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by aja

Face sat up slowly. As slowly as he could. But the pain would not be outwitted. He tried to muffle his groan. It didn't work. The groan emerged regardless.

"Lieutenant! Did I or did I not tell you to stay put?" Hannibal's sharp voice carried through their temporary house with a soft echo.

Face ceased trying to sit.

It hadn't been such a good idea anyway. Hannibal was already unhappy with him, which meant as soon as Face could endure a lecture, he'd be receiving one. He'd also be placed on restriction. Scrap that, he was already on restriction. Not allowed to sit without permission.

"That was a question, Lieutenant."

Face grimaced. "Yes, sir," he answered and didn't try to hide his bitterness.

He turned his head toward the back of the couch to avoid confronting the shocked look Amy shot his way. She was around them a lot. She knew a lot about them—more than most—but the side of them she saw revolved around their banter, their planning... the occasional domestic dispute. She never saw the full military protocol. It just wasn't done in her presence.

And since none of them had ever been known as conformists, even while on so-called good standing with the army, the rigorous formalities of military relations were rarely practiced among them at all. But, when it came down to it, the colonel was still a colonel and somehow always remembered how to pull rank. It was rare enough that when he did, Face didn't mess with it. None of them did. History. Respect. The understanding was, that in their unit, Hannibal commanded. He'd earned the right to do so. They didn't take those things lightly. And Face didn't want to add any more fuel to Hannibal's fire. If a shocked look on Amy's face was the consequence, he'd have to live with it.

Maybe later, when his body and head weren't aching so much, he'd be able to laugh about it. Shocking Amy wasn't something they could easily do these days. She'd seen too much. If he'd known a careful yes sir was all it was going to take, he might have pulled it out sooner.

Cold hands lifting his t-shirt startled him out of his reverie.

"Murdock," he grumbled.

"Sorry, Face-guy, heat-pack, Colonel's orders." The cold hands across Face's stomach shifted, settling a warm compress in place.

"I didn't get hit that hard," Face muttered, low enough for his commanding officer to not overhear, loud enough to get a concerned and warning look from Murdock. Guiltily, they both turned to check Hannibal's position. He was conversing with BA in low grunts and whispers on the far side of the room. He didn't act like he'd heard them.

Murdock cleared his throat softly. "Yeah, well, when you provoke your attackers to keep hitting you, you're bound to spark a bit of overprotection from the head honcho." Murdock's voice was gentle as he readjusted the heat pack and replaced Face's shirt.

Despite his protest, Face felt grateful. The warmth felt good, cutting the edge of pain off the throbbing.

"He'll let up on you in a bit," continued Murdock, eyes serious, "but for now you've got to ride it out. And for the record, it looked like you got hit pretty hard from where I was sitting. What got into you?"

Face rolled his eyes, but the concern in Murdock's voice and the complete lack of crazy in his demeanor told Face how serious Murdock thought this to be. "Nothing," Face answered, feeling frustrated. "Nothing got into me. I'm fine. And you'd think he'd at least wait until Amy was gone before turning into Mr. Commanding Officer."

Murdock's dubious expression told him his deflection tactics weren't working.

Face shook his head, opened his mouth then closed it again.

"Go to sleep," Murdock said finally, patting a hand on his shoulder before looking away.

"Hannibal, we have a problem." Amy stalked into the house with unusual demand. Trailing behind her were two dirty and tattered looking kids with a disheveled woman who might have been anywhere from sixteen to thirty-six. It was impossible to tell through the strain around her eyes.

Face lifted his head from where he'd dropped it on folded arms across the kitchen counter, in a vain attempt to tune out Murdock's melodious recounting of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.'

Amy stopped short when she realized none of the eyes now staring at her were the ones she was looking for. "Guys, where's Hannibal?"

"He went to get groceries," Face explained, getting up from his stool to greet their guests. "Can I, uh, offer your friends something to eat?" All three strangers looked slightly emaciated.

"We have sandwiches in the fridge," piped in Murdock, following Face's train of thought, already moving to get them.

BA, who'd been tinkering with something electronic in the corner, stood up also, advancing toward the newcomers, detouring to stalk around the kitchen table, dragging chairs back as he went. When he stepped close, the kids huddled away from him. BA leaned his head down a little and smiled, beckoning them. They grinned instantly in return, surging forward, taking the seats BA indicated without hesitation.

The woman was less easily won. She hung behind, watching warily.

Amy settled a hand on her shoulder, gently guiding her nearer the table. "It's okay," she soothed. "They can help. I promise."

Face raised his eyebrows skeptically.

Amy pointedly ignored him.

Cautiously, the woman moved, stood by the table, but didn't sit, hovering near where the children were sitting, eagerly reaching for the glasses of milk Murdock placed before them.

Face smiled at the children blandly, guessing their ages to be somewhere between five and seven. One of them—the smaller one—was trying to gulp his milk so fast, he was sputtering and coughing it down his chin.

"Slow down," BA instructed, reaching to help hold the cup. "There's plenty more where that came from." The boy darted wide eyes at BA's easy smile, then eased his shoulders, tilting the cup more slowly, taking a long, easy gulp.

As he watched, something expanded in Face's chest, almost causing his lungs to hitch. Something wide and dark feeling. He held his breath to counteract it and kept his eyes glued to the innocence on the grubby faces. Familiarity tugged at him, needling at something in his memory.

The sound of plates clacking down on the table shook him back to reality. Murdock was pulling plastic wrap off tuna fish, muttering something about aliens having stolen all the peanut butter and jelly.

Face took a cautious breath and shoved the memory away before it could clarify itself, before it could make him lose his feet, or swallow him whole. Fixing an unaffected expression on his face, he put a casual hand in his pocket and sidled closer to Amy's side, turning her toward him with a gentle tug on her elbow. "Ah, Amy…not to dampen your enthusiasm, but we kind of already have a job right now."

"I know we do," she answered. "They're part of it, trust me. When will Hannibal be back?"

"Right now," Hannibal announced jauntily, invading the low toned conversation, having somehow come through the side door without making it squeak—an impossible feat for any other person in the house.

"Hannibal," said Amy, sounding relieved. She glanced toward the table where the woman had finally taken a seat with the children and was tentatively biting into the sandwich Murdock gave her, then turned back away. She stepped to the far side of the room, waving at them to follow.

They did. Face flashing his distinct "I know nothing" shrug in answer to the questioning glance Hannibal threw at him.

"I went to the police station like you asked," Amy started to explain.

"Did they buy your human interest story?" Hannibal questioned, grinning.

"No." She waved a hand in dismissal, looking impatient. "I told them I was writing a story that highlighted police departments that have most effectively tracked white collar crimes."

Hannibal and Face traded impressed looks. "Their egos must have been positively bursting," said Hannibal. "What'd they give you?"

"I'm pretty sure they gave me everything they had," she answered. "But there was nothing that implicated Guerin specifically. There were two old complaints sworn against his company, both made by former employees, but both had been withdrawn, and I couldn't find the contact information for either person listed on the complaints. Disconnected phone numbers. That was it. It's like they both just vanished."

"The plot thickens," said Hannibal, thoughtfully tapping his fingers, assimilating the information. "Good work, kid."

"So," asked Face, "what do they have to do with this?" He gestured to the table without looking.

Amy glanced over, then back again. "While I was down there, that girl was at the police station trying to make a missing person's report but the police wouldn't listen to her."

Hannibal frowned. "Who's missing?"

"Three kids from the homeless shelter near Drier Bridge."

"That's less than two blocks from Mr. Guerin's office buildings and the warehouse pier," said Face.

"I know." Amy nodded, folding her arms across her stomach. "Apparently, the missing kids were down at the pier last night. Stacy told me there's a spot down there where the kids have caught fish before and she thought that was what they were doing, but when they got back to the shelter they told some of the adults that they'd been in the warehouse and seen something weird going on and that men had chased them away, almost all the way back to the shelter. Stacy said most of the adults thought it was just a game they were playing, a game of pretend, but this morning all three kids were gone."

"Any specifics on what they saw?" asked Hannibal.

"If there are, no one at the shelter is talking about it. Stacy's the only one who was willing to push for the authorities to be involved, but the police didn't want to hear it. They kept telling her they couldn't do anything because the kids hadn't been missing for more than twenty-four hours. When I overheard her at the police station I decided to bring her here."

"That's the guideline for missing adults," said Face, feeling the chasm try to open in his chest again, "not children."

"I don't suppose they differentiate if you're coming in off the street," Amy answered bitterly.

When Face awoke, the room was silent. He was still on the couch but someone had removed his shoes and thrown a blanket over him. He still wore his jeans and t-shirt but the compress that'd been placed under his shirt before he'd gone to sleep was missing. It was disconcerting to him that he'd slept through so much.

He ran a groggy hand over his eyes. Overall, his body felt less sore. His ribs weren't screaming and the spot above his right ear was no longer pounding.

A sudden creek in the room had him instantly alert.

Carefully, he turned his head, craning his neck to scan the space behind him. Less than a yard away sat Hannibal, tipped back in the barkalounger, reading a newspaper.

Face nearly groaned aloud but caught himself before it escaped. If the colonel had been sitting with him, it meant he deemed it necessary to keep an eye on him. It meant the man was still worried, or angry, or both, and wouldn't be letting this go any time soon. He would lecture, and reprimand, and push for explanations Face couldn't give.

From the silence leaking through the rest of the house and the unusually loud-sounding clock on the far wall, Face surmised that he and the Hannibal were alone. Maybe that was a mercy. Now they could at least do the full military protocol in private.

Face sighed and set his palm against the couch. "May I sit up, sir?" he questioned. Dry sarcasm laced his tone.

Hannibal didn't answer. He put down the newspaper and moved to sit on the sofa near Face's hip. With his forehead creased and without saying a word, he moved the blanket down and the t-shirt up. Face held himself still, trying not to flinch as his sore muscles were examined, his likely-cracked ribs, and the tingling lump along the right side of his head.

Looking less than satisfied, the colonel finally eased the t-shirt down and sat back, regarding Face seriously. "You ready to tell me what happened back there?"

Face swallowed. "No," he quipped sullenly, but the question was rhetorical and he knew it.

"Face," Hannibal said simply, calmly.

Face stared at the ceiling.


Gritting his teeth, he swallowed, shifted his elbows, preparing to sit.

He didn't want to have this conversation laying down.