54 Overcoming

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The tick of the clock echoed in Will’s ears, thumping with the beat of his pulse. The hour had struck ten and Hartford House was wrapped in numb, mournful silence, the servants going about their duties in whispers, anxious for any news.

Will paced from the window back to the door, paying no mind to the beautiful day unfolding beyond the wall of Hartford House, not when such tragedy had struck within. Winston and the girls watched him from where they lay before the empty fireplace, their dark eyes tracking his every movement with alert awareness.

He paused mid stride when he felt Hannibal coming towards him, the fall of his boots on the carpets vibrating as much through Will’s senses as through the floorboards. He smoothed his jacket and straightened his cuffs, grooming himself without realizing it, trying to calm his nerves.

Hannibal came in at a brisk stride, drawn to his mate like a moth to flame, finding him without error in the depths of Hartford House. His mouth was taut and tight, strained around the edges, his amber eyes weary with exhaustion, but he came straight to Will, breathing, “He will live.”

“Oh thank gods!” Will said, eyes closing on tears of relief as Hannibal embraced him, hugging him tight. “If you had not been there, Hannibal! I cannot bear to imagine what would have happened to him!”

“There was very little I could do, in all honesty,” Hannibal admitted, loosening his hold on Will to wipe away a tear that had strayed down Will’s round cheek. “These events build with very few symptoms to betray them, but when they present, they do so with a fury. He is very, very lucky to be alive.”

“I should never have taken the journal to his room,” Will said, frustrated by how thoughtless he’d been, his curiosity nearly costing Roland his life. “I am furious with myself for provoking something which could have killed him!”

“You didn’t, Will,” Hannibal said, drawing a deep breath on a thoughtful sigh. “Confusion is one of the few warning signs, but it is so often a malady of the aged that it gets overlooked. It was waiting inside of him, coiled like a viper to spring regardless of the provocation—and do not forget our purpose in being there.”

Will flinched, paling, but raised his blue eyes to meet Hannibal’s, sharing his guilt.

“I’m very glad I was unable to tell him about my deployment,” Hannibal said, kissing Will’s forehead right between his disapproving brows before he moved to the liquor cabinet and poured a measure for both of them. He swallowed his in one gulp and poured another before saying, “The shock combined with apoplexy might have been too much for even a devil like Grandfather.”

Will approached him slowly, settling his hand between Hannibal’s shoulders and fitting himself to his side. “We cannot risk losing him altogether with another such shock.”

Hannibal took the second drink in another swallow and set the crystal stopper back in place, frowning.

“I will write for an emergency deferment,” he said, thinking of the steps he would have to take. “Hopefully, the next date will be far enough out that Sir Gregory’s petition goes through and I needn’t leave Grandfather at all, or you, for that matter.”

“Surely they will see reason!” Will said, clutching the glass when Hannibal turned and pressed it into his hand. “They cannot possibly seek to send you overseas when he is in such a delicate state of health!”

“Anything short of death is not enough to cancel a military draft for duty. A deferment is the best we can hope for,” Hannibal said, knowing that well enough. He gestured to the cup and said, “Drink it. One swallow won’t hurt the children and you’ve had a terrible shock. We all have.”

Will could hardly argue that point, and took the half-swallow Hannibal had poured him with a slight grimace, shivering as the heat warmed through him.

“Gods, I was afraid something like this would happen,” Hannibal said, rubbing his forehead with his hand. “I must write to the Capital, to Mr. Buddish, and send to Fernhill, as well.”

“I will send to Fernhill,” Will said, putting his tumbler down and moving to the desk where he had already prepared his writing tools, “They must know what has happened.”

“So long as they do not ask what provoked it,” Hannibal said, closing his eyes and tipping his head back, shrugging the tension out of his shoulders. “Considering what he said, I’m surprised that I haven’t suffered apoplexy! Grandfather and Lady Murasaki had a child together? Even your imagination must have difficulty with that!”

“I honestly never dreamed that would be the child he spoke of,” Will said, settling at the desk but making no move to write, his weighty blue eyes on his husband. “He tried to take his son with him when he left… instead the child was lost to them both. It’s absolutely horrifying.”

He shuddered, the vivid images her writing had inspired cavorting through his head despite his best intentions, her grief mingling with his own to fill him with sadness and regret. He had to clamp down tight on his Gift to resist it, to separate himself from her and focus on the present.

“When Grandfather mistook me for Charles, he said that the gods could never forgive him,” Will said, and Hannibal turned to look at him, curious. “If he sent word for help in Nippon, then those people came at his invitation. They murdered his son and shot the Omega who had carried their child. That must haunt him every day of his life.”

“Which unfortunately may not be for much longer,” Hannibal said, fear and grief for Grandfather threatening to break through his self control. “Yet, piling the Dimmonds in on top of everything else…”

Will’s heart ached for his husband, desolation and dread swelling through the bond, stress enough to test even an Alpha of Hannibal’s strength. Gently, he told him, “Perhaps I can find some civil way to suggest they not converge on us just yet.”

“If anyone could find a sensible way to do so, it’s you,” Hannibal said. “Ask them for a week’s reprieve. By then we should know if he will make any gains at all.”

Under Hannibal’s care, Roland managed to survive the event that had nearly taken his life. It rendered him mute, unmoving and unresponsive where he lay, his eyes half-closed and fixed on something none of them could yet see. Hannibal was as much a permanent fixture at his side as Zeller was, the two working together without friction to keep Roland comfortable and cared for.

In those quiet hours when Hannibal would deign to rest at Grandfather’s bedside, his head pillowed on Will’s lap, Will would read Lady Murasaki’s journal aloud, stroking Hannibal’s hair and forehead until the tension left his powerful body.

I met someone today,’” Will read, tipping the page towards the lamp to better see it, his fingers stroking the tender skin beneath Hannibal’s jaw. “I heard a child crying in the house. I could not find it at first, this place is so large, but Chiyoh led me to him. It’s strange how some things never leave you. I haven’t held a baby since Chiyoh was small, but I reached out for him before I realized it.

“‘Amber eyes, like a lion’s, like my son’s. I’m so weak in the end, aren’t I? All my plans and plotting and determination to bring me into Roland’s world, and one small, bright-eyed child reaching up for me from his crib makes all my walls crumble to dust.

“‘I held him. What else could I do? He looked at me with such open expectation, I could not resist him. I plucked him up into my arms and he clung fast with both hands, strong and determined as I have ever been, demanding to be loved as all babies desire, and there is no way to refuse. I wanted to hate him, I tried to hate him, but the moment he reached for me, my heart opened wide and swallowed me whole. I held the memory of my Kohaku and sang him to sleep. His skin holds the scent of the forest, of the rich earth, the sweetness of a baby. I felt his heart beating against my breast, the stir of his breath on my shoulder, felt his trust like a knife in my soul, given so freely and without expectation of anything but my love. I could hardly bear to lay him down again, to leave him in his crib fast asleep.

“‘Hannibal is his name, tawny like a dappled little fawn from his hair to his toes. Perhaps there is another way after all. Perhaps it will not have to end in blood. Perhaps I can leave the warrior to rest and be the mother he cried for, straighten Cyrus out at last and forge a path we all can take together, a family of odds and ends, but a family nonetheless.’”

Will laid the page aside, aware that his mate was awake and listening with quiet consideration. His own heart echoed with how painful it was for Hannibal to hear her speak so gently of him, this Omega he had hated his entire life, the one who had turned on him and hardened him against trust until the world was filled with suspicion.

Hannibal turned his head slightly to look up at Will, half-lidded amber eyes like a lion’s, bright with tears unshed.

“I know,” Will murmured, reaching down to smooth his cheek. “… I know…”

“She loved me,” Hannibal whispered, only those words and no more, the tightness in his throat preventing more.

“With immediacy and abandon,” Will said, thumb brushing away a stray tear that slipped down Hannibal’s temple. “Whatever happened after, Hannibal, her first impulse was to reach back when you held your arms out to her.”

“I called her mother,” Hannibal said, managing to force the admission past his deep-seated hurt. “Somewhere, it all went so wrong, but I loved her. She was the only mother I ever knew.”

“I think,” Will said, his words slow and soft, “that if Cyrus had not prevented it, had he not perverted and thwarted her intentions with her concession, she would have raised you alongside Chiyoh, and happily so.”

He tipped the page, regarding it thoughtfully, adding, “She seemed so ready to renounce her revenge. You gave her hope, Hannibal. That things could change and she could have a life here, that she could let the warrior rest and the mother thrive.”

“I thought it would bring me peace to know it,” Hannibal said, his heavy sigh deep enough that he shuddered. “Instead, it only makes what she did even more painful.”

“Loving someone gives them the power to hurt you,” Will said, laying the pages aside to rest his free hand over Hannibal’s heart. “Knowing she harmed you despite loving you… I cannot see how that would bring any peace at all, merely understanding.”

“I cannot forgive her,” Hannibal breathed, unable to meet Will’s gaze despite the acceptance he would find there. “I’m not sure I will ever forgive her.”

“Nor must you,” Will reminded him, rubbing the delicate skin of his throat. “Lady Murasaki does not strike me as an Omega who values forgiveness, Hannibal. When you are ready, if you are ready, it will come.”

They fell into companionable, reflective silence, and Will felt the turmoil in Hannibal’s bond settle, what they’d learned slowly considered and searched against a childhood spent in resentment.

A noise from the bed startled them both, the deliberate sound immediately bringing Hannibal to his feet, his past abandoned for his present.

“Grandfather?” he asked, moving to smooth the elderly Alpha’s hair, surprised to find his eyes open, fully alert and aware. “Can you hear me?”

Roland blinked, the movement exaggerated to show that he intended it, and Hannibal laughed on a relieved breath, grasping Roland’s hand in his.

Will hasted around the other side of the bed, shooing the dogs who had risen when they had. He smiled when Grandfather’s eyes rolled his way, sliding from his face to his belly as if in question.

“Grandfather! Heavens, it is so good to see you awake,” Will said, speaking to him as Hannibal examined him. “We’ve been so lost without you!”

Zeller emerged from his room, drawn by the commotion, and pushed in next to Will, sighing, “Thank gods! You scared the life out of me, old man!”

“Zeller!” Hannibal warned, but it lacked any sharpness of reprimand. “Go fetch him something to eat, nothing too thick. We must keep his strength up.”

Zeller was off before Hannibal even finished speaking, snagging his jacket from the back of the chair to make himself presentable before Mr. Hawkes could see him.

“You gave us all quite a fright,” Hannibal said, relieved when Roland’s gaze moved back to him without hesitation, clearly tracking and cognizant. “It was a fit of apoplexy, Grandfather. We very nearly lost you.”

Roland’s eyes shifted and he made a soft sound of effort, an edge of panic tingeing his scent, so much so that Hannibal put a calming hand on his shoulder and told him, “It affected your movement, Grandfather. We’ll have to work on getting that back, but I’m hopeful since you’ve woken that it will come in time.”

He slid his arms around Roland to sit him up, pained by how frail he felt, brittle and thin as an old, dried stick. Will plumped the pillows behind him and Hannibal eased him back, saying, “There, that should be better. You almost look yourself again, though you could use a shave.”

“I would offer, but Mr. Zeller would chase me from the room in offence,” Will said, smoothing Grandfather’s wild hair from his brow, needing to touch him and comfort Roland as much as himself.

Mr. Hawkes returned with Zeller, bearing the familiar silver salver over to Hannibal.

“Is it Fernhill?” Will asked, moving aside for Zeller to settle the tray he’d brought in. “Aunt Margaret said she would warn us if she was bringing more than just herself today.”

Hannibal opened the envelope, a frown falling over his face as he read it.

“No,” he said, disappointed by the contents. “My orders have been revised to take Grandfather’s recovery into consideration.”

“How long?” Will asked, stricken, gripping the bedpost in anticipation of bad news.

“Two months’ time,” Hannibal said, watching Will’s eyes slide closed in mingled relief and disappointment. “Which gives me just enough time, I hope, to have Sir Gregory’s paperwork pushed through and ensure I’m here for the birth.”

It was precious little to hope for, but they clung to it all the same. For now, Grandfather’s awakening was victory enough to sustain them.

They waited for word of Hannibal’s appointment, but were met only with frustration. Paperwork was vanishing, being misplaced or destroyed altogether, and Sir Gregory was doing his best to root out the various sources of the problem which seemed to be threaded throughout the entirety of the Ministry, thanks to the Council’s wide reach.

So they waited. They began to raise the station at Hartford and they finished Hannibal’s practice in town and they spent their evenings reading the journal aloud to Grandfather. Will had been reluctant at first, but even immobile and unable to speak, Roland still had a way of making himself known quite clearly, and he quite clearly wanted to hear what Murasaki had written.

The nights, however, were theirs to share, curled up together in Hannibal’s bed with the baby between them and the dogs at their feet. Sometimes they made love, rare now and even more gentle, but mostly they talked. They spoke of their future. They spoke of baby names and Marsham Heath and the medical school. They spoke of Hannibal’s schedule once he returned and how he would split his time between the Capital and Hartford, how Will and the children would join him when possible. They spoke of Abigail and when she would visit and Will’s picnic with Molly under the trees in Duxbury. They spoke of Lady Murasaki’s slow decline into despair as her fortune was squandered and her love for Hannibal twisted into a frantic desire to harden him against future pain. They spoke of anything and everything until the hour grew late and exhaustion overtook them each night, but never once about the war, never once about Hannibal’s departure, as if not speaking of it might keep it at bay.

As the days raced by and Will’s belly grew larger, Roland regained the use of his right hand, and Hannibal was hopeful that he would recover more movement with time, though he feared his grandfather would never entirely rebound from such a devastating event. But like grains of sand in an hourglass, trickling away one by one, the days passed them by and Hannibal knew he would have no choice but to reluctantly leave the care of his mate and Grandfather in his family’s capable hands.

“Is everything prepared?” Will asked, slipping into Hannibal’s room in his nightshirt and robe, his slippered feet almost soundless on the carpets. Winston heaved himself up from before the fire and moved to greet him, tail wagging, but subdued by their low spirits.

“Yes,” Hannibal said, closing the latches on his medical bag and resting his hand atop it as he regarded his mate. He couldn’t help but smile, even knowing he would leave him come morning. Six years ago, he would never have imagined himself so deeply in love, so content, so happy, and the reason stood before him—his brilliant, cherished mate, who had given him the forgiveness he didn’t deserve and the coshings he certainly did.

Will came to him then, drawn by his smile, one hand resting on his heavy belly and the other reaching out to touch his cheek.

“What are you thinking?” he murmured, Hannibal’s stubble rasping against his palm.

“That my life was so empty before you,” Hannibal said, covering Will’s hand with his own. “That I will always be grateful that the gods gave me a chance to know you.”

Will smiled, a sad and soft smile that did not quite reach his dark eyes. “Do not speak as if you won’t return, Hannibal. Even a boulder’s strength has its limits.”

“I know,” Hannibal said, tugging Will into his arms, turning him slightly to make room for the baby’s bulk. “If something were to happen to me—”

Hannibal,” Will said, stiffening in his arms.

“If something were to happen to me, Will,” Hannibal insisted, turning Will’s face to his, their eyes meeting and locking. “I want you to know that the very best and brightest part of my life has been you. I never lived until now, Will. I moved through my days like a ghost through empty halls, a meaningless existence without purpose or direction. You have given me purpose. You have given me faith and hope in the future of our family. You have given me love, Will, like I’ve never felt before in all my life… and I will always be grateful to you for that.”

Will blinked, tears slipping down the round curves of his cheeks, his full mouth trembling as he fought not to weep.

“If I don’t come back to you on my own two feet,” Hannibal whispered, kissing those tears away, tender and gentle with him, “I want you to know that I have loved you as deeply and fully and recklessly as any man has ever loved before, and I will always be with you. Always and forever.”

Will lifted his arms in silent pleading and Hannibal scooped him up, hefting him easily and carrying him to the bed, knowing neither of them would sleep tonight, but for all the wrong reasons.

The morning of Hannibal’s departure found Will downstairs before dawn, pacing in the library with Winston and Tier’s girls keeping pace with him, agitated by his nerves.

The moment he had dreaded was upon him, the shattering of his happiness and the loss of the comfort he had come to rely on. Much as he tried to resist it, his father’s hateful words haunted him with bitter truth and he found himself paying for the joy he’d dared to take, his defiance of the gods turned back on him, sharp and deadly with every intention to pierce him to the soul.

His eyes slid to the clock again. Hannibal had gone in to check on Grandfather almost half an hour ago, saying his goodbyes to the man who loved him so dearly, telling him he was taking a short trip and would be back soon, because the truth might honestly kill him after all.

Will had meant to accompany him, but found himself unable to in the end. He wasn’t sure he could bear to see it, wasn’t sure he could be strong for Hannibal when sadness threatened to crack him wide open, and Hannibal needed his strength now more than ever.

Will twisted his ring on his finger, his heart giving a sickening lurch when Mr. Hawkes said, “Lord Clarges is coming, my Lord.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hawkes,” Will said, quitting the library and reaching the foyer just as Hannibal did.

They paused there for a moment, regarding one another, separated by so many things they couldn’t bear to say, fears that might come to pass if given a voice, hopes that might be dashed if they dared name them.

Everything that needed saying had been said through the night, whispered confessions of devotion and promises on every breath, a sacred moment where love was elevated to the divine and the altar at Will’s feet lay drenched in tears and promises.

And Hannibal Lecter always kept his promises. Will clung to that knowledge with all of his might.

“Yes, well… I won’t be long,” Hannibal said, at a loss for words as only Will could make him. He yearned to embrace him, but he feared doing so, feared he would defy King and country to stay at Will’s side, renouncing allegiance to all else but the love of his mate.

But seeing him there in the faint golden glow of the new gas globes, wan and thoughtful and on the cusp of abandonment yet again when he most needed his husband, Hannibal risked the consequences and pulled Will into his arms.

Their lips met with the echo of every kiss between them, a farewell woven of moments that formed a tapestry of love. Will felt the finality of that kiss and curled against him, fingers clenching in Hannibal’s lapels, surging up in his grip to remind him that this was not goodbye, never goodbye.

They were both left softly panting when a discreet throat clearing from Mr. Hawkes parted them, but neither of them paid any mind to propriety for the moment.

“I have something for you,” Will said, his husky voice soft but firm. He delved into his pocket and withdrew a watch. The cover was etched with something, and when Hannibal looked closer, his heart ached to see the familiar sight of Hartford House when viewed from the lane. “I never dreamed when I ordered it that you would be leaving, but I hope when you see it, you remember your home and the people here who love and need you.”

Will thumbed the catch, turning the watch to reveal a miniature version of his portrait opposite the watch face.

“I wanted to surprise you,” Will said, his smile pained and rueful. “I had no idea at the time that I would be sending you off to war.”

“Will,” Hannibal breathed, staring down at the painting which perfectly captured Will’s effortless strength, his beauty and grace, the slight stubborn tilt to his chin and the limpid turn of his eyes, as if a world of secrets lay behind the luscious curl of his lashes. He swallowed the lump that tightened his throat and whispered, “I will treasure it, Will. Gods, how I will treasure it.”

“Take care of yourself,” Will said, a plea made with aching tenderness, watching Hannibal exchange his old watch for the new one, clipping it onto the chain still laced with his blue garter.

“I have my defences,” Hannibal said, resigned to the fact that he was returning to hell and might never make it out alive. What counted was before him—Will, their child, the happiness and contentment of his family and the surety for their future. “I have my Courtier’s token, I have the likeness of you to gaze upon when my spirits are low, but most importantly I have you.”

He pressed his hand to Will’s heart, then to his own, his smile sad but determined. “You’re here with me, and even in the darkest days ahead of me, I know you’ll be here waiting for me, and if that isn’t motivation enough to get me through a war, why then nothing is.”

Will smoothed Hannibal’s jacket, staving off the inevitability of letting him go, saying, “Perhaps I should come to the Capital with you? I could see you off from there?”

Hannibal, however, was already shaking his head, his lips thinning with pain.

“No, Will,” he said, reaching up to cup his cheek. “It would be even more impossible for me to leave you there. Let me carry this memory with me, the sight of you here at Hartford where you belong, smiling at me.”

“I love you, Hannibal,” Will said, the faint tremble in his voice nearly overcoming his husband’s best intentions.

“I love you, too, Will,” Hannibal murmured, pained as if a piece of himself was being ripped away, bleeding away his happiness to leave cold resignation.

Will stroked Hannibal’s hair when he bent to press a kiss to his belly, whispering promises to the baby within. It took every bit of his character, his sense of duty and discipline not to break into a thousand shattered pieces, but he was made of sterner stuff than that. It could come later, when Hannibal was gone, once Will was alone and no one would see how he wept, unraveling like a thread plucked from the loosened fabric of his hope.

“Come back safely to me,” he whispered, his pleading blue eyes meeting Hannibal’s as he straightened, “to us.”

“As you are my husband,” Hannibal said, kissing Will’s pale forehead one last time in parting. “I will do as you say.”

With a last, lingering brush of fingers, Hannibal pulled away, moving past him in an eddy of warm Alpha scent, striding from the House with his coat billowing around him.

Will turned, moving to the doorway to watch him mount up where Berger was already waiting. The lanterns cast a harsh glow in the predawn darkness, making mist of Will’s breath in the cold air, and he shivered with misgivings, stroking his belly to comfort himself.

But when Hannibal got settled in his saddle and looked at Will, Will smiled as brilliantly as he ever had since Hannibal’s return. It was his last smile, he knew, and he made it a gift to his husband, knowing the trials he faced in the coming days.

Hannibal pressed his gloved fingers to his lips and turned them towards Will in a kiss, and then he was off, spurring the horse down the lane as if the Devil himself were behind him.

He never looked back as he rode away.

But Will knew that he wanted to. More than anything, he wanted to.

An unexpected peace fell over Will in Hannibal’s absence, acceptance that there was no defiance he could manage which would bring his husband back to him. All he could do was maintain hope and keep his bond flung wide open.

He felt it pull tight and thin as Hannibal traveled away from him, but no matter how frayed and strained it might become, the bond they shared was too strong to break, and he took comfort in that. Whatever the future had in store for Hannibal, Will would know it should the worst happen.

He fed Grandfather breakfast to avoid his own, lacking any appetite. He would force himself to eat, he knew, for the baby’s sake if not his own, but for now the hollow in his stomach matched the hollow in his heart and he had no desire to disturb it.

“I’ll sit with him today, Mr. Zeller,” Will said when Roland’s valet came to collect his breakfast tray. There was a touching tenderness in the way Zeller wiped Roland’s mouth clean and tidied him, his affection surfacing more without the hard layer of carelessness disguising it. “Why don’t you take some air?”

“It’s snowing,” Zeller said, nodding at the windows, and when Will turned to look it was to find fat, fluffy flakes spilling from the heavens. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Roland’s eyes slid to the window, the longing in him thick enough to taste. He was far too frail to be taken out there, however, and Will shook his head, saying, “As beautiful as it is, we’ll stay inside, you and I. We can read some more, if you like?”

Roland’s gaze immediately shifted to the translation, not to the books Will had brought to entice him.

“I’m not sure we should continue,” Will said, allowing Zeller to escape with the breakfast tray, leaving the two of them alone. “She speaks so harshly of you, I wouldn’t wish to upset you further, Grandfather. Not with Hannibal leaving for… business.”

Roland glowered at that, sensing he was not being told the truth but with no ability to argue the point. Will escaped his censure by pulling the translation free and flipping through it to the last few entries, hoping to spare him. She had not written daily, only when something momentous happened, or when she found her emotions too difficult to suppress, which often concerned all three Lecter men in her life. It made for interesting but quick reading at times, and somewhat disjointed in connecting events, but she always made her point, the Lady Murasaki.

“Very well,” Will said, finding a good place to start. “Just a little while, then.”

I am shaking as I write this. I hope whoever reads this when I am gone can see what I have written. We have returned to the Capital from the country at last. I came straight to write this, to put down my feelings before they could escape.

Everything was wrong.

Everything was backwards, and I never knew it. How was I to know it? Have I hated him all my life for the wrong reasons? Why must the gods play such bitter tricks on us when we have none of their capacity for understanding?

I spoke with Roland alone, not like last time, but truly, with purpose. After all this time, I finally listened to what he said, insults laid aside. He was so angry at first, so full of spirit it was almost as if he was Omegan—fierce and furious and ready to do battle.


Only, the battle was for what truly happened in my youth.

Prisoner—that is what he called himself. He did not stay by choice, but under my father’s watchful eye. The fondness that rose between us was encouraged by my father, another link in the chain that bound him. I chose him for my first heat because he was gentle, and careful, and always so willing to indulge me. I did not know then it was their custom here to treat Omegas as fragile flowers, delicate porcelain easily broken and needing protection. I thought it meant something it did not mean. I thought we both felt the same regard for one another. He found pleasure in our marriage bed but took no joy in it, a duty pressed on him by my father’s heavy hand.

He wrote to his people not for slaughter, but for escape.

And he wanted to take me with him.

He wanted to bring me here, to the world I now live in, and make me his wife by their custom. Raise our son together and many more after, to save me from the invasion he knew would come, inevitable in the way of their people—moving through the world to conquer and own through devastation.

Why do I weep as I write it? Why do I mourn for a past we have only barely survived? Why must what might be always seem so beautiful when compared to what truly is? Yet I cannot help but imagine how life would be for us now, had he dragged me here kicking and screaming to be his bride. The child of a conquered people, a curiosity, a relic of a world they eventually crushed to dust despite all our expectations.

He said the note he had sent reached no one. That instead it was my father’s demands which reached the ears of Roland’s King and his own father, and another King had been asked to solve it for a share of the spoils. He told me of how our Emperor saw a chance to be rid of the threat House Murasaki represented and gave the foreign soldiers permission to bring Roland out alive only if they destroyed everything else in their path and all who were loyal to our family.

I would not believe it, but I could taste the truth of his words. He was as frightened and in danger as any of us that night, not knowing they were there to rescue him. When the fighting started and he could not find me, he went to save our son, hoping to protect him. When I found him there, he begged me to come with him, but his words were all wrong. My words were all wrong. He thought I refused him, when I did not know there was even a choice to be made. He thought I chose to die rather than accept him, chose to sacrifice myself for my honor, even if our child would suffer for it.

The foreign soldiers would not listen, he said, and he wept as he told me. He wept before me, the enemy he has hated for so long. He said they would not stop, no matter how he begged them. They were not of his people, of his lands. They knew no more of his language than he knew of mine. They saw the man they had been sent to find, and all else was to be destroyed.

He said he thought I had died there when the shots were fired. He said he had died there with us, the part of him that loved us both. He said he never forgave me for the choice he thought I made, that my refusal delayed him long enough that the soldiers found us and murdered our child. He said he never forgave himself for Kohaku’s death.

I thought I could never forgive him either. Why must I learn this now? Why must my heart crack into pieces this way? My strength has deserted me. I have no will to press ahead. My vengeance has become a tiny coal in the furnace of my soul, glowing and waiting to be fed.

And I have nothing left to give it.

Berger was as silent and grave as Hannibal on their journey, a pale and determined presence at his side, loyal to the end. It reminded Hannibal bitterly of the first time they’d gone to war. He’d been so intent on dying then, flinging himself into battle to erase his mistakes in his own blood, and Berger had waded through every misery in order to drag him back, time and again, urging him that his grief would pass. This time, Hannibal swore he would take no chances, because he would not have Berger there to watch his back and steer him towards caution.

The snow was falling thick and heavy on their arrival to the Capital, sooty gray by the time it landed on the grimy roads. Berger wordlessly took Hannibal’s medical bag from him as they exited the station, preparing to go to Chelsea House and make sure things were ready for him there, even if he would not be staying long.

“Tell Black not to worry about feeding me, I’ll stop in my club for that,” Hannibal said, fishing his watch out of his pocket and pressing the spring to check the time against the great clock. Will looked up at him from the portrait and Hannibal swallowed hard, wondering if he would be able to bear to look before long, he already missed him so much. He closed the watch and slid it back into his pocket, hand trembling. “I’ll report for duty at the Ministry and make sure everything is finalized first. I’ve no idea when I’ll be in.”

“Yes, m’Lord,” Berger said, heading off, but he paused when Hannibal called to him.

“Berger… I appreciate everything you’ve done for me over the years,” Hannibal said, earnest. “I want you to go back to Hartford when I leave. I have a cottage there for you, and a pension in case I shouldn’t return. Here’s a letter of reference, if you would prefer to remain a valet. I know several gentlemen—”

“Here, now, that’s enough of that nonsense,” Berger said, clutching Hannibal’s medical bag to his chest and quivering with offence. “One war or ten, you’re my responsibility, my Lord. If you’re headed to the front, so am I, and I’ll not hear another word to the contrary.”

“I would never ask you to face such horrors again, Berger,” Hannibal said, holding his gaze. “Once was quite enough.”

“My Lord, when you shipped off all them years ago,” Berger said, his ruddy face set in a frown, “you was as broken as I’ve ever seen a man, out of your head with grief and looking for the gods’ own judgement. I did my best by you, looked after you as much as you’d allow for, followed you into the worst of it in hopes I could keep you alive, not because you were my better, but because you were my friend.”

Berger shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable with being so candid, but Hannibal himself was touched beyond measure, warmed by his confession.

“You had nothing to lose then, or imagined you didn’t,” Berger said, his frown turning thoughtful and determined. “Now you got everything to lose, and so does his Lordship. If you went off to war and something happened, something I might’ve prevented, I could never forgive myself, my Lord, thinking I’d left a friend in need to face his fate alone. If you go, I go with you, and that way we both know we’ve done all we can for the best, don’t we?”

It coaxed a smile from Hannibal and a small, pleased laugh, and he nodded, telling him, “Remind me to give you a raise, Berger.”

“If we come through this and get you back home to his Lordship,” Berger said, “you can give me all the raises you like!”

He took himself off into the crowd, the snow leaving a haze reminiscent of the morning fog that usually shrouded the Capital. Hannibal stared after him, his mind already beginning the painful process of bracing for the battlefield he had hoped to leave behind him.

And then he caught Will’s face in the crowd, a bolt of recognition that shocked him, out of place as it was.

Mina swept from a carriage on the street, scolding Ms. Speck all the while, a sizeable lockbox clutched in her gloved hand. The fur-trimmed collar of her traveling jacket framed her face, making her resemblance to Will even more stark. Hannibal stood unnoticed by her in the crowd, watching with curiosity as she turned towards the station, her blue eyes wild and frightened.

He wasn’t sure why he did so, but he followed her back inside. Perhaps it was how furtive she seemed, how hounded she appeared, armed with nothing but her expensive traveling clothes and that locked box. Ms. Speck struggled behind her with a trunk, and for Mina to travel with so little was shocking to him, frankly. She’d had trunks enough to require a second coach when she’d come to Hartford and had left with even more.

A child running through the station bounced against her and dashed off, sending the lockbox spinning across the floor, accompanying her cry of dismay. Hannibal moved to retrieve it, both of them bending to reach it at the same time.

“Allow me, Lady Rathmore,” he said, gripping it and rising as she did.

Her mouth dropped open in surprise when she saw who held the box, her familiar blue eyes wide and shocked.

Hannibal!” she said, and pressed her gloved hand to her bosom. “I thought you’d gone to war!”

“Did you?” Hannibal asked, cocking his head and even more curious when she flushed, a livid red rising on her cheeks.

“The papers announced it months ago,” she said, recovering somewhat.

“My deployment was delayed. I leave tomorrow morning, before dawn,” he said, turning the box in his hands to look at it. “Are you hurt? He hit you quite hard.”

“N-no, I’m not,” she said, rapidly gaining control of her shock. “No, I’m fine, thank you. May I have my box, please?”

“A strange thing for a lady to travel with,” he mused, wondering why it was so light. “Have you absconded with your jewels, Mina?”

“No, Hannibal, don’t be silly!” she said, her trilling laughter high and nervous. “No, I’ve decided to visit father in Broadriver.”

“I take it your sister has come through her illness, then?” Hannibal inquired, entirely unsurprised by the confusion that colored her features. “Ingrid, was it? Will said you had gone to nurse her. I do wish you had written to him of her health. He does love his blood relations, however little you all deserve it.”

Her smile wavered, but she said, “Ingrid! Of course, how thoughtless of me not to write. She is very well, Hannibal, thank you. But I must be off. I wouldn’t wish to miss my train. Gretchen!”

“Yes, m’Lady!”

“Well,” Hannibal said, handing the box back to her with a small, tight smile. “Safe journey to you, Lady Rathmore.”

“And to you, Lord Clarges,” Mina said, taking the box with visible relief. “I hope you stay safe there in that horrid war! It is dreadful that you must abandon my Will yet again. I cannot imagine how he bears it, my poor darling!”

“With a good deal more grace than you could possibly conceive of, Lady Rathmore,” Hannibal said. “Give my regards to your father.”

Her full mouth pursed, her gaze turning assessing and sharp, but she held her tongue and turned on her heel, striding away from him to follow Ms. Speck towards the trains.

Will was silent for a long moment after finishing that page, Lady Murasaki’s words still haunting him.

My vengeance has become a tiny coal in the furnace of my soul, glowing and waiting to be fed. And I have nothing left to give it…

Grandfather made a soft noise, distressed, and Will saw that he was weeping, tears flowing down his temples to soak his silver hair.

“Oh, Grandfather, I am so sorry,” Will said, pulling his handkerchief out to wipe at Roland’s tears. “You had no idea, did you?”

Roland tried to speak, his mouth tight, but he could do nothing more than groan in pain, squeezing his eyes closed.

It wasn’t another event, or even a pain of the flesh, but of the spirit. A wound time had not healed, but had festered and scarred and hardened, only to open and bleed afresh all these years later.

“She never said anything?” Will asked, wiping his face with care for his delicate, paper-thin skin. “She never told you how terribly you’d misunderstood one another?”

Grandfather moaned, a strangled and pained sound, but the meaning was clear all the same, and Will breathed, “Of course she didn’t. It wouldn’t upset you so much to hear it if she had.”

He fetched a wet cloth and washed Roland’s face for him, humming a soft song beneath his breath as he did so. He dried him so he wouldn’t take a chill, and by then Roland had calmed, laying in his bed, thoughtful and half lost in the past.

Will put everything away and walked to the windows, giving him a moment to reflect. The snow had settled over everything, dusting the evergreens, laying mantles of white over the statuary in the gardens. A peacock strutted past the window, cawing its indignation at the state of affairs, leaving a trail behind it that slowly filled in.

Will touched the glass, the cold seeping in through his fingers. The baby hadn’t moved as much through the day, the exciting stimulus of Hannibal’s Alpha voice absent to provoke them. Will’s eyes misted thinking of his husband, of how the baby had disagreed with Will’s dinner last night and protested with all their might. Hannibal had crooned to them, pushing Will’s nightshirt up over his belly to lay his lips to Will’s skin. He’d crooned and purred and the baby had quieted, rolling against the place where Hannibal touched him.

That,’ Hannibal had said, grinning and proud, ‘was a bottom, I’m sure of it. Cheeky little child.’

Will almost laughed then recalling it, but it came out as a half-choked sob he quickly stifled, trembling on the verge of tears. He pushed away from the window, struggling to contain his grief lest it agitate Roland, and plucked up one of the books, saying with brisk, false lightness, “Let’s resume our novel, Grandfather, shall we? It will be luncheon soon. I believe Mrs. Pimms is making a special soup just for you.”

He settled in his chair, glancing up when Roland tapped his hand against the mattress, forcefully enough that it made noise.

When Will looked at him, brows drawn and curious, Roland deliberately pointed at the discarded journal.

“Grandfather, no,” Will said, firm. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Perhaps when you’re feeling better—”

“Just read it to him,” Zeller said, coming in with snow melting on his coat and his boots filmed with water. He eased his coat off as he approached, but his face was empty of his usual teasing, serious and calm as he said, “He needs to hear it, Lord Clarges. He’s needed to hear it for decades.”

Will’s dubious gaze moved from Zeller to Grandfather, who met it with staunch determination.

“Very well,” Will sighed, trading the novel for the translation. “But we only have a few pages left. I can’t imagine what you hope to gain from it.”

The next entry was the last, just as Will had predicted. It was written an unknown time after the previous. Chiyoh’s note in the corner referenced a date rendered illegible with tears that had spread the ink through the page, obscuring it.

“‘We are going to Hartford in the morning,’” Will read, frowning when he realized the entry was so short. “‘I am going to tell Roland everything. We have both of us lived too long hating one another, betrayed by one another, trying to hurt one another. I will tell him that he was wrong. I will tell him that I did love him, as much as an impulsive youth can ever love anything beyond their own satisfaction. I will tell him that I did not refuse him, that I might have considered his offer had either of us the words we needed to make ourselves known. I will tell him that I forgive him and ask him to forgive me, and perhaps if we find peace then Kohaku can finally rest.

I have decided to give him what he wants. For years he has offered me money to leave his son alone, money enough to go back to Nippon and start again, far away from them all. I will accept his offer, but I have my conditions. He must take Hannibal to Hartford and keep him far from Cyrus. I have watched him all these years, watched him drift further and further from reach, silent and scornful and rightfully so. The strength I tried to give him was steeped in bitterness and bears a poisoned fruit—his hatred is my reward for my cruelty, no matter how I believed I spared him. I have broken something in him that I fear will never heal, destroyed an innocent faith in safety that no child should have taken from them. I can never ask his forgiveness; I do not deserve it and the gods themselves would not grant it, but I can ensure he is safe in my absence. I only hope his grandfather can give him the happiness he deserves. Whatever the outcome, he must not be left in his father’s hands if I am not there to protect him.

I will ask Roland to find Chiyoh, to deliver her to me so that I may take her with me when I go. And I will tell him that I am taking Mischa. She is mine, and mine alone. There is no place for her in Roland’s life, no place for her in this world, half of my blood, half of his, and born outside of any marriage they recognize. He will have his son, he will have his heir, and I will have our Omega to love. It is far too late for us to start again and we are both of us weary. Yet I find myself hopeful that we can be happy at last, that my little fawn will grow to be a strong, proud stag, and that I will die in the lands that gave birth to me, a proud Murasaki to the very end.’”

Will lowered the paper in stark shock, breathing, “Grandfather, is this true?”

“Yes,” Zeller said, answering for him. He moved closer to the bed and heaved a sigh, his frown heavy and thoughtful. “Yeah, it’s true. You didn’t know that, old man, did you? You suspected about Mischa, but you didn’t know Murasaki wanted to make a deal.”

“Mischa was your daughter? But how? When?” Will asked, taking up the journal to thumb through it, looking for any clue she’d written of. “She never said, not once!”

“Probably worried Cyrus would find it,” Zeller said, gesturing at the pages. “By the end, she wasn’t worried anymore. She was leaving anyway, or thought she was.”

“That was the night, wasn’t it?” Will asked, holding Roland’s sorrowful eyes. “She came to make a deal with you, and instead ended up leaving, demanding to leave. Grandfather, what on earth happened?”

“Hannibal wanted Mischa. The old man wanted Mischa,” Zeller said, drawing Will’s attention once again. He offered Will a pale shadow of his usual irreverent grin and said, “Just after the accident that broke his back, he got so damned drunk he was lucky he was in a chair to start with. He told me all kinds of things he probably wished he hadn’t later,” he tapped his temple with one finger and added, “and I don’t forget, Lord Clarges.”

“Zeller, have you been blackmailing Grandfather all these years?” Will asked, taken aback, but he was relieved when Zeller only laughed and shook his head.

No, I wouldn’t do that, my mother would haunt me and believe me, that’s the last thing I want,” Zeller told him. “No, we’ve got an understanding, the old man and I. He did a lot for my mom, a lot for me growing up and he still does. I told her I’d take care of him, and that’s what I do, even when that means listening to his nightmare stories about the family.”

“So he spoke to you of that night?” Will asked, reaching out to stroke Roland’s hair, trying to soothe the melancholy that had settled over him. Roland didn’t pull away from his touch, but he seemed lost somehow, adrift once more in a past that had dealt more pain than it had joy.

“Not much, but some,” Zeller said, and tugged on Roland’s sleeve, saying, “Can I tell him?”

Roland roused himself enough to blink hard, working to utter a little grunt that seemed to satisfy Zeller as assent.

“The three of them were staying here at Hartford overnight in the winter,” Zeller said, tipping his head up in thought as he recalled the details. “It snowed enough that it wasn’t safe to go. Cyrus got drunk and passed out. Hannibal was up in the nursery. I wasn’t even born yet.”

“Thank you, Mr. Zeller, I assumed so,” Will said, appreciating his attempt at humor even if he could not smile at it.

“She was up roaming the house and the two of them ran across each other, got into it like always,” Zeller told him, hesitating to say, “Well, you know how it goes sometimes, Lord Clarges. Some battles are fought best without clothes.”

Will blushed despite himself and dropped a look at Grandfather, bewildered but not surprised.

“He loved her, I think,” Zeller said. “Loved to hate her, or hated to love her, all twisted around and confused. He never told me so, but he talked about that night like he talked about Charles, that same kind of… something. You can’t hate somebody so much for hurting you if you never loved them, can you?”

“Did you?” Will asked, taking Grandfather’s hand in his. “Did you love her, Grandfather? As much as you could after Charles, after everything that had happened?”

A shimmer of tears and a shift of eyes was the answer he needed and he squeezed Roland’s hand, sighing, “How terrible. So you suspected Mischa was your daughter? Lady Murasaki came here to make her offer, but you had made a decision before hearing it—bring Hannibal to Hartford and Mischa along with him. Both children in one fell swoop.”

Roland’s fingers squeezed his in a spasm of helpless response.

“She panicked, didn’t she? She realized she couldn’t speak with you as she hoped or she thought you wouldn’t listen,” Will said, his mind painting a picture of frantic movement, the Omega who had insisted they go despite the terrible storm, seeking to buy herself time and distance to come up with another plan, another way to escape without losing everyone she loved. “She realized you planned to take her child yet again, and she insisted they leave.”

“Yeah,” Zeller said, quiet and subdued. “That’s about it. They left, the coach went into the river, and Hannibal was the only one to make it out alive, and just barely. That was the first time he had an episode like this. My ma thought he wouldn’t pull through, but he did. And he’ll do it again, I know he will.”

Will kissed Roland’s hand and released it, tidying the pages of the journal and putting them back in their envelope. There was a great deal they had missed or skimmed past entirely, but those things could wait until later, until the letters he would write to his husband, relaying the events she spoke of, her regrets about Hannibal’s childhood and her efforts to secure his future happiness when his childhood was beyond repair. The greater story that had caught up the innocent lives of the Lecter children had unfolded in all of its tragic unhappiness and loss, leaving Will numb for fear of being consumed by his Gift.

“I am so sorry,” he whispered, bending to kiss Grandfather’s forehead, stroking his hair with gentle fingertips. “What terrible misery, to have lost so many children…”

First Kohaku, then Mischa and Cyrus years later in the same fatal accident that had claimed Lady Murasaki and nearly Hannibal, as well. That their losses were stepped in misunderstandings, that their deaths might have been prevented only made it all the worse.

“I think I need some air myself,” Will said, knowing that Grandfather was in the past somewhere, perhaps imagining his decisions with different outcomes, where his children lived happy, long lives. “Try to get some rest, Grandfather. The past offers no forgiveness that I’ve ever found, only guilt and frustration.”

He gestured the dogs to his sides and let himself out, drawing a breath that trembled, seeking the comfort of his mate’s earthy Alpha scent and finding only traces that teased but never satisfied, fading into nothingness as if never there at all.

His odd encounter with Mina left Hannibal unsettled as he left the station, lost in thought. He decided to walk off his restlessness, lacking the desire to flag down a cab or face the staff at Chelsea House in order to procure a mount. He checked in at the garrison and signed for his issue as well as for the freight that had already been shipped for him these past months. A stop at the Ministry proved fruitless as Sir Gregory was not in, but Hannibal left his card with the secretary and asked if Sir Gregory might call at Chelsea House that night. He visited Mr. Buddish, then the apothecary to restock his medical bag, and finally decided to indulge himself with a late lunch at his club.

He was very surprised when Berger came to find him there hours later, his round cheeks brick red with effort.

“Good gods, have you been running? What on earth for?” Hannibal asked, shocked by how disheveled he appeared. He gestured for water and the staff brought it immediately, waiting for Berger to swallow it down. “What’s happened, Berger? Is it Will? Grandfather? Speak, for heaven’s sake!”

“It’s been done, m’Lord!” Berger said, panting and ragged, half in a swoon. “S-Sir Gregory got your card and called, m’Lord! It’s all been done!”

“All what?” Hannibal asked, perplexed.

“He says to come at once!” Berger managed, handing him Sir Gregory’s card, on the back of which was an address. “The war is ending!”

“What?!” Hannibal breathed, swaying where he stood, his relief was so great. “What?”

“It’s ending, m’Lord!” Berger repeated, and grinned at Hannibal. “Sir Gregory said to bring you right away!”

“Go fetch my trunks back from the ship, Berger! We’ll return to Hartford the moment we can!” Hannibal shouted as he rushed out, using all of his strength to keep his boundless relief in check, lest Will sense it and later be disappointed. He urged himself to calm, trembling as he hailed a hansom to bear him to the address, which was the Ministry chamber.

The cab pulled into the late afternoon traffic, the pace almost unbearable. He anxiously peered out, his heart hammering with hope that it was true, that the war was over, that their soldiers would come home, and he would go home to Will. He would go home to Will and never leave him, not ever again.

It was enough to hasten his step on his arrival, heightening his senses and straining his nerves to the snapping point. He announced himself at the receiving desk and was taken at once to the crowded assembly hall where a good deal of shouting was going on.

The attendant threaded their way through the chaos to reach Sir Gregory, who excused himself, joining Hannibal with a wide smile on his lined face.

“Lord Clarges! It is very good to see you again,” he said, looking as relieved as he sounded.

“My valet was nearly in a swoon,” Hannibal said, retreating into reserve in case he had misunderstood, but the only thought he could keep hold of was of Will and how quickly he could return to him.

“We are all of us very hopeful,” Sir Gregory said, pleased enough that he seemed to expect good news. “Lord Withome of Kirk and Mr. Katz of the Merchants Guild have brokered the peace treaty, Lord Clarges, and it has been approved! The war will officially end when their Majesties sign.”

Hannibal’s smile turned into a delighted laugh, his relief given full rein and flooding him with trembles of spent tension.

“Gods, that is the best news! The very best news!” he said, hoping the evening train would not be too full to hold him, already envisioning how Will would react in his surprise. “Then my deployment?”

“Null and void,” Sir Gregory said with no small satisfaction, pleased with the turn of events.

“Then I must go at once!” Hannibal said, his relief almost breaking through the tight hold he kept on his emotions.

“Go? No! Not quite yet, Lord Clarges,” he was told. “I understand you have your spouse to get back to, but I wish to present you to the committee and finalize our plans while we all are gathered.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve sorted your paperwork problem?” Hannibal asked, dismayed to think he might not be able to immediately escape.

“I should say so, Rathmore has been arrested,” Sir Gregory said. “First thing this morning. We’ve kept it quiet to now, but I imagine it will be all over the papers by this evening.”

“Arrested? Was his wife present for it?” Hannibal asked, thinking of Mina as he’d last seen her, scurrying through the train station. “She is my husband’s sister, Sir Gregory. That is my only concern in the matter.”

“She was present, yes,” he said, reminded of the family connection Hannibal shared with the Rathmores. “She was warned not to leave the Capital, though there is little concern she was involved, considering.”

“Well, she listens to the law about as well as she listens to any good advice. She has left the Capital,” Hannibal said, a deep sense of unease gripping him. “I met her in the train station this morning. She said she was going to Broadriver, to her father.”

“I shouldn’t think she will find much shelter there,” Sir Gregory said, cocking a brow in scorn. “Rathmore is not a man designed to keep his secrets. He’s giving an accounting of his associates now, and the information supplied by His Grace also implicates Lord Reddig, to a degree. It is only a matter of time before he, too, is arrested, if the evidence supports it.”

Hannibal couldn’t get his mind off of that lockbox Mina had been holding, couldn’t set aside the fear that suddenly gripped him in learning of Timothy’s arrest and what might have prompted her sudden escape to the countryside.

Missing letters, missing men, treason and murder attempts, and his mate left without his Alpha there at his side—it all pressed upon him with sudden urgency, an overwhelming understanding that whatever was in that lockbox and whatever took her to Broadriver was connected to his mate.

“I am sorry, Sir Gregory, but I must go,” he said, moved to act on the sudden, unshakable certainty that Will was in danger.

“But Lord Clarges—”

“Please, arrange a meeting at a later date, Sir Gregory,” Hannibal said, the undertone of panic in his deep voice alerting the other Alpha that there was a serious problem at hand. “I fear that something terrible is afoot and my mate’s life might be at stake! I must go. I must go this instant!”

It was a restless, unsettled day for Will. Not even a walk in the muffled silence of the snow could leech his strange unease, and being surrounded by guards didn’t help that one bit. He felt adrift, a boat without a paddle at the mercy of the current. Not even fetching one of Hannibal’s handkerchiefs had settled the odd dread that dodged him, no matter how often he nuzzled it in search of Hannibal’s scent.

Aunts Margaret and Grace passed a few hours with him, helping him finish at least one little gown and bringing a trunk of others—Hannibal’s baby clothing, kept safely stored all this time in the Fernhill attics. They entertained him with stories of Hannibal as an infant and spent some time with Roland, but returned to Fernhill before nightfall could make the snow-covered roads more difficult to traverse.

Just before sunset, as Will was heading in to write his first letter to his husband, the bond gave him a sickening, shocking thrust of pure terror and panic strong enough that he clutched for a handhold, heart hammering in fear of what had so affected his husband.

“My Lord!” Mr. Hawkes called, hurrying to grasp Will’s hand, supporting him with an arm behind his shoulders. “You are unwell! Fetch me Mr. Price at once!”

“Mr. Hawkes, sir, someone’s come, sir!”

“Oh, bother that, his Lordship, is ailing!”

“It’s alright, Mr. Hawkes,” Will said, catching his breath and straightening. “Please, take their card. I believe I need to rest.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating on the bond, on the push of worry that seemed almost deliberate, as if Hannibal was attempting to warn him of something.

“My Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, returning to announce their visitor.

He was so vastly disapproving and unhappy that Will had to prompt him, asking, “Who is it, Mr. Hawkes?”

“Your sister,” Mr. Hawkes said, and the bond gave a terrible, ugly pulse in Will’s chest. “Lady Rathmore has arrived, my Lord.”

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