Will thought for a moment that Hannibal would take him back to the ducal suite.
It was a possibility that was as daunting as it was compelling, and the closer they got to the doors, the more pensive Will became.
Hannibal could feel the tension humming through Will’s slender body, even just through the light touch he kept at the base of Will’s spine. It wasn’t hard to guess the cause. As much as it disappointed him to do so, he escorted Will to the Duchess suite and unlocked his door, swinging it wide to admit him with a slight gesture.
Will exhaled softly, relieved and oddly disappointed, but knowing it was for the best. He was ill and tired and in no state to be tied into nerves over such trifling things when his defences were so badly unprepared.
‘Only an Omega would worry about being bedded at a time like this…’
The thought sounded far too much like his father’s words in his father’s voice for Will’s comfort, and he took a step away from Hannibal’s lingering touch to gather himself. The fact that he wanted to stay close to his husband was reason enough to call for distance; his illness was made him far too vulnerable to his own nature—he could not trust himself not to make more of Hannibal’s attentiveness than was actually there.
Hannibal watched him, feeling Will moving further and further from him in a way that had nothing to do with rooms or cities. The feeling of Will’s warm, bare skin tingled on his fingertips, branded there and seared into his memory, and he clenched his hands around it as if he might lose that, as well.
He steadied himself, not wishing to push his presence on his husband, and moved instead to Will’s vanity where a second bottle of headache medicine had been placed by Jimmy Price, conveniently next to a pitcher and delicate little cup.
“It’s fairly early still, so you should have another before you go to bed for the evening,” he said, his voice vibrating in the silence between them, low and husky. He mixed the medicine with the ease of long practice and brought the cup to his contemplative mate.
Will took it with murmured thanks and sipped it, grimacing at the bitter flavor.
“The headache will, unfortunately, be fairly nagging for some time,” Hannibal warned, making sure he drank the entirety of it down. “But the more you drink, and rest, the better it will go for you. Be sure to let me know if you start feeling dizzy when you stand up.”
“I will, thank you, Hannibal. I am very clear on the restrictions,” Will said, the words breathed softly so as not to tempt the ache back to life. “I only hope this subsides quickly.”
Hannibal made a gesture at Jimmy when he poked his head in, sending him to Will’s dressing room where the valet fetched fresh nightclothes and Will’s robe.
“Jimmy will get you settled,” Hannibal said, taking the glass from Will and putting it on the nightstand. “Is the binding on your ribs adequate?”
“Yes,” Will said, touching his side absently where the bottom of the binding reached. “It did make a substantial difference in the pain. Thank you for suggesting it.”
“I am a doctor, Will,” Hannibal said, a rueful smile curving his mouth. “I should hope after this long I would give sound advice on medical matters.”
Will smiled, tight and perfunctory, too many questions swimming in his large blue eyes, the tendrils of distrust creeping in to steal away the warmth that had built between them. That uncanny mind of his was working, Hannibal knew; dissecting what he had learned, what he had shown, and trying to establish where he fell on the scale of Hannibal’s perception. The fearful, abhorrent weakness again, as if Will could ever be such a thing.
“I will be in my suite working on the estate business that’s built up,” Hannibal said, searching for any sign that the small kernel of trust between them was not altogether lost, merely momentarily out of reach.
Will just offered a cautious, “Yes.”
Hannibal took a deep breath, weighing his options, his Alpha nature at war with itself. He wanted to reach out, to soothe the pain he could feel in his mate, to be near him and protect him. But just as strong was the need to give Will the room he was so clearly asking for, the space to draw an easy breath and think, to respect his right to his privacy.
Lingering in one last attempt to reach his mate, he asked, “Is your neck bothering you again?”
“Some,” Will said, moving another step away from him towards the covered window.
“If you were comfortable with such a thing,” Hannibal said, aware of Jimmy very noisily fussing in the dressing room to give them privacy. “I could wait for you to change and work on your back and neck again. It might help chase the pain away sooner and help you sleep.”
He could feel Will considering it, could feel the shadowy presence of Will’s father there between them as if the man himself had slipped into the room, cruel and baleful, coaxing Hannibal’s mate into believing that the basic human need to be cared for was nothing more than an embarrassing display of bad behavior.
Will didn’t turn around. It didn’t surprise Hannibal in the least when he said, “You’re very kind to offer, Hannibal, but I can bear it.”
It took him a long moment to whisper, “Is it preferable to bear that pain rather than my touch?”
Something shuddered and ached within him when Will said nothing, only ducked his head, his long curls shifting over his neckerchief and collar.
Hannibal nodded, even though Will couldn’t see him. It was the only reaction he could manage for a moment before manners took over.
“I have overstepped, Will. I apologize. I’ll be just next door if you need me,” he said, moving to the washroom door, doing his best to conceal his disappointment. “I have guards posted outside of your door for your safety. Please don’t mind them.”
Will felt him hesitate there, felt the weight of Hannibal’s amber gaze on his back. The urge to call him back was so strong that he clenched his teeth, eyes sweeping closed to squeeze hard. He heard the quiet click of the washroom door and released a shuddering sigh, wishing that he could have accepted that invitation without risking his nature responding.
But it was too dangerous and his father’s lessons had taught him too well that he could ill afford to allow his Omegan instincts the slightest outlet. He had been drawn alarmingly far down the path already in the midst of his pain and vulnerability with Hannibal.
‘Given so much as a pinch of wiggle room,’ his father had said, slapping his belt into his palm for emphasis, ‘you will fall down the road to ruin and end up nothing more than a harlot begging in the street!’
“Yes, Jimmy,” Will said, startled out of his thoughts by his valet urging him into his dressing room.
He was thoughtful and weary and uncertain as he was helped out of his clothing into his nightclothes. Jimmy very kindly did not attempt to make conversation, merely helped him change, mindful to put more salve on his bruises with gentle care.
Before Jimmy left, Will said, “There was a letter in my jacket from this morning, Jimmy. Do you know what happened to it?”
“Yes, indeed, I meant to ask you what you’d like me to do with it,” Jimmy said, settling Will on his bed and vanishing back into the dressing room. He returned with the letter, wrinkled and bent from its ill-fated journey. “Would you like me to post it?”
“No, Jimmy, thank you, just bring it to me, please,” Will said.
Jimmy handed it over with a soft, “There we are! Will there be anything more for now, Mr. Graham?”
“No, that will do, thank you,” Will said, clutching the letter tightly and stifling a yawn. “I’ll ring you if I need anything. I think I might need to nap again.”
“You get all the rest you need, Mr. Graham,” Jimmy said, smiling at him. “We’re all here to watch over you!”
He let himself out and Will sighed in the ensuing silence, his aches already fading beneath the strength of the medicine Hannibal had given him. He idly rubbed at the envelope in his hand, and was only just considering shredding it when a soft knock came at his door.
“Yes, come in,” he called, gingerly rubbing his temple opposite where the goose egg rose. He dropped his hand, surprised to his sister admitting herself, and immediately asked, “Mina, is something the matter?”
“I wanted to check on you,” she said, teary-eyed and pale.
“I should have checked on you,” Will said. “It was remiss of me not to do so. You left the table so suddenly, are you unwell?”
“I apologize for leaving so abruptly, I was just so frightened for you, Will,” she said, trembling there just inside his suite, as if unsure she had the right to approach him. “I had an attack of nerves when I saw your husband go to you, pretending he has a care in the world for your safety! He would not let me see you—”
She cut off, pressing a lace-edged handkerchief to her face.
“Mina,” Will said, and patted the bed beside him. “Here, come here.”
She crossed the room with small, frantic steps to sit next to him and Will covered her trembling hand in his. He rubbed her fingers with his own, sitting with her in uncertain silence.
“What is this?” she asked, her voice thick with tears. She plucked at the corner of the letter idly, toying with it.
“A letter I wrote to Mr. Brauner this morning… so much has changed since then. I asked him to see to it that my death was investigated, should anything happen to me,” Will said. “I’m very glad I didn’t make it to the post. It would be very embarrassing trying to explain my fears now.”
“Send it!” Mina insisted, trying to pull it from his fingers, but Will held fast, refusing. “Heavens! Send one to everyone you know! There is no telling what might next befall you!”
“Mina, stop! I’ll do nothing of the sort!” Will told her, moving it out of her reach to place it on his nightstand. He took both her hands in his and said with every bit of honesty in him, “Hannibal and I have had a discussion regarding my accidents. He is not responsible on any count, Mina.”
“That’s absurd!” she said, pulling her hands away to stare at him, aghast. “Will! Honestly! You confessed you knew his plans and he told you he was not responsible?”
“Yes,” Will said, careful not to nod. “He was greatly surprised—”
“Surprised you knew, you mean?” she snapped, upset. “And what? He gave you his word he had done nothing?”
“Mina, even Hannibal could not manufacture such a response,” Will said, his tenderness for her rapidly wearing beneath the weight of her suspicions and the lingering pain of his aching head, neck, and back. “Please trust that I have spoken with him and judged that he is telling me the truth.”
“Trust your judgment, Will?” she breathed, turning to cup his face. “When I know your bond to him would drive you to defend any horror he might visit on you?”
Will blinked, pained by that statement, and asked in a strained whisper, “Why do you distrust him so, Mina?”
“Because I love you so, Will,” she answered without hesitation. “I cannot believe, considering his past, considering what he is capable of, that he would be above lying to you. When I tried to check on you this afternoon, he insulted me and turned me away. When Francis attempted to stay in order to protect you, he sent him packing off like a mongrel dog. He means you harm, Will. I will never believe otherwise.”
Will drew a deep breath and sighed softly before standing. Leading her by the hand, he took her to his dressing room, telling her, “If you ever feel you need to see me, Mina, or that I am in danger and you cannot reach me, then here is a way that will not fail you.”
“Will, what—” she cut off, eyes fastening on the little panel that swung open onto the dark, spare passageway within the wall. “What on earth?”
“Hartford House is riddled with such passages,” Will said. “I came upon them when I was studying the architect’s notes for some repairs to the load-bearing walls. They were added in a revision during the Inquisition, a means of escape from persecution at the height of the terror. All of them are still sound, though dark and close. No one uses them or knows of them, that I am aware of. Except, perhaps, Grandfather, and he has no reason to do so.”
“These passages connect most of the rooms?” she asked, pulling back when Will took a step towards the inky darkness within.
“The entire house, from the attic to the cellar,” Will said. “There is an identical panel in all of the dressing rooms. I admit I use them more than I probably should. It is a very convenient method to get from one place to the next without having to explain myself or engage in conversations I would prefer not to.”
“So I can just wiggle into the wall like a rat and come see you?” she asked, wrinkling her nose in a way that made Will smile, knowing very well she had already discounted it.
“Yes, if all else fails,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Mina… I appreciate your fear for me, but Hannibal is not the one who wishes to kill me. Whoever they are, will you please keep an open mind and be watchful for them?”
“Darling,” she said, her gaze fastened on the panel as it swung back into place, hiding the passage as if it did not even exist. “There is nothing in this world I would not do for you.”
She folded him into a warm embrace, careful to be gentle with him, and cooed softly to him as she had when they were children. The sweet scent of her skin and the familiar softness of her touch made Will smile, and he silently thanked his lucky stars that his sister was as deeply devoted to him as he was to her, in turn.
Doors were locked and trusted guards were stationed at the entrance to Will’s suite, securing him against an all-out attack. Though Will’s aggressor seemed to prefer more subtle methods, his husband was taking no risks with his safety.
Hannibal bent his attention to the estate work that had built up without Will’s careful attendance and made moderate headway before he was interrupted by Berger bearing a missive.
The note was from Grandfather, a copy of a letter even now on its way to Mr. Stammets, detailing Mr. Dolarhyde’s history and requesting all pertinent information be forwarded to the constabulary in the Capital as a matter of record along with a request for an investigation into the matter of Will’s accidents, the accounting of which was as thorough as they could manage with such limited details.
Francis’ past military service didn’t put Hannibal any more at ease than it had Grandfather, but it did make Hannibal reassess the simmering violence that crept beneath the surface of Dolarhyde’s flat, unblinking eyes.
“Berger,” Hannibal said, lifting his eyes from the note, tracking his valet bustling about getting things set to rights. “Have you done much talking with Mr. Dolarhyde?”
“Try not to, m’Lord,” Berger said, a rare expression of true distaste on his weathered face. “He’s an odd sort. Doesn’t talk to anybody, doesn’t look at anybody, just… glowers. He’s a right nasty bit of business, m’Lord. Got that hard look about him.”
“He was a serviceman,” Hannibal murmured, thoughtfully folding the note up and placing it on his desk. “A seaman.”
“Explains a bit about him, but in all honesty, my Lord, he gives the girls a fright and the servants are all shy of him,” Berger said, falling back into the old habit of being frank with him, as they’d been in the field. “No one is used to having an Alpha belowstairs. It ain’t natural, is it? Alphas ain’t meant to be servants, it’s against their nature.”
“Not everyone is born to circumstances which support their nature,” Hannibal said, his thoughts turning to Will and those terrible scars. The note had mentioned an accident. An accident involving Will, after which Francis had left the Graham estate for good. “Is he outside?”
“Won’t budge from the door,” Berger confirmed. “No one really knows what to do. Can’t properly order about an Alpha once their mind is set, hm?”
Hannibal’s mouth pursed in thought, recalling what Francis had said to him on the landing earlier, ‘He’s spent all his life with Alphas like you…’
He got up, ignoring Berger’s questioning look, and let himself out into the hallway where, sure enough, the two guards outside of Will’s suite were nervously flanking the stony-faced and rigid Francis Dolarhyde.
“You,” he said, abrupt, an uncharacteristic Alpha growl under the words that he couldn’t quite control. “Come with me.”
Francis stirred slightly before he stopped himself. The low, soft whisper of his voice was as agitating to Hannibal as his sulfur and brimstone scent when he said, “I swore I would protect him.”
“I appreciate your dedication, but I require answers from you, and as you are in my house, you will obey my orders,” Hannibal said, standing expectantly in his doorway. He opened the door wide and said again, “Come with me.”
Hannibal had never clashed with another Alpha in any ungentlemanly way, but he suddenly felt quite certain that it was an instance like this which prompted those deadly rows that sometimes made the papers with their violence. He had always imagined himself above that sort of nonsense.
Standing in his doorway smelling the scent of hot ashes with those pale, fierce eyes boring into him, Hannibal clearly and instinctively knew that one of these days he would be forced to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to Mr. Dolarhyde just which of the two of them was the better Alpha.
Bristling, he deliberately followed Francis into his suite, pleased when the man’s shoulders tensed in response to giving Hannibal his back.
“Berger, go check on Will,” Hannibal said, and took a seat, indicating that Francis should stand in front of him. “It is my understanding that you are more acquainted with my spouse than I first realized.”
“Yes…” Again, that telling pause, testing and pushing despite his submissive posturing. “My Lord.”
“In what capacity did you serve the Earl of Reddig?” Hannibal asked, his eye contact direct and steady when Francis would lift his gaze.
“I was a stablehand,” Francis said. “… my Lord.”
“It amused him to put you in the role of servant, did it?” Hannibal mused, frowning.
Francis bit back a retort, took a steadying breath, and said with dull deference, “He was Master there. It was his choice.”
Hannibal tapped his fingers against his thigh, weighing how much truth he’d get out of Dolarhyde and how much would be Mina’s influence.
“What happened the day when you left?” he asked, pleased by the startled look he got in return. “Answer me, please. Something happened to my spouse and I want the truth of it.”
Francis shifted, shoulders squaring, chin tipping up as he braced. “I’ll not entertain you with talk of his pain, Lord Clarges.”
“Do I appear amused?” Hannibal asked, his voice sharpening to a snarl. “Does any part of my countenance imply that I anticipate pleasure in what you will tell me, Mr. Dolarhyde?”
Those glittering, cold eyes wavered and dropped, his sudden tense posture subsiding.
“Well, then,” Hannibal said, brusque with him but unable to help it. “Out with it. I find myself in possession of facts I was ignorant of for nearly seven years and I refuse to remain ignorant a moment longer.”
After a long, considering silence, Francis softly said, “When Lady Rathmore and her brother were little, their elder sisters would play with them like dolls, dress them up to match, play, like children do.”
Hannibal felt a small, hard knot of dread in his stomach, a knot that was fed by the obvious way in which Francis was disturbed merely speaking of his past.
“Lord Reddig forbid it, of course,” Francis said, his eyes catching the flicker of flames from the fireplace, glittering with anger that had long been pressed down and confined. “Whenever he ever caught them at it, he would go on a rampage.”
Francis looked to one side and said with harsh hatred, “It was Mr. Graham he always punished for it, never the girls. Even as a little one, he’d have servants hold him down and beat the dresses off his back. I can still hear it sometimes when I’m sleeping, his screaming; still see him struggling.”
The image of it was sharp and immediate, painfully forceful as if his heart had ruptured in Hannibal’s chest. He knew from the sight of those scars that Will’s childhood held terrible horrors, but the truth of it from a witness was almost more than he could bear. He swallowed hard, and said, “That must have been very difficult for you, both as a child and as an Alpha, hearing an Omega in such terrible distress.”
“Not as difficult as it was for Mr. Graham,” Francis said, anger oozing from every nuance of his posture, every crack in his whispered words. “It never stopped Lord Reddig. It never stopped any of them. He’d heal, and they’d do it again.”
“He was just a toy to them?” Hannibal said, thinking aloud, piecing together what little Will had mentioned of his sisters. “Not a brother, not a person, merely a doll to be played with at their convenience.”
“It was a game,” Francis said, the words escaping him on a hiss of disgust. “They saw the result but never the violence; it was meaningless to them, with no connection. Their father’s anger was ephemeral, never harming any one of them, and Mr. Graham never spoke of it. So they made a game of upsetting Lord Reddig. How often could they get away with it? How far could they push their father? Lady Iris went too far. She dressed them to match, two little angels in beautiful frocks, and the lot of them rode on ponies down through town in a small parade.”
Hannibal took a deep breath to control the pounding of his heart but it didn’t help. He could see Will in his mind’s eye, frightened atop his pony, terrified of being caught by his father while his sisters laughed around him, enjoying their little game. The casual cruelty of children trained to believe that one among them was lesser than they, expendable in emotion and flesh.
A way to pass the time.
“I saw them riding back,” Francis said. “I tried to get to him first because he was coming, he was already moving towards them, and I just couldn’t—”
Francis paused, fury and upset shaking the whole of his impressive build from head to toe. Hannibal trembled in his chair, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands and his stomach churning with sickened anger.
“I didn’t make it.” Francis’ voice was flat, emotionless, fearful in its intensity. “He took hold of Mr. Graham’s leg to drag him off his pony but he got hung up on the sidesaddle. There was this… this horrible sound, it… it popped. His leg, it… He didn’t even scream. He couldn’t. He just… he fell to the ground and his sisters started screaming for him. They’d never seen it for themselves. It terrified them and they all started to… to panic. Lord Reddig shouted at him, telling him to get up, and Mr. Graham tried, he just… he couldn’t stand, and… I couldn’t bear it anymore.”
Francis looked back at Hannibal, simmering with outrage, eyes blazing with challenge as if daring Hannibal to interject a single word on the subject.
“I pushed Lord Reddig out of the way and carried Mr. Graham home,” he said. “He’d dislocated his hip, pulled it completely out of place. He wasn’t even six years old at the time. Just a baby, just… just a baby…”
Hannibal swallowed against the bile that wanted to rise, his heart breaking for Will and filling with deep, swelling anger for what he’d been put through. He’d never felt so ill and wretched in his life as he did in that moment, hearing just one tale of Will’s pain from a lifetime of it, one bare glimpse into the terrible abuse that had defined his life in his father’s house.
“Lady Rathmore later told me it took a doctor in from the Capital to set it right again, but it was never whole as it was before,” Francis said, shuddering hard, hands clenching into fists at his lean thighs.
Hannibal blinked hard, mouth pressed in a thin line of pain for his mate. Trying very hard to maintain his composure, he whispered, “She later told you?”
“You asked about the day I left. That was the day. I couldn’t bear to stay a moment longer,” Francis said. “I couldn’t protect him. I couldn’t keep him from suffering, not then.”
There was fire in his eyes and a dangerous promise of violence in his deceptively soft voice when he said, “But now I can, Lord Clarges. I won’t make the same mistakes as I did then. I’ll protect him from whatever might hurt him… even if that’s you.”
Hannibal’s head whipped up and he surged to his feet before he realized it. Trembling with barely-suppressed rage at what he’d been told, he said with clipped, harsh anger, “You will never have any reason to protect Will from me, Mr. Dolarhyde. But despite your story, your history of violence and your unhesitating use of it makes me understandably wary of having you anywhere near my mate. That you arrive now, when he is in such peril, only makes me all the more suspicious of you.”
“I arrive now because your mate is in peril,” Francis said, his gaze unwavering. “My Lord. Mr. Graham has suffered enough in his life, first at his father’s hand and now at yours. I’ll not add to his woes. I only wish to keep him safe from harm. I will protect him.”
Hannibal took a step closer, looming into Francis’ space, watching the Alpha bristle in response.
“You are dangerous and your intentions seem cloudy at best,” Hannibal said, taut with tension, grimly staring at Francis and holding those dead, pale eyes. “Protection is a very loose term, after all, and I am not sure our definitions align. As you are here at his request and under his sufferance, I will not interfere or undermine his authority in this house, but I promise you this, Dolarhyde, if one curl on his head—one single hair—comes to any manner of harm, you will be held accountable.”
Francis stared at him, unblinking, unwavering.
“I appreciate your actions on his behalf in the past, but be sure your actions are on his behalf now,” Hannibal warned, staring him down. “I am going to find whoever has tried to harm Will. I am going to see to it that they pay, either by the law or by my own hand. I can promise you that, Francis. And I always keep my promises.”
Francis blinked, his tension thick enough to cut.
“Keep that in mind as you maintain your vigil,” Hannibal said, gesturing him towards the door, “and see to it that your loyalties lie where they will best preserve your life.”
Deeply disturbed by what he’d managed to get out of Francis, Hannibal declined to attend dinner, choosing instead to continue his work on the estate business with a decanter of brandy.
It didn’t help.
It didn’t erase or even numb what he’d been told and he found himself over and again in front of the washroom door, staring at the panel and debating intruding on Will. He grew more anxious as the hours passed, irrationally worried that someone would manage to find their way through the measures they’d taken and somehow snuff Will out like the bare flame on a candle.
Resigning himself to bed and the hope that morning would bring him some improvement in his disposition, Hannibal finally did let himself through to check on Will once more.
His spouse was sleeping soundly when Hannibal moved to check the locks again. The bolt was thrown, of course, but he was compelled to check anyway, and turned from the door to look at Will’s sleeping form.
He was all but lost in the bedding, his dark, curly-haired head resting on plump pillows, the purple lump on his forehead stark against his pale skin but already beginning to subside. One arm was atop the covers, his slender wrist curved, his fingers lax. Hannibal reached out and slipped his own fingers beneath them, feeling the calluses of hard work and the strength there that was as much dogged determination as it was his nature. He slid his fingertips to Will’s palm, thumb brushing over the top of his hand, and felt a pang when Will’s mouth twitched in a slight smile.
Hannibal crouched next to his bed and smoothed Will’s curls with his opposite hand, thoughtful and sorrowful. Everything he learned came to bear on him and he trembled with the force of it. In the quiet, moonlit darkness, he clasped Will’s hand tightly, bowed his head to the mattress, and silently wept.
He wept for the child Will had been.
He wept for the boy who had come to his home with the promise of a new beginning and found only the same disregard his father had always shown him.
He wept for what Will might have been, and for what he had managed to be despite everything—stalwart, honest, good to the very core of himself in ways some people could never hope to achieve.
He wept for the role he’d played in continuing a lifetime’s worth of uncertainty and fear.
But in the end he wept for what might have been, the potential he’d wasted for both of them, the hope of happiness he’d rejected, and all the time they could never get back.
He almost didn’t realize at first that Will was stroking his hair, fingers soft and gentle in their petting of him. He stilled beneath that touch and the soft exhale of, “Sh…” that came from his little mate.
Hannibal lifted his face, finding Will still sleeping, brow furrowed in slight distress.
“Sh…” Will sighed, his hand falling away but the fingers still trapped in Hannibal’s hand squeezed him softly.
“Will,” Hannibal whispered, wiping his face against the fresh tears that threatened just knowing that, even asleep, Will couldn’t bear another’s suffering. “How can I ever make any of it up to you?”
He couldn’t. It was the simple and ugly truth.
“Will,” he said again, a soft smile overcoming his sorrow when Will squeezed his fingers again, murmuring something in his sleep that Hannibal couldn’t make out. He leaned closer and Will’s eyes fluttered a bit, bleary and glassy. Hannibal smoothed his curls again and whispered, “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I only wanted to check on you.”
Will blinked slowly, as if his eyelids were too heavy to raise, partly the late hour, partly the concussion, and partly the painkiller Jimmy had given him before bed.
“If you need anything,” Hannibal said, moving to stand, “please call out.”
Will’s fingers tightened on his unexpectedly and he sighed, “Don’t…”
Hannibal’s smile faded and he stood, reluctant to let go of Will’s hand but knowing he had no right to stay when Will didn’t want him to. “I apologize for intruding on you. Please, go back to sleep, you need your rest—”
“Don’t go,” Will said, rolling onto his side with Hannibal’s fingers trapped against his chest. He snuggled into the pillows with another weighty sigh and relaxed.
Hannibal hesitated, and gently eased his hand out of Will’s. He considered leaving. He knew he should leave, all things considered…
But part of him—a part that was growing stronger by the moment—wanted to stay, not for any nefarious purpose, but to keep him safe, to watch over him, to give him some small measure of comfort that the people in his life had denied him from his earliest awareness.
So he moved to the opposite side of the bed and eased himself down atop the covers next to his mate’s sleeping body. He moved closer cautiously, careful not to disturb Will’s sleep. Hesitance made him graceless but he folded one arm over Will’s side, settling against the warm curve of his body and tucking close.
Will uttered a soft, coaxing chirp in his sleep and, when Hannibal’s hand came to rest against his chest, he wrapped his smaller fingers around Hannibal’s and clung tight.
“Go back to sleep, Will,” Hannibal murmured, curling around him as best he was able, considering he was atop the covers and Will was tucked beneath them. He nuzzled his nose into the crown of Will’s head, his soft curls tickling and fragrant, and sighed softly at how good it felt, like some part of himself he’d never known was missing had clicked into place. He blinked in the darkness, drowsy and content, and pressed a soft kiss to Will’s head. “I won’t let anyone hurt you again, Will, not even myself. I promise.”
And Hannibal always kept his promises.
Will felt much improved the next morning, waking from a peculiar but pleasant dream of being held through the night. It felt so real that it surprised him to wake alone, though there was honestly no reason it should.
He rang for Jimmy, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and sitting up with only a twinge of the pain he’d felt the day before. He hated to admit it, but Hannibal’s methods and medications worked, even if it made him sleepy.
He just felt awake enough to brave standing when Jimmy came in, bright-eyed and chipper and smiling, as always, calling a cheerful, “Good morning, Mr. Graham!” as he snagged Will’s robe to bundle him up. “Do you need help to the washroom?”
“No, Jimmy, I think I can make it, but do you know what happened to that letter?” Will asked, troubled to see that it was no longer on the nightstand where he’d left it.
“No, Mr. Graham, last I saw it was when I handed it to you,” Jimmy said, concern wrinkling his brow. “I doubt any of the maids took it, but I’ll ask all the same.”
“Thank you, that would be very kind,” Will said, making a mental note to write Mr. Brauner as soon as he could, just in case some well-meaning someone had put it to post.
“We’ll check for it when we clean, of course,” Jimmy called, watching him hawkishly as he made his cautious way to the washroom. “Will you be going down to breakfast?”
“No, thank you, I’ll have a tray,” Will told him, preferring that to facing conversation at the breakfast table that he simply wasn’t up for.
Much to his surprise, when he emerged from relieving himself of his excess tea, Jimmy informed him that Hannibal would like to join him at his small breakfast.
Will agreed before he realized it, and in the few moments it took to relay his assent, Jimmy set him up at a small table near the window in the dappled morning light, comfortable and snug in his robe.
Hannibal knocked, coming in when Will called entry. He stopped just inside the door and smiled, a slight curve of his lips that caused Will to look away hastily. It made him acutely recall the comfort of his dream last night, the warm closeness that had allowed him to sleep without nightmares to plague him. He wondered if perhaps Hannibal hadn’t come in late last night to dose him and it somehow translated to his dreams. Or perhaps his imagination—or the painkilling powder—was playing tricks on him altogether.
“You look much improved this morning,” Hannibal said, moving to take the seat opposite Will. “Is the light too bright?”
“No, thank you, it’s perfect,” Will said, reaching for the teapot.
Hannibal reached as he did, both of them at once, the slight brush of his fingers over the back of Will’s hand unexpectedly pleasant. “Please, allow me.”
Will withdrew, blinking against the after effects of the medicine. Hannibal poured them both a steaming cup and turned Will’s handle around to towards him.
“There we are. I thought we might try a small outing today and test how you’re feeling,” Hannibal said, not quite able to hide that he was assessing Will for signs of strain.
“To where?” Will asked, stirring his porridge without appetite.
“Down to the stables, perhaps? Or to your office,” Hannibal said, content to simply sit opposite Will and sip tea all day, if all else failed. “I don’t want you to overexert yourself, but some light exercise can often do more good for you than anything.”
“The stables,” Will said. “There is something there I need to check on and I’m not sure I could make it all the way to my office. How did the work go last night?”
“Slowly,” Hannibal said. “I haven’t your affinity for it, but I managed. Regretfully, I missed supper. I do hate abandoning my defenceless old grandfather to your sister’s hands.”
“Hannibal,” Will said, keenly disapproving.
“That glower was nearly up to snuff,” Hannibal said, Will’s scolding something he relished.
“My sister is a lovely young lady,” Will told him. “And your grandfather is hardly defenceless. I certainly hope Mina was on her toes last night.”
“He has an uncanny habit of keeping people dancing to his tune, so I imagine so,” Hannibal said. “Are we settled then? Breakfast, then a walk to the stable.”
“Yes,” Will said, unable to resist smiling. It faded some after a moment, uncertain at the edges, and his voice was quiet with concern when he asked, “Why are you being so kind to me recently, Hannibal?”
Hannibal gazed at him for a long moment, and then turned his head to look out the window, his profile severe and beautiful, so like that statue Will had first compared him to.
Yet this stone did not seem so cold as it had before, nor so immovable.
It seemed… reachable.
“The moment I laid eyes on you, Will, I saw everything that was good about the country I had left behind, a breath fresh air after the scourge of war. I saw beauty and youth and innocence and the potential for happiness,” Hannibal said, and forced himself to look back at Will, to acknowledge what he had done and accept the judgment that would weigh in Will’s sorrowful blue eyes. “A heartbeat later, I caught the scent of your skin, warmth and sweetness calling out like a siren song, a lure no Alpha could resist.”
Will swallowed hard, and managed, “You resisted.”
“Yes, I did,” Hannibal said, mouth tightening. “But at what cost, Will? Everything you showed me in your attempts to appease my unjustified treatment of you, I saw as something else entirely and threw back into your face. I confused you, child that you were. I twisted every honest effort of yours into motivations not your own and turned them back on you with a sharpened edge meant to wound.”
Will dropped his eyes to his porridge bowl, his chest aching to be reminded of the few short, awful days of their first acquaintance.
“There are a great many things I would change if I could, Will,” Hannibal said, the soft rumble of his voice purring pleasantly through Will’s chest. Despite himself, the young Omega responded to him, to his scent, the gentle tone of his voice—all those things his nature craved that he firmly rejected.
“You’re an Alpha,” Will said, his voice barely above a whisper. “When you change your mind, you change people’s lives. It isn’t something you should do lightly.”
“No, nor do I,” Hannibal agreed. “But I do think of what might have been had I done things differently.”
“Then you are a fool, Lord Clarges,” Will said, the sad surety of the words conveying how often Will had said just such a thing to himself.
Hannibal considered that statement in all of its resigned, unspoken pain, and drew another soft breath, tasting Will’s faint scent on his tongue.
“I have caused you quite enough pain, Will,” Hannibal said, and Will’s eyes shot up to his, surprised and sparkling. “I have been needlessly cruel to you, wasted years of your youth I can never return, abandoned you to the gossip and opinions of people not fit to lick your boots, and I am sorry for it. To the very core of myself, I am sorry for it.”
Will flinched when those words hit him, a physical ache in his heart that felt as if it might stop altogether.
“I am not being kind to you, Will, or even giving you your due,” Hannibal said, distressed by his distress. “I am merely treating you with the respect and courtesy you deserve.”
Will swallowed hard. “As an Omega?”
“As a human,” Hannibal said, immediate and firm. “I have lived my life with the singular goal of never apologizing for myself or my actions. After Melinda, I swore I would never regret anything ever again. But you… you, I do regret. I regret how I have treated you. I regret what I have done to you. I regret the part I played in taking an aspect of yourself from you and crushing it so thoroughly it might never recover.”
“And what aspect was that?” Will asked, unable to look at him for fear Hannibal would see for himself how deeply his confession was affecting him.
“There was a heart in that youth I tried to destroy,” Hannibal said. “It has had more hardship than any heart should ever have to bear.”
Will took a shallow, shuddering breath, and whispered, “It isn’t your responsibility to tend it, Lord Clarges.”
“It is my responsibility, but not my right,” Hannibal told him, his hand trembling slightly when he fiddled with his cup. He looked out of the window again, blinking hard and trying to regain control of himself, but his voice was unsteady when he softly added, “I would mend it if I could.”
Will laughed at that, a short scoffing sound. “There are things which cannot be mended, Hannibal. There is no moving backwards and time does not reverse. Teacups remain shattered, words remain spoken, and everyone lives with the consequences as they must.”
“You are made of stronger stuff than a teacup, Will,” Hannibal said, earning a soft, indrawn breath from his mate. “With a kind of strength that bows in the face of adversity like a willow tree in the midsts of a storm, bending without breaking and rising up stronger than the force which tried to change you.”
Will met his gaze, his eyes sheened with unshed tears. When he saw the mirroring gleam of tears in Hannibal’s own eyes, he clenched his teeth to resist weeping right then and there, for he had never dreamed—even with his vast imagination—that Hannibal Lecter would ever show him such a thing.
“I will never forgive myself, Will, for ever making you question why I am being kind to you,” Hannibal whispered, and reached across the small table for Will’s lax hand, slowly enough to give away his intention and allow Will to reject it.
He didn’t. He held still, and let Hannibal’s warm fingers brush over his hand and curl against his palm in a light squeeze. He blinked, dropping a few traitorous tears, and quickly brushed at them with his free hand.
“I apologize, I am not as well as I imagined—”
Hannibal shifted and wiped the tears away with his opposite hand, still holding tightly to Will.
“It has been a very trying few days,” Hannibal said. “You have more right than anyone to a tear or two, Will. Gods know we all have our fair share at times… I wish I could wipe away the cause as easily.”
Will struggled with himself, trying to parse out just what he was feeling and why. With Hannibal’s gentle fingers on his face, he met his husband’s gaze and whispered, “You hurt me…”
Hannibal flinched, the shimmer in his eyes spilling over, but he never blinked, never turned away from the accusation; he didn’t even react to the tears trailing down his cheeks, as if they were right and proper, justified somehow in ways that Will himself could not allow himself to feel.
“I did,” Hannibal said, his low voice softly breaking with emotion. “And I have to live with what I’ve cost you, and so many others, Will. I hurt you, and I can only beg your forgiveness, though I do not expect or deserve it. I wish I could take it back.”
“Would you strive to bring it together again, Hannibal?” Will asked, recalling his nightmare and how desperately he had tried to heal what had been broken.
“I can only try with everything in me,” Hannibal told him. “And if it takes the rest of my life, I will never stop trying, Will.”
Will drew a soft, unsteady breath and closed his eyes for a long moment as he tried to control the shaken, aching vulnerability that Hannibal had awoken with his heartfelt words. He felt silly and stupid for having let those tears escape, but the longer Hannibal soothed them away, the less awful he felt for showing a weakness his father had always despised, a weakness Hannibal had no qualms in showing. His bond to to his husband hummed with the resonance of his feelings and his honesty in what he had said. He truly, in this moment, genuinely offered Will his regret, and the understanding of it nearly jostled loose another spill of tears.
Hannibal just kept gently brushing his fingers over Will’s cheeks, long after the trails of his tears had dried to silvery salt on his pale skin. The touch was tender and attentive, soothing, and helped him to calm his anxiety somewhat.
“Shall we make ourselves presentable and take our walk?” Hannibal asked after a long, comforting silence. He turned his hand against Will’s cheek and cupped his face, brushing his thumb beneath one weary blue eye and offering Will a soft smile when their gazes met.
Will hesitated, torn between wanting to retreat to his bed to rediscover his embarrassment and wanting to enjoy the ceasefire for a while. Before he could answer either way, a knock came on the door and Jimmy let himself in, agitated and flushed.
“Jimmy?” Will asked, his fingers clenching on Hannibal’s in reaction to his valet’s distress. Hannibal immediately dropped his hand, fingers trailing beneath Will’s chin in a soft caress as he did so.
“Lord Clarges,” Jimmy said, holding out a sheet of paper as he approached them. “I thought the two of you needed to see this immediately.”
Hannibal gave Will’s fingers a soft squeeze and let go of his hand to take the paper. Will wiped at his face, recentering himself, grateful for the interruption for giving him a chance to feel less exposed.
“It was tacked to the doorway,” Jimmy said, wringing his hands. “No one saw anyone about! His Grace has men on it now, my Lords, but there is so precious little to go on.”
“Will,” Hannibal said, handing over the paper with steady, somber seriousness. “I think we will be leaving immediately.”
Will turned the paper over, a simple double-creased letter without a seal.
Next time you won’t be so lucky, Mr. Graham. You’ll never be safe again.
Will paled but anger bubbled up in him just seeing it. It took him a moment to realize not all of his upset was solely his own—Hannibal was quietly furious, mouth pursed with anger, clenching and unclenching his hand into a fist as if imagining himself engaging this nameless enemy.
“Jimmy,” Will said, gingerly gaining his feet and going to his jewelry box. He opened it and pried up the lining to fish the other letter out and handed both of them to his valet. “Run this down to His Grace, per his request, and then inform Mr. Hawkes that Hannibal and I will need our trunks.”
He looked back at Hannibal, who was watching him with something that bled through his bond as fear—fear for him, fear for his life, for his loss.
“Light or heavy?” Jimmy asked, perking up considerably at the prospect of escape.
Squaring his shoulders, Will firmly said, “Heavy, Jimmy. We’re leaving Hartford House.”