The desert sand swirls below his chin, dancing in the slow exhale from dry, parted lips as his finger lines the side of the trigger. Face shifts his shoulders, his elbows make different impressions in the sand, and he hikes the butt end of his rifle up two inches and in. He feels the smooth curl of steel with the pad of his index finger and sets it slightly off center the way a man with three scars above his right eye and the stench of cigarette smoke clinging to his uniform had taught him all those years ago.
Looking down the scope, it's almost easy to see a wet-behind the ears recruit, back straight with defiance and eyes burning with purpose at the center of the reticle. Even easier to imagine pulling the trigger, but the fact that he can't at all is why he's belly down in desert sand a few miles outside of base.
A row of targets sit five hundred meters out across the dunes bouncing behind heat waves rolling off the sand. He lines the reticle up to the first one, blowing away the memory of his younger self on another slow exhale. Lungs empty of air, he closes his mouth and waits. In three seconds of stillness, he imagines his body frozen in time. Chest lifeless and unmoving, his right eye open staring down the scope at a rusted can of boot shine, his heart throbs once, twice and on the third, he starts to squeeze his index finger. He feels his nerves ignite with a fire they're used to, the heat of the desert at the nape of his neck paling in comparison to the burn he feels with hands against black steel.
His finger twitches, but doesn't squeeze and his body collapses at being denied its basic command of nearly eleven years. His hands fall from his rifle, the bend of his left arm catches his face and the can of boot shine sits untouched. He squeezes his eyes against the sleeve of his Army issued shirt as flashes of flowing off-white, tan and a strand of ebony streak across his mind's eye.
It's been four days since he returned to base. Three since he last pulled the trigger of his sniper rifle.
"Why didn't you say something, kid?"
The voice, soft and out of place in the blazing sun and sandy void, rains down on him from a safe distance should he be startled. He is, which only adds to the turmoil his body seems buried beneath at the moment and he pushes his tightly closed eyes further into the crook of his elbow knowing it's too late to appear to be doing something else.
The distance between them is covered like sand being blown across bootprints, easy and forgotten in a moments notice and he feels a heavy hand fall between his shoulder blades, uncaring of the sweat soaked into his shirt.
"Hey," says Hannibal.
He doesn't deserve the man's gentleness, but he stills under it nonetheless. Let's it unwind across his back and down into his bones as he sags a little more into the sand. The colors flash again, burning an image across his vision he shouldn't be able to actually see. His shoulders hitch once and his body tenses again.
"You gotta talk to me, Face." The man moves his hand back and forth between rapidly falling and rising shoulder blades as if he could calm the breath that swells them.
Face knows he can and his next inhale is slower to show for it.
"I didn't want to."
"Didn't want to what?"
em Leave. Go with another unit. Listen to another man's command. Pull the trigger. All of it. /em Face thinks, but Hannibal has always been able to hear things in the silence of Face's thoughts.
"I know. Morrison couldn't get you out of this one. Not his call, but it was a one and done thing, kid. He sent an order up yesterday. Our unit stays together. No more of these recruitment missions."
Face lets relief uncoil him just a bit, but the order is a little too late.
"Which is why I need you to talk to me," Hannibal says, removing his hand and waiting for Face to meet him on equal terms. The lieutenant pushes himself up to forearms and flicks the safety on his rifle before twisting in the sand and sitting on his rear with knees bent. His shoulder barely brushes Hannibal as they sit facing the row of untouched targets appearing as nothing but black specks poking out behind the dunes.
"There was a way we could have got out clean," Face offers while brushing sand off of his Army issued cargo pants. "Not that it matters. Barlow's a shoot and don't ask questions kind of guy. Knew that going in…it feels different now."
Whether he means his thoughts on Barlow, or the way his rifle fits in his hands, he's not entirely sure but Hannibal nods all the same.
"What if I can't…" Face starts to say, but doesn't want to admit to being anything less than what the man beside him expects.
"I know you can."
Face laughs, humorlessly and perfectly fitting for a place like this. "I can't shoot a can of boot shine."
"You can't pull a trigger because the last time you did you didn't believe in it," the older man explains as he turns his head towards Face but keeps his eyes on the horizon. "A man troubled by that only means he pulls when necessary."
"It feels necessary. I can't go out into the field if I can't shoot here."
Hannibal lets his gaze find Face's muted blue one. "Alright. Try it again."
"Boss, no. I -"
"It's alright, Face. Just try."
He finds himself belly down in sand again, rifle sitting neat in his grip but uncomfortably heavy in a way it hasn't been since his first week of training. His elbows take too much of his weight, his feet an awkward distance apart.
"Nuh uh," Hannibal chides softly, belly down in sand too with the length of him about two feet away from Face. "That's not how I taught you."
It isn't and Face hasn't used this stance since basic training, but everything else feels so foreign he thought it might help. Hannibal seems to think otherwise and waits until his lieutenant shifts his shoulders, moves his feet and repositions his rifle before speaking again.
"Don't look down the scope," he stops Face from doing so and instead instructs, "Close your eyes."
"That's an order, Lieutenant," Hannibal counters his reluctance but it lacks an official inflection.
"Yes, sir," Face responds anyway and does so. Silence surrounds them for so long Face begins to image he can hear the heat swirling around them only to realize it's Hannibal breathing in slow measured breaths that Face is meant to follow.
He does so, feels it calm his heart, nearly still his hands from how they barely tremble around black steel.
"You're in control here, Face, and whether you like it or not, you were in control there, too."
Face's fingers flex around his rifle.
"Yes, you had an order, but you have an insubordinate streak the size of Texas. So I know you pulled the trigger for a different reason than Barlow telling you to."
Sweat slicks his palms. He itches to wipe them off, but doesn't dare to. He sees people walking in Iraqi streets, laundry swaying on lines between two buildings forty meters to his right and a kid running towards the building in front of him from his left.
"Stay with it, kid," Hannibal says like he can see it too. "Breathe slow, like you're lining up your shot. Ignore the noise, just listen to me."
Face exhales slow, but inhales too quick. He tries again, this time making it even as the kid gets twenty meters from the building. He adjusts his fingers on his rifle even though he shouldn't. Hannibal gently says, "It's alright. Your judgement isn't in your fingers, nor the scope. Line up the shot and feel whether it's right or not."
Face's heart pounds against his chest, quickly and almost painfully. It doesn't feel right at all as he imagines the reticle swooping over the moving target heading for the rest of his unit.
"Breathe, Face," Hannibal reminds him and its only then he realizes he ever quit. He exhales slow, remembers the way the kids flowing off-white shirt billowed out in the wind when he dodged around a woman walking with a filled basket of food. He inhales as the kid's face turns in the sight of his scope, holds it in as the jawline becomes more distinct, less childlike. He exhales when he realizes it isn't a kid at all, but a smaller man in stature trying to pass as one. The man faces front from where he's dodged a few more people, strides still quick and purposeful, and Face inhales as the shirt billows again just enough to uncover the edge of a familiar sight strapped to his torso.
Face holds his breath. Once second, two seconds, and on the third he pulls the trigger. His rifle snaps back, but his hands contain the motion, his body accepting of the way it recoils into his shoulder. The man falls, his homemade shrapnel bomb intact along with everything else surrounding it.
Face exhales, slowly opens his eyes to see his memory faded and replaced with a can of boot shine with a single shot through the middle.
"How did you know?" Face asks, because Hannibal hadn't been there, wouldn't have known what Face couldn't even remember.
"I didn't, but I know you," Hannibal says while they both sit back upright. "Mistakes or no mistakes, don't ever hide from me, kid."
Looking back out across the desert, targets sitting neatly in row, he thinks back to the first time Hannibal ever showed him a different way of pulling the trigger, thinks of the way he carried himself differently after he did. Then he thinks about every time he'd ever laid belly down, rifle in hand and target in sight and how he'd never pulled a trigger since without Hannibal's guidance beating solidly in his chest.
Hannibal had taken a defiant, lost kid out of a sea of them, saw something in him back then and somehow sees it now even when Face loses it for days on end. Face wants to say thank you, but they've never exchanged the word before so he doesn't see reason to start now. Their gratitude to each other lives in small moments like these formed from monumental ones.
"I've never been able to hide from you, Boss. You know that."