Between one breath and the next, the light was blown out from Will’s world.
‘I’ve been recalled, Will. I’m being sent back to war…’
So many thoughts raced through his head, each striving for dominance over the others, a confusing jumble of fear and outrage and sinking despair that rendered him mute with shock—his Alpha was leaving, his husband was being taken, and with him would go all the happiness Will had finally begun to trust in.
It was the way Hannibal’s hand stopped trembling that snapped Will back into focus, the way the bond suddenly fell still as his husband wrestled his emotions into submissions, always seeking to spare him, even at his own expense.
Will reached for him, reached for the bond as he stretched out his hand, pulling Hannibal to him to wrap his arms around him.
“I’ve got you,” he whispered, pressed belly to belly, chest to chest, their child pushing and shifting between them. Hannibal’s arms hung at his sides, resisting the comfort Will offered, unwilling to crack the seal on his fear lest he disturb his little mate. But Will was a force to be reckoned with, relentless as the river wearing away at stone. “I’m here, Hannibal. If you must leave me in the future, please don’t leave me now. If I can have you at your best, then I’ve earned you at your most vulnerable—let me be strong for you, Hannibal.”
The trickle of anxiety became a flood and Will closed his eyes, letting it run through him and out. Hannibal’s arms rose to fold around Will’s waist and the letter rustled softly against Will’s jacket, but he paid it no mind. There would be time for that, time to read it and see the details. For now, they needed one another more than they needed anything in the world, and Will was determined to be the boulder Hannibal had likened him to.
The rhythm of their heartbeats twined into a single melody, peaking and ebbing with the rise and fall of their breath. The baby shifted, the movement slight, but it was a keen, sharp reminder that they shared something so much more priceless and beautiful than an ordinary bond. They shared a soul, a piece of themselves distilled into a new life, and that was the greatest comfort either of them could ask for in the face of separation.
“You are always strong for me, Will,” Hannibal said, squeezing him with care, drawing a deep breath of his sweet, fertile scent. “I fear I must ask you to be even stronger.”
He loosened his hold on Will but didn’t let him go entirely. Instead, he brought the paper up, both of them turning so Will could read it.
It was succinct, formal, the wording stiff. Hannibal Lecter’s expertise were required at the front. A battlefield hospital had been taken, the physicians either dead or captured, and with a paucity of experienced doctors, he was called on once more to do his duty in service to the Crown.
It sent a chill through Will’s body, as if someone had dragged an ice-cold knife down the center of his being. He groped to sit and Hannibal sat with him, grasping his hand and searching him for signs of distress.
“Will? Are you having pain?”
“Nowhere physical,” Will whispered, putting the paper aside. It lay next to Grandfather’s gift, a menacing curl of paper stamped and approved by the Ministry of War.
He turned his blue eyes up to Hannibal’s and said, “My heart is breaking, Hannibal. That’s all.”
Hannibal flinched, dipping his face against Will’s hand when he cupped his jaw.
“I said I would never hurt you again—”
“Nor have you,” Will said, angling a glare at the letter that had disrupted their day so horribly. “They have, the Ministry of War, but I doubt very much they care about that.”
“No,” Hannibal conceded, turning his mouth to Will’s palm to kiss it, tasting the salt of his skin. “I will leave first thing tomorrow morning and arrange a meeting at the war office to see what can be done.”
“What can be done?” Will asked, doubt clouding his eyes, his brow furrowing in consternation. “It does not matter to them that you are heir apparent to your grandfather. I highly doubt it would move them to know you have a pregnant mate you’ll leave behind you. What possible argument can be used against something that deals in death and destruction? Your skills are what they desire, and they need not count the cost.”
Hannibal was silent for a moment, thoughtful, but the edge of his apprehension was blunted enough to allow him to think again, and his mind, like Will’s, was already refocusing.
“No, they will not count the cost,” he finally said. “I will see Mr. Buddish and check if there are any appeals I can file to delay my deployment, at least until after our child’s birth.”
Will studied him, his blue eyes shifting from deep blue to ocean green as the light struck them. He could feel the truth through his bond, Hannibal’s belief that he could manage such a thing gaining strength by the moment.
“Only an Alpha would be so confident,” he whispered, striving for humor but finding only dismay.
“I have more determination than confidence,” Hannibal said, lifting Will’s fingertips to his lips to kiss them. “I cannot leave my mate, especially when I sense there is more to these orders than meets the eye.”
Will’s brow shot up, confusion evident on his smooth face. It faded quickly, however, when Hannibal said, “I cannot shake the idea that Rathmore has his fingers in this, Will. He warned me once not to continue investigating him or else he would pack me off to the front. He must have made good on his promise.”
“But surely Timothy lacks either the influence or power to sacrifice an entire hospital of our men just to place you back into war!” Will said, horrified that anyone could be so underhanded.
“Eliminating the main medical services deals our armies a blow they might not have time to recover from,” Hannibal said, sliding his fingers around Will’s. “Whether Rathmore arranged it or not, it is a blessed convenient excuse to get me out of the country, which leaves you vulnerable, Will.”
Will swallowed hard, mouth thinning with displeasure. His fingers tightened on Hannibal’s in a brief squeeze, fighting his unease with his husband’s touch.
“I will have the guards, my pistol, the girls,” Will said, the words a soft, slow cadence meant to calm them both. “And Winston.”
All three dogs raised their heads, ears up and eyes watchful, and Will almost smiled but he found he simply didn’t have it in him.
“I will not leave you undefended,” Hannibal said, already furiously thinking of measures he could take. “I will arrange everything possible for your safety, Will. I will keep you safe, even from afar. I promise.”
Hannibal drew both of Will’s hands to his lips and kissed them, kissed his palms and pressed them to his face, and pulled Will into his lap.
“We will get through this,” he promised, breathing the words into Will’s delicate ear. “One crisis at a time.”
“Once crisis at a time,” Will said, burying his nose against Hannibal’s throat and fighting despair with everything in him.
They did not tell Grandfather, not right away. Hannibal wanted to be certain there was no mistake before he delivered such a devastating blow.
It was a dismal end to Will’s birthday, and he cursed the awful luck of that letter arriving as it had. The memory of Will’s birthday dinner pained him all the way to the Capital the next day, his husband’s bravery and poise once more reminding Hannibal that the Omega he had married was no shrinking violet, but strong and determined—his equal in life, able to take the bitter with the sweet.
And oh, how life had decided to be bitter.
“This puts us in a rather awkward position, Lord Clarges.”
Sir Gregory, the Secretary of War, spread his hands over a copy of Hannibal’s orders, his bushy, winged brows high.
“Your years of service exceed those of any other physician in their Majesties army,” Sir Gregory said, watching him with a hardened soldier’s wariness. “You are the most qualified man for the position and there are no grounds to contest your appointment.”
“But?” Hannibal asked, sensing the hesitation.
“But, you were correct,” Sir Gregory said, plucking up the paper before him. “Lord Rathmore was the one who created your orders, and he did so without consultation or under any advisement.”
“You realize he is being investigated for treason?” Hannibal said, sitting ramrod straight in his chair. Though he did not wear his uniform, he was still a soldier, and that training went as deep as that of his medical studies.
Sir Gregory’s mouth pursed and he nodded, troubled. “Yes, I am aware, Lord Clarges. It is a… somewhat delicate situation. One must tread carefully lest one startle the quarry.”
“Your quarry has arranged to remove me from my ancestral home, part of some plot concocted between him and my husband’s father,” Hannibal said, the words growing sharper and shorter with anger as he spoke. “Sir Gregory, my grandfather grows weaker with every passing day and I have a spouse on the cusp of delivering our first child. I cannot be eight months away due to the specific designs of a traitor!”
“Lord Clarges, believe me, were I able to destroy your recall papers and replace you, I would do so,” Sir Gregory said, dropping the paper atop the others. “That you are next in line to be the Duke of Westvale and leave your spouse behind you makes no difference in this case. We are all equals in the eyes of the gods and the blow of the cannons.”
“I gave ten years of my life to this war, to this blessed country and those who rule Her,” Hannibal said, his voice a dangerous whisper. “And this is all you can offer me? A chance to leave my spouse a widow and my child half an orphan while the man who conspired to put me back on the front continues to feed us all bit by bit to our enemies?”
“Lord Clarges,” Sir Gregory said, holding his gaze. “I cannot prevent this. The orders cannot be rescinded without just cause! Barring the sudden demise of His Grace or you appointment to another position, they must stand as they are!”
“My Grandfather will undoubtedly outlive us all and I have no position,” Hannibal said, incensed.
Sir Gregory heaved a sigh and stood, leaving his chair to pour them both a drink. He brought one to Hannibal and settled himself on the edge of his desk, sipping from his own cup. “If Rathmore dares to move against you, he believes he will not be stopped, and I suspect the Council would rejoice to see you leave these shores.”
“Yes, I suspect they would,” Hannibal said, taking the tumbler when it was handed to him.
“Lord Clarges, you made your position on the subject of Omegan soldiers very clear,” Sir Gregory said, and smiled tightly when Hannibal’s eyes cut to him. “We have our spies, don’t we? You used to be the loudest voice speaking out against Omegas, couldn’t bear to even share a room with them, yet now you are a staunch supporter. I understand even the medical school you sponsor will allow Omegas to attend?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Hannibal said, not sure he liked where their conversation was going. “What of it?”
“Only that I and a great many others have been considering our own candidate in the next election, someone with more… progressive leanings,” Sir Gregory said, moving to pour them both a drink. “Someone whose outspoken change has become the subject of public interest.”
“That must have the Council in quite a state,” Hannibal said, neutral, taking a sip without tasting it. “If you’re attempting to tell me you want my support—”
“No, Lord Clarges, we want you,” Sir Gregory said, blunt. “We were poised to approach you on the subject of the elections with an eye to reform, starting with our military policies. We wished to offer you the position of election candidate with our backing.”
It caught Hannibal off guard, the offer so unexpected that he was speechless.
“We are not blind to the state of our soldiers and are very well aware that Omegas make up a significant portion of them. We have been for some time, and no few of us have been attempting to find a solution to the problem they present,” Sir Gregory said, swirling his liquor in his glass. “The sad state of affairs is that we cannot afford their loss. We certainly cannot afford the Council sending them back in droves to face imprisonment and the workhouse.”
“Until the law changes or there is some sort of protection in place for them, that is precisely what they face,” Hannibal said, getting his surprise in hand. “You tolerate them now because they swell your ranks and keep your war effort going. Please don’t attempt to persuade me that you have their interests at heart any further than the service they do you. The best they can hope for is to somehow survive and be discharged without ever being found out, or else risk having their pensions stripped from them.”
“No, Lord Clarges, they will not,” Sir Gregory said with a small smile. “We intend to introduce legislation through our appointee granting amnesty to any Omega currently in or already retired from their Majesties’ military, Lord Clarges. As loyal servants to the Crown, they will receive proper compensation for their service and their pensions will not be stripped from them.”
“Well,” Hannibal said after a moment of consideration. “I certainly never expected to be told that.”
“We are pragmatists, Lord Clarges, not monsters,” Sir Gregory informed him, “though I understand how the public would say otherwise. We need a man infamous for the strength of his convictions to carry that legislation through. What you and the Lietuvan government have managed—and we are aware of your actions in that regard—has plugged the dam, so to speak, but the floodwaters are still rising. Lord Withome of Kirk has been working with the Merchants’ Guild to broker a treaty. I expect that we shall very soon find terms to suit us all and bring this ghastly business to a close.”
Hannibal’s mouth pursed, his amber eyes narrowing to dangerous slits.
“You think the Council put Rathmore up to it?” he said, tossing back the rest of his drink, the burn no rival for the anger that rose in him. “Rush me off to the front before I could be named as a candidate?”
“That is precisely what I think,” Sir Gregory said, resuming his seat. “Rathmore is a traitor and a thief and before very many more months there will be evidence enough to convict him. When that happens, the orders he personally drafted without consensus from the office will be null and void. Should you agree to stand for election, Lord Clarges, I will begin the process of suspending your orders.”
“And my deployment?” Hannibal asked.
“The date must stand,” Sir Gregory said, as unhappy as Hannibal was. “We cannot manage the legal necessities beforehand, but we will recall you from the front the moment we have documentation to support the orders.”
Hannibal pondered the offer, knowing there were pitfalls aplenty in becoming a War Office-sponsored candidate. He imagined Will there with him, listening with those sharp ears of his, turning the conversation over to find the hidden meanings and implications. He could do so much good as an elected official in addition to his role as a Peer, would have the power to shape the future of their country for everyone, not just for men.
“Well,” Hannibal whispered, staring up at him with a calm that only lay along the surface, rippling atop the anger boiling beneath. “I suppose that’s better than I could hope for.”
He placed his tumbler down carefully and pushed it across Sir Gregory’s desk, saying, “We have some very important things to discuss, Sir Gregory. But I have some demands of my own, starting with my freight allotment.”
“Then shall we begin?” Sir Gregory asked, tipping his cup to Hannibal with a broad, pleased smile.
“You seem somewhat pensive, my dear,” Grandfather said, stirring against the pillows where he’d fallen asleep propped up, the newspaper still in hand.
“I’m merely thoughtful, Grandfather,” Will told him, laying aside the tiny nightgown he was working on slowly but surely. He smiled as he did so, ruefully saying, “At this rate, our child will have nothing at all to wear.”
“You’ve been very busy,” Grandfather said, his lids fluttering, fighting sleep. “You’ve always been such a good person, Charles…”
Will shot a startled glance at him, but feigned not to hear the slip. Instead, he said, “All one can offer the chaos and cruelty of the world is kindness, Grandfather. I hope you don’t mind my staying when you fell asleep? It’s so peaceful here.”
“Ah, yes, none of that pounding and rattling,” Roland murmured, his smile wan and tired. “They’ve nearly finished, haven’t they? Properly lined for gas and modern now?”
“They’re putting the finishing touches on the east wing and that will be the last of them,” Will said, tucking his busy work away. “It has already made a world of difference, don’t you think? I was very glad to have people from Hartford doing the work; the last thing I could bear is the presence of a stranger.”
“We wouldn’t dare have anyone here we don’t trust,” Roland said, shifting in a vain attempt to find comfort.
“Should I call for Mr. Zeller?” Will asked, rising to straighten his bedclothes. “You’ve barely eaten anything all day, Grandfather. Perhaps we could sit in the garden and have tea? The leaves are just beginning to turn and are the most beautiful colors.”
“No, my dear, that’s just fine,” Roland said, patting his hand before clasping it. “I’ve seen it many, many times. I find myself absorbed in the past these days, so much so that it seems more real to me than the present.”
A sharp pang of sympathy struck Will then, not through the bond, but through his Gift. He had formed an attachment to the old Alpha over the years, the man who had taken the place of father and grandfather all at once. It pained him deeply to see Roland failing despite all their best efforts, failing to the point that Zeller could hardly be persuaded to leave his side long enough to sleep or eat.
“If that is what brings you happiness,” Will softly said, bending to press his cheek to Roland’s cold hand, “then there can be no harm in it.”
“Many of the things that brought me happiness also brought me harm,” Roland said, drawing a breath that rattled in his lungs like a cold wind through broken shutters. “Lenora brought me happiness at first, when she gave me Grace, and then Cyrus. I know I was very strict with them, but I worried for them so much. Always worrying…”
His lids slid closed and his hand grew lax in Will’s own to the point that he thought Grandfather had fallen back to sleep.
“I couldn’t lose them, too,” he whispered, a spasm of pain tightening his features. “Not like I lost my first.”
Stunned, Will wracked his memory for any mention of another marriage, for any stray comment involving a child who predated Grace and Cyrus, but there was nothing he could recall.
Roland, according to Aunt Margaret, had indulged in an affair with Will’s grandfather, then vanished for over three years to Nippon, only to return and wed Lenora Bradford and start his family. No one at any time had ever breathed a word about any other children, legitimate or otherwise.
“Grandfather,” Will said, smoothing his forehead with his other hand, trying to soothe him. “You shouldn’t speak, Grandfather. You might say something you wouldn’t wish me to hear.”
“There is nothing in this world I would keep from you, Charles,” Roland said, tossing his head to one side, away from Will’s touch. “You always said there was nothing I could have done any differently. You said the gods would forgive me, but I cannot think they ever will.”
“Grandfather,” Will said, concerned enough that he gave his shoulders a gentle shake, startled when Roland’s amber eyes flew wide open in surprise.
“Will? What is it? Is it the baby?” he asked, worry rousing him from the hold his memories had on him, sharply delineating the past from the present, if only for a little while.
“Yes,” Will said, relieved that the baby chose an opportune moment to express their impatience with Will’s tension. “They’re kicking, Grandfather. Would you like to feel?”
“Oh! Yes! Yes, let me feel,” Roland said, struggling to sit up straighter as Will sat down on the bed next to him, turning to guide his hand into place. Roland’s eyes lit up with delight as the baby pushed against his hand, and he chuckled with pleasure, sighing, “I have always, always loved having babies in the House! I always wanted more children, a whole houseful!”
Will smiled, relaxing under the gentle touch of Roland’s chilled hand, but his thoughts returned to Grandfather’s statement, to his time in Nippon and the child he must surely have left there.
And the journal which might hold the answers.
There were other arrangements to be made in the Capital, which Hannibal made as quickly as possible. Some were pragmatic, like reconnecting with an associate who specialized in Omegan healthcare, Dr. Frederick Chilton, and engaging more guards for the short term. Others were far less so to the indiscriminate eye, but Hannibal knew they were just as vital as having a qualified doctor on hand in case Will went into labor in his absence. As an Alpha being separated from his mate at such a crucial time, he did everything he could think of to ensure Will would be comfortable in the final months of his pregnancy. If Hannibal had to be gone from Will, even for a short time only, he wouldn’t allow a day to pass that his little mate would forget about him. As long as he was deployed, Will would have something arrive at Hartford to remind him that he was thoroughly loved, from the tips of his curls to the curl of his toes.
He tried very hard not to think of it as consolation in case he should never return.
A stop in with Mr. Buddish confirmed that everything had been signed, sealed, and approved in the event of his death and he agreed that he would be in close contact with both Hartford and Fernhill to keep Will safe. It was all accomplished very nicely, quickly, quietly, and Hannibal was back on the train by the afternoon.
He did not return to Hartford, however, much as he wanted to. He took the long route to Fernhill and had a very somber, serious discussion with Aunts Grace and Margaret, Uncle Robert, Bedelia, and Anthony regarding his deployment and his candidacy. The entirety of the Fernhill Dimmonds promised to take every opportunity available to check on Will and Grandfather and keep them company in Hannibal’s absence. This time, Will would not be isolated and lonesome. This time, he would have his loving family surrounding him fit to drive him mad, knowing the Dimmonds, and he would have them to rely on should the worst happen.
His mind was more settled as he rode for home, anticipating the way Will’s somber expression would transform with a grin when he walked through the door. What wouldn’t he face to see his smile? He could survive anything, anything at all if it meant he could come home to his husband again.
Mr. Hawkes took his coat, gloves, and hat with his usual dignified grace, answering Hannibal’s inquiry regarding Will with, “He retired to his suite, my Lord. He’s spent the day sitting up with His Grace and was somewhat fatigued.”
“Is Grandfather up?” Hannibal asked, preparing to check on him if he was, but Mr. Hawkes shook his head.
“No, my Lord, he’s been extremely tired today,” he said, “and has been confused at times. Mr. Zeller is worried, my Lord. We all are.”
“I’m rather worried myself, Hawkes,” Hannibal said, absently straightening his jacket, his amber eyes fixed on the hallway leading to Grandfather’s suite. He shuddered at the thought of facing him, of telling Grandfather what he’d already shared at Fernhill. It would only add more weight to the burden he carried and Hannibal feared it might be too much at last to be borne.
“Mr. Winston and the Ladies are having a walk, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes told him, pulling Hannibal from his heavy thoughts. “Shall I have Peter feed them at the stables and bring them in after dinner?”
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind,” Hannibal said, offering him a grateful smile. “I’ll be with Will, so he’ll be perfectly safe. Thank you, Hawkes.”
“It is my pleasure, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, pleased. “I will have tea sent up to his Lordship’s suite.”
“That would be perfect, thank you,” Hannibal said, striding for the stairs and bounding up them, his long legs eating up the distance in no time to reach Will’s room.
He was greeted with a sight that warmed him to his toes, one he fully intended to sketch the moment he was able.
Will had fallen asleep on the small settee before the fire, a familiar envelope resting on the curve of his belly. He looked so utterly peaceful that Hannibal had to stop and admire him, his sleeping Eros with tousled curls and long lashes fanning beneath his eyes.
Those same curled lashes rose, Will’s limpid blue eyes meeting his, a smile spreading over the fullness of his pink lips as he said in a sleepy, purring chirp, “You’re home.”
“I am, only just now,” Hannibal said, pitching his voice low as if Will was still sleeping. He moved to crouch next to the settee, delving his hand into Will’s warm curls, smoothing the curve of his cheek with his thumb. “You looked so serene, I wish I’d asked Mr. Gray to paint you this way for me.”
Will’s raspy, low laughter accompanied a yawn and he pushed himself up, clutching for the envelope when it slid to one side. Reality returned as sleep fled, reminding him of why Hannibal had gone in the first place, and he patted the space next to him in silent invitation.
“How was your trip?” he asked, hesitant to seek details when they could only disappoint him.
“Rather quick, as I wished to get home to you,” Hannibal said, easing down at his side and smoothing his curls again before resting his arm along Will’s shoulders. “I met with Sir Gregory of the Ministry this morning and he is well aware that Lord Rathmore might have underhanded reasons for putting me forward.”
“Underhanded? Above and beyond his petty threats against you?” Will questioned, brows slamming down in a frown.
“It turns out that the Ministry is seeking legislation which will grant amnesty to any Omega who served or is currently serving in the army, Will,” Hannibal said, watching the thoughts moil in his husband’s eyes. “They wish me to introduce it, to be their candidate in the next election. Sir Gregory and I both believe that the Council sought to prevent that and used Timothy to do so.”
“Gods, is there no limit to how devious he is?” Will said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. The full import of what Hannibal had said struck him suddenly, his heart pounding with hope. “Wait, you said they want you?”
Hannibal nodded, flinching from the relief in Will’s voice, from the hope that lit his beautiful features up in animated excitement.
“Then they can’t deploy you, can they?” Will said, knowing the law well enough to know it was true. “That would be interfering with an election!”
“No, darling. Gods, I wish it was otherwise, but I still have to deploy,” Hannibal said, his heart aching to see the sparkle fade from Will’s bright blue eyes, darkening them with melancholy. “Sir Gregory is getting the paperwork ready, but it will take months, no doubt, to file it through the clerk’s office. In the meantime, I’ve filled every freight allotment with suppressants and placed standing orders for a regular supply, starting the moment the ships can be filled.”
“Months?” Will echoed, strained. He rubbed his belly, stricken, and breathed, “You’ll miss the birth?”
Hannibal shifted to gather him up, tucking Will into the shelter of his arms and kissing the top of his curly-haired head.
“I,” he said, speaking slowly and calmly, measuring his words against an uncertain world, “will be here when the baby is born, Will. If by some chance the paperwork is lost, or plans change and I am not recalled from the front, then I will defect and return, if needs be.”
“You cannot do that,” Will murmured, the words muffled against Hannibal’s throat where his scent lay thick and comforting.
“Oh, there is very little I cannot do when it comes to my delicate and retiring little mate,” Hannibal breathed, nuzzling Will’s curls.
They lay pressed together in silence, Hannibal’s hand smoothing Will’s stomach, his thoughts even heavier than his mate’s belly.
“You must have a care, Hannibal,” Will finally said, retreating into logic to numb the growing ache in his chest, “The Council will do everything in their power to prevent your success.”
“And I will do everything in my power to ensure that they do not,” Hannibal said, hugging Will tighter to him. “The legislation is set to be introduced in the opening remarks when Parliament convenes, which means I should definitely be home before then. That’s good news, isn’t it?”
“It would be better news were you not to go at all!” Will said, his soft laugh warbling on a crack of tears.
“You’ll hardly know I’m gone,” Hannibal said, eyes closing as he savored his mate’s presence. “You’ll have the station business to tend to, my office to finish, the household to run, and a bevy of Dimmonds to manage.”
“I am seized with a sense of unreality,” Will quietly said, his hand opening over Hannibal’s heart and pressing. “To think that you will go, that—”
He cut off, unable to finish, unable to give voice to the horrors in his head. War—lifeless bodies, pain, and suffering, where no one was victorious no matter who won.
“I will return before you realize it,” Hannibal whispered, sliding his hand from Will’s belly to his back, stroking the length of his spine. “One way or another.”
The fear and worry that he’d tried so hard to suppress came trickling through the bond and Will flinched. He faced the unknown fears of childbirth, but Hannibal faced the known dangers of the front, and Will felt his anxiety, his frustration, and the bleak despair that rode just beneath it. Hannibal had hell before him, and Will wanted to be the strength he relied on to come through it. What they shared was not so easily broken, and it would take far more than war and distance to truly part them.
“No,” Will said, sitting up to face his husband, shaking his head with a surety that Hannibal found solace in, as if Will could bend the chances of Fate in his favor merely through the force of his faith. He slipped his warm palm from Hannibal’s heart to his cheek and said, “No. Only one way, Hannibal. You’ll come back to me on your own two feet, with that brilliant grin on your face, with those beautiful eyes of yours gleaming. Only that way, Hannibal.”
It brought a faint flush to Hannibal’s cheeks that surprised him, he was so pleased with his mate. He smiled, shaky and uncertain and vulnerable, and said, “As you are my husband, I will do as you say.”
“Of course you will,” Will said, the ugly offerings of his imagination swept aside by the strength of his certainty, his determination not to bend in the face of adversity. “You must, Hannibal. If not for me or our child, then for Grandfather. He is fading, Hannibal. Slowly but surely, he is slipping away from us and I fear we will not call him back.”
“Hawkes said he’s been confused today,” Hannibal said, his worry about the future narrowing back to the current worries here at home.
“He has been,” Will said, strained. “He called me Charles this afternoon. I don’t think he realized it. I just went on as if he hadn’t, but he’s so lost in the past, Hannibal. He said… he said something about your father and aunt, that he’d been strict with them because he feared losing them as he’d lost his first child.”
Hannibal frowned, utterly flummoxed. “There were never any other children, or Aunt Margaret would have known of them. You’ve been handling Grandfather’s finances for years, Will; surely you would have seen payments to a family, had he another in his past.”
“That’s just it,” Will said, easing from his arms to pick up the envelope Chiyoh had brought the translation in. “I think he must have left a son in Nippon, Hannibal. That is the only area of his life that none of us know anything about.”
“And you think you might find mention of it in her journal?” Hannibal asked, taking the envelope from him.
“I feel ashamed to admit it,” Will said, a delicate blush pinking up his cheeks, rounder now in his pregnancy and even more enticing. “My curiosity has gotten the better of me and I find I’ve resorted to snooping.”
“He confided in you, Will. He would tell you, should you ask him.”
“No, he confided in Charles,” Will said, troubled. “I could never embarrass him by mentioning it, but now that I’ve heard it, I cannot put it from my mind.”
“And you needed something to occupy your thoughts,” Hannibal said, guessing the cause. “A problem with an answer you can find.”
“I detest feeling powerless,” Will said, frowning, “and if there is a Lecter Aunt or Uncle on the loose, at the very least we should know of them.”
“If I had any stray family members anywhere in the world, I’m sure they would have cropped up by now wanting their share of things,” Hannibal said, a rueful, unhappy smile curving his lips. “Did you find any mention of them?”
“I didn’t get much beyond where we left off before,” Will said. “Apparently, your grandfather was extracted on a military mission. She wrote that the Emperor had grown leery of her father’s power and agreed to allow a manageable force inside under the strict condition that none of them remain.”
Hannibal frowned, looking from his mate to the envelope. In a short time he would be leaving Will, leaving Hartford behind, leaving Grandfather, and gods alone knew if he would ever see home again. Will knew that as well as he did, and whatever answers were in Lady Murasaki’s journal would be lost to him along with any closure it might bring him.
“Grandfather is sleeping and dinner isn’t for hours,” he said, fiddling with the tie that held the flap closed. “And I think we could both use a distraction.”
“Are you certain?” Will asked, searching his face. “There will be enough unpleasantness waiting for you on the Continent, Hannibal. I wouldn’t want to add more that could distress you.”
“Nothing distresses me more than my mate’s displeasure, especially when he doesn’t cosh me for it,” Hannibal said, opening the envelope to withdraw the stack of loose papers. Will reached for it without hesitation, blushing with pleasure when Hannibal stole a kiss from him, saying, “Read for me, Will.”
“Behave yourself, Lord Clarges,” Will warned, smirking. He shifted back to sit stretched out along the settee, his round belly riding high beneath the drape of his robe.
Hannibal settled back facing him and pulled Will’s stocking-clad foot into his lap, planting his thumbs in his arch with unerring precision as Will cleared his throat and read, “‘We grew used to the presence of the Outsider among us, though he was little better than a child in his speech and conduct. He amused me then, bewildered as he was by any aspect of war, unable to tie on armor or wield a sword. It filled my father with confidence that we could never fall to such inept people. He lived to regret his decision, but not for long. Yet in those years we had, Roland became a part of us.
I thought he was happy with us. I thought he was content. I thought he would stay forever. There was no part of my experience that allowed for defeat. My father’s territory stretched from one coast to the next, his armies vast enough to bring even the Emperor pause. I never dreamed that anything could breach the walls we built, yet they did.
They came with cannons, with rifles and bombs. They came in the night, killing all who lay in their path so that there was no warning. They came with the blessing of the Emperor, who had grown wary of my father’s power, and they razed us to the ground.
I still remember that awful night, as if I have never left it. Perhaps I never have. My instinct as a warrior was to rush to arms, but my instinct as a mother made me run to reach my son, Kohaku. I could hear him crying before I reached him, frightened by the chaos. I remember finding Roland there before me, gathering Kohaku up, how he shouted at me as if I was his enemy.
And then I understood that I was. His people had come, and he wanted to leave with them. He wanted to take my son to his distant lands and raise him as he had been raised—bewildered, unprepared, and weak.’”
“She doesn’t mention who the father is?” Hannibal mused, rubbing Will’s foot with gentle pressure.
“Not so far,” Will said, shaking his head. “Only Omegas and women claimed a child there, men seem somewhat incidental, more an inconvenience than anything.”
Hannibal smirked at that, and murmured, “Aren’t we just?”
“This is incredible, Hannibal,” Will said, absorbed in the world she offered, because his own held a parting he knew would too soon gut him. “It must be your grandfather she’s speaking of. To think they knew one another then, under such circumstances.”
“He got himself in the thick of things in a foreign country where he didn’t know the language and couldn’t trouble himself to learn it, and then he tried to kidnap her child when a force was deployed, ostensibly to reach him?” Hannibal said, one brow lifting over his amber eye. “That certainly sounds like Grandfather.”
“Being flippant doesn’t suit you,” Will scolded, still scanning the writing. “Perhaps he hoped to save at least one innocent life? She seemed fond of your grandfather, but not particularly attached.”
“I think attachment came to her by a very difficult route, Will,” Hannibal said, thinking of his father’s concubine. “Please, continue.”
“‘I still remember how quickly it all happened,’” Will read, his voice falling into a soft lilt of storytelling, “‘how they burst in and saw a man like them where he did not belong, how they ripped my son from Roland’s arms despite his screaming, how they dragged him away as I tried to save my son from falling, from striking his head. I remember how I wished I was dead when Kohaku died in my arms, how I did not even fight when they fired on me, how I lay bleeding with my baby against my heart and listened to the screams of my family dying around me.
But the longer I lay there without dying, the angrier I grew until I knew nothing beyond fury. I found the strength to rise. I found the strength to leave my child where he lay and strip my father of his armor. I found the strength to drive them out, and I vowed to never stop until every last one of them was flung from our shores.
It was Roland who sent for them. One of my servants had carried a note, unable to read its contents, thinking nothing of it. Roland had called for them, and they had come. He had flouted my father’s hospitality, turned on the people who had chosen him, and tried to steal my son away.
And now his son sits before me, rapt and watchful and desperate for a distraction that I will gladly give. I am determined to give. I will take him, as Roland took my son, and he will know what it is to lose the child he loves.
Will put the page down, turning it over in stunned silence, unable to believe what he’d just read. His blue eyes met Hannibal’s, his horror reflected in his husband’s amber gaze. He rubbed his belly, his Gift making her grief his own, her loss into his. It was so vivid that he had to turn his head away lest Hannibal see how disturbed he was.
The arrival of their tea bought him time, time enough to separate himself from Lady Murasaki, pulling the sticky tendrils of her blunt, brutal accounting away from the fertile soil of his heart. The scent of blood slowly faded, as did the sickening pain of such a terrible loss. His heart broke for her, the Lady Murasaki, one mother to another. No matter her actions, no matter the person she had become, no one deserved to lose their child, especially in such an ugly, senseless way.
The servant left after placing the tea tray in easy reach, leaving them alone again, but by then Will had reined his Gift in enough, or so he thought.
“Will?” Hannibal said, his mate’s distress not lost on him no matter how he tried to hide it. “Perhaps we should stop here?”
“No, I just—There must be some explanation,” Will said, shaking his head, peering at the page again as if the contents might have rearranged themselves. “Surely Grandfather would not do such a thing deliberately? Stay with her family for so many years and betray them? Try to take her child away? Leaving them all to die? Gods, no wonder she was angry!”
“My father must have presented the perfect opportunity to extract some measure of satisfaction. She began to lay plans from the moment she met him,” Hannibal whispered, thoughtful. “Where was it, Will? Where did they first meet?”
Will dragged his imagination from the horror’s she’d written of and looked at the next page, saying with a faint air of distraction, “In Norig, at the Court of Frederick the Faithful. She was performing there in an appearance before the King. Your father was invited as a guest but it looks as if he’d already been there for some time. She writes that he landed in Court like a die gone astray from a shaking hand, no reason or intention, only happenstance.”
“He was mired in grief, I imagine,” Hannibal mused. “Grandfather said he traveled all over the Continent, that the men he’d send after him were as apt to find my father penniless in a brothel as they were to find him dining with a Prince, and taking no pleasure in either.”
“Considering what he thought had happened, I cannot imagine he found pleasure in very much at all,” Will said, and as much as he wished he wouldn’t, he felt sympathy for Hannibal’s father, as well, his understanding wide enough to encompass the pain he, too, had suffered through.
“She lost her family, held her son as he died, and still had the strength to stand up and wage war in her homeland for twenty-some years,” Hannibal said, summing the time between Roland’s arrival back home and Murasaki’s arrival on the Continent with Chiyoh. “Gods, it’s difficult to believe anyone could be so… extraordinary.”
“If all Omegas in Nippon were like her,” Will mused, smoothing the pages, “I can hardly believe they ever lost a single battle.”
“There were never Omegas like her,” Hannibal murmured, thinking of how Chiyoh had said that same thing to him in the shaded quiet of the cemetery. It prompted him to say, “I knew she was a good deal older than my father, but somehow I never realized just how much, even seeing the dates on her stone.”
“She would have been sixteen or seventeen when your father was born,” Will said, watching his reactions. “She must have been in her early forties when they first met.”
“She always looked the same,” Hannibal said, his voice growing soft as he deliberately drew her memory to him. “I knew her for years Will, nearly a decade, and never once did she ever change.”
“Was she beautiful like Chiyoh?” Will dared to ask, sensing his husband softening. He tried to imagine her, the Lady Murasaki. He found a warrior in his mind’s eye, wiry strength and brutal determination and bravery. It was an interesting effort to make that same warrior into a celebrated courtesan who had risen to stardom as a performer in only a few short years.
“She was incredibly beautiful,” Hannibal said, his hands falling still on Will’s feet. “The most beautiful person I had ever seen in my short life, hair like a fall of ink and eyes deep and dangerous as a still forest pool. I never remember her smiling, though. She always seemed… hard somehow, watchful and wary, as if she had locked herself away somewhere none of us could never reach.”
“She might have very well done just that,” Will said, skimming the writing as he spoke, blinking away his tears. “She lost everything, Hannibal, just as Chiyoh said. All of her children died in that last battle she waged; she truly came away with only the baby in her arms and nothing else. Your grandfather was just the first of many to arrive… It’s terrible to think of it, strangers coming into your home and laying claim to everything they have no right to, disrupting a way of life that had no dependence on or need of them, leaving devastation in their wake.”
“I’ve seen it firsthand,” Hannibal quietly reminded him, resuming his massage of Will’s long feet more for the sake of distraction than anything. “War makes even the mildest man a monster. It was no wonder she was out for blood. Does she write more of those years in her homeland?”
Will nodded, turning the pages to check. “Yes, a great deal. The historical value alone is immense, Hannibal. We know next to nothing about Nippon prior to its invasion; this documentation is just… astonishing. She missed her home very much, and many of her entries hold a memory or another of her childhood and early life.”
“It is my father I’m most interested in,” Hannibal said. “Selfishly, I suppose, but I remember so little about him. Was she able to convince him to return home right away?”
“No, not right away,” Will said, setting aside a sizeable chunk of the translation with a mental promise to revisit it. “She had quite a fortune, the Lady Murasaki, gifts from admirers and such. And a tendency to create chaos, it seems. She moved from the Court at Norig to that of Gallia after inciting a duel between the Crown Prince and a Duke for her favors.”
“Those must have been very tempting favors for a man to risk death over them,” Hannibal said, moving up to Will’s ankles, his powerful fingers light and gentle.
“Neither of them ever knew,” Will said, a small, impressed smile on his lips. “She never once even hinted at interest in either one of them; it seemed they couldn’t help themselves. But she took Chiyoh and your father with her when she left. It looks like by then he was almost entirely dependent on her where money was concerned, and had picked up a very serious opium habit. She mentions arguments over it several times.”
“Chiyoh had said as much,” Hannibal said, straining to recall but unable to remember ever seeing his father indulge in opium. “Theirs was a very troubled relationship, but I expect we’re about to find out about it.”
The quiet unease in his deep voice prompted Will to lay the translation aside, saying, “Perhaps that’s enough for now. We can look again this evening, move through it a few pages at a time.”
Time. The one thing they didn’t have much left of. It was a harsh reminder to them both of what they’d sought escape from and stole the slight ease they’d found.
Will reached out and tugged Hannibal towards him, cradling his husband against the softness of his chest and the firm bulge of his stomach. He rubbed his chin over the crown of Hannibal’s head and kneaded his nape, eyes closing simply to relish his nearness. He tried not to count how many hours he had left to hold him this way, but it lingered in his mind, ticking like the second-hand on his watch, pouring their moments away bit by bit.
“I tell you what,” Hannibal murmured, nuzzling the bare skin of Will’s throat exposed by his gaping collar, “why don’t you read it in my absence, Will?”
“No, I couldn’t,” Will told him, shuddering to even think of that terrible day dawning.
“Please,” Hannibal said, relaxing against him with a sigh. “You can write to me of what you find, tell me about it as you discover her through her writing. You see the world differently than I, in ways I am blind to. Your insight, your Gift, they would lead you to draw conclusions I might overlook entirely.”
“You would see her through the lens of my perception, Hannibal?”
Hannibal chuckled, a tired and sad sound, and said, “That might be the only way I can bear to see her, Will.”
He lifted his head and kissed the tip of Will’s snub nose, breathing, “Everything is more beautiful when seen through your eyes.”
Will smiled at that, reaching up to cup his face, feeling the presence of Hannibal’s worry riding just beneath the surface of the bond. He did the only thing he could think of to keep it at bay. He pressed a kiss to Hannibal’s forehead and told him, “I love you, Hannibal Lecter. Always and forever, I love you.”
There was no chance that night for Hannibal to break his news to Grandfather, and in all honesty he was glad of it. He dreaded the pain he would cause and hoped to avoid it as long as possible, which unfortunately only lasted until morning.
“You can’t put it off forever,” Will warned, smoothing Hannibal’s jacket and tugging at his cuffs. “He’ll be furious enough that you told Fernhill first. You know how he dislikes being the last to know things.”
Hannibal reluctantly conceded the point, admiring his mate in his freshly-donned maternity clothes. The loose drape of clothing and the long jacket suited Will, as most things did. But even the sight of his mate looking kissable and rosy-cheeked in the morning light couldn’t delay the inevitable, and he sighed, “I only hope this doesn’t destroy him.”
“Of course it will destroy him,” Will said, flattening his hands on Hannibal’s chest and looking up at him. “He loves you like a son, perhaps more so. It will break his heart and there’s no sense pretending otherwise. All we can do is our best to support one another in hope until you return safely.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Hannibal said, the cruel truth doing nothing to bolster his motivation.
“I’ll take something to read to him,” Will said, gathering up his book and, as an afterthought, the envelope holding the translation. “Perhaps I can distract him once you’ve given him your news.”
“I will never forgive myself if this is what finally does him in,” Hannibal, escorting Will out of his suite.
“He’s much stronger than that,” Will reminded him, striding along at Hannibal’s side. “Where do you think you get it from?”
“I pray he’s as strong as you think he is,” Hannibal breathed, and fell silent, his thoughts focused on how he would tell his grandfather that he was leaving Hartford once again.
Zeller answered the door, looking rumpled and weary, saying only, “He’s sleeping.”
“We’ll wait,” Hannibal said, equally as short, bristling at his grandfather’s irreverent valet.
Zeller cocked a brow at Hannibal, but gave way to the glowering Alpha, a wry smirk on his stubble-ridden face. Will angled a warning look at him as they passed, but Zeller paid it no mind, heeding no one but Roland, and half the time not even him. Still, he pulled chairs to Grandfather’s bedside for them before leaving them alone, retreating to the small attached room he’d made his own.
“It will forever escape me how he tolerates that man,” Hannibal said, whispering so as not to wake Roland. He seated Will, settling him with gentle care before sitting down next to him.
“Your grandfather is very fond of Zeller, and Zeller takes excellent care of him,” Will reminded him, balancing the translation and book across his knees. “No doubt this recent lapse has him as worried as we are.”
“He should be worried,” Hannibal said, the husky purr of his Alpha voice rousing the baby to shift. He noticed Will start and guessed the cause, settling his hand over Will’s stomach with a proud grin. “And he’d better hope Grandfather has made provisions in his will because I refuse to tolerate such cheek!”
“No, you’d much rather give it,” Will whispered, smirking. He tugged the translation out from beneath the book he’d been reading to Roland and said, “We may as well peek ahead while he’s still sleeping.”
“Peek ahead at what?” Roland asked, startling them both.
“Grandfather!” Hannibal said, surprised. “Were you faking, you old goat?”
“No! I wasn’t faking! What is that?” Roland asked, curious, warning, “No, don’t hide it, I already know it’s there and you both look guilty as sin!”
He pushed up against his pillows, leveling a stern look at the pair of them and saying, “Out with it! What is that you have there, hm?”
Hannibal cleared his throat and spoke first, saying, “It is a translation, Grandfather.”
“Yes,” Roland said, his amber eyes sharpening with awareness in a way Will found vastly reassuring. “Well? I do love a secret, and I haven’t the time to pry answers out of you, you confounding boy!”
“It’s a translation of Lady Murasaki’s journal, Grandfather,” Will said, diverting the old Alpha in an instant. “I found it hidden away at Chelsea House and had it translated. Chiyoh brought it some months ago.”
“Chiyoh,” Grandfather said, her name a whisper. “So that was the woman you took to Duxbury, was it? Why on earth are you hiding it from me?”
“We were worried how you might react,” Hannibal said, still not certain he was half as calm as he seemed. “I know you cared very little for Lady Murasaki, that there was a feud between our families—”
“Feud? Her father kept me prisoner for three years, Hannibal!” Roland said, his good humor fading. “I daresay that’s rather more than a petty feud!”
“Prisoner?” Will echoed, perplexed. “You weren’t their guest?”
“Guest? Gods, no! That warlord Murasaki held me as a political prisoner!” Roland said, flushing at the memory of it. “He tried using me as leverage to make himself Emperor with our government’s backing! I can’t tell you how many times I tried to escape from him! I’ve never met an Omega so terrifying in all my life!”
“Grandfather!” Hannibal said, shocked. “Why have you never said so before?”
“There was no need!” Roland said, offended. “Do you think I am proud of it? Do you think I am grateful that she kept a record of it that would return to haunt me? Hm? Hand that here.”
“We have copies,” Hannibal said, hoping to prevent his commandeering it.
“You’d better hope you do!” Roland said, grasping the pages in his shaking hand and laying them in his lap. “Give me my spectacles, Hannibal.”
He slid from his chair with a schoolboy’s strict obedience, doing as his grandfather bid him before he could stop himself.
“Three years I spent, living under the shadow of that wretched dragon, the Murasaki House symbol,” Roland muttered, peering down at the pages. “I thought I would never escape!”
“She said she thought you were happy there, content,” Will ventured, anxiously watching Roland skim the first few pages, hoping he would not destroy the translation out of hand. “That it took her completely by surprise when you betrayed her father.”
“Manufactured my own rescue, you mean!” Roland said, snorting with disdain. “And I was anything but content! The only happiness I ever had there was—”
He cut off abruptly, his mouth trembling. “Well, it hardly matters now.”
“Grandfather, what we read there,” Hannibal said, somber, “it was very difficult to believe. She said you had orchestrated the annihilation of her entire clan, that you were attempting to steal her son away—”
“Her son?!” Roland cried, anger mounting with every breath. He scoured the pages, his hands trembling so hard that the papers shook.
“Grandfather,” Hannibal said, alarmed by how red Roland’s cheeks grew, how agitated he was. “Grandfather, you must calm down! You’re working yourself up.”
“I will work myself up if I bloody well please!” Roland rasped, outraged. “How dare she! How dare she!?”
“Grandfather, please,” Will said, attempting to take the translation from his hands, but Roland clutched the pages like grim death, his knuckles burning white. “We never meant to upset you. We won’t speak of it again; it was an awful, ugly end for that poor child any—”
“He was my son!” Roland cried, a terrible Alpha snarl beneath the words. “He was my son!”
The color fled from Roland’s cheeks and he stiffened, as if the force of his anger had strangled him. His mouth opened and closed, only a gurgling moan escaping on a hiss of breath. The pages of the translation slid from his lax hand, fluttering across the floor in a chaos of spilled paper.
“Grandfather!” Hannibal said, both of them moving to catch him as Roland fell back against the pillows, boneless, lifeless, staring sightlessly at the ceiling and far beyond the anguished cries of his beloved grandchildren.