Will doesn’t mean to run away, exactly.
Or at least, he doesn’t mean it the way his father decides he did later, as if Will had planned it all along to try and hurt him. He doesn’t put any thought into it at all. He just gets to school one day and he knows, after taking one step inside the classroom and seeing her slight wince as she bends to clean the blackboard, that Mrs Davies’ husband had hit her again yesterday. Flashes of it slip into Will’s mind like oil spilling into water – crumpled beer cans, a belt unbuckling, the lash of pain over broken skin and bruises already fading out of eggplant purple and into a sickly, sour green.
Will steps back out of the classroom like his body doesn’t even belong to him, rubber soles of his boots screeching on the linoleum. He whirls around and walks right down the hallway and out of school, swallowing over and over again to get the acid taste of fear out of his mouth. He walks past the bus and everyone milling around outside, ducks his head down so no one will spot him, slips through the cracks in the crowd and walks until he can’t hear the slapping sound the belt makes when it hits skin anymore.
He steals through the child-size gap in the chain-link fence surrounding the woods and walks long beaten paths hazy with November fog, twigs snapping under his feet. The fog seeps into his head, tangles around his thoughts and squeezes them into nothingness. When he looks up he’s reached the bank of a stream that runs through the woods out back of the trading post, and it’s starting to get dark.
He adjusts the slackening straps on his backpack and carries on walking. He doesn’t know where he’s going. They’ve only been here a few weeks; long enough to get lost, and not much else.
He walks into a clearing full of soft gold piles of oak leaves, breathing in so deep the cold makes him cough a little. He breathes in more, deeper, eagerly. The air here is cleaner than the last few places they’ve lived, crisp and sharp like the first bite of an apple, and way out here in the woods, the silence is kinder.
Or it is, until his stomach rumbles, embarrassingly loud in the tranquillity of the forest. It startles him into flushing, even though no one else is around to hear it. He has a peanut butter sandwich in his backpack which was supposed to be for lunch, but it makes sense to ration it considering he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be out here. He thinks it might be a while yet.
There’s a faint rustling sound from a few hundred yards in front of him. Will freezes.
Something that looks like it stepped right out of a nightmare walks into the clearing. It’s vaguely human-shaped, skin so black it shines iridescent blue over emaciated ribs and perfectly formed antlers. It walks like a beast of burden, slow and inexorable, and it’s staring right at Will.
This is a moment when Will should run. He knows this. The knowledge arrives fully formed, complete, and screeching: run.
But his legs don’t move, his feet don’t run, his mouth opens and words come falling out without any intervention from his brain.
‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be hallucinating yet,’ he says. ‘I’m not dehydrated or anything. I drank some water like an hour ago.’
The creature cocks its head at him.
‘Perhaps you ingested some kind of poisonous berry or mushroom,’ it says. Its voice is low and smooth, with the traces of a weird crisp accent Will hasn’t heard before. He wants to hear it say words full of consonants, the lush roll of r’s.
‘I haven’t eaten anything out here.’
‘Your memory could be faulty. You may have been wandering for much longer than you think.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Will says. His feet are twitching, little spasms of blood pumping from standing so still after walking for so long. The creature is around his height, discounting the antlers. Do they count? Or is it like when they get you to take off your shoes before they measure your height? They don’t exactly look detachable. ‘I haven’t. This is real.’
‘You’re really here.’
They watch each other for a long moment.
‘You are not afraid,’ the creature observes.
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ Will says. His heart is beating loud and insistent, battering his ears with proof of his own existence for the first time in weeks.
‘You did not run. Do you meet with monsters often?’
Will swallows, and it sounds so loud and shaky in the silence he winces. He clenches his hands inside his raggedy, worn through mittens. He doesn’t want to seem afraid. He doesn’t want to be afraid.
‘Is that what you are?’
‘I believe that is what most humans would call me. I have heard the word spoken before, and then later I understood what it meant.’
‘How much later?’
‘Too late for those that spoke it.’
Will nods, jaw flexing. There’s nothing in his head but him, as if the creature has its own thoughts locked up so tight Will can’t get through the gate. Maybe this thing doesn’t have a mind like humans do. Maybe Will has nothing to fear or rage against. Maybe.
Tendrils of hope escape from the thought. Will stamps on them.
He opens his mouth to speak and between one moment and the next, the creature is only a few metres away, pacing in front of him like an absentminded animal. This close, Will could count its ribs without having to take a step.
He takes a careful breath, but the creature speaks before he can.
‘How did you come to be here?’
‘I got lost.’
‘What do you mean, no? It wasn’t a question.’
‘You are not lost. I know what lost people look like.’
Will’s mouth twists. The slap of the belt, red sores, lilac bruises fading into green. Loud sounds, loud smells, loud pain clogging up his pores. Sometimes he lies in the bath until the water’s cold and his fingers are wrinkling, trying to get it all off him.
‘What do I look like, then?’
Will blinks, and in the time it takes for his eyelids to close, the creature disappears. He’s left staring into empty space, his fingertips trembling on the zipper of his pocket.
‘Alright,’ he calls out into the trees, stomach roiling, voice too loud, riding the wave of adrenaline. A few startled birds take flight at the noise, white wings flickering like the pages of a book against the dark sky. Will lets out a shaky breath and laughs. ‘It was nice to meet you.’
The creature shows up again later, after Will’s eaten a quarter of his sandwich and taken a few careful swigs from his water bottle. It appears a few hundred yards ahead of him, brushing in and out of his vision. Will remembers his first day at the second new school he’d ever been to, hanging on the fringes of every little crowd, looking in from the outside. After a while it stopped feeling so important that he make friends, when his dad would only be moving them again in a few weeks anyway. Now Will just reads a lot.
He opens his mouth and closes it a few times before he gets the words out.
‘You can walk with me if you want.’
There’s no answer, and no more movement. Will rolls his eyes and carries on walking.
He’s not exactly aware of it, but when he lifts his eyes from the ground in front of him a little while later the creature is there, walking next to him, a black hole even in the dark of the evening. Its bare feet make small soft sounds on the fallen leaves.
‘Where are you going?’ it asks.
Will looks up at the sky. So many stars out here, so clear and bright like pinpricks in a giant navy comforter, stuffing peeking out through the holes.
‘Somewhere else,’ he decides.
The creature nods.
‘Humans too can experience entropy, although not to the extent that my kind are used to, considering our extended lifespans.’
Will doesn’t know what entropy means but he doesn’t really want to hear the explanation that he assumes will follow if he asks. The creature sounds like he’s reading out of a textbook and is, perhaps, expecting a gold star.
He? Will’s eyes dart down to check but that doesn’t really clear anything up for him. He blushes and looks away. Maybe that isn’t like it is with humans, either.
‘Are you a kid too?’ Will asks. ‘Are you a boy? You’re kind of short, like me.’
The creature makes a pleasant sort of humming noise.
‘I am both male and in the early stages of my life cycle, yes, although I am considered to be of average height for my age.’
Will nods, one corner of his mouth twitching up a little. He wonders how long such a life cycle might be. Now that they’re close enough to touch, Will’s nose is scenting something deep and dark about the creature, something that says predator; as if the road to the heart of him is an old, old path, painted red and rich with blood and trampled leaves.
‘My name’s Will,’ he offers after a few minutes. ‘What’s yours?’
Maybe he’ll already know it, in one form or another; he’s read a lot of fairy tales. He likes the ones with animals best.
‘Why do you need to know?’
‘I just want to. I told you mine.’
‘I did not ask for your name, and I will not give you mine. It is not yours to have.’
‘Alright,’ Will says. He read a story once where fairies could be controlled by giving away their real names. Maybe he shouldn’t have given his so easily.
He decides to change tack.
‘Do you have any family?’ he asks, even though it feels like a bad idea. The question has been poking at him, raising flags in the back of his mind. He knows why he’s a kid out here alone in the middle of the woods. ‘Someone to go walking with?’
‘Don’t you?’ the creature shoots back, voice rumbling.
‘I asked first,’ Will says.
The creature’s fingers twitch at its sides and it stays silent, looking around as if it hadn’t heard Will speak.
‘Okay, fine. Just me and my dad,’ Will says grudgingly. His dad would know he was gone by now, maybe, if he’d got back early enough from work. Or the school would have called him. He would know, either way, if he’d known for minutes or hours.
‘No mom,’ Will confirms, eyes abruptly refocusing on the path in front of them. He shivers. The night is drawing in close and cold around them. His backpack is starting to feel unreasonably heavy even though it only holds a few books, a pen, and his lunch. ‘No brothers or sisters either.’
‘No sisters,’ the creature echoes, something hollow and dark under the words. Will doesn’t say anything for a while, profoundly unnerved for what he realises is the first time since they met.
‘Are you going to eat me?’ he asks eventually, unable to bear the weight of such a silence. His voice sounds smaller and younger than he wants it to but he can’t help that. Better just to ask and get it over with. Maybe he’ll even get a real answer.
‘Yes,’ the creature says, turning its ponderous head to look at Will. When Will just nods and keeps walking, the creature swings its antlers from side to side again, apparently in agitation.
‘Why do you not run?’
‘What would be the point?’ Will asks reasonably. ‘I’m pretty sure you can run faster than me, and I don’t even know where we are right now.’
‘We are far from the human settlement from which you came. Nobody will hear you.’
‘Yeah, I got that much, thanks. I don’t need to go back there anyway.’
‘What about your dad?’ The modern word sounds wrong in that low, old voice.
Will blows out a long breath, watches it dissipate in front of him. The sky is almost totally black now, but he can’t see the moon anywhere.
‘Is he a monster too? Is that why you are not afraid of me?’
‘No,’ Will bursts out, too loudly. ‘He’s not, it’s just – ugh. I don’t want to talk about this.’
‘What do you want to talk about?’
‘Nothing,’ Will shouts, and the creature stills next to him. Will closes his eyes and scrunches his hands up in his mittens, shoves them into his eye sockets until all he can see is white dots.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says without opening his eyes. ‘I didn’t mean to –’
But when he takes his hands away, he’s alone again.
He’s sat down on a log staring miserably at his feet and shivering when the creature comes back.
He watches wide-eyed as it swims into existence, emerging from shimmering air like heat lines over tarmac in the summer. There’s so little light outside now it almost seems as if a piece of the darkness itself is shaking awake and stepping towards him, sitting down beside him. He can’t take his eyes away. The creature’s eyelids look soft and fine, just as delicate as a human’s would, when the creature blinks.
‘I’m sorry,’ Will says softly. ‘I shouldn’t have shouted. That was really rude.’
The creature looks at him. It makes a frustrated noise, kind of like the huffing sound a horse might make.
‘I needed to hunt,’ it says. It places a hand down on the log in between them, a hair’s breadth from Will’s left mitten. Its hand is much bigger than Will’s, almost twice the size. Will stares down at the picture they make on the stripped bark of the log. He catches the faint, lingering scent of blood. He swallows.
‘I am still going to eat you,’ the creature reassures him.
‘Uh huh,’ Will says. ‘Well, there’s still time for that.’
He shivers again, the cold hitting him like a physical blow. He stares down at his shoes, soaked through. His feet are numb, his face. It hurts when he tries to bend his fingers. It’s so cold out here, so quiet, like being inside a jar with twigs and leaves and stuff. A stick insect. But who would ever call a stick insect Will?
Will doesn’t realise he’s smiling dazedly to himself until the creature makes an inquiring noise at him.
‘You are cold,’ the creature observes, watching him as his shivering starts to ramp up.
‘Yep,’ Will says, blinking. He should probably drink some more water soon, maybe eat more of his sandwich. But he feels kind of past the point of feeling hungry, now, like his body didn’t get what it wanted so it’s given up in irritation. ‘I think maybe I should find somewhere a little drier to sit.’
The creature stands up and holds out a hand, then huffs impatiently again when Will just looks at it blankly.
‘I know where,’ it says. ‘Let me show you.’
Will takes its hand. It’s startlingly warm, even through the worn wool of the mitten. Maybe its skin would be like that snake Will had once been allowed to hold on a birthday trip to the zoo. Dry but warm, not slimy or scaly at all.
The creature’s hand fastens around his firmly, and doesn’t let go even once they start walking.
Will tries not to poke, but he can’t seem to stop.
‘You’re going to an awful lot of trouble to keep me safe if you’re just going to eat me,’ he says, running his hand through the pile of leaves that makes up his bed. He took his mittens off a little while ago.
The creature watches him from its perch on a tree limb just up and outside the little hollow Will lies in, its legs swinging aimlessly. If it didn’t look like a Brothers Grimm illustration, it could almost pass as the silhouette of a normal kid. With antlers.
‘You will be giving me a gift,’ it says. ‘It would be cruel of me to treat you badly before you do so.’
‘Not much of a gift,’ Will snorts. ‘I’m like, the smallest kid in my grade.’
‘No matter. Children are sweeter no matter their size.’
‘Really? Like candy?’
‘What is candy?’
‘They’re like, um. Like little sugar capsules, I guess? Fruit flavoured and stuff.’
The creature wrinkles its nose. Will smiles and buries his hands further in the leaves. He closes his eyes and lies back, drifting, not asleep but not really awake, until some time later he hears himself say, ‘I wanted to leave because it all got too loud.’
He opens his eyes. The creature cocks its head at him and says nothing. Will swallows.
‘I can usually tell what people are thinking,’ he says. ‘I can’t really help it. It’s like I look at someone and all their stuff just shows up in my head without me asking, and then I have to try and push it out or it gets all mixed up and I can’t tell what’s me and what’s them anymore.’
The creature waits in silence, still watching him.
‘But not with you,’ Will says softly. ‘It’s like someone took a blackboard eraser to your mind. Nothing going on that I can see. It’s – it’s nice. I like it.’
The creature blinks at him and then smiles, a flash of teeth in the dark. It looks unsure, like it’s not used to doing it.
Will smiles back.
‘Do you have any stories?’ Will asks. The woods have settled around them, owls hooting and mice scurrying in the undergrowth. He can barely make out the shape of the creature now. He pulls his coat more tightly around him. ‘About your people, I mean?’
The creature looks ponderous.
‘Stories do not come easily to my people. We are not talkative, as races go.’
‘I am the exception.’
In a lot of ways, Will imagines.
‘We have a lot of stories,’ he says helpfully. ‘Humans, I mean. Sometimes I feel like all we do is tell stories to each other, even when we say we’re being honest.’
‘Do you tell stories?’
‘I try not to,’ Will says uncomfortably. ‘I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to, but everyone does. I don’t think you can be a person in the world without it.’
The creature is silent for a moment, clearly thinking this over.
‘To whom must you lie?’
‘My dad. And my teachers. People don’t want to own up to what they’re thinking so they lie, but I know they’re lying, and it just gets worse and more tangled up and –’
He takes a deep breath.
‘I hate it,’ he says, closing his eyes.
‘You do not have to lie to me,’ the creature says. When Will opens his eyes it’s jumped off its perch and come close, hovering a little uncertainly next to where Will lies. The whites of its eyes shine like stars in the dark.
Will looks at it, then surveys the hollow critically.
‘You can sit in here too if you want,’ he offers. ‘I’ll need to squish up a little but I don’t mind.’
‘You will be warmer,’ the creature says, eyes darting over Will’s face.
‘I am still going to eat you,’ the creature reminds him as it folds its bony black limbs into the space beside Will, arranging itself so that its antlers don’t scrape the thick tree roots that form the hollow. It turns until it faces Will, exhales brushing gently over Will’s forehead, and Will shuffles until he can feel the creature’s body warmth seeping through the layers of his clothing like a space heater. His eyelids are getting heavier, but at least his hands and feet aren’t as numb anymore.
‘Yeah?’ he says. ‘What part are you going to eat first?’
‘Your fingers,’ the creature says firmly.
Will holds his hand up in front of them, pale and small. If he squints, it looks kind of like a starfish.
‘These?’ he asks. ‘They don’t look very appetising.’
The creature sighs, ruffling Will’s curls. Will looks at it and has a sudden flashback to how it had looked on first sight, only a few hours ago, blinking at him curiously in the watery afternoon sun. They’re curled up so close now Will can’t even feel the iciness of the breeze.
‘You will just have to trust me,’ the creature says. ‘You should eat more of your bread meal before you rest.’
‘Sandwich,’ Will says sleepily.
The creature sighs again but acquiesces.
‘The humans are searching for you,’ it says after a few minutes of silence. Its hands pluck at a loose thread on Will’s coat. ‘I saw them earlier, when I was hunting.’
‘Don’t let them find me,’ Will mumbles, and the creature’s hands stop. Its breathing is uneven in the still of the night.
Will drifts out on the warm wave of sleep and does not resurface.
He blinks awake a few hours later to an impatient hand jostling him awake and a muttering in a language he has never heard.
‘Stupid,’ he hears. Ah, at least he knows that one.
‘I could not hear your heart,’ the creature says, and Will opens his eyes all the way to find the creature about an inch away from his face, the whites of its eyes almost blinding. Its hand is crumpling Will’s coat in a fist. ‘You are too cold. I want you to eat the bread sandwich.’
‘Ugh,’ Will says.
‘Yes,’ the creature says, and starts yanking him around until Will is sat up, belligerently chewing on the half-congealed peanut butter sandwich he can barely stomach. His gut feels like a frozen solid ball, his throat a dry scorch. He drifts in and out of awareness, watercolour pale and fading, coming back always to find the creature watching him, impatient and anxious. Its skinny limbs feel even warmer now, wrapped around Will like it’s trying to compensate for Will getting even colder.
Will finishes the sandwich.
‘You are too cold,’ the creature says again, making a rumbling, distressed sound in its throat. Will wonders if it even realises it’s doing it. ‘If I brought meat, would you eat it?’
‘No,’ Will says firmly, sure at least of this. ‘And I’ll be even colder if you go.’
The creature huffs unhappily.
‘It’s alright,’ Will says. The creature doesn’t meet his eye, its hands flitting over the zips and buttons on Will’s jacket, making everything jangle as it tries to wrap Will up even tighter. ‘Hey, look at me – hey. It’s alright, I promise.’
He grabs clumsily for one of its hands, pulls it up to his mouth and kisses it without thinking, leaves a wet mark behind on its warm, soft skin. The creature looks up at him, blinking rapidly, and they stare at each other.
‘Why did you not run,’ it asks, its voice soft and raw. ‘That would have been much easier.’
‘Kinda boring though,’ Will says, smiling a little. He coughs long and hard. The aching in his bones is starting to seep away. He’s not really cold anymore. He should probably be more worried about that. ‘Besides, you looked like you could do with some company.’
‘I am still going to eat you,’ the creature says softly, but it curls its fingers gently, so as not to scrape Will’s mouth with its claws.
‘What’s your name?’ Will asks, his eyes already drifting closed. ‘You never told me. Please?’
The creature shifts against him, pulling his sleeves down firmly even though they’re already pretty well secured. After a beat, it carefully lays its arm over Will and pulls him closer, and does not let go.
‘Hannibal,’ he hears it say, voice strained and quiet. ‘My name is Hannibal.’
‘Will,’ he hears as if from very far away. ‘Will.’
‘Is it time for school,’ he mumbles.
‘Wake up. The humans are coming,’ the creature says, staring through the trees outside the hollow. Hannibal. Hannibal says. ‘I can hear them. They are close. They will find you soon.’
It scents the air, going very still.
‘They have human food and water. Good.’
It looks at him for a long moment and then nods, moving to extricate itself from the hollow. Will catches hold of its wrist with the little strength he has left.
‘What about – you were going to eat me,’ he says feebly. He can’t ask, he knows he can’t, but what if he did?
Hannibal makes a soft clicking noise in its throat.
‘Will. I must go. If they find me, bad things will happen.’
‘To them or to you?’
‘Both.’ Its voice sounds light but strained. Will wonders that he can read it so clearly now. It’s been less than a day. A short time to learn someone.
He tries not to, but in the end he can’t help himself.
‘Don’t go,’ he breaks out like a flinch when Hannibal goes to move away again, his hand tightening on Hannibal’s wrist. ‘Don’t.’
‘I must.’ Hannibal hesitates, eyes darting over Will’s face. ‘But I will come back for you. You are the only human I – you are my human. I will find you. I will come back.’
‘I won’t tell,’ Will promises, his thumb rubbing clumsily over Hannibal’s creepy, elongated wrist bone.
‘I know,’ Hannibal soothes, and pries Will’s fingers off his wrist one by one, disappearing into thin air just as voices start to reach Will’s ears.
Will opens the door to Jack’s office, eyes on the ground, and when they flicker up to take in the psychiatrist Jack’s been raving about, they stick.
It’s him. It’s been nearly thirty fucking years and he’s wearing a different face but Will doesn’t need the flickering antlers over his head to confirm it. He knows. He recognises that swoop in his stomach: run.
‘Will,’ Hannibal says. His smile is charming. He must have been working on it. Has he been following Will, all this time? All these years. Jesus Christ.
He did say he’d come back.
Will looks over at Jack briefly, who is watching them and wondering whether it’s a good or a bad sign that they both look like they’ve been hit over the head by a board, whether it’s some weird male posturing bullshit or maybe they already knew each other, or something more complicated he doesn’t have time to worry about. Will clears his throat.
‘Doctor Lecter,’ he says, looking back at Hannibal, who is still smiling.
When Will and Hannibal step out of Jack’s office together half an hour later, Will can’t remember a single word any of them said. They head in speechless unison to the parking lot. Will’s body hums with tension, with the need to put his hands out and touch Hannibal, find out if his skin is still as soft and warm as it was when he was a much more obvious predator, not one wearing a finely tailored human suit.
Will stops by his car and turns to face Hannibal, who is still around the same height as Will. He marvels at the transformation all over again, can’t stop his eyes wandering. Do they grow like people do? Can Hannibal control that? When did he learn to look human? Did he do it for Will? Where the hell has he been all these years? Has he been alone all this time, like Will has?
‘This is crazy,’ Will says, holding onto the door handle of his car too tight and unable to let go. ‘This is fucking – I can’t believe this.’
‘You appear to be experiencing a delayed reaction to shock, Will. We should get you sat down.’
‘I’ve been waiting,’ Will says. It makes Hannibal stop trying to open the door around his hand and just look at him instead. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’
‘I,’ Hannibal says, looking a little unsure for the first time. If Will had had any doubts, they crumble away now. He remembers that look from when he’d reached out to Hannibal of his own volition. The soft, delicate skin on the underside of his wrist. His pulse straining, as if it were trying to catch up to Will’s.
‘I thought I’d dreamed you,’ Will says. Every memory of Hannibal had felt so real, even after Will had convinced himself he must have made it all up, sick with hunger and on the edge of exposure.
Hannibal’s hand slips over his on the door handle and Will sees it flash matte black for a moment, deliberate, and then back to human. Will unlatches his hand, turns it over so it can slide into Hannibal’s firm, comfortable grip. He looks up, to where Hannibal is watching him with those dark, bottomless eyes, still as hungry as Will remembers them.
‘Then I must have dreamed you too,’ Hannibal says.