arm. I could barely hear, the aborted sentences got softer and softer till Face was leaning in as if to whisper in Hannibal’s ear.

I could see a private moment when it was happening right in front of me.

“I’ve forgotten something for the next step, you guys carry on and I’ll be right back.” I turned and walked quickly to the office.

Seeing Face leaning in close like that. If it had been another situation, it would have looked like the prelude to a kiss. I hummed a little imagining that.

Once in the office, I did grab a bag of bird seed. I counted to fifty and started walking back. When I turned the corner I stopped for a moment. Surprised and moved.

It might have been a football huddle. A tight circle of men, heads leaning together. But their arms were around waists not shoulders, hands settling on hips hips. Was BA cupping Face’s ass?

I stomped on a twig to announce my presence and kept my eyes on the path. When I got to the clearing, all four men had vegetables in hand and were dropping them into the overflowing pot.

“Well, its quite the collection you put together isn’t it?” Was that a little extra colour in Hannibal’s cheeks? Did Murdock’s lips look a little swollen?

I crouched by the pot of vegetables and continued. “A team is just a stone in a pot, until you add all the best bits of the team members. But, sometimes people are selfish, they want to hold on to their vegetables for themselves, keep their talents for their own benefit. But once your willing to risk, to venture and let others see you for who you are. Its possible to create something fantastic.”

It was a speech that I had used many times over. Mostly with high school kids, its a bit abstract for the little kids. But, I had never really meant it as much as I did this time. When I looked up, they were all nodding.

“And its good that you’re all so different.” I continued, “Imagine if you were all the same. If the only thing to be added to the soup was parsnips. It would be a bland soup, less satisfying and less nutritious. Less successful.”

I stood and drew the bag of bird seed from my pocket. “But its not all potatoes and carrots. We all have traits that we would like to change. Attitudes or behaviours that affect the team negatively.” I reached for Hannibal’s hand and turned it palm upward, dropping a sunflower seed into the centre. “Areas of growth. Seeds that we would like to plant and see blossom into new attitudes and behaviours.”

Each man got a seed.

“Think about something you would like to change. Something small is fine. Be as specific as possible. Make a promise to yourself to take action and plant the seed. As you watch it grow, keep track of your progress. You’ll have set backs, but be encouraged to keep trying.”

BA eyed me warily. His gaze flicked from the seed to me and back. “Are we supposed to tell you.”

“No. Of course not. Its personal.”

He nodded and leaned down to scratch in the ground and buried the seed.

“Wait, you should plant it at home, where you can watch it.”

“Thats not really possible for us right now Mully. If you don’t mind, I think we’d all be happy to plant them here.” Hannibal walked a few steps away and knelt in a patch of sun. The position of gardener seemed to fit him well.

The men milled about in the forest for a few minutes. My lip may have trembled a bit, watching them gravely pat dirt around their hopes. A siren interrupted my contemplation.

The team were on their feet and jogging in an instant. Murdock turning back to grab the pot then sprinting away. By the time I caught up them, they were in the van, engine idling. Hannibal leaned out the window.

“Thanks for everything Mully. It was just what we needed.”

“It was fun, glad to be of service.” I tried to not look confused and distressed.

He handed me an envelope, “Sorry to exit so quickly, here’s the fee. There’s some extra for the light bulb in there.”

We shook hands.

“I can’t really explain, but you’re going to be asked some questions soon. And, well, I wouldn’t ask you to lie, but the less specific you can be with your answers, the better it would be for us. Of course, its your choice entirely.”

I nodded, waving dust away as the van tore out of the gravel drive.

The agents found me counting marbles.

“Ma’am, we need you to answer some questions for us.”

“Yessir?” I looked between them. It was like cookie cutter men, all buzzed and clad in plain dark suits.

After introductions and the showing of badges and papers they got around to asking for details about the group of men.

“They were all about, um, average height….average build… yeah, all of them… oh they had darkish blonde hair, one was a little darker… no marks or scars… no tattoos… I would guess between 30 and 40 years old… its so hard to tell, I’m not an expert like those guys at the carnival, they always amazed me… why would I memorize a license plate number?… you’ll need to contact my boss about a contract… they paid in cash…”

It went on for some time, but when I made sounds about wanting a lawyer, they backed off.

I was left standing alone at camp. It seemed very empty at that moment.

---

“Mully, why are there three picnic tables stacked on top of each other?”

Monday morning. My boss squinted at the playing field and the tower of inevitable spinal injury.

“Um…”

“If I didn’t know better I would say that it was summer and those teenage counsellors were doing extreme trust falls again. But thats against policy now.”

“Um…”

“The cooks are asking about the big cooking pot, have you seen it? And did you know that the porch light was broken?”

“Um…”

“Its the kids from down the road, damn hooligans. I’m thinking about hiring a security guard for the weekends when nobody is here. Last month somebody stole all the lazy lines from the high-ropes, remember that?”

I nodded, trying to recall if there was any other damage I couldn’t account for. Hopefully he wasn’t going to inventory the pool noodle supplies. Those kids did steal the lazy lines, I didn’t feel too guilty about letting my boss assume they had done the other stuff too.

“Anyway, we have a group of grade sixes coming in for the week, the usual stuff. Can you get maintenance to get those tables on the ground and replace the bulb?” He turned to go back in the office, but stopped and pointed to a box by the door.

“Almost forgot, you’ve got a package, arrived by courier this morning.”

It was a plain box. Large but light. Wrapped in brown paper. No return address.

Inside I found the kitchen’s pot, a bag of coffee, a picture and a note.

The soup was delicious. Hannibal made me return the pot. Face said your coffee sucks, hope this will last you a while. How long until the seed hatches? Thanks for a fun day - Murdock

The picture was of a small pot filled with soil sitting on the dash board of what might have been a big, black van.

If it was, I wouldn’t tell.

Splinter
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Title: Splinter
Pairing: F/M pre-slash
Warnings: none

Written for a h/c prompt on the A Team Kinkmeme

---

“Stop squirming Face”

“Its metal!”

“Once the resistance to localized deformation of a projectile passes a certain threshold in comparison to the specific gravity of the host material, there ceases to be any differential in the damage caused.”

Face looked at Murdock. Whatever the man had said was probably right, but Face didn’t understand any of it.

“It doesn’t matter what its made of, so long as its harder than you.” Hannibal translated. “And stop twitching, you’re being a baby.”

“It was hot.”

“High temperatures can be an indication of high heat, which is damaging to the host material, but the low mass means low actual heat content which minimizes damage.”

Murdock was observing from the edge of a cot. He was sitting on his hands, a habit that meant he really, really wanted to touch but knew he shouldn’t. Something his Grandma made him do.

Face sighed and looked to Hannibal again.

“He’s saying that its just a sliver so man up.”

Face leapt off the bed when Hannibal made a particularly savage jab with the tweezers.

“Thats it old man, you are relieved of medical duty.” Christ but it hurt. Whatever Hannibal had done only made it feel worse.

Hannibal snarled, shoved the tweezers into Face’s left hand and marched out of the tent carrying off a giggling BA in his wake

Face poked ineffectually at his palm. He so, so, so did not want to go to medical for this. They would make him wait for hours. Surrounded by sick people.

He looked at Murdock, who was still sitting on his hands. He was rocking side to side trying to contain his urge to move. Face sighed. Couldn’t be any worse than Hannibal he reasoned and held out the tweezers.

Murdock moved surprisingly slowly taking the tweezers. In fact, everything he did at that point was incredibly slow and gentle. He cradled Face’s hand in his own and murmured a running commentary of soothing words and warnings so there were no surprises. The tweezers were buried, making tiny movements that sent aching pain through his wrist.

“Okay muchacho, take a deep breath, and cough.”

Cough?

“Mother fucker!”

When the colours dancing in front of his eyes passed, Face saw Murdock grinning holding up an inch long metal shaving grasped in the tweezers.

“We are so keeping this one.”

Murdock mopped up the pool of blood from the hollow of Face’s palm and smeared antibiotic cream over the would before tying off a tidy bandage. Face lay back and rested his hand on the bunk rail keeping it elevated. Murdock puttered finding an empty prescription bottle, dropping the sliver in and topping it up with vodka. He added it to the line of metal and other bits that the team had removed from each other’s bodies. Hannibal’s appendix bobbed slightly in its mason jar.

“Still hurt’n?” Face relaxed as Murdock’s hand smoothed his forehead. Just testing for fever he reminded his dick that twitched at the contact.

“Yeah. I’m a baby right?”

“Want me to kiss it better?”

Face smiled. It was a nice thought, and the tent was empty. Murdock seemed to take that as permission. The grip was surprisingly gentle again. To an outside observer, it could have looked like a pulse check. Murdock’s fingers wrapped around Face’s wrist. The press of lips was completely non-regulation, but shockingly medicinal.

His hand still throbbed, but Face found himself feeling much better.

strip chess
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http://pics.livejournal.com/hao_lin/pic/00008q3e

Inspired by Purrslink's story
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Swimming Lesson Swimming Lesson


101 Ways to Drown: A.K.A. How HM Murdock Learned to Swim

Pine (M/H): Platonic Cuddling
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Light. He fumbled desperately for the switch.  It was like his hand was attached to someone else, not responding properly.  It was so fucking dark and he just needed to see something.  Get his bearings. Catch his breath.  Calm his heart.




The light turned on, without him finding the switch.  The mattress sank behind him, under the weight of his roommate.  Who would be looking at him now.  With the light, able to see his face.  He pressed his palms to his eyes and took a shuddering breath, hoping to push the tears out before they could trickle down.  




The arm that reached for the bedside lamp drew back, settling on his shoulders for a moment.  A strong squeeze.  




“Just a dream Boss, lay back down.”




Murdock’s voice was rough, but soothing.  Hannibal fought down embarrassment and settled back down.  The pillow was damp, sheets clammy.  




“Close your eyes.”




This was not the way things worked, he gave the orders, not the other way around.




“Captain, I don’t…”




A hand settled over his eyes.  Softly, just barely any pressure.  He felt his eyelashes flutter against Murdock’s palm.




“Shhhhh…”  A warm strong hand took his wrist.  “You know its not real, but your body can’t tell the difference.”




And that was like absolution.  Hannibal felt a breath draw into him.  Like the air was pushing in of its own volition.  A sigh of complete relief.  




“Think of something good, a happy memory.”




Before he could classify the instruction as trite, his mind threw up the memory of flying back from Mexico, his boys all together for the first time.  Successful.  Happy.




Murdock chuckled.  “Something tranquil Boss, peaceful.  We’re tryin’ to lower your heart rate here, not boost it up again.”




He felt his mouth smile.  A bit.  Good, but not exciting.  He pretty much equated the two.  Always seeking victory.  There was reading, what he did to relax.  But escaping into remembering an escapist vice seemed a little too derivative.  He had to reach back.  A time before the only measure of worth was a completed mission.  Simple work, easy success, tangible rewards.  Remembered winter days, chopping wood outside his Grandfather’s cabin.  They went there to fish, or to hunt or just to not be in the city.  I would be cold, but the work kept him warm, stripped to a T-shirt.  Steam rising from his shoulders.  




“What do you smell?”




He turned his head in confusion, trying to see Murdock’s face.




“Smell is the sense most closely associated with memory.  You’re remembering; what do you smell there?”




He let his head sink back into the pillow, his mind sinking back to that time.




Resin.  Needles.  Dry bark.  The clean, sharp scent as the wood cleaved to the axe.  He sucked air, instinctively searching for more.




“Pine.”  his voice was a whisper.




Murdock patted his arm.




“See, thats better.  Back to normal now.”




Hannibal felt Murdock’s chest press to his as the man leaned over to turn the light off.  The mattress shifted again as he leaned out to stand.  Hannibal watched his hand slide out and grab Murdock’s wrist.  They looked at each other in surprise.




The shadow that was Murdock’s head tilted to the side.  




Hannibal’s heart beat twice. 




Murdock slipped under the covers and wiggled next to him.  His warmth filled the bed, overriding the clammy coldness from before, banishing the last clinging scraps of the dream.  




It wasn’t until he turned over sleepily that he realized Murdock’s wrist was still clasped in his hand.  The man followed Hannibal’s motion unconsciously and he found himself spooned until peaceful sleep overcame him.


The Wife part 4 (WIP)
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That evening the phone rang. Hannibal answered, then quickly passed the phone to Autumn. She took the phone, listened and nodded repeatedly. Cradled it against her shoulder and scratched notes on a pad. Her expression became grimmer as she listened. Mouth drawn down at the corners, lips pressed white.

"Right. I need to make arrangements for the kids, but I'll be there within thirty okay.". Her eyes scrunched as she listened to the answer, "Yes, I will be as fast as possible."

Hannibal walked over as she hung up, eye brows raised in question.

"A skier. Out of bounds, illegally of course. He crashed, his buddy skied down for help. Search and rescue needs a doctor qualified to work in the chopper." She is already in motion, opening a closet and pulling out a large duffle marked with a cross. "I need to call my brother to collect the kids."

Hannibal sighs. He smiles wryly. "I can watch the kids Autumn."

She pauses and looked up, then laughs, smiling. "Shit. Of course you can John. I'm sorry, force of habit." she stands lifting the bag and puts a hand on his arm. "They'd love having you to themselves.". She turns her head and hollers. "Jack! Amy!"

Face repressed a giggle as Hannibal winced. Autumn was pulling her coat and boots out, dressing for the cold night temperatures. A thunder of feet shuddered down the stairs and into the hall. The kids take in their Mom, dressed now with bag over her shoulder. Jack automatically reaches for his own coat.

"His long will you be gone?" the boy is calm, matter of fact about the whole thing. Face remembers that Autumn leaves for days sometimes

"Just a few hours honey. But you get to stay here this time. Your Dad will stay with you."

Amy collides with Hannibal's leg at that, wrapping her arms around his knee and squeezing. "Can we watch a movie and have popcorn and soda?"

Hannibal lays a hand on her head and looks at Autumn. "Whatever the usual routine is."

"Movie. Popcorn. One, small, cup of soda each."

"Ahhh, one cup!"

"Quiet Amy," Jack hissed, "or we won't be allowed any." face smiled, kid knew the system. The boy sidled over toward his Dad and gripped at the man's jeans. Hannibal reached down and took his hand. Jack turned his wrist and grabbed Hannibal's first two fingers. They filled his small hand entirely.

Face blinked and grabbed the jangling projectile that hit his chest. Keys.

"Drive me Templeton? I want to make some calls on the way."

"Uh, yeah sure." He slipped on Hannibal's old boots and follows her out to the car.

They pulled out and she directed him to the highway and the base air field. She did not pull out her phone, just fiddled with her bag. Why did she drag him out in the cold and dark, leaving Hannibal alone with the kids.

Alone with the kids.

"He doesn't spend time alone with them?"

She smiled. "No. Not much. Thanks for this. He's actually really hesitant around them."

"Thats funny.  They cling to him, every chance they get. Sitting in his lap, pulling at his clothes."

"We all do. Well, I used to. You do now." Guilt stabbed his gut.  Thinking what life would-be like post Hannibal. Having that solidity gone. His foundation washed away. "Everybody <i>wants</i> to; it's something about him."

"Yeah. Do you miss it?"

"Yes." He hears her suck a breath in sharply. Keeps his eyes on the road, afraid to see her upset. "Turn here." He shakes his head. Coming back to the moment and maneuvering toward the helipad.

The security guard recognized her and waved them through. The machine had been started already, blades spinning slowly as the engine warmed. A pilot in the cockpit doing his checklist, various ground crew running around. A familiar sight, only missing Mrudock hanging from the rotor and BA grumbling to be just like home really.

The pilot stepped out grinning and approached. "Autumn! Glad it's you."

She returned the grin warmly. "Chaz!" They embrace briefly, tightly.

The pilot looks over at Face, squinting. "Who did you bring?". His voice was suspicious.

"This is Lieutenant Peck. He's with John's unit." A truth, and totally army appropriate.

"Johns in town then. Visiting the kids." The man's voice is flat, deliberately unrevealing. Face's eyes flick between the two, trying to figure out their relationship.

"Yeah. Look, we can catch up later. What's the situation out there."

The pilot drags his eyes away from Face, "Kid is stuck on a tree. The slope is steep and tree covered. So..." he pauses and looks away nervously, "...we want to lower you down to him."

Cool thought Face.

"What?" said Autumn.

"The medic wants a doctor there, to stabilize him before we lift him up." Chaz's voice was plaintive. Over his shoulder Face can see the medic in the chopper looking sheepish. "When we say stuck on a tree, we kinda mean impaled."

"What!!"

"You said that already." Face put a hand on her shoulder. He gestured to the pilot to back off. "Look, you can do this. It's not that big a deal. I've done it like a dozen times before."

"A dozen." She is incredulous.

"Okay, three times. But people were shooting at me, so this should be a piece of cake by comparison." He turned her toward the helicopter door where the medic was already strapping himself into a full body harness. "You trained for chopper work right?"

"And the training clearly stated that you enter and exit the vehicle while it is on the ground." She was breathing hard. He could see a sheen of sweat on her forehead. He took the harness from the floor.

"Just put it on. No commitment. See how strong it is." He held out the leg loops for her, guiding her hand to his shoulder for balance. This is one of the ways he cons marks. Get them to do just a bit at a time, each step seems insignificant until they're so far in they can't turn back. Get her into the harness and into the bird and he's willing to bet she'll go all the way. "I think he likes you."

"Who?"

"Chaz."

"What are you, twelve years old? I'm about to hurl myself out of a helicopter. Try to focus."

He smiled while pulling the straps snug. He pulled up on the rappel loop, almost lifting her. "See, it can take take your weight easily. And, hurl is a strong word. Think <i>gently lower</i> instead." He climbed into the chopper and patted the winch. "This baby can lift an elephant. A very reliable design. We use these in Iraq for all kinds of hauling.". She is in the chopper now, moving to the nearest seat. He holds out the end of the cable snapping the big carabiner, demonstrating the lock. She reaches out, her hands are shaking. She hefted the weight then nodded. "You're in then?" he asked

"Yeah, I'm in. God help me."

She fixes her flight helmet on and checks the radio. Chaz gives thumbs up, and a grateful smile. The air medic is pushing him toward he door. Autumn's hand grabs his sleeve and pulls him back.

"Let him stay." The medic shakes his head. "He's a Ranger, it'll be fine." At the mention of ranger the medic paused. He put a hand to his ear piece listening, then shrugged and handed him a helmet. Face put it on and listened while clipping his belt.

Chaz was explaining him to the medic, "...Colonel John Smith's unit..yes that Colonel Smith.". Sometimes it was nice to be infamous.

The bird was in the air then and they cruised, straight and steady. Face found himself waiting for the howl that never came. When was the last time he flew with someone other than Murdock?

The slope was thirty minutes away and Autumn gripped the sides of her seat, knuckles white, the whole time. When they got to the spot Chaz hovered, still and level despite the updrafts Face could feel washing in the open door. The medic clipped in and leaned back confidently while the operator ran the winch. He went down smoothly and slowly, very controlled. They were professionals no doubt. Face's hands itched to get involved, he was never good at being an observer.

"Okay, I'm down, unhooking." Face listened on the radio.

"Roger, winching up."

"Jesus, what a mess. Looks like someone tried to take out a vampire. He's got a branch right through the chest.".

Autumn let the operator clip her and her gear to the line. She turned to Face, asking with her expression. Face reached over and tugged her straps, squeezed the 'biner. He nodded, everything was secure. He made the okay sign She smiled wanly.

"There is blood everywhere. He's unconscious, his pulse is weak, but regular. Breathing shallow." the medic continued. "Send the saw down with the doctor." the operator clipped a long bag to the line and gestured to the door. Go time.

Her eyes were white all around the brown, pulled wide. She stood and backed toward the door; then paused, frozen.

Face unbuckled and stood in front of the frightened woman. He took her hands and guided her back till her feet were on the edge.

"That's it," he urged, "now bend your knees and lean out, let the cable hold you." She held his hands and he lowered her out, her ass hanging over nothing.  He nearly got pulled out with her when the winch started. He grabbed the door frame and had a brief flash back to Mexico and another terrified grip on his hand.

"shit, shit, shit..." Face smiled as the litany continued over the radio all the way down. Mamma has a potty mouth for sure.  He sat back and focused on the radio chatter.

"How do we get him off this thing?"

"We don't. If we pull the branch clear he bleeds out, or his lungs collapse or all kinds of things. He goes to the hospitale stake intact."

"Pass the saw then."

"Easy, go slowly."

"Damn, lift him a bit. Just a bit more, I'm gonna cut him."

"Don't worry about his arm, he's dying here."

"Lower the litter."

Face watched the operator push the cage stretcher out and lower it down.

"Damn, the branch is in the way. Can we lay him on his side?"

"Not and strap him down."

"Shit." There is a pause, tension mounting. "Pass me your side arm."

"I'm sorry, what?" Sounds of a movement, then three shots. Face heard them twice; once over the radio and an instant echo through the door.

"Now we have a hole. Lower him down."

"Buckle that there. Pull, yeah, like that."

"Jesus, the blood. Okay, is he stable?"

"As much as we can here. He needs blood."

"You go up first doc, I stay to hook the litter then go up last."

"Okay."

"Lower the cable."

The operator runs the winch again. Chaz has the chopper stable, but without weight the line is swinging in the wind.

"Closer, closer. A bit more. Stand up Doc."

"Shit!"

"Are you okay? Damn wind."

"Yeah, yeah. Clip me in, get me outta here."

"Okay, haul away."

The winch ran and Face counted the seconds till he could see Autumn rise up to the door. He leaned out, ignoring the operator to pull her in. She clutched his arm and staggered. There was a cut over her eye, trickling a bit of blood. She smeared it with her sleeve. A lump was swelling already.

"The clip hit you?"

"Yeah, its fine." She batted his hand out of the way. Her fear had left, she was high on the excitement now. Focused on the job, pulling an IV line from her bag.

Face pulled the litter in with the operator, they lift carefully not bumping the end of the stick protruding from the bottom. Once it was secured Autumn was on him with a pressure cuff and the IV.

"Where's the blood?" she demanded

"No blood." The medic climbed in, answering her, "We were expecting a broken leg, not massive bleeding. The guy's buddy didn't tell us about the branch until after we called you in."

"Templeton," she turned to him, "get this harness off me. Just the top." He pulled the webbing away. She immediately stripped her coat off and rolled a sleeve. Without hesitation she found her own vein and pushed the other end of the IV in.

"You don't even know what his type is!" The medic was shocked, "You could kill him."

"Its okay, I'm a blood slut." The poor man was at a loss. Face felt a bit behind himself.

"O-Negative buddy." Chaz's voice over the radio, "Universal donor."

"Everybody gets some." she mumbles and reached an arm out toward Face. "Hold me up. Let gravity help." He stood and she wrapped her arm around his neck.

"Are you okay?" He tried to twist, look into her face. It seemed odd that she would be unsteady before giving blood.

"Yeah, that clip to the head left me a bit woozy." She grinned. "Hell of a ride though."

"Told you."

"This is the buzz eh, that John kept talking about."

"The jazz?"

"Yeah, the jazz. Can see how it would be addicting. Be enough to pull someone away." He grabbed her belt as her knees give a bit. The chopper swung around, getting ready to descend. She turned her head to face him. Her pupils were blown wide, one maybe smaller than the other, "It wasn't you, you know. Its tempting to blame you sometimes. Would be so easy. But it wasn't you, it was the whole thing. The missions, the excitement, the purpose. I couldn't compete." He swallowed, unable to respond. Just nodded, grateful.

Then the skids touched down and the hospital staff are hauling out the litter, detatching Autumn from the IV and replacing her with a bag. They are left bereft of urgency on the roof. She sagged and he moved her to the nearest seat. "You should get checked out."

"I concur." The pilot behind him, arms crossed.

"No, I want to go home. I told the kids it would be just a few hours."

"You could have a concussion." Chaz argued.

"I'll ask a doctor." She pressed her fingers around the lump, "I'm the nearest doctor and I say I'm fine." She stood and stepped gingerly down from the chopper.

"Let me drive you home at least Autumn." The pilot held her elbow and is guided her to the elevator. Face followed, completely at a loos. The car was at the base. He had no idea where they were. She must have agreed because they head toward a truck and squeeze into the cab.

The ride was awkward. Autumn too tired to bridge the gulph between the two men. Chaz was clearly concerned, had a hard time watching the road constantly looking over to her.  Face recalled the highly personal conversation in the chopper.  He realized it had all been broadcast over the radio.  Chaz was completely in the know.

She wouldn't let Chaz get out of the truck, promised to call him in the morning and managed to walk, unassited to the step. She did give Face the key and let him open door. She shed her outer clothes in a heap and walked to the family room following the sound of the TV.

Face caught up after tidying the hall. She was leaning against the door jam and gestured for quiet. He smiled seeing the scene in front of him. Hannibal was stretched out with a child on each side. The were snuggled close. Jack's mouth slightly open, drooling slightly on Hannibal's shirt. There was popcorn everywhere and a half empty soda bottle. By the look of it Hannibal had interpreted 'small glass' liberally. Autumn spread an afghan over them all and crept out silently.

"Lets leave them be." she said. He nodded, even though it meant a cold bed for him. He followed her up the stairs and went to the spare room.

"Templeton," she whispered just as he opened the door. She looked at him with a sad smile, "thank-you. I don't know what would have happend to that kid if you hadn't, you know..."

"No problem. You would've managed."

"Well, thanks." She turned and closed the door behind herself.

---

"Facey!! Where are you! Defend me!" Face jumped, momentarily panicked. Why was he hearing Murdock? Defend from what? He pulled on clothes and rushed out.

"Murdock. What is going on?" He was tackled at the bottom of the stairs. Murdock was grinning and clinging. BA's voice boomed through the house.

"That fool got us kicked outta the hotel. I'm not taking him anywhere, he is your problem now." Murdock shrugged guiltily.

"Turns out bed sheets do not make good parachutes." Face shook his head. "But its not crazy if you know the pool is under you right?"

Hannibal entered, arms crossed, toothpick being desperately worked between his teeth. BA stared accusingly from just behind. "Crazy or not, Captain, it is against the rules. Which you should have known."

"M'sorry Colonel." He hung his head and looked up pleading. Face could see Hannibal fighting his smirk. BA could sense his CO's amusement as well.

"Don't you let him get away with this! I drove all night, we had no where to sleep. Crazy man been kicked out of so many hotels I didn't know what to do."

Hannibal sighed. "Looks like we need to cut things short here. Maybe we all should all cut our losses and head back."

"NO!" a quartet of voices cried out. Quartet? Face and Murdock had yelled, and two other voices from the hall. Hannibal reached down to smooth Jack's hair. Amy stood next to BA, leaning against his leg like it was a tree. The big man looked down startled, then smiled. That smile, the one that only kids got. She smiled back and held out her arms. He lifted her effortlessly and she sat contentedly in his arms.

Hannibal opened his mouth to explain, but just then the master bedroom door opened and Autumn stepped out. Everybody froze and looked at her startled. The left side of her face was ugly mottled purple, the eye swelled shut.

"What happened?" Hannibal asked.

"I got hit in the head with a big ass metal thing swinging from a chopper."

"Mom!"

"Sh- darn. Sorry Jack."

"A quarter to the swear jar Mom." Amy scolded.

"Of course dear. As soon as I get dressed." Autumn walked slowly down the stairs, pressing her left hand to her head. She managed a smile and reached out her hand toward HM.

"You must be Captain Murdock, " they shook hands, "and that makes you Corporal Baracus." BA nodded in greeting. "I've heard a great deal about you. All good of course. I'm Autumn, mother of Jack and Amy." she gestured to the children. "Welcome. Please consider staying, we have plenty of room. Make yourselves at home. Jack, Amy, show our guests to the living room. I'll join you in a moment."

Everybody watched as she managed to climb the stairs with dignity despite being dressed in baggy pyjamas and coloured black and blue. When the door closed, the hall erupted into shouts.

"Crazy fool, I am not staying in the same house as you no matter what!"

"Really buddy, you used a sheet for a parachute?"

"It was awesome, the spash was huge!"

"Dad, I'm hungry."

"Your hair is funny. I like it"

"Quiet!"

Everybody froze at the tone of command. Hannibal closed his eyes, the toothpick was a sad splintered stubb. Without opening his eyes he addressed the crowd. "Jack, Amy, please show BA to the living room and find something to watch on TV. Murdock, the kitchen is around the corner; make yourself useful and see about something for breakfast. Face, explain what happened last night."

In silence, the group dispersed leaving Face with his lover in the hall. He reached over and carefully plucked the soggy stick from Hannibal's mouth. He cautiously kissed that corner. Hannibal rumbled, just a bit, but pushed him away.

"Okay. The skier was impaled on a branch. They lowered Autumn to stabilize him and she totally shot a hole in the litter. It was amazing. For the stick to fit through. Anyway, the carabiner did hit her, but she insisted that she was okay and Chaz drove us home from the hospital, so the car is still at the base. And she said it wasn't my fault."

Hannibal took two full breaths. Face put his hands on the man's waist, desperate for contact, but cautious because he was so tense. "What wasn't your fault? The carabiner."

"No. You leaving."

Hannibal opened his eyes and looked directly at Face. "You thought it was your fault?"

"Well, you stayed married until we, you know..."

"Only on paper Love."

"She said it was the jazz. Well she called it the buzz at first." He giggled and leaned his head on Hannibal's chest. Hands and head, just three distinct points of contact. "She said thats what took you away, that it wasn't my fault."

Hannibal reached his arms around Face's waist and pulled him tight in. "I guess thats about as right as anything." he whispered, mouth close to Face's ear.

The doorbell rang.  They sprang apart, trying to look chaste.   Hannibal opened the door, Chaz stood framed against the morning light.  

"Chaz."  Face and Hannibal greeted him together.

"You know each other?"  Face asked.

"He flew dust off, from before."

"Is Autumn in?"  the man asked.

"I'm here Chaz.  I was going to call you.  But then all hell broke loose."  She walked down the stairs, still barefoot, but dressed. 

"I'm sorry about this." Hannibal shook his head, "I had no idea they would turn up. You don't have to put us all up, especially after last night."

"Its fine." She smiled and pointed at her face. "Really. This looks way worse than it feels."  She directed a pointed look at Chaz.  "The kids can camp out in my bedroom and your two guys can use their rooms. It will be like a party."

"Is there a toaster?" Murdock's holler interrupted them. They walked in to find BA herding the children to set the table for seven. Hannibal produced the toaster. Face made a bag of ice for Autumn and sat her in the nearest chair. He went into the kitchen to help.

"Face." Murdock hissed, looking around suspiciously. "There are children!" The pilot loked offended, spitting the word with resentment. They looked together at Jack, pulling on BA's hand and Amy trying to climb his leg.

"Yes, little ones that grow." He put his hand out low and raised it. "Whats wrong?" Face had never seen Murdock with kids before, but he had always assumed the man would get along famously with them.

"I don't like kids Faceman."

"Why not?"

"They're unpredictable, silly, cute."

"Just like you."

"Exactly. Its like we're fighting for the same existential space."

Face laughed, watching Murdock squint at the two kids. "What are you making for breakfast buddy?"

"Oh, they got great stuff here. Lotsa bacon and eggs with shitake mushrooms and green onions. They got those blue potatoes too, its gonna be like a rainbow." Mudock turned back to his chopping with enthusiasm. Distraction successful, Face turned to making coffee, watching the others.

Chaz was tenderly checking Autumn's eye while Jack watched perched on her lap. Amy had BA in the family room and was showing each of her toys to him one by one. Hannibal was standing on the deck smoking, visible through the sliding doors.  He breathed a sigh, feeling releived and happy and pleased. It was a great start to the day and all things new.

---

"Package Boss." Face dropped the large, wrapped box on the bed. He had seen the post mark, it was from Autumn. It was mid December. He felt a shiver of anticipation, but kept his back turned in, he complimented himself,  an incredible display of self control. Hannibal ignored the package for two full minutes. Just to tease him, knew it was torture for Face. The possibility of presents from family overseas was so tantalizing.

When the paper tore he listened intently. Hannibal chuckled, "Look at this kid." Face sat next to him a looked at the picture. The whole family in a varied collection of borrowed and scavenged winter gear. Amy and Jack were posed in front of the group on a GT Snowracer. Hannibal held a sled in front of him and Face's arm was flung over Murdock's shoulder. Autumn knelt next to the kids.  Chaz had taken the picture.

It had been an incredible day. They drove to an old gravel pit, van and car stacked with sleds of all descriptions. BA, Murdock and he had built a massive jump out of snow, then cut it down to a height deemed child appropriate. It was still a wicked ride. Amy was fearless, racing over the jump without hesitation. Jack had been more nervous, but agreed to go with Face. They had failed the landing and rolled to the bottom in a giggling avalanche of snow and crazy carpet.

The next picture was him and the boy, grinning from under their blanket of snow.

There was one of Chaz, sitting next to Murdock both ready to start a race. Chaz had gone all fan-boy finding out that, yes, this was the actual H.M. Murdock. The legend in flesh. It made up for Murdock losing existential space to the kids, who he proceeded to ignore completely.

He was so engrossed that he didn't notice Hannibal had gone until he returned, BA and Murdock in tow. They all laughed and remembered.

"Hey Hannibal, prezzies!" Indeed, nestled in the box were four packages, wrapped in coloured paper. Murdock ignored Hannibal's protests about waiting until Christmas day and tossed the presents out, tearing his open immediately. The rest followed suit, too exicited to worry about protocol.

BA finished first and held up the T-shirt. The pillsbury dough boy grinned from the black shirt. 'Poke me and die.' written underneath. There was a pair of scissors at the bottom of the box. The big man grinned and started to cut the sleeves off.

Face's had a picture of generic symbol man in various falls and slides. 'I do all my own stunts.' written underneath. Hannibal's shirt declared that he was, 'CLEVERLY DISGUISED AS A RESPONSIBLE ADULT.' Murdock had put his on already and was staring down at his blank, white chest.

"Where is my ironic statement?"

"Maybe the lack of irony is ironic, buddy?" Face offered. Murdock pouted and pulled at his hem. He turned toward the window to look more carefully, then spun around when they all laughed.

"What, what?"

"The back..." wheezed Face, "look at the back."

Murdock spun around, like a dog chasing his tail. Finally he stopped, pulled his arms in and spun the shirt around on his body. 'You thought this was a blank T-shirt.' was revealed.

The pilot grinned in satisfaction, "Thats more like it!", then he started pushing his hand out through the shirt, reinacting the stomach explosion scene from Alien.

While they all laughed, Face grabbed that first picture and carried it to the cork board over the desk. He had taken Hannibal's photos from out of the book and pinned them up. He flipped the photo over and read the inscription.

"Smith Family Collective" was there in tidy writing. He pinned the picture up, front and centre. For everybody to see.

The Wife part 3 (WIP)
inner
hao_lin

Face had padded downstairs to the kitchen and was watching unnoticed.  Like most weekend mornings, Hannibal sat at the table reading the paper.  Coffiee at his elbow, hair peaked and askew, his cigar replaced by a worn looking toothpick.  Brushing against his cheek was a blonde pigtail.  Attached to the pigtail was a fair and impossibly smooth face.  How was it that kids could have that amazing perfect skin with no effort at all?  It was wasted on them.  Idly Hannibal reached a hand to smooth the hair down and away from his eye. 

Perched on her father's knee, Amy's brow furrowed in concentration reading from the paper.  Her small, mouth was set in a hard line.  Her expresion an unconscious mimicry of the man.  One finger traced across the page. 

Over their shoulders Face could see Autumn watching Jack.  He stood on a step stool, spatuala waving in the air.  His mother had one hand lightly twisted in his pyjama top, keeping him safely on the stool and prudently away from the grill. 

"Okay flip that one now." 

"I know, let me do it myself."

"Alright, you do it." The spatuala waving became deliberate and Face saw a flash of bisquit colour.

"It splattered."

"Only a little bit.  See how golden it is on this side.  You flipped at the perfect time."

"I want to eat that one."

"It will take a minute to finish, why don't you go knock on our guest's door and let him know breakfast is ready."

The boy turned and stepped down carefully.  He walked two steps before looking up and seeing Face in the hallway.  Boy and man stood still in surprised quiet, eyes on the other.  A private moment with everyone else distracted.  Though darker, the boy's hair was mused and peaked in exactly the same soft chaos as his father's.  He was round and full in the face like a child, but already the brow seemed grave, jaw firm.  His eyes were sea gray.

It could have been a full minute before Face realized he was staring, ogling the boy.  He looked down impulsively, then back up.  Jack was still watching him, wary.  Face smiled at him, then looked away again.  I'm flirting he thought.  I'm doing exactly what I do at a bar with women.  Used to do with women, he corrected. 

The boy smiled back then turned and tugged on his mother's shirt.

"You're up already!"  Autumn faced him, her hand on Jack's shoulder.

"Already?"  Hannibal removed Amy's comics for her before folding the rest of the paper and flipping to the back.  "It's nearly ten o'clock." he growled, smiling at Face.

"Good morning to you too, Boss."  Face helped himself to a coffee, trying to avoid grimacing at the quality.  He was sat down and sipping when Jack approached, shuffling.  Jack looked back at Autumn who was nodding encouragingly.  Jack stuck out his hand nervously.

"Hi, I'm Jack.  Pleased to meet you."  The words were precise, practiced.

"Hi Jack.  Pleased to meet you too."  Face shook the small extended hand and managed to maintain a suitably serious expression.   Jack remained grave.  Autumn gave Face thumbs up and a grateful smile.  "I'm Templeton, but everybody calls me Face."  

"Everybody?"  Jack asked seriously.

"I'm sure his mother calls him by his name."  Autumn said.  Face froze for a moment.  Lip clamped between his teeth, he was unable to answer.  Shattering this warm familial morning with his pitiful orphan heritage was the last thing he wanted.  Hannibal looked over at him, a hand brushed his knee under the table.  Jack interrupted the awkward silence.

"Can I call you Face?" he asked enthusiastically.

"No."  Autumn and Hannibal both said at the same time.  She smiled wryly.  "We prefer that adults be acknowledged as such."

"Mister Face?"  Asked Jack, brow furrowed.  Face shook his head.

"Daddy Face?"  he tried.  

"Oh no way."  Face responded immediately.  Was that the way this was going?  He and Hannibal were, well, kinda like a married couple.  Did that make him step-Dad?  It didn't matter, a father figure he was absolutely not.

"Uncle?"  Face offered softly.  It was met with no protest from anyone.  Uncle Face it seemed to be then.  Jack hiked himself up on his seat and squirmed close to the table.  

"I'm Amelia."  He turned toward the bold voice over his shoulder.  "But everybody calls me Amy."  The little girl regarded him, smiling, from Hannibal's knee.  Her father watched, bemused.  "I'm named after a dead pilot."

"They don't know for sure she's dead."  Jack argued as he grabbed his fork.  "Nobody ever found her dead, she could be alive."

"That seems a little unlikely Jack."  Hannibal lifted Amy from his knee and set her on her own chair.  "She disappeared in the middle of the Pacific ocean."

"Well, she could be is all I'm saying."  Jack had his choice pancake in front of him already.  Autumn passed a full platter to Face and took a seat.  He speared his portion and watched Jack cut his food precisely in quarters.  He relaxed into the lull of morning chatter.  Syrup made the rounds.  The good stuff, from actual trees.

"Tobi died."  said Amy, looking right at him.  "She was our dog."  

Conversation stopped.  He blinked at her, momentarily at a loss.  A death in the family, he thought, what is the standard response.

"I heard, I'm sorry.  You must miss her."

"She's in the freezer."

"What?"  Hannibal looked up sharply.  There was a clatter of cutlery hitting ceramic.

"The vet's freezer John." Autumn raised her hands in surrender, or supplication.  "We don't have her here.  The ground was frozen solid, and do have any idea how big a hole a Great Dane requires?"  Amy and Jack both stared at their mother.  "Oh, sh-  I mean darn.  I'm sorry."  The children switched from shock to giggling at the near slip.  She put her hands down on the table and took a breath, continuing quietly, "I didn't know what to do.  You were there when we got her, and, I thought you might want input.  There are options..."  Face realized she is about to cry, about to break down right at the table.

"We can talk about it later Autumn."  Hannibal spoke calmly.  Face felt comforted by that voice, even when it was directed at someone else.  

She nodded, and served Amy a pancake, cutting it into bit sized pieces for the girl.  "Sure, after breakfast."

Amy forked food into her mouth.  She turned toward Hannibal.  "Cahnwaygahskggng?"

"Finish your food honey, then talk."  Hannibal pinched his nose and waited.  Amy swallowed.

"Can we go skating?"  she tried again.  Face felt his eyes go big.  He held his breath, waiting for the answer.

"Well," said Hannibal, drawing the word out painfully slowly, "if your mother says its okay, I don't see why not."  Face swiveled his eyes to watch Autumn.  Tried to keep his head still, to look calm.  Beside his mother, Jack was wide-eyed as well.

"I can't exactly say no, now can I?"  She looked right at Face and smirked, "What with the kids looking so excited and all."  he felt the heat rise in his cheeks.

---

He was dressed in a pair of Hannibal's old boots, two sweaters and his own, thin coat.  He had been dressed that way for thirty minutes, inside, and was still waiting for the children to be ready.  His anti-perspirant had been totally overwhelmed.  Amy insisted on dressing herself, just like her older brother.  She was making a mess of it, putting on boots before snow pants.  Hannibal was smoking outside and Face about to join him when Autumn strode purposly into the hall.  She stopped and looked at him, eyes squinting.  He shifted.

"Put this on."  she ordered and handed him an appalling, scratchy looking woolen object.

"Oh, no, I'll be fine without a haa..."  he stopped when she grabbed his ear and shoved the toque onto his head.  Her grip was surprisingly strong.

"Just wear it Lieutenant."  She hissed in his ear as a stomping, pouting Jack appeared around the corner.  Autumn spun on her heel and spoke in a warm sing-song voice to her son.

"See, Uncle Face is wearing a hat."  Face smiled wanly with head covered and resisted the urge to scratch.  Jack's pout turned to a grin at the sight.

"Okay, I'll wear the one that looks the same as his."  Autumn magically produced the matching hat from behind her back and fixed it to the boy's head quickly.  Face gritted his teeth, resenting being used to con the child.  Jack looked up at him from under the cuff of the truly awful hat.  He was grinning, eyes shining up seemingly awed.  Face found himself grinning back and instinctively squeezed back when the boy's mittened had took his.

 Face looked at Amy, puffed out, limbs stiff from stuffing and insulation.  Jack seemed to be covered in an entire sheep, woolen mitts, woolen scarf, woolen hat.  He looked like he was being attacked by a pack of brillo-pads. "I think we're ready now."  Autumn said.  "To the vehicle!"

The children waddled through the door.  Autumn handed Face a bag of skates and followed him out.  The air was crisp and tight.  He squinted against the sudden brightness.  Hannibal was strapping Amy into her car seat, Jack struggling with his own belt around the bulky booster.  

"We won't all fit in here Autumn."  Hannibal looked over his shoulder.  "There's no room between these seats."

"I want to ride with Dad!"  Jack hollered.  Face saw his CO draw a breath to reprimand the boy, but Autumn put a hand on his shoulder.  She slipped the keys into his hand.

"Templeton can drive me in your car.  If thats okay with you?"  she turned to face him questioning.

"Yeah, no problemo."   Lover and the ex, alone in a car.  Lovely.  Won't be awkward at all, he thought.

Everybody loaded into the cars.  There were blankets and thermoses and mugs and, really was it necessary? - helmets.  Only slightly less complicated that preparing for a shuttle launch Face thought.  He started the rental car and followed the family's station wagon.

"One of these days I'm going to have to give in and get a mini-van."

"The total soccer Mom package eh?"

"We can barely squeeze Griffin in now.  Even when we can lose the car seat and booster, the kids are only going to get bigger."

"Yeah."  Face imagined Hannibal, ducking into a mini-van, dressed in loafers and a cardigan.  He began to giggle.  Autumn raised an eyebrow.  "I was just imagining Hannibal driving one.  It's just such an implausible image."

"Well, he was reluctant to have one child.  Two was definitely not part of his plan."

"Amy isn't his kid?"  

"Oh, no, she's his.  But we were apart when she was born.  He didn't know about the pregnancy until after we separated."

"Oh."  he didn't know what else to say.  How could Hannibal not have known?  There was only one way to make a baby happen.

"Thanks for wearing the hat.  You can take it off now, he probably won't notice."

"Oh, I don't mind."  Face offered before he knew what he was saying.  He realized that he was reluctant to disappoint Jack.

"I know I shouldn't push these issues.  If I didn't make it a big deal, just kept a hat on hand and let him use it when he got cold it would probably be okay.  It just stresses me thinking he might be cold, or getting frostbite.   So foolish."

"You care.  Its a very Mom thing."  I assume, he thought.

"I need to learn to avoid power struggles or the teenage years are going to be impossible."

"He has a Mom, one that cares, one thats around.  Trust me, just being there is a big deal."  She turned, watching him from the side steadily.  

"Looks like we're here."  he said as the wagon turned off the road.  Instead of the arena he was expecting, they pulled into a long plowed drive.  Face slowed and drove carefully, watching the wire fences and bare trees pass by.  Poking through the snow individual stalks of grass twirled in the breeze.  They passed a large, clapboard house and parked next to a pond.  Or a slough, or some kind of shallow body of water frozen in a low part of the field.  Children spilled and bounced out of the wagon.

He had no idea what to do, but skates were just boots with a knifey bit on the end right?  An old pair had been unearthed from the belly of the basement and he took the knotted laces and followed.  Everyone carved a seat right out of the snow bank, plopped down and began lacing.

Autumn knelt in front on Amy and helped her slip into her white skates.  Dangerous looking spikes stuck out from the front.  He was glad to see his skates had none.  Looked like an invitation to self injury.  Hannibal was mirroring his ex in front of Jack.  The both tugged vigourously and efficiently.  Face brushed dirty snow aside and gingerly sat down to assess his own foot wear.  They were tattered looking and very stiff.  He squeezed in and began to tighten the laces.  Well before he was finished the others were up and away.

Turned out, Hannibal could skate.  He looked unnaturally gangly with the extra height of the blades.  The skates made carving sounds against the ice.  He rocked back and forth slowly, gliding forward.  Face was about to voice his admiration when a dark blur sped past Hannibal's legs, leaned dangerously far into a turn, carved around and shot off to the other end of the ice, legs pumping, arms swinging.  Jack was leaned over like a bullet or battering ram, helmeted head foremost.  He swung around again, aimed directly at Hannibal and seemed to gain speed right up to the point that he swiveled and stopped spraying snow on his father.

"Its really snowy!"  Jack yelled.  Hannibal chuckled and glided to the side and picked up a shovel.  As he plowed slowly back and forth, the children wove around chasing each other.  Without announcement, another boy was added to the mix.  Shorter than Jack, but stockier.  Hannibal greeted Griffin with a familiar nod and fist bump.  The tall man was like a sun with children orbiting around him as random satellites.  When Autumn joined the group the space began to look crowded.  Face tugged slowly on his laces, delaying entry to the slippery surface.  He had no idea what was going on.  There was no obvious objective or game.  The skaters mingled and turned moving fast, then slow.

With bows double knotted, he had no excuse for sitting.  Amy slid up in front of him and plowed to a stop.

"How come your skates are white and spiky?" he asked.

"They're figure skates."  She turned and tilted her skates, showing them off.  "Jack and Griffin play hockey.  I didn't want to do the same as them."

"Wanted to be different.'"

"Hmm, hmmm.  You going to skate?"

"I've never skated before."  She tilted her head at him, clearly confused.  "Nobody took me skating as a kid, like this."  Amy frowned.

"Its easy, c'mon."  She turned and demonstrated pushing in easy strokes.

He stood and stepped off the snow bank.  He glided smoothly for several feet.  It seemed easy, until he tried to step forward.  The blade slipped, then caught.  He flailed, arms spinning and huffed in pain as he hit hard.  Oh, helmets are so necessary he thought.  Such a good idea.  When the stars had cleared he could see Autumn and Hannibal looking down at him, framed by the sky.  Their mouths were working, but he was having trouble deciphering their words. He took the extended hands and was ungracefully hauled to his feet.  Propped between the two he was propelled toward the side snow bank.

"Are you okay Templeton?"

"Yeah.  Yeah.  Sorry.  I, uh... I've never done this.  You guys made it look so easy."

"I didn't realize, kid.  Growing up in LA, guess there wasn't much opportunity for skating lessons."  Face nodded gratefully, glad Hannibal had offered a non-orphan explanation for his inexperience.

Half way across the ice, the trio stopped.  Amy stood in front of them, beside a metal folding chair.  She pushed it toward him.

"I'm sorry Uncle Face.  You can use the chair.  Its how I started."  He was galled at the thought of leaning on a chair, like some old fogey with a walker.  He just wanted off the ice, on to something not slippery, something not dangerous.  But, she looked at him expectantly.  How could he turn that look down.  If it had been good enough for her, why shouldn't it be good enough for him?

He leaned on the back of the chair and followed Amy across the ice.  Through sheer determination, and natural athletic ability he thought to himself, he managed not to fall again.  The little girl patiently guided him around and offered advice.

"Push out, not back Uncle Face." and "Use the side of your blades, you don't have picks."  While tottering about he watched the others flicking a puck with sticks.  Hannibal stood in net, stopping nothing and cheering every ridiculous goal.  The boys continued to dart and curl with unnatural speed.  Autumn carved easily between them, recovering the puck when it missed the net.

He sent Amy out to join the game and pushed the chair to the side, sitting on it gratefully.  He was startled by a voice at his shoulder.

"Hi, I'm Brad."  A balding, bespectacled man held out his hand.  He shook it.

"Templeton, but call me Face."

"Uncle Face I hear."

"Well, it was the best we could come up with on the spur of the moment."  The man smiled and turned to watch the game.  He wore a city coat and shivered a bit.

"I'm Griffin's Dad, Autumn's brother."  Weird that an Army doctor had a waxy looking accountant type for a brother.  

"Sounds like the kids spend a lot of time with you here."

"Yeah.  Since John left, well, its family you know."  He looked down at Face, expression flat.  Face tried to decide if he had been insulted.  He didn't have time to form an opinion when Hannibal glided to a stop in front of them.

"Morning Brad."

"John."  Yup, there was tension there thought Face hearing the tightness in both men's voices.  Brad was about as opposite of Hannibal as any man Face had met.  He was narrow and soft looking, eyes owlish behind his glasses.

"Did Face introduce himself?"  Hannibal asked.

"Yes, met Templeton here."  Face nodded in confirmation, tried his charming smile.  Brad continued, "I just came by see how long you're staying.  I want to head out, but Griffin's Mom won't be back for half an hour, will you be here till then?"

"Oh yeah, I'm sure we will."

"Alright, he probably won't even notice that I'm gone then."  The man turned and picked his way gingerly across the snow, looking back to wave once before going.  

"That is Autumn's brother?  She's so tough and he's so, well so..."

Hannibal cut him off, "Don't Face, just don't."

"He obviously does not approve of you."  Or me he added mentally.

"Well, that man has demonstrated what commitment and consistency means from a father in ways that I never could to my own children.  He can think whatever he wants about me.  Autumn and the kids would be lost without Brad and his family."

Face leans his head against Hannibal's arm briefly.  Hannibal was the man who taught him those things, after everybody else gave up trying.  

"Snow slide!!!"  the children are pushing the hockey net out of the way, screaming at the top of their lungs.  "Snow slide!  Winner gets the big cup of hot chocolate!"  Hannibal chuckles and joins the other skaters lining up at the end of the ice.  Face watches them speed away at a signal, racing toward the end.  Hannibal is the first to go, diving to the ice, arms spread gathering snow.  All the rest follow at intervals, Amy traveling the furthest.  But it is not a distance competition.  Face is called on to judge snowiness and Jack is the obvious winner.  All that wool came in helpful after all.  He received an engulfing, icy hug from the boy in thanks.  He is amazed at the feeling of that little body, so complete and alive, gripping his chest.  Flooded with a sense of protectiveness and gratitude, he hugged back vigorously.

--

Autumn drove the kids home.  Face rode with Hannibal.  He shed his coat throwing the wet layer into the back seat.

"Y'know, its funny that Amy is so much more like you."

"What do you mean?"

"She's so bold, confident."  He thinks of the chair idea, "A problem solver."

"No, I see that.  I mean, why is it funny?"

"Autumn said you weren't planning on two.  She sorta implied that she was a surprise."

"Oh, well, it was a surprise for me any way."

<i>"You're what!"

"I know you didn't want this. Honestly, it doesn't involve you."

"Hell it doesn't.  If it's mine, I'm involved."

"I can do this alone.  You're barely involved with Jack anyway. You're away on missions constantly, you spend your time with your team, with him. The marriage is over."  She sighed, raised her hands in surrender,  "And that's fine. Just, don't think that you have the right to come home for a few days a year and make decisions about how this family runs."

"I have never interferred with your parenting.  This is completely different.  You used me.  Treated me like some anonymous donor."

"I didn't have to force you."

"You lied. It was understood, birth control was SOP."

She was in tears at this point, red and damp in the face. Her arms were crossing and uncrossing compulsively. The chair seemed to swallow her in. 

"I'm sorry.  I know it was wrong. I just couldn't see any other way."

"All this time I was eating myself up, thinking I had betrayed you. Ruined your chance at a real family, That I was taking advantage of your kindness." he turned away, looking out the window, "all you wanted was a stud anyway."

"I swear, I will do this myself.  I'm not asking you for anything."

"No, you just took what you wanted, no asking, no permission."  He paced back and forth, nearly incoherent with rage, "I don't want to be responsible for making another burden, another mistake."

"Jack is not a mistake.". Her voice was a hiss. 

"My failure to him is a mistake, my mistake." He roared.  All the shame of the last years erupting in noise,   "The marriage a failure.  As a father a failure.  You've set me up to fail again."  He had spent his anger then, spoke barely above a whisper then, "I'm not used to failing at things Autumn. I'm used to being in control, making the plan, staying..."

"...five steps ahead."  She completed his sentence.  "I know. This isn't a mission, it's life. Children are not soldiers.  We are doing the best we can. Thats not failure."  He sinks to the couch, suddenly exhausted.  He realizes he really is trapped.  He can't make her end it, doesn't want her to really.  Now that its done.

"How are you going to do this?"

"My job pays well enough.  There is day care on the base if I want it. My brother and his family are moving back into the area. They love having Jack over.  If doing the med-evacs is too hard, I can always work at emerg or the clinic."

He stopped moving.  Assessed her with a level stare.  There was premeditation, this was not an accident, not a sudden impulse.  "Now you're the one with the plan.  How long have you been thinking about this?"

"Since Jack turned two. I want him to have a sibling. Two people isn't enough for a family, I want one more."

"You never said anything."

"I mentioned it. You were so adamantly against the idea. Being tied to home and family was so hard on you. I just, kept putting it off."

"Then you ran out of time."  He huffed,  "This is not a way to get me to come back. May I remind you that ending the marriage was your idea. I left on your invitation."

"John, I don't want you back as a husband. You suck at it."  That stung.  But she didn't seem like she was trying to hurt him, just stating a fact.  "I'm sorry that you feel trapped by Jack.  By your duty to him. You could just run away, there is nothing forcing you back."

Is that how he felt.  Trapped?  He was a man of duty, responsibility.  Walking away from a commitment was anthema to everything he beleived.  But this?  Staying had seemed the worst choice.   Now, now he felt doubly responsible.</i>
 

 


The Wife, part 2
inner
hao_lin

After dinner he is alone in the family room. He is looking at a photo. A family portrait, not posed, but with them all there. Three of them, before Amy. The glass is fuzzy with dust. None of them is looking at the camera. The child is making a face, sticking out his tongue. Autumn’s eyes are squeezed tight as she laughs, pulling the boy to her shoulder. Hannibal looks amused, a bit embarrassed. His hair is darker, more brown than gray. His shoulders are sloped, his face full and rounded. He is barely recognizable.

“Jack is three there. It was Christmas. The family came here.” Autumn reaches around his shoulder and wipes the glass clear.

“I can barely recognize him.”

“Well, that was during the desk years.” She put a glass in his hand. Two fingers of liquor. Smelled like whiskey. “It wasn’t pretty.” Face turned to watch her sit on the couch.

“Hannibal had a desk job?”

“No. John Smith had a desk job.” She gestured widely with the drink. “The Hannibal part of him fled in disgust and hid under a rock somewhere.” She sipped. “After Jack was born he tried settling down. Hell, I pushed him to settle down. Took an administrative job, spent time at home. Changing diapers, midnight feedings.” Face chuckled. “Yeah, you can imagine how well that went over. He put on thirty pounds in a year. He worked all the time. Sure, he was in the country, but if you discount the time we spent asleep, I may have seen less of him then than when he was taking rotations overseas.”

“I can’t imagine it.”

“I still feel guilty for doing it to him. I was crazy at the time. Dealing with a newborn. We got this house and moved in when I was pregnant. I knew no one. My brother was living hours away. I insisted that John take a job stateside. He’s so, diligent. So serious about responsibilities, about duty. I left him no choice really.” She tossed back the remainder of the drink. He noticed her neck, long and pale in the light filtering from the street. He studied her exposed throat as she swallowed. “He started dying, a little bit at a time from that moment on. It was like watching a cancer victim. Only instead of getting skinny, he bloated out.”

“What happened? What changed?”

“Morrison. Russ pulled him back into active combat duty. I hated him at the time. But, John flourished. Came back to life. In the end it was for the best, even for me and Jack. John wasn’t in country much, but at least when he was home, he was alive.”

“He was Hannibal.”

“Yeah.” Her drink is gone, but she makes no move toward the bottle. A glare of light, bouncing from the glass, shines over her face. He looks down, feeling intrusive. “So, that was the beginning of the end for our marriage, but the start of a legend.”

She chuckles, but without humor. “I made up the spare room. Its a double. I hope thats okay.”

“A dream compared to army cots in tents.”

“I bet. Well, I’m going to bed. John knows where everything is, extra blankets, towels, stuff.”

“Sure.” he says watching her walk away. Her glass is left behind on the side table. It is empty, hollow. Only a hint of amber around the bottom.

The sound of the sliding door breaks his focus.

“Sorry kid, needed a smoke.” Hannibal is in the room suddenly, filling it. He sees the liquor bottle and pours into her empty glass, not noticing it was used.

Face sat next to him after Hannibal had settled in the couch.

“She made us up a double bed.”



“Mmm, the spare room.”

“How can she be so okay with this. With me. Her whole life fell apart because of me, because you left.”



“What?”

“I feel like some kind of home wrecker. I wanted to know about family, about your family. But, I forgot that it broke, that you left.”

“Kid, I didn’t leave. Didn’t have the guts. I was a career officer with a wife, family, split level house mortgaged to the hilt. I even had the goddamned dog. Everything was going according to the officially approved plan.”

“Except you were dying.” Hannibal’s head jerked up to look at him sharply. Face’s breathing froze for a moment. “Thats what she said. Bloated and dying. Until Morrison pulled you back to combat duty.”

“She never described it that way to me.” He swirled his drink, unknowingly mixing her dregs with his fresh. “What ever the situation, she was the one who stepped away. Made way was how she described it.”

---

“What are you doing?” He woke squinting against the light, head pounding.

“I’m moving my things to the other room.” She had sounded calm, rationale. He sighed and gently settled his head back to the pillow. The room was striped with light from the blinds. Sun was up meaning he had over slept. Wanted to stumble back into that oblivion. He closed his eyes against the brutally painful assault of soft morning light.

“Is this about me coming home late last night?” He had been late, sure. But then... then they had had sex. He was sure they had. The feel of sticky residue on his cock confirmed it. Why was she upset now? It had even been good, kind of hot. A little bit like it had been before.

“No.” Her voice was so annoyingly even.

Damn, what the hell was going on? He struggled up to a sitting position, ignoring the brick that slammed against the inside of his skull as a result. “What are you angry about then?” He struggled to open his eyes, but the lids refused to cooperate. The bed sank beneath him. He felt her hip against his own.

“I’m not angry.”

“You’re moving out of our bedroom. You’re angry about something.” He heard her sigh.

“Look at me, John. Do I look angry?”

Delicately, slowly he turned his head and opened his eyes. Her eyes were big and wet. Looking right into him. Deep brown. Not edging towards black the way most brown eyes did. Her eyes were intensely, deeply brown. Almost, really, the darkest shade of red possible. She didn’t look angry. She looked resigned and sad.

“No. No, you don’t.” She patted her hand against his. “Then, what exactly is happening here?” he asked.

“I’m getting out of your way.” He watched her stand and walk to the dresser. She opened the drawer, but didn’t take anything out. Just rested her hands on the clothes.

“Out of my way? My way to what?” Why was she being so fucking obtuse?

“Your way to him. To that Lieutenant. Peck.”

“Peck? What the hell are you talking about Autumn.” He palmed his face and forced himself to take three complete breaths. “I am tired and hung over and really just about completely out of patience.”

“You were happy last night.”

“I just made Colonel. People are usually happy about promotions.”

“You were happy with him.”

“What?”

“There was more energy, more attraction when your knuckles brushed his sleeve than there’s been in this bed for years.” A cold, wet sensation spread in his belly. Disturbingly, his cock twitched against the sheets. She turned and leaned against the dresser facing him, fiddling with an old shirt.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“In all the time I’ve know you, I’ve never seen you happy.” Her hands folded the shirt methodically, “I’ve seen you satisfied, triumphant, amused, aroused. You have been proud and content and pleased, but nothing more. I thought that’s all there was.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I’ve been happy.”

“No. Not like I saw last night. Not here anyway, not with me.” She tossed the shirt onto her pile of clothes. It was a small pile. She didn’t keep much in the way of civvies he realized. When was the last time he saw in in anything but a uniform, scrubs or jeans? Other than last night, at the reception. And really, had he actually looked then?

“You’re leaving me because my hand brushed Face’s sleeve?”

“We, us, this thing, I want it to be good enough. I wish it would be, but its not. I don’t know how to make it work.” He closed his eyes, wished her to stop. Wished he could shut his ears as easily. She continued talking in that level, reasonable voice, “But, now, you have a shot at happy. You should take it. I won’t stand in your way.” She had gathered the pitiful pile of clothes and was holding it next to her chest.

“Autumn, last night,” he is pushing himself up now. Panic has erased any sign of headache or nausea, “we, I mean, I don’t understand. Why would you come to me like that, just to leave now?”

“A last finale John. Something selfish, I’m sorry.” He had his hand on her wrist then, standing with the sheet clutched to his waist. He had never been modest before, not in his home. Not in front of his wife. He is trying to draw her towards him.

She is stepping away.

“We can try again. Make it work.” She didn’t respond.

He had never felt so helpless as he did watching her walk away. Helpless and free
.

The Wife, part 1
inner
hao_lin
"Package boss."  Face tossed the brown paper wrapped box on Hannibal's chest.  The cot creaked behind him as he sorted the mail, separating official from important.  Why did HQ feel the need to send so many pieces of mail.  The new JC catalogue was in, three months late.  Thats a full season behind, useless now.  Of course, its always summer in the desert.  "So, whatcha get?"

"Tags."

"What?"

"Dog tags.” Thats bad. Dog tags arrive by mail for one reason only. He turned to face Hannibal. “Tobi's tags."

Who the hell was Tobi?  Must be military if his tags were getting sent, but they only did that for next of kin.  And, that was not an official envelope. Whatever had happened had the boss upset. Hannibal's head was low, hanging from his slumped shoulders, the box still in his hand.  Wind sighed through the tent fluttering the mail on the desk.  Face reached a hand to touch the grey hair. Hannibal leaned into his touch then looked up. 

"Silly to be so upset, I know.  Just took me by surprise."  Hannibal didn’t look up. He was staring at the opened box.

“Whoss Tobi, boss?”

Hannibal didn’t answer, just pushed the box into Face’s hands. Carefully curled and nestled in tissue paper was a collar. An actual dog's collar.  Tags attached.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot. A dog? When did Hannibal have a dog? 

The package was from stateside. Hannibal had hardly been stateside for more that three weeks at a stretch in the last four years.  Face knew, he was with him the whole time.  Even on leave.  Except when the boss went to visit...

"Your wife." Face said.  Hannibal looked up at him.  "Your wife sent it." The other man nodded.

"Ex-wife, kid."

"I'm sorry boss.  Sucks." 

"She was an old dog Face.  Eight years is about all a Great Dane gets."  he sighed and got up mumbling.  "Eight years," Hannibal walked to the book shelf, "we got her just after Jack’s first birthday.  He scanned left and right. “That means Jack is nine now."

Face walked up behind saying, "And Amy just turned five."  he reached for the book Hannibal wanted.  The Wind in the Willows.

Hannibal opened it and photos spilled out slipping along the desk.  Every time Face saw them he shook his head.  It was like having a time machine, being able to go back and see what the boss was like fifty years ago.  Same gray eyes looking out from the 4x6 as he woke up to each morning.  Kid staring at the camera, wide smile squeezing his eyes.  The same smile Face would do anything to see on boss, and so rarely did.

"Five.  You're right."  Hannibal's eyebrows raised.

"You had me get her that thing for her birthday, remember?  Wasn't easy either, what with it being all the craze and having to order it from over-seas."

"Not exactly part of the usual Lieutenant job description is it Face."  Hannibal's hand was dry and warm as it rubbed against Face's arm.

"I like that its part of my job description.  Whatever exactly it is I am."  he grinned.

"Important."  Hannibal pulled him close.  "You're important."

Face spread the photo's out, sorting by age. "I wonder what I looked like as a kid. I bet I was cute."

"Damn cute,"  Hannibal agreed as Face leaned against him, "and full shit."  He staggered back from Face's shove. 

"What would make you think that?"

Hannibal’s eyes twinkled. "Because some things never change."

"Right. So you were born with a cigar in your mouth," Those rough hands are on his arms now, soothing, "and a ridiculous plan in your head?"  He was being pulled close.

"Something like that."  Then he was being kissed.  Lips desert chapped, tongue soft. Face leaned in and relaxed against the other man. Feeling safe, at home.

"I want to meet him."

"What!?"  Hannibal pulled away, making a space between them.

"Them, I want to meet them.  Your kids.  Jack, Amy.."  Suddenly the tent seemed stuffy.  Face could smell the mould.   Hannibal was staring at him, hands patting at pockets absently. “Your family.” Face’s voice trailed off as he pulled out a cigar.

Hannibal walked to the tent door to spit the end.  His steps were slow and deliberate as he returned, striking a match.

"Why?"

That was a very good question Face thought. He had been surprised by his own request. It popped out of nowhere and tumbled from his mouth totally by-passing any filter. But, now, the idea seemed interesting. It seemed right.

"Well, I'm important to you."

"Very."

"And they're important to you."

"Yes."

"Don't you want all the important parts of your life to come together.” Face drew his hands together, interlacing his fingers. The way he had been taught to pray.  “To know each other."  Face stepped forward, showing his fingers fitting together.  It looked so simple, "Like puzzle pieces. Making a whole."

Hannibal turned his back, hunched over the desk. Smoke curled absently over his head. It was a long time before he answered. "Those pieces, Face, they belong to an entirely other puzzle.” His hands moved the photos, like sorting cards.  “I don't see how it all fits together."

"But, they're all a part of you.”  The space across the tent, between them, seemed enormous.  “You're not two separate people, it all comes together with you."  He moved forward till he could smell Hannibal.  Not touching, but close. "And,” he just realized this now, just as he was saying it, “...its the closest that I might ever come to having it. Having, a family.  To ever knowing even a bit of what that might have felt like."

Hannibal met his eyes, face softening. His brow knit. Face swallowed, forcing himself to hold the gaze.

"Family is complicated Temp. That's the first thing you need to understand."  Hannibal took his hand rubbing a knuckle.  "Its not all Sunday chicken dinner and bedtime stories." 

"You mean it wasn't Leave it to Beaver at your place.  You weren't all Ward Cleaver like."

"No, and Autumn is anything but June."  Hannibal pulled out an old picture. It was the boss, with dark hair and a baby cradled in his arm.  The woman beside him was beaming into the camera.  Her eyes seemed to glow.  "We separated for a reason.  For multiple reasons.”  He tucked the picture back into the book. “Going back is hard."    Started to sweep all the photos away.

"You never talk about her."

"Its not traditional to discuss your ex’s Face.  Not polite."

"It was a long time ago Hannibal.  I mean, it sure doesn't seem like your carrying a torch or anything."  Face watched carefully.  Hannibal did visit the family, two or three times a year.  Maybe, maybe he was still hoping.  Still drawn to that domestic life.  "Right?"

"No. No, she is the mother of my children. But, thats all kid."

"So, what’s she like?"

"The kids lover her, they're both dong really well.  She loves them very much.  Loves them completely."

"Yeah, but, thats not what you saw in her at first.  Like, you didn't go out and start interviewing applicants to be the mother of your children."  Face grinned when Hannibal laughed. 

"No, we met in Desert Storm."

"She was a military doctor there."

"Yeah, I met her flying dust off...”

---

The medic ran from the chopper and started carrying wounded immediately.  Dust filled his vision and smell and contact.  He could hardly draw breath.  Was drowning on dry. Together they lifted soldiers and strapped them to stretches and stepped into the chopper.

"Chaz, lift now." the medic called to the pilot.

"No." his voice was a cough.  Couldn't draw a full breath to protest.  Buckles snapped and he was strapped down.  Light filled his vision, aching bright.  One side, then the other. A voice shouting in his ear.

"You have a concussion.  Are you hurt anywhere else?  Were you hit?"  He's being patted, squeezed.  Shakes his head.  "Sit tight.  You're going to be fine."  The throb of rotors fills his head.  He bites back rising bile the world tilts and swirls around him till they land.

Moving out, as the medic bows over one of the wounded he notices the braid.  A rope of hair.  Two inches showing between helmet and collar.  He resists the urge to grab it like a life line.  Wants to be pulled to safety, but needs to go back.

"There are more." He can't even hear his own croak over the engine and the screams.

"What?"  She leans her head in.  Helmet bounces his head painfully.

"More back there."  Her eyes are brown, liquid.

She nods."Chaz, we're going back." 

Hannibal sees his double reflection in the pilot’s aviators. Dust yellow.  Gritty red mud sticking to his temple the only colour. 

"Not with that you're not."  The pilot points to her shoulder. 

Silver dollar is his first thought.  Collector's item.  It emerges abruptly from her shoulder. 

"Shit."  She's pale suddenly, her hand trembling as she touches the metal.

"My boys."  His voice is sand, dust in his throat.  She is looking at him, not the wound, as her hand pinches the shrapnel and pulls.

"Goddamn doc, what the hell!"  The pilot is clutching at her shoulder as red soaks the fabric.  She passes dressings and he ties it off.

"We're going back Chaz."  she turns to Hannibal, "But you, Major, you are going to triage. Now." 


---

Face rings the bell again. He refused to wear boots with civvies as a matter of principle. But he didn't realize there would be eight inches of snow.  Goddamn winter.  Why doesn't everyone live in SoCal he wonders, again.

Hannibal drops his bag and mumbles something about a potted plant.  Face shivers and is reaching for the bell again when the door opens.

The inside air is warm and smells like food.  His stomach groans.  He smiles at the woman in the doorway, the disarming one he uses for mothers. 

"You must be Templeton."

"Yes ma'am."  Her smile seemed genuine.  Warm. 

"You're on leave soldier.  I'm Autumn at home."  She is holding the door and sweeping her arm, urging him in.  He nearly trips trying to knock snow off his boots and rush in at the same time.  Finds himself awkward on the door mat, dripping melted snow. 

"Why do you still hide a key in the plant?  Nine years and you couldn't think of another place to hide a key?"  Hannibal kicks snow off his boots and pushes Face into the hall.  Bags crowd the space that's over-filled by two size large Rangers.  His suitcase is shifted to the stairs and coat is taken from his shoulders.

"Shoes in the laundry room Face."  Hannibal points to an adjacent room.  Face stumbles in and finds himself momentarily alone. 

The room is soft, everywhere piles of soft things.  Coats covering one wall on hooks, towels on top of a dryer, baskets overflowing.  He stumbles over a football and picks it up.  There is so much stuff, crowded onto every surface.  A wave of nostalgia jolts him.  Longing for something he never had.

"I thought you had a key John."

"Its buried in the suitcase."  Face looks back to the hall.  Hannibal is leaning down, one hand on her shoulder.  She brushes a kiss to his cheek.  Turning, she sees Face holding the football.

"Sorry, that belongs in the garage," She reaches for the ball, "I'll take it."  For a moment Face instinctively clings to the toy for a moment before realizing what he’s doing and gives it over.

When the door closes behind her Hannibal turns to him.  "Okay kid?" 

"Sure boss."  On the verge of tears from the sight of unfinished laundry he thinks, but doing fine.  He sighs and grins.  Shows that everything is cool.  Hannibal squeezes his arm and kicks their boots to the rack.

With a rush of cold air she is back, skipping around their bags and puddles of wet.  "Dinner is ready now, are you okay to eat?  We can move you into the spare room after." 

Hannibal puts a hand to his back and Face is propelled through the hall.  The table is set for three.  Wine open.  His plate has a chip.  There's roast beef and potato and two veg. Plain, filling food. 

"The kids are at my brother's house."  Autumn spoons potatoes on his plate, passes it to Hannibal who forks meat onto it before placing it in front Face.  She shrugs, "They spend half their time there."

"And vice-versa with Griffin." Hannibal notes.

"Thats my brother's kid.  We trade them back and forth pretty frequently."  Face nods, has nothing to contribute so puts food into his mouth.  She continues, "Its good. Jack and Amy have somewhere to stay while I'm doing medical transfers, Griffin has someone to play with.  Seems to be working for everybody."

"Are you on the same schedule as before?"

"Four days on call, three days off. Then switch."  She nods, "They've been moving kids out of Iraq pretty steadily, so I can count on a flight from there or a feeder hospital in Europe once per week.  But you guys know all about that." 

The meal continues and Face learns that Jack actually prefers soccer to football and he wants cleats for Christmas.  Amy is reading already even though she isn't out of kindergarten.  The wine disappears and most of the food.

"I'll pick up Jack and Amy first thing tomorrow, bring them in for breakfast. They’re dying to meet you Tempelton."

Hannibal looks to Face, then to Autumn.  "What did you tell them?  About us?"  She presses her lips together and looks between them. The clatter of cutlery is missing and Face feels the silence weighing on him. A wet, cold blanket. Smothering.

"I told them that their father is coming to visit and he's bringing a friend."  She puts her fork down, "I figure the rest is up to you."  The food turns to lead in Face's belly.  He was so excited about coming, about meeting these people. Predicting what they would be like, dreaming domestic dreams. He never thought about how they would see him.
Hannibal was right, he is a piece that will not fit into this puzzle. Just what can you tell a nine and five year old kid about him.  Their father's, what, boyfriend? lover?  Whatever he and Hannibal were, how could a kid understand? 

Hannibal is stabbing his food.  Staring fiercely at his plate, like the cow isn't dead yet and needs to be subdued. 

"I'm not going to lie to them."  He says, fork impaled on a lump of meat as he gestures.  "If you want that, then we can walk away right now, no harm, no foul."

She sighs. "You called me, remember?  I assumed you would have a plan."  Face is chewing, hard.  He can't seem to move anything else but his jaw.  The food is mush.  He is still chewing.  There is more silence.

Hannibal’s voice is quiet, "I didn't know, what you might have told them already.  I don't know what they think about..."  Hannibal is still staring at his plate.

"John, they don't think anything.  They don't care."  Hannibal looks up, face firm and watching as she continues.  "Its the 21st century, they know that families come in different flavors."  Face swallows.  She looks at him then back to Hannibal, "Tell them Templeton is family.”

“They know who my family is.”

“Tell them that he’s the kind of family that you get to choose instead of being born with." 

Face feels himself start breathing again. Hannibal nods. 

"And when they ask questions?"

She reaches to gather the empty plates. "Answer them."    Face stands and takes the plates before she can.  He clears the table and brings the dishes into the kitchen.  The word echoes in his ears.

Family.

?

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