NOTE: Established Hannibal/Face pairing. Only very mild slash, but if male/male pairings aren't you're thing, click the Back button now. Cheers!
Later, Hannibal would kick himself for not noticing something sooner. He prided himself on covering all his bases, accumulating every fact, noting and retaining the most minute detail regardless of how trivial it might appear on the surface. Every single skill, natural and honed, that gave him the right to call himself the best without pride or hyperbole had absolutely failed him in this instance.
Right now, though, there wasn't time for Hannibal to dwell on his failings.
Twenty minutes ago might have been a better time, when Face had already been in the bathroom for half an hour and still wouldn't get out of the shower for another ten minutes. Hannibal had just chalked it up to stress-grooming. Face could be a little obsessive compulsive about his hygiene and personal care regimen, especially when he was fatigued or under external pressure. Hannibal had always assumed it had something to do with control: The kid relied on his looks as much as his intelligence to requisition (con) things for the team, and maintaining his appearance equated to maintaining his weapon. Plus, the kid could be vain as fuck sometimes. As long as he didn't get squirrely around food or mind getting dirty when it mattered, Hannibal didn't see a problem with his Lieutenant's overly-thorough grooming.
Two hours before Face got into the shower would have also been a more ideal time for Hannibal to notice something was off. Face had been unusually quiet after the commotion of their (second) escape from custody had stopped ringing in their ears. Hannibal had assumed the kid was concentrating on where they could go now that they were federal fugitives, maybe trying to figure out how to set up some hidden accounts before the CIA froze their funds. Or maybe Hannibal just thought Face's adrenaline was crashing. He might have thought any of that, or none of it, or all of it and then some. He really couldn't say because the truth of it was, Hannibal hadn't been thinking about Face, not specifically. He'd been thinking about what their lives would be now, how far they'd have to drive before ditching this (unfortunately) stolen vehicle for another, whether there were MPs on their trail already, how to take care of their injuries without proper medical supplies… Hannibal had been thinking about the Team, but he hadn't been thinking about Face.
They'd ended up dumping the vehicle a few miles from a small town (Population 306) and hoofing it until they found a suitably nondescript hotel run by a tired-looking woman who didn't ask questions and didn't mind taking Face's watch as a deposit. The team had unanimously decided that before they could sort anything out, they all needed showers and some sleep. No sense in drawing attention to themselves by looking like dishevelled madmen (when in fact only one of their number was certifiably mad).
In a move that hadn't even needed to be discussed, the team had checked into only one room to stay close and keep an eye on each other. There was a small bedroom with a double bed and a twin-sized foldout in the lounge. Hannibal tried to insist that Murdock and BA needed the proper bed, with BA's stature and Murdock's concussion, but they had insisted that they were fine on the sofa bed. It was standard for Hannibal and Face to share the master/"real" bedroom in situations like this, as the other men tactfully deferred to their status as a couple, but in this instance Hannibal just thought they were being stubborn.
While sleeping arrangements were being discussed, Face had beelined for the bathroom and make vague noises about showering. No one objected. Hannibal was too keyed up to stand still and BA was mothering Murdock's concussion like Florence Nightingale. A very scary Florence Nightingale, who threatened to "give you another concussion and break both your legs" if Murdock didn't lie still. The Captain was restless, obviously in pain from his skull and neck, which was developing serious whiplash from the force with which the bullet had snapped his head back. BA was trying to get him to lie down with some ice wrapped in a tea towel, but Murdock wanted to see if he could rewire the ancient hotel TV to pick up the Cartoon Network.
Watching them and occasionally interjecting when it looked like the bickering was turning into a genuine argument – all their emotions were frayed and it was difficult to manage those two at the best of times – Hannibal hadn't had time to think about why Face was taking so long in the shower.
"Hey man, you smell that?" asked BA suddenly, still holding Murdock to the bed with one arm and absently wrestling the remote away from him with the other.
"I smell YOU," countered Murdock with a sullen pout, struggling weakly against Bosco on principle more than anything else. "I don't wanna be smelling you. Get your ugly paws off me and go stink somewhere else."
"You ain't a rose garden yourself," snapped BA. "But I ain't talking about that. It smells like rubbing alcohol or something."
Hannibal realised he could smell it too. It was faint, but there was something in the air biting his nostrils. It was vaguely familiar but he couldn't place it, not bleach but something like it…
Before he could analyse the scent further or pinpoint its origin, there was a muffled yelp from the bathroom. The exclamation was cut off, like the person making it bit their tongue halfway through. Of course, there was only one person who could have made it. Hannibal realised, in the back of his brain where he noticed everything, consciously or not, that the shower had been off for a while.
Murdock took advantage of BA's distraction at the sound to push himself off the bed. He wobbled towards the door where Hannibal was already knocking.
"Face?" called the Colonel, trying not to sound panicked. His nerves couldn't take much more today. He jiggled the doorknob but it was locked. "Are you alright?"
The smell was definitely stronger here, and there was something else overlaying it. Something strong and sour, something also familiar that tickled at Hannibal's memories and ran a shiver of dread down his spine before he could realise why he suddenly felt nauseous.
"Face?" He knocked again.
Beside him, propped up by Bosco, Murdock had gone pale. Well, paler. Hannibal was certain that he would have fallen if BA wasn't holding him up. "Colonel, that smell," Murdock managed. His right pupil was blown. "That's burning. Burning. Hannibal…"
With a shock that tasted like bile, Hannibal realised why he recognised that new smell. It was burning flesh.
Not caring if he was revealing his panic now, Hannibal threw his shoulder against the bathroom door. "Face!" He tried the locked door again, slamming into the door with all his might. "Face, answer me! Open this door NOW, Lieutenant!"
He was pushed aside by a hand even stronger than his own, and suddenly Hannibal found himself with an armful of wobbly pilot. He held the younger man without registering, watching with fear gripping his heart as BA broke the bathroom door down. In his haste to move forward, Hannibal dimly realised he'd let Murdock fall to the floor, but he could apologise later.
BA's massive back blocked Hannibal's view of Face and he shoved the Corporal out of the way roughly. He'd apologise for that later too. Face was naked, holding a towel to his arm, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright with pain. What didn't make sense was the way he was glaring at BA. At him.
"Face, what's wrong?" asked Hannibal, moving forward to inspect his lover's arm. "What happened?"
Face flinched back, angling his arm away from the others protectively. Hannibal didn't understand. Surely Face wasn't afraid that they would hurt him? He hadn't seen the younger man this wary and skittish since he'd first been brought into Hannibal's unit as a whelp claiming to be nineteen and holding his chin defiantly high when Hannibal called bullshit on the age. The Colonel had liked him immediately – he had a spark about him in spite of his rough edges and brash attitude, and Hannibal had no problem with the kid's smart mouth as long as it didn't stop him from doing his job. He had the feeling he'd need to earn Peck's respect rather than just being assigned it through rank, and Hannibal had grinned at the challenge. Nearly twenty years later, he and Face were still grinning.
Usually. Not so much right now, in this tiny bathroom with no ventilation, steamed windows and a cloying combination of smells. For the first time in a long while, Hannibal was at a loss as to how to deal with Face. What had happened? What had Hannibal – and BA? The team? – done to make Face flinch away from them like this? What was wrong with his arm?
"Face?" Murdock's weak voice came from the doorway. Hannibal didn't look away from the blond. "What did you do?"
That was a stupid question, in Hannibal's opinion. Face hadn't DONE anything – if he'd slipped or cut himself shaving he wouldn't be clutching his bicep. That was too high up to be somewhere that could be knocked or injured accidentally while showering.
There was a key word in that statement, and it took the last of Hannibal's breath away. He felt dizzy, from the fumes and the stress and the implications of everything that was happening.
For the first time, Hannibal flicked his eyes around the room. There. On the basin right next to him: A nearly-empty, old bottle of nail polish remover and a lighter. He looked at Face. The younger man raised his chin defiantly. Hannibal's heart broke.
"Oh Face," was all he could say.
It seemed to be enough. The defiant chin wobbled, the bright eyes spilled over and a horribly broken sound left Face's lips.
Hannibal didn't wait for an invitation. He reached out, just in time as Face's legs buckled and he fell against the larger man, pulling them both down until they were collapsed together on the cold floor.
"Colonel?" asked BA hesitantly. They still didn't know the details of Face's physical condition.
Hannibal stroked Face's hair and the blond gripped his shirt so tightly he felt the seams pop. "It's alright, BA," he managed. "Thank you."
Trusting the Colonel to know what was best, BA shuffled out of the room, pulling a reluctant Murdock with him. Hannibal heard the door close as he shifted so that he was cradling Face to his chest. The younger man was breathing loudly through his nose, his face strained as he fought through a panic attack. Hannibal had seen this before, and simply held him, stroking his hair and back gently, until the Lieutenant's breathing finally slowed.
Only then did Hannibal pull back, just enough to look Face in the eye. "What happened, kid?" he asked roughly.
Face shook his head, jaw still clenched. "I'm sorry," he said, huffing out a strange laugh. He moved to pull the towel away. It stuck, fibres clinging to Face's skin before he peeled it away and revealed something that turned Hannibal's stomach.
Face's Ranger tattoo, the one he'd always been so proud of and displayed like a peacock so often, was gone. Blisters and bubbles of freshly-burnt skin mutilated it, melting the once-strong emblem into something warped and ugly. Face's skin was red, weeping and already sloughing off in places. The Colonel part of Hannibal's brain noted that they'd have to be careful about infection. The rest of him wept.
"Why?" he asked, touching the still-smooth skin underneath the burns. Face shuddered. "Why did you do this?"
"It's not me," the blond answered, reaching to poke the open wound until Hannibal stopped him. "It doesn't mean anything anymore. Everything I worked for, everything we worked for, the Army and being a Ranger and everything I thought that meant…" He stared at the mutilated tattoo. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"So you just disfigure yourself?" asked Hannibal and fuck, it came out harsher and louder than he'd meant it to but this was bullshit. They'd all been betrayed by the Army and the US government but they couldn't afford to fall to pieces over it, not now. Face couldn't hurt himself over this. He didn't have the right and he was too damn precious to Hannibal. The Colonel wasn't about to let him get away with this – no one hurt Face on Hannibal's watch, not even Face himself.
"If it grosses you out, I'll be sure to cover it when we're fucking," Face retorted. Damn. That hadn't been what Hannibal wanted. Once the kid's spiney defences were out (Murdock likened him to a porcupine once and the mental image stuck) it took a lot of effort to retract them.
"Kid, please." Hannibal took a deep breath. His heart was hammering in his chest. He was terrified. "This stinks. I know it does. But you can't let it pull you under." He grabbed the back of Face's injured arm, squeezing firmly without applying enough pressure to hurt. "This tattoo and everything it stood for, it's still you." Face tried to pull away but Hannibal held on. "Your skills, your courage, your balls-to-the-wall attitude that I know they didn't teach you in boot camp," (that got a half-smile at least) "Your loyalty, your principles, the things that make you a great soldier and an exceptional man…"
"John," protested Face softly, but Hannibal ignored him.
"Those things are part of you, not the system. I don't care if we're Rangers or not, in the Army or wanted by our own government, I want you by my side." He squeezed Face's arm again. "This is still you. You're not the one who betrayed the morals that you joined the Army for. They did. Don't let their failings make you feel ashamed of everything you've accomplished."
Face's cheeks were wet. His nose ran and Hannibal didn't care, leaning forwards for a kiss anyway. It tasted like salt. He poured himself into the kiss, trying to convey all the love and support and pride he felt for the younger man into every movement of his tongue and every cell of skin that sealed his lips to Face's.
They remained on the bathroom floor for a long time after that, until the smell of burnt skin and alcohol had faded and the grimy mirror was clear of steam once more.