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The Thorn of the Rose

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Once upon a time, in a land of myths and monsters that’s name has long since been forgotten, in an age that no one can quite seem to remember, or even agree as to how long ago it took place, there stood at the edge of a dark and sprawling wood a small yet bustling village called Wolf Trap.

The wood had no name back then, though people called it by many. The Black Forest. The Dark Wood. The Forest of Eyes. To one lonely fisherman who lived right along the outskirts, it was most aptly summed up by one eloquently simple and infinitely terrifying phrase. The Forest That Moves.

Many sleepless nights found Will Graham sitting on his front porch, a blanket around his shoulders and a steaming cup of coffee in hand, quietly observing the line of trees standing on the other side of the stream that ran alongside his house, often with one or two dogs laying at his feet—the only two of his pack of seven that did not whimper and whine at the idea of going outside and leaving the warmth and comfort of the cabin after dusk.

Many nights, usually the ones following a particularly rough day of dealing with the villagers, he watched the woods and occasionally caught glimpses of shadows familiar to him only because of their strangeness. Most nights he saw nothing but the eerie sway of tree limbs that never quite seemed to match with the wind, but he always heard the crash and cracks of trees uprooting themselves and changing their positions. He knew this was happening, though he’d never witnessed it firsthand. Every year that tree line would creep closer, inch by inch, nature coming steadily to reclaim the civilization that dared encroach upon it. Will knew because he’d measured it.

Once, he’d even woken up in his chair in the morning, and so familiar was he with the outline and shape of each individual tree on the frontline that he knew two of them had switched places in the night as he slept. He made it a point to always go back inside once he started to feel tired after that.

It wasn’t technically by preference that Will lived so close; it was just that close proximity to other people was often the more difficult burden to bear. Will saw too much into other men’s hearts and rarely liked what he saw there. Often he watched the woods not so much because he feared them, as because he needed the reminder that there were other, far worse things in the world should he ever catch himself contemplating the thought of leaving humanity behind altogether.

Though there was clearly magic at work and several superstitions surrounding the woods besides, few people ever died or became forever lost after daring to venture inside it. Those who became lost usually found their way back, though generally they were so addled or mad or scared out of their wits that it had become necessary to build an asylum in the center of town in order to house them there until they returned to their senses, or at least became functioning enough again to look after themselves.

Those who had frequent business in other towns often traveled through the wood, insistent that it was perfectly alright as long as one stayed on the beaten path and was out of it again before the sun set. Alana Bloom was one such brave individual, and she reminded Will of her beliefs about the wood again after the look of dismay he gave her upon learning she intended to cross through it on her way to the capital city.

“It’s completely safe in the daytime, Will,” she told him, delicately smoothing out her skirts where she sat on the rough blanket as they shared what would likely be one of their last picnic lunches. Her father had promised her hand to Frederick Chilton, the proprietor of the asylum, before his death, and the two of them were engaged to be married before the end of the year. There was an unspoken understanding between she and Will that they would probably get to see each other less often after she was wed, her odious fiancé not likely to be as understanding of their friendship once she became his wife.

Will didn’t believe those woods could be considered wholly safe no matter what the hour, but he knew that his concerns would be dismissed if he brought them up. “It’s a long way to the capital,” he said instead, trying a different tack.

“That’s why we’ll leave the woods before the sun sets and spend the night at other villages along the way.” She would be making the journey with her manservant, Franklyn, a simpering and cowardly individual that Will didn’t like much. He would make poor protection for the noble young woman, but Alana wasn’t concerned much with her protection. She merely wanted another individual on horseback to help her carry back saddlebags full of books to the village. The capital was currently in the process of transitioning its collection of texts to a new library that had recently been built, and had generously offered to donate several of its older volumes to any town that wished to claim them on a first come, first served basis.

“Come on, Will, haven’t you and I both been complaining for years that there’s hardly a book left in the town library that we haven’t already read?” she teased.

“I just don’t see why you have to go through the woods to get there. The mountain path would be safer.”

“It would extend the trip by weeks!” she huffed, fed up. “Besides, if you’re really so worried, you could always come with us. I wouldn’t say no to a third rider.” She knew even before he started to tense up and shake his head that the answer would always be no. Will Graham never set foot in those dense woods for anything, no matter the reason.

“Do you know what your problem is, Will?” she asked, smiling gently to show that she meant no ill. “It’s that you have no faith in the world, in people, in anything. You look around you and you see nothing but despair and ugliness.”

“That’s not true,” he said, smiling crookedly at her. “I see you.”

She sighed, shaking her head but smiling bashfully at the compliment. “There’s beauty out there, Will. Full of magic and wonder, and a whole wide world you’ve never even seen!”

“If you say so,” he said skeptically, and stood to gather up the blanket and basket from their meal.

“Tell you what,” she said, also standing. “I’ll bring you back a souvenir. Something so beautiful and marvelous you’ll have to believe me then!”

Will chuckled and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “For that, you need only bring back yourself,” he told her earnestly.

She blushed then, turning to look away from him shyly. “I will,” she promised. “I’ll return and I will find something beautiful for you. I swear it.”

*

That had been nine days ago. A journey to the capital should only take two, maybe three days tops. Will worked tirelessly every morning through afternoon and tried to convince himself that everything was fine—she had merely been delayed at one of the neighboring villages longer than expected, or had decided to stay a few extra days at the capital to take in the sights as one final hurrah before she had to return and settle into the life of a married woman. Yes, that had to be it.

In his heart, he knew it wasn’t true. On the morning of the tenth day, he saw two figures approach his cabin from the road. It was Mayor Crawford and Frederick Chilton.

“Good morning, Will,” said the mayor solemnly. “I think you may know why we’re here.” The man took a deep breath as if to steel himself. “We’ve decided it’s time to conduct a funeral service tomorrow afternoon. I know you and Alana Bloom were close. Frederick here asked me to come with him to invite you to join us tomorrow and say a few words.”

To Will, it felt as though a knife had been ripped through his gut. “Jack, you can’t be serious. You can’t be giving up on her already! It’s been barely over a week!” he shouted, aware that his voice was growing high and hysterical, but not caring.

“You know as well as any of us, Mister Graham, that a week may as well be a lifetime in that forest,” said Chilton. No one ever survived being lost in the forest for so long. “I fear she is lost to us,” he said, and to his credit at least, he did seem genuinely upset over the unfortunate fate of his fiancée.

“I refuse to accept that,” Will said. He looked to the trees then, looking so deceptively innocent in the morning brightness. “Give me some time, just a few days is all I ask. I’ll find her for you,” he said.

“You?” Chilton asked as if it were the most ludicrous idea he’d ever heard. “You want to go into that forest,” he said, pointing, “and search for my missing bride?” For all that he was astounded, a hint of hope could be detected in his voice as well.

“You’re welcome to come with me, doctor,” said Will. Chilton paled.

“N-no, I...dammit, man, you know I would, but I’m needed here,” Chilton stammered. The implication that Will wasn’t needed was well understood. “What would become of my patients should something happen to me?”

“Then I go alone,” said Will, not bothering to hide his disgust with the slimy coward. To Crawford he said, “Please send someone to check on my dogs while I’m gone.”

Jack nodded. “Best of luck to you, Will, and Godspeed,” he said, clapping him once on the shoulder.

Will watched them go with trepidation in his heart over the fate he had resigned himself to, then headed back into his cabin to prepare.

*

He left the house at dusk.

He had waited, knowing that for this rescue to have any chance of succeeding, it would have to begin at nightfall. The forest changed in the darkness, becoming a twisted, shadowy maze of whispers and teeth. That was the place where he would find her, not in the falsely guileless grove of daylight.

He made sure the dogs were well fed and propped the door to his cabin open so they could get out if they needed to, just in case.

In case he never came back.

Armed with nothing more than an old hunting knife (his only viable weapon), a few days’ worth of provisions, and the cloak around his shoulders, he walked over the makeshift bridge to the other side of the stream. His head turned curiously at the sound of soft paws clicking, following on the bridge behind him.

“Winston, Buster, go back!” he said, pointing towards the cabin and tssing at them when they didn’t immediately obey. The bigger dog whined low in his throat and didn’t budge, while Buster ran up to Will and raised himself up on his hind legs, resting his front paws on the man’s shin. Will sighed.

“I could very well be leading us to our deaths, you know,” he said dryly. Lolling tongues and wagging tails were the only responses he received. Heaving another sigh, he said, “Alright, come on then. Let’s go.” Buster yipped happily and Winston came over to join them.

He took one last lingering look at his tiny house on the other side of the water, then pulled up his hood and stepped forward, disappearing into the twisted shadows of the trees.

*

Hours passed without sign that he was getting any nearer to finding Alana or her escort. He was already hopelessly lost. Strange noises sounded all over the forest of things far worse than mere wild animals, raising the dogs’ hackles and Will’s nerves right along with them. Occasionally shadows darted past his vision, but never did they come near him or his canine companions. Will tried to appear as though he belonged there as much as them, walking slowly but not too slowly, back straight, projecting confidence he did not feel in hopes that it would be enough for the three of them to continue to pass through unmolested.

I wish to find Alana Bloom, he repeated steadily in his mind, doubting there was anyone listening to his prayers but unsure what else to do. I wish to find Alana Bloom. I wish—

Will stumbled in the darkness, falling to the earth on his hands and knees, and realized to his horror that it was not a tree root he had tripped over. It was the leg of a horse. Will turned his head slightly to the right, and looked straight into the dead eyes of Alana’s mare, Applesauce.

He cried out, standing quickly and stumbling backwards. The dogs barked like mad as the strange chitterings and angry whispers of the forest grew louder, closer. The shadows surrounding them seemed to deepen. Will chose a direction at random and ran.

He ran until his lungs burned in his chest, heedless of where he was going, and thus was unprepared to find he had somehow made it past the undergrowth of brush and gnarled limbs and found his way into a clearing. Up on a hill ahead of him stood a huge sprawling ruin of crumbling stone. The sounds of pursuit abruptly stopped.

Will turned and looked, but if the shadows and spirits that had been following lingered near, he couldn’t see them. There was only the trees, eerily still now in the moonlight as though holding their breath, and his dogs panting beside him. Winston stood staring straight ahead at the ruin and growled. Will turned back to look at it.

Alana and Franklyn might have gone in there, thinking themselves out of the woods as soon as they reached the clearing just as Will had at first. It had an evil look to it, but perhaps that was a trick of his imagination and the lack of sunlight. Perhaps it wasn’t.

Either way, seeing no other option, Will let his feet carry him forward into the courtyard. Up close he could see that the stones weren’t crumbling after all, but were so overgrown with vines and limbs as to give the appearance of a manor long since abandoned to weather and time. He hesitated at the tall set of mahogany doors at the entrance for a minute before he took a deep breath, lifted the brass handle to one of them, and knocked. Nothing happened.

Feeling foolish now, Will glanced down at his furry companions and shrugged, chuckling nervously...and almost freezing in place as the door slowly creaked open inward.

“H-hello?” he asked cautiously, daring to curl his fingers around the wood and lean forward with just his head inside to peer at...nothing. A glance around the other side of the door he was holding confirmed it. There was no one in the entryway.

He snapped his fingers at the dogs and pointed, silently commanding them to sit on the stone steps outside. The two of them obeyed immediately. “Stay,” he told them both and stepped carefully inside. The door swung shut behind him and he jumped, heart leaping into his throat. The dark entrance was suddenly filled with light as a thousand candles lining the walls and hanging from the chandeliers flared to life all at once. Will shivered despite the heat of the flames. No, he didn’t like this place. Not one bit.

There was no choice left, however. He had to carry on. He walked further in and more candles suddenly lit themselves in the hallway to his left, but not the one to his right, as though the castle was guiding him somehow. Will turned left, not liking the growing certainty in his chest that he was walking right into a trap, but feeling as if he had no other option except to blindly follow the path laid out for him. The candles guttered out again after he’d gone several paces past them, Will noticed.

He kept following the winding corridors as they led him further and further in, growing more uneasy by the minute, until finally he was standing before another heavy wooden door. The last of the candles guttered out, leaving him standing in darkness. He gulped and turned the handle.

There was a single barred window high on the far wall, the moonlight spilling in the only source of illumination for the entire room. Caged cells lined the other two walls parallel to it. He heard a rustling inside one of them, followed by a soft whimper. Cautiously he stepped closer, heart thudding in his chest. Could it be...?

“H-hello? You’re not—who is that? Who’s there?” a voice croaked out, quiet and tired and afraid, but achingly familiar.

“Alana,” Will breathed out, almost dizzy with relief. He strode over more quickly to the source of the voice, pulling his hood back to reveal his face. “Alana, it’s me! It’s Will.”

“Will??” she asked as though she could hardly believe it. Now that he could see her up close, he noticed that her dress was filthy, her hair a mess, her face pale and drawn as though she had gone for many days without food or rest. He ached to hold her in his arms and let her know that she was safe again.

“Will, what are you doing here?” she asked. “How did you—no wait, don’t!”

He pulled his hand back sharply and hissed in pain, the metal lock glowing briefly red where he’d reached out to touch it.

“The bars are enchanted,” she explained. “I already tried it.”

“We have to get you out of here,” he said, and darted his eyes around, looking for something that could help them, a rock to smash the lock perhaps, anything.

“It’s no use,” she said hopelessly, slumping to the ground and wrapping her arms around herself. “You should get out of here before it’s too late.”

“I’m not leaving you here,” he said and knelt to the floor, facing her.

She sniffed. “I’m sorry, Will. This is all my fault. You shouldn’t even be here.”

“What happened?” he asked her.

She sighed. “I don’t know. We were on our way back home, but something spooked the horses and we...we got lost. By the time we found the path again, it was almost dark.” She looked up at him, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “Franklyn’s dead,” she told him simply.

Will closed his eyes and nodded. He had expected as much when he found her alone in here. He didn’t really care about Franklyn at the moment, though he didn’t say as much, letting her talk.

“I found this place and I almost fell to the ground and kissed it, I was so relieved,” she said, laughing bitterly in remembrance of her own naiveté.

“Who put you in this cage, Alana?”

She shuddered. “Nothing you can stand up against,” she said. “Trust me on that. You need to leave, Will, before he...it, whatever it is, comes back.”

“Even if I wanted to do that,” he said in a tone that made it clear he wasn’t even entertaining the notion, “where would I go? Back out there?” He shook his head. “No, Alana. Certainly not without you. Whatever happens next, we’re in this together now.”

She smiled sadly at him. “Would it be terribly selfish to admit that part of me is glad you’re here, Will?” she asked. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

He wanted to reach through the bars and take her hand, offer some semblance of comfort since he could do nothing else. Before he could move to do so, however, she turned away from him and fiddled with something hidden behind her. When she turned back, her shawl was in her hands, held delicately in a way that suggested there was something fragile wrapped in its folds.

“I have something for you,” she whispered. “Something beautiful, just as I promised, remember?”

“I remember telling you not to get me anything,” he answered, smiling weakly at the memory. It seemed so long ago now, though it had only been days.

“Well, I hope you’ll accept it nonetheless,” she said. “I’ve had to pay dearly for it after all.” At his confused expression, she explained, “The one who lives here, he saw me pluck it from the gardens and he...was not pleased.” She swallowed. “I thought for sure he would take it back from me when he threw me in here, but it would seem it was the rudeness of my act that displeased him more than the theft itself.”

“Alana!” he gasped, shocked at her confession. What foolishness or madness had possessed her to remove anything from this accursed place, much less something that was clearly not hers to take?

“I know, but please hear me out!” she said, twisting the shawl in her hands fretfully now before she forced herself to loosen her grip. “I looked everywhere in the city, Will, and there were all sorts of lovely things,” she said, her words coming out in a rush. “Paintings, silk scarfs, music boxes, you name it, but...nothing really seemed good enough. I only had to take one look to know none of it would suit you at all, and I had promised you something extraordinary. I turned back thinking I would have to return empty-handed, but then I came here and I found something at last.”

He lifted his hand to cover his mouth and cast his eyes over her shoulder, sure he would start crying if he met her gaze. He was stricken with guilt even though he had done nothing wrong. He felt to blame, knowing now that she had been put in this inescapable prison simply for the crime of wanting to do something kind and thoughtful for him.

She seemed not to notice his dilemma, her tone hushed and strangely excited as she carried on. “It’s perfect, Will,” she said. “I saw it and knew instantly that it was for you.” She set the shawl in her lap then and started to unfold it.

He almost protested, and just barely kept his tongue in check. He didn’t want to see it, whatever it was, that was to blame for this horrible predicament they were in. He wanted to reach through the bars, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her for her foolishness. No gift is worth this, he wanted to yell at her.

And then the fabric hiding it fell away completely, and she held aloft in her hand the most immaculate, gorgeous, breathtaking blood-red rose he had ever seen. It seemed almost to glow warmly from within under the pale moonlight streaming in from the window.

“I picked it from the vine days ago,” she said. “And still, it hasn’t faded or wilted at all. Isn’t it the most stunning bit of magic you’ve ever seen?”

It was. He wasn’t much interested in flowers normally, but there was something compelling about this one that Will couldn’t explain. He knew only that he wanted desperately to touch it, to hold it in his own hand, and reached his arm carefully through the bars to take it from her. She smiled, apparently pleased by his appreciation for the gift, and allowed him to pull it gently from her grasp.

“Ah,” he gasped softly, wincing at the slight pain but careful not to drop the precious blossom in his hand.

“What’s wrong?” she asked concernedly.

“Nothing,” he assured her. “Just a thorn.” He peeled his hand back carefully from where the thorn had bit deep into his palm, drawing blood, and loosened his grip around the stem so it wouldn’t stab him so easily again. He then brought the rose close to his chest, clutching it almost possessively as he grazed the fingertips of his other hand lightly over the soft petals.

“A thorn? But there weren’t any. I checked...”

He hummed in response, not really listening. Dimly he did note her words in the back of his mind, but they seemed unimportant at the moment, uninteresting. He lifted the rose to his face and smelled it, letting petals softer than human skin brush over his lips as he did so. His eyes slid shut at the feeling and he let out a soft contented sigh.

“And what is this? Another unexpected guest come into my home?”

Had Will been standing, he likely would have spun around sharply to look behind him and stumbled over his own two feet in the process. As it was, the voice was enough to pull him out of the strange reverie he’d fallen into and made the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. The startled gasp Alana uttered and frantic way she scrambled to her own feet and backed away until she was against the far wall of her cell further clued him in to who it must be that was suddenly towering over him and casting its large grotesque shadow over the wall—the master of this place.

Will raised his hands slowly in the air in a gesture of appeasement, head tilted over his shoulder just enough to catch a glimpse of a long dark cloak trailing over the stone floor and a black cloven foot. He swallowed. “I am unarmed,” he told the stranger, careful to keep his voice reasonable, calm, and gentle as he spoke, as he might with a stray dog which he feared might bite. “I apologize for my intrusion. I bear no ill intent. I’m just here for my friend.”

“Such manners,” it replied, its voice rich, throaty, and deep, its tone oddly pleasant. “She must have warned you already of my intolerance for rudeness.” Not just pleasant then—amused. The creature understood exactly what Will was trying to do and seemed to find his attempt at etiquette and submissiveness charming.

“It is not my wish to offend,” he responded carefully, wondering if this was some sort of test, and if so, what possible hopes he might have of passing. He had the knife still sheathed in his boot should it come to that, but doubted it would do much good against this mysterious captor.

“The floor must be terribly cold and uncomfortable to be kneeling upon. Please stand.” The words were unfailingly polite and posed as a request, but Will held no doubts in his mind that they were anything less than a command. He rose obediently to his feet, his back still turned to the other for the moment.

The other loomed close enough that Will could feel hot puffs of breath against the back of his neck. The way their shadows interplayed along the wall made it seem as though there were tall, branching horns growing out of Will’s head, and he swallowed thickly at the sight. From the corner of his eye, he could make out Alana huddled in the corner with her hands over her mouth as if to keep from crying out or sobbing.

The stranger leaned in even closer and inhaled deeply. “Did you just smell me?” Will asked incredulously before he could stop himself.

The other chuckled, the sound rumbling low in his chest. Will thought of thunderstorms without rain. “You are bleeding, human,” the entity said, wrapping long taloned fingers around Will’s wrist where a thin line of blood had slid down from his palm, his fist still curled tightly around the flower’s stem. Will resisted the urge to yank himself free from the loose grasp.

The fingers came away again only a moment later, now covered in a glossy red that shone blacker even than the creature’s dark skin under the silvery moonlight. He heard a delicate slurping sound from behind him and realized the thing was licking the blood off his fingers. Will shuddered.

“Do I taste good?” he asked impudently.

“Fear makes you rude, I see.” Rather than offended, the beast’s voice sounded warm and delighted. “You may lower your arms if you wish.” Will let his hands drop to his sides. “Now turn around. I want to look upon the one who would brave my woods at night of his own free will.”

Slowly, taking great care not to brush against the bars at all, or too much against the being standing just a hair’s breadth too close to be completely avoided, Will did as he was told.

Will’s eyes widened, though he took care not to show much reaction beyond that. The being before him was not so much taller, perhaps a head or so over Will’s height, but seemed to tower larger because of the broad width of its shoulders, the toned sinewy muscle visible beneath fine dark clothing that seemed at once courtly and aristocratic as well as peculiarly out of fashion, and of course, the sharp spiraling antlers that were probably about as long as one of Will’s arms. Its face was eerily similar to that of a man’s with strong, angular, masculine features, and its coloring from the tip of its antlers to the bottom of its cloven hooves was as black as a pitch, starless night. Even its pitiless eyes, which Will dared no more than a glimpse of before lowering his own, seemed as empty and dark as those of a venomous adder.

Will felt those eyes sweep over his own form, taking in his shabby, rumpled clothing, the pale smoothness of his skin, the few days of scruff he’d neglected to shave off yet with so much else on his mind, and the wild unkempt tangle of dark curls which were probably more disheveled than usual from running earlier. He was sure he must seem weak and uninteresting in comparison to the beast itself, but the creature’s lips curved into a pleased smile and he let out a low hum as though in approval. Will blushed under the scrutiny without knowing exactly why.

“What is your name, pretty human?”

Will was fairly certain that in all the old stories told about faefolken and other creatures of legend, the hero was supposed to lie when posed this question and thus somehow neatly trick the creature in order to avoid a terrible fate, but he had the strangest conviction that if he tried it the entity would know and his fate would be sealed either way. So he went with his gut instead and told him, “It’s Will Graham.”

“Will,” the creature said, his tongue curling around the short syllable as though savoring it. It disturbed Will more than it should to see that while its teeth were black and sharp like the rest of it, its tongue was pink like a human’s. “It suits you. A well-fitting name for my willful little trespasser.”

“I did knock,” Will said, surprised at his own daring and the dryness of his tone. “Your house let me in.”

“Did it now?” the being asked, sounding quite intrigued by this information. “But forgive me. You have introduced yourself and I have not yet returned the courtesy. My name is Hannibal.”

The being—Hannibal—then crooked a finger under Will’s chin and tilted it upward, forcing him to lock gazes with its own. Will froze at the contact, inhaling a shaky breath as stormy blue eyes met bottomless black ones, with a hint of maroon like dried blood glimmering underneath.

“Not fond of eye contact, are you?”

“Eyes are distracting,” Will admitted, breathless and shaking like a leaf as he hadn’t been earlier when the monster had gripped his wrist and sucked his blood off its fingers.

“More so than the rest?” the other asked slyly, in obvious reference to its own appearance. Will, perhaps wisely, chose not to comment on that. He gasped in open relief when his chin was released and he was allowed finally to look away.

“Ask,” Hannibal said. Will looked at it—him—confusedly at first until the other clarified. “What you came here for.”

Will looked over his shoulder at Alana, who stood watching them both silently, too tired to beg or cry or do much other than accept her fate resignedly. “Let her go. Please.”

Hannibal tilted his head to look at her dispassionately. “That one? She is a thief. Am I to let her misconduct go unpunished?”

“If it’s this you want,” Will said, holding the rose out to him, “then please, just take it back and let us depart, I beg of you.”

“Oh no, dear Will,” the monster said, closing both of his hands over Will’s own and gently pushing it back so Will once again held the rose over his own heart as he had done when he first took it. “That is yours now,” he said with a strange, sly grin that had Will almost shivering again for reasons he couldn’t explain. “I could not bear to ask you to part with it.”

“Then what?” Will asked, hearing the despair creep into his voice. “What can I possibly give you that would be enough? What is it that you want?”

“I want only what is fair,” Hannibal said.

“Fair,” Will parroted back faintly. For the moment he was stumped, hopeless...and then he understood. “Fair,” he repeated, his tone firming as he spoke. “An even trade then. One life in return for another.” The beast smiled, and Will knew that he had guessed correctly. He nodded. “Take me instead then,” he said. “My freedom in exchange for hers.”

“What?” he heard Alana exclaim behind him. “Will, no, you can’t!”

“I accept,” Hannibal answered, making no attempt to hide his sadistic pleasure as Will closed his eyes solemnly and Alana started to wail behind him, letting out the same broken ‘no’ over and over again between sobs.

The beast had only to lay a hand on the iron gate and it swung inward, allowing her to dart outside past it, for once utterly unmindful of the terrifying being that had held her captive and tormented her mentally for so long, so that she could throw her arms around Will’s shoulders and hold on as tightly as she could, continuing to weep into his shirt collar.

He hugged her just as tightly in return and laid his forehead against the crown of her head, a few tears of his own falling into her hair as he accepted the knowledge that this was the last time he would ever get to hold her or be near her again.

They stayed like that until she had regained enough of her breath and composure to pull back from him slightly, the two of them still held lightly in each other’s arms as she looked up at him. She laid her hand gently against his cheek and gazed up at him as though she wanted to say something, her lips parting just as she was about to form the words.

“That is enough,” said the beast, his voice cold, breaking the moment between them forcefully by dropping a hand on her shoulder and wrenching her backward from Will’s reach. “You have exchanged your farewells, and have now outstayed your welcome, miss. It is time for you to leave.”

“Wait!” Will said, alarmed. “It’s not yet morning!”

“Whoever said her departure would wait until morning?” Hannibal replied, lifting a single hairless eyebrow in question.

“You can’t just throw her out there on her own tonight! She’ll die!” Will insisted, fisting his hands in the monster’s antiquated navy blue tunic. Whether he meant the gesture to be threatening or imploring even Will couldn’t say, though he masked his fear well under his anger. Absurdly, the rose was still safely within his grasp the entire time, making his grip on the shirt with that hand less effective than the other.

The beast narrowed his eyes at him, and Will felt a frission of real terror run down his spine but still held fast. “You are fortunate I like you already, Will Graham,” he said. “And more fortunate still that I am not one of those truly cruel demons who will follow the strictest letter of a bargain but not honor the spirit of it. She will return to her home safe and alive, that I assure you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Will breathed out, equal parts grateful and relieved. He released his grip on Hannibal’s shirt.

“Come then,” Hannibal said. “Ladies first, if you please.”

Alana seemed again about to speak, but at a look from Hannibal, she meekly turned and led the way out back into the corridor Will had entered from, Hannibal following directly behind her and leaving Will to follow behind them both. She gasped as though startled by the candles as they came alight and led the way back to the main entrance, and Will wondered if they had not done that for her as they had for him when she first arrived.

Such thoughts were forgotten as they stepped outside, and Will realized with a lurch in his chest that Winston and Buster were nowhere to be seen. He almost wanted to cry again as his mind raced over the possibilities of what may have happened to them, but he said nothing to either Hannibal or Alana.

Hannibal let out a high strange whistle and gestured his taloned hand in the air as if beckoning something over, though Will could make out nothing in the distance until a few moments later, when out of the fog materialized the largest stag he had ever seen, its fur downy and black and interspersed with equally dark raven feathers throughout.

Alana looked to them both uncertainly, but Hannibal gave her no time to protest, lifting her up as though she weighed no more than a doll and placing her on the stag’s back. With a strange click of his teeth which it seemed somehow to understand, the stag galloped off as quickly as it came, Alana gasping in shock and wrapping her arms around its neck quickly to hold herself steady.

“Will!” she called out fearfully, and Will didn’t realize he had started to follow after her at the exclamation until he felt a strong arm come around his torso, dragging him backward and bringing him flush against Hannibal’s chest. Will craned his neck back to look up at the face staring down at his own, then dropped his gaze forward again to watch Alana and her nightmarish steed disappear into the trees.

“She will be fine,” the other said disinterestedly, and kept his arm around Will as if to keep him from fleeing as he guided the man back inside without waiting or asking if he was ready.

It hit Will then, as the candles flared to life once more and the door clanged shut behind them, that this was his life from now on. For the rest of his life, pitifully short as it was likely to be now, this bizarre echoing fortress was the only home he would ever know again. His knees felt weak at the thought of it.

“Before I show you to your room, please follow me this way for a moment,” Hannibal said, breaking into his melancholy thoughts as he led them down another corridor Will had not seen earlier.

“My room?” he asked, puzzled.

“Yes, Will.” Hannibal looked back at him with an amused smile. “Did you think I meant to lock you up in the dungeons as I did her?”

“Well, yes,” he answered honestly.

Hannibal stopped outside another door and turned to face him. “Understand this then,” he said, clasping one hand over Will’s shoulder. “You are not some criminal or unruly houseguest. You gave yourself to me freely, Will Graham,” he said, locking Will’s gaze with his own. “That means you are mine now, to do with as I wish. You will come to know, in time, both the great care and the covetous jealousy with which I guard and cherish all my most treasured possessions.”

Will gaped, a dark flush creeping over his cheeks, entirely unsure how to respond and fortunately saved from having to do so as Hannibal opened the door beside them and ushered him into a warm and richly furnished parlor. From a plush rug in front of the roaring fireplace sprang Winston and Buster, both of them rushing forward to greet him with wagging tails and enthusiastic kisses as soon as he entered.

“Hey boys,” he said, voice cracking with relief as he did fall to his knees then, fortunately on the very forgiving carpet, and buried his face in the warm fur of his two dearest companions that he’d feared had been lost forever.

“I admire creatures that show such loyalty in even the most frightful of circumstances,” Hannibal stated, and leaned down to pet them as well. Buster accepted the extra attention happily without the slightest show of concern, licking Hannibal’s taloned fingers as readily as he did Will’s. Winston was more wary, but he sniffed the other’s hand and allowed a few careful pats on his head without growling.

“Thank you, Hannibal,” Will said for the second time that night, this one just as sincere as the first. Hannibal tilted his head in acknowledgement, and with a smile at the use of his name.

“They may stay in your room with you should you wish it. They are free to roam the castle grounds, including the inner courtyard and the walled-off garden in the center of the castle, as are you. I would prefer they not leave the grounds, but as they are merely animals they are unlikely to be harmed by most denizens of the forest should they venture out in any case. You, of course, must not go out under any circumstances without my express permission.”

Will nodded to show that he understood. Hannibal offered his hand to help him stand up and he accepted, following him out of the parlor with both dogs trotting alongside him.

They did not stop again until they reached a painted white door two flights up. Will struggled to keep his bearings and learn the long circuitous routes they took to reach it.

“It may be disorienting at first, but you will learn your way around as you explore the castle on your own,” Hannibal said. “You may go wherever you wish, as this is your home as well now after all. I only ask that you not leave the grounds, and that you do not enter the chambers closed off by two tall red doors. Those lead into my personal quarters.” He opened the white door and gestured for Will to go inside.

The bedroom was opulently decorated just as the parlor had been, this room done up in soft tones of white and gold, and larger than Will’s entire cottage. The bed against the far wall alone would have taken up almost half of that space.

“I hope it is to your liking. I am certain you must be exhausted after such a long and stressful journey. I will leave you to your rest now and come fetch you in the morning when breakfast is ready.” With that, he shut the door softly behind him, leaving Will alone in the room with just the dogs for company.

Will sat down heavily on the bed. He was indeed very exhausted now that the day’s events had finally caught up with him, but his mind raced, once again focused on thoughts of his predicament now that he was alone.

Though the beast had ushered him into a richly appointed room of his own instead of a dank cell in the basement and allowed him free reign over most of the grounds, Will was well aware of the fact that he was still very much a prisoner here, albeit one of his own making. He would not break his vow to stay, not only because he valued his own honor and the strength of his word, but also because to do so was likely to risk Alana’s hard-won security and freedom.

His heart clenched painfully at the thought of the home he would never see again. The village and its residents he would not miss so much, but the cool stream where he had cast his line many times was lost to him now, as were his most recent catches strung out to dry, and the worn but familiar quilt on his own bed. The rest of his pack was now without a master as well. He could only hope Jack would keep his word to look out for them, or perhaps Alana would take comfort in caring for them herself now—her future husband would likely not even mind and consider it a debt of gratitude for Alana’s safe return, not to mention the far less tasteful appreciation for the loss of the perceived competition he had believed existed between himself and Will.

“At least I still have you two,” he told the dogs with a wan smile. Winston perked his ears at the man concernedly while Buster yawned and curled up on the rug closest to the bed.

Will looked down at his hands in his lap and realized that he had been running his fingers idly along the stem of the rose as he sat and contemplated his lot in life. It was just as vibrant and beautiful as when he first saw it, except that its blood-red hue seemed richer and deeper in this lighting than it had been before.

It hurt to look at just now as it reminded him of how everything that had come to pass had been over something so small. Heaving a heartsick sigh, he tossed it almost carelessly onto the foot of the bed, and after doing no more than kicking off his boots scooted further up onto the bed himself and sprawled out on his back, staring unseeing at the canopy above until his eyes eventually drifted shut.

*

He woke to the sounds of screaming.

At first, disoriented from a peculiar nightmare in which he had been twirled around by a masked stranger at a masquerade ball until the walls ran red with blood and creeping ivy and all the other dancers around them disappeared, he thought for certain that the screams must have been coming from him. It took a few seconds for him to realize that they were not, in fact, his own.

The dogs watched the door to his room and growled as the terrified, pained shrieks continued to reverberate down the walls of the corridors outside. Will sat up and stared as well, slack-jawed and trembling as he cautiously climbed out of bed and padded softly on bare feet to the door.

The screams died down and Will pressed his ear against the door, listening for any other sounds. Faintly he thought he heard a male voice he did not recognize call out “Mercy!” before it was silenced by a loud ominous thud. Then he heard heavy clopping footsteps coming closer down the hall and he reeled back, shaking, and not knowing what else to do searched frantically for where he had kicked off his boots. He found them close to the side of the bed and scrambled for his hidden knife, pulling it out just as a gentle knock rapped on his door.

Hannibal opened the door a moment later when Will gave no answer. The dogs stood on alert until they saw him, then whined and rolled submissively on their backs as he entered, knowing instinctively that he was alpha of the household and that they would be easily torn to shreds should he decide to turn violent. He did not even glance their direction, merely turned and smiled apologetically at Will as if the young man were not currently wielding a sharp knife in both hands pointed at his direction and literally quaking with terror at his presence.

“Forgive the intrusion please, dear Will. I fear I am unused to sharing my home with another and only realized rather belatedly that the noise might have wakened you.”

“It did that alright,” Will said, baring his teeth in aggression as the other started to come nearer. “Stay back, you devil!” he shouted.

Hannibal clucked his teeth disapprovingly. “Do you know how to use that weapon, Will?”

He didn’t really. He had only ever used it to skin deer a few times as a boy when he and his father had tried hunting during one lean winter. They were both fishermen, however, and had never really taken to the other sport. Will only kept the blade sharpened out of habit and for something to do with his hands when they were idle, to be honest. “I imagine it’s not difficult to figure out,” he snarled.

The blade flashed in his hand as Hannibal stepped forward, prepared to cut and stab blindly and hope for the best as the beast came near enough. Hannibal deftly avoided every attempt, however, and within moments a hand caught his wrist and turned his arm until Will dropped it in fear that his arm would be broken if he didn’t relent. It clattered loudly to the floor and Hannibal released his arm. Will fell backward onto the bed and bounced, scrambling away quickly to the headboard as Hannibal kneeled on the mattress to join him.

“Don’t touch me!” he cried, cringing away as the other crawled to him and reached out as if about to brush the hair from Will’s eyes. He hated to hear the resolve wavering from his own voice to leave behind only plain terror in its wake.

The beast ignored his plea, cradling the side of Will’s face gently with his hand. “My fair, gentle-hearted boy,” he crooned softly, wiping away a stray tear with his thumb as it streaked down Will’s face at the touch. “Do you think I have come to cause you harm?” He waited expectantly until Will nodded in answer. “Never, my dear,” he reassured, drawing the reluctant man into his arms to hug him close and rub soothing circles over his back. “You are mine to cherish and protect, remember?”

“B-but…that man…”

“Was a rude pig,” Hannibal stated simply. He pulled back slightly and his expression softened at the distress still etched on Will’s features. He tilted Will’s head up with a hand under his chin again and said, “Do not fret for him or any of the others. They meet only the necessary ends of the paths they set themselves upon.”

“Others?” Will asked faintly. “There are going to be others?”

“From time to time, I’m afraid so. It is…something I must do, in order to survive, you see.” Will appeared puzzled by that remark but chose not to question it for now, not wanting to provoke. “I do not usually keep my discourteous guests prisoner,” he explained. Finally he pulled away and left Will on the bed alone. “But I have kept you awake long enough for one night. Go back to sleep, and as I said before, I will come back to wake you in the morning.” Will didn’t think he would be sleeping again tonight after what he just heard, but he kept that observation to himself.

At the door Hannibal paused, considering, and turned to face the man on the bed again. “One final rule perhaps,” he said. “No matter what happens, whatever you may hear, you are not to leave these chambers again once you retire for the evening until the sun has risen. Is that understood?”

“What happens if I disobey?” Will asked. “Will you kill me too?”

“Nothing of the sort, my dear Will,” Hannibal answered. “If I catch you out of your bed at night, you will not be punished.” He smiled fondly at him then. “I will merely insist that you join me.”

Will sucked in a sharp breath as the implication hit home. “I will not,” he said.

“Then you had best obey the rules, hadn’t you?” He opened the door and stepped out, turning back once more before he parted. “Good night, Will,” he said through the gap, then shut the door softly behind him.

*

Will didn’t know how he managed to fall asleep again after that horrifying revelation in the night, but somehow he had, and he found himself drowsily answering the door this time when the next knock came, then following downstairs as Hannibal led the way to the dining room, first showing him where the garden was and letting the dogs out to do their business. Hannibal had already left out there water dishes as well as hearty scraps and slop for them, he explained, and Will was reluctantly impressed and appreciative once more to know that the other had shown so much consideration for his pets before he could even think to make the request.

Will had thought that perhaps the other’s appearance would seem more out of place, and perhaps all the more frightful for it, in the daylight, but instead Will found he was already growing more used to it. Hannibal was a being that appeared somehow at once both monstrous and perfectly natural, and he certainly carried himself as though he belonged in this forest and the castle that stood in its center, as if he had always been part of it. Today he wore fine satiny fabrics of smoky purple and rich burgundy red, again cut in fashions that had gone out of date long ago, and somehow did not look absurd in it, Will thought to himself with a smile.

He would not allow himself to think of the horrified screams in the night, or the ones that were promised to come again later. There was nothing he could do about it in any case, and it would not be wise to bring up the subject again.

He focused instead on the delectable spread laid out on the table—buttered toast and honey, apples and pomegranates, oatmeal garnished with luscious wild berries, and fat plump sausages giving off the most mouthwatering aroma he had ever encountered. Will’s stomach growled to remind him that he had not eaten since an early dinner of trout yesterday afternoon.

“I apologize if the fare is too simple and light. I typically enjoy spending my time creating richer, more lavish meals later on in the evening,” Hannibal said, pulling a chair out to the right of the head of the table for Will to sit.

“It gets better than this later?” Will asked incredulously, determined to pile a little of everything onto his plate. He didn’t starve on his own even with seven other hungry mouths to feed, but still he had never seen so much food laid out in one place all at once before. The oatmeal was still steaming so he left it to cool for the moment, diving right into the sausages that had so whetted his appetite first. He nearly moaned around his forkful. “This is delicious,” he said enthusiastically.

Hannibal watched another morsel of meat disappear behind full pink lips, ducking his head at the compliment with a pleased smile. “Thank you. It is sadly a rare event I have anyone to share my cooking with.”

Will muttered something around a mouthful of fresh bread that sounded like, “Sad indeed.” Hannibal did not even remind him that it was rude to talk with one’s mouth full, too gratified by the sight of Will enjoying his food so unreservedly.

“Is there a stream or a lake nearby?” Will asked once he’d slowed down long enough to take real pauses between his bites. At Hannibal’s inquisitive look, Will ducked his head shyly and said, “I was just thinking, since I’m a fisherman back home—”

“You are home now, Will,” Hannibal reminded him patiently.

Will hesitated, then bit his lip and decided to carry on like Hannibal hadn’t said anything. “I was thinking maybe I could go out to catch something a little extra for your table once in a while, you know, as a way to earn my keep,” he said, somewhat subdued. He was a bit worried his gracious “host” might take offense that he was talking so soon about wanting to leave the grounds, misconstruing it possibly as him trying to weasel out a means of escape when that wasn’t it at all. He really wasn’t sure yet what else he would do to occupy his time here.

“There is no need for you to ‘earn your keep’ here, Will. You being here is you earning your keep,” Hannibal said. “However, if it is a pastime which you enjoy, I would be happy for the opportunity to employ my skills more often towards recipes for fish. Provided, of course, that it is alright with you if I accompany you on these day trips.”

Will nodded, content for the moment to find a compromise that would allow him to see more than these stone walls once every so often.

“Well, now that that is decided,” Hannibal said with a small ‘task accomplished’ clap of his hands. “Allow me to draw you a warm bath in your washroom, something to relax your limbs and help you feel more refreshed after the difficult evening you had. I will provide you with a razor as well should you wish to groom your beard or remove it. There will also be clean clothes waiting in your wardrobe by the time you are ready to come out,” he added, eyeing the all-but-tattered rags Will had slept in last night with distaste.

There was clean clothes waiting on the bed as it turned out about an hour or so later when Will stepped out of the bathroom adjoining his bedroom. Will let go of the towel wrapped around his waist and slipped on the outfit that had apparently been chosen for him—fabrics of cloudy grey wool and blue silk almost the exact same shade as his eyes, cut in a similar fashion to the clothes that Hannibal wore. It was almost a perfect fit, perhaps only a bit loose around the shoulders and waist, requiring him to tie it off with the sash provided. Curiously, he peered into the wardrobe as well and found essentially more of the same, all in expensive fabrics of various colors. None of it seemed well suited to hiking or fishing, and Will hoped Hannibal wouldn’t expect him to keep all of these in the same immaculate condition they had been given to him in during their outings.

The thought also flitted uneasily through his mind that all of this had possibly belonged to someone else before, most likely whoever the original owners of this castle were. Will wondered if Hannibal had always lived in this place or if he had found it when it was already abandoned. He wasn’t sure which possibility raised more questions in his mind and reluctantly put his curiosity on the backburner for now, as something he would come back to in the future when he was sure it would not offend Hannibal to be asked. At least he could comfort himself with the thought that the strange outdated style probably meant whoever had worn these before was long since buried in the earth by now, though that also raised the question of how all of this hadn’t been eaten by moths years ago. More magic probably.

He looked over himself in the mirror, checking self-consciously to make sure he had buttoned and fastened everything correctly. The scruff he had decided to trim a bit neater rather than shave it off completely, deciding he actually liked the way it looked for now.

His eyes slid away from his own reflection, however, to take note of the new addition to the vanity table. There now stood a tall, thin vase at the corner just barely reaching the bottom of the mirror, and placed inside it was the rose he had left on the bed last night as he slept. It seemed to have bloomed even more somehow in the night, unfurling its petals even wider, more open and happily drinking in the sunlight.

Will smiled, allowing his fingers to brush delicately over the blossom once more, and felt somehow that everything would be alright.

*

He wasn’t wrong. In the days that followed it became easier to accept his new living arrangement with each new dawn that passed, and each day that flower remained unchanged and yet seemed somehow to grow more beautiful simultaneously, as if it soaked up a spare drop of happiness every morning that he touched a finger to its soft, skinlike bloom.

Those days bled into weeks, and the weeks bled into a few months, and as the first snows fell the rose still had not wilted, nor had Will’s spirit.

Morning, afternoon, and evening all blurred together in easy, fascinating conversation with Hannibal. Often they would go on long walks in a gorgeous garden where everything seemed to grow and thrive year round, or sit across from each other with drinks in hand in front of the fireplace in the parlor as the days grew cooler. Hannibal even escorted him on the occasional fishing trip to a nearby river exactly as promised, pointing out to Will the plants and wildlife that were native only to this particular forest.

They came to understand and admire each other a little better with each new experience and topic of discussion. Will realized that for all that they had both chosen their former lives of solitude, in truth Hannibal had been as lonely as he was.

And on the days when Will wanted his space, or Hannibal had to leave the castle on some errand, he had his dogs to play with and an entire magnificent castle to explore. In one of the wings he found a vast library full of more books than he imagined probably existed even in the capital’s archives today. Hannibal conceded that this was likely true, as the castle had stood since before the country as it was known today even existed as an idea in someone’s head, long ago when the land was a kingdom that flourished under a different name and banner altogether. He had grinned at the look of awe and wonderment that had come over Will’s face at this revelation, extended his hand outward in a gesture that covered the expanse of the entire room and said, “It’s all here, everything you could wish to know about that time, simply waiting for you to discover it.”

After that, he would tease Will about how difficult it had become to coax him out of the library anymore, wondering aloud if he should have to start bringing his meals to him there on trays. Will laughed but took the hint, understanding that beneath the jests Hannibal was telling him in his own diffident way that he missed Will’s company, and he resolved to limit his research only to times when Hannibal wouldn’t feel neglected by his absence.

This was how he found himself now, on many nights when he wasn’t fatigued yet after retiring for the evening, breaking the last minute “rule” Hannibal had implemented on his first night there of not leaving his room after dark in order to sneak over there. The castle seemed peculiarly to understand Will’s intentions and would not light the corridors Will had become used to traversing even in the dark, only a few candles near his favorite chair in the library and the shelves he was interested in perusing that evening coming to life whenever he entered.

Will did not fool himself into thinking the rule was wholly unnecessary no matter how much he may wish it otherwise. There were still some nights when he started awake to terrible sounds he could not unhear for hours afterwards, followed by mornings on which Will would frown sadly into his bowl of oatmeal but say nothing, reluctantly accepting that it was not his place to judge the master of the house or his ways. It took less coaxing than Will would like to admit to himself each time for Hannibal to bring him back to his usual good cheer. Nonetheless, on those nights Will would stay in his room, remembering Hannibal’s frightening promise and not wanting to test its sincerity.

He sifted through many fragile texts concerning the old kingdom Hannibal had mentioned before, finding less about the royals who had ruled it and lived in this fortress than he would have liked, suspecting that many of the records for it had been lost or damaged over the ages. He knew now that this place was once called Castle Lecter, and that centuries ago an unknown calamity had befallen the family which had reigned here in the height of its prosperity. The kingdom’s infrastructure had collapsed shortly after and paved the way for many less successful government bodies to take its place, leading up to the one which ran it now.

He had never been so interested in history before he came here, but there was something so beautiful and tragic about this one, and the sense of mystery shrouding it, that Will felt it was somehow of the utmost importance that he learn as much about it as he could. He wondered idly to himself if Alana would possibly know more about it. She had always had more of a head for this sort of thing than he did.

He sighed and smiled weakly to himself. Thoughts of her and the life he led before came with less frequency now, but they came nevertheless and always with the same brief twinge of loss and regret. He suspected that wound might never fully heal, not with the uncertain way they had parted.

He put aside the latest tome he had been flipping through and stretched, feeling weary enough at last to retire for bed. He shut the library door behind him as quietly as he could and took the slow, meandering path back to his room in the dark, yawning as he went.

A loud crash in the corridor directly ahead nearly had him jumping out of his own skin, and in an instant all the candles flared to life as if responding directly to his fear of what might have caused it in the dark.

A bloody hand gripped the corner of the wall where the passage forked and Will stood there, transfixed, as the man it was attached to followed, moaning in horrible pain, his other arm clutched tightly to his stomach. The man’s eyes widened almost comically when he saw Will and he lurched forward, trying to grab for his shirt. Will recoiled from his reach on instinct, hating himself for doing so but thinking absurdly in that moment that Hannibal would be absolutely furious with him if he allowed any blood to get on this brocade vest, one of Hannibal’s favorites that he enjoyed seeing Will wearing, he had told the young man once.

The man collapsed to the floor and Will realized why he had been clutching his torso, as suddenly parts of his intestine slid out through the hole in his gut and spilled out onto the floor. Will cried out, horrified, the hand clutched over his mouth doing nothing to muffle the sound.

“Please...” the man gurgled, still trying to crawl on hands and knees to Will even as he visibly weakened and blood started to dribble from his mouth. “He-help me...” And then Will saw as the light left his eyes and he slumped forward, head thunking almost anticlimactically to the ground, dead. Will wailed piteously from behind the hand still covering his mouth, shaking uncontrollably, his other arm clutched over his torso as if to hold himself together as he unconsciously mirrored the same pose he had seen the man holding only moments before.

He didn’t move even when he heard the familiar footsteps echoing from the corridor ahead and Hannibal came into view, concern flitting over his features when he saw his charge standing there. He held a bloodied liver in one clawed hand and Will giggled unexpectedly at the absurdity of it. A liver! What on earth was Hannibal doing with a man’s liver in his hand?

What was he doing...with a liver...?

Hannibal saw the moment perfect clarity came to Will Graham. He stood straighter and his limbs relaxed, falling back to his sides, and he stared ahead with a blank, empty expression on his face.

“Will...” he started to say, stepping forward cautiously.

Will sprang into action at that moment, leaning away to the side and darting past Hannibal as fast as he could go, narrowly avoiding tripping over the suit of armor that had fallen to the ground ahead of him, taking the stairs down two steps at a time and moving so quickly over them it was a miracle he didn’t fall and tumble to his death. “Will! Will!” Hannibal called after him, but Will refused to stop, refused to listen, refused to stay within the walls of this place for one more second, their bargain be damned. He burst past the front doors and ran out into the snow in nothing more than the thin layer of clothing already on his back, the heavy cloak hanging in his wardrobe forgotten and unwanted. He ran past the clearing into the trees and didn’t stop until the adrenaline pumping through his veins abated and his legs were ready to give out underneath him.

He fell heavily to his knees then, one hand clutched onto the tree trunk beside him for support. He was too cold and exhausted by that point even to bury his face in his hands and weep like he wanted to.

All those people Hannibal had killed. He was eating them. And Will was eating them with him.

“It is something I must do,” Hannibal had told him that first night. “In order to survive.” Deep down, Will understood why that would make sense now. He understood logically that there must be something more to it, something that made eating people necessary. But why had he fed them to Will also? And not only Will, but his dogs as well? Had he been doing it for so long that he’d forgotten how monstrous of an act it was, or was there some darker compulsion driving him to share his depravity with others? Was that perhaps why he had isolated himself from others for so long, more so than the fact that he was a danger to them as a murderer?

His contemplations were interrupted by nothing so conspicuous as growling or any other clear warning, but rather a prickling awareness that there were several unfriendly eyes upon him, full of malice for anything that moved and breathed in this forest but did not belong there. He straightened and forced himself to stand, and that seemed to be the signal the others were looking for as they encroached upon his space slowly. They both were and were not something very much like wolves, with glowing yellow eyes and forms that could not seem to decide if they should be solid flesh or insubstantial wisps of shadow, and so seemed to be made of some strange middle substance that was both.

They sprang forward at once, giving Will time only to try to shield himself with his arms before they could fall upon him, when Hannibal suddenly stood before him, blocking their path and almost casually knocking aside the first few that had lunged for him as though they were nothing more than harmless rags. One of them made the mistake of trying to jump high over Hannibal, and he caught it with an unnatural twist of his head that would not be possible for a regular human on one of his antlers, skewering it instantly and shaking his head like a dog twice to fling its carcass away from him.

Another of the creatures in the meantime got close enough to try to snap at Will’s ankles, just barely missing the mark as Will sprang back against the tree behind him. Hannibal snarled at it and grabbed it by the scruff of its neck, bending it over his knee snapping it in half, then tossing it at the others left standing. All of those remaining turned tail and fled at once. As abruptly as it had started, it was over, and Will had gained a better understanding of how much Hannibal was capable of than he had ever known before.

“You...that was...” he said, and slid down the trunk behind him to the ground once more, dizzy with exhaustion, lingering fear, and relief.

Hannibal knelt down and lifted him up into his arms gently. “It will be alright, my darling boy,” he whispered as Will passed out in his arms, and carried him bridal style all the way home.

*

Will awoke on the couch in the parlor, wrapped in a warm blanket in front of a crackling fire. He had been changed into dry, comfortable pajamas. His head was currently resting in Hannibal’s lap, and the other was carding his long fingers gently through Will’s hair. The petting stopped as soon as Will opened his eyes and turned his head to look up at him.

He swallowed carefully, his throat dry. “You were feeding them to me,” he whispered.

“I was,” Hannibal admitted, not bothering to lie when there was obviously no hiding it now. He tilted his head at him curiously. “Tell me, Will. You knew that I was killing them. Does it really bother you so, knowing now that I put their bodies to use rather than letting them go to waste?”

“Yes,” he said. Then, “No. I don’t know.” He sat up, groaning at the dull ache in his limbs. He didn’t fight it when Hannibal put an arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer so they were sat beside each other without any space between them, letting his head rest tiredly on Hannibal’s shoulder. “You should have told me what it was,” he said.

“If I had, would you have ever agreed to join me at my table at all? Or imagine if I had said nothing, but instead of making enough for us to share I had kept the meat always on my own plate and insisted on allowing you only the vegetarian option?” he asked, chuckling lightly at the thought.

Will huffed, too tired to put any real scorn behind the sound. “I would have gladly eaten anything you put in front of me without complaint. I didn’t hope for anything better than not starving to death in a cold cell.”

“By that logic, it wouldn’t matter to you at all and we would not be having this discussion now.”

Will sighed. “Just…no more, please. I think I’ll take that vegetarian option now.”

“As you wish,” Hannibal conceded, though he frowned almost disapprovingly. He turned his head to look out the window and said, “It is nearly dawn. Why don’t you stay here in front of the fire and I’ll bring our breakfast along shortly?”

“I’m not sure I can stomach anything just yet,” Will said. “I’m so tired.”

“Just some porridge and toast then. You can go back to bed soon after.” Will felt hands readjusting the blanket around his shoulders and lips grazing his temple, and then Hannibal left the room. Buster yawned up at Will from his place on the rug and Winston thumped his tail once in his sleep. Will stared into the fire and let his eyes drift shut, dozing.

He came to when Hannibal gently set a tray in his lap—porridge and toast, as promised. It was filling without being too rich for his stomach to handle, but to his shame he realized it smelled nowhere near as appetizing as the meal on Hannibal’s tray. He had exactly the same items as Will, but with the addition of a large rasher of bacon on the side. The dogs seemed to stir then, both of them sniffing interestedly and coming to sit at Hannibal’s feet. The beast looked over at Will then, questioning.

“Can’t very well expect them to go vegetarian as well, now can I?” Will said, feeling remarkably blasé about it when he put it in those terms. They were carnivorous animals after all. It was just in their nature. At his nod, Hannibal tossed pieces to both of them, and Will watched them scarf the bacon down as greedily as they would any slice of pig.

He looked over at Hannibal, taking far more civilized bites of his own slices and smiling demurely at him when he glanced over, and had the same thought then. It’s just in his nature.

“You told me once that you had to kill to survive,” Will said.

“Yes,” Hannibal agreed. “I require human flesh as sustenance,” he stated so calmly, as if it were perfectly ordinary and not at all an abominable concept.

Will knew there was more to it than just that. That man had been alive still when Hannibal cut into him and started removing his organs. The only necessity he saw in that was a sadistic need for cruelty. But then, Will had known that about Hannibal as well since almost the very beginning, even if he never showed that cruelty to Will or either of his pets. There was a darkness in him that needed to be fed constantly.

“Has it always been like this for you?” he asked.

Hannibal frowned contemplatively, considering his next words. “If I may, Will, I would like to tell you a story.”

Will knit his brows together at the change of subject, but he nodded, allowing it. “Go on.”

“Once upon a time,” he began, giving a charming, unassuming smile which Will returned at the use of the cliché. “In a land of myths and monsters that’s original name has long since been forgotten to most, and in an age largely unremembered by history, there stood a castle in the middle of a sprawling forest. In that castle lived the rulers of all men who dwelled in that land.”

“The Lecters,” Will said softly.

Hannibal nodded. “The Lecters,” he affirmed, a faraway look of remembrance in his eyes. “They were fair and just rulers, well beloved by their people, but they were also arrogant, and it was that arrogance which would be their downfall.” He glanced up into Will’s eyes. “They had dared build their castle in the middle of an enchanted forest already occupied by others, you see, and declared themselves sovereign over all, regardless of whether their edicts would be welcomed or not.”

“I take it that didn’t go over so well.” He was starting to see the threads of where this story was going.

“It did not,” Hannibal responded dryly. “The original inhabitants of the forest sent an emissary to Lecter Castle, one known to be a powerful sorcerer, in hopes that they could be reasoned with, or at the very least intimidated into complying with the old laws. But his demands were high, and the family told him they could not accept his terms.” Hannibal swallowed, his expression pained. “They called him ‘monster,’ so he told them he would show them the true monsters within themselves. He cursed them all, the entire line, weaving an especially dark and sinister spell for the last heir in particular.”

The look on Hannibal’s face as he spoke made Will want to wrap his arms around him tightly and never let him go, but he withheld for now, allowing Hannibal to continue his tragic tale.

“One by one everyone who lived in that castle, from the lowliest servant to the king himself, went mad and died there, until all that remained was the youngest son of the Lecter line and his mother. She fled with the boy and abandoned the castle, fearing for his life but believing that she could thwart his fate if she took him out of the forest and hid him away.” He smiled sadly at Will. “She did not understand that some fates are inevitable, and can be far more horrific in the end than death.”

“What happened?” Will asked, though he had the terrible feeling that he already knew.

“What generally happens when one tries to flee from an enchanted forest where the trees can uproot themselves and walk?” Hannibal chuckled humorlessly. “It proves harder to escape than one had imagined.” Will nodded, remembering how he used to watch the tree line creep closer over the years to his house.

“And of course, no amount of secrecy can hide what is in one’s blood. The forest followed despite all attempts to leave it and the past behind. Many, many years went by,” Hannibal continued, voice distant. “But eventually there was no one else left. The last heir of the Lecter bloodline was alone, without either of his parents or any children of his own, until one day circumstances that were beyond his control forced him to go into the forest and give himself over to what awaited him there, submitting himself to the curse that had been wrought in that castle so long ago.”

“And…what was the curse exactly?” Will asked with some trepidation.

Hannibal locked eyes with him once more. “That he would know what it was to be something that other men feared. From his head would sprout horns, and from within an insatiable hunger, and he would understand truly what it meant to be called monster.”

“Oh, Hannibal...” Will whispered, and threw his arms around the shoulders of the beast who was once a man, careful not to jostle their trays as he did so. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

The beast returned the hug, burying his nose in the younger man’s hair. “It was quite a long time ago,” he said. “I have since accepted that what must be, will be.”

Will pulled away to look at him. “Is there not some way...?” At the mournful frown on Hannibal’s face, he trailed off. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Don’t be,” Hannibal said, gathering their trays up to return to the kitchen. “There is nothing you can do, not that I would ask of you.” He smiled warmly and said, “It is enough simply that you are here with me now, my darling friend.”

*

Despite Hannibal’s words, Will felt that he couldn’t stand idly by now that he knew the truth. How long had Hannibal suffered isolated and alone here with no one to share in his joys and pains? How long would he be alone again once the natural course of Will’s life met its end? Surely there must be something that could break the curse and return his lost humanity.

Will threw himself into his research more avidly than ever before, but there was nothing in those dusty old tomes that could tell him how to turn a beast back into a man, and he knew it. He sighed frustratedly after yet another morning in the library yielded no results, and returned defeated to the dining room to meet Hannibal for lunch.

The other had honored his word and stopped including meat on Will’s portions. He couldn’t say he entirely enjoyed the idea of remaining a vegetarian for the rest of his life, but the meals were lavish and superb as always even without that key ingredient. At least he could return to fishing more often once the season turned favorable for long treks outside once more, and maybe he would even try his hand at hunting wild game again.

In spite of the difficult patch their relationship had faced after that terrible discovery, the bond between them had only grown stronger. Will knew that if he allowed it, it could deepen into something far more than what it was now. He was not blind to the way Hannibal would look at him sometimes, the lingering touches and whispered terms of endearment. He knew also that Hannibal would gladly accept his continued friendship and ask for nothing more before Will was ready to initiate it.

It was not Hannibal’s appearance that kept Will from following through with what had become a mutual desire, or even the fear that came with his inexperience in such matters. If Will had to put it to words, he would say that what held him back was an unfulfilled need to find real closure in the life he once had before he could truly be ready to commit himself fully to his new one.

Thus, as they were finishing their soup at the table, Will tentatively took the plunge and asked Hannibal for a favor.

“What is it, my darling?”

Will bit his lip all the harder at the endearment but forced himself to press on. “I’d like to return to Wolf Trap for a few days,” he said.

The spoon that Hannibal had been raising to his lips clattered back onto the table with a loud ringing sound that made Will wince, spattering droplets of soup over the white linen tablecloth. Hannibal appeared not to have noticed. “Why would you want that?” he asked. The clear distress in his voice made Will reach over to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly.

“To say my goodbyes properly,” he said, staring directly into Hannibal’s eyes to show him the sincerity of his words. “I won’t be gone long.”

Hannibal seemed to consider it. “You truly mean to return afterward?”

“Of course,” Will told him, smiling widely. “I am yours now, remember?”

Hannibal clutched the hand on his shoulder tightly, smiling to hear those words pass Will’s lips.

Still, it was with tightness in his chest and a lump in his throat that Will donned his plainest outfit and winter cloak the next morning. He would bring nothing else since no supplies would be needed for such a short trip and it wouldn’t bother his sensibilities as it might Hannibal’s to wear the same clothes for a few days. He didn’t want to look decadent and out of place as he surely would in most of the brightly colored finery he’d gotten used to now in his wardrobe.

Even the rose on his vanity seemed dimmer as though it too felt the heavy somberness in Will’s heart. He sat and cradled it carefully with his hand. “I will come back,” he whispered ardently to it as he would if it were Hannibal himself. “I promise.” He leant in and brushed his lips over the petals, as he wanted to do with Hannibal but wouldn’t, not yet.

After breakfast, Hannibal stood with him outside and helped him onto the ravenstag’s back as he had done with Alana many months ago, this time with more gentleness and care than he had shown her.

Hannibal said something to the stag in that strange language Will could not understand, then looked up at its rider and said, “He will be waiting for you at the edge of the forest at dusk on the third day.”

“I’ll be there,” Will said. Hannibal took his hand in his and squeezed lightly.

“Return safely to me.”

“I will.” Reluctantly they both let go, their fingers brushing each other gently as they pulled away. Hannibal whistled once and stag took off, bearing Will away from the castle back to the tiny village he once knew as home.

It was a dizzying experience of color and wind, the stag moving at a breakneck speed that brought him all the way to the edge of trees across from his old house in the space of only an hour. It took off again as soon as he lowered himself to the ground and took his first step out of the forest in many, many moons.

The first thing he realized upon his return was that he would not be staying at his old house for the time that he was here as he had first thought. It was clear to him right away that the villagers had stripped it of all furniture and valuables some time ago and converted it instead into a large spare storage space for dried goods and various sundries and communal supplies. How very pragmatic of them, Will thought dryly, though he couldn’t blame them. They had no reason to expect he would ever be returning, after all. He only hoped it meant that Alana or someone else in town had taken in his dogs.

He realized with some discomfort that he would have to go through the village at one of the busiest times of the day in order to get to Alana’s house. Steeling himself for dozens of shocked stares and possibly more than a few unwanted probing questions delaying him along the way, he began the trek slowly up the road that led into town.

It was not long, however, before he was met on the way by a most welcome and familiar sight. Five dogs barked and trotted happily down the path on what must have been their daily morning walk, and accompanying them in a thick cloak and a warm red dress, her dark locks gathered neatly in a bun that nonetheless allowed a few strands to spill loosely around her face, was Alana. He laughed with joy to see them, stopping in place and waving as she came nearer.

She stopped as well as she drew closer and recognized who it was on the road ahead. Her lips moved soundlessly but no words came out, and he worried at first that perhaps it was too overwhelming for her to see him here, so ready did she look almost to faint from the shock.

Then she was running toward him, and he almost fell backward from the impact of her launching herself into his arms and wrapping her own around his shoulders, tears of joy streaming down her face.

“Oh Will, Will! It’s really you,” she said, clinging to him tightly as though she feared he would disappear if she let him go for even a moment.

“It’s me,” he said, grinning.

“I always bring them back to the house,” she said. “Every day we come and I look to the trees, and I know it’s foolish but a part of me always hoped...but I never actually thought...” She seemed to realize now that she was starting to babble and stopped, wiping the tears away from her own eyes. “You’re really here,” she said softly.

“I am.” One of the dogs came to sniff at his hand but backed away warily when he tried to pet it. He frowned. Had he really become so unfamiliar to them after only a few months?

“You probably still smell like that evil place to them, nothing a good bath won’t fix,” she said with a playful smile, clearly meaning to reassure. That or the peculiar animal I was riding, Will thought, nodding in agreement. The rest of the pack besides Buster and Winston had always been more skittish of the forest and the things that lived there, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. That put to rest any notions he may have entertained of trying to bring any of them back with him though, which was likely all for the best to be honest. He wasn’t sure Hannibal would appreciate having so many dogs running about the castle, even if they did certainly have the space for it.

She chattered amiably to him the entire way to the village, both of her arms looped around one of his, telling him about everything that had happened there in his absence. He let it wash over him, more pleased by her warm, happy tone than he was interested in the words themselves.

The villagers reacted much as he had predicted, many of them gaping openly and whispering animatedly to each other as the two of them passed, but none of them at least dared interrupt the joyous reunion that was clearly taking place in front of them. A brave few that stood close enough did reach out briefly to touch his shoulder or his arm when they passed as if to check that he was indeed real, but Will tried not to mind it too much and pretend like he hadn’t noticed.

“When Frederick returns for dinner, he’ll likely press you with a million questions about what it was like there, so be prepared for that. He’s curious and inquisitive like a puppy sometimes, as I’m sure you recall.”

“Frederick?” Will asked, puzzled for a moment until he remembered. It was winter now, after all, almost the end of the year. “Alana, are you married now?” he asked playfully, finding it amusing that of all the things she would choose to go on about when she saw him, she would neglect to mention this straightaway.

She paused in whatever she had been about to say next, her arms going slack around his own. She looked up at him and blinked. “I am,” she said as if she had quite forgotten it. She laughed self-consciously, looking to the ground away from him where he couldn’t really see her face. “I am,” she repeated more quietly.

“He’s good to you, I hope?”

“Oh yes,” she said sincerely, some of her enthusiasm returning as she spoke up. “He can still be a bit...lofty at times,” she said with a gentle roll of her eyes, “but he’s actually quite a sweet man when you get to know him better. To be honest, I always thought he only wanted to marry me for my father’s property, but I was surprised when I returned to see how much genuine regard he seemed to hold for me.”

“Well, of course,” he said, now rolling his own eyes as she ushered him inside. “Any man fortunate enough to have you as a wife would be a fool or a brute not to feel that way,” he said, missing the look that came over her features as he let his eyes take in the grand wooden staircase and pretentious displays of art on the walls of Chilton’s estate. “I’m glad you found such happiness in each other,” he told her sincerely, turning to face her.

“Yes,” she said, offering him a demure smile in return, staring even as he looked away from her again. “Thank you.”

*

Dinner was not quite the chatty affair Alana had warned him it would be. Chilton seemed mostly to be at a loss if not quite put off by Will’s presence in his house. He still doesn’t like me then, Will thought to himself, though the man did an admirable enough job of trying not to show it, even self-censoriously looking down at his plate a few times as if reminding himself that it should be good news to learn that Will was not dead or languishing in some prison cell.

“Will,” the man said finally after another such look down at his plate, “I don’t believe I have thanked you yet for your role in returning Alana to me.” He turned to his wife and Will saw the affection that she had mentioned earlier in his softened expression. “She is the light of my life,” he said, taking her hand in his to kiss her knuckles softly. “My greatest joy.”

“Frederick, please,” Alana said, pulling her hand away as though embarrassed. He appeared crestfallen for a moment but quickly schooled his features into a more neutral smile.

“The two of you do look good together,” Will said. He wasn’t here to win Frederick Chilton’s approval, but he didn’t want to leave again on bad terms with his best friend’s husband either.

“You think so?” Chilton asked, seeming surprised but pleased to hear Will say it, visibly warming to the other man then. “We do, don’t we?” he said, glancing over to his wife again. She smiled up at him briefly and turned back to her food. She did not look over at Will even once for the rest of the meal.

Will ate mechanically. It was his first dinner with actual meat again since before he had learned Hannibal’s awful secret, but still he thought the meal was bland, though he politely kept that opinion to himself. The cook in Frederick and Alana’s household clearly did not have the same level of skill in the kitchen that Hannibal did, regardless of whether the lamb was actually lamb or long pig.

Afterwards they retired to the study, at least until Chilton politely made some excuse about needing to look over some documents in his office. Will felt a rush of gratitude at the unexpected tact and level of grace he showed in leaving the two friends alone to catch up.

Though they had spent much of the day together already, they had yet to broach the subject of Will’s confinement or what he was doing here now. “How did you escape?” she asked him finally, sitting at the edge of the desk.

“I didn’t. He let me come.” He grinned at the look of astonishment on her face. “He’s really not so bad as he seems,” he told her. She shuddered, visibly disagreeing, though he supposed he couldn’t blame her as she had spent most of her stay locked in a tiny cell.

“Underneath that exterior, he really is a good man,” he told her. “Hey, what do you know about curses?” he asked suddenly.

She frowned confusedly at the abrupt change in subject. “Curses? Are you cursed, Will?”

“No,” he laughed. “It’s not for me. I just thought you might know. You always liked reading about that sort of thing more than me. Do you know anything about breaking them?”

“Only what they say in the stories they used to tell us as children. True love’s kiss, right?” she said wryly.

He chuckled. “Right.” He wondered. Could that really be all there was to it, like all the old stories said? It was worth at least trying, wasn’t it? And if it didn’t work, well...he was sure Hannibal wouldn’t say no to multiple test trials, just to be sure.

“What are you smiling about?” she asked him, mirroring his expression with one of her own.

He hummed thoughtfully, leaning back in his seat on the couch and running his fingers over his lips for a moment. “I was just thinking about something I need to do once I go back,” he answered, gesturing vaguely with his hand.

“Go back?” she asked, the smile falling away from her face as she sat up straighter. “What do you mean ‘go back’?”

“Back to Hannibal,” he answered, feeling guilty now that he hadn’t thought to tell her sooner once he noted the look of distress on her face. “Alana, I’m only in town for a few days,” he told her gently. “I’m not here to stay.”

“But why?” she asked, voice wavering. “Why would you ever go back?”

“I promised him I would.”

“So break it,” she said.

“What?” he asked, laughing. “No, Alana, don’t be absurd. It would crush him if I never went back.”

“And?” she asked, standing from the desk then, her voice raising.

“And,” he said, standing as well, starting to get annoyed by her attitude. “I would never do that to him.”

“Why not? He certainly has no problem hurting others, so why shouldn’t he be hurt in turn?” she asked in a tone that suggested she didn’t even believe such a thing was possible.

“Don’t talk about him like that. You don’t know him, not the way I do.”

“That thing is a monster, Will!” she exclaimed, almost shouting now. “I doubt it even has feelings the way you or I do, and if it did, why should you care if they were hurt?”

“Because I love him!” he exclaimed back.

He was not prepared for the way she recoiled back as if struck. “You...you what?” she said, and there was so much pain in that one phrase that he flinched away, unable to meet her eyes anymore.

“I...I know you don’t approve, and honestly I don’t blame you after what you went through there but...he really isn’t like that all the time, never with me. He treats me well, and I...I am,” he admitted, nodding to himself. “I’m in love with him.”

“Have you completely taken leave of your senses?” she asked. She shook her head then, a single tear streaking down her cheek. She sniffed. “Why did you come back then? Why come back at all?”

“Because you’re my friend,” he answered, feeling hurt and not sure if it was because he was empathizing with her or because he was disappointed that she couldn’t at least try to be happy for him. “I wanted to see you again, to let you know that I was alright and that you didn’t have to worry about me anymore. And I guess, I guess I wanted...” He paused, knowing before he even said it that it was hopeless to ask for at this point.

“You wanted what?”

He bit his lip. “Your blessing,” he finished softly.

She stared. “My blessing?” she asked, voice quieting to almost a whisper, her posture going strangely still. She turned away from him then, hands resting on the desk.

“Alana...”

“My blessing?!” she shouted, hands suddenly sweeping out and knocking several items to the floor with a loud crash. He gaped, absolutely stunned by the spectacle. In all the years they’d known each other, he had never once seen her like this.

She spun back around to face him, the expression on her face contorted in both anger and grief as if she didn’t know if she wanted more to rage and scream at him or tear her own hair out and sob. The former won out, for the moment.

“How dare you! How dare you!” she yelled, enraged and heartbroken all at once. “How dare you come here and ask that of me...”

“What the devil is going on in here?” Chilton asked, bursting suddenly back into the room with two heavyset manservants standing behind him. He took in the sight of Alana sobbing in the corner, a dozen broken knickknacks scattered around her on the floor, and stormed over to Will, poking him in the chest and demanding, “What the hell have you done to my wife?”

“Nothing,” Will said, not even bothering to push back or knock the man’s hand away.

“It’s true,” Alana said, some of her sense returning so she was no longer quite so angry anymore, though bitter tears still poured down her cheeks. “I just lost my temper, that’s all...”

“And what did you do to cause that?” Chilton asked, turning back to Will, his tone clipped.

Will hesitated, reluctant to speak but knowing he had to defend himself at least. “I was just telling her I would be returning soon. I didn’t expect her to take it so...poorly.”

“Didn’t expect her to take it poorly,” Chilton sneered. “You must not be as perceptive as people claim you are after all then,” he said, his words taking on a bitter note. He blinked. “Wait, returning? To the forest, you mean? Why in God’s name would you do that, man? It’s madness!”

“That’s not really your concern,” Will told him. In the corner, Alana sobbed even harder, and Will winced.

Chilton glanced back and forth between his wife and her friend for a moment, a peculiar look of ‘understanding’ coming into his eyes when he looked over at Will again that the younger man didn’t like. Finally he rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. “I should have realized, you were in there for so long,” he muttered. With an almost regretful frown, he signaled something to his men and said, “No, my friend, I’m sorry but I cannot in good conscience allow that.”

“Excuse me?” Will said, but before he could react the two burly men were already grabbing hold of him, pushing him to the ground as he struggled and restraining him. “No, get off me!”

“Frederick...” Alana said with a note of concern.

“It’s alright, my dear,” her husband assured her, kissing her on the forehead. “Whatever he said, he didn’t mean it. He’s just addled from that wicked place, or perhaps bewitched. Either way, we’ll make sure he gets the treatment he needs.”

“No, I’m not, I’m not!” Will called out desperately as they dragged him out of the room. “I don’t need anything! Alana, please!”

She turned away, refusing to look at him, her shoulders still shaking as she continued to weep, her husband pulling her silently into his arms in a comforting grip.

*

Will paced anxiously in his cell. The noises in the ward were awful. One man kept shouting to anyone who would listen about invisible phantoms buzzing around his head, trying frantically to swat them away with his hands. Down another corridor, a woman giggled and spoke excitedly to herself about her dolls in a babyish voice. They couldn’t just keep him here like this. He didn’t belong here.

Eventually he heard the door to the ward being opened with a loud creak, and he ran to the door of his cell, wrapping his hands tightly around the bars. “You need to let me out of here,” he said as soon as Chilton came into view.

The other man sighed and pulled up a chair, seating himself directly in front of Will from a few feet away. “Believe it or not, Mr. Graham, this really is for your own good.” He steepled his fingers in his lap and looked down at them quietly for a few moments. “I had to keep her down here too, you know, for a couple of weeks. My own fiancée,” he said with a grim smile. “She kept trying to go back into the woods as well. For you.” He looked up at Will then. “What finally convinced her to stop was my pointing out that it would be in poor gratitude to your sacrifice if she went back in and got herself killed anyway.”

“I never meant to cause her any pain,” Will said, hanging his head. “But that doesn’t give you the right to do this.”

“It is my responsibility to this town to make sure its people are kept safe and taken care of when they are incapable or unwilling to do it for themselves,” Chilton said icily.

“I’m doing fine on my own, thanks,” Will said, smiling wryly.

Chilton snorted, leaning back in his chair. “Look, Will, I’ll be honest. Part of me is tempted to let you go. Grateful as I am to you for what you did, there’s nothing I’d like more than to see you gone from here again just as quickly as you came,” he admitted. “Doesn’t mean I’m willing to let you wander back into the arms of some horned devil just to get rid of you, and even if I was she’d certainly never forgive me if she thought I’d let you walk blindly into your own doom.”

“Hannibal would never hurt me,” Will insisted. “And even if he did, it’s my life to do with as I wish. You don’t get to decide that for me!” his voice climbed, getting fed up with Chilton’s haughty I-know-what’s-best-for-you attitude. “Now let me go!” he said, rattling the cage bars as he did so.

Chilton got up from his chair, flicking away an invisible speck of dirt from his sleeve as he stood. “You know, perhaps I should be thanking you all over again,” he said disdainfully. “Maybe now that you’ve returned so clearly out of your goddamn wits, she’ll be able to move on enough to stop spending her days acting like a widow in mourning and finally take notice of the husband who actually wants her.” With that, he let himself out.

Will stepped back, sinking down onto the cot behind him and holding his head in his hands.

In the days that followed, Alana visited him only once. She stood closer to the bars than her husband had, unafraid, but with a sad resigned look in her eyes that told Will he would not find the ally he needed in her to make good his escape. She too thought that he needed to be kept here for his own protection. He could have laughed at the irony—once he would have walked willingly into a drafty prison cell for her sake alone, and now she held him in one against his will. And still he couldn’t be angry with her, not really. Just disappointed and aggrieved for the friendship they once had that had been damaged beyond repair. He had come seeking closure, but not like this.

“Will, did you ever think about us?” she had asked, whispering, gripping the bars just as he did. “About what could have been if...” she trailed off.

“If,” he repeated hollowly, eyes on the high collar of her dress rather than her face. She had reached through the bars to cradle his face, as she had done when they were parting in the dungeons of Castle Lecter months ago, but this time he flinched away from her touch. She withdrew, the look on her face one of profound sorrow and regret, and held instead one of his hands still wrapped around the bars with both of her own, leaning down to brush a kiss over his knuckles before she turned and walked silently out of the room.

At sunset on the third day, he stared out the sole window in the hall as if he could will himself through it and out into the courtyard if he just imagined hard enough. At sunrise on the fourth day, he wept bitterly into his pillow and did not get up from his cot all day, not even to accept the meager trays of food brought down at every meal, utterly inconsolable. He entertained for the better part of the morning a fantasy in which Hannibal burst through the doors of his prison and came for him, but he knew intrinsically that it would never come to pass. There were unwritten laws of the forest which Will could never hope to comprehend, but he was sure there must have existed at least one which forbade Hannibal from coming after Will, else he would never have seemed so worried over the possibility that Will might not return. Possibly he couldn’t even leave the forest at all, for all the young man knew. He had never asked.

On the fifth day, Jack Crawford came to see him.

“Hello Will,” the man greeted, pulling up the chair Chilton had sat in several days ago. Will sat up from where he had been laying on his cot, another day of refusing to leave it or take his meals in protest.

“To what do I owe the honor, Lord Mayor?” he asked. Crawford raised an eyebrow at the level of sass in his tone but chose not to comment on it.

“I’m here to get you out,” he answered.

Will widened his eyes, still not getting his hopes up, not just yet. “Chilton will let you?”

“Chilton may run this asylum, but I run this village,” Jack reminded him. “I told him I’d take responsibility should anything happen. He’s releasing you into my custody.”

“That’s...generous of you,” Will stated carefully.

“It’s not,” Jack admitted openly. “I need your help, Will. You’re the only one besides Mrs. Chilton who knows how to find that place the two of you were held captive at,” he said. “And I’m getting damn tired of holding memorial services over empty graves.”

Will’s mind buzzed as Jack’s words sank in. “You mean to kill him,” he whispered. Louder he said, “Jack, you know that there are other things in that forest. You can’t hold him entirely responsible—”

“But I can hold him responsible for some, can’t I?” Jack interrupted, and Will had no response for that, unable to lie. Jack nodded, seeming to take Will’s silence as confirmation. “Will, I know you want to believe there’s good in this creature,” Jack said, “but the fact remains that he is a killer who needs to be stopped. Now will you help me or not?”

Will squeezed his eyes shut and clenched the bedsheets, considering. Slowly he nodded. What else could he do?

*

Merely an hour later, they were tramping through the forest together, Will taking the lead and trying to give off some semblance that he actually knew where he was going. In truth, he had no idea where they were already, but he was peculiarly confident nonetheless that he would find the castle with little difficulty and reach it somehow unscathed, although it was already twilight. He had found it once on nothing more than a wish, after all, and there was nothing he wished more than to see Hannibal again as soon as possible.

“Will, slow down,” Jack grumbled from behind him, keeping pace but finding himself irritable nonetheless with Will’s brisk stride.

“I’m sorry, do you want to be caught out here after dark?” Will retorted, masking his irritation as annoyance that Jack wasn’t keeping up fast enough, when in reality it was because the man proved impossible to lose no matter how he tried. Short of a run at full tilt, Will suspected there would be no shaking him, and he didn’t want to waste the energy on it when he had no idea how much farther it would be. There was no helping it. Jack Crawford would be with him for the remainder of the journey back to Castle Lecter.

“Do you know they once tried to burn this forest?” Jack asked him conversationally. “It’s said the wind blew out the torches just as they got near enough to light the branches, and that if you try to chop down any of the trees here with an axe, some ill magic turns the blade back on you. Many a woodsman apparently got themselves injured that way before they learned their lesson.”

“Hmm, I wouldn’t doubt it,” Will said, thinking with fondness of the time Hannibal had taken him through this particular grove of pines and cedars and pointed out the different ways one could tell the exact species of each. Wait. Will blinked, looking around himself more closely. Yes, he definitely recognized this place! That meant they must be near. He hurried faster, Jack huffing behind him and calling out his name.

It was still with a shocked breath in his throat that he burst through the edge of the clearing and found himself standing in front of the keep. He had made it. He was home.

“This is the place?” Jack asked. Will frowned at the reminder that he was bringing an unwanted guest along with him.

“No, Jack, this is the other abandoned castle standing in the middle of the enchanted forest. Let’s keep moving.”

“Hilarious,” Jack side-eyed him, unamused. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

“Jack,” Will said, halting him with a hand on his shoulder. “I really don’t think this is a good idea,” he said, trying to give the man one last out. He really didn’t want to see this man injured or killed if he could avoid it.

“It’s a little late for that now, Will,” Jack said. “I’m not expecting you to fight. Just stay behind me and let me handle it. This will all be over soon.”

Will couldn’t keep the anxiety at bay as they stepped into the foyer, but it wasn’t long at least before he was greeted by a welcoming sight, both of his dogs running up to meet him. Will crouched to pet them, laughing to see them overjoyed by his presence, a very welcome change from how the rest of his former pack had reacted only days before.

“Will.” The familiar voice had Will’s heart thudding happily in his chest. He looked up and grinned to see Hannibal coming down the stairs, an expression of joy and relief on his face.

At least until Jack Crawford stepped between them, now wielding in his hands the large battleaxe he had been carrying on his back. “That’s close enough, fiend.”

“Hannibal, I’m sorry,” Will said, quickly scrambling to his feet. “They locked me up. I had no choice. It was the only way I could get back—”

“That’s enough, Will,” Jack interrupted without even looking back at him. “There’s no need for explanations. You don’t need to appease this thing any longer.” Pointing his axe at the beast before him, he said, “I’ve come to end your reign of terror, demon.”

“Is that so?” Hannibal asked, tilting his head at him curiously.

Crawford charged with a roar, and that was the end of conversation for a while. Will could only stand back with the dogs and watch terrified as battle raged between the two, though it lasted only a few short minutes.

Crawford swung in large arcs which Hannibal avoided with ease, toying with him. The next swing he parried, knocking the heavy weapon from Crawford’s hand with a loud clatter.

He wasted no more time after that, clearly not in a mood to drag things out. With one quick lunge, he lowered his head and charged the man, impaling him against the wall with his antlers, then pulled back and straightened, yanking the man closer with one clawed hand so that with the other he could slash across his throat, heedless of the gout of blood that sprayed across his fine clothes.

He looked across the room at Will, smiling triumphantly.

“Look out!” Will shouted, a moment too late as the knife Jack had somehow secreted into his hand plunged deep into Hannibal’s belly. The beast dropped Crawford with a pained grunt, then dropped to the floor himself a moment a later, the blade still buried in his stomach.

“No!” He ran immediately to Hannibal’s side, sparing Crawford only a quick glance, long enough to see that the man had no energy left in him for another attack, clutching his hand to his neck and breathing shallowly as he bled out of his wounds profusely. He would be dead within a minute or two.

“Nonononono, Hannibal, Hannibal, look at me,” Will said desperately, horrified to see so much blood seeping out of the wound where Hannibal had already yanked the knife out of his belly before Will could stop him. He tried to staunch the flow with his hands, but even so Hannibal seemed visibly weakened already, fading. He smiled up at Will as if he couldn’t be any more at peace.

“Hannibal,” Will sobbed. “Don’t you dare die on me now, not now, damn you.”  He looked around in search of something that could save his beloved, anything that would do in a pinch. He felt irrational, mad, desperate—Hannibal should be able to heal regardless of his wounds dammit, or else what good were his monstrous abilities for?

His eyes fell on the bloodied knife lying abandoned on the stone floor. He heard the quiet rattling of Jack’s lungs failing in the background. And somehow he knew, though it went against all logic and reason, exactly what he had to do to save the one he loved.

He took up the knife and knelt over Jack, carefully pulling the man’s bloody shirt open so his chest was visible. Jack was practically at death’s door already, too weak to fight back, yet still there was a flicker of fear in his eyes as he seemed to realize what Will meant to do. He wheezed once, maybe trying to say Will’s name or beg, the younger man would never know, his voice too far gone to form actual words.

He took a single deep breath in order to steel his nerves, and then without warning and before he could think too closely about what he was doing, he plunged the dagger deep into Crawford’s chest and sliced it through tissue, beginning to carve a rough hole in the man’s chest. Jack’s body jerked once, his eyes popping open wide in shock, and then he slumped, eyes rolling back into his head, dying.

It took only seconds once he had the chest cavity open enough to pull out the heart. It proved easier to pull free of its moorings of vein and artery than Will had thought it would be. It was no longer beating of course, which Will thought was a shame, but it was warm and fresh and would have to be enough. He cradled it carefully in his hands and brought it back to Hannibal, setting it against his beloved’s lips so he could take a bite.

Hannibal’s jaw worked weakly, but he seemed unable to quite grasp it enough between his teeth to get a solid chunk, and chewing was certainly out of the question. Will almost sobbed anew to see it. No, they’d come too far for this to be how it ended.

With determination in his heart and the hope that this would have to work somehow, Will brought the heart to his own lips and bit, determinedly unmindful of the blood smeared over his face or the stray bits of muscle and blood that inevitably slid down his own throat from the overlarge portion in his mouth as he chewed. Then when it was soft enough, he leaned down, prying Hannibal’s mouth gently open with his fingers and thumb, and touching his lips to Hannibal’s own begin to carefully push the chewed heart out with his tongue, feeding the other as a mother bird feeds her chick.

Will massaged his throat with his fingers to help him swallow, whispering words of encouragement as Hannibal slowly regained his strength, “That’s it, love. Come on, you’re doing so well.” It continued like this several more times, Will taking steady bites of the organ in his hand and transferring it to his beloved’s tongue with his own until the last of it was gone, the final piece of it resting on his tongue as he brought his lips to Hannibal’s one more time.

Hannibal breathed in deeply through his nose, savoring the feeling, and brought his arms around Will’s back to pull him down closer on top of him, lapping his own tongue into Will’s mouth this time to claim the last bit of heart for his own. Will moaned around it, feeling himself harden in his trousers almost embarrassingly fast. He was aroused and overjoyed by the feeling of powerful arms gripping him tightly with renewed strength, and by the mouth greedily laying claim to his own, seamlessly melding their shared feeding into an intense, toe-curling kiss without even a parting for breath.

Will reached up to grip Hannibal’s head between his hands and felt something...strange there. He pulled back suddenly, eyes widening with alarm as straw-colored locks sprouted on Hannibal’s head, the blackness of his skin receding to tan, the antlers on his head shrinking down slowly as though they were growing in reverse back into a smooth, nubless skull.

“Hannibal!” Will cried out in panic, his brain not fully catching up with what was going on yet.

Hannibal merely grinned up at him, bringing a tan, unclawed hand up to cradle the side of Will’s face. “My Will,” he said. It clicked in Will’s mind suddenly. True love’s kiss. It had actually worked. The curse was broken.

Absurdly, Will’s immediate thought was not one of joy but of sadness, thinking that he would miss the midnight ebony of Hannibal’s skin and the sharp spiraling antlers he had secretly always wanted to grip in his hands but had never dared, fearing to do anything so bold. The man’s angular features were the same, however, and his eyes, though now they possessed human whites, still leveled him with the same impenetrable black-maroon gaze. Any lingering disappointment in Will’s mind was quickly dispelled. This man was gorgeous, and free, and his.

*

They couldn’t get enough of each other’s kisses and touches, eagerly pulling at each other’s clothing in an attempt to get closer until a low whine and the movement of pawed feet reminded them they were neither alone nor in the most appropriate setting for this sort of intimacy.

Hannibal chuckled at the dogs wavering between wanting to paw at their masters’ legs for attention and sniff at the body lying on the floor, and still clasping Will’s hand in his, said, “Come then, we’ll let them out to play in the garden and move our reunion to somewhere more fitting.”

“But what about...” Will trailed off, looking down with mild guilt and unease—though less than he should be feeling, if he were honest—at the corpse now cooling on the ground.

“Later,” Hannibal assured, leading the four of them to the enclosed garden at the innermost part of the castle. They let the dogs out to run around and roam, and as the door shut Hannibal immediately swept Will back into his arms and resumed his earlier lavish, unrestrained exploration of Will’s mouth with his own.

Will groaned enthusiastically into the kiss, tugging at Hannibal’s hair tightly in his hands as he pulled away and whispered, “Take me to bed.”

Hannibal’s eyes darkened with lust but he took a firm hold of Will’s jaw, looking deeply into his grey-blue eyes as he asked, “Do you truly mean to give this to me, my beautiful boy? Even knowing of the monstrous things which I have done?”

Will nodded eagerly. “Yes. Yes! You’re all that I want and more, Hannibal. I love you.”

“And I love you, my darling Will,” Hannibal returned, grinning joyously. He took Will’s hand in his own again and fairly sprinted down the hall to the red doors of his own bedchambers, Will laughing along to see his love so unbridled in his joy and enthusiasm, running as well to keep up.

He looked around with some interest at the furniture and artwork adorning the rooms he had been forbidden to enter before, taking in especially the large pile of books on a table shoved against the wall—Hannibal must have been doing research of his own in the comfort of his rooms, Will thought—and the rich tapestries hanging above, some of them depicting people who he thought must be the lost royals of Castle Lecter. “Is that your mother?” Will asked, pointing out a demurely smiling woman in one of the last ones that had been hung up.

Hannibal didn’t answer, merely pulling him closer for more eager kisses and tugs at Will’s clothing as he began in earnest to undress them both. Will decided to save the questions for later when they were not so agreeably occupied, sparing nary another glance at the woman depicted there with her pale skin and thoughtful stormy eyes.

His thoughts slipped dreamily away in a blissful haze of sweat and bare skin over skin, his back arching against the soft silk duvet beneath him as Hannibal’s hands and lips and tongue swept over him thoroughly. He moaned as Hannibal laved his nipples between tongue and teeth, while exploratory fingers coated in oil slid into his tender virgin entrance and curled inside.

“I don’t believe I ever finished my full story, did I, my dear wonderful boy?” Hannibal asked, panting, between soft, sweet kisses over Will’s collarbone.

Will huffed out a laugh which quickly devolved into a needy groan as a third finger pushed its way inside him. “Is...is now really the best time?” he asked, giggling breathlessly.

“Never fear, my darling, for I can multitask,” Hannibal said, grinning slyly as all three fingers curled inside and drew another moan from his beautiful lover. “Did I ever tell you what the demands were of the one they called a sorcerer, knowing not what else to name him?” He waited until Will shook his head, rewarding him with a deeper thrust of his fingers and a leisurely pump over Will’s member with his other hand. The boy shivered beneath him. “He asked only one thing—that if they so valued their titles and their rule as they claimed, they could simply share it equally with the one who was already known to the other beings of the forest as their unspoken leader. ‘Give me your heir, the one next in line for your throne, male or female it matters not,’ he said, ‘and that one I shall take as my bride to rule alongside me.’ Not so unreasonable a request, was it?”

He pulled his fingers out and Will whined, but he shushed him with another soft kiss and turned him over on his belly so he could lavish attention over his lovely backside. “Yet the king and queen refused outright, and the entire court rang with laughter in his face. And the so-called sorcerer found this quite rude.” He gently kneaded Will’s plump buttocks, humming with pleasure as he spread them apart and observed the pink, fluttering hole eagerly waiting to be filled again. “So he transformed from his more human appearance into his other form which they could all respect and fear, and he swore that though they denied him now, the day would come when their banners fell and their legacy would be forgotten, while he would have exactly what he was owed.”

Will’s thoughts seemed to buzz ominously even through the pleasurable haze as Hannibal spoke, but before he could form any words of his own, sharp fingernails were digging into his hips, tilting his rear upwards and then without warning the other man’s large, thick cockhead was pushing in past the tight ring of muscle. Will groaned out in pleasure and just a little bit of pain, gripping the bedsheets tightly and screwing his eyes shut as Hannibal began to thrust, his balls slapping obscenely against Will’s skin as he buried himself in to the hilt. “Hann...hannnnibal,” he moaned.

“It’s good, isn’t it, my sweet?” Hannibal asked with panting breaths, planting an adoring kiss between his shoulder blades. He continued to bury himself deeply, grunting as he pumped Will’s erection in time with his own thrusts. He nipped at Will’s earlobe and whispered, “Centuries have I waited, and at last you have found your way home to me, my sweet, trusting boy.”

Will cried out rapturously, spilling into his lover’s hand. Hannibal slowed his thrusts and wrapped his arm gently around him to bring them both to their sides, keeping a hand on Will’s hip so they would stay joined and using it to grind Will against him as he continued to shallowly thrust in, beginning to pull out less and less in favor of staying sheathed inside the tight, pulsating heat.

Will clutched at the arm around him and panted for breath. He grunted as the pressure behind him started to build, the thick member inside him seeming to swell, and he tried to pull away but the arms around him tightened, holding him in place. “Shhh, it’s only my knot, love,” Hannibal told him. “It will be uncomfortable at first, but your body will adapt to it.”

“Wha—Hannibal, you’re changing back!” Will pointed out with alarm, noticing the inky black coloring that began to spread over Hannibal’s arms again as they held him fast.

Hannibal kissed him lovingly on his shoulder, carefully avoiding stabbing him with his antlers as they grew back out. “I apologize for the little deception, darling.” He grunted as he felt his knot swell to its full size, effectively locking them together for the duration of their love-making until it would be finished. “I have always been able to switch back and forth between forms at will. I merely wanted to know if it would be possible to court you in this form alone, and to my eternal happiness, it was,” he said.

“You’re the sorcerer,” Will whispered in dawning comprehension. “But in the story, you said the prince had returned...”

“And so he has,” Hannibal agreed. “After many, many years. Generations, in fact, so numerous that by the time he was born, he no longer bore the same last name as those ancestors who lived here so long ago, or had any knowledge that the blood which flowed in his veins could be traced all the way back to an ancient royal lineage.” He grasped Will’s jaw with care and tenderness and tilted his head so he could look into those wonderful eyes the color of rainstorms. “The danger of fairy tales, my love, is that they often fail to mention that true love’s kiss is not always the talisman that breaks a curse,” he spoke with adoration in his dark, inhuman eyes, planting another chaste kiss against Will’s lips. “Sometimes that is what seals it,” he whispered.

Then with a low pleasured growl, he orgasmed at last deeply into his perfect mate, and convulsing around him Will began to shudder and scream.

*

For what may have been hours or only minutes, all Will knew was pain. He felt gentle hands petting his skin and heard tender words whispering that the pain would end soon, that the change would only hurt this first time as his body gained new knowledge of its own capability to adapt, evolve, and become as he so chose, and to carve a womb in his belly where he would eventually house their future young. He heard it all distantly but had a difficult time comprehending it in his state, as his insides felt like they were melting and shifting and reforming inside him and darkness spread over his skin like a glorious taint. His cries turned more feral, his teeth sharpened and refitted themselves inside his mouth, and the agony in his head was almost unbearable as sharp pointed antlers red with his blood grew out of his skull.

Gradually the pain receded as his lover had promised, and Will lay there limp and exhausted as Hannibal whispered words of pride and adoration for his strong, beautiful, perfect mate. Will let the words wash over him, taking comfort in the sweet, soothing voice as fatigue took hold and he fell into a deep, restful sleep.

When he awoke, the first thing he saw was the rose from his vanity, resting on the pillow beside his head. He sat up slowly, groaning at the lingering ache and soreness in his limbs, and picked it up, observing how it had changed.

While it was the same open and glowing, healthy bloom he had come to treasure from the moment he saw it, its blood-red hue had darkened into the same ebon shade as his and Hannibal’s inhuman forms. He observed his own hands as well, the same pale smooth skin he had always worn. A quick run of his hand through his curls proved that there were no horns protruding from his head either. He had apparently changed back in his sleep.

It seemed hard to believe these hands had grown black and clawed just a short while ago, yet as if in response to that thought, he watched as blackness began to seep from the palm of his hand and his nails began to grow long and sharp. He gasped, startled and strangely exhilarated, and the change instantly receded so that he was again staring at his very human-looking hand.

He heard soft chuckling behind him and turned, finding Hannibal observing him from the open doorway, also returned to his human form for the moment while wearing nothing but a house robe and carrying a covered tray.

“Admiring yourself?” he asked with a pleased grin, settling the tray gently on the bedside table before stripping off his robe and rejoining Will in the plush blanket and cushions. “As you should be. You are equally lovely to look upon in both forms, my dear,” he said, ruffling Will’s curls with his hand and kissing him softly on his forehead.

Will set the rose back on the pillow beside him. “You lied to me,” he said quietly, though he allowed the arms that came around him to tug him closer and shift him so that he was lying back to chest with the other man.

“I omitted, yes,” Hannibal admitted. “Will you forgive me?”

“I shouldn’t,” Will said, craning his neck slightly to look back at the other man. He let his fingers run delicately through Hannibal’s sand-colored locks. “But as it would seem I’m still terribly besotted with you, I suppose I already have.”

Hannibal brought Will’s hand to his lips so he could kiss his palm. He then released it so he could turn and uncover the tray beside them. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

Will’s stomach growled at the scent that wafted up to his nostrils. Raw, uncooked chunks of meat piled on top of one another, and though Will knew exactly what it was and where it had come from, his mouth watered. “Starving,” he admitted.

Hannibal smiled, and took up the first plump, juicy bit of flesh between his fingers, raising it to Will’s lips. Will opened his mouth and let Hannibal slide it gently onto his tongue, fingertips brushing his lips as he drew them back out.

Hannibal fairly purred with satisfaction as Will’s eyes slid shut, the gorgeous creature in his arms humming contentedly around the flesh in his mouth as he chewed and swallowed. He felt interest stirring in his groin once more at the sight and knew it would not be long before he had his mate bent over the bed in a pleasing arc and taking his knot once again.

For now, he merely lapped at the stray line of blood that had leaked out of the corner of Will’s lips and whispered against them, “And they lived happily ever after,” before stealing another soft, exultant kiss from his most cherished prize.

Fin.